The Earl hadn’t yet proved the danger she feared, though the longer he stayed the harder it would be to avoid him. Yesterday in the churchyard, she had peeked at him from under her bonnet. She didn’t dare go close, but from a distance he was far better looking than his cousin.
She’d had a nasty moment when Daisy walked right past him, but they didn’t speak and he didn’t seem to pay them any attention after that.
Perhaps he would not be a danger. The villagers were still reserving judgement, but he was earning their cautious approval. The people who had met him spoke well of him. They were thrilled that he visited them, listened to him. After decades of neglect by one Earl after another, they’d have liked him for that alone. His willingness to spend money on long-overdue maintenance won him more points. They were not yet convinced, of course. But the general opinion was that he was more like his Uncle Henry, whom they’d respected, than the previous three Earls.
Her reverie was broken by the clopping of hooves in the lane beyond the wall. Daisy called out, “Good day, Mr Baxter!”
Meg rolled off the wall, her eyes wide in fear, and huddled down into the shadow at its base whimpering a little.
“Miss Daisy,” the rider beyond the wall replied, cheerfully. Young Will, from the sound of it. The land steward’s son, who’d come six weeks ago to take care of the estate when Matthew the elder was injured. Meg was always nervous around men she didn’t know, but young Will had visited before, and had spoken to them several times during this visit. Anne had just concluded that he must have company when another voice spoke.
“Please, Baxter, will you not present me to this beautiful young lady?” The voice was deep and compelling, with a slight rasp that somehow added to its appeal.
“My Lord,” Will began.
“No, no,” the Earl—it must be he—insisted. “Fairy queens take precedence, and surely she must be one?”
Daisy giggled, but straightened her back proudly. So much for keeping her daughter from his sight.
“Miss Daisy, may I present Lord Chirbury? My Lord, Miss Daisy Forsythe, queen of Lilac Cottage.”
“An honour, your Highness,” the Earl said.
Anne snorted at the easy charm. She stopped on the path to pat Meg soothingly, before straightening so she could see over the wall.
The ground dropped on the other side; putting the heads of the two horsemen on a level with Daisy’s. Anne met eyes the image of her daughter’s. His hair was like hers, too—a golden blonde. It was trimmed tightly to his nape, but she knew from seeing him outside the inn and in church that the elegant hat disguised curls.
It was the eyes and general colouring that gave the impression he looked like his cousin. The shape of his face, his generous mouth, his broad shoulders—in all these ways he was somehow more than the former Earl. He had, in some ways, a hard face—even grim. But it didn’t look unkind. If he was not such a threat to her family, she would find him attractive, which had certainly not been the case with George.
“My Lord, Mrs Anne Forsythe. Mrs Forsythe, Stephen Redepenning, Earl of Chirbury.” Will did the honours, adding unnecessarily, “Mrs Forsythe is young Daisy’s Mama.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mrs Forsythe.”
She bobbed a curtsey. “Lord Chirbury.”
“I hope the other charming young lady I saw is not hurt, Mrs Forsythe?”
“Aunt Meg does not like strange men,” Daisy volunteered.
Meg was still crouched at the foot of the wall, hugging herself. At least she’d stopped whimpering. A pleasant conversation between Anne and the gentlemen might be the best way to calm her down.
“She is very shy,” Anne added. Which was not exactly true, but worked well enough as an explanation. “I apologise, my Lord.”
He smiled, drawing her attention back to that generous mouth. “Not at all. I apologise for startling her. Have your dolls been enjoying their picnic, Queen Daisy?”
Daisy lifted her little chin imperiously. “They are at an assembly, sir. Not at a picnic.”
“You say ‘my Lord’; not sir,” Anne whispered.
“Of course they are,” Lord Chirbury agreed, amusement warming that deep voice. “And a fine assembly it is, I’m sure.”
“It would be better if the kittens had not run off,” Daisy confided. “They was going to be the gentlemen, and now the dolls have to dance with each other, and they are both ladies. Aunt Kitty and Miss Ashbrook dance with each other, but only to practice. When they go to an assembly, they will dance with gentlemen.”
Lord Chirbury’s eyes danced, but his voice remained grave as he agreed with the little girl that ladies preferred to dance with gentlemen when they were at an assembly.
As they continued to talk, Meg slowly uncurled, stretching up till she could peep over the wall. She dropped down again, tugging on Anne’s skirt.
“It is the bad Earl,” she whispered, when Anne bent down to her.
“No darling. It is a different Earl. The bad Earl is dead; remember?”
Meg rose again, burrowing into her sister’s side as she did so. This time, she took a long look. Anne could tell the Earl was aware of her sister’s examination, but—apart from a single flick of his eyes—he kept his attention on Daisy and continued talking to her.
After several long moments, Meg nodded, and relaxed a little, though she didn’t let go of Anne.
“It is a diff’ent Earl,” she agreed.
Now Lord Chirbury looked at Meg, then at Anne, with a question in his eyes.
“Lord Chirbury, may I present my sister Meg, Margaret Haverstock?”
“How do you do, Miss Haverstock? I am sorry I startled you.” How had she thought him grim? He smiled at Meg with the same kindness he’d shown to Daisy.
Meg, however, was anxious again. “Chirbee?” She clutched harder to Anne. “A different Chirbury,” Anne reassured her.
The Earl excused himself graciously, claiming that he and Will were expected elsewhere. Did he leave so that Meg would be comfortable? Surely not. An Earl couldn’t be expected to show such sensitivity. Though the Earl wasn’t at all what Anne expected. She’d never imagined that a ton gentlemen would talk about dolls with a little girl.
Charm and kindness did not make him trustworty, of course, but it certainly made him very appealing.