October 1911, England
Julia Foster lifted her gaze to the clear October sky as a lark swooped past. Her steps slowed and her thoughts took flight, following the bird as it dipped into the golden trees beyond the meadow. If only she could fly away, back to the familiar life and cherished friends she had left behind in India. But that dream would have to wait.
She shifted her gaze to the country lane rising before her. Around the next bend she would see Highland Hall. At least that was what she remembered, but twelve years had passed since she had attended a charity bazaar at the large estate before her family left for India. What if she had misjudged the distance or the time it took to walk from the village of Fulton to Highland Hall? She quickened her pace. It wouldn’t do to be late for her ten o’clock appointment with Mrs. Emmitt, the housekeeper.
When she reached the top of the rise, she spotted an expensive-looking navy-blue motorcar with a black roof pulled to the side of the lane. A tall man, who had discarded his jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt, stood over the open hood. He reached in and pulled on something, then bent lower and scowled.
She considered walking past since they had not been introduced, but her conscience would not allow it. Stopping a few feet away, she cleared her throat. “Excuse me, sir. Do you need some assistance?”
He turned and glared at her. “Assistance?” His dark eyebrows rose to a haughty slant. “I suppose you know something about car engines?”
Julia lifted her chin, suppressing the urge to match his mocking tone. “No sir. But I’m on my way to Highland Hall, and I could ask someone there to come and help you if you like.”
He huffed, grabbed the rag lying on the car’s running board, and wiped his hands. “It won’t do any good. No one there knows a blasted thing about cars.” He tapped the gold Highland insignia on the door.
Julia stepped away, more than happy to leave the brooding chauffeur behind.
“Wait, you say you’re headed to Highland Hall?”
She turned and faced him again. “Yes, I have an interview with Mrs. Emmitt.” Perhaps if he knew she might soon be working for Sir William Ramsey, the new master of Highland Hall, he would treat her with a little more respect.
He narrowed his deep blue eyes and assessed her. “An interview? For what position?”
She looked away, debating the wisdom of continuing the conversation with a man who wasn’t civil enough to introduce himself.
“It’s all right. You can tell me.” He nodded to her, obviously expecting a reply.
“If you must know, I’m applying for the position of governess.”
A look of disbelief flashed across his face and the scowl returned. “You look too young. Do you have any experience?”
She straightened, trying to add another inch to her petite stature, but she was still at least a foot shorter than he. “I’ve been teaching children for nine years.”
“Really? Did you begin teaching when you were ten?”
She clenched her jaw. Was there no end to the man’s rudeness? “No sir. I was eighteen. And if you’ll excuse me, I must go, or I’ll be late for my appointment.” She turned and strode away.
“There’s no need to rush off in a huff.” He caught up with her. “I didn’t mean to insult you.”
“I’m not insulted, just intent on being punctual.” She cast him a quick side glance. “I don’t have the time or luxury to stand by the roadside and fiddle with car engines.”
He grinned and then chuckled.
Heat flashed into her face. Infuriating man! How dare he laugh at her. She hurried on, not giving him the satisfaction of a reply.
“Well, pardon me.”
She sent him a withering look and walked on so quickly she got a stitch in her side.
With his long legs, he had no trouble keeping pace. “You certainly have spirit. I like that.”
She gulped in a big breath and spun toward him. “You, sir, are entirely too familiar and too rude for words!”
His jaw dropped, and he stared at her, wide-eyed.
With her face burning, she marched away. She’d only gone a few steps before regret overtook her. Forgive me, Lord. I should not have spoken to him like that. But he was so ill mannered I couldn’t help myself. She sighed and lifted her eyes to heaven. I’m sorry. I know that’s not true. You’re faithful to give me the strength to control my tongue if I will only ask. But please, Lord, could You make him forget what I said? Or at least let me have little contact with him at Highland?
She doubted that last part of her prayer would be answered. While Highland Hall was a large house, the staff probably saw each other throughout the day.
What a terrible way to start off. No doubt he’d tell everyone she was hot-tempered and not worthy of the position of governess. And that was assuming she got the job. And she must. Her father’s illness had stretched on for months, forcing them to leave India and return to England. Now that he was unable to practice medicine, her parents depended on her for support. She must not let them down, no matter how humbling or difficult the job might be.
