Out of the Blue
The fact that an elder brother can seldom see things from a younger brother's perspective will not prevent the younger brother from arguing his case, no matter how hopeless.
"I should have won! It wasn't my fault - that beer cart came out of nowhere! It had no business being there in the first place!"
"On a public road, in broad daylight?"
"I've raced plenty of times on that road; it's rarely used. And had I won..."
"I'm only glad Father is not alive to see this day."
"Honestly, you are making too much of this, Mark. Besides, you know Father approved of racing."
"As a necessary part of the business, Paul, to show the quality of our steeds against the competition, not to wager our best stock away. Ares was to be a foundation for our future; I just invested a fortune in a number of mares for the beast, for heaven's sake!"
"Had I won we would have had Rushfield's Marauder in our stables -- even you've said that horse has the best lines in four counties."
"But to bet one of our best stallions away on a whim was foolhardy and irresponsible! A horse likes Ares comes once in a lifetime. You've put all Father's work and mine back twenty years!"
"Come now, Rushfield is a good sort, always up for a rematch. I'm sure I will be able to win Ares back without too much trouble."
"You've already brought us too much trouble! This isn't the first time you've put the business at risk -- don't think I've forgotten the two colts you lost us last year."
"No, but you've obviously forgotten the superior gelding I brought home the summer before."
"Which, need I remind you, was useless as breeding stock. When are you going to grow up and take some responsibility for the legacy Father left us? Whittier stables has a reputation for supplying superior mounts to His Majesty's cavalry and I will not allow you to jeopardize our good name. If you can not start conducting yourself like a productive member of this family perhaps you would do better to take yourself off with the next shipment of mounts we send to the Army; maybe you can make something of yourself on the Peninsula. Lord knows nothing has come of you here!"
"You'd like that, wouldn't you? Maybe get me out of the way once and for all? You've made it perfectly clear that you share Father's opinion of me, that I'm a wastrel and a disgrace to the family. Well, forgive me if I don't stay around to hear it yet again!"
"Just where do you think you're going?"
"Out for air -- and don't worry about me endangering any of the precious Whittier steeds -- I plan on getting as far away from the stables as my own two legs can carry me!"
With that Paul stalked out of his brother's study, out of the house and across the south lawn, which as he said, was in the opposite direction of the estate's stables. He walked for some time along the edge of the property, making use of the afternoon shade from the nearby tree line.
"Pompous, self-righteous stick-in-the mud," he muttered about his brother. "Granted I've made a mess of things, but they never stay muddled -- I know I can get that blasted horse back; Rushfield is always up for a rematch, especially if he thinks things are in his favor."
Thus occupied with his thoughts, Paul did not notice the rumble of thunder in the distance, or perhaps he did, but as the sky was a clear blue with barely a cloud in sight, he chose to disregard it. He did, however, notice an odd tingling on his skin and the feeling of his hair standing on end.
"What the blazes..." he began, but was never able to finish. In an instant he was simultaneously overcome by blazing light, a deafening roar, a tremendous force which blasted him into the air and then, nothing.
When Paul next came to his senses, he wished he hadn't. He had pain over his entire body with the exception of his right arm and leg. They were numb, as if he had lain on them too long and they were asleep. He opened his eyes a crack, then with a moan clamped them shut again as the light of the room sent an intense pain into his brain.
"Paul?" he heard a voice gently urge, "Paul, wake up."
"Mark?" He tried his eyes again with little more success.
"Simmons, draw the blinds, and tell the doctor he's awake," Mark ordered, then in a softer tone: "Praise the Lord, brother, I thought I'd lost you."
Had he actually heard Mark's voice crack? Was this the same brother who had suggested that he get off the estate - out of the country in fact - in their last conversation? Had the world turned upside down?
"Mark," Paul squinted to see his brother, "What's happ...?"
"Lightning," Mark replied before his brother finished the question. "One of the gardeners saw it himself."
"Lightning?" Paul whispered in bemusement.
"Brockway said a bolt of lightning struck a tree not twenty feet from where you were walking, then threw you at least ten yards. It singed your shirt and blew your left boot clean off! You've been out cold ever since -- nearly 20 hours. You had me worried, Paul. Despite our differences, you are the only brother I've got!"
