It’s Excerpt Monday again!
This month’s excerpt is from The Flower Queen’s Daughter. It’s a bit longer than I had intended to post, but I didn’t want to cut the scene in half as neither half felt complete without the other. And I didn’t want people hunting me down and torturing me to find out what happens in the end. I hope you enjoy and, as always, any comments, criticisms are welcome. I’ve already found LOTS to rewrite and redo, but not this month!
Anthea strolled through the garden, the early evening breeze blowing her hair against her face. She skirted the edge of the shadows and avoided the couples admiring the flowers and statues as the sun sank lower in the sky.
So far, her plans to discover and reclaim Wildflower’s foal had come to naught. She should just come right out and ask the earl about it, but she was uncertain how he would react to being called a horse thief. Besides, it wasn’t like he had stolen the foal on purpose. It wasn’t like her father had given away the foal on purpose either. It wasn’t like she knew what she was doing either.
However, she knew what she had to do.
She kept to herself, refusing to meet anyone’s glance and discouraging all from joining her. She waited until everyone else faced away from her corner of the garden and slipped off into the shadows toward the stables. Most of the grooms would have left for the night and the few who would remain overnight were sitting down to dinner with the other servants. This would be a perfect opportunity for her to explore the stables.
She stopped outside the door and listened. A few whickers, the occasional blow or stamping of hooves broke the silence. No human sounds reached her ears. She slipped inside and eased the door shut behind her.
She lifted her skirts and sidestepped a pile of manure in the middle of the walkway between the stalls. A fine-looking gelding poked his head over his stall door and greeted her with a friendly wuffle.
From her pocket, she pulled a sugar cube snitched from the tea trolley and held it out to him on her open palm. He was gentle as he lipped the treat from her hand. She wiped the sticky residue on her skirts and stroked his velvety nose before moving to the next stall.
She loved how all stables smelled the same. The scent of hay and grain was comforting, along with the scents of leather and the earthy aroma of the horses. Like home.
At the far end, she heard the swish of loose straw as one of the horses paced restlessly in its stall. One of the mares was close to foaling, but surely the head groom wouldn’t have left her alone this close. Especially the one they were concerned about.
Looking into the stall, Anthea saw a dun mare standing straight-legged, straining as a contraction rolled across her enormous barrel. After it passed, the mare shook her head and dark mane, blowing out her breath in a long ragged sigh.
Ignoring her new audience, the mare paced the small space, her ebony tail held high over her tan-colored back.
Anthea winced at how the mare’s back sagged under the weight of the foal she carried. The poor thing did not look the least bit comfortable.
She checked the level of water in the mare’s bucket and watched for signs that would indicate how close she was to giving birth. It didn’t appear that her waters had broken yet, so it might be a while.
She walked past the other stalls, familiarizing herself with each horse and letting them get accustomed to her presence. All she needed was a spooked horse announcing her intrusion. Lord Rylestone didn’t strike her as the type to forgive disobedience when his head groom had given sensible orders.
A large chestnut gelding nuzzled her palm, searching for the sugar he scented there. She reached up and scratched him behind the ear with her other hand. His beautiful eye blinked drowsily.
She hadn’t found Wildflower and her foal tucked away in any of the stalls. Perhaps they had been left out in the pasture over night, to reduce the stress for the mare in labor.
The stable door swung open. Her breath caught in her chest and she couldn’t decide which way to go when Alex stepped inside. The latch snapped shut, clanking into place, as he pushed the door to behind him.
“We were asked to avoid the stables.” She hurried to put him on the defensive. Maybe he would forget that he had found her here before him.
“A notion you have chosen to ignore.” His voice was low, but free of criticism.
“I had to come. Wildflower isn’t here.”
“Rylestone owns more horses than fit in the stables all at once. The house party and the extra mounts and teams brought by the guests strain the accommodations further.”
“I was just hoping my search would be easier.” Nothing ever went her way. Why should it be any easier to find a mare than to get along with people she barely knew and barely understood their customs and mores that were so much more restrictive than how she had been raised.
“You don’t have to search alone. I—”
A loud grunt and moan interrupted as the mare was caught by another contraction. Anthea pushed off the stable door with an absent pat on the nose for the gelding and made her way to the mare’s stall.
