Selina believed that there was simply nothing better than solitude and the beauty of nature.
“I would be quite content to spend my days gazing upon all that is natural about me. I sincerely doubt that even our greatest architects shall be able to effectively emulate the colours, vibrancy and aliveness of nature. That job has solely been left to the artists.”
She lay on her back, linking her fingers behind her head. There was no one to judge her here; it was just her and the woodland creatures that were curiously peeking out of their nests and burrows, staring at her. Selina had left the well-manicured lawns of the estate to venture farther out, seeking inspiration.
“None was to be had in the house, not with Mama and Aunt judging my every move. They would surely scold me for the state of my hands and dress!”
She sat up, turning her hands over and grimacing at the smudge of charcoal.
“I would not care to be filthy, but Mama does become rather tedious about my level of cleanliness.”
Her dress had handprints along the front and the sides, offending black smudges that stood out against the light blue of her cotton dress.
“I suppose my choice of dress has not helped my cause either. However, I am quite sure that Teresa shall remove these stains in a wink of an eye. That woman is an absolute whiz with stains.”
The laundry maid of the estate had thus far managed to remove every stain that Selina had managed to find during her walks. A quickly-snatched custard from the kitchen was payment enough for the sweet maid. “Ophelia may have met her match in Teresa. They both enjoy an abundance of sweet treats. I do feel somewhat envious of their ability to consume large quantities of sweets and yet retain their slender forms. I need only look at a sweet pastry to find a sudden increase in girth.”
Selina was by no means large, but she had a pleasant plumpness that could easily tip a scale in the wrong direction if she were not mindful of her dessert intake. The daily walks that she took were helpful in keeping her form within society’s standards.
“Heaven forbid I should suddenly take on the likeness of a stuffed pig – Mama would be mortified.”
Her mother certainly meant well, but her eagerness to keep within the accepted rules of social customs was enough to have Selina chomping at the bit. She flopped onto her back once more and admired the clouds in all their misshapen glory. As children, Selina and her sister used to cloud gaze, picking out the different shapes and naming them. Ophelia would often see castles, knights in their armour, and even princes on their noble steeds, whereas Selina would see great battles being fought, animals trotting about, and landscapes just waiting to be sketched. Of course, it was all subjective, but it was an enjoyable pastime. Ophelia rarely cloud gazed, as she was more concerned with the fashion, music, and socialising. However, they still spent a significant amount of time together, giggling and conspiring as only sisters can do.
Selina rolled her head to her left, encountering the gaze of a red deer. She went still, not wanting to startle the woodland creature. The backdrop of the woods framed the deer perfectly; coupled with the rolling sky, there was only one thing that she could do. Selina slowly got up, keeping her eyes on the deer.
“Do not run away, please.”
Her sketching materials lay beside her, ready to be picked up and put to work. Selina settled herself into a comfortable position and placed the sketchpad upon her knees, but as her hand met the page, a sudden gunshot echoed throughout the surrounding area, startling the deer and causing it to disappear into the woods behind it.
“Balderdash! What ill luck! I have half a mind to give those hunters a piece of my mind! When will they let those poor pheasants alone? How many pheasants can one possibly eat?”
Selina was against hunting for sport, believing it to be futile and savage.
“Mother Nature has done a splendid job of controlling animal population upon this earth for centuries. Why do humans believe it acceptable and desirable to kill animals? And yet they would seek to imprison poor people who hunt for sustenance. Deplorable behaviour.”
The deer was gone, but she still needed a study to sketch.
“Perhaps I shall find something suitable as I return to the house.”
Selina got to her feet, still disgruntled by the loss of her deer. She had yet to sketch anything that afternoon, and her main aim had been to find inspiration in nature. Selina had already drawn flowers, trees, birds, and the river that ran on the far side of the estate, but today she wished for something else.
“An emotion, something that says much but does not speak. That deer would have been a most perfect specimen. I would have allowed her eyes to speak, captured the tense stance of her nimble body.”
But there was nothing for it; she needed to focus her creative flair in another direction. Selina retrieved her sketching material and went in search of something worthy to sketch. Not that the scene about her was not decent, but nothing had communicated with her as the deer had done. She headed back to the house, taking her time as she did so. The country estate was vast, stretching across acres of land that included expansive green lawn, a tailored flower garden that, although beautiful, seemed almost unnatural in its geometric style. Selina had noticed that a river ran towards the edge of the country estate, but she had been too far to explore it any further. She had already gone farther than expected by that point, and evening had been fast approaching. But tomorrow she intended to go down and hopefully be inspired by the river. Selina stopped her slow walk back to the house to flip through the pages of her sketchbook, admiring her own handiwork. Not that she was prideful of her work for she was a modest young woman, but not even she could deny that her eye for detail did make for a vivid picture. The sketches seemed almost alive as if she could reach out and touch them, feeling the smoothness of a petal or the warmth of an animal. She resumed her walking, pondering upon her works. Selina may not be accomplished in the areas that matter to her mother, but she had the ability to bring a mere sketch to life. That mattered more to her than the sweetest of singing voices, the nimblest of fingers upon a piano, and a graceful poise during a dance. Ophelia was more so gifted in these areas, but Selina did not begrudge her sister anything.
“Rather her than me. I would much rather be out in the open than behind closed doors, pandering to the gentry as they survey me with critical eyes.”
Her belly grumbled, alerting her to the fact that she had last eaten breakfast many hours earlier. However, she had no intention of returning to the house just yet.
“Perhaps a few apples from the orchard shall settle my hunger pangs. But I must take care not to be noticed by Mama, or she will demand that I enter the house and take up a more suitable pastime, such as writing letters to my dreadful cousins.”
And they indeed were dreadful beings. Selina’s father had a brother with four children, two of whom were close in age to her. They just happened to be two girls who had a penchant for bullying her, especially in their schoolroom days. Susan and Martha possessed a mean streak that they revealed to a select few people, and by that she meant herself. The sisters were two years apart, with Susan being the eldest of the two as well as the ringleader to all her bullying. Selina, always being the shorter one of the family, remembered being tied to trees and left alone, chairs being pulled out from under her as she meant to sit down, her clothing mysteriously turning up with holes, and of course, that would earn her a scolding from her mother. Now that they were older, their taunts had taken on the form of cleverly-crafted comments that cut to the quick. Many of their comments were a dig at her red hair and the light smattering of freckles across her nose.
