Deception by Proxy. Ch. 30. The Unusual Plights of the Kitten and Annis.

Thursday, June 14th, 2018



“Annis. Annis. You must come at once, without delay. Oh please hurry. There is a rat in the barn, and it is going to kill the kitten, I know it. I cannot stop it, for it is out of my reach. The mother cat is gone somewhere. Oh please come, please, before it is too late.”

Annis threw back the covers and reached for her clothes. “It cannot be much after five, Sophia. Why have you not told William instead of me as you seem to be so thick with him?”

Sophia had run over to the door, wondering why her sister was not already following her as quickly as she might. “I tried, and I would have done, but he is not in his bed, and it is cold. He has ridden off somewhere, and I can find no one else, for it is too early. I doubt that Charlotte would help me, for she is barely awake even by nine.”

Her impatience was mounting by the second as Annis searched for something to wear. “Oh please, Annis. We do not have time for that. There is no one else moving about at all, and there won’t be for at least another hour or even two.” She stamped her foot and was overwrought and close to tears.

“But I cannot go like this. Where are my clothes? Where is my dress? There is no wrap either.”

“We shall be too late.” Tearful frustration filled her sister’s eyes.

“Oh very well. It is too early for anyone else to be about, except you did say William had gone. I do hope there is no one to see us, though you are dressed, I see.”

Sophia led her elder sister downstairs and off at a fast clip around the corner of the building and across the yard to the smaller barn. The wind whipped dust about Annis’s bare legs and blew her nightdress up around her as she tried to hold it down about her legs, fearful that others might see her in her present state. She regretted having come without taking time to find at least some of her clothes and to get dressed.

They pushed into the dark interior of the barn. It was dusty and eerily still. “This was not wise of you, Sophia. Nor of me, I fear.”

“But it won’t take long.”

“Now where is this kitten? Or more to the point, where is the rat? I do not like rats.”

“The rat will not stay if you are up there with the kitten, and the mother cat will soon return, I know it. The cat’s nest is just under that small window. I dared not come and get you till now when I saw the rat retreat, for I was throwing things at it.”

“I see nothing of any kitten.”

“No, it is well hidden as they always are.”

“And how am I to get to the kitten, pray? I do not see a ladder except that one against the hay, but that is too short.”

Oh Annis. You will use that one to climb onto the hay there, and then you can go across the hay to that small platform and onto the beam. It is only a short walk from there across to the nest.”

“Really? You make it sound so easy. It looks like a remarkably foolhardy venture to me.”

“But it is easy. It is. I would show you myself, but…Please, Annis.”

“No. That is far too high for me, never mind for you. I shall not risk my life by going out there. You should go and get William after I return to the house.”

“But he is not here at the moment. Oh dear. Then I must.” She sobbed in frustration and headed for the ladder to get up onto the first bank of hay.

It was clear that she would too, and would likely fall from the beam, for it seemed very narrow. “No. You stay. shall go.” She helped Sophia off the ladder. “But if I fall, it shall be on your head, perhaps in more ways than one. If I get a broken bone out of this, you shall not hear the last of it.”

“Oh please hurry, Annis. Please.I cannot see the rat now, and it may already be with the kitten.”

“I doubt it. Not after the noise weseem to be making.”

Despite the entire escapade being against her better judgment, she climbed the ladder and onto the hay mow and then struggled through the higher banking of hay, scratching her legs in the process. She lost her balance and tumbled back indecorously on two occasions, getting hay all up through her nightdress and in her hair and mouth, and then maneuvered up to the platform in the top of the barn. It was obviously where numerous pigeons congregated on a regular basis, for there were nests here and there, all empty. Perhaps the rat had scared them off or…she put that thought from her mind and without looking down, balanced shakily across the beam to the far side and held strongly and with some nervous relief onto the edge of the small window high off the ground.

“Now where is this kitten?”

“The nest is right there. Right in front of you, just below the window. By your knees.”

Annis saw with a sinking heart that the small nest was empty. “I do not see a kitten.”

There was a small cry of despair from beneath her. “Oh, do not say that, Annis. It must be there. It must.”

“But it isn’t.”

“Look around. It may have tried to escape.”

