Well, I’ve been incredibly remiss in posting Excerpt Wednesday bits, and now it’s Thursday and I haven’t posted anything. But never fear! I’ve been hard at work. Starting at the end of this month, I’ll be publishing something new and exciting. The Brynthwaite Boys is a serial. Yep, a good, old fashioned serial. It has 12 episodes that are about 18,000 words a piece (longer than a short story, but not quite a novella), and I’ll be publishing the first four upfront, then one a week until it’s done. The whole point of this story is to be like one of those awesome BBC historical drama series that I love so much (like Downton Abbey, Lark Rise to Candleford, Outlander, Call the Midwife…you know). Here’s a peek at how it starts, complete with most of the characters being introduced….
Episode One – A Promising Start
Brynthwaite, Cumbria – 1895
The afternoon train from the city of Manchester to the scenic town of Brynthwaite was forty-five minutes late. Other passengers may have enjoyed the leisurely journey through the Lake District’s pastoral hills, misty forests, and fertile valleys. They may have gasped at the beauty of each new vista as the train meandered its way through green fields, fresh with May blooms. They skies were a crisp blue with only a few white clouds on the horizon, but Flossie Stowe could only think of one thing. If the train didn’t hurry, she would be late for the appointment that could change her life.
“Brynthwaite,” a porter called, poking his head into the third-class car. “Brynthwaite, next stop.”
Flossie let out a breath of relief as she felt the train slow. Just as quickly, she took in a new one. It was a small miracle that fortune had dropped this opportunity in her lap, just when it was most needed. Her wages at Crestmont Grange had been adequate. She’d certainly been able to send the much-needed funds home to her sister, Betsy, and then some. But Betsy always needed more, and the unpleasantness from Crestmont was still there. The people of Brynthwaite surely had their opinions on the building of a modest hotel in their town, but they could never know what a godsend it was for those who truly needed it.
The train’s whistle sounded, and outside the window the countryside gave way to clusters of cottages and outbuildings, then larger yards and warehouses, and finally the imposing stone edifice of the train station itself. Already a decent crowd had gathered on the platform—workmen in overalls ready to unload cargo, porters in their crisp uniforms, eyes already trained on first-class, where they might hope to get the best tips, and townspeople of all description, waiting for visitors.
“Polly,” Flossie gasped in relief at the sight of her friend waiting with the others. Polly was hard to miss, with her copper-gold hair and cheery face. Growing up together in Lincolnshire they had been nicknamed “the two Irish lasses,” Polly for her copper hair and green eyes and Flossie for her black hair and blue eyes, though neither one of them had a drop of Irish blood, that they knew of. They’d been as inseparable as sisters until age and the need to work had pulled them apart. But not anymore.
Flossie poked her head out the train’s open window and waved to her friend. Polly’s face lit up when she saw her.
“Flossie,” she cried with all the youthful exuberance the two of them had had as girls.
It was torture to wait for the train to stop fully and for Flossie to shuffle into line with the rest of the departing passengers. She let an older couple go before her and took a moment to help a frazzled mother with her young children on her way out, but at long last, she stepped down from the train and onto the platform.
“You’re here,” Polly called to her, rushing to meet Flossie in a warm embrace that had both of them giggling. “You’re actually here. I can hug you and see you and everything.”
“I am here,” Flossie laughed aloud. “But I’m late. Oh, Polly, I’m so late. My appointment with Mr. Throckmorton is at two-thirty, and it’s already quarter-past now.”
“I know,” Polly exclaimed. She grabbed Flossie’s hand and tugged her to the end of the platform, closer to the station. “I’ve been waiting here for an hour, growing more anxious by the minute. Lady Elizabeth gave me leave to come meet you, but I don’t think she expected it to take this long.”
“Oh no.” Flossie pressed a hand to her racing heart. “Will she be very upset?”
Polly laughed. “I doubt it. She doesn’t have immediate need for her lady’s maid in the middle of the afternoon, especially not when she’s at home with no one but her aunt and her cousin and anyone who decides to pay a call. Which could mean half the gentlemen in the county, come to think of it.”
“That much is a relief, at least.” Flossie knew how much fine ladies relied on their maids from the way that Lady Morley at Crestmont had driven poor Miss Lambert half mad with her constant requests, but from the regular correspondence Polly had sent to Flossie, it was apparent that “Lady E.” was quite different than Lady Morley.
