Chapter Fifteen

MORE NOTES ON FLORA

~ Problem: Flora is boring. Too like a hearth rug. She should issue set-downs. “You flea-bitten fungus!”

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~At least defend herself.

The vapid Mrs. Dandylion (shrilly): “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched!”

Flora: “I am happy to say that I would not recognize a chicken, nor do I own any. Obviously our social spheres have been quite, quite different.”

Readers might think she is overly tart?

She must be sweet.

Vander’s stable was nothing like the simple enclosure at Carrington House. It was four times the size, with a wide, spotless central corridor and elegant stalls over which horses stretched their heads. Each stall had a brass plate engraved with the horse’s name. And each horse was more graceful than the last.

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“Watch that one, Your Grace,” Vander’s stable master, Mr. Mulberry, said, touching Mia’s arm and nodding to their right. “He’s new to the stables, and he’s proven to have a terrible temper. He bit one of the stable hands in the arse, and the lad will have a scar to the day he dies.”

The horse poked his head out to look at her. He was an amber chestnut color, with a black mane and a rather sweet tuft that fell over his eyes. Muscles rippled as his powerful neck curved over the door of his stall. His eye caught hers. It was dark brown, ferocious, wild.

Mia froze. “He’s the size of a house,” she breathed. She vastly preferred the size of her mount, Lancelot; he was as stubby as she was. She was terrified by large horses.

“Sixteen hands,” Mulberry confirmed.

“What is his name?”

“Jafeer. That means ‘the sound of the wind,’ in the language of Arabia. His Grace imported him at great expense on the basis of his bloodlines, but no one can tame him. He’s stopped eating. Doesn’t like England is my guess.”

“Oh, dear, that’s terrible,” Mia exclaimed. Luckily, that would never happen to her horse, because Lancelot liked eating more than anything in the world. She doubted he would even notice if he was moved to a different country, as long as they grew oats there.

“I put your mount in the stall beside Jafeer, as he seems unlikely to be riled by all the carryings-on next door.”

“Nothing riles Lancelot,” Mia confirmed.

Mulberry was trying to guide her past Jafeer’s stall, but she halted. “If I approach him, what will he do?”

“Likely start kicking his stall,” the stable master said. “Please, Your Grace, don’t do that. I have twenty-four animals here, and they all grow upset when Jafeer tries to escape, which is all he’s been doing for the last five days.”

Mia nodded and edged past. Lancelot didn’t look up as they approached; he was taking a nap, his head hanging.

“Could Lancelot have a brass nameplate too?” she inquired. “I know he’s not of the quality of the rest.”

“His Grace will undoubtedly procure a new mount for you without delay,” Mulberry said.

“I don’t want a new horse,” Mia told him. Lancelot was just right for her. He resembled a sofa with legs. Short legs.

Sir Richard had sold all the horses belonging to her father and brother, claiming that Charlie had no need of them. He would have sold Mia’s horse too, but for the fact no one thought Lancelot was worth more than a shilling.

“He and I have been together for years,” she said, reaching out to tug on Lancelot’s forelock.

Lancelot ignored her, keeping his eyes shut. He had a strong belief that inertia was better than movement.

“He’s awake,” she told Mulberry. “He doesn’t want to leave the stables, but if you pull him out of his stall, he’ll become livelier.”

Mulberry looked dubious, but he opened the stall door and dragged Lancelot away.

Mia was about to follow when she noticed that Jafeer had moved to the closest side of his stall and was staring at her, his brown eyes bright and curious.

He didn’t look wicked or wild anymore. He looked interested.

She took a step toward him and he bent his head and whickered. There were times when the only thing that would get Lancelot moving was a piece of apple, which meant Mia’s pockets were full of them.

She held one out to him and he lipped it delicately from her palm. “Are you as fast as the wind?” she asked him.

He jerked his head up, almost as if he were answering her. “You are not the horse for me,” she told him, because he had begun snuffling her hair, almost as if he were flirting. “You’re taller than any horse should be. And you’re as fast as the wind, remember? I don’t even care to trot.”

Mulberry reappeared at the far end of the aisle. Mia quickly backed up before she could be caught. Jafeer made a little sound in his throat, as if he were disappointed, which was ridiculous.

“I have to go,” Mia said. She turned and began walking toward the open door. Immediately she heard the bellow of an infuriated horse. Whirling, she saw Jafeer rise up on his back legs, come back down and give the back of his stall a vicious kick.

Without thinking, she marched back and said, “You stop that immediately!”

He was rearing up; his front hooves thumped back to the floor and it seemed to her that he had a guilty look in his eye.

“You know better than to make trouble like that.”

Jafeer arched his neck again, reaching over the door to snuffle her hair.

Mia patted his muscled neck tentatively. He was lipping her curls and threatening to make her hair fall from its pins, so she gave him another piece of apple. He ate it enthusiastically, and then with a gusty blow of air from his nostrils his large head came down and rested on her shoulder.

Mia remained still, raising her hand to scratch around his ear. He moved his ears forward and back, and sighed once more, an unmistakably contented sound. After a moment, Mia stepped back and put both her hands on his face, looking into his eyes.

They stared back at her, liquid and sweet. “You are nothing more than a fraud,” she said. “Aren’t you? You aren’t unmanageable at all.”

“Your Grace,” Mulberry said from just beyond her shoulder. “Please step away slowly. I warned you about that horse. He bites.”

“Nonsense,” she said, reaching up to scratch Jafeer above the eyes. “He’s as sweet as Lancelot, just less sleepy.”

Jafeer gave another gusty sigh and closed his eyes, letting her scratch his brow. His eyelashes were long and curled at the ends. “I think he’s lonely.”

“Lonely?”

“See? He just wanted someone to pay some attention to him.”

“Your Grace, he has had attention,” the stable master said in a stifled voice. “The horse cost hundreds of guineas, so he’s not only had the attention of the duke, but all of us in turn have attempted to calm him.”

“Perhaps you didn’t try the right way?” Mia suggested. “Have you tried apples?” She reached in her pocket and took out another piece of apple. “Look, he loves them.”

“Did we try apples?” Mulberry sounded stupefied. “Your Grace, we have tried every conceivable kind of vegetable and fruit, the best oats, specially made bran-and-mash. Do you see his ribs? That horse has been starving himself.”

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