By Your Leave

By Eleine Kruez

Part 4

Night had already settled when Elisa returned to the estate. Her cheeks were still high in color from the pleasurable afternoon with David. She knew she was in for an earful, but for once, she didn't care.

The afternoon's freedom was a much-needed respite and if she was turned out because of that, well! She could have cared any less. She was merely visiting her aunt to begin with. It wouldn't upset her too much. Except maybe how her dear Aunt would receive the news. She was thinking of taking the older woman with her anyway when she left the province, if Aunt Martha would agree. Now that she was alone, Elisa knew she wouldn't mind company to keep the loneliness and uncertainties away.

Darting past the slightly ajar door that lead to the servant's wing, she almost made it to the steep staircase that would have granted her safety but a sharp bark made her turn to face the woman she's been avoiding at all cost, for whatever reason, especially now that she had a reason to carp on her.

"Did you get the watch Damson sent you to the village for fixed?"

She blinked. The what? Realizing that the butler had covered for her, she all but cackled in glee. She could kiss the man! In the whole estate, she knew Mary and Mr. Damson to be the only ones to give a toss about her. "Aye, mum."

Jane nodded. "Good. There's still enough time to sweep the rooms in the west wing before supper."

"Be sweeping rooms, mum," she replied, knowing full well it had been an order. Short of dropping into a derisive curtsy, the young maid made her exit. Though she tried hard to ignore it, she could not help being affected by the staff's obvious antipathy to her.

With a resigned sigh, she marched toward the broom closet, sure she would get no meal unless the rooms she was ordered to clean were gleaming.

"You disappeared all of a sudden—again!" Dianna's plaintive cry greeted him the moment he opened the door of his suite.

"What are you doing here, Dianna? This is no place for a young lady." He looked around, wondering where his valet could be. Damnation, what was Benton thinking, letting his sister barge into his room and wait there.

"Benton's not here, and don't you dare get angry at him or I'll ring a peal over your head! I insisted and threatened his position—and limbs—if he did not let me in." she stood up and he noticed she was still in the gown she was wearing during the picnic. She had marched to his room the second they got home.

"Tell me, Dianna, what is this all about? It is not like I made any secret of wanting to leave the picnic." He couldn't keep the impatience from showing in his voice. He just about hit his limit. Though the afternoon was spent with Elisa, it did not please him as he spent more than half the time hurting from his need and his remedy blissfully unaware of his predicament.

And the afternoon's veiled prodding yielded nothing as well. Elisa may drop her guard around David like speaking her almost perfected Scottish brogue, but she was elusive with her answers when questions become personal. All he was able to glean from her was the deep melancholy she often masked with cheerful banter.

"Well then, little sister, are you done harping on me?" He sat on the sofa upholstered in dark blue velvet by the bed's right and raised an eyebrow, his manner blasé and condescending.

The young woman scowled. Her brother goes too far sometimes! "You promised me, Jared, and you broke your word!"

"I recall saying I will attend, but I made no promise about staying until it was over. If I remember correctly, Dorothy left even before I did."

"But she returned after an hour," she replied smugly. "And you can be sure Dorothy will hear about how you tried to divert my attention to her supposed desertion! I felt like a fool making your excuses. And what about chaperoning me, Jared? You left me to fend that bounder Belhaven off!"

He shot to his feet, eyes blazing. "WHAT? What has the little bugger done now?" Oh, he was going to enjoy the strangulation Belhaven was due. It was about bloody time he rid the world of one of his kind. He was only sorry it had to be his sister who had been his last victim.

"Do it sit down, Jared!" she said sharply, earning a scowl from the man.

And damn him, he did. He was tired of being ordered about by women younger than he was. "You will tell me what the bastard did, Dianna. I want every detail." Something in his tone mad her pause.

"Nothing happened, Jared, and I shall be sorely put out if you call him out merely because I find his presence undesirable."

"Lies will not save his skin, you know that. Tell me."

"There is nothing to tell!" she burst out exasperatedly. "I was merely oversensitive to the way he kept on moving close to me. He did nothing to start tongues wagging, but I do feel most uneasy with him within a few feet of me. Is there a polite way of sending him home?"

"His luggage being packed off in a carriage would suffice, I believe." Jared decided to let the matter go. He would deal with Belhaven later. "Is there anything else?"

She sighed. "Is spending some time with my brother too much to ask?"

"Not in said brother's suite and behind closed doors. Though it sickens me to admit, there are a lot of malicious creatures littering the world, and most of them happen to move in the same circle as ours, few even under the same roof."

"But we are brother and sister!" Dianna exclaimed, eyes wide with disbelief.

"You will be surprised how creative and destructive some people's imaginations are." He stood up and opened the door. "I will see you later at supper. Until then, I will ask you to behave yourself. And no more harping on me for any reason, understood? Especially not in my suite."

She slowly nodded. "My apologies, Jared. Maybe I am not ready to face the world outside the schoolroom after all."

He kissed her forehead and shook his head. "None of that now. This is your time to shine, remember that. This is your Season. No matter what I think of it, every female should look forward to their debut into Polite Society with optimism and dreams, however delusional I may think they are."

