Whoever had bestowed Vale Cottage with its name, Melvin Knighton decided, must have had a decidedly ironic sense of humour. The damn thing was at the top of a bloody mountain. Or if not a mountain, then a very high hill. Just looking down at the village below almost made him feel nauseous. Pressing a hand to his right temple, he turned to survey the 'cottage' some obscure old aunt had left him for an equally obscure reason.
Cottage indeed. The place was twice the size of his London townhouse. Ah, well. The bigger it was, the more he could sell it for.
"Grover?" he called to his valet.
"Is Mister Dayton here yet?"
Shrugging good-naturedly, Melvin strolled towards the cottage with a self-deprecating smile. "Serves me right for hiring a laggard for a solicitor."
Grover sniffed disdainfully. He had never much agreed with his employer's penchant for hiring the first person who applied for any given position. Heaven only knew what sort of chaos already awaited their return to London, what with a fishwife for a housekeeper and a gypsy for a butler. The last time he and Master Melvin had left the rest of the household to its own devices, they had been welcomed home to something indecently close to a brothel.
Unaware of his valet's bitter reminiscences, Melvin had wandered up to the front door of the cottage. Well-kept flowerbeds lined the front of the house, a few vines climbing daintily up trellises nailed to the walls. Trees formed a picturesque fence on three sides of the house and a low hedge lined the shallow drive. All in all, it looked tidy and picturesque, an ideal bit of land to make a tidy little profit off of.
He really should have paid more attention to Great Aunt Eliza. What with his inheritance seemingly years away, the high cost of living in London, and the sparse allowance his grandfather gave him, he didn't have much money for the luxuries most gentlemen indulged in – not to mention the constant mishaps of his household. Why his aunt had decided to bequeath him Vale Cottage was anybody's guess, but he was grateful for it, in any case. He had met the old gel once, at his uncle's wedding when he was twelve. The only clear things he remembered about her was the smell of stale rosewater, a vicious looking cane and the chocolates she had given him and his cousin. Everything else about her was a blur.
"Sir?" Grover, having retrieved himself from his own memories, was looking at Melvin expectantly.
"Since Mister Dayton appears to be running late, perhaps we should wait inside."
Melvin grinned. "Capital idea, Grover." Opening the door, he could resist adding, "Nothing like wandering about a dead woman's house. I say, do you think they buried her with her cane? I always wandered what sort of blade a gel like her would be hiding in that stick of wood…"
Releasing a beleaguered sigh, Grover followed his employer inside.
Tabitha Royle was not the sort of girl who entered taverns. Especially after dark. Especially when said tavern was the closest thing to a brothel that the village of Laurelwood had ever known. Yet despite all of this, Tabitha Royle found herself creaking open the door of the Gassy Goat, hours after the sun had set, and hesitantly stepping within.
Inside, smoke wafted from cheap candles, polluting the room with a slight grey haze. Ignoring her stinging eyes, she pulled her cloak close about herself and tried not to falter as she made her way up to the barkeep.
"Excuse me…is my brother here?" she inquired, her arm twitching when one of the patrons brushed against it.
"My brother. William Royle. He has black hair and –"
"I know who your brother is," the barkeep cut in. "Upstairs. Fourth door to the right."
Tabitha's voice faltered. "Upstairs?"
The barkeep had already turned away, and didn't bother to answer.
Looking up, Tabitha stared at the top of the stairs as if willing her brother to appear there and spare her the anxiety of making that trip. Predictably, William did no such thing.
With no small amount of uncertainty, Tabitha approached the stairs. She wasn't so innocent as to be completely unaware of what went on above stairs at the Gassy Goat, and she certainly knew she shouldn't be there. If it weren't for her father, she would never have even set foot in the cursed place.
Her hand hovered over the railing, caught between fleeing the tavern and going in search of her brother. She had just made up her mind to go upstairs when an arm suddenly wrapped itself about her waist.
"How did I miss you when I came in?" a voice, obviously intoxicated, slurred into her ear. "Why don't you take me up to your room up there and we can have ourselves some fun?"
"Sir, I –"
He tsked drunkenly, both at her words and her feeble attempts to break free. "No need to call me 'sir,' luv…" His voice faltered, and then he laughed, twirling her about to face him. Tabitha shoved at his chest, but he only shoved his ill-smelling face closer to her, crying, "Sir Love! What a name that is. Come now, wench, a kiss for your beloved knight."
