Wales, December 26, 1820
Lady Imaculata Egremont had danced naked in a fountain. She’d eloped to France with a rackety gentleman she’d just as soon forget. She’d sold chestnuts on the street. There was no reason on earth why she could not pick up a dead mouse and dispose of it with her usual élan.
She fought back an unfortunate gag and told herself to stop breathing. To think of lilac bushes in her mother’s Dorset garden in the spring. Great purple masses of them, their heavy cones bursting into flower, gray-green leaves shivering in the warm breeze. She was not in Wales. It was not winter. She was not standing bent over a tiny desiccated body in a grim hallway that smelled like death.
Somewhere her new employer must have spilled a vat of it and had probably joined the mouse. He certainly had not opened the door to her as she’d injured her hands pounding on it for a full five minutes on the misty doorstep. She’d finally taken the initiative—anyone would tell you Lady Imaculata was bold as brass—and pressed the latch herself, finding the door unlocked. If she were truly a housekeeper, she supposed she should have entered by way of the kitchen, but Lady Imaculata was an earl’s daughter, and some habits were hard to break.
The possibly dead Major Ripton-Jones had not sent her any transportation to fetch her, either. She’d gotten off the mail coach in Hay on Wye foolishly hopeful, but in the end she’d arranged for a donkey cart herself to bump her along to Llanwyr, hoping her presence had not been noted by her father’s spies. She was still almost frozen from the long ride, and the temperature in Ripton Hall’s hall was not much warmer than outside. She was probably giving the dead mouse a run for its money with her own eau de bourrique.
Lilacs. Think of lilacs. Her favorite flower. No donkeys or dead mice. It was abundantly clear why the old man had placed an advertisement for a housekeeper in The London List, and she hadn’t even gone ten paces down the dim and fragrant hallway. What would she find when she opened the closed doors? Alas, it was too late to run after the donkey cart.
She may have been raised a lady, but Lady Imaculata was now Mrs. Anne Mont. Anne was her humble middle name, much more suitable for a housekeeper. What her parents had been thinking at her christening was a mystery for the ages. Anyone who named a child Imaculata was asking for trouble. Much like those named Chastity or Christian or Prudence, the Imaculatas of the world were bound to disappoint, and she had been no exception—in fact she had taken a toe or two over the edge of propriety so often she was at a perpetual tilt.
As if a mere change of name would help her with the Herculean tasks at hand, she thought grimly. She’d need to reroute the Welsh equivalent of the Alpheus and Peneus rivers to wash away all this dirt and dust. She was very much afraid she’d gotten in over her head, and not for the first time.
With determination, she set down her portmanteau down got to work. Anne Mont needed this job, at least until she turned twenty-one and became Imaculata Egremont again to come into her funds. Two years was not so very long to endure isolation and filth, and anyway, she’d fix the filth or die trying. She closed her eyes, gingerly scooped the dead mouse up with her handkerchief and tossed it out onto the frost-covered drive, the handkerchief right along with it. Let the poor mouse have its embroidered shroud. She couldn’t imagine ever blowing her nose delicately into it again, even if she knew how to do laundry. Mrs. Anne Mont didn’t have the first idea how to wash a handkerchief or anything else, but supposed that was one of the things a housekeeper would have to learn. The major was apt to have handkerchiefs and clothes now, wasn’t he?
Her benefactress Evangeline Ramsey had pressed upon her an ancient copy of The Compleat Housewife before she left London, and Anne had plenty of time to become read it and become dismayed on her journey west. The title page alone had been daunting— “Collection of several hundred of the most approved receipts, in cookery, pastry, confectionery, preserving, pickles, cakes, creams, jellies, made wines, cordials. And also bills of fare for every month of the year. To which is added, a collection of nearly two hundred family receipts of medicines; viz. drinks, syrups, salves, ointments, and many other things of sovereign and approved efficacy in most distempers, pains, aches, wounds, sores, etc. never before made publick in these parts; fit either for private families, or such publick-spirited gentlewomen as would be beneficent to their poor neighbours.” The author Eliza Smith must have been wonderfully efficient, but then she’d never had to deal with Major Ripton-Jones’s house and his dead and living pests. The major’s house was a dismal wreck and she would earn every bit of the pittance he’d promised to pay her.
Anne batted the worst of the spiderwebs away with her wet black bonnet, hoping none of the spiders decided to take up residency in her hat. Satisfied she could now walk the gauntlet of the hallway, she opened a shut door. It revealed a monstrously large cold double drawing room, big enough to host a cotillion, badly furnished. Great swaths of cobwebs hung in every corner, Dust lay thick on every surface, windows were so smudged one could not see the frigid rain-washed fields beyond them. The fireplaces at either end were heaping-full of cold ashes. No one had sat on the mice-shredded satin sofas in a long while.
Next was the monstrously large colder dining room, in worse repair—not a chair looked able to hold her weight, and she was quite a little thing. She could have written her name on the dust on the long dining table, if she could remember that she was Anne Mont now.
The door at the end of the hall was locked, but she swore she smelled peat burning beyond it. And gin. She took a long sniff, filling her nose with the distinct aroma of drink and unwashed man.
Definitely no lilacs.
Her elderly employer was behind it, most likely, and he was snoring. He must have doused the room in alcohol—she may as well have been outside a ginhouse. Anne damned her new friend Evangeline Ramsey and her newspaper The London List with an extremely naughty oath for sending her here to the back of beyond to cater to a drunken old man.
But, Anne reminded herself, Major Ripton-Jones was better than her father, and if he wasn’t, she would bean him on the head with a kettle if she could find one in the kitchen. If she could find the kitchen.
