A Lady in Love
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by Cynthia Bailey Pratt
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Sarah East wouldn't have considered abandoning her tomboyish ways if she hadn't been smitten by Alaric Naughton, Earl of Reyne. And her efforts appeared useless, as she met disaster every time she came in contact with the dashing peer. But Alaric had already noticed that the lovely, spirited Sarah was everything a lady should be. Regency Romance by Cynthia Bailey Pratt; originally published by Jove
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1993
eBookwise Release Date: February 2010
31 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [338 KB]
Reading time: 216-302 min.
"Oh Lord," Sarah prayed. "Please don't let these two great boobies sit here all the afternoon. If only we could play a game or argue as we used to."
She looked to her left. Harcourt Phelps nervously uncrossed his legs and sat up straighter, an uncertain smile coming and going across his long features.
She looked to her right. Harold Phelps's thin fingers touched his neckcloth and he too smiled, a pale copy of the boy she'd once romped with so merrily.
They were twins who, from the day of their birth, had done everything together. They were now twenty-one and, keeping strictly to the principle of their life to date, had unified in falling in love with the girl next door.
The girl in question was heartily sick of the entire business. Sarah got up and crossed to the French doors that looked out to the garden drowsing in the sunlight. "There are apples in the orchard. Let's go and pick some."
"Do you want apples?" That was Harcourt. She'd been the only one, outside their immediate family, who could tell them apart, though the similarity was less now that they no longer dressed alike. "I will be happy to go and find some for you."
"We could all go," she answered, turning. "I always could climb higher than any of us."
"The sweetest apples are always hardest to reach." Sarah sighed. Harold fancied himself as a poet and tried hard to turn everything into a compliment. "But it wouldn't be right for you to get your own apples. Let Harcourt go."
The older of the twins, by four minutes, thirty seconds, flashed an arrow glance of disgust at his brother. Not least distressing to Sarah was that their rivalry for her hand had disrupted a long camaraderie. "I am happy to be Sarah's champion in this as in all things," Harcourt said.
His brother smirked. "I said, you should go. I'm not dressed for bucolic pleasures. Go get apples, Harcourt. Sarah and I will wait for you to come back."
"Never mind," Sarah said. As she walked back and forth across the morning room carpet, she asked herself the question that so often occupied her of late. What had wrought the change in the brothers?
She couldn't ask them; she doubted they even knew. When she'd gone away to Aunt Whitsun, they had scarcely taken time from hunting and fishing to bid her good-bye. Three years her senior, their attitude had been one of relief for, though playmates in their childhood, when they had reached their teens they'd begun to think of her as being marginally more irritating than even their sister and her dearest friend, Harmonia. When she'd returned home early in August, however, their attitude had undergone yet another change.
She had not altered in the slightest, she had made certain of that. Aunt Whitsun had tried very hard to make her change, talking a lot of nonsense about being a woman now and not a hoyden any longer. And Sarah had been forced to put her hair up and lower her skirts, walk instead of run, and look archly across a room rather than bellowing when she wanted someone's attention. Her mother, who sent her away in despair, for she could get Sarah to do none of these things, had made it plain that the alterations must continue once she came home again.
But these things could not possibly have interested the Phelps brothers. Yet, she no sooner visited Harmonia than they began coming every day to sit in the morning room. And sit. And sit. No hints were sufficient to pierce their ardor. She could not, however, bring herself to hurt them by more direct methods.
She stopped pacing and tried again to gently dislodge them. "It certainly is a lovely day. I haven't seen so much water in the river since I was a child. Father says the fishing will be wonderful. And my, weren't there a lot of worms after last night's rain?"
Harold contrived to look as though he'd never touched a worm in his life. He probably would have swooned if reminded of all the ones he'd put down her back. "Oh, country pursuits will do for those with no higher aspirations. I wrote a sonnet to the moon last night. Would you like to hear it?"
"She just said there was rain last night. How could you write poetry to the moon when you couldn't even see it?"
"Need one see a thing to be vividly and intrinsically aware of it? I suppose you slept all through that cacophony of thunder and lightning. I never closed my eyes, enraptured by the majesty of it all."
Harcourt made a rude noise and folded his arms across his broad chest. "Is that why you were yawning like a barn door all the way over here?"
"I suppose all this rain is good for the crops?" Sarah interrupted. She always made an effort to address her conversation to neither brother in particular.
But they paid no attention to their lady love.
"I did not yawn, except at your chatter."
