It was not quite noon on a Tuesday, and the staff of Stanley Hall had been in a frenzy since before dawn.
On any given day, there was plenty of work to be done, but this day, in particular, required special preparation.
The Lady of the house, the Countess of Canwick, and her daughter Arabella were returning from London, where the seventeen-year-old had made her social debut.
Lydia took a deep breath as she caught sight of her reflection in her bedroom window. Her brown hair was swept back into a modest bun.
She had rather enjoyed the absence of her stepmother and stepsister, and the small freedoms their absence had afforded her. Things most girls her age took for granted, such as wearing their hair in elegant curls, for those were luxuries not afforded to Lydia Stanley.
Her round gray eyes were lined with thick lashes that were a bit darker than her hair. Her lips were small but full in a delicate heart shape that she imagined she must have gotten from her mother.
It was hard to say for sure as it had been such a long time since she had even seen a painting of her mother.
She hurried out into the corridor toward the other side of the manor where her half-brother’s room was located. He was a bright boy for the age of seven. A fact of which Lydia was exceedingly proud since she was his acting governess.
He also shared their father’s brown hair and contemplative gray eyes, which might have contributed to the Countess’ general distaste for their presence.
Make no mistake, the Countess of Canwick made a respectable effort to dote on Walter. He was, after all, her anchor to her late husband’s estate.
Walter was born seven months after the Earl passed away, and Lydia felt instantly bound to him as her only living blood relative. After he no longer needed a wet nurse, the Countess made Lydia responsible for the majority of his care.
“Walter?” She called out to him as she reached his doorway. “Are you almost ready?”
The boy was grumbling as he struggled with his cravat, tugging frustratedly at the crooked knot. This was something the two of them had been working on together for a while, but he hadn’t quite gotten the hang of it yet.
“Use the mirror, Walter,” Lydia calmly pulled the knot apart and led him over to stand in front of the large hanging mirror positioned over his dresser. “Remember the trick I showed you?”
She stood behind him, bent down to his level, and held up the tie for him to grasp.
“Stretch your cloth in front of you with one end in each hand to find the midpoint,” she reminded him. “What do you do next?”
His brow furrowed as he pinched the middle of the length of cloth. “I wrap it around.”
He did as she said.
“What comes next?” she pretended to try and remember.
“I make an X and then three pleats.”
“That’s right,” she smiled. “Let’s see then.”
He concentrated on his reflection. “Then I loop around and pull.”
By the time Walter was born, Lydia had already been moved from her original room and relocated to the opposite side of the manor where the servant’s quarters were located.
Her step-mother made it clear early on that if she wanted to receive the inheritance her father had set aside for her, she would be expected to earn her keep until her twenty-first birthday, at which point, it would be released to her.
Lydia watched intently as Walter’s fingers looped the tie around and cautiously pulled the knot tight, executing it perfectly. Her heart grew warm, watching his face light up as he realized his small victory.
“I did it!” His eyes grew wide with delight.
“I told you that you could,” she pinched his cheek softly. “A perfect triangular knot; all by yourself.”
“How come I can only do it while you’re watching?” Walter tilted his head, his eyebrows drawn together in an all too familiar questioning expression.
“Because to do anything, you must first believe you can do it,” she stood up straight. “On days when you don’t believe in yourself enough, I will be here to believe in you until you do.”
He rushed forward and threw his arms around her waist, and she embraced him for a moment before patting his back and returning his focus to the task at hand.
“Get your hair combed,” she urged.
The boy obeyed, hurrying over to his dresser to grab his comb, which he dipped into the wash water he had used for his face. Lydia had no room in her heart for resentment toward Walter.
On the contrary, when he no longer needed a nurse, she was happy that her stepmother made her his governess. Nothing pleased her more than playing a vital role in his upbringing.
She saw so much of her father in him, not only on the surface but also in his kind nature and mild temperament. In a way, being close to Walter made her feel like her father wasn’t altogether gone from this world.
Once his hair was combed, they walked together toward the main staircase that led down to the foyer where all the servants were bustling around, making second and third rounds to ensure everything was polished and perfect.
“Can you recite your French lesson for me?” she raised an eyebrow as they made their way down the stairs.
“Bonjour,” he began.
“And if it is evening?”
“Bonsoir, Madam,” he responded with a wide smile.
He went on to recite several phrases that may be used in polite conversation. Lydia clapped excitedly. “What about Latin?”
Walter’s face grew serious as he began dramatically reciting a biblical passage he had been memorizing.
“You are such a good boy, and I am very proud of you.”
As they reached the bottom of the staircase, Lydia knelt down to look him in the eye.
“You don’t need to be nervous. You’ve studied hard, and you know your lessons well.”
“I know,” he said, holding his head a little higher.
The entry hall floor was tiled with black and white marble that matched the marble pillars surrounding the greeting room.
The main entryway facing the grand staircase they had just descended had a massive vaulted ceiling where once hung a brilliant crystal chandelier.
Stanley Hall boasted two beautiful stories of elegant architecture complete with ornate crown molding. The Countess’ expensive taste in fashion had a draining effect on the estate, and the crystal chandelier was eventually sold.
After all, she couldn’t allow herself or her daughter to be seen in public wearing the same gown twice.
The housekeeper, Tabitha Marsh, scurried past carrying a vase filled with large cabbage roses. The bundle of flowers made her seem smaller than she was as she peeked out from behind the red bouquet, her eyes wide and alert.
