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Shy country girl Alissa Folkes prefers the company of her peregrine falcon and the comfort of sculpturing to handsome London lords. Alissa is content to remain at home, leaving her sister Henrietta to dazzle some of the local beaux and Elizabeth to charm the rest. Yet deep inside Alissa yearns for true love and a hero. She tends her herbs while longing to impress the chivalrous gentleman who is her father's guest, Christopher, Lord Ives. He came to Wiltshire to study Alissa's father's sheep, but he ...
Shy country girl Alissa Folkes prefers the company of her peregrine falcon and the comfort of sculpturing to handsome London lords. Alissa is content to remain at home, leaving her sister Henrietta to dazzle some of the local beaux and Elizabeth to charm the rest. Yet deep inside Alissa yearns for true love and a hero. She tends her herbs while longing to impress the chivalrous gentleman who is her father's guest, Christopher, Lord Ives. He came to Wiltshire to study Alissa's father's sheep, but he found far more. Rather than the outgoing sisters, he is drawn to Alissa's gentle beauty. Can his love work a miracle to make Alissa bloom?
Above the Wiltshire downs a peregrine falcon ringed higher and higher in the pale blue sky, then plummeted to earth, a swift messenger of death. A shrill scream rent the air, then all was silent.
A breeze rustled through the late-summer grasses, scattering the fragile blue blossoms of cranesbill as it skimmed over the downs. It whispered long-carried secrets to the skylarks that soared overhead, their song bursting across the open meadow as Alissa extended her left arm upward to receive her falcon. She whistled to the hawk and Princess swooped through the air, landing on Alissa's outstretched, stoutly gloved hand. The kill, a nice plump partridge, was deposited and the falcon rewarded. Princess wiped her beak briskly back and forth on the glove after finishing her treat. Alissa smiled with pleasure at this sign of great confidence her falcon displayed in her.
Alissa spoke softly, soothingly to Princess, praising the bird while chucking it on the cheek. Then she tucked the partridge into her game bag and wondered if the falcon was good for another toss.
Below the rise of the hill where Alissa stood with her falcon, Christopher Ivesleigh, the Earl of Ives, rode his bay stallion, hoping to catch another glimpse of the falconer somewhere ahead. Along with his friend, he picked his way with care among the lichen-spotted rocks and fallen branches that littered the earth. The breeze playfully tossed bronzed leaves, and swaying branches bowed to the uneasy quiet in the woods. The sound of their approach was muffled by the quiet rush of a nearby rill as it gurgled its way toward the stream in the valley.
His companion, David Birnam, Baron Duffus, familiarly known to LordIves as Duffy, frowned at the littered ground. "Are you certain this is a better way to High ffolkes than the road? I canna think it be the best."
"Shh, Duffy. Did you see that? Someone is up ahead of us with a falcon. This ought to be good country for hawking, with open space in abundance." He reined in his horse at the edge of a high meadow, watching with amazement as a tall, slender girl raised her hand to receive the peregrine as it swooped down from the sky. Lord Ives observed while she talked to the bird, her face glowing with pleasure in her falcon's skill.
Alissa decided to try once more and signaled to the English setter far down the hill. Quick to respond to her cue, Lady slowly stalked through the grasses, then froze in the characteristic position of a setter at point. Alissa tossed Princess once again, thrilling as the bird ringed higher and higher in the sky until she was barely a black speck in the blue. When Princess had flown as high as she was likely to mount, exactly over the birds, but a little upwind of them, Alissa signaled to Lady and the dog flushed the birds, turning them downwind.
Princess hung a moment. With the incredible sight of a peregrine, the hawk noted the movement of partridge below before her plunge to the downs. Then, wings closed, like a living arrow she flashed to earth. Wind whistled through her bells, creating unearthly music. A puff of feathers indicated she had made a kill.
Alissa waited patiently while Lady did her work, and Princess performed a little dance before picking up her quarry to bring to Alissa.
