Marjorie trailed a hand along the wainscoting to slow herself down. Her arm was threaded with Lord Beauchamp’s as he led her into an unremarkable hallway.
“What is the matter?” Her labored breathing was loud and embarrassing.
He turned his head left and right. Two footman carrying trays looked their way.
She planted her feet. “My lord, tell me what this is about.”
“We cannot speak here.” He removed her hand from his elbow.
What could Lord Beauchamp possibly have to say to her in private? Just moments before, she sat in a safe corner. And wonder of wonders, Reginald had found her. The moment was worth savoring, staring into his green eyes focused entirely on her and listening to his low voice. She had quieted the part of her mind that worried he would reject her once he recognized her. Then Lord Beauchamp interrupted, before she could form a new opinion on Reginald. And what had Reginald meant by repeating her name?
Lord Beauchamp searched the rooms along the hallway. What did he intend to discuss privately? She frowned and wrapped her arms around herself. Would he remind her of her station? Her parents’ marriage was long remembered in London circles. Would he make their small party aware of her connections? It was within his power to do so, if he chose. Her heart pounded. She focused on getting her breathing back to normal.
He found a door that opened. “Come.” He gestured she go first.
She took a step back. Lord Beauchamp had always acted as a gentleman, but it seemed a strange request to enter a room alone with him. If this was his father’s study at Strathford, she would obey without question. But Lord Beauchamp was not in charge here.
A servant walked past them, ducking her capped head.
“Please,” he added. “It will take but a moment.”
If he meant to warn her, then she would rather keep it confidential than have an audience.
Marjorie gripped her hands at her waist and entered. Shadows shrouded the musty room. The arched windows showed the rain falling in muddy hues. Marjorie glanced around the dim room, trying to decipher where they were. Friezes on the wall were carved with people kneeling in prayer. A monument like a sarcophagus rested under the windows. This was quite some chapel.
“So,” Lord Beauchamp’s voice cut through the silence.
Marjorie faced him, then glanced over his shoulder. The door was slightly open, which was a small comfort. She waited for him to continue.
“I am surprised to see you. What are you doing at Lady Du’Brevan’s house party?” He tilted his head, seeming to take her measure.
“I am a guest here. The same as you.” Her cheeks burned. She was not the same. She dropped her gaze like a servant. “My aunt’s family is closely acquainted with Lady Du’Brevan.”
“You have been away from home.” It was not a question.
Marjorie swallowed. Home. As much as she loved her aunt, a pang of longing shot through her chest. “How is my father? Is he in good health?”
Lord Beauchamp’s forehead creased and his mouth turned up. “As a rule, I believe that is a question I should ask you.” A smile tugged at his mouth.
“I do not receive letters from him as often as I would like.” She smiled as well. She missed her father and his comfortable cottage on the Beauchamp’s grand estate.
“He is in excellent health.”
She nodded her thanks. Her breathing was still erratic and mortifying, but trying to slow it only muddled her thoughts. “I have been living in London with my aunt and uncle.”
“And attempting to secure an advantageous match.”
She glanced up, her lips parting to argue, but instead of forming words she pulled in air. He assumed she would—what? Marry above herself? Did he believe she sought Reginald out? She need not discuss her prospects for matrimony with him. “I daresay every woman here wishes to marry well. Will you pull each into the chapel to scold?”
His face was inscrutable. “My brother will not marry you.”
She stiffened at his coldness. At the truth of his words. How well she knew Reginald would not marry her, though she might wish for it. She simply wanted to enjoy his attention. The moment with him by the window was dreamlike—woven with magic and possibilities. Now she was awake, facing Lord Beauchamp, hellfire, and damnation. He had ruined everything.
“You believe that is my intention?”
“I know that my brother carries on with a great many ladies. But he intends to marry none of them.”
“Why do you care if he pays attention to me?”
Lord Beauchamp studied her, his thick eyebrows low, his mouth flat. He gave nothing away.
“Do you consider yourself such an expert to counsel me on courting? I have no shocking scheme planned. You interrupted a pleasant conversation between . . .” What? Friends? Acquaintances? A man and a woman? Not knowing how Reginald thought of her further shamed her. “You unceremoniously greeted me by my Christian name. Then you escorted me out, as if I needed discipline.” She was no longer a defenseless child and could stand up for herself. Perhaps she would share some of her own counsel. “You may be an earl one day, but you should not lord over your brother, nor may you lord over me. I am not your servant.” The threat of tears stung her nose as she whispered the words, “And if you speak thus, then you are no gentleman.”
Lord Beauchamp clenched his jaw and turned his chin. He took a step closer. Marjorie stepped back, running into the sarcophagus. Dust swirled in the air and she coughed. She lifted her trembling chin and tried to match his fortitude. She would not look away this time.
