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Fascinated, Lady March gazed upon her friend’s indignant features. “Tell me!” she begged.

“He said that I was a little zany, and Fergus a dandified popinjay!” Mab’s lower lip trembled. “Oh,
the man! Sometimes I wish I were an orphan, although I am sure no girl could be fonder of her papa than I am. But how
he speak to Fergus in such a disrespectful manner—to say nothing of the cruel way in which he has used me!” She sniffled. “My case is truly desperate! Now you see why I am grown so melancholy, dear Nell, and why I have come to you. Together we shall endeavor to bear with resignation our irreparable losses!”

Though Lady March had been trying very hard for the past six months
to believe that her loss was irreparable, she was not so poor-spirited as to point this out. It was almost as good as a play to see Mab enact a Cheltenham tragedy. However, since the hour grew ever later, and her eyelids accordingly heavy, Nell deemed it time the curtain descend. “You have been wrested from your lover’s arms,” she said sympathetically. “Poor Amabel.”

Paradoxically in a young lady so inclined to the dramatic, Mab was also very honest. “Er, not exactly,” she admitted, pink of cheek. “Though I very nearly was, because Fergus cut up so stiff at being called a popinjay. And so he should have, poor lamb, because he
Nell, I promise you.” She lowered her eyes. “But I shall leave you to judge that for yourself!”

“Will you?” As the result of a pang of premonition, Eleanor looked severe. “How is that, miss?”

Mab’s cheeks turned even pinker. “I daresay Fergus will call on you, once he discovers I’m in town.”

“Mab!” Eleanor’s voice was stern. “What will your father say to that, do you think?”

“Nothing, I hope, since he won’t know about it!” Looking irresistibly earnest, Mab clutched Lady March’s hands and gazed pleadingly up into her face. “Nell, I suspect you won’t like this above half, but I have run away from home.”

“Run away—” Words failed Eleanor. As if it were not trial enough that Marriot had disappeared, victim of some wicked fate upon the precise gruesome nature of which Cousin Henrietta speculated a good twenty hours of each day, now Nell must anticipate the momentary descent of Mab’s father’s wrath upon her head. Mab’s sire was gentle neither of tongue nor temper. “You wretched child!” Nell sighed.

But Mab was not attending to her strictures, nor trying to disarm. Instead she was gazing in an astonished manner at the wall behind Lady March. Puzzled, Eleanor glanced over her shoulder. She, too, stared as a portion of the wainscoting swung silently away.

Through the opening stepped a disheveled masculine figure. He straightened and stood blinking in the candlelight. No damsel with a sense of the dramatic could forego such an opportunity. “It’s a ghost!” shrieked Lady Amabel, with relish, and fainted dead away.




Why Lady Amabel should swoon upon sight of him, Lord March could not guess. In fact, there were any number of points upon which Lord March was uncertain, among them why he should be entering his own house via a secret passage, clutching to him a shabby valise, in the dead of night. Anticipating enlightenment, he glanced hopefully at his wife. But Eleanor, too, surprised him, not in the keen rush of pleasure he experienced at sight of her, because there was to Marriot no more pleasurable sight existent than his countess, with her amber eyes and faintly aquiline features and heavy chestnut hair, but she was not accustomed to stare at him in such an owlish manner, as if he was the last person she expected.

He set down the valise. “Hallo, puss! You look surprised to see me.”

“Surprised!” As if released by his words from a trance, Lady March flew straight into her husband’s arms. “Marriot, you wretch! I am so prodigious glad you have come home! Oh,
have you been?”

Lord March was not the least bit reluctant to be passionately embraced, and responded with equal fervor to his wife’s caress. Oddly, if felt as though a great deal of time had elapsed since last he had engaged in such delightful husbandly pursuits. Apparently he was more in love with his wife than ever, decided Marriot, then abandoned that confusing speculation—for he had hitherto thought that man could never adore woman more than he adored his Nell—for the greater satisfaction of raining kisses upon her cheek and throat and brow. Because Lady March enjoyed receiving her husband’s salutes as much as he enjoyed presenting them, and initiated further such activities in her own turn, it was many moments later when they resumed speech. That they did so at this point was due only to a mutual discovery of the need to draw breath. As he did so, Lord March gazed in a fond fashion upon his wife’s face, which he held cupped between his palms. “Nell! You are crying!” he observed, dismayed.

