Molly’s ears perked forward as she raised her head and frowned at the barn door. Anna lifted her pencil and stared at the horse. Molly snorted just as the door opened and a dark figure appeared with water streaming from his hat and many-caped riding coat.
“This barn is hardly ever used, but there should be some hay here for you,” the drenched man seemed to be telling the wet horse he was pulling through the doorway.
“Wait. Wait, Gareth!” Quickly recognizing the visitor’s voice, Anna spoke forcefully as she rose from her nest of straw and moved between the two horses. “Molly has a new foal in here. You can’t bring in a strange horse without giving her time to adjust!”
“Anna? What are you doing here?” Gareth dropped his horse’s reins and ignoring the water pouring off of him rushed to Anna, picked her up and whirled her around and around chanting “Anna-the-Belle-the-Belle-the-Belle! Anna-the-Belle-the-Belle-the-Belle, the Belle of Pardandell!”
“Gareth!” Anna laughed, pounding gently on the arms that held her. “Put me down and use some of that strength to tend to the horses! Molly is about to panic on us.”
“You are right.” Gareth lowered Anna to the floor then peered through damp hair at the scene in the barn as her word penetrated his mind. He calmly returned his hat which had fallen from his head and reached for his gelding’s reins. “Here, Chester, back – back – gently, now.”
Anna hurried to replace the fencing panels that formed the proper foaling stall, then closed the stall door and settled the fastener. She pulled the last of her blackberries from her pocket as Gareth slowly re-entered the barn, leaving his horse tied outside.
“Here, offer her these and see if Molly remembers you,” Anna advised, pouring the berries into Gareth’s hand and pulling him gently to the stall door.
“Anna, you are a wonder,” Gareth marveled quietly.
“See here, you can’t go skulking in this barn, my man!” Old Locket declared, bursting through the door of the barn before Molly had time sniff the blackberries.
“Locket! Shush!” Anna pushed her way around Gareth and scolded her grandfather’s aging stable-master. “It is only Gareth, returned from the wars, and he is getting reacquainted with Molly and meeting her new baby.”
“Eh, lass, you here, too?” the old man took a moment to adjust to the details of the scene. “So, Molly has dropped her foal, eh? And Master Gareth is home from playing soldier, too? It’s a great day for the district, then.”
“It is good to see that you keep a close eye even on the outbuildings, Locket,” commended Gareth, clapping the older man on the shoulder. “I wish I had someone like you teaching my recruits how to search a farm. I’d have lost fewer soldiers.”
“Gareth’s horse needs to be brought in, but I’m not sure how Molly will like that,” Anna reminded the men.
“You just let Master Gareth give her those berries, Miss, and I’ll bring the young master’s horse in so’s she will know the new beast is approved.” Old Locket moved off to put his plan into motion.
Gareth’s eyes were filled with laughter as he looked at Anna. She shook her head and rolled her eyes slightly. Then Anna nodded her head pointedly to indicate that Gareth was keeping Molly waiting for the berries. Gareth’s grin grew even bigger as he held the berries out to Molly with one hand while stroking the mare’s long nose with his other hand.
“I suppose you were in here drawing the new foal, Artistic Anna?” Gareth teased gently, gesturing to Anna’s abandoned sketch pad. “I’ll bet you have improved while I was away. May I see what you have seen?”
“You always had the strangest way of putting things,” Anna shook her head as she retrieved her drawings from the straw. She knocked the tablet against her skirt to shake straw and dust from the drawings before handing the pad to her old friend. “When did you get back to England? Did you really escape that horrible war uninjured?”
“It’s not strange to say that I see things differently when I look at your drawings, Anna. Every time I see one of your renderings I am startled by how much more you saw than I ever noticed when looking at the same places and events.” Gareth quickly shuffled through the sketches of the new colt and then studied the drawing upon which Anna had expended the most effort. The drawing captured the wobbly legs and uncertain stance as the precious foal took his first drink. “Looks like you must have arrived shortly after this youngster dropped. I don’t know how you can capture so many details when you sketch at such speed. You should have been assigned to Wellington sketching battles. People would have understood what was happening so much better.”
“Oh, I wish I could have! If you think that would have helped?” Anna looked up at Gareth anxiously.
“No! Forget I said that,” Gareth demanded. “You should never have to see such things as happened on those battlefields. Once you had drawn them those sights would be burned into your brain, tormenting you for the rest of your life. I am glad you were able to be here, drawing strawberries and newborn colts.”
“Miss Annabelle’s drawings have quite the miraculous way about them, we all say,” Old Locket reported, turning from the stall where he had led Chester and brushed the gelding down with a bit of old sacking kept in the barn for just that chore. The stable-master continued with his chores, forking some hay into the manger and shaking a share of oats onto it before patting the horse and closing the stall door behind him. “Yessir, we all find it odd how a cottage or an animal that Miss Annabelle draws one day sees strangely improving conditions shortly thereafter.”
