At five-and-twenty, though he was of ordinary height and had never mastered the art of growing a beard, Oliver Evans perceived himself as a rather adult figure. As his only points of comparison were his father and his step-mother, this was not a difficult conclusion at which to arrive. Neither of them knew the meaning of the word responsibility. Even at the best of times, Lord Edgar Evans did not practice prudence. As a child, Oliver had been given everything he asked for as soon as he asked for it.
While a little self-indulgent shopping was proper for a man of Lord Phaeton’s rank, his spending had ballooned when he married his second wife. Lady Lucinda Phaeton was an industrious woman, and she wasted little time in spending her husband’s money. Oliver thought his father either stupidly in love or just stupid to let the duchess hemorrhage money in this manner.
Oliver had not been overly concerned at first, but as the years passed and the spending increased, he grew more and more agitated. “Father,” he would say sometimes, “Do you not think this purchase a tad unnecessary?”
“You know how women are,” Oliver’s father would say gruffly, before signing the receipt for the Chinese silk or Italian pumice stones.
Right now Oliver was particularly upset. He stood over his father’s desk, hands braced on the edge. Oliver was a handsome man of five-and-twenty, though not overly beautiful. Even if he had been beautiful, he was too much in his own mind to pay attention to matters of the flesh. His chief features were his hazel eyes, which always seemed able to see more than most people’s could. At the moment, those eyes were filled with the righteous rage of the son wronged.
What son would not be the least bit unhappy upon hearing that his childhood home will be sold for no greater reason than to turn a large sum of money into an even larger one?
“Father, you must stop up your ears to her siren song,” Oliver said, standing over his father’s desk. “How can you sell Redgrove?”
“How?” said the Duke. “How can I sell Redgrove? Fifty-thousand pounds, Oliver. I should think that would be obvious.” The Duke of Meriwood was a tall, striking man with a stern countenance and an even sterner tone. If Oliver were not used to the man, he would be terrified to be shut up in a study with him.
“Why do you need fifty-thousand pounds?” said Oliver. “Father, are we in serious trouble? Do you owe debts?”
“Minimal debts,” said Lord Phaeton, waving his hand to signify their inconsequentiality. “No, it is our London house. It needs to be redone.”
This was news to Oliver. “Redone?” he said. “Why does it need to be redone? I thought it was in excellent shape when I stayed there last.”
“The bannister and things,” Lord Phaeton said vaguely. “You know how old wood gets.”
“A bannister is worth more than your ancestral home?” demanded Oliver. He usually suppressed his emotions, uneager as he was to reveal weakness, but this was really too much.
The duke—for Oliver’s father was the Duke of Meriwood—sighed heavily and arranged the bits of paper on his desk. Oliver took one at random and scanned it before making a noise of disgust. It was a receipt for two dresses from a well-known dressmaker in London; the total was nearly six-hundred pounds.
“I will not hear it,” Lord Phaeton said when he saw what Oliver had in his hand. “Those dresses were necessary. You know that it is impossible for a woman to wear the same dress to different balls.”
“Perhaps for a woman in the prime of her youth,” said Oliver, “but Lady Phaeton’s days as a social debutante are long gone.” Lord Phaeton did not dispute this, though he took the receipt back from Oliver and slipped it under a stack of what was likely more receipts. “Father, please tell me how much debt you owe.”
“I shall not owe any after Redgrove is sold,” the duke said obstinately.
Oliver could not believe that his father really wanted to sell an estate that had been in his mother’s family for generations, but if he had any doubts in his current wife’s plans, he hid them well.
“I suppose this has nothing to do with Ethan’s new allowance?” said Oliver. “He was saying something about it at the breakfast table.” Ethan was the duchess’s son, about the same age as Oliver. They had never gotten along, however. Ethan found Oliver’s interest in books and writing boring, and Oliver thought Ethan a fool.
At first, the duke had also seemed to find Ethan unsatisfactory. He disliked in particular the manner in which Ethan blew his nose: a resounding honk! that could have found its twin in a real duck. Ethan’s sloppy state of dress and his sharpness with the servants settled the matter: he was not what the duke would call “of the good sort”.
“That stupid boy,” snapped Lord Phaeton. “Of course he was blathering on about it.” There was a pause as the duke restrained himself and even effected a bright smile. “Bless him.”
Oliver eyed his father warily. It was not his father’s custom to say anything nice about Ethan, let alone call on the heavens in Ethan’s favor. “Ethan already has an allowance.”
“A man necessarily has a greater allowance than a boy,” Lord Phaeton said, trying to sound serious but only succeeding at being a little ridiculous.
”You vex me, Father,” said Oliver.
“Likewise,” said Lord Phaeton. He sighed wearily and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “If this all, Oliver, I really must be getting back to work.”
“Tell me, how much are you giving him?”
“I have not yet decided,” Lord Phaeton said, picking up his quill and dipping it in the ink pot. He was doing his best to end the conversation, but Oliver would not let him.
“Please,” said Oliver, leaning forward so his shadow fell over the desk. “Anything but Redgrove, Father.”
“It is decided,” snapped the duke. “There is nothing more to do but make arrangements. The duchess and Ethan are going to Bath in a few weeks. You will accompany them.”
“I will not,” Oliver said immediately. He could not think of a greater horror than being trapped in that hotbed of intrigue and gossip. “You know my feelings on the place.”
“Well, you will find something at any rate,” said the duke. “You might stay in the London house, I suppose.”
“Oh, no,” said Oliver. “I have a strict policy against staying anywhere with subpar bannisters.”
“Oliver!” said his father, though Oliver thought he saw a smile beneath the man’s bristling mustache. For a moment, Oliver dared to hope that his father would change his mind. “Stay with friends then.”
“So that is it for Redford?” Oliver demanded. “There is nothing I can say that will change your mind?”
“I am afraid so,” said the duke. “Are you done now? I have affairs to manage.” He ruffled the papers threateningly. Oliver reached out and tilted one of the papers so he could read it. When he saw the nature of the document, he groaned.
“More bills, father? What totally unnecessary item has the duchess bought this time? A dress to wear to the Crucifixion?”
“Oliver,” said the duke, now truly shocked. “That is enough.”
“She spends your money left, right, and center—”
“I will not hear of it,” roared the duke. “I absolutely will not, Oliver.” He cast about for his pipe and struck his flint with unnecessary force.
“The Duchess is bleeding you dry,” said Oliver. “You must know that.”
The duke leaned back in his desk chair and narrowed his eyes. “You are referring to your stepmother.”
Oh, how Oliver wished that were not true. The new Duchess of Meriwood was a woman too clever for her own good. Cold and calculating, she trusted no one but that fool Ethan. Between the two of them, they controlled the entirety of Oliver’s father’s finances.
