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Lady Fiasco: Chapter 1

Coming Home

He stood at the edge of the ballroom like a smoldering statue, and if she were not his mother he would have strangled her.

She stabbed her needle in again. “Tyrell, for pity sake, won’t you please dance? You’re embarrassing me. Surely one of these young ladies…”

Not bloody likely.

“Your father would have wanted it this way. He abhorred excessive mourning. You know he did. You’ve been gone so long, it’s only right to reintroduce you to the neighborhood. He would have wanted you to have a proper welcome home. Really Tyrell, I planned this entire evening for your sake.”

He knew exactly why she’d thrown this abominable ball and for what purpose.

“It’s true.” She fanned herself a little harder. “How can you doubt my intentions? I am, after all, your mother. It’s my duty to look after you.”

Knowing how punishing silence can be, Tyrell said nothing.

She sniffled and dabbed at her eyes, which were perfectly dry. “Have you no heart?”

Heart? No. That useless mechanism stopped working in Spain, on the battlefields of Badajoz to be precise. Music jangled through his ballroom, agitating him with the frivolous sounds of plinking harpsichords and squealing violins. Candles flickered as dancers stirred up the air bounding across his floor like a flock of mindless sheep. He would rather be trapped in a bat-ridden cave than here.

To distract himself from his mother’s prattle he studied Fiona Hawthorn as she made her way through the guests on the other side of the room. She looked nothing like the sobbing young girl who had run after him as he rode away to war. She’d grown into a woman, shapely and undeniably striking. And now, his idiotic neighbors stepped out of her path as if she had the plague. Women backed away clutching their skirts like frightened children in the wake of a specter.

Superstitious morons.

His mother whispered a plea that lashed across his thoughts. “How can you treat me so ill? All I ask is one small grandson, so I’m not thrown out in the cold should anything happen to you. I simply can’t bear to think of my home entailed to some distant-uncle’s-cousin-or-other, who won’t care two figs for what happens to me.”

He remained as immovable as a wax general at Madam Tussaud’s. His cousins were gentlemen. She’d be well-cared for and the dower cottage would serve her adequately.

She clutched at his arm. “A baby boy I can bounce upon my knee, that’s all I’m asking. An heir. Is that so much?”

Yes, too much. Much more than he could give. Sons required fathers, preferably with the aforementioned heart intact.

He continued to watch Fiona as she wandered to the rear of the ballroom, away from the dancers and the gabbing, giggling circles of young women. She seated herself on a chair behind a column swathed in shadow. Hiding. Tyrell clamped his jaw tighter.

“Must you seethe like some sort of caged tiger? Truly, it can’t be good for you. You’ll rupture your spleen.”

What would she have him do? Upturn the tables? Shove all of her unwanted guests down the stairs and out of his house? Smash that musician’s squeaky fiddle over his white-wigged head?

“Our friends came here with the perfectly reasonable expectation that you would honor at least one of their daughters. You simply must dance with one of these young women or I shan’t be able to show my face in society again. We have our name to consider. At the very least you could—”

“Very well. One.”

He marched straight across the ballroom, heedless of the dancers, who darted out of his way while trying to maintain their places in the set. The heels of his shoes reported loudly against the wood floor, but he didn’t slow his pace until he stopped squarely in front of Fiona’s chair behind the column.

She sat in a dreamlike pose, swaying to the rhythm of the country dance. He cleared his throat and waited for her to open her eyes and focus. He continued to wait as her gaze slowly crawled up to his face and she blanched.

“Oh dear,” she murmured and rose abruptly upsetting her chair. In a tangled string of movements she reached back, caught the chair before it clattered to the floor, curtsied, and then seemed to lose her breath before she could speak.

He forestalled her. “Good evening, Elf.”

He folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the column, watching, as she glanced furtively over her shoulder toward the other guests and grimaced when she realized she had, after all, been noticed. Then she sighed with unflattering resignation. “Good evening, Tyrell—I mean Lord Wesmont.”

He straightened. “Enjoying the evening, are you?” Obviously, she could not be doing any such thing.

“Yes, my lord, excessively.” It annoyed him that she stared sheepishly at the floor.

“Oh yes? Well then, perhaps you would explain to me why you are hiding behind this pillar?”

Her hands fluttered at her sides grasping for a nonexistent railing to hold. “I merely wished for a nice quiet place where I might sit and enjoy the music.”

“The music? Surely, you jest. These musicians sound more like a gaggle of squabbling geese than—”

“Oh no, I think they’re quite wonderful.” She looked up and fixed him with an expression of pure delight. “I assure you. I was just thinking that I like music nearly as much as water.” She winced and color flushed her cheeks.

Water?” He arched a questioning eyebrow.

“What I meant to say is… music is nearly as beautiful as a lake, don’t you think?”

