Lydia Hetherington settled herself on her beloved mare, thankful to have escaped the confines of her home and the escort of the groom. She trotted demurely down the drive until she was out of the main gates and out of sight of the house, then she put her horse to the gallop across the meadow. She had longed for the feel of the wind on her face, loosening the pins that confined her unruly hair beneath her hat. All morning, her mother had tried and failed to interest her in the forthcoming ball and she knew Mama would be scandalized at the sight of her now. No matter, she would tidy up before returning indoors.
Each day, as she took a ride or a long walk, Lydia was thankful that her father preferred to remain at his country estate for most of the season. She could escape the boredom of the endless social round that was forced upon most unmarried girls. Now, as she reveled in the freedom of her ride, Lydia admired again the green of the countryside around the village of Langton, near Windsor. It was close enough to London for her father's government work, yet far enough removed to avoid the many balls and other delights for marriageable daughters. Even so, as she remembered the imminent ball, Lydia reflected that there was no lack of country houses such as her father's and Lady Fotheringay's to provide entertainment and a social whirl that sometimes rivaled that of London or Bath.
Turning Sprite around at last, Lydia started back across the highway towards home. Then she heard the hooves. She had time only to draw on the reins when a phaeton pulled by two grey horses came fast towards her. Her mare reared and Lydia lost her seat. She slid to the ground unhurt, apart from a slight bump to her shoulder, but furious. Staggering to her feet and making ready to shout at the driver, she heard her name called.
"Lydia, are you hurt?" Her brother, James, was running towards her, full of concern.
"No... I think not. No thanks to your driver!" She was more indignant than hurt. She'd not taken a tumble from a horse since she was a
"Oh, she's fine, no doubt about it." James turned to the figure now at his side. "Watch out, Marcus, she has the devil of a temper when she's crossed."
Lydia straightened to her full medium height and frowned her disapproval at James, then she glared at the man standing beside him. So this was the friend he was bringing home with him.
"My most humble apologies, dear lady, for causing you such distress," he said, with a gallant bow. "Your brother and I had a wager to see how fast I could get here and I think I've probably lost."
Lydia stared, wondering whether she dared laugh or not. The man was such a fop. He was dressed in the utmost fashion: tightly fitting buff colored breeches, matching waistcoat, dark riding coat, carefully tied muslin cravat, highly polished Hessian boots, the whole topped with a medium crowned hat. Then she met his gaze and was puzzled. The amused expression in his steel grey eyes belied his dandified actions and Lydia noticed his dark hair and features that reminded her of Lord Byron.
Aware suddenly that she was staring, Lydia smiled sweetly and acknowledged his apology. "Think nothing of it, sir; if I had been driving, be sure I would have won the wager." With that, she turned to James, who was waiting to fold her in a brotherly hug, though not before she'd glimpsed the half smile the other man tried to hide.
"You'd best believe that, for my sister has the best seat on a horse for miles around." James smiled contritely at Lydia. "It's as much my fault, you know, Lydie. I told Marcus the road would like as not be empty. Oh, this is my good friend: Marcus, Lord Sheldon."
"Your servant, ma'am. This is not the way I imagined I would meet the lovely Miss Lydia Hetherington. Your brother has talked of you often and he has not exaggerated your beauty. Or your spirit," he added with a smile.
Lydia watched him bow over her hand this time and as he looked up into her eyes, she again was puzzled that his expression did not match his manner. She dared to think he might not be quite as he appeared. Her mother had often remarked upon Lydia's ability to see to the heart of people. It was one of the reasons she found the pretensions of the majority of her circle unbearably tedious.
Lydia was aware her voice sounded haughty as she replied. "Thank you, sir, though I think you are too fulsome with your praise." She caught the definite spark in his eyes this time and had the unwelcome feeling that he was every bit as perceptive as she liked to think herself.
Lydia looked at James standing patiently by and sighed, wondering when he would ever grow up. He was five years her senior, had a commission in the army and was helping to fight against Napoleon, yet still he had the same irresponsible streak that had caused her father to encourage him to go away in the first place. She glanced at the man standing beside Sprite, gently whispering soothing words to calm her mare. She was trying to decide whether she was correct in finding him some years older than James when he turned and met her gaze. Willing herself not to blush, Lydia gathered her wits about her and walked towards her horse, grateful to find indeed that nothing hurt apart from a slight ache in one shoulder.
"You ride with Sheldon, Lydie, I'll walk Sprite home. There's only room for two in the phaeton, as the luggage is on the extra seat above the back wheels."
"That is not necessary, James. I am perfectly able to make my own way home if you will return the reins to me." Lydia was determined to regain what little dignity she had left.