Delilah scrambled to her feet. Her hair had come out of the topknot and a large swath of it covered one eye and half of her mouth. Her grip still tight on the squirming squirrel, she tried to blow the hair away from her face, but the swath simply lifted momentarily and fell back into place.
Mary and Rose, the housemaids, had already begun cleaning up the mess she'd made. "I'm awfully sorry," Delilah said to them. They glanced at her, both offering sympathetic smiles. She'd been friends with them for an age, and they knew she was about to get a tongue lashing from her mother.
Mother's gaze fell to the squirrel, and she gave a long-suffering sigh. "What in heaven's name have you got there?" The countess's nostrils flared slightly as she glared at the squirrel as if it were a rabid rat.
Delilah clutched the little animal to her chest. "L'écureuil," she announced, hoping the word for squirrel sounded more acceptable in French. Most things sounded more acceptable in French.
Her mother turned sharply toward the front door. "I am going to see Lord Hilton out. I'll give you five minutes to dispose of that thing and meet me in the salon. I need to speak with you." She whisked her burgundy skirts in the direction of the front door.
Delilah glanced about. The front door was the closest exit. She rushed past Mother and Lord Hilton to reach the door before they did as Goodfellow, the butler, opened it. She hurried out into the spring air and glanced around. The park was across the street. It would be the best place for the squirrel. She watched for carriages and then dashed across the muddy roadway and into the park, where she found a spot in the grass to carefully release the animal. "Take care, Monsieur Écureuil," she said, as she leaned down and gently opened her palms against the soft, green grass.
She watched the squirrel scramble away to safety before she turned and rushed back across the road, further muddying her skirts in the process. Mon Dieu. Just another thing for Mother to disapprove of.
By the time Delilah reached the foyer again with a ripped, stained hem, she was breathing heavily and her coiffure had become even more unwieldy. At least the Earl of Hilton was gone. She quickly flipped the unruly swath of hair over her shoulder. Best to pretend as if she couldn't see it. She rushed into the salon and stopped short to stand at attention in front of her mother, who was seated, stiff-backed and imperious, like a queen upon a throne.
Mother eyed her up and down before shaking her head disapprovingly. "Take a seat."
Delilah lowered herself to the chair that faced her mother's. She'd learned long ago that if she kept her eyes downcast and nodded obediently, these sorts of talks were over much more quickly. Too bad she didn't have it in her to do either. "About the squirrel, I—"
"I do not wish to speak about the squirrel." Her mother's lips were tight.
"About the vase and the table, I—"
Mother's eyes were shards of blue ice. "I do not wish to speak about the vase or the table."
Poor Mère. She would have been beautiful if she weren't always so angry. Usually with Delilah. Her mother's blond hair held subtle streaks of white, her eyes so blue they would have been heavenly if they weren't so hard. She had a perfect, patrician nose and lines around her mouth no doubt caused by years of frowning at her only child.
Delilah looked nothing like her. Lord Hilton was correct. Delilah took after her father. She had Papa's dark brown hair and matching eyes. A butter stamp, they'd called her, meaning she looked exactly like him. Delilah was of medium height while her mother was petite. Delilah was exuberant and talked far too loudly and far too much, while her mother was always calm and reserved. Delilah was a failure on the marriage mart, while her mother (even at her advanced age of three and forty) had a score of suitors. Hilton was the most aggressive, and her mother's obvious favorite.
Delilah's mind raced. If Mother didn't want to chastise her about the vase, the table, or the squirrel, what could she possibly—
Delilah winced. "Is it about the donkey ears?" Mother's eyes widened slightly with alarm. "Donkey ears?"
Oh, dear. Now was probably not the best time to tell Mother she'd been rehearsing a play for charity. The woman rarely approved of anything Delilah did, and joining the outrageous Duchess of Claringdon, Lucy Hunt, in a production of a play was certain to be another in a long list of things Mother disapproved of, even if they were performing Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"Never mind," Delilah said in as nonchalant a voice as she could muster.