Alex had beaten her to the stall door and stood there staring. Anthea pushed him to the side so she could get a better view.
“She doesn’t look good.”
The mare turned her head at the sound of his voice and rolled her eyes as her muscles clenched. The contraction lasted longer and seemed stronger than the previous one. As it released its grip on the mare’s abdomen, she let her head droop and stood there blowing hard.
“Her job is a difficult one tonight. I’m not worried about her yet.” Anthea tried to mask her concerns. There would be time enough for worry tonight. Spending the energy now would only leave her drained and unable to help the mare later. Better to focus on her companion. “Have you never attended a foaling before?”
“No. My groom and stable hands have taken care of my mares in the past.” He leaned on his elbows on the door and watched the mare, fascinated.
“A pity.” She’d seen numerous foals born in her father’s stables. Most had grown up to be sold, but special ones, her father’s plans for the future, remained in her life and their stables. Those special foals had gone to stud or become brood mares.
“The miracle of life always amazes me.” At every birth, a bundle of nerves knotted in her stomach and only released its grip upon her, when the foal was up and nursing. She could feel the knot growing and pulling tighter each minute. “Watching a newborn foal stand and nurse from its mother in the first half hour of its life on those spindly legs proves miracles happen.”
“From your description, I have indeed missed much.” He came to stand behind her and laid a hand on her shoulder.
She leaned into his touch. A shame the mare didn’t have someone to draw strength from. The poor thing was winded and the sweat stains on her flanks attested to her efforts. How long had the mare been struggling? The contractions were close enough her water should have broken.
Rylestone’s head groom would hear from her when he showed up. He knew the mare was in for a difficult labor, yet he had left her alone when she needed encouragement and possibly assistance.
“You can do it—” She glanced at the nameplate beside the stall. “—Miss Fortune.” The mare whickered softly in response and awkwardly lay down in the straw. This was different.
Alex stared at the mare a moment longer before turning to face her. “Has her time come?”
“Not quite yet, but she’s progressing.” Strange that she was the knowledgeable party here. It was an unusual enough occurrence for this house party as well. Rarely had she felt so at ease around the other guests, but Alex had a way of either putting her completely on edge or at ease.
Panting heavily, the mare rolled onto one side and stretched out her legs. She twisted her head around to look at her flank. Her head flopped back to the straw and she lay there, looking exhausted.
Another contraction wracked the mare’s body. Her upper legs stiffened and heaved as she bore down and grunted with the effort.
“Is she dying?” His voice quavered.
Anthea shot him a quick glance. “No. She’s fine.” The man sounded worried. She hoped she wouldn’t have to nurse him out of a faint if things went poorly later.
The mare rolled, getting her hooves beneath her. She pushed her ungainly body to a standing position and a gush of water splashed the straw behind her. As she turned in the confines of the stall, Anthea saw a small white hoof protruding beneath her swishing tail. One end of the ruptured birth sac swung below her tail.
“I do not think this normal. Should she stand? Won’t she hurt the foal? Is this right?” He spat the words out in rapid bursts of inquiry.
Anthea swung back to check his color. He didn’t look pale, but he sounded faint and that concerned her. She would never be able to support his weight if he collapsed and she wondered how she would explain the circumstances if he managed to give himself a concussion.
“The mare knows what she’s doing. The foal likely needs some help shifting into the proper position and standing helps ease the pressure.” Turn baby. Please turn. You need to help your mama. She repeated the litany over and over to herself, praying for both the foal and the mare.
They stood in watchful silence for several minutes. Neither found reason to break the silence and that suited her just fine. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence, exactly. But the mare didn’t need the distraction of their voices outside her stall.
He must have sensed the need for quiet because his next words were whispered. “I am not sure it is proper for you watch.”
“Afraid I will refuse to do my duty to my husband?” Anthea chuckled, tallying up just how many births she’d witnessed over the last ten years.
“No, it is just so intimate. So unseemly.” He wrinkled his nose and shook his head, sending his tousled bangs flopping across his forehead.
She found his unease and embarrassment endearing.
“My father allowed me to be present at all the foalings.” She smiled as memories of easier births raced through her mind. “I would not miss it for anything.”
