A Mistletoe Masquerade
A Mistletoe Masquerade
Upstairs and downstairs in the Regency household mirrored each other in numerous ways – although, of the two, downstairs was possibly the more rigid and stratified. And while the domestic staff had to think about their employers and their guests every minute of their working day, the privileged inhabitants of the upstairs world could go about their lives blissfully unconcerned about what the staff thought of them.
Lucas and Rowan think they know what is best for their friends and intend to set their love lives straight by plunging into the looking-glass world below stairs. I hope you enjoy their Christmas masquerade as they battle with the mysteries of the brushing room and the boot cupboard, the etiquette of Pug's Parlour, the formalities of the Servants Ball and the mortifying insight into the servants'-eye view of their masters' lives.
Their love affair seems doomed by circumstance, but this is Christmas after all, and under the mistletoe wishes can come true.
December 12th 1816
'Your stepmother expects you to marry a murderer?' Lady Rowan Chilcourt stared at her white-faced friend. 'I go away for two years and when I come back I find you meekly allowing yourself to be led to the slaughter like some lamb?'
'Slaughter? Oh, do not say such things, Rowan! And how can I prevent it?' Miss Maylin turned even paler, although how that was physically possible it was hard to see. 'We do not know he is a murderer-surely he is not-but the stories are alarming, and Lord Danescroft- Oh, Rowan, if you could only see him for yourself-he is bleak, unsmiling, utterly sinister.'
'You must say no,' Rowan retorted as she paced, the skirts of her Parisian carriage dress swaying. This was so typical of Penny: she was the sweetest, most loyal friend anyone could hope for, but she was painfully shy and utterly incapable of saying boo to a goose, let alone to a formidable creature like Lady Maylin. And what Penny's stepmother lacked in breeding she more than made up for in sheer bullying determination.
'I cannot decline, for he has not yet proposed. I have not even met him-not face to face. I have only seen him from a distance at receptions during the Season. Not that he stayed very long when he did come. And he never talks to people. Or dances,' she added plaintively. 'Or smiles.'
'I read about his wife's death at the time.' Rowan frowned, trying to recall the stories she had perused. Acting as hostess to her father Lord Chilcourt, in the midst of the glamour of the Congress of Vienna, had been an engrossing whirl of activity far removed from the sedate and regulated pleasures a single lady of twenty-four might enjoy in London. The English news had seemed far away and alien.
Even so, Lady Danescroft's death had been a sensational and scandalous mystery, and as well as lingering on the horrid details of how she had been found by the butler at the foot of the servants' stair, with her neck broken, the reports had been full of veiled hints and coded phrases. Lady Danescroft had been 'lively', 'well-known amidst the younger set', and famed for her 'wide circle of friends of both sexes'.
The Earl of Danescroft had apparently shown no emotion at either the inquest or the funeral, had declined to speculate upon why his wife should have been on the servants' stair at all in the middle of the night, and had simply become chillier and more abrupt on the subject as time went on.
'Are they really saying he killed her?' Rowan demanded. 'The papers were full of innuendo, but nothing about an outright accusation, let alone a trial.'
'Not exactly.' Penny frowned. 'They say that it is very strange he does nothing to rebut the rumours. He did not go into mourning for her. And-' she blushed '-they say he dismissed his valet the very next day, and the valet was very good-looking.'
'He did not murder the valet as well, then?' Rowan asked, half joking.
'No! Oh, Rowan, do be serious for a moment.' Penelope dragged a curtain closed to hide the swirling snow outside. 'I am sure-well, almost sure-he is not a murderer. He's an earl, for goodness' sake. But he looks haunted by dark thoughts, seems plunged in gloom, and they say his small daughter is kept locked up all the time. Poor little mite.' She sat down, dragging a shawl around the shoulders of her gown. Rowan noticed it was at least one Season out of fashion, and not the work of a leading modiste, either. 'How could I marry a man like that?'
'He sounds like the villain of a gothic sensation novel. But one has to admit it would be an astonishingly good match,' Rowan pointed out, sitting down in a flurry of fine merino skirts with considerably more grace than her friend. 'You will forgive me being frank, but-'
'I am one of the unimportant Maylins,' Penny interrupted, nodding in agreement. 'I know. We have all sorts of grand distant connections, but we haven't any money-and no pretensions either. At least,' she added scrupulously, 'we had none until Papa married again.'
They were silent for a minute, contemplating the ambitions of the second Lady Maylin. If she had thought that by marrying a second cousin of the Duke of Farthinghoe she would be catapulted into High Society she had soon been comprehensively disillusioned. But that did not stop her from trying.
'So why should the Earl's eye alight upon you?'
'My godmother is the grandmother of Lord Danescroft. Apparently she has persuaded him that he must remarry for the sake of his motherless daughter and to get himself an heir.'
'Yes, but you-'
'I know. I haven't any looks or money, I'm so shy I go scarlet if a man speaks to me, and I have just had a disastrous Season,' Penelope catalogued with ruthless honesty. 'If I looked like you, Rowan-if I had your spirit-I could understand it.'
'They want a doormat because no one else of breeding will have him,' Rowan said grimly. There was no point in trying to persuade Penny that she was a beauty. She was not. She had mouse-brown hair, a figure that at the kindest could be called slight, and was so self-effacing it was a wonder anyone noticed her at all. She was also sweet-tempered, caring, wonderful with children and the most loyal of friends. None of these endearing characteristics was of the slightest value in the Marriage Mart, of course.
'Yes. And because I am such a doormat I know I will say yes if he asks me. No one will support me. Godmama has arranged for me to be invited to the Christmas house party at Tollesbury Court. He will be there, too, and he is going to propose.'
'What if he does not think you will suit?' Rowan asked. 'They might be able to bully you, but surely not him? Earls can do what they like.'
'Godmama says she has already discussed me with him and he says I sound eminently suitable. She says he is tired of all this horrid gossip and wants a sensible young woman who will not treat him to vapours and who will get on with running the house and looking after the child.' Penny sighed. 'It sounds very dreary: I wonder he does not simply hire a superior governess and a housekeeper.'
'Because they won't give him a male heir,' Rowan pointed out with brutal honesty. 'There must be something wrong with him if his wife was driven to taking the valet as a lover. Perhaps he beat her? Perhaps he squandered her marriage portion? Surely your papa would not force you if such things were the case?'
'No, he would not. But he says I am being hysterical about the mysterious death, and I cannot get him to see that I have taken Lord Danescroft in complete abhorrence.'
'Then we must find out something to the Earl's discredit. Then you will have a logical reason that your father cannot but see is an obstacle to your happiness.'
They fell silent, gazing into the fire. Rowan stretched out a hand and picked up a buttered teacake, biting into it as though into his lordship. 'Is your stepmother to accompany you?'
'No. Godmama said that would be certain to put Lord Danescroft's back up and that she will chaperon me. Even Papa was forced to agree, given what a good match it would be. Stepmama was furious.'
Rowan licked butter off her fingers and pondered the idea that had crept, fully formed, into her head. 'Remind me who your godmother is.'
'Hmm. She has not seen me since before I went to Vienna with Papa. I doubt she would recognise me now-nor would anyone else, come to that.'
'No,' Penny agreed. 'For you have grown so much. You were pretty before, Rowan, and you are truly beautiful now. But what has that to do with anything?'
Rowan ignored the compliment: Penny had always admired her vivid looks. 'Why, I shall go as your dresser. The servants always know everything-I will hear all the gossip, investigate Lord Danescroft and prove how unsuitable he is for you!'
'Oh, Rowan!' Penelope's unremarkable face lit up. 'Would you? Could you? I don't expect there is anything to find out about him really, but it would be so wonderful to have someone with me to confide in. But what are your plans for Christmas? Surely your father cannot have intended for you to simply go home alone?'
'No, Aunt Moore in Yorkshire is expecting me.' Rowan grimaced. 'I will write and tell her I have been invited to a house party full of eligible young men and she will be delighted. My handwriting can be atrocious if I try-she will not be able to read where we are going.'
'I am supposed to leave in ten days. Is that enough time, do you think?'
'To learn to be a dresser? Surely it must be? How hard can it be?'
'Miss Maylin? You cannot be serious-have you met her mother?' Lucas Dacre, Viscount Stoneley, crossed one booted foot over the other and stared at his friend. 'She's the most vulgar, scheming creature in creation.'
'Stepmother, I understand. But how do you know her? You've hardly been back in the country ten days.' The Earl of Danescroft raised an eyebrow. It was the greatest show of emotion he had exhibited since he had wrung Lucas's hand three days before. Lucas kept his own face bland, hiding his anxiety at the change in his friend. The last time he had seen him, five years before, he had been his groomsman and had danced at his wedding.
Now Will was gaunt, unsmiling, his expressive brown eyes shuttered, and all the joy had gone out of him. It was hardly surprising: Lucas had spent several hours at his club, buried in the newspaper archives, familiarising himself with the scandal Will obviously had no wish to speak about.
He had not been surprised to discover that Belle had proved to be as careless with her husband's heart and honour as she had with his money. He had tried to hint at her character when he had seen Will becoming attached-it had led to the only row they had ever had and he had held his peace from then on. I told you so was not going to be helpful now.
'I went to a reception at Fotheringham's last night. Frightful bore, but I promised Mama I'd look them up when I was in Town. Lady Maylin was such a sight- all purple satin and plumes and vulgarity-that I asked who she was. Then I overheard her in loud conversation with her cronies. Such a catch she had engineered for her dear Penelope. Such wealth, such a lineage. I removed myself-if I had known she was talking about you I would have stayed longer behind my potted fern.'
The Earl grimaced. 'My grandmother has assured me she will not be invited to Tollesbury.'
'Your grandmother, if you will pardon my saying so, must be all about in the head if she thinks a daughter of that house will be suitable for you.' Or deserving of you, Lucas thought bitterly. Will needed someone to love him, not a gold-digging nonentity who just happened to be sufficiently on the shelf to swallow the scandal in return for the title and the wealth.
'I am assured Miss Maylin is not at all like her stepmother. And she is apparently good with children. Louisa needs a mother.' Will might have been describing the appointment of a governess. There was no animation in his voice, no emotion.
Lucas felt the anger stirring inside him. This was the friend who had always seemed to be laughing, the man who had helped him out of scrapes more numerous than he could count. His best friend-the brother he had never had-who deserved someone to cherish him, someone to bring the laughter back. Someone to thaw his heart.
'And if she proves not to be what she is reported to be?' he asked harshly.
'Then I would not offer for her.' Will looked surprised he needed to ask. 'I cannot settle for anyone who would not be a suitable mother for Louisa.' He shook his head. 'But there is no fear of that: I trust my grandmother's opinion.'
'I'm going with you.' Damn it, all he can think about is whether his new wife will make a good mother to the child. What about himself? Wasn't he hurt enough last time?
'But you haven't been invited.' Then Will shrugged. 'No doubt it will be easy for you to secure an invitation. Even though you've been in the West Indies all this time no one will have forgotten you. And they will be unsurprised to see you again, now you have come into the title.'
'They'll have forgotten me sufficiently not to recognise me, I hope. At least so long as they see me where they would not expect to.' Lucas smiled, flexing his fingers. He imagined them curling around Miss Maylin's greedy little throat, but he kept his tone amused. 'I shall go as your valet, Will-below stairs they know all about their masters' and mistresses' dirty linen, and I'll wager are more than willing to gossip about it. After a few days there I'll know every secret your Miss Maylin has to hide, believe me. And if Perrott will entrust me with his blacking recipe, you'll have a decent shine on your boots into the bargain.'
Ten days later
It was important to remember one's place. Miss Maylin's dresser, a young lady calling herself Daisy Lawrence, clutched the morocco jewel case to her midriff and stood amidst the shabby valises and the old trunk that made up her mistress's luggage. In front of her the dressers serving Lady Meredith Hughes and the Honourable Miss Geraldine Mather were already supervising the footmen. The impressive sets of matching luggage in their care were carried up the stairs to the guest bedchambers with respectful attention.
They had arrived after she had, but here at Tollesbury Court, as everywhere in polite society, servants took the precedence accorded to their employers. Miss Penelope Maylin was very far down the social ladder indeed, which meant that her dresser waited with patience until her betters had been attended to.
Fires blazed in the hearths facing each other across the flagged floor at the other end of the vast baronial hall. You could have roasted an ox in either, Daisy thought, but at this end of the chamber Cook might safely store the evening's ices and jellies with no fear of them melting. Her toes in their jean half boots were frozen, and she could only be thankful that she did not suffer from chilblains. Yet.
Between the fires the guests were being greeted by their hosts and passed on to the care of the Groom of the Chambers, who was organising footmen to lead them to their rooms. It all took time, and a knot of people formed between the hearths while they shed cloaks and muffs and chatted amongst themselves. There, too, rank was plain. Miss Maylin stood uncomfortably close to the heat, too meek to dodge around the formidable bulk of an older lady who was determined to get as close to her hosts as possible.
Penny-Miss Penelope, Daisy corrected herself- was roasting, whilst she was freezing. At this rate she was not going to be upstairs in time to have anything unpacked by the time Miss Penelope got to her room, desperate for a change of clothing and a cup of tea. On top of that, hairpins were sticking into her scalp, her head ached from the severity of her braided hairstyle, and she was as badly in need of that tea as her mistress. But it would surely be her turn next; the other women were vanishing upstairs, dressing cases in hand, without a backward glance at their humble colleague.
There was a stir near the front door, another draught of icy air around Daisy's ankles, and footmen bearing down on her with yet more luggage. Shiny, expensive luggage. Lots of it. Drat. Fuming, she stood aside to let all six of them past. And sauntering along in their wake, a handsome dressing case in hand, was an individual Daisy had no hesitation in recognising as a very superior valet indeed.
He was tall, he was dark, he was lean, and he moved not like a man who spent his life polishing boots and arranging neck cloths, but like one who was at home in the saddle. He was unsmiling, his regular features handsome enough if you liked that sort of thing, she thought critically, watching from the side of the stairs. Then he saw her. Daisy frowned as a pair of deep blue eyes swept over her from head to foot in a comprehensive and very male assessment. Impertinent wretch! Her lips were parted as she almost spoke the set-down aloud, and then in the nick of time she remembered who and where she was.
Her teeth snapped shut, catching the tip of her tongue painfully. Eyes watering, Daisy stood in fulminating silence as the valet passed. And then he winked at her. Nothing else on his face moved except for that one lid, and then he was vanishing up the stairs, long legs taking them two at a time.
She had just been winked at by a valet. A valet! It was the outside of enough. And this would be just the start. She had half a mind to-
'This all there is, then?' Six foot of liveried footman was standing at her elbow. 'Where's yours?' She pointed to a pair of even more battered valises. His lip curled. 'Right, then. Jim, you take those up to miss's room in the North Turret and we'll take the others. For some reason,' he added over his shoulder as they climbed,
'your mistress has got the Pink Suite. Very nice, too. Seems a bit odd, though-one of the best suites in the place and she's no one much, is she? Still, I expect they've got their reasons.'
Yes, they have indeed, Daisy thought grimly as she followed. And it will take more than some pink suite to ensnare poor Penny in their plans if I've got anything to do with it. Impertinent upper servants and chilblains must be endured. This was all her own idea, but she knew who to blame for it. Oh, yes indeed. The Earl of Danescroft was going to regret the day he decided that Miss Maylin would make a conformable and grateful wife.
'Rowan, this is going to be ghastly!' Penelope cast herself down on the chaise and fumbled blindly in her reticule for a handkerchief. Her cheeks were unbecomingly flushed from the heat of the great fire and her eyes were suspiciously moist. 'Lord Danescroft is here, and he is even more forbidding close to than I ever dreamt.'
'You must call me, Daisy,' Rowan reminded her, casting an eye at the door. It was securely closed. 'Or Lawrence if you are going to pretend to be starchy. When did the Earl arrive?'
'Just before you went upstairs. I saw you waiting at the other end of the hall, and then they took your things up after his.' Penny blew her nose and looked around at the rose-pink draperies and the gilded furniture. 'What a beautiful room. Do you think they made a mistake, putting me here?'
'No, I think this is a room suitable for a young lady an earl is about to propose to,' Rowan said, provoking a little gasp from Penny. She put away the last of her friend's meagre store of silk stockings and turned to lift the lawn petticoats out of the valise. 'I did not see his lordship, but I have seen his valet, the impertinent wretch. He winked at me.'
That at least made Penny smile. 'Well, you do look very pretty. That severe hairstyle suits you. Let me help you with those; you shouldn't wait on me.' She reached for an unopened valise, but Rowan gave her a little push towards the chair.
'No, you must act the lady and forget who I really am. If anyone observes any undue familiarity-' There was a tap and the door opened. 'Ah, the tea-put it there, please.' Rowan gestured to the table beside Penny's chair and waited until the maid left with a bobbed curtsey. 'You see-you never know when they are going to pop up. Mind you, they gave me a very odd look when I asked for two cups.' She poured, handed Penny her tea, and sank down on the padded fender. 'Bliss.'
Penny was still looking miserable, even after two cups of tea. 'Lie down and rest,' Rowan ordered, 'and I'll shake out your evening things and put away your day clothes.'
By the time Penny was undressed and tucked up in bed, the simpler of the two evening dresses unpacked and hung up and the rest of the accessories laid out, Rowan was beginning to feel considerable sympathy for her own dresser, the unflappable Alice Loveday. She was used to finding everything to her hand, just when she needed it, but trying to recall exactly what Penny would need required more effort.
Done at last, she glanced at the clock-more than enough time to put away the day clothes and go to her own room and organise her modest wardrobe, before changing and coming down again to organise Penny's evening toilette.
'What?' Penny sat bolt upright in bed, eyes wide.
