(1 of 1. Originally posted on September 2, 2022 for the prompt ‘English Manor.’)
Sir Thomas stepped out of his carriage into the bright afternoon sunlight. He swept off his hat and cloak with a dramatic flair, as if a hundred peers stood witness rather than a handful of servants. The manor had an air of grand elegance that intimidated him, so he felt the need to assert his dominance over this thing of stone and wood.
Lady Bennett’s butler glided down the front steps of the manor, legs moving at an efficient pace while his upper body appeared to be standing still. “Good afternoon, sir. The Lady expects you in the garden. Follow me.”
Five small trees lined the beginning of the garden path, covered in delicate pink flowers. A gaping hole in the earth marked the place where a sixth tree would go. Sir Thomas had never seen anything like them, and couldn’t quite restrain a soft exclamation.
“Plum trees, sir. Imported from Japan.” The butler answered his unspoken question. “The Lady plants one each time she rejects a suitor.”
Desire for information warred against Sir Thomas’s distaste for conversing with servants, winning by a narrow margin. For such a rich prize, he would stoop to any tactic. “What if a suitor persists, and the lady continues to reject him? Does she plant a new tree each time, or is it one for each man?”
“The Lady has never had the need to reject the same suitor twice, sir. Once the Lady makes her mind known, they are not heard from again.”
She has never met the likes of me, then. He steeled himself as if for battle. A bit of resistance merely whets the appetite.
A small table stood in a grassy area to the left of the path. Cucumber sandwiches, scones, small cakes, jams, and jellies covered the table with enough food to accommodate a half dozen guests or more. Two light wicker chairs had been placed across from each other.
“Welcome, Sir Thomas.” Lady Bennett stood near the table in a flowing gown of pastel colors and delicate embroidery. She motioned toward one of the chairs as she moved to sit in the other. “I thank you for this visit, although I fear you may be wasting your time. I am not looking for a husband.”
Sir Thomas prided himself in showing no reaction to her unladylike directness. He calmly took his seat, now twice as determined to tame this unruly beast and win the treasure. “Quite often I find things that I had not been looking for. An unexpected boon may bring greater pleasure than one that is hoped for.”
“Perhaps.” Lady Bennett placed a selection of sandwiches on her plate as a servant poured the tea. “Yet, what is a boon for one may be a burden for another.”
“I have seen many rare and beautiful things on this estate. It would be a pity to see them deteriorate without a man here to maintain them.”
“The estate has done quite well since I buried my late husband under the apple tree. Better, in fact, than when he was hosting lavish parties. Try some plum jam. I made it myself.” She scooped a dollop onto her own plate before passing the jar to Sir Thomas.
She has not touched her tea. What happened to her previous suitors? Sir Thomas placed his cup to his lips, then set it down again without drinking. Better be cautious with this one. He selected a scone from a stack the lady had already eaten from, slathered it with plum jam, and ate it with small bites. Between bites, he told her stories about all his successful business endeavors. He crafted his words to sound careless and easy, as if all his accomplishments happened as naturally as a stroll in the park.
A wave of dizziness interrupted his latest story, and as he shook his head to clear it, he noticed two gardeners leaning on shovels next to the pit at the end of the row of plum trees. He nodded toward them. “That, you see, is a fine example of the type of benefit the strong hand of a man could bring you. If I were in charge, the servants would not be standing about when there is work to be done.”
“Not to worry, they will begin their work any minute now.” Her green eyes never left his as she raised her teacup to her mouth and drank.
Another wave of dizziness struck Sir Thomas, strong enough that he had to fight to keep himself in his chair. His vision darkened at the edges. His throat constricted so that he couldn’t form any words. He stared at her teacup, then down at the untouched dollop of plum jam on her plate. Lady Bennett raised an eyebrow and took another sip. “You didn’t think I would ruin a perfectly good pot of tea, did you?”