About the book
“I would rather have today with you than forever with anyone else...”
Navigating an unforgiving society and still mourning her husband’s untimely death, Miss Evelyn Swinton must fend for herself. To pay off the debts in her name, she is forced to accept a position as a companion to the elderly Dowager Duchess of Tolware.
There is nothing talented cook Mayson Rudge enjoys more than spending his time in the Tolware Estate kitchens. With his troubled past a memory he’d rather die than relive, he keeps his head low and his dishes impeccable. Until the day Evelyn sets foot in the manor.
Struggling to come to terms with their budding romance, Evelyn must fight the feelings of guilt that well up inside her at the thought of her deceased husband. However, their already fragile happiness shatters when Mayson nearly perishes at the hands of a distant memory. For the key to their life and their death is in the shape of a crescent moon.
“Mrs. Swinton, oh, Mrs. Swinton!” called Adelaide Sculthorpe, the Duchess of Tolware. The Duchess’ beautiful round vowels and perfectly enunciated consonants could easily be heard throughout the Dower House of Tolware Estate.
“Yes, Your Grace?” Evelyn Swinton replied. “I will be right there.”
Evelyn hurried in, carrying a stack of books and papers. Her fair skin was flushed with effort, a strand of brown hair had escaped her becoming black lace cap. A smudge of dust adorned one side of her small, well-shaped nose.
“Did you find it?” the Duchess asked.
“I did,” Evelyn replied. “It was with a stack of old school papers and copybooks. I found these books, as well. His Grace must have been very fond of travelogues.”
“Oh, he was, poor man,” the Duchess agreed. “He always became terribly ill when traveling, however. We often rode horseback because he found the swaying of a carriage unendurable. And boats... Oh, boats were right out. Poor George would be hanging over the railing heaving up his toenails before we had even left the dock.”
“Dear me,” Evelyn commented, using a napkin from the tea table to dust off a worn copy book. The legend on the front read, George Sculthorpe, His Book. “That must have made life terribly difficult for both of you.”
“Oh, not so much as you might think,” the Duchess replied. “We both liked staying at home and reading, so it was not so very terrible that he truly had a difficult time traveling. When little Darrius came along, we spent hours doting on him. We were both sad when we learned that we would not be able to give him a little brother or sister.”
“I am so sorry,” Evelyn replied comfortingly. “That must have been difficult.”
“Perhaps not as difficult as actually having another child,” the Duchess winked one eye at Evelyn, roguishly. “Or raising a second one, for that matter. Darrius kept us fully occupied, sometimes from daylight till dark. He was quite the apple of his father’s eye.”
“No doubt that is how it should be,” Evelyn commented. “It is quite tragic when parents do not love their children. It is perfectly clear that you still dote on His Grace.”
“Oh, my, I suppose I do. It seems strange to hear you call Darrius ‘His Grace’. I always look about for his father. How I do miss him.”
“I understand,” Evelyn said, soothingly. “Even after time has passed it is difficult to be parted from a loved one.” Evelyn could not prevent a little sigh from escaping her lips.
“Oh, my dear, I did not mean to remind you,” the Duchess instantly looked contrite. “How are you holding up?”
“Well enough,” Evelyn replied. “Much better since I have been here. Everyone is so kind, you most of all.”
“Think nothing of it, my dear,” the Dowager Duchess waved one plump hand, well-bejeweled with rings. “It is only fitting that two widows should help each other. My days had become quite dreary. You make them far more interesting. Now, let me see if we have the right notebook.”
Evelyn handed the notebook to the Duchess. She opened the notebook at once, held up her lorgnette, and began scanning the pages. “Ah, yes, this is the one. We went on a walking tour through the upper meadows and on up into the hills. It was quite educational.”
“Was it, indeed?” Evelyn asked with interest.
“Oh, ever so, my dear. It was spring and we got to see the birds with their little chicks. Once we caught a glimpse of a fox, and we saw tracks of a family of deer, although we never saw the creatures themselves.”
“It sounds wonderful,” Evelyn said.
“It was glorious,” Her Grace rhapsodized. “Of course, I would find it sadly difficult to take such a walking tour now.”
“I understand,” Evelyn replied.
