About the book
His favorite place was inside her heart…
Forced to flee the atrocities of war, talented seamstress Celeste Singer takes up work in the service of the Duke of Gwendomyre, in the hopes of saving up enough money to pay her parents’ passage from France to England.
Preferring the English countryside to London, Jonathan Harper, Duke of Gwendomyre, sees his up-until-then pristine family life turned on its head when a series of near-fatal accidents start happening around the manor.
As maids go missing, poisonous food finds its way to his table and large sums of money simply disappear, Jonathan is hard-pressed to find answers.
And it all seems to be connected to the one person he holds new-found affection for: soft-spoken maid, Celeste Singer…
Celeste Singer carefully brushed the blue cashmere wool morning dress. Mud had caked on the hem. Margery Harper, the Duchess of Gwyndonmere, was remarkably careless about where she walked in the gardens and when visiting the village. She was also viciously scathing if her garments were not pristine when she was ready to wear them. Celeste dampened a cloth in cold water and carefully removed the smudges. It would not do to saturate the fine wool because that might cause it to shrink.
When the garment was properly clean, Celeste rubbed the inseams and the interior of the bodice with a sachet of rose petals and lavender, a combination the Duchess had selected from the local apothecary shop. She then hung the dress in the big wardrobe that stood on the northern wall of the Duchess’s chamber.
The southern wall had two large casement windows that opened out onto a balcony. The balcony overlooked Gwyndonmere, the small lake that shared its name with the estate and the Duke who governed there.
Celeste loved walking in the orchard on her free afternoon. She also enjoyed attending the Sunday sermon. The little village church was very much like the one she had attended with her family in France.
She had loved her life in France. Celeste sighed, remembering her little dress shop. She remembered that last morning, when she and her father had surveyed the wreckage of her little shop.
Officially, the shop belonged to her father. Papa and Mama had invested their entire life savings to pay the first month’s rent and her patroness, a marquess who had liked her needlework, had provided the fabrics for the first round of orders. Orders that were almost ready when the soldiers came.
The Marquis and Marquess were dead. The village was razed, and all the shops along the cobbled main street were destroyed, as was Celeste’s dress making shop. The silk that would have been a wedding dress was trampled in the mud and muck that was caked on the floor. The dress maker dummy had a broken sword thrust through it. The cash box hung from its chain, the lock smashed and the money that had been inside it gone.
All the work she had put into arranging it just so, the shelves Papa had made, the little frills Mama had helped her add to the edges of the display shelf, all of it was ruined.
“Whatever shall we do? The shop is destroyed, the fabrics are all ruined. All your life savings that were supposed to take care of you and Mama, it is all gone. My patroness was slain in the fighting, there is no way for me to start over.”
Mr. Singer put his arm around his daughter’s shoulder. “Shhh, shhh, ma petite. There will be a way, there always is. At least you were not in the shop when the soldiers came through.” He nodded at the dress maker dummy with the sword thrust through it. “That could have been you, my daughter. As it is, you are alive, we are alive, and that means we have hope.”
Hope. It was a fragile thread embedded in a tangle of heavy yarn, with some burrs thrown in for decoration. Celeste almost smiled at this fanciful thought, but remembered just in time to keep a properly respectful expression on her face. The Duchess could return at any time and it would never do to be caught in a moment of unseemly levity.
Celeste used a soft cloth to polish the little vials of perfume and pots of color that were arrayed on the vanity. Carefully, she wiped the marble top, replacing each item exactly as she had found it. As she worked, she was careful to keep a cloth or handkerchief between her fingers and the surfaces of the bottles. Not only were the little pots and vials fragile, but the Duchess used arsenic to lighten her skin to an interesting pallor. The stuff was insidious, easily seeping into exposed skin. Celeste was sure she absorbed enough of it when applying paint to the Duchess’s face.
Celeste could hear her mother’s voice in her head, “Do not be taking up with the ways of the peerage, my daughter. Those as has aspirations to the peerage and those as are members can afford to let go of reality a little. You cannot. Your life depends upon keeping a clear head at all times.”
