“I think it’s time to strike a deal,” she said, floating into her superior’s office.
“Nice to see you, too,” the man in charge of her division said with only a hint of sarcasm. A low rumble of thunder filtered into the room. Sarcasm was not much appreciated in their line of work. “I have a new assignment for you.”
“I just got back from one,” she reminded him.
“And now you are going out once more.”
“I need a partner this time,” she complained. “Life is getting more and more complicated and I can’t do it alone any more.”
“After this post,” he said calmly.
“Please…” She rarely begged and they both knew it. Her strong spirit was, in fact, one of the reasons she was good at her job.
“I’m sorry, Angel – I have it on the highest authority – no partner until after this assignment.” He looked upward. “It’s out of my hands.”
She shrugged. “All right, but I won’t forget.”
“I know,” he said with a sigh. “Now, let me tell you about David and Fanny. Their fathers were in school, and then the military, together. One gentleman, heir to an earldom, eventually married. His wife presented him with a son.”
“All very proper, I suppose.”
“Quite. A few years later, the other gentleman, now a wealthy country squire, got married and his wife had a daughter. The two old friends promised them to each other at the daughter’s christening.”
“I assume this was our work?”
He nodded. “They truly are destined for each other.”
“However…” She thought she could see where this was headed.
“However, one of their agents is already in place and making mischief. I need you to go in and make sure this wedding takes place as planned.”
“Any ideas who they have put into play?”
“No. It could be one of two people.”
“Or both,” she murmured.
“Unlikely that the two would be working together, though. You know they work better alone, because they do not trust anyone.”
“All the more reason for me to have a partner…”
He ignored her and continued as if she had not spoken. “I’ve been notified that while both of these agents are important – all people are important – they aren’t particularly needed in the scheme of things. And, as usual, you will be limited to the earthly body and limited in anything special.”
She knew that. She could use divine intervention three times, and that was it.
“Whom do I get to be this time?” she wondered. “One of the meek and lowly, as usual?” He nodded again. She pursed her lips and grinned. “Let’s see… Fanny is to be married, so she will not need a governess, so I am either a poor relation or a paid companion.”
“Poor relation-cum-companion. You are cousin to her stepmother, Lady Miranda.” He frowned.
“I take it Lady Miranda is one of the two under suspicion?” she guessed, already feeling sorry for the poor relation. Not only that, but the lady was scheduled to die. Angel would take her place, and when her assignment was completed, she would return here to another job, and the mortal would die again, although it would appear as if it were the first time to the humans around her. “Anything else I need to know?”
“Hmmm… This is totally superfluous to our philosophy of putting little value on material possessions, but you should be aware that the earl has little money to his name. He needs to go through with this marriage to recoup some of the family losses.”
“I see. Something tells me, then, that the opposition is concentrating on the girl.”
“Why am I not surprised?” She suppressed a sigh and fluttered out of the office, resigned to returning to Earth once more.
“Are we there yet?” The plump blonde glared at her stepmother’s poor relation cousin and her maid. “Well?”
“Have patience, Miss Fanny,” the maid soothed.
“The coachman said we have about 10 more miles…” the companion softly added.
“You’re just anxious to get there, Miss Fanny, what with the wedding and all,” the maid told her.
“I suppose so,” Fanny said with a long-suffering sigh. Really, she did not understand why there could not be more fuss made about her wedding. To an earl! Her late mother would have been so pleased, and her father should have been, but no, he packed her off to Herefordshire without a by-your-leave. All because his second wife, Lady Miranda, had presented him with an heir last year, and he was still besotted with the babe.
Granted, her little brother was precious, but not so precious that he need steal her thunder! Fanny blamed Lady Miranda, whom she heartily detested. That woman actively encouraged her father to keep attention direction at the little one. Miranda had hosted no less than three balls in celebration of her son’s birth.
Fanny had not received a ball at all! Not for her betrothal, although with all due respect, it was of long standing, nor had there been a coming out party for her eighteenth birthday. The few parties she attended were given for others.
“But, darling,” Miranda had reasoned. “What use is a ball to introduce you to eligible young men when you are already engaged to one?” That had been the end of that.
The more she thought about it, the more she decided someone owed her a party. And that someone was her fiancé.
“Make them pay, darling,” had been Miranda’s last piece of advice before she left home. “Give them what they want, but make them pay well for the privilege.”
Fanny intended to do just that. With a grim smile, she stared out at the rain and began to plot.
“So you are going through with this…”
Mr. Roderick Forde and his nephew, the Earl of Willingham, sat over port after dinner in Forde’s lodge, a mere ten miles from Willingham’s Hereford estate.
“I have to, Uncle Rod. Not only has the betrothal been of long standing, but frankly, I need the money. As you know, my father was no businessman.”
“You have done a good job of recouping his losses, David, Is that not enough?”
Lord Willingham laughed. “Still advocating living in sin, Uncle Rod?”
“Anything is better than marriage, lad. Eaton must be offering you a pretty penny to honor a betrothal made in the cradle. What does it pay these days to wed and bed the young lady?”
“Uncle!” The earl was indignant.
“All right, if you insist.” He named a sum that made Rod whistle.
“Lucrative business, marriage.”
“You should try it sometime,” his nephew said with a grin.
“I did, once, as you recall, and it was a disaster.” His wife of one year had run off with the man she had loved rather than stay with an arranged-marriage husband who had come to love her. She had drowned when the ship carrying her and her lover to America had caught fire during the voyage.
“But that was long ago. I can scarcely recall her.”
“Fifteen years…” And he remembered it like it was yesterday. The humiliation of it, at least. Never again would he let a female get the better of him, or make him a social laughingstock.
Since then he had surrounded himself with pretty widows and witty courtesans, but staying with none for any length of time. He steered clear of young ladies of gentle breeding and married women, not wanting to be the cause of anyone else’s marital strife. He was honorable in that, at least. He filled his days with controlling his investments and his nights amusing himself with women and gambling.
He had taught his nephew to be discriminating in his women, discerning in running his estate and deliberate when it came time to put down cards and dice. He looked at his nephew now, on his right at the table, and gave him a fond smile. David was a nephew to be proud of.
“So honoring your betrothal is a business move.”
“Almost. Have you seen Miss Eaton?” The young earl made a few curving movements with his hands.
“Pink and gold and well-endowed?” Rod guessed. “Beauty fades, you know, and her curves will run to fat after her first child.”
“Suit yourself. But mark my words, lad. She’s either a shrew like her stepmother or a squealing idiot with more hair than wit. Have you met her yet?”
“Once. We attended the same ball two weeks before I left London. I made certain we were introduced.”
“The beauteous Miranda allowed her to attend and outshine her?” Rod could scarce believe that.
The thought of Lady Miranda left a bad taste in his mouth. Two years before, in her first season, she had taken a fancy to him and had pursued him relentlessly. He had almost been trapped, too, at a house party. Fortunately, an older gentleman, Eaton, had been caught in her web instead.
Just Rod’s luck, though, the lady had intimated at their last meeting that she had done her duty by her husband and was ready to branch out “in an amorous sense.” He had turned her down.
“Fanny was at the ball with her dowdy little companion, Miss Singletary.”
“Miranda’s dogsbody,” Rod said knowledgeably. “She could not say ‘boo’ to a goose, that one. A fine chaperone she must have made.”
“She is traveling with Fanny to the manor.”
“No evil stepmother?” Rod enquired.
Rod relaxed into his seat and took a sip of port. “Thank goodness for small favors.” Miranda would have been difficult to dodge should she have decided to accompany the girl.
“It is odd, though,” David said in a bewildered tone.
“Lady Miranda’s attitude. She should be providing protection for her stepdaughter, and yet she sends the girl off to balls with the scantiest of chaperones. Everyone knows the poor relation is under the stepmother’s thumb, so any orders she has as relates to Fanny come directly from Lady Miranda.”
“And how is that odd?”
“At the ball, I found Fanny and Lord Garvey spending an inordinate amount of time together – on the terrace.”
“Did you question the chaperone?”
“Of course. Once I found her. She said she had been instructed to give the lady her head.”
“It is as if Lady Miranda wants Fanny to jeopardize her own betrothal. But if that is the case, it makes no sense.”
“Doesn’t it? She gets revenge on me through you and she gets the chit off her hands with whomever compromises her first.”
In the carriage, Fanny was becoming increasingly irritable. “How much longer do we have to…”
Lightning struck nearby and the horses squealed in fright, one of the offside cattle rearing up in surprise. The carriage tilted dangerously before it landed on its side, throwing the coachman from the box. The horses tried to drag the coach, but were unable to, and they halted, their eyes whirling dangerously, the whites pronounced, even in the late afternoon gloom.
Fanny looked at Angela and sighed. She was out cold. The maid was in hysterics and she felt like slapping the girl. It might come to that, she thought miserably. She poked her head out of the only available door in time to hear the coachman call from the side of the road to say he thought his leg was broken.
Fortunately, they were at the gates of a short drive that led to a lodge. She wondered if anyone was home…
Why did these things always fall to her? She grumbled as she trudged up the gravel road leading to the house, relieved to see a few lights in the windows as she got nearer to her destination. Now, if there were some strong men to assist her…
She knocked and was taken aback at the dark gentleman who answered the door.
“My carriage… Accident… broken leg… unconscious…” she found herself babbling to the man. He looked down sternly at her and she thought he looked a bit like a devil. When the face of her own fiancé appeared over his shoulder, she fainted on the doorstep.
“Why the devil did she do that?” Rod demanded, pointing to the female crumbled at his feet.
“That is Miss Eaton!” David cried, kneeling beside her.
“Then you do something with the damned chit while I see what happened.” Grabbing a cloak, he did not wait to see if his nephew would follow orders, but went out into the rain. How in the world had David’s fiancée landed on his doorstep and not Sarah’s?
Sarah was his elder sister and David’s mother, and she was no doubt expecting someone this evening. Because it looked like they were going to have houseguests, Rod was uncomfortable leaving David in the same close quarters as his fiancée – there was still a chance the lad could get out of the betrothal… But not if near proximity at the lodge was going to throw them together. The structure only contained three bedchambers, after all, and if Miss Eaton had her own, and the chaperone had one, David might feel obligated to allow his uncle to keep the master bedroom to himself. No, as soon as Rod ascertained what exactly had gone wrong, he could separate those two.
When he reached the wreckage of the carriage, it was worse than he expected.
The horses, unable to go anywhere, because the coach had sunk into the mud, were petrified. Although Rod was no sawbones, it appeared to him that the coachman had broken a leg. A maid was sobbing inside the carriage.
“She’s dead!” the girl cried when she saw Rod look in. “Miss Singletary is dead!”
“Nonsense!” He quelled the urge the slap the maid. Instead, he offered up his cloak and told her to cover the coachman. He would carry the companion to the lodge, send someone back for the horses and driver, and ride for the surgeon himself.
As the maid was helped out of the toppled carriage, she muttered something about the devil, and he could only surmise she meant himself. He supposed the dark cloak did not help, but he was often called Satan in London for his devilish good luck at the gaming tables. This was neither the time nor the place to think about that, and he sent her off to help the coachman while he climbed into the carriage and gently lifted up the companion.
And sucked in his breath in surprise. She wasn’t pretty by any means, but she had an ethereal glow about her that drew him like a lodestone. She wasn’t dead, either, and he could only wonder at the maid’s ability to determine the alive from the dead. Fortunately, under her drab gray coat he could see the gentle rise and fall of her chest. He smoothed locks of mousy hair back from her forehead and whistled. She had a purple knot on her brow the size of a goose egg. There could be little doubt she suffered a concussion.
With infinite care he climbed out with her in his arms and carried her to the lodge. There was a sense of urgency, not completely because of her injuries. That played its part, but he felt a strange attraction to her. And he meant strange. She was hardly his type.
He decided right then and there to alert the village surgeon and apothecary on his way to Willingham Manor, and he and David would leave together. With no gentlemen at the lodge, the ladies would be more protected than if he and his nephew stayed.
“Has she come around?” he asked of Miss Eaton as he carried Miss Singletary in and lay her gently on a chaise.
“Yes, she is fine, Uncle Rod. I gave her a bit of brandy and she fell asleep.”
Rod snorted, but made no other comment about the selfishness of some people. “Go pack your belongings. We are riding on to the manor tonight, after we stop in the village to speak to the surgeon. The coachman… The coachman!” He called for the manservant who kept up the lodge for him.
“Armand – I need you and the stable lads to get a gate or a door or something and collect the driver you will find huddled on the side of the road with a very silly excuse for a maid. Bring him to the kitchens and give him your spare room.”
“Yes, sir.” The servant went at once to tend to his master’s orders. Rod ignored Miss Eaton, asleep on a sofa, and knelt by the companion instead. “The maid said she was dead,” he said to his nephew, “but she is breathing fine. I’m more worried about this bump. Get a cold compress and bring it here.”
“But you just told me to pack!”
“Compress first, then pack.”
“I do not understand why we must go to the manor. Who will tend to the ladies?”
“Armand will be here, and that maid might be of some use, if only to sooth Miss Eaton’s ruffled feathers.” He had his doubts about that, on both sides. “Someone needs to show up tonight or your mother will worry.”
David could not refute that and went to find Armand to fix a compress.
Angel woke in a soft bed with a skull-splitting headache and a disoriented sense that was not unusual in her line of work. What alarmed her, however, had been the glimpse of a dark creature standing over her body the instant before she entered it. Who had that been? One of their agents? He had certainly looked grim enough.
There was a scratch at the door and then Fanny’s maid came in with a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits.
“Mr. Armand thought these might revive you, Miss Singletary. The apothecary says you are to stay in bed and we are to keep an eye on you.”
Angel could have told her it was unnecessary, that as long as she had need of it, the earthly husk of the companion was hers. The injury had been healed and the headache Angel always experienced upon entry would disappear within the hour. Still, her body needed nourishment and she gratefully took the offered tray. She adored tea and the sugar biscuits were as light as feathers. And she knew feathers.
“If that will be all, miss, I’ll just run down and attend to Miss Fanny.”
“Miss Fanny… Is she all right?” Heaven help them all if anything had happened to her.
The maid sniffed. “Right as rain and pouting because that uncle of her intended ran off with the young man before you could blink.”
“Where are we?”
“Mr. Forde’s hunting box, miss, and it would have been a tight squeeze if the gentlemen had stayed.” She excused herself.
Angel sat back and sipped her tea, thinking about David’s uncle, the means of temporarily separating David and Fanny. Was a more permanent separation the goal? He bore close observation, if possible. He could be delivering David to the manor and moving on, but somehow, she doubted it.
Fanny was indeed pouting, and she was still miffed later when Angel rose against the maid’s protests and went downstairs.
“You are supposed to keep an eye on me,” Angel told the girl, who was hovering over her as she climbed out of bed. “You may watch me just as easily downstairs.”
The maid fussed, but finally caved in the face of Angel’s determination.
Fanny looked up when Angel entered the room, and did not even pretend to hide her shock. At least she had forgotten to pout.
“Angela! What are you doing? You should be in bed! Betsy! Take her back up there this instant!”
“I tried, Miss Fanny, but she won’t listen. I know she all but died and now she’s gadding about the house just as sweet as you please,” Betsy complained.
“I assure you both I am fine,” Angel insisted, seating herself in a chair by the fire.
This was a bachelor establishment, she decided, looking at the books, hunting prints, dark leather and polished wood. There were no little touches so loved by ladies: pillows and needlework scattered about, no flowers in vases, or floral rugs.
“Where are we?” she wondered aloud, for the sake of idle conversation.
“Can you believe it?” Fanny asked. “This lodge belongs to Lord Willingham’s uncle!”
“Is he a dark man?” Angel wondered.
“I have no idea. He was gone before I…” She coughed to cover up the fact that she had fainted. “I did not see him clearly. I was quite overwrought, you know.”
“Are you better now?” Angel’s first concern was Fanny’s health. Betsy, who had not yet dismissed herself, snorted.
“I am so delicate, I think I need some refreshment.” Fanny gave Betsy a pointed look and the maid left to fetch tea. “I wish Lord Willingham could have stayed,” she whined once Betsy was out of the room. “I scarcely know him and he is taken away once more!”
Angel privately agreed that it was not good, but she saw it was not wise to encourage the young lady to complain.
At Willingham Manor, the dowager countess was getting anxious. Miss Eaton and Miss Singletary were expected at any time in the past two hours, it was now dark and they had yet to arrive. She paced up and down on a shabby rug in front of the drawing room fire, praying nothing had happened to them. This marriage was too important to be called off or even postponed. As it was, she was going to be on tenterhooks for the next few weeks until they were wed.
“Mama!” her son cried from the doorway giving her a bit of a fright. She noticed her brother right behind him and smiled.
“David! Roderick! I am distressed! The ladies have yet to arrive! Look at the time! Did you perhaps see them on the road here?”
“Actually, Sarah dear,” her brother said, sitting her down. “That is why we are here. There has been an accident.”
“An accident! Oh, dear,” she moaned. “What happened? Is the young lady all right?”
David opened his mouth to speak, but was forestalled by Roderick.
“There was a carriage accident, oddly enough, on the road outside the lodge. Miss Eaton is a bit shaken, but fine. We left her taking a brandy-soaked nap. It is her companion and the coachman who were injured.”
“Thank goodness!” she breathed, and then realized how horrid that sounded. Evidently her brother thought so, too.
“A lady almost died and you are glad it wasn’t Miss Eaton?”
“She almost died?”
“According to the maid, she was dead, and when I reached her, she was unconscious, but alive. The driver has a broken leg. I called on the surgeon to tend to him before I left.”
It was the dowager’s turn to be indignant.
“Two people injured and you left them to the mercy of a young lady who most likely never nursed anyone in her life?”
“Uncle was uncomfortable around the ladies,” David tried to explain. His mother was having none of it.
“What could be more harmless than an engaged young lady and her poor relation companion?”
“A lady who might be persuaded to cave to seduction?” Roderick asked.
Her eyes grew wide. “You wanted to seduce the companion, Rod?”
“No!” he exclaimed a bit too forcefully, bringing a smile to her lips. Was he protesting a bit too much?
“I meant David and his fiancée!”
“Oh, no! David, you would not!” his mother cried, turning to her son.
“Rest assured, I would not,” he soothed. “But I am curious about Uncle Rod. He insisted we leave almost as soon as he brought in the companion, Miss Singletary.”
“Now, Sarah, do not get any ideas.”
“I am not getting ideas,” she innocently replied. Too late for that, anyway. She already had them.
“The ladies will be all right with Armand to care for them, Sarah.”
“But they are all alone!”
“I am certain they will be along in a day or two. The coachman, I fear, will be there longer. Fortunately, there won’t be anyone else for Armand to… Bloody hell!”
“I beg your pardon, Sarah, but I just recalled that someone else will be at the lodge. I have lent it to an old friend.”
David blanched. “You did not!”
“Who?” Sarah was curious.
“Desiree Denton…” Rod told her. She could feel her cheeks turn pink. Desiree Denton was the type of female that gently-reared ladies like herself should not know about, but did anyway. “In a couple of days? That should be long enough for the ladies to recover and travel here. David, dear, arrange for our coach to retrieve them. Then they need not be disturbed by Miss Denton.”
“Too late,” her brother murmured.
“Too late for what?”
“Desiree should be arriving first thing tomorrow. She said she had a chance to bring Lockerby up to scratch and I offered the lodge.”
“How kind of you,” she said faintly. She could only pray that the courtesan was delayed long enough to get the ladies out first.
At the lodge, Angel was sitting quietly over her tea when there was a commotion at the front door. A tall, buxom redhead breezed into the room and threw her arms wide.
“Roderick! David! Darlings, I have arrived! Now the fun can begin!”
Angel smiled at the newcomer, but behind her, Fanny was making strangled noises, her mouth opening and closing like a fish.
“I fear the gentleman have left,” Angel said.
“Oh, bollocks!” the redhead exclaimed. “I was so looking forward to seeing them.” She pulled off a stylish poke bonnet and stripped her hands of emerald green gloves before sitting down on the chaise next to Fanny.
“You are here for their entertainment?" Fanny asked.
“Certainly not!” was the heated reply.
Fanny sagged back in relief.
“On the contrary! I thought they would be here for mine!”
Fanny was pouting again, only this time it was in righteous indignation toward her absent fiancé. Angel was sorry about that, but she had an obligation to interview the woman who had so brazenly entered the house. Besides, all were God’s creatures and should be treated with respect.
“I am Miss Singletary,” Angel said, coming over and holding out her hand. Fanny began to make funny noises again, but Angel ignored her.
“Desiree Denton!” Angel found her hand and arm being pumped up and down with vigor.
“And this is Miss Eaton.”
“Oh! The fiancée! I am very pleased to make your acquaintance! David is a very special friend of mine, you know.”
Obviously Fanny did not know, because she was turning purple.
“You have known his lordship a long time?” Angel prompted.
“Yes, indeed! Roddy introduced us, you know, and…”
Armand entered with fresh hot water for the teapot and asked Miss Denton if she wished to retire.
“Hell, no! This is much more fun! It ain’t often I get to talk to real ladies, if you don’t count those who yell at me because I happen to have entertained their husbands a time or two.” She winked at Angel.
“If you are not going to retire,” Fanny said, getting to her feet, “then I shall. Good night!” The others watched her march from the room, her head held high.
Desiree shrugged and allowed Armand to fix tea and pour out a cup. Once he had retreated (after a pointed look at Angel), the redhead pulled a silver flask from her reticule and popped the cork. She took a healthy swig from it and then poured some amber liquid into her tea.
“Some for you?” she offered. Angel, curious, held out her cup. A generous dollop was added and she took a taste.
“That is different…”
Desiree laughed, a husky sound. “More where that came from, ducks!”
“So tell me, Miss Denton…”
“Desiree, please,” the woman insisted.
“Desiree, then. How long have you known Lord Willingham?”
“Oh, Roddy – his uncle, you know – and I go way back. One of his best friends was the most incredible…” She must have realized who she was speaking to, because she cleared her throat and did not finish her sentence.
“When Elliott was killed in a duel,” she finally continued, “Roddy stepped in and took care of me until I was back on my feet. We were never lovers… but he protected me just the same. And I don’t care what Miss High-and-Mighty up there might think,” she added, gesturing upstairs with a thumb, “David was never my lover, either. Roddy introduced us, of course, but even if David and I wished to become involved, he would never allow it. Keeps an eye on the lad, he does, and don’t let him spend blunt he don’t have.”
“Would you wish the earl as a protector?”
Desiree laughed once more. “Oh, Lord, no! I have one now who might just become permanent. Rod knows this; that’s why he lent me the lodge. I do my best work away from prying eyes.” She winked.
Angel relaxed. This woman was a sinner, there was no doubt about that, but she was no dark agent. Unless her artless manner concealed something more sinister. Angel had enough experience in this line of work to separate the wheat from the chaff.
“Here, love, have another nip.” Desiree added more liquid from her flask to both teacups and then topped them off with more tea. She looked up to see the manservant standing in the doorway.
“I don’t think Armand wants you in here with me,” the courtesan said in a loud whisper.
“I cannot imagine why.”
“I might be a bad influence. I’m sure I can only be a good one. For instance, you look very drab and dowdy.”
“I do?” Angel did not concern herself with appearances too much when she was on an assignment.
“Honey, you could stop a coach and four with that face if you knew a few tricks.” She rose gracefully from the chaise and wandered about, as if in search of something. “Damned men! Don’t they know what a mirror is?”
Angel, who was still not quite sure she wished to stop a coach and four with her face, giggled in spite of herself. “There is a mirror in my bedchamber.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” She pulled Angel to her feet, was mindful to bring the flask, and they went to Angel’s room together.
Desiree went straight to the wardrobe, where someone had hung a scant handful of brown and gray gowns. Angel could only suppose the trunks had come in and either Betsy or Armand had taken out her gowns.
“Drab… Dull… Hideous!” Desiree called, flinging gowns over her shoulder onto the bed. “Tolerable… Dowdy… How do you live with yourself?”
“They are all I can afford.” At least she was certain that was the reason Miss Singletary’s wardrobe was so awful.
“Nonsense! I’ve worn gray and brown before – I know it can look stylish!” Desiree pulled a plain gray gown from the pile. “This just needs a few pink ribbons and it will be much improved. Come with me,” she commanded. “And bring the clothes!”
An hour later, Angel had a refurbished wardrobe. It could not be called chic by any stretch of the imagination, but it was much improved. And included two tasteful evening gowns suitable for dinner at the manor. Desiree had laughed when she handed the white silk to Angel.
“I bought this for a demure phase I never went through. You will have to hem it, but I daresay it will fit elsewhere.”
Angel looked at herself in the mirror and silently agreed that no matter what Miss Singletary’s flaws, of which there seemed to be many, she was capable of holding up the bodice of that white gown.
The other dress was a soft rose in color. “Another demure one that didn’t work.”
“It’s beautiful!” Angel liked pretty things as well as the next female and the rose put a bloom on her cheeks.
“Now for the hair. Don’t scrape it all back like that, love. It does nothing for you.”
“But I am a poor relation,” Angel protested.
“Yes, but you are Lady Miranda’s poor relation. The witch needs some competition!”
“I am competition of some sort,” Angel conceded. She was certain they were not speaking of the same sort of contest, but it was not the thing one brought up in conversation, she had learned. People tended to put you in Bedlam if they thought you were an angel.
“Sit!” she was ordered and she obeyed, only to find a wealth of mousy brown hair come tumbling down into her face.
“The spinster look has got to go,” Desiree muttered. She brushed and separated and worked on the long, thick mass until she had it braided and arranged in a soft crown at the back of her head. “There. Presentable, at least.”
“I cannot thank you enough for everything,” Angel said sincerely, admiring her hair in the mirror. “I must be off to bed now, but I shall see you in the morning?”
“Perhaps. I tend to work at night and sleep all day, so who knows? But if not, it was a real pleasure meeting you, Miss Singletary. I have enjoyed it.”
“I have, as well. And keep being kind to others, Miss Denton. You never know when you may be entertaining an angel unawares.” She winked at Desiree and left the room.
Angel did not see Miss Denton the next morning, as predicted, both because Desiree was still abed, and because Fanny insisted, head injury or no, that they proceed immediately to Willingham Manor. The fact that Lord Willingham had sent his carriage only increased her desire to leave.
“I cannot believe you spent the evening talking to that… that… creature!” she complained for the hundredth time that day as they turned onto a wooded drive leading to the earl’s house. “At least when she helped you with your hair, she did not tart you up. Did you see that traveling outfit? I thought she would have gotten a chest cold, she was that exposed!”
Angel wisely said nothing about the gowns, even though Betsy was well aware of them. Fortunately, she only exclaimed over their beauty and appropriateness as she had packed them in the trunk. “Lady Miranda keeps us all on a tight leash, don’t she?” she had commiserated.
Fanny seemed to be stuck on Lady Miranda as a theme, as well. “And what Miranda will say when she sees your hair… It does not bear thinking! You know she would not approve of Miss Denton, either, but probably only because she is a friend of and was using Mr. Forde’s lodge. Miranda is obsessed with him! I hear the only reason she married Papa is because she tried to trap Forde into marriage and my father got caught instead.”
Fanny rattled on in that vein until Angel wanted to smack her. How in the world could this couple be destined for each other when the girl was a silly lackwit who cared for nothing but herself and her own pleasures? Angel was going to have to pray about that.
It was unfortunate, too, that Fanny did not let up once they had arrived at the house and had been welcomed by the warm, friendly Lady Willingham.
“My dears, I was so worried! And then Roderick told me what happened! Now I am all astonishment that you are here so quickly! How are you feeling, Miss Singletary? I understand you were injured rather badly…” She settled Angel down in front of the drawing room fire, fussing over her and leaving Fanny to fend for herself.
“The gentlemen are out riding the estate together, but they will return soon for some tea. Can I get you anything, Miss Singletary? Perhaps a shawl?”
“I am sure she may retrieve her own shawl, Lady Willingham,” Fanny said nastily. “She is a poor relation and a companion, after all.”
Lady Willingham frowned. “She was also injured yesterday, and must be given every consideration for that alone.” She smiled gently at Angel. “If you are comfortable, I will see to my future daughter now.”
Angel nodded and allowed the countess to focus on Fanny. It was not long, as promised, before the gentlemen joined them. Three gentlemen, because they had brought the local vicar with them, a cousin of David’s. The earl made the introductions.
“Miss Eaton? Miss Singletary? May I present my cousin, the Rev. Powers? Edmund, my fiancée, Miss Eaton, and her companion, Miss Singletary.”
The vicar looked right over Angel and went immediately to Fanny’s side. “Miss Eaton! I have longed to meet you ever since I was old enough to know that David had been betrothed practically from the cradle. You look much too young to be marrying this old man!”
“I have a feeling you and I are going to get along just fine,” Fanny said with a titter.
“I know we are,” the vicar said smoothly, bringing her hand to his lips.
Angel did not like the looks Fanny was exchanging with the vicar, and neither, apparently, did the earl.
“Yes, well, I am certain we will all get along just fine,” he said, seating himself between his cousin and his fiancée. The countess seemed unable to decide what to do or say in this situation, but Mr. Forde, thankfully, picked up the conversational ball.