The Dowager Duchess shifted her bulk in her wingback chair. “Oh, you need not mince words, Mrs. Swinton. I am old and fat, barely able to totter from bed to table and back again.”
“I would never have said so, Your Grace. Besides, I saw you dance at the last cotillion.”
“Oh, yes, you did. After all, what is life without dancing? But you also heard me groan and complain for the next three days. It is a good thing that our country life is relatively uneventful or I should be crippled up like an old spavined mare needing to be put out to pasture.”
Evelyn laughed. “Oh, never say so, Your Grace. You are young at heart, and lively when it counts. I daresay you shall live to see all the rest of us out to pasture. But you said you had something for me to look at?”
“Indeed I did. Now let me see if I can find it. Oh, here we are. My eyes are not what they once were, my dear. See if you can read it out.”
Evelyn took the copybook, seated herself on a hassock that stood near the Duchess’ chair, and obligingly began to read,
“Today we trod the grounds of Hillsworth Estate, a fine county home, well-appointed with lanes, fields, and vistas.”
“George did love to write in high style,” the Duchess remarked. “Hearing you read it out is almost like having him at my side again.” The Duchess took out a hanky and dabbed at her eyes.
“Shall I stop?” Evelyn asked. “I do not wish to make you unhappy.”
“Oh, no, dear child. We had a wonderful marriage, and many happy days together. These tears are merely water to keep my memories green and growing. I would not want for George to be forgotten.”
“Very well,” Evelyn said. “I shall read on.”
“‘My Duchess and I rode over in the high perch phaeton. She looked very fine in a trim habit of gray lambswool, a top hat and veil. Although the long linen duster did rather spoil the general effect, it protected her gown and jacket from the dust of our passage.’”
Evelyn paused. “I thought the late Duke of Tolware did not care for travel.”
“Not as a general rule,” the Duchess said judiciously, “But he did not mind riding in an open-air conveyance. I was expecting Darrius at the time, and he did not wish to expose me to the jouncing I would have received on horseback. I rather resented the cosseting, but since Darrius proved to be our one and only child, in retrospect I can scarcely blame George for taking care of me.”
“Indeed,” Evelyn agreed equably. “Shall I read on?”
“Oh, do please,” the Duchess encouraged her.
“‘The entrance is through a long lane, pleasantly lined with chestnut trees on either side. Between the trees, one can gain glimpses of the cricket field and the bowling green. Drawing up in front of the house we were met by Barnard Rutley, Earl of Hillsworth, his young son, and his stripling younger brother.’”
Evelyn paused and cleared her throat.
“Tea?” Her Grace suggested.
“Yes, please,” Evelyn replied. “I swallowed quite a lot of dust while I was looking.”
“Pour for both of us, if you don’t mind,” the Duchess directed.
Evelyn obediently took the tea cozy off the pot that stood on the small table in front of the Duchess and poured a cup for each of them. She then added sugar and cream to the Duchess’ tea, while taking her own tea plain.
“You do not wish to have any sugar or cream?” the Dowager Duchess asked. “You want fattening up, my dear. You are thin as a rail.”
“I never learned to like it that way,” Evelyn replied. “Then, when dear John was at his worst, we discovered that cream and sugar increased the phlegm in his throat. But that drinking his tea straight or with a little lemon could ease his coughing spasms and make them occur less often.”
“So sad that he should pass away so young, and that you should have such a brief time together,” the Duchess said. “I am glad that George and I had so many rich years.”
Evelyn sighed just a little. “I could have wished for more years. But toward the end he was so miserable. I was deeply saddened when he slipped away into that final sleep, but truly, I could not have wished for him to suffer more.”
“Consumption is a difficult disease,” the Duchess agreed.
The two ladies were silent for a moment then Evelyn said, “Shall I read on?”
“Oh, please do,” said Her Grace. “I am truly sorry for your loss, but infinitely grateful to have discovered you in your time of need. The Dreadful Creature who previously held your post kept mooning after Darrius, and I simply could not have it.”
“I can assure you,” Evelyn replied, “that I have no intention of mooning after anyone. John was my true love. One can hardly expect to find another in a single lifetime.”
“Quite so, quite so. Now, do read on. I love sharing the pleasant memories. We had a grand time that day. Hillsworth Estate has rather fallen to ruin since Lord Barnard’s time, but it was beautiful that spring. I think he must have employed more than one hundred gardeners to manage the grounds.”