“Pardon me, Miss Lydia. The carriage has been spotted.”
Placing her hands on Walter’s shoulders, Lydia looked him over once more for good measure. Noting that his face and hands were clean, his shirt was tucked in, and his hair was combed, she nodded, satisfied that her stepmother had nothing specific to criticize.
The two of them hurried out to the square where everyone was lining up to receive the ladies of the house.
Lydia sighed deeply.
It’s been so peaceful and quiet with the two of them in London. She felt a whisper of guilt pass through her at the thought of just how much she had savored her stepmother’s absence.
It was the first time since she could remember that she and Walter had been able to exist without constant rebuke and customary scorn from the Countess.
Stanley Hall was a beautiful manor, even in its current state, and Lydia had a deep love for her childhood home.
Most of the time, the halls and corridors reminded her of a happier time when her father was alive, a time when she felt worthy and loved, before she had to learn the harsh realities of the world.
The manor stood majestically on a hill amidst green moors that stretched out in every direction. The house itself was surrounded by a border of ancient towering elm trees that adorned the entire perimeter.
After a few minutes of waiting, the dark carriage became visible as it approached, it’s lanterns still burning from having begun its journey in the early hours of the morning or late hours of the previous night.
The horses whinnied as they brought the carriage around the circular drive, where they stopped at the center, in front of the square.
The elderly coachman stepped down, his body stiff from age and spending so many hours seated. Straightening his hunched posture, he opened the carriage door and held out his hand to graciously assist his passengers.
First, the Countess of Canwick, Margaret Stanley, and then Miss Arabella emerged from the darkness. No one in the square dared to speak before the Countess, who glided over to where her son stood waiting.
“My beautiful darling boy,” the Countess squeezed his face, bending down to kiss his cheek. “Oh, how I’ve missed you.”
Walter looked around at the staff as his mother made a show of embracing him. He knew his mother cared far more for Arabella than she would ever care for him.
He found her occasional displays of affection unsettling but endured them with as much grace as he could.
Lydia occupied her mind with thoughts of when Walter would come of age and finally realize he was the one that held any real power in the house, being his father’s only male heir.
She smiled at the thought, wondering what Margaret would do when that fateful day finally arrives. Arabella was easy for the Countess to control through fear.
Walter was different. Lydia knew it was in his nature to question things and doubted very much that he would stand for her manipulative tactics when he had a choice in the matter.
For the time being, he stoically tolerated her insincere excitement. But Lydia knew it was only a matter of time before he grew into an intelligent and decisive man.
“Have you practiced your French and Latin?”
The Countess stood upright and squinted quizzically. Walter responded first in French and then recited his Latin lesson.
“What about your arithmetic?”
Without any hesitation whatsoever, he recited his multiplication tables until his mother held up her hand, signaling for him to stop.
“That’s very good, darling.”
The Countess of Canwick’s smile vanished, and her face relaxed to its natural scowling state as she greeted her stepdaughter.
“Lydia,” she said flatly.
Walter’s mother, Margaret Stanley, was a thin woman with sharp severe features. She wasn’t ugly by any means. She could even seem beautiful when she was pleasant.
Although Lydia rarely got to see that side of her stepmother. She and Arabella both had beautiful blonde hair and emerald green eyes. Although Arabella seemed oblivious most of the time, Margaret’s gaze was cold and calculating.
She had a gift for making a person feel inferior with a single glance.
“Lady Canwick,” Lydia dipped into a slight curtsy, bowing her head. Margaret hardly acknowledged her before continuing on toward the house.
“How was London?” Lydia followed a few steps behind Arabella, who was close in tow with her mother.
“We caught wind of some exciting news,” Arabella looked back at Lydia with a bright smile. “Arthur Gibbs, the Viscount of Ranton, has recently bought Cold Creek Manor!”
“That house has been up for sale for ages,” Lydia commented.
“I know,” she wrinkled her nose.
“We met Lord Ranton in London, and he promised he was going to bring friends with him when he comes to oversee the renovations on the house. Just think of all the eligible bachelors to be met at his social functions.”
“That is exciting news,” Lydia smiled politely.
“You would adore Arthur, he’s quite witty and entertaining, to say the least,” Arabella turned and took Lydia by the hands.
“Please,” Margaret scoffed. “Lydia wouldn’t be able to keep up in conversations with people of social standing. She would likely have no idea what anyone is talking about.
“At any rate, Lord Ranton’s thriving social life will serve to find a match of a more appropriate station.”
“I thought the Gibbs family was fairly well regarded,” Lydia regretted offering her opinion the moment it escaped her lips.
“Not that anyone asked for your thoughts on the matter, but Lord Ranton is only a viscount. I am the Countess of Canwick, and Arabella is my daughter.
“She has the opportunity to marry someone of equal or higher standing and certainly isn’t concerned with the Gibbs family.”
She made a sour face and waved her hand as she made her way to her room.
Arabella pressed her lips together, her eyes glazed over in a sheep-like contentedness as she drifted toward her own room.
As soon as their doors closed behind them, Lydia and Walter made their way back down to the bottom of the stairs, where they looked at each other.
She gave an impish smile, which he returned.
“What should we do now?” She folded her arms.
“Can we go visit Roderick?”
His brow furrowed. Roderick was Walter’s pony, whom he regarded as his best friend. That is, besides Lydia. He was a strong, even-tempered creature who was every bit as fond of Walter.
