A lady becomes a lady’s maid, a viscount becomes a valet. They want to prevent a misalliance – instead they fall in love.
Lady Rowan Chilcourt is aghast when she learns that her shy friend Penny Maylin is destined to marry the sinister Lord Danescroft. Lucas Dacre, Viscount Stoneleigh, is equally horrified to realise his emotionally wounded friend Will is contemplating marrying such a mouse. A snowbound Christmas houseparty gives Rowan and Lucas the opportunity to put an end to this match – by going under cover below stairs. But neither anticipated just where this masquerade would end.
A short novella originally published in the Christmas collection Together By Christmas
Lucas strolled through the passageways, Will’s buckskin breeches draped over his arm, receiving a gratifying amount of attention from the resident domestics. Below stairs, as above, status was everything and he was an earl by association. It amused him that as a servant he acquired a higher rank than his own and he allowed an amiable condescension to creep into his manner. If he were to engage his fellow staff in gossip about their employers, and specifically Miss Maylin, he needed to make a good impression: top lofty enough to demand answers to questions, pleasant enough so as not to cause resentment.
A housemaid with a pert manner and a dimple showed him to the brushing room then bustled off with a swing of her hips and a backwards glance over her shoulder. He was smiling faintly from the encounter as he stepped inside and saw the room was already occupied.
The young woman had her back to him, bent over the garment on the long table and presenting a vision which drove the memory of the housemaid right out of his mind. Slender, curvaceous and clad in a dull black that served only to focus all attention on her figure, she had not heard him come in.
She was muttering under her breath as she brushed. Lucas suspected her words were curses, for she seemed to be more than a little hot and bothered. Her honey brown hair had been braided and strained back into an elaborate knot and had begun to come down. Little wisps clung to the damp skin of her neck. He moved closer, his feet silent on the oilskin floor cloth.
‘Damn and blast and botheration…’
It was a very pretty neck. He found himself transfixed by the nape, the tender white skin, the faint sheen of perspiration. What would it be like to bite? Just very, very, gently.
‘Oh drat!’ She banged down the brush and straightened up, so fast that she had to take a balancing step backwards straight into Lucas. ‘Oh! What on earth do you think you are doing?’
‘Ow!’ The cry of anguish was wrung out of him. She might be slender, but the top of her head banging back into his nose packed a powerful force. Lucas was fond of his nose. In his opinion it was one of his more distinguished features and having it broken by an irritable dresser would be distressing.
‘Don’t blame me,’ she continued, with no sympathy for his pain. She turned round and glared at him. ‘It is entirely your fault, creeping up on me.’ Her eyes were an intriguing hazel colour, her brows arched, her nose small and straight. Right now, she was glowering down it. He lowered his hand, reassured that his own nose was still intact. As she saw his face properly her expression became even more severe. ‘It is you again! I should have known. You libertine.’
Libertine? ‘Are you a dresser?’ But of course she was, he remembered her now, the striking girl with the scowl surrounded by shabby bags. He had winked at her. Obviously a mistake.
‘Of course I am.’
‘Well, you do not sound like it,’ he retorted frankly, dumping the breeches on another table and reaching for a brush. Her accent was crisp, assured and educated, even if her language when he had entered had been decidedly unladylike.
‘I was raised in a gentleman’s house,’ she informed him, picking up the garment she had been dealing with and giving it a vigorous shake. ‘And educated with the young ladies. Not that it is any business of yours. A dresser is expected to be genteel.’
‘You aren’t genteel.’ Lucas scrubbed at one muddy knee. ‘You sound like a dowager duchess at Almack’s.’
‘It was a very superior household.’ She pushed back the damp hair from her forehead and held the hem up to the lamp. The garment appeared to be a drab pelisse of unfashionable cut. ‘I do not believe this is mud at all. I think it must be glue.’
‘Let me see.’ Lucas reached for the pelisse. He had no clue how to remove stubborn stains from ladies’ garments – instinctively he was attacking Will’s breeches with the same method he’d have used on a muddy horse – but he wanted to keep her there talking. ‘Try this fine one with the thin stiff bristles.’
‘Thank you.’ She accepted it warily and retreated behind her table, apparently the better to keep an eye on him. ‘Why were you creeping up on me?’
