Authors: Alissa Johnson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
The wine flowed in, and manners flowed out with equal measure. Guests who hadn’t paid her the slightest bit of attention earlier suddenly found her to be a fascinating topic of conversation. Or so it had always been in the past.
They left her alone for the first hour that night. The addition of Lord Thurston to their ranks seemed to be enough to keep them occupied. Initially, they plied him with questions full of suspicion.
“What brings you to our humble gathering?” Mr. Hartsinger asked.
“Surprised you found the time—between your mama’s fine house parties and your seat in the House of Lords,” Mr. Waterson commented.
“Didn’t I hear you once mention to Lady Killory that indulgence in spirits is the sign of a weak mind?” Mr. Harris inquired.
But Whit answered them all with wit and humor. “I’m here for the very reasons you mentioned, Mr. Waterson. I required an excuse to get away from the simpering women at staid house parties, not to mention the simpering women in the House of Lords. And you’d have made the comment too, Mr. Harris, if it’d been you the lady was breathing sherry on. Best way to get rid of her.”
And soon enough, the conversation had gone from an interrogation, to a rollicking round of reminiscing about the late Lord Thurston and how his son might live up to the old man yet.
Mirabelle tried to make herself smaller in her chair. If she could only get through the meal without being noticed, without being called on to speak, she’d still have to suffer the shame of having Whit see her uncle and his friends in their limited dining glory, but she wouldn’t have to actually—
“Quit slouching girl!” her uncle snapped.
“Ugly enough as it is,” he added. “No need to bring bad posture into the bargain.”
“Leave off the girl, Eppersly,” someone said, she wasn’t about to look up to discover who. “Not so bad looking I wouldn’t have a go at her!”
Oh. Bloody. Hell.
She couldn’t look at Whit. She couldn’t have faced him now if her life depended on it. Was he laughing? She couldn’t hear him laughing, but she could hardly make anything out over the cacophony of snorting her uncle called a laugh. Was Whit angry? Offended? Shocked? She wished she had the nerve to find out.
“What say you, Thurston?” one of the guests called. “You ever had a piece of—”
She threw herself into a vicious fit of coughing. The force of it scratched her throat and made her eyes water, but she didn’t care. If the man finished that question, she wouldn’t die of humiliation on the spot, but she’d want to.
The baron grunted and snapped greasy fingers at a footman. “You. You there.”
“Did I ask for your name?” he demanded, before jabbing a finger at Mirabelle. “Idiot. Just pound the chit’s back for Christ’s sake.”
“Go on, man!”
Mirabelle took a gulping breath and held the footman off with a hand and a wan smile. “That won’t be necessary, Simmons, thank you.”
Simmons looked to the baron for confirmation. The baron gave one disinterested shrug and went back to his meal.
“Excuse me,” she mumbled, and fled. It was possible
she’d be berated for the early departure tomorrow, but it was equally possible her uncle had already imbibed enough to not care, or forget entirely. And she was certain she couldn’t spend another second in that room. She raced to her own room, slammed the door shut, and locked it.
She had no idea how long she simply stood where she was, shaking and panting raggedly. Was that it, then? Would she be ruined because of one careless comment? When she felt her knees begin to buckle, she snapped herself back, forcing aside panic for reason. The guest had indicated that, given the chance, he
have a go at her, not that he ever
It was a small but significant difference. One comment was cruel and mortifying, the other could irrevocably ruin her name. As it was, her reputation was merely scratched a bit. As was her pride. And her heart—Whit might not have laughed at the jest, but he hadn’t defended her either.
“Well bugger him,” she snapped to no one and refused to feel the least guilty for using such a vulgar invective. She’d heard her uncle use it a hundred times. “Bugger all of them.”
As soon as was humanly possible, she’d begin searching for the proof of her uncle’s innocence as a counterfeiter. As soon as she had it, Whit could leave. If she was still welcome at Haldon after that, she’d simply tuck this party away as a tremendously embarrassing memory. If not…well…
“Bugger it,” was the best she could come up with.
