THE SCARLET GOWN
When impoverished Lucy Halbrook arrives at Lord Adversane's estate she knows her assignment is unusual, not only will she act as his hostess at his Midsummer's Eve play, she must also pretend to be his fiancee!
What Lucy doesn't know is that Ralph must uncover the truth behind his wife's death and Lucy is the key. She challenges him at every turn and, as each day passes, unlocks a little more Ralph's guarded heart.
This book was particularly enjoyable to write because I used my local area of the South Pennines for the backdrop, so when I was walking the dog each day I could actually visualise my characters in the setting. I love using real places for the background to my books but usually I give it a fictional name so that I can take a little artistic licence for the sake of my plot, but isn't that what all fiction writers do?
I have added a short extract from the book below: happy reading!
THE SCARLET GOWN
Lucy and Ralph are out riding……
‘I think it is time that we abandoned the formality, at least in public.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘You cannot keep calling me “my lord”. I have a name, you know.’
Lucy felt the tell-tale colour rising up again.
‘I do know,’ she managed, ‘but—’
‘No buts, Lucy. There, I have used your name, now you must call me Ralph. Come, try it.’
She felt uncomfortably hot.
‘I—that is, surely we only need to do so when other people are near—’
‘And how unnatural do you think that would sound? We need to practise.’
‘Of course. R-Ralph.’
He grinned. ‘Very demure, my dear, but you look woefully conscious.’
‘That is because I am,’ she snapped.
‘Which proves my point,’ he replied in a voice of reason that made her grind her teeth.
Observing her frustration, he merely laughed, and adjured her to keep up as he trotted out of the village.
It was impossible to remain at odds. There was too much to see, too many questions to ask. The hours flew by and Lucy was almost disappointed when Adversane said they must turn for home.
‘We are on the far side of Ingleston,’ he told her. ‘It will take us an hour to ride back through the town, longer if we skirt around it. Which would you prefer?’
‘The longer route, if you please.’ Lucy recalled her meeting with the parson and had no wish to be stared at and pointed out as the future Lady Adversane.
They kept to the lanes and picked up the road again at the toll just west of Ingleston. Lucy recognised it as the road she had travelled when Mrs Dean had taken her to the town. She recalled there was a narrow, steep-sided valley ahead, where the highway ran alongside the river. It had felt very confined in the closed carriage, with nothing but the green hillside rising steep and stark on each side and Lucy was looking forward to seeing it from horseback. She turned to her companion to tell him so and found that his attention was fixed upon something ahead, high up on the hills. Following his gaze, she saw the moors rising above the trees, culminating in a ragged edifice of stone on the skyline
‘Is that Druids Rock, my lord?’
She stared up at the rocky outcrop. The sun had moved behind it and the stone looked black and forbidding against the blue sky.
‘Your cousin told me that the old track to Adversane ran past there, before this carriageway was built.’
‘That is so.’
‘And can one still ride that way?’
‘Yes, but we will keep to the road.’
She said no more. His wife had died at Druids Rock and it must be very painful to have such a constant and visible reminder of the tragedy. She longed to offer him some comfort, at least to tell him she understood, but he had urged Jupiter into a fast trot, and quite clearly did not wish to discuss the matter any further.
By the time they arrived back at Adversane Hall Lucy felt that she had achieved a comfortable understanding with her host. Glancing up at the clock above the stable entrance, she wondered aloud if there would be time for her to bathe before dinner.
‘I have not ridden so far in a very long time,’ she explained.
‘You had probably forgotten, then, how dusty one can get.’
‘And sore,’ she added, laughing. ‘I have a lowering suspicion that this unaccustomed exercise will leave my joints aching most horribly!’
‘I shall tell Byrne to put dinner back an hour and have Mrs Green send up hot water for you.’ He helped her dismount and led her towards a small door at the back of the stable yard. ‘This is a quicker way,’ he explained. ‘A path leads directly from here to a side door of the house, which opens onto what we call the side hall, and from there we can ascend via a secondary staircase to the main bedchambers. It is much more convenient than appearing in all one’s dirt at the front door.’
‘I guessed there must be a way,’ she told him as she stepped into the house. ‘Only I had not yet found it. Does it lead to the guest wing, too?’
‘No. They have their own staircase, over there.’ He pointed across the side hall to a panelled corridor, where Lucy could see another flight of stairs rising at the far end. ‘My guests have perfect freedom to come and go as they wish.’
There was something in his tone that made her look up quickly, but his face was a stony mask. She began to make her way up the oak staircase, conscious of his heavy tread behind her.
‘How useful to have one’s own staircase,’ she remarked, to break the uneasy silence. ‘Was it perhaps the original way to the upper floor? Mrs Dean did say that the grand staircase was added when the house was remodelled in the last century.’
She knew her nerves were making her chatter, but when her companion did not reply she continued, glancing at the dark and rather obscure landscapes on the wall. ‘And of course it gives you somewhere to hang paintings that are not required elsewhere…’
Her words trailed away as they reached the stop of the stairs, and her wandering gaze fixed upon the large portrait hanging directly in front of her. But it was not its gilded frame, gleaming in the sunlight, nor the fresh, vibrant colours that made her stop and stare. It was the subject. She was looking at a painting of herself in the scarlet gown.
© Sarah Mallory
THE SCARLET GOWN by Sarah Mallory pub July2014 Harlequin Mills & Boon
A LADY AT MIDNIGHT by Melinda Hammond,
now available as an e-book on Amazon.