Under The Earl’s Spell – Bridget Barton

The leaves on the trees were turning from a deep, lush green to a gentle golden brown. Farmers were ploughing their fields, the September harvest behind them for another year. Horses in fields stamped at the cooling ground while cattle were urged indoors into barns. A dog barked at the sheep he was herding from one field to another more sheltered field for winter grazing. Gardeners and groundsmen on the grand manorial estates swept fallen leaves into piles, which would be ready to burn once the leaves had dried out enough. They also tidied the edges of lawns that were threatening to encroach upon the paths and driveways. Two such manorial estates, one small and one large, languished side-by-side, separated by large grounds and mature hawthorn hedges, but joined by a secret bridleway. A lone female rider cantered easily on her black hunter between the neighbouring properties. Before her lay the large and rambling Lingfield estate, country seat of the Lords Titterington. She followed the bridleway to where it joined the main driveway about halfway along. Coming towards the horsewoman and away from the house was the mail carriage, a big, black affair pulled by four horses, their hooves pounding against the packed earth as mist billowed from their nostrils. The coachman up front tipped his hat in polite greeting, and she in turn waved a hand. The drive, which meandered along the natural contours of the earth, was lined with rhododendrons, witch hazels and other ornamental shrubs now long past their flowering season, until it ended in a large turning circle in front of the main entrance. In the centre of the circle stood a stone lady only partially clothed in Roman garb, a basket under her arm, surrounded by a small rose garden. She faced a stone stairway that led up to a portico with four grand, marble pillars, that in turn protected the large, double oak doors.

Inside, an oak panelled hallway with a black and white chequered floor led off into several rooms. To the left of the main entrance was the butler’s pantry. To the right was the master’s study. *** The Right Honourable Earl of Lingfield, Lord Ainsley Titterington, was reading a newspaper spread out upon his desk. He was so engrossed that he did not notice that his butler had entered the study until the servant cleared his throat. And rather loudly too. “Yes, Painter?” Lord Ainsley eventually said, glancing up from the pages in front of him. “Sorry to disturb you, my Lord. There is a letter.” “I am really rather busy at the moment,” his Lordship replied.

“It will have to wait.” He returned his attention to the alarming news from Niagara regarding Fort Erie, effectively dismissing his man. His man, however, persisted, and noisily cleared his throat again. Sighing, Ainsley folded the newspaper closed, swivelled on his seat, and gave the butler his full attention. He said, “I suppose it is urgent?” The Morning Post had already taken several days to get to Surrey from London, so it was hardly pressing news that he was reading, but it concerned him all the same. “Yes, my Lord. Apologies, my Lord,” said the butler. Painter held out the silver platter with the folded paper upon it and bowed his head. “Does it require a reply, Painter?” Ainsley asked, taking the letter and turning it over in his hands. He held it towards the light pouring in through the window.

“I do not recognise the seal.” “No, my Lord. It came on the carriage from London. It has already gone again, my Lord.” Ainsley had not even heard the mail carriage arrive. “Very well, Painter. Thank you.” He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a silver knife with which to slit the seal apart. “Will there be anything else, my Lord?” asked the butler. “No, thank you.

” “Very well, my Lord.” The butler backed out of the room, bowing once again, and closed the door softly behind him. Ainsley unfolded the letter. Written in a strong and straight hand and dated only the day before, it was from a merchant in London he had met only once or twice. The letter was brief and to the point: My Dear Sir, That had Ainsley’s hackles up straight away. What a rude way to open a letter to a virtual stranger. He checked the front of the letter again and saw that at least it was correctly addressed. My Dear Sir, Pardon me for approaching you in this manner, but it is imperative that we speak on an urgent and personal matter. When you are next in town, I would be most grateful if you could call on me at the address below, where you will be speedily received. I would appreciate your most urgent attendance and attention.

I remain your servant, Charles Walker, Esq Ainsley turned the paper over to see if there was any more, but the scant lines barely covered a single side. He read the letter quickly again and tossed it to one side. It skittered to a halt against the abandoned newspaper. Standing from his desk, he walked over to the grand fireplace where a fire glowed in the hearth. He turned around, lifted his coat tails, and warmed his backside against the flames whilst he tried to recall the man who had written to him. Charles Walker…yes. He dropped his tails, folded one arm across his chest and fiddled at his face whiskers with the other hand. He vaguely recollected a hook-nosed man with small, black eyes. Now what was his trade…? Ainsley thought very hard, but it did not come to him. He was sure he’d had no formal dealings with the man or his business, whatever it was, and he could not think for the life of him what would be so urgent that this Mr.

Walker would demand his presence in such a way, yet not take the time to travel out and see him personally. It was most improper. To instead write a letter to him only demonstrated how ill-mannered and vulgar the merchant must be. A slight smell of fabric singeing reached Ainsley’s nostrils, and he moved cautiously away from the fire, lest his coat tails catch light. His breeches were now a little too warm against his legs, so he had to move carefully. Instead of sitting back down at his desk, he stood and looked at the offending letter for a moment. Should he go and see the man? Make a special trip? How ‘urgent’ could it really be if the man had simply chosen to write a letter? No, Ainsley would not be making a trip to London just to see this chap. Not only was the communication the completely wrong approach, but he would be in the city next month anyway. If he remembered, he would seek out the merchant there and speak with him then. Ainsley picked up the letter, re-folded it, and tucked it away in a drawer in his desk.

