Previously in The Stable Master’s Daughter, Marjorie was surprised by Miss Anne Townshend’s insight that both Reginald and Lord Beauchamp admire her. At the picnic, Marjorie dropped her racket and left the game of battledore, disappointed Reginald did not keep his promise to spend time with her, and tired of the game.
After dinner, Marjorie found a quiet spot in the drawing room and opened her sketchbook. Miss Anne sat in the chair across from her, moving her hands as she chatted about her day outdoors. Marjorie stifled a yawn, more tired than she expected, perhaps from the day’s activities.
When Reginald and his friend, Mr. Thomas Webb, strolled into the room together, both women turned their heads to watch.
Reginald clapped Mr. Webb on the shoulder. “You, my dear friend, are excessively amusing.”
Mr. Webb’s eyes twinkled with humor and a dimple appeared when he smiled. “I know better than to put you to work when you visit me. You never ventured near dusty tomes during our Cambridge days.”
“I still cannot see you as a fellow of King’s College. I prefer to imagine you at your leisure,” Reginald said.
“You have never been anything but at your leisure.” Mr. Webb shook his head good-naturedly. His dark blond hair put her in mind of an angel, while his pensive brows lent an air of sophistication. His gaze swept the room—and captured hers. Marjorie had the presence of mind to close her mouth and glance away.
“They are two of the three most handsome men I have ever seen,” Miss Anne said.
Marjorie started to agree, but stopped, studying the woman across from her. “Who is the third?”
Miss Anne gave an airy laugh, but did not get a chance to reply, because Reginald settled quite close in the chair beside Marjorie.
He rested his elbows on his knees and glanced up at her, his hair falling into his eyes. “Miss Fairchild, I need to apologize for my lack of attention to you this afternoon. You have been on my mind, as you ever are, and I pray you will forgive me.” His eyes tensed, as if waiting to be disappointed.
Her heart turned over. He had forgotten her and she was disappointed, but she could forgive him. “Of course.”
Reginald beamed. “You are too generous.”
Mr. Webb pivoted a chair and settled on the other side of her. Warmth encompassed her, whether from the crackling fire, or the attention from the captivating gentlemen, she did not know.
“Reginald, you are blocking the light.” Mr. Webb leaned back, his arms behind his head, to look over her shoulder at what she sketched.
She had forgotten the drawing, and moved to hide it, but Reginald plucked the book from her hands. She gasped. Alarm rushed through her. All her thoughts were strewn with charcoal and lead across those pages.
“What have we here?”
Her throat tightened. “Give me—give me my book.”
“Come now, you are too modest.”
She shook her head. I must retain my composure. With effort, she remained seated and extended her hand, palm up. “Please. I insist.”
Reginald traded it to his other hand—and all the secrets stuffed into the binding appeared ready to shake loose. Desperate, she stood and reached for it.
A grin split his face when she pressed close. “Ho, ho. Now I must keep the treasure.”
She rocked back, rigid with fear. What would he think if he saw her sketches? All of them?
Mr. Webb stood, fluidly removing the book out of Reginald’s grasp. “Your book, Miss Fairchild.” He bowed.
Accepting the book, she melted back into her chair, murmuring a faint, “thank you.” She clasped it to her middle with shaky hands. Thank heavens for Mr. Webb.
“You take the fun out of everything, Webb,” Reginald grumbled.
“And you said I was ‘excessively amusing.’”
Reginald scooted close again and Marjorie tried not to tense. “Miss Fairchild, I hope you trust me enough to show me your drawings. Perhaps you could grant me a glimpse of what is in your heart when you are ready.”
Mr. Webb shook his head, a half-smile on his face. “How about a game of cards, Reginald.”
“Yes. Would you care to join us, Miss Fairchild?” Reginald stood.
Her throat was still tight. “No, thank you.” The men bowed and left.
Marjorie needed to regain her composure, and tuck her drawings away.
“There now,” Miss Anne took the vacated seat beside her and patted her hand. Marjorie’s heart filled with gratitude for Miss Anne’s friendship. “Those gentlemen were simply playing a game for your attention. ‘All’s well that ends well,’ isn’t that so?”
She nodded her head yes, but her heart was not convinced.
