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Excerpt for Lost in the Labyrinth by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Three sisters, two gentlemen, and one love story.

Mr Daniel Garrett leads a peaceful and simple life in a small village close to the Peak District where afternoon tea is always served at three o’clock.

However, when Ashley Thornhill, a charming gentleman and the most sought-after bachelor in the county, inherits Thornhill Manor, Daniel’s uncomplicated life is suddenly about to become a little bit more… complicated.

During a summer picnic when Daniel is forced to chaperone his three lively sisters, Ashley boldly challenges him to solve the old and over-grown Celtic hedge maze on the estate. But the old, neglected labyrinth is more wild and dangerous than anyone may expect…

Lost in the Labyrinth

A Gay Victorian Romance and Erotic Novelette
by Lady T. L. Jennings

All rights are reserved. This book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s peculiar imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be regarded or constructed as real in any way. Any resemblance to persons (living, dead, or undead), actual events, locales, organisations, or groups is wholly coincidental.

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. No part of this book may be used or reused. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Copyright © 2016 Lady T. L. Jennings

Proofread by Pauline Nolet


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Also by Lady T. L. Jennings

THE DANGEROUS LETTERS TRILOGY

~ Blackmail ~
A Gay Victorian Romance Novella (Book 1)

~ Stolen Letters ~
A Gay Victorian Romance Novel (Book 2)

~ The Secret Diary ~
A Gay Victorian Romance Novel (Book 3)

VICTORIAN SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS

~ Lust and Lace ~
A Victorian Romance and Erotic Short Story Collection. Vol. I.

~ Corsets and Cravings ~
A Victorian Romance and Erotic Short Story Collection. Vol. II.

~ Secrets and Seduction ~
A Victorian Romance and Erotic Short Story Collection. Vol. III.

GAY VICTORIAN NOVELETTE COLLECTIONS

~ Different Desire ~
A Gay Victorian Romance and Erotic Novelette Collection. Vol. I.

~ Forbidden Feelings ~
A Gay Victorian Romance and Erotic Novelette Collection. Vol. II.

~ Immoral Intentions ~
A Gay Victorian Romance and Erotic Novelette Collection. Vol. III.

NOVELLAS

~ Complicated Affairs ~
A Gay Victorian Romance and Erotic Novella

~ The Mystery of the Black Widow ~
A Gay Victorian Romance and Erotic Novella

~ A Thief in the Night ~
A Gay Victorian Romance and Erotic Novella

THE VICTORIAN COLLECTORS’ EDITIONS

~ The Victorian Collectors’ Box Set ~
Victorian Romance and Erotica Short Story Collections (Vol. I-III)

~ The Victorian Gentleman’s Collection Box Set ~
Gay Victorian Romance and Erotica Collections (Vol. I-III)

~ The Dangerous Letters Trilogy Box Set ~
Gay Victorian Romance Collections (Book 1-3)



~ Lost in the Labyrinth ~

A Gay Victorian Romance and Erotic Novelette
by Lady T. L. Jennings

For as long as I could remember, afternoon tea at our house, Rosehill farm–a rustic timbered and white-plastered old Tudor house with thick, exposed wooden frames and a thatched roof that was prone to leaking–had always been served exactly at three o’clock.

Teatime had always been a busy and scrumptious affair in my family. Afternoon tea was a combined opportunity to drink tea and have a couple of cut sandwiches or delicious tarts while taking a break from work. It was also a time for the family to talk, share gossip, and to sort out any family business–and sometimes bicker with each other–while at the same time read the morning newspaper and go through the daily post.

A selection of cut sandwiches, warm scones and newly baked crumpets were served together with different types of jams and spreads, as well as clotted cream and honey. Two elegant silver pots with engraved scrollwork that had belonged to my mother’s family also graced the table. The larger teapot was filled with Earl Grey tea–we never drank any other sort of tea in the house–and the smaller pot contained strong black coffee. There were always milk, sugar lumps, and thin lemon slices available on a plate next to the silver pots; however, the variety of cake and tarts at the table varied depending on the season.

During the summer, strawberry tarts with freshly whipped cream, thick slices of mouth-watering raspberry cake, and ice-cold lemonade on hot days were served at afternoon tea. Throughout the autumn, plum pies, sweet apple crumble with custard, and black currant cake–my favourite–were introduced and replaced the summer assortment. When the first snow arrived to the Peak District, cranberry tarts, pecan pie, and lemon curd were introduced at teatime, while December brought Christmas pudding with figs and chunky slices of chocolate-and-toffee-dipped winter apples to the table to cheer us up during the cold and dark season.

Other meals–like breakfast, luncheon, and evening supper–were seldom a marked affair unless we had guests or on the rare occasions when we entertained. My father was the local physician in the small parish where we lived, in the middle of Derbyshire, on the very brink of the untamed wilderness of the Peak District. My father was very dedicated to his work, and he often left our house quietly in the morning before anyone except Mrs Walton was awake. Mrs Walton was our housemaid and cook. She was a short and sturdy old lady with steel grey hair in a tight bun. Despite her age, she was always up before dawn and always made sure that my father at least had a cup of hot tea and some cold ham and bread before he left.

My father did not earn much as a village doctor in a small parish, and we were not a rich family; however, we were not poor or destitute either. Once upon a time my mother’s family had been wealthy and rather affluently rich; however, that was before they fell on hard times. My grandparents had owned a lot of land and old Rosehill Park; however, that was a long time ago and before I was born, and all that was left of my mother’s family fortune was Rosehill Farm. Nevertheless, we lived a simple and reasonably comfortable village life. We could not afford to keep a lot of servants, and with the exception of Mrs Walton, we only had an all-around manservant at our disposal. This meant that a lot of the work regarding the house and housekeeping, including everything from baking and gardening to general maintenance and taking care of the horses, fell on me and my siblings. However, we did not mind, and our life in the small village on the edge of the Peak District was quiet, predictable, and sometimes even a little bit dull. However, that was before Mr Ashley Thornhill arrived last year and turned everything upside down.