“How are you feeling, Miss Singletary? That was a nasty bump, I am certain.”
“You were injured?” the vicar asked.
“It was horrid, just horrid!” Fanny exclaimed. “I had to walk to the house in the rain, mud got into one of my trunks and my maid insists she saw the devil!”
Both the vicar and Angel perked up at this tidbit of news.
“That was me, I believe,” Mr. Forde said with a laugh. “I fear I startled the maid by appearing suddenly in a dark cloak.”
David and his mother laughed, Fanny was pouting again and the vicar and Angel both relaxed.
“We are all pleased to see you looking so well, then,” Lady Willingham said before turning to her nephew. “You will join us for dinner, Edmund?”
“Thank you, Aunt Sarah. I believe I shall. But tell me more about this terrible accident, Miss Eaton. You were riding along when…” he prompted.
Fanny needed little encouragement. She told how lightning had hit close by, how the horses had bolted and how they had found themselves sideways in the carriage. Angel had not been there at the time, but she was almost certain Fanny was embellishing some things. The girl seemed to be a born exaggerator.
“And when it all stopped, we were in front of the lodge, although I did not know it was Mr. Forde’s at the time.”
“Convenient, that,” the vicar murmured. “Divine intervention?” he asked the room at large.
“You would know better than I,” Mr. Forde replied. “Seeing as you are a man of the cloth.”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” the vicar said piously.
“So do his opponents,” Angel sweetly added.
“This is true!” The vicar turned back to Fanny. “When you arrived at the lodge, I suppose you sounded the alarm and Mr. Forde kindly went out in the rain in your place.”
David was not about to upset his fiancée by telling everyone she had fainted, but his uncle had no such compunction.
“She fainted dead away at that point. David had to give her some brandy to calm her nerves when she came to and when we left, she was sleeping it off.”
Fanny shot him a dangerous look. “I was awake when Miss Denton arrived,” she said, her gaze now burning a hole in Lord Willingham.
“Uncle’s friend,” her fiancé mumbled.
“And yours, too, if the lady is to be believed,” Fanny grumbled. “I see no reason to doubt her. After all, she calls you David.”
“You met a close friend of David’s?” the vicar enquired.
Angel looked at him a bit more closely. The man seemed to have a knack for picking out the worst parts of the conversation and getting that silly prattlebox Fanny to expound on them.
“How close a friend, I am not quite sure,” Fanny told him. “My lord Willingham seems a bit too quiet on the subject.”
“That is because the subject is not one I would wish to be discussed in front of ladies,” the earl said in his own defense.
“Are you implying that I am no lady?” Fanny cried.
“If the shoe fits,” Mr. Forde said with a sly smile.
Fanny got abruptly to her feet. “I need to lie down, Lady Willingham. This very instant, before I find myself insulted once more.”
The countess stood, her hands flitting ineffectually for a moment before she had the sense to agree with Fanny and offered to take her to her room.
Angel excused herself, as well. As much as she preferred to stay, she did not think she would learn anything else. She had time for thought later, after Lady Willingham had shown her to a pretty blue and white bedchamber, which had a connecting door into Fanny’s green and gold room.
Why was Mr. Forde so intent on sabotaging the betrothal? One word from him was all it took to throw everything into chaos! Could he be one of the agents she was sent to foil? If so, it was going to be difficult to keep him quiet long enough for the now-unhappy couple to wed.
The vicar was another concern. He was too much of a distraction for Fanny and he seemed to realize that. And pushed the advantage. Angel only hoped Fanny and David were to wed by license, because she would hate to see the vicar mess up in reading the banns.
She made a mental checklist while she ostensibly napped on her pretty blue and white toile bedcover, soft white tulle overhead that made her feel like she was floating on clouds.
One. Make certain David had a license. If she could talk him into moving up the date, she would.
Two. Find out more about Mr. Forde. There had to be someone who knew him well enough but would not become suspicious or turn into a matchmaker if she began to ask questions.
Three. Do the same for Mr. Powers. Just because he was ordained did not mean he was pure of heart and mind.
She recalled an instance where she had been in the body of a young widow with three suitors. The first had been a sweet, kind man and if Angel had been permanently assigned to that lady, she would have chosen him. The second man would also have been a serious contender for the widow’s heart. He was a bit less polished, but no less kind and thoughtful.
The third man had been a member of the upper echelons of society – just the sort of man Fanny would choose – and his outward reputation was spotless. But inside, she had discovered, almost to the detriment of the poor widow’s own reputation, that his soul had been as black as night. The fire that had taken his life, however, had not been none of her doing. She was there to rearrange to heaven’s satisfaction. God took care of any retribution. Which was as it should be.
Granted, she had shot people before, and once she had been forced to use a sword, but she had never killed anyone. Besides, she thought with an irreverent little chuckle, the only person worth killing at this point was Fanny.
Dinner was almost as painful as tea had been. Angel was forced to listen to Mr. Powers encourage Fanny in the spouting of nonsense. Fanny was ignoring David. Mr. Forde interlaced the entire conversation with sarcasm and incendiary comments. The earl and his mother were clearly uncomfortable with the entire situation, and if David had called the engagement off at that very moment, Angel would not have blamed him.
She refrained from saying anything to Fanny after the ladies left the gentlemen to their port. Fanny struck her as the sort to do the opposite in the face of a lecture, and Angel did not wish to jeopardize her own mission, no matter what she thought in private.
To keep her mouth shut, she went to the pianoforte and sat down to play. It was her greatest pleasure in a mortal body, and one she indulged whenever she got the chance.
“I have never heard you play before!” Fanny exclaimed as she joined her at the instrument. “Lady Miranda said you do not.”
“My cousin does not know everything about me,” Angel replied, realizing she might have slipped up by displaying her one meager talent. Still, one must not hide one’s light under a bushel basket…
“She probably never encouraged it in case you are a better player,” Fanny surmised. Angel stayed quiet and let her think what she would. “You do play beautifully,” Fanny sincerely added.
“And I like your gown. I suppose Miranda gave you some of her castoffs so you would not embarrass me here.”
“Something like that.” Angel was wearing the white gown given to her by Desiree Denton.
“I know Miranda is past wearing virginal white,” Fanny tittered. “If she ever could.”
Angel only smiled and kept playing. She would like to hear more about Lady Miranda.
“Papa was going to break the longstanding arrangement with the Powerses,” Fanny said softly, not wanting Lady Willingham, who had picked up some needlework, to hear. “Said I was old enough to make my own choice. But Miranda said we should honor the contract.”
“You do not like Lord Willingham?”
“I do!” Fanny insisted. “Who would not? He is handsome and kind and responsible and he has a title. Did I mention that he is handsome?”
The gentlemen chose that moment to join them and Angel rose from the pianoforte to join Lady Willingham on the sofa.
“Do continue to play for us, Miss Singletary,” the earl requested.
“I play, too!” Fanny said hotly, apparently forgetting she was not speaking to him.
“I should like to hear it, Miss Eaton,” Mr. Powers smoothly replied. “And I shall be happy to turn pages for you.”
Fanny giggled and agreed, and they went to the pianoforte, leaving the earl standing alone.
Angel felt sorry for David, who was only being polite to her.
“Excuse me, Mr. Powers,” the butler said from the doorway. “There is an urgent message for you at the kitchen door.” The vicar sighed, told Fanny to hold that place and went reluctantly with the servant.
“I cannot like this, David,” Angel overheard the countess whisper to her son. “You should be over there turning pages for her!”
“Yes, mother,” he said in resignation.
“I have a better idea,” Mr. Forde said, for it appeared he had been eavesdropping, as well.
“Miss Eaton!” he called. “Won’t you play something sprightly we can dance to? David, you dance with Miss Singletary and I shall partner Sarah.”
Fanny frowned. She did not seem to approve of such an arrangement, and neither, apparently, did the countess.
“Nonsense!” the older lady said. “I shall play. David will partner his fiancée. You may lead out Miss Singletary.”
Fanny jumped up from her stool with alacrity and Lady Willingham took her place.
Angel sat where she was until Mr. Forde approached. “Will you join me, Miss Singletary?”
“Yes, thank you.”
The countess struck up a waltz and Angel hesitated. But Mr. Forde had taken her in his arms and would not let go.
“You do not approve, Miss Singletary?”
“It is not that,” she replied. “It is only… You should be dancing with a proper young lady and not a dowdy poor relation.”
“There is an absence of what you call ‘proper young ladies,’ Miss Singletary,” he said gently. “And you are not the dowdy companion I thought you were.”
She did not reply, which he took for acceptance, and he put a wide hand on her waist. “Do you even know how to waltz, Miss Singletary?”
Angel had never been in a position to learn, although it did not seem to be as scandalous as she had understood it to be from her last mission to Earth. Fanny and David were already circling around the wide expanse of drawing room near the pianoforte, even though they were not speaking once more.
“I have not yet learned the steps, sir.”
“Then let me enlighten you.” He gave her a simple demonstration and walked her through it a few times. Once he thought she was fine, he began leading her around the room.
She smiled at him. “It is very kind of you to teach me.”
“Sarah plans a ball to be held a few days before the wedding and we cannot have you sitting out dances.”
“You want to be a wallflower and allow Lady Miranda to control the rest of your life?”
“I do not plan on being with Lady Miranda that long,” she serenely replied.
“Oh? You have a new position lined up for yourself?”
“Something of that nature.”
“Good. I do not like the idea of anyone being at Lady Miranda’s mercy for eternity.”
Mr. Powers returned and blithely inserted himself between David and Fanny.
“You have monopolized her long enough,” the vicar said gaily, as if it were all a great jest, and Fanny giggled and went willingly into his arms.
Mr. Forde waltzed Angel over to his nephew and easily switched her to a new partner before going to speak softly with his sister.
“You look much improved since I saw you at the lodge, Miss Singletary,” the earl said.
“Thank you.” She watched as he looked over at the other dancing couple. “Do not lose heart, my lord,” she told him. “She is lashing out at you the only way she knows how.”
“She is so angry!”
“I believe it dates back to the arrival of Miss Denton at the lodge.”
“Desiree and I, we never…”
“I know. Miss Denton told me.”
“She did? You spoke to her? Did Fanny?”
Angel made a face. “Fanny is young yet and a bit narrow-minded. Personally, I would rather sit and lace my tea with brandy with Miss Denton than ignore her.”
“You did not!”
“Perhaps it was whisky, then, and not brandy. I drank tea with spirits in it nonetheless. My point is, be patient with Fanny. She just needs time to mature.”
The music came to an end and everyone applauded the countess’ efforts.
“Talk to Fanny and let her know where you stand with Miss Denton,” Angel urged. “She needs to hear it from you.”
“But what if she does not believe me?”
“Then kiss her,” she advised. “You would be surprised how well that works on females.”
The next morning, Angel went down to breakfast only to discover none of the other ladies were there. Lord Willingham and his uncle were seated at one end of the table, discussing something when she entered. They stood when they spied her, but she waved them back into their chairs while she picked up a plate and helped herself to the food arrayed on the dining room sideboard.
A footman brought in a cup and a pot of tea for her and she settled on the right of the earl, across the table from Mr. Forde.
“Good morning,” she said cheerfully. Reaching for the jam pot, she found marmalade inside and spread some liberally on a piece of toast. She had a feeling poor Miss Singletary did not often get this luxury.
“We were just discussing what to do with our day when you came in, Miss Singletary. I confess, we expected you to stay in your room like the other ladies,” the earl said.
“I like to think I am different from other ladies,” she replied, giving them both a mysterious smile.
“Would you like to join us today?” Mr. Forde asked. “We are going to visit my old nanny.”
“She was my nanny, too!” David exclaimed.
“Yes, but she was mine first.”
“What did she do between the two of you?” Angel asked, doing the math in her head. “You surely did not have a nanny until you were fifteen or so, Mr. Forde.”
He chuckled. “No, she was hired by some cousins in the meantime, with the stipulation that when Sarah needed her, she would come back to us.”
“I always thought she was pensioned off early because you were a right little devil!” his nephew said with a laugh.
“Why don’t we go ask her?” Angel wondered.
Mr. Forde gave her an odd look, but she shrugged it off, even though she felt as if she had passed a test of some sort.
While she finished her meal, the gentlemen sent for her outerwear and a pony trap. They were going to travel by horseback, but Mr. Forde thought she might like the cart better.
As she did not ride, Angel could only agree. She was even more pleased when a groom brought around the cart and a sturdy little pony named Sean. It took only moments to settle her into the vehicle, and with the gentlemen riding alongside, they set out down a lane at the rear of the manor to visit the nanny.
Nanny Baker lived in a small thatched cottage at the end of the lane, bluebells in her front yard and ivy growing up the walls. It was the sort of place Angel would like if she were truly mortal. It had been so long ago, she could not even recall when she had been her own flesh and blood. But if the cottage appealed to her, Nanny Banker did so even more.
She was a short, plump woman, the sort Angel would call “cushy.” She fell in love with the woman at once.
“My lads!” the older lady cried, coming out her front door with her arms wide open. “Master Roderick! Master David!”
The gentlemen swung out of their saddles and took turns subjecting themselves to her embrace. They did not seem to mind.
“But who is this? You’ve brought a young lady to meet me!” She approached Angel, still seated in the trap. “Lovely!” she announced. “Now, whose young lady are you? Master Roderick’s or Master David’s?”
“She is neither, Nanny. Miss Singletary is companion to David’s intended.”
“And where is the intended this fine morning?” she demanded in return.
“Miss Eaton has not yet shown her face today,” Mr. Forde said. He linked his arm with the old lady’s and led her back up the front walk. “But we could use some tea and conversation.”
“You just ate breakfast, no doubt,” Nanny chided, but she did not refuse him.
David assisted Angel out of the cart, secured the pony and led her up the path behind the other pair.
Angel liked the inside of the cottage as well as she did the outside, and she quickly made herself at home in the cozy parlor. A fire crackled merrily in the hearth and a ginger cat jumped onto her lap as soon as she was diverted to a chintz-covered chair.
“Miss Sarah, bless her heart, furnished this house from the manor, even when she could ill afford it,” Nanny said. “And his name is Moses,” she added, patting the friendly cat on the head.
“I like that name,” Angel said, scratching Moses under his chin and being rewarded with a loud purr.
“Let me get some tea.”
“Would you like some assistance?” Angel asked politely.
Angel reluctantly placed Moses on the hearthrug and went into the kitchen, where a kettle was already on the hob.
“I heard my gentlemen were up to the manor, so I knew they would be along today. They never neglect their old nanny. Neither does her ladyship. You must bring Master David’s young lady out to meet me. I rarely leave the house, but she is always welcome here.”
Angel made a mental note to have Fanny down here, bringing her over her shoulder or stuffed in the cart, if need be. She looked up to see Nanny eyeing her intently.
“You know what is important in this life, don’t you? And in the next one, I should think. I know it will not be too much longer before I join you.”
Angel smiled and busied herself by putting a dish of sugar and a jug of cream on a waiting tray. It was not the first time she had been recognized as being other than what she seemed.
“Surely you have many more years ahead of you, Nanny Baker?”
“A few. I would like to see Master Roderick settled before I go. Do you know if that will happen?”
“What will happen?” Mr. Forde appeared in the doorway. “Let me guess. Nanny wants you to consider the possibility of settling me down and making me a proper wife. It won’t work, Nanny. We have discussed this before…”
“Oh, this one is too good for the likes of you, Master Roderick. Some people have a higher calling.” She handed him the tray.
“A higher calling as a spinster?”
“Hush up and make yourself useful. Carry this in and collect some cups and saucers from the sideboard in the parlor.”
“If you ever need any help, miss, you know who to call.”
“I thank you for the offer, Nanny.” Angel gave her a brilliant smile before pouring hot water in a large pot and carrying it into the other room.
After a pleasant hour with Nanny Baker, Angel and the gentlemen, armed with a jar of pear preserves and the request to bring Miss Eaton the next time, returned to the manor. There they found Fanny whispering with the vicar under the disapproving eye of the countess.
The three new arrivals all smiled as they walked in on such a scene, but Angel felt the only genuine one was from Mr. Forde.
“Angel!” Fanny called. “Mr. Powers went to Cambridge! My Papa went there and I daresay my new little brother shall, one day.”
Next to Angel, David muttered, “I went to Cambridge.”
“And he keeps a couple of horses, so I shall be able to ride while I am here,” Fanny continued, oblivious to the fact that she was there to stay.
“I have horses,” David softly replied.
“And we are to call on him one day so I might view his herb garden!”
Angel knew what David was going to say and she nudged him. It would not do to antagonize the girl. “How… nice!” she managed to say. Had Fanny been aware of such things as herb gardens before today? Angel somehow doubted it. “I have not seen a herb garden this age.” At least that was the truth.
“And where have you three been this morning?” the countess asked with a cheerfulness belied by the nervous twitching of the needlework on her lap.
“To see Nanny Baker.” Mr. Forde handed the jam jar to his sister. “She sends her love and her finest preserves.”
“How lovely! How did you find the old dear? It has been several weeks since I have been able to call at her cottage. Nanny Baker raised myself and my brother, and David,”
she told her guests.
“She’s a right old Tartar,” the vicar confided to Fanny, and she wrinkled her nose and giggled.
“The old dear is getting along just fine, Mother,” David stiffly replied. “And desirous of meeting my fiancée.”
Fanny pulled a face at that and the earl’s countenance fell.
“She is a very nice old lady and you should make the effort to meet his lordship’s family retainers and pensioners,” Angel advised.
“Oh, some other day, surely,” the vicar said. “It is too lovely a day to sit around pokey little fires listening to old women complain about their hands.”
Angel shook her head sadly. How did some people manage to qualify to lead the Master’s flock? “Should you not be bringing them wood and coal so they may keep their hands warm?” she asked this so-called man of God. “They might complain less.”
“True, but they would still bore me to tears in less than five minutes’ time.”
“How did you manage to become ordained?” she asked suspiciously. “And when?”
“I have been promised this living for years,” he piously replied.
“Because he begged my late husband for it,” the countess said under her breath.
“My dear departed uncle gave this to me on his deathbed two years ago.”
Angel did not think too much of that. She had seen many last minute promises and persuasions to be impressed, but Fanny was not immune to such a romantic prospect.
“Ooooh! Tell me what happened!” she pleaded without regard to whether or not her future mother wished to hear it.
Angel let out a tiny sigh that was echoed by Mr. Forde.
“Truly, it was not as dramatic as you make it out to be, Miss Eaton,” the vicar said modestly.
“He wore my sister’s husband down until he agreed.” Mr. Forde was blunt.
“You spoiled the story!” Fanny accused him. “I am certain it was not that harsh.”
“It was not, I assure you,” Mr. Powers soothed. “But we all knew he was dying…”
“Why not wait till he stuck his spoon in the wall and strong arm David, then?” Mr. Forde wondered.
“Because my uncle promised my father. I needed it to come from him, in my way of thinking,” Mr. Powers replied, his words clipped and his eyes narrowed in anger.
“I would gladly have given you the living, cousin,” David added.
“It would not be the same. But now I am established as vicar, I am near my family and I am in the presence of the most beautiful angel I have ever beheld,” the vicar continued, ostensibly speaking of Fanny, who simpered, but looking directly at Angel.
There was a moment of silence.
“So, you went to see Nanny today!” the countess said with false gaiety. “How is she doing?”
“Sarah, dearest,” Mr. Forde said, “We have already discussed that.”
“I know,” she said through gritted teeth. “I just want to let Miss Eaton know how valued the lady is by our family.”
“I see. Then perhaps it is time Powers was set free to tend to his parishioners. I will drive you in my phaeton, sir, if you will allow it.”
The vicar seemed to know when he had been dismissed, because he agreed. But Angel almost came out of her chair at Mr. Forde’s next words.
“Won’t you accompany us, Miss Eaton?”
The expression on David’s face almost broke Angel’s heart, but she could do nothing to prevent Fanny from going, despite the fact that the phaeton was going to be crowded on the first half of the trip.
Fanny half ran out of the room to collect her bonnet and pelisse, and Mr. Forde rang for someone to bring around the phaeton.
“I don’t like this,” the countess hissed at her son once the other gentleman had left to meet Fanny in the front hall.
Her son lifted his arms and shrugged, as if to say he could do nothing about the situation.
Angel resolved to speak to Fanny about her cavalier attitude toward the nanny and her obvious preference for Mr. Powers. Mr. Forde, too, was now on her list of people to speak to. It would all have to wait, however, and she decided to go for a walk.
“That is an excellent idea, Miss Singletary,” the countess warmly approved when told of her intention. “We have a lovely orchard full of spring blossoms.”
That was agreeable to Angel and she allowed the earl to give her directions once she had fetched the gray bonnet and cloak that constituted Miss Singletary’s outerwear.
She spent some time wandering through the formal gardens close to the house before going through the gate in the yew hedge. That took her onto a lane that was bordered by the hedge on one side and horse pastures on the other.
A couple of interested equines came to the fence for a nose pat, but when they determined she was not carrying treats, they lost interest.
The orchard was just past the hedge, and Angel lingered a while just breathing in the scented air. She loved spring, with its newness and sense of rebirth.
Something struck her on the top of her ugly bonnet, followed by some childish giggles.
“Hello?” she called, but the only answer she received was another giggle from over her head. She looked up to find three pairs of bright, inquisitive blue eyes staring at her. They belonged to three tow-headed boys.
“You hit a lady, Cort!” one of them whispered. “What if his lordship hears about it?”
“What if she’s the new countess?” the middle one wondered. “We should ask.”
Angel only stood there and smiled. “Won’t you come down?” she asked.
“No, miss. We might get in trouble.”
“I shall not tell anyone you threw a… what was that you hit me with?”
“Nothing, miss, really. Only a very small pebble.”
“Oh. Do you make a habit of throwing rocks at people?”
“Oh, no, miss!” the one who looked to be the eldest exclaimed.
“Then come down and let me greet you properly.”
“We can’t, miss. Jon got his foot caught in a limb.”
“Then, if you cannot come down, I suppose I should come up.” Before they could say anything, Angel had indecorously lifted her skirts and was up in the crotch of the tree. She inspected Jon’s foot, which was truly caught, and slipped off his shoe. “Now try it,” she urged. His foot slid right out.
“You are a hero, miss!” the one called Jon said.
“Hardly that. Angel, perhaps, but not a hero.” She held out a hand. “Angel Singletary. And you are Jon.”
“Jonathan Miller, miss. These are my brothers. Cris is the eldest and Cort is the baby.”
“Am not a baby!”
“Mama calls you her baby!” Cris teased.
“Do you live around here?” Their clothes were well-made, but worn, and there were patches on their breeches.
“We rent a cottage from his lordship,” Cort told her.
“But we used to live in a big house!” Jon said. “Grandpapa died and our uncle only gives us a sty…stip…”
“An allowance,” Cris finished for his brother. “Because our aunt don’t like us none. She has all girls.”
“Cris is uncle’s heir, but our aunt said that don’t mean she has to put a roof over his head in the meantime.”
“I see.” Angel was beginning to get a picture of how these lads had been raised – in some luxury until the death of their grandfather.
“Mama is sick,” Cort told her. “So Lettie sent us out to play.”
“Mama’s always sick,” Jon said mournfully.
“Shall I let you introduce me, then, and perhaps we might think of a way to cheer her up?” Angel suggested.
That idea met with happy shouts, and Angel, whose first thought was perhaps their mother was depressed or drank too much, revised her opinion.
“Why don’t we take her some apple blossoms?” That suggestion was met with silence.
“The orchard man don’t like us,” Cort said.
“No? Then we shall gather some now and make a run for it.” And if they were detained, she would tell the groundskeeper that she was a guest at the manor.
Fortunately, that was not necessary. After they gathered some small limbs with blossoms, they took a lane that ran between two pastures, away from the orchard. Not a soul was to be seen until they reached a stone cottage nestled in a grove of old oaks, perfect for climbing. There they were met by a sour-faced servant wringing her hands.
“Where have you young masters been? Your poor mama has been asking for you. Who is this?” She gave Angel a suspicious look.
“Miss Singletary rescued Jon from a tree!” Cort said, jumping up and down. “Come on in and meet Mama!” he added, grabbing Angel by the hand and pulling her past the maid.
“May we have some tea served, please, Lettie?” Cris begged as Angel was dragged into a parlor, where a sweet-faced lady was resting on a sofa, a shawl across her knees.
“Cort, darling!” she called, holding out both arms and allowing the little boy to fling himself at her. “Who is this?”
“Miss Singletary, Mama!” Jon said, bouncing into the room. “She rescued my foot from a tree. And we brought you something!” He held out the bouquet of apple limbs.
“Apple blossoms! My favorite! How do you do, Miss Singletary? Sit down, please, and tell me how you met my rascals!”
Angel sat where Cris, at her elbow, guided her, and smiled her thanks. “I was walking in the orchard…”
“Oh, boys! Were you in the earl’s orchard again?” Mrs. Miller cried. “What have I told you about that?”
“Miss Singletary was there, too, Mama! The earl said she could!”
“But you do not have such permission!” she scolded.
“I could get them approved, if you wish,” Angel said. “They were not harming the trees.” And would continue not to, if she had not set a bad example by breaking off a few limbs already.
The boys all nodded and gave their mother winning grins. Angel could not help but smile.
“What am I going to do with you three?” was all Mrs. Miller could reply. “Crispin – run put these in some water, will you? Jonathan, darling, Mummy needs another shawl from upstairs. Cortland… go see if Lettie needs help with tea.” When the lads were gone, she turned to Angel. “Thank you again for helping Jon. But it is not necessary to bother the earl…” She gave Angel a wide-eyed look. “Oh! Are you to be the new countess?”
Angel laughed. “No, I am that lady’s companion. And it is no bother at all, for me or for the earl, I am certain. He is a kind-hearted gentleman.”
“He is. When my sister-in-law…” She paused.
“The boys told me some of what happened. People do not realize they shall reap what they sow, do they?” Angel replied.
“No, they do not. We would not have asked for much. We do not require much here, actually. But it would have been good for Crispin to learn how to run the estate from his uncle. And with such treatment as he has received, who knows if Crispin will turn around and toss his aunt and nieces on their ears one of these days? I should hope not.”
“A bad turn does not deserve another,” Angel agreed.
“No, it does not.” She shrugged just as her two younger boys ran back into the room.
“Mama! Lettie made gingerbread for our tea!”
Mrs. Miller smiled at the eager expressions on her sons’ faces.
“You must stay for tea, Miss Singletary. Gingerbread is Lettie’s specialty.”
“Yes, thank you, I would be delighted to join you.”
Angel could add the fragrance and taste of Lettie’s gingerbread to her growing list of reasons it was good to be mortal again. The taste was heavenly. Not to mention the happy faces around her as the boys munched their afternoon treat.
“Mama, may we be excused?” Cris asked when he and his brothers were finished. “You do not mind, Miss Singletary?” he politely added.
“No, of course not, if it is all right with your mother.” The boys were dismissed, they bowed correctly and then ran from the room with wild whoops.
“I fear I shall have to send Crispin off to school soon,” Mrs. Miller said with a sigh. “I had thought to ask the vicar to give him lessons, because that was how it was arranged at our previous home, but I do not know…”
Angel did not know either. “I do not think Mr. Powers an appropriate ecclesiastical role model, personally.” She was not going to gossip about Fanny, but she could make sure Crispin did not fall under the man’s influence. She was relieved when Mrs. Miller only nodded and did not press her for details.
The boys walked Angel back as far as the orchard, and she promised she would speak to the earl the very next day about them playing in the apple trees. She arrived back at the manor in time for more tea with the countess and Fanny, who were being coolly polite to each other and seemed glad for more company.
“Did you enjoy your walk?” Lady Willingham enquired.
“I did, and I met the most charming young men while I was out.”
Fanny perked up from where she had been languishing on a chaise. “Young men? Where?”
Angel grinned. “Past the orchard pastures. They live with their mother in what I believe is called Stone Cottage?” She looked to the countess for affirmation.
“It is a lovely place. A family by the name of Miller are the tenants there, I believe.”
“Yes, Miller. The lady has three sons.”
“Three sons?” Fanny sat upright. “I should like to meet them!”
“And so you shall! We could go for a walk tomorrow afternoon,” Angel said. She looked at the countess, who was trying not to laugh.
“Yes, I would like that very much!”
Dear Heavenly Father… I thank Thee for today and its many blessings. I know they are all gifts from Thee.
Angel was down on her knees on the hearth rug, making a report, as it were, to headquarters.
I may have discovered one of our eternal foes, and if he is, he dares to operate under the guise of Thy minions. I pray for guidance in the handling of such a creature, for he is in a prime position to do much harm. Awareness is the key, Father, and he may have shown his hand too early. That he suspects Thy servant is inconsequential. As Thy chosen instrument, I pray for the courage and strength to be up to this task.
She sighed. Here came the difficult part.
Thy will be done in all things, but does it have to include Fanny, Lord? Thou hast infinite wisdom and knowledge, but she does not. She is probably the silliest of Thy creatures, Father, and I cannot understand Your plan in this instance. I pray that Thou whilst show me the way to deal with such a hen-witted chit.
