The next morning dawned with a sienna sun. It flickered on the eastern horizon like a great candle trying to burn a hole through the murky brown vapors covering London. Servants padded quietly through the hallways of Mayfair, silently preparing for the magic hour when the aristocracy would arise from their beds.
Marcus stumbled out of a hack and staggered up the stairs into Alison Hall. After clambering loudly through the house and shouting for the servants, he finally undressed and collapsed on his bed. His cheek sank blissfully into the deep softness of his starched white pillow. But a shrill scream interrupted his slumber.
A second scream shattered the morning calm entirely. A third scream split through Marcus’s head like a hatchet. His eyes flew open.
The sound of feet clattering through the hallway roused him to action. He flung open his door, hung on to the woodwork as he shouted at the servants. “What in the name of—”
His words were cut short. Another shriek threatened to burst his eardrums. It was Honore. All the way from the west wing her screeching tore up the morning tranquility. A young maid scurried past, gasped when she saw Lord Alameda leaning out of his doorway, and averted her eyes. Marcus glanced down and remembered he was naked. He went back to his room, fished a dressing gown out of his wardrobe, and followed the throng headed for the east wing.
In between screaming at the top of her lungs, Honore yelled, “It’s her fault! That accursed child. Fetch her to me! Fiona! Fionaaa!”
Fiona was already running to her aunt’s bedroom, her bare feet pounded against the wooden floorboards, her white night rail billowed around her, and her hair flew wildly about. She skidded to a stop in the doorway. Her hands flew over her mouth.
Her aunt’s dark eyes stared back at Fiona from a face so red and swollen it was nearly unrecognizable. Mounds of bright red hives bulged, one on top of the other, her skin stretched to the bursting point. Honore viciously scratched at one hand. Fiona noticed the puffy fingers and realized that Honore’s entire body must be covered with swollen red patches.
“Send for a doctor!” Fiona ordered a maid, and rushed to her aunt’s bedside. “What’s happened to you?”
“You dare ask?” Honore’s mouth was so swollen spittle flew out as she shouted. “I’ll tell you what’s happened. You! You are what’s happened. Are you blind? It’s your curse.”
The doorway filled with spectators from the household. Among them stood Marcus, hair askance and his dressing gown hanging loosely around him. Fiona searched their faces, hoping someone had a better explanation, but they were obviously as shocked and clueless as she.
“This can’t be.” Fiona bit her lip. “How did I do this?” But a wave of hopelessness washed over her. What other explanation was there? Things like this happened wherever she went. Numb, stunned, she failed to form any more words. “”I’m sorry,” she murmured. “Sorry.”
Honore’s swollen mouth moved again. Fiona heard her aunt speaking, but it sounded as if it came from a long way off. A tunnel stretched between the two of them, a tunnel that dulled the words and slowed the movements. Honore’s bumpy red hand waved imperiously through the air and directed a bloated finger at Fiona. “… all your fault! How dare you bring that curse of yours against me?”
She grasped Fiona’s chin and pulled it closer to the livid black eyes peering out of the lumpy mass of hives. “Look at me! I look like an overripe pomegranate. All because of you and that wretched curse. Well, I won’t have it, I tell you. I won’t.”
Honore started screaming again. “Get out. Get her away from me.”
From the end of a thick echoing tunnel, she heard her aunt’s final decree. “I don’t want you in my house. Do you hear me! Out! Out!” Fiona backed away from the bed, and stumbled. Someone took her shoulders and guided her out of the room
An hour later, Fiona found herself seated on a trunk in front of Alison Hall. Several bandboxes were stacked beside her. She couldn’t clearly recall the servants’ hushed movements as they packed for her, nor did she remember walking down the winding staircase out of Alison Hall. It all happened so quickly. She’d watched the activity from a great foggy distance, like a rabbit knocked over the head, sitting stunned in the killing shed, awaiting the cook’s ax.
Very slowly, the distance between her and reality began to shrink. She could feel the hard metal ribbing of the steamer trunk beneath her bottom. She considered the heap of luggage and realized she was in something of a predicament. The front door opened and closed. The soles of Lorraine’s half boots pattered down the stairs toward her, and she set another bandbox on top of the pile.
“That’s it then, miss.” Lorraine fiddled with the pocket of her apron. “It’s that sorry, I am. It weren’t like her ladyship to take after you the way she did. More’n likely it’s that awful swelling in her head, what did it. You’ll see. She’ll come ’round to herself in a day or two. Don’t you go blaming yourself for my lady swelling up like that. No, miss, it were probably somethin’ she ate. Why, once I seen her swell up an’ turn red as a beet on account of mollusk soup. It weren’t nothing but a harmless little bowl of soup, mind you. Ooo, but she was fit to be tied, she was, what with all that itchin’ and scratchin’ and swelling up like a great red cauliflower.”
