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About the author:
Lottie Lucile has fallen in love three times since breakfast. She's obsessed with marzipan and lo fi beats. She writes romances – humor, suspense, and historical. She deeply loves her readers, not to be a creep or anything.
What inspired you to write your book?
This started as a short story, with midnight rendezvous between sweet people trying their hardest to escape reality. The characters kept on demanding that I write more about them. I realized that this was my way of telling a You've Got Mail story, alongside a story of empowerment. And it turned into this romp of a novella.
Here is a short sample from the book:
Madeline couldn’t hear her grandmother, even in the claustrophobic space inside the carriage. Grandmother continued speaking, her eyes sharp on Madeline. But she spoke so quietly that Madeline had to lean far forward to get within range of her whisper.
“He will forget, Madeline. He will turn the corner too fast, send us right off the road. My neck will break,” Grandmother whispered.
“He’s been a driver for five years,” Madeline said. “You checked his references twice, did you not?” She refused to whisper in return and play Grandmother’s game.
“You shall be sorry when you’re crying over my grave, knowing full well that you could have prevented my death.”
“I’m sure the driver will be careful. I don’t need to tell him how to do his job.” Madeline’s voice wobbled. It was hopeless to try to reason with Grandmother. The Dowager Viscountess always got what she wanted.
Grandmother had refused to talk normally for the last week and a half. She had stated that she was unable to speak when her family’s reputation lay in such ruins. So she proceeded to converse with family in quiet raspy tones, adding an air of fragile menace to each interaction.
Grandmother had an incredible knack for acting theatrically, especially when it made other people’s lives more difficult.
Madeline gritted her teeth, and leaned forward again to hear Grandmother’s response.
“No matter. It is imperative that he be watched. You must sit beside him, and insist,” Grandmother rasped. “Unclench your jaw, my dear. It is a most unattractive posture.”
Madeline nodded. She tried to let her jaw loosen, pressing on the bone near her ear. Her entire body seemed to shake with the rattle of the carriage on the road. Dratted hired carriage. Scratched wooden walls and a smell of must. Their old carriage had had glossy paint, scrollwork, and much more cushion.
The knot in Madeline’s jaw remained, a lump of stress to remind her how unattractive she was.
“Keep your head down out of the sun. Convey the importance of turning slowly. You have few skills. But you should be able to speak, correct?”
Madeline raised her head to meet the piercing blue gaze of her Grandmother. She had a precise beauty – skin pale as milk, and a stern set to her mouth.
Madeline nodded her head. Grandmother knocked her cane against the ceiling a dozen times. The noise seemed to rattle inside Madeline’s head. She was afraid that her skull would break open from the noise, shatter as easily as an eggshell.
After another minute of Grandmother’s cane threatening to blow a hole through the ceiling, the carriage finally slowed to a halt.
“Do remember your enunciation, my dear. Sit upright,” Grandmother called as Madeline slid out of the carriage.
Madeline explained the situation to the driver, and took her perch. It was a most improper position for a young lady. She sat next to a strange man, open to the elements for a long day’s journey. But her Grandmother’s will was not to be crossed.
The trip was as arduous as expected, Madeline’s backside was quickly sore from the flat hard seat. The bench seemed too small to hold a fully grown person. Madeline now longed for the slim cushions within the carriage.
The bright sky felt like a glare after the grey of London. Madeline’s hands rose several times to untie the ribbon holding her bonnet onto her head. She longed to feel the sun on her face, instead of hiding under the brim. But Grandmother would notice instantly if any ray of sun had touched Madeline’s cheek. She had few skills and fewer virtues. She must let her skin remain blemish-free.
Madeline let her bonnet remain.
She did let her posture lapse, and her shoulders curled slightly forward. It was a small sort of rebellion. But for the well-bred daughter of a Viscount, it felt momentous.
They passed fields and hills under an overwhelming sky. The trees all had trunks and leaves and similar features. They blurred together.
Hours passed before the driver told Madeline that they had arrived at the grounds of Arundel. Madeline had been kept in London for her education, so this was her premiere view of their country estate.
To her disappointment, Arundel looked like the rest of the country, with fields and trees and tidy dirt roads.
As the carriage approached a small copse of trees, the road turned. The driver kept their speed up, and Madeline knew that Grandmother would complain that she was knocked about by the carriage’s movements. However, Madeline didn't say anything to the driver. She wanted to get to the estate faster, and perhaps put more distance between herself and her grandmother.
Several events occurred in a quick succession.
A swarthy hog ran across the road, right in front of the horses, who reared up in alarm.
The carriage jolted to a halt, throwing Madeline off her seat.
She had a brief sensation of swimming through air. She saw a tall figure dart from the trees. The blurred shape of the hog returned.
Madeline hit something that was not the road. She tumbled over twice, a sensation of cloth and muscle mixed in with the gritty surface.
