Tonight called for some act of rebellion, no matter how insignificant. Diantha Quinn crept across the thick Aubusson carpet, her way lit by the lamp she carried.
The soft wool tickled her bare feet as the dancing light illuminated a room she had come to loathe. Swags of burgundy velvet draped the solid mahogany four-poster bed and the ornately carved mirror over the vanity. Combined with the gilding splashed on furniture and knickknacks, they lent the room an air both sumptuous and oppressive.
She picked up her quilted wrapper, uttering a small noise of distaste. Although her mother adored the garment’s vivid apple green color, the shade gave her own skin a sickly cast.
The alternative of stepping out of her bedroom wearing only her nightgown did occur to her. She managed a small smile at the thought of her family’s collective horror should she do so. However, considerations of modesty and good breeding aside, drafts filled the halls of her family’s New York City mansion even in May. She sighed and tied the corded sash around her waist. After sliding her feet into an equally garish pair of slippers, she approached her door and turned the handle.
When she cracked it open, the footman drowsing against the corridor wall opposite startled to attention. “Now miss, you know your father’s orders. You’re to stay in your room till it’s time for you to dress tomorrow.” Despite the sympathy in his voice, he took a purposeful step toward her.
“Eoghan, I’ve spent the last week imprisoned in here. Please, I just want to go the library and read.” She hoped the use of his real name would soften the young servant’s heart.
Eoghan, who had been rechristened Edward because Mrs. Quinn feared appearing too Irish, crossed his arms. “Like you said you were going to visit Mrs. Schuyler last month and nearly got all the way to the railway station before they caught you?”
Diantha shuddered at the reminder of her abortive escape attempt and its aftermath. The servant’s voice softened.
“Look, Miss, I feel bad for you, I truly do. But your father says he’ll send me back to Ireland if I let you get away. You know I can’t chance that.”
“I know.” The twenty-year-old footman, older than she by only a year, had confided that most of his earnings went home to his mother in County Tyrone. Her father ordered his household with the same ruthlessness that characterized his business dealings. It was not an idle threat.
“I promise I’ll come back. You have my word.” A grimace twisted her face. “Besides, as my parents pointed out last month, I have no other choice.”
How odd to see pity in the eyes of a stripling whose yearly wages did not equal the cost of one of her hats. The boy sighed.
“You’d better, or I’ll be hauled aboard the next packet to Belfast.” He cleared his throat. “You know miss, Lord Rossburn isn’t a bad sort. For a Scot, anyway.”
“The difficulty is that I’m going to be his wife, not his maid.” She muttered the words to herself as she made her way down the hallway. A flash of bitterness coursed through her. “Servants can give notice if they’re unhappy. I’ll be tied to him till I die.”
She stared moodily ahead of her. Lord Rossburn had been a complete stranger last summer. Tomorrow she would marry him in a ceremony orchestrated to bring her parents into the inner circle of New York society.
The whisper of her nightclothes echoed ahead of her along the hall to the marble stairway. Faces painted by European masters gazed unseeing out of ornate frames as the glow of her lamp passed. The flicker of light on the statues her father collected lent the impression of movement. As a girl, the illusion had terrified her, but tonight she kept her eyes fixed straight ahead.
Even the thirteenth century French gargoyles guarding the top of the Grand Staircase failed to unnerve her now. Her older brothers had named them Buster and Willie. During her childhood, the boys had prevented her from wandering the halls after bedtime by assuring her that the stone carvings came to life and roamed through the mansion.
Her siblings anticipated the prospect of her marriage to a lord as enthusiastically as her parents did. They took no pains to hide their delight at her engagement, and often spoke of the cachet of claiming a British peer as a brother-in-law.
She had tried, cautiously, to correct them once. She recalled the occasion with painful clarity. The Quinns had dined en famille that evening, a rare occurrence.
“I don’t believe he thinks of himself as British.” As she and her fiancé had yet to converse privately during their courtship, she could not be sure of this, but she did notice he bristled slightly when referred to as an Englishman.