“I still see nothing, and I do not see where it might have gone either.” She decided not to mention that there seemed to be a small spot of blood on the wood near the nest, and even the head of a mouse, but no sign of any rat or the kitten. She shivered in disgust. “I see nothing. The mother cat must have moved it. They do, you know, for we followed one set of kittens to three different hide-a-ways on one occasion. She knew we were looking for her kittens, and she would know of a rat too and would do anything to protect her kitten. I would.”

“Yes. Perhaps that is it. Oh, I hope so. But why would anyone want to drown kittens, for that is what they did with the others, didn’t they?”

“Yes, they did I expect. If they didn’t, then the place would be overrun by them.”

“That is cruel. I would have hidden them myself if I had known.”

“Now where did you see this rat?”

“It was over there when I saw it.” She pointed to the small platform at the far end of the beam.

“Well, Sophia, I think it must be long gone by now, considering all of the activity that you and I both have been involved with here. But now we have yet another problem.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“How am I to get down?”

“You can go back across the beam.” Sophia seemed to find it strange to be asked so obvious a question.

“I suppose I can. I managed to come across it easily enough, I think, for there was some urgency in doing so, and my mind was elsewhere, but I am not sure it will be quite as easy going the other way now that there is none, and I can also see how far down it really is without the glare from the window in my face.”

“You shouldn’t look down.”

“Now why did I let you talk me into this, young lady? If I fall and break a leg….”

“But it was urgent, Annis. Oh I do hope we were not too late. But you used to climb in the barn at home.”

“Yes, I did. But I was fully dressed then, and I knew what I was about and where I could hang onto something. There is nothing here, and I am too high for my own comfort. It is higher than the barn at home, and everything is out of reach.”

“You don’t look that high to me.”

“No. It never does seem that far up from down there, but it is when you get up here yourself. I should have let you do this, and then I could have caught you if you had fallen, but you cannot catch me.”

“No. Then what are we to do?”

“I shall think. Charlotte said something about a longer ladder. You shall go and find that, and drag it here if need be, for I doubt you could carry it.” She swore at herself. “Sophia?”

“Yes?”

“Tell no one why you need it, nor what it is for.” How Sophia might stand the ladder up for her when she had found it, was out of mind at the moment.

Sophia disappeared from view.

Less than two interminable minutes later, she heard the door creaking. “Sophia. You found it.”

“So here you are. Found what?”

She froze. “William? Oh. You must not see me. You must not.” She pulled her nightdress closer around her with her free hand.

“Why must I not see you?”

He walked into view.

“Well, Miss. Not another one after that kitten. What are you doing up there?”

“The kitten…the kitten.” She pointed to the nest.

“It is now safe in the kitchen with its mother, by the stove. Sophia and I rescued it this morning when I helped her down from that same perch not thirty minutes ago. I am surprised she did not tell you before you climbed up there.”

“Surely not. She was just….” Her voice trailed off. She determined that she would certainly have a word with her youngest sister about this and find out what the true story was. Unless the mother cat had returned with it as they sometimes did.

William continued as though he had not heard her. “There was a rat about and bigger than the cat could handle. We’ll get the terrier to find it later. But the ladder that you expected Sophia to find is on its way to one of the outer barns by now. I thought I saw her leave urgently and talking to herself about the long ladder, and I know I heard other voices, so I came to find out what was afoot.”

“Oh.”

“I think you should come down now. It is not at all safe up there, and if you were to fall….”

“I would get down. I would if I could. I can’t. I got across here easily enough, but it is quite another matter to get back.”

“Yes. That’s always the way of it. Sophia found that out too. I am here now, and I can always break your fall.” He moved under the beam and almost directly below her.

“You must turn away, sir, and hide your eyes.”

“Why?”

“Because I am…I am not properly dressed.”

“Oh, is that all? How remiss of you.” He looked up at her. “But a prettily embroidered nightdress and daringly short too. Or is that because of the angle of view? Yes, you must be quite cold and finding the drafts ferocious by that window and rustling through your maidenly foliage.”

She gasped and let out a low noise of complaint as she clutched tighter at her inadequate clothing. He was having fun at her expense.

“What made you come out here so ill-attired to rescue a kitten that did not need rescuing and at this hour of the morning?”

