Regency Romance: Each Other by Amelia Fernside

“Miss Olivia! Hurry up! The cock has crowed three times this morning, and still you are not at your station!” cried Mrs. Mason, the housekeeper, whose voice was as shrill and irate as the fowl of which she spoke. “Goodness knows what you are doing out there!” she came again. “You’ll cause a scandal before your very first day has begun!”
Regency Romance: Each Other
Regency Romance: Each Other by Amelia Fernside
Olivia winced, but did not dash inside. Instead, she held the hands of Mr. Ashburn, whom she called Thomas, having known him since their toddler years, and squeezed them for luck. “I wish you well in your enterprise,” he said, his solid brown eyes deep and soothing to her, like a forest in a summer’s evening. “Don’t be afraid of the Mistress. For the whole time I have been here, I have never even seen her up close. I’m sure you’ll do splendidly.” “Miss Oliviaaaa!” thundered Mrs. Mason. “Dear Thomas, did you get me this job as a blessing or a curse?” she tittered. “Twill be a curse, if you upset Mother Hen this early. She has not even had her morning tea!” “Good lord!” Olivia shouted sarcastically. “That cannot be tolerated! I am off!” She turned and bustled into the house. Thomas called after her. “Remember, if you need me, I’ll be right on the grounds. Don’t worry, Olivia.” She caught sight of him waving, and then she was through the door. “Are you out with the gardener again, you silly thing?” scolded Mrs. Mason as Olivia emerged into the smoking and crowded kitchen. Sending a polite smile to a pair of scullery maids as she dodged past them, she at last presented herself to Mrs. Mason. A tall, broad, imposing woman, with the vocals and stature of a bullfrog, she was universally feared, respected, and, when out of earshot, grumbled about by all the household staff. Yet, from what Olivia had heard, she kept her ship in tight working order and could not help but be admired for her handiwork. “You know, child,” she said, plucking a leaf from Olivia’s skirt, “already people are beginning to talk. Gossip grows like weeds in a house like this, and not even your dear Mr. Ashburn will be able to keep it at bay.” “Gossip?” said Olivia, astonished. “You mean between Thomas and myself? Mrs. Mason, I can assure you, he and I are like siblings. You see, we grew up in the same –” “Frankly, child,” Mrs. Mason interrupted, “I do not care what you do, so long as you attend to your duties as you are expected. But I will warn you; you have his baby and you’re out of a job.” Olivia stared at her. How exactly does a polite woman reply to such a statement? How would a rude woman? Mrs. Mason, unperturbed by Olivia’s hesitation, ploughed on. “Now, your task this morning is the guest rooms. All the linens must be changed, the mattresses turned, the floors scrubbed, etcetera. My goodness, some of the guests Her Ladyship has at this place …” “Are they quite deplorable?” Olivia inquired, flouncing behind the housekeeper as they strode up the stairs. The woman stopped so abruptly that Olivia rammed into her. “Don’t you ever let me hear you speak in such ways about the honoured guests of my Lady!” she snapped. “You would be blessed to even have them sneeze upon you, wretched child!” And she stomped onward. Olivia sighed. She knew better than to point out that Mrs. Mason had just been insulting the guests. She had worked under too many housekeepers to try, women who scraped their master’s glory onto themselves, like hungry scullery maids picking leftovers off a gentleman’s abandoned plate. “Start there,” Mrs. Mason instructed, “and work towards the west. And remember, the Lady can be, ah, flighty at times. Be sure not to get in her way.” “Yes, Mrs. Mason,” Olivia replied dutifully. Lady Isabella of Roslyn, the mistress of this estate, had a well-known reputation for her lavish parties, and for her capriciousness with household staff. Her reputation extended across all of England Although this of course was stressful on the average housemaid, it did mean there was plenty of work to be done, and no shortage of money to compensate it. When she’d heard, earlier that month, that Thomas would be working as the gardener here, she had breathed a sigh of great contentment. As long as he could remain sensible – which, she thought, about summed him up – Thomas was safe for life. When she herself had been granted a position, through Thomas’ influence, she was at once both grateful and afraid. To be a sturdy, handsome gardener whose cottage was some distance from the Lady’s mansion was one thing. To be a little mouse of a maid to this feline mistress, right under her nose, was something else entirely. Mrs. Mason bid her adieu with a stern look, and Olivia entered the first guestroom. It was so richly adorned and furnished that even the most estimable of landed gentry would have been proud to call this their master bedroom, but for the Lady, it was merely one of many. A large, mahogany four-poster bed, hand carved with rose blossoms and topped with a cream-colored canopy embroidered with grape vines, stood at the centre of the room. Around it, rich upholstered armchairs and footstools offered the lazing guests several more options to rest their weary, polished toes. A fireplace large enough for Olivia to sleep in was built into the opposite wall from the bed. She sent up a private prayer of thanks that, it being high summer, she would not have to deal with that particular monstrosity for a while. Sighing at the daunting task ahead of her, Olivia clambered atop the mountainous bed and began to strip it. Within minutes, however, something caught her eye that duly distracted her. A bookshelf was tucked inconspicuously behind the left post of the bed. The books were obviously rarely read – the dust on them was thick, and therefore one more thing Olivia must do. But this was not what had attracted her attention. It was the titles: Romeo and Juliet, Candide, Inferno, The Prince. Those were books that were spoken of with as much awe and esotericism as stories of fairies and dragons. Olivia felt herself drawn to them – she could read, one of the few skills her ailing mother had bequeathed her before she died. Olivia was supremely aware of the forbidden and lofty magic that must be held within. As if enchanted, she raised her hand, selected one (Paradise Lost, by John Milton, which, by the handprints, seemed to have been touched most recently) and began to read. Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven… “Quick, quick, Camille, in here!” A voice split her reverie like a fork of lightning. She looked up just in time to see Miss Camille, the Lady’s maid, and the Lady Isabella of Roslyn herself dash into the room. Olivia uttered a short squeak, dropped the book, and darted behind a changing screen, praying that Her Ladyship and her servant hadn’t seen her shirking her chores. But the two women seemed to be hiding from something themselves. “Did he see us?” Camille said with a giggle, fluttering next to her mistress. “No, no, I don’t think so,” drawled the Lady. “My uncle can be so trying at times. I do wish he’d just leave us in peace!” “Shh! He’s coming!” The two quieted, their heavily padded and beribboned rears bouncing as they bent to peer through the room’s keyhole. Olivia heard the sound of heavy, booted footsteps pass the door. “Thank goodness, he’s missed us,” exclaimed the Lady, before flouncing onto the bed as if she had just overcome a great hurdle. “All his talk about trouble to the east, and jealous gentry, oh, I find it so irreparably tiresome. Perhaps those nasty French bastards will rid us of him instead.” “Oh, my Lady, are they French?” queried Camille. The daughter of a Duke whistled at her Lady’s maid’s ignorance. “Of course not, you ninny. But, seeing as they don’t like me, they might as well be.” And the two dissolved into a fit of giggles. Olivia shifted nervously in her hidey-hole behind the screen. What superficial nitwits, she thought. “My Lady, what is that?” Camille said, pointing towards the screen. Olivia felt as if her heart would fail her. The Lady, one of the most powerful women in the kingdom, rolled over and wiggled her way closer. She outstretched her hand, leaning towards the screen… “Oh, that’s just one of the blasted books my father left to me before he died, poor thing,” she said, plucking up the copy of Paradise Lost, eyeing it without even reading the title, and tossing it back on the floor. “I hadn’t the heart to get rid of them, of course, but I couldn’t stand looking at the things, so I sequestered them here. Quite clever, don’t you think?” “You are a wonderful daughter, my Lady,” Camille said in her best obsequious manner. Olivia fought the urge to roll her eyes. “Perhaps not that good of one,” Isabella said with a grin, facing her servant. “You know what I have realized? This is the very room in which the Earl of Balton slept last night! My goodness, do you think the sheets still smell of him?” She pressed her face into the bed and breathed deeply. Then she noticed the pile of dirty sheets crumpled on the floor, where Olivia had left them to bring to the laundry. “Blast, it seems as if one of those stupid housemaids has changed the sheets already. I suppose I’ll just have to invite him again!” “Most assuredly!” gushed Camille, as the two rose from the bed and ventured toward the door. After checking whether the coast was clear, they departed, and Camille continued, “You could then wear your golden evening gown. It goes ever so well with your locks of hair …” Olivia heard no more. Feeling both stupid for landing herself in this situation and yet mightily clever compared with the inanities of the two women’s discussion, she wriggled her way out from behind the screens, shelved the copy of the book and scooped up the discarded sheets. Absent-mindedly, she pressed her nose into them and inhaled. They did indeed smell lovely. A mix of resin and gun polish. Smiling, she drifted halfway out of the room, paused, then returned to tuck the copy of the book into her bodice. She had plenty more work – and more reading – to do. ●●● Bored with playing hide and seek in the mansion, Isabella dragged Camille outside, where the two sat and flicked rocks into the fountain, which served as the