They sat in the pool of light shed by a single chandelier over their table. On either side of them, two other tables stretched the length of the immense room, their far ends lost in the shadows. Enormous antique tapestries lined the room, their age-dulled colors enhancing the gloomy atmosphere.
“Of course he does, the British have been united for a hundred years.” James, the elder, helped himself to a generous slice of layer cake.
“Besides, he doesn’t complain about it.” Thomas took a last swallow of vintage Bordeaux and handed his glass to a waiting footman. “Not that he’ll dare gripe if he wants to get his hands on any of our money. Right, Father?”
Harold Quinn tore his attention away from his plate long enough to glare at his younger son. “I’m not dead yet, boy. I earned my own fortune and I’ll damned well decide who gets it when I’m dead and gone.” His jowls quivered. “Not that I can see any business advantage whatever in marrying my daughter off to some overbred dandy.”
In all fairness, Diantha did not think his lordship remotely dandified or effeminate, but chose not to venture her opinion.
“Mr. Quinn, we discussed the matter thoroughly when we agreed to Diantha’s engagement. Kindly stop speaking in such a vulgar manner, all of you!” Still tall and slim after fifty years and three children, with only a few strands of silver in her dark blonde hair, Amalthea Helford Quinn’s fragile beauty belied a will every bit as unyielding as her husband’s. Noticing the piece of cake in front of her daughter, she rang the small silver bell at her right hand.
“Edward, Miss Quinn does not care for dessert. Please take it away.”
“Mama, I should very much like to have some this evening. Could I not eat just a small piece?” She gazed longingly at the chocolate-frosted confection Eoghan whisked out from under her fork.
“Do not contradict me, young lady. If I let you eat everything you wanted, you’d swell up like a hot air balloon.” The words caused a wave of heat to mount slowly into Diantha’s cheeks. No matter how hard she tried, she could never live down her mother’s disappointment in having borne a daughter who did not match her own beauty.
“For heaven’s sake, Mally, there’s nothing wrong with the girl’s figure.” Her grandmother, the one person in the family unafraid of her daughter’s temper, patted her lips with a damask napkin. “I certainly never treated you like that growing up.” The old woman winked across the table at Diantha, signifying the arrival of a slice of cake in her room later that evening.
She dared a small smile of thanks while her parents were distracted.
“I never had the opportunity to marry a Peer of the Realm.” “Although I have had a very satisfactory life with Mr. Quinn.” Her mother inclined her head toward her spouse.
As the two regularly engaged in sharp disagreements, she and her brothers had glanced at each other and sought for another subject to discuss.
Diantha pattered down the steps into the darkened entrance hall. The scent of burning oil drifted from the lamp in her hand as she passed the ballroom, already decorated and set up with tables and chairs for three hundred. She did not bother to look inside. Mama had arranged the decorations without consulting her.
Since that conversation with her family, she had suffered through a series of humiliating meetings with her husband-to-be. Forbidden to utter more than the barest commonplaces, she had listened, eyes downcast, while her mother arranged every detail of the wedding and reception. Her parents had even planned their honeymoon trip aboard the flagship of her father’s shipping line.
Worse, Mrs. Quinn, in an attempt to secure attention for the splendid match, had permitted several pieces of the trousseau to be examined by society writers from a popular journal. After exclaiming over the exquisite creations ordered from Worth of Paris, they published descriptions of several items.
Diantha had wanted to sink with shame when she read a detailed account of her embroidered underclothes. The article sparked one of the few times she protested to her parent.
“No one I know has ever had such intimate intrusion into their weddings!” She had shaken the paper in accusation.
Her mother rebuked her sharply. “Stop crying, you stupid girl! Society has closed its doors to this family for twenty-five years. Well, this will make them sit up and take notice.”
“I hardly think they’re going to be impressed because my corset-covers are embroidered with a flower and leaf pattern.” The remark earned her a box on the ear, but in her agitation Diantha had not cared.
She had tried to escape the single time they left her unwatched, but failed. Wedding arrangements continued. To the gratification of her father, Astors, Belmonts, and numerous other names from select clubs accepted their invitations.