Oliver allowed his mind to drift to the way things had been before his father’s second marriage. His father had been free, not a slave to the woman using him for his title and money. Oliver had been fifteen when the new duchess came to live with them. He had seen first-hand the shifting of power.
“Father,” Oliver said again, and took a deep breath. “I would as soon cut my tongue off as bite it. I cannot stand by any longer.”
“Stand by, stand by for what?” demanded the duke. “Are you truly this unhappy to see me with a woman I love? Your mother is gone, Oliver.”
Oliver turned white. His father had not referred to his late wife in years, and now he did so to throw it in Oliver’s face.
“That is unfair, Father,” cried Oliver. “Were I to compare any woman to my mother, I would likely find her short. Therefore, I compare none of them. I understand that you need companionship. But your companion is unworthy.”
In a sudden, jerky burst of movement, the duke rose from his desk and strode to the window, where he stood with his back to his son. His shoulders rose and fell quickly with his breath. “My son,” he said at last, quietly. “You will not call your stepmother unworthy. You will show her the respect a son owes a mother.”
“She is not my mother,” Oliver said warmly. “My mother would never sell Redgrove.”
“Is there anything else you wish to say?” said the duke, his voice carefully calm.
Oliver sat up as straight as he could and drew his shoulders back. “You must take back control of your finances, or you will have nothing else.” The duke did not respond. “Very well,” said Oliver. “If you are content to do nothing, I cannot bear witness. I am leaving, Father.” He waited for a response, but none came.
The study door shut behind Oliver with a click of finality. It was over. He marched down the hall, past a gawking scullery maid who hastily returned to dusting the fireplace, and out the front door. The country sun was high in the sky, and Oliver breathed in with a sense of relief.
The Marquess of Meriwood was no more.
Lord Marshall was staying for dinner.
Anna, Diana Douglass’s chamber maid, was the one who told her, all the while tightening Diana’s corset with strong, efficient tugs. “The earl told me. You’re to put on your best, you are. One of the new dresses would be best. The ones you ordered in London.”
“Lord Marshall has been over so many times of late,” Diana said, a little mournfully. A young woman of twenty years, Diana had striking dark blue eyes and golden hair that fell in soft curls. She was beautiful in a classical manner, though those who spoke with her often found they could not quite pin down what made her so attractive. She had a charm that went beyond her features, expressing itself in her light laugh and mischievous eyes.
Now, however, Diana stood stiffly. Her face was grim. She did not like Lord Marshall, with his stern, sunken face and cold, gloomy eyes. Most horrid of all were his hands, which were large and spindly like spiders. “He was with Father all day,” she said. “I wonder what they were talking about.”
“Business things,” Anna said vaguely. “You know how men like them are. Always working and working, never any rest. Lord Marshall is a good man. I am sure there is a tender side to his personality known only to his friends and family.”
“Maybe,” Diana said doubtfully. Privately, she had no confidence in the existence of any good side belonging to the man. But Diana was a polite, kind girl, and she resolved to do her best to make Lord Marshall feel welcome.
“Arms up, now,” said Anna, and Diana obediently lifted her arms as Anna helped her into her evening dress. The blue silk settled around her as softly as a cloud. For a moment, Anna and Diana studied the dress in the mirror. The silk, which was the dark blue of a winter sky, shimmered in the lamplight.
“Oh,” Diana said softly, fingering the fabric. Despite the unpleasant addition of Lord Marshall, Diana could not help but love her new gown.
“Right then,” Anna said, smoothing Diana’s skirts. “You look lovely, you do. Good enough to eat.” One of her worn hands pinched Diana’s cheek. Diana smiled falteringly. “Sit down and I’ll do your hair.”
Diana took her spot on the chair and leaned back so Anna could gather up the glistening golden strands. The sensation of Anna’s light tugging as she pulled Diana’s hair up into a braid soothed Diana, and she let her eyes drift close. “Anna?” she said quietly. “Do you think my father and Lord Marshall are planning something?”
“Now, what could they be planning?” said Anna. “You worry too much, miss. It would do you good to take a holiday. To Bath, perhaps.”
“Now?” laughed Diana. “When the Season is about to begin?”
“You never know,” Anna said. “Perhaps they are planning a surprise. Turn your head to the right. A little farther. Perfect.”
When Diana’s hair was safely pinned out of the way, Anna brought out the jewelry. The pearl earrings were heavy in Diana’s ears, and the necklace was cold. A chill went down Diana’s back, and, shuddering, she wrapped her arms around herself.
“I’ll fetch your shawl, love,” said Anna.
“No, I am all right,” said Diana. “Thank you, Anna.” With a rustling of skirts, Diana sat on one of her armchairs. She had to be very careful not to crush her dress, though come to think of it, she did not think it wise to wear her best clothes in front of Lord Marshall. She hated the thought of his eyes on her body.
“Anna?” said Diana. “Do you think something bad is going to happen?”
“Sometimes,” said Anna. “You cannot go around and only experience the good. Presently, however, I think the both of us are safe. Why would something bad happen?”
“It is something in my father’s eyes, perhaps,” Diana said uncertainly. “He looks at me as if I were Isaac on the altar.”
“Isaac on the altar!” cried Anna. “What a funny way to put it. You have quite the imagination.”
“I am so tired of adults praising my imagination instead of listening to what I am saying!” said Diana.
Anna came to where Diana was sitting and pressed one of Diana’s hands between her own. “Tell me, Diana. What is it you think is going to happen?”
“It is something between him and Lord Marshall,” Diana said. “I am sure of it.”
“There is nothing more going on than a business arrangement,” Anna said firmly. “Your father has made many in the past. Worrying will give you wrinkles, you know.”
Diana laughed a little for Anna’s benefit, and said, though she was still uneasy, “You are such a dear, Anna.”
Anna patted Diana on the cheek. “There you go, love. Look at yourself. You look just like your mother.”
Diana ducked her head. “Thank you, Anna,” she said softly.
As a last touch, Anna dabbed perfume behind Diana’s ears and at her wrists. “There,” she said, standing back and beaming at her work.
“Do I have to go down just yet?” said Diana, but she had scarcely finished the question when a knock came at the door. It was a maid, come to tell Diana it was time for dinner. Diana impulsively wrapped Anna in a hug. For a moment, with her head buried in Anna’s starchy-smelling apron, all was safe.
“Time to go,” Anna said at last, gently unpeeling Diana’s arms from around Anna’s middle and pushing her out the bedroom door. Diana descended the front staircase with a smile fixed on her face. Below her, her father and Lord Marshall spoke with their heads close together.