As for Mr. Forde, I pray he will stay out of my way so that I may do my work and return to my home with Thee. And concerning Mr. Powers… Thy will be done, Father, and may I use Thy guiding hand to smite the creature of Satan so he is powerless to stop what must be done.
May Thy blessings be upon Lady Willingham and her son, Nanny Baker, the Miller family, Fanny and yes, even Mr. Forde. Amen.
With a lighter heart and a heavy load of work ahead of her, Angel rose from the floor, climbed into bed and blew out her candle. The sooner she went to sleep, the sooner she could wake up and complete her mission.
The next morning, Fanny was once again absent from breakfast, but this time so were the gentlemen. A footman told Angel they had been called out on estate business, and she found herself dining in solitude. She was never the sort to have to be surrounded by people, and this suited her just fine.
Afterwards, she wondered what to do with her morning, and decided that since she was not going to be able to speak to the earl straightaway, she could take the pony trap to Nanny Baker’s cottage. She wished to know more about the Miller family, as well, and she was certain Nanny would be a font of information.
She was absolutely correct. As soon as Nanny had her settled in a cushiony chair by the fire, tea in hand, Angel asked what she thought of the Millers and was rewarded with a wide smile.
“Bright young lads! Helpful, too. I met them a few months ago, just after they moved to Stone Cottage. The lads bring me kindling now and I have them started on my garden. Too soon to plant, of course, but there is plenty of work to be done just the same. I take it you’ve met the imps?”
“Yes, and I was much taken with them. What about their mother?”
“The poor dear. A wasting disease, or so I’ve been told. I fear for the lads after she’s gone. Their uncle is Viscount Portnoy.”
Angel was not sure what she meant by that.
“He lives not ten miles from here,” Nanny explained.
“He gives the lady an allowance, and he will provide for their educations, but his wife won’t let them live even as close as the Portnoy dower house.”
“Master Crispin is the lord’s heir, I understand.”
“He is, but you won’t see him even allowed near the estate until the current lord dies. Which could be years.”
“And in the meantime, their mother is dying. What then?”
“School for all of then, no doubt.”
“The poor boys!”
“’Tis sad. They will need a steady home. But there is nothing you nor I can do now, is there?”
“No, not at the moment…” Angel softly replied. If there was a chance she did not need her three assists on David and Fanny, however, she knew what she would do.
They moved on to other topics of discussion, neither mentioning Fanny and her seeming unwillingness to meet some of the important people in the earl’s life. They were both startled, then, when there was a knock at the kitchen door.
“Excuse me, dearie…” Nanny apologized. She got up slowly and went to answer the door. When she returned in a few moments, she was as white as a sheet.
“What is it?”
“Oh, dear. How shall I say this? My visitor was a maid up to the vicarage… At great risk to herself she came to find you. She’d gone to the manor first, but a groom she walks out with said you’d gone out in the trap.”
“But why did she want to find me?”
“Miss Eaton, it appears, has called on the vicar. Alone.”
“Merciful heavens! She shall be ruined!” And so would a great many plans.
“I must go, then. I have to go to the vicarage.” As distasteful as that was. “…And make it appear as if she and I had gone there together.”
“I’m going with you,” Nanny insisted, and Angel did not protest. The more respectability they could give this situation, the better.
“I don’t trust that man any further than I can throw him,” Nanny muttered later as the trap neared the rear of the vicarage.
“He grew up with Master David, so I had the handling of them both. A sweeter pair of lads I’ve never seen.”
“Better than Mr. Forde?”
Nanny chuckled. “Lord love you, there was never a bigger scamp than Master Roderick. But Master David and Master Edmund were a couple of angels. Begging your pardon.”
“Think nothing of it. If Mr. Powers was so sweet, what happened?”
“After university, he went to London. Was to minister to poor in the East End,.”
“I thought the late earl had promised him this living.”
“He didn’t want it, not then. A couple of months after he was ordained and living in London, he reappeared, a changed man. The old earl fell ill then and Mr. Powers began badgering him about the living. I’ve heard it was extracted from the old lord on his deathbed.”
“That is what the vicar himself claims. Proudly, I might add.”
“He’s too full of himself,” Nanny mumbled. “Stop the cart here, dearie, and run along through the kitchens. Ivy will take care of you from there. I’ll unhitch the pony and be along shortly.”
Angel wasted no time going into the house and presenting herself to Ivy, who looked relieved to see her.
“I have a sister at the manor, miss, and I’ve heard tell Mr. Powers has been cozying up to his lordship’s intended. When she showed up here alone today, you could have knocked me down with a feather!” She motioned for Angel to follow her through the house.
They had to wait until the vicar excused himself for a moment and went from the one room to another, and then Angel slipped into the parlor and sat demurely by Fanny’s side, ignoring the girl’s surprise.
“What are you doing here?” Fanny whispered.
“What are you doing here?” Angel whispered back. She deserved a nice, long vacation on a cloud somewhere after this mission.
“On your own, without even a maid?”
“Betsy had other duties.”
“There are other maids! And footmen!”
Fanny shrugged. “I was ready to go and for some reason, my companion had already left the house.”
“You were asleep! I am supposed to sit around until you wake up?”
“You always have before!”
“Where else was I going to go?”
“True. Shhh! Here he comes!” They could hear the vicar’s footsteps in the hall, and then there was a knock at the front door and he went to answer it. Fanny paled when she heard the voice of her fiancé.
“Why should you care?”
“He is my fiancé! Unless you hitched your horse up front, mine is the only one there!” Her eyes were wide with panic.
Silly widgeon! She should have put it in back so the whole world would not think she had been there alone.
“Miss Eaton!” David said a bit coldly as he walked into the room. “And Miss Singletary!” He seemed to thaw before their eyes and when his cousin came in right on his heels, Angel was quite satisfied with the vicar’s double take.
“My cousin’s message said you were here alone and in some need of assistance!” the earl said to Fanny.
“Most people tend to overlook companions as people, my lord,” Angel replied. “but even so, I imagine the message just got garbled.”
“Then why is there only one mount?” Mr. Forde asked shrewdly, entering last.
“Because she is a kind lady and was humoring an old woman,” Nanny Baker announced, poking him in the ribs as she came in. “But it’s not polite to ask why in mixed company, Master Roderick.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, but did not appear embarrassed. Angel was beginning to think the man had no shame at all.
“Well, isn’t this cozy,” Nanny continued, plunking herself down on the sofa between Fanny and Angel. “You’ve a lovely intended, Master David, and I was as pleased as punch to be visited by both young ladies today. ’Tis no wonder I tagged along when they said they were calling here. Ah, here is Ivy with the tea you asked me to order, Master Edmund.”
Ivy came in with a tray and set it down on a low table in front of the ladies.
“Will you pour out, Nanny Baker?” the vicar requested without batting an eyelid. He appeared to have recovered quickly enough from his earlier surprise. “I apologize for my messenger,” he said to his cousin as Fanny passed around cups of tea. “He must have misunderstood. I wished to invite you to join us, as I had found myself alone with these lovely ladies.”
With that explanation, David seemed to relax even more.
“Well, Nanny, what do you think of her?” that young gentleman asked.
“Charming,” Nanny lied without missing a beat. “We’ve had an enjoyable outing, haven’t we, my dear?”
“Yes, Nanny, we have,” Fanny quickly replied.
The only good thing about all this, Angel surmised, was that Fanny was now in Nanny’s debt. She would now have to call sometime and thank the old lady.
After tea and some inconsequential small talk, the ladies said they must leave.
“We will escort them back home,” Mr. Forde told the vicar.
“If you insist.” He walked them all to the front door, but once they had taken their leave and were outdoors, Angel realized her cart was in the rear of the house. She walked around to where Nanny had placed the pony trap and was leading her little workhorse back to the front when she heard voices coming from an open window.
“You could not even deliver a simple message, could you?” the vicar said loudly.
“I delivered it just as you said, sir!”
“Then the women turned it around to cover for that idiot Fanny! Just when I had her where I wanted her! She’s not responding as quickly to my flirtations as I had expected and her friends won’t let her get caught in a compromising position. I shall have to think of something else.” He sounded as if he were talking to himself.
“Never mind. What main event is coming up?”
“There is the spring hunt, sir.”
“Yes, the hunt! We shall have to arrange an accident for David there, I suppose.”
Angel was afraid of discovery, and she had heard enough, so she moved on.
The gentlemen and Fanny escorted Angel and Nanny back to the woman’s cottage, and then went on to the manor with the young ladies. Fanny was silent and sullen, and Angel had time to mull over what she had overheard at the vicarage.
The vicar was now certainly the agent she had been seeking. The personality change, the badgering of the old earl on his deathbed to get a position close to his cousin… It all fit the way the dark angels worked.
She was surprised at Mr. Forde, though. She was so certain the day before that he, too, was anxious to end this engagement, especially when he had insisted Fanny accompany him in driving the vicar home. She needed to know more about that…
In the meantime, the earl had slowed his horse and allowed his uncle and Fanny to take the lead.
“I have a feeling all was not as it seemed today,” he said to her, as if sensing an ally.
“I cannot really say, my lord. But I do have a question that is unrelated to today’s events,” she added, eager to change the subject.
“It concerns the young Miller boys. Might they be allowed to play in the orchard? They promise not to disturb the trees overly much, but you have to admit, the trees are perfect for climbing. I was in one myself yesterday.”
The earl laughed. “You were in the tree?”
“I like to climb,” she said with a shrug. She was not going to tell on the lads.
“And they will not break off branches?” he asked.
“No. Although I cannot guarantee they won’t pick up fallen limbs and make them into guns and swords.” It seemed to be the way of small boys, in her vast experience.
He nodded. “Then I shall allow the privilege. But one mess and I may revoke that.”
“Understood, my lord.”
“What are you two discussing back there?” Fanny asked with a pout.
“The Millers,” the earl replied.
“Oh! We must go visit them!” she exclaimed. “This very afternoon!”
The earl was just about to ask if she liked children when Angel made her pony balk, and the question was forgotten as David stopped to assist her.
Fanny did not cavil at Angel’s suggestion that they walk to Stone Cottage, and after a quiet luncheon at the manor, they set out. They went through the gardens, down the yew hedge lane, where Angel had remembered to bring fruit for the horses this time, and then between the two pastures and into the oak grove.
“What an adorable house!” Fanny exclaimed. “But with three young men living here… It must be rather cramped.”
“It did not seem so to me yesterday, but then, the young men are quite thin.”
As they approached, the three boys came running out, hollering for Angel. They threw themselves at her for hugs and then bowed to Fanny.
“Fanny, may I introduce Masters Crispin, Jonathan and Cortland Miller?”
Fanny was surprised for the second time that day, if her quick intake of breath and glaring at Angel were any indication. Angel stifled a laugh.
“How do you do?” Fanny retreated behind her social mask to cover her shock.
“Come meet Mama!” Crispin suggested, taking Fanny’s hand and dragging her into the house. Angel followed with the other two lads.
“Three young men?” Fanny whispered to Angel when she paused in the parlor door.
“You never asked how young.”
“I should make you pay for this!”
“You already have,” Angel muttered before they were swept forward by the boys to meet Mrs. Miller.
Later, at one point in the conversation, Crispin mentioned the orchard and Angel assured him they had permission from the earl to climb the apple trees. All three boys let out whoops of joy.
Fanny looked as if she wanted to snap at them for being so loud, but Mrs. Miller smiled so widely at their enthusiasm, Angel stepped on Fanny’s toes and indicated the other lady. Fanny had the good grace to keep her mouth shut.
The next morning, Angel stayed close to the house in case Fanny decided to run off again. But she could not stay indoors – the house felt too confining. Instead, she took a turn in the garden.
She had just located the herb garden when a shadow across her path told her she was not alone. It was Mr. Forde.
“Good morning, Miss Singletary.”
“We did not see you at breakfast.”
“I had a tray in my room, sir, in case Miss Eaton wished my companionship.”
“Ah, yes. We cannot allow the lady to wander off on her own now, can we?”
“Not unchaperoned, no.”
“How old are you?” he asked. “Old enough to be that chaperone?”
“I am 25, sir.”
“With no prospects?”
“Did we not cover this once already?”
“Humor me. You are pretty enough, now that you are doing your hair differently and wearing less frightful clothes. Why do you not look for a husband?”
“I can think of a lot of good reasons why I should, but only one truly great reason why I should not.”
“And that is…”
“None of your business. Speaking of which, why do you meddle in your nephew’s affairs?”
“Why do you?”
“It is my job to see Fanny safely married to her earl. I cannot do that, sir, when you insist on encouraging her to flirt with the vicar!”
“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer,’ Miss Singletary?”
“Sun Tzu. But who is your enemy, Mr. Forde? Miss Eaton or Mr. Powers?”
“Perhaps both. Until two days ago, that is. Before that, I thought my nephew did not need to marry for money. I thought he had pulled this estate out of a hole and everything was putting itself to rights.”
“But yesterday I saw two things that made me change my mind. One was the account books. Yes, David is doing better than expected in putting the estate and the family finances back together again. However, it is not enough. He does need to marry for money. And secondly, I saw his face when he thought the flighty Miss Eaton had deserted him for the vicar.”
“He loves her?”
Mr. Forde sighed. “It is sad, isn’t it? But it appears to be true. I cannot understand the attraction, really.”
Neither could Angel, but she wasn’t going to say so. “Opposites truly attract.”
“I am amazed that it is so in this instance. At any rate, I am ashamed of encouraging Miss Eaton to follow Powers. He is not the sort of man one wants for one’s daughters. It is a shame. He used to be so respectable.”
“That is what I have heard.”
“Nanny does like to talk.”
Angel laughed. “How did you know it was she … Never mind. As long as we are on the same side now, I must tell you what I heard yesterday.” She needed to tell someone. “When is the spring hunt?”
Angel let out a yelp. “Then we need to do something quickly! Mr. Powers wants to kill David and he is going to make an attempt at the hunt!”
“What? How do you know? Where did you hear this?”
“Under a window at the vicarage.”
“Whom did you hear?”
“Mr. Powers and what must have been his servant. Mr. Powers was berating the man for not delivering the correct message to Lord Willingham. It seems he set the entire situation up to discredit Fanny in your nephew’s eyes.”
“Then what did he say?”
“He said he was going to have to try something else, and when the servant mentioned the hunt, he said he would arrange to have David killed.”
“Bloody hell! Now I am going to be required to stick to David’s side…”
“What a pity,” Angel said sarcastically. “It’s only his life at stake, after all.”
“No need to get snippy with me, Miss Singletary. I haven’t had to stay at his side since he was a young lad. He is bound to ask questions.”
“He does not need to know the truth until it is absolutely necessary.” Angel had a sudden, chilling thought. “Where is he now?”
Mr. Forde looked at her in alarm. “He went for a ride.”
“Surely Mr. Powers has not had time to concoct a plan based on such an impromptu decision?”
“That is just it, Miss Singletary. He almost always goes for a ride in the morning.”
They realized they had already gone as far as the yew hedge, and so they picked up the pace of their walk as they decided to turn around. But it would take a run to get them back to the house quickly. Or to the stables.
“Psst! Miss Singletary!” a young male voice called from the other side of the hedge.
“Yes! And Jon!”
“Here!” Jon’s voice cried.
“Miss Singletary! Come to the gate! We have something to tell you!”
“Not now, please,” she said. “Something has come up.”
“But Miss Singletary,” Crispin begged, “we want to tell you about the stranger!”
Angel and Mr. Forde exchanged glances.
“Meet us at the gate, lads,” Mr. Forde ordered. He did not have to tell them twice. And once they were face to face and introductions had been made, Mr. Forde took over.
“Tell me about the stranger,” he commanded. “What did he look like?”
“He had a bang-up, prime bit of blood,” Crispin said. He described a roan gelding for Mr. Forde.
“I meant his own person,” the gentleman dryly replied. “But that will help.”
“He had dark hair and was dressed all in black,” Jon said helpfully.
“Did he have anything odd or unusual about him?”
“He had a scar on his lip,” Crispin said.
“Top or bottom.”
“Top. He looks like he is sneering.”
“That should be easy enough to notice,” Angel said with warm approval. “Someone like that ought to stand out in a village where everyone knows everyone else.”
“Exactly. Thank you for the information, lads. You two run along home now, where it is safe,” Mr. Forde ordered.
Angel was not surprised to see he was immediately obeyed. Not only did Mr. Forde have a commanding presence, but the boys lacked a father figure and so responded better to male authority.
“Now what?” she asked.
“Now you go back to the house and keep an eye on Miss Eaton. She is not safe, either. Powers is not going to rest easy until this engagement is broken one way or another, although it will be ideal in his way of thinking if David is completely out of the picture.”
“Why is that?”
“Isn’t it obvious, Miss Singletary? Powers is David’s heir. If David dies without male issue, Powers is the next earl.”
The walk back to the manor was brisk, but not silent.
“Tell me about your young friends,” Mr. Forde asked.
“The Miller boys?” Angel could not help but smile. “There are three of them. You met the eldest two, Crispin and Jonathan. I wonder where Master Cortland was today?” Perhaps he had been with his mother. “They are Lord Portnoy’s nephews.”
“Ah, the late lord’s grandsons, then. I had heard talk that Mrs. Miller had quarreled with the viscount and refused to let him raise her sons, especially his heir.”
“Who told you that?”
“I do not know. Someone at my club, perhaps.”
“That is not how the children present it.”
“What did they say?” he asked curiously.
“That Lady Portnoy does not like them because she has only daughters and will not even let them live in the dower house.”
“I have met Lady Portnoy. She is a sour-faced busybody. The lads are more likely to be correct than my source.”
“Their mother is dying. I do not know what will happen to them at that point, but I pray God watches over them.” They reached the terrace off the drawing room and she swept in ahead of him to find … bedlam.
Fanny would not stop crying. “Dear God, not Willingham, not Willingham!” as if he were not even present, which he was. Angel wanted to slap her. If she got any more hysterical, she was going to have to do just that.
Lady Willingham was more stunned than anything by this new turn of events, and her brother was fixing tea for her with a liberal dollop of whisky.
“Who would want to hurt David?” she whispered. Angel sat next to her, holding her hand.
Lord Willingham was quiet, but then, he was the one who had been attacked by brigands on his way home.
“He is considered a good catch,” Mr. Forde tried to joke with his sister, but the line fell flat. He looked at Angel, but she could only shrug.
Was this attack, of which Lord Willingham had escaped with a small cut on his arm that had barely penetrated the skin, related to the plans she had overheard, or not? She would not be surprised if Mr. Forde was thinking the same thing.
“What exactly happened?” he asked his nephew.
“I was riding on the main road, having just come from my solicitor’s office, which had been an odd thing, as well.”
“How so?” his uncle prompted.
“I received a note from him yesterday morning, asking for me to call on him today. That in and of itself was not unusual. I am waiting for the marriage settlement. But when I arrived at his office, he had no appointment with me. By some odd coincidence, the papers had arrived at his office yesterday afternoon, but he was just penning a note to me when I arrived. Also, he was planning to bring them to me.”
He went on to tell about how he had been attacked by two men as he was coming home, but had managed to evade them with only the scratch.
Fanny started howling all over again, and Angel finally got to indulge herself and slap her. That worked, and afforded the companion no little satisfaction. She could repent later.
After dinner that evening, Mr. Forde engaged Angel in a game of piquet and the two sat off by themselves, where they might carry on a private conversation. Fanny had not come down to dinner, Lady Willingham was working half-heartedly on her embroidery and Lord Willingham was reading.
“Unless Powers was unwilling to tell his servant all his plots, it is possible he set up that ambush,” Mr. Forde mused as they played.
“But how would he know exactly when the settlement papers would be delivered?”
“Perhaps he did not. Any excuse to get David out of the house would have sufficed and it was common knowledge he expected the papers any day.”
“I have not heard him speak of it.”
“Common knowledge among us men, then.”
“I wonder at you even discussing all this with me if you think females should not be aware of male business,” she tartly replied.
He looked at her with a puzzled expression. “I confess, I wondered at that myself. For some reason, you are not the mousy little creature Miranda had under her thumb all those years. I cannot figure out why not, so therefore I find you intriguing. And trustworthy.”
“Thank you for the compliment,” she dryly replied.
“It is a compliment. For me.”
Angel was not required to reply, because the earl and his mother were having a discussion that had escalated suddenly to raised voices, and it gained their attention.
“I will not be kept indoors like a hothouse flower,” the earl exclaimed. “I am going on the hunt tomorrow, Mama, and that is final!”
The countess began to weep and her son stormed out of the room.
The day of the spring hunt dawned clear and bright, and even Fanny and the countess joined everyone else in the sunny breakfast parlor. Both were dressed for riding, although they both admitted they were not joining the hunt itself.
“Lord Anthony Birkthwaite always sponsors this event, but his lady will provide a comfortable place for those of us not riding,” Lady Willingham told Angel. “And I shall be able to introduce Miss Eaton to some of my friends.”
“You shall not be needed,” Fanny airily added, but Angel was not so sure about that. At least she had an excuse not to go with the ladies, although she did her best to look the forlorn companion deprived of a treat.
She planned on attending the hunt, just not as anyone expected. But first she needed some information from Mr. Forde.
Appealing to Fanny’s vanity, she suggested that a few adjustments needed to be made to that lady’s coiffure so that her hair would not be mussed when she removed her riding hat in front of Lady Anthony. That, in turn, made the countess wonder if the same might happen to her, and she followed Fanny out of the room, calling for her maid.
Artlessly, Angel then enquired after Lord Willingham’s favorite mount, and whether or not he was up to the challenge of a hunt after being attacked the day before. With a worried frown, the earl excused himself and headed for the stables.
“Now that you have gone to the trouble of getting rid of everyone else, Miss Singletary,” Mr. Forde drawled from behind his newspaper, “will I be next or did you wish to keep me here?”
The paper lowered and Angel could have sworn he was smiling. At least she thought that crooked shape of his lips was a smile.
“Tell me about the lay of the land and how the hunt might proceed,” she requested without apology or preamble.
“Because we need to think about where a possible attack might happen.”
“I shall be keeping a close eye on David and you shall be here. In the house.”
“Are you certain that I will stay in the house?”
“I wish you to remain here, Miss Singletary.”
“I do not wish to see any ladies getting hurt.”
“I cannot promise to stay.”
He sighed. “I know. But at least consider it, will you?” He caught her mulish expression and sighed once more. “I cannot make you remain, but neither am I going to tell you about the hunt. You shall not be on horseback, so you will not be able to keep up.” He sounded so irritatingly smug to her.
“I would not be too certain about that.”
Lord Willingham returned to the breakfast parlor and Mr. Forde excused himself to get ready to leave.
“So tell me, my lord,” Angel asked as the earl sat down and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Is the terrain too difficult to hunt on around here?”
Armed with a bit of knowledge but no clue as to finding where she thought she needed to be, Angel waited until the others rode off and then headed for the stables.
Most of the grooms had gone to Lord Anthony’s to assist with the horses and the hounds, but there was, thankfully, someone still available to hitch the pony to the cart for her.
She thought to stop and speak to Nanny Baker first, but aware of time slipping away from her, Angel went straight to where she could get the best information, quickly. Stone Cottage.
In the end, she did not have to go that far, although it took her a while to find the correct lane to the back of the estate, where she had always gone on foot. She finally located a rough road that brought her out at the other end of the orchard, where the boys were playing. They ran over, hailing her.
“Miss Singletary! Miss Singletary! May we have a ride?”
“I was coming to find you!” she exclaimed, relieved to have discovered them so soon. “I need your help.”
The boys grinned, eager to be of assistance to their new friend.
“Do you know where the place they call The Clearing is?”
“Yes!” Crispin proudly exclaimed. “It is very close to where we used to live, and our Papa used to take us there for picnics.”
“Get in, then.” Crispin and Jonathan readily complied, but Cortland was reluctant for some reason.
“Mama will not like us going so far from home.”
The other two began to complain, but Angel held up a hand. “You could do me the biggest favor, Master Cortland, if you would run tell your mama that I need your brothers for an emergency. Can you do that for me? This is very important.”
“Good. And then I want you to stay with your mother. There are some very bad people wandering about today and I do not want you to get hurt. I won’t let anything happen to your brothers, either, and I shall return them home as soon as I can.”
Cortland nodded and ran off down the lane leading to Stone Cottage. Angel blew out a sigh of relief and turned the cart in the other direction. She was not quite sure where The Clearing was, but she knew it had to be off to the west.
When she and the Miller lads reached their destination, they were the only ones there.
“It’s creepy out here,” Crispin said with a shudder.
It was true. While the sun burned a bright hole into the cleared area, the surrounding vegetation was thick and lush. A perfect hiding place.
“I want to go home,” Jonathan whispered.
“And so you shall,” Angel briskly replied. “I want you boys to take the pony and cart back to his lordship’s stables for me, please, and then go home and check on your mother and brother. Will you do that?”
“Yes, Miss Singletary.” Both boys seemed relieved not to linger in what should have been a perfectly harmless glade. Angel was just glad she did not have to worry about them wanting to become heroic.
She gave them each a quick kiss on the cheek and then they were gone, leaving her to wonder where she should hide. There were two entrances to the open area – one where she had come in from the east and another from the north.
Feeling vulnerable out in the open, she slipped into the thick undergrowth around a venerable oak tree, climbed up to where she could see back into the glade, and waited. There was no proof this would be the place an incident would happen, but David had told her the hunt often paused there to find its second wind. That guaranteed a maximum audience, but it also meant maximum witnesses to whatever the vicar had planned.
Angel had been intelligent enough to wear a neutral color for this outing – brown. She blended in well with her surroundings and was virtually undetectable. Then she noticed a man in a tree nearby, dressed in green. With a gun in his hand. A dueling pistol. What in the name of…
A horn blew and a pack of dogs streamed into the clearing, baying at the tops of their lungs. The packmaster followed and got them calmed down and resting just as the riders appeared.
Angel noticed a few intrepid women among the group, but was not surprised, after learning of Lady Anthony’s hospitality, that most were men. David and Mr. Forde were among those who had dismounted and were sharing silver flasks of spirits. The vicar was still in the saddle.
He was surrounded by a group of men who were discussing something in low voices, some of them shooting furtive glances over at the earl. Unfortunately, Angel was too far away to hear what they were saying, but it could not be anything good.
It wasn’t. One of the gentlemen rode over to David and said something in an insulting tone and the earl turned red. The man walked off and Mr. Forde tried to hold David back as he tried to follow. David threw him off.
“She is my fiancée,” he said loudly, “and I have the right to defend her.”
A heated exchange between David and the other gentleman followed, with the earl finally crying out for the man to name his seconds.
A hush fell over the glade. Not even a bird twittered in the trees.
The vicar, a sly smile on his face, came in between the two men as if he were about to mediate.
“Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” he called, his ringing voice gaining the attention of everyone. “Let us not take this argument any further.”
Angel found herself watching Mr. Forde, and he visibly relaxed at the vicar’s words.
“No, let us not take this any further,” Mr. Powers continued. “We should get this out of the way as soon as possible. David, name your seconds.”
Angel gasped, as did several of the people down in the clearing. The vicar was advocating a duel!
“Now just a moment, Powers,” Mr. Forde said. “This is neither the time nor the place, and I am certain it was all a misunderstanding on Chalmers’ part. Right, Chalmers?”
“Nonsense!” Mr. Powers exclaimed before Chalmers could open his mouth. “He made a derogatory comment about the lady, and Willingham is ready to defend her honor. Do you want word to get back even before we return that he did not fight for his lady?”
Angel groaned. The vicar knew David would do anything to keep from having Fanny call off the engagement. She watched as the earl gave his uncle an apologetic shrug. Mr. Forde, knowing full well why he had to go through with this, sighed, stepped forward and offered his services as second. Chalmers named a nearby gentleman as his second, and pistols that the vicar just happened to have handy were produced.
Up in her tree, Angel snorted. Then a movement from the man in the other tree caught her attention and she thought she knew what he was planning to do. He was going to be ready to shoot David just as the other gentleman pulled his own trigger. She could do nothing about the man on the ground, not at the same time as the one in the tree, but if she could take out the hidden gunman…
Summoning up what small reserves of power she carried with her, she held her breath and watched as the two duelers turned their backs to each other and counted out twenty paces. They then turned and fired.
Angel had them in the corner of her eyesight as she concentrated on the man in the tree. She did not see Chalmers turn his gun toward the heavens and fire, nor did she see David wing his opponent in the arm. She was laughing at the other gunman, the one who had fumbled with his pistol at the last minute, causing him to drop it harmlessly into the underbrush below. Benign, divine intervention at its best, she thought smugly.
Disgruntled, the man climbed down after it, possibly to finish the job he had botched, but Angel hid the pistol from him until he gave up and left the scene.
No one noticed her in the tree, except for Mr. Forde. While everyone was tending to Chalmers and congratulating David, he sidled over to where she was still trying to stay hidden, and slipped into the bushes at the base of her tree.