Mama had been their rock as they walked toward the coast, hoping to catch a boat to the islands and away from the fighting. But Mama had fallen ill after a particularly cold wet day. They had been offered shelter along with other refugees at a charity home not far from Calais.
Papa had been able to earn a little money doing odd jobs, but hard cash was scarce. In the end, they had only been able to scrape together enough for passage for one person, and that on an old tub of a fishing boat headed to Scotland.
Mama was too ill to travel alone, and Papa would not leave her. That meant that only Celeste had boarded the grubby old boat, redolent with fish and ringing with oddly accented English.
With the dressing table all in order, Celeste turned her attention to her next task: laying out the Duchess’s dinner gown and fresh underthings. Then she turned her attention the Duchess’s bath. She had already called down to the kitchen to have water heating in the big kettles. The youngest under-footman would be up shortly with the first cannister of hot water to pour into the wooden sheet-lined bath and to leave a cannister of cold water to temper the heat.
It was just luck that I arrived at the same time the Duke of Gwyndonmere was in Edinburgh looking for an abigail for his wife. At least, I hope it was luck. Some days it is very hard to work for her. But I have asked the steward to put a little aside for me each week so that I can save to pay their fare.
The Duchess was out riding. By the time she arrived, the water should have cooled to the perfect temperature for bathing.
It was a little tricky to manage the timing on this, Celeste had learned. Start bringing the water up too soon and it was tepid by the time the bather climbed into it. Bring it up too late and a cannister of cold had to be added to bring the boiling water back down to perfect bath temperature. She had learned to have the boy bring up at least one cannister of cold water, and one of hot, just in case.
The water had just reached perfection when the Duchess swept in. “There you are, Celeste! Are my bath things ready?”
“Yes, Your Grace. Will you have the attar of roses tonight or the lavender water?”
“Lavender, of course, Celeste. You know I cannot bear the strong scent of attar of roses.”
Celeste sighed. Last week it had been lavender she could not bear, the week before it was the scent of honeysuckle. Well, she would simply have to persevere and try to discover favorite scents.
The Duchess surveyed the clothing that was laid out for her. “No, no, no!” Her brows drew together until they almost made a straight line across her forehead, and her face flushed an unattractive mottled red. “How often have I told you? I never wear velvet at home. It is far too heavy, and it is so cold today I shall freeze.”
“Will you have the cream woolen, then, Your Grace? It is freshly brushed.”
The Duchess shrugged. “It isn’t the mode, but there won’t be anyone special at dinner tonight, so I suppose it will do. Now, have you let my bath get cold with all this standing about yammering?”
Celeste stepped into the bathroom and tested the water. “I think it is at the perfect temperature, Your Grace. Would you care to test it for yourself?”
“Don’t just stand there! Help me out of my habit. I am fair famished from riding, and have no wish to set Jonathan’s back up by being late for dinner. It is so dreary when he sighs at me, then tells the butler that dinner can now be served.”
Celeste said nothing. Another hard lesson had been that Duchess did not require a response, and to make one would only invite a tirade. Carefully, she undid the little pearl buttons on the front of the riding jacket and laid it aside to check for soil or damage. The little buttons had a maddening way of working loose from their moorings, and there were no extra ones. If one was to be lost, the whole garment would have to be scrapped.
Mentally, Celeste shook her head over the wasteful ways of these English ladies. For the longest time Celeste’s winter coat had wooden buttons that her father had carved for her, then painted white. When the coat had finally worn so thin that even her mother had been forced to own that it was beyond repair, Celeste had carefully removed every one of those buttons that her dear Papa had made with his gnarled, arthritic hands.
The Duke and Duchess of Gwyndonmere were part of a select set of English peerage who had been granted lands in Scotland, supplanting the local Lairds. Unlike many of the holdings given this small subset of peerage, Gwyndonmere and its nearest neighbor, Mabway, had been established in the turbulent times between James IV and James V. Tucked as it was in the mountains a three-day ride uphill from Edinburgh, they had somehow escaped wave after wave of political turmoil, surviving until the current year of 1814.
