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Lady Fiasco: Chapter 4

Notorious Visitor

Fiona walked home to Thorncourt with slow ponderous steps. She idly brushed some stalks of wheat loaded with grain upright, and watched their heavy heads bounce until they bowed back down under their fertile weight. She drew a long laborious breath. The late afternoon air had turned sultry, heavily laden with pollen and insects.

It would storm, maybe tonight, or maybe in the morning.

Fiona confined her thoughts to the weather. Thinking of anything else hurt too much. She hoped the coming rain would not ruin the harvest.

Inside Thorncourt, the butler greeted her with unsettling news. “The Countess, er, excuse me miss. That is to say, Lady Alameda is here. She awaits you in the upstairs parlor. May I add, Miss Fiona, she has been sitting with Lady Hawthorn for well over two hours.”

“Two hours? Aunt Honore and Lady Hawthorne in the same room?”

“Yes, Miss.”

“Oh dear.” Fiona lifted out her skirts and surveyed her present state of dishabille. “A moment. Tell them I’ll be but a moment.”

She dashed upstairs to her room and took a quick look in the mirror. Her eyes were puffy and red, her dress had mud around the hem, and her hair was a mess of wavy tendrils flying in every direction. She moaned. There was no help for it. She quickly braided her wild tresses and wound the braid up into a coil. Without a second glance in the mirror, she leapt up and fled to her stepmother’s parlor.

The butler opened the door for her. Fiona clasped her trembling hands together and marched into the room to stand in front of her aunt.

The Countess Alameda sat poised like a queen on the settee. Her hair, which in her youth had been brown, was now an unearthly shade of red, almost maroon. She wore an extravagant morning dress of bottle green silk and black lace.

Fiona’s voice shook. “Lady Alameda, I am pleased to see you.” She sank into a deep curtsy and started wobbling dangerously close to the tea service perched on a slim table in front of the two ladies. Hopelessly unbalanced, Fiona shot an apologetic look toward her stepmother. Lady Hawthorn rolled her gaze up toward the ceiling. Naturally, she would not wish to witness the tea splashing across her guest, as it undoubtedly would.

Before Fiona could topple into the tea table, Lady Alameda grabbed her arm in an iron grip. Once Fiona regained her balance, her Aunt let go and raised her lorgnette to her eyes. “Stand up child. Let me have a look at you.”

Lady Hawthorn’s head snapped back to the scene as if she’d been slapped. “How very odd,” she muttered and checked the teapot to see if the contents were still intact. She frowned at the silver teapot as if it had somehow erred. “Very odd, indeed.”

The countess studied Fiona head to toe, took obvious note of the muddy hem, dropped her peering glass into her lap and turned on Lady Hawthorn. “I confess, I am unbearably hot. Madam, your parlor is stifling. It needs a cross breeze. I suggest you cut another window into that wall over there.”

“But that wall adjoins the library, not the exterior. I can’t very well—”

Lady Alameda rose abruptly. “Do it. You will see that I am right. While you’re at it, tear down this atrocious wallpaper.” Honore waved her hand in an imperial dismissal and shook out her skirts, sending teacake crumbs bouncing across the floor. “Come Fiona. I wish to see the gardens my sister laid in before her untimely demise.”

With a rueful glance at her stepmother, Fiona led her aunt out of the parlor. The gardens lay downstairs and to the side of the house out through the breakfast room. However, the out of doors offered little respite from the heat, and the humid air teemed with bugs.

“White roses, hmm. Lovely, I suppose.” Her aunt scarcely looked at the flowers. “Your mother had such subdued taste. Quite unlike my own.”

She walked briskly through the garden to a bench at the far end facing the house. “I want to make certain we aren’t interrupted. This will do. Come and sit down.”

Fiona poised herself on the edge of the bench, remembering to keep her back straight. Aunt Honore whipped open a fan and flapped it at a bevy of gnats. “I have no desire to mince words with you, my girl. I will get straight to the point. I’ve come to take you away; first to Brighton and then on to London where you will live with me.”

Fiona’s mouth fell open.

“I can see by your face you are wondering, why. Why now, after all these years, have I taken an interest in you? Do close your mouth, dear. The bugs are thick. I can’t like to watch you swallowing insects.”

Fiona snapped her mouth shut.

“The truth is, my dear, I’ve no inclination toward children. Never could tolerate ‘em. Pesky creatures—not unlike these dratted mosquitoes.” She swatted the air with her fan. “Fortunately, you are no longer a child and I’ve decided you might prove a rather interesting undertaking. Since I never had any offspring of my own and your mother was my favorite sister, I find myself feeling parental toward you.”

