Miss Abigail Reynard most certainly did not hold any semblance of ladylike behavior as she wailed over her broken heart. The household staff went about with stiff lips. Her parents alternately consoled then upbraided her.
"How could you fall for such a rake?" her father growled. "I fear your reputation has been seriously compromised."
"Your foolishness is known by all the ton by now. You won't be invited to any more social events this season. You are disgraced," her mother moaned.
"Just pack her up and send her back to the country," her father groused. "Maybe it will all be forgotten by next year."
"Indeed. However, I do wish to remain a few more weeks," her mother wheedled. Perhaps we can find a chaperon to take her back to our country manor, someone who can travel with her. Do we know of any young ladies who are above reproach but who are not out yet in society?"
"I know that the minister at Lambe's Chapel has several daughters, my dear. Send over a note asking if one of them would be willing."
While Abigail fled the room sobbing, her mother sat down and happily wrote out her inquiry and sent a boy round to deliver her request to the manse.
By the next morning it had been all arranged. Abigail's trunks were loaded, and they only waited now for the good parson's arrival with his daughter. At first her Lord Reynard thought it was some mistake, for a lovely creature stepped down out of the drab carriage as a butterfly out of its cocoon. It wasn't the young lady's apparel which put her best foot forward, for it was quite plain. Rather, it was her healthy glow with goodness which radiated from her eyes to her smile, in an extraordinarily beautiful manner.
"Miss Kendal. How good of you to come, Your father and I have long been friends." Abigail's father bent over and kissed the maiden's hand much to the young woman's wide-eyed consternation and she quickly withdrew it blushing, but still remembered to curtsy.
The minister climbed down a little more slowly as if the damp had seized up his knees making the step down with difficulty. "Lord Reynard. How nice of you to send for our daughter. This is our Elizabeth. Her older sister is otherwise engaged while her younger sisters are not yet out of the school room, so we hoped that she would do. She has consented to go to the country as your daughter's companion if you will have her."
"Yes indeed. And this is Miss Abigail, our daughter." The two girls curtsied. Though Abigail's eyes were red and swollen from a whole night of weeping, they curiously took each other's measure. While one looked away morosely, the other looked brightly about as if she could hardly hold back a smile taking in everything and everybody.
"Charles," Lord Reynard said with a snap of his fingers, "please load Miss Elizabeth's things onto our carriage. Is that all? Surely, a young lady has need of more than one small trunk." Abigail's father failed to hide his surprise.
The minister coughed into his handkerchief. "We live a simple life, Sir Reynard. She has not come out into society as of yet as you recall."
"Yes, yes, but of course. I didn't mean to imply, well, never mind. It will be quite late when they arrive at our country estate, but there should be no need of an inn on the way at least. Ready to close the door to the carriage himself, Lord Reynard said, "Cheer up, Abbie. Remember there's always next season." His cold words of comfort were met with sob from inside the carriage.
The minister kissed his daughter goodbye on her cheek flush with her excitement. Elizabeth longed for the country as it had been ever so long since she'd been out of London's soot and damp. If her country insisted on fog and rain, she at least wanted to see fields of green instead of filthy cobblestones.
So, two very different young ladies were thrown together as strangers to emerge as weary travelers, but friends at the end of their journey. Elizabeth had spread enough sunshine in the belly of the carriage to have Abigail laughing before they left the city limits of London.
His father had implored him to go home to take care of urgent affairs. So, the next morning found Elijah taking a ride about the estate so dear to his heart. He had gotten in very late, but was surprised to learn that his sister had come just prior to his arrival as the disgruntled butler informed him. The poor man's nose was quite bent out of shape for having been summoned from his bed, not once, but twice in the dark of night for the young people of the manor's unexpected return home.
While early morning was Elijah's preferred time of day, it would be hours before his sister made an appearance, perhaps not before midday. So he leisurely rode over the pastures where sheep grazed in lush grass. The sun which had fought with the clouds all morning became victorious beaming down in warm pleasure. As he allowed his horse to amble along a hedgerow, he heard children shrieking with laughter, then a young woman's voice chimed in. It caused his heart to lurch. He dismounted and led his horse along until he could see the stream where a small party was trying to catch minnows. How long had it been since he'd caught a glimpse of such innocent play or been the boy wading with a pail?
"Now, try again," a little red haired lass of about eight giggled. "See, if you stand very still, holding your skirt just so. As soon as some swim in, you jerk it up full of the little fishies."
