Elizabeth Mansfield (19 page)

“We never put no name on what I do fer ‘im. I’m ‘is batman, that’s all. Like a valet, I s’ppose.”

“No matter,” Caro insisted. “You can still bring him messages from me, can’t you?”

Mickley eyed her worriedly, shaking his head in disapproval. “The cap’n won’t like no go-betweens, ma’am. Take me word fer it. He won’t like it at all.”

 

 

 

 

TWENTY-FOUR

 

Word spread rapidly through the neighborhood that Miss Caroline had come home to the Grange. Mr. Lutton was among the first to hear the news. Eager to lay eyes on her again, he took the opportunity, that very evening, to call at the Grange to extend a personal welcome. Melton admitted him. “If you’ll wait in the library, Mr. Lutton,” the butler said, “I will tell His Lordship you’re here.”

“No, Melton, not His Lordship,” the vicar said cheerfully. “It’s Miss Caroline I’ve come to see.”

“Miss Whitlow?” Melton blinked at him for a moment, nonplussed. One didn’t ask a housekeeper’s caller to wait in the library. But of course, he reasoned, Miss Whitlow was different Exceptions would have to be made for her. And, besides, no one was in the library at the moment. He gave a mental shrug and pointed the way to the library. “Very well, sir, if you’ll wait there, I’ll get her.”

He hurried down the hall toward the back stairs, but as he passed His Lordship’s study the door flew open. Mr. Mickley came stalking out, with the viscount close behind him. “Don’t rip up at me, Cap’n,” the batman was saying. “It ain’t my fault she acts so brummish.”

“I didn’t say it was,” His Lordship snapped. Then he noticed the butler. “Melton,” he said, his voice angry and his words clipped, “find Miss Whitlow and send her here to me at once.”

The butler blinked. “Miss Whitlow, Your Lordship?”

“That’s what I said.”

“But ...” Melton made a gesture in the direction of the library. “But she’s expected in—”

“Didn’t you
hear
me, man?” the viscount shouted. “I said
at once!
” And he strode back into his study.

Melton and Mickley exchanged looks. “You’d better find ‘er,” Mickley said, walking off. “He’s in a devil of a pucker. I knowed ‘e would be.”

Melton gaped at the study door, for he’d never heard His Lordship shout before. He wondered what Miss Whitlow had done to raise the viscount’s ire. But since there was no one to tell him, and there was nothing he could do about it anyway, he hurried down belowstairs to find her.

The housekeeper was not in the servants’ hall or in the little room beside it that she’d already made her office. He wandered about uselessly for several minutes until it occurred to him to look in the kitchen. There she was, helping Cook prepare the family dinner in the absence of the new kitchen maid (who was not to start work until the next day). “Ah, there you are, ma’am,” Melton said, panting from his exertion. “You’re wanted upstairs. You’ve a caller in the library—it’s Mr. Lutton to see you—and a summons from His Lordship.”

Caro frowned at him. “A
summons?

Melton nodded worriedly. “A definite summons. If I were you, I’d see His Lordship first. He sounded ... er ... chagrined.”

“Did he, indeed?” She put her chin up in a way that boded no good. “Well, he can cool his impatience for a moment or two. Did you say you put Mr. Lutton in the library?”

“Yes. I didn’t think it fitting to bring him down to the servants’ hall.”

“You were quite right,” she said, taking off her apron. “It would be awkward for all concerned.” She tossed her apron on a chair and started toward the stairs.

Melton trotted after her. “I think I should tell you, Miss Whitlow, that His Lordship said ‘at once.’“

“Thank you, Melton. You’ve delivered the message. Leave the rest to me.”

She went upstairs, determined to ignore Kit’s “summons.”

She was in his service, that was true, but she was not his slave. She didn’t have to jump whenever he chose to snap his fingers.

On her way to the library, however, she had to pass by his study. She did not pause, nor did she deign to so much as glance at the door. But he must have heard her step, for she hadn’t gone another half-dozen paces before the study door was flung open. “Miss Whitlow! In
here,
please,” he ordered.

