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Lady Fiasco: Chapter 13

Improper Ballroom Etiquette

Lord Wesmont and Robert Anbel arrived at Lady Sefton’s doorstep, accompanying two pudgy debutantes decked out in frilly white gowns. Dragging behind them was an old woman, who served as lady’s companion to the girl’s grandmother. Their party stood in line on the stairs waiting to enter the ballroom.

Lord Wesmont, Mr. Robert Anbel, Miss Diana Anbel, and her sister stood framed in the ballroom doorway. A footman with excellent diction and a booming voice announced them. Tyrell overheard a gasp from someone in the crowd. Amidst the sea of faces, he caught sight of the astonished features of Fiona Hawthorn.

His sudden intake of breath and inability to move forward on cue, alerted Robert, who leaned over and remarked, “Steady on, Wesmont, stairs ahead. Try not to trip my cousin.”

Tyrell silently damned himself for getting flustered so easily and made his way down the steps with Diana on his arm. As they stood in line waiting to greet their hostess, Robert teased him in furtive voice. “I hadn’t realized the Duchess of Disaster was in town. How very convenient for you.”

Tyrell couldn’t think of a suitably quelling reply. He was still too stunned at finding her here.

Across the room, Lady Alameda leaned closer to her niece and spoke in cool authoritative tones, “My dear, compose yourself. One would think you had seen a specter. And what was it? Naught but a mere man. A mere man, dearest, and two pitiful powder puff debs. Now, stop making a cake of yourself.” Honore flipped her fan shut with a snap. “Come, I wish to speak with Lady Haversburg. Oh, and do remove that apprehensive expression from your face.”

Fiona trailed meekly behind her imperious aunt. Tonight her aunt’s hair, now dyed a silvery white, and piled up like a crown, was almost matronly. It complimented her shimmering gold gown beautifully.

Their ballgowns contrasted each other, as Honore had planned they would, saying that when they walked across the room, they would resemble the sun and the moon parading across the sky. Fiona’s was a light winter blue, shot through with silver threads. It draped elegantly from one shoulder, leaving the other exposed. Lorraine had tumbled Fiona’s hair into a Grecian arrangement, with strands of seed pearls woven through it and a brace of curls dropping softly onto Fiona’s bare shoulder.

Fiona didn’t feel like anything so glorious as the moon, more like Marie Antoinette facing the guillotine. What on earth was Tyrell doing here? Why was he with that young woman? She felt the urge to be sick, to run away, leave the room, leave London. At least if she wasn’t in the same town with him her heart might behave properly.

Honore halted in front of a sturdy matron and a buxom young lady. Fiona smiled dutifully at Lady Haversburg and her daughter, Maria. Sadly, the lovely Maria Haversburg’s musk pills were unable to cover up a hideous odor emanating from her mouth. She smiled timidly at Fiona, revealing several yellow and brown teeth. Fiona struggled to keep from wincing. Not only did Maria’s breath smell like twelve-day-old meat, but surely such a mouth must be painful. It troubled her to see such a pretty girl disfigured by rotting teeth. Fiona acted as if she hadn’t noticed and commented on the vastness of Lady Sefton’s gathering.

Across the room, she spied Tyrell’s broad shoulders as he bent over Lady Sefton’s proffered hand. When he straightened and turned to walk away, he caught Fiona watching him. She averted her eyes and fought to stop the rising flush that must be turning her cheeks scarlet.

“Miss Haversburg, what a lovely gown you are wearing,” Fiona rushed to say with more enthusiasm than she felt.

Miss Haversburg glanced down at her rather exposed bosom bulging out of the low neckline and tried to tug the fabric up a little more. “Do you truly think so? Don’t you find it, well, just a trifle too daring? Mama thought—” She suddenly flushed red herself and whispered conspiratorially behind her gloved hand—“I think my mother hoped to distract the gentlemen from noticing my teeth.”

“Oh. I…” Fiona didn’t have the slightest idea what to say. All she could think about was the man across the room who made her feel like a newborn filly with wobbly legs.

Fiona closed her eyes and rubbed her brow. Miss Haversburg touched her arm solicitously, “Are you ill, Miss Hawthorn?”

“Yes. Yes, that’s it. I am very sorry, but I seem to have developed a terrible case of the megrims. I really must go home and rest.”

Miss Haversburg tapped her mother’s arm and signaled in Fiona’s direction. Lady Haversburg and Lady Alameda stopped talking and took note of Fiona’s obvious anguish. Aunt Honore frowned impatiently, but Lady Haversburg made a great show of concern.

“Yes, yes, quite right. Go home and lie down. A pity you must leave with so many eligible young gentlemen in attendance tonight. Ah, well, more admirers for my Maria, eh, Lady Alameda?” She laughed rather too boldly, but then caught herself. “I recommend a cloth soaked in lavender water, and have your maid rub your temples, very soothing.”

