Daring in a blue dress, p.4
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       Daring In a Blue Dress, p.4

           Katie MacAlister

  “It’s not decayed,” he said, bristling, leaving me to momentarily mull over what I’d said to offend him now. “It just needs some work. And I’m not afraid of getting my hands dirty.”

  What a very odd man he was. “OK,” I said slowly, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Why hadn’t I checked up on this Hard Day’s Knights organization before I offered myself for the job? “I see your point, but I guess I just don’t understand why you are so interested in working here. Is it some arrangement you made with the owner so you could hold your medieval fair here?”

  “Medieval fair?” He turned to face me, his expression showing his confusion. “What are you talking about?”

  “The medieval fair,” I said slowly, beginning to have serious doubts about this job. “You know, the one you hired me for.”

  He blinked a couple of times, then ran a hand through his curly brown hair. “I didn’t hire anyone, and I don’t have a fair, medieval or otherwise.”

  “You’re not Vandal?” I asked, taking a firm grip on my purse, prepared to snatch the container of pepper spray should the man go completely bonkers.

  “No. I’m Alden Ainslie. I own this place.” He frowned. “I take it that you were not sent here to be . . . er . . . be my . . .”

  To my surprise, a faint dusky pink darkened his cheeks when his words frittered away to nothing. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a man blush. I was amused by that, but my mind was focused on more important facts.

  So this was Alden Ainslie, the owner of Bestwood Hall. How very interesting. “I don’t know what you think I was sent here to do, Alden Ainslie, but I can assure you that I do not have any immoral or illegal intentions.”

  His cheeks darkened as he stammered, “No, I . . . that’s not what I . . . I wouldn’t presume . . .”

  “It’s OK,” I interrupted, feeling a man who could blush like that was not someone who was trying to pass off innuendos as commonplace conversation. “Forget it. What I’d like to know is where Vandal is.”

  “Who is Vandal?”

  “The guy running the medieval fair that’s taking place here.”

  “What?” His embarrassment clearly faded, because he added in a testy tone, “There is a medieval fair being operated on the grounds of Bestwood?”

  “It’s my first day, so I don’t know a lot about it, but Janna—she’s the woman I met on the train who told me about this job—she said that the fair had paid the owner money to let them use the garden area for their medieval camp. People come here to learn how to fight with swords, and basic archery, and other medieval-lite sort of stuff. I’m going to be the ticket taker, face painter, and general dogsbody.”

  “The owner rented out the grounds. . . .” He paused, his eyes suddenly opening wide as he spun on his heel. “She wouldn’t dare!”

  “Who wouldn’t—” My words were cut off when Alden took off without a backward glance, loping across the drive and around the part of the house that jutted out toward us. He disappeared around the back.

  I had a feeling the summer was going to be interesting. Especially if Alden was going to be around.

  “Mmrowr,” I said to myself, then smiled, hoisted my bag, and followed after him at a much more sober pace.

  Chapter 3

  The back of the house opened onto a vista that was almost as impressive as the front. I’d seen many formal gardens in my time in England, but the expanse of green that lay before me wasn’t anywhere near the word “formal.”

  “More like wild,” I said to myself as I dropped my bag at the steps leading up to a stone verandah, and stood considering the expanse of green, unevenly mowed lawn that stretched to the left to two small outbuildings, and what looked like a stable. To the right, the lawn led to a wall of dark green, probably a hedge marking a smaller garden, and a large red and white striped marquee tent. A small marquee sat in front, with a wooden sign reading REGISTRATION leaning haphazardly against a card table. Over the top of the hedge, I could see another marquee, this one yellow and white.

  The garden proper had no fountains, but did contain two flower beds that were messy with weeds, daisies, and several choked rosebushes. A stack of metal folding chairs lay next to them, along with several boxes, a couple of ice coolers, and a small round table at which sat a very old lady and a small woman with pink hair and her arm in a sling. Alden stood next to them.

  I approached, the weed-bedecked gravel crunching underfoot as I walked across a drive that curved around one side of the house, swooped across the back, then swung toward the largest of the outbuildings.

