Unexpected Arrival - Cecily's Quest Sneak Peek
This is an excerpt of the unedited rough draft of the fourth book in the Once Upon a Duchy series. As such, it is subject to change before the final published version, but I thought you all would enjoy getting a glimpse of Hugo and Cecily. Enjoy!
Reaching for my scrub brush, I dunked it in the bucket of cooling water at my side. I didn’t have time to mull over the way things were. There was too much to do before customers began arriving for the evening meal and travelers appearing to request shelter. I set to scrubbing the stain again.
Nero stirred, rising to his feet and staring at something behind me.
“Hello?” A male voice came from the open front doors. “I am looking for the innkeeper.”
Nero calmly padded over to my side and sat down facing the new arrival.
Giving up on the stain, I tossed the brush into the pail and climbed to my feet. “I am she.” Turning toward the speaker I began wiping my hands on the apron around my waist only to pause when I took in the size of the man.
He stood in the doorway with his back to the light outside, casting his form in shadow. Broad shoulders, muscled arms, barrel chest, and long lines of strength, this man could easily break me in half.
“The innkeeper of the Skylark?” he asked with a tone of disbelief.
“I run the Skylark,” I confirmed, tensing in anticipation of a snide comment.
“Then it sounds like you are the one I am seeking.” He stepped into the room. Well made boots, practical clothing, and a layer of dust hinted that he was probably a tradesman. “I have a delivery for you from Winder Potteries in Areyuthia.”
“Your timing is impeccable, Our cook broke the last platter a few moments ago.” I picked up the pail. “You best come back with me so I can show you where to put the crates.”
Nero rose to his feet, putting himself between me and the stranger.
“Does he bite?”
Nero swung his head to look up at me with a plaintive whine. My best guess was that he wished to greet the man. But before I could answer the man’s question, the door to the kitchen burst open and Essie, the cook’s young daughter, dashed through with a peal of laughter. Directly behind her came Conrad, the blacksmith’s grandson.
“I am going to catch you!” the lad yelled. “I will make you give it back!”
Nero leaped up with a woof.
Essie shrieked as she circumvented the room before running full tilt into my side. “Save me!” she demanded before burying her face in my skirts as I lifted the pail out of the way at the last second.
Conrad skidded to a stop a few feet from me, his little chest straining with each breath. So much emotion was contained in his small body that he shook with the effort of holding it all in check.
I could relate. Essie could try the patience of a saint most days.
Nero nudged the lad’s arm, clearly offering comfort. The dog was so large that he came to the boy’s shoulder. With a heavy sigh, Conrad leaned against the dog and regarded me wearily. “Cecily, please make her give it back.”
“What did she take?” I asked.
“I won’t!” Essie yelled into the bunched cloth between her fists.
“It is my wooden top,” Conrad pleaded. “You had no right to take it. My da made it for me.”
“Is it his?” I asked Essie. “If it is, you had no right to take it.”
Essie yanked on my skirts, her narrow shoulders stiffening. Without removing her face from where it pressed against my hip, she replied indignantly. “He took my rock, so I took his top.”
I groaned. “What have I told you about repaying evil for evil?”
Essie didn’t respond for a moment. Then abruptly, she turned her face to regard Conrad while she continued to lean against me.
“Then give my rock back,” she demanded.
Conrad produced the rock from his pocket. “I just wanted to look at it.” He offered it to her in one grimy fist.
“Then why did you put it in your pocket. You can’t look at it in your pocket.” She turned her face away, burying it once again in my skirts. “Besides, I don’t want it anymore.”
“Then I will just throw it out in the yard.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“Watch me.” Conrad abandoned Nero’s side and trotted toward the door.
“Don’t!” Essie wailed. “It won’t be able to find it again!” Releasing my skirts, she tore off after the boy. “If you throw that rock in the yard I’ll…” Her voice faded into an unintelligible shriek of laughter shortly after she ran pell-mell after him.
A deep masculine chuckle behind me reminded me of the new arrival. I turned with an apology on my tongue only to pause at the sight of the man’s smile, wide and unreserved. For the first time, I noted his straight nose, strong jaw, and messy dark brown hair. His features were pleasing enough, but accompanied by his towering height and impressive size, he gave an intimidating impression undercut by the laughter in his silver-blue eyes.
“My apologies. The children aren’t usually this loud and disruptive.”
“I doubt that. She is a little spitfire,” He commented. “Your daughter?”
I shook my head slowly. “The cook’s daughter. I am unmarried.”
He accepted this clarification with a nod.
“If you would follow me,” I said, turning away. “The cook will be delighted that this have arrived. The last platter broke this morning and we have been using our wooden bowls for weeks.”
I led the way through into the corridor beyond, holding the door open behind me with my foot.
“I have come a long way. Is it possible for me to take a room for the night?” He caught the door with one large hand, freeing me to guide him.
“Certainly. We have three single rooms with just enough room for a bed and washstand and four larger rooms where travelers share the space with others. Then there is the barn out back with a large loft which serves as a makeshift overflow space. No one has reserved any of the single rooms, should you wish one of those. It is first come first serve.” I glanced over my shoulder at him, noting how his large frame filled the narrow corridor. “Perhaps you should check to see if a single room will suit you before you decide. They are narrow.”
“A single will suit me fine.” He ducked through the opening into the vestibule at the back of the inn and opening into the courtyard and the stables beyond. He straightened to his full height and surveyed the room. Recently scrubbed glazed terracotta tiles lined the floor. Hooks for wraps, hats, and other various sundries gear needed for running the inn. On one side of the room, the stairwell climbed steeply up to the next floor. Above our heads, Essie’s squeals and both children’s footfalls echoed through the building.
“What vehicle did you bring?” I asked, eager to distract him from the cacophony.
“A horse and cart.” He eyed the chipped tiles beneath his feet with interest. “My horse isn’t particular about his accommodations. Do you wish for the crates to be brought in here?”
“Yes.” I motioned toward the wall beneath the stairs. “If you could set them against there and not block the walkway, it will work until we can unpack them and put everything away.”
Setting the half-full pail beneath the bench under the hooks, I wiped my hands on my apron. “If you would follow me, I will show you where to take your horse.”
We were greeted at the door into the courtyard by a mad clucking and wing flapping.
“I fed the chickens!” Winnie yelled out in greeting from across the yard. Chickens scattered in her wake as she walked through the midst of their feeding frenzy. “I am off to visit Gatty.” She flapped a shawl end over her shoulder and started striding off toward the wooden arch bridging the gap between the inn and the stable.
“Wait,” I called after her, but she ignored me. “That was my cousin Winnie,” I explained ruefully as the delivery man came to stand next to me. “I hoped to introduce you. Maybe this evening during dinner.” Then a thought suddenly occurred to me. “I am sorry. I just realized I haven’t even introduced myself.” I turned to him and extended my hand. “My name is Cecily. And yours?”
He took my fingers in his work-roughened hand and to my utter surprise, he bowed over them like I was a highborn lady. “A pleasure to meet you, Cecily. I am called Hugo Winder.”
“As in the son of the owner of Winder’s Potteries?” My face grew warm when he didn’t release my hand immediately. Instead, he gently squeezed my fingers. He straightened. Gazing down at me from his significant height, he flashed a grin with laughter in his striking blue eyes. “As in the owner of Winder’s Potteries.”