The seventeen-year-old chuckled. "You simply had to disenchant me, didn't you?" She kissed his cheek and stepped out of his room. "Marcus left for London before you got back, no doubt to gamble. You will not join him."

"An order?"

She blushed. "A request."

"Granted."

Diana felt blessed to have Jared as a brother. Though he was jaded with life, he always made a point of looking out after her and making sure she wouldn't turn out cynical the way he did. Though he disregarded dreams, hers were an exception. He wanted her dreams to come true, did everything he could to make them come to life. She only wished he had some of his own, that way, he'd find the happiness he so deserved.

Elisa brushed Artemis' mane, smiling at its silky smoothness. Brushing the fine horsehair was a proven sedative. Another week had gone by and, despite next week being the last for the house party, when almost everyone would remove themselves to the city, it was still pretty busy. At least she had finally been allowed to bring her mare. She rode out whenever she could, needing to feel the freedom riding afforded her. And she knew Artemis must've appreciated the improvement of her living quarters. Why, she lived next to the earl's prized Thoroughbreds!

She smiled and reached into her pocket for the carrot she had filched from the kitchen. "Here's a treat for you, my lady Artemis," she murmured softly, knowing the horse liked it when she was talked to.

She turned to the door when she heard voices. She crouched low and stilled her breath, not wanting to call their attention. She was not in the mood to act subservient. She instantly recognized the voices.

"It's sad, really, the way the girl's turned out to be a country bumpkin," Lady Allison was saying. Elisa frowned. She didn't really like the baronet's wife. She thought herself superior to most although her husband's title and fortune were paltry. She was a notorious gossip—a malicious one at that.

"But what can you expect, having been raised by that half-wit Cornelia?" Lady Davenport added, then laughing. "I only came because my daughter's still unwed and I think Rhone and my Melissa will make an excellent match."

"It's outrageous, what his father did to the fortune. Spent it all on his mistress!"

"Ma, the horses are ready." Elisa heard Miss Cecilia's voice enter the vile exchange, interrupting her mother.

"By the way, Allison, did you get any patroness to sponsor dear Cecilia? Lady Crowley has agreed to sponsor Melissa's debut."

Lady Allison sighed. "The hag proved to be too stubborn. She's a bit on the crazy side, if you ask me. Lady Powell has gone senile."

"But it would've done Cecilia good to have that crazy woman behind her," Lady Davenport mused. "A lot has approached her, but she always refuses. If not for her fortune and connections to some of England's powerful families, I wager the old hag would be an outcast for her arrogance and rudeness."

"She's cousin to the king, several times removed, I heard," Miss Cecilia joined them.

"Ah, it explains her behavior then," her mother snickered, referring to the monarch's mental illness.

"It reminds me of the late Rhone. A complete disgrace to mankind. It would've been better had he died years early then the estate wouldn't have fallen to such ruin. The earl tries hard, he does, but the old elegance is gone."

Elisa felt sorry for the earl. Despite the rumors she heard about him being a hard and unbending man, he did not deserve to be gossiped about by his own guests.

"Ah, I see the American now. Another disgrace. Cecilia, you must never become anything like that woman, you hear me? It will break your poor ma's heart."

"I heard that she has already turned down three offers of marriages in America. Why would anyone do that when she is rapidly becoming a spinster?" the young woman asked her mother. "It could be she is happy to remain unwed."

"Likely there is something wrong with her that's why she cannot find a husband. Do you really believe that she has had offers of marriage when you easily outshine her?"

They fell silent as Dorothy neared. She greeted the trio a cheerful good morning before ordering a stableman to bring her the mare she always rides. "Lovely day for a ride, isn't it, my ladies?"

"Yes, indeed," Lady Davenport replied, a polite smile on her lips. Their horses were brought to them and they mounted gracefully, helped by one of the grooms. "Well then, Miss Westmore, good day to you."

Not even an invitation to join them, Dorothy thought wryly. Not that she would've accepted, but still. She knew the ladies did not accept her as one of their own. It didn't bother her, as she has been used to such treatment, but at times she felt people judged her too hastily and harshly for her behavior and beliefs. With a resigned sigh, she mounted her mare and rode off, having decided to spend the morning with nature and her mare to purge the momentary ache their rejection caused.

Elisa came out of her hiding place, stepping out of the stall to see Dorothy and her horse disappearing to the woods. She felt sorry for the American miss, but she knew there was nothing she could do. She knew the three ladies were not even the worst of the lot. There were meaner, more malicious members of the ton who would take delight in cutting Dorothy to shreds. It was a world she was only too happy to leave behind.

"A book again, Elisa?"

She looked up to see David standing by the door, hands in his pockets. A flutter went through her stomach and she tried not to dwell on it. These meetings with David on the sly at the Earl's upstairs library was dangerous, which only added to the excitement of sneaking off from cleaning rooms to spend half an hour at most reading aloud to David.

"But why else would we be in the library if not for these?" she replied with a smile. Since she was little, she has always been an avid reader. She was fascinated by the worlds writers create in their books and she was happiest when lost in these fictitious worlds. Sharing the experience with David was something that gave her tremendous pleasure.

