Otherwise Engaged – Joanna Barker

OF THE MANY THİNGS THAT could be depended upon to make a young lady swoon, a love letter certainly made the list. I perched on a low rock in the center of the quiet meadow, one knee tucked to my chest, the skirts of my riding habit spread about me. The sun shone fiercely against the cloud-strewn sky, as if demanding my attention, but not even the brilliance of the sun could steal my focus from the letter in my hands, though I’d read it a dozen times or more. My dearest Rebecca, How is it that I can miss you before you have even left Brighton? I know I will see you tonight, but already, I ache to let you go, not knowing when we will see each other again. I sighed aloud. Stella snorted from where she grazed a few paces away, as if mocking me. “Oh, hush,” I said. “You cannot judge me. You’ve never been in love.” My horse did not offer a response, which was just as well. I’d heard that love could cause madness, and a talking horse would surely be an alarming symptom. I read the rest of the letter once more and then touched where the writer had signed his name. Edward Bainbridge. He’d slipped it to me on our last night together in Brighton. A smile climbed my lips at the memory, and I made no effort to restrain it.

After all, as my dear friend Marjorie had said, if a recently engaged young woman did not wish to smile all the day long, she had no business being engaged. But then my smile faltered, as it always did. I could not ignore the larger problems that Edward and I faced. I folded the letter and stashed it in my pocket as I tried to keep my uncertainty and lurking questions at bay. I’d left Edward in Brighton only two days ago, arriving again in Hertfordshire yesterday. There was plenty of time yet to put my plan into motion. Stella’s not-so-gentle nudge all but knocked me to the grassy field. “All right, all right,” I said with a laugh. “You’ve gotten bossier, you know. Let us hope you haven’t also gotten lazy.

” I gave the meadow a quick perusal as I stood. Empty, of course. I’d never seen anyone here in all my rides, as the neighboring estate, Linwood Hall, had stood vacant for years. I quickly unbuckled Stella’s saddle and heaved it over a nearby log, her bridle and reins soon following. Stella pranced as I returned to her, and her anticipation was contagious. “Ready, girl?” I spoke quietly as I moved to her left side, facing her shoulder and gripping her mane with both hands. I could not hesitate, or I’d never make it up. With a quick breath, I took a running step and threw my right leg over her back, my arms pulling me up with every bit of their strength. Stella started a bit but did not run off as she had the first time I’d attempted it. “There we go.

” I tried not to feel too pleased with myself. Despite not riding in over a month, my body had remembered how to execute that rather inelegant mount. I wouldn’t even have had the slightest idea how to do it if Mama and I hadn’t visited Astley’s Royal Amphitheater multiple times in London. I’d stared open-mouthed as the bareback trick riders had done the impossible again and again: headstands, flips, balancing with one foot while playing a pipe. All riding bareback, and all breathtaking. “Did you miss me?” I whispered to Stella as I stroked her neck, her golden coat smooth beneath my fingertips. Her only answer was a flick of her ears, but I fancied she had missed me a little. I glanced around again, checking once more for unexpected visitors because the most difficult part of riding bareback was not mounting or keeping my balance. It was ensuring no one discovered I rode bareback at all. Satisfied the meadow was secluded, I nudged Stella into a walk.

It had taken me a year of practice for this to feel natural, the uneven ridges of her spine and the pull of her muscles beneath me. Her shoulders tensed as if she were tempted to throw me from her back, but slowly she began to relax. I allowed her stride to lengthen into a smooth canter as I led her in a long oval, using the signals we’d developed in lieu of reins: small nudges with my heels and short clicks of my tongue. We followed the natural shape of the meadow, similar to the ring at Astley’s. Perhaps one day we’d advance to the stunts the trick riders performed with such ease. Except, try as I might, I could never entirely shake the shadow of memory from five summers ago. The emptying, rushing air. The cold, hard earth. And the pain—the splintering, twisting pain. I pushed away the darkness and called above the thundering hooves.

“All right, Stella girl. Let us see how far the wind takes us.” She leaped into a gallop, her front legs reaching hungrily for the earth. My stomach gave that familiar, dizzying lurch, and I gave an unladylike whoop. Oh, I had missed this freedom, this exhilaration. The countryside streaked past us, the bright greens and pinks and yellows of summer painting a blurred landscape at the edges of my vision. I grinned wildly and leaned low beside Stella’s lunging neck as her hooves drove into the wet grass. The wind rushed over me, throwing my skirts behind me and threatening to take my hat with it. I pushed my hat more firmly onto my head and pressed on. We reached the end of the empty meadow, and I urged Stella around the curve, faster, faster as I closed my eyes, trusting her instincts.