Fiona stared at Lorraine and blinked, trying to comprehend the waterfall of words pouring over her. Behind them the door opened, and the butler stood, rigid as a post, signaling the maid back into the house.
“Good bye, miss.” Tears started down Lorraine’s cheeks. “Look at me, turning into a waterin’ pot. What with you saving me from drownin’ an’ all. I’ll be grateful till my last breath.” With that, the older woman planted a kiss on Fiona’s cheek and fled up the stairs. The butler closed the door and Fiona sat alone.
From an upstairs window, Honore and Mattie peered down at Fiona sitting on her trunks. “I think that went rather well don’t you?” Honore’s garishly swollen face actually puckered into what resembled a half smile.
Mattie patted Honore’s shoulder. “Aye, me girl. Ye played it to perfection, ye did. Mind you the girl took it hard.”
“She’ll recover. Did you keep an eye on Marcus?”
“I did. The blighter was convinced sure enough.”
“Good. Gagging down that oyster was not easy, I can tell you that.”
Mattie grimaced at Honore. “The wee slimy creature did its part, too. Ye are a sorry sight, Honore, red as the hair on me old head.”
“Yes, well now let us hope Wesmont does his part.”
“I wager he’ll not disappoint ye. Aye, here comes his rig now.”
“Right on time. How very punctual.”
“He’ll be takin’ our Fiona to that dreadful dull Lady Hawthorn, won’t he?”
“Yes. It really is too bad. If only he were a less conventional man, he might run off with her and set the society hens cackling for weeks. That would be jolly fun, wouldn’t it?”
“Aye, but would the lass do such a thing?”
“We’ll never know, Mattie. But I’ll tell you this, she has more bottom than I gave her credit for. Gets it from me, no doubt.”
“Aye, she’s a good girl, that one. Ye’ll miss her.”
Honore turned away from the window and scratched at her puffy red arms. “Gad! I itch like all the bees from hell are stinging me. I want a bath, Mattie, and I want it now.”
Mattie stooped to test the water temperature in the copper tub. “All will be well, Honore. We’ll find ye another bairn to love, ye’ll see.”
Honore didn’t look at her old nanny. She swiped away an errant tear and acted as if she hadn’t heard the comment. “Put that powder in the water. Let’s hope it eases this confounded itching.”
* * *
Tyrell sat in his barouche. From this vantage point, he observed Fiona perched atop her luggage long before his coachman pulled up. He tipped his hat to her, but she didn’t seem to notice. Kip hopped down from the back of the carriage and opened the small panel door. Tyrell stepped out, donning his most pleasant attitude. “Good morning, Fiona. I’ve come to see if you would care to take a ride this morning? The day is so fine and—”
She turned her face up to him. Her blank expression, her white pallor and stricken features stopped him mid-sentence. Guilt punched all the air out of his lungs.
Damn! Honore’s wretched plan was costing Fiona far more than they’d bargained.
He immediately dropped his pretense and placed his hand on her shoulder. “Come, Fiona. I’ll take you to your family.” When she did not respond, he dropped to one knee and made her look at him face-to-face. “Fiona, listen to me. You can’t sit here in the street, now can you?”
She shook her head.
“No, of course you can’t. Will you let me help you?”
A gut twisting moment passed before she nodded. Her answer came out hoarse and small. “Thank you.”
The sound of her own voice seemed to break through Fiona’s shocked stupor. It also freed her tears. They washed down her cheeks in two streams. She didn’t sob or shake, tears just silently flowed. Tyrell handed her a handkerchief and guided her up the steps into the barouche.
Kip strapped on her trunks and slung her bandboxes into the opposite seat of the carriage.
Fiona wiped self-consciously at her eyes. “I don’t suppose you would believe me, my lord, if I told you that I rarely cry.”
“Quite the contrary, my dear, I know you to be an extraordinarily brave woman.”
She looked at him doubtfully through watery eyes.
“No, I’m not flattering you, Fiona,” he answered, reading her mind. “I’ve admired your intrepid spirit since you were a little girl. You were never afraid of anything. I used to hold my breath when you went flying over some of the obstacles on the hunt. It was difficult to understand how your father allowed such recklessness.”
“How quickly I have slipped in your esteem from fearless to reckless.”
He chuckled, glad to see her spark returning. “We mustn’t fan your vanity into too great a flame. Imagine how my friends and I felt, watching a mere slip of a girl leap without hesitation over the very hedges and streams we had mutually decided we would go around. Poor Freddie Boxstrom cracked his ankle when he flew off his horse trying to jump a hedgerow you had just sailed over. He swore he would never hunt with me again if you were allowed on the field. He called you the impertinent daughter of an overindulgent father.”
“Yes, well, your fearless nature put him to shame.”
“I’m hardly fearless. You have only to stand me in a roomful of people and I quake in my slippers.”
