Previously in The Stable Master’s Daughter, Miles and Reginald agreed Webb must leave. When Marjorie stepped onto the balcony, Miles joined her and asked her to dance.
A smile on her lips and the waltz’s tune in her heart, Marjorie gathered her reticule for the day trip to Somerstone Village Miss Greystock had organized. Marjorie anticipated another adventure to document. As soon as she found her sketchbook, she knew exactly which drawing she needed to add: a picture of the night sky with her hand reaching out to take the North Star like a jewel.
Her sketchbook was not on the desk, table, nor anywhere in sight. She spun in a circle as she tried to recall where she had placed it. Her shoulders tightened when she remembered setting it down to take Lord Beauchamp’s hand for the dance.
She set off with Aunt Harriet to search the balcony and drawing room, but did not recover her sketchbook.
“Perhaps someone has found it. I am sure it will be returned to you immediately,” Aunt Harriet soothed.
Marjorie spoke to the housekeeper and Miss Greystock. Neither knew anything about it, but each assured her that as soon as it was recovered she would be notified. Marjorie blinked rapidly at her disappointment.
“There is nothing else we can do at present,” Aunt Harriet said. “It will turn up. Do not worry, dearest. This day trip to Somerstone Village is fortuitous.”
Marjorie nodded, trying to shake her unease. “Yes. Can we pick up more paper?”
“Of course. Now, let’s set your mind on something else.”
During the coach ride, Marjorie flipped through the missing sketches in her mind. There was no telling what someone would think about the images and impressions—they were too personal. She released a sigh of gratitude she had at least removed the ones of Reginald. She shuddered at what he would think had seen himself on the pages. Still, she had captured many of the guests in one light or another. The water fairy was clearly Miss Easton. The one of Sir James watching Miss Greystock would be embarrassing. And the drawing of Mr. Webb . . . she winced and placed a hand to her forehead. Good gracious, why had she not removed the drawing? His profile was pleasant, but his shadow was an ogre on fire. If he saw the image, it might come to life.
These thoughts plagued her as she and Aunt Harriet perused the shops in Somerstone Village. Aunt Harriet looked for a trinket to bring back to her husband. Marjorie had her eye out for more paper.
They entered the stationers shop. The smell of paper and ink was pleasant. Marjorie approached the clerk, an elderly man with bushy eyebrows. A proper new sketchbook would have to wait until they returned to London. “I would like a quire of paper, please.”
He nodded, showed her the selection, and began counting out her choice. She could cut the overlarge sheets down to her preferred size, and twenty four would be more than enough. The price of paper was dear. Or at least it had been a dear price, when compared to the salary of those who worked at Strathford. Marjorie sighed in relief when the clerk handed her the wrapped parcel. Her father had never understood her longing for supplies like paper and charcoals, pencils and watercolors. But Aunt Harriet did. And Marjorie loved her aunt for the many lessons she provided. Language, elocution, history. But most importantly, art. Aunt Harriet paid the shopkeeper and he wished them good day.
They exited the shop near the green, a park situated on the corner where Main Street intersected Hague Lane. Children in prim clothing were playing a game of hoops.
“Dearest, I need to run into the shop again. I believe Mr. Jones would like one of the fine letter openers I spied within. I will be but a moment.” Aunt Harriet slipped back inside while Marjorie waited, watching the children.
She smiled at the line of little girls and boys waiting their turn to race two metal hoops. It seemed to be a relay of sorts. One boy with a scowl on his face stepped forward for his turn, but two girls skipped past him, calling, “Ladies first,” and took the hoop. The boy turned to watch a man on the edge of the park, and his shoulders slumped. Marjorie followed his gaze to a middle aged gentleman near her. His mouth and eyes sloped down, making him look displeased. He wore a double breasted day coat in midnight blue.
The children cheered for the winners. When the boy had waited for everyone to have another turn, he took the hoop, only to have the same little girls grab it. This time he did not let go, and both sides tugged like a game of French and English. “Ladies first,” the older girl bit out.
Marjorie’s mouth opened in astonishment. “Ladies, indeed.” Those girls were using the boy abominably.
Her feet hit the soft clover as she approached. The girls took in her dress and then her face with wide eyes, but none relinquished their hold on the hoop.
