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Lady Fiasco: Chapter 3

Lady of the Lake

Tyrell rode up to the lake and found the old boathouse. He tied Perseus to a tree and took a well-worn path around the little house. Planted with garden flowers and a small strawberry patch, clearly, this was no ordinary boathouse. He opened the door and found books stacked on a crude table. Pinned to the thatch were several watercolor studies of the lake, painted in various aspects of light. He walked over to take a closer look. Fiona’s love of the lake came through superbly. He carefully pressed down a curled corner of one particularly lovely painting of the lake swathed in early morning light.

He noticed her clothing hanging on a hook at the back of the room. What was she wearing, he wondered, for both under and outer garments hung there. The answer seemed obvious. She’d done what he and countless lads throughout time had done. She must be swimming unclad. An image of her formed in his mind. He shook his head and left the boathouse.

“Utter folly for a young lady to be up here unchaperoned, unaccompanied,” he muttered. He mounted Perseus and prepared to ride home. Alone and unprotected, his mind whispered. It was his duty to make sure she was safe. Naked, some deeper oracle spoke. Go home, his conscience instructed. He glanced across the lake. There was no sign of her.

Disappointment pinched his brow. No, not disappointment, concern. That must be the reason his shoulders slumped and he heaved a great sigh.

Tyrell guided his horse along the edge of the lake debating with the conflicting counsel in his mind. It was his duty to see that the young woman was unharmed. She was, after all, a childhood friend, and he owed at least that much to her father, or so he argued.

He might have missed finding her at all, given the noisy society in his head, except sparkles of sunlight on splashing water caught his attention. She was twenty yards out, heading toward shore with a slow even stroke. It was as if little white stars shot from her fingertips as water and light mingled. He slowed Perseus and held his breath in anticipation as he watched Fiona’s rhythmic movement through the water.

It seemed to take an achingly long time before she got to the shore. At last, she rose out of the lake, like a mermaid emerging from the sea, but to his great disappointment, she wore a dark blue bathing dress. She climbed onto a large rock and perched there squeezing the water out of her hair, letting it drip onto the ground. He nudged Perseus and ambled toward her.

She started at the sound of his approach and turned. He touched the brim of his hat in mock salute. “A pleasure to see you again, Miss Hawthorn.”

She stared up at him, disbelief plainly written on her elfin face. “Lord Wesmont, what a surprise.”

He swung down from the saddle and knotted the reins around the trunk of a nearby sapling. “You didn’t expect me?” he teased. “After our waltz last night surely a duty call would be expected?”

“No.” She bit her bottom lip. “Well, that is to say, I expected you would simply send your regards. How did you find me here?”

“Chance,” he lied, although it was partly true. “And I must say, I cannot countenance you being alone in such a secluded place. What if some other man happened upon you, someone without scruples.”

“My lord, I’m long out of the schoolroom. I assure you, I don’t need a chaperone for every activity. Besides, I’ve been coming here alone for years and no ill has ever befallen me. Quite the contrary.” She tossed a small pebble into the water. “This is the one place in all the world where I am free from trouble.”

He leaned against a nearby tree trunk and considered her for a moment. Droplets of water glittered on her skin and the wet garment clung to her enticing figure. “You underestimate the dangers of this world.”

“You sir, are forgetting that I am one of the worst of those dangers.” She smiled wryly. “I daresay most men would quake with fear just to stand as close to me as you are now.”

“What errant nonsense you speak.”

“Oh? Begging your pardon, my lord.” She made a pretense of haughtiness. “Perhaps you haven’t heard the many titles I bear. Let me see, there is Lady Fiascothe Duchess of DoomCountess of Calamity and a dozen more I haven’t had the good fortune to overhear.”

He frowned, imagining the humiliation it caused her to hear such mean gossip, and shook his head. “Rubbish. You can’t honestly think that absurd prattle will protect you. What if a man, unaware of your dangerous reputation, happened through these woods? What then, Miss Hawthorn, eh?”

“Unfortunately, my reputation is rather broadly known.” She said softly, and stared out across the placid waters.

