Playing with Fire – Karen Sommers, Emilee Harris

ANNE WINCHESTER LOVED her home. From the cream painted exterior glistening in the dawn sunlight when she managed to sneak out that early, to the colorful tapestries and rows of expertly composed paintings hanging along walls and in the galleries, she often caught herself sighing as she strolled the lengthy hallways and bright open foyers. Reaching into the pocket of her traveling suit, she fished out the handkerchief concealing a handful of small biscuits. She’d had her usual tea and toast for breakfast, but the sparse fare rarely quelled her appetite in the morning. A chance comment from her father during a time when her thirteen-year-old features had taken on rather more roundness than he deemed acceptable created the habit, and years of repetition maintained it long after her figure settled into a svelte and appealing silhouette, persisting even past the death of her father. Munching absently as she rounded a corner toward the front entry hall, her mind almost contemplated an odd sort of connection the habit might indicate with her odd familial relationships. Almost. Rather than delve too deeply into the past, she encouraged her eyes to dart glances toward the rich landscapes on the other side of the windowpanes lining the hall. Built in relative isolation, Havestead Manor sat nestled into the sea of rolling green fields and pastures which comprised the majority of Cottenham. The land suited perfectly the sheep herding and wool production business that supplied the majority of her familial wealth for generations. Even better, the manor sat a reasonable distance from London, where she enjoyed spending as much time as possible. Anne’s home radiated perfection for all conceivable aspects of her preferences and ambitions. It had taken years of conscious effort, but she’d finally reached a point of waking each morning with the warm swell of happiness greeting her as surely as the cheerful twittering of birds outside her bedroom window. Smiling to herself, Anne stole a glance in the mirror beside the main entry to ensure her dark hair was still perfectly confined by her bonnet before gliding through the door the butler held open… and coming to a harsh stop. Irritation made an immediate appearance, draining away the warmth of happiness and transfusing it with the heat of anger as the happy thrill of only seconds before evaporated.

A carriage ought to be waiting for her, yet the drive stretched empty in either direction. Clenching her jaw and curling her small, gloved hands into shaking fists, she whirled around and leveled a scathing glare on the butler. “Where is my carriage?” “I’m sure I don’t know, Miss,” Came the stoic response. Anne bit her tongue. She knew better than to argue with the man, he’d been in service with her family long enough not to react to her displays of anger. Besides, she knew well enough why her carriage wasn’t present, she only lacked the validation necessary to embark on her tirade. Turning back toward the drive, she crossed her arms in front of her and began tapping her foot. As luck would have it, a hapless stable hand wandered around the corner. Eyes widening when he saw her, he attempted to reverse course. “You!” she pointed at his back, halting the young man’s progress as though she’d cast a bewitchment to root his boots to the ground.

“Where is my carriage?” He turned, quaking and gulping in the wave of her anger. “I believe… it was… I am not entirely certain, but…” he stuttered and stumbled over his words. “The Countess canceled the order, my lady. This morning she—” Anne didn’t wait for the man to finish his explanation. The moment she heard the cause of her carriage being delayed – or canceled, as it were – she spun on her heel and retraced her steps through the manor, determined to seek out her sister-in-law, Marie Winchester, Countess of Havestead. The woman was easy enough to locate, though by the time Anne reached what had once been an all but forgotten guest cottage hidden just out of sight of the manor by a large copse of trees, her infuriated pace had robbed her of breath and her blouse was beginning to cling to her torso under her fashionable but now too-warm jacket. She plowed through the quaint front gate of the small yard, letting it slam against the fence. The yard itself had been designed to match the grandeur of the manor gardens, on a much smaller scale. Surrounded by waist-high hedges, adorned with garden beds, and featuring a small, glimmering pond in its center housing fish, frogs and other aquatic life. Had her circumstances been different, Anne likely would have enjoyed the space.