It was another two hours before she gained the courage to again leave her bedroom. The others wouldn’t be in bed yet, but there was always the question of whether they had managed to move themselves into her uncle’s study or if they had drunk so much so quickly that they found it inconvenient to leave the dining room. She hoped for the latter. Her uncle sometimes fell asleep in whichever chair he was currently occupying and if the chair happened to be in
the study, it would mean putting off the snooping she had planned in that room for a later night. As she was immensely anxious about snooping in her uncle’s sanctuary, she found the idea of delaying it distinctly unappealing. Better to get it over and done with than to worry about it for another day.
She followed the sound of braying laughter to the dining room door. That was it then, she decided. Her uncle would either sleep there or have a pair of unfortunate footmen haul him to his room. But he wouldn’t be back in his study this night.
She turned to leave, then stopped and turned back again, curiosity getting the better of her.
Was Whit still in there?
She peaked through the crack of the door, and discovered that yes, he was—the blighter.
For a man who wasn’t there to enjoy himself, he was doing a suspiciously realistic impression of a dedicated reveler. He was drunk, she noted with disgust, and while that may have been unavoidable if he wanted to gain the group’s trust and approval, she was certain he needn’t look so bloody happy about it.
He was slouched, grinning rather stupidly, in an ancient highback chair with his cravat gone and his coat unbuttoned. He held both a wine bottle and the rapt attention of several men as he slurred out the tale of the man-eating boar he’d hunted in France. Nearly lost his life to the beast, she heard him say, and she wondered idly if she’d lose her dinner. If there was an ounce of truth in that story, she’d eat her blue chemise.
It was better that he have a fine time of it, she reminded herself. She could have found him sitting apart, watching the baron with disgust and contempt…and wondering how he might go about removing the Cole family from everything, and everyone, associated with Baron Eppersly.
Swallowing an irritated grunt, she turned back to her room. It wouldn’t be more than another hour before they began to pass out, but she’d wait two just to be safe.
She waited three hours with the idea that, in this house, it was better to be very safe than very wrong.
She left her room with a plan of sorts in mind. She’d try the door to the study first, and if it proved locked, she’d make a trip around the side of the house to see if she couldn’t shimmy up to the window. If she couldn’t—and having no shimmying experience to speak off, there was a very good chance that would be the case—or the window was locked as well, she’d simply have to find a way into the study during the day. The very idea of such an attempt had her stomach twisting into knots. It’d be so much easier to be caught during the day, and if her uncle found out she’d been snooping about his study, he’d…
Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it right now.
She crept down the steps, taking care to skip the boards that creaked. In all probability, she could stomp down the narrow passage with no more stealth than a herd of elephants and no one would be the wiser. The guests had fallen asleep too drunk, and the servants too exhausted to notice, let alone care that someone was moving about in the house. Still, it never paid to take chances in her uncle’s home.
To her immense relief, she found the door to the study unlocked. Whether he’d been too drunk to remember to lock it himself, or was simply in the habit of assuming no one would dare enter without invitation, she didn’t know. Having made a point over the years of avoiding her uncle’s favorite haunt, she’d never before had reason to test the door handle.
Twisting it now, she pushed open the door just enough to allow her to slip inside. She closed the door behind her, then leaned back against it with an enormous sigh.
She’d done it. She was in her uncle’s study. She’d actually found the courage.
Remembering that her uncle’s study was not a place she generally cared to be, she pushed off from the wall and set her mind to the task at hand.
Like most studies, the room was decorated and furnished for the comfort of a man seeing to his business: dark masculine colors, large oak desk, plush leather chairs. But since her uncle rarely bothered himself with anything as mundane as seeing to business, where there would have been bookcases in other studies, there were hunting trophies in this one.
Bucks, does, foxes, and birds of every variety were stuffed and mounted along the walls like a macabre parade of disembodied heads. Mirabelle tried to ignore them as she lit a pair of candles on the desk, but there were so many. She felt a lick of nerves and had the irrational image of accusing glass eyes glaring at her back.
