Twelve: Devil’s Snare


In the last chapter of The Stable Master’s Daughter, Lord Miles Beauchamp warned Marjorie Fairchild about Reginald. She suffered an asthma attack in the chapel. Marjorie needs to discover Reginald’s intentions and character, despite the risk of heartbreak or humiliation. Miles plans to make sure Reginald does not meet Marjorie in the garden.


The morning sun streaming through the window could not shed enough light on the two letters Marjorie discovered in her room after breakfast. Both letters were addressed to her and both were signed by Reginald. She traced the contrasts on the sheets of foolscap. One note stated he regretted to inform her I will no longer be at liberty to meet you in the garden. Her heart sank upon reading it. The second said, I can scarce wait until we meet again, and would she wait at the pond in the woodlands just out of doors? I am looking for a wood sprite near eleven o’clock. Her heart beat rapidly with the playful suggestion.

But neither note referenced the other as old or indicated which plan was new. And the differences between the two were utterly perplexing.

“What are you puzzling over, dearest?” Aunt Harriet asked.

Marjorie’s eyes widened and she crushed the letters in an effort to hide them behind her back. “Me? I am only reading.”

Aunt Harriet raised an eyebrow. “My, my, you look guilty.”

Marjorie’s conscience burned hot enough she wanted to toss the letters away to escape unharmed. Receiving a letter from a gentlemen was scandalous. She knew herself incapable of covering her emotions—her feelings were as transparent as a windowpane. Marjorie preferred to savor the hope of meeting Reginald, to store it up untainted. She turned her back to her aunt and tucked the messages into her reticule. The wisest route was to confess all, but she did not want to be wise. Still, her aunt deserved the truth.

“Reginald sent a note.”

“I see.” Disapproval tinged the words.

The censure Aunt Harriet wore like jewels cut into Marjorie. She could not bring herself to say, And a second note. The effort of withholding the truth seared.

“May I see the note?”

Marjorie froze. She wrestled with herself. She could not further condemn herself or Reginald. With jerky movements she passed the first note to her aunt. The formally worded cancellation.

Aunt Harriet read the missive and her posture relaxed by degrees. “It is for the best, Marjorie. I meant what I said last night. I am not comfortable with him seeking you out.” She handed the letter back and sighed. “I am not pleased he is here. Perhaps I should write your father.”

“No,” Marjorie blurted. Her insides folded, first at the thought of disappointing her father, and then again at the possibility of being removed from Reginald. She wanted to spend time with Reginald for the simple thrill of seeng him, but she sealed her lips and delivered the lines her aunt needed to hear. Lines Marjorie had told herself only last evening. “No, that will not be necessary. I will act with caution and observe him with new eyes.”

Aunt Harriet’s lips puckered like she tasted something sour. “You have built him up so very much.”

Please, please do not take me away from him. Not now that he has finally noticed me. She could not plead for herself, besides shaking her head. How could she discover his intentions if her aunt kept them apart? How could she determine his character, unless she was free from her aunt’s foregone conclusions? Marjorie was more determined than ever to meet Reginald, and with any other chaperone besides her aunt.

Aunt Harriet tilted her head. “Lady Du’Brevan could not have known your connection to the Beauchamps. I cannot imagine she would have thrown you together if she did.” She paused, squinting in thought.

“Well, either way, there is good news,” Marjorie said breathlessly. “Now you are no longer needed to chaperone this morning, you can tour the house.”

Her aunt’s face brightened and she checked her timepiece. “It is a quarter to eleven. I could still join the tour. But are you sure you will be alright, dearest?”

“I will follow Dr. Hill’s orders to rest. Young can accompany me outdoors for fresh air when the maids come to air out the room.”

Dear Miss Young, a paid companion, was not young, but a grandmotherly woman. Young did not look up from her mending, but nodded her gray head in agreement.

“Very well.” Aunt Harriet dropped her voice. “Just between us, I was afraid Lady Du’Brevan would have Dr. Hill flogged for suggesting her home had dust.”

