Broken Shutters (Working Title)

Chapters:

One: Lady Ludwig

Two: And So They Came

Three: Introduction and Seduction

Four: Lady Buttercup

Five: Two Souls

Six: Portals

Seven: Anticipation

Eight: The Right Thing

Chapter One: Lady Ludwig

Melanie trembled. Jarred from her sleep by a loud noise, she sat up in her husband’s bed and was immediately swept over by a warm yet overwhelming rush of air. Unfortunately, it was raining as well. She leapt from beneath the covers to close the shutter on the chamber window.

“Did you not latch the damn thing before coming to bed?” she heard her lord husband say, as she pulled on her red robe. Clutching it closed in the wet wind, she dashed to the open window.

“Of course I did darling. It appears the latch is in need of repair and not strong enough to withstand this storm.” As she spoke, struggling with the rusted latch against the howling wind, she slid the belt from her robe and secured the shutter, tying it closed. “There, that should hold until someone can attend to it properly.” She smiled. Her face was flushed and wet with rain, and she swept back the loose silver streaked golden wisps of hair at the edges of her face.

Her cotton nightgown was wet down the front and she shook it out with a gentle laugh and a sigh. It’s nearly sunrise anyway, she thought. I may as well wash and dress for the day. She turned to find her husband had fallen back into a deep slumber, so she lit a candle and stepped soundlessly to her own chamber door to ready herself for the day. This would be quite a long one after all. Her lord husband, Edward Ludwig, would be entertaining the nobles and lords tonight and many preparations needed to be made.

Her hand maiden was still sleeping in the small chamber which was connected to hers by way of an alcove. Melanie tapped with the knuckle of her index finger and then opened the door and whispered, “Janine, I hate to wake you so early but I need you.”

The girl sprang to her feet as if she’d been pricked with a pin. “Of course mi’lady,” she curtsied, straightening her night cap and then rushing to dress.

“I’ll be in my chamber,” Melanie said, lighting the candle on the girl’s nightstand with her own and then heading back to her room.

Once the door was closed behind her in her chamber, Mellie, as her lord husband named her, lit every candle in the room. Despite the day’s gale, the weather had been mild and warm and perfectly temperate for July. Keeping the shutters closed against the storm gave the room the feel of evening instead of dawn and her eyes took several moments to adjust, even in the candlelight.

“I love the rain,” she whispered aloud to herself as lightning flashed through the creases in her shutters and the first clap of thunder followed a few seconds later. She longed to throw them open and just stand naked in the open window to bathe, showered in rain water and lightning, then giggled to herself at such a shameless fantasy.

Janine’s knock spun her around. “Come in,” she said and smiled, still day dreaming. “I’m quite soaked from a broken shutter in my husband’s chamber, Janine.” Mellie giggled. “I’ll need a dry shift. I’ll simply rinse off and wear a day dress; something simple and functional as I have quite a bit to do. Tonight before the guests arrive, I’d love a hot bath; rain water if at all possible…hopefully kissed by lightning.” She giggled again. “The dressmaker will be bringing my gown for this evening by three o’clock. I may still be quite occupied but come and find me immediately when she arrives.”

“Yes mi’lady.” Janine curtsied and went to work pulling everything together. “What time will your guests be arriving?”

“Dinner is at seven o’clock so I’d imagine they’ll start arriving around four. I’ve taken care of having all of the guest chambers cleaned, dressed with fresh linens and all the usual comforts. This morning is about the menu, the décor and the entertainment.”

“Will Bellamy be playing this evening mi’lady?” Janine’s excitement was nowhere hidden in her sweet voice or her widened eyes as they shot up at Mellie, from where she kneeled to secure her Lady’s stockings.

“Of course!” Mellie exclaimed, reaching down and cupping Janine’s chin softly in her right palm. “How could I deprive my ladies such loveliness.” She smiled as she felt the girl’s face grow warm against her hand. “Those long black curls of his and those deep soulful eyes as he sings.” Mellie sighed. “I’d be remiss not to say were I twenty years younger and unwed to Lord Edward, that creamy voice of his combined with his countless other attributes…” She cleared her throat and her thoughts and straightened, releasing the dreamy eyed girl’s rosy expression. “Anyway, yes of course, as well as the usual musicians ensemble.”

“Yes mi’lady.” Janine continued adding the layers of clothing quietly as she worked.

“Janine, would you like to serve at the party this evening? I know you have more than enough work to do but…”

“Oh yes mi’lady!” she interrupted. “Apologies mi’lady,” she whispered, backing away slowly and lowering her head.

“My darling, if I could dress myself in these mounds of fabric and manage my needs as I manage this castle, I would. But then you’d have no work to do. You’ve been a Godsend to me this past year and I want you to know how much I appreciate everything you do. As long as your other duties are complete, you most certainly may serve this evening. I’ll inform Mrs. Bolton when I go to the kitchens.”

Janine curtsied and bowed, causing Mellie to stifle a laugh as she stepped to the mirror to examine her appearance and then sat at her vanity for Janine to sort out her hair. “Something simple Janine; we’ll save the extravagance for tonight.” Mellie chuckled. “I may be middle aged but I’ll not allow that to keep me from turning every male head in the room if I can help it.” She laughed again. “Well, that was a bit vain,” she mumbled and frowned.

“Mi’lady, you are the most lovely, elegant and engaging woman I’ve ever had the honor to serve,” Janine said as she combed Mellie’s hair and began a long braid to wrap up and pin.

Mellie reached up and clasped Janine’s wrist gently. “That’s the sweetest thing anyone has said to me in quite a long time.”

“Surely Lord Edward reminds you every day of these things.”

Mellie’s hand slid away and fell back into her lap, as the thunder sent a tremble through the chamber. “Surely.”

X

Within the hour, Mellie was whisking from room to room, followed by a host of servants. She made note of anything that wasn’t up to lordly standards. The castle caretaker ordered the adjustments made immediately as they went. More flowers, more candles due to the storm and an update on the progress of the evening’s feast until at last she was able to reach the kitchen and see for herself.

“Mrs. Bolton, it smells absolutely wonderful down here!” Mellie exclaimed, clapping her hands together. “Just please, no fish of any kind. You know Lord Edward detests it.”

“Of course mi’lady. The menu is to your specifications and nary a fish to be found in the whole castle.”

Mellie breezed through the host of twelve cooks, all preparing something different, as well as the extra dozen or so helpers, busy at preparing smaller meals for their breakfast and midday, as well as washing vegetables and preparing stews. “Has Lord Edward’s breakfast been sent up yet?” Mellie asked, turning back to Mrs. Bolton who followed on her heels.

“He hasn’t rung yet mi’lady.”

“Of course he hasn’t,” Mellie said, rolling her eyes as she recalled his late arrival to bed. She continued on. “I’ll have mine now if you please. No porridge or biscuits. Something simple like eggs and ham and perhaps some of your delicious marmalade and slice of fresh bread with butter. I’ve been awake since dawn and I’ll need to keep my strength up today.”

“Of course mi’lady,” Mrs. Bolton said, snapping her fingers at one of the helpers to get to task.

“I’ll be in the small dining room,” Mellie said as she leaned over a pot of what smelled like venison stew. “Marvelous. Absolutely marvelous!” she said and patted the cook on his thick back.

As she and her entourage of servants entered the small dining room which wasn’t small at all, yet warm with candlelight, cherry wood and rich rugs and tapestries of equestrian themes, she turned to the caretaker and said, “Mister Randall, it seems so far everything is in order. You and your staff go and break your fast and meet me in the formal hall in one hour.”

“Yes mi’lady,” he bowed, waving his flock of hens out of the room and following swiftly behind them.

As Mellie was seated by a young page, her thoughts wandered to the guest list. “Young man, I seem to have forgotten the guest list. Could you go after the caretaker and retrieve it for me please? I’ll need to make the seating chart so bring me a quill and parchment as well.”

The young man nodded and hurried off, returning within moments with the requested items. “You’re Lord Harrison’s nephew aren’t you? I can always spot a resemblance,” Mellie said.

“Yes my lady. I’m Stuart. Son to Lord Harrison’s younger sister Abigail Winston, of…”

“Nottingham. Yes my dear I know. That makes us cousin’s did you know that?”

“Yes my lady,” he said and bowed. “Of course you would know our family connections far more than I.”

“How old are you Stuart?” Mellie asked as her breakfast was carried in and placed before her.

“Fifteen my lady, in April.”

“My, how time flies. I remember receiving the announcement of your birth. Lord Edward and I had made the journey from Essex to Whitehall for the coronation of King Henry VIII. I’d received the birth announcement while I was away but quickly replied with our sincere congratulations. How is my dear cousin—your mother?”

“She was in good health and spirits when I departed for Essex and your lord husband’s fine castle my lady, except of course for a brief bit of melancholy over my leaving.”

“Castle Ludwig is my lovely castle as well as my lord’s Stuart.” Mellie smiled as she sipped her tea. “I shall write to Abigail as soon as this celebration is over—sooner rather than later.” She smiled again.

“May I ask why my lady does not seem pleased with the affair?”

“No, you may not. However, I’ll answer and pretend it was of my own prerogative to tell you. Every season, my lord husband invites all the lords from Sussex to Norfolk to hunt, to drink and to maintain amiable relationships, as well as for political reasons. I prefer a more peaceful and gentle atmosphere.”

“But my lady, you’ve been doing everything to make this visit as pleasant for them as possible.” Stuart swallowed so hard it was audible and took a step back.

“No need to choke on your words, Stuart. My responsibilities as lady of this castle far outweigh whatever feelings I may have in regards to my husband’s social requirements. Besides, it’s always a pleasure to see Lady Winchester and Lady Covington.”

Stuart nodded and returned to his post near the door as Mellie finished her breakfast and the seating chart, as she awaited the return of Mr. Randall and his staff.

“Lady Ludwig, we are at your service,” Mr. Randall said as he entered the hall.“Excellent. Follow me.”

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Chapter Two – And So they Came

The storm blew itself out and away shortly after the midday meal. Mellie threw open the shutters in her chamber when she returned from her duties. She decided to rest for a bit before the evening’s festivities. Janine had undressed her down to her shift and turned down her sheets. She even placed Mellie’s favorite flowers in a vase by her bed. Mellie, however, was overcome with the breeze now bathing her in a post rain aroma, more so than the fragrance of lilac, as she sat in a chair by her tower window and admired the fields below.

“Mi’lady finished her preparations quickly I see,” Janine said as she poured water from a pitcher into a wash basin.

“Your lady is good at giving orders and seeing them carried out is about the extent of it. Besides, who other than my lord husband would dare to tell me no?” Mellie laughed softly as she pulled the pins from her braid and let it fall down her back as she gazed away. From her perch she had a bird’s eye view of the road to the castle. In the distance, perhaps a mile off, she could already see the carriage houses and men on horses making their approach. “And soon it begins,” she said over a sigh.

“Will mi’lady require anything else?” Janine asked.

“Wake me when my dress arrives please. That will be all,” Mellie said, looking over her shoulder briefly at Janine as she curtsied and left the room. Mellie stood and stretched and then strolled to her bed. She stopped upon hearing her husband’s voice and Janine’s giggle, outside of her chamber door, just before it opened.

“Mellie, good afternoon,” he bellowed as he closed the door.

She curtsied to her mate. “And to you Edward. I trust you slept well?”

“Not at all with that damn storm and the banging shutter,” he grumbled and then kissed her cheek.

“I’m sorry dear. Perhaps after an evening of socializing you’ll sleep much better tonight.”

“Why aren’t you dressed?”

“I was dressed. I’ve been up since dawn making the final arrangements for tonight.”

He looked bewildered and then sullen. “I should have known. You always have everything in hand.” He smiled meekly. “The kitchen?”

“Ms. Bolton has prepared everything you requested perfectly. I did the seating chart myself and have no worries dear, I made certain to seat Lord Elswick next to you, as I know he is your current favorite…and loyal friend.”

“I’ve known Elswick for years, Mellie. He’s our closest neighbor and I’ve purchased many a fine horse from him.”

“Then why is this his first time joining us?” Mellie lowered herself onto the bed and sat.

“Alex’s wife is unwell and has been for quite some time. Since his father passed last year and he and Elizabeth returned from Norwich to take over as Lord of Elswick, he’s been engaged with getting things in proper order.”

“Had the late Lord Elswick mismanaged things?”

“To say the least,” he said as he approached the bed and sat beside her. “But Alexander’s diligence has paid off. His land is rich and flourishing and his tenants are thriving. His wealth has increased substantially.”

“You have a great deal of respect for the man.” She nodded.

“That I do, and I’m thrilled he’s finally set things right enough to at last feel confident to visit.” He leaned in and kissed Mellie gently. “Seeing him also reminds me how grateful I am to have you.”

“Grateful?” she asked with a raised brow.

“I couldn’t do any of this without you. Alexander does not have that privilege. Lady Elswick is not fit enough to handle such tasks.” He cleared his throat and appeared troubled.

“So I assume Lady Elswick won’t be joining him?”

“Sadly no.” Edward patted her on the thigh, and she grabbed his hand and held it tightly.