“You may come out now, Miss Singletary,” he drawled. “I hope you are satisfied that this potentially dangerous situation was so easily diverted, and that Chalmers deloped.”
Angel allowed him to help her down out of the tree, trying to refrain from showing her delight in the outcome of this entire business.
“You knew I could not stay away,” she said with a grin. “And yes, I am very satisfied with the results. I suppose that will be the end of the hunt, though.”
“It is for me. And for you. Let me take you back before Sarah and Miss Eaton return and are in need of brandy and smelling salts. They can hardly avoid hearing about this, and it will no doubt take a toll on their nerves.”
“And my nerves?” she enquired.
“Are made of steel. You’ll do,” he added in a soft voice. “You’ll do very well.”
She was suddenly confused about the meaning of his words. “Do very well as what?”
“As a companion, of course!” he said with a grin. “Now let’s go home.”
The day after the hunt was wet and dreary, and the countess, who had taken to her rooms after learning of the duel, sent word to everyone that they were on their own as far as entertainment went. That did not bother Angel, but Fanny seemed out of sorts and unable to focus her energy on one thing.
After breakfast, she tried to settle on embroidery, but kept getting her silks tangled. Angel suggested she read a book, but Fanny could not concentrate on it and ended up tossing it across the room.
The gentlemen found a petulant Fanny and a complacent Angel in the library. Fanny was pacing in front of the fire, ranting about having nothing to do and Angel was curled up in a window seat, her shawl over her legs, trying to read. To no avail.
“What have you ladies been up to this morning?” David asked jovially as he and his uncle came into the room.
“Nothing!” Fanny exclaimed. “I shall go mad if I am not given a good idea for an activity any time soon.”
Angel sighed. That was Fanny’s problem in a nutshell, wasn’t it? Her inability to entertain herself was the cause of many of her problems. Angel had to get her to think and act on her own, else David would live a miserable life trying constantly to amuse her.
“What sorts of things do you like to do?” she asked Fanny.
That question gave Fanny pause and she stopped her pacing to consider it.
“I like to sew … I like to read…” These had both been rejected that morning and Angel was hard pressed not to pick up that book and throw it at her. “I like to play games…”
“Games? What types do you like?” Angel prodded. Lord Willingham and Mr. Forde remained silent, perhaps thinking that if Fanny could come up with her own solutions for once, it was best that they not interfere with the process.
“All sorts of games! Cards, charades, word games, guess games … Hide and Seek…” She perked up. “That is it! Let us all play Hide and Seek!”
Mr. Forde rolled his eyes, but Angel glared at him until he reluctantly agreed. David was already congratulating his fiancée on her excellent suggestion and Fanny blushed at his praise. If yesterday’s duel had one positive outcome, it would have to be the increasing closeness of Fanny and David. They were beginning to act like the betrothed couple they were.
If Angel could just keep them that way until the wedding, her work would be done.
They drew lots to determine the first seeker and that task fell to Angel. She merely shrugged and told them all to hide. Everyone else quickly left the room and she began to count.
When she reached one hundred, she tried to think where everyone would hide…
Lord Willingham was easy. She went to the study, stood staring at the desk for a moment and when she moved in closer to inspect underneath, the earl let out a whoop from where he had been hiding behind the door. He ran from the room and back to home base in the library before she could even give chase. Drats!
One down, though, and two to go. She hailed a passing footman and asked if he had seen either Mr. Forde or Miss Eaton. To her good fortune, he had seen Mr. Forde headed for the kitchens.
Angel found the green baize door that separated the staff from the family and went in slowly, not having yet been in the kitchens and servants’ hall of this house. She found herself in a dark hall that went past a series of rooms – butler’s pantry, sitting room, laundry, kitchens, scullery … It ended in a well-lit dining hall and a dead end.
“May I help you, miss?” one of the maids asked politely.
“Mr. Forde. I am seeking Mr. Forde.”
“He was sitting in the kitchen with Cook a moment ago, miss, and then he crawled under the table,” she was told. “I believe he has gone back abovestairs.”
Drat! Those annoying men!
Angel sighed, thanked the girl and headed toward the door she had come in, when the maid suggested she take the other passage, which branched off between the laundry and the sitting room.
“It will take you quickly back to the library, miss.”
Angel was grinning as she practically ran down the hall toward another baize door. It led into the formal dining room and she could see where such a route would be convenient for the servants. On the other side was the ballroom and Angel could not resist a quick peek inside.
Humming could be heard from somewhere in that room and Angel forgot all about Mr. Forde. Who would not go for easier prey? But where was Fanny hiding? Angel could not see anything but a stack of gilt chairs, a sideboard of some sort and a screen in front of the cold fireplace.
The screen was raised, with slim legs supporting it, and there were no feet visible underneath, so she could not be there. Angel padded softly about the room, checking the heavy velvet curtains for signs of life, but there was no Fanny. Angel looked behind the stacked chairs, just in case, but again, there was no one to be found.
She jostled the chairs with her elbow as she prepared to move on, and the stack tottered, the noise echoing around the cavernous room. The humming stopped.
It had to be the screen. Angel placed herself quickly between the screen and the door. Then she moved closer to the screen, aware that a chair had been placed behind it. Fanny must be up on the chair.
It was a calculated move more clever than Angel usually gave Fanny credit for.
“Tag!” she suddenly cried, springing in front of Fanny, who was crouched on the chair. She tapped her on the arm. “You are it!”
Angel raced for the door, determined to beat Fanny back to the library. The younger girl was quick, and brought up the rear in hot pursuit, but Angel was faster. When she got to the library, she made a dive for the sofa, which had been designated home base, only to realize at the last moment that Mr. Forde was seated in the center. She was sprawled across him, laughing, even as Fanny came tearing into the room.
“Angela!” she exclaimed, and then giggled.
“Er, sorry,” Angel mumbled to Mr. Forde as she rolled off him and onto the floor. He rose immediately and helped her to her feet.
“You have a habit of being where you should not, Miss Singletary.” His voice was stern, but his eyes twinkled merrily and she could have sworn he winked at her.
“Fanny is now the seeker,” Angel said, which effectively put all the attention on the other girl.
“Yes, you must all go hide now,” Fanny commanded. She sat down on the sofa, closed her eyes and began to count.
Angel lost no time in heading to the gallery, where scores of long-dead Willinghams looked down their aristocratic noses at her as she contemplated the plum velvet drapes at each long window.
There were small curved benches under most of the sets of glass panes that looked out on a dreary day, but one had a statue of Diana in front of it, and it was the curtains to the rear of the marble figure that were chosen to hide her.
She cocooned herself in the warm folds, confident that no one could find her. She stiffened in surprise, then, when she heard soft footsteps on the tiled floor. A maid, perhaps? No, the sound was too furtive.
She heard the steps come closer and closer, and then pause in front of her curtains.
Was it Fanny? No, it was too soon, unless Fanny cheated and sped up her counting, and Fanny would have been rummaging about in all the curtains before reaching Angel’s. After hearing the humming in the ballroom earlier, she doubted Fanny would be able to maintain complete silence while she hunted.
Angel held her breath as she felt someone pull the curtain folds away from her, and she found herself face to face with a startled Mr. Forde.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Singletary. I’ll just…”
There was another noise, this one louder and coming from the far end of the gallery. They looked at each other in alarm. Fanny!
Mr. Forde pulled the curtain fully around the both of them and when she began to protest, he cut the sound off in a way that Angel found effective, if not disconcerting. He kissed her.
Fanny could have walked by and checked every curtain personally and Angel would not have noticed. Her hands were trapped upon his chest between them, but if she had been allowed to move, she would have wrapped them up around his neck, bringing his kiss in even deeper. It was that divine.
She supposed Mr. Forde had been listening for the noise, because he finally released her lips, even if he did not withdraw his arms from around her.
“She is gone now,” he whispered.
“Who is?” She was still in a daze.
He chuckled, a smug, masculine sound that was also a warm rumble beneath her hands.
“Miss Eaton. She did not think to check the draperies. You chose a good place, behind the statue.”
He stepped back and held the curtain open for her.
“Thank you.” She emerged from behind her velvet cave and blinked, even though the skies had grown darker outside. “I will go back to the library now and try not to become tagged.” Especially since she felt as if she had already been tapped.
“Perhaps that is for the best,” he solemnly agreed. “Try not to get caught.”
She nodded and retraced the way she had entered the gallery. There was no one to be seen on her way to the library, but that room was not empty. She let herself in quietly, saw Fanny and David in an embrace not unlike the one she had just been in with Mr. Forde, and they were just as oblivious.
Letting herself back out, she returned to the gallery, where Mr. Forde was now perusing the Willingham portraits.
“Back so soon?”
“I thought it best not to interrupt the happy couple.”
“I take it my nephew is now it?” he asked with a grin.
“Something of that nature,” she cheerfully replied, wondering if she should bring up their own kiss, or not. She decided not. He decided to, however, much to her annoyance.
“About that kiss, Miss Singletary. I beg that you…”
“Forgive you for it?” she queried.
“No, I was going to say that I…”
“Make a habit of kissing spinsters?”
“No, I was trying to tell you not to expect any more from me than the kiss you have already received.”
Angel did not know whether to laugh at him or be offended. She decided on the former.
“What is so amusing?” Now he was offended.
“Nothing,” she said with a chuckle. “I only thought it odd that you expected me to want more.”
“Do you not?” he asked, his voice tinged with surprise.
“No, not particularly. Should I?”
“Why should you not! You are a plain spinster with no prospects and I am a handsome, wealthy man!”
“Modest, as well,” she added, her eyes twinkling.
“Yes, modest … What do you mean by that?”
“Recognize the sarcasm, do you?”
“Now, look here, Miss Singletary! I do not believe I am boasting when I say I have good looks. Not to mention a potload of money.”
“Your point is…”
“My point is that you have nothing. I would be a good catch by anyone’s standards and I cannot believe you are not screaming down the door that I tried to molest you. It has happened before.”
“Oh? Tell me! I am vastly interested in your past history with ugly spinsters!”
He frowned. “I did not call you ugly. I said you were plain. There is a world of difference between the two.”
“Not from my point of view, sir.”
“And the lady was not exactly ugly or a spinster,” he continued as if she had not spoken. “It was your cousin, Lady Miranda.”
“Fanny’s stepmother,” Angel could not help but add, although she regretted it instantly. She was an angel, and the moment she seemed to be settling into a mortal husk, she began exhibiting some of her old mortal traits. Cattiness had always been a weakness of hers. She closed her eyes and sent off a prayer asking for forgiveness and strength.
“Are you attending me, Miss Singletary?” Mr. Forde demanded.
She opened her eyes and gave him a dreamy smile. “I heard you, Mr. Forde. You are handsome and as rich as Golden Ball. You could have your pick of ladies, even Lady Miranda, although you must not have wanted her, else she would be here right now. I am a meek and lowly companion without prospects. I am plain, penniless and while my family might have connections, I am not connected to any of them. I suppose that about sums it all up.
“You kissed me,” she added, “I kissed you back and that was the end of that. I do not think you are in any danger of losing your status as a bachelor and I am not in danger of losing my mind or my heart. If that is all, Mr. Forde, I shall retire now and repine my fate, and figure out a way not to trap you. This, despite the fact that you are doing an excellent job of setting yourself up to be caught.”
She curtsied and left the room at a fast clip, not paying any attention to where she was headed. The nerve of that man to think she was going to trap him into a situation!
Angel cut across the great hall, ignoring the unusual activity around her until a woman’s haughty voice rang out.
“Angela Singletary! Where have you been? Attend me at once!”
The tall, imperious woman in a dark red traveling costume looked at Angel with some impatience as she stared back.
“Come along, Angela! I haven’t all day to stand here and do nothing! You, lad!” she called to the butler. “See that I am given the finest room in the house.”
“Miss Singletary, I…” Mr. Forde had followed her into the great hall, but the appearance of the new arrival brought him up short.
“Miranda,” he said curtly. “What are you doing here?”
The willowy brunette let out a brittle laugh. “I am here for the wedding! Surely you did not think I would miss my dear stepdaughter’s nuptials?”
“Yes and no. And the wedding is still two weeks away.”
“But who will oversee the preparations! Fanny must have the best of everything! Darling, I decided I must have my hand in it, or it would not be fitting enough for an Eaton!”
Mr. Forde mumbled something under his breath. The lady, in the meantime, saw Angel standing there doing nothing, and gave her a narrow look.
“Angela! See to my things!” she said sharply before addressing Mr. Forde in a sugary tone Angel did not like. Linking her arm with his, Miranda insisted on being revived from her journey with some tea in the drawing room.
Mr. Forde shot Angela an apologetic glance and led Miranda away. Angel could only sigh in relief that both of them were gone before asking the butler to place the lady in the smallest guest room possible without it appearing to be an obvious insult.
“I have just made such arrangements, Miss Singletary,” he assured her with a straight face. A footman appeared and asked that if Miss Singletary were not otherwise occupied, would she join Lady Willingham upstairs?
Angel readily agreed and went up to the countess’ chambers, where she was greeted with a frantic smile.
“Thank you for coming so promptly! I cannot believe the audacity of that female, showing up with no warning, without Fanny’s father, without her child… What sort of mother does that?”
Angel had only an impolite answer for that one, which she refrained from repeating, and immediately chastised herself for such an impure thought.
Lady Willingham had been in a taking of sorts, however, strewing clothes about the room and upsetting everything on her dressing table. Angel rang for the maid, set the countess down in a chair and calmly began to sift through that lady’s gowns.
“I am certain you will want to make a good impression, my lady, but do not dress overly fancy. This is the country after all, and we want to give Lady Miranda the impression she is overdressed for the occasion.”
Lady Willingham agreed. “She always makes me feel the veriest dowd, even when I know my clothes are of the first stare.”
“They are, indeed,” Angel soothed. The maid appeared and she requested a cup of herbal tea for her ladyship.
“And some biscuits,” the countess added. “I have not eaten all day.”
“We must remedy that,” said Angel and the lady’s maid, nodding, went away promptly to do their bidding.
Angel went back to perusing the countess’ gowns, rejecting some for being too plain or old, and others for being too stylish. She finally found a pretty day dress in a celestial blue that appealed to her.
“That is one of my favorites,” Lady Willingham confided.
“Then wear it. The pleasure it affords will give you confidence to face Lady Miranda.” Angel had the feeling that woman would take over if allowed.
“Where is the lady now?”
“In the drawing room with Mr. Forde.”
“Oh, dear. Poor Roderick.”
Angel silently agreed, despite her previous words with the man.
“She always wanted him, you know,” the countess continued. “She tried to trap him into marriage several times, until one scheme backfired and poor Mr. Eaton was caught instead.” She laughed. “At least she was caught by someone who can afford her. But I do not need to tell you any of this. You have lived with her a long time. You know what she is like.”
Angel nodded. She had a good idea now that she had finally been in that female’s presence.
“I had better ring for someone to find Fanny, so Mr. Forde is not left alone with her.”
“If you insist.” Lady Willingham caught Angel by the hand. “I like that you have so obviously blossomed since your arrival, Miss Singletary. I do not like the idea of you retreating now that Lady Miranda has arrived. Do let me know if you are too much put upon by her and I shall do all I can to keep her from running roughshod over you.”
Angel was touched by the lady’s sincerity. There were so many good people in the world, if one just knew to look. She smiled and curtsied. “Thank you, Lady Willingham. I will let you know.”
The two ladies went down to the drawing room together to find Lady Miranda fawning all over Mr. Forde and a sullen Fanny speaking quietly with the earl. She did not appear to be pleased by Miranda’s sudden appearance. That made four of them, then, unless the earl’s jovial conversation with the newcomer was false.
Knowing what she did of David’s personality, Angel was certain his delight was genuine. Until Lady Miranda opened her mouth.
“You are looking well, Angela,” she said smoothly to her cousin. “Less drab. Dreary little mouse,” she said to Lady Willingham. “And as poor as one, too. If it were not for my mother and I, she should have no home. ‘Take her into your new household with you,’ my mother urged. ‘I cannot be expected to find a husband for such a plain creature.’ So I did. Was that not charitable of me? She has been so useful with dear, dear Fanny.” She shot her stepdaughter a sweet smile. Fanny scowled back.
“And Fanny!” Lady Miranda continued. “I hope you have come to know her like a daughter, as I have. Although, I confess, she and I are more like sisters than you two are.”
“Indeed, we are all fond of Fanny, as well as Miss Singletary.” The countess had obviously taken the high road on the age issue. Angel was surprised, though, when she leaned over on the sofa and patted her hand with affection.
“Ah, then you do not mind their faults! How wonderful! It is not easy to accept a mouse and a spoiled brat.”
“Oh, I say!” David began to protest.
“Miss Eaton and Miss Singletary are neither of those things,” Lady Willingham stoutly insisted. “I have never refused hospitality to anyone, Lady Miranda, but if you feel more comfortable staying at our local inn, that may be arranged.” The countess was calm, but there was a hint of steel in her voice.
Lady Miranda laughed. “I did not realize you were taking me seriously! Oh, really, I am comfortable where I am, although your rooms are so small! And so spare. I shall make do, though, until a larger chamber may be arranged.”
Angel was puzzled. Had not Miranda been in the drawing room the entire time she had been upstairs with Lady Willingham?
“Mr. Forde was kind enough to show me to my room,” Miranda purred, stroking Mr. Forde’s arm. “Is he not the dearest man?”
Angel did not like her insinuations, but there was nothing she could do. She found herself wondering what had happened when he escorted Miranda to her bedchamber.
“I merely waited in the hall while Lady Miranda made herself presentable,” Mr. Forde told them, evidently alarmed at what they might think of the action. “Fortunately, Miss Eaton and David were here when we returned. Saved me the trouble of finding them.”
Angel hid a smile. It had saved him the trouble of interrupting them.
The tea tray arrived, followed immediately by Mr. Powers. He had the nerve, it seemed, to pretend nothing had happened the day before, forcing everyone to play along. The vicar made a beeline directly to Lady Miranda.
“We have an addition!” he exclaimed, bringing Miranda’s outstretched hand to his lips. “A very beautiful addition.”
Fanny pouted and Miranda beamed. Introductions were made.
“A vicar! How very droll. Is it not, Fanny? You have called their banns for the first time, I suppose?”
“Sunday last. It is a quaint tradition for those able to obtain a license, of course, but my cousin would be traditional – and give his tenants and villagers some enjoyment out of the proceedings. Even the well-born around here abide by the custom rather than applying for a license.”
“Adorable! I suggested that Fanny come here for the nuptials, despite the fact that she wished for a large wedding in Town. We had quite a time talking her into this, did we not, Angela?”
Angel had no clue, but she could guess. “Did we?” she countered.
“Do you not recall it?” If Miranda was surprised, she hid it behind a brittle laugh. Angel wondered if this was the first time the cousin had ever defied her.
“Not particularly. The reality is, Fanny is here and about to wed the earl. Does it matter whose idea it was to marry here?” Angel asked innocently.
“You did not want to be married from here?” a stricken David asked Fanny.
“Of course I did! Miranda is confused. I did not protest a small wedding in the country. I protested not being able to have a ball in my honor before we left London.”
“It was a waste of my time,” Miranda said, dismissing the notion. “You were already betrothed. Why go through the effort and expense of a coming-out ball?”
“Oh, you poor dear,” Lady Willingham whispered to herself. “Then we must have a betrothal ball before the wedding!” she said in a louder voice.
“Is that necessary, Aunt Sarah?” the vicar wondered.
“After all, you are already planning the wedding,” Miranda insisted.
“Then you shall plan the ball with me, Lady Miranda,” the countess cheerfully replied. “Because now you have the time. I imagine this will be a nice sojourn from having to attend to a husband and a very young child. Is your little darling up in our nursery? I should love to meet him.”
“He is not here,” Lady Miranda said without regret. “I could not allow myself to be saddled with the… little angel when I did come to help with the wedding.”
“Splendid!” Lady Willingham said no more on the subject as she pressed Fanny and Angel into helping her pass around tea.
After that, Angel was able to sit back and watch as the vicar struck up a conversation with Miranda, leaving Fanny to feel bereft of the attentions she had so recently received. Angel only hoped the girl would do nothing rash to regain the vicar’s favor. She doubted Fanny knew who was responsible for David’s activities the day before, so she would not yet be out of charity with the vicar.
Fortunately, the earl sensed Fanny’s distress and for once decided to do something about it. Perhaps their time alone in the library had made him realize his future wife was going to require a lot of attention until she was used to doing for herself.
That left Angel, Mr. Forde and Lady Willingham to converse among themselves. Mr. Forde bowed out by picking up a newspaper and hiding behind it. Angel tried not to sigh as she turned to the countess.
“Shall you continue to live here after the wedding, my lady?”
Lady Willingham chuckled. “I think not. The new countess should be able to run the house the way she sees fit, although I shall not be far if she needs me. There is a dower house, you see, off to the east of the formal gardens, and it will be my new home. I had thought to go tomorrow and have a look at it. It required some paint and new flooring and I should inspect the work. Will you come with me?”
“I should like that very much,” Angel replied.
Evidently Mr. Forde had been using his paper for the purpose of eavesdropping, because he set it down and smiled. “The house is ready? I should like to see it, as well.”
“You may come, Roderick, but only if you promise not to complain about my choices in wall color or flooring.”
The next morning, Mr. Forde’s horse and the pony cart were brought around to the front of the house, and once they were settled on seat and saddle, Lady Willingham, her brother and Angel headed off to the dower house.
A turnoff before the main road led to a short drive that ended with a brick house that was larger than a cottage, but definitely not the same size as her current home. Lady Willingham sighed.
“I shall miss the manor, but I have chosen some lovely furniture from the house for my new home. I doubt Miss Eaton will even miss it. She and David will be able to afford to redecorate.”
They alighted in front of the two-storied structure and Mr. Forde secured his mount and the pony before they went inside.
“Sarah!” he exclaimed once they were in the hall. “It looks very well!”
“Do you think so?” she asked girlishly as they looked over clean walls the color of heavy cream.
“I do. It is much less ornate than the manor.”
“Of course it is. I was not allowed control of any of my dowry. Else the manor would have been decorated to my tastes eons ago. Mine was supposedly a love match,” the countess explained to Angel. “We did not discover until after the wedding that Willingham only loved my money.”
“He spent it all and came back for more,” Mr. Forde said bitterly.
“I bore it as well I could over the years,” the countess continued without rancor, “but heaven only knows what I have endured.”
“The meek shall inherit the earth,” Angel said honestly.
“I certainly hope we inherit something! Come see the drawing room!”
Lady Willingham led them into a room down the hall. One with a sunny bank of windows that overlooked a duck pond complete with weeping willows. The walls were pale blue and a large sofa in yellow velvet, picked out discreetly with gilt, dominated the room.
“That came from the attics here,” the countess said, her smile wide. “It belonged to Willingham’s grandmother, but I only saw it a few times. Right after we married, the dear old lady died and my harridan of a mother-in-law moved here and it disappeared. I had thought it lost forever until I began searching the attics for suitable furnishings. Come upstairs and let me show you my other greatest find!”
On the first floor, they were shown into a bedroom with pink satin walls and the most beautiful rosewood bed Angel had ever seen. There were large posts on all four corners and a pale pink sheer fabric hung over the sides, held in place by a wooden cherub. The posts were carved with hearts and ivy, and the theme was repeated in the head and footboards.
“It is exquisite!” Angel breathed. “A bed fit for a princess!”
“It is!” Lady Willingham agreed. “According to family history, Princess Elizabeth slept in it once, at a time when she was still in favor with the crown.”
“Will this be your bed?”
“Oh, no! I am a bit old for such a pretty thing. I hope one day to have a granddaughter or two to place in it.”
“What lucky girls they would be!”
“Well, Roderick? What do you think?” his sister wondered.
“It is quite… pink,” he said, finding his tongue.
“There is a matching chest of drawers and dressing table, but I am having them cleaned. The entire set was filthy from all that time in the attic.”
“Do you have a room that might be considered more, er, masculine?” he asked.
“Of course! Come with me.” They went downstairs. “There is a lovely little study here that I plan to decorate in green and dark blue. All I have in here now is a nice leather…”
The countess paused in the doorway and turned around, a frown marring her forehead.
“What is it?” Mr. Forde asked.
“Nothing, really, except…”
“Except what, Sarah?”
“I was certain the workmen have not started in this room, and yet there is a fire in the hearth.”
Mr. Forde strode past her to the fireplace and squatted down in front of it. “This has not been here long. Was the work crew here yesterday?”
“Not to my knowledge. They were here three days ago, I know.”
Mr. Forde looked at Angel. “The fire is not that cold. Someone has used this room since then, perhaps even last night.”
“But I have the key!” the countess insisted.
“You ladies stay right here. I need to look around…”
Mr. Forde left the room and Lady Willingham sat on the sofa, perplexed as to why someone would wish to break in. Angel wandered about the room as her hostess fretted. As she reached the hearth for the second time, she bent down to retrieve a piece of woolen yard, the sort that might come from a shawl. Not certain what its significance might be, she put the fiber in her pocket.
When Mr. Forde returned, it was to report that a window was unlatched, but he had shut and locked it, and the house was now secure. He suggested they return home.
“But who would want to break into this place?” the countess asked once more.
“I have no notion,” her brother said quietly.
When they reached the manor, Lady Willingham was helped down from the cart, but when Angel attempted to alight as well, the countess stayed her with a hand.
“Would you be so kind as to visit Nanny for me today? With a new guest and a ball to plan, I know I shall not have time to do so in the near future. And it will keep you out of the way of that certain guest,” she whispered conspiratorially.
Angel flashed her a grateful smile and did not linger. Neither did Mr. Forde. He had not dismounted, but followed Angel back down the drive. She looked at him questioningly.
“I would like to visit Nanny,” was all he said. They rode to her cottage in silence.
“Oh, my dears!” Nanny said by way of greeting when they arrived. “I am glad to see you both! I have just had word that Mrs. Miller had a spell today…”
“Those poor lads,” Angel replied.
“Yes, the little lambs need some attention, too.” She had a bag in her hand and she kept it with her as she climbed into the cart. “You will come as well, Master Roderick?”
“The eldest lad came over and said his mama had taken a bad turn and would I come help,” the older lady explained as they rode. “I do not know if she asked for me or if the lads had the presence of mind to come get me, but I doubt that maid of theirs thought of it at all.”
“Will it be best, perhaps, if I take the young gentlemen into the village for a diversion whilst you attend to their mother?” Angel asked.
“A very good plan, Miss Singletary. I shall have Master Roderick escort you. There is a bakery in the village with excellent buns. No doubt the lads will enjoy that.”
Angel was glad of the plan when they arrived at Stone Cottage. The boys looked so sad and helpless, although they perked up well enough when Mr. Forde – bless him – thought they might like to come outside and see his horse. Angel watched them from the parlor window as Nanny and the maid made a pallid Mrs. Miller more comfortable.
“I am going to give you some of my home-brewed restorative, ma’am,” she heard Nanny say. “And then the lads may come in to see you for a moment. After that, Master Roderick and Miss Singletary will take them into the village for a couple of hours. You need your rest and as darling as the boys are, the quiet must be welcome.”
Mrs. Miller smiled weakly at the authoritative nurse. “You are a treasure, Nanny Baker. As are you, Miss Singletary.”
“Yes, indeed,” Nanny agreed. “She is a true angel.”
After the boys were cleaned up and had kissed their mother goodbye, Crispin was allowed to ride with Mr. Forde while the two young lads piled into the cart with Angel. It was only as short ride to the village of Whitby, but the young men were excited, as they were not allowed to go there by themselves. Fortunately, they were well behaved, and it was a pleasure to take them about. Angel had yet to investigate the village, so it fell to Mr. Forde to play guide, which he did with ease.
After leaving their transportation at the inn, they went to the bakery for fresh sweet buns, which were gobbled in a hurry by even Angel and Mr. Forde. After washing up in a nearby trough, with Angel providing a handkerchief for drying hands, they wandered about, climbed trees on the edge of the village green and repaired to the inn for luncheon in a private parlor.
The room fronted the inn and the boys enjoyed watching others go about their business. It became a game to see how many people they knew by name, with Jonathan knowing a surprising great many.
“Mama says his memory for names is excellent,” Crispin said proudly. But when the boys all spied the vicar, they became unusually reticent and refused to acknowledge him, even to their escorts.
“What is the matter?” Angel asked. Not only were the lads silent, but they had stopped eating. She knew from experience that was not a good sign.
“Is it the vicar?” Mr. Forde asked, having caught sight of the man, who was skulking about. Another bad sign. Crispin nodded.
“He is a bad man,” Cortland whispered.
“Why?” Angel wondered. The little one had turned white as a sheet and she pulled him onto her lap and wrapped her arms tightly about him. He relaxed into her slightly, but was still fearful around the eyes.
“He said mean things to Mama,” Jonathan supplied, but only after moving in closer to Mr. Forde.
“He said she was going to Hell when she died, unless she sent me back to my uncle,” Crispin whispered.
Angel exchanged alarmed looks with Mr. Forde.
“Why should it even concern him?” Angel had to ask. As far as she knew, the baron and his family were not even in Powers’ parish. “Perhaps he likes to intimidate his own parishioners?”