Ives studied the girl with curiosity. She was dressed in a habit of deep teal blue, and her unbound hair cascaded down her back, the rich, tawny color of beech leaves in autumn. Her eager face glowed with a pink to put a wild rose to shame. She gaily whistled to her bird and it rose up from where the setter watched with anxious eyes. The hawk circled briefly, showing off her dashing style of flight before returning to the outstretched glove. What a vibrantly alive young woman compared to the insipid misses found in London drawing rooms.
Lord Ives watched as the young woman deftly substituted a treat of raw meat for the partridge intended for the kitchen. The falcon accepted the treat, then turned to face the men who sat, they had thought, unobserved.
The girl's charming smile rapidly faded as she whirled about to face them. She balanced the bird with unconscious skill as she studied the intruders. Obviously she was one of the members of the ffolkes family, as this was their land. The eldest daughter, if his guess was right. At the far side of the meadow her chestnut mare nickered when the other horses drew closer.
"Mind you curb that impetuous nature of yours, Ives. I keep telling you 'twill get you in trouble one of these days," cautioned Duffy in a low voice.
Alissa stared at the two who approached, the brown-haired man seated on an enormous bay, the other, a fiery-haired man with guileless blue eyes, on a chestnut gelding. She studied the man on the bay. Her heart began pumping faster than a newborn chick's. He was known to her, not that she expected he would recall her. Her throat felt so dry she couldn't swallow. That man with haughty black eyes held far too elevated a position in the ton to remember the painfully shy miss who had made her come-out this past Season. Beneath her teal-blue habit her stomach lurched in a familiar, terrifying manner.
Princess shifted uneasily as she sensed her mistress's tension. The jingle of the bird's ankle bells carried across the meadow with distinct clarity. Lady barked sharply as she rushed up the hill to protect her mistress.
Alissa carefully placed the hood on her falcon, while wishing the men would go away. Could she manage to speak? At last she said, "Who are you? What are you doing here?" Her mouth dried and refused to permit another word to escape. It was best if they thought she didn't know either of them. It would mean fewer explanations that could only be difficult, if not impossible, for her.
The man on the bay vaulted from his horse with ease, bowing with practiced elegance. "Christopher Ivesleigh, the Earl of Ives, at your service. My friend here is Baron Duffus. We have an appointment with Baron ffolkes, who, I expect, is your father." He waited, smiling with great charm, while the young woman seemed to struggle for words.
Alissa cursed her tongue, which balked at speech. This man would be like all the others, laugh at the horridly shy woman who could not so much as respond to a simple, commonplace remark. How she longed to speak with the same ease he found so ready. Her eyes flashed a look of distress at him before returning to the distant view. It wasn't so difficult to speak if you didn't look at the other person. "He is,', she managed to say in a voice just barely heard.
At a signal, her mare, Fancy, walked up to her, and Alissa edged over to where she might have a chance to get up in the saddle. Lady came bounding up to them, her suspicious gaze darting from one man to the other. Silently--for she knew better than to alarm the hawk--she placed herself between the strangers and her mistress.
Lord Ives guessed the young woman was shy and wanted nothing more than to get on her horse, then head for her home. After a reassuring look at the dog, who seemed to sense his mistress was in no danger from him, Ives quickly walked to her side and, with an air of one who does that sort of thing often, tossed her to her saddle. Admiration for the grace with which she balanced the peregrine was expressed most inadequately, he felt, by his few words. "You handle the bird very well."
Startled eyes looked down at him, their deep blue troubled. Her gaze dropped to the hawk. Her trembling lips were silent, though a hint of her smile returned. She clasped the reins firmly in her right hand while settling the falcon on her perch. The bells on the bird's feet jingled as she moved slightly, then was still.
Raising her gaze once more to where Lord Ives watched her, Alissa managed a swallow, then softly said, "The house is west of here. Just follow the track."
Without so much as a farewell, she dug her foot into the mare's flank. The odd trio, girl, falcon, and horse, sped across the high meadow toward the west, teal skirts rippling as she galloped away. Behind her the two men stood in frowning silence. The dog studied the men, apparently decided they could be trusted, then tore after her mistress, her white plume of a tail waving like a flag in retreat.
