An Awkward Encounter


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Here’s a bit from The Upright Son in which the heroine encounters her new neighbor, the very proper Earl of Clarion, in his woods.

***

She had given in to her children and joined the hunt for frogspawn after Alfred, her eldest, announced he wished to set up a water barrel in the kitchen yard so he might watch them hatch. Reading about a subject never satisfied that boy. He needed to get his hands around a whatever it was. Last month it had been pullies and levers.

Now Alf stood knee deep among the weeds where the stream pooled to one side while Penny—at eight two years younger than her brother—held her skirts and walked along the bank studying the water for signs of amphibian reproductive matter. She’d only slipped in twice and then only to her ankles.

Percival, the active four-year-old, presented the biggest challenge. He slipped on the rocks trying to mimic his older brother—whom he adored—soaked his mother’s gown when she hugged him close while chastising him, and then promptly wiggled down to do it again, much to Alf’s disgust.

“Stop it, Percy! You’re roiling up the water and chasing away the frogs,” Alf said.

Delia reached for Percy. She managed to grab one arm when Penny piped up. “There’s riders coming, Mama.”

Delia glanced back over her shoulder to see a man and a boy approach. She and the children rented the Clarion dower house. In the four months since they took up residence, she had never seen the earl, having been told he preferred London, particularly when Parliament was in session. The rider’s haughty expression and distinguished bearing left her little doubt that she saw him now.

Caught at her least dignified, embarrassment distracted her. She wasn’t prepared when Percival yanked on her arm and overturned her balance. Flail her arms though she did, she could do nothing to prevent her tumble into the water.

“Hogswallop!” she grumbled and immediately prayed the earl didn’t hear her. She rose striving for as much grace as she could muster with weeds clinging to her sodden gown and a squirming toddler pulling on her arm.

Man and boy pulled to a stop. “Good afternoon,” she chirped before they could speak.

Clarion—for it must be he—blinked. The boy looked up at his father as if to ask how to behave.

“I don’t believe I know you,” the earl said, staring at her muddy hems.

“Do you know everyone?” she asked intrigued. She stepped up onto the bank and pulled Percy with her.

“Everyone who would freely—” he waved a hand erratically at the scene, “Do whatever it is you’re doing on the Clarion estate. May I ask your identity and your purpose here?”

“Of course. We haven’t been properly introduced. I am Lady Delia Fitzwallace. We have the privilege of renting the Clarion dower house. We have a five-year lease.” She wasn’t sure why she added that last, except perhaps a fear this stern man might turn them out.

He appeared startled by her title, and Delia suspected he may have taken her for a tavern trollop of some sort, though the children might have given him a clue if he cared to consider it. As it was, she had failed to use her proper form of address as Lady Alfred Fitzwallace, stubbornly refusing to go by her late husband’s name.

He didn’t dismount. “I am Clarion,” he pronounced with a slight inclination of his head. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”

He didn’t look pleased. Delia gave a proper curtsy, somewhat hindered by the state of her gown.

Does one introduce children by name to an earl? She couldn’t remember and rather thought not. “Children, make your obeisance to the earl, if you please.” They did. Alf and Penny had fine manners under normal circumstances. They managed. Even Percy produced a damp and rather dramatic bow. He returned to staring gape mouthed at the horses.

Clarion cleared his throat. “This is my son, Viscount Ashmead.”

The unsmiling boy, his expression uncannily like his father’s inclined his head with all the hauteur of a prince of the realm. He looked to be Alfred’s age, and yet he had the mien of an old man.

The silence stretched until Delia broke it. “As to what we are about, we are hunting frogs’ eggs. We thought to observe the transition from egg to tadpole to frog.”

“It is a scientific endeavor,” Alf added.

That broke through the little Viscount’s stern expression. He gazed at Alf with interest.

The earl’s silence unleashed an imp in Delia. She made her eyes wide with faux innocence. “Oh dear. I hope the harvesting of frogs’ eggs isn’t some sort of poaching. I would hate to run afoul of the law so soon in our tenancy.”

“Of course, it isn’t!” the earl snapped. “The Clarion estate can spare a few frogs. I— I’ll leave you to it.” He moved his reins as if to turn, but thought better of it and looked back at her. “Do you generally allow your children to run free across the estate?” he asked. “Do they appear to be unsupervised?” she retorted.

Note: excerpts from works in progress may have not yet been edited, will likely undergo change, and may not even make it into the final work!

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