Lady Hawthorn fluttered her fan and assessed her stepdaughter’s ball gown. “It is not white, and there are no ruffles or flounces or bows,” she complained. “It is so simple, that it draws attention to your figure. It’s not suitable for a young woman,” she complained. “On top of that, it is a roguish color of silk. It will not commit to one shade. It shifts under the light. One minute I think it is blue and the next it turns purplish.” She shook her head. “Imminently unsuitable.”
Fiona held out the skirt of the gown. She quite liked the color. It played nicely against her eyes. “Unsuitable?”
“Yes. A color like that is better worn by a mature woman, not a young girl.”
“I’m hardly a young girl, my lady. I’m very nearly on the shelf. I considered wearing a turban, except I didn’t have one to match the gown.”
“A turban? Good gracious! Well, thank heaven you didn’t do that. Never mind then, I suppose your dress will have to do. Where is our Emeline? Guests will be arriving shortly. Do go and see what’s keeping her.”
Fiona climbed the stairs and found Emeline standing at her mirror, smiling appreciatively at her reflection. She whirled to Fiona. “What do you think?”
Fiona smiled at her stepsister. “You look perfectly adorable.”
“I know that, silly. I mean, should I wear the pearls or Mama’s diamonds?” Emeline’s white embroidered voile gown had a Brussels lace ruffle standing around her low neckline, a pink silk ribbon tied under her bosom and matching pink silk roses trimmed the top of each flounce. She held up a string of graduated pearls and then traded them for an elegant diamond collar.
Fiona tapped a finger against her cheek, considering the choices. “I prefer the pearls. They don’t detract from the lace on your dress.”
“Hmm,” Emeline turned back to the mirror. “No. The diamonds are more impressive. I shall choose them.” Emeline’s abigail scurried up to fasten the diamonds in place.
“As you please, Em, but hurry. Mama is asking for you. Your guests will be arriving soon.”
“Wait, Fiona. I have a request.” She addressed her sister while examining the effect of the layer of diamonds at her throat.
“I wish that you will remember this is my ball. I would not like you to draw attention to yourself or monopolize the guests.”
“I have no intention of doing any such thing. You know perfectly well that I don’t like to draw attention to myself.”
“What I mean is…” She toyed with the diamond necklace. “I don’t want you to monopolize a certain guest’s time. Lord Wesmont for example.”
Fiona’s mouth dropped open and then slammed shut. Years of slights and hundreds of petty remarks finally hit the mark. Fiona’s patience ran out. Her voice trembled with a decidedly sharp edge to it. “So, that’s what this is about? You’re carrying a torch for Lord Wesmont?”
At her stepsister’s arch silence Fiona bristled, “I must hasten to tell you, Em, his lordship is not a docile plaything you can lead around on a ribbon. It would be nigh impossible to monopolize him unless he allows it. Not only that, but I have it on good authority, that he has no intention of getting leg-shackled to you or anyone else.”
Fiona struggled to calm herself. She intentionally slowed down and moderated her tone. “This is your ball Em, and you have your pick of any of the gentlemen. I’m certain you’ll have dozens of suitors. But should Lord Wesmont choose to spend time with me, I will not prevent him.”
She turned on her heel and marched out of the room. At the door, she stopped and spun around. “And one more thing.” Fiona lifted her chin. “His tastes do not run to arrogant debutantes who look like overly decorated wedding cakes.” She silently thanked her aunt Honore for lending her exactly the right words as she walked away down the hall.
Emeline stamped her foot and turned back to the mirror. Fiona would pay for those insults. Fiona would not have Wesmont, not if Emeline could help it. She smoothed away the frown marring her brow and assured herself she was not overly decorated. Her fingers lightly caressed the diamond collar.
“Take the diamonds away,” she ordered her maid. “I will wear the pearls.”
* * *
No one was more astonished than Fiona, when later that evening Lady Alameda arrived at the ball and paraded down the receiving line as if she were the queen. Although the décolletage was a trifle daring, Honore wore a surprisingly respectable gown. Even so, Fiona wondered if the color of the dress boded ill. Was her aunt in mourning? Her gown was so dark a purple it was nearly black, and stones of black onyx glittered at her throat. Her hair was a subdued shade of auburn. She looked magnificent, but somehow threatening. When she approached, Fiona was not sure what to expect. Would thunder and lightning suddenly shatter the ballroom?
