The house was large and the gates rusted. He had ridden up to it in the dead of night, racing his horse against the wind and the animal now stood impatient to be abed, pawing the ground and huffing in the snow.
His father had said that this was the right road, and that the woman of the house, the witch as he had called her in that sneering polished accent of his, would welcome any man more comely than a horse with open arms. Comely, that was a good way of describing himself he supposed. At school he’d been nicknamed beauty by older boys, who’d pulled his curls and torn his uniform. It had stuck, though these days no one dared say it to his face. But behind his back he still heard whispers about the pretty little lord.
He banged again on the gates, pulling the corroded forms with his gloves until the chains rattled like the ghosts of dead dreams, chiming in the night. The sound was loud against the winds’ howls and finally the door of the house creaked open and a light began to make its way through the snow towards the gates.
She had hoped the idiotic man would go. She would have gone once she’d seen the state of the gates. All those rusty chains and overgrown path, surely it was a reasonable assumption that the tenant had no wish to be disturbed. But no. The stupid man was there, rattling the gates like a banshee and letting his big horse stomp and plough the ground. She raised the lantern to better see the fool who’d come thus to her doorstep. She saw a pretty round face, blonde hair and blue eyes, A clichéd depiction of beauty if ever she’d seen one, and likely as shallow as the limpid pool that poets might have used his eyes to invoke. Heavens knew what he wanted or where she would put him.
‘The gate is locked, Sir, and I do not know you.’
‘My father, Lord Carden, sent me.’ He smiled and she huffed, her breath clouding the sight of his perfect white teeth grinning at her.
‘I do not care for him.’
‘That would make two of us. I know I should not have come unannounced.’
‘No.’ She knows she will have to let him in, the still falling snow already lies heavy on the ground. Even if she could turn him away she would be too worried about his horse, which does not look like it could survive another hard run through deep drifts to the nearest inn.
‘The gate is locked’ she repeats ‘and I cannot open it. But if you follow the wall to the right you’ll come to another gate.’ She leaves ‘the one we use’ unsaid and is thankful that the pretty little lordling does not debate or argue with her, but instead nods and grasps the bridle of his horse, leading the animal to the right.
She follows, imagining his progress, although she cannot see through the tall wall that separates them. The gate on this side is oiled, and shining. It’s obscured by trees from the main road, and since the road passes the old main gates only the locals know of the side entrance. That is by design as she has no wish to fend off the fortune hunters who would otherwise think her easy pickings. She values her privacy.
‘Do you have a name?’
The little man is drying himself by the fire. He has said nothing since being shown into the room, just dragged himself over to the fire, divested himself of the sopping coat and jacket and is standing, in his socks, running his hands over his thin shirt and pushing his wet hair back from his face. The rug beneath his feet is sodden, and she doubts it will survive the experience.
‘Lord Tobias. I’m…’
‘Lord Carden’s youngest.’
He nods. Shivering and miserable looking as he is she can see that when warm and dry he might be just the sort of pretty titbit she told his lordship she would buy. What was it she had said precisely? Something about never selling her lands for anything less than a fairy-tale prince of a husband?
‘Here.’ She shrugs off the woollen shawl she wrapped round herself when she re-entered the house and hands it to him. He takes it dubiously, but is soon hidden by its folds. ‘Sit. I’ve sent for tea.’
‘Thank you. I’m sorry to intrude, I don’t know what I was thinking to ride out on such a night.’ He hasn’t sat, and she realises he is waiting for her to sit first, to perch on one of the chairs like a proper lady. But sitting in the chairs will likely ruin them, given his still waterlogged state and as the rug is already lost she shakes her head and sits on the floor, folding her legs beneath her and looking up at him as she does so.
‘Sit down, I doubt you’ve energy enough to stand and get warm.’
‘My father said you would not admit me.’ He sits beside her.
‘Had the weather been more clement, he would have been right like as not. Even so I let you stay more out of concern for your horse than for you.’
‘Still, it was generous of you.’
‘Why are you here?’ Though she knows the answer.
The duchess has not introduced herself, but Tobias knows who she is. She is not a witch, though neither could she be accounted a diamond of the first water. Plain, is, he supposes, the diplomatic term. She is too tall and strides much like a man, there is none of the daintiness of the women of the ton about her. But here in the wilds he must concede that her strength is oddly attractive, as though she were built to cope with the storms and winds and snows of the high hills.
