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"If it's true that troubles come in threes then I have almost filled my quota for the week." Claudia Carstairs contemplated the tranquil scene outside the window in gloomy silence. It was early morning, her favorite time of day, and the sun cast dappled, summer shapes over the shaggy lawn that stretched down to a glittering patch of ornamental water. She found herself, however, utterly incapable of appreciating the pastoral beauty of the scene.
She turned away and, drawing a pair of ancient breeches and an equally shabby shirt and coat from the wardrobe near her bed, began dressing. Mentally, she counted her difficulties on her fingers. Jenny should have foaled by now and was showing signs that it would be a difficult birth. Squire Foster had given notice that he would no longer abide by the agreement reached many months ago between them on grazing land for her sheep. And now there was word of a stranger in the village asking questions about Ravencroft and its dead master.
She shivered at the thought, and paused with one boot in her hand. A stranger. It could be nothing at all, of course. Little Marshdean was not so out of the way that transients did not occasionally drift through on their way to Gloucester or even Wales. But this one had been about for two days now--and why was he asking about Emanuel?
She remained thoughtful as she finished dressing, then shrugged. There was nothing she could do about it, she told herself briskly. She ran a comb through her tangled, taffy-colored hair and caught it up tightly with a ribbon before pulling on a large, nondescript cap. From force of habit, she cast a glance in the mirror before she left the room, and this caused her tosigh again. "Good Lord," she murmured in exasperation, her light brown eyes narrowing. "Just look at yourself." It was not at her appearance at which she caviled. It was her height. She was small--a dab of a woman, she called herself--and it seemed as though man's clothing--her work clothes--made her seem shorter and much less prepossessing than she would have liked. She shrugged again. There was nothing she could do about that, either.
Claudia strode through the stillness of the great house and, as so often happened nowadays, an unexpected sense of elation surged through her. She was free! She was skirting the edge of financial disaster, but she was no longer the wife of Emanuel Carstairs. She had survived him, and would never have to endure the touch of a man again, nor would she ever again have to endure a man's domination and repression. Best of all, Ravencroft was hers!
At least, she smiled ruefully, as long as she could keep it out of the hands of her creditors--and her brother-in-law. At this thought, the smile fell from her lips. She had almost forgotten. Only four more days before Thomas and Rose would descend on her. Good heavens, it looked as though her troubles were coming in fours this week.
She tiptoed down the length of the corridor, having no desire to encounter her Aunt Augusta at this hour of the morning. She loved Aunt Gussie dearly, but she had no time for the lecture that would surely ensue on the extreme undesirability of young ladies "prancing about in front of the world in male clothing." She reached the kitchen and sniffed at the savory odor of fresh coffee and baking bread.
"Mmm, that smells marvelous, Mrs. Skinner," she said to the gray-haired woman standing near the stove who stopped what she was doing and brought a steaming cup to the table.
"I hope you're goin' t' sit down for a proper breakfast, Miz Claudia," said the woman. "It won't take a minute to fry some eggs, and the ham's all sliced."
Claudia embraced the woman's small, plump form.
"No time this morning, but I will have some of that bread." Reaching for a knife, she sliced a generous chunk and liberally applied butter and jam. She took a few sips of coffee. Then, still munching, she waved jauntily to the disapproving woman and headed for the stables.
She reached the yard just as Jonah Gibbs, her head stable man was leading Jenny from her stall. He touched the brim of his cap.
"Morning, ma'am." He gestured balefully at the mare. "Looks t' me as though she might be thinkin' about bringin' down her foal today. She's started spillin' her milk."
Claudia glanced at Jenny's dripping teats and then looked with fondness on the grizzled old horseman. He was her mainstay and her rock. What small success she had achieved as a breeder of horses could not have been accomplished without his advice and counsel. He was a crotchety old devil, she reflected amusedly, but he had been at Ravencroft all his life and his affection for her and for the estate was as abiding as the ancient Cotswold hills surrounding them.
"It's about time," she said, stroking the mare's nose. "Do you think there will be trouble?"
"Aye, she ain't let down one yet that she didn't fratch about. Thought she'd never take. The other colts was born months ago, and here she is, dropping hers in July. Silly daft beast," he said to the mare, who thrust her nose affectionately into his shin front.
"With Warlock as the sire," Claudia replied, "the baby will probably be huge. And black as night," she added thinking of the raven's wing sheen of her prize stallion's coat. She uttered a silent prayer, for the long awaited colt, sired by their one and only stallion and dammed by their most promising mare, was expected to grow into the hope of the stable.
