Today is my book’s birthday!
*insert triumphant cheers and happy dances*
The Crimson Gown has been set loose today, which is all sorts of thrilling and frightening and so on. This one was a bit more under the radar, because something I’ve discovered the more I write and the more kids I have is that the publishing of books (not the writing, mind you… I still give that my all) tends to not be as Big of a Deal. I’ll keep writing books, they’ll – hopefully – continue to be published. But again, it’s the writing of them that keeps me going, the creation of characters and worlds and stories. By the time one of them goes on sale, I’m already knee deep in the next.
But! Like a forgotten middle child, I do want to remember to shine a light on this story. Because I do adore it. It is important to me. Like when one of my children takes his or her first steps, or learns to remove their underpants from their pants before throwing them in the hamper, I’m proud to see this little book wandering out into the wild.
Three days later, the first of the house guests arrived.
Lydia did not spy the carriage upon its approach, nor did she witness the man and woman who descended from it. But the commotion that accompanied their appearance on the grounds echoed through the lower levels of the house, servants running to and fro with orders to heat water, to lay fresh fires in the cleanest of the rooms and to prepare refreshments for the incoming travellers.
The fires would have to be large, Lydia thought, to keep out the chill that refused to dissipate from the upper rooms of the house. The weather was no aid to their task, regularly sending a brutal wind that lashed against the outer walls while a cold drizzle laced with ice scratched at the windows overnight.
Lydia wondered at the timing of the event. House parties were typically hosted in the warmer months, when the weather was more suitable to travel and there would be the assurance of outdoor walks and activities for the assembled guests. But it was only the beginning of February, with the freezing gusts still howling down from the north and the promise of finer days and sunshine as ephemeral as a dream.
She was given little time to nurture her musings over the peculiarities of the aristocracy. There was tea to be made, and additional silver to be polished, and a fresh batch of linens to be placed on newly mended mattresses. The midday meal became a hurried affair—for the servants, at least—as the menu for dinner was still in the process of being edited and embellished, the grand meal now scheduled to take place in the dining room, rather than a mere tray ordered for the master of the house.
It was not until the day after Lydia’s meeting with the enigmatic man, the one with the unfashionable hair and the eyes that seemed to possess the threat of tallying her every sin with a single glance, that she learned of his identity.
Thomas Mosbe, Lord Cailvairt.
She was familiar with the name. The Mosbes were an old, long-established family, their roots penetrating farther back through the reaches of the gentry than many of those who had laid a claim to the English throne for the last three centuries. But they had become a forgotten sort over time, the previous lords choosing to spend many of their days in London or on the continent, until the great house had become something of a peculiar monument to the men who had abandoned it years before.
“This new one…” Anna spoke quickly between the bites of hard bread and cheese that accompanied their tea. “They say he’s an odd sort. Spent all his years in France, I think. Or Spain. One of the two. Either way, no decent place for a young man. And now he’s back here, creeping about the halls like some accursed demon. Probably likes it here, what with all the drafts and spiders and unnatural noises screeching about.”
Lydia said nothing. She had made no mention of her encounter with this Lord Cailvairt to any of her fellow servants. She assured herself it was because the meeting had been such an inconsequential event that it didn’t even merit the position of a bit of gossip to be shared over the dinner table. For who would bother to even feign the slightest bit of interest in her discussion with a reclusive lord? Especially when the topic had concerned a mouldering bit of art stashed away on one of the upper floors of the house?
But the truth of the matter was quite different. The conversation lingered in her mind, their exchanged words adorned by his every glance, his every breath that had warmed the bare skin at the nape of her neck.
It was wrong of her to dwell on such remembrances. The days did not make this difficult, the encumbrance of work and the presence of the other servants enough to banish all memory of the conversation from her mind. No, it was in the evening when the memories returned to her, when Anna was late to return to her bed and Lydia found herself clinging to the last of the light before the candle burned down to smoke and the darkness of the small room became complete.
It was at that moment his voice came back to her. His words, spoken in such tones of innocence, as if their dialogue had truly been nothing more than a discussion of art and aesthetics, slid over her with a sinuousness that made her tremble.
And then her eyes would flutter open, the lack of light startling her, causing her breath to freeze in her lungs while the muscles in her abdomen tightened until the sensation was almost too painful to bear. Several moments would pass before her body again began to relax, each breath regaining a small measure of its former ease.
She was nearly calm again by the time Anna would return, slipping into the room like some furtive creature, her hair tumbled about her shoulders and her dress secured to her body in a way that made one suspect it had been hastily put to rights without aid of proper light or the necessary space required for such a task.
Lydia knew very well where she had been. Somewhere in the house with her handsome footman, stashed into some dark closet or tucked into the shadowed recesses of a forgotten corridor. She was able to smell the sweat on the other woman’s skin, and something else, a heavier odour that clung to the young maid and slowly filled the bedroom as she stripped down to her shift before hurriedly slipping beneath her blankets.
It was a sinful smell, Lydia realised, without being aware of how she knew such a thing. Perhaps it was the behaviour of Anna that gave it away, the girl having taken to moving about at nighttime with all the stealthiness of a thief in fear of being caught. And yet there was a slender thread of envy that insinuated itself in Lydia’s thoughts, but for what it was she yearned for, she simply could not tell.
A clatter of crockery from the other side of the kitchen pulled Lydia from her reverie, causing her own hands to slip on the shears she held. Before her lay a mound of flowers from the hothouse, very few of which she could identify. There were roses, most of them in varying shades of red, and… the others were all a mystery to her. She knew the wildflowers that grew along the edges of the road, and she could identify foxglove and Jacob’s Ladder and primrose, and the bright yellow daffodils that bloomed every year in front of her father’s inn. But these were more or less unknown to her, their deep colours, the size of their blooms seeming to be almost artificial next to the picture of crocuses and mistletoe that she held in her mind.
