In the last chapter of The Stable Master’s Daughter, Mr. Fairchild warned Marjorie of men who lead duel lives—one virtuous and one not. Marjorie distanced herself from Miles. He determined to find out what troubles Marjorie—and to discover what they can be together.
Marjorie dragged a gloved finger over the weave on the blank canvas set for her, waiting for a surge of creativity, but her interest petered out. The windless day invited everyone to spend the afternoon outdoors. Beyond the easels set for the best view of the lake, some men and a few women lingered near the water’s edge with fishing poles. The sight did not stir Marjorie. She found it listless rather than idyllic. She breathed in the scent of peat moss, her mind absorbed in the hum of conversation and the plunk of the lures breaking the surface of the lake.
“Marjorie, dearest?” Aunt Harriet pulled her from her thoughts. “I could use a bit of help getting this landscape level.” She pointed to the canvas with her vine charcoal, a smile tugging at her lips.
Marjorie smiled slowly. “At the very least we can make sure the landscape does not slide off the canvas.”
After everything her aunt had taught her, it was gratifying to be the one giving instructions. “Now fill in with shapes of the trees and you are ready to paint,” Marjorie said. When Aunt Harriet tried adding painstaking details to a tree, Marjorie covered her wide smile, glad her aunt did not see her amusement. “Loose shapes. Like this.” Marjorie pointed to the cloud outline.
“That nondescript shape?” Aunt Harriet huffed. “I suppose I can manage.”
Aunt Harriet had a smudge by her nose. “Here, let me get that nondescript spot off your face,” Marjorie said before wiping the mark. They shared a laugh.
“Where is your handkerchief?” Aunt Harriet took her hand and examined the dark splotch on her glove.
Drat, she had forgotten she still wore gloves. She wished she had at least chosen the tan ones over the white.
Marjorie tugged her hand free, recognizing Lord Beauchamp’s low voice. Her heart seemed to stop, and then beat too rapidly. She glanced at him and then away, unsure where to look or how to behave. He touched the brim of his hat as he greeted them both. She managed a curtsy, all while admiring his buckskin breeches and black boots.
He gestured towards the water. “Fishing today, after Wellington found that pile of fish heads?”
She and Aunt Harriet laughed. “That is very amusing. What do you think of my efforts so far?” Aunt Harriet pointed towards her canvas.
“That is coming along nicely, Mrs. Jones.”
Aunt Harriet’s mouth pulled into a side smile. “My niece is an excellent teacher.”
“And where is yours, Miss Fairchild?” His low voice invited her to lean in.
She lifted her chin, startled by how blue his eyes were. Her mouth seemed filled with cotton. “I am not drawing or painting.”
The skin around his eyes tightened. “Why not? It’s a fine day. Surely you have the time and inclination.”
She shook her head and turned her attention to the green lump of paint Aunt Harriet plastered on the canvas.
“I cannot draw with someone looking over my shoulder,” Marjorie whispered.
Aunt Harriet snuck a glance between the two of them.
“Would you take a short walk with me, Miss Fairchild? I have a few moments until my solicitor arrives. That is, if Mrs. Jones can spare you, and if you are amenable to the idea,” Lord Beauchamp said.
Aware of watchful eyes and listening ears, Marjorie removed her apron, touched her aunt’s shoulder and followed Lord Beauchamp. He gestured towards the edge of the lake.
When they had walked a short distance he asked, “Why would someone looking over your shoulder keep you from drawing? It’s something you love.” He focused on a point across the lake.
Her pulse drummed in her temple, making reasoning difficult. She glanced at her hands, noticed the blackened spot, and hid it. “Because someone could criticize.”
He shook his head and shifted the parcel under his arm. “It would reflect badly on them, not you. You have a natural capability.”
Marjorie smiled wistfully, unsure if he was speaking only of her artwork, but grateful he believed her competent. “There are few people I trust enough to share my work. Someone in my situation cannot depend upon respect.” She twisted her fingers together.
They passed a copse of evergreen trees near the water. “I see.” He nodded, then he stopped walking to face her. “I hope you may trust me enough to let me watch you draw.”
Heat rushed through her at his words and the sincerity in his direct gaze. She swallowed and shrugged a shoulder, knowing her aunt would call the gesture unladylike. “Perhaps.”
Lord Beauchamp smiled briefly. Then he furrowed his brows and lowered his voice. “Have I done something to upset you?”
She tensed. “Why do you ask?” Her voice came out high and breathy.
He sighed and looked past her as if looking for an escape in the wide-open space. “Because you have been avoiding me. You have hardly spoken or looked at me since our horseback ride. Since your father visited.” His lips pressed together in a firm line. “Which leaves me to wonder how I upset you. How I can fix it.”
Lord Beauchamp’s forthright manner astonished her, as she was used to speaking around a subject more than not. She bit her lip, wondering how much to reveal. She did not want to share her fear after her father’s caution, her doubt about Lord Beauchamp’s intentions, or how she puzzled over his true character. Let alone concerns over the disparity in their situations.
She exhaled, focusing on his question. “Honestly?”
He nodded once, a smile on his lips. “Yes, of course.”
Marjorie searched his features and decided to answer carefully. “You have done nothing to offend me. But you are correct in your assumption about my father’s visit.” She swallowed.
“Of course he was concerned. I spoke briefly with him before he left, but neither he nor I discussed his apprehension. Or what he saw. I imagine he made his views clear to you though.”
“I’m sure you can understand. My position is precarious, even with my aunt and uncle’s good name.” She placed a hand to her forehead, willing herself to say the next words. “I cannot be too careful with my reputation. I cannot lose sight of my place.”