“Father,” she said when she reached them, and Lord Douglass, Earl of Winthrop, turned a beaming face on his daughter. Judging by the redness on both their faces, he and Lord Marshall had clearly partaken in pre-dinner drinks.
“Diana, my dear. Say hello to Lord Marshall.”
“Hello, Lord Marshall,” Diana said, stuffing away her disgust and raising a hand for the lord to kiss. He brushed his wormy lips against the back of her white glove.
“Well, then,” said Lord Douglass. “Shall we?”
“We shall,” said Lord Marshall, holding out his elbow for Diana to take. She did, though not without a well-concealed wince.
The cook had outdone herself that night: for the first course there were jellies, and fillet of sole for the fish course, and beef, and carrots with a brown-honey glaze on the side. Diana, whose slim and attractive figure belied her lively appetite, found she could not eat a thing. Instead, she picked at her food, her eyes downcast.
“Your daughter is even more beautiful than last I saw,” said Lord Marshall, wiping his mouth with his napkin. “You guard her carefully, I assume.”
“I am not a thing to be guarded,” Diana said before she could stop herself. Lord Marshall’s lips parted, but he said nothing, and Diana’s father watched anxiously. At last, Lord Marshall broke into laughter. After a few seconds, Diana’s father joined in nervously.
“She has a mouth on her,” said Lord Marshall. “Her husband will have to do something about that.”
What a beast! thought Diana. She tried to cut into her dinner, but found she was trembling. The wine sloshed inside her goblet when she lifted it to her lips. A little spilled on her plate, and she flushed.
“Yes, I have often tried to blunt Diana’s tongue, but she is a spitfire,” said Lord Douglass, laughing. “Much too independent. I expect ‘tis something to do with her not having a mother.”
“Yes, motherless girls are a difficult breed,” said Lord Marshall, touching his fingertips together as if he were about to impart crucial information. “One finds they have not the subtler charms of their fillial counterparts.”
Lord Douglass frowned and thought this over, a little too drunk to tell whether or not he should be offended. “I do not think Diana has come out too terribly, in the end.”
“To be sure, Diana has many admirable qualities,” said Lord Marshall. “Do you not, Miss Douglass?”
Diana glanced at Lord Marshall. His face was too blank to read. What was he playing at? “I have been told so, sometimes,” she said demurely. “I am not the last word on my attributes. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
“And she is witty!” cried Lord Marshall. Lord Douglass laughed in relief and poured Lord Marshall more wine. Diana hid her confusion with another sip of wine. Lord Marshall had come to dinner before, but he had never acted in such a way. He was too jovial, too sure of himself.
“Diana has been working on her paintings,” said Lord Douglass. “She is very talented.”
Lord Marshall raised his brows. “I also hear she is the finest voice in London.”
“A girl of many talents,” agreed Lord Douglass. They were discussing her as if she were not even there. Diana did not like it.
“Lord Marshall was telling me of his country estate earlier,” said Lord Douglass. “You would love it, Diana. Apparently, it is overrun with cats.”
“Is it really?” said Diana, despite herself.
“Oh, yes,” said Lord Marshall. “You will see them one day.” His voice was ominous. For a wild moment, Diana imagined him forcing her into a carriage and kidnapping her to his country home, where she would be locked up and fed nothing but bread and water and—oh, dear. Clearly, Diana’s Gothic novels were getting to her.
“You would like that, would not you Diana?” said her father.
“Yes, very much so,” Diana said politely. “I would love to hear more about your estate.”
“It is quite large,” said Lord Marshall. “You will love the duck pond.”
“And the library?” said Diana. Lord Marshall smirked.
“Ah, I see you. You are a woman of words.”
Diana had the unpleasant feeling that Lord Marshall was mocking her. She bit her lip and looked resolutely at the window. The red velvet curtains were drawn back, revealing the starry night sky. She wished she were out there, breathing in the cold night air, instead of stuck up in the stuffy dining room with a man who frightened her so.
“Diana reads perhaps too much,” said Diana’s father when she did not respond. “Sometimes I fear the books will turn her brain.”
“Women should never read novels,” Lord Marshall said firmly. “It turns them uncouth.”
Diana clutched her fork so hard that her knuckles turned white. Lord Douglass coughed awkwardly. “What pastime would you recommend, Lord Marshall?”
“For a woman?” said Lord Marshall. “Sewing, singing, painting. All things Diana does well, as we have established.”
“I am afraid I must disagree,” said Diana. “I drop stitches all the time, and I often miss the notes. My paintings of people look more like pictures of cabbages.” She was frightened at her own daring, and her heart pounded. Lord Douglass looked a little ill.
“Hmm,” Lord Marshall said, putting down his fork and staring at her. She squirmed under his calculating gaze. It was like he was sizing up a piece of meat. “I suppose I shall have to judge for myself. Will you sing for me before I leave London?”
“I should be happy to,” lied Diana. Luckily, the conversation moved to topics upon which she had nothing to contribute: shipping routes, the price of spices from the Indies. Diana was just settling into her thoughts when an unpleasant voice dragged her back out.
“Miss Douglass, I hear you toured the continent the summer last,” said Lord Marshall. “Do tell me your favorite place.”
“Paris,” Diana said immediately. Her heart picked up just thinking about the city. “It is so lovely, and I love the language.”
“Diana speaks French like a Frenchwoman,” boasted Lord Douglass.
“Really?” said Lord Marshall. “I have found that it is difficult for women to acquire other languages. It requires complex machinations of the brain that members of the fairer sex simply do not have.”
Diana cast a desperate look at her father, who deliberately avoided her gaze. “Ah, perhaps,” he said. “Diana’s mother was part French, so it may be in the blood.”
“The Lady Douglass,” said Lord Marshall, his voice lingering over her name in a manner that felt almost obscene. “She was a lovely woman.”
“You knew my mother?” said Diana.
“You are almost as lovely as she was,” said Lord Marshall.
“Thank you,” said Diana. There was a silence, during which Diana could hear children playing on the street. She would have thought it was much too late for children to be out, but perhaps their parents were more permissive than hers had been. She longed for the freedom they had.
“This is overcooked,” Lord Marshall said, frowning at his dish. “You should have a word with your cook.”
“I think it is quite good,” Diana said loyally. In truth, the beef was overcooked, but Lord Marshall was being shockingly rude. Diana could scarcely believe the things he was saying. How could her father not see what a terrible man he was?
But her father just laughed and nodded at everything Lord Marshall said. Whatever they had been talking about all day, it was enough to make Lord Douglass anxious to please the other man. Lord Marshall had her father under his thumb, and Diana wanted to know why.
“Lord Marshall,” she said, “you have been to the Indies, have you not? I should like to hear about your travels.”
