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Authors: Sharon Lee,Steve Miller

Tags: #Fantasy

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BOOK: Duainfey
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"It appears," the Fey said, turning to Lord Quince, "that my expertise is not needed, after all."

"No, Miss Beauvelley's a wonder with the horses," his lordship said jovially. "If we'd known the filly was going to fall in with her, I'd not have been half so worried."

"It is best to plan for every eventuality," the other said gravely. "For who, indeed, could have anticipated Miss Beauvelley?" He turned again to Becca, though he did not meet her eyes, and swept off his hat, bowing from the saddle with an elegance that made her throat ache. "I am Altimere," he said, "of the Elder Fey."

She inclined her head and glanced down at Rosamunde's mane. "I am Rebecca Beauvelley, sir."

"It is my delight to make your acquaintance, Miss Beauvelley. And my further delight to see you so comfortable in the saddle. I knew that horse's grandsire well, and he was not one to suffer fools."

"Oh, this one's the spit of him!" Lord Quince said jovially. "Wants a rider her equal or better!"

"Not to mention a rider sensible enough not to burden her with bells!" Becca said, with a meaningful glance at Leonard. He narrowed his eyes, which made him look every bit as disagreeable as it had when they were children together.

"I'll equip my horse as I see fit," he snapped.

Becca shrugged. "You may indeed, and no doubt you'll land in the weeds, like Devon."

Leonard's mouth pulled into a straight line, and his nostrils flared. As a child, those had been indications that he was about to say something regrettable.

That hadn't changed, either.

"I hardly think that a horse that can be handled by a cripple is any danger to me."

Rosamunde stamped and snorted. Becca took a breath and deliberately relaxed, leaning over to stroke the proud neck. "Never mind, lady," she murmured. "He's in a temper and we shan't regard him."

"Excellent advice for all concerned!" Lord Quince said loudly. "Now, then, we have an injured rider ahead. Miss Beauvelley, if you'll be kind enough to lead us to young Devon, Altimere and Leonard will do the needful while I escort you home." He turned in the saddle to give Leonard a quelling look.

"When your brother's situated and you have the leisure, Jestecost, come by and see me. I'll house the filly 'til you do."

Leonard looked as if he thought he might say something—and then as if he thought he'd said quite enough. "Very well, sir," he said stiffly. "I'll call upon you when we have Devon settled."

"Excellent." Lord Quince gave Becca a friendly nod. "After you, Miss Beauvelley."

 

Chapter Five

"Lady Quince accepts!" Caroline said excitedly. As if, Becca thought sourly, there had been any question that mother's oldest and firmest friend in the neighborhood could have conceivably refused to attend the dance.

Becca was not at the moment in charity with the dance, or with Caroline. She had spent far too many hours of a sunny, clement morning closeted first with Mother, making lists of those tasks to be accomplished before the dance; and then in the linen closet with Mrs. Janies, the housekeeper. It was now well into the afternoon, and threatening rain—nothing more, surely, than a late spring shower! But enough for her parent to suggest, in that gentle voice that brooked no dissent, that Becca would do better to be indoors and at her needlework.

Her mother distrusted rain for good reason, Becca reminded herself, as she bent over the embroidery frame. She carried the pain of Evelyn's death, even now, after so many years, and Becca strongly believed that she blamed herself. Though truly, she thought, as she plied the needle with its tail of sunflower yellow, who could have believed that Evelyn, boisterous, bold, and strapping as he was, could have contracted a chill from a half hour's walk in the rain, much less perished of it?

"Celia Marks accepts!" Caroline cried gladly.

"Mark her down on your list, my love," Mother said, without raising her head from her own handwork. "And remember to make a tick on the corner of the note, to remind yourself that you've counted her."

Caroline bent over her list, happy not only in her many acceptances, but in the lack of breeze from the window, closed against the incipient inclement weather. In fact, it was rather close in the ladies' parlor, but Becca knew better than to ask for air.

"Leonard Jestecost accepts!" Caroline said happily. Becca sighed.

They had gone on in this manner for very nearly an hour before the door opened and Mr. Janies stepped in, bearing a card tray, which he presented to Mother. She picked up a creamy rectangle, and another, slightly larger, and grey, as if it were an impossibly thin slice of silver, rather than being formed from paper.

