Starcross Dreams – Merry Farmer

Ahange was coming to Starcross Castle, and Poppy Miller could hardly contain her excitement. “Just imagine,” she sighed, stars in her eyes as she brushed her hand over the collection of fabric samples spread out across the table in the morning parlor. “Ginny and Harry are married and couldn’t be happier, Lady Mariah is months away from giving Lord Peter the child he’s always wanted, so many new maids and footmen have been hired, everyone is switching up places between here and the London house, and we’re all getting new uniforms on top of it.” She added another fond sigh, and picked up a swatch of cornflower blue fabric, rubbing it on her cheek. Miss Victoria Travers laughed and shook her head. “Oh, Poppy. I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’re such a delight.” All at once, Poppy remembered her place. Her cheeks went bright pink, and she set the fabric swatch back on the table. “I’m so sorry, miss,” she said with a quick curtsy for Miss Victoria, and one for Lady Mariah, who was seated at the far end of the table. “I’m sorry, my lady. I’ve forgotten myself.” “It’s all right, Poppy,” Lady Mariah smiled. She leaned back in her chair, rubbing the cheery bump of her stomach and smiling.

“I can’t help but feel as though Starcross Castle needs more high spirits and light hearts after everything it’s been through.” Lady Mariah sent a covert look to her sister, who was comparing two swatches of fabric in subtly different shades of lavender. It was true, the summer had been an odd one. Lord Peter’s nephew and former heir, Lord William, had met a violent end at the hands of men he owed money to in the late spring. And it was whispered that he’d abused Miss Victoria horribly before his death. If that were true, Lord William’s gory end was justified, as far as Poppy was concerned, especially since Miss Victoria’s spirits had been so depressed. But with the arrival of trunks and trunks worth of Miss Victoria’s belongings the month before, it had been announced that the unfortunate young woman would be joining the household of Starcross Castle permanently. Or at least until she felt well enough to strike out on her own and seek a husband, like all well-born young woman did. “I like the blue,” Miss Victoria said, “But isn’t it a little bright for servant’s uniforms?” Poppy glanced from Miss Victoria to Lady Mariah, her brow inching up hopefully. She loved the blue, loved the idea of bright, happy dresses to wear as she went about her duties as a maid in Starcross Castle.

The grey they wore now seemed so drab. But it wasn’t her place to say anything. “I was leaning toward the green myself,” Lady Mariah said, standing and reaching for a swatch of dark bluish-green that reminded Poppy of the sea on a sunny day after a storm. “It seems very Cornish.” Lady Mariah leaned forward to reach across the table, and Poppy jumped into action. “Let me fetch that for you, my lady. We don’t want you straining yourself.” Lady Mariah laughed. “Lifting swatches of fabric is hardly straining myself.” She stepped back, a hand on her belly, and let Poppy rush in to hand her the swatch in question.

“You’re all turning out to be as bad as Peter when it comes to not letting me do anything. I’m hardly far enough along to warrant all the fuss.” “You can never be too careful, my lady,” Poppy said. She then proceeded to catch her foot on the edge of the carpet and stumble forward with a loud shriek. As she went down, she flailed for the edge of the table, but rather than grabbing the solid wood of the table’s edge, she grasped a square of cardboard to which several swatches were attached. It did nothing to stop her fall, and as she yanked it, a dozen and more wisps of fabric flew into the air, scattering in every direction. Worse still, as Poppy hit the ground, she grabbed hold of Lady Mariah’s skirt, jerking her off-balance. Lady Mariah was far more graceful than Poppy was and kept herself upright, but a loud rip sounded all the same. “Oh no! Oh no, my lady, I’m so sorry.” Hardly aware of her own bruises, Poppy scrambled to her knees, checking her mistress’s skirt to see where the damage had been done.