“Yes, I spent the last four years there, employed by the Dutch West India Company,” Lord Marshall said, swirling his wine.
“I have often wished to go,” said Diana. “My Grand Tour left me with a thirst for adventure.”
“I fear it returned her even more adventurous than before she left,” Lord Douglass said solemnly.
“The Indies are no place for a woman,” Lord Marshall said firmly. “A woman would be lost in the crowds and might make silly decisions because of the heat.”
“I suppose,” Diana said, longing for time to speed up. “I find my faculties much the same no matter the weather, but perhaps you are speaking from experience?”
“I am a member of the Biological Society,” Lord Marshall said flatly. “It is a known scientifical fact that the female’s skull releases heat with sixty-seven percent more inefficiency than the male’s.”
Diana bit her lip and tried not to laugh. “All right, Lord Marshall. I will take your word for it.”
Luckily, dessert was soon served. Afterwards, Lord Marshall and Lord Douglass retired to the latter’s study. Diana went to her chambers with relief.
She was in her nightgown when her father sent Anna for her, and she worried all the way down the hall. Her thoughts were frantic. What could her father possibly have to say to her? Did it have to do with Lord Marshall? The sinking feeling in Diana’s stomach told her it had everything to do with Lord Marshall.
When she arrived at her father’s study, Lord Douglass was seated at his great mahogany desk, drinking something from a small cup and scribbling in the margins of a document. He made her wait for almost five minutes before putting down his quill pen and waving her in.
“Father,” she said, taking the chair across from his. “You called for me?”
“Yes, my darling.” Her father’s face was grave. “I have something to discuss with you. It is of the utmost importance.” Diana bowed her head to show that she was listening. “I will make this brief. Lord Marshall has asked for your hand in marriage.”
Diana gasped and leaned forward. “Father, you cannot mean—!”
“I gave him my blessings,” her father continued. “Tomorrow, he is coming to ask for your hand. You will say yes, of course.”
Lord Douglass’s words struck his daughter such a blow that for a moment she could think nothing at all. Her thoughts refused to work. Her, Diana Douglass, marrying Lord Marshall? He was bad enough on the other side of the table, but sharing a home with him? Sharing a bed?
“Of course,” Diana said numbly. She knew that any protestation would fall on stubbornly deaf ears. Her father would not care; Lord Marshall even less so. She was nothing more than a pawn in their game of chess. “Is that all?”
Lord Douglass looked surprised at his good fortune. Clearly, he had been expecting a fight. “Er, yes. I suppose that is all.”
Diana nodded and rose, stubbornly holding back tears. “Good night, Father.”
His face, when he looked at her, was surprisingly tender. “Good night, my dear. Sleep well.”
“Thank you, Father,” said Diana, though sleeping well was the last thing on her mind. Even as she left his study, her mind whirred furiously. Adults had always said she was too smart for her own good, and now she knew why. Perhaps it would be better to stay and marry Lord Marshall, but she simply could not do it. The thought was repulsive.
In her room, Diana threw herself across her bed and wept. This was not the future she wanted for herself. She did not care about rank or money. Her parents had married for love. Why not her?
“Enough is enough,” Diana said to herself, sitting up and wiping her eyes. “I must be brave. I shall take action.”
To Diana, taking action meant dressing herself in her oldest dress and wrapping herself in her oldest shawl. She placed a few changes of clothes in her carpet bag, leaving behind the most valuable dresses. They would have no place in her new life.
Lord Douglass went to bed at ten every night, and at midnight Diana crept down to the pantry, where she took a loaf of bread and two dry sausages and a jar of gooseberry jam. Her last stop was the front hall, where her father’s coat hung from the coat rack. Guiltily, Diana dipped her hand into one of its sagging pockets and slipped the money found there into her pocket. She hated stealing from her father, but she knew she would need money on the road.
She left through the kitchen door and stood uncertainty on the back steps. Did she dare leave her home and everything she knew? But the alternative was too terrible to be considered. With a deep breath, Diana threw back her shoulders and marched down the alleyway and into the city.
It was early when Lord Marshall awoke, and he lay for a while in the dark room, plotting and planning. These were both things he was good at, and so he did them quite a lot. He also liked to plot and plan in luxury, and his bed was certainly that. Extravagantly large, with golden bedposts and red curtains, the bed was exactly the sort of thing upon which Lord Marshall had squandered his once handsome inheritance.
It was also the only piece of furniture in he room. With the curtains drawn, however, Lord Marshall could pretend that his room was filled with all its old luxuries. Perhaps it was not true, but Lord Marshall was very good at deceiving himself. Otherwise, he would never have had the bravery to carry out his schemes.
Lord Marshall lived on schemes. He abhorred honest work. At first, his chief mode of making money was at cards, but as he was not very good at it, he had squandered his entire fortune on the horrid game. After that he had tried selling false jewels, but that had come crashing down when the man who made the jewels was sentenced to hard labor for forgery.
At present, Lord Marshall had two main schemes to work his way out of his self-caused poverty. Both of them had to do with Lord Douglass, whom Lord Marshall had accurately picked as an easy mark. One of the schemes had been a long time in the making, and now it was finally going to come to fruition. He was going to make Diana Douglass into Diana Marshall, thereby taking her dowry and any forthcoming salary she was entitled to as the daughter of an earl.
“Dodgeworth!” Lord Marshall cried, ringing the bell by his bed. “Dodgeworth!”
Dodgeworth, Lord Marshall’s personal butler, bustled into the room. He had with him Lord Marshall’s breakfast, which was oatmeal with syrup and honey served in a jade bowl on a silver platter. Also on the platter was a mug of rich Turkish coffee worth its weight in gold. Lord Marshall ate enthusiastically.
“Congratulate me, Dodgeworth,” Lord Marshall said grandly. “This time tomorrow, the Society section will have a notice about one Lord Marshall’s engagement to one Miss Douglass.”
“Miss Douglass has accepted your hand in marriage?” said Dodgeworth, halfway through pulling open the brocade curtains. It was already midmorning, the sun high in the sky. It was now possible to see that besides the bed, Lord Marshall’s room had not much else. Worn patches on the floor marked places where other pieces of furniture had once stood.
“Not as yet, but her father assures me she will,” said Lord Marshall, a touch of annoyance in his tone. “He is eager to have us married for he thinks I will make a good business partner.” Lord Marshall roared with laughter. “And here I am with little more than pennies to my name!”
Dodgeworth chuckled politely. “Quite good, my lord. Quite good.”
Even more than Lord Douglass knew rested on the proposal; it was all Lord Marshall could do to keep his house in St. John’s Wood. Luckily, marriage to Diana would change all that. She came with a handsome salary, and Lord Marshall looked forward to reaping its benefits. And there was, of course, the business with the ships.
