Authors: Margaret Evans Porter
Tags: #bestselling author, #England, #regency romance, #regency historical, #Devonishre, #award winning author, #historical novella, #margaret evans porter, #short fiction, #novella
“That’s common knowledge in this district,” said Edwin diffidently.
“Are you also aware that before Jem Kelland was captured and flung into prison, he saved up a fortune in gold? He was clever enough to hide his money away. His daughter is the only person who knows the location.”
“You aren’t gullible enough to believe in buried treasure, surely? That old tale is constantly repeated and embellished by idle youths like Bart. There’s no truth in it.”
“What a dull, stodgy fellow you’ve turned into.” Garth climbed unsteadily to his feet. “You’re not at all like you were at school.”
Unable to stop himself, Edwin retaliated, “Neither are you.”
* * *
~ Chapter 3 ~
f the two horses Annis had tried, the soft-mouthed bay was her favorite. As they passed through the open gate of a grassy meadow, she marveled anew at the mare’s quick response to her slightest touch—almost by intuition it followed her wishes. A welcome change from tugging and sawing on the reins to guide the plodding Pippin.
The stable boy Bart stood upon the dry-stone wall, conversing with Mr. Corston, who had exercised Sir Edwin’s chestnut hack. Still resentful of his behavior at the Castle Inn, she was relieved that thus far he’d treated her in a mannerly fashion, helping her mount and dismount when she’d changed horses.
She heard him tell Bart to return to the stable, adding, “I’ll wait for Miss Kelland and escort her back.”
Reluctant to be alone with him, her spirits sank even more. Sir Edwin’s absence had disappointed her, for she’d worn a riding dress of apple green cloth which even her critical mother said was vastly becoming. Before leaving home she’d plucked blossoms from the orchard, now pinned them to her flat-crowned straw hat chosen for the broad brim that shaded and protected her face. Unfortunately, she one she hoped to impress was called away by his shepherd immediately after her arrival, preventing him from seeing how superbly she handled his pretty mare.
Mr. Corston rode up beside her. “I’m glad of this chance for privacy. For days I’ve wanted to apologize for the way I treated you at our first meeting. Naturally if I’d known your connection to the local squire’s, I wouldn’t have been so rude.”
Annis focused on the gap between the mare’s pointed ears. “Nobody, whatever their family, deserves such unkindness, sir.”
“Eddie explained that you’ve no need to wait tables for your keep. Besides being supported by the squire, you’re Jem Kelland’s daughter—his only heiress. Or so I’ve been informed.”
The inaccurate description made Annis laugh. “Whoever told you so was greatly mistaken. My father left me nothing but the dubious legacy of his reputation.”
“Come now, ma’am, I’ve heard about that fortune he made from unlawful trading. How many chests of gold did he manage hide away before the revenue officers seized him?”
“None,” she stated emphatically. “Folk across the shire have built up a legend about the money. Anyone from Brixham could refute the gossip. The only chest in existence was taken by the Excisemen and contained contraband tea, not gold. The buried fortune exists only in the imagination of the person who shared the false tale, Mr. Corston.”
Was it Sir Edwin? Surely he was wise enough not to believe the persistent rumor.
“You needn’t hoard your secret inheritance in the hope that it will tempt Eddie to marry you,” the gentleman continued. “He’s courting my sister. My parents have high hopes of a summer wedding.”
His matter-of-fact corroboration of her greatest fear was a blow. Her pretty green riding habit and a posy pinned to her hat and the application of primrose lotion couldn’t alter fate if the baronet meant to wed another lady.
“I daresay Lizzie will soon pay us a visit,” said Mr. Corston. “Eddie’s eager to see her again.” Slyly he added, “Likely he’d tumble you if he got the chance, but he won’t have marriage in mind. He wants a lady for his wife.”
“If that is so,” she retorted, “I marvel that he should choose a boor for his friend.” Pulling sharply at the reins, she turned her mount. Tears of shame and disappointment misted her eyes as the obedient mare bounded across the turf toward the stables.
Mother warned me, she reminded herself.
Henceforth, Annis vowed, she would be on her guard against him, unresponsive to any future overtures. As for Mr. Corston—she had never disliked anyone so much in her life, and she trusted that she’d seen the last of him.
