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The Duke of Snow and Apples
By Elizabeth Vail, Terese Ramin
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Elizabeth Vail
All rights reserved.
Charmant Park, Allmarch 20th Day of the Month of Soil, Year 556 After the Fey
"Time is short, Freddy, and you're the only man who can help us."
Frederick Snow, standing to attention before Mr. Lutter's desk, gave a brusque nod.
"Do you know how long her ladyship has been waiting for this day? Ten years. Too long, my boy." Mr. Lutter looked up, his eyes full of intent. "This is your task now. You are our first, our best, and I expect you to act like it."
Frederick nodded again. Trepidation trembled somewhere in the back of his throat, but he did not let it show on his face. "I will, sir."
"Very good." With a sigh, the portly house steward abandoned his melodramatic air and collapsed back into his seat, causing the wood to creak in protest. "One of these days her ladyship's house parties will be the death of me."
Normally the house steward ruled justly over an ordered kingdom of paper, leather, dust, and glass, but today his kingdom looked to Frederick like it had undergone a very messy and disorganized coup. His desk overflowed with paperwork and open ledgers, and his every movement threatened to send another few sheets fluttering to the floor. Here and there the feathered end of a lost quill stuck out from the pile like a pagan burial marker.
"Cook's threatened to quit twice already, and if our Salaman thinks I haven't noticed how much gin he imbibes before summoning salamanders to heat the extra guest rooms, then he's very much mistaken."
"Of course," said Frederick. He understood the language of work, the steady cadence of labor that thrummed in the calloused palms of his hands and the tense cords of his back.
"Now that her ladyship's cherished grandniece, Miss Erlwood, has decided to attend — her first visit after a very long absence — Lady Balrumple wants to ensure the girl receives the utmost in service and care. This includes a personal footman assigned to her side. We need our very best footman, and that would be you."
What could Frederick do other than nod? His scalp itched under his powdered white wig.
Mr. Lutter paused. "This is a very great responsibility. I don't think I need to tell you how much we've appreciated your years of service, so just let me say that patience and hard work are always rewarded at Charmant Park."
Frederick nodded again, his chin brushing against the folds of a cravat that suddenly seemed tighter than usual. When Mr. Lutter looked at him, he might see a young man of five-and-twenty eager to move out of livery and boot polish and into the upper responsibilities over silver and plate. How could Frederick convince him otherwise? Livery was simpler. Frederick preferred simpler.
Before Mr. Lutter could add anything further, someone tapped at the door. It opened to reveal the small figure of the steward's room footman, who darted in and handed a sealed note to Mr. Lutter. "It came by sylph, sir."
"Excellent!" Mr. Lutter cried. He opened and scanned the slip of paper. "Miss Charlotte Erlwood has arrived at the coaching inn."
* * *
Frederick leapt off the footman's platform at the back of the carriage after it pulled to a stop outside the Fire and Feather inn. Once inside the snug building, he paused to absorb the wine-spiced warmth before proceeding to the inn's tidy parlor.
Miss Charlotte Erlwood, her ladyship's grandniece, perched in an armchair by the fire, emanating waves of affront like a princess left in a pigsty. She wore a muted, dove-colored pelisse and her honey-brown hair pulled into a tight knot at the back of her head. On a small table in front of her lay the remains of a small luncheon and an uneaten apple. Behind her, an exasperated-looking manservant stood at attention.
Upon Frederick's arrival, she turned toward him, revealing a pinched mouth and a pair of thundercloud eyebrows riding low over narrowed eyes. She scanned him from the top of his wigged head to the bottom of his boots, and her frowning lips stretched and tightened, her brows descended lower, and a slight blush reddened her cheeks.
She looked angry.
She looked spoiled.
She looks in need of a good teasing. Somewhat surprised with the mischievous turn of his thoughts, Frederick squashed it and kept his face neutral, his mouth set in a straight line.
"Miss Charlotte Erlwood?"
"Oh no." She shook her head. "No, not you."
Frederick blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"You're not here for me. You're here for somebody else."
"Are you not Miss Charlotte Erlwood?"
The girl gave a hard, bitter laugh. "Of course you're here for me. I don't know why I expected any different."
An old, moth-eaten shade of indignation rose up in Frederick's mind, a remnant from when he still felt insulted by anything. "Have I done something to displease you?" Charlotte released a melodramatic sigh. "You're blue."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Look at you!" she said, waving an arm at his livery. "Blue coat, blue jacket, yellow waistcoat. You're positively sunny. A happy, sunny bluebird, all sparkling and cheerful. Does nobody in Allmarch care how I feel?"
Frederick's well of rational responses ran dry. Behind Charlotte, her manservant shrugged.