“Possibly. It bears looking into,” Mr. Forde replied.
Angel nodded. They could discuss it later, without little ears around. Apparently, though, the little ears had already heard plenty.
“Ivy told Lettie that the vicar was forcing himself on her,” Crispin said. “What does that mean?” Three pairs of blue eyes turned expectantly toward Mr. Forde.
Angel was too angry to laugh at the gentleman’s discomfort as he fobbed them off with a – in her estimation – weak explanation. How dare Mr. Powers abuse a position of influence such as his? Still, all would be dealt with in good time. Still, Ivy must be gotten out of that house before something happened. Such as Ivy being with child and the vicar turning her out without admitting his own actions.
“What else have you heard, lads?” Mr. Forde prompted, his cheeks pink.
Out of the mouth of babes, Angel thought fondly as the boys filled them in on village gossip.
“Mr. Breen has a new cow.”
“There are ducklings in the mill pond!”
“We saw a ghost at the dower house last night!”
More glances were exchanged between the adults.
“Oh?” Mr. Forde adopted a nonchalant attitude. “And what were you doing near the dower house well past your bedtime?”
Crispin spoke up somewhat defensively. “Mama had a spell and we could not sleep. We went to the orchard while she thought we were in bed because we did not like to hear her being ill.”
Angel hugged Cortland tighter until he squeaked in protest. The poor children!
“You can see the dower house from the orchard,” Jon said. “The ghost was walking in there with a candle.”
“I told you, Jon – ghosts don’t need candles!” Crispin said with all the authority of an elder brother. “It must have been the caretaker.”
“I still say it was a ghost,” his brother mulishly replied.
“Look!” Cortland cried from Angel’s lap. “The bad man is getting in the pretty lady’s carriage!”
To Angel’s surprise, the vicar was indeed climbing into an open carriage. One that contained Lady Miranda!
Not even having undressed after dinner, Angel worried about the mystery of the dower house and was restless. She paced her room until she was concerned for the carpet, and finally picked up a book and settled down in the window seat. She never even opened the book. Instead, she found herself gazing out over the side lawn, which was bathed in moonlight.
There was movement below, and on closer inspection, Angel saw someone slip in and out of shadows before disappearing down a path. She wondered where it led. Hastily grabbing a cloak, she left her room to find out.
Wasting some moments dodging servants, she finally made it outside, following the same path as the other person. A person she was fairly certain she knew.
Her suspicion as to that person’s destination was confirmed when she saw a few candles in a window of the dower house. She did not dare go inside, for fear of discovery without escape, but one of the casement windows was half open and the two people meeting inside were standing near it. Their voices were raised in anger.
“You are a blundering fool!” Miranda was saying. “Fanny should have been ruined by now, David either disgusted or dead, and your task complete. Instead, I have been forced to leave my comfortable circumstances and come here to help you out of this mess. If you had followed orders, I should never have had to be here at all – because there would be no wedding!”
At least Angel now knew the identity of the two dark agents, even though she had suspicions all along.
“I keep telling you, Miranda, someone has been crossing me at every turn!”
“Who is it?” she asked sharply.
“I do not know.”
“What do you mean, you do not know?” There was a sharp slapping sound. “Are you so incompetent you cannot recognize an angel in disguise? Never mind. I shall figure it out soon enough … First, we need to discuss our next move.”
She ignored him. “I think Fanny and Roderick make a lovely couple, don’t you?”
The vicar laughed. “You could not even get yourself in bed with Forde! What makes you think Fanny will go?”
“She will go, all right. I have my resources … And it will revenge me nicely where Forde is concerned.”
“I say we concentrate on the earl. He is a man and surely will refuse to acknowledge Fanny as his fiancée if she were unfaithful to him.”
“Exactly. This is what I am talking about, you nodcock!”
“But I want revenge on David, not Forde!”
“This will exact revenge on all of them,” she said, trying for a more patient tack.
Miranda sighed. “It leaves David humiliated that his intended was found in bed with his uncle.”
“Oh. I was thinking along different lines, actually. Consider the tale of Bathsheba.”
“I don’t read such rubbish,” Miranda scoffed.
“It pays to know how your enemy thinks, my dear … Anyway, Bathsheba was married to Uriah the Hittite. But when King David saw her bathing on her rooftop, he sent for her. And when she became with child, it was obvious that her husband had come nowhere near her, so David could not pass the brat off as Uriah’s get.”
“What has this to do with us?” Miranda asked impatiently.
Under the window, Angel held her breath. She knew exactly what the vicar was proposing.
“So we put you in David’s bed and allow Fanny to discover you. Then someone suggests you have been seeing each other, even in town, and that you might already be carrying his child. She will turn to me…”
“The first part of the plan has merit. But if you want the chit in your bed, all you have to do is say so.”
“I want the chit in my bed.”
“There,” she cooed. “Was that so difficult to say? And if the plan does not work, I get to put Fanny in with Forde.”
“It will work,” he insisted.
“Like the hunting incident?” she sweetly asked.
“That was not my fault,” he whined. “Someone is an angel! But I have it narrowed down to two people.”
“Forde or Nanny Baker.”
“What?” Miranda exploded with laughter. “Are you mad? Forde is too jaded to be one of theirs and Nanny is too old. I vow, you would not recognize an angel if it bit you on the arse!”
Angel had heard enough. Sneaking back slowly from the way she had come, she got halfway up the path when a dark figure loomed up in front of her. She cried out and lost her balance.
“What the devil are you doing out here, Miss Singletary?” Mr. Forde exclaimed, grabbing her by the shoulders to keep her from falling.
“I could ask the same of … Shhhh! Someone is coming!” She slipped out from under his hands and moved sideways into the bushes, leaving him no choice but to follow.
They watched silently as Lady Miranda strode purposefully up the path back to the manor. The only sound other than her footsteps was of Mr. Forde sucking in his breath in surprise.
Once Miranda was gone, Angel sat back against a tree trunk with a sigh.
“Lady Miranda is our dower house inhabitant?” Mr. Forde asked. “She only just arrived!”
“She went to the dower house, yes,” Angel agreed. “To meet Mr. Powers.”
“Damn!” he exclaimed. “I beg your pardon, Miss Singletary.”
“You are forgiven.”
“I wonder what their liaison means?”
“Perhaps they are like you and do not wish Fanny and David to marry.”
“I shudder to think I might be in league with those two, however inadvertently. I never said I did not want David to marry Fanny, only that I think he can do better.”
Angel could not argue with him, but she was aware that divine destiny was never wrong. Once they were pointed in the right direction, the young people were going to be very happy.
“What is their next move?”
“He wants to humiliate David by placing Miranda into his bed. She wants to humiliate everyone by putting Fanny in yours. I cannot help but feel she would be much happier if she could take Fanny’s place. In fact, she seems terribly willing to share whatever bed is available.”
He groaned. “We cannot let that happen.”
“Why not? You seem to take your task of getting these two together quite seriously. Why is that?”
Angel wondered if he could handle the truth. “Perhaps I would like to see someone out from underneath Miranda’s influence. Or it could be I am an angel, sent from heaven to provide guidance. Or maybe I am just a nosy, plain old spinster with nothing better to do. You decide.”
“You are not old! As for being an angel…”
“You find that difficult to believe?”
“No,” he softly replied. “I do not find that thought absurd at all.”
She was struck suddenly by the fact that they were alone, in the dark, in the woods. “I think we had better return to the house.” It was not that she feared being kissed again by Mr. Forde. In fact, despite his protestations the day before, she thought she might like it quite well. Too much so. And that would never do. What if he should come to care for her and she left him? She could not countenance such a thing.
“Yes, I agree.”
Relief flooded her face and he peered at her intently in the moonlight.
“You do not have to appear so happy about it, Miss Singletary.” He sounded affronted.
“I thought we already established that I have no designs on you, sir,” she said untruthfully. “You seem to have a problem with that still.”
“I have difficulty believing you would rather run inside and not stay here with me.”
Angel laughed and patted his cheek. He was so endearing and there was a part of Miss Singletary that wished she could linger.
“Thank you, but no. What if Lady Miranda should seek me out? I doubt she has already gone to bed.”
He nodded. “Which reminds me. We have yet to come up with a plan to keep people out of each others’ beds.”
“I could always develop a sudden tendency to walk in my sleep.”
“That should work for Fanny,” he agreed. “I will put David on the alert. You will let me know if there is an incident of some sort?”
Angel chuckled. “I have a feeling you will know if anything happens. Fanny is liable to scream the house down. For some reason,” she teased, “she is not as enamored of the vicar as she once was.”
“All to the good. Between us, we shall see these two to the altar yet.”
“Different reasons, same end result,” she said happily.
She shook his hand to seal their pact, gave him a little wave and disappeared down the path toward the manor.
Miranda was waiting for Angel when she returned to her room.
“Out for a late-night stroll?” she purred.
“I must have gone to bed without changing, and I must have been walking in my sleep, because the next thing I knew, I was out in the garden…” If she was going to tell untruths, at least it was to someone who deserved to be lied to.
“You have never done that before!” Miranda snapped.
“It must be the change in my surroundings. I have not been away from home for so long.”
“There was no need, naturally. And now you cannot even do this correctly.”
“I thought my mission was to ensure Fanny gets married.” At least that was not a lie.
“That is still your task!” Miranda insisted.
Angel turned an innocent face toward the demoness in her room. “It has not changed?”
“Of course not! Why should it?”
Angel shrugged. Perhaps Miranda was setting her up as a scapegoat. “I do not think the wedding could be called off at this point, at any rate. Fanny seems enamored of her groom.
“Oh?” Miranda took a seat.
“There were a terrible couple of incidents this week that made Fanny think she would be bereft if his lordship shuffled off this mortal coil.”
“These incidents … Tell me about them!” Miranda ordered.
Angel adopted her best ‘idiotic companion’ pose. “I understand the earl was challenged to a duel right in the middle of a hunt!”
“Amateur,” Miranda said under her breath.
Angel heard and silently agreed. The fact that she had been able to disarm a would-be assassin so readily made her wonder at Mr. Powers’ intelligence.
“What else. You said incidents.”
“His lordship was attacked by brigands as he was on his way home with the marriage settlements.”
“Oh, dear! How terrible!”
Angel repressed a snort at the woman’s inability to sound sincere.
“I hope the earl was unharmed.”
“As you could see today, he is in fine shape.”
“Oh, yes,” Miranda purred. “Very fine.”
Angel did not like the predatory gleam in her eye. However, there was no way she could protect David, or Mr. Forde, without compromising herself.
She could set up an alarm of some sort, one only she would know about, but she dared not waste the two remaining boosts of power, as she liked to think of them. What if she needed them for something more important? No, she would use her ingenuity to warn the earl and keep an eye on Fanny.
“Remember your wedding vows,” she counseled Miranda, for all the good it would do.
“I do not need some namby-pamby poor relation telling me what to do! I am going to bed now…” she taunted. “And tonight, it might even be my own.”
Angel made certain the lady went to her own room, changed into a nightdress and then pretended, with blanket in hand, to walk in her sleep into Fanny’s, which adjoined hers. Curling up in a ball inside the door, she fell asleep, no noises waking her at any time of what remained of the night.
After breakfast the next morning, the ladies congregated around the countess’ writing desk to plan the betrothal ball.
Lady Miranda began by complaining. “There are a mere two weeks until the wedding, I hardly see why a ball is necessary. A dinner party, perhaps…”
Fanny pouted and Angel unobtrusively squeezed her hand.
“No, a ball, I think,” Lady Willingham insisted. “After all, her own family did not give her one.”
“Are you certain you can afford it?” Miranda countered, acknowledging the countess’ hit.
Lady Willingham nodded. “Roderick assures me that he can stand the expense of a ball to celebrate his nephew’s upcoming marriage.”
While the two ladies argued the merits of floral arrangements over potted palms, Fanny leaned over toward Angel.
“Is it my imagination or were you asleep on the floor of my room this morning?”
Angel made her sigh sound as if she were embarrassed. “I fear I have been walking in my sleep,” she confessed. “It must be the change in my surroundings. One morning I awoke in my window seat!”
“You poor dear!” Fanny sympathized.
“I had never done such a thing before.”
“Perhaps it was because you were away from Lady Miranda,” Fanny suggested, followed by a giggle. “And now that you are reunited with her, you will sleep better.”
“Oh, I think I shall not be returning to my old sleeping habits anytime soon.”
“What secrets do you two suddenly share?” Miranda asked coyly.
“Oh, you know,” Fanny said airily. “Girl ones. Things an old married lady such as yourself could not be interested in.”
“For instance, which of the gentlemen I met at the hunt will I allow to dance with me at the ball,” Fanny said with a simper.
“The hunt?” Miranda perked up considerably.
“The annual spring hunt,” Lady Willingham said. “And I do not wish to discuss the event. It distresses me to even think about what might have happened.”
“An accident?” Miranda probed.
“A duel!” the countess exclaimed.
“Good heavens!” Lady Miranda seemed to choke on the words. “Do you have an idea who started the duel?” She looked at the other ladies in turn.
Angel knew, but was not telling, and the other ladies knew there had been one, naturally, but not how it had begun.
“I was not with the hunt,” Angel said.
“No, you would not be on a horse, would you,” Miranda agreed and turned her attention to Lady Willingham and Fanny. “Tell me, Lady Willingham. Have either you or Fanny been seriously injured recently?”
“No, we have not,” she replied with a puzzled expression. Fanny glanced at Angel and back to her stepmother with a vacant look.
“I did myself a serious injury on the journey here,” Fanny mused.
Miranda sat forward, her eyes boring into the girl. “On the way here? What happened?”
“The carriage had an accident and I had to walk in the rain all the way up a long drive to get help. My bonnet was completely ruined.”
“Fanny!” Miranda snapped. “I meant bodily harm, not the demise of a hat!”
“Well, it was serious,” Fanny insisted and then changed the subject. “Although not as serious as David being in a duel…”
“I said I do not wish to discuss it.” The countess deliberately asked Angel if she would prefer lobster patties or prawns.
“She has never eaten either.” Lady Miranda dismissed her companion’s opinions with a wave of her hand. “So she will be no use to you. Not unless you wish to put her to work in the kitchens. She makes an excellent scullery maid.” That was followed by an evil laugh.
Lady Willingham winced at the sound of her unwelcome guest’s cackle. “That was quite uncalled for, Lady Miranda, but if you wish to put your companion in my hands for a few days, I know she could be of use to me.”
“Yes, yes…” Miranda waved her hand once more.
“Excellent! Miss Singletary, would you be a dear and find the gentlemen for me? I have an errand for them.”
“That is the spirit,” Miranda drawled. “Make her do all the fetching and carrying.”
“Yes,” the countess agreed. “I think the girl will be most useful.”
Roderick had run David to ground in the estate office, where he was reading a ledger. But how to broach the subject of Miranda’s plans?
“May I help you with something, Uncle Rod?” David asked when he stood silently in front of his desk.
“Oh, nothing in particular. I just felt a need to play least in sight while the ladies planned their ball.”
“I hope Mama does not allow Lady Miranda to lead her about by the nose. I cannot like that woman.”
“No?” Roderick was a bit surprised. David seemed to like and trust just about everyone. “”Nor can I, but you know why.” Here was the opening he wished. “Unfortunately, marriage does not seem to have put a stop to her schemes.”
“Oh?” David only appeared mildly alarmed. “She still wants to place herself in your bed?”
“Mine … Or yours, whichever becomes more convenient.”
“What?” The earl was startled enough to stand, sending papers flying.
Roderick chuckled as he moved to pick them up from the floor. “I have reason to believe Edmund is involved, as well.”
Rod was getting a bit concerned by David’s innocence when it came to people, despite his knowledge of the world. Had he sheltered the lad too much? No, it seemed David was not doubting his cousin’s involvement. Perhaps he was merely sorting out the players.
“When did you learn this?”
“Last evening. Sarah was concerned that someone might be using the dower house for assignations, so I did a bit of sneaking about. It appears Lady Miranda and the vicar are known to each other and are plotting the demise of your engagement and subsequent marriage.” No reason to drag Miss Singletary’s name into this.
“I cannot say I am surprised. What exactly do they plan to do?”
“I believe the beauteous Miranda plans on climbing in bed with you and then spreading gossip, and failing that, Edmund will scale the trellis to Fanny’s room, where she will surely alert the household to an unwanted visitor. After he enjoys himself, of course,” he dryly added.
“If she screams first…” David mused.
“You and I both know she will not be allowed to protest until he gives her leave.”
David’s eyes grew wide. “You do not mean…”
“I do. I doubt he will be overly kind.”
“So what are we going to do about it?”
Rod gave his nephew a grin that was positively wicked. “How would you like to change bedchambers this evening? I will move down two doors and you might try the room across the hall.”
“But what about Fanny?”
“I believe we may persuade Miss Singletary to assist us discreetly in that matter. She seems to be a close-mouthed, reliable sort of female.”
David, who had settled down, turned round eyes on his uncle. “Perhaps I need my hearing examined, but did you just say Miss Singletary is reliable?”
“Yes. Most level-headed lady I have ever met.”
His nephew sat down and relaxed into his chair. “Well, well, how the mighty have fallen!”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You are sweet on Miss Singletary!”
“I am not! I admire her immensely, naturally. Who would not?” Roderick found his face growing warm.
“Fanny … Miranda …the vicar…” David suggested with a laugh.
“Not a sensible person in that lot!”
“I must now beg your pardon! You are speaking of my intended!”
“As I said, not a sensible one…”
“All right, all right! I get the message! Several, in fact.” He dismissed his uncle’s slander of his fiancé with a wave of his hand and actually smirked.
“I am not taken with Miss Singletary!”
“Methinks he doth protest too much,” his nephew murmured. “Mama is quite enamored of her, as well.”
The earl recognized the warning in his uncle’s voice and backed down.
“How much do we reveal to the so-sensible Miss Singletary?”
Rod sighed with relief at the change of subject. After all, he could admire the lady without being besotted. Could he not?
“This is a young lady who has lived with Lady Miranda and Fanny a long while. I do not believe more than asking her to fake sleepwalking to keep an eye on Fanny will be necessary.” That, and she already knew the rest of the story.
“Fine. Shall we send for her, then, to discuss the matter?”
“I do not wish to call attention to her in front of the ladies. I will speak to her later, after dinner.”
“Alone? On the terrace, perhaps?” David teased. “And that would not call attention to her how?”
“There must be a discreet way of getting her alone…”
“Getting whom alone?” Angel asked from the doorway. “Or does this come under the category of what a lady does not need to know?”
David laughed. “Miss Singletary! We were just discussing you. Will you not come in and sit down?”
She eyed him warily, although she could not hide a small smile. “Should I wish to? After all, the two of you are sitting here and discussing the most discreet way of getting me alone with someone. I should be worried.”
“But you are not,” Roderick told her. “So come in and hear what we have to say now that we have you alone.”
David looked at first one of them and then the other with a delighted smile. “She is quite the sparring partner, eh, Uncle Rod?”
“Quite,” he replied in a dampening tone. “Remind me to take her along to Jackson’s the next time we are in London. Have a seat, Miss Singletary. Some information has come to light that we wish to share with you.”
Angel sat without protest.
“Without going into too many particulars in deference to your maidenly modesty, we would like you to keep an eye on Fanny at night,” David said.
“Do you wish me to do something in particular?” she wondered. “I do not know how I could keep close to her that specific time of the evening unless I develop a penchant for sleepwalking.”
“That is precisely it, Miss Singletary!” David said with enthusiasm, sweeping papers off his desk once more. “You are right, Uncle Rod – she is intelligent!”
“I said sensible, David, not intelligent.”
“Same thing, is it not?” his voice floated up from behind the desk.
Rod glanced at Miss Singletary, who promptly stuck her tongue out at him.
“Er, yes, I suppose so,” he hastily amended. Angel gave him a sweet smile.
“There!” David deposited the papers back on his desk and Miss Singletary leaned over to quietly top them with a brass angel paperweight.
Rod thought the object appropriate – brass angel, indeed.
“I shall be more than happy to find a place in Fanny’s room each evening,” she said. “But if that is all, Lady Willingham is looking for you both to carry out an errand for her.”
“Probably wants me to take the wording for invitations to the stationer,” David said. “I can do that. I have papers to return to my solicitor and the shop is on the way.”
“I will come with you,” Rod offered. He did not want David on the road alone again.
“If you insist.”
“I do. I would very much like to avoid having to join the ladies.”
Angel could not help but smile that evening when the gentlemen professed to being exhausted from their trip to the stationer, which had been uneventful. She noticed Lady Miranda, too, admitting she was weary.
“I vow, planning what should have been a simple dinner party quite does me in!” she told the company as she left the room on the heels of the gentlemen.
Angel would have liked to follow them, but she had been assigned to Fanny and that young lady, in a fit of wakefulness, sat up chatting with Lady Willingham about what to wear to the ball.
“We must do something about Angela, as well,” Fanny insisted. “I am certain she has nothing appropriate. I dare not give her one of my gowns. Miranda would know it in an instant. Do you recall what happened the last time I gave you a gown?” she asked Angel.
Angel had no clue and modestly shook her head.
“Oh, you are being a goose if you do not wish Lady Willingham to know!” Fanny exclaimed, misinterpreting the headshake. “Miranda had a fit,” she told the countess. “I cannot understand why she keeps Angela virtually in rags!”
“I would give you a gown,” the countess said apologetically to Angel, “but you are much taller than I.”
“I thank you all the same,” Angel replied. “I shall make do, as I always have.”
“I would not say anything if you should happen to take a peek about the attics,” Lady Willingham said with a sly wink.
“The attics!” Fanny clapped her hands. “What fun!”
“You will be the lady of the house soon enough.” The countess smiled. “Who is to gainsay you if you went up there, as well?”
“Lady of the house…”
Angel would have thought Fanny the sort to gloat about such a thing, but she seemed stricken instead.
“Oh, yes,” her future mother assured her. “I shall be moving to the dower house right after the wedding.”
“But… But what if I need assistance? I do not know the household routines! I do not even know the servants!”
Lady Willingham chuckled. “That is all easily remedied. You could start by helping me out in the mornings, getting to know the cook and the housekeeper. That way, if you do not like them, you may have new ones and I shall take them with me to my new home.”
Fanny agreed that was fair, both to her and the staff, as the mantel clock struck the hour.
“Merciful heavens! If I am to assist you on the morrow, my lady, I should go to bed now!”
“Yes, I think that is a good idea for all of us.” The countess stood and the younger ladies followed suit. “I am thrilled to have you both here,” she said happily, slipping her hands into their arms on either side of her as they left the drawing room. “I shall be glad to have a daughter, and I have been thinking of hiring a companion.” She squeezed Angel’s arm in affection.
Angel was warmed by the gesture but could find no way to protest that it was going to be impossible. Too bad she could not stay. She would enjoy living with the soon-to-be dowager and be close to the slowly-maturing Fanny.
The three retired together, only one of them with a heavy heart.
Dear Heavenly Father…
Angel paused. She knew she would pray for strength and guidance and offer up thanksgivings, but what would she report? Indeed, with an omniscient supervisor, why should she need to report at all?
And if she did, what would she say? That the couple she had been sent to protect were doing well? That she was liked and even had a job lined up? That she had recently received her first kiss?
Barely seventeen when she had drowned at sea more than a hundred years before, she had been a privileged daughter of the aristocracy. Raised in near seclusion by her father, a marquess, she had always known she was being groomed as a pawn in her parent’s political maneuverings, and must be kept pure lest any waywardness bring shame upon him and whichever gentleman he was to choose as her husband.
After a certain age she had become a boarder at a French convent, and was headed home to England to be apprised of her future. She never made it. A storm capsized her ship and all hands were lost.
Angel barely even knew she was drowning before she died.
Once her spirit had gone to a better place, she had been more than willing to go to work. It helped make her see what she had lost – and gained, for that matter. She had quickly become content with her glimpses of life before being recalled back to heaven.
However, none of these postings had included kissing. She was usually more guarded about such things, even when she was in a body plainer than Miss Singletary’s.
With a sigh, Angel returned to her petition, lest Fanny remained unguarded. Besides, whoever heard of an angel falling for a mortal who no doubt had many more earthly years ahead of him?
She finished her prayers, changed clothes and slipped quietly into Fanny’s dark room. This time she and her blanket camped out underneath the window, a logical entry point for Mr. Powers.
Roderick allowed his manservant to assist him in preparing for bed, but once he was ready, he gave the valet a mysterious grin.
“Sir?” His man was brushing off his coat.
“Have my sister’s people noticed anything strange around here at night the last couple of evenings?”
Armand paused. “There have been some rumors, sir,” he finally said.
“Surely you do not give much credence to ghost stories, sir.”
“Ghosts, are they?” No, he did not believe in such things. He thought back to Miss Singletary’s admission that she might be an angel. An angel, yes. A heavenly being, no. “ Where have these sightings been?”
“Here and there, sir. In the corridors, across the lawns…”
“The night footmen telling tales, perhaps?”
“Or more assignations than usual, sir,” the valet said dryly.
“That is what I thought,” Rod agreed. “When you go downstairs tonight, will you suggest the gardens be more patrolled than usual? Say I am concerned with his lordship’s safety and cite some of his near misses if necessary.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Tell the other servants I will keep an eye on things up here, and in the state rooms, if one of them will watch over her ladyship and Lady Miranda on the floor below. The younger ladies will be able to protect each other. I understand from my sister that their rooms adjoin.”
“Miss Singletary will have everything covered there, sir.”
“Sensible female,” Rod agreed. His valet nodded. “Speaking of sensible… You should come in here and sleep tonight.” It went without saying that the bed would be much more comfortable than Armand’s, especially in a household where he accompanied a guest.
Armand’s eyes lit up. “Thank you, sir! I shall! But should you wish to retire, at some point, sir…”
“Then I shall take a room across the hall.” Employer and manservant exchanged smiles.
Angel was not certain what woke her later, but when she got to her feet and looked out over the garden, she saw a footman making rounds. Mr. Forde and the earl seemed to have a few areas covered.
Once the footman had passed, however, she noticed a figure skulking about. Mr. Powers? Possibly… The man was running from bush to planter to tree in an attempt to provide cover, but only succeeded in looking ridiculous. At least he did to Angel. She stayed out of view and tried not to laugh at the man’s antics. She also wondered what the earl and Mr. Forde were up to.
Roderick went into the Queen’s Chamber to look about. The room was called such because Queen Anne had once slept there. A rustling under the bed, which was covered in faded gold brocade, gave him some alarm, until he lifted a corner of the coverlet.
“David!” The earl grinned up at him.
“Jolly good hiding spot, isn’t it?” the young man exclaimed.
“Not really. You are making too much noise.”
“I shall settle down soon enough,” he was assured. “Used to hide here as a boy, you see.”
Rod laughed. “And you still fit?”
“I admit I am a bit larger than I was, but I can manage. I have a pillow down here and I am on the rug. I think this will keep me away from the lady for the night.”
“I cannot imagine her searching this low, but she has surprised me before.”
“Pertinacious, ain’t she?” David asked with a laugh and rolled onto his stomach. He closed his eyes. “If you see her, give me a shout, will you? I’ll migrate on down the hall.”
“Yes, my lord,” his uncle agreed. “It shall be as you wish.”
“Go on with you, Uncle Rod.”
Roderick and his candle went into the adjoining room and found nothing, not even tracks on the dusty floor. With a rug, he swiped the parquet clean and came back to do the same in the Queen’s room, careful not to disturb his nephew. He hoped the young man didn’t begin to sneeze.
The other two state rooms – a dining area and a parlor – were given the once-over from their doorways, but nothing seemed touched. No doubt Miranda was limiting herself to the more populated portion of the house.
Working his way back upstairs, he saw no one, not even Miranda. Choosing a room across the hall from his own, he curled on a cot in the dressing room and took a short nap. Rounds had to be made again soon.
A shaking of the trellis and its vine just below Fanny’s open window alerted Angel to the imminent arrival of Mr. Powers. Who else could it be?
Determined to be ready for him, she rummaged about in the dresser for a nightcap and thanked Providence that Fanny was a heavy sleeper. She did not need to look like Fanny, just give the impression that she was Fanny. A cap was located and put on, and she lit a candle.
Waiting until Mr. Powers had almost reached the top of the window, she suddenly giggled.
“Oh, la! Someone is coming to see me!” Her voice closely imitated Fanny’s girlish accent. “Oops!”
Leaning out enough so that the top of the cap showed, Angel dropped the lit candle down between Mr. Powers and the trellis, forcing him to lose his grip in order to avoid being burned. A sudden cry and a hard thud brought Angel’s head all the way out to see what had happened.
Mr. Powers was lying on his back on the grass, the now-unlit candle still in hand. No damage seemed to have been made to the trellis or its vine, but just to be safe, she gave out a Fanny-like giggle and poured a pitcher of water down on everything.
“I hope nothing is on fire!” she called and shut the window.
