Romancing A Wallflower – Anna St. Claire

That was a narrow escape! I thought Chambers was going to tell us Mama was looking for us.” Lydia DeLacey put her hand to her mouth, smothering her giggles as she joined her twin sister at the bottom of the front steps of their father’s house. “Hurry!” Lilian urged. Picking up their skirts, they ran down the gravel path to the stables, arriving breathless and intoxicated with excitement at avoiding Mama’s machinations. Two handsome gentlemen had arrived earlier to meet with their father. The twin’s abigail, who had had it from Cook, had told her mistress that Mama had ordered tea to be served at four of the clock. Lilian hated to think her father would arrange marriages for her sister and herself—not when he and their mother still enjoyed a love match. However, her mother was notorious for creating opportunities, as she termed it, for her two daughters to meet the men of their dreams and seemed determined, despite Lilian and her twin showing no interest in any of their suitors, to find at least one match. Her joyous mood changed when she saw the head groom waiting at the door of the stables. “Oh, marvellous! Barney is waiting for us,” she muttered with a hint of sarcasm. “We will have to take him, Lilian.” She yearned to ride Danby, the dark bay she had brought on from birth. She loved the fresh air and thrilled to the independence riding her horse gave her. Often, she and Lydia rode neck and neck, racing over the pastures and fields of her parent’s estate. Such freedom was impossible in London.

“Good morning, my lady and my lady.” Barney, the head groom, stepped forward with their horses. “I took the liberty of having Danby and Ginger saddled. I thought you would wish to ride this morning. Me own horse is also ready.” He sent an imploring look in their direction. Lilian glanced at her sister and then around her, struggling to find an excuse to leave him behind. There was none, although on many an occasion she and her sister had contrived to lose him. The poor man knew they were likely to put him through his paces. “Thank you, Barney.

” Lilian smiled tightly. “It is a beautiful day for a ride, is it not? We will endeavour not to trouble you unduly.” “Yes, my lady.” He noticeably gulped and led Lydia’s horse to the mounting block. He helped each of them onto their horse and climbed upon his own. The small party rode out of the stable yard, Lilian and her sister in the lead and the groom trailing a safe distance behind. Flowers were in bloom everywhere. A purple blanket of creeping thyme edged the path. Bluebells and bright yellow cat’s ear carpeted the sides of the hill, dominating small sunny areas as it climbed a ridge beyond them, making the small pockets of pink wild roses very noticeable. “This is truly lovely, Lil.

The air even feels cooler. It is perfect weather for our ride,” Lydia commented. “Would you care to ride to the cliffs today?” Lilian questioned. “I would love to, but do you think we should? Father has asked us to stay close to the house. He does not want us near the cliffs unchaperoned because of the free traders. I do not think he would consider Barney sufficient protection.” Lilian did not care to bear Father’s wrath. He was normally a gentle soul, but when it was needful, he could become intractable. She agreed with her sister. “Yes, the thought of Barney defending our honour is almost too much to contemplate.

Very well. What about the ruins? We could follow the ridge and mayhap stretch the horses there.” “That is a good plan. Mama will be so cross! I wonder who these gentlemen are?” “An earl and his friend, Father said this morning. You were too busy eyeing that new footman to notice.” “Perhaps we should have taken the Season more seriously and she would not be so frantic about our finding suitable matches,” Lydia replied. The family had arrived home from London only a week ago and had barely unpacked. Lilian sighed. “There was one gentleman…” “Oh, I know the one you mean, and I noticed your reaction to him. He was wearing his regimental dress although, according to Mama, he is an earl.

” Lilian was not surprised Lydia knew exactly the man she remembered. It had been the last ball of the Season. She drew in a breath, recalling how she had noticed him the moment he had entered the room. “I will admit I wished he would ask me to dance, but he and his friend did not seem to remain long.” “Quite. I noticed him watching you and thought he would ask to be introduced, but then his friend came back with glasses of champagne, said something to him and they left.” “Perhaps there was an emergency.” Her mind flitted back to that night. “They were both interesting, but so were several others. I noticed you seemed taken with Viscount Yarstone.

