It Started with a Scandal(9)

By: Julie Anne Long



“Good afternoon. I’m the new housekeeper, Mrs. Fountain. That is what it is to me.”

In unison, five pairs of brows went up. The large woman narrowed her eyes.

What Elise wouldn’t have given to know what they were thinking.

The large woman extracted the cheroot from her mouth and gestured with it languidly. “Well, ‘ow do ye do, Mrs. Fountain. Ye’ll need to throw in a shilling if ye’d like to join the game.” She gave a slow smile. Her eyes were hard and assessing.

“I beg your pardon?” Elise said tautly.

“ ’is lordship won’t be ’ere but a few months. We servants ought to stick together. Come, ’ave a seat, Mrs. Fountain. Kitty, the teapot.” She pushed out a chair with one of her legs while the one called Kitty shoved over the teapot and what looked like a flask of whisky.

“This will be the easiest job ye’ve ever had.”

We servants was still echoing in Elise’s head.

I’m one of them. She looked at the soiled caps and aprons, the sleeves shoved up to work-­roughened elbows, the pasty complexions resulting from a life spent toiling inside.

Heat climbed her neck, and she prayed it wouldn’t travel as far as her face.

I can’t I can’t I can’t.

She felt as though she was pinned down by those words. We servants.

Begin as you mean to go on, Elise, her father always said.

And nothing else mattered, she reminded herself, except Jack.

“Yes, we ought to stick together,” she said firmly. “And now you will stand, if you please. All of you. Now.”

The queen herself had never sounded so uncompromising and certain of being obeyed.

“Beggin’ yer pardon, Mrs. Fountain. We will do what?” The woman’s voice was idly sinister.

“You will stand and curtsy when you greet me, and I shall return the courtesy. Anyone who wishes to keep his or her job will anyhow,” Elise said pleasantly, but it was etched in steel. “And as you make your bow, kindly state your name and position in the household so that I may come to know you.”

Their gazes ricocheted among each other like billiard balls. Some kind of silent communication was taking place.

They all settled on the large woman, who appeared to be the default leader. A position she had perhaps won through arm wrestling.

“Perhaps later, Mrs. Fountain.” She mimicked Elise’s pleasant tone but managed to make it sound a bit sinister. “We was just takin’ a bit of rest, now, as ye can see.”

“A rest from what, pray tell?” Elise asked, even more sweetly.

They were going to outdo each other in fake sweetness.

“Why, the strain of losing pennies to Ramsey. It fair shreds my nerves, so it does.”

Judging from the direction all their eyes took, Ramsey was the man with the stack of pennies.

There was laughter that trailed into coughing when Elise trained her cold eyes on them and quite pointedly did not laugh.

“Come now, Mrs. Fountain. We came wi’ the house, like. We’re fixtures, like the furniture. We’ve always taken care of it.”

Fixtures, her hindquarters. They were less a staff than an infestation.

“Ah, if you’re like the furniture, that must mean you haven’t been cleaned adequately in some weeks?” Elise said this brightly. “Or that perhaps you’re all dim, like the hallways? A bit greasy, like the hearth here in the kitchen?”

And now five sets of decidedly unfriendly eyes were regarding her with unblinking hostility.

Elise returned the stare evenly. She was outnumbered but she was angry now, and she was as motionless as a stalking cat. She knew how to intimidate in precisely the same way a cat did. No one knew what a cat was capable of.

“Heh heh,” one of the maids said uneasily. Some hybrid of laugh and grunt.

Clearly they couldn’t decide where she got her confidence, and it was the reason, for instance, cats were able to intimidate larger, blustering animals. They possessed surprisingly sheathed pointy ends.

On the one hand, a good battle was precisely what she needed, and she would be damned if anyone would prevent her from keeping a roof over her head and Jack’s.

On the other hand, her heart was knocking against her breastbone again. Surely she’d wear it out early at this rate. It hadn’t experienced this much activity since she and Edward . . . though this wasn’t the time to think about that.

She thought quickly. Lord Lavay had been right about one thing: skilled and loyal servants were rarer than hen’s teeth. But she also knew from experience that hierarchy died hard among servants, and perhaps this lot had simply been jarred loose from the natural order of things through neglect and the absence of someone at the helm, the way old fence posts will start to lean every which way after a time.

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