Kit and Elizabeth – Karen Tuft

LADY ELİZABETH SPAULDİNG CLENCHED HER teeth and did everything she could not to let fear show on her face. Her father’s viselike grip on her forearms was going to leave bruises. “Listen carefully to me,” her father, the Duke of Marwood, hissed, his face mere inches from Elizabeth’s own. “You have one task, and one only while we are here, a task you have been neglecting so far. You will secure Lord Halford’s hand in marriage. You will ensure that a betrothal is announced tonight at the dance. Do you think you can manage that?” “I . ” she began and then faltered. “You had—How many years was it?” he asked Mama. “Three years,” Mama responded. “But, Marwood, should you be gripping her quite so—” “Three years from your come-out to secure a betrothal to the brother, the previous Lord Halford,” Papa continued, ignoring Mama. “Girls who came out with you have since married and spawned at least a brat or two. But you could not bring the fool to heel.

” “Papa, Alexander was not ready for—” Papa shook her. “Whether he was ready for marriage is irrelevant. It was his duty. And yours. The arrangement had been discussed for years. Years!” “A little flirtation, a coquettish look now and again would have done the trick,” Mama said. “But you couldn’t even manage that properly. I think you must be made of stone.” Elizabeth winced inwardly at Mama’s words. Papa growled and pushed Elizabeth forcefully away. She stumbled back, rubbing the sorest spot on her arms. “I think Halford must have had a death wish after all, rather than be leg-shackled to the likes of you, coward that he was,” he said in disgust.

“Couldn’t live up to his responsibilities, even after the marriage settlements were all but complete.” “Such a godsend that his brother, Anthony—the new Lord Halford—was recently found alive after he had been reported missing and presumed dead,” Mama added. Anthony had been a military officer, his regiment assigned to battle against Napoleon’s armies in Portugal and Spain. “Indeed,” Papa said. “We—you—have been given a second chance, Elizabeth. The alliance with the Marquess of Ashworth and his remaining son is imperative. You need to secure the betrothal. I have spoken with Ashworth and told him of my expectations, and he agrees with me. The betrothal is to be announced tonight. Do not let me down.

” Elizabeth’s arms throbbed. She said nothing. “After all we have done for you, you owe us this, you know,” Mama said. “Now, freshen up, put a smile on, and go do your duty. Don’t be a statue standing around all day.” “Yes, Mama,” Elizabeth said. “That’s better,” Papa said. “Come, Duchess, let’s leave her to her task and go find our host and hostess. We have our own roles to play.” He extended his elbow to Mama and escorted her from Elizabeth’s room—the room she’d always stayed in when they’d visited the Marquess and Marchioness of Ashworth over the past few years.

A room that held only bleak memories for her now. She went to the vanity to assess her appearance. Nothing looked out of place. No surprise there; Elizabeth made a point of looking precisely as the daughter of a duke should and had since childhood—in dress, grooming, and demeanor. What Elizabeth saw now, however, was how colorless she was. Pale skin, pale hair. Pastel dress. Other than the red marks on her arms, she was utterly pale. Colorless. Invisible.

Ironic, really, to be the daughter of a duke and feel invisible. But it was often how she felt, so it came as no great surprise to her that she felt that way now. She actually preferred it. She found a spencer in the wardrobe that matched her dress well enough and would cover the welts on her arms. She put it on and checked her appearance once more. It was time to join the fete already in progress outside, the celebration organized for all the villagers to herald the return of Captain Lord Anthony Hargreaves, Earl of Halford, presumed dead not long after the death of his brother. The man her parents now expected to step into the marital breach left by the death of his elder brother, Alexander, despite the fact that Elizabeth had observed that Lord Halford was developing an attachment for Lady Ashworth’s companion, Amelia Clarke, and that Miss Clarke seemed to reciprocate. And yet, if she was to obey Papa, marriage to Lord Hargreaves was what she was supposed to do. She loathed the idea—presenting herself once again as a marriage commodity to be had by another Ashworth son. She had done it once, innocent, naive girl that she’d been, and had no wish to do it again.