The late Dukes of Gwyndonmere and Mabway had noted that the slow creep of technology and political changes could threaten the two small duchies and had arranged a marriage between their children to strengthen their position. This proved to be especially fortuitous when Margery’s older brother, Aaron, had succumbed to mumps in early adulthood. The two old Dukes had congratulated themselves on protecting their children and their holdings.
No such protections for me. Her father and mother were living in a charity house near Calais. Papa did whatever carpentry work he could find, and Mama supplemented his income by working in the charity house and by writing letters for people. Each month Mr. Ahmlad McAhmladhson helped her send a draft on the Bank of England to his agent in France. The agent took the money and a letter to her mother and father and sent a letter from them back to her. Papa could only figure a little and sign his own name, but her mother had been a lay teacher at a convent in her youth. She was sufficiently literate to read the letters from her daughter aloud to her husband, and to write back about the simple doings of the village.
“It is frightening now,” her mother wrote. “A village not far from here was burned, and even the little children slain.”
Celeste put the thought out of her mind. She deposited a little of her pay with Mr. McAhmladhson each week, and an even tinier hoard of coins. She hoped to rent a cottage on the estate and pay passage for her parents. It was probably a vain hope, but the news from the continent was terrible. As difficult as the Duchess could be, life at Gwyndonmere Castle offered her a degree of security and safety. She wanted to share that with her parents.
“Celeste! I haven’t got all day, girl. Wash my hair first so it will have time to dry.”
Celeste came out of her musings with a start. She hadn’t meant to leave the Duchess soaking quite so long. “It will be good for your complexion, Your Grace,” she soothed. “I will use that lovely New World hair cleaner you liked so much.”
Celeste massaged the liquid cleaner into the Duchess’s thick, auburn hair. The stuff stung her fingers, but didn’t seem to affect the Duchess at all. After the hair cleaner was rinsed out, Celeste massaged the lady’s scalp with sweet oil scented with lavender.
“Mmm, very nice,” the Duchess had her eyes closed, leaning back in the swan shaped wooden bathtub as she relaxed into Celeste’s expert ministrations. “Now I remember why I have kept you on even though you do not fully understand correct dress. Now, I will have the warmed towel and you may begin spreading my hair to dry.”
It took nearly two full hours to prepare the Duchess for dinner. By the time Celeste put the finishing touches on a modish tower of hair, only part of which belonged to the Duchess, she was beginning to be ravenously hungry.
The Duke tapped at the door. “Get that, would you, Celeste?” The Duchess turned this way and that in front of the mirror. “Adequate,” she sniffed.
“There you are,” the Duchess sniped at her husband, “I was beginning to despair of ever making it down to dinner. This wretched girl you have found for me was dreaming off in the middle of my bath. Such a strange creature.”
The Duke exchanged a glance with Celeste over the top of his wife’s head. “You look beautiful as always, my dear. The butler has let me know that there is chicken pudding for dinner.”
The Duchess placed her hand formally on top of his extended arm. “Chicken again? I declare I shall begin to cluck. Can we not have a bit of beef or even pork?”
“I am sorry, Your Grace,” the Duke said, “it is spring. We must preserve the breeding stock lest there be nothing to make young ones for the fall butchering.”
The Duchess made a slight moue. “Always with the seasonal practicality, Your Grace.” She then seemed to remember her abigail. “Clean up the room, Celeste. I want it to be spotless when I return. Once you are done with that, you are free for the evening.”
“Will you not want me to help you undress, Your Grace?” Celeste asked.
“I will manage nicely on my own. Now, Jonathan, lead me to that everlasting chicken.”
Celeste sighed as she picked up the used bath things to take to the washroom. Did not the Duchess realize what a gem of a husband she had? Not only was the Duke incredibly handsome, with his dark hair and eyes so brown they were nearly black, he was kind and gentle. He was careful in his estate management and well-loved by the tenant farmers and villagers who made up the population of Gwyndonmere. None of the serving maids mentioned this head of the house making advances on them, nor did he seem to have a paramour, although it was common knowledge that he and the Duchess did not share a bed in any sense of the word.
