Three Abductions and an Earl

By Tessa Candle

Romance, Historical fiction

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11 mins

Chapter 1

Lydia Norwood was not quite the thing with her freckles and red hair, and she knew it. But Lydia did not want to be a débutante. She wanted to be left in peace in the countryside.

Her mother's eager anticipation of the season had propelled the Norwood family to London in early September while the weather was still warm, and in time to escape the stink of fall agricultural activities at Nesterling Lodge.

Yet Lydia quickly found that she preferred the smell of freshly applied manure to the stench of the ton's superiority over the nouveau riche. She preferred her horse to high society, where the company, like the flow of weak tea, was as insipid as it was abundant.

It was getting harder to slip away somewhere quiet to read, but the day's trip with her mother to a pleasure garden outside of the city gave her just such an opportunity. While her mother was engrossed in inspecting the many rare varieties of rose bush within the gardens, Lydia quietly sneaked off down one of the promenades into the woods.

She trailed her fingers over bark and leaves, inhaling the life-affirming sylvan fragrance as she ambled along, finally deciding upon the perfect tree to climb. It had a limb ideally angled for propping her back against the trunk, and from the upper branches she was mostly invisible to the promenade below.

The warm air brought the scent of some flowering bush—she knew not what kind, for she simply could not attend to such irrelevancies, but it was pleasant. She settled into a contented slouch and found her page in The Necromancy of Abruggio. Then voices interrupted her solitude.

“Listen, we have not much time, Mrs. Havens. He should be coming along this way any minute. Here are two guineas. You may keep them if you agree to assist me.”

“What shall I do, Miss Worth?”

“When we meet him and turn back to walk with him, you will lose the heel to your boot right about here. Bang at it with this rock, that should loosen it. Then I shall send you back to the hall by the fastest path. He might offer to accompany you, but you must refuse all assistance, and be very persuasive.”

“Of course, Miss Worth. I understand completely.”

Lydia could not help spying on this exchange, and watched Mrs. Havens tuck the coins into the handle of her parasol. She thought it was an incredibly foolish scheme. And what was the point of having a duenna or companion or whatever she was, if she could so easily be bribed to abandon her post. How did this lend countenance to anyone?

The two schemers passed out of her hearing. She dismissed it as more of the stupidity inherent in society, and returned to her novel.

To her irritation, her repose was shortly interrupted again.

“These gardens are heavenly, are they not?” Miss Worth had returned.

“I should say that they fall rather into the realm of earthly delights. That is their design, it would seem.” It was a man's voice, deep and strong and smooth, and, Lydia thought, quite bored.

Anyone with such a voice would have a distinct advantage in the world, an ability to influence the listener with the pure beauty of the sound. Indeed, she found herself a little spellbound by it. Who was he?

“Oh, quite right. How clever!” Miss Worth simpered. “According to the on-dits, the master has actually constructed these ruins and temples that you see scattered around the grounds to lend romance to the landscapes. But they look for all the world like they are authentic. Delightful, is it not?”

Lydia winced. This was just the sort of inane prattle that she was trying to escape, and now she was a captive audience, for she could hardly shuffle out of the tree, excuse herself and scurry away. Could she? No, no. Of course not.

“I suppose the romance is diminished somewhat by the knowledge that they are recent artifices rather than ancient artefacts.” The beautiful voice vibrated through Lydia. It was terribly distracting.

“Oh, how you have a way with words, my lord!”

The party was coming into view, and Lydia peeked through the branches of her perch to spy upon them. Mrs. Havens dawdled behind and appeared to be fidgeting with her boot. She was sensibly dressed, with mousy hair, and when she stood up she revealed a remarkably plain face. An ideal companion for the other lady, then.

Miss Worth wore a pink day dress, rabidly frothing with lace, and held a matching parasol, which was unnecessary in the shade of the trees.

The young lady was decidedly pretty—that is, her prettiness was the product of decision. She had some natural appeal, with blue eyes, blond curls, and a slightly up-turned nose, but her hair, dress, bearing, and way of lowering her lashes demurely all fixed her as pretty in a premeditated sort of way.

Lydia wondered if it were having the desired effect on the gentleman, or whether the romance were diminished somewhat by the knowledge of the artifice.

“Miss Worth, my lord, forgive me. I am afraid that I must turn back.” Mrs. Havens interrupted the tête-à-tête.

