Authors: Kate Dolan
It was not a pleasant thought.
The door swung open with no warning this time. The gentleman in front of her dissolved to the floor, barking as he scampered over to the corner behind the vacant chair.
Adrington, Mountdale and two men dressed in livery followed the barking man into the corner, one of them carefully shutting the door with a glance into the hallway.
Lucia began to propel her chair in the opposite direction. With four men blocking her view, she could no longer see her erstwhile dance partner, but a snarling sound issued from the corner that indicated he was still back there somewhere.
“Ouch! He bit me!”
The door opened again. “I think this was the room, but…” Eugenie peered inside, squealing at the sight of the men scuffling in the corner. “Most definitely not!”
“I’m here. Over here.” Lucia waved forlornly.
“Oh, dear.” Eugenie grimaced. “What are they—never mind. We’ve got to get you out of here!”
“Yes. I quite agree. But…”
“I have an idea. Wait in here, Peggy.” Eugenie shoved the confused maid into the room. “I’ll be right back.”
“Eugenie!” Lucia begged. “Don’t leave me like this!”
But the door shut again.
Both Lucia and Peggy turned their attention to the cursing mess of masculinity not six feet away. Somehow, the snarling, barking gentleman managed to crawl through the tangle of his pursuers to scamper over to the opposite corner. Though he was panting from exertion and sporting a number of scratches and torn clothing, his eyes danced with laughter as if he thoroughly enjoyed eluding his captors.
They rapidly followed him, of course, so that Lucia and Peggy now enjoyed a bit more breathing space on their side of the room.
“Lucia.” Eugenie’s head appeared at the door again. “Oh, good. You’re still here.”
“Where else would I be?”
“I’ve brought some help.” Eugenie entered, followed by Sophie and another lady who was clearly amused by the spectacle that met her eyes. “Lucia, may I present Miss Caroline Glaisher. Miss Glaisher, this is Miss Wright.”
“Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Wright.” Miss Glaisher exhibited a graceful curtsy, rising with the ghost of a smile on her face.
“Yes, yes.” Lucia waved them over. “I’m pleased as well. This is a most fortuitous time to make new acquaintances. Now, Eugenie—”
“It’s quite simple, really. The four of us will surround you, and walking close together, we’ll make our way down to another room. You can hide behind the curtains or—”
“I understand. Peggy, if you would be so good as to step behind me back here.” Lucia indicated the space next to the chair. “And Eugenie, you take the other side.” Lucia cast a glance toward the men in the room, but they were so engrossed in their efforts to capture the elusive barking gentleman that they seemed unlikely to notice the deficiencies in her gown. She stood and took a step away from the chair, and the other ladies immediately closed in to surround her, with Eugenie standing so close it was as if she was affixed by glue. Sophie and Miss Glaisher led the way as the fivesome shuffled slowly toward the door.
Which then opened again, admitting two more gentlemen, these decidedly older than the others already in the room. “We heard odd noises coming from this room and wished to—oh, excuse me, ladies.” The first older gentleman bowed. He and his companion attempted to move aside so the ladies could make their egress, but bunched together as they were, the feat was simply impossible.
“Oh, just hit him with something and have done with it.”
The latecomers turned their attention from the ladies to the other men in the room. “I say.”
“It’s a wonder we didn’t hear more.”
“Hardly.” He tapped his ear. “It’s a wonder we ever hear anything, these days.”
A particularly loud howl cut short all attempts at conversation in the well-populated room.
The howl itself was in turn cut short by an angry thud.
“I believe that was sufficient.” Mountdale nodded with satisfaction.
“More than,” one of the footmen commented
“I do not believe he will be up to trouble us for some time.” Mountdale replaced a hefty crystal vase on the mantel beneath the mirror.
“If he’s ever up again at all,” the other footman muttered.
“Perhaps it would be better if he is not.” Mountdale eyed the insolent footman crossly as he stuffed a collection of red silk flowers back into their crystal enclosure.
“Are you saying you hit him that hard deliberately?” Adrington asked.
“I am simply stating the obvious. Edmund Rutherford has clearly lost all sense of reason.” Mountdale sniffed. “If it were me, I’d rather be dead.”
After the moment of silence that followed this morbid pronouncement, the ladies’ procession suddenly set in motion at double speed. Adrington, Mountdale and the footmen prepared to remove Lord Rutherford from the room. The two most recent arrivals, however, desired to lay eyes on the young gentleman who had caused all the commotion. And so began an impossible snarl of human traffic, as the men sought to squeeze past the women, the women struggled to exit
and everyone tried desperately to avoid touching one another.
By the time Lucia and her party finally reached another room and completed emergency mending procedures on her gown, the soirée was more than half over and Lucia had missed most it.
But she’d seen enough.
* * * * *
As pain gradually forced Edmund into a conscious state, he became aware that he must have grown an extra head during the night. The throbbing ache was more than could be contained in one head alone. Or perhaps his skull had simply been cleaved in two—he could now feel a definite split along the back of his head.
He groped his hands around on the pillow, wondering if his brains might have spilt out onto the bed.
It was not his bed.
Behind the pillow in his own bed, he would have felt a gap before the wall, enabling him to stretch out his full length without hitting anything.
Here when he reached up, he touched hard, cold wood just beyond the pillow. Carved wood. His fingers traced up several inches of engraved design. He could not detect the pattern, but he was willing to bet it was an ugly one.
He was somewhere in Adrington’s house. In one of the heirloom rooms, stuffed full of furniture that had in been in the family since the reign of Charlemagne or some such. Though the family would not part with these dubious treasures, they generally hid them to a certain degree.
