“Miss Crane,” he said, wearing much the same expression. He bent over my hand and kissed it, much to the consternation of Dulcie, who was standing right next to me.
Again, I must stress that I am not a romantic. But my insides did a little flip when his lips touched my skin.
“I am afraid that I am dressed for a ride,” I told him, motioning to my riding habit.
“So you are.”
I glanced ruefully at his cousins, who were most assuredly not dressed for any sort of athletic endeavor. “It’s such a lovely day,” I murmured.
“Girls,” my mother said, looking squarely at the Brougham sisters, “why don’t you join me while Amanda and your cousin go for a ride? I did promise your mother that she would show him the area.”
Antonia opened her mouth to protest, but she was no match for Eloise Crane, and indeed she did not make even a sound before my mother added, “Oliver will be down shortly.”
That settled it. They sat, all four of them, in a neat row on the sofa, descending as one, with identically placid smiles on their faces.
I almost felt sorry for Oliver.
“I did not bring my mount,” Mr. Farraday said regretfully.
“That is no matter,” I replied. “We have an excellent stables. I’m certain we can find something suitable.”
And off we went, out the drawing room door, then out of the house, then around the corner to the back lawn, and then—
Mr. Farraday sagged against the wall, laughing. “Oh, thank you,” he said, with great feeling. “Thank you. Thank you.”
I was not sure if I should feign ignorance. I could hardly acknowledge the sentiment without insulting his cousins, which I did not wish to do. As I have mentioned, I do not dislike the Brougham sisters, even if I found them a bit ridiculous that afternoon.
“Tell me you can ride,” he said.
He motioned to the house. “None of them can.”
“That’s not true,” I replied, puzzled. I knew I had seen them on horseback at some point.
“They can sit in a saddle,” he said, his eyes flashing with what could only be a dare, “but they cannot ride.”
“I see,” I murmured. I considered my options and said, “I can.”
He looked at me, one corner of his mouth tilted up. His eyes were a rather nice shade of green, mossy with little brown flecks. And again, I got that odd sense of being in accord.
I hope I am not being immodest when I say that there are a few things I do quite well. I can shoot with a pistol (although not with a rifle, and not as well as my mother, who is freakishly good). I can add up sums twice as quickly as Oliver, provided I have pen and paper. I can fish, and I can swim, and above all, I can ride.
“Come with me,” I said, motioning toward the stables.
He did, falling into step beside me. “Tell me, Miss Crane,” he said, his voice laced with amusement, “with what were you bribed for your presence this afternoon?”
“You think your company was not enough reward?”
“You did not know me,” he pointed out.
“True.” We turned onto the path toward the stables, and I was happy to feel that the breeze was picking up. “As it happens, I was outmaneuvered by my mother.”
“You admit to being outmaneuvered,” he murmured. “Interesting.”
“You don’t know my mother.”
“No,” he assured me, “I am impressed. Most people would not confess to it.”
“As I said, you don’t know my mother.” I turned to him and smiled. “She is one of eight siblings. Besting her in any sort of devious matter is nothing short of a triumph.”
We reached the stables, but I paused before entering. “And what about you, Mr. Farraday?” I asked. “With what were you bribed for your presence this afternoon?”
“I, too, was thwarted,” he said. “I was told I’d escape my cousins.”
I let out a snort of laughter at that. Inappropriate, yes, but unavoidable.
“They attacked just as I was departing,” he told me grimly.
“They are a fierce lot,” I said, utterly deadpan.
“I was outnumbered.”
“I thought they didn’t like you,” I said.
“So did I.” He planted his hands on his hips. “It was the only reason I consented to the visit.”
“What exactly did you do to them when you were children?” I asked.
“The better question would be—what did they do to me?”
I knew better than to claim that he held the upper hand because of his gender. Four girls could easily trounce one boy. I had gone up against Oliver countless times as a child, and although he would never admit it, I bested him more often than not.
“Frogs?” I asked, thinking of my own childhood pranks.
“That was me,” he admitted sheepishly.
He didn’t speak, but his expression was clearly one of guilt.
“Which one?” I asked, trying to imagine Dulcie’s horror.
“All of them.”
I sucked in my breath. “At the same time?”
I was impressed. I suppose most ladies would not find such things attractive, but I have always had an unusual sense of humor. “Have you ever done a flour ghosting?” I asked.
His eyebrows rose, and he actually leaned forward. “Tell me more.”
And so I told him about my mother, and how Oliver and I had tried to scare her off before she’d married my father. We’d been utter beasts. Truly. Not just mischievous children, but utter and complete blights on the face of humanity. It’s a wonder my father hadn’t shipped us off to a workhouse. The most memorable of our stunts was when we’d rigged a bucket of flour above her door so that it would dust her when she stepped out into the hall.
Except that we’d filled the bucket quite high, so it was more of a coating than a dusting, and in fact more of a deluge than anything else.
We also hadn’t counted on the bucket hitting her on the head.
When I said that my current mother’s entry into our lives had saved us all, I meant it quite literally. Oliver and I were so desperate for a
ttention, and our father, as lovely as he is now, had no idea how to manage us.
I told all this to Mr. Farraday. It was the strangest thing. I have no idea why I spoke so long and said so much. I thought it must be that he was an extraordinary listener, except that he later told me that he is not, that in fact he is a dreadful listener and usually interrupts too often.
But he didn’t with me. He listened, and I spoke, and then I listened and he spoke, and he told me of his brother Ian, with his angelic good looks and courtly manners. How everyone fawns over him, even though Charles is the elder. How Charles never could manage to hate him, though, because when all was said and done, Ian was a rather fine fellow.
“Do you still want to go for a ride?” I asked, when I noticed that the sun had already begun to dip in the sky. I could not imagine how long we had been standing there, talking and listening, listening and talking.
To my great surprise Charles said no, let’s walk instead.
And we did.
It was still warm later that night, and so after supper was done I took myself outside. The sun had sunk below the horizon, but it was not yet completely dark. I sat
on the steps of the back patio, facing west so I could watch the last hints of daylight turn from lavender to purple to black.
I love this time of the night.
I sat there for quite some time, long enough so that the stars began to appear, long enough so that I had to hug my arms to my body to ward off the chill. I hadn’t brought a shawl. I suppose I hadn’t thought I’d be sitting outside for so long. I was just about to head back inside when I heard someone approaching.
It was my father, on his way home from his greenhouse. He was holding a lantern and his hands were dirty. Something about the sight of him made me feel like a child again. He was a big bear of a man, and even before he’d married Eloise, back when he didn’t seem to know what to say to his own children, he’d always made me feel safe. He was my father, and he would protect me. He didn’t need to say it, I just knew.