Simply Lila

by Suzie Johnson

Based on Lady Susan

Living in the shadow of her mother has always been part of Lila Wentworth’s everyday life. Filled with self-doubt and uncertainty, Lila seeks solace among the pages of Jane Austen’s captivating novels; she even identifies with one of Jane’s characters. But when handsome
engineer Kirby Ross, rescues her from the path of a runaway trolley car, Lila wishes she had just an ounce of her mother’s wit and beauty. Frustrated that the shy Miss Wentworth avoids him, Kirby aims to be the one to show her life can be far more interesting than fiction and that her inner-beauty is far more desirable.

Chapter 1

Austin, Texas 1893

Lila Wentworth watched as the two women sitting across the table from her absorbed the words she’d just spoken.

Rebecca Larson’s green eyes seemed to flash behind her eyeglasses as she gasped.

Annie Ellis’s hand wobbled as she placed her cup of tea on the round oak table in front of them. The matching saucer, painted with delicate pink flowers, clattered beneath it. A small bit of tea splashed over the brim and onto the saucer. Her soft brown eyes went wide and her mouth dropped open. “Oh no, please tell me she didn’t?”

Wishing it didn’t hurt so much, Lila confirmed the painful truth with a nod and a rough, choked whisper. “Yes. She really did.”

“Oh my. Lila.” Annie spoke in a gentle tone and reached across the table to squeeze Lila’s hand.

The earnestness in Annie’s expression was genuine and Lila’s heart warmed, though she felt a slice of guilt over telling her friends about her troubles—especially Annie who was still dealing with the grief of losing her own mother. Besides being fellow teachers at the Jeanette C. Austen Academy for Young Ladies, Annie and Rebecca were also friends. Lila hadn’t had many of those in her life.

“Listen to me, Lila. You are not ugly, far from it. And the right man is out there somewhere just waiting for you.”

“Not if my mother is to be believed. She’s also stated it in several letters to her cousin in Atlanta. I know because Penney, my mother’s maid, showed them to me.”

Annie’s mouth fell open in disbelief. On the other side of the intricately carved oak table, Rebecca gave a cry of outrage. “I can’t believe a mother would say such a thing to her own daughter.”

“You clearly have not met Lady Sarah Wentworth.” Lila pressed her lips together, annoyed by the disrespect that spilled from her mouth. As much as her mother couldn’t be called motherly, she still didn’t wish to speak poorly of her. Lila concentrated her gaze on the curved wall and rectangular window behind Rebecca. For a moment, the soft blue of the rosemary blossoms beyond the school’s tea room lifted her spirits. This room with its round walls and narrow windows that looked out at the garden was something of a haven, and the three friends often met here at the end of the school day.

“I didn’t know your mother was from England,” Annie said.

“She’s not.” Lila sighed, tired of the story her mother oft repeated. “Her grandfather was from England, unable to inherit, so he came to America to seek his fortune. Mother is so in love with the tale, she fancies his fortune equates her with his family in England. Therefore, if her grandfather’s brother was a British lord, her grandfather was an American lord. Thus, she is Lady Sarah, and I should strive to become Lady Lila.”

“Lady Lila.” Annie smothered a giggle with the back of her hand. “It doesn’t even sound natural.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t. It’s quite the sore spot between Mother and me, along with the fact that I prefer to teach French at a girls’ finishing school rather than spend my time seeking a rich husband.” It had also been a source of contention between her parents before her father died, but Annie didn’t need to know that. Lila wished she could forget it herself, but it did seem to be at the root of her mother’s animosity.

“It’s just like Lady Susan.”

“Lady Susan?” Lila looked at Annie, then across the table at Rebecca. “Do we know her?”

Like Lila and Annie, Rebecca was an instructor at the girls’ academy that had come to be known affectionately as Austen Abbey. The serious expression in Rebecca’s green eyes was magnified in the lenses of her round eyeglasses. Just as Annie was a good friend, so was Rebecca. Lila knew she could keep a confidence.

“No. Lady Susan is the title of a book. The girls in my literature class are studying it. It was one of Jane Austen’s first novels, but never published in her lifetime.” Rebecca spooned a tiny bit of sugar into her tea, stirred it twice, and tapped the spoon against the delicate cup. “Actually, Elinor and Marianne was written around the same time and later revised and published with a new title. Lady Susan, on the other hand, was printed in her nephew’s memoir many years after she died.”

Rebecca pursed her lips and sipped at her tea. Lila feigned patience, when all she really wanted was to hear more about Lady Susan. How did an old Jane Austen novel compare to Lila and her mother?

Finally, Rebecca set the cup down and looked at Lila. “Lady Susan is not your average Austen novel. It’s about a cruel woman who schemes to find her daughter a wealthy husband. The book is told in letter format with most of Lady Susan’s letters filled with cutting remarks about her daughter, Frederica.”

Lila released a breath filled with uncertainty. She didn’t know why the story should rattle her so.

Rebecca added a second, rather generous spoon of sugar to her tea before speaking again. “Everything will be all right, Lila. Believe me. So forget your mother’s words and put that beautiful smile back on your face. What she said was disgraceful and untrue, but I’m also sure she didn’t mean it.”