“Everything is ready for tonight. Why don’t you join me…here, just for a little while?” Her eyes were deep with longing for his touch and his love—for his body beside her. He gazed into those deep green eyes for a moment until she knew he understood. Months had passed since they’d lain together as husband and wife. She could hardly recall his touch. He pulled her hand to his lips and kissed it as that rain and lilac scented breeze filled the air between them with emptiness. He stood to leave and let go of her hand.

“Get some rest. I’ll see that our guests are lodged and settled,” he said as he opened the chamber door. “I’ll come to you tonight. I promise.”

She nodded but in her heart she knew he wouldn’t.

X

“Mi’Lady? Your dress has arrived,” Janine whispered as she woke Mellie from her nap. Her eyes felt gritty as she sat up and rubbed at them as the late afternoon sun struck her. She instantly remembered the tears as she lay down to sleep and then cast them away as she always did as she rose and slipped on her blue robe.

“Mi’lady, I’m sorry but the laundry must have misplaced the belt to your red robe. I know you prefer that one but…”

“Ah, my belt,” she said remembering the broken shutter. “Janine, a robe is a robe. They’re all the same really. However, can you send word to Mr. Randall that the shutter in my husband’s chamber needs repair?”

“Of course, mi’lady. I’m on my way to the kitchen to request the water for your bath so I’ll tell him immediately.”

“Thank you. Please send Mrs. Tennison in with my gown.”

Janine opened the door and invited the dressmaker into the chamber, along with her two attendants.

“Lady Ludwig,” she said and curtsied. “I do hope I’ve met your wishes with this gown.”

The two attendants laid the gown out gently on the bed. It was wrapped in a cotton sheath, which they gently unfolded and then held the gown up for Mellie’s inspection.

Mellie’s hand flew to her chest. “My Lord in heaven. Mrs. Tennison, it’s absolutely breathtaking,” she said, running her fingertips lightly over the cream colored silken fabric. “However did you manage all of these beads? And the embroidery is simply flawless.”

“I’ve been blessed with a steady hand and very talented assistants, mi’lady.” She nodded.

“Please hold it up, I want to see how it falls.” They did as she requested. The neckline was low and bared her shoulders. The neckline was covered in turquoise beads and thread, as was the matching trim of her billowing bell sleeves and the empire waist just below the bodice. It was the most beautiful gown she’d ever seen.

Mellie stepped back and placed her hand over her heart again. “Mrs. Tennison, you’ve outdone yourself. I’m naming you my seamstress in perpetuity. You shall be richly rewarded for your work and made high note of.”

Mrs. Tennison curtsied and nodded proudly. “Shall we try it on? I want to make sure it fits you as I envisioned.”

“Oh, of course.”

The attendants pulled the dressing stool to the center of the room and Mellie stepped carefully into the gown and they laced it up the back with cream colored ribbon. It fit perfectly.

“May I look?” Mellie asked as she turned carefully towards the full length mirror near her wardrobe. Gently she lifted the fabric in her fingertips and turned left and right, eyeing how the silk and taffeta moved and swayed.

“Mi’lady, I took the liberty of making these shoes to match. They have a slight heel which is apparently the latest fashion in France.” Mrs. Tennison’s assistant knelt and slipped the shoes on Mellie’s feet.

“Well this may take a little practice but they feel fine and if I do say so, seem to straighten my back a bit. Again and now with the complete costume, she turned gracefully, raising her hands to watch the sleeves fall softly away from her wrists and see the beads sparkle in the sunlight.

“Mrs. Tennison, please return when I’ve bathed and Janine has finished my hair. I’ll have only your hands dress for me for the evening.”

“Of course mi’lady,” she said, nodding to her assistants to undress Mellie and rewrap the dress for safe keeping until it was time to return.

“Six o’clock then?” Mellie said as she watched them gently lift the gown as Mrs. Tennison opened the door for them all to leave.

“Yes mi’lady. You’re going to be the most beautiful woman they’ve ever seen…like an angel from heaven.”

“You’re too kind,” Mellie said and crossed the room to her vanity. She sat looking at herself in the mirror as the door closed.

“Perhaps this won’t be such a bore after all.” She gently pushed and smoothed the skin around her eyes and jaw, catching a glimpse of her reflection from twenty years before, as the sunlight moved away from her window. The candle’s glow softened the years and twinkled in her eyes.

Janine’s light tapping pulled her from the memory she had smiled throughout, of the cream colored gown she wore the first time she danced with Edward in the very same ballroom she’d be entertaining in that night.

“Enter, Janine,” she called.

“Your bath mi’lady,” Janine said as the servants carried in her ornate brass tub and lined it with a soft linen sheet.

As they filled it, she fell back into that memory of Edward. He was so handsome and gallant. His close trimmed black beard and dark brown smiling eyes gazing back at her as he held her and so gracefully lead her across the ballroom floor. He only had eyes for her all that evening as his father watched from the high table, smiling in approval. It had only taken a month before she received word that he’d sent for her again to come with her family for his father’s birthday celebration, which ended with him on his knee in the rose garden off the west ballroom balcony, proposing marriage. That night I wore blue, she recalled. It was his favorite color.

The servants finished filling her bath and Janine scooted them out of the room. “Your bath is ready mi’lady. Would you like the rose oil or the vanilla?”“Both please,” she said as she swept the shift off over her head and Janine helped her step into her bath.

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Chapter Three – Introduction and Seduction

“Well? What do you think, Janine?” Mellie asked as she stood from her vanity and waited for the second unveiling of her gown.

“Mi’lady if I may say so your hair is absolutely lovely.” Mrs. Tennison noted.

“I was fortunate enough to be blessed with someone like Janine who has magical hands.” Mellie saw Janine’s eyes widen and her hand fly to her face when she saw the gown.

“Mi’lady!” she exclaimed.

“I knew you’d love it.” Mellie stepped carefully again into the gown as Mrs. Tennison’s assistants laced her and made their few final primps.

“Mi’lady however do you keep this figure? You must eat like a bird,” Mrs. Tennison remarked.

“I’m an accomplished rider. Plenty of fresh air and exercise keeps me fit.”

“Mi’lady, your emerald?” Janine asked.

“No. My gold and diamonds,” Mellie replied as Janine turned to the jewelry cabinet and withdrew the necklace she knew Mellie was referring to. It was her mother’s prize possession that Mellie only wore on the most special occasions but decided to make an exception because it went perfectly with the gown. It was layered in three delicate strands of teardrops, each with a one carat diamond surrounded by smaller diamonds, set in pure gold. It fell perfectly just below her throat in layers, with one large five carat diamond that rested just above the crease between her breasts. It was heavy but Mellie loved the weight of it against her skin.

“Your shoes mi’lady,” Mrs. Tennison said softly, as if in awe.

Mellie slid each cream-colored stockinged foot slowly into the shoes and took one last look at herself in the mirror. “Thank you, ladies.” She took a deep breath and sighed, touching the necklace and then holding out her hand as Janine slid on her usual rings.

Edward’s man servant’s knock was unmistakable and Janine raced to the door.

“Lord Ludwig is waiting,” he said in his customary exasperated tone.

“I’ll be right there,” Mellie said. “Janine, see Mrs. Tennison and her attendants out and hurry to the kitchen. Mrs. Bolton will provide you with your serving clothes.” She winked at the girl, now bubbling in anticipation and moved swiftly to the man waiting to escort her to the ballroom. You did not keep Lord Edward waiting.

X

When Mellie arrived in the drawing room, Edward was pacing in wait, goblet in hand and turned at the sound of her heels on the stone floor. “There you are…”

His eyes widened and he seemed stunned to silence when he laid eyes on her. “Is that a new gown?” he asked as he took a sip of wine.

“Why yes it is. Do you like it?” Pleasantly surprised at his attention, she turned as if rotated on a slow-moving wheel.

He stepped towards her and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek. “You look lovely as always my dear,” he said and offered her his arm. “I was afraid they’d have to announce me by myself.”

Lovely as always, she thought, which to her was the equivalent of nothing special. “I’m sorry. Things take a bit longer now. I’m not twenty anymore.” She chuckled softly, brushing off any disappointment she felt.

“Don’t be ridiculous. No one expects you to be.”

A knot seemed to form in Mellie’s throat. After so many years of Edward’s less than thoughtful remarks, she always believed she’d grown immune to them until the next one and the next one. Over time, she’d convinced herself he was completely unaware of how his words nicked her. She took a deep breath, swallowed the knot and carried on. Duty before feelings and certainly before hers.

“Lord and Lady Ludwig,” the call came as the doors were opened and Edward led her to the high table. Stuart pulled out her seat for her and she smiled at him sweetly.

“You look quite handsome this evening, Stuart,” she whispered as he pushed her in.

“And you my lady are an absolute vision. Truly,” he whispered back over her shoulder.

Edward remained standing and raised his goblet as the hall fell silent. “Lords, ladies, gentlemen and friends, I welcome you to castle Ludwig. We thank you for your presence and hope your time with us will be most enjoyable. May the music delight you and the many courses our cooks have prepared tempt you to bursting!”

“Hear, hear!” someone called out as everyone in the room raised their cups in toast and drank.

Edward nodded to the row of servants and they scattered like ants to begin bringing out the feast. When he finally sat, he raised his goblet for Stuart to refill it.

“That was a very good toast my darling,” Mellie remarked as her eyes moved around the room. She spied all of the usual guests and was delighted to see Lady Covington. Now with her mood much improved at the prospect of spending time with her old friend over the next several days, she took a deep breath and relaxed into her chair.

“Alexander!” Edward exclaimed, standing and turning to greet his friend who’d come in late, with a handshake and a hearty embrace.

“Edward, it’s good to see you my lord,” Alexander said. “I apologize for my tardiness. I didn’t want to come striding in during your toast so I waited in the doorway as you and your beautiful wife were announced.”

“I’m just happy you’re finally here and kept your word.”

Mellie’s head turned slightly at the commotion. She quickly brushed off the lack of acknowledgement from her husband of her compliment of his speech, due to Lord Elswick’s arrival.

Alexander leaned forward slightly and caught Mellie’s gaze. “You must be the Lady Ludwig,” he said. His voice was smooth and yet masculine.

“Yes, yes this is my wife. Melanie, this is Lord Elswick,” Edward said.

“It’s an honor to finally meet you Lord Elswick,” Mellie said as she offered him her hand and he kissed it lightly as Edward moved aside.

“The pleasure is all mine my lady,” he said and bowed. His light blue eyes lowered to nearly closed and then opened meeting hers again as he straightened. “Edward, you never mentioned your wife was descendant of Venus herself or was it Helen of Troy?”

“Lord Elswick, you flatter me too much,” Mellie said, feeling a warmth growing in her cheeks.

“Surely you grow weary of such notice,” Alexander said with a smile as Edward moved back between them to take his seat.

Mellie looked away and lifted her goblet to her lips.

“Yes I am a blessed man I cannot deny it,” Edward replied. “How was your journey?”

“Quite muddy obviously but my horse is sure footed in all weather and fortunately for me my ride is less than half a day, so I was able to wait out the storm and arrive dry.”

Their conversation continued for quite some time as Mellie could feel the two cups of wine she’d drank begin to course through her veins. The food was plenty and the conversation void of anything relevant to her, as she tasted the venison stew and picked at her chicken pie. Wine, however, always replaced her inner thoughts with outward ones.

“Please excuse me my Lord, the privy calls,” Edward said over a hearty laugh as he stumbled slightly from his chair and bowed as he went.

“Your husband is quite the character,” Alexander said, breaking the silence.

“Indeed he is,” Mellie answered, with a demure smile.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking my Lady but is that a new style of gown? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything like it.” Lord Elswick leaned forward turning towards her. He rested his forearm on the table and pushed what remained of his meal aside. “Not that I’d have any knowledge of what’s new. I don’t often attend affairs as lavish as this and as such rarely see such loveliness and ornate dress—in women or men both. I apologize,” he said, lowering his eyes as if embarrassed. “Obviously I don’t speak much either.”

“Yes…yes it is new but the style is not. My seamstress is quite imaginative and talented. I usually sketch out an idea and she works her magic,” Mellie said, doing her utmost not sound in complete surprise that a man she just met would take notice of her gown. “I find how you speak refreshing. Please don’t shy away from honesty. It’s so rare in these times.”

“My own dear wife…” He paused and sighed. “She has been unwell since we moved back to Elswick castle. It’s been a difficult adjustment for her over the past year. The doctor’s believe the damp weather does not agree with her.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that. Is there nothing they can do for her?” Mellie’s eyes were filled with concern and sorrow.

“They’ve tried tonics and an array of other therapies to no avail.” He seemed sad and yet spoke more with acceptance than deep concern. Mellie couldn’t discern if he was concealing his unhappiness with the situation or had simply come to terms with it as their new reality; him working to restore Elswick castle to its former glory and she abed for whatever reason.

“I’ll pray for her my Lord.”

“Thank you my lady.” He nodded.

“Melanie, please.” She swallowed hard after she said it, believing outwardly, perhaps she was behaving too familiar.  Inwardly, however, being in Lord Elswick’s company was easy and felt mysteriously safe. “It seems my husband has gotten lost on his way to and from.” She craned her neck, searching the room for any sign of him as the band started up.