*

When I came down at teatime, just as the old grandfather clock in the hallway chimed three o’clock, my parents and my three sisters, Valerie, Kathy, and Ava, had already gathered in the morning room around the oval walnut table. A mild summer breeze played with the white lace curtains by the tall open casement windows. In the summer, we had tea and refreshments in the pale lemon-yellow-painted morning room. The room was bright and in strong contrast to the dining room upstairs, which we–somewhat unconventionally, perhaps–also used for afternoon tea during the winter. The dining room with its dark wooden panelling and worn burgundy damask wallpapers had seen better days; however, it had the largest fireplace in the house and thick velvet curtains, which kept the room warm and snug during the winter.

I sat down next to my father just as Mrs Walton placed the last floral-patterned porcelain plate with newly baked scones on the table. The scones were covered with a tea towel and smelled delicious, and I longed to spread blackcurrant jam and clotted cream on one of the warm scones, but I waited patiently.

“I hope you will enjoy your afternoon tea,” Mrs Walton said after a final check that everything was on the table. Her lips moved soundlessly as she counted the plates at the table and mentally ticked them off, one by one.

“Thank you, Mrs Walton,” my mother said warmly and added as always, “What would we do without you?”

“You are very kind, ma’am.” The old housemaid made a simple curtsey in reply before she left the room; however, I knew how much Mrs Walton appreciated her words and how much pride she took in her work.

Although she was getting rather old, I was quite convinced that not even Queen Victoria enjoyed a more delicious and scrumptious afternoon tea than we did.

Almost the entire family, except my older brother, Eugene, was gathered around the oval table with its slightly worn embroider tablecloth and new fresh flowers from the garden that one of my sisters had picked earlier the same morning.

My father had come back from his appointment with the Brown family and sat by the high end of the table, going through the morning post, which he had not had time to read until now. He had a short, neatly trimmed handlebar moustache and greying hair. He was in his late fifties and significantly older than my mother, but he still had perfectly clear blue eyes, and if someone fell acutely ill, he would still ride dashingly across the countryside on horseback like a man half his age. My mother sat at the other end of the table, half-reading the Derby Reporter newspaper. She was short and rather plump and had brown, naturally curly hair and a dimpled chin that made her look younger than she was.

I had three sisters: Valerie, who was three-and-twenty years old and who was serving the tea. She was the oldest of my sisters and she was one year older than I was. Like me, she was rather tall and she had the same brown and naturally curly hair as our mother. Kathy was two years younger than I was and she had just turned twenty. She was the fairest of us siblings and she looked a lot like our father with her straight blonde hair and clear blue eyes. Ava was my youngest sister and she was sixteen years old. Like me, she had wavy brown hair and we had both inherited our mother’s dimpled chin. Ava was rather short for her age and as slender as a boy. She was also a little bit… peculiar.

When she was young, everyone had assumed that Ava was slightly daft and behind because she did not speak until she was nearly four years old. Ava never went to boarding school like the rest of us siblings, and instead she attended the small village school. Initially her results were very poor until one day when the school mistress realised that Ava had somehow already taught herself to read, all by herself.

Ava always had new, different interests, which she pursued ardently. At seven years old, she used to read and memorise all of our father’s medical books, and she was also immensely fond of poetry and word riddles. She did not play any musical instruments and she had no interest in learning how to sing or dance like a normal girl her age. Instead she was often dressed like a stable boy, and at the age of ten she created a massive herbarium with all the plants that could be found in Derbyshire. Her latest whimsical interest was to collect butterflies; however, she could not bring herself to pin them up on a corkboard and frame them properly, and instead she spent hours drawing them in perfect detail. Ava loved animals and everything that grew; however, she was not a sensible girl and she did not always pay attention to other things around her. Sometimes she could be alarmingly eccentric; however, despite her quirkiness we all loved her dearly, even though she sometimes would say or do various embarrassing things without even realising it.

The only person missing at the table was our oldest brother, Eugene. He had recently married and he was spending his honeymoon in Bath together with his newly wedded wife, much to the enormous envy of Valerie and Kathy, who had spent the better part of the summer lamenting the fact that they could not visit Bath. When no one listened to their complaints, they tried to invent various illnesses and maladies that would require special medical treatment in Bath, which was known for its healthy spring water and heated mineral spas. However, our father put an end to their pursuits after he discovered them in his library, going through his medical dictionary, hunting for a suitable and believable description of an illness that would require heated spa treatments. As a punishment he cut off their allowances and all pin money for the following month and even went as far as forbidding them to attend the yearly summer village fair as a reprimand.

Both Valerie and Kathy were still a little bit upset over what they referred to as ‘the most unjust treatment in the world’, and they were still grumbling about it at the table during teatime, especially after our father had read Eugene’s latest letter out loud.

“It is not fair,” Kathy muttered. “Why can we not go to Bath?”

Valerie nodded gravely in agreement, but Ava ignored both of them and concentrated deeply on spreading honey on a warm crumpet in an intricate pattern.

“There, there, girls. We have already talked about it,” Father said and opened another of the other letters that had arrived with the morning post.

“It is still deeply unfair…” Valerie said with a forlorn sigh.

“Well, here is some news that I think should cheer you up,” Father said. “It might even take your mind off your oldest brother and his visit to Bath.”

“What is it?” Kathy exclaimed, impatient as always.

“Let him read it first,” I told her.

Valerie craned her neck and tried as inconspicuously as possible to read over our father’s shoulder. She gasped out loud.

“Oh, it is from Thornhill!”

*

“Thornhill!” Kathy’s high-pitched shriek pierced my ears. “Is it from Mr Ashley Thornhill?”

“Excuse me, young lady!” Our father addressed Valerie sternly and held the letter close to his chest so that it was impossible for her to steal a second glance. “It is rude to read other people’s letters. I thought I had raised you better!”

