Three days later:
Grace Fairchild was confused. She was dreaming; she knew that. But she couldn't make sense of it. Oh, she'd had dreams like it before; vague, anxious fantasies of a man making love to her. But usually her dreams were indistinct, more suggestion than fact. Visual rather than visceral. After living with the army her whole life, she knew what copulating looked like. In India, she'd seen graphic depictions of it painted and carved into temple walls, parades of couples writhing in ecstasy in each others' arms.
Her dreams, predictably, mirrored them. She saw what happened; she didn't feel it. Even as her dream lover took her, she did no more than watch, a voyeur in her own boudoir.
This time was different. In this dream, she could feel her lover tucked against her back like spoons in a drawer. Skin to skin, heat to heat, pounding heart to pounding heart. His clean scent filled her nostrils. The harsh rasp of his breathing fanned through her hair. He was nuzzling the base of her neck, releasing a shower of shivers that cascaded down her body. His callused fingers traced each vertebra in her back. She swore she could feel the abrasion of hair against her legs and back; she heard the syncopated sounds of breathing.
She shuddered before the onslaught of sensations she'd never known: an almost painful sweetness, heat like a Madras sun, shocks of pleasure that skittered through her limbs like lightning.
Her skin seemed to have caught fire, the scrape of his palm igniting her like flint against too-dry tinder. An exquisite, anxious thrill snaked through her, curling along her legs, the sensitive skin of her nipples, the deepest recesses of her belly to touch her womb, like the sun warming a dormant seed. Her insides felt as if they were melting, and she couldn't seem to hold still.
She smiled in her sleep, where it was safe to dream a bit. Where she could remember that beneath the gray dresses and pragmatic mien everyone saw, she was a woman. And that even a plain woman wanted the same things other woman took for granted. Touch. Comfort. Pleasure. She wanted to be one of those temple paintings.
In her head she pleaded with him to hurry. To stoke the fire; to ease it. To pull her closer, closer yet, so she would never again have to be alone. She stretched, a cat in the sun, closer to his hard, lithe body. She gasped at the hard shaft that pressed against her bottom. Such an alien pleasure, so intriguing. So deeply erotic.
She heard a moan. A gravelly, low threnody that resonated right through her. A sensuous, mesmerizing growl of pleasure. It made her chuckle. His one hand was teasing her breast, flicking the nipple until it ached. His other was drifting lower, stealing her breath. Her heart was pounding; her skin was damp. She heard another moan.
Abruptly she stiffened. Her eyes popped open.
She really had heard a moan.
She tried desperately to think. She could see the early morning light seeping into the inn room. Yes, that was right. She had stopped at the Falstaff Inn in at Canterbury with her friend Lady Kate the night before. Drawing a careful breath, she tested the air, expecting to smell woodsmoke, fresh air from the open window, her own rosewater scent. Instead she smelled brandy and tobacco and a subtle scent of musk. She smelled man-sweat.
Her heart seized. Her brain went slack. She had dreamed him; she was certain. Why could she still smell him? Then she felt his hand move toward the nest of curls at the juncture of her legs, and she knew. He wasn't a dream at all.
Shrieking, she lurched up. The bedclothes were tangled around her legs. She yanked at them and pushed with her feet, trying to get away. She pushed too hard. Suddenly she was tumbling off the bed, arms flailing wildly for balance. She shrieked again when she landed with a thud on the floor.
For a moment she lay where she was, eyes closed, pain shooting up her bad leg, her stomach threatening revolt. All the heat that had blossomed in her died into shriveling cold. She was dizzy and dry-mouthed and confused. And, evidently, lying on the floor of a strange man’s bedroom trapped by his sheets. Christ save her, how could that be?
“Bloody hell!” she heard from the bed, and knew without opening her eyes that the disaster had just become far worse. It was no a stranger at all in that bed. It was Diccan Hilliard, the single most elegant man in England. The one man who never failed to turn Grace into a stuttering fool.
Still cursing, he sat up. The early morning sunlight gilded his skin like a Rembrandt painting, limning muscle and sinew and bone with a molten gold. Shadow etched the sharp ridges of jaw and cheekbone and shuddered through his tumbled sable hair as he dragged his hands through it. He was shaking his head, as if to clear it. Rubbing at his eyes. Grace knew she should flee before he spotted her. She couldn't seem to look away from him.
