Authors: Alissa Johnson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
“Where’s Lizzy?” Mirabelle asked, looking into the empty adjoining room where Kate and Evie’s abigail usually slept.
Kate stepped across the room and righted the chair. “She wasn’t feeling quite the thing and asked to sleep in Evie’s room where the light wouldn’t bother her.”
“Is she all right?” Mirabelle inquired. She was rather fond of the girl, though the maid was always after fussing with her hair and clothes.
“Just a touch of the headache,” Kate assured her. “I brought her a powder earlier in the evening and she went straight to sleep. I expect she’ll be fully recovered by morning.”
Mirabelle nodded and wandered over to poke at the papers on the desk. “What is all this?”
“Music,” Kate answered. “I’m composing.”
That certainly made sense, she thought. Although…
“There’s quite a lot of it. Are you working on several pieces at once?”
“No, strictly speaking, it’s the same piece.”
“Is it?” She looked over the piles of paper again. “Are you having difficulty? Is that why you’ve been up so late?”
“No I…” Kate’s hands tugged on her dressing gown—a telling gesture of nerves. “It’s a symphony.”
Mirabelle’s mouth dropped open. “A symphony? Truly? You’ve mentioned the possibility before, but…” She gazed at the papers. She was always just a bit in awe of Kate’s musical talent, a bit amazed at the magic and beauty her friend could create with such incredible skill. And now a symphony. pleasure and pride bloomed, and quick to follow were excitement and delight. She laughed and threw her arms around her friend. “Oh, but this is wonderful, Kate!”
“Do you think so? It’s not proper, not really, for a lady to—”
“Nonsense,” Mirabelle snapped, pulling back. “That’s complete and utter nonsense, and well you know it. You’ve been given an amazing gift, Kate, and it’s only right that you should use it to the best of your ability. The notion that a woman of your skill, your talent, should deny her abilities in the interest of making a few small-minded individuals more comfortable is preposterous, I’d go so far as to say blasphemous. Why would God have given you such a gift, if He hadn’t wished for you to use it? If Evie hears you speaking this way—”
“Well, good Lord, Mira.”
“I…I’m ranting a bit aren’t I?” She let her hands drop from where they’d been gripping Kate’s shoulders.
“A bit,” Kate agreed.
“Sorry.” Mirabelle dragged herself over to sit on the edge of the bed. “It’s been something of a long day.”
Kate crossed the room to sit beside her. “As your ranting was in defense of my work, I won’t hold it against you.
How did you know I’d been up late? I don’t recall mentioning it.”
“You didn’t,” Mirabelle admitted without hesitation. “Whit mentioned it and—and this is part of my very long day—I agreed to spy on you.”
“Did you?” Kate asked, looking more intrigued than offended. “Did you really? How did he manage to acquire your cooperation?”
“He blackmailed me.”
“Oh, he did not,” Kate laughed with a playful poke to Mirabelle’s shoulders.
“He did, and quite effectively too. He cornered me—metaphorically speaking—in Benton and threatened to upend the contents of my box—the one I’d only just brought from Madame Duvalle’s—in the middle of the street.”
Kate’s eyes grew round with a kind of excited horror. “Did he know what was in it?”
“Only in a general sense.”
An odd and very suspicious sound emerged from Kate’s throat. “He blackmailed you into spying on me by threatening to expose your unmentionables?”
“It’s not funny, Kate.”
“No.” The sound came again, louder this time, and accompanied by a loud puff of air. “No. I’m sorry, you’re right.” A slightly less than delicate snort escaped. “Absolutely right.” Her lips twitched violently. “Not in the least funny.” After a snort, a hiccup, and a noise that put Mirabelle to mind of sheep, Kate erupted into fits of laughter.
Mirabelle crossed her arms and waited for the storm to pass.
It took some time.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Kate choked out eventually. “I’m terribly sorry.”
Mirabelle felt a corner of her mouth quirk up involuntarily. “No, you’re not.”
“You’re right, I’m not. At least—not
It’s just so ridiculous”
“He could have ruined me,” Mirabelle pointed out.
“He wouldn’t have done it. Surely you know he wouldn’t have done it. It’s just the sort of harmless bullying brothers do.”
