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Lady Fiasco: Chapter 8

The Plunge

Marcus lifted her hand to his lips. “Cousin Fiona, my dear cousin, you look delicious.”

Fiona drew her hand away and inspected her erstwhile escort. He looked positively ragged. “Lord Alameda, perhaps you are too tired for a walk this morning. I should be just as pleased to visit the pier another morning.”

He cleared his throat and smiled, “No. No, today’s the day for it. Where’s your maid? We must be going.”

Lorraine bustled into the room, shawl and bonnet in place, and they set off.

“I know I promised to take you to Brighton Pier,” he began. “But you realize the royal pier is purely ornamental, don’t you? Upon consideration, I decided you might prefer to see one of the actual shipping wharves. Of course, not a pier that is still in service. There is one, in particular, that extends far out into the sea. The view from the end is breathtaking. I’ve heard people say that from the end one might even see whales spouting.”

“Whales? Right here in the English Channel?”

“So, I’ve heard,” His tone was not convincing and Fiona wondered if he was simply teasing her.

“A whale would, indeed, be a wondrous sight. You are right, I’d much rather see a real wharf.”

“I thought as much.” He tucked her arm in his, looking quite pleased with himself. Somewhat like a cat who had just cornered a mouse, which made Fiona wonder precisely what her cousin was up to.

The ocean was majestic. The sun had already burned off the mist and presented Brighton with a dazzling morning. The air smelled fresh and the sun’s warmth felt pleasant on their backs.

“Tell me cousin, what did you make of our Prince Regent?”

She smiled up at him, then shook her head and chuckled. “He isn’t at all what I’d expected.”

Marcus regaled her with tales of the Prince’s idiosyncrasies until they nearly reached the end of the creaking old pier. A warm breeze ruffled their clothing. Fiona turned her face to the soft wind and enjoyed the feel of it against her skin. “Is that not the most wondrous sensation? Wind, warmth, and water combined in perfect proportions. I would love to live near the sea, wouldn’t you?”

She turned to find him standing closer than she realized. He wore the oddest expression, almost mournful, as if someone he cared for had just died. There was something else in his demeanor, something she couldn’t quite identify.

It startled her when he reached out and tucked back a strand of hair that fluttered across her face. The back of his fingers brushed against her cheek. “Such a pity,” he said softly.

“What do you mean?”

“So young. That wild sweetness really ought to be tasted before… What I mean to say is it would be a shame to waste—” He leaned toward her mouth as though he meant to kiss her.

Fiona was completely befuddled. Surely he wouldn’t. But his mouth was mere inches away from hers when Honore’s maid started coughing wildly.

Fiona turned away from Marcus, blushing, but he put a restraining hand on her arm.

Lorraine scurried to the edge of the dock. “Pardon me, miss, but you ought to come here by me.” She motioned for Fiona to join her. “Well, bless my soul! Would you just look at that. See there, Miss Fiona. It must be one of them whale spouts his lordship mentioned. Come an’ see if it isn’t. Look there. Way out there.” She hopped vigorously and pointed at the ocean.

Marcus looked in horror at the plank on which the lunatic maid was bouncing. “No!” he shouted,

“Yes, my lord. It is a whale. Come see for yerself, miss. If you was to look out this waaaaaaay…”

The plank splintered and broke just as he had planned. Except the wrong female plummeted into the sea. Her scream seemed to last forever before he heard the splash. He walked to the ragged edge of the boards he had so carefully chiseled into a weakened state, and watched the maid sank under the dark water far below.

“Wretched bad luck,” he muttered and glanced back at Fiona.

To his amazement, her gloves and slippers lay on the pier and she was removing her bonnet. She handed it to him and stepped to the edge of the boards. His mouth still hung open as she jumped.

“Wait!” he shouted.

There was an answering splash as she hit the water. Leaning over the edge Marcus saw Fiona’s head bob up from the waves. She began paddling toward the maid, who had resurfaced and was shrieking like a cat in a bathtub.

She can swim,” Marcus muttered to no one in particular. People ran out onto the pier to see what was happening. A crowd began to gather around his shoulders. “I don’t believe it.” He pointed at Fiona and began to laugh hysterically. “Honore’s wretched pup can swim.”

