Bath, England – 1803
The arrival of strangers to Bath was not necessarily a cause for remark amongst the ton. For however thrilling the launch of Miss Nobody of Peckham, with but five hundred a year, might be to the good lady in question – and undoubtedly to her mama – to a lady of quality, it would barely be worth the effort of tipping a quizzing glass in her direction, in order to gently deride the cut of her dress or the quality of the cloth.
The rumour that No. 2 Royal Crescent had been purchased by a widower with a daughter newly out, however, was one to pique the interest of even the most jaded of Bath’s society matrons. For though Bath was not quite the thing these days, the extravagance of such a purchase, and the suggestion of an intriguingly large fortune that lay behind it, made society’s best reach for their calling cards. For while the daughter of a country squire is indeed but the daughter of a country squire, as more than one mother of sons wisely remarked, she is still a long way away indeed from trade.
Excitement was briefly heightened at the suggestion that there was to be an accompanying female cousin of youthful age, but interest was quickly quelled by the countering whispers that the lady in question was both twenty-six and unmarried, and so utterly unworthy of notice by anyone of consequence.
Society groped for further titbits on the situation and circumstance of father and daughter, but as none were forthcoming – despite a series of inquisitive letters from Bath matrons to their impoverished but gossip-rich country friends, in the hope of spying out some acquaintance of these newcomers – society had to be content, for the time being, to sit and wait until the gentleman and lady in question took up residence in their new home. And by the time the anticipated event occurred, society had all but forgotten that there was to be an “accompanying cousin” at all.
Flora had always thought her young cousin Emily something of a ninny-hammer – albeit a rather charming one – and the journey from Miss Emily Woodbury’s country seat to Bath had done nothing to dispel that view. Mr Woodbury esquire had, as politely as possible, plugged his ears with cotton wool and feigned a silent sleep – at least, Flora suspected it was feigned, as she had spent several nights in Mr Woodbury’s home and his snores, even from her own room, a full floor away, had made rest a near impossibility. And Flora, much as she was prepared to love her cousin – and felt that she soon would, even if she did not quite feel that fond emotion already – had wondered if perhaps Mr Woodbury had had the right idea of it.
For cousin Emily was a chatterbox, and while Flora did not mind small talk – although she suspected her mother would have said something rather different on the matter – she did mind inane small talk. And Emily did not content herself to remark upon the beauty of the scenery just once, or even twice – which Flora could have quite forgiven, even if she thought it odd that Emily eulogised countryside that, as far as she could see, consisted solely of green, and a particularly dull shade of green at that – but instead she spoke, in detail, of the glory of the scenery at least three times a minute. And she was not content to only speak of it, but she must have constant confirmation that Flora agreed with her conclusions, delivered in a suitably effusive manner.
All in all, it had been a wearisome journey, and Flora had found it hard to suppress the ungrateful thought that perhaps it had been best if she had stayed at home, rather than act as companion to her cousin in Emily’s sojourn to Bath. (For though, as she well knew from Emily’s chatter, Mr Woodbury had purchased a house there, she had concluded that Mr Woodbury had done so because he thought it easier, rather than because he wished to install himself permanently in Bath, and she assumed that once he had disposed of his daughter in marriage he would return, gladly, to his country seat). However, with thoughts of her own home came thoughts of her mother and father and her five sisters, and though she loved them dearly, she rather suspected that she’d love them even more dearly from a distance.
However, after a refreshing meal, Flora was willing to be less cross, and so when Emily dimpled at her, and asked if she would care to explore their new home, she found herself dismissing the words she had planned to say – “I’m sorry, dear Emily, but I have a headache and think I will go straight to bed” – and instead agreeing to the tour with a good show of equanimity. After all, she did confess to feeling no small amount of curiosity about the new house, which from what she seen of it – her own room, the hallway, and the dining room – was spacious, elegantly proportioned, and filled with such furniture and decorations that would provide her with hours of private amusement.
She was not disappointed, indeed. But after she had paced the library for the second time, arm in arm with Emily, she noticed that her cousin was unusually quiet and her face despondent. “Whatever is the matter?” she asked, giving Emily’s arm a firm and encouraging squeeze.
Emily looked up at her, her cornflower-blue eyes wide and tear-filled. “You will think me awfully bacon-brained,” she said.
Flora noticed that her cousin’s lower lip was quivering, in a way that would undoubtedly be attractive to Men. She decided that she had best enjoy Bath to the fullest as soon as possible, for the likelihood that her pretty – and vastly rich – cousin would be married within a fortnight was high. “Now, now,” Flora said, trying not to think that she had undoubtedly been chosen as companion to Emily, out of all her sisters, because she was so old as to be almost qualified as chaperone, and with her frizzy dark hair and flat bosom she would be no distraction to the eligible menfolk. “Come, come.”
Emily seemed soothed by these words of wisdom, though her lip continued to quiver. Then she made a visible effort to pull herself together, and Flora was secretly impressed. “The house isn’t haunted at all,” Emily said nonsensically, rather spoiling it for Flora.
“Should it be?” Flora asked, wondering if she should fetch her smelling salts – or perhaps a physician. Did her cousin suffer from some brain malady? “Do ghosts inhabit houses that are less than a century old?” she queried, hoping that logic would restore her cousin’s senses, and drew Emily over to a small, hideous chaise longue, upholstered in pink-and-green striped fabric.
Emily pouted and sat down beside her. “But it’s not fair,” she said, and tossed her honey-blonde hair. “I had hoped, after the disappointment of the journey, that there would at least be a hidden priest hole containing treasure, or a dusty passageway we could venture down with flickering candles!”
She looked so serious that Flora attempted to suppress her smile. “Did you not enjoy the journey, dear Emily? If I recall –” and how she did recall – “you were most taken with the views.”
“Well, it was novel,” Emily said, sounding most dissatisfied. “For as you know, Flora, I have never ventured far from home before. And yet . . .”
“And yet we were not held up by highwaymen at all!” Emily burst out, her cheeks beautifully flushed.
“I . . . I beg your pardon?” Flora said, taken by surprise. “Highwaymen?”
Emily nodded, and her eyes took on a healthy sparkle. She clasped her hands together in, Flora thought sourly, an expression of girlish glee. “Yes! I was all but certain that we would be subjected to such an experience, and I had planned to the minutest detail what I would do if such a man were to threaten us. I had thought to toss my hair, and not smile at all! And when he demanded a kiss, I would not comply, and he would be impressed by my courage and determination!”
Flora could not help but smile at that. “What gossip sheet have you been reading?” she asked. “I did not know that the road to Bath was so rife with handsome robbers.”
Emily pouted once more. “You are teasing me,” she said, and fresh tears welled in her eyes.
“No, no,” Flora said hastily, wondering if her cousin were woman or river. “Only,” she could not stop herself from adding, “I think it likely that highwaymen have boils.”
“Boils?” Emily echoed.
“Boils,” Flora said firmly. “Else, why do they cover their faces so assiduously with cloth?” She smiled at Emily. “I think we have had a lucky escape. After all, you did not wish to be kissed by a man with boils, did you?”
Emily gasped, her eyes as wide as dinner plates. That aspect had evidently not occurred to her.
“And a blackguard with boils would undoubtedly steal all our jewellery and show us no mercy,” Flora said firmly, thinking that the point needed to be laboured.
“Oh, how dreadful!” Emily said, in a low, thrilled whisper. “Perhaps . . . Perhaps boils can be treated?” she said tentatively.
“Not these boils,” Flora snapped, running out of patience.
“Oh, you do think I’m a ninny!” Emily cried. “You do! You do!”
Flora gaped at her. If she replied, “I don’t! I don’t!” then she suspected the conversation would slip from comedy to farce.
Luckily for Flora’s nerves, Emily rallied. “You simply have no romance in your soul,” she said, and she tilted her little nose up high.
“There’s nothing romantic about boils,” Flora said archly.
For a moment, the two women glared at each other. Then Emily’s expression turned apologetic, and Flora felt a modicum of guilt. Emily was only seventeen, after all, and a very sheltered seventeen at that.
“Let us not quarrel,” Flora said and was rewarded with a beaming smile.
“Perhaps Bath highwaymen are ill-complexioned in comparison to London ones?” Emily suggested tentatively, looking up under quivering eyelashes.
“Perhaps,” Flora reluctantly conceded.
“Still, the fact remains that we were not accosted on our journey, and this home holds no excitement.” Emily sighed. “Ah, if only we were in London. There are such thrilling tales of intrigue about London of late. Why, only the other day a bridegroom was snatched – and eaten – by a wolf!” She lowered her voice. “And I have heard tell that this was not the first time such an event has occurred!”
“A wolf?” Flora asked, lips twitching once more. “Surely not.”
“I do not tell a lie!” Emily replied, evidently catching no hint of scepticism in her cousin’s voice. “Although, ’pon consideration, perhaps it is best if wolves do not appear in Bath.”
“I confess I would feel no disappointment if our stay were entirely wolf-free,” Flora said, as seriously as she could, promising herself a hearty laugh when she were safely alone in her chamber.
“Indeed, it would be vexing to be married and then have one’s husband eaten so soon,” Emily said contemplatively.
“Indeed,” Flora echoed, fighting a losing battle for composure.
“Oh! Oh! You are teasing me, Flora,” Emily said, a touch disconsolately, and then added, “but I have decided to forgive you.”
Flora kissed her on the cheek. “That is very good of you. Now, shall we to bed?”
Emily brightened. “Yes! Perhaps I shall not be visited by a ghost, but at least then I shall be fresh for our explorations of Bath tomorrow. I am fully determined that you and I shall meet with at least one adventure.” She smiled widely. “Even if it does have boils!”
As Flora blew out her candle and clambered into bed, she thought that even if her cousin might be a touch wearying, at least she was lively, and that it was unlikely that her time at Bath would be boring, even if she would have to suffer, just a little, from pangs of jealousy at the difference between her cousin’s situation and her own.
The next morning, however, Mr Woodbury informed the girls during breakfast that they would have to curtail their immediate explorations, as he would, unfortunately, have to spend the day taking care of certain business concerns. By which Flora took to mean that after a day’s journey in a closed carriage with his daughter, he was not feeling strong enough to spend another day in close proximity with her. Frankly, Flora sympathised, but as his decision now left her alone with Emily for the whole day, without entertainments or friends, and without certain prospect of callers, she rather thought that he could have stretched himself for once – at least to introduce them to some Bath matron who could ensure that propriety was satisfied as they explored.
It was perhaps true, as her mama often complained, that while her own papa worked tirelessly and yet they could not afford to purchase a house bigger than their current six-bedroomed pokey country abode, Mr Woodbury, her late sister’s husband, continually did nothing and yet prospered. Although, Flora thought, it was hardly Papa’s fault that his brother-in-law had had an aunt, and now no longer had an aunt, but had, instead, a fortune and an estate.
Still, whether Mr Woodbury did have engagements that day or no, Flora resigned herself to spending the day listening to Emily lament their lack of adventures. So she was surprised, and taken aback, when – the moment Mr Woodbury had left the house – Emily reached for her pelisse.
“Oh, Flora,” Emily said, looking at her with big, wide eyes. “I do hope you don’t think it improper of me to wish to disobey Papa, but I really do not see the harm in us taking a walk through the park. It is so close to the house. Really, it is almost like our very own garden. Indeed, I cannot see what could be wrong about two ladies taking some air. And while I am perhaps not so very grown-up, you . . .” She trailed off, looking expectant.
Flora did not see anything improper at all about two ladies taking some air. If it had been her own papa who suggested she languish at home while he went out and enjoyed himself, she would have given him very short shrift. However, she was also conscious that she was, in a sense, in charge of Emily, and that if anything ill befell the pair of them it would be she who would be blamed.
But . . . they were in Bath, not Birmingham, and Royal Victoria Park was, as Emily suggested, so close as to be almost their front garden.
“If you’re afraid . . .” Emily suggested, twinkling a little as she reached for her parasol – for although it was a cold day, it was bright.
Flora wasn’t putting up with that. “No, Emily, I am not! However—”
“Then let us go,” Emily begged. “I am agog to stretch my legs and breathe the fresh Bath air.”
“Very well,” Flora said, almost without thinking, and then it was too late, for Emily had thrust her accoutrements towards her and was all but propelling her towards the front door. “We will be but half an hour,” Flora managed to tell the butler, who seemed to signal his displeasure at the pair of them merely by the angle of his nose, before she was pushed out of the door and on to the street.
Emily, seemingly overcome by the distant view of the trees, made straight for them at a pace that was less than sedate.
A cold chill came over Flora. For she knew – and anyone with eyes also knew – that between the Crescent and the park lay a ha-ha. She could see the ditch, right in front of Emily. And Emily, right in front of it, apparently could not.
“Emily!” Flora called, in what she knew could only be called a screech. But a minor embarrassment would be better than the catastrophe of Miss Emily Woodbury falling into a ha-ha – even if she did break an ankle, which would at least guarantee sympathy as well as derision. Miss Woodbury might be green, but even the most kind-spirited of men would think twice, Flora presumed, about proposing matrimony to a girl who couldn’t spot a ha-ha until she’d fallen into it.
“Yes?” Emily called, pivoting around and doing a little wobble that had Flora’s heart in absolute palpitations.
“Watch out for the ha-ha, dearest!” she called, in as gentle a tone as she could manage.
“The ha-ha?” Emily repeated, doing a species of swivel, and spotted that she was standing on the edge of it.
Any sensible girl would have just stepped away, Flora thought in despair. But Emily wasn’t sensible. Their discussion about highwaymen and ghosts the night before had told her that, quite plainly.
So instead, Emily chose to wail – a high-pitched, mortifying sound – and to cry, “Help! Help! I shall fall!”
Flora dithered for a moment, torn between the thrilling idea of pushing Emily in – which would, at least, make her cease that dreadful noise – and pulling her back from the Mighty Precipice. Only to realise that Emily had gone a shockingly pale colour, her face nearly the same shade as her white-lace parasol.
She was about to swoon!
Suddenly terrified, lest Emily should fall and break her head in two places, Flora found herself curiously unable to move her limbs. It was cowardly, to be so frozen in place, but she could not free herself from her self-made prison. She could only watch in horror as the parasol slipped from Emily’s nerveless hand, and Emily herself tottered and . . .
A tall, shockingly-handsome man practically dashed across the park, leaping across the ha-ha in one mighty bound and clutching the swooning Emily to his chest.
Flora, her limbs now freed from their awful paralysis, suddenly found herself rather irritated. If Emily was going to get the excitement she so craved, she could at least have the decency to be awake for it. Especially as she, Flora, would be blamed for any social impropriety that could be attributed to it. The handsome man, whose clothes were – if Flora was any judge – the absolute height of fashion, was clutching Emily rather tight to him, even if it were by necessity, and she had a terrible foreboding that he would turn out not to be a paragon of virtue, but, instead, a dandy and a rake.
The gentleman in question smiled at Flora, which rather shocked her. “Does this belong to you, madam?” he asked, motioning to Emily.
“I am afraid so,” Flora said, and then paused. Perhaps that was not quite the correct response to such an impertinent question. “You are rude, sir,” she added. Oh dear. That certainly wasn’t right either.
To Flora’s surprise, the gentleman’s smile only widened. “I would bow in humble apology, only I fear that I would then precipitate both myself and this lady into the ha-ha.”
“Ooh,” Emily said, eyelashes fluttering. “Where am I?”
It was a tried and tested approach to gracefully awakening from a swoon – particularly if you had not really been in a swoon at all, Flora thought uncharitably – but it did not seem to have the correct effect on the gentleman.
“You are here, my lady,” he said, and then appeared to be amused by his own wit.
Flora noticed with horror that they were beginning to draw curious looks. “Perhaps you could escort Miss Woodbury and myself to our house?”
“Miss Woodbury?” the gentleman asked, seeming surprised. He peered down at Emily. “Then you are . . .?”
“I am Miss Pilkington,” Flora said, feeling somewhat disconcerted by his odd mien.
“Pilkington?” he repeated, as if he could not quite believe it.
Flora resisted the temptation to say, “I am afraid so,” and instead nodded curtly. It was not proper, to be introducing oneself to a gentleman in the public street – particularly a gentleman clasping a semi-swooning woman firmly to his chest. A struggling semi-swooning woman. “Unhand my cousin, sir,” she felt compelled to say.
The gentleman looked down, as if he’d forgotten he was embracing a lady, and loosened his grip with an exclamation of shock. “Miss Woodbury!” he said. “A thousand apologies!” And he looked down into her tearful eyes and flushed expression with a look of deep, heartfelt sorrow – one which Flora was sure he had practised in the mirror for occasions such as this.
“Let me escort you home, Miss Woodbury, I insist upon it,” he said to Emily, brushing away all of Emily’s token protestations, and seizing her hand, he placed a kiss upon it.
Later, as Flora reflected upon the incident, she couldn’t decide which was worse – that he had all but ignored her, once he had discovered that Emily was the heiress and she the beginning spinster; or that as he had escorted them back, when Emily’s attention was engaged in the opposite direction, he had turned – just the once – and smiled at her, so disarmingly that her heartbeat quickened even now just to think of it.
“Can you believe that he is called Lord Wolfe!” Emily said.
Flora could believe it – for Emily had told it to her at least three times in the last thirty minutes. And besides, she had been there to hear him tell it himself, even if he had said it to Emily, not her, and barely looked her way.
“Although, since he does insist so on us remembering the ‘e’, perhaps we should not worry overly much about it!” Emily continued.
Flora stabbed at her embroidery. Although she did not object to embroidery, this afternoon she found it particularly vexed her. Indeed, she had embroidered half the apple red and half green in error, despite the design clearly calling for a solid colour.
She tried to concentrate on her cousin. It was not Emily’s fault that she, Flora, were in a brown study. Her words were clearly a reference to . . . something she had said the other day. About wolves. What was it now?
“And after all, he is not about to eat himself now, is he?” Emily said, before adding, very quickly, “Though he is not a bridegroom yet, of course.”
Just as Flora was about to ignore this as the ravings of a disturbed mind, she recalled something Emily had said – that a bridegroom in London, it was rumoured, had been eaten by a wolf. Emily was, it seemed, making a joke.