"Please, sir, you've mistaken me for…" What did one call a loose woman without being rude? Tabitha didn't know, so she twisted away, her eyes desperately running over the other patrons in search of help. There were one or two locals who she recognized, but only by sight. All the others were strangers, none of whom seemed incline to even look her way – except for the one merrily strolling across the taproom towards them.
Tabitha's heart soared with a hope that was abruptly killed when the stranger smiled at them and said, "Mister Dayton. How wonderful to see you."
Tabitha's assailant stilled and looked up. "Mister Knighton." As soon as Tabitha felt his grip loosen, she surged against his hold, breaking free only to be caught by the arm and dragged back against the inebriated Mister Dayton.
Tabitha bristled. Really, she couldn't have made her distaste for the man's attentions any clearer. "Unhand me at once, sir!"
Dayton leered down at her. "Did one of your customers teach you how to talk like that? Well, I'll teach you a lot more, luv." Turning to Mister Knighton, he added, "Happy wenching, Mister Knighton. I'll come by the cottage in the morning."
Dayton had just turned towards the stairs, a now frantic Tabitha held tight in his arms, when Knighton laid a heavy hand on his shoulder. "I believe the lady asked that you release her."
A laugh burst from Dayton. "Lady? Mister Knighton, she's nothing but a tavern wench."
The jolly look had been wiped from Knighton's face. His eyes had hardened, his smiled disappeared. Now he looked, well, frightening – in, Tabitha supposed, a saving angel sort of way.
"Let her go, Dayton." Knighton's voice was low, emotionless and firm. It reminded Tabitha of how her father had sounded before he had taken ill.
Dayton hesitated. When Knighton raised an eloquent brow, the other man dejectedly let go of his prize, and Tabitha stumbled away from him, putting Knighton between them.
Knighton's smile reappeared as quickly as it had disappeared. Linking arms with Tabitha as if he rescued damsels in the distress everyday, he nodded congenially to Dayton. "Good evening, Mister Dayton." And with that, he escorted a stunned Tabitha out into the street.
Melvin really couldn't think of what he had done to deserve this. As a general rule, he did not interfere with the recreational activities of those in his employ. There were a million ways one could get indigestion, or lose one's favourite pair of boots – or suddenly find oneself in all sorts of financial and legal troubles. One really should treat the leisure endeavours of one's solicitor alone. Unfortunately for him, as another general rule, Melvin did not leave helpless young women to the wiles of amorous drunks.
I shouldn't have stopped when I saw Dayton's horse, he thought to himself. I get myself in too much trouble in taverns.
Sighing inwardly, he turned to the girl. "Where do you live?"
Large eyes, the colour of which he couldn't discern in the dark, blinked up at him. "I beg your pardon."
"As long as I'm rescuing you, I might as well go about it the right way. What I did inside would hardly matter should you be set upon on your way home. So I repeat, where do you live?"
Melvin sensed the chit's spine stiffen and she drew away stiffly. "Although I am grateful to you for saving me from that odious man inside, I cannot go home yet. My brother is in there, and I must retrieve him before I return home."
Melvin cocked an eyebrow, though the gesture was lost in the dark. "Your brother's in there, and he did nothing to help you?"
"He's in an upstairs room; I'm sure he had no idea what was going on in regard to my safety. "
"He's in an upstairs room…" For the first time in years, Melvin found himself completely and utterly flabbergasted by a woman other than his cousin – who didn't quite count some of the time. "And you were going to go up and…retrieve him?"
The chin she raised was unrepentant, and her voice obstinate. "Yes, I was."
Melvin cleared his throat. "Are you…aware…of what goes on in the rooms upstairs at places like these?"
There was a quiver of discomfiture in her voice when she spoke. "To some extent."
Melvin scratched his neck and sighed. "You absolutely cannot leave without your brother?"
He sighed again and straightened his cravat. "Very well, then. What's his name?"
She blinked at him again. "Pardon?"
"His name. I certainly cannot go from door to door asking each patron if he has a pretty young raven-haired sister just to figure out which one's your brother."