In the room directly above Fanny’s, Roderick woke when he heard a noise. The dressing room did not have a window, so he moved into the bedchamber. Opening the shutters, he looked down in time to see the vicar on his back on the ground, a candle clutched in one and someone pouring water on top. The giggle sounded like Fanny, but he doubted it was from anyone but Miss Singletary. No one else in that room would have the presence of mind to rout that conniving, would-be Lothario.
With a chuckle, he shut the window, lit a candle of his own and went off to make his rounds. But first… With a wicked grin, he went down the back stairs to the kitchens and suggested to the footman on duty that the dogs should be loosed.
Then it was time to check on David, who was sleeping peacefully under the queen’s bed. No sign had been seen of Miranda, as far as he could tell, but they were not out of the woods yet.
Angel and the gentlemen spent the next two nights on the move, never sleeping in the same place twice. There were no more incidents, but Roderick continued to allow Armand to use his bedchamber, as he had no need for it.
The fourth evening of their vigil began calmly enough, with the earl back under the queen’s bed after a night on a sofa, another under a table and a third behind a door.
Miss Singletary had routed the vicar so that he had not bothered to return, although she had quietly confided in Mr. Forde that she had removed all the nails at the top of the trellis and it could now be pushed easily outward, if needed. Other than Powers’ first attempt, there had been no situations. In fact, rumor had it the vicar was suffering from unknown injuries that required him to lie on his stomach, and was unable to leave his house. However, none of them had let down their guard.
Rod moved from room to room on the second floor, sometimes more than once an evening. Fortunately, he had the good sense the week before to drop a suggestion in his sister’s ear that would put an end to all this nonsense. Fanny’s father, Mr. Eaton, had been invited to come for the ball, and to stay, naturally, the few days after that for the wedding. It was to be a surprise for his wife and daughter.
Rod chuckled as he wondered who would be the happier to see the man.
In the meantime, the three protectors settled down for another evening of watchfulness. Or rather, David hid and slept and Rod and Miss Singletary kept an eye out.
It was about 2 in the morning when the shrieking began, and Rod knew it was not Miss Fanny on the floor below. That left… Miranda. From the sound of it, she had encountered Armand.
By the time Rod reached his room, Miranda was shouting obscenities and suggestive comments at the valet, who was still cowering in the bed. An audience was gathering, including an agitated Sarah.
“Still not sleeping at night, Uncle Rod?” David asked conversationally, strolling into the melee.
“No. I have even given up my bed to my servant, as you can see,” Rod drawled, indicating poor Armand. “I have had no use for it lately.”
“Then you aren’t … You two don’t…” Sarah stuttered. Between Miranda’s accusations and his sister’s imagination, he did not have to wonder what she thought.
“If what you say is true, why are you in here, Lady Miranda?” David asked. “We all know you are a married lady and could never be here for nefarious reasons of your own.”
All eyes turned to Miranda.
“Armand!” Rod exclaimed. “You did not tell me you had an assignation with her ladyship! I would have suggested a more private spot!”
It would not hurt Armand’s reputation below stairs if they thought he was deliberately meeting Miranda. The gossip would do Miranda more harm than good, however, now that the lower orders thought she preferred servants.
He suggested Lady Miranda be escorted to Sarah’s chambers for the rest of the night, so that someone could keep an eye on her. A fuming Miranda could not argue with her hostess, who thought that was an excellent idea, and was led away by the oh-so-solicitous Lady Willingham.
The gathered servants were assured that they would not be assaulted in their beds by Lady Miranda, and were sent back to sleep. That left only Rod, David and Armand.
“I will sleep on a cot in the dressing room,” Rod offered. “And you may stay where you are,” he said to the valet.
“No, thank you, sir. I believe I appreciate my own bed much more. Good night!” With a huff, he grabbed Rod’s best pillow and left the room.
“You are going to have to double that poor man’s wages now, Uncle Rod.”
“I know, but it will be worth it.” They both laughed. “I would still not return to your own room tonight,” Rod advised his nephew. “Once Sarah falls asleep, Miranda could sneak out and wreak vengeance on us all. Speaking of which, I did not see our two young ladies tonight.”
“Perhaps they slept through it?”
Down one floor, Angel did not sleep through Miranda’s caterwauling, but Fanny certainly had. Perhaps Angel could slip out and find someone to tell her what was happening, but it was possible Miranda’s commotion was meant to be a diversion. If Angel ran off, Mr. Powers could slip in a side door and avoid the trellis altogether.
Resolving to stay with Fanny, she still wondered what was going on upstairs. Had Miranda been found with Mr. Forde? The earl?
Patience, she knew, was a virtue, and she was rewarded sometime later when voices were heard down the hall.
“Do not worry, Lady Miranda,” Lady Willingham said in a placating tone. “All of this will have blown over by morning and no one will recall having found you in Rod’s bed – with his valet.”
Angel’s eyes widened and she opened the door a crack.
“But I was not in bed with him!” Miranda protested. “He … I … We…”
“Personally, I never cared for anywhere but on a mattress myself, but each to her own,” Angel heard Lady Willingham say before the countess led her houseguest into a room and shut the door.
It seemed her allies were legion, Angel thought with a smile, shutting and locking Fanny’s door before heading back to her post. If Mr. Powers tried something now, he would find himself flat on his back on the ground once more. And the dogs were once again on patrol.
The next morning, Rod made no delay in assuring his valet that he would be generously compensated for the past evening’s excitement. “What exactly did happen?” he asked as Armand helped him into his waistcoat.
The valet paused, as if collecting his thoughts.
“As you know, sir, I was sleeping in here whilst you wandered the halls like a wraith.”
Rod groaned. “Not by choice, I assure you.”
“And with good reason, sir. I was sleeping soundly when a noise alerted me to the presence of someone else in the room. I sat up, naturally, thinking it was you, sir.” He busied himself with the tying of Rod’s cravat.
“Naturally. Who spoke first?”
“The lady climbed into bed with me and suddenly began to scream. She said I had lured her here under false pretenses and that I should be made to pay the consequences. She claimed she was innocent and a victim of my lurid designs.”
“All this while screaming?” Rod was impressed.
“No, sir. She would scream, and then fill in with words. Oddly enough, I had no idea she was Lady Miranda until the first footman arrived with candles.”
Rod laughed aloud and let Armand help him on with his coat. “I daresay she did not even know you were not me until that moment, either.”
“I was beginning to wonder, sir, as neither of us puts much stock in females.”
Rod, who had been thinking that Miss Singletary would be most interested in all this, was startled out of his thoughts by those words.
“Er, yes, quite right.”
Angel woke when Fanny nudged her.
“You have been sleepwalking again!” she said with a giggle. “Thank goodness it is only into here. Imagine wandering into someone else’s bedchamber!”
Angel realized Fanny was already dressed, something she had been doing ever since she began to help Lady Willingham run the house.
“Come have breakfast with us,” Fanny invited. “And after we consult with cook, I will have time to go to the attics with you.”
Angel agreed with the plan and joined Fanny and Lady Willingham in the breakfast parlor as soon as she could get dressed.
“No Lady Miranda this morning?” Fanny asked as she sipped a cup of tea.
“Lady Miranda is indisposed today,” the countess said. Fanny only nodded, no doubt thinking it was a certain time of the month for her stepmother.
Angel was disappointed, but realized she was not going to get more details from Lady Willingham. As soon as she finished a plate of eggs and toast, she said she would be in the library until it was time to visit the attics. With the lovely way Fanny and the countess had become chummy the last couple of days, a book would be needed to fill the time. Besides, with Miranda out of the way, at least for the day, and the other ladies occupied elsewhere, she might have a chance of finding Mr. Forde. He would give her the information she desired.
As fortune would have it, he was in the library, writing a letter. He immediately put down his pen and stood, giving her a bow and a smile.
“You were coming in here to read, Miss Singletary? Might I suggest a stroll on the east lawn instead? It is much too fine a day to stay inside.”
She nodded. “My bonnet…” It was upstairs, and indisposed or not, Miranda might still require her services.
“Unnecessary. If you freckle, it will only add to your appeal.”
Angel had not been concerned about those, only about going outside bareheaded, but if Mr. Forde did not mind either, why should she?
They left by way of a set of French doors in the drawing room down the hall, and stepped out into the sunshine.
“I did not see you amid all the trouble last night,” he noted immediately they were away from the house.
Angel chuckled. “Fanny is a heavy sleeper and I could not leave her.”
“More trouble with Powers?”
“None. I believe his injuries left him with no doubt of his welcome here. I think I could stop sleepwalking for an evening. And I told you that I have removed the nails from the top of the trellis. He will get more of the same if he attempts to call again.”
“You are most sensible, Miss Singletary.”
That rankled a bit, Angel thought peevishly. Why did everyone always use such bland words in conjunction with herself? For once, she would like to be called beautiful. And then regretted such a thought. Vanity was a sin, was it not? Being sensible was a virtue.
“A penny for your thoughts,” Mr. Forde said softly. Angel looked up to see him standing rather close to her.
“I was just thinking how virtuous I should feel, being called sensible.”
“It is a compliment coming from me, Miss Singletary, I assure you.”
“Because you have no use for females.”
“Oh, I have uses for them, my dear,” he said with a laugh she could only describe as wicked. “But I could never call any of those sort of women sensible, either.”
“Miss Denton, perhaps?”
“Desiree is in a class by herself.”
“I wonder if she ever brought her gentleman up to scratch.”
Miss Denton – she was hoping to have her protector propose marriage, was she not?”
Mr. Forde tried to look offended, but all he could do was laugh. “Yes, she entertained such a wish. No doubt she is Lady Copely by now. He is an elderly gentleman and not prone to waiting. Neither is she, for that matter. Perhaps I will call at the lodge tomorrow and see if she succeeded in her goal.”
“You are going away, then?”
“It is only an hour from here, Miss Singletary. I might have to invite David along to keep an eye on him…”
“That might be wise. Our opponents might be demoralized, but I doubt they may be counted out completely.”
“Makes sense. Lady Miranda was most put out that she found my valet in my bed instead of me.”
“Poor Mr. Armand!” she commiserated.
“He is scarred for life, no doubt. I have given him a pay raise to compensate for the horror.”
Angel giggled. “That was his screaming then, that failed to wake Fanny last night?”
“No, that was Miranda,” he confirmed, “who has taken to her bed for who knows how long.”
“Perhaps I should go to her. I am, after all, her companion.”
“You would do that? After all she has not done for you over the years?”
“Do not sound so amazed, Mr. Forde. After all, charity begins at home.”
“As she has no doubt reminded you.”
“Frequently. At least I have a roof over my head and food in my stomach without having to compromise my virtue.”
“But at what cost? You may have some of your basic needs met, Miss Singletary, but you are hardly a ‘lily of the field.’”*
“No, hardly that,” she agreed.
He reached down for a rose, plucking a yellow one from a bush. “You deserve finer arraignment than the drab clothes you are provided with.”
Angel countered with another Bible verse.**
“In lieu of such adornment, then, may I offer this?” He tucked the rose behind her left ear. “And may I know the color of your ball gown, Miss Singletary?”
“Ball? Gown? Heavens! I have to run! Fanny and I are to comb the attics for finery!” She put a hand up to her rose to hold it in place as she ran toward the house, giving Mr. Forde a small wave as she slipped in a small side door. She never noticed Lady Miranda at an upstairs window.
*Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don't toil, neither do they spin – Matthew 6:28
**Let your beauty be not just the outward adorning of braiding the hair, and of wearing jewels of gold, or of putting on fine clothing; - I Peter 3:3
Fanny and Angel spent a pleasant day in the attics unearthing a rainbow of old-fashioned dresses. Some of which might even be made over into a modish ball gown.
"Look at this one!" Fanny cried, holding up an emerald green satin. "You could cut a bodice and cap sleeves out of the quilted panniers and the rest would fall nicely on you." They set it aside and thought it might do until they uncovered a dress in ice blue silk, trimmed in tulle dotted with sparkles.
"How about this one?" Angel suggested.
"You would look divine in it!" Fanny exclaimed. "The tulle could be fashioned around the neckline and held in place with silk lozenges on your shoulders."
They finally took those two gowns and another in pink that Fanny said was not as flattering, but had a good-quality lace on it. Retreating to Fanny's room with their spoils, they were joined there by Lady Willingham.
"Lady Miranda has been asking for you for the past hour, Miss Singletary, but I fobbed her off by saying you were doing a chore for me. As I dislike the attics, your chore is now complete. Will you come back here when she is finished with you? We should have something to pin on you by then, I am certain.”
Angel left the two ladies plotting to outfit her with a gown and went to Miranda’s bedchamber.
“You sent for me, Cousin Miranda?”
“Where have you been?” Miranda was sitting up in bed, a red satin bed jacket covering the top half of her, and sipping chocolate. “Never mind. I have a few errands I wish you to perform. Take this letter to the vicarage, to begin with, and wait for a reply.”
Angel blanched. She knew the vicar’s reputation. Back injury or not.
“Oh, go on with you, Angela! He is not going to compromise a poor, unattractive chit such as yourself. You have nothing to recommend you, except perhaps as an easy conquest. You are so desperate; I imagine you would jump at the chance to be a vicar’s wife. Or discard…”
Angel gave Miranda a sweet smile. “There is nothing I would like more than to see Mr. Powers flat on his back. But, as you say, I am no temptation.”
“Quite. After you bring me his reply, I want you to let out my gown for the ball.”
Angel smirked. “A bit tight, is it? Why not has your maid do that?”
“She will be busy elsewhere. After you sew up my gown, I want you to make an arrangement of feathers for my hair. Then you may have time to dress for dinner. If not, I am afraid you will have to forego that dubious pleasure.”
“May I ask why you have decided to put me to work all of a sudden?”
“Certainly, although I am rather surprised at your asking. You have never questioned me before now. The fact is, you are becoming quite attached to Mr. Forde and I cannot allow it.”
“Cannot, because you are jealous, perhaps?”
“Cannot, because you are my poor, silly cousin who becomes enamored of the most unattainable… On second thought, I ought to encourage you. After all, if I could not attract the man, you would not have a snowball’s chance in…” Miranda laughed. “At least it will give me some amusement. Now hurry up with your chores, little cousin, and I might even come down to dinner. I would not want to miss the sight of you trying secure the elusive Mr. Forde’s affections.
“Oh, he is nice to you now, Angela, but like all men, when he gets what he wants, you shall never see him again.” She threw her note at Angel and told her to run along. “I would not be happy if I were the reason you did not come down to dinner!”
Angel did as she was told, waiting outside the vicarage for a reply and then coming back to the manor to let out Miranda’s gown. Miranda seemed oddly triumphant about something as Angel sat in her dressing room and ripped out seams.
“I have come up with another sewing project for you,” she told Angel. With an evil grin, she tossed a pile of lace in her cousin’s lap. “I came across this beautiful, old and very expensive lace in Fanny’s room while you were gone and I want you to redecorate my gown for the ball.”
Angel did not say a word, merely nodded, a lump in her throat, and continued to pull stitches out of the dress. She had to be careful not to pull too hard – the heavy satin unraveled too easily and she was letting out, not taking in. That thought alone kept her from scratching Miranda’s eyes out. That and the knowledge that the retaliation was not hers to administer.
As it was, she barely had time to dress and go down to dinner, where she found everyone else had already assembled. Miranda was telling a tale about why her cousin did not dance.
“It was her first ball and she never could recall the steps to any of the dances. Our dancing master always did prefer me, of course, but Mama said we must let her make the attempt just the same. It was a disaster! She fell into the orchestra in the first set and no one asked her again, poor dear. So do not be surprised, Mr. Forde, if my cousin steps on your feet.”
“I have not yet even asked Miss Singletary for a set,” he stiffly replied.
“No? I was certain that was your purpose for strolling in the garden together this morning.”
Angel came in quietly and took a seat next to Lady Willingham.
“I suppose that is neither here nor there,” the countess said with false gaiety. She sighed with relief when her butler appeared at the door. “Dinner? Shall we all go in?”
“She certainly is brazen enough,” the earl said as he and his uncle lingered over their after-dinner port. Neither was eager to join the ladies, as Miranda had spent the entire meal baiting first Miss Singletary and then Rod. He did not like leaving Miss Singletary to fight her cousin alone, but then again, the lady could defend herself. Or ignore her, as she had done most of the evening.
“I want to call at the lodge tomorrow,” he said to his nephew, “and see how Desiree is getting along. Care to come with me?”
“Two days before the ball and you need to ask?”
Rod laughed. “I thought that might be your answer.”
They left early the next morning with only a note for Lady Willingham, who did not see it was anyone’s business where the gentleman had gone. When pressed by a curious Fanny, and an even more nosy Lady Miranda, she only said they were conducting important errands for the wedding.
At the lodge, Desiree was still in attendance, as was Lord Copely. It was evident that with a large diamond on Desiree’s hand and the marriage record she kept waving in their faces, she was now Lady Copely.
“Lovie Monkey Buns has been a darling, Rod,” she confided as she sat down next to her much-older husband. “He brought so many presents with him, didn’t you, Bon-Bon Beany Pie?” she cooed. “And he will give me whatever I wish when we return to London.”
“You are going back soon?” David asked.
“In two days. Frisky Goober Face’s daughters must be apprised of our happy news, and there is a townhouse to redecorate. Isn’t that right, Peachy Pie Boo Bear?”
“Yes, my little Smoochie Sunshine Muffin,” the old man agreed.
“He’s so adorable!” she squealed.
“Then you will be able to come to my betrothal ball?” David asked.
“Oh, no, we could not impose! But tell me. Is that sweet young lady who was so kind to me still there?”
“Of course! I am to marry her next week!” David exclaimed.
“Miss Singletary? How peculiar! What does Miss Eaton have to say about that?”
Rod laughed aloud even as his nephew scowled. “He is still to marry Miss Eaton and Miss Singletary is still in residence. Lady Willingham quite dotes on them both. Too bad Lady Miranda has arrived to spoil everything.”
Desiree made a face. “She is enough to ruin any picnic! Throwing her considerable weight about, is she? Some women can’t seem to shed that extra poundage after a babe. That won’t happen to me, though, when I give you a son, Huggalump Honey Pot,” she assured Lord Lovie Monkey Buns.
“I know it will not, Kissey-Pinkie Pot Cheeks.”
Rod shot David a pained expression, but his nephew appeared to enjoy the cloying endearments. No doubt he and Miss Fanny would be calling each other Davey Wavey and Fanny Panny before too long. His own Miss Singletary would never do such a thing, he was certain. Besides, what rhymed with Angela?
“I am pleased as punch, Rod, to hear Miss Singletary is in residence at the manor. I have a present for her. Especially now that you say there is to be a ball. Lady Miranda keeps the poor chit in rags and it just ain’t right.”
“Is not right, Lovey Cakes,” Lord Copely corrected his wife. She gave him a sunny smile that made Rod’s stomach turn.
“Whatever you say, Snooky Numnums.”
“There is not much we can do about that, Desiree,” Rod said truthfully.
“Miss Singletary and Fanny have been combing the attics for dress materials,” David ventured.
One of Desiree’s eyebrows shot skyward. “Fanny? That self-centered little chit you are to marry?”
“The very one,” David proudly agreed.
“Well, well … The girl is growing up. Marriage will do that, won’t it, Sweetum Baby Nuts?”
“Yes, it will, Binky Sparky-Pants.”
Rod had just about as much of that as he could bear, and he began to take his leave.
“Wait just a moment!” Desiree exclaimed. “I have a gift for Miss Singletary!” She ran from the room.
Rod agreed to wait for it, but almost changed his mind when she came back in with a large dress box.
“How am I supposed to carry that on the front of my saddle?” he demanded.
“You will think of something, Rod.” She patted his cheek. “It is for Miss Singletary, after all. But there are a few conditions.”
“First of all, you can’t give this to Miss Singletary until tomorrow evening.”
Rod frowned. He had hoped to pass the gown on to the lady as soon as possible.
“Two, you can’t give it to her directly.”
“I know that, else I would have already done so, believe me.”
“I can see that.” Desiree’s smile was rather smug, as if she knew something about him that even he did not know. “The last condition. If asked, Miss Singletary can only be told the gown is a gift from her godmother.”
“Her godmother,” Rod repeated.
“That’s right. She will understand.”
“If you say so.”
“I do say so, my sweet Rod.” She patted his cheek once more. “I am always right. Isn’t that correct, Wicked Bun-Bun Lovey Cakes?” she asked Copely.
“That’s right, my Sweet Bunny Loveheart.”
“Now run along with you, Rod. I have a feeling you will be needed at home very soon.”
Once the gentlemen had left for the day, Lady Miranda seemed to have it out for every female in the household. She had her maid in tears, she was at loggerheads with Fanny over every little thing she said, and she continually insulted the countess. As for Angel, she could do nothing right, and found herself consistently pinched and slapped for not giving Lady Miranda her full attention.
Because of Miranda’s constant scenes and commotions, neither Angel nor Fanny nor the countess were able to do much work on Angel’s gown. Because the lace had come up missing (and Angel was not about to name Miranda as the thief), the emerald green was decided upon and a bodice and sleeves had been cut out of the quilted material. Soft folds of satin had been unstitched from the older gown and were waiting to be attached to the bodice. All that would be left after that was another trip to the attic to replace the lace for the neckline and hem. Fanny promised to do that the morning of the ball.
Feeling a bit self-conscious as he came home bearing a dress box, Rod quickly passed it off to Armand without even looking inside. He suggested it go in an out-of-the-way place, such as under the bed or in the back of the wardrobe, and made the valet promise not to mention it to anyone. If someone were to comment on the box, he was to say it was a present for the countess.
He then forgot about the gown until the next afternoon, when the sound of Miranda having another fit filtered up to his room.
“Whatever can be her problem now?” he asked Armand, who had just finished supervising the pouring of his bath. He had planned to lounge about in the water until it a dinner tray was brought up, after which it would be time to dress for Sarah’s party.
Miranda’s unholy screams were quickly joined by Fanny’s caterwauling and someone else’s – Sarah’s? – sobs.
“Will you see what in the devil is happening down there?” he enquired of Armand. He removed his dressing gown and slipped into the tub while the water still hot, not conceiving of any domestic crisis that would reduce his sister to tears.
“Well?” he demanded when the valet returned. “A lot of damned female nonsense?”
“A bit more than that, sir. It appears that the ladies were creating a gown for Miss Singletary to wear to the ball, without Lady Miranda’s knowledge. When she discovered it a few minutes ago, she completely ruined it.”
“What?” He sat straight up in the tub. “She ought to be…”
“Horsewhipped?” Armand suggested. “Fortunately, Mr. Eaton has arrived, sir, and has forbidden his wife to attend the ball.”
“Some punishment,” Rod sarcastically replied. “She most likely did not plan to attend in the first place. I am more concerned with Miss Singletary, who by all rights should have been able to enjoy herself this evening.”
Armand cleared his throat. “Perhaps there is something appropriate in that box you brought with you yesterday?”
“What? Oh, the box. Perhaps. I did not … Desiree said Miss Singletary was to have it … Today…”
“Shall I deliver it to the ladies, sir?”
“Yes, yes, but only if Lady Miranda is not about. Oh, and Armand?”
“You are to tell her it is from her godmother.”
Fanny and Lady Willingham were still red-eyed and picking up pieces of green satin when there was a knock at the door. Angel went to answer.
"Mr. Armand!" she said in some surprise when she found the valet there, holding a large box.
"Is Lady Miranda gone?" he whispered.
"Yes. Will you not come in?" She stood aside and allowed him entry, and he shook his head as he put the box on Fanny's bed.
"Mr. Forde and I were much aggrieved, Miss Singletary, to learn of the demise of your gown. However, my employer was given something for you, miss, that he hopes will alleviate the problem."
"I do not know how it may," Fanny wailed. "We have no time to sew up a new dress!"
"Whatever is in the box may be inappropriate," the countess reasoned. "Does Rod even know its content?"
"I do not know, my lady," the valet truthfully replied. "But if I may make a suggestion, one only need look inside to find out."
Three pairs of eyes turned to Angel.
"I beg your pardon?" She had been staring at the box and not paying attention.
"Open the box!" Fanny cried.
Angel thought seeing Miranda denied the ball was enough excitement for one day, and she truly had no desire to attend the ball. Until she opened the box.
Inside was a white gown made of the sheerest silk, a heavier satin underdress lending the silk some propriety and shape. Everyone, even Mr. Armand, gasped as she shook it out. The bodice was tiny, and trimmed only with the finest, softest swansdown, giving it the appearance of having...
"Wings!" Fanny marveled, her hands clasped firmly behind her back. "Like an angel!"
"And such an angel shall wear it," Lady Willingham said fondly. "All you need now is a..."
"Halo," the valet said, reaching into the box and retrieving a gold circlet.
"But who is this from?" a bewildered Angel wondered. "Surely not Mr. Forde!" she added with a blush.
"Certainly not, Miss Singletary!" the valet exclaimed. "He was merely the delivery person. However, he was instructed to tell you that this is from your godmother."
"My..." Angel checked the box once more and found a satin fan inside, a note tucked into its folds.
Even angels need guardians from time to time - Desiree
"Miss Denton! How extraordinary!" Fanny cried, reading the note from over Angel's arm. "Not that we need tell the world," she added. "Whomever heard of a courtesan as a guardian angel?"
"But why not?" Lady Willingham replied. "Let us give credit where credit is due."
"Quite, my lady," the valet agreed. "Lady Copely is now a member of the Ton, after all."
"She did bring her lord up to scratch, then!" Angel said with delight.
Fanny looked sufficiently cowed until she recalled that they all must prepare for the ball. "My maid will help us both get dressed," she offered to Angel.
"Thank you, Fanny dear, but Miss Singletary is going to bring her finery to my room. I insist," the countess said when Angel began to protest. "After all, this..." She indicated the scraps of green fabric still remaining, "... happened in my house. The least I can do is offer my services until the ball begins."
"Thank you, Lady Willingham."
"My thanks will be seeing you in all this! Armand, will you escort us to my rooms, please?"
The valet bowed and gently packed the gown back into its box. Angel still clutched the fan and Lady Willingham held the circlet. Fanny gave Angel a hug on her way out the door and said she could not wait to see her dressed.
"Report, Armand!" Roderick, against his will, was very curious about the contents of the dress box. He pounced on his valet the moment he returned. Pounced figuratively, anyway. He was still in his bath.
"The box contained a gown appropriate for the young lady to wear this evening, sir."
"Yes, yes, I was sure it would," Rod said impatiently, ignoring his manservant's look of surprise. "But what does it look like? What color is it?"
"White, sir, as befits a lady of her status."
Armand was rifling through his employer's waistcoats, but paused to answer. "Sir, if you wish to know something specific, I must remind you that I cannot read your mind."
Rod caved. "What sort of flowers should she carry?"
"None, sir. I do not believe she should wear any on her person at all. You will understand when you see her, but I do not wish to spoil the surprise."
Rod climbed out of the bathtub and grabbed his dressing gown. "I think I shall send her flowers just the same."
"Very good, sir." Armand's voice was warm with approval. He had already laid out evening clothes, but removed the waistcoat chosen earlier. In its place he put one of pearly white satin with blue silk knots all over it.
"A sudden change for you, Armand? Not your usual style."
"I have my reasons, sir." Ones he did not disclose. Rod would have pressed him, but he was too busy wondering what flowers to send to the ladies.
"Orchids for her ladyship, pink roses for Miss Eaton and forget-me-nots for Miss Singletary," the valet suggested.
"Orchids for Sarah?"
"Purple ones, sir. She has no one, truly, to send her flowers and I believe she will appreciate the gesture. She could wear one or two on her gown."
"What would I do without you, Armand?" Rod asked with a sigh. Although he doubted the late earl had ever bothered to send flowers, he knew David did on occasion. With him involved with his own betrothed, perhaps he had not thought of his mother this time.
"I doubt you could do better, sir."
"I doubt it, too."
Lady Willingham spent so much time fussing over Angel, she had to be told three times by her maid to get dressed or she would miss her own party.
Angel, primped to within an inch of her life, sat sedately on the edge of a chair (lest she wrinkle anything) while the countess was helped into a gown of violet silk. "You are beautiful, my lady!" Angel exclaimed. The maid nodded in agreement.
"Oh, I am no such thing!" the countess insisted, but her face glowed with pleasure.
A knock at the door sent the maid to answer it, and she returned with two bouquets, each with a card.
"From David!" Lady Willingham cried. "How sweet of him to remember us!" Her flowers were violets and Angel's were daisies.
"Yes, my lady, and do not fret. I am flattered he remembered me and I like daisies very much."
"If you say so..."
There was another knock and the delivery was more flowers.
"Oh, Roderick!" Lady Willingham said softly as she looked at the spray of purple and white orchids placed into her hands.
"Mr. Forde has exquisite taste, my lady," the maid said. "He went to the greenhouse himself to choose these."
"How do you know?"
"Mr. Armand said so."
"See how sweet and thoughtful my brother is? What did he send you?"
Angel was reading her card: I understand your attire has no need for adornment, but I wish you to have these just the same. Will you save the first waltz for me? RF
"He gave me forget-me-nots, even though someone told him that I do not carry flowers this evening." She folded the card without showing it to anyone and tucked it into her bodice. The other ladies exchanged glances, but said nothing about it, either. They all looked up in surprise, however, when a third knock was heard.