“Fiona dear, we miss you. Alison Hall is so very dreary without you.” Honore took Fiona’s hand and smiled genuinely. “Your cousin Marcus has taken himself off to Portugal. The house is a veritable tomb. I am bereft. You must come back immediately.” She kissed Fiona’s cheek as if they were the dearest of friends.
“Look who I have brought with me. Here is Lady Haversburg and Maria.” Honore leaned in close and whispered conspiratorially. “You may notice Maria has an escort, a physician. Lovely man, but I believe you may know Dr. Meredith.”
Lady Alameda winked mischievously at her niece before moving down the line to greet Lady Hawthorn. “Do close your mouth, Evelyn. That codfish look doesn’t become you. Of course, I came. I was quite certain my lack of an invitation was merely an oversight on your part. You mustn’t fret yourself about it, dear. I forgive you. And see here, I’ve brought a few of my friends.”
Lady Hawthorn remained tongue tied, but she pulled her lips together and managed a curtsey.
Honore moved on to Emeline and placed one finger under the debutante’s chin. “And what is this? Our pert little Emeline all grown up? You look scrumptious, my dear. Just like something out of the pastry shop window.” With a smug chuckle, Honore walked away.
Maria Haversburg greeted Fiona with her hand looped over Dr. Meredith’s sleeve. “I hope you don’t mind our coming to your sister’s ball? Lady Alameda insisted. She told us you were terribly sad, and that we must come and cheer you up.”
The absence of noxious gases coming from Maria’s mouth delighted Fiona and filled her with a sense of triumph. “I’m happy to see you.” However, at the doctor’s approach she caught her bottom lip and grimaced, remembering how she had lied to him.
Maria nudged her. “It’s all right, Fiona. I’ve explained everything to him. He forgives us completely for our little deception. Mother sent for him herself, the day after she saw what he had done for me. She thinks he is a genius. Especially after she discovered he is to receive a knighthood. She’s in complete alt. Can’t wait to show him off to everyone.”
Dr. Meredith bowed his head. “A pleasure to see you again. How is your arm?”
“Much improved, thank you.”
Maria puckered briefly with sympathy. “A riding accident. How dreadful for you. I was so relieved when Dr. Meredith assured us you would make a full recovery.” She leaned in very close and confided, “But now, I must ask a favor. I never told Mama that you were the one that took me to his surgery. You see, she was so amazed that I had the backbone to take matters into my own hands that I rose several notches in her esteem. You don’t mind keeping my secret, do you? It’s terribly jolly how it all worked out.”
Dr. Meredith nodded. “You might have told me the truth at the time, Miss Hawthorn. I would not have refused treatment. Indeed, after I laid eyes on Miss Haversburg I could not have refused her anything.”
Fiona beamed her approval.
Maria giggled. “Isn’t he marvelous?” she asked without the least degree of self-consciousness. The twosome floated happily away. Fiona smiled after them, and turned to greet the next guest.
An hour after the receiving line broke up, the third dance set formed. Fiona sat hidden behind a bank of hothouse flowers opening her fan and snapping it closed. Tyrell had not come. Her aunt played in the card room. Emeline stood amidst a circle of young men vying for her attention. Maria Haversburg and Dr. Meredith walked toward the balcony exchanging mooncalf gazes at one another. And Fiona sat alone. Snap. She shut her fan.
She took little solace in the fact that her dreaded curse had not injured anyone yet this evening. Even a mishap would be preferable to the emptiness gnawing at her. Why hadn’t he come? The desolation she felt was her own stupid fault. She’d allowed herself to hope. She whipped her fan open.
Hope was dangerous.
Hope could be painful.
She shook opened the ruddy fan and spread it on her lap. She only wanted to see his face. That would be enough. Aspiring for more was pure foolishness, and she knew it. Yet, tonight she would be denied even a glimpse of him. Snap. Why hadn’t he come?
Fiona peeked around the bank of flowers to examine the doorway once more. This time she saw Tyrell framed in it. She blinked and opened her eyes wider, wondering if she was hallucinating. His name rang convincingly through the air as the butler announced him. Throughout the room, female faces turned to take stock of the eligible earl.
