"I think it's time to strike a deal," she said, floating into her superior's office.
"Nice to see you, too," the man in charge of her division said with only a hint of sarcasm. A low rumble of thunder filtered into the room. Sarcasm was not much appreciated in their line of work. "I have a new assignment for you."
"I just got back from one," she reminded him.
"And now you are going out once more."
"I need a partner this time," she complained. "Life is getting more and more complicated and I can't do it alone any more."
"After this post," he said calmly.
"Please..." She rarely begged and they both knew it. Her strong spirit was, in fact, one of the reasons she was good at her job.
"I'm sorry, Angel -- I have it on the highest authority -- no partner until after this assignment." He looked upward. "It's out of my hands."
She shrugged. "All right, but I won't forget."
"I know," he said with a sigh. "Now, let me tell you about David and Fanny. Their fathers were in school, and then the military, together. One gentleman, heir to an earldom, eventually married. His wife presented him with a son."
"All very proper, I suppose."
"Quite. A few years later, the other gentleman, now a wealthy country squire, got married and his wife had a daughter. The two old friends promised them to each other at the daughter's christening."
"I assume this was our work?"
He nodded. "They truly are destined for each other."
"However..." She thought she could see where this was headed.
"However, one of their agents is already in place and making mischief. I need you to go in and make sure this wedding takes place as planned."
"Any ideas who they have put into play?"
"No. It could be one of two people."
"Or both," she murmured.
"Unlikely that the two would be working together, though. You know they work better alone, because they do not trust anyone."
"All the more reason for me to have a partner..."
He ignored her and continued as if she had not spoken. "I've been notified that while both of these agents are important -- all people are important -- they aren't particularly needed in the scheme of things. And, as usual, you will be limited to the earthly body and limited in anything special."
She knew that. She could use divine intervention three times, and that was it.
"Whom do I get to be this time?" she wondered. "One of the meek and lowly, as usual?" He nodded again. She pursed her lips and grinned. "Let's see... Fanny is to be married, so she will not need a governess, so I am either a poor relation or a paid companion."
"Poor relation-cum-companion. You are cousin to her stepmother, Lady Miranda." He frowned.
"I take it Lady Miranda is one of the two under suspicion?" she guessed, already feeling sorry for the poor relation. Not only that, but the lady was scheduled to die. Angel would take her place, and when her assignment was completed, she would return here to another job, and the mortal would die again, although it would appear as if it were the first time to the humans around her. "Anything else I need to know?"
"Hmmm ... This is totally superfluous to our philosophy of putting little value on material possessions, but you should be aware that the earl has little money to his name. He needs to go through with this marriage to recoup some of the family losses."
"I see. Something tells me, then, that the opposition is concentrating on the girl."
"Why am I not surprised?" She suppressed a sigh and fluttered out of the office, resigned to returning to Earth once more.
"Are we there yet?" The plump blonde glared at her stepmother's poor relation cousin and her maid. "Well?"
"Have patience, Miss Fanny," the maid soothed.
"The coachman said we have about 10 more miles..." the companion softly added.
"You're just anxious to get there, Miss Fanny, what with the wedding and all," the maid told her.
"I suppose so," Fanny said with a long-suffering sigh. Really, she did not understand why there could not be more fuss made about her wedding. To an earl! Her late mother would have been so pleased, and her father should have been, but no, he packed her off to Herefordshire without a by-your-leave. All because his second wife, Lady Miranda, had presented him with an heir last year, and he was still besotted with the babe.
Granted, her little brother was precious, but not so precious that he need steal her thunder! Fanny blamed Lady Miranda, whom she heartily detested. That woman actively encouraged her father to keep attention direction at the little one. Miranda had hosted no less than three balls in celebration of her son's birth.
Fanny had not received a ball at all! Not for her betrothal, although with all due respect, it was of long standing, nor had there been a coming out party for her eighteenth birthday. The few parties she attended were given for others.
"But, darling," Miranda had reasoned. "What use is a ball to introduce you to eligible young men when you are already engaged to one?" That had been the end of that.
The more she thought about it, the more she decided someone owed her a party. And that someone was her fiancé.
"Make them pay, darling," had been Miranda's last piece of advice before she left home. "Give them what they want, but make them pay well for the privilege."
Fanny intended to do just that. With a grim smile, she stared out at the rain and began to plot.
"So you are going through with this..."
Mr. Roderick Forde and his nephew, the Earl of Willingham, sat over port after dinner in Forde's lodge, a mere ten miles from Willingham's Hereford estate.
"I have to, Uncle Rod. Not only has the betrothal been of long standing, but frankly, I need the money. As you know, my father was no businessman."
"You have done a good job of recouping his losses, David, Is that not enough?"
Lord Willingham laughed. "Still advocating living in sin, Uncle Rod?"
"Anything is better than marriage, lad. Eaton must be offering you a pretty penny to honor a betrothal made in the cradle. What does it pay these days to wed and bed the young lady?"
"Uncle!" The earl was indignant.
"All right, if you insist." He named a sum that made Rod whistle.
"Lucrative business, marriage."
"You should try it sometime," his nephew said with a grin.
"I did, once, as you recall, and it was a disaster." His wife of one year had run off with the man she had loved rather than stay with an arranged-marriage husband who had come to love her. She had drowned when the ship carrying her and her lover to America had caught fire during the voyage.
"But that was long ago. I can scarcely recall her."
"Fifteen years..." And he remembered it like it was yesterday. The humiliation of it, at least. Never again would he let a female get the better of him, or make him a social laughingstock.
Since then he had surrounded himself with pretty widows and witty courtesans, but staying with none for any length of time. He steered clear of young ladies of gentle breeding and married women, not wanting to be the cause of anyone else's marital strife. He was honorable in that, at least. He filled his days with controlling his investments and his nights amusing himself with women and gambling.
He had taught his nephew to be discriminating in his women, discerning in running his estate and deliberate when it came time to put down cards and dice. He looked at his nephew now, on his right at the table, and gave him a fond smile. David was a nephew to be proud of.
"So honoring your betrothal is a business move."
"Almost. Have you seen Miss Eaton?" The young earl made a few curving movements with his hands.
"Pink and gold and well-endowed?" Rod guessed. "Beauty fades, you know, and her curves will run to fat after her first child."