“I’ll fix it. I swear I’ll fix it. I’m not as good with a needle as Ginny is, and if you’d rather wait until she and Harry get back from their honeymoon, I’ll understand. But I can fix it if you’d like.” Fortunately for her, Lady Mariah burst into laughter. Miss Victoria giggled as well and came to help Poppy to her feet. Embarrassment had Poppy as hot as blazes. “I can’t see where the rip happened,” Miss Victoria said, still holding Poppy’s arm. “It was probably just the hem.” Lady Mariah chuckled.

“I need to have all of my dresses let out a bit more soon anyhow.” “I can do it, my lady. If you need me to.” “That won’t be necessary,” Lady Mariah said, mirth sparkling in her eyes. She took her seat as Poppy began retrieving the spilled swatches from the floor. “Domenica recommended a seamstress in Truro who has been making new clothes for my confinement, as well as altering a few older dresses.” Poppy’s eyes widened as she put the swatches back on the table. Mrs. Domenica Tennant was something of an enigma and a legend, as far as she was concerned. The tall, dark woman was born in America and was of Spanish heritage.

She had married Lord Peter’s friend, Captain Albert Tennant, more than a year ago, and had come to Lady Mariah’s rescue in the spring, when Lord William was causing his final problems. There were rumors that Mrs. Tennant had led a wicked past, but that only made her more fascinating in Poppy’s eyes. “I should have been a captain’s wife,” she said aloud before she could stop herself. “A captain’s wife?” Miss Victoria blinked at her, barely hiding her amusement. “What brings this on?” “Oh! I…I’m sorry, miss.” Poppy blushed as she attempted to set things back to right on the table. “It’s just that I’m not sure I was meant to live the life of a housemaid.” “Do you think so?” Lady Mariah asked. “Would it help if we sent you to London when we shuffle the staff?” Poppy’s eyes went wide with alarm.

“Oh no, my lady. I couldn’t possibly. I mean, I know it would be a lovely opportunity and that London is an exciting, sophisticated place. But I couldn’t possibly leave Nick—I mean, Starcross Castle—I mean, Cornwall and my family and all my sisters.” She was babbling and knew it. Her face had gone red-hot. “Nick?” Miss Victoria asked, a sly, falsely-innocent grin curving her mouth into a spritely bow. “Nick Parson, the head gardener?” Lady Mariah asked, also smiling. “Did I say a name?” Poppy attempted to cover her slip with a squeak. “I don’t remember.

All I know is that I would miss my mother and my sisters terribly. I have five younger sisters, you know. I’m the oldest, and Delly—which is short for Delphinium—is a few years younger than me. She thinks she’s very important and won’t marry Jack Fisher —who is a fisherman, believe it or not—because of it.” Poppy was sure her face shone like the sun, it was so hot. And she was equally sure that her words didn’t make a lick of sense. Miss Victoria and Lady Mariah exchanged grins that told Poppy her words had all been for naught anyhow. The two of them had heard what she’d said and wouldn’t soon forget. Lady Mariah cleared her throat and picked up the swatch of green fabric. “So, green or blue for the new servant’s uniforms?” Her lips twitched and her eyes sparkled, even though she didn’t look directly at Poppy.

“I suppose it all depends on what colors you think are appropriate,” Miss Victoria answered. Her grin almost certainly had nothing to do with the appropriateness of colors for livery. “Could you do one color for Starcross Castle and one for Dunsford House?” “I think that’s a splendid idea,” Lady Mariah said. “Although from what I understand of Mrs. Driscoll, she would put her foot down and refuse any but the dullest, drabbest colors.” Poppy nodded sagely. Mrs. Driscoll, the housekeeper of Dunsford’s House, Lord Peter’s London residence, was well known to be a battle ax. She brooked no nonsense and ran a tight ship. Which was the other reason Poppy had no interest in transferring to the London house.

But it wasn’t the main reason. She’d said too much by mentioning Nick’s name, but truth be told, she adored Nick Parsons. He was older than her and so handsome it tied her insides in knots just thinking about him. He’d been the head gardener at Starcross since his father passed away suddenly several years ago. Poppy had fallen in love with him from the moment she joined the staff of Starcross as a kitchen maid three years ago. And unlike most of the other male staff, Nick didn’t treat her like a silly little joke. He talked to her when their paths crossed. He smiled at her when they spotted each other across the garden. He’d also come to her rescue more times than she could count. “So if not a maid, what would you be, Poppy?” Miss Victoria asked.

