Monday, December 24, 2012

My True Love Gave to Me

My True Love Gave to Me
...twelve days of Christmas cheer...

The Wild Okie Writers

Pemberton Hall, England
After midnight
December 26, 1814

       Servants moved about the Hall dousing candles and clearing away the last vestiges of the ball. Weary footmen escorted guests to their carriages or their sleeping rooms. In the kitchens, scullery maids washed dishes while the cooks began preparations to feed guests in the morning. In the Hall itself, only a few creatures still stirred. Lords and ladies, maids and geese, swans and French hens were off to their beds, where visions of true love danced in their heads.
       The Duke and Duchess of Pemberton retired to their rooms for a warm winter’s nap, secure in the knowledge their Christmas Ball was once again a success. After all…
       Twelve drummers drumming announced the identity of Maximilan Francis Leopoldo Corvinus, the Duke of Montrovia and Crown Prince of Austria just in time for him to dance the last waltz with his true love, the Lady Edwina Swann. They discovered Christmas was the most wonderful time of the year to fall in love.
       Despite her harrowing experience with eleven pipers piping, Lady Dinah Cooper found salvation with playwright Owen Fletcher, and the chance for a new life with him. She found her peace on earth in his faith and admiration.
       Sinclair Fitzholden, the Duke of Hawksford, lost his heart to the grateful Lady Victoria Gremswell, even as his roguish reputation warred with his concern for hers. He didn’t care if those merry gentlemen rested or were dismayed, only that he won out over the ten lords a’leaping.
       Even with nine ladies dancing for his attention, Lord Dominick Carrington, the new Earl of Abernathy, rediscovered his true love when the Scottish lass, Lady Mackenna Douglas, materialized as if from his dreams. He’d thought her lost to him forever, but her appearance reminded him that Christmas wishes did come true.  
       Lord Robert Wolverton, Wolfy to his friends, once declared he’d never pluck a feather from Lady Eleanor Swann—in fact he’d be more likely to kiss one of the eight maids a’milking Lord Waverly’s cows, but amid halls decked with holly, Wolfy was positive he’d marry Lady Nora, just as soon as he convinced her to lose her aversion to marriage.
       Seven Swanns went a’swimming and found true love, bringing joy to the world—especially to their parents, Lord and Lady Cockswood. Lady Georgette, identical twin of Edwina, never expected to find it at the Christmas Ball, and especially not in the arms of her best friend’s older brother, David Barrington, the Duke of Alford. As Georgie discovered, David was the man who knew her heart—could tell her apart from her twin—and who loved her for herself.
       Six geese a’laying eggs of innuendo and rumor couldn’t stop true love from finding the way, despite the gaggle’s cries of “Do you hear what I hear?” Lady Olivia Standford and Lord Andrew Randall overcame the scandal spread by malicious siblings. A very private ceremony was held in the snowy gardens of Pemberton Hall before the reunited bride and groom dashed away.
       Bartholomew Dixon, Viscount Weston, future Earl of Hartley made a damnable bet to collect five golden rings from five different ladies. In pursuit of the fifth and final ring, belonging to the Lady Evelyn Powell, he was distracted by the lovely Lady Philippa Swann. And rather than collect the bet, Bartie lost his heart to Pippa on the midnight clear.
       Four calling birds seemed destined to ruin Lady Catherine Swann’s reputation but Lord Richard Sefton, the Earl of Saxonhurst, intervened each time and saved her chestnuts from getting roasted— much to her chagrin at having to be rescued. Convinced curiosity might harm his Cat, Richard intended to keep her safe for the rest of their lives.
       When Lady Charlotte Swann was confronted by the man who broke her heart, she already knew who’d been naughty and nice. Lord Evan Leighton lived a double life, and with the assistance of the three French hens, he hoped to settle the unfinished business between him and the lovely Lady Lottie—business of the heart to be sealed with a kiss.
       Upon arriving at the winter wonderland that was Pemberton Hall, Nathan, Duke of Hastings, discovered that his one true love, Lady Theodosia Swann, was there. With the help of two turtle doves and a bit of mistletoe, Nathan rekindled the passion he and Thia once shared and the two of them found a life of love and hope.
       Marcus, Viscount Weatherby loved Lady Emma Surrey with all his heart, but her conniving family took matters out of his hand long ago. Hearing the truth, and her secret, from Emma’s lips, Marcus knew he’d finally be home for Christmas with her in his arms. And that partridge in a pear tree? It flew away through the silent night to bring true love to other lords and ladies.
       We hope you have enjoyed our little Regency tale. We’ll be back again for Valentine’s Day. In the meantime, the Wild Okie Writers wish a Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