“I tell you these things, because as a gentleman, I cannot countenance my brother’s behavior. I should not like to see you injured, especially because of our connection.” His voice hushed. “Your father is a man I respect a great deal. And as for my brother, what I do is my affair. Do not assume you know him simply because you caught glimpses of him from your tree as you grew up.” He raised a knowing eyebrow.
Marjorie curled her hands around her middle. He knows I watched Reginald. Perhaps knows that I have always loved him. Unable to meet his gaze, she fixated on a frieze of a woman kneeling in prayer.
“You must get over your fascination and devotion. He is here to propose to Miss Winters.”
Marjorie’s chest caved in and her breathing began to burn. She placed a hand to her chest. Not now. Not in front of him. She shook her head, not believing. “No. Reginald could not treat me the way he did if he meant to marry another. We shared a connection.” Her gaze flew to Lord Beauchamp, horrified by what she had just revealed. She must leave this suffocating room at once.
The door was open and she moved towards it. Lord Beauchamp was in the way. She searched for an escape. An outer door loomed near the sarcophagus and she stumbled towards the exit. A rushing sound filled her ears.
“Miss Fairchild, you are ill. Please, sit down,” Lord Beauchamp said through the wool in her hearing.
He reached out, but she jerked her arm away. The movement caused her to tip sideways. Her vision pulsed. She fumbled with the door, trying to wrench it open. Larger, healthier hands unlocked the door setting her free, but she was too tired to go, too tired to do anything but sit and breathe. Lord Beauchamp eased her down as she slid against the doorframe.
“Aunt Harriet,” she wheezed, begging for help.
She rested her forehead on the open doorframe and closed her eyes. She hated when this happened. It was like breathing with the weight of a boulder pressing down. Her chest burned, her heart thumped painfully. She tugged at the fabric near her neckline.
Nature calmed her. The rush of the rain spraying in her heated face, the smell of soil and leaves, the cold stone beneath her told her she was alive. Time became meaningless as she focused on the next breath. ‘Tis the last rose of summer. Breath in. Left blooming alone. Breath out. All her lovely companions. In. Are faded and gone. Out.
Footsteps vibrated a moment before someone sat beside her. “Dearest, you are doing very well.” Aunt Harriet soothed. Marjorie nodded. It was not so very bad. “That is it. Listen to the rain. The moisture is good for your lungs.” Her gentle hand rubbed circles on Marjorie’s back. Aunt Harriet began singing for her.
The rain blew, Aunt Harriet soothed, and Marjorie breathed. It had been a long time since she suffered from an acute contraction of the lungs.
With fuzzy thoughts, Marjorie contemplated what she had learned. Lord Beauchamp could not have spoken the truth. Reginald did not intend to propose to this Miss Winters, not if he lavished his attention on Marjorie in a tête-à-tête. She would not step out of the way just to please Lord Beauchamp.
Marjorie curled into Aunt Harriet and let her aunt hold her. She was heartsick. Reginald had sought her out and those were not the actions of a man about to propose to another. She needed to discover Reginald’s intentions and character, despite the risk of heartbreak or humiliation. Otherwise, she would always wonder what might have been.
Miles stood in the hallway outside the chapel to greet the formidable Countess Du’Brevan who was breathing heavily from her swift walk through her home. Her ever present companion kept pace with her. He needed to calm Lady Du’Brevan and let her know he had everything in hand. Two ladies with trouble breathing may be more than even he could handle.
“Miss Fairchild?” she huffed.
“Is recovering. Her aunt, Mrs. Harriet Jones, is with her now.”
Lady Du’Brevan put her hand to her chest. “We must call . . . for the doctor,” she said to her companion.
“I have already done so,” Miles said. “Her aunt said Miss Fairchild has an occasional attack of the lungs and will recover, though she will be exhausted afterwards.”
Lady Du’Brevan turned her full attention on him, her beady eyes narrowing in her plump face. “Lord Beauchamp, you have been in my home . . . under two hours . . . and already you are ordering people about.”
He smiled. “I try to be of service, my lady.”
“Bah!” She cracked a smile. “But do not go on acting as if you are lord of the manor . . . and sending my servants to and fro once things calm.” Her eyes held mischief. “Not without consulting me.”
She turned to the quiet woman beside her. “Miss Greystock, please find someone competent to assist Miss Fairchild to her room.”
“Yes, your ladyship,” Miss Greystock whispered before slipping away.
“Let me manage the rest of this, Lord Beauchamp. Dinner begins in a quarter of an hour.”
Miles opened his mouth to reply, but then glanced at the chapel. He would rather check on Marjorie.
Lady Du’Breven’s lips quirked and she nodded her approval as if she read his mind. “Off you go.”
He nodded and stepped into the chapel again to reassure himself Marjorie was indeed well. He was worried about her.
