Book 4 in the Jaded Gentlemen series
Sir John Dewey Fanning (Jack to his familiars) is magistrate of a corner of Oxfordshire plagued by one incident of petty mischief after another. To add to his aggravation, his mama and younger brother are joining his household for the winter, and Jack’s domestic staff can’t seem to sort itself out.
He turns to Miss Madeline Hennessey to act as his mother’s temporary companion, despite the fact that Jack has long harbored feelings for the ever-competent and self-reliant Miss Hennessey. Madeline reluctantly accepts the position, and proximity leads to investigations of an amorous nature. Can Jack stop the crime spree and steal Madeline’s heart, too?
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“My poor, wee Charles is all but dead,” Mortimer Cotton ranted. “’Tis is the next thing to murder, Sir Jack.”
All poor, wee, wooly, twelve-stone of Charles—a ram of indiscriminate breed—lay flat out in the December sunshine as if expired from a surfeit of sexual exertions.
“Thievery has been committed under our very noses,” Cotton went on, meaty fists propped on his hips. “That woman stole my tup, bold as brass. Now look at him.”
In Sir John Dewey Fanning’s estimation, Charles II, as the ram was styled, would recover from his erotic excesses by sundown, if he ran true to his owner’s boasts. Based on the contentment radiating from Hattie Hennessey’s ewes, Charles had shared his legendary favors with the entire lot of them.
“Mark my words, Sir Jack: Slander is what we have here,” Hattie Hennessey retorted. “Mr. Cotton accuses me of stealing yon lazy tup, when he ought to be fined for not keeping his livestock properly confined. Now here his ram is, helping himself to my fodder and to my poor yowes.”
Cotton’s complexion went from florid to choleric. “Your runty damned yowes haven’t been covered by a proper stud since they were born, Hattie Hennessey. Do I hear gratitude for their good fortune? Do I hear a word about compensating me for poor Charles’s generosity? No, I hear you blathering on about fines and insults to my integrity as a proper yeoman.”
Opinion in the shire was usually divided regarding which injured party—for Hattie and Mortimer were perpetually offending each other—had the true grievance. In this case, Hattie had notified Sir Jack that a stray ram was loose among her ewes.
The very same ram Mortimer would have charged her a fortune to hire for stud services.
“Mr. Cotton, might I have a word between us gentlemen—us human gentlemen?” Sir Jack interjected into the escalating insults.
“I’ll give ye as many words as ye like. None of ’em fit for Charles’s delicate ears.”
While Cotton cast a baleful glance at his exhausted ram, Sir Jack winked at Hattie. She turned her regard on her ewes, the major source of her cash income, and very likely her dearest companions besides her collie and her cat.
Jack paced over to the far side of a hayrick, and Cotton followed a few fuming moments later.
“Hattie Hennessey has not the strength to wrestle your ram over stone walls,” Jack said, “much less carry him the distance from your farm to hers.” This was not entirely true. Hattie Hennessey had the Hennessey family height and substance, even in old age. She could control a biddable ram over a short distance.
She could not, however, ask for help from anybody under any circumstances, the Hennesseys being notoriously stubborn and independent—much like the Cottons.
“Then she hired this thievery done,” Cotton shot back.
“That hypothesis doesn’t fit the facts,” Sir Jack replied, brushing a wisp of hay from his sleeve. “In the first place, Hattie hasn’t a single coin to spare. In the second, I think a certain neighbor, who is too kind for his own good, set the ram down among Hattie’s ewes in the dark of night, thus saving a poor widow from begging for aid she desperately needs.”
Cotton’s bushy white brows beetled into a single line of consternation. “Mr. Belmont, maybe? Or his boys? Boys at that age would consider this a lark. Charles is the friendly sort, when he’s not on the job.”
Charles was an ovine hedonist. “I’m not accusing the Belmonts of wayward charity, Mr. Cotton.”
Those brows shot up, and before Cotton could interrupt, Jack continued his theorizing. He’d learned serving in India that if senior officers were spared having to comment on a report prematurely, matters came to a more sensible conclusion.
“You know Hattie’s circumstances would deteriorate if she couldn’t replace the ram who died over the summer,” Jack said. “You know she can’t afford to go a year without a crop of lambs. Rather than affront her dignity with outright charity, somebody with a kind heart concocted this scheme to spare her pride and put her situation to rights. Vicar will likely be impressed with that person’s ingenuity.”
Vicar had become so weary of the feud between Mortimer Cotton and Hattie Hennessey that he’d taken to preaching successive sermons on the Good Samaritan.
Cotton’s backside graced the church pews regularly. His coin was less frequently seen in the poor box.
“You think I arranged this, Sir Jack?”
Well, no, Jack thought no such thing, but needs must when the magistrate was at his wit’s end. “Such a scheme has your stamp, Cotton, your sense of practicality and dispatch. But if we remain here much longer, congratulating you on your Christian virtues, Hattie will get out her pitchfork and chase that ram from the premises.”
“She’ll not abuse my Charles when he’s spent from his labors. I won’t have it. Charles can’t know which ewe belongs to which farm.”
To Charles, every ewe belonged to him alone, for the span of a few minutes. Jack had known many an officer in His Majesty’s army who’d taken a similar view of amatory pursuits.
“I can probably talk Hattie into allowing Charles to recover here for a day or two,” Jack said. “I wouldn’t want anybody to say that such a fine animal was overtaxed by a small herd.” In those two days, Charles would finish the job he’d started—likely finish it several times over.
“My Charlie, overtaxed?”
“We’re agreed then. If I can talk Hattie around, Charles will rest from his labors, say until Thursday, at which point, I’ll get him home to you. If you leave now in a fit of indignation, Hattie will be none the wiser regarding your generosity.”
Cotton peered at Jack as if the word generosity was among the French phrases tossed about the Quality at fancy dress balls. To Mortimer Cotton, generosity was doubtless another word for foolishness, but he had as much pride as the next man. Jack could almost hear Cotton quoting Vicar’s pious admonitions at the next darts tournament.
“You’ve found me out, Sir Jack,” Cotton said, kicking at the dirt. “You’ll not breathe a word to anybody? Hattie Hennessey is prouder than any Christian ought to be.”
Oh, right. “You may rely on my discretion, Cotton. The plight of poor widows should concern more people in this shire, and I commend you for taking note of that.”
“My sentiments exactly. I’ll be on my way now, and trust to your, erm, discretion.” Cotton bowed smartly and marched off across the barnyard, sparing Hattie the barest tip of his hat.
Hattie watched him go, her faded blue gaze considering. “It’s well you sent that bag of wind from my property, Sir Jack, but he forgot to take his rutting tup with him.”
“Rutting is what tups do, Hattie.” What Jack hadn’t done for far too long, come to that.
One of the ewes wandered over to sniff at Charles’s recumbent form. Charles rallied enough to touch noses with his caller, then lay back in the straw with a great, masculine sigh. The ewe curled down next to him and began chewing her cud.
“Eloise,” Hattie said, shaking a finger at the ewe, “you are a strumpet. Come spring, I’ll expect twins from you, my girl.”
Charles was known for siring twins and even the occasional batch of triplets.
“Hattie, I must impose on your good offices,” Jack said, “for my shepherd won’t be available to transport Charles home until Thursday. I went so far as to assure Cotton you’d not charge him board for the ram, nor bring a complaint for failure to properly fence his stock.”
Hattie twitched another piece of straw from Jack’s sleeve. “Getting airs above your station, Sir Jack, speaking on my behalf to that buffoon.”
Jack’s station was well above settling barnyard squabbles, but he’d rather have this discussion here than endure successive visits from Cotton and Hattie at Teak House.
“Cotton cannot have it bruited about that his stock is getting loose, Hattie. Show a little pity for a man who likely knows no peace before his own hearth.”
Hattie’s snort startled the resting ram. “That Perpetua Cotton has a lot of nerve, whining about this, sniffing about that, flouncing hither and yon with a new bonnet every week. Mortimer Cotton needs to take that woman in hand.”
How exactly did a prudent man take in hand a grown woman with a wealth of thoroughly articulated opinions and ten children to keep clothed and fed?
“Mortimer Cotton is clearly a man overwhelmed,” Jack said, holding a gloved hand out to a curious ewe. “Show him a bit of charity. Let the ram bide among your ewes until I can take the beast home later in the week.”
The ewe sniffed delicately, then went about her business. Animals were, in so many ways, better behaved than people.
“Go on wi’ ye,” Hattie snapped, waving her hand at the ewe. The ewe trotted off a few steps, then took the place on Charles’s other side. Sheep were naturally protective of one another, unlike most people.
“I’d take it as a personal favor if you’d allow Charles to stay for a few days, Hattie.”
Everything in Jack longed to grab a pitchfork and fill up the hay rack, then top up the water trough, and pound a nail through the loose board tied to the fence post abutting the gate. Hattie would never allow him to set foot on the property again if he presumed to that extent.
“The ram can bide here,” Hattie said, marching off to the gate. “Until Thursday morning, no later.”
“My thanks.” Jack opened the gate for her, and the creaking hinge woke his horse. That fine fellow had been dozing at the hitching post outside Hattie’s tiny cottage.
“You’ll stay for a cup o’ tea,” Hattie announced. “Least I can do when you came straight away to deal with that plague against the commonweal.”
Did Hattie refer to Mortimer or Charles?
“Perhaps another time, Hattie. I’m expected at Candlewick and have tarried too long as it is. Shall I bring over some hay for Mortimer’s ram?”
Hattie stopped short, fists on hips, the same pose Cotton had adopted. “I’ll not be taking charity, Sir Jack, if it’s all the same to you. Mortimer Cotton has been farming this shire, boy and man, and if he doesn’t realize his ram will eat my hay, then don’t you be telling him. I’ll have a crop of lambs, thanks to Mortimer’s incompetence, though they’ll likely be contrary and puny.”
“I meant no insult,” Jack said, taking up his gelding’s girth. “I do apologize.” He mentally apologized for declining her proffered cup of tea too. Hattie had to be lonely, but Jack had already surpassed his limit of gratuitous socializing and his day wasn’t over.
“Apology accepted, this time,” Hattie retorted, stroking a hand over the horse’s nose. “If you see my little Maddie at Candlewick, tell her to pay a call on her old auntie, you hear?”
On Jack’s most daring day, he wouldn’t issue an order to Madeline Hennessey, who had not been little for many a year.
“I’ll tell Miss Hennessey you miss her.”
He swung up on his horse and trotted out of the stable yard, while Charles, apparently recovered, climbed aboard the wayward Eloise and did what rams did best. Jack envied the sheep both his calling and the endless enthusiasm with which he pursued it.
“Do come sit with us, Madeline,” Abigail Belmont said, patting the sofa cushion. “I vow you never rest unless I order you to.”
Madeline Hennessey did not want to sit, much less directly across from Sir John Dewey Fanning—Sir Jack, to the locals.
“Please join us,” Axel Belmont said, “or I will scandalize my dear wife by consuming more than my share of tea cakes.”
The Belmonts were Madeline’s employers, and she never overtly disobeyed them. “While I long to preserve Mr. Belmont from disgrace—doomed though such an endeavor must be—I did promise Mr. Chandler that I’d assist him with an inventory of the—”
Sir Jack had risen, as if Madeline were part of the Belmont family rather than a servant. Her post hovered between lady’s companion and general factotum these days, which for the most part suited her.
“Please stay a moment, Miss Hennessey,” Sir Jack said. “I bring felicitations from your Great-Aunt Hattie, and a reminder that she misses you.”
“Thank you, Sir Jack.” Aunt Hattie had likely nattered his handsome ear off, complaining about how infrequently her great-niece visited. Madeline called on each of her two widowed aunts every two weeks, weather permitting. It wasn’t enough, but with only one half day a week, she couldn’t do more.
“Have a seat,” Sir Jack said, gesturing to the place beside him on the sofa. “Hattie was in a fine humor, and the tale resulting in that miracle wants telling.”
What Madeline wanted was to assist Mr. Chandler with his inventory in the saddle room. Chandler was passionately in love with his horses, unlike the new footman, who fancied himself in love with Madeline—or her bosom.