"Callers?" Caroline slipped out of her chair and bent over their mother's shoulder. "Oh," she said disdainfully. "It's only Ferdy. And—" She gasped, fingers flying to her lips.

"The King?" Becca asked, though she had a feeling she knew who that strange, silvery card belonged to.

"Don't be ridiculous," Caro snapped. "It's from—"

"Lady Quince's house guest," Mother said, seeming to come to herself from a distance. "Lord Altimere." She took a breath, and put the cards back on the tray. "It's very proper of Ferdy to accompany his lordship," she said with a forced calmness that made Becca look at her sharply.

Mother, however, was contemplating the card tray. As Becca watched, she took a deep breath, and picked her needlework up off her lap.

"Caroline, pray sit down and resume your work," she said.

"But, Mother, we must—"

"Janies," she continued, as if Caroline had not spoken. "Please show the gentlemen in."

Ferdinand Quince was a slim man of middle height, at ease on horseback and in the field, and very much
ill
at ease in ladies' parlor or rout. He was Dickon's best friend and Rebecca had known him all her life. While she privately thought he was a little foolish, his heart was good, and she liked him very much.

"Afternoon, ma'am." Ferdy shifted his hat to the hand that held his crop and bowed to the room in general. "I've brought Altimere. Should've done so before this, of course, but—"

"But I have been abominably busy about my affairs," his companion interrupted, his accent reforming the everyday words into some rare, strange music. "Forgive me, madam, I pray you." He bowed gently, like a sapling bending in the breeze, Becca thought.

"Surely," Mother said, inclining her head, "there is nothing to forgive. It is well known that gentlemen must see their business fairly done before they have either time or heart for social calls." She moved her hand, gracefully drawing the Fey's attention to the other two occupants of the room. "May I make you known to my daughters, sir? Rebecca . . ."

Becca slid out from behind the embroidery frame and made her sparse curtsy.

"Miss Beauvelley, I am pleased to meet you again," he said, and swayed one of his boneless bows.

"And I, you, sir. I hope you did not find yesterday's activity too strenuous?"

"Not in the least," he assured her, a cool smile on his thin lips. "After all, I had not fallen from my horse, or broken my leg. That, I submit, would have been most strenuous, not to say tedious. Merely to accompany my good friend Quince and the so-excellent Jestecost on a pleasant morning ride—that must only be pleasure."

"Of course," Becca murmured, well-pleased with him. She met his gaze. The amber eyes were warm, and she again had the disconcerting feeling that her head was filling with honey, drowning all her thoughts in sweetness.

"And," Mother said, her quiet voice drawing the Fey's eyes, "Caroline, my youngest daughter."

Caroline came regally to her feet and curtsied as if to the King. Altimere inclined his head, as if, Becca thought, he
was
the King, receiving no more than his due from one of lesser station.

"Miss Caroline, I greet you."

"Lord Altimere," Caroline responded, breathlessly. "I am
very
glad to make your acquaintance." Which was, Becca thought, picking up her needle again, only a breath shy of scandalous. Luckily, Ferdy was not one likely to carry the story away.

The Fey gentleman raised an elegant, ringless hand. "Please. I am Altimere. There is no 'lord.' " He smiled slightly. "I know—how strange, eh? But in my . . . country . . . the conventions of politeness are . . . different. Indeed, you may consider that Altimere is both my name and my title."

Caroline blinked, and bobbed another, lesser curtsy.

"I see," she said, her tone clearly contradicting her words. She should then have reseated herself, and returned to her task. A show of industry, Becca quoted to herself, never failed to please.

However, Caroline had not yet finished her flirtation with impropriety.

"I wonder, sir," she said glancing down at the scatter of cards and list and pen on the work table, "if you like dances?"

The Fey considered her gravely, tawny eyebrows slightly elevated.

"I have attended numerous dances, Miss Caroline."

"Ah," she breathed, resolutely not looking at Mother. "I wonder, then, if you would care to come to my—to
our
dance on full moon's eve. I will, of course, be pleased to send you a proper invitation, now that we have been introduced."

Altimere tipped his head, his glance intersecting Becca's. "Will you be present, Miss Beauvelley, at this dance?"

