Authors: Alissa Johnson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
“I imagine,” Whit muttered.
“Well, now that we’ve cleared up that misunderstanding, give your apologies to Mira, Whit, and put that thing away. I’ll not have one of my guests breaking open his head.”
Mirabelle, feeling immensely pleased with Lady Thurston just then, poked her head around Whit’s shoulder.
“What if Miss Willory should care for a ride?” she inquired with an innocent expression.
Lady Thurston appeared to ponder that for a moment. “No, head wounds bleed profusely. And I’m quite fond of my carpets.”
Mirabelle laughed and watched Lady Thurston leave in a whirl of bronze skirts. “I’m waiting, Whittaker Vincent.”
Whit spun around to face her. “For what?” he snapped.
“My apology, of course.”
“Good. Keep waiting.”
She laughed and turned to leave, satisfied with the idea that he’d be glowering at her back until she was out of sight.
She jolted when his hand caught her arm and spun her back around again.
“Oh, we’re not quite finished here, imp.”
Walk away. Let it alone.
Whit knew he ought to, but even as the small voice of reason urged him to do what he knew was best, the louder, and infinitely more appealing, voice of pride insisted he seek revenge. As a soft and seductive afterthought, it suggested he might as well enjoy it.
Mirabelle wasn’t the only person at Haldon Hall laboring under a dark mood that afternoon.
Whit had spent the last three days at one of his smaller holdings, settling a dispute involving two tenant farmers, a patch of broken fence, a milk cow, an incompetent overseer and—unless he was much mistaken—a certain attractive barmaid who likely had more to do with the dispute than the fence, cow, or overseer.
He’d held his temper in check through the entire process, and again when he returned home very late last night to find his sister still up and moving about in her room, without an acceptable explanation for her nocturnal activities—again.
And he’d been remarkably restrained when he’d been awoken early by the sound of two upstairs maids arguing heatedly over a spilled tray. And when he’d gone to the stables to discover his favorite horse had come up lame.
when his second choice threw a shoe an hour into his ride, necessitating a very long walk back from the fields to the stables.
He’d been returning from that very spot, grumbling, swearing, disgusted with the knowledge that he’d missed the noon meal, and otherwise relinquishing any lingering pretense at finding the day a pleasant one, when he’d seen her in the distance.
His first reaction had been a familiar one—a pleasant quickening of the blood, the instinctive tensing of muscles, a slow and involuntary smile. A rousing argument was just what he needed.
Mirabelle was delightfully easy to bait—never able to let a comment pass and typically loathe to back down from any challenge. It was the chit’s best feature, really, and there was little he enjoyed quite so much as harassing her until her temper flared.
True, the consequences for him were sometimes unpleasant, occasionally even disastrous—witness the humiliating episode with his mother—but there was something exceedingly satisfying in watching her eyes narrow, her color heighten and then…and then the most astonishing things came out of the girl’s mouth. She never failed to amuse him, even if he was too angry—or even injured—at the time to appreciate it.
It was a bit like playing with fire, he supposed—distinctly unwise, but wholly irresistible.
He set down the dandy horse slowly. In part to give himself adequate time to consider his plan of attack, in part to settle his temper, and in part for the simple pleasure of seeing her squirm. And squirm she did, twisting her arm this way and that in a fruitless attempt to free herself from his grasp.
“Are we going to stand here all day, then?” she asked on a huff, finally giving up her struggles.
“It’s a possibility,” he informed her. “I haven’t decided.”
“You’ll be as bored as I in a moment.”
“Oh, I doubt it. I’ve all manner of interesting things to ponder.”
“Ah, he’s endeavoring to think.” She nodded in exaggerated understanding. “That would explain the delay.”
“Revenge is a weighty matter. It requires a certain deliberation.”
“It requires intelligence and a modicum of creativity.” She tapped her foot with impatience. “Perhaps you’d like to sit down.”
He smiled slowly and released her arm. “No need. I believe I’ve hit on just the thing.”
She rolled her eyes dramatically, but made no move to leave. “What’s it to be then? Will you pull my hair? Insult me in public? Put a reptile in my dress?”
