The Lady of Larkspur Vale – Kasey Stockton

Yuck. Mabel scraped stiff fingers over her eyes and removed as much of the thick, gooey mud as she could from her eyelids. She cleared her vision enough to see the culprit hiding behind the tree at the edge of the pond, snickering behind an adorable little hand. “Pippa, you get out here right now!” Mabel yelled, continuing to rub at the mud covering her eyebrows and dripping down her cheek. She bent over and scooped a handful of the murky pond water before splashing it on her face in an attempt to further clear the mud away. Dirty liquid slipped between her lips, and she immediately spit it out most unbecomingly. “Pippa isn’t here!” a tiny voice squeaked through peals of giggles. “Philippa Jane Sheffield, get your hide over here this instant before I lose my patience and withhold your pudding this evening!” A tiny gasp pierced the warm air as little hands slapped against tiny hips. “You wouldn’t dare!” the sassy seven-year-old exclaimed indignantly. “Oh, wouldn’t I?” Mabel countered with an identical pose, eyebrow hitched as she glared down at her formidable opponent. It was irrelevant that she did not intend to stay true to the threat; Pippa just needed to believe she meant it, and she would get her way. “Or shall I add it to my next letter to Papa?” Mabel tapped a finger to her chin, ignoring the crust of drying mud as she angled her face toward the warm sun. “Let us see. I could write, ‘Dearest Papa, among making strides in both French and Italian, our sweet Pippa has taken to launching gooey mud pies in her spare time at unsuspecting—’” “Oh, fine!” Pippa stomped her tiny foot. Mabel crossed her arms over her chest in victory as she raised an eyebrow at the little girl, staring into a copy of her own navy-violet eyes on her sister’s face.

Mabel and Philippa were nearly perfect likenesses of their deceased mother—or so they were told— except for their stubborn streak, which was wholly Sheffield. “Now, come,” Mabel said with barely-felt authority. “Giulia is waiting to resume your lessons, and I will have no more mud slinging today. Is that understood?” Mabel realized her mistake. A miniature jaw jutted forward as Pippa crossed her arms over her chest, once again mirroring a larger version of herself. Despite growing up the daughter of a captain for His Majesty’s Royal Navy, Pippa didn’t take kindly to being told she could not do something. “Write the letter, then. Papa thinks it is fine to play in the mud. He likes my throw-jeck-shun anlee-suss.” “Your what?” Mabel asked, completely at a loss for what Pippa could possibly be referencing.

The little mite was always doing this in the days and weeks immediately following a visit or letter from their father—and they’d had a letter just a fortnight before. He was a good man of moral character and took his role as Captain in the Royal Navy quite as seriously as he took the responsibility of being a parent. But for all of the love and affection he bestowed upon his two daughters when on leave, he still had yet to master conversational etiquette with a seven-year-old, always using too-large words and concepts that were not quite within Pippa’s reach. “You know,” Pippa drawled, obviously frustrated by Mabel’s inferior understanding. “With his cannons. His throw-jeck-shun anlee-suss.” “Oh, right.” Mabel nodded as she inched closer to Pippa, who now stood in front of the tree with her hip cocked, and her arms still crossed. “The cannons. Papa’s throw-fleck-ton army-sass.

” “No.” Pippa shook her head, a tiny hand rising to her forehead in condescension. Mabel took the opportunity to lunge, forcing a squeal from her younger sister as she swooped her into the air and threw her over her shoulder. She spun toward the house and strode in long, fluid steps, ignoring the small ache in her leg, the hollering for release, and small fists pounding her back. She reached the back door to the Sheffield house and stopped as enlightenment dawned, effectively halting all opposition as Pippa was stunned silent by the immediate pause. “You mean projection analysis,” Mabel said. She could nearly feel the weight of Pippa’s chest shift as the little girl sighed, a tiny hand swatting her backside. “I know, Mae. That’s what I said!” Chuckling, Mabel set down the infuriatingly mudless girl and patted her behind. “Get those hands rinsed and then run upstairs and locate Giulia.

