Enjoy this exclusive excerpt from At Summer’s End by Courtney Ellis and be sure to grab a copy! It’s out now and available everywhere.
After finding my belongings unpacked and folded away, I decided the wash stand was no match for the dirt of the road, and set off for a bath. On my way, I gathered the East and West wings were separated by a third, shorter corridor, where rooms faced the garden on one side, and the front of the house on the opposite.
There, a voice came from around the corner. Something made me slow, and tiptoe to peek through a fern. Huxley brought a silver tray to a set of double doors, set it on a neighboring table, and knocked. Another muffled voice from within, then the door opened. Huxley took up the tray again with perfect grace and went inside.
Before the door closed, I glimpsed the outline of a man facing away, broad shoulders and a head of dark, softly curling hair, much too long to be Roland’s. He began to turn as Huxley greeted him, but before I could see his face, the door shut again.
I smiled. Here was His Lordship.
I prickled to go to the door, to make myself known to him. One question, perhaps, would ease my regard: Why have you chosen me? But I couldn’t risk going against Roland’s instruction. It was enough, in the moment, just to know Lord Wakeford was more than myth.
I stayed hidden until Huxley emerged with his tray. The last thing I needed was for him to report me to Roland as a spy. When he was gone, I moved out from behind the plant to continue my quest for a bath, and heard a crash.
The jolt of it made me still. I went round the corner to see if Huxley had had an accident, but he had vanished. Closer to Lord Wakeford’s door, I could hear the clinking of broken china, and frustrated male muttering on the other side.
It was like a past version of myself, living dormant since the war, had suddenly come alive. Had he spilled hot tea down his front? Could he have cut his hands on broken glass? On instinct, I took the few paces that brought me to His Lordship’s door and lifted my fist.
No—I couldn’t. Perhaps he’d already rung for Huxley, who would return any moment. And anyway, Roland made it clear I was unwelcome. I dropped my arm. Oh, but what if he was hurt? The least I could do was check to see if he needed help. Some situations were dire enough to push propriety to one side. What was the worst that could happen? Roland was lovely as could be; why should his brother be any different?
I could still hear Lord Wakeford on the other side of the door, growling and shuffling about on creaking wooden floors. One knock would do. Just in case.
I rapped three times.
I knocked again, thinking perhaps he hadn’t heard. Then a voice, deep and cautious: “Is that Huxley?”
My hands flapped at my sides as I considered what to say. “It’s Miss Preston, my lord. The artist you’ve commissioned? I was passing and heard a crash.”
The floorboards creaked again and I held my breath, expecting the door to open. But it remained closed as his muted voice came again: “Preston?”
“Miss Bertie Preston, yes, my lord. Are you all right?”
Another long pause. The light under the door broke up as he shuffled behind it. Wakeford was just on the other side, close enough to touch if there were not three inches of solid wood between us.
“If you should need anything,” he said, “you may speak to Roland.”
I shook my head as though he could see. My curiosity had got the better of me. “There’s nothing I need; I thought you might be hurt. Otherwise, I’ll be on my way…”
I looked about me and shivered unexpectedly. Quiet lay more thickly in such an expansive house, where endless dark corners held ghostly potential for hidden eyes and ears…
I heard the key in the lock and turned. The door slowly moved away.
Wakeford didn’t open enough for me to see inside—only his shoulder and half his face were visible. Here were the same feathered brows and round lips as his siblings, face soft as his sister’s under a trimmed beard, puce eye stern as it bared down on me through round wire spectacles. I wasn’t sure if I was more shocked by the idea he’d opened the door, or how striking he was to look at. He was certainly not the portly, grey man I imagined, but so young—perhaps early thirties—and beautiful.
My eye caught on a curl which hooked over his earlobe and I stared at it thoroughly before realizing I hadn’t spoken yet. “How do you do?” I said dumbly.
Wakeford swallowed hard, collar unbuttoned to reveal his tightening throat. “I do apologize, Miss Preston, but I haven’t the time for callers.” Without the door between us, I noticed the hint of a speech impediment, the Ps not quite punching.
“I see.” I noted his hand resting on the doorjamb, bleeding from a clean slice across his thumb. “You are cut, my lord?”
His eyes rounded in something I might have seen as fear, if he’d had anything to be afraid of. He dropped the hand out of sight. “It’s nothing.”
“Shall I send someone to clean it for you?”
He shook his head. “It was good of you to come, but I’m quite all right. Now I’m afraid I shall have to say good day.”
The door shut. The bolt slid back into place.
I stepped away, enthralled by the great mystery of this man, the glint of his eye like wet oils, still perfectly formed in my memory.
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date published : August 10, 2021
pages : 368
narrator : Leonora Haig
length : 12 hrs, 51 min
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