The next morning Countess Alameda lounged in her bed. She sipped her morning chocolate and scanned the newspaper. The swelling and redness had nearly abated. Marcus shuffled into her room, wearing his dressing gown and massaging his temples. She glanced up from her paper and smiled. How endearing he looked with his tousled black hair and sleepy eyes.
“You summoned me?”
“Yes, my dear. Sit down. Here you are, Mattie sent up a tray for you as well. I thought we might have breakfast together and discuss a few business matters. She made you one of her excellent omelets.”
Marcus rubbed the bridge of his nose and looked askance at the tray of food. “I never take breakfast before noon.”
“Yes, well, I just heard the clock strike eleven. Close enough. I daresay you will be uncommonly interested in the matters I wish to discuss. However, I refuse to talk business on an empty stomach.”
“Business?” Marcus‘s eyes flashed. He ambled over to the chair and dropped into it. “I rather thought you’d summoned me to hear your dying words.”
“Silly boy. I would hardly make my last confession to you. Besides, only good people die young, and I am certainly not good.”
“And you certainly aren’t young,” he muttered.
“What was that?”
“Nothing. I just said you certainly have recovered.”
“Yes, that’s what I thought you said.” She jabbed a mouthful of omelet onto her fork. “Eat your eggs before they get cold.”
Marcus sipped his coffee and set the cup down. He picked up his fork and poked at the eggs.
“Marcus, must you dawdle? I want to get an early start. I’ve done nothing but lie in bed and take baths since yesterday. I’m bored senseless, and I have a dozen things to do before the Hawthorns’ ball this evening.”
He looked up, startled, “You don’t plan to go, do you? You just booted the chit out. You can’t show up at their ball.” He shoved a forkful of omelet into his mouth. The textures rolled across his tongue. He discerned mushrooms in a rich creamy wine sauce and leaned forward to take another bite:
Honore shook her fork in the air at Marcus. “I will do whatever I please. I don’t recall an invitation but it hardly matters. They can’t very well turn me away, can they? I’m family.”
He swallowed more eggs and asked, “Why the devil would you want to go? Have you forgotten what Fiona did to you?” Marcus scraped some mushrooms and cream sauce out of the center of his omelet and scooped them into his mouth.
Honore munched on a piece of toast. “Oh, you mean because I puffed up like a toad and turned red.”
“Yes. Her fault. Said so yourself. Her curse and all. Excellent omelet. Mattie outdid herself.”
“I’ll tell her you said so.” Honore watched her stepson shove more eggs into his mouth and smiled. Then she laughed. “Oh Marcus, Marcus, my dear boy, you don’t really believe that twaddle about a curse, do you? It’s bad enough Fiona and her witless stepmother place stock in such drivel. Never say you believe in curses?”
“Well…”—he considered his response cautiously while chewing—”not in the ordinary sense. But in Fiona’s case things did happen.”
“Oh yes. Things did happen.” Honore nodded and took a vicious nip at her toast. “I wonder, Marcus dear, how many of those things were your doing?”
Marcus sputtered, choked, and finally managed to swallow. He composed himself and asked, in the most innocent of voices, “Whatever do you mean?”
“You’re a clever man. You tell me. How many failed attempts on Fiona’s life were there? Let us count. My maid’s plunge into the ocean. Did the wrong woman fall off the pier? Fiona’s riding accident. Was it really an accident? Or did you help it along with a burr under the saddle? What about tripping the Prince Regent—”
“Hold!” Marcus jumped to his feet. “I had nothing to do with tripping Prinny. Your niece managed that without any help from me.”
“I see.” Honore sipped her chocolate and set the cup down.
Indeed, she did see. His calumny was crystal clear. “What was it, Marcus? Did you think I wouldn’t leave you my money?”
The color drained from his face. He raked his hand through his hair. He glanced around the room, as if he expected her henchmen to spring out from behind the drapery. When nothing happened, his panic subsided. “What did you expect me to do? You were planning to give it all to her, weren’t you? Did you suppose I would live on bread and water after you’re gone?” He leaned forward, squeezed her bedding in his fists, and glared at Honore. “I couldn’t have a whey-faced little chit running off with what was rightfully mine.”
Her gaze remained on her plate. She pushed the yellow egg yolk around with her fork.
“Well?” he demanded. “You planned to give her everything, didn’t you?”
“No.” She looked up at him. “There was no need. I knew from the start Fiona would marry Wesmont.”
He stared at her, stunned. He shook his head and pointed his finger at her. “No. No! No, you’re lying! I know you are. You’d considered changing your will in her favor. You said as much the night of your soiree.”
“Oh yes, that was the night you tried to shoot a hole through my head. Was it not?” She arched one eyebrow.
He licked his lips, which suddenly felt very dry.
“No, Marcus. I never intended to make Fiona my heir. I was teasing you, amusing myself at your expense. I’m well aware that you pant heavily after my money. It’s great sport to watch you squirm when I pretend to give it away to someone else. Besides, I’d hoped you’d stop counting on an inheritance from me, and begin taking better care of what you already have. Tell me. Do you actually know who benefits from my will at the moment?”
