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Authors: Candace Camp

Beyond Compare

BOOK: Beyond Compare
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Praise for the novels of
C
ANDACE
C
AMP

“Readers looking for a good 19th-century ghost story need look no further than this charmer…a truly enjoyable read.”

—Publishers Weekly
on
Mesmerized

“From its delicious beginning to its satisfying ending, Camp’s delectable paranormal offers a double helping of romance.”


Booklist
starred review on
Mesmerized

“This is a suspense tale with a witty twist.”

—Romantic Times
on
The Hidden Heart

“Camp’s unconventional heroine and unlikely hero heat up the story with their steamy sexual chemistry and fiery banter.”

—Publishers Weekly
on
So Wild a Heart

“Camp’s action-packed, sensual love story certainly stirs the senses and emotions. With a strong plotline and well-drawn characters, she creates a true ‘keeper.’”

—Romantic Times
on
No Other Love

“Candace Camp is a consummate storyteller and
[A Stolen Heart]
is another example of her superb talent….”

—Romantic Times

“Oddball characters and misadventures are plentiful in this delightful romp, making it one of Camp’s best.”

—Publishers Weekly
on
Indiscreet

Also by CANDACE CAMP

MESMERIZED

SECRETS OF THE HEART

THE HIDDEN HEART

SO WILD A HEART

NO OTHER LOVE

PROMISE ME TOMORROW

A STOLEN HEART

SWEPT AWAY

IMPETUOUS

INDISCREET

IMPULSE

SCANDALOUS

SUDDENLY

Watch for CANDACE CAMP’s follow-up to

MESMERIZED
and
BEYOND COMPARE

WINTERSET

C
ANDACE
C
AMP
B
EYOND
C
OMPARE

For Stacy, my favorite redhead.

1

K
yria was in the grand ballroom when she heard the shrieks. High and piercing, they sounded as if they came from some distance, or perhaps from the floor above. Kyria had been discussing with Smeggars, the butler, the placement of flower arrangements for the reception after Olivia’s wedding. At the screams, she raised her head, listening, then cut her eyes toward Smeggars. He gazed back at her, his controlled face twitching just a fraction in a way that told Kyria he was thinking the same thing she was: the twins were at it again.

Sighing, Kyria turned away from her task and walked out into the hall, Smeggars following. She started down the hall toward the staircase, then broke into a trot when more screams and cries erupted. She hurried up the staircase, lifting her skirts to keep from tripping. On the second floor, she saw one of the upstairs maids at the far end of the hall, sitting on the floor with her hands to her head, having hysterics. Another maid stood over her, trying alternately to pull her up and soothe her. A footman and a parlor maid were rushing into the grand drawing room, the one they had
been using the most this week because of the number of guests here for the wedding.

The arrangements for her sister’s wedding had fallen, as most social things tended to do in this family, to Kyria’s lot. Her father, the duke, appalled at the number of people invading his usually quiet domain, had retreated to his workshop out back, where he could putter about with his pots and shards to his heart’s content. The duchess, who found most members of her social class empty-headed and unaware, had no interest in entertaining their guests, and domestic arrangements bored her. If she did from time to time decide to discuss menus or housing guests or other such things with the servants, she was apt to wander far afield into a discussion of the appalling conditions of the serving class in Britain and the efforts the servants should make to rebel against their lot. At the end of such discourses, the servants were generally left confused and the duchess irritated.

Thisbe, of course, being the eldest sister, might have been expected to be the one to take over such arrangements, but Thisbe was far more interested in her scientific experiments. And one would have been excused for assuming that in this particular instance, a wedding, it would have been the bride who’d be intimately involved in the planning and execution of the plans. However, Olivia had reacted with a horror greater than her father’s at the prospect of the invasion of guests. So it was Kyria to whom the housekeeper and butler turned for orders, and it was she who had spent the past week arranging for food and lodging for a large number of guests, many of whom had brought along a servant or two. It was also she who was left the task of seeing that their guests were kept suitably entertained while at
the same time she made arrangements for a wedding. Others might have been daunted by the task, but it was the sort of challenge Kyria thrived upon.

There were moments, of course, when she did wish that the twins had not seen fit to add to the challenge.

She hurried after the maid and footman into the drawing room. Inside the long, elegant room, pandemonium reigned. Lady Marcross had fainted dead away in one of the chairs, and the Countess St. Leger, the bridegroom’s mother, was bending over Lady Marcross, chafing her wrists and fanning her with a handkerchief. Miss Wilhemina Hatcher, one of the many Moreland cousins, and another woman Kyria did not recognize had both jumped to their feet, overturning a stool and a spindly legged table, and were clutching each other and babbling hysterically. Lord Marcross was shaking his fist at the ceiling, while the maid and footman hurried around the room anxiously, hands and faces raised, calling, “Here, birdie! Here, Wellie!”

