After the furniture maker left the next afternoon Count Vincent asked Meredith to go for a ride with him. She agreed happily and went ahead to get the stable boys to prepare the horses. Henry stopped the count in the halls. “My lord, Meredith is a young lady you hired.”
“I know Henry.”
“A very lovely young lady my lord, but a servant none the less.”
“Thank you Henry. Have you arranged for new dresses yet?” Henry nodded in reply as the count marched off.
The next morning Count Vincent and Meredith went for a walk around the grounds. He wanted to add more gardens but didn’t know what or where to add. Meredith suggested several flowers with meaning and an herb garden for cooking and medicinal value. He asked if she knew anything about gardening but she did not.
He looked at her a long moment “There’s more to you than you admit Meredith. Why did you run away?”
“My lord, why not ask what you really want to know?” He stared at her “I’ll save you the trouble. I will not tell you from where or why I came my lord. My secrets are mine to keep.” She said as she went inside.
That afternoon a gardener was sent for and plans were drawn up for three new gardens. Meredith’s new dresses arrived as well and the count made it a point to stop by the kitchen to see her while she cooked dinner. Hetty the old cook Henry hired shooed him out scolding him in French. Meredith was laughing. She apparently spoke French. He did as well but it surprised him that she did too.
Friday they went to the market just as they planned. Meredith had a field day in the rows of stands selling cloth. With a little help they purchased enough material to get a start on covers for the main rooms and matching curtains. When they arrived home three women waited to help Meredith with the sewing. She left the draperies to them and wanted to start on the covers but the count insisted they go for a ride.
The rugs they purchased arrived and the house began feeling like a home. Every week another piece was added and another servant was hired or let go as needed. After the count finished working or attending other matters in the morning he stole Meredith away in the afternoon. They would go riding or for walks and lately he began teaching her to fence. Their worst sport though was playing tricks on Henry. The count insisted he did the same when he was a boy and was merely picking up where he left off. Meredith was torn she liked Henry but she also enjoyed the game.
One morning Count Vincent was on his way to meet Meredith when Henry stopped him in the hall. “My lord you did not hire Miss Meredith to be your playmate.”
“Henry,” Vincent scoffed.
“Sir, she is a servant your father would be most distressed if he knew what were going on especially given your circumstance. The young lady has been here two years and still has not put this house to right.”
“It looks great Henry.”
“My lord have you forgotten the Bridal Chamber?”
“No I have not, she’ll finish it when she’s ready.” Vincent was suddenly in a less forgiving mood.
“Have you even seen it?”
“I promised her I would not until it was finished.” Vincent sighed “Henry please it will be fine look at what she’s done with the rest of house. It’s beautiful.”
“Just like her I’m sure.” Vincent gave him a cross look “My lord I’m only saying this for your own good. Get her to finish the room and send her away.”
“Henry I’m surprised at you. She’s a friend just like you.” Henry didn’t look convinced. “Are you saying that a boy and a girl can’t be friends?”
“My lord I am only saying that Miss Meredith grows lovelier everyday to all of us in so many ways.”
The count was walking back from the library one evening when he heard music from a room down the hall. The door was ajar and Meredith was inside. She sat in a chair playing a lute and sang in Italian. He listened at the door a moment before stepping inside. She stopped at once and stood up. “My lord I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
“You did not disturb me. I heard music and came to investigate. What song were you singing?”
“I don’t know some folk song my lord.”
“Is it my lord I did not know.”
“Where did you learn to play?”
“A friend taught me.”
The count looked around the room considering what she’d said “I have never been in this room.”
“Do you like it? Every lady should have a music room.”
“Of course, will you sing me another?”
“My lord I really should get back to my sewing.”
“Just one, I promise not to tell Henry.”
“Any requests my lord?”
“Something a little more lively.” Vincent sat in a chair across from her as she strummed up a tune.
Meredith was in the kitchen up to her elbows in dough laughing with Heddy when the count found her. Three men followed him in. It surprised her to see him accompanied by others. They were all about his age and handsome but they knew it which made them swagger. Meredith rolled her eyes and concentrated on her work. “There she is I told you she was real enough. Who else but a lovely young woman could set a house to right?” the count said to his friends. “Meredith this is Matthew, John, and Alexander; duke, duke and count.” Meredith looked up politely wiping away a stray hair with the back of her hand and in the process spreading flour over her cheeks.
“My lords forgive me I seem to have my hands full.”
Alexander smiled at her “Of course, Vincent tells us that you are quite the song bird would you sing for us this afternoon?”
“I’m sorry my lord but I have to go to market.”
“Surely Heddy can go.” Vincent offered.
Meredith turned to him “My lord it’s for the last room.”
“Very well,” he looked to his disappointed friends. “Perhaps another time then, come gentlemen let us finish our business.”
