In Bed with the Stablemaster – Sophie Jordan

Vera Wells wasn’t normally the type to carry tales, but this was the kind of information every female ought to know, and she was not above making certain the world—the world of women, at any rate—knew all about it. Quite a crowd had gathered around her in the kitchen, their faces rapt as she prepared to divulge the most recent bit of information to land on Haverston Hall. To be certain, ever since the master of the house had married Miss Marian Langley, and her two sisters had come to live at the hall, day to day life had become vastly more interesting. Before the Duke of Warrington married he had lived a hermit-like existence. The place was scarcely furnished in those days, and the manor house hardly even felt like a home. Now the house was bustling and full of life. The duke had a family. They took meals in the dining room and frequently entertained guests. There was much buzz over Miss Charlotte’s upcoming wedding. Haverston Hall was a regular hub of activity. The back door to the house was constantly vibrating with the knocks of one villager or another coming to see Miss Nora for one of her herbal remedies. “Miss Nora has invented a cure for…” Vera paused and everyone leaned in closer, their expressions keenly attentive. She glanced over her shoulder to make certain none of the male members of their staff were in proximity. “She has invented a cure for female woes.” “Female woes?” Martha frowned.

“Oh, you know.” Vera waved a hand anxiously. “Womanly pains . during our time.” A collective ahhh chorused around the group followed by an immediate volley of questions. Miss Nora was a very talented herbalist. There would be no doubt among them. “I don’t know all the particulars, only that she has administered a tonic to Miss Charlotte with some degree of success, I believe.” At least that was what Vera had gathered from the snatches of conversation she overhead when she was tidying up in the duchess’s dressing room. “It cured her of her pains?” Daisy, one of Cook’s assistants, demanded.

“Oh, I need to get my hands on this tonic. My monthly troubles be something fierce.” “That’s it?” Berthe, one of the laundresses, crossed her arms over her ample bosom. “I thought you had something juicy to share.” Vera blinked. “Is not a cure for female—” “That is not gossip.” Berthe snorted and rolled her eyes. “Not like the gossip I have.” All attention quickly honed in on Berthe. The laundress preened, clearly enjoying being the center of attention.

“I spied Miss Charlotte in a rather compromising position with our houseguest, Mr. Kingston.” Gasps rippled through their small circle followed by several exclamations. “The duke’s brother?” “But Miss Charlotte is betrothed to Mr. Pembroke!” “Did you see Mr. Kingston? I’d like to be caught in a compromising position with him.” “Well, she isn’t married yet,” Dorothea, another laundress, inserted in a reasonable voice, “and I don’t think she will go through with it. Mr. Pembroke is a dullard.” Several of the women nodded in agreement with this sentiment.

“Vera!” Vera whipped around to observe her aunt charging ahead, the keys to the house rattling from the belt at her waist. Aunt Rose was a traditionalist. She still wore the keys to the house at her waist like a medieval chatelaine. Her sharp gaze swept around the congregation of females. “You know how I feel about gossip.” She clapped her hands together. “All of you. To work at once.” The women fled like grouse startled from the brush. Once they were gone, her aunt turned her gimlet stare on Vera.

“I expect better from you. You must set an example for the others.” “I wasn’t gossiping.” Not precisely. “Am I to imagine that I did not overhear Miss Charlotte being discussed?” Vera winced. “I did not make mention of Miss Charlotte. It was—” “Miss Charlotte is to be married this summer. It won’t do to have her good name muddied with servants’ gossip—” “I was not—” With a shake of her head, Aunt Rose turned from her. She snatched a basket from one of the wall hooks and thrust it at her. Vera caught it against her chest.

Her aunt continued, “You’re to be a role model for the others. I’m disappointed. If you’re to fill my shoes and someday become the housekeeper of this grand house, then you must be above reproach.” She pointed a gnarled finger to the ceiling where the members of the family dwelled. “You’re to serve and protect the duke and his family, not relish in base tittle-tattle.” Vera’s cheeks burned. “That was not what I—” “Do you understand me?” Cheeks still burning, Vera nodded. “Yes, Aunt Rose.” “Very good. Now go fetch some blackberries.