His eyes narrowed into two thin slits. Sweat broke out on his forehead and his innards cramped. Pushing his hand against his belly to assuage the pain, he answered, “Very well, Honore, I’ll play your game. Who is your beneficiary?”
“Hmm. I wonder if I should tell you. I saw you push the urn, you know. I had to go to some rather drastic extremes to protect Fiona. These hives were a ruse. A most uncomfortable ruse, I might add, to lull you into a false sense of security.” Honore scratched her arm and scrutinized her stepson. “No. I’m not at all sure I should tell you who my beneficiary is.”
He clutched at his cramping stomach and dropped back into the chair. “It doesn’t matter. Obviously, I am not.”
“Now, that would have been foolish of me in the extreme. You inherited almost all of your father’s wealth and managed to go through it in a matter of months. Granted, he was not as rich as crocuses, but—”
“Gad, Honore. When will you get your euphemisms right? Crocuses are flowers. Croesus, rich as Croesus, the king, not crocuses.” Marcus swiped at the perspiration dripping from his forehead.
“No matter.” Honore tapped her fingernail against her tea tray. “Flowers, kings, you went through it all. Francisco left you a sizable fortune and a vast estate in Portugal. Yet, directly after quarter day your pockets are for let.”
Honore shook her head and clucked her tongue. Marcus rubbed his temples and licked at his lips again. They were drier than before, and a foul-tasting gas mounted up from his stomach.
“You squandered it, Marcus. My money would evaporate like water running through your fingers.”
He moaned. “Must you mix your metaphors? I’m not in a mood to sort through them.”
She ignored him. “No. I shall leave my fortune where it can be of some lasting value. Oh, that is not to say I won’t leave you something. I’m really quite fond of you, Marcus. Although, you’re a trifle spoiled. Spoiled children can be such nuisances. But did you know that I had five brothers? Five married brothers, and each of them had several children. I have a grand total of sixteen nephews and nieces. I regret to inform you, Marcus, you must murder all sixteen of them before you stand to inherit everything. Oh, and you must also do away with several of my business partners, including Lord Kinnard of the London Bank. All told, I have twenty-two beneficiaries.”
She laughed. “A messy business, that would be. Nineteen murders, just so you can throw my money away on whores and gambling.”
“Twenty-one.” He corrected her math and sat forward with his head in his hands. He rocked slightly. His stomach burned like the fires of hell. Slowly, he dragged his face up from his hands, elongating his features. He squinted at Honore. “Can we discuss this later? Right now I feel like the very devil.”
“I imagine you do, dear. However, we must finish this now because you’re embarking on a rather long trip. Did you enjoy your omelet, Marcus? Mattie made it especially for you. She used a particularly rare type of mushroom.”
His eyes flew open wide. “Good God!” His voice rose to a high frenzied pitch. “You poisoned me!”
“Tch.” Honore glanced at her fingernails. “Really, Marcus, poisoned is such a strong word. Didn’t I just say I was fond of you? No, dearest, I haven’t poisoned you. I have merely sickened you. You are the one always striving for verbal accuracy. Poisoned sounds so very final. You won’t die. At least, I don’t think you will, not if you get to Portugal in time. You see, I’ve sent a man ahead with the antidote. He’ll be waiting for you at the port in Aveiro.” She set the tea tray aside and threw back the covers.
“We must hurry. My coachman is prepared to drive you as swiftly as he can to the wharf, where I’ve chartered your passage on the fastest ship available. You should arrive in two days if the weather holds. When you get there, drink up the entire bottle. You’ll be right as rain-in a few days, or weeks, I can’t remember which. Never mind.”
He stared at her. “You’re completely mad.”
Honore motioned to him. “Francisco’s steward, Rodrigo, has agreed to nurse you back to health, and then he’ll help you repair your estates. He’s most eager to assist you. Perhaps you remember him? He loves Alameda’s tenants and continually complains to me of how the people are suffering because of your neglect.”
Marcus stood and stumbled toward her bed. He would kill her. Strangle her! Squeeze her scrawny neck until her eyes bulged out. If only the room would stop spinning and his head would not wobble so. He lurched forward and collapsed across her legs. He cried out, an anguished, a wordless cry, and then he simply lay there groaning.
Honore experienced a strange and unfamiliar sensation. Pity. A tiny seed of compassion twisted and grew inside of her. She tentatively placed her hand on his black curls. Her fingers combed gently through his dark tousles.
“Oh my darling,” she murmured. “Don’t you see? I couldn’t let them bring you up on charges. You might have been hanged. Or worse, thrown in a dark smelly prison. If I didn’t do something, Lord Wesmont swore he would put a bullet in your diseased brain. Those were his exact words. I couldn’t let him do that, now could I?”
Marcus moaned in answer.
“No. You’ll see. This is the best way. You’ll feel much better about it in a few months. You must promise to stay on your estates for at least a year. Otherwise, I will have to do something truly unpleasant. I expect regular reports of your diligence and industry from Senior Rodrigo and my friends in Portugal.”
“Your spies,” he mumbled.
She stroked his hair back from his face. “Try to make a go of it, Marcus, my darling boy. Prove that you are something besides a spoiled man with a beautiful face.”
Marcus began to shiver uncontrollably.
Honore leaned back and yanked on the bell cord.
Leave a Reply