“Of course,” Lydia put her hand on the boy’s head.
“No more lessons today?”
“I think you’ve been quizzed quite thoroughly, don’t you?”
“Yes,” he let out a relieved sigh, and the two of them headed out toward the stables, with Lydia feeling her heart heavying by the minute as it always did when the Countess was home.
But her life was what it was… and nothing seemed liable to change any time soon.
“As soon as I saw it, I knew…”
Arthur’s eyes were alight with excitement.
“I have never been one to believe in destiny. But it was as if the walls themselves were calling out to me.
“In my mind’s eye, I could see my children playing in those rooms. Walking in through the front door, it didn’t feel like I was in a stranger’s house. It felt like coming home.”
“You don’t have to sell it to me, Arthur,” Henry Radcliff, the Marquess of Whitecroft, son and heir to the Duke of Yeaton, smiled as he looked out the window, “I am already quite looking forward to seeing your new project.”
“It was an impossibly unique opportunity. A townhouse less than half that size in London would have cost twice as much.
“I’m telling you, it’s positively massive, and the grounds are filled with potential,” Arthur Gibbs gestured wildly as he described his new home.
“The garden has been completely neglected, and there are, of course, the renovations I was telling you about earlier. I’m a bit nervous about that if I’m completely honest. I don’t know much about architecture.”
Arthur was tall and lean with vibrant red hair, a fair complexion, and lively blue eyes that always seemed to be on the lookout for a possible spontaneous adventure.
The two of them had been friends since their early boyhood, and there was never a secret between them.
Although, over the last few years, the two had spent less time together since Arthur was mainly concerned with parties and courting, and Henry had always been the more studious of the two.
“Don’t worry, I think you’ll rather enjoy overseeing the renovations,”
Henry looked at his old friend from the opposite carriage seat.
“In fact, I think the chance to put your creativity to work on a house where you will plant roots of your own will only give you a stronger sense of pride.
“Something like that gives you a chance to make an imprint on the house that future generations of your family will have a unique appreciation for.”
“What a lovely thought,” Arthur looked out the window. “I don’t deny a level of excitement at the thought of raising a family in a home I had a hand in designing.
“Although, honestly, even when walking through the house in broad daylight, I couldn’t help but feel that the previous occupants had left an imprint, as you say, of their own.”
“You don’t mean…” Henry’s blue eyes shot a skeptical look at his friend.
“Yes, Henry,” Arthur leaned forward. “It looks like every haunted estate we used to tell stories about as children.”
Henry resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Arthur…”
“Wouldn’t that be fantastic?”
A wide smile spread across Arthur’s face, revealing the dimple on his right cheek.
“I rather hope it is haunted. Wouldn’t that be an interesting adventure? Arthur Gibbs and the Haunting of Cold Creek Manor does sound appealing.”
“It would be. But I’d prefer it started after my visit is over.”
Henry had just celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday a few days prior. Of course, he jumped at the chance to leave London for a holiday in Canwick with his good friend, Arthur.
It would be a welcome reprieve from the endless pestering from his father.
His father, Amos Radcliff, the Duke of Yeaton, was a good, honest man but a stern fellow with a strong sense of tradition.
Most of the Radcliff men were married with several children by the age of twenty-five. He felt that Henry was somehow falling short of the expectations set by society for noblemen of his age and character.
Lord Yeaton was also troubled by the fact that his advancing years may not afford him time with his grandchildren. Henry’s childhood seemed to come and go rather quickly, and he felt he never got the chance to enjoy it.
As a father, he spent a great deal of energy and expense, ensuring he grew up with a proper education and impeccable manners.
He also wanted to make sure Henry knew how to handle the family’s finances and ensure the continued wealth of their family line.
He had never been extremely fond of Arthur Gibbs, who, while engaging and charismatic, was a bit unrefined for someone of noble birth.
However, they did agree on one thing; courting was a luxury set aside for the young, and Henry was quickly advancing beyond that.
Arthur was still going on about their upcoming adventures.
“Canwick is like a proverbial gold mine for men of our stature. The previous generation of the region has been blessed with a great many daughters but not nearly as many sons.
“I’ve been told there is a surplus of beautiful young women and a tragic lack of bachelors to attend them.”
“Ah,” Henry narrowed his eyes. “Now I see the true reason you chose to come here.”
“Oh, come now, Henry,” Arthur leaned back. “Surely you must enjoy the company of beautiful girls. I know I’m certainly looking forward to sitting back and letting them gather around to woo me for a change.
“It will be a pleasant contrast to London’s social scene.”
“Please, Arthur. It’s not as if you lack attention from women in London. They’ve simply become used to your theatrical manner of conversation.
“Whether or not they are beautiful and whether or not they are pleasant company are completely separate matters altogether, my friend. You seem like you would be perfectly content to marry any girl who possesses a lovely face.”
“I don’t deny that.”
“And you don’t see the folly of marrying a girl solely based on her appearance?”
“Not at all.”
“I can just imagine you choosing a wife from a painting without having met her at all.”
Arthur crossed his arms. “And what, pray-tell, is wrong with that? I can think of little that would make me happier than to have a dainty wife with whom I am awestricken at the sight of every day for the rest of my life.”
“You should be careful, my friend,” Henry shook his head. “I would hate to see you unhappily married. After all, like you said, marriage is for the rest of your life.”
“Just how long do you suspect those dainty features to retain their charms? Time will not respect the soft flesh of youth. Rather, it ravages us all, some more quickly than others.”
