Glaring at theback ofhis head and followingthe men intothe crowd, Valoree imaginedshe had one of her blades withher and was sticking it intoher quartermaster’s arse.
"Have you seen Lady Ainsley? "
Daniel glanced up from the drink he had beencontemplating, his eyebrowsrising slightlyat Beecham’s distressed face. "Last I saw her, she was with youand thatolder gentleman."
"Her uncle."Beecham sighed, turning toperuse the roomful of people unhappily, unawareof the wayDaniel stiffened.
"Heruncle? " he askedcarefully. "On which side? "
Beecham turnedback, his eyes blinking rapidly."Which side? You mean which side of the family is he from? " The man frowned slightly. "Idonot know. She merely introduced him as UncleHenry. I imagine he isfromthemother’s side, however, since I do not believe that Lord Ainsley had a brother." He pausedto considerthat briefly, then shrugged with disinterest.
"He does not visit London much, obviously, " Daniel said.
Beecham shook his head.
"He hasaplantation on oneof the islands in the Caribbean.
This is hisfirsttrip toLondon in years."
Beecham frownedat the question. "I… I am not sure. I do not think they mentioned which one, " he admitted slowly, then waved the question away. "I must find herand make sure she is allright."
"Did something happen? " Daniel asked before he could slip away, and the other man groaned.
"Aye. Therewas anincident."
Daniel’s eyebrowsrose at his pained inflection."An incident? "
"Yes." Beecham hesitated, then said, "I had introducedthem to several people when Mother wavedus over – "
Daniel hadto smother agrinat the way the man said the word mother, though he couldn’t blame him. Were Lady Beecham Daniel’s ownmother . ..Well, he was just grateful she wasn’t. She was a rather unpleasant woman.
"So Iwas forced to introduce LadyAinsley and her uncle to her friends; thenMothersentme off to fetch her a sweetmeat.
Apparently, while Iwas gone. ..Well.. ."He whined piteously.
"Lady Ainsley’s facefell off."
Daniel blinked, bemused. "Her facefell off? "
Beecham nodded, seemingly broken. Then he suddenly straightened, an idea strikinghim."Mayhap I should check – "
"Beecham, " Daniel interrupted, drawing the other man’s distracted attention.
"How do you … I mean, howis itpossible that her face fell off? "
"Oh! Well, it was her … er … the white stuff that all thewomen wear." Heshookhis head witha frown."Itwasdryingup on her skin and cracking." His frown deepened. "I thought to give warning, but feared to embarrass her, soI didnotsay anything.
She knows now." He shook his head again. "It was horrible, really. I must find out where she got that makeup and warn everyone to stayaway – "
"Beecham, " Daniel interrupted patiently.
"Oh, sorry. Well, it was drying up as the nightprogressed. It turned asort ofgrayish color asit dried and began tocrack. Little bitsof it were flaking off for most of the night as I tookher and her uncle around. Honestly, we left a trailof the stufffrom one end of the ballroom to theother. I believeshe musthavebeen aware of itand did not know what to do, for she grew quieter and quieter as the evening progressed. And, of course, she could surely feel it. It seemed to be pulling her face tight."
Seeing that Daniel was growing impatient again, Beecham hurried hisstory along."Anyway, apparently Mother asked her a question she could notjust nodat asshe had been doingmost of the night. Shespoke, her facecracked, and a greatchunk of it fell right off her chin. It bounced off her" – he gestured vaguely towardhis chest – "and it plopped into Mother’s wine. Of course, Mother’s wine splashedout allover hernew yellow gown.It will probablystain, and she is quite distressed, " he ended somewhat lamely.
Danielbit his lip hard to keep back thelaugh that wanted to escape as hevisualized the "incident." Takinga momentto clear histhroat, he asked, "I takeit the lady then disappeared? "
"Fled with her uncle on her heels, " Beecham agreed unhappily.
"I do not know where they may have gone."
"I would think theywent straight home, " Daniel proposed, but Beecham quicklyshook hishead.
"I went out front and checked. Their carriage is still here."
When Daniel raised his eyebrows, Beecham shrugged. "Her servants arerather easyto spot. Pink livery." He frowned. "I’ve never seenmen look quite sodisreputable in pink livery as hers do.Andthey are allsobig."Shaking his head, he bowed slightly toward Daniel. "I really must find her. I feel somehow responsible. I never should have left her with Mother. Excuse me."
