The First Romance with the Earl: A Sweet Meet Cute Romantic Royal Prequel
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It’s the day before eighteen-year-old farmgirl Jess Smith heads off to university. And she and childhood crush Matthew Churchill are desperate to leave their little village behind.
Once pried away from the claws of her old school bully Amanda Huntley, Jess hopes her friendship with the hesitant Matthew will blossom into something more.
But when a handsome horseman gallops into her life on the day of the Birling Grove Farmers’ Market, will Jess spend her last night in the village with him? Or will she choose the fickle Matthew Churchill instead?
The First Romance with the Earl is a prequel to The Christmas Romance with the Earl and can also be read alongside A Spring Romance with the Earl.
Release date: October 18, 2022
Print pages: 65
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The First Romance with the Earl: A Sweet Meet Cute Romantic Royal Prequel
Sunday 16th September 2007
PALE DAYLIGHT CREPT through rose-patterned curtains as Jess Smith turned over and pulled the lavender duvet over her head.
‘Just a few more minutes,’ she groaned. Anything to avoid morning milking, especially with the farmers’ market today. And she had not even finished packing for university yet.
Jess snuggled back down into the duvet’s warmth when slippered footsteps padded upstairs. Her bedroom door flew open and crashed against the wall.
She sat bolt upright with a shriek as in marched Nana Ava in a floral housedress, clanging a saucepan with a serving spoon.
‘Up you get, Sleepyhead!’ called the small pensioner. ‘Kine and cow wait for no man.’
Jess clamped her hands over her ears.
‘For pity’s sake Nana,’ she cried. ‘It’s my last day home, you could’ve at least let me lie in.’
Her grandmother stopped the din. ‘Still have to earn your keep while you’re under my roof. Besides you’ve got to help me and your mother on the cheese stall today.’
Jess rubbed bleary eyes as her ears rang. ‘Can’t I just stay home and finish packing?’
‘Shouldn’t’ve left it last minute pining after that Churchill,’ Nana Ava tutted. ‘Besides you’ve got to learn, and you can buy your bits and bobs before you head off.’
‘Yes a pair of hoof clippers would be really handy during a marketing degree,’ Jess muttered as she threw open the duvet.
‘Could always buy a muzzle for that young Churchill instead.’
Jess threw up her hands. ‘Nana, the ball was two years ago! And Matthew promised never to stand me up again.’
Her grandmother’s grey eyebrows rose. ‘Did he ever apologise?
‘You know what he’s like…’
‘Well if that boy ever sets foot on my property again, it won’t be the manure fork I’ll be chasing him off with.’
‘Dad fitted a new lock on the gun cabinet so you’re out of luck,’ Jess replied. ‘Besides Matthew won’t come anyway; he’s been busy all summer.’
‘Up to no good,’ Nana Ava muttered. ‘Anyway get a wriggle on. Got to get cracking if we’re to set up in time.’
Jess swung her feet onto the floor. ‘Bet Tom and Brandon are still tucked up in their beds.’
‘They’re already down in the parlour, so shift!’
‘Now I’m being shown up by a thirteen and an eight-year-old,’ Jess muttered as she rose.
Her grandmother smiled. ‘Whinge all you want, but you’ll miss all this when you’re gone.’
Won’t miss the early morning wake-up calls, Jess thought. Would be heaven to lie-in till six like normal people. ‘I’ll be down in a minute.’
‘That’s the spirit,’ said Nana Ava then added with a wistful sigh. ‘Farm won’t be the same without you.’
Jess gave her a fond grin. ‘I’ll miss you too.’
But as soon as her grandmother left, she fell back onto the bed. Just as Jess drew the duvet to her chin, Nana Ava strode back inside and hammered the pan again.
She hinged upright. ‘I’m up! I’m up!’
The scent of the herd filled the family’s modest milking parlour as the lowing of sixteen red and white Ayrshire cows accompanied the BBC World Service. Jess squirmed in a scratchy old jumper, navy waterproofs and green Wellingtons as she disinfected her cow’s udders in the parlour’s central aisle.
But as she attached the teat cups with careless hands, Jess did not heed the cow’s complaints. All she could think of was Matthew Churchill.
Ever since they first met at Birling Grove Secondary, that sandy hair and those sky-blue eyes could make her forgive anything. And they would probably be more than friends right now, if a certain Amanda Huntley did not stalk their every move.
