They heard the two curricles before they saw them, the galloping hooves, the cacophony of harness and bounding wheels, the drivers shouting encouragement to their teams and insults to one another.
The Earl of Sutton turned his own horse to the shoulder of the road and the rest of the party followed his lead. As first one racing carriage and then the other careened by, James Winderfield murmured soothingly to his horse. “Stand, Seistan. Stand still, my prince.”
Seistan obeyed, only a stamp of the hind foot and muscles so tense he quivered displaying his eagerness to pursue the presumptuous British steeds and feed them his dust.
From their position at the top of what these English laughably called a hill, James could see the long curve of the road switching back at the junction with the road north and descending further until it passed through the village directly below them.
One of the fool drivers was trying to pass, standing at the reins—legs broadly astride. James hoped no hapless farmer tried to exit a gate in their path.
Seistan clearly decided that the idiots were beneath his contempt, for he relaxed as James continued to murmur to him. “You magnificent fellow. You have left us some foals, have you not, my beauty? You and Xander, there?”
The earl heard his horse’s name and flashed his son a grin. “A good crop of foals, if their handlers are right. And honors evenly divided between Seistan and Xander. Except for the stolen mares.” He laughed, then, and James laughed with him.
Once the herd recovered from the long sea voyage, many of the mares had come into season. Not satisfied with his allotment, Seistan had leapt several of the fences on the land they had rented near Portsmouth, and covered two mares belonging to other gentlemen. And most indignant their owners had been.
“They did not fully understand the honor Seistan had done them, Father,” James said. Which was putting it mildly. When James arrived, they had been demanding that the owner of the boarding stable shoot the stallion for his trespass.
The earl laughed again. “I wish I had been there to hear you explain it, my son.”
A thirty-minute demonstration of Seistan’s skills as a hunter, a racer, and a war horse had been more convincing than any words of James’s, and a reminder of the famous oriental stallions who founded the lines of English thoroughbreds did the rest. In the end, he almost thought they would pay him the stud fee he had offered to magnanimously cut by half.
But he waived any fee at all, and they parted friends. Now two noblemen looked forward to the birth of their half-Turkmene foals, while James had delivered the herd to his father’s property in Oxfordshire and was now riding back to London to be put to stud himself.
“Nothing can be done about his mother, Sutton,” his grandfather, the Duke of Winshire, had grumbled, “but marry him to a girl from a good English family, and people will forget he is part cloth-head.”
The dust had settled. The earl gave the signal to move on, and his mount Xander took the lead back onto the road. James lingered a moment more, brooding on the coming Season, when he would be put through his paces before the maidens of the ton and their guardians. One viscount. Young, healthy, and well-travelled. Rich and titled. Available to any bride prepared to overlook foreign blood for the chance of one day being Duchess of Winshire.
Where was the love the traveling musicians spoke of? At least his cousins had adamantly turned him down. Not that he had anything against the twin daughters of the uncle whose inconvenient death had made his father heir and him next in line. But they did not make his heart sing.
The racing curricles had negotiated the bend without disaster and were now hurtling toward the village. Long habit had James studying the path, looking to make sure the villagers were safely out of the way, and an instant later, he put Seistan at the slope.
It was steep, but nothing to the mountains they had lived in all their lives, he and his horse, and Seistan was as sure-footed as any goat. Straight down by the shortest route they hurtled, for in the path of the thoughtless lackwits and their carriages was a child—a boy, by the trousers—who had just escaped through a gate from the village’s one large house, tripped as he crossed the road, and now lay still.
It would be close. As he cleared one stone fence and then another, he could see the child beginning to sit up, shaking his head. Just winded then, and easier to reach than lying flat, thank all the angels and saints.
Out of sight for a moment as he rounded a cottage, he could hear the carriages drawing closer. Had the child recovered enough to run? No. He was still sitting in the road, mouth open, white-faced, looking as his doom approached. What kind of selfish madmen raced breast to breast, wheel to wheel, into a village?
With hand, body and voice, James set Seistan at the child and dropped off the saddle, trusting to the horse to sweep past in the right place for James to hoist the child out of harm’s way.
One mighty heave, and they were back in the saddle. James’ shoulders would feel the weight of the boy for days, but Seistan had continued across the road, so close to the racers that James could feel the wind of their passing.
They didn’t stop. Didn’t even slow. In moments, they were gone.
The boy shaking in his arms, James turned Seistan with his knees, and walked the horse back to the gates of the big house. A crowd of women waited for them, but only one came forward as he dismounted.
“How can we ever thank you enough, sir?” She took the child from him, and handed him off to be scolded and hugged and wept over by a bevy of other females.
The woman lingered, and James too. He could hear his father and the others riding toward them, but he couldn’t take his eyes off hers. He was drowning in a pool of blue-gray. Did she feel it too? The Greeks said that true lovers had one soul, split at birth and placed in two bodies. He had thought it a nice conceit… until now.
“James.” His father’s voice broke him out of his trance. “James, your grandfather expects us in London.” The earl lifted his top hat with courtly grace to the woman, and rode on, certain that James would follow. Not the woman; the lady, as her voice and clothes proclaimed, though James had not noticed until now.