She took the place next to Sir Jack, though she really ought not. He was one of those men who looked good across the village green or in the churchyard, and he was handsomer still at close range. Also scrupulous about his personal hygiene.
Madeline had to respect a man who was on good terms with soap, water, and a bathtub. If he had sandy hair, brilliant blue eyes, and Sir Jack’s fine manners, she could tolerate a few minutes beside him on the sofa—despite his chilly demeanor.
“Did you run across Aunt Hattie in the village?” Madeline asked. Hattie rarely left her smallholding, mostly because the work was far more than one old woman could keep up with. She also had no coin to spend at market, and didn’t go visiting, lest friends return the favor and empty her larder.
“Hattie summoned me in my capacity as magistrate,” Sir Jack said, holding the plate of tea cakes before Madeline.
She chose the plainest of the lot, which would be delicious because Cook took the honor of the Belmont kitchen seriously. Sir Jack chose the only other cinnamon sweet and passed the plate back to Mrs. Belmont.
“I hope Aunt hasn’t been the victim of a crime,” Madeline said.
“I’m sure when she recounts the incident, wrongdoing will be involved,” Sir Jack replied. “Mortimer Cotton’s prize ram, Charles II, came calling on his own initiative. I don’t know whether Cotton was more embarrassed that his livestock got loose, or angry that Hattie’s ewes had enjoyed Charles’s company without Cotton being compensated.”
The topic was not exactly genteel, but the Belmonts weren’t fussy people, and Candlewick was twelve country miles from Oxford.
“How did you resolve this?” Mr. Belmont asked. “Mortimer and Hattie have been threatening the king’s peace ever since her ram died. I was tempted to lend her one of mine, but then Cotton would have been up in arms because I’d deprived him—or Charles—of a potential customer.”
Madeline took a bite of her cake rather than ask Mr. Belmont why Cotton’s good will was more important than an old woman’s livelihood.
“Had you solicited my opinion,” Mrs. Belmont said, “I would have told you that Mortimer Cotton is an idiot. If his rams cover every ewe in the shire, every herd will soon be inbred, and Charles will be out of a job.”
Mr. Belmont saluted with his tea cup. “Had I been clever enough to think of that argument, I still would have had to deal with Hattie Hennessey’s pride. Charles’s romantic inclinations have spared us all at least three more sermons on charity and loving kindness.”
Madeline would remember the beast in her prayers, for Mr. Belmont was right: Aunt was as proud as she was stubborn as she was poor, much like her sister Theodosia.
“I find I am in need of charity,” Sir Jack said. “I have come to solicit Mrs. Belmont’s aid, for I’ve family threatening to visit directly after the Yuletide holidays.”
“How I can help?” Mrs. Belmont asked.
Abigail Belmont had the inherent graciousness of a true lady, though she’d been born the daughter of an Oxford shopkeeper. Mr. Belmont was prosperous gentry, and Madeline would have cheerfully murdered any who sought to do the Belmonts or their children harm.
Mrs. Belmont was perhaps thirty, and her husband several years older, but they’d not yet been married a year, and their firstborn was a recent arrival. They glowed with contentment and the sort of glee Madeline associated with happily ever afters and large families.
Sir Jack, by contrast, lived alone but for his servants, and glowed with… well, he didn’t glow. At all.
“What you can do,” Sir Jack said, “is rescue my household from certain doom. My butler and my cook barely speak, the footmen pretend not to hear or understand the butler’s orders, the maids run riot, and my housekeeper threatens to quit regularly. I cannot have my brother, much less my mother, subjected to such tumult.”
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Belmont said. “Mothers can be quite—”
“Maternal,” Mr. Belmont said, kissing his wife’s hand and keeping possession of it. Madeline finished her tea cake, which tasted less enticing than it had smelled—not quite sweet enough, a little too dry.
“I realize I’m asking a lot,” Sir Jack said, “but there’s nobody else upon whom I can impose.” To Sir Jack, even soliciting advice would be an imposition.
“You might need to hire a new butler,” Mr. Belmont suggested. “Or to clean house, figuratively. Nothing like making an example of a slacker to inspire good effort from those who’ve taken their posts for granted.”
Sir Jack rose and went to the window, which looked out over a drive lined with maples. Though Christmas would soon be upon them, the autumn had been mild. Golden leaves carpeted the grass and clung to the branches, turning the afternoon luminous. One winter storm, one windy morning, and the last of the foliage and its brilliant light would be gone.
Winter, for a man who’d spent nearly a decade in India, would be long and trying. For a woman who thrived on industry, winter in the Belmont household would be a cozy, peaceful, little slice of hell.
“I had hoped Mrs. Belmont might speak to my housekeeper,” Sir Jack said. “Perhaps review Cook’s menus, organize the maids’ schedules, and have a word with Pahdi about the footmen’s responsibilities.”
“Madeline looks after the menus for me,” Mrs. Belmont said.
“And the maids here at Candlewick are on the schedule Madeline devised for them years ago,” Mr. Belmont added, the wretch.
For years, Madeline had been Hennessey to him, and he’d been a widower distracted by grief, and by the need to parent two rambunctious boys. Madeline had enjoyed wayward notions where Axel Belmont was concerned—when she’d been young and foolish, and he’d been not quite as young, and devoted to his first wife.
Sir Jack turned a considering eye on Madeline. “One senses Miss Hennessey is competent at all she turns her hand to.”
Oh, no, Miss Hennessey was not. In the opinion of her aunts, Madeline had failed utterly to make a good match. Sir Jack was guilty of the same shortcoming, but being a man, nobody would dare chide him for it.
Then too, he was the magistrate. Madeline was not overly fond of the king’s justice or those who claimed to enforce it.
“What you need,” Mr. Belmont said, “is a second-in-command or aide-de-camp.”
Fortunately, Madeline was neither of those things. “Do you mean a house steward, Mr. Belmont?”
Mr. Belmont studied her with the unblinking scrutiny he turned on his botanical specimens, and Madeline abruptly felt like one of those blooms. Torn from the vine, helpless to avoid visual dissection under Mr. Belmont’s quizzing glass.
“Not a house steward,” Mrs. Belmont said. “Sir Jack, does your mother travel with a companion?”
Sir Jack folded his arms and leaned back against the windowsill. He was indecently handsome in his riding attire. Tall and lean, tending to casual elegance and soft edges that gave him a deceptively comfortable look. Madeline had seen him on darts night, though, with his cuffs turned back, his gaze fixed on the target.
Though a notably retiring man, he was a good neighbor, a conscientious landlord, and a reliable partner for the wallflowers at the local assemblies.
And his darts team always won, provided his teammates were at least half-sober.
“My mother does not have a companion that I know of,” Sir Jack said. “She has scores of friends in London, and claims they provide her adequate company. One does not argue with my mother and come away unscathed.”
One didn’t argue with Sir Jack either. Madeline couldn’t recall the last time she’d seen somebody even make the attempt.
“The older ladies need to be charmed,” Madeline said. “We think because they’ve lost their youth that they’ve lost their taste for flattery, and that’s not so. They need the silly banter and the sincere compliments all the more for being at a lonelier time of life.”
Both men regarded Madeline as if she’d just described how Napoleon might have won the Battle of Waterloo. Mrs. Belmont lifted the lid of the teapot and peered inside.
“I have an idea,” Mr. Belmont said, and Madeline stifled the urge to break the teapot over his helpful head. Whatever his idea, it did not bode well for her.
“Mr. Belmont,” his wife said, “I believe I will be exceedingly impressed with this idea.” She beamed at her husband, and he… Axel Belmont was not capable of simpering. He was well over six feet, blond, muscular, academically bright, and tough as only the father of both adolescent boys and a newborn could be.
He beamed back at his wife, their mutual regard as luminous as the last of the leaves beyond the window, and far more durable.
“Madeline must join your household as a temporary companion to your mother,” Mr. Belmont said, sounding pleased with his own genius. “She will have your domestics sorted out, and even you will not grasp quite how she accomplished that miracle.”
Madeline choked on the last of her tea cake, only to have Sir Jack return to her side and thump her soundly on the back.
“Belmont, not well done of you,” he said, whaling away between Madeline’s shoulder blades. “Your henwitted notion has clearly upset Miss Hennessey.”
Madeline waved Sir Jack off, though he remained right where he was. “I’m fine,” she rasped. “A crumb—something—went down the wrong way.”
“Madeline is surprised that I had a good idea, is all,” Belmont said. “I haven’t come up with a good idea since—”
“This morning,” Mrs. Belmont interjected, smiling at her tea service.
An odd silence germinated, then expanded, while all eyes fixed on Madeline, as if she hadn’t been sitting on the very same sofa for the past five minutes.
“Mr. Belmont’s idea is not henwitted,” she said, “but neither is it well thought out. With the holidays approaching, and more Belmont family visiting from Sussex, we’ll have much to do here at Candlewick.”
“We’re not hosting a royal progress,” Mrs. Belmont said. “Matthew and the boys consider this their second home. And Sir Jack’s mama isn’t coming until after Christmas.”
Madeline had a sense that a significant shift in household affairs had happened without her noticing. One moment, her praises were being sung, the next, she was being pushed down the drive.
And all the while, Sir Jack studied her as if she were the center ring on a championship dartboard.
“Candlewick is my home,” Madeline said, indignation warring with panic. “Are my services no longer required?”
Her services had lately included everything from supervisor of the nursery maids, assistant to the housekeeper, confidante to the cook, and cribbage partner to the butler.
“Of course this is your home,” Mrs. Belmont said, in soothing tones that reassured Madeline not one bit. “We would miss you terribly if you accepted another post, but Sir Jack is our dear friend, and he has sought our assistance.”
He’d sought the Belmonts’ assistance, and he was no friend to Madeline.
“The situation would be temporary,” Sir Jack said. “My mother has never stayed more than two or three months.”
In other words, the daft man was considering this scheme.
“I take it she’s managed without a companion in the past,” Madeline said. “Might she be insulted at your presumption, choosing a companion for her now, Sir Jack?”
“My mother enjoys a state of chronic affrontedness, probably much like your Aunt Hattie. By selecting a companion for her, I will conveniently indulge her gift for finding insult where only consideration was intended.”
“And I’m to be the insult you offer her?”
“One of many, I’m sure,” Sir Jack replied. “The food, the bed hangings, the placement of the candles on my library mantel, the tone in which I address my servants, or the fact that I address them at all… My ability to disappoint my mother is as limitless as—”
He fell silent, but not soon enough to mask an air of genuine exasperation. Madeline had a premonition of winter evenings in Sir Jack’s library. He’d be happily engrossed in some old soldier’s literary reminiscences of war, while his poor mama went barmy from boredom.
“Perhaps you should dissuade your mother from visiting at such a dreary time of year,” Madeline said. “You might remove to London yourself, and thus have the ability to come and go at the times of your own choosing.”
Mr. Belmont poured his wife a second cup of tea and helped himself to a lemon biscuit. “Mothers, in my experience, don’t take kindly to attempts to dodge an inspection. If Sir Jack went on evasive maneuvers, she’d redouble her pursuit.”
“Quite,” Sir Jack said. “Though I suspect Belmont’s older sons would attribute the same tenacity to their own dear papa, whose fixity of purpose puts one in mind of a cocklebur. Miss Hennessey, might I tempt you into a position as my mother’s temporary companion? You could reconnoiter the situation below stairs, gather intelligence, confer with Mrs. Belmont, and make some suggestions? I would be most grateful.”
Madeline did not want Sir Jack’s gratitude, nor did she care for his own impersonation of a cocklebur.
“You really must take pity on a clueless bachelor,” Mr. Belmont said. “One has a Christian duty, Miss Hennessey, and the members of Sir Jack’s staff will thank you for it. A household in disarray is not a happy situation.”
Madeline had no use for happy situations, though she did fancy having a roof over her head and a meal or two each day. She did not fancy a post under Sir John Dewey Fanning’s roof.