“Oh, my. Is it as large as that?” Evelyn looked up from the page, which was written in an elegant, flowing hand that was somewhat difficult to read.
“It is. More than one hundred acres, and most of it under cultivation in one way or another. We were privileged to see the mowers at work with their long scythes. They were followed after by a team of giggling young women who used rakes to gather up the grass clippings and put them in baskets.”
“What were they giggling about?” Evelyn asked, willing to be amused.
“Oh, silly jokes,” the Duchess smiled at the memory. “Something about the length of each gardener’s pole, and what else might grow in his garden. Or where else he might plant.”
Evelyn laughed. “Oh, dear. Such naughty lassies.”
“Village courtship, my dear. No doubt several of them were betrothed to the young men doing the mowing.”
Just then, the door to the Duchess’ solar opened to admit a handsome young man.
He was tall, broad-shouldered, with curly black hair cut in a fashionable crop, and just as fashionably tousled. He had bright blue eyes that seemed to take in everything and accept nothing at face value.
“Mother! Are you making Mrs. Swinton read that raggedy old copybook? What happened to the new novel I purchased for you?”
“We grew tired of it,” the Duchess said carelessly. “This is one of my favorite memory days. I wanted to share it with Mrs. Swinton.”
“I had hoped that by burying it in amongst my old copybooks you could be distracted from it.”
“Never, my darling son,” his mother chided him. “It was not nice of you to hide my favorite book. Naughty boy.” The Duchess shut her fan with a snap, and lightly rapped her son on the cheek with it as he bent to kiss her.
“Ow! Mama!” he protested.
“Oh, pish tosh, Darrius. I did not hurt you, and you know it. I would never hurt my dearest son.”
“I am your only son, Mother,” said the Duke.
“Which certainly makes you my dearest,” the Dowager Duchess replied, pulling his head down so that she could kiss the place she had tapped with the fan. “There now. All better?”
“Yes, of course,” Darrius said fondly. “So you would rather bore this lovely young woman with walking around moldy old Hillsworth instead of reading the exciting new novel I brought from London especially for you? I am told that all the ladies are reading it.”
“We read it already, my darling boy. Finished it up yesterday, did we not, Mrs. Swinton?”
“Indeed, we did,” Mrs. Swinton corroborated loyally. She did not disclose that less than half-way through, the Duchess had declared the book a dead bore and sent her to find an encyclopedia to read instead.
“Perhaps you could read it to me, sometime, Mrs. Swinton?” Darrius suggested with a wink.
“Perhaps. If your mother wishes to listen to it again,” Evelyn replied, carefully keeping her voice even.
Danger! Danger! her inner voice sounded the alarm. I fear the Duke has an exclusive reading in mind, and the Duchess has already made it clear how she feels about companions who flirt with the master of the house. Besides, Her Grace has already made it equally clear how she feels about that book.
Darrius suppressed a sigh. His mother had not liked the book. She thought she was concealing her distaste, but her face had that bland innocent look that declared that she was lying through her teeth.
Nothing he did pleased her, no matter how he tried. Since his death, the late Duke of Tolware had risen to the level of sainthood. His virtues were greatly magnified, his faults glossed over and hidden away.
Well, there was nothing for it but to make the best of a sorry situation. “I am glad that the book found some small favor,” he said. “But since I have already read it, do carry on with the account of your day at Hillsworth. I recall that Father found it most memorable.”
“Oh, indeed he did,” his mother remarked happily. “Mrs. Swinton, be a dear and ring for another cup and a fresh pot of tea so that Darrius can join us.”
Mrs. Swinton rose, went to the embroidered bellpull which had been placed conveniently within his mother’s reach, and tugged on it.
Darius noted that she looked trim in her widow’s black, and seemed to have a pleasing figure. Her day gown was supremely modest, with a high neck that gave the impression of her well-shaped head being mounted on a pedestal.
Within moments a maid, dressed in a dark wool uniform, crisp apron, and white cap, appeared at the doorway. “Yes, Your Grace?” she said, as she curtsied.
“A fresh pot of tea, and another cup,” the Duchess ordered, “Oh, and see if the cook has any of those small bubbly pies. Be sure to tell him to send up enough for my son, as well as Mrs. Swinton and me.”