Before retiring for the evening, Miles went with an anxious Mr. Tauney Easton in search of the missing diamond pin from Mr. Easton’s cravat.
“I believe the billiards room is the most likely place,” agitated, Mr. Easton added, “The pin is my favorite.”
Lanterns were lit and smoke settled like fog, making Miles’ eyes water. Reginald and Webb were deep in their cups, like the night before, and took no notice as Miles, a servant, and Mr. Easton searched the room.
“A beauty with no family connections,” Reginald slurred as he bridged a shot on the billiards table.
Miles tried not to eavesdrop as he and Mr. Easton held lanterns close to the floor and searched for the small pin.
“Is she a fortune hunter?” Webb asked.
Reginald hit the cue ball with a crack. “I think not. She’s as innocent as they come. True love and all that.”
“She is a tempting armful.” Webb chuckled low.
Miles worked his jaw, unhappy Webb spoke of a woman in such a base manner.
Reginald placed his hands on his hips. His cue stick fell to the floor. “Away with it. You cannot swoop in and take the prettiest girl.”
“The best two out of three will win the sole privilege of her company tomorrow.”
Webb twisted chalk with his thin fingers. “Come now. I am willing to relegate on the bank note you owe me for 200£.”
Miles’ attention was arrested, his muscles tense at the discovery his brother owed his friend money. Webb was gambling and adding a woman to the stakes. Unbelievable. Miles knew Webb’s family well, and this was unlike their principles.
Reginald seized his cue stick, unsteady on his feet.
Mr. Easton stepped beside Miles. “I have found it. Look at this beauty.” He held the cravat pin up for his inspection. “Nothing does the job quite like your favorite cravat pin. Thank you for your help.”
“I was glad to be of service,” Miles said, distracted.
Mr. Easton shook his hand with extra exuberance and hurried out the door.
“It is no wonder you have never been blackballed at Brooks’s, Watiers, or the Union Club. You are welcomed everywhere,” Webb continued.
Miles winced. Reginald had joined Watiers? He determined to write his solicitor and discover what he could. Shaken, he blew out a breath, and headed for the door.
“That is another thing I appreciate about you, Reginald. Not only are you are a pleasant fellow, but you gamble whether the stakes are high or low. Like this servant’s daughter.” Webb chuckled.
Miles froze. His heart hammered and his vision blurred. Marjorie. They are discussing Marjorie. How dare Reginald risk an innocent woman’s reputation by making known her lack of fortune and connections?
He gripped the doorframe, fighting the urge to snap his brother’s cue stick. Or drag him out by his neck.
Webb bent at the hips, aiming like a sniper with a rifle. “I will best you, Reginald.” He struck, and the ball crashed, sending the others careening.
Despite his respectable persona and his position at King’s College, Miles had misjudged Webb. He treated his brother’s gambling like a joke.
Miles made it into the hallway before another sinking realization hit him. Webb planned to single Marjorie out. For what purpose? Miles clenched his jaw, his mood darkening. He no longer trusted Webb. Miles could not let Marjorie out of his sight tomorrow.
Marjorie studied the stained glass in the chapel. She and Aunt Harriet had arrived early to church. When Reginald and Mr. Webb came along as well, she had been pleased. But the two jostled for her attention and interrupted at every turn.
“This is beautifully built.” Reginald gestured in a random circle at the elevated ceiling. “Though not as beautifully as you.”
She lowered her pencil and squinted at him, her eyes not adjusted from the light just yet. Marjorie waited for the rush Reginald’s attention usually brought, but she sensed no change.
Mr. Webb tsked. “Is that is your idea of a compliment, Reginald? You are losing your touch.”
Marjorie again drew her pencil across the page, a frown etching itself into her countenance. There was something different about Reginald. His eyelids were red-rimmed, but it was more than that. She could not put her finger on it, but Reginald was acting different. Mr. Webb seemed to bring out a side to him she did not like.
Parishioners began taking seats and her time for drawing the architecture was running out.
A sleeve brushed her arm, making a mess of lead on her page. Her irritation mounted and she gripped the pencil too tightly.
“Have you sketched this fine block of stone?” Mr. Webb pointed to Reginald. “He could be a veritable David under that rough exterior.” His eyes crinkled with humor.
She managed a vague smile and walked away, hoping Aunt Harriet would serve as a buffer.