"I'll send them your way," added a young lad evidently related to the little lass judging by his mop of red curls. "Just be patient. Wait till there's a flock of 'em swimming round your ankles.'
"Schools. Fish swim in schools. Sheep, in flocks." the young woman chided with a smile in her voice.
"Silly, sheep don't swim in flocks," the young girl chortled.
Laughter peeled as carefree as thistledown from the young woman. The young woman stepped out now where he could better see her. Her skirt was held in front of her as the lass instructed, just under the water as she stood bent over, her bare feet standing in the gentle stream.
"This is perfectly delightful! A first. I've never been fishing for minnows before in my entire life," she remarked gleefully.
"You're not fishing for minnows exactly, miss, but catching bait so we can teach you how to fish properly," the little lad explained.
"Look, there are several now swimming about my skirt!" she was wide-eyed with wonder hovering over the water holding her skirt under like a fisherman's net. None of them had any idea he was watching.
"Wait, wait, now!" the little girl shrieked.
The young woman jerked her dress up so much that Eli had to look away, but her laughter drew his eyes back as she cried, "I did it! I caught some! Quick, bring the pail."
Eli decided he'd better make his presence known, so he hurried to pick up the dented tin pail and swung it out to the young lady. The children has espied him, stood frozen with their mouths open, then ran like bunnies.
"Quick, before they get away, hold it over here," she demanded not taking her eyes off her catch. He complied.
She began pouring her skirt full of minnows into the bucket when she suddenly noticed his hand holding it out as he knelt and leaned over from the bank. She screamed and promptly fell back to sit in the knee deep water.
He felt laughter piling up inside ready to erupt.
"Oh, sir, I beg your pardon. I did not see you there." She stood up and tried to curtsey in her exceedingly wet gown which nearly sent her toppling again. Eli reached out to steady her holding onto her arm.
"I did not mean to scare you. I see you found my favorite spot to catch minnows."
"Forgive me. I am Elijah Reynard. He let go of her arm making sure she was steady and he bowed before offering her his hands as she attempted to climb out. The children were no where to be seen.
Once she was standing on the grassy bank," she looked more endearing as she flushed furiously with embarrassment. "I am sorry to have disturbed your morning ride, Mr. Reynard."
"And you are?"
"I beg your pardon. I am Miss Elizabeth Kendal," she said with another curtsy, her legs tangling in her damp skirt. He steadied her once more.
"Are you enjoying a visit in the neighborhood?" he asked with a raised eyebrow biting back his grin as he enjoyed her discomfort standing barefoot with the skirt of her dress drenching wet before him. He tried to keep his eyes from looking down where her wet dress clung to her form. She obviously was not one of the villagers, but he had no idea from whence she had sprung.
She would not meet his gaze and was intent on looking anywhere but at him. "Yes, well, I came as a companion to Miss Abigail. We arrived late last night. Your sister did not mention that there would be any other family here at the estate. Since she was sleeping soundly, I chose an early morning walk and chanced upon those lovely children catching minnows. They convinced me to join their adventure. I do ask that you pardon my disheveled appearance."
He was broadly grinning.
When she finally braved a glance up at him, she blushed an even brighter rose. "Sir, I don't believe a gentleman should take such pleasure in a lady's predicament however." Her chin rose up as her eyes braved to meet his.
He tried to cough and hold it back but failed. A harty laugh erupted. "You are quite right. However, it appears that you might need assistance. Let me give you a ride back to the manor."
"On your horse?" she asked in childlike awe.
"Well yes, I wasn't offering to give you a piggy back ride," he smirked.
She shot him a glare, but walked over to pet his horse's velvety nose. Normally, the creature would jerk his head away for anyone but him, but he stood docilely.
"Don't forget your boots, miss." He waited as she sat upon the grass and put them on all the while peering over her shoulder to see if he was looking, which he was. When he mounted, Elijah reached down for her hand and easily pulled her up to sit in front of him.
When she was so situated, sitting sideways, she gave a happy little squeal. "I've never been on a horse before. This is a first!" She held onto the pummel with one hand and had a tight grip of his jacket with the other while he grasped her with one arm around her middle.
"No? Well, it's your first time to catch minnows, your first time to ride a horse, and..." He was looking down at her lips as she gazed trustingly upwards before he bent down and stole a kiss as sweet as he'd ever known. "a first kiss, or am I mistaken?"
She almost fell backwards when she suddenly let go of his coat, so he caught her in his arms and held on more tightly. She had turned away from him making him realize what innocence he'd just stolen. "I must apologize Miss Elizabeth. That was untoward of me." Her hair had come down all the way loose, teasing him in his face where it blew, but he dared not touch it now.
