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The late August sun was stifling that day in London and anyone with a shred of sense had retired from the dust and heat of the city's sizzling pavements. Even the hardiest shrubs had withered and flies and wasps victimized those courageous few of the ton who had sought their courtyards for relief.
Most of the quality were far removed from the sultry, grimy city, enjoying themselves at their country seats. Or someone else's. Even those brave few who had elected--or had been forced--to spend the summer in the city were not about to venture forth into the glaring heat of the noonday sun.
And so no one, except perhaps a curious servant shielded by a curtain in an upstairs window, observed the dusty hackney coach draw up to the door of the fashionable house on St. James's Square. The servant did well to be curious, for the house had been empty these two months--since the death of the old Marquis of Cavendish, a crotchety old man, so reports had said. And eccentric. Queer in the upper story, in fact.
For the old man, having managed to outlive all his male relatives, had declared sworn hatred on his high-flown neighbors--for what cause none of them could say--and had left the house and an inheritance more than sufficient to maintain it to some bit of muslin. An actress from Bath, the whisperers said. Redhaired--and young.
The neighborhood looked forward to an interesting autumn if the story were true. For the house to the right of that before which the hackney had halted was the town residence of William, Earl of Morgane, a dark haughty man, whose right cheek carried a scar. Caused, so the gossipers said, by a duel in Germany in his youth. Only eighteen at thetime, they said, and he had killed his man.
The driver of the hackney descended and began to unload several trunks and valises. The door of the carriage opened and a man climbed out, a huge man whose bald head reflected the sun. He turned to help a woman half his size, whose muslin dress and plain honest bonnet indicated her membership in the servant class.
The two stood in silent awe, surveying the house before them. It was obviously much grander than they had expected.
Suddenly from the interior of the carriage came a voice, sweet but strong. "Come, come, you two. Don't stand there gawking all day. Help me out so I can get a good look at this palace."
Both the man and the woman turned and in a moment the owner of the voice stood on the pavement. The sun could add no glory to the burnished copper of the curls that escaped her poke bonnet and the sprigged muslin gown that clung to her form revealed a figure that many a gentleman at Bath had pronounced excellent.
She surveyed the house through half-shut eyes--green eyes that warned of a fiery temper to match that hair. In silence the servants waited as their young mistress let her gaze travel from mahogany door to iron balconies to the terraced veranda roof. There was a moment's deep silence and then a piercing whistle split the afternoon's peace.
"Miss Fancy!" exclaimed the woman in alarm. But Miss Fancy only smiled. And then a howling, like that of a monster in pain, issued from the interior of the hackney.
The young woman turned to the man. "I forgot about Hercules, Henry. Do untie the poor thing. He must be stifling."
Henry nodded and entered the coach, emerging moments later with a gigantic English sheep dog who instantly put both paws on the young woman's shoulders, an action that would have laid any well-bred young lady out on the pavement in spasms. But the figure that had been pronounced excellent also hid strong muscles, and the young woman had obviously met such assaults before. She kept her feet.
"I love you, too, Hercules," she laughed, as the dog's great tongue just missed her ear. "Now get down and behave yourself"
Obediently the animal returned his front feet to the ground. For a few moments he surveyed the house and then, as though deciding against residence there, began to move toward the building on the right.
The man servant was large and strong, but it was all he could do to keep from being dragged along to the door of the Earl of Morgane.
"Hercules, no!" The sweet voice rang out. The dog stopped so quickly that the servant, huge as he was, was in danger of sitting down very swiftly.
The young woman laughed, a clear merry peal that had earned her the regard of many a Bath theatergoer. "Here, Henry, I'll take Hercules and you pay the driver. Then we'll see what my crotchety old cousin dumped on us."
The hackney driver, who had been watching the proceedings with the wooden face of a man long inured to peculiar happenings, could not forbear the slightest of grimaces. A house on St. James's Square! Sure, a queer old relative could dump the likes of such a house on him any day of the year!