Fiona knew full well that her mother had been Aunt Honore’s only sister. Honore had several brothers, but there had only been two girls in their family. She also knew that her aunt was as unpredictable as the weather in the English countryside. Today, Aunt Honore wanted to play the parent. But, tomorrow? Tomorrow, she might very well climb aboard a ship bound for Egypt because, on a whim, she decided to climb a pyramid. Given the woman’s history, it wasn’t prudent to rely on Honore as a benefactress. Fiona might find herself abandoned to her own resources.

On the other hand, Fiona had an overwhelming urge to leave the neighborhood. The prospect of staying here and chancing a meeting with Tyrell promised heartache and embarrassment. Aunt Honore might just provide her an escape. Of course, there was also the matter of the accidents.

Fiona twisted the cloth of her skirt. “My lady, this is a most generous offer. However, I’m certain you know about my disastrous Season. I would not wish to burden you with the catastrophes that seem to follow me wherever I go.”

“Catastrophes? What nonsense is this? I’ve heard nothing untoward about your Season. Indeed, I could not fathom why your family left London so suddenly.”

“It was on account of poor Lieutenant Withycombe. He was dreadfully smashed up while dancing with me, broke his collarbone. Surely, you were told? He couldn’t return to the Continent to fight Bonaparte. Everyone blamed me. If only I hadn’t danced—”

“Folderol! That young nodcock was merely trying to avoid his duty.” Honore sputtered as a mayfly tried to land on her tongue.

“Oh, I cannot think so. The poor fellow screamed horribly as they carried him away. I seriously doubt he was playing us false.”

“Yes, well, he would scream wouldn’t he,” she muttered.

Fiona sighed. “Sadly, he is not my only victim. Most of our villagers believe I carry a curse.”

“Do they, indeed?” Honore lifted her lorgnette and studied Fiona until she fidgeted with discomfort. “A curse, you say—how very diverting. We leave in the morning.” With that, Aunt Honore stood abruptly, slapped at a buzzing insect, and marched into the house.

* * *

True to her word, early the next morning they were ensconced in Lady Alameda’s carriage rolling toward Brighton. Fiona gazed out through the window as rain splattered against the glass. With a heavy heart, she watched the home she loved disappear behind her.

And him.

She was leaving him behind. Why didn’t she feel relieved? She would never have to see his scowling face ever again. All too vividly, she recalled the sensation of his mouth covering hers and his arms around her. She would never feel that way again, either. Tears slid out of her eyes and trickled down her cheeks.

Honore sniffed at the air, as if she smelled something foul. “Come now, Fiona, you cannot miss your home already? We are but a few miles away and here you are weeping. I should think you’d be glad to be shot of that uncomfortable heap of stones, and that insufferable cow your father married.”

Fiona wiped away her tears and tried to smile.

“Well, speak up girl. Are you homesick?”

“No, my lady.”

“Humph. Are you often this morose?”

Fiona smiled at her aunt’s pouting expression. “I apologize, Aunt. I’m behaving like a fool.”

In a flash, Honore’s face changed from that of a pouting child into a shrewd ferret. The ferret calculated her prey through thinly slit eyes. “A fool eh? Then, it’s a man causing those tears. Ah, that would explain your puffy eyes yesterday.”

Fiona’s mouth opened and then clamped shut.

“Ha! See there, your face convicts you. You are in love.”

“No.”

Honore tapped the side of her cheek with one gloved finger. “What’s more, this man has broken your heart. Otherwise you wouldn’t have been so willing to come to Brighton with me.”

“No!” Fiona nearly choked. She swallowed hard and shook her head vehemently. “Certainly not. In love? No. Impossible. Not with someone so cruel and heartless and—” She lowered her head under her aunt’s scrutiny.

“Come, my girl. We’ll have no secrets standing between us. I’ll not have you playing the martyr, whilst I attempt to show you the delights of London. That would make fools of both of us. You will tell me all, so that we can decide together how best to proceed.”

“It’s nothing. I have simply been—” Fiona clenched her teeth and balled her hands into tight fists. “—stupid.”

“You will discover, my dear, as I have, that there is no one as brainless as a woman in love. I must admit, there has never been a bigger fool than I was when I fell in love with Francisco de Alameda.”

With a flourish, Honore recounted to Fiona the story of the handsome Portuguese count stealing her heart away at a masked ball in London. A blush spread on Honore’s cheeks and her eyes softened. “The young devil thought he would trifle with my affections and then go merrily on his way. Ha!” She smacked her hand against the velvet seat cushion and announced triumphantly. “I wouldn’t have it! I stowed away, aboard his ship bound for the African coast. He was angry, of course. But by the time we reached Cape Delgado he could not bear to be parted from me.”