So tonight she engaged in the only act of defiance she could think of. Slipping into her father’s darkened study, she retrieved a small key from its place under his inkstand and opened the inlaid wood liquor cabinet. Her brothers had taken Lord Rossburn out for a last spree this evening. Therefore she would have one of her own.
She supposed they were visiting the establishment of a Madam Sweet. From whispered conversations between James and Thomas, she gathered gentlemen obtained the services of loose women there. She occasionally wondered just what those services entailed, but knew better than to ask.
After examining each bottle, she picked up one and read the label aloud.
“Cognac, XO Imperial.” She poured the dark amber liquid into a cut crystal snifter and sipped cautiously. It burned going down her throat, but not unpleasantly. In fact, the warmth in her stomach felt very nice indeed in the chilly room.
She filled the bulbous container nearly to the brim. Papa and her brothers often drank more than the small amount swirling in the bottom of her glass.
Removing a book on architecture from her father’s bookshelf, she settled into an overstuffed wing chair and opened it to a chapter on the Georgian era.
Then she started to weep softly.
James Quinn needed to go on a slimming regimen. Kieran Rossburn held the portly young man up while his younger brother fumbled to unlock the door. “Why not ring for a servant?” His irritation roused his burden from his stupor.
“Father considers drinking and debauchery a waste of good money. So every single time we go out for a bit of fun – “ His future brother-in-law indicated the front door of the Fifth Avenue mansion with a sweeping gesture that nearly pulled Kieran off his feet. “—the old goat locks the door on us at midnight. We have to let ourselves in as if we still lived over the shop.”
“Damned unreasonable, if you ask me.” Beside them, Thomas looked over his shoulder from where he struggled with the key. It fell to the top step with a cold ping. “Missed again. You don’t think he changed the locks, do you?”
“Highly unlikely.” His lordship’s patience evaporated as the young man stooped to pick up the key and failed.
“Stand up and hold this.” He shoved James into his brother’s arms and retrieved the key from its resting place. Seconds later, he opened the door and guided the inebriated pair to a Louis XV settle. Groping his way in the dark to a switch, he turned up the gas lit chandelier overhead.
“Say, you can’t do that!” Thomas stood up in protest and promptly collapsed back onto the settle. “The gas isn’t supposed to be lit after Father goes to bed.” Ignoring him, Kieran tugged vigorously at a bell pull.
“I do not care in the least what your father does or does not permit. And after tomorrow, I shall be free to tell him so myself.”
“That’s what you think, old boy.” James gave a snort of laughter, or perhaps contempt. “Harold Quinn never gives up a groat without a fight. If you want to live off his money, you dance to his tune.”
Kieran regarded the younger man coldly. “My estate brings in an adequate amount for me to live off of, thank you. I would like to remind you that your sister comes as part of a business arrangement with him.”
A bleary-eyed footman arrived a few minutes later, struggling into his livery jacket. Consigning Thomas to this unfortunate individual, his lordship hoisted James to his feet and ordered the servant to lead the way to their bedrooms.
As he staggered through what appeared to be miles of hallways, he gave thanks that the Quinn brothers slept in neighboring bedrooms. Bundling the portly young man onto his bed, Kieran gasped for breath and regarded him with a jaundiced eye. Then, without a word, he turned on his heel and left the room.
The evening had been one long alcoholic binge for the Quinn brothers, interrupted only by a visit to Madam Sweet’s brothel for what they termed “horizontal refreshments”. Kieran, already disgusted with the family he was marrying into, partook sparingly of the alcoholic refreshment and bypassed the women completely. An habitué of elegant salons in London, Paris and Rome, the tawdry entertainment provided at the Quinn’s favorite house of ill-repute failed to impress him.
Not that he expected more from his fiancée’s family. The stench of sweat and cheap perfume from the bordello left a sour tang in his mouth. Hopefully a drink of his future father-in-law’s well-stocked liquor supply would overcome it. As he made his way toward the study, he fought back the bile that rose in his throat. His engagement had given him plenty of time to assess the family. Only the need to look after his tenants kept him from bolting this neo-Gothic monstrosity they called a house.