Her brother and sister-in-law had outfitted the place in a simple, elegant style which may have impressed her in some other lifetime, but for the present the small hideaway represented everything she ardently despised and actively tried to avoid. The embarrassment of it! As if it weren’t insulting enough to have her place as mistress of Havestead manor supplanted when her estranged brother decided to take up residence with his wife, they insisted on living in this cottage barely fit for staff to sleep in! She’d been putting up with the whispers and curious stares of half the London elite for ages now, but this continued encroachment on her own personal freedoms was too much to bear. “Marie!” Anne shouted as she crossed the garden toward the cottage. She held the hem of her skirt aloft and tip-toed across the flagstones as though navigating across a river over moss-covered rocks. “Marie! I know you’re in there!” Just as Anne reached the front door, arm raised in preparation to begin pounding on the wooden barrier, the door swung inward on silent hinges, revealing the countenance of her brother’s wife, sporting an equally venomous glare to Anne’s. “For heaven’s sake, Anne, control your shrieking. I’ve only just got the baby to go to sleep.” Anne rolled her eyes, but felt the automatic retort retreat in her throat, reminding herself she had a specific goal in mind and her acquiescence had nothing to do with any fear of being forced to hold the brat, as had happened shortly after the child’s christening. While she couldn’t say there was anything overtly repelling about the bundle of pink, drooling humanity that comprised her nephew, the prospect of being put in charge of the child’s safety and entertainment was… unsettling. And just one more example of her brother’s insanity.

Any self-respecting nobleman would have long since hired a nurse to deal with the child. Taking a breath, she focused again on Marie, narrowing her eyes at the woman. At twenty and four, with her almond colored hair, hazel eyes, opulent skin and a bright smile, the Countess at least looked the part she ought to play. By rights, she was the exact type of person Anne should have gotten along with, even aspired to befriend, yet the narrative of the past several years had conspired to pit them bitterly against one another. “What brings you to my humble abode this morning?” Marie crossed her arms under her enlarged maternal bosom. Anne didn’t fail to note the condescending tone hidden beneath the words. “You know very well what,” she snapped a loud whisper. “My carriage. What gives you the right to cancel it? I’m expected in London by noon tomorrow and now I will be late.” “The right?” Marie raised her eyebrows.

“Apart from my being the mistress of this estate? And apart from it being my husband’s purse financing each of these wasteful outings? The right I have is given to me by my husband, your brother, and the owner of this estate. While he’s away he’s asked that I keep an eye on expenditures, and that includes unnecessary carriage rides into London.” Anne shook with fury. Two years ago, she’d had what most would have described as the perfect life. With her older brother living so far away she never saw him, she had the run of the estate. She and her father shared a continuity of understanding and expectation she’d well cultivated and was confident in her standing as mistress of her own affairs. Her brother’s return had ruined her hardearned independence, and she refused to lose her footing without a fight. She understood the inherent threat in being beholden to others in life, and while there wasn’t much she could do to change societal norms or laws, she was determined to at least manage operations at Havestead on her own terms. Since Philip had returned, he had put a halt to many of what Anne considered daily necessities; things he considered luxuries. Her spending had been cut in half, her socializing had been reduced considerably and again and again, Philip insisted that she be wed.

At every turn, he hemmed her in, and she feared it might drive her mad. Something had to give, and it was obvious to Anne that her brother and his wife needed a better example of her independence. “When does my brother arrive home?” She asked through gritted teeth. “In five days,” Marie responded. “Not that his arrival will change anything. I assure you, I have his full support. If anything, this was his idea.” Anne nodded, offering a tight-lipped smile before wordlessly turning on her heel and making her way back inside. She could feel Marie’s eyes on her the entire way, boring into her back. Marie likely assumed she’d won the argument, but another thought had occurred to Anne.

Her brother and sister-in-law were so hell-bent on curbing her supposed excesses, all the folly they imagined she perpetrated in London, perhaps what they needed was a display of that folly a bit closer to home. Maybe then they’ll realize it was in their best interest to allow her free rein over her own life. As angry as Anne was, she found herself overcome with a sudden sense of excitement as she made her way back toward the manor and her bedroom. Laughter gurgled up in her throat as she contemplated the scheme taking shape in her thoughts. Before these next five days were up, Marie would regret having crossed her. ANNE GNAWED AT HER lower lip as the lazy scenes of daily activity sped by outside the window of her brother’s coach. The bright green hues of fields dotted here and there with farmers or herdsmen shone with even greater enthusiasm today for the soaking they’d received from a brief storm overnight, but Anne took no notice. A restless forefinger tapped out an agitated cadence on her arm. It wasn’t until a small, whitewashed building surrounded by colorful flowerbeds took shape in the distance that she straightened in her seat and focused her gaze. Hastening from the coach the instant it stopped, she allowed the coachman barely enough time to secure the coach door and run ahead of her to open that of the Shepherd’s Fleece, a local inn occupying space between Havestead Manor and the main body of the sleepy village it overlooked.

