Saturday, April 13, 2013

Saturday's Chapter - A Rogue in Sheep's Clothing by Elf Ahearn

Chapter One

With a bang, Ellie Albright burst into the hall and slammed shut the oak door to the

study. The windowpanes of the massive Tudor mansion rattled from the blow. Her three

sisters poked their noses around the parlor entrance, then, at the sight of her, quickly

retreated. Even the dogs scattered in alarm. Ellie turned to the empty hallway and

shouted, “He simply won’t listen to reason!”

Her mother, Lady Albright, hastened down the corridor, shutting doors as she

approached. “Hush, the servants will hear.”

“He could sell anything, anything but my horse, but that fool Lank told him to do it,

so he won’t listen to me.” Ellie seethed at the thought of the estate steward filling her

father’s gullible mind with false information. “Why does Papa believe that scoundrel?”

Her mother patted her arm as if stroking a pinecone. “Oh dear, we mustn’t upset

Papa. He’s a brilliant man who’s trying to do his best.”

“Do his best!” Ellie jammed her fist against her mouth until the stricken look in her

mother’s eyes registered. It was too unbearable to witness; the girl turned away and

fought to douse the fire of emotion burning through her self-control. But her frustration

could not be tamed. “Rahhhh,” she growled, hands shaking at her sides. “Rahhhh.” Her

mother reached to touch her again, but Ellie bolted out of the house and into a pelting


The black bellies of clouds sagged against the treetops on a distant hill, splitting the

sun into anemic rays. Taking great gulps of raw air into her lungs, Ellie slapped away a

trickle of water that dared blur her vision. She’d hoped the cold would numb her mind,

but over and over again she saw her father’s index finger pointing at the numbers on a

ledger sheet. “Mr. Lank,” her father said, giving the estate manager’s name the same

reverence due a scholar, “Mr. Lank says selling Manifesto is the only way to pay our


Ellie ran further into the rain. The wind tore spring leaves off the trees. It freed her

soaking hair from the last of its pins and whipped tendrils across her eyes. The

downpour coursed over her cheeks cooling her tears before she felt their heat, and

because her body was no match for nature, she lost herself in its fury. Then her mother’s

voice pierced the storm’s comforting blanket. “Come back in, Ellie!”

But Ellie couldn’t. Instead, she ran against the gale, out toward the moors where the

storm promised solace.


It seemed hours later, though Ellie had no idea how much time had passed, she

drifted back toward home. The rain had ceased and the clouds had gone white. Her sister

Claire met her as she stumbled through a water-soaked field of barley.

“Poor thing,” Claire said, wrapping a cloak around Ellie’s shoulders. “You’re wet as

a fish. I’ll be dosing you with Sydney peppermint and mustard plasters if we don’t get

you warmed soon.”

“I won’t get sick,” said Ellie, not bothering to hold her skirts above the wet grass.

“I’d welcome a fever to let me forget.”

Claire patted her shoulder. “Poor Papa. He’d do anything to be left alone with his

copy of the Rosetta Stone, a Greek dictionary, and a set of hieroglyphs. Perhaps if you

speak to him tomorrow…”

From the set of her father’s jaw, Ellie doubted it. He was a kind, absent-minded man,

a man who usually gave in to the entreaties of his wife and daughters, but this time…

This time something was different.

She and Claire entered the house and Ellie plodded up the stairs toward her bedroom.

Her mother watched as she went by, but said nothing, eyes deep with sorrow. Sisters

Snap and Peggity stood at a respectful distance and were quiet as well.

In Ellie’s room, Claire silently stripped her sister of her drenched clothing.

“Manifesto is the greatest horse bred by centuries of Albrights,” Ellie said, her voice

hollow. “What financial difficulty could be so bad we’d sell our most valuable asset?”

Though she’d thought she’d shed the last of them, tears pricked her lids. “I was there the

day Manifesto was born. I’ve raised him, trained him, cared for him. He trusts only me.”

Suddenly furious, she brushed the tears from her cheeks. “This is Lank’s decision. He’s

reduced the mares to bone and hair. He’s stealing the money for grain…”

Taking the hem of Ellie’s wet chemise, Claire pulled the soaked garment over her

sister’s head. “But can you prove it?”

Ellie shook her head. “No. No, I can’t.”

“Mrs. Lank isn’t buying goods from Finchy’s anymore,” Snap, Ellie’s six-year-old

sister, announced, racing into the room and hurling herself on the bed, the pack of

hounds trailing. “Mr. Finchy’s boy told me no one likes her because she’s wearing air.”

“You mean she’s putting on airs,” Peggity, the eldest of the four Albright sisters,

corrected, coming in behind Snap. She joined her little sister on the bed and watched

Claire towel Ellie dry. “If only Papa would let you run the estate,” Peggity said,

plumping a pillow behind her. “You’re so wonderful with horses.”

Ellie took the towel and scrubbed her wet hair. “I’ll tell you the first thing I’d do—I’d

fire that Lank and kick his fat wife back into Finchy’s.”

