HAMPSHIRE, ENGLAND 1860 Screams of laughter drifted over the meadow as Caraway Taylor fought her way through the tall grass. Her sisters had decided it was time for a break from their lessons, which meant gallivanting outside like a trio of reckless hoydens. Lifting her skirts above the ground to avoid dirt, she lamented being the one to end their fun… again.
As the eldest, Caraway’s responsibility was to ensure they finished their schoolwork and chores, especially since their parents were more focused on their research than them. Mr. and Mrs. Taylor loved their daughters but tended towards a more laissez-faire type of upbringing as they barely remembered to take care of themselves. Which is why it fell to Caraway to keep the household running smoothly.
Spying the three girls running wildly through the waves of grass, she almost called out their names before noticing the two boys chasing them. The lanky youth with a shock of copper hair resembled his father, the Earl of Trent, and the Taylors’ neighbor for years. The earl’s estate butted up against the back of her family’s small property before continuing on for miles.
Owen Lennox had become something of a brother to her over the years as they were similarly aged and in regular contact trying to wrangle her sisters. Though, even Owen had a rebellious streak. Unlike Caraway.
Upon closer inspection of the group, she didn’t recognize the second boy—his floppy brown curls shielding part of his face with its unruliness. He stood slightly shorter than Owen but just as fit.
“Cara!” Hazel, the youngest Taylor, waved enthusiastically as she ran towards her. “Come join us. We’re playing tag, and Owen brought his friend, Miles Brandon. He’s Lord Bellow’s son.” Grabbing her hand in a sweaty grip, Hazel pulled her directly toward the stranger. “This is our sister Caraway.”
Embarrassed, she dipped her head and dropped into a curtsy. One of these days she’d have to teach Hazel that such an introduction wasn’t proper, but at twelve years old, she still held onto childish precociousness with no regard to etiquette.
Bowing, the boy extended his hand for Caraway’s. With his mouth hovering over the back of her ungloved hand, his mischievous eyes peeked up at her. “Pleasure to meet you, miss. Miles Brandon, at your service.”
A hot blush bloomed on her skin which she tried to attribute to the blazing sun instead of this boy’s nearness. It felt scandalous having him so close. He could almost graze his lips on her bare skin!
The thought sent her usually practical self flying into a whirlwind of fantastical ideas such as letting him kiss her cheek or hold her hand. Acts she’d never done before—displays of affection she’d never had any yearning for until now.
“We’ve missed you, Caraway.” Owen broke in as he pounded the back of Brandon’s shoulder, causing him to jerk away from her. “I need your help. Your sister is refusing to take turns in our game.”
“Girls don’t chase boys, Owen,” Lily spouted from the side, the heavy breaths falling from her a testament to her previous exertion. Iris trailed behind, quiet in her approach. Out of the four girls, she kept to herself the most. Despite being raised as their sister from a baby, Caraway wondered if the fact that she was their abandoned cousin weighed on her.
Turning her attention back to Owen and Lily, she rolled her eyes heavenward, knowing where this was headed. They needed to get into a good row every day before settling into their teasing taunts. It was obvious to everyone how much the pair liked each other despite the disparity in their social classes—Owen being of noble blood, heir to an earldom, whereas the Taylor sisters were simple country folk born to a professor and botanist. While they managed to get by, the grants her father received from various universities for his work hardly qualified them for the upper echelons of society.
“They do when you’re playing tag, and I’ve caught you three times now,” Owen argued, crossing his arms in a belligerent stance, clearly digging in for a fight. Sweat darkened the auburn hair at his temples as his eyes narrowed, daring Lily to refute his claim.
Leaving them to their tiff, Caraway asked Brandon, “Will you be staying in Hampshire long?” Walking arm in arm with Hazel and Iris, she led their small group away from the raised voices of Owen and Lily.
