This week's Chapter 1 excerpt is Sleigh Ride by Katy Walters.
Shafts of light shone through the delicate leaves of the silver birch tree, tracing lacy patterns across the dusty path.
Sophia Vale lifted her head to the sweet trebles of birds high in the branches above her. It was an idyllic morning, and more so as she came upon a patch of medicinal herbs. Lungwort was the most beneficial for her mother’s congestion.
Relieved, she plucked them from the vibrant green grass placing them with the plants of elderberry and wild rosemary. Now she could make tisanes to alleviate the crackling congestion on her mama’s chest, and ease the cackling cough. She wished she could afford the services of a physicker, but his fees were well above their modest means. In fact the stipend they did have, covered only their food and shelter of a dilapidated but well-loved cottage.
The scent of the wild herbs wafted through the verdant bushes to a silent watcher. Hiding behind the thick trunk of horse chestnut tree, Lord Jude Hawley gritted his teeth, as he peered through the thick leaves. She was indeed a picture, in her simple gown and villager straw hat framing her pale olive face, the dark eyes glittering amber in the light. The white muslin contrasted with her ebony hair flowing in waves to her tiny waist. She often wore it down thinking she was unobserved in her woodland habitat.
As she neared, he stepped from his hiding place, his heart rippling at her nearness. "Miss Vale, you should not walk unescorted through these lonely paths. Some scoundrel could be waiting behind the bushes ready to ravish you."
"Such talk sir, how indiscreet. Have you no sense of propriety?" she asked with asperity.
"Hmm, I think only for your safety, my sweet girl."
"Truly, my lord." She smiled lifting those beautiful eyes to his. "I am quite safe here with only the birds and the fawns as my companions. You should repair to your own place my lord; you will begrime those exquisite clothes."
Not picking up her veiled sarcasm, he preened, struggling to lift his treble chin above the immaculately folded cravat. Hurriedly, he smoothed down the blue superfine frock coat, as he endeavoured to tug down the high cut of the cloth over his barrel of a belly. Simpering, he squawked, "I am fit to swoon with your sweet praise. Praise from an angel alighted on my unworthy path."
Foppishly, he flourished a silk handkerchief dangerously near her face; as he posed pointing his foot, the ugly knotted veins pushing through the fine silk stockings. "So my apparel pleases you?"
Sophia took a deep breath. He reminded her of a fat old wood pigeon bending his tail feathers to his intended victim. Well he would not be jumping on her back. "T'is clear your valet spent hours fixing your cravat."
"Hmm, I follow Gronow and Beau Brummel to the tee y'know."
"Hmm yes, it looks like it. But those satin shoes are not fitted for such rough terrain my lord. You should turn back before you ruin them."
"Be that as it may my angel, I risk all for one sweet word from that delectable mouth. Now I am here, pray let me escort you to your door."
"My Lord, I am not in hurry to repair to my home, and had bethought to search for more herbs."
"Hmm, then let me aid you in your endeavour."
Sophia tried to hide her irritation; he just would not desist from following her. Wherever she went these days; it seemed he was there. Seeing him proffer his arm, it would have been rude to ignore the gesture, yet she had an excuse. "Sir I can hardly carry this basket and take you arm."
Smirking, he bellowed, taking them from her, "Hah, my little dove. I am ever at your service."
She wanted to tug them back, but that would be foolish and paltry. Sighing she took his arm, at least his hands were now engaged, so he could not slink one around her waist.
Feeling more in control now, he looked down at her head just below his shoulder. She was so petite, with such a slender figure and the palest of skin. He never stopped admiring her dainty hands and feet. How would she react if she knew his innermost desire was to feel her long slim legs crossed over his back. Smiling at the thought, he said quietly, "Have you considered my offer?"
"Ah. I would prefer to talk on other subjects my lord."
"Surely you cannot refuse. See now, you have need of a physicker, but you have to make do with these wild concoctions." He looked disparagingly at the fresh herbs in her basket.
"I think they are far more beneficial than cutting, or leeches, my lord. A tisane of these herbs will loosen my mother’s cough. By nightfall, she should rest easy."
"Pon rep, I just don’t understand you Sophia."
She stiffened at his use of her familiar name. "Miss Vale if you please, my lord."
Stopping, he gripped her upper arms with his pudgy hands, turning her gently to face him. "Pray, give me an answer, put me out of my misery. I would go down on bended knee, but these silk stockings are costly. I offer you anything you desire, a beautiful house, garden and a gardener to grow all the herbs you wish. Why, you could have an orangery, grow pineapples, oranges and the most exotic of vegetables. You need not dirty those dainty hands. Why, I will even house your mother and little sister in a cottage on the estate. I will see they both have the finest care. As my mistress you will have the world at your feet. I would bow to your every command."
"Except for your silk stockings I daresay."
He ignored her quip, "As my mistress you would live in luxury, with a fine settlement bestowed upon you."
"My lord you insult me. How can you even think I would succumb to your offer. You blatantly abuse me with your sordid words."
"Abuse? Why I would not lay a finger upon that most delicate of skin, the skin born in heaven, nor would I utter one word to offend those most delicate shell like ears."
‘Really, you threaten to debauch me sir, and for that I cannot forgive you.’
"Debauch you? How so, I offer you my love, my heart; when I offer you a house, carriage, jewels?"
"I have a cottage my lord, which I love. I am quite happy with my mother and my sister. The only thing that mars my idyll is you."
Stooping he kicked a tuft of grass on the side of the earthen path. "Well I have news for you, m'dear."
Without another word he took out a roll of parchment, waving it impatiently beneath her nose. "Read it."
Love Christmas containing Sleigh Ride and 19 other novellas will be available for pre-order in October.