“I’ve heard wonderful things about this band of yours and the singer…Bellamy is it?”

“Yes. Bellamy is quite talented with a love song. All the young women in the castle are quite taken with him.”

“Are you?” he asked over a devilish grin.

“I beg your par…” she started to say and then the wine flushed her cheeks as she burst into laughter. “My goodness Lord Elswick, your humor got the best of me!”

“Alexander, please,” he said, reaching over Edward’s chair and offering her his hand. Mellie stared at it as he reached farther out to her and then slowly slid hers into it. “May I have this dance Melanie? It’s been quite a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of dancing with such a lovely woman or to be honest as you requested, dancing at all.”

Mellie took another long look around the room, doing her utmost not to notice the slightly rough texture of his palm against hers as he gently squeezed it. He is definitely unafraid of hard work, she thought. Still unable to locate Edward, she took a long drink from her cup and nodded. “I’d be honored.”

Alexander led her out onto the ballroom floor, and they bowed to each other as they stepped in line with the other dancers. Before the music started, he stepped forward and whispered in her ear, “Music is my passion, as is dancing although they come second and third to beauty…in all things.”

Mellie felt flush again as the music started up and the dance began. Their eyes connected with a smile at every turn as they passed and bowed and curtsied their way through the song, until she found herself in his arms for a moment and then spun away again. She was conscious of how she moved, how her gown moved and of something else she couldn’t comprehend.

He was tall and thick and yet gentle and light on his feet. Although not Bellamy handsome or even Edward handsome, he had a pleasant countenance and an inherent gentleness beneath his masculine form. She liked the way his blond hair shined in waves beneath the candle’s glow from the great chandelier above.  His arms were well muscled beneath his doublet and her hands, although not small and delicate in the least, seemed to get lost in his when they came together.

At last, the song ended as they came face to face and palm to palm for the last time. But a second felt like an eternity as the dancers began to applaud and she at last broke their gaze and clapped as well.

“You’re quite the dancer Lord Elswick,” Mellie said as he escorted her from the dance floor.

“Thank you, Melanie. You as well. Your band is very talented. It felt wonderful to dance again.”

“They’ve been playing together for quite some time. Years together practicing has made them an accomplished ensemble.”

“There you are!” Edward exclaimed as they approached the table at the same time.

“Yes, here we are,” Alexander said as he seated Mellie. “We’d given you up for lost and I decided to steal your wife.” He laughed as Mellie smiled awkwardly, unsure of what a jest like this would elicit from Edward.

“Steal her? Oh no! You may be my very good friend Alexander but even you would have to pay her weight in gold! Rules are rules!” He laughed boisterously.

Mellie’s eyes lowered and then caught Alexander’s, until she swore, she could feel his discomfort in Edward’s callous jest. The shock of it caused her heart to race and her words to sear. “Thank goodness he wouldn’t have to pay your weight in gold my Lord. He’d lose his castle! Stuart?” she exclaimed as he rushed forward and refilled her cup.

“True, true my love!” Edward shouted and patted his rotund midsection proudly. “Come Alexander, allow me to introduce you to your neighbors. At long last I have you here so we might as well drum you up some good business for those horses of yours.”

Mellie watched as Edward led Alexander away from the table towards the knots of gathered Lords from all over the kingdom, making introductions and flirting with their wives. Edward loved attention and he thrived on it. The more he could arouse a giggle or a blush or the attention of his subjects and peers the happier he became. The wine continued to pour, the music continued to play and there she sat in her beautiful gown, chatting with a page.

“My lady, why aren’t you dancing?”

“No one else has asked.”

“I may be acting a bit forward but…”

“Oh Stuart I’m deep in my cup. Please by all means be as forward as you like. I promise, tomorrow, I won’t even remember.”

“Sir Elliot has been unable to remove his eyes from you this entire evening. I’ve watched him. Perhaps a slight glance in his direction would give him courage enough to request a dance. Of course, I’m still learning what’s acceptable and what isn’t. May knights dance with the Lady of the castle?”

“This lady may dance with whomever she likes,” Mellie said, turning her eyes to Sir Elliot. “My goodness, he is quite striking in that green tunic this evening, isn’t he Stuart?”

“Yes my lady. I hear he’s unmarried and has whispered he only has eyes for you. You’re his forbidden fruit.”

“Oh Stuart you must stop saying such things. I believe I’ve uncovered you as a gossip. Oh my,” Mellie whispered as Sir Elliot nodded towards the dance floor.

“What shall I do now?”

“Nod back so that he knows you agree.”

Mellie nodded and smiled at Sir Elliot, and as if he had wings, a moment later he was bowing before her, his hand outstretched.

“Stuart,” she whispered between her teeth.

“Go my Lady. Just go.”

Again, Mellie found herself in the middle of the dance floor as Sir Elliot gallantly saved her from her seat. He was indeed strikingly handsome. His dark waves of hair fell to his shoulders and what shoulders they were. He was broad and tall and strong from his years of swinging a sword, and he was pleasingly graceful, despite his size and occupation.

“My Lady may I say you are an absolute vision this evening?”

“Thank you Sir Elliot. You are quite handsome this evening as well.”

“If I might have a word with you when the dance is over?”

“A word?”

“Yes, perhaps several words,” he smiled. His teeth were white against his weathered skin. He appeared to be in his early forties, much like Lord Elswick, yet his features were much more defined, and he had deep lines at the outside corners of his golden eyes.

“Of course,” she said, not knowing why she said it. What if what Stuart said was true? What could she say to this glorious man to make him understand she was his Lady and as such well beyond his reach?

When the song ended, Sir Elliot offered Mellie his arm and he led her off the dancefloor toward the west balcony.

“I don’t think it would be prudent for us to be alone on a balcony kind Sir,” Mellie said as she stopped short of the open doors.

“My Lady, I assure you my words are pure, as are my intentions…at least to me. Besides, we are in plain view of everyone in the hall. No one would ever question your honor, nor mine.”

He raised his arm for her to take again and she did, and she allowed him to lead her outside onto the balcony—curiosity and wine having overtaken caution. The fragrant roses were overwhelming and reminded her of the night Edward had professed his love for her on bended knee.

Sir Elliot leaned back against the stone rail and gazed at her until her heart pounded in her chest. His eyes were gentle and yet reminded her of a wolf’s eyes—golden and fierce. She spoke to break the tension. “Well, you have me here kind Sir. Please, speak your thoughts. I shan’t be out here all evening.”

“If I were able to speak my thoughts, you’d hear my heart. I don’t believe you want to know what’s in there for you. As such, my offerings are pale in comparison.” He bowed.

“Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea,” Mellie said and turned to go.

“Wait! Please! I’m sorry…I mean to say, please don’t go yet. Although it is true that I have loved you since I came into service here and…dream of you I confess, I am no fool. I know you are my Lord’s wife and as such, as beyond my reach as the sun.” He glanced toward the setting sun behind him and then stepped towards her, reaching down he took her hand. “Knowing someone so alive and beautiful and loving as you has no lover breaks my heart,” he whispered so softly she could barely hear him. “I only wish to offer myself to you whenever you wish, however, you wish. I am yours to command.”

Suddenly, Mellie’s hand struck him so hard across the face with a slap she could have sworn she’d broken both his cheekbone and her hand all at once. Sir Elliot’s hand flew to his cheek and he turned back to look at her. His eyes were filled with pain. Her ring had torn a gash over his cheekbone. “My Lady, I only meant to…”

“How did you know?” Her face was reddened with both disgust and embarrassment and her hand stung as if she held a swarm of bees.

“His man servant. He said Lord Ludwig hasn’t come to your bed in several years and that you go to his but he hears nothing but snoring. I…I’ve obviously mistaken your kindness for interest. I will go. I will leave the castle tonight and never come back.”

“No,” she shouted and then calmed her voice. “No don’t leave but do not ever breathe a word of this to another living soul or I’ll have you stripped of your land and title and banished.” Mellie was suddenly sober and aware that if Sir Elliot loved her as he claimed, he would not betray her by spreading this throughout the land. “If you do love me as you claim, you will take this conversation and any other vicious gossip you’ve heard to your grave.”

“I will honor your wishes my Lady…my heart.” He drew his hand away from his face and a drop of blood trickled from the wound as he bowed to her. “And I shall wear whatever mark you’ve left upon my cheek as a reminder.”

“I’m…sorry Sir Elliot. I just…I can’t betray my husband or my honor, no matter my circumstances.” She was suddenly kind and more vulnerable than she’d allowed herself to be for so long she couldn’t even remember. She felt sorry for this beautiful man who obviously wanted only to give her pleasure. “There are dozens of lovely young maids who’d fall over each other to land in your arms.” She reached out to him, and he kissed the hand that had wounded him. “My loss will be their gain.”

Suddenly, the mood turned as the sun set completely and those golden eyes became fiercer in the torchlight. “Do you see all of your lady friends in there? Do you think they don’t have lovers? You know all of their husband’s do, including your own.” His smile and whispered tone over such words confused her.

“I assure you; my husband has no lovers Sir.” He’s trying to make all this deception sound commonplace, she thought, holding onto her resolve. His pledging had turned to remorse and now, to coercion.

“Perhaps not today or in the recent past but I assure you, you waste your loving heart and your beauty when you could have so much more…discreetly and loyally.” He bowed.

Mellie resisted the urge to strike him on the other cheek and instead, tears welled in her eyes and she turned and raced back into the hall. She didn’t even know why. Stuart caught her glance and his expression was of horror. He met her as she approached the table.

“My Lady, you’re crying. What happened? What did he say to you out there?” he whispered.

“You were watching?” she sniffled as he handed her his handkerchief and she faced away from the crowd to dry her eyes.

“Obviously not the entire time.” He looked over and watched Sir Elliot blotting his cheek on his own handkerchief. “Did he touch you?” Stuart’s voice was hard and full of anger.

“No but his words cut me in places I didn’t know I could be cut.” Mellie turned and saw Janine passing by the table. “Janine! Janine!” she called out.

Janine came rushing over. “Yes mi’lady?”

“I’d like to return to my chamber. Could you and Stuart escort me please?”

“Of course, mi’lady but the night is still young and…”

“I’m not feeling well. I’ll need your help getting out this gown and then if you’d like to return to the party, you’re more than welcome to.” Her head was swimming. The pounding in her chest combined with her lack of food and many cups of wine, were wreaking chaos throughout her body.

“Of course, mi’lady,” Janine said as she looked at Stuart and nodded to him to lead the way.

“Lady Ludwig? Are you leaving so soon?” Lord Elswick said as he appeared seemingly out of nowhere. “I’d hoped for another dance. Your husband has kept me quite occupied.”

“I’m not feeling well my Lord. Perhaps another time?” Mellie said, not meeting his gaze.

“Well, would you allow me to escort you back? I promise; you’re perfectly safe with me.” His warm smile immediately soothed her as she at last lifted her eyes. Safe with me, she thought, wondering if he too had witnessed her exchange with Sir Elliot.

Mellie looked at Janine and Stuart and smiled weakly, now feeling to deny Lord Elswick may be construed as a slight. “Janine, come with Lord Elswick and I. Stuart, attend to Lord Ludwig. Please give him my regrets and tell him I’ll see him tomorrow.” Mellie took one last glance around the room and found Edward. He was seated with Lord and Lady Covington, drinking and laughing away, oblivious to her presence.

“Thank you my Lady,” Lord Elswick said and bowed to her, then offered her his arm.

“No, thank you,” Mellie said as Janine followed them out of the hall.

“Are you truly unwell? Should I call a doctor?” Lord Elswick whispered as they walked towards the tower.

“Yes…well no…no I don’t need a doctor. I just need to sleep.” Mellie felt lightheaded as they reached the stairs and apparently, Lord Elswick sensed her sudden weakness and caught her just as she began to fall.

“Janine, lead the way to your Lady’s chamber,” he said, scooping Mellie up in his arms and carrying her the rest of the way to her room.

Janine opened the door and Lord Elswick laid her gently on the bed. “Fresh water Janine and a compress cloth please.”

“Yes mi’lord.” Janine raced to the basin, soaked a rag and wrung it out.

“Hand it here,” he said as he folded it and patted her brow and cheeks gently until a few moments later, she began to rouse.

“Where…where am I?”

“You’re in your chamber. You fainted,” he said, handing the rag back to Janine to rinse it and bring it back.

“Alexander? How did I get here?” she glanced around the room confused.

“I carried you. Janine helped me.” He took the freshened rag from Janine and laid it over Mellie’s brow.

“Thank you,” she whispered. I’m feeling much better now. I should have eaten more. I don’t know what I was thinking. You should return to the party.”

“Not until I know you’re well,” he said kindly.

“Janine will take care of me. Please, Edward will be looking for you.” Her eyes fluttered open, finding concern in his eyes and then closed. “I need to get out of this gown before I ruin it. Lord Elswick, please.”

“Of course,” he said, rising from her side on the bed and taking her hand. “I’ll check on you tomorrow if that’s agreeable to you?”

“Of course. You’ve been more than kind. Goodnight,” Mellie said as she began to sit up. “Janine, see Lord Elswick out please and then help me get undressed.”