“Certainly, Your Grace.” The maid curtsied again, and disappeared down the hall.
“Now, where were we?” his mother queried of her companion. “Oh, yes, just as we were pulling up to the door of Hillsworth. Do continue, my dear.”
Mrs. Swinton took up the journal and continued reading. She had a surprisingly well-modulated voice, pleasant and clear. She made the scene at Hillsworth come alive as she read the description of rolling hills, small streams, unexpected fountains, and little grottos. Darrius could almost imagine having been there, even though upon that day he had been securely cradled inside his mother’s body, and the current condition of the estate was far from ideal.
Father always wanted Hillsworth. I wonder if Mother ever realized that his tender description of the estate next door was the covetous voice of envy? No, I rather doubt that she ever did. To his credit, Father never alluded to it when visiting with his neighbors. I wonder what will become of it now that the rightful heir has disappeared and his uncle has taken over? Well, that is certainly not my problem. I have quite enough to manage right here.
Darrius returned his attention to his mother and her companion. “—then we came back, and had the most wonderful tea. I had been craving fresh fruit, even though it was not in season yet. Those strawberries out of the hothouse were absolutely the best I have ever eaten, before or since.”
“We have our own hothouse now, Mother,” Darrius put in. “Father took great pride in it. I believe the strawberries are in full flower now, the first ripe berries picked, and it will not be long before we shall be able to have all the strawberries and cream we wish to eat without sending out for them.”
“Truly?” The Dowager turned her gaze upon her son, and smiled at him fondly. “You will remember to have some sent here?”
“Of course I will,” Darrius promised. “How could I not when you love them so? But I will own that with the new wing, while it is somewhat crass to say so, sales of our surplus will do well toward shoring up supplies for spring planting.”
“That is splendid,” Her Grace exclaimed, a half beat late. Darrius could see that her eyes were glazing over with the early warning signs of boredom. Father had always been the one to take interest in the estate’s accounts. He had been wont to remark that while many gentlemen eschewed dirtying their hands with details of the estate, there was satisfaction in seeing a place well run and producing a profit.
The companion, apparently sensing a familial breech of accord, leaped into the widening silence. “Indeed it is, Your Grace. Does the estate derive a great deal of its income from sales of produce from the hothouses?” Clearly Mrs. Swinton, having been raised in a shop-keeping family, felt no compunction about discussing finances.
“Not an extensive amount,” Darrius replied, pleased to have the discussion turned toward his interests. “We make far more from rents and from the sale of lamb's wool. But it adds a little to our coffers. More importantly, the hothouses add a great deal to the variety of foods available to our tables.”
“Lamb’s wool,” Mrs. Swinton mused. “I used to knit. I wonder if I might be able to purchase some from your herdsman for my own amusement?”
“Why, we shall do better than that,” Darrius beamed at her. “I will have him send down a fleece. I believe that they have just been washed and are being made ready for market.”
“You are very kind,” Mrs. Swinton replied, dropping her eyes modestly. “But it might take me some time to work up that much.”
“Think nothing of it,” Darrius waved his left hand as if brushing away flies. “Consider it a bonus for your excellent work here. Some of the maids can help you with the carding or whatever. You make Mother happy, so I am glad to assist with your amusement. Just do not let it become so much of a burden that you neglect your duties.”
“I would not dream of it,” Mrs. Swinton’s face came up, her eyes widening in shock. “That would be extremely unkind of me, especially since it is through your good offices that the wool would be made available to me.”
The Duchess intervened. “Have no fear, Darrius. I am far more likely to have to encourage her to take her half day off. I have never had such a person in my service. She is always writing letters, reading to me, or making small things to add to my comfort or to entertain me. It has surely been our good fortune to have such an industrious angel come to be with me.”
“I am glad to hear it,” Darrius said. “She did come highly recommended, and by the physician who attended her husband, no less.”
“And why should he not?” his mother said with some vigor. “It is not every wife who will stay by the side of a consumptive right until the end. Although I do hope that Mrs. Swinton’s duties here are much lighter since I am not an invalid.”
Mrs. Swinton blushed and dropped her eyes, clearly embarrassed to be the topic of conversation.
