In the previous chapter of The Stable Master’s Daughter, Marjorie walked with Reginald and Miles, noting tension between the brothers. At a landmark, she overheard a rumor about the Beauchamp brothers’ wager on which one would win her regard. Doubt played on her fears.
Marjorie twisted in her chair, resting her hands along the back. “Must we stay, Aunt Harriet?”
“Let Sally finish your hair, dearest.”
The abigail stroked the brush along the nape of her neck and secured her hair taut enough to stretch her eyes.
Aunt Harriet’s reflection shown with confusion. “Why would you wish to return to London? Tomorrow is the ball. Are you unwell?”
Yes, she was unwell. Her heart ached with a pang similar to homesickness. Wherever home may be, since it certainly wasn’t with her father in Strathford any longer, nor was it her aunt’s home in London. Marjorie reached back to loosen the knot and ran her fingers along her scalp to relieve the strain. “I crave solitude today.”
Yesterday’s allusions to a rumor about a wager between Lord Beauchamp and Reginald stung sharp and fresh. Her mind grew tired from replaying Mr. Webb’s off-handed remarks to Mr. Easton, sifting and weighing if there was any truth to the gossip. If a wager existed, which of the guests knew? Her shoulders sagged. How had she been duped into believing she belonged?
She had almost allowed herself to believe Lord Beauchamp loved her. And she had fallen in love with him. Tears pricked her eyes at her foolishness. A competition between the brothers made more sense than true regard. A hairpin stuck her scalp and she winced.
“Sorry, poppet,” Sally murmured.
Marjorie nodded. She could not bear the humiliation of being a wager. Not again. Neither man would win, because she would keep to herself. If it came to it, she would reject them before they could reject her. Not only would she be mortified at being a prize, but Lord Beauchamp seemed like too much of a gentleman to behave in such a way. Doubt weighed her down and her head ached from sorting through the possibilities.
Aunt Harriet took Marjorie’s hands, pulling her to her feet. “Dearest, I won’t allow you solitude today, but I will pray you find peace. Stay by my side while I assist in preparations for tomorrow’s ball.” She released her and Sally pulled the dress over Marjorie’s head and began smoothing and tucking.
“You have so much of your mother in you,” Aunt Harriet said on a sigh.
“My mother?” Marjorie shook her head, her thoughts still clouded in confusion. Her mother had married far beneath her station, shocking society into apoplexy. Sally finished and left to tidy the room.
Aunt Harriet drew close and touched Marjorie’s chin, her voice soft as she said, “She did not care for worldly praise either. She learned how to lead a life in a different rank because she loved your father and he loved her. You couldn’t be around them without witnessing their love, kind of like a miracle.” A hint of mischief came into her eyes. “The same way I’ve seen you and Lord Beauchamp look at each other.”
Marjorie’s body flushed with heat, and her mouth opened and closed. A fledgling hope settled around her. She reached out and caught hold of Aunt Harriet’s smooth hand. Even if she was terrified of opening herself up to humiliation or heartache, she needed to find out for herself whether or not Lord Beauchamp was the man she thought him to be. And if he loved her. Only, how was she to find out?
Miles leaned forward, resting his hands amid the papers on the table, as he and his solicitor studied the documents from Lombard Street in London. Silence filled the study, but Miles railed internally. His credit—his good name—had been damaged.
“Our contact went through considerable effort to get this from the Cheque Clearing and Exchange,” Wright said.
Miles managed a nod of acknowledgement. He strode to the door and checked to see if Reginald had arrived yet. There was no sign of him.
He returned to examine the offending cheque which lay undisturbed on the table, with his signature for £5000. His vision blurred from staring between the number and his name, trying to make sense of it. The handwriting appeared to be his own. The letters slanted to the right, the ink applied with the same pressure, the letters formed in the exact shape he used. His thoughts spiraled.
Wright plucked the cheque, turning it over, his brows pulled low. “Paper from the Bank of England. Your printed form for drawing a note. Stamped and signed,” he repeated the same facts they had been over and over.
“I did not sign this.” Miles ran his hand through his hair.