“Nonsense,” argued Honore. “There’s nothing wrong with her a little champagne won’t cure.” She waylaid a footman passing by, snared two glasses of champagne from his tray and handed one to Fiona. “Drink this. You’ll feel better in a trice.”

“But Aunt, I really think—”

“Drink it.”

Obediently, Fiona tipped the delicate flute to her lips. The champagne bubbled into her mouth and trickled down into her empty stomach. She drained her glass and a pleasing heat spread throughout her torso. She placed the glass on a footman’s tray and took another filled with champagne. She quickly disposed of the contents of that flute, too.

It was amazing how much better she felt. The room seemed to settle into a comfortable warm haze. She noticed the dark coat of a gentleman standing at her elbow. Fiona looked up into his face. “Oh, good evening, Marcus.”

“Ah, Ma’ belle chere.” He lifted her hand and kissed it.

Fiona looked loosely around her as if struggling to find the right person on which to concentrate. She settled on Maria Haversburg. “Don’t you find it odd, Miss Haversburg, that a Portuguese nobleman should speak French? I confess, I cannot get used to it.”

Miss Haversburg fluttered helplessly. Marcus answered for her. “My dear cousin, I spent a great deal of my childhood in England. As I have said before, my mother was an English woman. Naturally, I learned French, as do most British gentlemen.”

Miss Haversburg stood speechless during this discussion and kept her lips clamped shut in front of the handsome foreigner.

“Still, it is odd.” Fiona parried. “I think the ladies would prefer it if you would impress us all with a bevy of Portuguese compliments, instead of this French bibble-babble.”

“French bibble-babble, as you call it, is similar to my native language. But unlike French, if I spoke to you in Portuguese you would not understand a word I said. I might make all kinds of lurid suggestions and you would simply nod and say, “Thank you, kind sir.”

The musicians struck up the opening bars of a promenade. “Ah, I hear the strains of the first set beginning. You might remember, fair cousin, Honore assigned this set to me. It appears to be a wretched country reel.” He exhaled with exasperation. “We can look forward to hopping around like a pair of mountain goats. I hope you appreciate my sacrifice on your behalf.”

“Oh, really Marcus, you know I have no desire to dance.”

“Odd you should attend a ball.” Marcus bowed at the waist and smiled appreciatively at Miss Haversburg’s abundant décolletage. “Alas, cruel Fiona, by neglecting to introduce me to this delightful young lady you are making me suffer indescribable agony.”

“I had thought to spare her.” Fiona laughed, unconsciously mimicking her aunt. “But I refuse to have your agony on my head. Miss Haversburg, prepare to meet the Count de Alameda. Lord Alameda, may I present Miss Haversburg. My aunt would warn you, that he is a rascal of the first water, so be wary.”

Maria sank into a deep curtsy. Unfortunately, she smiled at Fiona’s saucy remarks. This exposed Marcus, however briefly, to her yellow teeth and a cloud of foul breath. He abruptly inclined his head, and without taking any further notice of Miss Haversburg, declared himself, “Charmed,” and promptly whisked Fiona out into the promenade before the set.

“You were rude to her, Marcus.”

“I find her offensive. Moreover, you, my succulent cousin, must learn to temper your impertinent remarks. You have had too much of Lady Sefton’s excellent champagne.”

“Nonsense, Marcus, I have had only two small glasses.”

“Then you have no head for champagne, my dear.”

“You are becoming a grouchy old nursemaid.” She tossed him an impish smile. “I promise, Nursie, I shall not swallow one sip more.”

“Ah.” He nodded genially at an acquaintance as they passed by. “So, you dare taunt me, delectable one. Shall I teach you exactly how unlike Nursie I can be?” He clasped her hand tightly, twisting it, until she was drawn up toward him. With hooded eyes, he examined her body as if she were naked. His lips parted, displaying perfect straight teeth, set in an unnerving leer.

She tried to pull away. “No, Marcus. Truly, I meant nothing.” She struggled to recoup the situation. “You are right, of course, I have no head for champagne.”

Marcus relaxed his hold on her and they continued the promenade.

Tyrell stood with Robert and his cousins, observing every nuance of Fiona and Alameda’s exchange. His fists were clenched like two iron hammers ready to strike. He thought he was holding his emotions in check. Although, holding oneself as stiff as a granite statue was not quite the same as self-control. His instinct to engage the enemy took over. He turned to Miss Diana Anbel and offered her his arm for the forming set.

Following the promenade, the dancers twirled and cut their figures in sets of four couples. Tyrell glared across the ballroom at the quadrangle containing Alameda and Fiona. Diana stamped her foot loudly in front of Wesmont as she faced him in the turn. She curtsied, he bowed, and they looped arms.