“I am flattered, of course,” Madeline said, “but the nursery maids here are both new to their duties, and with colder weather approaching—”
“Nonsense,” Mrs. Belmont interjected. “You’ve trained them wonderfully, and the baby is thriving. You made an excellent ladies’ maid when I was widowed, and you were the housekeeper’s right hand here at Candlewick before that. Your aunties treasure you, though they hardly have a kind word to say about anybody. A temporary change of scene will do you good.”
More beaming went on, while Madeline wanted to pitch this brilliant idea through the window. The Belmonts were good, kind people with whom Madeline could speak her mind. They valued a cheerful staff and yet tolerated no misbehavior toward the female domestics.
Madeline liked them. The realization was disconcerting, particularly when she did not like Sir Jack.
Though she didn’t dislike him, exactly.
“You are not taken with the idea,” Sir Jack said, a monumental understatement. “I am prepared to be generous, Miss Hennessey. Desperately generous. You see before you a man with no pride.”
Madeline saw before her a man with no scruples and less charm. “Part of the reason your household is at sixes and sevens, Sir Jack, is because you’re the magistrate. You hold parlor sessions some weeks, but not others. Your schedule isn’t your own, and if a serious matter comes before you, it absorbs all of your attention. Mr. Belmont was the same way when he was the magistrate.”
“She’s right,” Mr. Belmont said, around a mouthful of shortbread. “Damned job wrecks a fellow’s peace when folk are naughty. When livestock are naughty too. Your mama won’t be keen on you riding off at all hours to investigate the love life of Hattie Hennessey’s ewes.”
“Belmont,” Sir Jack said, “need I remind you from whom I inherited the magistrate’s position?”
“And you’ve never thanked me for stepping down, you ingrate. Miss Hennessey will take pity on you, because she’s soft-hearted.”
That was the outside of too much. “I’m not—”
“You spoil your aunties rotten,” Mr. Belmont went on. “You spoil us rotten, the boys, the baby… Spoil Sir Jack’s mama, plant a few ideas in his housekeeper’s head, marvel at his cook’s syllabub, and inflict your flirtations and lectures on the footmen. Work your magic, and you’ll soon have his household running as smoothly as you do Candlewick.”
Madeline opened her mouth to scold her employer for that bald overstatement—Candlewick had a superbly competent housekeeper and equally talented cook, though both women were getting on. What they lacked in energy, they made up for in experience.
“You flatter me shamelessly, Mr. Belmont.”
“I wouldn’t dare.”
“I would,” Sir Jack said, “if I thought it would inspire you to take this post. You’ll have my undying gratitude, a glowing character, the gratification of fulfilling a much-needed office—”
“And his coin,” Mr. Belmont said. “Lots of coin, such as no sensible young woman refuses.”
Madeline was no longer young. Somewhere between fending off the callow swains in the churchyard—most of them, anyway—and passing every penny she could spare to her aging relatives, she’d made her peace with reality. She worked hard—she’d always work hard—and if she was lucky, she’d have a little coin to see her through when hard work was beyond her.
“I hazard to point out that your aunts would tell you to take the offer.” Sir Jack wasn’t teasing or exaggerating. He was making the one argument Madeline could not refute. Hattie would wax scathingly eloquent if Madeline turned up her nose at a chance to be the companion of a true lady.
And Sir Jack was offering only a temporary position, nothing more.
Had Aunt Hattie’s spring crop of lambs not depended on a wandering ram, Madeline might have refused, but Aunt’s situation had been growing dire. Theodosia’s finances teetered close to desperate and had for years.
Madeline would not even have a widow’s mite to get her by in old age, as her aunts often reminded her.
“I will be your mother’s temporary companion,” she said, “and if I see problems with how the household is managed, I will bring them to your attention as discreetly as I can.”
Sir Jack took her hand in both of his. “My relief beggars description.”
Madeline snatched back her hand. “My requirements for taking the position can be articulated fairly easily, if Mr. and Mrs. Belmont would excuse us for a few minutes?”
The Belmonts were on their feet and halfway to the door before Madeline had finished speaking. Their haste put her in mind of parents affording privacy to a young lady and a marriage-minded suitor.
Which analogy was just plain ridiculous.
Winning a battle was only half a victory, as any soldier knew. The conquered territory must be held when the guns went silent, and the populace brought under the victor’s rule, which could be harder than prevailing in combat.
Madeline Hennessey had acquiesced to the scheme Axel and Abigail Belmont had hatched, and so had Jack.
May God have mercy on his soul, for Miss Hennessey radiated discontentment. “What are your terms, Miss Hennessey?”
She rose, and Jack did as well, not only because a gentleman stood when a lady gave up her seat. Madeline Hennessey was tall for a woman, possessed of glorious red hair, a fine figure, and lovely features. Jack wanted to be on his feet when they parlayed.
Her looks were striking, which a plain cap, severe coiffure, and utter lack of adornment only accentuated. Jack was honest enough to admit that in a small way, he enjoyed watching her, watching the woman who’d quietly kept a widower’s household running while offending none of his more senior retainers. The same woman who’d become a ferocious ally to Mrs. Belmont when her prospective husband had been slow to offer marriage.
Madeline Hennessey was fierce, in other words, and that quality earned Jack’s respect as generous curves and winsome smiles never would. That same fierceness put his guard up too, of course.
“I’ll want a bedroom on the same floor as your mother,” Miss Hennessey said, “though I don’t expect to be housed in the family wing. Stairs are the very devil when you must traverse them at all hours of the day and night.”
“Easily done. What else?”
“Sunday and a half day off each week, and such other time to myself as your mother allows.”
“My entire staff has Sunday and a half day each week. Those who’ve been with me for more than five years have a guarantee of evenings free as well, provided their assignments are complete.”
She left off studying a sketch of some wild rose or other growing by a still pond. Belmont had likely done the drawing himself.
“How does anything get done after sundown, Sir Jack?”
“The junior staff tend to it.” As far as he knew. He hadn’t asked directly, lest his butler take offense.
“And when your junior staff have all been with you more than five years?”
“The junior staff don’t stay a full year of late. Perhaps you’ll be able to change that.”
“How long will your mother bide with you?”
Too long. “Mama is a force of nature. She comes and goes as she pleases, and one doesn’t—that is, I do not—presume to interfere with her plans.”
Miss Hennessey folded her arms. “The household belongs to you, Sir Jack. Out of respect for you, your family must apprise you of their plans. How else is the staff to accommodate your guests, much less anticipate your needs?”
At least she’d left off studying Belmont’s artistry. “Nobody in the entire shire will be left in doubt regarding my mother’s needs, wants, opinions, or desires. I joined a regiment bound for India, very much against her wishes, and nearly twenty years on, I’m reminded regularly of what a naughty boy I was.”
“You are not a boy.”
And Miss Hennessey was not offering him a compliment. “Neither am I quite doddering, madam. What are your other demands?”
He’d meet them, whatever they were. The longer Jack conversed with Miss Hennessey, the more he was convinced she was the answer to his domestic prayers and an able match for Mama.
That Miss Hennessey was reluctant to take the post only attested to her good sense.
“I’ll need a wardrobe allowance,” she said. “As a lady’s companion, I’ll be expected to pay calls with your mother, and for that I must be presentable if I’m to endure the ridicule of the local gentry.”
“There will be no ridicule.” Not to her face, anyway. More than that, Jack could not prevent.
She marched over to Belmont’s desk, an enormous article at which many botanical treatises had doubtless been penned. Miss Hennessey extracted paper from a drawer, took up a quill pen, and uncapped a silver ink bottle.
“When shall my half day be?” she asked, putting pen to paper.
“You want a written contract?”
The pen continued its progress across the page. “Of course. Coin is involved, and a woman can never be too careful.”
Jack was torn between affront and amusement. “Miss Hennessey, I am a gentleman. My word is my bond.”
Still, she scratched away at her document. “Gentlemen are prone to memory lapses, though I’ll not hear a word against Mr. Belmont, ever. Your gentlemanly word won’t get me very far in court, Sir Jack, and it won’t pay for a bolt of cloth from the dry goods store, or buy me new boots before the first snowfall. What is your legal name?”
She would have made a very effective officer, which was a compliment. “Sir John Dewey Fanning, though my friends call me Jack.”
The pen stopped. “I’m Madeline Hennessey.”
How pensive she looked, sitting at the massive desk—and how pretty. “No middle name?” He wanted to know this about her, wanted any detail she’d part with, because information was a form of ammunition.
She resumed writing, and muttered something under her breath.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Hennessey?”
“Madeline Aphrodite Hennessey. I’ll thank you not to bruit that about at the Wet Weasel.”
“Of course not.” Aphrodite was the goddess of love, pleasure, and procreation, if Jack recalled his tutor’s maunderings. “Might I inquire as to your other conditions for accepting employment in my home?” The home to which Jack was anxious to return, lest his domestics burn the place to the ground in his absence.
“I will be driven to Sunday services, if your mother chooses not to go.”
Jack attended regularly. He wasn’t particularly religious in the Anglican sense, but he did want to set a good example for the staff, and socializing in the churchyard aided in his magistrate’s duties.
“I will happily drive you to services, madam.”
She put down the pen. “You will?”
Jack crossed to the desk and peered at what she’d written.
I, Sir John Dewey Fanning, on the date signed below, do take into domestic employment one Madeline A. Hennessey, in the capacity of temporary lady’s companion for my mother, upon certain conditions as follows…
“You’re a budding solicitor, Miss Hennessey.” She had a graceful hand—neat and legible, no schoolgirl flourishes or embellishments.
“I’m a woman without a man to speak for her, unless one relies on Mr. Belmont’s overprotective nature—which I do not.”
“Hence the severance pay if your employment is terminated in less than thirty days.” A considerable sum too, as household wages went.
Beneath her confident manner was a caution Jack had not anticipated. Mama would approve—Mama was all in favor of women looking out for themselves—but Jack did not.
“Miss Hennessey, we are not adversaries. I have an embarrassment of means and need not quibble with my help over contractual details. My objective is that you should enjoy the time spent in my household, to the extent anybody can enjoy time with my mother.”
Or with him. Jack had no delusions about the pleasure of his own company.
Miss Hennessey pushed the paper over to him and held the pen out. “A fine speech, sir.”
“We aren’t to have witnesses to our signatures?”
“The Belmonts can sign it, after I make a second copy.”
“Miss Hennessey, you risk insult to your employer before you’ve begun your duties. I don’t need a copy of the contract. The terms are simple, and you’ll correct me should I breach them.”
“No, I won’t.” She signed her name in the same flowing, elegant hand.
“You’ll allow me to breach the terms of this agreement with impunity?”
“Of course not. If you put a foot wrong, I’ll leave.”
Belmont would be on Jack’s doorstep the next morning, glowering as only Axel Belmont could glower.
“What if you put a foot wrong, madam?”
Because Jack had been to war, he’d learned to recognize all forms of bravery, from stoic silence, to a bellowing charge, to an insistence on measured order even amid the chaos of military life.
He’d also learned to recognize fear. The look Miss Hennessey shot him revealed unshakeable determination, but also a hint of uncertainty.
“You’re the magistrate,” she said. “You excel at catching people in their missteps. Even Mr. Belmont has sung your praises, and he’s not a man given to effusions.”
Mr. Belmont this, and Mr. Belmont that. Jack considered Axel Belmont a friend. Perhaps prior to his recent marriage, Belmont had been more than a friend to Miss Hennessey. Belmont was merely gentry, not some prancing lord, and winters in Oxfordshire were long and cold.
Did Miss Hennessey not grasp that she deserved better?
“Are you in love with Axel Belmont, Miss Hennessey?” That glimmer of uncertainty had meant something, and Jack’s tour in India had disabused him of the need to make moral judgments. “Women likely consider him attractive, and he’s not without admirable qualities.”
Belmont had many admirable qualities, in fact.
“Who I might fancy matters naught,” Miss Hennessey said, rising. “And who fancies me matters even less. I will work hard for my wages, Sir Jack, and you will pay them on time and to the penny. That is what matters.”
She was a tall woman, though Jack was taller. They stood nearly eye to eye, that hint of vulnerability lurking in the upraised angle of her chin and the near-glower in her gaze. He could see her great-aunts in her, see the determination and self-reliance, and it… bothered him.