“Sophia.”

“You are shedding hay from under your nightdress too.”

“Damn!”

“I did not hear that.”

“But I did not know that you had rescued it, and I got the impression that nor did she, and I did not expect to find myself in this predicament. But you must go away or hide your eyes, sir.”

“If you expect me to catch you or break your fall, I need to stay here and to keep my eyes open, so I suppose we shall both have to accept the situation. I did not encounter you so little time ago only to see you snatched away from me by this foolishness. I have seen you in less, or have you forgotten? If I were to lose you now, I do not know what I would do with myself.”

She scowled down at him, hearing only the first part of his explanation it seemed, or she may have responded differently. “Oh, you. You.”

“Yes, my love? Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

She had let go of her support and started out along the beam, holding her nightdress tightly about her legs. He backed up beneath her, ready to break her fall if she did lose her balance.

“You need your arms for balance, my dear, not to protect your modesty at a time like this or to hide that delicate female foliage and shrubbery. Too late anyway. If you fall and hurt yourself, your modesty will count for very little. Why you need to do so escapes me, for there is little that either of us has not seen of the other from time to time, it seems.”

She blushed, but he could not see that. “But you are directly below me, and I am up here. I had not intended this.”

“Of course not. Neither did I. But I think I see what you mean, with my looking up…up at you. No, I had not seen you quite from this intriguing aspect before. Interesting perspective…which reminds me, the kitten we rescued was also female.”

“William! Oh, you…You….” she was alarmed about what he could see of her. “I can do it.” He seemed quite amused at her predicament. “I have done it before, and I shall do it again.”

“It is not advisable, Annis. At least not that way. If you will be patient, I will be able to think of something.”

“Yes, if I wait long enough.” she protested. “But meanwhile, half of the laborers will be here to ogle me too when they bring hay in. I shall never recover from the shame of it.”

“No, they won’t. Not for another few hours anyway. Besides there is nothing else for them to do here until more hay is dry, so they will not be in here again for at least another day. Had the rat not been about, this would never have happened this way, for we would not have moved the kitten, and this mow would now be at least half full of hay, and you could just fall off and land safely in the hay.”

“Oh.” She stopped and teetered unsteadily.

“What is the matter?”

“I have a splinter in my foot.”

“I’m not surprised. I seem to recall that I discovered a few of those in that same beam many years ago to my great pain and cost, but I did not have your courage to balance across it at that time, and you in your bare feet too. I was astride it and shuffling across it. I recall that it was very painful. It took a week or more to work some of them out. You are lucky you found out that way first, rather than the other, as I did.”

“Now you tell me.” She sounded frustrated and angry. “I found none on my way across. I cannot move.”

“Of course, you can. You did very well so far. You are almost to the rope.”

“What rope?” She recalled that Sophia, or was it Charlotte, had mentioned a swing.

“There is a rope tied around that beam that we used to swing on as children, and what is left of it hangs down for at least two feet.”

“Oh. Can you not get it to hang up, sir? It does me no good down there, for I cannot see it.” He laughed at her request.

“Oh. This is embarrassing. But you are a man and would know nothing about that.”

“Yes, it is embarrassing. But do not worry, my dear, I will soon get over it.”

She mumbled something uncomplimentary under her breath. “I meant for me.”

He chuckled. “I had not thought of that.” He was having fun at her expense.

“You are a liar and a rogue, and you are enjoying every minute of my acute discomfort.”

“Yes, I am, aren’t I? But I am not the one caught in this situation and in a short nightdress. Isn’t it amazing how all of my difficulties seem to find me, and not I them. What a pity Lady Seymour is not aware of this as another example of how trouble so easily finds me. You must explain to your mother how I so skillfully managed to maneuver you up onto that beam in just your short and all-revealing nightdress so that I might stare up…up at you in your present state of interesting undre…—difficulty.”

She blushed profusely. There was a certain truth in what he said (and avoided saying) that was not lost on her at that moment. “William?”

“Yes, my love.”

“If you dare to mention this to anyone, I will shoot you.”

“Oh. That sounds serious. But that’s the spirit. Of course you will. What makes you think I would tell anyone else about this and spoil the fun? I told no one about our earlier, even more revealing, and equally disturbing encounter. But there is a solution at hand.”

