In the last chapter of The Stable Master’s Daughter, Marjorie Fairchild was called on to sing without warning. Lord Miles Beauchamp jumped in to help, but without a plan. The outcome pleased Marjorie. Miles felt conflicted over the increased male attention shown to Marjorie.
Marjorie paused beside the window, delighted with her discovery. Baby birds balanced on the edge of their nest. One starling fluttered into the air and took flight. With a light heart, Marjorie watched each take off. Today was full of promise.
When she joined the others in the breakfast room, her face was tired from smiling. Heads turned her direction, many with a friendly good morning in passing, but many stopped to—what? Measure? Evaluate?
“Ah, the ethereal Miss Fairchild, come to see us mere mortals,” a quiet gentleman said by way of greeting. She frowned in confusion, trying to recall his name. Williams, Wilson, Wellman? He styled his hair forward in the Brutus fashion and seemed to have an edge about him, a mercurial mood.
“Good morning.” She wondered what he decided her worth was, based on last evening’s impromptu performance, thanks to Miss Winters. She brushed it off. It did not matter. More than ever, she felt as if she belonged here. As she passed, Miss Winters sniffed and looked down her nose at her.
After filling a plate with strawberries, ham, and a steaming roll, Marjorie searched the table for an open seat. Her pulse jumped when she noticed Lord Beauchamp watching her. His brow creased as if puzzling something out.
Miss Anne Townshend motioned to Marjorie and nodded to the empty chair beside her. Marjorie refocused her thoughts. Just because Lord Beauchamp stepped in to help her did not mean he would welcome her company.
“Your performance last evening was remarkable,” Marjorie said.
Anne had a cheery countenance. “As was yours.” She leaned in as if they were old friends. “Does Miss Winters have something against you?”
Marjorie grimaced. “Perhaps.” She looked in Reginald’s direction.
Anne noticed. “I see,” she said with an airy laugh.
Marjorie sat up. “What do you see?” She did not see and hoped her new friend would explain.
“Miss Winters is jealous,” Anne whispered with authority.
Marjorie frowned. “But why?”
“You cannot be serious. Surely you know.” When Marjorie stayed silent, Anne continued. “Mr. Beauchamp admires you.”
Marjorie clutched her hands together. Her heart soared with the fledging hope.
“Both brothers, in fact,” Anne declared.
Her hands broke apart and her mood plummeted. “You are mistaken,” Marjorie said. She shook her head, disappointed she had allowed herself to listen to someone who did not know the situation.
Anne bit down her smile. “We shall see.”
An interesting conversation distracted Marjorie from weighing Anne’s words. She listened intently, struggling to put names to faces.
“Yes, games on the lawn would be so diverting,” Miss Tabitha Easton—the water fairy— agreed.
“A game? What kind of game?” her brother Mr. Oscar Easton seemed to wake up. He rolled his muscular shoulders.
Reginald added his opinion. “Battledore is easy enough. How about a picnic?”
Miss Greystock looked pensive. “A picnic can be arranged, if you like.” The deep timbre of her voice reminded Marjorie of the country doctor’s grave tone.
The usual sparkle was absent from Sir James’ eyes when he frowned and said, “I believe we should postpone for another day. Think of all the work involved.”
Reginald laughed, and Marjorie smiled at the pure joy in the sound. “Nonsense. There is nothing to it. And I have a desire for a distraction.” He met Marjorie’s gaze across the table. “I should like to see a particular rose in the garden. Roses should not be left to bloom unappreciated.”
Marjorie’s face heated at his reference to her song, “The Last Rose of Summer.” She set her water down, and it took all her willpower to swallow. Reginald sent her a wicked smile.
“Hmm.” Miss Anne nodded to herself.
The men present turned the tide in favor of a day outdoors. Miss Greystock left in a flurry, her skirt swirling like a paper boat caught in a whirlpool.
Marjorie left the room, her cheeks warm in anticipation of the day outdoors. And Reginald’s words.
By noon, everyone gathered on the lawn and then spread in different directions. Servants moved about attending to everyone and serving the picnic lunch. Reginald attempted to meet with Marjorie twice, but both times Aunt Harriet had deflected, once by turning Marjorie about, and the second time by engaging them both in a conversation with Lady Du’Brevan. He had shared an amused grin with Marjorie, but retreated.