"Chatter? As if I would speak to a frilly thing like yourself."
"Frilly? And what are you but a cow-fisted chaw bacon with the manners of a highwayman?"
While Harcourt answered in the same vein, Mrs. East came in, bearing a basket full of cut flowers. "Good morning, dear."
"Good morning. Mother. May I take those?"
"And who was it that fell off his new bang-up bit of blood the first time he'd had one bumper over the limit?"
"I've never seen so many roses so late in the season, Sarah. Poor old Marsh keeps going over his treatment of them, trying to remember what he's done differently from all the other years. I told him it's because he's been going to church regularly."
Sarah laughed. "If he's been more than once in the last six months, I will become a Dissenter."
"I know, but I like to think of him as a reformed pagan. I think it's his beard."
"But let us not forget who it was that couldn't even read the lesson without tripping over his tongue? 'Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with food.' Food, ha! The word is 'good,' you...puppy!"
"That was an accident! It had nothing to do with..."
Mrs. East smiled on the young men and said, "Good morning, Harold. Good morning, Harcourt." Shamefaced, they greeted her. "You should go home now. Sarah must help me with the flowers."
"Oh, yes," said Harcourt. "May I call again tomorrow, Sarah?"
She'd have loved to say no, to both of them. But how could she, when they'd been part of her world for so long? She merely smiled and shook her head noncommittally, as she did every day.
"One more bud among the roses," Harold said, bowing. "Farewell, Sarah. Until tomorrow."
As they left, she could hear them picking up their quarrel.
"What fine young men they've become," Mrs. East said, as she always said. Her daughter had been home six weeks and every morning found the Phelps boys in one room or another of her house. To Sarah's surprise, her mother never mentioned this manifestation, nor speculated upon its possible cause. If they were inconvenient, she asked them to go. If they were not in the way, they might stay as long as the fancy took them. Sarah wished they might be inconvenient more often.
"Do you need my help with the flowers. Mother?" She never had asked for help before.
"I beg your pardon? No, dear, I think I can manage."
"Then I shall go for a walk."
Mrs. East hummed assent. As Sarah left through the French windows, her mother's voice floated after her. "Take your parasol, dear. The sun is so strong today, I can't quite believe it is October."
For a moment, Sarah paused outside her father's study window. She could hear his voice, reading aloud his latest letter to the literary magazine of which he was a sometime correspondent. It was a peculiarly comforting sound, one she had known from childhood, a beloved voice roaring out condemnation of some distant blockhead. "In conclusion, let me say that the esteemed gentleman from the north has my sincere sympathies for his recent bereavement. To lose one's senses in the midst of penning a letter...perhaps I leave myself open to the same criticism? Fiddle! I shall let it stand."
Sarah went on. Though the sun's rays were almost hot on her skin, the cool breeze made her think that a sun-shade would hardly be necessary. Certainly, it would be more of a hindrance than a help as she walked in the woods. She could smell the roses in the garden beyond the hedge, mixing with the recently cut grass and the fresh tang of rain. Her troubles faded. Sarah walked along the confines of her principality, completely happy, bestowing a smile on the elderly gardener as she passed.
There were apples in the orchard. But she knew where sweeter fruit yet grew on a wild tree that lived all alone in the woods. She carefully looked about. The Phelps twins were not above following her, singly or in unison. And lately, she'd had more than enough of their company. The woods, however, seemed empty of all human life.
Sarah had not thought to change her shoes before setting out. As she had no reason to walk on a hard road, she did not notice the oversight until she raised the hem of her skirt to step up into the low crook of the wild apple tree. The white kid slippers were marked by the plentiful leaf-mold of the old forest, and the ruffles around her hem were no less dirty. She sighed over it, but did not let it trouble her. Dresses were a botheration, as were hats, veils, gloves, and muffs, of both the summer and winter variety. Besides, her clothes were bound to look much worse by the time she was home again.
Reaching for the fruit above her head, she saw it was just ripened, deep green with a dusky red flush where the sun had touched most often. She reached high, her pale yellow dress gleaming among the rustling leaves.
The first shot flew by with a whine like that of a late bee rushing home to the hive. As such, Sarah did not regard it. Then she heard the crack of the discharge.
Twisting on her perch, Sarah tried to see who was shooting on Sir Arthur Phelps's property. If it were a poacher-- Not in the daylight, she reflected. She knew all the local questionables, and they were almost never seen when the sun was high. The other possibility was that the "Smart London Visitors," guests of Harvey Phelps, the oldest son of Sir Arthur, had decided to practice their aim. It had most likely been a stray bullet, Sarah thought, and opened her mouth to shout so that they would know she was near.