Daniel considered thatlast phraseasthe fellow hurriedoff. It was more telling than the rest of the tale. Beecham suspected his mother wassomehow at fault for the whole affair.
KnowingLady Beecham, she probably was. She wouldhave seen theproblem the girlwas having, but ratherthan taking her aside and helping herrepair her problem, as any good hostess would, She had probablysent her son off deliberatelyso that he could not field questionsandthe girlwould have to speak and suffer the humiliation ofacracking face. Lady Beecham was a rather cold, nasty piece of work. Her friends were not much better, andthe crowd of them together… Well, they wouldhave eaten Lady Ainsley alive, he thought. But would they? He reconsidered. The woman he had seeneavesdropping at Whister’s had not appeared the sort easily chewed up and spat out by anyone, even society’s nastiest matrons.No. Just witnessthe fact that She had not already jumpedinher carriageand fled.
He glanced around the room. Wherehad shegotten tothen? he wondered. His gaze alighted on Lady Beecham and her crowd of cronies.They wereall having a good laugh, he saw. His eyes narrowed asone of thewomen gestured toward thedoors tothe balcony, titteringas shedid. Daniel stiffened.
Surelythat was not whereLady Ainsley had run off to? If so, wouldn’tLady Beecham have told her son, rather thanhave him run about searching forher? Nay.Ofcourse not. Not if she didn’t wantthefellow to have anythingto do with her.
Positivehe was right and drawn by his curiosity, Daniel strode towardthebalcony doors.
"Oh, Captain, girl, I’msosorry, "Henry apologized ashe found Valoreeon thebalcony. "This herewasa terrible idea. Wenever shouldhave madeye come out when yewere without the proper stuff." Awkwardly patting her shaking shoulders, he sighed miserably. "Please don’t be crying, though. Yer breakin’ me heart."
Valoree wheeled around at that. "I ain’t crying, ye silly old goat, " shesnapped, herEnglish slipping somewhat in herhurry to correct him. She had not cried since Jeremy’s death. Pirate captainsdidnot cry.
"Oh … Well, yershoulders wasshaking so hard I – "
"I was laughing, " sheexplained. At his amazed expression, she shook her head. "Itwas damned funny when my facefell off. Did you see Lady Beecham’s face whenit plopped in her wine? I thoughtI’dsplit a gutright there." She curledherlip. "She was hoping for something of the like to happen, I think, the nastyold bitty. ButIdon’t thinkshewas quite prepared for ittoruin her precious gownlike that."
"Nay, Idon’t thinkshe was, " Henry sighed. "And she is a nasty old biddy."
"Aye, she is, " Valoree agreed, her amusement evaporating as she recalled the woman’sfalse smile andcold eyes. HadLady Beecham found aught amiss with Henry’s account of life on their Caribbeanplantation? He had been tellingtales taller than the Valor’s masts tonight, but then hehad always been that way on the ship, too, entertaining the menwithsometruly imaginative yarns when they relaxedin the evenings. Unfortunately, notever having moved in such elevated circles as these people moved in, he’d had to makeeverything upfrom scratch. And even Valoree, who had notlived the lifeof a noble since her eleventhyear, had seengreat, gaping errors in hislies.
Not that he had told many of them at first, but once young Beecham had departed and they had been left alone with his mother and her crowd, Henry had started talking almost feverishly inan effort todrawattention awayfrom Valoree and hercrackingface. Themore hehad babbled away about their huge plantation – the sugarcane, the servants, and the fine "shorties" they held there – well, the more malicious Lady Beecham’ssmile had gotten, and the more she hadeyed, Valoree like a hawk eyeing a field mouse. Then she had started interrupting Henry to askValoreequestions. Henry had tried to answer them, but finally the woman had said, "I asked your niece, my lord.Surely she can answer for herself."
It wasthen that, withnothing else forit, Valoreehadopened hermouth tospeak and senta great avalanche of the white muck sailing off herface. The largestchunk hadbounced off herchest into the woman’s gobletof red wine, which had then splashed bloodred onher yellow gown.
Takingone look at the woman’s horrified face, Valoree had whirled awayto flee. But asshe’d justtoldHenry, it was only so that shewould not be seenwhen sheburst out laughing.
"I suppose tonight probably ruined everything, " Henry said.
"We’ll never getanother invite toone of these here sworings, and we’ll never get you marriednow.I should havelistened to Meg instead of forcing ye to come tonight."
Valoree’s ears perked up;she was hopeful that this might signal theend of this stupidityand that she might return toher old life, whereshe felt safer despite the inherent danger ofbeing a pirate.
