How hard is it to live a life directed by common sense?
Lady Solace Busybody
“We are the oldest families in England,” Lord Belington glared at his only daughter.
“They are among the wealthiest, papa.” Laura replied calmly helping herself to bread and marmalade. Her heart was hammering in her chest but she could not show her agitation to her father. She did not have an appetite anymore. In her twenty years however she had learnt there was not much advantage in letting bad news ruin the appetite. A hungry, growling stomach made the pangs of anxiety worsen.
“We have lived at Belington Manor since the times of William the Conqueror.”
Laura looked at the desolate, draughty ruin of what had once been a splendid mansion.
“It certainly looks like it.”
“I shall write him a letter that will blind him with my wrath.”
“That will certainly champion our cause and arouse his um sympathies?”
“You do not take anything seriously Duchess,” her father snapped but the edge had been taken off his temper. He was albeit reluctantly but nevertheless smiling.
“Worst comes to worst papa just think of the expression on his face when the duke sees this white elephant he has been saddled with.”
“Just the upkeep of the gardens will make him dig deep into his pockets,” her father got in the mood of the game.
“The draughty chimneys that enhance musically all the ghosts haunting this tumbledown ruin.” Laura reminded.
“It will be a sad day for our ancestors to not see a Belington in Belington manor,” a shadow of melancholy crossed the baron’s face.
“Maybe we should ship him portraits of some of the Belingtons’ we have upstairs and give him an um preview of things to come?”
The baron burst out laughing.
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“Whoa, watch what you do with that gun, sir.” The amused voice admonished. “England has only one variety of poisonous snakes indigenous to it and that is the adder. This dark, gentle fellow is a grass snake. Completely harmless unless you are a frog.”
“I do not like snakes,” Matt stated and even to his own ears that sounded childish.
“I do not like you,” the voice retorted unfazed. “May I shoot you next?”
Matt groaned to his immortal soul. Not another tree climbing female. Besides, this one was the patron saint of snakes. Long legs encased in tan leather breeches dangled overhead. She wore a men’s shirt and jacket. Around her neck hung a pair of black, sturdy binoculars and in her bare hands she actually lovingly cradled a gun. Her hair, of indeterminate color was concealed beneath a brown ugly cap. On her lap perched an open sketchbook that gave her a scholarly air.
He had never seen a more uninspiring sight.
“Have you ever hit a target?” Deliberately he goaded.
“No,” she grinned revealing a set of perfect white, pearly teeth and a dimple in her cheek. “Rest assured I will aim for your leg. However, if it is a mortal injury, I know you will forgive me knowing my intentions were noble and I truly meant no harm.”
“Miss,” Hanson, Matt’s valet protested unable to take such cheek but Matt shushed him with a hand. He did not want his true identity to be broadcast.
“You should not be alone in the forest, miss,” Matt took a page out of Hanson’s book. He did not want to sound imperious and frighten her.
She chuckled. “I am not.”
Since the snake had lost interest in Matt and crawled off the road into the undergrowth she slung the gun back on a tree branch. Withdrawing a pencil from behind an ear she held it between her teeth as she raised the binoculars to her face. She observed something for long minutes. Then pulling the journal, she had placed on the curve of a leg, she began to draw.
Matt assumed he and Hanson had been dismissed.
“What are you doing?” Contrarily, as is human nature, he did not want to leave at her cue.
“I am an ornithologist. I study birds.”
She said it as if it made perfect sense for men to encounter a woman dressed in men’s clothing, sitting on trees and observing birds.
“I bid you good day,” Matt said politely.
She looked at him then. “Good day to you sir,” a smile blossomed on her face, “and thank you for sparing the snake.”
Matt bowed. “Thank you for sparing me.”
Her uninhibited laughter followed him as he spurred his horse on.
Ben Greene proprietor of the tavern and inn sighed as he saw the two nobs ride in. Their clothes and manner screamed gentry and London. To Ben it also screamed trouble. Maggie, his plump red faced wife, followed his line of vision and it was apparent from her grim expression she thought the same.
“Your Lordship,” Ben bowed to the taller, younger man with black piercing eyes.
“Mr. Matt Barnaby,” he introduced himself. “Valet to his Lordship, Lord Hanson.”
Ben turned a swarthy shade of red and turned to welcome the peer who was not as stuck up as most peers of Ben’s experience. Except for the big red nose that put people in mind of Rudolph the red nosed reindeer, Ben’s color was back to normal by the time His Lordship had gone upstairs to his rooms followed by his valet who carried in their luggage.
Lord Hanson was quite a card shark even though he imbibed generously. His temper improved with each snifter he drank and soon every man in the tavern was his lordship’s “good man.” Even the crafty Will Turner. A man who approved of Will had his good judgment impaired beyond doubt.
Lord Hanson clapped each man in his reach on the shoulder heartily, going as far as to call his valet, an estimable young man devoted to his master, ‘Barney.’
“These stiff nobs,” Maggie exclaimed to Mr. Barnaby. “The more stuck up they are; the more they unbend.”
Barney bowed to her superior judgment but not one disparaging remark did he make about his master which Maggie noticed and remarked upon to Ben.
Barnaby had decidedly won Maggie’s favor by the time ’Barney’ left the kitchen to escort his lordship who was obviously in his cups, most respectfully to his room.
When he came down Maggie was receiving a delivery of chickens from a blond giant. There was no other word to describe the tall broad shouldered man who waited patiently by the fire. Maggie counted the chickens, checked them and proclaimed herself satisfied.
Then she pulled out a money bag.
“Doug please give this to the Duchess.” She addressed the blond giant who lumbered forward, took the money and doffing his cap at her strode out of the kitchen.
“Duchess?” Matt inquired.
“She is not really a duchess,” Ben explained. “That is her name.”
“Her name is Laura,” Maggie corrected. “Miss Laura is Lord Belington’s daughter but we all call her Duchess since she was a wee little thing.”
Matt wondered if she could be the naturalist atop the tree. Now that was an eccentric worthy of the sobriquet.
“She is as funny as her old man in the head but an excellent businesswoman. All deliveries on time and very rarely is it less than what was ordered.”
“Is she the one who wears men’s clothing and studies birds?”
“That is our Duchess,” Maggie beamed. “Have you met her?”
“She threatened to kill me if I shot at a snake that frightened his lordship’s horse,” Matt hoped he sounded outraged and not resigned as a man accustomed to dealing with exasperating women like his cousin and sister.
“Crack shot too,” Ben was vastly amused. “No man in his right mind will cross our Duchess.” He said it with a smug fatherly pride. “Always put my money on her and I always win.” That explained his genial goodwill towards the hoyden succinctly.
© Ruby Mohan