“Please, please switch seats with me so I am on the aisle. I cannot endure Mr. Webb’s influence on Reginald,” Marjorie explained.
Aunt Harriet did not move fast enough for her request. Mr. Webb took the seat to her left. Why did Reginald not insist he sit next to her?
“Miss Fairchild, have I told you how much Reginald and I enjoy foxhunting?” Webb asked.
Reginald laughed hard, though what was so amusing, Marjorie did not know nor care to find out.
She sighed and settled in for another story. As the chapel reached capacity, Mr. Webb’s voice did not hush. She winced at all the stares aimed their direction. She tried whispering so that he might match her tone, but he did not.
“I am friends with Lord Byron,” Mr. Webb said. “You have heard of him, have you not?”
A bitter taste, like sulfur, filled her mouth and nose. She turned away. Yes, she had heard of Lord Byron, and she knew how he carried on.
Before the priest began his sermon her head throbbed with a headache. At least with the service beginning, the frivolous chatter would cease.
“Did you know my father is a clergyman? How they drone on.” Mr. Webb edged closer, his trousers pressing against her skirt. Her eyes widened at his bold move.
“The tour of Wentworth Castle this afternoon should be very diverting. May I escort you?” His breath tickled the hair on her neck. He smelled of bergamot—like citrus gone bad, probably from his snuff—and faintly of alcohol.
She coughed and edged away from him. Dust motes shimmered in the sunlight and an idea formed in her mind. It would be daring, but she could not allow him to act so familiar.
Marjorie squeezed her eyes shut and tilted her head. “Forgive me, I must go. I am unwell.” Before she lost courage, she surged to her feet, past her aunt, and stole down the aisle.
She reached the outer door, pushed it open with a whoosh, and stepped outside, reveling in the freedom of sky, sheep grazing in the fields, and blessed open space.
Aunt Harriet’s footfalls sounded behind her. “Are you alright, dearest?”
Marjorie closed her eyes and breathed in a lungful of air—damp grass and sunshine. She exhaled with relief. “Yes.”
The door opened once more and Lord Beauchamp came out, only just catching himself before plowing into Aunt Harriet.
“Oh, forgive me. I came to see if you needed assistance,” he said, looking Marjorie over from head to toe, then examining her face.
Her cheeks heated. “It was too crowded for me.” Why was Lord Beauchamp coming to check on her? Why did her heart lighten just seeing him?
He patted his black tailcoat as if searching for something. “I took the liberty of consulting Dr. Hill about the treatments he prescribed. The apothecary agreed with the use of devil’s snare, but with stipulations. Potency can vary depending on the plant, which part of the plant is used, even the season it’s gathered. I wrote it all down.” He spoke quickly.
Marjorie’s mouth opened in astonishment. Lord Beauchamp had inquired on her behalf? She did not know whether to be affronted or touched by his concern. She shook her head, entirely undecided about the matter. “I just needed some fresh air.”
“Are you certain you are well?”
She pressed a hand over her heart, touched by his concern. “Yes.”
Some of the tension in his jaw seemed to dissipate. His shoulders relaxed.
How different Lord Beauchamp was from the man she believed him to be. She had thought him aloof, controlling, and cold-hearted. But she was beginning to see him as private, decisive, and generous.
“Thank you,” she said, surprising herself by her sincerity.
A light touched his eyes she had not noticed before.
What was it about him that made her sigh in relief now he was near? A troubling thought chased this—she could not switch affections so quickly. Just because Reginald had disappointed her, did not mean she could turn her regard to his brother.
She took a step back and fingered her skirt. Lord Beauchamp was not the kind of man for a woman of her standing. He was one of the most influential people in Hampshire. She could admire him, but could not allow herself to feel more than appreciation.
He interrupted her thoughts. “May I see you both home? I could escort you.”
Marjorie opened her mouth to reply, but stopped, remembering how Mr. Webb meant to escort her during the tour of Wentworth Castle. She had told him no, hadn’t she? She grimaced.
“Let me at least assist you to a carriage,” Lord Beauchamp said in a hushed voice, not meeting her eye.
How odd. She recovered her manners, glancing at Aunt Harriet for confirmation. “We would be pleased to have you escort us back to Somerstone Manor.”