The Duchess of Tatterton, the mad reclusive witch of the wilds as his father would have it.
‘You’ll be stuck here for days.’
‘Oh.’ He hadn’t thought of that. The snow is deep enough to make the roads impassable, too deep to thaw completely in a day, even if it stops tonight. He will be trapped in this house, with this woman. ‘You should have left me outside.’
‘Indeed?’ She pours tea, and hands him a cup. He sips the hot liquid, trying to marshal his thoughts.
‘You’ll be compromised. If I stay, that is.’ Perhaps he should leave; the house cannot be too far from the village. It might be possible to walk there and stay at the Inn. If the village has an Inn. He takes another sip of tea. He couldn’t risk his horse in such weather, but he would survive, and it is hardly fair …
‘Do you think I would have opened my doors if I were so concerned with my reputation?’
‘Have you no companion?’
She blinks, and tilts her head to the side, as though studying him like a specimen under glass. ‘I have never been so tired of my own company that I would wish to endure that of some prattling girl. I manage my house, and my lands. My servants are few, but they are loyal. I have no wish to be the sort of Duchess that would make you call me such, when I might forge my own path. What use would be my rank or money otherwise?’
He laughs. It is too absurd too imagine this woman as a fashionable belle, curling her hair and placing patches on her cheeks. ‘I would that I had your courage about such matters, your grace. My father thinks me a dilettante and in truth I am, for I’ve no profession, no wealth. Only my looks, and for all I am offered for them I have yet to accept a bid.’
‘So did you think that by coming here you might make the sale yourself and get more favourable terms?’
‘No.’ He does not know quite what he thought. He simply wanted to run, to escape his father’s needling and derision. ‘I did not think you would buy me, for all my father said you had ambitions to catch a husband. I thought…’
‘You thought I would send you away.’ She finishes the sentence for him and takes another sip of tea. He is not sure how much longer they sit in silence, staring at the fire, unwilling to speak for fear of breaking the truce they have somehow reached.
The next day brings more snow. The house is surrounded by a whirling blizzard and every window shows the same white scene. Tobias gets out to the horses by following a rope tied to the house that leads to the stables. The Duchess is better prepared for such weather than his father. The groom sleeps in the stables, but Tobias needs to see his horse, to feel her and reassure himself that yesterday’s mad dash did not hurt her. Reassured he ploughs on through the whiteness, back to the house, where the Duchess laughs at him for not trusting her staff.
By the third day the snow has stopped falling. She sees the snow covered garden with a slight disappointment. In a few days the roads will be clear enough for her guest to leave and she has enjoyed the past few days. Company is something she was used to doing without, but now, buttering crumpets and waiting for him to join her at breakfast she feels sadden at its imminent lose. A day, or two, and he will be gone. The pretty little lordling will go home to his father and tell of the witch who let him stay, and his father will, she realises, ensure her reputation is as besmirched as he can make it. It will become the tale of the Duchess and her young lover, trapped by snow, overcome with passion. There will be clamour for them to marry, though she will not heed it.
‘How long do you think it will take the snow to thaw?’ It is the first question on his lips once he has said the polite good mornings of common courtesy. She tries not to seem hurt.
‘A day, two perhaps. The roads should be passable then.’
He nods. ‘You do not go much into company do you, your grace?
‘No.’ she meets his eyes, sad looking but not surprised. ‘I do not care for it.’
Another nod. Another careful bite of the crumpet, before he replies. ‘I will not tell my father I was here. I will tell him I was at the Inn. Should he surmise the truth I can deny it, for I would not have your reputation damaged by my foolishness.’
She stares, wondering if she has heard aright.
‘I will be sorry not to see you again. I have enjoyed…’
‘There’s a ball, at the assembly rooms.’ She speaks without thinking, suddenly desperate to risk something, anything on the slight chance he might reciprocate.
‘Four days from now.’ It is not a ton occasion, it is a village dance and he must know how odd he will look, all primped and polished. He will say no, it is beneath him, beneath any of the ton who is not a wild duchess.
He smiles and finishes his crumpet, wiping the butter from his lips with a quick twitch of the napkin
‘I look forward to it.’