“I’ll be here for the entire summer. The Lennoxes graciously invited me to stay once my parents decided to extend their trip on the Continent. The earl and my father are old chums, and it’s their wish for Owen and me to form the same bond.” He held his hands behind his back in a contemplative gesture, evoking the sense of someone older than his tender years.
“Is that why you didn’t join your parents?” Hazel asked. “The Continent sounds like such fun! Think of all the history and stories to be told.” Her eyes lit up as her imagination ran wild with possibilities. She was the dreamer of the family, always creating entertaining tales and drawing elaborate scenes to go along with them.
“Hazel, it’s not polite to intrude on Mr. Brandon’s privacy. Surely, spending the summer with a peer is preferable rather than traveling to events where you’d most likely be left out due to your age.”
“Thank you, and it’s Miles, please,” the boy in question replied, a smile tilting his lips. “And you’re correct. I wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun staying in random hotels and conversing with various old people as I am here.” He made a face that made them laugh. “I much prefer the present company.” Piercing eyes met hers, giving a distinct feeling that he meant her alone—not her sisters collectively.
Ducking her head at the implication, Caraway bit her lip in shyness. How did one react to his possible flirting? Especially with Hazel and Iris hanging about.
As if understanding her sister’s dilemma, Hazel pointed out a floating butterfly crossing their path.
“Look, Iris! That’s the monarch butterfly I was telling you about in my story. Let’s follow it, and see where it lands. This will be great information for my book!” Pulling Iris away, the girls ran after the flying insect, leaving the two of them alone.
Sweeping her hand over the tall grass, Caraway stole glances at Miles. He was quite an attractive young man even with flying curls and ruffled clothing.
Suddenly, a gust of wind whipped by them, attempting to blow her bonnet right off her head, and she quickly plopped a hand across the top to hold it in place until the breeze passed. “Have you known Owen long, then?” she inquired, feeling silly with her hand on her head.
But he just stepped closer before responding, “Since we were in leading strings, though it’s only recently that we’ve become better acquainted. Forced proximity and all as roommates at Eton.” His words trailed off as he lifted a hand towards her face.
Wondering at his intentions, she froze like the Trent Estate’s lake in winter. “Would you mind… That is, let me…” He caught a stray curl that had blown free of its pins and tucked it behind her ear. The slight caress of the delicate lobe sent a tingle of awareness down her body before they separated.
“Thank you,” she murmured, unsure of what to do. While her sisters bore varying degrees of beauty even as children, Caraway knew she was more brains than beauty. Whenever they visited the village, comments would be made about Hazel’s lustrous hair or Iris’s unusual grey eyes. When it came to her turn for compliments, it usually revolved around her practical nature and how mature she acted for her age.
Never before had such sentiments bothered her.
But now in the presence of this attractive boy, she wished she had some experience—knew how to use her looks to her advantage. The boys in the village hardly spoke with her, instead captivated by other more traditionally pretty girls. Oh, how she loathed her inexperience and appeal to the opposite sex at that moment.
Trying to remember tactics used by some of the interactions she’d seen, Caraway reached out a hand to touch his arm in conjunction with her gratitude. Instead, she ended up swatting him in the chest when he turned away from her to continue walking.
“I’m so sorry!” The humiliation made her want to sink into the field, hidden from sight. “I didn’t mean to hit you.”
Laughing, he shook his head. “Don’t worry. I hardly felt a thing… Will you be coming out soon?” The change of topic eased her embarrassment.
“No, I have a few more years before my parents will allow me to have a Season.” Which she’d been fine with previously. At fifteen, she knew she wasn’t ready to marry. She was needed at home to take care of her sisters and parents.
“Really? You seem older to me.” A charming grin brightened his face. She didn’t know how to take his comment—whether he wanted her to be older or not.
“People say that about me a lot, actually. I think as the eldest child you’re automatically placed in a role of authority or maturity or else the younger siblings would run wild. Although, I’ll admit they still do that sometimes.”
“You don’t say,” he teased as they saw Hazel and Iris hike their skirts up to catch another flying creature while Lily and Owen continued to argue, standing chest to chest.