Jonah walked the mare up and down the yard, accommodating himself to the plodding motion of her heavy body and carefully inspecting her for further signs of incipient labor. After watching for a moment, Claudia turned for a cursory glance at the stable yard. As always, the sight brought a flutter of pleasure. Ravencroft might yet be a small horse-breeding operation, but its stables, she was sure, could match the finest in England. They had been built in the time of what Claudia had come to think of as "the other family," the Standishes of Ravencroft, headed since the time of the eighth Henry Tudor by generations of Lords Glenraven. Until, that is, their home had been acquired by Emanuel Carstairs.
The buildings were finely crafted of brick and the same Portland stone of which the main house was built. They were made to last, though they had been sadly neglected during the years of Emanuel's tenure, and the yard had been reduced to an unkempt clutter of household refuse. During the year since her husband's death, however, she and Jonah and Lucas, the young man whom she laughingly called her staff, had restored it to its former air of solid prosperity.
Claudia made her way to one of the stables. She paused for one last, appreciative glance at the morning, shimmering in warm radiance about her, before entering the building's dark interior. After making her rounds, assuring herself that the occupant of each stall had survived the night in good case, she reached for a pitchfork to begin the daily mucking-out chore.
She had been engaged in this, her least favorite activity of the day, for some minutes when she suddenly became aware that she was no longer alone. Whirling, she observed a man standing just inside the doorway, leaning against the jamb and appearing very much at his ease.
Without understanding how, she knew instantly that this was the stranger described to her by Lucas. "Hangin' around the Three Feathers, he was, like he hadn't another blessed thing t' do in the world except lounge about in the middle of the day soakin' up a pint o' heavy wet."
She stared assessingly at the stranger, taking in the dark coat and breeches fashioned of some cheap material. He was tall, and his slender form was silhouetted against the daylight. His hair was dark--black as Warlock's silky mane, Claudia thought irrelevantly. But his eyes were a surprising light gray. They seemed to blaze in the dimness of the stable.
"Who are ye, and what d' ye want?" she asked briskly, speaking deliberately in a rough country accent. She was not afraid of this man, of course. Jonah was right outside, and Lucas was probably about somewhere by now as well. Still, he made her uneasy, creeping up on her like a jungle predator.
He moved toward her with a casual grace that Claudia found unsettling.
"Excuse me, lad," he said in a tone of quiet authority at odd variance with the shabbiness of his dress. "I'm looking for the stable master." The smile that spread across his angular features added a surprising warmth to what was otherwise a rather forbidding countenance. He was younger than she had originally surmised--probably in his early twenties.
The stranger stopped abruptly, gazing at her in some surprise.
"I'm sorry." He spoke in the familiar soft accents of the Cotswold. He was from the area then? Not a transient? "I should have said--lass?"
"That's right," she replied, a certain belligerence in her tone. She had more than once been the recipient of unpleasant, if not overtly contemptuous familiarity from men beholding her in her work clothes. Not that her breeches and shirt could be called immodest, for they were shapeless and baggy and enveloping. It was just a peculiarity in the male nature, Claudia considered, that led them to believe a woman in man's clothes was ripe for any sort of coarse advance.
However, nothing beyond an expression of polite inquiry showed on the stranger's face.
"What d' ye want with the stable master, then?" Claudia asked, pitchfork still in hand.
"I'm lookin' fer work, miss. I was told in the village that the owner of this place raises horses. I've worked with horses before, and mayhap I could be of use here."
She gazed at him for a moment with narrowed eyes. He had been asking questions about Ravencroft, and now he was here asking for a position? Who was this man, and where was he from? And most important of all, what was he doing here? True, he did not look threatening, but to Claudia there seemed a tension about him, a look of coiled steel in that slender frame, now leaning negligently against a stall door. She watched as he turned to stroke the nose of the stall's occupant with long, gentle fingers.
"What's your name?" Claudia asked sharply, forgetting to maintain her country speech.
"Jem," replied the stranger, his brows lifting. "Jem January. Now, lass," he continued, "it's been pleasant talkin' with you, but would you please direct me to the stable master?"
Claudia read in his tone a certain disdain. Probably, she thought in rising indignation, he considered her a daughter of the soil, so unattractive that she had been unable to find a husband and was thus fit only for mucking out the stables, smelling of horse and garbed in disreputable clothing.
Jem January thought nothing of the sort. He had first thought her a stable lad, but his view had changed rapidly as he took note of the curve beneath the shirt of thick homespun and the musical voice that spoke to him so unpleasantly. His always lively curiosity was immediately captured, and when the malodorous apparition began to speak in the cultured accents of a gently bred female, it was further piqued.