“Where? What is it?”

“Immediately above your head and tying the rafters together, there is a small piece of wood, a brace, going across. If you straighten up and reach directly above you, you will find it. I think it might just be in reach for you.”

“But…but.”

“You may either continue to protect your modesty, precariously like that—a waste of time and effort now, I can assure you—and risk a fall for little reason, or you can protect yourself from falling. Though I shall catch you if you do. But if you injure yourself, you will find yourself in a more revealing state by far and with precious little hidden from prying and curious eyes as we need to assess your injuries. You will need to make up your mind, my dear, for you cannot do both. When I see that you cannot fall, I can come and rescue you.”

“But this is a short nightdress and will….”

“Yes, it will, won’t it? At least I hope so. But no more than it already has. Besides, I need to refresh my tormented memory.”

“You devil.” She let go of her nightdress, straightened up, and felt above her head while striving to keep her balance.

“Almost there. A little higher. Higher, my dear. Yes, it does ride up quite high upon you, doesn’t it?”

She ground her teeth at his tormenting her this way. He watched as her hand reached above her and found the wooden crosspiece and grasped it.

“There. That’s better.” He heaved a sigh of relief. “Yes. Most satisfactory, my love. Now you are unlikely to fall.”

“Satisfactory in what way? But I can go nowhere like this and you…you
…seeing….”

“You don’t have to go anywhere. But then you can’t, can you? Just hold onto that piece of wood. I can leave here now—eventually, if I can tear myself away from such entrancing scenery—so that you may no longer fear what I might see, and get to you, now that you are at least safe for the moment. Hang on and stay still, I am coming up to you.”

“I cannot see you. Where are you?”

She heard his voice but could not see him. “No. You can’t see me now. Don’t let go or do anything else. I am climbing up near the window and behind you, and I am no longer beneath you to see anything, unfortunately, so relax.”

“Perhaps that is how should have done this.”

“I don’t think you would have easily done it in a dress even as short and as loose fitting as that one.”

She felt embarrassed over the truth of that and withheld comment. “Oh. But when you get up here, how will we get down?”

“One step at a time, my dear. I shall explain when I get to you. Are you still hanging on?”

“Yes.” She felt the barn sway slightly as he climbed and then felt and heard his feet on the beam behind her.

“Almost got you.” She felt his hand take a secure and tight hold of her nightdress behind her at the lower part of her back and then gasped as his fingers caught some of her skin in his grip. “Ouch.”

“Sorry if I pinched your skin, but I need to make sure that you do not slip out of my hold. It would not do for me to find myself holding an empty nightdress, would it?”

As much as he would have liked to have done so in other circumstances.

“Now you can let go of that brace and can back up to me slowly. Let go of the wood above you and use your hands to balance.”

“My splinter….”

“Try. We’ll deal with the splinter later. You cannot stay there forever. There is no one down below you now to see your embarrassing plight.”

She was able to move her foot. “Ouch.”

“I’ve got you, you know? You don’t have to slide your feet and risk picking up any more.”

She moved back, favoring her sore foot, and felt his other arm encircle her waist from behind. She knew then that she was now securely held with his arms across her body just beneath her breasts and backed into him until she could go no further.

“But what are you holding on to if you have both hands on me?”

“I am leaning against the side of the barn, and I cannot slide either way. There is a vertical support by me.”

“Now what?”

“I will get you to turn around to face me, and then you will be able to hold on to the supports on either side of me.” He put his hands upon her waist, and she turned slowly as she cautiously maneuvered her feet on the narrow beam, and then she reached out and held onto the supports behind him. Their bodies seemed too close together as she pushed up against him. But she could not let go, and he was caught in between her arms, though she recognized that she was, in reality, the one that was caught with his arms around her and her with nowhere to go. She noticed that he was also smiling down at her in a mischievous kind of way. “Don’t you dare.” She was not pleased with him.

“What? I did nothing,” he protested, but there was still a smile on his face. She had been right about that look.

“You were thinking it.”

“Yes, I must confess that I was. You cannot easily escape me now as you have been doing, staying just out of my reach as you did in my study, and you are a very beautiful young lady, Annis.” His hands were on her waist to steady her.