Marjorie laughed. “For her sake, as well as yours, I hope the housekeeper oversees this. Lady Du’Brevan is a little frightening.”

“Nonsense. She is all bark and no bite, as they say. Well then, I am off to tour this monstrosity of a mansion.”

After Aunt Harriet left, Marjorie retrieved the crinkled letters and paced. She feared the cancellation note was Reginald’s most recent. She wanted to go to the woodland garden, but she wavered between caution and taking chances, loyalty and her own pursuits. A glance at the mantle clock showed she did not have much time to decide.

Marjorie dropped her hands. There was nothing for it. She needed to be away from the stuffy interior while the maids cleaned anyway, whether Reginald came or not. And she could not bear the thought that Reginald should seek and not find her. Some decisions had to be made with the heart.

Her pulse beat rapidly as she slipped her sketchbook inside her reticule, and made her way outdoors with Young. Sunshine warmed her and bees buzzed in the hedges as she surveyed the enormous grounds.

Movement and shouts echoed from a peak near the open grazing land. A young woman, named Miss Tabitha Easton, she remembered from their introduction yesterday, was being ushered by her brothers towards the house. They were loud and frenzied. Had there been an accident?

“Oh,” Marjorie gasped. “Young?”

“I see her, miss.”

Tabitha’s riding habit was wet, but she looked unharmed. Marjorie hitched up her skirts to run back to the house. “Let me find blankets for Miss Easton and ask someone for help—”

“Now, none of that. Let me go. I’ll be quick,” Young said as she set off for the house.

Marjorie tugged on the ribbons of her bonnet and watched the scene. One of Tabitha’s brothers kept his arm protectively around her. Another man was wet and shivering as well. Tabitha’s brothers surrounded her in a safe haven of protection. Tears stung Marjorie’s eyes with a yearning to be protected and loved like Tabitha. A young maid rushed out with blankets, and the brothers wrapped Tabitha. Even with the mud, Tabitha looked as regal as a queen—with the glow on her face, the sun glittering off her blonde hair, and the water droplets covering her skin—not to mention her entourage.

Marjorie found a new sheet and began drawing.

Young returned at her leisure, a hand clutching her side.

“Thank you, Young.”

With Young needing to recover, Marjorie did not walk far. She entered the woodland garden and wondered if she would see Reginald. Following a rock-strewn path, she could not help but search for him around every corner. Elm trees stood majestic with vines trailing down, cedars lent a crispness to the air, and oaks cast a canopy of leaves overhead. Still he did not appear. She longed for him as she always had—as a hope and a as daydream.

The garden was enchanting. She found the small pool of water Reginald mentioned. Young took a seat on one of the two benches and began knitting as Marjorie explored. In the dabbled sunlight, a blackbird perched on honeysuckle twined around a stonework wall. She hoped Reginald would find her here. She chose the bench on the farther side, nearer an assortment of flowers. There was so much to absorb—pincushions of cowslips, hardy corncockle, a drift of delicate violets, and powder blue forget-me-nots. It was peaceful, like a Garden of Eden. If Reginald would appear, she could stay forever.

Marjorie bent over her sketchbook, adding touches to the cherished water fairy with untamed hair.

Footsteps chaffed the gravel walkway and a shadow fell, accompanied by the alluring scent of sandalwood and leather. Her fingers stilled and her heart raced. A smile broke free and she tipped her head to greet Reginald at last.

“Oh. Lord Beauchamp.” The book fell from her lap, landing with a thwack. She scrambled to retrieve it. Wellington, the Countess’ pug, scurried about and licked Marjorie. She laughed, forgetting the sketchbook for a moment, and rubbed the dog’s wriggling form.

Lord Beauchamp dropped to one knee. “I believe Wellington is happy to have someone at his level.” He reached for the sketchbook just as she did, and their hands tangled together over its cover. He glanced up and their gazes locked and held.

Up close, Lord Beauchamp’s eyes were a clear blue with flecks of gray. His hair was the color of dark chocolate. He and Reginald had a similar defined jaw, but his was more deeply shadowed.