"Duffy, I have seen shy young misses before, but this one surpasses them all." Lord Ives gathered his reins in one hand while he gazed after the vision in blue. In spite of her shy ways, she was a lovely woman, those deep blue eyes reaching to some emotion within him.
"Wise men lay up knowledge, but the mouth of the foolish is a present destruction," quoted Duffy in perhaps not the most apt manner. "What she dinna say canna be held against her."
"The Book of Proverbs seems to bring out the Scot in you, Duffy. my man. Perhaps what you quote may be true, but the poor girl must find life a living hell if it is that difficult for her to converse. I wonder that she was allowed out here alone." They remounted and slowly headed west, taking a slightly different direction from the young woman. Lord Ives felt the shy miss wouldn't thank them for following her.
With unseeing eyes, Alissa rode hard toward the stables, ignoring the terrain she normally noted with care. With luck she could be at High ffolkes before the guests arrived, and could take refuge in her room.
What a fool she was, to even attempt to talk to the handsome lord from London. She had watched him at those glittering London balls, cooed at by fluttering belles, fussed over by elegant ladies. He had only to appear and the party took new life.
How Alissa had hated those days spent in self-conscious wretchedness. Unable to converse, too shy to mix with others, she murmured her way through countless dances, endured painful hours with the dowagers and other misses who, like Alissa, were not "taking." She relaxed only when she and her chaperone aunt returned to her London home as soon as possible. Her aunt had despaired of her, sending her failure of a niece back to High ffolkes far earlier than the end of the Season, much to Alissa's relief.
Life in the country far from the pressures of town was infinitely more to her liking. She smiled down at the hooded bird on her perch. She had no problem talking to Princess in the least.
Unheedful--indeed, uncaring--she paid no attention to where she galloped until she glanced up to see a high fence, one she usually avoided, looming before her. Her mare shied. then gamely jumped, catching a hoof on the top rail as they sailed over. In the blink of an eye, Alissa found herself falling with the horse. "Oh, drat!" What a stupid thing to happen.
The sudden impact forced the air from Alissa's lungs. She hit the ground hard, unwilling to jump free while trying to protect the bird. Fancy tumbled as well, and at first failed to right herself as Alissa hoped she would.
Once Alissa found her breath, she assessed the situation. She was pinned on the ground, a rough fencepost cruelly pressing against her spine. Her mare pressed against her from her front. Had the fence not been there, chances were Fancy would have crushed Alissa completely. It was impossible for Alissa to move her legs. She was immobilized from the waist down, only her arms free. Pain cut through her with near-unbearable intensity. Nearby, Lady crouched, worried eyes on her mistress. Then Fancy struggled to her feet, flicking wary eyes toward her fallen mistress. The mare slowly walked away, shaking her head in seeming confusion.
Turning slightly, Alissa could see Princess, unharmed, shifting uneasily on the ground, uncertain what to do, the hood preventing flight. Though the bird might enjoy a bit of sun, prolonged exposure would hurt her. Princess must be set free to seek her perch in the mews.
Still unable to move her legs, with her last shred of strength
Alissa reached over to pull off the bird's hood, then sank back to watch as Princess soared into the sky.
"Follow her home, Lady," Alissa whispered, hoping her dog could hear the command. It was the last thing she knew before lapsing into unconsciousness.
As the two riders approached the Elizabethan manor house built of red brick with mullioned windows, a dainty figure walked around the corner carrying a basket of late-summer blooms. At the sound of the horses, she stopped, turning to greet the strangers.
Both Lord Ives and Duffy inhaled with awe at the sight of her. Tripping lightly across the grass came a living china doll. Blond curls peeped from beneath her straw bonnet, contrasting exquisitely with cornflower-blue eyes and a rosebud mouth of luscious pink. Her porcelain complexion had never seen the rays of the hot summer sun: nary one freckle dared to mar that perfect skin. Her voice, when she spoke, was bell-like and sweet.