The doctor came in then to examine his patient. He pronounced the younger Mr. Whittier to be very lucky indeed. Although it felt like he had been burned all over, Paul had suffered mostly superficial burns on his skin, the worst being on his left foot where his boot had been blown off. The more worrisome after effects of his shocking encounter were his sensitivity to light and the numbness of the right side of his body. The doctor hoped that after time both would return to normal.
And they did, for the most part. In two days Paul could tolerate room light, after a week daylight no longer gave him headaches. The numbness faded too, with the exception of the outer edge of his right hand, and as that only affected his lesser two fingers, Paul barely noticed their lack of sensation after a few days. He was up and walking, although slowly and with a limp, sooner than the doctor or his brother liked. The limp too faded within a few weeks. His right arm, however, was left somewhat weaker than it had been before the incident. Although he knew it was futile, Paul often found himself rubbing his right shoulder or arm in an effort to put it right, especially when he was troubled.
"It's barely been three weeks since the accident," said Mark, "You shouldn't rush things, Paul. I will be going to Ascot myself next week with our best runners. Wait till then, it will give you an extra week's rest, then we can go down together."
"I'd like that, Mark, truly, but I need to go now; I have my reasons. Don't worry, I'll be fine. Since you've thrust Simmons on me I can't lift a finger if he thinks it will tire me. And I know," he added with a smile, "that he will be sending you periodic reports, so you know I will have to stay in line."
"Very well then, brother, God-speed. I'll see you Monday next."
Mark had pressed Paul to stay at home to finish his recovery. Apparently he had forgiven and forgotten about the loss of Ares, but Paul had not. His brother had been right, he had not done anything to help further the family's business since their father's death two years ago, preferring to go through the motions of "scouting out new prospects" at the various racing meets. In reality he was enjoying himself gaming and carousing with other n'er-do-wells like himself. He had lost Ares to Sir Howard Rushfield, a bored aristocrat that frequented the races, in what Paul had thought was a sure thing, Ares against the less tried Marauder. But nothing in life was sure; his recent painful encounter was proof enough of that.
Well, it wasn't too late. Paul would change his ways; it was the least he could do after being given such a divine second chance - and he would - right after he restored Ares to his brother.
He hadn't come to Ascot this time for the gaming; he had been told Rushfield would be here. He spotted two mutual friends, Adam Miller and Scott Highcastle, gaming companions since University.
"Hullo, Whit, over here," Miller hailed him.
"Paul, didn't I hear you had been laid-up?" queried Highcastle, "Ill or injured? The information was a bit sketchy."
"Nothing to speak of, a minor mishap," Paul assured them as Simmons looked on incredulously, "And as you see, I am not much worse for wear."
"Who do you like for the next race?" asked Miller.
"Barton has Twilight and Snowquest entered; Quincy's put in that mare of his, Lady Jane."
Paul cringed. He had felt a tingling in his right arm that for an instant reminded him of how it had felt right before it had happened. He rubbed his arm and asked, "Anyone else?"
Miller named of a half dozen horses, most of which Paul had heard of but was not impressed with, ending with "Oh, and Trevor De Canne just put in a lanky three year old named Lightning Bolt."
Paul couldn't believe his luck, it had to be fate. "Put me down for Lightning Bolt."
Paul was dumbstruck when Lady Jane edge past Lightning Bolt to win by half a head - so much for omens.
The next race had eight horses entered. Miller named the horses off; when the last horse, Troubadour, was named Paul again felt that odd tingle in his right arm. On a whim he bet a modest amount on Troubadour. The horse won by two lengths.
When he next felt the tingle, a horse called Bravado just being named, Paul barely attended to the rest of the list, betting a goodly sum on Bravado. He won by a nose. Paul was definitely on to something; obviously the tingling was a good thing, wasn't it?
He walked back to the inn pondering this strange phenomenon. Nothing this odd had ever happened to him before the lightning strike. He paused in the lane leading to the inn as the wind picked up. Inexplicably he felt the tingling again, this time stronger -- but why? Instinctively he stepped back and looked to the sky for signs of danger; it was clear of clouds but that did nothing to lessen Paul's apprehension. He felt something gently hit his boot and looked down to find a white bonnet with blue ribbons had blown into his boot. He picked it up and looked to see where it might have come from.
A young lady hurried over from a carriage stopped in front of the inn. Although she was wearing a bonnet, with pretty brown curls peeking out from beneath it, she obviously was about to make a claim for this one as well.
