Olivia drew up before the scene of her next crime. Was it her imagination, or did the townhouse loom? All the other mansions on this street looked polite and elegant, neatly confining themselves within rows of trimmed hedges. This house, on the other hand, sprawled. She spied a gargoyle lurking above one cornice, glowering at her. Of course the Duke of Marwick would have a gargoyle carved into his house!
She crossed her arms and glowered back. She was a thief now, wasn’t she? No matter that, for all her twenty-five years, she had prayed before bedtime and gasped at curses. Now she was a criminal. Criminals should not fear anything—not even the Duke of Marwick, tyrant extraordinaire.
Brave thoughts. But her stomach was jumping like she’d eaten spoiled food.
She pivoted away, pacing to the hedges that marked the next lot. God in heaven. Was this the kind of woman she wanted to be? She’d told herself she had no choice, but that was a lie. One always had a choice. She could run again, flee to France, or even farther . . .
The autumn breeze carried a child’s laugh to her ears. In the park at the center of the square, a little boy was playing chase with a puppy. He ran in circles, shrieking with delight as the spaniel nipped his heels. Was he all alone?
Her concern faded when she spotted the couple watching from the shade of the elm trees. They were not a nanny and footman, as one typically saw supervising the young heirs of Mayfair, but a married couple, the husband fair and slim, with an elegant gold watch pinned to his lapel. The wife, plump and pink cheeked, hugged his arm as she smiled at her son.
A knot rose in Olivia’s throat. If she walked away now, it would never be safe to make a home. She would always be alone. Always running.
Strictly speaking, theft and fraud were immoral. But her cause was just, and her prospective victim, a bully. Marwick deserved a taste of his own medicine. She would not feel guilty!
She nudged her spectacles up her nose and marched back to the duke’s townhouse. The brass knocker felt slippery in her hand. The advertisement was a week old; the maid’s position might have been filled already. All her agonizing would be for nothing.
The door opened. A young brunette set her shoulder against the doorjamb and looked up at Olivia. “Oo-oo. Tall as a man, ain’t you? Come about the position, I expect.”
It had taken several days for Olivia to persuade Amanda to write the reference. But in a second, she saw that she might as well have forged it herself. Nobody was going to check its authenticity, not when they had this creature answering the door. “Yes,” she said. “The maid’s—”
“Welcome to the madhouse, then. Me name’s Polly.” The girl waved Olivia into the chill of the lobby, a cavernous space tiled in checkerboard marble. “It’s Jones you’ll want to see. He’s in the butler’s pantry. Don’t ask what he does there; nobody can say.”
Olivia followed the girl past what looked to be the scene of a fight, remnants of a shattered vase strewn along the wall. Or perhaps only neglect was to blame, for the Grecian urn by the stairs held masses of withered roses, and the air smelled sour, as though somebody had laid down vinegar for cleaning and forgotten to mop it up again.
A madhouse, indeed. It was the master who had gone mad first, Olivia guessed. Her former employer, Elizabeth Chudderley (from whom she had stolen), had called the Duke of Marwick a bully and a tyrant, for his ruthless opposition of Elizabeth’s marriage to his brother. But this house suggested he was less exacting of his servants than of his family. How bizarre!
A bully, she reminded herself. Marwick was a boor, a monster. Cheating him would be criminal, but not unforgivable—unlike her theft from Elizabeth.
“So you’ll have heard about our duke,” Polly said as they stepped into the servants’ passage.
For a stupid moment, Olivia thought the girl had read her mind. And then she gathered her wits. “Of course. The Duke of Marwick has done so many wonderful—”
Polly’s snort spared Olivia the distasteful task of praising him. “You don’t know the half of it.” And as they descended the stairs, she commenced a chattering monologue, full of sordid details that supplied the larger picture.
The housekeeper had quit nine days ago, after an episode in which the duke had thrown a shoe at her. Since then, half the maids had fled. Oh, the pay was still good, but you couldn’t expect a lunatic to live long, could you? To be sure, he was only thirty-five. But the duke had not left the house in ten months. If that wasn’t lunacy, what was?
“It’s been grand fun,” Polly concluded as they emerged into the servants’ gallery. “Like being paid to see a stage show!”
“Indeed.” Olivia felt slightly sick. Thanks to the letters she had stolen from Elizabeth, she knew far more of the situation than she should. She even knew why Marwick was deranged.