“Although I do gather that they will see fit to torment me with unbridled hatred.”
They had all attended the Season together, and lo and behold, Selina’s combination of alabaster skin, Titan hair, and emerald green eyes had been a success. Suitors had been clamouring to speak with her, and her cousins had been livid. Long had they drummed into Selina that her appearance was no match for their more conventional brunette hair and peachy skin. English roses, they called themselves, while Selina was compared to a prickly thorn. Imagine their surprise when she turned out to be a success. However, they should not have become angry as Selina’s popularity had soon waned when the suitors discovered her intelligence, as well as her open manner of using it in conversation. An Englishman did not want a wife with a voice of her own; neither did they want a wife whose intelligence surpassed their own. As a result, Susan and Martha had returned with marriage proposals, while Selina had none. However, this did nothing to assuage their anger, as the very men they were engaged to had done nothing but cling to Selina’s company at first, before moving onto them when they realised that she was not what they wanted. Selina was secretly pleased to have not made a match, despite her mother’s fretful cries. She had no wish to be matched to a pompous Englishman, especially not the sort that enjoyed the company of her insipid cousins.
“Good day, Miss Seymour. I take it that you have been for a walk?”
Selina stopped in her tracks, turning to greet the young scullery maid.
“Good day, Agnes. Yes, I was seeking inspiration from the land.”
Agnes looked at her smudged hands and dress, grinning.
“I take it that you found some?”
Selina had drawn a few flowers and leaves, but they had not been what she was looking for. The deer would have been a perfect specimen, but of course, her plan had been foiled by hunters.
“Not what I was looking for. I am still searching.”
Selina only just noticed the basket of apples resting on the girl’s hips. I hope that she has not picked all the ripe apples!
“Does Mrs Albermale intend to make apple pie?”
“Yes, some will be turned into pie, but the Mistress wants applesauce for the roast suckling pig that Mrs Albermale will be making for dinner tomorrow.”
Selina pulled her face. “I take it that one of the piglets that I had petted just this morning shall become my dinner tomorrow?”
The maid chuckled. “I shall leave it there, Miss. I must be going, or Mrs Albermale will have my head.”
The estate cook loathed to be kept waiting, which was perfectly understandable. Anyone would be impatient when there were several hungry mouths to feed, all of a discerning palate, or rather, said discerning palate. Selina believed that her family tended to put on unnecessary airs in certain company, which could be amusing at times.
Agnes returned to the house while Selina continued to the orchard, meeting a few other servants along the way. The country estate was always buzzing with activity and only truly settled near midnight. Several times Selina had crept downstairs well after dinner, hoping to find a good book to sink into bed with, and would see a few servants milling about, usually putting things into order ready for the next day or extinguishing a few lamps on their way to their own servants’ quarters. Selina would sometimes stop to chat with them, but if they looked rather weary, then she would quietly pass them by, carrying her own lamp into the library.
The orchard came into view, and Selina was relieved to see that the trees were plentiful and the apples low enough to reach. Her day dress had pockets, something that she had insisted upon with their seamstress. She placed her sketching materials upon a flat rock and stuffed her pockets with as many apples as possible, intending to give some to the farm animals. Selina decided to steer clear of the pig pen–she was afraid that she would recognise the suckling pig that would grace the dinner table the next evening.
“I shall stick to the stables and avert my eyes as I pass the pigsty.”
Which was what she did. The only thing that she could not ignore was the stench as she passed the sty, but as soon as she was some feet away, she could breathe easy.
“I do love suckling pig, but I prefer not to know the source. There is nothing as terrible as greeting an animal the day before, only to find said animal on my plate for dinner. It is unsettling, to say the least.”
Selina spotted the stable groom, bringing a quick smile to her face.
“Isaac! Mrs Albermale has informed me that you are a new father! I am so pleased for you and Lydia.”
The stable groom smiled. “Ye, me wife had a set of twins, she did, Miss Seymour. The Mistress has given me the weekend off to spend time with me wife and babies. Samuel will take care of the horses then.”
“That is wonderful, it truly is, Isaac. They are both boys, are they not?”
“Ye, two sweet, squawling babes that keep their mum up half the night. Never thought I’d have any, but the Lord is good.”
“That He is, Isaac. Would you mind if I give Prancer and Osiris these apples? I know that they are partial to them.”
Isaac nodded. “Of course, Miss Seymour. Just do not let the other horses see, or they might be jealous.”
Selina laughed, finding the notion of the horses being jealous quite comical.
“I shall ensure that they both eat their apples in secret, but I cannot control what they may speak of once I leave their presence.”
Isaac looked perplexed for a moment, which made her laugh that much harder. Understanding dawned, and he let rip a whopper of a laugh, his guffaws loud and gay.
“Oh, Miss. Yer a laugh, yer are. Get on with yer horses, now. Don’t let Prancer get into those papers of yers.”
“I shall have them safely hidden away, Isaac. He will not chew another of my sketches.”
Isaac tipped his hat off to her before disappearing into a horse pen. It didn’t take Selina long to feed the horses and whisper a plea not to relate anything of their meeting to the other horses. It was a silly thing to do, but neither could she resist it. Life would be boring if not for the scattered moments of silliness. Selina had also eaten her own apples, feeling satiated indeed. She was on her way, having a ready smile for the maids and farmhands she encountered to the Ha-ha. The low stone wall gave her a choice of grazing herds on one side, and gardeners on the other. Selina had yet to choose whether it would be human or mammal she would sketch, but as she settled on the wall, the weathered face of a gardener intrigued her.
“Allan!” she called out.
The gardener looked up, and upon seeing her, grinned.
“Why, it be Miss Seymour. Out on yer walk again I see?”
“Yes. I could not imagine sitting in the house for more than a few hours. Ophelia, however, is more than happy to do so. She is my sister, but we are certainly not two peas in a pod when it comes to our habits.”
“That be true, Miss. I hardly seen Miss Ophelia out and about.”
He wiped his brow, shifting his hat as he did so. He would be a perfect study for my last sketch of the day.