“We could never prove the signature is not by your own hand,” Wright dipped his chin, appearing thoughtful. “You will be made to honor this payment.”
“To a man at a gaming hell.” Miles rubbed between his eyes. “My good name as a gentleman could be damaged if I pay it, because it will be as good as admitting I am the gambler. And my name is tainted if I do not pay it, because a gentleman meets his obligations and keeps his word.”
“We will get to the bottom of this.” Wright appeared calm. No bouncing knee to give away his agitation.
The door opened and Reginald strode in, smoothing his hair back. Miles tugged the cuffs of his sleeves down. The sight of his carefree brother while he unraveled a wretched mess, sparked the ember of carefully banked anger inside him.
“Glad you could join us,” Miles ground out.
“Well, it is early in the day,” Reginald said.
Miles extended the reclaimed cheque.
“What is this?” Reginald asked as he read and reread the document. Miles watched as understanding crossed his face. He swallowed and tried to return the cheque as if the paper might be diseased. “I had nothing to do with this.”
Wright took the proffered paper. He cut a glance at Miles, silently asking if he believed his brother. He did not. Reginald may not be fully responsible for the cheque, but Miles believed he knew something.
Wright cleared his throat. “Mr. Beauchamp, this is a cheque written as if from your brother’s hand. We wonder how an exorbitant sum, written on his cheques, kept in his sole possession, and signed in a strikingly similar hand, could come about. Please enlighten us.”
“It was not me.”
“Right then. Well, Freshfields Prison holds those awaiting trial on forgery charges,” Wright said.
Reginald blanched and his hand dropped to his side. He glared at Miles. “Tell me, what about this upsets you most? I’m curious. Is it worry over your reputation or your money?”
Miles’ throat closed. “My concern for you.”
“Forgery is a hanging offence,” Wright said.
Reginald tugged his cravat.
“Tell us what you know and we may be able to help you,” Miles said.
Reginald stared at the floor. He smiled, but it turned into a grimace. “I never meant for this to happen, you know.”
Miles’ stomach churned and he resisted taking a step closer. He had expected Reginald to deny knowledge of the forgery—and he hoped Reginald was innocent. He hid his surprise at the forthright words, ignoring the guilt on his brother’s face. “No? What did you expect?”
“He owed money and asked me to help. I had no idea. I have some friends who . . . possess an unusual set of skills. I am nothing if not friendly, so it was easy. I made introductions.” He paced to the cold fireplace and turned abruptly to face them again. “Things got hot for him, and I owed him money, and I know what happens when someone crosses him, so I let him stay. But I had no idea he had done this to you.”
Miles leaned his palms on the table. He wanted the culprit’s name.
Wright beat him to it. “And his name.”
Reginald pursed his lips, his hairline beading with sweat. “I am a drain on our family. A disgrace. The only thing I excel at is my rapport with others. I’m a likeable enough fellow. Everyone likes me.” His smile was strained.
Miles strode the few steps and clasped Reginald’s shoulder. “You don’t need anyone’s approval. You need respect. Starting with your own self-respect. Tell us what you can and we will do everything in our power to help. Do you want my help?”
“I do.” Reginald nodded, lifting his head. “Yes, I do. Only . . . I will not marry Miss Winters. I could never pull her into the mess I’ve created.”
“Very wise,” Miles said.
Reginald lifted a brow. “Never in my life have I been accused of being wise.” He dabbed at his face with a handkerchief. “Uh, there is another matter I should mention, if I am going to right a few wrongs. There is a rumor of a wager between you and me, in regards to winning Miss Fairchild. I did not start it. It is recent.” Reginald halted. “You were going to win it anyway. I found no harm in it, since really nothing was at stake.”
Miles winced. Nothing at stake? Slander could shatter Marjorie’s reputation irrevocably, or deeply injure her tender heart. And he desperately hoped his chances with her were not diminished. She must know he sought her in earnest. He loved her. He meant to take things slowly, but if needed, he would lay his heart bare. Eager not to waste a minute, he set off to find her.
