Unexpected earl, p.18

Unexpected Earl, page 18

 part  #1 of  Hearts and Ever Afters Series

 

Unexpected Earl
 



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  “Your Grace!” Agnes gasped, trying not to throw a worried glance in Esther’s direction. “You didn’t!”

  “Of course not, of course not!” Amos replied, hastily. “However, it appears that they were given the distinct impression that I might be interested in them, in that sense.”

  “Well, I can assure you that this one will certainly not be seeking such a thing,” Agnes said, firmly, thinking of Esther’s high moral character. “She is a good woman, well-trained, and able to run your household to perfection.”

  “I am glad to hear it,” Amos said, relieved. “Let us meet her!”

  “Ahem…” Agnes coughed, beckoning Esther over. “This is the Duke of Hawdon. Your Grace, this is Mrs. Mary Edwards."

  Agnes and Esther chose the name, Mary Edwards, using Esther's middle name and her mother's maiden name. The staff and the Duke would refer to her as Mrs. Edwards, even though she was unmarried. It was the same for every housekeeper.

  “Mrs. Edwards, is it?” Amos asked, looking her up and down. “Welcome. I am sure that if Lady Heber has recommended you, then you must be both competent and efficient.”

  Amos did not smile, wishing that he had not felt a sudden attraction towards her. He always had a penchant for blonde hair, even though the woman had hers tied back into a neat bun. Her green eyes were intense, looking directly into his before suddenly dropping to the floor, as a slight blush tinged her cheek.

  “You will be able to run my household well and keep my staff in check?” he asked.

  “Yes, Your Grace,” Esther replied, remembering that she was now a servant and should never look the master directly in the eye. It had been her first mistake and one she would struggle not to repeat.

  Amos fought against himself. He needed a new housekeeper, but he had been hoping for a plain, and perhaps slightly corpulent, housekeeper. He was not prepared for this blonde-haired young woman, whose curves were not altogether hidden within the folds of her dress. He bit back a sigh of frustration. He needed someone to run the household with competency. Agnes would only recommend someone who she believed could do a good job.

  “Very well,” Amos said, his hazel eyes serious. “I shall give you the keys at once, and you will have the remainder of the day to make yourself accustomed to the house and your duties. Make sure to introduce yourself to the rest of the staff, and remember that they will all be under your authority. I shall take any concerns you have to be of the utmost severity.” He coughed, trying to think of a way to be both frank and direct. "What you may not know, Mrs. Edwards is that I have somewhat of a reputation in society."

  Esther did not move but raised her eyebrows a little in surprise. What sort of man was he?

  “I would like you to make it abundantly clear to the maids—from the kitchen maids to the chamber maids—that I am not looking for a physical liaison with any of them. That includes you.”

  “Your Grace!” Agnes said, startled. “This woman would never even consider—”

  “Forgive me, Lady Heber,” Amos said, interrupting her. “I need to be unambiguous which is why I am speaking so openly.” He turned back to his new housekeeper. “Have I made myself clear?”

  "I understand, Your Grace," Esther replied, her voice soft. She felt her cheeks heating and wished she could hide her embarrassment from him. The man was handsome enough, but she would never force herself on a man. "I will make sure the maids are aware of this also," she continued, her voice becoming a little firmer. "I am sure none of them wish to be turned out without a reference."

  Forgetting her role, she looked him in the eye once more, her mouth set in a firm line. What kind of Duke allowed himself to get tangled up with not one, but two housekeepers? She assumed that was why he was now short of a housekeeper, having not heard the Duke's previous conversation with Agnes. Her measure of him fell quite short. She would do her job, take on her role, and hide from her father until the threat of marriage to Lord Thompson had passed. But she would not go near this man for anything other than her duties. He could be quite sure that she would not be anything like his previous housekeepers.

  “Thank you,” Amos murmured, quite taken with the intensity of her gaze. Normally he would have been ruffled by a servant looking at him so directly, but on this occasion, he felt nothing but a sudden interest. She was clearly measuring him up, and by the look of distaste on her face, she had found him wanting. Mentally shrugging, he came around from behind his desk and handed her a set of keys.