My True Love Gave to Me…
…Twelve Drummers Drumming…
Chapter Twelve
Jeanette Ward
Pemberton Hall
Christmas 1814

            “The deuce, you say!  What have you done with the prince?” 
            Archduke Karl Ludovic, Captain of the First Arciene Life Guard of Vienna, leaned heavily on his walking cane in the gleaming ivory vestibule at Trenton House in London.  He glared at the harried butler as he waited for the poor man to divulge the whereabouts of the heir apparent of Austria, Prince Maximilian.  However, at nine and twenty, Max was beyond changing old habits and undoubtedly, slipping away to escape the constraints of his royal blood was by far his worst offense.                Karl sighed.  Max knew it was imperative he attend the Christmas ball at Pemberton Hall that evening.  With his father laying prone on his deathbed in Austria, the most eligible bachelor on the Continent was in dire need of a wife.  Austrian or not.  So where was he?  Devil take it, with his skill impersonating anyone he chose, Max could be anywhere. 
            From the steps of the London townhouse, the Archduke caught the sounds of his contingent’s horses stamping their feet in the snow to stay warm.  The annoying sound of twelve drummers drumming a military cadence thrummed in his head.
            “Damnation, can you drummers desist that infernal racket long enough to let a man think?” he growled over his shoulder.   As he made his way to his horse, snow crunching beneath his Hessians, it occurred to him where he might possibly find his reckless cousin.
            He grinned.  If he was rightthis time there would be bloody hell to pay when he found him!


            “Where are you Christmas?”
            Max glanced about the ballroom, his eyes searching for reminders of home.  It was late on Christmas Day and he missed the festivities surrounding the feast of St. Nicholas, and the smell of baked carp.  Last eve he and Karl had quietly wished each other Froliche Weihnachten, but it had been a poor substitute for a noisy home filled with family.   
He tried to enjoy the lighthearted atmosphere in the beautifully festooned ballroom where single-minded men and coy women were gathering to play bon ton games.  He knew he should have been among them.  His mother would probably succumb to a fit of pique when she heard of this latest escapade.  England and France were at war.  It was a time to know who one’s friends and enemies were, not for pursuing one’s own selfish agenda.  By the time he returned home, his father would have no more need for his deathbed, and his mother would insist he choose a bride and settle into a life of wedded bliss for the good of the country. 
“A king needs a queen, Maximilian.  You simply must stop stalling.”  His mother’s parting words echoed in his memory.
The day he ascended the throne would mark the end of playing his beloved violin for anyone other than himself.  Wives.  Thrones.  War.  These things would make up the better part of his life soon. 
But not today. 
A thin smile tugged at his lips.  His last night of freedom would be worth the small fortune it had cost to bribe the Duke’s violinist to allow Max to take his place.  Anxious to begin, Max tucked his borrowed instrument beneath his chin and lightly balanced the bow across the strings.  For tonight, he could be himself.  Just a man.  Just a musician. 
When the music began, as always, the call of the notes he loved so well drew Max into that magic place where he could escape the rigidity of his life, if only for a moment.  
Over the next hour as he played and watched beautiful women float by in the arms of their escorts, his thoughts drifted to Edwina Swann.   Was she here?  Was she with another, or would she be alone? 
He had seen the spirited young beauty a fortnight before as he had stopped by Almack’s to greet his uncle, Lord Strathburton.  Edwina had been leaving with her twin and their mother.  The twins were identical in nearly all ways with their beautiful, heart-shaped faces and dark auburn hair. But Edwina had caught his eye immediately, setting him aback.  He was not prone to impetuousness, and certainly not where women were concerned.  However, he couldn’t forget the wistful sadness he had glimpsed in her beneath the feigned lightheartedness as she passed close by, laughing gaily and chattering with her sister. 