“That is ridiculous. You grossly overrate the extent of your fame.” He picked up a small flat stone and skipped it across the surface of the lake. “You’re taking a grave risk to be here alone.”

Fiona chuckled. “Grave risk? I think not. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, an unsuspecting marauder should appear at my quiet lake. I would simply jump in the water and swim away. There isn’t a man alive who can out-swim me.” She beamed up at him like a child who has just presented her tutor with all of her sums correctly tallied.

In spite of the fact that she didn’t appear to be boasting, Tyrell felt she had thrown down a gauntlet. He stepped forward and straightened his silk waistcoat, which was becoming unbearably hot.

“Brave words, my girl. But that is all they are–words. You might swim faster than one or two country lads who’ve never learned how properly. Nevertheless, you are still a female. Any man worth his salt would catch up to you in a trice.” He snapped his fingers in her face. “A trice.”

She stared back at him, as if he were a creature she’d never seen before. Slowly, a mischievous smile inched across her face, mocking him, challenging him.

“You can’t seriously think—”

Oh, but she did. She chuckled at him, as if he were a foolish boy.

Her smug little grin may as well have been a glove slapping him soundly across the cheek. A bold-faced dare. Tyrell had no option, none at all.

“We shall see then, won’t we?” Without another word, he removed his coat, waistcoat, cravat, and hung them over a tree branch. He began unbuttoning his shirt and for a moment thought better of it. He took one more look at her mocking expression and there was no turning back.

She convulsed with suppressed amusement. Hot and aggravated, Tyrell huffed and snorted. He realized, too late, that he sounded rather like a bull ready to charge. She tossed back her head and a delightful laugh bubbled out. The quality of her laughter was so infectious he nearly grinned back. Nearly. He restrained himself because the imp was laughing at him, and that was unforgivable.

Even more irritated, he yanked off his shirt and several buttons flew off into the underbrush. Fiona instantly sobered, her mouth dropped open and her eyes widened. He tossed his shirt over a tree limb and turned squarely towards her. He sensed he’d just gained the upper hand.

“Not so brave now, eh, Fiona?”

Her face reddened and she turned away.

Now, it was his turn to taunt her. “Oh, now I see. I’ll wager you’ve never seen a half-naked man before.”

She turned back to him with her jaw set. He noted she kept her eyes fixed on his face. “You are ridiculing me, sir, shamefully. I’ll have you know, I’m not as naive as you think. I–I’ve seen paintings and—” she stammered, “—I’ve seen the statues of the Greek gods in the London museum.” She folded her arms across her breasts. “You do not look any different than they do.”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “Thank you for the compliment.” He bowed his head.

She jumped down from the rock. “That was not a compliment! Nothing of the kind. I meant… I simply meant that you look like… or rather, that I have seen other— Ohhh, you are a wicked fellow!”

He chuckled and bent to remove his boots, a task that proved to be difficult without a chair. While he struggled, she quietly slid into the lake. He cursed under his breath, still tussling with his boots while she stood waist deep a few yards out flicking playfully at the water.

At last, he threw down his boot and charged into the lake after her. The cold water caused him to inhale sharply. This foolishness would cost him the ruin of a good pair of breeches. He’d be lucky if they didn’t shrink so tight he’d have to be sliced out of them. He sloshed out toward her. He intended to put an end to this contest in short order.

She giggled, turned, and like a dolphin, dove in and swam away. The race was on. He plowed through the water in pursuit. Thrashing his hardest, he tried to gain on her, but the distance between them remained constant. The lake increased in depth, the water grew colder and the bottom was no longer within Tyrell’s reach. He paused, bobbing in the deep water, and saw they were considerable distance from the shoreline. He kicked forward and pursued her with more determination.

By George! He’d been tossed into the canals at Eton. He learned to swim with the best of them. No twit of a girl was going to beat him.

No, sir.

After another quarter hour, his faltering breath told him there was actually a chance he might lose. He resolved to paddle and pull at the water even harder.