He had approached Harold Quinn the previous summer, when the American had rented a house for his wife and daughter in London. Not only did the man run the most successful passenger ships plying the Atlantic, he retained ownership of his grandfather’s fishing fleet. Kieran had approached the magnate in hopes of interesting him in backing the fishermen sailing from the one harbor on Rossburn lands. The old man had listened to his proposal in silence, then dismissed him with a promise of an answer within a week.
Striding down the dimly lit marble stairs, Kieran’s jaw tightened at the memory. He had had no choice but to agree to Quinn’s insolence. Ever since the potato blight had spread from Ireland to Scotland in his father’s time, their tenants had struggled to make a living. His father had nearly beggared the family in his attempts to provide for their people. It had taken years for the two of them to increase income from the private demesne to the point where the lord’s family could live comfortably off of it. Little extra remained to help the tenants.
Despite the social solecism of an aristocrat engaging in trade or industry, he had determined to start some venture to provide employment for his tenants. His family had held their lands since before the Normans had invaded England, and the sense of responsibility for their people ran deep in Rossburn blood.
Even so, he had refused to pay Quinn’s price the first time the old man informed him what it was.
“You’re mad.” He had regarded the other man with revulsion.
Quinn’s brows beetled. Evidently, the magnate did not hear many blunt assessments of his character.
“Mad or not, boy, that’s the offer. You want my help, you take my daughter.” Sitting back behind the large desk in the Mayfair library, he laced his hands over his stomach. “Take it or leave it. It won’t be repeated, and don’t think you’ll get any help from any other businessman on either side of the Atlantic.” The corners of his withered lips quirked. “I’ve put the word out that you’re a bad risk.”
“What?” Kieran erupted from his chair. “I made sure that proposal was more than fair to any investor. By God, you’ll not call me dishonorable, sir.”
“Not dishonorable, no.” The American regarded his steepled fingers with half-closed eyes. “Let’s just say I left out a few details when I discussed your ideas with other men in a position to help you.”
“Just enough to make me sound like I don’t know what I’m doing.” He could not keep himself from adding quietly, “You bastard.”
The other man waved the obscenity aside. “Been called worse, with more cause. The price of doing business.” His pale blue eyes flicked over Kieran. “Actually, you’ve got a good mind for a lord.” In shock, he realized the man meant what he said. “And you’ve a lot more gumption than most of your ilk. A man who ain’t willing to get his hands dirty hardly deserves to be called one.”
“How very flattering, to be sure.” The young aristocrat bowed.
Quinn growled. “I’m not interested in your sarcasm. Do you want the deal or not?”
The Scot bowed again. “I shall inform you of my decision within the week, sir.” With that, he took his leave, determined to find another way to help his people.
He did not find one. True to his word, Quinn had poisoned the industrial world against him. At the end of seven days, Kieran had admitted defeat and accepted the American’s offer, as well as the hand of Diantha Quinn in marriage.
As he passed through the golden glow of the Sienna marble foyer, he glanced at a portrait of Mrs. Quinn, along with her mother and daughter, which hung on one wall. Typically vulgar display, he snorted to himself. Nevertheless, he paused to study it closely for the first time.
Clearly a piece of self-aggrandizement for the mistress of the house, it featured the three of them in eighteenth century garb, as if they belonged to a long-established family. Kieran admitted that the artist had done a capital job of capturing the character of his subjects. Mrs. Quinn stood in the center, preening like a peacock as she arranged a vase of flowers. To one side, her mother sat with a piece of embroidery, looking at the viewer with a sardonically arched eyebrow. Kieran smiled in spite of his foul mood. Mrs. Helford’s vinegary nature appealed to his sense of humor.
On the other side, a young Diantha handed her mother a few more blossoms, her medium brown hair arranged with a lovelock curling over one shoulder. Although she looked more attractive than in her usual garb, she had clearly not inherited her mother’s beauty. He peered closer, for a moment fancying a bleak expression in the dark blue eyes.