A lady, and by the rules of this Society, one to whom he had not been introduced. He took off his telpek, the large shaggy sheepskin hat.
“My lady, I am Elfingham. May I have the honor of knowing whom I have served this day?”
She seemed as dazed as he, which soothed him a little, and she stuttered slightly as she gave him her name. “L-L-Lady Sophia. Belvoir.” Unmarried, he hoped. For most married ladies were known by their husband’s name or title. And a lady. He beamed at her as he remounted. He had a name. He would be able to find her.
“Thank you, sir. Lord Elfingham.”
“My lady,” James told her, “I am yours to command.”
Hollystone Hall, Buckinghamshire
24th December 1812
Sophia Belvoir woke, heart pounding, from the same dream that had haunted her for months.
Nightmare, rather, except for how it ended. She was sitting frozen in the middle of a dusty village street, with her death bearing down on her.
But before she was trampled under eight sets of hooves and two sets of carriage wheels, a golden horse came racing from behind a cottage, and suddenly, she was safe in the arms of a barbarian prince. He was splendid in a richly embroidered red robe over white trousers and shirt, with a towering hat of black sheepskin that made him seem enormous. And the dream ended when he kissed her.
She shook her head to dislodge him. “Stay out of my dreams,” she told him.
At least he would not follow her here in person. The house belonged to the Duke of Haverford, and no Winderfield would cross its threshold.
Follow her! Her short laugh at her own expense held no humor. Follow Felicity, rather. When she met him in that village eight months ago, when she encountered him again a week later in a London ballroom, she had hoped he felt the same connection as she did.
But, of course, that was before he met Felicity.
Her younger sister was everything Sophia was not. Felicity’s hair was fair; Sophia’s was brown. Felicity had blue eyes; Sophia’s were a dull gray. Felicity had a classic peaches and cream complexion; Sophia’s was… well, all right, not beige, exactly. But certainly not as pretty than Felicity’s.
Added to that, Felicity was dainty; Sophia was tall. Felicity was fashionably slim where Sophia was altogether rounder, and had to insist on her bodices being cut a little higher than the current mode lest her partners spend an entire dance staring at her breasts.
Of course Lord Elfingham was interested in Felicity, though he made no more of Felicity than of Sophia, nor of any other single lady. As was entirely proper, of course. Lord Elfingham behaved in every way like an English gentleman, even after the Duke of Haverford sponsored a claim in the House of Lords that, if proven, would declare Lord Sutton’s marriage invalid and Lord Elfingham not a viscount and in a direct line to inherit a dukedom, but merely the base-born son of Sutton’s Persian mistress.
The success or failure of the challenge remained to be seen. Meanwhile, the Winderfields behaved as if it, and the Haverfords, did not exist.
It took Sophia a while to notice that Lord Elfingham appeared at the same entertainments as the Belvoir sisters. Not just occasionally, but all the time, until she fell into the habit of looking for him wherever they went.
If there were dancing, he always solicited two dances from each of them. He sat near them at musical entertainments, fetched them supper at soirees, walked his beautiful horse next to their carriage in the park, and contrived to stroll with them at picnics.
And then some busybody pointed it out to her brother, the Earl of Hythe, who made a fuss. “I will not have that baseborn mustee hanging after Felicity!” Hythe declared. “You must put a stop to it, Sophia.”
Quite what Sophia was to put a stop to, when Elfingham’s behavior had been beyond reproach, Hythe did not say, but Sophia was confident the young viscount’s pursuit would end with the Season.
Far from it. Viscount Elfingham had been at Bath where she and Felicity had spent eight weeks with an aunt, and also in London later in the autumn when they went up for a bit of shopping.
But not here in Hollystone Hall. Here, at least, she could go about her day without seeing that dark slender face, all sharp lines, and those piercing eyes. Rather like a hawk, sailing in an updraft over the arid mountains he described to her one afternoon at a garden party, his melodious voice painting images in her mind of the wild rugged land and its colorful people. No. She would not see him here, except in her dreams.
Experience told her there was no use expecting to sleep again, though it was still so early that the maid had not yet made up the fire.
But she could stay snug in her bed and still make some notes about the day’s activities. Today, she and her two friends and co-workers would be leading the decorating of the house for Christmastide. The kissing boughs were made, and the swags. The Yule log had been selected. It remained only to enlist the rest of the guests in the fun.
They worked well together, Sophia Belvoir, Grace, Lady de Courtenay, and Cedrica Grenford. Perhaps they should set up a service for hostesses, like Aunt Eleanor, who wanted a magnificent event and someone else to organize it.
Sophia smiled at the conceit. Hythe would be outraged. She might suggest it to him just to see his reaction.
She lit a candle, picked up the slate and chalk from her bedside table, and commanded her mind to stop thinking about Lord Elfingham. Which was, as she knew it would be, a complete waste of time.
The Bluestocking and the Barbarian is the introduction to my series In the Halls of the Mountain King. It appears as a novella in the 2016 Bluestocking Belles box set, Holly and Hopeful Hearts. Read more about the set and find buy links on the Belles project page.