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Lady Fiasco: Chapter 6

Sea Air Makes You Blind

Fiona gazed in amazement at the exotic minarets and domes of the Brighton Pavilion. Her aunt whispered in her ear, “Wait until you see the inside. It’s the greatest collection of Chinese pandemonium in the kingdom. Most amusing.”

Amusing perhaps, but that night, as Fiona lay in bed her head ached terribly. Could it be that she was overwhelmed by the gold-gilded pagodas, the brightly colored peacocks, the red and blue silks, satins, and the elaborate Chinese wallpapers? During her Season, she’d heard an older matron warn a group of debutantes, “Too much stimulus will give a young lady the megrims.” Fiona had thought it all a hum until now.

Now, her head throbbed, and a dull ache persisted in her chest. But when she closed her eyes to sleep, it was not oriental carpets or bamboo furniture she saw. The strong lines of Tyrell’s face and a flurry of remembered kisses assaulted her dreams. These dreams sent her soaring up to heaven, but inevitably his warm blue eyes turned to jagged ice and his stinging words sent her hurtling down into a black pit of despair.

The next morning, she rose, as one does from a restless sleep, having found no comfort in either waking or sleeping. She walked quietly into Honore’s room.

“Good morning, dearest.” Honore drew back in alarm. “Heaven help us, child! What is that monstrosity you’re wearing?”

Her aunt looked her up and down, and grimaced as if Fiona was a leper draped in crusty rags.

This? This is my best morning gown from my Season. Since we’re at the palace I assumed you would want me to wear my finest.”

“Lorraine!” Honore screamed for her abigail. “Lorraine!”

Her lady’s maid, a buxom woman, no taller than a twelve-year-old girl, bustled into the room. Her frizzled brown topknot bobbed up and down as she dipped a quick curtsy. “Yes, m’lady?”

Honore pointed dramatically at Fiona. “Get that abomination off my niece! Rip it to shreds. If I ever see that hideous thing again I’ll set fire to her. Do you hear me?”

She whirled on Fiona. “Lawks girl! What do you think you are? A marzipan cake? All decorated up with layers of sugar and sprinkled with ribbons and gewgaws?”

Fiona shook her head and tried to back away.

“Mark me on this, white don’t become you.” She stopped railing and moved close to Fiona, squinting as if she were inspecting a painting. “Good gracious child, what happened to your face? A horse trample you in your sleep? Gadfrey. You look positively bruised around the eyes. Don’t tell me you’ve been crying again.”

“No.” Fiona protested. “Of course not.” That lie was her undoing. She had no strength to protest anything else. She meekly held out her arms while the dwarf-sized lady’s maid circled around her, undoing tapes, and removing the offending gown.

Lorraine held the garment out at arm’s length as if it had a stench and without a word she tore the dress in half. The ripping sound startled Fiona. “I’m sorry, Miss, but m’lady has the right of it. It were an awful concoction, it were.”

 “Of course I’m right.” Honore snatched the torn dress from Lorraine’s hand and threw it out the open window. “Lorraine, you take the dressing of her. Mind you, no more revolting debutante frills. Find her something suitable from my wardrobe. Do it quickly. I wish to take the air along the Steine. Later, see what you can purchase for her on North Street. Otherwise, we’ll just have to make do until we get back to London.”

Honore sighed and sagged against the wall, and her arms drooped to her side. She resembled a sad child rather than the imperious tyrant of a moment ago. “Gad, I miss Mattie. I’ve been gone too long this time.” This last was said to no one in particular. She drifted to the window and watched the tattered remains of Fiona’s dress flutter along the grounds below.

Lorraine clucked her tongue and bustled her charge into the adjoining room. The minute she shut the door, Fiona asked, “Who is this Mattie?”

“She’s yer aunt’s cook, miss.”

A cook? My aunt pines for her cook?”

“Aye, miss. You see, long afore Mattie became the cook, she were m’lady’s nursemaid, and then she served as her nanny. Mattie is her ladyship’s favorite. Like kin, they are, except not really, because, of course, your aunt is a grand lady.”

The maid babbled on as she held up a pastel blue gown next to Fiona’s face, shook her head and tossed it onto the bed. “A fine Scottish cook, she is, too. These days, with all them Frenchie cooks making rich sauces with snails and whatnot, it’s a rare treat to have Mattie’s cooking. Mind you, she keeps her finger on everything what goes on in yer aunt’s house. That’s how the land lays at Alison Hall.”