She was silent the rest of the way to the front door with her face turned away. Eli dismounted then reached to help her down with his hands on her waist. "How was that for your first time?" he asked.
She looked up at him sharply, "My first time on a horse or my first kiss?" she asked. "I did find the ride exhilarating, but you can hardly expect me to answer the other. Good day, sir." She had to step carefully as her wet skirts still clung to her legs.
Elijah watched her shamelessly as she walked up the front stairs and into the house. He felt like Punch and Judy were in his head having it out. On one hand, he'd found her the most alluring young woman in all his acquaintance, yet he had treated her disrespectfully, especially for one so innocent. He'd stolen the kiss as if she was some experienced woman that flirted brazenly with him in London, the kind he was so sick and tired of--the kind to whom he was practically promised. He spurred his horse to a gallop. His morning ride had been sidetracked by the fisher folk at the stream, but he now needed the exercise to clear his head more than ever.
The repast was served in the smaller breakfast room papered in yellow toile. His sister was just coming down for the day.
"Oh, Elijah, I had no idea you would be here! This is wonderful! I hardly saw you at all in London."
Then her face fell. "You heard?"
"Yes, Abbie. I'm sure it wasn't as bad as it looked, at least I hope it wasn't. He did not take advantage of you, did he? I will have to deal with him myself if you were compromised."
"No. I was thoughtless for appearances. I thought he'd broken my heart, but found he merely bruised it is all. I should never have allowed him to take me outside." she admitted to her brother.
Just then Miss Elizabeth entered the room, and he felt it was his cheeks which were heated. He was the one who had taken advantage of her, truth be told, she who should have been under his protection in his home. He stood and pulled out a chair for her.
"Oh, Elijah, this is my companion, my new friend, Miss Elizabeth," Abigail said linking her arm through Elizabeth's.
"Yes, how do you do, Miss Kendal." He bowed formally. He noticed that she'd changed and put her hair back up though he would not soon forget how it had looked hanging loosely upon her shoulders. Elijah had never had a ride quite like that one and would not soon forget. He realized he was staring.
"So you have already met? Wonderful. You can't imagine, well, maybe you can, but she has almost as many books as she has dresses in her trunk. We just finished unpacking. You two will get on splendidly," A piece of sausage stuffed in her mouth put an end to Abigail's jabbering.
"What manner of books do you fancy, Miss Elizabeth?"
She stopped and laid her fork down. She searched his face as if to determine whether it was a trick question, then simply answered, "A variety."
"I myself tend to read a variety as well, a little history, a bit of Shakespeare, an occasional novel, the Bible of course and some poetry." He had watched her face as he spoke and saw it light up when he said poetry.
"Poetry?" She almost choked. After sipping on her lemon water she said, "I'm sorry, but I did not image you the sort of man who sat around reading Milton or Shelly."
"I prefer a little Lord Byron, a bit of Keats, but am quite fond of William Blake."
"See, did I not tell you that you two would get along," Abbie said before biting into her buttered bread with plum jam.
"I have been reading some of William Blake's poetry as well and find it very pretty indeed," Elizabeth said demurely, not looking up at her host."
He moistened his finger and ran it around the crystal rim of his glass until it was humming a high pitch making her look up. He smiled. She timidly smiled back. The chill in the room was beginning to thaw.
She went on, "The man perhaps is better known for his singing with some saying his poetry is mawkish or mere glitter upon the page. But the way he paints with his words is quite lovely at times."
He held her gaze forgetting what they were talking about for a moment.
"All I want to read are my novels. Poetry is too puzzling by far and makes my head hurt," Abbie exclaimed making him come back to the conversation.
"Perhaps someday you will have a gentleman sweep you off your feet, dear sister, who will want to dazzle you with his poetry readings, and I daresay you'll love it then."
"When fish fly, you mean. That will be the day." She crossed her arms obstinately. They all enjoyed the shared humor.
Suddenly, Elijah became quite serious. "I am relieved you are home because I found a missive just arrived today which says that Janet is planning to come for a visit. I need you to help me host them."
Elizabeth stared down at her food swishing it around with her fork while Abbie groaned.
"I fail to see what you find to interest you in her. She is quite rude to me, you know, unless you are near at hand. Her comments are cutting while she pretends to be cute. She sees your inheritance when she looks at you, not that you are not handsome, which is a lot for me to admit to since you are my brother. But in what manner does she appeal to you?"