She could barely keep from cheering. But she was not the only one who rejoiced at his arrival. Fiona frowned. A roomful of matrons and their charges assessed him like a pack of hounds catching the scent of a fox.
Tyrell searched the bevy of females for one particular set of features that made his heart thunder in his chest. He sorted through countless feathers, fans, and fluttering eyelashes. After some diligence, he spotted a pair of sea nymph eyes peeking around a hedge of flowers. Ah, that was the face he looked for. Chuckling to himself, he tilted his head to mimic her odd pose.
Fiona quickly pulled back behind the flowers. Her heart jumped and flipped in her chest like a crazed rabbit. I mustn’t wear my heart on my sleeve, she cautioned herself. Too late. Her cheeks were hot. She pressed her hand over her unruly heart and tried to moderate her breathing. She put the useless fan to work fanning and concentrated on the view of the ballroom in front of her.
The view did not help. Too many matchmaking mamas and their offspring were mentally penciling the hither-to inaccessible Lord Wesmont onto their lists. Skirts fluttered in his direction. They didn’t look precisely like flies heading for a carcass, thought Fiona. No, more like a flock of turtledoves cooing and mincing toward a morsel of bread, nudging each other out of the way, as they sashayed toward their quarry. Well, if it was a fight they wanted, it was a fight they would get.
Fiona stood up, shook out her skirt, and lifted her chin into the air. She stepped forward, ready to march into the fray, but a hand clasped her forearm and restrained her. “So, you mean to come out of hiding, do you?”
“Aunt Honore, I thought you were in the card room.”
“I was. One can only fleece these bumpkins for so long before one gets bored. Now, did I just hear Wesmont’s title called out?”
“Yes.” Fiona glowered at the fleet of white skirts setting sail in his direction.
Honore laughed. “Let him come to you, my dear.”
Skeptical, Fiona said, “I’m not at all certain he will. He’d have to hurdle several dozen young ladies and their mothers.”
“Honestly, child, haven’t you learned anything from me?” Honore fluttered her fingers at the stampeding herd. “For pity sake, these ladies are wasting their time, Wesmont is the independent sort. He won’t tolerate being run to ground. If they are able to get near him at all, he’ll brush them off like so much vermin. Restrain yourself. The man is obviously mad for you. He’ll come. In the meantime, shall we discuss more important matters?”
Fiona’s bottom lip fell victim between her teeth. At the moment there was nothing more important to her than Tyrell.
“I do wish you would stop mutilating your bottom lip every time something vexes you. A most annoying habit, my dear.”
Fiona released her lip and snapped open her fan.
“Much better.” Honore said, with a quirky half smile. “Now, let us discuss your return to Alison Hall. Tomorrow suits me admirably.”
“Return? Is that wise?” Fiona fanned herself. “You were rather unhappy with me last time we spoke. If I remember correctly, you accused me of nearly causing the collapse of your entire house, not to mention, being responsible for your personal disfigurement.”
“Oh that.” Honore waved through the air as if dispatching a gnat. “A simple case of hives. I was better by the next morning. Your cousin, however, is not at all well. Poor fellow is retching his way across the Bay of Biscay, as we speak.”
“I suppose that is the fault of my curse as well.” Fiona fanned herself briskly.
“Fiddlesticks! You know I don’t give a fig about that curse of yours. No such thing as curses, never has been, never will be. It’s all a bunch of hottentot nonsense.”
“But you said—”
“Twaddle! Forget that. It was a ruse. Had to do it. Now, as I said, I want you to move back to Alison Hall, and that’s an end to the matter. Tomorrow, I’ll send Lorraine with the coach.”
Fiona and Honore stood face-to-face, oblivious of what was going on around them. Fiona pushed her nose closer to Honore’s. “No, thank you. I don’t believe I will.”
“No? But, I insist. This is absurd. You can’t stay here. With her.” She waved a finger in the vague direction of Lady Hawthorn. “The woman is a thick-witted ninny, dull as a post. Even your father stays away. Where the devil is he, anyway?”
“You know perfectly well, he’s in Spain on the King’s business. You’re intentionally changing the subject. I most certainly can, and will, stay here. I don’t care whether she is dull or not.”