Everyone thought her papa was a saint. If they only knew what he had tried to do with his only child once the candles were blown out, they would soon change their mind.
Anne was still a virgin. Her father had attempted but not succeeded in getting very far. Nor had the rackety gentleman she’d run off to France with, although he’d tried to alter her not-quite-innocent state before they had gotten to an altar. She’d actually been relieved when the private detective her father had hired found them, even if she had punched poor Mr. Mulgrew in the nose.
She had faced her demons for the past four years, at first wondering what it was about her that brought the devil to her doorstep. Her father, she knew, blamed her for his unnatural lust and beat her for it. He had looked at her oddly after her mother died, when she was so lost in grief and had turned to him for comfort. But when he’d finally taken her in his arms, it was not as a father, but a man. Anne had been shocked and confused, then sick with fear. She supposed she could have countered him in any number of ways—leaping to her death from the roof, chewing up some foxglove, shooting herself—or better yet, him—with her pearl-handled pistol.
She had done none of those things. Instead, she had fought him off and made herself a byword of scandal from the moment of her debut, and had the newspaper clippings to prove it. As a debutante she had been very naughty indeed. Lady Imaculata had sought low, even subterranean society in order to escape her father’s predatory attentions, thinking that he’d let her have her mother’s fortune and wash his hands of her if she misbehaved sufficiently. But no matter what foolish—and sometimes dangerous—thing she’d done, he had kept her a prisoner.
So fiery, flame-haired Lady Imaculata Egremont was no more. In her place was frowsy brunette Anne Mont, reluctant and incompetent housekeeper. Anne had noted some of the brown color had rubbed off on her pillows as she’d spent the night in coaching houses. Whatever elixir Evangeline had used on her was fading fast. Unless she could find some Atkinson’s Vegetable Dye, she’d have to confess to the major that he’d hired a red-headed imposter. Maybe the old man was so blind he’d never notice. If he could bear to live in his current squalor, appearances could not possibly matter to him.
Anne gathered her courage and used her most confident voice. She was a good mimic, and it was necessary for the major to think he had hired a forthright woman rather than a foolish, inexperienced girl. She had played a part or two in her time. Surely she could convince an old sot that she was a housekeeper, even if she didn’t know how to remove mouse excrescence from a handkerchief.
“Major Ripton-Jones! It is Mrs. Mont, your new housekeeper. Please open the door so we may become acquainted.”
The string of muffled words coming from behind the door that her governess would have forbidden did not shock her. Anne had said them anyway for maximum shock value, as often as possible, and actually just a few minutes ago. Stepping back, she lifted her chin and awaited her employer’s displeasure at being torn from his inebriated slumber.
The door was wrenched open by a towering scarecrow of a man, bearded, shaggy-haired, disreputably dressed, indubitably drunk.
And one-armed. His dirty linen shirtsleeve hung empty, flapping a bit as he had listed toward the doorframe.
He wasn’t old. Not old at all. There was a little gray in his beard—though that could very well be dust—but he could not have been much above thirty years old.
“Good afternoon,” Anne had said briskly, masking her surprise and keeping her chin high. She was bound to get a crick in her neck if she had to address him for any length of time. “I believe Mi-uh, Mr. Ramsey from The London List sent word to you that I was coming.”
He looked down at her, way down as he was so very tall, with blood-shot blue eyes. “You can’t be the housekeeper.”
He did not slur a word, although his breath nearly knocked her over. She would light no matches anywhere near him or he’d go up like a Guy Fawkes effigy.
“I can indeed, sir. I have a reference from Lady Pennington.” She pulled the forged letter from her reticule.
“How old are you, Mrs. Mont? Twelve? And where is Mr. Mont?”
Evangeline had wanted her to lie and say she lost her husband at Waterloo—which would have made Anne a fourteen-year-old bride—but the man in front of her had probably lost his arm to war so that did not seem at all sporting. Anne knew she looked young—she was young, her freckles forever marking her just a step from the schoolroom. She had decided to be reasonably honest. If Major Ripton-Jones dismissed her, she’d go back to Evangeline and try for something else. Tightrope walker, street walker, it really didn’t matter as long as she escaped her father’s predatory attentions and beatings.
“Housekeepers are always addressed as ‘Mrs.,’ Major Ripton-Jones. Surely you know that. And I am old enough. I’ve been in service for—ages.”
Ever since she walked into the house, anyway.
The man snorted and caught himself on the wall before he fell on her. “You’ll have your work cut out for you, as you can see. Your room is off the kitchen. You’d best get started.” He then shut the door in her face.
Well. T’was more or less still the Christmas season and Anne felt she should be charitable. She would carry her own bag to this bedroom—there wasn’t much in it since her flight from London had been somewhat spontaneous. She’d gone to Evangeline Ramsey’s house anticipating a very different outcome than her current employment. Fortunately, she’d had her savings stitched into her fur muff, and the coins had come in handy on the journey west. Anne did not want to spend a penny of them going back east. She challenged herself to make it to the New Year. It was only a few days away.
If she didn’t kill the major first with her cooking or her pearl-handled pistol. She patted her reticule to assure herself it was still there. It wasn’t loaded, for with her luck she’d shoot herself in her well-rounded derriere. But the gun would be a deterrent should the man try any of her father’s tricks.
He was not at all what she’d expected. She’d seen the letter he’d sent to The London List requesting the services of a housekeeper. Both she and Evangeline had assumed from his spidery handwriting he was an older gentleman. White-haired. Wrinkled.Weak.
Major Ripton-Jones did not seem weak at all, except when it came to his sobriety. Despite his missing arm, Anne would almost call him handsome beneath his grime if she let herself.
That would be inappropriate. He was her employer, at least for the moment. How long she could last here was anybody’s guess.