The echo of his footsteps abruptly ceased as he stepped from parquet flooring onto the thick strip of carpet leading to Quinn’s study. Had the girl proved conversable, he might have borne the situation better. Most of his married friends had barely known their fiancées before marriage either, and they got on tolerably well. Their wives might demonstrate the typical foolishness of their gender, but they did at least carry on conversations of more than one sentence.
Unlike his fiancée, who invariably stared at the floor during their interviews, speaking only to answer questions put to her in a quiet voice. The image of year after dreary year in the company of such a dull creature rose before his eyes. And dear God, after tomorrow he would have to bed her if he hoped to beget an heir.
“Ugh.” He shook his head. He had only agreed to marry the girl. Visiting her bed had not been in the contract he had signed. If worst came to worst, his cousin Barclay could inherit the title after he died. Or rather, Barclay’s children could, since he was two years younger than his cousin and heir.
He did not consider Miss Quinn unattractive. True, she would never match her mother’s remarkable looks, but her face and figure were well enough. No, it was her spiritless demeanor that repelled him. He opened the study door and stopped dead.
To his amazement, the subject of his sour thoughts appeared in front of him. In her nightgown and a hideous bright green wrapper.
“Lord Rossburn!” She must have scrambled to her feet when she heard the door open, for she stood stiffly in front of an overstuffed chair. His gaze took in the lamp, the glitter of cut crystal on the small table beside her, and a heavy book of some sort lying half open at her feet.
For once, her eyes met his, wide with guilt. They glittered strangely, and he caught his breath at the realization she had been crying. Doubtless nerves, he thought to himself.
“Forgive me for interrupting, madam.” He shifted uncertainly on his feet under her glare.
“Can’t you wait till tomorrow to start interfering with me?” She plumped herself back into the chair, curling her legs under her. “You’re not my husband yet; I shall do as I please.” He noticed that she formed the words carefully, as if struggling to force them out.
Still somewhat at a loss, his lordship groped for a reply. “I had no notion of disturbing you, Miss Quinn. By all means continue reading.” He moved toward the liquor cabinet. “I only wish to drink a cognac before returning to my hotel.”
“Well that is a fortuishus – fortu –“ After a few more attempts to pronounce ‘fortuitous’, she gave up. “It’s your lucky night.” She held up an empty snifter under his shocked gaze. “Papa keeps his spirits locked up, but I had the same thought. I wager you don’t even know where he keeps the key.”
Glancing inside the open cabinet, he saw an empty space in the line of crystal decanters. Wrenching his gaze back to his fiancée, he gaped as she held up the missing container.
“I have no idea what this is, but I highly recommend it.” She swirled the liquid around its interior, and chuckled, an unexpectedly musical sound. He realized he had never heard her laughter. “It tastes like fire going down, but do you know, I have not felt the least draft for over an hour.”
Striding over, he relieved her of the decanter despite her protests. Up close, alcohol-scented breath confirmed Miss Quinn’s words. His fiancée had indeed imbibed a good portion of drink.
He examined the level of cognac remaining. “How much of this have you had?”
“I don’t precisely recall.” Under his incredulous eyes, she wrinkled her brow as she pondered the question. “I remember bringing the decanter over after my second glass because I kept tripping when I walked over to refill it.”
“Never mind.” He bit off the words before returning the decanter to its place and shutting the cabinet doors. Seeing the key where the girl had left it in the lock, he turned it, and faced her once more. From her position in the large chair, she regarded him with a puzzled expression.
“Aren’t you going to have your drink?” She picked up the snifter again, peering mournfully into its empty bottom.
“You need to get back to your room at once, Miss Quinn.” He ignored the mulish expression on her face. “As it is, you shall feel quite wretched tomorrow.”
“Ha!” She ejaculated the syllable bitterly. “I shall feel wretched anyway.” She shot him an unexpectedly shrewd glace. “So will you.”
Thrown off balance for a second time, he resorted to his most formal manner. “I assure you that I shall feel nothing of the sort on such a momentous occasion.”
“Stuff!” She straightened in the chair, tensing her body as if to spring. “You came in here for a drink for the same reason I did.”
