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"She has what?" Thomas, Marquis of Worthington, paused in pacing his London study to slam a fist on the ornately carved table. Since he was but lately recovered from a wound suffered in the Peninsular War, the pain that jolted down his arm brought a ready curse to his lips.
James Mitchell looked up from the figures he was adding and surveyed his employer. "I'm afraid it's true, milord. She's already bought a building on Piccadilly Street and she says she plans to turn it into a museum. Wants to rival Bullock's Egyptian Hall."
The marquis scowled and took another turn around the room, the resounding heels of his shining Hessians echoing his agitation and setting the delicate Sevres porcelain to quivering. "Folly!" he exclaimed. "Sheer folly."
He stopped and faced his steward. Confound it, why must the fellow remain so calm? The marquis was feeling the effects of the hereditary Worthington temper and yearning for the chance to yell at someone. This damned shoulder had made him as irritable as an infantryman with too tight boots. And this abominable London summer had tempers soaring with the temperature.
But, he reminded himself, he was a fair-minded man. He did not browbeat those who worked for him, especially those as good at their work as James Mitchell. "And what has the ton to say about this bit of stupidity?" he inquired, easing himself into a delicate lyre-backed chair.
Mitchell permitted himself a small smile. "I believe, milord, that they are much of the same opinion as you. Lady Elizabeth's new scientific museum has already been nicknamed Farrington's Folly."
"I might have known." Worthington leaned back and stretched his long legs."She was always making trouble," he remarked. "She's that sort."
Mitchell put down his quill. "I have heard that said about her. I have also heard that she's considered a reigning beauty."
The marquis looked up in surprise. "Impossible! That scrawny carrot-top a beauty?"
Mitchell coughed discreetly. "Might I suggest, milord, that with you away at war, it has been some years since you've actually seen the lady?"
Worthington considered this. "Yes. 'Spose it has. Just before I went off to Eton, I think. The little devil threw a shrunken head at me! Hit me in the stomach, as I recall."
Mitchell struggled to suppress his laughter and failed. Worthington, his good humor restored, grinned. "Go ahead, man--laugh. It does sound amusing."
Absently he rubbed his aching shoulder. "Let me tell you about the lady. The first time I met her she pushed me into her father's fish pond."
"It's true." His lordship's grin widened. "She's a menace to mankind. Let's see." He ticked items off on his fingers. "She knocked me out of the apple tree. Made my pony run away. Turned my pet frogs loose into the pond. Put a spider in my bread and butter. And that was just for starters."
By now Mitchell was shaking his head in disbelief. "How old was she then?"
"Probably about six. She made my summers quite exciting, I can tell you. Till I grew too old for such playmates."
Mitchell smiled. "I guess what they say about her must be true."
Worthington frowned, his dark eyes narrowing. "And what do they say?"
"That she must always have her own way. That she regards no opinion but her own."
"They're right about that." Worthington made a moue of distaste. "And of course my father had to make me swear to look out for her. A good man, my father, but a trifle too kindhearted."
Since the present marquis was known far and wide for numerous charitable acts which he tried in vain to keep secret, Mitchell could only nod.
"I'm afraid, milord, that looking out for her is all you can do. For some strange reason the late Lord Farrington left everything in her control."
Worthington scowled. "The earl was a strange man. Doted on that little minx. Had some other peculiar likings, too. That cabinet of curiosities he kept was--" He smiled ruefully. "The room was exciting, full of strange, exotic things. And dash it, man, I have to admit it, I played with the shrunken heads, too."
His scowl returned. "But I'm a man now. I've outgrown such childish things. And I've got to look out for her."
He sighed. "Her father should have made me her legal guardian. No woman knows enough to handle her own wealth. The fortune hunters will be after her in droves."
Mitchell chuckled. "From what I hear, the lady has already dispatched several of those. With admirable spirit."
Worthington shook his head. "Then she'll squander her money. On gowns. Or bonnets. Or shrunken heads. Who knows?"
In the drawing room of her house off Grosvenor Square, Elizabeth, Lady Farrington, was at that moment examining her latest acquisition in the shrunken head line.
"It's the most amazing thing," she said to her old nurse. "The way everything shrinks in proportion."
