(Last chapter: Adrian runs into LaSalle at a ball, and he accuses her of coming to London to find a rich husband. He is cold and demanding, and she realizes it was a waste of time to come. She leaves early and finds out later that the ton has figured out who she is. Both Mary and Adrian agree it'd be best to return home.)
Mary linked her arm through mine. "I'm so glad I caught up with you before you got to the park!" She sounded out-of-breath as she dismissed the maid who'd come with me.
Dappled sunlight spattered the bright green grass carpeting Hyde Park. Everything seemed so tame, so trimmed, so manicured, it left me glad for the warmth and brightness beaming down from above. I searched in vain for some sign of wilderness as we followed one of the paths.
Lord, what would these people think of South Carolina? I wondered, as groups of impeccably clad men and women strolled about. Open parasols abounded; I think Mary and I were the only two women who committed the cardinal sin of letting the sun touch our faces.
"Jack spoke to Mr. Mellon today, Adrian." Mary's words made me forget about parasols and focus on her. "He agreed to escort us back to Washington. In fact, he was quite eager to do so. It seems his wife just found out she is expecting, and he hopes we can help her."
"Help?" I could feel my eyes growing wide. "How the heck can we help?"
"Well, I'll sit with her. You can fetch her bland food and tea when her stomach gets upset." Mary smiled at my distress.
Easy enough. I nodded. "When do we leave?"
"Yes. I spoke with Aunt Bella this morning and she understands. She is going to have a lovely dinner prepared for just the four of us tonight."
Aunt Bella had been my favorite part of coming to London. "I'm going to miss her, Mary."
"Well, she plans on coming back with Jack, so you will see her in a few months, sister." Mary smiled again. "She has a hankering to see Washington and The Pass. I promised her she'd be shocked at the amount of civilization she would find in Charleston."
We strolled along the main thoroughfare and occasionally a phaeton or similar conveyance rolled by; most went along at a reasonable pace, others careened past, female passengers shrieking as hooves pounded, rattling the earth.
"Lord," Mary commented, shaking her head as one nearly tipped making a tight turn. "It's plain dangerous, how some of these dandies drive."
My eyes took in the crowd, the park, the stately buildings all around. "I shouldn't've come."
"Here? To London? Why not, Adrian?" My sister's tone remained gentle. "Is there anything really wrong with following your heart? You would've spent a long time, maybe forever, wondering what if. I wish -- how I wish the outcome could've been different, but sometimes things just don't work out."
"Oh, good Lord," Mary said, half under her breath. I turned slightly to see what she referred to. My breath hitched. Heading our way were Miss Lucy LaSalle and her brother. He wore tan breeches, perfectly polished boots, and a stark white shirt with a tightly tied cravat underneath his dark green coat. His short hair lay neat. I sighed. He fit right into this tame bit of greenery in the middle of London, and was just as manicured.
Lucy, looking very pretty in a white-and-tan striped dress, smiled as they drew closer. "Good day, Mrs. Henry. Hello, Miss Murphy." She curtsied.
Mary greeted her warmly, and gave Mr. LaSalle a curt, "Viscount Castleton."
I curtsied, but didn't speak. I wished my heart would understand that he couldn't matter to me anymore. It galloped in my chest like the horses being wheeled about the park by the less rule-abiding members of the ton.
Mr. LaSalle's gaze reddened my cheeks. I looked up, willing myself not to be cowed by his cold demeanor. I straightened my shoulders, feeling a little ridiculous in the peach dress Aunt Bella had called 'charming' when she picked it out. It was way too feminine by far, for my tastes, but I knew I had to brazen it out.
"Good day, Mrs. Henry, Miss Murphy." He nodded once.
"It's nice to see you again, Miss LaSalle," Mary said.
"And you, as well." She smiled. "My brother and I were just heading home, but will you be attending the Symphony tonight? I hear it is quite a good show."
"Oh, no." Mary shook her head. "I'm sorry to say that my sister and I will be leaving tomorrow, so we have much to do to get ready."
"Leaving?" Lucy asked. "Are you heading to the country?" She sought me out.
I kept my expression neutral and my voice calm. "No, Miss LaSalle. My sister and I are heading home."
Mr. LaSalle's eyes narrowed onto my face as Lucy let him go and stepped forward. "Back to the United States?"
"Yes," I managed. Her crestfallen expression tugged at my conscience, but what else could I do? Relief flooded through me when Mary took over the conversation.
"Yes. It's time for us to head back. My husband and his aunt will be following us in a couple of months, but Adrian and I will be returning early."
"Does London not agree with you, Miss Murphy?" Lucy kept her hands clasped in front of her, almost as if in prayer, as she leaned toward us.
"London is a beautiful place, Miss LaSalle," I replied. "Quite grander than I could've ever imagined."
"But it is not like your home."
That made me smile. "No, it's not, as I'm sure your brother can attest to." I glanced at him, not sure what to make of his persistent, silent study. When our eyes collided, I lifted my chin. To the heck with it. If he wanted to marry some china doll that spouted manners and good breeding, he didn't deserve what I had to offer -- which was more than a paragraph in Burke's Peerage and the ability to play the piano.
He held my gaze another moment before turning to look at his sister. "South Carolina is nothing like London, Lucy, or even Sussex and Kent."
She nodded. "And does everyone have an accent like yours and your sister's, Miss Murphy? I find it quite pretty."
"You are the first to say so, Miss LaSalle." I smiled. Lucy exuded sweetness and naiveté, and it made me think we could've been close had I the chance to know her better.
