Ok, so I’m not being very patient. I can’t wait to share these with you. So, I’ll be posting a new chapter every two weeks on Saturday until the book is published. (Don’t forget, comments really do inspire me to write faster…just saying…)
Find previous chapters HERE
Just after dawn, a sharp rap at her door dragged Elizabeth away from a lovely ball where Collins was delightfully absent and there were plenty of excellent, handsome partners for all the young ladies who wanted to dance.
She groaned and pulled her pillow over her head. Pray not now. Just a little more sleep. April had suffered nightmares, flapping and crying out the whole night. Only when Elizabeth finally tucked April into bed with her did either of them sleep.
The door swung open.
“You are up. Good. Get dressed and come to my study, I would see you immediately.” Papa shut the door firmly.
Lovely, such a mood he was in. Had he been listening at the door?
Elizabeth shrugged her dress over her shoulders and cautioned April to stay where she was. This interview had all the hallmarks of a difficult one, no sense making it more so.
She counted the stairs as she went, making sure their number had not changed since the last time she had traversed them. Given how arsey-varsey everything else had become, it seemed reasonable to check.
The study door stood open. How odd, that used to leave her feeling warm and welcome, not with a knot in her stomach like now. Papa waved her in.
“Shut the door behind you.” He stood in front of the fireplace, hands clasped behind his back.
His shoulders were hunched and his posture uneven. The cold must have settled into his joints. His hips probably hurt, his hands and feet too, given the two nearly empty cups of willow bark tea on the small table near his chair. Would that they might soothe his temper, too.
She minced inside and stood beside his favorite chair. “Yes, Papa?”
He huffed, still staring at the fire. “It has been a most interesting evening. I have not yet been to bed.”
She gulped. “Shall I call the apothecary for you?”
“Perhaps later today that might be in order, but that is not the reason for my sleeplessness. I had a visitor last night.”
Heavens no! She covered her mouth with her hands. Her knees melted. Somehow she made it into the chair next to his. “Longbourn?
“He demanded an audience with me in the cellar late last night. It was most fortuitous that Hill was kept occupied by her injured Friend.”
Something about the way he said the word … “You do not believe Rumblkins was genuinely hurt? I saw the bruises myself—”
“Tatzelwurms are not known for being entirely reliable. Or even slightly so. That he was bruised, I am sure. That it was as serious as he suggests, I highly doubt.”
She clenched her jaws. It would not do to argue with him right now.
“The tale Rumblkins told made quite an impression upon Longbourn, though. Quite an impression.” He turned and glared at her, eyes so much like Longbourn’s she flinched back.
Had the wyvern taught him to breathe poison as well? Given his expression, she just might find out.
“I know not what he told you. But you must understand, I did not take Rumblkins or any of the others to see Longbourn. He came upon us in the woods whilst I was telling all of them to allow me to handle matters with Longbourn.” She clutched fistfuls of her skirt so tightly it might tear.
“So that is what you were telling them.”
What had Longbourn told him?
“Are you accusing me of lying to you?”
He lifted a hand for silence and slowly paced. “I have no desire to discuss that matter with you. It does not at all influence the outcome of the encounter. You do realize what you orchestrated amounted to a Keep Conclave, without the senior Keeper, do you not?”
“I orchestrated nothing! It was a chance meeting in the woods, not a Conclave of any flavor. I would never participate in such a meeting without you. Do you not know me better than that?” She rose, gripping the back of the chair for support.
“That was hardly Longbourn’s opinion. Ironically, he rather approved of it all, considering he saw it as a move into your role as Keeper and Mistress of the estate.” He snorted and rolled his eyes.
“You know he is telling you that to incite a reaction from you.”
“It is not your place to question his motives.”
“You think you know his motives? Forgive me, sir, but you do not. He is selfish, manipulative, and controlling, entirely insensitive to the feelings and rights of others. ”
He stomped and grimaced, reaching for his knee. “That is quite enough from you! Whatever you call that little gathering, you have managed to provoke quite a reaction from Longbourn.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose and exhaled a slow measured breath. “I spoke with him at length and was certain I had calmed him down.”
“Hardly. He paced the cellar half the night, demanding that I bring Collins down to meet him immediately.”
She screwed her eyes shut.
Shuffling footfalls. Harsh, raspy breaths. His presence loomed near. “You did not demand it of him? That was his claim, you know. Longbourn said you were inconsolable at Collins’ attitudes toward dragons, that you would not have him whilst he remained unaware of them.”
She dragged her hand down her face. “You are aware, I hope, that Mr. Collins approached me quite directly yesterday to forbid my talk of dragons and to insist that April and Rumblkins be banished from the house. And yet, at no time did I say nor did I imply Mr. Collins should be forcibly initiated. In fact, I stated the very opposite. I begged the little ones not to bother Longbourn with their most understandable dread of Mr. Collins—which is a matter that we yet must discuss. I told them I would manage it. But they chose to take their grievance to the Laird of their Keep, as is their right according to the Accords. And, I might add, it is Longbourn’s responsibility to hear them out and act accordingly. Unfortunately his choice of appropriate action was entirely inappropriate and quite possibly disastrous!”