Though she didn’t dispute Rebecca, Lila knew better.

“Rebecca’s right. Just because she said it, Lila, doesn’t mean it’s true.” Annie, the only one of the instructors at Austen Abbey who drank coffee, blew softly across the top of her cup. “Perhaps your mother said it because she’s jealous.”

“Either that, or she’s frustrated that you’re twenty-three and not yet married,” Rebecca added.

“Rebecca!” Annie’s eyes flashed with irritation at the teacher who never failed to speak her mind.

“Not that there’s any shame in that,” Rebecca rushed to say. “A lot of women our age—”

Annie raised her eyebrows and glared at Rebecca. Though she was often reluctant to admit it, Rebecca was much older than Annie and Lila. Tall, willowy, with fair skin and eyes that sparkled behind her glasses, she was too beautiful to not be married. Lila often wondered if men were put off by her outspoken nature.

“Okay, a lot of women your age are unmarr—” Rebecca broke off at the sound of a gentle cough directly behind Lila. A very masculine sounding cough, one discreetly intended for the women to notice someone else had entered the room. Eyes wide, Annie stared past Lila’s shoulder while Rebecca’s mouth gaped open.

Horror crashed through Lila at the thought of their conversation being overheard. After an uncomfortable silence, she shifted in her seat to face a tall man with hair the color of sand on a warm beach. His eyes, the green-gray of the ocean on a stormy day, reflected an empathy that told her he had most definitely heard. She couldn’t help but wonder if he shared her mother’s opinion.

Lila didn’t want to know. “I—I need to go.” She stood and pushed back her chair.

“Lila, wait,” Annie called.

“Excuse me,” she mumbled as she brushed past the man, fled the tea room, and headed for the school’s front door.

When Lila finally slowed from an unladylike run to a brisk walk, she realized she wasn’t far from the park. Out of breath and out of energy, she leaned back against one of the massive trees and slid down to the hard ground that was knotted with tree roots, bark, and other debris.

“You’re useless. No one will ever want to marry you.”

Lila could picture her mother in various poses uttering the hateful words. If only she could block them all out.

“You aren’t pretty enough. You don’t try hard enough.”

“You shame me with your so-called career.”

The situation bothered her more than she dare admit to Annie and Rebecca. But truthfully, the spoken words didn’t hurt nearly as much as the written ones. She’d heard them over and over for years, but the fact that her mother wrote them down in a letter to a cousin….

That made it oh so much worse.

Palms pressed against her forehead, elbows on her knees, Lila squeezed her eyes shut. No need for anyone to notice her crying. If someone were to offer her help, she would undoubtedly fall apart—just like she wanted to do when the man showed up at the Abbey.

Who was he, anyway? And why was he at the school—inside their private tea room? Was he there to pick up one of the students? Most parents wouldn’t normally enter the tea room. As a matter of fact, men rarely entered Austen Abbey. Besides, he certainly didn’t appear old enough to have a daughter who attended the school.

Lila stood and brushed the dirt from the back of her skirt. It was so humiliating to have a stranger overhear the details of such a personal conversation. It had been difficult enough to tell Annie and Rebecca. But she’d been in need of comfort. Had she known someone else would overhear, she would never have said anything.

If only she could take back the words.

She could still see the man’s eyes, soft with compassion—or maybe pity—at what he’d overheard. Those eyes would have taken Lila’s breath away had she not been so upset. Annie, with her artistic eye for color, would probably appreciate their unique blend of gray and green. In fact, he very well could have been there for the pretty art teacher. Or Rebecca, for that matter.

Why hadn’t that occurred to her before? Either woman might have a beau Lila didn’t know about. She swallowed hard, surprised at how much the thought bothered her—which was plain silly.

Even if he wasn’t Annie or Rebecca’s beau, a man like that would never take a second look at Lila. She was a plain brown wren always hiding her head, where Annie was a beautiful green hummingbird flitting gracefully about. And Rebecca, in spite of the eyeglasses that made her look more like a teacher than any of the others at Austen Abbey, was a bright red cardinal comfortable in the things that made her different. Cardinals and hummingbirds received second glances, not common little wrens. 

The far-off clanging of the trolley reminded Lila she should head back to the school. If she could get to the trolley stop in time, she could ride it back and speak to Mrs. Collins, the headmistress, before the woman sat down to supper. Lila usually went home each evening, but she couldn’t face another night of her mother’s ridicule and unhappiness. She would ask to stay in one of the guest rooms. Just for tonight. Although, what would change at home in just one night? Perhaps Mrs. Collins would allow her to room-in permanently. 

Rushing down the street, Lila’s heartbeat echoed the thrum of her shoes on the sidewalk. Not in response to exertion, but rather sadness and disbelief.

The trolley bell pealed again, this time sounding closer. Gathering her skirt in front of her so she wouldn’t trip, Lila picked up her pace. Her left heel hit a pebble and her ankle wobbled unsteadily. Righting herself before she fell, she was relieved to see the crowd waiting near the trolley stop. She’d made it. Almost.

Just another few steps.