Just as defeat seemed eminent and his breath threatened to give out, the gap between them closed. Swimming just ahead of him, Fiona rolled onto her back and seemed to lie effortlessly in the water. Her foot flicked up in front of his face and splashed water into his eyes. He fought to catch his breath. Over the throbbing in his ears, he heard her giggle. The vixen was laughing. Laughing! While he neared collapse. He watched her in amazement as she rolled over in the water and cast him a backward teasing smile.

Like a viper striking, his hand shot out and caught her ankle. He had her. She cried out. Although, it did not sound like a cry of alarm, more like an excited scream of delight. Tyrell held fast to her foot but, to his surprise, she dragged him under water.

In the misty view under the lake, she glided in front of him like a mermaid, pulling him effortlessly along behind her. His lungs began to ache. A flurry of bubbles escaped from his mouth. Desperate for air, he let go of her ankle and fought his way up to the surface.

He burst up through the water, gasping and coughing in fits. Fiona’s head bobbed up a few feet away from him.

She grinned, looking exhilarated, and not breathless in the least. “Do you cry craven?” she taunted.

Wicked teasing female. Worse yet, he could see the little baggage had defeated him. Tyrell would rather die than cry craven. He gulped air.

She still beamed triumphantly, as he sank under her lake.

Fiona did not comprehend at first what was happening, but soon she realized he had been under too long. “Lord Wesmont!’ She screamed for him. “Tyrell!”

He didn’t come up.

Fiona dove under the water and saw him sinking into the underwater weeds, eyes closed, bubbles trickling out of his mouth. She swam down and grabbed his hair. Turning, she kicked violently up to the surface dragging him behind her. She held his head up out of the water and tried to swim using only her legs. His weight pulled them both down. Soon, she was fighting just to catch her own breath.

They were not making fast enough progress toward the shore. She had to find another way. Fiona tucked his head under one arm. It might strangle him, she worried, but she had to get him to shore as fast as possible. With her arm around his neck, she contrived to swim on her side. They moved faster. Fiona side-kicked with all her might. Tyrell gasped and flailed at the water.

“Stop struggling! I’ll save you!” she shouted.

In answer he sputtered and went limp.

As Fiona swam, she fought to keep down the rising panic in her heart. He was dying. She refused to allow herself to yield to the tears threatening to overtake her. There was no time for weakness. Swim, just swim, she commanded herself.

Finally, she made the last kick that grounded them on the shore. Jaw locked in determination; she staggered up the muddy bank, stumbling under his weight until she hoisted him onto dry ground. He flopped face down and didn’t move.

Fiona knelt beside his motionless body. “Please, God, not this. Not him.” She buried her face in her hands. “Don’t let him die. Please. What should I do?”

It came to her that she must immediately discover whether or not he was still breathing. She rolled him onto his back. His arm thumped to the ground, lifeless, and his eyes remained closed as if in final sleep.

“No!” she cried. “Please, I promise I’ll never go near another living soul, just let him be alive.” She leaned her ear to his heart to listen for breath sounds. But just as the hairs on his chest tickled her cheek he clamped her shoulders in an iron tight grip.

Fiona screamed.

“You are caught!” he shouted. Tyrell’s eyes opened and flashed with life—and triumph.

Fiona jerked away from him in disbelief. “You … you’re not . . . not dead. You weren’t—”

“Drowning? No.” He coughed. “Although, dragging me across the lake you almost did the job.”

As quickly as the realization that he was alive brought relief, it brought anger. She intended to slap his arrogant face into the next county. But Tyrell caught her raised hand and held it tightly.

She balled up her left. He grabbed her fist before she could give him the pummeling he so richly deserved. Writhing and struggling under his grasp, she made furious noises. She was so angry she couldn’t speak coherently.

Tyrell laughed. “You really are a wild little vixen, aren’t you?”

In answer, her animal-like noises turned into a screech. Frustration and outrage finally formed actual words and she spewed them out. “You are a despicable, unfeeling, wicked…You tricked me! I thought you were dead.”

He roared with laughter, and made the mistake of loosening his grip. Fiona jerked free and slapped his face. Hard.

The crack startled her. For an instant everything froze. Even the insects fell silent. Not even the air moved.

One instant.

The next instant everything sprang to horrible life.