Poppy blinked, shaking herself when she realized that she’d lapsed into staring out the window with a dreamy smile. “Oh, um….” She hid her embarrassment at being caught wool-gathering by attempting to straighten the fabric swatches. Which mostly meant pushing them around aimlessly. “I would be a wife and a mother,” she said. “Admirable professions,” Lady Mariah answered with an approving nod, her grin still as wide as the horizon. “I think you would make a brilliant wife and mother.” “If I could avoid burning supper, breaking every dish in the house, and dropping the baby,” Poppy laughed. Her mother was constantly reminding her how much presence of mind it took to run a smooth household, and telling Poppy she didn’t have the grace for the job. But Poppy knew she was wrong about that.

“Mama sent me here to be a maid so that I could hone my skills and learn a few things,” she went on. “But you would rather marry and have a family?” Lady Mariah asked. Poppy jerked to stand straight. “I’m sorry, my lady. I don’t mean it like that at all. I adore working for you. Starcross Castle is lovely. And I’ve grown so fond of Miss Victoria.” She turned to Miss Victoria with a smile of adoration. “I didn’t mean to imply that I was ungrateful or that I wanted something else.

” “Who wouldn’t want something else?” Miss Victoria asked with a coy grin, holding up the blue fabric swatch. “If that something else was as handsome as Mr. Parsons.” “I didn’t mean it like that,” Poppy stammered, blushing down to the roots of her hair. “Nick—I mean, Mr. Parsons—is lovely, yes, but he’s ever so much more important than I am. And I do enjoy working here, my lady.” She turned to Lady Mariah. “Honestly, I do.” Lady Mariah laughed and shook her head.

“Love is nothing to apologize for.” “It’s not love, my lady,” Poppy was quick to reply, lowering her head, unable to wipe the smile off her face, and thus proving that her words were a big, fat lie. “Mr. Parsons and I are friends is all.” Lady Mariah and Miss Victoria shared a look, then burst into snorting laughter. “Where have I heard that before?” Miss Victoria said. “Why, would it be the exact same thing Ginny said about Mr. Pond not more than a month ago?” Lady Mariah asked, teasing. “Hmm.” Miss Victoria tapped a finger to her chin.

“All right.” Poppy giggled. “I won’t try to deny it. I love Nick Parsons.” She sighed, clutching her hands to her chest. “He’s simply wonderful. I would drop everything to marry him in a second, if he wanted me.” “How do you know he doesn’t?” Miss Victoria asked. Poppy tilted her head to the side, considering. “To tell you the truth, miss.

I’m not sure what Nick wants. Mr. Parsons, I mean, begging your pardon.” Lady Mariah brushed her protest aside with a wave of her hand. “You should find out. For all you know, he could be pining for you the same way you’re pining for him.” “And we wouldn’t want another situation where two people in love waited too long to speak about it,” Miss Victoria added in reference to the turmoil Ginny and Harry had experienced before they finally confessed their true feelings for each other. Poppy frowned and bit her lip. It was true, a lot of heartache could have been spared if Ginny had been open and honest with Harry, and vice versa. Perhaps she should muster up her courage to come right out and tell Nick how she felt about him.

Although if he didn’t share those feelings, she would feel absolutely wretched. “It’s a bit of a gamble, isn’t it?” she said, still half in her thoughts. “Love?” Lady Mariah asked. Poppy shook herself to attention, remembering her place. “Yes, my lady.” She threw in a curtsy to remind herself and her mistress that she was, in fact, a servant, not a guest in the house. “It’s always a gamble to confess love.” Lady Mariah grinned, but looked a bit wistful. “I suppose it was lucky that Papa arranged my marriage to Peter. I never had to worry about whether he would have me.