“You are only saying that, as you know I cannot easily escape, with you stopping me from getting down on my own, in the same way that you got up here.” She was annoyed with the predicament.

He smiled at her. “We can soon fix that.” He moved himself off to one side, holding onto the side of the building as she moved her arm out of his way, and then was able to hang on for herself without him between her and the side, though he still supported her by holding firmly onto her arm. “There. I am no longer in your way. Now you can escape from this precarious and personally dangerous predicament.” He was leaning away from the beam slightly, still smiling at her.

“Which one? One is as threatening as the other.”

“Indeed.”

She looked down. “I do not see how you got up.”

“No. The bright light from this window is blinding you and obscuring the holds which are in the shadow. But they are there. Long familiarity with climbing up here as a child,” he explained.

“But that first one. The only one that I can see is a long way down.”

“Yes, it is. You need to hang onto the bottom of the window, lean back a little as you look down to see where you are going, and then stretch down with your free leg as you push away from the beam with the other foot. It is a big first step. There is also a hand hold off to the side.”

“Too far. It is too big a step.” She could see obvious difficulties with her nightdress riding up onto her legs, and that would certainly make her attempt even more revealing than her earlier precarious situation.

“And that first step is a long way even for me, and I have long legs. I think you would find it quite drafty and perhaps too revealing with me here. Though nothing I have not seen before. I would not complain, and I might even close my eyes.”

She looked at him with a flustered look on her face. “No, you wouldn’t.”

“Well, it would be quite a stretch. You are right. I wouldn’t close my eyes. I would need to be ready to grab you if you were to fall.”

She could see the difficulty immediately with more splinters likely, if not a fall, never mind the embarrassment of having her nightdress far too high on her legs again. “Is there no other way?”

“Yes, there is. If you look out of the window, you will see that there are several large wooden rungs on the outside of the building leading down to the ground, but they are also widely spaced. They were not intended for young ladies in filmy nightdresses that the wind might blow around in an interesting manner.” He admired what he could see as she leaned out. She pulled herself back as she sensed his attention on her and took in the smirk on his face as she pulled at her nightdress behind her.

She blushed. “William.”

He was smiling as she pulled her nightdress closer down around herself and then realized the futility of it. “Some of them seem to be missing too.”

“Yes, probably. There is also a wind to consider, for you will need to hang on with both hands as you reach with your feet, so I doubt that you will present a suitable view for tender young minds like mine. On second thought, I actually think you would.” He painted an alarming picture of horrifying possibilities. “That is how we got back to the ground when the hay mow we are in now gets full of hay. I have not checked them for some years now. But they are all still solid enough. Most of them. Try them.”

“No. There is a wind.” She looked at the mischievous smile on his face. “You are enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“Not really.” He seemed serious. “I want to see you down there safely, more than anything else. Do you want me to go first and help you down and make sure you do not fall? I could also….”

“No.” She was emphatic about that, seeing exactly what kind of a display she would present to him immediately beneath her again, with her nightdress blowing about.

“No, of course not. I had not thought of that.”

“You had. I know how your mind works. You might almost have plotted this, you and Sophia between you, to get me up here, unwisely clad and revealing…I shall need to have a word with Sophia about this. I should have taken the time to dress. Perhaps it was all done on the pretext of rescuing a kitten that might never have been here in the first place.”

“Ouch. We have been found out, Sophia and I. You know me too well, young lady.”

“Yes. I should have given more credence to your godmother’s observations about you.”

“That’s it. Enough.” He was smiling at her. “I think I shall go in and have my breakfast with the mother cat and her kitten and let you find your own stubborn way down or until you come to your senses about this. You are unlikely to fall while you are here. I may even be able to see you from the dining room window if you lean out a little more, for that is where I shall be. You can wave to me when you want to get down. Except that others might also remark upon it and come out to see what it all means. Or, you could always go back across that beam, but I would not recommend it in your bare feet.” He was smiling at her.

“No. Don’t you dare leave.”

He would not have left, but she was not to know that. He had moved around her and had swung his foot over the edge of the window beside her. “Why not?” He smiled at her. “All that I am facing here, is abuse at your hands.”

