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Several things during this conversation with the object of her maidenly affections were to Mab coming clear. Fergus was not quite the cavalier imagination had painted him. This discovery was not surprising, since Mab knew the baron little better than many another modern damsel had known her prospective husband, lack of close acquaintance being in that day no good reason not to wed.

“Robbed?” she said vaguely. “Not a bit of it! I can’t think where you took such a singularly foolish notion. Perhaps, Fergus, you might know something about how things are done at Bow Street?” She observed his indignant expression. “I should have known that you would not! I expect you number no magistrates among your acquaintance, either. A pity! I would have liked to ask—but never mind that!”

Perhaps his mama had not been wholly mistaken, decided Fergus, in her claim that Amabel’s behavior merited reproof. From the nature of her queries, one might easily conclude that Mab was engaged in mischief of some sort. “You owe me an explanation,” Lord Parrington said with grave propriety.

Lady Amabel eyed her caller’s manly countenance, which was looking very solemn, and recalled that his mama was amazingly high in the instep—no fitting member of a conspiracy to outwit the forces of law, in short. There was little hope that anything she told Fergus would not be in turn related to his mama, Mab now realized. “Where shall we live after we are married?” she asked abruptly. “I mean, what will happen to your mama?”

“Happen to her?” Fergus felt in some way that it was a trifle indelicate to discuss living arrangements before the knot was properly tied. Charitably, he made allowance for the strain imposed upon Mab by the misfortunes of her friends. The baron was not so very high a stickler as his mama, who was of the opinion that as result of these misfortunes Mab should give unfortunate Lady March the cut direct. “Why should anything happen to her? Do you fear Mama will feel you have usurped her position? You need not! She will be happy to show you how to go on.”

“I see.” Mab could not imagine that Lady Katherine would be pleased to show any daughter-in-law anything other than how much she was disliked. Previously, Mab had not been aware of how firmly Lord Parrington remained tied to his mama’s apron strings. Later, Mab would have to seriously ponder whether she wished to spend her married life with a gorgonish mama-in-law that would always be loading her with reproaches and pulling a long face.

“Are we to be married? I was under the impression your papa refused to give us his consent.” Fergus moved from the oriel window to the chimney where Diana bathed. Once arrived there, he turned back to gaze suspiciously upon Mab. “The greatest wretch in nature—is that what you were talking about?”

How calmly he spoke of her impassioned letter— clearly, Lord Parrington was inclined toward no romantical high flights. Closeted alone with the young lady whom he wished to marry, a highly unusual circumstance, he had not uttered a single improper word, nor given the tiniest indication that he harbored any ardent thought. A young lady
might
be gratified by such restraint, Mab supposed. After witnessing high romance as enacted by Lord and Lady March, however, she was finding Fergus distinctly flat.

Mab tossed aside her fan and abandoned her chair.

“Perhaps I exaggerated a trifle, Fergus, but Papa had forbidden me to see you again, and I was feeling very out-of-sorts.”

“Forbidden—” Lord Parrington gazed down upon the young lady who had joined him on the hearth. Mab was a very pretty damsel, he decided, even with dust smudged on her fair cheek and cobwebs in her dark hair. Any offspring of their union would have been attractive. However, there were in the world a great many other young women potentially capable of producing healthy, attractive offspring, young women whose papas weren’t unalterably—and inexplicably— opposed to himself. “I am sorry to hear it. There remains nothing for us to do but say goodbye.”

“Say
goodbye?
Just because Papa has taken one of his tweaks? I call that dashed poor spirited!” Lady Amabel’s voice was very near a shriek. Upon espying the baron’s horrified expression, she lowered it. “I crave forgiveness for ripping up at you, Fergus—not that it wasn’t what you deserved!”

Though Lord Parrington was blessed not only with unusual beauty but also quickness of perception, he was at a loss to comprehend how his attitude displeased. This viewpoint he explained.

To his explanation, Lady Amabel reacted with a wrinkling of her pretty nose. “Papa decrees that we may not marry, and you intend to abide by his dictates! Have you not a ha’porth of spirit, Fergus? I think you must not. Had I realized how it is with you, I would never have run away!”

“You ran away,” Fergus repeated slowly, as if to impress the magnitude of such arrant misconduct on a disbelieving brain. “How could you do such a thing? I am very disappointed in you, Mab. I can’t imagine what Mama will say.”