"Pardon me, sir. I'm afraid the wind took my sister's bonnet." She indicated a younger woman waiting expectantly, her black hair bonnetless, near the carriage. Behind her with his back to them was a gentleman assisting a third woman down.
"Thelma would have come for it herself," continued the young lady, "but she is a bit shy - she's just come out you see."
Paul smiled and handed the bonnet to the woman who barely looked old enough to be out herself. "Think nothing of it, Miss...?"
"Rushfield," she answered with a curtsy. "Perhaps you know my brother?"
Paul just realized that the gentleman at the carriage was indeed the man he had come to see. His luck apparently was holding. Rushfield obviously was the cause of his last sensation.
"Yes," he replied after a pause, "I am acquainted with Sir Howard."
"He was kind enough to bring us down for the ball tomorrow night. It will be my sister's first."
"I am sure she will enjoy it. The balls at the Assembly house are always a success."
Rushfield approached with the other two ladies.
"Whittier, I see you've already met my sister, Dorothy. May I present two more of my sisters, Ruth," the older of the two curtsied, " and Thelma." The younger curtsied and blushed. "Ruth is to marry De Canne next month."
"Congratulations, Miss Rushfield. De Canne is an excellent chap. I am sure you will be very happy."
"Thank you, Mr. Whittier. Are you attending the Assembly tomorrow?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," said Paul. He noticed Dorothy was smiling at him significantly and jerking her head slightly towards her younger sister. The younger Miss Rushfield apparently had at least one very indulgent older sister. He hadn't planned on dancing, but if it put him in a better position with Rushfield, he thought he could manage.
"If I am not being too forward, Miss Thelma, may I solicit your hand for a dance?" Thelma blushed an even deeper shade of red but nodded an acceptance.
"And you, too, Miss Dorothy?"
"You are very kind to ask, sir, but I do not ..." she was cut off in mid-refusal by the elder Miss Rushfield giving her a less than discreet nudge. He also noticed Sir Howard fling a reprimanding look her way. Sibling coercion seemed to be rampant in this family. "Yes, thank you, Mr. Whittier," Dorothy said with a guilty smile, "I would love to."
That settled, the elder Miss Rushfield rallied her sisters to order. "Come girls, let us get settled in our rooms." As her sisters walked off, Dorothy looked back at Paul.
"Thank you again, Mr. Whittier. Good afternoon." With a parting curtsy she hurried after her sisters. Paul continued watching her until she disappeared inside the inn. Paul realized with a start that he had been rubbing his arm.
"It was kind of you to engage my sisters, Whittier," said Sir Howard. "But take care with Dorothy," he warned, "She has had some ... disappointments ... of late."
"Yes. If it were not for Thelma's coming-out I doubt she would have joined us this season - she swore off most gatherings last year. She is on the verge of being in company again, please tread lightly."
Paul bowed his head, "I shall keep that in mind." After a moment of reflection he added, "By the by, Rushfield, how is that stallion you won off me recently? I'd love a chance to win the beast back. Are you game?"
"I'm always game, Whittier. Unfortunately I am no longer the owner of that animal."
"You've sold him already? To whom? I'd fancy a chance to get him back, if you could just make me an introduction..."
"I didn't say that I'd sold him,"
Great, thought Paul, Now he's gambled Ares away. What have I started? Have I cursed the poor horse?
"However," Rushfield continued, "I shall pass your desires on to the new owner."
Rushfield tipped his head, "Till later, Whittier."
With so much on his mind - upcoming dances with various Miss Rushfields, Ares and Sir Howard's non-ownership, and especially his arm's new found talent of tingling to advantage - Paul did not find sleep until late in the night. Simmons, acting on orders from the elder Mr. Whittier, allowed the younger to sleep until he awoke late in the morning. Paul's hope of cornering Rushfield at breakfast to learn the whereabouts of Ares was dashed; he was told the Rushfield family had accompanied Mr. De Canne to the races some time ago.
Hurrying to the site of the meet, Paul looked about for the Rushfield party, finding instead Highcastle and Barton. They exchanged greetings, Paul then inquired if either had seen Rushfield. Barton acknowledged that he had.
"De Canne was showing the ladies his beasties. They are nothing to my beauties, wait 'till you see them run..."
"We saw a few yesterday," commented Highcastle. "I believe your best placed third."
"They were just warming up. Mark my words, they will turn a few heads today," Barton assured them.