Darting by the woman who shared inn keeping duties with her husband without so much as a glance in the woman’s direction, Anne mounted the stairs with the same confidence of direction as she would in her own home. At the end of the narrow hall, she opened and passed through a door on her right, her pace never wavering. Not until she’d shut the door firmly behind her did she pause to take breath. Turning, her lips formed an instant smile and her countenance relaxed when she recognized the form of the man standing beside the window on the other side of the room. Tall and well-dressed, though the simple fabrics and cut pegged him as a man of moderate means, he was easily twice her age but in good health, enjoying a lean figure and handsome features. “My dear Mr. Bradford!” Anne breathed, hurrying across to him, hands outstretched. He returned her smile, clasping her hands before offering a formal bow and kissing the back of one. “Lady Anne.” “For heaven’s sake, Mr.

Bradford, do refrain from such formality. For as long and as well as we’ve known each other, it seems quite ridiculous.” She chastised, her smile never wavering. “Even so,” he acquiesced, “I won’t have it said I’ve neglected the courtesies and proper respect your station demands.” “Oh, tut.” She pursed her lips and waved a dismissive hand in his direction. “What news from London? You know, I was so distressed when I couldn’t make my trip out to see you. I’m happy beyond words you were able to meet me here!” At that, Bradford blinked, seeming to recall their location, and a tinge of distress marred his otherwise robust complexion. “You know I’ll never hesitate to answer your call, Lady Anne, and while of course I appreciate your determination, I feel I must make commentary on the imprudence of this meeting. After all the effort you’ve put into concealing… I would hate to be the cause of any defamation to your character.

” He returned to the window, surveying the space outside the second story inn window, shifting his weight from side to side in a mirroring of the restless darting of his eyes. “I understand your concern, Mr. Bradford, but I assure you, had there been a better option I would have taken it. You know my brother has me practically imprisoned in that manor. The whole arrangement has made it near impossible for me to make my regular trips to London.” “On that note,” Bradford turned from the window and indicated a table and chairs off to the side, continuing his thought once he’d held a chair for Anne and taken his own seat. “I understand your hesitation as it pertained to your father, but from what I’ve heard, the current Earl is of a very different mind. Perhaps you could discuss it with him and—” “My brother may be more liberal in some respects, but he is just as puritanical in others. I have no faith in his viewing my passions and preferences in any better light than my father would have.” She instantly regretted her bitter tone when her companion clamped his lips shut and nodded, casting them into a momentary silence.

“Then why do it?” He asked after the pause. Anne stared blankly at the man, a sharp twist of pain around her heart accompanying the unexpected words. “What do you mean, why?” He must have seen her distress, because he finally disregarded his own nervousness and reached a hand across to cover hers. “Please forgive my callous comment, I meant no insult. I understand your drive and determination. Our hearts are as one on that point, as I’ve assured you before. I only meant that there is very little of any worth I can provide you with. Perhaps…” He leaned back in his chair, scratching at his jaw. “Perhaps you ought to retrench for a time.” Anne bristled, opening her mouth and taking breath to refute the traitorous words, but Bradford held up a hand to stall her.

“I only suggest taking into account your brother is the master of your home and it may be worthwhile to bow to his expectations for a time, work toward a better association in the hopes of smoothing the road forward. “That would be a step backward for me, Mr. Bradford, you know that. I spent years bowing to my father’s expectations, and doing so gladly because those expectations were the only acknowledgment he afforded me.” She paused, considering her next statement and wishing she could better hide the bitterness in what she’d already said. “My brother,” she sneered, “gave no thought to me when he left, nor in all the years since. I owe him nothing by way of my obedience.” She lifted her chin, daring Bradford to contradict her. The corner of his mouth raised in a grin and he took a breath to respond, but a light rap at the door interrupted him. Getting to his feet, he moved away from her to survey the scene outside the window again as Anne called out to allow entry to the inn keeper.

