Chapter 38: The Peril of Gossip
Before reaching the Holy Maiden Boutique, the streets were lined with a procession of carriages that promised the popular dressmaking store would be busy as usual. The carriage driver pulled up beside the roped-off steps. Lady Tiffany and Carina stepped down and waited for their escorts to join them before attempting to move forward through the crowded street. Sir Everly was nowhere to be seen when they entered the store, which was not unexpected.
“Make way!” Leo barked in his usual hostile style. The startled ladies quickly turned from the window displays they were admiring to gawk and move aside for the Crown Princess’s ladies-in-waiting.
“Saint’s mercy. Is it like this all the time?” Tiffany panted as she managed to squeeze through the shop door behind Carina.
“Every noble family is invited to the Royal Ball held during the Ambassador’s visit,” Carina explained as she adjusted her hood and glanced around the front of the shop for a free attendant. “Now that rumors of the Ambassador’s early arrival have started to spread across the capital, every noble family with an incomplete order at this boutique has sent their servants to ensure their dresses will be done in time for the Ball.”
“Just like us.” Tiffany nodded, looking worried.
“Not really,” Carina replied as she nodded towards an attendant furiously scribbling in a book by the shop’s back doors. “Sir Everly always places an order from the palace above all others no matter how late the request.”
The attendant finished scribbling out another name, muttering something about “chaos” and “over-privileged ladies,” then realized she had an audience and quickly snapped on a smile as she raised her gaze to meet them. “Good morning!” The attendant’s hazel brown eyes blinked as she took in the royal emblem on the tassels of their court robes, and Carina could almost hear the sound of coins being calculated in the back of her mind. “Ah, yes! You are here for the Crown Princess’s order?”
“Yes, we are. And is Sir Everly available?” Carina asked, hoping to pass off a letter to one of Cerberus members early if she could.
“Oh, I do apologize,” the attendant murmured with almost genuine sympathy. “Sir Everly isn’t available to speak to clients this morning. As you can see, things have become rather chaotic with the number of orders being rushed out.”
“Of course, then what about Lady Ursula?” Carina pressed firmly. “Surely she is available to show us the Crown Princess’s orders and discuss the anticipated delivery date.”
The attendant appeared ready to decline this request as well but then glanced over Carina’s shoulder towards the two knight captains and changed her mind. “If you wouldn’t mind waiting here, I will go have a word with Lady Ursula.”
“Thank you. We will wait,” Carina replied with a quick smile as the attendant turned and dipped through the back door of the store.
“Honestly,” Tiffany huffed as they moved over to one of the in-store displays. “No matter how busy they are, to think they would try brush off a court official like that. Oh—” she stopped before the cream white wedding gown “—this is a pretty dress!”
“It is,” Carina agreed as she studied the wedding dress and recognized Sir Everly’s style and handiwork in the cascade of pearls sewn from the bodice down to the waistline in the shape of a heart. “The feathers are a bit much.”
Tiffany nodded as she examined the plumage of white feathers that formed the dress’s otherwise sheer shoulders. “Yes, I imagine it would be quite uncomfortable to be poked constantly while wearing that on your big day.”
“It’s a commission for Baroness Winslet,” explained an attendant who stopped beside them with a distracted smile. “Or I should say, the future Baroness of Winslet. I saw the lady herself here only yesterday. What lovely red hair she had and such pale skin—though, I did wonder if she was feeling unwell.”
“Oh?” Carina replied with a note of surprise as the attendant hastened away to help another customer. “Sophya’s engagement must be going well then.” She made a mental note to check in with Sir Bryson to ask about the scam investigation.
“Do you know the couple?” Tiffany asked curiously.
“I do. The Winslets are a small but notable Baron family. The groom, Lord Asher, is heir to the Barons estates, and the intended bride is my half-sister, Lady Sophya Turnbell.”
“Oh! Congratulations to your sister then! When is the wedding date? Should we attend together? Have they picked out their rings? My family’s store is quite famous for their wedding rings!”
Carina held out her hands to stave off Tiffany’s excited babble of questions. “I don’t expect to receive an invitation, Lady Tiffany. My sister and I have been strangers since before our Mother’s funeral—and that is for the best.”