A letter from Thornhill? I thought with a sinking feeling, but Valerie and Kathy both squealed in delight and our mother beamed. Ava shrugged with indifference; however, she took the opportunity to help herself to a couple of cut ham sandwiches that I was convinced would be smuggled out to her tame fox that she secretly kept behind the stable.

It is not that I do not like Mr Thornhill, I thought to myself. I just do not understand why everyone makes such a fuss about him!

Our new flamboyant neighbour, Mr Ashley Thornhill, had–without even trying!–somehow managed to impress and charm everyone in the parish except me. Last summer he had inherited Thornhill Manor after the death of his old great-aunt Mrs Beatrice Thornhill, who had been married to the late Mr Thornhill, who died more than fifteen years ago. Beatrice had passed away in her sleep at the ripe age of one-and-eighty and left the entire estate to her favourite grandnephew and lawful heir, who instantly had become one of the richest and most sought-after young bachelors in Derbyshire and possibly even northern England!

He was a couple of years older than I, but we had very little in common. Ashley Thornhill was rich, charming, and handsome. He was the only child and came from an incredibly wealthy family and seemed to have been born to be privileged. Indeed, at the age of four-and-twenty Ashley already seemed to have acquired everything that a young gentleman ought to have in life, without even striving for it: Title, land, education, and connections.

All he lacks is a genteel and beautiful wife and a future heir, I thought with a grimace. And then his life will be perfectly complete.

I shook my head at my own thoughts and poured myself another cup of tea.

“What does the letter say, Father?” I said in a deliberately neutral tone.

“It is indeed from Thornhill,” our father confirmed and read the rest of the letter in silence, more slowly than anyone at the table thought was possible. Anticipation rose. No one dared to interrupt him until he had finished reading. “Mr Thornhill will be back from Birmingham tomorrow. He intends to stay at Thornhill Manor for the rest of the summer, and he has invited us all on a summer picnic on Saturday.”

He barely had time to finish the sentence before chaos erupted at the peaceful afternoon tea table in the morning room and everyone seemed to be trying to talk at the same time.

How come everyone instantly seems to take leave of their senses as soon as Ashley Thornhill’s name is mentioned? I wondered with a frown. Really, he is not that handsome!

Although I had to secretly admit to myself that he was not entirely unattractive with his charming smile and easy manners. However, the fact that he probably was the richest gentleman and most eligible bachelor within fifty miles most certainly had something to do with the general turmoil at the table.

“A summer picnic!” Kathy cried out. “At Thornhill’s!”

“With Mr Ashley Thornhill, he is so very… handsome,” Valerie mumbled with a longing sigh, “and he is so very… unmarried…”

“Will he bring a hunting party like last time, Papa? Do you know if he will bring his dogs and hounds?” Ava demanded to know.

“Oh, this is such an excellent opportunity for the girls, is it not?” our mother commented and reached for the last scone on the plate.

I tried not to scowl at her remark. I was more than aware that my mother was not the only woman in the parish who was plotting to make sure that one of her daughters would become the future Mrs Thornhill.

I am not jealous, I decided and firmly pushed the ridiculous thoughts out of my head.

“I shall not be attending the picnic,” I proclaimed somewhat stiffly. “Mr Taylor asked me last Sunday after church if I could help him with the vicarage’s accountings and I agreed.”

“You can easily reschedule your appointment with Mr Taylor, Daniel,” my mother said and ignored my protests with a waving hand gesture. “I do not want you to rudely decline an invitation from Mr Thornhill. He seems very keen to become more acquainted with our family, and it is your responsibility to chaperone your sisters.”

I stifled a small sigh.

Our mother had begun matchmaking ever since my sisters were in their cradles, and she was determined that they would marry well. The fact that she herself had married significantly beneath her station when she was young had left her with a resolute desire for her daughters to marry sensibly and well–and without letting irrational, pesky feelings such as love get in the way! My mother had married directly against her family’s wishes at the tender age of seventeen. At the time, my father had been the newly appointed physician in the parish, and one late autumn night he had arrived to Rosehill Park after receiving an emergency message. His swift methods and clear reasoning saved the life of my mother’s sister, who had been severely ill with scarlet fever. My mother fell hopelessly in love with him, and regardless of anyone trying to persuade her, they married each other the following spring. Although I did not think that she ever regretted her decision, it had, of course, a monumental impact on her life, and she ended up more or less cut off and estranged from her family.

“I do not wish to attend the picnic.” I forced my voice to be steady and perfectly neutral. “Unfortunately I have already made other plans.”

“Mr Thornhill has always been very polite and agreeable; I do not understand what you have against him,” my mother said and added in a tone that left no room for discussion, “Regardless, you will be going to Thornhill on Saturday, Daniel. Whether you want to or not is sadly irrelevant.”

I clenched my jaw, but said nothing.

Once again I was forced to act against my own wishes.

“Just because you do not like Ashley Thornhill does not mean you have to spoil the fun for the rest of us!” Kathy scoffed, rather unladylike.

“It is not that I do not like the gentleman in question,” I said defensively and added vaguely, “I just do not… trust him.”

“That is right. A brother should protect his sisters.” My father unexpectedly came to my rescue. “Do not tease him about that, girls.”

“Well,” my mother said and lowered her voice, “I believe that the only reason that Mr Thornhill has not made an offer–or at the very least formed a secret engagement!–with any of our lovely daughters is that he needs a little bit more time alone with them, and that is why he has decided to leave Birmingham and spend the entire summer at Thornhill.”

“Do you really think so, Mama!” Kathy exclaimed.

“How wonderful…” Valerie gazed through the window, already halfway lost in a daydream that I had no doubt included various over-sugary marriage proposals. “How absolutely wonderful and so romantic…”

I hid a disgusted grimace, but refrained from commenting.

“Mr Thornhill has always been very polite and he is constantly seeking our company every time he visits since he inherited Thornhill Manor last year,” our mother said. “There can be only one explanation–he must be in love with one of you girls.”