'Look at the hem of your pelisse! All muddy splashes. And your boots.'
'That was when I got out of the carriage,' her friend apologised. 'A stone slab tipped under my foot and sprayed up dirty water.'
'Oh, well. Time to explore below stairs,' Rowan said, feigning more confidence than she felt. Intensive study of the Maylins' servants' quarters in the company of Miss Loveday was not, she strongly suspected, going to be much help when confronted with the complexities of Tollesbury Court. Nor was her own experience very relevant. Her father's position with the diplomatic mission meant that they had a steward who dealt with every domestic detail, leaving Rowan to make final decisions on menus, flowers and draperies and very little else.
'I need the brushing room and the boot boy. I will not be long.' Fortunately she remembered to use the back stairs, emerging slightly dizzy from its tight twists into organised chaos below. After being comprehensively ignored for several minutes, Rowan stepped firmly in front of a footman, his arms clasped around two filled flower vases. 'Where will I find the boot boy?' she asked crisply.
'Back there-first on the left past the pantry,' he replied, blowing ferns away from his mouth.
After some false turns she located the pantry, then the boot boy in his cubbyhole, panting slightly as he leathered a pair of tall boots on a jack. 'These are for Miss Maylin, the Pink Suite. And where is the brushing room?'
This time she found her way more easily, having spotted some of the landmarks already. It was thankfully empty, so Rowan was able to turn up the lamps against the winter gloom and explore the racks of mystifying brushes and leathers until she found something that looked stiff enough to remove mud without damaging the nap of the cloth.
The tables were padded and covered with baize, so she selected one, laid out the pelisse and began to attack the hem. With all this equipment it was surely going to be the work of minutes.
Lucas strolled through the passageways, Will's buckskin breeches draped over his arm, receiving a gratifying amount of attention from the resident domestics. Below stairs, as above, status was everything, and he was an earl by association. It amused him that as a servant he'd acquired a higher rank than his own, and he allowed an amiable condescension to creep into his manner. If he were to engage his fellow staff in gossip about their employers, and specifically Miss Maylin, he needed to make a good impression: top lofty enough to demand answers to questions, pleasant enough so as not to cause resentment.
A housemaid with a pert manner and a dimple showed him to the brushing room, then bustled off with a swing of her hips and a backward glance over her shoulder. He was smiling faintly from the encounter as he stepped inside and saw the room was already occupied.
The young woman had her back to him, bent over the garment on a long table and presenting a vision which drove the memory of the housemaid right out of his mind. Slender, curvaceous, and clad in a dull black that served only to focus all attention on her figure, she had not heard him come in.
She was muttering under her breath as she brushed. Lucas suspected her words were curses, for she seemed to be more than a little hot and bothered. Her honey-brown hair had been braided and strained back into an elaborate knot but had begun to come down. Little wisps clung to the damp skin of her neck. He moved closer, his feet silent on the oilskin floorcloth.
'Damn and blast and botheration…'
It was a very pretty neck. He found himself transfixed by the nape, the tender white skin, the faint sheen of perspiration. What would it be like to bite? Just very, very, gently.
'Oh, drat!' She banged down the brush and straightened up so fast that she had to take a balancing step
backwards-straight into Lucas. 'Oh! What on earth do you think you are doing?'
'Ow!' The cry of anguish was wrung out of him. She might be slender, but the top of her head banging back into his nose packed a powerful force. Lucas was fond of his nose. In his opinion it was one of his more distinguished features, and having it broken by an irritable dresser would be distressing.
'Don't blame me,' she continued, with no sympathy for his pain. She turned round and glared at him. 'It is entirely your fault, creeping up on me.' Her eyes were an intriguing hazel colour, her brows arched, her nose small and straight. Right now she was glowering down it. He lowered his hand, reassured that his own nose was still intact. As she saw his face properly her expression became even more severe. 'It is you again! I should have known. You libertine.'
Libertine? 'Are you a dresser?' But of course she was. He remembered her now-the striking girl with the scowl, surrounded by shabby bags. He had winked at her. Obviously a mistake.
'Of course I am!'
'Well, you do not sound like it,' he retorted frankly, dumping the breeches on another table and reaching for a brush. Her accent was crisp, assured and educated, even if her language when he had entered had been decidedly unladylike.
'I was raised in a gentleman's house,' she informed him, picking up the garment she had been dealing with
and giving it a vigorous shake. 'And educated with the young ladies. Not that it is any business of yours. A dresser is expected to be genteel.'
'You aren't genteel.' Lucas scrubbed at one muddy knee. 'You sound like a dowager duchess at Almack's.'
'It was a very superior household.' She pushed back the damp hair from her forehead and held a hem up to the lamp. The garment appeared to be a drab pelisse of unfashionable cut. 'I do not believe this is mud at all. I think it must be glue.'
'Let me see.' Lucas reached for the pelisse. He had no clue how to remove stubborn stains from ladies' garments-instinctively he was attacking Will's breeches with the same method he'd have used on a muddy horse-but he wanted to keep her there talking. 'Try this fine one, with the thin stiff bristles.'
'Thank you.' She accepted it warily and retreated behind her table, apparently the better to keep an eye on him. 'Why were you creeping up on me?'
'I wasn't,' he denied, attempting to look innocent. He did not have the face for it, he knew. The dresser simply slanted him a look that spoke volumes for her opinion of men, and of him in particular, and bent over the hem again.
'Whose dresser are you?'
'Miss Penelope Maylin's.'
Lucas dropped the brush and dived under the table to retrieve it and get his face under control. The gods were on his side, obviously-not only had he found his quarry without any effort whatsoever, but she was going to be a delight to extract information from.
Not, of course, that this could go any further than a little light flirtation-if that was what it took to win her confidence. In Lucas's code of honour servants were as out of bounds as virgin gentlewomen. On the other hand, she could have been a sour-faced abigail or an old dragon.
'What is your name?' He straightened up and bent over his work again.
'Lawrence. Daisy Lawrence.'
Daisy. It did not suit her. This girl was no open-faced meadow flower. She was something altogether more subtle and cultivated. A honey-coloured rose, perhaps: scented, velvety, but with sharp thorns.
'I know who you are. You are Lord Danescroft's valet.' His surprise must have been evident, for she added, 'You need not be flattered. Miss Maylin remarked upon the time his lordship arrived. But you may tell me your name.'
'Lucas.' She had spirit this one. Will outranked every other guest and his host. That made Lucas the top dog amongst the servants, yet she did not appear to be awed by that fact. 'You may call me Mr Lucas,' he added, more to see her reaction than anything.
'Yes, Mr Lucas,' she replied meekly, confounding him by finally recognising her place. 'And thank you for showing me this brush; it has done the job perfectly.' She folded the garment over her arm and moved towards him and the door beyond. Lucas shifted round his work table as though to find a better angle and blocked her path.
'A demanding young lady, is she? Your Miss Maylin?'
'Not at all. She's as meek as meek-quite a milksop. Not like some I could mention.' There was suppressed amusement lurking in those hazel eyes, which was odd. He wondered what-or who-she was thinking of. 'Of course,' Daisy added thoughtfully, 'there is her stepmother to contend with.'
'Indeed?' Lucas lifted one leg of the breeches and frowned at the knee laces, hoping he looked as though he knew what he was doing. 'Could I trouble you to pass that small brush at the end, Miss Daisy?' Partly it was a tactic to keep her there talking, and partly because he enjoyed the sight of her moving about with a grace that must have been instilled along with her lessons with the young ladies. A family by-blow, perhaps? he speculated. 'Is her stepmother difficult?'
'Terrible. Ghastly, vulgar creature,' Daisy confided with some relish. 'Unfortunately Miss Maylin is devoted to her. It is the greatest good fortune, in my opinion, that she did not accompany us here-although poor Miss Maylin is almost prostrated with nerves without her support. She is hopeless in Society. I said to her, Your husband is not going to like it if you insist on your stepmama living with you when you are wed. That upset her, believe me.'
'Husband? She is betrothed, then?'
'Oh, no. But it won't be long if Lady M has anything to do with it. Of course she's hoping for a rich man- they need it, that's for certain.'
'Really?' Lucas kept his eyes on his task, feigning only casual interest.
'Well, yes, what with the family tendency to-' She broke off. 'Listen to me gossiping! That will never do. What must you think of me, Mr Lucas?'
Schooling his features to hide his impatience with her sudden attack of discretion, Lucas put the brush down and turned with deliberation to face Daisy. She was looking somewhat chastened, an expression that did not seem to fit her confident heart-shaped face.
'Think of you? Why, that you are as charming as you look, Miss Daisy.' He leant forward. Her eyes widened but she stood her ground. 'And that you have the most kissable mouth I have yet seen in this house.'
'Oh!' She planted one hand firmly in the middle of his chest and pushed. 'Out of my way, Mr Lucas-you are an arrant flirt and I am well served for lingering to gossip.'
Amused, and too skilled to try and detain her and risk frightening her away from future conversation, Lucas stepped back. 'Miss Daisy. I look forward to seeing you this evening in the Steward's Room.'
'The-? Of course-dinner.' She swept past him, delightful nose in the air. 'But at opposite ends of the table, Mr Lucas, I am glad to say.'
Rowan shut the door behind her and leant against it for a moment to catch her breath. For a moment she had thought he was about to steal a kiss. What her father would say if he knew his only child was not only masquerading as an upper servant but was being amorously pursued by a valet, she shuddered to think. In fact she was shuddering now-or rather shivering. And it was chastening to realise that it was from excitement, not revulsion or maidenly horror.
Getting a grip on herself, she set off for the stairs and found them after only three false turns. At least running up their twisting steepness was an excuse for pink cheeks. One heard about reckless young women who threw their virtue away on handsome footmen. They always appeared to end up pregnant and in disgrace, but perhaps those were only the ones she had heard about, and the stately homes of England were rife with liaisons between upstairs and downstairs.
Well, she was not going to throw her hat over the windmill for anyone less than the man she was going to marry, so tall, dark, blue-eyed rakish valets were not going to tempt her in the slightest. Then what, pray, her inconvenient inner voice enquired tartly, are you doing, getting all of a do-dad over one wink and an almost-kiss?
Maidenly modesty, she assured her inner voice sanctimoniously, and was giggling as she let herself into Penny's bedchamber.
'You've been ages,' Penny remarked. She was sitting up in bed and looked considerably better. 'Have you been exploring?'
'I've been getting a backache trying to remove the mud from this.' Rowan hung the pelisse in the clothes press. 'And flirting with Lord Danescroft's valet.'
'What?' Penny hopped out of bed, gaping. 'Truly? The one who winked at you?'
'Well, not the one who was his wife's lover, that's for sure. I don't know what it is about that man-he appears to employ valets of a decidedly amorous disposition. This one-call me Mr Lucas, if you please-crept up behind me in the brushing room and then almost kissed me, after telling me I looked delightful.'
She perched on the end of the bed and Penny sank down beside her, wide eyed. 'But I got in some telling remarks. I told him that you were devoted to your stepmother, even though she was quite frightful, and pined because she was not here and would probably expect your future husband to allow her to live with you.'
'Brilliant,' Penny said admiringly. 'That should put him off.'
'And then I implied that you were on the catch for a rich husband because the family was much in need of funds, hinted at some scandalous reason why that was so and had a sudden attack of discretion. I stopped at the most intriguing point, trust me. He must think you a family of hardened gamesters at the very least.'
'Wonderful. Much more of that and I will not need to worry about convincing Papa of Lord Danescroft's unsuitability-he will not consider proposing to me for a minute.'
'I know.' Rowan permitted herself a moment's smugness, then caught sight of the clock. 'Goodness! Look at the time-and we both have to change.'
'Apparently she is devoted to her stepmother.' Lucas stood back and eyed Will critically, clothes brush in hand. 'What the devil have you done to that neckcloth?'
'It's a Waterfall.'
'It's a mess. Here, let me. Sit down again.' A minute passed, the silence broken only by the Earl protesting faintly that he was being strangled and Lucas's crushing remarks on the quality of the starch in the muslin. 'There.'
'Hmm. I'm not convinced, but I refuse to go through that again. Really? Devoted, you say?'
'By the sound of it she is as much a trial at home as she is in Society. Apparently Miss Penelope will want her to live with her once she is married.'
'Over my dead body. You've been very busy.'
'A pleasure, I assure you. Miss Maylin has a most superior Abigail, with a straight little nose, big hazel eyes and a crushing way with flirtation. I am, let me tell you, a libertine.'
The warmth that he had discerned in Will's eyes vanished. 'It is no doubt the general assumption that I employ such men.'
There was not a great deal to be said to that. Lucas lifted a waistcoat and held it out for Will to shrug into. 'She also let slip that her mistress is on the hunt for a wealthy match.'
'We knew that.' Will stuck a cravat pin into the folds of his neckcloth and pushed his watch into the fob pocket.
'But not why the family is in such straits-unless your grandmother dropped a hint.'
'Indeed not.' His friend paused, hairbrush in hand. 'I assumed they were simply a minor branch of the family without inherited wealth. What's the story?'
'I must confess I do not know. The charming Miss Daisy was seized with a fit of discretion at that point.'
'Daisy, eh?' Will had warmed up again. Lucas kicked himself mentally: the wounds must be raw indeed for him to take up every hint that might refer to his late wife. 'Seducing servants, are you?'
'Of course not.' Lucas shook out the midnight-blue swallowtail coat and helped Will ease into it. 'Merely getting on terms with our best source of information.' He regarded the Earl, elegant and immaculate. 'You'll do. In fact, you'll probably do only too well. I don't suppose you'd consider developing a revolting personal habit to put her off?'
'More revolting than murdering my wife?' Will lifted one eyebrow. 'I'm afraid my imagination won't stretch that far.'
Lucas stood looking at the back of the door after it closed behind his friend. The bitter words seemed to hang in the air. He gave vent to his feelings by kicking a discarded shirt across the floor, then stalked off to his own room to change. Upper servants were expected to dress for dinner and good manners would not allow him to be late-even if the lady he was to escort into dinner was the housekeeper and not a duchess. And he needed to take special care this evening: there was a certain prickly dresser to impress.
Rowan entered the Steward's Room feeling much as she had on her first visit to Almack's-convinced that she would break all kinds of rules, most of them incomprehensible. On the other hand she was now twenty-four, and she had entertained the Duke of Wellington and virtually every notable at the Congress as her father's hostess. She ought to be able to manage Pug's Parlour, as irreverent lower servants everywhere referred to the rooms of the upper staff.
The evening dress she was wearing had once been hers, and had been passed to Alice, her own dresser, the year before. Now she had borrowed it back, noting that the heavy lace at neck and hem had gone-doubtless sold on as one of the dresser's perks-and had been replaced with a more modest braid. Alice had maintained the heavy moss-green silk in good order and had let in long sleeves in a fine gauze.
Worn with plain kid slippers and a simple pearl cross at her throat, the gown presented the picture of modestly respectable elegance, suitable for her position. Dressing to be inconspicuous was a new skill-one she had never had to master before, Rowan realised with an inner grin.
The Steward's Room was crowded, the guests' valets and dressers chattering away, all apparently known to each other. A tall man in a black swallowtail coat approached her. 'Good evening. I am Mr Evesham, Steward here. You will be Miss Maylin's dresser. Miss…?'
'Lawrence, Mr Evesham.' A curtsey was obviously called for. Rowan produced one graded nicely between an archdeacon and a baroness. It appeared to pass muster.
'Please come in, Miss Lawrence. Would you care to take a glass of ratafia?'
She would much prefer to drink the sherry the men appeared to be consuming, but discretion was the safer path. Glass in hand, Rowan began to make her way around the room, looking for someone to talk to. It was obviously ineligible to approach one of the men, a formidable dame who must be the housekeeper was in earnest conversation with the Steward and all the dressers were split amongst three groups, apparently graded by rank.
It was considerably more hierarchical than any Society gathering, she concluded, edging into the group she judged closest to her in the pecking order. They broke off their conversation and regarded her warily.
'Good evening. I am Miss Maylin's dresser, Daisy Lawrence.' It was enough to break the ice. She discovered that she was speaking to the dressers of Miss Lincoln, the Honourable Miss Trent and Miss Harrington. Rowan knew none of the ladies concerned, guessing they must have come out after her departure to Vienna.
'I have not been with Miss Maylin long,' she confided. 'This is the most impressive house party she has been invited to since I have been with her.'
'Or ever, I imagine,' Miss Browne, attendant upon Miss Lavenham, remarked rather cattily. 'We have never met your predecessor, at any rate. My mistress says she's been invited for Lord Danescroft to have a look at. Is that true?'
'I believe he may be interested. It would be a very eligible connection for her, would it not?'
'Eligible?' Miss Trent's dresser enquired sharply. 'With that scandal so recent? I should shudder to think my young lady so much as spoke to such a man.'
'Really?' Rowan produced a look of wide-eyed surprise. 'But surely it is only some wild rumour about an accident? Leaving that aside, surely there is no cause to object to the Earl?'
Miss Browne raised an eyebrow at her colleagues. 'One does wonder,' she murmured, 'what kind of establishment his lordship presides over. They do say-' she drew in a deep breath '-that his wife was having an affaire with his valet.'
'Well, either he condoned such a thing, in which case there cannot be any truth in the rumour that he murdered her, or he did not. I do not see,' Rowan observed tartly, 'that you can have it both ways. Either the man is utterly dissipated or he is a murderer.'
As she spoke she glanced across the room and found she was being watched by the cynical blue eyes of the Earl's current valet. He could not possibly have heard her, but some twinge of conscience had her adding, 'Or he could be completely innocent, of course.' She held Lucas's gaze as she spoke, then realised that her own eyebrows were raised haughtily, as though to depress presumption. Only that expression would be completely out of character for Daisy Lawrence.