“Indeed,” Tyrell studied her odd, dark eyes and wondered if the lovely Fiona had perhaps taken a tragic fall from her horse and damaged her brain box while he was away on the Continent. “Tell me, do you still ride your horse as if you were shot from a cannon?”

“Oh.” She grimaced. “You remember that, do you? Yes, well, I suppose it might be said that I do.” She smiled and played the toe of her slipper against the polished oak floorboards, then she faced him with unexpected boldness. “My esteemed father must bear some of the blame. You see, while he’s away fighting Bonaparte he allowed our steward to buy me a splendid new mare. She’s more temptation than I can bear. If he had not provided me with such a magnificent animal, I would not be able to go tearing about the countryside, would I?” She beamed up at him innocently. “A nice retiring nag, that is the kind of horse I would give a daughter like me if I were my father.”

Tyrell very nearly smiled. A sensation he had not experienced for some time, but it was short lived. The musicians screeched to a halt. He spotted his venerable parent whispering into the ear of the violinist. A moment later, the trio began tuning for a waltz sans the promenade.

“Mother—” he ground out under his breath and then turned back to Fiona. “Quite daring, is she not, to risk the censure of our neighbors by playing a waltz at a country ball?”

His mother was orchestrating the situation like a field marshal at a battlefront. Her determination to push him into the arms of a female completely out-stripped his ability to remain composed. He struggled to keep from grinding his teeth.

Apparently, Fiona perceived his mother’s strategy as clearly as he did. She smiled sympathetically, which made Tyrell all the more annoyed. Her fingers touched his sleeve gently and then fell away. “It is not so very exceptional, my lord. Last Season some of the most distinguished balls in London boasted of a waltz. Your mother is simply setting the style for our neighborhood.”

“I doubt it.” He fixed his face into an inscrutable mask and held out his arm. “Will you do me the honor?”

“Oh no.” Fiona shook her head and backed away. “I’m sorry. I mustn’t–I couldn’t.”

Tyrell stepped back, temporarily nonplussed. He puzzled it out for a moment and then leaned down next to Fiona’s ear. “Is it because you have not yet been approved for the waltz? I assure you, none of Almack’s patronesses will ever hear of this absurd country party. I hardly think—”

She pulled away and looked up at him, her features brimming with anxiety. “No, it isn’t that. The truth is… you see… well… I’m rather dangerous on the ballroom floor. There’ve been several incidents. Surely, you’ve heard the stories?”

He frowned at her.

She opened her hands in petition. “My last dance partner slipped and collided with a servant carrying a heavy crystal punch bowl. The bowl crashed onto poor Lieutenant Withycomb and broke his collarbone. The pain must have been dreadful.”

“It was only a punch bowl. Not a cannonball.”

She shook her head mournfully. “Oh no, you must believe me. It was truly dreadful. Poor fellow yelped like a whipped dog as they carried him away. He was injured so badly he had to stay home from the war for six months. It was all my fault. Lady Digby said as much. I overheard Lady Monmouth say that if the King sent me to the continent Napoleon would surrender within the week. So you see, it’s much too risky to dance with me.”

The muscles in Tyrell’s face forgot their vow of austerity and twitched into a half-grin. “A most entertaining account.”

Fiona’s face turned a vivid shade of pink. “I assure you, my lord, I am not bamming you. It is all true. Every word.”

“Come.” He grasped her hand and pulled her to him. “Waltz with me. We’ll show them all.” Tyrell swooped her out into the company of dancers.

“But you don’t understand. I fear for your safety.”

“Only look,” he ordered. “Here we are dancing and I am not yet killed.” He glanced down at her and felt more at ease than he had in a long time. “You forget I have danced with you before. We were children. I believe it was a Yule party. I survived then and I shall certainly survive now.”

“One can only hope,” she muttered.

“You greatly overrate your threat to my person, Miss Hawthorn. I’ve faced far worse dangers than dancing with a beautiful young lady.”

“On the battlefield, yes, of course.” She blinked, and then her dark exotic brows angled down into an intriguing frown. “But you mustn’t flatter me, Lord Wesmont. I know full well that I’m not beautiful, merely passable.”

“What’s the matter with you, Elf? Are there no mirrors at Hawthorn Manor?”

“Our mirrors are in perfect working order, my lord. Perhaps your vision is dimming. Anyone can see that my hair refuses to stay where it is put. We have tried pomades, sugar water, and potato starch, to no avail. It merely sticks out and looks wilder than ever. So now, I just pin it up and expect it to remain horribly disobedient.”

Tyrell felt an odd thumping sensation in his breast as he looked down at the dark delicate tendrils of hair drifting around her face. She was no hothouse rose with fuzzy ringlets and a pinched-up little mouth. No, she was an unpretentious wildflower. “I like your hair. It suits you—lovely and unstarchy.”