Someone was screaming. Madeline touched her face to make sure that she was not emitting the sound. The scream sounded like a mangled bird of prey.
Madeline’s cheek was pressed into the rough rocks and dirt of the road.
The carriage was still rocking back and forth, because the hog had decided to charge at the horses again. The hog seemed to be in sport, even as Grandmother’s shrieks resounded, and the driver clung to the seat with both arms, his face quite green.
"Bloody bollocks,” Madeline swore. “What is that hog playing at? Infernal damn dickens.
"Bless you," a deep voice said, much too close to her. Madeline froze.
Very slowly, she turned to see her own situation. She lay on the dirt road, her legs and skirts tangled in someone else's pants. There were legs inside those pants.
Madeline turned to see a man, lying mere inches from her. He was breathing heavily. It might just be her imagination, but Madeline thought that she could feel the heat from his body. His lips looked languid, curving at ease on stubbled cheeks.
Madeline could feel her own cheeks flushing in embarrassment. Their position was quite uncouth.
Madeline pushed herself up off the ground with one arm, to get better vantage on their situation.
"Oof," the man said again. In her haste to get up, she had pressed on his torso.
Madeline snuck a look at the carriage, but Grandmother was still trapped inside.
This was Madeline's chance, to break a rule of propriety. She had always tried before, to attempt to feel like her own person. But she was so closely watched that she could never get very far before she was caught out.
Madeline couldn't quite think of what she could get away with. Her mind felt blank.
So she paused there, sitting halfway up on the road, her hand still resting on the strange man's chest. The span of his shoulders looked impossibly broad. She could feel the rise of his chest as he breathed. His wool coat was so well-worn that it was soft instead of scratchy. Now she could definitely feel the heat of his skin through the layers of his clothes.
Madeline was aware of her own breathing. She could stay in this position for a few more seconds. That would show society and all of their damned rules what she thought of them.
"Are you okay?" the strange man asked. His hair was in disarray. His eyes looked worried, with his eyebrows creased together.
Madeline reluctantly withdrew her hand and skimmed her own body to ensure that she was still intact.
Her pelisse had unbuttoned, and her neckline was askew. She breathed heavily, trying to get in as much air as possible. Her dress was too tight. Her backside felt a bit bruised. But she couldn't tell a strange man that. Everything else seemed to be in order. Her dress was filthy, and there were a few tears.
"As wretched as ever," Madeline said. She smiled at the man, to show that she was in jest.
"Ah. I see?" He still looked worried. He probably thought her a lunatic. She hadn't shown him any evidence to the contrary.
Madeline reached to untangle her skirts from their legs. The green muslin fabric was torn and completely covered in dust. At the same time, the man reached over her.
Madeline paused, their arms touching, his face close to hers. His eyes were friendly, laughing like they hid a really spectacular joke.
"Sir?" she asked. There was too much to keep track of, and the racket coming from the carriage was muddling her head. The horses whinnied, the hog squealed with glee.
"I'll just -" the man said, while continuing to move forward. Madeline turned her head to see that his boot was lying on the other side of her. He grabbed it, and took his arm back to his side of her body.
It was highly improper for him to continue their contact with each other. Madeline felt that when she wasn't watching the carriage, Grandmother would emerge, see their tumbled situation, and kill them both with an overdose of scolding.
"You, you are no gentleman," Madeline said. She had wanted his face to fall, for him to apologize for his behavior, and perhaps kiss her hand in retribution. But he looked nonplussed, his strict eyebrows relaxing a bit. He withdrew his legs from her skirts, and started tying his boot back on.
"Maybe not. But from your colorful language, you're not one either. We're in good company. I am the absolute boor Levi Dunton. Please, pay me no mind.”
He gave a nod of his head, and looked at Madeline for one second. He surely didn’t expect her to introduce herself. She couldn’t.
Instead of responding, Madeline held her breath. After a strange pause, Levi continued tying his boot.
She inspected him. He seemed to be about her age. His clothes were worn, with patches on the sleeves and legs of his britches. Levi had that look of fresh air and sunshine about him. He had the air of a farmer.
"I am sorry," Levi said. "I had meant to catch you but that damn hog got underfoot.” "He does seem to like being underfoot. It is a troublesome trait,” Madeline said. Is that how one was supposed to talk about swine? She didn't have much experience talking about livestock with the rest of the Ton.
“Any more of this behavior and he'll be bacon," Levi said cheerfully.
He stood up. He seemed ludicrously tall. Madeline just sat there, looking up at him like a dunce of a woman.
Levi carried himself confidently, relaxed. He picked up his flat cap from the road, dusted it off, and placed it on his head.
"I really must go," Levi said. He wouldn’t show it, but he was likely thinking what a horrible woman she was. That’s what everyone thought about Madeline.
"I wouldn't want to lie on the road with a simpleton either," Madeline said. Then she thought about her words, and they didn't quite hang together.
