Marjorie Fairchild lifted a gloved hand to the carriage windowpane. Raindrops hit against the glass, each with a plink. A bank of dark clouds unrolled from the east like a woolen blanket. Somerstone Manor grew closer with each turn of the wheel, until the trees cleared and the estate came into full view. Marjorie shifted on her seat. She would certainly be out of place at the house party. The home was the essence of her dreams—well maintained, long-standing, and a safe haven. It spoke of an ancient, noble history, and knights in shining armor. And seemed capable of housing London’s entire West End.
“Astonishing. I have never seen a house so . . .” Grand? Massive? Awe-inspiring?
Aunt Harriet supplied a word of her own. “Gaudy.”
Marjorie dropped her hand into her lap and smiled. “Yes, precisely. I have never seen its equal. Not even Reginald’s home.”
Aunt Harriet’s face grew somber and she studied Marjorie. The carriage dropped into a rut in the road as it waited in line, and so did Marjorie’s stomach. She recognized her mistake in bringing up Reginald, but focused on the Palladian architecture, counting six pillars near the entrance. It resembled the Roman temple Maison Carrée.
“Hmm. I must say, I rather hoped you had driven that man from your affections. You have not seen him in some time,” Aunt Harriet said.
Not in six months and five days. Though Aunt Harriet probably believes I have not seen him since I left home, three years ago. Marjorie closed her eyes, sinking into herself. Reginald’s captivating smile at the ball in London caused a shiver like a feather brushing her skin. She had seen him flirt and dance the entire evening, but he had not seen her.
He never had.
Raindrops streaked like tears down the window. He had not noticed her even when she lived next door to him. Or rather on his property, since her father managed the stables for the Beauchamps.
“I heard some gossip about Mr. Beauchamp during cards at the Pratt’s,” Aunt Harriet mused. “Something about him falling madly in love.”
Marjorie feigned indifference, though every muscle in her body tensed.
“He actually proposed to the woman. Astonishing since he declared himself disinterested in matrimony. Less astonishing, but more scandalous—she flatly refused him. Said he would be dependent on her money and she could never stand for that. Especially with his gambling debts.” Harriet nodded to herself. “That is a woman who will not settle. Who knows the measure of a good man.”
Marjorie pleated her skirt, her cheeks growing warm. The news did astonish, but her aunt need not veil another lecture. Aunt Harriet spoke against Reginald’s acquired reputation. The man she described did not sound like the Reginald she remembered. Her Reginald was charming, gentle, and made people laugh. He was prone to blue moods, but he buoyed others’ spirits with little effort. He swapped stories and put everyone at ease, equals or servants. No other man rivalled him. And he was beyond her reach. He was the second son of the Earl of Strathford and therefore unattainable.
Marjorie knew who she was and where she fell in the social order. Even though Aunt Harriet married into a well connected family and introduced Marjorie into the society her mother gave up in marrying her father, Marjorie would always be the stable master’s daughter. If Reginald were to notice her, his relations and friends would despise her on principle. Some truths could not be softened even in daydreams.
Marjorie despaired of making a match due to another hindrance. Few considered red hair, freckles, and a thin frame fashionable. Thankfully she had her aunt’s faith. Somerstone Manor promised beautiful sites and intriguing discoveries. She wanted to sketch each detail during her visit.
The carriage came to a stop. Servants unloaded their trunks, their voices easily heard. “Shall we see if the inside is as overdone as the outside?” Aunt Harriet pulled her mouth to the side in an effort to hide her smile.
Marjorie put a finger to her lips, trying to shush her aunt. Harriet possessed soft Sunday manners, but a wicked tendency to tease behind people’s backs. Marjorie never knew her mother, but felt closer to her through Aunt Harriet.
The carriage door opened and a footman held out his hand. Marjorie gasped, thinking she had conjured Reginald. But no, this man was dressed in livery. She had never seen a footman with a physique and features like him, all perfect angles and planes. How odd. He would make a bewitching study sketched in charcoal, with his high cheekbones, Grecian nose, and hooded eyes.
“May I assist you down?” He tilted his head and raised an eyebrow.
She was staring, and his smile indicated he thought he knew why. Heat singed her cheeks.
“Gaudy,” Harriet whispered loudly.
In a snap, the spell was broken. Marjorie suppressed her laughter, and could not stop smiling as the footman helped her alight from the carriage.