Marjorie curtseyed. “Good afternoon. I believe this gentleman was before you.” She indicated the boy.
The taller girl spoke up. “Oh, Thomas is new. Papa said he does not know his place.”
Perhaps they misunderstood their father. “Hello, Thomas,” Marjorie said. “Now girls, Thomas has waited so patiently. Please allow him a turn.”
The girls glanced beyond Marjorie at the frowning man who stalked towards her. The girls’ father, perhaps?
“What in heaven’s name are you saying to my children?” He asked, crossing his arms. “Are you this lad’s mother?”
The question caught Marjorie off guard. She drew back. How could she be a mother to a boy of perhaps eight years of age? “Oh, you misunderstand, I—”
His sloping mouth drew down further and he pointed at her. “You need to teach him better conduct.”
Marjorie felt a jab at his reprimand, however misplaced. What kind of a man was he to talk down to her? She gritted her teeth. “Might we share a word in private, away from these children?” She phrased it as a question, but her tone demanded it. He wrinkled his nose, and she snapped, “Now.” She blanched. Had she really just lost her self-control and given orders? What was she thinking?
“You did not just command me,” he said indignantly, shaking his head. “You are no lady.”
Marjorie’s eyes opened wide. Too many gentlemen of late had scoffed at her, and it stung. This man did not know she was not a lady, strictly speaking, since her father was not a gentleman. Still, she had gone about this all wrong. “I apologize. I should not have spoken in such a way—”
“Humbug. It was bird-witted,” he scolded.
Marjorie felt as if she had been slapped. Heat pooled in her face, a fire burned in her chest, and she stood her ground. The sight of his disapproving eyes and mouth infuriated her. “You interrupted me. Again.”
“Let me give you some advice. You need to teach your boy manners,” he said, invading her space. He positioned himself to intimidate her. She shivered, hating that the movement worked. She noticed that Thomas stayed by her side.
She lifted her chin and spoke fast to hide her trembling, “I watched while Thomas waited in line and your girls took the hoop from him at least twice. And as dear a boy as Thomas seems, he is not mine.” She snapped her mouth shut, shaky from fear and smoldering anger.
The man rocked back on his heels. “I… I just assumed he was yours.”
She should not say more, but… “Thank you for your officious advice on manners. I bow to your ability to teach by precept and example.”
He narrowed his eyes.
Something compelled her to say more to this dimwitted oaf, something she had been working through in her heart of late. “Ladies do not use a gentleman simply to get their way. And a gentleman is more than good manners.”
She nodded briskly and turned to go, but pulled up short. Lord Beauchamp strode towards her with two other men close behind. Relief flooded her, followed by chagrin. Had he overheard her? She clenched her paper. The disapproving man behind her was thickheaded enough to listen to no one but another man, and perhaps only someone he had to show deference to. One of the children offered Thomas a hoop, and he ran off to play.
“Ho there,” Lord Beauchamp said to the father. “How dare you speak in such a manner. This lady deserves your utmost respect.” He appeared in perfect control, but Marjorie noticed his hands clenched at his sides.
“Begging your pardon, sir,” the man bowed. “I meant no disrespect.” He gestured to his girls. “I have two little ladies myself.”
She felt feverish all over again at how the man brushed off his offensive behavior.
Lord Beauchamp stared at the man and a muscle in his jaw corded. Then he gave the man his back and bowed to Marjorie. “Miss Fairchild.”
“Lord Beuchamp.” She curtseyed low, laying her manners on a little thick.
He winked. Marjorie held back the smile of pleasure from being on the same side. His presence brought a cooling relief.
Lord Beauchamp turned to his companions. “Lord-Lieutenant and Mr. Wright, may I introduce Miss Fairchild. She is a favored guest of Lady De’Brevan’s. Miss Fairchild, meet His Majesty’s Lieutenant for the county of Yorkshire, Lord-Lieutenant Halstead. And this good man is Mr. Wright, my solicitor.”
Marjorie curtseyed and exchanged pleasantries. “I am waiting for my aunt,” she explained, trying to ignore the stare from the girls’ father. “Oh, here she comes.”