Pocketing his money, the driver rattled off down the pavement. Life on St. James's Square would be considerably livelier, he figured. With that redhead around things were bound to go topsy-turvy.
The girl, searching in her reticule, produced a key and handed it to the man. "Here, Henry. This should get us in."
"It's a terrible big place. Miss Fancy. Why, we'll be rattling around in there like a couple of bosky swells in an empty pit."
"Nonsense, Ethel," said the young woman. "My cousin, Cavendish, God rest his soul, meant for me to have this house and all its furnishings and enough blunt to keep it going. And I intend to do just that. Think how much room we shall have for clothes and things."
Ethel surveyed the rest of the Square and shook her head. Her plain face wrinkled into a frown. "This ain't no neighborhood for the likes of us, Miss Fancy. This is a place where great folks live."
The redhead sent forth another peal of laughter. "Never mind, Ethel. I intend to be great folks one of these days. I'll make it at Covent Garden, you'll see. Then I'll be as great as anyone."
Ethel shook her head but kept silent. There was no point in arguing with Miss Fancy when she had her mind set. No human being alive could be stubborner, as Ethel well knew.
During this conversation Henry had carried several valises to the door and succeeded in opening it. "Come, Miss Fancy. I'll bring the rest of the boxes."
And thus it was that Fancy Harper, late of the Bath Theatre and soon of Covent Garden, took up residence among the elite of St. James's Square.
The news was all over the neighborhood by dinner time, relayed by that most efficient mode of communication--servants. By the time the first course had been carried to the grand tables by the richly liveried footmen everyone on St. James's Square knew that that actress had arrived. Many of the gentlemen found themselves looking forward to the sight of their neighbor. Though the reports disagreed on particulars, they were in full accord on one matter--Fancy Harper was a stunner, a real beauty.
The ladies, of course, received this intelligence with something less than joy, speculating among themselves as ladies, particularly plain ones, are wont to do, concerning what it was about such creatures that could make menfolk behave in such moon-calf fashion.
The servants could not believe that two menials were going to be able to manage a house that size. And those of them with friends or relatives looking out for a place began to lay plans for gaining the ear of the baldheaded giant. The little woman, judged by most to be his wife, was deemed to be powerless in such matters. The giant was the one to approach.
And so, life was considerably enlivened for the summer residents of St. James's Square, most of whom were that evening engaged in considering what that redhead was likely to do next.
Certainly none of them could have imagined the scene that was at that moment taking place in the dining room of the great house. Miss Fancy Harper, her poke bonnet now removed and her copper curls swinging free, was seated at the huge table. Before her sat a plate of the finest silver, on whose shining surface lay a single piece of bread and butter, a slice of ham, and an apple.
"We got to have a cook. Miss Fancy," Ethel was complaining. "I can't manage this great house and all. It's too much for any mortal woman."
Fancy smiled. "Don't get yourself in a pet, Ethel. We'll have a cook--one of those Frenchmen--chefs, they call them. And maids. And--and--" She looked at Henry in dismay. "I really don't know what we need. Henry, can you find out?"
Henry nodded. "Yes, Miss Fancy, but it's going to take an awful lot of blunt."
"That doesn't signify," replied Fancy with a smile that had broken many a male heart in Bath. "We have money now. Cousin Cavendish saw to that." She laughed merrily. "The old gentleman did us up fine, he did. Too bad he couldn't leave me the title, too."
She took a bite of bread and butter and chewed thoughtfully. "But I guess it's better this way. It must be terrible stuffy to be one of the ton. Too stuffy for me."
She looked at the others with mischief in her eyes. "Now if you two are going to insist on all this servant business, making me eat in this great room like some kind of high-in-the-instep lady, you'd better go get your own food. Because there's a multitude of things to be done in this place. And we're the only ones to do them. I want it all in order before Covent Garden opens the eighteenth of next month."
