Of a few things, Blaine Anderson was certain. He knew that when his father died, he would inherit the Dalton estate; he knew that he was heir, not only to Dalton but also to a sizeable fortune, and he knew that he was expected to marry a lady of similar fortune and produce a male heir to pass onto after he died.
All of these things, though relevant to Blaine's life on a daily basis, were never really at the forefront of his mind. No gentleman of twenty-one years of age really thought about these things. He had people to worry about them for him.
No, what really concerned Blaine on a morning as beautiful as this one was how far he could ride his horse and for how long before somebody summoned him back to the house for some unrewarding and menial responsibility that was vital to the keeping of their 'good family name'.
Blaine had been awake for hours, watching the sun making its slow ascent into the sky. It had just emerged from behind one of the taller hills in the distance, and at last was shining over the grounds of Dalton Abbey with all of its impressive summer power. Blaine smiled at the image painted before him as the light streamed in through the large window of his bedroom. He could, if he listened hard enough, hear the bustle of servants setting up the house for the day and he knew his soon-to-be-ex valet would be along in time to rouse him from the slumber from which he had long since awoken.
Blaine wondered, idly, if the new footman had arrived yet. With the death of poor Mr Stevens, his father's former valet, the male servants had found themselves shifted somewhat in order to fill the empty position, and Blaine had heard talk of a new footman being hired, who would eventually take over Puckerman's responsibilities as first footman and Blaine's personal valet. Blaine hadn't objected to the change. He tried not to concern himself too much with the house staff; the idea of it made him uneasy. The class divide seemed strange to him - though he'd been brought up simply expecting to be waited on hand and foot - and if he thought about it too much, he felt awkward as he watched them perform tasks he could quite easily do himself. Nevertheless, he was a gentleman. According to his mother, he had more important things to do than bother about the little things. 'They're not slaves, dear. We do pay them, you know.'
A knock came at the door and Blaine dragged his eyes from the glorious weather outdoors to greet Puckerman as he entered the room.
"Milord," the footman addressed, somewhat startled. "You're already awake."
Blaine looked down at himself with an expression of mock surprise. "I suppose I am," he joked. Puckerman smiled politely back at him and walked himself over to the chest of drawers. "How are things downstairs, this morning?"
"Oh, everyone's on edge of course," Puckerman replied, settling down an outfit for Blaine's morning. "The new boy got here last night."
"Made an impression with the ladies, I expect."
"Oh, the maids' hearts are a'flutter with excitement, milord," came Puckerman's response, a soft touch of irony in his voice. Footmen were, of course, always attractive, and the arrival of a new one was bound to pique the interest of the female servants.
"I'd like to go riding today, Puckerman," Blaine told the young man. "Perhaps you could search out my riding clothes for me during breakfast?"
Puckerman bowed his head. "Of course, milord," he said. He was stood by the mirror in the room, his arm outstretched - just slightly - as though to beckon Blaine over but ensuring him that he could take as much time as he required. Blaine stood and walked away from the heat of the sun's stream, crossing the room to meet Puckerman and accepting his help to shed him from his night clothes and replace them with what he was to wear that morning.
"Morning Blaine," came the familiar, gruff voice of his father from behind his newspaper.
"Father," Blaine acknowledged. He sat himself down at his place at the table - always the seat across from the window, allowing him to let his mind wander the grounds even though he was trapped inside. "Anything interesting?"
"Hm?" Mr Anderson looked over the top of the paper. "Oh. No, no. Nothing important."
Blaine nodded, defeated by his failed attempt at inducing his father into conversation, before turning his attention back to the weather outside.
Blaine's mother entered the room at length, fashionably late as usual, her hair impeccable, a dress to match the sunny weather.
"Oh, at last," Mr Anderson said, putting down his paper. Mrs Anderson sat down at the table, a coy smile pulling at her features. "You get later every day."
"Nonsense," was all the reply she gave.
"What it is that women do that takes them so long is quite beyond me. Perhaps, Blaine, you'll be more practical in your choice of bride and find one who doesn't spend half the morning dilly-dallying in and out of outfits with her lady's maid."
"Oh, poppycock. He should choose a lady who takes time to look presentable for every occasion. I should sooner see him late to a dinner party than arriving with a troll."
"There is quite a difference between looking presentable for a dinner party and trying on every outfit in the closet before breakfast, my dear."
Through their squabbling, Blaine remained quiet. Perhaps, he thought as he stared out into the gardens, if he never acknowledged their urges for him to find a wife, he'd never have to. There was something in the way Blaine was expected to marry to a woman for her fortune rather than for love that put him off the idea of marriage altogether. His father, if he knew how Blaine detested the idea, would call him a fool of a romantic. The fact remained that Blaine was the only heir to Dalton and he simply couldn't escape the responsibilities that would be inevitably thrust upon him.