“Allan, would you mind terribly if I sat here and sketched you?”
He scratched his chin. “Sketch, Miss? Whatever for? I’m hardly a sight for sore eyes.”
“Art is not dependent upon society’s standards of beauty, Allan. Well, at least mine is not. I wish to sketch you in this habitat, capturing the sweat on your brow, the strength in your hands. Do you permit me to?”
Allan shrugged. “Far be it from me to deny ye, Miss. It seems harmless enough. I would like to see that there sketch once yer done.”
“I shall surely show it to you, Allan. You may return to your work so that I might start.”
The gardener nodded, resuming his activity once more. Selina soon became engrossed in the lines that started to take shape before her, glancing up at Allan every now and then as she strived to capture his essence. She wanted to do him justice and perhaps gift it to him. Between the bleats of the lambs behind her and the sturdy work of the gardener before her, Selina entered her own world of silence, colours, and peace.
Selina noticed that the sky had suddenly darkened, but it did not deter her from her task at hand.
“Miss Seymour, I do believe that it’s a storm coming this way. Those clouds look ready to burst.”
“I am sure that it will hold off, Allan. It may only rain this evening.”
She didn’t look up when she answered him, too concentrated on perfecting the tufts of hair that peeked out from under Allan’s hat.
“I don’t know, Miss. I think it best ye return to the house. I’m leaving meself–the last rain I was in gave me a sorry head. I stayed abed for days.”
Selina finally looked up. “Leave if you must, Allan. I will stay here and complete this sketch.”
“Are ye sure, Miss?”
She nodded. “Quite sure. If I start to feel little drops, I will make sure to take cover.”
“As long as yer sure, Miss Seymour. Wouldn’t want ye to catch a nasty cold.”
Selina smiled. “I shall not do anything of the kind. I am as healthy as an ox.”
Allan left, uncertainty clear in his eyes. Selina was not bothered by a bit of rain, in fact, she loved it. She resumed her sketching, ignoring the sounds of the storm approaching her. Why run when it is still in the distance? A drop of water fell and landed with a tiny splash on her arm. Still, she chose to ignore it.
“’Tis only but drizzle. Hardly anything to write home about.”
When a drop of water landed on her sketch, she hunched forward–rather her hair catch any wayward droplets.
“The thickness of my hair is a welcome cover today. One of the rare moments when it is more of a help than a bother. Mama refuses for me to cut it. What can I do with hair that I may very well sit on if not pulled up into a careful hairstyle? I daresay that people do not understand the weight of one’s hair on their necks. Quite the troublesome thing. ’Tis a chore to wash, what with the buckets of water and bending over a wash basin as Sophie lathers my hair. If I should have my own way, I would cut it and be done with it.”
True enough, she felt nary a cold droplet as it hit her hair. Assuming that it did hit her hair. Selina shaded in the contours of Allan’s face, showing each dip and curve that brought his face to life. It was like magic: a few lines, melded together to create a picture that captured the spirit of a person, animal, insect, or even plant or tree. The only other medium that Selina could accredit such magic to was the art of sculpting. Selina used her fingers to smudge certain areas, not caring that she was streaking her brow with the charcoal. A loud thunderclap had her jerking, losing her piece of charcoal in the process. She bent down, gasping when the rain clouds burst open, sending a heavy downpour of cold rain.
“My heavens!” she exclaimed.
Selina stuffed what she could down the front of her dress and took off at a sprint, heading towards the house. She laughed as she slipped on the wet grass, landing on her bottom. Selina was back on her feet again, this time more careful with her footing. Many of the servants were scrambling to find shelter, laughing harder as they were slipping and sliding, landing in puddles.
“For goodness sake, avoid the puddles!” she called out.
Selina doubted that they heard her because the rain and boom of the thunder were deafening. She found it all somewhat exhilarating, not minding the fact that she was soaked through. The only regret was going to be her sketchbook. She was probably going to have to start again, but she had enough art supplies in her trunk, so she wasn’t in the slightest bit bothered by it. Having the opportunity to begin her sketches again just meant more time to herself and being immersed in nature. Selina still had several weeks of stay on the country estate, so she welcomed the opportunity to get out of the house. She arrived at the front door and thought better of it.
“What would Mama say? She would have my head once I was all clean and warm.”
Getting in through the servants’ quarters was her safest option, so she snuck around, taking care to lay low. There was no telling if anyone should happen to look out of the windows and spot her dishevelled form. Selina burst through the kitchen door, laughing and breathless.
“Selina! Child! What were you doing out in that weather?”
She nearly groaned. Selina had forgotten that Mrs Albermale, the cook, was almost as bad as her mother when it came to mothering.
“I was sketching when the clouds decided to burst open and wet me good and proper.”
“You look like a wet dog with all that hair stuck to your scalp and shoulders!”
Selina narrowed her eyes at her sister, planting her hands on her hips.
“Is that so, oh sister dear?”
Ophelia giggled. “You should see yourself, Selina! If Mama were to see you …”
“Then perhaps it’s best that you get wet along with me.”
Her sister furrowed her brow, her nose scrunched up.
“I shall not enter into that storm, so I hardly know what you could mean.”
When Selina stretched her arms out and went running towards her, Ophelia screeched and rounded the table.
“Don’t you dare, Selina! This is a new dress, and I shall not get it wet.”
Selina stopped and held her palms out, her face serious.
“Oh, alright, little sister. You win.”
Ophelia’s shoulders went down, and she breathed a sigh of relief. It seems that my sister does not know me well enough, or I am a great actress. I choose the latter. Selina ambled toward her sister, and when she was near enough, she grabbed her sister and hugged her tight.
“Selina!” Ophelia gasped. “How could you do such a thing? My dress!”
Selina gave her sister a sound kiss on her cheek before releasing her. She had made a visible wet print on her sister’s dress, but it was still nowhere as wet as she was.
“We do everything together, right? Might as well get wet together too. Do you not think so? You look mighty fetching in that partially wet-dog look.”
Ophelia looked at her dress and grimaced. Her laughter was unexpected and infectious. Soon Selina and Mrs Albermale joined in, their bodies shaking.
“Whoooo, you two will be the death of me,” said Mrs Albermale. “If it is not Ophelia trying to convince me to part with sweets, it’s Selina being a basket case. What will I do with the two of you?”