The maid answered it, spoke briefly with a footman and came back with bouquets of pink roses for both ladies, and cards signed by Mr. Eaton. An old, moth-eaten velvet jewelry case was perched in the center of Angel's arrangement, with another note:
I was going through some of the family jewelry, choosing a few pieces for Fanny, when I came across this. It was your mother's, given to me after my wedding by your aunt for safekeeping. You never asked for it, but I thought you should have it to wear to the wedding. After what Miranda did today, I hope it will be a partial apology for that unfortunate incident - Eaton
Angel set aside the roses and opened the slim case. Inside sat a beautiful strand of perfectly matched pearls. The countess squealed with delight.
"Oh, they are absolutely necessary to finish your ensemble! I never knew you owned something so exquisite!"
"Neither did I," Angel softly replied. She felt a pang of regret that the real Miss Singletary would never see these. From what information she had been able to gather, she doubted the poor thing even knew of their existence.
"Fortunately for all of us, your aunt died last year," the countess said briskly and without any remorse. "Else we would have them both breathing down our necks. But that is neither here nor there, is it? Come, my love, let me put those on you and then we shall go downstairs to shock and amaze all the gentlemen. You deserve such a moment."
"But this ball is for Fanny!" Angel protested as the countess fastened the pearls around her neck.
"It has just now become in honor of anyone ever hurt or slighted by Lady Miranda," Lady Willingham fiercely replied. "And since I am the hostess," she added more brightly, "I can decree anything I wish."
Both ladies thanked the maid profusely for her hard work, and left the room arm in arm. When they reached the top of the stairs, however, the countess stayed Angel with a hand.
"You should make a grand entrance! I will go first to gain their attention, and when I call, you may come down." She set Angel back out of eyesight. "We don't want to ruin the surprise," she explained before descending in all her violet satin splendor.
"Here is our beautiful hostess!" Angel heard Mr. Forde exclaim. That was followed by the murmur of voices. She could make out Fanny's high-pitched tones, but the male voices were all a rumble.
"You will be the belle of the ball, Mama!" she heard the earl say.
"Not I, you flatterer. I am leaving that title to Miss Eaton and Miss Singletary to share amongst themselves. Miss Singletary?"
That was Angel's cue, but she shyly hung back. Belle of the ball? Not in a hundred years. Not even then.
"Miss Singletary?" Mr. Forde called.
If it had been any other voice, she would have stayed where she was. His voice, however, pulled at her like a lodestone.
"Up here," she called softly as she appeared at the top of the stairs. Below her, in evening finery that would shame a peacock, were the earl and his mother, Fanny and her father, and Mr. Forde. All watching her.
Lady Willingham's expression - and Fanny's, for that matter - was smug, as if Angel was her own creation. The gentlemen were all speechless. It gave Angel a somewhat heady feeling to have stopped three men in their tracks. Mr. Eaton was the first to open his mouth.
"I am so happy to see that this afternoon has not ruined your evening. I hope you will honor me with a set tonight, Cousin Angela. The pearls look splendid on you," he added.
Angel agreed shyly to both the set and the affect of the pearls, and found both her hand seized by the earl.
"I wish to put my name down for a set, as well, Miss Singletary. Before our guests claim them all."
She held out her dance card.
"You already have a partner for the first waltz!" was David's gleeful response. "Look, Mama! She is going to dance with Uncle Rod!"
Angel blushed, but Lady Willingham only beamed at her brother.
"You always were a quick learner," she said with a smile.
Mr. Forde gave the countess a mocking bow and offered his arm to Angel. "We are fortunate in that we are not required to stand in the receiving line. Shall we go into the ballroom?"
"Yes, run along you two," Lady Willingham insisted.
Angel found herself being propelled into the ballroom, where only servants and musicians milled about. "Thank you very much for the flowers, Mr. Forde," she said as they stood near the doorway.
"It was my pleasure, Miss Singletary. I see now why I was told not to expect to see them with you tonight. They would completely ruin the simplicity of your toilette. You look like an angel."
"I told you before that I am an angel," she lightly replied. "You did not believe me? Or perhaps you are flirting..."
His eyes grew wide. "Flirt? I never flirt, Miss Singletary." He seemed offended, but ended up giving her a devilish smile. "I am completely sincere. If I did start flirting, however, you would be the first to know."
As guests arrived, Mr. Forde would bring Angel forward to greet the ones he knew. Before long, her dance card was filled. Once her companion realized Angel would soon be inaccessible, he added his name once more to her list of partners. It was for the supper dance.
“I thought you and I could sit with some of Sarah’s neighbors so you may get to know them better,” he suggested.
“That is very kind of you, but I am not certain why that is necessary.”
“If you should decide to become Sarah’s companion, these would be some of the people who are friends with my sister and nephew.”
“And that might persuade me to stay?” she wondered. It was very sweet of him, if unnecessary.
“I thought it made sense.”
He was set to open the ball with Fanny, while David was to partner his mother, but Mr. Forde stayed with Angel until her first partner, Lord Anthony Birkthwaite, came to claim her. After that, she barely had time to sit down between sets. It appeared that a godmother was a good thing to have.
“I did not realize you waltz, Miss Singletary,” Mr. Forde said when it was time for his first dance with her. She had put her hands up in the correct positions. “According to Miranda, you have never been to a dance.”
“I had not, but I have been given a few lessons on the sly,” she confessed. When Fanny had said something about it the other day, Angel had asked her to show a few steps, an d she was also a quick study. One had to be, in her line of work.
After the dance, when the musicians were taking a well-deserved break, Angel realized that Mr. Forde was not taking her to either Lady Willingham or the punch bowl, but out a set of doors onto the terrace.
Others were of the same mind, so they were not alone, but the couples were not mingling, leaving her and her partner in their own little world.
“The stars are all out tonight,” he said, looking up as they leaned against the stone railing that edged the terrace. “How insignificant I feel sometimes when I think of how vast that expanse is.”
“He stretches out the north over empty space; He hangs the earth on nothing,” she quoted with a smile.*
“So it seems,” he agreed. “Still, these lights hanging in ‘nothing’ have been my friends for many years. At a time when I should have been cursing the heavens for what someone did to me, I found only solace in them.”
“Tell me about that someone.”
He nodded. The time had come to tell her. “I met my late wife when I was nineteen and still at Cambridge. Her brother and I roomed together and I was invited to come home with him one holiday. When we arrived, she was just coming down the stairs, and for me, it was love at first sight. I thought she was sweet and demure and loved me in return.” He snorted.
“It was a good act. We wed when I was twenty-one and she was twenty. Six months later she had enough money in her pockets to run off to the Continent with her lover, the one she had been with since she was seventeen.”
Angel murmured sympathetically.
“The only people I have been able to depend on, the only two who have never really let me down, are Sarah and David.”
“From what I have heard of the late earl, they needed you, as well.”
“I like to think they did. David was small when I found myself suddenly widowed.”
“The boat my wife and her lover sailed on capsized. All hands were lost.”
“All hands … I can think of worse deaths than drowning,” she said without thinking.
Mr. Forde chuckled, an unexpected sound. “You know this to be true?”
“It could have been more violent,” she replied. “And as much as you probably hated her at that point, surely you did not want her to suffer a painful demise?”
“No, you are correct. I did love her, even when I was angry at the way she treated me. I have never said that before. I just cannot understand what made me so unworthy.”
“Unworthy? You are one of the most worthy gentlemen of my acquaintance! Not that I know so many, of course.”
He laughed, as she hoped he would.
“I am flattered.”
“You should be. But listen to me. Your late wife’s choices were selfishly made and most likely had nothing to do with anything you said or did.” Angel did not think the woman was in heaven, but if for some odd reason she had ended up there, she was going to get a bear-garden jaw from Angel one of these days.
“How do you manage to make people feel better after years of hurting?” he wondered.
“Do you feel better?”
“I do. Telling you everything has eased my mind considerably.”
Angel hardly heard his last words, because he had closed the gap between them.
“It must be a gift,” she softly replied. Mr. Forde was so close, she could almost reach up and…
Angel looked down and saw her foot had been on the inside of her hem and when she had leaned forward, the stitching holding her skirts to her bodice had separated. More than just a torn flounce, this was going to require the removal of her gown.
“I … I need to go upstairs,” she whispered, her cheeks flushed.
He looked down and blushed, as well. Certain undergarments were now in plain view. “I see. You cannot go back in the ballroom like that, either, can you? Take the terrace steps and…”
“I know the way.”
“You will come back for the supper dance?”
“Yes, if I am finished in time.”
“Until then.” Mr. Forde lifted the hand not holding her skirts to her stomach and brought it to his lips.
Angel blushed again and then left quietly, staying to the shadows of the steps and slipping in the side door she had used several days before.
Her head was swimming by the time she reached the door to her room. She was sure Mr. Forde had been going to kiss her before her own clumsiness had ruined her dress and the moment. And he had kissed her hand! Granted, she had been wearing gloves, but the gesture was just too…
She opened the door in a daze and found Miranda glaring at her.
“Shame on you, brazenly standing on the terrace with Mr. Forde,” she said in a nasty voice.
Was that smoke Angel saw coming out of her ears? Neat trick in a mortal body.
“I was doing nothing wrong,” Angel calmly replied.
“Not after I ripped your gown, anyway.” Miranda’s smile was pure evil.
“I am not what you think, my innocent little cousin. It might interest you to know that I am a demoness from Hell.”
“Oh? I never would have guessed. Are you going to destroy me now that I know your little secret? After all, I am the one who has gained Mr. Forde’s attention, for some reason.”
“There is that,” Miranda agreed. Her scowl was not pretty. “And you are supposed to be cowering by now. Why aren’t you cowering in fear?”
Because she fed on fear. “You are impressively daunting, I grant you,” Angel replied, having been in such situations before. Being afraid got you nowhere. “But how do I know you are a demoness and not just some denizen of Hell aspirant? I must say, you are off to a rousing start.”
“I am not an aspirant!” Miranda screeched. Puffs were coming out her ears.
That really was smoke! Miranda must truly be talented. Skilled or not, however, she was still subject to the emotions produced in her mortal body, and that was usually the best ammunition against such creatures.
“I shall need some proof,” Angel told her. Miranda did not appear to be paying too much attention to her surroundings, else she might have pointed out the smoke as such.
“Proof! I will show you proof!” The older woman produced a ball of fire in her palm. She stroked it a moment before hurtling it at Angel.
Angel stood her ground and the flames surrounded her for a moment before disappearing completely. Miranda stood staring at her as if she had sprouted two heads. Angel could, if she wished, but it would not top the smoke, in her opinion, so why bother?
“You … You…” Miranda wagged her finger at Angel and moved her mouth open and shut like a fish. “You are an angel?”
“It seems that in all your jealousy and vanity, Miranda, that you forgot a few rules. One, you wasted precious energy twice in one evening.”
“I…” Miranda let out a string of expletives that singed Angel’s ears. “You tricked me!”
“The second time, perhaps. I did not realize it was you the first time, until you told me so.” She hadn’t even realized someone had assisted in tearing her gown. “Either way, you are down to one last chance.”
“You are a fool if you think that will stop me.”
“The second rule you forgot,” Angel continued as if Miranda had not spoken, “was that I am immune to your tricks. You wasted that fireball for nothing.”
“You tricked me!” she wailed once more.
“I used no deceit. You are the one who lost her head. I wonder what your superior will have to say about all this?”
Miranda turned white. “It is none of your business! But I cannot have you running back to Forde this evening,” she added, a crafty gleam in her eye. “So it looks like you discovered I was feeling poorly and decided to spend the rest of the evening attending to my needs.”
“Or else?” Angel recognized a threat when she heard one.
“I don’t know!” Miranda was exasperated. “But I will think of something and you may be certain it will be incredibly unpleasant.”
Angel nodded and rang for her maid to make excuses to her hostess.
Back in the ballroom, Rod was becoming anxious. It was almost time for supper and Miss Singletary had yet to reappear.
“I would have thought you might have secured Miss Singletary for supper, Rod,” Lady Willingham said, coming up to her brother.
“I had, but she tore her gown and went upstairs to fix it.”
“A little ripped hem is easily repaired,” the countess soothed.
“It was more than that,” he confessed.
“What did you do?” Sarah was alarmed.
“Nothing! We were out on the terrace, and…”
“The terrace!” To his amazement, his sister giggled. “Now I really must know what you were doing! Did you kiss her?” She seemed more curious now than concerned.
“Sarah!” The two watched as the musicians struck up a waltz, the cue that supper was to be shortly served. He noticed a few people looked their way when Sarah said ‘kiss.’
“May I have this dance, as it appears something has postponed my partner?” he asked.
“Brothers and sisters do not dance together!”
“But we are friends, as well,” he reminded her.
Sarah’s face softened. “That we are, Rod, that we are. Besides, I am the hostess and a well-respected widow. If I wish to dance with my brother, I shall.”
“That is the spirit!”
They moved out onto the dance floor and made a wide circle before speaking once more.
“Did you kiss her?”
“I want to know! I hope she decides to become my companion, but I would much rather have her as a sister.”
“I have seen the two of you. She likes you, Rod, although I cannot see why she would not. I know you like her.”
“You can tell?” He was stricken that he could be read so easily, and by his own sister.
“Rod,” she said with some exasperation, “you spend fifteen years decrying the opposite sex and in the space of a couple of weeks you meet a lady whom you have nothing but compliments for? I would say you were well on your way to being in love.”
Rod began to laugh. “Love? I do not understand how you can jump from admiration to love so quickly.”
Sarah gave him a wry smile. “I was in love once, and admiration is a very good start.”
They danced in silent contemplation until the music ended, and he led her off the floor.
“It is no start, Sarah,” he said as if they had been discussing this for the past hour. He got no further, as a footman handed his sister a note. She read it with a frown.
“Miss Singletary will not be returning to the ball,” she sadly reported. “Her beautiful gown is unrepairable.”
Rod gave her a hard look. “A few rips right about here cannot be fixed?” His hand demonstrated the location of the tear.
“I do not know, Rod. It is possible, but not probable…”
“She does not want to dance with me, perhaps?” That thought bothered him more than it should have.
“Oh, no, Rod, that cannot be true!” Sarah insisted. “Shall I go up and see what is the matter?”
“No, I believe I know the reason she did not return.” She was upset about the kiss that almost happened. It would only aggravate matters if Sarah pressed her to come downstairs. But damn, he had wanted to kiss her. He would do it, too, the next chance he got.
If he got a second chance.
* Job 26:7
Angel was quiet and withdrawn the morning after the ball and went out of her way to avoid Mr. Forde. She thought she was protecting him from Miranda. He thought she was afraid of him.
The countess kept them both under observation, when she could, but having to plan a wedding and playing hostess to Fanny’s family kept her too tired to approach either of them on the subject. Besides, she justified to herself, if they were both sleeping poorly and barely touching their food (as did seem the case), it must be love.
As long as Angel steered clear of Mr. Forde, Miranda made no demands on her time and she escaped to Nanny Baker’s house, or to play in the orchard with the Miller boys. After they climbed trees and played tag, they would troop back to Stone Cottage together for tea with a failing Mrs. Miller. Angel could do nothing for her – her limited power did not extend to healing someone who was not David or Fanny, unfortunately, until after her task had been completed. All she could do was sit and watch the poor woman waste away, counting the days until the dreaded uncle claimed at least Crispin. Who knew what would become of the younger two?
At least Mr. Forde was doing well in avoiding her, even at the cottage. The boys reported that the gentleman had called on them several times, and they were sorry they could not play with two of their favorite adults at the same time. Angel was not about to get into a discussion as to why two of their favorite adults were not going to play together again, so she said nothing.
She tried to tell herself that she was much too busy keeping an eye on Miranda, but the truth was, the demoness had not done anything out of the ordinary in the past few days. This gave Angel plenty of time to think about Mr. Forde.
The morning before the wedding, Angel came into the breakfast room just as the gentlemen discussed heading down to the village pub for a drink or two after dinner.
“You will come too, Mr. Eaton?” David invited his future father.
“Oh, no, no, no, my dear boy. I am much too old for such shenanigans!” he replied with a hearty laugh.
“Just what sorts of shenanigans do you think these two will be up to, Papa?” Fanny asked with round eyes.
“Well, there are bound to be some pretty barmaids…” he said before realizing he had an audience. He blushed furiously, but Miranda began to pursue the topic further, which put Angel on alert.
“Barmaids, you say? How many? Are they truly pretty?”
David answered cautiously, aware that Fanny and his mother were listening. “Two barmaids, both rather plain.”
“But well-endowed in all the, er, social graces?” Miranda suggested.
It was David’s turn to blush. “It, er … well…”
“They are barmaids, Lady Miranda,” Mr. Forde said testily. “What do you think?”
The countess changed the topic to the wedding, allowing her son to lose his high color and keeping Fanny from dwelling on buxom barmaids.
Lady Miranda, however, was kept under surveillance by Angel and, did she but know it, Mr. Forde. They both followed the lady after breakfast.
When Miranda went upstairs, Angel took the back stairs, but apparently Mr. Forde had taken the main staircase. They met in the hall in front of the Eaton’s rooms.
“I should not be here with you,” Angel whispered without any greeting.
“Why not? I do not bite,” he softly replied. “And why are we whispering?”
Angel glanced at Miranda’s door and he nodded.
“Are you afraid I will try to kiss you again?” he asked.
Angel hesitated. The answer was yes, and no. If Miranda caught them kissing, she had threatened consequences, so yes. Was she afraid? No. Not of him. "You should not be here.”
“I suppose you are trying to discover what she is up to?” he asked, ignoring her statement.
“It cannot be good if she is asking about the very place you and Lord Willingham are heading for this evening.”
“I thought so, as well. I plan on keeping my eyes open for anything unusual.”
“What about the usual?”
“What could be harmful in the usual?” he asked with a laugh. Before Angel could reply, he swooped down for a quick kiss on the mouth, turned with a smile and sauntered off down the hall.
She watched, bemused, until he disappeared from view. At that moment, Miranda opened her door.
“Get in here! I have a few chores for you!”
Miranda’s first task was for Angel to deliver another note to the vicarage, which she did. As soon as that was accomplished, she went for a walk. It was no surprise, really, that she ended up in front of Nanny Baker’s cottage.
The older lady’s welcome was a nice contrast to Miranda’s attitude and Angel soon found herself in front of a warm fire, the cat on her knee. There was a cup of tea in one hand and a plate of scones at her elbow.
“Seems to me,” Nanny said after Angel confessed everything about David, Fanny, Miranda and the vicar to her, “We need to know what those two evil ones are up to next.”
“Yes, but how?”
“I was thinking of paying a call on that poor Mrs. Miller … She would likely appreciate someone taking her lads into the village for an hour or so … Perhaps have them pick out a new shawl for their mama at the seamstress’ shop…”
Angel did not understand the meaning of such a comment.
“Mrs. Pine is the biggest gossip around. If anything odd is happening, she’ll already know about it.”
“Oh. Then we had better get to it.” Angel sat her cup down and scratched the cat’s ears.
“Time waits for no one,” Nanny agreed.
Angel and the boys went into Mrs. Pine’s shop with the intention of buying a shawl when she realized they were being followed by Mr. Forde.
“Come on, men,” he commanded. “You would rather be drinking lemonade at the inn or petting the horses in the livery than shopping for clothes.”
The boys agreed, despite the fact that the purchase was for their mother, and Angel was grateful not to have them overhear the chat she was about to initiate with the shopkeeper.
“One hour, Miss Singletary,” Mr. Forde said as they left. “We will meet you at the inn.”
Distracted by the two rather tawdry-looking women who had come in a moment earlier, Angel merely nodded and sent them on their way.
“Go away, you two!” Mrs. Pine said to the two newcomers.
“Here now, Mrs. Pine!” the blonde of the two protested. “We ain’t here to browse. We’re to buy!” She displayed a battered, but plump, purse full of coins.
The shop owner eyed them suspiciously, even as her nose twitched. “Where did you get that?”
The brunette giggled. “Got paid for sumpin’ we ain’t even done yet!” The two doxies looked at each other and laughed.
“You just wait on the lady while we look around…” They barely acknowledged Angel.
But she had one ear open, even as she perused the shawls and found one the boys were sure to approve of. It was cream-colored wool with pale blue threads woven into it.
“Detain them all…”
“Her ladyship…” This was followed by a spate of giggles.
Another woman came into the shop and Mrs. Pine deserted Angel for what was obviously a more important personage. She used the opportunity to sidle closer to the two tarts.
“I wouldn’t mind…”
“His lordship…” They were whispering, but certain words came out loud and clear. However, Angel was unable to put together a clear picture of what was being planned. Mention of Miranda and the earl told her enough to stay interested in the conversation, but they were quiet once they realized she was eavesdropping.
Loudly declaring the shop unworthy of their patronage, they flounced out. Mrs. Pine seemed relieved to see them leave, muttering something about Cock and Bull trash. At least Angel had a location, even if she appeared to pay no attention to the dressmaker’s words.
She purchased the shawl and met the men at the inn, but did not say anything about what she had heard to Mr. Forde, even after they returned the lads to the cottage. He would not likely listen to her if she said he was in danger of a tavern maid.
No, this situation required a female ally, and she was certain there would be another young lady at the manor who would be willing to assist her in this matter.
She and Fanny were going to become doxies for the evening.
After dinner, everyone excused themselves early, the earl and Mr. Forde to go into the village, the Eatons to their room and the countess to issue last minute admonitions to the servants concerning the wedding breakfast.
Angel, having already outlined her plan to Fanny as soon as she had returned from the village, went upstairs and changed her appearance until she resembled Desiree Denton. That ought to divert attention away from the more slovenly girls who had been in the dress shop earlier that day.
Satisfied that her bodice was low enough and her face painted correctly – she had bribed Miranda’s maid to bring her some of that lady’s cosmetics – she went into Fanny’s room.
“I cannot … This gown…” Fanny was fussing with the low neckline of her dress. Her problem was that she kept pulling it up.
“Allow me.” Angel gave it a tug and Fanny’s breasts almost spilled out. “Perfect!” she announced. A blush spread across Fanny’s face and chest.
“But, Angela,” she protested, “we cannot go out like this! What if someone sees us?”
Angel sat Fanny down at the dressing table and tousled her curls. “We can and we are. Do you wish something bad to happen to the earl or his uncle?”
Fanny shook her head.
“Then we have to do it like this. One, the gentlemen will hardly be expecting it and will immediately drop the other women, if only to tell us to go home. If we are fortunate, they will even escort us back. We will only be on display long enough to gain their attention. What could happen in that length of time?”
“Nothing, I suppose,” Fanny grumbled, even as she allowed Angel to fix up her face. “But do we have to walk?”
“Yes! We cannot risk anyone seeing the pony and cart. Our reputations would end up in shreds. And you are to become a countess tomorrow. How would that look?”
“Then we had better get going.”
“That’s my girl!”
Fanny was complaining again by the time they reached the Cock and Bull, but Angel had to agree with her that it had been no easy walk. Every pebble in the road seemed to have found their way into two pairs of flat slippers, and they had been stopped once by an inebriated gentleman on horseback. His had been an offer they definitely refused.
Right before they approached the tavern, Fanny balked.
“I cannot go in there dressed like this!” she wailed.
“Yes, you can! Do you want anything to happen to your fiancé? To the man you love?”
Fanny looked stricken. “But David will see me like this, too! He’ll… He’ll think I am a wanton!”
Angel snorted. “It should not take you more than a couple of days of married life to discover men like that in their women. Come on!”
Fanny brightened visibly at her words and linked arms with her.
“You are correct.” She would have marched right in the front door, too, but Angel held her back.
“We can’t just waltz right in the front! Our gentlemen would just waltz us right back out! We need to see where they are first.”
The two-story building had no windows on the ground floor but it had a rear entrance. Angel saw no one was about – even the stables were quiet – and slipped inside, Fanny on her heels. All activity seemed to be centered on the main room. They peeked in there.
Mr. Forde and Lord Willingham were in a corner of the room, the two girls from the dress shop perched on their knees. Behind her, Fanny squeaked in surprise.
“They are enjoying themselves!” she hissed.
At first glance it did seem as if the gentlemen were having the time of their lives. They had a female in one hand and a mug of ale in the other. However, on closer inspection, David’s smile was plastered on and Mr. Forde’s expression was clearly pained. Now was their chance.
“Follow my lead, Fanny, and whatever I do to Mr. Forde, you do to the earl.”
They sauntered boldly into the tap room amidst whistles and catcalls, and when Angel acknowledged the appreciation with a wave and a smile, so did Fanny.
“Thank you for keeping our seats warm for us, girls,” Angel told the doxies. “We will take it from here.” Mr. Forde rose quickly and grabbed her by the arm.
“What in heaven’s name are you two doing here? And dressed like this!” he harshly whispered.
“I am not entirely certain,” she softly replied. Out of the corner of her eye she saw David push away his own barmaid and plant Fanny on his knee.
“Here, now!” the brunette with Mr. Forde exclaimed. “We was here first!” She shoved Angel out of the way and attached herself to his other arm.
“But now we are here and you may just run along,” Angel insisted, pulling Mr. Forde toward her.
“What are you doing?” he asked once more.
“Keeping you away from this woman?” she suggested. “Actually, I was unsure what to expect, so I do not have any plan at this point.” The brunette was still tugging on her side and Angel glared at her.
“I was here first and he’s mine! Ain’t you?” the tart begged of Mr. Forde.
“Er, no, not really. But then again…”
The girl started to cry. “He says he ain’t mine and here I was, lettin’ him hold me on his lap…”
One of the rough-looking men sitting at a low table rose and cracked his knuckles. “Want I should take care of the gent fer ya, Jenny?”
“No!” Mr. Forde and Angel cried at once.
“I think the young lady will admit she was sitting on my lap without permission,” Mr. Forde insisted.
Another man rose to stand with the first one. “Are you callin’ our Jenny a liar?”
“Yes!” Fanny cried, gaining everyone’s attention. When she realized all eyes were on her, she hesitated. “Because everyone knows Mr. Forde prefers…” She paused again.
Angel knew Fanny could not say blondes, because Angel was not one. How was she going to get them out of this now?
“Because?” the first man prompted.
“Because he prefers men,” Fanny sweetly replied. The farmers took even further exception at that point and she had just enough time to hide behind David before all hell broke loose.
The vicar hated Miranda and her high-handed way with a passion. He decided to throw a spoke in her plans if he could.
With the delivery of her latest note, outlining a scheme he could only see ending in disaster (honestly – did she think a couple of barmaids could keep David and Forde entertained long enough to make the earl miss the wedding the next day? Hah!), he knew his chance to see her doomed to failure had arrived.
When her initial plan to become a member of David’s family was not a success, their superior had been less than thrilled with the way his top agent was performing. From what Edmund heard in Hell, before he had been sent to assist Miranda, was that her work was slipping. That she was on her last chance during this mission. That the demoness hath no fury like Hell scorned.
This was her moment to redeem herself, but like his own plans, hers had gone awry. If she failed now, he was certain something very bad would happen to her. Personally, he was looking forward to being called on the carpet by their boss. He did not have the name in Hell that Miranda did and was sure to suffer only in a minor way compared to her. It was the main reason that after landing on his back on David’s lawn, he had not pursued Fanny further. That, and his back still ached. It was a lesson he would not soon forget – do not underestimate the opposition.
He burned the note outlining Miranda’s latest plan, waited until a reasonable hour and headed off to the village tavern for a drink. He had one opportunity left and he was going to use it in someone’s favor that evening. That someone was not going to be Miranda.
If there was one thing the local farmers agreed on, it was that men who preferred other men to women should be hunted down and stricken from the face of the earth. Instead of allowing Rod to dispute Miss Eaton’s statement, they took it on blind faith and tried to attack him. And Miss Singletary, who was still attached to his arm. David and Fanny, too, by association. Never mind that Rod was a member of the landed gentry and his nephew was an earl, and their own landlord. They descended anyway.
Rod knocked out his first assailant and turned in time to see Miss Singletary hit the second man with a chair. He had no idea what Fanny and David were doing, but he heard his own companion advise them to make a run for it. Then he was too busy defending himself once more, even as he inched toward the back door.
Miss Singletary’s words to Fanny and David had been wise ones -- they needed to get out of there at once. But not before he took down another farmer with his fists and Miss Singletary kneed someone in a spot where most men did not like to be injured. The entire pack of farmers groaned as one and paused as the man fell. Even Rod was not unaffected.
“Sodomite!” a farmer shouted at Rod.
“No!” Miss Singletary protested. “You have it all wrong!”
“Bet this one is a man, too!” someone growled, pointing at her.
“We don’t take to backgammon players in these parts,” someone else called.
“Indorsers! Madge culls, the both of you!”
“Let’s see what you and Miss Molly are capable of,” a big, burly man said to Miss Singletary as he blocked the back door, trapping them in the taproom.