focal point of the garden. As they sat, chatting about nothing, a sudden voice called out to them: “Olivia! How lovely you look. Where on Earth did you acquire such an outfit …” He trailed off as he approached them, a look of horror on his face. “Forgive me, my Lady!” he cried, bowing low. “I mistook you for someone else, I would never have …” The man continued mumbling his apology, completely mortified. Isabella caught her friend’s eye and smiled. “You are the gardener, are you not?” she asked, rising to her graceful, tiny feet. “Yes, my Lady,” he replied, still bending low. “And what would you do, if you wished to garden me?” she asked. He finally raised his gaze, and blinked at her in confusion. “Forgive me,” he said. “But what, my Lady?” She put her hands on her hips and glared at him with all the beautiful disdain she could muster. “What would you do,” she repeated slowly, as if speaking to a child, “if you were to garden me?” The gardener obviously sensed a trap, for he wrung his cap in his hands in quiet alarm. “No gardener on Earth could ever presume to till you, my Lady,” he said, “for who could prune perfection? That is the station for God, and Him alone.” The Lady Isabella eyed him with frank curiosity. “Perhaps you’ll do,” she said. “Now leave us!” Visibly trembling with relief, the poor man dashed back into his gardens with his tail between his legs. Isabella broke into a fit of laughter. “Oh, my Lady, must you be so mean to your servants? He is actually very handsome.” Isabella’s eye suddenly became hard. “Remember, Miss Camille, you are a servant, too.” “Isabella!” Another shout interrupted. The Lady winced. Only one man present in the entire mansion had the right to call her with such familiarity. “Greetings, uncle,” she said brightly, rising to give him a proper curtsey. Camille, the Lady’s maid, rose, bowed, and fled without saying a word. “Coward,” Isabella muttered under her breath. “My dear Isabella,” said her uncle, the Duke of Brexington, panting after he hurried to meet her. “What’s the matter, uncle?” she cried, noticing the sweat on his forehead, the red veins pulsing in his neck. She couldn’t decide whether he looked more like a rhinoceros or a riverbed seething with snakes. “That … man …. to whom you were speaking. Who is he?” He had a hard time getting past his stomach in order to lean on his knees. “Oh, him?” said Isabella dismissively. “That was the gardener. Now what is all this hullaballoo?” “Gardener? You should not be alone with any man! Your reputation already hangs by a thread.” “I was not alone!” she snapped, outraged. “I was with Miss Camille!” “My dear, that girl has all the intelligence and personality of a mirror in a poorly lighted room. I would not even count her.” Isabella thought it only fair to acknowledge his point. “So that is why you ran all the way out here? To prevent my reputation from being tarnished by a man with brambles in his hair?” Having finally caught his breath, the old Duke rose, and, looking rather sheepish, replied. “No, my Lady. I thought him perhaps an attacker. Trouble brews in the east. There is still no news of your father, the Duke, from the Peninsular War front, and many are becoming jealous of the uncontested power you possess. I fear, in fact, for your safety. I repeat, I fear for your safety!” “My safety? What utter nonsense,” she scoffed. “I am perfectly safe here. Who would dare attack the Duke’s family?” “In these times of unrest, with lowly commoners competing for a gentleman’s wealth, and gentlemen competing for the esteem of a King gone mad, anything is possible.” “The only thing mad, uncle,” she said, “is how silly you look after a run. Really, you should go out more. Hunt some foxes. Shoot a gun. Ride a horse, if you can find one sturdy enough.” The Duke glared at his niece but did not counter. The Lady, spoiled enough at first by her father and now by his absence, was too well accustomed to license. “All I ask, is that you be careful,” he said after a moment. “Of course, of course, dear uncle. That is why I am having all of these parties. To surround myself with bodyguards. You should really come to the next one. It’ll be enormous, and I’m making sure that the Earl of Balton will be there …” She trailed off, curtsied, then wandered away in search of her startled playmate. She paid no mind to her uncle’s sigh as he collapsed on the edge of the fountain, his head in his hands. Chapter 2 The Golden Gown The party Lady Isabella threw at the end of that month was indeed a great one. Olivia, who was now well adapted to her work, and who had made her way through two thirds of her book, had to be assigned extra duties to keep up with the rigorous demands the festivities placed on the household. After working determinedly hard in the afternoon, however, she earned herself a break, which she spent seated with Thomas, watching from a respectable distance as the esteemed guests of the Duke’s daughter arrived. “And that’s the Marquis and Marchioness of Trothgal. I hear they’re quite the pair … And there’s the Viscount Middleton … he was so drunk at the last party that four of his cousins had to carry him out, one for each limb … and there’s … ” “The Earl of Balton,” Olivia said with a sigh. How she knew, she could not have said. She could not possibly have smelled him from where she sat, and she, of course, had never seen him before. It was an air, perhaps. The way Lady Isabella spoke of him. The way the servants described him’ as well, as if he were one of the blessed angels described in her book. He was tall, nearly as tall as the white stallion upon which he rode. His navy blue riding coat, bedecked with golden buttons and embroidery, was radiant in the evening light, like a promise of the midnight to come. His hair was the rarest of blondes, the colour of wheat and sun, and his posture and grace upon dismounting his horse so respectable one could imagine he had been fashioned from marble, rather than mere flesh. Olivia sighed again, then turned away. What was the point in admiring? Thomas put an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t worry, my friend,” he said. “I hear that Lady Isabella wants him, and that even she can’t have him.” Slightly cheered, Olivia continued to watch the parade of gentlemen and ladies proceed into the house, where a marvellous gala was waiting. ●●● Lady Isabella, meanwhile, was in a state of outrage. “How many times have I told you to lay them out before the eve of the party? You harlot, Camille,” she said, kicking at her lovely golden dress that now lay, quite wrinkled, across her bed. Camille was busy trying to attack the thing with an iron; she had already burnt herself twice on the coals. “Enough!” shouted Isabella at last, sending another kick, which ripped the poor material. “I will simply wear the red one. Fetch a servant to tend to this. I expect absolute perfection when it’s finished. Meanwhile, if I sense any disappointment from Lord Balton at my appearance, it will be absolutely your fault.” Overflowing with apologies, Camille rushed off to find an unoccupied servant. Through the window, Isabella saw her accost such a one, sitting by the fountain with that silly gardener. The servant leapt up like a startled deer and bolted to the house. Isabella smiled. “You!” she shouted to another of her maids, tending to the fire so her skin would be rich and warm. “Help me with this corset. I have too little patience to wait and contend with Camille’s incompetence right now.” And so, with smug remarks and insults geared at her Lady’s maid, Isabella readied herself for her party. ●●● After the remarkably unpleasant Camille had thrust a mountain of a dress in Olivia’s hands, the tired and overworked housemaid trudged into the mansion and up the stairs, weary of continuous toil. After finding a private room and laying the dress across a table, she saw Lady Isabella’s source of concern: a small tear, just by the hem. By the scuff marks surrounding it, Olivia could surmise it had been caused by the carelessness of a shoe. She did not have to think long to guess whose shoe had caused the damage. She rolled her eyes, and began to work. As she worked, she daydreamed. She thought of the book she had stolen, filled with angels forced to worship those above them simply because they had been born with greater splendour. She thought of Lady Isabella, tearing this incredible dress in a fit of what must have been impatience. She would be at the ball by now. Dancing and drinking Negus, flirting incessantly, and entirely preoccupied with fishing compliments from the unwitting gentlemanly guests. Then she had an idea. Though she would unquestionably be working late into the night, during the ball itself, there was little for her to do. She was like a mouse whose job it was to clean up bread crumbs but never be seen. For all intents and purposes, her duty now was to “disappear” until the guests had left. And what a wonderful way to disappear. With the same half smile that had bloomed on her face when she stole Paradise Lost, that same feeling of being driven forward and yet held at bay by an elusive magic, Olivia locked the door, kicked off her plain housemaid’s garb and slipped into Lady Isabella’s golden dress. She was pleased to discover they were almost the same size, and, despite her bulky servant’s underclothes, the gown fit as nicely as a silken glove. Why should she have to live her life bending to every need of people who were ungrateful for it? What quality did they have that she did not, besides, it appeared, arrogance and disdain? Nor did she have any hope of raising herself beyond this state. She thought of the life Thomas, as a husband, could offer her. Comfortable, yes, and calm, but still, in servitude. She had no route to free herself. She was, inevitably, trapped. Except, of course, the freedom that theft could give her. She admired herself in the mirror. Normally, she was not a vain woman, but on this night, she felt the desire to flair her hips in the reflection, purse her lips, flash a smile. Her hair, however, was hopelessly ill-suited for this sort of outfit. She saw a sunflower in a nearby vase and swiftly stole it. By weaving it into the tresses of her hair, she made herself look positively radiant. “Well, Mr. Earl