Authors: Jillian Eaton
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages), #Historical Romance
Margaret had been married to her husband for eight months, sixteen days, and – if her calculations were correct, which they almost always were – approximately two and a half hours. During those eight months, sixteen days and (approximately) two and a half hours she had seen her husband a grand total of one time. At their wedding, no less, where he had arrived drunk, slurred his vows, and sealed her fate with a sloppy kiss that had landed on her left earlobe instead of her lips.
She did not blame him for imbibing in a bit too much whisky before walking down the aisle. She would have gladly gotten drunk herself had it not been for the watchful eye of her mother, but Arabella Combs, knowing full well the willful nature of her eldest daughter, had kept Margaret under lock and key until it was time for the ceremony to begin.
Arabella had carefully planned out every miniscule detail for the ‘wedding of the season’ (as it was now referred since no one else of social significance had gotten married since that fateful November day) well before the bans had even been read and she had been determined not to let anything – or anyone – ruin it.
“Well you certainly got what you wanted, Mother,” said Margaret to no one in particular, for no one in particular was around. “I am wed to a Duke, and one day your grandchildren shall carry titles higher than your own. I hope you are happy, for I am not, and I fear I never will be.”
Rolling over onto her stomach, she swatted at a piece of grass that threatened to tickle her nose and dropped her head on one lanky arm. Overhead the summer sun beat down unmercifully and she wished she had not forgotten her bonnet. Now her freckles would be blatantly obvious, when before they had only shown in certain light, and her red hair would turn even redder – though how that was possible, she had no idea; she just knew it would because that is what her mother always said – and she would look like a heathen. A tall, freckle faced, red haired heathen.
“Oh who the bloody hell cares,” she grumbled, for it was true. No one but the servants saw her, and since they had yet to complain about her new habit of wearing boy’s clothing she highly doubted they would raise a fuss over a few freckles. Besides, freckles and red hair were not the worst of her worries.
Since her wedding Margaret had been stranded at Heathridge, a five hundred acre ramshackle estate that belonged to her new husband. She did not mind her isolated surroundings so much as the boredom that came with them. There was nothing to do, no one to talk to. No mischief to make. Her three closest friends had stayed for as long as they could after the wedding, but they all had their own lives to get back to.
Catherine was pregnant again with her fourth child, Josephine was touring the continent with her lover, and Grace was preparing for her own wedding to the very ill suited – in Margaret’s opinion – Lord Melbourne.
“I could wither away and die here and no one would notice,” she sighed dramatically. Flopping over onto her back, she shaded her eyes against the sun and chewed down on her bottom lip. What she needed was a new adventure. Something to occupy the hours between breakfast and dinner. A new horse to train, perhaps.
For a moment Margaret’s entire face lit up, until she remembered her husband had run off with every cent of her rather extensive dowry right after dumping her at his rotting excuse of an estate. She still did not know if he had intentionally stranded her without a penny to her name, or if the thought had simply not occurred to him to set up an allowance for his new wife before he took off for the unknown, but either way the result was the same. Until he returned, or by some miracle her parents decided to come and rescue her, she was stuck. She could not escape even if she wanted to, for the carriage house was devoid of a carriage and the barn held nothing but horses so old their backs sagged nearly to the ground.
She had attempted to hire someone to take her to London, but no one within a twenty mile radius would supply a service without money up front due to her husband’s unpaid debts.
“I am a poor Duchess,” Margaret sighed. Tipping her head to the side she arched an eyebrow at the sheep grazing next to her. “Have you ever heard of a poor Duchess? No? Well, me either. Although no use crying over spilt milk, I suppose. Stiff upper lip, best foot forward and all that. Here we go.”
Springing to her feet she wiped her grass stained palms on the sides of the brown breeches one of the stable boys had given her before he left and straightened out her white linen shirt. It belonged to her husband (consequently it was the only thing she had of his since he had forgotten to give her a ring) and was nearly three sizes too big. The long hem line helped distract from the fact that her breeches – while in otherwise good condition – ended just below her knees. Had it not been for her shock of fiery red hair that tumbled nearly to her waist and her narrow, pixie like face that could never be confused for anything but female, Margaret might have passed for a boy, something she would not have minded in the least.
It was an inescapable fact that men had better luck than women. Why, just look at her husband: eight months ago he had been broke and destitute; now he was rich as a lark and off traveling the world spending
dowry while she was stuck in his downtrodden estate. Not fair at all, that.