“Give us sweets?” Ophelia hopefully asked.
“Not tell Mama about my wet state?” Selina added.
“Ha! I see now. You wish me to dole out sweets meant for dinner, and lie to your mama?”
Both the girls nodded, their eyes pleading.
“You are always telling me that I should eat more to make myself plumper,” said Ophelia. “Do you not think that sweets would do the trick?”
Selina laughed. “You are hardly a stick figure, Phee. However, I doubt that a few sweets will make much difference.”
Ophelia shot her a withering look, sticking out her tongue before returning her sweet gaze to the cook.
“Do not mind my sister, Mrs Albermale. Selina is just jealous that she cannot consume your sweet treats with the same gusto that I can.”
Selina picked a potato peel off the table and aimed it at her sister, hitting her on her head. Ophelia gasped, her hand going to her head.
“Selina! I just had my hair washed!”
She laughed. “As did I. Only I had Mother Nature do the honours of washing my red locks.”
To prove her point, Selina swung her hair, releasing some wetness onto the occupants of the kitchen. Mrs Albermale, having seen her intent, had used her apron to block her face, but Ophelia had caught it full in the face.
“Selina! This the last straw!”
Ophelia ran towards her sister, pushing herself away from the table as she took a corner. Selina had already started running with a squeal, occupying the space her sister had just vacated. She was shorter than her younger sister, but she more than made up for that in speed.
“You come right back here, Selina!”
“And admit surrender? Never!”
Ophelia grabbed a handful of potato peels and pulled her arm back. Selina eyed them, her body ready to duck.
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“I take after you, oh big sister of mine. I dare much.”
Mrs Albermale held her hands out. “Girls, girls! My kitchen is not a place for a food fight.”
Ophelia paid that no heed and hurled the handful of peels at Selina, who managed to duck from most of them, but a couple still got her. She landed on her knees and crawled under the table, meaning to grab her sister’s legs, but Ophelia was not to be caught in such a manner. She lifted herself onto the table and peered down, waiting for her sister to emerge.
“Selina! Ophelia! This is hardly proper, girls. Get away from that table at once.”
Selina ignored the cook, as she knew that Ophelia would as well. This was a customary thing for them to do, and they both understood the rules: whoever surrenders first will be the other one’s servant for one week. This was a game that they had played from their younger years in an effort to amuse themselves during stormy weather. It was as serious as it was playful. Selina gathered the peels on the floor into a pile and listened carefully to the telling creaks of the table above her. She would know exactly where her sister was as she shifted her weight across the table. There was silence. Oh, I see that she is learning. Smart girl.
“Girls! I shall call your mother if you do not stop this foolishness!”
“Oh, Mrs Albermale!” they both whined.
“We are merely playing, we truly are,” said Selina.
“Yes!” added Ophelia. “Selina and I often do this at home. Do not call our Mama, please. She would surely scold us until our ears rang with her disapproval.”
“Then you best come away from that table–I have a dinner to prepare.”
Selina hesitated. To come out would mean defeat, but neither did she want to earn her mother’s ire. She slowly crawled to the end of the table and looked up. To her surprise, Ophelia grinned down at her before dropping a pile of peels onto her face.
“I won!” She laughed. “You have to do what I say for the week now!
Ophelia jumped off the table, clearly pleased with herself. Selina hated to admit it, but her sister won fair and square. Gone were the days when Ophelia would constantly be caught by Selina; now she was the victor. Selina smiled.
“You are the victor, and I am at your service for the week. However, I shall not be doing anything that is untoward or wholly out of character for me.”
Ophelia held her hands out. “Agreed. But I do believe that I have earned the bragging rights to declare to whosoever I wish that I have conquered my sister.”
Selina took her sister’s hands, standing up and away from the table.
“Let us not become too enamoured with the idea, Phee. There are yet other games to play while we are here.”
“My dear sister, you are ever the sore loser.”
Selina had to admit that she loved to win, and often did, whether it was chess with her father or charades with her cousins–sans Susan and Martha. They never cared to take part in any games, believing themselves above such frivolous ventures. Although what was so silly about their games, Selina could never understand. If anything, she believed that the cousins were not adept at playing games, and, not wishing to disclose such information that would inevitably taint their supposed perfect charms, they ridiculed those that would partake in games.
Selina laughed. “You may have your victory, and I shall be your servant, but this is far from over.”
“You both speak as though you may have an all-out war of some kind,” commented Mrs Albermale. “Why can you not be as the other girls? Mind you, this house would not be as entertaining had you girls been any different.”
“It is far too boring to be anyone else but ourselves. Besides, Ophelia is lady enough for both of us. I have never met a more poised and sophisticated young woman in my life. I would be jealous if I did not adore my sister. Furthermore, becoming a proper lady has passed me, Mrs Albermale. I am now the age of twenty, a marrying age for many. Ophelia will likely marry before I do, and it would not bother me.”
Ophelia came to her sister and put an arm around her waist, leaning her head against hers.
“You are the most precious sister, around. I dare anyone to try and surpass your intelligence.”
Selina returned the side embrace, her manner thoughtful.
“Poor Mama had wished to find me a suitor in London this past Season, but perhaps she was consoled by the attention you garnered from a certain gentleman and yet you were not yet introduced!”
Ophelia immediately blushed. “Oh, hush, Selina. ’Tis nothing, I assure you.”
“Your rosy cheeks say another thing altogether. Do you think that we shall see him again?”
Ophelia looked down and shrugged, her mumbles unintelligible.
“What is this I hear? A suitor for our Ophelia?”
“Do not make much of it, I beg you. A brief conversation does not a suitor make. I wish to enjoy our stay without the need to remember any past encounters with any gentleman. Now, if you will excuse me, I must freshen up for dinner.”
Ophelia left the kitchen, her head held high. Selina had seen the longing looks her sister had shared with her young man, but she held back due to Selina’s ending failure during the Season. Ophelia was a dutiful and loving sister to a fault, but she would not allow her sister to give up her chance of love because of her. If Selina was to have love, she was confident that it would find her.