Charlotte seemed to take his silence as agreement, and jabbed an accusing finger out the window, at a picturesque view of Charmant village shops in the chill autumn sunlight. "Look out there! Isn't it the most beautiful day we've had in Soil month? Today, of all days! It's unfair. It's unseemly."
"Pardon me, miss, but what would be seemly?"
"A rainstorm," she said. "A choking blizzard that keeps everyone shivering at home in their beds. Clouds, gloominess, something that isn't bloody sunny!"
That mischievous quiver at the back of his mind tickled him, and he caught himself before he uttered an apology for the weather's rudeness.
"Your carriage is ready," he said.
"I gathered that," she said, with poor grace.
This was the long-lost grandniece Lady Balrumple was excited to see? The girl treated a visit to her loving relation with all the excitement of a tooth-pulling.
Miss Charlotte rose, pocketed her apple, and dismissed her manservant. After Frederick led her outside and handed her into the carriage, he signaled to Shipley, the coachman, that he needed help with the lady's luggage. Shipley slid a glance over his shoulder at Miss Charlotte and rolled his eyes, and Frederick almost smiled. Almost. He'd trained himself too well to give into emotions around his betters.
When Shipley and Frederick returned from the inn carrying the last heavy trunk, they discovered Charlotte standing beside the carriage, favoring them once again with her unpleasant mood. She held her apple, now with a crisp, white bite taken out of it, and passed it from hand to hand.
"Tell me," she said to Shipley. "How does it look like the weather will fare?"
"Last time we summoned the sylphs, the wind-sprites said we's to have fine weather all week," said the coachman, cheerful and oblivious. "Uncommon fine. Clear and sunny."
Charlotte's hands clenched, her fingernails cutting pale half-moons into the apple's red peel. Frederick's throat tightened — not from stress, but rather an urge to laugh. He coughed instead, hoping the girl wouldn't notice.
As he turned back to help secure the last of the luggage, something hard and round struck the back of his head and bounced to the ground. Pain blossomed at the base of his skull. Frederick lost his grip on the trunk, and dropped it with a heavy thunk.
He whirled around, but there was no one by the carriage except for Miss Charlotte. Her hands dangled nervously at her sides while she stared off in another direction, wearing an expression of innocence marred by a fiery blush.
He should have kept his head down and said nothing. Upperfolk were entitled to whims and fancy. However, the combination of the schooled blankness of Miss Charlotte's face and the pain throbbing at the back of his head sent something hot and misguided up and out of his throat.
"Did you just hit me with a rock?"
"No," said Charlotte, avoiding his eyes.
"Did you just hit me with a rock?"
"You hit me with a rock!"
"It wasn't a rock!" Charlotte brought her wandering gaze back to his. Fortifying herself with a haughty sniff, she said, "I hit you with an apple."
Sure enough, a few feet away lay a dusty, browning apple, significantly bruised on one side.
After an awkward pause, she sniffed again and held out her hand. "I would like to get back into the carriage now."
Wordlessly, thanks to a complete lack of understanding rather than proper footman etiquette, Frederick took Charlotte's hand and helped her up into the carriage. As she settled in on the squabs, she sniffed again. Her nose was red. Funny how Frederick had missed that before.
"Are you in need of a handkerchief?" he asked.
"No, thank you." She produced one from her reticule, a crumpled, damp square of fabric. Sniff.
Guilt jabbed, sharp and surprising, behind his rib cage.
"May I get you anything? A blanket? A hot salamander-bottle?"
"A salamander-bottle, if you please."
Frederick went around to the boot and gingerly took out a sealed earthenware jar. With a few sharp jerks, he shook it, and felt the vibrations inside the jug as the tiny fire-elementals quivered to wakefulness, and the jar grew warm in his hands.
As Frederick went back around the side of the carriage, a fancy struck him. Normally, his professional duty was to dodge fancy and sentiment and maintain a respectful demeanor. Perhaps the blow from that apple had slowed his instincts, for one such fancy caught him in the heart, making the palms of his hands itch and an unprofessional idea take root in his brain.
He knocked on the door of the carriage and helped settle the hot salamander-bottle under Charlotte's feet. Then he fished into his pocket and deposited a large, grayish-brown stone in her lap.
"Should it please you to hit me with something harder," said Frederick.
After a long pause, Charlotte said, "Thank you — it would have been most inconvenient to bend down and pick up one myself. The road is so dusty."
And then she laughed.
It was like watching a military fortress open its gates at the end of a long and bitter war, the portcullis rising, windows opening, light and air and music leaking out. Charlotte's thundercloud eyebrows flew upward, leaving her wide eyes, the color of warm brandy, sparkling and undefended. Her lips, released from their tight frown, curled naturally up at the edges like old paper. Her laugh, melodic and surprisingly loud, overpowered the carriage's cramped interior.
