Francis had, in defiance of his invalid state, dressed formally for the occasion in a three-quarter-length sack coat with matching trousers, a mustard waistcoat and a striped shirt. A brown neckerchief took the place of a collar and tie, and though his mirror told him his pale blue eyes were rather hollow, his cheeks gaunt, and his complexion rather pale, he felt he could just about pass muster.
A sharp rap on the door heralded the arrival of his mother and the female who would be his nurse.
“This is Miss Matheson, Francis,” she said, sweeping into the room, “who has come to be your ”
“Nanny,” Francis said.
“Companion,” his mother said smoothly. “You will forgive my son’s ill manners,” she said, turning to the girl by her side. “Francis feels ”
“Francis feels he has no need of a nursemaid,” Francis interrupted bitterly. “I am not done for just yet, Mother.” As if to contradict this statement, he fell into a paroxysm of coughing which had him collapsing into a chair, wheezing, his eyes streaming.
“As you can see,” his mother said, unable to hide her distaste, “my son is more of an invalid than he cares to acknowledge.”
Mortified, but still too busy trying to catch his breath to speak, Francis glowered.
“Perhaps it would be better if you left Francis and me alone to get acquainted.” Miss Matheson spoke for the first time.
She had a pretty voice, the Highland lilt softening her words. Eyeing her cautiously, Francis was surprised to note that she was quite young, and very pretty, which was much better than the harridan he had pictured, but at the same time much worse.
“Perhaps that would be best,” his mother said, failing to disguise her relief, and Francis drew her a sardonic look which she ignored. “I will have them send your things up, Miss Matheson. Your room is adjacent to this one; that way you will be able to hear Francis’s bell.” With a curt nod, she left the room.
“What she means is, that way you’ll be on call to mop up after me without anyone else seeing my mess,” Francis said, pushing himself upright on the chaise longue upon which he had slumped. “It’s not a pretty sight.”
“Nor a pleasant experience for the sufferer,” Miss Matheson said gently. “I know what it’s like. You need not be embarrassed.”
“Ah, yes, I remember now what Ella said. Your father, I believe?”
The girl nodded.
“I’m sorry,” Francis said gruffly. “That must have been awful for you.”
She nodded a second time.
“May I ask why it is, then, that you’re putting yourself through it all again?”
She sat down beside him on the chaise, folding her hands in her lap. They were work-roughened, Francis noticed, at odds with the rest of her delicate features.
“I’m not a martyr, any more than you’re an invalid,” she said, though this time the tone of her voice was firmer. “I have my reasons, and one of them is that I want to help. I’ve some experience in alleviating the symptoms of your condition. I know you don’t want me here ”
“It’s not you,” Francis interrupted, ashamed of his ill temper. “I don’t want anyone.”
“Perhaps not, but you do need someone,” she said frankly.
“Stop looking at me like that.” Francis drummed his fingers on the arm of the chaise longue, turning away from the girl’s brown eyes, which were a mite too perceptive for his liking. He could feel himself colouring under that candid gaze. “Oh, very well! Yes, I do need someone, but why did Mother have to choose someone like you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at you, fresh as a daisy and twice as pretty.” Francis gave her a serious look. “You must take care not to put yourself in the way of my brother, Roderick. He has an eye for pretty things, and unfortunately, though he has all the appearance of a gentleman, he has none of the attributes.”
“I’m sure that I am perfectly capable of ”
“You would be foolish not to heed my warning, Miss Matheson,” Francis said, sitting up straighter.
“Fiona,” she said. “You must call me Fiona if we are to be companions.”
“Then you must call me Francis.” He noted her smile was really quite lovely. Roddy would have her for breakfast. “You need to listen, Fiona. My brother has a habit of treating the female members of our household as his possessions. An innocent like yourself will be a temptation he will not be able to resist.”
Fiona shook her head.
“I am sure that I will be far too taken up with my duties to have any time to spend alone with anyone. That is, if you still wish me to take up my duties.”
Francis looked her up and down carefully, impatiently pushing back the fall of brown hair which flopped over his brow.
“I suppose I could give you a trial run,” he said with a grin.
“Fair enough,” Fiona replied, her eyes twinkling, “since I intend to do the same thing with you.”
Surprised, he threw his head back and laughed. Maybe his mother had done him a favour after all.
“You know, I sense a will of iron in there. I’d like to see you and my mother go head to head.”
“Well, I should like no such thing,” Fiona said, her prim lips belying the fetching twinkle in her eyes, “but you can rest assured that I am here to see to your best interests above all else.”
“Are you?” Francis asked, deciding that things were definitely looking up. “Then you have yourself a position, Miss Matheson Fiona because you are the only person who is.”