“Your dress might well appreciate the improvement, but no, I’ve something else in mind.”
“Well, out with it. I’m all aflutter to hear your cunning scheme.”
“I don’t think so.” He gave her a menacing smile. “You’ll just have to wait.”
She furrowed her brow. “What do you mean, I’ll have to wait?”
“Just that. You’ll have to wait.”
“Is this your revenge, then?” she asked, fisting her hands on her hips. “You think to keep me wondering, worrying, what nasty trick you might pull.”
“A welcome side benefit.”
She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “A decent strategy, really, or would be, if you were capable of keeping more than two thoughts in your head at a time. You’ll forget by dinner.”
“How can you be sure my cunning scheme won’t play out before dinner.”
“I…” She opened her mouth, closed it again.
“Cat got your tongue?” he inquired. “Or are you struck mute by worry?”
She snorted derisively and spun on her heel to leave. The sun broke from behind a cloud and, for the briefest moment, highlighted her in soft amber. She seemed, he thought, brighter all of a sudden—different. He blinked, taken aback. Why the devil should she look different?
“Just a minute.” He reached out and caught her arm a second time.
She groaned but let herself be turned around. “What’s the matter, cretin, a third thought push the first two out so soon? I’ll own myself surprised that you had that many in so short a time. Perhaps, if you had someone to write it all down for you…”
He stopped listening in favor of looking her over. It was the imp, certainly: average height and build, same brown
hair and brown eyes, thin nose, oval face. Looking fairly nondescript, as was her wont, but something was off—changed or missing. He just couldn’t seem to put his finger on what that something was.
Was it her skin? Was she paler, tanner, yellower? He didn’t think so, but he couldn’t say for certain, having never really paid any attention to her skin in the past.
“There’s something different about you,” he muttered, more to himself than to her, but he noted that she blinked once before opening her eyes wide in an expression that displayed both surprise and skepticism.
something different. What the devil was it? Same widow’s peak on her forehead. Same high cheekbones. Had she always had that little mole just above her lip? He couldn’t recall, but rather doubted it had appeared overnight. Certainly her color was a little higher than it was a minute ago, but that wasn’t what was stumping him now.
“It’s the damndest thing, imp. I can’t seem to…”
He cocked his head the other way and ignored her exasperated expression. He just couldn’t puzzle out what was altered about the chit. He knew something had changed and he knew that, for some inexplicable reason, he didn’t like it. The alteration made him uncomfortable, uneasy somehow. And so it seemed a perfectly natural thing to straighten up and ask,
“Have you been ill?”
irabelle’s trip around the side of the house was not so much a walk, as it was an extended fit of huffing.
Have you been ill,
It might have made more sense for her to simply use the back door, but in order to do that, she would have had to walk past Whit. And an exit was never quite so dramatic as when one could spin on one’s heel and storm off in the opposite direction, which was exactly what she’d done after Whit had voiced his supremely asinine question.
Have you been ill?
She kicked at a small rock and watched it tumble through the grass. Maybe…possibly…she shouldn’t have been quite so contrary with him. But she’d been in a foul mood all day. Ever since that blasted note from her uncle had been delivered to her at breakfast.
Twice a year, every bloody year, she was forced to make the two-mile trip to her uncle’s home for one of his hunting parties. And every year, he sent a missive in advance of those occasions to remind her she was to come. And every single year, no matter how hard she tried to make it otherwise, the note left her with a sick dread that lingered for the whole of the week.
She despised her uncle, loathed his parties, and abhorred nearly every dissipated, dissolute, and debauched sot who attended them.
She’d much rather stay here, at Haldon. She stopped for a moment to stare at the great stone house. She’d been a child the first time she’d seen it. A small girl who’d lost her parents
to an outbreak of influenza and come to live with her uncle only a month before. Reeling from the change in her circumstances, and finding herself unwelcome in her new home, she soon came to look at Haldon as both a haven and an enchanted fortress. It was an enormous combination of the old, the new, and everything in between. There were cavernous rooms, narrow halls, sweeping stairs, and secret passages. There were gilded ceilings in one room, lowered beams in another—an oddly endearing collection of the past eight earls’ tastes and lifestyles. A person could, and occasionally did, get lost in the maze of it all. If only, she thought, she could get lost and never find her way out again.