For some reason she could not puzzle out, Flora found this monstrous annoying.
“Emily, dear, do remember that we do not know a thing about Lord Wolfe. I am sure your papa will wish to enquire whether he is a suitable man for us to know,” she said primly, feeling very irritated with herself for sounding so like a maiden aunt. She suspected that she would be one eventually; there was no need to act like one until the bitter end, though.
“Oh, but he was far too charming to be anything other than a gentleman,” Emily said, turning her wide-eyed expression on Flora. “And far too handsome, besides.”
Flora did some more stabbing at her embroidery. “Your papa will think you have a commonplace mind if you talk in such a manner.”
“Oh, Flora,” Emily said. “Don’t be such a fusspot. I tell you in confidence, I have quite made up my mind to marry him, and nothing you say can convince me otherwise.” She pouted becomingly. “With his elegant blond looks and my pale complexion and hair, we will make a striking couple. Lady Wolfe sounds well, does it not?”
Flora did her best to be gracious. “It does indeed. But let us wait to hear what Mr Woodbury thinks first, Emily. It is only sensible.”
Emily conceded the point, but persisted in extolling the praises of Mr Wolf-with-an-e, while Flora continued to attack her embroidery.
And it was only when Flora went to bed that night, unsoothed by Mr Woodbury’s laissez-faire attitude and promise to vet Lord Wolfe when next he called, that she allowed herself to think that perhaps she was a jot jealous of her cousin, and – as she slipped into a doze – that mayhap Emily was correct when she’d said that Lord Wolfe was the handsomest man she’d seen in all her life.
“Ho ho!” Mr Woodbury boomed.
“Har har!” Mrs Simmons laughed.
“Tee hee!” Miss Emily Woodbury giggled.
“Flora, dearest, is that not the funniest thing you ever did hear?” Mrs Simmons inquired, rather pointedly, when Flora failed to join in the outpouring of mirth.
Flora looked up from her embroidery at the Widow Simmons. Mrs Simmons was tall and shapely, in middle years and of moderate good looks. Flora thought that she could have coped admirably with Mrs Simmons if it were not that Mrs Simmons had set her cap, quite decidedly, at Mr Woodbury. It was, therefore, quite obviously Mrs Simmons’ dearest wish to help Mr Woodbury marry off his daughter – and as quickly as possible.
And what better candidate for Miss Emily Woodbury than a wealthy lord?
So it was supremely lucky, from Mrs Simmons’ perspective, that Emily’s first meeting with Lord Wolfe had been so fortuitous. For what gentleman could resist a beautiful girl whom he had saved from peril?
“Very droll,” Flora said unconvincingly, in reply to Mrs Simmons’ question. In truth, she had not actually heard Lord Wolfe’s joke. She had been indulging in (to put it coarsely) a fit of the blue devils, of late, and she had thought it best to stop her ears and hold her tongue this morning, rather than make a spectacle of herself.
She did not intend to look up to gauge Lord Wolfe’s reaction to her words. In fact, she told herself very firmly not to. However, when the gentleman in question cleared his throat, she found her eyes drawn inexorably towards his manly nose. It was just the right shape, and she found it strangely hypnotic to look upon.
“I believe Miss Pilkington has the right of it,” Lord Wolfe said, his voice contrite. “It was but a poor joke, and you do me too much honour to laugh in such a manner.” Then, when the rest of the company – Flora excluded – rose in one voice to counter his modest words, he looked briefly in Flora’s direction . . . and winked!
To Flora’s incredulity, nobody seemed to notice this flagrant breach of manners. And it was not as if it were the first instance of such behaviour. Over the course of the past week, Flora had been in Lord Wolfe’s company some half a dozen times, and on each occasion he had forced not just one, but several of such winks upon her notice.
It was not so much the winking that offended her – although Flora expected such actions from a common child, perhaps one in the company of some kind of mongrel dog – but that the meaning behind each wink was so suspect.
Why did he wink at her, in preference to her cousin? It was clear to even the most dim-witted of observers that it was Emily he courted, not herself. The only other plausible explanation – that he was courting Emily in jest, and he winked to let Flora know it – was so fanciful and ridiculous that Flora vowed to give herself a stern talking-to in the mirror, next time she was alone.
Flora was forced to conclude that unless he had a dreadful wicked plot, he was winking for the sole purpose of being perverse.
And if he were perverse – and in the habit of winking at miscellaneous women – then she most decidedly did not want him marrying Emily. For while Emily was, Flora was forced to confess, an annoyance, she was also only seventeen – and Flora knew that she would grow out of both of these afflictions, given time.
Besides, Flora thought crossly, unaware that her forehead was puckering up in a most unbecoming way, apart from false charm (for his charm could be nothing other than false, once the winks were taken into consideration) and disarmingly good looks, as far as she could see, Lord Wolfe had little to recommend him. He appeared to have few friends – at least, none in Bath who could testify to his good character. His family history, as he related it, was curiously vague. As was the name and situation of his family estate, although he seemed well travelled and educated. Indeed, though he was Lord Wolfe, Flora could spy no signet ring with corresponding coat of arms, nor any other tell-tale evidence of his heritage.
It was all most puzzling, and Flora could not reason why Mr Woodbury had smiled at her, rather sadly, when she had broached these issues with him, and chosen to ignore her words as if they were of no import. For while she was unmarried, (there was no denying it, as there was equally no denying that Lord Wolfe was fair of face and limb), this did not prevent her from having a brain.
Besides, why did Lord Wolfe eschew all evening entertainments and only visit her family in the daytime? It was most suspicious. But although she had mentioned it to Emily, several days ago, upon learning of Lord Wolfe’s nocturnal habits (or, rather, lack of them), Emily had giggled and told Flora that she had too active an imagination! So, of course, Flora felt unable to raise the issue again, for while Lord Wolfe might be spending his nights with, say, a flock of bits o’ muslin, or else hiding in flea-ridden lodgings either because he were purse-pinched or to conceal his non-existent social status, to say so would be to be branded ‘over-imaginative’ once more by Emily, and that would indeed be an unpleasant fate.
“Where did you say your family were from, Lord Wolfe?” Flora asked without preamble, neglecting to think through the consequences of her actions, and looked up at Lord Wolfe with an expression both serious and (she suspected) slightly accusatory.
Lord Wolfe paused in the middle of another anecdote. His mouth hung open for a moment, and he looked back – his expression somehow troubled . . . and troubling.
Silence hung in the room.
“I did not see you write to your dear mama this morning, Flora,” Mrs Simmons said. Her voice was light, but Flora could tell by the set of her jaw and the angle of her elbows that she was terribly cross.
“You speak the truth, Mrs Simmons,” Flora replied, realising that her tone must have been accusatory indeed, if even Mrs Simmons had taken note of it. Had she stressed the word ‘Lord’, also, as if she doubted it? She thought back. Yes, she supposed she had. It was most vexing. She decided to take Mrs Simmons’ hint and leave the room, before her thoughtless tongue led her into making even graver a charge against Lord Wolfe. It was not that she thought such a charge would be groundless, oh no, but she wished to have firm evidence before she confronted him with his wicked deceptions!
“I shall take my leave from you all for a time, if I may,” Flora said calmly, rising from her seat.
“Miss Pilkington—” Lord Wolfe began, his voice halting and apologetic.
Flora looked over at him. Usually, he sat as graceful as an Imperial Borzoi basking in front of a warm fire. But now he held himself curiously tense, and his brow was one big wrinkle. It spoilt his beauty, and yet she had never liked his looks better.
“Good day, Lord Wolfe,” she said coldly, telling herself sternly that looks were immaterial, and swept out of the room.
Even behind the closed door she could hear the murmur of voices, of others no doubt apologising for her behaviour.
Well, Flora thought as she made her way to her chamber to make some notes on Lord Wolfe and document her suspicions, that was rather clumsy of me. Not only had she offended her family, but she had also put Lord Wolfe on his guard. It was clear that simply asking him about his history would yield no clues; he would simply open and close his mouth like a fish, while Mrs Simmons all but dismissed her from the room once more.
No, if she were to uncover the truth about him, she would need to act in more cunning ways. And from the looks of it, if she were to prove his illegitimacy, his poverty and his immorality before he were married to her cousin, she would need to act with all due speed.
“We look like sisters, do we not?” Emily said the following morning, clapping her hands together at speed and smiling rapturously. “This is just the effect I had hoped to achieve. Why, we are just too cute and charming for words! At least,” Emily added, lowering her voice and leaning in towards Flora confidentially, “that is what I hope the delicious Lord Wolfe will think.”
Flora nodded and smiled, for she could not quite bring herself to speak. Indeed, there were no words she could frame that would adequately express her emotions towards her new walking costume. For sure, she was grateful to Mr Woodbury for his generosity in providing her with it, but . . . it was so fashionable. At least, that was what Emily had told her, and Flora saw no reason no doubt her – for why would any person of taste wear such an outfit unless it was so?
While the dress itself was pure white and of the finest material, there was such a profusion of gold cord and gold tassels and gold fringing on the pelisse and reticule that Flora quite suspected that anyone who looked upon them would need smoked spectacles to shield their eyes from the dazzling glare. And that was not even mentioning the hat. It was, so Flora was told, a Hussar’s hat, and as far as Flora was concerned the Hussar could keep it – for it was a fright of a thing: huge and ridiculous, circled three times with thick gold cord. On the left side, two enormous tassles of gold swung by her ear in a ticklish manner.
The only possible consolation was that Emily wore the exact same costume, and so at least Flora was not alone in her ridiculousness – even though, she reminded herself gloomily, they would draw even more attention to themselves by the very fact that they were dressed like twins.
Once they had reached the Grand Pump Room, Flora was not consoled to learn that her prediction had been correct – and that although there were many fashionable ladies and gentlemen present, none had costumes could compare to the extravagance and sheer tastelessness of her own. However, she was consoled by the knowledge that the pump rooms were so crowded that only a few people could gawp at her simultaneously, for there simply was not space for more widespread staring.
Before she had arrived at Bath, Flora had been looking forward to visiting the pump rooms, for she had heard that they were grand and well-proportioned and a sight to be seen. All these things were true, she had to admit: the hall of the Grand Pump Room was elegant and spacious, supported by glorious pillars and studded with marble statues. At one end, an orchestra played grand music, and at the pump itself – where a fountain of water burst forth – a distinguished lady proffered glasses of healing water from the springs.
But the noise! And the smells! For there was not just the constant blare of the music – which was jolly, but endless – but also the babble of conversations conducted at a volume to be heard above the music. And there was not just the smell of the water – which had a curious mineral scent, reminiscent of rotten eggs – but also the reek of the mixed company (for it was both hot and close in the room, and everyone was naturally wearing clothing suitable for an outdoor stroll).
Indeed, Flora found that the more time she spent in the Grand Pump Room, promenading up and down and making polite conversation with Emily, Mr Woodbury, Mrs Simmons and the various polite young men whom Mrs Simmons introduced them to, the more she thought it equivalent to Hell.
Today, it was no different. Except, of course, that she was wearing a larger hat and so was in increased danger of collisions.
It was not long before their party was joined by Lord Wolfe. Except, for a moment, Flora did not know that it was Lord Wolfe, for his appearance was most strange. Lord Wolfe had never before joined them in the Pump Room; he simply visited them each morning – and increasingly each afternoon – at home. Apart from the first time they had met, when Lord Wolfe had ‘rescued’ Emily from the dreadful peril of the ha-ha, they had seen Lord Wolfe solely in a domestic setting. He had, when invited to stroll with them in the Pump Room or to accompany them at the Assembly Rooms of an evening for dancing or cards, declined, pleading a variety of inane excuses. However, when Flora had returned to the drawing room the previous day, after ‘writing a letter to her mother’, she had told him that they would be at the Pump Room the next morning, and that they would all be very disappointed if he were not there to join them.
Although Flora had put it in the strongest terms she knew how, and had made it clear – prompting gasps from Mrs Simmons – that she would consider it a rudeness if he did not appear, she had not actually expected him to attend them at the Pump Room. So when she realised that it was Lord Wolfe before her, bowing and making polite greetings to her (and effusive ones to Emily), she was almost put out. But then she thought again. For Lord Wolfe could only be described as acting in a manner most shifty, and his appearance was monstrous strange. His hat was pulled low over his fair hair – so low that it nearly covered his eyebrows; he wore his cravat so high and puffed that it quite concealed his chin; and his collar was wide and upturned, so much so that his face was almost entirely covered when viewed from the side. And upon his eyes he wore the most peculiar pair of dark, thick-rimmed spectacles. If he had produced a flintlock pistol from the depths of his braided coat and proceeded to rob the ladies of their reticules, Flora would not have been a whit shocked. Indeed, he quite resembled the highwaymen of Emily’s fantasies!
It did not take a bluestocking to conclude that Lord Wolfe was doing his best to conceal his appearance, and Flora felt the familiar elation of being right. Indeed, it was elation enough that she did not feel quite as much of her customary irritation when Lord Wolfe began his usual winking routine. In fact, she was emboldened enough by his scurrilous – albeit dashing – appearance, that when the opportunity arose she said, quite loudly, “I am sorry to see that you have a chill, Lord Wolfe.”
Lord Wolfe turned to her. His expression hinted at something wicked and his eyes glittered behind the ugly spectacles. “Why do you say that, Miss Pilkington?”
“Oh, I merely presumed that you wear your collar so high and your cravat so wide to protect your sore throat from the chill autumn breezes. Is it not so?” Flora said lightly, fixing him with her eye.
Lord Wolfe laughed. “Oh, ha ha ha!”
Flora thought his laugh was rather false and that two could play at that game. “Ha ha ha ha!” she said, outdoing him with an extra laugh.
“Do share the joke!” Emily said. And as Lord Wolfe explained that Miss Pilkington had been teasing him, Flora felt – rather crossly – that she had been outwitted by Lord Wolfe, who was a cad and a scoundrel and who had evidently drawn Emily’s attention towards them so that he didn’t have to explain his curious get-up.
And when, a few minutes later, Lord Wolfe remarked that he was rather too warm for comfort, and proceeded to pocket his spectacles, tug his hat up to a respectable level, turn down his collar and smooth his cravat closer to his body, Flora felt that he was doing it for her benefit – and was quite convinced that he had turned up in that ridiculous style simply so he could do it. It was, Flora thought, as if he had realised that she was out to expose him – and so was taunting her at every moment he could, in the basest and yet most subtle of ways. For she could hardly denounce him to Mr Woodbury simply on the facts that he had worn his collar first high, and then low.
And later, when Lord Wolfe had turned away from Royal Crescent after seeing them to their door, Flora subtly made her way to the window to spy on him as he made his retreat. But the infuriating man not only turned back to look at the house, but looked up – at the very window behind the curtain of which Flora was concealed – and winked!
Although she knew herself to be safely hidden, Flora cowered for quite ten minutes behind a potted plant, too nervous to move past the window in case Lord Wolfe still lurked outside. It was then that she realised that she would have no peace of mind at all, possibly for the rest of her days, until she had exposed Lord Wolfe for the lying fopdoodle that he was.
Even though she thought herself reasonably strong-spirited, it was with a pounding heart and a deep sense of dread that Flora returned to Royal Crescent alone that evening. It had not been difficult to convince her friends that she had a headache and must leave the ball to go to bed; the difficulty had been in preventing Emily from accompanying her home. Emily was a sweet girl, Flora thought, despite her irritating ways, and her obvious worry and care for her cousin had made Flora feel quite guilty – a sensation she was not used to, and one which she decided she disliked intensely. However, once the easy step of removing herself from the Woodburys had been completed, there were much trickier tasks ahead of her that evening.
Before Lord Wolfe had left Royal Crescent earlier that day – just before Flora’s tête-à-tête with the potted plant – Mrs Simmons, evidently emboldened by Flora’s success in tempting Lord Wolfe to attend the Pump Room, had all but begged him to attend the Dress Ball at the New Assembly Rooms that very night. Lord Wolfe had declined, with a most regretful glance at Emily, pleading as an excuse that he must hasten away from Bath that very afternoon on an urgent matter of business and would not return until the following day. So, during the afternoon, Flora had formulated her cunning plan: she would take advantage of Lord Wolfe’s absence from Bath to break into his house and purloin the incriminating papers in his study that she just knew were there.
Flora was aware that this was what some might term a rather immodest plan. Young ladies – even almost-spinster ladies such as herself – were not supposed to even walk abroad unchaperoned in the evening, let alone do so with the intent to commit a felony. However, the thought of her cousin Emily being leg-shackled to such a fiend in human form – combined with her conviction that he would continue his dreadful winking, even when he were a married man – was enough to stiffen her resolve, even in the face of actually having to carry out her scheme.
Once Emily’s maid had helped her into her nightclothes, Flora reached for the outfit she had earlier concealed under her bedclothes. It had been a tricky task to purloin the necessary items from Mr Woodbury’s tallboy, but an essential one. For it was impossible to disguise one’s self as a man without inexpressibles, and inexpressibles were not an item that any well-brought-up lady had in her possession. Flora slid her legs into first her own white silk stockings, and then followed them with the breeches. Mr Woodbury had a fuller figure than she and so she had to tie them rather inelegantly around the waist with a cord, but she decided this was all to the good: she did not wish to appear as too rich a gentleman, after all, or she might be robbed by footpads on the way to her destination. This she followed with a frilled shirt and a riding jacket. Sliding on her own shoes, for Mr Woodbury’s had proved far too loose and would have been an encumbrance, she turned towards the glass to examine herself.
The result, she decided, was rather a comical one. With her hair pulled back, she might pass for male in the darkness, but a rather eccentric one. There was a danger that she would draw more attention to herself in this rig than she would as a woman alone. The outfit needed something else. Rummaging in Emily’s closet, Flora struck upon just the thing. A long, dark cloak with a hood. She slid it on and looked at herself in the glass once more. If she did not move too quickly and expose the cloak’s bright-red lining then it would do perfectly.