The woman stalked in with a tea tray, narrow eyes taking in the scene and darting between Bradford and Anne before setting down the tray and pouring for them. “Thank you, that will be all,” Anne told her, the tendency to take command of the room instinctual at this point. A cough from the window drew Anne’s attention and she saw Bradford covering what was surely a smile. The inn keeper puckered her lips as though she’d just taken a bite of lemon but curtsied and left the room. “You really ought to take care with the impressions you make, my lady.” Bradford commented as he returned to the table. “Anne.” “Lady Anne.” She sent him a lukewarm glare. “I don’t see why.

” Bradford sank back into his chair with a sigh, observing her. “You remind me of a boy I knew once,” he began, “a pupil of mine. He possessed such a presence and tenacity one had no hope of resisting his demands.” He chuckled before his gaze grew distant and smile faded. “He deserved far more appreciation than what he received; another quality you have in common.” Anne considered his words, the look of genuine regret on her companion’s handsome face. “What became of this pupil of yours?” “Nothing unfortunate, I’m sure, he came from an established family of high rank. Likely went the way of every other young lord, disappearing into London society or into travels abroad. I always regretted the short duration of our acquaintance. I would have liked to see how he fared.

” “You sound as though the parting were drastic.” “In a way it was. He had no head for numbers, you see. But not—” he quickly added as Anne opened her mouth to comment, “in the usual way. Some children are simply not academically minded, but this boy was extremely bright. There seemed to be some inadequacy in how the numbers displayed themselves to him, I can’t quite explain it. It frustrated him no end he couldn’t find a way to cipher them. In all other subjects he excelled.” “How very peculiar.” “Indeed.

When his father demanded an explanation for the lacking skill, all I could do was suggest additional time to study the matter and try different tactics, but the man felt I was simply inept in the subject and fishing for additional wages, so he let me go.” Bradford shrugged his shoulders. “How awful. That poor boy. Whoever came after you wasn’t likely to spare him any additional consideration.” “No, and I know he felt the taint in his father’s opinion of him.” Anne lowered her gaze to her tea, letting the conversation fall silent. After several moments of individual brooding, Bradford cleared his throat. “And what of London, Lady Anne?” “I am in the midst of orchestrating a plan to convince my brother of the necessity of sending me to the city.” She smiled behind her teacup.

“Anne,” Bradford straightened and leaned forward in his seat. “Please be careful. I understand your determination, but as I’ve already mentioned, your express presence in the frequency you’ve made your habit is not necessary to further our cause. I fear your tactics may have run the span of their usefulness.” Anne’s smile faltered. She’d had the same thought more than once since Philip returned to Havestead but hadn’t managed to find a better route. “You think I am too forceful. Too abrasive?” Bradford flushed, but didn’t shy away from her observation as she raised a brow. “In a word, yes.” “And what do you expect me to do about it, my dear friend? The ghost of a sweet and timid girl only you might still remember is long gone.

I am what life has created me to be. Do you mean for me to find shame in that?” “No, of course not,” Bradford shook his head wearily. “But it’s not just you and your desires now, the earl’s return, and his eccentricity, have placed more interest on you. A more subdued manner might be in your best interest for a time.” Anne had no wish to continue the conversation and allowed silence to slip into the room until they’d finished their tea. It wasn’t until Bradford handed her into her coach a short while later that his words truly took root and sparked a nervous flutter in her stomach. Through one of the inn windows, Anne spied the inn keeper in shrewd consideration of the scene and swallowed. As the coach pulled away from the inn, doubt gnawed at her, casting up visions of every worstcase scenario in the plans she’d just this morning congratulated herself on. No longer sure if her plan to convince her brother were clever or self-defeating, she pressed herself back into the seat and shut her eyes. There was no help for it, she’d already sent out the invitations, she had to commit to it.

.

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