"Don't you be worrying your head none, Miss Fancy," replied Henry. "We'll have the place running smooth by then."
And Ethel, though she sighed heavily, nodded in agreement.
For several weeks the aristocracy on St. James's Square saw little of Miss Fancy Harper. True, there was a great deal of coming and going, tradespeople and those vying for places in the actress's quickly growing establishment.
Henry presided over all the hustle and bustle in majestic calm. And before September was much along, he had hired the necessary additional servants, including a French chef with an unpronounceable name upon whose culinary efforts Ethel looked with a jaundiced eye, and a coachman and grooms to go with the several elegant carriages in the coach house. He had even, in the company of those worthies whose advice he found incomparable, taken a trip to Tattersalls and brought home the necessary horses.
And so, on an evening toward mid-September, Miss Fancy Harper rose from the dinner table in her well-run establishment with a satisfied sigh. "That chef surely knows how to put together food," she remarked to the waiting Henry and the footmen who seemed to her to be lining the walls.
She pushed back her chair. "Where is Hercules? I have eaten far too much and must take a walk."
One of the footmen seemed obviously to be struggling with a desire to speak. Finally, loyalty to his beautiful mistress won out over propriety. "Please, miss, you shouldn't." He cast an anguished look at Henry and, finding a sympathetic eye, continued. "It ain't done. Ladies walking alone."
Fancy laughed merrily. "You mean I can't walk by myself on the street, the street I live on?"
The footman nodded. "Ladies got to have someone along. A gentleman be best if it's in the afternoon. Or a maid in the morning."
Fancy gave the footman a warm smile that made him her slave for life. "Thank you--"
"Thank you, Benson. I appreciate your advice. But I don't set up to be a lady. And I'm much in need of a walk."
Fancy pursed her lovely lips and a shrill whistle echoed through the great house. The scrabble of toenails on wood floors could be heard and in a moment a panting Hercules careened into the room and slid to a crashing halt before his mistress. His great pink tongue lolled wetly from his mouth and from under shaggy clumps of hair two bright eyes peered at her hopefully as his huge tail hit the floor in great thumps.
"Yes, Hercules," said Fancy with a laugh. "We're going for a walk." She scratched behind the great floppy ears, causing Hercules to rub against her in evident joy. "Where is his leash?" she asked.
Henry, with a sigh, fetched it. There was no point, as he well knew, in arguing with Miss Fancy Harper. She had not, as she said, set up to be a lady, and she would certainly not let the opinion of her neighbors keep her from doing exactly as she pleased. And now she pleased to take a walk.
Henry fastened the leash and adjusted the dog's collar. He looked up with a frown. "This collar is fraying. Miss Fancy. Maybe we ought to wait till we get a new one."
"Nonsense, Henry. We'll just have a nice stroll." The green eyes glittered with merriment. "Hercules and I will just take a little promenade around the Square and return home."
Henry inclined his head with a look of a man who knows when he's been bested.
Before the pier glass in the hall, Miss Fancy Harper put on her bonnet. This one was a great huge affair made of straw and tied under her chin with a pale green scarf that seemed somehow to make even more burnished the copper curls that rested against it. She pulled her shawl around her shoulders and extended one slim hand for the leash.
She smiled at Henry. "I shall be perfectly safe, Henry. Who would risk offending Hercules? Besides," she laughed heartily, "you know how well trained he is."
Henry, a slight smile curving his lips, contented himself with a nod and opened the door for his mistress.
With the great dog pacing sedately at her side, Miss Fancy Harper promenaded the Square. If she was conscious that more than one pair of eyes were watching her from behind curtained windows, she gave no sign of it. For all that she cared St. James's Square might have been a stretch of deserted meadow or upland heath.
Around the square they paced, the great shaggy dog and the lovely young woman. They had almost reached the great house again when the dog stopped suddenly, sniffed the air, gave a sharp bark, and lunged forward. The weakened collar snapped and Fancy was left holding an empty leash.
