Chapter 1: Encounters of the Unexpected

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Chapter 1: Encounters of the Unexpected

With a burst of unprecedented speed, the tawny brown hare sprinted into the lush foliage of the forest, its tail rigidly upright and illuminated with a bright, white stripe that ran along the rodent’s underbelly.

Young Nicola Eversley felt the ground beneath her pumping feet give way to her toes. Damp and littered with moulding leaves and twigs, Nicola hardly let the cold and somewhat unpleasant feeling of the dirt deter her in her effects to catch the troublesome little creature that had been determinedly munching its way through her patch of vegetables she had been attempting to grow for several months now. She knew that she was fast as there was nary another child who could outrun Nicola Eversley. Blanche said it was because she had a pair of legs as long as a ship’s mast, which was really quite absurd. Nobody’s legs could be that long… but it was what her best friend said made her so fast and Nicola adored Blanche, even though she had a predisposition towards the hyperbole.

Her lace petticoats snagged and tore on a bramble but Nicola continued to dash after the furry beast, her feet sure and light against the dank earth. Her breath was fast and her lungs began to burn with an intensity that made her dizzy. She had been running for some time now and her thighs were aching with the exertion.

Quick as a bolt of lightning, the hare darted behind a thick bush and Nicola plunged straight after it, branches and leaves smacking her face and cheeks, biting and wet. It was while she pushed through the last hedge that her foot caught on a protruding root and she twisted and fell on her hip. The air rushed out her lungs and she yelped as pain slashed up her calf muscle. Wriggling in the mud, she squirmed into an upright position and grasped her aching leg with a whimper. Stupid hare, she inwardly cursed as the creature ensured its escape by sprinting off into the distance, the faint rustle of its nimble feet gradually dwindling away until Nicola sat in silence.

The forest that surrounded the lavish Northwick estate was quiet which might have something to do with the greyness of the weather. Above her, clouds gathered and a stillness settled over the grounds. A few birds flittered by, oblivious to Nicola’s presence as she hunched low in the brush, mutely awaiting the pain in her leg to subside. The peaceful trickle and bubble of a brook nearby met her ears and she momentarily forgot about the pain in her leg and remembered why she loved the estate.

Northwick harboured abundant forested lands and hills and fields, ripe for exploring and rambunctious adventuring. The forest, however, was Nichola’s favourite place to wander. It was brimming with secret streams and pools, lush vegetation that remained green throughout the year. She imagined that if she explored long and hard enough she’d surprise a nymph or faerie amid their secret pursuits.

During her reverie, a sudden and explosive sound made her jump. The peacefulness of the brook was disturbed by a thunderous crash of water, as if something large was breaking the surface.

As her imagination took sprint, Nicola envisioned an enormous monster of the forest emerge from a nearby pool and seek her out for lunch. Surreptitiously, the young girl peered around the edge of the brush she was crouched in and a wave of relief ensconced her small frame for it was no evil monster, but merely a man.

The relief was quickly overcome with surprise however as she surely recognised just who it was she was staring at.

Half submerged in a deep pool, Jason Blackwood looked simply spectacular to a ten year old Nicola Eversley. She had not really looked at Blanche’s brother before as Jason was nine years her older and didn’t really concern himself with the two girls’ childish games, but now… well, now she couldn’t not look at him.

The clearing was lovely, to say the least, and Jason added to that appeal tenfold. He seemed to belong amidst the crystalline water and mossy rocks, the curled fronds of jaded ferns and the towering pines that loomed over him and kept quiet vigil of the young lord’s activities. His dark hair was slicked back from his forehead with a sure movement of an arm, the muscles of his back clenching and relaxing with each movement. His skin was slightly browned, kissed often by the sun, and there were two dimples at the base of his spine.

Jason turned around then and walked towards her, his lithe body parting the water with ease and grace. Nicola could not take her eyes away from the figure he cut, mesmerised by his sway, his form, his penetrating grey eyes that complimented the sky above them. Her breath hitched against her lungs when the level of the water dropped to his thighs and she beheld him in all his naked glory.

Oh, she knew it was shameful, hadn’t she been told her that time and time again? But she’d be damned if she could tear her eyes away from him. Jason Blackwood was beautiful and the fact that he was compelled to wear clothing made Nicola’s heart constrict with unidentifiable angst as she knew she would not be able to view him in this manner again. Instead, she engraved the vision into her memory for when she needed it most and it would come to haunt her in the late hours of the night when her heart longed for something so potent and tangible she wanted to cry out with frustration and howl at the moon and the stars, when the feelings she harboured for Blanche’s brother became more real than a childish infatuation and the devastation of her longing compelled her to pine for hours on end, she would have that image to sustain, the image of a hauntingly beautiful naked man burned into the recesses of her mind, forever.

She watched the meticulous approach Jason took to his dressing, the leaves and shadows of the brush secluding her from his sight, silently bemoaning each item of clothing he donned. When he finished, Jason cast one look back at the clearing and made off swiftly down a visible path.

Nicola allowed the breath to gush from her lungs and suddenly the clearing was filled with sounds, the water seemed loud and birds hollered from above while insects created their variety of chirps and buzzes wildly around the trees. Her cheeks, she realised, were blazingly hot and there was a pang of heaviness sitting on her chest that she was too young to identify.

Collecting her thoughts, Nicola allowed some time to pass before she crept out the brush and rose to her feet. Her skirts were torn and caked with mud and her feet were no better. She tested her leg and finding no pain she quickly brushed off what she could from her skirts and followed the same path Jason had taken before her.

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