“Ah. So, there is a chink in your armor.”
The carriage lurched as it rolled over a fault in the pavement. Fiona swayed back against the seat and into the protective circle of Tyrell’s arm. It was dangerously comfortable. Fiona looked up uncertainly.
She twisted his handkerchief. “It’s much easier, to commune with animals and nature, than human beings. No matter how hard I try, I continually upset the people around me.”
“Sadly, all of us upset the ones we love now and again. People are deuced difficult to deal with, but they also give us joy and all manner of pleasant sensations.” Tyrell reached for her hand. Pink heat rose in her neck and flood up her cheeks. He gently pulled away, not because he was afraid of his feelings. He did it because the time was not right. She would need her wits about her when they arrived at Lady Hawthorn’s town house.
Nevertheless, he couldn’t help stroking her flushed cheek. She was so inviting. He wished it were another time and another place. But they were nearing their destination. He cleared his throat and addressed her in his lecture voice. “Promise me you’ll approach the people around you with the same fearlessness with which you take your horse over the hedgerows. You may need that courage in a few minutes when I present you to your family.”
“Oh, but surely it will be days before we arrive at Thorncourt?”
There was no easy way to break the news. “Your stepmother and Emeline are in town.”
“Yes. Here.” The carriage rolled to a stop in front of a town house.
“No, you must be mistaken.”
* * *
The door opened and Fiona recognized the face of their family servant. The butler led them into the hall. “A moment, Miss Hawthorn. I’m afraid we’re all at sixes and sevens what with Miss Emeline’s ball tomorrow evening. If you will wait here, please.” He dashed away, leaving Fiona and Tyrell standing in the entry hall.
“I didn’t know Em was having a ball,” she whispered. “They didn’t even tell me that they were in town. Not so much as a note to Aunt Honore, nor an invitation. Heavens, Tyrell, they can’t want me here.”
He shook his head, denying her supposition, even though he inwardly concurred. He didn’t like seeing her distressed. “There must have been a mix-up in the post.”
She shook her head. “No, it’s me, me and my dratted curse. They don’t want me to spoil things for Em. Take me away, Tyrell. Please. I’ll put up in a hotel. I… I’ll take a mail coach back to Thorncourt in the morning.”
She started for the door, but he clasped her arm. “Wait! At least, speak to your family. Surely they ought to be advised of your situation. If they aren’t pleased to see you I’ll drive you to Thorncourt myself.”
Just then Lady Hawthorn’s voice cut through the air. “No. No. No!” she shouted, running after a footman who was lugging a tall potted palm. “I told you before, put that in the card room.”
The footman stopped in his tracks, and crisply murmured, “Very good, my lady.” He turned around and headed back toward the room he had just exited.
“Stop right there.” Emeline’s sharp command halted the footman once more. She entered from the other direction. Followed by the butler who appeared to be seeking an opportunity to announce their guests.
“Mama, I want that plant moved to the ballroom. It’s still much too bare. We don’t want it looking as stark as Almack’s, now do we? I’m certain the guests will prefer the larger, thicker greenery in the ballroom.”
“Stark? Bare?” Lady Hawthorn dug fists into her hips. “How can you say the ballroom is bare? I spent a small fortune on flowers. Entire hedges of them!”
“Yes, yes, Mama. The flowers are gorgeous. They smell divine. Heavenly. But you must admit they don’t provide near enough privacy.”
“Privacy? Is that what you are after? Listen carefully, Emeline, I am not going to turn my house into Covent Garden, with couples doing heaven-knows-what behind the shrubbery. Good gracious—”
Tyrell cleared his throat, loudly. The wrangling women looked over the balustrade and saw the Earl of Wesmont standing in their hallway. Then they noticed Fiona with one arm in a sling and the other arm tucked proprietarily in his embrace.
Lady Hawthorn choked. She converted it into a polite cough and straightened her gown. Emeline put a hand up to check her hair. The footman set the potted orange tree on the floor and sighed with relief.
“My dear Lord Wesmont and Fiona, how lovely of you to call.” Lady Hawthorn scurried downstairs, her hand extended, a smile plastered on her face. Emeline followed in her mother’s footsteps. Tyrell did not release Fiona’s arm to take Lady Hawthorn’s hand. He feared Fiona might bolt for the door. Indeed, her continued struggle convinced him she would, indeed, run away if given half a chance. He pulled her closer to his side and bowed his head to the ladies.
Fiona glared at him and turned to face her stepmother. “I am sorry to intrude. Clearly, we have come at an inopportune time. We will leave.” Fiona tried to turn and go.
Tyrell held her in place. “Unfortunately, Lady Hawthorn, we have come under rather distressing circumstances. Lady Alameda has contracted a strange malady and feels it would be safer for Fiona if she left Alison Hall. Her luggage is in my barouche.”