“Yes mi’lady.”

Mellie watched Lord Elswick follow Janine to her chamber door and when he glanced back at her before leaving, his eyes were sad and troubled. He simply nodded and closed the door behind himself.

“Let me help you up mi’lady,” Janine said as she took Mellie’s hands to pull her to her feet.

“He’s a wonderful man, isn’t he Janine?”

“I’ve never seen a man so attentive and caring. His wife is very fortunate to have such a loving husband.”

“Indeed she is.”

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Chapter Four – Lady Buttercup

Mellie awoke to the sound of birds singing and Janine humming what reminded her of a song Bellamy was famous for. The sun was well over the horizon and for that brief moment between sleep and awareness, she had no recollection of the night before. However, as she sat up in bed, it rushed in with a vengeance.

“Good morning mi’lady,” Janine said. “I trust you slept well?”

“I suppose I did,” Mellie answered as Janine milled about, pouring water into a bathing bowl and adding fresh flowers to the vase on Mellie’s nightstand. “Janine, can you have my breakfast brought in this morning and please give my regrets to Lord Edward? I simply cannot see myself entertaining this morning. Perhaps by the afternoon meal…or maybe dinner I’ll feel fit enough to make intelligent conversation.”

“Yes mi’lady,” Janine answered and went on her way.

Mellie gazed around her spacious chamber and then fell back into her pillows as the sunlight made its ascent over the windowsill, bathing the room in gold. She stretched and took a deep breath, closing her eyes and drinking in the sweet aroma of morning, until the full recollection of the peculiar events from the night before appeared before her in her mind. First, the memory of the handsome and dashing Sir Elliot and his ludicrous offer of a sexual affair flashed to life. How dare he? She thought, and then, his accusations that her friends had engaged in such debauchery, not to mention Edward. Quickly, she pivoted that memory to Lord Elswick, and how chivalrous and caring he’d been. He and Sir Elliot were like the opposite swings of a pendulum.

She hadn’t fainted in years. When did she become so frail? She prided herself on her strength and unwavering ability to handle anything that crossed her path. Being married to Lord Edward had not only thickened her skin but taught her to be confident in her accomplishments great and small. Now, came the understanding that Grogan, Edward’s man servant needed to be dealt with for spreading personal details of her marriage. She regretted losing her temper over Sir Elliot’s indiscretion so quickly and not finding out the extent to which Grogan had shared the secrets he had gathered. She needed a plan. She couldn’t just go to Edward and tell him the context of how she discovered this information. Surely both Grogan and Sir Elliot would be punished and severely and regardless of the outcome, she didn’t want blood on her hands. No, this was hers to deal with her way and she’d figure this out on her own.

Lord Elswick…Alexander, carried me here, to my bed, she suddenly remembered. That was a perfectly lovely memory of an honorable act from an honorable man. In her mind’s eye she could still see his concerned expression and his eyes, so blue they shamed the summer sky. I must do something to repay him, she thought. She imagined discovering his favorite wine or having something made for him like a monogramed flask or a goblet perhaps. Then, it suddenly occurred to her to do something for his wife. Yes, that’s it! She thought, sitting up.

“If Lady Elswick cannot come to us, then I shall go to her. I’ll take her a lovely basket of sweets from Mrs. Bolton,” she whispered aloud to herself. “When Alexander returns home in a few days, Janine and I will accompany him back to Elswick and pay her a visit.”

The prospect of befriending Lady Elswick, if only to raise her spirits excited Mellie so much she felt energized and immediately got out of bed. She decided she’d still take her breakfast in her chamber but afterwards, she’d go on about her day as if nothing had happened the night before and dare anyone to spoil her good humor and renewed sense of purpose.

Suddenly, she heard voices in the courtyard and rushed to the open window to see who was below. There she found her lord husband, accompanied by all his gentlemen guests on horseback, obviously gathering for some hunting in the hills. Paying no mind to the fact that she was still in her shift, her hair blowing in the breeze through her window, she shouted to Edward, “Good morning my darling! Have a good hunt!”

Edward wheeled his horse around and looked up, putting the sun at his back, and waved up at her. “Will do my love! We’ll be back by sundown and perhaps you’ll dress for the occasion!”

All of the men burst into laughter as she looked down at herself and laughed as well. That was until she saw Alexander. He wasn’t laughing. He was smiling. He waved his hand across his waist and bowed slightly, and then gestured as if tipping a hat to her before bringing his horse about and following the pack off towards the distant woods. Again that peculiar feeling she still could not discern came over her. It was as if they had some unspoken understanding—perhaps he’d kept her secret from last night, but she had no idea what it was; yet another mystery to solve.

She was beginning to feel this interlude—this disruption of her peace, wasn’t meant to turn her life upside down but rather to turn it right side up. She felt alive and very happy to be so. The next thing she knew, she was sitting at her writing desk, penning a letter to her cousin Abigail in Nottingham, singing Stuart’s praises.

X

Mellie’s day progressed quite swiftly. By the afternoon meal, she’d organized a garden party for the ladies in her company and they dined on light fare, tea and an array of sweets that Mrs. Bolton was famous for. Mellie flitted about from guest to guest, catching up on all of the latest news from each household, not limited to children, grandchildren and very well made matches amongst cousins and friends. There was more, much more that she hadn’t imagined and that came in the form of a stroll with Lady Covington, alone, when the rest of her party decided to turn in for an afternoon nap.

“Eleanor, how I’ve missed your company the most,” Mellie said, hooking her arm around her friend’s as they approached the small stone bridge that covered the brook that flowed through her land. “Seeing you again is the greatest gift I could dream of.”

“Oh Melanie, how you do carry on. I must confess as you know I always do and never mince words, your behavior last night had me quite put off. I’m almost certain we made eye contact and yet you rushed away not even half way through the feast without so much as a nod.”

Mellie let go of Eleanor’s arm and stepped to the summit of the bridge and looked down into the water below. “You’re right. Can you ever forgive me? I wasn’t feeling well and had drank too much too fast.”

Eleanor approached her. “That isn’t like you at all. I saw you dance a couple of times and you seemed perfectly fine. This must have come on you suddenly.”

“Yes…yes it did. The dancing…it…it must have stirred things up a bit and…”

“And then I saw you step onto the balcony with that dark haired gentleman.”

“Yes, Sir Elliot. You saw us?”

“Hmmm. That name suits him quite well. A dashing man to say the least and obviously a knight of the highest order I assume?”

“Yes,” Mellie said, turning back to her friend. “He is a knight but of the highest order I’m not certain.” She scoffed.

“No? Why so? He carried himself well and is quite the dancer too. Is he not brave and skilled? I mean, he must be to be a knight at all.”

Mellie was struggling to tell or not to tell, all the while understanding if she would tell anyone, it would have to be Eleanor as she’d proven herself a trusted confidant for over twenty years. “Eleanor, this may seem a horrid and completely shameless question but…”

“Oh, my dear now you have my complete and undivided attention,” Eleanor interrupted with palpable glee. “You know, you get to be our age and such… mischievous conversations shall we say, are like your Mrs. Bolton’s strawberry tarts. You can’t eat just one.” She burst into laughter.

“Oh, Eleanor, if it were only worth laughing about.”

“Darling,” Eleanor said, taking Mellie by the hands. “What is life? Is it strolls through gardens, tea parties, reading, writing letters, and embroidery or in your case, riding horses? No my dear, it’s all the delicious bits that leave their mark—sweet or sour, and give us something to smile about on our death beds…which by the way I do not intend to lie in for many years to come.” She smiled and squeezed Mellie’s hands tight. “Now, ask the question, even though I’m almost certain I may already know what it is.”

“How could you know?”

Eleanor’s eyebrow raised and she said, “Mellie just ask the question, you’re behaving like a naïve child. I love you but really.”

Mellie swallowed and turned back to the brook. “Have you ever been unfaithful to Lord Covington?”

“Mellie!” Eleanor shouted. “How could you ask me such a thing? Have you lost your senses?”

Mellie spun back to her friend in horror. “Oh Eleanor! I’m so sorry. Please forgive the intrusion.”

Suddenly, Eleanor’s shocked expression tumbled into a burst of laughter. “Oh Mellie you should see your face! It’s absolutely tragic!”

“I should have known! You’re still the incorrigible tease you were when we were girls! How could you?” Mellie shouted and then began laughing.

“You should be thanking me. A moment ago you were tied like a knot and now, you’re laughing.”

“True but you didn’t answer my question.”

“I know. Why don’t we play a game—a hypothetical game?”

“I’m not sure how to play this game.”

“Pretend I’m…oh, Lady Buttercup or something I don’t know just make up a silly name it’s more fun that way and then ask me the question.”

“You are exhausting sometimes Eleanor but all right I’ll play your silly game.” She laughed. “Lady Buttercup, have you ever entertained anyone other than Lord Buttercup…” Mellie stopped and laughed.

“Oh come now!”

“All right! Have you ever entertained anyone other than Lord Buttercup in your chamber or elsewhere for the purposes of sex?”

“Hmmm…” Eleanor said, rolling her eyes up and placing a contemplating index finger on her chin. “Sex you say?”

“Yes, intimate relations, you know.”

“My dear, Lady Buttercup has quite the appetite. Just as she adores Mrs. Bolton’s strawberry tarts, she’s come to understand that tarts come in many flavors and she has quite the sweet tooth.”

“So, you’re telling me it’s true what Sir Elliot told me last night?”

“Sir Elliot? Are you telling me Sir Elliot…”

“Offered me sweets last night.” Mellie cringed as soon as she made the jest.

“Oh my dear that was quite good,” Eleanor whispered and laughed. “Quite good indeed and having seen the gentlemen myself I’d say he appears to be quite the cart of tarts.”

“Nothing like this has ever crossed my mind.”

“Well then, Edward must be quite virile and delicious in his own right if you haven’t even so much as looked at what else is on the menu in twenty years.”

Mellie grew sullen and gazed back towards the castle. “That would not exactly be the truth.”

“What do you mean?” Eleanor’s expression turned to serious.

“Edward hasn’t touched me in over two years. I don’t know what’s wrong. I thought it was me because I’m getting older but…”

“Stop right there. My darling the years have been more than kind to you. You are lovelier now than you were when you married that brutish bull of a man.”

“Sir Elliot said Edward was most likely entertaining someone else. There could be no other explanation and he suggested you, as well as the other ladies in the hall were keeping themselves entertained elsewhere as well.”

“Of course, that can be the only explanation although for the life of me I cannot imagine why Edward would ever stray from you unless, he’s done that before. Of course, these men…they have everything they could ever want and yet some pretty little thing bats her eyes at them and they lose their senses.”

“So Lord Covington…I mean Buttercup too?”

“Of course Lord Buttercup; I’m no fool. There are plenty of Sir Elliots at Covington, although unfortunately they aren’t quite as bold as yours.” She chuckled. “It’s all quite discreet and clandestine and brief but for that little while you feel the blush in your cheeks and the warmth of a man in your arms, and then you…carry on.” She rolled her wrist as if waving ahead.

“Do you fall in love?”

“Darling this isn’t about love. I love Henry Covington…bore that he is. It’s about a few hours of believing in a fantasy that this younger, hungry man desires you—all of you and you just delight in being that object of lust again.”

“I understand. I also understand the hurt of their indiscretions and how betrayed one feels afterwards. I know Edward strayed years ago when Archie and Phillip were small and my world no longer revolved around him. I accepted it…as we do.”

“Do you still love him? Did you forgive him?”

“Yes. I still love him and as I said I accepted it as my mother had enlightened me to men before I was even wed. She said it’s just what they do. She told me they were strong and would provide for every need or want but they were weak in other ways.”

“So you don’t believe you deserve affection or a man’s desire anymore?”

“I…I don’t know what I deserve or expect. I sat there last night and Lord Elswick showered me with compliments and he was sincere and I felt beautiful and desirable and then Sir Elliot was so blunt and vulgar. He did not hesitate to proposition me. I feel as if I’ve manifested this attention somehow, as if I’ve been sending signs without my own knowledge. I felt naked and my desires laid bare for all to see.”

“Oh they can smell it on you my dear, make no mistake; the way you move and breathe. It’s as if they can see you’re not satisfied and they’ll sniff you out like a dog in heat.”

“Eleanor!”

“Listen,” Eleanor said as she took Mellie’s arm and began leading her back to the castle. “You do or do not do whatever your heart desires but will you allow me to give you a bit of advice?”

“Please, by all means.”

“Firstly, no matter what happens, trust no one. Enlist no one to keep your secrets for you. Carry it with you to the grave. Lady Buttercup does not trust anyone for good reason because what is good for the goose is absolutely no good for the gander. In other places in the world, affairs are not frowned upon but rather encouraged for women. In King Henry’s England however, there is no such acceptance. Secondly, just because some dashing knight throws himself at you, doesn’t mean you have to catch him between your thighs. If he’s as devoted to you as he says, give it time. I’m not saying to lead him on but don’t spurn him…yet.”

“Well I’m afraid it’s too late for that. I hit him rather hard.”