Lord Beauchamp turned thoughtful. “When you say ‘your place’ you mean your social standing.”
“Yes. My lack of any social standing. Which makes it impossible for—” She stopped herself before saying us and scrambled to finish the thought. “Impossible for me to expect much.” She winced, wondering if he understood what she was not saying. She was so far out of her element at this house party.
Lord Beauchamp closed the distance between them and she grew lightheaded at his nearness. “Do not sell yourself short, Miss Fairchild. I know you have a vivid ability to dream. Reality aside, what do you hope for?”
A part of her wanted to confide. She bit her bottom lip, wavering on opening her heart when he looked so earnest. “That is a tempting question.” And he was a tempting man.
“Perhaps you should give in to temptation.”
The water lapped against the rocks. She wanted to step towards him.
“Your desires, Miss Fairchild?”
Her desires? To give in to gravity and let herself fall. To allow herself to imagine a life with him, as if she could be his equal, and he only have eyes for her. She imagined a life with Lord Beauchamp would transform bleakness into brilliance. He seemed the kind of man who could both let her fly and keep her grounded. She sighed and took a painful step back. Despite his ability to make her feel like she was essential, she had to keep her distance.
He seemed to understand her sealed lips. “For the remainder of this house party, could you set aside your social standing?” he asked, shifting the package under his arm.
Marjorie shook her head and laughed softly. It was like asking her to forget how to draw. Impossible. “I could forget who I am about as easily as you can ignore your standing as a future earl.”
He squinted and rubbed his chin. “True. What I mean to say is, I would like to put aside the images we cut in society, and treat each other as equals.”
Marjorie stared in wonder at this man. He appeared sincere. He would in essence put aside his title in order for her to be more at ease in his company. Could she really try to see past his title and her father’s dependence on him for his living? Would it put her father at risk? “My father . . .” She swallowed.
She shook her head, unable to get past the lump in her throat.
“Just say whatever is on your mind, Miss Fairchild. I will not judge you.”
She doubted that. But how to explain? “My father loves his position. It’s everything to him and he works hard. I couldn’t . . .”
The patient expression on his face turned pained. “You couldn’t what?”
Marjorie blew out a breath. “I couldn’t jeopardize that.” There, she said it. Her body was exhausted.
“Jeopardize his position? How?” Understanding crossed his features. “Ah. I understand.”
Good, because she really wanted to leave now.
“But I’m only asking for us to be friends, Miss Fairchild. To get past that very difference. I promise it will in no way affect your father. He is too good a stable master and I respect him too much.” He squinted. “It is only for the remainder of the house party; a mere week.”
Time was running out. When would she get another chance to spend time with him like this? Never. She would return to London and he to Strathford. She did not belong in Strathford any more, even with her father there. This chance to get to know him, just this once, was too tempting.
“I would like to be friends. Yes.” The words were shy, but she meant them.
His smile buoyed her further. “Good.” As if everything were settled, he seemed to close the door on the subject and shift to other things. She was startled by the change. He brought the package forward and stared at it as if wondering how he came about it. Her curiosity was peaked.
“Uh, I have a confession to make. I should have given this to you right away, but . . .” He placed the weight of the loosely wrapped package in her hands.
“For me?” She flushed in surprise. Then she recognized the heft and feel, and heat filled her face for assuming it was a gift. “My sketchbook.” Amid her embarrassment, relief washed over her to have it returned. “How . . . where did you find it?”
Lord Beauchamp shook his head, an uncharacteristic flush creeping up his neck. “I’ve had it since Monday evening. Reginald found it, but I took it from him for safekeeping. I meant to get it to you sooner, but . . .”
Marjorie’s mouth parted. Three days? She was grateful to have it returned safely, but he had kept it three days? Another question made her breath stop. “Did you look at my drawings?”
She tucked the book to her chest, closed her eyes, and sank into herself. He had seen her drawings. And worse—he did not seem to like them.
His boots crunched on gravel. “Remember we are friends.”
Surprised, she opened her eyes to see his worried expression.
“Reginald showed me the drawing you made of me and . . .”
She was sure her eyes could not widen more in shock. “And what?” she demanded, defenses rising.
“My likeness is by far and away the most unimaginative drawing in your book. I look rather grave.” Lord Beauchamp shook his head in exaggerated solemnity. “Not that I can blame you. I do not inspire much.”
His self-deprecating humor broke the tension and she laughed.
“You are not too angry with me?” He tilted his head, awaiting her verdict.
“It depends. What did you think of my other drawings?” she asked, only partly teasing.
A smile stretched across his face, and the force of it stunned her. He did not appear grave now. “I adore your drawings. And the mind with the imagination and precision to craft them.”
Her heart beat erratically and the most pleasant sensation of warmth thrummed through her frame.
Whistling brought them both around to the approach of a gentleman.
“Mr. Wright,” Lord Beauchamp greeted the man Marjorie knew to be his solicitor.
Mr. Wright bowed to Marjorie. “Miss Fairchild, so good to see you again.”
Mr. Wright smiled a funny smile, as if he knew a secret and could not decide whether or not to share it. He glanced between Lord Beauchamp and her with a gleam in his eyes, and fiddled with the bag slung over his shoulder. “I have never seen you so relaxed, my lord. Miss Fairchild is a good influence.” Mr. Wright appraised Marjorie too long.
She reverted to her usual reserve. “You are too generous, Mr. Wright. Well, I must get out of the sun. Good day to the both of you. And I appreciate the return of this item, Lord Beauchamp.”
Lord Beauchamp’s mouth tipped in a smile. Marjorie shook her head as she walked away, wondering how she had ever noticed Reginald when Lord Beauchamp was around.