"Suit yourself. But mark my words, lad. She's either a shrew like her stepmother or a squealing idiot with more hair than wit. Have you met her yet?"
"Once. We attended the same ball two weeks before I left London. I made certain we were introduced."
"The beauteous Miranda allowed her to attend and outshine her?" Rod could scarce believe that.
The thought of Lady Miranda left a bad taste in his mouth. Two years before, in her first season, she had taken a fancy to him and had pursued him relentlessly. He had almost been trapped, too, at a house party. Fortunately, an older gentleman, Eaton, had been caught in her web instead.
Just Rod's luck, though, the lady had intimated at their last meeting that she had done her duty by her husband and was ready to branch out "in an amorous sense." He had turned her down.
"Fanny was at the ball with her dowdy little companion, Miss Singletary."
"Miranda's dogsbody," Rod said knowledgeably. "She could not say ‘boo' to a goose, that one. A fine chaperone she must have made."
"She is traveling with Fanny to the manor."
"No evil stepmother?" Rod enquired.
Rod relaxed into his seat and took a sip of port. "Thank goodness for small favors." Miranda would have been difficult to dodge should she have decided to accompany the girl.
"It is odd, though," David said in a bewildered tone.
"Lady Miranda's attitude. She should be providing protection for her stepdaughter, and yet she sends the girl off to balls with the scantiest of chaperones. Everyone knows the poor relation is under the stepmother's thumb, so any orders she has as relates to Fanny come directly from Lady Miranda."
"And how is that odd?"
"At the ball, I found Fanny and Lord Garvey spending an inordinate amount of time together -- on the terrace."
"Did you question the chaperone?"
"Of course. Once I found her. She said she had been instructed to give the lady her head."
"It is as if Lady Miranda wants Fanny to jeopardize her own betrothal. But if that is the case, it makes no sense."
"Doesn't it? She gets revenge on me through you and she gets the chit off her hands with whomever compromises her first."
In the carriage, Fanny was becoming increasingly irritable. "How much longer do we have to..."
Lightning struck nearby and the horses squealed in fright, one of the offside cattle rearing up in surprise. The carriage tilted dangerously before it landed on its side, throwing the coachman from the box. The horses tried to drag the coach, but were unable to, and they halted, their eyes whirling dangerously, the whites pronounced, even in the late afternoon gloom.
Fanny looked at Angela and sighed. She was out cold. The maid was in hysterics and she felt like slapping the girl. It might come to that, she thought miserably. She poked her head out of the only available door in time to hear the coachman call from the side of the road to say he thought his leg was broken.
Fortunately, they were at the gates of a short drive that led to a lodge. She wondered if anyone was home...
Why did these things always fall to her? She grumbled as she trudged up the gravel road leading to the house, relieved to see a few lights in the windows as she got nearer to her destination. Now, if there were some strong men to assist her...
She knocked and was taken aback at the dark gentleman who answered the door.
"My carriage ... Accident ... broken leg ... unconscious..." she found herself babbling to the man. He looked down sternly at her and she thought he looked a bit like a devil. When the face of her own fiancé appeared over his shoulder, she fainted on the doorstep.
"Why the devil did she do that?" Rod demanded, pointing to the female crumbled at his feet.
"That is Miss Eaton!" David cried, kneeling beside her.
"Then you do something with the damned chit while I see what happened." Grabbing a cloak, he did not wait to see if his nephew would follow orders, but went out into the rain. How in the world had David's fiancée landed on his doorstep and not Sarah's?
Sarah was his elder sister and David's mother, and she was no doubt expecting someone this evening. Because it looked like they were going to have houseguests, Rod was uncomfortable leaving David in the same close quarters as his fiancée -- there was still a chance the lad could get out of the betrothal ... But not if near proximity at the lodge was going to throw them together. The structure only contained three bedchambers, after all, and if Miss Eaton had her own, and the chaperone had one, David might feel obligated to allow his uncle to keep the master bedroom to himself. No, as soon as Rod ascertained what exactly had gone wrong, he could separate those two.
When he reached the wreckage of the carriage, it was worse than he expected.
The horses, unable to go anywhere, because the coach had sunk into the mud, were petrified. Although Rod was no sawbones, it appeared to him that the coachman had broken a leg. A maid was sobbing inside the carriage.
"She's dead!" the girl cried when she saw Rod look in. "Miss Singletary is dead!"
"Nonsense!" He quelled the urge the slap the maid. Instead, he offered up his cloak and told her to cover the coachman. He would carry the companion to the lodge, send someone back for the horses and driver, and ride for the surgeon himself.
As the maid was helped out of the toppled carriage, she muttered something about the devil, and he could only surmise she meant himself. He supposed the dark cloak did not help, but he was often called Satan in London for his devilish good luck at the gaming tables. This was neither the time nor the place to think about that, and he sent her off to help the coachman while he climbed into the carriage and gently lifted up the companion.
And sucked in his breath in surprise. She wasn't pretty by any means, but she had an ethereal glow about her that drew him like a lodestone. She wasn't dead, either, and he could only wonder at the maid's ability to determine the alive from the dead. Fortunately, under her drab gray coat he could see the gentle rise and fall of her chest. He smoothed locks of mousy hair back from her forehead and whistled. She had a purple knot on her brow the size of a goose egg. There could be little doubt she suffered a concussion.
With infinite care he climbed out with her in his arms and carried her to the lodge. There was a sense of urgency, not completely because of her injuries. That played its part, but he felt a strange attraction to her. And he meant strange. She was hardly his type.
He decided right then and there to alert the village surgeon and apothecary on his way to Willingham Manor, and he and David would leave together. With no gentlemen at the lodge, the ladies would be more protected than if he and his nephew stayed.
"Has she come around?" he asked of Miss Eaton as he carried Miss Singletary in and lay her gently on a chaise.
"Yes, she is fine, Uncle Rod. I gave her a bit of brandy and she fell asleep."
Rod snorted, but made no other comment about the selfishness of some people. "Go pack your belongings. We are riding on to the manor tonight, after we stop in the village to speak to the surgeon. The coachman ... The coachman!" He called for the manservant who kept up the lodge for him.