Giving the sheep an absent pat on its furry head, Margaret skipped down the side of the hill and half walked, half ran the rest of the way to Heathridge.
In better hands the fifty seven room estate must have been nothing short of magnificent, but time and neglect had taken its toll. Paint was peeling from the window trim. Large chunks of plaster were missing from the walls. Even the grass surrounding the estate was overgrown and filled with weeds after the gardener had quit and there had been no money to replace him. The inside of the mansion was no better than the outside, with dingy floors, dusty tapestries, and an overpowering smell of mold on rainy days.
Flushed and perspiring slightly, Margaret slowed to a more dignified walk just short of the front steps. They spiraled out from the main door, yet even they were chipped on the edges and grass had begun to grow between the granite cracks.
Hastings, the butler/footman/occasional head cook met her just inside the door with a cool glass of lemon water. A portly man in his early fifties, he had loyally served at Heathridge for thirty years and had not received a salary for the last two of them. Still he stayed on, mostly in part because he had no where else to go, and no family to speak of.
“Here you are, Lady Winter,” he said, extending the glass to Margaret.
She took it and drank thirstily, hiccupped, and set the glass aside on a dusty table. “I have told you not to call me that,” she reminded him sternly.
“It is your name,” he said.
“No, it is my husband’s name. And we both know I am hardly a Lady, so why bother with all the fuss? Call me Margaret if you must, Maggie if you want, and never, ever,” she paused to shudder, “address me as Duchess.”
The hint of a smile appeared beneath Hastings’ rather impressive salt and pepper moustache. “As you wish, Lady Winter.”
Margaret threw her hands up in the air. “Heavens, why do I even bother? What time is dinner tonight, Hastings?”
“Half past five o’ clock, Lady Winter.”
“I have time for a ride, then?”
“If you wish.”
“Ha!” she cried triumphantly. “You did not do it that time.”
“Do what, Lady Winter?”
Her shoulders slumped. “I give up. If I am not back in time for dinner, start without me.”
“Certainly not,” said Hastings, looking appalled at the very idea.
Margaret rolled her eyes. “There are five people living here besides myself, Hastings. Why should you all have to wait if I am running late? Just keep a plate warm and I will eat when I return.” Turning on her heel, she trotted down the steps before Hastings could argue with her, and went directly to the stables.
Destroyed by a fire and recently rebuilt, the ten stall barn was the only building on the property that had not fallen into a state of disrepair and Margaret was determined to keep it that way. She called each horse by name as she strolled down the freshly raked aisle and one by one they popped their heads over their stall doors to greet her with warm nickers of affection.
“Are you hungry?” she asked, pausing to scratch Poppy, a dark palomino, under her chin.
In her younger years Poppy had plowed the fields that now lay fallow behind the main house, but now she had more gray hairs on her face than brown and walked with a slight limp. Her sweet nature made her one of Margaret’s favorites, and she often spoiled the mare with carrots and apples stolen from the kitchen.
Hay was piled neatly at the end of the barn. Filling a wheelbarrow with the sweet smelling dried grass, she fed each horse in turn and when they were all nibbling at their hay exchanged the wheelbarrow for a large bucket of oats. She soaked Poppy’s grain for the old draft mare had little teeth left to chew with, and opened up all of the stalls to let the horses out into their evening grazing pasture when they were finished eating. They filed past her one by one, too used to their daily routine to raise a fuss, and she followed them out to swing the gate closed behind them.
Now came the not so pleasant part, but it had to be done, and after scooping her hair up underneath a floppy hat and rolling up her shirt sleeves, Margaret fetched another wheelbarrow and began mucking out the stalls.
It was hard labor, but she enjoyed the simple quietness of it. A wry smile captured her lips as she remembered how her muscles had screamed in protest when she had first taken over care of the entire stables, but now her arms were strong and easily capable of dumping manure and hauling pails of water to and from the stalls.
She was nearly finished when an unfamiliar whinny rang through the air. Still holding her pitchfork, Margaret poked her head out the front aisle way and watched with interest as a gleaming bay approached. She was so entranced by the horse’s fine build and elegant way of moving that she didn’t even notice the rider until he dropped to the ground in front of her and placed the horse’s reins in her hands.
“Here,” he said, looking past her. “Cool him out and groom him.”
Margaret bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. Oh, she noticed the rider now all right, although he certainly did not notice her. “Would you have me feed him as well?” she asked, deliberately speaking in a low voice.