“A lot more than you think we are,” she said sweetly just before she kicked him in the shin. He doubled over, in an effort to protect another part of his body, and she gouged her thumbs into his eyes. He screamed and staggered forward. Rod used that chance to push him into the crowd, bowling over six other men in the process. Grabbing Miss Singletary’s hand, Rod made a run for the stables
“We can hide in the hayloft,” he said. She, for once, did not stop to argue, but followed as quickly as she could.
In the midst of the fight, Angel had noticed several things at once. One, Mr. Forde was an excellent pugilist. With seemingly little effort, he knocked out all comers. Two, she saw David pull Fanny behind him to the upper floor of the tavern. Obviously he knew there were stairs out back leading to the stables, and planned to sprint his beloved out of this mess that way. To make things much easier on the couple, she threw a bit of her energy in their direction, rendering them invisible to everyone. Once they were gone from view right before her eyes, she knew they would be all right.
Powers drained his tankard before the table he was sitting at was knocked over. Was he the only one who noticed the flash of energy and disappearance of David and Fanny? Who was the angel in the crowd? One of the farmers? It could not be Forde. The vicar had already dismissed him from the list. Miss Singletary? It had to be…
He did not assist Forde and Miss Singletary in their flight – although he had to admit the way the angel took down her foes was exemplary – but neither did he immediately join the crowd of men who now howled for their blood.
Unfortunately, he had forgotten that as a man of the cloth, he was supposed to be against sodomites, and he was forced to join the group now scouting the grounds for Forde.
“Check the hayloft, vicar,” one of the men ordered once they entered the stables. As the farmer in question was holding a pitchfork and poking the underneath of the second story with it, the vicar scrambled quickly up the ladder.
Rod was holding his breath as the farmers searched the stables. He could hear orders being given and Powers was one of the pack! What the devil was he doing among the other men? This did not bode well.
After all, he knew it was against the law to be what Fanny had declared him. It did not matter that he was not, of course. Fanny had to open her mouth and that was all it took to set off the crowd. He doubted they would listen to reason any time soon.
“The vicar?” Miss Singletary whispered in his ear. “What is he doing here?”
Rod put a finger to his lips and shrugged.
“This cannot be good!”
Rod glared at her and signaled for her to be quiet once more. She wasn’t taking the hint.
There was nothing else for it – he had to shut her up the best way he knew how. He covered her lips with his, and kissed her. Hard. He reasoned that he had to make her stay quiet, for fear of discovery, but the reality was, he liked kissing her. As often as he could. And if they stayed up in the hayloft for any length of time, he had a very good reason for asking her cousin’s husband for her hand, so he could make the kissing a permanent part of his life.
So engrossed was he in kissing his angel, he barely noticed the vicar at the top of the ladder. And hardly heard the man tell those below that the loft was empty. In Miss Singletary’s arms – Angel’s arms – time stood still.
“They must have run off,” was the only thing he understood as the other man came down the ladder and shooed everyone outside the stables. He took that as his cue to keep kissing Angel. After all, if the mob had moved on, there would be no one to disturb him and stop him from stealing a few more. Once this first one had ended.
Angel floated on a cloud. It was big and pink and fluffy, and smelled like hay, but she did not care one whit. She did not even protest Mr. Forde’s way of keeping her quiet. It was just too lovely.
She vaguely heard something about the vicar, but her mind was filled with the sensation of Mr. Forde’s lips on hers.
“How could I have ever thought you plain?” he asked softly as they finally broke apart.
“Because I am?”
“No. You are sweet and stubborn and kind and infuriatingly intelligent. You are, on occasion, even in the right. But you will never be plain.”
“Why, Roderick!” she said in a teasing tone, finding amusement in his constant backhanded compliments. “That is the nicest thing you have ever said to me!” Stubborn and all.
“It is not!” he protested. “I should think ‘I love you’ is the nicest.”
“It would be,” she agreed, “if you had ever said it.” She thought her heart would burst at the mention of those words, her mission and who she really was all but forgotten. But she still needed to hear them spoken on their own. To her.
“I just did!”
“No, you said they would be the nicest. I agree. So say them, if you please, and then you may kiss me again.” Happiness made her bold.
“You would let me, would you?”
Angel glowed under the look in his eyes.
“If I say it to you, what will I hear in return?”
“Before or after the kiss?” she asked in a sultry voice.
“I love it when you flirt, Miss Singletary.”
“Angel…” The word was a mere whisper, the one that followed more like a plea. “Rod…”
“I love you, my Angel.”
“I love you, as well, Rod.” She leaned forward and brought her lips to his.
“How long have we been here?” Rod murmured later. The two of them, flushed with excitement from many exchanged kisses, lay in the hay listening to the sounds of a tavern closing down for the night.
“An hour or two?” she guessed.
“We need to go home now.”
Angel sadly nodded. “What if we are missed?”
“I will not be unaccounted for unless I miss the wedding, minx. But you…”
“I wonder where Fanny and Lord Willingham are?”
“Most likely home, snug in their beds. Where you should be.” He stretched and sat up slowly, bits of hay clinging to his back. She giggled and picked pieces of it from his coat.
“I shudder to think how I must look,” she said.
He turned to her with a grin. “You look incredibly well-kissed.” Her cheeks were in bloom and her lips were rosy red from his diligent attentions to them.
“By the best man for the task,” she agreed, taking his outstretched hand and pulling herself upright. In unspoken agreement, they climbed out of the loft, down the ladder and moved quietly out the back door to the stables. There was no one in sight.
They spent the walk home talking and pulling hay off each other.
“I feel like a milkmaid who has been tumbled in the barn by a field hand,” she said at one point.
“You look like a tart. Whatever possessed you and Fanny to come down to the tavern dressed like this?”
“We had to gain your attention and get you away from those barmaids.”
“You certainly gained my attention. I am going to have to wring Miss Fanny’s neck, however, the next chance I get.”
Angel laughed. “You will have to wait until after the wedding, and by then she will be a countess. Do you think your nephew will allow you to hurt his bride?”
“You have a point.”
“You did say that I am correct on occasion…”
They teased and flirted with each other the rest of the walk to the manor, and ended up at the side door Angel had used several times before. It was still unlocked.
“I shall slip in here. You go in the front door so that the night footman sees you have returned,” she suggested.
“Ordering me about already,” he said with a sigh. “And once more you are correct. Angel?” he queried, brushing her cheek with a finger.
“We have to talk tomorrow. After the wedding breakfast, perhaps. There is so much I need to say, and a few questions I need to ask.”
They heard a rustling in the bushes past the manicured lawn of the garden.
“It will keep,” she said and gave him a quick kiss. “Goodnight.”
He watched as she went indoors, and made his way around the house to the front entrance, whistling and wearing a contented smile.
Just as Angel was pulling her nightgown over her head, a giggling Fanny came into her room unannounced. She peeked out the neck to see the girl still in her doxy dress.
“Are you just now getting home?” she asked with wide eyes. “Where have you been?” Fanny giggled again, a sound that was getting on Angel’s nerves.
“At the tavern. In a room! It was as if we were invisible the way everyone overlooked us! But we did not overlook each other…”
Angel wiggled into the rest of her gown and stared out in astonishment.
“We started the honeymoon a night early,” Fanny confessed before collapsing onto the bed in another fit of laughter.
“You what?” Oh, dear. That was not quite what Angel had in mind when she had sent them off alone. “What exactly did you do, if you do not mind me asking?” In other words, how far along had the preemptive honeymoon gotten?
“He kissed me … I have been kissed a time or two, you know,” Fanny added defensively. “Despite never having had a proper debut.”
“Is that as far as it went?” Angel felt both relief and disbelief, which much have shown on her face, if Fanny’s reply was an indication.
“Do not appear so shocked, Angela!” she exclaimed. “I know what I did and did not do this evening. I went away to school, so I know things!”
Angel shook her head. “And how much of that was accurate?”
Fanny pouted. “I do not really know. We got only so far before David said we must wait. I do not wish to wait!” She rolled off the bed and headed for the door.
“I think a bit of maidenly modesty is called for my dear. After all, you want to look your best in the morning, not as if you spent all night with the bridegroom.”
That gave Fanny pause. “You are correct. I believe I will go to bed. Tomorrow is my big day, after all.”
“Yes, it is. And after that, you and David need never be parted again. You might get interrupted quite a bit, especially once you have children, but you are a resourceful person. You will find a way.” Goodness, how her own education in such things had grown since she became a heavenly spirit…
Fanny floated off to her room, her head, no doubt, in the clouds. Angel sighed and finished getting ready for bed. Her work here was almost done.
The next morning, the wedding preparations and actual ceremony passed quickly, and without a hitch, for Rod. He made certain David was dressed on time, he got him to the church safely, and there were no last-minute attempts to sabotage the marriage from either the vicar or Miranda.
He stood up with David during the ceremony and Sarah, in tears the entire service, attended a radiant Fanny. Rod had been surprised at that, and wondered why Miss Singletary was not a bridesmaid. Instead, she was sitting sedately by Miranda’s side.
They needed to talk and he planned to corner her somewhere private after the breakfast. After all, her charge was now married and she was a free lady. He would ask Sarah to invite her to stay on as a friend, not even as a potential companion. Sarah would help keep her here, he was certain.
He watched as the happy couple exchanged their vows, as he and Sarah handed over rings, and the well-behaved vicar pronounced them married.
Rod made a mental note to add Edmund to his list of private chats, especially after the evening before. Why was he turning the tables on everything? The interview could be conducted now, actually, as everyone else headed back to the manor for the celebration.
“Powers, a word if you do not mind,” he said as he lingered at the front of the church, allowing the rest of the wedding party to depart.
“Certainly.” He beckoned for Rod to follow him, and they adjourned to the man’s office. “I suppose I already know what this is about. Last night?”
“Yes. What happened?”
“Hmmm…” Powers poured out two glasses of wine, sipped his first to show Rod that there was no tampering with it, and then handed him a glass. Rod accepted it, but barely took a taste before giving the vicar an imploring glance.
“Ah, yes, last night. It seems to me that what happened was that the new Lady Willingham called you a sodomite in front of an angry mob, which attacked, and you had to run for your life.” He chuckled.
“I meant after that!” Rod demanded.
“Oh, yes. Well, since I will most likely be recalled soon enough, I might as well tell you a few facts. Certain… forces have been in play for awhile now, one side determined to see David and Fanny wed today, others to keep them apart.”
“I never noticed,” Rod dryly replied. “Tell me something I did not know.”
“Yes, well, these forces have limited resources at their disposal – so as not to alarm the masses, I assume – and we are allowed three chances to use them. My last one was used to prevent the mob from finding you and Miss Singletary.”
“Do not think it was because of love for yourself and your sweet little angel. No, I was merely trying to thwart Miranda’s plans. She stands to catch plenty of… hell for failing to separate the happy couple.” He laughed at his own play on words.
“I never thought it was because of myself and Miss Singletary. So we were pawns in your little game of revenge, is that it? You will leave Miss Singletary alone now?”
“Oh, yes – but don’t be surprised if Miranda plays her trump card where that lady is concerned,” the vicar warned. “I am telling you this now, in case I am recalled soon.”
Rod did not understand why the bishop would recall the vicar, unless too many tales of his indiscretions had reached his superior, but he did not care, as long as Powers did not have any influence over the newlyweds or Miss Singletary.
“Miranda? How so?”
“As I said, we have limited resources. Once those are gone … pffft! But until then, Miranda has one more chance to ruin your life. And she is just demoness enough to try. Not that your life will not be ruined anyway, of course. Miss Singletary’s tenure in this world is just as short as ours.”
The vicar shook his head. He would tell the man no more. “Figure it out yourself. I have a wedding breakfast to attend.” He tossed back his wine and left the room. Rod, still puzzled, hurried after him.
Rod had a lot to think about as he hunted down the elusive Miss Singletary. He had seen her earlier, seated with the Eatons at the breakfast, but now he could not find her. And he so desperately wanted to ask what the vicar had meant by her not being long for this world. Among other things he wanted to ask.
She was not in the house, it seemed, or out on the lawn with the few remaining guests. He hoped she had not run off, to…”
“Mr. Forde! Mr. Forde!” The Miller lads were crying, and they threw themselves en masse at his legs, startling some of the people still seated at tables nearby.
Rod did not require an explanation from the boys as to what had happened and he herded them quickly toward the back of the garden, where they could speak in private. The boys’ mother had died and he intended to do all he could to make the ordeal less difficult for them.
“Who is at your house right now?” he asked once they were settled in a gazebo.
“Nanny was already there when it happened,” Crispin said quietly, tears drying on his cheeks. “She sent us to fetch you. Said you would be the one to handle the arrangements.”
“Arrangements?” Rod was startled.
“Mama left a paper saying you are to be executioner of her estate,” Jonathan told him.
“I think you mean executor, but I had no idea…”
“She said if anyone could decide what is best for us, it would be you, and not our uncle,” Cortland piped up.
“How do you three know all this?” Rod wondered.
“Eavesdropping, lads, is not a very manly thing to do. And speaking of manly … I want all three of you to dry your eyes. You can cry later, I promise.” He handed around his handkerchief. “Right now, we have to show people who is in charge. Including your uncle.”
He left the boys in the gazebo a moment while he went to the kitchen door and asked that a footman tell the dowager that he had been called away and would return later. Then he rounded up his new brood of little chicks and walked them back to the cottage.
Angel was in her room, waiting for the inevitable. After all, her mission was complete, and had even been successful. Now all she had to expect was for something to happen to poor Miss Singletary’s body and she would be home in her proper place.
But, oh, she would miss everyone so keenly! The Miller boys, Nanny, Lady Willingham, even Fanny. And she hoped, especially after the night before, that Mr. Forde would miss her, as well. She hated that she might be leaving him with a heart as broken as her own.
Still, a mission was a mission. If she happened to wish for more this time, say, a husband and family, and a chance to finish out a full mortal life, who could blame her?
There was a knock at the door and she wanted to ignore it, but she thought better of it. It could not be Rod, as even he would not be so bold as to come to her room. Perhaps it was Lady Willingham. Angel knew she wanted her to stay on. If only she could.
Upon opening the door, however, she discovered Miranda, grinning madly.
“This is just too rich not to share! Come see!” Without waiting for a reply, Miranda propelled Angel to the window. “Mr. Forde and his imps!”
Angel blanched as she saw the tear-streaked faces, the clinging little bodies and Rod’s frown. She had no doubt as to what had happened, nor was she surprised when Rod herded the boys off. He was so kind and caring, he must be taking the lads home to deal with their loss.
Miranda was laughing. “I love to see people in sorrow, and those on a mission to be thwarted!”
“But I have accomplished my task.”
“I suppose. I still, however, have the power to throw something at David and Fanny on their special day. A gift, if you will. Maybe they will have a carriage accident on their wedding trip … or later, Fanny could die in childbirth. These things happen,” she said with mock sadness. “A pity, but that is life.”
Angel refrained from asking if Miranda would dare, because she knew the answer. “What will it take to prevent all this?”
“I want you to come home with me. Now. I will send a letter to Eaton saying something is wrong with his son, and he will have to leave immediately. With both of us. Poor, dear Miss Singletary will be needed to help nurse the child. Even Lady Willingham will not be able to argue with that. And since Mr. Forde is gone…” She snapped her fingers. “That will be the end of your little romance. Lady Willingham will feel so terribly bad that she cannot invite you back to become her companion, and you will be stuck with me.”
“And if I do not, something bad could still happen to David and Fanny…” Angel said softly, mulling the options over in her mind.
“Then I agree.” After all, the newlyweds were her priority, as much as she wished to remain here with the countess and her brother.
“Done!” Miranda snapped her fingers once more. “I give it five minutes before an express arrives for Eaton.” She sat down to wait, a wicked smile on her face.
Angel, however, stared out the window, thinking that since she had rescued Fanny and David once more, her last spark of power might as well benefit someone else, someone who needed it now more than they did. If there was a carriage accident or death, now, at least it would not be on Angel’s head.
She willed that Rod gain his heart’s desire, sending her love along with her energy, knowing that somewhere along the way to the Eaton house she would be no more. Maybe Miranda hoped as much, too, because she did not say anything about the power they both no doubt felt leaving Angel.
“Be happy,” she whispered against the pane before dissolving into tears.
Angel sat at the pianoforte in the Eaton drawing room, playing a few bars of a melancholy tune while listening to Miranda complain about dinner.
“I wish you would be less morose, Angela!” she snapped just as Angel began the same tune over for the fifth time.
“You must excuse her, Angela,” Mr. Eaton said placidly. He looked over the top of his book to gaze fondly at his wife. “You know how she gets when she is increasing.”
Angel smirked at Miranda as Mr. Eaton returned to his reading. “Yes, sir, I do recall how it is.” What she did not understand was why; a month after she should have gone, she and Miranda were both still earthbound.
Miranda had been correct in that Lady Willingham had not hesitated to send her off to nurse an ill child. But she fully expected Angel to write when the danger had passed.
“I will send my carriage for you,” the countess had whispered as she bid the Eatons goodbye. “Better yet, I shall send Rod to collect you.”
Angel had blushed and did not correct that dear lady, but her heart was heavy as she boarded the carriage. There would be no need for him to fetch her.
Yet here she was, a month later, still alive. Amazingly, so was Miranda. An increasing Miranda. Perhaps Miranda would die in childbirth? It was a perfectly natural thing to happen, as she was once told.
Miranda saw Angel’s smirk and made a face in reply. They did not speak of when they would shuffle off this mortal coil, as Hamlet so aptly put it, but they both would often eye each other in speculation.
The Eaton butler chose that moment to interrupt what was fast becoming a frequent family tableau, and handed Mr. Eaton a card.
He looked at it, raised his eyebrows and excused himself.
“Who in the world would call at this time of the evening?” Miranda demanded.
“I have no idea.”
“Of course you do not!” Miranda barked. “You do not even have the decency to die and go back to that hell hole you call home.”
“I am not the one who crawled out from under a rock,” Angel innocently replied. “And speaking of hell holes…” The two bickered back and forth, Angel seemingly having lost some of her unworldly meekness (not to mention piety) until the butler returned.
“The master asks that you join him in the study, Miss Singletary.”
Angel and Miranda exchanged surprised glances.
“I do not understand,” Angel said. “What is this all about?” Neither Miranda nor the butler knew. Angel rose and reluctantly followed the servant from the room.
She was announced in the study and went in to find Mr. Eaton with … Roderick!
“There you are,” Mr. Eaton said kindly before she could speak. “Sit down, Angela. I have something very serious I wish to discuss with you.”
Angel barely acknowledged him. She was too busy staring at Rod.
“Now, Angela. Is it true Mr. Forde compromised you last month when we were all at Lord Willingham’s manor house?”
“I … He…” Angel looked at Rod, who gave her an almost imperceptible nod. “Yes.”
“That is what Mr. Forde claims, as well. Why did you not say something sooner?”
“Because she is a gentle soul who felt it was her duty to nurse an ailing child,” Rod said. “I am certain she was just about to get around to making accusations as soon as she recalled the incident.”
Angel could only nod.
“Fortunately, my own conscience could not let the situation go any longer. After all, we did spend the evening in a hayloft.” He gave Angel a wicked grin.
Mr. Eaton cleared his throat. “Yes, well … as you are aware, I am rather well-versed in compromising positions, and because of the consequences, feel it is my duty to insist the two of you be married at once.”
“But…” Angel began to protest.
“I could not agree with you more, Eaton, which is why I took the liberty of bringing a special license with me this evening.”
“Can this not wait until morning?” Angel asked.
“No. We must travel to London immediately afterwards. I left the boys with Nanny, and…”
Angel took a step forward. “Boys? Nanny? Then we must be married! Now!” Rod had the boys! And they would likely be driving Nanny around the twist right about now. She would worry about heaven later.
“I thought you might agree with me,” Rod said smugly, coming over to take both her hands in his. “Darling.”
“The alternative is much too horrid even to contemplate,” she said with a grin, knowing Mr. Eaton would take that a much different way than Rod would.
“Speaking of horrid … Eaton!” he called in a loud voice. “Where is your lovely wife this evening? We must have her be a witness to this very happy ending!”
Mr. Eaton’s face lit up at the prospect. “By Jove, I believe she is perfect for the job. Plum!” He called for the butler, who seemed to have remained right outside the door, if the alacrity of his appearance was any indication.
“Please ask Lady Miranda to join us.” The butler immediately complied.
“Let me get my clergyman,” Rod said and excused himself. He came back moments later with Mr. Powers in tow.
“A fitting end to all this. Do you not think, Miss Singletary?” the vicar whispered to her as they waited for Miranda. “And may I congratulate you on winning? Not only did you see our couple wed, but now this. I shall most likely be gone soon, but you might be interested in learning that Miranda is to be punished for her failure.”
“My torture will be in the next world, Miss Singletary. Miranda’s is to stay here and live out a long life with Mr. Eaton, bearing him a houseful of children.”
So that was why Miranda was already increasing again. It seemed hell had a sense of humor. Making her stay on earth for a lifetime would be a definite punishment for the demoness. Just as it would be a reward for Angel. She hoped.
“What is all this about?” Miranda demanded as she strode into the room. “I am tired and I wish to go to…” The presence of Mr. Forde and the vicar brought her up short.
“Excellent!” Mr. Eaton exclaimed. “Mr. Forde is here to wed your cousin, my dear, and he brought David’s cousin to perform the ceremony. Is that not a splendid thing?”
“Oh, splendid,” she muttered.
Her husband ignored her words and took her hand to lead her over to the fireplace. “You stay here and be Angela’s witness. I shall stand up with Forde. Mr. Powers? Will you do the honors?”
It was a strange scene Angel would remember forever. Miranda was so angry she looked as if she could spit out fire and brimstone. Mr. Powers’ expression alternated between smug smiles and resigned sighs, and Mr. Eaton wore the pleased air of someone who knew he was doing the right thing.
As for Rod, Angel found herself basking in the warmth of his loving gaze.
As soon as the vows were exchanged, and Rod had given her a beautiful ring and a tender kiss, Angel had the extreme pleasure of watching Miranda pitch a fit. Unfortunately, there was no smoke this time; else Mr. Eaton might have felt his wife was ripe for Bedlam. As it was, he was forced to apologize to everyone as he led his ranting wife from the room. Mr. Powers went with them, saying he was concerned for Lady Miranda’s soul. After all, she was sounding rather demonic to him.
Once they were alone, Rod kissed Angel more soundly before asking if there was anything in her possession, including clothing, she needed to bring.
“If not, you may – and will! – replace your wardrobe in London.”
“My mother’s pearls!” Angel suddenly remembered. “Wait in the front hall! I shall be right back!” They were Miss Singletary’s pearls, of course, but Angel felt an obligation to save the lady’s only valuable possession from Lady Miranda.
Once she reached the room, however, she had the presence of mind to pack underclothes and gowns for a few days, until she could replace them with something better. The pearl case was added to the threadbare portmanteau and then she was ready.
Turning to leave, she found her angelic supervisor standing in front of the door.
“I wondered when you might appear,” she said tartly. “Am I to stay on, then? What is my new mission?”
“Always business with you, Angel,” he said with a chuckle. “This, actually, is more in the line of a vacation. You have been allowed to stay here for a lifetime, Mrs. Forde.” He smiled. “I hope you have a happy life.”
“But I have so many questions!” she protested. “Will I keep my memory? How did I get to stay? Will I get my partner when I do return?”
“You may keep your memory, although the others have no power here anymore. Nor do you, but I do not believe that will hamper you in any way. Rather resourceful, are you not? You are staying because we are required to give Mr. Forde his heart’s desire. That is you. As for a partner, that is all taken care of. The matter only awaits your return to us.”
She would have asked more questions, but her supervisor was fading fast. “Be happy, as you say,” he said before he disappeared.
With a smile, Angel realized just what a gift she had been given. Without looking back, she picked up her bag and flew down to her husband.
“You did not have to tell Mr. Eaton that I had been compromised,” Angel said once she had been settled in Rod’s carriage and they were headed for London.
“I apologize, but it was the easiest way of getting you out of that house. You must admit, you were compromised.”
“I suppose I was. Thank you for retrieving me. But did it have to take an entire month?”
“I beg your pardon, once again, Angela, but I knew where you were, and where to collect you when I was ready.”
“Collect? When you were ready?” She raised one eyebrow at his words, but she could not stay stern with him for long.
“I had a number of tasks to accomplish before I came, and I think you will understand when I refresh your memory concerning the Miller lads.”
“Oh, yes! The Millers! What happened? How did you end up with them?”
“Their mother left them in my care. Their uncle was not overly happy with her wishes, for all that he wanted only Crispin. However, the will has been upheld and I have all three boys. I could not allow them to be separated.”
“Do you think they will not mind me being added to the household?” she asked.
He laughed. “They wanted to come with me! They cannot wait!”
She sighed with relief. “What do they call you?”
“Uncle Rod. They are already calling you Aunt Angel. I tried to correct them, but they insist you are an angel and Nanny agrees, so who am I to argue with the majority of my family? Sarah is very happy for us, as are Fanny and David, and they wish us all to come visit them this next summer.”
“And you truly want me in your family?” She was so shy and unsure, despite his appearance and their wedding.
“Angela… Without you, there is no family.” He gathered her in his arms in the dark and held her close. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she whispered.
“I am looking forward to growing old with you,” he whispered back.
“You do not know how much I am looking forward to doing the same thing,” she said right before their lips connected, sealing their future with a kiss.
“She lived a good, long life,” the first gentleman said, looking down sadly on the peaceful countenance of a most beloved Aunt Angel.
“And she got to hold great-grandchildren. As did Uncle Rod,” the second said, holding a lifeless hand.
“I am not surprised she lasted but three months after he left us. They were eternally devoted to each other,” this from the third older gentleman in the room.
The three, considered venerable members of the family themselves, kissed the cold cheek in turn.
“She always said she intended to live the rest of her life to the fullest,” Crispin said, recalling when Angel had first been married to Uncle Rod and was still learning how to manage a husband and three small, energetic boys.
“I always wondered if it was because of her poor relation status before she married?”
Cortland actually laughed at Jonathan. “Did you never listen to her bedtime stories about angels given a chance to live a full life? This was her second chance.”
Crispin nodded. “And look at what she brought about. She and Uncle Rod raised us and five more of their own, and kept us all bound together by births, marriages, deaths and celebrations of all sorts. She will be dearly missed.”
Angel watched as her three darling boys – no matter how old they got they were always boys to her and Rod – were called away by their wives. They would mourn, yes, but she had always taught them that the parting was only temporary, that they would all be reunited some day, in spirit if not in flesh. The smiles on their faces as they left her bedchamber and lifeless body told her they had taken her words to heart.
Crispin was the last to leave, and her spirit floated over and touched his cheek in a familiar gesture.
“Be happy,” she whispered.
He paused, touched his cheek and smiled even wider. “We shall,” he whispered back.
“I think it’s time to strike that deal,” Angel said, floating into her superior’s office. She had made only one stop before this, to find the spirit of Mrs. Miller and tell her how wonderful her boys were, and would continue to be. That dear lady had, of course, been watching from above, and also complimented Angel on her help in raising them. It had been quite a meeting of their mutual admiration society.
“Nice to see you again, too,” the man in charge of her division said with only a hint of sarcasm. A low rumble of thunder filtered into the room. Sarcasm was not much appreciated in their line of work. “I have a new assignment for you.”
“I just got back from one,” she reminded him.
“And now you are going out once more.”
“Where is this partner you promised last time,” she complained.
“All in good time. We have missed you,” he said kindly. “Was it a good life?” he asked, although he already knew the answer.
“You know it was. Now, back to that new assignment…”
“Eager to get back into the field?”
“I truly know now what it is like to be mortal, and for that I will always be grateful. About that partner…”
“Yes, well…” He hesitated.
“Calm down, Angel! You are going to get your precious partner! I just need to explain something first.”
“Did you not wonder why you so easily stayed on earth, with no protest from us?”
“It occurred to me once or twice,” she admitted. “But then, Rod had his wish. I thought perhaps I had been included in that.”
“You were,” Rod said, coming into the room. He went right into her arms. “Missed you,” he murmured, and she agreed it was the same with her.
“Angel, meet your new partner.”
“What?” She pulled away from Rod a ways to look at him intently before smiling. “Someone has some sense after all!”
“It took some fancy talking on my part, back when you gave me that wish.” He indicated their superior. “He said he had to be certain I did not consider you a charity case."
“Charity case?” Angel snorted.
“We had to be certain, Angel. It is not every day someone wants to take one of our best agents out of commission for a lifetime. Besides, I wanted a better look at your partner. I had to make sure he was devoted to you and up to the tasks ahead. Some of these upcoming assignments are going to place you two apart, but in the same vicinity. Some will not.”
“It sounds as if we are to be maid and groom or some such thing,” she said with a cheeky grin aimed at Rod.
“Perhaps. Or you may be my lord and lady, but the sort who dislike each other intensely.”
Rod laughed. “That couple would certainly not stay angry long.”
“Which might even be the reason you are there,” their superior agreed.
Angel sighed with contentment, burrowing deeper into Rod’s arms. “I have missed you, Rod, but it was only a few months, which, you will discover, is no time at all. Are you ready for us to be together again on the mortal plane?”
“Lead on, darling!”
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