The next bullet scattered leaves close to her hand. Sarah let go as she flung herself backward in surprise. Falling, she did not scream but protested in a wordless shout. Crashing down, she lay stunned, awake but unable for the moment to rise or even to think. She had not fallen from a tree in years, though she'd climbed many, and it seemed she'd forgotten the knack of bouncing up at once from such a calamity.
Not even a nearby voice roused Sarah from a bemused contemplation of the spreading branches above her head. "I made sure it fell somewhere near ... oh, my God! Lord Reyne, Lord Reyne, come here! No, don't come here." His voice high with panic, the young man dropped to his knees beside Sarah's still form, throwing his gun down beside her.
"What are you playing at, Atwood? Come here, don't come here--do you fancy I am at your beck and call? What have you there?"
Atwood tried to hide the girl's body by flinging his arms out. "I thought it was a grouse. I saw it in a tree."
"Don't keep referring to her as it. You'll insult the chit. As if getting shot wasn't insult enough. Stand aside." The second of the men came within view of Sarah's dazed eyes. He was taller than the first by some inches, and thinner. They were dressed alike, in leather coats and breeches, but whereas twigs broke beneath Atwood's stomping boots, the other man's feet were silent over the littered forest floor. The stock of his long gun was cupped in one hand, the barrel gleaming over his right shoulder.
He looked down on her with sleepy eyes. She saw a glint of blue beneath his lids, the same color as the sky visible between branches and clouds. Sarah felt this similarity to be somehow important and wanted to study it.
"Are you hurt?" he asked. His eyes roamed her body, yet she knew it was only in the interest of her health. Nevertheless, she felt a blush start in her cheek. She tried to push herself up using her elbows.
"Pray don't move. Are you hurt?" he repeated. His voice sounded so kind that she smiled dreamily up at him.
"No, I don't think so," she said, when he said nothing more. "Why did you shoot at me?" It was all right with her if he wanted to do it, though she'd rather he would look at her and go on speaking in his slow, dark voice that sent answering ripples through her body.
"I assure you I did not. My friend, however, thought you a bird and so nearly made you an angel." Turning to that miserable man, he lay his fingers over Atwood's shoulder. "Run back to the house and get the doctor."
"But he might be miles ..."
"His gig was before the door when we left. Seeing a sick child, I think. He'll still be there. If the brat's mother is anything like mine, he'll be staying for breakfast." The unhappy Atwood still hesitated. "I'll keep watch until you return," the other man said. "You know I cannot walk with any speed."
"Very well," Atwood said. He rose slowly to his feet. "I'm so sorry," he whispered before he turned around and ran, crashing through the undergrowth like a bull released from the pasture that separated him from the cows.
Sarah became aware that a rock or a stick was directly beneath her shoulder and had, moreover, been digging into her for some time. "Ouch," she said, wriggling.
"You should lie still," the man warned.
For a moment, she subsided, eager to do as he wished. "Oh, I can't," she burst out, and pushed herself upright. "It's exactly like trying to sleep on a lumpy mattress."
"You may have broken something," he insisted.
Sarah twisted experimentally, pushing her loosened hair back when it fell over her shoulder. "I don't believe I have." She bent her knees beneath her skirt, still pinned under her. "No, I am all in one piece, I think." Holding out her hand, she looked up at him, wanting to be pulled upright. She'd never wished so much for a man's touch before. Though Harcourt and Harold, as well as others, had often taken her arm to help her, she'd always shaken them off, not needing them.
"I can't help you," he said sternly. She seemed neither shocked nor surprised, so he unbent enough to say, "My shoulder was broken and I can't lift anything too heavy."
"How did you do that?" Sarah smiled, her laughter bubbling up. "Did someone shoot you from a tree?"
"No, from my regiment." For a moment, a shadow passed over his brow, but her only response was a low whistle and a murmured "too bad." He asked a question he'd wondered about for some moments. "Were you truly up a tree?"
"Of course. Where else do you find apples?"
"I? On my dining table, or on a barrow. Or on the ground, surrounding you."
Sarah looked about her. "Oh, good," she said. Picking up a piece of fruit, shaken from the tree when she fell, she dusted it nonchalantly on her skirt, leaving a smear, and lifted it to her lips. "Do you want a bite?" she asked, hesitating.
