A full hour later, Clare climbed stiffly down from the carriage and gazed up at the massive gray pile that was now her home. The long stone façade, with two wings thrusting forward on either side to form a courtyard, looked like something out of a fairytale. There were steep slate gables and arched windows and crenellations. The scudding clouds on this chilly afternoon added to the impression. She knew that Lord… Jamie. He’d said that his friends called him Jamie, and that she should do so. It still felt awkward, which brought up uncomfortable thoughts such as—was she his friend? She was undoubtedly his wife. The ring on her finger was a constant reminder. But that did not necessarily equate with friendship.
Clare rotated her tight shoulders and looked up the sprawling house. There seemed to be no one about to welcome her. She knew that Jamie’s grandfather had built this place on the site of a ruined castle, using the fallen stones, so it dated only from 1770. It stood on a sheer cliff above a cove formed by a small Cornish river. There was a fishing village below, she remembered. Jamie had said that his grandfather designed the house, too. With only limited success, Clare had to say, surveying the mishmash of styles that ran into one another along the frontage. His obsession with construction had nearly bankrupted the estate. That was why the place looked unkempt and shabby. It was, in a way, the reason she was here. Standing in the gravel courtyard, in the cold, alone. Where was Jamie?
“Well,” said Selina, who had stepped down beside her. “Where is Lord Trehearth? Where are the servants? This is outrageous. To ride off like that with scarcely a word, and now no sign of a…”
The great wooden front door opened, and two small figures scurried out—boys of ten or so in white shirts and buckskin breeches above thick woolen hose. Or… Clare took in the long tangled black hair, big dark eyes and delicate features. They weren’t boys; they were girls, twins obviously. Why were they so oddly dressed? She took a step forward to greet them. Something moved in the dim doorway, and then shot out between the children and hurtled toward her.
In the next instant, Clare was flattened by a gigantic dog. It stood over her, feet planted on either side of her torso, and began to lick her face with a slavering red tongue. She pushed at its chest; it was immoveable.
For a moment, Selina stood frozen, terrified by the largest canine she’d ever seen. Then she recovered and rushed over; she spied a collar around the creature’s neck, and grasped it. But her tugging had no effect. She might have been trying to shift a horse. The two scandalously dressed children had come closer. “Is this your dog?” Selina panted. “Remove him immediately.”
“He likes you,” said one, gazing down at Clare as she continued to try to fend off the beast’s attentions. Her hands were now dripping with saliva.
“His name is Randolph,” added the other.
“He’s half wolfhound and half mastiff.”
“The vicar’s dog got into Mr. Fox’s kennel.”
“He was hopping mad,” said the other twin, with sparkling eyes.
“Randolph was the only puppy in the litter. Mr. Fox was going to drown him!” Their dialogue was sending Selina’s head back and forth like a pendulum.
“But we came to the rescue.”
“We don’t care if he’s a mongol.”
“Mongrel,” corrected the other twin.
“Call him off!” Selina commanded.
The doorway erupted. Jamie ran out, followed by an older couple, the woman’s hands flapping in dismay. Pushing Selina side, Jamie grabbed the dog’s collar and yanked him off. “Take him away,” he told the twins as he helped Clare to her feet.
Her face was dripping stickily. Her clothes were marked with muddy paw prints. She had no doubt that her bonnet was ruined. May I present the new mistress of your household, she said silently, wondering whether to laugh or break down in hysterics.
The twins made no move to control the dog, who frisked about the group as if he’d done just as he ought. They were observing the scene like a scientific experiment.
“These are my sisters,” Jamie said.
Startled, Clare met his dark eyes. “Sisters?”
Except for the capering dog, the scene froze as it became obvious to all present that this piece of information was wholly new to her. Faces exhibited a range of reactions, from Selina’s astonished disapproval to the older couple’s quickly stifled worry to the twins’ resigned grimaces. Jamie had the grace to look shame-faced.
“I’m Tamsyn,” said one twin then.
“I’m Tegan,” chimed in the other. “It means ‘pretty little thing’ in Cornish.” The girl smirked up at the adults.
Jamie put his hands firmly on the second girl’s shoulders. “Tamsyn has a small mole on her neck,” he said, his jaw tight.
Clare saw the tiny mark that identified the child. They’d been trying a trick that their brother clearly recognized.
Jamie moved to his other maddening sister and set warning hands on her shoulders. “Tegan is just a hair shorter.”
Clare could see it if she looked carefully.
“It is quite easy to tell them apart,” Jamie finished. Except that they are both imps of Satan, he added to himself. He’d written them with news of the wedding. He’d commanded them to be on their best behavior when they welcomed a new sister-in-law to Trehearth. He’d hoped to present them in a proper state. Of course it had been a forlorn hope that they would put on suitable gowns, which they certainly possessed, and pretend, at least, to be civilized. Allow Clare to believe, however briefly, that they were not going to be a plague on her existence. But as always, they’d ignored him. Or, no. Devil take it—this was their best behavior. They had no more manners than a pair of feral cats.
© Jane Ashford, 2014