"Armand -- I need you and the stable lads to get a gate or a door or something and collect the driver you will find huddled on the side of the road with a very silly excuse for a maid. Bring him to the kitchens and give him your spare room."
"Yes, sir." The servant went at once to tend to his master's orders. Rod ignored Miss Eaton, asleep on a sofa, and knelt by the companion instead. "The maid said she was dead," he said to his nephew, "but she is breathing fine. I'm more worried about this bump. Get a cold compress and bring it here."
"But you just told me to pack!"
"Compress first, then pack."
"I do not understand why we must go to the manor. Who will tend to the ladies?"
"Armand will be here, and that maid might be of some use, if only to sooth Miss Eaton's ruffled feathers." He had his doubts about that, on both sides. "Someone needs to show up tonight or your mother will worry."
David could not refute that and went to find Armand to fix a compress.
Angel woke in a soft bed with a skull-splitting headache and a disoriented sense that was not unusual in her line of work. What alarmed her, however, had been the glimpse of a dark creature standing over her body the instant before she entered it. Who had that been? One of their agents? He had certainly looked grim enough.
There was a scratch at the door and then Fanny's maid came in with a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits.
"Mr. Armand thought these might revive you, Miss Singletary. The apothecary says you are to stay in bed and we are to keep an eye on you."
Angel could have told her it was unnecessary, that as long as she had need of it, the earthly husk of the companion was hers. The injury had been healed and the headache Angel always experienced upon entry would disappear within the hour. Still, her body needed nourishment and she gratefully took the offered tray. She adored tea and the sugar biscuits were as light as feathers. And she knew feathers.
"If that will be all, miss, I'll just run down and attend to Miss Fanny."
"Miss Fanny... Is she all right?" Heaven help them all if anything had happened to her.
The maid sniffed. "Right as rain and pouting because that uncle of her intended ran off with the young man before you could blink."
"Where are we?"
"Mr. Forde's hunting box, miss, and it would have been a tight squeeze if the gentlemen had stayed." She excused herself.
Angel sat back and sipped her tea, thinking about David's uncle, the means of temporarily separating David and Fanny. Was a more permanent separation the goal? He bore close observation, if possible. He could be delivering David to the manor and moving on, but somehow, she doubted it.
Fanny was indeed pouting, and she was still miffed later when Angel rose against the maid's protests and went downstairs.
"You are supposed to keep an eye on me," Angel told the girl, who was hovering over her as she climbed out of bed. "You may watch me just as easily downstairs."
The maid fussed, but finally caved in the face of Angel's determination.
Fanny looked up when Angel entered the room, and did not even pretend to hide her shock. At least she had forgotten to pout.
"Angela! What are you doing? You should be in bed! Betsy! Take her back up there this instant!"
"I tried, Miss Fanny, but she won't listen. I know she all but died and now she's gadding about the house just as sweet as you please," Betsy complained.
"I assure you both I am fine," Angel insisted, seating herself in a chair by the fire.
This was a bachelor establishment, she decided, looking at the books, hunting prints, dark leather and polished wood. There were no little touches so loved by ladies: pillows and needlework scattered about, no flowers in vases, or floral rugs.
"Where are we?" she wondered aloud, for the sake of idle conversation.
"Can you believe it?" Fanny asked. "This lodge belongs to Lord Willingham's uncle!"
"Is he a dark man?" Angel wondered.
"I have no idea. He was gone before I..." She coughed to cover up the fact that she had fainted. "I did not see him clearly. I was quite overwrought, you know."
"Are you better now?" Angel's first concern was Fanny's health. Betsy, who had not yet dismissed herself, snorted.
"I am so delicate, I think I need some refreshment." Fanny gave Betsy a pointed look and the maid left to fetch tea. "I wish Lord Willingham could have stayed," she whined once Betsy was out of the room. "I scarcely know him and he is taken away once more!"
Angel privately agreed that it was not good, but she saw it was not wise to encourage the young lady to complain.
At Willingham Manor, the dowager countess was getting anxious. Miss Eaton and Miss Singletary were expected at any time in the past two hours, it was now dark and they had yet to arrive. She paced up and down on a shabby rug in front of the drawing room fire, praying nothing had happened to them. This marriage was too important to be called off or even postponed. As it was, she was going to be on tenterhooks for the next few weeks until they were wed.
"Mama!" her son cried from the doorway giving her a bit of a fright. She noticed her brother right behind him and smiled.
"David! Roderick! I am distressed! The ladies have yet to arrive! Look at the time! Did you perhaps see them on the road here?"
"Actually, Sarah dear," her brother said, sitting her down. "That is why we are here. There has been an accident."
"An accident! Oh, dear," she moaned. "What happened? Is the young lady all right?"
David opened his mouth to speak, but was forestalled by Roderick.
"There was a carriage accident, oddly enough, on the road outside the lodge. Miss Eaton is a bit shaken, but fine. We left her taking a brandy-soaked nap. It is her companion and the coachman who were injured."
"Thank goodness!" she breathed, and then realized how horrid that sounded. Evidently her brother thought so, too.
"A lady almost died and you are glad it wasn't Miss Eaton?"
"She almost died?"
"According to the maid, she was dead, and when I reached her, she was unconscious, but alive. The driver has a broken leg. I called on the surgeon to tend to him before I left."
It was the dowager's turn to be indignant.
"Two people injured and you left them to the mercy of a young lady who most likely never nursed anyone in her life?"
"Uncle was uncomfortable around the ladies," David tried to explain. His mother was having none of it.
"What could be more harmless than an engaged young lady and her poor relation companion?"
"A lady who might be persuaded to cave to seduction?" Roderick asked.
Her eyes grew wide. "You wanted to seduce the companion, Rod?"
"No!" he exclaimed a bit too forcefully, bringing a smile to her lips. Was he protesting a bit too much?
"I meant David and his fiancée!"
"Oh, no! David, you would not!" his mother cried, turning to her son.
"Rest assured, I would not," he soothed. "But I am curious about Uncle Rod. He insisted we leave almost as soon as he brought in the companion, Miss Singletary."
"Now, Sarah, do not get any ideas."
"I am not getting ideas," she innocently replied. Too late for that, anyway. She already had them.
"The ladies will be all right with Armand to care for them, Sarah."
"But they are all alone!"
