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The Countess's Groom
By Emily Larkin, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Emily Larkin
All rights reserved.
APRIL 4, 1763
Rose stood in front of the mirror while her maid, Boyle, dressed her in a cherry-red riding habit. She averted her gaze from Boyle's reflection — the broad, ruddy cheeks, the pale eyes, the grim-lipped mouth — and stood stiffly as the woman twitched the riding jacket into place over her shoulders. "My hat and gloves, Boyle."
Her maid handed them to her.
Not my maid, Rose corrected herself. My jailer. Guarding her these past six months while Henry had been in the West Indies.
Rose placed the three-cornered hat on her head, pulled on her gloves, and headed downstairs, along the echoing Long Gallery with its portraits of Quayle ancestors, down the staircase lined with suits of armor. A footman opened the front door for her.
Rose stepped outside, drinking in the sunshine and the cool spring air. She trod briskly around to the stables. The sight of Dancer, glossily black, being led across to the mounting block made her mood brighten still further.
"Morning, m'lady," her groom said.
"Good morning, Fenmore." Rose stroked the mare's neck. "How is she?"
"In fine fettle, ma'am."
The groom helped her mount. Rose arranged her voluminous riding skirt and gathered the reins. They left the stable yard at a trot, taking the path to the lake in the middle of the woods.
At the lake, Rose paused and looked around. Spring surrounded them: budding leaves, fresh stalks of grass pushing up from the soil, birdsong.
She glanced back at the groom. "Let's go somewhere we can gallop."
Rose held the mare to a trot while they rode through the woods and urged Dancer into a gallop once they broke free of the trees. Hedgerows flashed past, leafless trees, muddy fields tinged faintly green. She felt a soaring sense of freedom. At this moment, it was wonderful to be alive.
When she sensed Dancer tiring, she allowed the mare to slow to a trot. Exhilaration tingled inside her. She glanced over her shoulder and smiled at Fenmore following faithfully behind.
An answering smile lit his face for a second, and then vanished. He was once again the impassive servant.
Rose turned back toward Creed Hall.
Hedgerows closed around them. Her joy began to trickle away. Every step Dancer took brought them closer to Creed Hall. Her home. Her prison.
A blur of movement, small and brown, hit Dancer's right shoulder with a puff of feathers. The mare shied.
Rose clutched the reins, fighting to keep her seat — and then Fenmore was alongside, his hand an iron grip on Dancer's bridle, stopping the mare from bolting.
"Thank you, Fenmore." Rose gathered the reins more firmly. Her heart pounded in her chest.
He nodded, not releasing his grip. A feather spiraled slowly in the air.
Rose looked down. A song thrush lay on the ground. "It's still alive!" She slid from the saddle and crouched to look at it.
Fenmore dismounted and looped the horses' reins over a branch. He stripped off his riding gloves and picked up the bird. Rose watched as he examined it, carefully extending each wing. "Nothing's broken."
The bird lay cupped in his palm, only the movement of its breast showing that it lived. "Likely it has a nest full of eggs, this time of year," Fenmore said, stroking the speckled feathers.
"Will it be all right?"
The thrush swiveled its head. One wing beat in feeble panic. Fenmore stilled it, laying his other hand gently over the bird. "Hush." His voice was low and soothing. "We mean you no harm."
The thrush seemed to understand him. Its struggles stopped.
Fenmore laid the bird to one side of the path and stood. He helped Rose to her feet. "It should be able to fly once it's recovered its wits."
Rose stared up at him. Fenmore wasn't pretty, like Henry. He had a square, plain face. Blunt nose, blunt cheekbones, blunt jaw. He looked like a Viking warrior, with his white-blond hair and sun-browned skin and eyes as blue as the sky. Young and strong and vigorous, built to fight.
And yet he'd been astonishingly gentle with the bird.
Fenmore's brow furrowed slightly. "Ma'am?"