"What are your plans today, Blaine?" his mother asked.
"And goodness, do stop gaping out of the window that way. You look simple-minded," barked his father.
Blaine snapped his eyes away from the window and, avoiding his father's gaze, turned to his mother. "I'm thinking of going riding today."
"Hmm?" she acknowledged as the footmen served breakfast as last. "Well, it's a lovely day for it. I wonder if you could perhaps call on Mrs Green while you're out? I've been meaning to write her for some time."
Blaine forced a reluctant smile. "How pleasant," he replied. "Of course I will, mama."
As it turned out, his visit to Mrs Green turned out to be relatively short and painless ("she was quite rushed off her feet, mother, but she said she'd be delighted to talk to you in person soon"), and he was soon back on his horse, Jackson, riding past the village and into the grounds that surrounded and secluded the Dalton area.
After a few hours - time Blaine had barely noticed the passing of - he returned to the grand house, watching all of its grandeur emerge from atop the hills as he rode toward it. He sprinted the last of the way to the house, urging the horse on with the gentle pressure of his thighs. The horse's hooves kicked mud up to meet Blaine's face and when he finally returned to the stables and dismounted he looked quite the picture; mud matted in his wayward locks of dark, curly hair. His eyes sparkled and his face was flush from the exercise. Blaine patted his horse down, noticing the white socks on his four legs were completely covered in mud, barely distinguishable from his dark brown coat.
"I'm sorry," Blaine muttered to the horse with an apologetic smile. "I guess you'll be getting a bath today."
The horse snorted in response, as though hating the idea, and Blaine chuckled as he pulled the horse toward the stables.
"Master Anderson," nodded the stable master in greeting, as Blaine handed him the reigns to his horse.
"Abrams," Blaine replied with a smile. "See that he's gleaming for tomorrow, won't you?"
"Of course, milord," the boy replied, pulling Jackson into the stables. Blaine patted the horse's flank and watched him be led away. When he turned to walk back to the house, he caught sight of a boy he wasn't familiar with, standing just by the servants' door at the back of the house. Blaine offered a smile in his direction and the boy recoiled, somewhat flustered at being caught watching, before re-entering the house without returning the smile.
It was as Puckerman was picking out Blaine's evening clothes and Blaine was washing his face down in a bowl of lukewarm water that he received a knock at his door.
The door opened, revealing Blaine's mother, already in her soft blue evening gown. "How was your ride this afternoon? Oh, and don't forget that Lord McKinley and his wife will be at dinner tonight."
That was often how she spoke, peppering unpleasant news with a jovial phrase or question, presumably to lessen the blow. Blaine couldn't refrain from rolling his eyes at the information. William and Theresa Schuester were the Earl and Countess of the McKinley estate. They were the Andersons' closest (and amongst the richest) neighbours, so to speak. They were also the only two people that Blaine had ever met that he truly disliked, though he'd never say as much. Lady McKinley always left a bad taste in his mouth; he wasn't sure whether it was her scowling face or her false, saccharine voice that grated on him most.
"Don't give me that look; you've known of this visit for over two weeks, now," his mother scolded, her eyes momentarily flickering toward Puckerman. She never trusted the servants.
Mrs Anderson tutted; whether disbelieving his excuse or simply disapproving of the fact that he had failed to recall such an important event, he couldn't tell.
"It's only for one night. They'll be gone by morning. We have to remain civil to our neighbours, Blaine. And tomorrow night we are expecting to dine with The Viscount Berry of Lima and his daughter. You've heard of the young lady, I expect? Miss Rachel Berry. She's said to be very musically gifted, she'd suit you very nicely-"
"Mother!" Blaine whined. "Is this what you and father have been plotting all day?"
"Oh, Blaine. You read too many novels. We've plotted nothing."
"That would make a change," he muttered.
Mrs Anderson smiled, clearly having missed his words. "Just make sure you're on your best behaviour over the coming nights. That's all your papa and I want. We shouldn't like you to give the wrong impression."
She made her way toward the door.
"My ride was great," he mumbled. "Thanks for asking."
The door closed behind his mother and Blaine wondered if she'd heard him. He wondered if she cared. A few moments of quiet passed, the only noises Blaine's soft breathing and Puckerman shuffling about in the corner of the room.
"Thank you, Puckerman," Blaine said, excusing the footman from the room so that he could relax back in his chair by the window. He watched the sky darken as the sun sank below the other side of the house, casting a dark, grim shadow over the grounds below.