  “—have absolutely no right to do that, which I’m sure you know.” Alden’s voice was an amusing mix of sexy British-tinged bass, and irritation. “I’m sure my solicitor will agree.”

  “Young man,” the old lady said in a rich, plummy voice of the generation born between world wars. I swear she enunciated each letter with exacting precision, her voice reeking of privilege and blue blood. “I do not know who you are, but I must ask you to stop berating me. It is unseemly in a gentleman, and not something I will tolerate in my own garden.”

  “It’s not your garden any longer, Lady Sybilla,” Alden said firmly, although he did drop the volume of his voice. “I know your solicitor contacted you last week to tell you when I would be arriving.”

  “I have no knowledge of what you speak,” the old lady said, sniffing and looking away.

  Pink Hair patted the old woman’s arm while turning a frown on Alden. “That’s OK, Lady Syb. Don’t let him browbeat you.”

  “And just who are you?” Alden asked. I stopped beside him and offered a pleasant smile to everyone.

  “Fenice Carson, not that it’s any of your business,” Pink Hair snapped. “I don’t know who you are, but I don’t think it’s nice of you to accost Lady Sybilla like that.”

  “My name is Alden Ainslie, and I’m the owner of Bestwood Hall,” Alden said tersely.

  “Owner?” Fenice’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, owner?”

  “I mean that as of last week, I purchased Bestwood Hall from Lady Sybilla.” He gave the old woman a look that included a raised eyebrow. “The terms of the sale included the proviso that she move from the main house to the gatekeeper’s cottage, where I am obliged to provide housing for her until such time as she no longer needs it. She is not, however, still to be in residence in the house, nor is she supposed—without my express permission—to make legal arrangements with vendors who wish to use the house or grounds.”

  “You talk like a solicitor,” Fenice said in a voice that was fairly accusatory. “Are you one?”

  “No, although I did two years of law. I decided it wasn’t for me,” Alden said, then turned to me. “What was the name of the man who you said hired you? Renegade? Rogue?”

  “Vandal,” I said.

  “That’s the fellow. Do you have his number? I’d like to tell him that any agreement he made with Lady Sybilla has been made null and void by the sale of the property to me, and that he needs to clear out his equipment immediately.”

  Fenice pursed her lips, then cleared her throat and forced a smile. “We’ve had an awkward introduction, haven’t we? Shall we begin again? I’m Fenice Carson, co-owner and archery instructor for Hard Day’s Knights, a medieval full-contact combat unit that my brother, Patrick, and I started a year ago. Would you like some tea?” She held up the teapot that sat before her and the elderly Lady Sybilla. “I don’t believe I’ve met your friend?”

  “Who? Oh.” Alden looked oddly embarrassed when Fenice nodded toward me. I didn’t know whether I should be amused or offended by such a reaction, and was just mulling that over when Fenice handed both Alden and me cups of tea. “This is . . .” He coughed, gestured toward me, and started again. “Her name is Mercy Starling. She said she works for the man named Scoundrel.”

  “Vandal,” I corrected, and gave b
oth ladies another smile.

  “Really?” Fenice examined me with obvious doubt. “He didn’t tell me about this. Patrick is Vandal, by the way. He has some silly notion that the nickname makes him irresistible to women, so don’t feel like you have to use it. Mercy, you say?”

  “Janna was supposed to have the job, but she went away to Ibiza, and my own summer job fell through with a seriously depressing crash, so I approached Vandal, and he said I could have the job.”

  “I see. That explains it, then, doesn’t it?” She passed a plate of cookies to me.

  “It explains nothing,” Alden said, spurning the offer of cookies, and setting down his cup with enough firmness that it splashed tea onto the saucer. “It doesn’t explain why I arrived to take ownership of my house—a house that is supposed to be depleted of humans—and instead I find not only Lady Sybilla clearly still in residence, but my back garden infested with medieval reenactors.”