Several months ago, Elizabeth had come into possession of letters written by the duke’s late wife. These letters revealed the duchess to have been unfaithful and treacherous. The duke, upon learning it, had turned from a grieving widower into a half-mad hermit—and perhaps a drunkard, too, for what else could have driven him to throw shoes at the housekeeper?
Polly banged on the door to the butler’s pantry. “You’ve a new one,” she called.
The door opened a crack. A hand shot out, pudgy fingers snapping up Olivia’s reference. The door slammed shut again.
Polly crossed her arms and tapped her foot. “Now, now,” she said loudly. “This one looks promising. I swear to you, it wasn’t Bradley who summoned her.” She cut Olivia a grin. “One of the footmen. Thought it’d make a fine joke to summon a painted lady for an interview. Poor Jones, he wasn’t amused.”
Olivia grew conscious of her own increasingly stiff posture. Did the butler have no spine? Why did he not sack Bradley?
That isn’t your business, she reminded herself. The disarray of this household would work to her advantage. Her aim was to rifle the duke’s belongings, for his late wife’s letters suggested that he kept files on his political colleagues, dossiers that evidenced their crimes. If this was true, then Olivia needed to find the files. There was a certain man she very much needed to blackmail.
She had anticipated a great many watchful eyes ready to catch her in the act of prying. But this lot? They wouldn’t notice if she stole the silver! Assuming any silver remained to be stolen, of course.
“You’re lucky,” Polly said, jarring Olivia from her reverie. “Old Jones is so desperate, he’ll probably not care that you wear spectacles. But in the normal course, ain’t much call for a maid who can’t see.”
“Oh.” Blinking, Olivia nudged her glasses back up to their proper place. She had never considered that detail.
“And you’ll have to stop coloring your hair,” Polly added with a tsk. “Fine shade of red, but a bit too loud for service.”
“I don’t color my hair.” She had considered it for the sake of disguise, but the lighter shades did not stick, and the darkest would have looked unnatural.
Polly gave her a skeptical look. “Right-o. Mother Nature just got frisky, I suppose.”
“I tell you, this is my natural color.” And if she had dyed her hair, she certainly would not have chosen the shade.
The door opened. Jones proved to be a distinguished gentleman in black tails, with bulldog jowls and hair as silver as a groat. He clutched Olivia’s reference like a drowning man to driftwood. “This looks quite satisfactory, Miss Johnson.”
Polly gave Olivia a questioning look. “Miss Johnson, is it?”
Mere parlor maids did not deserve such a formal address. Olivia had a sinking feeling that Amanda had not obeyed her instructions: omit from the reference any mention of Olivia’s education, and emphasize instead her experience in cleaning and caring for a grand home. Not that she had any, in truth. . . .
“Come, come,” said Jones, pushing himself through the doorway and all but scrambling for the stairs. “Follow me, if you please.”
* * *
“Our finest drawing room,” Jones announced. He waved her out of the salon, setting a brisk pace down the corridor. “You worked two years in Lady Ripton’s household?”
Olivia rushed to keep up. Roman statues lined the hallway, their stiff, marbled faces gazing with disapproval on this unlikely scene: the butler, who was meant to stand at the top of the servants’ hierarchy, giving a tour to his prospective underling. “Yes, sir. I served two years as an upstairs maid.”
This was a lie, of course. Olivia was a secretary by training. But it was her good fortune that Amanda, her former classmate at the typing school, had recently married Viscount Ripton. This made Amanda’s recommendations very powerful things to own. If the Viscountess Ripton said that Olivia had been a housemaid par excellence, then this poor, beleaguered butler would not doubt it.
“I do wonder . . .” Jones was scratching his chin. He seemed very interested in one spot in particular, a patch of whiskers beneath his ear that he had obviously missed during his morning ablutions. The silver hair there sprouted a full inch longer than the rest of his beard.
Beneath her fascinated gaze, he recalled his manners, flushing as he tucked his hand back into his waistcoat. “Are you, by any chance, lettered?”
She could have answered him in French, Italian, or German. But it seemed rather showy—and improbable, for a housemaid. “Yes, sir. I can read and write.”
“I don’t suppose you can do figures as well?”
That was also not among the housemaid’s usual skills. But the pleading look Jones fixed on her was impossible to resist. How desperate he appeared. “Yes,” she said. “I’m quite good at figures.”
Relief flashed over Jones’s face, followed, puzzlingly, by what looked like pure trepidation. He came to a stop by another door. “The library,” he said—but before he could show it to her, raucous laughter exploded around the corner, causing him to wince. “Today is rather unsettled,” he said hastily. “But I assure you, I do not tolerate such disarray on a typical basis.”