Lightning fast, Tyrell’s features hardened into fury. He roared like a charging animal. Before she understood what had happened, he grabbed her, flung her over and pinned both of her wrists to the ground. He loomed over her like an enraged bear. Fiona felt his breath hot on her face. She closed her eyes and waited for him to strike back. Time slowed to a crawl.

When nothing happened, she peeked at him. His eyes were dangerously close to hers, but he no longer looked as mad as before. He stared at her, as if looking at a stranger. Slowly his features cooled, but he still held her firmly beneath him.

“I – I’m sorry,” he said raggedly, his breathing rapid. “Forgot where I was… reacted… I don’t know what happened.”

She swallowed, relieved. Then chewed her lip for a moment. “I shouldn’t have hit you. I’m sorry.”

He didn’t answer. He studied her features, as if noticing them for the first time. She became aware of the weight of his body, pressing down on hers and heat flooded her cheeks.

He inhaled deeply, and shook his head as if trying to clear it. “I deserved it.” He swallowed hard.

Sand stuck to the side of his jaw, and she felt the urge to brush it off. “No,” she whispered softly. “You were only playing.”

Her fingers grazed his cheek, worshipping him with each grain of sand she removed. He shivered under her touch and his voice trailed off, so low and husky she hardly heard him say, “Bloody war. A chair need only thump and I’m grabbing for my sword.”

“I’m glad you’re home,” she murmured, relishing the sensation of his skin beneath her fingertips.

“Do you know…” He caught her hand, and squinted at her as if trying to figure something out. “You’re so…” Droplets of water fell down from his hair, onto her cheeks and nose. “Beautiful. Like a water nymph, and I…”

He looked confused, shaken. Before she understood what he meant, his mouth came down on hers and he kissed her lips slowly, carefully, reverently.

“I–I’m sorry, and I shouldn’t have done that.” He let go of her and leaned up. “Oh hell—” He kissed her again with an intensity that filled her with the most incredible sensation of being wanted.

The smell of lake and wood mingled with the scent of Tyrell’s skin. It all swirled together, into a delicious whirlwind. With each kiss, he threw open doors in her heart. Doors she’d feared would always remain dark and hopelessly closed. Fiona wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back with all of her heart. Nothing else mattered. If she had her way, she would go on kissing him forever.

A strange sound jarred her senses. On one of the nearby hills, a shepherd boy must have begun playing a tune to his sheep. The high melodic trilling of the shepherd’s flute wafted across the water.

Tyrell stopped kissing her and stared down at Fiona as she lay completely contented in his arms. He pulled out of her embrace and sat up, raking one hand through his wet hair. Then he swore. Fiona blinked, jarred out of her reverie, wishing desperately she could return to their euphoric dream.

But isn’t that the way dreams are? Just when they get to the pleasant bit, morning arrives.

“Damnation!” He jerked away from her. “What, in heaven’s name, am I doing?”

He leapt up and charged waist deep into the lake splashing handfuls of cold water over his face and chest. Then he stopped and stared out over the water. A moment later, he slammed his fist against the ripples sending a spray of water arcing through the sunshine.

Tyrell stomped back out of the lake and pointed his finger at her. “You!” He shouted it as if it were a profanity. “You are dangerous, Fiona Hawthorn.” He jerked his clothes off the tree branch. “And I’m a fool for coming here.”

Fiona sat and hugged her knees, trying not to watch as he marched to the rock, sat and forcefully plowed a foot into each stocking, and then yanked on his boots. He made a lump of the rest of his clothing, tucked it under one arm and mounted his horse, all the time muttering self-reproaches for putting himself in a position where he might have compromised her.

“I don’t care who you tell about what happened here,” he shouted. “I’m not getting leg-shackled to you or anyone else! I can’t. I won’t. Not now. Not ever.”

He kicked his white horse into a gallop.

When the sound of hooves crashing through the underbrush finally faded, Fiona shivered. She bit her lip to hold back the tears and looked up, beseeching the heavens for comfort. The blue sky and the gathering white clouds seemed oblivious to her anguish. In the end, she gave herself over to racking sobs of shame and confusion.


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