"Oh." She stared at him a moment longer. "Oh! His name's William. William Royle. The barkeep said he was in the fourth room to the right."
"William Royle," Melvin muttered, shaking his head. He pointed to stallion, then frowned down at her. "Do you ride?"
"Of course I do!" she retorted as if he had just presented her with an extremely offensive insult.
"Very well, then. Get on that stallion. If someone comes along to bother you, ride home."
"I can't steal a horse!"
"Wonderful news! He's mine, you know, and I'd hate to lose him – he's so pretty."
He thought he heard her snort, but couldn't be sure. Once back in the tavern, Melvin quickly noted that Dayton had become occupied with a new woman. By the looks of her, it was a real tavern maid this time. Dayton didn't even notice him, so he strode past the man and up the stairs. At the door where the girl's brother was being entertained, Melvin stopped to listen. There wasn't any noise from inside. He knocked, and after a moment, a buxom redhead in nothing but a thin wrap opened the door. She smiled when as her eyes ran over him, a sly inviting smile, and leaned against the doorjamb. When she spoke, her voice held a deliberately husky edge.
"Can I 'elp ye, milord?"
Melvin smiled back thinly. "I'm looking for William Royle."
Full lips turned out in a pout. "Willy, milord? Why, ye do know how t' break a poor girl's heart."
He chuckled. "His sister asked me to fetch him."
Something in her expression changed, and a soft, curious light entered her eyes. "Did she now? Well, then, come in." Opening the door wide, she revealed a man several years younger than Melvin sprawled on the bed and snoring drunkenly. "That's Willy over there," the redhead said, rather unnecessarily.
I truly must have done something in the recent past to offend the inhabitants of Heaven.
Melvin strode up to the bed and pinched Royle's nose between his thumb and forefinger. For a moment, nothing happened, and then Royle sputtered, coughed and sat up with a jerk. He blinked in a disorientated manner, first at the room, then at the redhead, and finally at Melvin.
"Who the bloody hell are you?" he demanded.
Melvin smiled and tossed Royle his clothes. "At the moment, I'm playing pageboy for your sister. She's waiting for us outside."
That spurred Royle into action and he jumped out of the bed, pulling on his breeches at the same time. "You left my sister out in a dark street by herself?"
"Would you rather I had brought her upstairs with me?"
"I would rather you had seen her home."
"I tried. She refused." With a grin, Melvin shrugged. "Who am I to argue with a lady?"
"If anything's happened to her, I'll have your head…whoever you are."
Melvin would have answered that with an elaborate and eloquent introduction, but Royle had already stormed out of the room, and was halfway down the stairs. He settled for sweeping a bow to the redhead and slipping her the shillings that Royle had forgotten to give, before following in the younger man's wake.
By the time he got outside, the Royle siblings were deep in an argument. Or rather, William was yelling and the sister – had she told him her name? – was desperately trying to get in a word. Beside her, a stout woman stood, watching them in dismay.
"What the hell do you think you were doing?" Royle demanded. "Wandering around by yourself after dark – and talking to strangers! Have you bloody lost your senses? You –"
"Father's dead!" The girl broke in suddenly, and then burst into tears. "He wanted you there; he wanted us both there – but it took me so long to find out where you were and then…" Her voice broke on a sob, and she spurred the horse around abruptly, galloping off into the darkness.
Melvin sighed. And here he had thought that a brief sojourn in the country would be a nice reprieve from the melodrama found around every corner in London. Under any other circumstance, he would have dove right into the drama, and point out that it was his horse the Royle chit had just run off with. Glib as he was, though, he wasn't callous – well, not that much, in any case.
Now, if only he could recall what he should do. Surely someone at some point in his life had taken him aside and instructed him on what to say to a complete stranger who has just found out their father has died. After all, his mother's side, the Barclay's were a clan who firmly believed that speech was as necessary as breathing, and God forbid one of their offspring should ever not know what to say. And how was he going to bring up the matter of his horse without making himself look like an ass?
God, I miss London already.
It wasn't until Tabitha reached home that she realized she was still in possession of Knighton's horse. She caught her lip between her teeth, torn between grief and guilt. The door opened as Tabitha hesitated in the driveway, and a thin, young girl stepped out.
Tabitha shivered. "Yes?"
"The doctor's left. He said he'd send the undertaker in the morning."
