In the last chapter of The Stable Master’s Daughter, Marjorie searched for her sketchbook but couldn’t find it. In town, she and Lord Beauchamp joined sides against a rude gentleman. The Stable Master Mr. Fairchild came to visit his daughter, only to discover Lord Beauchamp taking Marjorie in his arms.
Marjorie pointed her father towards a woodland path leading back to the house.
Mr. Fairchild squeezed her hand and rested it in the crook of his arm. “I needed to know for myself that you’re well.”
“This visit to Yorkshire has been enchanting,” Marjorie said, glancing over her shoulder. Her heart hiccupped to find Lord Beauchamp watching them leave the stable block. He could have been a sentry by the way he stood tall, his jaw defined, and a pensive set to his dark brows. She looked away, almost tripping on the gravel in front of her. The feel of his arms around her had filled her with a warmth so inviting, she wanted to reach out and pull him close again. She flushed at her bold thoughts.
Mr. Fairchild moved a branch out of his way. “I did not realize Lord Beauchamp was in your social circle.”
She took a cleansing breath. “Hardly. Lady Du’Brevan invited Aunt Harriet and extended the invitation to include me. I am not usually in such exalted company, I assure you.” Thunder rumbled from a distance. She glanced at the sky visible through the canopy of leaves overhead. “The party lasts but a week more, then I will not see the Beauchamps.”
“Beauchamps? Is Mr. Reginald Beauchamp in attendance?” Mr. Fairchild asked.
He gave her a sidelong glance. The lightness of the evening sunset dissipated as a bank of dark clouds pressed down.
She pushed a stray piece of hair behind her ear. “I no longer admire him. I am in no danger.”
“The man has a bad reputation. What about Lord Beauchamp?”
“What about him? He has been . . .” Safe? Steady? Wonderful in a surprising way? “A friend. He treats me as if we were equals.” Sometimes she thought Lord Beauchamp’s eyes flashed with more than friendship. She shook her head and sighed, sure she imagined his interest in her.
“You are not Lord Beauchamp’s equal, and don’t forget it,” Mr. Fairchild said.
Marjorie flinched at his forceful words. She brought her wrist to her chest to staunch the pain stinging her heart. Even without giving herself permission to, she had begun to hope for more with Lord Beauchamp.
Mr. Fairchild let go of her and pushed a rotted log out of the path. “I don’t wish to hurt you. But I don’t want to see you hurt either.” He kept his boot on the decaying stump, rocking it back and forth. “Men in his situation don’t marry so far beneath them.” He released a slow breath through his nose.
Marjorie shivered, her fervor dropping as his censure hollowed out all her confidence. “I would not be so bold as to expect marriage to a Beauchamp.” There was no need for his concern.
Mr. Fairchild tilted his head, his eyes piercing. “Has he asked anything of you?”
She blinked. “Such as?”
He took off his hat and glared at it as if it had committed a crime. “It pains me to speak so frankly, but you deserve to understand the way of things. Gentlemen are known to sometimes lead duel lives.” He swallowed. “One virtuous and one not.”
Marjorie’s boot slid on mud, but she caught herself. Her mouth tasted like grit. “What are you implying?”
Mr. Fairchild met her gaze, waiting patiently like a teacher quizzing a pupil. “It’s despicable, but some of these men keep a woman of lower standing as a mistress.” He blew out a breath, but met her eye, squinting as he waited for her reply.
She wilted at the image of Lord Beauchamp in such a base relationship. It would be so beneath him. As her father’s eyes bored into hers, the emptiness inside her grew. She shook her head as understanding dawned. Her father could not mean Lord Beauchamp would only see someone like her as a mistress? The grime on her boots may as well have been all over her for the way she itched to get clean.
She pointed to the path spanning the open space between the trees and the manor. “A storm is coming.”
“Marjorie, my girl,” he said. He took her elbow before she left the woodlands, but she could not meet his eye. “I speak plainly so you can understand. I would never do anything to injure you.”
She studied her dirty hem, nodding her head and squeezing her eyes against the hurt. “Of course.”
“I need you to be aware of what may be beneath a pristine front, because I’m not around to keep an eye out for you, as I’d like.” He shook his head and pressed his lips together. “It’s a rotten shame to see you saddened. Would that I could give you more.” His mouth lifted in a smile, but it did not reach his eyes.
Her heart ached at his regret. She knew he did the best he could. “Nonsense. I am blessed to have you care for me.”
He opened his arms and she fell into the embrace, breathing his familiar scent of horses and tobacco. He could never fill the void her mother left, but the loss they each suffered had bound them closer. He was a good man, and it was enough.
“People who care the most are the ones I want to keep close,” she murmured into his shoulder.
He pulled back, wiping his eyes, his jaw tight with unspoken emotion.
