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The Peculiar Pink Toes of Lady Flora

Copyright © 2018 by Jayne Fresina


Chapter One


She reached up with her hand, fingers spread against the glowing sun, without which there could be no life on earth. How strange it was that this great, flaming orb sat so far away in space and yet she could feel its warmth and see it there clearly in her sky; so immense in reality and untouchable, yet now she could fit it in her palm. An illusion of space, light and time.

All noise was muffled; only her heart's beat punched out its rhythm and her breath, rising and falling just a little too fast, suggested she'd been running.

A memory came to her of a sunset long ago, long grass in a meadow and her bare feet falling through it as she chased the frothy white seeds of shattered dandelion clocks. Knocked adrift by her clumsy, giggling gait, the dancing, downy filaments had floated and soared all around her, hanging in the warm, pink air, like spirits released after a long penance.

Funny how that memory, a sliver in time, should come to her now. But then, one never knew what the mind would settle upon next. It was a mystery as great, unfathomable and awe-inspiring as the celestial world itself.

Although she was no longer a child, she still chased after something. Never stopped looking.

Filtered through her fingers, the sun's rays filled her eyes with floating stars as she stood on the bow of that ship and, with narrowed gaze, admired her way ahead— to where water merged with air and made the world a vast, glistening, cerulean page full of secrets and adventure. Layer upon layer. All of it hers to explore.

Wind ruffled her hair with the good-natured teasing of a fond, much, much older relative, while beneath her feet, the pitch and yaw of that trusty vessel carried her along with its sails spread full to harness the power of Mother Nature's breath. One could never predict the violence of that rhythm, of course— neither the wind's force, nor the swell of the water, which could change in the blink of an eye— but she rode it steadily and fearlessly, tasting the salt spray on her lips and the joy of freedom in her belly.

Ah, to be a pirate, unbound, unruly, uncatchable. The indefatigable Rosie Jackanapes.

Where would time and the ocean take her next?

Something glittered upon the horizon. Was it him again?

She was about to reach for her telescope when a cannon blast shook the world around her and she woke with a rude start.

"Perhaps you would care to explain this." Thump!A gloved hand had tossed something onto the straw beside her. "Uncurbed tendencies toward pompous arsery? So that is what you thought of me?" Riding boots marched sternly around the makeshift bed of bales and grain sacks.

Ah. The sound of cannon fire must have been the feed-store door banging open, the iron handle chipping a crack in the wall to rouse her.

The invader took swift command of her awakening senses, his great coat wafting open and swallowing the air around her, like the wings of a giant hawk restless to take flight. His face was not immediately visible, for he wore the tall collar tugged upright against the cold, leaving only a silhouette of disheveled hair and a mist of angry breath. Not that she needed his identity confirmed.

Fortitudo Maximilian Fairfax-Savoy, the Duke of Malgrave.

A mouthful of a name, for a man who was considerably more than that. She liked to call him "Fred" just to see him off his guard. Somebody had to bring him down a peg or two, and who else, but the pirate Rosie Jackanapes, would dare?

She reached for the item he'd flung onto the straw bale beside her. An old, tattered, leather-bound book. "My diary! My most secret and private thoughts and feelings are not for your perusal!"

"If they are so secret and private, it might be a good idea not to write them down in a damnable book," he muttered, turning smartly on his heel to begin another course around her. "Women! Of all the stubborn, conniving, deceiving— "

"You're not supposed to pry!" Oh lord, what had she written about him? So much. Too much. More than any man should ever know about a woman's thoughts.

"I did not pry," he exclaimed, all puffed up as if that would be beneath him, before adding with a dismissive wave of his hand and a shifty avoidance of eye contact, "Plumm found it and brought it to me."

"Of course, your ever-loyal dogsbody! Acting on your orders no doubt to ransack my possessions."

"I sent him for evidence of your innocence, and this is what he found."

She clutched the book to her chest. "You came to save me then?"

"That depends, madam. This county is not my jurisdiction, but the local magistrate is a reasonable man and fair. He agreed to let me question you again and then hear my petition, ifI feel inclined to speak on your behalf."

Ah, of course. Duke trumps Baronet by a mile. Thank goodness for friends in high places.

"So, before I send you off to the next quarterly assizes—"

So much for that advantage.

Her ocean vista was gone, as was the sunshine and that wide-open sky. The most unromantic and unwilling of romantic heroes had just shattered it.

Now he stormed her improvised prison, his energy crackling with every forceful step. The scent of balsam, hot skin, ale hops and old leather invaded the store room, chasing out the fusty, grave-like atmosphere of doom and replacing it with life. His bristling and vigorous life. 

Over the past few weeks, since memories of another world first began to creep in, she'd had cause to suspect this man was merely a construct of her imagination, the resident character of a strange dream into which she'd wandered by pure chance. But here he came again, too real a presence. How could she deny his existence as a living, breathing, thinking, self-governing man, any more than the startled, volunteer constable, standing guard at the door, could have barred his way once he made up his mind to come in? Surely, her imagination could not have achieved this level of clarity in every detail, right down to the mud splatters on his coat, the dead, wet oak leaf attached to his boot heel, and the tiny bead of rainwater wending its crooked way down his nose to drip from the end.

Why would her brain bother to be so thorough, if this was merely a dream from which she could wake at any moment?