"The undertaker…yes, of course."
"You'd best come in, miss."
Tabitha didn't move.
"Shall I put the horse in the stable?"
Tabitha blinked at the horse one which she sat. Knighton's horse. He'd probably be coming home with William to retrieve it. "Yes, thank you, but don't unsaddle him; his owner will be coming to take him home later." Jenny nodded as Tabitha dismounted and handed the reins to her. Feeling numb, she stumbled inside and up the stairs. There, she hesitated. On the left lay her father's rooms, her father's memory, and her father's body. On the right was the sanctuary of her own chambers.
She supposed she must have stood there awhile, because the next thing she knew, the front door was slamming and William's voice was echoing in the hall.
"Tabitha," he called from the bottom of the stairs.
She turned reluctantly. William was striding up the stairs two at a time. When he reached the top, he hesitated self-consciously in front of her. William never had been good with his emotions.
Finally, he commented, "You should rest."
She turned her head away; was that all he had to say to her? Below, Knighton was courteously pretending to be distracted by one of the hall's few ornaments.
He looked up and offered her a small smile. Bowing, he murmured, "I am sorry to hear of your loss, Mistress Royle."
Tabitha swallowed and nodded. "Thank you. And I thank you also for aiding me in the Goat."
William turned to her sharply. "In the Goat?" he echoed, but went ignored.
Knighton inclined his head. "It was no problem at all."
"Will you be staying long in Laurelwood?"
Knighton shrugged. "I suppose so."
"Then I hope you will join us for dinner one night."
"Tabitha," William hissed.
Knighton glanced between the two of them before inclining his head toward Tabitha. "It would be an honour, Mistress Royle."
They fell into an awkward silence. Tabitha knew she should say something, but she was so tired…
William cleared his throat. "Mister Knighton came to retrieve his horse."
"Oh, yes, of – of course." Tabitha turned to the man in question. "I had the girl put him in the stable."
Knighton's smile tweaked, and he inclined his head one more time. "I'll be on my way, then."
Tabitha watched as he slipped out, closing the door behind him. Long after he had disappeared, she stood staring at the door.
"You shouldn't have invited him to dinner," William said after a moment.
"It was the hospitable thing to do," she replied, turning and heading for her rooms.
He followed her. "We're in mourning; it's understandable to not be hospitable. It's even expected that we not entertain."
Tabitha paused, her hand on the doorknob to her bedchamber. "Is that all Father's death is to you? And excuse to wallow in self-pity?" she asked quietly.
William reeled back. "No, of course not! Tabitha!"
But she had already vanished into her room, locking the door behind her.
A.N. Yes, well, I decided to do this in chronological order. However, that isn't exactly possible since I've alredy done Petals. But I'll do Melvin's story now, then Melanie and James' and then Lorraine's. Also, as you probably guessed, I haven't exactly come up with a title for this yet, so it's presently just Melvin's Story. For those of you new to my work, no, you do not need to read Petals to get this.
Also, I have this deficiency that compells me to answer reviews that I might have cause to want to answer. So for the reviews for the last bit of Petals:
PEach8314:I would have liked to give a reference for the flower meanings, but seeing as FictionPress doesn't allow URL's on posts, I couldn't. Also, my only research was on the Internet, so I couldn't cite any books.
CrystalDusk: The purpose of the last sentence was to adhere to the often forgotten and rarely followed rule that the ending of a literary piece should, in some way, tie into the beginning.
pneumothorax: Exactly how can the flower meanings seem 'implausible and created' if they're real? And 'How strongly do you wish to remain anonymous, my lady?' was in italics because it was a thought. Flower meanings were in both italics and quotation marks. Thoughts didn't have the quotation marks. As mentioned above, the last line of the epilogue was meant to connect the ending with the beginning of the story.
AngelofArtemis: I looked up various websites for the meanings of roses between 48 and 108, but I couldn't find any that fit, considering Adrian sent them a dozen at a time. However, there are other numbers. To find them, just Google 'meaning number of roses.'
THANK YOU TO EVERYONE ELSE WHO REVIEWED, AND I'M SORRY IF ANYONE'S DISAPPOINTED ABOUT HAVING TO WAIT A WHILE LONGER FOR MA MADEMOISELLE BIZARRE.