For the fifth time that day, Fiona Ferguson thanked the education she had received at Last Chance Academy. It had been an awful school, but the staff had definitely beaten the maidenly arts into its students. Because of it, Fiona could draw a figure, sing a tune, play a reasonably melodic piano, sew a sampler, and set a dinner table. All of which she taught to the Blackheath neighborhood girls, along with Latin, Mathematics, Globes, and Natural Philosophy.
As she accompanied the last of her students to the door, she thanked her friend Margaret Bryan most of all for the chance to do both, at least for now. If not for Margaret, Fiona and Mairead would have been back on the streets. Instead, at least until the lease ran out in two months, they had a roof, some furniture, and a bit of egg money.
Fiona also had a blistering headache, but that was because of the sleep she was forfeiting trying to keep their heads above water. And that was such a familiar state that she barely noticed it.
“We’ll come tomorrow, then, Miss Fee?” eight-year-old Nancy Peters asked as Fiona knelt to button her coat.
“No, my dear. Tomorrow is Saturday. Your mother will need you about the shop. But I expect you to practice your addition and your curtsies.”
Giving a gap-toothed grin, the tiny girl with her white-blond braids dropped almost to the ground. Chuckling, Fiona helped right her. “You will be curtsying to the likes of Mrs. Walsh, Nancy. Not the queen.”
The little girl’s grin was still cheeky. “But Mrs. Walsh thinks she is the queen. Will Miss Mary be here when we come back?”
“Oh, I expect so. She is just busy working today.”
Nancy gave a solemn nod. “Counting stars.”
“Exactly. Now, off with you before your mother worries.”
She taught children of shopkeepers and chemists, pupils Margaret had groomed and then been forced to leave because of frail health. Fiona hoped her friend’s health would benefit from her move to Margate. They had a debate to finish over Fermat’s Last Theorem.
In the meantime, though, at least for two months, the very lucky Ferguson sisters would keep up the town house where Margaret had run her school for children of enlightened parents. Within that time, Fiona prayed she would be able to find another place they could afford to stay and teach. If not…well, she had faced uncertainty before. And if there was one thing Fiona Ferguson excelled in, it was dealing with uncertainty.
After watching the little girl hop down the steps of the tidy brick row house, Fiona closed the door and returned to the south parlor to clean up the slates and books Margaret had loaned her.
Anyone from Hawesworth Castle would have been appalled at her living conditions. Rather than the hundred servants Hawesworth enjoyed, she and Mairead had one female helper and one man-of-all-work they shared with two other families. More often than not she was paid in foodstuffs and services. In fact, Fiona’s next chore for the day was to help Mrs. Quick figure out how to stretch the ham hock Nancy Peter’s butcher father had exchanged for the week’s lessons.
Since most of the furniture had gone with Margaret, the guest salon was graced with no more than a tinny pianoforte, an unpretty brown settee, two stiff-backed chairs, and a few odd tables Fiona had negotiated for French lessons, which was plenty. If Fiona and Mairead were working, they sat at the dining table Fiona had acquired from the rag-and-bone man. If they weren’t, they shared the warm kitchen with Mrs. Quick. The only rug resided in the schoolroom, and the only artwork had been done by her students. She and Mairead shared a bed, rationed coal, and turned cuffs and hems. Other than that and the roof over their heads, they had nothing.
They had everything. They were off the streets. They had food and heavy cloaks and a bit of coal for the fires. They had their correspondence from their friends around Europe, which was their only frivolous expense, and the Royal Observatory up the hill. And they had each other. For that Fiona was most grateful. Now that Ian was gone, Mairead was all she had left in the world.
That thought brought Fiona up sharp, leaving her standing alone in the echoing room, slates in one hand, the other hand pressed against the shard of grief that had lodged in her chest. Considering how little she had seen her brother Ian while growing up, she was surprised how sharp her grief still sat on her shoulders. It was as if a foundation stone had gone missing from her house, threatening its stability.
No, she thought, eyes briefly squeezed shut. It was as if she had been left to balance a heavy, unwieldy load on only one leg. She had done it before, of course. This time, though, there was no hope of regaining that balance. Mama was gone, Ian was gone, and the only person left who loved her was Mairead. And Mairead couldn’t help her. It was Fiona’s task to help Mairead.
Deliberately opening her eyes, Fiona put the slates away and set off for the kitchen, in the hopes she would find Mrs. Quick preparing dinner.
“There you are,” Mrs. Quick snapped from where she was chopping carrots at the counter. “Last of the brats gone?”
Fighting a grin, Fiona lifted her apron from a hook by the door and slipped it over her head. “Indeed, they are, Mrs. Quick,” she said as she reached around to tie it. “You are once again safe from shrill voices, sticky fingers, and the tramp of small feet.”
In response, Mrs. Quick went after her carrots as if they were tender young necks.
Mrs. Quick was another new experience, left behind with Margaret’s blessings. A large, rigidly groomed woman with a taste for bright colors and sherry, the housekeeper was dour and acerbic, the majority of her interaction consisting of her opinions on the twins, the school, and the world. Nothing pleased Mrs. Quick except a perfect pie crust, and she thought women knowing Latin or mathematics went against all that was holy.