"I am certain they will be along in a day or two. The coachman, I fear, will be there longer. Fortunately, there won't be anyone else for Armand to... Bloody hell!"
"I beg your pardon, Sarah, but I just recalled that someone else will be at the lodge. I have lent it to an old friend."
David blanched. "You did not!"
"Who?" Sarah was curious.
"Desiree Denton..." Rod told her. She could feel her cheeks turn pink. Desiree Denton was the type of female that gently-reared ladies like herself should not know about, but did anyway. "In a couple of days? That should be long enough for the ladies to recover and travel here. David, dear, arrange for our coach to retrieve them. Then they need not be disturbed by Miss Denton."
"Too late," her brother murmured.
"Too late for what?"
"Desiree should be arriving first thing tomorrow. She said she had a chance to bring Lockerby up to scratch and I offered the lodge."
"How kind of you," she said faintly. She could only pray that the courtesan was delayed long enough to get the ladies out first.
At the lodge, Angel was sitting quietly over her tea when there was a commotion at the front door. A tall, buxom redhead breezed into the room and threw her arms wide.
"Roderick! David! Darlings, I have arrived! Now the fun can begin!"
Angel smiled at the newcomer, but behind her, Fanny was making strangled noises, her mouth opening and closing like a fish.
"I fear the gentleman have left," Angel said.
"Oh, bollocks!" the redhead exclaimed. "I was so looking forward to seeing them." She pulled off a stylish poke bonnet and stripped her hands of emerald green gloves before sitting down on the chaise next to Fanny.
"You are here for their entertainment?" Fanny asked.
"Certainly not!" was the heated reply.
Fanny sagged back in relief.
"On the contrary! I thought they would be here for mine!"
Fanny was pouting again, only this time it was in righteous indignation toward her absent fiancé. Angel was sorry about that, but she had an obligation to interview the woman who had so brazenly entered the house. Besides, all were God's creatures and should be treated with respect.
"I am Miss Singletary," Angel said, coming over and holding out her hand. Fanny began to make funny noises again, but Angel ignored her.
"Desiree Denton!" Angel found her hand and arm being pumped up and down with vigor.
"And this is Miss Eaton."
"Oh! The fiancée! I am very pleased to make your acquaintance! David is a very special friend of mine, you know."
Obviously Fanny did not know, because she was turning purple.
"You have known his lordship a long time?" Angel prompted.
"Yes, indeed! Roddy introduced us, you know, and..."
Armand entered with fresh hot water for the teapot and asked Miss Denton if she wished to retire.
"Hell, no! This is much more fun! It ain't often I get to talk to real ladies, if you don't count those who yell at me because I happen to have entertained their husbands a time or two." She winked at Angel.
"If you are not going to retire," Fanny said, getting to her feet, "then I shall. Good night!" The others watched her march from the room, her head held high.
Desiree shrugged and allowed Armand to fix tea and pour out a cup. Once he had retreated (after a pointed look at Angel), the redhead pulled a silver flask from her reticule and popped the cork. She took a healthy swig from it and then poured some amber liquid into her tea.
"Some for you?" she offered. Angel, curious, held out her cup. A generous dollop was added and she took a taste.
"That is different..."
Desiree laughed, a husky sound. "More where that came from, ducks!"
"So tell me, Miss Denton..."
"Desiree, please," the woman insisted.
"Desiree, then. How long have you known Lord Willingham?"
"Oh, Roddy -- his uncle, you know -- and I go way back. One of his best friends was the most incredible..." She must have realized who she was speaking to, because she cleared her throat and did not finish her sentence.
"When Elliott was killed in a duel," she finally continued, "Roddy stepped in and took care of me until I was back on my feet. We were never lovers ... but he protected me just the same. And I don't care what Miss High-and-Mighty up there might think," she added, gesturing upstairs with a thumb, "David was never my lover, either. Roddy introduced us, of course, but even if David and I wished to become involved, he would never allow it. Keeps an eye on the lad, he does, and don't let him spend blunt he don't have."
"Would you wish the earl as a protector?"
Desiree laughed once more. "Oh, Lord, no! I have one now who might just become permanent. Rod knows this; that's why he lent me the lodge. I do my best work away from prying eyes." She winked.
Angel relaxed. This woman was a sinner, there was no doubt about that, but she was no dark agent. Unless her artless manner concealed something more sinister. Angel had enough experience in this line of work to separate the wheat from the chaff.
"Here, love, have another nip." Desiree added more liquid from her flask to both teacups and then topped them off with more tea. She looked up to see the manservant standing in the doorway.
"I don't think Armand wants you in here with me," the courtesan said in a loud whisper.
"I cannot imagine why."
"I might be a bad influence. I'm sure I can only be a good one. For instance, you look very drab and dowdy."
"I do?" Angel did not concern herself with appearances too much when she was on an assignment.
"Honey, you could stop a coach and four with that face if you knew a few tricks." She rose gracefully from the chaise and wandered about, as if in search of something. "Damned men! Don't they know what a mirror is?"
Angel, who was still not quite sure she wished to stop a coach and four with her face, giggled in spite of herself. "There is a mirror in my bedchamber."
"Then what are we waiting for?" She pulled Angel to her feet, was mindful to bring the flask, and they went to Angel's room together.
Desiree went straight to the wardrobe, where someone had hung a scant handful of brown and gray gowns. Angel could only suppose the trunks had come in and either Betsy or Armand had taken out her gowns.
"Drab ... Dull ... Hideous!" Desiree called, flinging gowns over her shoulder onto the bed. "Tolerable ... Dowdy ... How do you live with yourself?"
"They are all I can afford." At least she was certain that was the reason Miss Singletary's wardrobe was so awful.
"Nonsense! I've worn gray and brown before -- I know it can look stylish!" Desiree pulled a plain gray gown from the pile. "This just needs a few pink ribbons and it will be much improved. Come with me," she commanded. "And bring the clothes!"
An hour later, Angel had a refurbished wardrobe. It could not be called chic by any stretch of the imagination, but it was much improved. And included two tasteful evening gowns suitable for dinner at the manor. Desiree had laughed when she handed the white silk to Angel.
"I bought this for a demure phase I never went through. You will have to hem it, but I daresay it will fit elsewhere."