Hastily she lowered her eyes, feeling quite as flustered as Miss Lawrence would be. She was still trying to work out why-guilty conscience, annoyance at her lapse from her part, or the effect of that cobalt stare?-when a cool voice behind her enquired, 'Gossiping, Miss Lawrence?'
How the devil did he move so silently? Or so fast? She had hardly dropped her gaze from his. Rowan turned slightly, finding him all too close for comfort. 'Conversing, Mr Lucas. We were discussing reputation and how fragile it is.'
The other dressers regarded the two of them nervously, obviously in expectation of a comprehensive set-down from such a senior upper servant.
'Indeed it is.' His smile was not amiable. 'And rumour is such a dangerous thing. Sometimes, of course, it may be truth.'
He sauntered off to exchange words with an older man, leaving the four women exchanging speechless looks. Eventually Miss Gregg, dresser to Miss Trent, ventured, 'One might almost think he was trying to scare us.'
'I am quite certain he was.' Rowan narrowed her eyes at the unresponsive back clad in black superfine at least as good as that worn by most of the male guests. 'Or me, at any rate. It seems Mr Lucas does not approve of Miss Maylin as a future mistress.'
A tentative voice asked, 'Miss Lawrence?'
It was abashful, slightly spotty youth, his Adam's apple protruding above his painstakingly tied neckcloth as he swallowed violently with nerves. He was such a contrast to Mr Lucas that Rowan was taken aback. 'Er-yes?'
'I am Mr Philpott, the Reverend Mr Makepeace's man, and I am to take you in to dinner, Miss Lawrence.' He was almost speechless with shyness, made worse by the barely suppressed sniggers of the other three dressers. His master must be as far down the scale as Penny, if not further, and Rowan's heart went out to him.
'Thank you, Mr Philpott, I am much obliged.' Rowan had encountered her share of gauche young gentlemen and had learned how to put them at their ease. She felt considerably more sympathy for this very junior valet than she had for some bumptious sprig of the nobility. She put her hand on his arm and smiled, reducing him to blushing incoherence. 'I suspect we are right at the end of the line, are we not? Never mind, you can give me some hints about how to go on.' She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. 'This is my first big house party: I am quite at sea.'
Her dresser had warned her that protocol could vary widely from house to house. In some the upper servants would dine by themselves in the Steward's Room. In others, as was apparently the case here, they would join the other servants. In that case, Alice had explained, they would probably only stay for the first half of the meal.
Then there was the vexed question of the seating plan. Once they entered the servants' hall they might split up, and the female staff occupy the table below the housekeeper with the men below the Steward.
'Me, too,' Mr Philpott whispered, dashing her hopes that he, at least, knew what was what when it came to table plans.
'Never mind,' Rowan murmured, more to reassure herself than him. 'At least we're at the back and can see what the others are doing.'
They trooped in to a scraping of chairs and a rustling of cloth as the lower servants got to their feet. There was a second table, empty and waiting for the Steward's Room party. Hanging back, Rowan watched, then nudged Mr Philpott towards the centre. 'I think that's where we go.'
She found she had another valet, a cheerful, round faced man, on her other side and opposite, Miss Browne and a man who, from his military bearing, seemed to be an ex-officer's batman.
'Do you know anyone else?' she asked, reaching for her napkin.
'No.' Philpott sent a hunted look round the table. 'Mr Makepeace has only just been appointed chaplain to Lady Hartley. Before then he was just the vicar, and never went anywhere, but her old chaplain died so she took him on. Do you know any of them?'
'Just the dressers you saw me speaking to earlier, and Mr Lucas, right up at the other end next to the housekeeper. He's Lord Danescroft's man.'
'I have heard of him.' Mr Philpott sounded as censorious as she could imagine the Reverend Makepeace might. 'My master does not approve of his presence here, you know,' he added in a whisper.
'Really? Why not?' Rowan crumbled a roll, keeping a wary eye on Lucas at the far end of the table. There was no way he could possibly hear what they were talking about, but she was beginning to develop an almost supernatural respect for his perception. 'I know about the scandal, of course.'
'Well…' Philpott seemed to wrestle with his conscience. Rowan batted her eyelashes at him shamelessly and he succumbed. 'I overheard Lady Hartley telling Mr Makepeace that she could never condone Lady Danescroft's behaviour, but she was sure Lord Danescroft had driven her to it because of his neglect. She-Lady Hartley-said that Lady Danescroft had been a sweet, pretty girl, and very lively, and then he had shut her up in that gloomy castle miles from anywhere and she had moped and pined until she was driven into indiscretion.'
Personally Rowan considered that a flaming affaire with one's husband's valet went somewhat beyond indiscretion, but before she could say so Mr Philpott added, 'And Lady Hartley says he has grown so cold and aloof it would send any lady mad to be locked up with him.'
Rowan struggled to be fair. Not only was it wrong to falsely accuse someone, but it was no good taking half-baked rumours back to Lord Maylin; that would do Penny no good.
'Anyone might become so after such a tragedy and the dreadful stories that were put around,' she suggested.
'Well, yes, but-' In his excitement Philpott took an over-large mouthful of hot soup, and there was a pause while he became boggle-eyed with the effort of swallowing it safely. 'Lady Hartley says he was not like that before he was married, but became so after the marriage.'
'Oh.' There was much to digest, and they could not sit huddled together whispering. Rowan turned, smiling, to the round-faced man on her other side and asked him to pass the butter.
'Paul Jenkins-man to Captain Dunkley. Miss-?'
'Lawrence. Miss Maylin's woman.'
'Well, now!' He cut some bread and passed the platter. 'There's a thing. A young lady set to rise well above her position in life, from what one hears. Next time we meet no doubt you'll be at the other end of the table, Miss Lawrence.'
Lord! Had everyone heard about the match Lady Rolesby was trying to arrange for her grandson? There was an awful inevitability about it, as though if enough people accepted it as fact then nothing would stop Penny being married off to a man who, at the very best, was an embittered, scandal-haunted semi-recluse. She wished she could get a glimpse of Lord Danescroft: she was beginning to imagine him as glowering, beetle-browed and middle-aged.
'It is by no means certain,' she said firmly. 'I can tell you-in strictest confidence, of course-that no proposal has been made. Nor has he approached her father.' Mr Jenkins merely looked more intrigued. 'Personally,' she added, beginning to wish she could have a normal dinner table conversation at a normal volume, 'I doubt she would be suitable for him. She's a nice enough young lady, but sadly scatterbrained, and nervous of children.'
Poor Penny. Her ears must be burning with all this speculation and slander. It did make Rowan wonder, as her soup plate was removed and the butler began to carve a joint, just how much the servants gossiped about all of those above stairs. She had never thought of it before, and now her cheeks grew warm at the thought of some of the indiscreet things she had let drop in front of staff.
The joint was accompanied by a good variety of side dishes and a very respectable claret. She really must ask Alice how typical that was. No wonder Papa's cellar bills were so large.
She managed the rest of the meal without glancing down the table towards Mr Lucas, or lapsing into gossip about his master. With a clatter of chair-legs on the flagged floor the most senior servants began to rise and
the rest of the table followed suit. Rowan realised just in time that she was supposed to bring her table napkin and her glass with her.
In the Steward's Room his boy was waiting beside a freshly laid table set with desserts. Really, she mused, moving towards her place, she had sat down to worse dinners in some very grand houses indeed.
'That colour suits you Miss Lawrence.' That gently amused voice again!
'What colour is that, Mr Lucas?' she enquired.
'The colour in your cheeks. Have you been flirting with your two swains?'
'Flirting? Me? I think not, Mr Lucas. I suggest you look in the mirror over there if you are searching for a flirt.' His soft chuckle as she swept past him had her gritting her teeth.
'Is he bothering you, Miss Lawrence?' It was Mr Philpott, his lanky frame contorted with embarrassment. Poor young man. He probably thought she needed protecting, but was terrified at the idea of a confrontation with Lucas. Who was, if one looked at him properly, really rather a formidable figure.
He glanced up from his plate and found her staring. Coolly Rowan continued her assessment. Yes, formidably muscled under that smart suiting, broad-shouldered and with a dangerous edge to him. She lifted one eyebrow scornfully and turned to smile at the anxious youth. 'Bothering me? Not at all, Mr Philpott. I am quite capable of dealing with men like him.'
Of course she was. Probably. She might have a better idea if she had ever met a man like him before.
The meal progressed-an unsettling and distorted reflection of what was occurring upstairs. Rowan tried to work out the timing. The butler was down here, which meant that the covers must have been drawn and the ladies had retired to the drawing room, leaving the men to their port and the attentions of the footmen.
She was just trying to work out what the equivalent would be here-tea in the housekeeper's rooms?- when the Steward's boy scurried in with the information that Miss Trent's woman was required immediately as she was retiring.
'Headache again,' her dresser muttered unsympathetically, finishing her dessert with more haste than elegance before jumping to her feet and hurrying out. 'I'll have hiccups for the rest of the evening now.'
It did not surprise Rowan when the next summons was for her. At least Penny had given her enough time to finish her meal.
She found her friend roused to uncharacteristic irritation. 'So unsubtle!' she exclaimed before Rowan had the door half shut. 'I have never felt so self-conscious in my life. They placed me next to him at dinner-can you imagine? I just had to run away as soon as I could. They were all whispering about me over the teacups.'
'Pointed, indeed.' Rowan pressed Penny onto the stool in front of the dressing table and began to unpin her hair. 'What is he like?'
'Beautiful,' Penny startled her by proclaiming. 'I had no idea, only seeing him at a distance. But he is tall and dark, and has the most sensitive features.'
'Well, then,' she began, banishing her image of a beetle-browed monster. 'That's something…'
'It makes it worse! No wonder everyone was smiling behind their hands. We must have looked ridiculous together: he so handsome next to drab little me. And,' she moaned as Rowan reached for the hairbrush, 'I was positively prattling with nerves. What must he think of me?'
'That you are quite unsuitable, one hopes,' Rowan said. 'It is what you want, isn't it? What did you prattle about?'
'Oh, the garden at home, and the landscape, and painting, and how I found the watercolour I did of my kitten when I was nine in an old sketchbook last week.' Penny gazed at her undistinguished reflection. 'None of the things a future countess should talk about.'
'Excellent. I will reinforce that by telling everyone that you are positively bird-witted and never stop talking of utterly inconsequential things.' Penny smiled wanly. 'What do you want to do now? Sit by the fire and read?'
It was a tempting prospect. For a woman who thought nothing of dancing the night away, Rowan could not imagine why she felt so tired. And her feet ached.
'I think I'd like to have a wash and go to bed early. My head is spinning,' said Penny.
Oh, well, she could read in her own room. Rowan tugged the bell-pull and a harassed-looking chambermaid appeared eventually. 'Yes, miss?'
'Hot water, if you please. And have some sent up to my room and set by the fire.'
'Mrs Tarrant says that we're that stretched that visiting staff 'll have to do for themselves, miss.'
'Thank you. That will do.' Rowan frowned at the closing door. She supposed lighting a fire could not be that hard. There had been wood and coals by the side of the hearth in the chilly little turret room, and she would have a candle, so there would be no need to strike a spark.
This experience was certainly making her appreciate Alice more, Rowan reflected as she made her way to the foot of the stairs, chamberstick in one hand, jug of hot water in the other. Going to bed had always seemed so simple-but it was not if you were the one putting the clothes away, tidying the room, securing the jewellery box and all the time answering anxious questions and soothing doubts.
She trudged upwards, one floor, then two. The handle of the jug was cutting into her fingers, but she could not use both hands and still see where she was going. The stairs unwound themselves onto a narrow landing-nothing more than a linking passage between wings, with the spiral stair to her turret curling up into the darkness on the other side.
'Ouch.' Rowan dumped the jug on the flags, splashing the cooling water, and sat down on the top step, her back to the landing while she massaged her fingers back to life.
She jumped, stumbling to her feet. Then her heel caught in her hem and she was falling, the stone stairs beneath her and nothing to hold on to.
'I've got you.' She was stronger than he had guessed, twisting in his grasp and using his body as a counterweight to regain her balance. Lucas found himself with a warm armful of panting woman clutched to his chest, her hands clamped around his forearms.
'Idiot!' She might only have been wearing light indoor shoes, but the force of her kick on his shins had him stepping back abruptly, pulling her with him. Of course-he might have known. It was Miss Lawrence, not some chambermaid with a twisted ankle.
'Ouch,' he said mildly, setting her back from him. 'First my nose, now my shins. You are a dangerous woman, Daisy Lawrence.'
'You would be in no danger at all if you kept your distance from me,' she snapped.
The light was poor, and he could see little of her face, but her eyes sparked at him and he thought it a safe bet her expression was not one of simpering gratitude.
He should, of course, let go. Only he found he did not want to, and she was clinging just as tightly, doing nothing to improve the set of his fourth-best evening coat. 'I thought you had hurt yourself.' An olive branch seemed in order. 'Twisted your ankle, perhaps.'
'Instead of which I nearly broke my neck.' There was a sudden flash of white teeth as she smiled, her irritation vanished as rapidly as it had come. 'The hot water jug was hurting my fingers. I set it down while I rubbed them.' Her voice, now she was not scolding him, was soft and held a hint of tiredness.
'Let me see.' They were still almost breast to breast. He could smell her, an unexpectedly sweet hint of gardenia and warm woman. Delicious. 'But you will have to let go of my arms.'
'Oh! I am sorry, it was the shock.'
She opened her hands as though he was hot: he rather feared he was. Very hot. Lucas took a steadying breath.
'I am not good with heights, I must confess.' She waved him away as he tried to take her hand and lead her towards the candle, walking over to hold it close to the flame herself. 'See? It is heavier than I thought.'
The sight of the whitened ridges on the smooth skin affected him strangely. He wanted to protect her, which was ridiculous; she was more than capable of standing up for herself. But those slim shoulders were not meant for lugging heavy cans of water about. She should be doing nothing more strenuous than brushing her mistress's hair. Then he recalled the sight of her, skin damp and rosy with the effort of brushing that skirt, and hefted the water jug before his imagination got any more out of control.
'I'll carry this. Where is your room?'
For a moment he thought she would refuse to tell him, then that secret smile lit up her eyes again. 'Thank you, that would be most kind. Up this turret stair. Another two flights, I'm afraid.'
She's not in the least bit sorry, Lucas thought appreciatively. She is getting her own back. 'You come behind me, then, and hold the candle so it lights the steps at my feet.'
The stairs were steep, twisting and ancient, worn in the centre and uneven in height. By the next landing Lucas was controlling his breathing. If he had been by himself he would have changed hands at that point, but he was damned if he was going to show any weakness in front of Daisy-and that realisation in itself was galling.
'Here we are.' There was nowhere else to go. The stairs stopped in front of a planked door. Lucas lifted the latch and walked straight in. 'Thank you, Mr Lucas, I can manage now.'
She was uncomfortable with him in the room. He should go. Lucas was very conscious that if Daisy had been a Society lady with whom he was flirting then he would let this game play out, stop and tease her a little, snatch a kiss before he left. But this was Daisy Lawrence, dresser, and it was not the action of a gentleman to take advantage of a servant.
He turned and looked at her as she set the candle down on the mantel over the empty grate. The room was cold-almost he imagined he could see his own breath in the air. 'You need the fire lit.'
'Yes. I had noticed that.'
He noticed the way she reached for the shawl that lay on the end of the bed and dragged it round her shoulders, and that flare of protectiveness surprised him again, despite her sarcasm.
'There is no need-' But he was already on his knees, reaching for the kindling that had been dumped on the hearth, building it into a neat stack and adding tiny pieces of coal from the bucket.
'Am I depriving you of a treat? Do you enjoy making fires?' he asked mildly, concentrating on the delicate edifice.
'I don't know. I have never built one.' She was kneeling beside him. Her admission almost had him dropping an over-large stick on the top of the stack.
'What? Never?' Lucas sat back on his heels and studied her face in the thin light from the candle. 'You must be a very superior lady's maid, in that case. Can you pass me the light?'
He touched the flame to the wood shavings and watched as they caught and smoke began to spiral up. Beside him, Daisy did not move, and he began to fuss a little with the fire so as to stay where he was. If her earlier career had omitted menial skills such as fire-lighting, that reinforced his suspicion that she was
gently born, doubtless on the wrong side of the blanket, and had only recently had to make her own way.
Which explained why she felt to him like a woman from his world, one he could talk to on equal terms. That and the spirit that told him she would take no nonsense from him whether he was a valet or a viscount.
Rowan held out her hands to the flames, watching as the fire took hold of the wood shavings and kindling.
'You have to feed it,' Lucas said, 'or it will flare up like your temper and be gone.' She reached out for some wood but he caught her hand. 'No-too big. That will flatten it.' He released her immediately, sorting through the wood and picking out suitable pieces while Rowan sat wondering why his touch was so unsettling.
'Is Lord Danescroft a good master?' she asked abruptly.
Lucas was placing a faggot, dropped it, and swore mildly under his breath. 'A good master?'
Rowan had the impression he was stalling for time.
'Yes. He seems to be. I have not been with him long. Why do you ask?'
'I am concerned for Miss Maylin. There are the rumours, the Earl's demeanour. She is not a young woman who can cope with harshness.'
'The rumours are just that. Rumours.'
'Then there is no mystery about his wife's death?'
'It appears to have been an accident. When young women who have been drinking creep around a darkened house by the back stairs in the small hours that is not so improbable.'
'True.' She marked the underlying indignation as he spoke. 'So the rumours about the late Lady Danescroft are true, then, even if those about her husband are not?'
