—In our last chapters of Tabitha’s Folly, Tabitha set up a clandestine meeting with a rakish peer, tried to avoid it, only to instead have a musical rendezvous with the handsome footman. Interrupted by Henry and Edward, she is hurt by Henry’s statement, “If a young lady changes from being passably interesting to intriguing, I may need to take a moment elsewhere if you know what I mean.”—
After being caught alone with a footman in the piano room, Tabitha had expected little good could come of dinner, especially as she was so determined to express her disapproval of Henry.
And as expected, dinner had been a nightmare. Surrounded by her brothers, she refused to sit anywhere near Henry. She had avoided even looking at Mr. Beauchamp. Her cheeks burned again, thinking of him. At one point, everyone on all sides of her was engaged in conversation with someone else.
Worse, across the table, Henry bent his head low to talk to a beautiful lady at his left. What a ridiculous mess. She and Edward needed to have a conversation. If she was to suffer in utter seclusion at this party, why was she here at all?
She couldn’t recover from Henry’s callous remarks. “If a lady changes from being passably interesting to intriguing.” Intriguing. Had that woman at dinner become intriguing to him?
Tabitha would go crazy with nerves if she kept worrying that every woman he talked to had become intriguing. She began to hate the word.
She stomped on her way to the stables, Joanna rushing to keep up. Edward had insisted she bring the poor maid with her wherever she went. Swinging her foot to kick at a stick, the tip of her boot connected with the mud beneath and splattered a good bit of it on her skirts and out to her front.
Her thoughts turned to the mysterious footman. She had not seen him since their duet at the piano. Part of her wanted to uncover who he was, how a member of his class managed to be so accomplished, but the other part of her wanted those enticing secrets to remain hidden. Vastly more entertaining than worrying about Henry, she enjoyed the distraction.
At last, she reached the stables. “Could I please ride your fastest mare?”
The stable hand raised his eyebrows but said only, “Yes, miss.”
Tabitha began to relax as the familiar smells of the barn filled her nose. Friendly nickering from a horse in the stall to her right, and a few stomps of hooves calmed her more than any placating tones from Tauney would have. She should have asked Oscar to accompany her, because what she wanted more than anything right now was a good race. She planned to let the horse have her head and see how fast and how far they could go.
As if conjured out of the air, Oscar caught up to her, running. “Where are you going?”
“For a ride. Want to race?”
He grinned. “Now that is a challenge I rarely resist, but Edward is concerned. Didn’t know where you’d gone.”
“Really, Oscar. I am not a child. At home, I don’t inform him when I choose to go for a ride, or a walk down the street. I don’t even tell him when I go down to breakfast.”
His face showed sympathy, his mouth lifted in a soft smile. “I know this can’t be easy for you, but Edward is overwhelmed with the task of keeping you safe. It is making him crazy.”
“Tell him we need to converse about this. I will not have another dinner like yesterday’s.”
“Was it that bad?”
The stable hand brought her a beautiful chestnut, with white socks on three of her legs.
She turned from Oscar. “She’s beautiful,” Tabitha cooed as she approached slowly, running her hands down the mare’s face. “Let’s go girl. Let’s ride as fast and as far as we can.”
“Wait, what? You’re just leaving? Alone?”
She looked back over her shoulder, feeling deliciously free, and raised a challenging eyebrow. “Unless you want to come with me?”
“They are waiting for me at cards…”
“Well, then, you best not keep them waiting.” She stepped on the block and jumped up to ride side saddle. “I’ll see you in several hours.”
She rode the horse out of the barn and into the paddock at a walk. A footman opened the gate to let her out onto the estate grounds behind the home. As soon as she cleared the area, she dug her heel into the horse’s flank, shouted, and they raced forward.
She tore through grassy fields, heading across the high ground. She knew better than to attempt anything down by the river, and she worked hard to avoid the mud.
“Hai-yah!” She urged her mare onward as the wind whipped through her clothing in a delicious chill.
A figure stepped forward among the trees to her left, and she almost started. The horse skipped a step, faltering in her gait. Her footman tipped his head to her and then stepped back into the trees. Her eyes followed him until the horse had raced too far past. What was he doing out here in the woods, watching her? A nervous feather tickled in her chest.
Horse hooves pounded behind her. She whipped her head around the other direction.
Henry tore up the hill behind her, his face alight with a boyish grin. When she turned to watch him, he gave a great holler and slapped the reins.
She leaned forward, lowering herself in the saddle and urged her horse. “Faster, faster girl.”
The mare responded to her excitement, stretching her legs longer, beating against the ground faster. Out across a field, they tore, Henry slowly gaining, not quite at her side. Tabitha allowed herself the luxury of pretending that he pursued her in the way she wanted him to, that they would stop, step off their horses and he would swing her into a spinning embrace.