Though Jess could never quite fathom why Matthew still tolerated the girl; especially after she snipped the end off Jess’s tie during Maths with safety scissors.
Mr. Smith glanced up from supervising Tom. ‘Jessie! You’re daydreaming again.’
‘Sorry,’ she yelped and as ivory liquid filled the milk tubes nearby she hurried onto the next cow.
Fingers crossed she would see Matthew at the market today, Jess thought as she washed the next set of udders. Or with any luck he might ask her out tonight and they would be a couple before the semester started.
At least there was no chance of seeing Amanda today, because the Huntleys never graced the market at all. A feat only matched by the Duke of Birling Grove who rarely stayed at the country house that overlooked their farm.
Further up the aisle Mrs. Smith’s brown hair brushed her jumper’s worn collar as she unhooked the next set of teat cups. Meanwhile Brandon cleaned the cow’s udders with reluctant wipes.
‘Finished packing yet, Jessie?’ her mother asked.
Jess grimaced. ‘Not quite.’
Mr. Smith wiped his brow with an arm. ‘You do know it’s Farmers’ Market Day?’
‘I haven’t forgotten,’ Jess sighed. ‘Surprised they’re holding it today considering how religious the village is.’
‘The new vicar Reverend Pearson has given us her blessing,’ Nana Ava replied from the farthest cow. ‘Though you should’ve taken up her offer of a benediction before you go.’
‘I’m moving to London,’ said Jess. ‘Not emigrating to Iraq.’
‘Better than you shacking up with that Churchill,’ Mrs. Smith muttered.
‘Whatever,’ Jess sighed till she spotted Tom tend his cow like an old hand. Startled, she hurried to the next.
‘Jessie, stop!’ her grandmother bellowed and squeezed past the family to reach her, muddied pink Wellingtons bright against dark waterproofs.
Jess frowned at the sturdy rump of a young auburn cow as it pawed strong legs, head lowered to the side to reveal the white of its eye. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘You know Betsey doesn’t trust green hands,’ her grandmother tutted as she arrived. ‘Do the next.’
‘I’ve been milking since I was twelve,’ Jess protested.
‘Tom started when he was five,’ Nana Ava replied. ‘And young Brandon’s already got the makings of a fine herdsman.’
‘I’m going to be a Ravenmaster!’ Brandon announced.
Mr. Smith looked at his son askance.
‘We did have three for a reason,’ Mrs. Smith hissed.
Meanwhile, Nana Ava gave Jess a hard stare until she retreated.
‘Fine,’ Jess sighed and side-stepped towards her next charge but could not match Tom’s speed or skill. Meanwhile her grandmother calmed Betsey down.
As Jess stepped out of the parlour into cool sunshine, alder trees nodded in their autumn finery while bramblings chuckled above in cloudy skies. Soon she trailed behind her family as they headed towards the farm cottage, grateful she would never have to milk again.
‘You’ll be sitting in stuffy old lecture halls for hours,’ said Mr. Smith with a twinkle in his eye.
Jess rubbed sore ribs. ‘Beats getting rammed by cows.’
‘Won’t hear the skylarks at daybreak nor the owls at night,’ her mother added with a wink.
‘Nor will I hear grannies banging saucepans at the crack of dawn either,’ Jess replied and cast a gimlet stare at her grandmother.
Nana Ava beamed an innocent smile.
‘Does this mean I get Jessie’s room now?’ asked Brandon.
‘No!’ the family chorused.
‘Thought Jess was getting a “proper job” and not coming back,’ Tom cried.
‘I…I…might want to visit,’ she stuttered. ‘Sometimes.’
‘Then try not to forget us little people when you start your big advertising job,’ Mr. Smith chuckled.
‘I shall think of you fondly from my golden yacht,’ Jess replied.
‘Oh she’ll be back,’ said Nana Ava with slow nods. ‘A Birlie never stays away from the village for long.’
Before they reached the farm cottage Jess paused to gaze at the small brown bricked milking parlour as the sun glinted against its corrugated roof.
Despite the early starts she would still miss this, even the cows that now grazed peacefully in the field across from the courtyard.
Then the sudden gallop of distant hooves startled her.
Jess turned to see a man in his early twenties with dark floppy hair, ride a strawberry stallion alongside the field. His white short sleeved shirt and cream jodhpurs gleamed in the morning sunlight and chin raised he reined his horse towards her.
What on earth was he doing riding on their land?