Well, she couldn’t, she reminded herself, and resumed her walk.
She was to play hostess for her uncle, and there was nothing to be done about it. Except, of course, to prepare for what she knew was coming. She’d tried very hard this time not to let it ruin her stay at Haldon, even having gone so far as to have a new gown made up.
She hadn’t put on a new dress in…oh, forever it seemed. The pittance her uncle gave her for pin money didn’t allow for extravagant purchases. It barely allowed enough for basic necessities.
In retrospect, perhaps she shouldn’t have dipped into her savings, but after the note arrived, she’d gone straight to her room and put on her new dress. It was silly, really, how much better it made her feel…almost pretty. She’d rather expected someone might comment upon it.
Have you been ill?
She found the rock again and kicked it hard enough to feel the bite against her toe.
Really, Whit was about as perceptive as a…well she didn’t know exactly. Something blind and deaf. Pity he wasn’t mute in the bargain.
Mirabelle stopped to take a deep calming breath. It was
pointless for her to become so worked up over one little comment. In particular when said comment had come from Whit. It wasn’t anywhere near the most offensive insult he’d ever handed her, and the fact that she was so angry over such a small slight only served to make her…well, angrier.
She turned and pushed through a side door into the house, turned her steps toward her room, and tried to sort through her muddled feelings. It wasn’t all anger, she realized. There was hurt, too, and disappointment. He had just stood there, with that famous lopsided devil-may-care grin that had half the
in love with him, and for an instant it seemed as if he might actually say something pleasant. For reasons she chose not to examine too closely, she had very much wanted him to say something pleasant to her. Something along the lines of: “Why, Mirabelle…”
“Why, Mirabelle, what a lovely dress.”
Mirabelle whirled to find Evie Cole exiting a room behind her. A curvaceous young woman with light brown hair and dark eyes, Evie’s appearance would have been described as lovely were it not for a slight limp and the long thin scar that ran from her temple to her jaw, both remnants of a carriage accident during childhood.
Though it was not known outside the family, it was that very accident that had brought Evie to Haldon Hall. Her father—Whit’s uncle—had been taken that night, and her mother—not an attentive parent to begin with by all accounts—had chosen to dwell in grief rather than see to the care of her child. According to Evie, Mrs. Cole had been all too happy to accept Lady Thurston’s offer to raise Evie at Haldon.
After years of neglect, it was no great surprise that Evie arrived a painfully shy child. It had taken months to coax her out of her shell. When she finally emerged, Mirabelle had
been astounded to find not a proper and demure little girl, but an opinionated bluestocking. Evie had an incredible gift for mathematics and a personal, albeit currently secret, goal to free the world’s—or at the very least England’s—female population from the oppressive rule of the subspecies she referred to as the male gender. In short, she was a radical.
She was also unerringly loyal, wickedly clever, and rather incongruently fashion conscious. There was little chance of Evie failing to notice a friend’s pretty new dress.
Mirabelle felt herself smiling broadly.
“Does this mean your uncle has finally loosened his death grip on the purse strings, then?” Evie inquired, plucking at the lavender sleeve of the dress.
“Hardly,” Mirabelle scoffed. “It would take a good deal more than the grim reaper to pry that man’s fingers from his money.”
At Evie’s questioning expression, Mirabelle took her hand and led her to a small sitting room at the end of the hall. “Come, I’ll explain when Kate returns from her ride. In the meantime, ring for tea and some of those delicious biscuits Cook makes. I know it’s early, but I’m starved. And now that I have you cornered, I insist you finally tell me all about your trip to Bath last month.”
“You’re always hungry,” Evie mumbled after pulling the bell cord and sending the answering servant for refreshments. “And I’ve told you, Bath was Bath. A goodly number of ugly people in pretty clothing, drinking filthy water. I wrote you quite faithfully,” she finished, taking a seat.