"It wasn't afraid of you."
"Animals trust me. They know I won't hurt them." As if to underscore his words, Dancer nuzzled his shoulder. Fenmore's hand went up to stroke the mare's cheek, an automatic gesture.
* * *
Rose rode again in the afternoon. She preferred to spend as little time as possible indoors. Henry had been gone six months, but his scent still lingered in Creed Hall and his voice seemed to echo faintly in some of the rooms.
She cantered around the lake, Fenmore following with a wicker hamper strapped to his saddle. They halted at the small folly on the eastern side. It was built like a Greek temple, round, and encircled by a colonnade. The marble gleamed white in the sunlight. At the pebbly shore, a small rowboat was tied.
Fenmore spread a blanket on the ground and opened the hamper. He unpacked a flagon of lemonade, a plum cake, a loaf of dark gingerbread, and some nuts and candied fruit.
Rose stared at the food. "I'll never eat all that!"
The groom glanced at her. A smile creased the corners of his eyes, but he said nothing.
The afternoon passed in slow contentment. Rose nibbled the plum cake while Fenmore tended to the horses, then she lay on the blanket and stared at the sky and the drifting clouds. Inside Creed Hall, her chest tightened and breathing became difficult, but here, surrounded by trees and water, she could breathe fully.
Fenmore packed up the picnic as the afternoon drew to its close. Rose sat on the marble steps, gazing across the water to the wooded hills on the other side. I wish I didn't have to go back to the hall.
She looked around for Fenmore. He was scattering crumbs on the ground.
Rose walked across to him. "Is that for birds?"
He towered above her, but she didn't fear him. Beneath the plain features, kindness was imprinted on his face. And yet Henry, who is far prettier, I fear. Rose shivered at the thought of her husband. "I should like to see a squirrel."
The groom's eyes creased at the corners again. "Belike you will, if they know to find food here."
"We could put more food out tomorrow," she said hopefully.
"That we could." Fenmore scattered the last of the crumbs, then fetched Dancer and helped Rose mount. They rode back through the woods. Rose's hands clenched the reins as Creed Hall came into sight. For a fleeting second she thought she smelled the perfume Henry wore.
Rose blew out her breath. She relaxed her grip on the reins. The next ten months were a gift to be treasured. She wouldn't ruin them by thinking of Henry. She would live each day as if he was never coming back.CHAPTER 2
MAY 14, 1763
The squirrel approached cautiously. Will watched the Countess, not the squirrel. She was a thousand times more beautiful than when she'd arrived at Creed Hall, a new bride, powdered and painted and doll-like. The smooth paleness of her skin, the delicate color tinting her cheeks, the rose-pink of her lips, were entirely natural. She glowed with youthfulness, with health.
The squirrel snatched the nut from the Countess's knee and retreated a few paces. The Countess sat utterly motionless, watching. A breeze ruffled her unpowdered raven-black ringlets, ruffled the sparkling surface of the lake, ruffled the grass.
When the squirrel had gone, the Countess turned her head, delight shining in her eyes. "Did you see that?"
"Yes, ma'am." Will allowed himself a polite servant's smile, while his heart turned over painfully in his chest.
The Countess rose to her feet, almost a dancing movement. "Soon it will eat from my hand!"
The Countess picked up the blanket she'd been sitting on. "Tell me about Oscar again, please. You kept him in your pocket?"
"That I did, ma'am."
She listened, her eyes on his face, as Will packed up the picnic. "He used to run up my arm and sit right here, on my shoulder, and talk to me." He mimicked a squirrel's chittering.
"What do you think he was telling you?"
"Where he'd hidden his acorns," Will said, strapping the hamper behind his saddle. "Which was in my shoes, mostly. Or sometimes in my hat for church."
A smile quivered on her lips. "Truly?"
"I wish I could have met him." She folded the blanket and handed it to him.
"Oscar would have liked you." Will strapped the blanket into place. "He would have sat on your shoulder."
