Lisanne was taking one of her infrequent meals with the family because it was raining too hard to venture out, and the current cook refused to permit any hell-born babe in her kitchens lest her bread stop rising. As usual, the family ignored Lisanne’s presence in their midst, except for Aunt Cherise’s calling for her sal volatile when she saw her niece’s apparel. Tired of Esmé’s billowy castoffs that snagged on every bush and briar, Lisanne had taken to wearing Nigel’s.
“Tell her she must not appear in the public rooms in such attire, Alfred. I have a hard enough time holding my head up in this neighborhood as is.”
Alfred pointedly nodded to where Lisanne was placidly nibbling at a sweet roll, and went back to his paper.
Esmé took up the complaint: “Well, I don’t see why I have to have lessons anymore when Annie doesn’t. She’s only a year older than me, and she’s been out of the classroom forever.”
“Than I, Esmé,” Sir Alfred wearily corrected without looking up. “And if you knew that, perhaps you wouldn’t need schooling any longer, either.”
Nigel reached across the table for the jam pot. “But, Pa, I have to hunt in Sevrin Woods. You know the bailiff won’t let me shoot on Neville grounds.”
“That’s because you shot two goats and a chicken last time.” Esmé snickered before returning to her claims of injustice. “I think you should make Annie practice the pianoforte at least, Papa. It’s not fair that I have to play when the church ladies come visit and Annie doesn’t.”
“What, have her in the parlor when company comes?” Lady Cherise screeched before falling back in her seat, clutching her chest. “Tell her she cannot, Alfred.”
Sir Alfred tossed down his papers. He couldn’t recall the last occasion he’d been able to tell his niece anything but the time of day.
Lessons? Hah! Even Mrs. Graybow had confessed years ago that there wasn’t a blessed thing she could teach the chit, and a lot she could learn from her. Trust that fusty old Neville to spawn a brilliant child, while Alfred’s two progenies hadn’t a brain to share between them. It suited the baronet’s purposes to have everyone consider Annie an unlettered wantwit, however, so he kept mum about her abilities, although a bluestocking was nearly as unmarkable as an imbecile on the marriage block. As for music, heaven only knew what language the chit would sing if she ever opened her mouth. Annie must know six or seven languages by now, the governess reported after spying in her room. Chances were the gel had the voice of an angel, too, to show up Esmé’s caterwauling. The devil knew she understood farming better than Alfred did, and horses, too.
As for making Annie do what she didn’t choose, such as taking Nigel hunting, or wearing proper dress, or practicing some mind-numbing set piece, well, Findley might as soon whistle for the wind. And Alfred hated to whistle; it was common. The deuced chit was like a thorn in his side, though, going her own quiet way. Nigel could be kept on a short lead by threatening his allowance or a caning, and Esmé would jump through burning hoops for some new gewgaw or other. It was only Annie that Findley couldn’t control. The very thought gave Sir Alfred dyspepsia. He pushed his chair back and stood up. “Dash it all, can’t a man have any peace at his own breakfast table?”
“I believe it is my breakfast table, sir.”
Six pairs of eyes turned to stare at Lisanne: four Findleys and two servants. It was the first time in ages any of them had heard her voluntarily enter a dialogue. She spoke to the tenants, she made requests of the servants, but Lisanne did not often speak to her family.
Sir Alfred sat down again. “What, you’ve blessed us with your presence and now you’re going to extend us the gift of your conversation?”
Lisanne sipped at her chocolate.
“Come now, Annie, surely you have more to say than to claim a piece of mahogany.”
“Yes, sir. I wish to tell Nigel that he must not hunt in Sevrin Woods.”
“Dash it all, Annie, it’s not yours to say me aye or nay. Is it, Pa?”
Lisanne stared at her cup. “The animals and birds there have never been hunted. They’re tame.”
Giggling, Esmé taunted, “Then maybe he can hit something.”
Nigel’s face got red, but he spat back, “Shut up, brat. And what’s the difference, I say. A deer’s a deer, no matter where it lives.”
“It wouldn’t be sportsmanlike” was all Lisanne said, finally staring Nigel in the eyes, daring her cousin to admit he was less than a gentleman. His adolescent amour propre could not let him confess to such a thing in front of his disdainful father or his sniggling sister. He might feel that there was nothing wrong with shooting ducks in a barrel, either, as long as you managed to hit one, but he knew better than to admit it. Nigel looked away first.
Lisanne nodded. “Besides, you would be poaching on Lord St. Sevrin’s preserves. His Grace might be in London, but he is still the owner of the property.”
“Then how come you get to wander on his land free and clear?” Nigel wanted to know, his voice cracking in his agitation.
“I never harm anything,” Lisanne answered in her quiet way.
Esmé couldn’t resist adding: “Neither would Nigel, the way he shoots.”