Sleep initially evaded Emily, as she lay very still in the bed, her breathing now slow and regular. At first, her thoughts had been spinning around and around in her head as to what had just happened, but her mind very soon turned to the forthcoming ball and she slowly began to realise that her whole life had just been a preparation for the main event; that of marrying well. Emily trusted her parents implicitly and just knew that they had her best interests at heart, so she was not fearful for the future. She was so grateful, however, that her parents did not want to ‘arrange’ her marriage. To Emily, the future was going to be a wonderful adventure where she would meet the man of her dreams and, hopefully, tomorrow night would be just the beginning of her journey.

As she reflected on her life, she realised how lucky she’d been. Emily’s childhood had been a very loving and happy one. Her parents had always made her feel quite special and she was extremely close to both of them, although she had a particularly special bond with her mother. Lady Smythe had always wanted a large family, but miscarriage after miscarriage meant that there was just Emily and her younger brother, William. Despite her young age, Emily was a great support to her mother throughout the years of the miscarriages and the bond between them had grown very strong.

In Emily’s eyes, as boys go, William wasn’t too bad a brother, but he was an annoyance that just had to be tolerated! Emily would have loved to have had some sisters, and prayed for that every time her mother had become pregnant, but it was not to be. At least her mother seemed to understand how she felt and allowed her to have her girlfriends to stay whenever possible, although that wasn’t as often as she would have liked.

In the same way that Emily was close to her mother, William was the apple of his father’s eye. He would eventually inherit his father’s title, property and estates, but Sir Edward was determined that his son would be groomed to be a worthy successor and not become just another rich and idle member of the aristocracy. Sir Edward was a man of principle, much admired by his peers, and Emily adored him. She admired the way he devoted so much of his time to be with William; teaching him how to run the estates in a profitable manner, whilst ensuring that his workers were well cared for. In some ways, she was a little jealous of William, but accepted that she was just a girl! William always listened attentively to his father and their love for each other was plain to see.

She can still vividly remember the moment that her father’s hopes and dreams had come crashing down. She still felt partly responsible and it was like a weight pressing on her heart. She knew that if her father ever found out the truth, it would probably kill him.

Emily would never forget her fateful fourteenth birthday. Her friends Charlotte, Elinor and Lydia had been invited over as a treat to celebrate with her. They had arrived the evening before her birthday and, as the following day dawned bright and sunny, her mother had suggested that they all go out for the day and picnic on the estate. William and the girls were thrilled. They hadn’t been out for a picnic since last autumn and it was just so wonderful that the weather seemed to be smiling for Emily’s birthday!

“I could take Chestnut. He needs some exercise and he could carry the picnic baskets” William said excitedly.

Lady Smythe reluctantly agreed, although she did feel that the horse was a little too big for William, in view of his inexperience. She knew that her husband wanted William to become an accomplished horseman, so she bit her tongue despite her better judgement. She very rarely went against the wishes of her husband. The stallion was, actually, a bit too big for William at 17 hands, but had a lovely calm temperament and seemed devoted to William.

The cook was summoned and instructions for the preparation of the picnic were given. The girls went upstairs to put on their outdoor clothes, whilst William went to the stables to saddle-up Chestnut. Unfortunately, Lady Smythe was suddenly overtaken by one of her renowned headaches. These had troubled her for most of her life and just came on, quite unexpectedly, with no apparent reason. Indeed, she wasn’t very well at all and the picnic looked in danger of being abandoned. Much to Emily’s surprise, however, her mother gave permission for the picnic to go ahead without her, making it quite clear that she was entrusting Emily to supervise the day. Emily felt very grown-up. Now that she was fourteen she was obviously expected to act responsibly, and Emily felt confident that she could rise to the challenge!

It was a glorious April day; the sort of day that really promised that summer was on the way. The sun was shining and it was quite warm, with only a very light breeze, but the girls had taken their shawls and a couple of warm blankets, just in case. As instructed, they didn’t go too far; just far enough to be out of the watchful eyes of Emily’s mother, and then a little bit further! They all felt quite the little adults to be out on their own without supervision. They had certainly brought enough food with them, courtesy of Mary the cook. Mary had worked for the Smythes for over twenty years and her picnics were legendary. She had provided some chicken and plenty of cold meats, bread and cheese, pickles and preserves and some wonderful sultana scones. There was even some of her delicious home-made lemonade included. The picnic baskets were carried by William’s horse, Chestnut, along with the shawls and blankets. The little party of five made a pretty picture as they strolled happily through the meadow and onwards towards the copse, laughing and singing most of the way.