He nodded, all business again. When he took her hand to assist her into the carriage, Marjorie did not understand why her heart stretched and pulled. She only knew it had something to do with discovering a gentle and caring side to the formidable Lord Beauchamp.
The horses stomped and tossed their manes. She blinked and gripped the seat. Lord Beauchamp was also her father’s employer. She could never endanger her father’s position by letting herself imagine a tendre with the heir to the Earl of Strathford. She must keep her newfound admiration for Lord Beauchamp to herself.
Miles squinted at the late afternoon sun and cursed himself for not having his horse saddled before the group departed for the tour of Wentworth Castle. Webb had placed a hand to Marjorie’s back and deftly guided her to the first carriage. It had a head start. The next conveyance was occupied by Mrs. Jones, Miss Standish, and a woman who glowered at Reginald, which seemed to amuse Lord Anthony. There was no room for Miles.
Miles followed in the third carriage, which plodded along at a sedate pace. As soon as it stopped in the circular drive, he wrestled the door open.
He searched for Marjorie but did not see her. Mrs. Jones set off at a brisk clip, and knowing she followed her niece, he trailed after her. Mrs. Jones strode through the gardens, but doubled back. Her face was drawn. Miles’ heart jumped in alarm.
He opened his mouth, but she cut him off.
“Lord Beauchamp, I cannot find Marjorie.” She was breathing hard, a hand to her heart.
He blanched in fear and glanced around. “She cannot be far. Where did you see her last?”
Mrs. Jones shook her head. “Only a glimpse when I arrived. I have tromped through the grounds searching without success.” She gestured to the paths branching out past trees and shrubs.
Miles groaned. He had kept Mrs. Jones in his sights, sure she was following Marjorie. “Who is with her?” He was afraid he already knew.
“I fear Mr. Webb is the only one,” Mrs. Jones whispered, driving dread into his heart. “They set off with the Eastons, but I have seen everyone except Marjorie and Mr. Webb.”
His stomach sank. He tried to swallow, but the anxiety stuck in his throat. The consequences of an unmarried man and woman being found alone were dire. Especially for Marjorie. She could be ruined. She had no wealth, no family connections—in short, nothing to wield influence.
Mrs. Jones placed a trembling hand to her chin. “I feel terribly guilty. I am to watch over her. What will her father say?”
“They could not have gone far.” He glared at the trees, wishing he could to hack them down to see. He only had a half-formed plan, but there was no time. “I will go right. You take the left. Try to appear calm. Do not ask for help. We must keep this to ourselves.”
Mrs. Jones nodded and set off to the west.
Miles’ heart raced as he strode past hedges and trees, looking around corners, and listening. The thought of Webb alone with Marjorie made his blood boil. Webb knew better. Miles remembered the bet Webb proposed during billiards. The man was a snake. If he found them and Webb had so much as touched Marjorie . . . Miles shook the exploding anger from his head and focused on the present.
A lake shaped like a winding river was up ahead. He could follow the lake or cross it. A cold sweat slid down his back. What if he was going the wrong way? What if he was too late? Mr. Julius Easton and Mr. Tauney Easton stepped off the stone bridge. Miles exchanged pleasantries, and took the bridge, turning his head in each direction.
He resisted the urge to call out Marjorie’s name. Perhaps Mrs. Jones had already found her. But if not . . . He quickened his steps, searching each enclosure, ready to turn around and try a new direction. The ruins of a castle front came into view.
Marjorie’s voice floated from somewhere over a bank of earth. A hawk circled overhead and leaves rustled. “Sir, we must find our companions.”
A man chuckled. Webb. Miles jogged towards the voices, skidding on gravel before taking the grass up an incline. “How fortuitous to find ourselves alone,” Webb said.
“Stop. This is untoward,” Marjorie replied.
Miles crested the top of the ravine. He searched the edges of the surrounding dense shrubs, following Webb’s voice, now pitched low.
Pale yellow fabric caught his attention. Marjorie broke past dead branches, but Webb caught her by the arm and turned her around—planting a kiss on her mouth.
Miles froze, horrified and sickened. He almost missed the quick intake of air, how Marjorie hauled back and—
“You hit me.” Webb staggered from the decaying shrub, now with broken branches, a hand to his jaw. “How dare you,” he hollered.