Servants unloaded trunks and assisted other carriages. A man traveling alone slipped off his horse and flashed a dark glance, as if to say Marjorie’s smiles made her shallow. From the privacy her bonnet afforded, Marjorie watched him as she and her aunt ascended the stone steps to the entrance. He muttered under his breath, his thick eyebrows pulled low. He moved with graceful restraint, a restless energy around him. She preferred Reginald’s laughter to brooding men. He entered the house and she made a note to avoid him. If only she could find a safe corner and fade into the background.
“Do you remember in La Fontaine’s Fables, the story of the town mouse and the country mouse?” Marjorie asked.
“Why yes, I do. Though I believe it was about rats.”
“Oh, that is horrendous. I will stick to mice.”
Harriet leaned her head in. “Go on, dearest.”
Insecurity bloomed in Marjorie’s chest. She did not belong among the elite. “I fear I am the country mouse. I am completely out of my element.” Perhaps it was time to return to her father and the cottage near the stable.
“Nonsense. I am your guide. Do not go running off to the country if you are frightened.”
Marjorie laughed, touched by how well her aunt knew her. “I suppose no one will realize I am the country mouse. In any case, let us hope no dogs lurk about to ravage our party.”
“Ah, there most certainly are predators. Be on alert, dearest,” Aunt Harriet said as they reached the last step. “That was a climb. Is your breathing troubling you?”
“Not at all.” Though her heart beat fast at the prospect of meeting so many people.
The gentle presence of her aunt beside her reassured Marjorie as they were led into an extravagant entryway. Her damp boots squeaked on the polished floor and voices carried laughter from deep in the house. A vase of white blooming roses permeated a rich tea aroma with a hint of clover. Aunt Harriet kept Marjorie firmly beside her as they entered the gathering of ladies and gentlemen, and an ancient butler took their gloves, bonnets, and pelisses. She and her aunt moved as one through a few introductions, which all overwhelmed and blended together. And Aunt Harriet kept her from crumbling like hot cross buns when Marjorie sucked in a breath.
Reginald—her Reginald—leaned a hand against a doorway. She ought not to stare. His rank and her status separated them. He could reject her and shame her among the privileged. Yet she dared hope he would finally notice her.
His gaze swept her from head to toe, and then captured Marjorie’s gaze with all the force of a lightning storm.
Miles Beauchamp kept an eye on his brother as he checked the arriving carriages. The butler announced new arrivals, his grainy voice echoing through the entryway.
“Her hair is red as a fox,” said the man dressed like a peacock.
“I happen to like foxhunting.” Reginald said to his companions. He touched his chin, his sly smile making his eyes squint.
Miles was not sure he could survive two weeks of a frivolous house party. His pocket watch weighed in his coat like lead. He had too much work to do. But family obligations came first and Reginald needed looking after. Miles was determined to pass off the responsibility of looking after his brother—permanently. Reginald needed a wife. Miss Jane Winters was the woman Miles had in mind.
Reginald winked at the newly arrived woman and the men guffawed. Miles caught a flash of red hair as she turned away. The overgrown children parading as men slapped Reginald on the back, encouraging him. It was time to intercede.
Miles stepped forward, knocking the men apart like nine pins.
“You said your father was not attending. Who is this old man, Reginald?” a nitwit scoffed.
Miles ignored the man as he would a gnat. He planted himself between Reginald and the new skirt he thought to pursue.
“I need to speak with you.” He pushed Reginald back inside the drawing room. Reginald laughed as if this was a joke.
Miles pulled his brother into a deserted corner, his fist clenching. He wanted to shove Reginald against the wall. “Listen here. You are at this gathering for one woman. A woman who by some miracle thinks you are a catch.”
Reginald dropped his chin casually to his shoulder. His hair covered his eyes when he moved this way. Miles glared. His younger brother always avoided confrontation, but this was one time Miles would not let him escape responsibility.
He stepped closer and lowered his voice. “When Miss Winter arrives, you will fasten your wandering eyes to her, and her alone. Otherwise, I will drag you back to that gaming hell you owe money to and leave your carcass to them. Is that clear?”
“I cannot stomach the idea of being pinned down.”
A ruckus near the entryway conveyed a large group of men had just arrived. How many wretched Eastons would the butler announce? Miles pinched the bridge of his nose.
“And yet you proposed to Lady Josephine. Or did you propose to her dowry?”
“It was not for her money.” Reginald swallowed. “Nothing good comes of love. I escaped the noose before it was too late. Marriage? Lud, away with it. It is not the change I need.”
Miles leveled his gaze. Reginald’s eyes were red rimmed and his hair in need of a trim. Miss Winters was precisely the change Reginald needed. A woman with substance and drive. “Not marriage to just anyone. Marriage to Miss Winters.”