“Please, William. I need your help.”

“Yes, you do. So what shall you forfeit for my help?”

“What do you mean?” There was some alarm in her voice.

“After your abuse of me, there is a price to pay.”

She resisted the urge to swear at him. “I did not abuse you. I merely…could see difficulties. You scoundrel. What price would you demand of me? You are not a gentleman.” She shivered.

“No, I am not. You already know that, for I told you often enough and warned you about me. Yes, the wind is cool in this window space, isn’t it, for someone so ill attired?” He took his other leg over the window sill and stood on the first rung outside of the barn, challenging her to follow him. “Solid enough, that one.”

“I shall not follow you out there. If you had only a nightdress on, you would not have dared to have done that, and I will not. There must be some other way.” She saw him looking at her with mischief in his eyes. “And what must I forfeit to get your help?”

His eyes twinkled. “I shall think of something.” He thought for a while. “I have it. A kiss.”

“On the cheek.” She leaned forward and offered her cheek.”

“Oh no. Not that should kiss youYou, must kiss me.”

“Damn you!” She leaned across to kiss him on the cheek but found that he had receded as he leaned out further and held himself further away from the side of the building. He had a mischievous smile on his face again. “For that profanity, I shall make you work for it; especially after your comments about my character, and then to throw my godmother’s accusations….”

“All true. Well, most of them.”

“After throwing her accusations at my head, you should not expect me to make it easy for you.”

“Well, you cannot lean so far out that I cannot reach you, can you? But you shall close your eyes, or I shall not do it.”

“Why?” He smiled knowingly. “Oh yes, of course. Loose nightdress and female attributes again, and you do not wish to jolt me into losing my grip and falling from the shock of it all. Yes, of course, that must be it.”

“Nothing would shock you, you scoundrel.” She was both frustrated at her predicament and angry with him, but not so angry.

“Very little. Now.”

“But you must promise to close your eyes.”

“But where is the fun? Very well. I promise.” She was not sure she could believe him. He was still leaning far away from the side of the barn.

He felt her hand on his shoulder and then as she quickly leaned out—for she did not trust him to keep his eyes closed—he felt her lips on his cheek. Before she knew what he was about, he had lowered his head under her and leaned in to grasp her about her upper legs and then had lifted her clear out of the window and onto his shoulder.

She let out a shriek, kicked and tried to hold onto him for dear life.

“You will need to be still, my dear, or you will bruise your toes and get more splinters or even slip out of this loose nightdress of yours.” He waited for a few seconds as he tried to reason with her until she had recognized the precariousness of it all and had settled down. “What are you doing, William?” There was fear in her voice.

“That’s better. Now stay still. I am rescuing you. I can get us both down like this if you will stop struggling and just hold still.”

“But it is precarious and high, and I do not feel secure. I am also sure it is not proper for you to hold me like this.” His arm was about her upper legs with his hand holding her around her leg, above her knees.

“There is no other easy way.”

She failed to see the truth of that. “It is a long way to the ground, and I am hanging above it head down with nothing to hang on to, and you are holding me with one hand and with me in an indecorous position.” She wasangry now.

“That is a matter of opinion. But alas I am not in a position to see anything.”

She did not mention that it was also drafty. “You cannot climb down with only one hand. This was not a good idea.”

“But you are secure for the moment. You are also correct that I cannot climb down with one hand.”

“Then this was unwise. What shall I do?”

“First, close your eyes, my dear. Then, you shall reach under my arm and then hold on to your ankle.” She did so.

“The other—my other arm and your other ankle.” He felt her reach out and struggle to do so. “No objection? Well, we are progressing.”

“I do not want to be left hanging up here all day in this indecorous position and the hub of every scathing comment for the next week. “Wait.” She felt the wind lift her nightdress. She let go of her ankle and pushed her nightdress between her upper leg and his body to trap it and stop it billowing around and then held her ankle once more.

“Good. Are your eyes closed?”

“Yes, I dare not open them. But why?” She wondered what mischief he was planning.

“It’s safer that way. I don’t want you to let go in a sudden state of panic, because I am now going to let go of you.”

“No.” He felt her tense up.

“But only when you feel secure.”