Highcastle shrugged, apparently not in agreement, then caught sight of something beyond Barton. "I say, Paul, isn't that Rushfield over there?" He pointed across the yard to Sir Howard and another man escorting three ladies across the lawn.
"Did he bring all his sisters?" Barton asked.
"All but eldest, she is married to Lord Alistair Glendale," remarked Highcastle
"Have you met them?" asked Barton
"No, just Lady Therese at Glendale's last fall, but I'd fancy an introduction to the one with the darker hair. Pretty little thing, looks a tad lost, though."
"That is Miss Thelma. It is her first season, she's just come out," Paul commented. "I met her and her sisters Miss Rushfield and Miss Dorothy yesterday. I understand De Canne is to marry Miss Rushfield."
"That would make sense. I heard the next sister down is the one to stay away from," commented Barton knowingly. "De Canne is too bright a man to get involved with her."
"Miss Dorothy? Why do you say that? She's a pleasant young lady."
"Pleasant she may be, but if there is any truth to the rumors going about, I would not be taking a fancy to her -- or if you do, don't be making too many plans for the future," Barton laughed snidely, entirely too pleased with his own private joke.
"Meaning?" asked Highcastle.
"She's bad news -- three or four dead, another one narrowly escaped."
"What are you implying? That she kills people?"
"Not people, just suitors."
"And we are supposed to believe that someone as young as Miss Dorothy has not only had five suitors," Paul asked, angry at the man's gall to insult a lady, "But has also been responsible for their deaths?"
"Not all, I said one got away," replied Barton, becoming offended in turn. "Don't believe me; ask anyone who was in Town a few seasons ago; they will tell you the same. If I were you, Whittier, I'd be careful around her. That lucky streak you had yesterday won't last forever." He stalked off toward the stables.
"I haven't heard anything of it, Paul," said Highcastle after Barton was out of sight, "Not that I'm in Town much during the season; I generally avoid it like the plague. Mother is a bit too keen to have me there, if you know what I mean."
Paul looked across the lawn at the Rushfields. Dorothy caught his eye, smiled and waved a greeting.
Barton is a fool, thought Paul. Anyone who could think that such an innocent girl would be the cause of so many deaths belongs in Bedlam.
He returned her wave. On joining the party, the ladies curtsied, the gentleman nodded, Miss Thelma blushed and said not a word while Paul exchanged pleasantries with Miss Dorothy. De Canne continued his discussion with Rushfield.
"Sir Howard, before I commit to the purchase, I would love to get your opinion - and Ruthie's too," De Canne bowed his head to his future wife, "on Irish Rogue."
"Of course, De Canne. No, Thelma, you stay with Dorothy," Rushfield added when his youngest sister made to accompany them.
"But I want to see the horses that are for sale," she begged, apparently forgetting her shyness; it was the first time Paul had heard her speak. "If Dorothy can have one for her birthday, why can't I? You know I love horses ever so much more than she. And my birthday is only two weeks away!"
"Dorothy is nearly four years older than you, my dear, and has some grasp of the responsibility entailed with the gift. I won't hear another word about it. The next race is about to begin and I know you don't want to miss that." Rushfield turned to Paul. "Whittier, would you mind staying with my sisters until we return?"
"It would be my pleasure, Sir Howard. And perhaps later I could have a word with you on a matter of business?" asked Paul. Rushfield nodded his assent. Happy that his questions would soon be answered, Paul held out his arms to both young women. "Ladies, perhaps you'd like a better view..."
He escorted the two Miss Rushfields, one of which was slightly miffed, to a bench with an optimal view of the end of the course. They were barely seated when Adam Miller approached.
"Whittier, good to see you again. Ladies," he bowed. Paul made the introductions.
"Think your luck will hold today, Whit? You did quite well yesterday. Fancy a wager on the next race?"
Paul did not have a chance to answer, Miss Thelma spoke first.
"May I, Dorothy? Howard said we might. We don't have to wait for him to return, do we?"
"No, Thelma, you may make some wagers," Dorothy replied indulgently, "But try not to lose all you've brought at once." Aside to Paul she said, "It is the first time our brother has let her accompany us to a meet."
"Is it? I don't recall seeing you at previous meets with Sir Howard."
"I'm afraid the last one I attended was nearly three years ago, but I used to go quite often with he and my cousin; mostly to those near our home in Lincoln."