On the other hand, she enjoyed nothing more than a challenge, and trying to help Fiona stretch their budget to make ends meet was a definite challenge. Besides, this was the only house that put up with her temperament. Even Mrs. Quick’s sister had declined the opportunity to take her in.
She seemed to understand Mairead better than most, though, and had some excellent ideas for keeping her occupied. If she was the price Fiona had to pay for warmth, food and safety, she was glad to pay it.
“Well, then, Mrs. Quick,” she said, smiling. “How may I assist you?”
Mrs. Quick gave her a quick scowl. “You can get out of my kitchen. Sit down somewheres. You look like death on a stick.”
Fiona managed a smile. “How could I? We’re rich today, Mrs. Quick. An entire ham hock, and we didn’t even have to step out into the fog to get it.”
But Mrs. Quick was correct. She was beginning to feel like death on a stick.
Mrs. Quick gave an impatient hmmph. “You tell me. What good is Latin to a butcher’s daughter?”
Fiona sat at the scrubbed table and picked up an onion and a knife. “Maybe none. But maybe Nancy will become a governess herself. Think of the opportunities a good understanding of the romance languages provides.”
Mrs. Quick didn’t bother to answer. She just reached over, snatched the knife from Fiona’s hand, and pointed it at her. “Your sister will be here soon. You’ll get no rest then. So get it now.” Fiona balked, but Mrs. Quick smacked her wrist with the flat of the blade. “Go on. Nuthin’ you were gonna do I can’t.”
When the older woman also grabbed the onion, Fiona knew it was time to surrender. Getting slowly to her feet, she smiled. “I would kiss you,” she said, “but I fear it would only make you more severe.”
“I’d wallop you like a redheaded stepchild,” the older woman said, then pointed toward the back stairs and resumed her glare.
Fiona smiled and waved, but she obeyed. Sleep did sound seductive, come to think of it. Just a bit, like a refreshing sip of water. She could lay her head on a soft pillow and dream of sines and cosines. Of ham hock–and-vegetable soup.
It was inevitable, of course. Halfway up the stairs she was brought up short by the sound of the front door knocker. She knew she should go down and answer it. She spent a moment making sure her lace collar was flat against her ubiquitous black kerseymere dress, perfectly aware she was hesitating as long as she could in the hopes Mrs. Quick would intervene.
Just when she’d decided to turn around, she heard the slam of a knife against a butcher block. “Don’t you worry yourself,” came the strident notes of sarcasm. “I was just dyin’ to talk to strangers.”
Then came the footsteps, sharp, precise, impatient. Fiona smiled.
She was turning to follow, when she heard a man’s voice. “Excuse me. Is Mrs. Margaret Bryan at home?”
Fiona stumbled to a halt, her heart seizing. It couldn’t be.
Just the possibility took the stuffings out of her knees, landing her on the steps like an eavesdropping child. She couldn’t breathe, of a sudden; it felt as if bubbles had been caught up beneath her sternum, like champagne drunk too quickly.
“Mrs. Bryan don’t live here anymore,” Mrs. Quick snapped.
Fiona held her breath, as if it could improve her hearing.
“Could you provide us with her new address?” the voice came again. “It is very important.”
It was he. Oh, dear God, it was. She squeezed her eyes shut. She swore her stomach did a complete flip inside her chest. The last time she’d felt like this was four years earlier, in a cow pasture on a rainy spring day, as a man sliced off her hair with a knife. As he bent to kiss her. She swore she could almost smell the fresh-mown hay in that damp field, could feel the sure clasp of a man’s hand and the skittering of unrecognized arousal. She had been sixteen, and he had come to take her back to school. He had been kind. She had fallen head over heels in love, a girl too new to anticipation to understand its peril.
The only other time she had seen him, he had come to deliver the news that her brother was dead. He had still been so kind. But it was only now that she noticed.
She didn’t even remember getting up from the stair, but suddenly she was running down the hallway toward the foyer to see Mrs. Quick poised before the open front door, hand on hip, face pursed in displeasure at the sight of the two men on the stoop.
“I don’t know where she is, and if I did I wouldn’t tell you,” she said and gave the door a good push.
“Wait!” Fiona called, slowing down, as if it would make her look less frantic. “Let them in, Mrs. Quick.”
“Don’t think I should,” the woman retorted with a squint at the two town bucks. “Don’t need their kind nosin’ around the school.”
Fiona almost laughed out loud. “I sincerely doubt the gentlemen are here to ravage our children,” she said, hoping they couldn’t hear how overwhelmed she felt.
Taking in a surreptitious breath, she stepped past her housekeeper. “Lord Whitmore,” she said with a smile. “It is so nice to see you.”
It was beyond nice. It was beyond anything. He was truly standing there before her, wind-chapped and tousled, sleek as a big cat. He had such broad shoulders, such angular, chiseled features, with only an odd cant to his nose to make him seem human. Fiona was afraid her heart would simply seize up, battered by joy and grief.
“By God,” he said suddenly, staring at her. “It really is you.”