“I feel not at all secure. There is nothing to feel secure about. But I will hang on to my own ankle for dear life.”

“But you are secure, my dear. I assure you that if you do not let go, or struggle, you will not fall. You will not fall anyway.”

She did not fully trust him. He felt her other hand reach around his body and grasp at the waist of his trousers and shirt and take in some folds of skin. “I do not feel secure.”

“Ouch.”

“Sorry.” She was not. “A Bon chat. Bon rat. Oh dear. Too apropos in the circumstance.”

“Hold on.”

She felt him begin to descend, and felt them both swaying from side to side as he lowered himself, rung by rung. First testing them for solidity. She felt herself jostled from side to side along with him, but she recognized that as long as she held onto her own ankle, she could not fall.

“Now you can let go of that murderous grip you have on my flesh. We are down on terra firma.”

“We are?” She opened her eyes.

“Yes.” He put her down and steadied her. “Now let’s get you to the house. I am thankful no one else came to see what all of the unladylike complaints and protest was about.”

“I was not…But I cannot walk. I am in my bare feet, and I have a splinter.” She was balancing on one foot as she held the other off the ground.

He took her by surprise yet again as he easily lifted her into his arms and carried her back toward the house. She held his neck with one hand and pulled her nightdress about her better with the other to guard against the wind and any other observers.

She was feeling quite put out. “I wonder where that little wretch Sophia got to? She probably took off for fear of what I would say to her.”

“She is following us.”

“What?”

“She is following us. She watched the whole thing.”

“Yes, I did.” Sophia let her sister know that she really wasthere. “It was very exciting. You were complaining over nothing Annis. It was not so far up, and he was holding you securely. But I bet it was drafty like that.”

“Yes, and I shall no doubt have the bruises on my back to show for it and others on my legs. But I shall have some words to say to you later, young lady.”

They managed to get into the house unseen, climbed the back stairs without meeting anyone, and traversed the corridor to her room. He put her down upon her bed and sat by her for a few moments as she looked up at him with a deep flush on her cheeks as she gathered her nightdress close about her legs and neck. He took her hand and raised it to his lips. She could not wrench it from his grasp, but she did not try very hard. “You will tell no one of this. Either of you.” Her eyes flashed from William to Sophia.

“Of course not. I was not even in the barn, Annis, so how could I have played any part in rescuing you? At least my reputation will be safe if no one knows of this.” He seemed to have a smug expression, even a smirk on his face.

“Not with me, it isn’t. Your reputation? What of mine? You are a scoundrel. You…you….” She glared at her sister. “Both of you, you tricked me.”

“Yes, I did, for I had to get you out of the window somehow. There was no other way. You did not like anything I suggested—’too difficult, too revealing, too drafty, too precarious’—so I had to make the decision for you. Now the splinter.” He took her foot before she realized what he was about to do and examined it in the bright light from the window. She could not remove it from his grasp any more than she could have removed her hand earlier.

“I see nothing. Do stop struggling, my dear.”

“I am covering myself.” She was pushing her nightdress to close off the gap opened up beneath her by him raising her foot.

“It will have to come out, and if I do not do it, there will be more of the painful questions and embarrassing explanations that will be required when you hobble in for breakfast, for it did not come out of any of these floors, any more than the hay in your hair did.”

She saw the truth of his statement and submitted. “It is the other one.”

He picked up her other foot and examined it.

“Ah yes, a big splinter too. Yes. That one would hurt like the blazes and in the tender part of your foot too. It is a wonder you did not fall when that happened.” He dropped to his knees beside the bed and put his lips to her foot as his eyes met hers and closed his teeth on a piece of wood that he could feel with his tongue, and slowly pulled it out. He felt her flinch and squirm as he did so.

She gasped. “Thank you.”

He showed it to her. “Quite a respectable splinter. Beats all of mine.” He felt that part of her foot with his tongue to feel if there were others, as she had done to his cut hand some days previously, and then inspected it closely. There were no others to be seen, so he kissed it better as he had seen her do to Sophia and let it go. “No more there, and I have now kissed it better.”

He looked over at her with a strange look in his eyes. “Are you recovered now, my love?”