She got a basket from a cupboard in the hallway, and placed the towels, bath clothes, and Her Grace’s soiled underthings in it. At least she would not have to wash them. Her Grace had a dedicated washer woman just for her own special laundry. It occurred to Celeste that the Duchess was a very expensive woman to keep.
When the room was spotless and every drape and pillow perfectly placed, Celeste picked up the laundry basket and headed below stairs to her own dinner. The upper servants would not dine until the Duke and Duchess had finished with their repast, but she could at least get the soiled linens downstairs. Perhaps she could even help the kitchen maids with setting the servants’ table.
Strictly speaking, as a lady’s maid, she could have chosen to make it known that such work was beneath her. But she had been raised simply and found that the time between taking the Duchess’s laundry down and the meal being served passed much more swiftly if she was busy doing something.
On her way down the servants’ stair, she passed Roderick Warner, who was just going up. As the Duke’s valet, he outranked most of the other servants, and had made it clear that Celeste was one of the few servants he found to be his social equal.
Even though he found them socially inferior, Warner had made advances to several of the maids. At least two and possibly three of them found his attentions flattering. Warner was very handsome, in a roguish devil-take-the-hindmost kind of way. Below-stairs gossip had it that he was an accomplished lover and that even virgins would receive great pleasure in his company. For her part, Celeste didn’t like or trust the valet and did her best to keep away from him.
“Stuck up French tart,” Roderick Warner used a light teasing tone to scoff at her. “Think you are better than the rest of us because you do for the Duchess.”
Celeste kept the basket between them, bobbed a curtsy at him. “Not at all,” she said. “But I need to get these things to the laundress before going to dine with everyone else. I’m sure you would not deny me my evening meal.”
“If you would allow me, I would deny you nothing.” Warner purred in a seductive voice. His eyes were fixed upon her and his mouth quirked into an enticing smile.
Mr. Hammonds, the butler, stepped to the door of the butlery, just a step or two beyond the landing where Warner stood. “Celeste,” his well-trained ponderous basso reverberated up and down the stairwell, “I have need of your help.”
“Of course.” Celeste bobbed another quick curtsy at Warner. “Please excuse me, my work calls.” And she slipped on past Warner and into the butlery. Mr. Hammonds closed the butlery door after her, shutting Warner out of his domain.
The room was pleasantly cool and quiet compared to the bustle in the serving halls where dinner preparations were underway. The shelves were lined with bottles of wine. A lovely old table graced the center of the room, with a large book open upon it. Entries in the book indicated wines and other viands withdrawn from the butlery. Celeste rested the basket of laundry on one hip, and faced the butler. “How may I be of service?”
“Rest your basket a minute on that chair over there and humor an old man by taking a cup of tea with him.” Mr. Hammonds placed a steaming cup in front of her. “I have a moment or two before announcing the next course.”
“Thank you, sir.” Celeste sat on one of the straight-backed chairs placed around the table.
“I’ve a job for you that I think you will like,” Mr. Hammonds said. “The maid who did the house bouquets has abruptly left, and I need someone to do the floral arrangements for the public rooms and for the Duke’s study. I’m sure you’ll have no problem with the bouquets in general, but the Duke’s requires a special touch. He likes something a bit more masculine, yet still decorative.”
“I will be glad to try, Mr. Hammonds. Thank you for offering me the opportunity for so pleasant a task.”
“Think nothing of it, Miss Singer. You have more than earned the privilege with your work these three months.”
Celeste bowed her head with respect. “I am always glad to be of assistance.”
“Go along with you,” Mr. Hammonds eyes twinkled even though he spoke almost severely, “And don’t let me catch you loitering in the halls.”
“No, sir, I will not!” Celeste picked up the laundry basket and hurried away to complete her errand.
When she reached the upper servants’ dining room, Betty McGuire, one of the maids, and Martha Sedgwick, the housekeeper, whose room was next to hers, had just finished arranging the place settings and were beginning to bring in the food that remained from the courses that had already been served above stairs. “It smells delicious.” Celeste inhaled deeply as Betty ladled portions of savory broth into soup bowls while Miss Sedgewick placed wedges of chicken pudding on each of the plates.