  "Here you are," he said, almost grandly. "You will find the back staircase along the corridor and to your left. I shall look forward to my household being back in order once more. I have written out simple instructions for you that you will find in your room. If you have any questions, please ask the butler or me."

  "Thank you, Your Grace," Esther replied, turning to leave the room.

  She wished she could hug her godmother goodbye, but knew she could not. She contented herself with a small smile, directed at Agnes, who returned it with one of her own. She knew Agnes wished her well, and it would not be long before she saw her again; she was sure of it. Making her way to the back stairs, Esther took a deep breath. From now on, she must be Mrs. Edwards, housekeeper to the Duke of Hawdon.

  Chapter 5

  The next few days passed with little to concern Amos. He had met once with Esther to tell her exactly what he expected. After that, he saw neither sight nor sound of his housekeeper. She had obviously spoken to the other servants, as his favorite meals were prepared and his home was in perfect order, as it had been when his mother lived at the estate.

  According to his valet, Mrs. Edwards was quite the house manager. Quiet, but efficient, the staff had immediately taken to her, and the house ran efficiently. He felt relieved. Perhaps Mrs. Edwards would be the answer to his prayers after all.

  Esther, on the other hand, had struggled with tiredness and her quiet demeanor. It had been a challenge to get all of the maids to respect her given her youth, but after the threat of dismissal, they all came around. She worked hard from before dawn until the late evening, sometimes even into the early hours of the morning. It was hard work, but not once did she regret her decision. She hoped she would grow hardier as she worked and that the weariness she felt would not always be so all-consuming.

  ***

  “Duke!”

  “Heber? Come in!” Amos grinned at his friend entering his study. “A little early in the day for you, isn’t it?”

  Bernard scowled, “At my mother’s insistence, I have become reformed. Rising before noon, even!” He let out a long, painful sigh. “Apparently, I am to find a wife.”

  “Ah, back to her old schemes, is she?”

  “It is the time of year,” Bernard acknowledged. “Mother always wishes for me to find a bride come the start of every summer. Although, she has begun a little late this year.”

  Amos chuckled, seeing the morose face of his friend. “Surely, Heber, it cannot be that bad. There must be some lady who catches your eye.”

  “They are all too young for a bachelor of my age,” he sighed. “I am well over thirty, and the youngest ladies are but seventeen. Just out of the schoolroom, by my estimation. That has not dissuaded my mother, of course.”

  Amos replied, "Come now, many marriages with significant age differences take place. Consider your own parents."

  “I have,” Bernard replied quickly. “That is precisely why I will not do it. My father died an old man, leaving my mother alone and in perfect health. I should not like to do that to my own bride.”

  “How romantic,” Amos quipped drolly. “I know. I shall host a dinner party here on Friday. I will invite a number of eligible ladies—not all newly out, I assure you—and you can see if anyone sparkles enough to capture your interest.”

  “Very well,” Bernard replied, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms. “It may put mother off haranguing me for a while.”

  “I shall invite her as well,” Amos replied. “I will have to spe
ak to the housekeeper to ensure she has adequate time to prepare." He pulled the bell.

  “Have you heard the latest?” Bernard asked, changing the subject entirely. “It appears that Lord Bertram’s daughter has gone missing.”

  “Missing?” Amos echoed, searching through his desk for a piece of paper with which he could begin to scribble a guest list. “When?”

  “Only recently, it appears,” Bernard continued, nonchalantly. “There is no suggestion that she has run off with someone for, by all accounts, she was to marry Lord Thompson.”

  Amos’s mouth fell open. “Lord Thompson? The man is practically as old as her father, surely? I have never met the lady, but I do know her father.”

  Bernard shrugged. “I don’t believe it was a love match by any means.”

  “It does not sound like it!” Amos interjected, wondering how a man could do such a thing to his daughter. “That man is vile; it is no wonder she has run away.”

  "You believe she has run away from home then?"