Grasping a large reticule for concealing Lord Wolfe’s incriminating papers in, which she concealed under the cloak, Flora took a deep breath and opened her bedroom door a crack. The first challenge was to make her way from her bedroom to the front door and out. She had already purloined a key, in case of emergencies, although she expected she would return long before Emily returned from the ball and the house was locked up for the night. However, she need not have worried. The servants were conspicuous by their absence, and Flora suspected they were making the most of their master’s absence from the house in order to relax and gossip in the kitchen. So she tiptoed down the stairs and out the front door without incident, closing the door quietly behind her and making her way quickly down the Crescent and out.
It was not a long walk, which was lucky as Flora thought she would not have had the nerve to hail a hackney carriage to take her there, and she certainly could not have borrowed one of Mr Woodbury’s three carriages without being detected. The streets were quiet, but even though she walked as quickly as she could, it still seemed to take an age until she arrived outside Lord Wolfe’s rented house. She knew where it was situated, for he had pointed it out on one of their walks through Bath and had taken them in – including Mrs Simmons, of course – for a quick tour. It was an elegant and well-appointed house, although small, but he had explained that he was only renting for a small time and thought it best that a bachelor be frugal. That had seemed to please Mrs Simmons greatly, and she had talked later at great length about his great sense and intellect, but Flora had thought it suspicious. She could not have said why, precisely – just that she found it so.
Now, the house was in darkness. Not even the lights in the porch were lit, which Flora found both reassuring and peculiar. His staff were evidently incompetent. Perhaps they had even gone out for the evening? That would present Flora with a problem indeed – for if the house was empty of occupants, who was to let her in?
Flora stepped up to the front door, seized the bell-pull and gave it two firm tugs. She could hear the bell tinkle inside the house, but unless the butler was especially soft-footed, no one was coming to let her in. Irritated, she gave the bell-pull another tug, half-expecting a dour-looking butler to pop up out of nowhere and glower at her. She just knew that if that happened she would entirely lose her composure and forget what she had planned. She rummaged quickly in her reticule, pulling out the scrap of paper upon which she had written an encouraging note to herself:
Potential excuses: Sent by Lord W. to fetch a parcel of papers he left behind; An escaped tiger from the circus!; I am a man with vowels from Lord W. come to collect what he owes me and I will only be satisfied by leaving him a note in his study; If all else fails, swoon.
Flora had to admit that these were not very cunning excuses, and that undoubtedly her plan had some flaws – particularly as she had no great skill at acting and tended to go awfully red-faced when telling a lie – but she was hopeful that as long as she was admitted to the house, she could endeavour to slip away from the butler for a moment and do a quick search of the study. However, the plan would fail before it even began if she could not even get in.
Flora decided to give the bell-pull one final, long ring. She seized it firmly in one gloved hand and, grasping the door knob in the other, hung on it. To her great surprise, the door opened like a shot and she was flung inside in a most inelegant fashion. She had never risen so quickly in all her life, and in such a state of confusion! Ready to make her excuses – although what excuse she had not yet decided upon – she opened her mouth . . . and stopped. For the hallway was dark and quiet, and no one was about. Quickly deducing the truth of the matter – that the door had been open all along – she quietly closed the door behind her.
It was dark in the hallway; darker now the front door was closed. For a moment, Flora felt quite unwell. Her heart pounded uncomfortably in her chest and she wondered if she really would swoon. However, she decided that she best pull herself together, for it would be difficult to explain to any servants who suddenly returned (as she was sure one must) why she had decided to faint in a hallway which was decidedly not her own, and wearing such clothes.
Flora took a couple of tentative steps forward and nearly fell over a small table in her way. She groped her way past it, trying not to curse, and wondered if she could remember where Lord Wolfe’s study was situated. He had not shown them the room in question, just mentioned it as they passed by. If she recalled correctly, it had been . . . downstairs? Flora made her way to the staircase and paused at the foot of it. She did not relish the prospect of groping her way down into the basement level without any form of lighting, even though she recalled it to be a shallow set of steps. Indeed, it would be quite useless to make it to the study if she could not find a way to see anything once she were there. However . . . She paused, squinting down. It did not seem quite as dark down there as she expected. Indeed, there was a flickering quality to the shadows that suggested a lit candle. So she took her courage in both hands and tiptoed down the stairs, holding on to the balustrade to prevent herself from falling. For if she was to be discovered in the act, she would prefer not to make a cake of herself in the process, and to be found at the bottom of the stair with a broken ankle was a humiliating prospect indeed. Even worse, she thought, than falling into a ha-ha.
However, she reasoned that the sooner she had completed her aims, the sooner she could return home – for the evening was beginning to have an air of unreality for her. She could not quite imagine any circumstances under which she would invade a gentleman’s home in the dark, even though that was precisely what she was currently doing. She wondered if she was quite well, and felt cheered by that – at least if she had a slight fever then that would explain why she was acting in quite such a wanton manner.
Once she ran out of stairs, she peered down the corridor, discovering the source of light – a single bracket of candles at the very end, illuminating a single door. The feeling of unreality increased. Indeed, if a ghost had suddenly popped out and rattled its chains at her, she would have scarcely been surprised, although she suspected she would be able to manage a scream or two. It was not that the corridor was dusty – in fact, the wallpaper was of a cheerful stripe – but Flora had begun to feel nervy, particularly as she had a horrible suspicion that someone lurked within the room at the end of the corridor and she could not think of how she could explain herself should the room contain a butler rather than a murderer.
Flora wished she had brought her parasol, for at least then she would have been able to deliver a sharp attack upon a murderer. Searching in her reticule, however, the best she could find was a fan. It would not deliver a killing blow, but she reasoned it was better than nothing, so she clutched it in her hand and inched her way down the corridor and towards the ominous door. At least, she reasoned, it was not quite as dark down there as she had expected. For as well as the flickering candles, if she turned back, to peer down the corridor and towards her only means of escape, she could see the head of the stairs, faintly illuminated by the light of the bright moon outside, sliding past the half-drawn curtains.
Once in front of the door, she stood for a while, listening to the silence. She bent down and attempted to peer through the keyhole, but unless it were blocked she could see nothing but darkness. This encouraged her and so, emboldened, she decided that confidence was the only way to proceed, so she raised her fan up high and flung the door open, hoping against hope that the room was empty.
For a horrified, frozen moment, Flora and Lord Wolfe stared at each other across the room.
Then, just as Flora opened her mouth to scream, Lord Wolfe got up and, instead of rushing towards her and murdering her (although why he should murder her instead of calling a policeman, she didn’t know, just that she suddenly thought it the most likely of the two options), he rushed . . . to hide behind a large wooden cupboard.
This put Flora off her stroke, and she shut her mouth instead. For she could think of no reason why a grown man, upon encountering an intruder such as herself, should hide behind a piece of furniture. Why, she was even almost certain that Lord Wolfe had recognised her, which made his actions all the more peculiar. Did he perhaps think her so insane that he must hide for his own protection? Flora looked down at the fan in some confusion. It was difficult to think that he had mistaken it for a pistol; the room was well-lit, and she could see that her cloak had fallen open to reveal her fetching disguise.
“Come out and explain yourself!” Flora said, deciding that she would discover the truth of the matter more speedily if she came straight to the point. Perhaps she might even escape with her dignity intact. It was true that if Lord Wolfe wished to ruin her reputation then he had it entirely within his power to do so, but then she had just seen him hide behind a cupboard rather than confront her, so she hoped she could use this interesting information to persuade him to avoid the scandal.
“Please, go awarrrrrrrgh,” Lord Wolfe said.
Flora stiffened. That had not sounded healthy. Was he injured in some manner? He had sounded pained rather than cross. She was disconcerted to realise that she did not like the idea of him being hurt. While the idea of just ‘going away’ was a tempting one, she thought it her positive duty to check that he did not require the services of a physician.
The cupboard rocked alarmingly.
Flora took one step forward, but with a cautious hand outstretched. It would be embarrassing to be crushed by a cupboard, and she intended to take all due precautions to prevent such a catastrophe. “Are you hurt?” she asked.
“Graaaaawwwwwrrrrrrgh,” Lord Wolfe said.
This alarmed Flora more than the rocking cupboard. She thought it was Lord Wolfe making that noise, but it did not entirely sound like Lord Wolfe. It had more the tone of an animal in pain. A cross animal in pain. She gripped her fan more tightly and took another cautious step forwards.
“Come out from behind that cupboard and let me tend your wounds,” Flora said firmly, all thoughts of propriety now banished from her mind. The strange animalistic noise of pain combined with the shaking cupboard and the curious shadows that flickered through the room were making her extremely irritated. She had no desire to be the star in a Mrs Radcliffe gothic novel, and yet circumstances beyond her control were conspiring to make her one.
Lord Wolfe did not appear.
Flora stamped her foot to hide her nerves. “Come out NOW,” she ordered.
As Flora watched, horrified, instead of the handsome man who was courting her cousin, the head of a hideous beast emerged from behind the cabinet!
Flora decided that now would be a good time to run away very quickly, however her legs refused to obey her. She would have screamed, except when she tried, her voice had dried up and she could only manage a whimper.
The rest of the creature began to emerge. It was a wolf, Flora realised, and she remembered – oh, the horrors – the stories of bridegrooms eaten and brides widowed on the very day they had been wed.
For a terrifying moment, Flora wondered if she would be eaten too. And then a curious thing occurred. Her body unfroze as her mind registered that the wolf – a sandy-blond creature – was not only wearing an unexpectedly sheepish expression, but also the ripped remnants of human clothing. The same human clothing that Lord Wolfe had been wearing just moments before. Surely, her mind informed her, if the wolf had eaten him, it would not be clad in the shreds of his garments? And surely there would be more . . . blood?
The dreadfulness of the pun came to her in a flash. “Lord Wolfe!” she said, waving the fan accusingly at the wolf. “You are a wolf! That is . . . that is . . .” She could not finish the sentence. She felt a little stupid, and felt offended by that. Just because a gentleman’s name was Wolfe, that certainly did not entitle him to make a lady feel stupid because she had not worked out that he literally was a wolf.
Particularly if he had not even the brains to lock his own front door in the absence of his servants!
Instead, Flora decided that she should fold her arms and glare at the wolf. “No wonder you refused to attend any evening engagements with us!” she said accusingly. And then, as the thought struck her, “And how dare you eat all those bridegrooms and then try and marry my cousin! I do hope you didn’t intend to eat her!”
Instead of looking chastened, the wolf rolled its eyes.
Flora had not thought that anything could annoy her more than Lord Wolfe’s winking. However, she was surprised to find that a wolf rolling its eyes in derision made her far, far more infuriated. “What?” she said testily.
The wolf looked at her as if she was particularly stupid and did a sort of shrug.
Flora realised that there was an inherent difficulty in conversing with a wolf: namely, it could not talk. So she stared at it. It stared back. For a good long while they held this position, until Flora’s legs suddenly decided that even if she was not deeply shocked by suddenly encountering a werewolf, they were, and entirely gave out.
“Ouch,” Flora said from the floor. She felt vaguely cross with herself for almost swooning in front of such an insufferable man, but she thought that since he was a wolf at the moment then at least she had a legitimate excuse. Her heart was beating strangely, and she hoped that he didn’t really eat people.
It was only when she opened her eyes to find her face being vigorously licked by a long, wet tongue that Flora realised she had swooned – and properly this time. “Yuck!” she exclaimed before she had come to her senses and remembered exactly what had happened.
The wolf contrived, by means of sagging eyebrows and drooping mouth, to look dismayed at that.
Flora struggled to sit up. She took in the scene: the wolf sitting on its haunches next to her. Her wet face. Her swoon. He had either been preparing to eat her, she thought, or he had been attempting to wake her from her faint.
“I would not make a tasty meal,” Flora said firmly, thinking it an important thing to make clear from the outset.
The wolf made an unpleasant retching sound.
Flora felt vaguely insulted. “There is no need to put it quite like that,” she said, sniffing. She reached for her reticule, which had fallen to the floor beside her, and searched until she found her handkerchief. She wiped her face vigorously. She had never expected to discover that wolves produced saliva so generously, and she hoped it was an experience that her mind would allow her to forget fairly rapidly.
After Flora’s face was dry, she and the wolf did a little more staring at each other. Although Flora still felt rather wobbly, she was safely on the floor and she thought it best to remain there for the time being. She suspected that if she rose, she would soon find herself back there, in any case.
It was a most disconcerting experience, staring at the wolf. For Lord Wolfe’s human, blue-grey eyes looked out of the wolf’s skull, and although Flora’s instinct was to pass out from sheer terror, there was something about those eyes that . . . that . . . irritated her! It was peculiar, but she could not help it! And it was certainly steadying on the nerves, for it was all but impossible to feel both cross and terrified simultaneously.
“If you did not eat those bridegrooms . . .” she thought out loud, deciding that if she was going to be cross then she might as well work out exactly what she was being cross about.
Lord Wolfe’s grey-blue eyes looked at her steadily.
And then, quite suddenly, Flora knew the truth of the matter. “Why, you were those bridegrooms!” she said. “Every single one of them!” And, although she knew there were more important issues to be concerned about presently, she couldn’t help but say, “You rake! You absolute rake! Why, that means you are still married to all those women!”
The wolf made a noise that Flora interpreted as a snigger.
“Don’t you dare laugh,” she said, casting her gaze about for her fan. She seized it from where it had fallen, very close, and hit the wolf on the nose, very hard. “And you intended to do the same to dear Emily, just so you could make off with her fortune! Why, of all the despicable, repulsive, awful . . .” Flora trailed off. It was supremely difficult to be cross in the face of a wolf nodding its head at you. It was, in fact, the most ridiculous thing she’d ever seen: a large, blonde wolf with blue-grey eyes, nodding its head as she insulted it.
It almost took the fun out of it.
Still, Flora thought it best to rally. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” she tried.
“Raaaaooooo!” the wolf said. It said it rather petulantly, Flora thought, and she wasn’t having any of that. For even if it could be said to be a trifle unfair of life to have made Lord Wolfe a gentleman who turned into a wolf and back, that was still no excuse for practising such gross deceptions on innocent girls.
Flora was just about to deliver an impromptu lecture when the wolf prodded her with a paw. It was not a violent prod, but nevertheless Flora found herself rather startled by this. Suddenly, the thought that Lord Wolfe might eat her, just to conceal the evidence, seemed more likely. “You will swing from the yardarm like a common criminal if you do me harm!” she said. She realised this was rather melodramatic, but the room was spinning unkindly and she thought that if a lady ever had an excuse for melodrama, then this was it. “Keep back, you foul fiend!” she added for good measure, and attempted to hit the beast with her fan once more . . . only she missed, she thought, and fell in rather a heap.
To be tongue-bathed by a wolf twice in one evening was too much for even the most hardened of creatures, Flora thought, as she came to and realised that she had swooned yet again. And she was certainly not a hardened creature. Yet when she managed to open her eyes and bat the wolf away from her face, very feebly, she realised that at least she had been satisfied on the important question of whether or not she was to be Lord Wolfe’s supper. For it seemed unlikely that he would have held back twice from munching upon her bones whilst she was unconscious if he were set upon such a thing, unless he were a very sadistic beast – and on the whole she suspected that he were not.
After a few minutes, Flora managed to sit up once more, and when she had applied her handkerchief to her damp face once more, longing for some scented soap and water, she looked about her. The wolf was sitting at a distance. In front of him, a mess of twigs and logs from the fire were spread out in a jumble.
“Aaaarooooooo!” the wolf said politely when he noticed she was looking, and waved a paw towards the wood.
Flora looked. At first, she was not sure what she was looking at. But then . . . her eyes began to make out shapes. Obviously, the wolf had arranged the twigs to mean something. The question was, what? Intrigued, she leaned forward a touch. Were they intended to be letters? “Oohm,” she tried.
The wolf said nothing, but when Flora looked at him, she thought she saw derision in his eyes.
“Well, it’s not my fault you are possessed of dreadful penmanship,” she said haughtily.
The wolf made a low growl that could have been a laugh . . . or a suggestion that he really might eat her if she didn’t try harder.
“Very well! Very well!” Flora said hastily, and turned her gaze back towards the wood. Perhaps that gap between the letters was intentional? “Oo hm,” she tried. Well, it was certainly cryptic, she thought.
The wolf made a dismissive noise. She had never heard a wolf make a dismissive noise before, but there was no doubt in her mind that the wolf in front of her had just made one. With one front paw it very clumsily shifted one of the twigs in the first letter.
“Oh, so it isn’t an ‘o’,” Flora said. “Is it a ‘c’?”
The wolf shook its head. It didn’t look like a natural movement.
“Oh!” Flora said. “This is like a parlour game, is it not? Perhaps you should tap your paw once for yes and twice for no.”
The wolf tapped a front paw twice.
“Hilarious,” Flora said. “Now . . . is it an ‘e’?”
“Could it be a ‘b’?”
Flora looked at the wood once more. “G?”
“I beg your pardon?” Flora said testily. “Is it a ‘g’ or not?”
The wolf bared his teeth.
For some reason, Flora was not scared – merely infuriated that he had the temerity to be grumpy with her under such circumstances as these! “Why, Lord Wolfe, what large teeth you have,” she said frostily, and folded her arms.
The wolf put his teeth away. And after it had bowed its head in a rather cowed manner, it tapped, just once, on the floor.
“Thank you,” Flora said, still rather frostily, for she had decided that she would not forgive Lord Wolfe for the present. She concentrated on the wood once more. Now, if the first letter was a g . . . “Go hm,” she tried. “Oh! Go home,” she said, rather pleased at working it out all by herself. And then felt put out. “Go home!” she said. “Go home?”
The wolf tapped a paw on the ground. “Arooo,” it agreed.
“Well, I like that!” Flora said, attempting to rise from the floor. Her legs felt rather wobbly still, but she was relieved to find that they didn’t precipitate her instantly back down on to the ground when she managed it. “I come here, at great danger to my person and my reputation, all in order to . . .” She paused. She did not think that to steal your incriminating papers was a good way to go on. She needed something that made Lord Wolfe look bad, not herself. “To fetch the evidence I needed to save my dear cousin from a rakehell,” she decided upon, “and now I am to be thrown out by a wolf without any explanation!”