Angel looked at herself in the mirror and silently agreed that no matter what Miss Singletary's flaws, of which there seemed to be many, she was capable of holding up the bodice of that white gown.
The other dress was a soft rose in color. "Another demure one that didn't work."
"It's beautiful!" Angel liked pretty things as well as the next female and the rose put a bloom on her cheeks.
"Now for the hair. Don't scrape it all back like that, love. It does nothing for you."
"But I am a poor relation," Angel protested.
"Yes, but you are Lady Miranda's poor relation. The witch needs some competition!"
"I am competition of some sort," Angel conceded. She was certain they were not speaking of the same sort of contest, but it was not the thing one brought up in conversation, she had learned. People tended to put you in Bedlam if they thought you were an angel.
"Sit!" she was ordered and she obeyed, only to find a wealth of mousy brown hair come tumbling down into her face.
"The spinster look has got to go," Desiree muttered. She brushed and separated and worked on the long, thick mass until she had it braided and arranged in a soft crown at the back of her head. "There. Presentable, at least."
"I cannot thank you enough for everything," Angel said sincerely, admiring her hair in the mirror. "I must be off to bed now, but I shall see you in the morning?"
"Perhaps. I tend to work at night and sleep all day, so who knows? But if not, it was a real pleasure meeting you, Miss Singletary. I have enjoyed it."
"I have, as well. And keep being kind to others, Miss Denton. You never know when you may be entertaining an angel unawares." She winked at Desiree and left the room.
Angel did not see Miss Denton the next morning, as predicted, both because Desiree was still abed, and because Fanny insisted, head injury or no, that they proceed immediately to Willingham Manor. The fact that Lord Willingham had sent his carriage only increased her desire to leave.
"I cannot believe you spent the evening talking to that ... that ... creature!" she complained for the hundredth time that day as they turned onto a wooded drive leading to the earl's house. "At least when she helped you with your hair, she did not tart you up. Did you see that traveling outfit? I thought she would have gotten a chest cold, she was that exposed!"
Angel wisely said nothing about the gowns, even though Betsy was well aware of them. Fortunately, she only exclaimed over their beauty and appropriateness as she had packed them in the trunk. "Lady Miranda keeps us all on a tight leash, don't she?" she had commiserated.
Fanny seemed to be stuck on Lady Miranda as a theme, as well. "And what Miranda will say when she sees your hair ... It does not bear thinking! You know she would not approve of Miss Denton, either, but probably only because she is a friend of and was using Mr. Forde's lodge. Miranda is obsessed with him! I hear the only reason she married Papa is because she tried to trap Forde into marriage and my father got caught instead."
Fanny rattled on in that vein until Angel wanted to smack her. How in the world could this couple be destined for each other when the girl was a silly lackwit who cared for nothing but herself and her own pleasures? Angel was going to have to pray about that.
It was unfortunate, too, that Fanny did not let up once they had arrived at the house and had been welcomed by the warm, friendly Lady Willingham.
"My dears, I was so worried! And then Roderick told me what happened! Now I am all astonishment that you are here so quickly! How are you feeling, Miss Singletary? I understand you were injured rather badly..." She settled Angel down in front of the drawing room fire, fussing over her and leaving Fanny to fend for herself.
"The gentlemen are out riding the estate together, but they will return soon for some tea. Can I get you anything, Miss Singletary? Perhaps a shawl?"
"I am sure she may retrieve her own shawl, Lady Willingham," Fanny said nastily. "She is a poor relation and a companion, after all."
Lady Willingham frowned. "She was also injured yesterday, and must be given every consideration for that alone." She smiled gently at Angel. "If you are comfortable, I will see to my future daughter now."
Angel nodded and allowed the countess to focus on Fanny. It was not long, as promised, before the gentlemen joined them. Three gentlemen, because they had brought the local vicar with them, a cousin of David's. The earl made the introductions.
"Miss Eaton? Miss Singletary? May I present my cousin, the Rev. Powers? Edmund, my fiancée, Miss Eaton, and her companion, Miss Singletary."
The vicar looked right over Angel and went immediately to Fanny's side. "Miss Eaton! I have longed to meet you ever since I was old enough to know that David had been betrothed practically from the cradle. You look much too young to be marrying this old man!"
"I have a feeling you and I are going to get along just fine," Fanny said with a titter.
"I know we are," the vicar said smoothly, bringing her hand to his lips.
Angel did not like the looks Fanny was exchanging with the vicar, and neither, apparently, did the earl.
"Yes, well, I am certain we will all get along just fine," he said, seating himself between his cousin and his fiancée. The countess seemed unable to decide what to do or say in this situation, but Mr. Forde, thankfully, picked up the conversational ball.
"How are you feeling, Miss Singletary? That was a nasty bump, I am certain."
"You were injured?" the vicar asked.
"It was horrid, just horrid!" Fanny exclaimed. "I had to walk to the house in the rain, mud got into one of my trunks and my maid insists she saw the devil!"
Both the vicar and Angel perked up at this tidbit of news.
"That was me, I believe," Mr. Forde said with a laugh. "I fear I startled the maid by appearing suddenly in a dark cloak."
David and his mother laughed, Fanny was pouting again and the vicar and Angel both relaxed.
"We are all pleased to see you looking so well, then," Lady Willingham said before turning to her nephew. "You will join us for dinner, Edmund?"
"Thank you, Aunt Sarah. I believe I shall. But tell me more about this terrible accident, Miss Eaton. You were riding along when..." he prompted.
Fanny needed little encouragement. She told how lightning had hit close by, how the horses had bolted and how they had found themselves sideways in the carriage. Angel had not been there at the time, but she was almost certain Fanny was embellishing some things. The girl seemed to be a born exaggerator.
"And when it all stopped, we were in front of the lodge, although I did not know it was Mr. Forde's at the time."
"Convenient, that," the vicar murmured. "Divine intervention?" he asked the room at large.
"You would know better than I," Mr. Forde replied. "Seeing as you are a man of the cloth."
"The Lord works in mysterious ways," the vicar said piously.
"So do his opponents," Angel sweetly added.
"This is true!" The vicar turned back to Fanny. "When you arrived at the lodge, I suppose you sounded the alarm and Mr. Forde kindly went out in the rain in your place."