Could he have been more compelling? Not handsome, precisely. His features were a bit too broad, his nose a bit bent, his eyes too ghostly gray. But tall and elegant and aristocratic to his toes. The perfect antithesis for the hopeless spinster sitting like a lump on his floor.
"Merde," she muttered in despair.
He turned at the sound, and his jaw dropped. He had obviously just recognized who it was he'd been fondling.
“Miss Fairchild,” he drawled, his voice like ice. As gracefully as a god, he climbed out of the bed and stalked over to stand before her. “If I might be so bold. What the deuce are you doing here?”
She couldn't draw breath to answer. Sweet lord, he was naked. He was breathtaking, with solid shoulders, and arms that had worked hard. His chest was taut and lean, and shadowed with curling hair that arrowed down his torso right to....She flushed hotly. Sweet, sweet lord. He was magnificent. He was an ancient statue come to life...well, except for one small difference.
Well. Not so small at all. And it wasn't as if she could miss it. Not only was she at eye level, but, if her old temple art hadn't lied, he was magnificently aroused. Just the sight of his shaft, jutting straight up from that nest of dark hair, sent shivers cascading through her. It made all those two-dimensional watercolors pale in comparison.
Of course, the minute he got a good look at her, his erection wilted like warm lettuce. Grace couldn't really blame him. No man of taste would have reacted any differently.
“I’m still dreaming,” she muttered, shamefully unable to look away. “That’s it. A nightmare. I should never have had that second piece of pigeon pie last night.”
She should shut her eyes. She should make a grab for her clothes and run. She should at least defend herself. She couldn't so much as blink. She could still feel his hands on her skin, the unbearable pleasure of his body against hers. His expression of horror made her want to wither with shame.
“I expected better of you, Miss Fairchild,” he said, his voice dripping with disdain, his hands planted on sinfully lean hips. “Never did I think you’d be the kind of scheming, brass-faced hussy who’d force her way into a man’s bed. Just what did you slip into my drink?”
Suddenly furious, Grace clambered to her feet, grabbing a bedpost to steady her when her bad leg cramped. “What did I slip into your drink?” she demanded, outraged. “Why, you insufferable, self-centered, overweening park saunterer. You’re the last person on earth I would ever let--”
Instead of apologizing, he shut his eyes. “For the love of God, madame, cover yourself.”
Grace looked down and squeaked in dismay. She hadn’t considered her state of undress. She’d grabbed the covers because it was frigid in the room. Not because she was...oh, bugger. She was as naked as he was, providing him with a view of every bony inch of her chest and shoulders.
“Where are my clothes?” she cried, trying to cover every unlovely jutting angle of her with the voluminous blanket before he had to see the rest.
"Don't waste your time," he snapped. "Just hide yourself."
"You could do the same," she snapped back.
Cocking an imperious eyebrow, he considered his status. "No, could I? But I thought this was what you were after."
Grace felt panic shutting off her air. Her head hurt. She felt sick. "I told you," she insisted, her voice unpardonably shrill. "I wasn't after anything."
Suddenly the door to the room slammed open and bounced against the wall. At least half a dozen people peered in, all clad in nightclothes and gawking like pit rowdies. Grace did the only thing she could. If they didn’t see her face, maybe they wouldn’t recognize her. She dropped to the floor and yanked the covers over her head.
“Isn’t that General Fairchild’s daughter?” a woman who sounded like Lady Thornton demanded from the doorway, and Grace shrank down even more.
“How delicious,” another, thinner voice answered with a delighted giggle. “The feather-brained antidote obviously thinks she's nabbed Diccan Hilliard.”
Grace heard laughter and wanted to die. How many people were out there?
“Good to see everyone,” Diccan was saying, as if they had come to tea. “My apologies for presenting myself to you in dishabille.”
More salacious laughter. Grace squeezed her eyes shut, her thundering heart almost drowning out the sound of Lord Thornton and some unknown man taking bets on her future. She was terrified she was going to disgrace herself. Her stomach was lurching as if she were back on the channel packet.
“Well, well,” she heard a new and welcome voice intrude. “Letitia Thornton. I had no idea that this was what you wore to bed. Amazing color, really. You must have been dragged right from your sleep. Not a very attractive time of the day for you, is it? And Geoffrey Smythe. What an interesting banyan. Are those roosters on your chest? Hmm. I must admit I've never seen a puce chicken before."
