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Lady Fiasco: Chapter 2

Escaping Thorncourt

Early the next morning Fiona walked down a rutted country lane into Timtree Corners. She strode up the cobbled streets, which were lined with tall narrow Elizabethan buildings huddled together like ponderous old women. The second and third stories of the aged, half-timbered, wattle and daub structures jutted out over the street. Bedding hung, airing out, over the upper window sills as women set about their morning work.

She dashed out of the way as the contents of a chamber pot splashed to the ground. A woman screeched. “It’s her!”

Fiona winced and tried not to look up as shutters slammed shut above her head. She lengthened her already vigorous stride and crossed the street. But it was too late. Villagers huddled inside their shadowed doorways. Worry lines creased their brows. The boot maker hung out his CLOSED placard as she approached. Doors shut. The hum and rattle of morning activities tapered off into an eerie silence.

Fiona passed by Mrs. Twillhammer’s open window. Nearly deaf, the old woman’s voice carried like a foghorn through the hushed streets. “Such a pity. No matter where she goes, folks do stumble an’ fall. Tables ‘n chairs break to pieces and, I suspect, the milk turns sour. The dear girl is well and truly cursed.”

“A pity,” Mrs. Twillhammer’s sister agreed, loud enough for her deaf sister to hear. “Especially with her being such a pretty lass and all.”

Fiona hesitated, slowing her steps, knowing she shouldn’t listen, but unable to stop herself.

“Why only last month, Squire Thurgood’s wife told me her expensive new soup tureen—shaped exactly like a gigantic cabbage—slipped straight out of the footman’s fingers on the very day—the very day, mind you, that Miss Fiona Hawthorn came calling.”

Mrs. Twillhammer gasped. “No!”

“Oh yes, terrible, it was simply terrible. The lovely bowl smashed into a thousand pieces. Fish soup splattered everywhere. Oooh, an’ the smell, well, you just can imagine the smell…”

“Never mind.” Fiona whispered to herself and picked up her pace, striding briskly past the milliner’s shop, the shoemaker’s, and the wheelwright. She fancied she could hear people exhale in relief as she passed them by, and the clank and clatter of life began again in her wake.

She carried a book tucked under one arm and headed in a straight line toward Mr. Quentin, bookseller. A red-haired lad stuck his head out from a narrow passageway between two buildings. His eyes opened wide and he darted off like a rabbit. Fiona shook her head. They were so terribly frightened of her; perhaps she ought not venture into the village anymore.

Finally, she stood in front of the bookseller’s open door. Mr. Quentin, a small plump man, balanced precariously at the top of a ladder. Fiona watched from the doorway, reluctant to enter the shop while he was perched in such a hazardous position. He slowly, cautiously, reached out to place a large volume on the top shelf of his floor to ceiling bookcases. At that perilous instant, the red-haired boy flung open the rear door and burst into the shop.

“Granfer!” shouted his young grandson. “She’s comin’ here. That Miss Hawthorn, what has a curse is comin’ here!”

The door banged into the ladder unbalancing it. Mr. Quentin flapped wildly at the air for balance.

The lad spun around just in time to see his grandfather frantically waving a book in one hand and gripping the falling ladder with the other. The old man crashed down onto a table of books. Leather bound tomes shot out in every direction.

“Granfer!” cried the boy, dodging a flying book.

Fiona dashed into the room to help. The boy saw her and turned white as a sheet. “You killed ‘im.”

“Nonsense,” she snapped.

But Mr. Quentin lay motionless in a contorted heap on the book table. She leaned close to listen for sounds of life. His chest quivered as he sucked in a breath with a huge spasmodic gasp. Struggling back to consciousness, his eyelids fluttered and he blinked up at Fiona, who hovered above him.

“‘Pon my word!” he exclaimed. “I’ve gone to heaven.”