“I will also pay those wages in advance,” he said. “I can’t expect you to uproot yourself, purchase material, make a new wardrobe, and otherwise take on new employment without a show of good faith on my part. If you can begin immediately after Boxing Day, I’ll see that a bank draft arrives here tomorrow.”
“Send cash, please. I’d have to apply to Mr. Belmont to deal with a bank draft, and he’s a busy man.”
Belmont was a man in love with his wife and devoted to his children.
“Cash, it shall be,” Jack said, extending his hand.
Because they’d been at the tea tray, he wore no gloves, and neither did Miss Hennessey. She regarded him quizzically, then offered her hand. He bowed over it and kept hold of her fingers.
“I am in your debt, Miss Hennessey, and I thank you for taking on this situation. I rode up the drive, thinking to ask for a fresh perspective on my household situation. I’ll ride home grateful to have recruited an ally under my own roof.” A fine little speech, if he did say so himself.
“I’ll be an employee, sir, not an ally.”
She looked so… bewildered and brave and resolute, that Jack let actions speak rather than argue with lady.
“Apply whatever label suits your fancy,” he said, brushing his lips across her knuckles. “I’m much relieved that you’ll be joining the household.” He relinquished her hand and marched away before she could fire off a scold.
Abigail Belmont had been raised more or less in a bookshop, and she didn’t put on airs, though Madeline would rather her employer did go on with a little more decorum. Instead, in the week since Sir Jack’s call, Abigail had assisted in the creation of three new dresses, and was intent on passing along several more from her own wardrobe.
“You can carry off the brighter colors,” Abigail said, draping a maroon velvet carriage dress on the bed. “I am a mother now. I need fabrics that wash easily, and don’t take stains.”
“I won’t have any occasion to wear such finery,” Madeline protested, smoothing a hand over the soft material. “And this color looks good on most women.”
“On you, it looks better than good,” Abigail replied, laying a cream-colored shawl on top of the dress. “This remove to Sir Jack’s could be very advantageous, Madeline. Why are you so reluctant to go?”
Because a new household meant teaching a whole new crop of footmen that Madeline would not be ogled, groped, disrespected, or underestimated. Because Sir Jack had as much as admitted he was at daggers drawn with his mother.
“I consider Candlewick my home,” Madeline said, as a beaded reticule joined the pile on the bed. “The staff here are like family to me. At Sir Jack’s, I will be an intruder with airs above my station.”
Abigail tossed a pair of cream slippers onto the heap of finery. “Your version of family consists of a pair of crotchety old women, and the staff here rely upon you to solve every difficulty and smooth all rough patches. That’s not the same as being your friends. Have you a watch?”
“No.” Any jewelry in the Hennessey family had been sold ten years ago.
“A lady’s companion needs a time-keeping device,” Abigail said, crossing to her vanity and opening a jewelry box. “This will do.”
She pitched—pitched!—a golden brooch at Madeline that turned out to be a lady’s watch pin.
“You must not do this,” Madeline said, though she didn’t dare throw the jewelry back. “I’m not a soldier marching into battle, that you should polish my weapons and stock my haversack. I’ll be back here by spring, and then what will I do with all of this, this… treasure?”
Abigail’s look was pitying, before she mercifully returned to sorting through her jewelry. “These are cast-offs, Madeline Hennessey. I would have given them to you before—that’s one of the perquisites of being a lady’s maid—but you’d have sold them to support your elders. I am a scandalously wealthy woman, and you must resign yourself to enduring my whims. Thwart me, and I’ll take the matter to Mr. Belmont.”
Madeline sat on the Belmonts’ enormous canopied bed, then realized what she’d done and bounced to her feet.
“That’s not fair, ma’am. Mr. Belmont is ruthless when it comes to… well, he’s ruthless in defense of your whims. I’ll need a baggage wain to carry my effects to Sir Jack’s if you involve Mr. Belmont in this discussion.”
Abigail’s smile was sweet. “So don’t force my hand. Take the clothing—though we’ll need to let out a few of the bodice seams—and wear it in good health. Sir Jack is wealthy too, you know.”
Madeline busied herself folding the clothing scattered across the bed. Abigail had selected a half-dozen dresses, more than Madeline had owned since going into service at the age of fifteen. She picked up the maroon velvet, the feel of it making her heart sing.
Once, all of her clothes had been this fine, when she’d been too young to realize her good fortune.
“You have given up arguing with me,” Abigail said. “I’m not fooled, Madeline. You excel at the tactical retreat, which is half the reason Candlewick runs as well as it does. Cook and Mrs. Turnbull are fast friends because of you. Not every household enjoys such cooperation.”
“Cook and Mrs. T have much in common,” Madeline said, folding the dress into a soft heap. “Sometimes, they need to be reminded of that. Not the earrings too, ma’am. I draw the line at fripperies.”
Abigail remained before her, a pair of simple gold earrings and a thin gold bracelet in her palm.
“A lack of vanity becomes you, Madeline, but a lack of sense does not. Take these.”
“You sound like your husband.”
“Take them, or you’ll be displaying this stubbornness for his entertainment.”
Madeline held out her hand, and Abigail passed her the jewelry. The sunlight pouring through the window turned the plainest of adornments into luminous magic.
“I’m grateful, ma’am. Don’t think I’m not.”
Abigail was back at her vanity, sorting through the box that held her combs, hairpins, and ribbons.
“If you’re so grateful, Madeline, why would you rather be anywhere else right now, when most women in your position would be trying on those dresses? You are joining a wealthy man’s household and must look the part.”
Madeline was grateful—and uneasy, the same way she’d been uneasy when Mama had explained, years ago, that big girls did not need governesses, and they didn’t ride ponies either. The next day, her beloved little steed, Gideon, had been led away from the stable, and the promised horse to replace him had never materialized.
“I’m a simple housemaid, not a thespian,” Madeline said, picking up a blue merino walking dress. “I’m not interested in looking a part. I’m interested in doing a good day’s work for my coin. You cannot give me those combs.”
“Yes, I can. You have never been a simple housemaid. Mr. Belmont says you were the civilizing influence his boys needed growing up, and Madeline, I will miss you awfully. Mr. Belmont attributes all manner of virtues to you, and he’s not a loquacious sort. I will call at Sir Jack’s frequently once we get through the holidays, and if he’s in any way not up to standards, you will let me know.”
The concern in Abigail’s eyes was genuine, but so was the lurking guilt. Abruptly, Madeline considered that she truly had become excess baggage under the Candlewick roof. During the years of Axel Belmont’s widowhood, the house had needed an organizing hand, but Axel Belmont had finally remarried, his boys were off at university, and Candlewick ran like a top now—a happy top.
“Sir Jack will be up to standards. He is the pattern card for gentlemanly behavior,” Madeline said—he was also bereft of charm. “You need not concern yourself in that regard.”
“Oh, he stands up with the wallflowers, arrives punctually at services, does his bit on darts night, but men can be so… we all can be so oblivious to what’s before our noses. It’s time Sir Jack settled down, and I’m sure his mother is making this visit to see to that very priority.”
Madeline dropped into the reading chair by the fireplace. Of course, Abigail was correct. Mothers did not leave the gaiety and luxury of London to spend the winter ruralizing with bachelor sons for the pleasures of the country air.
Oh, joy. The skirmishes between mother and son would doubtless erupt into pitched battle.
“I will aid Mrs. Fanning to see her son settled,” Madeline said. “Though my efforts might see me turned off without a character.”
Would she be welcome back at Candlewick in that case, or would she be shuffled from aunt to aunt, until one of the local yeomen decided a wife with domestic experience would do well enough despite a bit of wear?
“Madeline, you are an idiot,” Abigail said, in tones only a mother could achieve. Kindly, ruthless, chiding, and admonitory, all at once. “Sir Jack is not a royal prince. He isn’t the sort to go up to Town for half the year. He is the sort to appreciate a woman of integrity and brains.”
Appreciate? “As long as he pays me on time and keeps to the letter of our agreement, I will appreciate his integrity and brains as well. I’d best find trunks to transport all of this. Sir Jack will think he’s being invaded.”
While Madeline felt as if she were being cast out of her home, again.
The day was unseasonably mild, and the landscape wore the peaceful mantle of early winter after a good harvest. Miss Hennessey sat beside Jack on the seat of the dog cart as he—a man who’d been entertained by rajas and the Regent—cast about for a conversational gambit.
He and Miss Hennessey were to share a household, after all, and what Jack knew of companions suggested Miss Hennessey would be underfoot as much as Mama would.
“Will you miss your post at Candlewick?” Belmont had been quite clear that his sons—the two attending Oxford twelve miles away and the little tyrant in the nursery—were in a collective decline over Miss Hennessey’s departure.
“I don’t know.”
“How can you not know if you’ll miss people you’ve worked for and with for years?” Discreet inquiries had confirmed that Miss Hennessey had been employed at Candlewick for nearly a decade.
“Because we’re barely a mile from the foot of the drive. Tell me about your mother.”
Not a request. “She’s a terror. You’ll get on famously.”
The first hint of a glance slid in Jack’s direction.
“I mean that as a compliment, madam. Did you toil away for Belmont year after year without ever hearing a compliment?”
The cart hit a rut, autumn having brought ample rain to the shire. Miss Hennessey was pitched against Jack’s side, and because he was holding the reins, he could do nothing to assist her. She pushed herself upright by bracing a hand on his thigh, but the dratted horse barreled through a puddle that hid yet another rut, and Miss Hennessey’s hand slipped.
“Heavenly choruses,” she said, scooting several inches away. “I’m not usually clumsy. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
She blushed magnificently, as only a redhead could.
“One wonders what our taxes pay for,” Jack said. “Upkeep of the roads must not be high on the list. You asked about my mother. Her proper name is Florentia Hammerschmidt Fanning, formerly of the Hampshire Hammerschmidts of Carstairs Keep. She was a noted beauty in her day, and still prides herself on her looks. Here, take the reins.”
“What makes you think I can drive?” Miss Hennessey asked, accepting the ribbons.
The gelding in the traces, Beauregard, was a former coach horse. A child could drive him through a thunderstorm, and Beau would see that the vehicle arrived safely to its destination.
“Belmont claims you are up to any challenge. This is a good likeness of my mother, though it’s about five years out of date.”
He held a miniature before Miss Hennessey, the likeness of an older woman with portrait-blue eyes and a kindly smile. Some artistic license had been taken with the smile, but the features were Mama to the life.
“She’s quite handsome,” Miss Hennessey said. “Though I don’t see much of a likeness to you.”
Implying exactly what? “I take after my late father,” Jack said, pocketing the miniature and taking over the reins. That maneuver necessitated a brush of his gloves against Miss Hennessey’s, after which, she again retreated several inches.
“I bathed last night,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Slide any farther to the left, and you’ll fall from the cart, Miss Hennessey. If we’re to share a household, see each other at meals, and otherwise cohabit at Teak House, you’ll have to deal with a certain proximity to my person.”
While Jack would have to deal with proximity to hers. Today she wore a brown velvet day dress with a cloak of black wool. Tooling along in the cart, even a mild day felt nippy, and the fresh air had tinged Miss Hennessey’s cheeks not with roses, but with… passion flowers of the soft, creamy pink Jack had often admired in India.
Madeline Hennessey was attractive, which was a pity. Mama did not easily tolerate pretty young women in her ambit.
An oncoming gig distracted Jack from his gloomy musings. When the other driver pulled up, Jack did likewise, so the occupants of the two vehicles were facing each other at a conversational distance.
“Mr. McArdle, good day.”
“Sir Jack, Miss… Hennessey?” Hector McArdle’s rising inflection suggested he’d taken note of Miss Hennessey’s fetching ensemble, and possibly her passion flower complexion too.
Randy old goat.
“Mr. McArdle,” Miss Hennessey replied, offering McArdle a pretty smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “How fare you?”
“Well, you might ask, miss, and well I found our magistrate. I was on my way to see you, sir, and my business was not entirely social.”