Lorraine rambled on until at last she held up a lemon-yellow muslin with lace at the neck. “Ah, here’s just the thing.” She pulled the gown over Fiona’s head and tied the tapes.

Fiona’s stared in shock at the expanse of bosom staring back at her in the oval looking glass. She put her hand over her breast. “Surely, this gown is too daring. This lace is nearly transparent and the bodice is cut too low. I don’t think—”

“Now, miss, mayhaps her ladyship’s dresses are a bit more daring than a young lady like yourself is accustomed, but this gown is perfectly respectable.” She tugged the bodice up and looked at Fiona in the mirror.

“You are a wee bit fuller in the figure than her ladyship is at present, but bless me if you ain’t a stunner. Yes, miss, you look a picture, you do. An’ here is a perfectly lovely pair of lace mittens to match the gown.”

Lorraine slipped the fingerless lace gloves onto Fiona’s hands. They were made of the same sheer lace covering the bodice. Fiona looked into the mirror and cringed. The entire ensemble gave the illusion of clothing but revealed far more of her than it concealed.

Fiona cleared her throat. “Lorraine, is there, perchance, a shawl to go with this gown?”

“Yes, miss, as a matter of fact there is.” Lorraine rummaged through a trunk at her feet and produced the desired garment. She held up a shawl sewn out of the same vaporous lace as the gloves and the bodice of the gown.

Fiona lifted her eyes heavenward. “Lovely,” she murmured, certain her father would horsewhip her if he ever saw her dressed so wantonly.

Honore opened the door and looked at her maid’s handiwork. “Quite presentable,” she declared. “Well done Lorraine. I daresay even Prinny would be favorably impressed. Too bad he is indisposed today. Now, let us walk down to the sea.”

* * *

The haute ton gathered for their morning ritual in Brighton, a stroll along the Steine in their finery. They waved and nodded to one another, sized each other up, gossiped behind their gloves, and all the while the breeze coated them with briny moisture. Fiona licked her lips and tasted the sea air. A small droplet of salt water trickled into her eye. She blinked and touched it gently but it stung. She stopped walking as tears temporarily blinded her.

“It’s this ocean air.” Honore commiserated. “Burns the eyes. Have you a handkerchief in your reticule?”

They were engaged in a search for the said cloth when a masculine voice interrupted their ministrations.

“Might I be of assistance?” He flourished a white handkerchief across his palm.

“Ah! Marcus. What an accommodating surprise you are.”

Honore handed Fiona the proffered handkerchief. The gentleman bent and kissed Honore on each cheek. Fiona dabbed at her stinging eyes, nevertheless, she could not fail to notice even with her blurred vision how exceedingly handsome he was. Tall, with a Romanesque profile, he wore a striking blue morning coat, and high white shirt points set off his dark olive skin and raven black hair.

 “You, dear Mother, are looking as lovely as ever. Although, I nearly failed to recognize you. You are so…” —he glanced pointedly at Honore’s brilliantly colored hair—“So, very red. Or is it liver-colored?”

The word Mother jolted Fiona.

Her aunt thumped the tip of her umbrella against the walkway. “If you ever dare to address me as Mother in public again I shall hang you from the nearest tree by your cravat. Any fool can see you’re far too old to be my son.”

“My apologies.” He bowed. “However, I must protest, dear lady. You cannot punish me, because my father married a sinfully young bride?”

Honore shrugged. “Don’t flirt with me, you young rapscallion. Pray tell, what are you doing in Brighton? You are supposed to be in Portugal tending to your estates. This is very bad of you, Marcus, to suddenly appear where you are not expected.”

He placed his hand over his heart. “You wound me, dear lady. First, I am an accommodating surprise, and now you say I am very bad.”

“Oh fustian! Don’t try to distract me m’boy.” She rapped his arm with her umbrella handle. “What are you doing here? Out with it!”

“At the moment, I am standing along the Steine with two of the loveliest women in Brighton. And while you enjoy berating me, this silent beauty remains a delectable mystery. Do you mean for me to suffer longer or will you introduce me to your companion?” He bowed toward Fiona and swooped off his hat, grinning like a roguish schoolboy.

Fiona could not help smiling back.