Was Henryadmittingdefeat so soon? And not because of any fault of hers but because of the men’s own miscalculations? Oh, this was too perfect. Better than she hadhoped for.
Keeping her reliefhidden, she noddedinagreement."Aye. I doubtwe garnered any friends here tonight. We are ruined, I believeis the term." Shegave a feigned sighof disappointment, thenheadedfor thedoor. "Well, we’dbest clear out of here and head home to tell the men."
"You don’t really want towalkbackthroughthere, do ye? "
Henry asked with amazement, fallinginto step beside her. He eyed herface with awince mingled with doubt.
"Thatbad, isit? " Valoreeasked, pausing.
"I couldjust nip around and see if there’sanyway to escape without goingthroughthehouse."
Valoree briefly consideredhis suggestion, then nodded.
Henry was off at once, hurrying away, out and through the gardens todisappear into the trees. Valoree waited a moment, thencaught herself pickingoff the chunks of dried glop thatstill clung to her face. Grimacing, she forced her hands away and walkedto the edgeof thebalcony impatiently.Itwas then that she spotted thefountain. As she eyed itfrom where she stood, a plan formed in her head.She hurried down the steps andintothe garden.
When he first stepped outside, Daniel thought he had been mistaken; the balconywas darkand empty, and there was nosign ofLadyAinsley. It was quiet andcool, though, anice change from the inside of the Beecham ballroom. Decidingto enjoythe tranquilityfor a moment, he moved to the railingand set hisdrink down. Hisrelaxation was broken a moment later as heglanced quicklyup at the sounds ofsplashing water.
Squinting, he peeredout over the shadowed gardens, his gaze stopping upon adark shapedirectlyin frontofwhat appeared to be a rather large fountain. The shapeseemed to be the source of alltheracket.After a hesitation, he moved to thesteps and down into thegarden, making hisway silently until he stood directly behind the noisy shadow.
It tookhis eyesa momentto sort out what hewas seeing, and when he did, it was only because thedark shapesuddenly shifted and roseup slightly, a headandshouldersappearingabovethe mass ofdark blue skirtsthathad appeared blackin thedarkness.
The sound of spluttering water continued.
Why would any woman submerge her head in Beecham’s garden fountain? Unless she had adesperateneed to cleansome defective foundationfromher face.
"Lady Ainsley? " he asked in disbelief.
Theshape whirled on itsknees and turnedto facehim. It was indeed the lady. She peered up at him in dismay, then lurched to her feet, pushing wet hair backoff her face and glancingabout ratherwildly – looking for an escaperoute, mostlikely.Shifting forward a bit, Daniel blocked any opportunity for escape, his eyestaking in everything about her.
For a moment theywere both silent; then Daniel cleared his throat."Iheardof yourincident andthought tocome out and check onyou."
Her eyes widened."My incident? "
"The trouble youhad with …" He gestured vaguelytoward her now clean-scrubbedfaceand thought she winced slightly, but he couldn’t be sureinthedarkness.
"Oh, aye. Well… I seem tohave . .. been soldsome inadequate foundation, " she said at last.
"Ahhhh, " Daniel murmured, though he wasn’t sure what he meantevenas he did so."How distressingfor you."
"Aye, "she agreed. "Most distressing."
They both fell silent again; then Daniel, judging that she wouldn’trun off on him, stepped backto give her someroom."I seeyou managed to remove it."
"Hmmm." Shegrimacedslightly. "I doubt LadyBeecham will appreciate my befouling her fountain."
"Betterthat than her wine." Daniellaughed, then realized what hehad said. Quickly he triedto backpedal. "I mean – "
"Oh, don’t worry about it, "the girl muttered, pushing past him and moving a fewsteps fartherinto the garden. Her gaze shifted out over the shadows as if in search of somebody; then she glanced back at him with a frown. "Was there something you wanted? "
"Wanted? " His eyes widened. "Nay, I just…" He paused, having no good explanationfor his presence in the gardens. He shrugged, then searched for something to say. "I trust your appointment with Whister – "
"Went about as well as yours, " she finisheddryly, thenglanced around. "Else I surely wouldn’t be here."
"Itake it youarenot enjoying yourself? "
She turned her face toward himin the darkness. "Is that a joke, my lord? "
A bark of laughter slipped from Daniel’s lips at her dry question.The girlcertainly didn’t pullany punches. He liked that.