An excerpt from my current work in progress, working title Master of Melincourt.
“Melincourt Hall. Trust someone will be along to meet thee?”
The driver of the coach heaved Liza’s box to the ground where it settled into a sea of mud.
“I hope so.”
The young woman’s voice faltered as she surveyed a rather gloomy scene. The driver clambered back to his perch and spurred the horses on. Liza watched as the coach departed down the narrow country lane. The sun was low in the winter sky and she shivered, clutching her cape about her. Twin griffins set on large pillars guarded the entrance to an overgrown drive.
“Well, there’s no way I can shift this trunk!”
Liza muttered to herself as she tried to move her heavy box, tears of exhaustion and frustration pricking her clear blue eyes. Her feet sank into the sticky verge, coating her new boots with a thick layer of mud.
“Don’t be so foolish, girl. You’re just weary from the journey.”
It had been three days rattling down rutted turnpikes in the stagecoach crammed with strangers who had stared at her and, in one lascivious, pockmarked blackguard’s case, tried to fondle her breast through her clothing. A pretty young woman alone and without a chaperone was an easy target.
“Good evening miss.”
Liza jumped at a soft voice which seemed to issue from the stone griffins. A servant girl stood in the entrance to the drive. Why, she must have been so preoccupied with trying to move her box that she didn’t notice the girl approaching. The maid had a mass of black curls, spilling from beneath the hood of her cape and an almost indecently buxom figure. Liza smiled uncertainly.
“My trunk is too heavy. You’ll need to send a man for it.”
“Jacob will fetch it in the morning. Come with me.”
The maid reached out and took Liza’s hand.
“You’re cold, miss. There’s a good fire in the great room and the master is waiting for you so we should make haste.”
Something in the tone of the girl’s voice made Liza think that keeping the master waiting was not a good idea. She allowed herself to be marched down a rather steep and winding driveway, the edges of which were thickly lined by dense, forbidding-looking trees. The maid did not speak and Liza concentrated on keeping up, taking two steps to the other girl’s one. By the time they reached the approach to the house she was quite out of breath.
Night was falling as they passed through a courtyard and into the great room of Melincourt Hall which was a rambling house of faded splendour. The maid addressed a figure in a wing-chair before the blazing fire.
“Miss Fitzwilliam, sir.”
“Thank you, Mercy. You may leave us.”
Liza watched the girl bob a curtsey before vanishing into another part of the house. She suddenly felt as if the cat had got her tongue.
“Come and sit by the fire. I can hear your teeth chattering from here.”
Liza approached the flames and warmed her hands, suddenly very conscious of her mud-caked boots. She turned her head slightly to glance at her new employer and felt butterflies flutter in her stomach. My goodness, he was a handsome gentleman. Somehow she hadn’t expected that. And he was much younger than she had imagined too. She made herself comfortable in a chair by the fire and folded her hands demurely in her lap. Unexpected shyness made her keep her eyes downcast. There was a lengthy pause. Finally, Lord Melincourt spoke.
“Your journey was comfortable?”
“It was tolerable. Thank you, sir.”
Liza longed to remove her mud-caked boots and her corset. She wriggled slightly and stifled a yawn. Still, she could not look at Lord Melincourt but she had a powerful feeling that he was looking at her very intently. High colour began to stain her cheeks.
“Yes, I think you’ll do very nicely, Miss Fitzwilliam. It’s three months until I leave for the continent and I’m sure we can improve my French immeasurably with your capable assistance. And now – if you will forgive me – I tend to retire early here in the country so I will wish you goodnight. Mercy will show you to your quarters.”
Lord Melincourt rose and Liza struggled to her feet.
She watched as he left the room, casting a long shadow as the candles guttered in a sudden draught.
“This way, miss.”
Again the maid seemed to appear out of thin air and Liza almost jumped out of her skin. The girl had removed her cape and wore a very low-cut dress – rather inappropriate for a servant, Liza thought to herself. Her breasts were the fullest she had ever seen and Liza wondered if the girl was a wet nurse. She followed Mercy down a seemingly endless corridor, trotting along in the girl’s scented wake. Again she mused to herself – a maid wearing perfume? And intoxicating perfume at that. It was so strong and sweet Liza almost felt dizzy. Finally they reached a door and Mercy retrieved a key from the collection that clinked against her ample hip. She unlocked the door and Liza gasped in pleasure.
“Oh, it’s lovely! I wasn’t expecting this.”
Mercy smiled, revealing small, very white teeth.
“Oh yes, miss. The master does treat his girls very well. You won’t want for anything while you are at Melincourt Hall.”
Liza crossed the room and sank down on the vast four poster bed. A crackling fire blazed in the grate and the furnishings were elegant and luxurious. A dish of exotic-looking sweetmeats sat on the night stand. Impulsively, Liza stuffed one into her mouth and immediately regretted her greedy action. Mercy smiled.
“Yes, the master makes sure we have everything we need. You’ll be happy here, miss. And if there’s nothing else you need I will say goodnight.”
Liza could only nod, her mouth filled to bursting point with the most incredibly delicious sweet. What was it? It was very sticky and luscious and flavoured with hints of rose and marzipan. It took Liza some time to finish. When she had swallowed the last of the treat she began to feel rather drowsy. The trip had been tiring. Slowly she unbuttoned her boots and slipped them off. The big bed looked so inviting. All that room just for her. She lay down and gazed up at the elaborate tapestry canopy. Some of the designs on it looked rather strange. What was that tall dark figure doing to the little maid with the curling hair? Goodness, it looked as if he were whipping her with his riding crop. Liza closed her eyes and giggled. She was so weary she was imagining things. In a few moments she was fast asleep.