I was not a girl on a horse. I was a bird. A swift-winged sparrow alone in the endless expanse of the azure sky. I gripped Stella’s mane in one hand and reached out my other to drift through a cloud as the summer breeze pulled against the sleeve of my habit. Then I heard something above the steady thump of Stella’s hooves. I pulled her to a stop, and she gave a snort, her hooves pawing the grass as I glanced around. All was quiet, save for the birdsong and breeze. Likely, it was simply my fears at play. I’d long worried a tenant farmer would come across my little meadow, see me acting the barbarian atop my bareback horse, and spread embarrassing—if true —rumors about me. Or worse, that they would tell Mama and William.

But the meadow was still. My secret was safe. I gently nudged Stella forward again. A scream pierced the calm summer air. I froze, my spine stiff as the scream faded into the wind. What on earth? The cry came again, shrill and panicked, echoing through the trees like a ghostly wail. My head whipped to the left. It came from the lake. I kicked Stella, and she leaped forward. I gripped her sides with my knees, clinging to her mane as she dodged the trees separating my meadow from the lake.

The wind stole my breath, and a suffocating weight grasped at my lungs. Grass turned to pebbles beneath us, and Stella’s hooves clattered over the loose stones as she broke through the last stand of trees. I yanked her to a halt, too hard. She tossed her head in protest, but I didn’t have time to apologize. My gaze jumped frantically over the familiar scene. Enormous willow trees, their branches reaching out over the water. The shore, edged with trees and rocks. The lake, a vastness of blue-green. But the lake was not its usual smooth mirror. Ripples spread ten yards from the shore to my left.

I gaped. A long branch, thick with summer’s leaves, floated in the water, and a small hand fumbled over the wet bark. A face emerged, a young girl, gasping and choking, before disappearing once again. I threw myself off Stella’s back, stumbled across the rocky shore, and splashed into the shallow water, kicking up mud in great clouds that rolled through the clear lake. But my focus was on the branch, the hand. The girl hadn’t surfaced again. I sloshed forward, the skirts of my habit dragging behind me. When the water reached my waist —too slow, too slow!—I dove forward. The icy water enveloped me, and I inhaled a mouthful of bubbles. How was it still so cold in August? I kicked, breaking the surface and pushing myself forward.

I was not a particularly good swimmer, and now I wished I’d spent more time in the lake. My boots clung like anchors to my feet, but there was no time to kick them free. I threw my arms out again and again until my hands knocked into the leafy twigs of the branch. I grabbed the rough bark and pulled myself toward the spot where I’d seen the girl. Merciful heavens, she’d found the surface again, her face pale and her wet hair splayed across her cheeks. The poor girl could not have been more than eight or nine years old. She coughed, and the sound sent hot relief through my entire body. “Help!” She hadn’t seen me, her cry pitiful. And then she went under, her hair floating to the surface. Why could she not stay above the surface? I kicked again and grabbed her arm.

She froze and then lashed out, her boot colliding with my left calf. Pain shot through me, but I tried to ignore it as I dove under the surface, peering through the murky water. There it was—her skirts caught on a sharp offshoot of the branch. As I watched, the whole branch shifted and she was able to rise and gulp another breath before the unsteady motion of the limb dragged her back under. I yanked on her skirt, hard, harder, until the fabric ripped in my hands. I grabbed her around the waist, and we broke the surface together. The girl flailed about, her hand smacking the side of my head. “Calm down!” I ordered. “I’m here. I’ll help.

” She did not hear me with all her splashing and wailing. My weak legs couldn’t hold us above anymore, and we went under, bubbles and arms and legs crowding my vision. Blast and bother. This child would not be the death of us both, and she certainly wouldn’t keep me from marrying Edward. I kicked my legs, straining with the effort, and heaved her to air once more. “Stop moving!” I shouted. “Let me help you.” Her thrashing calmed somewhat, and I slipped one arm across her chest, cursing my long skirts as I began awkwardly stroking toward the nearest shore. The girl gasped for air, unable to speak, coughing more often than not. “It’s all right,” I assured her.

“You’re all right. We’re nearly there.” Were we? We seemed to sink lower into the water with every inch I moved. I hefted the girl up higher. Even her skinny frame was a challenge to keep afloat considering my inadequacy in swimming. My skirts tangled about my legs, trapping them into the barest of movements. I gave another desperate kick, and my feet met slippery mud. Thank the heavens. Thank the earth too, for that matter. I managed to get my feet under me, my head just above the surface.

The girl spun in the water and threw her arms around me, clinging like a leech. “You’re safe,” I wheezed as I staggered farther up the shore. “We made it.” She did not answer, her face buried in my shoulder, her dripping hair plastered across my chest and face. “Olivia!” My head jerked up at the voice, and I stumbled, going down to one knee in the shallows. The girl in my arms gave a whimper as I focused on the man splashing toward us through the water

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