A haunting melancholy lived in Edwina’s stunning evergreen eyes, and the sight had torn straight through his heart.  In that one moment he had seen into her soul and knew…surrounded by the bustle of court and the chaos of the ton, like him she felt utterly alone.  But she played her part well. 
His hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her, his gut telling him she could possibly be the one woman capable of not only understanding his needs, but she would possess the fortitude to stand by his side.  He looked forward to learning her secrets someday.  But not tonight.  Tonight he would say goodbye to a part of his world he would mourn as much as he would mourn the passing of his father.  Tonight, the music in Maximilan Francis Leopoldo Corvinus, Duke of Montrovia’s life would fade into memory like Christmases come and gone, and he would turn his face to the future, giving up the dreams of his youth. 
            He joined the quartet as they played waltzes and lively quadrilles, one after the other, savoring each moment.  As he was putting the finishing flourishes on a particularly spirited crescendo, Max’s blood hummed with excitement until an unwanted voice intruded.
            “There you are, you bloody bastard!”
            Damnation!  He nearly missed a note at the sound of his cousin’s voice. 
            Max allowed a decidedly wicked grin to slide into place.  Playing as he spoke, he whispered, “I was beginning to lose faith in your tracking abilities, Karl.  Losing your touch?”
            Karl stepped into view and fixed him with a look that could have forced the quills off a Christmas tree.  “You’re an idiot, man.  You do realize that, do you not?  Sitting in the corner, fiddling like a commoner.”
            Max shot an apologetic look towards his partners, his bow flying across the strings of his instrument as if talking while he played were something he did quite regularly.  “I do apologize for my cousin’s poor manners, gentlemen.” 
            To his cousin he took a more commanding tone, “Karl, you have one minute to turn around and leave me in peace.  I scarce have a moment to myself these days and confess I am quite enjoying myself.”
            Karl’s expression mirrored the frustration in his voice.  “I’m not leaving you!  I just found you!  Sire! 
            This time the look Max flashed his fellow musicians conveyed worry.  Karl knew he didn’t want to be discovered.  Not until he was damn well ready.  But the men were listening avidly even as they played.  Three sets of raised brows told him they had taken the bait Karl had purposefully flung into the water.  “Obviously this man is quite foxed, gentlemen,” Max laughed, handling the situation as he had a hundred others just like it in the past.  “However, for any man who disregards our conversation from this point forward, there will be ten pounds waiting at the end of the evening.  Agreed?”
            Not fools, to a man, they nodded.  Max turned his attention back to his cousin, calmly managing to perform and carry on a conversation simultaneously. 
            “Well played, Karl. Quite daring to try to publically compromise my masquerade  But I swear as your lord and king, I will marry you to Lady Margaurete the moment we step foot on Austrian soil.  You do not want to test me, cousin.”
            Karl visibly blanched, but didn’t back away.  “But how will you explain that the musician seen this evening will in truth be the king of Austria before spring arrives?”
            “Look around man.  No one notices the musicians.  And I would take it as a personal favor if you would join your peers and leave me be.”
            The song ended and the quartet signaled the need for a brief break. 
            Max pulled Karl aside.  Perhaps if he gave the blasted man a quest he would leave.  “If you want to be helpful, cousin, locate the Lady Edwina Swann.”
            Karl’s face lit up.  “You are enamored then?  Your mother will be beyond relieved!”
            “Yes, yes.  I can see the two of you planning the wedding as we speak, though I have yet to say a word to the girl.  Do as you wish, but do not come back until you’ve found the lovely Lady Swann.”