The lane curved to the right, and Highland Hall came into view. Julia’s steps slowed as she took in the lovely grounds and large house. It looked more like a castle, standing four stories high at its tallest point, with a wide lawn and curved, gravel drive leading to the front door. It was built of sandcolored stone, and though some sections had turned yellow and gray with age, it still looked sturdy and imposing. A tall, round turret stood at the right corner, and an arched portico stretched halfway across the front of the house.
Oh Lord, that house is worth a fortune, and the people who live there are definitely used to a different life than I’ve lived. How will I ever fit in?
She shook her head, then straightened her shoulders. There was no time to fret, not if she wanted to make a good impression and arrive at the appointed hour. She made her way around the side of the house, following the directions Reverend Langford had given her.
A broad-shouldered man wearing a brown cap and tweed coat pushed a wheelbarrow toward the greenhouse. He stopped and nodded to her. “Can I help you, miss?” He looked about thirty-five and had a kind, honest face.
She returned his nod with a slight smile. “I have an appointment with Mrs. Emmitt.”
He pointed to a door tucked in a corner at the back of the house. “Just ring the bell there, miss, and someone will be along to help you.”
She thanked him and crossed the rear courtyard. Pulling in a deep breath, she smoothed her hand down her cloak and skirt and checked her hat. Everything seemed to be in place. Lifting her hand, she pressed the bell while her stomach fluttered like a nervous bird.
Only a few seconds passed before the door opened and a plump young woman with rosy cheeks and bright blue eyes greeted her. She wore a white apron over her dark green servant’s uniform and a white cap. “How can I help you, miss?”
“I’m Julia Foster. I’m here to see Mrs. Emmitt.”
“Very good. Come this way.” She started down the steps and smiled over her shoulder. “I’m Lydia, one of the housemaids. Are you here about a position?”
“Yes.” Remembering her encounter with the brooding chauffeur, she decided not to add any more details. As they reached the bottom step, the heavenly scent of baking bread and roasting meat floated toward her. She breathed deeply, savoring the smell. Her empty stomach contracted, reminding her that she had walked off the simple breakfast of porridge she’d eaten at seven.
Lydia led the way past the kitchen. Julia glanced through the doorway and saw two young women and a man in a white chef’s jacket chopping vegetables at the table in the center of the room. He said something to one of the women, but his French accent was so strong Julia couldn’t understand him.
“You’ll want to mind your p’s and q’s with Mrs. Emmitt,” Lydia said, continuing down the hallway. “She’s a stickler for proper manners and such. But you’re smart-looking. That should help it go well for you.”
“Thank you,” Julia murmured, though she wasn’t sure that was the right response.
“This is it.” Lydia stopped in front of a closed door. “Mug’s parlor, at least that’s what we call it.” She grinned and nodded. “Go on, then. Give it a knock, and good luck to you.”
“Thank you.” Julia sent off one more silent prayer, then rapped on the door while the maid disappeared into another room.
The door swung open, and a stern-faced woman who appeared to be about sixty looked out at her. She wore a plain navy-blue dress with a cameo pinned at the high neck and a set of keys clipped to her waistband. Small, wire-rimmed glasses perched on the bridge of her nose.
“Good day, ma’am. I’m Julia Foster.”
“Come in. I’ve been expecting you.” She motioned toward the straightbacked chair by the fireplace while she lowered herself onto the settee. “Do you have your letters of reference?”
“Yes ma’am.” Julia took the letters from Reverend Langford and Lady Farnsworth from her handbag and gave them to Mrs. Emmitt.
The housekeeper pursed her lips and read Lady Farnsworth’s letter first. “She says your family has been acquainted with hers for many years.”
“Yes, my father served as her family physician since the time of her marriage to Lord Farnsworth.”
“I’m not sure what that has to do with you.” Mrs. Emmitt opened and read Reverend Langford’s letter next, her stern expression never softening. “It says you’ve been out of the country for twelve years. Is that correct?”
Julia nodded. “Our family has been serving in India since 1899 with the London Missionary Society.”
Mrs. Emmitt’s nose wrinkled slightly as her gaze dipped back to the letter. “You were a teacher there?”
“Yes, we opened a home for girls and ran a medical clinic for the village.”