Lady Kate had arrived.
If this had been happening to anyone else, Grace might have smiled. Leave it to Kate to send the cream of the ton scurrying away like embarrassed debs. But it was happening to her. She was the one crouched on the floor, naked beneath a blanket as an audience laughed.
She must not have heard the door close, because suddenly she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder.
If it could be possible, she felt worse. She had so few female friends. Only three, really; Olivia Wyndham, Lady Bea Gilbey, and Lady Kate Gilbey, who had taken her in after her father had died at Waterloo. It had been Lady Kate who had seen her through those terrible days, who had provided safety and support as Grace adjusted to civilian life. Grace couldn’t betray her friend this way. Even a notorious widow had no business associating with a ruined spinster.
“Grace, tell me you’re all right,” Kate said, sounding distressed.
“I’m fine,” Grace managed, huddled miserably on the floor.
It didn’t occur to her to cry. Soldiers don’t cry, her father had always told her. At least not after their seventh birthday.
“Is this some joke of yours, Kate?” she heard Diccan demand, sounding like a petulant child.
Lady Kate huffed.“Don’t be demented. I’m even more stunned than you are. I know for a fact that Grace has better taste.”
“Why, you repellent brat,” he snapped. “Your friend just arranged to make an appearance in my bed before the worst gossips in the ton. Naked.”
“Really, Diccan? She must be amazingly sly, then, since neither of us expected to see you or them here.”
“She must have, damn it! They’re here. And she's...here.”
Lady Kate sighed. “Your arguments might carry more weight if you were dressed, Diccan.”
“What about her?”
Still crouched beneath her blanket, Grace sighed. Her leg hurt. The blanket was beginning to scratch, and a draft had found its way underneath to bedevil her. And yet, she wasn't about to move.
“Grace can dress after you leave,” Lady Kate was saying over Grace’s head. “From her bedroom, by the way.”
“The miniature of her father in regimentals on the bedside table should be a dead give-away. "
She heard the rustling of clothing. He must be dressing.
“What are you doing here, by the way?” Lady Kate asked as if she were addressing him over tea.”We were supposed to meet you in Dover tomorrow.”
There was sudden silence. “This isn’t Dover?”
“Canterbury,” Graced answered before she thought of it.
“Canterbury?” Diccan echoed, the sounds of movement ceasing. “Deuce take it. How the devil did I get here? The last I remember I was on the Dover packet. Where's Biddle?”
“Your valet?” Kate said, sounding absurdly amused. “Undoubtedly looking for you in Dover. We'll send someone after him, once we're all dressed. Are you still all right under there, Grace?”
Grace felt another miserable blush spread over her. “Do you see my clothes?” she asked.
“Strewn over the floor as if they'd been on fire,” Kate informed her. “Another reason I know you are not the culprit here. Even during those awful days we spent caring for the wounded from Waterloo, you never once failed to fold your clothing like a premier abigail.”
“She could have been anxious to get into bed,” Diccan suggested dryly.
“Not with you, she wouldn’t,” Kate said, sounding positively delighted. “She doesn’t like you.”
Grace made a sound of protest. It wasn’t polite, even if it was true. She didn’t like him. It didn’t mean she was immune to him. He was like a broken tooth Grace couldn't resist running her tongue over, a sharp reminder of everything she wasn't and never would be.
“Don’t be absurd,” Diccan was saying. “Everyone likes me.”
“Would you please get your pants on and leave?” Grace demanded, finally losing her patience. “I’m about to catch the ague down here.”
And damn him if he didn’t chuckle.“Anything you say, Boedicae.”
Which made Grace feel even worse. A few months earlier Diccan had nicknamed her after the English warrior queen, undoubtedly because he couldn’t think of another female tall enough to look him in the eye. Which, as Grace well knew, was not necessarily a compliment.
“Why don't you secure a private dining room ?" Kate said to him. "We'll meet you there."
Grace heard some inarticulate grumbling.
“Trust me," Kate said with a laugh. "They're changing. “See if you can get to the parlor before they make it back out of their rooms. I would remind you that one those people is Letitia Thornton, and you know she doesn't consider a day complete unless she's destroyed a reputation or two."
This time it was Grace who groaned. The news of her ruination would be all over London before dinner. Diccan, it seemed, had no more to say. Grace heard the door open and close, and knew without being told that he’d left.
