The footman’s chiseled features flickered in the candlelight, and his hand moved to cup the flame. Tabitha’s heart flipped in her chest, from fear or excitement, she didn’t pause to distinguish. His roguish smile welcomed her, and she couldn’t resist a smile in return. She hesitated, allowing the others to move further away, while she considered. He tipped his head to the side, indicating she follow him the other direction. His eyes held a hint of adventure, a welcoming warmth. She longed to follow. She looked back toward their group. Tauney and Miss Anne were intent, heads bent together in conversation. Julius was nowhere near.
No one else paid her any more mind than they had when she arrived. The footman waited, eyes expectant, the slightest wicked gleam twinkling there.
She wanted someone to seek her out. Not to keep track of her, on an errand from her brothers, but to care. And even though the only offer of that sort of attention came now, at the hand of a servant, he was fascinating, willing, and devilishly handsome. And he was a servant. Nothing would come of it, surely.
One of his hands let the candle dance alone while he held his other out, palm up, to her.
Three breaths later, she reached her fingers forward, hesitant at first, glancing in all directions.
No one will know.
He whispered, “Only our important guests are permitted to see what I am about to show you.”
Her gloved fingers brushed across his, resting on the tips.
And there is nothing untoward about a footman leading me on a tour.
He curled his fingers, catching the tips of hers, urging her hand into his own.
In the middle of the night. Alone.
She slid her full hand along his palm, testing. Even if he is the most handsome footman I have ever seen.
She withdrew but nodded her head. “Yes, let’s go.” Her heart shook her chest and pounded in her ears, but she hurried after the footman anyway.
He whispered over his shoulder, “Excellent. You won’t regret this.”
He led her back down the way they had come, turning one corner and stopping to face a wall. Pushing at the wood and sliding, a panel moved and they entered a passageway behind the wall.
“What is this?”
He held a finger up to her mouth, a hairbreadth away.
She nodded, swallowing. The thrill of a secret filling her with adventure.
They hurried down the passageway until voices carried through the wall. She followed him up the stairs to a raised platform, light streaming out from a narrow rectangular opening at her eye level. He crouched down to be able to see out the sliver of light. Their faces close, peering at the group below, she enjoyed a hint of cinnamon and vanilla from cook’s kitchen. And his tentative arm around her shoulder as he positioned himself in such a way that they could both see out this opening together.
“This is the best view of the specter.”
She gasped. “Is there a specter?”
When he didn’t answer, she studied his profile. “Who are you?”
He paused, then turned to face her, the deep brown of his eyes turning amber as the light shown through.
Their faces close, she waited, curious. “You don’t seem like a footman.”
“Even dressed in livery as I am?”
“That is but your costume. You seem to be much more, underneath.” She hoped it were true. Not that she assumed their situations equal, but he saw her when no one else as yet had. There was a certain gentility about him, and she thought he deserved some good fortune. And with a voice such as his, surely he had been trained somewhere.
He tipped his head, searched her face, avoiding her lips in his gaze, and then turned back to the group below. “You might miss it. Pay attention.”
She stepped closer and placed her forehead up against the opening. Below, all the guests crept forward, gathering. She whispered, “You didn’t answer my question.”
“I wear a costume, it is true. My situation may be different from many who also wear livery, but I am a servant. You can be assured of that.” A tinge of bitterness laced his comment and Tabitha wondered at it.
“Do you not like working at Somerstone. I would think it lovely.”
“I would work for none other. The Countess is unmatched as an employer. And collects the most interesting guests.” He turned to her again, smiling. Then his eyes went cold. “There are some who, knowing my parentage, would question my desire to lower myself in such a way.” He ground his teeth and Tabitha guessed he himself would choose another path were he given such a choice. “And others who feel I don’t deserve even this occupation.” An eerie shiver settled around her, pushing out the earlier warmth.
She wondered at his history, but did not question further.
When they turned back to watch the group, all the candles in the hallway went out, as if they were snuffed, one by one.
And then her breath caught. “Is that?” A whisp of white air floated in the doorway of the nursery.
The footman walked her along the passageway, a different direction than they had come, taking far more turns than she would ever remember. Then he stopped so suddenly she bumped up against him. He steadied her and then he blew out his candle.
She froze, the darkness complete. Her breath caught and her heart started pounding. “What are you doing?”
His mouth close to her ear made her jump. “You are outside your bedchambers. I’m delivering you safely to them.” His breath tickled her neck, and she closed her eyes.
He waited. And the silence filled with possibility. Then he said. “Thank you, Miss Easton, for being my friend. It has been many years since I have had such a simple enjoyment.”