Of course not. Jack’s neighbors invited him to their gatherings when they needed a bachelor to make up the numbers—another duty he’d inherited from Belmont—and they called on him only rarely, thank heavens, unless they had matters of a legal nature to discuss.
“If Miss Hennessey can spare a moment,” Jack said, “I’ll happily listen to your concerns now.” Happily being gentlemanly hyperbole. McArdle was the local coal merchant, and had a successful businessman’s gift for jovial inanities.
“I can walk the rest of the way,” Miss Hennessey offered, gathering her skirts as if to climb down.
“No need for that, miss,” McArdle said. “Mrs. McArdle brought the matter to my notice, and if she mentions it to her quilting friends, it will soon be all over the shire.”
“Say on, Mr. McArdle,” Jack said, “and I will offer whatever assistance I can.”
McArdle glanced about, as if highwaymen were lurking behind the hedges, hoping to hear word of buried treasure.
“The entire neighborhood relies on me to keep them in coal,” McArdle said, as if this state of affairs were an eleemosynary undertaking on his part. “I am conscientious about my duties, and always keep plenty of coal in my yard. Winter weather will pounce upon us any day, and nobody in this shire will suffer the cold because Hector McArdle let his inventory run low.”
“We are all grateful for your sound business practices,” Jack said, because McArdle clearly expected praise for maintaining a supply of the only product he sold.
Miss Hennessey admired the surrounding landscape. Beauregard swished his tail. Jack mentally cursed Axel Belmont for stepping down as magistrate, and Squire Rutland—the only other candidate for the magistrate’s job—for removing permanently to the coast.
“Somebody has helped himself to my coal,” McArdle said. “Waltzed right up to my loading shed, and scooped up the loose bits left over from the week’s work.”
Loose bits, given McArdle’s notions of tidiness about his yard, probably amounted to several hundred pounds of coal from the loading shed alone. But for the efforts of an enterprising thief, that coal would have sat about until it became too damp and disintegrated to properly burn.
“I’ll come by and have a look as soon as Miss Hennessey’s effects have been unloaded at Teak House.”
McArdle’s pale blue eyes darted from Jack to the woman sitting silently at his side.
The quilting gatherings had nothing on the darts teams for spreading gossip. “Miss Hennessey will bide at Teak House in the capacity of companion to my mother, who should arrive from London forthwith.”
“Your mother, you say?”
“And my brother, Jeremy. Will you excuse us, McArdle? The sooner we’re on our way, the sooner I can inspect the scene of the crime.”
Jack nodded, his hands being on the reins, and gave Beauregard the office to walk on. The cart was soon bouncing along, while McArdle sped off in the opposite direction.
“Such are the criminal activities flung at the king’s tireless man,” Jack said. “But you know that, having dwelled at Candlewick.” She’d been in service at Candlewick, not quite the same thing.
“Mr. Belmont was only a substitute magistrate,” Miss Hennessey said, “and for the most part, the little crimes and pranks he investigated gave him a reason to leave the property and socialize, such as he’s able to socialize.”
“Do I hear a criticism of the venerable Axel Belmont, Miss Hennessey? I thought he walked on water in the eyes of his staff and family.” Jack esteemed Belmont greatly as well—the man had prodigious common sense and was honorable to his bones.
“Many a country squire grows lonely tending his acres, Sir John Dewey Fanning.”
Belmont was more interested in tending to his roses—and his wife, from what Jack had seen. “My friends call me Jack, or Sir Jack.” He hadn’t been called plain Jack since he’d left India.
Miss Hennessey maintained a pointed silence.
“So what do you think happened to McArdle’s coal?” Jack asked a quarter mile later.
“Somebody took it.”
Miss Hennessey twitched at her skirts. “Somebody who did not want to freeze to death this winter.”
Oh, she’d get along with Mama famously. “You don’t think it was taken to be sold?”
“If the missing coal was the orts and leavings strewn about the loading shed, then it’s not good enough quality to sell, and the thief isn’t very good at stealing. Selling a quantity of stolen coal quietly would take some doing in a place where gossip moves on the slightest breeze.”
This was why Jack didn’t shove the magistrate’s job off on some other unsuspecting fool: He liked puzzles, whether they dealt with how to get supplies to a garrison on the other side of a flooded river, or how to find the culprit who’d stolen Nancy Yoder’s fancy tablecloth from the honeysuckle hedge outside her laundry.
“Why do you say the culprit was stupid?” Given the current state of England’s criminal laws, any thief was either stupid, desperate, or perilously prone to adventure. In the not too distant past, mere children had been hung for stealing a spoon.
“The thief was not stupid,” Miss Hennessey said, “but inept. He or she took both the lowest-quality coal and possibly the only coal McArdle would notice was missing.”
She was… right. The coal yard was an enormous dirty expanse, with great black heaps enclosed by a single fence. Much of the coal was under tin roofs, none of it particularly secured. McArdle would not have noticed a few hundred pounds missing from among tons and tons of inventory.
His wife, however, had noticed that somebody had essentially tidied up one corner of the coal yard.
“The thief wasn’t lacking in sense,” Jack said, mentally moving facts and suppositions around. “He took only as much as he could make off with in an hour or two, and he chose a time when nobody would notice his activities.” The days were at their shortest, Christmas having just passed, and that meant long evenings when most were snug in their beds.
“To somebody with a family to keep warm,” Miss Hennessey said, “that two hours of larceny might make a very great difference.”
Jack turned the cart up the lane to Teak House. “If I catch that person, he’ll be in a very great deal of trouble.” Though McArdle would not have sold the stray bits and piles of coal littering his loading shed. Civil damages would be difficult to prove as a result. “McArdle will be wringing his hands over what amounts to coal dust for the next six months.”
He’d also be strutting around the Wet Weasel every Friday night, asking Jack when the thief would be brought to justice.
“Tell McArdle to get a dog,” Miss Hennessey said. “Even a friendly dog will set up a racket if a stranger comes on the premises. The cost of a large dog and the expense of feeding it will likely exceed the value of the stolen coal over the dog’s lifetime, but McArdle can well afford the expense. He cannot afford for a more ambitious thief to take advantage of his sloppy business practices.”
“A dog. I should tell McArdle to get a dog?” Jack brought the cart to a halt in the stable yard, but made no move to climb down. He would never have thought to suggest McArdle purchase a dog.
“My Aunt Theodosia’s bitch whelped almost two months ago,” Miss Hennessey said. “Mastiff-collie crosses from the looks of them. Enormous creatures, but quite friendly. Your mother might fancy one.”
Mama would never be caught with anything less than a purebred, though Jack had always liked dogs.
“I’ll consider it.” He set the brake and leaped to the ground, then came around to assist the lady from her perch.
The instant Miss Hennessey’s feet touched solid earth, she stepped back, her gaze fixed over Jack’s shoulder in the direction of the manor house.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing is wrong. I believe your mother has arrived.”
Jack turned to find no less than his porter and three footmen unloading a sizeable baggage coach under the manor’s porte-cochère.
“Something is, indeed, quite wrong. Mama wasn’t supposed to be here for another three days at least.”
“You are fretting,” Axel Belmont said. He stood in the doorway to the nursery, a fundamentally shy man with hidden stores of perception and consideration Abigail was still learning to appreciate.
“Come in, husband. His Highness is almost asleep.”
They had a pair of nursery maids, but neither Abigail nor her husband believed in turning their children over to paid help for the entirety of their infancy. The baby was tiny, having come a few weeks early by Abigail’s calculations. What he lacked in size, he made up for in vigor.
“The hour is not late, and yet I am almost asleep,” Axel said, settling into the reading chair near the hearth. “How you manage, when your sleep is interrupted at all hours by our son, I do not know.” He got up to toss a log onto the fire, for in the nursery, wood was burned. “Jack and Madeline will be fine.”
Axel was worried, in other words. “You will miss her,” Abigail said. “I do too, already.”
Axel had lost his first wife years ago; Abigail’s first husband was also deceased. This marriage, the second for them both, was characterized by an intimacy of the heart as well as of the body. Nonetheless, Axel’s children from his first marriage were a pair of high-spirited university boys, and the infant was male as well.
For Abigail, Madeline Hennessey had been good, female company.
“I do miss her,” Axel said, “and yes, if you’re wondering, Madeline was a pleasure to behold when mourning finally eased its grip on me, but she knew better than to take advantage.”
“Then I am in her debt even more than I knew,” Abigail said, “because she was your friend, whether or not you recognized her as such. Would you like to hold the baby?”
Axel took the sleepy bundle and cradled the child against his chest. “Jack still hasn’t come right.”
Because Axel’s passion—after his wife and family—was botany, he was prone to observation. Because he was ferociously intelligent, he ruminated on his observations.
“He might never,” Abigail said, gently. “We don’t know the whole of what transpired in India, but he did ask for our help, and that’s… that’s unprecedented. He seems to like being magistrate.”
Axel nuzzled the baby’s crown. “Like is… a euphemism. It’s a duty, and any former soldier rises to duty like a healthy vine climbs to the sun. Duty makes a cold bedfellow.”
“I never considered marrying him,” Abigail said, for she could sense the question lurking at the periphery of this discussion. “I enjoyed his company when he came to call at Stoneleigh Manor, but I enjoyed passing the time of day when Mr. McArdle brought a load of coal. I was that isolated. Has that child fallen asleep?”
They sat for a long moment before a peacefully crackling fire.
“Tuesday,” Axel said. “Assuming the mild weather continues, I’ll pay a call on Sir Jack on Tuesday.”
“Madeline will need time to reconnoiter, and neither one of them will want us hovering. Friday, I think. They really are well-suited.”
Abigail could trust Axel to reconnoiter on her behalf.
“They don’t know they’re well-suited,” Axel replied, “and they’ll fight any inclination toward each other’s company. Madeline will tell herself that Sir John Dewey Fanning is above her touch, and Jack will tell himself that a gentleman does not importune the help. I must have been daft to suggest this scheme.”
Abagail had been the one to put forth particulars. “What do we know of Madeline’s upbringing?”
The baby sighed, as if the last vestige of consciousness had finally slipped from his grasp.
“She joined this household as a scullery maid and was soon Cook’s right hand. From there, Mrs. Turnbull took over, and when Caroline fell ill, Madeline stepped in to make decisions I was too… I could not make. I’ve always had the sense my dear Hennessey was not what she seemed, though.”
And for Axel Belmont, observations had to add up to conclusions.
“In what regard?”
“The yeomanry are not given to great height,” Axel said. “A specimen deprived of good soil, adequate water, and sunlight is usually a runty individual, whether in the greenhouse or the cottage. Madeline’s aunts are both in penurious circumstances, and yet they are robust women.”
“Sometimes, adversity strengthens us.” Axel’s love had strengthened Abigail, and she hoped she’d done as much for him.
“Madeline knows French, though she never speaks it.”
“How would a scullery maid learn French? Unless in a former post, her employers spoke it at home?”
“I don’t know. I caught her dusting a Latin grammar one day too, and her expression was rapt and… homesick, is the only way I can describe it.”
Abigail rose and took the baby from her husband. “Where we come from matters not half so much as who we are today and where we’d like to go. I’d like to go down to dinner with my husband.” In truth, Abigail would rather have gone straight to bed, but the body needed sustenance.
They hadn’t yet resumed relations after the birth of the baby, and the lack made Abigail desperate for her husband’s affection. This was his third child. He knew the parental terrain and had a confidence about his parenting Abigail lacked.
Axel accompanied Abigail to the next room, where a nursery maid dozed in a rocker by the fire.
“Evening, ma’am, sir,” the maid said, pushing to her feet. She glanced at the ormolu clock on the mantel, for Madeline had established the notion that the nursery should, within reason, run on a schedule. “The baby’s asleep?”
“For now,” Abigail said, passing the child into the nursemaid’s arms. “I’ll stop back before retiring.”
Axel held the door and took Abigail’s hand when they’d gained the corridor. “You’d never let the child out of your sight if you had your way.”
For two weeks after giving birth, Abigail hadn’t let the baby out of her sight, and Axel had barely let Abigail out of his.