Quickly, she shifted herself back into her previous rhythm of trimming the stems of the flowers, stripping them of their lower leaves, and arranging everything into the elegant crystal vase that stood on the table before her. There were a dozen such vases to fill, all of them to be deposited in the dining room in time for the evening meal.
Before she was given an opportunity to nurse the small nicks and cuts from the many thorns, Mrs. Latimer bustled over to her side, the muffled clanging of her chatelaine announcing her approach.
“You’re to go to the morning room and bring down the rugs for a beating. None of them are too large for someone such as you to handle on your own.” Her grey eyes made a brief sweep of Lydia’s tall frame.
Lydia ignored the obvious snub in the old woman’s gaze. “Of course, ma’am,” was all that she said, before her chin dipped into a nod and she turned to leave the kitchen.
The morning room was on the first floor, its tall windows facing east to let in what meagre allowance of sunlight the dreary skies chose to provide. Lydia glanced outside, the cold fog that had draped the landscape during the first half of the day rapidly giving way to a strange, stark clarity that allowed her to look far across the grounds.
There was the road that had brought her here, a three mile walk from her father’s doorstep to the rough, wooden door at the back of the manor house that had opened to reveal the housekeeper’s sour countenance. The fields were grey, the trees greyer, with their bare branches stretched up towards the sky. The gardens below were a pitiful sight, long left to grow beyond their boundaries until the walls of stone and brick were almost hidden by the corpses of the previous season’s unchecked vines and weeds.
The land, she knew, could appear most unforgiving, even in the full flush of summer. The hills that bordered the horizon were not the gently rolling things of bucolic tales, but harsh and jagged, with seams of black rock thrusting out from beneath the sparse layer of grass that carpeted them. And how the wind would howl across those barbed ridges, loud enough for Lydia to hear it over the clamour and tumult of her father’s inn, with guests stomping up and down the stairs at all hours of the night, with horses stamping their hooves and carriages rumbling across the pockmarked drive that led around to the stables.
Even in her bed, with the blankets pulled up above her head, she would hear it, and the high-pitched cries would mingle with the voice within her own mind, the memories always as vivid as the moment the words had first been spoken to her.
You are wicked. A filthy, sinful creature.
She looked down to find her fingers clutching the edge of the windowsill, her knuckles white as the ragged edges of her nails sought to dig grooves into the finished wood.
The rugs, she reminded herself. They were what she had been sent upstairs to fetch. Certainly not so she could stand by the window, gazing out at a bleak, unforgiving landscape while her thoughts disappeared into a haze of unpleasant reminisces.
She turned around, her hands brushing down the front of her apron before she tugged at her skirts and lowered herself down to her knees. The rugs were indeed small, nothing beyond her strength or capabilities, and so she immediately began to roll them up, one at a time, before depositing them in a pile near the door. She was nearly finished with the last one when she heard a distinct tread in the hall outside the room. Her arms went still, her hands hovering over the worn threads of the rug as she waited for the steps to recede into silence.
From where she sat, she doubted that anyone would see her from the doorway. There was a writing desk between herself and the entrance to the room, and she hoped that single piece of furniture would be enough to shield her from view.
The footsteps grew louder. Her teeth sought out the tender flesh on the inside of her bottom lip. They were a man’s steps, the heaviness of them leaving no doubt as to the sex of the person about to encroach on her privacy.
“Please.” The single word came out as a hiss, her eyes closing for a moment as she thought to send up a silent prayer. But the appeal died before it could begin when she realised she was torn between her desire to remain hidden and the nascent, rebellious wish that she would be discovered.
Lord Cailvairt stepped into the room, the heels of his boots striking loudly on the now bare floor. Her breath stilled, and she began to fear that the rapid beating of her heart would be enough to give away her whereabouts. From her place behind the desk, she could not glimpse much more than the line of his legs and a small portion of his torso. Again, as before, his clothes were exquisite, the cut of his trousers and what she saw of his coat tailored to near perfect proportions. A spark of remonstrance flowed through her, that she should be so aware of men’s fashions, but from a childhood spent watching all manner of tradesman, of labourer, of aristocracy pass through her father’s inn, she had gained something of an eye for what was stylish and what most assuredly was not.
She continued to watch him as he moved along the edge of the wall farthest from her. There were a few books there, if she remembered correctly, a handful of mouldering tomes that appeared to have been stashed away in this portion of the house because there was no other suitable place for them. He paused, once or twice, as if taking a moment to study something which had succeeded in catching his notice.
And then he turned around, his steps leading him back toward the door. A breath slid from Lydia’s lungs, quickly followed by another. But she didn’t dare to move again, not until she was certain that he had vacated the room entirely.
He was nearly through the doorway when he stopped again. She heard him turn, the scrape and grind of his heel on the floor as he spun slowly around.
“Some tea, I think, and a few light refreshments,” Lord Cailvairt said, loud enough for her to hear. “In the drawing room.”
She waited for his footsteps to resume and the sound of his boots to carry him out the door, but instead he spoke again, his voice somehow louder to her ears even though she had not heard him close the distance between them. “And I would prefer for you to bring the tray. That is, if it is not too much trouble.”
He did leave her then, still on her knees, still hunched over the rolled up bit of rug on the other side of the writing desk. She attempted to lick her lips, but realised how dry her mouth had become during those few moments when he had been in the room with her.
“Tea,” she muttered beneath her breath as she hoisted the final rug into her arms and carried it out of the room. “Tea and light refreshments.” Such a simple request, she reasoned to herself. And yet, she couldn’t help but feel as if he had asked for so much more.