"'Tis not amazing," whined Nanny, her seamed face wrinkling in dismay. "'Tis disgusting, that's what it is! A grown woman of four-and-twenty playing with the remains of a human like that!"
Elizabeth shrugged. "Oh, Nanny, don't be so-so--this is a scientific item."
"Scientific, indeed!" snorted Nanny. "Don't see as how preserving a man's head is scientific at all. 'Tis barbarous, that's what it is."
"Of course it is scientific," Elizabeth insisted, with the confidence that comes from never having been proven wrong. "Think of what they must know about preserving."
"Don't want to think of it." Nanny shuddered and pulled her shawl closer. "I just don't know," she murmured to no one in particular. "I did all I could. I raised her in the right ways. But it didn't take. I've failed, oh Lord!" She moaned and cast her eyes heavenward. "I've failed in my bounden duty."
Elizabeth put the shrunken head back in its box and crossed the room to confront the old woman. "Nonsense, Nanny. You're the best nurse a little girl ever had." She smiled. "But I'm not a little girl any more. I'm a woman now."
Nanny nodded. "That you are. And you should be out looking for a husband. Not for five-legged goats and two-headed chickens." Her voice rose. "It ain't decent, it ain't. A young woman of your station, gallivanting around the countryside, hanging about with such riffraff."
Elizabeth swallowed a smile. "Now, Nanny. Madame Nuranova isn't riffraff. Why, she's a queen."
Nanny drew herself up. "And I'm the king's daughter myself," she said with a decided sniff. "Queen, indeed! She's one of them gypsies, pure and simple. Ain't no real queen going to be with them gypsies. They're--they're--well, it just ain't right."
Elizabeth allowed herself a smile. Dear old Nanny, always complaining. "Madame Nuranova can tell the future. Don't you want to know what the future holds?"
"Shades of the devil," Nanny whispered. "What crazy thing'll you be doing next? She heaved a tremulous sigh. "It ain't Christian to be poking around with such things." She shuddered." 'Tis evil to be trying to know what's to come. The good Lord keeps the knowledge of the future from us for our own good."
Elizabeth nodded. Nanny was probably right. She herself would not have wanted to know ahead of time about Papa's death--or the other calamities human flesh was heir to. But it would really be nice to know that a husband was waiting, somewhere, there in her future.
"You know. Nanny, that I have tried to find a husband. Look how many men have courted me."
"But you didn't marry a one!" Nanny cried.
Elizabeth chuckled. "That's because I need a man for only one reason--for love. Papa left me well off, you know. I don't need a man to protect me ... or support me." She sobered. "Or waste my substance."
Nanny frowned. "It just ain't natural. A woman needs a husband and little ones."
Elizabeth patted her arm. "I know, Nanny. And I do wish to marry. But it must be to the right man."
It was several days before the Marquis of Worthington could manage to work a call on Lady Elizabeth into his busy schedule. When the time came, he found himself facing this duty with distinctly ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, being a man of his word, he fully intended to keep his promise to his father. But on the other, having a very good memory, he was finding the prospect of confronting his childhood nemesis rather disconcerting.
He chuckled at himself. "Remember, man, you've faced old Boney's soldiers. What can a mere woman do to you?" Unfortunately, he had several rather painful memories of what this woman had done--and that when she'd been only a child.
He descended from the barouche and surveyed the Farrington house. Well kept. All in order. At least she was doing a good job there.
He made his way to the front door and lifted the heavy brass F that served as a knocker. It was time to face the dragon in her lair.
The butler's bland face remained expressionless, but he ushered the marquis in with due solemnity. "Milady is in the study," the butler said. "If you'll just wait a moment."
Worthington nodded. Perhaps she would refuse to see him. Remembering how contrary she had been, that seemed a distinct possibility. He was trying to decide how he would feel about such an occurrence when the butler returned.
"This way, please, milord. Lady Elizabeth is at work."
So that's what she calls it, Worthington thought, pausing halfway through the study door. The room was a perfect shambles. Every flat surface held some oddity of nature. They hung from the ceiling, festooned the corners of cabinets, and were slung in the most haphazard fashion from every available projection. In one corner a life-sized wax effigy of a wild savage stared at him from fierce marble eyes. In another, what looked like a Medusa-figure glared out from under snaking hair. And in the center of the room, bent over a huge table and scarcely less terrifying, was the young woman he had come to see.