“Oh.” Tiffany’s excitement quickly faded, and she turned towards the gown with a troubled expression. “So that’s how it is.”
The back shop door opened, and the attendant returned, followed by Lady Ursula. Carina nudged Tiffany as the attendant pointed in their direction, and Ursula made her way towards the ladies-in-waiting with an order book in hand.
“I understand you ladies are here regarding her Highness’s order,” Lady Ursula said promptly, all business, as she flipped open the order book. “I am pleased to inform you that the gowns for her Highness were finished last night with all speed and care. Sir Everly isn’t here to show them to you as he is recovering from a late night of work. But he takes great pride in doing each of the Crown Princess’s dresses by hand, and she should know, despite the sudden rush, these dresses will be no exception in treatment and quality.”
“We are pleased to hear it!” Tiffany replied, taking the initiative as Carina decided it was best to stay quiet.
“Yes,” Ursula murmured as she made a quick note. “The Ambassador’s early arrival has certainly thrown us an unexpected challenge. I’m sure the palace is equally frantic in trying to move preparations up.”
“Nothing we can’t manage,” Tiffany replied with a glance to Carina. “Ah—when would the dress be delivered?”
Ursula turned to the attendant, who opened another book and motioned to something written inside. “We should be able to have the dresses delivered this evening—or if you ladies have brought payment with you, I can have them packed and sent back with you right now.”
“Oh! Of course—payment—” Tiffany flushed as she brushed back her hair and folded her hands together. “Delivery would be fine,” she replied with an overconfident smile. “The dresses would get rather crammed if we took them back with us. Right, Lady Maura?”
Carina raised a brow, realizing that Tiffany had not thought to bring payment for the order along with her. Perhaps because the royal family was rarely expected to pay upfront for any purchase since there was no question the bill would be covered. Lady Ursula could have simply suggested and accepted a promissory note instead. But then again, Sir Everly’s wife was rather opposed to the idea of giving clients special treatment just because of their status.
“Yes, delivery will be fine,” Tiffany repeated when Carina gave no reply. “And we will have payment waiting for you.”
“Excellent!” Lady Ursula smiled and made another note in both her book and the one her attendant held. “Would you ladies follow me for a moment?” She moved towards the desk by the shop’s back door and wrote out a quick bill of payment, which she promptly handed to Tiffany. “This is the amount due upon delivery. You can give the banknote to the servant who will drop off the order.”
“Yes! Thank you.” Tiffany accepted the bill, stared at the price for a minute too long, and carefully placed it inside her purse.
“Then, if there is nothing else?” Ursula raised a brow as she lifted her books with a dismissive smile.
“Could you deliver this to Sir Everly for me, Lady Ursula?” Carina inquired as she pulled out two letters and handed them to Ursula.
“Ah. I’m afraid my husband can’t accept any more—” Ursula’s customer service face faltered for a moment as she took in the nearly invisible snowflake embellishment on the envelope’s surface. “I’ll see that he gets them.” Ursula promptly tucked the letters inside her book and then regarded Carina with a raised brow. “Who should I say delivered them?”
“Lady Maura,” Carina replied with a shallow curtsey, then took Tiffany’s arm and turned them both back towards the front of the store. “Thank you for your assistance, Lady Ursula.”
“No,” Ursula called after them with a slight smile. “Thank her Highness for her Patronage, Lady Maura. We look forward to the reviews on her dress after the Ball.”
“Oh, thank goodness that’s done,” Tiffany breathed as they followed behind Sir Eustis while Captain Leo tried to clear a path back to the door. “I get goosebumps just thinking about the secret investor that owns this shop.”
“Secret investor?” Carina raised a curious brow as she hid a smile.
“Yes. Oh, you likely haven’t heard of Mr. Frost. People say the man is a prophet or a soothsayer. My father says an investment from Frost is as good as a blessing from the saints themselves because its means the business will likely succeed if not become popular beyond expectations.”
“Really?” ‘A prophet?’
Tiffany nodded. “Take this store, for example. Sir Everly was just a commoner before Frost opened this shop and invested heavily in his early designs. Then Sir Everly and that other mystery designer, Lady Aconitum, worked together on a wedding dress for Princess Eleanora. After their design won the royal wedding challenge, Sir Everly received his noble title, and her Highness became a Patreon of this store.”
