Authors: Kate Dolan
“Well, you thought incorrectly. You’ll attract all sorts of the wrong attention back there, with just enough of yourself visible through the leaves that you look like some sort of tropical plant display in Kew Gardens.”
Lucia brushed away a large leaf that kept inserting itself in her ear. “That is rather what I feel like at the moment.”
“Then come away, for goodness sake. We were scarcely in the ballroom three minutes when you disappeared, and I finally find you out in the hallway hiding behind a potted palm.”
“I’m afraid I opened a rather large gash in the back of my gown,” Lucia whispered. “And you insisted that I—”
“Take off your petticoat. I remember. I still think that’s the best way to show the dress—and your figure—to the best advantage.”
“Only now I’m displaying more of my figure than is considered appropriate in these circles.” Lucia pushed the leaf out of her ear again.
“We can fix the gown, dear girl, never fear.” Eugenie frowned. “However, we cannot fix it while you remain embedded in greenery. I suggest you stand in front of me and we’ll walk together to an empty room where we can have the gown mended in private.”
“I suppose that does make more sense.” Lucia slid carefully from her leafy bower, planting herself firmly in front of her friend. The two of them shuffled slowly down the hallway, away from the ballroom.
“You can take bigger steps, you know. I can keep up.”
“I just don’t want to get too far—ouch. You stepped on my heel.”
“Sorry. Let’s try this room.” Together, they shuffled to the first available door, but as Lucia reached for the knob, the sound of laughter made her reconsider. “Next room, I think.”
“Yes. Wait, now you are getting ahead of me. How on earth did you—”
Lucia waved for her to be quiet. “I’ll tell you when we get inside.” She reached for the handle of the next door, pausing to listen before she opened it. This door opened into a small parlor decorated in a garish combination of red and gold, completely devoid of human company. “This should work. Hopefully this room will not be wanted for a few minutes. Does your maid carry needle and thread with her?”
“Of course! Do you suppose yourself to be the first ever to stand in need of an emergency seamstress? Though I confess, I’ve not known anyone to be in such dire need.” Eugenie cast an appraising gaze at Lucia’s gown. “How did you…?”
“I backed into the knight.”
“That suit of armor near the punchbowl. I stepped back to allow Mrs. Bracegirdle to pass before me.”
“Thoughtless old biddy.”
“She did not realize, I’m sure. In any case, I stepped back too far and felt cold metal on my back. I immediately jumped away, but the back of my gown had grown rather attached—caught on a gauntlet or something. And so, we—my gown and I—separated.” Her lips puckered in a giggle. “I suppose you could say we had a falling out.”
“Yes, I’d definitely say that!” Eugenie snickered. “So before you fall out any further, I shall go fetch Peggy.” She flounced out the door, still giggling but taking care not to open the door any wider than necessary. Just before closing it, however, she stuck her head back inside. “Do not go away.”
Lucia grimaced. That obviously wasn’t an option. In fact, the only option was to either sit in one of the ugly clawfooted, red upholstered chairs or stand and gaze at her wavy reflection in the hideously ornate, gilt framed mirror. Since this latter option would leave her exposed backside open to view from any who might open the door, Lucia chose the former and seated herself in one of the creaking old chairs.
The Adringtons seemed to keep a lot of ancient furnishings about, though the larger rooms she had seen certainly contained enough modern furniture and décor to indicate the family’s ability to maintain the latest fashions when they so chose. That suit of armor in the ballroom, though, was purely gothic. Very odd. Now that she remembered, it had been arranged to look as though the knight was reaching to grasp a cup of punch.
Lucia started to giggle again.
The door burst open and a young man hurtled into the room, slamming the door closed behind him. He took a deep breath, leaned against the door, then started when he caught sight of Lucia in the chair.
Neither of them said anything for a moment.
“Good evening,” Lucia said at last. Though she had never made this young man’s acquaintance, it seemed rude not to say anything under the circumstances.
He brushed an unruly shock of dark hair from his face and bowed. “Good evening.”
“I think he went in here!” The door burst open again, this time admitting two more gentlemen, one of whom she recognized as the host, Lord Adrington.
The young man who’d first entered immediately dropped down on all fours and howled.
“He’s barking mad,” Lord Adrington’s companion whispered.
The howling ceased, and the young man looked at the occupants of the room with sad puppy eyes for a moment, his gaze resting at last on Lucia.
Then he started barking.
Lord Adrington and his companion looked from the barking gentleman on the floor to Lucia, nodding. “We must get him out of here.”
“But we cannot very well take him back out among company.”
“Hmm. Excuse me, Miss…”
“Wright,” Lucia replied, after she tore her attention away from the barking gentleman and realized that Lord Adrington was speaking to her.
“Miss Wright, this is most unseemly, but perhaps under the circumstances we might ask you to move to another room?”
Lucia felt her face flush to the roots of her hair. “I-I am afraid I cannot.”
The young man on the floor stopped barking.
“I see.” Lord Adrington nodded slowly. “Hmm. Then we will have to find another place to secrete him. I’ll check for a room upstairs. Mountdale, you try to clear the hallway of any guests until we can get him up the back stairs.”
Mountdale scratched the side of his head. “Do you think it safe to leave him here?” He nodded toward Lucia.
The young man on the floor scampered over to the chair opposite Lucia’s and wrapped his paws—that is, his hands—around a chair leg.
“I am not sure we have much choice at the moment. Get a servant to stay in the room with Miss Wright. I’d better bring some strong-arm assistance.”
“Excellent idea.” Mountdale leaned out into the hallway. “You, there! Set down that tray and come in here at once.”