“Fiona, think what you are saying. How can you tolerate, day after day, those two peahens pecking away at you? For pity sake, look at the company they keep. Have you ever seen any room in London filled with more humdrum provincials than this?” Honore swung around to indicate the entire assembly.
Her arm collided with the midsection of a gentleman wearing a black coat. She glanced up at the owner. “Ah, Wesmont. There you are. Tell her. Tell Fiona she must come back to Alison Hall with me. I refuse to let her molder away with these supercilious twits. She belongs with me.”
“No.” He squared his shoulders like a captain issuing orders. “She cannot, will not, return to Alison Hall. I forbid it.”
“What?” both women asked in unison.
Fiona looked at him, astonished. It was one thing to be devastatingly handsome, and perhaps the most wonderful person on the face of the earth, but it was quite another, to assume he could run her life without permission.
“You heard me well enough. I said Fiona will not return to your house.”
Honore spoke in a threateningly low dictatorial tone. “I say, she will.”
“No, Lady Alameda. She won’t. I think you will find that the greater authority resides with me.”
“Impossible. This is outside of enough! I’m her aunt, her benefactress, her mentor, the closest thing to a mother she has.” Honore folded her arms across her chest. “She belongs with me, at Alison Hall.”
“Be that as it may,” he responded in clipped tones. “I have spent the entire afternoon and into the evening procuring a special license.” He pulled a folded document from inside his coat. “When next Fiona moves, it will be into my house, not yours.” Tyrell cocked his eyebrow and grinned triumphantly. “Checkmate, Countess.”
Fiona stamped her foot. It was a weak sound. Silk slippers simply do not make near enough noise on a wooden floor. It was, however, enough. Wesmont and Honore both looked her way. Fiona’s hands hung at her side. Her fan dangled from her wrist. Her face was flushed, and her eyes round with hurt. Then, those eyes flashed dark, and Tyrell knew the sea had just turned stormy.
“You will both kindly listen to me. I am not a puppet to be moved here or there at your leisure, Lord Wesmont. Nor for your entertainment, Lady Alameda.” Fiona slapped her fan angrily against her skirts and glared at each of them in turn. “How dare you presume to decide my future without so much as a by-your-leave.”
“If I was presumptuous, I beg your pardon.” He reached for her hand, but she refused him. “I thought you felt as I did. In the absence of your father—” He didn’t get to finish his defense because she turned and fled the room.
Tyrell frowned at Honore as if the whole incident were her fault.
Honore applauded softly and smirked. “Well done, Wesmont. That was by far the most botched proposal I’ve ever heard.”
Wesmont growled and strode off after Fiona. Honore sighed wistfully and headed back to the card room.
Tyrell found Fiona, but it was not easy. She had retreated to a small service galley off the dining room. He pushed open a door disguised in the paneling, and in the dim light he found her leaning against the wall. A table, laden with silver platters and bowls of food, took up one side of the narrow room. Obviously, the small passage served as a convenience for the servants bearing courses up from the kitchen.
Tyrell walked in quietly, hoping that Fiona would not bolt out of the far door. She glanced over at him and stepped away from the wall, but didn’t run.
“Hear me out,” he said.
Fiona merely tilted her head and considered him. She had cooled since running out of the ballroom. After all, Tyrell had gone to the trouble of getting a special license, and while it was heavy-handed, ill-mannered, and yes, presumptuous, it meant he wanted to marry her. If he truly loved her . . .
Fiona tried to clamp a firm hand on the joy and hope dancing inside her. Be still, she told these children of her heart. But they would not obey.
Tyrell came nearer, struggling to form the right words to woo her with, but they wouldn’t come. He approached, groping for elegant phrases, suitable expression of sentiment, but finding none, and stumbling over a morass of emotion. He held out open hands, and looked at her, completely lost at sea. Feelings were so blasted difficult to sort through. He only knew he wanted her. His life would dry up into a brittle wisp without her.
He moved closer and stared down into her irresistible eyes, waiting for the words to materialize. When they didn’t come, he started without them. “Fiona, I . . .”
But one doesn’t say, I want you, as if another person is a biscuit to be eaten, or a horse to purchase. Tyrell’s mind failed him. His mouth froze halfway open. No clever sounds mixed together to become speech, so he put the instrument to better use. He bent his head down and kissed her. His lips fell on her soft mouth, and together they spoke a far more eloquent language than ears can hear.
