How to Capture a Duke(2)

By: Bianca Blythe



“I suppose it must be terribly trying for you to attend a ball, given that you have so little practice in looking pleasant.” Madeline smoothed the golden ringlets that framed her face. Every flourish, formed in the proper manner, with curling tongs rather than nature’s haphazardness, was immaculate. “Unless perhaps you can grace us with your presence after all?”

“I’m afraid it’s impossible,” Fiona said. “Regretfully.”

“Oh.” Her cousin’s lips stretched into a straight line.

“It is unfortunate you had to travel all this way. I would have thought the postal system would have managed to deliver my regrets,” Fiona continued.

Madeline pressed her lips together and swung her gaze to the window and the view of heavy dark clouds that floated over the jagged Dales.

The light from the carriage windows slid over her cousin’s pale blond hair, framing it like a halo, and cast a glow over the glossy silk ruffles of her dress. Somehow her cousin had managed to travel five miles and appear immaculate, and Fiona could scarcely travel a few feet without finding herself in difficulty.

Holly and mistletoe dangled from the ceiling of the coach, bright bursts against the staid black walls. Such greenery had been but a mild curiosity to Fiona before the accident, but now it signified everything dreadful.

If Christmas did not exist, her cousin would not be across from her, and Fiona most certainly would not have abandoned perhaps her last chance to visit the archaeological site in order to sit in a closed and jostling coach, striving for an excuse to skip the woman’s ball.

“Now do tell me,” Madeline said, “Whatever were you doing standing in a pit in the earth?”

“I—”

“It’s the sort of thing that gives Yorkshire women a bad reputation,” Madeline said. “You really must reconsider your habits. It will be trying enough for you to find a husband without acting like the local madwoman.”

Fiona squared her shoulders. “How kind of you to worry. Really, it’s wholly unnecessary. And I’m not in the least need of a husband.”

If only Grandmother would believe that.

Madeline smiled. “You’re always in the habit of saying the most curious things. Most fascinating.”

Fiona gave her a wobbly smile and considered divulging her secret. She pondered the pottery, the Roman coins and helmets, the vases and mosaics she’d found on the border of the apple orchard.

She longed to share everything. There were so many brilliant objects. It couldn’t be sheer coincidence. There had to be a Roman palace buried there.

Cloudbridge Castle lay on the route toward Hadrian’s Wall, and it was not entirely absurd to think that the Romans may have built a palace on the way. Perhaps the Romans had had a tendency to wander around in togas, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t enjoyed fine homes as well. The materials she had found were too ornate for a simple station for soldiers of insignificant rank.

But her cousin wouldn’t understand. The last person Fiona had told had been Uncle Seymour. She’d wanted his permission to excavate the apple orchard, and he’d exploded at the prospect of cutting any of the trees down on the off chance that some broken cups and plates might be underneath. Though Uncle Seymour visited infrequently, the estate belonged to him, and once Grandmother died, he would move in.

Fiona drew in a breath. Some things were better not dwelled on. And perhaps Madeline was right. Perhaps she should attend the ball.

“Will the baron be there?” Fiona tilted her head, thinking of the materials she’d found underneath the apple orchard.

Madeline’s husband’s advice in assessing the objects’ value would be invaluable. The baron was a renowned art critic, and his work on the Elysian Marbles was genius. She was sure his favorable assessment had spurred the new British Museum to acquire them. Unfortunately, he seemed to favor London far more than Yorkshire.

“My husband?” Madeline’s voice faltered.

“I would like to speak to him about some findings…”

“Oh.” Madeline’s long black eyelashes swooped down over her eyes. “Perhaps I might be of some use—”

Fiona shook her head. The less people she told about the apple orchard the better. The ones she had told already thought her mad for believing there was a Roman palace buried underneath there. Her cousin was not the type to lend herself to confidences; she was far too fond of gossip.

Right now it was more important that Madeline did not learn of Fiona’s supposed engagement; her cousin was the largest gossip in Yorkshire. Fiona had no inclination to be a laughingstock, and any hope of the credulity and support the baron might give her theory on the Roman palace would be destroyed if he were to discover she’d invented a fiancé.

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