"Do you think so?"
Will nodded. "A good judge of character, Oscar was. He'd have known you have only kindness in your heart." His feelings for her were almost audible in his voice. He cleared his throat. "Are you ready to mount, ma'am?"
The Countess glanced at the low afternoon sun and sighed. "I suppose we must."
* * *
Will filed the day away in his memory as he groomed Dancer. He'd made the Countess smile. Maybe one day soon he'd make her laugh.
He imagined her laughing, imagined her eyes bright with joy.
"You're a fool, Will Fenmore," he told himself, resting his forehead against the mare's warm shoulder. "She's a Countess. Remember that."
But when he saw the Countess the next afternoon, Will knew he wouldn't make her laugh that day. Her face was pinched, pale.
They rode silently to the lake. Will unpacked the picnic, but the Countess didn't eat anything. She removed her hat and gloves and walked down to where the rowboat was tied. The stiffness of her jaw made him think she was trying not to cry.
A chittering came from the bushes. "The squirrel's here, ma'am. Do you wish to feed it?"
"Not today, Fenmore." She took a letter from her pocket and began to read it.
Will fed the squirrel. The Countess was still at the water's edge when he'd finished. He walked over to her and halted a few feet distant. Countess, tell me what's wrong. Let me help you.
His hand lifted as if to touch her shoulder, his mouth opened as if to utter words of comfort. For a moment he struggled between right and wrong, between what he ought to do as a servant and what he wanted to do as a man.
It wasn't his place to comfort her. However much he wanted to.
Will turned away.
Will turned back. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Have you ever seen a person drown?" The Countess glanced at him, her eyes bleak. "Do you know how long it takes?"
Will's heart kicked in his chest. His body moved without him thinking, his feet closing the distance between them, his hand grabbing her elbow, dragging her away from the water, making her stumble and clutch at him for balance.
He ignored her protest and tightened his grip, hauling her toward the folly.
"Fenmore! Let go!"
Will halted. "I won't let you kill yourself!" he said fiercely. "Do you hear me? I won't let you!"
The Countess's face twisted. He saw despair shining like tears in her eyes.
"Ah ..." The panicked fury drained from him. Unthinkingly, he gathered her in his arms and hugged her.
The Countess didn't pull away. Instead she began to cry, huge, racking sobs that shuddered through her body.
"Hush." Will cradled her head in his hand. "Hush."
He held her, rocked her, and when the storm of tears subsided, he didn't let her go. "Tell me what's wrong," he said, stroking her hair. "What's happened?"
The Countess didn't try to pull away. She leaned against him, her head resting above his heart.
"Countess ... what is it?"
She gave a shuddering sigh. "Henry wrote. He's coming back early — " Her voice broke. "I can't do it again. I can't."
"I can't." The Countess pushed free of his embrace and turned away, wiping her face. "I have nowhere to go." She sat down on the folly steps, hugging her knees, bowing her head.
Will sat alongside her. "Your family ...?"
She shook her head. "I tried to leave Henry while we were still in London, but Father sent me back. He said he had a contract with Henry and I had to fulfill my share of it."
Rage ignited in Will's chest. "Your father sent you back to him?"
The Countess hugged her knees more tightly. "Father gambled away the Darracott fortune — my dowry, my mother's jewels, everything. Henry's settlement ... it's all that's keeping Father out of debtors' prison."
"Then don't go to your family. Go somewhere else. Build a new life."
"How? I have no money."
Will looked at her. Her riding jacket was made of damask, the wide cuffs trimmed with gold lace. The lace alone cost more than he earned in a year. "Sell your gowns."
"I can't. While Henry's away I'm forbidden to leave Creed Hall."
"Could your maid —?"
"Boyle is Henry's creature. Hired to make sure I don't run away again." The Countess rubbed her face wearily. "And besides, the gowns aren't mine to sell. They belong to Henry. It wouldn't be right."