Now.” “I’m going, I’m going,” Pippa called over her shoulder as she scurried away. It was Mabel’s turn to shake her head as she watched her little darling dodge through the kitchen and up the back stairs. They were for the sole use of the servants, but no one minded that Pippa preferred the inner workings of the large house to get around instead of the luxuriously carpeted staircases specifically designated for the family. Mabel preferred her younger sister using the servants’ stairs, actually, as Pippa was, more often than not, covered in dirt or wet from the pond or dirty from some other malady; it was a wonder she had remained so spotless today. For the most part. Mabel could hardly blame her sister; she had been much the same way when she was younger. But that was to be expected when a child grew up with mainly boys for companions. Her cousin, Charles, had been orphaned young and grew up right alongside Mabel as the brother she never had. They had resided together with Gram, the owner of their estate, which Charles was set to inherit.

Mabel had two close friends in Hattie Green and Amelia Mason—or now Amelia Fawn, she supposed. The woman’s name had changed often with her shifts in husbands, so it was sometimes hard to recall. Every second of her time that had not been spent in their company had been spent following Charles and his band of miscreants and trying to get into whatever trouble they found themselves getting into. “Goodness!” Mrs. Henderson jumped back with a hand to her chest as she stepped into the kitchen to find a muddied and disheveled Mabel. An elderly housekeeper who was often more pretentious than the gentility she worked for, Mrs. Henderson was known for her theatrics and was skilled at elevating the most minor oddity or flaw. “I was attacked by the little terror, Mrs. Henderson, but the situation is under control.” The mud on her face was beginning to dry, crusting and pulling her skin taut.

“I think not,” Mrs. Henderson announced with widened eyes and pinched lips. “That child needs a firm hand, Miss Mabel. She needs to understand that soiling one’s superior is thoroughly unacceptable.” “Certainly, Mrs. Henderson. I assure you that I will make sure she understands how improper it is to soil one’s superior.” Mabel sniffed to fight the levity that sparkled in her shoulders, for Mrs. Henderson did not take kindly to being laughed at. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I must wash up.

” “Hmmph,” Mrs. Henderson grunted with a nod before turning back to whatever task she had been diverted from, her keys jangling as her ample hips swung to and fro. Mabel snickered as she turned for the servants’ hall and scanned the busy staff, looking for the jet-black hair and pale green eyes that belonged to her lady’s maid. Spotting Payne in the corner with a needle and thread to the tear in Mabel’s forest green riding habit—the one she had chosen because it intensified her eyes—she crossed the threshold, effectively ceasing all work as every seated employee rose and every moving employee halted and turned to attention. She briefly wondered if this was how Papa felt aboard his ships, having complete authority over the men that made up his crew. Although unlike her, Papa loved the control of being in charge—something that Mabel was talented at, but not entirely content with, yet. “Payne, if I could see you upstairs?” Mabel said in her most kind and authoritative tone, clasping her hands before her. If she was going to stand in front of the large majority of her staff while covered in dried, crusty mud, she would do so with as much dignity as she could. Payne seemed to collect herself and stammered, “Yes, miss. Of course.

” “Very good. Thank you.” Mabel directed a nod to the occupants of the room, indicating they could resume their duties. She was tempted to say “at ease” as her father often did but refrained, chuckling to herself at the odd looks that would most likely follow her. “Am I correct to assume,” Payne asked as she sidled up to her mistress, “that you would like me to draw a bath?” “Yes, Payne. A bath sounds simply wonderful.” “Right away, miss,” Payne said as she moved for the kitchen. Mabel shook her head as she turned toward the servants’ staircase. There was no sense in trailing mud along the carpeted stairs within the house. It would be much easier to clean if she remained on the bare, wooden set.