Fiona struggled to get her bearings in the rolling motion of the ocean. A wave lifted her up and carried her away from the pier. Her eyes opened wide with surprise, but she adapted and began making long even strokes toward the panicking maid. She swam as fast as she could, and prayed Lorraine could stay afloat until she reached her.

Suddenly Lorraine’s head broke through the surface directly in front of her. Eyes bulging the frantic maid thrashed at the water sputtering and gasping for air. She lunged wildly at Fiona, wrapping her arms around Fiona’s neck in a death grip. They sank. Salt and slime and cold water gushed into Fiona’s mouth, suffocating her.

She tugged at Lorraine’s arms struggling trying to release the maid’s strangle hold. But they sank deeper and deeper. In desperation, Fiona bit down as hard as she could on Lorraine’s forearm. Her arms jerked apart. Fiona slipped away, circled behind Lorraine, grabbed the maid by her hair, and swam for the surface.

She burst out of the depths and found they were underneath the pier. Waves slapped and pounded against the huge pilings. Fiona grabbed the nearest pillar with her free arm. Coated with slick green moss, it was far too slippery and too big for her to get a good grip. She searched for anything else to hold. The crossbeams were too high. There was nothing except the big pillars. She wrapped her legs and her free arm around the piling. She wouldn’t be able to hold on for long, but it gave her a moment’s respite. She held Lorraine’s head as high out of the water as she could. Lorraine coughed and sputtered and then turned, frantically clawing and trying to grab Fiona again.

Fiona jerked on Lorraine’s hair.

“No!” She shouted over the noise of the waves. “Listen to me! Or we’ll both die.”

The little woman’s eyes flickered with a faint light of sanity.

“Lie back in the water. Try to hold your breath. I’ll pull you to shore.” Fiona glanced toward the beach. It looked so far away. Lorraine darted a glance in the same direction. Her eyes opened wide with panic. Fiona smelled the stench of vomit rising in the maid’s throat, and looked away.

The next wave rolled towards them and she knew it would knock them off the piling.

“Lie back!” she shouted. The wave hit. Fiona plunged through the roller towing Lorraine by the hair until they were prone in the water. It took her a few moments before she could start side-stroking properly. She put her arm around Lorraine’s neck, trying to keep the woman’s head above water, and laboriously swam toward the shore.

Their clothing billowed and dragged against the water, slowing them. Breakers tugged them under instead of carrying them forward. Salt burned her eyes and nose. Still she swam through the waves thinking only of reaching the shoreline. Lorraine stopped struggling. The poor woman had either already drowned, or she was finally cooperating.

Fiona kept swimming.

At long last, she heaved herself and Lorraine onto the beach and collapsed. A throng of cheering onlookers ran toward them. Fiona glanced up, surprised to see such a crowd, and then flopped face down on the beach, exhausted. A cry went up amongst the spectators to send for a doctor.

Fiona lay in the sand, draped in seaweed, her tattered gown clinging to her body, her straggled hair filled with sediment. She didn’t care. Her only interest was in breathing, heaving air in and out of her aching lungs. Vaguely, she registered the sound of Lorraine retching and moaning on the beach next to her. Spectators stepped aside as a shout went up, “Make way for the sawbones! Let him through.”

“Right here, Doc. This maid fell from the pier, an’ like as not she’d have drowned if it weren’t for that lady there.”

“Miss, are you—”

Fiona waved him away. “Her. Take care of her.”

“You must both come to my surgery. Salt water in the lungs can cause pneumonia, or consumption, not to mention all manner of aquatic infections.”

Lovely.

“My maid, sir.” She pointed as forcefully as a bedraggled woman collapsed on the seashore could. Finally, Doctor Belligerent gave up and went to tend Lorraine. Fiona wanted left alone, to rest and regain her breath.

A moment later, she noticed the toes of two very polished boots standing directly in front of her face. The owner of these boots squatted down and pulled a string of seaweed from her hair. He gently brushed the sand from her cheek.

She lifted her head and squinted up into the face of Lord Wesmont. “Perfect,” she moaned and her cheek flopped back onto the sand.

“Good morning, Miss Hawthorn. I thought that might be you.” He chuckled, obviously, pleased with himself.


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