“There now, you need not color up, my dear,” the Duchess said. “You know that it is no more than the truth and I would speak it behind your back as readily as before your face. I do wish we had some of those berries here today. All this talk has made me quite hungry.”
“I had some sent down to the kitchens just this morning, along with several other fine edibles,” Darrius soothed. “No doubt the cook will have something made up to go with your dinner.”
“That is my good son,” the Duchess smiled with delight. “Come here and let me give you a hug.”
“A fitting end to my visit,” the Duke returned, rising from his seat.
He went over, leaned down, and kissed his mother on the cheek.
She patted his cheek gently, then wiped at an imaginary smudge on her son’s face. “You are my very dearest boy. Must you go so soon?”
“If I am to return here for dinner, I must,” he replied. “Perhaps I should stay over, and have breakfast with you as well.” His words were addressed to his mother, but his eyes were upon the companion.
“That would be lovely,” the Duchess said fondly. “Your intended will be paying a visit next week. Do you think the strawberries will hold until then?”
“I think they will be at their finest,” Darrius replied. “I shall quite look forward to seeing Blanche.”
“Then I will alert the cook. He does the finest things with the simplest ingredients. I can hardly wait to see what he might do with strawberries.”
“Do not plan anything overly grand,” Darrius cautioned his mother. “Remember, Blanche has a delicate appetite.” Blanche was slender to the point of emaciation, narrow-hipped and small-breasted, and possessed of a nervous disposition. Although they had known each other since childhood, and had always been aware that they were destined to wed, Darrius found that she was not always the easiest person to please.
“Oh, but no doubt her parents will visit also. Lord Carletane will more than make up for Blanche’s bird-like picking. Her mother also has an appreciation of excellent food.”
Darrius plastered a smile upon his face and replied, “Why, so they do, and, yes, they are likely to visit with her.”
How my father ever became friends with Carletane I shall never know. He is an abominable toadeater, and has the most encroaching ways. One good thing about this marriage is that I believe Blanche will be grateful to get away from her parents, and therefore perhaps be compliant to my desires.
Darrius said fondly to his parent, “I shall see you at dinner. Will you be there also, Mrs. Swinton?”
“Of course, where else should she be? Well, if you must toddle off, then so be it. I shall look forward to dinner,” his mother replied.
As the door closed behind him, Darrius heard his mother say to her companion, “Isn’t he the dearest boy? Surely you can see why George and I doted on him so much.”
Mayson Rudge carefully slid the pies out of the oven using the long wooden paddle, and the leather fingerless gloves he always wore to protect his palms from the heat. They were a clever way to let him grab a hot kettle or pan by the handle without searching for an oven mitt or potholder, two things that always seemed to be elsewhere when needed in this particular kitchen.
Mr. Sparks, the undercook, was supposed to keep the incidental items in good order, as well as assist with the routine cooking, but he was getting on in years. Mayson often found it expedient to simply take care of Mr. Sparks’ duties as well as his own.
Two of the maids were nattering away in the hallway while they were carrying the dishes from the kitchen to the main dining hall and a few items to the servants’ dining hall. The servants’ meal would be served after the master, mistress, the companion, and guests had dined. This would be something of a feast, so there would be plenty of leftovers. But even when the meals were more modest, the Duchess always remembered that she was feeding more than the people at the head table, and had given him permission early on to plan proper meals for the help. Her son was generous, giving her an allowance over and above her established dowry so the household was never in want.
Good thing, too, for even as small an establishment as the Dower House required laundry maids, upstairs maids to take care of the bedrooms, downstairs maids to dust the library and the several sitting rooms, as well as kitchen maids, scullery, gardeners, and more. Mayson blessed all the hours he had spent with a certain dear old cook, who had been more than happy to teach a bored, lonely little boy the craft of cooking.
The pies bubbled appealingly, and gave off a delectable aroma. They were part of the bumper crop of strawberries from the Main House. With a judicious amount of rhubarb added, they were a feast fit for kings, he thought.
Mayson was listening with half an ear to the maids’ chatter. He had learned more than one thing happening around the neighborhood simply by opening an ear to their seemingly banal chatter.
“ —and they never found the body?” Betty, a young kitchen maid who had been a member of the staff scarcely more than a week, seemed astonished by whatever it was the maids were talking over.