She rubbed her arm—Papa could be a bully at times, but this had been worse than usual. Alarmingly so. She heaved a sigh and left the room. Duty called. There were events one experienced that ultimately changed the course of one’s life, she reflected as she walked down the corridor. She had faced enough of these events in her own life to know this to be an absolute truth. The first event had occurred when, at but ten years of age, she had received her parents’ summons to her father’s study. “Elizabeth,” Papa had said in that commanding voice of his that had always set her to trembling. “You are old enough now to know that you are intended for marriage to Lord Alexander Hargreaves, the Earl of Halford, son of the Marquess of Ashworth. It is necessary for you to know this and to govern yourself accordingly.

It is your duty as my daughter.” Mama had nodded in agreement. And so, from the age of ten, Elizabeth had diligently worked to behave in all respects as the daughter of a duke and wife of an earl and future marquess. She’d practiced walking, sitting, and standing with a book atop her head. She’d practiced serving tea and drinking tea and taking tiny bites of food so as to not get crumbs on her lips. She’d practiced the harp and needlework and sketching. She’d trained her voice to use only the most refined tones. She’d done everything she could to please her father and her mother. The next life-changing event had occurred on Elizabeth’s fifteenth birthday. Lord Halford had been invited as a special guest to the celebration being held in Elizabeth’s honor at their London home.

Lord Halford, with his raven-colored hair and twinkling, mischievous blue eyes and a wit to match, had been the stuff of a young girl’s dreams. She had hardly been able to wait to be old enough to marry him. Except that when she’d reached marriageable age, Lord Halford had been stubbornly unwilling to set an actual marriage date. The pressure he’d received from both sets of parents had not done the trick, and Elizabeth had chosen not to force the matter. She had wanted him to see her as his ally, not his gaoler—not if the two of them were to have any sort of marital harmony. Besides, he had always treated her kindly and even affectionately, and she had adored him and had wanted to see him happy. And so, a Season had gone by and then another and then another. Elizabeth had ignored the looks of pity and derision she’d gotten from young ladies who had made their come-outs after she herself had and had managed to marry with very little effort. She had remained steadfast in her devotion to Lord Halford and completely obedient to the expectations of her parents. The third life event had occurred on what had promised to be a sunny August day during her fourth Season.

At the ripe old age of twenty-one, Elizabeth had understood that she was considered by all and sundry to be on the shelf, despite the betrothal arrangement with the Earl of Halford. He was to have arrived at their country seat in Surrey in two days’ time for a house party, invited by her parents, Elizabeth was sure, for the express purpose of extracting a wedding date from him. Instead, they had received word that he had suffered a riding accident. Lord Halford—expert horseman, charming tease, and Elizabeth’s enigmatical betrothed—had died in the mishap. Elizabeth had grieved sorely for Lord Halford and the loss of such a young, vibrant life while simultaneously watching her life—the life she’d anticipated and for which she had planned scrupulously from the age of ten—shatter all around her. And now she was expected to set all of that aside and marry his brother. The corridors were empty as Elizabeth continued on through the manor house. She’d been to Ashworth Park enough over the past few years to know her way around, exiting through the french doors to the terrace that overlooked the grounds where the fete was being held. From this vantage point, she was able to see a large table spread with a variety of baked goods not far off and to her left. A few village women stood near it, and Elizabeth could see that Lord Halford and his friend the Earl of Cantwell were tasting each of the cakes, pies, and tarts offered there.

To her right and farther away, a large group of people were being organized into smaller groups that seemed generally to be according to age. And even more distant than that, several men were setting up an area for a cricket match to be held later in the afternoon. She’d heard there were games for children, a tug-of-war, and other entertainments that would continue all day, followed by a dance in the evening. Even at this early point in the afternoon, a lot of villagers had arrived, as well as friends of the Ashworths, like Elizabeth and her parents—although she doubted any of them had any ulterior motive for being here, unlike her parents. Elizabeth glanced back in the direction of the baked-goods contest and saw that Lord Halford and Lord Cantwell—Elizabeth had met the earl on several occasions, as he was a close friend and neighbor of the Ashworth brothers—appeared to be heading toward the villagers who were being divided into smaller groups. If she was to do her parents’ bidding, that would be where she must go too. She descended the stairs and resolutely crossed the lawn in the same direction, even though Elizabeth would much rather be strolling the grounds. Daisies grew with abandon amongst the untamed grasses just beyond the mowed lawns of the grounds, and she could see young girls dashing about, picking the daisies, and bringing them to their noses, and she briefly wished she could be one of them. But she was not. As she got closer to the group, she could see that they were organizing three-legged races, with the youngest children going first.