“And what reason is that?” Wondering if her family had forbidden her to speak for fear of exposing a sharp temper, he braced himself in case she flew at him.
“You don’t want to marry me any more than I want to marry you.” She did not make a move to attack him, but her accurate assessment of his feelings startled him into taking a step back.
“Whatever gave you that idea?” Never mind that she spoke the truth; one did not betray one’s emotional state in public. He paced a few steps to the dark fireplace, dropping his eyes.
“You only like pretty women. Everyone says so.” The anger left her voice. “I mean, look at me.”
Although not a command, he lifted his eyes and did as she said. Miss Quinn stood once again, regarding him steadily from her place in front of the chair. Even with those appalling nightclothes tied at her waist like a pudding bag, he could detect the slim curves they covered. His gaze lingered on the full breasts that rose and fell with her agitated breathing.
And for the first time he found himself able to examine her face. Brown tendrils gleamed around a firm jaw where they had escaped the thick braid hanging down her back. Her mouth with its full, curved lips hinted at sensuality.
“I have mirrors, you know.” Her voice broke into his thoughts. Although slightly slurred, it held nothing but a matter-of-fact acceptance of her appearance. It occurred to him that part of her reticence in their courtship might result from growing up with a beauty for a mother. Certainly they had conversed more in the last quarter of an hour than they had in the months previous.
“Oh dear.” She swayed suddenly and clutched at the armchair for support. “The room is tipping!” She stared at him accusingly.
He sighed. Moving toward her, he picked up the book from the floor. It had fallen open at a page detailing the mathematical composition of a Palladian building.
“You were reading this?”
She shrugged, her face closed. “Just thumbing through it.” A bitter smile twitched across her lips. “I like to look at the pictures.”
He shelved it and returned to her. “Allow me to escort you.” Holding out an arm he waited for her to take it.
Instead, she put her hands behind her back and tried to step away from him. Stumbling over a leather covered hassock, she nearly fell. His hands shot out to catch her and she grabbed onto them with a gasp. Holding her upright, he prayed for patience.
“Apparently I am doomed to assist inebriated members of your family to their bedrooms tonight.” As she emitted an outraged shriek, he scooped her into his arms and strode out of the library.
“Put me down!” She struggled to get down for a few minutes, then ceased. “Bother! You’re making things spin again!” With a small groan, she buried her head in his shoulder as he strode toward the foyer.
“That’s the cognac, not me.”
“Really? Why on earth do men drink so much of it, then?” She raised her head for a moment, winced, and let it fall to his shoulder again. A silent laugh shook him. Clearly she was a stranger to spirits. Something inside him relaxed slightly and he chuckled at the absurd situation.
“At least you’re easier to carry than your brother.” She did not reply, merely linking her arms around his neck. To his surprise, he enjoyed the soft weight of her body. Her chest rose and fell in a deep breath and he wondered if she had fallen asleep. He cautiously set one foot on the bottom step.
He nearly lost his balance as she burrowed her face farther into his neck and inhaled again. “You smell wonderful.”
“Thank you. If you don’t mind, it would be most helpful if you did not move excessively while I’m going up the stairs.”
“Mmmmmmmm.” She sighed contentedly, and he had hopes of getting her to her chamber undiscovered. If word of this escapade got out to society, both their reputations would suffer. A moment later, she lifted her head slightly. Risking a quick glance at her face, he saw her staring at the carved banisters with an intent expression.
“Do you know something?” She asked the question in a ringing voice, and he hushed her.
“No, listen to me!”
“Miss Quinn, I beg you not to awaken the servants.”
Obligingly, she lowered her voice. “I’ve always thought those carvings look like something from an over ambitious wedding cake.”
“An apt observation. Pray be quiet.” A sheen of sweat broke out on his brow. While his fiancée weighed considerably less than her brother, he had not carried James up the staircase. His breathing became more labored as he neared the top.
“You sound like my mother. She never wants me to talk either.” Kieran felt a flash of sympathy for the woman as his fiancée whispered on. “Do you know, she picked out the banisters herself? In France. And the gargoyles. Hello, boys!” She sang out the greeting and waved at the statues. In the light from the foyer below, he could have sworn the damned things smirked at him.
