Good Earl Hunting

By: Suzanne Enoch

Chapter One

“I DON’T SEE how shooting a poor animal that’s been snatched out of its den, chased down by hounds, and cornered by an overwhelming number of enemies with superior weaponry is in any way sporting.” Theodora Meacham sat in the morning room of Beldath Hall and refused to join the half dozen other young ladies by the window.

“Stop attempting to sound so superior, Theo,” her older sister commented from the cluster. “I only wish they would let us ride with them. I show quite well on horseback.”

That, Annabel Meacham did. She showed well in everything, actually, Theo reflected, but today, at least, she was glad not to be her sister. Not when--

“Oh, there he is!”

The tittering at the window grew louder; they sounded like nothing so much as a flock of geese, Theodora decided, bending her head and determined to finish reading the page she’d begun several minutes ago. Generally she enjoyed Sir Walter Scott and his thinly-veiled criticisms of Society, but today it felt almost too...obvious, she supposed.

Of course she knew who the he was – Geoffrey Kerick, the Earl of Vashton, had arrived last evening well after dinner. The rest of the females present had expressed worry that he hadn’t eaten and had decided that he must be doubly gallant to be willing to ride after foxes the very next morning after traveling most of the night. She was of the opinion that he’d arrived just when he did on purpose, so that he might make the most spectacular appearance, and that he’d likely stopped for dinner earlier at the Red Lion Inn just down the road and was nowhere near starvation.

She wasn’t impressed. After dancing with him a grand total of twice during the entire London Season, she knew precisely what he was looking for in a female companion or a bride or whatever the girls claimed he must be seeking. Or at the least, she knew what he wasn’t looking for. Her. For one thing, she didn’t like the idea of grown men and large horses and large dogs chasing one poor, frightened fox who had no idea what the devil was afoot. For another, she refused to simper or claim ignorance about subjects with which she was quite familiar just so some man could step into the conversation and feel superior. Oh, she was a very poor simperer indeed, especially compared to some of the other ladies in the morning room.

Annabel called her cynical, but she preferred to think of herself as a realist. How could the younger sister of the loveliest young lady in England be anything but practical about her own appearance, anyway? At the least she knew that Vashton hadn’t come to Beldath to look at her. No, her father had invited the earl to the festivities to meet a far better-suited female. Annabel Meacham. Her older sister.

“If you disapprove of the hunt so strongly, Theo, I imagine you’ll be foregoing the picnic by the lake afterward,” Mary Hallsley commented, a giggle in her voice. “There’s to be a special prize presented to the man who takes the tail, after all.”

Theodora sighed, closing her book and setting it aside. “As this is my father’s home, you know quite well that I can’t miss the picnic, Mary. But I certainly don’t have to sit here and listen to the lot of you planning your weddings, all with the same man. I’m going for a walk. Would anyone care to join me?”

“No, thank you. If you want to be hot and red-faced when they return from the hunt, your own concern. Some of us care to look our best.” Rachel Henry did laugh, the others joining in.

Halfway out the door, though, Annabel took her arm. “You don’t have to exile yourself, Theo,” she whispered, pulling her younger sister to a halt. “Simply because you and he didn’t deal well two months ago doesn’t mean you can’t be polite. He...he may very likely be a member of the family before long, after all.”

Shaking her head, Theodora gave her brunette-haired sister a smile. “The pretty one,” most of their acquaintances called Belle, as if it didn’t signify that the comments also meant there was a second, less-pretty one. Her. But that certainly wasn’t a revelation. “Everyone knows why he’s here, Belle. I have nothing against him other than his general arrogance and lack of manners, but if he has the intelligence to marry you, all will be forgiven. And I’m not exiling myself; yesterday I went for a morning walk, and tomorrow I’ll go for another. In fact, yesterday you and six of our friends went with me.”

“Ah, but we all need to change clothes before the hunt ends, my dear. No one wants to be seen wearing the same dress at noon that she wore to breakfast. Especially not today.” Annabel kissed her on the cheek. “Don’t be late for luncheon; the others will think you’re sulking.”

The idea that she would sulk over being ignored by Vashton was silly, but she certainly didn’t wish to give anyone that impression. “That’s because they think we’re all in competition for the earl. They don’t realize he’s here for you.” She squeezed her sister’s hand and then continued down the hallway to the front door.

This had been a very nice house party, with some of her and Annabel’s and her parents’s closest friends enjoying the crisp autumn weather together. Yes, the men had been doing some pheasant and grouse hunting, and yes, she knew that her annoyance today wasn’t about foxes. Her father, Viscount Beldath, had invited Vashton because Belle had decided that she would make the earl a good match. A hunt to disguise a hunt, when nobody was fooled by the ruse. Well, no one but her sister’s friends, but it was more likely that they knew and were only hoping to swoop in and steal the earl’s attention before any agreements could be made.

Trask pulled open the front door as she reached it. “I’ll be back before luncheon,” she told the butler, and tied on the pretty yellow bonnet that matched her yellow and green walking dress.

“Very good, Miss Theodora. Do you wish Sally to accompany you?”

So the butler knew that no one else cared to tear themselves away from a possible view of the fox hunt today, either. “Heavens, no,” she replied. “Sally has enough work to do with everyone wanting new hair ribbons and piled hair today.”

His lip twitched. “Enjoy your walk, Miss Theodora. We look to have rain by the weekend.”

“You may be right, Trask.”

With the sound of baying hounds reverberating off the hillsides toward the front of the estate, she headed through the garden on the east side of the house, deciding to follow the wooded stream beyond. Behind her a horn sounded, so evidently they’d sighted the poor fox already. Scowling, Theodora picked up a hefty stick and swished it against the tree trunks as she passed them by. A shiver of autumn leaves drifted to the ground in her wake. Her father didn’t like fox hunting, either; he had always called it a sport for the unsportsmanlike. But the rumor was that the Earl of Vashton couldn’t bear to pass up a good hunt, and so Lord Beldath had arranged for one.

Ten minutes later the hounds were still baying and barking, which in her opinion utterly ruined the peaceful, bird-songed, autumn-scented morning. In fact, the dogs seemed to be getting louder.

Theodora stopped, turning around just in time to see an orange blur flash through the undergrowth beside her and leap across the small stream. Oh, dear. Now the entire hunting party would be crashing through. If she’d had more than a moment she would have muddied the fox’s footprints or something, but all she had time to do was gasp and duck behind the closest tree trunk before chaos and dogs and horses and riders burst onto the trail all around her in an explosion of crimson jackets and yellow and orange leaves.

If she hadn’t noticed the fox she likely would have been trampled. As it was, an off-balance horse came within two inches of stepping on her foot. Making herself as narrow as possible, she pressed against the tree while two dozen dogs and at least that many riders flung mud and shrubbery into the air as they splashed across the stream.

When the last rider had finally passed by, Theodora stumbled back to the path. Mud caked half her gown, and she plucked the petal of a purple iris from her hair. “Stupid people,” she muttered, brushing at the sprigged muslin.