“Yes, Your Lordship, in a moment,” she said, making a saucy little curtsy. “I am expected in the—”

“In
here,
I said!” he roared, holding the door open for her.

It was obvious that the order should not be ignored. With a sigh of resignation, she turned about, strode past him through the doorway, and went inside. He followed and shut the door with a slam.

Caro looked quickly about her. This was the first time she’d seen his study. It was a room that had been kept closed when the old viscount was alive, but she saw now that Kit was wise to have chosen it. It was a good-sized room, with one wall completely taken up with large windows offering a lovely view of the south lawn. The other walls were lined with bookshelves, all of which stood empty. The reddish rays of a setting sun shone slantwise across a massive desk covered with a disorderly array of books, ledgers, and papers. More books and ledgers overflowed the wooden boxes that were stacked willy-nilly about the room, obviously waiting to be shelved. “What a shambles,” she said, running a finger over a dusty mantelpiece. “I shall send one of the maids in here tomorrow to straighten things up.”

“If this were a task to be done by a housemaid,” he retorted impatiendy, “don’t you think it would have been done by this time? This is the mess the late viscount left behind. Records, accounts, documents, bills, contracts, leases, and God only knows what else! I have to go through it all page by page. It will probably take me a year. But don’t think, ma’am, you can throw me off the track. I didn’t send for you to discuss this disarray.”

“No, my lord, I didn’t think you did.”

“No, you probably know
exactly
why I did. How dare you, ma’am, suggest to Mickley that he be used as go-between? Am I such an ogre that you cannot speak to me directly?”

“You are now,” she taunted.

“Confound you, Caro, be serious!”

“Not Caro, please. I am Miss Whitlow, remember. Your housekeeper. And to answer your question regarding my need for a go-between, let me point out that it is not seemly for me to be forever running to you with questions and problems.”

“See here,
Miss Whitlow,
I did not hire you to teach me how to conduct myself with my servants. I
like
informal relations with my staff. Any one of them may speak to me freely. My door would be open to any woman who was my housekeeper, even if her name were nor Whitlow. In fact, my door is open to anyone in my employ.”

“Then, if I may speak honestly, my lord, I think you have much to learn about your position. If you kept your door open to the whole staff, you would find yourself with no time for anything else. You’d be inundated with complaints from morning to night. Of course, you must behave as you see fit. But then, so must I. I intend to conduct myself as a proper servant should. Just as the maids and the cook should bring their problems and complaints to me, I should bring mine to Mr. Melton and Mr. Mickley as your stewards. Such behavior is the only kind I can consider seemly.”

Kit ground his teeth in fury. “If I hear that word
seemly
from your lips again, ma’am, I shall... I shall
box your ears!

Her lips twitched to suppress a laugh. “Now, that, if I may say so, my lord, would
truly
not be seemly.”

He stared at her for a moment and then threw up his hands helplessly. “For a servant who claims her behavior is seemly,” he muttered, turning to the window, “you certainly have managed to snatch the upper hand away from me.”

“The upper hand? I don’t know what you mean.”

He gazed moodily out of the window. “I mean, ma’am, that you’ve found ways to thwart every order I’ve given you.”
 

She blinked at his profile, lit in a golden light by the setting sun. His brow was knit in frustration, and the corners of his mouth turned down in an angry frown, but he was nevertheless wrenchingly handsome. Something in the way the light accented his features reminded her of how he’d appeared to her when she believed he was Mr. Terence. The memory of Mr. Terence made her breast clench in pain. If only Mr. Terence had been real, she thought, what a happy couple they might have been! But aloud she only said, “I’m sorry, my lord.”

“So am I,” he muttered. “Sorry that I was not born Marcus Terence, with no connection to Crittenden Grange ... or to you.” He turned and looked at her through the golden light. “But I’d hoped, when you agreed to come here, that we could at least be friends.”