His embarrassment was contagious. As the giggles came again, Olivia felt herself turning red to match him. “Of course not, sir.”
Two maids spilled around the corner, one of them holding open a magazine, the other craning to gawk at it. Jones stiffened. “Muriel!”
The girls startled—and then, to Olivia’s astonishment, they turned on their heels and scampered back the way they had come.
Jones scowled after them. But his spirit was sadly broken, Olivia saw; rather than summoning them for a well-deserved scolding, he sighed and shook his head. “Have you any questions for me, Miss Johnson?”
She consulted herself. “Well—wages, of course.”
“Twenty-five pounds per annum, increasing to thirty after five years’ service. Anything else?”
She wracked her brain for typical concerns. “When His Grace closes the house, will we travel with him? Or will we be kept on here?”
Instantly she regretted the question, for Jones darted her an agonized look. “I do not think . . .” He cleared his throat. “His Grace will not close the house this year.”
Nobody stayed in London during the winter. She tried to mask her shock. “I see.”
“You may have heard . . .” The butler hesitated. “I wish to assure you that His Grace is everything one could wish for in an employer.”
Poor Jones. He sounded so disheartened by his lie. Olivia restrained the urge to touch his elbow in comfort. “I have no doubt, sir.”
And that was not the kind of lie she had expected to tell today. Indeed, she’d anticipated having to prostrate herself. This was, after all, the household of the most feared figure in British politics: Alastair de Grey, fifth Duke of Marwick, friend to princes, patron of prime ministers, and puppet master of countless MPs. His upper staff, she’d assumed, would be overproud and haughty, like all servants in grand houses.
But if Marwick had once governed the nation, he now failed to govern even his own home. His servants were running wild. It made no sense to Olivia. Elizabeth had spoken of him as an all-powerful bully . . . but a bully never would have tolerated this chaos.
And once she stole from him, this beleaguered butler—the only one here who showed a lick of sense—would bear the blame for having hired her.
She couldn’t do it. To take advantage of this miserable fellow was too sordid. “Mr. Jones,” she began, just as he spoke.
“Miss Johnson, I have a terribly unorthodox proposition.” He took a deep breath, like a diver preparing himself for the plunge. “We are lacking a housekeeper. As you—as I am sure the maids already told you.”
“Indeed, they did not,” she lied. How far gone he was! Mr. Jones should not depend on the staff’s gossiping. His task was to prevent it.
“Well, yes. She gave notice . . . rather abruptly. And I do wonder . . .” Jones mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. “That is, it occurs to me . . . Lady Ripton spoke most highly of you; why, she even said she felt you were lowering yourself to this position, having served, in her time of need, as an amanuensis, a companion and secretary—”
She had told Amanda not to embroider the point. “Lady Ripton is too kind. It’s true, once in a great rare while, I did assist her—”
“Well, here’s the rub.” The words tumbled over each other; it was evident that Jones was aghast at his own proposal, and wished to get through it as quickly as possible. “Until we find a replacement, I require someone to fill Mrs. Wright’s shoes. You are educated; you are familiar with the ways of the better classes. I wonder if you might not step into her post—until, of course, I can find her replacement. Only until then.”
Olivia caught her breath. This was a stroke of luck beyond all imagining. She needed a weapon very badly indeed. The Duke of Marwick was likely in possession of this weapon. And a housekeeper would have license to look everywhere for it.
But—her spirits sank—it would still be fraud. And it would still cost Jones his job, in the end. “I couldn’t,” she said miserably. “I have no experience—”
“I would instruct you.” Jones caught her hand. “I do entreat you, Miss Johnson”—his grip tightened as his voice dropped—“to think on the great advantage it would do your future. To be able to say you had once served as housekeeper to His Grace. Why, no domestic of your age could dream of such a boon!”
Gently she pulled her hand free. He was right, of course. Had she truly been Olivia Johnson, parlor maid—and not Olivia Holladay, former secretary, now operating under her second alias, with a falsified letter of reference—she never would have refused the opportunity.
And so, lest she rouse his suspicions, she said, “It is a fine honor, indeed. But you must give me a day or two to think on it. To consult with myself, and see if I am worthy of it.”
Olivia’s humility pleased him. Smiling, he agreed to her terms.
* * *
“Oh, it’s you.” Mrs. Primm stepped aside, allowing Olivia to step into the shabby little hall.