'That she was unfaithful and that Danescroft's valet was one of her lovers? Yes, those rumours are true. A lady with the heart of a harlot, I fear.'
'I see. How horrid. It seems worse, somehow, that the infidelity was so close, inside the household.'
Lucas nodded abruptly.
'You said one of her lovers-there were others?'
'Yes.' He leaned forward and began to make up the fire with bigger pieces of wood.
He spoke definitely, like a man who knew from his own knowledge, not from hearsay. The suspicion that Lucas was more than a recently employed valet began to stir.
'Then what made her do it?'
He turned and looked at her, one eyebrow raised in sardonic enquiry.
'Oh, I know what she wanted-but why was she not content with her husband? I've heard that she was light-hearted and gay before the marriage and that she changed afterwards.'
'She changed when she was not allowed free rein for her every whim and passion,' Lucas said grimly, as he rocked back on his heels and stood up. 'Danescroft expected fidelity and decorum from his countess-quite unreasonably, in her opinion.'
'So you do know something about this?' Daisy tipped back her head and looked up at him, standing tall and still on the hearthrug, his face unsettlingly underlit by the flames. 'Who are you, really, Lucas?'
He turned and walked away from her so that his face was in shadow. She could not decide whether that was deliberate.
'I observed them both at the time of the marriage and I had heard things about her character.'
'So you must approve of your master seeking a new wife? One who will behave as befits a countess?'
'I approve of him marrying again, yes. But not to that ninny-hammer of a mistress of yours, with her vulgarian of a stepmother.'
Rowan scrambled to her feet with more energy than grace. 'Well, I do approve of her getting married-but not to some top-lofty, miserable recluse with a cloud hanging over him!'
'Danescroft is not top-lofty and miserable-' Lucas began, then broke off, regarding her speculatively. 'But we are agreed upon something; it is a highly undesirable match from both sides. Does she want to marry him?'
'No, she is frightened of him-and in any case, she has no ambition for high position.' Rowan bit her lower lip and regarded her unlikely ally. 'Nor talent for it, come to that. But he wants to marry her?'
'He thinks he should marry, and Miss Maylin has been recommended by his grandmother. He needs a mother for his daughter. I don't know that want is the right word.'
'What would prevent him proposing?' She had thought those dark blue eyes impertinent, alarming and intelligent by turns: now Rowan realised just how much humour they revealed as their owner narrowed them at her and grinned.
'Why, Miss Daisy, you are not suggesting meddling in the affairs of our betters, are you?'
'Yes,' she declared roundly. 'Yes, I am. And do not try and look surprised, Mr Lucas, it is exactly what you are thinking, too.'
'In that case we had better do a little plotting.' He sat down on the edge of the narrow bed and patted the coverlet beside him.
'You are sitting on my bed,' Rowan protested.
'You didn't want to go to sleep yet, did you?'
'No, and certainly not with you in the room. Get up. It is most improper.'
'Anyone would think you were expecting a chaperon to burst into the room,' he said, his eyes laughing at her again. 'You really have not been out in the world very long, have you?'
'Long enough,' Rowan observed grimly. 'Out.'
'What about our little conspiracy?' He got to his feet, all long-limbed elegance.
Rowan controlled her breathing as her singing teacher had taught her, went to the door and held it open.
'We can discuss it perfectly well in daylight with the benefit of having considered it overnight.' She was pleased with the calm way she pronounced this. No one would guess what effect Lucas's nearness was having on her.
'Very well. It is Sunday tomorrow. Will you allow me to escort you to church?' He stopped in front of her.
Rowan fixed her gaze on the cut steel buttons of his waistcoat. 'I am far too lowly for your escort, Mr Lucas.'
'No one will wonder at it. My master is courting your mistress. What could be more natural than that we should mirror that?'
Startled, she looked up. 'Courting?'
'Merely a masquerade, Miss Daisy. There is no cause for alarm.' He bent his head and his mouth brushed hers-warm, firm. Outrageous. 'See?'And then, before she could react, he was out of the door and vanishing into the dark spiral of the stairs.
'Oh, you…!' Rowan shut the door, turned the key and stalked back to the bed in a swirl of skirts and indignation. She was no longer just being flirted with by a valet, she had been kissed by one. It was outrageous, it was shocking, it could not possibly go any further.
But. But with his help she could save Penny from Lord Danescroft. And she liked him, impertinent wretch that he was. Attractive, masculine, amusing, impertinent wretch.
'Oh, dear.' A charred piece of wood broke and fell into the hearth. Rowan went to lift it with the tongs and
laid a few more pieces on the fire. Somehow she did not think she was going to get to sleep very quickly tonight.
Briskly she drew the thin cotton curtains over the window, wondering what sort of view she was going to have in the morning light. Then she hung her nightgown over the back of the upright chair in front of the fire to warm while she undressed and washed.
The water had cooled; the room was still chill. As she slipped into the nightgown she wondered if that was enough to account for the fact that she felt slightly shivery. She hoped it was. But the cold could not be blamed for the fact that her lips tingled, or that her imagination kept straying to an unknown room somewhere in the house where Lucas was perhaps undressing even now. His black coat would be hung on the back of a chair. He would be shrugging off his waistcoat, standing there in the candlelight in those tight breeches and the clinging white linen of his shirt…
With a gasp of alarm Rowan snatched up her toothbrush and scrubbed her teeth with enough energy to take off the enamel. Never in her well-regulated life had she let herself speculate on what any man of her acquaintance looked like undressing, let alone with his clothes off.
She just hoped Penny would appreciate all her efforts when she was able to escape from Tollesbury Court unattached. Because, besides aching feet, insipient chilblains and aching muscles, Rowan very much feared her moral fibre was going to be severely impaired by this experience.
Penelope seemed more than usually distracted when Rowan, stifling her yawns, came into the room.
'Did you sleep well, Miss Penelope?' she asked, one eye on the chambermaid who had drawn the curtains and was whisking the hearth into order before rekindling the fire.
'Yes, thank you Ro… Lawrence.' She sat up against the vast white pillows and rubbed her eyes. 'But I had such odd dreams. I cannot quite recall them, but I feel strangely flustered this morning.'
Rowan considered her friend would feel even more flustered if she so much as hinted at the nature of the dreams she herself had experienced. Unfortunately she could recall them only too well, and as they had consisted mainly of variations on being kissed by Lucas, flustered was a mild description of her feelings.
'Thank you,' Rowan said to the maid, who was gathering up her brushes and bucket. 'Please have Miss Maylin's hot chocolate sent up. A nice big pot and two cups. I don't care what they think downstairs,' she added once the girl had gone. 'I am not starting the day without my chocolate.'
'Have you not had any breakfast?' Penny asked sympathetically.
'I had some toast and preserves and a cup of coffee at six. Luckily they sent up a girl with hot water at half past five, or I would still be in bed asleep.'
'Oh, poor Rowan. Is this proving very horrid?'
'Very odd, certainly.' Rowan frowned, trying to work out why, despite everything, she seemed to be enjoying herself. It was very strange. 'But it will be worth it, I am certain.' Among the worries keeping her awake half the night had been whether to tell Penny about her pact with Lucas to foil the betrothal. On reflection, she thought not. Penny was certain to be shocked.
'You are not to worry about Lord Danescroft,' she added bracingly as she opened a clothes press in search of Penny's best morning dress for church. 'I am sure we can succeed in putting him off.'
'He is very attentive,' Penny observed. 'He has asked if I would like to join him in his phaeton to and from the church. Do you think I ought?'
'Why, certainly.' Rowan opened the door to admit the maid with the chocolate, and carried on carefully setting out Penny's garments while the girl was in the room. 'Quite unexceptional.' The girl went out and Rowan frowned, a pair of silk stockings screwed up in her hand. 'There will be no need for a chaperon in an open carriage like that, so you can say what you like. We must think of something shocking.' She poured the chocolate, handed Penny her cup and went to perch on the end of the bed to drink her own. 'I know-talk about how much you like to make wagers.'
'What? But I cannot even play cards without making a mull of it,' Penny wailed. 'Papa shouts at me.'
'No, not cards. Say you enjoy putting wagers on things, and then confess you are always losing money and never have any of your allowance left. What a bad example he will think you would be for his daughter! Don't forget to look contrite and say you wish you could stop but you can't.'
'I'll try,' Penny said dubiously. 'But I am not a very good actress, and as for telling an untruth…'
'Better a white lie than a lifetime married to that man,' Rowan said forcibly. 'I am walking to church with his valet. I will tell him about your gambling habit as well.' She glanced at the clock. 'Lord! Look at the time. We must get you dressed and down to breakfast before your godmother comes in search of you.'
'Poor man,' Penny said, climbing out of bed and dragging on her wrapper.
'Lord Danescroft. All these people talking about him and intriguing about him. And now I have to lie to him.'
'Penny,' Rowan said firmly, 'you have a heart of butter. If you start feeling sorry for the Earl, of all people, you are lost.'
Penny still looked dubious. Rowan had a flash of inspiration prompted, she knew all too well, by her current preoccupation with Lucas.
'Has your step mother explained what happens between a man and a woman? You know-in bed?'
'Yes.' Penny blushed scarlet. 'It sounds dreadful'
'Well, imagine having to do that with Lord Danescroft,' Rowan said.
Her friend's blush drained away most satisfactorily, leaving her white to the lips.
'Surely you can manage a few fibs to prevent that, can't you?'
'Oh, yes.' Penny nodded vehemently. 'Oh, yes, I am sure I can.'
'Did you think of anything last night?'
Lucas's question could not have been better designed to disconcert her. Rowan gave a little gasp, pretended to slip on an icy patch, and was then thrown into even greater disorder by him taking her firmly by the arm.
'Now what have I said?' he demanded, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow.
She should protest at the fact he was squeezing it against his side rather than letting her rest it on his forearm. But then, he was not a gentleman, however polished his speech and his manner, so perhaps he did not realise that what he was doing was improper.
Rowan shot him a sideways glance as she tried to think of something to say. His face was composed, but there was the faintest curl to the corner of his lips and a twinkle she was becoming familiar with in his eye. He knew perfectly well he was disconcerting her. She tried to ignore the warmth of his body penetrating her leather glove and the recollection of the fleeting heat of his mouth on hers.
'Nothing. It is just that I lay awake too long trying to think of ways to prevent the Earl proposing to Miss Penelope, and I'm tired and clumsy this morning.'
'I told her to confess to him about her fatal addiction to wagering and how she is always outrunning her allowance as a result.'
Lucas grinned appreciatively. 'That's a good one. I don't suppose she can have a fatal addiction to card play or dice as well?'
'Miss Penelope? Goodness, no, she can hardly remember the basic rules, let alone put on a convincing show as a hardened gamester.'
'That's what you were trying to hint about when we met in the brushing room, wasn't it? You thought you could drop hints to me and I would run back to Danescroft with the tittle-tattle.'
'Well? Did you? I can see that you did.'
'Your remarks about Miss Maylin's stepmother wrought most effectively upon him.'
'Excellent! What did he say to the idea of her living with them after the wedding?'
'"Over my dead body,"' Lucas quoted with some relish.
'Oh. I suppose he is more than capable of enforcing that sort of decision,' Rowan brooded as they neared the edge of the coppice that filled one corner of the park and separated the church, graveyard and vicarage from the estate.
In front of them the upper servants walked in pairs, Sunday best muffled under shawls and scarves. Behind
them the lower servants straggled, a less disciplined crocodile, with the pair of giggling boot boys bringing up the rear.
'Why did he not put his foot down with his late wife?' she asked.
'Because the sense of betrayal was so great, I imagine. She broke his heart: dragging her away and locking her in was not going to bring back the woman he had thought he loved, was it?'
'No. I suppose not.' Rowan was shaken by the force of feeling in Lucas's words. 'Would you do the same thing? Turn a blind eye if it were your wife?'
'No. In his shoes I would kill her lover and lock her up on my most dreary and remote estate,' he said, with a smile that was pure ice.
There was not a great deal one could say to that. Rowan wondered just how a vengefully inclined valet would go about disposing of a rival. A gentleman would demand a duel, but Lucas was not a gentleman. Where, exactly, had he been when the late Lady Danescroft met her end? Lucas might have only become Lord Danescroft's valet after the murder, but he seemed strangely partisan for such a short acquaintance. She gave herself a little shake for giving way to such lurid Gothic imaginings. But there was a mystery here.
The group in front of them had slowed to pass through the gate that led into the coppice.
'Oh, look,' Lucas murmured. 'A kissing gate.' And so it was. A small gate hinged to move within a vee-shaped enclosure so that only one person at a time could squeeze through and stock or deer would not be able to move through it. The Steward was holding it for the housekeeper to pass, standing well back. But, as Rowan knew perfectly well, if the person holding it stood close enough they could snatch a kiss with ease.
'There has been all the kissing there is going to be,' she murmured back. 'If it were not that I need your help for Miss Penelope I would not be walking with you now, believe me.'
'I said a kissing gate.' Lucas managed to look convincingly shocked. 'I said nothing about intending to kiss you, Miss Daisy.'
'Good,' she retorted, furious with herself for betraying what she had been thinking about.
'Not in front of the entire Upper and Lower Halls, at any rate,' he added, freeing her arm and slipping through the gate to hold it open.
The presence of a gaggle of housemaids at her heels prevented Rowan from verbal or, more temptingly, physical retaliation. She ignored his proffered arm and continued on her way, both hands clasped with pious poise around her prayer book.
There was no possibility of further plotting, flirtation or quarrelling once the churchyard was reached. The housekeeper, Mrs Tarrant, gathered the female staff around her, reminding Rowan irresistibly of a mother hen with a large brood. After running a gimlet eye over them she led the way into the church and up the left-hand set of stairs into the gallery. The male staff trooped in, following the Steward, and took the right-hand flight.
It had never occurred to Rowan before to think what a perfect bird's-eye view the servants up aloft had of the pews below. There, in the box pews that seemed so private and enclosed to the occupants, the family and guests of the Tollesbury Court were taking their seats, while the village notables filed into their places.
And Christmas was coming. In the bustle of life below stairs she had lost sight of the reason for the house party. Now, seeing the nave decked with evergreen boughs, and trailing ivy and holly bunches hung on every pew door, she realised that this would be her first English Christmas for two years. What would it be like in the servants' hall? Would there be plum pudding and a Yule log? Hot punch and merrymaking?
Her attention was caught by Penny's entrance on the arm of Lord Danescroft. A short woman in a fashionable bonnet was with them; it must be Penny's godmother, his grandmother Lady Rolesby, who was promoting the match. The Earl held open the pew door and ushered the ladies in, assisting them to find their hassocks and prayer books. Heads turned to watch until they were seated and only the tops of their heads showed above the panelled walls. But from high above Rowan could see the occupants of the other pews leaning together to hiss a few words of gossip about the sight of plain little Miss Maylin and her scandalous catch.
She leaned in her turn, craning to catch a better glimpse of Lord Danescroft. Beautiful, Penny had called him. Sensitive. All she could see was his height and the top of a well-barbered dark head. If she could not manage to get a better look at him when they left church then she would have to find another way to view him. It ought to be possible to tell something from studying his face-the way he looked when he spoke to Penny, the way he comported himself with other people.
Mrs Tarrant was frowning at her. Returning an apologetic smile, Rowan straightened up, but not before she caught Lucas's eye. What is he staring at? she thought, already flustered at being caught out behaving inappropriately by the housekeeper. He winked, upsetting her precarious decorum, and she bit her lip hard in an effort not to dissolve into giggles.
Mortified, she opened her prayer book and made herself concentrate. She, Lady Rowan Chilcourt, behaving like a kitchen maid in church! The hassock was hard and lumpy under her knees: a just penance for her frivolity, she told herself sternly.
Her deportment for the duration of the service was perfect. Descending the staircase afterwards, Rowan determined to maintain her ladylike poise, whatever Lucas's provocation might be. Unfortunately for this worthy ambition the first thing she saw when she walked out into the snow-covered churchyard was Lucas, and the second Penny standing talking to Lord Danescroft.
'Bother it,' she muttered under her breath.
'What?' Lucas was at her side.
'Him. Lord Danescroft. Penny was right. He is beautiful.'
'Well enough,' his loyal valet said, with a grin. 'He owes it all to the way I dress him, of course.'
'Really? That produces his height and the width of his shoulders and the muscles in his thighs does it? And that perfectly straight nose and the firm jaw and those very fine dark eyes?'
'Miss Lawrence, I am shocked! Thighs? A young lady should not acknowledge that gentlemen have such things, let alone assess them.' He clapped his tall hat on his head and looked sanctimonious.
'We can see them, Mr Lucas, not being blind. Naturally most of us are also not blind to the defects of character the possessors of such features may have. Miss Maylin, I regret to say, seems willing to be dazzled, despite her apprehension about his lordship.'
'And you, Miss Daisy, are you capable of seeing past handsome features to the character within?' He took her arm again and began to make his way down the path to the gate, not waiting for the Steward and the housekeeper to assemble their flock.
'Well, certainly.' Rowan watched her step, sparing him just one flickering sideways glance as they stepped through the gateway. 'When I find myself in the company of someone so endowed.'
'Ouch,' Lucas said, a laugh in his voice.
'You should not fish for compliments, Mr Lucas.'
'I am justly reproved. But we are not much further forward in our quest for ideas. What a pity Miss Maylin was not accompanied by her stepmama. Half an hour of that dame would send Danescroft fleeing without his bags packed.'
'Sir Gregory Maylin did not require Lady Rolesby's warnings about that, you may be sure. Apparently he was heard to say that some game birds come better to a lure than they do if flushed out by beaters.'
Lucas gave a smothered snort of amusement. 'I can just see her, purple toque on her head, frightening every pheasant in the Home Counties, let alone every eligible bachelor.'