Meredith returned from the market that evening ready to attend her sewing and was surprised to see the table set in the dining room. She stepped inside and the doors closed behind her. Vincent smiled at her. “My lord what is the meaning of this?”
“Meredith you’ve been avoiding me for weeks its just dinner.” She nodded finally pulling off her wrap.
“You did not buy anything?”
“I can not find what I am looking for.” He nodded and pulled out a chair for her.
After that evening she avoided more dinners with Vincent but he would sit where ever she was sewing or working. She found it hard to slip away to play the lute in the music room and missed it terribly. She thought about letting him listen but knew it wouldn’t be proper. Henry would put a stop to it but he had been absent lately. Her only option was to finish the room and search for other employment.
Henry stopped Meredith in the halls and nearly scared the wits out of the girl. She looked at him incredulously. “Where have you been?”
“The count sent me on an urgent errand. Miss Meredith there is something I must ask.” He pulled her into a spare bedroom and shut the door. “I’m afraid I must ask you to leave.”
“I can’t Henry the last room isn’t done.”
“But you told me two months ago it was nearly done.”
“Yes but then I started over.”
“You what? Why?”
“Henry I heard what you said to the Count he’s getting married.” Henry nodded. “He wouldn’t have liked the room I started before but this one is perfect for newlyweds. Henry I need your help. You have to get him out of the house for a day so we can switch some furniture and we need some men to do the lifting. Then I need you to be our chaperone.”
“I was afraid of this.”
“Henry its not me I swear, he is handsome and charming but it would never work. Oh God Henry please.”
“Of course I will Meredith.”
“I will leave as soon as I can.”
“This is your home too, you could come back once he was married.”
“No I can’t,” Meredith turned and walked away.
Vincent went hunting three days later and men came in from town to move furniture. Meredith switched out the beds from one room and furnishings from other rooms. The curtains had already arrived two days ago and were hung. The maids helped with the other décor in the room and put the other rooms back together. Meredith eyed over the Bridal Chamber but something was still missing. Henry seemed pleased but she couldn’t let it go. She closed the doors and went to one of the other bed rooms they’d rearranged.
This room received the linens she’d originally furnished the bridal chamber in. Peach drapes with sage green tassels. Red rugs with gold lattice, it was lovely. She sat on the window seat and picked up the lute from where’d she’d hidden it. She strummed a soft tune thinking about the other room. Then she knew what it needed.
Meredith sat by the window with yards of light blue fabric draped over her lap as she diligently stitched tiny gold vines. The count entered the room and looked at her “What are you up to?”
“A surprise my lord.” She smiled before returning to her stitching.
“Will you come for a ride?”
“I have too much work to do my lord.” He nodded and left.
That evening Meredith sat by the fire still stitching. “Meredith stop you’ll go blind.” The count took the fabric from her lap and draped it over the back of an adjacent chair. “I have something for you.”
“For me, my lord?” he nodded and threw a shawl around her shoulders. It was lined with silk and felt cool against her skin. She’d almost forgotten the cool elegance. She ran a hand over the outside and realized it was fur. “My lord I can not accept this.”
“Don’t you like it? Their the foxes I got a few days ago.”
“It’s much too expensive.”
“Then you can earn it.” He handed her the lute. “Sing me a song.”
“I…” she looked around and noticed Henry in the shadows. “Only one but I still can’t accept this.”
“Well I won’t take it back.”
Meredith continued her stitching and the count continued to try to see her. She kept making excuses not to be alone with him but soon found it increasingly hard to convince herself that’s what she wanted. One evening the count appeared with a book. He read quietly until Henry left for bed. Vincent looked to Meredith “Will you tell me why you ran away now Meredith?”
“My secrets are mine just as yours are yours my lord.”
“I want to show you something Meredith will you come with me if I promise to behave?” Meredith set aside her sewing. She glanced for Henry secretly glad he’d gone to bed. The count took her elbow but not her arm. Meredith was actually disappointed and made it a point to scold herself.
Vincent stopped in front of a door and removed a candle from the wall sconce before opening it. He motioned Meredith in and followed. He lit several more candles inside; it was the room Meredith furnished with peach linens. “Why are we here?”
“I was roaming through the halls and noticed this room changed.”
“I decided I didn’t like it my lord.”
“And is this more suiting?”
“Oh it’s quite lovely.” She said happily. In fact it was nearly her favorite room. Vincent crossed the room and picked up the lute from the window seat.
“Apparently you like it a lot.”
“My lord forgive me. It’s just that you know I play in the music room and its not appropriate that I play for you. But sometimes it helps me to think and I…”
“Meredith it’s all right, really, I was thinking no one sleeps here and it’s a waste of a beautiful room. I want this to be your room.”
“No,” Vincent stared at her “my lord I am a servant I can not.”