David was not about to upset his fiancée by telling everyone she had fainted, but his uncle had no such compunction.
"She fainted dead away at that point. David had to give her some brandy to calm her nerves when she came to and when we left, she was sleeping it off."
Fanny shot him a dangerous look. "I was awake when Miss Denton arrived," she said, her gaze now burning a hole in Lord Willingham.
"Uncle's friend," her fiancé mumbled.
"And yours, too, if the lady is to be believed," Fanny grumbled. "I see no reason to doubt her. After all, she calls you David."
"You met a close friend of David's?" the vicar enquired.
Angel looked at him a bit more closely. The man seemed to have a knack for picking out the worst parts of the conversation and getting that silly prattlebox Fanny to expound on them.
"How close a friend, I am not quite sure," Fanny told him. "My lord Willingham seems a bit too quiet on the subject."
"That is because the subject is not one I would wish to be discussed in front of ladies," the earl said in his own defense.
"Are you implying that I am no lady?" Fanny cried.
"If the shoe fits," Mr. Forde said with a sly smile.
Fanny got abruptly to her feet. "I need to lie down, Lady Willingham. This very instant, before I find myself insulted once more."
The countess stood, her hands flitting ineffectually for a moment before she had the sense to agree with Fanny and offered to take her to her room.
Angel excused herself, as well. As much as she preferred to stay, she did not think she would learn anything else. She had time for thought later, after Lady Willingham had shown her to a pretty blue and white bedchamber, which had a connecting door into Fanny's green and gold room.
Why was Mr. Forde so intent on sabotaging the betrothal? One word from him was all it took to throw everything into chaos! Could he be one of the agents she was sent to foil? If so, it was going to be difficult to keep him quiet long enough for the now-unhappy couple to wed.
The vicar was another concern. He was too much of a distraction for Fanny and he seemed to realize that. And pushed the advantage. Angel only hoped Fanny and David were to wed by license, because she would hate to see the vicar mess up in reading the banns.
She made a mental checklist while she ostensibly napped on her pretty blue and white toile bedcover, soft white tulle overhead that made her feel like she was floating on clouds.
One. Make certain David had a license. If she could talk him into moving up the date, she would.
Two. Find out more about Mr. Forde. There had to be someone who knew him well enough but would not become suspicious or turn into a matchmaker if she began to ask questions.
Three. Do the same for Mr. Powers. Just because he was ordained did not mean he was pure of heart and mind.
She recalled an instance where she had been in the body of a young widow with three suitors. The first had been a sweet, kind man and if Angel had been permanently assigned to that lady, she would have chosen him. The second man would also have been a serious contender for the widow's heart. He was a bit less polished, but no less kind and thoughtful.
The third man had been a member of the upper echelons of society -- just the sort of man Fanny would choose -- and his outward reputation was spotless. But inside, she had discovered, almost to the detriment of the poor widow's own reputation, that his soul had been as black as night. The fire that had taken his life, however, had not been none of her doing. She was there to rearrange to heaven's satisfaction. God took care of any retribution. Which was as it should be.
Granted, she had shot people before, and once she had been forced to use a sword, but she had never killed anyone. Besides, she thought with an irreverent little chuckle, the only person worth killing at this point was Fanny.
Dinner was almost as painful as tea had been. Angel was forced to listen to Mr. Powers encourage Fanny in the spouting of nonsense. Fanny was ignoring David. Mr. Forde interlaced the entire conversation with sarcasm and incendiary comments. The earl and his mother were clearly uncomfortable with the entire situation, and if David had called the engagement off at that very moment, Angel would not have blamed him.
She refrained from saying anything to Fanny after the ladies left the gentlemen to their port. Fanny struck her as the sort to do the opposite in the face of a lecture, and Angel did not wish to jeopardize her own mission, no matter what she thought in private.
To keep her mouth shut, she went to the pianoforte and sat down to play. It was her greatest pleasure in a mortal body, and one she indulged whenever she got the chance.
"I have never heard you play before!" Fanny exclaimed as she joined her at the instrument. "Lady Miranda said you do not."
"My cousin does not know everything about me," Angel replied, realizing she might have slipped up by displaying her one meager talent. Still, one must not hide one's light under a bushel basket...
"She probably never encouraged it in case you are a better player," Fanny surmised. Angel stayed quiet and let her think what she would. "You do play beautifully," Fanny sincerely added.
"And I like your gown. I suppose Miranda gave you some of her castoffs so you would not embarrass me here."
"Something like that." Angel was wearing the white gown given to her by Desiree Denton.
"I know Miranda is past wearing virginal white," Fanny tittered. "If she ever could."
Angel only smiled and kept playing. She would like to hear more about Lady Miranda.
"Papa was going to break the longstanding arrangement with the Powerses," Fanny said softly, not wanting Lady Willingham, who had picked up some needlework, to hear. "Said I was old enough to make my own choice. But Miranda said we should honor the contract."
"You do not like Lord Willingham?"
"I do!" Fanny insisted. "Who would not? He is handsome and kind and responsible and he has a title. Did I mention that he is handsome?"
The gentlemen chose that moment to join them and Angel rose from the pianoforte to join Lady Willingham on the sofa.
"Do continue to play for us, Miss Singletary," the earl requested.
"I play, too!" Fanny said hotly, apparently forgetting she was not speaking to him.
"I should like to hear it, Miss Eaton," Mr. Powers smoothly replied. "And I shall be happy to turn pages for you."
Fanny giggled and agreed, and they went to the pianoforte, leaving the earl standing alone.
Angel felt sorry for David, who was only being polite to her.
"Excuse me, Mr. Powers," the butler said from the doorway. "There is an urgent message for you at the kitchen door." The vicar sighed, told Fanny to hold that place and went reluctantly with the servant.
"I cannot like this, David," Angel overheard the countess whisper to her son. "You should be over there turning pages for her!"
"Yes, mother," he said in resignation.
"I have a better idea," Mr. Forde said, for it appeared he had been eavesdropping, as well.
"Miss Eaton!" he called. "Won't you play something sprightly we can dance to? David, you dance with Miss Singletary and I shall partner Sarah."
Fanny frowned. She did not seem to approve of such an arrangement, and neither, apparently, did the countess.