Selina walked into the parlour that evening with great trepidation. Her mother and aunt were waiting for her, most likely calmly drinking their tea and chatting about how best to discipline her. When she entered the room, Ophelia was already there, looking meek and mild while sitting in a chair some few feet away from the stern-looking women. Selina raised her eyebrows at her sister, but Ophelia shook her head slightly, using her eyes to point at their mother. What? Selina mouthed. She just about saw Ophelia mouth ‘trouble’ before their aunt spoke to her.
“Take a seat, Selina. Do not dawdle at the door. We have much to discuss.”
Their mother nodded her head. “Quite so, Dorothy, quite so.”
Selina quickly took a seat next to Ophelia, exchanging a knowing glance with her. This scene was all too familiar, and it always preceded a lecture of sorts. What have I done to deserve a lecture? Both her mother and aunt put their teacups down and regarded them with a disapproving stare.
“Selina, you and your sister have the uncanny ability to cause me great distress,” her mother said. “Have you no notion of how to act like a proper lady?”
Her mother certainly looked upset, and Selina had a sinking feeling that word had reached her of her impromptu rain dash. The fact that Ophelia had also been summoned for the lecture told her that their play in the kitchen had been revealed as well. Who would have disclosed such information, knowing that it would upset Mama? Mrs Albermale was not a woman who felt the need to report such things to her mother or her aunt, which only left Ophelia. Selina glanced at her sister, who was looking down, her gaze fastened on her shoes. What did you do, Phee? However, her sister would not volunteer the information, which meant that her mother had somehow forced the information out of her. Their mother was one person that neither of them could lie to.
“What part of my actions has caused you such distress, Mama?”
“Do not act surprised, Selina! Did you think that I would not notice Ophelia’s state of dress this afternoon? Besides being damp, she also had a potato peel stuck to her hair and her dress.”
What ill luck! Mama must have intercepted Ophelia on her way to her room. It would not surprise me if Mama were stationed behind a door, just waiting to pounce upon any one of us in the hopes of catching untoward behaviour. Might as well be honest about it.
“That was merely an accident, Mama. The peels were not meant to stick to her but hit her and fall off.”
“Ah-ha!” her aunt interjected. “So you admit to playing childish games and turning my kitchen into a pigsty?”
Selina shook her head. “Not in the slightest, Aunt. The mess was quickly cleared up. Your kitchen is as clean as it was when I first came in.”
“Drenched in the rain!” her mother added. “Did you think that we would not find out? Your uncle saw you running through the rain, laughing as though you were delirious! What if we had guests and they had seen you? Do you not think, Selina? When will you learn that you are no longer a child, but a woman? Do you think that you will get a husband acting in such a manner?”
Always back to the husband. Selina was tired of every situation becoming something about finding a husband. She had heard of nothing less since before the Season, making it nearly a year.
“Mama, why does everything have to be about finding a husband? Ophelia and I were playing in the kitchen–there was no harm done. And I was caught in the rain while I was sketching Allan. There was nothing untoward about my or Ophelia’s behaviour.”
“Selina!” Aunt Dorothy scolded. “You will not speak to your mother in such a manner. You are here to socialise with people of your own status with the purpose of securing a good match for you.”
Selina scratched her brow, the only sign of frustration that she could exhibit without fear of repercussion. What is wrong with remaining single, for goodness sake? Becoming a spinster will not bring doom upon my family! Not that my intentions are to become a spinster, but it is hardly fair to be pressured into a marriage, not of my choice.
“Aunt Dorothy, I would never dream of disrespecting my mother. I am simply explaining the situation for you to understand that they were harmless circumstances. There was no ill intent involved.”
Her aunt shook her head, tsk-tsking as she did so. Aunt Dorothy was her mother’s older sister. The country estate that they were currently visiting belonged to her and her husband, Uncle Edmund. Selina had arrived with her family some days ago, and it had not taken long for her mother and aunt to start plotting and scheming the most desirable ways to secure a husband for her. Damage control had to be done due to her unsuccessful Season, and with the landed gentry in the area, it needed to be done quickly.
“Selina,” her mother said, “we are trying our best to give you an enviable future. There is no hope for an unmarried woman, none at all. I do not have any sons that will inherit your father’s estate. Do you understand what this means? Should your father die, all that we have will be given to your cousin, William. If you do not marry, you will be without a home! Your only hope is to marry a man with a good fortune.”
Selina was well aware of this, and she considered it most unfair. To have lived in a home for all her life, only to have it taken away because she was not the correct gender? It was no wonder that women rushed to be married. However, she also knew that her father would never leave her destitute and would ensure that she have an inheritance that she could comfortably live off for years to come. She would not need much money to live comfortably, for she was a simple girl. A good yearly allowance would stretch far for Selina, of that she was certain. Selina had no qualms with becoming a working woman, although the very thought might drive her mother into the grave.
“You must learn to socialise with people of your own status, Selina. Your aunt has not opened her home to us for you to cohort with her servants. If a gentleman were to see how lowly you consider yourself, he would not pay you any attention. Many girls are competing for the best match, but your aunt and I are determined to secure your future. I just want you to be happy.”
Happy with someone of her own status. I do not see that happening.
“Mama, I know that my happiness is the root of all that you do, but I simply do not share the same view as you and Aunt Dorothy. I believe that we are essentially all born equal at birth, but money, status, and prejudice have set us apart from those that you consider lowly workers. They are honest people, and they possess more character than many of the people that you wish me to socialise with.”
Aunt Dorothy gasped. “Scandalous child! Do you understand what you are saying? This is unheard of! Who are you to question the way that things are done?”
“Aunt, it is not a matter of questioning, but of what is right and wrong. Working people may not have the wealth that we do, live in grand estates, attend lavish balls and dinner parties, and rub shoulders with royalty, but they experience the same emotions that we do. They have a family, just as we do. They get married, they mourn, and they experience joy just as we do. Money does not maketh the man, no matter the excuse that those in power choose to give.”
Her mother’s shoulders dropped. “And do you think that sitting outside and sketching these people will make any difference to their lives?”
“I sketch because I love to, and I am good at it. Watching people and sketching them is far better than being cooped in the house, painting flowers and fruit. I enjoy life, Mama, I really do. Why can you not see that?”