Eleanor burst into laughter again. “Perhaps you aren’t meant for the lifestyle of Lady Buttercup, Mellie, not everyone is. However, I hate seeing you so forlorn and not getting everything you deserve. For heaven’s sake you’re still in your child bearing years, you should be bedded often and by someone who knows what he’s doing.”

“Child bearing years yes but thankfully, not able to conceive anymore after Archibald.”

“All the more reason to just enjoy the act, correct?” Eleanor whispered as they approached the front gate. “Unless you do not enjoy it and you certainly wouldn’t be the first or the last. Some men are absolute bumbling idiots beneath the sheets dear, but I assure you, some are definitely not.” She winked.

“I don’t think so. I just don’t believe I could ever betray Edward and… he’s the only man I’ve ever known.”

Eleanor turned to Mellie just before they crossed the threshold. “So you’d betray yourself before betraying someone who obviously has no more use for you in the bed chamber. My darling, you’re a better woman than me…or rather, Lady Buttercup.”

Both women turned upon hearing a rider approaching at thundering speed. It was Stuart. He’d joined the men on the hunt and was returning in a cloud of dust, alone, pulling his horse to a stop so quickly it slid and nearly threw him off.

“Lady Ludwig!” he shouted as he dismounted and ran towards her. “Lady Ludwig, there’s been a horrible accident. Lord Ludwig’s horse was spooked by something and shot off. He struggled to keep upon her, but she hit a thicket of trees and slid in a muddy patch. They both tumbled down a steep ravine into the brook. The poor horse…they had to put her down but Lord Ludwig…”

“Lord Ludwig what, Stuart?” Mellie screamed into his horrified face as he fell to his knees before her.

“Lord Ludwig has died my lady,” Stuart said, choking on his words as she pushed past him, nearly knocking him over. “My lady, what are you doing?” he shouted as Mellie leapt onto his horse.

“Which direction?”

“My lady I swear to you he’s…”

“Which direction?” she screamed. “How far down the brook?”

“A mile or so that way,” he pointed.

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Chapter Five – Two Souls

When Mellie at last arrived on the scene of Edward’s tragic end, Lord Elswick, along with several of the other lords were carrying his lifeless body up the hill. She placed her hand over her heart to make sure it was still beating. None of this seemed real. She recalled him waving to her that morning from atop his now dead horse—she was his pride and joy. Mellie supposed some divine power had seen to it that his sweet mare, Charlotte, went with him into heaven, if there truly was such a place. The only thing Mellie cared about was that Edward was no longer with her, not where he went.

When they laid Edward down in the grass, Lord Elswick caught sight of Mellie rushing towards them screaming, and motioned to the other men to stand aside. She stumbled and fell on her hands and knees, and then crawled to Edward’s broken body. She clung to his massive chest, now caved in beneath his hunting leathers, no doubt from Charlotte crushing him as they tumbled down the hill. Her screams turned into wailing sobs and then, after several minutes, silence.

By the time the cart arrived to carry Edward back to the castle, Mellie was spent. She felt as if she’d been asleep and yet exhausted from a nightmare. Yet the moment of realization that he truly was gone at last set in, when Alexander leaned down and gently touched her shoulder.

“Mellie, the cart is here to carry Edward back to the castle. Please, allow us to move him,” he whispered.

She raised her heavy head and turned her eyes up at him and nodded, and he helped her to her feet. It was as if the ground was swaying beneath her and she stumbled, falling against Alexander and clinging to him until he yet again lifted her into his arms and this time, carried her to the wagon.

“We’ll place him here with you,” he said as he sat her down gently and appeared to be waiting for some acknowledgement of what he’d said but none came. After a few moments, he turned slowly to go assist the others with Edward.

“Alexander?” she said in a breath. He turned and rushed back to her.

“Yes, my lady?”

“I’m afraid I will be quite useless for a while. My sons…” Her voice faded.

“My dear lady, let us get you and Edward home. The rest can wait.” With that, he removed his leather jerkin, rolled it up and placed it behind her, motioning for her to lay her head on it as a pillow. The next thing Mellie knew, Alexander was yet again, carrying her to her bed.

X

Mellie awoke to her chamber in complete darkness. She was disoriented and trapped somewhere between reality and a doom that lurked all around her, until she heard a stirring in the room and then heard Janine’s voice.

“Mi’lady?”

Mellie sat up slowly. Her head was thumping like a drum. “May I please have some water?” Her voice was raspy and small.

Janine had been sleeping on the sofa across the room. She lit a candle, and then lit several others until she reached the pitcher on Mellie’s night stand and poured her a cup of water.

“Here mi’lady,” she said as Mellie raised her head just enough to drink. “Would you like something to eat or…anything at all?” Janine began to cry.

Mellie took several sips and then laid back. “No my darling but please open the shutters. It’s terribly warm in here.”

Janine did as she was bid, wiping her tears away all the while.

“Thank you for staying with me. You can go to your room now. I’ll be fine. I suppose I’ve been asleep for quite some time. I think I’ll just sit by the window and get some fresh air.”

“But…Lord Elswick insisted I stay with you and Lady Covington insisted I notify her the minute you awoke.”

“I appreciate that, Janine and Lord Elswick’s and Lady Covington’s concern but I promise, I’ll be…on second thought, would you be so kind as to bring me a pot of tea and a flagon of wine? Depending on how this night goes for me, I’d like two choices of comfort…for now.”

Janine curtsied. “Of course, mi’lady. Anything, mi’lady.”

Once Janine was gone, Mellie moved slowly from the bed to her chair by the window. The moon was nearly full, and the torches below gave the courtyard an orange glow—enough that she could see it was deserted and feel the absolute silence and emptiness of the late hour. With the exception of an occasional horse whinnying in the distance, and the crickets, there was nothing. Suddenly, the vision of Edward waving to her before he left for the hunt caused her breath to catch in her chest and she began to cry again. I must go to him, she thought.

Janine knocked lightly and then entered with a large tray, with the tea and wine and sat them on a small table near the dark, cold hearth. She also brought some bread and a bowl of leftover venison stew. “In case you get hungry.”

“Janine, where is Lord Ludwig?” Mellie asked, turning back to gaze at the stars.

“Mi’lady?” Janine seemed startled by the question.

“Where have they lain my husband?”

“He’s in the chapel mi’lady,” she answered, again fighting back tears. “Oh, mi’lady, please forgive me. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you, Janine. Please bring my robe. I’d like to go and be with him.”

Janine helped Mellie into her robe and was dismissed. After deciding the wine a better tonic for her anguish, she finished one cup and then poured another before deciding to just bring the flagon with her to see her husband.

Following the torch lights down the winding staircase, through the great hall and out into the courtyard, not another human being was stirring within the castle walls. She paused for a moment when she stepped outside and took a deep breath of the cool night air.

“Lady Ludwig,” a voice said and she turned.

“Sir Elliot. You…you startled me.”

He bowed. “Apologies, my lady, I am on watch tonight. May I do anything for you?”

His demeanor was serious and completely different from that of the night before. He was knightly and gentlemanly. “No, thank you. I’m only walking across the courtyard to the chapel to have a cup of wine with my lord husband.”

“May I escort you my lady?”

“Am I in some sort of danger?” she said unkindly, but Sir Elliot appeared not to notice.

“No my lady, it is simply my duty to ask.” He bowed again and returned to his post.

As Mellie reached the chapel, the heavy arched wood and iron doors were open. Even from outside, she could see dozens of candles alit around the altar. Pausing for several moments to summon her courage, at last she climbed the stone steps and pushed herself forward across the threshold. She was numb; completely numb.

There in the front, just below the altar lay her husband of twenty years. In the glow of the candlelight, he appeared to be asleep and the mask of death was shrouded in golden light. Without a sound, she placed the flagon and her cup on the floor, dipped her fingers in holy water and crossed herself, whispering a silent prayer. A single tear escaped her eye and she instantly swiped it away as she stepped slowly forward, oblivious to the figure seated ahead of her in the first pew until they were both fully alit in the candlelight. He spoke. She trembled.

“Melanie,” Alexander said as he stood. “My apologies, I did not intend to intrude.”

“Alexander, you are no intruder.”

He bowed. “I requested first watch over him. I hope you approve. I would have made the request of you but…” he said and stopped when she raised her hand and waved him into silence.

“Don’t be ridiculous. You were his dearest friend. He’d want you here.” Mellie never looked away from Edward as she spoke. “The sisters have done him quite well. He looks as if he’s asleep, although Edward snored like a bear so to see him so quiet is more than peculiar.”

“How are you?” Alexander asked, stepping to her side.

“My husband, the father of my sons is dead. I suppose I’ll be dead for a while as well. I remember when my lord father died. My mother changed overnight from a warm and jolly woman into a wistful and uninterested creature whose last days consisted of sitting in her room for hours upon hours doing needlework.”

“Some people mourn themselves to death but you won’t. I know you won’t.”

Mellie turned and looked up into Alexander’s warm blue eyes. “And what makes you say that? You barely know me. We only just met a day ago.”

“I feel as if I’ve known you my entire life.”

Mellie looked puzzled and yet had a similar experience in knowing him as well.

Alexander cleared his throat and continued. “Edward spoke of you often; almost incessantly; your likes and dislikes, your love of horses and the outdoors, your abilities in running this estate. He even spoke of your strength in putting up with him.” He chuckled softly. “He said no other woman on Earth could put him in his place.”

“He spoke of you as well but not to that extent. Edward was a man of action more so than conversation but knowing he cared enough to share so many things about me is a pleasing thought. He did think very highly of you, of that he was adamant.”

They stood in silence for several moments until Mellie walked back and retrieved the wine. “Shall we?” she asked as she made her way to Alexander and handed him the cup to hold as she filled it. “A toast to Lord Edward Ludwig.” Mellie glanced up at the carved marble statue of Christ behind the altar. “Please let him into heaven? He made many mistakes but all in all, his good deeds far outweighed his bad.”

Alexander offered Mellie the first drink which she took and then handed it back. “What happened to Charlotte?”

“Charlotte? Oh, you mean Edward’s horse. I imagine she’s still out there in the ravine, poor girl.” He shook his head.

“I want her head brought back here and buried with him.” She refilled the cup and drank again. “I think he’d like that, don’t you?”

Alexander took a deep breath and shrugged. “If that is your wish than I’ll see that it’s done.”

Mellie was beginning to feel again…just a bit. She stepped forward and touched Edward’s long, dark hair and the silver streaks at his temples. “He was so handsome, wasn’t he? He was a bit older than me. That’s usual I suppose, but his spirit was younger than mine.” Her voice was soft like a feather floating through a dream.

“I never knew anyone else like him that is for certain.”

“We shall never see his like again.” She paused a moment and sighed. “Have you met our sons? I don’t believe Edward ever mentioned if you had,” she said, never facing him throughout their conversation, her eyes and fingertips gliding lightly over her husband’s body.

“Last autumn, he brought them to choose new horses to take to London.”

“That’s right. I’d totally forgotten. I’ll need to get word off to them in the morning.”

“No need. I’ve already taken care of it, as well as the service. I’d hoped to discuss this with you tomorrow but…”

“Of course you did,” she whispered and then leaned over and kissed Edward softly on the cheek. As she backed away, she asked, “Would you mind if I sat here with you a while? I’m not quite ready to leave him yet.”

“My lady, you need not ask anything of me that you do not already own the right to have.” His voice was deep but touched with soft emotion.

At last she turned and looked up at him and realized his eyes were wet with tears. “Come Alexander, let’s finish this wine and mourn together. Perhaps Edward’s hand was in our meeting tonight and finding comfort in each other will heal us both.”

“I’ve lost my dearest friend and you’ve lost your husband my lady. We may need more wine than this.”

“Don’t worry, we’re in the church. There’s plenty beneath the altar.”

“My lady?” Alexander said over a chuckle.

“Hmmm, and you said you felt you’d known me all your life. There are goblets back there as well. If you can recover from my candor, go and get one and bring the wine.”

“You are a complicated woman my lady but I can appreciate your mood under these circumstances.” Alexander did as he was bid and they sat in the first pew, facing Edward.

“To think just hours ago I was wailing myself into a puddle and my world was coming to what I believed to be an end…as you so unfortunately saw.” She said and paused, taking a long drink.

Silence reigned between them for several minutes as Mellie sat flat backed against the pew gazing up at the burning candles. “Did Edward ever tell you we lost our first boy? His name was Edward too or the second or…well it doesn’t matter but he was born almost nine months to the day of our wedding. He was born healthy and quite large like his father and brothers but just after his first birthday, he caught a chill.” She stopped and sighed.

“My lady, you don’t need to explain…”

“We’re already in mourning Alex—I’m sorry may I call you Alex? Alexander is such a long name and my tongue seems to be flopping about a bit from the wine.”

“Yes, Alex is fine.”

“So my sweet, round faced black haired boy lasted but three days once the fever hit him. It took poor Edward and Jewel, my hand maid at the time, until I fainted from exhaustion to pry his little lifeless body from my arms.”

“To answer your question, yes. Edward once told me you’d lost a child but he couldn’t finish the conversation once it started and changed the subject. I’m terribly sorry for your loss. My own lady wife has never been able to carry a child to term. She lost four before her sixth month at varied stages. We finally decided to give up the prospect of a child. Thankfully I have a younger brother in the event of my own death, who can take over Elswick.”