“What can it hurt Meredith, Henry has a room near mine.”
“So he can serve you my lord.”
“Please Meredith, even if I don’t know who you really are I know you were not always a servant. Take this room you may play here all you wish and I will not bother you.” Meredith finally relented. Not only could she play there but she could sew as well and finally have a refuge from the count.
Three nights of sewing alone in her room nearly drove Meredith crazy. She hated to admit it but she missed the count. After dinner the fourth night she sewed in the main room. Vincent read quietly all night with out a word. Henry left to prepare the counts room and Meredith got up to leave as well. “Good night my lord.”
My name is Vincent,” Meredith smiled and went to her room.
After lunch Meredith’s eyes needed a break so she went for a walk with Vincent. They kept their distance but talked the entire time. Henry followed but didn’t hear their conversation. They started going for walks every afternoon and it made Meredith’s sewing faster. Her stitches were neater and finer. The days were flying by now and spring was approaching. Things between she and Vincent were back to normal and she was able to forget that awful day when she heard Henry and Vincent talking. There was something more though something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
Meredith greeted the coachman warmly when he arrived to pick her up from the market. He smiled and nodded before opening the door. “My lord,” Meredith gasped when she saw Vincent inside “but where’s Henry?”
“On an urgent errand I’m afraid.” He helped her inside setting her package off to the side. Meredith arranged her skirt and pulled the blanket over her lap. “Heddy’s making a delightful meal, would you join me if I promise to behave?”
“I will my lord.”
“Vincent,” he corrected. Meredith looked to the blanket in her lap.
The count was right Heddy made a scrumptious five course meal that took most of the evening and all topics of conversation to finish. Towards the end of desert Vincent moved to the chair beside Meredith and sat down. He took her hand in his. “You promised to behave.” Meredith said quietly looking at his hand.
“Meredith please, I have given this a lot of thought. You would make me so happy if you would marry me.”
“Why would you say such a thing?” she asked and got up from the table. Before he could reply she left.
Meredith avoided Vincent the next morning but found him very distraught in the library after lunch. He brightened a little at seeing her. Meredith closed the door behind her. “Is Henry here?”
“No we are alone.”
Meredith nodded she pulled the chair beside his a little closer to him. “I am sorry for the way I reacted last night. It is just that I promised myself since I was little that I would not marry. I wanted always to remain strong and independent.”
“You could never be less. I was right when I guessed you were not always a servant?” Meredith nodded. “A lady of breeding, a duchess or a countess?”
“That is irrelevant.”
“But don’t you see that it is not?”
“Vincent it is, you are engaged to another.”
“How did you know?”
“I overheard you and Henry. This is to be your home.”
“I would rather it were our home. Meredith I have never even met her.”
“It is still irrelevant the reason I ran away is because I too am engaged to someone I never met.”
“Then let them marry each other.”
Meredith laughed lightly. “I am afraid my suitor can not be put off so easily.”
“Tell me who it is I will take care of it.” Meredith looked at him as he took her hand “Please Meredith I would give up everything I have to be with you.” Meredith realized then just how serious he was. He pulled her close and kissed her gently “We could run away together. They would never find us.” Meredith tried to speak but he stopped her “Just think about it please.”
Meredith went back to her room and tried to play hoping to clear her head but her thoughts were too jumbled to find the notes. She tried to sew but the stitches came out uneven. She went to the kitchen instead to speak with Heddy but somewhere along the way she already made a decision. She took the shopping list and her shawl and slipped out the door.
Vincent came home late that evening. The whole kingdom was in an uproar. He rushed to find Meredith wondering if she’d heard the bad news. She was in her room sobbing face down into her pillows. “Meredith are you all right?” he sat down on the edge of the bed and put his hand on the small of her back. “I know it is horrible news. I can hardly believe it myself. He was such a good man the entire kingdom is in shock.”
“The kingdom? What has happened?” she asked lifting her head.
“The king, King Edward died this morning. But you did not know? Why were you crying?” she sobbed horribly again.
“My father is dead.” She sobbed even harder. “I went to the market, my father is dead, his servant told me.” She took a deep breath “funeral is in a few days.” She sobbed again “I must go.”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“No you must go to the king’s service or you will be missed. I will send word when I can.” She dried her eyes with her handkerchief and sat up.
“Don’t you think you should wait till morning?”
“I’ve been gone long enough besides my coach should be here soon.”
“And have my brother hunt you down?” she shook her head grimly. He got up and she followed. She straightened her dress and hair in the mirror “What a mess.” She sighed.
“Still beautiful.” She moved for her bag but Vincent took it instead. “Maybe this will change your situation.”
“Maybe,” she replied but didn’t believe it. She put her fox wrap around her shoulders. “Thank you for your kindness Vincent.” He kissed her quickly before she opened the door and took the bag.