She flipped through a pile of papers and tried to not let the fact that Whit had been right—she hadn’t the least idea of what she was looking for—discourage her. She was so caught up in not paying attention to her nagging doubts, and not paying attention to the gruesome room around her, that she failed to notice the footsteps in the hall until they were nearly at the door.
She whirled, stunned as the footsteps came to a stop.
Dear Lord, she hadn’t a key to lock the door.
Near to panicking, she grabbed a hideous brown vase off the mantel and positioned herself behind the door just in time. It opened slowly and quietly.
She lifted the vase. She’d knock whoever it was over the head and hope it rendered them unconscious, or at least stunned enough for her to make her escape without being seen.
A foot appeared. With a prayer that she had the timing right, she stepped forward to bring the vase down.
She caught a brief glimpse of light brown hair and blue eyes before Whit’s hand lashed out to grasp the vase a moment before it connected with his head.
“I don’t think that will be necessary.”
“Whit.” She spoke in what she thought might have been a whisper, but it was a bit difficult to say, really, with her blood rushing in her ears.
Smiling grimly, he released the vase and turned to close the door. “Scared you a bit, did I?”
“I knew it was you,” she sniffed, setting down her impromptu weapon.
“Then why the vase?”
“As I said,” she drawled, “I knew it was you.”
“Arrogant little thing for one snooping about in the middle of the night.”
“No more than you. I thought you were drunk.”
He walked to the desk chair and settled himself comfortably, as if, she thought with annoyance, he was in the habit of breaking into other men’s studies and making himself at home.
“You thought wrong,” he informed her.
She fisted her hands on her hips. “Well if you must be here, make an attempt at being useful, for once, and search the desk drawers.”
“Not in the least. I’m just a good deal faster than you. I searched the room as soon as the others took themselves off to bed. That was well over an hour ago.” He leaned back in the chair and gave her a patronizing smile, one that made her fingers itch to pick the vase back up. “You’ll need to be a bit quicker, imp, if you want to participate in this little game.”
“This isn’t a game.” Suspicious, she narrowed her eyes at him. “What are you doing here, if you’ve already gone over the study?”
“Looking for you. I went to your room. You weren’t there.”
“How do I know you aren’t trying to trick me into leaving? Maybe this is no more than a ruse to—”
“Bottom drawer on the right holds a half bottle of port, two tattered handkerchiefs, a loaded dueling pistol, and a stack of dusty stationery.”
She scowled, hesitated, then stalked over to pull open the drawer. The contents were exactly as he described them.
“Now then,” he said, making a point to study his nails. “I believe you owe me an apology.”
The vase, she thought, might be out of reach, but the bottle of port was temptingly handy.
“That won’t be necessary, either,” he said and reached over to slide the drawer closed.
She scowled at him and rose. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me whether you found anything in your search.”
“You have my word I’ll inform you of anything of note that I find, but as it happens, there was nothing in here.”
“Of course there wasn’t. There isn’t going to be anything anywhere. Why don’t you give up on this—”
“I didn’t search you out to discuss, yet again, the probability of your uncle’s guilt.”
She opened her mouth to deliver a scathing retort, but thought better of it. His voice had been clipped, and though his posture remained casual, she could see the tension in his muscles. And there was that telltale clenching of his jaw.
“You’re angry with me,” she said and resisted the urge to fiddle with the waist of her dress. “I wasn’t really aware that it was you when I swung the vase, Whit. And I wouldn’t have hit you with the bottle. I’m not a murderess, I’m just…occasionally tempted.”
“This has nothing to do with the vase or the bottle. But since you asked, yes, I am angry with you. I have, in fact, never been angrier with you in my life.”
She considered that, and him, for a moment before coming to a decision. “I don’t care.”
She headed for the door, but he was out of the chair and grasping her elbow before she could escape.