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Lady Fiasco: Chapter 10

Treason Is a Hanging Offense

The next evening Fiona stood mesmerized in the Pavilion. A hundred candelabras created a brilliant light in the Prince Regent’s huge ballroom. His band, from the Tenth Light Dragoons, played one of the Prince’s favorite Italian rococo melodies. Guests mingled in small clusters along the gilded walls and in the ornate vestibules as if they were brightly painted birds clustered in golden nests. Ladies wore purple and pink plumes, colorful shimmering silks, and on their arms and necks sparkled jewels of every kind.

His Royal Highness moved around the room greeting his guests and amusing each group with on-dits and witticisms.

Honore nudged Marcus. “See how he does not limp so heavily. His gout must not be bothering him this evening. How fortunate for Fiona that His Highness is in a good humor. Would you care to wager on her success?”

Fiona frowned at them, annoyed that they spoke of her as if she weren’t standing beside them.

“Fah. Look at the way he’s lurching. He’s not feeling the gout because he’s foxed. He’s one hiccup away from passing out. If he makes the connection, he’ll censor her, see if he doesn’t. Whoever heard of a lady diving off a pier. And to rescue a servant?” Marcus sniffed as if the air carried a foul scent. “Demmed peculiar, that’s what it is. He can’t like it.”

“We shall see.” Honore smiled.

Fiona did not share her aunt’s optimism. Marcus was probably right. Still, she hoped that the highest personage in the land would not send her packing in shame. Her only hope was that the incident had escaped his notice.

Prince George, decorated like an ornate red-and-white ship, drifted ever closer to their party. Beaded with sweat, he dabbed at his florid brow with a handkerchief and then stuffed it into the lace at his sleeve. Clearly, it cost him a great deal of discomfort just to travel from guest to guest. Yet, Fiona observed, he remained animated and jolly. Everyone smiled and laughed at his anecdotes and seemed genuinely amused.

When at last he came and stood before them flushed and beaming, Marcus bowed low. Fiona’s knees shook so badly they nearly collapsed as she and Honore sank into deep curtsies. With a tut-tut the Prince commanded them to rise. “Lady Alameda, a story has reached our ears. A story about this niece of yours.” He waggled his ringed fingers at Fiona.

Here it comes. Fiona swallowed hard and struggled to keep her breathing regular as the Prince of England prepared to give her a set-down.

“We must know. Is it true? Did the gel jump off a pier to rescue a maidservant?”

“Oh yes, your Highness,” Honore gushed. “It is true. The maid who fell into the sea was my own personal dressier. My niece, knowing how much I rely upon the woman, did not hesitate. She dove into the crashing waves and pulled my maid all the way to shore, saving her from certain death. I don’t have to tell Your Highness how much it would have distressed me to think of my poor devoted servant being eaten by fish in a watery grave.”

The Regent, who obviously enjoyed a good story, nodded sympathetically. Then he lit up as if struck by a brilliant flash of inspiration. “What!” He declared, “What. What. The chit is a hero!”

He glanced around with delight. Other guests clustered around them. Assured of an audience, he launched into a loudly broadcast speech. “We do not think many men in our acquaintance would have attempted so daring a rescue.”

He beamed at the crowd, then turned and reached for Fiona’s hand. His corset creaked as he leaned forward and Fiona feared he would topple over onto her. But he grasped her hand and had lifted it up into the air. “Gentlemen, this young gel rescued Lady Alameda’s maid from the sea and in so doing has set us all a brave example.”

He put his hand over his heart and turned to her dramatically. “Oh, that We had been there. We would have leapt into the ocean and saved the woman m’self.”

Fiona, recognizing the climax to the Prince’s dramatic moment, lowered herself into a curtsy. Thus, she honored him and simultaneously left him to bask in the center stage glow.

Guests, as if on cue, began to murmur and exclaim over the Prince’s bravery, his amazing courage, and his equanimity in any situation.

Marcus did not comment, other than he release an exasperated puff of air. Fiona noted the corners of Honore’s mouth twitching up and down, obviously stifling a loud guffaw. Rather than laugh, her aunt blurted, “A more heroic monarch never lived!”

To which, other guests shouted, “Huzzah!” The Prince Regent basked in the praise of his guests. Beaming, he gestured for Fiona to rise. “We would be pleased to dance the first dance with our brave Miss Hawthorn.”

“I am profoundly honored, Your Highness.” In truth, she was not honored. She was mortified. Something dreadful was bound to happen. She wanted to throw herself at his feet and beg him not to dance with her.

However, Fiona had the good sense not to make a cake of herself and blubber all over His Majesty’s royal feet. The Prince Regent waved aside the crowd, and with regal pomp and a great many huffs and puffs, he escorted her to the middle of the ballroom floor. The guests all fell silent as the Prince raised his hand to signal the conductor of the Tenth Light Dragoons’ band.

“A waltz.” he shouted. “We shall have a waltz.”

“Oh, dear,” Fiona murmured.