of Balton,” she said under her breath, “here I come.” ●●● Her first sight of the ball, as a faux honoured guest, was so resplendent she had to fight to keep the look of wonder off her face. You must look natural, calm, even bored, Olivia told herself, arranging her expression accordingly, and descending the stairs. Her first task, she knew, was to locate the Lady Isabella and be sure to steer clear of her. The gentlewoman probably had so many luxurious gowns that she would not recognize her own amid the splendour of the ball, but Olivia did not want to take any chances. She knew if she was caught she would be immediately fired – indeed, if her Ladyship willed it, she could probably have her executed. But how many times would a woman like her have the opportunity to live a fairy tale? This is my one chance, she thought, holding her hands to her bosom. She took a deep breath. Yet, despite her determination, Olivia felt nervous by the time she had reached the dance floor. The dancers were playing out a lively country jig, much to the amusement of the onlookers. Across the hall, which was large enough that Olivia could not have thrown an apple and hit the far wall, she spied Lady Isabella dancing enthusiastically. Her partner, who, Olivia noticed, was not the Earl of Balton, looked very smug while a crowd of spectators praised her grace and timing with a series of pleasurable sighs. Olivia, for the moment, was safe. Just then, however, an elderly matron approached. “My Lady!” she said in a wavering, ancient voice. Her dewy eyes blinked at her from behind thick cataracts. “Forgive my impertinence. I am the Lady Mariam Horschester. We met when you were only a child. The Duke of Brexington asked that I be your chaperone this evening, in light of your poor mother’s recent death.” Olivia’s thoughts whirled. Her mother had died years ago, and why would the Duke of Brexington, the Lady Isabella’s uncle, care at all about her chaperoning? Especially when she was not even invited? A strange, tantalizing, thrilling thought stirred in her mind. “A pleasure to meet you, my Lady,” she replied, careful to enunciate as clearly as possible, as a gentlewoman, not a servant, would do. “But please tell me: how did you know me from this crowd? Surely my beauty is not that conspicuous?” Olivia thought this the sort of thing her Ladyship would say. “It is, darling, yes, but that is not the secret. His Grace had contacted her Lady’s maid days ago, and determined your golden dressing. And let me say, my lady, your radiance is like a sunflower among weeds this night,” she said, nodding to Olivia’s hair. Olivia blushed at the compliment. She felt giddy, and yet emboldened to continue. “As my chaperone,” she asked, doing her best to imitate the Lady’s condescending air of which she had heard so much, “is it not your duty to find me a suitable dance partner? How about … him?” She pointed. There, not too far away, was the Earl of Balton. “My Lady … he is, ah, well known for choosing his own partners. You wouldn’t want to seem hurried … do not you think it would be more sensible to ask –” “No,” Olivia declared. “Acquaint me with him.” What did she care of the Lady’s reputation? The woman did nothing but soak up the toils of her renters and splurge it on lavish parties such as this. And tonight, finally, Olivia was free. The old woman nodded, bowed, and marched over to the Earl. Olivia waited in all her marshalled glory. She looked people – even gentlemen! – in the eye, and did not feel afraid. She was armoured in her ladyship’s own reputation, gilded in the titled woman’s own gown. The longer she waited, the more her confidence blossomed. Then, at last, the Earl approached. “My Lady,” said Lady Mariam, “allow me to introduce the Earl of Balton. And Lord Balton, this is Lady Isabella.” The Earl bowed. “It is an honour to meet you, Lady Isabella,” he said. Olivia curtsied. “And it’s an honour to meet you, Lord Balton,” she said. Lord Balton extended his finely gloved hand. “May I have this dance?” he asked. His voice was soft and gentle as suede, and yet with the hidden power to be strong and tough as riding leather. “You may,” Olivia said in her finest coquettish way, and the Earl’s eyes twinkled. She told herself, at the moment, that she was his equal. He took her by the hand and led her to the dance floor. Olivia was pleased to see the country jig had ended. Next, she heard, was a waltz. The Earl gently placed his hand on her waist. His hand was so large and firm she felt positively miniscule. With his other hand, he took her fingers, which in comparison looked delicate as the feathers of a dove. Olivia felt some of her confidence desert her, and she began to tremble. “Do not fear, my Lady,” he murmured. “I shall guide you.” And he did. Scooped up in the rhythm of his movements, Olivia felt herself drawn and twirled about as lightly as leaves in an autumn wind. He would clasp her tight, so closely she could number his long, silken eyelashes and the little green flecks that hid in the ocean blueness of his gaze. Then, just when she was so dizzy she believed she would not be able to stand, he would whirl her away, unleashing her budding longing for him like a soft spray of perfume. “May I say something bold?” he asked after a time. His words blended perfectly with the music, the inflection of his question peaking along with the tempo of the dance. “Have not you heard?” joked Olivia. “The Lady Isabella prefers boldness above all things.” “Well, that is it exactly,” he said, holding her back against his chest. She inhaled, smelling that same, manly scent she had caught from his sheets. He continued: “Your ladyship has a reputation for self-assurance, what some have even called brashness. That is why I have not danced with you before. And yet, tonight, you seem meek as a dove.” Olivia frowned. She thought she had been behaving quite forwardly. She whirled to face him. “This is a ball,” she said. “Nights like this have their own magic. Everyone has a chance to be someone else.” The Earl smiled. “I enjoy this new you – one who did not even take offense at my slight on your reputation.” Olivia suddenly felt silly. “Yes, I enjoy the new me as well,” she said with a sigh. There was sadness in her words. She knew she would not be Her Ladyship for long. In fact, as the dance ended, she saw her Ladyship – the real Lady Isabella – approaching. Olivia turned and said frantically to her partner: “Forgive me, Lord Balton, but I’m afraid I must be going.” “Then let me join you,” he said firmly. Fortunately, Lady Miriam had wandered away, so Olivia was free to protest, “But, my chaperone …” The Earl smiled. “If there’s one thing the Lady Isabella is famous for, apart from her boldness, of course, it is her corresponding disregard of chaperones.” My goodness, she thought. How unfair is it that she could be known for such a thing, and still be desired simply because of the loftiness of her birth. Lucky, blessed, silly creature. But then a sudden thought struck Olivia. Lady Miriam knew her by her golden dress. Could the Lady Isabella have ripped it intentionally? No. Olivia was giving the empty-headed debutante far too much credit. She curtsied. “Okay, fair Lord. You shall be my chaperone to disregard.” He laughed. “Agreed!” And with that, she bolted up the stairs. Chapter 3 Trading Places Lady Isabella was both frustrated and thrilled. She was frustrated because she could not seem to find the Earl of Balton anywhere, and yet she was thrilled because her assigned chaperone, some doddering old friend of her uncle’s, had been unable to find her. It seemed as if her little trick with the dresses had worked. Poor Camille. She’d have to apologize to her later. As she wandered the party, being greeted admiringly by guests left and right, a small commotion at the door drew her attention. There, one of her footmen – a tall, dashing young man she had hired on sight – was arguing with another servant. With some surprise, she recognized the gardener. “What,” she snapped, striding over, “is he doing here?” The footman looked scalded. “Forgive me, My Lady,” he said. “I was just about to escort him out –” “Your Ladyship,” the gardener interrupted, bowing low. “I do sincerely apologize, but I am worried a dear friend of mine is in trouble. She disappeared hours ago and has not returned.” “What do I care for your woodlouse of a friend?” she sneered. “I have no interest in the meagre little creatures who sneak about this place at night –” “My Lady,” the gardener said. “She was last seen ascending to repair your gown.” Isabella faltered. That dress had been a gift from the Marquis of Daltanborough. If something severe had happened to it … A scream interrupted their talk. There was a hush among the crowd, as every single attendant at the ball turned as one and looked up the stairs. “Olivia!” cried the gardener. “My gown!” screeched the Lady. They glanced at one another, then together they dashed up the stairs. ●●● Olivia knew she was committing a gross indiscretion. She was alone, in a private room, with not only a man, but the Earl of Balton himself! On top of that, she was pretending to be the daughter of a Duke! For a moment, the sheer bravado of her deeds overwhelmed her, and she felt so dizzy she had to sit down. Fortunately, the room in which they found themselves was some sort of library, each wall towering with mountains of books. A number of couches and armchairs offered the invested reader multiple options on which to sit. She chose the mahogany window seat. To its right, beautiful glass doors, currently locked, could open to a marble balcony. Perhaps even more discretion could be accomplished there. At the thought, she placed the back of her hand to her forehead. “My Lady?” said a concerned Lord Balton. “Are you well?” She fluttered air onto her face with her hand, and said, “Do you ever … build an idea in your mind of who you are supposed to be, then come to a sudden realization that is not who you want to be at all?” The Earl eyed her with curiosity and wariness. “I have,” he said at last. “As an Earl, many expectations are heaped on me. Sometimes …” He lowered his voice, then leaned in to whisper to her, so close she could feel his breath on her cheek. “Sometimes I fantasize about simply