“Get Tom to ready the horses, will you?”
“Yes, sir,” said Dodgeworth, picking up the empty, crumb-strewn platter and folding up the newspaper. “I wish you the best of luck, sir.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it,” Lord Marshall said haughtily. “I see what I want, and I take it, Dodgeworth. It is about grit, you see. Grit and determination and a little thing called wits.”
“Of course, sir.” Dodgeworth bowed his way out of the room, and Lord Marshall grunted in satisfaction. He was the sort of man who hid his insecurities by demanding absurd obsequiousness from his servants.
When Dodgeworth came back with the news that Tom was getting ready, Lord Marshall grunted again. He allowed Dodgeworth to replace his red dressing gown and slippers with going-out clothes, chewing on his pipe the whole while. The tobacco was first-grade from the Americas, bought on credit, and Lord Marshall planned to enjoy it.
“Lovely morning, sir,” said Tom when Lord Marshall went outside.
“That it is indeed,” agreed Lord Marshall, stepping up into the coach. As the carriage trundled down the street, he rubbed his hands together, scarcely able to hold back his glee. He simply could not wait to secure Diana’s hand.
Outside, flower girls hawked their wares on the street corners, pretty faces lit up with pleasing smiles. Lord Marshall’s gaze lingered on them perhaps a little too long for a man about to propose to his future wife, and his thin lips twisted into a cold smile.
All in all, Lord Marshall was in a good mood when the carriage pulled up to the Earl of Winthrop. However, when Lord Marshall entered the household, he found it in an uproar.
“Oh dear,” said Mrs. Brown, the housekeeper. “Do sit down, Lord Marshall, and I’ll get the master of the house. He will be able to explain better than I. Oh, I just saw her last night! It is dreadfully frightening. But she is gone, you see.”
“Gone?” said Lord Marshall, his face darkening. “What do you mean, gone?”
“Not in her bed this morning,” twittered Mrs. Brown. She settled Lord Marshall in the drawing room and wrung her hands. “You wait here, sir, I’ll be right back with Lord Douglass. Oh dear! Oh dear!”
“That girl!” He pounded furiously on the arm of the couch. Already, his pronouncements to Dodgeworth seemed foolishly hasty. Lord Marshall had forgotten a matter of key importance: the girl had a mind of her own.
“Lord Marshall,” said Lord Douglass, hurrying into the room. The usually proper earl was in a state of dishevelment, his face unshaven, his hair uncombed, and his shirt untucked. His jaw trembled as he spoke. “Apologies, my good sir. I simply cannot apologize enough. I have utterly no idea, no idea at all, where that girl has run off to.” At this, Lord Douglass collapsed into the armchair.
“You had better find her,” Lord Marshall returned. “You promised me her hand.”
“And you shall have it,” the earl assured him. “You shall have it, my good man. We will track her down. Oh, I cannot help but worry about Diana, all on her own.”
At this, a change came over Lord Marshall. Breathing heavily, he arranged his features into a look of mournfulness. “You are right, of course. I am sorry for any unpleasantries on my part; I am simply so worried about the poor lost girl. To think of the things a woman like her could get up to… well, it does not bear thinking on.”
“Of course not,” said Lord Douglass, mopping at his forehead with a handkerchief.
“Now, the chief thing is keeping this under wraps,” Lord Marshall said reasonably. “It would not do at all for the silly girl to ruin her reputation before our marriage.”
“There is no need to tell anyone of her disappearance,” Lord Douglass assured him. “I certainly would not think of it. We will tell anyone who wants to know that she is in the countryside visiting her cousins. Her mother’s brother is a rector, you know. Or maybe we could say she is with her aunt in Bath.”
“Yes, yes,” Lord Marshall said distractedly. “How do you propose finding her? Has she any confidantes we might question? Among the servants, perhaps?”
“Oh, no, not the servants.” said Lord Douglass. At last, he was regaining some of his composure, his face fading from red to its ordinary blush. His handkerchief went back in his pocket. “I trust all of them.”
“Lord Douglass,” Lord Marshall said, “I do not wish to overstep my welcome. But do you not think that you are being, perhaps, a little too naive? A girl of twenty years can scarcely run off on her own without any assistance.”
“Perhaps,” Lord Douglass said uncertainty. He removed his spectacles and wiped them jerkily on his handkerchief. “Yes, I suppose we will have to question them.”
“I commend you on not losing your wits,” Lord Marshall said kindly.
“It is just, I cannot think of a single reason she would run away,” said Lord Douglass. “Except, of course, well. Marrying you.”
“And marry her I will,” Lord Marshall said nastily. “Upon that point we are agreed.”
Lord Douglass sighed and rubbed his temples. “Yes, we are agreed,” he said in a strained voice. “There is simply so much going on. I’ve been having trouble with my boats, you know.”
Oh, I know, thought Lord Marshall, but he schooled his expression into one of polite worry. “Yes?”
“Let us just say, I look forward to going into business with you,” said Lord Douglass. “Though the most important thing right now is finding my daughter.”
“I quite agree,” Lord Marshall assured him. “In fact, I would not think of doing anything else. Considering what happened to the girl’s mother, you must find this particularly trying.” There was a reason Lord Marshall was considered abrasive by the ton. Luckily, Lord Douglass was always the pinnacle of politeness.
“It is hard,” Lord Douglass conceded, his eyes closed as if he were in pain. “She has been my good companion since she was just a little girl. I never would have expected this from her.”
“Ah, well, we are often betrayed by people we consider friends,” said Lord Marshall, eager to move the conversation to something less sentimental. His words had the opposite effect.
“She is my daughter!” said Lord Douglass. “And she did not even leave a note.”
“Many people run away without notes,” said Lord Marshall. “It is the thing these days. Is this painting new?”
Lord Douglass ignored this. “We need to make a plan.”
“Yes,” said Lord Marshall, relieved. “A plan is just the thing.”
“Come,” said Lord Douglass. “We will speak in my study.” The two men exited the room, one worrying about the young Miss Douglass, and one cursing her name.
That night, Lord Douglass lay awake. No matter how he tossed and turned, there was no position comfortable enough to cradle him into sleep. The last time he had slept so poorly had been when Emma Douglass died. Like Diana, Emma had been an independent soul, always ready for adventure. He wondered what Emma would say to him now if he were here. It occurred to him that she would not be very pleased to know her only child had been misplaced. His thoughts went round and round like a spinning top.
At Lord Douglass sat up in bed and rang for a candle. Once it was lit, though, Lord Douglass realized he had nothing he wanted to read or write. He took a sheet of paper and a quill, but no words came.
