Miss Vivian Burke lived in such a remote corner of England when someone passed by on the road, one stopped and took notice.
It wasn’t that Kenswick Abbey was terribly far from anything, merely a long day’s drive to Bath. Wales was literally a stone’s throw away.
Their little hamlet was often forgotten by just about everyone. The Abbey sat perfectly between two smaller-sized villages, and both towns’ folk were too polite to claim the Abbey as their own nor did they want the responsibility. The main road was set so far from the main house that there was hardly any horse traffic or noisy carriages. You could hear clearly if someone approached, and when such a thing occurred, the person was usually lost. No one came to Kenswick Abbey on purpose, at least, not in a very long time.
The thumping of hoofs alerted them to a visitor, and Vivian paused in planting the vegetable seedling she held in her hand. She sat back on her heels and watched as the rider appeared in view across the meadow.
“Rider,” her mother called, pausing in her planting to watch. She wiped the perspiration from her brow, a streak of dirt left in the wake of her dirty glove.
Vivian glanced at her mother and grinned at the sight. Margaret Burke, Baroness Kenswick, was Vivian’s favorite person in the world.
The two watched as the rider rode at breakneck speed from one end of the valley to the other before he disappeared behind a crop of trees.
“He’s likely gone to the Abbey.”
Vivian nodded, brushing the dirt from her hands. No one took that road if they were familiar with the area, which also meant—
There was a yelp from beyond the trees; the disturbance sent a flock of blackbirds sweeping up into the bright blue sky.
Her mother nodded towards the tree line. “Best go and see to him.”
Vivian blanched. “What if the rider is injured. What use would I be?”
“He is likely fine,” her mother replied, looking back to her work in the soil. “It’s not enough mud to kill someone.”
“And yet just enough to inconvenience me,” Vivian grumbled, but she was already trying to brush more dirt from her hands and skirts, an attempt to be presentable. “And what am I to do with him?”
Her mother gave a wave of her hand in the direction of the drive that lead down the hill. “Go and sort him out. Unless it’s the earl, they’ve really no business here.”
Vivian’s brow furrowed at the trees and displeasure settled over her. “I highly doubt that today, of all days, the earl would decide to grace us with his presence.”
Any mention of that earl bothered her, for reasons Vivian didn’t understand. Their new landlord, the Earl of Kenswick, had been expected for months now. He apparently had no interest in visiting their hamlet in the country, not that they had much to offer. He was someone else who’d forgotten them; pretended they did not exist.
“You never know.” Mother shrugged, not looking up from where her hands were buried in the soil.
Vivian’s brows pinched together in a deep frown. “The Season is starting soon. He’ll likely need to be in London for ton events. He has no time to worry over us.”
As much as Vivian tried to hide it, her mother heard the worry in her statement, and they shared a heavy glance. They hoped the earl had no reason to come and evict them out of their home. Best they remain forgotten for a little longer.
But how much longer? How much longer could they survive on their own?
“Go and deal with the rider,” Mother said to her again, looking back at the dirt she had dug her fingers into. With any luck, come summer their efforts would yield them results in the means of food. Vegetables meant something in which they could trade. Trade meant they could survive a bit longer.
Tears pricked at the corners of Vivian’s eyes, watching the person who meant the world to her. Her sweet and elegant mother, the lady of the manor, resolved to plant her own vegetables lest they starve. She’d once hosted grand balls, attended the royal court and seen the best life had to offer. Her lovely face was now marred with the scars of what began their downfall. Now, their last few vestiges of civility were frayed, their meals scarce and their hearths cold. Even their home was a pile of ashes. Her father would have been disappointed in how Vivian had managed without him.
Vivian couldn’t even properly care for her mother, who did everything selflessly for others. All Vivian had to do was marry better than their circumstances, which could have been anyone at this point, but she couldn’t even accomplish that. She’d had a disastrous Season in London which ended in a failed attempt to find a husband and better their circumstances. It seemed no one was interested in the impoverished daughter of a dead baron, with nothing to offer a husband except her pedigree.
And now, because of Vivian’s failures, their life was in ruins- their livelihood at the mercy of an absentee landlord, his title practically stolen from her own father.
Vivian straightened her spine. That was a problem for tomorrow.
It was an unseasonably bright spring day, over a week into April. The weather wasn’t terribly warm just yet, but the bite of sunlight against her skin held the promise of a warm and fruitful summer. A glimmer of hope.