Je ne parle
“What? Never mind. Just come
here.” Mountdale dragged an older servant in by the arm and planted him next to Lucia’s chair. “Stay with her, do you understand? Do not leave this room.”
The servant looked uncertainly from one face to the other, then nodded.
“We shall return in a moment, Miss Wright.”
Adrington and Mountdale quit the room in haste, leaving Lucia alone with the nervous servant and the unusual young man, who was now scratching his leg against his elbow. Within a few seconds, he ceased this odd movement and began to sniff at the servant’s legs. Then he growled.
!” The servant looked helplessly at Lucia.
One bark was sufficient to send the servant scurrying for the door.
“Wait!” Lucia started to stand, but remembered why she had to remain in the chair. Her reticule tumbled to the floor. “I believe Lord Adrington wished you to remain here.”
The servant shook his head as he reached for the doorknob with trembling hands.
“I do not think he will hurt you,” she said.
Without looking back, the servant wrenched open the door, flung himself into the hallway and yanked the door closed behind him.
The young man on the floor next to her remained still, once again watching Lucia with the sad-eyed gaze that reminded her of a lost puppy.
And they were gorgeous eyes. Bright, rich blue framed by thick, dark lashes that fanned the air when he closed them briefly to take another deep breath.
What a horrid, ghastly shame. This beautiful young man—a gentleman of substance, from the look of his dress and his manners when he first addressed her—had less of his wits about him even than Geoffrey. For Geoffrey had not yet taken up an occupation in the animal kingdom.
“I’m so sorry,” she murmured softly, barely aware that she’d spoken aloud.
“Why?” The young man sat up, looking now much more human.
“Why?” Lucia sat up straighter herself, wondering how to answer. If this gentleman was anything like Geoffrey, he would not be aware that his behavior was anything beyond ordinary. “Because…because your friends have left you.” This was a lame answer indeed, but one that at least should not put the gentleman on the defensive.
Far from it, in fact. He smiled. It was a friendly, confident smile that warmed the space between them. “I expect they’ll be back rather soon.”
“Yes, I suppose so.” And then hopefully they’d leave again so that Peggy could repair her gown in privacy. Although, for the moment, it was strangely pleasant, things being just exactly as they were.
That made no sense at all. Why should it be pleasant to be trapped in a room with a madman, handsome or no?
He reached over to pick up her reticule. Then, with admirable agility, he leapt to his feet and handed it to her with a slight bow. “Yours, I believe?”
“Yes, thank you.” Her gloved hands felt enormously clumsy as she accepted the bag from him.
“A nice party, is it not?” The young man seated himself in the other chair and looked about the room as if gazing on a large assembled company.
“Err, yes.” Lucia had actually seen very little of the party, but she supposed the festivities carried on well enough in her absence.
“I do believe, though, that it is about time for Adrington to bring his decor into the nineteenth century.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at this ghastly collection! Kept on display only to remind the rest of us how long the family has held its estates.”
“That seems a rather uncharitable judgment.” She sat back with a frown. “I wonder, would you voice such opinion in front of the family?”
“I have done, on many occasions.” He grinned. “To no avail, obviously.”
She felt her eyes widen with surprise. “Oh. And you were not concerned that you might offend the sensibilities of your friends?”
“No. After all, ‘He that departs with his own honesty for vulgar praise doth it too dearly buy’.”
“Yes, I do agree with that, but there are times…” Where had she heard those words before? From a book of plays? Sermons? Poetry? The quotation seemed so familiar.
“Would you care to dance, then?”
She blinked. “No. No, thank you. I-I promised that I’d remain in this room.”
“We can dance here.” He bowed. “I’d be honored.”
“No.” The gentleman was mad, however engaging his appearance. Moreover, had the Prince himself asked her dance, she could rise only if the chair somehow remained miraculously attached to her backside.
“Why not? I see you are not engaged to dance with anyone else.”
Lucia struggled to think of an excuse that would not offend him. “I… There’s no music in here.”
“Music? You require music. Very well, I shall sing for us. ‘A bonny lass one day went walking,’” he began in a fine baritone, “‘met with a gent and set to talking—’”
He stopped abruptly, and she had the sickening sensation that he was going to drop to the floor and howl again.
But he did not. “This will never do for a dance. Not at all.” He tossed back the unruly lock of hair that had descended across his forehead again. “A string quartet, I think, don’t you?” Without waiting for a reply, he began to hum a low, steady cadence. “There’s the cello.” Then he started humming again in a slightly higher pitch, a tune that seemed to echo the first. “And the viola. Now for the violins.” He hummed a melody that started very slow and sweet but soon swelled to an intricate pattern. “I wish I had another mouth. It’s not easy to hum two parts, you know.”
Lucia laughed aloud, not caring if the sound should call attention to the strange
“And now, for the dance.” Still humming, the young gentleman began to step in time to the music. “This is about the right tempo, I believe.”
Lucia sat forward, tapping her heels lightly to the tune as he danced.
“And now for the partner.” He leaped over in front of her chair and pulled Lucia to her feet. “I believe I’ve requested the honor—”
She squealed as she jerked away, landing back in her chair with a most unladylike thud.
The gentleman looked at his hands, which had clasped hers only a second before. He smiled sadly at her. “Ah, well,
, ‘twas not to be, I suppose.”
Lucia made no answer because there was none to make. He spoke the truth, but it was a regrettable truth and one that did not bear repeating. Though handsome and engaging and, wonder of wonders, attentive to her, he was clearly removed from the better portion of his senses. Perhaps that was why he was so attentive.