Through a false smile Diana hissed at him. “Lord Wesmont, you look as if you are about to murder someone. Everyone will think I am a most disagreeable partner. Do strive for a slightly more pleasant countenance. After all, this is not a battlefield.”

“I had forgotten. My apologies.”

Diana beamed up at him approvingly. “See there, you have a most agreeable smile. That mischievous glint in your eye is most attractive.”

“Young ladies ought not comment on such things,” he admonished her as they separated to form a line, all the ladies on one side and the gentlemen on the other.

They came back together and joined upraised hands to create an arch for the couples to promenade through. Tyrell held Diana’s hands up as the other dancers passed under. He tried not to stare at Fiona, tried not to think about thrashing Alameda senseless. Tried hard, but it was no use.

Frustration twisted his stomach into a cinched up packet of buckshot. He wanted to knock Alameda’s arrogant face into Hades where it belonged. It was not right that such a malevolent cur was endowed with deceptive good looks. Women were so easily fooled by outward appearances. It galled him the way the bounder indecently raked his eyes over Fiona. Fury churned and coiled inside Tyrell until he felt ready to explode.

Fiona and Alameda crossed hands and capered forward underneath the raised arms of the other dancers. Alameda was tall and had to stoop more than most to go under the arch. Tyrell tensed as they passed under his arms, he trembled with the force of his emotions, and let go of Diana’s fingers. It all happened in a blink. He clenched his fists drove down on Alameda’s neck, thumping the wretch to the floor.

Marcus lay sprawled on the ground by Tyrell’s feet. Diana stood squawking like a wounded goose. Fiona stumbled to keep from falling atop her partner. The music screeched to a stop. The entire company of Lady Sefton’s ballroom turned to stare at the spectacle. Fiona looked up into Tyrell’s face. He knew he couldn’t hide the rage blazing there. She shook her head and started to close her eyes as though she might swoon. Marcus got up, looking like one of Satan’s minions about to spear his quarry.

Diana stopped squawking. The crazy chit began hopping up and down, grabbing at her ankle and crying out. “Oh, Help! Help me! I’ve hurt my ankle. Oooh—”

Everyone turned to look at her. Diana reached out to Lord Alameda and grasped his forearm for support. “You must forgive me, my lord. I’m dreadfully sorry I knocked you down. I twisted my ankle, you see, and stumbled right when you were passing under. I’m so short and you are so very tall…” She looked sweetly up into his face. “I lost my balance. Can you ever forgive me for falling on you?”

Alameda narrowed his eyes at her skeptically, but he inclined his head and murmured his acquiescence. Diana smiled gratefully, released his arm and turned back to Tyrell. “My lord, would you be so kind as to lend me your arm? I fear I am in no condition to finish the set.” She waved at the other dancers. “My sincerest apologies. Pray continue.”

In scratchy discord the musicians struck up their instruments, found the right measure, and the music flowed forth once again. Dancers shuffled back to their places.

Tyrell silently escorted Diana to a chair beside her sister and Robert. As she sat down, Diana commented in firm undertones. “Lord Wesmont, the next time you plan to commit mayhem on the ballroom floor, I wonder if you would be so good as to choose a different dance partner.”

Robert grinned. “Diana, you are a Trojan. And here I had you down as a frilly little jabber-muffin with nothing but fluff for brains.”

Diana folded her arms across her bosom and harrumphed. Robert laughed and turned to his friend. “You have to admit it, Ty. She pulled your fat out of the fire. What were you playing at out there?”

“A simple accident, just as Miss Anbel says.”

“Folderol. Although, for your sake, I hope Alameda swallowed Diana’s Banbury tale.”

“Let him call me out. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to shoot off one of his legs.”

“Ah, how gracious of you not to mortally wound the fellow. Unfortunately, I hear Lord Alameda is also an excellent shot. He, not being quite as chivalrous as you, might prefer to put a sizeable hole between your scowling eyes.”

“He wouldn’t dare.” Tyrell adjusted the lace at his wrist.

“No?” Anbel spotted a scuff on the toe of his left shoe. “By all accounts, the fellow is rather unpredictable. Some say mad as a hatter.”

“Do you think I care one whit about his sanity? He was leering at her. Needed a lesson in manners.”

“Oh, naturally.” Robert chuckled. “Your manners being as exquisite as they are, makes you just the man to tutor him. Yes, thrashing a member of the ton in the middle of a set, is done everyday in the ballrooms of London. A perfect tutor—”

A low threatening rumble from Tyrell silenced his friend’s jibes.

Across the room, the notorious Lord Alameda abandoned Fiona and left her sitting beside Honore.