Her comment resulted in a short-lived but hot quarrel between Valerie and Kathy regarding exactly whom Ashley Thornhill secretly preferred. Ava took the opportunity to slip from the table during the commotion, her pockets bulging with ham sandwiches. She gave me an impish smile and I shook my head at her before she disappeared, without doubt towards the stable and her tame fox.

“No one will care if I am there or not.” I made a last attempt to avoid the upcoming picnic. “Why do I always have to chaperone my sisters all the time?”

“It is your duty,” my mother told me. “Your older brother never complained about it when it was his task.”

“As a matter of fact, it says here–” Father read through the letter “–that Mr Thornhill is actually especially asking for you to attend, Daniel. Apparently he is planning to make several improvements around the estate and he would like your good opinion about it.”

Improvements around the estate? I thought and forced to keep my expression neutral. I think not.

I did not have the faintest idea why Mr Thornhill insisted on singling me out, but I did not like it. I preferred my life simple and uncomplicated; however, despite my very best intentions, Ashley Thornhill seemed to somehow always manage to have a rather detrimental effect on my firm decision.

*

Saturday morning arrived, accompanied by lovely, sunny weather that almost seemed to have been conjured to mock me, because I had hoped that it would be raining and the picnic would have to be cancelled.

I had not been able to come up with any valid excuse for why I could not join my sisters to the summer picnic at Thornhill Manor. Even Mr Taylor at the vicarage had been annoyingly understanding when I told him that I could not help him with his accounting, and had in a friendly manner suggested that we could reschedule it to another day or evening.

My father left early for Manchester to accompany one of his patients from the village to an eye specialist appointment, while my mother proclaimed when she woke up that she had a sore throat and could not possibly join us for the picnic. Her illness, however, did not prevent her from giving us endless advice regarding what we should wear, say, and how to behave once we arrived at Thornhill. I myself got half an hour of private lecture focusing on how I should chaperone my sisters in a way that was both ‘gentlemanly encouraging’ as well as ‘brotherly protective’, as my mother called it.

“Remember, Daniel, do not be overburdening or tiresome,” my mother told me while she helped Valerie pin up her curly brown hair in front of the green-painted vanity table with brass handles and three foldable mirrors in my mother’s rather cramped dressing room.

“Yes, Mother,” I said and tried not to feel insulted by her comment.

“And you must let Mr Thornhill delicately court your sister and do not stand in his way,” our mother said for at least the hundredth time.

“I shall.”

Skilfully she added two copper wire hair combs decorated with gleaming white pearls and copper leaves at either side of Valerie’s head just above her ears.

“There you go,” she said. “You look lovely, Valerie. Now run upstairs and get dressed before you are late.”

“Thank you, Mama.” Valerie seemed pleased with the results and carefully inspected her hair from various angles in the three mirrors in front of her before she rose from the chair.

“It would be so much easier if we knew whom Mr Thornhill preferred,” my mother mumbled half to herself once Valerie had left the room. “It is all very vexing. Both Valerie and Kathy are lovely girls, but they are so different. Of course, a proper gentleman should take his time choosing his future bride, and perhaps he is a little bit shy, just like you, Daniel.”

“Or perhaps he cannot make up his mind?” I suggested.

“That is quite possible,” she replied thoughtfully. “But one would expect a gentleman should know his heart’s desire.”

“Yes,” I agreed slowly and very carefully hid my own feelings.

“Nevertheless, you will need to make sure that Valerie and Kathy appear willing and interested if he is courting them.” She hesitated. “But not too much, of course! I will not have any gossip that any of my girls are loose or easy. Everything has to be just and right!”

“Yes, Mother.”

Her contradicting advice made little sense to me. I tried to politely agree and listen to my mother; however, in the end her lecture left me in a somewhat dark mood.

“Go and get dressed now before you are late.” She finally whisked me away. “Send Kathy down. I need to help her curl her hair. And tell Valerie to wear her yellow gown, the one with the puffed sleeves. Oh, and make sure that Ava is at least reasonably presentable and that she is not dressed like a scruffy stable boy!”

I went upstairs, where I found Valerie in front of her wardrobe, hopelessly indecisive regarding which dress she should wear to match her new straw bonnet, while Kathy and Ava were in the middle of a feisty quarrel.

“You never use ribbons in your hair anyway!” Kathy screamed. Hectic roses had flushed her cheeks, but Ava refused to back down.

“It is a matter of principle,” she cried back. “You took them without asking me!”

“But I need them!” Kathy snapped. “Ashley Thornhill may very well propose to me today and I have to look my best!”

“That is not very likely,” Ava replied. “Besides, I think that he prefers someone else!”

“He does not prefer Valerie, you little beast! It is me that he wants!”

I stepped into the room and at the last moment I stopped Kathy from throwing herself at Ava. I had to use every ounce of my diplomatic skills together with a couple of dark threats to avoid a full-blown meltdown between my two younger sisters.

“Mother wants you to go downstairs, Kathy,” I said, and for once she actually obeyed me.

Ava stuck her tongue out at her; however, Kathy had already turned her back on her and luckily she did not notice it. I rolled my eyes at Ava.

“You should not do things like that,” I scolded her mildly and shook my head.

“She took my ribbons without asking.”

“Let it go, Ava. Besides, you have to hurry up and get dressed. Mother told me to make sure that you wear a proper dress for the picnic.”

I decided to ignore Ava’s loud protests and turned to Valerie, who had spread out all of her clothes on her bed in front of her.

“You should wear the yellow dress, according to Mama,” I said to my oldest sister.

“Do you mean my gown or the day dress from last year?” Valerie asked.

“I do not know.” I shrugged before I left the room to get changed myself. “But it is supposed to have some sort of puffed sleeves, I think,” I added over my shoulder.

*

Once we were finally ready to leave, we were significantly late and the carriage that Ashley Thornhill had sent had been waiting for us for quite some time. It irked me, because I absolutely loathed being late, and it made Ava restless and she fidgeted with everything, which was getting on everyone’s nerves.