"The Marquis of Worthington," the butler intoned, and made his departure.
Her hair had turned darker, Worthington noted, a rich auburn. She looked up. Blue-gray eyes shone out of a face of such angelic beauty that he could not believe what he was seeing. Mitchell had said beautiful, but he had expected a brittle, artificial beauty, buttressed and supported by fashion. This woman, wearing a simple day gown of pale green, would be lovely even in rags. "I--you--we--"
She laughed, a silvery tinkling sound that was music to his delighted ears. "You, speechless? I should never have believed it."
She made a sweeping motion. "Come, Tom-Tom, don't stand there gaping. Sit down and tell me why you're here."
Tom-Tom. How could he have forgotten that ridiculous nickname? Or how much he'd hated it? He reached out, thinking to remove the head of a mop that lay on the nearest chair. And the mop growled.
Startled, he pulled back.
"Fufu doesn't like strangers," Elizabeth explained. She whistled between her teeth and the mop jumped down and scurried to hide behind her skirts.
He lowered himself gingerly into the chair, and folded his legs carefully out of the way.
"So," she said, giving him a warm smile. "How is your shoulder? I hear you behaved quite heroically in Spain. I envy you the chance to fight like that."
He tried to gather his wits. She might look like an angel, but she was still the same outspoken little hellion she'd always been. "I do not think you would care for fighting," he replied. "Most of us don't. It's rather messy work."
She nodded. "And you are quite recovered?"
"My physician assures me so." His hand went automatically to his shoulder, though at the moment it was not throbbing.
"But your wound still aches on occasion."
The dog stuck its head out from behind her skirts and yapped at him. "Is that creature part of your exhibit?" he asked.
She laughed again. "Of course not. Have you changed so much that you no longer love dogs?"
"Of course not." He echoed her tone. "But my dogs are working animals. They earn their keep."
"So," she replied, "does Fufu."
She lapsed into silence then, gazing at him from those great blue-gray eyes with a directness that would have put most ladies to the blush. The silence stretched on and on, until at last, unable to bear her continued scrutiny, he blurted out, "I have come because I made my father a promise."
Her lovely mouth began to tighten and, wishing this well behind him, he hurried on. "I promised him I would look out for you."
"There is no need," she said briskly. "I can handle my own affairs."
"Yes, indeed. But a woman--"
Her eyebrows went up in an expression he remembered quite well, so well that involuntarily he drew back in the chair.
"This woman," she said with heavy emphasis, "is quite capable of managing her own affairs."
She got to her feet and stood staring down at him. "You have no legal jurisdiction over me," she reminded him. "And I do not need your advice." Her expression softened. "Except perhaps on one matter."
He smiled. Thank goodness, she was going to be reasonable after all. "I shall give it gladly."
"Then come over here."
He got up and offered her his arm. But she had already turned and was picking her way through the chaos to a large table that stood against the wall.
He followed her and stood looking down at the strangest assortment of articles he had seen in some time. Skulls lay side-by-side with woven plaits of hair, odd-shaped bones, and dried herbs and flowers. And in the front, lined up like soldiers on parade, lay three shrunken heads, unmistakably human, their eyes staring at him in mute reproach.
He frowned. "Don't tell me you are still collecting such trash."
Her look threatened to annihilate him. "I know nothing of trash," she said with great dignity. "I am engaged in collecting scientific material for my museum."
He shook his head. "No, my dear Li--" Her hard look stopped him from using the nickname that had sprung automatically to his lips. "You are engaged in making a fool of yourself."
When her hand closed around one of the heads and she swung round to face him, his reaction was automatic--and instantaneous. He retreated a step, tripped over something, and threw out his injured arm to steady himself. "Lizzie, stop! Don't throw it!"
"I do not throw precious scientific materials," she said with a glacial look.
What a fool he must appear! He dropped his arm, which now had commenced to throb again, and moved closer. "Quite wise," he said, trying a very small smile. "Some things are irreplaceable."
A smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. Funny, he'd forgotten how engaging her smile could be--even then, when he had thought her the bane of his youthful existence.
"I can't believe I really threw a shrunken head at you."
"Too bad I had no witnesses. You do remember pushing me into your father's fish pond?"