  A knock on the door interrupted Bernard, and Amos called to allow the housekeeper entry before turning his attention back to Bernard.

  “Of course! Any woman would run away from such a prospect. Lord Thompson, indeed!”

  A sudden gasp interrupted his thoughts, and he turned to see his housekeeper's face drained of color.

  “Mrs. Edwards! Are you quite all right?”

  Esther struggled to regain her composure, hiding her shaking hands in the folds of her skirts. “Quite, Your Grace. It was just the mention of Lord Thompson that quite startled me.”

  “An old employer, I imagine,” Bernard said, not looking at the woman. “Quite a brute, by all respects.”

  Not knowing what to say, Esther simply nodded.

  “This is Lord Heber, Mrs. Edwards,” Amos interrupted. “You shall see him often, but he needs no special treatment. He has practically taken up residence here.” He winked, and Esther struggled not to blush.

  “Regardless, Duke,” Bernard continued, ignoring Amos’s well-placed jibe, “The lady is missing, and her father is apparently desperate for her return.”

  “I can only imagine why,” Amos said, dryly. “A daughter running from an arranged marriage must be a stain on any gentleman’s reputation. Not under her father’s thumb, I assume?”

  “Certainly not, by all appearances,” Bernard replied. “Although if what you say about Lord Thompson is true, I can only applaud her for escaping such a dreaded prospect.”

  There was silence for a moment, with Amos struggling to remember why he had summoned the housekeeper. Her appearance was plain, as was required of a housekeeper, but her green eyes captured his interest once again. Despite himself, Amos found himself musing on how long her blonde hair would be.

  “You are quite young to be a housekeeper,” Bernard said loudly, deliberately breaking the silence.

  "Yes, my Lord," Esther replied, remembering not to look him directly in the face. "My talents at organizing and running the household became apparent at a young age."

  “Well spoken, too,” Bernard murmured, sweeping his gaze down her slim figure and away from her face. Amos found himself irritated by Bernard’s perusal, clearing his throat to regain control of the situation as well as recapture his friend’s attention.

  “Mrs. Edwards, may I first commend you on how well you have stepped into the role. My house is back in order again, and I feel quite at peace.” He smiled at her, noting with interest the slight pink tinge to her cheeks. “The maids have kept away from me also, which I am sure is your doing. You have done an outstanding job thus far.”

  “Thank you, Your Grace,” Esther murmured, keeping her eyes lowered deferentially.

  “Now, pay close attention, Mrs. Edwards. I wish to have a dinner party next Friday evening.” He continued, “I shall be sending out invitations today. I expect to have ten guests, plus myself and Bernard.

  “And my mother,” Bernard interrupted.

  “And Lady Heber,” Amos grinned. “So, that should be thirteen.”

  Bernard let out a mock gasp of horror. “You cannot have thirteen, Amos! It is unlucky to have that number of guests!”

  Amos raised his eyebrows, saying nothing.

  "You must tell him, Mrs. Edwards," Bernard implored, raising his eyes heavenwards. "Tell him he cannot have such a terribly unlucky number of guests! I have heard that there has been a tragedy at every single dinner party that hosted such a number!"

  Despite her stomach churning over the mention of Lord Thompson and of her father, Esther tried to hide her smile, keeping her tone serious as she agreed with Bernard.

  “Lord Heber is quite right, Your Grace,” she said, quietly. “You must, of course, have fourteen guests or reduce your number to twelve.”

  “Very well,” Amos huffed, rolling his eyes. “I am sure I can think of another guest.”

  "I know," Bernard replied eagerly, sitting upright in his chair. "You must invite Lord Bertram! He is the most spoken about man within society at the moment, and it would certainly liven up your dinner."

  “We shall find out the truth about this missing daughter of his,” Amos mused, liking the idea. “A perfect idea, Heber. Well done! We shall invite Lord Bertram.”

  Neither of them noticed the housekeeper’s pallor, Amos only nodding his permission to her whispered request to leave his presence. Nor did they notice the way her trembling hands struggled to open the door. Tears began to make their way down her face.