Lady Amabel gave not a button for Lady Katherine’s prospective remarks. “If you do not think she’ll like it, then don’t tell her!” Mab snapped. “Save for Nell, and now you, no one knows that I ran away. Even Papa does not! And considering the state I found matters in here, it’s a very good thing I
did,
what with Nell being made to fret even worse by that odious Henrietta, not to mention Marriot!”

Not tell his mama of Amabel’s misconduct? Here was a novel thought. Though Fergus was not certain of the propriety of withholding information from his parent, he foresaw that revelation could only lead to a further cutting up of his own peace. Fergus’s peace was important to him. In part, his amiability resulted from a keen dislike of raised voices and hurtful accusations, as is sometimes the case.

Currently, it was Amabel’s raised voice that he disliked. “Tell me, do you really want to join the militia?” he asked, and smiled.

Lady Amabel, who wished to quarrel no more than did Fergus, seized gratefully upon this distraction. “Of course I do not!” she chided with twinkling eyes. “It was merely a means by which to distract Henrietta from Marriot. She is prone to go on at length in the most bloodcurdling manner. I wished to give her thoughts another direction.” Her smile faded. “As you have sought to do with me, Fergus! Since you no longer wish to marry me, you may go away.”

Could he have heard correctly? Had Amabel just
dismissed
him? It was a unprecedented situation for Lord Parrington, who was much more accustomed to being courted than given his
congé
. Perhaps she had not meant it? A quick glance at her stubborn expression convinced him that she had. “We must not be hasty!” he protested lamely.

“I
am not hasty,” responded Amabel with a sad little catch in her voice and a shocking disregard for the truth.
“I
am not the one who allows myself to be dictated to, who has not the least capability to manage my own affairs—” Prudently, Mab refrained from direct censure of the baron’s dictatorial parent. “—the one who abandons his dearest friend just when she needs him most! But do not concern yourself, Fergus! We will not much longer be a household of defenseless women. Soon Marriot will come home.”

“Will he, do you think?” Lord Parrington had not previously considered how difficult life must be for the ladies so mysteriously left behind.

Amabel lowered her gaze to the mantelpiece. “I’m sure of it! Why, I could tell you—but I must not! You do not like secrets! The thing is, once Marriot
does
return, he might be persuaded to put in a good word with Papa, who has always doted on him, and adjudged him up to all the rigs.” Through her lashes, she peered at her companion. “I will tell you this much, Fergus. Marriot’s absence has a
very
good explanation—but you must promise me not to breathe a word!”

As was not surprising in so cosseted a young gentleman, Lord Parrington secretly yearned after a more adventurous life. Could Mab’s sudden interest in robberies and magistrates have to do with Lord March? he wondered. Could the vanished peer have run afoul of Bow Street?

If so, Fergus wanted no further part of the business. “You may trust me,” he responded stiffly. “Upon my honor, Mab!”

Here was a pretty pickle; did she
not
reveal confidences, Lord Parrington would take offense. Unfortunately, Mab knew not what tale to tell, the explanation of Marriot’s disappearance not having reached its final draft. She cast about in her mind. Nor was her ultimate utterance surprising in view of the recent invasion scares. Looking very conspiratorial, Mab leaned closer to the baron and breathed, “Spies!”

Spies? Whatever Fergus had expected, it was not that Lord March was involved in an attempt to thwart the ambitious Corsican. Indeed, so stunned was Fergus that he failed to wonder what the Emperor of the French had to do with thieves and magistrates and Bow Street. “Jupiter!” he gasped.

“Do not press me! I can say no more.” Though Fergus had proven more gullible than she had anticipated— and a great deal less up to snuff!—Mab thought it would be foolish to press her luck. For that reason, she refrained from asking the baron’s opinion of failing memories. Too, Mab was feeling a little lonely, as must any young lady disappointed in romance.

Perhaps there was yet hope for Fergus. Perhaps his apparent disinterest was merely result of a very high sense of decorum. “We are alone, Fergus!” she coyly pointed out.

Somewhat blankly, his thoughts still occupied with enemy agents, Lord Parrington gazed around the solar. “So we are. Ah, you mean that we should not be, and you are perfectly correct. Pray forgive me for placing you in so equivocal a position, Mab! I would not have done it for anything. You will permit me to take my leave.”