Resolve lengthened his strides. His good name and reputation as a gentleman be hanged. Marjorie’s heart and a future together hung in the balance. “Wright, pull the name out of Reginald without me. I have something more important to attend to.”
Marjorie wrung her hands. She glanced inside the Marble Ballroom to see who was present this afternoon. Sunlight glinted off the polished surfaces of the ballroom. Tomorrow night this room would shine in soft candlelight from the many chandeliers. A second level surrounded the ballroom with a balcony where Aunt Harriet directed servants arranging roses.
Marjorie’s bravado had quickly faded beneath glances which were . . . what? Curious? Concerned? Sympathetic? Each time she glimpsed a suit, she feared Lord Beauchamp would materialize. She hid by the doorway, no longer certain she could face him or anyone else.
“Who are you hiding from, Miss Fairchild?” Lady Du’Brevan asked from behind her, making Marjorie jump and her heart skip in alarm. The Countess’ round face sagged, but her eyes remained sharp as an eagle’s.
Marjorie bit her lip. “I would like a moment to collect myself, but Aunt Harriet doesn’t want me left alone.”
Lady Du’Brevan clawed at the pearls around her neck as she pondered. “I know just the thing.”
The Countess spoke with Aunt Harriet, then led Marjorie past the entryway’s double staircase, to her personal study, a room covered in red wallpaper and flanked by books. The Countess opened a closet door wide. Marjorie frowned in confusion at this odd turn of events. Until she saw light streaming in through a window within the small space. The promise of solitude without anyone finding her refreshed her.
“Thank you, my lady.” Marjorie curtseyed. Perhaps Lady Du’Brevan was not as intimidating or conniving as she once believed.
“Take all the time you need.” Lady Du’Brevan gently closed the door.
The wood floor squeaked under Marjorie’s weight as she walked the few paces to the dormer window. She touched the cushioned chair, the only piece of furniture, and stared into the light for some time. Blessed silence surrounded her. She took a seat, removed her gloves, and withdrew the sketchbook and pencil from her reticule.
The book opened to a page with Lord Beauchamp’s image. She traced his strong jawline, the stern set of his brows over clear eyes. When they first met in the garden, she believed him unfeeling, but now she knew he wrapped the few he cared for in a protective cover. How she wished he truly cared for her. She turned the pages glimpsing battledore and crushed feathers, the footman Damen who brought lemonade and lent a listening ear, her father’s face surrounded by rain and trees, the North Star, the stable block, the fountain. She clutched her chest, her heart constricting like a vise. How she would miss her time with Lord Beauchamp. How she wished away the rumor. If she was a lady equal to Lord Beauchamp, then she would have no need to fear something sordid in their relationship.
She moved the pencil across the page, the lead chaffing against the parchment, as a drawing emerged. Shadows of two men—the rough workers who had wagered for her three years ago—blended into the darkness of the two tarnished Beauchamp gentlemen who wagered now. A tear ran down her nose and onto the page. She gritted her teeth. She was more than her circumstances. More than the status given to her at birth.
The door to the room creaked open and she startled, unsure how much time had passed. “Lady Du’Brevan, I lost track of time.” Lord Beauchamp bent under the open doorframe and her heart beat rapidly.
“My lord,” she stood, her book and pencil dropping to the floor with a soft thud.
“Rest assured, Lady Du’Brevan is just outside this door, acting as chaperone. She took pity on me.” He stooped to retrieve her book and pencil, balancing them on the armrest. His warmth heightened the rays of sunshine, his sandalwood scent wrapped around her. His presence sucked the air from the room.
His dark brows settled low as his blue eyes roved over her face. “Are you well? I haven’t seen you since our walk yesterday and I’ve missed you. Have you recovered?”
She held her breath, determined to be unaffected by him. “Yes,” she choked, unwilling to discuss her crushed hopes yet, or her disillusionment with his character.
He swept his hands along the window sash. “There is a rumor . . . in regards to you and me. I have just been made aware of it.” He waited, watching her. “I want to assure you it is untrue.”