"Papa told us two gentlemen were expected. I vow I never thought to see such fashionable Londoners coming to inspect Papa's sheep." Her dulcet trill of laughter, accompanied by a flirtatious batting of lashes, charmed the two men, putting all thoughts of a tall, shy young woman and her peregrine from their minds. "I am Henrietta ffolkes. Such a silly last name, but Papa insists on clinging to the old Elizabethan spelling. Please, follow me to the salon. You must be terribly thirsty from traveling, and a cool drink would undoubtedly be most welcome."
A servant materialized from the background as they dismounted. Neither man had been aware of his approach. He took the horses in the direction of the stables.
"We would be delighted, Miss ffolkes. I'm sure it must be as charming as your lovely self." Lord Ives bowed low over the dainty hand while Duffy watched the complacent smile on the exquisite face as the young woman preened herself at Lord Ives's attentions.
Duffy trailed after the others, his keen gaze observing the almost-too-beautiful young miss and his best friend. Ives appeared to be captivated by the girl. Duffy narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, then moved his gaze around the spacious entry hall.
It appeared a well-kept home. Their footsteps echoed on the flagstones of the entry until they crossed into the drawing room. Paneled in Dutch oak, it was a dimly lit place that nonetheless gave one a feeling of warmth and welcome. Plainly furnished in simple style, it was obvious to Duffy that neither Baron nor Lady ffolkes cared for show. Yet from the soft, dull colors of the aged Aubusson on the floor, to the faded tapestry on the far wall, it was a pleasant room in which to rest and visit.
Fluttering her lashes in a demure manner, Miss ffolkes crossed to give the bell-pull a tug. When the footman entered, she issued orders for a light repast plus tankards of home-brewed ale for their guests.
"I vow you would not care for a mere cup of tea after your journey. Papa said to take care of you for him, and I am certain this is what he would offer you." She dimpled in seeming modesty as she seated herself on a chair near the fireplace, gesturing to the sofa opposite her for their repose. "I must apologize for my mother's absence. She is ever in her garden. Papa must be overseeing in the field today, though I feel he should be here shortly. My eldest sister is off hawking, as is her custom most days of decent weather. Alas, that leaves me to see to your comfort, gentlemen."
A moment's thought went to the tall miss in teal blue who had smiled so radiantly as her falcon came to rest on her glove. The diamond of the first water who faced them drove the memory from Lord Ives's mind.
Within minutes a tray holding tankards of foaming ale and plates of bread and cheese was brought to the salon. It was hearty fare to men accustomed to more dainty foods when ladies served. Ives raised his pewter tankard with appreciation. "To the fairest miss in England."
The delicate blush that spread over her porcelain face was worthy of a masterpiece of art. She glanced with curiosity as a maidservant entered the room, crossing to her side with speed. A whispered message was met with a frown. Duffy heard her quietly inform the servant that the housekeeper could properly handle the matter. The servant was not best pleased, Duffy noted. In fact, the young maid seemed downright shocked before hastily assuming a bland countenance and scurrying away. Duffy glanced at his friend to see if he had observed the scene, but Lord Ives was gazing at the fair Miss ffolkes. It would be up to himself to keep a sharp eye peeled around here, that was for certain. As impulsive as Ives was wont to be, he would bear watching.
The English setter dashed into the room, heedless of a scold from Miss ffolkes. She trotted over to Lord Ives, gave him a beseeching look, then glanced at Duffy. When neither gentleman moved, she turned and raced out once more.
"Forgive the dog, please, gentlemen. My sister will spoil that dog of hers." Henrietta gave another of her demure smiles, flashing dainty pearl-white teeth.
As she spoke, an older woman entered the room, her vague expression changing when she saw there were guests. "Henrietta, did I know we were to have company today?" The lady wore a strange mixture of clothing. A somewhat muddied green gown was topped with a tan cambric apron that had deep pockets overflowing with pieces of string, a long-handled clippers, and a pair of canvas gloves.