  “We’re not reenactors,” Fenice said quickly. “Not in the sense you mean. We are a combat troupe. We put on shows sometimes, yes, but we also compete in a sport that is very real.” She nodded toward her sling with her free hand. “And can be quite dangerous. I broke my collarbone two days ago at a training session with another group we help out from time to time. They had a bunch of stockbrokers from London learning how to use swords, and one of them didn’t listen to the instructions, and I ended up with a cracked bone. I haven’t told Patrick yet—he’ll have a fit when he finds out, since it will leave us without an archery instructor—but I assure you that we are not simply a group who dresses up and pretends we live in the past. As for us packing up the equipment, I think you misunderstand the situation. We paid to be here, and I don’t see that the sale of the house itself has anything to do with that agreement. Patrick has a contract with Lady Sybilla.”

  “Ouch,” I said sympathetically. “You’re an archer? At one point in time, I thought about getting a degree in physical education—”

  “I’m sorry,” Alden interrupted, putting a hand on my arm. “My apologies for cutting you off, Mercy, but am I to understand that you are refusing to take your things and leave?” The last was directed at Fenice.

  “That’s right.” Fenice tipped her chin up. “We have an agreement, signed by the owner of Bestwood, that says we have rented this area for three weeks to use for our combat training school.”

  “I am the owner of Bestwood,” Alden repeated, looking frustrated. His hair, full of dark chocolate brown curls that were shot through with dark honey strands, looked like it was standing on end.

  “Now you are, but you weren’t when we made the agreement.”

  Alden took a deep breath, and turned to Lady Sybilla. “Do you have anything to say about the situation?”

  The old lady looked him over like he was a bit of undercooked dinner being offered for her inspection. She gave the impression that she was using one of those quizzing glasses the Regency folk loved so much. “I remember you. You’re the lad who wants me to leave my family home.”

  “It was your husband’s family home, not yours,” Alden pointed out. “And I—”

  “You want me to leave my adopted family home.” Lady Sybilla gave another sniff. “You wish to throw me out onto the road where any vagabond could abuse me with his ruffian ways.”

  “Wow,” I said, looking at Alden. “That’s harsh, dude.”

  “Oh, for the love of . . . I don’t want to toss her out into the road!” Alden gestured past what I assumed was the old stable block. “She has a home! A very nice home. I should know, because I had to pay for the house to be updated with fresh paint, and a herd of cleaning ladies that were in there for three days straight, and, of course, furniture moving, not to mention having the roof repaired.”

  “Oh.” I looked at the elderly woman. “That seems pretty nice of Alden. Hi, I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I’m Mercy.”

  “Lady Sybilla Baskerville, youngest daughter of the Earl of Glamgoran, and relic of the late Sir James Baskerville of Bestwood Hall,” she replied in her stiff, very upper-crust voice. She offered me her fingers for a brief ladylike shake. “You have an air about you similar to that of my late sister Pamela.”

  “I do? Uh . . .”

  “I always found Pamela very comforting. You will tell your young man that I do not wish to leave the home that has been mine since I was a young gel of twenty.”

  “Oh, he’s not mine. I just found him on the drive,” I said, correcting her.

  “Lady Sybilla,” Alden said, spreading his hands in an attempt to reason with her. “You act like I’m a villain who wants to wash his hands of you, when the truth is far from that. You, yourself, set the terms of the sale. As it is, I am providing you with a home rent free for the rest of your life. All I ask is that you honor those terms, and move to the gatekeeper’s house so that I can renovate the empty house.”

  “But it’s not empty,” Fenice said, leaning back in the chair and smiling at us.

  It didn’t reach her eyes. I thought that was somehow significant.

  Alden shot her an annoyed glance. “I know it’s not empty now, but once Lady Sybilla moves to the gatehouse—”

  “No, that’s not what I meant.” Fenice’s smile became distinctly more cat-who-ate-the-cream. “Lady Sybilla told us that Patrick and I could stay in the house. And now that Mercy is here, she’ll need a place to stay as well, so that makes three of us, although Patrick said something about dossing down in the barn to guard the equipment. Even so, that’s three of us, not counting Adams.”