“Come out, little turtle,” Lady Kate said, her voice too gentle for Grace’s mood.
Grace poked her head out of the blanket to find Kate laying her clothing on the bed. “I truly didn’t try and compromise him, Kate.”
Kate’s smile was beatific. “My darling Grace, I never thought it.” She tilted her head. “It has been a revelation, however. Who knew our Diccan had such amazing...attributes?”
Grace almost retreated back under the blanket. Kate hadn't even seen one of the attributes at its most amazing. Kate evidently didn't notice Grace's reaction, for she wandered over to settle onto the windowseat where the sun warmed her primrose skirt and set fire to her hair. The thick mahogany curls framed a piquant face enlivened by slyly amused cat green eyes and a perfect form on a tiny frame. Grace, of course, felt like a Clydesdale in her presence.
“I must confess, though,” Kate continued, a shadow flitting across those magnificent eyes. “There is no getting around the fact that we’re in a pickle. What do you remember about last night?”
Carefully Grace climbed to her feet and recovered her clothing from the rumpled bed. Grace couldn’t look at the untidy linen without remembering those few moments of bliss. She knew her skin was flaming all the way up from her knees. Redheads blushed. Grace went blotchy.
“I remember arriving here," she said as she struggled into her chemise and petticoat. "I remember dinner."
Kate nodded. "Excellent roast. The turnips, on the other hand, needn't be mentioned."
"I remember us having that glass of cognac after dinner."
“Did it taste odd?”
Grace couldn’t help but smile. “Cognac always tastes odd to me, Kate. I never developed the liking for it you have.”
“And after I left you here?”
Grace paused with her gray walking dress in hand. She tried to remember entering this room, placing her candle on the small dresser, unbinding her hair from its tight knot. Sitting at the dresser and brushing it out, head down so she didn’t have to see her reflection in the mirror.
She shook her head. “I don’t even remember climbing the stairs. You really did leave me here?”
“Oh, yes. I assume if Diccan had already been within, you would have alerted me.”
“I would have made more noise than one of Whinyates rockets.”
“As you did this morning?”
Grace sighed, wondering how she could feel more miserable.“How could this happen?”
Brushing off her skirt, Lady Kate stood.“An excellent question. Finish dressing, dear and we'll see if we can find out."
* * *
Diccan Hilliard was in a rage. No one could see it, of course. Diccan had long since perfected the mask of bland sophistication that was his trademark. But as he strode down the hall toward the private dining room fifteen minutes later, he seethed. How could this have happened? He wasn't a greenling to be caught with his pants down. And yet somehow between Paris and Dover, he'd been drugged, shanghaied, stripped and set up. And not by Grace Fairchild. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't make the facts fit his accusation. Grace Fairchild had been with Kate, not sneaking aboard a packet boat with a bottle of laudanum tucked into her chemise.
Could it really have been the Lions? Could Bertie have been right? Diccan fought the urge to rub at his head. He was still wobbly and dizzy from the laudanum, and his skull felt too small for his aching brain. He could barely form his thoughts, which was damned inconvenient. Because if he didn't think fast, he would find himself stuck in Canterbury when he needed to be in London as quickly as possible to pass on Bertie's information. He needed to redeem that poor, sad boy, whom he'd left lying in that fetid apartment. He needed to redeem himself for failing him.
He wanted to curse. London had to wait. He was stuck here until he unraveled this latest disaster. He needed to locate his valet, who should have been with him. He needed to learn how he got here, and how his horse had ended up in the stables. And he needed to deal with Grace Fairchild.
Sweet Christ, he thought, his head hurting even worse. Why her? Grace Fairchild had to be the most honorable, well-respected spinster in England. She was also the most unfortunate. Taller than most men, she was, to put it baldly, plain. His Aunt Hermitrude looked better, and she was sixty and slew-eyed. To make it worse, Miss Fairchild didn't walk. She lurched like a sailor on shore. Whoever named her Grace must have been blind. Whoever put Diccan in her bed had been cruel.
He liked her. He really did. That didn't mean he wanted to wake up next to her for the next forty years. His cods shriveled just at the thought. He refused to even consider the fact that he'd woken hard and ready, with only that bony frame to entice him.
He looked down the half-timbered hallway to the front door and thought how easy it would be to just leave. Walk out the door, climb on Gadzooks and not stop until London. Maybe not even then.