Jess broke into a run towards the trespasser and waved him away.
‘This is private property!’ she cried as he neared.
Frightened, the horse reared onto its hind legs and began to hoof the air.
It would have thrown the rider clean off if he had not leaned forward onto its neck until a horrified Jess backed off. At last the horse returned to all fours.
‘I’m so sorr-,’ she began.
‘What do you think you are doing?’ the rider exclaimed in refined tones as he got the stallion to settle. ‘You scared the living daylights out of Merrylegs and almost got yourself trampled.’
‘Me?’ she replied. ‘You and your Merrylegs are trespassing on our land.’
He adjusted his helmet in bewilderment. ‘How can you live here and not know this is a bridleway?’
Jess frowned at the overgrown path beneath the horse’s hoofs.
‘I’ve never seen anyone use it.’
‘Father’s not much of a horseman,’ the rider replied. ‘But Maman used to ride here all the time.’
Her jaw fell. ‘Just who does your family think it is? I ought to call the police!’
Nana Ava emerged from the kitchen’s side door then hurried towards the pair.
‘You call the police?’ the rider cried. ‘It is you who almost got me thrown off my hor-.’
‘You must be Delphine’s boy,’ her grandmother gasped out of breath as she arrived. ‘Your mother used to bring us veg from your gardens.’
His glare softened at last. ‘Maman was thoughtful like that. My friends call me Topher.’
Nana Ava smiled fondly. ‘You certainly have her eyes.’
‘Yes, that’s all very nice,’ said Jess. ‘But you’re still on my grandmother’s property, Toph.’
‘Jessica Jane Smith!’ Nana Ava exclaimed. ‘No matter how old the bridle path is, he still has right of way.’
Topher gave Jess a pointed look.
Haughty so-and-so, Jess thought.
He cleared his throat. ‘Anyway I am here to inform our neighbours that there will be a party this evening. I thought it best to warn you in advance.’
‘Telling us the same morning’s hardly in adva-!’
Nana Ava clamped a hand over Jess’s mouth. ‘Thank you for letting us know.’
Jess prized off a hand dappled by time. ‘Our invites must’ve got lost in the post. Or aren’t the peasantry invited?’
‘Jessie!’ her grandmother hissed.
Topher gave Jess an indulgent look. ‘I have encountered no peasants here but you fine ladies are certainly welcome.’
Jess folded her arms. ‘Unfortunately this fine lady’s ballgown is in the wash.’
‘Thank you, Topher,’ Nana Ava pointedly replied. ‘But Jessie has an early night before she leaves for university tomorrow.’
Topher looked startled.
‘No I don’t,’ Jess protested with hopeful thoughts of a certain crush.
‘Will you be at the Farmer’s Market today?’ her grandmother asked the rider.
‘Like he’s going to be swanning round a market,’ Jess scoffed. Her grandmother nudged her in the ribs with a sharp elbow. ‘Ow!’
‘I prefer my entertainments to be somewhat less…provincial,’ Topher chuckled.
‘Is that posh for less downmarket?’ Jess replied with a frown.
Furrows creased his brow. ‘I may pay a brief visit.’
‘We’ll see you there, won’t we Jessie?’ Nana Ava insisted.
‘If one can possibly spare the time,’ Jess replied borrowing his elongated vowels.
Topher set his jaw before he steered Merrylegs around. He gave Jess a challenging stare as his horse pawed the path. ‘I look forward to seeing you.’
‘The pleasure will be all mine,’ Jess replied with narrowed eyes and Topher laughed before he rode off.
‘Did you have to be so rude?’ Nana Ava hissed.
‘Did he have to be so pompous?’ said Jess. ‘Mouth full of marbles while prancing all over our farm.’
‘My farm,’ her grandmother replied. ‘And no matter who he might be, we’ll still have to live next door once you and your bad manners are gone.’
‘He's not coming to the market anyway,’ Jess sniffed.
‘He jolly well might, now you’ve thrown down the gauntlet.’
Jess gave her a doubtful look. ‘Sure he’ll appreciate the smell of fish and tanned leather goods.’
‘Oh shush and get yourself washed and dressed. We’ve got a stall to set-up by ten.’ And her grandmother shooed Jess back up to the farm cottage.
But how could she even think of cheese wheels and truckles when she might be seeing Matthew Churchill today? And how soon would it be till they were far, far away from the ever-looming shadow of Amanda Huntley.
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