“Thank you, but there is no need to flatter me with untruths, my lord. The fact of the matter is I have changed since you saw me last. I grew up to be something of a menace.” She leaned closer and whispered, “Most of the villagers even think I am jinxed.”

His momentary delight evaporated. He contemplated her coolly. “In the first place, Miss Hawthorn, it is not my habit to practice flattery, quite the contrary. Secondly, how is it you cannot accept a simple compliment from me, and yet you seem more than willing to believe the malicious gossip of our superstitious neighbors?”

“So, you have heard the rumors.”

“I’m not deaf or blind.” He lifted his chin and turned his attention to a bland study of the portraits and landscapes hanging on the walls as he whirled around the ballroom.

“You mustn’t be annoyed with our neighbors, my lord. My own family holds the same opinion, as do a number of our London acquaintances.”

“I’m not annoyed with them. I’m annoyed with you for believing such rubbish.” He executed a stiff step forward—infernal waltz. “Jinx, indeed. What utter nonsense.”

She fell silent.

He’d gone too far. Out of the corner of his eye, he observed her downcast countenance. She stared, unseeing, at the medals on his coat. He truly was a heartless cad. He regretted chastising her and was just on the brink of apologizing when her feet tangled up. She tripped in the middle of a turn and plummeted into his chest.

Tyrell congratulated himself on deftly handling the awkward moment. He recovered his balance, held on to the damsel in distress, and completed the turn without so much as an audible curse word. Yet, she still clung to him, her eyes wide with fright.

“Miss Hawthorn, we are safe. You may recover yourself now with ease.”

“No, my lord,” she said in a high-pitched whisper. “I’m stuck!”

“Stuck?” Tyrell glanced down at the maiden on his chest. The bosom of her dress was caught on his Merit Cross. He looked up at the ceiling, incredulous. “Well, pull it off.” He locked his jaw in the imperial position he’d always found useful as a commanding officer.

“I can’t.” she whispered desperately. “Not without serious repercussions.”

He swore under his breath. But then, espying a possible solution in the form of the balcony with open doors, he maneuvered her, still pressed against him, outside. They escaped into blessed darkness, away from the doors and windows, and more importantly away from the prying eyes of his mother’s guests.

“Now,” he said coolly. “We have some privacy. You may extract yourself from my coat.”

She sniffed at him and wrestled with her bodice and his confounded medal. “It’s so dark out here, I can hardly see. I think it’s snagged on this big gold star with all the sharp points.”

“Cross. Not a star. It’s a deuced Merit Cross. Oh, never mind. Just un–snag it, will you. Quickly.” He tapped his foot. Waited. Slapped at his thigh. And waited some more. “It’s certain we were observed. This is ridiculous. How difficult can it be?”

Her head snapped up and her eyes flashed at him. “Do stop railing at me.”

“Get on with it then.”

She bent back to the task.


She huffed back at him. “Now see. You’ve made me so nervous my fingers won’t do as they’re told.”

Exasperated, he pushed her hands away. “Here, let me see to it. Perhaps, if I open the clasp it will be easier to remove it from your gown.”

There wasn’t enough light to sort out the problem. Tyrell nudged Fiona toward a window, and achieved the desired effect of illuminating their tangle. But the candlelight cast a soft golden glow across the neckline of her gown, which was stretched further from her person than the cut of the dress intended. It revealed far too much of the smooth round breasts against which Tyrell struggled to extricate himself.

He swallowed hard, drew in a steadying breath, and concentrated on unpinning his troublesome badge. Her perfume wafted up and the sweet smell of rosewater teased his nose.

He exhaled and continued working with iron determination.

The summer breeze taunted him, lifting an errant strand of her hair up to tickle his cheek. He endeavored to unlatch the medal without touching her. It was impossible. His fingers brushed against her soft skin and frustration of another kind bolted through him.

His breathing changed tenor without permission. Next, his hands betrayed him. Hands that could be relied upon to load a musket during a skirmish in blackest night failed him. They trembled. He ordered himself to regain control.

Her wicked hair caressed his cheek again.

Her fragrance filled his nostrils.

Her enticing breasts lifted as she drew in a breath.

Tyrell growled like a bear caught in a trap and threw up his hands. “Blast it, woman! I can’t do this.”

“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I did warn you not to dance with me.”

He rolled his eyes heavenward. “Pray, do not start prattling on about that again.” He took hold of her shoulders and glared at her as sternly as he could in the dim light. “Listen to me, Fiona Hawthorn. This has nothing to do with curses, or jinxes. I don’t believe in any of that rubbish. Now, I’m ordering you to unhook us—”

She stared back at him far too evenly. Why the devil wasn’t the girl properly frightened? His brain turned to mush—a senseless puddle of drivel. He had the most inane urge to kiss this troublesome female. He must be going mad. But then, he didn’t have far to go, did he?