It took them some time to agree upon a picnic site, but eventually they found a level patch of grass underneath the trees, which seemed to suit all of them. They spread the red tartan blanket on the ground, covered it with the white embroidered linen tablecloth, and then proceeded to lay out the picnic. More than anything, they just wanted to drink some of Mary’s wonderful lemonade that they knew was nestling at the bottom of one of the picnic baskets. It had certainly been thirsty work, walking to the picnic site in the glorious sunshine. As Emily looked down at the tablecloth, she admired the delicate handiwork of Lady Smythe. Her mother had such patience. Although Emily was quite reasonable at embroidery, she didn’t really have the patience. She much preferred her sketching, at which she was becoming quite accomplished!

The girls were enjoying every minute of the freedom to picnic alone, but they hadn’t anticipated just how annoying Emily’s twelve year old brother could be. Boys of that age can test the patience of a saint and William was no exception. Once the girls had spread out the picnic, they didn’t find it in the least amusing to have a stupid boy deliberately sabotaging their efforts. It wasn’t very long, however, before William became bored with the girls’ idle chatter and decided to show off his limited riding skills. Despite Emily shouting to him to be careful, he insisted upon charging around and riding Chestnut bareback.

“Look at me, look at me” called William “am I not the very best rider in the world?”

“Just put the saddle back on and ride him properly” was Emily’s exasperated response, wondering why on earth her mother had insisted that he came with them. On reflection, though, it probably had something to do with her headache!

Looking back on that day, Emily remembered how wonderful it was to be picnicking with her three best friends. They didn’t get that many opportunities to meet up, so it seemed very special. As usual, Emily had brought along her sketchpad and, although she didn’t yet feel confident enough to sketch portraits, Charlotte, Elinor and Lydia begged her to sketch all three of them and wouldn’t take no for an answer!

William was still trying to be the centre of attention and was being extremely distracting and tiresome, so Lydia offered to help him saddle-up Chestnut. At least he would then leave them in peace for a little while and allow Emily some undisturbed time to sketch everyone’s portrait. The girls breathed a sigh of relief as William cantered off through the copse and then they settled down to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in the warm sunshine. It was so heavenly on the estate and the only sounds that could be heard were those of the birds singing chirpily and the distant lowing of cows. After Emily had refilled everyone’s glasses with the delicious lemonade, she took out her sketchpad and pencils and prepared to sketch. There were plenty of beautiful daffodils and some very pretty bluebells just beginning to open up in the dappled shade of the copse, so Emily used these as a backdrop to her sketch of the girls. If truth were told, she much preferred to sketch flowers and plants.

As the afternoon wore on, and the sketch was completed, there was a sudden realisation that William had been missing for quite some time. Although Emily had been happy that William was away amusing himself, she began to feel a little uneasy at his long absence. They all cleared away the remains of the picnic, carefully putting everything back in the picnic baskets, and then they folded up the red tartan blanket and the white embroidered linen tablecloth and put them on the top of the baskets. As it was now beginning to feel a little cooler, they put their shawls around their shoulders before setting off to look for William.

They walked for about ten minutes, negotiating the hanging branches of the trees, when suddenly they spotted Chestnut standing quite still on the far side of the copse, but William was nowhere to be seen. The girls quickly ran over to the stallion and then, with horror, they spotted William, lying motionless on the ground. It was clear that something wasn’t quite right. As they gathered around William, it was frighteningly obvious that he wasn’t breathing and his neck appeared to be broken. They had no idea how long he had been lying there, but it looked as though he had fallen from the horse. There were so many tree roots in the copse, so it was more than likely that Chestnut had stumbled over one of them. With William being an inexperienced rider, it might have been difficult for him to remain mounted. Everyone was trying not to panic. As Emily was familiar with Chestnut, she decided to quickly ride back to the house to get her father. Just as she was about to mount, however, Lydia, unexpectedly rushed over to the horse and, with a guilty look upon her face, removed something from underneath Chestnut’s saddle.

“I only did it to teach him a lesson” sobbed Lydia. “I just thought it would stop him showing off. I’ve killed him, haven’t I?” she shrieked.

Emily had been the only one to notice that Lydia had removed some thorny twigs from underneath Chestnut’s saddle the. She was having difficulty comprehending what she was seeing. The enormity of the situation was too much to bear. She just stood and stared at Lydia, mouth open and eyes wide. Her brother was dead, his death caused by one of her best friends. She just couldn’t take in what was happening. How was she going to break this to her father?