Thoughtful, Mirabelle picked at the counterpane. “But he’s not my brother, is he?”
irabelle left Kate’s room feeling quite a bit better than she had all evening. Nothing could lift the spirits quite so quickly as a middle-of-the-night laugh with a dear friend.
And nothing could send them plummeting with the same speed as the sight of Whit’s lanky frame lounging against the wall in the darkened hallway.
“Just the imp I wanted to see,” he said softly, and straightened.
“Have you been waiting for me?”
“Of course not,” he answered, just fast enough to tell her he’d been doing exactly that. “But since you’re here…”
As quick as you please, he had his hand under her elbow and was leading her away.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she whispered with a frightened glance down both ends of the hallway.
“Escorting you to my study.”
She stopped walking. “We most certainly will not be going—”
“Would you prefer my room?”
“Are you mad?” she gasped, struggling to pull her arm from his grasp. “You’ll ruin me.”
“The study it is,” he decided and led her forward at a leisurely rate. “It occurs to me that you are forever bemoaning the possibility of ruin, and yet your good name remains intact.”
“No thanks to you,” she bit out.
“Nor you,” he retorted without heat. “Wandering the halls at night as you are.”
“I most certainly was not wandering. I was visiting Kate—whose door, I’ll remind you, is only three down from my own.”
“A lot can happen to a young woman in the space of three doors.”
“Like being dragged off by a fiend disguised as a gentleman?” she asked pointedly.
“Why yes, that was the very thing I was thinking. How funny you should mention it.”
“Hilarious.” She gave up trying to free herself. “If you must be an overbearing ass, Whit, couldn’t you at least do it more expediently?”
When he failed to move any faster, she leaned up to hiss in his ear. “If we’re discovered, your mother will insist you do the honorable thing and offer for me.”
His pace increased exponentially, until they were very nearly trotting. The relief she felt was instantaneous, as was her annoyance at the obvious insult.
“Not that I’d have you,” she huffed.
“Here we are.” He pulled her into his study where several candles were already—or possibly still—glowing. He shut and locked the door behind them.
“We’re safe enough now, I think,” he said, no longer whispering.
“Hush, what if someone should hear you?”
“There’s no one close enough to hear anything,” he assured her.
“You can’t possibly know that. People are always skulking about at house parties.” She tossed her arms up. “Look at us.”
Unconcerned, he walked over to lean a hip against the enormous oak desk. “Yes, and as it’s my house, I’m perfectly aware of
each and every one of them is skulking about.”
“That’s absurd, you can’t possibly—”
“Mr. Dooley is passed out drunk in the orangery,” he began, folding his arms across his chest. “The lonely Mrs. Dooley is consoling herself in the arms of Mr. Jaffrey. Mrs. Jaffrey, well aware of her husband’s roving ways, has taken her revenge upon him by slipping into Lord Habbot’s room. Lady Habbot isn’t in residence, of course, but her nephew Mr. West is busy entertaining the willing Mary—Mrs. Renwald’s lady’s maid—while Mrs. Renwald herself, is occupied in the stable with Mr. Bolerhack’s grooms. Mr. Renwald, blissfully unaware of his wife’s proclivities, is fast asleep—”
“I beg your pardon.” She just had to ask. “Did you…did you say
“I did.” He grinned at her wickedly. “I did indeed.”
“Would you care for an explanation, imp? A description, perhaps?”
“No.” Good Lord. “Thank you. I’d rather you explain why you dragged me in here.”
“In a moment. Did you speak with Kate?”
Deciding she might as well make herself comfortable while she was being annoyed, she took a seat at a small settee in front of the fireplace. It might have made more sense to have chosen the chair in front of the desk, but she rather felt as if that position would have put her in the role of subordinate, and the man’s arrogance was intolerable as it was.
“I did speak with Kate,” she informed him stiffly. “And as it happens, you’ve made a fuss over nothing. She’s composing.”
“Composing,” he echoed.
“Yes, I assume you’ve heard of the phenomenon? Little dots on paper representing musical notes?”
“I’ve some grasp of the concept.” A line formed across his brow. “Why did she lie to me? And why did she act as a child sneaking treats when I asked her what she was about? For God’s sake, I’ve seen feral cats less skittish.”
“The fact that you’re frightening to children and small animals is hardly cause—”
“You gave your word, Mirabelle,” he reminded her in a cool tone.