Whatever words passed her lovely lips at that moment were uttered in a voice too low for any ears but her own. "Hercules!" she commanded. "Come here! Now!"
The great dog paid her no heed, but bounded joyfully off down the street and up the walk to the house to the right of Fancy's, where he threw himself against the door with great enthusiasm.
Muttering under her breath, Fancy followed him. This, she thought with a wry chuckle, was hardly a proper way to meet one's neighbors. She hoped whoever lived in this house would not be unduly perturbed by finding a great brute of a dog flinging himself against the front door.
As she hurried up the walk after the truant, she called out sharply, "Hercules, stop that this instant!"
The dog did stop, but this was not due to Fancy's command but to the fact that the door opened suddenly. In dismay Fancy watched as her dog disappeared into the house.
Then, heaving a sigh, she marched up the steps to be met by a butler whose face appeared carved in granite. Even the generally undismayed Fancy was taken back by the frosty demeanor of this worthy retainer. "My dog," she stammered.
"Will you step inside please, miss?" asked the butler in even tones, his face perfectly composed.
There seemed nothing else to do, so Fancy stepped inside. By this time she was used to living in a great house. But the owner of this house, whoever he was, had decorated it with taste and care--and considerable expense.
She saw that much before a deep voice came from a door to the left. "Phelps! What in the name of heaven is this creature doing in my establishment?"
Through the door, dragging Hercules by the scruff of his neck, came a man. He was tall and dark, with the broad shoulders and long legs of a sportsman--and when he released the dog and straightened to face her, Fancy's hand flew to her mouth in surprise.
"The dog got in unawares, milord," replied Phelps.
"I did not expect that you had invited him," said his lordship dryly, cold gray eyes above a scar never leaving Fancy's face. "So," he said. "We meet again."
For a moment Fancy could only stare. Then with a defiant shake of her head she met those gray eyes with her own blazing green ones.
"So it seems," she replied icily. "But certainly through no wish of mine."
William, Earl of Morgane, surveyed her coldly. "I collect you are the Bath actress who has taken up residence next door. I feared as much."
Fancy smiled grimly. "I am indeed," she said. "I hope the thought of living next to an actress does not distress you."
Two gray eyes, like pieces of ice, gazed into her own. "As I recall," drawled the Earl with lazy insolence, "I once contemplated living in even closer proximity to an actress."
Fancy flushed, but conscious of the butler, kept back a sharp retort to inquire with sugary sweetness, "I hope your feelings were not too badly hurt when she refused you."
Morgane surveyed her arrogantly. "As I recall the incident, my feelings were not the only thing in danger of being hurt."
Fancy knew she was coloring up. What an abominable creature this man was! She had known it at Bath and now she was doubly sure.
As he continued to stare at her sardonically, she felt herself losing her hold on her temper. She had slapped his face once and right now she would dearly love to slap it again.
But she restrained herself. "I have come for my dog. I am sorry if Hercules caused you any trouble."
Morgane lifted a quizzical eyebrow. "Oh, no," said he sardonically. "Huge dogs are accustomed to throwing themselves at my door. I quite enjoy the diversion."
Fancy's anger rose still more. What a terribly arrogant, top-lofty man he was. Just because he was an Earl didn't mean he needed to be so high in the instep. "If my dog has done any damage to your establishment," she said stiffly, "I will pay for it. And now, if you will excuse me--"
As she bent to grab the scruff of Hercules's neck she thought bitterly how chuckleheaded she would look, half bent over, dragging the dog through the street. But she would not ask the haughty Earl of Morgane for so much as the time of day.
"Phelps," said the Earl quietly. "Send someone for some rope and put a temporary collar on this creature."
