Three Years before Lady Du’Brevan’s House Party
Marjorie Fairchild’s hands were going numb from gripping the tree bark. Leaves spun in circles around her head, a soft whishing in the breeze, as she spied the backdoor to the estate’s kitchen. Her stomach grumbled at the smell of baking bread. Her limbs complained from waiting, and she held on, willing her secret love to come outside. She needed to tell him how she felt before she left. She may never see Reginald again.
A stick snapped below. An acorn popped under footfalls. Marjorie sucked in a breath and held very still, hoping no one—
“You look like a thief.”
Marjorie startled. Her hands slipped. Wrapping her legs around the branch, the momentum swung her upside-down, clinging like a squirrel.
Reginald’s severe older brother, Lord Miles Beauchamp, met Marjorie’s gaze with his direct one. Her pulse throbbed in her temples. Blood rushed to her face as she hung from the underbelly of the oak branch. With all the dignity she could muster, she answered him. “A thief in broad daylight? I think not, my lord.”
Lord Beauchamp stared at her. Then he laughed.
She frowned. Had she ever heard him laugh? Too bad it was directed at her. Something buzzed by her ear and she cringed, her tenuous hold trembling.
“Please allow me to assist you.”
She shook her head, embarrassed but determined to right herself. Instead she slid and dropped in a heap with a thump.
He laughed, full and deep, before biting down his grin.
When he offered his hand, Marjorie looked at her own—scraped and shaking. She smelled like damp soil. She ignored his offer and stood, brushing off her dress.
“Still spying, are you? You haven’t outgrown that habit yet? How old are you now anyway?” He eyed her in amusement.
Her stomach dropped. How embarrassing that he had seen her before. “Sixteen,” she said, then bit her lip. She was not acting it at the moment. So much for her planned confession and final farewell.
He frowned and seemed to assess her again. “That cannot be right.”
Of course he would not believe her, since he caught her spying and falling out of a tree. “I assure you it is, my lord.” Keenly aware of her childish behavior, she wanted to flee back to the stable where she felt safe. “Please excuse me.” She waited for his approval. Carriage wheels crunched in the gravel leading to the estate. The breeze blew her hair loose, freeing a few leaves stuck in her red hair.
“Hmm.” Lord Beauchamp kept her waiting.
The kitchen door squeaked open and Reginald stepped outside. He stopped to watch the footmen who greeted the carriage. Sunlight glinted as he swept his shiny dark hair from his eyes.
Marjorie bowed her head. She did not want Reginald to see her in wild disarray. Her plan was ruined. “I—I need to leave. Please excuse me, my lord.”
Lord Beauchamp studied her. Why did he not dismiss her as the Beauchamp family always did? She waited, holding her breath, needing to leave but not wishing to offend.
“You may go.”
She spun and stopped at the sight of her aunt descending from the carriage. Marjorie stood frozen, caught, and unable to move as her life took a tumble before her eyes. Aunt Harriet was come to take her from her home and her father. She wanted to learn to become a proper lady, did she not?
Marjorie looked back over her shoulder, hoping for one last glimpse of Reginald. Instead her eyes landed on Lord Beauchamp. He seemed like a shield to everything beloved and familiar—the grand house, kitchen garden, the rambling oak tree, even her father who managed the stable. Melancholy settled gently like hay falling from a loft. Movement through her blurred vision caught her attention. Lord Beauchamp offered a crisp bow as a farewell and he too left. She glanced around, but Reginald was already gone.