 Honore closed her eyes for a moment. “I can still remember his strong arms around me. Ah, yes, my dear,” she whispered. “Love makes fools of us all.”

Her aunt’s affection for her late husband touched Fiona’s heart. In turn, Fiona told Honore of Lord Wesmont’s visit to the lake. She remained modestly obscure about the length and depth of his kisses.

Honore chuckled. “I cut my eye teeth some years ago, child. A simple scrutiny of your face speaks volumes where your words do not. He became passionate with you, did he not?” 

Fiona nodded and exhaled slowly, some of her hidden anguish and humiliation flowed out as she did.

“And then?”

“Then his passion turned to anger.” Fiona recounted Tyrell’s scornful words as he galloped away. When she finished telling it, some of the shame left her. It no longer clawed at her like a hateful secret trapped in the dark pit of her stomach.

 Honore cast a knowing eye over her niece. “I daresay, Lord Wesmont acted very badly.”

“Oh, but Aunt, don’t you see?” Fiona held out her hands, entreating her aunt to forgive him. “It was entirely my fault. I behaved improperly. I goaded him. I slapped him. When he kissed me, I ought to have resisted. But I didn’t. On the contrary, I wanted him to keep kissing me. Indeed, I hoped he would never stop, even though I knew it was wrong to indulge in such—such wanton behavior.”

Fiona’s cheeks flamed red and she feared a fresh bout of tears might overtake her. “I utterly failed to discipline my emotions, and now, not only must I bear this dreadful curse, but I have compromised myself as well.”

Honore’s lips clamped together into two stiff lines. Her eyelids lowered over dark boiling eyes. Then her face erupted and flamed majestically. “Oh for pity sake!” Her aunt’s voice boomed around the carriage as if thunder had just exploded right inside the coach. Fiona pressed her back against the cushions and held her breath.

“I refuse to hear any more about this wretched curse! Only ignorant Hottentots believe in curses. Do not speak of it again.”

Fiona squeaked out an answer. “Yes, my lady, I mean… no, my lady.”

“You will not utter another word about this curse nonsense! Have I made myself clear?”

Fiona nodded.

An invisible wind blew Honore’s features back into those of a concerned aunt. In silent astonishment, Fiona watched her aunt’s mercurial countenance transform.

 “Now,” Honore’s voice softened back to normal. “You’ve misunderstood the situation, my dear. I didn’t say there was anything wrong with Wesmont kissing you. Indeed, under the circumstances, I should have thought him half dead had he not done so.”

 Honore reached over and patted Fiona’s hand. “You certainly aren’t compromised, my dear. Believe me, there is far more to it than that.” She laughed gaily.

“But, he—”

“Good gracious child, if I’d married every man who’d kissed me, heavens, I’d have nearly two hundred husbands. What ridiculous rot.”

Fiona looked up at her aunt in confusion, then down at her folded hands. “As I understand it, my lady, society allows widows far more latitude in that respect, do they not?”

“Undoubtedly, and what a great wagonload of hypocrites they are. A flock of bleating sheep in wolves’ underclothes–that’s society for you.”

“Do you mean wolves in sheep’s clothing?”

“Yes, wolves. Ever eager to tear apart the first lamb what missteps. Ignore the lot of them.” Honore waved her hand dismissing the invisible offenders. “That’s what I do.”

Fiona shook her head. “Then, I confess, I am at a loss. You said Lord Wesmont acted badly. How? In what respect did he disappoint you?”

“The cowardly way he made his escape.” Countess Alameda stared out of the carriage at the dismal landscape. She leaned closer to the window and blew a cloud of vapor over the glass.

A moment passed before she spoke again, almost to herself. “His wretched morals got the better of him. He couldn’t bear the guilt, so he blamed you for the liberties he took and then ran away.” Honore touched the steamy glass with her finger and scrawled a jagged line cutting across the condensation. “Stoopid man, he should have known you wouldn’t have forced him into marriage.”

Honore threw back her head and laughed. Then she leaned over and startled Fiona by grasping her hand. “No doubt, by now he has come to his senses and realizes that he acted like the veriest cur, running away as he did, barking insults. It was completely without honor. Oh, my dear—the poor man. His precious honor, Fiona, just think of it.”

Honore pulled Fiona’s hand to her satin covered bosom and, striking a pose like a saint in prayer, she prophesied. “Take heart, Fiona, my child. Without a doubt he is even more miserable than you are.”


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