The change in Charlotte's appearance struck Frederick into stillness, even as long-ignored, dusty sections of his heart started squirming and shifting, woken into movement. Frederick's gaze dropped to her lips and noticed one corner quirked up higher than the other. He felt a surprising clench in his gut as his mind narrowed down to the single, focused thought that if he kissed that one corner enough it would shift back in place and behave ... The idea sent ribbons of heat and music spiraling into his brain to burn behind his eyes.
"Are we all right to go, then?" Shipley called.
Frederick jerked up and caught Charlotte's glance for a startled instant, and he saw colors about her head, the last vestiges of angry red, sad violet, and a glimmer of cheerful green, before he yanked his gaze away, appalled. He scrunched his eyes shut, cutting off the flow of his power. He hadn't meant to let it out.
Pull it back, he willed. Pull it all back. He imagined snow and cold and silence, and he tried to distract himself with the immediately physical — the irritating weight of his wig, the pull of his gloves, the crunch of dead leaves beneath his boot. With a coldly professional demeanor, he bowed to Miss Charlotte and closed the carriage door. He let the dangerously tempting heat of his power draw back from his eyes, and he slowly regained control.
"You all right?" asked the coachman.
"I'm fine." Frederick clambered back onto the footman's platform at the back of the coach, letting the cold autumn wind wash over him, giving him a physical shiver to match the quivering in his gut. Careless, stupid, what was he doing? Dropping his guard in front of a girl, a spoiled-fruit-throwing miss, a woman he barely knew. A girl whom he would have to shadow for the rest of the house party, waiting on her every whim.
It was going to be a very long week.CHAPTER 2
What a silly chit I am, thought Charlotte, as the carriage jangled and bumped toward Charmant Park. She'd spent the last several days clutching anger to her heart, letting its prickles and sharp edges scratch and tear at her with every movement. Anger was sharper than defeat, harder than despair. Anger had its uses, whereas misery only left her as damp and wrinkled as her wretched handkerchief.
And in the span of only a few minutes, an upstart footman had stolen her anger away.
What foolishness. Throwing an apple at a servant. Thank goodness no one of consequence had seen her. What might they have thought?
She hefted the rock he'd left in her lap. She shouldn't have hit him, but she hadn't been able to help herself. She'd been sitting in that inn, stewing over how her life was falling apart, as all her ordered plans dissolved into hopeless dreams, and in had walked that footman. Tall and professional and collected, as if nothing in his life ever strayed beyond the expected. In truth, it had galled her to think a servant had an easier time of it than her.
He had an odd face for a footman. So ... distinctive. What a ridiculous thought. All footmen had faces — she'd just never had an opportunity to truly look a footman in the face before. From a distance, he looked fit and sleek in his bright livery, identical to every footman in existence. In the confines of the carriage, a stone in his hand, she'd noticed his dark, inky eyebrows that contrasted sharply with the powdered paleness of his wig, a strong, slightly crooked nose, and eyes ...
What sort of a footman has eyes like that? Sudden warmth rose to her face, and she shifted her feet away from the salamander-bottle. Eyes of a clear, flawless azure like a lake in summer, rimmed with lush, dark lashes. For one moment in that carriage, they'd even seemed to glow. Beautiful eyes. Such an utter waste they should be found in a footman's face.
But such was life. Nothing went as it should.
Reminded again of her troubles and what she would have to do to set her life to rights, she looked out the window, searching for the first signs they were approaching Charmant Park. She hadn't visited her great-aunt since she was ten years old. She dimly remembered great stands of cherry trees flashing past the carriage in bursts of fragrant pink froth, and a mansion that had seemed like a Fey palace. Doubtless now that she was a grown woman of twenty, the estate would seem much smaller.
The carriage topped the rise and rumbled along a road guarded by black-barked trees clawing the air with dark, empty branches. Even bereft of foliage, those trees drew Charlotte back into memories of her girlhood, and as she caught sight of Charmant Park, unexpected joy rose in her chest like a puff of warm steam.
Thanks to generations of renovation-minded owners, Charmant Park represented a battle between six or seven architectural styles, frozen in time in honey-brown stone, red brick, pink stucco, and white marble. Turrets warred with flying buttresses, pediments sneered at porticos, chimneys dueled with jagged spires, and columns sprouted everywhere, oblivious to the chaos.
The carriage pulled up at the entrance, in front of a full regiment of male servants standing at attention in blue and gold livery. A heartwarmingly familiar woman stood at their head. She wore her snow-white hair teased into youthful curls beneath a massive yellow turban sprouting feathers from at least half a dozen birds.
Excerpted from The Duke of Snow and Apples by Elizabeth Vail, Terese Ramin. Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Vail. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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