Old Lord Penhurst, deaf as a post, had his ear trumpet to his ear. His daughter was yelling into it, trying to explain to him what had happened, and periodically, over the hubbub, the old man’s voice rose in a querulous cry of “What? Speak up, girl, dammit!”

Just past him Lady Rochester, almost Lord Penhurst’s equal in years, thudded her cane down with authority, exclaiming, “Stop that noise this instant, Wilhemina!”

Kyria took in the scene in a glance. It was not immediately apparent what had caused the commotion, but she lifted her gaze, following the servants’ and Lord Marcross’s example, and there she saw the parrot, perched on the drapery rod above one of the west windows, a vivid orange-red bird, his blue wings tucked at
his side, his head cocked as his bright eye took in the situation below him.

“Wellington!” Kyria grimaced. She raised her hands, gesturing for calm. “All right, everyone, there’s no need to panic. It’s nothing—just the twins’ parrot.”

Lord Marcross harrumphed. “Damn fool pet, if you ask me.”

“Well, don’t just stand there, girl,” Lady Rochester demanded of Kyria, bringing her cane down again for emphasis. “Do something!”

Lady Rochester, Kyria’s great-aunt, was a fierce old woman who had dressed for the past thirty years in black, less because of her grief over her long-dead husband’s demise than because she considered black a flattering color for her pale skin. From a portrait of the lady in her youth, Kyria knew she had once been a beauty, but little was left of that beauty now in her aged face, topped bizarrely by a wig colored as deep a black as her dress—not, of course, that anyone would have dared to call it a wig to her face. Lady Rochester was possessed of a razor-sharp tongue, which she never hesitated to use on those around her. She was one of the few people capable of making Kyria feel like a gauche young girl again.

Kyria put a pleasant smile on her face and said, “Yes, of course, I will.” She turned again toward the others, saying, “Now if everyone will just be quiet…”

She tilted her head up, saying, “Here, Wellie!” She patted her shoulder as she had seen Alex and Con do many times with the bird. “Come here and we’ll get you a treat.”

The parrot twisted his head first one way, then the other, observing her, Kyria thought, with a definite
gleam of mischief. He let out a piercing squawk, followed by the words, “Treat! Wellie treat.”

“That’s right. Wellie treat,” Kyria said in a singsong voice, patting her shoulder again.

The parrot let out another squawk, then took off from his perch. Swooping down, he dug his claws into Lady Rochester’s hair and flew on, the intricate black wig dangling from his claws. Lady Rochester let out a squawk to rival the bird’s, clapping her hands to her head. The sight of Lady Rochester’s naked head was enough to send Cousin Wilhemina and her companion into hysterics again, and across the room old Lord Penhurst burst into a loud cackle of laughter.

Kyria clamped her lips shut over the giggle that threatened to rise from her throat and ran after the bird, followed by the maid and the footman. Wellington led them along the corridor and down the front stairs. Kyria clattered down after them, the train of followers behind her growing as guests and servants joined the chase.

Cousin Albert walked through the front door at that moment and stood gaping at the sight of the crowd rushing down the stairs toward him.

“Close the door!” Kyria cried in consternation. “Close the—”

“What…” Albert began in confusion, then ducked as the flame-red parrot dived at him.

The bird flew out the door, and Kyria let out a groan of frustration. There was no telling where the thing would go now! She rushed past Albert, who had straightened up and was blinking rapidly. Shading her eyes, she looked up and spotted Wellington winging his way up into the branches of the old, spreading oak to the west of the house. She ran down the shallow
steps that led to the formal front lawn and followed the parrot.

Beneath the oak tree, she stopped and looked up. Wellington was sitting high up on one of the bare limbs, shredding the wig with his claws. Kyria let out a groan. “Blast Theo and his presents!”

The maid reached her, and Kyria turned to her. “We’ve got to get that bird down. Fetch me some nuts, will you? And cut up an apple. I’ll see if I can lure him down. And, Cooper—” she swung around to address the footman “—find Alex and Con and tell them to get down here right away if they don’t want to lose Wellie.”

The servants nodded and hurried off to do her bidding. The rest of the servants and the houseguests milled around, looking up at the parrot in the tree. Kyria glanced around at them, wishing futilely that there was someone here to help her. Reed, the most reliable of them all, had ridden out this morning with the estate manager to look into some problem at one of the farms, and Stephen and Olivia, along with her mother, were down at the vicarage discussing the upcoming wedding ceremony. Thisbe and her husband, of course, were deep in some experiment or other at their laboratory. The lab had been built a few years earlier to replace Thisbe’s shed in town, which had accidentally been blown up in an experiment. It had set fire to her father’s workshop and caused a general fright among the servants. This new lab stood at a safe distance from the main house and other outbuildings.