            “Can you believe how wonderfully it all worked out, Edie?” Georgie asked breathlessly.  “David and I are to be married!  I owe it all to you…you quite saved me from a terrible life as Lord Tetterly’s wife.”
            Edwina Swann squeezed her sister’s hand, her heart swelling with happiness for Georgie, whose every breath continued the fairy tale began earlier that evening when she and Lord Barrington had discovered Christmas love.
            “Your David is indeed handsome, and an accomplished dancer, Georgie,” Edie agreed.  “I am quite sure you will be deliriously happy.  I cannot wait to dance at your wedding!”
            “But first, I promised that you would dance with the most handsome man at the ball this evening.  I cannot help but think my David is by far the most handsome, but I shall find a suitable partner for you who will sweep you off your feet!  I want you to be happy too, dear sister.  You deserve no less.”
            “Have you seen the violinist?  I must confess, I have never laid eyes a more beautiful man in my life.” Edwina’s eyes strayed toward the corner.
            “The violinist?  Edwina Swann, have you lost your senses?”  Lady Swann rebuked her sharply, moving closer to her daughters.  “Do you not realize that Prince Maximilian of Austria will be here soon?  Every eligible young lady here has been waiting for his arrival if they aren’t already on the arm suitors like your sisters.  What have I done wrong with you, child?  Mind you keep your eyes open for the prince and stop wasting your time mooning about over the paid help.  Handsome or not, the prince is who you need to be looking for.”
            As she wandered back to the nest of dowager duchesses, she muttered under her breath, “A musician.  Hmppf.  The Swanns would never survive such a scandal.”
            “Oh, Edie.  Pick another.  Please?” Georgie implored.  But Edie couldn’t hear her.  She was mesmerized.  In the corner the musician closed his eyes and lovingly cradled his instrument against his cheek, drawing from it the most hauntingly beautiful version of the Viennese Waltz a girl had ever heard. 
            “No.  I want him,” Edie replied simply.  He did not resemble any musician she had ever seen and her eyes had been drawn to him the moment she arrived..  She drank in the sight of his fine, straight, aristocratic nose and sharp, grey, wolfs eyes which promised their owner could seduce a woman from her chemise before she knew to what she had agreed.  Unruly locks of hair as dark as sin kissed his forehead in a tantalizing manner that left her dreaming of running her fingers through the sultry softness. 
            She turned to her sister. “You promised.  Can you help me? ”
            Georgie looked panic-stricken.  Her thoughts tumbled out as words. “But how, Edie? How can I arrange for you to dance with the violinist? That’s no small feat considering he is the one providing the music.” She inhaled several times, her expression still concerned. “And what if you get caught? Think of the scandal!”
            “Don’t look so terrified, sister.  It can be after the ball ends.  I’ll feign sickness and retire to my room.  You can simply bring the violinist there, and I shall have my dance.”
            “And mayhap steal a kiss or two?” Georgie grinned, and Edie could see that her sense of mischief had returned.
            “Or three…he does have such very kissable lips, does he not?”
            “Perhaps your plan might succeed after all.”
            “Ladies, I believe I have the next dance with the beautiful Lady Edwina?”  Mr. Granby appeared at Edie’s elbow and took her hand in his, pressing a feather light kiss across her knuckles. 
            “Of course,” Edie said, moving to join the rest of the dancers circling the floor.  Over his shoulder, she caught Georgie’s gaze and mouthed, “Hurry!”
             “Take your filthy hands off me, you horrid cad!”
            Edie struggled in Nicholas Granby’s embrace as he trailed his hands up her sides, dangerously close to her breasts.  Instead he pulled her closer, smashing his lips against hers until she was forced to bite down hard.
            “Well, well.  You’re quite the nasty little chit, aren’t you?” he spat, releasing her lips but maintaining his cruel grip on her wrist.   “It will be an added pleasure to break you.  Too bad you didn’t let me chase your sister like I planned.  I’m not picky though…one Swann is as good as another for my purposes.”
            “Your purposes?” Edie gasped.  “You’re mad!  I’m going back inside, and if you touch me again, I shall scream!”
            “Good.  Scream all you like.  The sooner people find I’ve despoiled you, the sooner we can announce our engagement.” 
Desperate, Edie turned sharply, tugging to free herself.  The man was evil!  He meant to ruin her, force her into marriage.  And it would work too, damn his black soul.  Her father would have no recourse but to allow Granby to claim her.  She couldn’t scream, yet she had to do something—but what?
            “Let.  Her.  Go.”
            The chilling words came from behind, and a shiver ran up her spine at the deadly intent behind each menacing syllable. 
            “Go back to your place in the band, you wastrel, and stop interfering with your betters,” Nicholas sneered, his eyes riveted the direction he had dragged Edie only moments before.  “What I do with this chit is of no concern to you.” 
            Granby yanked Edie behind him, affording her the opportunity to see who spoke in her defense. 
            Her violinist stood a few feet away, his predatory eyes narrowed.  The unmistakable warning in them sent prickles skittering across her skin. 
            “As you wish,” the musician replied, turning to leave.  Edie’s heart sank.  But in the blink of an eye, he spun, wrapping an arm around Granby’s neck, choking the breath from him.  When her assailant’s grip went slack, Edie staggered back, rubbing her bruised wrist. 
            She couldn’t speak.  Couldn’t breathe.  She could only watch as the musician waited until Granby had nearly passed out before he released him.