Elijah was stuck. He had to admit to himself that when he found her letter after riding this morning that a certain dread came over him. That wasn't supposed to be how one felt for their intended. She was probably coming to "seal the deal" as he had not yet proposed. If he could guess, she and her mother were already keeping the shops in London busy with wedding plans.
"Well, what can you tell me of her attractive virtues, Elijah? I truly want to know!" Abbie was sometimes like a dog to a bone. She would not let it loose.
"She's fine enough in appearance. Her, um, her eyes are..."
"Small and scheming," Abbie filled in frowning.
"That is quite enough. I ask you to be civil while she is here. I'm sure she will bring a friend or two along with her to amuse you. You also still have Miss Elizabeth's companionship." That young woman looked like she had just swallowed something distasteful.
"Do tell me you are not proposing, Elijah. I couldn't bear it!"
Miss Elizabeth rose to be excused from the table though she had hardly touched her food. Elijah stood too as she took her leave. Then he sank back into his chair to glare at his sister.
"It isn't becoming of you to speak of Janet in such terms, especially in front of your friend. If you wish to speak to me about your concerns, then please do it in private, I beg you." He tapped his fingers on the table.
"Well, we are in private now," Abbie continued with tears in her eyes. "I am convinced that she is the last person on earth who can make you happy. You don't hear the way she talks among her friends. The things she says about you would make you blush, not to mention how she speaks of other men as well."
"I don't want to know then," he growled.
'She's a conniving, manipulative, harpy..."
But she did not stop. She asked quietly, "Are you sure she is even a believer, Elijah? I know that I am not one to talk after my most recent escapade, but you must remember how you have told me so often that it is of the upmost importance for a married couple to share their faith, so they don't, you know, end up like mother and father, how membership in the Church of England doth not make one a Christian."
Elijah sighed. "I know. I will find a time to ask about her faith when she comes."'
"How long will her party be here?" Abigail chewed on her nails.
"She did not say, but I'm afraid if it is too long, I will invent some pressing business back in London. I came here to get away from all that frivolous socializing."
"I doubt that she will be happy for long, even with you here. She calls this rusticating and will soon be bored, have no fear," his sister tried to assuage him.
"Let's hope then, shall we?" When she rose, he went and hugged her. "Thank you for giving me much to think about. I needed that. What do you think your companion is up to?"
"She's quite pretty, isn't she," Abbie smirched.
"Yes, and poor as a church mouse. You know how our Father is," he grimaced.
A small sound caused them to look up to find Elizabeth slipping out the front door.
"Do you think she heard you? We sound positively horrid speaking so of the marriage market."
"I do find her quite acceptable in every way, except for that essential part. But I'm glad for you to have such a one to be your friend. I like her ever so much better than the set you were with in London."
"From this distance, I realize how false they were. I'm sure they have been serving me up in saucy slices while I'm gone, gorging themselves on gossip at my expense," she sighed.
"Well, try to keep Miss Elizabeth as a true friend then." He kissed her on her forehead and went into his father's study and shut the door.
Seated in front of the window, he sank his head into his hands. How had he ever become so entangled with Janet? It had never been his intention. Suddenly, he realized that he really did not like Janet any more than his sister did. He had just been swept up with her in the crush of London's frantic season otherwise known as the marriage mart. Abbie had spoken what he knew deep down was true. Thus, Elijah would have to make it clear that there would be nothing forthcoming between himself and the young woman. With that settled in his mind, he let out a deep breath of relief. His eyes were drawn to the window where he saw the lovey form of Miss Elizabeth Kendal walking on the path to the woods. "I hope she did not hear me. I've been far from acting the gentleman around her. Rather, I've been a cad," he scolded. He was totally ashamed, for truly he did not know when he had met such an innocent, and continued to berate himself.
Elijah tried to pray, but his mind kept straying to his sister's companion. He finally grabbed his copy of William Blake's poetry in order to distract himself, but soon threw it across the room instead. The man had put in words so much of his torn heart that it hurt: guilt and what else, he did not know. So he paced mumbling to God, a weak man's prayer.
Ashamed of himself, he went over and picked up the volume of poetry he'd thrown. Elijah Reynard had never thrown a book in his life! Elijah opened it back to the selection he'd been reading and pulled a leaf out of his pocket to mark it with, a leaf he'd pulled out of the tangle of Miss Elizabeth's hair while on horseback. He stared out the window, but no one was to be seen any longer. The man blew out a breath.