Alaric Naughton, Earl of Reyne, had been offered many a proposition in the past. But few had tempted him less than this nonsensical Eve-child, offering the apple after her own fall. She might be a beauty when she grew up, he thought, but not now, not with dirty face and worse gown, not even with that splendid dark blond hair falling freely over the twigs and leaves that decorated her back. He noticed mildly that her hair was the exact color of the angels' in medieval stained glass windows.
"No, thank you, child. Eat it yourself. I prefer my fruit to come from my own forcing house." Cautiously, the earl lowered himself to sit upon a fallen log, resting his gun beside him. His thigh ached dully, the newly healed muscles protesting at the day's walk.
"I've eaten forced fruit at my aunt's. It doesn't taste like anything. Look, I'll climb up and get you another and you'll see how good it is." Taking a last bite of the core with her strong teeth, Sarah stood up, and the earl had to revise his estimate of her age.
"No, don't," he said in alarm.
"There's no danger," she called down. "Your friend left his gun behind."
What was climbing a tree, despite bruises, to fetch him an apple? She would have leapt over mountains, swum through pike-infested rivers, faced untold dangers to bring him anything he wanted. She knew proper young ladies never indulged in athletic behavior before gentlemen, except for walking or archery or such things unlikely to cast doubts upon personal femininity. But she couldn't let him think she was clumsy and weak, like the handless girls she'd met at her aunt's, good only for sleeping and gossip.
Sure-footed and easy, Sarah gathered apples, holding them in a fold in her dress. She glanced down to see if he were watching and felt a thrill of surprise to find that he was. Stepping lightly down, she went to sit by him on the log. "Here," she said, holding out another apple. "This one is bound to be sweet. See how red it is?"
"It looks dirty."
"No! We had rain last night. Just rub off the spots on your sleeve." She showed him how on her skirt. "I love apples," she said indistinctly, for her mouth was full. "I'd eat them every day, if I could."
"I prefer pineapples," the earl said, though privately he admitted that a wild apple had a flavor no other fruit could match.
"That's not my favorite fruit," Sarah said, tossing her second core away. "They're not too bad candied, though," she added, reflecting that she would have to learn to like them now. She "cleaned" another apple.
"You'll need a doctor all right before you're through, if you keep eating those."
Sarah laughed, but did not lift the fruit to her mouth. "I'm Sarah East. Who are you?"
"My name ... most people call me Reyne."
"Reyne?" She shook her head.
"You don't like it?"
"No. Is it your first name or your last?"
"Neither. It's my title."
"Oh, then I've no objection to it. You couldn't help it anyway." All the same, she could not help repeating it, tasting his name on her lips. "Reyne."
"My first name is Alaric. If you don't like that one, I've got five or six more." He shook his head in disbelief. It was impossible to continue sitting here conversing with a female, who, though her figure might suggest otherwise, was obviously no more than a child. He stood up. When he thought about all the women who would have been in high flight to have kept him chatting for one-tenth as long, what else could he do but shake his head?
"Five or six? I've only three myself."
"What are they?" Alaric asked, sitting down again, hardly noticing the absence of pain. A gentleman could not abandon her, though it was plain she needed no doctor. He wondered if she ever had, for she was obviously in the rudest health.
"Sarah Marissa Clivenden East."
"You weren't very lucky either."
"No." Sarah liked that he listened to her pleasantly, not avidly as if her every utterance were of worth, as did Harcourt and Harold. Nor did he talk to her with the abstraction of a parent or other authority. Sarah tried to think of when she had last spoken to a man who was neither a relation nor in love with her. She had not wished to be agreeable to any of the presentable young men introduced to her at Aunt Whitsun's. None of them had been remotely like this.
Sarah looked at him openly. His face is thin, she thought, and the rest of his hair is darker at his temples. There were lines carved about his mouth and beside his eyes, yet he did not seem an old man. Not very old. Not forty. She decided she liked the lines just as they were. They made his eyes seem kind.
He turned his face to meet her gaze. Sarah smiled. She'd been right. They were the same color as the autumn sky.
"Atwood's taking a devil of a long time," he muttered.
"They'll be here soon," Sarah said. "I only hope they don't bring Harcourt and Harold."
"Who are ... ? Oh, yes, the younger sons. How many children have Sir Arthur and Lady Phelps? There seemed a great crowd of young people at dinner last night." He thought he sounded just as old as he felt: ancient, desiccated like some Egyptian mummy slowly dropping to bits.