Conversation and laughter filled the air as parents tied their ankles to their children’s. Elizabeth silently maneuvered herself into a small clutch of women who stood ready to cheer on the racers. Papa and Mama would each have an apoplexy if Elizabeth were to participate in something so—for lack of a better word—physical as a three-legged race. And yet, here was Lord Halford, the man they wanted her to marry, laughing and clapping and cheering on his brother-in-law and young nephew as they ran and staggered and fell and ran some more with the other racers in the children’s group. Elizabeth moved a bit through the crowd to where she would have a better vantage point and spotted Amelia Clarke amongst the spectators. Elizabeth knew Amelia well; Amelia, the daughter of a vicar, had been Lady Ashworth’s companion for the past two years, and so, although Papa and Mama had objected to Elizabeth’s forming an actual friendship with Amelia, they were on informal terms, and Elizabeth couldn’t help but like her a great deal. She turned back again to watch the race in progress, making sure she herself remained composed, back straight, chin ever so slightly lifted, wearing the pleasant demeanor she had developed through years of formal training. She never allowed herself to forget she was the daughter of a duke. She didn’t dare. The call went out for the adult racers next, and Elizabeth impulsively slid back into the crowd a bit.

People began pairing up, and the previous racers handed the new ones the short ropes for tying their ankles together. Lord Halford asked Amelia to race, and Amelia consented. Elizabeth waited to feel rejected and hurt, but she didn’t. She’d always liked Lord Halford, even as she’d known for nearly as long as she could remember that she had been intended to marry his brother, Alex, the previous Lord Halford. She could see that he had not entirely healed from his injuries; his face held shadows that had not been there before, but at least he was alive. She noticed that Lord Cantwell was looking at her, his arms crossed over his chest. He had apparently caught her watching their little group. Elizabeth gasped. How mortifying! Oh, dear, now he was heading directly toward her. “Please forgive my boldness, Lady Elizabeth,” Lord Cantwell said upon his arrival at her side, his wheat-colored hair ruffling in the breeze, “but it appears we are both without a racing partner, and I think that, perhaps, we might remedy that.

” What to do? What to say? She glanced quickly around at all the laughing people, young and old, participants and spectators, friends and neighbors. Meanwhile, Lord Cantwell stood looking at her, watching her like a hawk, a jaunty grin on his face. Did he want to race with her? Was he testing her? Well, that last thought was foolish, because why on earth would Lord Cantwell feel any need to test her? Was she testing herself? Could she do something as unseemly in her parents’ eyes as run a threelegged race? “It is not a difficult question, Lady Elizabeth. The answer is either yes or no,” he said, looking as though he was fighting laughter. “Yes,” she said. She was fairly certain she’d meant to say no. “Excellent,” he replied and then offered her his hand. *** When Kit had spotted Lady Elizabeth standing amongst a group of villagers, he’d nearly wondered if she was a woman or a statue, she was so still—her back straight, her arms clasped in front of her, her face pleasantly serene. Her hair was light blonde, nearly white, her skin like cream. Her dress was such a pale shade of pink that it appeared nearly colorless.

Only the breeze ruffling the hem of her dress had hinted that she had not been sculpted from Italian marble. As he’d approached her, he’d spotted nuances in her appearance that changed his opinion—the single strand of hair that flitted about next to her ear, the slight pinkening of her cheeks from being out of doors. But now that he stood next to her and had startled her with his invitation, he discovered that she was no statue, for a statue could not have the clear blue eyes that were currently staring back at him in alarm. Surprisingly, she’d agreed to be his racing partner. He’d wholly expected her to refuse. A three-legged race seemed the sort of thing the daughter of the Duke of Marwood would never deign to do. He led Lady Elizabeth to the starting line, not far from where Lord Halford was securing Amelia Clarke’s ankle to his own. “Here you go, Cantwell,” someone yelled right as a rope came sailing in his direction. He snatched it from the air and knelt at Lady Elizabeth’s side. “Would you be so kind as to raise you skirts a bit?” he asked her.