He got it into his head to look through his desk, which he unlocked with a silver key he wore around his neck. He flipped through the papers, quickly finding what he was after: the betrothal document stating that Miss Diana Douglass was to marry Lord Edward Marshall. Lord Marshall had the other copy.
At last Lord Douglass had to concede that staring at it yielded no answers, and he put it back into the desk drawer. On this search of the drawer, he found a stack of old letters tied together with a ribbon whose color had faded away. They were letters between his late wife and himself before they had been married. He ruffled them with a thumb before putting those back, too.
Lord Douglass snuffed the candle and got back into bed. It took him until dawn to fall asleep.
In the little coastal town of Pitchings, wild waves crashed onto the shore.
The wind was so loud that one felt one had to shout in order to be heard. The rain would start any minute now. It was, Oliver Evans thought gloomily, a dark and stormy night. He was standing at the kitchen window, trying and failing to find the moon through the clouds.
Normally, storms were a matter of routine for Oliver Evans. As a lighthouse keeper, he knew the ships at sea relied on him to steer them away from the dangerous rocks near the shore. It was an honest job but not overly complicated, and Oliver had enough time both to run the lighthouse and pursue his main line of work, novel-writing.
Unfortunately for Oliver and the ships at sea, someone had hired wrecking boats to destroy merchant ships near the Pitchings lighthouse.
Using a false lighthouse light, the wrecking boats were able to confuse the large ships into crashing into the rocks, thereby destroying ships’ worth of merchandise and damaging the merchant ships beyond repair.
The best time for the wrecking boats—and the worst time for Oliver—was during thunderstorms, when the merchant ships would not be able to see the lighthouse or the ships, just the bright lights.
As surely as he knew his own name, Oliver knew that the wrecking ships would be back tonight.
“What are you looking at?” said Mrs. Fletcher, coming up behind him. “I hope you are not thinking what I think you are, Oliver.”
“I must,” said Oliver. He dropped the curtain and rubbed his tired eyes. “You know it is my responsibility.”
“Is it your responsibility to die for this lighthouse?” Mrs. Fletcher demanded. “When my husband took you on, he did not mean you to do battle for it.”
“You know as well as I do that your husband would have already solved the problem,” Oliver said.
“He never had to solve this particular problem,” said Mrs. Fletcher. “He never had to deal with wreckers. They are dangerous men, Oliver, and the storm even more so.”
Oliver sat at the table to lace up his boots.
“You must not go out there,” Mrs. Fletcher said worriedly. “You simply cannot, Oliver.”
Oliver smiled wanly. “You worry too much, Mrs. Fletcher. I will be right as rain.”
“And rain you shall get,” returned his housekeeper, folding a towel with a snap of her wrists. “You will catch a cold, and then where will you be?”
“Why, I will have you to take care of me,” Oliver said.
Mrs Fletcher tried again. “Must you?” she said, one red-knuckled hand hovering over Oliver’s arm. He shook his head firmly.
“I must catch these monstrous boat wreckers. I do not do this for my own pleasure. You must not forget that they have killed men by luring ships into the rocks with their deceitful beacons.”
Mrs. Fletcher shook her head. “How anyone could be that evil, I’ll never know. It is a disgrace to the human name.”
Oliver agreed. Wreckers, men who were paid to sink boats and thereby fortunes, were leeches. Even worse, however, was their mysterious patron, the mad mind behind all this evil.
Unfortunately, Oliver was no closer to knowing who was behind all this than he had been the first time a merchant ship was wrecked on the rocks near the lighthouse.
“Let me at least get you something to eat,” said Mrs. Fletcher, pressing Oliver into a chair. They were seated in the groundskeeper’s kitchen, a cosy, homey room warmed by a crackling fire and filled with the scent of baking bread. It was, all in all, not an unpleasant life.
He had found great peace at the lighthouse, especially after the turmoil he had been experiencing in his home. It had already been almost two years ever since Oliver left his home behind and, to this day, he never regretted his decision.
Oliver was an author, and he usually found the lighthouse work a soothing scaffold on which to pin his days. He would do his writing before a window in order to see the sea. Mainly, he liked living on his own, with good Mrs. Fletcher to keep him company. If it weren’t for those blasted wreckers!
“I worry about you so,” Mrs. Fletcher murmured. “No, do not move, I’ll get you something to eat on your journey.”
“My journey?” said Oliver. “I will scarcely leave the shore.” However, he paused at the door and worried at his fishing jacket. It was not displeasing to watch Mrs. Fletcher bustle about knowing it was on his account, but Oliver was impatient.
“You will not try to fight them, will you?” said Mrs. Fletcher.
“Of course not,” Oliver said with a reassuring smile. “It is usually enough to flash my lantern light at them.”
“You will bring your pistol?” said Mrs. Fletcher.
“Yes,” said Oliver. “Thought I doubt I shall need to use it.”
“You never know,” Mrs. Fletcher said darkly. “Anything can happen during a storm.”
Oliver looked at her with a wry expression. “Has anyone told you that you have a touch of the dramatic, Mrs. Fletcher?”
“Never,” swore Mrs. Fletcher, wrapping a loaf of walnut bread in cheesecloth and pressing into Oliver’s hands. “There ye go, my dear. This will keep you company on your watch.”
“Thank you,” Oliver said fervently, tucking the bread into his pocket. “I will appreciate this later, I know.”
“It is nothing,” Mrs. Fletcher said, watching him anxiously. “Oh, do be careful, Oliver. These are not men to be taken lightly. They had sooner crash your little boat than speak with you.”
Oliver paused and looked at Mrs. Fletcher. She had felt like a mother to him ever since he took over the lighthouse from her ailing husband two years ago. With Mr. Fletcher gone, they were all the other had.
“I know it,” Oliver said solemnly. He kissed Mrs. Fletcher’s hand, and she swatted him with her rag.
“Get on, then,” she said.
Outside, the late evening air was chilled and gusty. Oliver shivered helplessly as he undid the rope anchoring his little craft to shore and rowed out beyond the rocks.
His teeth chattering, Oliver burrowed down in his jacket and watched the dark waves. Perhaps he had not been entirely honest with Mrs. Fletcher. It was not all about the wreckers. He liked to feel useful, and lately his life had felt stagnated. Maybe this would cure him.
A momentary pang struck his heart. It would be nice, he thought, to share this night with someone else. Alas, he was pledged to a life of loneliness and estrangement. “Pull yourself together, Oliver,” he muttered. It would not do to lose himself in his thoughts when he had a job such as this to accomplish.
Then, suddenly, lights floated from the distance. They bobbed on the water like will-o’-the-wisp. Oliver readied his oars and paddled towards the yellow lights. It had been a long day already, and his arms ached, but he was resolute. He would get to the bottom of this mystery! And yet the closer he got, the farther away the lights appeared.