“Whatever is the matter, Mrs. Havens?” Miss Worth's mouth formed a dainty rosebud O of concern.

“My boot heel has come free. I shall turn back. Perhaps there is a servant at the hall who might fix it. If so, I shall catch up with you later.”

Lydia wished she could see the face of the lord, but as he was a great deal taller than the ladies, any view of his head was entirely blocked. She could not make out anything aside from well-tailored clothes and broad, nicely shaped shoulders.

Not at all to Lydia's surprise, the beautiful voice of the gentleman protested. “Nothing of the sort. We shall walk you back to the hall. In any event, it is not suitable for Miss Worth to be unaccompanied.”

Lydia inferred that he meant not suitable to be alone with me.

“Oh, but this forest is simply divine. And I shall have your company, my lord. What could be further above reproach than the companionship of an earl?”

Lydia smiled to herself. An earl. The young lady had a rather great stag in her sights. His lordship did not seem the least bit interested. He took the arm of Mrs. Havens to lend her his support.

“It will not be much of a retrenchment,” said the earl. “And the forest will still be here after we have deposited your friend at the hall and found a suitable chaperone for you.”

Lydia remarked that he wore a black armband. In mourning. So the lady's quarry was already wounded. She wondered if she should assist the poor stag, for he could not know that the two huntresses had arranged a trap for him.

But Lydia really did not wish to be dragged into the stupid society from which she sought escape. She wanted to read her book. And anyway, the earl sounded as though he were determined not to be left alone with Miss Worth. All would be well.

“Truly, my lord,” Mrs. Havens persisted, “I prefer to avoid such a fuss over me. I can find my way back, well enough. And Miss Worth has so few opportunities for a walk in a proper woods. I should hate to spoil things for her.”

“Oh true! I shall not leave for anything, and it would not be genteel to leave me alone here.” Miss Worth had discovered a way to make her spoilt wheedling pretty, as well.

What a perfectly formed pout and trembling lip—and another glance up through lowered lashes, just for good measure. Lydia felt faintly nauseous. The poor man.

She sighed, closed her book and cleared her throat loudly. “As you appear to be at an impasse, my lord, perhaps I might suggest a solution.”

The party was thrown into confusion, looking about for the woman who had spoken, but unable to see her.

“You are in hiding.” Miss Worth did not conceal her displeasure at this intrusion. “It might be better if you show yourself before you presume to address an earl.”

“No need to stand upon ceremony, Miss Worth,” said the earl. “Though I should like to see the person who offers me counsel.”

Could she hear a smile? She wished she could see his face. “I am situated quite comfortably here, my lord.”

“Then by no means should you bestir yourself on my account.” The earl spoke in a lazy drawl.

Was he being sarcastic? She was not certain. “Would you care to hear my advice, my lord, or shall I save my breath to cool my porridge?”

“I think you should.” Miss Worth was now looking up. “I believe she is up in one of the trees.”

“I should very much like to hear your suggestion, Miss.” The earl overrode all objection.

“Very well. I suggest that your lordship can both send Mrs. Havens back to the hall to fix her boot, and stay in the wood to please Miss Worth, so long as you both remain in the vicinity. You see, my lord, she would be chaperoned, after a fashion, for I am here. Of course, your lordship could also assist Mrs. Havens back. For Miss Worth will not be alone, either, if she waits with me.”

“Ah. A helpful dryad.” His voice was warm, enticing. “These grounds have more romance than was first apparent.”

“And who, pray tell, are you that you might lend me countenance?” Miss Worth's pretty face was now visibly angry.

“It is true that we have not been introduced, but I shall make myself known and available as a witness, should anyone question the propriety of your sylvan amusements.” Lydia could not resist further provoking the pink débutante.

She still could not see his face, but the earl's shoulders were shaking with quiet laughter. Lydia was now thoroughly enjoying herself.

“I thank you for the favour,” Miss Worth's spine straightened, “but you will pardon me if I do not wish to remain in the company of some unknown woman who goes about hiding in trees and spying on people.”

“Of course,” Lydia agreed. “That is entirely understandable. One cannot be too careful about the character of those in one's immediate company. Upon reflection, I retract my offer. I shall learn from your example, Miss Worth, and refuse to be left alone with a young lady who gives her companion two guineas to feign a broken shoe so that she might be left alone in the woods with an unsuspecting gentleman. No less than an earl, it would seem, which explains the expense, I suppose.”