It took her all of ten minutes to reach the bottom of the drive, where the juncture of the two roads met in an unfortunately large pitted part of the road. Some years earlier a torrential downpour had washed part of the hillside down to obscure part of the road and created an unfortunate gap in the road that had turned into somewhat of a large, muddy bog.
The scene at the intersection wasn’t surprising, but that didn’t make it any less amusing. The rider had misjudged the breadth of the pond and the horse had corrected, leaving the beige bay picking at the grass along the edge of the lane, and the rider bum-deep in thick, muddy muck.
By the look and sound of it, the rider was not pleased with his current predicament and was making a good show at cursing many different people to illustrate his displeasure.
Vivian watched him for a long moment as he attempted to clear himself from the mud, but he was simply making it worse for himself. His clothing, though caked with mud, was a far higher quality than anyone in the nearest town would wear, though even the local gentry wouldn’t have ventured out to the Abbey. His dark hair had a lovely curl, and parts of it had clumps of muck soaked through. There was mud on his face, his arms, his legs— really the only part of him remotely free from black sticky mire was his chest swathed in a bright green velvety jacket.
He managed to stand, though not steadily, and shook the mud from his hands. He was taller than Vivian had expected, and younger. His frame was long and lanky, but beneath the muck, there wasn’t much else she could tell about him.
“I say, are you a fairy?”
Vivian jumped, too engrossed in her perusal of his form to have noticed he was peering at her peculiarly. She hadn’t seen him notice her arrival.
“I’ve just had the most interesting fall, and I can’t be certain I can trust my senses just yet,” he continued, rambling in his deep tenor, laced with humor. He had the type of voice that sounded as if he laughed a lot, and often. He swiped his muddied hand through his dark hair, adding more sludge to his curled locks. With a glance at his hand, and then to his hair, his brow furrowed, as if surprised he had done something so foolish.
His eyes snapped to her again and his brows rose. “So, you are a fairy?”
“That’s a strange question. Did you injure your head in your fall?”
“I don’t think so. I’m in no more pain than simple embarrassment.”
“Then why would you think I was a fairy?”
He glanced about. “This is Wales. They’ve fairies in Wales, you know.”
Vivian wondered if this man’s brain was addled. “That’s ridiculous. And this isn’t Wales. You are still in England.”
“Are you certain? When I looked at the map, it looked awfully close to Wales.”
“I am certain what country I reside in.”
“Fairies can travel. They’ve wings, you know. Have you wings, fairy girl?”
Vivian wasn’t sure how this ridiculous conversation had even begun. “I am no more a fairy than you are, sir.”
“You can’t know that,” he said, and tried shifting his weight.
“Don’t!” Vivian warned him, but he began to sink further into the mud. “You mustn’t shift the weight, or you’ll displace the mud.”
“Then how am I to get out of this madness?” he asked, wiggling about further as he sank deeper.
“You must keep calm. Move one leg—slowly! — until it’s completely free, then do the other.”
The rider, nearly sunk down to his hips, shook his head. “I don’t believe I can pull it free.” He glanced up at her, and a flicker of panic danced across his face.
“Then lie back,” she advised. “Like you’re swimming across the top of the lake. Make yourself float on top of the mud.”
He looked pained for a moment before muttering another curse. With a mouth like that, Vivian doubted he was any sort of gentlemen.
“The lot of it is ruined I suppose,” he said to himself and did as she suggested, leaning back into the mud.
“There you go. Push with your feet if you can, and walk yourself back to where the mud meets the dry dirt. Once you are there, roll onto your stomach and pull yourself out.”
“This is highly unpleasant.”
Vivian watched, barely containing her laughter, as he slogged his way through the muddy bog on his back until he reached the bank where his horse had stopped to have a snack. He rolled onto the grass, covered in thick mud.
“I thank you for not laughing,” he said as he rose, looking from his legs to his hands.
“That would be rude of me to laugh when you are clearly indisposed.”
“Is it as bad as it feels?”
“It’s likely worse,” Vivian admitted, fighting the smile that threatened to tear across her face.
His lips quirked into an easy smile. “I suppose I am quite a sight. I thank you for your rescue, fairy-girl.”
“I am Miss Vivian Burke. And I didn’t rescue you.”
“You gave me the secret to leaving the bog,” he replied and swiped at the mud from his legs. Vivian took a few steps back from him as he came to stand beside her. It wasn’t the mud she was wary of, as she was covered in dirt from working in the garden. It was his height, and just his… presence. Even covered in mud, she was wary of him.