She nodded her head. “Not yet recovered but recovering. Fortunately, no one else saw me.”

“Not too angry with me, I hope.” He really did seem concerned at what she might think.

She shook her head. But her sparkling eyes said otherwise.

“Shall I see you for breakfast?”

“Yes. As soon as I have got this hay off me and washed and dressed. But there is something I would say.” She quickly closed off any attempt at levity, by him suggesting he should stay and help her, for he would not be shy to say anything, no matter how risqué, even with Sophia close by and listening attentively.

“What?”

She looked over at Sophia sitting by the window and looking out, and gestured to him to lean over so she might whisper in his ear.

He did so, expecting that she would strike him for the scoundrel that he had been, and found to his great surprise and pleasure that she kissed him instead on the cheek.

“There.” She spoke softly in his ear. “I have now paid my forfeit to you. I do not like to be behind in what I owe.”

Before she was aware of what he was then doing, he had turned his head and had kissed her on the lips and caught her by surprise.

She did not pull away as he expected that she might do in her anger. Her hand had raised to his arm to hold him there briefly. There was a look in her eyes that he was relieved to see. Then she blushed at her own forwardness and let him go.

“Am I truly forgiven? For I think that I may not deserve to be.”

“You know you are forgiven. You have been forgiven many times over, for different transgressions, and no, you do not deserve to be. That last trick to pull me out of the window was…despicable. You manhandled me roughly. I shall have bruises on my legs.”

“I needed to. I am sorry.” He had a look on his face that told her he was being sincere.

“If I tell Mama how I got them, you will have no reputation left with her either.”

He sat back and sighed heavily as he looked at her. “But it was necessary, I think. It is to be hoped Lady Seymour does not get wind of any of this harmless little escapade and write your mother another letter, or my reputation will suffer even further. I can see how she would describe it—truthfully, but in the most damaging way with her spluttering pen and underscoring.”

He sat back beside her on the bed and spoke softly so that Sophia would not too easily overhear.

 

‘He was seen to carry struggling young lady, draped indecorously in only her inadequate nightdress, revealing all to the world, over his shoulder and out of the barn where he had caught her unexpectedly and then handled her roughly in order to have his way with her.’

 

He smiled. “I did, didn’t I?” He noticed the startled look on her face at the truth of it. He continued:

 

‘What he had been doing in the hay with her, for she was covered with it, does not bear thinking on.’

 

“Of course everyone will think on it and suspect the worst.”

 

“He was later discovered with that same young lady in her bedroom where he was unashamedly kissing her, having already achieved what he had set out to do.’

 

“Whatever that was. The blackguard. The scoundrel.” He sighed. “All true, but not entirely true. Unfortunately. Quite a story line for one of the more lurid novels or a dreadful poem. The entire truth of it, but what a portrait is painted of me, and even of you. She frowned at the obvious truth of that, as she listened further to him. “Of course that is the nature of such tales. All so very innocent and harmless. Almost, and all to be blamed upon a poor helpless little kitten, and a six-year-old child.”

“I am not a child.” Sophia protested from the window.

He chuckled. “Yes. I thought you might be able to hear more than was good for you miss.”

“Before you leave, William…I will ask you to please pass me that other nightdress from the top of that dresser. This one is full of hay, and I would rather not be subjected to a lot of questions at this moment. I cannot easily hobble across there to get it myself, and I doubt Sophia could reach it.”

He turned away and retrieved her nightdress from a small pile of them and returned with it.

“And you should not be in my bedroom with me so ill-attired and with this loose-tongued and unsympathetic witness observing it all, for I need to wash and dress, and I see my clothes are now where they should be. No, William, I do not need your assistance for that this time.”

“How disappointing, my love. But you do have a chaperone, or is it a witness? I would like to stay and help. I am good at washing backs too.” He leaned in and kissed her again. As she did not pull away, he lingered over his next kiss.

He was relieved to see she was recovering her composure. “Some protector she is. My sister is a fellow plotter it seems, and you both schemed together so that all of this would unfold as it did.”

He turned to her sister, who knew everything that was going on. “Sophia, we have been found out. Though I must plead innocence, for I did not know what either one of you had planned. Perhaps the pair of you had plotted to get me out there.”

 

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