Now Reginald sat beside Miss Easton on a picnic blanket in the shade. The two bent their heads close, Miss Easton said something, and Reginald threw back his head and laughed. Watching them, Marjorie felt as if someone had snuck up behind her and pushed her out of a tree.
She tried not to watch as she walked the grounds, wretched and alone. She searched for a friend, but only caught sight of Lord Beauchamp. Their gazes connected, causing an odd fluttering in her stomach, but he continued listening to a silver haired gentleman.
She switched directions by an oak tree and found someone in her path. She caught her breath. Before her stood the footman with Grecian features who had assisted her from her carriage on her arrival.
“Now then, would you care for a drink?” He offered her a glass of lemonade.
“Thank you.” She accepted the cool glass covered in condensation. The citrus was refreshing.
He stepped forward and spoke low. “I cannot help but notice you seem sad.”
Marjorie’s gaze flew to his, only a short distance from her own. “It is nothing.”
“I am a good listener. And I do not share any of the latest on dit.”
She turned her chin, evaluating him anew. This footman had elegant manners and speech. When had he learned these social graces? Perhaps they shared similarities in their situations, though her situation was far improved compared to his, if he was in service.
She took a fortifying breath. “I know this is untoward, but I am Miss Marjorie Fairchild.”
He bowed as fine as any gentleman of her acquaintance. “Miss Fairchild, you may call me Damen. By the by, you are the first and only guest to whom I have divulged this information.”
Under the intensity of his gaze, she was tempted to press the cool glass against her heated cheeks. Her curiosity was too much and she asked, “Forgive me for saying so, but you seem to be of a higher social rank. Why do you work here?” She bit her lip at the impudent question.
Damen did not seem shocked. He nodded his head gravely. “I suppose I share an affinity for Lady Du’Brevan.”
She squinted, confused. What did he mean by an affinity with Lady Du’Breven? He did not share an attraction. No. A kinship? Impossible. He must refer to a similarity in feelings. Marjorie nodded her head in comprehension. “She understands you,” she surmised.
“Yes, she does.” He was still leaning in as if this conversation was important to him.
How long had Damen been without companionship? Was he as lonely as she?
“Tell me about your aunt. You seem close,” he said.
Marjorie smiled. “Mrs. Jones is a kind soul. She has changed my life.”
“Indeed?” This seemed to pique Damen’s interest. Tell me more. She must have plans to see you well married.”
“Oh. Well, yes, she does.” Marjorie ducked her head and took a sip of the tart lemonade. Her grandfather had been in trade and both her mother and aunt had married for love. Only Aunt Harriet improved her social station through her marriage. Now she wished to help Marjorie.
“I have observed you.” His words were low and liquid. “Any man who wins your hand should know you are the prize, and not your fortune.”
Marjorie shook her head. “You mistake me. I am no heiress. We are not so very dissimilar, you and I. My father runs the stable yard for—” She closed her mouth before revealing any more. Anxiety washed over her at the harm he could do if he unknowingly exposed her. Her stomach lurched as if a bird was trapped inside, trying to claw up her throat.
“You do not look well. Let me take your drink.”
She released the glass. Her hands were cold.
Damen smiled sympathetically. “I see we do share similarities. Do not fear. I will keep your confidence.”
She nodded, acid rising in her throat at having made herself so vulnerable. It was as if he had some power to conjure up her secrets.
“Oh, my dear Miss F.”
Marjorie’s shoulders jumped, cringing at the metallic voice. Miss Winters approached. Alarm flooded Marjorie’s thoughts. Had Miss Winters heard any of their conversation?
“Miss Winters,” Marjorie said.
Damen quirked a brow, murmuring, “You are a saint, Miss F.” He looked over her shoulder. “Miss Winters is too high in the instep. And acutely vexing.”
Before Marjorie had a chance to ground herself, Miss Winters linked their arms and clamped down.
“We simply must get to know one another, Miss F. There is just something under the surface, something special under that bland expression, which I find so . . . captivating. Come, we must become the best of friends.”
Marjorie put a hand to her forehead. She would share no more secrets today. She was weak with nerves. She planted her feet. “I must decline. I am not feeling well.”
Miss Winters shook her head officiously. “You are too often unwell. You should exercise more.”