The man, Levi, stopped walking away, but he didn't turn towards her.
Madeline got up.
"You're not a – I only meant to say, I'm a simple, no but I’m – " Her words were cut off by an especially vibrant shriek from the carriage’s direction.
“Maaeell —“ It might have been Madeline's name that was shouted, but the noise was garbled by the noise of the animals, and the grunts of the driver as he tried to get the rocking carriage door open, without letting the wheels roll over his feet. "I should help her,” Madeline said, shrugging her shoulders.
"Of course. If you would excuse me, Miss Mellie," Levi said. He whistled, and the hog trotted over to Levi's heels. The hog looked back at the horses, like he'd rather be terrorizing them. But the hog stayed at Levi's side as he strode back into the copse of trees. Madeline didn’t want Levi to go. She gathered what was left of her courage. "Nice to meet your bacon," Madeline called after him. She immediately winced. Words were not her allies today.
Levi waved, but continued walking away, like any sensible person would.
The carriage was finally settling down. The driver stood in front of the horses, soothing them. He had apparently given up on opening the door for Grandmother. So Madeline wrenched the carriage door open.
Grandmother crouched in the doorway, and swept up an errant piece of hair into place. Then she fell dramatically into Madeline's arms.
Madeline took several backwards steps to regain her balance.
"I have broken my leg," Grandmother said in a whisper. "I know it. Our family’s curse has arrived. First your father's bad luck, and now this travesty." Her eyes took measure of the tears in Madeline's dress, and the dirt that has been ground into the fabric. “You are a disgrace.”
Madeline strained to remain upright underneath the weight of Grandmother, who pressed into her shoulder with a hand so strong that it felt more like a claw.
After the horses calmed down, Grandmother insisted that they get back in the carriage. The driver looked like he was at the end of his rope. He refused to get close enough to Grandmother to hear her orders.
So Madeline translated Grandmother's wishes to the driver, to deposit them and their belongings at the front door, and make sure that the housekeeper knew they had arrived.
While standing on the front steps, the manor looked cold and strange to Madeline. It was an enormous building, with small windows and intricate gables that gave it a medieval feel. Most of the windows were dark. The front of the manor cast long shadows over the drive.
Madeline searched for some detail she could hold onto, something that made this building personal. But all she saw was plain grey stone, ruthless in its pragmatism. These were functional walls that were meant to last, but they existed out of duty, nothing else. Large trees obscured either side of the building, but no vine dared to climb the walls. She could see patches in the roof, from where it had been repaired through the years.
Madeline should have a connection, a fondness for the place. A family estate should be a source of pride and happy memories. But she felt no attachment here. It was a pile of stones, the only belonging that her father hadn't managed to gamble away.
As soon as the driver had escorted Madeline, Grandmother, and the luggage out of the carriage, he bolted. He drove the carriage away much too fast, the jangling bits clanging as he went.
"You made it," a familiar voice said. Madeline turned to see Levi and an older man in the doorway. She felt a jolt, surprised to see him so quickly, at her manor. She felt tense at the prospect of more interactions with this man. She could make a fool of herself so many more times. It would be horrible.
"We sent fer Mrs. Grimette, she'll be here to meet you soon,” the old man said. “We didn’ know ye were arriving, or we would be more prepared.”
Grandmother barely looked at the men. "I know where my room is," she whispered to Madeline. “Send a broth up shortly." She swept through the doorway.
The men turned to Madeline for translation. They couldn't hear the whisper at all.
"The Dowager would like some broth brought up," Madeline said. She had meant to follow Grandmother through the doorway. She felt she would be lost in such a big manor. This place felt like a stone monstrosity in comparison to their London townhouse.
The older man grunted as he bent over to pick up a suitcase. Madeline hurried to pick it up for him.
"Here, let me get that," she said. The suitcase was heavier than it looked, and she quickly regretted her action. But she had to carry it upstairs or she would look even more foolish. Levi scooped up the other suitcases.
"I can show you the kitchen, and Harriet can get broth for your mistress," Levi said. "This is Mr. Gerald Chawton, the gardener. Mr. Chawton, this is Mellie, the Dowager's maid."
Madeline looked up in surprise. Hearing her name wrong was one thing – but a maid? Did she look like a – she looked down at her dress again, which was dirty beyond recognition. And he had seen Grandmother treat her with such disdain, of course he would assume she was a servant instead of a beloved granddaughter.
"I'm not a – " Madeline started to say, and then she stopped herself. She had spoken in haste too many times today.
For as long as Grandmother kept whispering, Madeline could present herself as whoever she wanted to be. If she was a maid, she could perhaps explore the grounds on her own, or find out what the servants said when they weren't on their proper behavior. It could be an adventure of sorts. And Grandmother would definitely not approve, which made the scheme much more appealing.
"That's correct," Madeline said. "Pleased to meet you.”