The wolf – or rather Lord Wolfe – looked at her. It was a very meaningful look.
“Very well,” Flora said stiffly, realising that if she were to seek an explanation from a wolf then she was in for a long and boring night. “I shall depart. I only hope I am not set upon by robbers, or attacked by drunkards, on my way home,” she said rather pointedly – for although it was not technically his fault that she must now make her way home alone and hope that she could re-enter No. 2 Royal Crescent without being detected, she still thought that morally it was his fault, if not actually.
Once more, the infuriating wolf rolled its eyes. And then, to Flora’s surprise, did a series of odd contortions, which she finally deduced were intended to rid it of the last torn remnants of its clothing. Then it – or, rather, he – stood and walked out of the room!
For a moment, Flora wondered if Lord Wolfe was about to take in some evening entertainment while she languished in the study, too nervous to leave it. But then, when the wolf turned back and looked at her once more, she realised that it – he – intended to accompany her home!
“Oh no,” she said decidedly. “That just won’t do. Really, Lord Wolfe. I expect I attract enough attention in this ridiculous outfit, without being accompanied by a large wild animal. It would not be sensible.”
Lord Wolfe looked her up and down, and then let out a strange barking noise that Flora suspected was a snigger. But the infuriating creature did not retreat; instead, when Flora decided that the only way to proceed was to push past it and leave it behind, it followed her, quite dogging her heels.
However, to Flora’s great relief, as soon as she exited the house, Lord Wolfe slunk into the shadows – although close by – so she thought that they wouldn’t make quite such a spectacle as she had feared. And, as she made her way quickly down the street, she had to admit to herself that she did feel somewhat safer, knowing that if a ruffian were to accost her, Lord Wolfe was in biting range.
Soon, she was outside No. 2 Royal Crescent. To her great relief, the house was both well-lit and quiet, by which she deduced that the servants were still awake, as Emily had not yet returned from the ball. Hoping against hope that the hallway would be empty, Flora opened the door a crack and slipped in, doing a supremely unladylike sprint to her bedroom when she found herself quite alone.
Once the door of her chamber was shut behind her, however, she could not resist peering out of the window to see if Lord Wolfe lurked below. To her annoyance, he did! He must have slipped around the Crescent and into the back gardens when she had been sneaking into the house itself. And while she felt it incumbent upon herself to do a kind of death leap away from the glass and behind the curtain – for it wouldn’t do if he saw her looking out specifically for him! – she thought (and it made her teeth grind, indeed) that, illuminated by the bright moonlight, she saw the wolf wink up in her direction.
The word she uttered as she leapt – banging her leg hard against a small occasional table as she did so – could not have been repeated in polite society.
The next morning, Flora, Emily and Mrs Simmons were sitting in the drawing room with their embroidery, waiting for the arrival of Lord Wolfe – for Emily was convinced, as she told Flora more than once, that he would come straight to their house on his return from his business duties, and Mrs Simmons was quite of the same mind.
Flora wasn’t quite sure how to proceed, once Lord Wolfe did appear. For how could she demand an explanation from him with both Mrs Simmons and Emily present? It was an impossibility. For much of the night she had tossed and turned in bed, fretting anxiously about how to warn Emily that Lord Wolfe was not all he seemed – but she had come to no firm conclusion. To inform Emily that her would-be fiancé was a werewolf would not be a wise step, she thought. For either Emily would not believe her, or – and perhaps worse – she would believe her, and would think it a fearfully romantic and adventurous thing. The danger that Lord Wolfe’s werewolf status would increase his desirability in Emily’s eyes was a very real one indeed!
The alternative – that she approach Mr Woodbury – Flora had dismissed immediately. He would think her jealous, she had concluded with some distaste, and he might even send her home so she could not interfere in Emily’s affairs. Besides, to reveal that Lord Wolfe was a werewolf was also to reveal that she had journeyed to his house unchaperoned in the darkness. There was no possible way that a revelation of that kind could go down well, either with Mr Woodbury or with Emily herself.
No, the only step was to confront Lord Wolfe and demand that he desist in paying his attentions to her cousin. Only, how was such a thing to be accomplished? For no well-bred young lady would entertain a gentleman alone, even in broad daylight and in her own house, and even if the gentleman were courting her cousin and not herself.
So it was difficult for Flora to concentrate on her cousin and Mrs Simmons as they talked, and she was glad that when she did attempt to hear their words she discovered that they only spoke of fashion and of marriage and of dancing.
When Emily let out a little shriek, Flora neatly punctured her finger with her needle.
“Goodness! He is here!” Emily said, flying to the window and waving vigorously.
“Move away from the window, dear,” Mrs Simmons said rather sharply. “It is not modest to hang out like that.”
Flora, sucking her injured finger, thought it all too likely that Emily actually hoped to fall out – so Lord Wolfe could catch her.
Emily moved away with good-natured grace and sat back down, chattering and chattering until Flora grew quite out of patience with her and almost wished that Lord Wolfe would hurry up and enter the drawing room. If he were present then she would not feel so anxious, perhaps. The thought of encountering him again, now she knew his secret, was a curious fluttery one that made her wish to rise and pace about the room – but she did not because to do so would only invite questions from Emily. She felt that she could not say a word at that moment – not one.
“Lord Wolfe is taking an age,” Emily said after a while. She did not seem perturbed by this, only curious. She rang a bell and a maid popped up. “Did Lord Wolfe lose his way?” she asked with a laugh.
“No, miss,” the maid said, bobbing. “He asked for Mr Woodbury, miss. They are in Mr Woodbury’s study.”
Emily’s eyes grew round as saucers.
“Thank you,” Mrs Simmons said in dismissal, seeing that Emily had lost the power of speech.
The little maid bobbed her head again and shot out, closing the door behind her.
“Calm yourself, Emily,” Mrs Simmons said, although she did not look calm herself. “There is no need to be anxious, just because Lord Wolfe is passing the time of day with Mr Woodbury.”
Flora’s heart was beating very quickly in her chest. She felt quite ill. What was she to do now? It was plain that she had forced Lord Wolfe’s hand, and even now he was asking Mr Woodbury for consent to marry Emily. And there was no way she could prevent it!
“Emily, consider—” Flora began urgently, unsure of the words to say but knowing that she must at least try to stop this disaster. If she could but persuade Emily to say no to Lord Wolfe, even if it was a coy no that suggested she was amenable to future offers from him, that would be an excellent beginning.
The door to the drawing room opened. Flora half-rose and then thought better of it. The room was very hot and very close all of a sudden. Strange spots danced in front of her eyes. But – to Flora’s momentary relief and surprise – Lord Wolfe did not appear. Instead, Mr Woodbury was alone. Although, she noticed, he did appear both puzzled and put out.
“Flora,” Mr Woodbury said, after a moment. “You must count your blessings. Lord Wolfe has come to me, as your father is absent, to ask for my consent if you will accept his proposal of matrimony.”
Many things seemed to happen at once. The room narrowed and became small. Emily emitted a peculiar noise. Mrs Simmons dropped her embroidery basket and scattered the floor with a tangle of thread. And . . .
A revolting smell occurred.
Flora, unable to bear it any longer, batted the smelling salts away from her nose.
“Oh, Flora!” an excitable voice said, and the smell returned. “Do hold still. You have swooned!”
Flora opened her eyes. She was quite sick of swooning. She had spent many years happily without the need to swoon, and yet in the past two days she had swooned three times! It spoke of a weak constitution, that she was sure of, and yet she had previously thought herself to be both strong and unshockable.
“Ah, your colour is returning to your cheeks,” Emily said, beaming down at her. “How happy I am to see that you are recovering.”
Emily took in the scene. She had been transported to a sofa, she saw. Her head was in her cousin’s lap (and her cousin’s hand the one assaulting Flora’s nostrils with the foul stench of the smelling salts). Mrs Simmons sat close by with an anxious expression, as did Mr Woodbury.
As did Lord Wolfe.
He had, Flora noticed, trying not to convulse with shock, a most peculiar expression upon his face: his cheeks were pale and he almost looked as if he were genuinely concerned for her! However, once he noticed her eye upon him, the colour flooded back to his face and there appeared the glimmer of a smile upon his lips.
He was, Flora felt quite certain, mocking her! Lest he wink, and she should feel provoked enough to rise up and punch him upon the nose, she struggled to rise to a sitting position.
After Mr Woodbury had asked after her health and she had replied, the assorted company sat and stared at each other for a moment. Or rather, Flora thought, feeling that the situation was a ridiculous one, they stared just past each other’s noses. Even when she tried, she could not catch the eye of anyone but her cousin – and when she did, Emily’s happy expression and beaming smile seemed quite peculiar to Flora. Was Emily happy that she had escaped marriage to Lord Wolfe in such an unusual fashion? Or was she merely smiling whilst she secretly plotted Flora’s downfall?
The silence was broken by Mrs Simmons . . . who asked after Flora’s health. And once Flora had replied, Emily then asked a vastly similar question of her. It was all most irritating, Flora thought, and resolved that if Lord Wolfe were to query if she were well, then she would tell him she suspected she suffered from plague . . . or from fleas.
She was spared this, however, by Emily, who instead opened up a whole new world of horrors to Flora by suggesting that she needed the attendance of both her father and Mrs Simmons in quite another part of the house.
Although Flora had been anxious to speak with Lord Wolfe, she now found that she was most anxious not to. After all, she told herself, the danger of his marrying Emily was now past – for Emily would not be persuaded to accept him, she thought, now that he had shown himself monstrously unfaithful to her affections. Now it seemed that it was she, herself, who was in danger! Why on Earth had he offered for her? And how was she to turn him down? For Mr Woodbury – and her dear parents – would surely not hear of her declining such a seemingly good offer, when it had become increasingly clear over the past few years that no offer at all would be coming.
However, it was difficult to frame a coherent reason why she should not be left alone with Lord Wolfe – particularly as her throat seemed to have closed up with both dread and, it had to be confessed, indignation – and by the time she had thought of anything to say at all, it was too late. She was alone in the drawing room with Lord Wolfe. And he – curse it – was grinning.
Flora decided that the best way to conduct herself would be with absolute propriety – and absolute indignation. So she sat up very straight, held her head up and endeavoured to look down her nose at him – even though he was decidedly taller than she.
His grin faded a little. “Well, Flora,” he began.
Flora was having none of that! “Miss Pilkington,” she said freezingly. She wished she had a fan at hand. She fancied that although it had been satisfying to hit him in his wolf form around the nose, it would be infinitely more so to hit him in his human shape. However, she did still have her embroidery, so she made sure to keep a firm grip on her needle.
Intriguingly, the freezing tone appeared to work a little too well. Lord Wolfe’s expression turned icy. Flora had thought him insufferable and overenthusiastic and far too elegant and well-dressed and handsome for words – but now she discovered she was forced to add ‘haughty’ and ‘arrogant’ to the list. She was also forced to confess to herself (certainly not to him) that he did both extremely skilfully. She hoped that next time she encountered him in public he would not administer to her the cut direct, for she was not sure that she could bear it without mortifying tears.
“Oh, don’t leak,” Lord Wolfe said. “Pull yourself together, Flora.”
To Flora’s surprise, being treated like an idiotic schoolgirl had quite an invigorating effect on her nerves. “Miss Pilkington!” she insisted, wondering if she dared pull her pocket handkerchief from her bodice and blow her nose in public.
“If I must,” Lord Wolfe said, rolling his eyes. He brandished a large silk handkerchief in her direction, and Flora accepted it with misgivings.
However, the eye-roll had helped to bolster up her courage. For she remembered that the last time she had seen him perform such a move, he had been a large wolf – and it soothed her anxiety to remember that she had him at a disadvantage.
“I will not marry you,” Flora said after she had discreetly made use of the hanky. She offered it back to him, and he pulled a face and waved it away, which mortified her more than she cared to admit.
“I didn’t ask you to,” Lord Wolfe replied.
Flora stared at him, rather slack-jawed. He stared back, evidently mocking.
“I hate you!” Flora felt moved to say.
Lord Wolfe eyed her in a rather amused fashion, and reached into his waistcoat pocket to withdraw a snuff box. After he had taken a pinch, he sighed. “Much better.” He pocketed the box. “Temper, young lady,” he said, and wagged his finger.
However, before Flora could decide whether to punch him on the nose or to brain him with a vase, he spoke again. “My apologies for the deception,” he said, not looking at all sorry. “But it was a damned good scheme of mine, was it not?”
“I beg your pardon?” Flora said, turning on the ice again.
“How else could we have had this heart-to-heart, you little ninny?” Lord Wolfe said bracingly. “We would never have had this time alone unless I had concocted such a genius scheme. Now, I expect you have things you wish to ask me.” He sat back on the sofa opposite her, legs spread disgracefully wide. Flora was half-surprised that his inexpressibles did not split and publicly shame him.
“You will not try and marry Emily?” Flora asked, a warning tone in her voice. While there were other things she longed to say – a comment on his ‘genius scheme’, and how she wished to slaughter him for it, being one such item on her mental agenda – she wished to first make his position vis-à-vis Emily quite clear.
“I will not,” he agreed rather amiably.
“And . . . and you do not actually eat people?”
“Not unless I am incredibly peckish,” Lord Wolfe said with an irritating smirk. He took a coin from his pocket and began to play with it, as if they were merely talking of something of no import, such as the weather!
“I warn you—” Flora began.
“Don’t be tiresome,” Lord Wolfe said, his nimble fingers stilling for a moment. “Of course I don’t eat people.”
“Very well,” Flora said, and Lord Wolfe’s fingers began to twiddle once more – as if, she thought, he had perhaps actually been more concerned that she believe him than he outwardly appeared!
Flora watched his fingers move; there was almost something hypnotic about it.
“If you have questions you had better ask them,” Lord Wolfe said casually. “Or shall I get on with the proposal?”
Flora spluttered. “You are beyond belief!”
Lord Wolfe straightened himself up for a moment in order to do a sardonic bow. “You are correct, madam.”
“You are not how you have presented yourself over the past days,” Flora said, her temper getting the better of her. “You are insufferable! Infuriating! In . . . in . . .”
“Intolerable?” he suggested.
“My lady, I aim to please.”
Flora seethed. But she thought that, on reflection, it would be better to seethe later, when she had time to spare. Right now she required her explanation! “Explain yourself!” she said.
“I cannot,” he said. “I fear I was born this way.”
“Which way?” Flora said, slightly confused.
“Intolerable. Plus those other descriptors.”
“No, you . . . you . . .”
“Yes!” Flora said. And then: “I mean . . . Oh, do stop toying with me, Lord Wolfe – if that even is your name,” she said, rather despairing. “Just explain why you are . . . why you . . . Oh, just tell me and then leave me in peace!”
Lord Wolfe was making a sort of snorting noise, which – she realised – was him trying not to laugh.
“This is intolerable!” she said, rising from her sofa and making towards the door. She felt tearful once more, although she could not have explained why. It was the stress of the situation, and the sense that he was laughing at her, she suspected. Although . . . it did not explain why she felt quite so depressed and low all of sudden, when those things should have contrived to make her angry rather than sad.
“Miss Pilkington,” Lord Wolfe said, rising and catching her gently by the wrist. “Do sit down. I am sorry.”
Flora sat obediently, trying not to feel ridiculous.
Lord Wolfe stood for a moment looking down at her. His expression was serious, and although she preferred that, she found it made her feel unreasonably nervous.
Then he sat. “There is not much to tell,” he said. He looked down at his boots. They were so well shined that he must have been able to see his reflection in them. “For most of my life I was as other men, and then one evening I . . .” He shrugged. “Once I realised that my affliction was permanent, and that every night I would turn if but one moonbeam struck me, I left my home in secret.”
Flora felt very sorry for him all of a sudden. “But that was no excuse for defrauding those women,” she said severely, deciding that he didn’t deserve her sympathy, even though he had it.
His eyes twinkled and he did not look half as sorry as he ought to have, Flora thought. A little of her sympathy melted away.
“You may judge me,” he started.
“I do,” Flora interrupted.
Lord Wolfe eyed her. “Hush. I am talking. As I was saying, you may judge me if you wish, but –” and here he assumed a sanctimonious expression – “I only took half of each of their dowries.”
Flora opened her mouth to say something cutting.
“Besides,” Lord Wolfe said, interrupting her even before she’d had a chance to speak, “I was confident that none of them loved me deeply enough to care too much when I was ‘eaten’ by a wolf. Indeed,” he added, slapping his thigh, “one hundred per cent of my ‘wives’ are now remarried!”
“And that makes it acceptable, does it?” Flora asked, when Lord Wolfe looked at her expectantly.
“Why, you are a . . .”
“Yes!” Flora said. “And a toad!”
“I’d lief as not be a toad,” Lord Wolfe said. “Not if I don’t have to be.”
“Well, you are,” Flora said.
“If you say so, my lady,” Lord Wolfe agreed amiably.
“That . . . that doesn’t mean you will become a toad this evening, does it?” Flora asked, suddenly nervous that whatever curse had been laid upon Lord Wolfe was somehow changeable.
“Oh, no,” Lord Wolfe replied with a grin. “The toad is merely metaphorical.”
There was a faint cough outside the door.
“Bollocks,” Lord Wolfe said. “So, will you marry me?”
“No!” said Flora. And then, with horror, remembering that she would have to explain to her family why she had turned down an ‘eligible lord’, “Yes! I mean . . . no! Of course not!”
Lord Wolfe gave her a somewhat bemused look and strode to open the door to admit Mr Woodbury.
“Am I to . . . er . . . wish you both joy?” Mr Woodbury asked.
“Alas, the lady is too modest,” Lord Wolfe said, quite clearly enjoying the horror that Flora knew must be visible on her face. “She has declined, and yet I still have hope.” He bowed and – to Flora’s amazement – took her hand and kissed it, before departing. “I will call again tomorrow, if I may?”
Thinking back, later that night, Flora still had no idea why she had nodded at his suggestion and then – horrors – had smiled at him, quite genuinely, before he left the room.
Although the expression of shock on his face had been worth it, she had to admit.