Two could play this game, he decided. Rounding his back, he directed all his considerable strength into his arms. His boat cut through the water like a knife, though his breath came heavily, and the cold air froze his lungs and scraped his throat. He had to pause in order to cough, his entire frame shaking.
“Now, then,” he muttered, and once again picked up the pace. It felt almost as if he were flying along the surface of the water on the force of his determination. The lights beckoned like a second lighthouse, which was the point. Ships at sea would get confused and end up sinking themselves on the rocks.
Oliver growled. He would not allow that to happen. His back and arms were on fire, but Oliver refused to let that slow him down. What was a little pain in the face of human life? Boat crashes could end in death, and Oliver hated the thought that he was in any way responsible for any man who never made it home.
If he did not do his best to halt these villains, it would be his fault, in a way. Oliver hoped they would not notice him approaching. But the lights were definitely shrinking. Oliver groaned and did his best to cover the distance.
A prayer found its way to Oliver’s lips. Salt spray wet his face and stung his eyes. His ears burned in the cold, and he wished he had time to pull down his cap.
The lights were leading him on a fruitless chase, but he could not give up, not now when he was so close. His stomach growled, and he thought plaintively of the walnut loaf tucked beneath his jacket. There was no time, of course.
Oh, if Oliver’s old friends could see him now, chasing down ghosts! It was almost too much. How had this become Oliver’s life? He shook this thought out of his head. Like it or not, it was his life now, and he had a duty as the keeper of the lighthouse to all the ships that found their way home by its light.
But it appeared that he might not be so lucky tonight. The lights were withdrawing into the mist, no matter how hard Oliver paddled.
At last, he had to admit defeat and bring himself back to shore. He threw down his oars in disgust and dropped his head into his hands. It was not shame he felt, nor mournfulness, but a deep exhaustion. He yawned widely and staggered off his ship.
Tomorrow night, he resolved. Tomorrow night, he would get closer to solving the problem of the wreckers.
At least it is not raining.
Diana thought that if it were to rain, she would dissolve into most unladylike tears. She was far enough from London that she had stopped looking over her shoulder at every sudden sound, but the hours spent cooped up in the stagecoach had gotten to her. Each step sent a pulse of pain through her legs, and she felt most like a dissatisfied child who just wanted to be warm and well-fed and hugged by a nurse.
“That part of your life is over, Diana Douglass,” she said, still marching along the side of the road. “You must take care of yourself now.” This was a lonely thought, but Diana was resolved to bear it. Beneath her pretty face and figure, she carried a will as strong as iron. And at last, she had reached her first village.
Like all respectable villages, this one had an inn, and it was here Diana resolved to stay until the first stagecoach in a few days. It had been a mistake to think she could run away on her own two feet. She would have to take the stagecoach. To where, she did not know, but anywhere that was not with him—as she privately referred to Lord Marshall—would be all right.
The inn was a respectable three stories, with a large stable in the back and a busy front room. Diana hesitated on the threshold, taking in the full tables and armchairs. She gravitated unconsciously toward the fire, eager to warm her frozen bones.
“Excuse me, miss,” said a voice, “but this room is for paying customers only. Can I get you some refreshments?”
Diana turned to see a short man with a long mustache and dull eyes. Weariness soaked into his features. He was clearly the overworked sort. “Y-yes,” she stammered. “Something to eat would be lovely, too. And I need a place to stay, but I am afraid I have not got much to pay with.” Tears sprang into her eyes, and she desperately blinked them away. It would not do to burst into tears!
The man’s face softened, and he gestured for her to take a seat. “I’ll get you something, miss, and then I’m sure my wife will be able to put you to work for it. Can ye cook and clean?”
“Yes,” Diana said doubtfully. After all, she had been raised by an earl, and had never been in such a position before. However, she doubted it would be all that hard to pick up. Anna managed it just fine. Yes, she could do it.
The food, when it came, was simple yet filling. Diana drank her mead down to the last drop and, though it made her blush, mopped up the last of her soup with a heel of bread. After all, when in Rome, thought Diana. When she was finished, the innkeeper led her into the kitchen to meet his wife.
“Do not tell me you expect this girl to be good for anything?” said his wife, looking down her formidable nose at Diana. With her strong features and stature, she looked like a Roman statue. All in all, she was quite intimidating to poor Diana. Evidently, she intimidated her husband as well, who ducked his head.
“She assures me she can work,” he said.
“Oh, she assures you?” said the wife, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “Did she tell you she could fly as well? Look at the state of her! Scarcely more than a bird. She looks like a good wind could do her in.”
Diana bristled at this. “Give me a chance,” she said, trying not to betray her desperation. “I promise I can do it.”
“Let her at least fill in for Liz,” he said.
“What, replace one useless layabout with another?”
“I am not a layabout!” said Diana.
The woman’s thin lips twitched the tiniest bit. “At least you are not a coward. All right. I’m Lora, and this miserable lump is John.” She nodded at her husband. “You’ll treat us with the utmost respect, you will, or you’ll be out on your backside before you can say the Lord’s Prayer three times fast.”
Privately unsure why she would want to say the Lord’s Prayer three times fast, Diana nodded. “Of course, ma’am.”
Lora huffed again. “Well then, get out of here John, and take her things with you while you’re at it. She can sleep in the maids’ quarters. Give John your things, sweetling.” She flung the sweetling at Diana like a weapon.
“Oh,” Diana said softly, turning over her pack of clothes and money. “I would hoped to keep this on me.”
“And drop it in the soup?” demanded Lora. “The kitchen is crowded enough as it is. John will take care of it.”
“All right,” Diana said doubtfully, giving her pack to John. He gave her one last smile and disappeared into the main room. Diana obediently followed Lora to the stove, where a giant pot of potatoes and meat was simmering.
“Watch this,” Lora commanded. “Fill it when it needs filling. You hear me?”
“Yes,” said Diana, though she had never watched or filled a pot in her life. When Lora stalked away, Diana breathed a sigh of relief. For a moment, she had feared that Lora would stand over her shoulder the whole night. How unpleasant that would be!
From her vantage by the stove, Diana finally looked around the kitchen. It was small and cramped, but the worse offense was its horrid, oppressive heat. Sweat prickled beneath Diana’s arms, and she swallowed uncomfortably. She wanted water but was not sure who to ask.
Besides Lora, there was a serving girl, who would dash up to Diana every now and then and ask for a bowl of stew. This was easy enough, for all Diana had to do was ladle some of the meat and potatoes into a bowl and hand it to the serving girl. After a while, though, the level in the pot dipped to a point that might be called scarce.