“Oh no, Mr. Quentin, you are still quite on the earth.” Fiona smiled, found his broken spectacles amongst the books and set them on his nose. He peered back at her through the thick lenses, one cracked.

“Why bless me, ‘tis Miss Hawthorn! I thought you were a beautiful angel come to take me to the heavenly throne.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Quentin. It’s only me, come to bring you a book. Tell me, sir, are you injured? Shall I send your grandson to fetch the doctor?”

He shook his head and slid his stocky figure to the floor. Fiona sighed with relief and helped him straighten his demolished book table. Afterward she purchased a few more books than she had originally planned to do.

Poor Mr. Quentin, Fiona reflected as she walked along the pathway back to Thorncourt, yet another casualty on the long list of those wounded by Miss Hawthorn’s curse. At least, he hadn’t broken any bones, which was more than some of her other victims could boast.

She stopped walking, and threw her head back, calling out to the maker of the brilliant blue sky, “Why must these things happen?”

Placid sunlight radiated onto her upturned face. Its warmth comforted her, but provided no answers. The smell of ripening grain on the breeze made her sigh and smile with pleasure. The bluffs rising east of the road enticed her.

Still morning, she thought, plenty of time. She checked behind her to make certain the lane was empty. It was.

With uncivilized glee, she grasped the bottom of her skirt, dropped her books into it, and held it like a bag. Then, in a shocking display of unladylike behavior, she sprinted up the hillside and did not stop running until she reached the top.

Breathing hard, Fiona stood on the crest taking in the unobstructed view of the lands below. Sheep, looking like white tufts of cotton, dotted the pastures. Other fields, thick with yellow grain, stretched toward Thorncourt. She waved to one of the grooms exercising her father’s favorite hunter on the road below.

Turning, she darted in and out among the trees, running toward the lake that fed the pastures and fields below. Poplar and ash trees shimmered in the sunlight, sending golden dots flashing across the ground as she ran. Finally, she came to a small thatch boathouse. Inside, she plopped her books on a table in the corner and began removing her clothing.

A few moments later, she emerged on the short pier beside the boathouse garbed in a dark blue bathing dress. The morning sun winked brightly overhead, which meant Fiona still had a whole afternoon to herself. In a performance that would have scandalized the entire neighborhood, she ran to the end of the wooden dock and dove headfirst into the lake. Plunging down into the crystalline water she no longer felt human, but like a bird soaring through the skies. The cool liquid of the lake surrounded her like a nurturing womb. She spent the remainder of the morning exploring its depths, chasing fish and practicing the strokes her father had taught her as a child.

She was blessed with a father whose zest for life made him ignore the constraints of society, thus he’d granted her the same freedoms he would’ve given a son. They’d spent many happy afternoons riding and hunting, or fishing and swimming here at the lake. Now that he was so far away Fiona’s world kept shrinking until this was the only place she felt completely at ease.

She didn’t think her disappearances caused her step-mamma any concern. To the contrary, Lady Hawthorn was undoubtedly relieved not to have Fiona underfoot, or painfully over-foot, as was more often the case. But to Lady Hawthorn’s credit, she deliberately remained ignorant of Fiona’s unusual occupations. After all, she could not openly approve of a young lady from Thorncourt bolting headlong across the countryside for the pure joy of it, or plunging face first into a lake.

* * *

Under that same brilliant sun, Lord Wesmont rode toward Thorncourt on Perseus, his temperamental white thoroughbred. As Tyrell posted up the long gravel drive he calculated how best to make Fiona pay for those moments of panic she’d caused him. Naturally, his presence alone ought to be enough to disturb her.

She’ll be afraid I’m going to mention her torn dress to Lady Hawthorn, or discuss her extraordinary mode of escape from the balcony. She ought to be afraid—wretched Elf—giving him a start the way she did.