Mrs. Primm behaved as though she were doing her lodgers a great favor by letting them rent rooms the size of mouse holes. Meanwhile, she hoarded the coal, so they fell asleep shivering each night. But oh, could she cook like a dream! Olivia breathed deeply; the smell of beef stew filled the air, rich and savory. “Is supper laid?”
“Laid and finished. You know I don’t wait for nobody.”
Swallowing her disappointment, Olivia mounted the stairs. Her stomach was growling, but hunger wouldn’t kill her.
Once in her room, she knelt to make sure the lockbox still sat beneath her bed. She lived in fear that somebody might steal it.
On the omnibus, she had been tallying sums in her head, calculating her options. It was time to consider what she’d most wanted to avoid: fleeing to the Continent, someplace far enough away that Bertram would never think to look for her there.
She glanced up at the drawings she’d tacked on the wall. They were benign prints clipped from magazines: an ivy-covered cottage with a lamp burning in the window. A village sleeping beneath the snow. Treacle dreams, but she could not scorn them—or let go of them, no matter how hard she tried.
Abroad, she would always be a stranger. Forced to avoid her fellow expatriates in order to hide, she would be even more alone than she was now.
Bah! She shook off the self-pity. Such a bittersweet, sticky feeling. Wallow in it too long, and one found oneself trapped.
She unlocked the box and took the comfort of weighing her pound notes, a solid brick of savings. Elizabeth Chudderley had paid her a generous salary, and together with her mother’s savings, she had enough to stay comfortably lodged for several months if she did not find work as a fräulein, signorina, or mademoiselle.
She laid down the money, and then, because she had not allowed herself to look at it in months, she lifted out her mother’s diary. The leather cover needed oiling; it had begun to crack. But her mother’s handwriting still looked crisp and fresh.
Mama had never feared Bertram. Had he always been a villain, it would have been easier to understand him now. Olivia skimmed past observations on flowers, descriptions of the changing seasons, of dresses newly arrived from London, and of course, of Olivia herself (My precious angel has become a young woman; I can’t tell how it happened). The last entry was what drew her in, every time. It was the only one she didn’t understand.
The truth is hidden at home.
What truth? The mystery would remain unsolved, for Olivia dared not go to Allen’s End.
The stairs groaned. She shoved away the lockbox just as a key rattled in the lock.
“Am I to have no privacy?” she demanded as the door opened.
Mrs. Primm ignored this. “There’s one thing,” she said sourly. “I forgot to mention it before.”
Olivia rose. She would not be extorted again! “I have already agreed to the new rate, ma’am. You said that was the final price. And I keep this room very neat—”
“A man came looking for you today.”
Dread seized her. “What?” Be calm. She cleared her throat. “How curious. I can’t imagine who it might have been.”
Mrs. Primm had a round, rosy-cheeked face. It lent her an air of benevolence that sat oddly with her cynical tones. “I expect you’d prefer it that way. Came by foot, he did. Well dressed, but not well spoken.”
“Did he leave a name?” How she managed to sound so indifferent, she didn’t know. Her skin was breaking out in gooseflesh; she had to clench her teeth lest they chatter.
“Munn, was it? No—Moore.” Mrs. Primm nodded to herself, missing, thank God, the small sound that Olivia could not swallow away before it escaped her. “He left an address as well, mind you, and asked that I let him know when you returned.”
“And did you?” She realized she was cupping her throat, squeezing it as Moore had once done. She tucked her hand into her pocket, made a secret fist. Thomas Moore was Bertram’s man, perhaps even Bertram’s . . . assassin.
Mrs. Primm shrugged. “Well, he wasn’t police, and I don’t fancy myself a matchmaker. I told him you’d moved on.”
“Oh.” Olivia blinked hard and tried to master herself, for she was seized by the most inappropriate impulse to give Mrs. Primm a hug. “Thank you! Oh, thank you, ma’am.” How she had misjudged the cantankerous old woman!
The woman rejected this gratitude with a sharp pull of her mouth. “I don’t want trouble. You’ll need to leave now.”
“Do you think—that is, could I perhaps leave through the back gate?”
Mrs. Primm gave a grim nod. “I expected you might. Should you find yourself in need of a place, you’ll not come back here. You follow?”
“I won’t. I promise you.” It was the easiest promise she’d ever made.
The door closed. Olivia quickly gathered up her belongings. Every time she fled, she abandoned more than she took. Her possessions now fit into a single valise, the weight of which felt like evidence of her own failure. How on earth had Bertram tracked her here? She’d taken such care with her movements.