mounting my horse and riding away. Living my life free of regalia and gentry rules and the burden of responsibility. Is that what you mean?” Olivia could not help but laugh. “Not at all,” she murmured. “Trust me, my Lord, living one’s life as a nobody is no form of freedom.” He shifted closer to her on the seat. Their hips were almost touching. “I would have never guessed that the Lady Isabella Roslyn shared such empathy with the lowly and the unfortunate. It really is a … remarkably refreshing quality.” Olivia felt her heart pounding. It was strange. Disguised as another, she was voicing emotions to this stranger she had never muttered in her lifetime. Why did she feel he could understand? Was it simply she was unafraid to expose herself, camouflaged as she was? Or was it something else? She gazed into his eyes, so open, trusting, and concerned. So curious, as if he wanted to explore every part of her as eagerly as she had wanted to explore Paradise Lost. Perhaps, she thought, even more so. Curious, she pulled the book out of a fold in her gown and showed it to him. “Have you ever read this?” she asked politely. She could feel his eyes drifting away from her face and to other parts of her body. Finally, they alighted on the book. “Oh yes,” he said. “At least twice. Another remarkable and surprising look into the perspective of the different, don’t you think?” Olivia smiled grimly to herself. He was not in fact lying. He had read it. If he were to find out who she really was, what would he think her? Angel or demon? But apparently, that was not what he wanted to discuss. “The literature reading, servant-sympathizing, kind and mild Lady Isabella,” he murmured, leaning closer. “Before this night, we had never conversed. Only seen each other from across a rowdy, bawdy ballroom. Why on Earth did I wait until now to truly talk to you?” His lips were a finger’s width from hers. Olivia’s mind raced. Somehow, she did not think he, in that moment, wanted to talk. A sudden boldness took her. She stepped forward, planting her lips on his, heaving her breath so their bodies touched, and their arms encircled each other’s waists. “You are mistaken,” she whispered, pausing for breath. “About what?” “You did not wait until this night to talk to me. I waited until this night to talk to you. For this chance, above all others, is perfect …” He smiled, oblivious of course to what she really meant, but completely unbothered by it. He bent close once more to kiss her. The sound of breaking glass wrenched them from their reverie. A black-clad hand had punctured the balcony door, and was now turning the knob to get inside. Olivia screamed. Lord Balton pointed to a shadowed corner behind a bookshelf. “Isabella, hide there,” he whispered. From an end table, he seized a plaster bust of Queen Elizabeth and raised it in anticipation. The black-garbed figure burst through. “Where is the Duke’s daughter?” he cried, raising a loaded pistol. “Get out of here, you wretch!” Lord Balton shouted as he dived to one side just as the intruder fired his pistol. The gunshot reverberated through the house. Olivia screamed and came out of her hiding place. The bullet had grazed the Earl’s bicep and left a line of blood. But he was unfazed, and he charged the intruder. He swung the bust at the masked man, but the man jumped aside, and the bust missed his head and landed awkwardly with a thump on his shoulder. The gunman cried out in pain, muffled by his fabric mask, but his gun was still raised, still deadly. Keeping the gun trained on Lord Balton, he approached the prostrate Olivia. “So there you are. Come with me, Lady harlot, and I will not kill your lover.” He, too, thinks I am Lady Isabella! “I’m not the Lady!” she cried, crawling away from him. She felt her lovely, stolen, incriminating dress catching on the floor and tearing as she tried to clamber away. Lord Balton took a step toward the gunman. “Ah! Hold, dear Earl,” the intruder hissed. “My first bullet only tasted you. The next will want a meal.” Just then, the door to the library flew open. The last two people in the world Olivia expected to see burst in: The Lady Isabella, and Thomas. “Thomas, watch out!” Olivia cried, as the intruder swung his gun from pointing at Lord Balton to aiming at the lowly gardener. Thomas seized the Lady Isabella and spun her behind him, using his broad and muscular back as a living shield. Olivia watched in terror as the intruder tightened his finger on the trigger … Thump! Isabella clung to Thomas, who grunted in fear. Olivia shrieked and closed her eyes. Everyone winced. The gunman was lying unconscious on the floor. He had made the mistake of taking his eye off Lord Balton when Thomas and Lady Isabella entered, allowing Lord Balton the opportunity to break the plaster bust over the intruder’s head. It lay in a thousand pieces alongside the gunman, whose head already sported an angry red welt. “Oh, help me,” Olivia cried, then dissolved in tears. “My gown,” lamented Isabella, nearly fainting in Thomas’ arms. The Duke of Brexington appeared at the door. With his cunning, clever eyes, he seemed to register in a moment what had happened. “What did I tell you, Lady Isabella?” he thundered. “I feared for your safety.” “You,” he ordered, pointing at Olivia. “And you,” he snapped, pointing at Isabella. “Into my quarters, now.” Much too numb to care that she had been caught, Olivia stiffly staggered to her feet and followed the Duke and Lady Isabella from the room. The last thing he heard was Thomas say awkwardly, “Good evening to you, Lord Balton.” “Good evening, Mr…” “Ashburn.” “Ah, yes. Mr. Ashburn. Tie this scoundrel up before he comes to, and notify the police immediately.” “Yes, Your Grace,” Thomas said. ●●● Although this was, of course, not his permanent estate, His Grace visited the Lady’s household often enough to afford a resident office. Olivia had, in fact, been in there to tidy up the room several times. The Duke threw a log into the smouldering fire, sat at his desk, placed his head in his hands, and for several long moments did not say anything. Lady Isabella, instead, turned upon Olivia. “You lying, stinking little thief,” she hissed, as beautiful and frightening as an angry swan. “You stole my gown. And –” She saw the corner of Paradise Lost, poking from the reticule designed to be hidden in a slit of the dress. “And my father’s books. How dare you. You’re fired! In fact, I’ll have you hanged. You can even wear my pretty little gown while you dangle. It’s ruined anyway –” “Darling niece,” the Duke interrupted. “This young wench’s thievery might just have saved your life.” Isabella turned to him, startled. But the Duke spoke now to Olivia. “Correct me if I am wrong, but the assailant mistook you for Her Ladyship, did he not?” Olivia returned him a trembling nod. “As did Lady Mariam Horschester?” Another nod. “Why?” “I …” Olivia fumbled for her words. “She believed her Ladyship to be wearing this golden gown. I imagine the intruder thought the same.” “I see. And why were you wearing this gown?” She wished she could simply shrivel up on the spot. “I … Miss Camille ordered me to repair it, and I thought ... with a gown like this … I could attend the ball.” “Ah! You snake!” thundered Isabella. “You deceitful little cow dropping, how dare you steal my clothes, and even think you could pass for the gentry that walk my fine halls? You filthy, ugly, skinny, spotted little toad –” “Actually, my Bella, I think that this housemaid – what is your name?” “Miss … Olivia,” she stammered. “I think that Miss Olivia looks remarkably like you. Don’t you agree?” “She looks nothing of the sort,” snapped Isabella, but Olivia took a moment to ponder it. They had the same golden hair, the same slim, elegant frame that each fit so well in the incriminating gown. They even had similar mouths, with full, dainty lips that curled into China-doll-like smiles. “Perhaps, Your Grace,” she ventured. “Even the Earl of Balton, who had seen her Ladyship before, believed me to be her.” “Did he now? That’s very interesting. I wonder; does he still believe it?” “I could not say, Sir. The events following the gunshot were very confusing. I could not imagine whether he could have pieced together the true identity of her Ladyship from those few chaotic moments.” “Well, of course he did!” shouted Isabella, stomping her foot. “The Earl and I have a profound connection, which …” Olivia did her best not to smile, but, evidently, she failed, for the look on her face spurred the Lady into further rage. “Uncle!” she cried. “Arrange for the execution of this upstart at once. I want her strung up like the common criminal she is –” “Oh, do be quiet, Isabella,” the Duke demanded wearily. More out of shock than obedience, the Lady Isabella hushed her tongue. “Don’t you realize that you, your life, was deliberately and intentionally threatened this night? I have warned you. So long as your father’s life hangs in doubt, you will be in danger. Though the lavish parties and balls may not indicate it, these are dangerous times. My darling, you are in danger. So, too, are you, Miss Olivia, for my niece is perfectly entitled to have you hanged for your crimes. However, I have a proposition that will perhaps suit you both.” Isabella glared in frank disdain. Olivia had a timid curiosity she would not dare call hope. “Miss Olivia, I propose you continue to impersonate the Lady Isabella until such time as we receive news of her father’s fate from the Napoleonic front. That way, any subterfuge or assassination attempts will be centred on you, rather than the true Lady. In exchange, your thievery and your deceit will be forgiven. Understood?” This? This was to be her punishment? To continue to play out this fantasy? Was this what she was supposed to understand? “I … I do,” she murmured, so eager to contain her joy that she managed little more than a whisper. “And what am I supposed to do?” Isabella said in a shrill voice. “Pretend to be a maid?” “Precisely,” said the Duke. Isabella gasped. For a moment, she was as frozen as a marble statue, unable to move or speak. “Mr. Ashburn, the gardener, will guide you,” the Duke said. “If he has not figured out the switch already, he will certainly work it out at some point. I am told he is a reasonably