Snow Storm by Cassie Mint

One

Quinn

Istep off the tour bus and hold back a yelp. The Collingwood Estate is huge—like something straight out of an Austen novel.

The towering mansion is fronted by a lake, with sculpted grounds stretching in all directions. Ivy creeps over the mansion walls, and there are more windows than I could possibly count. Our bus has stopped at the end of a long gravel driveway, and staff members bustle all around—one of them holding an honest-to-god feather duster.

Back home, I thought my neighbors were fancy because they had one of those rotating drives. But this?

I resist the urge to fan my armpits through my winter coat. Yikes. I’m getting dry mouth.

“The Duke of Collingwood holds several estates, but this is his primary residence…”

Our tour guide, Duncan, stands at the front of our group as the last stragglers file off the bus, scowling at our bleary eyes and yawns.

Sorry, Duncan—the yawns are nothing personal. We’re all rumpled and sleepy after a long drive from London. Hell, I’ve got jet lag on top of that, and I’m ready to fall asleep where I stand.

But… a duke, huh? Duncan’s words finally filter through my brain, and I suppress a smirk. I didn’t think they made those anymore.

“The estate consists of the main house, a number of guest houses and outbuildings, the stables, the tennis courts, the fishing lake and the Duke of Collingwood’s private wood.”

I blink, trying to imagine having my own tennis courts.

“We won’t see the whole estate today, obviously.” Duncan shoots us a dry look, like that’s our fault somehow. “Just the wing which is open to the public.” He gives us one last glare beneath his bushy eyebrows, then turns on his heel and marches away.

My ankle boots crunch over the gravel as we follow our vinegary old tour guide towards the mansion entrance, shivering and burrowing deeper into our coats. It’s freezing out here, the wind moaning across the grounds and ruffling the sculpted trees.

I can’t help imagining what it would be like if my new home was open to the public. If tour groups came into my cramped studio apartment and poked around my kitchen, talking loudly to each other about my choice of toaster.

Ha. I bet the duke hates these tours. I bet he’s a crusty, pompous old man who’d love nothing more than to set his dogs on us.

Still, as our legs stretch out and the frosty winter breeze blows the cobwebs from my brain, a grin blooms over my cheeks. I’m here. I finally made it.

My last semester in college, and I’m spending it abroad.

I’ve always known I’d manage it. Since I was willing to do whatever it took, to work however crazy hard I needed to, how could it not? But Mom and Dad were never so sure, and relief and excitement hum in my chest now.

My plane touched down two days ago. The Collingwood Estate is my first trip outside of London.

And I’ll be honest—this is more what I thought of, when I planned to visit England. Grand old houses and stuffy staff members in tuxedos. The kinds of places I’ve seen in so many movies.

My new studio is in a rough area of the city. But it’s cool. I’ll just take tons of trips like these.

“Stay close,” Duncan calls, and the people at the back hurry to keep up. Maybe if he didn’t stride around so freaking fast, he wouldn’t lose anyone who wants to take pictures. I squeeze the straps of my backpack, my precious camera tucked inside, and tell myself: Later.

Before we get back on the bus, anyway. I need a photo of the mansion reflected in the lake.

Inside the lobby, our voices automatically drop to murmurs. It’s one of those places. So grand and imposing, you don’t dare speak too loud. Duncan nods approvingly at our behavior, and points out the priceless chandelier hanging overhead, sparkling with thousands of tiny lights; the sculptures on plinths, standing either side of a sweeping staircase; the huge oil painting of a red-haired man in an old-fashioned military uniform.

The man in the painting looks bored as hell. Like he’s seen these tours come through a million times. A fancy, gilded rope stretches across the staircase, stopping gawkers like us from wandering somewhere private or too close to his painting.

“Who’s that man?” I ask, raising my voice just enough for Duncan to hear me.

The old goat scoffs and says, “The third Duke of Collingwood,” as though I should know already. Like that bored military man in oil paints is as well known as Elvis.

Maybe he really is that famous here. Who knows?

Or maybe Duncan’s an ass. I have my suspicions.

“Huh.” I fix our tour guide with a bright smile. “He’s so sexy. Redheads are, don’t you think?”

Duncan splutters as giggles break through the crowd, his weathered cheeks flushing pink, and I sail past him to the next doorway, chin held high.

Screw him. I worked too hard to get here for this crap. If he doesn’t want questions, I’ll give myself my own tour.

* * *

When I was a little girl, I used to watch these period movies with my mom. There were all these ladies with poodle curls and empire waist dresses; men in waistcoats and cravats. They were all so pretty and polished and there were so many strict rules. Like, oh no! He’s unbuttoning her glove! Alert the town elders!

I ate that shit up. I still do, if I’m honest. I mean, I’m here, right? I crossed an ocean to be here.

But I’m not on Duncan’s stupid tour anymore, so as I wander through the mansion’s wing, I fill in the blanks for myself. The alcove, tucked away behind a heavy green curtain, with a statue of Hercules on a plinth—I tell myself that’s where the third duke from the painting used to meet his true love. A scullery maid.

And the fancy, hand-painted wallpaper lining one hall, patterned with delicate flowers? I decide an old butler did that. A man with secret gifts.

On and on I go, wandering the halls, until I enter an art gallery lined with gilt frames, my footsteps echoing up to the frescoed ceiling. There’s a painting up there too, a riot of clouds and angels and naked bodies, and I nearly walk into a wooden bench trying to take it all in.

Imagine living here. Imagine wandering through the art gallery first thing in the morning, your hair still damp from a shower. Crazy.

“Hello handsome,” I murmur when I spy the third duke again in another portrait. Or—no, it can’t be him. The clothes are all wrong, from a hundred years later at least. But there’s that same thick copper hair, those vivid green eyes. A strong jaw, clenched and grumpy.

Damn. This family passed their good looks along. The dukes really were sexy. My damp boots squeak against the marble as I shuffle closer, eyes wide as I stare at the portrait hanging on the wall.

It’s huge. Bigger than any single wall in my studio. And now that I’m looking at him—I can’t tear my eyes away.

This man lived here. He walked these halls; his voice echoed in these big, empty rooms. Was he lonely? Why was he frowning like that? I chew on my bottom lip, entranced.

It’s hypnotic. And I don’t know how much time passes as I stand there staring, but the room grows dimmer as the daylight fades. Outside, the wind beats against the windows, rough and howling. It sounds gross out there. Cold and wet.

In here, it’s warm. Deliciously warm. And the lights are soft, and the paintings are beautiful, and the bench I stumble back to sit on is surprisingly comfy.

Voices echo in the next room over. Duncan and the tour group. Good.

I wriggle against the bench, nesting in my winter coat, eyes fluttering.

I wouldn’t put it past him to leave me behind.