“Do you have a ticket for your luggage?” Polly asked, tugging Flossie further on.
“I do somewhere,” Flossie replied, handling the small, cast-off reticule that her former employer had thrown in the rag-bag years ago.
“Good.” Polly pushed her along. “We’ll come back for your things later. Right now, it’s important to get you to The Dragon’s Head as soon as possible.”
“The Dragon’s Head,” Flossie laughed as they climbed down the stairs at the back of the station and into a busy street. “The name sounds more like a pub than a hotel.”
“Lady E. says that Mr. Throckmorton chose the name for its novelty,” Polly said, steering them to the left and up a slight hill. “She says that Mr. Throckmorton’s other hotels are all named something quite banal, like The King’s Arms Hotel in Birmingham or The Lion’s Mark in London, but that he wanted something that would truly stand out for Brynthwaite.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Flossie said, puffing to keep up with Polly’s fast pace. “Brynthwaite isn’t half so fine or large as any of those towns.”
“Which is precisely why he needed a name to inspire a sense of grandeur,” Polly laughed. “Although the other bit of speculation I heard is that Mr. Throckmorton was in one of his tempers when he was pressed for a name and he overheard his solicitor call him a fire-breathing dragon. Can you imagine?” She burst into a peel of laughter.
All Flossie could do was imagine. She’d been imagining little else but the comings and goings of the lives of people in Brynthwaite since Polly began writing to her. It seemed that Polly knew something about everyone in town—possibly more than they suspected—on account of her position as lady’s maid to the grand dame of the area. Lady Elizabeth’s father, Lord Gerald Dyson, Earl of Thornwell, may have been the reigning lord of the land, but he was old and infirm, and his only child, Lady Elizabeth, was the squire in every way but name and gender. As her letters attested, Polly considered it her duty to keep Lady E. informed of everything in the lives of all of Brynthwaite’s citizens, a duty for which she had been rewarded with the position of lady’s maid at the tender age of twenty-six.
And Polly was devoted to her duties.
“Of course, guests will come to the hotel to enjoy the scenery,” she prattled on. “There isn’t much else this far from civilization but scenery. Lucky for Mr. Throckmorton, holidays in the country are all the rage. He told Lady E. that his hotel will cater to only the finest custom, and—oh!”
“What?” Flossie stumbled at her friend’s sudden exclamation.
“Look over there.” Polly lowered her voice to a whisper, slowing her steps and glancing to the other side of the street.
Flossie looked. A gentleman who appeared to be in his late-thirties with dark hair and a moustache, wearing a bowler hat rushed up the street, dodging a fellow pedestrian. A woman with three girls in tow chased him.
“Marshall Pycroft, where do you think you’re going?” the woman shouted. A few people on the street glanced her way and frowned. The man slowed his steps and winced. Flossie blinked in surprise as the woman went on. “Yesterday it was the baking, and today you tell me I need to do my own washing as well? Like we were common farm laborers?”
The man in the bowler turned back to her, jaw clenched. “Could we not discuss this later this evening, when I am home, Clara?”
“And why should I hold my peace?” The woman, Clara, raised her voice. “Are you ashamed to have our neighbors know how low we have sunk? I left London for this, Marshall, London,” she all but wept. “I left my home and my family. I thought I would be a doctor’s wife, respected and admired, but I’m nothing but a drudge now.”
“Please, Clara, keep your voice down.”
“That’s Dr. Pycroft,” Polly whispered, tugging Flossie on. “He grew up here, at the very hospital he runs now. It used to be an orphanage then.”
“And it’s a hospital now,” Flossie said, remembering aloud the details Polly had written to her. Brynthwaite Municipal Orphanage had been the home to many children, ostensibly in the attempt to keep them out of the workhouse. It had been so badly run, though, that the crown had shut it down ten years ago and converted it into Brynthwaite Hospital. Dr. Marshall Pycroft had been hired to run the place a few years ago, though what that entailed, Flossie could only manage.
“I can do the washing, Mama,” the oldest of the girls tagging behind Mrs. Pycroft spoke up. “I’m old enough.”
“Quiet, Mary,” Mrs. Pycroft snapped. “I won’t have a daughter of mine stooping as low as a washerwoman.”