Fiona stared at Tyrell. He was twisting the facts and forcing her on her family. She wouldn’t let him get away with it. “You needn’t trouble yourselves. I will find other accommodations until I can return to Thorncourt. I assure you, my lady. I did not know you were planning a ball for Emeline. We would not have come, had we known.”
Emeline tittered. “Why, Fiona, what must Lord Wesmont think? Of course, you knew. I’m certain Mama wrote you weeks ago and told you all about it, didn’t you, Mama?” She fluttered her eyelashes at Tyrell.
Lady Hawthorn frowned. Obviously, Emeline meant to pin the indiscretion on her. Her eyes compressed into thin lines, but her lips remained smiling, and her voice sounded placid and sweet. “Why, Em darling, I’m certain I told you to write to your sister.”
“Oh, how silly of me. Here I thought you were going to do it.” Emeline curved one hand artfully in the air next to her golden curls. “You must think us all dreadfully scatterbrained.” She simpered at him with a slight pout on her cherry-shaped lips. “Our only defense for this absurd mix-up is that we have been frightfully busy with the move to town. The preparations for the ball have been exhausting. It is going to be a grand affair. I dare to hope that it will be one of the sensations of the Season.”
Hurt and confusion were plain on Fiona’s face when she faced her sister. “I didn’t know you were coming to town for the Little Season, Em. You never said a word.”
“Oh bother.” Emeline stamped her foot. “Well, that is not my fault, for I did write you before we left. The letter must have gotten lost in the mails. That is the only possible explanation.”
“Yes, I suppose.” Fiona chewed her lower lip. “Still, I should not trouble you on so busy a day. Lord Wesmont will see me to an inn, won’t you, my lord?”
Lady Hawthorn, who evidently was not made entirely of stone, patted Fiona on the shoulder, and for just a moment donned a motherly expression. “Nonsense, my dear. You will stay with us. Anything else is unthinkable.”
She urged Fiona closer and called over her shoulder to the footman standing beside the potted palm. “You there, bring Miss Fiona’s trunks in from Lord Wesmont’s carriage.”
The beleaguered footman headed out the door.
Lady Hawthorn dropped her hand, ending the brief intimate contact with her stepdaughter and turned to Tyrell. “Lord Wesmont, you must allow me to thank you for bringing Fiona to us. We’re most grateful. May we expect you tomorrow night?”
He bowed handsomely to her and managed a smile at Emeline. “I wouldn’t miss such a grand affair.”
Then he turned to Fiona and grasped her hand, and pulling it to his lips kissed her fingers. He released her hand and smiled, wishing he could smooth away her concerns. “You must promise me the first waltz.”
“Thank you, my lord, but no. I am afraid I must keep to my rooms. My – my arm is not healed well enough for dancing.”
“Surely the waltz is not too strenuous an exercise.”
“I cannot,” Fiona insisted and appealed to her stepmother. “Surely, my lady, you understand? If I go downstairs to the ball, there will be the inevitable catastrophe. Someone may get hurt, and all will be spoiled.”
“Perhaps… “ Lady hawthorn tapped the side of her cheek. “However, my dear, according to the latest gossip you have become quite an attraction. Is it not so? Have you not received dozens of invitations? It must be true, because several ladies have applied to me. Naturally, I sent them to your aunt’s address.”
“Naturally,” said Lord Wesmont with just a hint of skepticism.
Undeterred Lady Hawthorn continued. “Your notoriety might benefit Emeline. If a small mishap occurs, that might not be a bad thing. It may create the sensation Em is hoping for.” She clapped her hands together. “Yes, Fiona, you must come down. I insist upon it. And by all means, dance the first waltz with our dear Lord Wesmont.”
Lady Hawthorn beamed at them both, quite satisfied with her logic. Emeline squinted at her mother, obviously not nearly as pleased.
Tyrell grinned at Fiona. She was caught.
“Let us pray no one is seriously injured. Lately, I have caused rather more damage than normal.” Clearly, the memory of a Grecian urn smashing at their feet ran through her mind. Fiona lifted her troubled eyes up to his.
Tyrell wanted nothing more than to hold her and kiss away her fears, and to reassure her, but he had given Honore his word that he would not tell her of her cousin’s treachery until she had dealt with the matter. “Come, smile. All will be well. You must trust me.” His tone was deep and comforting. It pleased him when she responded by bravely trying to force the corners of her mouth to turn up.
“Regrettably, I must leave you. I have pressing business matters to attend. I will return tomorrow night and collect the waltz you promised me.”
He left the Hawthorn’s rented townhouse. Lady Alameda had better uphold her end of the bargain. Otherwise, Tyrell planned to find out if Marcus de Alameda was as good a shot as the rumor mill claimed. One way or another, that reprobate was never going to bother Fiona again.