intelligent man, for a commoner.” In her heart, Olivia felt a swelling of pride for her friend. That was high praise, from a Duke. This pride, however, was quickly replaced by pity (and, she acknowledged, some degree of humour) when she realized what that meant: Thomas would be stuck mentoring an angry Duke’s daughter for God knows how long. She fought, quite strongly, the desire to laugh. “I will not do it,” declared Isabella, who obviously had returned to her venomous self. She slammed her fist on her Uncle’s desk, quite unladylike. “You will!” thundered the Duke, rising from his chair. “Because I am your superior. Your only other option is this: you shut yourself up in this place, and hear nor speak to anyone. You can become a prisoner in your own home, or you can gallivant as a housemaid for a time. Which, my free-spirited, ever capricious niece, would you prefer?” Isabella crossed her arms and scowled. For a time, Olivia thought she would prefer self-imprisonment, simply to spite her Uncle. Then, at last, her curiosity won out. “Order the gardener a bath,” she sulked. “I will not be seen in the company of an unwashed lowlife, certainly not.” And with that, still grumbling, she stomped without dismissal from the room. There was a shadow of a smile on the Duke’s severe face. “You may go,” he told Olivia. She curtsied and said, “Good night, Your Grace,” and tiptoed from the chamber. “Remember,” he called after her. “You sleep in the master quarters tonight.” But Olivia remembered. She was not concerned that an assassin might be after her, or that political intrigue might claim her throat before the morrow had dawned. For tonight, she would be sleeping in a bedroom fit for a queen. Once her door was safely locked behind her, she let out a whoop of joy. ●●● Lady Isabella, meanwhile, begrudgingly went to call the gardener – Mr. Ashbin, Askton, something of the sort – out to the patio to speak to him. Before she could get him in private, however, the Earl of Balton, who had been waiting with him, called to her, “Miss! Please, Miss! Is the Lady Isabella all right?” Thomas opened his mouth in confusion, but Isabella silenced him with a glare. Though gritted teeth she responded: “She is well, but fatigued. The Duke has sent her to bed. He recommends your return to the ball. Now, Mr. whomever, come with me.” She seized the startled and baffled gardener by the hand and led him out the door, the Earl’s gaze following hopefully after her. “Mr. Ashburn,” he said, when they were on the private patio. “What?” she snapped. “My name is Mr. Ashburn.” She glared at him. “You could not begin to fathom how little I care,” she said. Thomas glared right back. “Oh, I think I can,” he replied. “You care as little, I’d imagine, as you do for Miss Olivia. Which is why I’m wondering why you would allow Lord Balton to believe she is you.” Isabella was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps her Uncle was right about the gardener’s intelligence. Yet, she could not let Mr. Ashburn know that. With as much disdain as she could muster, Isabella explained the dangers she was facing, and the Duke’s plan to attend to it. Thomas listened at first with surprise, then disbelief, and then, finally, anger. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I will not allow Miss Olivia to be subjected to the power-hungry failings of your class.” “Your Miss Olivia does not have a choice,” sneered Isabella. “It is this or the gallows. She stole from me, you see, a gown worth more than you’d make in a year.” Thomas was stunned. “That was why she was wearing …” He suddenly wilted. “I could never make her happy,” he said. “Of course you couldn’t,” Isabella said. “Men don’t make women happy. They make them rich. That’s their total function.” Thomas gave her a sour look. “So, what does this have to do with me?” he asked. “You are to be my guide, of course. You shall, ah, school me in the ways of being common. You should consider yourself lucky. Most men would kill to spend such time with me.” “Too bad the last one failed,” Thomas muttered under his breath. Isabella heard him, but found it too amusing to take offence. “Look, Mr. Ashburn,” she said. “Do you accept or not?” Thomas sighed, worrying his hat in his hands. At last, he said, “If I help you, and keep your secret safe, will you let Olivia free at the end? Would she be safe from punishment, for the past, and for any mistakes she makes in her impersonation?” “That is the way of it,” the Lady said. “Yes, my Lady. I shall do it.” He said this like a man confessing to a felony. “Great,” she said and clapped her hands in anticipation. “So, what do we do first?” A menacing smile crept across his face. “First,” he said, “I show you where you sleep.” A wave of disgust surged through Isabella. Where did the servants sleep? She found that, though she had had them her entire life, she hadn’t the faintest idea. Were there perhaps mounds of dirt behind the gardener’s cabin? Maybe they set up little tents, making sure to hide their existence by constructing them well after she went to bed and dismantling them before dawn. She was quite relieved, therefore, when they started walking back through the house. “Ah, through the servant’s door,” Thomas admonished her as she took a step towards the grand entrance. Scowling, she changed her course, and veered to the tiny wooden entrance, hidden beneath the back stairs. Grimacing, she touched the greasy knob and went inside. Once in, Thomas pointed to a long, winding staircase that disappeared into the zenith of the house. At first, she thought he jested, but his wry, condescending look soon proved it otherwise. Up they wound until Isabella found herself growing dizzy with fatigue. Though she hated to do it, she had to take Thomas’ hand to make the final ascension. There, in the tiniest, windowless garret, on a mattress of straw, was where she was supposed to sleep. “Good night, your highness,” Thomas mocked, before bowing from the room. Isabella could hear him sniggering all the way down the stairs. She assessed the room before her. “Well,” she sniffed, “the humidity will be good for my hair.” Then she collapsed on the “bed” and cried her sorry, made-up eyes out. It seemed she had barely closed her eyes to sleep when the scratchy voice of Mrs. Mason clawed upon her door until she awoke to do her chores. Chapter 4 Up Is Down; Down Is Up Olivia had a wonderful night. She awoke well after the sun rose and was offered tea in bed. In bed! The other servants gave her a funny look – they certainly suspected something, but propriety of course forbid them from questioning the daughter of a Duke. Once she had dressed and breakfasted (on a luscious, rich meal of eggs and actual bacon, served on white toast) she descended into the living area of the house only to be alerted by the butler that she had received a morning call. Judging by Lord Balton’s initial scrutiny of her appearance, followed by an immediate acceptance of the situation, Olivia figured the Duke had warned him she would be impersonating Isabella, for he was one of the few who knew her well and would have recognized the difference immediately. Feeling distinctly privileged to sort through the Lady Isabella’s personal correspondence, Olivia had a look: As she surmised, the call was from the Earl of Balton, inviting her for a stroll of the countryside, accompanied by her Lady’s maid as chaperone, of course. Olivia scowled. She was sure Lord Balton thought he was doing her a favour by not coupling her with the pruned face old Lady Miriam Horschester, but Olivia was not sure she could trust Miss Camille with her secret, let alone tolerate her behaviour. Yet, she would be going for a walk with The Earl of Balton. My goodness. She supposed putting up with Camille was the least she could do. Eager to test the water, she rang the bell for Camille to come and help her dress appropriately. Camille entered, eyed her strangely for a moment, then said, “My Lady. You should fraternize with the Earl more often. You look like a whole new woman.” Olivia grinned. Camille may have been higher in rank than her lowly housemaid self, but she certainly wasn’t higher in intelligence. Olivia had good fun ordering Camille around. Trying on outfits, forcing her to assemble new ones. It was a new experience for Olivia, to give, rather than receive orders, and she took full advantage of it. If for a moment she felt a twinge of guilt at her behaviour, all she needed to do was remind herself that this was Camille. It was about time she was paid back for her simpering sycophantism. Once gorgeously assembled – in a cream-coloured walking gown beneath a form-fitting, wine-red spencer – Olivia thought even she would have trouble recognizing herself as a housemaid, rather than the extravagantly rich Lady Isabella. Ton society is really all in the look, she thought. They departed and went to greet Lord Balton not far from the estate. He, too, was dressed magnificently. He had ridden his horse there, and was therefore in full riding garb, from his firm, calf-hugging boots to his sheer, form-fitted pantaloons that matched his hand-embroidered riding jacket. He saw Olivia and bowed not only to her, but to Camille as well. Both giggled, but Olivia at least had the self-control to stop after a moment’s indulgence. “Shall we?” he said, offering his arm. Her heart skipped a beat, and she hooked her hand around his muscular bicep and accompanied him on his stroll. With a glare, she was sure to keep Camille respectfully distant. “You seem different today,” he said after a time. His smile was so broad and welcoming that it caught the sun with his teeth. “Do you mean, since last night, or in general?” “Since last night,” he said. “Did the gunman’s attack leave you unduly worried?” “No, my Lord,” she said, quite honestly. “Today I feel as if I am the most fortunate woman in the world.” “Which would make me the most fortunate man,” he said. She caught his eyes, which were crinkled with admiration, and they both hurriedly looked away. “On a serious note, however,” he continued at last, “I worry for you very much. Does His Grace have reason to believe such a heinous event might occur again?” Worried that answering in the affirmative might scare him off, Olivia said, “No, my