In the last chapter of The Stable Master’s Daughter, Marjorie Fairchild hoped to meet Reginald and was disappointed when Lord Miles Beauchamp showed up instead. Miles wondered if she could tell the difference between a true gentleman and a counterfeit. He’s determined to show her how a real gentleman treats a lady.
Marjorie tried not to glance at Lord Beauchamp during dinner, but she could not help herself. He had astonished her by showing up in the woodland garden when she had expected his brother. But what puzzled her the most was what he said about her. “You are better than he is.” She could not believe such a statement. Her entire life people leveled her because of her parentage. She was always on the bottom, whereas Reginald could move within any social circle.
As she entered the grand drawing room for the musicale, she looked over her shoulder for Reginald. He was just behind her and her eyes widened. He put a finger to his lips, motioning outside the door. Feeling off-balance, she followed him to the hall.
“Pardon me for being unconventional, but Lady Du’Brevan calls for me at the most inopportune moments.” A grin split his face and an answering smile bloomed on her own, as if they were children stealing a sweet from the kitchen. “What do you think of this fascinating portrait?” He gestured with mock interest.
“Um.” Marjorie glanced around in confusion. Then the masterpiece came into focus and everything else faded away. She stepped closer. “Oh, it is wonderful,” she exclaimed. The portrait captured a feeling of classic Renaissance art. It moved her like poetry. She slid a finger along the frame and saw the signature. “This is a work by Sir Joshua Reynolds.” Her jaw dropped. Excitement bubbled over and she reached out to Reginald. “See how this tells a story, rather than having finely dressed people sit for a portrait?”
“Ah, yes.” Reginald gave a cursory glance at the painting and blew out a breath.
Her eyes trailed along the subjects, snagging on a fascinating detail. Two snakes in the baby’s grip. She bounced on her toes. “It is Hercules. See the gift Hera sent him?”
Reginald was facing away, glancing down the hall. “What?” he asked. “Ah, yes. Charming family portrait.”
“Say, have you heard the story of when I bested Lord Ian in cards?” He launched into the account without waiting for her reply.
Her cheeks flushed and she glanced down. She had bored him. Would he realize she was interested in him? With difficulty she tipped her chin up to focus on him.
“And he has never forgiven me for winning his stallion,” he concluded. “But I don’t always win, and not everything is a game to me.” Reginald stepped closer than he should. She ought to step back. Twisting her hands, she stayed put.
“I am terribly sorry for missing our walk in the garden. Lady Du’Brevan began talking about her family history and I could not get away.” His hair fell into his green eyes.
She smiled softly, forgiving him immediately. “But I received your letter, so I was not expecting you,” she whispered. Curiosity about the notes filled her mind, but too many people could overhear if she posed such a question.
Reginald regarded her quizzically. “Just so.” He motioned to the music room. “Will you be singing tonight?”
Marjorie bit her lip and shook her head.
He raised an eyebrow, then glanced beyond her and sighed. “It appears I am to be called away yet again. What a shame.”
Miss Greystock, the Countess’ companion, rushed forward. Marjorie shifted her feet on the carpet and gave up the comfort of sinking into her conversation with Reginald.
“I have your seat picked out for you, Miss Fairchild. Come this way,” Miss Greystock said.
Lady Du’Brevan touched her fine jewels as they passed. “I look forward to seeing how this evening’s entertainment progresses.” Something seemed to pass between the Countess and Miss Greystock.
Aunt Harriet met Marjorie and clasped her hands. “Lady Du’Brevan is up to something.” They caught up with Miss Greystock. She lead them past the fireplace with a hint of cedar and past rows of chairs where guests mingled. Marjorie’s feet stopped moving when she discovered where Miss Greystock was ushering them. Lord Beauchamp sat in the back row looking bored, his arms folded, and an ankle dropped over one knee. Beside him were two empty Queen Anne style chairs.
“These seats are best for viewing the performances and not too close to some of our more enthusiastic performers,” Miss Greystock said. “Mrs. Jones, may I have a private word with you? It will take but a moment.”
Aunt Harriet sucked in her cheeks, lifted her eyebrows, then followed Miss Greystock.
Lord Beauchamp stood. “Good evening, Miss Fairchild.”
Marjorie’s pulse throbbed. All her insecurities about her social position resurfaced. Lord Beauchamp appeared as polished and aloof as always. She reluctantly inclined her head and situated herself a little stiffly.