Which was, he suspected, exactly what his enemies hoped for. If he failed to marry her, his reputation would be blown wider than Byron's. Any accusations he made would become immediately suspect. If he did marry her, he would be delayed and distracted, which might just give the Lions time to find their lost object and attack Wellington. It was an impossible choice.
Damn it. Damn it! He didn't deserve this. Not now when the war was over and he could finally come out of the shadows. Not when his future finally looked promising.
A shuffling noise alerted him that he was no longer alone. Looking toward the public room, he saw that he'd been joined by almost all the witnesses to the morning's debacle.
Of course it would be Thornton who would be the first to speak. The porcine peer and his knife-thin wife were no friends of Grace. “Wasn’t there anything better in town to entertain you, old man?” Thornton asked with a simper and a nudge to his friend Geoffrey Smyth. “I know you regretted leaving that pretty little mistress of yours behind in Belgium, but even that sway-backed bone-rattler of yours out in the stables would be a more cozy armful.”
The malice in those words brought Diccan to a halt. “Pardon?”
Proving his dearth of intelligence, the overstuffed peer chortled, leaning close enough to inflict his bad breath on Diccan. “Although they do bear a certain resemblance to each other.”
Diccan deliberately slowed his breathing. He had to remember that smearing this worm all over the floor would only delay him further.“My friend,” he said calmly. “I know that you're sensible.”
Suddenly Thornton looked a bit less assured. “Why, of course.”
Next to him, the slickly elegant Geoff Smythe leaned against the wall, arms across his chest, as if settling in for a play. Diccan ignored him.
"Good." He nodded to Thornton. “Good. Then you would never do anything that would force me to face you across a dueling ground. Knowing, of course, that I have already stood up four times.” He gave a measured smile. “And walked off alone each time.”
He thought Thornton might have gulped. Even so, the man raised his chin, leaving him only three. "Doin' it to brown, ain't ya? Not going to marry the chit, after all."
Diccan froze. Of course it was what Thornton would think. The Lions, he suddenly realized, had counted on it. Diccan had never been shy about announcing his sexual preferences, and there wasn't a person who would dare to claim Grace Fairchild was one. And, truthfully, hadn't he just been standing here plotting escape?
But he couldn't offer Grace up to this pack of jackals. He wouldn't give Thornton the satisfaction. Nor would he give Thornton's wife a vulnerable soul to shred. Grace deserved better.
If only the thought alone didn't make him nauseous.
“I won't marry her?” he asked, twirling his quizzing glass. “Why not?”
It was Geoff Smythe who answered, his classic blond English features coolly amused. "Why not? You really mean to face the prospect of that across the table every morning just because she winkled her way into your bed?"
"Actually," Diccan said, turning away so no one saw the impact of his decision. "I do."
"No, really," Thornton protested, grabbing Jack's arms. "You can't marry the chit."
Diccan saw a faint sheen of sweat on Thornton's forehead "What alternative do you suggest?"
But Thornton couldn't seem to think of an answer. Good lord, Diccan thought, was Thornton involved in this, too? He certainly hadn't planned it. Thornton wouldn't know how to schedule breakfast. Maybe, however, he was supposed to have been the witness. The blackmailer.
As for Geoff Smythe, Diccan wasn't so sure. Deep waters was Geoff Smythe. Something to investigate. When he got out of here.
"The pater's been nattering at me to settle down for years," Diccan said, plucking Thornton's hand from his sleeve. "I imagine Miss Fairchild will do as well as any. If I do marry her, you'll understand that I can't tolerate any disparagement of my wife."
Now Thornton looked sick. Smythe was still smiling. "But of course."
Diccan had once again started on his way when he stopped. "By the way, Thorny," he said as if he didn't notice the fat man swiping his forehead with an embroidered handkerchief. "I know why I'm here, but what in blazes brought you to a place as boring as Canterbury?"
Thornton startled, the cloth floating from his fingers like a linen leaf. "Looking at horses. Old Brickwater has a string to sell."
Considering Thornton's size, Diccan hoped Brickwater was selling draught horses. He kept his silence, though, sparing no more than an nod before leaving.
The staff of the Falstaff must have known his need, for by the time he reached the parlor, a coffee pot and cup were on the table. Plumping himself down in a chair, he drank cup after cup until the cobwebs began to clear.