The music started to play and the Prince Regent, with surprising agility, whirled her across the polished floor. Rivulets of sweat rolled down his jowls. Fiona tried her best to produce a smile that didn’t betray her teetering nerves. Glancing with feigned casualness over the Prince’s shoulder and out at the guests, her attention snapped sharply into focus when she caught sight of a familiar face with ice blue eyes staring back at her.

Tyrell. Her feet faltered.

Prince George sputtered. “What? What? Just follow me, m’dear. Nothing to it. All be over soon enough.”

Fiona tried to compose herself. Where was the bravery the Prince had admired in her? Gone. Her knees turned to jelly and her wits to mincemeat. What was she doing on a dance floor with the Prince of England? And why, WHY, must the most aggravating man in all England stand on the sidelines watching her?

The Prince wobbled precariously as Fiona endeavored to correct her graceless footing.

“Here now.” He wheezed. “All this attention is unnerving you. We can’t have that.” He waved his hand at his guests along the wall, signaling them to join in the waltz.

As he waved his hand, his silken handkerchief slipped out of its hiding place in his sleeve and dropped to the polished floor beneath his feet. Time seemed to slow down to an unnatural crawl. Fiona watched, helplessly frozen, as the silky white kerchief fluttered down, and gracefully slid underneath the toe of Prince George’s shoe just as he stepped down.

The Prince’s foot skidded out from under him. His rotund body struck her with such force that it knocked Fiona off her feet and hurtled her backward, where she landed in a gentleman’s arms. The Prince Regent finished his spectacular somersault with frantically waving arms and flailing feet. He crashed, with a great thud, on his back in the middle of the ballroom floor.

Fiona caught her breath and looked up into Marcus’s astonished face. “Thank you for catching me.”

“I had nothing to do with it, I assure you. Not every day a young lady comes flying into your arms.” He pulled her to a standing position, patted her shoulder sympathetically. “Well, my girl, I’d say you’ve done it now. If diving off the pier didn’t put you in disgrace, nearly killing our monarch on the dance floor ought to do the trick. You’ll be deuced lucky if they don’t hang you.”

Fiona dashed out of the ballroom. She found her way to a small anteroom where she huddled in the corner to have a good cry. If only she could crawl under the Turkish carpet to hide. Everything had gone wrong.

Everything.

Tears streamed down her face so hard she could scarcely catch her breath. At least, if the Prince hung her for attempted murder, her wretched life would come to an end.

After what seemed like only a handful of minutes, Aunt Honore stormed into the room with Marcus close behind. “Fiona! What is the meaning of this? How dare you run away like a sniveling coward?”

“I am a coward!” Fiona wiped angrily at her tears. “Perhaps you didn’t notice, but just now” —she pointed in the direction of the ballroom—“I nearly killed the Prince Regent. I have it on good authority, my lady, that murdering heads of state is a hanging offense. Naturally, no one would dream of chopping off your head, but I am not immune to charges of treason or—”

“Stop!” Honore stomped her foot and planted her hands firmly on her hips. “Don’t be ridiculous. Prinny is fine. He said so himself, not a moment ago, after he had enough of everyone gushing over him. When Lady Bessbourgh offered to make a mustard and garlic poultice for his bruises, he recovered with miraculous speed. Popped up and promptly took over conducting the musicians. He has all of his guests trying to keep pace with that dreadful German dance he’s chosen. Dukes and duchesses, one and all, are hopping and leaping around the room like a gaggle of mad rabbits”

Marcus shook his head. “My dear Honore, gaggles are geese, not rabbits. It’s a warren of rabbits. Or a down of hares.”

Honore stamped her foot again. “What are you prattling on about, Marcus? He has them jumping up, not down. Bouncing around like a pack of antelopes.”

“A herd of antelope—” Marcus shrugged and rolled his eyes. “Oh, never mind.”

Honore flicked open her fan and cooled her face. “In any event, by morning Prinny won’t even remember falling down.”

“Care to wager on that?” Marcus studied his fingernails and smiled archly at Honore.

Tears recommenced running down Fiona’s cheeks. “Marcus is right. I’ll catch the next mail-coach back to Timtree Corners. I should never have come.”

Honore’s grasped Fiona’s chin and forced her to look up. “No, you won’t. Dry up, child. I will not tolerate this missish behavior. I insist you reappear in that ballroom with your head held high and your eyes dry. I’ll not have you skulking in this room like an ordinary criminal. If you’re determined to be a criminal, at least put some backbone into it.”

Fiona blinked at her aunt. Honestly, the woman was a complete bedlamite sometimes.

“Good. You are beginning to collect yourself.” She patted Fiona’s cheek and stepped back. “We’ll return to the ballroom and all will be well. Marcus will partner you for the next set.”

“I will not.” Marcus cast Honore a wounded look. “How quick you are to toss me on the sacrificial alter. Has it escaped your notice? The chit is lethal.”

Honore pursed her lips and glared at Marcus. “You can’t be afraid of dancing with a girl?”

He smirked and cocked an eyebrow defiantly. “Hardly. But you might give some consideration to my reputa—”

A man standing in the doorway cleared his throat. “I would be pleased to accompany Miss Hawthorn for the next set.”

Fiona moaned. Just when she thought things couldn’t get any worse, he would walk in.