“Why do you have to point out something like that? Something like aging cannot be controlled or changed. At least if I have a pretty wife, I can enjoy looking at her while we are young.”
“And what if she has a horrid disposition?”
Henry tilted his head.
“Imagine someone who disagrees with everything you say. What if she grows irritated at the very sight of you every time you enter the room? You’ll have to live with that, regardless of how agreeable her face might be.”
“I feel like you are referring to your own parents. Doesn’t your mother get an exasperated look on her face when someone asks your father a question?”
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “It’s as if she had already decided that what he had to say was unworthy of attention before the words even passed through his lips.”
“A man of noble birth should never speak ill of his parents. However, yes. Their personalities do clash horribly. They had a very short courtship I’m told, and my mother often cautions me on marrying too hastily.”
“While your father, on the other hand, pushes you to settle down as quickly as possible. I suppose growing up and seeing firsthand how miserable two people can make one another could make one hesitate to consider such a commitment.”
Henry’s mother was a strong-willed woman. While intelligent and warm, she was a force to be reckoned with. Lady Marion Yeaton was not the type of woman to keep silent if she believed an injustice was being spoken in her presence.
Her husband, who had always believed women to be soft and somewhat inferior creatures, was often put in his place by his wife, who refused to let such things be said in front of her son.
His father often told Henry of how Marion’s fiery red hair had grabbed his attention when she was introduced at a ball in her hometown of Talard.
He was entranced by her beauty, and after one dance with her, he entered into negotiations with her father, who arranged the marriage.
While the fiery color of her hair might have faded over time, the fire in her personality only intensified. Her version of their meeting, as told to Henry, was far less romantic, and she made no secret of the fact that she was opposed to marrying at seventeen.
However, it was an impressionable age, and she did as her parents told her, because that is what good children are supposed to do.
She always urged Henry to think for himself, and he felt empowered by her support. Regardless of the fact that his father was the one with authority over his future and finances.
The best thing he felt he learned from his mother was a respect for women as individuals.
This was not something that was spoken about at length in public as it was not a popular opinion. But he was grateful for the perspective she had afforded him, nonetheless.
“Miserable is a strong word. But I do want something different for myself.”
“So, you do plan on marrying then?”
“Arthur, I’m in no hurry,” Henry looked out the window at the blue sky. “I’m quite content to wait for the right woman.”
“How will you know her when you meet her?”
“I’ll know,” Henry raised an eyebrow. “I imagine it will be much like the first moment you saw Cold Creek manor. What was it you said? The walls called out to you and it felt as if it was destiny?”
“Describe her to me, then. So that if I see her first, I can introduce you.”
“How would I describe someone I’ve never met?”
“How will you find her if you don’t even know what you’re looking for?”
“Very well,” Henry shifted his weight. “She’s kind and gentle. She’s fond of children and animals, and they are fond of her. She isn’t prone to dramatic outbursts and doesn’t need to be the constant center of attention.”
“Her face…” Arthur gazed dreamily into his mind’s eye, “…is that of a rat terrier.”
“Laugh all you want,” Henry chuckled. “But I find that people grow either more or less attractive as you get to know them.”
“What will you do if she never shows up?” Arthur grinned. “Won’t your father be upset that you’re not fulfilling your duty to produce an heir?”
“I will handle that problem once it arises.”
Arthur laughed and shook his head. “I suppose you’ll just let your father choose a wife for you.”
“Certainly not,” Henry’s brow furrowed. “I would never trust my father to make a decision like that for me.”
The carriage finally stopped, and Arthur practically leaped out to look up at his manor. He held the door open for his friend, who followed close behind.
The two men looked up at the majestic structure, taking a moment to let it all soak in before looking at one another and smiling impishly.
“Oh yes, Arthur,” Henry conceded. “I would be shocked if there isn’t at least one ghost wandering around in there.”
They laughed and hurried up the stairs and into the foyer. Maple leaves were still scattered on the marble floor, and there was a strange chill hanging in the air.
“Duncan, you need to get the fires going. If this is to be a home, it has to feel like one,” Arthur rubbed his hands together.
“Already on it, my lord. Matthew should be coming in with firewood any minute,” Duncan, Arthur’s valet, took his hat and nodded.
“Good man.” Arthur and Henry continued into the drawing room. “All the furniture is being imported from France. It’s going to be a tasteful blue.”
“Hopefully, your future wife likes blue,” Henry blew a puff of dust off the mantle over the fireplace.
“If she doesn’t, then I’ll sell it and give her whatever she wants.”
“As long as she’s pretty?”
“She will, without question, be the most stunning creature in Canwick,” Arthur flashed a confident smile as he turned back toward the doorway leading to the foyer.
Henry shook his head, and they returned to the entryway. Two grand staircases curved around both walls, meeting the second floor at opposite ends of the room.
Arthur and Henry explored every corner of the house while Duncan followed along, writing notes of everything Arthur said needed done in each room.
“The bedrooms on the West side of the manor are all in perfect condition. The kitchen and dining room will need renovating as well as the servants’ quarters. I have to talk to the builders who will be arriving shortly. Perhaps you’d like to assist?”
“Actually, I was thinking I’d like to go out for a ride,” Henry looked out the window at the acres of green grass stretching out toward the west.
“It’s been ages since I went for a ride in the country, and after being cooped up in the carriage, I think a little outdoor excursion would be divine.”