With David she could let her guard down and even drop her Scottish brogue. With him she was not Elisa the maid, simply Elisa, a young woman who loves books. She did not fear that David would tell anyone about her, the changes she underwent when they were alone. Other than the possibility he would not be believed, she trusted him to keep their meetings a secret.

"It's good you were able to get away from your chores this afternoon, David," she said, moving to make room for him on the loveseat. "And it's good the earl hasn't had a mind to go to his library for days now."

If you only knew, Jared thought. He's right beside you, Elisa, you just don't know it yet. As for his "chores," he pleaded a headache to get away from Dianna and the guests. As he had been doing the past few days so he could spend at least a few minutes with the young woman.

"Tell me again about Selene and Endymion," he said, knowing she particularly liked that tale because it was about one of her favorite moon goddesses.

She obliged, delight shinning in her eyes as she read from the book, but most of the words she already memorized long ago. He listened to her soothing voice and watched her, perfectly content. He wondered how long he would have to keep up the charade. He still had a lot of questions about her, questions he could easily confront her with, but he knew the confrontation would put an end to these afternoon readings and he did not want that to happen just yet.

David prayed the investigator he hired would call on him with the results soon. And maybe Elisa would tell him herself. Then they could both go about the pleasurable ways of spending the afternoon other than by reading.

Elisa hummed a happy tune as she walked, a little spring on her step. After parting ways with David only few minutes ago, she was going back to her duties in cleaning the upstairs room. Normally, she would've dreaded being enclosed in the musty rooms, however, the afternoon was promising to be so exceptionally fine that not even going back to her duties dampened her mood.

Not even Pauline.

"Did you have fun wherever you went off to?" she asked, arms crossed over the diminutive chest she has, waiting for her by the servants' staircase.

Elisa should have known the young woman would find a way to ruin her day. And her meetings with David. It was enough to make her blood boil. "And what is it tae ye, Pauline? I merely relieved meself. Surely ye'll not be finding fault in that."

"For more'n half 'n hour?"

"Stomach problems. Shouldna 'ave eaten those apples."

"Do you take me for a fool? I knew you've been shrinking your duties, don't you dare deny it!" Pauline exclaimed, her eyes narrowing. "A tumble with one of the footmen, perhaps?" Elisa's palm connected to her cheek in an instant.

"You will do well to remember never to speak to me in that manner again," she said coldly, surprising her with the sudden change of tone and diction.

The maid touched her cheek, staring at the brunette who returned her stare with a cool and dignified gaze. "Go back to your duties."

Pauline could only flee in silence, much too dazed by what happened. When she was at the first floor, far from Elisa, she stopped and looked back to the stairs she descended. What just happened? Elisa's actions only confirmed her suspicion that she was not who she said she was to be.

She remembered Martha's niece to be dark-haired, yes, and she was pale, as Elisa's skin was creamy. She had played with the girl several years ago as a child when the girl had visited her aunt for a week. The small girl she played with bores little resemblance to the young woman who claims to be that girl now. Granted, she could have matured and aged, but it was near impossible for that mouse of a girl to transform herself into someone like Elisa in fifteen years. Something was not right and Pauline was determined to find out what it was.

"The guests will leave in two days, 'bout time they did, eh?" She tossed the uprooted grass blades toward David and chuckled when some of them landed on his hair, lending him a disheveled look that became him. She felt herself blush. There was no denying she was attracted to the young man she shared most of her free time with. His mental handicap seemed trivial when she thought about it. He was slow to respond at times, but other than that he was all right, sometimes he even seem quick-witted.

"Good riddance, I say," he agreed; one could only imagine his relief to have the guests leave for the city. Too bad he was going with them. Elisa too, if he has any say on the matter. He's grown to anticipate these afternoon meetings, not only to learn more about her, or because he liked drinking the sight of her beauty, but for her company. He was sure she would make an excellent debater; it was regretful he could not see for himself at the moment, as there was no way a slightly daft footman would know about the Classics and other subjects.

She had grown silent again, brooding. Jared noticed she tended to do that during their get-togethers. He sensed she dealt with a lot of issues that she kept to herself. He wanted to ask her what they were, even if only to help her unburden herself, but he knew she would not allow it. The investigator still had not returned with the desired information. He was starting to run out of patience.

"Elisa?"

"Do you know how long a ship leaving for America will take to reach its destination?" She started walking to where they tied their mounts near the stream.

"I reckon the journey'll be long," he replied nonchalantly, but inside he was wild with questions. Was she leaving for one of the former Colonies? When? Why?

She turned to him and she smiled. "You're my friend, aren't you, David? You'll not betray me or leave me behind?"

He merely nodded. She seemed satisfied with that. She took him completely off guard by stopping next to him and kissing his cheek. "Thank you for being here with me."

Tbc

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A big THANK YOU! (I LUUUURVE YOU!) to the wonderful Airiya for beta services. You've been spared much grammatical torture due to her efforts. Sorry it took this long to update, but well, I was having doubts with content, structure and lots of stuff. And Riya helped a lot, so this one goes out to her. Count yourself another soul richer.