"If I ever -- if I ever make it to your United States, may I look you both up?" Her hesitant tone signaled she knew she skated a bit on the bounds of propriety. I admired her pluck - she might be young, but wasn't as timid as she looked.
"Luce--" Shouts and laughter coupled with the creak of wheels spinning far too fast cut off Mr. LaSalle as he began to speak. The ground rumbled as a fancy two-wheeled buggy, the likes of which I'd never seen before, came into view. The horse looked to be slightly out of control, while a well-dressed gentleman continued to crack a whip.
Mr. LaSalle reacted more quickly than anyone else in our little party. He slid one arm around his sister and the other around me and Mary as he pushed us off the path. His arm remained about my waist while his eyes followed the horse and buggy that whizzed past.
"Oh, bloody hell!" He tightened his hold for a moment, pressing me against him and making me blush. I looked past him as the buggy made a too-tight turn and began to tilt on its side more slowly than I thought would've been possible. One of the two women aboard had the presence of mind to jump clear, the other tumbled over the side and rolled away as the carriage tipped further. Mr. LaSalle took off running as the carriage crashed to the ground, taking the poor horse with it. I followed him before I knew what I was doing, going to the horse's head while he ran to its side.
The chestnut lay quietly for the first few moments LaSalle worked to get the harness off. I undid the straps closest to me.
"Be careful, Adrian," he admonished in a low, calm tone. "Can you get the rein that isn't under him?"
"Yes, sir." I leaned over to take it. The horse lifted his head, the white of his eye showing as he snorted.
When Mr. LaSalle jerked the last buckle open, the horse kicked out, splintering the front of the carriage. He leapt up in one smooth motion and reared straight over my head. I held the rein and tried talking quietly as the gelding fussed about. When he settled a bit, I closed in on his head and began stroking his neck. "Good boy." He had dragged me a bit away from the wreckage and all the jerking around had knocked my hair loose from its delicate arrangement.
"Adrian?" Mary edged into view.
"He's all right, sister. Can you hold him while I check him out?" I glanced behind me, brushing my hair out of my eyes. Mr. LaSalle seemed to be giving the driver what-for, while Miss LaSalle crouched next to the two ladies; they both wailed loud enough to reassure me they couldn't be too injured.
Mary took the rein and I went around to the side he'd fallen on. A big, superficial scrape that barely bled marred his shoulder, but the gash on his hip seemed more serious. I took a handkerchief out of my reticule and folded it. I touched it to the gash, standing well away from his hind leg. When he kicked out, Mary pulled his head down and started lecturing him like she did to her boys when they misbehaved; it worked on the big chestnut, as well.
"How bad is it?" Mr. LaSalle came up next to me. I glanced over; Lord, how he resembled my Mr. LaSalle again! His hair mussed, clothing rumpled. He'd unbuttoned his jacket and his cravat had unraveled, leaving his shirt collar open.
"Um." I worked to gather my wayward thoughts. "Well, I think a veterinarian should take a look at this, sir. His shoulder is nothing, but this might need some stitching up."
"Who in the bloody hell are you?" the driver snapped, making me spin around. He stood behind me and Mr. LaSalle. His hair was askew and his breeches streaked with dirt, but he seemed none the worse for wear otherwise.
"I suggest you keep your mouth shut, Thorpe." LaSalle's low, threatening tone made me duck my head so I wouldn't smile. His manners seemed to have vanished, as well.
Mary glared at the driver, then turned to me. "Sister, let me go check on the ladies. All that caterwauling is giving me a headache, and poor Miss LaSalle looks unsure of what to do."
I took the rein, stepping away from the two gentlemen. The horse lowered his head and I stroked the wide planes of his face, tracing the outline of his blaze. Mary marched over to the two women, and within a few minutes, had them both blowing their noses into handkerchiefs and the tears stopped.
Thorpe made to grab the rein I held and the horse jerked back at the sudden move, nearly pulling me off my feet. I held on as the chestnut retreated a few steps, and when the gelding quieted, turned to face his owner.
"Listen, sir." I struggled to keep my voice somewhat under control, and then gave up. "This poor horse is injured and traumatized - no thanks to you. So don't you treat him badly for your mistakes and stupid judgment."
Mary had turned around at my voice, and I caught her look of annoyance shift to amusement, while Lucy covered her mouth with a gloved hand.
"Listen, you upstart...colonist," Thorpe sputtered, running a hand through his hair. "Hand me my horse. Who in the bloody hell do you think you are, you--"
Mr. LaSalle took a menacing step forward, but I held up my free hand and cut the irate driver off. " Whatever you are going to say, Mr. Thorpe, trust me, I've heard it all. You British really have quite a bit to say about us 'colonists'. And right now, I am just so tired of hearing it." I handed the rein to Mr. LaSalle, who'd moved to stand next to me. He seemed to be fighting back a smile, but I was sick of him, too. He might have that glint of trouble in his eyes I remembered from Washington, but I knew better now.
I flicked my hair back over my shoulder. "Good day, gentlemen." I didn't bother to curtsy, just turned on my heel, gave the horse one last pat and went to my sister. "Let's go, Mary." I linked my arm through hers as I smiled at Lucy LaSalle. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss LaSalle. One of the few I've had here in London. If you are ever in mine or Mary's neck of the woods, please stop by. You have an open invitation."
We said our goodbyes to Lucy, then strode toward the entrance of the park, sailing past the large group of onlookers who'd stopped to be entertained. I didn't bother looking back. It was over.