Excerpt: My Lady Below Stairs
“Bastardy has its privileges,” Jane Tate muttered. She slogged across the snowdrifted alley from Lord Somerville’s grand townhouse to his not-so-grand henhouse. No one else wanted to gather eggs on this bitterly cold morning, so Jane had been pressed into service.
Which suited Jane better than a dollop of milk in her tea. Cook might get suspicious if she volunteered again.
She picked her way through the fresh snow. Even in this top-lofty London neighborhood, his lordship kept a dozen fat guineas and six red-capped Dorking hens. Their coop squatted next to the stable. An ill-tempered rooster strutted along its sagging peak, standing guard over his harem.
Cold lanced up Jane’s shin. She had pulled on two pairs of woolen stockings that morning, but they were no match for the shilling-sized hole in her left shoe.
He’s worth a touch of frostbite, she reminded herself.
Before she pushed through the henhouse door, a hand grasped her elbow and pulled her into the shadows of the stable. Even though she had hoped for this very thing, the man’s mouth swallowed her cry of surprise. He smelled of fresh straw and oiled leather and warm horse\0xADflesh.
And tasted like heaven itself. Jane slid her arms into the warmth of his open jacket, pressing herself against him.
Ian Michael MacGarrett. The sight of the head groom’s angular face was enough to give Jane shivers, even with\0xADout a hole in her shoe. His kiss warmed her, sending hot urgent messages to secret places in her body. Places of which an unmarried scullery maid shouldn’t be so achingly aware.
“Janie, love.” His voice tickled her ear and his lips set her skin dancing. She thought her name ordinary in the extreme, but when Ian said it, his soft Scottish burr ca\0xADressed the sound with reverence, as if she were a grand lady.
His rough hands found her waist and tugged her closer. Even through the layers of wool, Jane felt the solid maleness of him. All the unattached female kitchen help, and even a few of the married ones, made an excuse to take a trip to the stable when the weather was warm enough for Ian Michael to remove his jacket and roll up his shirtsleeves. Dealing with the heavy team of horses that pulled his lordship’s equi\0xADpage made Ian’s arms and chest ripple with strength.
“If the man’s arms are that fine,” Jane’s friend Agnes had exclaimed the first time she watched Ian subdue a particularly mettlesome stallion, “just imagine what the rest of him must be like!”
Jane smiled. She had a good imagination. If Ian had his way, she wouldn’t have to imagine much longer. She pushed against his chest and he drew back to look down at her, his peat-colored eyes hooded with wanting.
“Please, Ian. Someone might see us.”
“There’s none here but Tom and he’s busy polishing the brass on the brougham. Come, lass, you’re cold as a well-digger’s knee.” Ian rubbed her hands between his and blew on them, his breath puffing in the chilly air like a dragon’s. Then he pressed a kiss on the skin of her ex\0xADposed wrist. A wicked smile curved his lips. “I’m only after warming you a bit.”
“If you think I believe that, you’re the stupid, big Scot everyone takes you for.”
Jane knew behind his rude upbringing, Ian’s sharp mind bristled with intelligence. Their friendship had be\0xADgun when he discovered she knew how to read and write. Ian had convinced her to teach him. Of course, the only reason she knew how was because of a well-kept secret.
Though Jane wasn’t quite sure what to name it yet, her friendship with Ian Michael had blossomed from read\0xADing lessons into something much more.
“I brought you a copy of Locke and a warm tart.” Jane handed him the precious book she’d pinched from his lordship’s library. Lord Somerville would never miss it and she’d return the book after Ian read it, so it wasn’t stealing. Not really. The neatly wrapped tart she’d made herself.
“Something for my mind and my body, eh? No one can fault ye for ignoring a man’s appetites. Not all of them, in any case.” He pocketed the book and unwrapped the fragrant pastry, waggling his dark brows at her. “Ye know how fond I am of… tarts.”
Jane smacked his chest. “I’m no tart, Ian Michael MacGarrett.”
“No, I can see you’re not. But ye canna deny ye enjoy kissing me like one, can ye?” He bit into the plum tart with relish. “Och, Janie, this is almost as sweet as your kisses. Give me half a moment and we’ll start again where we left off, so I can make a true comparison.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Jane said, even though the thought of Ian’s kisses was what had had her tripping through the snow with a light heart this morn\0xADing. “You know his lordship doesn’t allow liaisons among the staff.”