“Neither would you,” Abigail said, kissing her husband’s cheek. “But you tell me that fifteen years from now, I’ll be glad to send the boy off to Oxford—glad. I can’t imagine that.”
Nor could Abigail grasp what it must be like for a woman to come of age in service, doing hard physical work every day and having no dream of a home and family of her own.
“Cease fretting,” Axel said, as they descended the stairs. “I’ll go visiting on Thursday.”
“Thursday will suit.”
“Thursday it is. Madeline will have either slain the gallant knight by then, or become smitten. I’m thinking she’ll start with putting out his lights.”
“You waited dinner for me,” Sir Jack said.
He ought to be Sir John, but the less formal name suited his energy and lack of pretensions. He was as dignified as a man of his means should be, but he wasn’t… he wasn’t a prig. Madeline had been curiously relieved to learn that his staff doted on him, and was fiercely loyal too.
She’d also been relieved that Mrs. Fanning had sent her luggage on ahead—a warning shot fired across the bow of the Teak House domestic frigate. When the lady herself would arrive was anybody’s guess.
“The kitchen waited dinner on you,” Madeline said, keeping to her place at the table. “A curry is easy to keep hot. How did you leave Mr. McArdle?”
“Ready to accept ownership of a dog,” Sir Jack replied, peering at the offerings on the sideboard. “Was it also the staff’s decision that you should sit at my right hand, rather than four yards away?”
Madeline had moved her place setting after the footman had withdrawn. “This end of the room is warmer, owing to the fireplace behind you.”
“I watched my parents dine at a distance from each other for years. Struck me as lonely, when they spent other years separated by oceans and continents. Shall I serve for you?”
The habit of the household was to put the serving dishes on the sideboard, so Sir Jack could take as much or as little as he pleased, buffet style. This approach was unusual and informal, but the food was kept hot in chafing dishes, and nobody was made to stand about in livery waiting on a man detained by missing coal or a loose ram.
“I can serve myself,” Madeline said, getting to her feet. “Do you often enjoy foreign cuisine?”
Sir Jack lifted the lid of a chafing dish, and the fragrance of spices too numerous to name filled the dining room.
“What is it? I don’t want to be rude, but neither do I want food to go to waste because my eyes were more adventurous than my belly.” And heaven knew, spicy food was not an English cook’s first choice.
“Chicken, mostly, with lentils, potatoes, and a sauce involving turmeric, curry, saffron… If you don’t care for it, you needn’t eat it. The curry is usually eaten over the rice.”
He stood holding the silver lid, steam rising from the food, his gaze watchful. This was the fare he’d chosen for himself, his preference, when spices were expensive and an undercooked beefsteak the staple offering at every gentleman’s club worth the name.
Madeline spooned a generous portion onto her plate. “One is consigned to bland fare below stairs. The monotony alone jeopardizes the appetite.”
She held the lid for Sir Jack and let him put a pastry-pocket sort of thing he called a samosa on her plate. He took three, along with a heap of the curry and two round, flat servings of a bread that smelled of garlicky, buttery heaven.
“Perhaps I’ll try the bread too,” Madeline said.
Sir Jack obliged, adding to the feast on her plate. “Naan, is the term for the bread. When one lacks utensils, the bread can serve as a platter.”
“And yet we use silver tongs to move it from the basket to the plate.”
When they returned to the table, Sir Jack held Madeline’s chair for her. Nobody had held her chair since her fourteenth birthday, unless it was some footman trying to peer down her bodice in the servants’ hall. The courtesy was disconcerting, but like the exotic food, not unwelcome.
“Do we say grace?” Madeline asked.
Sir Jack took his seat and flourished his serviette across his lap. Madeline did likewise, wondering if he’d intended to prompt her into recalling her manners.
“We are good old Church of England in this household, and damned glad to have hot food on such a chilly, blustery night. We say grace. For what we are about to receive, we thank Thee. Amen. Will that do?”
“You might have embellished a bit,” Madeline said, as Sir Jack poured her a glass of wine. “Mr. Belmont uses grace as a means of lecturing his offspring, expressing his gratitude that their various peccadilloes and blunders haven’t cost him his sons, and so forth. Are you waiting for something?”
“Try the wine. If it’s not suitable, we’ll send it back.”
A dim memory stirred, of Madeline’s papa observing the same ritual with the first footman. Madeline took a cautious sip, fruity fragrance blending with a slight sweetness on her tongue.
“That is… To be honest, I wouldn’t know if it was good or poor, but I find this wine very appealing.”
Sir Jack filled both of their glasses. “I’m not much of a wine connoisseur, but Pahdi tries hard to run my household as if a gentleman bides here. The wine is likely quite good. Mama will inform us when it’s not, and delight in doing so.”
The mountain of baggage that had arrived in anticipation of his mama’s visit suggested she’d be gracing Sir Jack’s household for several years at least.
“Then ask her to take over the ordering of the wine,” Madeline said, picking up her fork. “You rely on her good sense and experience, and thank her for putting the wine cellar to rights. One hesitates to point out the obvious, but you are a gentleman.” He’d accounted himself such when it came to contractual matters, why wouldn’t he be one in other regards?
“I like a good, light ale,” he said. “Gentlemen don’t admit as much. Mama would be scandalized. Does the curry agree with you?”
“The curry is delectable.”
“Not too spicy?”
The meal was a test. Between one bite of exotic fare and the next, Madeline realized that her host—her employer—was monitoring her reactions, opinions, and decisions as if she were taking an oral examination.
“Not too spicy,” she said. “Too much heat, and the flavors fade. This is perfection.”
Sir Jack tucked into his food, nothing diffident or languid about his appetite. “Did you get Mama’s worldly goods situated?”
“I started the maids and footmen on that task, and if madam says we did it all wrong, we’ll wink and smile at each other, and put every last slipper and fan exactly where she wants it to be. You have a good staff, Sir Jack. They care for you, and for their work.”
One of the footmen was deaf, but what he lacked in hearing, he made up for in willingness to work hard, and in a quick ability to perceive what was needed.
“While Mr. McArdle cares only for his coal,” Sir Jack said, pausing for a sip of wine. “Was McArdle’s family poor a generation or three ago, that he’s so focused on his precious coin?”
“That far back, I wouldn’t know. I came to this area only when I went into service. McArdle has likely been the victim of much theft prior to this. He simply didn’t realize it. He has a large family and ought to take better care of the business that keeps them all fed.”
Sir Jack’s fork halted mid-air, a bit of samosa steaming before him. “He hadn’t even a lock on the gate in the fence surrounding his yard. If my children were freezing, I’d have been tempted to help myself to a few sacks of coal.”
“Have you children?” Many wealthy bachelors did, and most acknowledged their offspring, if not the relationships from which they sprang.
“I do not. Do you?”
She’d asked for that. “No, sir.”
Though what did Sir Jack do for female companionship? He was attractive, well-to-do, and healthy. As he consumed his supper with the systematic focus of a fit, hungry man, Madeline assessed him for the first time from the perspective of a woman who lacked for male companionship.
He’d know what he was about in bed. He might not be the most romantic fellow, but he’d hold up his end of the bargain, so to speak.
“Eat your dinner, Miss Hennessey. I’ve been known to raid the larder late at night and help myself to cold fare, but curry is best consumed hot.”
Madeline complied, because she was hungry, because the food was lovely, and because capitulating on small matters meant more latitude on large ones.
“I’ve seen your senior servants at Sunday services,” Madeline said. “How does that work?”
Sir Jack crossed his knife and fork over his plate, and tore off a bite of naan with his fingers.
“I call for the coach to be readied, the servants don their Sunday best, and off they go. I prefer to take the dog cart, myself, or the vis-à-vis. You and Mama will join me, if the weather is fine. If not, we can take a coach.”
Madeline’s imagination boggled at the idea that a single man might own five different conveyances—or more. A sleigh, a fine coach, an older version for the servants or transporting goods, a dog cart, a vis-à-vis… Sir Jack probably had a traveling coach as well, and a phaeton for trips down to London.
“I meant, your butler was very likely not born on English soil. What of his native religion? I don’t mean to be rude, but I wouldn’t want to offend him. The butler is the head of the household staff, and if I put a foot wrong with him, it can’t be fixed.”
The butler was a good-looking fellow too, in a dark-eyed, slender way.
“Pahdi is a tolerant, kind-hearted sort. He joined the Church prior to leaving India. I do not regard his spiritual well-being as my business, though maintaining at least the appearance of Anglican sensibilities makes the life of a native of India easier here in England. Might I have the butter?”
Madeline passed the butter, which was molded into pats in the shape of fleur-de-lis. “I asked him for a tour of the house today, and he said you were better situated to oblige me.”
Sir Jack applied a good quantity of butter to his warm bread. “And you could not tell, because Pahdi is the soul of deference, whether he was being stubborn or modest. Pahdi delights in being cordially unreadable. I’ll show you around tomorrow. You’d be well advised to send a note to Candlewick assuring the Belmonts of your safe arrival.”
“I’m but a few miles away.”
Sir Jack patted her hand. “When others care about us, they assume the privilege of worrying about us. You either send the Belmonts a note, or your former employer will be here before sundown bearing a pair of gloves you left behind, recipes, or some other polite excuse to assure himself I haven’t ravished you.”
The wine was quite good, and Madeline might have drunk hers a bit too fast. “Perhaps he’ll make sure I haven’t ravished you, sir.”
Sir Jack passed her the butter. “You’re welcome to try. Mama would likely wish you the joy of such a thankless undertaking. I believe I’ll have another samosa.”
“How did Miss Hennessey occupy herself in my absence?” Jack asked.
Pahdi turned down the lamps on the library’s back wall before answering. Jack’s butler was a great believer in routine, order, and making his employer wait for useful information.
“Miss Hennessey unpacked your mother’s trunks so that all will be in readiness when that good lady graces us with her presence. Miss Hennessey also unpacked her own trunk, inspected the rooms we’ve prepared for your esteemed mother, declined a tea tray, and requested that we wait supper until your horse was seen coming up the drive. She also asked me for a list of which servants are assigned to which tasks—the better to learn their names, she said—and for a tour of the premises.”
“Provide her the list, and while you’re at it, please make a copy for me. Why didn’t you show her around the house?”
And why had Jack made that asinine comment about ravishing her, then all but invited her to try ravishing him? She’d think him a barbarian, and she wouldn’t be far wrong.
Pahdi had perfected smiling inscrutably long before he’d reached his majority, but Jack had learned to read the subtler signs—tension in the shoulders, silences that went on a moment too long, lashes lowered to shield thoughts.
Miss Hennessey’s arrival had disquieted Pahdi.
“The house belongs to you,” Pahdi said. “You should decide what parts of it she sees, what parts she doesn’t. She asked for fresh flowers in your mother’s quarters. We have the heartsease and the chrysanthemums.”
“Heartsease for Mama,” Jack said, propping his boots on the corner of the desk.
“Your mother will chide you for abusing the furniture, esteemed hero of Parrakan.”
“Thank the household gods you would never be so presuming. Have you taken Miss Hennessey into dislike?” The peace of Jack’s domicile was in tatters, for all dinner had been a good showing from the kitchen. If Pahdi and Miss Hennessey began feuding, the winter would be very long indeed.
“Miss Hennessey seems a very competent female,” Pahdi said, checking the mantel clock against a gold pocket watch. “But she is a female.”
A magnificent female, when viewed by candlelight. She didn’t suffer from the timidity of the typical English palate, maunder on inanely about the weather, or expect a constant stream of flattery.
None of which explained Jack’s suggestion that she might ravish her host.
“The last time I checked,” Jack said, “the maids in this household were all female. Cook is a female, both laundresses are female, and while the conclusion must be regarded as tentative, Mrs. Abernathy also qualifies as female. We will leave the question of her species for another time.”
Mrs. Abernathy was the housekeeper, and regarded Pahdi as little more than a savage. She’d been hired through an agency when the previous housekeeper had retired a year ago, and Teak House had hovered near civil war ever since.
“Mrs. Abernathy is proof that in a past life, I was the scourge of the seven villages, so great are the afflictions I must bear in this present incarnation.” Pahdi added fresh coal to the flames in the hearth, though Jack would be retiring shortly.