“Don’t say anything else, Lydia” instructed Emily firmly between sobs. “I know you thought it was just a joke, but my brother is dead. How could you? How could you be so stupid? This wasn’t just an accident; this was a callous and reckless act of irresponsibility. How am I going to break this to my parents? My father will be absolutely distraught. For everyone’s sake, just leave things as they are. It will be far better for my parents to think that this was just an appalling accident. I will keep your secret for my father’s sake, but I don’t know whether I’ll ever be able to forgive you.”

With tears streaming down their faces, both girls agreed that they wouldn’t speak about Lydia’s involvement in the accident with anyone. In fact, both girls were so traumatised that they never talked about it again, even between themselves. As far as anyone else was concerned, this was just a riding accident.

William’s death had virtually paralysed the four girls. Fortunately, Elinor and Charlotte were in too much of a state of shock to notice anything untoward regarding the saddle, so Emily removed the remainder of the irritants that had caused Chestnut to throw William and quickly mounted the stallion. With Lydia’s grateful sobs ringing in her ears, Emily galloped off to break the news to her father. She could hardly see through the tears, and she was quivering with shock, but she managed to get back home without further incident.

Over the next couple of years, Emily eventually managed to forgive Lydia. She knew in her heart that Lydia hadn’t killed William on purpose. For her part though, Lydia never succeeded in forgiving herself and always felt a tremendous debt of gratitude to Emily. Some day she would find a way to repay Emily for all the hurt she had caused.

The death of William hit Sir Edward like a gunshot to his heart. All his dreams of passing on his title and estates to his son were cruelly dashed, leaving him absolutely devastated. Emily’s mother never really recovered, but did her best to support her husband. They seemed to have had so much tragedy in their lives, but William’s death seemed to bring them even closer together. Between the two of them, they realised that they needed to focus their attention on Emily’s future, and that is what they did!

Sir Edward Smythe was descended from Henry Chichester, an officer in Cromwell’s army who had been granted lands in Ireland. The Smythes were a very old-established family, with very large estates in Lancashire and Ireland. Although the Irish Estates were far larger than those in England, they were mainly agricultural, so yielded less income. It was fair to say, however, that Sir Edward’s fortune was quite considerable, but his one bitter disappointment was always going to be that he was the last of the male line. He never really got over William’s death but, as Emily’s father, he was determined to do his best to ensure that his only remaining child was well provided for. Under the terms of his will, which was drawn up by his very useful and capable lawyer, his Lancashire estate was placed in trust and assigned to Emily for life, thus protecting her fortune from falling into the of any possible unscrupulous future husband. Sir Edward fully intended providing a handsome dowry for his daughter, whilst at the same time ensuring that she was well provided for in the future. Sir Edward and Lady Smythe were both fully aware that, at some stage, Emily might be without a protector and they considered it their duty to safeguard her.

Emily’s devastated parents tried not to become too overprotective towards their only surviving child and realised that the best thing they could do for their daughter was to continue to provide her with a good level of education in order to equip her for the future. It would also make her more attractive and interesting to possible prospective husbands. A private tutor was employed for Emily, who was not only taught how to read and write, but was also tutored in arithmetic, history, foreign languages and the classics. The idea was that if she was well educated, she would be able to converse with future suitors quite effortlessly. She was, in fact, a very bright student and a joy to tutor. In addition to academic skills, she also became quite accomplished in dancing, needlework, music and drawing. From a very young age, however, Emily had always shown a particular talent in drawing, so a specialist tutor was engaged to complement the permanent tutor’s skills. Emily’s sketchpad was never far from her side. She used to sketch anything and everything, but particularly loved sketching plants and flowers. Her mother never tired of showing off her daughter’s sketches at every possible opportunity to anyone who seemed remotely interested, and even to those who had no interest at all!

In fact, a great deal of money was spent on Emily’s education, making her a very good prospect for marriage. It did no harm that Emily was also a particularly striking young lady, with long blonde hair and cornflower blue eyes. She also had a wonderfully ready smile; a very kind nature; and an even temperament. Lady Smythe had trained Emily well in the niceties of running a home and entertaining, so was very well aware that her daughter would be highly sought-after by many aristocratic families during the coming Season.

“Oh, I do have a lot to be thankful for.” Emily mused sleepily as she stretched out in the large double bed, being careful not to awaken Charlotte.

All at once, her girlish expectations seemed possible and she felt that all was right with the world. Eventually, as the night wore on, Emily managed to drift off to sleep.

Sleep was also evading the four girls’ mothers. Each of them was thinking about her daughter’s entry into society and praying that all would go well.

In addition, Sir Edward, who was sleeping alone at his exclusive club, Boodle’s, was mindful that he had done everything he possibly could to enhance the chances of his daughter’s future happiness.

Every one of them realised that tomorrow was going to be a momentous turning point in their lives. Everything, now, was in the lap of the gods!

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