The baron’s leave-taking was not what Lady Amabel had in mind, as she quickly made apparent by clutching his coat-sleeve. Lord Parrington looked astonished by this temerity. “Gudgeon!” said Mab, though fondly. “I
meant
that you should kiss me!”

To this generous invitation, the baron returned a startled look, young ladies who invited gentlemen to kiss them not being something of which he had been brought up to approve. He did not long adhere to that lesson, however. “May I?” he echoed, staring fascinated into Mab’s upturned face. Rosy-cheeked, she nodded.
“May
I, by Jove!”

It was, Lady Amabel decided, a very nice kiss, if hardly of the caliber recently—and frequently—bestowed upon one another by Lord and Lady March. One must bear in mind that years of practice had led to the expertise currently enjoyed by Marriot and Nell. Fergus showed promise of someday attaining a similar artistry, if only he could be pried out from beneath his mama’s foot. Mab thought she would like to devote herself to that project, once this troublesome business of Marriot’s was tidied up.

But of trouble Lady Amabel had as yet seen little, and one of its harbingers at that moment stepped into the solar. At the bacchanalian scene being there enacted, Henrietta gaped.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

From the solar Lady Amabel proceeded next to the master bedchamber, where she scratched loudly at the door. When that portal opened, Mab dashed into the room, slammed the door shut behind her, and with her pretty person barred the entry, as if imminent invasion might be repulsed by outstretched arms and heaving breast.

“Gracious!” said Lady March, who wore a confection of cambric muslin held together by orchid ribbons, and over it the ancient fur cloak. “Whatever has happened to put you in such a tweak?”

“If you had discovered you had to live with Fergus’s mama, you would be in a tweak also!” Mab sought to catch her breath. “She is a gorgon! A tartar! And what she will say to this piece of business, I shudder to think! If only your odious cousin had not stepped into the solar at
just
that moment—but it is too much to hope she will remain silent!”

“I fear you are correct. Henrietta has never remained silent about anything in all her life. Do you think you might tell me what we are talking about?”

Amabel looked rueful. “Have I not said? What a pea-goose you must think me! But when I think of how difficult it was to persuade Fergus to kiss me, I vow I could spit nails!”

“He
kissed
you?” Lady March echoed, astonished. “Mab!”

“You must not censure him! Fergus is not in the petticoat-line, I assure you—indeed, he might never have kissed me at all, had I not intimated that he should.” Mab sighed. “In point of fact, I had to ask him outright!”

“You had to—” In an attempt to clear up her confusion. Lady March shook her head, thus adding to the disorder of her chestnut locks, which were already in riotous disarray. “If your young man isn’t, er, romantic,
why are you so set on having him, Mab?”

“Had you ever seen Fergus,” Mab said gloomily, “you would not ask me that. He is very near perfection—or would be if it were not for his gorgonish mama, who will doubtless make a piece of work about nothing— oh, blast! For Henrietta to step into the solar at
just
that moment was the unluckiest mischance!”

In a cravenly manner, Lady March reflected that she was very happy to have been spared the resultant kickup. “Poor Mab!” she sympathized. “Was it so very bad?”

“Bad?” Amabel’s delightful features were chagrined. “I should say it was! There is a want of openness about my conduct, an unsteadiness of character—I am a harum-scarum young woman, and a hardened flirt! A wicked girl, she called me—
wicked!
How can you bear to have that sneaking gabble-grinder around you, Nell? She did not scruple to announce it her duty to tell Lady Katherine what has transpired—as if Fergus was a penny the worst of it! Oh, I do not mean to make a kickup, but I am cursedly provoked!”

“Perhaps she will reconsider,” offered Lady March, without any real hope that Henrietta would bypass an opportunity to cast a blight upon Amabel’s romance. “I might speak to her about it.”

“You’ll speak to her, I warrant!” Mab brushed futilely at the fur that had drifted from off the cloak onto her high-waisted, dust-smudged dress. “I’m surprised she hasn’t already brought you the tale. Perhaps she knows I am here before her—or is composing Lady Katherine a note.” Briefly, Mab looked hopeful. “I wonder if the old gorgon might think I’ve been compromised, in which event she would have to give us her blessing, so that her son’s good name could be saved.” Her spirits plummeted. “More likely she will decide I’m some scheming hussy who has led her son astray!”

BOOK: Maggie MacKeever
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