“Since we last met, what have you found to entertain yourself?” he asked.
She smoothed her skirts, uncomfortable with his attention. Did he really care to know, or was he making polite conversation? “Aunt Harriet and I looked at the art in the Pillared Hall.” They had also snuck into the billiards room, but she did not share that. She thought of the painting of Hercules. “I just made an amazing discovery—” She stopped and frowned. She was about to rhapsodize over the painting, but did not want to bore him.
Lord Beauchamp leaned towards her. “Please finish your thought. An amazing discovery? Did you find a secret passageway already?”
“No, it is only a portrait by an artist I admire.” She tried to gauge his interest, but he had the same half-smile, half-pensive look he often wore, and she had yet to figure out what it meant.
She began tentatively, but continued when he nodded and asked engaging questions.
“Now that I know something of the ‘Grand Style,’ I will never settle for a simple anecdotal portrait again,” he mused.
Marjorie flushed with gratitude and crossed her ankles. “And what have you accomplished today?”
“Not enough.” He glanced at his brother. “Are you performing tonight?”
“No. I dislike performing for others,” Marjorie confided.
“Are you afraid to perform?” he asked.
She shifted on her seat. “I do not like being embarrassed.”
He smiled softly.
“Do you find that amusing, my lord?”
“No.” His words of denial did not match his expression.
She nodded as if he made perfect sense, though he did not. “Have you no fears?” she challenged.
“I suppose I do.”
Now she was curious. She leaned closer. “What would those fears be?”
He rubbed his jaw, his enigmatic eyes twinkling. Then he shook his head. “I don’t feel like divulging them at the moment.”
Marjorie smiled despite herself. “At the moment?” How surprising. Lord Beauchamp was funny.
Miles glanced beside him at Marjorie sitting with her hands primly in her lap. She smelled like flowers, with a lemon overture. As soon as her aunt had returned to sit beside her, Marjorie retreated back to her timidity. She no longer looked at him or shared her thoughts. Then accompaniment began and a swathe of music separated them. She sat perfectly still and ramrod straight. She must not wish to sit beside him. Did his presence bother her? Dissatisfaction worked its way under his skin.
The young lady on the pianoforte ended with a flourish. He joined in the polite applause. The young woman smiled, revealing unsightly teeth, and Miles winced in sympathy. No wonder she always carried a fan.
Next Miss Jessica Standish sang, making most in attendance grimace. Lord Ian gallantly joined her in singing. His deep baritone could have been a eulogy for the demise of the song. Miles bit the inside of his lip, considering Lord Ian’s intention, no doubt, to rescue Miss Standish.
Miss Winters took a seat at the piano and Miles sighed in relief. Her fingers marched across the keys. Reginald turned pages for her at the piano and watched Miss Winters with rapt attention. Finally, something had gone right. Miss Winters curtseyed twice when she finished.
Mrs. Jones leaned close to Marjorie and whispered, “Miss Winters is such a lovely girl, but she should not display herself with such pride.”
Marjorie put a finger to her lips and glanced about. When their gazes connected, she blushed.
“It is nice to know she has a flaw,” Marjorie spoke to her aunt, but looked briefly at him.
He lifted his eyebrows at the lighthearted barb.
Miss Winters had finished but not yet left off commanding attention.
“I want to add something special to the program this evening,” Miss Winters announced. “A certain young lady is too modest to perform without encouragement.”
“I am surprised Lady Du’Brevan allows her to play hostess,” Mrs. Jones whispered.
Miles frowned, knowing Miss Winters did not have permission. Her lack of good manners grated.
“It is with great enthusiasm that I present Miss Fairchild to sing for us.”
Miss Winters began clapping, and others joined in, all except Marjorie, her aunt, and Miles.
Marjorie looked frozen with shock. Miles’ heart turned over at the sight of her pale complexion and wide eyes.
“What did she say?” Marjorie gripped her aunt’s arm.
“Dearest, Miss Winters announced you.”
Marjorie shook her head in denial.
Miss Winters affected innocence. Miles narrowed his gaze and pressed his lips tight. Of all the scheming, disgraceful, cold-hearted moves. He needed to quit overestimating people’s humanity.
“Come, Miss Fairchild. Do not be shy,” Miss Winters said again as if Marjorie were a child in leading strings.