He would have liked to have probed the little mystery further, but he had not, he reflected, come all this way to be sidetracked. He must gain access to Ravencroft, and since the current owner of the place was, from the reports he had gleaned in the village, attempting to revive the reputation of the estate as a source of prime horseflesh, a job in the stables seemed the best bet. Why, he wondered impatiently, was the wench so reluctant to let him see the man in charge?
"I doubt," she said, flushing, "that..."
She stopped abruptly, and Jem followed her gaze to discover the appearance in the doorway of a stooped old man. Behind him trooped a younger man, stalwart of build and pugnacious of expression.
"What is it, ma'am?" asked the older man. "We heard voices. Is everything all right?"
Ma'am? thought Jem. What was going on here?
"Yes, Jonah, everything is fine. This--young man has come looking for work."
Jonah! Jem looked closely at the face beneath the shock of white hair. Good God, it was Jonah. Jonah Gibbs! Lord, he hadn't reckoned on there being someone about the place who had been here before ... Well, he'd just have to hope that the old man would not recognize him. After all, it had been twelve years. He smiled benignly into the seamed face.
Jonah snorted. "Lookin' for work, is he? And what will we pay him with, good wishes?" He turned to Jem and would have said more, but he halted abruptly and peered questioningly into the stranger's face. Before he could say more, the young man behind him stepped forward.
"That's him, Miz Carstairs. That's the feller I was tellin' you about--snoopin' in the village--about Ravencroft."
Mrs. Carstairs! Jem's brows lifted again in silent surprise. He seemed to be coming in for one shock after another this morning. Was this really the widow of Emanuel Carstairs? He had somehow expected someone more--well, more prepossessing. He turned a guileless gaze on her.
"Snooping?" he asked, his face a study in unsullied innocence. "Why, I suppose you could say I was. I'm pretty desperate for work, mum. As for--Ravencroft, is it? I figured I'd best discover which place would be the most likely in need of a good man, and this here's where I was directed." He removed his cap and stood holding it with both hands. "Are you Mrs. Carstairs, then? The lady what owns the place?"
His air of submissive respect seemed to Claudia wholly spurious, and she bestowed on him what she hoped was a regal nod, wishing she did not look so awful--or smell quite so bad. "Yes, I am," she replied. "And Jonah is right, I'm afraid. We are not hiring just now."
Jem's eyes grew wide. "But a lady like you--mucking out the stables. It ain't fit, mum. You need another hand, sure."
"That may be." Claudia spoke harshly. "However, we maintain a very small operation here, and to be very frank, young man, we cannot afford to hire any more help--at the moment."
"I'd work for board and a place to sleep, mum." Jem allowed a hint of desperation to creep into his voice. "And I could double as a footman, or valet--or even a butler."
Claudia had begun to turn away, but at these words, she spun about again.
"Butler?" She stared at him dubiously. "You don't look like a butler."
As she looked, a startling transformation came over the stranger. He drew himself up as though someone had thrust a poker up the back of his coat, and he swept his disordered hair into a semblance of smoothness. Making a bow that nicely combined a certain degree of subservience with the disdainful arrogance of a gentleman's servant, he spoke in accents utterly unlike those Claudia had just heard him use.
"Quite so, madam. However, it has been my experience that looks can be deceiving."
"Apparently so," Claudia said with some asperity. She chewed her lip and glanced at Jonah.
"Thomas and Rose will be here in a few days, and I have done nothing about a replacement for Morgan. Aunt Gussie is becoming most agitated."
Morgan. Jem wrinkled his forehead at the sound of the name. What had happened to Morgan? Passed away? He had been getting on in years when Jem had seen him last. He shook himself slightly and listened to Mrs. Carstairs's next words.
"Thomas will be highly affronted if he is greeted at the door by one of the maids. We don't even have anyone who can stand in as a footman."
"I'm your man, then," interposed Jem bestowing on her the most charming smile at his disposal. He became the immediate target of three suspicious pairs of eyes. The young widow stood for several moments in frowning abstraction.
Claudia did not trust this personable stranger any farther than she could throw the horse that stood behind him in its stall. Despite his air of candor, he had been asking questions. On the other hand, perhaps it would be better to keep him nearby, where she could monitor his curiosity.
"If you are indeed willing to work for board and a place to sleep, we will take you on. Jonah will show you where you will stay." She handed him her pitchfork. "After you've finished here, Jonah will give you additional duties."