He opened a wicket gate and Rowan followed, still smiling at the image he'd conjured up. They were several yards down a path before she noticed their surroundings.
'This is not the path to the house.' It was a winding route cut through shrubbery to form a wilderness walk, she guessed. The overarching trees had sheltered it from the snow, and the trodden earth beneath her stout boots was almost dry.
'It will get us there almost as quickly-it comes out in the orchard behind the kitchen gardens-and we can talk without fear of being overheard. Now, can we rely upon Miss Maylin refusing Danescroft if she is sufficiently wary of him?'
'No.' Rowan shook her head, quite certain. 'She is very timid, and has never refused to do anything her papa has told her to before. Oh, dear, if he is not a murderer, and she comes to like him, perhaps the best thing would be to let things run their course.'
'Does she need someone to love her?' Lucas asked. 'Or would the title and the status be enough for her if she could overcome her fear of him?'
'She would shrivel without love and gentleness, and she would be terrified of having to be a countess with all that implies. Why?' They emerged from the wilderness in front of a stile in the orchard fence. 'Do you think he really will propose, even if she gives him no encouragement?'
'If she does not actively repel him, yes.' Lucas eyed the stile. 'Let me climb this first, make sure it is stable.'
He stepped onto the cross-plank, brushed the snow off the top rail and swung one leg over, then the other- allowing Rowan, if she was so inclined, a fine opportunity to admire their length and strong musculature. Regrettably, considering that it was a Sunday and she should have had her mind on matters spiritual, she found herself quite unable to avert her gaze.
'Quite safe. Up you come.'
'Turn around, then.' Obediently he turned his back, then swung round again when she had both feet safely on the orchard side of the cross piece. 'Give me your hand.'
'I am perfectly capable of jumping down eighteen inches.'
He did not budge, standing in front of her with his hand held out.
'Oh, very well, if you insist on treating me as though I was feeble. I am used to long walks every day, I will have you know. And I am more than capable of negotiating a few stiles.'
'Really?' Lucas took her hand while she jumped down, then released it. They began to walk up the slope towards the high red brick wall of the kitchen garden.
'Er, yes…my last mistress was a very active lady and always required me to accompany her.' Rowan turned around before he could ask her anything else about her fictitious past and began to walk backwards. 'Look at our footprints. I do love the snow when it is fine and crisp and pure like this.'
'And look at this view.' Lucas had stopped under one of the gnarled old apple trees and gestured across to the south. The great ornamental lake stretched out before them in the distance, the tree-dotted parkland was shrouded in snow, and the only movement came from the herd of fallow deer that had just emerged from the woodland edge.
'Oh, lovely! It reminds me of ho-'
Home. 'Homebury Park, where my last employer often stayed,' Rowan improvised airily, leaning back
against the trunk of the tree, which acted as a welcome windbreak. 'Never mind the view-what about Lord Danescroft? We are agreed that Miss Penelope is too timid to refuse him, so we must concentrate on putting him off her.'
'And he is not going to believe her tarradiddles about losing her allowance on wagers. Not unless she is an exceptional actress.'
Rowan shook her head.
'So it is unlikely that she wagered on how many red-headed choirboys there were before they entered the church?'
'Highly unlikely! So what would put him off?'
'Lying, immorality, unkindness to children.'
'Oh. That's a daunting list. Nothing minor, then?'
'I doubt it. I have recounted all your hints and gossip. He just shrugs it off.'
'This is much harder than I thought it would be. Is there nothing I can tell her about him that is so bad her father would refuse the match?'
'No.' Lucas's brows drew together sharply. 'There is not. And I am not going to make something up, either. If Sir Gregory is not baulking at the current scandal anything that would put him off would have to be appalling. What about you? Can I tell him she is spiteful and deceitful, or has a clandestine lover?'
'No! She is none of those things, and I am certainly not going to risk her reputation. You will just have to keep pointing out to him the disadvantages and inequalities of the match, and I will try to persuade her that the world will not end if she stands up to her father.'
Lucas watched Daisy's face as she leaned back against the rough bark of the tree and looked out across the valley, her eyes narrowed either in worried thought or against the snow dazzle. She intrigued him. More than intrigued, if truth be told. Her upbringing was that of a lady, yet here she was, waiting on a little dab of a nobody. Her need for employment must be serious. He liked her fierce loyalty towards Penelope Maylin, the way she stood up to him, the humour that was always lurking in those big hazel eyes-and he liked looking at her.
He had liked the feel of her mouth under his in that fleeting kiss last night. Warm, full, trembling between outrage and response. A bird began to sing above their heads, sweet and clear on the cold air. Lucas glanced up and smiled. It was so very tempting to indulge in a little dalliance. Just a very little. He did not think he could disturb Miss Lawrence's heart too much, and he had every confidence that she would send him on his way with a clip around the ear if she found his actions unwelcome.
'Look up, Daisy.'
'Hmm?' She tipped back her head and stared up through the bare branches. 'Oh, a robin-how lovely. Look at the way his throat is working with the force of his singing. You would never believe such a tiny scrap could make so much noise.'
'Look just above it.'
She refocused, and he saw the tiniest twitch at the corner of her mouth when she saw what he was referring to. Then it was gone, and she was saying repressively, 'Mistletoe?'
But it had been there, that spark of mischief. He moved in front of her, put both gloved hands on the tree
trunk either side of her head and leaned in. 'Mistletoe. And we will bring down the wrath of Druids everywhere if we do not do the proper thing when beneath it-especially at this time of year.'
'Wrathful Druids will be the very least of your problems if you try and ki…'
It was everything he had guessed it would be, kissing Daisy Lawrence. Softness, the fragrance of warm femininity, and the dangerous spark of her temper as she decided whether to kiss him back or box his ears.
She tasted very faintly of peppermint. He slipped his tongue between her lips, urging them to part for him, wary that he would find her teeth, not the sweet heat inside. She was still braced against the tree, her hands by her sides.
She lifted them suddenly, and as suddenly moved away, just enough to gasp, 'Oh, you wretch,' before clasping her hands in his hair and pulling his head down to hers again.
She was angry with him, but she shouldn't be-she was kissing him just as much as he was kissing her. Although it was patently obvious that Lucas had far more experience than she had. Either that or he had startling natural talent.
His mouth was hot and hard and flexible enough to drive her distracted, and his tongue was quite blatantly impertinent in its exploration. No one had ever kissed Rowan with anything like this sensual impact. And she should not be kissing him. She knew she should not.
Her fingers bumped against the underside of his hat and she felt it tip and fall off, giving her unrestricted access to his hair. It was springy between her fingers, like a live thing. At her back the tree was solid, hard and uncomfortable. At her front she was pressed against his body-almost as hard, certainly as solid, but far from uncomfortable.
Her insides were feeling very strange indeed: tense, hot, aching with an almost-pain that ran from her belly
down the inside of her thighs. This must stop…now. Or in a minute or two…
Just a few moments more. Now.
Rowan opened her eyes and pulled back with enough force to bump her head against the tree trunk a few inches behind. She found she was panting slightly, and that Lucas was, too. He did not move back. He was so close she could see where his beard was already beginning to show, despite a severe morning shave, so close she could see that there was a ring of darker blue around the indigo of his eyes. So close that the mist of their breath mingling in the cold air hung between them.
'I-' She should reprimand him. Or she should just walk away. Or say something dignified about it being both their faults and it must not happen again: for of course it must not. Instead she looked him straight in the eye and said, 'That was very nice.'
'I thought so,' Lucas said gravely. 'I suspect my hat may be ruined, but that is a small price to pay.'
'Hadn't you better look, before it gets too wet?'
He did not move. It was really very pleasant, standing so close. Warm, intimate, friendly. Only her toes were becoming very cold and her inner voice was demanding to be heard. Her behaviour could be excused, just, it reminded her sternly, if the man concerned was betrothed to her. Under no circumstances could she ever have such a relationship with a valet, so she had acted purely for the pleasure of kissing him. Which was scandalously wanton and she should be ashamed of herself. But she wasn't, which was even more shameful. Her conscience nagged on, relentless.
'Oh, do be quiet,' she muttered, earning a startled look from Lucas. 'Sorry-just thinking aloud. My feet are cold.'
'Then we must go in.' This time he acted on his words, turning to pick up his tall hat and brushing the snow off it as they walked towards the kitchen garden gate. 'Where were you last employed?' he asked, abruptly changing the subject.
'With a middle-aged person-more as a companion than anything,' Rowan said, with perfect truth. 'Abroad, mostly.'
'In which country?' Lucas opened the gate onto the practical formality of the kitchen garden. Within the sheltering walls the snow lay only patchily. Men were working around the glass frames, shifting covers. One lad was picking the tight button heads of borecole off the robust stalks that leaned drunkenly in the cold earth, and a man Rowan guessed was the head gardener was supervising a delivery of coals by the stovehouse door.
'Austria.' There was no point in lying about it. If he knew she had been out of the country he was not going to ask questions about English families or houses, and she was not going to have to risk an error.
'The Congress?' he asked, and she nodded in reply. 'Interesting.'
'It certainly greatly entertained my employer.' It had entertained her as well. The endless round of balls and receptions, picnics and parties, political gossip and scandalous on dits were a world away from the careful formality of the servants' hall at dinner time. 'It seems a different world,' she added, stamping her feet on the brick path to get rid of the snow.
In Vienna now she could be going on expeditions into the forest in a horse-drawn sledge, or shopping in the luxurious stores and emporia that lined the streets. But Papa was coming home early in the New Year, and she had agreed with him that it would be best if she came on ahead and got the town house opened up.
If she had not come then she would not have known about Penny's predicament until the deed was done and her friend irrevocably married. And she would not be having this insight into the parallel world of the servants, or the freedom to indulge in her scandalous flirtation.
'I'm not sorry to be back.'
'No. Neither am I. Although I suspect I will never get warm again. I had forgotten how cold this country can be.'
'You have been abroad, too? For how long?'
'Five years. I got back a few weeks ago.'
Thank goodness. He could have had nothing to do with Lady Danescroft's death.
'I have been in the West Indies.' That explained the faint colour his skin held, as though he had been brushed lightly by the sun.
'As a valet?' The sound of the other servants arriving back met them as they rounded the edge of the stableblock and the yard behind the kitchen door came into sight.
'No. More as an estates manager. I had not expected to take this job when I returned, but it was…expedient.'
An estates manager sounded considerably more respectable than a valet. Younger sons of quite good family became estates managers. Rowan realised she was pleased by this discovery, and then, a moment later, why she was. For goodness' sake. Slightly better breeding does not excuse flirtation! Valet or younger son of a gentry family, it does not matter. I am the only child of Roland Chilcourt, third Earl of Lavenham, and I know what is due to my name. The scandal would be resounding if anyone ever found out. Acting as Penny's dresser might be excused as a prank; kissing a valet would put her beyond the pale.
Then don't get found out. She was shocking herself. She glanced at Lucas as they mingled with the other returning churchgoers, all shedding hats and wraps and stamping the snow off their feet as they trooped back into the warmth. There had been other men in her life- attractive, eligible men whom she had liked very well. Several had proposed, and with two of them she had thought long and hard before refusing. But never had she been tempted to kiss one of them. She had not felt oddly breathless with either of them, and they had certainly not disturbed her dreams in the way this man had last night.
'What are you daydreaming about, Miss Lawrence?' Miss Mather's dresser enquired acidly. 'I would have thought Miss Maylin required all your attention.'
'What? Oh, Lord-they'll be back, of course.' Rowan gathered up her outer things and hurried to the foot of the stairs. Time to do what she could to ring the changes with Penny's limited selection of afternoon gowns-and to find out what had happened in the big box pew.
She fled up the spiral stairs to her tower room, pausing to gasp for air on one of the cramped little landings. There was a stone window ledge at just the right height to rest her elbows on while she caught her breath. The view, once she had scrubbed cobwebs off the glass, was the same as they had had just now, looking out from the orchard over to the lake.
And there was their apple tree. As she watched a tall figure appeared, hung his coat over a low branch and stood for a moment, hat in hand, as though wondering what to do with it. Then, with a shrug, he tossed it over his shoulder into the snow and swung up into the tree.
Lucas. What on earth was he doing? Then she realised: he was picking mistletoe. 'Going to work his way round all the female staff, I'll be bound,' Rowan said severely. But with a small glow inside she knew it was only for her. It took only a few seconds and then he swung down again, as lithe as a lad scrumping apples, and pushed something small into his pocket.
Penny was looking somewhat pale when Rowan hurried in, trying to keep the grin off her face. She was more composed than Rowan would have expected after having been singled out by Lord Danescroft quite so conspicuously.
'Well?' Rowan demanded, whisking round her, untying bonnet strings and shaking out her cloak. 'Were you able to put him off?'
'Put him-? Oh, the tale about wagering. I tried, and he laughed and said he would wager on how many times Godmama dropped her prayer book, if I liked.'
'He laughed?' That was bad news. 'I thought you said he never smiled?'
'I know.' Penny bit her lip. 'I don't think he has been put off me.'
'Oh dear. Well, do not despair. Mr Lucas, his valet, and I are trying to think of things, but it is very hard without inventing something so frightful about you that no one would believe it, or that would ruin you utterly if it was true.'
'It is very good of you to associate with him just to help me,' Penny said, standing meekly while Rowan unbuttoned her morning dress and lifted it over her head.
Rowan paused, dress in hand, and regarded her friend through narrowed eyes. 'Penelope Maylin, are you teasing me?'
'A bit,' Penny admitted with the ghost of a smile. 'Mr Lucas is very good-looking.'
'Well, that makes two of you who think so,' Rowan said tartly. 'And for goodness' sake, Penny-as if I'd flirt with a valet!'
'I expect you would for my sake,' Penny said loyally.
'He has been in the West Indies as some kind of estates manager.' Rowan took out all three afternoon dresses and scrutinised them. 'I don't think he is really a valet at all.'
'What about the amber one?' Penny asked. 'I can wear it with the kid slippers and the paisley shawl Stepmama lent me.' They lifted it over her head and she emerged, shaking out her hair. 'Perhaps Lucas is a Bow Street Runner, employed to discover the real murderer?'
'At a house party?' Rowan asked sceptically, wondering distractedly if it was better or worse to be attracted to a Runner rather than a valet.
Penny looked downcast at this reception of her theory, and they brooded silently while Rowan found the slippers and Penny sat at the dressing table and began to brush her hair. 'Do you think it looks better down?' she asked after a few minutes, twisting ringlets round her fingers.
Rowan studied the reflection in the mirror. 'It does, actually. In fact it suits you very well. But we cannot do it that way-the last thing you want is for him to find you attractive.'
'No, I suppose not.'
Rowan took over the brush and concentrated on piling Penny's hair up into her usual arrangement.
'I might wear it like that at the ball, though. How will you dress your hair?'
'I'm not going to any ball, silly.'
'There's the Servants' Ball. Miranda Fortescue says they always have one at Tollesbury Court. Lord Fortescue lights the great Yule log in the hall on Christmas morning, then the family all go over to Lady Fortescue's family at Deddington Manor a few miles away, to spend the whole of Christmas Day, and the servants have a proper ball in the evening. Lord Fortescue even hires in waiters, so the footmen and butler can join in. And then on the twenty-sixth the Fortescues have a St Stephen's Day Ball here and invite all the neighbouring families.'
'Well, I haven't got a thing with me, and you haven't got a second-best ball gown I can borrow.' Just for a second Rowan had seen an image of herself dancing with Lucas, the expression on his face when he saw her in all her finery…
'But your things are just down at the inn in the village, aren't they?' Penny demanded. 'Along with Alice and Kate.'
'Of course!' Rowan pushed in the last hair pin. 'How on earth could I have forgotten? And there I was fretting about how to get that red wine stain out of the cuff of your white organza while all the time we have our own highly accomplished dressers just down the road. It is very remiss of me. I do hope they are comfortable there.'
'Well, it seemed a good inn when we dropped them off with your luggage,' Penny said, slipping a plain gold bangle over her hand. 'And Dorritt and the carriage have gone back there-he would be sure to come and
let us know if it was not respectable. It would be good if they can do something about that stain.'
'I'll walk down tomorrow, taking a basket, and see what they can do with it. If I take a big basket I can bring something back to wear at the Servants' Ball.'
'A very big basket,' Penny observed, pinching her cheeks to get some colour up. 'There's the gown and your petticoats, and silk stockings and slippers, and a shawl and some hair ornaments and jewellery…'
'Nothing too fancy-and not jewellery,' Rowan said. 'This is the Servants' Ball, don't forget.'
'You will look lovely, and your Bow Street Runner will lose his heart to you.'
'Don't joke about it,' Rowan said, with more force than she'd intended. Penny blinked in surprise at her tone. 'Sorry. But really it is too ridiculous. Now, remember this afternoon to be as insipid as you possibly can. If we cannot think of anything to shock him at least let's try and bore him into thinking again.'
'What the hell have you done to that hat?'
Lucas looked at it. It was sodden and the brim was beginning to buckle. 'Thrown it in a snowdrift a couple of times.'
'And the state of your trousers and waistcoat! If I didn't know better I'd think you'd been climbing a tree.' Will reached for the clothes brush and attacked the streaks of lichen and bark on his valet's legs.
'I have been. Ow! Give me that.' He finished the job off himself, only too aware that he was doing it in order to avert his face from his friend's bemused scrutiny.
'Why?' Will demanded, not unreasonably. He went back to paring his nails and looking as relaxed as only a blameless morning in church listening to a soporific sermon could make a man.
'You don't need to pick it. You simply manoeuvre the young lady underneath it.'
'I'm damned if I'm going to freeze in the orchard every time I want a kiss.'