“Would you and Mrs. Jones care to join us for some tea?” Lord Beauchamp asked. Then he whispered near her ear, “That is, if you are open to my company.”
Her heart lightened. “Yes.” Always.
Lord-Lieutenant Halstead spoke to Marjorie. “If you have no objection, let me call my son Thomas to join us as well.”
Marjorie’s smile bloomed. Thomas. “Of course. I am sure he will act the perfect gentleman.”
Miles stood within the paddock near the stable yard and checked his watch. He and the stable master of Somerstone Manor had spent the better part of the afternoon reviewing management.
Mr. Ferrell patted the sick bay mare. “This poor lass ate from a patch of corncockle. That pesky weed is poisonous. Ahm guessing she’ll pull through alrigh’ though.” He smiled a gap-toothed grin.
A flash of red hair caught Miles’ attention. Marjorie approached the fountain in the center of the busy stable block, wearing a gray riding habit. His heart began to race. He still had her sketchbook in his possession and had not had a chance to tell her yet. He was afraid she would ask him if he had looked at it. He swallowed his guilt.
Reginald had found it and showed him a drawing. “Look at you, all staid and straight-laced,” Reginald had said, laughing.
Miles had snatched the book and reproached Reginald for prying. But alone in his room, Miles could not resist. He was curious how she saw him. She captured him, all right. His face reflected back at him—utterly boring. No whimsical flourishes. A quick glance told him she had quite the imagination where others were concerned. An ache formed in his chest as he contemplated what she must think of him.
Marjorie was going for a ride, was she? This he wanted to see. In fact, he would make sure to join her. And deuce take it, but he wanted her to see him as interesting.
He slapped a hand down on the wood railing. “You run a fine stable yard, Farrell. Your training system was most insightful.”
The stable master rubbed a knuckle to his forehead. “But Ah’ve more to show you.”
Miles tugged on his gloves as Marjorie passed behind the stalls. “I wish to ride my stallion. Right away,” he said.
The stable master blew out a breath. “Aye. I’ll ask John to saddle Boaz.”
“Could I also ask for one of your groomsmen to come along?” A chaperone should set Marjorie at ease.
“Aye.” The stable master’s brow quirked and his mouth twitched. “Are you in need of protection or afraid you may throw a shoe?”
Miles shifted his weight, feeling foolish. “I will be accompanying Miss Fairchild,” he explained.
The man broke into another gap-toothed grin. “Now tha’ Ahm happy to help with.”
Miles found Marjorie near the mounting block, stroking the nose of a golden mare and speaking in low tones. Her hair shone becomingly and a hat sat at a jaunty angle on her head. His insides warmed seeing her in her element.
“Miss Fairchild.” He bowed. Her face lit with surprise upon seeing him. “I am about to go for a ride. May I join you? A groom can follow.”
“Of course.” She flushed. “Let me speak with my companion a moment.” Marjorie conferred with the older woman, who looked satisfied. Marjorie stepped close, holding her riding habit draped over one arm.
“Here, let me assist you,” he said, switching places with the groom.
Miles bent and cupped his hands. She drew near with a stirring scent of lavender. He glanced at her, pressed close, as she touched his shoulder to maintain her balance and placed her left foot in his hands. He gently rose to a stand and she guided herself gracefully into the saddle. He helped move her slim boot towards the stirrup. Marjorie kept one hand on the reins and adjusted her skirts.
She glanced down and at him and beamed. “I am settled.”
Miles nodded, reluctantly stepping away. His horse was brought to him, and they soon set off.
“Where to?” he asked her.
“North. There is a monument of sorts I wish to see,” she called over her shoulder. “Oh, how I have missed this.”
Miles’ mouth went dry watching Marjorie’s straight back lined up with her hips, showing off her feminine shape as she moved with her horse’s even gait. She was a natural, and carried a confidence in her air which was becoming.
Determined to be more interesting, he pulled ahead and was rewarded when she laughed. Marjorie leaned in and urged her mare into a canter. He decided he rather enjoyed watching her from behind, and let her pull ahead.
“It is over there, I believe.” Marjorie pointed to the west.