Mellie turned her head and at last looked over at Alexander. “I’m terribly sorry. I know that sentiment isn’t nearly strong enough to encompass your grief and your wife’s but I truly don’t know what else to say. Words of comfort escape me right now.”

“It was many years ago and I’ve come to terms with it through prayer and faith.”

“Has Lady Elswick?”

“I honestly don’t know. She isn’t one for sharing her emotions anymore.”

“Then obviously she hasn’t. It’s every wife’s dream to have her husband’s children. To lose a child and then to bear two healthy sons saved me from my grief. That was where my story was leading. I wasn’t aware at the time of little Edward’s death that I was already carrying Phillip. He saved my heart, my marriage and my faith. What is your wife’s name? I don’t believe you’ve ever mentioned it.”

“Catherine,” he said and lowered his head, staring into his wine.

“I had planned to leave with you when you returned to Elswick and visit her. I was going to take her a basket filled with Mrs. Bolton’s best tarts to hopefully cheer her. More often than not, a woman can bring understanding and comfort to another woman that a man cannot understand.”

“My lady, I assure you, Catherine has had many visitors as well as physicians, healers, priests and hand maids who’ve tirelessly searched her for a remedy. Believe me, if one was to be found, I’d have uncovered it by now.”

“Here you are alive. A handsome, gallant, and obviously virile man who loves his wife and yet she’s unhappy and wasting away the best years of her life like my mother did. The world can be unmercifully cruel, Alex but we march on as soldiers as those around us wither like leaves in the cold.”

“I could tell from the moment I met you that you are not the withering type.”

“I kick and scream and cry and curse God and then…I rest. Afterwards I put on my armor and get back to the war. I suppose to some that would appear heartless or even as if I didn’t care at all but oh I assure you, I love ferociously and loyally. I just have an understanding with life.”

“Will you share that understanding with me?” Alexander asked as he refilled her cup.

“It continues. It goes on. With all the losses I’ve endured I’ve learned the sun will still rise, the rain will fall and the moon will wax and wane as the night falls, just as it did tonight. Our duty is to the living, Alex. Our duty is to breathe and eat and sleep and love and find there’s still so much to live for. Edward would neither want nor expect me to lock myself up in my chamber with needlework.” She chuckled. “He’d come back and haunt me I’m sure if it.”

“Perhaps coming to Elswick may be a good idea after all.”

“So, I’m more persuasive than you let on?” Mellie turned her body and faced him, meeting his eyes this time.

“You could be the remedy Catherine needs after all. If I’m being honest, simply by virtue of your presence, the place will brighten up quite a lot. Oh my, I do hope my words aren’t misconstrued. I assure you I meant only as an influence to encourage hope to flourish.”

Mellie smiled meekly and then laid a willowy hand on Alexander’s cheek. “We understand each other, Alex, completely. I’ll come and visit Lady Catherine in a fortnight. To some it will be too soon but strangely, I don’t really care what anyone thinks anymore.”

Within the hour and the wine, Mellie had fallen asleep. When the morning light shown through the stained glass windows she awoke with her head leaning against Alexander’s shoulder. He’d fallen asleep sitting up but slumped against her as well. Slowly she sat up, gathered the wine decanter and goblet and placed them back behind the altar, kissed Edward’s cheek and slipped away.

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Chapter Six – Portals

Janine came to Mellie and explained that she was moving on from her service. Since Edward’s death and the arrival of Phillip to assume his rightful role as Lord Ludwig, Mellie had struggled with the adjustments. Her moods were certainly more subdued and her patience was short. What once had been an intelligent wit had become more of a nipping snarl and Janine was not immune to it. Working so closely with Mellie was difficult to say the least but Janine’s little secret was starting to show and Mellie had noticed.

“I do hope the father of that swollen belly plans to do the right thing,” Mellie said, that morning, when she’d finally decided to make Janine aware that she knew. Janine was brushing Mellie’s hair at the time and the brush slid from her hand and bounced across the rug. “Shocked?” Mellie said flippantly. “Oh my dear, how long did you think you could conceal it?”

Janine bent and picked up the brush. “I’m…going home to my family in the village.”

“When are you leaving?”

“I was going to speak with you this morning about it. I had hoped to have been gone weeks ago…but I was waiting on a letter from my mother. The letter arrived only yesterday.”

Mellie turned away from her vanity mirror and addressed Janine directly. “And the father? Who is he? I’ll have him flogged in the courtyard for leaving you like this.”

“He’s no one mi’lady. No one you would know.”

“I didn’t ask you if I knew him, I asked his name so that he may be dealt with properly. I have no patience for lecherous men.”

“He was no lech mi’lady. He was kind and good.”

“Was? What do mean was? Where did he go?” Mellie’s brow was furrowed and her heart rate began ascending with her anger.

“He had to go away. He couldn’t find work here so he…went to London.”

Mellie turned back in her chair with a jerk and swept her hair over her shoulders. “I’ll have him hunted down and brought back here. Your child shall have a name.”

Janine’s hands shook as she began brushing Mellie’s hair again and sorted it out for a braid. Mellie could see Janine’s reflection in the mirror before her and the tears now rolling down her cheeks.

“Oh for the love of God Janine! How could you do this to yourself?” Mellie turned again and this time rose to her feet and swiped the hairbrush from Janine’s hand. “If I were your mother I’d…” she said through her teeth and then threw the brush across the room. It crashed against the wall and bounced off, hitting the rug with a thud. Mellie released a frustrated scream.

“Mi’lady please! You’re scaring me,” Janine said, rushing for the door.

“Wait! Wait,” she said, gathering herself together as her voice softened. “Come back. I…I’m still just so angry. I’m angry at everything since Edward died. I’m angry at him, at God at the whole bloody world.”

“I’m sorry mi’lady. I didn’t mean to add to your woes.”

“My woes. Ha!” Mellie said as she flopped back down onto the vanity chair. “I used to believe woes were stepping in mud puddles and broken shutters.” She froze and stared blindly at her reflection and then closed her eyes. “Go to your mother child. You’re her woe, not mine.” A moment later, Janine sat the hairbrush on the vanity next to Mellie and was gone.

After a hearty session of crying, Mellie washed her face, braided her own hair and sent for one of Mrs. Bolton’s kitchen girls to help her dress. It was awkward and unpleasant and silent but if she had to spend one more moment in that chamber she was going to throw herself from the tower window.

“What’s your name child?” Mellie asked the girl, who appeared no more than twelve.

“Beatrice, mi’lady.” The girl did not raise her eyes as she spoke.

“You are permitted to look at me when I’m speaking to you child,” Mellie said as she straightened her clothes in the mirror and pushed a few more pins into her wrapped braid. The girl just stood there with her head down and her hands folded in front of her like a statue. “Never mind, you’re excused. Come back after supper and help me out of these things.”

The girl curtsied and rushed out of the room. Mellie’s stomach rumbled and a moment later, she made her way down to break her fast with Phillip.

X

“Good morning, mother,” Phillip said, rising from his seat and kissing her lightly on the cheek. “I trust you’re well this morning?” By his raised eyebrows, he did not appear convinced that was the case based on the way in which she swept into the room as if on a gust of wind.

Stuart rushed up behind her to seat her at Phillip’s left. “My lady,” Stuart said but it came out like a mumble rather than a greeting.

“Is there no fruit? Do we not have orchards and gardens? If I eat one more egg I swear I’ll sprout feathers,” she barked.

“The harvest will be coming in soon mother but I do believe we’ve brought in some lovely apples a bit early, as well as a healthy crop of squashes and onions.” Phillip shook out his napkin and placed it in his lap.

“I suppose those will serve well when we roast the next pig. Stuart, please go to the kitchen and have someone fry me an apple with some butter and place it atop a bowl of porridge with milk.”

“Yes my lady,” he answered and raced off.

“In the mean-time Phillip, please pass me one of those scones.”

“Mother I’ve been thinking. It’s been nearly three months since father’s passing and you haven’t left the castle for more than your daily rides. Perhaps a visit to London would tempt you away and the change of scenery may restore your good nature.”

Mellie lifted her cup of tea and took a sip. “My good nature?”

“Janine was hysterical when she left a while ago. I asked her what was wrong but the poor girl couldn’t even speak.”

Mellie closed her eyes and took a deep breath, remembering this was her beloved son and as such, he deserved her best behavior. Her eyes opened and she smiled and reached out for his hand which he gave easily. “She’s gone home to be with her mother. I suppose she was distraught over having to leave. She’s been with me since she was barely thirteen so perhaps she felt this was her home now and she took having to leave, poorly.”

“I can see your disappointment as well. I’m sorry mother. We’ll find you someone equally as efficient and pleasant as soon as possible. You’ll need a new maid to accompany you to London.”

“Oh, did I agree? I must have missed that while I was sitting here starving to death.” She chuckled and then took a bite of her scone. “Truth be told it’s a wonder I’m not as round as Mrs. Bolton.”

“You’re still as ravishing as you were when I was a child. You look the same to me,” Phillip said sincerely.

“And when I look at you I still see my sweet, rambunctious little boy. Our eyes play tricks on us when we love someone. We see with our hearts.”

“Now there’s my darling mother. You’re even lovelier when your true nature shines from inside of you.”

“I do love you Phillip but I’ll have no part of London. It’s too crowded and…” Mellie stopped mid-sentence, remembering what Janine had said about this rogue who’d left her alone with his child. Her mind began to work through a plan to find him and insist he come back and do right by Janine. “Phillip?”

“Yes mother?” he asked, wiping his lips.

“On second thought, I believe London in autumn may not be so bad. It will be good to visit with Archie as well. I trust he’s kept our apartments there in good order?”

“Apologies my lady,” Stuart said as he placed the steaming bowl of porridge and fried apples before her.

“Oh yes. They’re in very good order and have been updated several times since you visited last. How long has it been mother?”

Mellie raised a spoon full of what she was craving to her lips, blew on it several times and then slid it between her lips with a satisfied moan. “Absolutely the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in months. Thank you Stuart and please thank whoever cooked this for me. Take note, I’ll have this every morning until I’m sick to death of it.” Mellie took another bite and then turned back to Phillip. “Over ten years. It wasn’t completely awful and King Henry was gracious enough to invite us to court.”

“How was that mother? I hope I’m fortunate enough in the future to receive such an invitation.”

“It was as marvelous as you could ever imagine but much too decadent for my taste. Your father of course loved every second of it.” She chuckled. “Lovely gardens and sights to see; you boys rather enjoyed that part of it but the palace,” she said and sighed.

“Perhaps the king will receive word of your visit and invite you to court again.”

“Heavens no, I have no desire to return to that place. Besides, I’m going to visit your brother, perhaps do some shopping and take in a play or two.”

“Good then it’s settled. I’ll put together a traveling party for you and send word to Archie.” Phillip paused a moment and then asked, “Mother, I’ve been wondering about Mister Grogan, father’s man servant.”

Mellie’s eyes widened as she took another sip of tea. “What of him?”

“He packed his bag and left the day after father’s burial.”

Mellie’s memory of that day was foggy at best but the fog lifted quickly as she tried not to lie to her son. “I never trusted him. I was dissatisfied with his attitudes as well and believed it best for you to choose your own man. Of course all of this is for naught as your own man Mister Jones who came with you from London seems a much more pleasant and trustworthy gentleman.”

“Oh,” Phillip replied and shrugged, although his raised eyebrow and sideways glance at her, left her wondering if he imagined something more.

The room fell silent but for Mellie’s occasional sounds of appreciation for her breakfast meal as she devoured it, until Phillip began going through some letters Stuart brought in.

“Well here’s an interesting note,” he said as he lifted it to read aloud.

“Who’s it from?” Mellie inquired.

“Lord Elswick. He said he was fortunate in the spring to have produced six foals, one of which is the spitting image of Charlotte. He says here that she’s of the same line and he’d love to bring her down to you as a gift. He believes she’ll bring you great comfort.”

Mellie was silent and produced not so much as a blink at the offering.

“Mother, did you hear me?”

“Of course I heard you. That’s a lovely gesture. Please write back to him and accept the horse. Even I’m not so ignorant as to turn down such a generous gift.”

“May I ask you something?” Phillip said, sitting the letter aside and turning to give her his undivided attention in the most tender tone he’d used thus far in their conversation.

“Of course my dear,” Mellie said and turned to him as well.

“When I arrived from London for father’s burial, Lord Elswick mentioned you would be visiting his wife once your time of mourning had passed. He seemed quite pleased with the notion and hoped your visit would be a sort of tonic for Lady Elswick. It’s been three months. Did you have a change of heart?”

“Three months,” she said and sighed. “Now I feel absolutely horrible. Oh my darling have I truly been as awful as I believe I have?”

“Mother, no one blames you. You suffered a horrible loss and passed through many changes since father died.” He took her hand and placed a kiss upon her knuckles. “Lord Elswick obviously thinks very highly of you. You write to him instead of me. Accept this lovely horse and invite him immediately to bring it. He’s only a half day’s ride. Then, should you still wish to visit lady Elswick, by all means do so. It’s going to take me a few weeks to get everything in order for your visit to London anyway. Make good use of the time. You know, you used to tell Archie and me that we are never so much ourselves as when we’re giving some of us away in good faith.”

