A 3000 word short story (about the length of a chapter), originally written as a story inspired by a song. (Can you guess the song? Answer at the end).
The bells in the village church tolled the hour as Cecy Middleton ran the last few yards along the lane.
Ten o’clock—the hour at which her stepmama had said she must be ready to call on the Acklands. That didn’t mean arriving home breathless and red-faced at ten o’clock, with six inches of mud on her hem and hair looking like a badly made nest. All because the morning had been so beautiful, the air so fresh, that she just had to walk up the hill to admire the view. And once there, of course, she also had to sit on her usual rock and dream of Luke’s return. Of seeing his laughing blue eyes again.
Annie, bless her, was waiting in Cecy’s bedchamber with a bowl of hot water and her best sprigged muslin already laid out. Cecy washed her face and hands, ignoring the occasional tug as the maid tried to remove the pins from her tangled hair.
“Sit down, Miss Cecy, let me brush your hair out while you powder your face.”
Powder to hide a few freckles and a light tan. Cecy hated it, but Mama insisted she must look like a lady if she wanted to marry well, and that meant having a pale complexion like Lady Ackland and her daughter.
The governess that Papa hired after her own mother died of a fever had been pleasant enough, but had never managed to get Cecy to act like a young lady. Not when she could escape the schoolroom and Luke and John Hampton allowed her to follow them around and take part in their games. Those days were gone, now, ever since Luke had joined the army four years ago.
But she couldn’t wish that time back, not really. Papa had remarried not long after Luke left, and her new Mama had made Papa happy again. And Luke would be back soon; the last letter Mrs Hampton had received said before the end of October, and that was only a few days away.
“There, Miss Cecy. Done!” Annie stood back and picked up the dress. Cecy turned her head in front of the mirror to admire the neat twist the maid had crafted in her pale hair, with small ringlets framing her face. Annie fastened the tapes and straightened the muslin skirts, and Cecy dashed back down the stairs with an apology ready.
Although the sun shone, a chilly breeze was busy removing the yellowed leaves from the trees. Cecy’s blue wool pelisse kept her warm enough, even in their ancient carriage with draughts whistling around the ill-fitting doors. Papa’s unfortunate investment in a coal mine that had no coal had meant they had to make do without many new things.
“How lucky that old Sir Barnaby’s heir is just the right age for you.” It wasn’t the first time Mama had said that. Or even the fifth. “He must be interested in you, Cecily, for his mama to invite us every week. Do be on your best behaviour.”
“Aren’t I always?”
“Yes, dear. You never do anything wrong, but you might show a little more enthusiasm. Sir Walter would be an excellent match. Five or so years older than you is ideal.”
If only he was like Sir Walter Raleigh—explorer, soldier, adventurer. Cecy pictured herself with Queen Elizabeth’s flaming red hair, surrounded by admiring courtiers as that Sir Walter laid his cloak at her feet. If the real Cecy needed to keep her feet dry, she doubted their neighbour would sacrifice his immaculate, well-tailored coat.
“And always so nicely dressed.” Mama nodded in approval.
What did Sir Walter do all day now he lived at Ackland Court? She’d heard that his uncle had let the estate get run down. Was he like Papa, spending most of his time over his account books? She couldn’t imagine him doing anything as exciting as Luke, leading his cavalry troop into battle.
“It’s not as if there are many suitable young men in the area. You’ll be twenty before Christmas, Cecy, and it’s high time you had a husband. We cannot afford to take you to more than a few assemblies in Cheltenham…”
Mama must be anxious—she didn’t usually repeat herself like this.
“…have more money than poor Mrs Hampton. I declare that gown she’s wearing must be at least five years old, and Edith, poor girl…” Mama shook her head. Edith was two years older than Cecy, and still not wed. “At least her eldest son has good prospects in…”
John Hampton was training to be a barrister at the Inns of Court in London—he must spend all his days with his nose in a book.
“…younger one must be expensive, what with horses and uniforms and all the other…”
Cecy had never seen Luke in his uniform—he’d only returned home on leave once, and that had been when Papa had taken them all to Weymouth for a month, two summers ago. Such bad timing.
Light Dragoons wore blue uniforms, she knew that. Just like that rider passing the carriage…
She leapt out of her seat and let the window down, almost falling as she thrust her head out. “Luke!”
“Cecily, get back in,” Mama ordered. “We’re almost at Ackland Court, what would they think if they could see—”
“It was Luke, I’m sure it was!” Looking even more handsome and dashing than she remembered.
“Well, that’s very nice for Mrs Hampton, I’m sure, but what does it have to say to anything?”