As she reached the upper level that contained the schoolroom, nursery, and family rooms, she heard giggles layered with rich, feminine laughter and smiled to herself. Asking her friend Giulia Pepper to come and help her with Pippa had been the best decision she had ever made. The two had taken to each other like flies to honey; no other tutor or governess had ever been able to reach Pippa quite like Giulia had. Mabel was able to get through to the little spitfire, but they tended to butt heads more often than not, and she found that their relationship thrived better when they practiced intervals of healthy breaks between their time together. Something that Giulia gladly helped to implement. Giulia had come to the nearby estate, Halstead Manor, the previous year in an effort to kindle a relationship with her uncle, Lord Hart, the earl that resided in that castle, misnamed in an effort by the previous Peppers to avoid taxes hundreds of years ago. While there, Giulia had made the acquaintance of Mabel and her friends, Amelia and Hattie. The four had become friends quickly and easily. Mabel had a difficult time remembering life before Giulia entered it. She had now been a guest in the Sheffield home for six months while helping with Pippa’s schooling and courting the heir to the earldom, Nick Pepper, a distant relative of hers.

The two had come together while she stayed at the castle, but to give herself a little freedom and a pinch of propriety, Giulia had come to the Sheffield home to live for the time being. But that would soon be at an end. Giulia would marry her uncle’s heir, leaving Mabel alone with her sister and elderly grandmother. Not that Mabel complained. Giulia and Nick were obviously made for one another. Mabel slipped into her bedroom and began peeling off her mud-soaked dress. Payne came in a moment later with the first of the hot water and set up a screen quickly. “I’ve got Peter helping with the water, Miss Mabel, if you would like to step behind there.” Mabel nodded and jumped behind the screen just as the door opened and Peter came in, a bucket of steaming water in each arm. The footman’s gaze leveled on her face over the top of the screen and she felt her cheeks warm.

Blast her ridiculous height! She hunched her shoulders slightly, but it did little to lower her and she settled on looking away as Peter and Payne made multiple trips to fill the tub with hot, steaming water. Payne closed the door and turned the lock before Mabel stepped over and lowered herself in the water. She sighed in contentment as she sunk in the warm liquid and let Payne wash the mud from her hair. “Miss Pippa practicing her aim again?” Payne asked with levity. “Naturally,” Mabel replied soothingly, her eyes closed as she enjoyed the fingers massaging her scalp. “That little spitfire is a handful.” Payne chuckled. “She sure keeps things interesting.” “Interesting is one word for it.” Mabel laughed.

Payne had it right, though. Pippa was a ray of sunshine in the Sheffield house—the young, vibrant foil to Gram’s spirited, aging soul. The thought brought a wave of melancholy over Mabel and she sucked in a breath of air when Payne’s hands moved away before plunging her head under the water. If only she could erase Gram’s irritable mood as easily as she could the mud from her skin. * * * “Go on now. Have your dinner, and then Hope will bring you down to the parlor for games,” Mabel said, indicating the table set in the corner of the room. Pippa’s nose scrunched up. “But I don’t want to eat my dinner in the nursery. The nursery is for babies.” “Who told you that?” A defiant little nose shot into the air, and Mabel struggled to keep her calm as she waited for the answer.

Everyone else was most likely already assembled for dinner, and Mabel was having a beast of a time getting Pippa to let her leave the upper level of the house. The small, navy-violet eyes stared back into Mabel’s, and she considered giving in before the voice in her head reminded her not to. The child was not going to learn to be obedient if she was spoiled and given everything she asked for, no matter how much easier that would feel in the moment. Mabel let out a breath and dropped to her knees, trying for a gentler approach. “Pippa, did someone tell you that the nursery was for babies?” “Yes.” Pippa let out a long breath. Mabel fought a smile. The girl mimicked adults so well, she seemed like a tiny grownup herself at times. “Was it a friend of yours or someone in the house?” Pippa’s face immediately reeled back as disgust marred her precious little features. “Jacob Tucker is no friend of mine!” Aha! Mabel thought inwardly, puffing up at her success.

