The music stopped and fell away, and Coralie released her breath in a controlled sigh. Franklin’s presence invaded the music room, interrupting her practice again, just as he’d done a week ago. But this time, his voice forced a sharpness into her unadorned name, something hard and preemptive, that didn’t foretell happy joshing, and a prickly foreboding filled her.
Mrs. Lacey’s fumbling hands tried to still the harp strings, the liquid notes stuttering to humming then silence, and Coralie shook off the music’s spell. Franklin stood in the doorway, weak morning sunlight spilling across the carpet to his shoes and leaving his face in gloom. His fisted hand held something at his side in a crumpled ball, an unlovely mixture of cream and grey. Newspapers?
He leaned toward her, accusation and anger in his stance, and her heart began beating faster. She tried to swallow an attack of nerves, but they refused to vanish. “Good morning, Franklin. Is something wrong?”
“Is it true?”
She swallowed again. She had no reason to be afraid, and yet she was. “Is what true?”
“Is it true?” His voice cracked like a coach whip.
One whispered note jarred the hush, off-key and trembling. Behind the harp, Mrs. Lacey pressed her hands against the strings, stilling them. But her hands continued to shake, drawing another forlorn note, and she released the strings, kneading her fingers in her lap instead.
A thread of anger drove out Coralie’s irrational fear. Mrs. Lacey was her companion and her responsibility. “Franklin, do please moderate your voice. You’re frightening the servants and I do not have the pleasure of understanding you. You’ll have to explain your curious question.”
“It’s all over town.” He strode into the light and loomed over her, his brows drawn together into a tangle and his eyes narrowed to furious, worried slits. His fist tightened around the broadsheets — gossip sheets, not respectable papers — and he shook them beneath her nose. “It’s in all the sheets — well, not in that confounded preachy one. But all the others swear you were seen coming home early last night in Lady Gower’s carriage, and the figure in the carriage with you was not Lady Gower’s. They say you left the Maynards’ rout with Cumberland—”
“And you believe this?” Fury pounded through her. Blasted nosey cats couldn’t even get their own slander straight. There’d been no one in the carriage with her; His Grace had ridden tiger on the footman’s perch behind. But even furious, she’d not blurt out that little fact. Somewhat counterproductive, it would be. “Do you believe that of me, Franklin?”
He paused, his eyes widening until the worry seemed to drive out his own anger. “I don’t know what to think. Please, enlighten me.”
What to say? She’d already decided not to mention the duke’s presence, neither on the carriage nor in it. Sucking in a deep breath, she said, “I have done nothing wrong.”
The fire relit in his eyes. “Did you or did you not leave the Maynards’ with Cumberland?”
Evasion clearly wouldn’t help, and as she paused, Franklin’s lips rolled together into a thin line. “By— Coralie, you know his reputation. You know he’s ruined entire seasons full of débutantes. How could you put yourself in his power—”
A gasp from the corner, away from their verbal boxing match. Mrs. Lacey huddled over her lap, her lifted hands trembling to the sides as if she reached for comfort, support, something solid to hold onto. Coralie turned back to the fight and glared at Franklin until he lowered the fistful of crumpled broadsheets.
“I have done nothing wrong, nothing for which I need feel shame.”
He crumpled, like the broadsheets, where he stood. “It’s not your shame that concerns me.”
Enough, and with her fury broiling, she was in no condition to assist Mrs. Lacey. Coralie whirled and stalked from the music room. “Mary! Mary! My pelisse and bonnet, please, then see to Mrs. Lacey. Bring her a cup of tea and stay with her until I return.”
Thanks to my publishers, Astraea Press! Once again, a great edit, a great cover, and always great support!
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