"Yes, Mama. These gentlemen are newly come from London to look at Papa's sheep. Mama--the Earl of Ives and Baron Duffus. Since you could not be found, I took it upon myself to see that they had refreshment. I was certain that was what Papa and you would wish."
Lady ffolkes nodded, looking faintly bemused. "Parsons will show you to where my husband is. You won't find any sheep in the house." She glanced at her daughter with approval, a faint smile crossing her face as she turned to leave the room. "Excuse me, gentlemen, I have things to do and I am certain you won't need my assistance."
Miss ffolkes rose from her chair and walked with the men, who had risen when Lady ffolkes entered the room, to the door, where she motioned Parsons to come closer. "They wish to see Papa. Will you take them, please?" Turning to Lord Ives, she beamed a breathtaking smile up at him, and added in a sweet, girlish voice, "You gentlemen will join us for dinner this evening?"
Lord Ives again bowed low over her hand, replying they were delighted to accept, white Duffy noted that he had not been consulted by either party.
The sheep were indeed worthy of the trip down from London. Lord Ives proved to be a shrewd bargainer, earning respect from Baron ffolkes. The good baron was rightly proud of his sheep, considering them the finest to be found on the Wiltshire downs. He remarked to Lord Ives, "I expect they will do well at the sheep fair coming up in Salisbury in a few weeks. You gentlemen plan to attend that event, do you not?"
At their hasty assurances, the baron, his mind leaping into action, genially invited them to come for a visit, stay a week or more before the fair. Henrietta badgered him continually for a London Season. Should this earl find her worthy (and who could not?), it could well save a good deal of money and that dratted Season. And that appealed to the baron's parsimonious nature. These lords were precisely what he wanted. His prim mouth stretched into a cunning smile. He was determined to get all of his girls fired off, and well. He hoped that one more Season for Alissa would do the trick for that shy miss, although he might be overly optimistic. Now, for Henrietta's future...
"Come, you must have a look at my hounds, gentlemen." The three men sauntered away from the sheep fold toward where the hounds were housed in a small building and run next to the stable bloc. "Over there is the mews where my eldest daughter keeps her hawks. Has two now--a peregrine falcon and a goshawk tiercel. Too much for a woman, I say. But she's a surprising one, gets along with them famously."
"I believe we saw her out on the downs. She does not require an assistant?" There was no hint of censure in his voice, yet the listener was well aware of the implication of the words.
The baron slapped his gloves against his thigh in vexation. "Aye, that she does. Thomas has been ill with a touch of something or other. Cannot keep her in the house, you know. Girl is out in all manner of weather. She's a handful. A mind of her own. Now, her sister is something else, indeed. My dear Henrietta is all a man could wish for, if I do say so myself."
Lord Ives murmured an appropriate reply as he watched a slim young miss run from the west wing of the house toward the stables. Her bonnet bounced gaily on her back, dangling by its ribands as she hurried, unheedful of the pretty picture she presented. She looked to be about seventeen or so, with soft brown curls tumbling about a sweet-looking face. "Another daughter, Baron?"
"Hmpf. That's Elizabeth, my youngest. My boy, Barrett, is off to a sale north of here at Amesbury. There's a horse he fancies. I expect he will be bringing it back with him when he comes." Baron ffolkes felt in a rare good humor.
The dogs were duly admired. It was a fine setup, with stable and dog run clean and neatly kept. Lord Ives was curious about the mews, yet something held him back from asking to see that area. If the hawking daughter was so shy, she might be displeased to see strangers intruding on her domain. Miss Elizabeth could be seen in earnest conversation with one of the grooms, who leapt on a horse and rode off pell-mell toward the downs where Ives had last seen the falconer and her proud bird.
The thought crossed Duffy's mind that there was something smoky going on about here, but he kept silent, merely watching. As it was written in Proverbs, 'A man's heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps." If he was to find out what was afoot, he would be led to the discovery. In the meantime, Duffy would investigate the young Elizabeth. There was a serene look of common sense about the girl. She might prove to be of greater interest than the beauty who had eyes for only the Earl of Ives. Though far too young, she might entertain.