She pulled back instinctively, the alarm in Henry’s voice startling her. Eyes refocused on her surroundings and details cleared. She approached a fence too rapidly on wet and slippery ground, and on the other side, down a bank, the river rushed past with white-capped water.
Jerking her mare to the right, and pulling back hard, she winced, preparing for the worst.
Henry pulled up beside her, reaching for her reins. But as he did so, the mare jerked away and bucked, hooves skidding in the mud, unseating Tabitha.
She screamed as she flew over the top of her horse, over the fence, flipping in the air and landing on a slippery, muddy bank. As she started to slide, feet-first, down the steep decline to the racing river, she called out, looking back over her shoulder. The last thing she saw before her feet hit the water was Henry, leaping over the fence, his face full of terror.
She slid into the river on her backside and went in up to her neck, jarred to a stop on the moss-covered rocks, her feet ramming up against a large one with its tip above the surface. She tried to stand quickly, the icy water sending shoots of pain through her body, but her slippers slid around on the moss, finding precarious footing in between the larger rocks.
And then Henry’s sliding form barreled towards her, though he tried to veer to the side. His body slammed into hers, sending them both to the middle of the swift, icy river.
She clung to him, gasping and sputtering. “Oh no!” Though the water was not deep, the current was strong. Before she could firmly plant her feet, they swirled around and rammed into a rock.
Her teeth chattered but she breathed out in relief that she and Henry were now stuck in a slower part of the river, up against a huge stone, close to shore. When she turned to smile at him, Henry’s closed eyes scared her more than anything ever had. “Henry!! Henry!”
His heavy frame began to droop and sink in the water and a line of blood trickled down the side of his face.
“No! No! Help! Someone help us!”
But she felt her shouts disappear in the echo of the roaring water all around her. She ached from the cold, but pressed herself up against Henry to keep him above the surface, pushed against the rock.
Panicked, she tried to wake him. “Henry!” A bruise and a large bump started to grow on his forehead. “Henry! Answer me.” Desperate, she shook him.
He moaned. “Gentle now. I’m all right. Don’t jostle me so.”
“Oh, thank the stars. I don’t know what I would have done.” She stopped. “I mean. I’m relieved you are well.”
He searched her eyes with a particular intensity, and he gave her a soft smile before he raised a hand to his head, moaning.
“What? What is it?”
He held up a hand. “Just the ache of all aches, pounding in my head.”
She lifted his arm. “Can you stand? I don’t know how much longer I can stay in this water.” Her body shook and her teeth chattered.
“I think so. He tried to lean on her to pull himself up, but she nearly toppled under his weight, their feet sliding around on the rocks beneath them. He searched and grabbed at a low-lying branch instead. Grunting, he pulled himself to a stand but then swayed.
“Oh. Careful now.” They slopped to the muddy river bank and stood, shivering for a moment before moving forward. While Henry swayed at her side, trying to gain his balance, her heart sank at the thought of climbing the mud slide to their front. Wet, slick, the lines where they slid obvious in the rich, black earth. Their horses stood on the other side of the fence, chewing grass. She shivered.
He gently pressed his fingers into her shoulder as his arm draped across her back. “We have to get you warm.”
He reached for her hand. “Let’s walk along the water while we can. Perhaps it opens up to an easier incline further down.”
Tabitha didn’t think that was the best idea. But the warm thrill of his hand encompassing her own made her oblivious to all coherence and response besides a silly, “uh-huh.”
They began to walk, slipping through the mud, trying to avoid the water but were stopped by a voice shouting. “Tabitha!”
“I’m here!” Teeth chattering, she longed to be warm.
Oscar had returned and stood on the fence, peering down at them. “Oh, she’s here! It’s fine, Henry’s with her!”
Edward ran up, out of breath. “Praise be!” His face, unnaturally white, pinched in a mass of worry lines.
Oscar gripped his shoulder. “Get it together, man.”
Tabitha swallowed her own lump and said, “I fell down, you see…”
“Henry, get her up here! She needs to get warm!” Edward’s voice sounded gruff, full of worry.
“Can’t you see he’s wet as well?” Oscar unraveled the rope he carried. “Here, have a hold of this.”
The group walked across the lawn, Edward with his arm firmly across Tabitha’s shoulder, rubbing her shoulders and arms, trying to get her a bit of warmth. She could barely move, her legs numb. And her head started to pound. But she couldn’t look away from Henry. He stared as though trying to puzzle through something. Every time he looked away, his gaze returned to her, moments later.
As they neared the house, a maid came rushing out with warm blankets and ushered Tabitha inside.
Tabitha turned for one last look at him before the door shut. He stood, wrapped in a blanket, long hair dripping into his face. His eyes had not left her, and they held a wondrous new intensity as they captured her own.