” “And letting your heart guide you can be disastrous,” Miss Victoria said with sudden solemnity. She lowered her head, looking as though she might cry. The change happened so suddenly that Lady Mariah leapt from her seat and rushed to put her arms around her sister. Miss Victoria’s moods were like that, though. The horror of what had happened to her came upon her suddenly and viciously. Poppy backed away from the table, blushing. She was out of place in the moment between the sisters. “I’ll just see if Mrs. Wilson needs me,” she whispered, then bolted for the nearest door to give the two of them their time alone. The nearest door happened to be one of the parlor’s French doors, which was opened to the balmy, autumn afternoon.

Poppy slipped outside, shutting the door behind her, then scurried along the gravel path to be out of sight of the morning parlor. Of course, as she glanced back over her shoulder to make sure Lady Mariah and Miss Victoria could no longer see her, she veered to the left and stumbled over the border of one of the flower beds. The world pitched sideways, and before she knew it, she was sprawled on her backside in a cluster of chrysanthemums. Nick knew from the moment he saw Poppy slipping out through the door to the morning parlor, a flighty look on her face, that within moments, she was going to need his help. He straightened from the garden bed where he was turning the soil and mixing in his secret blend of peat and sulfur so that the hydrangeas he planned to plant in the spring would produce bright blue flowers, and watched as Poppy snuck away from the door. “What are you doing, you daft girl?” he murmured to himself, leaning on his rake as he watched her. There was nothing but fondness in his words and in the smile that spread across his face. There was something about Poppy that warmed his heart…and a few other parts of him. She was the sort of girl that most men wouldn’t give a second look. Her hair was an unremarkable light brown and tended not to stay in whatever style she set it in, or under her maid’s mobcap.

She was a tiny bit on the plump side, which rounded out her breasts and backside nicely, as far as he was concerned. The staff at Starcross Castle was always snickering behind their hands about how clumsy Poppy was— and she was—but she had the most beautiful, startlingly blue eyes Nick had ever seen. And she had far and away the kindest heart of any woman he’d ever met. Sure enough, within seconds of skipping away from the house, she yelped and dropped like a sack of flour into one of his flower beds. Nick shook his head and tossed his rake aside, musing to himself that he wouldn’t mind if she dropped into his actual bed. He had a feeling she’d be everything he’d ever dreamed about and more between his sheets. The thought had him hotter than he should have been as he strode up to the edge of the chrysanthemum bed, where she was just pushing herself to stand. His heart beat faster at the sight of her raised eyebrows and half-opened mouth, as though she couldn’t decide whether or not to laugh at herself. “All right, Poppy?” he asked, unable to keep the smile off his face or out of his voice. She squeaked and looked up at him, likely embarrassed to be caught.

But instantly her expression changed to a wide, dreamy smile, and those blue eyes of hers shone. A look like that could keep a man’s pride going for weeks. “Oh. Nick. I didn’t see you.” She blinked and glanced around. “I’m so sorry I squashed your garden.” Nick chuckled and bent to scoop her up in his arms. She might not have been a lithe and dainty thing, but he could still pick her up as though she weighed nothing. And frankly, he liked the feel of her in his arms.

So much so that he delayed putting her down for as long as he could. “The flowers can take it,” he said, walking to the side of the gravel path. On second thought, he didn’t think he’d put her down at all. Poppy looped her arms around his neck and glanced down at her skirt, then around at the ground. “Looking for something?” he asked. “My shoe. I don’t know where it went, but it’s most certainly not on my foot.” Nick craned his neck to look at her feet, poking out from under her skirt. One was clad in a ratty old shoe with fraying laces, the sole separating from the upper. The other was in nothing but a stocking.

He heaved a pretend dramatic sigh. “Now Poppy, what have I told you about those shoes of yours?” he asked, walking her to the wooden bench resting against the wall of the house. “That they’re too big for me and in disrepair, and that I would do well to spend some of my wages to buy a new pair,” she answered, making big, guilty doe-eyes at him. The look was so sweet that he felt blood rush straight to his groin. If he didn’t put her down soon, she’d feel it too. So he nestled her on the bench, then started back to the bed to look for her shoe. “So why haven’t you been to the cobbler yet?” he asked over his shoulder. “Well,” she began with a sigh. “First Delly needed two new pairs of stockings so that she could take that job in the shop in Falmouth. Then Beatrice needed a couple yards of fabric for new school dresses.