Anthea’s attention swung back to the stall when the mare took a few more unsteady steps, her gait awkward and jolting. The mare lay down again, almost flopping on her side. She was exhausted past the point of gentleness and caution.
“She’s going to break its leg. Or its neck.” Alex was tense and agitated beside her. He was much more anxious about this foal than she was. She chalked it up to first time jitters.
Again, the mare’s legs stiffened and her tail lifted high above her back as she pushed, trying to expel the foal from her body. The sounds of the mare’s panting and grunting filled the stall. She blew out her breath in a long, ragged farrup.
The progress was encouraging. “Look. The second front hoof is out.”
His face flushed and beads of sweat broke out on his brow. “Are those her insides coming out?”
“It is the birthing sac. It protects the foal as it develops. You look a bit green. There’s a bucket.”
“I’m fine.” He coughed and grabbed the stable door so firmly his knuckles whitened with the effort. “Are you sure she is? Does it always take so long?”
His concern for the mare clearly outweighed that for himself. She hoped he would last until the foal was born. To share this experience with someone other than her father or one of his hired stable hands was a rare treat.
To share it with someone who had teased her unmercifully in the past and to know he found it uncomfortable was even better. She could not resist teasing him in the same manner he had provoked her earlier. “I fear after tonight, you may wish to forgo your marital duties.”
“What?” He narrowed his gaze at her and watched her for a moment. “You are far too knowledgeable for a proper young lady.”
“I’m sorry to have teased you so. However, I also can’t go back and change the way I was brought up.” She tried to say it lightly, to not let that note of apology slip into her voice, but it slipped in anyway.
He searched her face, his eyes dark and solemn. His thoughts unreadable behind his expression. “I suppose you cannot.”
They lapsed into silence again. The mare panted heavily between contractions that stole her breath and held her body hostage as her muscles attempted to move the foal into the proper position for its journey to the outside world.
Alex watched, lost in the fascination of the mechanics of it all. “Surely women do not have it so badly?” He flung a hand in the mare’s direction, his expression suitable for one of Mr. Cruishank’s caricatures.
“Shh. You’ll spook her. Move more slowly. She’s picking up on your stress.” Anthea laid her hand on his back and felt his muscles tense beneath her touch. “She does not need distractions.”
Once more, the mare stiffened with effort. She relaxed again and after catching her breath, nudged her side with her nose and gave a low whicker. She looked at Anthea with deep despair and longing as she lay her head back down in the straw.
Anthea’s heart ached with the pain of injustice.
“I do not think she will last much longer on her own. Where is the head groom? Surely dinner is over by now?” Anthea pushed at her sleeves, but the cuffs were tight and barely moved beyond her wrists.
“What do you mean to do?”
“She needs help. I refuse to stand by and let this foal die.” She grabbed for the latch on the door, but his hand clamped onto her wrist like a vise.
“You cannot go in there!”
“I cannot leave either of them this way. You do not have the experience to help her. I could not forgive myself if I do not attempt to save them.” She tried to twist out of his grasp, but the manacle of his fingers held fast.
“You do not have the strength.”
Anthea sighed in resignation. If she could not break away from him, she would be useless to help the tiring mare and her innocent foal.
His grip fell from her wrist and she leaned heavily against the stall door and watched the mare as she lay panting.
“Tell me what I must do.” Alex shrugged out of his jacket and waistcoat. His cravat tangled around his fingers. Finally, he flung the scrap of silk beside his jacket on the stall door. His shirtsleeves, he rolled up past his elbows. The fine hair on his forearms dusted his skin.
He pulled open the stall door and shouldered past Anthea.
All thoughts fled from his mind as he focused on the mare. What was he thinking? What if she kicked him? “What do I do?”
“Talk softly to her. She needs to know she can trust you. Encourage her by name.”
He talked to his own horses, but he’d never had one in agony that needed soothing. He needed to trust Anthea knew what she was about. “Easy, Miss Fortune. I just want to help.”
The mare ignored him.
“Good, move to her tail.”
Alex wasn’t usually nervous around horses, but then he’d never been around one in quite this situation before. He jumped as the mare’s rear hoof twitched. “She won’t kick me will she?”
“I doubt it, she’s more interested in getting this foal born.”