“Because your mother lives in the real world, Selina,” her aunt answered. “Girls like you do not fit in because your heads are stuck in the clouds. Perhaps you are too young to understand the harsh realities of life, but it is my hope that you are not disappointed. You are my niece, and I wish to see you happily married and settled, but we cannot force you.”
Selina saw how dejected her mother looked. It was important for her that her eldest daughter be married, but why did it have to be a wealthy gentleman? She was at odds within herself. Her whole being abhorred the idea of marrying a shallow and heartless man, but neither did she wish to distress her mother any further.
“I will try to keep my ‘wild’ antics far from any prying eyes. I do not wish to disappoint you, Mama.”
Her mother smiled weakly. “That is all I ask for, Selina. Just give this a chance; I beg you. You may be surprised.”
Surprised by what? The fact that she was going to be right about the men that her mother desired her to bat her eyelashes at? Selina and Ophelia were excused, and they gladly left the room, competing to see who would reach the door first. This earned them another scolding, and they stopped being obvious about it, but there was still a gleam of harmless competition between them. Selina won this time, sticking her tongue out at her sister before running up the stairs to her room. She had a lot to think about, and none of it was particularly good.
Selina took her journal out from its hiding place and sat down at her desk to pour out her troubled thoughts onto the blank pages. The conversation with her mother and aunt had upset her more than she was willing to admit, and she would have shared it with her sister as she usually did, but she wanted to keep this to herself. Not even Ophelia knew of her aversion, true aversion, to marrying wealth. Selina openly spoke of their dull personalities, their selfish and self-centred ways, as well as their heartless manner, but there was a story that she had yet to share.
“I do not wish to sway Ophelia from her dream of marrying the perfect gentleman, but I do not believe that there is such a thing. Only men who use their wealth for evil deeds. Who is to say that she will not meet a supposed suitable match that would soon become a nightmare?”
Thoughts of Jane filled her mind. She sighed.
“Oh, Jane. If only you had never met that man! If I just only knew who he was, I would expose him for the world to see.”
Jane had been her childhood friend, but Selina did not know of her whereabouts. Jane was their gardener’s daughter, a pretty young woman with a ready smile for everyone. She had only been two years older, but they were nevertheless kindred spirits. At the age of eighteen, Jane had fallen in love with a man, but she had refused to reveal him, only saying that he was a gentleman and the kindest man that she had ever met. Trinkets started to show up, some that Jane would wear and others that she would put away. Some were gaudy and cheap, but there were a few that raised eyebrows for they were far above the station of a worker’s daughter. This was what had alerted Selina to realise that the man had to be wealthy, and therefore part of the gentry. Selina had questioned Jane, and she had not denied it. Rather, she professed her love for him, still not giving his identity. At one point, Jane started to speak of marriage, of being whisked away from her dreary life to that of beautiful dresses, grand balls, and a home of her own to run with servants running around doing her bidding. Selina had been alarmed, to say the least, and somewhat suspicious. Why would the man not choose to reveal himself and speak with her father for her hand in marriage? Then one day, Jane had simply disappeared. It was only months later that she learned that her friend had been with child and had also been rejected by the father of the child. One sentence, in particular, had stood out for her.
“He had said that she wasn’t of the right marrying type–that he was far above her in status. He could never marry a servant girl and ruin his chances of marrying a suitable gentlewoman.”
Just speaking the words had her blood boiling. Her father had been the one to send her away to avoid prolonged shame, but he would not tell her where. The child would be three years old now.
“The wealthy have longed believed that they can do whatever they want and get away with ruining the life of an innocent girl, all due to her status.”
Selina had long since looked for her, but she had so far been unsuccessful. None of the other servants wished to help her, and that had perplexed her.
“Perhaps Jane wishes not to be found by me. But I would not judge her! Far be it for me to throw the first stone.”
Her parents were well aware of the situation with Jane, and yet they still insisted on marriage. Time would only tell if Selina gave into her mother’s hope for her eldest daughter.
Selina could not stand being cooped up in the house any longer. Two days had passed since her scolding, and she had dutifully remained indoors to please her mother, but she could no longer bear to look at the walls surrounding her. Selina had managed to sneak past her mother and aunt, but she had no idea where her uncle and father were.
“They could very well be outside.”
She would have to take a different route, one that would take her away from the frequented areas of the estate.
“Perhaps the river will be a perfect place for me. I know that there will be no fishing this day, so there is no chance of being found out.”
Selina had organised with her sister to tell anyone who should ask about her whereabouts that she was taking a walk.
“Although perhaps it was not such a wise thing to tell my sister. She can never lie to Mama, even when she wants to.”
Their mother had a stare that could unravel one’s tongue rather quickly, but not Selina. She was accustomed to her mother’s antics and knew how to avoid her. Not that she frequently lied to her parents, but there were times that she simply needed to get away without the possibility of facing her mother’s disapproving stare.
“Mama’s disapproval is the last thing that I need, considering the scolding I received a few days ago.”
Selina took the servants’ exit out of the house, keeping close to shrubs and bushes that could quickly conceal her should anyone come walking by. This meant that she went much farther than she had expected to, not recognising the clearing that she stepped into. Was this still part of her uncle’s country estate? She wasn’t so sure. The river was there, moving quickly and smoothly as it flowed.
“This is certainly the river, but it is wider here. I cannot rock hop across it to the other side. Oh well, this side is as good as any. At least it is secluded–no one should bother me here.”
Selina looked around, smiling. This was going to be the perfect scene for her next sketch. She found some comfortable-looking ground to sit on, feeling a particularly spongy area.
“This grass is wonderfully thick and soft–I could sleep on it! But there is no telling if an adder was to appear out of nowhere in search of warmth and cuddle up next to me.”
Selina shuddered at the thought. She was not keen on snakes, or any other reptile for that matter. Once she was settled, her sketchpad, charcoal, and stolen fruit arranged around her, she got to work, roughly outlining the scene before she started to bring it to life. Selina had the foundation of her sketch in place when she heard the horses’ hooves. Frowning, she looked up to see a man coming towards her, leading two horses on either side of him. She should have been alarmed: she was alone in a secluded area, and a stranger was approaching. But oddly enough, she wasn’t. Selina watched the man come closer, wondering if he would stop and speak with her.