Her smile became full-blown, a lovely sight. "I wished to see if you could swim."
"After I had just told you I could not."
She shrugged. "I know. But I thought perhaps you were lying to me."
He tried to look affronted. "Why should I do that?"
"Because I had asked you to teach me to swim. As I remember it, learning to swim was the most important thing in my life at that moment."
"Well, I am sorry I had to disappoint you." He gave her the smile that in his heyday had earned him a reputation as the most eligible--and charming--connection in London. But the infuriating creature seemed not even to notice it.
"You were lying," she said. "I knew it then. And I'm sure of it now."
He laughed and conceded defeat. "Surely you can understand why. I could not take a fully clothed child into the fish pond."
Her smile was wicked. "Why, Tom-Tom, I was prepared to take off--"
"I know, I know." To his surprise, he felt a certain embarrassment. "But I could not allow that either."
"Then you should have told me the truth."
His smile became rueful. "As I recall it, the truth was not often what you wanted to hear."
She turned the full force of her smile on him again. "I am always reasonable," she said.
He wanted to laugh. Lizzie, reasonable? But he knew an opening when he saw one. "Then you will admit that this so-called museum of yours is a mistake."
"Mistake?" Her eyes blazed and her chin--quite a lovely chin, he noted in passing--came thrusting forward. "I do not make mistakes!"
"Oh yes, quite a reasonable attitude," he commented dryly. "Honestly, now, can't you see that people are laughing at you?"
She shrugged, drawing his eyes to a section of her anatomy that no gentleman would ever regard, at least not openly. He brought his gaze quickly to her face. "Why must you persist in this folly?"
"It is not folly," she said, her voice so even that he eyed her suspiciously. "It had long been Papa's dream to start such a museum. I have no children, no husband--"
He snorted. "A husband would never allow such a thing."
"Perhaps ... perhaps not. In any case, I have no husband, and no one can stop me."
Her logic was just as confusing as always. But unfortunately, she was right in one particular: he could not do anything to stop her. He sighed. "What was it you wished my advice about?"
Her smile was pure sweetness. And should have served as a warning to him. "It's these heads. I am debating whether to display them together or singly. Tell me, what is your opinion?"
He stared at her, his ire rising. "You are asking my advice on shrunken heads?"
She bit her bottom lip. He remembered the gesture, designed to hold back laughter. "Yes, milord," she said. "I consider you an expert on the subject."
He didn't know whether to laugh or be affronted. A throb of pain from his afflicted shoulder decided him in favor of the latter. He had had enough of this inanity for one day. "I'm afraid you'll have to do without my advice," he said stiffly. "I have other matters to attend to."
Her face changed. The Lizzie he remembered disappeared before his very eyes and was replaced by a proper lady he didn't know at all. "Of course," she said politely. "I have taken up enough of your valuable time. It was kind of you to call, but, as you can see, I have no need of your assistance."
He nodded again. "Then I shall take my leave."
Elizabeth watched him make his way to the door. What a shame the war had changed him so. She remembered a boy full of fun and mischief. She smiled--a boy willing to be led into varied and exciting escapades. But, now that she came to think of it, she had done the leading.
Too bad about that wound. But how fortunate he had not been disfigured. He had quite an attractive face--even though his nose tended to the hawkish and his chin bespoke a stubborn temper. The rest of him was quite pleasant to look at, too--his clothes of the latest fashion, but not too ostentatious, his linen scrupulously clean. And that lean, dark look of his must have already set the London misses wild.
Yes, he had changed. She remembered fun and laughter, pranks and peccadilloes. Now he was such a sobersides.
She sighed. The war with Napoleon had cost some men their limbs, others their lives. Tom-Tom had been lucky to come home whole and hearty. In body, if not in spirit.
She stooped and picked up the little dog. How coldly the man had made his farewell. "I suppose I must remember to address him as Worthington now," she told Fufu, scratching behind his ears. "It seems that Tom-Tom and Lizzie are only pleasant memories. Their friendship is no more."
Somewhat to her surprise, she discovered her eyes filling with tears. "Stupid dust," she muttered. "Now I can't see to work." She yanked at the bell pull. "Barton!"
"Tell Elias to get the carriage ready. Tomorrow we go to Madame Nuranova's camp."