I had delayed going downstairs until my sisters were finished getting themselves ready, only to be sent back immediately.

“What on Earth compelled you to dress like that, Daniel?” my mother told me as soon as she saw me. “Go back to your room and change at once and put on your best clothes!”

I had deliberately dressed simply for the occasion in a plain brown coat and sensible trousers; however, my mother insisted that I should wear something much more elegant and forced me to dress up in my finest frock coat, silk cravat, and newest breeches.

“Why should I dress up for a summer picnic?” I protested. “It is not like Mr Thornhill will care about what I am wearing.”

“We cannot have you disgrace the family,” she told me firmly. “You must all look your very best today, and I will not let you dress like a simple farmer.”

“I honestly do not think that he cares,” I muttered, but my mother heard me.

“Of course he does!” she exclaimed. “If all goes according to my plans, he will become your brother-in-law within the near future–perhaps even before Christmas! You must show him that our family has the wealth to dress properly and stylishly.”

At last I decided not to fight her because it occurred to me that if I wanted to leave Rosehill Farm before nightfall, it was better to simply suffer my mother’s will, and gritting my teeth, I was forced to dress in my finest pale blue long-tailed frock jacket, a silk cravat, cream-coloured breeches, and my new polished low leather boots.

As a result, I was in a rather grim mood when I finally stepped up and climbed into to the oversized barouche carriage that Ashley Thornhill had sent for us.

Of course he sent his best carriage. It is probably only to make us jealous, I thought, although I knew that it was unfair and childish of me.

Ashley Thornhill might have many faults; however, boasting about how rich he was, was not one of them, I admitted grudgingly. In fact, he was probably well aware that we only had two horses and a rather worn-down pony trap that had seen better days decades ago. And despite my grumbling, I was actually rather relieved that he had sent a carriage for us.

I would rather be caught dead or walk to Thornhill Manor alone than arrive in an overcrowded, rickety pony trap together with my three overexcited, silly sisters, I thought to myself and with a small sigh I looked out through the window of the elegant carriage while I did my best to ignore my bickering sisters.

We went past the village square and the ongoing weekly market and crossed the old stone bridge that spanned the narrow Bentley Brook that ran quickly in the springtime when the snow had melted at the Peak District, but during the summer lazily made its way through the countryside.

For generations most of the surrounding land had belong to my family. My great-grandfather had been the proud owner of Rosehill Park and all of its surroundings. He had two sons, and since he did not want to divide the estate or leave one of his sons without a proper inheritance, he borrowed money and bought land on the other side of the river, where he built Thornhill Manor. When he passed away, my grandfather had inherited Rosehill Park and his younger brother inherited Thornhill Manor; however, the two brothers never got along, and as the years went past, they grew further away from each other.

Then, the same year as my older brother, Eugene, was born, Rosehill Park burned to the ground in a blazing fire that had started in the kitchen. Due to unwise economical management and insurance problems, my grandfather did not have the funding it would take to rebuild the old estate, and in the end he was forced to sell most of their land. Eventually my grandfather and the rest of his family, except my mother of course, moved to America to start a new life. Rosehill Park was neglected and fell into ruin because no one wanted to buy a burnt-down estate with no surrounding grounds or tenants income.

All that was left was Rosehill Farm, where we lived.

“Look!” Kathy cried out suddenly and interrupted my thoughts. “Thornhill Manor! We are here at last!”

Both Valerie and Ava tried to simultaneously shove their sister from the window at the same time to get a better view of Thornhill Manor. The four-horse-drawn carriage turned a corner and drove up along an avenue with ash trees planted in neat rows on either side of the wide gravel path that led to the main building. In her excitement, Valerie stepped hard on my foot and I tried to push her back; however, it only resulted in that once the horse carriage was brought to a halt, not a trace of civility was left inside the elegant barouche.

“Get off!” I hissed while Valerie without remorse elbowed me firmly in the chest as she tried to be the first one out of the carriage and Ava pulled Kathy’s hair. “You are all acting like a horde of savages!”

“Then move out of the way, Daniel!”

“Let go of my parasol!”

“Daniel! Ava tried to bite me!”

To say that we left the carriage in a dignified and sophisticated manner would have been stretching the truth to its maximum. My only consolation was that Ashley Thornhill had not witness the embarrassing incident.

Thank God he is not here to greet us, I thought while I in vain tried to smooth my somewhat wrinkled frock jacket. We must look like newly escaped inmates from an asylum!

However, my relief was short-lived. My shoulders stiffened when someone laughed cheerfully behind me.

“By jolly, what is going on here?” a familiar voice said. “That ruckus must have been heard from miles away!”

I took a deep breath to steel myself before I turned around just as Ashley brought his chestnut Hanoverian horse to a clever halt. He climbed down from the saddle and casually threw the reins to a servant. His broad, welcoming smile in combination with his ruffled sun-bleached hair, green sparkling eyes, and annoyingly masculine appearance made him look like he had just arrived from some noble medieval quest that probably had involved slaying dragons and saving damsels in distress.

“Mr Thornhill,” I said and bowed stiffly, “please excuse our arrival. My sisters and I had a little bit of a… ah, miscommunication problem between ourselves. It is all sorted out now.”

I glared at my sisters, who at least had the sense to set their squabbling aside and behave themselves properly. Valerie and Kathy spread their gowns and curtsied slowly and gracefully while Ava–after a short nudge–made a short, bobbing curtsey that made her look like a milkmaid.

“You are all welcome to Thornhill,” Ashley said warmly. “I am so glad you could come.”

My eyes narrowed and I frowned when I noticed that he was wearing casual country riding clothes. He wore a dark green riding hat, a brown Hubertus hunting jacket, suede riding trousers, and high black leather boots. In comparison I was severely overdressed for the occasion.

Damnation, I cursed silently. However, I forced myself to keep a perfectly smooth expression.