“Liaison,” he repeated with a laugh, as he dusted the last tart crumbs from his big workman’s hands. “You’ve picked up some mighty fine airs, my Lady Jane.”
“And you’ve some plum filling at the corner of your mouth, sir.”
She reached up to wipe it away. Ian caught her hand, slipped her finger between his lips and sucked the jam off. Her knees threatened to buckle.
“Is that what we’re after having? A liaison?” He planted a kiss on her knuckles and then pressed her hand against his chest so she could feel the great muscle of his heart pounding beneath her palm. Eyes closed, he leaned down and touched her forehead with his. Need hummed between them. “A liaison sounds like more than a stolen kiss or two. Sounds like verra much more.”
For a few heartbeats, Jane thought of Ian’s little room at the far end of the horse stalls. Of his string bed. Of what might happen if she let him lead her there. Her in-sides melted like a wax candle, but with effort, she pinched off the flame. Being an earl’s bastard was bad enough. Being a scullery maid’s bastard didn’t bear con\0xADtemplating. She wouldn’t hang that label on an innocent child.
Jane stepped out of the circle of Ian’s arms. “Don’t you realize it’s the sack for both of us if we’re found out?”
“And I’m thinking that wouldn’t be all bad.” Ian tugged her close again. He was so warm, it was like a snuggling up to a roaring fire. Jane went willingly. “In fact, I just found out–“
“Jane! Where are you? I say! Janie, come quick!”
“That’s Agnes,” Jane said. “What’s she doing out in this cold?”
As an upstairs maid, Agnes rarely ventured down into the kitchen unless it was mealtime, and never out to the stable, if she could help it.
Unless Ian Michael was in his shirtsleeves.
“After all,” Agnes had explained, “this has nothing to do with our friendship, Janie. The day I fail to notice a fine-looking fellow is the day I turn up my toes.”
“I must go.” Jane pulled away from Ian.
“Stay, Jane. If we’re caught together, we’ll–“
He swept her up for a last kiss, an urgent play of lips, teeth, and tongue. The now-familiar ache down there made visions of Ian’s string bed swim in her head.
Jane swayed unsteadily when he released her. “If I can,” she said breathlessly, “I’ll come again.”
“Aye, lass, I’d make sure of that if you’d let me,” he murmured as she ran off.
From the huskiness in his tone, Jane knew he’d said something vaguely naughty. Warmth glowed in her belly as she stumbled back toward the main house where Ag\0xADnes was tiptoeing around the deeper drifts.
“Jane, where’ve you been? You’ll make me ruin these slippers!” The outlandish beaded mules were Lady Syb\0xADil’s last-season castoffs. They were a little small for Ag\0xADnes, but she was wearing them as she worked, in the hope that they’d stretch a bit. “I have to keep them nice for the Ladies’ Maids’ Ball.”
Once a year, all the footmen and maids from the city’s great houses decked themselves in secondhand finery and “tripped the light fantastic” ’til dawn. The satin con\0xADfections on Agnes’s feet would be perfect for the coming event.
But they were not so handy in a snow-washed alley.
Jane suspected concern over her hand-me-down slip\0xADpers wasn’t the only thing making Agnes’s brows nearly meet over her pert nose. “What’s got your pantaloons in a bunch?”
Agnes glanced over her shoulder as if she feared someone might overhear their conversation. She grasped Jane’s arm and hurried on in a whisper, “I can’t say here, but you’ve got to come and quickly. And we can’t let any\0xADone see you.”
“What on earth–“
“No more questions. Can’t you see I’m freezing my bum off?” Since Agnes rarely strayed outside, she didn’t have a cloak. The cold wind had her teeth chatter\0xADing. “And for heaven’s sake, do what they ask or I’m in for it.”
They slipped into the scullery, where Jane hung her thin wrap on its peg. The girls dodged through the kitchen when Cook’s back was turned. Then Agnes, a finger pressed to her lips for silence, led Jane up the back staircase to the family’s floor.
“Agnes, I can’t be caught here.”
“Then you’d best keep quiet, hadn’t you?”
Except for midnight raids on his lordship’s library, Jane never set foot in the public or family portions of the great house.