He left, allowing the countryside’s fresh air to clear his head. Of its own volition, though, his mind kept returning to the conversation he had with Arthur.
Henry was determined that he should wait until the right woman came along. And if she never did, so be it. He could live his life as a bachelor if it meant avoiding the arguments and anger.
It was a better option.
And perhaps, it was the only option life would present him with.
Walter was contentedly brushing Roderick, with the stable hand standing by to watch over him.
“Joseph, do you suppose you could watch over him for a while if I went out for a quick ride?”
“Of course, Miss Lydia,” Joseph nodded as he dumped a bucket of water into the trough. “I’ll be coming back and forth between here and the well, but he’s a good lad. I know he won’t be any trouble.”
“Walter, you’ll be good and listen to Joseph, won’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Walter looked back over his shoulder.
She saddled up Lady and set off on her ride, imagining as she often did, that she was riding towards some unknown destination, never to return Stanley Hall.
She would go somewhere far beyond the reach of the Countess and never look back. She told herself that one day, it wouldn’t be a fantasy.
One day, she would turn twenty-one, and her stepmother would give her the money that her father had set aside for her.
Perhaps she would use it to buy a modest little cottage somewhere in the country. She would have a few chickens and perhaps a milking cow.
It may not sound like much for someone born into nobility, but it was the most she could hope for. After all the years of abuse, it was a wonder she was able to muster up the dream of a better future at all.
The sunshine melted over her skin, and Lydia drank in the sweet perfume of the afternoon air. Lady trotted over the moor and seemed to be enjoying the warmth of the day just as much as she was.
Lady was a healthy chestnut brown with a long flowing black mane. She was aging gracefully, as far as horses were concerned. She was always loved and well cared for, which must have contributed to her longevity.
Lydia gave thanks often that Lady was the one thing Margaret hadn’t taken from her after her father died.
During her darkest times, especially the days following her father’s death, Lydia found that the only reprieve from the pain of his loss was found in her time spent caring for her horse.
Lady would never judge her or tell anyone her secrets. She was someone Lydia knew would love her unconditionally, regardless of whether she was happy or sad.
Even on days when she suffered the indignity of being screamed at in front of the house staff after being accused by the Countess of lying or her disrespectful tone, Lady was there for her.
Lydia was convinced that animals were far more intelligent than they were given credit for. They can sense what you’re feeling even if you don’t show any emotion at all.
Love was a precious commodity after losing her father. She was no longer allowed to socialize with anyone except the servants at Stanley Hall.
There was a relatively high rate of turnover at the manor since the Countess frequently accused members of her staff of stealing and would garnish their pay for anything that went missing.
The only one who stayed on was Tabitha Marsh, the housekeeper. She was a short woman with a round face and a motherly disposition. She was hired when Lydia was small and was always regarded by Lydia as family.
Tabitha often told Lydia that the only reason she stayed on and put up with the Countess was to make sure nothing worse could befall her.
Over the years, the Countess had tried hard to train the girl not to stand up for herself, so the old housekeeper felt it only right to stay behind and try and counter whatever damage she was able.
Tabitha made sure Lydia knew that what was happening to her was wrong, and society would most likely be on her side if she decided to rise up and make her situation known.
But she couldn’t defy Margaret and risk never seeing Walter again. It was a fear greater than losing her inheritance.
Both scenarios were threatened on a regular basis any time the Countess sensed a hint of rebellion in the air.
Arabella didn’t have a mean bone in her body, but she, like everyone else, lived in fear of her mother.
Even though she was the only person her mother treated with an ounce of genuine affection, she was made to believe that she was only valuable if she could marry someone wealthy with a good title.
Arabella turned a blind eye to her mother’s treatment of the staff and Lydia. Having grown up accustomed to the mind games and general cruelty, she simply accepted the reality of the situation and didn’t question it.
Lydia had been so excited to find that her father was marrying someone with a daughter who was only two years younger than herself. The thought of having a sister filled her with joy, and upon meeting her, she adored her immediately.
Even after everything, she had no room in her heart for malice when it came to Arabella. None of what the Countess had done was her fault, and Lydia knew no one could do anything to make things any better for her.
But it couldn’t be denied by anyone that Arabella was tightly in the grasp of her mother and always had been.
Lydia remembered a time when she used to have friends— other young ladies of the ton. They used to come over and picnic out in the fields, running and playing chase.
But Margaret stopped her from seeing them years ago. The time for tea and cakes with friends was a thing of the past, and the Countess never failed to remind her that with her father gone, she was nothing special. Lydia secretly used to hope to see her friends when out riding.
However, she never once ran into anyone. Sometimes she would think about them and wonder where they were and what they were like now that they were grown.
Lydia knew it was likely they were all married by now. Perhaps they were raising children of their own and enjoying Sunday picnics with the other families of the ton.
Did they think of her? Did anyone wonder what had happened to her after her father died?
Lydia silently crossed herself. It was not anyone’s responsibility to look out for her.
She tried her best to grow beyond any capacity for bitterness toward the world, trusting that all things happened when and as they were meant to.
Surely her experience being forced to live under the Countess’ authority had taught her something; long-suffering perhaps. She had found a calmness, an inner strength that made her sure she could survive anything.
She could be treated cruelly and remain kind to those around her. Most of all, she had patience… patience that gave her a threshold for emotional pain.
One that most people her age would never have to experience.