"Nonsense!" the older lady said. "I shall play. David will partner his fiancée. You may lead out Miss Singletary."
Fanny jumped up from her stool with alacrity and Lady Willingham took her place.
Angel sat where she was until Mr. Forde approached. "Will you join me, Miss Singletary?"
"Yes, thank you."
The countess struck up a waltz and Angel hesitated. But Mr. Forde had taken her in his arms and would not let go.
"You do not approve, Miss Singletary?"
"It is not that," she replied. "It is only ... you should be dancing with a proper young lady and not a dowdy poor relation."
"There is an absence of what you call ‘proper young ladies,' Miss Singletary," he said gently. "And you are not the dowdy companion I thought you were."
She did not reply, which he took for acceptance, and he put a wide hand on her waist. "Do you even know how to waltz, Miss Singletary?"
Angel had never been in a position to learn, although it did not seem to be as scandalous as she had understood it to be from her last mission to Earth. Fanny and David were already circling around the wide expanse of drawing room near the pianoforte, even though they were not speaking once more.
"I have not yet learned the steps, sir."
"Then let me enlighten you." He gave her a simple demonstration and walked her through it a few times. Once he thought she was fine, he began leading her around the room.
She smiled at him. "It is very kind of you to teach me."
"Sarah plans a ball to be held a few days before the wedding and we cannot have you sitting out dances."
"You want to be a wallflower and allow Lady Miranda to control the rest of your life?"
"I do not plan on being with Lady Miranda that long," she serenely replied.
"Oh? You have a new position lined up for yourself?"
"Something of that nature."
"Good. I do not like the idea of anyone being at Lady Miranda's mercy for eternity."
Mr. Powers returned and blithely inserted himself between David and Fanny.
"You have monopolized her long enough," the vicar said gaily, as if it were all a great jest, and Fanny giggled and went willingly into his arms.
Mr. Forde waltzed Angel over to his nephew and easily switched her to a new partner before going to speak softly with his sister.
"You look much improved since I saw you at the lodge, Miss Singletary," the earl said.
"Thank you." She watched as he looked over at the other dancing couple. "Do not lose heart, my lord," she told him. "She is lashing out at you the only way she knows how."
"She is so angry!"
"I believe it dates back to the arrival of Miss Denton at the lodge."
"Desiree and I, we never..."
"I know. Miss Denton told me."
"She did? You spoke to her? Did Fanny?"
Angel made a face. "Fanny is young yet and a bit narrow-minded. Personally, I would rather sit and lace my tea with brandy with Miss Denton than ignore her."
"You did not!"
"Perhaps it was whisky, then, and not brandy. I drank tea with spirits in it nonetheless. My point is, be patient with Fanny. She just needs time to mature."
The music came to an end and everyone applauded the countess' efforts.
"Talk to Fanny and let her know where you stand with Miss Denton," Angel urged. "She needs to hear it from you."
"But what if she does not believe me?"
"Then kiss her," she advised. "You would be surprised how well that works on females."
The next morning, Angel went down to breakfast only to discover none of the other ladies were there. Lord Willingham and his uncle were seated at one end of the table, discussing something when she entered. They stood when they spied her, but she waved them back into their chairs while she picked up a plate and helped herself to the food arrayed on the dining room sideboard.
A footman brought in a cup and a pot of tea for her and she settled on the right of the earl, across the table from Mr. Forde.
"Good morning," she said cheerfully. Reaching for the jam pot, she found marmalade inside and spread some liberally on a piece of toast. She had a feeling poor Miss Singletary did not often get this luxury.
"We were just discussing what to do with our day when you came in, Miss Singletary. I confess, we expected you to stay in your room like the other ladies," the earl said.
"I like to think I am different from other ladies," she replied, giving them both a mysterious smile.
"Would you like to join us today?" Mr. Forde asked. "We are going to visit my old nanny."
"She was my nanny, too!" David exclaimed.
"Yes, but she was mine first."
"What did she do between the two of you?" Angel asked, doing the math in her head. "You surely did not have a nanny until you were fifteen or so, Mr. Forde."
He chuckled. "No, she was hired by some cousins in the meantime, with the stipulation that when Sarah needed her, she would come back to us."
"I always thought she was pensioned off early because you were a right little devil!" his nephew said with a laugh.
"Why don't we go ask her?" Angel wondered.
Mr. Forde gave her an odd look, but she shrugged it off, even though she felt as if she had passed a test of some sort.
While she finished her meal, the gentlemen sent for her outerwear and a pony trap. They were going to travel by horseback, but Mr. Forde thought she might like the cart better.
As she did not ride, Angel could only agree. She was even more pleased when a groom brought around the cart and a sturdy little pony named Sean. It took only moments to settle her into the vehicle, and with the gentlemen riding alongside, they set out down a lane at the rear of the manor to visit the nanny.
Nanny Baker lived in a small thatched cottage at the end of the lane, bluebells in her front yard and ivy growing up the walls. It was the sort of place Angel would like if she were truly mortal. It had been so long ago, she could not even recall when she had been her own flesh and blood. But if the cottage appealed to her, Nanny Banker did so even more.
She was a short, plump woman, the sort Angel would call "cushy." She fell in love with the woman at once.
"My lads!" the older lady cried, coming out her front door with her arms wide open. "Master Roderick! Master David!"
The gentlemen swung out of their saddles and took turns subjecting themselves to her embrace. They did not seem to mind.
"But who is this? You've brought a young lady to meet me!" She approached Angel, still seated in the trap. "Lovely!" she announced. "Now, whose young lady are you? Master Roderick's or Master David's?"
"She is neither, Nanny. Miss Singletary is companion to David's intended."
"And where is the intended this fine morning?" she demanded in return.
"Miss Eaton has not yet shown her face today," Mr. Forde said. He linked his arm with the old lady's and led her back up the front walk. "But we could use some tea and conversation."
"You just ate breakfast, no doubt," Nanny chided, but she did not refuse him.
David assisted Angel out of the cart, secured the pony and led her up the path behind the other pair.
Angel liked the inside of the cottage as well as she did the outside, and she quickly made herself at home in the cozy parlor. A fire crackled merrily in the hearth and a ginger cat jumped onto her lap as soon as she was diverted to a chintz-covered chair.