‘I wasn’t,’ he denied, attempting to look innocent. He did not have the face for it, he knew. The dresser simply slanted him a look that spoke volumes for her opinion of men, and of him in particular, and bent over the hem again.
‘Whose dresser are you?’
Lucas dropped the brush and dived under the table to retrieve it and get his face under control. The gods were on his side, obviously – not only had he found his quarry without any effort whatsoever but she was going to be a delight to extract information from.
Not, of course, that this could go any further than a little light flirtation, if that was what it took to win her confidence. In Lucas’s code of honour servants were as out of bounds as virgin gentlewomen. On the other hand, she could have been a sour faced abigail or an old dragon.
‘What is your name?’ He straightened up and bent over his work again.
‘Lawrence. Daisy Lawrence.’
Daisy. It did not suit her. This girl was no open-faced meadow flower, she was something altogether more subtle and cultivated. A honey-coloured rose perhaps: scented, velvety and with sharp thorns.
‘I am –’
‘I know who you are. You are Lord Danescroft’s valet.’ His surprise must have been evident for she added, ‘You need not be flattered. Miss Maylin remarked upon the time his lordship arrived. But you may tell me your name.’
‘Lucas.’ She had spirit this one. Will outranked every other guest and his host. That made Lucas the top dog amongst the servants, yet she did not appear to be awed by that fact. ‘You may call me Mr Lucas,’ he added, more to see her reaction than anything.
‘Yes, Mr Lucas,’ she replied meekly, confounding him by finally recognising her place. ‘And thank you for showing me this brush, it has done the job perfectly.’ She folded the garment over her arm and moved towards him and the door beyond. Lucas shifted round his work table as though to find a better angle and blocked her path.
‘A demanding young lady is she, your Miss Maylin?’
‘Not at all, she’s as meek as meek – quite a milksop. Not like some I could mention.’ There was suppressed amusement lurking in those hazel eyes, which was odd. He wondered what – or who – she was thinking of. ‘Of course,’ Daisy added thoughtfully, ‘there is her step-mother to contend with.’
‘Indeed?’ Lucas lifted one leg of the breeches and frowned at the knee laces, hoping he looked as though he knew what he was doing. ‘Could I trouble you to pass that small brush at the end, Miss Daisy?’ Partly it was a tactic to keep her there talking, partly because he enjoyed the sight of her moving about with the grace that must have been instilled along with her lessons with the young ladies. A family by-blow perhaps, he speculated. ‘Is her step-mother difficult?’
‘Terrible. Ghastly, vulgar creature,’ Daisy confided with some relish. ‘Unfortunately Miss Maylin is devoted to her. It is the greatest good fortune in my opinion that she did not accompany us here, although poor Miss Maylin is almost prostrated with nerves without her support. She is hopeless in Society. I said to her, “Your husband is not going to like it if you insist on your step-mama living with you when you are wed.” That upset her, believe me.’
‘Husband? She is betrothed then?’
‘Oh no, but it won’t be long if Lady M has anything to do with it. Of course, she’s hoping for a rich man – they need it, that’s for certain.’
‘Really?’ Lucas kept his eyes on his task, feigning only casual interest.
‘Well yes, what with the family tendency to –‘ She broke off. ‘Listen to me gossiping! That will never do. What must you think of me Mr Lucas?’
Schooling his features to hide his impatience with her sudden attack of discretion Lucas put the brush down and turned with deliberation to face Daisy. She was looking somewhat chastened, an expression that did not seem to fit her confident, heart-shaped, face.
‘Think of you? Why, that you are as charming as you look, Miss Daisy.’ He leant forward. Her eyes widened but she stood her ground. ‘And that you have the most kissable mouth I have yet seen in this house.’
‘Oh!’ She planted one hand firmly in the middle of his chest and pushed. ‘Out of my way, Mr Lucas – you are an arrant flirt and I am well served for lingering to gossip.’
Amused, and too skilled to try and detain her and risk frightening her away from future conversation, Lucas stepped back. ‘Miss Daisy. I look forward to seeing you this evening in the Steward’s room.’
‘The -? Of course, dinner.’ She swept past him, delightful nose in the air. ‘But at opposite ends of the table, Mr Lucas, I am glad to say.’