Once Upon a Wallflower(87)

By: Wendy Lyn Watson

Mira paused to consider the question, thoughts whirling through her mind in a dizzying rush. “Maybe Blackwell expressed an interest in Olivia, or perhaps Beatrix only suspected one.”

Even as she spoke the words, they rang hollow to Mira, and the frown on Nicholas’s face indicated that he was not persuaded either. It was one thing for Beatrix to be so outraged by Blackwell’s romantic affairs that she was driven to murder, but it was quite another for her to be distraught over some small flirtation. If Beatrix killed every woman Blackwell admired, there would be no women left in all of Cornwall. No, jealousy might have driven Beatrix to kill Bridget and Tegen, but she must have had another motive for killing Olivia. Unless…

Unless Beatrix was not only jealous of Blackwell.

“Oh no,” Mira breathed, as the blood drained from her face and formed a cold, viscous pool in her gut. “Jeremy.”

She clutched at Nicholas’s sleeve, and her voice trembled with urgency. “Nan said that Beatrix is fiercely protective of Jeremy, almost smothering him. If she knew that Olivia and Jeremy were planning to elope, if she thought Olivia was going to take her precious son away…” Mira had a sudden image, vivid and terrifying, of Beatrix accusing Bella of scheming to secure a husband. Of Beatrix’s features contorted with rage as she struck the younger girl. Of her standing frozen afterwards, hand upraised, eyes empty and wild.

“Nicholas, what about Bella?”

Nicholas’s face reflected the dawning horror Mira felt. Without a word, he took her hand and pulled her through the cavorting crowd, his head swinging back and forth as he searched the throng of faces.

“I do not see her. Either of them. Bella or Beatrix.” His low voice, barely audible over the increasingly boisterous festivities, thrummed with tension.

“I last saw Bella by the carriages,” Mira offered.

Instead of Bella, they found Lady Phoebe leaning against the largest of the Blackwell coaches, a dreamy smile brightening her usually dull face, her hair tousled, bodice askew, lips swollen and red.

“Phoebe,” Nicholas snapped. She drew back and frowned, suddenly focused on the world around her again. “Phoebe, have you seen either Bella Fitzhenry or Lady Beatrix?”

“Both of them,” Phoebe answered, in a voice that was surprisingly rich and low. “Miss Fitzhenry took off walking toward town a bit ago.” Her mouth quirked up in a tiny smile. “She was acting rather cagey, if you ask me. Moving quickly, looking over her shoulder. Nervous as a cat.

“Lady Beatrix followed not long after. Walking fast, too. But she did not look anxious, just determined.” Phoebe’s smile widened. “I believe Miss Fitzhenry may be in a spot of trouble.”

Nicholas tightened his grasp on Mira’s hand. “Thank you, Phoebe,” he muttered, already moving away from her, heading toward the horses that were tethered at the rear of the carriages.

“We need to move fast,” he said, throwing a sidelong glance at Mira, “and I cannot on my own.”

Indeed, his limp was already growing more pronounced, his stride broken and slow.

“Can you ride?” he asked as they reached the horses and stopped beside a massive creature with a fey silvery coat.

Mira shook her head. She had never had the occasion or the means to go riding, had always lived in Town and taken hackneys or the Fitzhenry coach wherever she wanted to go.

“Then you shall have to ride with me. You’ll have to mount astride, at least until I am there to steady you.”

Nicholas bent down and clasped his hands to give her a boost onto the animal’s broad back. With just a moment’s hesitation, Mira placed her foot in the cradle of his hands and, as he lifted her, swung a leg over the horse. The bulk of the horse between her legs forced her gown up, exposing her ankles and calves.

Nicholas smiled up at her. “Brave girl,” he said, bending to place a quick kiss on her ankle. He then swung up behind her, and, settling into the saddle, pulled her into the curve of his body. “Hold tight,” he breathed into her ear. And they were off.

Mira focused only on holding tight to Nicholas until Blackwell Hall came into sight, its windows lit and blazing against the stygian dark of the night, and the knot of panic in her stomach tightened.