A bird in the underbrush panicked at the sound of Lady’s hooves approaching. As it flapped violently to escape its hiding place, Lady reared up, startled by the sudden commotion, and sent Lydia crashing toward the ground.
Trying to land on her feet was a mistake. One which she realized the moment her ankle twisted, and intense pain shot up her right leg.
Though the grass had somewhat cushioned her fall, the moist earth beneath allowed her feet to sink into the mud.
The bottom of her simple gray dress and her hands were quickly getting dirty as she tried desperately to balance on her good leg. Thankfully, Lady didn’t abandon her entirely.
As soon as she realized she’d lost her rider, she circled back around the clearing, but still refused to go near the underbrush where the bird had flown from.
“Oh, good grief, you silly thing.” Lydia tried to take a step forward but immediately knelt down, realizing the injury to her ankle wasn’t going to allow her to chase her horse around the clearing.
“Come on, sweet girl.”
Lydia clicked her tongue and reached out, but Lady seemed committed to keeping her distance from the bushes.
The sound of another rider coming through the trees made Lydia hold her breath.
No. Her blood ran cold. Being seen like this, on the ground, in the mud with her hair a mess, felt like a fate worse than death. What if they recognize me?
A black horse with a shining coat emerged from the tree-line carrying a smartly dressed man with dark wavy hair. Lydia limped to her feet, folding her hands and lowering her gaze.
Just when she thought things couldn’t get worse, now she was here unchaperoned with a stranger.
She winced in pain and lost her balance, falling back to the ground as gracefully as she could.
“You’re hurt,” the man’s voice was deep and gentle.
He dismounted his horse, and as he came nearer, Lydia could see his face more clearly.
A chiseled jaw framed his full lips and strong chin. His eyes were blue but seemed dark and mysterious, almost analytical in their movement.
“I’m alright, my lord,” Lydia smiled. “My horse has never been the skittish type. A little bird flew out, and she lost her composure. Everyone is entitled to a bad day, I suppose.”
“I suppose so.” He walked toward Lydia, whose eyes were wide with worry as she gestured to her horse.
“Could you please?” Lydia implored.
“Of course,” he nodded, before turning his attention to Lady.
Cautiously, he walked toward her with his hand outstretched in a gesture of trust. “Easy girl.”
He softly rubbed her forehead and took the reins that were now dangling. Lydia watched every movement of his hands. His touch looked gentle, and Lady seemed less nervous, closing the space between them willingly.
With Lady’s reins in hand, the mysterious stranger then returned to Lydia, who was still sitting down.
“Are you alright?”
“I think I’ll be okay. I just need a moment to get my balance, I think.”
“Here,” He reached his hand out, and she accepted it, getting to her feet and trying to hop toward her horse, causing herself to nearly fall again.
“The shoes I wore are not suitable for this terrain,” she laughed nervously.
He said nothing but simply smiled. Taking her hand and helping her back into her saddle, he begged pardon.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, smoothing out her dress. “I should be able to make it home now.”
“It would be no trouble to see you safely to your door,” he replied.
“You’re very kind, but that won’t be necessary,” she assured him.
“It wouldn’t be honorable to let you ride off alone in your current state.”
“I should not have been out alone in the first place,” she sat tall and confident, twisted ankle aside. “I certainly shouldn’t be escorted home by a gentleman, unchaperoned.”
“I understand your concern, but I can’t help but worry that you’ll be thrown again. I could not bear to hear later that you were found with further injury.”
“Lady is usually very well-behaved.”
“As you mentioned before,” he reached up and stroked Lady’s neck. “But as you said, everyone is entitled to have a bad day once in a while.”
“She rarely throws me, I assure you…”
“I insist,” he smiled, and she felt her defenses lower.
“Very well,” she relented against her better judgment. “Thank you.”
“I’m merely doing what any decent person would do in the same situation. I am Lord Henry Radcliff, Marquess of Whitecroft,” he bowed.
She hesitated before responding. If she were to introduce herself as Lydia Stanley, the Countess would find some way to make her life miserable for the foreseeable future.
“Miss Marsh. Miss Lydia Marsh.” Surely Tabitha wouldn’t mind her borrowing her last name under the circumstances.
Lord Whitecroft flashed a smile that made her heart flutter as he led Lady forward to take the reins of his own horse in his other hand, leading them out of the clearing.
“Where is your home, Miss Marsh?”
“Stanley Hall, where all the elms are gathered on the hill just past the moor,” she pointed in the direction of her family home.
He led on, and she thought about how different things would be if her father had still been alive. She would have been a distinguished lady, and this would have been the perfect beginning of a beautiful love story.
But she wasn’t a lady. Not anymore.
“Do you ride often?”
“Every day, if I can help it,” she smiled. “I’ve had Lady since I was a child, and I think this was only the fourth time she’s thrown me.”
“You sound like a true horsewoman,” he said over his shoulder. She blushed.
“That’s the highest praise I’ve received in a long time.”
“Well deserved, I’m sure.”
“I don’t know how well deserved it could have been. If you hadn’t come along, who knows how long I would have been out there trying to get her to come to me.”
“Nonsense, I’m sure you would have rescued yourself in no time at all.”
“I highly doubt that. Although it’s kind of you to say so.”
She watched her father’s house slowly come into view, remembering how her heart used to overflow with joy at the sight of it.
Now she always dreaded going home, unsure of what torments her stepmother had in store for her.
“Do you have any other interests besides riding?” Lord Whitecroft asked.