Betty and the newest scullery maid shared a room on the same hall as Miss Sedgewick and Celeste.
“Don’ it just,” Betty replied. “His Grace allus has cook make enough of whatever they’s havin’ so’s we can have the same. Not like some of the great houses where all you get is leavin’s or maybe porridge if they ain’t no leavin’s.”
“Now Betty,” Martha reproved, “You wanted to learn to talk proper. If you were talking to Her Grace, how would you have phrased that?”
Betty paused and thought about it for a moment. “I guess I should have said ‘Doesn’t it smell good’.”
“That’s a good start.” Martha smiled her approval. “Now go on.”
“Um…. ‘His Grace al-ways has Cook make enough that we can have some’?” Betty colored up, and looked at Celeste with a worried expression on her face.
“It is hard to learn new ways of speaking,” Celeste reassured the girl. “I remember when I was learning English how Sister Mary, one of the teachers at the village school, would correct my way of saying things.”
Betty’s eyes got big at that. “Were it… no, that’s not right. Was it hard learning English?”
“It was very hard. Mama said that if I wanted to be a successful shopkeeper, I would need to know how to talk to English patrons. That was why she and Papa saved enough to send me to school.”
“I hear tell,” Betty began, but at a look from Martha carefully corrected herself, “I have heard that it is scary in France right now.”
“Very scary.” Celeste arranged a salt cellar, several dishes of dried herbs, and a cruet of vinegar and oil on the table, while Betty returned to the kitchen for more items for the table.
Sally Ann, the new scullery maid, popped in with a tray of fresh dishes for the upper servants’ tables. “Did you hear?” she announced in a loud, harsh whisper, “They found a dead body at the edge of the Lolly Mire.”
“Oh, no!” Martha exclaimed. “Did they say who it was? And why are you whispering?”
“We ain’t supposed to know about it,” Sally Ann said, in a more normal voice. “They ain’t said official like who it is just yet. But Cook thinks it’s the maid who used to do the flowers.”
Celeste’s hand flew up to her mouth. “Oh, no!”
Miss Sedgewick looked surprised. “You knew her?”
Celeste shook her head. “No. But Mr. Hammonds just asked me if I would do the flowers. He said the maid who was supposed to do them had disappeared, and had not done them for a couple of days.”
“Well!” Miss Sedgewick declared, “That is enough to give you a turn. The vases have not been changed out for a day or two, that is for sure. But who would have thought it was because the young woman had drowned in the Lolly Mire?”
“Will you still do the flowers?” Betty asked.
“Mr. Hammonds asked me in good faith. And they will need to be done. How could I refuse?”
“Oh, easily,” said Miss Sedgewick. “As a lady’s maid you are under no obligation to help with the general housework.”
“My mother would tell me that it is better to be busy than idle, and that if I can help that I should. Besides, it would grow very dull doing nothing but waiting on the Duchess. She doesn’t seem to require my services often.”
“Just keep in mind that service to her is your first duty. Since you are not used to service, do not be afraid to ask questions. Be sure, as well, to let me or Mr. Hammonds know if your requested duties are in conflict. We will be glad to adjust anything else.”
“Thank you. I will own that it feels very strange taking over the duties of a dead woman.”
“How could it not?” Mrs. Sedgewick tweaked a napkin that did not really need tweaking. “But life or death, or in between, our duties are what keep the castle in good order.”
The moon rose over Gwyndonmere Lake. Its light made the classic trail of light across the water’s surface. Night insects chirped and squeaked, taking advantage of the early spring evening to do a little courting.
The man traced a finger down the maid’s cheek, for he was doing a little courting of his own. “What a shame that a pretty thing like you should be hidden up here in the mountains. You should be in the town, what do the locals call it? Auld Reekie. No, you should not be in that den of smoke and miasma. You should be in London, in the finest little apartment.”
The maid, careless of her starched white apron and lace edged cap, leaned into him. “Coo, I likes the way you talk.”
The man inwardly winced at the coarse, up-country accent and expression. But he gentled his voice as he undid the pretty little cap.
“Don’t muss me,” the maid said, “I’m on duty tonight. Mr. Hammonds doesn’t like us to be mussed, even if we are below stairs.”