            “I believe I just made her my concern, you bastard.  Now get out before I do more than slightly wind you.”
            His words were deadly calm, and Granby’s eyes widened in fear. The would-be social climber scrambled away, his hands clawing at his throat as he struggled for air.  Edie stood frozen, as Granby glanced her direction one last time.  Beneath the onslaught she shivered, until at last her attacker decided against whatever thought had flitted through his feeble mind.  Within moments he disappeared into the snowy garden shadows.
            Edie tried to release her breath, to calm her racing heart, but it thundered in her chest at the realization of what had occurred.  Her violinist had saved her!
            “Are you alright, sweetness?  Did he harm you?”
            The gentleness in his tone soothed Edie’s ragged nerves and she realized, in truth, she was no longer scared even though she did not even know her hero’s name.  She shook her head, the best she could manage with her teeth chattering from the frigid air.  Mr. Granby had dragged her outside against her will, not bothering to secure a wrap to keep her warm.
            “Here.  Allow me…”  He didn’t wait for an answer, slipping off his coat and draping it across her shoulders.  Before she could say a word, he scooped her into his arms, coat and all, and carried her through the front door and out of the cold.  She stared up at him, captivated by the square cut of his jaw and oh-so-naughty slant of his lips.  Gone were thoughts of Granby’s rough treatment.  In that moment she had eyes for only one man.  She snuggled closer into the safety of the violinist’s strong arms, content to stay there forever.
            “Egads, what are you about there, sir!  Explain yourself and take your hands off my daughter this instant!”
            Edie groaned upon hearing her father’s voice and peeked up at her rescuer, whispering, “This won’t be pleasant, my gallant knight.  Please trust me to handle my father.”  She sighed before voicing her next request. “Please put me down?”
            He flashed a wicked grin that transformed his face from that of formidable defender to irresistible rogue, and whispered, “And if I chose not to?  Will you squirm and wiggle away?  Mayhap you’d like to stay a bit longer?”
            A crowd gathered, pouring into the grand foyer from the ballroom.  Edie glimpsed Georgie and their mother, faces aghast, as they stood near the three French hens.  Of all the damned rotten luck!  Was a single glorious moment of happiness too much to ask?  One little moment with a man more handsome than the angels above.  Surely she could pretend he was her beau just long enough for a secret Christmas dance before she was shackled to someone she would most likely abhor for the rest of her days? 
            “What the devil...did you not hear me, you lout!  Release my daughter!  Who the blazes do you think you are, carrying her about like that?” 
            From the corner of his eye, Max saw a man desperately shouldering his way through the crush towards them.
            “My prince!” Karl cried, distracting Edie’s father and the rest of the assemblage, allowing Max to hold the beauty in his arms a few precious seconds longer.  “We’ve found you at last!”
            “Prince?” Edie breathed, her stunned bewilderment capturing Max’s heart in a way he never dreamed possible.  You’re Prince Maximilian?”  
            Max tightened his hold imperceptibly, letting her know she was still safe.  Could she trust him a moment longer?
            “So you have, Karl,” he agreed, reluctantly setting Edie on her feet.  His hand stayed possessively at her waist, and he noticed she did not move to dislodge it, rather settling more firmly against his side as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do so.  Her mother looked ready to swoon.  And the dowager, paragon of virtue and manners, stood to the side, her mouth gaping like a fish monger’s wife. 
            “But…you’re the violinist,” the older woman said, her voice stilted and confused.  “You can’t possibly be the prince.”
            “I assure you, madame, I am Prince Maximilian Corvinus, and this, is my cousin, Archduke Karl Ludovic.”
            “But…why would you pretent to be the violinist?  I…I don’t understand.” The dowager shuddered.
            Max laughed.  “Have you never done something simply for the pure joy of it?”
            “Your highness…” Karl warned.
            “I must highly recommend it, if you have not,’ Max went on, ignoring his cousin.  “For instance, can one possibly derive anything but joy kissing such a delectable creature as this?”  He tipped Edwina’s chin up with a finger. 
            Gazing with wonder into her trusting eyes, he swooped down to claim a kiss from her bow-shaped mouth, softly at first as their lips met, but when she placed her hands on his chest and leaned into him he deepened the kiss, drinking his fill of the gift she offered as if they were the only two people alive.  And in that moment, for him, they were.  He drew back and sought her gaze again, needing to know if the same emotions he felt coursed through her veins. In her sparkling evergreen eyes, he found his answer. 
 “I believe I’ve just dragged you into a bit of a scandal, my love,” he said, pressing another kiss to her temple.  “I fear I shall be beholden to ask your father for your hand, if only to save your reputation.”
“Saved by a handsome prince twice in the same night.  Could any girl be any luckier?” Edwina laughed, happiness filling her eyes.
Those around them cheered and Max swept Edwina close again.  He wanted never to take his eyes off his beautiful little swan.   This time his smile reached deep within. Had he ever felt such joy?  In Edwina Swann’s eyes he had found not only Christmas, but his home.  With her by his side, no matter where they were, neither of them would ever know a lonely Christmas again. 
As the music of love filled the lonely corners of his heart, Max vowed he would spend the rest of his life ensuring his beautiful wife was as happy as he was in that moment.