Although, he planned to do nothing except make her nervous, a smile curled at one side of his mouth as he anticipated her discomfiture. His momentary amusement vanished as he looked up at Baron Hawthorn’s manor. He pictured Fiona’s father still garrisoned in Spain and swore softly under his breath. Suddenly his whole errand seemed frivolous and wrong. How could he make social calls while other men, good men, like Hawthorn, men to whom he owed his life, were perhaps facing death at this very moment? The sound of crunching gravel under his horse’s hooves roused Tyrell from his dark visions of the Spanish battlefront.

Perseus snorted, tossed his head and danced sideways while Tyrell stared up at the three-story limestone house. A curtain moved in the upstairs window. No doubt he’d been observed. He swore softly, and contemplated turning around and going home. He shouldn’t have come—not for a mere moment’s sport.

A stable lad ran up to take his mount and the die was cast. “I’ll see to ‘im, sir.”

Tyrell sighed and swung down. “Keep him close, I won’t be long.”

He trudged up the front steps and handed his card to the butler awaiting him at the door. The foyer reverberated with the sound of hammering pianoforte strings, as someone upstairs, most likely Fiona, plunked out a sonata with scant regard for meter.

The butler returned, and led him up to Lady Hawthorn’s sitting room, announcing Tyrell with a grand flourish. The pounding of piano keys stopped abruptly, for which he silently thanked God. But when he stepped into the room, his mouth fell open and he could only gape in disbelief.

He could not comprehend a room so riotously cluttered with mismatched decorations. Tyrell stood as rigid as a post, staring, trying to make sense of it all. It couldn’t be done. Order and reason had no part in the creation of this room. Maroon Chinese vases clashed with the blue side chairs. Egyptian artifacts looked crude atop the baroque, gold-encrusted credenza. Over the mantle hung a Georgian-style painting of a shepherdess whose bird-like features closely resembled Lady Hawthorn’s, but the lady had donned every jewel she owned for the portrait, and was outfitted to meet the Queen rather than herd sheep. The entire room was a garish jumble that seemed to march toward him like an army of lunatics.

He glanced over his shoulder, down the stairs, and wished he’d turned around and ridden away while he had the chance. Lady Hawthorn rushed forward and extended her hand. He took it and inclined his head, noting that Lady Hawthorn smiled with her lips, but the rest of her face neglected to come along.

He recouped his equilibrium, remembered the purpose for his visit, and turned his gaze toward the pianoforte—toward his intended quarry. His newly regained composure relapsed into confusion again as he realized the pianist was not Fiona.

In her place sat a chit with straw colored hair arranged into a platoon of ringlets standing in stiff attention around her head, so that it looked as if she were wearing a wreath of straw. He quickly schooled his expression as Lady Hawthorn introduced him to Emeline, her daughter from a previous marriage.

“My former husband, a good man, passed on eight years ago. May God rest his soul.” Lady Hawthorn bowed her head in a brief mournful homage. With that sad bit of business out of the way, she beamed at him as if she’d just found a shiny new gold piece in her stocking. “Surely you remember Emeline, my lord? Your mother introduced her to you at the ball.”

He muttered an incoherent response. No, he didn’t remember. He’d stared straight ahead in a blind cloud of irritation as the reception line had passed by. He’d merely shaken the hands offered him and grunted, while his mother prattled on about every eligible female in the district.

Next, Lady Hawthorn presented a freckle-faced girl of about thirteen years. Her youngest daughter, Sylvia, stood up beside a large embroidery hoop and curtsied prettily.

He glanced around the room in search of Fiona. It was possible she sat hidden behind one of the voluminous floral arrangements. Or obscured by the imposing bronze statue of Neptune riding on the back of a sea serpent, lightening bolt in one hand and a trio of mermaids clutching at his hips. But Fiona was not to be found in the crowded room.

Lady Hawthorn directed him to a yellow silk Egyptian sofa, which promised little or no comfort, and clashed mightily with the red roses painted on the blue striped wallpaper. Tyrell inhaled, inwardly cursed himself for coming, and sat down.