'You'll leave the entire female half of the servants' hall in blind despair when you leave,' his friend remarked.
'Just Miss Daisy. And I doubt if she ever gets into blind despair about anything. She is far too determined.'
'You should not, you know,' Will said reprovingly. 'This is not like you-to get into a serious flirtation with a servant girl'
'This one's different. She was brought up in a gentleman's household-family by-blow, I've no doubt. It's like being with a girl of our own class, but one with spirit and independence.'
'Makes it worse.' Will tossed aside his knife and put his prayer book in a drawer. 'You'll forget the rules and she'll not know whether you're serious or not. Unless you are going to offer her a carte blanche? You haven't got a mistress in keeping at the moment, have you?'
'No.' Lucas felt decidedly snappy. Of course he was not going to offer Daisy a carte blanche. Of course he
was not going to get any deeper into this than he already was. But there was the sprig of mistletoe in his pocket, and the memory of her curves and warmth and sweetness to make his body ache and his groin tight.
He bent and picked up Will's discarded boots. 'Do you need anything else?'
'No. Thank you. Go and get some luncheon while you can. But, Lucas-what are you going to do about the Servants' Ball?'
'They have one here?'
'Christmas Day. You need to pull back, Lucas, let her down lightly. If the pair of you spend all evening dancing and making sheep's eyes at each other there'll be hell to pay in the morning.'
'I won't hurt her,' he said tightly, wondering if it was himself who was going to get hurt. His mind seemed all too full of Daisy Lawrence for comfort. 'She thinks me an amusing rogue, I believe. She's too bright to fall for my blue eyes, Will.'
And Daisy certainly did not appear to be inclined to pay him much attention when he reached the kitchens. She was patiently helping one of the lads unravel a skein of Cook's knitting wool the stableyard cat had knotted into a tangle while the kitchen maids bustled about them laying the table for the upper staff to eat their luncheon.
'Get along out of here.' It was the under-butler, his arms full of bottles, arguing with someone unseen at the back door. 'There's nothing we want here.' The person outside must have been persuasive, for eventually he turned and called, 'The potter's here with a cartload of stuff if anyone's interested.'
The young women, apparently uninterested in any hawker not selling ribbons and furbelows, turned back to their tasks by the warm fire, but Cook, arms floury to the elbow, and several of the men braved the cold to look.
The potter had a flatbed cart laden with baskets and pulled by a skinny nag. 'Presents for your loves,' he wheedled. 'Fine serving dishes for your table.'
'I want a good big ashet, and nothing that' 11 chip and crack at the first hot thing that goes on it, either,' Cook said, peering into the biggest basket.
The men went to dig amongst the mugs and bowls, gaily painted with mottoes and flowers.
Idle, Lucas looked over their shoulders, smiling at the naive vigour of some of the decoration. There was a little brownish-green mug, almost the colour of Daisy's eyes. Lucas stretched a long arm and hooked it out, twisting it in his fingers to read the slipware motto. 'I'll take this.' He handed over a few coins, starting a flurry of buying, and went back indoors, asking himself what had possessed him to buy something like this.
'Is there anything interesting?' It was Daisy, right by his side.
'No, just kitchen wares and crude stuff.' The little mug was small enough to slip into his pocket, where it made an inelegant bump.
'Oh.' She turned away to admire Cook's new ashet, and he took the opportunity to slip away to his room to hide it.
Like a lovesick ploughboy with a fairing for his girl, Lucas sneered at himself as he set it on the dresser. On impulse he found the battered sprig of mistletoe in his pocket and dropped it in, then, shaking his head at his own foolishness, ran back downstairs to eat.
Monday, Christmas Eve, dawned clear and dry, and, with the wind dropped, felt slightly warmer. Rowan left Penny to the tender mercies of Lady Rolesby and went to get dressed for a walk. Penny's godmother had decided that all that was required to convince Lord Danescroft of Penny's eligibility was to hear her play the piano and sing and, with only one day to practise, had borne her off to the music room.
There was nothing Rowan could do to help-Penny played well enough, if rather stiffly, and her singing voice was sweet, but never raised above a terrified whisper in company. She normally made herself highly popular by volunteering as an accompanist to more confident singers or by playing at small dancing parties. A recital by her would only captivate Lord Danescroft if she was sitting on his lap so he might hear it.
Smiling at that improbable image, Rowan picked her way down the rutted lane to the hamlet of Tollesbury Parva, where the biggest building was the Lion and Unicorn, a coaching inn on the toll road. Many of the guests had left their carriages, horses and grooms there, to relieve the pressure on the big house. When they had set out on the journey Penny had left with her dresser, Kate Jessop, in the family carriage. A few miles along the road, well clear of her stepmother's beady gaze, they had been joined by Rowan in her hired chaise with Alice Loveday and all her trunks.
The dressers, the Maylins' coachman and the groom were now ensconced in three rooms in the inn with Rowan's luggage, looking forward to several days' holiday from their usual duties with all the activity of the inn for entertainment.
The four were sitting in the bigger chamber, playing cards with a pile of broken spills for stakes, when Rowan walked in. The men effaced themselves while Kate and Alice swept the cards off the table and pulled the bell for tea.
In answer to Rowan's concerned questions they were adamant that they were comfortable and happy, but were much more eager to talk about Penny and Rowan than their own situation.
'How are you getting on, my lady?'
'Well enough, Alice. I haven't disgraced your teaching yet I don't think, and Miss Penelope is very patient. But I've brought you this-Miss Penelope's organza. I can't seem to get the wine stain out-and I need something to wear for the Servants' Ball tomorrow.'
Kate tutted over the mark and bustled off downstairs to borrow something from the kitchens that she swore was a sovereign remedy, while Alice dragged out trunks and threw back the lids.
'How about your second-best cream silk?'
'Too fancy, don't you think?' Rowan eyed the thick lace trimming doubtfully.
'Probably. And there isn't time to get a plainer lace to fit this deep vee neck.' Alice folded it back and dug deeper. 'Here! There's the bronze-green silk that has that stain near the hem we can't identify and nothing will shift. It isn't terribly obvious, and it could well be the sort of thing a mistress would pass on to a dresser.'
'Excellent. And the brown kid slippers, because I wouldn't be able to afford the ones we had made to match it, and the cream kid gloves that have been cleaned a lot. Miss Penelope can help with my hair.'
Alice began to sort out the linen needed to go under the gown while Rowan rummaged in the box containing her simpler jewellery. 'This comb, the amber ear drops and this lace-trimmed handkerchief. Perfect.'
Warmed by the tea, and the knowledge that their staff were happily settled, Rowan pulled her scarf up over her nose and trudged off, basket over her arm.
'Hello. Have you sneaked out for a mug of huckle my buff?'
Rowan jumped, dropped the basket and made a wild grab at the handle before the contents fell out on the ground. 'A what? Look what you have made me do, Lucas.'
'Hot beer, egg and brandy,' he explained, removing the basket from her grasp and hooking it over his arm.
'Certainly not. It sounds disgusting. Although I assume that is why you are here. Miss Maylin's groom and carriage are at the inn and I came down to get some things that had been left by mistake.'
'I haven't touched a drop. Smell my breath.' He leaned invitingly close. Rowan pursed her lips and resisted the temptation to meet his. 'See-no spirits. I came to check on my…on Lord Danescroft's horses and grooms and to get some fresh air.'
'I can manage the basket.' Rowan eyed him uneasily. She had half convinced herself in the course of a decidedly restless night that it was only the novelty of such unchaperoned freedom that was making her lightheaded enough to flirt with Lucas, and that if she avoided him she would soon feel her old self again.
'I am going back. It is too heavy for you.' He set off up the lane, leaving Rowan glaring at his retreating back. She picked up her skirts and ran to catch him up.
'You are bossy.'
'So are you.'
For some reason this made her smile. They walked on in amicable silence, Lucas swinging the basket, Rowan hopping over frozen puddles. The lane went down a slight slope, then levelled out. Heavy, wide-
wheeled farm carts had cut deep ruts that had filled with water and now made long, parallel ribbons of ice, perhaps eighteen inches wide apiece.
Lucas set the basket down on a tree stump, took a run, and slid down one shining length of ice, arms flailing to keep his balance. When he got to the end he turned, took another run and did the same thing, arriving back, grinning, in front of her. 'Sorry-couldn't resist that. It has been a long time since I have seen ice.'
One thing two winters in Vienna had done for Rowan was to teach her how to skate. She held out her gloved right hand to him. 'One, two, three!'
It was a ragged start: she tried to lengthen her stride to match him; he shortened his. They were already laughing when their feet hit the ice, and Rowan was screaming with a mixture of delight and terror as they skidded down the icy ruts. There was no room to move their feet. The only way to balance was by waving their arms about, and they staggered off at the end, breathless and whooping with laughter.
Lucas pulled Rowan into his arms and they clung together, shoulders shaking, as their mirth subsided. It left them standing there, locked together, tears glistening in their eyes and suddenly in no mood to laugh, only to stare. She seemed to be drowning in the blue of his eyes; he seemed no more willing to unlock his gaze from hers. Something was happening. No, something had happened. Something wonderful… and dreadful.
Slowly she raised her hand, clumsy in its thick woollen glove, and stroked it down his cheek. He turned his face into it, the strong jawbone rubbing along her fingers, then he caught the tips in his teeth and dragged the glove off. The air was cold, but his mouth, as he pressed it into her palm, was hot.
His hat had fallen off again. She stared down at the dark head, bent so intently over her hand. The exposed nape, the vulnerable softness of the skin at the base of his skull, the virile curl of the hair there, the strength of the muscle. So male, so strong, so gentle. Something inside was hurting, as though pressure was building in her chest.
'Lucas?' She hadn't meant to whisper, but that was how it came out. But he heard it and looked up, and she wondered that the word gentle had occurred to her for a moment. The blue eyes blazed, his face was hard with something that reflected the baffling pain inside her, and his mouth when he pulled her hard into his arms and kissed her was savage.
She needed it. Gentleness would have made her cry. Rowan kissed him back without inhibition and the pain dissolved into something dark and urgent and-
'Come on, bor! You going to stand there all day, rutting with that there wench?' The thickly accented bellow brought them apart as effectively as a bucket of cold water thrown over fighting cats. Rowan caught a glimpse of a red-faced yokel perched up on the box of a wide farm wagon, two shaggy horses steaming patiently in the shafts.
With a gasp of mortification she turned her back. Lucas stepped onto the verge, drawing her with him, feet crunching in the snow. 'Sorry to keep you waiting, friend.'
'Ah, well, bor, you needs be doing your courting inside this weather. Fine wench like that'll soon warm you up,' the carter advised cheerfully as the wagon trundled past, shattering the ice on their impromptu skating rink.
'Oh!' Rowan emerged red-faced and flustered from the shelter of Lucas's shoulder.
He looked at her for a long moment, then went back for the basket. 'This won't do, will it?' he observed as he rejoined her and they began to walk on to Tollesbury Court.
'No,' Rowan agreed bleakly.
'Tomorrow is Christmas Day and the Servants' Ball. We will talk after that.'
'Not now?' They had reached the gates; soon there would be precious little privacy.
'Do you believe in magic, Daisy?' Lucas was looking away from her, out across the frigidly still parkland.
'No.' She shook her head.
'Neither do I. But let's pretend, until tomorrow at midnight, that magic does exist-for us.'
Common sense said End it now. The warning voice inside her agreed. You'll get hurt. Rowan listened to them, to the voices of duty and reality. But I am going to be hurt anyway-better tomorrow than today, she thought defiantly. I love him and it is quite impossible.
'Until the stroke of midnight on Christmas night, then I believe in magic'
'Give me your arm. No one can object with this slippery surface.'
They walked in silence. What Lucas's thoughts were she could not guess, but her own, circling, came up with a bump against a mystery.
I know it is hopeless, because I'm not really a dresser and I could not possibly marry a valet. But why does he think it won't do? Oh my God-he is married.
'Are you married?' Rowan demanded, stopping dead outside the kitchen door.
'All right. I just wanted to be sure.' She took the basket from his grip while he was still staring at her and went inside, exchanging greetings with the kitchen maids and Cook as she hurried past.
I know this won't do. The Viscount Stoneley cannot marry a servant-even one with illegitimate blue blood in her veins, even one raised gently. But how does she know? Lucas was frowning over the conundrum as he let himself into Will's bedchamber. His friend was sitting in the window seat, gazing out idly, a book in his lap.
'Not downstairs socializing, Will?'
'Thinking. I can't get a moment to myself down there. If I'm talking to Miss Maylin, Grandmother is hovering, hanging on every word. If I'm not, she's at my elbow trying to get me back.'
'Maddening. Still, you are seeing enough of the girl to convince yourself she won't do, I imagine?'
'She is terrified of me.' Will dropped the book on the floor and swung both feet up onto the window seat, leaning forward to rest his folded arms on his knees and presenting Lucas with the uncommunicative barrier of his shoulders.
'You see-impossible for a countess. The girl's a mouse.'
'A very sweet mouse, and a very kind one. She would be wonderful with Louisa.'
'Do you want a woman who is frightened of you? Of the life you must lead?'
'I'm sure she would make a wonderful governess, but that is not what you need. You need a Society hostess and an exciting woman in your bed to give you sons.'
'God! Do you not think I have had enough of exciting women? One was enough.'
'You need one who loves you.' Lucas stayed where he was, wondering, with a flash of pain, who he was arguing with.
'I loved Belle. You have no idea what it is like to love and to lose, Lucas. None.'
'Oh, yes, I have.' But he said it too quietly for Will to hear, turning his back to begin laying out his evening clothes.
'How did the music go?' Rowan asked.
Penny shrugged. 'As usual. I played adequately.'
'And the singing?'
'I whispered-as usual.' She fidgeted with her reticule, finally tipping it out on the bed and sorting through the spill of trifles. Rowan tried to study her expression, but Penny would not meet her eyes. 'How are Alice and Kate? And Dorritt and Charles, of course.'
'Very comfortable, and enjoying their holiday. See-your organza is clean again.' It had taken three more rinses, and then careful pressing with warm irons, but now it was perfect again. The manual work had allowed her to think in rather more tranquillity about Lucas. Because of the mystery surrounding Lady Danescroft it was easy to see mysteries everywhere. Lucas simply did not want to become entangled with a woman. He could tell she was falling…no, becoming attached. That was all he could see, surely? He could see this, and was acting to let her know it was going no further than a flirtation.
As Penny admired the dress Rowan let her mind wander back to him. It was her duty to marry well. Sooner or later she was going to find a man, a suitable gentleman, of whom Papa approved and whom she could respect enough to marry. She did not have to love him. Many people would say it was desirable that she did not. And in her heart she would hold the image of the man she did love. So impossibly.
'Did you say something?' Penny looked up.
'What? No. A hiccup, that was all.'
She would go to the ball and have her magical evening with Lucas. And then, like Cinderella, it would all vanish at midnight. Only she would leave her heart behind with him, not her slipper.
'Rowan?' Penny was watching her, frowning. 'You look sad. What is wrong?'
'Nothing.' She forced a smile.
'You are tired, and bored with this, I am sure. I do appreciate you being here, you know.'
'How is it with Lord Danescroft? Honestly?'
'I wish I was not so shy.' Penny looked down at her hands, clasped tightly together. 'I wish I had the courage to speak out about what I truly want.'
'It's the rest of your life, Penny. You must tell the truth about how you feel. I can't help you. I realise that now. There is nothing about Lord Danescroft that your father could possibly object to, and I truly believe he is innocent of everything except making a very poor choice of first wife.'
'Yes.' Penny drew in a deep breath. 'I will do my best. Now, what are you going to wear tomorrow night?'
'Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Daisy Lawrence!'
Rowan paused at the top of the ballroom stairs and blinked. The room was thronged with the indoor staff of the big house, the outdoor staff, estate workers and the tradespeople and professional men who serviced Tollesbury Court. Those who were married had brought their spouses and their adult children. It was almost as hectic a crush as a Society ball: the noise level was certainly as great.
But the guests were decidedly different, she realised as she began to descend. There were the upper servants, dressed as she was in the good-quality discards of their masters and mistresses, well groomed, assured in their setting. There were the lower indoor staff, more plainly dressed, awkwardly on their best behaviour, but comfortable in a room they knew.
Then there were the outdoor staff, red of face and decidedly weather-beaten, stiff and proud in their Sunday best. Mingling with them were the tradesmen and their families, the doctor and the curate, the banker's agent and the shopkeepers, their respective prosperity and standing accurately reflected in the gloss of the ladies' dress fabrics and the cut of the men's coats.
Lord Fortescue had done them proud. A string band was playing on the rostrum, hired footmen circulated with laden trays of wines and cordials, and the hothouses had yielded up some of their precious blooms to make the evergreen arrangements glow in the candlelight. On her visits to the kitchen, nervously checking to make sure she did not bump into Lucas, Rowan had seen Cook ordering about a battalion of hired staff to produce a lavish supper.
Now Cook herself, magnificent in deep green bombazine and a turban, was holding court halfway down the room. The prevailing fashion for high waists and low-cut necklines could hardly be said to be flattering to her, but Rowan considered that she had seen less impressive dowager duchesses.
'Miss Daisy?' It was Mr Philpott, nervous in high collar and slightly shiny suit. 'I expect all your dances are taken already.'
'Why, no-none are. I have just come down.' Rowan opened her dance card and showed its clean pages.
She circulated, chatting, her card filling slowly but surely. Where was Lucas? Had he decided after all that this was a mistake? It was becoming hard to maintain her poise and her smile and to focus on whoever she was speaking to, not look over their shoulder for a glimpse of a dark head and elegant back.