Miller was listing the horses for the next race for Thelma.
"I can't decide between Swaggler and Heath Rose. What do you think, Mr. Whittier?" the girl asked.
"Personally, I would go with Swaggler, but that is just my opinion."
"Well, it's as good a reason as any; I choose him."
"And you, Miss Dorothy, Whit?"
"Not this race, thank you," responded the lady. Paul also declined, although he already knew what the outcome would be.
As he expected, Swaggler won. The next two races passed the same, with Thelma taking advice from Paul, who only placed a bet for one. When Dorothy gave him an odd look after the third race, Paul thought it best to decline to comment on the next entries. She herself bet on one of De Canne's horses, Maximus, who came in second to Thelma's own choice, a horse called Yorkshire Dancer, a horse owned by Barton.
"Well done, Miss Thelma, well done," praised Miller, just as Rushfield returned.
"Oh Howard, we have had such a good time. I won every race!" exclaimed Thelma.
"With a little help," put in Dorothy.
"Yes, but I picked the last winner all by myself. I can't wait to tell Ruth! Where is she?"
"She and De Canne were returning to the inn after that last race to prepare for tonight's ball. As should we."
Before they departed, Miller engaged Miss Thelma for a dance at the ball. Paul accompanied the Rushfields back to the inn.
"I expect your sister will have a full dance card once Miller tells about the afternoon she's had," he confided to Dorothy.
"Thanks to you, Mr. Whittier, for all your excellent advice. I wonder that you didn't wager more yourself."
"I believe I bet as frequently as you, Miss Dorothy. We both had some success."
"A rare occasion for me, I assure you."
Paul thought he detected a note of sadness in her voice. Hoping to cheer her he said, "I am sure you and your sister will have even greater success at the ball. I look forward to our dance."
"Thank you, as do I." By this time they had entered the inn. Dorothy curtsied her farewell and followed her sisters up the stair. It wasn't until they were out of sight that Paul realized he had forgotten to inquire after Ares' new owner. No matter, he thought, he would be seeing the Rushfields at the Assembly; there would be plenty of time to talk.
"So gentlemen, who do you wager will take Ascot by storm this year?" asked Barton. "What lady will steal the most hearts?"
"I should think it is not something a gentleman would wager on," remarked Highcastle. Paul silently agreed.
"I thought we gentlemen wagered on everything," replied Miller with a laugh.
Some of the men began discussing among themselves a number of the debutantes they had met at the meet and their odds of being one above the rest. Paul was not attending the conversation; he had just seen the Rushfields enter the hall. All three sisters looked well, but Dorothy was stunning! He was so taken with her that he barely noticed the tingle in his arm, though he rubbed it absently.
"So Whittier, can I put you down in favor of young Miss Rushfield?" asked Barton. "You haven't taken your eyes from them since they've come in."
"What? Yes?" asked Paul, not hearing the question.
"Excellent. Whittier's for Miss Thelma Rushfield. I'll put you down for our standard amount. Pleasure doing business with you, gentlemen."
"What was that all about?" asked Paul as Barton moved off.
"You just bet Rushfield's sister will be this year's Belle of Ascot," replied Highcastle, "Weren't you paying attention?"
"Oh, no! Barton is such a fool that I don't listen to half of what he says. I did not mean to bet; perhaps I should catch him..." Paul did not think Rushfield would look kindly on him making bets on his sisters, and he still needed information from the man.
"Why? What harm can it do?" Miller asked, "I think it is a complement to bet on a woman's success. Besides, who's to know?"
Who indeed, thought Paul, if his luck held.
What had begun as a slight tingle in his right arm had built to a nearly painful throb by the time Paul lined up in the dance across from Miss Dorothy. He did his best to hide his discomfort, for in truth he had been looking forward to this dance all evening.
As their hands touched for the first turn, the pain ceased and was replaced by a warmth Paul had never known before; it seemed to touch his very soul. He looked up in amazement, wondering if the lady had felt something, too. His eyes met the most artless and beautiful smile he had every beheld. What, if anything, Dorothy felt, he could not tell, but she seemed content to be with him in the dance, and for now that was enough for him. He met her eye again and realized he had not spoken a word to her since the dance began. That would not do.
"Are you enjoying your time at Ascot, Miss Dorothy?"
"Yes, I believe I am."
"You sound surprised."