Outside, in the safety of the narrow passageway behind the house, night had fallen. This footpath was the sole reason she had chosen Mrs. Primm’s establishment for her lodging. But she’d prayed she would never need to use it.
She stole quickly down the rutted trail. Where would she go? Amanda had departed with her husband for Italy. Lilah, lodged by her employer, could not take Olivia in. Nor could a woman simply prowl the city at night, begging for a room. The steamers bound for the Continent all left with the morning tide. She might go to Waterloo, take the first departing train—but what would she do once she arrived, in the dead of night, God knew where?
The traffic of the nearby high street grew louder with each step, the rattle of tack, the rumble of wheels, promising her the safety of a crowd. You are safe, she told her racing heart. But she wasn’t. Bertram’s man knew that she was in London . . .
His Lordship don’t want no trouble. That first night in London seven years ago, Moore had met her at the station. He had sat across from her in Bertram’s brougham, the swinging side lamp painting his face then casting it back into shadow, visible and then invisible, in rhythm to the thumping of the wheels. And you’re trouble, I expect.
Moore had lured her into the coach with the promise of taking her to a decent hotel. He’d said that Bertram wanted him to see her safely settled. After how hotly Bertram had opposed Olivia’s plan to come to London, this kindness had surprised her. She’d supposed it was meant as an apology; Bertram probably felt guilty for having missed Mama’s funeral.
But his manservant did not take her to a hotel. Instead, the vehicle had turned into a road that grew progressively darker, traveling into the wild darkness of the heath. And when Moore began to speak of trouble, she grew amazed, then afraid. I won’t be any trouble, she’d said. I told Bertram. I don’t need anything from him. I have my own plans now.
But Moore had not seemed to hear her. He don’t want no trouble, he’d repeated. So I take the trouble for him.
And then he had shown her what he meant by that.
She could still feel his hands around her throat. She remembered it so vividly. One’s mind did odd things when starved for air. It saw colors, lights, visions of better times, when one had felt loved.
She had fought him. But he was so much stronger.
She had woken in a ditch by the side of the road, as dawn broke overhead. Even as her eyes had opened, she’d realized she was meant to be dead. Moore never would have thrown her out of the coach if he’d imagined she would live.
When she had appeared at the typing school and asked the headmistress to register her by a different name—not Olivia Holladay, but Olivia Mather—the woman had taken one look at the bruises on her throat and kindly agreed.
Now Thomas Moore had found her again. He was looking for her even now. And she had nowhere to go.
She pulled up where the path opened onto the high street, putting her hand over her chest, willing her gasping breath to slow. She had air. She had enough air.
And it wasn’t true that she had nowhere to go. She watched a hackney pass, and then another, wrestling with herself. One house stood open to her tonight. It was also a place Bertram would never think to look: the house of a man he’d betrayed.
Could she do it? Had she given up on her soul? She had stolen the letters from Elizabeth rashly, on a moment’s wild whim. But this undertaking would be different. She had planned it as thoroughly as a hardened criminal.
But forced to choose between her soul and her safety, her soul and her dignity, her soul and freedom—her soul be damned! Thomas Moore could take part of the blame, for he had forced her into it. Bertram would take the rest, for setting Moore on her trail.
She hailed the next cab. “Mayfair,” she said to the driver. “Green Street.”
Inside the musty cab, as the wheels thumped steadily against the pavement and St. Giles receded, her panic began to ebb, her mind clearing.
She would play the housekeeper. She would find Marwick’s information on Bertram. And she would use it.
This was the last time that any man of Bertram’s would ever make her flee.
Fool Me Twice
A LADY WITH A SECRET
Running for her life, exhausted and out of options, Olivia Holladay wants nothing more than the chance to make a home for herself. So when she realizes that the infamous Duke of Marwick might hold the key to her freedom, she boldly disguises herself as the newest and bravest in a long line of the duke’s notoriously temperamental housekeepers. Little does she know that the wickedly handsome Alastair de Grey has very different plans for her.
A MAN WITH A PASSION—FOR VENGEANCE
As his new employee, Olivia is a fearless upstart. As a woman, the daring redhead is just what Alastair needs to rouse him from darkness to the siren call of revenge. He has suffered a betrayal so deep that he will use whatever means necessary to destroy his enemies—even his brazen and beautiful domestic. But his vengeful plan fails to account for his single weakness: an irresistible and growing passion for the enigmatic Olivia.
- Pocket Books |
- 384 pages |
- ISBN 9781476741352 |
- March 2014