Her throat tightened. “I think it’s too late for that,” she murmured, finding it difficult to keep her voice steady. How strange it was that their thoughts had been so similar. She had better flee, she thought, or she might burst into tears. “May I be excused, my lord?”

He winced. “Yes, go.” He made a dismissive motion of his hand and turned back to the window. “And use Mickley as your go-between, if you must. Talking to you face-to-face doesn’t do me much good anyway.”

 

 

 

 

TWENTY-FIVE

 

Caro stood in the corridor outside Kit’s office, trying to get hold of herself. She had to erase the image of Kit’s sunlit profile from her mind. That image, and its impact on her emotions, was too troubling. When she’d accepted his offer of employment, she’d pushed from her mind the possibility that close proximity to him might bring painful reminders of Mr. Terence ... reminders of the infatuation she’d felt for the man who never was. If she was to remain here as housekeeper, she would have to school herself to banish Mr. Terence from her thoughts ... and even from her memory.

Determined to do just that, she squared her shoulders and marched down the hall to greet her visitor. She found Henry Lutton looking over the books on the library shelves, patiently awaiting her arrival. “Henry, my dear,” she said with enforced heartiness, “how
good
of you to call.”

He turned from the bookshelves, his long face brightening at the sight of her. “Caro! Back with us at last!”

They sat down side by side on one of the room’s two window seats, smiling at each other like the old friends they were. “You are looking well,” she told him.

“And you, my dear, are more beautiful than ever.”

“Oh, yes, quite”—she laughed—”especially in my cap and bombazine. It’s not like you, Henry, to offer me Spanish coin.”

“You know me better than that.” He tilted his head and studied her carefully. “I can’t say I like the cap, but the face under it is as lovely as ever.”

“What balderdash! But never mind. Tell me all the town gossip I’ve missed in these past months.”


You
are the primary subject of gossip these days, Caro. Everyone is agog to learn what brought you back to this house.”

“Are they? It’s not a story that will feed much gossip, I’m afraid. It is merely that I wasn’t happy as a governess, and when Lord Crittenden offered me this post as his housekeeper—”


Housekeeper?

Mr. Lutton’s expression darkened, and he leaped to his feet. “Good heavens! I had no
idea …!
You poor dear, how can you permit that arrogant fellow to humiliate you in this way?”

Caro stared at him in surprise. “Humiliate me?”

“It was bad enough when he drove you from your home. But for him to bring you back as a servant ... !”

“Just a moment, Henry,” she said, putting up a hand to stop him from jumping to conclusions. “As Gil likes to say, take a damper! Your interpretation of the events is not at all fair. Lord Crittenden is not in the least arrogant. Not only did he save me from a dreadful situation at my last post, but he’s given me a position for which I’m well qualified and in which I shall be quite happy. I’m doing exactly what I used to do—but without the title and wages—for the old viscount. This time, however, I’m being given a very generous salary.”

The vicar, not quite mollified, sank down beside her again. “I can’t quite believe that you don’t mind being a servant in the place where you were once the mistress.”

“Mistress?” She blinked for a moment as a new thought struck her. “I was never the mistress here, Henry. Strange, but I didn’t realize until this moment that I was as much a servant then as I am now. I was but a poor orphan Uncle Clement took in in kindness.” Her eyes widened with shock. “A
charity
case!”

“No, no, child,” the vicar cried, taking her hand in his. “Your uncle Clement never thought of you in that way.”

Confused though she was by this new way of looking at her past, she didn’t wish to dwell on it now. She passed a hand over her forehead to wipe the thought away. “Let’s not speak of it anymore, Henry,” she begged. “Let’s speak of something that

I’m much more concerned about—Gil’s studies. From what he’s told me—although he’s said very little—I surmise that he’s not doing very well.”

“No, I’m afraid he’s not. He seems to have become a little wild.”

Caro’s brows rose in alarm. “Wild?”

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