Reginald barked a short laugh.
Miles tugged his sleeves. He despised not being in control of a situation. What turned his stomach was the look of triumph on Miss Winters’ face.
“You need not perform,” he told Marjorie.
But Marjorie surprised him. Despite her shaky hands, she rose gracefully to her feet and walked to the front. She clasped her hands at her waist, though her frame still vibrated with nerves. His heartbeat pounded as if he had sprinted.
Miss Winters’ look was cold and calculating. Without a doubt, she wanted to embarrass Marjorie. Marjorie’s gaze skittered from one face to the next, until she glanced at him. He willed her to be strong. And finally, she did not look away from him. Before he had a plan, he strode to the front of the room.
What was he doing? He could fix a variety of problems, but he was out of his element. His presence could make this worse unless he handled things well.
He stopped in front of Marjorie, hiding her from scrutiny for one moment. She spoke first.
“I cannot sing,” she confided in a rush, probably because he was the only one available.
“I happen to know you can. ‘A Wild Rover’ comes to mind,” he said in jest, thinking of the Irish drinking song.
She glanced up and the light in her eyes felt like a small triumph. “I had forgotten that,” she said wistfully.
“I have not. It was stuck in my head for days.”
Miss Winters took a seat at the piano.
Marjorie’s smile slipped away and she wrung her hands. “I cannot think of a single song or lyric. It is as if I never sang before in my life.”
He remembered a song she knew. “I will have Miss Winters play ‘The Last Rose of Summer.’”
Marjorie tilted her head, astonished. “That is perfect. But how did you know?”
He leaned down. “You hum it constantly.” And sang it in the chapel when she could not breathe. He strode to Miss Winters to turn pages, and persuaded her to play the well-known Irish melody.
Miles’ throat constricted as the accompaniment began. Marjorie had not warmed up her voice or prepared for this performance. Well, if nothing else, she could not best Miss Standish for the worst performance of the evening.
The notes on the pianoforte came alive with Miss Winters’ touch. He breathed a sigh of relief when Marjorie began and remembered the words.
On the second stanza, Marjorie’s confidence grew. He stared at the sheet of music and then at the delicate woman singing. Her voice amplified the song and transported him through memories. A simple tune about the last rose before summer’s end. How could the same song by turns haunt, cut sharp, and then be so tender it caused a physical ache?
Miles’ life was full of responsibilities and business, but a void opened when he heard the words in the song: alone, thou lone one, who would inhabit this bleak world alone? Like a dissonant chord needing completion, he discovered with a start that a part of him was lonely.
After the final notes drew to a close, Marjorie curtseyed low. The applause was swift.
He stood, watching Marjorie, pride warming his chest. He had tried to assist her, but Marjorie had carried herself with dignity and poise. She sang like an angel. Beside him, Miss Winters gathered her music with a scowl. When she stood, she rearranged her face into a look of pleasure. “Well done, Miss Fairchild. That was a good effort.”
Miles walked with Marjorie back to their seats. She sank into it as the next performance began.
After speaking with her aunt, Marjorie leaned towards him. “Thank you for your assistance,” she said. Her face was becomingly pink.
His mouth went dry. He tugged his cravat, his internal temperature rising, leaving him restless. He curbed his unwelcome response to her and said evenly, “It was my pleasure. You have a lovely voice.”
Marjorie beamed. Her hands were still shaking and he had a desire to hold them in his own. He folded his arms and discarded the wayward thought.
“I am glad to conquer my fear, though it was more the challenge of someone throwing down the gauntlet.” She narrowed her eyes. “There is something inside me that rises when someone believes me incapable. I suppose it is pride.”
He smiled. “I call it bravery. You should sing more often. Though not under duress.”
Marjorie laughed, radiant. As much as she had resisted sitting next to him at the beginning of the musicale, she now relaxed beside him.
Reginald stole a roguish glace at Marjorie and she sighed. Miles clenched his hands into fists. Everything he did to keep them apart was not enough. Based on how Reginald kept gazing at her, Miles speculated his brother would find a way to spend time with Marjorie again soon.
But what worried Miles most were the glances from across the room as men seemed to notice Marjorie for the first time. He ground his teeth together. The way the men looked at her reminded him of how one might appraise a horse. Heat shot through his gut, triggering a fierce compulsion to keep Marjorie safe.