On the rise of ground before the house, Henrietta stood at the edge of a fine Elizabethan knot garden. Lord Ives forgot all about sheep and hounds as well as falcons, and crossed to where she so prettily waited.
"I vow, I thought you would be with the sheep until nightfall, my lord." Henrietta giggled at the thought, then, dimpling in a coquettish manner, added, "I am certain you will wish to wash up after being out by the fold. May I offer you a room where you could refresh yourselves?"
"Kind lady, it would be most welcome." Lord Ives turned to Duffy, who had reluctantly joined the pair. "We would welcome a change. Right, my friend?"
"Aye. I canna present myself in the hall in all my dirt. I suppose your family gathers there afore the evening meal, lass?" Duffy lapsed into a touch of Scots as he searched the face of the beautiful girl standing a bit too close to his friend. There was absolutely no reason why Duffy ought to feel apprehensive. The young lady came of impeccable birth. Her father was very well-set, if somewhat absorbed with the raising of sheep. Even her peculiar mother managed a magnificent garden, if this be a sample of her art. He guessed he was accustomed to seeing Ives with more sophisticated women.
Lord Ives bent to pick a flower from the colorful array around them. "To the fairest of the fair."
Henrietta blushed becomingly. "La, sir, you are a flatterer." She turned to lead the way to the house, casting flirtatious looks at Lord Ives as they walked together.
Duffy studied the sweet, serious face of Elizabeth as she crossed the garden to join them. She curtsied properly to the gentlemen, peeping a shy look at Duffy, then turned to her sister, staying her with a slender hand.
"Please, I must talk with you, Henrietta. I wish your help."
Elizabeth gave her sister a pleading look that reminded Duffy of the setter that had raced into the drawing room earlier. Duffy's feeling of unease grew.
"Surely it can wait, Elizabeth. Can you not see we have guests? I must have Parsons show them to a room, then we can speak." Henrietta's irritation was well-concealed. Only one as acute as Duffy might have noticed it. Her voice had been gently reproving, placing the younger Elizabeth in the wrong.
Duffy extended a gallant arm. "Join me in the walk to the manor, Miss Elizabeth. Now, tell me what had you in such a flutter. I saw you hurry to the mews a bit ago."
Elizabeth gave him a confused look, then calmly replied, "Do not give it a thought, my lord. Everything shall be all right. I shall make it so." With that obscure and rather odd reply, she walked with Duffy to the house, her quaint air of maturity amusing him.
Christopher Ivesleigh was enchanted with the fair charmer who walked so daintily at his side. If ever there was a dream come true, it was this lovely blond with those pretty eyes so full of innocence and trust.
"Are you planning to attend the Sheep Fair in Salisbury, my lord? 'Tis but a few weeks off. As well as the sheep display, there will be all manner of delights to be found." Henrietta dimpled prettily, and Lord Ives was certain that she would be the greatest delight to be viewed at the fair.
"Your father has invited us to stay with you during that time." He waited to see her response.
"Ohhh, do come early. I know life in the country must seem horridly dull to London gentlemen such as you, but I vow we can be quite gay." Her appealing smile was irresistible to the charmed Lord Ives.
"I cannot deny your request, fair lady. Duffy and I shall be here early on, with pleasure, I assure you."
The young lady purred with gratification at his words. She handed the gentlemen into the butler's care with an admonition to treat their guests well.
As the trio walked up the stairs, Duffy glanced back to see Henrietta giving her sister a whispered scold.
In the privacy of their allotted room, Duffy removed his coat and limp shirt. As he splashed refreshing lavender scented water over his chest and face, he wondered how deeply Christopher's sudden interest in the fair Henrietta went. Duffy hoped it was of brief duration.
Duffy toweled himself dry, then reached for a clean shirt suitable for wear to the dining table. "She is a lovely lass. Miss Henrietta ought to do well when she reaches the marriage mart in London."