Sighing at the tableau before her, she shrugged. She could only do so much. “Some days are easier than others.”
“I can’t imagine being in your shoes. I’m the youngest of three sons—the opposite of your dilemma,” he explained deprecatingly, snapping off the top of a grass blade. Obviously, this was a sore subject for him.
“Sometimes I dream of what it would be like without siblings running around, and while the quiet would be nice for a time, I fear it would be terribly lonely.”
“At times,” he agreed. “Though it can be lonely with two older brothers who choose their friends over you.”
“Or three younger sisters who require supervision rather than another playmate.”
They shared a look of commiseration before continuing to walk amiably while Caraway glanced back at her sisters every so often to ensure their safety. It looked as if Owen and her sister had settled their squabble as they were now teamed together and running after Hazel and Iris. Miles followed her gaze to the rambunctious group. “Do you care to join them?”
She wanted to refuse but couldn’t think of a reasonable excuse why they shouldn’t return without seeming desperate for his undivided attention. Sighing, Caraway nodded, and they backtracked through the narrow path they wove through the field, the indentation of their steps clear markers.
“You two are a team, and you’re it!” Lily yelled, her hands cupped around her mouth. Before they knew it, everyone scattered to avoid being touched by either Caraway or Miles.
Strategizing, she pointed to Hazel and Lily. “Why don’t you run after them? They're the fastest. I’ll take Iris and Owen.” Saluting her with a hand to his forehead and a click of his heels, Miles ran after his sprinting prey.
Spying Iris attempting to duck and hide beneath the eye line of the grass, Caraway darted through the tall stalks, within an arm’s reach before her sister skittered away. They played for another half hour before the setting sun reminded Caraway they needed to return home before dark. Placing two fingers between her lips in a practiced gesture, a high-pitched whistle resounded through the field bringing everyone to a halt. “It’s time for us to go home. We need to make sure supper is ready for Mama and Papa.”
Their morning routine consisted of gathering vegetables and herbs from the garden in preparation for the day’s meals, then at suppertime chopping them for some sort of stew or side dish. They would have a late start tonight due to her oversight of how late it was getting. Though with Miles paying so much attention to her, she could hardly be faulted for being a little scatterbrained.
“Allow us to walk you home,” Miles offered, coming to her side and extending his arm. A rush of nervousness slammed into her, combining with the adrenaline from their game. The mixture created a pleasant buzzing along her nerve endings as she looped her arm through his, resting a hand on his bicep. Glancing around, she tried to see if anyone noticed the improper action, but everyone was occupied with their own conversations.
An unconscious squeeze of his arm revealed the sinewy muscle beneath his thin shirt eliciting more butterflies in her stomach.
What’s come over me?
No wonder the girls in town always seemed silly around boys if these were the feelings they were experiencing.
The journey passed too quickly as the Taylor cottage rose into view surrounded by lush gardens and trees. It formed an idyllic scene that brought a comforting peace to Caraway—she loved their cozy home.
At the latched gate leading to the front door, Miles stepped closer to whisper, “I hope to see you again soon,” before moving away and echoing Owen’s louder sentiments of farewell.
Waving goodbye to the boys, the four girls traipsed up the stone walkway chattering about their new acquaintance and the sudden hunger that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.
The rest of the night, through dinner and listening to their parents’ afternoon findings, Caraway floated in a dreamlike haze, imagining seeing Miles again—having picnics by the pond or exploring the village shops. Who knew what the summer would bring?
And later as she lay in bed next to a snoring Lily, for the first time she allowed herself to dream. To fantasize about a life with the curly-haired boy next door who struggled with loneliness as she did at times.
How maybe they could be each other’s cure.
Right before sleep claimed Caraway for the night, one last thought flitted like a wisp of fog through her mind and heart—one that permeated her dreams with scenes of charming smiles and gentle affection—was this what love felt like?
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