She was exchanging polite, if barbed compliments with some of the other dressers, whose sharp eyes had seen the mark on her hem and were smug as a result of it, when she felt a touch at the nape of her neck-as tangible as though he had laid his fingers there. Lucas was watching her.
'Miss Lawrence. May I hope your card is not filled?'
'Mr Lucas.' Her curtsey was shallow, the graceful acknowledgement of a gentleman who was her equal. She was aware of Miss Browne's raised eyebrows, but ignored it. Another few days and she would never see these women again. Provided she did nothing to bring opprobrium upon Penny, she did not care what they thought. She lifted her wrist so he could write in the card against whichever of the four remaining sets he chose. When she looked down she saw the bold 'L' against every one-including the supper dances.
It was shocking-or it would be if this was a London Society ball, or Almack's, or anywhere else Lady Rowan Chilcourt frequented. But this was a ball out of place and out of time. A magic ball: the rules did not apply to her. She let the little card drop on its wrist cord and smiled. 'The second set, then Mr Lucas. I look forward to it.'
With a bow he was gone, leaving her to the mercy of Miss Browne and her colleagues. 'You have made an impression there, Miss Lawrence. Are you looking ahead to when your mistress and his master are married?'
Rowan laughed lightly. 'Goodness, no. But he is the best-looking man in the room, don't you agree?'
They bridled, scandalised by her boldness, but then Miss Pratt giggled. 'He is indeed. Why, we are all jealous.'
Rowan smiled and passed on to meet the head gardener's wife and pretty daughter, both of whom were looking very handsome, with hair well dressed. She felt a pang, wishing she could emulate them.
Lucas's dark looks suited the severity of evening black tailoring and crisp white linen. He was as well groomed and dressed as many gentlemen, whereas she had had to be very wary about her appearance.
Her heart wanted her to look as beautiful as she could for him-to style her hair in the most becoming way, to dress in the silks that best showed off her colouring, to wear her pearls to gleam against her skin. But it was not safe. Soon she was going to have to go back into Society: she had to preserve a distance between Daisy Lawrence, even in her prettiest gown, and Lady Rowan.
She feared she would disappoint him, but the look in his eyes when he came to claim her for the first dance of the set put her mind at rest. A series of vigorous country dances with Mr Philpott had put colour in her cheeks, but she could still blush when he took her hand for the quadrille, murmuring, 'Magic, my lovely.'
The formality of the dance steadied her, and the need to watch out for the less able dancers on the floor
distracted her from retreating into a world that held only Lucas. By the end of the set she was composed, confident that she was showing a decorous face to the company.
He yielded her hand to the curate for another set of country dances and strolled away. She managed to follow him with her eyes under the pretext of paying close attention to the figures of the dance, while all the time maintaining a sprightly conversation with the curate. He was young, cheerful, much given to sporting pursuits and proved a boisterous dance partner. By the time Lucas found her for the first of the set preceding supper she was panting slightly and fanning herself.
'My, it is warm in here! And you look as cool as a cucumber-have you been sitting out?'
'Strolling around and flirting wildly,' he said with a chuckle, taking her hand and sweeping her onto the floor. 'What is it? Did you not realise this was a waltz?'
'No. How very dashing of the Steward to permit it!' She had not expected it. Not expected to have to be in Lucas's arms in front of everyone. Not expected to have to guard her expression and her gestures so very carefully.
'I suggested it would be intolerable provincial of him not to,' Lucas drawled, placing his hand lightly at her waist.
Rowan managed not to draw in her breath, reminding herself she had waltzed with the Duke of Wellington without a qualm.
'After that he obviously felt that the honour of the house was at stake.'
The floor was less crowded than it had been. Many of the lower staff and the men did not know how to perform this dashing and fashionable dance, but all were interested. Rowan felt she was on stage. 'They are staring,' she whispered. 'It is most disconcerting.'
'It is because you are so beautiful,' he replied, not troubling to lower his voice.
Mercifully the band struck up to save her blushes and habit took over. Smiling serenely, as though there was nothing in the slightest unsettling about being held close to a man and swept around the floor in his control, their bodies swooping and gliding, Rowan let her feet follow the steps without conscious thought.
Every instinct, every sense, was focused on the man who held her. He was a good dancer-she had expected it from the way he moved. He led with authority, but without force. And he was close, so very close, and intent on nothing but her. Rowan drowned in his eyes, surrendered to his strength and lived only in that moment.
When the set finished and he led her off the floor she knew she was trembling with desire, dazzled with enchantment and quite hopelessly in love.
'Daisy? Are you all right?' He bent over her as they reached the edge of the floor.
'No,' she answered, meeting his gaze frankly. 'I am not all right. Not at all.'
He knew she was not referring to the heat, nor to any possible over-exertion on the dance floor. 'Would champagne help?'
'It can hardly make it any worse,' she murmured, half joking.
The supper room had been set with small tables, many already filling up with family groups or pairs of friends. Lucas sat her at an empty one, removed all but one other chair, and vanished into the throng. When he returned with two plates, a waiter at his heels with a whole bottle of champagne and glasses, she had emerged from her daze and was uncomfortably aware that her solitary state was attracting attention.
'They are still staring.'
'The women are jealous of your looks, the men are hating me.' He shrugged. 'I have acquired the very last lobster patties: please tell me you like them. I had to run the gauntlet of the doctor's wife to get them from under her nose.'
'I love lobster, thank you.' It was a welcome distraction.
'Really? You eat it much?'
Lord! Dressers were hardly likely to acquire a taste for such delicacies. 'Vienna,' she said airily. 'They were two a penny.' He looked sceptical. 'The Congress- such a demand for them, you see.'
'Why is it that you do not trust me, Daisy?'
'I…' He was regarding her steadily over the rim of his glass. She focused on the spiralling bubbles in the straw-coloured liquid. So he knew she was lying about her past. 'I cannot… It is too complicated. It is not all my secret.'
'Is Daisy your real name?'
'No.' She wondered why he smiled and counterattacked. 'Why do you not trust me? And is Lucas your realname?'
'Because it is too complicated, and not all my own secret. And, yes, it is my name.' He picked up a lobster patty and paused with it halfway to his mouth. 'Has the magic gone now we have stopped pretending?'
'No.' She took a morsel and chewed, her brain spinning. What to do? Lucas sat, apparently content to watch her in silence while she swallowed and took a sip of the champagne. She loved him and there was no future for it, whatever he felt-whether he was a valet, an estate manager or a Bow Street Runner. That was clear.
It was almost a relief how clear it was. There was no possibility of agonising about how to get around it, wondering if there was some way to make a miracle happen. They didn't happen. Not even at Christmas. She knew what she had to do.
'I love you,' she said, holding his gaze so that she saw the way his pupils widened until his eyes were almost black, heard the sharp intake of his breath.
'I love you, too.' He said it as clearly and as calmly as she had, and the very simplicity convinced her.
'I cannot marry you,' she added, as though they had been discussing going for a walk.
'Nor I you.'
There was pain there, behind the three simple words. Pain he was not letting show on his face-just as she would not betray the realisation that something inside was cracking open into a scar that would last a lifetime.
'Make love to me.' Rowan was not sure whether it was a question, a plea or a demand. It was only when she had said it that she saw from his face just how shocking her words were.
He leant forward to refill her glass, the action bringing his head close to hers. 'You are a virgin, are you not?' His voice was husky. Desire? Regret? Horror at her suggestion? 'I cannot do it.'
'Yes, I am.' She wondered just how she could hint at her thoughts, and discovered that with Lucas she could simply say the words. 'I have no experience, but it is possible, is it not, to make love without…that?'
As he struggled with the shock Lucas wondered if she knew just what she was asking of him. She was watching his face intently, and although he did not think he had betrayed himself, she read his expression.
'It wasn't fair of me to ask that, was it? It is asking you to exercise a great deal of self-control at a time when you will want to simply follow your instincts.'
'For you, to be with you, a little self-control is nothing.' With a woman he did not love it would be everything. This would be heaven-and hell. 'Even without…that-' her mouth quirked in amusement as he used her own euphemism '-it is very intimate, very intense. Are you sure you want that? Are you sure you will not regret it afterwards?'
'I will not regret it.'
Daisy-he dared not ask her real name-was maintaining a bright, social smile, even nodding and waving to people at other tables.
'All I regret are the things that are keeping us apart.'
They sat in silence for a while, sipping their wine, spinning out the minutes into a memory.
'Do you want to…to go now?' Daisy asked when her glass was empty.
'Yes. But we will dance again.' He wanted to be with her in public, as though she was his for all to acknowledge. He wanted to weave the measures of the dances with her, savouring the fleeting touch of her hand, the little smile as they managed a complex step safely, the aching thrill of the scent of her, warm and feminine, as she brushed against him.
'But you said until midnight,' she protested as they rose.
'I did not know then that you would let me love you,' he said, low against her ear, pretending to free a wisp of hair from her simple earring. 'We have all night, Daisy. All night to make magic'
He must have danced with hundreds of women in his lifetime, Lucas thought, watching Daisy laughing as she linked hands with the Steward and let herself be spun around as the clock struck twelve. He could recall the faces of none of them. He had fancied himself in love more than once, but he could not remember their names now. He had believed himself strong and above emotional pain, and now he knew
he was wrong.
Daisy was still laughing when he took her hands again and swung her out of the set, through into the
hallway and up the stairs.
'Lucas,' she protested. 'The front stairs!'
'Only the best for you, my lady,' he teased as they ran up to the first landing and along the corridor to the back stairs, and he wondered why she blushed.
The room was in darkness save for the hot glow of the banked fire. Inside the door Lucas released her hand and went to kneel by the hearth to kindle a spill for the candles.
I should be afraid, she thought. I should be shy and apprehensive. Or at the very least ashamed of myself. But I am not. I love him. I do not know how to pleasure him, but he will show me and I will do it. Lucas turned his head and looked at her, a long, serious look that turned her bones to water.
'I must sit down. My knees…' She sat on the edge of the narrow bed. Was there room enough for both of them? Yes, if he held her tight. Rowan closed her eyes.
'I have a Christmas present for you.' She opened them and found he was standing there with a small lumpy parcel in his hands. 'It is a trifling thing. Foolish. But when I saw it…'
Rowan reached out and took it. It was surprisingly heavy for its size. She spread back the paper and found a small mug inside, made of glazed earthenware with an uneven verse trailed in cream slip around its curving belly. Smiling at the feel of it in her hands, she tilted it to the light and read:
To Forget and Forgive is a Maxim of Old
Tho I've learnt but one Half of it yet
The Theft of my Heart I can freely Forgive
But the Thief I can Never Forget.
'Oh, Lucas.' It was ridiculous doggerel. Why, then, did it bring a lump to her throat and a shimmer of tears to her eyes? 'Thank you. I might have given it to you and the words would be just as true.' She placed it carefully on the trunk beside the bed and looked at him. 'Come and kiss me. I thought sitting down would stop my knees knocking together, but I am still foolishly nervous.'
'Only because this is important.' He tugged his neckcloth loose and shrugged out of coat and waistcoat together, then came and knelt in front of her. 'At any time if you want to stop, to leave, you have only to say.'
Rowan nodded. She might be innocent of a man's embraces, but she had picked up much about what actually happened, and she knew that for a man, once launched on this particular activity, stopping suddenly was not an easy or pleasant thing.
Then he kissed her, and she ceased to worry about whether he could or should stop-or about anything at all. There was only Lucas and his heat and his strength, and the edge of fear and the knowledge of safety and the scent of aroused man in her nostrils.
It was not a particularly easy dress to unfasten, but he had managed it without her realizing. His big hand was cupping her right breast, warm through the thin shift, and the silk was pooling around her hips. She moaned as his other hand slid down, under her, lifting so that he could tug the gown free, and she was clinging to him, only her undergarments and his shirt between her breast and his chest.
He had not stopped kissing her, his mouth hot and excitingly moist and arrogantly demanding. She thought hazily that if she wanted to stop she would have to box his ears to gain his attention, for he seemed intent on nothing more than reducing her to a quivering puddle on the bed.
Rowan found she could squeeze a hand between their bodies and found buttons, dragging his shirt open until her hand could slide inside against skin that was silk over muscle. She explored, fascinated, aroused, until with a growl he brought her down onto the bed beneath his weight, his fingers teasing her nipples until she gasped for mercy against his mouth.
'Too much?' Lucas raised his head and looked down at her.
'Yes… No. I just need to touch you.' He shrugged out of his shirt and she lay and looked at the firelight on his skin. It seemed to hold the remnants of the golden tan it must have had a few months ago-or perhaps her love gilded her sight. 'Take everything off,' she asked, greedy for him.
'I had planned to be more discreet,' he said, getting to his feet, his hands at the fastening of his silk evening breeches. He stripped without bravado and without any apparent shyness, standing there as though waiting for her reaction before touching her again.
'Oh.' He is beautiful. And frightening. Part of her wanted him inside her. Part was grateful he would not be. She had not realised that men were quite so…so… At least he seemed to find her arousing. To hide her confusion Rowan tugged her petticoat and shift over her head, then bent up her knees and wrapped her arms around them. That felt…safe. She was not sure what to do about her stockings.
'You are a lovely woman,' Lucas said slowly. 'But that is not what I love about you. I love you and your courage and your grace and your fierce loyalty and your humour. And your eyes and your skin, and how I imagine it will feel when I loose your hair, and your scent.'
He was sitting on the end of the bed now, and it was apparent he knew exactly what to do about her stockings. They were rolled down, snagging now and again against the skin of his strong rider's hands, then they were off and those hands were smoothing down the curve of her calves, up to her knees. 'Lie back, sweetheart.'
She swallowed hard, but obeyed, almost soothed by his gentling hands, still quivering in anticipation. She knew where this was leading, but Lucas did not seem to be in any hurry to get there. Up the outside of her thighs to the curve of her hip, down to the soft skin behind her knees, up again, until she relaxed and her legs became limp. The next smooth stroke brought his palm to cup the hot, moist triangle of hair and his fingers slid in to touch her, stroke her.
Rowan arched against the pressure, gasped, and one finger slid deeper, just where she was aching the most, just inside, and she cried out as the world spun and shattered.
She came to, to find herself full-length against him, cradled so that she could hear his heart under her cheek. 'I'm sorry.'
'Sorry? Have you any idea how flattering it is that I touch you and it has that effect?' His voice rumbled in her ear and his breath stirred her hair.
'No.' She felt bonelessly heavy, and yet something was stirring again where he had touched her. Her breasts were aching and she wanted to move against him.
'Believe me.' Lucas's hand was moving again, down over her flank.
Bold, she moved her own hand from his chest, her fingertips riffling through the crisp hair down to his navel, finding an intriguing trail of coarser hair to follow.
'Ah.' He sighed as she found the hard, unsatisfied length of him, her fingertips tentative as she stroked the unexpectedly soft skin.
'Show me how.'
He did not speak, simply took her hand and wrapped it firmly around, moving it within his own until she found a rhythm. It was powerfully erotic, feeling a man react to her touch, feeling the elemental sexuality of him, the heat, the shifting of their bodies together, the tantalising caress of his hands as they shifted their position so that he could pleasure her, too.
The power of his climax, his gasp of release, her own shuddering pleasure swept her away utterly. She had no idea where she was, only with whom, only that they loved. Only, finally, that they slept.
'Sweetheart, wake up.' Lucas's mouth was close to her ear, his breath warm.
'No.' Rowan snuggled closer, denying his efforts to pull the covers down. He was warm and comfortable and all hers, and she was not going to be dislodged from this blissful dream.
She heard a muffled snort of laughter, then he slid out of bed. There was a brief tug of war while she lay there, bedding gripped in her fists, eyes tight closed, then he seemed to give up.
'Come back to bed,' she mumbled. He was moving about. Rowan cracked open one lid and found the room almost dark. Lucas, in his shirt, had lit one candle and was pulling on his breeches. 'It is too early yet.'
'It is four o'clock. You must get back to bed.' Rowan dragged the sheets over her head, then yelped in protest as he picked her up, bedding and all, her clothes tangled on top. 'My love, all the magic has run out. It is the morning.'
'I love you.' She lay still in his arms as he shouldered the door wide and carried her out.
'I know. I know, my love.'
He carried her along the corridors, up the steep, winding stairs to her turret, and laid her on her own bed. 'Sweetheart, this is goodbye. I will not see you again.'
'You are leaving?' She struggled up in the nest of bedding until she was sitting, trying to see him in the faint light.
'After the ball-after Lord Danescroft has retired for the night.'
'Then there is all of today, tonight-'
'Do you think I am made of iron?' he asked harshly. 'Are you? Can you do this again? I thought I could. I thought I could spend a day and a night with you, knowing it was the end. But I find I do not have the courage for a lingering death. Let us make it a clean break. Goodbye, my love. Be happy.' He bent and kissed her-swiftly, hard, with an anger she knew was for himself.
The door closed with a click. She heard his heels clattering briefly on the stone steps, then silence. Rowan turned her face into the pillow and lay, dry-eyed, waiting for morning and the rest of her life.
'Was the ball lovely?' Penny's smile was over-bright, her movements lacking her usual slightly dreamy grace.
'The… Oh, yes. Delightful. Most entertaining, and really surprisingly lavish and sophisticated.' Rowan managed to inject creditable enthusiasm into her tone as she bustled around her friend, helping her out of her travelling clothes.
'Only you look rather strained.' Penny tossed her muff onto the chest of drawers and sat down at the dressing table to whisk a hare's foot over her nose and cheeks.
'It was a late night. And then I was too excited to sleep.'
The pain had to ease, surely? In a day or two it would settle down into a perfectly manageable misery, and in the meantime all she had to do was act. Not that that was easy. She had found the little mug outside her door later that morning and had had to go back inside for ten minutes to regain her composure before coming down. It was sitting on her dresser now, waiting for her.