Fancy, wanting to escape the gaze of those cold gray eyes, was tempted to leave immediately, whether she must drag the dog or no. But common sense asserted itself. If she wanted to stay in the house on St. James's Square--and she did--it would be best not to be on the outs with her neighbors. Though she could never like the man who was still surveying her from lazy gray eyes, she could hope to behave politely toward him. For all her red hair and fiery temper, Fancy was a practical person and she saw no reason to make an implacable enemy out of one who might possibly otherwise remain neutral.
With Phelps gone the two were alone in the hall. "That is very kind of you," Fancy forced herself to say. "Hercules is rather difficult to drag around."
The Earl did not reply to this and Fancy found her resolution to be polite slipping again.
Morgane took a step closer. With difficulty Fancy stood her ground. She was not a small woman, but the Earl towered over her and there was something overpowering in his sheer physical presence.
"I have been known to be very kind," he said sarcastically. "As I would have proven to you if I had been given the chance."
Fancy colored up, her eyes glittering. "As I told you then, I am not the kind of woman that you believe I am. I do not need or want a--a protector. I can take care of myself."
The Earl laughed, but no merriment reached his eyes. "So I see. I collect the Marquis was willing to bestow his gifts just for the privilege of gazing on your beauty. The old man was stranger than I thought."
Fancy gaped at this insult. "I did not know the Marquis personally," she cried. "He was a distant cousin on my papa's side. I did nothing whatever to persuade him to leave me his house."
The cold gray eyes slid over Fancy's body, coolly, insolently, lingering where he pleased, and then he spoke dryly. "Perhaps I should have offered you more. A grander establishment might have gained my goal. But that was--let me see--almost a year ago. And you were not so well known, though perhaps just as beautiful."
The Earl came closer still, and Fancy, backing away, found a wall behind her. She set her back against it and glared up at him defiantly. "I told you the truth that day, as I am telling it to you now. No man will ever own me."
That same cold smile curved the Earl's thin lips. "Even, I presume, he who pays for the privilege."
As he took another step nearer, something inside Fancy snapped and she raised her hand to lash out at him. How dare he say such terrible things about her! Untrue things!
Her hand was halfway to his cheek when he caught her wrist in a grip of iron. "No woman slaps my face twice," said his lordship grimly. And he pulled her violently into his arms.
Fancy fought him, but he was quick and his lips had found hers and taken them in a savage bruising kiss before she could escape him.
When he released her, she stood quivering with rage. "You are no gentleman," she cried. "Not in any sense of the word. I hate the very sight of you."
The Earl nodded pleasantly. "And you are no lady, my little bit of muslin."
"I have never set up to be a lady," declared Fancy with scorn. "I am an actress and proud of it. I do my work and I love it. And I certainly do not force my person on those who find me obnoxious."
That she had scored a hit she could tell from the way the scar on his cheek changed color, but his face remained calm and his tone even. "You are an actress," he repeated. "A barque of frailty. Men expect you to be frail."
Fancy drew herself up haughtily. "Their expectations are no concern of mine."
Morgane's dark brows drew together in a frown. "You are in the wrong neighborhood," said he. "You say you do not set up to be a lady. This is a neighborhood for ladies. Why not sell your house and buy a small one in some other part of the city? Retire from the stage, marry some industrious man, and raise a family."
Fancy stared at him. "You are way beyond the line, sir. I do not need any help in planning my life. And if I ever do, I shall take care not to consult the likes of you!"
For a moment she thought he might reach for her again and her heart pounded in her throat. But the Earl contented himself with staring at her body until she felt the color flooding her cheeks again.
Fortunately Phelps returned with a piece of rope which he fastened around Hercules's neck in lieu of a collar. "That should serve, milord."
"Very well, Phelps. You may go. I shall accompany our visitor to the door."
Fancy fastened the leash and prodded Hercules to his feet. With a sardonic grin the Earl opened the door. She was halfway down the steps when she heard the words. Spoken in an even tone as they were they still carried a heavy threat. "Get out of St. James's Square. You are not wanted here."
Posted February 27, 2011
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