Lord. He believes that to have been a singular event. I don’t think you have any reason to worry.” “I was not worried for my sake,” he murmured, and Olivia felt herself blush. “I do so enjoy the opportunity to stroll and be outside,” she said, pausing with him to gaze down the hill they had just crested, which terminated in a lovely, clear mountain stream. She breathed deeply of the sweet fresh air, so different from the confines of the kitchen or the attic. “What do you mean?” the Earl queried. “What are you doing that prevents you from pursuing your pleasures?” Olivia faltered. She realized that, as Isabella, she would of course have plenty of time to do whatever she pleased. She didn’t have to work from dawn until dusk every day. “Oh, I meant my reading. I try to study very hard, to improve myself for when my father returns. I want him to see I have spent my time wisely.” That, at least in part, was true. Olivia had promised her mother, before the stillborn birth of her younger sister had killed her, that she would retain her literary capabilities, and in that way raise herself from the grim fate to which her mother had been subjected. Lord Balton looked at her with what seemed an increasing respect. “I know you like the works of Milton,” he said. “What other works interest you?” “Oh, so many,” gushed Olivia. “Shakespeare, Keats, Yeats. Once, when I was younger, I got a hold of a copy of Playwrights of the Seventeenth Century. I read it so often it turned to dust, and my heart was broken when I had to get rid of it.” “Your heart broke?” echoed Lord Balton. “Why did you not simply purchase another? Or borrow one from your many friends?” Olivia paused, open mouthed. She realized how easily she could take for granted the excesses of Lady Isabella’s wealthy life, especially when talking to Lord Balton, with whom she felt dangerously at ease. “Oh … I was sentimental about that particular version … you know, it had all my marks and annotations.” “I see,” he replied, but he continued to look at her strangely. “What about you?” she asked, desperate to take the scrutiny off her. “Actually, I’ve been reading a lot about the rise of the industrial revolution and its effects on the lower classes. As you may know, I have several sheep farms as part of my estate, which have been profoundly altered by the new demand for wool, and …” He continued, and Olivia listened in equal parts of surprise and wonder. He was talking about things the servants and their families only whispered about. Olivia knew she was lucky. She could have landed in a factory. She could have been a scullery maid. It was only her pretty face and her connections through Thomas that allowed her to land this incredible opportunity for which she was profoundly unsuited. She knew what other sorts of workers endured, ones born not so fortunate in features. What surprised her, was that he, an Earl, knew it too. “I had no idea the upper gentry concerned themselves with such things,” she exclaimed. He frowned. “What do you mean? You are upper gentry.” Olivia sighed. She should stop talking. Perhaps if she quieted long enough, they would start kissing again. Lord Balton seemed to sense her intention, for after a moment’s silence, he paused. A downed tree, overhanging the stream, offered itself as fine seating. Lord Balton took her hand and led her to it. She sat, and he settled himself beside her. “I never thought I could experience something like this,” she murmured to herself. She placed her hand on the log beside him, clearly visible. “Why not? You can be given the world.” Ever so gently, his hand alighted upon hers. “But what sort of world?” Her voice had withered into a whisper. He took her chin in his hand, and guided her face towards his, so that their noses nearly touched. “Whatever world allows you and me to be together, in this moment and forever,” he said, and kissed her. She gasped, then threw herself upon him. She felt his arms encircle her body. She, too, cupped his shoulders, his back, his hair. But the more fervently she embraced him, the more she felt tears spring unbidden to her eyes. “Forgive me,” she said, pushing away from him. “Forgive me.” “My dear, what is the matter?” he asked. “I have not been fair to you. Us, together forever … I’m afraid … it can never be!” He stared at her with wide eyes full of hurt. She wrested her hand away from him and fled. Camille, waiting nearby, saw the tear-stricken face of her mistress and gaped. Olivia could not look her in the eye, and instead strode directly past her, and hurried back to the estate, her silent sobs shaking her the entire way. Lord Balton waited, forlorn and confused, until the Lady was out of sight. ●●● By the time Olivia was kissing the Earl of Balton by the stream, Lady Isabella’s hands were blistered and bleeding. “My goodness,” Thomas exclaimed. “What have you been doing? You’re not a scullery maid.” Rather than answering him, Isabella seized the pail of water he had in his hands and hefted it herself. She was determined not to let this lowly commoner watch her suffer. With her jaw set, she staggered from the well where he had drawn the water to carry it into the house. Her arms and legs were so sore she was forced to waddle, the pail held in quite an undignified way between her legs, which made her problems even worse: By the time she made it through the door and up the stairs, half of her efforts had been spilled out onto the floor, so not only did she have to take extra trips, but she had to mop that up as well. Overwhelmed by not only the hopelessness of the situation but by the sheer ridiculousness of it, Isabella felt tears, unbidden, spill from her eyes. “Whoa, whoa,” Thomas murmured, inching up beside her on the stairwell and taking the bucket from her. Like a bridge held together by the weight of its uppermost stones, this sudden relief made Isabella feel lightheaded. She collapsed, with a smattering of sniffles and tears, onto a step. As if it were light as a cup of tea, Thomas placed the bucket on a lower step, then sat down beside her. “Look,” he said, “I’ve been thinking about it, and I realized I’ve been treating you unfairly since last night. You did not ask to be attacked by political enemies, nor did you concoct this preposterous plan your uncle has forced upon you. How could I have possibly expected you to understand or empathize with Miss Olivia or myself, given the life you have led?” His sympathy, rather than helping, seemed to upset Isabella all the more. Her intermittent tears broke into sobs, and she lowered her head into her arms as she wailed: “Stupid Olivia! Stupid Thomas! Stupid uncle! I did not ask for any of this! It was my misfortune, brought on by the cursed circumstances of my birth, which has cast me into this situation. Oh, unfortunate me, to be born into a life that would condemn me to such a fate ...” She trailed off, sensing Thomas’ eyes upon her, half pitying, and half deeply amused. Why should he be amused? What possible humour or irony could he see in her misery? “Oh,” she murmured. Thomas put his arm around her shoulders. For a moment, she was startled, scandalized, and began to draw away. But in his gentle touch, the muscular, steady weight of his arm upon her, even in his smell – earthy, like horses and barley – she suddenly found comfort. Her sobbing quieted. She rested her head against his neck, breathing in a sort of easement she had never before experienced. She felt him stroking her golden locks, and, with the gentleness of the brush of a sparrow’s wing, he kissed the crown of her forehead. She gasped. Her hand, unbidden, found his. Their palms were naked. Never before had she touched a man without gloves. Tenderly, he began to massage her sore and blistered flesh. She closed her eyes and felt tears fall. But, she realized, they were not tears of sadness. “My Lady!” cried Mrs. Mason, whose sole duty in the household, it seemed, was to interrupt pleasurable moments. “Mrs. Mason!” Isabella screamed back, suddenly sharp and nettling as her old self. “You cannot be heard calling me that!” “I know, my dear, but I only do so for your own benefit. If someone sees you neglecting your duties, you are bound to undergo scrutiny. We still do not know who informed your enemies of your wardrobe. It could have been any member of the staff.” “Yes, thank you,” she said with a sigh, wanting to call Camille to massage her temples. Then she remembered that, for the moment, Camille served that blasted Olivia. She took a deep breath, exhaled, then staggered to her feet. With utmost determination, she reached down and seized her bucket of water and began to heave it once again up the stairs. “Would you like me to help –” Thomas began. “I would not!” Isabella snapped. Then she said more softly, “I am the daughter of a Duke, one of the gentry of this fair kingdom. If I can rule an estate, I certainly should be able to carry this bucket. I … thank you for your apology, and for your words of comfort.” With that, she leaned forward, and placed a kiss of thanks on his lips. It was little more than a peck, but by his blush and the sudden widening of his eyes, she could see it struck him deeply. Chapter 5 Goodbye, My Lady Olivia spent the next three days sulking in her bedroom, which was both a privilege and a curse of her newfound gentry status. In fact, she actually missed her work, because it would have helped take her mind off the misery that tormented her at every turn. The Earl of Balton. How she longed for him. She longed for those gentle, sapphire eyes. She longed for his hands, soft yet strong, and the clean smell of his clothing, and the glimmering clarity of his hair. But it was more than just a desire for his physical company. He represented something to her she never imagined could have existed: a smart, kind, educated gentleman who cared to listen to her desires and strove to better the world around him. During her enforced solitude, she inquired about his estate. She found that his workers were treated well and fairly, and that all his study in class conditions resulted in a positive effect on those he was responsible for. It was as if God himself had opened the curtains of heaven, and lowered a celestial hand to comfort the weary traveller, to say he did know of the traveller’s