“Mrs. Pycroft thinks awfully well of herself,” Polly went on, sending a sly look across the street to the bickering couple before picking up speed again. “She thinks that because her father was a solicitor in a London firm, her feet smell better than half the folks in Brynthwaite. They don’t have any money, though. The hospital survives on a tiny stipend from the crown, and the rest is up to Dr. Pycroft himself to raise. Lady E. helps out as much as she can, but one can only do so much.”
“Oh, I see.” Flossie sent one last look over her shoulder to Dr. Pycroft and his wife. They were clearly still bickering, but they’d lowered their voices. Flossie’s heart went out to the Pycroft girls, Mary and her sisters, who stood there looking dejected.
She wasn’t the only one who noticed the argument. A few yards up, a man was watching the Pycroft’s with a pained look on his face. He was a strange man too, to Flossie’s reckoning. He was handsome, probably the same age as Dr. Pycroft, and wore simple, workman’s clothes. His sleeves were rolled up to show strong forearms, but he held himself with the grace of a noble. And he carried the strangest lattice of iron over one shoulder.
“Who is that?” Flossie asked.
Polly paused and turned to look. The man across the street turned in time to see the two of them staring. He smiled and nodded. Flossie smiled and dipped her head in return. Polly gasped.
“Don’t look at him, don’t look at him!” she said, grabbing Flossie’s hand and rushing on.
“What? Why?” Flossie missed a step in her haste to catch up.
“That’s Lawrence Smith.”
Flossie shook her head. “Who is he?”
“He’s the blacksmith,” Polly hissed, careful not to face him, although her eyes darted to the side.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a blacksmith,” Flossie said.
“It’s not that,” Polly went on. “He’s…he’s mysterious.”
“Mysterious?” Flossie laughed. “He just looks like a kind and comely man to me. You’ve never mentioned him in your letters.”
“There are some things a lady can’t write about. He’s a gypsy,” Polly said. “Or at least he would be if it weren’t for the fact that he was born and raised in Brynthwaite.”
“Then he’s not a gypsy,” Flossie reasoned, although from his dark coloring, he easily could have been.
“Folks still swear that he is,” Polly explained. “Mr. Smith was raised at the orphanage too. There’s plenty who think that his folks were gypsies, and that for some reason they dropped him off here and left him. What kind of man is he if even the gypsies didn’t want him?”
“He wasn’t a man when he was left at the orphanage, he was a baby,” Flossie reasoned. “You can’t tell what kind of man a baby is going to grow up to be.”
“Oh, but he did grow up to be that man,” Polly insisted, her green eyes round. “He’s not a Christian,” she whispered as though it were the gravest of sins. “He practices the old ways. There’s folk who say they’ve caught him saying chants at the full moon and putting curses on people.”
Flossie laughed. “I don’t believe in curses.”
“You might if you—oh!” Polly peeked over her shoulder, then snapped straight and picked up her pace. “Don’t look now, but he’s following us.”
Flossie did look. All she saw was a man carrying an iron contraption over his shoulder, smiling as though he enjoyed the fine summer day as much as the larks and the bees. He didn’t seem like the kind who would curse anyone.
“Are you sure he’s that sinister?” she asked Polly.
Polly bit her lip, slow to answer. “Well, he is friendly with Dr. Pycroft. Because they were raised together at the orphanage, you see. And Mr. Throckmorton was too.”
“What, Mr. Throckmorton who owns hotels in London and Manchester, and The Dragon’s Head too?”
“And a hotel in Liverpool.” Polly nodded. “He’s a Brynthwaite boy. Raised at the orphanage and sent out to seek his fortune, same as Dr. Pycroft. Only, where Dr. Pycroft went in for schooling and doctoring, Mr. Throckmorton was more interested in getting rich and building things.”
“So he’s friends with Mr. Smith?”
“Yes,” Polly said. She frowned. “I think. He must be. But it’s hard to tell, since Mr. Throckmorton has only been in town for a fortnight now. But I see him and Dr. Pycroft entering The Fox and Lion Pub together all the time, and Mr. Smith with them sometimes.” She paused to consider. “Yes, I’m certain they’re friends. I wonder if Lady E. knows about this?” She considered it, then shook her head. “A man as rich and powerful as Mr. Throckmorton being friends with a gypsy like Mr. Smith is not something you see every day.”
“No,” Flossie agreed.
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