Alexander spotted the young woman long before she had looked up from whatever it was she was huddled over. It was the flaming-red hair that had first caught his attention, and the fact that there was someone on his land. She was a trespasser, but Alexander did not see the need to publicise that. As he neared her, he noticed her curious gaze. Most young women would have been frightened to meet a stranger, especially a man, but she clearly wasn’t. Alexander didn’t know whether he should stop and greet her, or merely lift his hat and be on his way. He didn’t find it surprising when he stopped.
“Good day, Miss.”
She shielded her eyes and looked at him. She has a light smattering of freckles. I find that surprisingly adorable.
Silence. Alexander knew that he should just keep on moving, but he wanted to stay. He searched for something to say. Just do not say something ridiculous.
“Is that a sketchpad that I see?”
She looked down and then up again. “Well, it would appear so.”
Was that playful sarcasm that he picked up on? She was smiling, taking the bite out of her words.
“What are you sketching?”
She laughed. “You are quite inquisitive for a man that I have only just met. I do not even know your name.”
Her laughter washed over him like a cool summer breeze, inviting and refreshing. Alexander found himself telling her his name without hesitation. However, he shortened it–he had always preferred Alex to Alexander.
“Alex, the name is Alex. May I ask for yours?”
She cocked her head to the side and seemed to size him up. Was she going to deny him?
“Selina. My name is Selina.”
It suited her perfectly. Her name had a foreign feel, but it didn’t seem out of place rolling off her tongue.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Selina. Now, may I see your sketch?”
“I suppose I must, seeing as how obliging you were by providing me with your name.”
She lifted her sketchbook, and he was pleasantly surprised at her talent. Alex could clearly see the river, its flowing motion, and the trees in the distance that skimmed the sky.
“May I see it up close?”
“Mr Alex. I do find this interaction rather strange. You essentially appeared out of nowhere with your horses, walked up to me, and asked to see my sketch as though you have known me for the longest while. While I should be alarmed, I am not. You have an honest look about you.”
With that said, she held out her book to him. Alex took it, flipping through its pages. He noticed some water damage.
“Did it fall in a puddle?”
She chuckled. “No, I got caught in a rainstorm some days ago. I believed my sketches to be ruined, but they seem well preserved. Save for a few water splodges.”
The water-stained areas did not detract from the workmanship of the sketches. This woman was clearly gifted.
“These are excellent, Miss Selina. I see that you put a lot of love here. The old man looks realistic.”
“Thank you. I do love to sketch. I’d much rather be doing that than being forced to remain indoors and do all the things expected of a gentlewoman. I find it all rather boring.”
Ah, he thought so. She was not a mere servant, but a daughter of one the families visiting the area. There were several of them, and Alex wondered which one she came from.
“Do you live close by? I do not see a horse tethered to a tree.”
Selina was looking at him as though studying him. He did not feel the slightest bit uncomfortable, but he wondered at what she saw.
“If you promise to let me sketch you, I will tell you.”
Alex was taken aback by that. No one had ever requested that of him.
“Sketch me? Surely there are better things to sketch?”
“I have sketched most things, Mr Alex, thus I know when I have a worthy subject. You will be perfect for my next sketch. Unless you are in a hurry?”
Alex was flattered. What will it hurt for her to sketch me?
“Very well. I am just exercising the horses, but I would be honoured for you to sketch me. Where should I stand?”
Selina looked around. “I would like to sketch you with your horses, but they can be in the background. Perhaps if you put your leg on that tree stump and have your horses grazing behind you?”
Alex nodded. “Your wish is my command, Miss Selina.”
He found the situation strange but comfortable. Nothing about his interaction with the intriguing Selina was normal, and that was what made him stay. Alex had things that he still had to do, but being here with her trumped everything else. He arranged his horses with her direction, finally coming to rest by the tree stump. She asked him to look away, but he much rather would have stared at her for the duration of the afternoon. Selina’s emerald green eyes seemed to draw him in, making him want to find out more about her. No one had held his attention like this in years, let alone a gentlewoman. He wondered what she would say or do should he tell her that he owned the land upon which she now sat, and that he was Sir Alexander Russell, 6th Baronet of Chesterfield. Many women of her station would immediately pursue him, hoping to become his wife. Alex had managed to steer clear of the mothers and chaperones that were intent upon getting him alone with their daughters. However, Selina seemed different. Perhaps she thinks that I am a servant? I certainly look like one. His clothing was simple, working clothes, suitable for doing labour. No gentleman would be caught in such garments. Is she married? Alex found that he did not like the idea of that. Strange indeed. I hardly know the woman, and yet the thought of her being already snatched up by another man rankles me. But she could not be married. A woman of her station did not idly chat with other men when her husband was at home. Alex had the feeling that Selina did a lot of things that would not be seen as acceptable by the gentry, and he liked that.
Selina had thought that he would not agree to the sketch, as he obviously had been on his way. And what of his Master? She had deduced by the look of his clothes, his rough and yet charming manner, as well as his commoner’s good looks, that he was a stable groom. He did say that he was exercising the horses, after all. Isaac did the same thing on a regular basis, rotating the horses on a daily schedule. And yet, for all his commoner’s ways, he had the bearing of a nobleman. The man is a contradiction. Charming, open, friendly–he is nothing like the men that I have known. However, his walk, how he holds his head up high, his chivalrous ways, these all point to a nobleman. I have yet to come across a servant who carries himself in the way that Alex does. The need to sketch him had been sudden and intense.
“Tilt your head ever so slightly to your right, Mr Alex.”
He did so, moving his head stiffly. Alex was concentrated on remaining in position, and she was grateful for that. It made her sketching much easier.
“You may drop the Mr and just call me Alex, Miss Selina.”
He snuck a glance at her before quickly putting his head back into position.
She laughed. “You may as well do the same thing with the Miss.”
Being on a first-name basis seemed natural. They remained quiet for a few moments, but she was interrupted again by him.
“You have not yet told me where you live, Selina. I do not believe that I have seen you before in these areas.”
Alex seemed determined to find out where she lived. It would be harmless to tell him so, wouldn’t it?
“My aunt and uncle own Crauford House, and my family and I are here visiting.”
“How long do you expect to be here?”