"Miss Sarah, bless her heart, furnished this house from the manor, even when she could ill afford it," Nanny said. "And his name is Moses," she added, patting the friendly cat on the head.
"I like that name," Angel said, scratching Moses under his chin and being rewarded with a loud purr.
"Let me get some tea."
"Would you like some assistance?" Angel asked politely.
Angel reluctantly placed Moses on the hearthrug and went into the kitchen, where a kettle was already on the hob.
"I heard my gentlemen were up to the manor, so I knew they would be along today. They never neglect their old nanny. Neither does her ladyship. You must bring Master David's young lady out to meet me. I rarely leave the house, but she is always welcome here."
Angel made a mental note to have Fanny down here, bringing her over her shoulder or stuffed in the cart, if need be. She looked up to see Nanny eyeing her intently.
"You know what is important in this life, don't you? And in the next one, I should think. I know it will not be too much longer before I join you."
Angel smiled and busied herself by putting a dish of sugar and a jug of cream on a waiting tray. It was not the first time she had been recognized as being other than what she seemed.
"Surely you have many more years ahead of you, Nanny Baker?"
"A few. I would like to see Master Roderick settled before I go. Do you know if that will happen?"
"What will happen?" Mr. Forde appeared in the doorway. "Let me guess. Nanny wants you to consider the possibility of settling me down and making me a proper wife. It won't work, Nanny. We have discussed this before..."
"Oh, this one is too good for the likes of you, Master Roderick. Some people have a higher calling." She handed him the tray.
"A higher calling as a spinster?"
"Hush up and make yourself useful. Carry this in and collect some cups and saucers from the sideboard in the parlor."
"If you ever need any help, miss, you know who to call."
"I thank you for the offer, Nanny." Angel gave her a brilliant smile before pouring hot water in a large pot and carrying it into the other room.
After a pleasant hour with Nanny Baker, Angel and the gentlemen, armed with a jar of pear preserves and the request to bring Miss Eaton the next time, returned to the manor. There they found Fanny whispering with the vicar under the disapproving eye of the countess.
The three new arrivals all smiled as they walked in on such a scene, but Angel felt the only genuine one was from Mr. Forde.
"Angel!" Fanny called. "Mr. Powers went to Cambridge! My Papa went there and I daresay my new little brother shall, one day."
Next to Angel, David muttered, "I went to Cambridge."
"And he keeps a couple of horses, so I shall be able to ride while I am here," Fanny continued, oblivious to the fact that she was there to stay.
"I have horses," David softly replied.
"And we are to call on him one day so I might view his herb garden!"
Angel knew what David was going to say and she nudged him. It would not do to antagonize the girl. "How... nice!" she managed to say. Had Fanny been aware of such things as herb gardens before today? Angel somehow doubted it. "I have not seen a herb garden this age." At least that was the truth.
"And where have you three been this morning?" the countess asked with a cheerfulness belied by the nervous twitching of the needlework on her lap.
"To see Nanny Baker." Mr. Forde handed the jam jar to his sister. "She sends her love and her finest preserves."
"How lovely! How did you find
the old dear? It has been several weeks since I have been able to call at her
cottage. Nanny Baker raised myself and my brother, and David,"
she told her guests.
"She's a right old Tartar," the vicar confided to Fanny, and she wrinkled her nose and giggled.
"The old dear is getting along just fine, Mother," David stiffly replied. "And desirous of meeting my fiancée."
Fanny pulled a face at that and the earl's countenance fell.
"She is a very nice old lady and you should make the effort to meet his lordship's family retainers and pensioners," Angel advised.
"Oh, some other day, surely," the vicar said. "It is too lovely a day to sit around pokey little fires listening to old women complain about their hands."
Angel shook her head sadly. How did some people manage to qualify to lead the Master's flock? "Should you not be bringing them wood and coal so they may keep their hands warm?" she asked this so-called man of God. "They might complain less."
"True, but they would still bore me to tears in less than five minutes' time."
"How did you manage to become ordained?" she asked suspiciously. "And when?"
"I have been promised this living for years," he piously replied.
"Because he begged my late husband for it," the countess said under her breath.
"My dear departed uncle gave this to me on his deathbed two years ago."
Angel did not think too much of that. She had seen many last minute promises and persuasions to be impressed, but Fanny was not immune to such a romantic prospect.
"Ooooh! Tell me what happened!" she pleaded without regard to whether or not her future mother wished to hear it.
Angel let out a tiny sigh that was echoed by Mr. Forde.
"Truly, it was not as dramatic as you make it out to be, Miss Eaton," the vicar said modestly.
"He wore my sister's husband down until he agreed." Mr. Forde was blunt.
"You spoiled the story!" Fanny accused him. "I am certain it was not that harsh."
"It was not, I assure you," Mr. Powers soothed. "But we all knew he was dying..."
"Why not wait till he stuck his spoon in the wall and strong arm David, then?" Mr. Forde wondered.
"Because my uncle promised my father. I needed it to come from him, in my way of thinking," Mr. Powers replied, his words clipped and his eyes narrowed in anger.
"I would gladly have given you the living, cousin," David added.
"It would not be the same. But now I am established as vicar, I am near my family and I am in the presence of the most beautiful angel I have ever beheld," the vicar continued, ostensibly speaking of Fanny, who simpered, but looking directly at Angel.
There was a moment of silence.
"So, you went to see Nanny today!" the countess said with false gaiety. "How is she doing?"
"Sarah, dearest," Mr. Forde said, "We have already discussed that."
"I know," she said through gritted teeth. "I just want to let Miss Eaton know how valued the lady is by our family."
"I see. Then perhaps it is time Powers was set free to tend to his parishioners. I will drive you in my phaeton, sir, if you will allow it."
The vicar seemed to know when he had been dismissed, because he agreed. But Angel almost came out of her chair at Mr. Forde's next words.
"Won't you accompany us, Miss Eaton?"
The expression on David's face almost broke Angel's heart, but she could do nothing to prevent Fanny from going, despite the fact that the phaeton was going to be crowded on the first half of the trip.
Fanny half ran out of the room to collect her bonnet and pelisse, and Mr. Forde rang for someone to bring around the phaeton.
© 2006 Copyright held by the author.