Honore’s voice bit sharply through the damp air. “Don’t be a popinjay, Marcus. She’s not my companion. What do you take me for? An old woman who needs her hand held? She’s m’ niece.”

“Better and better. Por favor, introduce me.”

“Oh very well,” she sniffed. “But I had rather hoped you would never meet. Miss Fiona Hawthorn, this is my late husband’s son, Lord Marcus Jose Louis Alameda, the new Count de Alameda.”

“It is an honor to meet you, my lord.” She curtsied.

“Much too formal, Miss Hawthorn. You must call me Cousin Marcus, mustn’t she, Honore?”

“Oh, call him whatever you like.” Honore waved a gloved hand in the air. “But beware–a greater rascal has never lived.”

Marcus took Fiona’s hand, smirked at the thin little lace mitten, and then caressed her fingers with his thumb before bowing over her hand. Still holding her hand he leaned close enough to her cheek to whisper. “She wounds me to the core. Dear sweet cousin, I pray you will comfort me.”

He smiled at her teasingly. Fiona felt heat rising in her cheeks and lowered her eyes under his impertinent gaze. He straightened to his full height, which was considerable, and turned to Honore. “My compliments Honore, your niece is charming as well as lovely.”

“Let go of her hand, and do stop toying with the girl.” Honore poked him with her umbrella. “Mind you, Marcus, step lightly in that direction. I mean to bring her out as if she were my own daughter.”

Marcus’s eyebrows shot up in momentary surprise. “You mean to give her a Season then?”

“I mean to do more than that. I want a daughter of my own. Raise up an heir to follow in my footsteps.”

Marcus glanced with considerable irritation at Fiona then back to Honore. “You raised me, did you not? Odd you should crave another child at this late date.”

“Fah! You were half grown when you came to me. I dare say, you must’ve sprung from the womb full grown. Never needed a mother.” She laughed. “I warrant you’d have bit off the teat that suckled you.”

Fiona stifled a gasp.

Marcus inclined his head at Honore. “That makes us two of a kind, my dear lady.”

“Mind your manners, boy.” Honore thumped the ground with her umbrella and glared at him. “That insolent attitude disfigures your face. I’ll choose whoever I want for an offspring. Furthermore, I won’t have you sniffing about her skirts.”

Marcus lifted his chin and turned to Fiona. Callously, he raked his eyes up and down her body, perusing every detail of her face and figure. She felt naked, and pulled the flimsy shawl to cover herself better. Finally, his shoulders relaxed and he chuckled. “I never sniff skirts, my dear. But I must hasten to tell you, Honore, this child appears to be fully grown. You’ll have to find another pup to raise.”

He delivered this retort through a genteel smile, but Fiona could not help but observe the fury glimmering in his eyes.

“You know nothing about it Marcus. Aside from which, you very cleverly dodged my first question. Why aren’t you in Portugal where you’re supposed to be?”

He picked a minuscule particle of fuzz off his coat sleeve and flicked it away. “My dear Honore, Portugal is still in the throes of war. The estate is in a shambles. I found the situation there rather uncomfortable for my taste.”

He presented them with a disarming smile. “Come let us talk of pleasanter things. Will you ladies be my guests for dinner this evening? I’m lodging at the Four Feathers which boasts of an almost tolerable cook.”

“We are engaged for dinner with Prinny,” Honore said, lifting her nose higher in the air.

“Ah! Excellent. I, too, am invited to the Pavilion later this evening for the entertainment.” He stepped toward Fiona, lifted her hand, and executed a crisp bow. “Until then, dear cousin.”

Fiona watched Lord Alameda saunter away. She had never met anyone like him before. When she finally stopped gawking, she found Honore glaring at her. Fiona bit her lip and studied the ground.

“Humph.” Honore straightened her back and walked on briskly. Fiona hurried alongside.

“You, Fiona Hawthorn, are painfully green, and that young rascal you just met is much too tough a lesson to cut your teeth on. But”—Honore sighed, and slowed her pace—“I suppose, there’s no help for it. He will, undoubtedly, remove to London with us when we return. Mark my words, child, be wary of your cousin.”

“Yes, Aunt. Although I’m certain there can be no danger in that quarter. Surely, a man like Lord Alameda surrounds himself with women of rank and beauty. What possible interest could he have in me?”