“Naturally I am crying!” Lady March wiped her face on the sleeve of her dress. “You have been gone so long! Oh, Marriot, are you
here? I cannot believe that you have at last returned.”

“Of course it is truly me.” Lord March’s devotion to his wife was not lessened by her occasional tendency to talk nonsense. In proof of that devotion, he drew her close against him, her chestnut hair against his chest. “Who else would it be, little goose? And I am glad you’ve missed me, although I’ve only been to White’s. Come to think on it, I’ve missed you too!” Nell drew back to gaze searchingly up at him. What disturbed her, Marriot could not fathom. With tender fingers he tilted up her chin and diverted her attention with an extremely ardent kiss. Nell made a little noise deep in her throat and flung her arms around Marriot’s neck. In so doing, her fingers encountered a lump on the back of his skull. The hair around that lump was damp and matted. Amorous intentions abandoned Lord and Lady March in the same moment. “Marriot, you’re hurt!” cried Nell. His lordship merely winced.

Closer inspection revealed that the injury was not serious, merely an egg-shaped swelling, apparently the result of some recent sharp blow. “Damned if I can explain it!” responded Marriot when questioned as to the injury’s source. Gingerly he fingered his sore head and sat down on the pillow-strewn daybed. “I seem to recall being set upon by footpads.”

“Footpads! Marriot!” Eleanor, who had not yet recovered from the shock of her husband’s abrupt reappearance, dropped down before him on her knees. “You could have been killed! Indeed, I feared you had been. There was a rumor that you had run afoul of Napoleon’s agents. There was even a suggestion that you might have eloped.”

“Eloped?” Lord March spoke absentmindedly, his attention on settling his wife and her voluminous fur cloak comfortably on his lap. “Why the deuce should I do such a cork-brained thing as that?”

Nell leaned back against her husband’s shoulder. “I believe the theory was that you might have shot the cat. Don’t scowl at me, Marriot; it wasn’t
suggestion! You cannot deny that you have grown a trifle absent-minded on various occasions when you have imbibed a trifle too much.”

To these wifely strictures upon the subject of strong drink, Lord March responded with unimpaired good humor, perhaps because between strictures his wife was nibbling on his ear. “I’d have had to be drunk as a wheelbarrow to forget I was mad for
puss!” he said frankly, and then several kisses later added, “There! You’ll know better than to think such a thing again.”

“But I
think it!” With icy fingers, Lady March stroked her husband’s lean face. “It was Mab.”

“Mab?” Lord March caught his wife’s cold hand and warmed it with his breath. In so doing, he glimpsed Lady Amabel, sprawled gracefully upon the floor. “Should we try and revive her, do you think?”

Eleanor glanced over her shoulder at her uninvited guest. “Leave her!” Nell said callously. “She looks comfortable enough, and she’s too close to the fire to take chill. Oh, Marriot, I have been in such a pucker! I had begun to wonder if you would never return!”

Why his usually level-headed countess had suddenly taken such a bird-witted notion, Lord March could not imagine, but he was not slow to set her fears at rest. Another lengthy interlude followed, the mood shattered only when Marriot abruptly raised his head to frown at Lady Amabel’s inert figure. “What’s this about a ghost? Why should Mab swoon at sight of me? The brat has known me all her life.”

Nell sighed. Explanations were in order. “What do you expect after an absence of six months?”


Lord March stared disbelieving at his countess. “You jest.”

“No, she doesn’t!” Stiffly, Lady Amabel rose. While she had been quite content to lie as one senseless whilst Lord and Lady March conducted their reunion, Mab was relieved to remove herself at last from the hard, cold, and exceedingly uncomfortable floor. “You have been missing for quite that long, Marriot, and I wish you would tell us what the blazes you have been about.” In eager anticipation of his answer, Mab perched upon an embroidery-covered chair.

