In the last chapter of The Stable Master’s Daughter, Reginald lost a bet to his newly arrived friend, Mr. Webb. Miles discovered Marjorie was the wager. During a tour of Wentworth Castle, Marjorie punched Webb, and he threatened her with slander.
Miles needed to talk with his brother without Webb in the way. He went to Reginald’s room, relieved to find his brother alone, getting ready for dinner.
“Send your valet away. We have something to discuss,” Miles said.
Reginald took his time to shoo the man. When the door clicked shut, Reginald folded his arms. “My gut tells me this is about Marjorie. You never take your eyes off her.”
Miles paused, frowning. “Someone needs to keep an eye on her. I have come to discuss Miss Fairchild. I am astounded at Webb’s behavior towards her yesterday.” He waited for a reaction, but Reginald just shrugged. “Need I rehearse the matter to you?”
“What is there to know? Webb escorted her to Wentworth Castle and was in a foul mood afterwards. So she does not care for him, does she?” Reginald looked hopeful.
So he does not know. Miles spoke slowly and deliberately. “Webb took her into the gardens unchaperoned, putting her reputation at risk, and he kissed her without permission.”
Reginald rocked back. “That is absurd. How would you know?”
“I found them and saw it.” He clenched his teeth, his stomach sinking at the memory. “Miss Fairchild hit him square in the jaw.” The woman was remarkable.
Reginald stared. Then he laughed. “I should like to have seen that.”
“Yes, well, her bruised hand is proof enough that she does not care for him. She was shaken.”
“I had no idea. Poor Marjorie. No woman should have to ward off advances repugnant to her.” Reginald sobered and ran his hands through his hair. “Marjorie deserves better treatment, even if she is just the stable master’s daughter.”
Miles stepped close to his brother, a searing fire building in his chest. “Miss Fairchild is more than just the stable master’s daughter. She is a woman of quality, sincerity, and strength.”
Reginald took a step back and fell into a chair. “Hmm. She is more beautiful than her rank allows her.”
Miles ground his teeth. His brother was a dimwitted fool.
“I do not trust Webb,” Miles said. “Is there any chance he will do something rash? Share his knowledge of her social standing with the guests here? He seems a hotheaded fellow.”
Reginald slumped forward, his elbows on his knees. “He noticed her beauty for himself, but I should not have said anything about her parentage. She is a decent girl. He should not risk her reputation.”
“It is not any different than how you treat women with beauty, is it?” Miles asked.
Reginald bowed his head and spoke to the floor. “I am not sure. I do not like being compared to Webb. I would hope my attentions would be accepted. Acceptable.”
Miles sat in the chair oppose his brother’s. “What are we to do now? I cannot predict Webb. You know him.”
Reginald sighed and leaned on the chair’s armrests. “Provoking Webb will have consequences. He has an inflated sense of self-importance and despises rejection, especially by someone he considers inferior. He may slander her. He can cut people apart with words.” He shook his head. “In the worst case, she will need the protection of a strong name.”
“Such as?” Miles asked.
“A husband’s good name.” Reginald touched his chin and his eyes squinted. “I could marry her.”
Miles froze with the image of any man married to Marjorie.
“Of course, I have no reputation to offer, and she has no fortune or family. So that man is certainly not me.” Reginald turned his face towards the window.
“It should not come to that,” Miles said to himself. “Webb needs to leave.”
Reginald shrugged. “I agree. Besides, he was never invited.”
“You send Webb away or I will. What has he come for? He certainly does not socialize with anyone here besides you.” And his botched attempt with Marjorie.
Reginald did not answer right away. Finally, he turned to face his brother, his expression earnest. “I will send him packing. Straightaway.”
Marjorie had avoided Mr. Webb and his cool stares all day. After dinner, the drawing room brought them too close for comfort. The faint mark on his jaw brought mild satisfaction. Mr. Webb had been the one in the wrong. She wanted to scrub her mouth and clutch her sick stomach each time she saw him. But she kept her chin high, determined not to be cowed.