Cecy slumped back against the threadbare squabs, doing her best not to pout. Luke hadn’t heard her call, and now she would have to sit through another excruciating half-hour with Mrs Ackland and her sickly daughter instead of going to the Hamptons’ house to help welcome him home.
When they entered the parlour, Mrs Ackland was in her usual chair beside a roaring fire, an embroidered shawl wrapped around her legs. Marguerite, who must be about the same age as Cecy, sat opposite, an embroidery hoop in her hands and a tangle of coloured threads on the sofa beside her. She appeared as pale and wraith-like as her mother.
“No, please do not get up,” Mama said as the Acklands’ footman bowed and closed the door behind him. “So good of you to invite us for tea again, when you are feeling so unwell.”
“Any company is welcome.” Mrs Ackland’s voice was faint, almost a whisper. “There are so few suitable people in this corner of Gloucestershire.”
Cecy wasn’t sure whether she should feel pleased she was ‘suitable’, and seated herself as far from the fire as she could without seeming rude. The room was stifling, and she wondered when Mrs Ackland or her daughter had last had a breath of fresh air.
Mama babbled on about the church flowers and the vicar’s latest sermon. Mrs Ackland nodded in all the right places, and countered with a recollection of her dear Reverend Smethers, back in Kent, who had been so sympathetic to all her ailments.
Cecy bit her lips and gazed at the ceiling. She should attempt to converse with Miss Ackland, she supposed, but any comment she made about the weather or the countryside always seemed to turn into how the sunshine hurt Miss Ackland’s eyes, or the flowers made her sneeze.
A rattle at the door interrupted Mrs Ackland’s criticism of the local physician. All eyes turned that way as Sir Walter walked in, followed by the footman bearing a tea tray. Sir Walter was impeccably turned out, as always. His top-boots held a glossy shine, his dark blue coat clung to his broad shoulders with no evidence of padding, and his buff breeches showed off the muscles in his legs.
Sir Walter made a proper bow to Mama, then turned to Cecy. “It is a lovely day—could I interest you in seeing the gardens, Miss Middleton?”
Oh, yes, to get some air! Then Mama gave an approving nod, and Cecy wondered why Sir Walter hadn’t invited both his guests. Was he being neighbourly, or something more?
“It felt rather cold when we arrived.” Cecy crossed her fingers. “I would love to see the gardens, but I fear the outside air would not be beneficial.”
Mama’s smile vanished, and it was Mrs Ackland who approved this time. “Indeed, a cold wind is most harmful for the lungs.”
“It is quite sheltered—”
“I can help Miss Ackland sort out her embroidery threads,” Cecy interrupted, moving to sit on the sofa. She felt her cheeks heat at her rudeness, but really, what was she to do? She couldn’t listen to another man paying her compliments when all she could think of was seeing Luke again.
“How are you getting on with your tenants, Sir Walter?” Mama asked. Cecy picked up a pile of silks and started to extract the red threads while Mama kept the conversation going.
“Luke!” Cecy waved, and called again, more loudly. Luke hadn’t been at home when she’d called yesterday, and here he was again, leaving before she could speak to him. At least he was leading his horse, not riding it. She broke into a run.
“Luke, wait!” Her bonnet ribbons loosened and it fell down her back.
This time the tall figure stopped and turned to face her. “Hello, little Cecy.” His boyish grin and blue eyes were just as she remembered. So, too, was the way he put out a hand to ruffle her hair. “Still a hoyden, I see, just a little taller than before!”
“It’s good to see you back safe, Luke. Have you been in awful danger?”
He laughed. “No more than anyone else.”
How brave he is!
“Can’t stop, Cecy. I’ve got to get this old girl to the blacksmith, then I’m on my way to a cockfight in Stonehouse.” He started walking again, and Cecy fell in beside him, striding out to keep up.
“I want to hear all about it. When will you be back?”
“Oh, tomorrow, probably. But there was word of a boxing match as well. I might stay on to see that. And I need a couple of new horses.”
“Is this the horse you rode in Spain?”
He laughed. “Still a Silly Cecy, then? No, of course not. I ride much better animals than this.”
She’d forgotten that nickname. It was a pity he hadn’t.
“Jem leant her to me for a few days, on condition I got her re-shoed. Damned nuisance—I’m short enough of the blunt as it is. It’s time I bought a captaincy, but my pay isn’t enough to keep up with mess bills, and Mama doesn’t send enough to keep me in funds. As soon as John gets called to the bar, he’ll be able to help with that.”
He walked on in silence for a while. Cecy wondered if she’d said something wrong, or if he just didn’t feel like talking. “Do you enjoy being a soldier?” she finally asked, breathless with the effort of keeping up with him. The smithy was just ahead—perhaps they could talk properly then.
