How to Capture a Duke(4)

By: Bianca Blythe

“I might not be well enough for the Christmas ball.” Fiona touched her forehead and ventured another cough.

“My dear!” Grandmother’s hand flickered to her chest, and Fiona cursed the lie. Grandmother worried far too much.

“I mean, I am sure I will eventually recover, but—”

“Splendid!” Madeline nodded. “The ball is not until Christmas Day, and you will have four days during which you might make your recovery.”

“I am wary of risking the health of the other guests.”

“I have the utmost confidence in your health.” Madeline accepted the cup Fiona’s grandmother offered and raised it to her perfectly formed lips. “It would be odd indeed if everyone in Yorkshire were attempting to sound like carriages.”

Fiona gulped her tea. The hot liquid swirled down her throat, and she grabbed the teapot to pour herself more, sloshing tea over the delicate lace tablecloth. Heat prickled the back of her neck, and her hands shook as she sopped up the amber puddle with a napkin.

“And of course,” Madeline’s clear voice continued, “We were also sorry to miss having you last year, and the year before as well. But then I suppose you might find it uncomfortable, now that you’ve reached such an advanced age with no husband—”

Grandmother’s mouth opened, and she seemed more alert than normal.

“I must go.” Fiona leaped up. Perhaps if Fiona hastened, her cousin would follow and then—

“She’s already got one!” Grandmother beamed and selected a sweet. “Next year she’ll be hosting her own festivities.”

Fiona stiffened.

“Excuse me?” Madeline halted, and a knot in Fiona’s stomach hardened. Of all the times for Grandmother to be vocal. Nothing delighted Madeline more than gossip, and her ties to London were strong.

Fiona’s knees wobbled, and she sank back into her chair. If the world were ending, she may as well be comfortable.

“Surely Fiona hasn’t found a husband?” Madeline leaned forward, and a smile played on her lips.

“She has.” Grandmother gave a contented sigh.

Madeline’s smile broadened to an almost unladylike extent. “However did you find a husband?”

“Fiancé.” Fiona’s voice wobbled at the lie. “That’s all.”

“Mm-hmm!” Madeline turned her gaze to the window and the jagged curves of the Dales, scattered with snow. “Who knew it would be so simple to find a fiancé here?”

The landscape seemed rather devoid of any dwellings, much less one belonging to an appropriate husband-to-be.

“He’s . . . er . . . away!” Fiona said.

“I can’t make his acquaintance?” Madeline’s tone was mournful, even though her eyes seemed to sparkle with something very much resembling mirth. “He’s not an officer, is he?”

“That’s it!” Fiona said. “So he’s very much gone.”

Madeline’s perfectly groomed eyebrows arched up. “How astonishing. What’s his name?”

“Um… We’re trying to keep the engagement secret now,” Fiona said. “I hope you can be understanding.”

“So he lacks a name?” Madeline asked, her voice calm, though her lips extended upward briefly, before she hastened to sip her tea. “I look forward to meeting such an extraordinary person.”

Fiona averted her eyes. Her gaze fell on the tea caddy. Dust clung to the mahogany box, and Fiona brushed her finger over the wood. Visitors were not common at Cloudbridge Castle.

“He is said to espouse all the best possible qualities,” Grandmother declared.

“Indeed?” Madeline tilted her head, and for one blissful moment Fiona thought the woman seemed uneasy. The baroness’s eyes soon narrowed. “To think you met someone here, without any assistance. And how unlikely that he should be in possession of such apparent brilliance.”

“Ah, but you forget that Fiona is brilliant herself.” Grandmother’s eyes softened. “I was so concerned about her future and was relieved to find she was engaged all along.”

“Secretly!” Fiona hastened to add. “A secret engagement. In fact, we met in London, during my season.”

“Those two weeks?” Madeline’s eyebrows pushed up.

“Which was why Fiona was so eager to return home,” Grandmother added, but her voice faltered somewhat, and her gaze rested on Fiona too long.

“I see,” Madeline said. “Likely even our grandmother has not had the good fortune of meeting this ideal man.”

Fiona coughed now, and this time the cough felt real.

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