He must be upstairs in one of the less fashionable guest bedrooms used by distant family members.
He sighed. He could not remember coming up to bed last night. He must have drunk himself into a stupor to avoid speaking with Jeanne so that one of the servants had to see him up to bed.
But he had not taken a single drink the previous night. The memories now flooded back with painful intensity. Images swept over him in waves, as if he watched excerpts from the life of another. Leaping through the ballroom, growling and barking at Adrington and the others. And speaking with a shy young lady he’d never met before.
And would never meet again, no doubt, after she witnessed last night’s performance.
He had put on quite a show. An odd sense of pride welled up as he reflected on his feat. With but a few minutes’ work, he had convinced everyone that he had lost his wits. He had not planned in advance how to act crazed. He simply started and…everything seemed to just happen.
Did that mean he really was crazy, or close to it?
After all, it had been rather enjoyable, up to a point. It had been quite fun to push past somber, self-important cliques in the ballroom, fun to scramble around on the floor barking like a dog and fun to speak with an unknown lady without giving any thought to propriety or common sense.
In a sense, he was free. Free to behave however he chose, without regard to whether it was the right thing to do. No one could hold him responsible now. After all, he was crazy.
Now if he could just figure out a way to end an evening without being chased, collared, and pummeled on the head, he could be in for a rather entertaining season. And by the end—no, much sooner than that—Jeanne would realize that she could not possibly marry him.
Then he would be truly free.
“Well, if you do have to leave so early in the season, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve witnessed the biggest debacle of the year.” Sophie munched thoughtfully on a piece of toast.
“Debacle?” Lucia paused, her spoon held in midair above her teacup. “I thought the Adringtons threw a lovely party.”
“Certainly they did. For the first quarter of an hour. Then Lord Rutherford turned it into a rout. He was quite funny, though. ‘Get away, Candlesnuffer!’” she mimicked. “Depend on it. No other event will match the excitement of the Adrington soirée.”
“What if the gentleman,” Lucia knocked her spoon off the saucer as she reached for the teacup, “Lord Rutherford, that is, puts in an appearance elsewhere during the season? Might that not be just as ‘exciting’ as you say?”
Sophie chewed on that thought, as well as her toast, for a moment. “I do not believe his family will let him out in company anytime soon.”
Visions of the scenes her own brother might cause in a crowded ballroom swam before Lucia’s eyes. “Yes,” she agreed readily. “I can believe that.”
“So you leave tomorrow, then?”
The events of last evening made Lucia realize how truly urgent it was for her to return to her home and her place caring for Geoffrey and Helen. What if they should get into a crowd and take fright? Either might behave just as the unfortunate Lord Rutherford had done. Or worse. If she were home with them, she could ensure such disasters did not have the chance to develop.
She wondered whether Lord Rutherford had someone to keep similar watch over him.
“Where is Eugenie? I would think with this being your last day in London, she would be affixed to your side.”
Lucia smiled. “One might think. But I have not seen her this morning. Peggy said she was dressed and out at an unusually early hour.” She winced when she noticed a tea stain spreading across the tablecloth near her cup and wiped at it with a napkin.
“You know,” Sophie reached for another slice of toast, “you missed the biggest scene last night. At least I think you did. How long were you hiding in the hall before Eugenie dragged you into that little parlor?”
“I don’t know.” Lucia couldn’t imagine that she had missed much.
“Were you in the ballroom when Lord Rutherford—and it does indeed sound odd to refer to him by that title under the circumstances—started to dance?”
“No.” But he had asked her to dance. Was rather persistent about it, in fact. “With whom did he dance?”
“Oh, he did not dance
anybody. That is, he actually did not dance at all. He took great leaps about the room,” she demonstrated with the butter knife, “like the dancers in the opera. It was quite funny. He knocked the Earl of Osterbridge into the Dowager Countess Fortescue and her turban fell right into his punch. She was quite mortified, for she is grown nearly bald and now everyone knows it. I’m glad, after the nasty things she said about our neighbor, Sir Reginald last year.”
“Indeed?” Lucia wanted to ask what the Countess had said, but she also wanted to hear more about the young man’s leaping dance. The more she thought about it, the more the latter topic interested her.
Sophie looked at her freshly buttered piece of toast as if unsure quite what to do with it. She cut it into quarters. “Yes, quite an entertaining evening. I wonder if I might compose a song about the countess’s bristling bald head.”
That was one topic Lucia did not care to hear more about. “Did Lord Rutherford do anything else out of the ordinary? I mean, besides what we witnessed in the parlor.”
“Let me see. Other than rolling on the floor, shouting nonsense words, barking like a dog and trying to jump out the window—no, nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Oh.” He did truly sound mad. Why did that notion fill her with such despair? She really did not even know the man.
“Do you suppose he might just have been really in his cups?”
“No,” Lucia answered with a catch in her voice. She could not be absolutely certain, of course, but the young man who spoke to her in the intimate parlor did not have the demeanor of one who had been drinking, and there was no aroma of wine or spirits on his breath.
“Were you and Peggy in that parlor with him for very long?” Without waiting for an answer, Sophie rushed on. “I do think it was rather splendid the way Lord Adrington and Viscount Mountdale took control of the matter, don’t you? Both handsome gentlemen, but I think the Viscount carries himself better. Eugenie prefers Lord Adrington, but says that both of them are spoiled fops. I must disagree with that.” She picked up a square of toast, considered it for a moment, then set it down and cut it into triangles. “I don’t think even Eugenie believes that herself. I believe she rather fancies Lord Adrington and doesn’t want to let on. In fact, I shall tell Lady Georgiana Adrington so the next time I see her.”