She would, however, avoid her aunt. Since Marjorie had confided each painful detail from yesterday’s ordeal, Aunt Harriet fretted nonstop. She spoke confidentially with Lady Du’Brevan, posted a letter asking her husband to join them, and even exchanged words with Mr. Webb. Marjorie was grateful, but she no longer wished to think about Mr. Webb. She needed a distraction from her emotional distress.
A “hurrah” drew her to a game of cards. The winners of the round congratulated themselves. Around her, people began whispering in animated tones as the players bantered back and forth. A wager was set, and her stomach dropped.
The whispering, the gambling, the ladies in the midst of it, dislodged a memory. It struck sharp as a window shard and she sucked in a breath.
Beside her Miss Standish turned to her. “Do not worry. It is all in fun.”
Marjorie covered her stomach, unable to explain. “I am only…” Startled? Sickened? Reliving an awful bet once placed on me? “I am surprised to see a lady gamble.”
“Come now, Miss Fairchild,” a patronizing voice said behind her. She gripped her sketchbook like a weapon, her right hand throbbing, but made no move to turn towards Mr. Webb. He continued speaking to her back. “Gambling cannot shock you, considering your—”
She whirled around. “Yes?”
Mr. Webb’s dimple popped when he smiled, but his gaze was like steel. “Your family’s hobbies.”
Marjorie’s stomach roiled. Mr. Webb had not revealed her social rank, but he wanted her to know he could. He could disgrace her. She plastered on a smile for Miss Standish’s sake. “Of course, the card game is all in fun. Excuse me.” She did not wait for Mr. Webb or Miss Standish to reply.
She walked on weak knees past ladies and gentlemen, all seeming to enjoy themselves. The conversation in the room buzzed like the words Mr. Webb seemed willing to spread. She shuddered at the memory of two pretend suitors during that rainy summer.
Those men had not cared a fig about her. She had not recognized it at the time, but her father had sensed their objective. She overheard him telling a trusted groom, “They’re like two stallions after the same broodmare. Except my Marjorie’s a thoroughbred.” When her father discovered the danger—that they set a wager on which man could seduce her and bets were placed—he had sent her to live with her aunt.
Marjorie’s thoughts flew rapidly. She did not feel like a thoroughbred among the elite. Many dismissed her due to her lack of fortune and family. Some women spoke at times as if she were invisible, and perhaps she was. Could one’s worth be simplified to no more than parentage? Did character, from the decisions made day in and day out, count at all? Which mattered more, circumstances or choices?
Marjorie pressed a hand to her forehead as she passed servants, the pampered pug, and men and women with titles. She had almost reached the French doors which led to the balcony, but someone stopped her.
“Marjorie—I mean, Miss Fairchild,” Reginald said, shifting his weight, “are you well?”
“Yes.” A tremor passed through her. She clutched her sketchbook, remembering how Reginald had taken it and waved it about as if it were not her innermost thoughts.
Reginald stepped close and looked directly into her eyes. “Did Mr. Webb trouble you?”
She wanted to answer, but his sincere concern choked her words. She swallowed and a tear escaped, tickling her cheek. Reginald tugged his cravat and took a step back, as if afraid she was contagious. She could not help but laugh at his distress, even as another tear broke free. “Forgive me. I cannot account for the sudden waterworks.”
He smiled, a little sheepish. “I am not well versed in emotions. But, I do know a thing or two about avoiding them.” Reginald gestured to the doors. “The night is not too cool. Shall we?”
Marjorie considered spending time with Reginald. Her heart did not flutter when he was near. Somewhere during the last few days, her infatuation had faded, but perhaps friendship remained. She could use a friend. She nodded, needing to push the unwelcome memory away.
Reginald opened the doors and stepped aside. The balcony stretched as wide as the drawing room, with citrus trees in pots, and rambling roses climbing the outer wall. She walked straight to the balustrade and leaned against the stone banister.