The next few words spilt out of her mouth without second thought.
“As long as it takes for my mother and aunt to find me a suitable match.”
Selina couldn’t mask the bitterness in her voice.
“You do not sound happy about that.”
“No,” she agreed. “I am not. I would much sooner marry a commoner than spend the rest of my days with a gentleman who believes that he is GOD’S gift to women. I am fairly sure that this thought runs through their heads.”
He turned to her again. “You do not seem pleased about getting married.”
“It’s not so much the marriage part, but whom I am married to.”
He left it at that. A thought about her mother jumped out from her mind. Mother would be mortified and furious if she knew that I was sketching a stranger. The fact that he was a man would have made the whole situation worse. It was a good thing that she was far from their scrutinising eyes. Aunty Dorothy and Mama would probably lock me in my room until a suitable gentleman came calling. I would be a prisoner in the house, and they would be doing it out of concern. Selina had no intentions of revealing this afternoon to anyone but her sister, but she would need to be sworn to secrecy, a sister’s pact that not even their mother could infiltrate. Perhaps that is what we should have done before Mama cornered Ophelia and demanded she tells her the meaning of the potato peels in her hair.
“Is everything thing alright, Selina? You seem quiet and preoccupied.”
Selina blinked. She had not noticed that she had stopped sketching, so engrossed was she in what she was thinking.
“Yes, yes. I am quite alright. I was merely thinking of something. Back in your position, please.”
He grinned, stopping her heart. Oh my. Who knew that a simple smile could be so captivating? Selina put a hand to her chest, willing herself to breathe normally. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. I must be losing my mind. What is this?
“Selina?” Alex asked. “Is the sun too hot for you? You seem flushed.”
She frowned slightly. “Flushed?”
Her mind wasn’t working properly, and she struggled to understand what he was saying.
“Yes. Your cheeks have become pink. It is rather becoming on you.”
Selina only blushed harder. “Oh, flushed. I see. Uh, perhaps the sun is a bit hot. Let me move into the shade.”
She got to her knees, nearly falling on her bottom when Alex came rushing towards her. He stretched his hand out.
“Here, allow me to help you.”
Not taking his hand would seem rude. She grasped it, her breath rushing out of her as he pulled her to her feet in one smooth movement.
“Whoa, okay. Thank you, Alex. Uh, I, um … I just need to get my materials.”
Selina moved to the side, bumping heads with Alex as he bent down as well.
“Ow!” they both exclaimed.
They looked at each other and burst out laughing. Selina put a hand over her mouth to try and stop herself, but she was too far gone. Tears started streaming down her face, and she fanned it, breathing in and out. Selina was a woman who loved to laugh, but it had been a while since she had laughed so hard that her eyes started to leak. She clutched her aching sides, willing herself to calm down. Finally, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hands and tenderly touched the area where she had bumped heads with Alex. It didn’t feel painful, but she did bruise easily. Good luck with explaining that to Mama once she sees it. Selina looked up, staring straight into amber-coloured eyes. Alex stared at her, his brow furrowed.
“What is it? Are you hurt?”
He shook his head. “No, I just enjoyed watching you laugh. Not many women let themselves go as you did. Most would just giggle behind their hands.”
Oh, well that does not make me feel any better. Let myself go? I must have looked a fright, guffawing all over the place. Selina looked away.
She cleared her throat and dusted herself off, removing any grass from her dress.
“I liked it.”
Selina glanced at him sharply. “Liked it?”
“Yes, your laughter. You looked carefree and happy, almost magical. Otherworldly.”
She raised her eyebrows. Well, that was unexpected. What do I say? No one has ever complimented my laugh before. Change the subject.
“I believe that I have a good outline of you and the horses–thank you for posing for me. I really must be going now.”
His face fell. “So soon? I can continue to pose–I do not mind.”
“Yes, well, uh, thank you for that, but I’m sure that this is sufficient. The sun has started to dip, and everyone will be wondering where I have gone off to.”
“If you must go, then I shall not keep you.”
Selina bent down quickly and picked up her materials, seeing her fruit. I find it amusing how I did not eat a thing when my mouth is usually always chomping away while I work. I do not feel any hunger pangs either.
“Would you mind if I give these apples and pears to your horses? I do not wish to take them back with me. See it as payment to your horses–they stood in the sun just for me.”
She held them out to him, hoping that he would take them.
“And what do I get?” he asked.
Selina coloured. “My gratitude.”
Alex smiled and took the fruit in his large hands. He seemed to grip her hands for just a moment, before releasing them. Selina let out a shaky breath.
“Being in your lovely company was payment enough. I do hope to see you again?”
Would she see him again? Her instincts told her yes.
“Perhaps. I bid you good day, Alex.”
Selina turned away from him. Is this what romance feels like? I believe that it is. It took all that she had within her not to turn around and look at him once more. Selina walked back to the house with her head in the clouds. If I was to marry a man such as Alex, I do believe that I shall be quite content. Could you imagine? Me, the wife of a stable groom? I should like it very much!
“But would my parents allow it? I would be marrying outside of my social rank. Maybe my happiness would sway their decision.”
Selina knew better than that. Marrying a stable groom could only be but a dream.
“A Charming Lady for the Intriguing Baronet” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
If Selina had her way, she would gladly marry a commoner and live out her days in pure happiness. Meeting Alex reinforces her belief that the life that she has dreamed about may be right in front of her. But then she discovers Alex’s true identity! How could she understand the reasons behind his little trickery and be open to explore their powerful connection?
Alexander Russell, the sixth Baronet of Chesterfield, knows that he bears the heavy duty of producing an heir. Moreover, he is no ignorant to women trying to trap him into marriage, and that only makes him shy away from marrying. Until he meets Selina who is a breath of fresh air! She gives him hope, only to take it away when she rejects him for the very reason that makes him the most eligible bachelor for miles around. Can he convince her that he is “the one” for her?
Their first encounter was what connected them but also what kept them apart. Even if Selina can’t forget, will she be able to forgive Alexander, and finally admit her growing feelings towards him? Can the charming Baronet compensate for a rocky start and earn Selina’s trust so that they can overcome the obstacles and experience this electric connection between them?
“A Charming Lady for the Intriguing Baronet” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.