“I enjoy reading, if I have time,” she couldn’t help but enjoy the sound of his voice. She had never had a gentleman of status engage her in conversation.
“That’s wonderful. What are your favorites?”
“I have a small collection of French Poetry, as well as a shelf devoted to the classics. But I confess, I do have a secret love of modern Mystery.”
“Have you read the works of Angus Whitfield?” he asked.
Lydia’s eyes widened at the mention of the name of one of her favorite mystery authors, but she remained calm and poised.
“I have,” she swallowed. “I rather enjoyed the short stories he published about the mysteries of Italy.”
“Ah, yes,” Henry agreed. “Those were some of his earliest works. I’ve been looking for a copy to add to my collection. I think I enjoyed The Curious Case of Wilhelm Green the most.”
“That one was quite suspenseful.”
Lydia felt silly in thinking to herself how hard it was for her to sleep after reading that book.
As they approached the house, she could see Helena, who was Arabella’s lady’s maid. She was unhurriedly bringing in a basket of carrots from the garden when she looked up and saw them.
Looking panicked, she ran inside, most likely to inform the Countess that a man was escorting Lydia home. The time for pleasant relaxed conversation was over, and there was no telling how this transgression would be received.
When he first saw her, Miss Marsh reminded him of a little gray bird that had hurt itself flying into the window of his London townhouse.
He remembered the bird being a bit dazed as it fluttered weakly in his hands. As he picked it up, inspecting its legs and wings for any breaks, he could feel it breathing, fearful of his touch.
Once it realized he meant no harm, the bird relaxed and simply looked up at him until it was able to reorient itself before flying away.
Her hair that had been pinned up in a loose bun was now falling in wavy strands around her face. The afternoon sun caused her fair skin and gray eyes to shine like stars, and every time she spoke, he could hear the smile in her voice.
It was hard not to keep turning around to look at her. Every time he glanced back, he thought of how much she looked like a painting.
Henry was making a conscious effort not to ask Miss Marsh a hundred questions. Propriety dictated that he kept his comments confined to the weather.
But he couldn’t help but inquire about her interests and hobbies. So often, conversation was wasted on filling what would otherwise be an awkward silence.
But he longed to hear her speak; about her life, her thoughts, her likes and dislikes. So overwhelming was his curiosity about this stunning creature whom he had discovered, that he felt he could have continued talking with her for hours if circumstances allowed.
But that was not the case.
Surely his father would be thrilled to hear that he had become interested in calling on a young lady. He might have some negative comments about the nature of their meeting, but those concerns would likely be laid to rest once he met her and saw the dignity with which she carried herself.
True, she had been out for a ride in the countryside all on her own. She was obviously aware of societal expectations about such things, but she also seemed to possess an underlying defiance that he found refreshing.
This was a quality he believed his mother would appreciate and enjoy at length, should they get an opportunity to chat.
He tried not to think about his conversation with Arthur. Concepts like destiny and love at first sight were childish notions, certainly not forces that an educated gentleman of his character believed in or wanted at work in his life.
And yet, he was completely captivated by her. He struggled to keep his eyes forward as he led the horses, speaking to her over his shoulder about books and riding.
The small talk was only scratching the surface of the things he wanted to know about her. In less civilized times, deeper, more meaningful questions could be asked.
But here and now, he was confined to keeping the conversation superficial.
He wished the distance to her home was greater. If that were the case, it would have given him more time with her.
However, he knew the longer they were alone together, the greater the doubt that would be cast on her character. He had no desire to damage her reputation, in spite of his selfish desire to extend their conversation.
Her injury was obviously causing her significant pain, as was evident by her inability to stand even as she insisted on being left on her own. The fact that she shared two of his greatest passions for reading and horseback riding, only added to her subtle allure.
She was wearing a simple gray dress, which was lucky, considering she had fallen into the mud. His insistence on helping certainly seemed at least mildly vexing to her.
However, she was gracious, remaining calm and poised throughout the entire ordeal, which Henry found surprising.
He had always tried to maintain that no two women were alike. But in his experience, thus far, the women he had encountered in London seemed rather fragile and were prone to getting emotional quickly when trouble did arise.
It was as if they wanted to be viewed as fragile, delicate things. This did give some credence to his father’s view of women. Generally, they were happy to accept the help of anyone willing to offer assistance with any issue at hand.
Henry, being his mother’s son, obviously wanted to believe women were more capable than people were led to believe, but he had often found himself disappointed.
As Stanley Hall came into view, he asserted to himself that this would be the perfect time to introduce himself to Miss Marsh’s family, affording himself the opportunity to call on her again.
A servant girl out front spotted them and scurried inside, presumably to inform the Lady and Lord of the house that Miss Marsh had been delivered safe and sound. They had most likely expected her back much earlier and were probably worried sick.
Soon a fair-skinned woman with graying blonde hair appeared in the doorway. Her dark opulent gown flowed back as she swept into the square to meet him.
A beautiful girl dressed just as elegantly in bright pink followed behind her mother. The younger girl had golden ringlet curls that bounced as she glanced around.
A small dark-haired boy dressed in a fine suit rushed up, and the older woman caught him by the collar of his shirt, pulling him back. His eyes were wide with worry, but he wrinkled his nose, looking up at his mother in an irritated fashion.
“Oh, good heavens. What happened?”