Jem knew a tinge of disappointment and some apprehension. He hoped he would not be called on to perform any tasks calling for any actual knowledge of horsemanship. For, despite his claim to expertise, he doubted that the position he had held for a few weeks several years ago as sweeping boy in a livery stable would qualify him for anything more complicated than wielding that pitchfork or carrying water. Well, he would just have to trust in Providence to wangle him into the butler's job. Too bad about Morgan--although it wouldn't have done, he supposed, to have yet another old retainer about the place to recognize him.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Changing into the only other pair of breeches he had brought with him, and donning a shirt donated by young Lucas, who still hovered suspiciously, Jem wielded his pitchfork to good effect. After that, he carried water and distributed feed. His other chores proved no more difficult than currying and brushing and oiling leather. He began to think that he might be able to carry off his little charade without incident, after all.
His composure nearly deserted him, however, when he entered the tack room for the first time. Dear God, it was as though he had stepped out of it only yesterday. There, in one corner was the big, scarred desk used for the business of the stable operation. Next to it were the cabinets, dark with age, where generations of records had been kept. Against another wall, row upon row of ribbons and trophies rested in glass cases, and even--yes! There was the sketch he had made of Trusty, his first pony. It had been framed, and still hung between the portraits of two of the stable's most notable mares.
An unfamiliar pricking sensation stung between his eyes, and he gripped the back of a chair. A sound behind him made him whirl.
"Are ye in need of rest already, then, Mr. January?" asked Jonah in a caustic voice. He did not wait for a reply, but continued brusquely. "Ye'll find the gear that needs mendin' in the next room."
Wordlessly, Jem turned and fled from the little chamber.
He knew another bad moment when the supper hour approached. As he followed Jonah and Lucas into the main house, past the kitchen, he was again almost overwhelmed with memory. True, he had not spent much time in the nether regions of Ravencroft, but visions of gingerbread eaten in the warmth of a bustling kitchen rose up before him. Just there, he had sat nursing a scraped knee one December afternoon, while Cook plied him with salve and damson tarts.
Supper was taken in the lower-servants' hall, and Jem sat quietly, absorbing the chatter that flowed about him. It was apparent that the house was understaffed, too. He wondered how many tenants worked the fields. From what he'd heard in the village, the widow Carstairs kept sheep, though not nearly as large a flock as had roamed the Ravencroft pastures in years past.
At least she set a good table, he reflected appreciatively as he swallowed a succulent morsel of chicken, and she didn't skimp on the under servants. She seemed to be well-liked among her staff. He heard only fondness in the voices that spoke her name. He found his thoughts dwelling on the diminutive figure in outsize shirt and breeches. How in God's name had she come to marry Carstairs? he wondered. It had been hard to tell what she looked like with that equally oversized hat pulled about her ears, but she seemed a decent enough sort.
He shook himself. He did not want to think about the possible decency of Mrs. Emanuel Carstairs. One of his purposes in coming to Ravencroft had been for revenge. He had thirsted so badly for it for so long. He recalled his unbelieving rage when he discovered that the new owner of Ravencroft had been in the earth for nearly a year. He relaxed the fists that had clenched involuntarily. Retribution may have been denied him, but he would still accomplish his other goal. And when he had, the young widow would have to find somebody else's stables to muck out.
Slightly ashamed of his rancor, he finished his meal and hurried out to the stable to take care of the first of the evening chores allotted to him by Jonah.
It was some hours later when he was dismissed. After washing up at the pump in one corner of the stable yard, he strolled around to the front of the house and for many minutes simply stared at the facade of weathered, local stone, glowing in the late afternoon sun. It was a beautiful old manor, he thought affectionately, looking rather as if it had grown from the gently rolling landscape of the Cotswolds. The original building had formed a modest square, but subsequent generations, rejoicing in a fairly consistent prosperity, had added to the structure. Now a long, curving pair of wings embraced a sweeping drive and behind them, unseen, were other enlargements and additions. How was the widow managing to keep it all up, he wondered, turning to cast a sweeping glance about the now unkempt lawns surrounding him. It seemed to him that every tree, every shrub, and every crevice of the place held a special memory for him.
Soon, now, he thought exultantly. Soon...
He returned to the stable yard, and in the gathering darkness he perched on a railing in front of one of the buildings. He breathed in the scents of summer. I am home. The words formed themselves contentedly in his mind.
He became aware of Jonah's rangy form approaching, and made leaning room on the rail for the old man.
"Ye done pretty good t'day, laddy," Jonah said grudgingly. "Fer somebody new t' the job, that is," He stared off into the distance for several minutes, chewing ruminatively on a straw. Without looking at Jem, he continued. "And how does it feel t' be back home, Lord Glenraven?"