His hand tightened on hers and he seemed to draw her closer. Wellington pressed himself onto her lap and barked. She blinked and welcomed the distraction.

“Allow me help you to your feet.”

Heat burned her cheeks and her pulse throbbed as she regained her footing. “Thank you.” She took a step back and glanced down.

“Here are your letters.”

She grasped them, startled they had fallen, and studied him from beneath her bonnet. Did he know what the letters contained? Her musings were cut short when Lord Beauchamp opened her sketchbook.

Her mouth parted. “Give me my book,” she demanded. She winced at having addressed the heir to an earldom in such a way. “Please, my lord,” she tacked on.

He glanced up, biting back a grin. “My apologies.”

The weight of her book in her hands comforted her.

“I did not mean to interrupt your repose. Please, sit.”

Marjorie wanted to flee, but she also needed to make amends. She was grateful for his assistance during her contraction of the lungs. She could spend a few minutes with Lord Beauchamp to smooth over their disagreement. Besides, he would not stay long, since she knew he disliked her. She could outlast him through a few pleasantries.

She glanced at Young, whose chin rested on her chest, asleep. “Is this entirely proper?”

“We could wake her.” He glanced around. “The name of Wellington is known far and wide. He would make an excellent chaperone.”

Marjorie smiled at the pug in constant motion.

Lord Beauchamp shifted his weight. She had seen him in many different lights—gracious, pleased, even angry, but never . . . what? Uncomfortable, ill at ease? She was intrigued by the change in his countenance.

She seated herself. If she began drawing then maybe she would not need to help the conversation along. Lord Beauchamp sat at the end of the bench. Angling herself, she began drawing his likeness. He would likely think she was ignoring him. He need not know she was studying this new side to him.

***

Miles tried to clear his head of this inconvenient feeling of inadequacy. Most people enjoyed his company. He frowned. He at least thought they did. “Are you quite recovered from yesterday?”

Marjorie glanced through her lashes before scraping her pencil across the page. “Yes, quite. I need to thank you for assisting me and sending for my aunt and Doctor Hill. It was much appreciated.”

“I was happy to help.”

After yesterday’s scare he needed to assure himself, because of his connection with Marjorie’s father, that she was restored to good health. She said she was recovered, but he intended to watch her a moment or two and come to his own conclusion. Her coloring looked restored—a coral pink flush to her cheeks and lips. No lines or shadows hinted at the struggle she had endured to draw breath.

Miles also wanted to find Marjorie because he felt a strange sense of remorse for his maneuverings in keeping Reginald away this morning. Miles had slipped an idea to Lady Du’Brevan, which the shrewd woman had acted upon. Reginald was likely at this moment in the Countess’ company while she regaled him with her family history.

Marjorie stayed silent. He frowned at her lack of response to him, dissatisfaction gnawing like an empty stomach.

“What are you drawing?” he asked.

Her gaze flew to his, her eyes wide. He scooted closer, but she crushed the book to her middle.

“It is nothing.”

If it was nothing, she would show it. Miles feigned indifference and leaned back, but he was curious to see what she worked on. He could wait until she relaxed before sneaking a glance.

“Did the physician offer any insights?” he pressed.

“He shared a few interesting ideas.” She kept her eyes downcast.

Wellington began chewing on some plants. “Come away, Wellington. That foxglove is poisonous.” He threw the dog a stick. Wellington ignored it and began digging.

“Such as?” He waited.

“Such as drinking strong coffee when breathing becomes labored.” She wrinkled her nose.

“How American.”

“That is precisely what I thought.” She smiled. “He said to keep clear of dust, which may trigger my lungs. And he prescribed a small amount of devil’s snare in my tea.” She shuddered.

He leaned forward. “Devil’s snare? The man must be daft.” As if taking poison was acceptable.

“Hmm. If the dosage is miniscule, devil’s snare is known to relieve an attack of the lungs. He cited research from India.” She spoke in an absent manner.

He frowned. “I should like to see the study.” He watched her delicate hand moving the pencil.

She glanced up, confused. “Why?”

 Why indeed? He cared because her father was his employee.

