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By Candace Camp
Thorndike PressCopyright © 2004 Candace Camp
All right reserved.
Chapter OneKyria was in the grand ballroom when she heard the shrieks. High and piercing, they sounded as if they came from some distance, or perhaps from the floor above. Kyria had been discussing with Smeggars, the butler, the placement of flower arrangements for the reception after Olivia's wedding. At the screams, she raised her head, listening, then cut her eyes toward Smeggars. He gazed back at her, his controlled face twitching just a fraction in a way that told Kyria he was thinking the same thing she was: the twins were at it again.
Sighing, Kyria turned away from her task and walked out into the hall, Smeggars following. She started down the hall toward the staircase, then broke into a trot when more screams and cries erupted. She hurried up the staircase, lifting her skirts to keep from tripping. On the second floor, she saw one of the upstairs maids at the far end of the hall, sitting on the floor with her hands to her head, having hysterics. Another maid stood over her, trying alternately to pull her up and soothe her. A footman and a parlor maid were rushing into the grand drawing room, the one they had been using the most this week because of the number of guests here for the wedding.
The arrangements for her sister's wedding had fallen, as most social things tended to do in thisfamily, to Kyria's lot. Her father, the duke, appalled at the number of people invading his usually quiet domain, had retreated to his workshop out back, where he could putter about with his pots and shards to his heart's content. The duchess, who found most members of her social class empty-headed and unaware, had no interest in entertaining their guests, and domestic arrangements bored her. If she did from time to time decide to discuss menus or housing guests or other such things with the servants, she was apt to wander far afield into a discussion of the appalling conditions of the serving class in Britain and the efforts the servants should make to rebel against their lot. At the end of such discourses, the servants were generally left confused and the duchess irritated.
Thisbe, of course, being the eldest sister, might have been expected to be the one to take over such arrangements, but Thisbe was far more interested in her scientific experiments. And one would have been excused for assuming that in this particular instance, a wedding, it would have been the bride who'd be intimately involved in the planning and execution of the plans. However, Olivia had reacted with a horror greater than her father's at the prospect of the invasion of guests. So it was Kyria to whom the housekeeper and butler turned for orders, and it was she who had spent the past week arranging for food and lodging for a large number of guests, many of whom had brought along a servant or two. It was also she who was left the task of seeing that their guests were kept suitably entertained while at the same time she made arrangements for a wedding. Others might have been daunted by the task, but it was the sort of challenge Kyria thrived upon.
There were moments, of course, when she did wish that the twins had not seen fit to add to the challenge.
She hurried after the maid and footman into the drawing room. Inside the long, elegant room, pandemonium reigned. Lady Marcross had fainted dead away in one of the chairs, and the Countess St. Leger, the bridegroom's mother, was bending over Lady Marcross, chafing her wrists and fanning her with a handkerchief. Miss Wilhemina Hatcher, one of the many Moreland cousins, and another woman Kyria did not recognize had both jumped to their feet, overturning a stool and a spindly legged table, and were clutching each other and babbling hysterically. Lord Marcross was shaking his fist at the ceiling, while the maid and footman hurried around the room anxiously, hands and faces raised, calling, "Here, birdie! Here, Wellie!"
Old Lord Penhurst, deaf as a post, had his ear trumpet to his ear. His daughter was yelling into it, trying to explain to him what had happened, and periodically, over the hubbub, the old man's voice rose in a querulous cry of "What? Speak up, girl, dammit!"
Just past him Lady Rochester, almost Lord Penhurst's equal in years, thudded her cane down with authority, exclaiming, "Stop that noise this instant, Wilhemina!"
Kyria took in the scene in a glance. It was not immediately apparent what had caused the commotion, but she lifted her gaze, following the servants' and Lord Marcross's example, and there she saw the parrot, perched on the drapery rod above one of the west windows, a vivid orange-red bird, his blue wings tucked at his side, his head cocked as his bright eye took in the situation below him.
"Wellington!" Kyria grimaced. She raised her hands, gesturing for calm. "All right, everyone, there's no need to panic. It's nothing - just the twins' parrot."
Lord Marcross harrumphed. "Damn fool pet, if you ask me."
"Well, don't just stand there, girl," Lady Rochester demanded of Kyria, bringing her cane down again for emphasis. "Do something!"
Lady Rochester, Kyria's great-aunt, was a fierce old woman who had dressed for the past thirty years in black, less because of her grief over her long-dead husband's demise than because she considered black a flattering color for her pale skin. From a portrait of the lady in her youth, Kyria knew she had once been a beauty, but little was left of that beauty now in her aged face, topped bizarrely by a wig colored as deep a black as her dress - not, of course, that anyone would have dared to call it a wig to her face. Lady Rochester was possessed of a razor-sharp tongue, which she never hesitated to use on those around her. She was one of the few people capable of making Kyria feel like a gauche young girl again.
Kyria put a pleasant smile on her face and said, "Yes, of course, I will." She turned again toward the others, saying, "Now if everyone will just be quiet ..."
She tilted her head up, saying, "Here, Wellie!" She patted her shoulder as she had seen Alex and Con do many times with the bird. "Come here and we'll get you a treat."
The parrot twisted his head first one way, then the other, observing her, Kyria thought, with a definite gleam of mischief. He let out a piercing squawk, followed by the words, "Treat! Wellie treat."
"That's right. Wellie treat," Kyria said in a singsong voice, patting her shoulder again.
The parrot let out another squawk, then took off from his perch. Swooping down, he dug his claws into Lady Rochester's hair and flew on, the intricate black wig dangling from his claws. Lady Rochester let out a squawk to rival the bird's, clapping her hands to her head. The sight of Lady Rochester's naked head was enough to send Cousin Wilhemina and her companion into hysterics again, and across the room old Lord Penhurst burst into a loud cackle of laughter.
Excerpted from Beyond Compare by Candace Camp Copyright © 2004 by Candace Camp. Excerpted by permission.
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