She was equal to commanding a regiment in the Royal Army. The Beauchamp and Winters families had been acquainted for over a decade. Miss Winters managed the household for her frail mother and had sought the Earl of Strathford’s help to solve her father’s financial crisis. She thrived in running her family. Miles suspected the family owed their stability to Miss Winters’ logic, confidence, and blunt communication. It was a shame she had so few friends. Reginald brought out a soft side to Miss Winters. Miles grinned to himself. Even softened, she could order Reginald to get in line.
The butler announced more guests, his voice growing hoarse.
At Reginald’s panicked expression, Miles knew the Winters family had arrived at last.
“Come and greet them. Miss Winters will be eager to see you.” He clasped his brother on the shoulder, a surge of protection replacing the irritation. He softened his voice. “This is for your own good.”
Reginald stepped away, breaking the connection, and gave a barely perceptible nod.
Satisfaction coursed through Miles as he led the way to greet the Winters family. He thrived on fixing problems, and his brother topped his list of challenges.
Miss Winters stood aloof, holding her umbrella like a weapon. The men around her gave her a wide berth. The name Winters became her, he mused. She had a resolute jawline, the coloring of Snow White, and the warmth of a blizzard. She was legend in her own time as an Original. Her mother and her younger sisters trailed her each time she shifted.
Her hawk-like eyes caught sight of him amid the crowd. She marched forward to greet him, swinging the umbrella behind her. “Miles.”
He cringed inwardly, but kept his expression pleasant. She was too proud of her family’s connection to the Beauchamps. He bowed. “So good to see you again, Miss Winters.”
She curtseyed. “And you. Where is that brother of yours?” She scanned the room.
So did Miles.
“He is around here somewhere.” Miles tugged on his cuffs. He should have dragged Reginald along with him. “You must be tired from your journey. Would you like to take a seat? The drawing room is but a pace away.”
“I am no wilting flower.” She abruptly turned towards her mother. Miles bowed and exchanged pleasantries. Miss Winters settled her mother and two sisters. “Please rest, Mother. Miles and I will search for Regi.”
Miles pressed his lips together. He admired her drive, even as he wished for his independence. He intended to find Reginald, only not with her in tow. He could guess where his brother was, or rather with whom.
“I will lead the way,” Miss Winters said.
Miles grimaced, recoiling from her forwardness, but rearranged his face to a slight smile. He followed in her wake past the entryway and into another drawing room. He glanced over her head and spotted his brother before Miss Winters.
With a quick glance, he judged it safe and made his way to a recessed window near the fireplace. His brother and the red haired woman occupied the window seat.
Reginald was sweetening up this unsuspecting girl. “I am convinced I never laid eyes on your angelic beauty before. How can you know me?” His voice dipped low. “You must tell me your name.”
Miles’ heart dropped. He recognized the girl, now a woman. He could picture the young version of her skipping through the stables of his home. She sang the stable workers’ drinking songs and made them sound whimsical. It was a wonder his brother did not recognize her, but she had been away from Strathford for at least three years. Her features had changed—the softness gave way to definition, freckles to fair skin. Her ethereal glow and fragile frame, along with doe-like eyes, were the same. Had she outgrown her childhood fascination with his brother, or was she still susceptible?
Miles’ stomach turned in on itself at the thought of his brother trifling with any woman, let alone a girl once under their protection. One who possibly still craved his brother’s attention. He wrestled his way through the upholstered chairs.
“Hello, Marjorie. Pardon me, I mean Miss Fairchild.” Miles bowed as if this was an everyday occurrence. Reginald jumped.
Her mouth parted. “Hello, Lord Beauchamp,” she whispered, all merriment gone.
Miles’ chest pinched, but he ignored the sensation.
“Marjorie?” Reginald pulled his head back. “Marjorie.” His tone held awe.
She fingered her skirt as the brothers scrutinized her.
Chairs scraped and a skirt swished, stirring a draft of cold air. Miss Winters affected a wide smile, but Miles was sure she did not miss a detail of the scene before her: Reginald and Marjorie framed in the picture window, the ambience of the falling rain outside, Reginald’s proximity to Marjorie, and the flush on Marjorie’s face.
“Regi, dear. Please introduce me to this sweet girl. Perhaps she can take my youngest sister with her to the nursery when she returns.”
Miles tilted his head to the ceiling and closed his eyes. Yet another problem his brother caused and he would fix.
“Come with me.” He did not wait to see if Marjorie agreed, he simply took her hand and hauled her to her feet, pulling her hand through his arm. He lacked his brother’s smooth charisma, but he needed to save the stable master’s daughter from a highly dangerous situation.