“That is a vicious lie! We must leave this insulting person and continue on our promenade at once. Let us not permit this nobody to ruin our pleasure.”

“And what of Mrs. Havens' shoe?” The earl's voice was calm.

“I will not let my friend be so abused.” Mrs. Havens looked a little uncomfortable, as though she knew not what to suggest. “You may both examine my reticule. You will find no guineas.”

Miss Worth sighed in exasperation at her companion. Lydia felt a little sorry for Mrs. Havens. The woman must be a bit thick. Thick and plain, truly an ideal companion for a Miss Worth.

And what young lady really needed a companion? Could she not be chaperoned by friends and family in the usual way? On the other hand, her parents might need extra assistance in watching over such a daughter. Lydia hoped the notion should never occur to her own mother.

“That will not be necessary, Mrs. Havens.” Miss Worth patted her companion on the arm. “No one seriously believes the slanders of a young woman who hides in trees.”

“No indeed. Who would believe a person who was sitting in a position where she could remain undetected and yet have a clear view over this path along which you two ladies just passed, and furthermore who has no motive to lie?” Lydia clicked her tongue. “A most unreliable witness. But in any case, you may as well put your purse away, Mrs. Havens.”

“No.” The slightly dull woman persisted. Her cheeks were now glowing. “I have been accused and I will show the contents of my reticule.” She opened it and showed it to Miss Worth who pushed it away and rolled her eyes. She then extended it to the earl. Lydia wished she could see his facial expression.

“Your lordship will not find anything in there, for she spirited the coins away into the shaft of her parasol. The handle screws off, you see, my lord.”

“Does it, indeed?” He sounded vaguely intrigued.

“You must not listen to this awful person. She is only bent on making mischief. No doubt she has set her cap for you and lain in waiting.” Miss Worth's face was flushing.

Lydia could not help laughing loudly. “The thief suspects everyone of robbery. My lord, there is a simple way of determining the truth.”

“May I, Mrs. Havens?”

“I should prefer that you did not, my lord.”

“Yes, one cannot go about ruining a lady's parasol on the say-so of some,” Miss Worth waved her hand, “tree person.”

“I shall be very careful,” the earl promised.

Poor Mrs. Havens' hand trembled a little as she handed the earl her parasol. She gave an apologetic look to Miss Worth, whose face now looked decidedly not pretty.

He shook the parasol lightly, and the rattle of the coins was audible even from Lydia's position.

“You can hear what condition it is in. Pray be terribly gentle, my lord, and do not twist it 'round, for the handle is clearly about to fall to pieces. Have mercy on poor Mrs. Havens, for it is the only parasol she has along.”

Lydia wondered exactly whom this pink-clad fraud thought she was fooling.

The earl gave the handle a twist, and it opened. He poured out the two guineas.

Mrs. Havens' face was beet red as she sputtered, “Forgive me, my lord. I forgot those were in there.”

“Quite understandable, Mrs. Havens.” The earl handed her the parasol and guineas. “Under the circumstances, it might slip anyone's mind. After all, you were distracted by difficulties with your shoe.”

Lydia had to admit that watching this entire scene unfold was better than reading her novel.

“I do not know anything about those coins. I certainly did not give them to her.” Miss Worth was doing her best to look surprised.

“Miss Worth, it pains me that I must be so direct, but if you are contemplating telling me that this woman has stolen the money, please do not.”

“But, I—”

“Not another word, if you please. I believe I have had quite enough of the gardens for one day. I shall depart.” When the irrepressible Miss Worth made to go with him, he added, “Alone.”

He walked a few steps and then turned to face the tree, so Lydia could now see only the smooth contours of his well-muscled calves.

“I am in your debt, dryad. I only wish that I might know to whom I speak. Perhaps we shall meet again under more pleasant circumstances, unless, of course, you would walk with me back to the hall.”

“That might be interpreted badly, my lord.” Lydia wished she were not such a coward. “But I wish you a pleasant afternoon. I hope we shall meet again.” If only she could think of something more clever to say.

