A Musketeer's Heart - Chapter Twenty-Eight

England, two months later

Lady Alexandra Hamilton-Burke muttered a very unladylike curse and swatted at the annoying fly buzzing around in front of her eyes. Unfortunately, the movement dislodged a lock of hair that had been annoying her before the fly and she’d successfully tucked blown off her face. Now it swung back down, over her brow, tickling her nose. She rolled her eyes and blew at it, but it wouldn’t be deterred. She blew at it again, with more force, yet the stubborn lock swung quickly back down again.

Blow. Swing. Blow. Swing. Blow. Tickle.

She gritted her teeth, wishing, not for the first time in the past few, unnaturally warm days for the English countryside, that she was bald. At least she wouldn’t have to deal with the ticklish hair and droplets of sweat making her scalp itchy and trickling down the sides of her face.

But a sweaty face and itchy scalp were just two of her many problems of late. Her entire body was sweaty, not matter the thin material her clothes were made of, her skin was clammy and itchy, and she hasn’t been sleeping well at night. Damn the unnatural heat wave, damn her itchy skin, damn her lack of sleep, damn the sweat dripping from everywhere, even in the moderately cool interior of the manor house, damn the clammy hair, damn the uncooperative bladder, damn the ache in her back...

Damn. The. Bloody. Fly.

She stabbed her trowel into the flower bed in front of her and gained her feet, wincing at the dull ache in her back. She muttered another curse and closed her eyes as the world spun before her eyes. Here was another thing she hated these days. The world doing cartwheels every time she stood up too quickly or did anything too quickly.

But what she hated even more than the spinning world and her inability to do anything or move at a speed faster than a snail’s pace, were the hoverers. Each time the world spun, each time she did anything more than smile and bat her lashes, there was someone near. Hovering. Annoying her.

When she wasn’t feeling annoyed or cranky, it made her feel warm inside. People hovered, because they loved her. People hovered, because they cared. But since there hasn’t been a day lately that she hadn’t felt not annoyed or cranky, the warm feelings were nowhere to be found. The hovering merely infuriated her.

As it did now, when Cook grabbed her elbow to steady her.

“Easy does it,” she murmured in a soothing tone that did nothing to soothe Alexandra. It merely made her grit her teeth even harder.

“I’m fine,” she snapped, too cranky, too hot, too sweaty, and too bloody annoyed to bother to apologize for her tone. Deep down, she knew Cook wasn’t at fault, no one was when they hovered, she knew that she was being a bitch, but she couldn’t be bothered to care.

So, obviously, couldn’t be Cook, because the woman merely smiled, patted her hand, and nodded. “Of course, you are. Shall we go inside? I have fresh biscuits, we’ll make you a cup of tea, and you can put your feet up.”

She didn’t want to put her feet up! Yet the biscuits and tea sounded nice. She rolled her eyes just for the sake of it, and meekly nodded. Come to think of it, she might put her feet up as well. Her ankles were starting to throb a little.

But before she and Cook could make but a few steps toward the house, little Jamie, the stable master’s son, rounded the corner at top speed, barely managing to stop, before he ploughed into them.

He gasped for breath, and lifted a small hand to stop the Cook from launching into a tirade. The way the woman’s face turned crimson in outrage, made Alexandra smile. She waddled closer to the boy, and bent forward a little, so they were on eye level.

“What is it?” It had to be important for him to run so. And to her. Granted, Robert was visiting a friend in the neighbouring county, so she was the one in charge until her brother returned, but they’d all agreed she shouldn’t be bothered for every minute detail. “What happened, Jamie?”

“Four men,” he gasped. “On horses...approaching the manor.”

Alexandra frowned. The visit was unannounced or Robert would be here. Or they knew Robert wasn’t home, and decided to try their luck on an unprotected estate. But this was the Buckingham estate. Surely they must know what the name meant in Court. Her frown deepened. What if the Buckingham name meant nothing in Court anymore? Is that why the visitors were here?

Her mind made up, she purposefully made her way in the other direction, toward the front of the house, only for her path to be blocked by Cook wearing a thunderous expression.

“Where do you think you’re going, missy?”

“To see what is going on.”

Cook vigorously shook her head. “You are going into the house.”

Alexandra glared. “Who’s the mistress here, Cook?”

If her tone or the pulling of rank had any effect on Cook, the woman didn’t show it. She grabbed Alexandra’s elbow, and turned her back toward the kitchen door. “You’re going inside, Lady Alexandra,” she said determinedly, “where you can rest, while Jamie here will call the men.”

As the lad dashed away, Alexandra also made her move. She snatched her elbow from Cook’s grasp, pivoted, and, swallowing hard against the light-headedness that threatened to overwhelm her, dashed, as quickly as she could, back toward the front courtyard. She’ll be damned before she let anyone invade her home against her wishes. And she’ll be damned if she let anyone woman- or manhandle her in her own house. Even if their intentions were good.

“Wait,” Cook panted after her, having been thrown out of balance by Alexandra’s sudden escape long enough to allow her charge to reach the corner of the manor. “Lady Alexandra, please, if they see you—”

Alexandra didn’t hear the rest. As she rounded the corner, the four riders were already reining in their horses, and the world around her turned into a blur of colour and a cacophony of sound. Her heart sped up, blood roared in her ears, and it was all she could do to keep upright. And conscious. She’d never been so thankful for Cook’s steadying hand on her back and elbow, as she was when the woman reached her side.

“Oh, my God,” she whispered, “I should’ve gone inside earlier, Cook. The heat is making me see things.”

She blinked, fully expecting the mirage of the man currently dismounting his horse, his piercing gaze trained on her, to disappear. Yet he didn’t disappear, and neither did his three companions.

“Oh, my God,” she whispered again. “They’re real.”

“Of course, they’re real,” Cook groused beside her. “Do you know them?”

Alexandra fought a smirk. If Cook only knew. “All right,” she said calmly, “don’t let go, please, I don’t want to end up on my bum in front of them.”

“What are you doing?” Cook hissed as Alexandra took a small step forward.

“What I was trained to do,” Alexandra hissed back, then, plastering a brilliant smile on her face, looked at the fearsome foursome. “Welcome, gentlemen. Would you like some tea?”

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