“I see,” Carina murmured, distracted by the distinct clamor outside the store.
“Shall we head to the jewelry store now?”
“Yes, I think we should. It’s getting rather crowded in here—”
Carina faltered as Sir Eustis held out an arm to hold them back. She glanced over the purple sleeve of his uniform to where Captain Leo held the door open for a familiar figure. The young, ginger-haired noblewoman swept into the store with all the grace and privilege one would expect from one of Lafeara’s most powerful families.
“What is Lady Priscilla doing here?” an attendant whispered as Marquess Borghese’s daughter closed her parasol and tossed it to a maid who followed close behind her.
“Lady Priscilla Borghese, welcome back,” the attendant who had helped them earlier stepped forward to greet the noblewoman.
“I am here to order another three dresses for the Royal Hunt,” Priscilla stated authoritatively as she examined the nobles about the room with equal disinterest until her gaze settled upon Tiffany and Carina. “No—make that seven new dresses. And bring out the catalog, I will choose the style and material myself.”
“That—” the attendant repressed her usual automatic decline. “I will inform Lady Ursula of your request—”
“My word,” Priscilla brushed past the store attendant towards Sir Eustis, whom she also ignored as her chartreuse green eyes settled with a cunning gleam upon Carina. “So it’s true, Crown Princess Eleanora kept a half-blood as a lady-in-waiting.”
The whispers and eyes around the store quickly fixed upon Tiffany and Carina with rising curiosity. Priscilla held out a hand, and the maid behind her promptly supplied her with a fan that the Marquess’s daughter used to push Tiffany out of her way as she stepped closer to Carina.
“I still owe you for that insult before the Dowager, half-blood,” Priscilla informed Carina with a smug smile. “I never forget an offense or those foolish enough to oppose me, no matter how low the quality of their birth.”
Carina scoffed as she stepped to the side, determined to ignore the irritating noblewoman. Priscilla quickly sidestepped to block her way and shoved the jeweled fan against Carina’s sternum.
“I hear you seduced the Earl into giving you one of Hawthorne’s priceless heirlooms,” Priscilla announced as she dragged her fan up against Carina’s dress collar and smiled when she saw the silver chain beneath it. A hush fell over the room of interested ears as attendants and shoppers alike leaned in to listen intently.
“How strange,” Carina replied as she knocked the fan aside. “The Countess always told me that it was beneath a lady’s dignity to listen to gossip.”
“So you’re saying the Earl didn’t give you Hawthorne’s Winter Rose?” Priscilla replied as her chartreuse green eyes narrowed with triumph. “But—it would appear you are wearing it right now.” Priscilla unfurled her fan with the skill of a courtesan as she retreated from Carina with a stunned expression. “Don’t tell me you dared to rob the Countess who took such a lowly half-blood under her wing.”
Carina glared back at the malicious noblewoman and clenched her hands tightly. She was annoyingly impressed at the skill with which Priscilla now painted her as either a purse-grabbing slut or an ungrateful thief—perhaps both?
“Oh dear, your silence is rather condemning, Lady Maura,” Priscilla observed with an amused laugh. “How humiliating for poor Lady Evelynn to lose the Earl to such a cunning little half-blood.” Priscilla lowered her fan as she shook her head sadly, though a victorious smile was never far from her lips. “Well, go on, Lady Maura, show us. I hear you wear the Winter Rose on your person at all times like a shameless harlot.”
“I have nothing to show or say to such an ill-mannered lady,” Carina replied with a restrained smile and then walked briskly around Priscilla to the shop door.
“Stop her!” Priscilla snapped. The maid stepped forward obediently, but Eustis quickly caught the woman’s arm and restrained her as Carina continued to where Captain Leo stood waiting by the door.
“You, Captain Leo. Stop that woman!” Priscilla shouted.
Carina sucked in an angry breath as Leo calmly placed an arm across the door to block her path. ‘Well, I should have seen that coming.’ She glared at the knight, who avoided her gaze with a disgruntled expression.
“Excellent.” Priscilla caught up to them quickly. “Now, will you show it to us willingly, Lady Maura, or should I ask the Captain to search you instead?”