Claire winced. “A civil tongue…”

Lady Albright swept into the room, a hot water bottle tucked under her arm. “Oh

dear, dear me, come sweet darling.” She pushed the bottle under the bed linens and

wrapped a blanket around Ellie’s shivering shoulders, then tucked her under the covers.

“I wish your father told you the truth up front. It does no good to leave loved ones in the

dark.” She sighed, lifted Snap off the bed, then put the child on her lap. “This is very

serious, my darlings. We have true cause for alarm. Your papa says Uncle Sebastian,

God rest his soul, gambled with Baron Wadsworth and left a debt of three thousand

pounds. The baron…” Lady Albright’s voice went faint with emotion and she bit her lip,

“He’s a very dangerous man. Your Papa said the baron slashed a young woman’s face

on High Street in the middle of Exeter. Cut her with his sword, and not a man went to

her assistance. Everyone was too afraid. The baron said he’d do the same to Papa and

then to us if the money wasn’t delivered.”

Never in her life had Ellie seen a tear leak from her mother’s eye. The sight

frightened her more than Baron Wadsworth’s threat. She and her sisters went still, the

dogs stopped fidgeting, and a pall weighed the air.

Pressing a corner of Snap’s pinafore to her eyes, Lady Albright continued, “I would

rather sell the Fitzcarry pearls than tear your heart this way, my darling Ellie, but your

papa absolutely forbids it.”

Ellie swallowed hard, a lump growing in her chest. “I don’t mean to be selfish,

Mama, but without Manifesto we will go bankrupt. That horse is our future.”

Her mother plunked Snap back on the bed and took Ellie’s hands in her trembling

fingers. “Oh sweeting, I wish you could understand. It’s terrible news, we’ll all miss

Manifesto, but he isn’t your future.” She turned to address all of her daughters. “My

darlings, you’re no longer the offspring of a respected scientist—you’re the daughters of

an earl. The best way to avoid bankruptcy is to marry well, and that means pretty dresses

and Almack’s in London.”

“What!” Ellie exploded, pulling away from her mother. “The Albrights can’t give up

breeding horses!”

Lady Albright’s hand caught Ellie’s arm and gripped it tight. “Nineteen-year-old

daughters of earls do not gallop astride on stallions. That must end, Ellie, and perhaps

selling Manifesto is the best way to make that change. Your sisters wish to marry, and

for that to happen we must maintain our reputation.”

Ellie’s mouth dropped open. “But Mama!”

Her mother abruptly stood and interrupted before Ellie could say more. “Tonight let’s

forget our troubles and get ready for the Mortimers’ assembly. Wash your faces and put

cucumbers on your eyes. My girls must eat asparagus to eliminate puffiness, so the

bachelors find them attractive.”

Ellie jumped to her feet, but her mother held up a hand to hush her. “Snap, would you

ask Cook for cucumbers? And Claire, add some of your special herbs. Peggity, could

you help? I’d like a word with Ellie, alone.”

With her sisters gone, the room seemed dark and cold. Ellie climbed back into bed

and moved her toes under the hot water bottle, but felt no warmth from it. Lady Albright

smoothed her skirts, and took Ellie’s hand. Against her palm, she felt her mother

shaking. “I’m sorry you and your father fought today. You’re a passionate girl, my

darling, but when your father asks you to do something, you must obey.”

“I’ll apologize to Papa,” Ellie said, pressing her fingers to her brow, trying to tamp

down the pain in her heart.

“This has been such an awful day,” her mother continued. “Why don’t you wear the

Fitzcarry pearls tonight? You’ll look beautiful in them.”

Stunned, Ellie lowered her hands. No one but her mother ever wore the pearl

necklace. A series of white beads, each the size of a fingernail, the strand could wrap

three times about the throat. It fastened with a black pearl surrounded by diamonds. Her

mother’s great, great grandfather, Walter Fitzcarry, had bought, gambled, and killed for

each pearl during years of adventure in the Orient. Queen Elizabeth had so admired the

necklace, she’d offered thirty-five thousand acres of Scottish soil for them. Walter

Fitzcarry refused. Each bead, he’d said, represented his great love for his wife.

“I don’t much feel like going to the ball tonight,” Ellie choked. “Claire and Peggity

can find rich husbands. I don’t know how to give up horses, and no man would marry a

hoyden who rides astride.”

As if she weren’t listening, her mother pulled the covers over Ellie’s bare shoulder.

“All the same, wear the pearls tonight and help your family. It’s every young lady’s


Her mother was right, of course, and Ellie knew it. Brokenhearted or not, she must do

what she could for the sake of her sisters. And she had to admit, wearing the pearls

would be exciting. She threw her arms around her mother’s neck. “Thank you for giving

me something to look forward to, Mama. You’re the nicest person in the world.”

“Your Papa is pretty nice too, sweet darling. He would never sell Manifesto unless he

absolutely had to.”

“I understand … I just … don’t know who I am without my horse.”

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