Miles ran towards them.
Marjorie stumbled back a few paces, but regained her footing. “And how dare you!”
Webb paced towards her. “Make no mistake, I will be sure others know you are only a sorry bit of muslin.”
Webb pivoted away and choked on the surprise and the dust Miles kicked up as they came face to face.
“How dare you talk to a lady that way,” Miles growled. He twisted Webb’s cravat, hauling him close. “You foul-mouthed lecher. If you speak one word against Miss Fairchild, I will make sure you pay. She has allies.” He wanted to pummel Webb’s splotchy face.
“Easy, now.” Webb looked as if he had swallowed his spleen. He raised his hands. “She is unharmed. Ask her yourself.”
Miles shoved him away. “I will.”
Webb seemed to recover from his initial shock. He shook his head in feigned sorrow. “I heard you are a bloodhound to Miss Fairchild’s scent.”
Miles clenched his jaw, envisioning teaching the rake a lesson. But Marjorie, his soft, tender Marjorie, might need him. “I will deal with you later.”
“Better luck to you, my lord. She is not very grateful. Or cognizant of her superiors.” Webb tugged his waistcoat and left.
It took Miles a few more minutes, but he found Marjorie in the ruins of the castle. She sat on a window seat in a dusty alcove. He breathed a sigh of relief and approached slowly, taking in the sight of her. She held her hands to her chest. The breeze from the open window casing blew her dress against her form.
He did not wish to alarm her, especially after a difficult encounter with a cad. “Miss Fairchild.”
She started, her face pale and drawn, and then something unfathomable crossed her features—surprise, recognition, relief. Miles wanted to wrap his arms around her and pull her close. He settled for soaking her in with his eyes.
“Are you well?” He held his breath.
Her face contorted in anger. “He is a dreadful man.”
Miles nodded. “A scoundrel.”
“That fool kissed me. How dare he?” She stood and paced. “He actually thought I should be flattered. He and his foul mouth—I wish I could punch him three more times. I wish I had broken his nose!”
She was going to be alright. “Gentleman Jack would be proud of you.”
Marjorie stopped. She stared at him, gave a faint laugh, and then blinked away tears. “That is an amusing thought.”
He wanted to see her calm before they found her aunt. “Your father would be gratified too. He taught you to defend yourself, did he not?” he asked.
“Yes.” A watery smile flitted across her face.
“I can call Webb out, if needed.” He meant it in earnest, but also wished to put her at ease. “Pistols would do, but I prefer swords. He is destined for an early demise.”
Marjorie stared at him and then a smile bloomed across her face. Slowly, her features sobered. “You will not tell anyone . . .?” She bit her lips. Her soft pink lips.
Miles closed his eyes. “I would not dream of telling anyone. Though I wish I could.” He leveled her a glance. “You have some steel in you. I am glad.”
Her blue eyes turned to liquid again. “I cannot help but worry. What will Mr. Webb say? What will he do?”
He wanted to groan for the pull she had on him.
“Mr. Webb could ruin me. Or expose my background in the worst possible light.” Marjorie chaffed her gloved hand.
“I had some words with him. And I would never allow that.” He leaned closer, the space between them warming.
She seemed to consider his promise. He was gratified when she relaxed once more. His heart swelled with the realization she believed him. Trusted him.
A dragonfly darted past. “The day was so full of promise,” Marjorie said, glancing around at castle walls and out the open window casing. She cupped her right hand in her left as if it pained her.
“May I?” he asked. She nodded. Miles took her slender hands in his own and she winced. He carefully removed her gloves. Her hands were soft. The two middle fingers on her right hand were purple. A tremor ran through him. “This injury will need some looking after.”
He cradled her hand to his chest. Marjorie’s lips parted slightly. With effort, he looked away. He pressed a kiss to her fingertips and helped her slip her gloves on.
“We should go.” But he did not want to leave.
She did not remove her hands, soft as a whisper, from his own. Time stood still. There was a depth to her blue eyes he longed to explore. He wanted to enjoy her company and this peace settling between them. But he could not risk her reputation. Mrs. Jones was sick with worry and Marjorie was recovered enough to not cause alarm. And he needed space before he did something foolish. Like kiss her thoroughly.