Her Ladyship's Curse
Laurana didn’t curtsey but held out her hand, which I shook reflexively. “I’m the spinster who does good works,” she explained. “When last you called I was working with the wretched foundlings at the school my mother founded in Scoursie. We try to teach them to read and write, even if it’s simply their names. Keeps them from being claimed by farm overseers as runaway pickers.”
Miranda uttered a squeak of dismay. “Laury, please.”
“Lady Laurana’s efforts on the behalf of the poor are highly admirable.” A sixth figure emerged from the shadows by the fireplace. “Good evening, Charmian.”
“Dredmore.” I turned to Lady Diana so I wouldn’t have to look at him for longer than a blink. “I hope you were able to rest undisturbed the last few nights,” I said in a lower voice.
“I was, to some extent.” She looked as if she wanted to say more, and then a footman stepped in from the dining hall and announced that dinner was served. “I hope you enjoy pheasant, Miss Kittredge.” She went from me to Nolan, and when the Walsh siblings followed them into the other room, I was left alone with Dredmore.
“You look like a winter sylph,” he said as he came to take my arm. As soon as he did, he bent down. “I told you to stay away from here.”
“And yet, here I am,” I replied, starting forward to follow the others.
He pulled me back round to face him, but he didn’t look at me. He watched the dining hall and talked over my head. “Make an excuse during the meal to leave, and go.”
I raised my brows. “Any suggestions?”
“A migraine. Your monthlies. A sudden eruption of boils on your ass,” he grated. “I don’t care, just get the hell out of here.”
“Go suck a tube,” I suggested gently before leading him in to dine.
A dining table of glossy cherrywood parted the hall, ready to serve fifty comfortably, but fortunately the servants had set three facing three on either side of the master’s chair, or we would have had to shout our remarks to each other.
Lady Diana sat at her husband’s right, Laurana at his left, with Montrose and Miranda seated by their sister and me between Dredmore and Diana. The candlelit centerpiece, a small, frothy volcano of porcelain and gold flowers, cast a warm glow over the exquisitely set table.
As the footmen placed small urns with some sort of pinkish-gray shellfish on ice, I counted the utensils. Accustomed to three, I had to now manage twelve, and Lady Diana was politely waiting for me to start. I glanced at Dredmore, who was no help, and then Lord Walsh, who employed the smallest two-pronged fork to stab one of the shellfish. Leashing in a sigh of relief, I did the same and gingerly tasted what turned out to be half-cooked clams.
“Where do you reside, Miss Kittredge?” Laurana asked before she sampled her cocktail.
“I keep a flat on Estarlin,” I said. “Near the fruit market, if you know it.”
“I shop there several times a week,” she said, grimacing as she set down her fork and gestured for the footman to take away the little urn. “They always have the best apples and nuts in Rumsen.”
“My sister delights in playing the servant,” Montrose drawled. “I fully expect to come round some day and find her scrubbing out the loos.”
Miranda choked and buried her face in her napkin as she tried to control her blush as well as her coughing.
“Do you play kitchen maid, Cousin Kit?” Montrose continued. “I should dearly like to watch you turn a spit or two.”
“My cooking is dreadful, sir,” I admitted freely. “You’d do better by bucket.”
He laughed, too long and too loud, until his father snapped something low and harsh at him. Montrose didn’t show an ounce of remorse. “She’s got a quick tongue, Dad, why not let her employ it for our amusement?”
I felt something touch the top of my thigh and looked down as Dredmore spread his hand over it and dug his fingers in. I slipped a knife from the collection by my plate into my hand, taking care to let only him see it. Before I could stab him, however, he took his hand away.
To avoid eating the rest of the clams, I engaged Lady Diana in another meaningless discussion of the weather, turning now and then to include Dredmore in the conversation. The second course, a steaming shallow bowl of green turtle soup, proved slightly more edible, although I picked out the blanched fernheads floating on the top and pushed them out of sight on the plate under my bowl. Baby fernheads were said to be delicious, but if picked too late in the season they could be poisonous.
Dredmore reached for his wine and murmured to me, “They’re too young to make you ill.”
“I know,” I muttered back. “I have you for that.”
“You and Lord Dredmore are acquainted, I understand,” Nolan said.
As soon as I realized he was speaking to me, I set down my spoon. “Yes, milord. We’ve met several times in the course of our business.”
Miranda had gotten over her coughing attack, for I heard her ask, “Have you no family to look after your concerns, Miss Kittredge?”