Fully convinced that all men were fiends, Annis brought her horse to a halt and slid to the ground. She led it to the tethering ring—and was looping the reins around it when Sir Edwin emerged from the stable.
“Forgive me for deserting you earlier,” he said in low, intimate tones. “What happened to Garth?”
“I neither know nor care,” she answered bluntly.
He arched his russet eyebrows. “Has he said something else to offend you?”
Unwilling to reveal her latest contretemps with his detested visitor—and prospective brother-in-law—she answered coolly, “Mr. Corston and I furthered our acquaintance. It does not prosper.”
“You aren’t going to try the gray?”
She shook her head. “It’s past time to be going home.”
“So soon? But we’ve had no time to talk, much less ride together. Bart,” he called out, “transfer Miss Kelland’s sidesaddle to the other horse.”
“Sir Edwin, I must not stay.”
“Why ever not? I’ve completed my most pressing tasks and am at leisure.”
His insistence that she exercise a third horse couldn’t alter her determination to depart.
“If you must go, I’m escorting you back to Orchard Place,” he said, no less adamant than she. After helping her mount Pippin, he saddled the lean and leggy gray. Thundering hoofbeats drew his attention from the buckling of the girth.
The pony and the thoroughbred twitched their tails and tossed their heads anxiously when a riderless horse—the chestnut that recently carried Garth Corston—galloped into the stable yard.
While Jenkins, with Bart’s assistance, tried to capture the runaway, Edwin looked to Annis. “My guest apparently came to grief. Where did you last see him?”
“In the meadow.”
They covered the distance at a rapid pace, Pippin struggling valiantly to match the gray’s longer, swifter stride. When Annis and Edwin reached the low stone wall dividing the park from the grazing land, they saw Garth sprawled face-down in the grass. His riding whip lay among the yellow cowslips.
“He took the jump and tumbled off,” said Edwin. “I pray he didn’t break his neck.”
Annis, the first to reach the fallen rider, knelt down beside him to loosen his cravat and press her fingers against his throat. “He’s breathing,” she reported.
Edwin carefully rolled Garth onto his back. A dirty scratch marred one pale cheek and a small cut near his temple was bleeding, but these were the only outward injuries.
Gazing down at the man she regarded as her enemy, Annis felt the faintest tug of pity. “He’ll have to be carried to the house on a hurdle. I’d best fetch Bart and Jenkins.”
Impressed by her composure and quick thinking, Edwin watched her ride away. For her this was no uncommon occurrence. Country people, most notably those who lived on farms, were familiar with accidents of all sorts. To her credit, Annis responded with decisive action—no useless weeping or fainting.
A cursory examination of Garth’s arms and legs allayed any concern about broken limbs. He left his friend’s side just long enough to dampen his handkerchief in nearby stream. Returning, he was greeted by a low moan.
“Lie still,” he said, Edwin said, placing the cloth on Garth’s forehead. “You’ve had a fall.”
Opening his eyes, Garth muttered, “It was the damned horse’s fault. I lost my stirrup, and when he took the wall at an angle I came off.”
“Don’t move,” Edwin advised him again. “Your head struck the ground hard enough to knock you out. You’ll probably suffer from dizziness for a while.”
Garth, disregarding him, insisted upon getting up. He stubbornly refused to let the grooms bear him back to the house but found he needed support from both Jenkins and Edwin to walk across the meadow. Bart, leading the gray horse and carrying both riding crops, brought up the rear.
The housekeeper was prepared to receive the injured guest—Annis had told her to ready his bed and gather material for bandages. Entering the hall with Garth, Edwin was thankful to see the girl in green waiting there.
“I’ll stop at the doctor’s on my way home,” Annis told him, drawing on her riding gloves. “I pass right by his house. I doubt Mr. Corston’s cut wants stitching, but a bump on the head can have dangerous consequences.”
“He seems more annoyed than anything. I see no cause for alarm,” Edwin replied.
The day hadn’t turned out as he’d expected—and hoped. First estate business and then Garth’s accident had separated him from Annis. He longed to express how it pleased him, having her in his house and of his fierce desire to keep her there. But something had gone wrong between them, and until he knew exactly how to repair the damage he must not speak or act precipitously.
Turning a deaf ear to Garth’s curses—climbing stairs was evidently a painful process—Edwin followed Annis outside. The sight of Pippin patiently cropping the grass in the forecourt reminded him of her visit’s purpose.