Before I had time to say anything else, Kathy said, “It is actually Daniel’s fault that we are late–”

I interrupted her sharply. “Thank you for inviting us, Mr Thornhill,” I said and added coldly to my deranged sisters, “Please ignore my sisters and their somewhat uncivilised manners. They will be sent home if they cannot remember how to behave themselves.”

Ashley laughed and slapped my shoulder in a friendly manner; however, I flinched slightly and politely withdrew from him, carefully shielding my emotions.

“It is so nice to see you again,” he said. “I have missed your company.”

“Have you indeed?” Valerie said with a small gasp.

“Of course,” Ashley said with a polite smile, but before he could continue, Ava interrupted him.

“Mr Thornhill, may I go and see your hunting dogs?” Ava spoke so rapidly her words nearly tumbled over each other because she had strained herself to keep quiet for so long. “Are they at the dog pens by the stables? May I go and visit them? Please?”

I tried not to blush at my eccentric youngest sister, but Ashley kindly pretended that he did not notice her somewhat odd behaviour. Ava’s interests were always shifting, and lately she had developed a burning interest for dogs and foxes.

“My hunting dogs and hounds are indeed in their pens next to the stable,” Ashley said.

“May I go and see them, please?” Ava exclaimed with delight. “Please, Mr Thornhill?”

“Ava!” I said sternly. “Behave yourself. You are not a young little girl!”

But Ashley simply smiled at her. He lowered his voice and whispered conspiratorially to Ava, “If you really want to, Miss Ava, you can go and play with the dogs and join us later at the picnic spot.”

Ava beamed and nodded vigorously before she ran off on light feet towards the stables without another word. To my chagrin I noticed that she for some reason was wearing trousers and sturdy boots under her summer dress and I prayed that Ashley had not noticed it.

He must think that we are terribly strange, I thought with a sinking feeling.

“Do not worry,” Ashley told me. “My servants will keep an eye on her.”

“You are very kind, Mr Thornhill,” I said more warmly than I intended.

He cleared his throat and looked away.

“I had planned that we would ride to the picnic spot up the hill and your sisters could follow us in the horse carriage,” Ashley said and added, “However I can see that you are not suitably dressed for riding, so perhaps you would prefer to ride in the carriage instead?”

I firmly told him that I did not mind riding.

“It is not like these are my best clothes,” I lied as convincingly as I could. “I do not mind if they get a little bit dirty.”

“Of course.” Ashley bowed his head slightly towards me. “I have done a couple of alterations to the estate that I would like to show you on the way, and I would like to have your opinion about them. But are you sure you would not like to ride in the carriage together with your sisters after all? It would be a pity to spoil your fine clothes, and the roads are a little bit muddy in places.”

He glanced sidewards at my pale blue frock jacket and his eyes seemed to linger on my cream-coloured breeches in a way that almost made me colour up.

Act normal, for God’s sake, I ordered myself.

“I sincerely do not mind riding,” I said in a rather tight tone and felt more than a little foolish in my velvet coat jacket and fine breeches. “Not at all.”

“As you wish,” he replied and nodded towards a groom. A moment later a grey dapple horse was led forward to me. “Shall we, then?”

*

I followed Ashley and we rode around the main building in a wide arc, keeping to the gravelled paths to avoid the mud. Thornhill Manor was a classic, white three-story-high building in Georgian style with arched formal Palladian windows and grey shutters.

Mrs Beatrice Thornhill had used less than a quarter of the rooms at her disposal before Ashley had inherited the estate. She had withdrawn from society when her husband had died and she had been somewhat of a recluse, and most of the manor had been left in a slow decline during her lifetime. The formal gardens and kitchen garden were completely overgrown after being left to their own devices for decades; however, I noticed that the old gravel paths and the stables had been restored since I last visited Thornhill.

It was a pleasant ride and we discussed the various improvements around the estate and the surrounding gardens. Ashley wanted my opinion regarding everything from his ideas to redesign the hopelessly overrun courtyard garden and replace it with a more modern garden with low, trimmed hedges and symmetrical lawns, to the problems that he had with the old chimneys in the part of the manor that had not been in use for years. I was happy to share my experience and opinions. Soon I had forgotten all about the morning mishaps and actually found that I was thoroughly enjoying Ashley’s company and his rapt questions; however, time ran away quickly for us.

“Thank you for showing me around,” I said and added reluctantly, “Perhaps we should rejoin the others? We have been gone quite a while…”

“You are right, of course,” Ashley replied. “Well, let us see who can get there first! Try catching me!”

And before I had time to protest, he tore off on his horse. I hesitated only for a heartbeat before I threw caution to the wind and urged my horse to follow him. We rode recklessly side by side, chasing each other up the hill before we arrived to the picnic spot.

Ashley beat me with only a second to spare and he seemed to be deaf regarding my complains that he had been cheating to get a head start.

“Do not be a sore loser, Mr Garrett.” He smiled at me charmingly. “It does not become you at all.”

“That was amazing!” Kathy told Ashley a little bit breathlessly as he climbed down from his horse. “I was so afraid that you would fall off and kill yourself.”

“You are a very accomplished rider, Mr Thornhill!” Valerie chimed in.

Valerie and Kathy seemed to compete in their praise regarding Ashley’s dashing riding skills. I grew silent and withdrew slightly from the company. A quiet servant in starched black livery with golden buttons offered me a glass of chilled white wine, which I graciously accepted, while a couple of other servants, who apparently had been waiting for us, began unpacking the picnic hampers. A wide variety of different dishes were placed on oval serving plates under the large oak, including several pies, cold sandwiches, pickled herring, and fresh fruit.

I sat down on one of the picnic blankets next to the others and busied myself choosing from the food that had been displayed. Finally, I settled for a couple of slices of rosemary smoked lamb with mint sauce, pigeon pie, and a couple of Scotch eggs.