Join us again tomorrow for the conclusion of My True Love Gave to Me

Saturday, December 22, 2012

My True Love Gave to Me
eleven pipers piping …

 Chapter Eleven

Anna Kittrell

Lady Dinah flicked open her fan. Why was it so dreadfully hot in here? She feared perspiration would dampen her green silk dress.
“Glass of water, milady?” Her governess, Marie, creased her freckled brow. “You are pouring like a sieve.”
Dinah fanned faster. “Thank you, Marie, a glass of water would be lovely.” She swallowed, her throat burning.
She had hoped her wooziness would go unnoticed, but hope never granted her favors. Naturally, Marie had noticed her condition. She’d helped care for Dinah since infancy, then quietly stepped into the role of fulltime caregiver nearly a year ago, when Dinah’s mother died of influenza.
 Dinah swept a bleary glance around the enormous ballroom. Marie was the only reason she had accepted the prestigious invitation to the Pemberton Christmas Ball. To afford her governess the opportunity to dress up, socialize, dance. She loved the aging woman like a mother and felt sorry for her. No fair for Marie, confined to the house, catering to a near eighteen-year-old girl perfectly content to read books all day. Marie would never admit it, but she must feel as if life were passing her by.
In truth, Dinah was not content at all. Neither did she read books all day. She used the books as shields, staring at the same blurred page for hours on end while her intoxicated dazes slowly abated behind the covers.
At nightfall, she crept from the back door—the hinges were meticulously oiled, of course. Through trash-strewn alleyways, she wound her way to the secret dens of oblivion scattered throughout the city, her only witness a scurrying rat or a starving, snarling dog.  
Far worse than the journey was the destination. People, corpse-like, in opium-induced stupors stared at the ceiling through sightless eyes. The dens revolted her, yet she returned night after night to share the sinful pipe.
She had taken her last draw from the pipe near twenty-four hours ago. The longest she’d been without opium since the day her father, Dr. Henry Cooper, provided that first, small, nerve-calming dose, following the death of her mother. Shortly after, he’d revoked the drug, fearful she’d become dependent. Pity it was too late.
“Your water, Lady Dinah.” Marie placed a hand gently on Dinah’s forearm.
“Thank you, Marie.” Dinah stiffened her fingers as she took the glass, attempting to hide the trembling. The rippling liquid gave her away.
“For heaven’s sake, milady, are you all right? You are quivering like that ridiculous artificial bird on the dowager Lady Sempill’s bonnet.”
“Yes, fine. I am quite certain.” Dinah managed to bring the quaking glass to her lips without sloshing water down the front of her gown. Hiding her face with her fan, she gulped hungrily, the cold liquid soothing her dry throat and quenching her miserable thirst. She stopped only when her gaze hit the ornate ceiling, then handed the empty glass to Marie.
“Lord have mercy, child,” Marie exclaimed, eyes bulging. Her expression was so comical, Dinah would have laughed had she not been overtaken by an excruciating cramp in the pit of her stomach. She pitched forward at the waist, belly roiling.
“You are ailing, milady, let us take our leave—”
Dinah forced aside the pain and stood abruptly. “Nonsense.” She cut her gaze around the ballroom, over the glistening Christmas decorations, between the vast, garland-wrapped pillars, through the pretentious gossiping geese who thought themselves better than she. Where had he gone? Panic edged up her spine. She’d seen him but moments ago. Or had she imagined it? Breath shot through her nostrils in shallow puffs. Her head spun, colors swirled, the room turned into an enormous spinning top.
Finally, her gaze swam over his detestable face, just across the room. Mister Hugh Egerton, one of the eleven pipers piping at the den that night on Ashire Lane, conspiring to steal her innocence. The opium made the men lethargic and clumsy, and by the grace of God, she’d escaped, body unharmed. She wished she could say the same for her spirit.
All the more reason to dull the pain.
She licked her parched lips, all but tasting the hot, thick smoke on her tongue. A mad craving snaked through her. From where he stood, Mister Egerton met her gaze, nodded knowingly. Her skin crawled, revulsion and anticipation sharing the cause. She pulled her lips into a smile, masking the sensation. Soon everything would be all right.
“Marie, would you please locate a footman? I require another glass of water.”
“Right away, milady.” Marie scurried off, holding up the water glass.
Dinah took a step toward the blemished excuse for a man leering at her from the far wall.
“I must have her, Humphrey,” Owen said, glancing at his brother. “For God’s sake, would you look at her? She is perfect.”
“In appearance she fills your requirements. But what if she has never taken the stage?”
“It matters not. She is the one. I feel it in my bones.”
“In that case, I suggest you hurry, before the lady is spoken for.” Humphrey tipped his head toward the sad-eyed girl crossing the room, the beaded train of her green silk dress whispering over the floor behind her.