  Chapter 6

  Esther leaned against the wall, breathing hard. She felt dizzy, as though all the air had been sucked out of her lungs. Hearing the Duke and Lord Heber talk so openly about her father and Lord Thompson made her sick with fear. Her father was obviously looking for her, although she had hoped that he would have kept her disappearance quiet initially. Clearly, that was not the case.

  Wiping her forehead with a shaking hand, she began to make her way back below the stairs, holding onto the wall for support. She now had to prepare the house for a dinner party, all the while knowing that her father would be amongst the guests. Breathing a little more slowly, she convinced herself that it would all be well. The housekeeper was never seen above stairs during such things, so there was no reason for her father to catch even a glimpse of her. Besides, her godmother would be there. She smiled a little wanly. Agnes had been right. Lord Heber had not even looked at her twice; there had not been even a flicker of recognition. The man was too wrapped up in his own affairs.

  Glancing at the clock, she decided she would have a cup of tea. There was time enough for that, and it would give her the space she needed to fully regain her composure. Then she would speak to cook, maids and footmen. There was a lot to organize.

  ***

  “So, that is your new housekeeper, Duke?”

  “Hmmm?” Amos scribbled another name onto his invitation list. “Oh, yes. She is doing quite well so far. The other servants respect her, and everything is running smoothly. It is quite remarkable!”

  “She is not as old as I had expected. Nor as plain of face.”

  Amos looked up, seeing his friend’s raised eyebrow. “It is not my fault, if that is what you are implying,” he replied, a little hotly. “Your mother found her and brought her to me. I could hardly refuse your mother’s recommendation, particularly considering the state of my household without a housekeeper.”

  “Fair enough,” Bernard conceded. "But I do hope you have no intention of practicing your flirtations with her, Duke. The woman looked as though she would die from embarrassment when you winked, the poor thing." He grinned as Amos flushed a little. "I did see that you know."

  “No, I do not have any intention to do such a thing,” Amos replied, firmly. "I have already told you, Heber, that my staff is perfectly clear on my standards. Besides, I am not in the least bit attracted to the woman." Amos tried to sound convincing as he lied to his friend, knowing in his heart that he found his housekeeper a remarkably handsome woman.

&nbs
p; Bernard nodded. “Good, good. Glad to hear it.” He kept his eyebrow raised, however, as Amos bent over his books once more. He was not convinced in the least.

  ***

  “Mother?” Bernard found his mother sitting in the drawing room, reading. She looked up from her book with a smile.

  “Bernard! How are you, my dear boy?”

  "Very well, Mother, thank you. Here, I have traveled many a mile to hand you this invitation.” He produced it with a flourish and handed it to his mother.

  “Indeed, how very kind,” Agnes replied, smiling. “What is it for?”

  “The Duke is hosting a dinner party next Friday evening,” Bernard replied, pouring himself a glass of port. “There will be many eligible young ladies there, Mother. And, before you ask, I shall keep my eyes open.”

  After her failed attempts to look offended, Agnes grinned. “Excellent, Bernard. I am glad to hear it. I shall be delighted to attend.”

  “You need not look so gleeful, Mother,” Bernard replied, reproachfully. “I know what is on your mind.”

  Agnes tried—and failed—to look contrite. “I must confess I look forward to the day when you are a married man,” she said, a little dreamily. “That I might one day be a grandmother…”

  “Yes, yes,” Bernard interrupted, hastily. “I say, Mother, I heard that your goddaughter has run off!”

  Agnes blanched, but not for the reasons Bernard supposed. “Run off? With whom?”

  Bernard waved a hand. “No one, from what I understand. What I meant to say is that the girl has run away, but no one knows where.”

  “Goodness,” Agnes replied, clutching her heart in feigned shock. “Whatever for?”

  “I believe she was to be married to Lord Thompson,” he continued, his gaze on the window, and not on his mother. “Did she not tell you?”

  "Of course she did," his mother replied. "She was upset because of Lord Thompson’s age, but I never imagined that she was so distraught she would run away."

 

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