"Certainly," she said composedly. "Everyone will be there. Even Ferdy." She gave her old friend a sympathetic smile. "Won't you, Ferdy?"

He bowed. "If you want me, then of course I'll be there," he said with a gallantry that was a little spoilt by the quaver in his voice.

"Well, then," Altimere said, turning to smile at Mother. "If her ladyship agrees that I may be issued a . . . proper . . . invitation, then I will be very pleased to be in company with Ferdy and—everyone." He slid an amber glance at Becca from beneath long, lush lashes; a smile at the corner of his mouth, as if they shared a delightful secret. Becca felt her face heat, and concentrated on her embroidery.

"Of course, you must come," Mother said calmly. "We'll send 'round an invitation."

"You are very kind to a stranger in your land," he said, with another of his odd bows.

"Well, then," Ferdy said, suddenly animated. "That's fine, then! All very neighborly. Which reminds me—" He turned to Becca. "Father said I was to tell you he decided not to sell that filly, after all."

Becca stopped with her needle halfway into the fabric and stared up at him.

"But Leonard Jestecost bought her," she protested, thinking that Leonard
needed
that horse, or thought he did, to pursue his suit with Celia Marks, and that he would never have willingly given it—

"Father bought her back," Ferdy said, interrupting these ruminations. "Said she wasn't ready yet. Too much heart, not enough head."

That was, in Becca's opinion, more apt a description of Leonard than of Rosamunde, however, it would never do to say so. She bent her attention again to the embroidery and kept her tongue behind her teeth.

"It has been uncommonly fine weather for spring," Mother said, bringing the conversation back onto more convenable footing. Caroline had not been pleased to have heard of Becca's rescue of their neighbor the day before, and that topic must be put aside. "Very often we have wet skies until summer dries us out."

The gentlemen agreed that the weather had been fine, indeed, with Ferdy offering the opinion that they might look for an early haying. They continued in that vein, like characters in a play, Becca thought, since no one else seemed inclined to take up their conversational duty.

She reached for the needle threaded in blue silk, looking 'round the room as she did so. Ferdy was leaning forward, hat and whip in hand, earnestly dissecting the weather with Mother while Caroline sat rapt, making no pretense of industry, her gaze upon Altimere's profile.

Becca bit her lip. It was not her place to correct Caroline's manners—and certainly not in front of guests. From the overly composed note in Mother's voice, however, Becca surmised that her younger sister would shortly be in receipt of some strenuous lessons in comportment, not to mention a stern lecture on the behavior appropriate to a maiden who had not yet had her Season—and might yet be denied the pleasure of attending the upcoming dance.

Perhaps,
Becca thought,
I'll be able to escape to the garden after the gentlemen leave us and before the lecture begins.
She glanced aside, but the sky beyond the closed window was even more threatening than previously. Assuredly, they would have rain, and she would be caught in Mother's net, with Caroline. Sighing, she brought her eyes back to the room, and once again encountered Altimere's glance.

He smiled at her, and Becca felt her chest constrict, while her cheeks warmed. She did not, however, look down, which would have been proper. Instead, she boldly met the Fey's eye.

His smile widened. He inclined his head and turned back to give his attention to Mother. Becca forced her gaze down, to the embroidery frame and the pretty picture forming out of silk: a garden in early summer, with roses tumbling shamelessly over a decorative gate and a riot of lesser flowers in the background. That it did not in reality depict a summer garden—fosenglove and teyepia came to bloom weeks apart!—she understood to be a matter of complete indifference to most persons, who would only see the bright colors and the cheerful design and be glad.

"Well," said Ferdy, coming to his feet with ill-concealed relief. "We'll be going, ma'am, before we overstay our welcome."

"Indeed." Altimere rose and swayed a bow. "I thank you for your time and your courtesy, your ladyship. I hope to call again."

 

Chapter Six

"Harin Gardener is in the back to see you, Miss Becca," Mrs. Janies said.

Becca looked up from the tablecloth she was mending. She had been glad—wickedly glad—that her infirmity kept her from the silver polishing Mother had declared it necessary to perform—glad for approximately three minutes, which was all the time it had taken for Mother to say, with a firm smile, ". . . while Becca mends the linens we set aside from our inventory."

BOOK: Duainfey
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