'How was the visit?'
'My singing was every bit as painful as you might expect, but once that was over the rest was very pleasant. The dowager had her grandchildren to stay and they were delightful.'
'Was the singing so very bad? Did your godmother insist you perform in front of everyone?'
'Of course. But Lord Danescroft said he wanted to sing, too, so we sang a duet and he quite drowned me out. Thank goodness.'
'How rude of him.'
'Oh, no, he meant it nicely, for he could see I was nervous, and he confided that he was sure to be asked so we could get it over with together.'
'I see. So you are thinking more kindly of him now?' Rowan spread out Penny's afternoon dress, even though it seemed tiresome to change, given that she would be retiring for a lie-down at four o'clock in anticipation of the ball.
Penny set down the hare's foot with a snap. 'I am quite decided about Lord Danescroft,' she said, with surprising crispness.
Penny got up and tossed aside her wrapper for Rowan to lift the afternoon gown over her head. 'I have made up my mind that you are right,' she announced as her head emerged from the floss-trimmed neck. 'I must speak up and say what I really want, what I feel, and to…hell with the consequences.' She went quite pink and looked terrified at her own boldness.
'Excellent,' Rowan said with emphasis. She only hoped that Penny felt better tomorrow than she did. No, it was wrong to think she felt bad, exactly: she felt…confused and sad, and her body felt wonderful, and her heart… Oh, Lucas.
'So you will?' Penny had obviously been talking for several minutes. She had pinned up her hair without Rowan's help and was putting on her slippers.
'What? Sorry, I was air-dreaming.'
'Come to the ball tonight.' There was a knock at the door. 'Come in!'
Two footmen staggered in, a large trunk between them.
'But that's my-'
'That's the trunk we did not think we would need,' Penny said smoothly, so the men could hear. 'I had it brought up from the inn. Thank you-that will be all.'
'I cannot come to the ball! I'm your dresser.'
'Yes, you can.' Penny threw back the top of the trunk. 'I had the idea yesterday afternoon. When they brought the mail over I pretended I had received a letter from you-the real you-saying you were staying in Tollesbury Magna. Of course everyone made much of the coincidence, and Lady Fortescue said I must write and invite you. Sol sent the groom to Alice and Kate instead, and pretended again that you had accepted with delight.'
'But how on earth am I going to get to the ballroom?'
'There's a side staircase-I think left over from the old house before this wing was added. If you go down it there is a passage, and you can slip out into the stable-yard. The carriage will be there for you at ten. You get in, it drives round to the front door, and down you get.'
'Penelope Maylin-what a pack of lies and deception! I had no idea you had it in you.'
'I know. I must say, being wicked is quite refreshing, don't you think? No one will recognise you-not with your hair dressed and all your jewellery and your best gown. Who would expect to?'
Rowan turned and looked at her reflection in the mirror. No, once her hair was freed from this tight, sleek style, and she was wearing her diamonds and her new cream silk gown, quite unlike anything she had been seen in before, no one would recognise that Lady Rowan Chilcourt was Miss Maylin's humble dresser.
Lucas would, of course, but then he would not see her. The valets did not appear downstairs during such events-not like the ladies' maids, who were on hand to deal with fainting misses, torn hems and wilting coiffures. She must take care to avoid the retiring rooms.
'I will do it.' Last night had been an enchanted dream. It was time to stop being Daisy and become Rowan again. Time to forget she was in love and to think of Papa and of finding a suitable alliance with an eligible man. Time to do her duty.
'Lady Rowan Chilcourt!'
It was last night all over again-only now the ballroom glittered not just with silverware and glass, candlelight and crystal, but with the unmistakable gleam and glow of gemstones, silks and satins and silver buttons.
Rowan descended the stairs to the receiving line with grace, her fan held just so, her chin up, her smile perfect.
'My dear Lady Rowan, such a pleasure you could join us.'
'Lady Fortescue, I am so grateful for your invitation. My wretched carriage broke a pole, fortunately not far from a most respectable inn-but I am sure Miss Maylin explained all that. And of course I have my woman with me, and my groom and so forth. But to be stranded over Christmas is dreary indeed-now I feel I have been transported back to London!'
'Your friend Miss Maylin is somewhere here. She will soon introduce you to everyone you do not know.'
Rowan passed down the line, greeting the Fortescue family, making small talk, until she was able to emerge at the other end and mingle with the throng. The dancing had not yet started, and people were strolling back and forth. Rowan recognised some young women of her own age she had met during her first Season, before Papa had whisked her off to Vienna, and went to reintroduce herself.
'I owe my invitation to Penelope Maylin,' she explained to Miss Anstruther, when that excited damsel had finished recounting the riveting tale of how she had become betrothed to Lord Martinhoe and thought to enquire how Rowan had popped up in the middle of the snowbound countryside. 'I haven't seen her yet.'
'She's here somewhere. I saw her earlier. The poor girl seems to be trying to avoid Lord Danescroft, but then she has been all week,' Lady Fiona Davidson chipped in. 'Have you heard the scandal?'
'Yes, dreadful,' Rowan agreed, wondering if she should find Penny and stick like glue to forestall any approach by his lordship. He might have the idea of making a declaration during the evening. On the other hand Penny seemed very determined to be firm, so perhaps it would be better to get it over with while her resolution held.
A footman-James, the one with a stammer who was sweet on Edith the kitchen maid-came past with a tray of cordials. Rowan took one with an unsmiling inclination of her head and he walked on, oblivious to the fact that he had just served a woman who had teased him about his smartly powdered wig only the day before. She let out a pent-up breath and relaxed a little.
A gentleman joined them, and then another. The group began to ask her questions about Vienna and the Congress, and she relaxed even more. She could do this. She could pretend to be charming and social and gracious, and no one would guess that she was in love and pining for a man she could not have.
'Well, the shops are nothing but temptation,' she was saying to Lady Furness. 'My allowance would vanish like snow in sunshine within days of me receiving it! The tailoring is not as good as in London, of course. I still sent home for my riding habits-'
The room shifted and blurred as a dark-headed man passed across her line of sight over her ladyship's shoulder.
'I am sorry-a moment's dizziness.' Of course it was not Lucas. Goodness, if she was going to have palpitations every time she saw a tall man with dark hair she would be in a decline within a week.
'Might I have the honour of a dance, Lady Rowan?' Now, which young man was this? Oh, yes-Mr Maxwell. She smiled and nodded, and agreed to the second set, while behind her Lord Furness could be heard greeting someone in his rather over-loud bray.
'Stoneley! They told me you were back from those far-flung estates of yours. Come and be introduced to my daughter and some of the other pretty young ladies and tell us all about your adventures.'
'Unless you count a hurricane, very little that would serve as an adventure I'm afraid, Furness. Not a pirate to be seen.'
The voice was deep, dark and amused. The guard stick of Rowan's fan snapped in her gloved fingers. I am losing my mind…
'Now, then-you remember my wife, I'm sure, but you won't have met my daughter Annabelle. And this is Miss Anstruther, and-ah, yes-Lady Rowan, may I present Viscount Stoneley? Stoneley-Lady Rowan Chilcourt.'
She turned, slowly, to confront the man with Lucas's voice, a social smile fixed on her lips. She had heard people say that blood drained from their faces with shock, but she had never believed it until now. It was a physical sensation, an unpleasant one, accompanied by a rushing sound in the head and-
'Wake up. Hell and damnation, Daisy-Lady Rowan- whoever you are, open your eyes.' By sheer force of will he had made them give way to his assertion that he would carry her out to a retiring room and have her dresser summoned immediately. Lady Furness had helped him, shooing the others back, telling them Lady Rowan needed air, that she had seemed faint earlier.
What she would say now, if she could see him with the unconscious woman on a sofa, no chaperon and the door locked, he could scarcely imagine. But he could not risk whatever Daisy said when she came round.
This was insane. Yet he was not delusional, as he had feared for a moment he was. Hating the noise, the social chitchat, the need to remember the tale Will had drummed into him about mistaking the evening and calling to take his friend off to a party, he had acted his way through embarrassed apologies to the Fortescues and finally a graceful acceptance of their pressing invitation to spend the evening.
'Why sit upstairs twiddling your thumbs?' Will had demanded. 'You look thoroughly blue-devilled. Come to the ball. No one will recognise you.'
And, of course, no one did. Well-trained servants did not stare at guests, let alone allow their imaginations to ran riot over a passing resemblance between a viscount and a valet. He had thought it was a good idea-that it would stop him thinking about Daisy. But of course all it did was to conjure up visions of last night, of her warm and responsive as they waltzed, hot and passionate as they loved.
And then a slender society lady had turned slowly to face him and he'd thought he had lost his mind. He still did. Perhaps he was feverish and this was all his delirium…
'Lucas?' No, that was Daisy.
'Yes.' He knelt by the sofa and took her hand in his. Under his thumb her pulse was beating wildly. 'Yes, it is me. What in heaven's name do you think you are doing? How do you expect to get away with this?'
She opened her eyes, wide and green on his. 'Me? How do you imagine… No. You really are Lord Stoneley, aren't you? Lord Furness knew you.'
'Yes. I really am Lucas Dacre, Viscount Stoneley.' Surely now she would realise why they could not be together? Why his duty demanded he break both their hearts?
But she was smiling-not bravely, but joyously. 'And I really am Lady Rowan Chilcourt. Lucas-why on earth have you been pretending to be Lord Danescroft's valet?'
'To try and persuade him not to marry Miss Maylin. And you?'
'To support her in refusing him, of course.'
Lucas sat back on his heels, trying to accept this miracle, afraid to believe it. 'You understand why I could not-'
'Of course-and why I could not. Oh, Lucas, we've been making ourselves miserable because of honour and duty and what we owe to our families, and all the time we are each other's perfect eligible match!'
'Is that a proposal Lady Rowan?'
'It most certainly is, my lord!'
Yes, it was true. No, he was not hallucinating. His irrepressible, wonderful love was smiling at him from the sofa, her hair half down and her gown disarrayed, and an expression compounded of mischief, love and desire on her face.
'Well,' he drawled, 'I suppose as I have compromised you I had better make an honest woman of you.'
'Could we, do you think, make quite sure of that?' Rowan reached out to bring his head down to hers. 'Could you perhaps completely ruin me?'
'With pleasure. But not-'
'Lord Stoneley!' The rattle of the door handle had him on his feet and six foot away from the sofa in seconds. 'Are you in there?'
'Hell! Lady Rolesby!' He ran a hand over his hair and went to unlatch the door. 'Ma'am, the door seems to have swung to and the lock engaged. Lady Rowan is much improved. I was just about to ring again for her woman. I cannot imagine what-'
'Penelope is not here?' Lady Rolesby, ignoring Rowan's attempts to straighten her hair and her gown, swept the room with her lorgnette.
'Miss Maylin? No, ma'am, I have not seen Miss Maylin all evening.' Behind him, he heard Rowan getting to her feet.
'I have not seen her at all, Lady Rolesby. Is there some problem?'
'No.' Her ladyship frowned. 'I assumed she would have come to assist you. It is just that I cannot find her.'
'Has Lord Danescroft seen her?' Rowan queried.
'I cannot find my grandson, either. Oh, I wash my hands of them! There is no helping young people these days. And you, young man-you run along at once. Doors shutting by themselves, indeed-do you think I was born yesterday?'
'No, ma' am,' Lucas said with a meekness which earned him a painful rap over the knuckles with her lorgnette.
'Humbug. Go and make yourself useful and find Danescroft. You, too, Lady Rowan. See if you can find Penelope while you are about it.'
'Yes, ma'am,' Rowan said.
She had managed to pin her hair back up with that dexterity that always amazed him in women, and now came to stand by his side, looking, he was amused to see, as if butter would not melt in her mouth.
'I shall expect to see the announcement of your nuptials very soon,' Lady Rolesby said abruptly, making them both jump. 'And if I do not I will have a word with your father, young lady. He is back in Town-without, apparently, any notion of where you are. Now, off with you both.'
'Old witch,' Rowan said with a chuckle. 'I nearly expired with embarrassment when she rattled the door handle.' Papa was back! Was it possible to be any happier? He was going to love his son-in-law.
Beside her, Lucas snorted with amusement. 'You'd have done more than that if I'd yielded to your blandishments and joined you on the sofa.'
'I suppose you are going to become tiresomely honourable and not lay a finger on me until we are married?' Rowan sighed. It was torture not being able to touch him. She just wanted to stroke him, reassure herself that he was real.
'Of course. I will be a pattern book of respectability. But then, I do not intend having to wait very long. If I
go up to Town tomorrow to speak to your father and get a licence, what do you say to a Twelfth Night wedding?'
'Oh, yes!' Rowan tried to realise that this was truly happening-that her utterly unsuitable love was about to become her completely suitable husband. 'Where?'
'Is your Town house open?'
'It can be. St George's Hanover Square, then-?' Rowan broke off. 'Lady Smithers? Yes, thank you, I feel much better now. Something I ate, I think. Quite. Have you by any chance seen Miss Maylin? No?'
They passed on, scanning the room.
'Oh. Lord, where can she have got to?'
Lucas was nodding and chatting, his eyes running over the crowd crammed around the walls now the dancing had begun.
'Where's Will? Never mind your pea-brained friend.'
'She is not pea-brained!' They passed a door leading to the conservatory. 'Let's look in here. She might have escaped for some peace and quiet.'
'May as well. At least I can kiss you in here,' Lucas observed, making cold shivers run deliciously up and down her spine by kissing the nape of her neck as she dodged around a potted palm.
'Shh, there is someone in here already.' She tiptoed forward, conscious of Lucas on her heels, and parted the fronds of a large fern.
A tall, dark man had a young woman locked in his arms, kissing her ruthlessly. She had no chance of escape but hung, tiny and fragile in his arms, as he ravished her mouth. There was no mistaking that gown of blonde lace and pale amber silk. She had fastened it herself that evening.
'Stop it at once, you brute!' Furious, Rowan launched herself out of the shelter of the fern, tugging on Lord Danescroft's sleeve.
'Lucas!' Lord Danescroft pulled himself together first. 'I do not know who you are, ma'am, but my fiancee and I-'
'Fiancee? Penny, you do not have to do this-'
'Will, for heaven's sake think! This is the rest of your life you are-'
'Stop it-all of you.'
Rowan blinked at her friend. Penny was flushed, but her small round chin was firm and her head was up. Indignation flashed in her eyes.
'I am marrying Lord Danescroft. I love Lord Danescroft. And if anyone else tries to stop me I shall-'
'Penny, my love,' Danescroft said tenderly, 'it is quite all right. Lucas and his friend-I am afraid I do not know her name-have your best interests at heart. They just do not know yet that we love each other.'
'Lucas?' Penny glared at him. 'Your valet? That libertine?'
'Yes, that one. Lucas Dacre, Viscount Stoneley, at your service ma'am,' Lucas said with a bow. 'Will, may I introduce Lady Rowan Chilcourt? Sometime dresser to Miss Maylin under the soubriquet of Daisy Lawrence. And shortly to be my wife.'
'Really? Oh, Rowan!' Penny hurled herself into her friend's arms, knocking her back several paces. 'I love him, you see, and I was determined to tell him, and say that I didn't want to marry him just to be a mother to his daughter and a good, conformable wife, and that if he didn't want a love match then I didn't want him. But he loves me! And is that truly Lord Stoneley?'
Over Penny's shoulder, as she patted her on the back while she shed happy tears into her cream silk, Rowan watched the men gripping hands. Then Will pulled Lucas into an embrace and she saw his face: pure happiness. It was going to be all right. For all of them. But she had to be sure, for Penny's sake.
'What is the truth about your wife? It will go no further, I swear.'
'I loved her-she, I discovered, loved many.' His voice was harsh, and Penny pulled out of Rowan's arms and went to wrap her arms around him. He looked down at her, stroking his hand over her mousy hair. 'Lucas had tried to warn me, but I was besotted. Once I discovered that she was happily cuckolding me with a number of gentlemen, I sent her off to my country estate. I thought there would be no temptation: I had not realised she would simply start working her way through the male staff.' He paused, his face stark.
'And she began drinking-gin, mostly. I went away for a couple of days and came home unexpectedly, in the early hours. They were not expecting me, so the front door was bolted. I knew where the back door key was and went round through the kitchens, intending to go up the service stairs. I met her coming down-drunk, fresh from her lover's bed. She saw me, screamed, turned to run and fell. There was nothing I could do.'
'I am so sorry,' Rowan said, drawing a deep breath. They could go on picking over the past, or-
'Stop crying, dear. Shall we get married together? St George's Hanover Square on Twelfth Night?'
Lucas and Will came over. Will was holding Penny gently against his shoulder, his other hand on Lucas's shoulder as he grinned at his friend. 'Be my best man?'
'Of course. If you'll be mine.'
'And what is going on in here, might I ask?' It was Lady Rolesby, with what appeared to be half the guests at her heels.
Lord Danescroft looked sheepish, Penny quailed, but Lucas's arm came around Rowan's shoulders and he stepped forward. 'Madam, I have an announcement. We are all going to get married. For Christmas.'
In the ensuing uproar Rowan tipped her head back to smile up at him, and he added in a whisper only she could hear, 'For Christmas. For life. For ever, my love.'
Louise Allen has been immersing herself in history, real and fictional, for as long as she can remember, and finds landscapes and places evoke powerful images of the past. Louise lives in Bedfordshire and works as a property manager, but spends as much time as possible with her husband at the cottage they are renovating on the north Norfolk coast, or travelling abroad. Venice, Burgundy and the Greek islands are favourite atmospheric destinations. Please visit Louise's website – www.louiseallenregency.co.uk – for the latest news!