‘Your mistaken if you think I’m going to act according to your little play, Priscilla.’ Carina raised her chin and stared down the knight blocking her escape. “Move aside, Captain Leo.”
“And why would the Captain listen to a half-blood over the daughter of a Marquess?” Priscilla snorted in amusement.
Leo sighed as he leaned towards Carina and whispered. “If you’re wearing the necklace, Lady Maura, just show her.” He offered a cold smile and then added, “I’m sure the Earl will clear your name once he returns from the border.”
“Leo, did you—” Tiffany whispered in a dazed tone as she stepped up beside them. Carina glanced at the blonde attendant’s confused expression and the guilt that followed as Tiffany avoided her gaze.
‘Was it Tiffany who saw the Winter Rose and told Priscilla? Is this the real reason she asked me to join her today? Priscilla seems rather informed and well prepared to take me down for this to be a mere coincidence.’
Anger swirled like a cold storm inside her chest, and Carina clamped it down as she gave Leo a cynical smile. “Are you sure you’re on the right side of this, Captain? What do you think will happen to you when the Earl returns and clears my name?” She stepped in closer and whispered against his ear. “And if I am the Earl’s lover, what do you imagine he will do to the knight who dared to put his hands on me?”
Leo’s left eye twitched while the rest of his face went rigid. Carina smiled at him, ducked under his arm, and pushed the shop door open.
“No, wait!” Priscilla called out in confusion. “Why did you let her go?”
Carina ignored her as she walked down the roped-off steps, not bothering to wait for the carriage as she turned in the direction of the palace.
“—Useless! Just see if I don’t—” Priscilla’s muffled voice came and cut off as the door opened and shut.
“Maura, wait!” Tiffany called out as she ran up quickly behind Carina.
Carina ignored the blonde attendant as she lengthened her stride, stopping only long enough to let a carriage pass before she crossed the street and marched briskly down the next sidewalk. She could still feel the accusing stare of every person in that store and her predetermined guilt already spreading through Lafeara’s weekly gossip circles.
‘It doesn’t matter if the Earl returns in three or five days. My reputation as a Baroness will be worth little more than those maids Josiah cast aside over the years.’
“Maura!” Tiffany’s voice was much further away and buried behind the rattle of wheels and the clog of voices as men and women jostled around Carina, unaware they were brushing shoulders with the notorious half-blood who dared to seduce the Earl of Hawthrone.
The sound of galloping hooves and disgruntled protests preceded the knight that pulled up onto the sidewalk ahead of her. Carina glared up at Sir Eustis, who maneuvered his stallion firmly into her path and held out his hand.
“Come on then,” Eustis called out firmly. “You’re not walking all the way back to the palace in those shoes, Lady Maura.”
Carina unclenched the nails biting into her palm as she looked from her already dirtied heels to his hand and then away.
“Look, ignore the bitch,” Eustis said bluntly as the crowds wove around them, with one or two commoners lingering to stare at the knight on his fancy horse. “No one likes Lady Priscilla—or her father.”
“You think that matters?” Carina demanded. “Do you think that’s what people will say? That the daughter of a Marquess was a bully to a lowly half-blood?” She scoffed and folded her arms.
“Don’t let yourself become a target,” Eustis replied with an angry scowl. “Make her the target instead.” He leaned down over the saddle as the stallion paced uncomfortably. “Look, there are plenty of stories I could tell you about Marquess Borghese that would make your toes curl. That bastard should be behind bars, but he’s protected by his minions and his hold over the Royal Party. I’d be happy to share one or two with you if you like, Lady Maura, but only if you take my hand and let me get you back to the palace safe and sound.”
Carina exhaled slowly, tempted by his offer and also aware she would need his help to avoid trouble re-entering the palace—whether she wanted it or not.
“Alright,” she agreed reluctantly. “But it better be a good story.”
“Well, they—might be a little much for a lady.” Eustis looked down at her uneasily as he removed his boot from the stirrup and offered his hand again. “But as far as juicy gossip goes, it’s a thriller.”
“Haven’t you heard?” Carina smiled icily as she grabbed the knight’s hand, placed her foot in the stirrup for leverage, and climbed up awkwardly behind him. “I’m a half-blood, not a lady.”