Lord March’s answer was not swift in coming, was indeed so very tardy that Mab had ample time to inspect the lush plant life of the chair upon which she sat—roses and daisies and strawberry blossoms, leaves and fruit—and to discover a caterpillar worked cunningly into the design. “I wish you two would stop cuddling!” she said crossly, glancing up from her inspection of the chair to discover Lord and Lady March gazing rapt into each other’s eyes. “While I am glad to learn that someone has been made heart-whole again, the sight of the pair of you hanging upon one another’s lips and swearing eternal devotion makes me wish to gnash my teeth! I’m beginning to think that Papa was right; there is something dashed smoky about your disappearance, Mar-riot. Do you mean to tell us you don’t know you were missing? And why did you feel obliged to use a secret passage to enter your own house?”

“I don’t know.” Lord March released his wife to rub his temples, as if by that simple expedient memory might be restored. It was not, alas. “The last I recollect is leaving White’s and being set upon by footpads— though I’m damned if I know if I was set upon then, or tonight.” He touched his wound, and grimaced. “Or both!”

“Oh!” gasped Nell, concerned. “You
hurt! I will send for some hot water—”

“No!” Mab interrupted firmly, thus demonstrating that she was the only occupant of the solar who had not temporarily set aside her good sense.
Nell! Marriot has no explanation of his six-month absence, and returns home like a thief in the dead of night. It looks very much to me like there’s something very havey-cavey going on here, and until we are certain that there isn’t, Marriot’s presence had much better not be broadcast.”

“Havey-cavey!” Upon this slight to her miraculously restored husband, Lady March’s bosom swelled. “How dare you suggest such a thing, Mab? And after we have taken you in!”

“I’m not suggesting anything, but telling you what other people may think.” Lord March appeared a great deal more interested in his wife’s swelling bosom than his own dire predicament, Mab thought. She wrinkled her nose. “You have been somewhere for the past six months. In a stable, from the smell and look of you!” Lord March wrinkled his own nose, sniffed and looked appalled.

“Never mind!” Eleanor didn’t mind the smell of horses, was so glad to have her husband restored that she wouldn’t have minded if he’d smelled much worse. Prompted by Lady Amabel’s ominous hints, Nell drew back to take a good look at her spouse. He looked little different than he had six months past, she decided as she gazed upon his angular, mobile, utterly charming face. Marriot was not especially handsome, but possessed a magnetism that rendered mere good looks superfluous. There were minor alterations; always athletic, Marriot was thinner than Nell remembered. His dark hair was longer than it had been six months past, and was currently as disheveled as any fashionable gentleman might achieve after hours spent before a looking glass. The most startling difference was in his clothing: knee breeches and unpolished boots and a simple white shirt open at the throat. However, there was no alteration whatsoever in the fond expression in his green eyes. “Darling!” murmured Nell huskily, as she lifted her fingers to trace the outline of his lips.

“Ahem!” interjected Lady Amabel, causing both Lord and Lady March to look at her askance. “It is very nice that you are so pleased to be reunited, but don’t you think it would be wise if we were to expend some thought upon what Marriot has been about? You don’t realize what a sensation you created by disappearing, Marriot. People are naturally going to be very curious, even more curious than I—and much less inclined to believe that you don’t know where you’ve been, or what you’ve been doing for six months.” Pointedly, she regarded Eleanor, settled so comfortably upon his lordship’s lap. “I do not mean to be a spoilsport, but perhaps if you were to apply your mind, you might recall.”

Amabel’s arguments were not without merit. Lord March’s reflections during the moments since his emergence from the secret passage had had little in them of anything but his wife. Reluctantly, he set Nell off his lap and beside him on the daybed. As he did so, his hand brushed against the book she had been reading and knocked it to the floor. He picked it up.
“The History of Serpents?”
he inquired.

Nell took the book. “Nothing is worse for a dragon’s digestion than apples. I have been reading all manner of strange things these past months, Marriot, while praying you would return.”

Marriot was coming to accept the fact of his long absence. His wife looked as delectable to him as a feast must to a starving man. “Eleanor, forgive me!” he begged, enfolding her in his arms.

“Anything!” gasped Nell, breathless.

“Oh, the devil!” muttered Mab, as Lord and Lady March again embraced. Such obvious, uninhibited affection was enough to cast a less fortunate maiden into the dismals. Not that Mab begrudged her friends their happiness, even though it quite wrung her heart with envy. Her papa was the most heartless wretch in nature to forbid her such happiness of her own. A popinjay! One could not blame Fergus for keenly feeling such rudeness.

BOOK: Maggie MacKeever
4.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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