"What Quayle does to you ... do you think that's right?"
A spasm of pain crossed her face. She averted her head and was silent for a long moment. "How much do you know?" she asked in a low, shamed voice.
"I know what Quayle does to women. And I know it's wrong." And I know he'll burn in Hell when his time comes. Will tried another tack. "Countess ... what about your jewels? Could you sell them?"
"Even the lowest of servants is paid. If you were Quayle's servant, not his wife, what sum would you place on the duties he demands of you?"
She shuddered. "Nothing would be enough."
"Then sell some jewels. It's not stealing. You're taking what you're owed! What you've earned with your own blood."
The Countess turned her head and looked at him. After a moment she shook her head. "Boyle keeps the jewels locked away. I don't have the key ..." She frowned, as if she'd thought of something.
"My godmother died before Christmas." The Countess sat up straighter, her face brightening. "She left me her ruby set. They came in their own case — and I have the key to that, not Boyle!"
"Then sell them."
Her animation faded. "How? As soon as I leave, Boyle will have people searching for me. I'd be found before I got to the nearest town."
"I'll help you," Will said. "If you like ... I could sell one of the pieces. So you'd have some money." He leaned toward her, trying to infect her with his urgency. "Countess ... leave him!"
She studied him, a serious deliberation, as if she was trying to see inside him. "Where would I go?" she asked finally.
"Somewhere Quayle will never find you."
"America?" He saw from her face that it was too far away, too frightening.
"I'll go with you," Will said. "I'll help you."
The Countess's mouth opened, and then closed. She stared at him for a long, frowning moment. "Why would you wish to go with me?"
"I always planned to leave when my mother died. Quayle's not the sort of master a person likes working for."
Her eyes narrowed slightly, as if she was thinking. "Mrs. Fenmore, the old housekeeper ... she was your mother?"
"Didn't she die last year?"
Will nodded again.
Her brow creased. "Then why are you still here?"
Will hesitated. Should he tell her the truth? "Because I couldn't leave you here," he said, with the sense that he was plunging off a cliff. "Not with him."
The Countess stiffened. She drew back slightly. Had she interpreted his words as a declaration of love?
"If I go with you to America, I won't be anything more than your escort," Will said hastily. He might be fool enough to care for her, but he wasn't fool enough to believe she could be his wife. She was too wellborn. And I am merely a servant.
The Countess looked away. "If I leave my husband, I shall never remarry."
"Countess ..." Will hesitated — Dare I? — and then threw caution to the wind. He'd already jumped off one cliff. What was another one? "Your marriage ... what Quayle does to you — that's not how it's meant to be. A husband should treat his wife with tenderness and respect, and in the marriage bed he should strive to give pleasure, not pain."
The Countess didn't look at him. She stared down at her lap, smoothing a wrinkle in the damask silk.
"Countess, please don't say you'll never marry again!" She was too young to condemn herself to a loveless existence. "One day you'll meet a man who'll make you happy."
She raised her head and looked at him. Tears shone in her eyes.
Will swallowed. I love you. "Countess, if you go to America with me, I give you my word of honor I won't compromise you. I won't touch you. I won't —"
"Thank you, Fenmore." A faint smile touched her mouth. "I trust you."
Her words made something clench in his chest, as if his rib cage had wrapped itself around his heart and squeezed. Will held his breath for a moment, and then exhaled slowly. "You'll go to America?"
"When does Quayle return? How long do we have?"
The Countess took the letter from her pocket. She held it out. "Can you read?"
"Yes. My mother always hoped I'd start in service as a footman, become a butler one day."
"Oh." The Countess's brow furrowed, as if she tried to imagine him in a footman's wig and livery. "Is that why you speak better than the other grooms?"
"But you don't want to be a footman?"
Excerpted from The Countess's Groom by Emily Larkin, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2013 Emily Larkin. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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