She wanted to lighten his regret. “Who else would have let me jump into puddles?”
His watery expression changed into a grin. “Everything was a game to you. A world of make-believe.”
She shook her head, wishing the world were as clean and wholesome as she imagined. Even if the uncomfortable truths smeared the beauty of life, she did not regret having her eyes opened. Raindrops hit the dense leaves above them, hushing the world, and wrapping them in a blurry shelter. She would look carefully to see past any veneer of manners others used to conceal their true conduct.
“You straddle two worlds—real and imagined. Privileged and working class,” he said.
She considered that, letting the difficulties sink in, and her resolve to stay safe take root. They spoke for some time more, about her uncle in Sheffield, the stable yard at Strathford, and her experiences in London. Water swirled in muddy rivulets in the saturated earth. The air was crisp with the scent of grass and soil. The rain stirred up mud in some spots, while others were washed clean.
“Best get you back during this lull before the storm hits in full force,” Mr. Fairchild said.
“Will you walk with me the rest of the way?”
He shook his head. “This is as close as I dare take you. My course clothing and calloused hands don’t belong anywhere near the company you keep.”
“I will always be proud of you.” Marjorie’s heart ached, already missing him. She kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you for visiting me.”
She was avoiding him, Miles knew it by the way she averted her eyes when he walked near her in the drawing room.
Reginald stepped close. “Has she heard the rumors?” Several guests had spread the gossip about Marjorie’s inferior birth.
“I am uncertain.” He trailed Marjorie with his gaze. She brushed past him, leaving a hint of lavender. Unease settled in his core, dense and heavy. She usually welcomed his company, but something had changed since their ride yesterday. He pressed his lips together as he ventured a guess as to what Mr. Fairchild said. A game of charades was about to begin or he would speak with her.
Miss Winters converged on Marjorie, but Marjorie sidestepped to speak with Miss Easton. Marjorie was exceptional at flitting away when she chose.
“In any case, she has made a few friends who stick close. That is something,” Miles said.
“What aren’t you telling me?” Reginald gave his back to the room. “There is the other rumor about her being caught in the rain with a man. You are not that man, are you?”
Jealousy shot through Miles and he tensed, then he remembered Marjorie had spoken with her father. They must have been caught in the rain and been seen. “Do not repeat rumors you know to be utter nonsense.” So far, no one seemed to know Marjorie’s father had visited her. That was a relief.
Miles had hardly spoken to Mr. Fairchild before he left in the drizzle this morning. The conversation had been stilted and awkward. Miles was unaccustomed to censure or any position other than being in command. But he was plagued with doubts. Did Mr. Fairchild guess at his interest in his daughter? Did he disapprove? Miles could not bring up the subject without declaring himself and asking for Marjorie’s hand, which seemed a leap. He was still coming to terms with the possibilities and the complications. A declaration of his feelings would cause a scandal, and he needed to approach this carefully. Besides, Marjorie would not so much as look at him since her father’s visit.
“You are keeping something from me. Come now, I know you admire her. Surely you can win her regard. Should we make a wager?” Reginald chuckled.
“I can manage my own affairs,” Miles said.
Reginald’s eyebrows rose and he smiled lopsided.
Miles ignored his brother’s amusement over his choice of words. “Why is Webb still here?” he asked to change the subject, as well as demand answers.
Reginald’s face fell briefly. “I can manage my own affairs as well,” he said, regaining his usual confidence and charm. He left Miles to stand alone.
Miss Greystock called everyone together for a game of charades. “We need two teams. Separate yourselves or I shall.”
He waited to see which side Marjorie would choose. When he drew near, she edged away. He knew it was immature, but disappointment sank heavy. He switched tracks, crossing the room to stand alongside Lord Courtenay. He could be patient and find out what caused her look of distrust later.
“The category is famous people. And Sir James has flipped a coin which shows his team will begin,” Miss Greystock said. Sir James guided her to his team, of which Miles was a part.
Miles stayed on the periphery as the ten people clustered close discussing who to choose and then how to act out each syllable of the name.
Miss Greystock clapped her hands together to get everyone’s attention. “We are ready.” Both sides took a seat in the large drawing room. She recounted the rules of the game—participants were free to speak or dramatize until the other team guessed the correct word.
“The first syllable of this famous person’s last name is as follows,” Sir James announced with a twinkle in his eye. Miss Greystock pretended to pull something.
Sir James came behind Miss Greystock and wrapped his arms around her to help her tug on the fictional rope. Her mouth parted and her cheeks flushed.
Lord Easton mimed digging, wiping his brow as if hot, and asking for water. Lord Courtenay picked up a vase, removed the flowers, and hurled the water onto Lord Easton, who sputtered a moment before both men laughed, along with the entire room.
At Mrs. Jones encouraging nod, the opposing team kept guessing.