He wasn’t sure why the mare and the woman were putting their trust in him; he’d never done this before. Usually he helped people with relatively easy tasks like getting that gypsy’s wagon free of the muddy ditch. His policy of offering assistance to anyone and everyone who appeared in need of it needed re-evaluation.
“The next time she moves to push, you need to get in there and grab the forelegs and pull to help her.”
He gulped and wiped the moisture on his palms off on his trousers. “Right.” She made it sound so easy. Trivial even.
“And when you see the head come free, pull the membrane of the birthing sac back from its nose and clear any mucus there.”
He grimaced but couldn’t resist teasing her. “I begin to see why you sent me in here.”
Anger flashed in her eyes. “I did no such thing. You refused to let me enter.” A straining grunt from the mare distracted Anthea from saying more.
The mare struggled to her feet once more. Her gravid body swung around, nearly knocking him against the wall. The horse in the next stall poked its nose over the wall, whickering encouragement or complaining about the disturbance. He wasn’t sure which. The foal’s legs dangled awkwardly beneath her tail.
What a precarious position. Surely, the foal wouldn’t just fall to the ground. Would it? “What do we do if it just falls out?”
“It won’t.” She sounded so calm. “The head and shoulders aren’t out yet.”
“C’mon, girl. Easy, Miss Fortune. Let’s get you back on the ground and get this stubborn foal out into the world.”
The mare swung her head around to gaze at him, her big brown eyes barely blinking. She turned around once more in the cramped space and threw herself to the straw.
“Good girl, easy now.” He reached out and patted her flank. The horse blew her breath out in a long farrup. Could horses laugh? Alex could swear she laughed at his inexperience.
“That’s right, move in by her tail and get ready.” The strength and experience in Anthea’s voice held him steady and allowed him to clear his mind of the fear gripping him. He stepped closer, taking care not to trod on the mare’s tail.
The mare gave another grunt and pushed against the foal. There was the nose and head now. The foal was a dark slippery mass inside the birthing sac.
“Yes, rip the membrane if you need to. Clear its nose so it can breathe.”
He tugged on the sac. It felt slick, like a thin, wet pair of rubber overshoes. Fluid gushed out around the foal’s head and splashed the toe of his boot. As he ran his hand across the foal’s nose, small bubbles formed as it exhaled. Amazing. It wasn’t even fully born yet and it was alive.
“It’s breathing!” His voice caught in his throat on the emotions, which threatened to overwhelm him.
“Good. Get ready, here comes another contraction.” Her voice pulled his attention back to the mare’s distress.
He reached down and grabbed the protruding legs, just above the delicate white hooves. When the mare grunted and her leg came up, he was ready. He pulled away from her body as she pushed. The shoulders emerged just as the mare collapsed again.
“How are we doing?” He tried to keep the worry out of his voice.
“Good, just fine. She’s tiring fast though.”
He shifted his position and reached down to grab the foal about the fetlocks with a firm, but steady grip. “I can pull again.”
“No, wait until she tries again. You don’t want to hurt either of them at this point. The hindquarters should come easily if you can pull down at the right angle.”
“Down?” He twisted around to look at Anthea for clarification. “There’s not much room to get any lower.”
She frowned. “Not toward the ground, toward her hooves.” She looked flustered and frustrated.
The mare’s panting wasn’t as strong as it had been. She was tiring. Hell, he hadn’t done half as much work tonight as she had and his shoulders burned with the strain of that last pull.
“Good girl, let’s get this over with. I’m ready if you are.” He felt like an idiot talking to the horse, but she seemed to revive at his encouragement.
He shuffled his boot in closer and leaned further over the foal’s body. The smell wasn’t half as bad as he’d imagined. Very earthy, actually. He sensed the mare gathering her strength to push again so he grabbed the front legs and started pulling gently but firmly on them toward her hooves.
The bones felt fragile under his hands, as if they would snap like thin branches if he squeezed too tightly.
With a gurgle and a rush, the foal slid free of the mare’s body. He peeled the sac from the foal and was startled as it moved on its own for the first time. Impossible that this frail spindly creature would grow up to be a magnificent thoroughbred in such a short time.
His hands felt slick and he caught himself before he wiped them on his trousers. “Is there another bucket of water at hand? I don’t wish to foul hers.”