“What, indeed. Don’t be a fool. Listen here, my girl, let us have this perfectly clear between us. I refuse to be your nursemaid, your governess, or your duenna. I will not be relegated to the role of an old dragon, and don’t you forget it.” Honore rapped nervously against her thigh with her umbrella and then pointed it at Fiona. “You cannot afford to be so ridiculously innocent. Not in my company. Not with the society I keep. Do you hear me? You must guard yourself.”

Fiona put her chin in the air. “I have always done so. Indeed, I would not have it any other way.”

“Ha!” Honore rolled her eyes and raised her hands to heaven. “Oh very good, very good indeed.” Her voice dropped menacingly low. “The greatest danger, my ignorant young beauty, is that you do not see the truth, especially the truth about yourself. You have that wild look about you, as if you ought to be standing out on a moor with the wind blowing through your hair.”

Honore waved her hand about her head, simulating the wind, ignoring the curious glances of passersby. “Won’t the poets just love that,” she ranted. “Nothing stirs a man to passion as quickly as a female who needs taming.”

“But, Aunt, I haven’t an untamed bone in my body. Quite the contrary, I’ve spent my entire life trying to do just what was expected of me and failing miserably.”

“Yes, well…” Honore’s skepticism was plain. “You aren’t hunting for a husband. That much is clear. Dutiful tame girls hunt husbands. A man can smell a husband-hunter a mile away and he steers clear, unless he intends to step into her trap for reasons of his own. It is the way of nature that if an eligible young woman isn’t hunting a man, men will feel compelled to hunt her. Men are like that.”

“I cannot believe they are as predictable as that.”

“There’s the danger, my dear. You don’t have your moorings. You’re all out to sea.” Honore thrust her umbrella point in the direction of the ocean.

Fiona tried to muddle through her aunt’s metaphors and extract some meaning from them. She finally gave up and shrugged.

“Silly child, you don’t have a proper grasp on reality.” Honore stabbed her umbrella point against the boardwalk. “Pay attention. You’ve shut your eyes to your assets and magnified your failings.” She smirked at Fiona. “If you go on like this, my dear, you’ll stumble, and land smack in the mud on your face. Then society will delight in roasting you on a spit and serving you with tea and toast.”

Just as if they had been discussing the weather rather than Fiona’s social demise, Honore smiled and took her arm. “Come, let us remove from this sea air. I declare, I am positively wet to the bone and crusted over with salt. It cannot be good for my complexion.”

* * *

Lord Wesmont glowered at the host of the Ship Inn. “Blast it all, man. I’ve been on the road for two days. I’m hungry and covered in filth. I need a room, and a bath.”

“I haven’t a room to spare. The Regent’s birthday was a fortnight ago. Half of London is in Brighton.” The host surveyed Tyrell’s dusty boots and coat as if an unwanted rodent had just crawled into his inn. “Perhaps the Four Feathers across town can accommodate you, Mister… ah…?”

Lord Wesmont,” Tyrell corrected the host. He took a deep breath and tried to control his temper. No pompous little innkeeper was going to get the best of him. Through clenched teeth, he couched his order in as much civility as he could muster. “I am willing to pay double, if you will kindly find me a room, sir.”

The innkeeper sniffed and lifted his nose into the air. “A moment, my lord.” He strutted away, and when he returned he opened the guest book and handed Tyrell the quill. “You understand, my lord, it is a very small room.”

“Have a bath sent up. Hot water.”

Tyrell’s valet tromped through the doorway, lugging a valise in each hand, and looking more bedraggled than any other self-respecting valet in all of Britain. He and the innkeeper exchanged haughty long-suffering glances and came to an unspoken understanding before they both turned their resentful expressions on his lordship.

Annoyed with their collective displeasure, Tyrell barked orders at both of them. “Don’t just stand there. You, Innkeeper, which way to our room?”

He realized he’d abused the poor valet’s sensibilities, riding like a mad man to get here. But Tyrell had a blot on his conscience and he intended to wipe it clean. Hence this insane pace. Fiona was here. Now, he had only to find her, apologize, and make certain her aunt wasn’t corrupting her entirely. Then, he would be free.

Two servants lugged a copper tub up the stairs and poured kettles of hot steaming water into it. Tyrell stripped off, and as he sank into the soothing depths of the tub, it never occurred to him to ask himself exactly what he would be free from.


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