“Yes,” Mrs. Jones called.
“Oh, it is Wellington! Lord Arthur Wellesley,” Miss Easton bounced on her toes.
“Yes,” Mrs. Jones enthused.
The teams clapped. The pug Wellington stood up and barked at hearing his name, earning extra pats and hurrahs.
“We made ours too easy,” Lord Easton said with a groan.
“Tabitha has a brilliant mind,” Lord Courtenay replied, causing the smile on Lord Easton’s face to change to a scowl.
The other team conferred for the allotted time, and then everyone settled in. The excitement in the room was palpable.
Mr. Oscar Easton held up both his hands to call everyone’s attention. “Ours is sure to be a challenge.” He smiled with confidence. “Here is the second word, second syllable.”
Mr. Tauney Easton led the others in arranging pillows in a line on the floor.
Webb and Reginald mimed jumping into the pillows and moving their arms.
“Swimming! Water! A stream!”
Mr. Oscar Easton nodded at the guess and motioned his team to continue.
Reginald picked up Marjorie and she gasped, circling her arms around his neck. Miles’ laughter died on his lips. His insides clenched at how close his brother held her. Reginald stepped over the pillows, setting her down and bowing gallantly. Miles stood still as the room cheered. Marjorie covered her cheeks with her hands, a timid smile on her face. Reginald leaned down and pointed to his cheek, asking her for a kiss. The impertinent scoundrel. She kissed her fingertips and touched them to Reginald’s face. Reginald looked his direction with a smug grin that seemed to say he knew how to charm women and found it amusing Miles did not. Miles tore his gaze away.
Mr. Tierney caused another spectacle when he carried Miss Anne across and mimed dropping her in the water. Miles grimaced when Tierney took the charade one step too far by seeming to pat her dry. Miss Anne swatted his hands, her usual merriment gone. Mr. Tauney Easton stepped between them and ushered her away.
“They are fording the river,” Lady Du’Brevan guessed. And the group of performers bowed and applauded.
“Ford is correct,” Mr. Oscar Easton said. He rubbed his hands together. “Here is the first syllable of the same word.”
The performers regrouped. Miss Easton pretended to whisper in the ear of Mr. Bloomsbury, who then mopped his brow and leaned towards a cringing Miss Standish, who turned to the next person in line.
“Gossip! Secret! Tell a secret!”
Mr. Oscar Easton clapped. “Tell is correct. You now have the first syllable, tell, along with the second syllable, ford.” He ignored the guests putting the word together, saying aloud, Tell-ford. “As I said, this famous person is a challenge. Here is a clue to the first name.”
The charades for the first name were as varied as the guesses. With no clear direction, everyone began calling out every first name they could come up with, some bordering on the ridiculous.
Miles was surprised to see Marjorie’s amused face turn to study him. Her expression turned thoughtful and his heartbeat quickened. An awareness passed between them, humming and gentle. For a moment her swirling emotions were laid bare—sadness, regret, longing—before she looked down, shielding the warmth in her eyes. Did she regret the moment he took her in his arms by the fountain? Or perhaps a warning from her father made her doubt him? He would give anything to understand her thoughts. Heaven help him, but he wanted to discover what the two of them could be together.
Marjorie moved forward, her intent becoming clear. She was going to pantomime. His shoulders slumped in disappointment that her thoughts were on this game and not on him after all. Then she looked up and kept her eyes locked on his. His senses sharpened.
She whispered to Reginald and Lord Ian, who got on their knees and tugged . . . at an imaginary toy? Marjorie shook her finger at them, then patted Reginald on the head. She glanced at Miles again, along with Reginald and Lord Ian, who each looked confused but hopeful.
Miles smiled as he put the clues from the charades together. She was dramatizing their shared experience in the village, one to which no one else was privy. Lord-Lieutenant Halstead’s son, Thomas.
“Thomas. It is Thomas Telford,” he said.
Everyone clapped, along with Marjorie.
Lady Rachel whispered, “Who is Thomas Telford?”
Webb cocked an eyebrow and looked down on her. “He is the engineer who rebuilt the London Bridge.”
Miss Easton embraced Marjorie. “I saw that. I don’t know how you got Lord Beauchamp to guess correctly.”
Lord Courtenay wrapped an arm around Marjorie as well and adopted a Scottish brogue, “Great job, lass. No London Bridge gonnae be falling down now.” He let go of Marjorie and winked at Miss Easton.
Marjorie flushed in pleasure. She was beaming and beautiful, her unease falling away to reveal the woman of spirit inside. She met Miles’ gaze once more before quickly looking away. He shook his head, unable to hold back a bemused smile. She radiated a genuine joy, and her magnetic warmth drew him. If she expected him to leave her alone—without first telling him why—then she was mistaken.