The Duke of Snow and Apples
Published August 26, 2014 by Entangled Publishing.
Genre: Romantic Fantasy.
Context: Our young hero, footman Frederick Snow, has been tasked with picking up his employer’s visiting grandniece from a coaching inn.
Frederick leapt off the footman’s platform at the back of the carriage after it pulled to a stop outside the Fire and Feather Inn. Once inside the snug building, he paused to absorb the wine-spiced warmth before proceeding to the inn’s tidy parlor.
Miss Charlotte Erlwood, her ladyship’s grandniece, perched in an armchair by the fire, emanating waves of affront like a princess left in a pigsty. She wore a muted, dove-colored pelisse and her honey-brown hair pulled into a tight knot at the back of her head. On the small table in front of her lay the remains of a small luncheon and an uneaten apple. Behind her, an exasperated-looking manservant stood at attention.
Upon Frederick’s arrival, she turned toward him, revealing a pinched mouth and a pair of thundercloud eyebrows riding low over narrowed eyes. She scanned him from the top of his wigged head to the bottom of his boots, and her frowning lips stretched and tightened, her brows descended lower, and a slight blush reddened her cheeks.
She looked angry.
She looked spoiled.
She looks in need of a good teasing.Somewhat surprised with the mischievous turn of his thoughts, Frederick squashed it and kept his face neutral, his mouth set in a straight line.
“Miss Charlotte Erlwood?”
“Oh no.” She shook her head. “No, not you.”
Frederick blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“You’re not here for me. You’re here for somebody else.”
“Are you not Miss Charlotte Erlwood?”
The girl gave a hard, bitter laugh. “Of courseyou’re here for me. I don’t know why I expected any different.”
An old, moth-eaten shade of indignation rose up in Frederick’s mind, a remnant from when he still felt insulted by anything. “Have I done something to displease you?”
Charlotte released a melodramatic sigh. “You’re blue.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Look at you!” she said, waving an arm at his livery. “Blue coat, blue jacket, yellow waistcoat. You’re positivelysunny. A happy, sunny bluebird, all sparkling and cheerful. Does nobodyin Allmarch care how I feel?”
Frederick’s well of rational responses ran dry. Behind Charlotte, her manservant shrugged.
Charlotte seemed to take his silence as agreement, and jabbed an accusing finger out the window, at a picturesque view of Charmant village shops in the chill autumn sunlight. “Lookout there! Isn’t it the most beautiful day we’ve had in Soil month? Today, of alldays! It’s unfair. It’s unseemly.”
“Pardon me, miss, but what would be seemly?”
“A rainstorm,” she said. “A choking blizzard that keeps everyone shivering at home in their beds. Clouds, gloominess, somethingthat isn’t bloody sunny!”
That mischievous quiver at the back of his mind tickled him, and he caught himself before he uttered an apology for the weather’s rudeness.
“Your carriage is ready,” he said.
“I gathered that,” she said, with poor grace.
Thiswas the long-lost grandniece Lady Balrumple was excited to see? The girl treated a visit to her loving relation with all the excitement of a tooth-pulling.
Miss Charlotte rose, pocketed her apple, and dismissed her manservant. After Frederick led her outside and handed her into the carriage, he signaled to Shipley, the coachman, that he needed help with the lady’s luggage. Shipley slid a glance over his shoulder at Miss Charlotte and rolled his eyes, and Frederick almost smiled. Almost. He’d trained himself too well to give into emotions around his betters.
When Shipley and Frederick returned from the inn carrying the last heavy trunk, they discovered Charlotte standing beside the carriage, favoring them once again with her unpleasant mood. She held her apple, now with a crisp, white bite taken out of it, and passed it from hand to hand.
“Tell me,” she said to Shipley. “How does it look like the weather will fare?”
“Last time we summoned the sylphs, the wind-sprites said we’s to have fine weather all week,” said the coachman, cheerful and oblivious. “Uncommon fine. Clear and sunny.”
Charlotte’s hands clenched, her fingernails cutting pale half-moons into the apple’s red peel. Frederick’s throat tightened – not from stress, but rather an urge to laugh. He coughed instead, hoping the girl wouldn’t notice.
As he turned back to help secure the last of the luggage, something hard and round struck the back of his head and bounced to the ground. Pain blossomed at the base of his skull. Frederick lost his grip on the trunk, and dropped it with a heavy thunk.
He whirled around, but there was no one by the carriage except for Miss Charlotte. Her hands dangled nervously at her sides while she stared off in another direction, wearing an expression of innocence marred by a fiery blush.
He should have kept his head down and said nothing. Upperfolk were entitled to whims and fancy. However, the combination of the schooled blankness of Miss Charlotte’s face and the pain throbbing at the back of his head sent something hot and misguided up and out of his throat.
“Did you just hit me with a rock?”
“No,” said Charlotte, avoiding his eyes.
“Did you just hitme with a rock?”
“You hit me with a rock!”
“It wasn’t a rock!” Charlotte brought her wandering gaze back to his. Fortifying herself with a haughty sniff, she said, “I hit you with an apple.”
Sure enough, a few feet away lay a dusty, browning apple, significantly bruised on one side.
After an awkward pause, she sniffed again and held out her hand. “I would like to get back into the carriage now.”
Wordlessly, thanks to a complete lack of understanding rather than proper footman etiquette, Frederick took Charlotte’s hand and helped her up into the carriage. As she settled in on the squabs, she sniffed again. Her nose was red. Funny how Frederick had missed that before.
“Are you in need of a handkerchief?” he asked.
“No, thank you.” She produced one from her reticule, a crumpled, damp square of fabric. Sniff.
Guilt jabbed, sharp and surprising, behind his rib cage.
“May I get you anything? A blanket? A hot salamander-bottle?”
“A salamander-bottle, if you please.”
Frederick went around to the boot and gingerly took out a sealed earthenware jar. With a few sharp jerks, he shook it, and felt the vibrations inside the jug as the tiny fire-elementals quivered to wakefulness, and the jar grew warm in his hands.
As Frederick went back around the side of the carriage, a fancy struck him. Normally, his professional duty was to dodge fancy and sentiment and maintain a respectful demeanor. Perhaps the blow from that apple had slowed his instincts, for one such fancy caught him in the heart, making the palms of his hands itch and un unprofessional idea take root in his brain.
He knocked on the door of the carriage and helped settle the hot salamander-bottle under Charlotte’s feet. Then he fished into his pocket and deposited a large, grayish-brown stone in her lap.
“Should it please you to hit me with something harder,” said Frederick.
After a long pause, Charlotte said, “Thank you – it would have been most inconvenient to bend down and pick up one myself. The road is so dusty.”
And then she laughed.
It was like watching a military fortress open its gates at the end of a long and bitter war, the portcullis rising, windows opening, light and air and music leaking out. Charlotte’s thundercloud eyebrows flew upward, leaving her wide eyes, the color of warm brandy, sparkling and undefended. Her lips, released from their tight frown, curled naturally up at the edges like old paper. Her laugh, melodic and surprisingly loud, overpowered the carriage’s cramped interior.