“Never,” said Molly Sue, the older maid. Then she added in the tones usually reserved for telling ghost stories, “But they say that when the moon is full his ghost walks the grounds, and if you look just right, when the moon is only a crescent, you can see his hand held up in silhouette against it. And,” she added in a sepulcher voice, “you can see the birthmark in the shape of a crescent moon on his wrist.”
“Ah, go on,” Betty said skeptically. “You’re just tryin’ to scare the new girl.”
“No, really,” Molly Sue insisted. “Well, maybe not the ghost part. But the part about the birthmark an’ his body never found. Some folks think the uncle did away with ‘im, but nothin’ was ever proved.”
“Surely not his own kin, that way,” Betty protested. “I can’t imagine…”
The two maids disappeared down the hall, their voices trailing after them. Mayson sighed. One of these days he would have to speak to them about gossiping about their betters, but not today. The young master was in the house and the dinner needed to be perfect.
There was a light patter of slippered feet, and the new companion appeared in the doorway. “The Duchess would like to know… Oh, good. You made bubbly pies.”
“Indeed I did,” Mayson replied. “Strawberry-rhubarb because we all know that they are the young Duke’s favorite. I also made a tremendous roast, from which I caught the drippings to make a clear broth for the first course. There are three kinds of vegetables, including the boiled greens the Duchess’ physician recommended that she have with her dinner. There is a vinegar side topping which should make them more palatable for her.”
“Oh, thank you,” the companion replied. “She eats them, but not without complaint.”
“I quite understand,” Mayson replied. “I’m Mayson Rudge,” he added. “I didn’t quite catch your name, although I know that you are the new companion.”
“Mrs. Evelyn Swinton,” she replied. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” She did not curtsey as one of the kitchen maids might have done, but dipped her head in acknowledgement. “I have heard a great deal about you, but have not had opportunity to come to the kitchen before now.”
A taking little thing, Mayson thought. She had soft brown hair that was covered discretely with a little widow’s cap made from black lace and ribbons.
She was dressed in black, a trim bombazine that fit her curvaceous form neatly. The fabric was not of the best, but the workmanship that put it together was meticulous. A close-fitting tall collar around her throat allowed a modest frill of black lace to cushion a delicate chin.
Above the chin curved a sweet mouth that seemed made for smiling, a well-shaped small nose, and bright, lively eyes the green of new leaves framed with long, curling eyelashes beneath perfectly arched dark brows. The black frill accentuated her rosy cheeks and clear complexion. Her color began to rise under his scrutiny, and Mayson realized that he was staring.
“I, uh, am also happy to make your acquaintance,” Mayson did not stammer, but felt far less than his usual assurance. “Would Her Grace like an advance tidbit?”
The lovely lips curled into the promised smile at that inquiry. “She would. How did you ever guess?”
“Because her son tends to eat whole pies at a setting, so I always make a small one just for her.” Mayson turned to a small cupboard and pulled out a smaller pie, one that was already cooling. He placed it in a little basket along with a small wedge of cheese and a bottle of cold tea. “Her Grace’s favorite tea. She will dine with the Duke at the usual hour?”
“Yes, indeed,” Mrs. Swinton replied. “And I must hurry now so that I can dress for dinner. His intended and her parents will also be in attendance.”
As she hastened away, Mayson wondered what “dressing for dinner” constituted for this companion. She was the fourth or fifth in succession since Mayson had been the cook. That would make it, oh, about one new companion every six months. The previous companion had always dressed to the nines when the Duke was dining with his mother. The Dowager Duchess had certainly noticed it, and had turned her off with only the most minimal references because of it.
Mayson returned to his cooking, stirring the glazed carrots, taking up the despised greens, and making sure that there was a cruet of spiced apple wine vinegar to go on the latter dish. With practiced skill, he turned out a seven-course meal that would not overwhelm six diners, yet would still leave them satisfied, but his mind was not on his task.
Rather, he kept remembering how Mrs. Swinton’s perfectly shaped lips had curled into a smile, and how her eyes had crinkled at the corners. How had the Duchess persuaded such a gem to act as her companion? If her garments were any indication, Mrs. Swinton was a widow. From her age, and the lack of wear on her widow’s weeds, a fairly recent one at that.