“They are indeed revolting, but I must ask you to remain silent.” Having finally reached the top of the stairs, he set her on her feet and leaned on the nearest gargoyle, gasping for breath.
She stood staring at him, swaying slightly on her feet for several seconds. Then she slowly folded into a pile on the floor, looking up at him in confusion.
At least she remained conscious, he thought grimly. “Right, give me your hand.” He took the proffered appendage and pulled her to her feet, none to gently. “ ‘Once more unto the breach’.”
“Henry the Fifth, Act Three, Scene One.” She nodded sagely as he hefted into his arms once more. “Do you care for Shakespeare, your lordship?”
“He’s tolerable.” A low ache began to spread across his back. “You appear to be familiar with him, however. Have you attended the play often?” He rolled his eyes at the ridiculous conversation.
She shook her head. “Oh no! Mother would never let me see one of Shakespeare’s plays. They’re dreadfully improper.” Her voice lowered at last. “She doesn’t know I read them. I stole the book from my brothers.” She giggled. “That was five years ago and they still haven’t noticed it’s missing.”
“Very clever of you, but we really must not wake up the rest of the house.” He whispered in hopes of encouraging her to do the same. At the sight of the footman outside her door, he stopped short. To his alarm, the girl failed to take his subtle hint.
“See, Eoghan, I said I’d be back!” He tried unsuccessfully to hush her. “Do you know, Lord Rossburn hates the banister, too.”
The servant met his eyes in horror. “Mary, God and baby Jesus, I’ll be sent back to Belfast for sure.”
“Is there a discrete female you can fetch to help get Miss Quinn, er, settled in?”
“Wait here.” The stripling scurried off into the shadows.
He eased her back onto her feet, this time sliding an arm around her waist before she collapsed again. He strained to listen for any sign that they had been overheard. Thankfully he heard nothing until the brush of feet on the hall carpet and a circle of candlelight heralded the return of the footman.
His relief vaporized when he recognized Mrs. Helford. She came forward to assist her granddaughter.
“Granny!” His fiancée almost literally fell into her arms. “Lord Rossburn and I were enjoying some cognac in the library!”
The old woman pinned him with a ferocious glare. He held up both hands. “I assure you madam, when I entered the library in search of refreshment, Miss Quinn was already there. In an advanced state of inebriation, I fear.”
She scrutinized him for several seconds before addressing the girl. “Diantha Susanne, is that true?”
She giggled. “I got into papa’s best liquor, and there’s nothing he can do about it.” She tried to snap her fingers, then stared at her hand in bemusement when she failed. “It did taste odd at first, but I got used to it easily enough. Lovely stuff!”
“I doubt you’ll think so in the morning.” The dry tone of her grandmother’s voice sailed over her head. Mrs. Helford sighed and addressed him.
“I suppose it’s a blessing that you found her instead of my fool daughter and her husband.” She muttered to herself. “What did they expect, keeping the girl locked up like one of their collections? You there!” The hovering manservant snapped to attention. “Get down to the kitchen and warm a large pot of coffee – you and nobody else. If anyone asks, you’re bringing it to me. Bring it here and mind no one catches you.”
Nodding, the young man hurried away.
“You can safely turn Diantha over to me, young man.” She spoke with the crisp air of a military officer. At the mention of her name, the girl looked up before sagging back onto her shoulder. Alarmed, Kieran reached to relieve the small woman of the burden. She waved his assistance away impatiently.
“You get yourself back to your hotel. I’ve a great deal of work to do if she’s to show up at church unimpaired.”
He regarded the pair of them with concern. “I quite understand, madam, but will you not need help getting her into bed?”
Despite the circumstances, the old woman chuckled. “My late husband weighed nearly two hundred pounds in his prime and I certainly helped him to bed often enough. Now shoo!”
On the short walk to his hotel, Kieran shook his head in disbelief. Despite her condition, he had enjoyed his fiancée’s company more in the last hour than he had in the previous six months.