“Di’s family hasn’t two coins to rub together,” Montrose said, handing his empty wineglass to the footman and holding his hand aloft until it was refilled. “What of your mother’s people, cousin? Isn’t there some broad-backed farmer among them who would take you to bed?”
Following the family’s example and ignoring the little skink grew harder by the moment. “My mother was an orphan,” I answered Miranda. “She passed away while I was still in school.”
The footmen presented the third course, a golden fillet of flounder trimmed and garnished to look as if it were ready to jump off the platter and wriggle its way back to the sea. No one else seemed especially impressed by the presentation but me. Nolan dissected his fillet with stiff displeasure; the Walsh sisters picked daintily at the delicate flesh with their forks, and Montrose simply drank. Lady Diana made a brave show of appetite but I never saw her actually eat more than a single sliver or quarter spoon of any dish served.
I’d seen too many forms of mold in the tunnels under the city to have any desire for the fourth course, an assortment of mushrooms poached in sherry. The fifth course actually made me angry, as the men were served braised slices of tomatoes swimming in pinked cream, while the Walsh ladies and I were instead served creamed beets cut out to resemble tomatoes. I despised beets, but objecting would have been rude, so I just pushed them around with the right fork.
“Miss Kittredge seems unhappy with her lady’s dish,” Montrose observed aloud. “Doubtless the working class allow their females to consume vast quantities of lord-apples.”
I tilted my head to look at him. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you mean.”
“It’s believed that tomatoes invigorate the male humors,” Laurana said, her expression as serene as her words were shocking. “They are never served to ladies in good society.”
“Lest they drive you to uncontrollable lust, Miss Kittredge,” Montrose tacked on sweetly.
That remark finally undid Miranda, whose fork clattered on the table. “Father, I’m not feeling at all well. May I be excused?” At his nod she slipped out of her chair and hurried out of the hall.
“My younger sister is a widow,” Montrose told me. “She dislikes being reminded that she is no longer free to indulge in nightly congress. Ouch, damn you, Laury.”
“You need to eat more and drink less, Monty.” Laurana, who had rapped his hand with the handle of her fork, took his nearly empty goblet and handed it to her footman. “No more wine for you tonight.”
Her brother scowled as he jerked to his feet. “To the devil with all of you.” He stomped out of the hall.
Nolan said nothing but watched the footman clear Montrose’s setting. I glanced down at my beets and saw my plate half-filled with tomatoes. I turned my head to see Dredmore calmly eating my beets.
“Clear for Miss Kittredge,” Lady Diana, who must have seen the switch, said quickly to her footman.
The cook, a stout little man in immaculate chef’s whites, brought in the fifth and main course, a fully dressed pheasant with feathers intact, perched on a lifelike branch made of bread. Glowing dark-red roses, sculpted from what appeared to be jellied cranberries, clustered around the bird, along with sprigs of dark chocolate twigs with candied violets. The bird’s long brown-and-black-striped tail feathers rose at a steep angle and shifted along with the cook’s movements, making it seem as if the pheasant were about to launch itself from the platter and take flight.
After receiving a nod from Nolan, the cook carried the bird to a side carving table and skillfully removed the feathered sham from the carcass before beginning to carve it to pieces.
The scent should have made my mouth water, for I dearly loved roasted fowl of any variety, but what was left of my appetite deserted me. Seeing the exotic bird dressed to appear as it had been in life made me feel like a murderer instead of a dinner guest. Fortunately I was served only a small slice, which I forced down and complimented as best I could.
I ate a few buttered peas from the seventh, mixed vegetable course and drained my water glass to ease my tight throat while Diana told a long and relatively dull anecdote about the new fashion of wearing flounce-brimmed hats. Then the eighth course arrived, an aromatic potato-herb tartlet flavored by slivers of black truffle and topped with a layer of toasted bleu Cheshire.
The pheasant had likely been the most expensive dish I would ever eat in my life, but the tartlet was surely humble pie.
I’d only tasted bleu Cheshire once, when my father had spent an inordinate amount of coin to purchase a small wedge of it for my mother, whose secret vice was exotic cheese.
“I don’t know whether to eat it,” Mum had teased, “or have it encased in glass and carted over to the art museum.”
In the end Mum had insisted we each have a bite of the precious stuff, and I’d fallen in love, probably because I’d known I’d never taste it again. Now and then when I had a few extra coins I’d buy a little half round of Danish blue, but it was nothing by comparison.