MRS. ABİGAİL FRANK sat at the window, watching the deluge of rain that fell from the roof, three stories up. So much water was collecting that the runoff was like a sheet by the time it hit the ground outside the kitchen window. Not that she could see as much as hear its pounding force. At near midnight and with heavy clouds, beyond the window was an impenetrable shade of black. She sighed, letting her thoughts wander. Rainy nights were good for reflection, especially when the rain was so loud, one couldn’t sleep. She considered her name again. She’d always assumed she’d be a Missus So and So, she’d just never thought it would be this way. As the daughter of a vicar, she’d believed that she’d marry a good man of an upstanding family, have several children, live a full life. She twirled the end of her loose braid, her dark brown hair twisting about her finger. Instead, the Missus in front her name was a courtesy title of respect because of her status as housekeeper in the Duke of Devon’s home. It was an excellent position and she was extremely fortunate to have been granted such a place in the Devon household. But the work was hard and the days long, and she should, at this very moment, be sleeping rather than contemplating life and her future. Or rather, what she was beginning to believe was a lack thereof… She stood from the chair she’d been occupying next to the stove and made her way to the window.
Because the kitchen was on the ground floor near the back of the house, the window was only a foot or so above the ground, and she watched as a river of water poured by the stone foundation, making its way toward the back door. What a miserable night. That’s when she noticed the lamp light in the barn, its soft glow permeating the inky sky. She narrowed her gaze. The old stablemaster had hurt his leg and hadn’t been working for nigh on a fortnight. The grooms generally finished by eight and took themselves to bed. No one should be in the barn now. Her mouth twisted into a frown, as she stared at the bright spot for nearly a minute. What should she do? Wake the butler? Reeves was an excellent servant but crotchety about his sleep. She’d catch guff all day tomorrow if she woke him now.
Her father had been the same way before his death. In many ways, Reeves had taken up the mantle of father figure in her life when her own had passed. Of course, Reeves was far more dependable. He likely didn’t have a mountain of hidden debt like Vicar Frank had had. Debts that had left Abigail and her sister, Daisy, destitute if not for the Duke of Devon’s intervention. His Grace had brought them both in as maids, but Abigail’s education and work ethic had made her ideal for the role of housekeeper when the former one had retired. And Abigail was proud to have taken up such a lofty position at the age of two and twenty. But still. The last few months she’d begun to wonder if this was all her life would be. She pushed those thoughts aside and straightened her shoulders.
She wouldn’t wake Reeves or any of the other staff. Instead, she’d go out there herself and see what sort of vagabond had infiltrated their barn. It was likely one of the harmless beggars from the village and she knew them all. Abigail packed a hunk of cured meat, a few slices of cheese, some bread, and a large kitchen knife. She hoped to bribe the person with food to leave the Duke’s property. If that failed, she’d have the knife… With a plan in place, she grabbed a large wrap that she always hung by the entrance in the scullery and placed it over her head and about her shoulders. Then she slipped her feet into an overlarge pair of clogs and opened the door. Drawing in a deep breath, she stepped out into the wet, cold night and raced for the barn. The ground was slippery and she almost tripped, but just managed to keep her feet. Water hammered her shawl and leaked down the front of her dressing robe and into her clogs.
She shivered with cold as she hurried faster. When she finally reached the barn, she grabbed the large metal ring and tugged the door open, eager to be in the dry protection of the barn. The door gave a loud squeak and belatedly, Abigail realized that she was announcing her presence with all the subtly of a pack of yapping dogs. Stepping inside, the lamp she’d seen glowed brightly, lighting the barn and the man who stood in front of the woodstove. Broad shoulders were what she noticed first, that and his height. Uncommonly tall, he looked large even in the vast ceilings of the barn. He’d shed his coat, revealing thick arms and a thin waist. His breeches were rather fitted and his rear was… Abigail gulped. Wellformed. Powerful thighs tapered down to shiny black boots.
Her eyes skimmed back up his body, noting the mane of wild blond hair that swept carelessly back over his collar. This was no vagabond. “So,” he called over his shoulder. “You’re the welcoming committee.” She pressed her lips together. “Who am I welcoming exactly?” He glanced over his shoulder and she caught sight of his profile. Square jaw and full lips, she gasped in a breath. He heard the sound and quirked a grin. “Rex Ableman, at your service.” Telling her heartbeat to cease thrumming, she drew in a slow steady breath.
She was the housekeeper in a duke’s home. Why did he seem to have the upper hand? “That tells me almost nothing that I actually need to know. Why are you in His Grace’s barn at midnight in the middle of a storm?” He turned to her then, pivoting in a way that was effortless in its prowess. Gads the man was built like a god. “What’s in the basket?” She looked down at the wicker handles still in her hand and a large gush of water fell onto the lid of the basket, having collected on her wrap. With a sigh, she set the container down and unwrapped the wool from her head, shaking it out onto the straw. She’d not allow this man the upper hand and the first step was making him wait. She slowly pulled the thick fabric back over her shoulders, tucking the edges around the waist of her housecoat. “I asked you a question first.”