Excerpt: A Margin of Promise

“Back again, young master?”

Startled out of his reverie, Isaac stumbled to a halt in the spill of warm light at the stable’s threshold. The smell of hard-packed dirt and the straw scattered about it slowly took the place of the cool night air. He hadn’t been paying attention at all to where his aimless wanderings had taken him. Though this was not exactly a rare occurrence for him, this far from the manor, with dusk waning and night settling firmly in, he would have to borrow a lantern from Maurice to find his way safely back. If his father was about, he’d hear of it for certain. A lengthy lecture was sure to follow.

“Yes,” Isaac said, crossing into the warmth. “I guess I— Oh.” Quickly, he straightened the slump of his shoulders and brushed the dirt from his coat. It wasn’t the stable master who greeted him, but Lord Edmund Bancroft, Earl of Clarendon, stripped to his shirtsleeves and tending to his mare as if he were a common servant.

“I imagine you’re far too excited to sleep,” said Lord Bancroft amiably as he patted the rump of the stout mare hitched to the post. She whickered softly. “Eton is quite the place.”

Isaac resisted the urge to clear his throat. “So I have heard.” The mare’s coat gleamed in the flickering light, a rich brown much like Lord Bancroft’s short, wavy hair. “I’m grateful for the opportunity, my Lord.”

Lord Bancroft continued brushing the mare, the strong muscles in his bare arms flexing as he worked. The lamplight cast his skin in a soft gold, as if he spent time in the sun. Lord Bancroft was so unlike his father, so unlike any lord that came to the small Ashcroft estate, that Isaac sometimes fancied him not a real lord at all. Perhaps born to a lady in secret and spirited away, raised by gypsies and come back to reclaim his birthright. Or a pirate, now content with his riches won on the high seas, seeking to carve a place in respectable society for himself and the lady friend he rescued from far less genial folk. That there was never talk of a lady, friend or otherwise, in regards to Lord Bancroft did not put a hitch in Isaac’s wild imaginings.

“If I didn’t know better,” Lord Bancroft said, again bringing Isaac’s wandering thoughts to heel, “I’d think you consider it not an opportunity at all.”

“No!” Isaac blurted, colouring fast. “No,” he said again, far more evenly, “not at all. That’s—No, of course not. Of course I’m grateful.” He knew little of the estate’s holdings, but he knew enough to realise that without Lord Bancroft’s generosity, a proper education would be far from his reach. As an only child of modest means, however, he wasn’t so certain a proper education would do much more than tax his inheritance.

Lord Bancroft arched a doubtful brow.

“I suppose—what I mean to say—ah, dash it,” Isaac grumbled, and tugged ruefully at his cuffs. Being found at a loss for words made him as waspish as a spinster. “I’m not sure why I have to leave at all, my Lord. Father can teach me all I need to know about running the estate.”

“‘I guess, I suppose,'” Lord Bancroft echoed, wry quirk to his mouth. “Perhaps they’ll manage to teach you methods to make up your mind.”

Darker heat stained Isaac’s cheeks. In the days that Lord Bancroft had stayed with them, he had grown more and more frank, speaking as if Isaac were Lord Ashwood already, close friend and confidant. At times, it made Isaac feel more a man, respected, his opinion valued. At others, he felt the stretch of years between them far more keenly, prickly resentment that made him stand taller, think faster, speak clearer. He found himself frequently seeking Lord Bancroft’s company, eager for the weirdly pleasing swoop in his gut when approval shone in Bancroft’s eyes.

“You’re right,” Isaac said, firmly folding his hands behind his back to hide their nervous twisting. “Here I am wallowing in homesickness before I’ve even left. It’s shameful.”

“Not shameful,” Lord Bancroft admonished. “Expected. But you’ll find you’re also expected to leave with me tomorrow for the journey south with your head high and your eyes clear.”

“Of course,” Isaac said, nodding. The thought of the city so near filled him with as much excitement as it did dread. He had only been twice, and both times he was too young to remember much aside from his confusion over where his mother had gone, and why there were so many, many tears. “My father will find no shame in me.”

Lord Bancroft’s long, careful brushstrokes paused. For the first time in Isaac’s memory, he seemed hesitant. He glanced at the wide stable doors as if he feared eavesdroppers, and Isaac’s stomach flipped. He felt for sure this moment the one. Finally, Lord Bancroft would truly take him as ward. There would be no secrets between them.

“Isaac,” Lord Bancroft said, and Isaac’s spine snapped ramrod straight. “You do realise that I’m not sending you to Eton for your father’s benefit?”

“Of course I do,” Isaac lied. There was little more to come from it than making him a better prospect for marriage. Marriage, he had long since decided, did not sound like the thing for him. He would much rather the freedom of bachelorhood with a friend to hold him steady than a lady dependant on his good fortune.

Lord Bancroft watched him a moment then said, “Ah,” in a maddeningly neutral tone.

“Certainly my education is for my benefit,” Isaac ploughed on. “I may be a year late to begin, but I haven’t been idle. I’ve read many books.”

“I see.”

“Many books. About foreign lands and great wars, and the triumphs of brave men against terrible odds.”

“Well,” Lord Bancroft said with a chuckle. “Clearly you are prepared to tackle the insidious dangers of running an English country estate.”

“Clearly!” Isaac proclaimed. As Lord Bancroft continued to calmly regard him, he deflated only a touch. “Though I do see your point, my Lord. There’s much that I do not know that I probably should. About crops and markets and such.”

“Exactly so,” said Lord Bancroft, smiling as warmly as the lamplight. “Smart lad.”

Isaac cast his glance down, then to the mare, then finally to Lord Bancroft’s firm hand resting upon her back. His own hands were small and slender. A boy’s hands. He had quite a bit of growing up to do indeed.

“Well,” Isaac said, feeling suddenly and strangely sombre. “Good night to you, then. I’ll see you on the morrow.” As Lord Bancroft inclined his head politely, Isaac did the same, and then turned to leave. There was more he wanted to say, but even the quiet of the night and the warm intimacy of the stable couldn’t unstick his tongue. Lord Bancroft was pleased with him and he refused to ruin that with clumsy words. “Sleep well, my Lord.”

“And you, my young master.”

Poor Isaac found he could hardly sleep a wink.

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