“Don’t you worry about old Hammonds. I’ll make it all right with him. I just want to see your pretty hair.” The man stole the pins out of the knot of hair at the nape of her neck, then ran his fingers through it. “Doesn’t that feel good? Just let the night breeze run through those locks.”
The maid shivered and leaned a little closer. The man focused his attention on the slender body that smelled of soap, herbs, and baking cinnamon, and that trembled with excitement. He loved this part, the beginning of the game. Get her excited and interested, promise her pretty things. “I’d love to take you away from all this.” He stroked her side, and felt her shiver like a racehorse that was ready for a fast sprint. “Just another kiss or two, then I’ll help you do up your hair. No one will know.”
She obediently turned her face up to his, her body tight against him. It would have been more fun if she wasn’t wearing one of those hideous whale-bone corsets, but he could still feel her soft breasts and the shape of her hips against his side. He kissed her, pulling her in closer. Her mouth tasted like strawberries. He longed to pull up her skirts, but she wasn’t ready yet. The game was just beginning.
With a soft groan, he lifted his mouth from hers, looking out across the lake to let himself calm down.
“I’ll be late!” she gasped. “Oh, dear, my hair. I don’t have a mirror, and where are my pins?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be your mirror, and I have your pins.” He took a wooden comb out of his pocket and helped her put her hair back up. “There you are, proper and prim, with plenty of time to spare.”
He watched with satisfaction as she picked up her skirts and ran back to the castle, white petticoats flashing from beneath the dark fabric of her uniform. Soon she would be ready for the next step. He did so love the next step.
But he must be careful. Ordinarily, they would have been in London by now. In London, there was plenty of sport to be had. Here, where the castle and the villagers were as close as over-done pease porridge, he would have to be more discreet. But there were still those as would not be missed. Yes, there certainly were.
Inspector Daniel Ravensgard tapped his stubby pencil on the worn tavern table. The man seated across from him, known only as Mr. Smith, was probably a Bow Street Runner, but he had never shared that information with the Inspector.
“I tracked him to the docks and got lucky with some information from a sailor,” he was saying. “But that was as far as I got. He was slick. The girls wuz all orphings, an’ their bodies were found in the rookeries, where you might expect prostitutes, thieves, and the like. But this here last ‘un had a brother, who’d talked to her just the night before.”
“And always during the Season?”
“Yes, indeed. Never when Parliament wasn’t in session. Now, I don’t think it was some gentleman having a bit of fun. Bit above my touch, if that’s the case. The girls were all robbed, ever’ one, but the blackguard had his way with them, as well.”
“Well, that is interesting. But why do you think it had anything to do with Edinburgh?”
“You see, that’s the curious thing. All the houses where the girls were took was on a particular street, an’ they only happened when a certain gentlemen was in residence.”
“But you do not think it was the gentleman?”
“I do not. Each and every one seemed to happen when there was a heavy session in Parliament. The gentleman in question was always in his seat during the event. I’ve written it all up for you here in this notebook.”
Inspector Ravensgard took the proffered ragged little book. “I’ll keep an eye out, but with no more information than this, I cannot see how you can expect to catch the villain, were there even twenty brothers in pursuit.”
“That’s what I told him. I’m surprised I’ve learned as much as I have. I need to catch the morning coach back to London, I’ve stayed over-long as it is. But at least this way I’ll have something that I can tell the man when I return.”
Inspector Ravensgard sipped his small beer as he watched the Bow Street Runner make his way out of the tavern. All things considered, it was odd that the man had pursued the matter as far as Edinburgh. The “brother” who was looking for the murderer must have been known to “Mr. Smith” or have been highly placed in some office or other.
Whatever or whoever, Danny Ravensgard isn’t losing sleep over it. I’ve got enough going on right here and in the surrounding countryside, what with French rebels slipping in and taking refuge, locals trying to dodge taxes, and citizens who are worried that the mills are going to take their jobs.
Nonetheless, the Inspector tucked the small notebook inside his greatcoat pocket. Information was information, and you never knew when it might come in handy or connect up with something else.
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