“How different the world looks from a higher elevation and in moonlight,” she said.
When Reginald did not reply, she turned. He had not joined her but stood exchanging words with Lord Beauchamp. A breeze blew and she shivered in anticipation of Lord Beauchamp’s glance.
Their two dark heads leaned together, equally somber expressions shared between them. How odd. Reginald grimaced, but nodded and slipped inside. Lord Beauchamp watched his brother, his chest rising in a look of pride. What indeed?
Lord Beauchamp glanced at her. In the moonlight, his blue eyes appeared dark, his hair black. Only the length and breadth of him was highlighted by the candles and lanterns from inside. “Do you mind if I join you?” he asked.
She had no words, just a smile in welcome.
“The stars are out.” He leaned against the balustrade.
The cool night air tangled her skirts and tugged at strands of her hair. Her soul expanded at the endless stars in a vast universe. “Beautiful,” she said.
“Yes.” His mouth tipped into one of his small smiles, and she wished she knew what it meant.
They stood side by side, shoulders touching. The silence rested comfortably between them, the darkness enveloped her in comfort. Marjorie tilted her head, her imagination stirred by the endless stars. Even though she stood in one of the grandest homes, under the heavens she shrank in consequence.
“Do you have a favorite star or constellation?” Lord Beauchamp asked.
She breathed out. “No. I enjoy them as a whole. I could never see the shapes of the constellations as easily as others,” she confided.
“Really?” he sounded intrigued.
She blushed, knowing her education was lacking. The more she learned, the more she realized she did not know.
“Even with your artistic skill, you cannot see the shapes?” he asked. The breeze teased his hair, softening his strong features.
“Constellations are rudimentary shapes,” she said, shrugging. “But what of you? Do you have a favorite star or constellation?”
“The North Star,” he said.
Of course, she thought. Constant, true, reliable. All qualities Lord Beauchamp valued.
Music from a pianoforte started, drifting through the open doors. Beyond the glass windows, solitary men and women formed couples to dance. Another memory surfaced, this one gentle and pleasant. And perhaps because of the comfort of the darkness or the trust she placed in Lord Beauchamp, she shared it.
“I remember a summer ball held at Strathford. It was but a month before I left to live with my aunt. It seemed a beautiful event. The music was lovely.” She had harbored the hope to one day dance in such an elegant fashion.
Lord Beauchamp made a noise of acknowledgment in the back of his throat. “That must have been when Reginald returned from Cambridge.”
Marjorie nodded. “Hmm. Why did your father never hold a ball to welcome you home? Or did he? I cannot remember. I do remember at your brother’s ball, you came outside and stared at the night sky, just as we do now.” She paused, thinking of how she had hidden and watched. Lord Beauchamp had captured her interest when he acted lonely, and she had wondered what burdened him.
A few of the couples joined them on the balcony, dancing the boxed steps of a waltz and twirling.
“Have you been to a ball?” His eyes were dark as they searched hers.
She swallowed. “Yes.”
“And what would you have done, had I seen you hiding in the climbing roses and ivy at Strathford and asked you for a dance?” He moved his hand to cover hers on the balcony.
She savored the warmth of his hand. “Run away, scared.”
He laughed, deep and rich. She smiled, savoring the healing he brought.
“I saw you.” Lord Beauchamp turned her hand over, his Adam’s apple jogged as he entwined his fingers with hers. “Let me do this properly. May I have this dance?”
Her breath hitched. He knew who she had been—who she still was—and treated her with dignity. He was the essence of dreams and her regard deepened. “I have always wanted to dance under the stars.” She set her sketchbook on the banister.
Maintaining eye contact, he drew her towards him. His touch sent a thrill through her, igniting her like a shooting star. He stepped forward as she stepped back, her skirt billowing as they danced. She had fallen under his spell. How could she not when he looked at her as if she were the center of his universe? With the awareness came an ache, persistent and searing, because she already knew the ending. But what would it be like to live without fear?