Clearly, Kyria thought, she was on her own.

“Here, Wellington, come down,” Kyria said in a coaxing voice. “I’ll get you some treats. Much better
than that old wig. Good Wellie. Here, Wellie.” She patted her shoulder encouragingly.

The parrot paused in his industrious mangling of the wig and cocked his head, gazing down at her. Kyria smiled and continued to call to him. She wished she could whistle. It had been a skill she had envied in her brothers as a child, but try as she might, she had never been able to do it. It would have been of great use to her now, she thought, for Alex and Con, who often let the brightly colored bird out to fly around the large nursery, frequently called the parrot back with a whistle.

She turned to the crowd that had gathered behind her to watch interestedly. “Albert, can you whistle?”

He looked at her blankly. “Whistle?”

“Yes, whistle.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t since I was a boy.”

“Well, give it a try, will you?”

Albert did, but the little squeak he uttered made the parrot do nothing more than cock his head in the other direction and let out a derisive-sounding squawk.

“Hello!” the parrot called. “Hello!”

“Yes, hello, Wellie,” Kyria called back, and patted her shoulder yet again. “Here, Wellie. Good Wellie. Come to Kyria.”

The parrot looked all around at the crowd, chattering and pointing, then let out a cry and flew to a higher branch, letting the wig fall to the ground, where it lay like a strange, lifeless animal. Kyria darted over to pick it up. It was ruined, she thought, wincing a little as she thought of the dressing-down she would doubtless get later from her great-aunt. She would, she thought with
some bitterness, see to it that Alex and Con got to share her session with Lady Rochester.

The maid she had sent on her errand came puffing up beside Kyria now, holding a handful of cut-up apple and nuts. “Here, my lady. I got it as fast as I could.”

“Thank you, Jenny,” Kyria replied, taking a chunk of apple and holding it up so that the parrot could see it. “Look, Wellie, a treat!”

The parrot twisted his head this way and that and let out a few sharp noises, but stubbornly refused to budge from his high perch.

“I didn’t see the twins on my way to the kitchen, my lady, but I sent Patterson to look for them.”

“They must be out of the house,” Kyria said. “They would never stay away from a commotion this big.” Nothing drew either boy faster than the sounds of a disturbance. Of course, a great deal of the time, they were at the center of whatever disturbance was happening.

She continued to try enticing the bird with the bits of food, and he continued to ignore her pleas. The watching crowd of guests was growing louder around her, and when one of the women gave a titter of laughter, the parrot shifted on its perch. Kyria tried to hush the crowd, but she knew that though they might quiet for a moment, they would only grow louder and more restive, and the movement and noise were likely to make the bird flit farther away. The twins would be heartbroken if they lost the parrot. She had to act now.

The only thing to do, she thought, was to get closer to the bird, to move away from the noise and movement of the people, where Wellington could concentrate on her and the tasty treat she was offering him. She spared a fleeting wish for Alex, who was as nimble as a mon
key and could climb—and had done so—almost anything around. Still, she had been rather good at climbing trees herself as a child, always tagging after her older siblings. Hopefully, one didn’t forget such things.

She studied the tree—not a bad one to climb, with some low branches to get one started—then looked down at her attire. A fashionable dress with a bustle was scarcely the thing to go climbing in. But she could not take the time to change, so with a sigh she reached down and grabbed the back hem of her skirt and pulled it forward between her legs, bunching up the petticoats, and tucked the material into her waistband.

Her rearrangement of her clothes exposed a shocking amount of pantalet-clad leg, and Kyria heard more than one gasp behind her, as well as a little shriek from the ever-excitable Cousin Wilhemina. Even the maid, accustomed to the Moreland family’s strange ways, was gaping at her with astonishment. Kyria knew that her behavior would give everyone fuel for gossip for several days to come, and it would doubtless become another in the long list of examples of her “oddities.”

With a mental shrug, she stuck her lures of fruit and nuts into her pocket and strode over to the tree. Grabbing the trunk at the lowest limb, she pulled herself up, hooked a leg over the branch and climbed onto it. Standing, she began to climb, limb by limb, until she had reached as high as she could go and be sure the branch would support her weight. She looked down at the crowd below; everyone was staring up at her intently. It was, she realized with a little flutter of fear in her stomach, an exceedingly long way down. It occurred to her that she had been foolish to climb up here. She lifted her head and looked out into the spreading tracery of branches around her.

BOOK: Beyond Compare
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