Once Upon a Wallflower(9)

By: Wendy Lyn Watson

She braced herself when he cleared his throat to speak.

“Might I be so bold as to ask a personal question?”

Around the lump in her throat, Mira managed to choke out an answer. “Of course, my lord.” Of course he would cry off now. She had planned to offer him a way out of the engagement, but now that the words were about to be spoken, by him instead of by her, tears pricked her eyes.

“Nicholas,” he corrected. He paused for a moment, as though trying to determine how best to broach the horrible topic.

Mira gripped the seat of the phaeton for security and focused her sights on the swaying rump of the horse in front of her. Still, she was totally unprepared for what he finally said.

“I am curious how two young women, so close in age and kinship, came by the same rather unusual name.”

Mira gave an abrupt laugh of mingled relief and mortification. It was not the confrontation she was expecting, but it was wretchedly embarrassing nonetheless. “Oh. That. Well, yes, I can imagine.” She glanced about, seeking some distraction with which to avoid having to answer. She saw nothing but a sea of strangers and the nodding heads of horses. Apparently, there would be no deus ex machina to save her. With a small sigh, she explained.

“Uncle George and my father, Arthur Fitzhenry, were twins. No one was certain which brother had been born first. So it was equally uncertain to which brother my grandfather, Charles Fitzhenry, would leave the bulk of his estate. And this was a matter of some importance, because neither George nor my father possessed the financial sense to build their own fortunes, and neither had married great heiresses—Aunt Kitty came from a titled family but not from money, and my mother came from neither. My grandfather was quite spectacularly wealthy. He made a fortune in trade with the American colonies. Before they rebelled, of course.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but wouldn’t your grandfather simply split the inheritance evenly between his sons?”

Mira’s mouth quirked up in a wry smile. “One might think. But then one would not know my grandfather particularly well. He was not a nice man, and he was deeply disappointed by his sons. He was forever pitting them against each other in hopes of prodding at least one of them to success. Anyway, both my father and Uncle George would have named their firstborn sons, if they had had sons, after my grandfather. As it was, they instead named their daughters ‘Mirabelle’ to please him.”

“Ahhh. So Mirabelle was your grandmother’s name?”

“Um. No. It was not.” Mira’s voice was tight with embarrassment.

Nicholas glanced at her, his face registering obvious shock. “Please do not tell me that you are cognizant of the identity of your grandfather’s…his…well, his paramour?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that!” Dear heavens. Mira could not imagine how red her face must be. There was no help now but to explain the whole of it. “Grandfather raised spaniels. He loved them better than he did my grandmother, better than his own sons even. He had one bitch of which he was especially fond. She gave him eight large litters, all first-rate pups. Her name was Mirabelle.”

It started as a low vibration, a rough rumbling in his chest like a rusty millwork coming alive. But soon Nicholas was laughing unabashedly, a full hearty laugh. “A spaniel? You were named for a spaniel?”

As a smile crept across her face, Mira studied the man sitting beside her. When he laughed, a dimple appeared in his cheek. A lock of hair had escaped the queue to curl around his ear. He did not seem at all intimidating or threatening. He did not seem like he could be a killer.

When he finally collected himself he asked, “So to which brother did your grandfather leave his money?”

Mira chuckled. “Neither. In the end, he left every shilling to his kennel club.”

Nicholas completely lost his composure, erupting in deep, rusty laughter. He had to steer the phaeton to the side of the path until he could recover himself. Mira was utterly delighted by the sight of him shaking with laughter. And the fact she had been the one to make him laugh gave her an unaccountable rush of pleasure.

As the last few chortles rumbled through his chest, he took up the reins and urged the horses forward. Eyes on the road ahead, he reminded her that she had been the one to suggest this outing. “I believe you mentioned last night that you had something important you wished to discuss?”