“You would have figured it out on your own. I merely came to point you in the right direction.”
His brows quirked above his peculiarly blue eyes. Upon closer inspection, they were such a bright shade of grey-blue they were almost lavender.
“How would you know which direction I need?”
“You are likely in search of Kenswick, or Kenswick Abbey. Both, I am sad to say, are gone.”
He glanced around. “And the Abbey would be?”
Vivian nodded in the direction opposite from which she’d come. “But no one lives there.”
“Is it empty then?”
“It’s inhabitable. Is that why you’ve come then? To assess the Abbey?”
“Ah, yes, though technically—”
“Come along then.” She turned towards the path she’d come down. With his mud-soaked threads and the fever he was bound to catch if he wasn’t dry soon, she’d best get him cleaned up before bringing him to the Abbey.
“You can wash the mud from your person and your clothing at the caretaker’s house. Then I will show you the Abbey, and you can see for yourself it is nothing but a relic.”
He gathered the reins of his horse before he fell into step beside her. “Are you familiar with Kenswick Abbey?”
“I was born there. My father was Kenswick before he passed, some years ago.”
“My condolences,” he muttered, but didn’t glance towards her.
“My father was but a baron, but there is an Earl of Kenswick now. He hasn’t been here since he stole the title.”
“He stole the title?” His brows quirked again, his tone scandalized. “How does one do such a thing?”
“They say the Prince Regent gave it to him for gallantry, though that seems unlikely,” Vivian replied, her frustrations bobbing up. She’d never met the man, but she was certain she would not like the absentee earl who’d been given her father’s title. How could she when he’d ignored them for almost a year?
He seemed surprised. “You think him unlikely of gallantry?”
Vivian shrugged. “It pays to have friends in the right places, pays being the operative word.”
“You think he bought himself an earldom?”
“I’ve yet to gather any other reason someone could acquire such a lofty title nearly out of the blue.”
“Maybe it truly was a reward?”
Vivian laughed. “The only action that would warrant such a reward would be thwarting espionage, or treason, or uncovering some deadly plot against the king. Something like that would have been in the papers.”
“Oh yes, even here in Herefordshire we still receive the London papers.”
“Glad to know the stories from London-town can still have an impact this far from their reach.” His tone was almost sardonic.
“You’re from London, aren’t you?” she asked, eyeing him.
He shook his head. “I’m from Kent. I grew up in an apple orchard. But I’ve spent some time in London, among other places.”
“And now you assess properties?”
“If the earl means to sell the Abbey, he won’t get much for it,” Vivian stated, hoping to sway his impending assessment. If she could convince him the Abbey wasn’t worth anything, perhaps the earl would have no reason to sell it. “As I said, it’s in ruins.”
He glanced at her quickly. “What would you suggest be done with it?”
“Leave it alone.” Leave us alone.
“And if that is not an option?”
Emotion the weight of a rock slammed into her stomach. The Abbey was as much a part of her as it had been her father, her brothers. Her family. Her people. The Abbey was who she was. If the earl ripped that way from her…
“If the repairs are done, then it could be let out. Or used as a summer home. We have lovely warm summers here in our corner of the country. And a lovely valley that blankets with flowers in the late spring.”
They’d reached the top of the hill, and the caretaker’s cottage came into view. Her mother rose from working in the ground as they approached.
“This is my mother, Margaret Burke, Baroness Kenswick,” Vivian said to the gentleman, realizing she hadn’t asked his name. “And I apologize, but I never inquired your name?”
“It is a pleasure to meet you both. I am Luke Macalister.”
Vivian’s brows pinched together as the surname resonated with her. “I’ve met a Lady Norah Macalester in London.” She had a fleeting memory of meeting Norah during her one disastrous Season in London. A black hole in her memory she did not want to think about.
“Ah, you’ve met my sister then,” he said with a bright smile. “Challenging sprite that one.”
Lady Norah Macalister was the sister of the Duke of Bradstone and would have Lord Luke Macalister as a brother.
“So, you are Lord Luke then,” Vivian corrected.
“Vivian!” her mother scolded, but Vivian ignored her.
“Ah, actually, no,” he replied.
“I apologize for her impertinence, my lord,” Mother said, dipping into a curtsy. “And for our state. We’d not expected you today.”
“Yes, sorry it’s taken me so long,” Luke said.
Vivian’s brow furrowed. “I don’t understand.”
“I was, in fact, Lord Luke Macalister,” he said. “And now I am the new Earl of Kenswick.”