"There are five children. Harvey, Harriet, Harcourt, Harold, and Harmonia. Harriet married Mr. Randolph and they are visiting too, for a few weeks, with their two-year-old son, Harpocrates."
"Good God," Alaric said reverently. "Is it a mania?"
"They named Harvey after an uncle and the habit seemed to grow upon them," Sarah said in explanation.
"Let it be a lesson to me to know when to quit." Somewhat stiffly, he stood up again. "As it seems Atwood and the doctor have lost their way, let us go to meet them."
"I don't actually need a doctor," Sarah confessed. "I think I was only stunned by the suddenness of my fall. I'm not used to being shot at, you know."
"One never gets used to it. Miss East. No matter how hard one tries. If you please, will you pick up Atwood's gun for me?"
The grace she'd shown while ascending the tree was no less when she bent for the unwieldy weapon. Alaric put the stocks together and laid the barrels against his shoulder in a soldierly way. "You know these woods well, I take it?"
"Yes, I've played here since ... as long as I can remember."
"Then you may lead the way. Guide me to Sir Arthur's, if you please."
"I'll take you to my house. You can ride back." Sarah noticed that he had frowned with discomfort when shouldering his arms and that he did not walk easily. "I'm certain my father will lend you a horse, or even--"
"No, thank you," Alaric said not unkindly. "After the Peninsula, I swore never to ride on a cart horse again."
Sarah pushed her hair back. For the first time, she realized what she must look like to him. Her dress was torn and muddy, her face grimy, and she could feel the twigs and broken leaves in her hair. He must have mistaken her for a yeoman's daughter, or even a gypsy. With a blush, she knew her behavior had done nothing to disabuse him of that notion. Without speaking, suddenly ashamed and self-conscious, Sarah showed him the way.
Alaric felt tired. He'd walked farther than he'd wished, in search of nonexistent game, on top of traveling which had wearied him more than he'd ever known it to do before. And the previous weeks had not been conducive to rest. He'd left London for Brighton on a repairing lease, only to find it madly giddy, with routs, races, and revelry every night and day. He'd met a thousand old friends, some with the regiment there, and had been swept into a social round he'd all but forgotten existed.
Then a chance invitation to join a party traveling to visit Harvey Phelps, whom Alaric had never met but heard described as an out-and-out cock of the game, though he'd not seemed so last evening. Sir Arthur was undoubtedly plump in the pocket, and his wife, an old tabby, seemed more than pleased to entertain a houseful of eligible young men, though she only had one unmarried daughter herself. The noise and hustle at breakfast had tempted him to go out for a peaceful morning's shooting with Atwood, though he'd soon lost patience with the silly fellow. And then to be left with this strange girl who he half-expected to see turn into a wood elf at any moment.
They topped a low rise at the rear of a sprawling two-story house, a grey slate roof blending harmoniously with the stone walls and shaven grass. From where he stood, still among the trees, Alaric smelled roses and smoke. Off to the left, he saw a neat stable, topped by an octagonal dovecote.
In answer to his look, Sarah said, with unconscious pride, "This is my house."
"Your house? You mean you work here?"
Though she'd hoped he had not assumed what he'd so obviously assumed, Sarah could not help laughing at the surprise on his face. "No, I live here. With my father and my mother. I have two brothers as well. They're both lieutenants in the navy. Mortimer, he's with His Majesty's ship Restitution and Sam is in Ganymede. We received a letter from Mortimer last week. He's just put in to Constantinople."
A female figure with a basket over one arm left the house and, walking on a few steps, bent down over a patch of green. "There's Mother," Sarah said. "She mustn't see me looking like this. She worries, you know. Listen, go down there and tell her who you are and that you'd like to borrow a horse to take you back to Hollytrees."
"I can't do that. She doesn't know me."
"That doesn't matter." Sarah gazed at him in wonder. Was it possible he did not realize that he could have anything he wanted just for the asking? "Tell her you're staying at Hollytrees, and she'll probably give you half a dozen commissions to Lady Phelps. Don't take any notice. She'll have forgotten most of them by the time they see each other tonight."
"Tonight? Oh, yes, there's some kind of entertainment. ..." The long grey house, viewed through a haze compounded of autumn air and wood smoke, was like an image from a half-remembered dream, or a picture glimpsed long ago. Alaric started down the hill and never heard Sarah say, "I'll save you a dance, shall I?"