Marjorie tugged her arm free.
“Oh, Miles,” Miss Winters enthused. “My dear friend.”
Lord Beauchamp bowed and glanced between the two ladies. “I am come to fetch you for a game of battledore, Miss Winters. There is someone who boasts too much and I should like to see you take him down a peg.”
Miss Winters’ smile grew. He pointed the direction and she marched off.
Marjorie breathed a sigh of relief to be free of the woman. She felt dizzy.
“May I see you to a seat in the shade?” Lord Beauchamp asked.
Her strength returned thanks to his steady presence. She smiled a little, wondering when he had no longer become intimidating. She knew he was trustworthy and exactly as he appeared. No hidden agenda where she was concerned.
“Yes, I would appreciate that,” she said.
He offered his arm, which she took. Lord Beauchamp pressed her arm close to his side to support her.
“I suggest we watch Miss Winters play this game of battledore. It will be highly amusing,” he said.
Marjorie raised her face to see him around her bonnet. “Would you be shocked if I cheered for her opponent?”
Lord Beauchamp smiled bemusedly.
They sat on sweet smelling grass at the base of a tree, with a clear view of the game. Miss Winters whacked the shuttlecock and Mr. Oscar Easton dove to return it.
“Forgive me, but I overheard some of your conversation,” Lord Beauchamp said.
“Oh?” she choked.
“Miss Winters mentioned exercise. What is your favorite?”
A relieved smile bloomed on her face. She picked a blade of grass and strummed it between her gloved fingers. “Horseback riding.”
“Ah, of course. Not skipping or tree climbing these days?”
Marjorie could not hold back a mischievous reply. “Not if anyone is watching.”
Lord Beauchamp laughed. The sound was rich and full.
“And you?” she asked, curious what he would say.
“I understand fencing and dancing are similar,” she said.
He considered it. “The footwork is comparable. Still, I prefer to focus less on grace and more on beating my opponent.”
She smiled and shook her head at the study in contrasts he presented. Such a gentleman, and still so driven to best his competition.
The shuttlecock popped and sailed close to them. Mr. Easton raced to get it, sweat glistening his brow as he plucked it off the grass.
“Oh, Regi dear,” Miss Winters called.
Marjorie twisted to see, accidentally brushing shoulders with Lord Beauchamp.
“Come join the game,” Miss Winters continued, swinging her racket. “Mr. Easton believes he has me beat, but you and I make the best partners.”
Marjorie’s pulse sped at the sight of Reginald striding towards her. He glanced between Marjorie and his brother, a question knotting his brow.
“I will play, if the lovely Miss Fairchild will.” He reached Marjorie’s side and swept his hand out to take hers. Without a thought, she placed her hand in his. He lifted her to her feet and grass sailed to the ground like down feathers. He held her hand a few seconds more than was proper, gazing into her eyes.
Only this time, she was aware of more than Reginald. They had an audience. Miss Winters tapped the battledore against the grass. Lord Beauchamp shifted and stood beside her. Mr. Easton voiced his eager intention to begin the new game.
“I do not think this is wise,” Lord Beauchamp said in a soft voice, his fists clenching.
Reginald glared at his brother. “Wise? I may agree with you, but it depends. To which part do you refer?”
Lord Beauchamp widened his stance.
Marjorie stepped out from between the two brothers.
Mr. Easton handed her a battledore. “You are on my team.” His eyes sparkled with energetic excitement. “And we play to win.”
Marjorie took hold of the wood and nodded. The unease in her stomach returned in full force, wriggling and wretched. The muslin dress she wore would keep her cool, but her green spencer was stifling.
If Lord Beauchamp worried about her breathing, he need not have bothered. Marjorie never had a chance to hit the shuttlecock. Mr. Easton dominated their end, leaving her nothing to do but grow tired.
And nothing to do but watch the interplay between their opponents. Miss Winters laughed as she smacked the shuttlecock. Reginald teased Miss Winters. The two played against each other as much as they played against Mr. Easton. Miss Winters slammed into Reginald and he caught her to keep her from losing her balance, and the two grinned into each other’s eyes like a pair of dolts.
Marjorie dropped the battledore. It landed on the soft grass beside the dislodged feathers without a sound. With a parting glance at Lord Beauchamp, she left just as quietly, tired of the game.