She barely missed tripping over the small brown and white dog that crossed her path. She didn’t miss the boy running after the dog, however. He murmured an apology and kept running. Lila wobbled, then toppled.

Face first.

Directly onto the trolley track.

Women’s gasps and men’s shouts filled the air and, somewhere in the back of her mind, Lila wondered how fast the trolley could stop.

Somehow she managed to keep from hitting her face on the ground, but the palms of her hands weren’t so fortunate. They hit hard and stung like they were scraped raw.

She scrambled to her feet and was about to glance at her hands when a low voice rumbled in her ear, startling her. “Here, let me help you.” Strong hands grasped her elbows, pulling her away from the tracks.

“Thank you.” Lila wiped her hands on her skirt and looked up. Directly into the very eyes she’d so recently been thinking about. Her heartbeat skittered to a halt along with her thoughts.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “Miss Wentworth?”

“F–fine.” Lila nodded. He knew her name?

 “Here, I’ve got you. Let’s get you away from these tracks before you get hurt.”

As if in response, a cacophony of high-pitched squeals pierced her ears as the trolley’s brake-shoes rubbed against the wheels.

The trolley screeched to a halt, right where she’d fallen seconds earlier.

“Say, is she all right?” The driver leaned out his window and pushed his hat up from his forehead.

“She’s a little shaken, but she’ll be fine.”

“Thank the good Lord above,” the man said. He pulled out a blue cloth and rubbed it over his face while the trolley’s passengers disembarked.

“I appreciate your help.” Lila’s voice quaked as she whispered her thanks.

“You’re welcome, but I’m sure you would have been fine if I hadn’t have been here. The driver made a perfect stop.”

Lila attempted to smile, but her face wouldn’t cooperate.

“Let’s get you over to the medical clinic so they can make sure you don’t have any serious injuries.”

“No. I’m fine. Really.” She looked down at the ruffled layers of her skirt. Hopefully Penney would be able to repair the tatted lace and lovely pink rosettes. “I just want to go home. I mean the school. I want to go back to the school.”

He looked at her oddly, and then offered his arm. “I’ll escort you.”

Instead of taking it, she asked, “How did you know my name?”

“Miss Ellis told me. Or maybe it was Miss Larson.” He shook his head and smiled. As he did, fine lines accented the corners of his eyes. “I know we weren’t properly introduced at the academy. I’m Kirby Ross.”

“Abbey,” Lila said without thinking.

“Pleased to meet you, Abbey. But I thought your name was—” He shook his head. “Never mind.”

In spite of the situation, she couldn’t help but smile. “No. I meant the school. We call it the abbey, or Austen Abbey. The school’s founder is rumored to have been a relative of Jane’s.”

“Jane?”

“Austen. The writer.”

“Oh, yes. That Jane.”

Lila wasn’t convinced he really knew who she meant, so she did the gracious thing and reached for the arm he still offered and let him set the pace. Perhaps she’d be able to find out which of her two friends he’d come to call upon.

His arm was firm and muscular, and as they walked, she took the opportunity to sneak more than a brief look at him. He was taller than she, but not too tall. Like most men in Texas, his face was tanned by the sun—a golden tan, to match his hair. Unlike most of the men she knew, his eyes weren’t hidden in the shadows of a Stetson. Instead, he wore a low-crowned bowler in a dark gray shade that matched his light-weight jacket.

Goodness, being escorted down the street by Mr. Kirby Ross. Her hand trembled on his arm. Had anything ever felt so right? Perhaps she no longer wanted to know which of her two friends he’d been there to call upon.

“You’re a teacher at the abbey, is that correct?”

“Yes, Mr. Ross. I teach French.”

One corner of his mouth tilted up, and the smile in his eyes was genuine. “It sounds like an interesting subject. Perhaps you can tell me more about it sometime.”

Was he flirting with her? Or was he serious?

Lila didn’t know what to say. If he meant it, he’d undoubtedly take it all back were he to ever meet her mother. A man as kind as Kirby didn’t deserve to be exposed to the likes of Sarah Wentworth. Of course, it would never happen. She blinked rapidly to try dispelling her fanciful musings. 

Much to her relief, they’d reached the lovely three-story building of gray stone of Austen Abbey. It had white balconies on each level, and an exquisite looking turret which housed the tea room on the bottom level. She turned to face him. “Well, good night, Mr. Ross. And thank you again.”

“You’re very welcome.” He reached for both her hands, and she winced.

Walking with him, she’d almost forgotten how they stung. He turned her hands over and studied her scraped and bleeding palms, then drew his eyebrows together. “Are you certain you don’t need the doctor?”

“Quite. I’ll wash up and be perfectly fine tomorrow morning.”

“Very well, then.” He relaxed his face and slowly let go of her hands. Then he opened the door for her. “Good night, Miss Wentworth. Perhaps we’ll meet again sometime.”

Lila reluctantly stepped through the door, and just before it closed she heard a whisper. “She’s wrong, you know.”

Leaning against the door, Lila groaned. But her heart lifted at the same time. He truly had overheard. And yet he offered words of kindness.

She wasn’t sure whether to be humiliated or happy.

For the moment, she chose happy. 

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