Essex, England, May 1807
Lady Lily’s governess was distracted by the handsome footman who walked by the open door of the schoolroom. Lily seized her chance at escape. She ran from the third floor of the house downstairs to the entry hall and out the front door to her mother’s walled rose garden. It was much too lovely a day to be inside. The soft tinkling of the water in the fountain she now skipped around was a fitting accompaniment to the off-key warbling of her favorite song.
“You’re awfully small to be wandering around on your own,” a voice close behind her said.
She spun around to face the owner of the teasing words, tripped over her skirts and fell backward into the shallow water of the fountain. Her white muslin gown was now soaked from the waist down. Her pantalettes clung to her legs. She sat up and with great reluctance accepted help from her watery seat in the form of a wiry dark-haired boy with grayish-blue eyes.
Back on her feet again, she pushed sodden locks from her face and sent a glare toward the individual she blamed for her mishap. She cocked her head in her best imitation of her maternal grandmother and said, “You sir, are no gentleman.”
To her surprise, her speech elicited the reaction she’d intended. Although she expected the boy might well erupt into laughter, he instead made her a sweeping bow.
“Pardon, my lady, I did not mean to cause your fall into the fountain.”
She accepted the apology with a brief nod and stood as straight as she could. “My name is Lady Lily. I am not small. My mama says I am tall for my age.” She sniffed as her governess often did when imparting words she believed to be extremely important for her charge’s education. “I will be seven years old next month.”
“You’re practically all grown-up.” Although the expression on his face appeared solemn, she couldn’t be sure the boy wasn’t still teasing her. He did bow again. “Lord Houton at your service. I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Lady Lily.”
Pleased at the courtliness directed her way, she forgot her wet clothes and put aside her dignified demeanor. “You belong to the new family next door? I thought you were away at school.”
“I have been away at school. Harrow in fact. I’ve returned home until the autumn term begins.” The name of the school meant nothing to her. Lord Houton said the name with reverence as if it should.
“I’ve met your brother Lord Geoffrey.” She recalled overhearing her parents discussing the new owners of Kilmeade Hall. Geoffrey was three years her senior. His brother Lord Houton, an earl with the Christian name Charles, was another year older. “Why are you in my mother’s rose garden?”
He grinned. “I had to find out who was singing so… interestingly at the top of their lungs.”
Her companion looked quite smart in fawn trousers and a claret colored coat. Her cheeks heated as she remembered her own bedraggled appearance.
“Lady Lily, what have you done now?!” Miss Hopper, Lily’s errant governess, had appeared. The sound of the woman’s high-pitched shriek elicited a wince from the boy who stood next to Lily.
She looked past Lord Houton to see Miss Hopper hurrying towards them. She groaned inside. The governess loved to scold her charge about her unladylike behavior and could go on ad nauseam about Lily’s faults if given the opportunity.
Miss Hopper came to a halt beside Lily. Her tirade was curtailed by the young earl.
“The accident was entirely my fault.” The boy flashed a wide smile, complete with dimples, at the governess. “I came upon Lady Lily unawares and scared her, you see. She couldn’t help but tumble into the fountain.”
“And who might you be, young man?” Miss Hopper’s tone sounded mild. It was obvious by his immaculate clothing that the boy who stood beside her charge was a gentleman.
“Lord Houton. I live at Kilmeade Hall.”
Lily smiled to herself. She knew she would not be chastised further in front of the boy. Lord Houton was an earl and the son of a marquess. Miss Hopper was always very nice to anyone related to a title. The house maids often gossiped about the governess’s propensity to ‘toady up’ to anyone she thought the least influential.
The boy sent Lily a brief smile. “Lady Lily, I apologize for causing you any distress. Excuse me, I must take my leave. My mother dispatched me to extend a dinner invitation to your parents.”
Lord Houton bowed, nodded to her governess and walked out of the walled Rose garden. Miss Hopper’s face had turned purple from holding in her displeasure at Lily’s bedraggled appearance.
“Come along, my lady. We need to get you into some dry clothing. I don’t know what your mother will say if she sees you in such a state.” The governess took Lily’s hand and pulled her none too gently toward the house.
She was lost in her own thoughts as Miss Hopper muttered darkly about a girl who didn’t behave as a lady should.
Not only was she an only child, there were few children in the surrounding area for her to play with. Geoffrey, who would be off to school next year, had shown little interest in her. Although the earl had caused her accident, he’d come to her rescue with Miss Hopper. She hoped the boy might become a friend.
Maybe I’ll be invited to Kilmeade Hall. She could have dinner upstairs with Charles and Geoffrey. Her parents would allow her to go to Kilmeade Hall with them if she asked. She had always been able to wrap her father around her little finger.
“Let us hurry,” she said to her governess. She would have other days to frolic in the warm afternoon sun. “I need to speak to my papa.”