“Oh, very well.” She leaned back against the cushions for a clearer view of his face. “She’s working on a symphony.”
“And…” he prompted when she said nothing more.
“And, what?” she asked. “She’s working on a symphony and has been for some time now. She’s excited and nervous, and she’s worried. It isn’t entirely acceptable for a young lady to pursue music as anything more substantial than a hobby. She’s concerned you won’t approve.”
“That’s absurd,” he snapped. “I can’t hum two notes without sending the dogs to barking. What business would I have instructing my sister on how to use her talent? What business has anyone, come to that? If someone’s said something to her—”
“You needn’t shout at me, Whit. I’m not arguing with you.”
He blinked. “You’re not, are you?”
“No. Unlike you, I’ve a lovely singing voice,” she informed him. “But my musical aptitude is nothing, less than nothing really, in comparison to Kate’s. I’m in full support of her endeavor. It won’t be easy for her, I suspect. The goal itself is a lofty one, and she’ll be subject to some criticism and censure once she obtains it.”
He settled his gaze on her, considering. “And you’re certain she’ll obtain it?”
“Of course,” she responded, returning the challenging stare. “Aren’t you?”
“Absolutely,” he said without hesitation. He rubbed the back of his hand against his chin. “Well, this is interesting.”
“I suppose, though not exactly shocking, is it? When one thinks about it, it was only a matter of time before Kate delved into—”
“I wasn’t referring to Kate—I’ll sort this out with her tomorrow—I was referring to us. We’re in agreement on something.”
“I…so we are.” And it felt, she suddenly realized, a bit odd. Uncomfortable, she rose and ran her hand down her skirts. “Well, stranger things have happened, I imagine.”
“Not much stranger.”
She dropped her hands and rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you’ve lived in constant dread of this dark day, but perhaps now that it’s finally here, you can find the strength to move past it and get on with your life.”
“I’ll put some thought into that. Why don’t you sit back down, imp. We’re not quite finished here.”
“I’d rather stand, thank you.” It was a lie, but she felt foolish sitting again when she’d only just risen. “What else is it you wanted?”
“It isn’t a matter of what I want, but of what my mother has…requested.”
“Your mother?” A tickle of unease formed in her throat.
“She’s asked that we set aside our differences for a time—call a truce of sorts.” He twisted his lips in thought. “Perhaps she was more put out this morning than I realized.”
“I…” She paled. She knew she paled because she could feel every drop of blood drain from her head to pool in her stomach where it sloshed about, making her queasy.
It wasn’t possible to have been at Haldon so often as a
child and not earned Lady Thurston’s disapproval from time to time. Poor judgment and poor behavior are inescapable facts of childhood. But Mirabelle had put an enormous amount of energy into avoiding Lady Thurston’s censure—certainly, a great deal more than most children would have—and
how she hated when she failed. She owed so much to the countess, and to repay her kindness with worry or vexation was unforgivably selfish.
“Is she very angry with me?” she asked in a strangled whisper.
“She’s not—” Whit broke off with a curse and stepped forward to take her arm. “Sit down. You look half ready to faint.”
“I don’t faint,” she argued unconvincingly, but let herself be guided back to the settee. “What did she say to you, Whit?”
“Nothing that warrants this sort of reaction,” he replied, but his words were gentled by a soothing pat on her arm, and by the good-sized glass of brandy he poured and pushed into her hand. “Drink it down.”
She made a face at the amber liquid. She didn’t think spirits would settle well in her stomach at present. “I don’t want it. I want to know what your mother—”
“And I’ll tell you, after you have a drink.” He tapped the bottom of the glass to nudge it closer. “Go ahead.”
She scowled at him, but drank the contents of the glass in one quick swallow. She coughed, wheezed, and spluttered her way back. “Oh, ack!”
Chuckling softly, Whit took the glass from her and set it aside. “Brandy’s generally sipped.”
“Well, I’m not drinking a second,” she informed him after a hard breath. “So my way will have to do.”
“Fair enough.” He searched her face. “Feeling better?”
“No.” Which she really wasn’t. “There was nothing wrong with me to begin with.” Which there really was.
“Huh,” was his inarticulate and—she was forced to
admit—diplomatic reply. He straightened and looked down at her. “I forget sometimes how much you care for her.”