In Which a Housemaid Manhandles Lord Devon
Anne-Sophronia jolted awake into darkness, choking on broken sobs. She fought a battle with twisted ropes of sheets she finally comprehended were not restraining, cruel hands. A frantic brush over her arms, and she found them slicked only with sweat. No blood. No cuts or glass shards, only scars. She trailed her shaking fingers over the embossed lattice of fine lines on her wrists and the underside of her forearms. The motion stoked both relief and anger as she emerged from the nightmare to wakefulness.
She thought of the locked traveling case under the bed, containing her stolen three thousand pounds, her mother’s estate jewelry, and a bundle of letters from her one remaining acquaintance. The letters all contained some variation of He is still searching for you, stay hidden, and she read them in moments of weakness as a reminder that her plight could always be worse.
Yet what she wouldn’t give for the latest Wilkie Collins novel. Or chocolate-dipped strawberries to eat while reading in a shady garden. All morning long, undisturbed. Followed by a ride on a fast Arabian then a dinner party with a controversial gathering of artists who laughed and argued over music and politics until dawn—
A stab of longing seared her chest. Oh no, none of that! She rolled out of bed and lit a candle, catching her gaze reflected in the tarnished hand mirror. Uncomfortable, she looked away, hardly recognizing the woman with the haunted, frustrated cast to her eyes.
Sophia lowered her dressing robe, and her heart sank as it did every time she saw her reflection, the chaotic web of ropy scars across her back. Whip marks, still reddened by the slightest irritation, even the gentle rasp of clothing. The purple-grey lines and puckered, glossy texture of her skin hadn’t improved much despite months of healing. She chanted to herself as she had the past several weeks, I am not vain. I am not vain. I am not—
The choice between pacing the six steps across her servant’s attic quarters or lying on the lumpy child-sized mattress became untenable. Her window facing the east garden mocked her with the illusion of freedom. She blew out the candle, knowing what she would do next despite her better judgment. She draped a shawl over her shoulders and slipped into the service passageway.
Sophia made no sound as she padded across the grand entrance, perfect planes of mosaic marble cooling the soles of her slippers. Great shadows and dull gleams highlighted the magnificent pillars, balustrades, and dormant chandeliers, making the space appear like a jeweled cavern.
Lord Devon’s ancestral pile rivaled Olympus: grand, consummately styled, and free from the remotest threat of decay. She saw to the latter personally, one of his forty-member staff motivated by the threat of his legendary wrath. He detested having the order of his house disturbed. Rumor had it Lord Devon was as brilliant as he was mad, an idea she found fascinating.
She darted past the pillars, imagining hundreds of blazing lamps and the glitter of jewelry and polished brass buttons. In the silence, she conjured the music of a Viennese waltz competing with the buzz of a hundred voices gossiping and laughing. Ages since she’d last danced at a ball. The occasional midnight rebellion cured the vexation of days pent up from skulking in dank servant’s corridors, averting her eyes, and mumbling obedient niceties.
As she passed the gallery, she gave his framed lordship a mock salute then went out the west entrance, which had been left unlocked, strangely. Midnight had long passed. Guessing by the chill air and the lull in the breeze, it was a few hours yet until dawn. Fritz and Dagmar, two in a pack of guard dogs and her only friends, came charging from the courtyard garden to greet her. She scratched their enormous waist-level heads and cooed praise in the German phrases they understood as she wandered into the garden, following a hedge-lined path.
She stubbed her toe on a large mass; it moved, and she stumbled. Her hands flailed as she toppled and landed on a person. Sophia shouted in surprise and reached out to right her balance. To her horror, she discovered the tips of her fingers wedged against a rock-hard thigh and her palm gripping what could only be a whole lot of — Oh, my!
Furious cursing in a raspy tenor voice accompanied the sensation of being gripped by the waist and dumped on her backside. She twisted and scrambled to pull her nightgown over her legs then tried to crawl away without crashing into a hedge. She wasn’t even sure in which direction to flee; her eyes saw only shadows.
“Bloody hell, woman! What the deuce are you about?” The man coughed.
His aristocratic accent, along with her noticing that the blasted dogs were wagging their tails, made Sophia comprehend she had likely just committed the worst blunder of her life. She stifled a gasp and patted along the ground to find the path. Hedges to the right, so she crawled left. A swift yank on her ankle, and she dropped to the grass with an undignified oof.
“Answer me, wench, or I’ll have you jailed for trespassing.” His steel-edged voice raked a cold shudder down her spine. “Who are you?”
“Trouble,” she grated, scrambling out of the way while her blasted nightgown wound around her knees.
The imperious language and unmistakable burning spice scent of Dudognon cognac could only belong to the reputedly cantankerous Lord Devon. Her heart ratcheted in fear — what would he do to her? She found the path to her left and dashed for it, leaving her shawl behind. She’d barely made three strides when she was tackled from behind and got a mouthful of grass again.
A heavy arm pinned her to the ground, and instinct blanketed her with horror. Nothing came out when she tried to scream. Clawing, scratching, reduced to the primal desperation of escape. She couldn’t discern what was real or imagined, fought the hysteria—
The horrid feeling fled. She’d been freed. The quiet sobbing was her own, and her entire body trembled. Without protest she allowed gentle arms to gather her in an embrace. She clutched the open halves of a linen shirt and tucked her face against a hard, grainy throat. Oddly calming, as was the leathery-spice scent. Lord Devon.
“Let me go,” she breathed, not sounding as indignant as she should, and scrambled out of his lap. She bolted down the path toward the house and heard him curse as she ran with swiftness borrowed from Hermes himself.
Stumbling on the uneven ground nearly made her panic again, until she comprehended her pursuers were four-legged. Fritz and Dagmar danced circles around her, pleased with the game of chase. She shoved their wet noses out of the way and ran through the dark house, up three flights of stairs, shutting the door to her room behind her. She fumbled with the bolt twice before managing to slide it into place then slumped against the door. He wouldn’t find her out. Could he?
What on earth had Lord Devon been doing lying in the garden in the dead of night?
Sounds like something I would do.
Sleep was impossible, and she didn’t dare risk lighting a candle to read, so she waited for dawn, pacing her cramped room. She dropped onto the bed but fidgeted, berating herself for her stupidity.
When she’d first arrived at Rougemont under the guise of “Rosalie Cooper,” housemaid extraordinaire, Mrs. Abbott, the housekeeper, had taken one look at her and vehemently warned her away from the bachelor earl. “He doesn’t dally with the help, so don’t you go gettin’ any ideas,” Mrs. Abbott had scolded.
It might have been unwise, but Sophia had laughed in response. Even if she hadn’t already passed the portrait in the gallery of his distinguished lordship in all his mature, hairy, and stern glory, she would never “dally” with her employer. Sophia had told her, “I am as aloof as the most pious nun, in regard to all men.”
Mrs. Abbott had looked at her like she was an impertinent schoolgirl then unceremoniously dropped a stack of soiled linen into her lap. Her first lesson in submissive behavior. Subsequent ones had not come any easier.
Every day she dusted books she dared not be seen reading, polished a magnificent piano she wasn’t allowed to play, and listened to elegant dinner conversation she pretended not to comprehend. Sophia rubbed corn husk oil into the cracked skin over her knuckles and chanted the creed that had kept her afloat these past months: I am not vain. I am not vain…