As he watched the last dish go out of the kitchen in the hands of the chattering maids, he wondered if she would come to the kitchen often. She did not look like the midnight snacking sort of person, but the Duchess often liked a little something after hours and would send her companion to select a tidbit or two.
Mayson had quickly learned to keep small refreshments on hand for the Duchess’ midnight appetite. After a consultation with her physician, he had been leaning more toward fruit compotes or blancmange, rather than the heavier desserts the Duchess truly favored. So far, either Her Grace had not caught on, or she was allowing him to steer her midnight snack selections.
Mayson sighed, remembering the times when he had gone to the kitchen and made dishes to tempt his father in his last days. But the Grim Reaper would visit any household, and mere skill with a spoon could not defeat him.
Tonight’s snack for the Dowager was a simple fruit pudding with a light syrup, and a topping of fresh, sliced strawberries from the estate’s hot house. Easy to digest, and unlikely to upset an aging tummy, while still delighting the taste buds of a food connoisseur. With it tucked neatly into a special cupboard, Mayson turned his attention toward cleaning up, setting the bread sponge for morning, and generally ending the day in the kitchen.
The potboy cheerfully helped him with wrestling the large, copper-bottomed pots to the washing drain, an innovation installed by the late Duke of Tolware. The maids came back to take the remains of the dishes that had already been served up to the servants’ dining hall for their dinner. Everything was normal. Everything was as it should be. But something kept pulling at him.
Was it a pair of sparkling green eyes? Was it the quiet dignity that the new companion wore about her like a mantle? Was it some niggling unease caused by the kitchen maids nattering about murder?
More likely, a touch of indigestion from too much tasting, Mayson thought to himself.
Just then the butler entered. “Mr. Rudge,” he said ponderously, “The Duchess would like for you to come up to receive thanks for your dinner preparations.”
Hastily, Mayson whipped off the stained, spattered apron that showed too clearly the effects of the evening’s labors. Just as quickly, he put on a clean one. He then doffed the sweat-stained skull cap that kept his hair out of the food, and the food out of his hair, replacing it with a pristinely starched chef’s hat that was kept for just this purpose.
Looking the absolute best that a professional cook at the end of a long, hot meal preparation can possibly look, he went up to receive formal accolades and thanks.
As he stood in the dining room door, in his proper place for such events, he noted that Mrs. Swinton wore a slightly dressier version of the gown she had worn earlier. This one displayed her fair shoulders, as was proper for dining in company, but still covered her bosom more than adequately and was modestly understated.
With effort, he wrenched his attention away from her, and gave the Duchess a proper bow, murmuring his thanks for the appreciation.
Back downstairs, he took his seat at the servants’ table, about midway down the side of it. He ranked somewhat below the butler and housekeeper, but higher than the other kitchen workers. The head stableman sat across from him, shoulder to shoulder with the head gardener.
The meal was eaten in reverent silence, except for the occasional, “Please pass...” and the clatter of cutlery against china. When the dessert was finished, the butler rose and said, “Excellent as always, Mr. Rudge. You are a treasure.”
“Thank you, Mr. Wilson,” Mayson replied. “It is my pleasure to be of service.”
The night staff began clearing the table. As he passed Mayson while clearing the table, the potboy nudged him and said, “She’s a looker, ain’t she?”
Mayson frowned at him.
“Miz Swinton,” the young man said. “She’s quite a looker.”
Mayson stared at him for just long enough to make the youngster squirm. “Mrs. Swinton is an attractive lady, and far above your station. Do not forget yourself, Jemmy.”
The young man flushed. “I din’ mean nothin’ by it, Mr. Rudge. But she’s, as you say, attractive. An’ more’n that, she’s nice.”
Mayson let his attitude soften. “Yes, she is. And therefore all the more deserving of respect, don’t you think?”
“Yessir, Mr. Rudge. I’ll remember.”
Mayson gazed thoughtfully after the lad as he staggered off toward the kitchen under his load of dishes.
He said no more than what you were thinking. She is lovely, and she is nice. But you are only a cook, and she is a companion. She is above your station, too.
Mayson sighed. Sometimes it was difficult to make it through a day in good order. He began to scrape and stack dishes, doing his part of the clearing up. Was this how his life was to be now? Always the same?
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