“Well,” she said softly, “what Jacob Tucker may not realize, Pip, is that our nursery is not simply a nursery.” “It’s not?” Pippa said with a scrunched nose, tilting her head to the side and infusing Mabel’s heart with a rush of love for her younger sister. “Of course it is not.” Mabel placed a hand to her heart to drive her point home. “Is it not where Giulia teaches your lessons?” “It is.” “And is it not where we have our very grown-up tea?” “I suppose.” “Then, you see, it is not just a nursery, Pippa Jane. It is a schoolroom and a very dignified parlor on occasion.” “I suppose that is true,” Pippa said, standing a little taller, no doubt from Mabel’s use of their cousin Charles’s pet name for the little girl. “Then run along and don’t keep Hope waiting.

A lady is never late, Pip.” “Right, and I am a lady.” “You most certainly are,” Mabel replied through her grin as she watched the little lady turn and run toward the nursery and her maid who waited there. Well, she was only seven. There was plenty of time to teach her that ladies don’t run in the corridors. Or sling mud at their sisters. Or throw rocks at the neighborhood boys. Mabel’s smile faltered at that last one. She had to remember to call on Mrs. Tucker the following day with her apologies.

And perhaps a basket of muffins. Yes, Mrs. Tucker had seemed to like the blueberry muffins last time—that would be just the thing to smooth over the uncomfortable conversation. “Where is Mabel?” a gravelly voice hollered from the parlor, followed shortly by a couple of thumps from the heavy cane Gram used to move from room to room. “I am sure she will be here shortly,” Giulia’s voice soothed. “She was saying goodbye to Pippa when I came down.” “Grinding pepper?” Gram yelled. “Why was she grinding pepper? That’s what the kitchen maids are for.” “I am here!” Mabel said as she flew into the room, trading a knowing smile with Giulia before approaching her elderly grandmother and placing a kiss on her wrinkled cheek. The old woman sat in her customary chair near the fire that she insisted must always be lit to warm her chilled bones, no matter how warm it was outside.

The tall, wingback chair was a deep chocolate, infused with gold embroidery, and was well worn from years of daily use. When Gram was not holed up in her room for one malady or another, she was camped out in that chair. “Has Carson announced dinner yet?” Mabel asked, her volume slightly louder as she addressed her near deaf grandmother. Gram stared, unblinking, and Mabel found herself noting the wrinkles that folded skin over her eyes. Did that make it more difficult for Gram to see? She took note of the pinched lips and offered a smile as dignified as her posture before holding out a hand. Gram batted Mabel’s hand away and used her cane and the armrest to propel herself to a standing position. Gram’s once tall frame was now condensed by the unseemly hunch in her back, but she remained as regal and dignified as ever as she led the mismatched group into dinner. Mabel hung back to follow alongside Giulia and accepted the smaller woman’s arm as she strung it through her own. Where Mabel was extremely tall for a woman, rivaling many men as well as towering over every female she knew, Giulia was the exact opposite, a petite woman whose compassionate heart made up for what she lacked in height. “I heard you had a bit of a battle against Pippa today.

Something involving cannons and lots of mud?” The mirth dancing in Giulia’s chocolate-colored eyes was infectious, and Mabel found a smile turning up her lips in response. “I would prefer to describe it as an ambush,” she responded flatly. “Oh, dear,” Giulia said, giggling. Her hand came up to rest on her heart as she laughed, and Mabel found it hard not to laugh as well. It may have been irritating at the time, but now that she was warm and dry and quite a bit cleaner, she found the humor in Pippa’s antics as well. “That little one sure keeps us on our toes,” Giulia said. “That she does,” Mabel agreed. They took their seats on either side of Gram as Carson began serving dinner, along with Peter and Jeffrey, the two footmen that rivaled Mabel in height. She shook out her napkin and laid it across her lap as her mind trailed to the many men in her life and how she scaled them based on how tall they were in comparison to her. Most were about the same as she, if not an inch or two taller, but not nearly enough to make her feel dainty or feminine, as one young man blatantly pointed out long ago.