“That is an unusual result to her craft,” Gareth replied, watching Anna’s cheeks grow pink and noticing how she seemed to refuse to meet his gaze. “Does she do her drawing only on Varandale land, or has she wandered farther afield?”
“Now, I don’t know that she has ever drawn a field,” Lockett puzzled a moment. “Though I suppose there was part of a field in that picture she did of the old ditch, where the patches were leaking into the grain every time it rained. But she’s a good girl. She only takes her sketch pad along when she walks on the land belonging to her grandfather or yours.”
Gareth smiled at Anna while the old groom entered the stall with the mare to continue his duties.
“Thank you, for following my suggestion, Anna. I suspect you have helped to save my inheritance with your sketches.” Gareth reached out a hand to lift Anna’s chin and force her to look at him. “Is Fentrel still my grandfather’s bailiff?”
“No. He was let go two winters ago when the roof caved in on the Baxter cottage,” Anna quietly stated. “That was not three months after your grandfather had seen my drawing of the cottage and ordered roof repairs that Fentrel swore were carried out.”
“Anna, I would hug you again would it not scandalize our good groom.” Gareth motioned for the two of them to be seated on a sturdy bench against the wall.
“It was a good plan you conceived to keep the old fellows better aware of their properties without scolding or preaching at them,” Anna admitted. “I was never any good at scolding Grandfather the way Emmaline did. But even if I had been, I could never speak to your grandfather that way, and I did so want to help you to save the estate from that treacherous bailiff.”
“And so you apparently have,” Gareth approved.
“It was so little to do when you were giving so much,” Anna demurred. “You shouldn’t have to sacrifice years of your life in defense of our country only to come home and find your inheritance mouldered away.”
“I was afraid you wouldn’t be coming back at all when I heard the reports of the battle at Albuera. Try as I might, I never could make sense of who was defending which hill or river. But I knew that you were with Lumley’s Cavalry so you must have been there. Your grandfather was very worried.” Anna looked up into Gareth’s face as she spoke of his grandfather. “Thank you for writing so quickly to reassure him that you were unharmed.”
“Writing seemed the least I could do since I had such a vivid picture of how much you and the old gent would fret,” Gareth teased, pulling a worn piece of paper from his pocket and unfolding a sketch of Anna and Lord Rippondale pacing and worrying.
“If it got you to write then it did its job and I am glad you took the drawing with you.” Anna aimed a light jab at Gareth’s ribs. “Do you still hear the rain? Has it let up?”
“I’ll just check, Miss Annabelle,” Locket said, stepping out of the mare’s stall and heading to the door. “Our Molly did a fine job with that young colt, didn’t she!”
“’Miss Annabelle,’ I never could get used to calling you Annabelle, girl. You are always little Anna to me,” Gareth tweaked the nose of his childhood friend. “Do you make everyone call you Annabelle now that you’ve grown up?”
“Like Emmaline did, you mean?” Anna shook her head. “If I reminded everyone that I have grown up they would expect me to give up hiding in the barns painting baby animals. I can’t have that, now, could I?”
“Hiding, Anna? Why do you claim to be hiding? What is there to fear in our ‘dull little backwater,’ as your sister called it?”
“It’s just the local vicar. I didn’t want him to find me,” Anna admitted.
“The vicar? What have you been doing to bring down the attentions of one of God’s mouth-pieces, child?” Gareth pretended to be extremely shocked and only chuckled when Anna punched his shoulder lightly.
“Miss Annabelle is being courted by our vicar,” Old Locket replied, returning from the doorway. “Seems our nice young parson is quite taken with pretty Miss Annabelle and makes a point of visiting at the house two or three times a week.”
“Truly? This must be a new vicar. The old one had five chins and a long-suffering wife!” Gareth chuckled to see the color rise again in Anna’s cheeks. Anna only nodded to answer his question, then rolled her eyes in disgust as Gareth laughed louder.
“The rain has stopped now, Miss Annabelle. I expect it will start again in a while so you should hurry back to the house now while you can arrive dry.” Old Locket bent to gather up Anna’s drawing supplies and held them out to her.
“Chester won’t mind if we all walk back together,” Gareth agreed, bringing his horse out of the stall. “I should greet your grandfather while I am over here.”
“Shouldn’t we close up some of the windows, so Molly doesn’t get wet?” Annabelle didn’t want to share Gareth with the rest of the world so soon.
“I’ll send Brant over in a couple of hours to close up the barn for the night. But best we give Molly room to roam if she wants to take a turn of the corral before it gets dark,” the stable-master declared, not wholly appreciating Anna’s questioning of his duties.
There was nothing for Anna to do but take up her sketch pad and continue her walk home.