"I am actually. I normally avoid gatherings as large as this, but I wanted to see Thelma successfully launched, which thanks to you and your friends, she is. You were right about your friend Mr. Miller -- her dance card is quite full."
"I hope yours is not. If you are available and willing I should like another dance with you."
"I am sure I can find an open slot for you, Mr. Whittier. Later in the evening, perhaps?" Paul readily agreed.
He danced the next with Miss Thelma, after which he spent some time off his feet, knowing Simmons would detect even the slightest limp should he overdo. As he made conversation with the Rushfields, he watched in amusement as a number of his racing acquaintances came over to collect Miss Thelma for their dance; Miller had definitely spread the word. Paul did note that besides himself, Miss Dorothy had only danced with her brother and De Canne, and that she seemed content to keep it that way.
Throughout the evening that warm comfortable feeling in Paul rekindled every time he looked at Dorothy. All thoughts of Ares faded as Paul began to yearn for something more valuable coming his way through the Rushfields, something he had never given much thought to before. The idea of settling down in one place had never held much appeal for him. Staying anywhere for more than a few weeks, even home, grew stale and stifling; he had always felt the need to move. Tonight, the more he spoke with Dorothy, the more thoughts of home and hearth crept into his head. Barton had been right about the girl being dangerous, but only to his wanderlust, and that was something Paul had already determined to do away with himself.
The time for their second dance finally arrived, Paul took her arm and led Dorothy to the dance floor. Oddly, he noticed a number of heads turning their way, followed by whispers. He even caught his name mentioned once or twice, mixed with snippets of "...got another one I see..." or "...wonder how long he'll last..." Dorothy apparently had noticed it, too, for she stiffened considerably as the dance progressed and a mask of indifference replaced the smile she had begun with. Paul could almost feel her mood darken.
"Are you unwell, Miss Rushfield?" he asked.
"No sir, I am not. Would you mind returning me to my family?"
"Certainly." Paul escorted her back to her sister Ruth, who was sitting with De Canne and Sir Howard; Thelma was still dancing.
"Dorothy, what's wrong?" asked Rushfield, full of concern.
"It's started again. Howard, can you take me back to the inn, please."
"Of course, we'll just collect Thelma..."
"Oh please, don't ruin her first ball. Can't she stay?" Dorothy implored.
"Howard, why don't you and I take Dorothy back," suggested Ruth. "Thelma will be fine with Trevor until you return. You will only be gone a short while."
Rushfield agreed. Fighting back tears, Dorothy nodded a quick thank you to Paul for the dance, then hurried out with her brother, leaving Paul anxious and bewildered.
Ruth quickly whispered something to her fiancé, then turned to Paul and said, "You have been so kind, Mr. Whittier, you deserve an explanation. I'm sorry to end the evening this way. Trevor will tell you everything."
Most of the night had been like a dream to Paul; now for some reason unbeknownst to him, the object of that dream was in distress. Paul turned to the man he'd been told would give him some answers, a man who did not appear to be at all comfortable with that task.
"De Canne, what's the story on Miss Dorothy? Rushfield warned me to watch my step with her, said she had had disappointments. What has upset her? Tell me, I need to know."
Being evasive, De Canne replied, "All you need to know is that Dorothy is a remarkable, caring young woman, very attentive to those she loves, and not one to be toyed with - considering that besides Rushfield, she is soon to have me as an extremely protective and, might I add, good looking brother, who will be looking after her best interests."
"De Canne..." Paul urged impatiently.
"If you must know, she has been crossed in love a few times. Dorothy was engaged to a favorite cousin as soon as she was old enough to be out, a midshipman in the Navy. Unfortunately he was killed in a skirmish off Portugal a few months later. The poor girl was completely devastated, mourned for nearly a year. Her oldest sister, Lady Therese, was afraid she would lose too many ... opportunities ... if she waited any longer, so she had her in Town for the next season."
"Rather pushy of her."
"Dorothy bore it well, considering. A number of what her sisters call eligibles attempted some flirtations with her, nothing too serious. Then Foxworth took a fancy to her, he nearly swept her off her feet.
"Foxworth? There was a Lawrence Foxworth three years ahead of me at University. I heard he died some time ago?"
"Two years last January. He had informed Rushfield that he intended on making Dorothy an offer after the New Year. He took ill at the end of December and was dead within a fortnight. Pneumonia."