Her Aunt leaned over and whispered into Fiona’s ear. “Watch how Marcus is flattering Sally Jersey. Next she will blush and strike him with her fan.” A moment later, Honore’s prediction came true. “I would pay dearly to learn how she blushes on command. Now observe how the scoundrel will tease her until she is nearly pink with pleasure. Next, they’ll be off to find a dark corner.” She sat back and sighed. “It’s all done in an effort to restore his bruised dignity after being walloped to the floor by your swain.”

“Lord Wesmont is not my swain.”

“Ha! Well, he’s not indifferent to you, my dear. Mind you, I cannot approve of a man who, in plain view of society, is foolhardy enough to knock Alameda to the floor. Still…” Honore chuckled under her breath. “I cannot quite dislike him for it either. He has bottom. I give him credit for that. Unless I am mistaken, the young fool is approaching us now.”

Alarmed, Fiona glanced anxiously toward Tyrell, heading across the room in her direction, his familiar scowl set in striking contrast to his brown angelic curls. She sprang up out of her seat. “Aunt, I beg to be excused. I must go to, er, uh, mend my flounce.”

“You don’t have a flounce, Fiona.”

Looking around desperately, she blurted, “It’s Miss Haversburg, her flounce is torn. I must go and help her at once.”

Honore rolled her eyes. “Coward,” she said to her retreating niece.

Prudent. I prefer to think of it as prudent,” Fiona murmured, as she scurried off to Miss Haversburg, snared that young lady by the elbow, dropped a curtsy to Lady Haversburg and fled toward the entrance. She checked over her shoulder and saw that Tyrell had adjusted his course and was likewise heading for the ballroom door. He arrived at the doorway just after Fiona rushed through it.

“Miss Hawthorn.”

She ignored him and tried to hurry Miss Haversburg along with her. However, Maria gestured toward the handsome gentleman hailing them, and began to drag her feet. Tyrell caught Fiona’s arm, halting her at last. She looked up at him, infuriated. How dare he run her to ground this way?

“Don’t pretend to cut me, Fiona.” He inclined his head at Miss Haversburg and returned his attention to Fiona.

“I am not pretending.”

“Nonsense. At the very least, you owe me the courtesy of a few words. I am your neighbor, a friend of your father’s, and, until I saw that ferocious look on your face, I thought you also counted me a friend.”

 “Friend? By what definition? I had not thought a friend would knock down one’s dancing partner. Indeed, you seem to do a great number of things I would not find listed under the desirable characteristics of a friend. How dare you lecture me on courtesy?” She pulled her arm out of his grasp.

He stiffened. “I don’t expect you to understand my reasoning.”

“Indeed. Because it is inscrutable.”

He gritted his teeth and went on. “I wouldn’t bother speaking to you now, if it weren’t for the fact that you are without sensible counsel. I am duty-bound to warn you about the company you are keeping.”

Fiona’s mouth opened involuntarily. She snapped it shut and shook her head. “This is outside of enough, Lord Wesmont. I told you before. You owe me nothing. You have no duty toward me whatsoever. You may refrain from bashing any more of my true friends to the floor.”

“I hardly think that blackguard Alameda should be counted among your friends.” He grimaced apologetically at Miss Haversburg. “This is exceedingly awkward, Fiona. It would be much better if I called on you tomorrow to discuss your situation privately.”

“That will not be necessary. I am quite satisfied with my situation. Now, if you will excuse me.”

She turned to leave, but Tyrell reached out and caught her bare shoulder. The sensation of his fingers touching her skin rushed through her like a blast of heat on a cold night. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. With great effort she forced herself to turn slowly back to face him. Clearly, she was not the only one startled by that moment of contact.

His hand slid awkwardly from her shoulder, his voice softened and held a bewildered quality. “I would appreciate the opportunity to explain. If you will permit me, I should like to call on you.”

She bit her lip for a split second, hopeful, loath to think she might never again enjoy that delicious warmth he seemed to possess. Then she remembered how painful it was to get too close to Lord Wesmont. An iron door slammed shut on her foolhardy emotions. She lifted her chin, defying him to hurt her ever again.

“You surprise me, Lord Wesmont,” she strained to sound contemptuous. “Do you truly require my permission to call? For I am convinced that you, my lord, are the sort of man who does precisely as he pleases.”

He straightened, visibly irritated, but the light of challenge flashed in his eyes. “Very well, then. It pleases me to call. Tomorrow at four o’clock for a drive in the Park.” He bowed curtly to both women and turned on his heel.

Fiona’s mouth fell open, astonished at his audacity. She breathed out an annoyed huff, stamped her foot on the marble floor, grabbed Miss Haversburg’s arm, and marched down the hall to find the ladies’ repairing room.

Maria blinked at her captor. “Miss Hawthorn, I must say, your conversation with Lord Wesmont leaves me baffled and more than a little astonished.”

Fiona muttered under her breath. “Then you are not alone.”


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