Fiona and Tyrell were thus communicating when the service door to the dining room cracked open. The crack was wide enough for an interloper to peer into the dim room. What the trespasser spied enraged her. Emeline’s golden curls shook with frustration. She could barely keep from screeching with envy, but that would not suit her purpose. It was a good thing she had followed Lord Wesmont out of the ballroom. One more minute of this disgusting behavior and the man might propose to her sister. She had to do something quickly.
At that moment, a footman climbed the stairs from the kitchen and entered by the far door. Fiona and Tyrell pulled apart and shifted uneasily. Tyrell cleared his throat.
In a broken whisper, Fiona asked him, “You said you wished to speak to me? Well, my lord, I am ready to listen.”
The footman, a well-trained fellow, did not take notice of anyone in the room. He carefully averted his eyes from their direction and walked hastily to the table. He picked up a bowl of custard to carry to the dining hall. The preoccupied footman stepped in front of the door concealing Emeline.
It was too perfect. Emeline saw it as a sign from God. She shoved the door forward, slamming it into the servant. It clipped his knee and shoe. Indeed, the entire toe of his shiny buckled shoe wedged underneath the door.
The startled footman, flopped out of his shoe, and fell backward. The bowl of custard flew over his head. He fumbled. He reached. He stretched to catch it. But the custard continued its journey without him. It arced gracefully up and then, obeying the laws of gravity, began its descent where it connected with the floor, and bounced up again, making a series of smaller spinning somersaults.
Remarkable, that an egg custard in a silver dish should bounce so well. With each clatter the occupants of the room were showered with plops of yellow custard. The bowl gyrated across the floor and, with a whirling metallic clank, came to a stop at Tyrell’s feet.
In the silence that followed, a triumphant giggle resonated from Emeline just outside the room.
The footman pried his shoe out from under the door and inspected his marred toe. Then he stood up, looked over the splotched mess, and groaned. “Cook will have my head.”
“Not before I catch the culprit who rammed that door open, and hang her by her vicious little thumbs.” Tyrell started after Emeline. He grabbed Fiona’s hand and pulled her with him.
Fiona called back to the footman as Tyrell tugged her through the door. “Tell Cook it was my fault. You know, blame it on the curse.”
She trailed behind Tyrell as he rushed through the dining room, set on vengeance. In the brightly flickering candlelight, Fiona caught sight of Tyrell’s splattered coat.
“Wait!” She tugged on his arm. “Tyrell wait! We can’t storm into the ballroom like this.”
He turned around and stared at her. Custard dribbled down her forehead and dappled her cheeks. Her blue silk gown was speckled with yellow blobs. Tyrell considered her for a moment. She looked deliciously comical. A grin burst across his face.
Fiona smiled back. “Don’t laugh at me, my lord. You will find that you are quite as custard-covered as I am.”
“Ah, so I am,” He chuckled as he appraised his spattered attire. Just then, the soothing strains of violins penetrated the dining room. They were beginning a waltz. The rest of the orchestra swelled behind the violins. The flowing melody compelled him to relax.
He exhaled and all of his annoyance at Emeline vanished. “Do you hear it? It’s a waltz. My waltz, I believe.” He held out his hand.
She tilted her head, questioning his sanity. “You would risk such a thing?”
“I would.” Tyrell opened his arms. “Here will do nicely.”
She stepped into his embrace and he held her close as they waltzed beside the dining table laid out with glistening silver, radiant crystal and bouquets of aromatic roses.
“Do you truly wish to marry me?” Fiona asked. “After all, I cannot promise you freedom from the wretched accidents that seem to follow me wherever I go.”
Tyrell smiled at her. “Life would be inordinately dull without a few surprises now and again.” Abruptly, he leaned down and kissed a drop of custard from her cheek.
Fiona shivered in response.
He laughed softly. “I would not have it any other way.” Tyrell kissed away another little dollop from her forehead and then lightly touched his tongue to a small portion near her mouth. He murmured. “I love you, Fiona. I’m afraid, my beloved Elf, that tranquility and solitude have entirely lost their appeal. I don’t think I could bear life without you. Marry me.”
She answered him eloquently, with a tirade of kisses.
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