De Canne shrugged, "I never cared for the man myself, but poor Dorothy ... The rumors that she was bad luck started after that. As she hadn't officially been engaged, Therese and - I am sorry to say - my Ruth dragged her back to Town for the last part of that season, too soon in my opinion. Despite her being out of spirits, a young man by the name of Greenly took an active interest in the girl."
"Did he end up dead, too?"
"No, but his mother worried he would if his attentions toward Dorothy continued, so she dragged the pup off by the lead-strings to the family's country estate. Before she left she let it be known among her friends that her son would not be repeating his addresses."
"I'm sure Miss Dorothy was better off for it. But what tragedy -- and none of it her fault!"
"Granted, but once the tongues start wagging, they seldom stop. Besides all she'd gone through, Dorothy was upset by the gossip; she decided she could do with out fine society, claiming to be content to stay home and keep house for her brother until he should marry. She refused to go to Town or even local assemblies last year. This year Thelma begged her to come with her for moral support; that is the only reason she is here."
"I don't blame her. No wonder she left so distraught! Thank you, De Canne, I appreciate your candor."
"I haven't scared you off, have I?"
"No, I'm not worried. I've nothing to fear from Miss Dorothy; I've had more than my share of good fortunate lately, there is more than enough for two."
Paul spent the next morning in front of the inn waiting for the Rushfields to appear; they finally did, shortly before noon. He wasted no time inviting Miss Dorothy to walk. Dorothy was quiet and appeared guarded, but she accepted under the chaperonage of her elder sister, who followed at a discreet distance.
They walked in silence for some time before Paul opened with: "I wanted to be sure you were all right today, after what happened last night."
"I am fine, sir, accept for feeling a bit foolish. I should have known there would be talk if I was seen favoring any gentleman. I am sorry, Mr. Whittier, that you were involved."
"I am not."
She turned and looked at him skeptically.
"I am flattered to have my name connected with yours, Miss Dorothy," he said sincerely. "Especially as your suitor, for that is what I desire to be, with your permission."
"Even after the talk last night?"
"Some of it is true, you know. I did love someone ... once. And he is dead."
"And there was another who I cared for..."
"And do you care for me?"
Dorothy turned to face him. "I like you a great deal, Mr. Whittier. I cannot deny that I feel something for you; our first dance last night was ... almost magical. I have never felt so, so..."
"Alive? Happy? Perfectly placed?" asked Paul, taking her hands in his. "For that is how I felt, how I feel."
"As do I, but I can not call it love - not yet. That is not how it was for me before."
"I do not expect you to feel for me, or even love me, the same way you have another. Love between two people is as different as the people themselves. But I know what I feel for you. All I ask of you is to give me -- give us -- a chance."
"You have no doubt heard that with me your safety can not be assured."
"As intimidating as you are, Miss Rushfield," he said so seriously as to be comical, "I am willing to take that risk. Are you?"
She looked at her hands, then into his eyes; she smiled and nodded. That warm feeling of the previous night hit Paul full force. At that moment he was sure a blizzard could engulf them and he would not even feel a chill.
By the time they arrived back at the inn, Rushfield had gone ahead of them to the meet, leaving De Canne to escort the sisters to the races, and to give Paul leave to join them.
As they neared the gate, a rider on a lively black mare sauntered up beside them.
"Ho there, Paul!"
"Mark! What the devil! I didn't expect you for some days yet. Splendid mount. I don't recognize her. Is she one of ours?"
"She is now, arrived the day you left," he managed to say while trying to keep the fidgety horse beneath him still. He dismounted and more easily led the animal to his brother. "May I present Aphrodite, the latest addition to Whittier Stables, where her half-sisters Thracia, and Cyrene now reside."
"Aphrodite? Thracia? Oh, Mark, you don't mean you bought them for..."
"No matter," Mark cut him short, "I've no regrets; they are an excellent investment in their own right."
"She's magnificent." Mark turned at the sound of the female voice. A girl with hair as dark as Aphrodite's was standing slightly behind Paul, staring admirably at the mare. As she approached the horse to backed away.
"Careful, Miss. She's still a bit skittish in crowds," warned Mark. Noting two more women and a man nearby, he cast his brother an inquiring look.
"Where are my manners? Excuse me, ladies," Paul apologized. "Miss Ruth, Dorothy, and Thelma Rushfield, I am honored to introduce to you my brother, Mr. Mark Whittier. Mark, I believe you know Mr. De Canne. He and Miss Rushfield are to be married soon."
