Brandon jammed the pitchfork into the mound of hay and lurched forward as Alfred’s skinny arms wobbled and buckled. He couldn’t bear it a minute longer. The newest stableboy, Alfred—a waif-like, too-blond excuse of a boy—was struggling to lift yet another leather saddle to the height of the cleaning bench.
Snatching the armful away before it could touch the dusty ground, Brandon glared at the bowed head that mumbled thanks followed immediately by an apology—a catchphrase that the older groom was quickly growing accustomed to. “These saddles are worth more than you can ever hope to make.” Brandon growled. “Be more careful.”
“Yes sir, of course, sir.” The voice was too soft, too faint and too subdued. Slender white fingers reached up, tugging the brim of the ragged brown cap a little further down. “I’ll try harder next time.”
There was a muffled snort. “Don’t try, just do. You’re making more work for me with your incompetence!”
The capped head ducked again and with renewed determination, the heavy saddle was plucked from the groom’s arms and awkwardly settled on the cleaning bench. “Thank you, sir. My apologies, sir.”
Brandon sighed, turning away from the tack room and returning to the entryway. He didn’t have time to spare to babysit the new help, nor he particularly care to, but something about the little waif didn’t sit right with him.
The head groom had suggested that he keep an eye out and report if anything unusual came up. For the most part, Brandon was relieved to note that everything was normal. Everything except for the boy’s appalling lack of manliness. Alfred couldn’t pitch hay, could barely lift the necessary tack, was too short to reach most things and was constantly bullied by the other grooms into doing all the extra chores that he could manage.
Brandon unhappily gave up his free afternoons to lurk in the stables, as Alfred dashed about in the evenings finishing up work. The sound of an approaching carriage filled his ears and he started towards the receiving path.
“Al, visitors.” He called over his shoulder.
Within minutes, Brandon unhitched the carriage from the horses, two beautiful steeds currently occupied with handfuls of oats from Alfred’s jacket pockets.
“Who is it?” Alfred inquired, clicking his tongue lightly against his teeth, a sound to coax the horses forward.
Brandon let him take the two forward, keeping wearily just within reach. “Some Lord Birmingham.”
“The Lord Birmingham?” Alfred drew to a stop and the horses halted at once.
“He’s stopping here as part of his search for the child of his father’s mistress and asks us to report if we see anything.”
“I see.” Alfred’s hands tightened on the long reins and he clucked softly again, resuming his walk towards the empty stalls at the far right. “Has he found anything yet?” Brandon scowled. “He just got here, boy. How could he?”
The older groom sighed, moving forward to guide the first horse into the empty stall, taking the reins proffered. “I’ll take care of these, go bring in the others from the field.”
“Yes sir.” Alfred tipped his hat and skipped off.
Brandon set about the work at hand, sticking his head over the stall door when he heard the familiar whistling filling the air. This magical side of Alfred had always intrigued and mystified him to no end. As the blond stable boy trotted down the center of the main barn, a parade of horses followed him through.
Turning in at their respective stalls until there were no more. When he reached the end, Alfred turned on his heel and walked back, closing and latching each door, whispering softly to each horse as he did so. Pats, hugs and a few scratches between the ears were handed out as treats until he reached the last two stalls.
“All finished sir.” There was the faintest tremble in his voice, hands clenched at his sides.
Brandon stepped out, tossing him the curry comb. “You’re thinking in another useless direction again, aren’t you?” He said, accusingly. “Honestly!”
The capped head ducked again. “Sorry…sir.”
He thumped him lightly on the shoulder. “I didn’t tell him anything. I’m not the kind to sellout like that. You should understand that by now, Lady Alfilia Birmingham.”
The head jerked up and shimmering jade eyes searched his face, the afternoon lights playing a more feminine shape across the pale features. “Thank you sir…sorry sir.”
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