plight and suffering, and he was trying to do something about it. Alas, it was too good to be true. But not Lord Balton. He seemed in every regard to be honest to Olivia. It was she who was too good to be true. In fact, she was a total lie. Twice, Lord Balton called on the estate in his desire to see her. Twice, she had the butler turn him away. The first time should have been enough. It was considered extremely forward to attempt the second. And yet, Lord Balton apparently cared enough for her to try. This made the second time all the harder. She tried talking to Camille about her feelings, but she found the vacant woman did nothing but echo her sentiments, like an extremely well-groomed parrot. She was happy to listen, of course, always eagerly so, but she could never comment with thoughts of her own. Several times, she had gone down to talk to Thomas, but nearly every time she saw him devotedly helping the real Isabella. She was grateful he was taking great pains to make sure this plan worked, but nonetheless she ended up even more melancholy after every one of these failed meetings. Who she wanted to talk to the most, of course, was Lord Balton. And he was the last person in the world in whom she could confide. Finally, when she could not take it anymore, she ordered her horse prepared. She would tolerate no chaperones. She wanted time alone, out in the countryside where she felt truly at home. She mounted her horse like a man. The startled gasps of witnesses could not begin to dent the resolve she felt inside her. With a cry and a kick of her heels, the horse was off. She had no clear plan of where she was going. The morning was wet with dew, and the fog heavy, but she did not care. She just wanted to pound out her pent-up energy in the endless thunder of the horse’s hooves, and drown the endless cycling of her thoughts in the wind that howled in her ears. She did not direct the horse, but let it choose its own path. She rode until her muscles ached and her horse was lathered with sweat. At last, her thirst and exhaustion compelled her to slow, and to amble to the stream that flowed nearby. She bent, and, like a servant, not a lady, splashed her face with its cool mountain water. “To be that water, which touches upon your every feature,” said a wistful voice. Startled, Olivia gasped and whirled around. There, on the very tree over the stream where they had kissed, sat the Earl of Balton. She gaped stupidly at him, water dripping down into her open mouth. He chuckled, leapt from the downed tree with the grace of a cat, and approached. Lovingly, like he would for a child, he took the end of his coat in his hand and wiped her cheeks and chin dry. “How did you know I would be here?” she whispered. “I did not. I have been coming here for my own solace for several days now. It is, then, a divine symbol of fate that you should appear as well.” “It was not my intention to see you,” she said, her heart pounding. “I presumed that, when I saw you dunk your lovely head into the water beside your horse,” he said. She felt like someone struggling for purchase on a sheet of ice. No matter how she placed herself, her feet would slip out from beneath her, and she would fall deeper and deeper in love with him. Her lower lip trembled. “Please, my Lord. Do not mock me.” “I could never mock that which I admire. You seem … so much more in touch with life, with the immediate physical necessity, than any of the pampered princesses I usually meet who walk the halls of estates such as ours. How did you learn such humility?” Olivia stared at him. For a moment, her secret trembled on her lips, like the edge of water fighting to overflow from a bowl. It would solve things, she thought, simply to reveal her shameful birth. He would flee her in an instant, and she would never be haunted by his handsomeness again. But the horror his face would show … she could not bear it. And it would be betraying Isabella, who, privileged and entitled as she was, had afforded her this incredible opportunity. When she did not answer, the Earl cupped her cheeks in his hands, and compelled her to meet his gaze. “I see that you love me,” he breathed into her. “It is written in your eyes. Why then, this fear? This hesitancy?” Olivia’s self-control splintered. The tears she had been fighting so hard to keep back spilled over. “I cannot be with you,” she said. “But, my Lady, please – ” “No, Lord Balton. All the loving words in the world cannot change this fact. I cannot be with you.” “But, my Lady, I know! I know that.” “Enough!” she cried, and for a moment, she really could have been born royalty. “I do not wish to see you! Why do you plague me with your presence? Be gone from here! These are my lands, and I no longer welcome you upon them!” The Earl’s protests evaporated on his lips, like sweet drops of water beneath a scathing, merciless sun. “If that is truly your desire,” he murmured. Then he stood. Despite the grief that wracked him, the grief that painted his eyes with gloom and made every breath a struggle, his shoulders were held straight, and his gait was dignified. “Goodbye, my Lady.” He bowed and walked away. Through the fog, she could hear him mount his horse, and kick it into a gallop. She stayed where she was and listened until the sound was swallowed up by the endless silence of distance. Only then did she remount her own horse and plod steadily home. Chapter 6 The Blackguards A week later, Isabella was out at the village, purchasing fine linens for the estate. Of all her new chores, this was one she quite enjoyed. As a lowly housemaid, she could travel pretty much wherever she wanted without the gawking eyes of others, and though she thought this would be disappointing at first, she found it quite liberating. She didn’t even need a chaperone. She could go to whatever store her “class” was permitted, peer into restaurants, and even enter pubs. She was at a pub now, sitting alone at a corner table with a glass of wine, relishing the sticky, bitter smell of men and spirits, and daydreaming of her last encounter with Thomas. He had taught her to prune rose bushes. His strong, bare, muscular arms worked round the leaves and branches with surprising tenderness, so that she was quickly mesmerized by his movements and just as quickly forgot the important points of his lesson. He did not seem to mind, however. After a jesting scold, he would simply repeat himself, after pausing for long moments to smile at her, or watch the sun glow on her skin. She was getting quite a tan. She pictured him mouthing her name, her real name, in secret whispers, which he did only when he leaned close: My Lady Isabella – “The Lady Isabella …” She jerked her head up and came out of her reverie. Startled, she turned around, looking for the source of her name, and she saw three men at a table not far from hers: two she recognized distantly as other gentry, Marquises and Viscounts from the east, and the third was the Earl of Balton. Hastily, she pulled her maid’s cap down over her face, scooped up her bags of linens to hide her body shape, and strained to hear their conversation. “We are afraid to tell you, my Lord,” said one of the men, “that the woman you know as the Lady Isabella is in fact not her at all, but an imposter.” Nailed to the spot by shock, Isabella watched as Balton’s face paled. “How could you possibly know that?” he demanded. The two gentlemen chuckled. “Letters,” they said, pulling several from their pockets. “The stupid Lady’s maid there has relatives in our estates. Nightly, she copies all sorts of secrets, and sends them directly to our household, like manna from heaven.” Camille! You idiot! Isabella thought. That was how they knew about the golden gown. “I’m afraid, my Lord,” said the other, “you have been swindled by nothing more than a common harlot.” Lord Balton blushed a hot red. Isabella watched as his lips pursed, his face losing its blush and growing increasingly drawn and pale, until at last he seemed as cold and forbidding as a marble statue. “What do you want with me?” he asked, his voice as stoic and measured as a spoonful of sand. “The idiot Lady’s maid does not know where the real Isabella is.” Isabella breathed a short sigh of relief. At least in this case her stupidity was helpful. “And we were hoping that you, a more … educated man, might have deduced it.” Isabella felt fear stream through her suddenly, as if she’d swallowed a gulp of ice water. The Lord Balton was an intelligent, and now humiliated, man. She trembled with fear as she watched his eyes narrow, then widen with what could only be realization. But he said, “I … do not. Now, gentlemen, I really must be going.” And with that, he stood, bowed, and fled the pub nearly at a run. Isabella watched in horror. Though he’d denied it, his actions could not have indicated more clearly that he knew where she, the real Isabella, was hiding. How did he know? What connection had he between Olivia and herself? Then the thought struck her like lightning: Thomas! Her heart racing, Isabella dashed from the pub, her shopping completely forgotten. ●●● Olivia was lying in bed, stewing in one of her common sulks whose patterns had emerged after she dismissed Lord Balton. Twice Camille had tried to come in to chatter with her about goodness knew what, and twice Olivia had spurned her attempts. Instead, she got up and numbly walked to her window, seeing nothing, caring about nothing. And then, like the rising of the sun after a long, cold winter’s night, there was Lord Balton walking down the garden path. “My Lord!” she cried. She pressed her forehead against the cool glass to see him all the better. She hastily straightened her hair, her gown, everything to make her look presentable for when he knocked upon the door – Wait. He was not approaching the entrance to the estate, but instead veered left, heading towards… “Oh, God,” she gasped. “Thomas!” He was heading towards the gardener’s cottage. Her head whirled in confusion and panic as she pulled on her shoes, bolted down the stairs, and burst out through the door below. “Olivia!” someone shouted. She was stunned; it had been so long since she had heard her real name. She looked up to see a woman on a horse thundering towards her. It was Isabella, her hair loose and