“Do you have any idea what would happen if dragons were revealed to Collins in a single moment?”
“Yes, Papa, I do. Is that not just what I said?” Was he even listening to her? “I insisted to Longbourn that it not be done. If the shock did not kill the man, then there is every reason to expect he would go far and wide with his discovery—which would be far worse than him simply dropping over dead of apoplexy. If he is to inherit Longbourn estate, there is no alternative; he must be initiated, but slowly and with great care.”
“Longbourn conveyed a very different conversation between you two.”
“You believe I am lying?”
“Do you accuse him of lying to me?”
She spun on her heel and stormed toward the windows. “Yes, sir, I do. He is far too accustomed to getting his own way and is willing to do whatever is necessary to make it happen. But I am sure you do not believe me. You have not seen that side of him until now because he has always got his way just by asking for it.”
“It is his right as territorial dragon.”
She raised her foot to stomp—no that would not help matters—and set it down gently. “No, it is not. We are not slaves to them because of their strength any more than our Dragon Friends are slaves to us.”
“A Keeper’s task is to serve a dragon’s needs.”
“His needs, not his wants and whims. They are not the same thing.” She leaned against the window frame and pressed her forehead to the glass. “Do you know what Mr. Collins said to me today?”
“It does not matter.”
“Yes, it matters very much, to all the Keep. He told me April belongs locked in her cage, like an animal in a circus. He wants to see her banished from company and denied her freedom. She is terrified of what he might try to do to her, and honestly I do not blame her. Then he all but forbade me from telling stories to the Gardiner children. He accused me of polluting their young minds with nonsense!”
Silence. Could it be—he was actually—
“Perhaps he has a point on both counts.”
She stiffened, blood draining from her face. “You must be joking!”
“April does have far too much freedom, more than any other fairy dragon I have seen. It would be far safer for her to stay out of sight.”
How satisfying it would be to turn a draconic glare on him. But it would probably work against her. Best just stare out the window. “She will not tolerate such terms.”
“Then she is free to make other choices.”
“You would turn her out?”
“I never said such a thing, only that she would be safer out of sight of those who do not understand.”
“And what of Mr. Collins’ attack on Rumblkins?”
“That was an unfortunate accident.”
“That is not what I was told.” She turned, slowly, deliberately, fists clenched. “Collins intentionally—”
“You provoked Collins to anger. He was merely taking it out on what he considered a dumb animal.” He shrugged, his expression so mild it had to be an affectation.
“You excuse that kind of behavior? What other kind of stupid creature do you think he will take his anger out on next? Perhaps the children—he considers them stupid, I am sure—what might he do if he finds them playing at dragons again?”
“You have filled their heads with too many stories. Perhaps it is time to temper them.”
“Those stories are the best way to teach them of the legacy they have inherited. It is how you taught me after all.”
He rubbed his palms together before his chest. “All in good time. You cannot teach them everything at once. In any case, their parents should take over the task. It is time for them to return home, to London. I shall make mention of that immediately.”
“You are sending them away? You cannot be serious.” She staggered back against the window frame.
He would put out his own family over this matter? Heavens above, he would not hesitate in making any of the minor dragons homeless as well. What kind of man had he become?
“I cannot say their influence has wrought any good on this visit, not at all.”
“You cannot do this! Uncle Gardiner is one of your closest friends in the Order.”
“I have more significant concerns right now. He needs to manage his family, and I need to manage mine.”
“You mean you need to manage me.”
He raked his hair. “We cannot have Longbourn becoming so agitated. It is dangerous to everyone. Who knows what kind of rash behavior he might commit? I calmed him down and assured him that Collins would be dealt with, but I cannot be certain the next time will be so easy. It is your responsibility to keep both of them, Collins and Longbourn, content and away from one another until such time as we can devise a gentle means of introduction.”
One. Two. Three. She gritted her teeth and walked toward a chair. Four. Five. Six. Seven. One hand on the arm of the wingback, she sat down with all the grace and elegance Mama had taught her. Eight. Nine. Ten. Much better. “I have given that some thought. If the Order could assist us in finding a willing parrot-like cockatrix—”
“That will not work. Another dragon is only going to complicate things and further agitate Longbourn. You know he barely tolerates Rustle and Walker. Pemberley almost drove him to distraction.”
Pemberley. Her eyes burned and she blinked furiously. Her dear, sweet baby. Of course such a creature would have driven Longbourn mad. And according to Papa, it was entirely Pemberley’s fault.
“You are up to the task. I know you are. Yes, it is unpleasant, but that is the nature of life. And we will find a way to make it tolerable for you. I promise you that.” He patted her shoulder.
“And have you given any thought as to how that may be accomplished?”
“I will find a way, Lizzy. Trust me. Go now and have some breakfast. I am sure the Gardiners will be in need of your help with packing.”
She curtsied and ran from the room. If he thought his promises were meaningful, he was sorely mistaken.
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