From Ruin to Riches(10)

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 * * *

 Do things look better in the morning light? Julia sat up in the big bed, curled her arms around her raised knees and watched the sunlight on the tree tops through the bay window that dominated the bedchamber.

 Perhaps she should count her blessings. One: I am warm, dry and comfortable in a safe place and not waking up in another disreputable inn or under a hedge. Two: I am not in a prison cell awaiting my trial for murdering a man. Because Jonathan was dead, he had to be. There was so much blood. So much... And when people had come, pouring into the room as her screams had faded into sobs, that was what they were all shouting. Murder!

 And now she was a fugitive, her guilt surely confirmed by her flight. Julia scrubbed her hands over her face as if that would rub out the memories Be positive. If you give up, you are lost... Was there anything else to be thankful for?

 Try as she might, there were no other blessings she could come up with. It was dangerous to try to think more than a few days into the future because that was when the panic started again. She had spent an entire morning huddled in a barn because the fear had been so strong that she could not think.

 One step at a time. She must leave here, so that was the next thing to deal with. Perhaps Lord Dereham’s housekeeper could recommend a nearby house where she might seek work. She could sew and clean, manage a stillroom and a dairy—perhaps things were not so very bad after all, if she could find respectable employment and hide in plain sight. No one noticed servants.

 * * *

 The baron came into the breakfast room as she was addressing a plate laden with fragrant bacon and the freshest of eggs. Her appetite had not suffered, another blessing perhaps, for she would need strength of body as well as of mind. A mercy that I possess both.

 ‘My lord, good morning.’ Lord Dereham looked thin and pale in the bright daylight and yet there was something different from last night. The frustration in the shadowed amber eyes was gone, replaced with something very like excitement. Now she could imagine him as he had been, a ruthless physical force to be reckoned with. A man and not an invalid.

 ‘Miss Prior.’ He sat and the footman placed a plate in front of him and poured coffee. ‘Did you sleep well?’

 ‘Very well, thank you, my lord.’ Julia buttered her toast and watched him from under her lashes. He was actually eating some of the scrambled eggs set before him, although with the air of a man forced to swallow unpleasant medicine for his own good.

 ‘Excellent. I will be driving around the estate this morning. You would care to accompany me, I believe.’

 It sounded remarkably like a very polite order. He was, in a quiet way, an extremely forceful man. Julia decided she was in no position to take exception to that, not when she needed his help, but she could not spare the time for a tour. ‘Thank you, I am sure that would be most interesting, but I cannot presume further on your hospitality. I was wondering if your housekeeper could suggest any household or inn where I might find employment.’

 ‘I am certain we can find you eligible employment, Miss Prior. We will discuss it when we get back.’

 ‘I am most grateful, of course, my lord, but—’

 ‘Is your Home Farm largely arable?’ he asked as if she had not spoken. ‘Or do you keep livestock?’

 What? But years of training in polite conversation made her answer. ‘Both, although cattle were a particular interest of my father. We have a good longhorn herd, but when he died we had just bought a shorthorn bull from the Comet line, which cost us dear. He has been worth it, or, at least he would be if my cousin only chose the best lines to breed to him.’ Why on earth did Lord Dereham want to discuss animal husbandry over the coffee pots? ‘May I pass you the toast?’

 ‘Thank you, no. I am thinking of planting elms on my field boundaries. Do you have a view on that, Miss Prior?’

 Miss Prior certainly had a view on the subject and had left a promising nursery of elm saplings behind her, but she was beginning to wonder if the absence of a Lady Dereham was due to his lordship’s obsession with agriculture and an inability to converse on any other topic. ‘I believe them to be very suitable for that purpose. Marmalade and a scone, my lord?’

 He shook his head as he tossed his napkin on to the table and gestured to the footman to pull back his chair. ‘If you have finished your breakfast we can begin.’

 Can we indeed! Was the man unhinged in some way? Had his illness produced an agricultural mania? And yet he had shown no sign of it last night. As she emerged into the hall she saw the maid who had helped her dress that morning was at the foot of the stairs, holding her cloak, and a phaeton waited at the front steps with a pair of matched bays in the shafts. Her consent had been taken for granted, it seemed.

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