flowing, her cheeks flecked with mud, everything about her unrecognizable from the night she forsook her birthright. “What is it?” cried Olivia. Isabella leapt from the horse. “Lord Balton,” she panted. “He knows our secret, and knows that Thomas knows it, too! And what’s worse, I’m worried that the men who questioned him know as well and are on their way!” Olivia’s face drained of colour. “My God,” she stammered. “Isabella, look!” She pointed into the woods. There, two men, garbed completely in black, just like the one who had attacked her, emerged from the shadows of the trees. Creeping like spiders, they made their menacing way to the cottage, in which Lord Balton had disappeared. “Come on,” Isabella said, seizing Olivia by the hand. But Olivia resisted. “No, no,” she said. “I can’t go in there. Lord Balton is in there. He knows my secret. He’ll hate me. I cannot face him –” Isabella slapped Olivia – hard. The blow knocked her backwards a step; her mouth fell open and left her shocked and speechless. “In this moment,” Isabella hissed, “you are a Lady, and sometimes that means taking responsibility and enduring the hate of those around you. That is the gift and the curse of the title. Everyone, everywhere, watches and waits for your indiscretion. Now come on! There are two men in there we love!” Olivia gazed at her mirror image, brimming with passion and resolve. For the first time, Olivia saw the true authority, the woman born of a Duke, with fire in her eyes. “Yes,” Olivia said. “You’re right. Let’s go!” The assassins crept to the cottage door. The ladies, too, inched closer, watching in horror as the men each drew a pistol. Pointing his weapon at the door, the first attacker drew back his hand and knocked. The door opened. Forgetting their fear, forgetting propriety, Olivia and Isabella together dashed forward. “Lord Balton!” Olivia screamed. “Thomas!” Isabella cried. Thump! Thump! The women winced, then heard what sounded like two bodies hitting the floor. The women fell to their knees and sobbed uncontrollably. A minute or two later Olivia felt a hand on her shoulder. “My darling, are you all right?” The women looked up. “My Lord!” “Thomas!” The women jumped to their feet, catching their beloved in their embraces and planting them each with a kiss. “What happened?” asked Olivia. “How did you know?” asked Isabella. The two men looked at each other and smiled. “Miss Olivia,” said Lord Balton, addressing her by her real name for the first time. “I knew from the moment I laid eyes on you that you were not the true Lady Isabella. But it was not until today, when I made the connection to Thomas, that I learned your true name. Olivia.” He breathed with the sound of it, the truth of it, soft and gentle as the breeze that lifts one’s hair from her face. Thomas, holding Isabella in close embrace, said, “After determining the truth of the situation, Lord Balton deduced that the men would follow him here. Therefore, he rushed into my cabin to warn me. With just enough time, we were able to, uh, well, arm ourselves you might say, and, well, you can see the consequences for yourself.” Olivia, pushing away for a moment from the embrace of Lord Balton, peered through the open doorway of the cabin. Two men lay unconscious on their stomachs on the floor, hands tied behind their backs and their feet bound. “My Lord,” Olivia said, “you are becoming quite adept at rendering people unconscious.” “Oh, well, I had excellent help from Mr. Ashburn. He provided both of us with wooden clubs, otherwise known as garden posts. We stood on chairs on either side of the door, so when they poked their heads inside, we sent them immediately to dreamland. “They will be fine, although when they awake they will have splitting headaches and knots on their heads the size and colour of ripe plums.” “I probably know the answer to this,” Isabella said, “but what exactly did all these Blackguards have in mind?” “They simply wanted to know who the real Isabella is,” Thomas said, “so they could kidnap you and hold you for ransom from your father and from your uncle, the Duke of Brexington.” “These hooligans will soon find themselves in prison for a long time,” Lord Balton added. “But be aware, Lady Isabella, there are more criminals where these came from.” “Be assured I will not be flippant about my uncle’s concern ever again,” she said. “But now I will have a bodyguard – I hope for a lifetime.” She took Thomas’ hand and looked deep into his eyes. Thomas nodded and smiled. They kissed. ●●● Already a crowd of baffled occupants poured from the house. Maids and kitchen staff screamed and clung to each other. Footmen and grooms saw to it the police were notified. The Duke of Brexington, disturbed from his repose in his office, emerged with a stunned, angry, yet relieved countenance, and marched straight to where Olivia, Isabella, Thomas, and Lord Balton stood. Isabella, clearing her throat, said, “I will handle my uncle. It’s about time I resumed my responsibility to my family.” With that, she kissed Thomas on the mouth, then marched, her glorious head held strong and proud, to her uncle. Olivia looked at Thomas, who was blushing as deeply red as one of his famous tomatoes, and giggled. She felt a hand entwine with hers, and she looked up at Lord Balton. “You knew all along?” she murmured in wonder. “Since very near the beginning. The night after my first visit here, Mrs. Mason wrote to me, asking if I had borrowed one of her Ladyship’s books, which had gone missing. She described it in great detail. When I saw you had it, and began to examine your … unusual behaviour, I realized that perhaps you were not who you said you were.” Olivia blushed deeply. For a time, she had forgotten that this entire episode had started from her single act of selfishness and greed. “Forgive me, my Lord,” she said, looking at her feet. “I should better know my place.” And she tried to walk away. A gentle hand on her shoulder, however, stopped her. “There is nothing wrong with trying to better oneself,” he said. “Or with wanting a better life. That is the firm moral of all my studies. What one cannot do, is achieve it through thievery.” Olivia breathed deeply. “Then, you, too, must adjust your behaviour, as you are guilty of thievery yourself.” “What is that?” he asked. She looked into his eyes. “You have stolen my heart.” Chapter 7 Each Other Three months later, the Lady Isabella was in a delirium of excitement for an upcoming ball. She had her Lady’s maid assemble an entire boutique’s worth of options for the night’s apparel, on which she was deliberating now. “Hurry up with the rest. Come on. I’m brimming with anticipation.” Her Lady’s maid, absolutely laden with clothes, staggered through the door and tossed the pile on her bed. Miss Olivia, thus extraordinarily promoted after Camille’s abrupt dismissal, wiped her brow and looked at the array of gowns and accessories spilled out before her. “Which were you thinking of wearing, my Lady?” she asked. Isabella pondered for a moment. “Well, the midnight blue one is by far the most impressive of my evening gowns. However, will not the Earl of Balton be attending tonight?” “He will be, my Lady,” said Olivia, blushing. “And why all this embarrassment, my dear?” asked Isabella. “Well, he has been to the last three balls, and has danced with me at least twice at every one. And lately, he has been acting so strangely.” Isabella, who had been discussing the matter with Thomas just that morning, smiled a mischievous smile. “Are you hoping, Miss Olivia, that he will propose?” Olivia did not answer, but a blossoming grin on her face told all. “Then you shall wear the midnight blue,” Isabella said. “I have always preferred green, anyway. It is Thomas’s favourite colour.” Olivia smiled. “Is he finally to be attending, then?” “Not officially, no. But he will be there. Goodness knows, with all this political unrest, and my father still at war, a woman like me needs a strapping young bodyguard.” Thomas, too, had been promoted. However, he still found time to attend to his flowers, which he offered on a regular basis to both young women. In fact, despite their heightened offices, both Olivia and Thomas had a marked increase in their leisure time. All servants of the Roslyn estate had. As if transformed, Isabella had resumed her post as Lady of the estate by establishing new traditions such as shortened work hours, holidays, and even, on many occasions, gratitude. Yet, there were some orders that must be obeyed: Obedient to the Lady’s wishes, Olivia removed her maid’s garb and donned the blue gown, which Isabella helped to fasten. “How I ever got on the golden one alone I will never figure out,” Olivia joked, and the two of them giggled. Once Olivia was set, she began the more extensive process of preparing her friend and mistress for the ball. By the time they were finished, both were positively resplendent. Doing a final check in the mirror, Isabella rang the servant’s bell. Seconds later, Thomas appeared, panting, at the door. He had obviously just run there. “Is there a danger, my Lady?” he asked. “Actually, yes,” said Lady Isabella. “I have to venture down an entire flight of stairs to reach the ball, and I fear, in my weakened state, I will need assistance. Will you attend me?” Thomas smiled. “Every day, for as long as you shall live,” he said, taking her hand and guiding them from the room. With a fond and happy smile, Olivia watched them depart, then sighed before reclining on the bed. She had many gowns to straighten and return to her Mistress’ closet. But for now, she desired a moment simply to relax, which she knew Isabella would not begrudge her. Below, surely dressed even more splendidly than she, awaited a man who truly loved her. This man had, despite the societal uproar that accompanied their courtship, nonetheless sought daily to increase it. She knew it was not his station or his appearance that drove her love, but his utter acceptance of who she was becoming, rather than what she had been born as. She knew Isabella felt the same of Thomas. After all, she thought, it is not about what station one is born into, but rather the realization that all we poor mortals have in this life is each other.


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