All she knew, just then, was that thiswas the world in which she felt alive. Not that other place she'd begun to remember— the world with great, tall buildings made of glass and metal, the charmless concrete boxes of giant, monster shopping emporiums, blocking out sky so that sparse skinny trees were left cowering orphans in the tarmac. Blaring horns drowning out the birdsong. That picture seemed so grey compared to this one. Soulless, empty and dead-eyed.

How ironic, she mused, that despite the trouble she was in here, this is the world she preferred. It felt like home. And he, she realized now in this moment, made it so.

Was it foolish to think he came, in all this haste, to her rescue?Perhaps he only came to witness the hanging of Rosie Jackanapes for himself and purchase a souvenir. She'd heard that such occasions were quite an entertainment, fun for all the family.

Once he had said he loved her. That was before, of course.

He had something else in his hand. A sack. He tossed it down beside her. "I brought you a dress. Thought you might appreciate a change of clothing." With a clatter he opened the shutters at the window and two doves, roosting there by the iron bars in that marbled morning light, took off with a chortling, feather-spinning commotion.

"You might wait to be announced before you invade the private chamber of a respectable widow," she exclaimed, blinking in the sudden glare and feeling as if she'd lost a few feathers herself. The gown she wore now could definitely benefit from a laundering, and the stitches were pulled at the shoulder. She ran a fingertip over that tatty seam now, felt the grinning threads— another tiny detail that her mind would have no cause to create. Further proof, surely, that this was all real and happening.

She imagined Great Aunt Bridget's words burning in her ear, "Even awaiting their own hanging, a person should make some sort of effort." That old lady believed strongly in the power of appearances and the importance of maintaining them, no matter what. Which is how all this came about, of course.

Briskly removing his gloves, slapping them against his palm, the intruder looked around the store shed in which she'd been cloistered for three days. "Where is she then, this respectable widow? I see only a woman charged— depending upon the accuser— with bigamy, theft, fraud, witchcraft and assorted murders, and held in the custody of the town constable until the local magistrate has studied all the evidence compiled in her case."

Gracious, didn't one's sins add up? Yes, it did sound rather bad when he put it like that.

He shrugged out of his coat and came toward her with a menacing countenance. Must have ridden at speed to get there, she thought, for he was hot and yet the morning air was bone-cold. The seasons were changing. Was the harvest in already or had it been abandoned? All their hard work wasted?

"I suggest you confess all your sins in full. Unabridged. Don't make me employ dire measures to extract this information."

Oh, lord, despite that crooked nose he was rather beautiful whenever he was in one of these moods. If she ever found out that this was the dream and not a real world at all, she would be devastated. They didn't make men like him anymore in that other place. At least it seemed not.

Having kicked the door shut on the constable and his half-awakened wife, who poked their heads around the corner to gawp, he suddenly took his heavy coat and swung it around the captive's shoulders. Her grateful heartbeat quickened under the warmth of this gesture. It was as if he'd put his own arms around her. Once again she was struck by the vivid, tangible reality that engaged all her senses.

"It was not my fault," she managed finally. "At least, I did not mean for any of this to happen."

"Somebody is to blame, madam. I wonder who it might be?" He briskly wiped a hand over his weary face and looked down at her. "Now is the chance to explain your masquerade. Use the time wisely."

"It wasn't mymasquerade. I was an innocent pawn from the first. I've never been what one might call... a planner. I sail where the tide takes me."

"Sail?" He pulled up an empty crate and turned it over so that he might sit upon it facing her.  "I thought you flew through life, propelled by your stocking garters."

"Through several lives actually. I think."

Reaching for the diary, he pried it from her grip. "Might I inquire how long you expected to get away with this deception?"

"Oh, several hundred and some odd years?"An eternity, if I can have you to share it with me.

He looked askance.

With a sigh she shrugged her shoulders under the comforting weight of his coat. "It is possible, you know, to tell a lie so oft that you start to believe it yourself."

"I suggest you start remembering the truth instead."

"But where should I begin, Fred? I tried, several times, to tell you, but I did not know where to start."

There was just a hint of softening in his expression—a heart-warming sight and one that only she was ever privileged to receive. Nobody else ever saw doubt on that face; nobody else ever saw the chink in his armor. That precursor to a reluctant, doubtful smile caused her pulse to beat faster. It always had, even when she had not liked him much, even in —

"The very beginning, perhaps?" said he, in his best don't-try-to-get-around-me voice.

But which beginning? He might not care for this truth he sought so badly.

As her very best and dear friend Persephone would say, "Sometimes a man is better off not knowing. A wise lady should no more confess her age at any particular moment in time, than she would tell what she has spent on shoes, what she is truly thinking, or where the bodies are buried."

And hers was quite an age to confess, as was her collection of footwear. Interesting, really, that she still preferred to be barefoot.

He leaned forward, elbows resting on his thighs, hands clasped around her diary. "You may commence, madam, by telling me exactly who, in the name of hellfire, you truly are, and what became of the genuine Lady Flora."

Oh, dear. Could she answer those questions with any degree of certainty? If she told him everything she now thought she knew, she could end up in the madhouse or burned as a witch. On the other hand, he deserved an explanation, and he had come to help her.

"Very well then," she said, "I'll tell you my story, but I warn you, you'll never believe it."


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