My True Love Gave to Me… eleven pipers piping …
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 noble…what 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.”