As was their habit, the MacLeans and the younger Swifts settled into their usual spots for Sunday dinner at the MacLeans’ estate. Thomas MacLean took in the table’s occupants. On his left sat his sister, Catherine. Her best friend since childhood, Miss Eleanor Swift, sat directly across from her. Opposite his own place sat his oldest and dearest friend, and Eleanor’s brother, Charles. The ends of the table were fortified by his parents, Lord and Lady MacLean.
“Do tell us about your trip, Thomas,” Eleanor asked in far too saucy a tone for his liking. If Charles had breathed a word of their disastrous turn in fortune within reach of her ears, she’d taunt him mercilessly. He shot a furtive glance at Charles before offering their rehearsed account of their trip. Charles chewed placidly, his expression arranged artfully into one of utter guilelessness.
“We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, did we not Charles? Sir Winston’s estate offered the finest coveys and though we took our best aim, we alas did not fell any of the fine fowl. The thrill of the hunt, the fresh air found only in the lowlands at dawn, fine liqueurs and cigars…I daresay, I’ve not had a more pleasant trip in quite some time.
“Indeed. Even though not one of you managed to clip a single pheasant? I find that quite shocking, for both of you would have us believe that no finer shots live in Derbyshire.” Eleanor lifted her spoon to her dainty lips, the hint of a smile curling the edges. “They must have been very clever birds.”
“Indeed,” Charles affirmed.
“Eleanor, is that a new cloak and hat you were wearing when you arrived?” Catherine asked.
“Ah, you noticed. Yes. Yes, it was. I’d been forever wanting a new cloak lined in emerald velvet and when I spied one in the shop this very day, I simply had to have it.”
Charles raised his brows but did not challenge his sister.
“Yes, I had a spot of good luck in a…wager…I made.” Here Eleanor stopped and fixed her gaze on her brother. “And you will not breath a word of this to father, Charles.”
Mrs. MacLean gasped. “A wager? Miss Eleanor, I am scandalized! Young ladies and even young gentlemen,” she cast a sardonic eye upon Thomas and Charles in turn, “do not wager.”
“How on earth did you manage that dear Eleanor, do tell.” Catherine propped her elbows on the table and leaned forward in anticipation.
Her mother tapped her elbows as reminder of her table manners, but her silent chastisement did not diminish Catherine’s interest.
As Eleanor began her account, Thomas leaned back in his chain and drifted off in silent memory of his own recent wagering experience.
A poker game amongst gentlemen had introduced him to a newcomer, a Lt. Farrows, a lad barely weaned from his mother’s teat from the looks and sounds of him.
“I am eighteen in mind sir, though my body has seen fit to retain its adolescent youth a bit longer than most,” he’d responded when quizzed about his age.
Eighteen in mind, but fortified way beyond those years in his ability to separate not only himself, but Charles and Sir Winston from the entire contents of their wallets. He’d been convinced the lad had to have cheated, so brightly had lady luck deigned to shine upon him.
“I have had the great fortune to have been born under the best possible alignment of the stars. Luck has been my constant companion and I therefore treat her well and often.” The lad’s words still rang in his memory. He clenched his hands into fists beneath the table.
He and Charles had sought to discover more about this Lt. Farrows but no one knew of him. Between the pair of them, they agreed to keep their humiliating defeat a secret.
He snapped back to attention as Eleanor wound down her story with, “I was born under the best possible planetary alignment. Next to dear Catherine here, Luck has been a most true and constant companion to me.”
Thomas narrowed his eyes at Charles whose jaw had gone slack. The gentlemen’s eyes met and Charles shook his head. But if not from her brother, how could this chit of a girl have known anything of their fleecing by one Lt. Farrows?
Eleanor caught his eye and lifted her chin in defiance before turning to her brother to say, “Charles, dear, I forgot to tell you. Your military uniforms were delivered by the tailors last week, but they’d affixed the wrong name to them so I had Higgins send them back. They just arrived this morning, right as rain.”
Thomas felt his stomach lurch. “If not Swift, then what name, pray tell, did those dastardly tailors erroneously affix?”
Eleanor raised a single brow. “It was, I believe, Farrows, sir. But all is well now. All is very well indeed.” She cocked her head, smiled, and took a sip of her wine, her shoulders shaking ever so slightly as she did.