The air grew thicker. She studied the floor, unable to meet his eyes. “I did hear of it,” she whispered.
His boots touched the toes of her slippers. “Oh Marjorie.” Sadness permeated his voice. “Look at me. Please.”
She glanced up, more from shock at his use of her Christian name than his directive. He seemed so sincere, but how could she tell? She was not a good judge of character. Her chest burned. She inhaled, the sound embarrassingly loud.
He reached for her hands, but stopped himself, rubbing his jaw instead. “I only just discovered it. It is vicious gossip. There is no truth to it, I assure you.”
The words sank in slowly. Wariness put her on the defensive, and she had to allow herself to believe him. Her thoughts remained arid, her mind struggling to absorb his reassurance. But of course he would not do something dishonorable.
“I have known you a long time,” he continued. “Your character is above reproach. A lady of your quality should be treated with respect. It reflects badly on whoever gossiped, not on you.”
She found her voice. “I believe you. Thank you for telling me. I have been troubled by it,” she admitted.
Lord Beauchamp’s posture relaxed and he glanced around the small space. “In a house this size, you chose this room to seek refuge?” His tone seemed deliberately light.
She had been absorbed in their conversation, but this situation was not ideal, even with the Countess near. They were standing close. “We should,” she began, but he put a finger to her lips, shocking her system into silence. Her body trembled, battling attraction to this man with her confusion of his intentions. What had brought on this boldness in Lord Beauchamp?
“Marjorie, I need something to be clear. I admire you more than any woman of my acquaintance. You are resilient, gentle, and strong.” He trailed his hand from her shoulder down to her hand, taking her fingers in his palm. “I want to spend each moment with you. You are a calm influence amid the storm.” He glanced up and her breath caught at the sincerity in his gaze.
Their eyes held and the air around them charged like a thunderstorm. He gently tugged her hand and she stepped closer, placing her other hand on his chest. She could feel his heartbeat pounding as his eyes continued to look at her with a hunger she felt in the pit of her stomach.
His gaze lowered to her lips. She wanted nothing more than to let her eyelids close, to take one step closer, but fear held her suspended. If she allowed him to kiss her, would the magic holding her spellbound turn to ash? Would he toss her aside, once he triumphed? What did a kiss mean? Engagement? Love? Lust? A feat of victory?
She removed her hand from his chest and took a step back. He took a step with her, as if in a coordinated dance, but she held up a hand to stop him. He froze.
“But then why . . . . what are . . .” She rasped, unable to finish her question about why he would show interest in her. What were his intentions? Her father’s concern over some gentlemen’s offers for a mistress crossed her mind with revolting clarity.
“I apologize if this seems too fast. I will gladly follow you to London and court you properly.”
She felt lightheaded, and desperately wanted to believe the etchings of his promise. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears, making her head ache.
He stepped closer, taking her hands in his. Concern crossed his features. He cupped her shoulders in his large hands. “Marjorie, can you breathe?”
How many times had he asked her this? But once he brought it to her attention, she realized she had been struggling for air. She panicked, eyes wide.
She clutched her throat, struggling too hard to draw in air. The attack had come on quickly, or perhaps she had ignored the gradual signs. The more she fought to pull in air, the more the room began to press in, suffocating her. Her legs weakened under the weight pressing down on her chest. Strong hands supported her elbows and guided her into the chair.
“Lady Du’Brevan,” Lord Beauchamp shouted. “Send help immediately. Miss Fairchild is suffering an attack of the lungs.”
Time seemed to slow down. She tried to think of the words of her song, but fear chased the tune away. Dust motes glittered in the sunlight streaming through the window, enveloping the world with a dreamlike quality. Her vision clouded along the edges as she tried to breathe, her heartbeat pounding in her ears.
Lord Beauchamp’s arms came around her, one enveloping her back and the other under her legs. A sense of safety overcame her as he lifted her into his arms and carried her out of the nook in the study. The air cooled. The hum of his deep voice soothed her as he spoke, the words coming distant. “. . . coffee . . . fresh air . . . my love.” She leaned her cheek against the hollow of his throat and held on.