It didn't seem long enough before we were back at the road and mere minutes from returning to the house. Mr. Moulton, or Harry as he'd attempted and failed to have me call him, was a very charming companion, and I was rather afraid that the rest of the day would seem quite pale after such robust company.
He guided me to the door, then bowed and gestured towards the stables. "I must see to the horses. I'm afraid we stayed longer than we'd intended, which isn't a complaint!" He stumbled over his words, the first time he'd done so in my presence, and the rush of color to his cheeks was quite endearing.
"I will take the extended length of your stay as a complement to the cook's skill and the desire for a walk in the lovely countryside we have here," I assured him, and he flushed again as I entered the house.
I had had a very lovely afternoon, and not thought once about the dreaded ledger, I realized with amusement. I removed my bonnet, handing it to Maura, who was quite pleased herself with the good manners and appearance of James' companions. I nodded at her comments, but couldn't quite allow myself the luxury of avoiding duty any longer. With a sigh, I settled back into the parlor and dragged the cursed accounts book towards me.
I was interrupted, quite unintentionally, by the sound of voices carried in on the breeze via the window.
"You've a dashed fine sister there, Jim." It was Mr. Moulton, and I was surprised into a blush to hear myself being talked of with so much warmth by a contemporary of my youngest brother. "Where'd Southby get to?" he added, his voice somewhat lower.
"His horse has some fidgets he wanted to work out before we got onto the hard road," came James' reply.
"So all's going well that way?"
James laughed, and I was pleased to hear the joy in it. "I think Southby's a good sort, for all he's an Earl and not a younger brother like us. I quite like him."
"Glad to hear it. I know he is a year behind in school, and I was afraid you'd take up a peeve and hold that against him."
My brother snorted and said, "Not at all, not at all! Soon enough we'll be out in the real world and then all of us at the shallow end of the age pool will be in the same boat."
There was silence for a moment, and I had just returned my attention to the ledger book when Mr. Moulton spoke again. "Still, it seems awfully odd, your sister being stuck here alone in the country, when your father and brother live most of the year in the city. And why didn't she ever have a season? It's very strange, I have to say."
James said nothing for a very long time, and I bit my lip as I waited to hear how he would handle this. "We're not really supposed to talk about it. The common story is that she's a bit of an invalid and very shy."
"What on earth are you babbling on about? Your sister's fine and healthy, and she's a very sharp brain in her head. I simply can't get it into my head that there's a valid reason for shutting her up here in the country." James must have looked truly miserable, for when Mr. Moulton continued, his voice was warmer. "Look, if it's a family thing, well, that happens even in the best of families, though I don't agree with punishing the child for it."
I didn't understand that comment, but James must have, for he gave a short ugly bark of laughter. "Nothing like that, though don't go mentioning it to my brother. He'd probably use it." There was more silence, and I prayed for a reprieve. I knew I should get up and leave, should have made my presence known, but I so very desperately wanted to hear my brother defend my person. And yet if he told Mr. Moulton the truth, wouldn't it hurt even more?
"My sister...," James sighed and his voice became lower. "We've never made much of it, but we're a distant branch of the Tenebrae."
"The old witch kings? I imagine not! The worst sort of Eld family, mucking with the rest of the country just because they could. Still, you're a distant branch, not a direct descendant." There was a hint of unease in Mr. Moulton's voice and my heart sank. Had James sank his own chances at a real life by defending me?