The lady of the house looked at Miss Marsh and the mud around the bottom of her dress. This woman was attractive for her age and obviously put a great deal of time and effort into her appearance.
Her face reddened ever so slightly, and her eyebrows drew together. Pursing her lips, she took a deep breath, as if attempting to calm herself.
“Forgive me,” Henry bowed. “I am Lord Henry Radcliff, Marquess of Whitecroft. I was out for a ride when I found Miss Marsh, who had been thrown from her horse. She objected, but I had to insist on making sure she got home safely.”
The woman’s expression softened, and she put on a superficial smile, glancing at Miss Marsh and then at her own daughter.
After meeting the lady of the house, her stubbornness made more sense. Even though Henry was second-guessing his choice to bring Miss Marsh home, he maintained a confident outer appearance.
He could only hope that his explanation would prevent the woman from scolding her daughter too severely.
Since Miss Marsh had seemed fairly anxious about how his company would be perceived, it would be a shame for her to be punished when he was the one that had insisted.
“Oh my… Miss Marsh!”
The lady of the house looked at the girl who now seemed stiff and nervous atop her horse’s saddle. Blinking as if hoping to conjure a tear to her eye, the woman continued.
“Thank goodness you’re alright. Little Walter would have been devastated if anything happened to his governess. We all would have.”
Governess? Henry thought. Her manners and the way she spoke certainly seemed to be more of what would be expected from a daughter of the house.
“I am the Countess of Canwick, and this is my daughter, Arabella,” she reached her hand out, and Henry took it, bowing shallowly before taking Arabella’s hand and doing the same. “Are you visiting family here in Canwick?”
“A friend, actually,” Henry smiled. “The Viscount of Ranton, do you know of him?”
There were few in high society who didn’t know of Arthur. If they hadn’t met him personally, they should at least know him by reputation.
Arthur was one of those people about whom everyone had a strong opinion. There were some that found him unrefined. Ever since he was a boy, he’d had a hard time sitting still, as if he had more energy than could be contained in his body.
Henry found it a complement to his introverted nature. Arthur most definitely contributed to improving Henry’s ability to engage people in conversation.
While his mother was quite fond of Arthur, his father had always found him annoying.
“We met Lord Ranton in London,” Arabella said, trying to suppress her excitement. “Has he moved into his manor yet?”
“He is overseeing the renovations as we speak. He’s very excited to make Cold Creek Manor and Canwick his home.”
“Oh, won’t that be lovely?”
The Countess shot a pointed look at her daughter, and Henry couldn’t help but sense that hers and her daughter’s opinions of Arthur seemed to differ.
“Lord Ranton is a lovely gentleman. We can’t wait to attend the ball he’s planning once he gets settled in. He seems like he would be such a fine host.”
“Indeed, he is,” Henry folded his hands behind his back and pressed his lips together.
“Throwing social functions is one of his greatest passions, and it shows. He spares no expense to make every event more memorable than the last.”
This was something that was quite true of Arthur. What his excessive energy caused him to lack in social grace, was made up for by his hospitality.
When he organized a social event, he made sure to invite only the most distinguished youths of his generation and made sure they all had a wonderful time.
“We are so indebted to you for rescuing our governess. You and Lord Ranton simply must come and have dinner with us. It would be wonderful to catch up.
“It was just a stroke of luck that we were having Arabella debut when we did. We had considered doing it last year, but it was right that we waited until she turned seventeen.
“The extra year really gave her a chance to put the proper polish on. We are so proud of her accomplishments.”
Arabella blushed and smiled sweetly.
Henry thought back to his conversation with Arthur. This girl was very pretty, but her vacant expression was concerning.
I am going to have to make sure that Arthur is on his guard around these two. He is looking for a pretty wife, and the Countess is no-doubt the type to be looking for a son-in-law with a pretty inheritance in his future.
Poor Arthur won’t stand a chance against a pair of big blue eyes like hers.
“I’m sure Arthur and I would be honored,” Henry circled around to help Miss Marsh down from her horse.
A short stalky woman rushed up to put her arm around the girl and helped her off to the door.
The little boy, who oddly bared a greater resemblance to his governess than the Countess and her daughter, wriggled away from his mother and came close to hug his governess.
“I’m okay, Walter,” she whispered. “Be good now and go stand next to your mother.”
The boy frowned but obeyed.
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Miss Marsh.”
When Henry spoke, the woman helping Miss Marsh turned around with a bewildered look on her face.
“The pleasure was mine. I thank you for your assistance, Lord Radcliff,” Miss Marsh seemed to rush through her statement. Henry assumed she must have been in a hurry to get the weight off her ankle.
The Countess kept glancing toward Miss Marsh as if anxious for her to go into the house. “Can we expect you and Arthur this coming Friday around four o’clock or so?”
“That sounds most agreeable,” Henry said as he mounted his horse. “I look forward to it.”
Something was odd about this family, but Henry reserved judgment. Surely, he couldn’t judge the Countess after only just meeting her.
He had been warned by his mother not to make up his mind about a person after a single encounter. However, his father had always told him to follow his instincts, and he couldn’t help but sense that something was amiss.
On his ride back to Cold Creek Manor, he was elated. Governess or not, he had met the most interesting girl he had ever encountered.
It would be best not to mention his interest in her to Arthur or anyone. It was a single meeting, and Henry was determined to keep his wits about him.
The last thing he needed was for word to get back to his father that he was calling on a governess.
”His Cinderella Governess” is now live on Amazon! Download it today!