The picnic spot was well chosen up the hill along the vale in the shade of a massive oak that must have been hundreds of years old. The site offered a spectacular view of Thornhill Manor and the village below. Further away on the other side of the river I could see Rosehill Farm and the ghostly dark silhouette of Rosehill Park. The warm summer day was exceptionally clear, and if I squinted, I could just make out the vague shapes of the mountains of the Peak District in the distance.

“Are you enjoying the view?” Ashley asked me.

“Yes,” I replied and sipped my cool wine, which tasted delicious.

“This is such a lovely spot for a picnic!” Kathy exclaimed. “Thornhill Manor is wonderful at this time of year!”

“Look, you can see all the way to Rosehill Park from here,” Valerie said and narrowed her eyes. “The view is truly spectacular.”

“Do you ever go there?” Ashley said, “To Rosehill Park, I mean. I have heard that it is more or less abandoned.”

“The gate is shut and the place has been barred up ever since the fire when the main building burned down,” Kathy replied. “But we used to sneak in and explore the ruins when we were younger.”

“Did you?” Ashley gave me a quick glance. “How naughty of you.”

“But then Father found out,” Valerie said and added, to my great mortification, “He spanked Eugene and Daniel so they could not sit down for over a week, and all of us had to go to bed without supper.”

Everyone laughed, except me and the silent servants.

“It was a long time ago,” I said icily. “We were only children.”

“Why were you not allowed to go there?” Ashley asked.

“It is not safe,” Kathy replied while she began to devour the strawberries that she had filled her plate with. I frowned and wished that she would use better table manners and not stuff herself like she had never seen a strawberry in her entire life before. “The main beams of the house were heavily damaged in the fire, so the entire building is unstable and may collapse. That is why it is more or less impossible to have it repaired unless you are willing to spend a fortune on it.”

“When will the rest of the guests arrive to the picnic?” I asked and changed the topic somewhat abruptly. I did not like to discuss our family’s economical situation, which was so vastly different from Ashley’s wealth and position.

“Actually,” Ashley said slowly, “I only invited you and your sisters.”

I raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Did you?” I said before I could stop myself.

“Well, I thought it would be nice with a smaller gathering for once,” he said and cleared his throat slightly. “It is not a formal dinner party, after all, and I suppose I wanted the opportunity to be alone with you… and your sisters, of course…”

He left the rest of the sentence unfinished.

“I see,” I said slowly.

He really is planning to court one of my sisters! I realised with a small shock and fought to keep my expression neutral. Mother was right all along!

“Tell me about the next step of the restoration that you are planning at Thornhill Manor,” I said, and without thinking, I emptied my glass of wine.

“Well–” Ashley paused and gestured to a servant to refill my glass “–most of the western part of the estate has been cleared, and next week the workers will focus on restoring the two man-made lakes. The gardeners have started to take down some of the damaged trees along the ash avenue, and once that is finished, they will begin working on clearing the old maze. The hedge labyrinth is in terrible condition and has grown completely wild.”

“Clearing the maze of all those weeds and having the yew hedges trimmed will take your gardeners forever,” Valerie concluded and nodded towards the overgrown labyrinth north-east of the elegant white Georgian manor.

“I do not think that you should try to restore the labyrinth,” Ava said quietly behind me. “It is too wild. No one should go there.”

“Where did you come from?” Her sudden appearance made me flinch badly and I caught my breath and tried to still my beating heart. I had not heard her sneak up on us.

“I went to see the dogs and then the stable groom let me borrow a horse and told me that it was time for me to join you for the picnic,” she replied slowly.

“Why do you think that I should not restore the maze?” Ashley asked curiously while he ate a couple of grapes. “They say it is one of the largest hedge labyrinths in England. It is called ‘The Green Man’s Riddle’ and it was here before Thornhill Manor was built. Some say that it was built by the Celts and that it is an old pagan prayer labyrinth, but I do not know if that is true. It will be magnificent once all the weeds have been removed and it has been cut and neatly trimmed.”

“You should leave it alone,” Ava warned him softly and stared out at nothing in front of her. With a desperate sinking feeling, I realised that she was about to venture into one of her peculiar moods. Dreamily and almost as if she were speaking to herself, she continued, “Can you not see… It does not want to be disturbed.”

And despite the warm, lovely summer weather, I suddenly felt a cold chill down my back that made me shiver slightly.

“You must excuse my youngest sister,” I said urgently to Ashley in a low voice. “She talks nonsense sometimes.”

Ava had a strange predisposition ever since she was a child to enter a specific, peculiar mood at times. She acted almost like she was sleepwalking, although she was awake, but she never remembered what happened afterwards. Everyone in our family was used to it happening every now and then; however, because of Ashley’s presence, it suddenly made me embarrassed and deeply uncomfortable.

“What do you mean?” Ashley spoke in the same soft tone as Ava. He did not seem to be bothered by Ava’s eccentric behaviour, but quite the opposite, he seemed rather intrigued. “Why do you think that the maze does not want to be ‘disturbed’?”

“I do not know,” Ava replied with large, dark eyes. “I just know that it wants to be left alone…”

“What a quaint expression,” Valerie commented.

“‘Left alone?’” Kathy repeated and scoffed. “That is ridiculous!”

She laughed out loud, which instantly broke Ava’s strange, still expression and sparked her anger. I was just in time to grab her arm before she tried to fling herself at Kathy.

“Kathy! Ava!” I said tightly. “I swear I will send both of you home immediately unless you behave yourselves!”

I did not know if it was my hard voice or the fact that Kathy had laughed at her, but the spell was broken and Ava had turned into her normal self again.

“She laughed at me!” she hissed. “I hate you. Leave me alone, all of you!”

Without another word, she turned away from us and stalked off.

“Ava!” I called out after her, but in vain.

Normally I would go after her and try to talk sense to her, but now I was too mortified that Ashley had witnessed the whole scene, so I decided against it.

He must think that we are all mentally unstable, I thought.

“I am really terribly sorry,” I said to Ashley. “You must excuse my sisters, they are behaving very poorly today, I fear.”