The situation looked no better with a clear head. Only a week ago he had looked to his future with anticipation. After all, he'd been promised recompense for all his hard work. A plum position in one of the newly opened embassies, perhaps. A position at the peace talks. He could finally enjoy himself, doing what he did best, enjoying the best the world had to offer. The chance to rub his father's nose in his success.
He hadn't even considered marriage yet. It would come, when he was ready. He would probably marry a diplomat's daughter, someone like his cousin Kate: sharp, intelligent, elegant and challenging. A woman who could help him plot his course and celebrate the success they'd both dreamed. Instead, he would have to figure out what to do with Grace Fairchild.
The frustrating thing was that he loved redheads. He couldn’t think of any more exotic treasure than that burst of fire right at the juncture of a woman’s legs, more promise than color, a hint of the delights that lay beneath, a flash of whimsy and heat and lust. He loved every shade of redhead. He loved their milky skin and their vivid personalities and their formidable tempers. He even loved the color of their freckles. In fact, he loved redheads so much that he'd suggested his last two mistresses dye their thatch with henna, just to please him. He could get a cockstand just thinking of it.
Except for the freckles, though, Grace Fairchild could boast of none of that bounty. To call her a redhead was to exercise unforgivable license. Her hair was virtually colorless, the kind of faded, dismal hue one might see on an old woman. Her skin was almost swarthy from all her years spent under the Iberian sun, and her blushes unfortunate. She had no shape to speak of, no temper, no spark.
The sharpest reaction he’d ever gotten from her had been the day he had dubbed her Boedicae. For just a moment, a spark of fury had lit her eyes, a spirited defiance stiffening her spine. But as quickly as the fury had risen, it dissipated, almost as if there was no place on her for it to gain purchase. Word was that she'd never even wept when she carried her father’s body back from Waterloo.
As if called, the door opened and in she walked, clad in one of her ubiquitous gray dresses, her hair scraped back into a tight bun. Diccan wasn't surprised that she couldn't quite look at him. He couldn't believe what had happened that morning either. His balls still ached, heavy and thick with unmet expectations. Seeing her again now, he couldn't figure why. His body seemed completely disinterested in the lanky antidote who limped into the room with the briskness of a wounded cavalry officer.
Almost betraying himself with a sigh, Diccan climbed to his feet and gave his best bow as Kate followed Miss Fairchild in and shut the door. “Kate. Miss Fairchild. Let me ring for breakfast.”
Miss Fairchild went almost chalk white. “Not for me, thank you. Some tea and toast.”
Diccan tilted his head to assess her. “Stomach a bit unsteady?”
“Muddled head? Dizziness?”
She looked up briefly as she reached the table. “Indeed.”
Diccan held out her chair and waited for her to sit. “I thought so. I have the exact same symptoms. I don't know if you tipple to excess, Miss Fairchild, but I rarely do, and never on a packet boat. So in the absence of other evidence, I believe we were both drugged.”
He was disappointed when Miss Fairchild failed to react. “You're not surprised?” he asked
She looked calmly up at him. “It would explain much.”
He shook his head, a bit disconcerted by her poise. “Kate,” he said, turning to seat his cousin. “Who sent you the message to meet me?”
She sat down. “I thought you did. I assume I was wrong.”
“You were. Where did you receive it?”
“We were at a country weekend at Marcus Drake’s. We got as far as Canterbury last night.”
That brought Diccan’s head around sharply. “Drake? Who knew you were there?”
Kate gave him a grin. “Everyone, I imagine. The notice was in the society pages.”
Even so. Marcus Beldon, Earl of Drake, was the one who had asked Diccan to meet with Evenham. Could he somehow be involved in this latest debacle? Diccan didn't want to think so.
“The note did look to be in your hand, Diccan,” Kate said, bringing his attention back . Do you know why?”
“I have been involved in some delicate negotiations. The post-war map of Europe and all.” He shrugged, hoping he looked convincing. “Someone might have wanted me to stumble.”
Kate raised her head. “They finally gave you a real job?”
Diccan flashed her a smile. “Purely by attrition, my dear. The usual suspects are too busy.”
She gave him a brisk nod. “Well, then, I believe an apology is due."