Christopher gave him a startled look. "She goes to town this next Season? You have keen ears, my friend."
Duffy gave a shrug, then tucked his shirt in his pantaloons. while giving his dull boots a dismayed frown. 'Aye, that I have. So would you if you ceased looking at that blond miss as though she was an entire window of comfits. What has caught you, Ives? Not like you to be so bowled over by so young a country lass."
"For that matter, you were attending to that child, Elizabeth, as though she was strolling in Hyde Park at five of the clock. I find Miss Henrietta charming--as a diversion, I assure you. And Miss Elizabeth?"
"That miss is not only comely but also interesting," Duffy flared back. "She has a maturity far beyond her years.
"That reminds me: I wonder if the shy one will show up for dinner." Christopher tied his cravat in a precise Mathematical that was the envy of all his friends. He stepped back to survey his appearance, then donned his coat once more, now well-brushed by the footman. Rubbing his chin, Ives strolled to the window that looked over the rolling downs that stretched far beyond the landscaped grounds of High ffolkes. "Do not be surprised if she remains to her room. She is like a shy bird, to be tamed with patience and care."
"Who made you so suddenly the wise one? I don't see any gray beard appearing." Duffy chuckled at the look of chagrin that crossed Christopher's face.
Instead of replying, Ives stiffened with alertness, listening to a quiet commotion out in the hall. Then all was silent again.
He met the puzzled expression on Duffy's face with a shrug.
When they left their room, the upper hall was empty of people. Only the English setter was to be seen, sitting anxiously outside the last door on the right. The dog pawed at the door, whining softly. Ives glanced at the dog, mildly curious, as the two gentlemen walked to the stairs.
The family gathered in the hall, the London gentlemen near the last to arrive. As they began to drift in the direction of the dining room, Lady ffolkes wandered down the stairs, an abstracted expression on her face.
"Someone has been digging in my Chrysanthemum leucanthemum. I do wish you could keep the dogs out of the gardens." Her gaze focused on the strangers and she sent a questioning glance to Elizabeth.
"Alissa has moved a few plants to the little garden outside the conservatory, Mama." She moved forward to slip her arm about her mother, gently guiding her toward the dining room. "You recall these are the gentlemen who came from London today? Papa suggested they join us for dinner. They will be staying with us during the Sheep Fair in Salisbury as well." She smiled, yet Duffy thought he detected a note of warning in her look.
"Of course, of course. How remiss of me, gentlemen. I ought to have thought of it earlier." She stopped by her place at the foot of the table. "Where is Alissa?"
Elizabeth gave a worried look at Henrietta, and clasped the back of her chair with anxious hands.
"La, Mama, you know how Alissa feels about company," Henrietta said. "One of the maids said Alissa will not be joining us this evening. Pray do not keep our guests waiting." She bestowed a coy look on Lord Ives and preened a bit as he gave her an answering smile.
The meal seemed normal, yet Duffy, his mind still uneasy from earlier sensations, wondered about Miss Elizabeth. She ate as quickly as seemly, then begged to be excused from the table. She gave the butler a significant look as she hurried from the room, and he most discreetly followed her out.
Duffy could only surmise, and that did little good. He watched as Christopher set out to charm the young blond, glad to know it was only a diversion. Duffy supposed little harm could come of such a thing.
As they finally left the dining room, Duffy pulled Christopher aside and said in a low voice, "I dinna wish to stay here this evening. Let us be on our way. You will see the fair Henrietta again soon enough. If we leave now, we ought to be able to make it to the Pheasant Inn."
Since Duffy rarely made such a request, Christopher was inclined to acquiesce. Besides, if he was to send his man down here to fetch the purchased sheep, it was best not to tarry. As Duffy pointed out, they would be returning shortly.
The gentlemen made the most polished of departures, leaving the ffolkes family certain the London lords were utterly devastated to depart.
All but Alissa, that is. That young woman was not to be seen. Nor was Elizabeth, much to Duffy's regret.