"It is my pleasure, ladies," Mark bowed, then nodded to the gentleman. "De Canne, congratulations."
"Thank you, Whittier. And Miss Thelma is correct; this horse is magnificent. Is she racing today?"
"No. As I said, we have only just acquired her and have not had time to work with her yet. In a few months perhaps."
"Whittier!" shouted Sir Howard angrily. The man was approaching them quickly from the direction of the stables. "Ah, both Whittiers, I see. Have you come to make bets on my sisters as your brother has?" he asked Mark. The ladies gasped while Paul blushed.
"Rushfield," replied Mark calmly, "I have no idea what you are talking about."
"I suspected the cad might be hanging about my family with a mind on getting that horse back, but I never thought he would sink so low as to bandy about a woman's good name and reputation."
"Sir Howard, if you would let me explain," began Paul.
"There is nothing to explain, I have Barton's word, and he's keeping the book on this little wager. I tolerated your presence, despite your annoying questions about a horse I no longer own, because my sisters have enjoyed your company. But I draw the line at toying with their names and affections."
Realization crept into Dorothy's face. "What horse?" she asked suspiciously.
"The bet was a misunderstanding on Barton's part," Paul tried to explain. "Ask Hightower, he was there."
"You would do anything to get that horse back, even pay court my sister."
"I assure you, my intentions toward Miss Dorothy are honorable."
"Tell me you didn't know she owns Ares?"
"She what?" It was Paul's turn to be dumbfounded. He turned to Dorothy, "You have Ares?"
She looked between him and her brother, not sure who to believe. Ruth moved closer and wrapped an arm around her protectively.
"You've been playing her up sweet just to win the upper hand on a piece of horseflesh," continued Rushfield, "And I was too dense to see it -- until Barton was good enough to show me your true colors!"
"Paul would never stoop to such tactics," Mark said with certainty. "It is obvious he had no idea your sister owned the horse,"
"Dorothy, truly, I didn't."
"Don't listen to him, Dorothy. He's worse than Greenly."
"So far all I have heard my brother guilty of is paying court to a pretty girl," Dorothy blushed at the remark, but kept her head down, "and not being able to get you to agree to a rematch."
"Nor will he. I won that horse fairly when my Marauder bested him; that's the end of it. Move on and leave my family alone.
"Rushfield, you know as well as I there was interference in that race," Mark accused. "If it had been run on a private course, Marauder would have no chance against Ares." It was then that Mark noticed his brother rubbing his arm.
"Marauder against Ares," he whispered.
"Is something wrong, Paul?" Mark asked with some concern.
After a pause, the younger man shook his head and said, "Nothing." However the statement was not in response to his brother, but a reference to the lack of feedback from his arm; contenders for a race had been named, with no indication of a winner. Paul reflected how quickly he had grown accustom to the telltale feeling in his arm, so much so that he noted its absence -- ironically, at a critical time.
"You have to admit, there is no merit for me in a rematch," said Rushfield. "Both Ares and Marauder reside in my stable; I've nothing to gain by it."
"Aphrodite," said Thelma eagerly, her eyes were still on the horse Mark held. Paul's left hand gripped tighter as a tingle verging on pain shot through his right arm.
"Done," replied Mark and Rushfield simultaneously.
"No!" shouted Paul. Something was wrong, terribly wrong, but he didn't know what. All eyes turned to him, expecting an explanation for his outburst. "You can't do this, Mark. You said yourself she was an asset in her own right. You can not risk Aphrodite on a ... a ... whim!"
"There is no risk, Paul. Ares is unbeatable. It was a fluke that he lost before."
"Ares is not ours, nor Sir Howard's, to wager with," he said stubbornly. Paul looked at Dorothy, still held by her elder sister; she appeared so vulnerable. "The decision belongs to Miss Dorothy. And it is she who has nothing to gain by the race."
"Thank you, Mr. Whittier, for remembering that. The horse was given to me as a token of my brother's regard, but I need no token to assure me of his love." As their eyes met, they conveyed another meaning to Paul, one which said she did need assurance of love - but not from Sir Howard. "If it could right a wrong done to you and your brother, Ares will race."
Paul's arm went cold. He knew he had more to lose from this race than the mare; and regardless of the winner, he dreaded the outcome.
©2005 Copyright held by the author.