Mrs. Jones had her arms wrapped around Marjorie, singing softly. The blanket was still tucked around her. He was satisfied he had thought to send a servant for the blanket so Marjorie would not catch a chill. Watching her breathe calmed him. His muscles relaxed and he ran his fingers through his hair.
“How is she?” he asked.
“The acute attack is over. Her breathing is coming easy now. She is just worn out.” Mrs. Jones stroked Marjorie’s red hair. Asleep and disheveled she looked like a barnyard kitten.
“How may I help?”
Footsteps sounded and Lady Du’Brevan led Miss Greystock and a footman into the room. “It is quite a distance to your rooms. My footman Damen can carry Miss Fairchild whenever you are ready.”
Miles folded his arms and widened his stance. Damen was tall and dark, and looked less like a footman and more like a sleek London social climber. Miles could not help but think of a wolf and his prey.
Miles stepped in front of Damen to block Marjorie. “That will not be necessary. I can assist Miss Fairchild to her room,” he said, heat creeping up his neck.
Damen smirked and glanced at Lady Du’Brevan for his instructions. Tension thickened the air like humidity. Reginald chose that moment to walk in.
“What has happened? I heard some gossip but . . . Marjorie.” Reginald’s face blanched. He strode across the room and kneeled beside her. “Are you well?”
Must he wake her? Confound the man.
Marjorie lifted her head at Reginald’s voice. She blinked slowly, her face drawn, her lips still parted to breathe. “You came.”
An itch formed in Miles’ chest, one he could not get to. “I believe it is time to move you to your room. May I assist you?” Miles asked.
Marjorie kept her focus on Reginald.
“I will take you.” Reginald gathered Marjorie and lifted her easily. She wrapped her arms around his neck.
“What a merry party this will be,” the Countess crooned. The glint in her eye and mischievous smile on her mouth hinted more to her meaning. “Mrs. Jones, I will send the doctor to your niece as soon as he arrives. Miss Greystock, please show them the way through the servants’ stairs. I will send for Miss Fairchild’s abigail.” Miss Greystock obeyed at once. “Damen, we will no longer need your services here.” He nodded and left.
Miles and the Countess stood a moment in the chapel.
Lady Du’Brevan cleared her throat. “Lord Beauchamp, it has not escaped my notice that you and Miss Fairchild were alone when this happened.”
Miles hid his alarm at her astute observation. He did not reply.
“Well then, please chase after Miss Fairchild and her dashing rescuer. See that she and her aunt get to their rooms.”
“Of course, your ladyship.” He bowed.
“Keep a close eye on that one,” Lady Du’Breven said cryptically.
Miles paused. Did she mean his brother? Surely, Lady Du’Brevan did not believe he was interested in Marjorie. The idea was preposterous. He pressed his lips together to keep from saying something he might regret. He strode out of the room to catch up with his brother. Reginald needed looking after, but Miles had things in hand and did not need help, even after this setback of Marjorie literally in Reginald’s arms.
Miles trailed behind the group as they followed Miss Greystock down an endless hallway. Miss Greystock scattered something along the carpet. Rose petals. She was leaving a trail like bread crumbs to find the right room. He pressed a hand over his eyes. The romanticism was ridiculous. Numbering the rooms would make more sense.
At Marjorie’s room, Reginald gently set her on her feet. Miles smiled at the sheen of sweat on Reginald’s forehead and knew his brother’s muscles burned after the hike. Marjorie turned her face upwards and looked at Reginald as if he rivaled the sun. Miles shifted his weight, willing Marjorie to shut the door on his brother.
“Meet me tomorrow in the garden,” Reginald whispered, along with a few other words Miles could not hear.
Miles suppressed a groan and clenched his fists. He had tried the direct approach with Reginald. His next intervention would need to be circumspect. As soon as Mrs. Jones shut the door, Miles strode down the hall over the blasted petals towards the dining room. “Deuce take it.”
He was sick of playing nursemaid to Reginald by always following him about and cleaning up his messes. Reginald wooed women, gambled more than his income, and worried their parents by his growing reputation for hard living. Miles would never be free to live his own life until Reginald’s life was straightened out.
Miles took the winding stairs down at a quick pace, the wood banister smooth and smelling of polish. Reginald needed a wife. But Marjorie would not do. Reginald had a strong personality and needed a woman who could balance him out and bring a fortune to the marriage. Reginald could not go about planning secret meetings with Marjorie.
An ostentatious statue was situated over the main double stairway. Miles narrowed his eyes at the figure of a man appearing as if the god of Somerstone Manor, just like his brother.
“Reginald is a scoundrel,” he spit out as if the statue were listening. Miss Winters knew that. She possessed money, willpower, and a terrifying sense of purpose when it came to Reginald. Whatever she saw of worth in his brother, he hoped she did not change her mind.
Miles’ heart rate picked up. He needed to find out when the clandestine meeting in the garden would be. He would make sure Reginald did not show up if he was to save his brother—and his own freedom.