The drawing room of Knightscote Lodge was considered by many to be the ideal room for a cold winter's night, the beamed ceiling and polished oak panelling being declared perfect by the romantically minded. Certainly with a cheerful blaze in the huge fireplace and the golden glow of the candles, the room looked warm and welcoming. However, its present occupant was sunk low in his armchair, his booted feet resting on the hearth as he stared moodily into the fire, a half-filled wineglass held casually between the long, lean fingers of one hand.
It had started to snow earlier in the day and now it was swirling against the tiny diamond panes of the windows, driven by the howling wind. Sir Lawrence Daunton raised his head as a particularly fierce gust rattled the casements. It occurred to him that if the blizzard continued no-one would be able to get along the lane for days.
He muttered the word aloud as he drained his glass.
It was Christmas Eve and when he had ridden down to his hunting lodge on the edge of Exmoor a few days' earlier he had two objects in mind. The first was to avoid all company during the festive season; the other was to get very, very drunk. With the second of these worthy aims in mind, he reached for the bottle standing on the table at his elbow. It was empty and he was making his way to the servants' quarters in search of another when he heard a loud hammering at the door. Lawrence stopped.
'Who the hell can that be?'
With great deliberation he put down the empty bottle and picked up a lantern. His footsteps rang on the flagstones as he walked to the door. It took him a moment to wrestle with the locks and the catch but at last he flung the door open.
A blast of icy air took his breath away.
As did the vision standing in the shelter of the porch.
Before him was a young woman enveloped in a powder-blue velvet travelling cloak. The hood was edged in white fur that framed a pale, delicate face with a straight nose, generous mouth and a pair of blue-grey eyes fringed with dark lashes.
All this Lawrence took in immediately, but even as he blinked to see if the vision would disappear, she stepped quickly into the hall, saying, 'Do not keep me standing in the snow! Pray tell your mistress that Mrs Westerhill would like to see her. Immediately.' This last word she added a little sharply, for Lawrence was still staring at her. She continued, 'And my groom is outside with the horses. Perhaps before you shut the door you could direct him to the stables.'
Lawrence blinked. A gust of wind sent another flurry of snow into the hall where it fell gently onto the dark flags and dissolved.
'Yes. Excuse me.' Quickly he stepped outside, pulling the door closed behind him, and ran across to where the hapless groom was holding the reins of two horses. A few words of instruction and Lawrence hurried back into the house. The hall was empty, but a trail of wet footprints led off towards the drawing room, where he found the lady warming her hands by the fire. She had discarded her cloak to reveal a high-necked gown of deep blue wool, unrelieved by any ornament save a small edging of white lace at her throat and wrists. The severity of the gown was alleviated by her abundant honey-brown hair, which fell in soft ringlets to her shoulders.
'Well? Have you told Mrs Anstey that I am here?'
She straightened, fixing him with a frowning look.
'This is Knightshill Hall?'
'Alas no,' he replied. 'This is Knightscote Lodge. Knightshill is on the Stoke Pero road.'
'Oh heavens. Then this is not Mrs Anstey's House.'
'No. You must have missed the turning.'
Lawrence watched as her small white teeth momentarily gripped a bottom lip that was as full and red as a ripe cherry. Her eyes travelled about the room and for the first time she seemed aware of its untidy state.
'Is there a mistress in this house?'
Lawrence's eyes danced. 'Not at the moment.'
'Then perhaps you would inform your master…' she trailed off as she looked up and read the merriment in his face. 'Oh heavens.' Her hands came up to her mouth and her eyes with those ridiculously long lashes stared at him in horror. 'Oh, pray do not tell me you are master here.'
'Very well,' he said promptly, 'I won't.'
Her eyes twinkled but she said severely, 'Pray do not be absurd. If you are the master, then tell me your name.'
'You do not know?'
She shook her head.
'I must appear dreadfully ignorant, sir, but I do not venture abroad often: we keep very much to ourselves.'
'I am Daunton,' he announced, watching her closely. 'Lawrence Daunton.'
Immediately the humour left her face and she retreated a step.
He grinned, saying with some satisfaction. 'So you do know me.'
© Sarah Mallory