The breeze teased her hair and he had an irrational desire to feel the texture of it. He glanced away, unnerved by the attraction he felt towards her. She was a pretty woman, and it could not hurt to enjoy her beauty for a moment. Besides, it was relaxing here. “What do you want to do while you are at Somerstone Manor?”

Marjorie began sketching again, her face brightening. “Everything. I want to make new friends. I want to see every portrait and hear the stories of the people who lived here. I want to visit the stables and ride, walk to Wentworth Castle, and search for secret passageways. I want to dance under the stars. I want to feel the spray from the miraculous fountains and learn how they pump water.” She glanced up and the passion in her eyes made Miles catch his breath.

It was not the standard answer he had expected and his attention was arrested. He marveled at the woman before him. She possessed an unusual combination of intelligence and vibrancy, and he found her fascinating. He had always enjoyed her open enthusiasm, since she was a young woman who walked about barefoot.

He clasped his hands and shifted to the end of the seat, surprised at himself. A Faustus devil must surely be trying to sit on his shoulder. He shook his head to clear his muddled thoughts. Her father was his stable master. Miles’ honor demanded he look after Marjorie’s welfare—as a protector in her father’s place only. Marjorie was without a doubt the wrong woman for him. He could almost sense the disapproval of ancestors settle like a cold apparition. It was time for him to return to the house.

He said, “I should go,” just as she simultaneously said, “And you?”

Miles rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You first, please.”

“I only wondered what you should like to do while at Somerstone,” she said, looking up at him with genuine interest.

He stood, smiling at how grounded and dry his answer sounded compared with hers. “I am meeting with the steward to see how the estate is managed and compare practices.”

She did not reply, her lips pursed in thought. She refocused on her drawing.

Miles shifted behind the bench to see the page. From his viewpoint, he recognized the shape of a man’s jawline. Reginald. A burning sensation started in his chest, like acid eating away his flesh, worse than any devil’s snare. She was not safe where his brother was concerned.

She snatched her book away and turned, glaring at him. Crimson stained her face, but she held his gaze. “You said you would not look.”

“I made no such promise.”

Marjorie stood, gathered her things, and strode to the house. He kept pace with her. Wellington chased after them, barking. Marjorie’s companion woke up.

“Your infatuation with Reginald is not healthy, Miss Fairchild,” he warned.

Her steps faltered and she stopped to face him. “You astonish me.” She shook her head.

“You make excuses for him,” he said. “Are you willing to settle for someone who is not your equal?”

“My equal?” Miss Fairchild blanched as if he struck her.

Miles pressed his lips together and inwardly groaned. “I am not trying to offend. I refer to your character. You are better than he is.”

Marjorie’s mouth parted and she stared at him in bewilderment.

He meant it as a complement and wanted her to accept it—outside of the bounds society placed on accomplishments, wealth, or connections. Outside of her relationship with his scoundrel brother or himself. If she could see how very not like a gentleman his brother was, then perhaps she would be safe. Yesterday she had accused Miles of not behaving as a gentleman, which stung. He needed to prove himself and stay in her good graces in order to keep her safe.

He grew uncomfortable with her silence. “May Wellington and I escort you back to the house?” he asked.

Marjorie glanced down and put a hand to her neck. “I—I can find my way, but thank you, my lord.” She did not meet his gaze, but set off at a smart clip. Her sash was coming undone and he tracked its path past the slender curves at her waist.

He gathered Wellington in his arms and followed, an idea circling his mind. Besides her father, had any man treated her as well as she deserved? If Marjorie knew the difference between a true gentleman and a counterfeit, Reginald would be knocked off his undeserved pedestal. Miles narrowed his eyes, studying her retreating form. They only had two weeks at this house party, but he resolved to show Marjorie how a real gentleman treated a lady.

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Sara Cardon

Sara craves happily-ever-afters. She has four kids, a dog, and a true-blue husband. He laughs at her hero-crush on George Washington. She and her family are putting down roots near Dallas where there's plenty of wide-open sky, cattle, and sunshine. You can find her at saracardonwrites.com and fb.me/authorsaracardon.

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