The skirt rose a few inches. “Perhaps a bit more,” he said. “Sorry,” she said. The skirt lifted a few inches more. She had nicely turned ankles he couldn’t help but notice. But that was none of his business, for he also knew that the reason the Marwoods were here at Ashworth Park was because they wished the betrothal they’d previously arranged for Lady Elizabeth with Alex would now shift to Anthony. Still, it didn’t mean that Kit couldn’t run a simple race with her. He finished the knot that bound their ankles together and stood. “Now, the trick is to match our strides,” he said to her. She was staring down at their feet.

His own booted feet looked large next to hers. “If you will allow me to place my arm around your waist, we will be able to sense each other’s movements much more successfully.” He watched her cheeks heat up. Had his words been indecorous? Perhaps they had been, at least to the daughter of a duke. “I apologize if what I said seemed forward.” “Not at all,” she said, still staring at their feet. He wasn’t sure he believed her, but the race was about to begin, so he slid his arm around her waist anyway and held her tightly against his side. The pistol sounded. “Here we go,” he said. They put their shackled feet forward first and quickly got into a decent rhythm that managed to take them swiftly down the field.

“You’re quite a natural at this,” Kit said. She stumbled then. “Sorry,” she said, sounding breathless. He tightened his arm about her waist. “Not to worry,” he said. Anthony and Amelia had edged ahead of them. “Let’s pass these ne’er-do-wells, shall we?” Lady Elizabeth puffed out a laugh at his remark and quickened her pace, sliding her own arm gingerly around his back to anchor herself. They were gaining on Anthony and Amelia. “Yes!” Kit said to her. “Well done; we can take them!” Now they were side by side.

And then, out of nowhere, Anthony seemed to stumble over his own feet and right into Kit, sending him—and Lady Elizabeth, naturally—tumbling to the ground in a clumsy heap, with Kit landing on top. He swiftly moved himself off of her and assisted her to her feet. “Come on! We haven’t lost to them yet!” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Anthony stumble once again, but this time, it was Anthony and Amelia who toppled to the ground—just in time for Perkins, the local blacksmith, and his wife to cross the finish line. Kit and Lady Elizabeth finished a respectable, albeit disappointing, second, and Anthony and Amelia managed to place third. “Dash it all, Tony,” Kit said, laughing as everyone bent to untie their ankles. “What was that all about?” Anthony ignored his question, making Kit laugh again while he finished his task. Lady Elizabeth had proven herself a capable partner and good sport. He straightened—and froze. He couldn’t believe what he saw: the statue had been completely transformed. Lady Elizabeth’s face was bright pink from exertion, and her hair was coming out of its pins, allowing long strands of utter sunlight to spill down her shoulder.

She brushed one strand away from her face, laughing, her blue eyes twinkling. He’d never seen her look so charmingly unkempt before. “I do believe that after what we have just accomplished, we should be on more familiar terms,” he managed to say. “Perhaps you would consider calling me Kit, and I shall call you Lizzie.” “No one ever calls me that.” “Even better, then.” He grinned. Her smile dimmed a bit, however. “I think we’d better not at present.” She glanced around anxiously, as though looking for someone.

Anthony? Her parents, perhaps? “I shall honor your wishes, but I fear you might always be Lizzie in my heart,” he teased, placing his hand over his heart to emphasize his words. Her smile brightened again at his joke. “Thank you for understanding.” They walked toward Mr. and Mrs. Perkins and congratulated them both. Kit had always liked Perkins—he was an honest, hardworking blacksmith, if there ever was one. Then he took Anthony aside. “You bounder, I see what you are about. Well played, Tony.

You put the winner’s purse into the hands of someone who could use it.” “Shh, don’t let Perkins know,” Anthony whispered with a grin. “Manly pride and all that.” They were awarded their prize ribbons to the general cheering of the crowd, and then Kit and Anthony left to join the men’s cricket match. But Kit glanced back at Elizabeth to see her now chatting with Amelia and wondered at the difference a simple three-legged race had made in her

.

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