“Which of my horses did you prefer?” he inquired.
“The bay mare. The black was a touch too temperamental for my liking. The gray is too large for me, I think.”
“They always want exercise,” he said. “You’ll come back tomorrow?”
“No,” she said with crushing finality.
Her inability to return his gaze confirmed that he had lost her favor altogether, though he couldn’t imagine how. Desperate to take her in his arms and kiss her into liking him again, he watched Pippin carry her down the long, tree-lined drive.
He spent the remainder of the afternoon trying to amuse his friend, condemned by the local doctor to an invalid’s existence. Fretful and out of sorts, Garth was only interested in talking about his sister and clearly wished to send for her. Sending Garth back to Elizabeth would have suited Edwin better, for the time being that was impossible. Two or three days of bed rest, the doctor had said.
Eventually the unwilling patient’s eyelids grew heavy, and he succumbed to sleep. Edwin crept thankfully out of the room.
Preoccupied with the uncertain state of Annis Kelland’s mind and heart, he wanted to ride over to Orchard Place to investigate. He was prevented when his housekeeper sought him out to announce that Squire Dundridge had arrived and awaited him in the parlor.
His neighbor’s grave expression warned him of trouble, and instinctively he knew it concerned Annis.
“All the way to Harbourne I wondered if I did right by coming,” the squire began. “Now that I’m here, I’m even less eager to raise the question that brought me. But for Annis’ sake I must however awkward it may be for all concerned. Sir Edwin, my wife spoke very frankly about you this morning. From her I learned something I wish I’d known before I gave my stepdaughter leave to spend the day in your company.”
Edwin regarded him stoically. “Exactly what did Mrs. Dundridge say to arouse concern?”
“According to her, you kissed Annis during our harvest home. Now, I know perfectly well that a young fellow can kiss a pretty lass at party and not mean anything by it—especially after quaffing strong cider. I won’t berate you for that.”
“Perhaps I deserve it,” Edwin conceded.
“However,” continued the squire, “I do expect you to own up if ’twas merely a bit of sport, as my wife believes.”
“No. Though I won’t deny that at the time I wasn’t completely certain of my intentions. For a variety of reasons, I couldn’t think clearly.”
He plunged ahead and committed himself. “I want Annis Kelland for my wife. I only wish I could be as sure that she’ll have me for her husband. From the night I first kissed her, she has resolutely avoided me.”
The squire’s forbidding expression had softened considerably. “It was done on her mother’s advice.”
“Perhaps I should present myself to Mrs. Dundridge—account for my past conduct, and admit the depth of my feelings for her daughter.”
“Never fear, I’ll make everything right with Nancy.” Beaming his delight, the squire said, “The match has my approval, and I hope you succeed in persuading our Annis to wed you.”
“I’ll give it my best effort, sir.”
“Kisses are all very well,” the older man said sagely, “but sweet words wouldn’t go amiss. My pleading your cause to Annis can do no good. Her mother’s influence has ever been stronger than mine. And always will be,” he concluded in the regretful tone of voice he often employed when speaking of his stepdaughter. “How did she manage with your horses?”
“She fancies my bay mare, a gentle and well-mannered creature, and very reliable—much like Annis herself,” he acknowledged. “Shall I send the horse over to Orchard Place?”
Shaking his head, Squire Dundridge replied, “Not for a few days yet. To surprise her, I must be discreet in making the arrangements. I’ll inform you as soon as I decide how to proceed.”
When the squire extended his hand, Edwin stepped forward to grip it with his own. “Thank you, sir.”
“For buying your mare?” the older man asked roguishly.
“For bestowing your stepdaughter’s hand. But my happiness won’t be complete till I’ve claimed it.”
In Edwin’s imagination, asking a young lady’s guardian for permission to offer for her had loomed as a terrifying ordeal. To his surprise and relief, it was a simple matter. His future was settled—or would be after he dispelled Mrs. Dandridge’s doubts of his worthiness, and assured Annis of his love for her.
Instead of listening to her stepfather’s sonorous voice as he read from a book, Annis directed recriminations at Sir Edwin Page for making her love him. She was trying very hard to hate him but in fairness had to acknowledge that he’d never once hinted that his feelings for her were deep or lasting. Therefore he had not really deceived her.