Diccan flinched from the thought. He tried one last time to believe that Grace Fairchild had orchestrated her own runaway marriage. One look at the high color on her ashen cheeks put paid to that. She was, just as he'd suspected, a pawn. So he stood, and he gave Miss Fairchild a credible bow.
"I had no right to cast aspersions on your character," he said. "I apologize."
And oddly, he got a smile in return. "Thank you, but I wouldn't be too hard on yourself. I can't imagine your having any other reaction to finding a woman you didn't expect in your bed. I would be happy to help any way I can to find out how. And why.”
Diccan nodded, already focused on the quickest way to settle the business. “Of course,” he said. “Now then, my schedule is tight, so we must get on with making plans. Propitiously we’re in Canterbury, and the good archbishop is one of those ubiquitous cousins. I should be able to obtain a special license by the afternoon. Do you wish to stay here, or repair to London for the ceremony?”
Kate looked toward Miss Fairchild, who sat suddenly silent. “Oh, London," Kate said."It will make it look less like a hole-in-the-wall event.”
Diccan nodded absently, beginning to pace. “Good. I have to get there as quickly as possible anyway. I can send someone ahead to reserve rooms at the Pulteney. When Biddle finds us, he can begin to move my things from the Albany.” A sudden dread had him eying his cousin with disfavor. “You don’t expect the pater to preside over the nuptials, do you?”
Kate sighed. “It would look odd if your father were excluded, Diccan. He is a bishop, after all.”
That was the last straw. All he needed to complete this farce was to see his father in one of his bouts of self-righteous indignation. When the maid came, Diccan would ask for hemlock in his coffee.
“Excuse me,” Grace spoke up.
Diccan stopped. The deuce. He’d all but forgotten her sitting there. “Yes?”
“Am I involved in these plans?”
He blinked. Surely she wasn’t that dense. “Of course you are. What did you think?”
“I thought you might have consulted me.”
The expression on her face was serene, but Diccan could see the pulse in her neck quicken. “What? You’d rather be married in Canterbury? Don’t blame you. The pater's a regular tartar.”
“I’d rather not be married at all.”
It took a second for that to sink in. “You have no choice,” he snapped, thinking of Thornton.
“Of course I do,” she said with a slight smile. “And my choice is that you go on about your business, and I’ll go home to mine.”
Diccan wasn’t certain just why he was so furious. She had just given him a way out. He'd offered marriage, and she had rejected him. The onus now rested on her. But he resented the hell out her blithe dismissal of his sacrifice.
"You just promised to cooperate."
"I promised to help. By that I meant I could disappear into the country where nobody cared what happened in Canterbury, and you would be able to avoid a marriage neither of us wants."
She was exacerbating his headache. “Don’t be absurd,” he told her coldly.”Every gossip in London is waiting outside. You can’t leave this room without announcing an engagement.”
Her eyes had gone flat. “An engagement? Oh, is that what we’re talking about?”
“Of course it is.”
Kate gave him a quick kick in the shins. “An actual proposal might come in handy, Diccan.”
Diccan sucked in a breath. He didn't have time for this. The longer Miss Fairchild balked, the farther behind he got. Evenham's confession weighed on him; he swore he could still smell the boy's blood on his hands. “Oh, hell, ” he muttered, digging the heel of his hand into his eye, as if that could ease his throbbing head. “Fine. Miss Fairchild. Will you do me the honor of marrying me?”
It might not have been the most romantic proposal ever. It certainly didn’t warrant Miss Fairchild’s reaction.
“If you want to insult me,” she said in deliberate tones as she rose majestically to her feet and approached him, “You might as well do it behind my back. I have too much to do to waste my time."
She never let him finish. Winding up like a premier bowler, she punched him in the nose and walked out the door.
In her wake the room echoed with a thick silence. Diccan was surprised his nose didn't bleed all over his cravat. Miss Fairchild hadn’t spent her life with the army without learning how to hit.
Kate, too, got to her feet. “Well,” she said, sounding suspiciously amused as she settled her primrose dress about her. “Now I understand why you're thought to be the suavest man in England.”
Diccan knew he had no right, but he felt aggrieved. “I'm marrying her, Kate. What do you want?”
She gave him a sad look. “Courtesy would be a good start.” And she walked out too.
Diccan was still standing slack-jawed when the maid finally came to answer his call. He slumped back into his seat and dropped his head to his hands. “Coffee,” he growled. “And see if you have any hemlock."