She did, truly, hope they would meet again. Something in the polished restraint of his strength, his alluring voice and broad shoulders made her want to be closer to him. If only the other two women were not present, perhaps they might get better acquainted. He was certainly the first man who had seemed remotely interesting to her.

Though, perhaps it was merely that circumstances forced a more entertaining exchange than one generally encountered at tea. But he definitely had wit. It was too bad he was an earl, for they were unlikely to be in the same social circles. She resigned herself to her fate and turned back to her book, as the earl strode away.

“And what have you to say for yourself?” Miss Worth's voice was cold as she stared up at the tree with pure hatred in her eyes.

“Are you still here?”

“Do not think you will get away with this.” The pink of the girl's dress now amplified the angry blotches that were forming on her cheeks.

Some people really should not permit themselves to become enraged. Lydia knew from personal experience how horridly red a face could become if one did not control one's emotions.

“I have not gotten away with anything. I have merely prevented you from doing so.”

“I will have your name.”

“Will you? I think not. It is an acquaintance I should rather avoid.”

“Coward. Come out and show yourself.” Miss Worth scratched at her cheek.

“If you are so intent upon knowing who I am, why do you not come up here? Then we shall see who is a coward.”

“I do not scamper about in trees.”

“Well, that is settled then. You may go now and leave me to my book.”

“You cannot dismiss me. Come down at once. I demand it.” The chit actually stomped her foot.

“And you cannot command me. But I can ignore you.”

Miss Worth bent to pick up a rock. “I know how to get a rat out of a tree.”

Lydia laughed. “You cannot be serious.”

“I am. Come down or I shall knock you down.” She rubbed her face with the back of her hand.

Lydia took measure of the bizarre young miss. Despite her mother's best efforts, Lydia had extensive experience scrapping with the farm children on her family's estate. She knew how to size up an opponent, and Miss Worth was a weakling.

“I must admit you have audacity,” Lydia replied. “But even if you could see me, I doubt very much that you could hit the broad side of a barn with a bucket of slop. Honestly, can you lift anything heavier than a scant cup of tea?”

“I am sure your experience with manual labour makes you feel superior, but I will best you. Come down, or be pelted.” Miss Worth was determined.

“I am waiting. Let us see this Amazonian arm.”

Miss Worth threw her rock as best she could. It flew into some branches ten feet away from Lydia.

“A little to the left and you might manage to hit your own foot.”

The incensed young woman picked up three more rocks and hurled them in rapid succession, each missing worse than the last as Lydia laughed and her assailant grew more angry.

“It is difficult to be certain, but I believe you may be aiming at the wrong tree.”

“Miss Worth, someone is coming.” Mrs. Havens had to physically restrain the girl from hurling another stone, just as a group of people came around the bend of the path.

Lydia recognized one of the voices. She remained very still.

“Darling! Mrs. Havens! There you both are. Mrs. Norwood, may I present my daughter, Emily, and this is Mrs. Havens. We have been looking for you this last hour, Emily. What have you done to your face?”

Miss Worth rubbed at her blotches. “It feels hot.”

“Is that a rock? Whatever are you doing?”

“I just…”

Lydia held her breath. Would the stupid girl risk exposing herself just to spite Lydia?

“I was just,” Miss Worth dropped the rock, “looking at interesting rocks. I do not feel quite well.” She scratched again.

Lydia realized suddenly that the redness was not merely a product of the girl's anger. Such blotches did not usually get itchy. Hopefully it was some fatal condition.

“If I may say so, Mrs. Worth, those welts look quite serious.” It was Lydia's mother. “I think you should get her home and fetch a doctor as soon as may be.”

“She is warm. I believe you are right, Mrs. Norwood. Emily, do not scratch! You will ruin your beautiful skin.”

The girl complied and lowered her gaze with a meekness that Lydia could not reconcile to the vicious tyranny that she had just witnessed. The party hurried off down the path as quickly as they could, while Mrs. Havens hobbled along behind.

Lydia realized that she would not get to read more of her novel, and had best return to the hall by the long route to give the Worths time to clear out before she reunited with her mother. A meeting with Miss Worth would be too risky.

In fact, rejoining her mother might carry risks of its own, for Mrs. Norwood, no matter how accustomed to her disappearing daughter, would not be best pleased. She set aside The Necromancy of Abruggio, tucking it into her satchel with a sigh, and began to climb down from her tree.

* * *
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