“I can’t let Mrs. Abernathy go until my mother has retreated to London, and you’d best not mention past lives and incarnations in Mrs. Abernathy’s presence.”
Madeline Hennessey would likely shrug off such talk as exactly what it was—talk.
“I say as little as possible to Mrs. Abernathy,” Pahdi replied. “She makes me long for the jungles of home, where tigers, cobras, and diseases were all a boy had to worry about.”
“Your chattering makes me long for the peace and quiet of my bed,” Jack said, getting to his feet. “See us through my mother’s visit, and then I’ll be about replacing Mrs. Abernathy. You never did tell me what your objection is to Miss Hennessey.”
Pahdi placed the quill pens in the standish, along with the bottle of ink, and tidied the stack of writing paper Jack kept to one side of the blotter.
“I do not object to Miss Hennessey,” Pahdi said. “She studied that Bible at great length.”
Well, damn. Jack had not taken Madeline Hennessey for the scriptural sort. “She read the Bible?” The family Bible sat in pride of place at a reading table, though a good dusting was about all the attention the book had received under Jack’s roof.
“Not that I would presume to monitor the behavior of a woman brought into this household by your revered and brilliant self, but no, she did not read the Bible. She studied your family tree.”
A spindly little bush, more like.
“Then she doubtless saw that Uncle John—long may he live—and his title grace a branch higher than my own. If you’re determined to be cryptic, I’m for bed. You are not to stay up late making Miss Hennessey’s list of servants and duties. We must all rest while we can, for when Mama arrives, even Mrs. Abernathy won’t have time for brewing mischief.”
“A consummation devoutly to be wished,” Pahdi said, bowing gracefully. “Pleasant dreams, estimable sir.”
Jack left Pahdi to his feigned obsequies, which tended to grow more effusive the more disgruntled Pahdi became. For Mrs. Abernathy, only satirical panegyrics would do, and for English winters, Pahdi could produce entire rhapsodies of irony.
Regarding Miss Hennessey, Pahdi had been oddly reticent. Jack chose to be encouraged by that, and by another detail from his conversation with his butler.
Miss Hennessey had said the staff had set dinner back to await Jack’s arrival. She’d lied—he liked knowing that she could be convincingly dishonest. She had been the one to see that Jack had arrived home to a hot meal with some refreshingly intelligent company, and she’d dodged all responsibility for that bit of consideration.
Miss Hennessey of the flaming-red hair, fearless riposte, and domestic competence, was shy.
The winter would be interesting, indeed.
Though Jack would apologize for the ravishing comments, at the proper place, and in the proper time, assuming he could find same.
“Call me Sir Jack, if you must use the honorific,” said Madeline’s temporary employer. “I was plain Jack Fanning for more than twenty years. I rather liked old Jack, while this Sir John Dewey Fanning fellow seems a useless sort.”
For a useless sort, he fairly flew through the house, which in Madeline’s estimation was larger than Candlewick by a good dozen rooms on each floor.
“In what way is Sir John Dewey Fanning different from Jack Fanning?” Madeline asked, as they descended from attics much in need of dusting and organization.
“Jack was a soldier. He knew his duty, and while he might not have enjoyed every aspect of it, he thrived on knowing what was expected of him, and how to get it done. Sir John Dewey Fanning spends his time chasing errant rams, presiding over domestic feuds, and preparing for a siege of maternal devotion that won’t break until spring.”
The house was lovely. Oak paneling was meticulously maintained with lemon oil and beeswax, not a speck of dust dared mar a bannister or window ledge, and the carpets were lush and lustrous—and yet, the house was not loved. At Candlewick, the doorjamb of the butler’s pantry was marked with pencil slashes delineating the height of each Belmont boy on his birthday.
A framed letter from the Empress Josephine to Axel Belmont on the subject of propagating roses hung in the Candlewick library. Late at night, Mr. Belmont would play his violin, and the melody reached even to the servants’ hall below stairs and the maids’ quarters on the third floor.
Here, the staff was at daggers drawn, and not a single bouquet graced a sideboard. No wonder Sir Jack’s mama fretted over him.
“Be glad you have a mother to besiege you, Sir Jack.”
He paused on a landing that enjoyed little natural light. “You don’t?”
He’d ask the Belmonts about her family, if Madeline was unforthcoming. “My mama died when I was fourteen. My father sent me to my great aunts, and I went into service shortly thereafter.”
What an awful year that had been. Madeline’s schoolroom education had come to an abrupt end, and her education about life—and disappointment—had begun in earnest.
“You miss them,” Sir Jack said. “I’m sorry. I barely knew my father. He was in India more than England, and my mother refused to raise us children anywhere but Merry Olde.” He resumed his progress down the steps at a brisk pace. “I could never understand what a man might crave more than the company of his own family.”
“So off to India you went, to see for yourself.”
They’d reached the floor of the house where the maids slept. No gleaming pier glasses, thick carpets, or handsome sideboards to see here, but neither was the ceiling leaking, or the window at the end of the corridor cracked.
No smiles from Sir Jack either. “Why is it so cold up here?” he asked. “Feels as if somebody has left a window open.”
“It’s cold up here because the maids are on this floor for only the few hours they have to sleep,” Madeline said. “The upper servants—the butler, housekeeper, first footman, and house steward—if you have one—have rooms on the kitchen level because it’s warm in winter and cool in summer.”
How could he not know this? But then, he was a former soldier who’d apparently grown wealthy in service to the crown. Why should he know how the maids suffered?
“That is a damned silly arrangement,” Sir Jack said. “The infantry do the fighting and marching, they should be the first ones fed and provisioned.”
“You’ll move Mrs. Abernathy up under the attics?” Mrs. Abernathy enjoyed her station far too much, and for all the wrong reasons. Madeline had met her like before and learned to stay well away.
“I’d like to move Mrs. Abernathy out of my house, but needs must for now. You have a smudge…” Sir Jack rubbed the pad of his thumb along the curve of Madeline’s jaw. Unlike his brusque speech and brisk pace, his touch was gentle, unhurried, easy.
Ye gods. Madeline endured what felt like caresses, until Sir Jack had un-smudged her to his satisfaction.
“You must not be so familiar, sir.” Her stern warning came out more like a plea. “Familiarity with your staff can cause much discord below stairs. You must be seen as fair, proper, and even-handed.”
“Spending the day with soot on your cheek would mean you were seen as untidy, careless, and oblivious to decorum.”
How Madeline wished she were oblivious to him. Sir Jack stood improperly close, his expression daring her to argue with him.
“You might have told me I needed to use my handkerchief, pointed to the exact spot on your own countenance, and kept your hands to yourself.”
He was off down the corridor. “You take after your aunts. Very fierce, very principled. There’s little I admire more than courage and honor. Let’s use the servants’ stairs.” He opened a paneled door Madeline would have missed entirely, and went jogging down into a gloomy stairwell. The air here was colder even than on the floor above and the light more limited.
On the next landing, Sir Jack lifted a door latch, but the door refused to open.
“What in blazes?” he muttered, jiggling the latch. “Mrs. Abernathy will hear about this.” Louder rattling and more colorful muttering followed.
“Let me,” Madeline said, extracting a hairpin from her chignon. “Sometimes, rust or dust can wreak havoc with the mechanism, and a little coaxing is all that’s wanted.”
She wedged her hairpin into the latch and tickled and twisted, then tried the latch again. A second try was also fruitless.
“Hang this,” Sir Jack said, climbing the stairs two at a time. Madeline followed at a slower pace, for her employer’s tone was more unsettled than the situation called for. They emerged back onto the maids’ dormitory floor, where the light revealed that Sir Jack was pale and nearly panting.
“Are you all right, sir?”
“No, I am not. I do not care for dark, enclosed spaces. I loathe them, in fact. The only aggravation that bothers me worse is a lack of solitude.”
The man Madeline beheld was not afraid, but he was… unnerved. “I don’t care for crowds either,” she said, taking his arm. “I’ll ask Pahdi to oil the latch, or have it replaced if the mechanism is worn. Have you given any thought to entertainments you might host during your mother’s visit, or holiday appointments we should put up to mark her arrival?”
Teak House was spotless, beautifully appointed, and entirely lacking in holiday decorations. Twelfth Night was still a good week off, and not so much as a cloved orange suggested the holiday season was in progress. No decorations graced the public rooms, no greenery swathed the front entrance.
“The holidays must be endured, Miss Hennessey, whether we hang a wreath on the door or not.”
They took the main stairs arm in arm, which meant their pace remained decorous. “I see. You are awaiting your mother’s guidance because she has a much firmer grasp of how socializing over the winter months ought to go on, and you don’t want to offend her. Wise of you, Sir Jack.”
When they reached the bottom of the steps, Sir Jack did not release Madeline’s arm, but stood peering at her, his expression disgruntled.
“I was held prisoner in a cell so small I could neither stand up nor lie down. I’m told I was there for several months, but I had no way of knowing at the time. This was years ago, and I don’t often speak of it.”
He likely never spoke of it. The words I’m sorry begged to be spoken, but he’d hate hearing that.
“I was beaten almost daily my first year in service,” Madeline said, something she didn’t mention either. “Then the first Mrs. Belmont ascertained what was afoot and offered me a position at Candlewick.”
Sir Jack escorted Madeline to an opulently appointed parlor, a fire crackling merrily in the hearth.
“Why would anybody beat a young girl daily?”
Madeline remained silent. The reality of a life in service for an attractive, clueless girl was unattractive indeed, unless she landed in a household like Candlewick, where treating the help decently was a matter of family pride.
“Whatever the reason for your ill usage, it wasn’t justified,” Sir Jack concluded. “I won’t interrogate you. You asked for flowers to be put in Mama’s bedroom, though I see we have a bouquet in her sitting room as well. What do you think of the heartsease?”
“A cheerful flower, sir, and hardier than most.”
“You needn’t aspire to cheerfulness with me,” Sir Jack said, drawing the curtain back from the window. “Tend to Mama, smooth what ruffled feathers you can among the staff, leave me in peace, and I’ll reward you handsomely. It is goddamned snowing.”
Autumn had hung on and on, with only the occasional bitter day or frigid morning even as the official start of winter had approached. The holidays had begun mildly as well, but winter was apparently intent on making up for lost time, for snow was pouring from the sky.
“I love how snow makes everything clean and new,” Madeline said, joining Sir Jack at the window. “The first snowfall especially.”
“You will not love how snow makes Pahdi mutter and grumble, though this weather might delay Mama’s arrival.”
“What of you?” Madeline asked. “Do you enjoy the snow, resent it, long for spring?”
Her question—small talk, and about the weather of all the uninspired topics—resulted in a flicker of amusement in Sir Jack’s eyes.
“Belmont won’t be as likely to come nosing about if the snow keeps up. I hope you wrote a convincingly sanguine note to him and his lady?”
“I did, sir. Shall we move on? I’ve seen your mother’s chambers, and if she doesn’t appreciate the appointments, she’s a fool.”
“Tell her that, why don’t you? I enjoy seeing Mama at a loss for words, though the experience is ever fleeting. The rest of the guest rooms are similarly commodious. My own apartment is around the corner and down the corridor.”
He started for the door, and Madeline followed, because they still had most of the house to inspect. Sir Jack stopped short before leaving the parlor, so she nearly ran into him.
“It’s not right,” he said. “Not right that your first year away from home was hellish.”
He’d left the drapes open in his mother’s sitting room, which admitted light, true, though it also made the room colder. Madeline unlatched the door and preceded him into the corridor without closing the drapes.
“It was only a year, and I survived, and now I’d like to see your apartment.” He’d survived too, though like Madeline, he’d doubtless been changed by his experience in captivity.
“You’d like to see my apartment? I assure you that will not be necessary. Pahdi himself looks after my rooms, and his efforts are more than adequate to ensure my comfort.”
Madeline marched along, because she knew where Sir Jack’s rooms were, and knew that neither maid nor footman, nor even Mrs. Abernathy, set foot therein.
“Will you manage to keep your mother out of your rooms, Sir Jack?”