“Why are you so lovely and brilliant?” she asked, smiling. Her eyes were filled with tender pride.

“With you for a mother, how could I be anything else?”

“It’s settled then. I’ll go now and write the letter to Lord Elswick and see if that little maid from the kitchen is up to traveling with me to visit Alexander’s lady wife.”

“Alexander?” Phillip raised a brow at her informality.

“Alexander was a pillar of strength to me when your father died. I don’t think I’d have made it through that day if not for his support. He was a loyal friend to your lord father and to me.”

“Oh, I wasn’t implying anything mother. For heaven’s sake the man is married. I’d never assume…”

“Oh you can assume all you please but no. He has a place in my heart as a dear friend and there he shall stay.”

“I suppose I owe him a debt as well then. What a breakfast this has been. I feel as if I have my mother back for the small cost of a bowl of porridge and apples, a horse and a letter. I’d say that’s quite a portal we’ve passed through.”

“One step at a time my darling. However, I must agree with you that it feels as if we’ve taken a giant leap into the future today. Thank you.”

Mellie rose from the table as Stuart rushed in to take her chair and she kissed her son and bid them both a good day.

X

In the library, Mellie walked slowly to Edward’s writing desk. Phillip had been using it as he was entitled but the room was definitely still Edward’s. To her, the room was Edward and she’d spent many nights since his death in his chair or touching his books and running her fingertips over his handwriting on old journals and letters. As callous and boorish as he could be, she did love him and like most of the people she’d lost, she never realized how much until he was gone.

Her portrait still hung on the wall behind his desk. She remembered asking why he’d placed it there instead of where he could see it as he worked. He’d told her gruffly in one breath that he liked knowing she was behind him, watching over his shoulder and in the next, that he’d never get any work done with her staring at him the entire time. She chuckled at the memory of his deep voice growling those words at her and how she’d laughed as he embraced her and kissed her hair after he’d said it.

“Enough of this.” She swiped a tear away and sat down to write to Alexander.

Lord Elswick,

I am responding to your generous offer to gift me with one of your fine horses. I’d be honored to accept her at your earliest convenience. I’d also like to honor my offer to come to Elswick Castle to visit with your lady wife as I’d promised to months ago.

We look forward to your visit as soon as you are able.

With gratitude,

Lady Melanie Ludwig

Immediately upon finishing the letter, Mellie sealed it with wax and passed it off to Stuart to carry to Lord Elswick. “If you leave right now, you should reach Elswick Castle by supper. Knowing Lord Elswick he’ll invite you to stay the night and you can come home in the morning.”

“Yes my lady.” He bowed and took the letter.

As he turned to carry out her request she called him back. “Stuart,” she whispered. “I need you to do something for me but this must remain between us do you understand?”

“Of course my lady—anything.” He leaned in.

“I’ve never met Lady Elswick but I do know at last I heard she was almost completely confined to her bed. Should you catch a glimpse of her or hear anything in relation to her well-being, take note. I’m to call on her within the week and I’d just like to know what I’m getting myself into.”

“Yes my lady.” He bowed again and waited.

“Go on now. Deliver that letter. I need to go for a ride and clear my head. Come and find me immediately upon your return in the morning. Do you understand?”

He nodded and bolted off to his task.

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Chapter Seven – Anticipation

The next morning, Mellie awoke and at first, did not remember Janine was gone. A sadness fell over her when the shutters were still closed, and there was no one buzzing about her chamber preparing everything for the day.

Beatrice wasn’t a hand maid; she was a kitchen maid and as such, would require a great deal of training in order to step into Janine’s shoes. As she sat up, Mellie decided a better course would be to send Stuart into the village later to inquire about a new hand maid—preferably someone much older or at least beyond child bearing years. However, perhaps working with Beatrice and suffering her ignorance for a time may be quicker than finding someone else.

She sighed and arose, pulling on her robe and stepping to the window to let in the morning air. It was cool and gooseflesh rose on Mellie’s body but she liked it all the same. When she glanced down into the courtyard, it was quiet and bare, so she carried on, making herself ready for the day. Thankfully, the sun was shining and the clouds were sparse. With no rain in sight, she’d be able to get her ride in before the sun was high. She poured water in the basin and slipped out of her robe and washed.

Shortly after she’d finished, she heard a soft tap on her chamber door. “Beatrice, thank goodness,” she said aloud and then, “Who’s there?”

“It’s Beatrice mi’lady.”

“Come in please. I’ve been waiting for you.”

Beatrice once again was as quiet and timid as a mouse. Mellie was feeling fit and spry for some reason this morning so she decided to attempt to draw some of the girl out and make her feel more comfortable.

“I’d like my riding clothes this morning, Beatrice. Do you know what they look like?”

“No mi’lady,” she answered.

Mellie rushed to her wardrobe closet and threw the doors open. “Come closer and look dear. Janine always kept my gowns separated by color except for my riding clothes. Those she kept all the way to the left. I have several that I prefer but the brown will do this morning. Everything is kept together in one bundle. See?” Mellie said, moving the other clothes aside and allowing Beatrice to get a good look. “Can you fix hair at all?”

“I…I can braid.” There was a touch of excitement in her tone which encouraged Mellie.

“Really? That’s excellent. I always wear braids, especially when I ride so that will work out perfectly.”

“Shall I do your hair before or after you’re dressed?” Beatrice asked, much to Mellie’s joyful surprise.

“I prefer after. It’s the crowning touch as they say. All right, let’s get me into these clothes and then you may brush and braid my hair. Afterwards, you’ll make up my bed—Janine stripped my linens on Saturdays but the rest of the room she straightened and cleaned each day. Today is Friday so all you’ll need to do is dust and tidy up, make the bed and see my soiled clothes to the laundry. Always make sure my bathing pitcher is filled with fresh water—I’m ridiculous about cleanliness and my drinking water always fresh and available. I take a full bath in my tub every Sunday evening after mass or before any special occasions.”

“I noticed there are no flowers in the vase by your bed. Do you like fresh flowers every day?”

Mellie smiled. “I do. I like my chamber to smell fresh and I don’t have a preference. As long as they smell good, I’m happy.” Mellie at last caught a solid glimpse of Beatrice’s eyes. They were the brightest, rounded green orbs she’d ever seen and she even detected the hint of a smile. “Come here my darling,” Mellie said, pulling Beatrice to the mirror but she shied away. “Oh don’t be silly now look how pretty you are. You are still a child but you’re not too young to start growing more secure in your abilities. The first step towards that is feeling good about yourself.”

Beatrice appeared embarrassed and her cheeks flushed pink as a rose. “But mi’lady,” she mumbled.

“All right, never mind.” Mellie stepped away and stood near her bed. “Stockings first. Let’s get this done. I’m starving this morning!”

X

After breakfast with Phillip, which was an absolute delight to both based on the complete ease at which they discussed her trip to London and the lack of anything more serious than his desire to plan a harvest festival. Mellie was bubbling by the end of their chat and had agreed to assist him but made him promise to postpone her trip until November. He was concerned about her traveling in the cold and feared an early snow could halt her travels completely. She insisted she’d be fine and reminded him how mild the autumn had been the year prior and how mild October had begun already.

They settled on Thursday October 22 as the opening day of the festival, closing it on Sunday the 25th. He would have notices posted in the village to invite everyone to come and set up their wares and they’d have an open air market. There would be entertainment, food and drink enough for all, as they’d had a bountiful season and more than enough to last the winter, mild or not.

Directly after breakfast, Mellie took out her favorite horse, Mary Belle. She was gentle and tame as well as a beautiful golden brown with chestnut mane that Mellie kept braided and groomed perfectly. Mellie despised riding side saddle and always, when far enough away from the castle, would hike up her gown, revealing her soft, leather britches beneath which no one ever saw except her hand maid. Beatrice had raised an eyebrow when she removed them from the clothing bundle but Mellie assured her they were simply for extra warmth, which wasn’t a complete lie, she told herself.

As she came upon the first hill, she glanced back and saw no one within view. Knowing her lands were always well protected and guarded, she was never frightened to ride alone. Phillip had advised against it as Edward always did but both knew she would do as she wished and accepted it.

Her dress now gathered at her hips, she swung her left leg over the saddle and gave Mary Belle a gentle kick to move. A few moments later, she was flying through the trails, climbing hills and descending into the meadow she adored about a mile from the castle gate. As she climbed down and led the horse to a sunny spot to warm up a bit, she spotted a huge buck, grazing at the tree line, surrounded by several does and two fawns. “Oh how lovely,” she whispered as she crouched in the grass to watch for a moment and then reached into her satchel for a drink from her water skin. “Mary Belle, days like this are a gift from God. Life has gone on and I don’t intend to waste another moment of it.” Next, she pulled out a book and then sat in the grass and read.

After about an hour, the sun had moved and her golden patch of grass was growing cold. Announcing it was time to go, she mounted the horse and began her usual lazy journey back to the castle, choosing to follow the main road until the castle was in view and she’d have to return to the uncomfortable side saddle position. She became lost in a daydream about the festival and of London until suddenly, she heard hoof beats behind her.

“My lady,” she heard someone say and turned to find Stewart. Following him was Lord Elswick and her new colt. She stopped and waited for them to join her.

“Stuart, is it that late already? Lord Elswick, it’s so good to see you again,” she said with a degree of exuberance she instantly regretted.

Alexander got down from his mount and led the horse until he was standing beneath her at her side. “My Lady Ludwig, you’re a sight for weary eyes.”

Mellie quickly swept all of the loose strands of hair that had blown free as she rode, back away from her face which was pink and warm from the sun. “I must be a fright,” she said over a chuckle. “When I sent word with Stuart about the colt, I had no idea you’d come today.”

“You said at my earliest convenience and since I was completely unencumbered by anything as important as visiting, I decided today was more than convenient. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not.” She smiled longer than she’d wanted to but his face was a welcome change and his pleasant demeanor was just as she’d recalled.

“Well, if I can convince you down from this magnificent animal, I’d love to introduce you to the one I brought you,” he said, smiling all the while.

Mellie then realized she was still sitting astride Mary Belle and her eyes popped wide and she gasped and then acted as if she’d done nothing out of sorts. “Of course, I’m dying to meet her.” Without the slightest bit of awkwardness, she threw her right leg over the horse and climbed down, straightening her skirt. “I suppose that seemed out of the ordinary but I find it much more pleasant and the exercise far more effective.”

“My lady, I don’t hold with traditions that encumber women. My own mother rode astride and my father could not have cared less as long as she was happy.”

Of course, she thought and paused a moment and then snapped back into her head. “Well, let’s get a look at her.”

Stuart led the colt forward by a lead rope and Mellie took a deep breath and sighed. “She’s just as you said. She’s the image of Charlotte.” She patted the animal’s neck and stroked her back gently. “She’s still young but weaned of course?”

“Of course. She’s a healthy appetite too and eats like…well…a horse,” Alexander said and laughed. “Stuart, would you mind taking the colt to the stables?”

“Of course not my lord,” Stuart said. “Unless my lady wishes me not to.”

“Go on Stuart. Lord Elswick and I will be along shortly.”

Stuart nodded and clucked his tongue in his cheek, riding off slowly and leading the colt back to the castle. Mellie caught him glancing back a few times and laughed.

“Poor Stuart, he’s so protective of me. If he only knew how safe I am with you.”

“Totally safe; I’m as meek as a kitten,” he said and smiled as they began walking and leading their horses.

“Oh Alexander, please accept my apology for not coming to visit your wife. I don’t know what I was thinking making such a promise under those circumstances. Can you forgive me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive. I knew you’d need time to mourn, despite your declarations that night in church that life goes on. That isn’t to say it doesn’t but sometimes it takes a while to get there.”

“You’re such a wonderful friend. So, how have you been?”

He walked beside her and stared off towards the castle for a moment before answering. “Lonely I suppose. I do miss Edward’s counsel and more so his friendship. I think I miss his humor and laughter most of all.”

“Same. The castle is so quiet without him. It’s taken well, months to get used to it.”

“Well you seem to be adjusting if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“Trust me, I was a retch. I was angry for quite a while and you wouldn’t have wanted to see me let alone speak with me for more than a few moments.” She laughed. “But yesterday, when your letter came and the offer of the horse…then Phillip’s suggestion of going to London for a few weeks I…”

“London?” Alexander stopped, gaping at her as he interrupted. “It’s nearly winter my lady. Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”

“Oh please Alex you sound like a worried father. I’ll be fine. I’ll have every comfort on my journey as well as a host of escorts.”

“Apologies. I just worry that it’s still so soon for you and of course my own selfish reasons.”

“Selfish? You? How so?” Mellie asked. Her voice was swimming with curiosity and intrigue—two of her favorite things.

“You mentioned coming to Elswick to visit. Will you still have time before you go? I was so looking forward to showing you my stables and our wonderful horses.”

“Unlike before when I was not myself, I plan to keep my word. I’m supposed to assist Phillip in planning a harvest festival but that isn’t for several weeks yet. I’m sure I can squeeze in a few days at Elswick. After all, planning things is one of my specialties.” Mellie stopped and her eyes flicked back and forth as her mind ticked away. “I’ve got it. You’ll stay with us tonight and Stuart, my hand maid and I will return to Elswick with you on the morrow.”