She swallowed. “You are welcome. Perhaps you have noticed I could use a friend also, now and again.”
“I would be pleased to oblige. We might find a way for more moments such as these.” He shifted to his right, a soft thump sounding near them and then candlelight from a hallway outside their passage filtered in. He stuck his head out, searching the area. “No one will see you. Go now.”
“Thank you.” She slipped past him, stepped across the hall and opened the door to her bedchambers without looking back.
Closing the door behind her, she breathed deeply three times. The exhilaration of her bravery still raced through her heart. So many almosts in that narrow space, almosts she would have regretted even now. Things she had sensed he would welcome if she gave any indication. But grateful now for her forbearance, for her fear. She shivered, the feeling not entirely unpleasant.
Perhaps she would find a way to thank him. Someone such as he would be beneficial to know at this houseparty, particularly in moments where she might need to get away, or hide, or find a bit of unchaperoned freedom.
Chaperones. She closed her eyes. Henry’s earlier hovering rushed back into her mind. Her anger had now been replaced by sadness, because if he were to ever see her as intriguing, it would not be while acting as her chaperone.
Even as she said it though, his boyish smile and deep blue eyes twinkled at her in her mind, and she knew she was lost. She could never give up on him, not yet.
Wearing her favorite Sunday dress, and full of delicious breakfast, she studied the beautiful stained glass in the local church. The more she thought about her ghost hunt with the footman, the more uncomfortable she felt. In the light of day, with her brothers all around her, in church no less, it seemed more reckless than friendly. She tried to shake the uneasiness the night had left inside and enjoy a beautiful Sunday at the small church in town.
Tabitha breathed deeply the comforting smells of family. Tauney sat at her left and his soap, sweet and tangy, tickled her nose more strongly than Henry’s earthy musk. Pressed between the two, the gentle presence against her shoulders on both sides brought comfort. They squeezed closer than usual so all the Eastons could fit on a bench. And the grounding feelings of home filled her. She often sat with Henry at church. Their families blended together on their pews at the local vicarage and for the first time since they left for this party, she felt whole again. Complete. Her mother in Bath, her father looking down on them all, surrounded by her brothers, and Henry at her side.
Satisfaction filled her. The vicar said, “And let us remember our loved ones in mercy.” She breathed out all the worry that filled her. “And let peace fill our minds in remembrance of the great giver of peace.”
Henry rested his hand atop hers.
Her eyes flitted to his. His new intensity had returned and the blue depths sparkled with kindness, caring, love. Perhaps like the brother she had always known, but perhaps not, perhaps more.
His hand curled around hers, collecting her fingers in his warm palm. Hidden between them.
Her breath caught. And her new peace was replaced by a craze of racing emotions. Did Henry hold her hand at church ever? She racked her brain. Yes, he had. And while running, climbing trees, helping over rocks in their hikes to the top of the hill. He had held her hand in all manner of ways, but this moment felt different. Dare she believe it? After all the moments of rising and crashing hope, dare she hope that he had at last desired more than friendship from her?
She returned his gaze, trying to communicate her hopes. Her face broke out in a huge and silly smile. Try as she would like to appear more natural, she couldn’t contain it.
Tauney nudged her. “Pay attention you two. The Vicar is looking our way.”
Henry winked and returned his attention to the front but he squeezed her fingers in his own.
A tiny giggle escaped her mouth.
“Stop it already.” Tauney whispered. “Whatever the joke, think about it after and then tell us all so that we can join in your merriment.”
She snorted. And Henry echoed her suppressed laugh, and then she covered her mouth with her other hand. She would never leave Henry’s cradling fingers if she could help it.
Henry’s body shook beside her and it only made things worse. He gasped, overly loud then bit his thumb. Refusing to look at her, he sat back, and created a serious and sanctimonious expression. But he couldn’t manage it. Winking at her, his smile only grew.
Tabitha dug fingers into her palm and closed her eyes. But inside she thrilled. Her other hand, safely ensconced in his larger palm, tingled from the attention.
At last in control, they faced the vicar again.
But she had not a moment of calm. Because his thumb began to brush across her knuckles, pressing in between, then he toyed with her fingers almost absentmindedly.
All ability to focus on the sermon left and she tried in vain to control her breathing.
And hoped that Henry’s attention would continue.
- Thirty-One: Whist and Wagers
- Twenty-Seven: Midnight Meetings and Stained Glass
- Twenty-Two: A Choice in the Dark
- Eighteen: Blast his New Attraction
- Eleven: Awash in the River
- Seven: A Delicious Distraction is Afoot
- Five: Shocking Proposition
- In the Quiet Before Delicious Mayhem Begins