Surely, the melancholy beauty Owen had been admiring wasn’t advancing toward the suspicious-looking man leaning on the wall. Owen’s jaw tensed, reacting to the uneasiness settling into his middle. The man had a bad complexion, a greasy smile, and a jagged scar that testified he’d almost lost an ear. Not the type of gent that stepped aside while another man made off with his woman.
Humphrey cleared his throat and tapped his top lip. “You will be needing your handkerchief, brother.”
Owen frowned, tugged the handkerchief from inside his sleeve, dabbed the corner of his mouth. “Wine,” he concluded, examining the red smudge. “Better?”
“Indeed.” Humphrey nodded.
“Good.” Owen flashed a smile at his brother. “Wish me luck,” he said, turning away.
He tucked the handkerchief into his right cuff, then, changing his mind, switched to his left. With quick, calculated steps, he veered into the young woman’s path, intercepting her journey to the far wall.
          Owen’s breath caught as he gazed at the girl’s face. The pale, dewy skin, the sad, violet eyes, the soft pink lips. She was Rose, the lead in his latest play, The Rain Garden, the tragic tale of a dying girl.
          “How do you do?” he asked, extending his hand. His eyes widened when his silver pen—a gift from a theatrically pleased dignitary—flew, as if winged, from the sleeve of his tailcoat to the floor, just as the lady took a step. Time slowed while her slipper rolled over the pen and she stumbled. He lunged, catching her at the last possible instant, saving her from a fall.
          Good Lord, but she was hot. She burned in his arms, as if with fever. A heady aroma of tropical flowers, perhaps hibiscus, radiated from her, the scent strengthened by the elevated temperature of her skin. She gasped weakly, struggling to right her feet.
          “I beg your pardon, milady,” Owen said, an excessive amount of heat rising to his own cheeks. “Seems my pen escaped its holster—the loop of string sewn into my cuff. It appears it dislodged when I tucked in my handkerchief…”
          She wasn’t listening. Her lucid, purplish-blue eyes stared past him. He turned slightly, following her gaze to the seedy character against the wall, his rat-like eyes crawling over Owen’s Rose.
          “Milady?” Owen said, still holding her by the arms.
          She blinked a few times, then snapped her gaze to Owen, sliding her elbows from his grip.
          Owen fell to one knee to retrieve his pen. But where was it? He glanced over the polished floor, then turned his gaze to the hem of Rose’s gown. The silver pen peeked from under the flowing skirt.
          “Excuse me, sir, I must take my leave.”
          He gazed up at her. Dark tendrils escaped her hairpins, sticking to her damp skin. She was perfect. Already on his knees, he considered begging her to be his afflicted Rose.
          “My pardon, but I believe you are standing on my pen.”
          Her cheeks reddened more deeply as she took a step back.
          “Thank you.” He stood, tucking the pen into his cuff, slipping it into its holster beside the tiny vial of ink. One never knew when inspiration would strike. A good playwright must be prepared.
          Will he ever stop rambling? Dinah wondered. Her brow tensed further with each syllable. She took a step forward, then halted, locked in place. Her gaze shot to the floor to find the man’s boot planted firmly upon the hem of her dress. Already, he’d toppled her with his blasted pen, must he ruin her gown as well?
          “Perhaps I should introduce myself? I am Owen Fletcher,” he continued on, not allowing her time to answer. “I realize we have not been properly presented, but feel we are acquainted already. For you are my Rose Trellis, I have dreamt of you, and written of your life many times.”
          A nerve pinched between her eyes. She fastened her gaze to his lips, so overly filled with words.
          “Sir, you are mistaken. I am the Lady Dinah Cooper. My father is Dr. Henry Cooper. Now, if you will excuse me—”
          He didn’t budge.
          “Mister Fletcher. If you will kindly remove your large boot from my hand-beaded train, I should like to part company now.”
          “Terribly sorry.” He stepped off the delicate fabric. “Of course. Goodnight, Lady Dinah.” He offered a short bow.
          “Goodnight, Mister Fletcher.”
Dinah returned her gaze to Mister Egerton. His rodent-like eyes were filled with glee. Obviously, he enjoyed the notion of her searching him out, begging for his remedy. She strode a mere three paces toward him, finding her steps once again interrupted by the impudent Mister Fletcher.
“One more thing, Lady Dinah,” he said, his unyielding tongue giving his lips a quick lick. “You have yet to answer, about my play. You see, I wish you to have the lead part— starring role of Rose Trellis—the beautiful, dying flower.”
“You wish me to play the part of a dead girl?” She stepped around him.
Ahem, let me explain. She lives! The girl battles a life-threatening bout of pneumonia and prevails. The Rain Garden is a tribute to Rose Trellis’s courage. The story of how she fights back against the illness that is killing her, and wins.”