“Your mind does work swiftly Melanie,” he said and laughed.

She hooked her free hand around his arm. “You know I haven’t asked about your lady wife yet but now I am. How is she Alex? Is she still failing?” Mellie’s voice was soft and concerned and her eyes filled with tender care.

Alexander sighed heavily and answered without meeting Mellie’s gaze. “She’s grown steadily worse I’m sad to say. I’ve entertained the idea of sending her back to her family in hopes that the milder weather and familiarity may if not cure her, at least allow her time to regain her strength but she wouldn’t hear of it.”

“I do not proclaim to be able to work miracles by any means but I promise you,” Mellie said, her voice hardening as she stopped and turned facing him, forcing him to look at her. “I’ll do everything within my power and spare no expense to help her. You’re a good man Alexander and if I can bring her back to you, I will.”

Alexander took her hand in his and placed a gentle kiss on her knuckles. “We simply do not deserve you…any of us.”

“I know but I grew very fond of you through Edward and how you stood by me through what happened. I consider you a dear, dear friend and if I can make at least one person happy after everything I’ve been through, I intend to try.” She winked and smiled at her own sarcasm and Alexander nodded and smiled. “And don’t be ridiculous, of course you deserve happiness; we all do. Now, I’m famished. Let’s get these horses put away and have something to eat.” Suddenly her alternate reason for deciding to go to London popped into her head. Perhaps Alexander can help me? She thought. “Alex, after supper would you grant me another chat?”

“As if you need to ask such a thing when you know I adore our conversations.”

“Good. The subject is of a highly sensitive nature so what I’m going to share must be kept strictly between us.”

Alexander’s raised brow at first worried her, but as a smile grew over his lips, she understood he too had a streak of mystery that was lurking beneath his kind and gentlemanly exterior. Mellie swept her hair back again and climbed back in her saddle. “Come Eslwick! I’ll race you to the stables!”

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Chapter Eight – The Right Thing

Phillip and Lord Elswick spent quite some time conversing in the library, much to Mellie’s dismay. Night had fallen and yet she still hadn’t been able to have her chat with Alexander as she’d requested. She wondered if he even remembered her request but imagined regardless, he wouldn’t insult the lord of the castle by cutting their conversation short to speak his mother. Since the evening was cool, she settled on a walk in the west garden, donning her heavy cloak and strolling about passing time until Stuart brought word that Lord Elswick was free as she’d instructed.

“This is ridiculous. I can simply discuss this with him tomorrow after we reach his home,” she said aloud to herself as she carefully picked half dead roses from a bush and tossed them over her shoulder.

“There you are my lady,” Stuart said rushing up to her. “I barely saw you there in your dark cloak.”

“I’m practicing for intrigue, Stuart.”

“I’m sorry?” he cocked a brow in confusion.

“Never mind—is Lord Elswick free yet?”

“That’s why I came to find you. The gentleman is…”

“The gentleman is right here,” Alexander said as he walked up behind Stuart.

“Shall I go my lady? I’d be happy to stay if you need me to,” Stuart remarked, giving her a look of concern.

“Perhaps you could take care of the other matter I spoke with you about earlier. You’ll be joining us tomorrow for our journey to Lord Elswick’s home and you may report to me once we arrive there. Please see that Beatrice has packed my things and have them brought down to be loaded on the cart. Oh and although I appreciate your ongoing concern for my well-being, I assure you, I am a mature widowed woman, not a helpless girl and Lord Elswick is a gentleman of the highest esteem. Now, do as I asked please.”

Stuart bowed and rushed off, leaving Mellie practically in stitches.

“That was quite a speech my lady,” Alexander bowed. “Remind me never to cross you.”

“The poor lad’s face,” she said over a soft laugh as she gathered herself back together. “He’s actually grown quite dear to me but I cannot help myself sometimes from reminding him he’s not my guardian. I have knights for that.”

“Shall we walk? It’s a lovely evening and we have this beautiful moon which is nearly full,” Alexander said, offering her his arm.

“Yes please. This cool air is so much better than the stifling heat and stuffiness in the castle.” She took his arm and they began a casual stroll through the garden.

“I hope you won’t mind me asking but speaking of knights, I trust you’ve had no other issues with…Sir Elliot was it?”

“I haven’t spoken two words with him nor has he crossed my path with more than a nod since the night of Edward’s passing. Oddly enough the incident hasn’t crossed my mind since…wait, how did you know about that?” Mellie stopped and released his arm. Her eyes widened in both shock and embarrassment.

“Apologies my lady but the opportunity to discuss this with you did not present itself until tonight. After I carried you to your chamber the night of the feast, I questioned your young page as to what had happened and he said he did not know, only that you’d moments before had words with Sir Elliot. I hope you don’t mind but I had a word with him myself.”

“Unfortunately Alex I do mind. What possessed you to get involved in such a thing?”

“As we’ve spoken of before my dear lady, and I hope you won’t think this out of turn but since this is mutual, I feel we’ve known each other much longer than what the calendar shows. Truth be told I wanted to pummel him senseless but he confessed to me he’d made overtures towards you and that you…quite firmly shall we say, put him back in his place. I simply said should he ever make such a lewd gesture toward you again, I’d break his spine.”

“Oh,” Mellie gasped, covering her mouth. “My word, Alexander, I’m shocked at a man as gentle and refined as you making such a threat!” She slipped her arm back through his. “I’m quite impressed if I’m being honest. I like being surprised by people, especially when they behave out of character or at least out of character from what I’ve known.”

“I saw no reason to drag Edward into it and I believed your honor as a lady is to be protected and shielded from such indignities. I’m glad to hear he’s kept his distance although I for one would feel more at ease if you simply discharged him.”

“I did discharge the instigator of the entire issue which was far more sinister than a simple lewd suggestion; Edward’s man servant, Grogan. Apparently he’d filled Sir Elliot’s head with nonsense…anyway, I found out he’d been carrying tales and I simply cannot have anyone under my roof whom I cannot trust—which by the way leads me to the reason I wanted to speak with you.”

Alexander led Mellie to a stone bench at the far end of the garden near an altar for prayers among the flowers. He waved his hand for her to sit and then sat beside her, careful to leave space between them. “So this conversation is about someone who you are suspicious of?”

“Not exactly. I had a young hand maiden who recently left my service for a very personal reason, and returned to her family in the village. Oh, Alex, can I trust you with my deepest secret?” Mellie asked, resting her hand on his arm and looking up at him pleadingly.

“I believed you already did. We only just spoke of it.”

“I suppose you’re right. Well, this is someone else’s secret. Although I lost my temper with her and chastised her horribly, I was very fond of Janine and she was the most capable Hand maiden I’ve ever had.” Mellie paused and sighed.

“You can trust me, I promise,” he said softly and with that deep and tender tone she remembered from the first time they’d met.

“Janine is with child and the man left her. She told me he went to London to find work.”

“Ahhh,” Alexander said, glancing at her with a side eye. “So you want to find him and see that he does what is right by your hand maid.”

Mellie looked over at him, her pale skin barely visible in the moonlight beneath the shadow from her hood, and nodded. “I want to find him and have him brought back here to do what a man should do. I’m shocked that any man could just abandon a woman in her condition, for work or any reason.”

“Yes, I’m surprised he didn’t marry her before he left, which leads me to believe his intentions weren’t the most honorable. At least her name wouldn’t be tarnished and the child…not to mention the child. However, Mellie, I know you’ve led a wonderfully full life here and if I may say so, a bit sheltered from the outside world. You are aware there are many Janine’s in villages all over England.”

“Yes but this one is mine. She was like a daughter to me, Alex.”

He couldn’t see as she’d turned her face away but he surmised she was crying when her hand went up and swiped at her cheeks and he heard her sniffle. He reached into his surcoat and handed her his handkerchief. “Here my dear lady, dry your eyes. It is impossible for me to deny you and your tears so please, tell me what you need me to do.”

“I only wanted to ask you if I was doing the right thing. I…I have no one else I feel comfortable enough asking who’s a man who I believe will give me a truthful answer. I normally don’t meddle in the affairs of others like this but the injustice of it all has me mad.”

“Have you asked Janine if this is what she truly wants?”

Mellie had to pause for a moment and reflect. She was silent, remembering her outburst and how if she’d perhaps handled the conversation with more compassion, she’d have had the common sense to ask the girl what she wanted. “No, I have not. Are you telling me I’m making a mistake?”

“Of course not. I simply don’t believe you should run off to London in search of a man you know nothing about, who could be an absolute rogue, and who seduced your young maid with the intention of doing exactly what he did.”

Mellie slumped a bit and sighed. “I suppose you’re right. Oh Alex do you think I’m just a meddling old fool with no grandchildren who can find nothing better to do than stick her nose where it doesn’t belong?”

He laughed.

“Oh, so now I’m a joke as well?” she asked in a huff.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Nothing could be further from the truth. You have a loving and caring heart and you only wanted to help the girl. You’re not meddling, you’re simply trying to do a good deed but unfortunately, no matter how much we desire to help others, if they choose not to help themselves or prevent such situations from happening, perhaps allowing them to face the consequences is the most noble thing we can do.”

“How is leaving a naive young woman unwed with a child noble, when we have it within our power to help?”

Alexander looked up at the castle wall and said, “Perhaps getting away from here is exactly what you need. The world out there is much different than your experience has been for a long time. My advice to you is to leave this be, go to London and visit your son, take in the theater and the sights and do some shopping and put this matter aside. You’ve been through so much and seem to be well on your way back to joy. Why turn it all upside down over something that may end up resolving itself?”

“I’ll sleep on it and see what information Stuart brings me. I’ve enlisted him to find out who the man is and anything else he can turn up.”

“He is a loyal lad,” Alexander said and rose to his feet. “It’s getting late. Allow me to walk you back to the hall.” He held out his hand to her which she took and stood as well.

“He’s my cousin you know and sadly, the closest thing I have to friend, other than my horse,” she said over a sad chuckle.

“Lady Ludwig you wound me. Am I not your friend? I would hope so considering we’ve spent the better part of an hour plotting intrigue.” He smiled as she took his arm again.

“Lady Covington has always been my most true confidant but we only see each other thrice per year if we’re fortunate enough. I’ve never had a gentleman for a friend before. Doesn’t this feel strangely off to you?”

“I’ll admit it is quite peculiar but Lady Elswick and I were friends once.” He paused and his gate seemed to miss a beat for a step or two.

“Once?” she asked and then thought better of asking something so personal yet. “I’ll admit, Edward and I were never friends. We had absolutely nothing in common and bickered relentlessly,” she said and laughed. “Arranged marriages don’t often end in love but at least we did have that. So, what did you mean by once?” The words flew from her lips before she could stop them and immediately regretted asking out of fear she’d made him uncomfortable.

“It’s late my lady. Let’s keep that story for another time.” He nodded as they entered the entrance hall and she released his arm.

“Of course.” Se yawned, covering her mouth and thankful for his response which released her from her guilt of asking. “I swear there’s nothing better for sleeping than crisp autumn air.” She quickly changed the subject.

“You’re so right. Goodnight my dear lady, until the morrow.” He bowed to her and she turned and headed for the stairs, her long black cloak billowing in her wake. “My lady?”

Mellie’s heart stopped as quickly as she did, and she tossed back her hood, resting her hand on the banister. Despite her better judgement telling her not to, she glanced back at him over her shoulder as he moved towards her as if wading through water.

“You are neither a fool nor old. You’re simply remarkable and generous and I’m proud that you’re my friend.” He bowed and walked away, leaving Mellie emotional with pride but a bit sad all at once. She nodded and raced up the steps to the tower.

When she reached her chamber, her bed was turned down, her shutters slightly ajar, her water pitchers filled and a lovely arrangement of wildflowers filled her vase. The next thing she knew, Beatrice appeared in her doorway.

“Mi’lady,” she curtsied. “I’m here to help you get ready for bed.”

“Thank you, Beatrice. The room is clean and lovely. Have you moved into your room yet?”

“Yes mi’lady. Mrs. Bolton helped me and I’m so thankful. I’ve never had a room or a bed all to meself.”

“Well, as long you as continue working like this, you won’t have to give it up anytime soon. Shall we?” Mellie asked, untying the strings at her neck and removing the cloak.

When they were through and Mellie abed, she turned on her side facing the partially open shutters, but as chilled as the air was, she wanted to see the night sky. She rose and opened one of the shutters enough so that she could see the stars and paused to stoke the fire Beatrice had started for her in the hearth. She then knelt to pray before she climbed back beneath her blankets and curled into herself.

“Thank you Lord, for this comfortable bed, my warm fire, and this lovely view of the stars. And thank you for sending me Alexander and his level headedness and wisdom. He’s simply like no one I’ve ever known and yet so familiar and easy. Please help me find a way to cure Lady Elswick and restore her to good health. If not, I fear his affection for me as a friend and our mutual lonely and unpleasant situations may take us down a path that could lead us to a deep and singular misery or worse, complete ecstasy. Amen.”

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