Emeline scurried over and planted herself on the other end of the sofa. He winced. Garbed in a frothy ruffled concoction with dozens of bows, her pink dress set against the yellow couch bruised his eyes. He would need something stronger than the tea Lady Hawthorn was offering to get through ten more minutes in this room.

Sylvia bent her head laboriously over her embroidery frame and tried valiantly not to cry out as she stuck her finger with the needle. He silently wished himself anywhere but here, India perhaps, or better yet, back on the Peninsula where he belonged, or darkest Africa—anywhere.

Refreshments arrived. Tyrell took a bite of the biscuit offered him. It crumbled like sugary sand in his mouth, which behooved him to drink down his dish of tea with some haste. Lady Hawthorn poured another cup for him, as she gossiped about their neighbors. He nodded politely and tried to change the subject by mentioning his encounter with Baron Hawthorn in Spain at the ill-fated battle of Salamanca. When she frowned, he assured her of her husband’s good health.

Emeline used her mother’s brief silence to seize the conversation and ply him with questions about his adventures on the continent. Unfortunately, she began to ask too closely about the battles he had fought.

Lady Hawthorn’s eyebrow shot up. “Emeline, my dear, we do not discuss such indelicate matters.”

“My apologies, Mama. I didn’t mean to offend.’ She clasped her hands together and directed a pleading look at Tyrell. “Lord Wesmont, you must forgive me. Oh, say you will.”

It was an overdone performance, he thought. Even the tiny upended portion of her nose turned pink. She really should go on the stage.

“I assure you, no offense was taken.” He left the subject and expressed his disappointment at not having found Miss Hawthorn at home. “Is she feeling poorly?” he pried.

Sylvia answered his question while pulling needle and thread up from the frame. It was one of those remarks a young person makes in imitation of the adults she has overheard. “Oh,” —she sighed with adult-like weariness—“you know how it is on a sunny day. Fiona is, no doubt, tearing up the fields on her horse, or drowning herself in her precious lake.”

This mimicked speech was rewarded with a subtle but swift kick from her sister. Sylvia yelped and looked up from her needlework in surprise. Her sister’s expression gave nothing away, but Tyrell felt certain that Sylvia’s quick glimpse of her mother’s face had apprised her of the fact that she had committed a faux pas.

He took mercy on the freckle-faced understudy and smiled. “It’s of no consequence. With such a glorious day beckoning, who could blame Miss Hawthorn for venturing outdoors? She will have forgotten all about our dance the other night and thus not expected my duty call.”

Emeline mewed like a disconcerted kitten. “I would never forget dancing with you.” She cast him a quick adoring look and then fussed with her fluffy skirt, contriving to look properly embarrassed, as if she had revealed too much affection for him.

Poor Sylvia, who had opened the door for this theatrical scene, stared in amazement at her sister, and then bent over her embroidery with renewed interest in the less complicated intricacies of tying a French knot.

Tyrell consulted the clock on the mantel, wishing he were the one out tearing up the fields on his horse, rather than Fiona. What the devil did Sylvia mean when she said, “drowning herself in her precious lake”?

His ten minutes were up. Tyrell stood abruptly, made a quick bow and left Lady Hawthorn’s chaotic drawing room with as much haste as he could apply without running. Downstairs, he seized his hat from the butler and dashed out the door like a fox fleeing a pack of hounds.

Free of that abominable drawing room, he took a deep breath, exhaled, and assumed a more leisurely pace. He pulled out a three pence and flipped it up into the air. Sunlight glinted off the copper as it spun up and then dropped into his waiting palm. The stable lad holding Tyrell’s horse smiled, probably guessing the flashing coin was meant for him.

Tyrell patted Perseus’s nose. The groom was about fourteen and had intelligent brown eyes, which he lowered as he pulled on his forelock in obeisance, but the lad couldn’t hold back his praise for Perseus. “A prime ‘un he is, sir. I mean, yer lordship, sir.”

