Home > When the Earl Met His Match

When the Earl Met His Match
Author: Stacy Reid


   Scotland, 1817…

   “Lord preserve us, milady! Surely a creature such as this one will not hesitate to attack us! Is it wise to feed it?”

   Ignoring the overly dramatic warning of Sarah, her lady’s maid, Lady Phoebe Francesca Maitland, lowered a piece of succulent roast onto the snow-covered ground near the creature in question. It appeared to be a wolf, and the very first one she’d ever seen outside of a picture book. The large gray and black animal seemed half-starved, pained, its upper lips curved into a vicious snarl even as a tear leaked from its eye.

   Despite the chill in the air, Phoebe unhooked her dark green redingote, spread it to the ground, and lowered to her knees to peer at the animal hidden in the underbrush. It stared back at her, its dark eyes piercing and cautious. Phoebe carefully pushed the piece of roast closer, hoping to tempt the animal into eating. She could see its ribs, yet the creature would not come forward for the succulent offering she had bid Sarah secure from one of their picnic baskets.

   “Please eat,” she whispered, her throat aching. “It must hurt to be so hungry, and you are stubborn. I can see the drool on your mouth.”

   The large beast whined and pushed back even further into the bushes. Had it been abused? She dearly hoped not. “Why won’t you eat?”

   “The person who has been watching atop the hill is coming closer, milady!”

   Sarah sounded appropriately alarmed. She had mentioned several minutes ago that she had spied someone up the hilly incline staring down at them. Since that person had made no effort to approach, Phoebe had not been too terribly worried. There were a couple of footmen in shouting distance if assistance was needed.

   “Is it a gentleman or a lady, Sarah?”

   “I cannot tell as yet, milady, I… Oh! It seems to be a young lady,” Sarah said, shifting cautiously closer but still a fair distance from the creature she seemed to believe would rip their throats out at any moment. “And she is most assuredly approaching us.”

   The sound of a boot heel crunching into the snow echoed behind her.

   “Are Jeffers and Thomas still nearby?” Phoebe asked of the footmen who had kept a discreet but protective distance as she had walked away from the carriages.

   “Yes, milady.”

   The determined crunch of footfall halted, yet Phoebe did not turn around.

   “It’s best to leave it alone,” a soft, lilting voice said. “That dog has no will to live anymore. I’ve tried to feed it these last few days, and it refuses wholeheartedly.”

   A dog? She dipped even lower and shifted a shrubbery coated with snow to assess the animal further. It was then she noted a collar around its neck with some iron tag. “Why does it have no will?”

   “The dog’s master is dying, and it seems the beast wants to follow.” The tone was now perplexed and even edged with frustration.

   Phoebe released the snow-covered branch, pushed to her feet, and turned to face the owner of that lilting voice. A young girl of about sixteen years or perhaps younger, who was dressed in trousers, stood with her feet braced apart, glorious red curls tumbling over her shoulders and down to her back in wild disarray. Large gray eyes returned Phoebe’s regard boldly.

   “You sound very unaffected at the notion of someone’s impending death,” Phoebe murmured. The pain of losing her beloved oldest brother, Francis, a few years ago still lingered in her heart. Many days she would lie on the grass at her family’s country home in Derbyshire and recall to mind his booming laugh, his warm, comforting scent, and the way he would gather her in his arms for a hug. At the lack of response, Phoebe surmised that no, this lady was not at all concerned with whoever lingered at death’s door.

   “Then why isn’t this poor beast by its master’s side?”

   “Doctor’s orders,” she said tersely.

   Phoebe stared at her for a few moments. “Who are you?”

   The girl fisted a hand on one of her slim hips and lifted her chin. “I’m Caroline, the steward of Glencairn Castle.”

   Phoebe’s curiosity soared. “A female steward? How positively modern.”

   The girl arched an elegant brow. “Aye, that it is, and I am very good at my job, except for when it comes to him,” she said with another soft grunt of exasperation. “And who are you?”

   “Lady Phoebe.” She dipped into a simple but elegant curtsy. “My family’s carriage had a problem with the axle, and I thought to stretch my legs while it is fixed.”

   Inquisitiveness shone from Miss Caroline’s eyes. “You’ve stretched them quite far, milady. I see no carriages on the horizon.”

   Phoebe glanced over her shoulder toward the east. “It seems I have outdistanced my party.” The wild beauty of the Scottish Highlands had encouraged her to stroll for over an hour. Phoebe ruefully admitted she had been desperate to escape the diatribe her mama had been heaping upon her head. It seemed her engagement to a certain earl was imminent, and Phoebe’s protest at the alliance wasn’t to be tolerated.

   The low growl of the dog had her shifting to keep him in her line of sight. How curious that its stare had not left her. He reminded her of Lord Benjamin’s—Francis’s cat, who had disappeared the day they had laid her brother to rest in the family’s crypt. If what the girl said was true, this dog suffered because his master suffered. Her heart ached something fierce as she stared at the dog. “What is his name?”

   “Dog,” the girl said.

   Phoebe frowned. “How cruel its master would only call him ‘Dog!’” She glanced around at the girl. “Does he not care for this animal?”

   There was a slight hesitation where raw emotions flashed in her eyes before her expression smoothed. “Perhaps the dog has a name.” She shrugged with studied indifference. “I never cared to know it.”

   Another unexpected ache clutched at Phoebe’s heart. “Why…why is his master dying?”

   The indifferent facade crumbled, and pain, raw and powerful, cracked Caroline’s countenance. “Because he is stupid!” She dug into the pocket of her coat and withdrew a folded piece of paper. The girl hurried over to her and pressed it into Phoebe’s hand. “I’ve been searching for a fool to give this to!”

   A fool? How astonishingly rude!

   Then to Phoebe’s alarm, the girl marched away up the rocky incline toward the towering mansion in the far distance. Glancing at the folded paper and then back at the retreating figure, Phoebe was torn between annoyance and unwilling amusement. She returned her attention to the animal still crouched in the bushes. “Do you know that very rude creature?”

   The dog growled in response, and Phoebe sighed. “Come, boy…Dog,” she called firmly.

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