 “Hello, poppet,” Hugh Egerton cooed, his eyes roving over Dinah’s body, his fingers twitching, as if urged to do the same. “A bit low on the medicine?”
Dinah dropped her gaze to the floor and nodded. She felt naked.
“So, what do you say to becoming my precious Rose?”
She snapped her gaze up, disbelieving. Had Owen Fletcher no bounds? She frowned at him. The nerve of this…this…prattling playwright.
“Lady Dinah is engaged in conversation at the moment. You will be running along now.” Hugh waved his hand through the air at Owen, as if shooing a fly.
“Ah—but I await an answer from the lady. Soon as my petition is met, I shall be traveling on. But not before.”
My but he was stubborn.
Owen’s tongue tired from constant chatter. But how else was he to distract the lady from the unsavory rascal holding up the wall? Besides, all he said was truth—he positively had to have her in his play as the wilting, yet victorious Rose.
He stood facing the scoundrel, pustule-riddled skin and oily smirk even more wretched up close. The way he looked at Lady Dinah got Owen’s hackles up. The man was downright insolent.
“Forgive me, sir, but the lady didn’t appear to be engaged in conversation. Plainly, her gaze was directed at the floor,” Owen said.
The whites of the man’s eyes reddened. He narrowed them at Owen, color climbing his neck.
“You will watch your words around Hugh Egerton, or else find yourself choking on them.”
“That would be quite unfortunate. But I am afraid I do not believe you.” Owen grinned. An arrogant grin he reserved for moments such as this. He found it either silenced the hecklers, or infuriated them. By the clenching of Hugh Egerton’s fists, it was the latter.
“Care to step outside and prove me wrong?” Hugh asked, his voice rough, as if his throat were packed with gravel.
“Why settle outside what can be settled right here?”
“No! Stop, this instant,” Lady Dinah demanded, her words shaking. The older woman he’d seen her with earlier rushed to her side.
“Step back, milady.” Owen placed a protective hand on Dinah’s arm, gently setting her back.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Hugh snorted. “I arrived here in company of the Lord Morris Barlow, and refuse to embarrass him by brawling inside Pemberton Hall.”
“Lord Barlow, you say?” Though well-known and wealthy, Morris Barlow had a sordid reputation. Owen easily assumed he had met Hugh Egerton over an opium lamp at the ill-reputed Ashire den.
The opium-eater and the noblewhat a glorious premise for a play.
Owen yanked his gleaming silver pen from his sleeve.
“A daggar!” Hugh Egerton yelped, retreating into the wall as if he could sink through it.
“Not a dagger. Far worse.” Owen tugged out and unstopped the vial of ink, dipped his pen. He returned the bottle to his sleeve and retrieved a slip of parchment. “Your pathetic, smoke-filled life, Mister Egerton, will be the inspiration for my new play,” he said, scratching the pen along the paper. “I assure you, my productions are quite renowned. I am certain the Lord Morris Barlow will be thrilled to be written in as one of your fellows.”
Hugh swallowed, Adam’s apple rising above, then falling below his collar. “What do you require of me?”
Owen turned to Lady Dinah, reading the pain on her graceful features.  His heart ached as he comprehended the depth of her obsession. “Only that you leave this precious rose alone.”
“But she sought after me—”
“Only because of her dependence on your poison. You shall give a sufficient amount to me, that I can wean her from it in a healthy manner.”
Hugh nodded. “Meet me at the Ashire den in an hour.”
Owen tore up the slip of paper, the pieces floating down like the Christmas snow beyond the window.
“Milady?” Marie touched Dinah’s elbow.
Tears cascaded down Dinah’s face. She hid behind her fan, confused by the foreign emotions stirring her heart.
“My brother is in control of the situation. As you were,” an older gentleman called to the onlookers, his double-chin bobbling. Then, turning to Marie, “Would you care to dance?”
Dinah squeezed Marie’s hand, then nodded as the gentleman led her radiant governess to the dance floor.  
“Thank you for rescuing me, Mister Fletcher,” Dinah said, turning to Owen.
“My pleasure, Lady Dinah.”
Dinah looked into his eyes, for the first time, really. A beautiful blue-green, like the blown glass ornaments on the magnificent Pemberton Hall Christmas tree.
“How did you know about my…condition?”
He cleared his throat, swallowed. “I too have suffered affliction. I am quite acquainted with the dens.”
Her eyes flew open wide.
“Had it not been for my brother, Humphrey, I would have surely died in one. He saved my life.”
“As you plan to save mine?” Dinah asked, studying his lips, so tempting now that they were void of prattle.
“Precisely.” He brought her hand to his mouth, placing on it a tender kiss.
Her breath pulled in sharply, and she imagined herself being resuscitated, as if with her father’s bellows.
“By the way, my answer is yes,” Dinah offered, hiding a smile behind her fan.
Owen’s eyebrows arched high. “Truly? You will be my darling Rose?”
“Yes. I shall be your courageous, victorious Rose. I have decided she and I have much in common.”