  “Who is Adams?” Alden asked, somewhat wildly, I thought. I eyed him, wondering if I should pat him soothingly on the arm. He certainly did not seem to be taking well the news about Lady Sybilla’s refusal to vacate her old home.

  “Adams is with me,” Lady Sybilla said in her rich voice. “She used to work for Lord Baskerville in an agricultural advisory position, but after his passing some twenty-two years ago, she has become my companion and maidservant. I do not intend to have her sent away from me, if that is what you plan to do, you beastly man.”

  “I am not beastly,” Alden said, his voice rife with frustration. “I don’t wish to send anyone away—I simply want you to move into the gatekeeper’s lodge as you agreed to do. You can take your maid with you. Hell, for that matter, you can take everyone with you,” he said, jerking his head toward me. “The more the merrier and all that. But no one—I repeat, no one—is going to be staying in the house but me. I have a lot of renovation plans, and none of them can be achieved if people are getting underfoot.”

  I had to admit, I had been in the process of feeling sympathy toward him. He seemed nice enough, having agreed to give the old lady a home when he probably could have insisted she clear out for good, and he even went to what had to be a substantial expense making sure her new digs were comfortable. But then he went and ruined that impression by more or less dumping me with the others into the lodge with poor Lady Sybilla.

  I turned and squinted at the house. It didn’t look in its prime, but it also didn’t look like it was about to fall down about our ears. “You know,” I said amiably, “I bet Fenice and I could find two bedrooms in a house that size where we wouldn’t be underfoot. I mean, you can’t renovate the entire house at once, can you?”

  “That’s not the point,” Alden said, running a hand through his hair. He looked at the end of his tether. “The house is supposed to be empty, and now I find that not only has Lady Sybilla let out the grounds without my permission, but now others have joined her in the house. My house. The one I’ve sunk every last pound into.”

  “We aren’t any trouble,” Fenice said quickly. “Patrick and I spend most of our time out here getting the equipment ready, and of course, once the classes begin tomorrow, we’ll be outside for the entire day.”

  “See? No one will get in your way. I’m bound to be with Vandal and Fe
nice all day, too,” I said, giving him a little nudge with my elbow. I was momentarily startled at my familiarity, but after a moment in which I was braced for a negative reaction from him in response, I relaxed. He didn’t seem to notice the nudge.

  “That’s not the point,” Alden repeated stubbornly.

  I smiled to myself, feeling an odd sort of irritated kinship with the man. I knew all about stubbornly clinging to one’s beliefs despite an easier path. “I know, but look at it this way—Lady Sybilla has to know oodles about the house, so she can help you.”

  “I will not help anyone who wishes to turn me out from my rightful place,” Lady Sybilla said with utmost dignity.

  “You want to restore it to its original state, right?” I asked quickly, just as Alden was about to answer Lady Sybilla’s latest shot. “Well, here’s someone who knew what the house looked like some sixty years ago. You can pick her brain for what the house was like then.”

  “That’s hardly restoring it to its original state,” Alden said, his gaze suddenly on me.

  He had lovely eyes. They were a pale blue with a thick black ring around the outer edge of the iris, surrounded by eyelashes that on a woman I would have sworn were fake. “No,” I said, telling myself to stop being so shallow as to be swayed by a pair of pretty eyes. “But it’s better than nothing. She might know how it used to look. You won’t know until you ask her, and just think of the time you’ll save if she’s right on hand, rather than you having constantly to run to the gatekeeper’s lodge.”

  He was silent for a moment, his eyes not leaving my face. “Why, if you do not mind me inquiring, have you taken it upon yourself to become a part of this situation?”

  “That was quite rude, you know. I thought you Brits were supposed to have impeccable manners.” I straightened my shoulders, about to tell him it was none of his business what I did or said, but my inner self admitted that he had a point—I was butting in. Instead, I gave him a half-apologetic, half-wry smile. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. It’s because I’m a middle child.”

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