Cook wishes to make a tart for the duchess this evening.” “Blackberries?” “I trust that is not a problem for you?” Blackberries grew at the northernmost edge of the duke’s vast property. It would take her an hour’s walk there and an hour’s walk back and at least an hour to gather a basket full of berries. Vera would be gone half the day, and she had several tasks waiting for her attention here. Usually, her aunt sent a groom on such errands and left Vera to more important household tasks. Tasks befitting someone destined to take over as the housekeeper to a ducal household. Not blackberry picking at the edge of the earth. Her aunt was punishing her. “No. No problem at all, Aunt Rose.

I’ll see to it and be back in time for Cook to make his tart.” Her aunt nodded briskly and turned on her heels, marching through the kitchen and ascending the stairs to the upper floor. “How the mighty have fallen.” Vera gasped and whirled around to find Rufus, the stablemaster, biting into a shiny fat apple. When had he arrived? Thanks to her aunt, no other servants were loitering about. “Ugh. You,” she grumbled. Merriment danced in his eyes, and he grinned, flashing a brilliant white smile at her, and she knew it was simply because he enjoyed these skirmishes with her. “A delight, as always, to see you.” She glared at the big brute of a man.

“Eavesdropping, Blackthorne? Haven’t you better things to do with your time? Stables …to master?” He chuckled. “Some day that saucy tongue of yours is going to land you in trouble.” “Well, it hasn’t yet.” His gaze flicked to her basket. “Berry picking is a rather menial task for an upper house servant, is it not?” She narrowed her gaze on his much-too-handsome face. “And what would you know of the tasks that befall the house staff? Your domain is outside, Blackthorne, with the rest of the livestock.” One corner of his wicked mouth lifted. “Oh, I know many things, Vera.” “That is Miss Wells to you.” She didn’t know why she bothered.

She had never been Miss Wells to him in all the years they had known each other, but she felt compelled to try. He leaned a hip against the rough-hewn trestle table and took another slow, leisurely bite from his apple—as though he had all the time in the world and not any work waiting for him. “Oh, Mr. Blackthorne,” Marjorie, one of Cook’s assistants, exclaimed with a blush as she entered the room carrying the day’s eggs. She dipped halfway in some manner of curtsey. A curtsey! As though he were lord of the manor and not a servant like the rest of them. Vera rolled her eyes. “Mr. Blackthorne, have you had your breakfast? You certainly need better sustenance than that apple. Can I make you something?” She hastily unloaded her eggs from her apron onto the table, catching them from rolling off the edge.

Satisfied they were safe on the surface, Marjorie sidled closer to him, lightly brushing a hand over his thick forearm with a breath of admiration. He patted her hand gently. “That’s very kind of you, lass. You needn’t add to your work load for me.” “It’s no inconvenience, I assure you.” Vera watched the by-play in disgust. He was always so kind and thoughtful to everyone. Everyone but her. She told herself it did not matter. She told herself she didn’t care.

She didn’t want or need his kindness. Marjorie was not to be discouraged. “Are you certain, Mr. Blackthorne? Eggs? Kippers? A strapping fellow like you needs a hearty meal to get you through your day.” Another eye roll. Marjorie had been working here for at least two years, and she, like the majority of the female population at Haverston Hall, melted into puddles at the sight of Rufus Blackthorne. It was nauseating. Vera was immune, however. Ever since she came to live with her aunt at the age of ten and three, she had been impervious to the charms of Rufus Blackthorne. She still recalled her first glimpse of him: a tall and brawny lad of ten and five with the shadow of a beard on his jawline.

She had thought him a full-grown man. Shortly after her arrival she had caught him kissing a buxom milkmaid several years his senior behind the stables, and hours later she had caught him flirting with another —different—maid—in the kitchen. He’d been full of himself even then, working in the stables and building the muscles that thickened his frame now. He had been well aware of his impact on females all those years ago. Just as he was aware now. He was a rogue, and she had no use for such men. Her father had been a rogue. He’d seduced her mother and left her with a broken heart and, nine months later, Vera. Mama had worked as a seamstress in London and passed herself off as a widow up until her death. Vera never forgot her mother’s many warnings of men who took and used and crushed young girls’ hearts.

Handsome men were not to be trusted. “If you’ll excuse me. Some of us have work to do.” She swept from the kitchen, but Blackthorne was there, following, even managing to reach the door before her. Opening it, he waved her ahead of him. Lifting her chin, she preceded him out.

.

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