“Mostly—there’s good fun to be had over the winter. Hunting, you know, and theatricals. And plenty of willing wom—”
Luke reached out and ruffled her hair again. “Give my best wishes to your father.” He looped the mare’s reins around a hook on the smithy wall, and disappeared into the clanging, fiery interior without a backward glance.
Cecy stood gazing after him, blinking at a prickling behind her eyes. She would not cry. Not here.
Not in the mood to speak to anyone else, Cecy headed for her hill. She took the path through the fields, ignoring the mud clinging to her half-boots and hem, and rejoined the lane beyond her home.
He thought she was just the same. But she’d been only fourteen the last time she’d seen him, and she wasn’t a green girl any longer.
Drifts of brown leaves blanketed the lane, hiding the puddles, but she ignored her increasingly wet feet.
He’d sent his regards to Papa. Only Papa. Did he even know that she had a new stepmother?
She slipped through the gate into the steep field that led up to her stone. The bonnet bumped awkwardly against her back as she climbed, and she pulled it off. Some last bit of sense stopped her flinging it onto the grass, and she paused to catch her breath.
She had changed, but Luke hadn’t. Oh, he was perhaps a little taller and broader, and his amusements were now those of men, not boys, but underneath he was still a boy. And a selfish one, at that. He was going to watch a cockfight and a boxing match instead of spending time with his mother and sister.
He hadn’t asked a single thing about her and her life. To him, she must still be the small person tagging along—useful when the boys needed a princess to rescue, a nuisance they put up with at other times. Had he always been so self-centred, and she hadn’t realised?
Taking a deep breath, she set off up the hill again. Her rock beckoned, with its view across the flat ground to the Severn, glittering in the autumn sunshine. She’d get a cold bottom, not to mention dirtying her pelisse, but she sat on it anyway.
Her dreams of Luke as a hero who would return to woo her had been fashioned from whole cloth. A figment of her imagination. She was nothing but a silly girl, for all her nineteen years.
How had she come to imagine such a thing? Loneliness, perhaps, after Luke left for Portugal, and in the days before Papa remarried. Then it had become a settled thing in her mind, and she hadn’t questioned it.
A soft whicker brought her back to her surroundings, and she stood and moved forward a few paces to look down the hill.
Sir Walter. And riding straight towards her.
She could not run away now; she would have to speak to him. He was not dressed as perfectly as usual—his coat fitted comfortably rather than looking as if it was moulded to his body, and his boots showed the scuffs of long use.
“Miss Middleton, may I join you?” He dismounted as he spoke, leaving his horse nosing amongst the long grass. He removed his hat and ran fingers through his hair, leaving it dishevelled.
“If you wish.” She managed a smile, although it felt forced.
“I take it you have recovered from your indisposition?”
“For the breeze today is surely colder than when you visited Ackland Court.”
Cecy looked away, then took a deep breath. It was time she started behaving like a woman, not a silly girl.
“I must apologise for my… untruth, Sir Walter. It was rude of me.”
“It did seem an odd statement, coming from someone who enjoys kicking up autumn leaves and running down this hillside.”
Startled, Cecy met his gaze. He was laughing at her! Laughing, yes, but that was a friendly twinkle in his grey eyes. Odd, she’d never noticed their colour before.
He pointed down the hill. “This hillside is visible from my study window. I’ve seen you come up here often.”
Ackland Court looked small from here. “You must have very acute eyesight to recognise me from this distance. Have you been watching me with a telescope?”
His guilty expression allayed her slight unease at the notion of being spied on like that. She put one hand to her hair, conscious that much of it had come loose from its pins. Hoyden, Luke had called her.
“You look delightful.”
He sounded sincere. He meant it.
“I… I asked Mama to invite you to call, Miss Middleton, so I could get to know you better. Your enjoyment of this place, of being out of doors…”
He liked her looking like a hoyden? The irony struck her and she smiled. “And I turned into a pale thing afraid of a little air!”
“This is the real me.” She put a hand to her disordered hair again, gazing at his coat, slightly worn in places, and at his ruffled hair. “Is that the real you?”
A faint flush rose to his cheeks. “I… well, Mama suggested I should dress smartly if I wanted to impress you. These clothes are comfortable.”
She laughed. This man liked her for who she was, and she liked this version of him. “Have you seen the long barrow in the next valley? It isn’t far.”
His smile gave her a warm feeling inside. “Lead on, Miss Middleton.”
The song that inspired the story is Holding Out for a Hero, by Bonnie Tyler.