A Notorious Countess Confesses

By: Julie Anne Long

Pennyroyal Green Series,

Chapter 1

SHE WAS CONFIDENT no one would ever expect to find her in a church. After all, it was too late to save her soul. It was as black, they said, as the widow’s weeds she’d shed with the same unseemly haste she’d hoisted her skirts for the Earl of Wareham. Whom she’d then killed with unseemly haste. But then, what did one expect from someone of her … origins?

This was, of course, all nonsense. Evie had worn black for precisely as long as her etiquette book (her name had been engraved in gold inside the cover—how the earl had loved his extravagances!) proscribed. She’d in fact pored over every word in that book as if they were spells that would roll away the stone blocking the door of societal acceptance.

And … well, if anything could be said to have killed the earl, it was … enthusiasm.

She’d been naïve (a word she’d first learned from an exiled French prince, who had been quite naïve to think that she’d ever been naïve). This still galled. Before she’d married the earl, she’d been certain her epitaph would read: Here lies Evie Duggan. No one ever got the better of her. After she’d married him, she’d indulged in a bit of laurel-resting and even a daydream or two: “Here lies Evie Duggan … devoted wife and mother, a more beloved woman never lived …”

Ah, and that … that had been her mistake. If not for that, she might have been able to anticipate what happened next. Reveries made one soft. She never should have forgotten that the world was on the side of the planners, not the dreamers.

At the moment, she was too weary to be terribly concerned about the color of her soul. She was unaccustomed to weariness; it sat on her like a heavy, itchy blanket.

She kept her hands piously in her lap, steepling her elegantly gloved fingers in an unconscious imitation of the ancient, squat, little church. She’d always learned by imitation. Henny, her maid, shifted uncomfortably next to her. The pews had been built centuries ago, when all men and women were smaller, which Evie supposed had made it easier to scurry into the trees and shrubbery like so many squirrels when marauders descended. Such a violent past, England had, or so she’d learned from one of the earnest bloods who’d appeared backstage at the Green Apple Theater, where her career, such as it was, had begun. He’d brought offerings of wildflower bouquets and his passion for history. This, of course, meant he hadn’t a prayer of earning more than a crumb of her attention—she was a practical girl above all else—but Evie was a great respecter of passion of any kind, and a listener, and both qualities had served her well.

The ton had turned the infamous Evie Duggan into a squirrel when the world had once been her oyster. She wasn’t here by choice, but she was certain Pennyroyal Green, Sussex, would cloak her to some degree. After all, it was home to the Everseas, one of whom had once disappeared from the gallows in an explosion and smoke before a crowd of thousands. Surely she was dull compared to that?

It was just a bloody pity the nickname the ton had foisted upon her was so irresistibly vivid.

Her life had just been yanked out from beneath her, leaving her wobbling and directionless as a spun top for the first time ever, which was perhaps what had made her susceptible to the ringing church bells as her carriage rolled through Pennyroyal Green just after the sun rose. The bells seemed to beckon, and so she’d followed. Perhaps in this new life, she’d be the sort of person who went to church, rather than the sort of person who caused other riders to topple from their horses in an attempt to get a look at her when she rode in The Row with an admirer. Perhaps the women here would be her friends since she’s recently discovered she had none, when she’d once thought she’d had dozens.

“Must you wriggle so, Henny?” she hissed.

“Beggin’ yer pardon, m’lady, but these pews are hard as a hangman’s heart and narrow as a rat’s bunghole. Me petticoat has crawled right up me ar—”

Two women in front of them swiveled to stare at them, jaws swinging wide in outrage.

They stared at Evie. In swift succession, impressions ticked over their faces, settled in, moved on: they took in the furlined pelisse, the hat that cupped her face like a lover, elegantly highlighting her cheekbones and green, green eyes. Astonishment, suspicion, envy, confusion joined the parade; at last, bald curiosity settled in.

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