“Perhaps, Lord Wesmont, if you will remove your coat.” She spoke amicably, as if she were inquiring about the weather, instead of staring into the face of a madman.

It took him a moment to realize she had a plan. He let go of her shoulders and struggled to regain his senses. “Yes, yes, of course. Keep the deuced thing, and the medals. I never want to see them again anyway. I only wore it at the insistence of my mother.”

“I hardly think that will be necessary.”

He twisted, shrugged out of the coat, and grimaced when he heard a slight tearing sound as the weight of his coat dropped below Fiona’s bosom. However, they had achieved their aim. The medal had indeed disengaged from her dress.

“There! We are free.” She announced triumphantly and handed him his coat.

“Yes.” He eyed the front of her gown. She looked deliciously wanton with her torn dress and her hair falling out of place. Staring at her, he slid back into his coat and dusted off the sleeves. “You, however, require some assistance. The front of your gown is torn. I’ll send Lady Hawthorn to you.”

“No!” she blurted. Fiona looked down at the ripped fabric of her bodice and clasped her hand over it. “Please. I promised her I wouldn’t create a scene tonight. I’ll think of something. Truly, I will. Oh, if only you had left me behind that comfortable column.”

“Don’t be difficult, Fiona. Your dress is torn. You need assistance. Your step-mother is the logical choice, but if you prefer, I’ll send a maid.”

“No. You mustn’t. The servants will gossip. How will it look? Think of your reputation, my lord, and mine.” She shook her head insistently. “No. Please, go back to your guests and I’ll think of a way out of this.”

Circumstances looked bad. He had waltzed her out onto the balcony in front of a ballroom full of witnesses and now she had a torn gown and her hair had tumbled down. Perhaps she planned to trap him by saying he’d compromised her. He studied her face. The eyes pleading with him were clear and dark like the night sky—and completely guileless.

“I’m not a coward, Miss Hawthorn. I refuse to leave you unattended in this predicament.”

“Please, go,” she implored. “Every moment you stay makes the situation worse for me. Someone might come and then…”

“And assume I had compromised you,” he finished. “That’s ludicrous. Do you suppose I care for their opinion? Not one wit. Let them think what they choose.”

She answered in a calm voice, explaining matters to him as if he was a wayward child “I, on the other-hand, care a great deal. As I must spend the rest of my life in this neighborhood, it is rather callous of you to have so little regard for my reputation.”

Callous? Naturally, and why not? She was right, he was callous. Why then did he feel as if she had just slapped him?

So be it.

“As you wish.” He bowed. “I will not trouble you further with my offers of assistance.” Turning crisply, he shut the balcony doors behind him and returned to the ballroom with his chin fixed at a stern ninety-degree angle.

He approached a cluster of fluttering young misses and in scarcely civil tones he asked Miss Belinda Compton for the next country set. During the next half hour his eyes may have wandered toward the balcony doors, but he had no interest. What was the welfare of one obstinate female to him? Nothing. Nothing at all.

The set ran on interminably. When the dance finally ended, it was mere curiosity that beckoned him back to the balcony, or perhaps an aggravating sense of duty. Whatever the hell it was he marched to the balcony ready to do battle.

But when he stepped through the doors, his aggravation turned to astonishment. The balcony was empty! He checked the shadowy corners for Fiona and found them vacant. He admitted to himself that he had covertly watched the doors during the entire set. Fiona had not reentered the ballroom. Of that, he was certain. What then? Where was she?

A grizzly solution entered his mind. He clutched at the balustrade in panic. Surely, she hadn’t jumped? The situation was not that dire. Dear God, he shouldn’t have left the foolish chit alone.

He castigated himself while searching the ground two stories below. He squinted to see through the darkness and prayed fervently that he would not see her body lying crumpled on the grass below. He did not need another gut–twisting nightmare added to his repertoire. He couldn’t bear it. Frantically, he pushed aside the leaves and branches of the huge old Sycamore blocking his view.

He stopped mid panic, and stared at the bough in his hand. The impish face of Fiona Hawthorn as a child flashed before him. He remembered her scampering perilously high in just such a tree. He mentally traced a route across the limbs that hung over the balcony down the tree to the ground.

“Infernal little minx! In a ball gown. Now that’s a feat I would like to have seen.” He shook his head and laughed in relief.

Tyrell returned to the ballroom. He knew from experience that when he smiled this way, he bore an uncanny resemblance to Satan himself. He didn’t care. He looked forward to tomorrow’s duty calls with sardonic pleasure. He would make her squirm for her part in this stunt.


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