With his breeches cool again, he was about to sit back down at the desk, but a movement outside the window and the sound of horse hooves on stone caught his attention. He heard the unmistakable tinkle of laughter. Oh, how the sound made his heart soar. He instantly knew who it was, yet he crept to the window anyway, hiding behind the heavy curtain from where he could quietly observe the vision he was certain would be there. Sure enough, there was Miss Emily Lawson sitting side-saddle on her horse, Jupiter, talking and smiling with his younger brother, Oswald, who was standing on the ground looking up at her. He could hear their voices, but he couldn’t make out the words they were saying. Emily was wearing a plain white dress with a high neck that fell in folds down the side of the horse. For warmth, she wore a thick, brown spencer, white gloves, and a black riding hat with a white ribbon around it. A cameo brooch was pinned to the frilly collar of the dress at her throat, and she held a black riding crop in her hand. Her long brown hair was tied back beneath the hat, but some tendrils had worked loose during her ride.

The exercise in the cool autumn air had brought a rosy tinge to her cheeks, and her breath as she spoke wafted out of her pretty mouth in a mist. She was laughing down at Oswald, who had clearly said something amusing. Her brown eyes glittered with mirth and crinkled at the corners. When Jupiter suddenly danced around a little, Oswald caught a hold of the stallion’s bridle to stabilise him. There was no need, though, for Emily was an accomplished horsewoman who could hold her own. She often went out with the hunt, always on the big black hunter. Emily was the elder of Ainsley’s best friend Matthew Lawson’s two younger sisters. They had been neighbours forever. Matthew had sadly died some years earlier from a condition that had ailed him since infancy. That ailment had kept him out of the army and safely at home, as had Ainsley’s own impending title.

But his friend had not lived long after reaching manhood. Ainsley had always had a soft spot for Emily, for both the girls, really. They were like the little sisters he had never had. When Matthew had died, Ainsley had somewhat assumed responsibility as their protector, but more specifically Emily’s. Rowena was still quite young. At twenty, Emily and Oswald were the same age, ten years younger than Ainsley. Since he had inherited the responsibility of the earldom upon their father’s death, Ainsley had become less involved with them and more concerned with the estate. Oswald too had recently been spending more and more time away from the country home, ever since he had joined the military. He was already a captain and that brought its own responsibility and extra duties. So, it was nice to see Emily and Oswald together again, having fun.

Ainsley could barely tear his gaze away from her pretty face. Oswald glanced away from Emily towards the stables. At that precise moment, Emily turned her own gaze away from Oswald and towards the study window where, too late, Ainsley started to dip out of view. Those pretty, rosy lips turned up at the corners as she smiled and lifted a hand to waggle her fingers at him. He felt his face burn with embarrassment at being caught, but he stepped into her view, as if that were what he intended on doing all along, and he returned her smile and her wave. She turned her head to see where Oswald had gone and then she was looking at Ainsley again. Her smile grew larger and she beckoned to him to come outside and join her. Jupiter pranced again beneath her, but she was quick to bring him back under her control. Ainsley paused for only a moment. Well, it would be rude not to.

He nodded his agreement and indicated with a finger that he would be with her presently. He turned his attention back to the study. The room seemed dark after the brightness of the early autumn sunshine. Or was it the dazzle of Emily’s beauty? He blinked to let his eyes become re-accustomed to the light. Then he was across the wooden floor of his study in three easy strides and into the hallway, perhaps only a little too eager. Chapter 2 Ainsley crossed the tiled hall to the front doors, pausing only briefly outside the butler’s pantry as a whiff of silver polish reached his nose. The door to Painter’s room stood open to reveal the man sitting at his table, indeed polishing some of the silver, a small fire in the grate behind him. At the sight of his master, he dropped the cloth on top of a candlestick he was cleaning and started to push his seat away from the table, dragging the chair feet across the polished floorboards. Ainsley winced as he realised one of the lower servants would now be made to polish the floor to hide the scuff marks. “Please, do not worry, Painter,” said Ainsley, holding up a hand.

“I am only popping outside to speak with Miss Lawson.” “Very well, my Lord,” said the butler, standing up anyway and pushing his chair back under the table. He would not continue with his task until his Lordship had turned away, instead peering at Ainsley over a pair of wire-rimmed half-moon spectacles with his head slightly bowed. The front door was not locked, and Ainsley yanked it open to be greeted by a draught of surprisingly cool air and a gust of fallen leaves blustered into the hall. The sunshine was deceptive. Briefly, as he shivered, he thought to go back and pick up an overcoat from the hall cupboard, but he would not be long and decided against it after all. Behind him, Painter had come out of his room and Ainsley heard him shout,” Daisy? Daisy!” “Yes, Mr Painter,” called a distant, timid voice. There was a pause. “Sweep these leaves up and be quick about it.” “Yes, Mr Painter,” said the girl, closer now.

“And when you’ve done that,” he continued, “tell Fletcher to come and see to the floor in my room!” “Yes, Mr Painter,” replied the maid. Ainsley smiled to himself and quietly left them to it. “Good morning, Lord Ainsley,” called Emily as he emerged from the house and strode down the steps towards her. “Good morning, Miss Lawson. How are you?” he replied. Jupiter was once again prancing about on the spot, bored at being kept waiting and anxious to be off on his ride. Ainsley instinctively caught at the horse’s bridle to steady him again. He was a strong mount. “I am very well, thank you,” said Emily. “How are you?” “All the better for seeing you, my dear,” he replied in his usual brotherly fashion.

“Did I disturb your work?” she asked. The question caught him off guard. “I’m sorry?”

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