“Oh, dear,” Diana murmured. Fear set her heart beating fast. She knew she had to do something, but what? “Meat and potatoes. Meat and potatoes.” She looked around the kitchen, but it was empty of people.
Uncertainly, Diana walked over to a selection of giant brown sacks in the corner. One of them was filled with a rough grain, but the other had potatoes! Grinning at her luck, Diana filled her apron with the root vegetables and brought them back to the stew pot.
Now what? The potatoes in the pot had definitely been chopped up, but now Diana realized she had no idea how to cut potatoes. Was she supposed to do something with them before putting them in the pot? She thought back to the books she had read, but the heroines had never had to do anything like this.
The kitchen door opened at the serving girl popped in her head. “You’re to get more bread in the stove, miss. The ingredients are on the table, there.” Diana followed the maid’s finger to a scarred wooden table. There was a bowl of flour, a cup of water, a bowl of a dark dough that smelled like feet, and a larger, empty mixing bowl.
Now Diana was truly lost. “Potatoes first,” she said out loud. She sorted through the knives, trying to divine which one should be used for vegetables.
The smallest knife was the size of her palm, the largest almost as long as her forearm. It was this she decided on, for it looked the sharpest. Unfortunately, its unwieldiness worked against Diana.
“Oh!” she gasped, as a trickle of blood fell on the potatoes. She desperately cast about for a rag, at last wiping her hand on an apron hanging by the door.
How had Anna never told her how hard cooking was? Diana felt a new appreciation for all the meals she had taken for granted.
The bread! Diana raced over to the table and stared in dismay at the ingredients. Now, just how was bread made? She picked up the flour and put it back down. Perhaps this was for a new loaf, and she should put the bowl full of dough in the stove?
Yes, that must be it, she decided. She knew that bread got larger once it was baked, and even though this dough did not look large enough for one roll, perhaps she did not understand bread’s rising ability. She dumped the dough onto a wooden tray and fed it into the stove.
Now Diana needed to find the meat. She ran around the kitchen, frantically opening cabinets and raising lids. At last, Diana uncovered a bloody steak beneath cheesecloth. She stared at it. Was this supposed to go into the stew? Fear of failure made her light-headed, and she fell into a hard, wooden chair.
“Pull yourself together,” she said out loud, and stood back up, clutching the back of the chair as a sudden dizziness came over her. She closed her eyes and breathed through it.
“What are you doing?” cried Lora, rushing into the room. Diana’s eyes snapped open. “This is no time to be lazing about. We have a full house tonight, you silly girl. Move, move!” Lora bustled over to the stoveand withdrew the wooden tray. A vein popped in her forehead.
“You idiot! You put the starter in the stove!” Lora said after examining the current situation in the kitchen.
“The starter?” Diana said, faltering. “I thought… was that not the bread?”
“Of course not!” said Lora, dumping the tray on the table and looking furious. “That was the yeast starter. You have gone and baked it, you stupid girl. You have probably ruined the stew, too. Yes, you have. How many potatoes did you put in here? Where is the meat?”
“I did not know,” Diana said quietly. “I apologize, miss. I thought…”
“The problem is you did not think,” said Lora angrily. “I knew you were an imbecile. I should skin John alive.”
“It’s not his fault,” Diana said immediately. “I am so sorry. I thought that I would be able to cook, but I suppose I have made a mess of things. I cannot apologize enough.”
“True enough,” Lora retorted, though she seemed a little mollified. “You’ll switch with Lily, then. Lily!”
“Yes, miss,” said the serving girl, hurrying into the room. “What can I do?”
“You take over cooking for this one,” said Lora, nodding at Diana. “And she’ll serve.”
Diana and Lily nodded, and Lora bustled out of the kitchen.
Lily took in Diana’s distraught expression and smiled sympathetically. “She can be a bit much,” Lily said. “When I first started working here, I thought she hated me. But she has a good heart under it all. It’s just a little hard to tell sometimes.”
“I’ll say,” said Diana, but Lily’s cheerfulness did her good, and she smiled bravely. “I suppose I should go and take orders, should I not?”
“You should,” Lily agreed. “And I’ll—oh! You baked the starter!”
“I know,” Diana said miserably. “I feel terrible about it.”
Lily threw back her head and laughed. “Oh, you poor dear! No, do not feel bad. This is the funniest thing that has happened all week. How this will amuse my sisters when I tell them.”
Diana flushed, and Lily, noticing this, rushed forward and took her hands. “I told you not to feel bad,” she said sternly. “Mistakes happen to the best of us. Now, go out there and wait for someone to flag you down. All right?”
“All right,” Diana said, extremely thankful for her new friend. With a squeeze to her hands, Lily let her go.
It was hot in the main room, too, but not nearly as bad as the kitchen, and Diana sagged against the wall in relief. It was not long before someone was waving her over.
“How can I help you?” she said. The man who waved her down barely looked up from his newspaper.
“Get me a bowl of stew and a cup of beer, lass.”
She was flagged down twice more on her way back to the kitchen, but Diana was a bright girl, and she had no trouble keeping the orders separate. “Two bowls of stew, three flagons of beer, and nuts, if we have them,” she recited to Lily, who dutifully supplied her with the orders.
As it turned out, serving was much easier than cooking. Diana found the company pleasant, and most of the men found her pleasant as well. After all, Diana was a pretty girl, unfortunate circumstances or no. Besides, she had not lost any of the charm she had had as an earl’s daughter, and soon the innkeeper and his wife were receiving compliments on their new serving girl.
“Well,” Lora said later in the evening, eyeing Diana. “It turns out that you’re worth something after all.”
Diana gave a weak smile. “I suppose so, ma’am.”
Lora humphed. “Get back to work, then. No more lazing about.”
Diana had not been lazing about at all, but she knew better than to talk back, and hurried to get the next order from Lily. She ran back and forth between the kitchen and the main room for the better part of the night, until she was practically asleep on her feet.
At last, Lora allowed Diana to retire. The room was small, and Diana barely had enough room to kneel for her prayers. “God bless Father,” she said, “and Mother in Heaven, and God bless the innkeeper and his wife, and God bless Lily. Amen.” Then, freezing, she flung herself into bed.
The mattress was hard and lumpy, but it felt for all the world like a feather bed. Diana happily burrowed under the covers, relieved to be sleeping at last. But when sleep came, it was hounded with nightmares.
Diana dreamed that Lord Marshall, with his cold face and fishy smell, was chasing her down the road. The faster she ran, the closer he got, until his sharp fingernails grazed the back of her dress. Diana woke with a start and stared into the darkness.
“He is not here,” she said to herself. “It was just a dream.” Still, it took hours for sleep to come back to her.
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