Honore raised her quizzing glass to inspect the interloper. “Hmm. Lord Wesmont, isn’t it?”

“Make him go away,” Fiona muttered.

Her aunt chuckled. “What’s that dearest? You don’t know what to say.” Honore let her quizzing glass drop down and swing on a velvet cord pinned to her bosom as she extended her hand to Tyrell. “My niece is speechless. I accept your offer on her behalf.”

Honore clasped Fiona’s shoulders and yanked her to her feet. “There, my dear, you look almost normal again. That pout is quite fetching. Although, you might contrive to look slightly less willful, and a trifle more penitent. Come, take Lord Wesmont’s arm.”

Fiona scowled at her aunt. “I cannot go back. My eyes will still be puffy and red.”

“Nonsense. A little red becomes you.” Honore tugged her forward, took Fiona’s hand and set it firmly onto Tyrell’s sleeve. “Now go. You really must do this Fiona. I insist upon it. No protégée of mine is allowed to behave like a timid doe afraid to return to the watering hole. Show some spine, dear. Pride. Yes, that’s it.”

Fiona looked Tyrell squarely in the face, holding her chin in the air in an effort to retain the last shred of her dignity. “You needn’t do this, my lord.”

“Of course, he must.” Honore prodded them toward the door.

“I want to do it. Aside from that, your aunt is right. It’s much better if you face the situation here and now.” Tyrell’s voice held a soothing quality that she’d not heard from him since they were children.

“You see, Fiona?” Honore chirped. “Such a sensible fellow.”

“I told you yesterday, I’ve absolved you of your obligation. I’m no longer your responsibility, my lord.”

Absolved?” Honore clucked her tongue. “Fiona, really! You mustn’t talk as if you’re the Pope. Let the man alone.” She guided them through the ballroom doors.

Tyrell covered Fiona’s hand with his own and held it there. “I’m your neighbor, and your friend. Do you recall the time I pulled you out of the hedgerow after your pony threw you?”

“Not a pony, a mare. That was a very long time ago, my lord. I was only ten at the time. But yes, I do vaguely remember.” Vaguely. Ha! She remembered that day with exquisite clarity. She’d cherished that particular memory the way other girls pressed roses in their prayer books.

“Ah, but you didn’t expect me to leave you tangled in the briars, did you?”

“I hardly think this is the same.” Although, she most certainly was in the briars again.

“Did I not pluck thorns and burrs from your hair and clothing?”

Fiona winced remembering. “Yes, and the whole time you rang a peal over my head for attempting to jump a hedge my mare was not up to.”

Tyrell half chuckled. “Well, she was a smallish mare. Come now. I wasn’t as severe as all that.”

“No?” She chanced a wary smile at him. “As I recall, you punished me by making me hold out my skirt out so you could fill it with raspberries?”

“Ah that. Who could have known you would land in such a ripe patch of berries. In another day, the birds would have devoured the entire lot.”

“Yes, but I was covered with scratches and bruises from my fall. Hardly ideal circumstances for berry picking”

“You feasted on those berries as eagerly as I did. In fact, I remember you went home happy and with a bright red stain around your lovely lips.” He looked at her lips and a telltale redness crawled up his neck into his cheeks.

Warmth flooded her own face in answer. She looked away and realized that her aunt had maneuvered them to the far end of the ballroom, near the musicians, right beside where the Prince Regent stood directing the band with highly exaggerated movements. The lively Prussian galop ended, and he turned around to take a bow for conducting the music.

The dancers were so winded they could scarcely clap, but Lady Alameda made a great racket with her applause.

Prinny smiled. “Ah, Lady Alameda! You and your delightful niece have returned. Good! Now, I think, we shall have a nice sedate minuet.” Belying his promise of tranquility, in a booming voice he ordered, “Dance! Everyone dance!” Although one couple usually performs the minuet alone, everyone danced.

Tyrell led Fiona to the floor and held her hand up as he circled around her. She felt anything but tranquil as they played out the restrained flirtation of the minuet. As Tyrell circled her, looking intently into her eyes, her heart rapped wildly against her chest. Her breath came in shallow bursts, which she could hardly attribute to the exertions of the minuet, since the dance required little more than a walk on her part.

He was not unaffected, either. At one point, his hand trembled, and he let go of hers prematurely. When they stood face-to-face, he exhaled sharply and looked away. The telltale heat that warmed her cheeks also climbed up his neck. During her turn to circle him, she curtsied and tried to school her response to his nearness. She slowly dipped under his arm and let her arm trail across his shoulders to return and face him again. He bowed, but as he raised his head, she saw a look in his eyes that startled her, a look of desperate confusion. Knowing he suffered from the same turmoil she felt, only served to endear him to her all the more.

Blinking like a dazed child, she placed her hand on his forearm and relied on him to guide her as they crossed the circle and changed positions with another couple. She glanced up and caught sight of the strong handsome lines of his profile. For the first time in her life, she felt as if she were drowning.

If only he was an ogre. If only she hadn’t loved him since she was five years old. If only he loved her. But he didn’t. She was drowning, and the only way to save herself was to get out of the water and get away from him.


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