The groomsman followed them at a distance. An elongated pyramid came into view and they slowed their horses, riding side by side. The structure was built of great blocks of stone and had a passageway as wide as the entrance to the stable block. The slim Egyptian pyramid did not fit with the Mosque shaped passageway through it. The point at the top looked like an urn.
Miles frowned. “What a strange sight.”
“This is called Needle’s Eye,” Marjorie explained. “A marquis bet he could do the impossible—drive a carriage through the eye of a needle.”
“Ah, as a rich man.” Miles understood. What a waste of resources. “He must have been intoxicated.”
“Precisely.” Marjorie laughed. “So when he came to, he had this built.”
“And won the bet.” He thought darkly of Reginald and his wager with Webb. Fortunately, Webb should be on his way.
They stopped their horses amid the wild heather a short distance from the pyramid.
“I must say, none of my embroidery needles look remotely similar,” Marjorie said.
“Maybe if we squint it will resemble a needle’s eye.”
“What do you think of this eyesore?” he asked.
She pressed her lips together. “It puts me in mind of walking down the aisle of some strange church.”
He shook his head to himself, loving how she saw beauty where he saw an obstruction. “Well, shall we do the impossible, and ride through the eye of a needle together?” he asked.
Marjorie stared at him, as if he had said something profound. He tiled his head, trying to figure it out. It hit him hard enough it could have knocked him out of his saddle.
He and Marjorie together… was impossible.
Or was it? His pulse sped, a rush of senses and breathlessness at the possibility of Marjorie in his future. His life had always brought him fulfillment, but imagining going back to his regular routine held no appeal. He desired more. Something of substance. And this woman—this woman made him imagine a vibrant future. She was a calming influence, a friend, and made him want to be a better man.
He was considering the impossible. He was considering marrying her.
“Have you changed your mind?” she asked. “You look as if you fear a firing squad.” She was grinning at him, bewildered.
Miles smiled softly. “My thoughts are more pleasantly engaged.” He swallowed and reached out his hand. “Come, the two of us can ride alongside.”
Marjorie placed her hand lightly in his. He clasped it, sensing the value she placed within his care. He wanted to be the one to cherish her. Nothing had been as fulfilling as his time with her.
Together, they crossed the threshold of Needle’s Eye. When she released his hand, he tried to hide how shaken he was, how much he wanted to hang onto her. He blew out a breath. Think this through, he told himself firmly. As soon as he had a moment to himself, he would make a new plan.
When they again reached the stable block, the sun was waning, changing the clouds to pinks and reds. The groom took both of their horses. Marjorie walked towards the fountain, a wide stone basin on a sturdy pedestal. Water spurted from the top of the fountain, then rippled in a curtain around the edges, and splashed into the pool below.
“This is fascinating,” Marjorie said, drawing close and extending a hand to the rainbow of colors caught in the spray.
He smiled at the look of pleasure on her face. Her boots hit the raised edge of the pool and she dropped the train of her dress. She pitched forward and Miles slid an arm around her waist, pressing her back into his chest. He caught his breath at the feel of her in his arms. She relaxed against him. Suddenly he could think of nothing but holding Marjorie. Pulling Marjorie closer.
“Thank you, I—” She twisted in his arms, her face close. If he bent down he could kiss her.
A throat cleared behind him, and Miles thought to ignore it. Her eyes were the most mesmerizing blue. Marjorie looked past his shoulder and her eyes widened. She pushed on his chest and Miles’ heart plunged with disappointment. He stepped back, immediately missing her warmth as if the sun had hidden behind a dark cloud.
Miles turned, irritated with the groomsman. The hair on the nape of his neck prickled and his mouth opened. Marjorie walked into the open arms of her father, embracing him.
“Mr. Fairchild,” Miles choked. His face burned and his palms sweat. Confound it, he felt like a scoundrel caught with evil designs.
“Lord Beauchamp.” Mr. Fairchild dipped his chin in acknowledgement, his brow furrowed, confused.
Miles’ mind raced, trying to make sense of the situation. Her father would not interfere or take her away, would he?
“I paid a visit to my brother in Sheffield. Thought I’d stop in and surprise you,” Mr. Fairchild said carefully to Marjorie. He clenched his jaw and blew out a breath. “I only have a little time tonight. Let me take you for a walk.”