A mocking laugh swirled in her stomach, for ‘dainty’ was not a word used to describe her. It fit Giulia perfectly, and Pippa on occasion, but no, Mabel would never be able to claim that description. No matter how much she longed to. “Mabel, your brother has written,” Gram yelled, though she only sat an arm’s length away. “And what did Charles have to say?” Mabel asked. Charles Fremont was her cousin, but as they were raised as siblings, she never corrected Gram. “He inquired after my health, the dear boy.” “Oh, how kind of him.” “What?” Gram yelled. Mabel set down her fork and knife and gave her grandmother a patient smile.

“That is very kind of him.” “I don’t know the time, Mabel. I am telling you about Charles’s letter.” “And what did he have to say?” Mabel yelled. “Well, he inquired after my health.” Mabel refrained from flicking her eyes toward Giulia, though she could feel her friend struggling to remain composed on the opposite side of the table. “How very kind of him,” Mabel yelled. Gram seemed pacified and returned to her meal. “How is Charles?” Giulia asked. “Good, as far as I know.

” Charles was studying abroad, finishing his grand tour now that the war was over, and Napoleon finally defeated for good. Mabel took a sip of her soup and then continued, “Last I heard he was in Italy, though he spent a good deal of time in France before that.” A look of sorrow passed over Giulia’s face, but it was gone as quickly as it came. Mabel wondered momentarily if she should have refrained from mentioning the country where Giulia’s mother’s family was from. She thought a change of direction was the best course of action. “I can’t believe it’s been so long; the last time I saw Charles was the day after Nick’s ball when he said his farewells to Pippa, Gram, and me.” “That was the very ball when I had the opportunity to meet your cousin,” Giulia said with a swallow. “Though, I believe he really only had eyes for one,” she finished with a wide grin. “Yes,” Mabel said, her eyes tracing the rim of her soup bowl. She looked to Giulia, hoping to quell the pain that scenario brought to her heart.

“He has been smitten with Amelia for years. Probably our whole lives, to be honest.” “Poor man.” “Who’s poor?” Gram asked, darting her gaze between Mabel and Giulia. She snapped her fingers. “The reverend mentioned on Sunday that a new family is moving into the house behind the school.” “Oh, splendid,” Mabel called. “I will prepare a basket and take it over.” Gram nodded and went back to her plate. “Are you going to see Nick tomorrow?” “No,” Giulia answered.

“He is leaving to visit his mother and sister for a fortnight. But I am going to Halstead Friday for dinner. Would you like to join me?” “Perhaps,” Mabel answered. “Though I’m loath to leave Gram alone.” “It is up to you. Uncle Robert likes the company, so you would not be a burden.” Mabel raised an eyebrow and gave her friend a pointed look. “He does.” Giulia laughed. “He’s too crotchety and grumpy to admit it, but he enjoys company.

Particularly that of lovely young ladies.” She took a bite and then pointed her fork at Mabel. “You cannot repeat this, but Nick told me once that Uncle Robert has called us the daughters he never had.” “That is too sweet,” Mabel said, thinking of the grouchy old earl with long scraggly hair and a permanent frown. “I agree,” Gram said, causing both Giulia and Mabel to jump in surprise. “These yams are far too sweet.” The old woman smacked her lips with a look of disgust before pushing the yams to one side of her plate and eyeing Carson as if the over-sweetened vegetable was his fault. Carson, ever the stalwart butler, remained composed and took the fiery darts as if they were his due. Mabel glanced over her goblet and caught Giulia’s mirth-filled eyes before choking on her water and coughing to cover the laugh. A moment of silence endured before both women let out their laughter, causing Gram to look between them in surprise and the ever-stoic butler’s mouth to curve in a very slight, and completely uncharacteristic, smile.

Until, of course, he caught the footman’s grin and snapped back to attention.

.

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