When she was very young, she had served at table, carefully handling the fine porcelain and ladling out lav\0xADish portions. Then one fateful evening Lady Sybil had asked her mother and father why the soup girl had a face that looked just like hers.
Jane could have explained it to Sybil. Jane’s mother was a pretty laundress who died in her birthing. The help at Somerville Manor undertook to raise Jane with be\0xADnevolent negligence. But the folk who served below stairs made certain she learned young exactly what a bastard was.
The countess forbade Jane to be seen above stairs af\0xADter that and even though several years had passed since her ladyship died of a lingering ague, the order was never rescinded.
Jane followed Agnes down the polished hall. The el\0xADegantly striped wallpaper made the corridor seem to stretch out far longer than it was. She forced herself not to run a fingertip along the gleaming oak wainscoting.
“Cook’s going to be furious if I don’t come back with the eggs soon,” she murmured.
“Oh, Jane, forget the eggs. Hang the eggs. This is far more important than eggs!” Agnes’s face squinched tight, as if she were trying to keep from bursting into tears.
“I can’t say more.” She stopped before Lady Sybil’s chamber. “Don’t speak unless spoken to,” Agnes ordered. “And for pity’s sake, stand up straight. Oh, how I wish I had a comb about me.”
Jane put a hand to her windblown hair. An unfashion\0xADable chestnut in a time when blonde was the color of choice, at least her hair was thick. Ian certainly never complained.
Except when she used too many pins.
Agnes opened the door and waved her in. Mr. Bottlesby, the stiff head butler, and Mr. Humphrey Roskin, Esq., his lordship’s solicitor, were positioned at opposite ends of the room. The cold air in the chamber fairly shimmered with tension. A copper hip bath, the water crusted with a thin layer of ice, stood in the center of the room. One of the window sashes had been left halfway up, and a stiff wind had overpowered the shallow fireplace.
There was no sign of Lady Sybil.
Mr. Roskin raked his gaze over Jane like a wolf search\0xADing out the weakling of the flock.
“Bollocks, man! You can’t mean to fool people with this!” Mr. Roskin punctuated his words with a flailing gesture.
“Sir, I humbly beg to disagree,” Mr. Bottlesby said with downcast eyes.
Jane flinched in surprise. Below stairs, the butler was lord in all but name. Bottlesby wielded absolute power over the rest of the staff, swaggering with pride in the servants’ quarters. Jane was taken aback by the change in his demeanor now that he was out of his element.
“If you look beyond this girl’s disreputable clothing,” Mr. Bottlesby said, “you’ll see that they are as like as two peas. In fact, I’ve been assured that our Jane has pre\0xADsented herself as Lady Sybil many times in the past, with none the wiser.”
Jane’s gaze cut to Agnes, who was studying the tips of her beaded shoes with guilty absorption. Jane had sworn her to secrecy.
“Are you aware that not so long ago the penalty for impersonating a member of the aristocracy was brand\0xADing?” Mr. Roskin’s left eye twitched as he glared at her.
“Sir, there’s no need to frighten the girl,” Mr. Bot\0xADtlesby said. “We are a civilized nation. Surely no one’s been branded since–“
“No, you’re right. Nowadays, they’ll just pack her to off to Newgate, like as not.”
Newgate! Jane’svision tunneled, and she forced herself to take a deep breath. If they sent her to prison, away from Ian Michael, it would be worse than branding.
Even though Agnes had warned her not to speak, she couldn’t stop the words.
“Sir, my offense took place years ago. Lady Sybil sim\0xADply asked me to sit for a few lessons in her stead. Her tutor never even knew the difference. Truly, no one was harmed by our childish prank.”
She refrained from mentioning that she had learned enough to pick the lock of literacy. Some members of the upper class took exception to reading and writing among their inferiors.
“There, Mr. Roskin, you see,” Mr. Bottlesby said. “Well-spoken, for all that she’s a scullery maid. Even their voices and inflections are similar. I tell you, she can do it.”
“Do what?” Jane asked with a sinking feeling in her gut.
“Perpetrate fraud on the ton of London,” Mr. Roskin said stonily, his already pasty complexion fading to the color of day-old suet. “And if you are discovered, I assure you, no one will dismiss it as a childish prank.”