“If Mama dares to intrude upon my privacy, I’ll…”
“One can’t court-martial one’s mother.”
“Nor can one send her packing back to London when the lane is filling up with snow.”
They came to a halt where the corridors intersected.
“Mama means well,” Sir Jack said. “But I cannot abide the notion she might barge into the one part of the house that I consider my own.”
Barging about uninvited was the singular province of older female relations. “Consider what the staff must think about only Pahdi seeing your chambers.”
“That I like my privacy and treasure my solitude?”
“That you either have an unnatural relationship with your butler, or you’re keeping lurid secrets.” Madeline suspected neither to be true.
“Unnatural—unnatural relationship? Lurid secrets? Miss Hennessey, you have a prodigious imagination. If I laid a hand on Pahdi with any prurient intent whatsoever, James would slay me where I stood.”
James was the deaf footman. “James—?”
Sir Jack examined his reflection in a gilt-framed mirror and ran his hand through his hair. “James. And Pahdi. They are fast friends, and that’s all anybody—or I—need know.”
He studied Madeline, not directly, but in the mirror. This was another test, but far be it from Madeline to criticize people for their friendships. Life, especially life in service, was a challenging proposition.
“Let’s have a look at the other guest rooms,” she said.
“You will not collude with Mama in her attempts to inspect my private chambers?”
“Have Pahdi install a lock on the door, sir, and be sure that he and you are the only people to have keys. Mrs. Abernathy will not dare confront you on such a personal matter. If she does, you will have grounds for turning her off.”
“A lock. First, a dog, now a lock. Miss Hennessey, you are a marvel of common sense. Belmont is doubtless ruing the day he allowed you to stray from his household.”
Sir Jack strode on down the corridor, leaving Madeline to puzzle out why she felt like smiling. He’d complimented her—sincerely and honestly, more than once—and he also apparently intended to heed her suggestions.
To be respected, listened to, and appreciated was…. lovely. That Sir Jack would not begrudge his staff their friendships was lovely too, and yet, Madeline’s smile faded.
In this entire house, Sir Jack considered only a few rooms his own, and he dreaded the arrival of his closest family members, suggesting that he was… lonely.
And loneliness could be a form of captivity, as cold, cramped, and miserable as any prison cell.
A Bonus Scene
Sir Jack Fanning’s conscience is troubling him. So is the butler who traveled to England with Sir Jack from India… and Pahdi has reasons for making a nuisance of himself, as usual.
“Forgive the interruption, most esteemed sir,” Pahdi said with a bow. “I must report an irregular occurrence.”
Jack put aside his pen, because Pahdi determined on a report would not be deterred, and an afternoon with the Teak House ledgers had left Jack irritable.
“Out with it. If Apollo has got the tweenie with child, you needn’t pretty it up. They’ll be married by St. David’s Day, if I have to have the vicar perform the service at gunpoint.”
Pahdi lifted the lid of the teapot growing cold at Jack’s elbow. “I do not pretend to fathom the subtleties of courting among the sophisticated Englishmen whom it is my honor to serve, but what purpose does a firearm serve at a celebration of nuptial love?”
“I spoke figuratively. I would inspire Apollo to a responsible attitude toward his offspring by any means necessary.”
“Of course. Inspiration about parental duties is ever wise, and in a tangential fashion, it’s about that very topic upon which I must report.”
Pahdi had been a youth when Jack had come home to England, but the late-afternoon light slanting through the windows showed him to be a man in his prime—a damned good-looking man.
What did he do for female companionship, or was his friendship with James his sole source of affection? Why, in ten years, had Jack never pondered this mystery about the person he’d known longest among his staff, somebody who was family to him by marriage?
“Say your piece,” Jack replied, rising from his cushions. That Pahdi would make this report in the privacy of Jack’s chambers suggested the matter was delicate.
“I am the butler of Teak House,” Pahdi said, setting the tea tray on the sideboard. “The security of the premises and its people are my first concerns, because worrying about the owner of this handsome establishment is a cause lost to all sentient beings.”
“Your ability to deliver a sermon is entirely wasted outside the church.”
“In your unending generosity, you have conveyed that sentiment to me previously.” Pahdi took a spill from the jar on the mantel, used the fire in the hearth to light it, and lit the wall sconces one by one. “The matter I must bring to your attention concerns the morale and conduct of the household, and yet at least one of the parties involved does not answer to me. Your guidance is therefore required, lest I misstep in my ignorance of—”
“I will petition the crown to add circumlocution to the already impressive list of felonies under English law.”
“Several nights ago I was making my final tour of the premises before seeking my bed,” Pahdi said, tossing the burning taper into the fireplace. “Every night, I secure each lock and walk each floor with an eye toward an unlatched window, a candle set too close to the holiday greenery.”
Everything Pahdi did, he did quietly, and yet, trouble lurked at the end of the recitation as obviously as a lovesick elephant called to his mate.
“My gratitude for your vigilance is without limit. I don’t tell you that often enough.”
Pahdi’s glance was fleeting and disapproving. His notions of proper English behavior could fill a book, most of it based on Jack’s disappointing example.
“I perform duties for which I am generously compensated. My nightly inspection finishes up below stairs. I ensure the pantries are locked, the main kitchen fire banked, and that all is secure. The herbal is typically left unlocked, however, because anybody can wake with a need for a cup of chamomile tea, or a ginger tisane to settle the belly.”
“Has somebody plundered the stores in the herbal?” Jack’s wits had been plundered there. Thoroughly, generously, repeatedly.
“Are you aware that Miss Hennessey took it upon herself to organize the herbal after the departure of that disgrace to domestic service whom it was your great misfortune to employ as a housekeeper?”
Pahdi was a gentleman. That he’d refer to Mrs. Abernathy so disparagingly was proof that the situation had been worse than Jack knew.
“My mother has decided to take up where Miss Hennessey left off,” Jack said. “Mama isShe’s writing a recipe book for the herbal, which is a complete waste of time. Axel Belmont is among the most learned botanical authorities in the realm, and I need only—”
Pahdi gave him another disapproving look, though the butler had an entire arsenal of sighs, silences, and glances intended to reprove without a word.
“What?” Jack said, for this reproach included a hint of exasperation.
“Your mother will know remedies of which the learned and much-respected Mr. Belmont will have never heard.”
Possibly true. Mama’s memory was prodigious. “Then I’m glad she’s decided to memorialize her knowledge.”
“I was doubtless a robber of temples in a past life; a despoiler of shy, pious virgins; a sorrow to my mother and her mother too, for your response tempts me to imprudent speech.”
“And in the next life, you will be butler to Old Scratch if you don’t get ’round to your point.”
“You will be a butler in hell,” Jack said. “Shy, pious Anglican fellow that you are.”
“Those who disrespect their mothers can look forward to emptying chamber pots during cholera epidemics in many subsequent lives. My own sainted father assured me of this, and he would not lie to his beloved son.”
“Pahdi, what is the problem? I’m the magistrate, you’ll recall, and the essence of that dubious honor is that I solve problems, such as the law allows.”
Pahdi picked up the quilt at the foot of Jack’s bed and refolded it so the edges matched exactly.
“I have reason to believe somebody was making in appropriate use of the privacy afforded by the herbal several nights ago. Miss Hennessey had been working in there, and thus the fire was lit. I included the herbal on my final inspection as a result. The door was locked, so the identities of the happy couple remain unknown to me, and while my personal opinion is of no moment whatsoever, Mrs. Fanning would likely frown on copulation among the medicinals.”
Mama would have eighteen varieties of hysterics. Thank God that Madeline had reminded Jack to lock the door.
“You have no idea who might have been enjoying themselves at such an hour of the night?”
Pahdi rarely made eye contact with his social superiors, and yet, he missed nothing. Jack admired the red brilliance of the sun setting beyond the window rather than meet Pahdi’s gaze.
“I have no idea, honored sir, who would so disrespect your household with such goings-on.”
“If you did know,” Jack said, rearranging the tassel holding the curtain back, “what would you tell the wayward couple?”
Pahdi knew. He knew very well who’d been behind that locked door, and he’d taken several days to consider how he’d raise the matter with the male half of that couple.
“The couple is not wayward,” Pahdi said. “The fellow involved is the wayward party. First, he does not bother to pleasure his lady in one of the many beds in this fine house, or even to favor her with a bed of fragrant hay in a private corner of the stable. Second, he avails himself of the lady’s charms at an hour when the servants are not all abed, thus jeopardizing her good name among the help. Third, there being no married men on this property, the fellow is in a position to offer the lady the protection of his name, but he instead plucks for himself the momentary pleasure of a blossom that ought to be cultivated as the rarest of blooms —”
This was the sermon Jack had been flagellating himself through long, sleepless nights. The pleasure of making love with Madeline Hennessey had been remarkable, like visiting a scene from memory and finding it even lovelier than he’d recalled.
But the guilt… Jack had forgotten the corrosive, half-acknowledged abrasion of guilt that scraped the chains of conscience across even beautiful memories when a man strayed from the rules. A young man could drink, fight, or march that guilt away.
A mature man dealt in honesty. “She doesn’t want me, Pahdi.”
“Then you are to be severely condemned,” Pahdi said, taking a stray tea cup from the desk and adding it to the tray. “A woman’s willingness is hers alone to give. You taught me that.”
“She was willing,” Jack said. “She was ferociously willing—insistent, even—but my hand in marriage was not her objective.”
And that was… bewildering, annoying, baffling. For the first time in Jack’s life, he grasped the frustration women experienced unrelentingly. They waited for a man to propose, waited for him to tire of the charms of foreign shores, waited for him to take an interest in his own children, waited for him to decide on which night he’d pay a call to their bedroom.
How did the ladies endure such powerlessness? The notion that a fellow was worth waiting for paled compared to the actual experience of being… disregarded.
Marrying Madeline Hennessey would be problematic, but that Jack was prohibited from even considering the idea bothered him. He—the knighted hero of Parrakan, master of the house, the king’s man, and all-around decent-if-charmless fellow—wasn’t worth marrying.
“The lady does not regard you as a suitable party?” Pahdi asked, oh so carefully.
“Because I’ve allowed an impertinent rascal the position of butler.”
The joke fell flat. Pahdi’s expression shuttered. He bowed and lifted the tray.
“Pahdi, Madeline defends you at every turn. She’s the last woman who’d take exception to my choice of butler. The problem is me.”
Pahdi set the tray back down. “She is a wise woman, for you are a problem, if I might speak honestly without risking durance vile.”
Thank God, Pahdi always managed to speak honestly—in his way. “If you have wisdom to share, you must not withhold it.”
“The lady does not regard you as a suitable party. You must change her mind. Did Saras teach you nothing?”
Saras had taught Jack a great deal, some of it involving feathers, potions, toys…. “She taught me to listen to her brother, when that worthy deigns to speak in something clearer than Delphic mutterings.”
“You have great wealth. Bah, many have wealth. You have a knighthood. Your Regent has created hundreds of knights. Why should Miss Hennessey look with favor on your suit?”
Jack sat on the windowsill, putting cold air at his back, the better to force the gears of his mind to turn.
“Because being my wife should be preferable for Madeline to a life of stepping and fetching, waiting on others, and doing as she’s told.”
“Should it? Should it really? The uncompensated and unending joys of matrimony, with the attendant risk of death in childbed, the surrender of all of a woman’s possessions to her husband, the loss of a right to spend even her own wages or hire her own servants, is preferable to earning a salary and the occasional half-day off in service?”
The questions were rhetorical and maddening as hell. “Or course marriage is preferable to service.” If the woman married a good fellow.
A very good fellow. A rarity among fellows. A damned saint with a fortune to spare.
Maybe. Childbirth killed women every day, and it was an awful death.
Pahdi cast forth a sigh that would have done God proud on the occasion of Adam and Eve dooming humanity to life outside the garden.
“I leave you to reflect on your faultless convictions,” Pahdi said, bowing, then taking up the tray.
He closed the door quietly—a trick, that, when a heavy tray had to be balanced—and Jack made himself count to ten before he snatched the nearest pillow from the bed and hurled it against the wall.