“There is nothing to apologise for,” Ashley replied to my great relief.

“Thank you,” I said and meant it.

“Do not worry. I never grew up with any brothers or sisters, so I have nothing to compare with,” Ashley said and smiled at me. “And you should know that I am not easily offended or shocked by bad behaviour.”

“I wonder what Ava meant,” Valerie said, “about the maze…”

“Who knows?” Kathy shrugged and refilled her plate with even more strawberries. “She is rather strange sometimes.”

“Ava is not strange; she is just a little bit… different. That is all,” I corrected Kathy, and pointedly I moved the bowl with strawberries away from her. She gave me a sour grimace in reply, but wisely she did not say anything.

“I wonder if there is something in the middle of the maze,” Valerie pondered out loud. “Perhaps a treasure, or maybe there is a ghost protecting something?”

“Utter nonsense!” I interrupted her and felt myself blush. All of my sisters were acting disturbingly embarrassing today. “Do not be ridiculous, Val!”

“Or a secret!” Kathy exclaimed. “The secret of the maze!”

“According to legend, if you manage to find the middle of a Celtic pagan labyrinth, you get to make a wish…” Ashley mused and his green eyes sparkled. He lowered his voice for dramatic effect, “And no matter what you wish for, they say that your wish will come true!”

“I am sure that you would never get lost, Mr Thornhill.” Valerie beamed at Ashley.

“We have to solve the maze!” Kathy said.

“Absolutely not!” I replied instantly.

“Why?” Ashley said in a gently mocking tone. “Are you afraid, Mr Garrett?”

“Of course not!” I said. “But the maze is enormous and we would get hopelessly lost immediately. I shall not let any of my sisters wander around for hours, alone and lost in a massive overgrown labyrinth.”

“Your brotherly protectiveness gives you credit,” Ashley acknowledged with a small nod. “However, it does not give you a valid excuse.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It is simple, really: I challenge you to solve the labyrinth before I do, Mr Garrett.”

“Fine,” I said and gritted my teeth. I could see no other way around than to accept his challenge if I wanted to keep my pride. “But I really do think this is an unwise and rather ridiculous idea.”

“Excellent.” Ashley smiled at me, clearly pleased that he had managed to make me act against my own will. “According to one of the old gardeners, there is a small pond in the middle of the maze. It is probably completely overgrown with water lilies. I suggest that whoever manages to pick a water lily and return shall be the winner.”

“Yes!” Kathy exclaimed. “This is so exciting!”

“And so romantic…” Valerie sighed.

“Very well,” I said with dignity and bowed stiffly.

*

We left the picnic spot and slowly walked down the hill to the hedge maze. Up close it was evident how overgrown and neglected it was. The yew hedge grew thick and it was nearly ten feet high. Evergreen leafy ivy, climbing wild roses, and bindweed with large white bell flowers had climbed over the hedge, and in some place the yew bushes had grown unchecked and nearly blocked the gravel path. The maze seemed somehow both older and wilder than the rest of the gardens that surrounded the neglected estate.

“Are you sure this is a good idea, Daniel?” Ava quietly joined us again.

“Do not worry.” I pressed her small hand reassuringly. “I am quite convinced that I will not get lost.”

“Promise that you will be careful,” she said.

“I promise.”

“Are you ready, Mr Garrett?” Ashley asked.

“Of course,” I replied airily, although I had a nagging, bad feeling that I promptly forced myself to supress.

It is not like I can refuse or back out now, I concluded to myself.

For some reason that I could not explain, I could not abide the thought that Ashley would think that I was afraid or that I would not keep my word.

“Then let the best man win.” Ashley bowed gentlemanly towards me before he turned towards my sisters. “We will be back soon. Fear not, my ladies.”

“Good luck!” Kathy and Valerie cried out, but Ava stood silent beside them, watching us leave with large unreadable eyes.

“Are you going to go left or right?” Ashley said as we walked next to each other along the narrow path between the overgrown yew hedges.

“I think I shall go right,” I mumbled and produced a small leather-covered notebook and a short pen that I always carried with me in my pockets.

“That is cheating!” Ashley gasped when I drew a small thin line on one of the blank pages.

“Is it? You seem to have a very odd idea about cheating and fair play,” I replied calmly. “The goal is to find the middle of the maze and then return, is it not? No one said anything about not being allowed to draw a map.”

I arched an eyebrow and allowed myself a small pleased smile.

“I will trust in Fortuna, in that case.” Ashley pursed his lips. “I am always very lucky and I shall beat you anyway–even though you are cheating.”

“We shall see,” I replied dryly. “Good luck, then, Mr Thornhill. You may need it.”

We arrived to the first intersection, where the path divided into three directions: Straight ahead, right, and left.

“I was born with luck on my side,” Ashley boasted and added teasingly with a smile, “Try not to get lost, Garrett.”

And without turning around, he strode confidently down the left-hand path. I stood there for a moment watching him before he turned around the corner and disappeared.

“Try not to get lost, Garrett,” I repeated his words and scoffed. “Oh, I do not think so!”

Determinedly I set off in the opposite direction, carefully counting the steps until I came to the next corner. I drew a thin, neat line in my notebook before I continued.

The hedge maze was gloomier and wilder than I had expected. It had a strange otherworldly feeling, like the atmosphere in an old children’s story book: Slightly romantic, but also disturbingly dark beneath the pages. The deeper I ventured into the labyrinth, the thicker and wilder it became, and I felt more and more distant and detached from the warm summer day that I had left behind. The yew hedges around me were so high and overgrown that the sun rays could not penetrate all the way down to the ground, and the air was almost a little bit chilly. In some places the hedge had grown so thick that I had to force my way through, and it was almost as if the maze itself tried to hold me back. Soon my elegant frock jacket was covered with dead leaves and yew needles, my silk cravat was torn, and a particularly persistent branch of wild roses had left a burning red scratch across my face.


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