“I’ll fetch one.” Anthea’s face disappeared from above the door. He listened to her footsteps as she hurried down the walkway, paused for a moment and then returned, her steps slower, more careful.
He leaned down to pat the mare on the rump. “Good job, Miss Fortune. What a beautiful foal you have.” The words still sounded queer said aloud, but he had never witnessed such raw beauty before. He backed away to the stall door and watched the foal nuzzle his dam’s leg, searching for something to eat.
“The bucket is beside the door. Come, clean up. Then you can watch.”
Alex slipped from the stall and scrubbed his hands and forearms clean in the bucket. He flung the excess water from his fingers and leaned beside Anthea.
“How adorable. He’s trying to find his legs. Oh! Did you see if it was a colt or filly?” Her eyes were bright with excitement and wonder as she watched the new mother and her foal.
He shrugged. “I did not stop to ask.” He didn’t think it should matter as long as it was healthy and whole.
They watched in silence as the foal struggled to gain its feet. Unsteadily, it scrambled and tried to stand, only to wobble and sway most precariously. Warmth flooded him as he realized he had helped produce a miracle.
“How adorable. Do you see how she looks at her little one with such love in her eyes?” Anthea was totally focused on the pair in the stall.
“Quite remarkable.” He wished someone would look at him like that one day. With such love in her eyes. This unconditional love and admiration was headier than the expressions of gratitude he received by helping others.
The mare gave a low whinny, acknowledging their attention. The foal struggled to keep its feet and legs under it. The mare flicked her tail and a few strands caught over the foal’s ears. It shook its head and looked surprised when the irritant vanished.
“That little one needs to eat. I’ll worry if he doesn’t.” She stood on her tiptoes as she leaned over the stall door, urging the little fellow on.
“I don’t think this foal will fail to thrive.” He said the first thing to pop into his head. He only wanted to reassure her that all would be fine.
“How can you be so certain?” She turned to look at him, worry evident in her features.
“Surely the dam won’t allow him to starve, will she?” He didn’t think a mother would do that, but tonight had proven there was much he didn’t know. He would have to trust her judgment.
“I’d like to keep an eye on the little fellow. I may have to coax him to nurse.” Tiny little lines furrowed the bridge of her nose.
He longed to reach over and smooth them away. With his finger, with a kiss. It wouldn’t matter as long as her worries were soothed and all was right with her world. They had come far too close to losing this foal tonight.
He hated to admit he knew very little about this part of keeping a stable. He knew how to saddle and unsaddle his own mount. He knew how to keep his seat over the roughest terrain on a spirited mount. He knew more than he ever wanted to know about mucking out stalls and refreshing the straw bedding. However, for someone who dabbled in horse breeding, he knew nothing about the actual process of foaling. Her familiarity and knowledge shamed him.
“I am glad you followed me, Alex. I would not have been able to save this foal on my own.” She sniffed and rubbed the back of her hand over her cheek.
“Rylestone is fortunate you disobeyed the head groom and came out tonight. I have a feeling the fellow will not remain in his position long if word of his neglect tonight reaches the earl.” It was no skin off his back either way. It would have been a shame to lose the foal and possibly the mare as well, but that was part of nature and how the breeds naturally improved over time. But this little foal had made it because Anthea had wished it so.
Alex draped an arm around her shoulder and they stood watching the new family. The mare whickered to the foal, which blinked and renewed its efforts to find its first meal.
“I doubt he will see it that way. Most men are not so tolerant of my knowing better than they. Thank you.”
“A senseless waste it would have been. I could not have done it without you and it is pointless to quibble over the propriety of your actions at this late juncture.”
The foal stumbled closer to the mare until it stood with its nose buried between her barrel and her flank. Loud slurping noises sounded as it suckled and its head bobbed comically in an attempt to make the milk flow more quickly.
“Look. I believe this little one’s going to be just fine.”
“I do not wish to leave just yet.” The tip of her tongue darted out to wet her upper lip. “My worry is likely for naught, but I shouldn’t want to depart too soon to learn of later complications that could have been avoided.”
“Your heart is generous and kind, Anthea.” He pulled her closer to him, until her back rested againstt his chest. A slight tilt of his head brought his lips to brush against her ear. “I do not see how others can claim you think only of yourself. They have no understanding of the lengths you’ll go.”
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