That night, Flora still considered herself to be in a state of shock when there was a soft tap on her door. She wondered if it would be Emily, and if she should pretend to be asleep. For although she had attempted to speak with Emily alone, Emily had not allowed it, and now Flora felt quite worn out and disinclined to have a heart-to-heart on such a confusing matter as Lord Wolfe. Particularly as circumstance still made it all but impossible for her to share her real concerns about Lord Wolfe with Emily. However, Flora decided that it would be cowardly to avoid her cousin, who was no doubt upset and confused, so she called out, “Come in!”
Emily slid in, smiling slightly. Her smile widened when she caught sight of Flora. “Oh, you silly! What if I had been . . . my father!” she said. “And you in your nightgown.” She perched on the edge of the bed next to Flora. For a moment she was silent, and then she laughed. “I should be cross with you,” she said. “For Papa was going to take me to the Card Assembly tonight at the Assembly Rooms, only now he is in a temper with me because I failed to net Lord Wolfe and he will not let me go!” She sighed dramatically. “And I have been practising my whist for days and days. I do wish you would persuade Lord Wolfe to persuade my father to take us to next week’s. I feel sure it needs a man’s touch to make Papa see sense.”
Flora blinked at her. “Dear Emily . . . are you not upset that Lord Wolfe has asked for my hand? He seemed so set on you.”
Emily laughed. “And I so set on him!” She pinched Flora. “I confess we would have looked well together, but the more I grew to know him, the more certain I became that he was not my ideal.”
“Why not?” Flora could not prevent herself from asking.
“Oh, for a thousand reasons! He was so constantly polite!” Emily said, getting up off the bed and whirling around the bedposts. “I am convinced that he had not a jot – not a jot! – of romance or adventure in his soul!”
“No?” Flora asked rather faintly.
“No, indeed!” Emily said. She pulled a face. “We conversed solely on matters of taste and of . . . and of the weather!” She sat back down, a little out of breath from her exertions. “Although he is very nice in his clothing and appearance, and most handsome,” Emily added hastily. “I am sure he would make a . . . a fine husband, if you were to accept him! Although I wish you wouldn’t,” she entreated, grabbing Flora’s hands. “I am sure we can find a gentleman who is more suited to your intellect,” she said earnestly.
“I—” Flora began.
But Emily interrupted her. “I confess I was surprised at today’s events,” she said, her brow puckering just for a moment. “For I had not completely decided to decline his proposals, if they were forthcoming.” She sighed luxuriously. “Ah, he is so handsome, and his breeches fit so snugly about his posterior!”
Emily giggled. “Do not say you have not noticed? However, I am certain that both you and I will do well without him. That is!” she said, sounding rather aghast at herself, “if you have not decided to accept him!”
Flora laughed, despite herself. “I most certainly shall not accept him,” she said, and she gave Emily a hug. “I could not accept one who has played so lightly with my dear cousin’s feelings, however well his inexpressibles fit!”
Emily dimpled. “I knew you had noticed. I take care to drop my fan or my embroidery at least once a visit so that I am presented with the charming view when he bends to retrieve my belongings for me!”
And to Flora’s surprise, her cousin’s words made her burst into giggles that she could not prevent. It was pleasant to laugh, and to laugh so well, after such a stressful day, and she was happy indeed that although Emily suffered – although she strove to conceal it – from the minor pangs of disappointment, she quite clearly did not suffer from a broken heart.
The only question in Flora’s mind now was how on Earth was she to extricate herself from the new mess she found herself in? For to wed Lord Wolfe was an impossibility – particularly as she felt quite sure that even if she did accept, the scoundrel would quite probably jilt her at the altar. But to turn him down would be to invite unbearable criticism and disbelief from her family – and from her mother and sisters in particular; she did not think she could bear to hear her mother begin every sentence with ‘if you had married Lord Wolfe’ for the rest of eternity.
It was a conundrum indeed, and by the time Emily had sleepily said goodnight and left Flora to brood on her ill fortune, Flora had come no closer to solving it. Which was why, when there was another gentle knock on the door Flora simply rose from her bed to answer it, grateful for the interruption.
“What!” Flora said, upon seeing a large, blond wolf before her. She made to close the door and prevent it from entering, but it streaked through before she could manage it.
The wolf looked at her; it had a laugh in its eyes.
Flora was suddenly very aware that she was in her nightclothes – and that although the guest she was currently entertaining was in wolf’s clothing, there was still a man in her bedchamber. It was the work of a moment to dive into bed and pull the bedclothes right up to her chin. Although once she was in bed, she realised that Lord Wolfe was now trapped in the room with her. This annoyed her. “How dare you!” she said. It wasn’t quite as admonitory as she had intended; in truth, it emerged as a squeak.
The wolf padded towards her bed.
Flora raised the bedclothes even higher. “You! You!” she spluttered.
The wolf spat something out on to the bedclothes. It was, Flora realised with fascinated distaste, a letter. Then the wolf turned and padded back to the door – where it stopped, turned back and looked at Flora. Its eyes twinkled.
“Turn around, you fiend!” Flora said sternly, trying not to quaver. “And if you dare look at me in my nightclothes I shall . . . I shall never forgive you!”
The wolf turned around. It didn’t make a sound, but its shoulders shook, and it was only with great difficulty that Flora prevented herself from treading on its tail as she approached it.
“Out!” she hissed as she opened the door a crack.
The wolf turned and – very slowly – looked her up and down. Its lips parted and its tongue slid out of its mouth.
“You—!” Flora began, raising her foot to smartly kick Lord Wolfe, but before she could accomplish this he had sprinted down the hallway and presumably towards an open ground-floor window.
Flora suppressed, with considerable difficulty, her squeal of rage, and turned back to the bed to read the letter.
It was short and to the point.
If you don’t marry me, I might just have to eat you. How could any man resist?
After she had torn it up, and stamped on the fragments for good measure before gathering them up and throwing them on the fire (for there was no need to be sloppy, even if one was agitated beyond measure), Flora finally took to her bed. She wished that she need never leave it again – unless she had the opportunity to kill Lord Wolfe, of course.
He was insufferable, that’s what he was. Insufferable. She had not thought that he could make her situation any more horrendous, but each time she saw him he contrived to accomplish this seeming impossibility – and to enjoy it! She did not think he was teasing her in such an unkind manner because she had thwarted his plans to steal Emily’s fortune; rather, she had the distinct impression that the scoundrel simply toyed with her to be perverse!
Still, whatever the truth of the situation, she was certain that he did not intend to marry her; she had no fortune to steal and nothing else to recommend her to a ‘gentleman’ of his tastes. She suspected he would simply slip away one day and leave them all to wonder at his fate. Why else would he remain in Bath, unless it were to plague her for just a few days longer?
“You look charming, Miss Pilkington,” Lord Wolfe said politely. And then, under his breath, he added, “Particularly the hat.”
Flora endeavoured to maintain her coy smile, as was appropriate for an unmarried woman taking a promenade in the Grand Pump Room with an eligible gentleman. “La, sir, you do me too much honour,” she said brightly. And then, when she saw the watchful attention of Mrs Simmons slip away for a moment, she stood upon Lord Wolfe’s foot as hard as she could. “Dear me!” she said, equally brightly. “Can you ever forgive my clumsiness?”
Lord Wolfe glared at her for a moment. And then, evidently recalling where he was, he schooled his face back into a bland and charming expression. The same bland and charming expression he had turned on Emily when attempting to charm her.
“Are you feeling faint?” he murmured. “If you are, I will show no hesitation in picking you up and carrying you to seek medical attention. Or perhaps I should throw you in the waters? They hold healing properties, or so I have heard.”
“I thank you for your kind thoughts,” Flora said loudly, just in case. Then, rather more meaningfully, “You wouldn’t dare.”
Lord Wolfe smiled at her. “Just try me, my lady,” he said. He looked down at his boot, where the dusty print of Flora’s shoe marred the perfect shine. “How depressing to look so soiled,” he said. “If only I had a hat such as yours to detract attention away from my feet,” he added, sotto voce.
“It is the height of fashion,” Flora said. It wasn’t a very witty retort, she thought glumly, particularly as his opinion of the hat – the very same Hussar’s hat that had caused her such distress but a few days before – concurred very firmly with her own. It truly was a hideous beast, but Emily had been so keen that she wear it that Flora had not had the heart to say no.
“Indeed?” Lord Wolfe said. “The height of fashion? I commend you upon your taste, Miss Pilkington. When we are married, I hope—”
“When we are . . .?”
“Married, Miss Pilkington. The connubial state. The wedded bliss. The leg-shackle. The—”
“I know what the word means,” Flora said, rather too sharply. She took a deep breath. “Let us not rush things,” she prevaricated. “For it is true that we know each other so ill. Indeed, I do not even know your name!”
“It is Lord Wolfe,” Lord Wolfe said lightly. “Ha ha.”
“Ho ho,” Flora replied politely.
“My Christian name is Alexander, Miss Pilkington,” Lord Wolfe said, after they had paced some more and Flora had maintained a pointed silence. “As in, the Great.”
Flora could not think of an adequate reply to this, so she did not try. Not only was he arrogant, but inexplicable! It was inexplicable why he would persist in his attempts to win her hand!
For a few minutes they continued to stroll about the room. Up the room. Down the room. Up the room. Down the room.
“Do you derive enjoyment from this exercise?” Lord Wolfe suddenly said. “For my part, I find it tedious in the extreme.”
“If you find the conversation lacking, perhaps you should endeavour to engage me in some, rather than imitating a particularly recalcitrant plank of wood,” Flora said with some vim. Although she said it politely, just in case anyone was laughing, and she added a dutiful, “Ha ha,” to give the appearance she were enjoying herself.
Though how anyone could enjoy themselves in the company of such a mercurial halfwit was beyond her comprehension!
Lord Wolfe made a gurgling noise, and Flora was surprised when it quickly turned into a hearty laugh – and a genuine one, at that. “I begin to think I really should marry you,” he whispered in her ear once the laughing fit had passed.
“Sir! You are quite beneath my touch!” Flora said from behind her fan, quite enraged. How dare he take her scorn as permission to press his suit!
“Indeed?” he said. His face was calm, and from this Flora suspected that she had succeeded in actually offending him. “Thunder and turf, you are quite high in the instep for a lady of your advanced age!”
“I think I must return to my cousin,” Flora said frostily, attempting to disengage her arm from Lord Wolfe’s without drawing attention to herself.
Lord Wolfe muttered something under his breath. And then, to Flora’s surprise, he cleared his throat and said, with bad grace, “My apologies. Would you do me the honour of another turn about the room?”
Flora, too dumbfounded to decline, allowed him to take her arm more firmly under his own and found herself guided about the room, while he engaged her in polite and genteel conversation of a general bent. He was so charming, and so gracious, that Flora almost forgot for a while that they had just exchanged insults, and that only last night he had . . .
Invaded her bedchamber and left her a rude and saucy note!
“Last night I had a most unpleasant experience!” she said, smiling up at him.
For a brief second he appeared taken aback. Then his expression smoothed over. “I am sorry to hear that.”
“A stray dog entered my bedchamber, quite without warning.”
“How dreadful,” he said blandly. “You have my sympathies.”
“It is of no matter,” Flora said. She smiled. “If he returns, I plan to empty the contents of a vase of flowers over him and then beat him out of the room with the vase itself. An excellent plan, is it not?”
Lord Wolfe shot her an amused look. “Perhaps the fine fellow thinks it worth the risk?”
“Then I shall ensure the poker from the fire is close at hand,” Flora said with equanimity. “I think he would be less likely to plague me if I branded him across the . . . across the . . .” She stopped, unable to think of a polite euphemism.
“The backside?” Lord Wolfe suggested wryly.
“Your cousin would disapprove, I think,” Lord Wolfe said, very low and very teasing.
Flora felt herself colour even redder. And she felt a strange and disturbing thing: jealousy.
This was, she thought, quite inexplicable. She did not want Lord Wolfe! He infuriated her! So why should she feel possessive of him and his . . . his . . . posterior? It beggared belief!
“You will marry me, I think,” Lord Wolfe said, and patted her on the cheek.
Of all the patronizing, condescending, superior . . .!
“For I grow determined to have you,” he continued, and gave her a smug, self-satisfied look.
“But why?” Flora asked, irritation giving way to a deep weariness.
“Because you do not wish to have me!” he said triumphantly and patted her on the arm this time.
And to Flora’s deep dismay, by the time she had thought up a witty and cutting retort to this insult, he had steered them back to her family, and so she was forced to smile and nod and speak of the weather, while inside she seethed and wished she were a man so she could challenge the scoundrel to a duel!
And as soon as she had that thought, she despaired. It was Emily who wished for adventures, not her. So why was she having such melodrama foisted upon her? Life was, it appeared, vastly unfair.
However, it seemed perfectly fair to Flora that, if she were unhappy, then the cause of her unhappiness – the dreadful Lord Wolfe – should suffer too. He did not really wish to marry her, she thought. Indeed, he would rue the day he had ever offered for her.
When she smiled up at Mr Woodbury, dimpled, and announced that she had accepted Lord Wolfe and hoped for a spring wedding, the look of shock – although hastily removed – on Lord Wolfe’s face was almost enough to cheer her up.
Flora awoke suddenly from a deep sleep and tried not to shriek. Someone had a hand over her mouth! She was to be murdered in her bed!
“Be quiet,” a very familiar voice hissed.
Flora squeezed her eyes shut and lay very still. Was this a dream? Perhaps if she lay still and prayed to God, it would be a dream. For surely there was only one thing worse than entertaining a wolf in her bedchambers . . . and that was entertaining Lord Wolfe in human form in her bedchambers.
The room was gloomy, but she could tell by the quality of light that filtered through the curtains that dawn had come. She felt as if she had not slept a wink.
Cautiously, she opened one eye. And then shut it, very quickly. “Lord Wolfe!” she whispered, scandalised. “You are . . . not wearing the full complement of clothing!”
“Well, no,” Lord Wolfe admitted. “Do you know how hard it is to carry a full suit in your mouth?”
Flora counted to ten before she spoke. “If you entered my chambers as a wolf, pray tell me how you plan to leave undetected before nightfall? Which is, let me remind you, a whole day away!”
“You may open your eyes, you know,” Lord Wolfe said cheerfully. “Unless the mere sight of my manly chest will rob you of your innocence?”
Flora’s eyes snapped open. “How dare you!” she said, trying not to look at his chest. It was indeed manly. Under his foppish clothing he had evidently concealed a well-muscled, taut, delicious . . .
“Hah!” Lord Wolfe said, reminding Flora how odious he was.
Flora closed her eyes once more. “There is a wrap, hanging in the wardrobe,” she said, attempting to keep her voice low and measured. “Please do me the courtesy of covering yourself. While you may not be a gentleman, I am a lady, and you offend my honour by behaving in such a fashion.”
There was silence. Flora half-hoped that the silence was because he had leapt from the window to his doom. However, all too soon, she heard a rustling and the opening and closing of wardrobe doors.
“You are safe to look, Miss Pilkington,” Lord Wolfe said, clearing his throat, with what Flora thought sounded like a touch of embarrassment.
Flora opened her eyes – and was overcome by an immediate fit of giggles. For the sight of a grown man of tall and well-built appearance clad in her light pink wrap was one which no person could take without laughter. Except, perhaps, the grown man himself.
Lord Wolfe glowered at her. “Hah!” he said eloquently. And then, “Hah!” again.
However, before he could continue in this articulate vein, there was a sound that made Flora positively quake with terror. A knock at the door!
“Flora, I am coming in!” came Emily’s laughing voice. “Prepare yourself, you slugabed!”
Flora shot a pleading look at Lord Wolfe, whose expression showed unbounded dread for a brief moment. But then he evidently recovered his nerve. In one great leap he had crossed the room and, before Flora could protest that that would never work, he had concealed himself beneath the bed.
It was not a moment too soon, for scarcely had Lord Wolfe’s feet vanished from view when Emily opened the door and dashed across the room, leaping on to the bed and burying herself beneath the covers next to Flora.
“Good morning!” Emily beamed. “Did you dream of Lord Wolfe’s posterior?”
Even if the rake in question had not been concealed underneath the bed, Flora would have thought the query a trifle racy. But now, with the knowledge that he was listening, and – knowing him – making notes with which to plague her with at a later juncture, it seemed positively lewd.
She hoped that Lord Wolfe would not forget himself and do something as terrible as laugh, for the thought of Emily discovering him, and the subsequent scandal, made her feel quite faint.
Besides – if she were forced to marry him post-haste to prevent scandal, that meant she would actually have to marry him! And that, Flora thought, would never do. For although he was uncommonly handsome, and also wealthy, his riches were ill-gotten gains indeed, and his looks were not sufficient to make up for his shocking behaviour and disgraceful nature. And that was to say nothing of his ‘little furry problem’!
“Oh, Flora, you did dream about him,” Emily said, at a painfully loud volume. “I can tell by your dreamy expression that you did!”
“I did nothing of the sort,” Flora said quickly. “The very idea is repugnant,” she added for good measure, aiming her remarks at the intruder under her bed.
“Oh yes?” Emily said, and giggled in a way that made Flora’s blood run cold. “Well, I shall watch you closely when next Lord Wolfe comes to call, and if you colour then I shall know the truth of the matter!”
“I am not sure that Lord Wolfe will visit us today,” Flora said, hoping that at least this problem could be easily dealt with.
“Oh, but he promised Papa that he would call early this afternoon,” Emily said. “So do not fret!”
“I will do my best,” Flora said, thinking that all but impossible. For how could Lord Wolfe hope to keep his appointment when he was under her bed, clad only in inexpressibles and a lady’s wrap?
“Oh, Flora,” Emily said in a coo. She leaned over and kissed Flora on the cheek. “I begin to think you really do care for Lord Wolfe after all! Why, your face takes on quite a starry look whenever I mention him.”
“Oh, no, I never—”
“Hush,” Emily said seraphically. “You have my blessing.” She rose from the bed and scampered towards the door. “I will leave you to daydream!”
After the door had clicked shut, Flora lay there for a while, staring at the ceiling. Was it too much to hope that this was all a nightmare form which she would awaken?