” Although she spoke the words, Lilian’s mind was still on the gentleman in the regimentals. “Do come down from the clouds, sister,” Lydia teased. Wrinkling her nose at Lydia, Lilian gave her horse a slight nudge, sending him into a canter. Her hat came off and she felt her hair fall from its pins until her long auburn brown curls were flowing behind her. She did not care. She had Danby, and she was here on this glorious morning. It was all that mattered. Her sister looked behind them. “Good heavens! Barney is keeping up!” Immodestly, Lydia yelled across the space between them, gesturing with a jerk of her head and obviously goading Lilian to look. Instead, Lilian sniggered in a rude way and gave Danby another nudge.

Her brown gelding ran faster, forcing Lydia and her chestnut to race to catch them. It felt wondrous. The two sisters rode across the crest of the hill for a good while, deftly dodging trees, fences and outcrops of rock—doggedly followed, some distance behind, by their groom. Low shrubs and weathered post-and-rail fencing bordered one edge of the path they followed, and masses of coloured flowers covered the ground, gradually disappearing from sight. A more wooded area appeared in a bend in the track ahead of them, and as they approached, a loud shot rang out. Danby shied violently sideways and with a shrill squeal of distress, reared high on his back legs. “Lilian!” Lydia cried out. Lilian heard her sister’s cry and was dimly aware of her struggles to gain control over Ginger, but her own struggle to maintain her seat was failing. Somehow, her legs loosened from the pommels of her side-saddle when the horse rose, and she fought to keep her balance. Danby lost his footing and as he toppled, the force of him hitting the earth tossed her to the ground.

She landed on a stone, or something equally hard, the momentum then rolling her across the rough ground until she thudded into a large rock. She heard her own scream pierce the air. Lydia and the groom tried to lift her, but she screamed in pain at their touch. Although she could see them speaking to her, their voices sounded distant. Her vision was growing darker and she could barely see; she was viewing their faces and the sky behind them through a small, dark hole which kept shrinking. Her world was growing dark. Her head and her back ached fiercely. Her ears were ringing. She wanted to scream and tried yet could hear nothing. Pain throbbed from every part of her body.

She tried to move, to get up, but her feet…what was wrong with her feet? They were not moving. What had she done? Her head pounded, and warm liquid ran down the side of her face. A large warm hand grasped hers and at last she heard voices. “Lady Lilian, can you hear me?” “Lilian, please speak to me.” Wet drops hit Lilian’s face. Her sister was crying, it seemed. Whatever had happened to her, it must be bad. She tried to open her eyes but could see naught but blackness. I am so tired. “We heard a shot and then saw the horses.

We came to help.” A strong, masculine voice penetrated the fog in her head. Who was this? She could hear only snippets of the conversation because of the ringing in her ears. “Lady Lilian, we must move you…” “…gown ripped…” “…back of gown wet with blood.” Are they talking about me? Lilian felt herself being lifted and then coming to rest against a warm body. The horse shifted beneath them and was soothed with a soft murmur. She could smell the comforting aroma of its sweat, and shivered. Why was she so cold? She recognized her sister’s voice, but her garbled words were disjointed. A light scent of bay leaf and bergamot teased her nose. Gentlemen’s and lady’s colognes had been in abundance during her coming out, and had mostly tortured her senses, but this was one she liked.

How odd that both scents were conveyed so distinctly. Nothing was making sense. What was happening? She felt helpless and trapped, now unable to see or hear, and fought against the urge to cry out. A rich voice above her calmed her trembling, and she found she could breathe. She could not hear what was being said, but the voice was soothing. Exhausted, Lilian leaned her head into the warm body holding her and gave in to the darkness that beckoned.

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