She’s growing like a weed these days. Then Angela broke her tooth, and Mama insisted on taking her to that fancy new doctor who only doctors teeth all the way up in St. Austell.” Nick listened, a strange, uncomfortable feeling growing in his chest. He found her missing shoe easily, noting that the lace had snapped clean through, and straightened to bring it back to her. “You can’t hand over all of your wages to your mum, you know,” he said, taking a seat next to her. “But Mama knows best,” she said with an authoritative nod. “And I couldn’t possibly sleep at night with new shoes and the knowledge that Angela’s tooth would be forever broken.” She was so good that it turned him inside out. And as she struggled to get her worn and mangled shoe back on, she glanced up at him with an obvious sort of adoration that made him want to take her in his arms and shelter her from the world.

Girls looked at him fetchingly all the time. He was attractive and well aware of it. But none of the women who had thrown themselves at him over the years did so with as little artifice as Poppy. None of them but Poppy had him looking back with just as much admiration. And it was always the good girls that turned into wildcats when you finally got them on their backs. Of course, with Poppy, a quick tumble wouldn’t be enough. Her kind of sweetness demanded promises of forever. Promises he would gladly have given her right that very moment. If he could. “Why don’t you let me buy you a new pair of shoes,” he said.

“It’s the least I could do.” In fact, it was likely the most he would ever be able to do, and it tore him apart. Poppy blushed, finished tying her shoe, and straightened her skirts. The fact that she’d had her skirts hiked to her knees without a single hint of flirtation or the slightest idea that it could be construed as seductive only squeezed Nick’s chest tighter. “I couldn’t do that, Nick,” she said in a voice so low it was almost a whisper. “You need to save your money for something you want.” I want you, Nick thought to himself. I’d give the world for you, shoes and all. “What if I found a serviceable pair of shoes second-hand?” he asked. Poppy hummed uncertainly and stood.

“I could probably find something worthwhile in the church donation box.” Her words felt like an arrow in his heart. She shouldn’t have to rely on charity. She should have the finest things money could buy, and he should be the one giving them to her. He stood, his smile kind and fond, but showing no hint of how deep his feelings truly ran. “What if I speak to Lord Peter or Lady Mariah for you? I’m sure they would give you something much better than those old clod-hoppers.” Poppy laughed. She pressed a hand to her mouth and glanced down at her feet, tapping her mangy toes together. “Clod-hoppers. I like that.

It makes it sound as though I go bounding through the fields like a rabbit.” He laughed with her. She was so artless it hurt. Being so close without being able to touch her hurt ten times more, though. “Well, as long as you promise to be careful and not to hop right into any more flower beds any time soon, I guess I’ll let it go this time,” he said. He couldn’t resist raising a hand to brush a bit of dirt off her cheek, not that his hands were particularly clean. “I promise, Nick,” she said, glancing up at him with that look that pierced his soul. “I should probably get back to work now. There’s so much to do with the shake-up in staff between here and London.” “I bet there is,” he said.

“We wouldn’t want Mrs. Wilson wondering where you are when she needs you, would we?” For a moment, she looked downright terrified. “We most certainly would not.” “Run along then, little rabbit,” he said with a wink. She blushed, and for a moment, a look that was far away from the innocent girl that most people thought she was filled her eyes. She didn’t let it linger, though. She turned and headed off for the house at a fast clip, turning to wave at him as she rounded the corner. Nick waved back, but his smile dropped when his hand did. If he could go back five years and shake some sense into the young and foolish man he’d been, he would do it in a heartbeat. He’d warn himself not to let a pretty face turn his head and cause him to make promises he wouldn’t want to keep.

He’d shout at himself not to get down on one knee and propose to Mavis.

.

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