It was. For from beneath the bed came the sound of a grown man collapsing into helpless, uncontrollable laughter.
Flora bore it for a while, and then her irritation got the better of her. “Are you quite finished?” she snapped.
The laughter became a kind of gurgle. Lord Wolfe cleared his throat. “Starry-eyed, eh?” came his voice from under the bed.
Flora held her tongue. For if she did not hold her tongue, she thought, she would explode.
Lord Wolfe emerged from beneath the bed, section by section. He was, Flora was marginally cheered to note, rather fluff-covered. However, his expression of hilarity was quite enough to offset any joy she felt from his dishevelled appearance.
“Lord Wolfe, please go away,” Flora said. It came out rather more heartfelt than she had perhaps intended, for Lord Wolfe’s smile slipped.
“I did not come here to torment you,” he said frostily. “I understand that I have put you in an uncomfortable position, vis-à-vis our engagement, and wished to assure you that I will make no demure if you choose to release me.”
Flora was flabbergasted – and what made it worse was that she was aware that his words had hurt her. She wished it were not so, but it seemed that some low down and vile part of her had actually wished to marry this man. Or, at least, had wished that his offer was genuine, even though she must reject it.
Flora struggled into a sitting position, with the covers well tucked about her. “Then I suggest you leave this instant, before you are discovered and forced to marry me – a proposition which you evidently regard as an unpleasant one!” she said.
Lord Wolfe paused in the act of brushing down his inexpressibles. “What?” he said. He had an ugly look on his face.
“You heard me!” Flora said, trembling with rage and . . . something else.
“Women!” Lord Wolfe said.
And then, to Flora’s fury, he did not elaborate on his theme – simply stomped towards the window, with every apparent intention of throwing himself from it.
“I beg your pardon?” Flora snapped, hoping to avert peril. For while she loathed him, she did not actually wish him to break his neck. Particularly whilst dressed in her wrap! And without any shoes!
Lord Wolfe turned back to her. “Were you happy that I laid aside all objections about the inequality of our match and made you a genuine offer? No! So, as I am a gentleman, I offer you a painless release to our match – and you are still not happy!”
Flora thought that this summary of events lacked an even glancing resemblance to the facts. “You only wished to marry me because I did not wish it! And now, when I have the upper hand, you have the uncommon cheek to wish your actions undone. You are a low, snivelling worm of a man and—”
“Enough!” Lord Wolfe roared. “Do you wish to marry me or no?”
There was a knock at the door and Lord Wolfe leapt, like a man possessed, into the wardrobe.
“Is all well, miss?” came a voice from outside. “I heard a noise and thought it best to check.”
“I am fine, thank you,” Flora called to the maid. “I believe there may be intruders in the garden, however, for I heard shouting.”
“I will call for the gardener to investigate,” came the voice from outside the door. “Ring your bell if you need me, miss.”
A low voice from inside the wardrobe said, a moment later, “How will I leave now, hmm?”
Flora did not answer – for she found, to her distress and annoyance, that she was crying. She hoped that Lord Wolfe would not discover it, and was peeved when after a while she felt an arm slip around her shoulder and gently pat her on the back. However, she thought it best to hide behind her hands for a little while longer, as the tears would come, although she tried her best to prevent them.
“We should not marry,” Lord Wolfe said pensively, continuing to pat. “For, all supernatural curses aside, we would most likely kill each other within the week.”
Flora sniffed and said nothing.
“However,” Lord Wolfe continued, now sounding highly surprised, “I find myself determined to have you, Flora.” He paused in his patting. “Er, unless you really . . . I mean . . . The devil!”
Flora sniffed some more. “There is no call for cursing,” she snuffled, trying to pull herself together. She could not decided how best to proceed. She did not want to marry such a man – a man who had toyed with the affections of other women and swindled them of their fortunes. That was not even thinking of the issues of a husband who transformed into a ravening beast each night and so could never visit the marital bed! Except . . . She felt herself blushing. He was on her bed now, was he not? And in broad daylight! With her in solely her nightdress, voluminous though it were!
“Say yes!” Lord Wolfe said, in a voice that was curiously close to a growl. And although he had ceased to pat her back, his arm still rested around her shoulders. It was . . . pleasant.
Suddenly, Flora had an excellent idea. It was an idea that not only prevented her from being wed – at least, this very instant – but would also delay her family’s inevitable wrath when she decided to release Lord Wolfe from his engagement. “I will marry you,” Flora said, “when the curse is broken!”
Lord Wolfe’s arm dropped away from her. “Fiend seize it!” he said, glaring at her. “That is worse than ‘no’!”
“I do not see why not,” Flora said, beginning to feel more composed. It was pleasant to feel that she had won this round in the battle of wits between them. Perhaps she would soon be able to plague him as much as he plagued her!
“I have been afflicted for nigh on five years,” he said crossly. “What makes you think that you – a slip of a girl – can cure me so easily, when I have tried so hard of my own account?”
“I am not a slip of a girl,” Flora said, glorying in being called so.
“Oh, no, indeed,” Lord Wolfe said, a sarcastic glint in his eye. “Why, you are six and twenty, I am told, which makes you quite the old woman.”
Flora decided to ignore this. “Well, you have had my answer,” she said smugly.
“And what an answer it is!” he snapped back.
Flora decided to ignore this too. “Do not fear,” she said airily, “for I shall find the cure and all will be well.”
Lord Wolfe muttered something. It could have been, “It won’t – for then I’ll be married to you,” but Flora decided that three times was an excellent number for ignoring things. Besides, she felt quite cheerful now. They said that a rake could not be reformed, and she was quite of the opinion that that was the case, but there was also nothing she liked more than a project – and she suspected that this would prove to be a good one. Particularly as she had barely begun, and yet he was already discomposed and disconcerted.
Flora felt so cheerful, all of a sudden, that she even gained the presence of mind to lecture him regarding his unorthodox invasion of her room. “Never, never, do so again,” she said severely. “What possessed you to do such a ridiculous thing?”
Lord Wolfe’s expression was not one of apology. It was one of defiance. “How else was I to see you alone once more?” he demanded. It was hard to demand things and be taken seriously when wearing a pink wrap, Flora thought. Particularly as he was being a ninny-hammer. She had thought that only girls could be described so, but presently Lord Wolfe fit the definition to perfection.
“Lord Wolfe,” she said severely, “if you had but asked, we could have taken a turn about the garden together this very afternoon, and in relative privacy.”
“Hah!” Lord Wolfe said. “Relative!”
“I employed that word,” Flora said tartly, “because you have a tendency to shout so.” She tilted her chin up high and delivered the killing blow. “I think you decided on this course because you have a secret love of melodrama, Lord Wolfe. To use the stairs, and to keep an appointment, would be far too pedestrian for a gentleman who is used to stalking the streets in fur and terrorising small birds.”
Lord Wolfe said nothing. Flora hoped that this was because she had overpowered him with her logic, rather than because he was too occupied with plotting her downfall to reply.
“But now I must call my maid and dress,” Flora said, deciding that she had had quite enough for one morning, particularly as she knew that – unless she were very fortunate – she would have to suffer another dose of Lord Wolfe that very afternoon.
Lord Wolfe raised an eyebrow and looked her up and down in a way that made Flora blush down to the tips of her toes.
“So you,” Flora said firmly, “must think of a way to leave before I grow bored and push you out of the window.”
Lord Wolfe’s expression darkened. And then, to Flora’s great horror, he threw open her window and swung himself over the edge!
She rushed towards the window, half-expecting to see his crumpled corpse, but instead was greeted by the top of his head – as he clambered down the twisted ivy and trellis that festooned the side of the house.
“Good riddance!” she called after him for good measure, and then felt a sudden terror. What if a neighbour looked out and saw a barely-dressed man descending from her window?
“Hah!” he called, and then he slipped into the bushes. A few moments later she heard the sound of horses neighing and the rattle of wheels. He had evidently thought ahead and planned his escape – without having the courtesy to tell her so! It was typical of the fiend, she thought, as she rang the bell for the maid.
It was only when she was dressed that she remembered that the insufferable man had made away with her wrap. And the thought occurred to her that although she had triumphed over Lord Wolfe, it was but a fleeting victory: for how on Earth was she to approach the impossible task of breaking a curse?
After several hours of brooding, and a light midday snack which refreshed her body but not her mind, Flora came to the dreadful conclusion that there was only one option open to her: she would have to consult Emily.
Of course, she would not have to actually confess to Emily the truth of the situation, however she felt that by asking for Emily’s advice she would be inflaming the girl’s already far too active imagination.
However, there was nothing else to be done. For while Flora prided herself on sensible nature and her ability to find solutions to life’s little problems, she was hampered in that she most firmly did not believe in the supernatural – which naturally was a problem when attempting to deal with a problem that must, by necessity, be of that origin.
So, when a moment presented itself, Flora drew Emily aside and asked her if she would care to walk in the garden with her. Emily agreed enthusiastically – for she had heard that there were intruders earlier, and she wished very much to see if they had left a clue that would help her detect them!
Flora hoped very much that the intruder had not left a clue; indeed, she had quite forgotten that she had raised such an alarm, and was glad that the gardener had been so prompt – or so tardy – in his investigations that he had failed to spot Lord Wolfe’s dramatic exit.
A cold chill came over her, and she shuddered at his close escape.
“You are troubled!” Emily said. “I hope I did not give you a headache when I woke you this morning. I am sorry, indeed I am. I should not have woken you, and I beg that you will forgive me!”
Flora told herself to pull herself together. “I am quite well, Emily,” she said firmly. “I merely wished to talk to you. I have read such a book!”
“Yes?” Emily said eagerly. “As good as one by Mrs Radcliffe?”
“Better!” Flora said, endeavouring to be enthusiastic. “In it, a man was cursed, and the curse was cured by the power of true love!”
Emily gasped. “How wonderful! You must lend me this book. Oh, how I long to read it.” She frowned. “Only, Papa has said that I must not read these gothic romances, for he tells me they have made me quite silly.”
Flora affected a sigh – although it was one of relief, for she had not yet worked out how she could lend Emily a book that did not exist. “Then you must not go against your papa’s wishes. However, let us talk of curses! How would you break a curse, if the one you loved laboured under one?”
“Oh, how thrilling!” Emily said. “Is it a disfiguring curse?”
“In a fashion,” Flora said. “I mean . . . why not?”
“Then it is most convenient we are in Bath!” Emily said.
“It is?” Flora said, a trifle puzzled. For while Bath was famous for the Cure, it was only known for healing gout and the consumption. These were, she thought, rather different to a wolfish affliction.
“Why, the Swineherd Prince!” Emily said, as if that were a reasonable thing to say.
“Oh, Flora,” Emily said, tapping her on the shoulder. “You are a silly! Do you not know the story? Why, it is quite delightful. Once upon a time there was a beautiful prince. Only, he was cursed by a terrible skin disease and exiled from the court! The poor prince wandered to and fro, and eventually he became a swineherd, to conceal his identity. However, his pigs contracted the curse and became disfigured too!”
“That is dreadful,” Flora said solemnly, trying not to laugh. “What happened next?”
“Why, the prince noticed one day that his pigs had stopped to bathe in some hot mud – and when they had done so, their skin had miraculously cleared! So he bathed in the mud himself, and emerged as handsome and as princely as before he had been cursed. So he returned to court, had many, many adventures, and when he became king he built his capital at the site of the miraculous mud baths – Bath!”
“That is . . . interesting,” Flora said, considering. Although the story was clearly a fairy tale, she was taken by the notion of the animals being cured, as well as the prince.
“It is more than interesting,” Emily said. “It is wonderful, and romantic! And that is how I would break a curse, if it could not be cured by love. With the miraculous baths of Bath.” She sighed dreamily.
“I expect it is worth an attempt,” Flora agreed.
Emily peered at her. “No one is cursed, are they?” she said, a touch hopefully.
“Only the gentleman in my book,” Flora said sternly, thinking that it would not hurt to include a moral in their conversation. “For such things are fictional, Emily.”
“Of course,” Emily said, a trifle deflated.
“Still,” Flora said, “I feel a sudden urge to take the waters. Shall we bathe this afternoon?”
Emily’s eyes widened. “Bathe? But . . . it looks a rather frightful experience,” she said dubiously. “Do you really think it will be fun?”
“I will encourage Lord Wolfe to attend us,” Flora said.
“Oh, then I will most certainly come, although I think Mrs Simmons will complain,” Emily said. She giggled. “I think Lord Wolfe would look most fetching wet, do you not?”
“Emily!” Flora said, rather scandalised – but mostly scandalised by her own mind, which seemed far too ready to agree with Emily, although she would never admit that out loud.
That afternoon, when Lord Wolfe arrived to attend them in their drawing room, Flora decided that she would not be embarrassed; instead, she would be firm, and perhaps that would prevent him from teasing her.
“Lord Wolfe,” she said, almost in the same instant as he entered the room. “Today we have decided to take the waters and would value your company.”
Mrs Simmons evidently could not prevent herself from shuddering. “The young ladies will not be persuaded against it,” she said plaintively. “Perhaps you, Lord Wolfe, can reason with them?”
“Take the waters?” he said, coming to sit by Flora on a small sofa. “Did you not try a glass when you arrived? The taste is . . . invigorating. I would be glad to stand by and watch you drink.”
“Oh, we mean to bathe!” Emily said. “Do join us. It will be so healthful.”
Mrs Simmons writhed where she sat. “Healthful!” she said, in a sort of moan.
“Emily has told me the tale of the Swineherd Prince and I am quite enchanted,” Flora said sedately.
“I do not know this tale,” Lord Wolfe said. He said it equally sedately, but Flora thought – or hoped – she detected an undercurrent of suspicion. She thought he deserved it, for today he had barely sat down before he had begun to tease her! “Perhaps you would favour me with the telling of it?”
“Oh, Emily recites it best,” Flora said, turning to Emily in appeal.
Emily blushed a little, but needed no encouragement to begin. When she had done, Lord Wolfe smiled and thanked her – and then turned to Flora.
“Pigs, eh?” he said, a curious look in his eye. Flora could not tell if it was amusement or rage. Perhaps, she thought, it was a combination of the two.
“Pigs,” Flora repeated.
“Pigs!” Mrs Simmons moaned, very faintly.
“The waters will freshen us up and cure us of any ailments,” Flora continued. She looked up and into Lord Wolfe’s eyes. “Even if we are not porcine in nature,” she said sweetly, and smiled.
Lord Wolfe raised an eyebrow. “I would be . . . glad to accompany you all,” he said. Flora saw that it cost him to say so, and was surprised that he had acquiesced so readily.
Once their party had arrived at the King’s Bath, however, Flora thought she understood why he had not complained: she suspected that he thought the ordeal – and she already classed it as such – would be much more painful for her than for him.
Flora had noticed the bathers before, for the giant communal cistern of the King’s Bath could be viewed by all from the windows of the Grand Pump Room. She had not gawped, however, as she had thought it impolite to do so. Others did not abide by her high standards though; today the onlookers seemed even more numerous than usual. All of Bath’s society appeared to have come out today, simply for the joy of seeing Flora in her bathing outfit.
When they had arrived at the bath and paid their fee, the attendants ushered Flora, Emily and Mrs Simmons into a changing area, where they were clad in petticoats and jackets of a particularly revolting brown linen. Flora had thought her Hussar’s hat a horror, but it was a joy when compared to the brown linen cap that she was given to cover her hair. It had a wide brim, and when she enquired why, she was told that she would be given a set of cotton handkerchiefs to wipe away her perspiration – and that the limp, used hankies could be stored in this brim for safe keeping.
At this news, Mrs Simmons nearly swooned – but Flora, who was determined to see this through, informed her that the water would cure any tendency towards faintness, and so the three ladies ventured out into the chamber which held the cistern, and quickly slid down until they were up to their necks in the warm, stinking water.
Lord Wolfe, wearing an identical hideous hat, waded over to them. He had a particularly annoying grin upon his face. “Pleasant, is it not?” he said politely. A vial of oil in a copper bowl bobbed past his shoulder, perilously.
“Most invigorating,” Flora said, batting away a similar floating bowl containing pungent pomanders.
A hot mist swirled around them. Flora realised that her hair, which was frizzy and uncontrollable at the best of times, would not be displayed to advantage in a hot, wet mist.
She wondered if she would ever get the smell of sulphur out of her skin.
Emily giggled. “Let us hope that these wide-brimmed hats make us unidentifiable from the pump room,” she said. “For I think we must look shocking!”
“You look charming as ever,” Lord Wolfe said. And then he turned to Flora and smirked!
It was not that Flora wished to be complimented by Lord Wolfe – particularly when she knew that she did look shocking. However, for him to lie to Emily in such a polite manner, and then to smirk at her in such a rude way, was equally unacceptable!
“Let me dab your brow,” Lord Wolfe said to Flora, wading closer and doing just that – which rendered her quite speechless.
“How long must we bathe?” Mrs Simmons said piteously.
Flora was about to answer her – she thought that five minutes would be quite long enough – when Lord Wolfe answered. “The physicians recommend a good half an hour for maximum effect,” he said bracingly. “Repeated daily, if possible.”
“I do not think we are unwell enough for all that,” Flora said, trying not to glare at him. “Although perhaps you would benefit from such a routine.”
“Ah, I am as hale and hearty as you,” Lord Wolfe replied with a smile.
By which Flora took to mean that if he was to be subjected to this on a daily basis, then she was to be subjected also – and that he meant them all to suffer for half an hour together today, simply to prove quite how awful such a proposition would be.
“The Swineherd Prince,” Flora said to Emily in as airy a fashion as she could manage. “Did he bathe more than once in the magic mud?”
Emily laughed. “Oh, just the once, I am sure. For no magic must be applied twice, I should think!”
“I am glad to hear it,” Flora said grimly.
Lord Wolfe snorted, and Emily looked at them both in incomprehension for a moment, before she was distracted by Mrs Simmons actually swooning.
Although Lord Wolfe rising through the steam to save a woman from drowning sounded romantic and impressive in principle, Flora thought, as she and Emily emerged from the pool under the watchful and curious gaze of all of fashionable Bath society, she rather thought that her life would have been just as complete without it.