“Thank-you.” Tyrell flipped the thrupence and caught it again. “Give you any trouble, did he?”

“No, m’lord.”

“Unusual,” said Tyrell. “Perseus is high-spirited. He won’t let just anybody handle him.”

The boy’s countenance rose. “He din’na give me no trouble.”

“Excellent.” Lord Wesmont took the leads from him. “Perhaps, you know which direction Miss Fiona rode to?”

The boy looked at him obviously puzzled. “Miss Fiona din’na ride out today, yer lordship. Her mare is still in her stall.”

“My mistake.” Tyrell stared absently into the distance and flipped the coin once more. “I was told she was not at home.”

“Oh, well tha’s true ‘nuff. She ain’t home.” The boy offered enthusiastically and then caught himself.

“No?” asked Tyrell. “Then she must have gone for a walk?”

“I dunno it were a walk ‘xactly.”

He flipped the coin again. “What then, exactly?”

The young groom stepped back and eyed him and the thrupence warily. “Miss Fiona is a kind ‘un. An’ I won’t say nuffing to get ‘er in trouble, now will I?”

Intrigued, Tyrell played his hand carefully. “Come, lad. I’ve known Miss Hawthorn since she was in leading strings. We’re old friends. Do I seem like the sort who would cause her any trouble?”

“No, m’lord, exceptin’…” he scratched at the back of his head and grimaced as if trying to figure out what he ought to say. Then a flash of anger played across his face and words came flying out. “Well sir, it ain’t fair. Miss Fiona lands in the briars more’n she deserves. Things at the house ain’t exactly right, if anybody were to ask me. Master ‘as been gone too long. It’s shameful, the servants laying all them accidents at her door. If’n the upstairs maid drops a vase, they ain’t got no call pinning it on Miss Fiona, but that’s the way of it. The master’s new wife has taken to payin’ the house staff danger-pay. Fah!” he spit and glanced sideways, as if calculating whether Tyrell was going to scold him for criticizing his employers or not.

“Danger-pay?”

“Yes, sir. She gives ‘em a quarter-day bonus, so as they won’t leave her employ and go to houses where it ain’t so dangerous. Ha! Small chance o’ that, when they make more workin’ here than they could anywheres else. An’ if that ain’t enough, they complain to folks roundabout, tellin’ tales about the risks o’ servin’ at Thorncourt, all so’s no one else will come an’ take their places.”

“Ah.” Tyrell nodded.

“Aye, but me an’ the steward, we know what’s what. Maybe Miss Fiona has more ginger than a yearling colt. That don’t make it her fault if the footman trips over ‘is own feet. So what if she do run like a boy now and again? Ain’t no crime in that, is there? The master never minded. She’s a spirited lass, says he. O’ course, Lady Hawthorn, she wunna like it none, now would she?”

Tyrell tried to sort through the boy’s ramblings and wondered if he’d understood him correctly. “Surely, you’re jesting with me? Ladies do not go running about.”

“Amn’t jestin’ you! No sir. I seen ‘er m’self. ‘Tis a sight, it is. She jus’ hitches up ‘er skirts an goes like the wind. Looks summat like a duck ‘bout to lift from the pond, if’n yer ken me.”

Tyrell chuckled at the boy’s imagery. “Well, if that don’t beat all hollow.” He tossed him the three pence and the lad clasped it with glee. “Now my good man, exactly where does Miss Fiona run to today?”

“More’n likely she’s gone up to ‘er lake.”

“Which lake do you mean?”

“The high meadow lake, yer lordship.”

“But that’s two miles or more, surely she doesn’t run all the way?”

“Oh yes, m’lord, she do. Now, don’t that beat all hollow?” The boy grinned, looking quite pleased with himself for correctly using the same expression Tyrell had.

“That it does, boy.” Tyrell laughed and swung up into the saddle. “That it does.”


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