Robert Consett, Earl of Huntsworth, is running away. Using the excuse of seeing to the forgotten inheritance of a rural manor he is escaping the toils of London, where both a predatory young woman and an overbearing aunt are determined that it is past time for him to marry.
After a fall from his horse Robert is rescued by an angel of a beautiful young woman who lives in a poor vicarage, but just as he decides she might be the one, he is dismayed to learn that she hates the owner of the manor for neglecting both the house and the neighborhood - without knowing that the object of her disapproval is he. To make matters worse, the vicarage is soon overwhelmed by the arrival not only of his dragon aunt, but the predatory young woman, both of whom have run him to earth. To make things worse, once the young woman realizes who he really is she refuses to have anything to do with Robert.
The resulting chaos becomes a mad scramble of romance and, for Robert, self-realization which transforms him from a wild boy into a mature and proper gentleman suitable to be both an Earl and a happily-married, loving husband.
Robert had never cared for unfledged girls of his own class, and though he had indulged in some rather expensive amorous romps with girls of such an age, but from a totally different level of society, they had been purely a physical and monetary transaction with no emotion beyond immediate gratification involved. He had never been so bemused by - or ever really known - such a girl as Miss Chloe Wallace.
She could not be of aristocratic or even noble birth, not living here in a poor country parsonage, but her bearing, dignity and manners were more than the equal of any number of the titled young women his Aunt Deborah had been parading in front of him, to say nothing of the outliers who had swarmed around him as annoyingly and as persistently as stinging insects.
And all without any arrogance or even sense of self-worth, he thought in amazement. Plus, his mind noted, with what he mistakenly thought of as a plainly factual recital of facts, she was prettier than any of them; her skin as fair as purest cream, her eyes blue as the summer sky above them, her hair the fairest red-gold...
Hardly an arbiter of feminine fashion other than to acknowledge what pleased him, Robert could not help thinking how she would shine in a proper evening dress with jewels at her throat and in her hair. It did not impinge on his consciousness that the jewels which he fantasised as adorning her were the best of his family’s treasures.
Deep in his soul, Robert Consett, Earl of Huntsworth, fabled and sought-after young man-about-Town, sighed in pure pleasure at the thought of a walk down a remote country lane in the company of this unexpected goddess, an act which would have sent his Town companions into peals of unkind laughter. Had it been any other man than himself, Robert doubtless would have been laughing too.
He hadn’t been so happy this morning, when the wizened leprechaun named Young Seybert had come in bearing both his still stained shirt and coat and the thin gruel and single slice of toast which was to be his breakfast.
While he might be a very wealthy man, wealthy enough not to have to worry about a ruined outfit, Robert was still appreciative of fine clothes; and the faint but still visible rusty stain on the new Weston coat sent his temper rising. Had it been the result of Franks’, his loyal and long-suffering valet, ministrations Robert would have probably become somewhat unbridled in expressing his displeasure.
Fortunately, Young Seybert did not see the signs and by the time he had finished his recital of how Agnes and Miss Chloe had stayed up half the night working to remove the offending stain, Robert was not only calm, but unaccustomedly grateful.
Even now, with the merciless morning sun highlighting every inch of the stain, he was next to oblivious. When was the last time a young lady - and while he admitted that Miss Chloe was not of the aristocratic class, he had no doubt that she was indeed a lady in the truest sense of the word – had gone out of her way to do something for him? He couldn’t remember.
“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting,” said Miss Chloe, quickly returned and tying the somewhat faded ribbons of a large, rather shabby straw hat around her chin.
“Not at all,” he returned, then looked around. “Where is your maid?”
Her laughter sounded like delicate birdsong.
“My maid? What makes you think we have a maid? Agnes is the only servant we have, and she would barely make it to the top of the hill, let alone to the Manor.”
Never precisely a man to bow to the shibboleths of polite behaviour, nevertheless Robert was shocked.
“You would go out without a chaperone? In the company of a man? A man you only met yesterday?”
The blue eyes hardened as her chin rose defiantly.
“Do I need one? Are you intending to act in an ungentlemanly fashion?”
“No, no, of course not, but it’s just...” he stammered, “I thought...”
To his intense relief her eyes softened. “I am not a fine lady such as you are undoubtedly accustomed to. If you would prefer, I can fetch Young Seybert to accompany you to the manor. It might be best.”
The dream of a morning spent alone in this captivating creature’s company suddenly turned undesirable when her image was replaced in his head by the visage of the sour old leprechaun.
Robert shook his head with a vigor which threatened to bring back his headache, something which had been threatening since Young Seybert’s somewhat rough-and-ready valeting.
“No, of course not. I am simply not accustomed to country rules...”
Miss Chloe nodded with a slightly bitter smile.
“Country gentry rules are all too often more restrictive than Society rules, but since I belong to neither set, I do not see where they can affect me. Shall we go?”
She opened the garden gate and stepped through, Robert following her as if tied by a leading string.
The pace she set was slow, probably out of deference to his supposed weakness, Robert surmised, but he truly did not care. The morning was pleasant, the road shady and easy walking, his companion... Even as he was glad Miss Chloe’s creamy skin was protected from the sun by the broad straw hat, Robert cursed that same hat for keeping her beautiful face hidden from him.
The distance to the Manor, although barely more than a mile, was less than Robert would have wished. Even though they did not speak he was satisfied with the walk, though he longed to learn more about Miss Chloe Wallace. The more time he spent in her company the more he was convinced that there was some mystery about her.
She obviously had not sprung from a poor country vicarage, but she seemed completely at home there. Just as obviously she was a lady, but no lady in Robert’s acquaintanceship had ever been so accomplished in the practical arts or would even think of walking beside a man who was not an immediate relation without the protection of at least a maid for a chaperone. A dozen times he opened his mouth to ask a question and a dozen times closed it without making a sound, unwilling to break this perfect and peaceful bubble of time.