Still, when the excitement was over, Mrs Simmons in bed with a fit of the vapours, and Emily and Flora curled up together on a sofa, Flora found that she had time to recollect that – even in brown linen – Lord Wolfe had indeed looked well wet, and that even if the evening found Lord Wolfe furry and four-legged once more, at least she would have a pleasant, if infuriating, subject for her dreams that night!
When Lord Wolfe attended the Woodburys the next day, he did not seem the slightest bit different to the day before. However, Flora did not despair – yet. For she suspected that even if he had been cured by the ‘magic mud’ of Bath, he would not tell her. It would be difficult for a man such as he to admit, she thought, that a woman such as she had been right, and had cured him with barely an effort.
However, when he made no mention of the previous day’s events – other than to enquire after the good health of Mrs Simmons, who was still in bed, recovering from the shock – Flora decided that she would have to prompt him.
“Did you sleep well last night, Lord Wolfe?” she asked, assuming an air of concern. “We were all afraid that you would catch a chill, moving directly from the warm atmosphere of the King’s Bath to the cold outside air.”
Lord Wolfe turned to her and bowed. “I am grateful for your concern, Miss Pilkington,” he said, with extreme politeness. “However, I am delighted to say –” Flora held her breath – “that I am as well today as I was yesterday.”
“I am glad to hear it,” Flora said gloomily, for she took him to mean that he had not seen any benefit to their terrible experience of the day before. However, she was not one to give up, so as soon as it was appropriate she stood and began to pace the room – and it was not long before Lord Wolfe joined her, requesting her company in the garden, despite the chill autumnal air.
“It did not work,” Flora said glumly when they were both outside and out of the hearing of her family.
“Surely you did not expect it to,” Lord Wolfe said rudely. But then, to Flora’s surprise, he continued with, “You had best marry me and have done with it.”
“I will not,” Flora said.
They strode around the garden for a time. Lord Wolfe set the pace, and he walked so fast that Flora was quite out of breath, but she did not with to say so as she suspected Lord Wolfe was doing it quite on purpose.
“Well, what shall I attempt next?” Lord Wolfe said eventually. He said it rather crossly, but Flora was shocked that he had said anything so sensible. It was almost as if he truly wished to be free of the curse so that he could marry her!
But then Flora’s common sense told her that she was wrong. For of course Lord Wolfe wished to be free of the curse; it was nought to do with her.
“Oh, you should . . .” Flora said, trailing off.
Flora had an idea. She suspected that it would not work, but at least she would not have Lord Wolfe’s company foisted upon her for a few days if he decided to try it. “Have you attempted to break the curse with a strong shock to your system?”
Lord Wolfe stopped in his tracks. He swung Flora round by her arm and glared at her. “What the devil do you mean?”
Flora thought it unpleasant of him to manhandle her in such a way. She decided that he deserved to suffer an equally unpleasant experience. “Why, I would suggest that if it is night-time that brings the change, you should endeavour to trick your body. If you are wise, you will return to your home immediately and spend the next few days in an artificial environment. I recommend complete darkness during daylight hours, and gaslights during the evening.”
Lord Wolfe did not move. Instead, he glared at her all the harder.
“Well?” Flora said. “I begin to believe you have no wish to change your situation.”
“Hah!” Lord Wolfe said. He whipped her around and began to walk once more – this time at even more vigorous a pace. Then he stopped dead. “I will do it,” he said, sounding most pained.
“You will?” Flora asked, rather amazed. She had not expected him to acquiesce at all; indeed, she had thought that her suggestion would be enough to send him away from Bath entirely!
“I will,” Lord Wolfe said grimly. “And I will do so immediately.”
He did not tell a lie. He departed that very moment, and Flora was left feeling strangely abandoned. Even though Emily tried to distract her, she found it curiously hard to forget Lord Wolfe – who soon, she thought, would be languishing in the darkness in his basement, as she had proscribed.
Even an evening at the Assembly Rooms, in a new gown and surrounded by dozens of Emily’s latest enthusiastic and handsome suitors, failed to distract her from her brooding.
It was inexplicable, and Flora felt quite cross with herself. Surely she did not, and would not, miss Lord Wolfe? She could not conceive of such a thing. She would not conceive of such a thing.
And yet, she thought, once she were alone in bed, with two glasses of champagne bubbling through her, she did.
Three days later, Lord Wolfe came to call. Flora had decided that she would grace him with a smile when he finally came by, however he appeared so cross when he finally entered the drawing room that her smile immediately fell away and was replaced by an intense feeling of pique.
How dare he disappoint her with such an unpleasant expression! She wondered, for a moment, if he had actually succeeded in breaking the curse, and if that were the cause of his temper: that now the curse was done, he must keep his promise and marry her.
The thought made her quite infuriated.
However, he sat beside her upon the window-seat, apart from the rest of the company, and said, after the usual pleasantries had been exchanged, “It did not work.”
“No?” Flora said quite coldly.
“No,” Lord Wolfe said. “But I begin to wonder if you play me false, Miss Pilkington!”
Flora’s mouth fell open. She closed it as quickly as she could, for an open mouth was an uncouth one indeed, but the foul slur still remained. “Whatever do you mean?” she asked, very tartly.
Lord Wolfe checked to ensure that they could not be overheard by the rest of the company in the room. Then he turned to her. “You cannot deny that you have been seen in the Assembly Rooms every night while I have been . . . working,” he said, his hand curling into a fist, “and that you have spent each evening in conversation with that . . . that man Lord Humpeldinky-doo!”
Flora found herself emitting an unladylike snort. “Do you mean Lord Humphrey-Doughty?” she asked. Was she mad, or was Lord Wolfe actually showing jealousy?
“The very man!” Lord Wolfe said. “Or rather, not a man,” he said. “One could not call him a man.”
“He is a gentleman of intellect and taste,” Flora said – not only because it were so, but also because she suspected that it would annoy Lord Wolfe.
Lord Wolfe went a peculiar shade of purple. “Fustian nonsense!” he said. “Lord Humpelty-Dumpetly may be the Pinkest of the Pink, but he is a regular jaw-me-dead. A greater windsucker has never been born. Why, the moment he speaks, the entire audience snores. I cannot believe that you are seriously contemplating—” He stopped dead.
“Seriously contemplating what?” Flora snapped.
“Absolutely nothing!” Lord Wolfe roared.
There was silence. Complete silence. After a moment, Emily cleared her throat politely from the other side of the large room. “Mrs Simmons, what do you think of ladies taking snuff?” she asked. “I know it is controversial, but I admit I am tempted!”
Mrs Simmons replied, and after a few minutes Lord Wolfe muttered, “I am sorry,” to Flora.
Flora at a loss for what to say. For it seemed that Lord Wolfe was jealous that she had spent several evenings in the company of a man who was renowned for showing more interest in his cravats than in his own family, and who was not only intelligent and witty, but also unmarried and suspected to remain forever so. Gossip said – and Flora suspected gossip had it right in this instance – that Lord Humphrey-Doughty preferred the company of gentlemen, as it were; at least in a more intimate sense.
“You are impossible, sir,” Flora said reprovingly, when the silence had yawned for what seemed an age.
“Perhaps,” Lord Wolfe muttered. “Although I am not alone in this.”
Flora laughed; she could not help it.
“How shall I proceed?” Lord Wolfe asked. “In the matter we have previously discussed. I would value your opinion.”
Flora turned to him. He looked back, his expression sincere, and Flora was not certain how she should proceed. Did he really value her opinion?
“Did you spend your days I suggested?” she probed.
“I did,” Lord Wolfe said, shuddering slightly. “Do you know, Miss Pilkington, how very dull it is to spend your days in the darkness?”
Flora raised an eyebrow. “Do you?”
Lord Wolfe stared at her. “I do,” he said, in a most heartfelt manner.
“Then you must . . . you must . . .” Flora said, wracking her brain for what to suggest next. She was alarmed to realise that she wished to tell Lord Wolfe something that would help, rather than send him on another wild goose chase.
“Yes?” said the long-suffering Lord Wolfe.
“Oh, I do not know!” Flora said. She turned towards the window and looked out into the garden, hoping for inspiration.
“I would be grateful for your assistance,” Lord Wolfe said. He did not say it sarcastically, and that made Flora feel quite guilty.
“There must be a reason why you are . . . the way you are,” Flora said beneath her breath, still staring out into the garden.
“There is not,” Lord Wolfe said calmly. “At least . . .”
Flora turned to him. He wore a faintly sheepish expression. “Well?” she said. “At least, what?”
Lord Wolfe smile wryly. “I am . . . was . . . a . . . a . . . woodcutter in a small town,” he said, rather haltingly, his voice very low. “One day, a young girl complained that a wolf lurked in the nearby woods and that its presence made her reluctant to visit her grandmother, whose home was situated within the forest, and prevented her from freely picking flowers.”
“And?” Flora asked, rather incredulous.
“And nothing!” Lord Wolfe said. He said it low and cross, but then he sighed. “Then I hunted the wolf and killed it.”
“You . . . killed it?”
“Of course. It was a menace. The old woman said it was not so, but I had no choice but to take the young lady at her word.”
“So you . . . killed it?” Flora repeated.
“Yes!” Lord Wolfe said tetchily. “It was just a wild animal. I chopped off its head, and that was the end of it.”
“And you did not think that this had any bearing on your . . . your . . . disability?” Flora asked.
Lord Wolfe crossed his arms. “I hunted regularly,” he said quietly but firmly, raising his chin. “And yet I did not find myself suddenly a rabbit, nor a deer.”
Flora raised her fan and fanned herself for a moment. She was not hot – except perhaps with anger – but she desired the privacy that the fan could offer. “You are an idiot!” she mouthed. “You killed a wolf and now you are a wolf!”
“ . . .” Lord Wolfe said.
“You have been cursed!” Flora said behind the privacy of the fan, hardly able to believe that she was saying such a thing, “by a witch of the woods. You have killed an animal, perhaps her familiar.”
“Her . . . familiar?” Lord Wolfe choked.
Flora worked her fan harder. “Yes!” she said. “Did you return to the scene of your crime and beg for her forgiveness?”
“Of course not,” Lord Wolfe scoffed.
“Did you bury the wolf’s bones?”
Lord Wolfe raised an eyebrow, as if she were an idiot.
“Then you must return and do these things!” Flora said, becoming carried away.
There was silence for a while.
“I must?” Lord Wolfe said.
“You must?” Flora said. “I mean, you must,” she repeated more firmly. Had she really suggested such a thing? It seemed ridiculous. It was impossible that such a thing could help. As impossible as the notion that Lord Wolfe had been a common woodcutter in a small town; he was clearly concealing a portion of the truth. However . . .
“Then I will,” Lord Wolfe said dubiously. “I shall journey back tomorrow and attempt these things.”
“You will?” Flora echoed before she could prevent herself. While she resented sounding like a village idiot, she felt entirely too startled to hold her tongue.
“I will,” Lord Wolfe said, this time with a little more vim.
There was another silence. Lord Wolfe . . . appeared to be waiting for further instructions, Flora thought, and yet she could not think of anything at all to say.
“Will you . . . come and say goodbye before you leave?” Flora asked eventually. She was unsure why she had asked for such a thing, and yet she could persuade herself that she had asked it solely to fill the silence. It was not as if he would be gone for long, however! Although . . . she did not know where he was going. Perhaps he would go and never return? The thought failed to be as consoling as she had hoped.
Lord Wolfe looked at her in an odd way. “I will,” he said. “If you wish.”
“If you have the time,” Flora said politely, her courage shrinking away to nothing – although she still did not know why she needed courage. Or why she wished to encourage him. For she did not like him; she did not like him at all.
The rest of Lord Wolfe’s visit passed in an odd kind of blur. Flora was unable to concentrate on anything he said at all. She did not mean to be rude, and yet she could not help it – for she was so confused that her brain had all but ceased to function. Why had Lord Wolfe agreed to her suggestion, when it was so obviously a terrible one? When her previous suggestions had quite obviously been motivated by spite rather than a sincere attempt to help? It was almost as if he wished to please her, despite outward appearances.
And why on Earth would he wish to do that?
The next day, Flora found that – quite by coincidence – she chose to wear her favourite dress that morning. And if her maid worked particularly hard to ensure her hair looked sleek and elegant, then surely that was coincidence as well?
If she had been skilled in music, she would have spent more time by the piano that morning – however, after a few minutes practice, she recalled that no-one was impressed by amateur chords and a voice that managed to remain just about in tune. Not that this mattered, of course, however . . .
By mid-morning, Flora had decided that she wished to appear to her best advantage because she also wished for Lord Wolfe to return, once he had visited his former home. Not because she wished to marry him, oh no. She simply found his insolence and insufferable personality diverting. Life would be dull indeed without him! At least, for the moment. She had no wish to suffer him for more than . . . a while longer. The very notion was ridiculous!
By luncheon, Flora had begun to feel a touch . . . anxious. For if he were to say farewell before he set off on his journey in a timely manner, then he must arrive soon, surely? By dinner, Flora had quite lost her appetite. But it was only by bedtime, alone in the house – for she had refused to join her cousin at that evening’s concert at the Assembly Rooms – that she admitted to herself the truth of the matter.
He wasn’t coming. And she had, for reasons unclear even to herself, so wished he would.
The next week crawled by, despite the whirl of social engagements. Emily had been invited to a private ball every night, so Flora – despite her age and smallness of fortune – found herself dancing with a large number of very eligible bachelors. Days were spent in conversation with these bachelors and their sisters, in a very great number of very great drawing rooms. It should have been enjoyable indeed – even if only for the opportunity to laugh behind her fan at how very stupid some people of fashion were.
However, Flora did not just find it tedious – she found it almost impossible. For whatever she did, she could not keep the odious Lord Wolfe off her mind.
There were countless reasons why she should not approve of Lord Wolfe, who had nothing to recommend him other than his looks. His morals were so poor as to be non-existent. His wealth was not his own. His title was assumed. His wives, she reminded herself, were numerous – even if only in a technical sense. And he was cursed! How many times must she tell herself that he were cursed? When considering why one must not wish to marry a man, it was surely far more important that he transformed into a wolf at inopportune moments, than that he was a rake and a thief, and ill-mannered to boot?
However, the most important reason that came to mind – and it came to mind constantly – when she considered why she should not wish to marry Lord Wolfe, was that he did not wish to marry her. Why else had he left without saying farewell? When she had particularly asked him to say farewell? There was no other possible explanation. He had been toying with her and then, when he finally saw that she had begun to care, he had left.
So how could she enjoy balls and suppers and conversation with eligible men? Each time she saw a pair of inexpressibles she was reminded that she had been the victim of a cruel and heartless fiend.
Although Flora thought she could quite successfully hide her depression from Emily – for she had a naturally reserved manner, and she was quite determined that no one should suspect quite how much Lord Wolfe’s disappearance had pained her – one morning Emily entered her room and actually glared at her.
Flora was taken aback. She had not known that Emily could glare. Indeed, she had never seen her cousin truly cross; her regular pouts did not count at all.
“You are hiding something from me!” Emily declared. “You have had words with Lord Wolfe and you do not wish to tell me!” The glare slipped and her eyes filled with her usual glittering tears. “I thought we were friends, Flora. Why will you not share your troubles with me?”
“I . . . I have no troubles,” Flora stammered.
“Pon rep!” Emily exclaimed. “Then why has Lord Wolfe not visited us this past week?”
“He has business elsewhere,” Flora lied.
Emily attempted the glare again. And then, quite suddenly, her expression cleared. “Oh Flora!” she said. “I have it all wrong! Now I see why you have been so quiet and sad these past days.”
Quiet and sad? Had her feelings been so visible all along?
“Why, it is obvious, and I am sorry I have not been more understanding,” Emily continued, sitting on Flora’s bed. “You miss him, do you not?”
“I . . .” Flora said.
“I understand,” Emily said, clasping her hands together. “You miss him so much that it pains you to even talk of it. Oh, Flora. I am so happy that you are so in love. I had . . .” She paused. “Oh, Flora, I am sorry to say that I doubted you truly felt a great passion for Lord Wolfe, but now I am quite convinced that you love him with all your heart!”
“I . . .” Flora said.
“Oh, but that does make me sound unpleasant, does it not? I am not happy that you are sad, naturally! But I am happy that . . . that you have found a gentleman you love enough that to be apart is agony.” She sighed long and loud. “I hope I can find that kind of man. It is harder than I expected to do so. Do you know, Flora, I had expected that I would be married by now? And yet I find that I long to follow your example and set my cap only at a gentleman who will not only steal my heart but also keep it safe!”
“I . . .” Flora said.
“Yes, Flora?” Emily asked, smiling her at.
Flora found herself bursting into tears, quite without wishing to. She had no desire to imitate Emily in this manner! To be so melodramatic and to cry at every opportunity! And yet she could not help it.
“Oh, Flora,” Emily said, clasping her into a hug. “Why, you do love him ever so, do you not?”
“I . . . I do!” Flora found herself saying. And, to her deep horror and disapproval, she realised that she had told the truth.
The next day Flora woke feeling quite unwell. She had spent much of the previous day in bed, pleading a headache – a headache which now made itself very much present. However, she had not been resting; she had been weeping.
Flora considered herself a sensible girl, and she was not prone to fainting, nor to hysterics, nor to tears. Yet once she had started yesterday, she had found it all but impossible to stop. And so this morning she resigned herself to another day spent in solitude – this time not because of tears, but because she had cried so hard that her eyes were puffy and her appearance was entirely unfit for polite company.
So when there was a gentle knock on the door, Flora decided to ignore it and hope her would-be visitor went away.
After a moment, there was a strange rustling sound. Flora forced herself to sit up and see what had caused it. For while she did not wish for callers, she also did not wish to sit alone in a room with mice! For a while, Flora could not spot the source of the noise, for it had ceased almost as soon as it had begun.
And then, quite suddenly, she did. Someone had slid a letter under her door.
Flora sat very still, her heart pounding. She attempted to convince herself that it was but a letter from her family, but the handwriting was entirely unknown to her. There was only one person it could be from.
It took Flora some minutes to force herself to rise and pick up the letter. She returned to bed with it, placing it on the quilt in front of her as if it could bite. She did not wish to read it, and yet she knew she was entirely unable to cast it aside.
After what felt like an eternity, she picked it up with fingers that refused not to tremble and broke the seal. She smoothed out the letter. The handwriting was black and bold and the penmanship was excellent.
Dearest Flora, it began.
Flora had to blink quite hard in order to continue.
From the first moment I met you, I have found you to be infuriating, stubborn, argumentative, forthright and downright intractable.
“What!” Flora said. “How dare you!”
You are entirely different from the milksop society misses whom I have had the deep misfortune to meet in every drawing room from the countryside to London to Bath. It was my disappointment indeed to realise that you were not the wealthy heiress whom I had decided would be my next – and final – catch.
Flora had to stop reading here for a moment, so irritated was she.
I feared once you had discovered my secret that you would threaten me with the police – and yet to my delight you seemed fixed on making my life impossible rather than revealing my shame to the world.
Flora’s mouth fell open. It had not occurred to her that she could have blackmailed or threatened him in such a manner! She felt quite stupid for neglecting such an obvious method of plaguing him.
I am now in a most unexpected situation, Flora. For it was only once I arrived in Derbyshire that I realised you have done what countless women have failed to do – you have captured my heart. Tonight I drew the curtains wide and gloried in the moonlight – and it is all thanks to you.
Flora was so consumed with rage by the phrase ‘countless women’ that she did not immediately spot that he had confessed his love – nor that he had told her that the curse was broken.
Flora, I adore you. But you have made your feelings quite clear to me, and although it pains me, I release you from your promise. I will no longer attempt to force you into a marriage that would be so distasteful to you.
I will never forget you.
Flora stared at the letter. She stared at it and stared at it. And then she stared at it some more. Finally, she was forced to conclude that the words would not change, no matter how she willed them to. Lord Wolfe – Alexander – had indeed sent her what was, quite possibly, the worst love letter in the history of the human race.
He had, in the space of two sides of letter paper, managed to insult her in numerous ways, to irritate her, to infuriate her, and – the worst of all – to tell her that he loved her, in the same sentence that he also said he would not marry her! What kind of logic was this? And how dare he not say this to her face, so that she could slap him on the cheek and demand that he persuade her to accept him? Why, she was willing to concoct all manner of penances he could pay, if he felt that he did not deserve her! Truly, she suspected that her imagination knew no bounds when it came to this particular matter.
How dare he finally discover his morals in such an inconvenient fashion!
She needed fresh air, and then she would . . . think of a way in which to hunt him down and kill him! She all but leapt from the bed, stamped her way to the window, threw it open and . . . spotted Lord Wolfe in the garden below, looking up at her with an insolent grin.
As Flora re-enacted her death leap away from the window, complete with painful collision with the occasional table, she thought that this really took the cake. For how dare he make her cry until her eyes puffed and her hair crinkled, and then lurk outside her window so that he could catch her looking at her very worst! And that was not even mentioning that yet again he had succeeded in spying upon her in her nightgown.
She decided, very grimly, that she would dress, join him in the garden and . . . and . . . refuse to marry him! That would show him the error of his ways, indeed!
In fully less than ten minutes, Flora had dressed – without the assistance of her maid – and had all but dashed down the stairs and into the garden. She had considered, for a moment, the benefits that her best gown and an hour’s wait might have on Lord Wolfe’s smirk – however, she had also considered the effect that such a wait would have on her constitution. She needed to tell him off right that very moment. Besides, she feared that if she kept him waiting then he might go once more, simply to annoy her!
Before she left the house and entered the garden, however, she paused to allow herself to catch her breath. It would not do to appear as if she had hurried – even though it was quite clear that she had. Once she felt a touch more composed, she strode out into the garden, carefully schooling her expression into one of disdain and boredom mingled.
She struggled to think of what to say to him while dressing, and had finally decided that she would begin with, “So,” said very coldly and meaningfully. However, as soon as she opened her mouth to speak, Lord Wolfe grinned at her and she forgot her lines.
“Flora!” Lord Wolfe said.
“Lord Wolfe,” Flora began, determined to interrupt him, for she suspected he would put her off her lecture.
“Alexander,” he said, still grinning. “Call me Alexander.”
“I shall not,” Flora snapped. Already he was insufferable! “Why should I do such a thing?”
“Because it is my name,” he said affably. He straightened his cuffs and then looked up at her. “And because I wish it,” he said.
The arrogance! The sheer arrogance of the man! He was not a gentleman, Flora thought. She realised, however, that he was purposely annoying her in order to distract her. “I shall not marry you,” she said, very coldly.
“No?” Lord Wolfe – Alexander – said.
To Flora’s irritation, he did not seem put out by this! “Are you not distressed?” Flora asked impulsively.
“I am not,” Lord Wolfe said.
Flora felt a kind of horror wash over her. “But . . . but . . . you professed to love me!” she said, rather pathetically.
Lord Wolfe strode over to her and clasped her in his arms. Flora thought that she should struggle, but she could not bring herself to do so. She also thought that she should probably think of him as Alexander, now that he had embraced her. “Release me at once, Lord Wolfe!” she said.
Alexander gazed down at her. His eyes were very blue and very fierce. “I will not,” he said.
“But! But!” Flora said.
“Yes? Yes?” Alexander mocked. And then he laughed. “Hah! You are a little ninny, aren’t you?”
Flora had not thought that her first proper embrace with a gentleman would include insults, and felt rather cheated. It was neither fair nor proper of him to behave in such a manner! “I do not understand you, sir! I do not understand you one bit!”
Alexander clutched her rather tightly. “I do not understand myself!”
Flora thought that that was not a very helpful thing to say.
“Hah!” Alexander continued.
Flora thought that this was equally unhelpful.
“All I am certain of,” Alexander said, “is that I am determined to marry you, Flora.”
“Then why did you write me such a letter?” Flora asked, almost beyond patience. She wriggled free from Alexander’s grasp in order to glare at him the better.
“Why, I was overcome with a deep and sudden sense that that would be the moral way to proceed,” Alexander said, attempting to grasp her once more.
“However, I recalled – almost the very second after I had delivered the letter! – that I am not a moral man, and so my self-denial was quite unnecessary.” He grasped at her once more. “Do stop wriggling, Flora! I love you, you little ninny. It is quite unnecessary for us to be apart. Besides,” he said into her hair, “I am not nearly noble enough to let another man have you.”
“So my feelings are not to be taken into consideration?” Flora said, rather frostily, against his chest. She felt his grasp upon her slacken infinitesimally.
“Surely you love me?” Alexander said, sounding puzzled. He pushed her away, his hands still firm around her arms, and looked down into her face.
“That is neither here nor there,” Flora said, her heart beating very fast.
“Neither here nor . . .?” Alexander echoed. “What the devil do you mean by that?” He pulled her a touch closer. “Who is he? I will kill him!”
“Who is who?” Flora said coldly.
“The scoundrel who has stolen your affections from me!” Alexander roared.
Flora managed to hide her smile. “Is it so inconceivable that I could never love a man who has been married several times before? Who has stolen and cheated? Whose real name and identity I still do not know? And who has only ever acted in such a way as to humiliate, mock or inconvenience me?” she said sternly.
A range of expressions flickered over Alexander’s face – and concluded with a look of deep, incredible guilt. “I . . .” he said. “I . . .”
Flora had never seen him so at a loss before. She found that she approved of it greatly. “Well? What have you to say for yourself?”
“I . . .” Alexander said. And then, to Flora’s great surprise, he dropped to his knees in front of her, taking her hands into his own. It was a cold day and it had been raining, so she suspected that the action was to the detriment of his inexpressibles. “I love you,” he said. “I love you.”
“That is all very well,” Flora said, attempting not to melt. “But that does not excuse your actions.”
Alexander looked away for a moment, before looking back up into her face with soft, pleading eyes. “I have married before, yes,” he said. “I did it for money and money alone. I chose women who I knew would find it easy to marry again, and marry quickly, and I made sure I did not impoverish them.”
Flora opened her mouth to say that this was not a reasonable excuse, but Alexander interrupted her.
“Please, let me finish. At that time I was . . . not myself. Once the curse fell upon me I cared nothing for the feelings of others. I simply acted for my own benefit in all things. I considered wooing as a way of making a living.” He closed his eyes. “It is all too easy to charm a brainless woman, and it is all too easy to change your identity. Why, I only had to move from London to Bath to baffle the police and leave the trail cold.”
He opened his eyes and his voice took on a pleading tone. “But once I met you . . . I tried to continue as normal, but I could not prevent myself from teasing you. For you showed your feelings when I did so! You cannot believe what a refreshing change it was to find a woman who was unafraid to show her true feelings in her expression. You disapproved of me, and the more you did so, the more I wished to provoke a reaction.” He sighed. “I cannot say when my feelings turned to love, but I know that I cannot do without you. If you do not say yes, you will marry me, I . . . I do not know what I will do!”
Flora thought this was a good beginning, but she required rather more persuasion before she would release him from his agony. “So how will you make up for your mistakes?” she asked. “For you have robbed these women, and—”
“I will give it back,” Alexander interrupted. “I will give back most of it so that—”
“Most of it?” Flora queried, and gave him a look.
“I meant all of it,” Alexander said.
“And you would marry me, even if you were penniless and knew you would have to work to earn a living?”
Alexander stared at her. “I would,” he said, “and I will.”
“Then I will marry you,” Flora said, deciding that that was promise enough.
Alexander’s lips moved into a wide, wide smile. “You promise?”
“I promise,” Flora said.
The smile became something more of a smirk. “Well, my dove,” Alexander said breezily, “it is providential indeed that I have kept the real circumstances of my fortune a secret – and one I shall reveal to you now!” He stood, and despite the sad state of his breeches, his smirk deepened.
Flora decided she had never seen such an insufferably smug expression in all her life and she would not be living up to her own high standards if she allowed it to remain there a moment longer. Besides, she had been tricked! Promising to marry someone even if it meant poverty was not the same if one had a secret fortune! And that was quite apart from the matter of ‘my dove’; if he called her that again then he would be in for an exciting surprise of his own.
“Well?” Alexander said after a long pause, during which Flora had studied the grass, the trees, the distant line of houses . . . in short, all but Alexander’s face. His voice now had a delightfully deflated tone, she thought. He resembled in expression, when she finally looked, a saddened – and yet hopeful – dog.
“Oh, do go on then,” Flora said kindly. “I am agog with excitement,” she added, to rub it in.
“Well, then!” Alexander said, wisely ignoring Flora. “I am happy to reveal that although you – my pure, sweet angel – have insisted we return the money to those women, we will still not be poor – indeed, we are a long way from it!”
“What!” Flora said, mildly alarmed enough to actually pay him her full attention. “Who have you swindled now? What are you planning?” Then, as he opened his mouth and no sound came out (in a manner curiously reminiscent of a fish), she continued, “Do not tell me you have been borrowing my dresses and seducing menfolk for their fortunes, this time!” And, as he went purple, “Or are you one of these infamous highwaymen that Emily is so fond of? Or—”
“Madam,” he interrupted. He attempted, Flora thought, to look admonishing. She attempted, likewise, to stifle her giggles. For she could not be anything other than happy: she was to be married, she was not to be poor, and she had struck upon an excellent method of plaguing her future husband.
“Your wild imagination does you no credit,” he continued. “The truth of the matter is more prosaic.” His reproachful expression slipped a little to reveal a sparkle of excitement and he sat forward in his chair. His hair was tousled and his cheeks nicely pink, and Flora felt a curiously warm feeling in her stomach. “I am not a woodman, as perhaps you have already guessed. I am, in truth, the son and heir of the Viscount Cranborough!”
Flora was tempted to say, “Gosh,” and do a little girlish squeak that would embarrass her when she remembered it later, for although she did not make a habit of studying the lists of gentry, unlike her more feeble-minded and hopeful sisters, even she had heard of Viscount Cranborough, and knew the tale of an heir so badly injured in a hunting accident that he remained sequestered in his chambers even now. Or not, as it now proved.
Still, that was no reason not to tease him a little further.
“Who?” Flora asked, in as offhand a manner as she could manage.
Alexander gaped at her. “Who?” he repeated.
“Who,” Flora said more firmly, “is he?”
“Why, he is . . . he is . . . he is the Viscount Cranborough!” Alexander spluttered. “Our family home is in Derbyshire. Rockingham Hall.” He made a visible effort to pull himself together. “But you know this, Flora.” He glowered a little. “You are being obstreperous for the sake of it.”
Flora managed not to smile, although the effort nearly unhinged something in her insides. “This means, I take it,” she said sternly, “that you are not even a lord at all.”
“B-b-but!” Alexander managed. And then, rather haughtily, “I will be.”
Flora dimpled at him, quite unintentionally. “Oh yes?”
Alexander stared at her. And then he roughly pulled her into his arms once more. As she was crushed against his chest, so closely that she almost could not breathe, she thought she could make out, from amongst the words he was muttering, that she was both ‘infuriating’ and ‘exasperating’ – and she couldn’t understand why he’d used both terms when surely just one of them would have done the job quite sufficiently. Still, she had to confess that although this fresh embrace was a little punishing on the ribs, it was having an unexpectedly overpowering effect on her constitution. She was quite ready for a lie down, and she wasn’t at all sure if she would dismiss him from her chamber if he chose to accompany her there.
Flora was almost cross when he half let her go, all the better to glower at her. “I am not a ‘mister’,” he said, in a low growl that did terrible things to her. Indeed, she felt so wobbly that had he released her completely she feared she should have fallen into the dirt.
“No?” she murmured, looking up into his cross, delicious face.
“I am,” he said, almost giving her a little shake, “the Honourable Alexander Cranborough, heir to the Viscount Cranborough, with fifteen thousand pounds a year at my disposal.”
“You are?” Flora said dreamily. And then she realised what he’d just said. “You are what?” she said this time, in rather less dulcet a tone.
“At least, I will be, once I have returned to the bosom of my family,” he said hastily, perhaps realising that he had gone a step too far. “For once I knew of the curse, I left a note instructing them to carry out the cunning subterfuge that you have no doubt heard of – of my accident and subsequent disappearance from society. I could not access my funds, of course, for fear of arousing suspicion,” he explained, so quickly that some of it came out rather garbled, to her ears.
From this, Flora deduced that she had rather a cross expression on her face, and endeavoured to soften it. This did seem a reasonable explanation, and once she had recovered from the shock of it, and from her irritation that he had not told her these things sooner, she rather suspected that she would be giddy with happiness.
Alexander smiled at her, and Flora’s heart almost hurt with the joy of it. “And it is because of you, my dear one, that I will be able to return to my beloved family. If I had not fallen in love, and had my love returned – while you knew the truth the of my situation – the curse would never have been broken.”
Flora wasn’t so sure of that. “It was because you made amends for your callous nature and begged the old woman’s forgiveness,” she said, trying to sound stern. It was difficult to sound stern and to tell a man off when he was trying to clutch you to him, in a way that suggested that married life would hold pleasures indeed. “You did go and beg her forgiveness, did you not?”
“I did,” Alexander said. “But that was not what cured me. It was you, my darling, who accomplished it. It just took my visit to Derbyshire, away from you, to make me realise my feelings for you.” He nuzzled at her neck in a vigorous fashion that set her off balance.
“Yes?” Flora said, trying not to wobble. “Do go on.”
“Oh, Flora,” Alexander said. “I never thought I’d meet . . .” He stopped, and for a while there was silence. “Someone I could truly love. Someone I love as much as you,” he said, very quietly. “Can you ever forgive me for my past? For the dreadful things that I have done?”
Flora thought that it certainly wouldn’t hurt matters if he thought it her love that had cured him, rather than some basic morals and a general policy that it was never a good idea to annoy a witch, even if you didn’t really believe in that sort of thing. But right now that wasn’t important. What was important was that Alexander, her own dear one, was suddenly looking sad and discomforted – rather than cross and manly, which was far how she preferred him.
“But you, Alexander, are the Honourable Alexander Cranborough, are you not?” She made a studied frown. “Or was that Venerable? I fear I have already forgotten. Either way, most certainly not the disgraceful criminal known as Lord Wolfe. Indeed, if you mention such a thing again I will suspect you of having as untamed an imagination as my dear cousin Emily, for—”
And here she broke off, for Flora had learned that the truth of the matter is that it is devilish impossible to speak when a handsome, charming and, most importantly, irritated gentleman wishes you to be quiet, and devises a method of silencing that involves his mouth – and his tongue.
It was disconcerting and disorientating enough that when the gentleman in question barked that they would married just as soon as he could arrange, rather than suggesting that – as the bride – she should have a say in what season would suit her for a wedding, she found herself murmuring that that was quite acceptable, and wishing that that day could be tomorrow – if not, indeed, today.
But as she sank into a delirious bliss, quite disregarding the chill air and the likelihood that Emily was watching them, and clapping her hands in glee, from inside the house, a sudden thing occurred to Flora. “But how will we explain to Mr Woodbury that you have suddenly become the Honourable Mr Cranborough and are not Lord Wolfe at all?” she asked with concern, pulling away from Alexander.
Alexander snorted. “Why, we will tell him that I have been concealing my identity to do charitable works,” he said.
“That . . . is not entirely convincing.”
“No?” Alexander replied. “Then we will tell him that I am shy, and prefer not to draw attention to myself, as I surely would as Lord Cranborough’s son.”
“That is even worse!” Flora said, trying not to laugh. “No one could believe such an obvious untruth.”
Alexander sighed. “Fine! Then I will confess that I am eccentric and have concealed my true identity for no real reason other than that I could. If it will help, I will grow a moustache,” he added bracingly. “Now, where was I?”
“You were kissing me,” Flora said, deciding that propriety did not count in such a situation. “And I wish you would do so once more.”
“My lady,” Alexander said, “I would be delighted.”
And so he did. And Flora was quite certain that if they wouldn’t live happy ever after, for no one can have that – and besides, she was already looking forward to some explosive arguments and the requisite making-up scenes that would follow – she was determined that they would at least be as happy as any couple could be. And that, she thought, was quite, quite happy enough.