About the book
First one fails, the other goes awry...Whatever the cost, the Duke must die…
The broken pocket watch she tries to steal from a nobleman proves to be the ticket to a new life for Miss Regina Buxton, the fair daughter of a blacksmith and a master in the art of daggers. Against all odds, she finds employment as a maid in the Duke of Lyndon’s household.
Benjamin Allen, the dashing Duke of Lyndon, is enamored by the new servant and her enigmatic aura and intrigued by her mysterious past. But when an attempt against his life is made, all clues lead to her.
On a perilous quest to prove her innocence and unmask the true monster to save the Duke’s life, she only has ten days before the devil takes the final shot.
Regina Buxton sat in her father’s blacksmith shop manning the bellows as he worked the fiery coals in readiness for his newest creation. The orange glow reflected in his dark brown eyes and glistened in his hair, black as a raven’s wing with silver rivulets flowing through it. His features were so dear to her, yet nothing like her own. Mark Smith was not Regina’s father by birth, for he had taken her in as a babe upon the death of her parents. He was, however, most certainly her father in every way that mattered. Mark’s love for her had been a shining beacon in her otherwise dark existence.
“That is enough,” her father admonished. She had gotten distracted watching him work the metal and blown the bellows one too many times.
“Apologies, Father,” Regina backed away to watch from a bench in the corner.
“‘Tis nothing,” he brushed the offense aside.
Swinging her legs back and forth in the space beneath the bench, Regina’s thoughts turned once more to her paternity. “Tell me again the story of how I came to be with you?”
“Well now.” Mark smiled. Regina could tell by the far-away look in his eyes that he was thinking back to twelve years before. “I will never forget the day I met your father. He and your mother had just arrived from Buxton to take up his new posting as the parish minister.”
“Why is my surname the same as the town in which my parents once lived?” Regina knew the answer but wished to hear it again.
Mark laughed knowing full well what his young daughter was up to. “Your father had been orphaned as a babe, just as you were, but his parentage was unknown. It was common practice in those days when in need of a surname, yet deprived of one for one reason or another, to adopt the name of the town in which you were born. ‘Twas in this custom that they christened your father Jacob Alexander Buxton. When he was about the age you are now, he was adopted by a local clergyman and his wife. They had a daughter, Elizabeth…”
“My mother,” Regina interrupted.
“Yes, your mother. Mark smiled tousling Regina’s chestnut curls. “They fell in love, and after your father returned from seminary, they were married. Your father accepted a ministry position here in our parish not long after you were born. Your parents were elated at your arrival. A more loved babe I have yet to see. Jacob once told me about the night you were born. You were not like other babes entering the world with clouded eyes and blind need, but came to them clear and alert observing all around you like a queen surveying her realm.”
“That is how I came to bear the name Regina.” Regina’s face lit up.
“Yes, you were the queen of their hearts and mine.” Mark paused his work, staring into the hot coals as vivid memory overtook him. “You were but six months old at the time of the fire. I was walking past the church on my way home when I smelled the smoke. The clergy was ablaze, and I could hear your screams through the acrid smog. I could think of naught else to do but find you amidst the inferno. ‘Tis but by God’s grace that your nursery was at the back of the house, and I was able to break the window and pull you out.”
“But it was too late for my parents,” Regina whispered, shoulders sagging with the weight of her parent’s demise.
“Before I could do aught else, the roof collapsed cutting off any further means of rescue,” Mark confirmed. “It was decided amongst the good people of the parish that my wife and I, being childless, would take you in and raise you as our own.”
“And that is how I came to be your daughter,” Regina concluded the tale.
“Yes, that is how you came to be my daughter,” Mark agreed, retrieving the metal from the flames and carrying it over to the anvil. He smiled at her with a twinkle of love and pride in his eye. “Now, Daughter, Come help me finish this piece.”
Climbing down from the bench, Regina obeyed, following her father’s instruction as she hammered the metal rod into submission. It was unorthodox at best for a girl to practice the art of blacksmithing, but it was a source of great pride for Mark. His family had been blacksmiths since the time of William the Conqueror, and without sons to carry on the legacy, he had taken his young adopted daughter as an apprentice. She had flourished under his strict, but loving tutelage and at twelve was already showing signs of becoming an able craftswoman.
Regina knew that Mark’s wife, Catherine, resented the time he and Regina spent together, bitter over the fact that they could not have children of their own. Catherine had grown more spiteful with every year that passed, resulting in a very unhappy home life for Mark and Regina. The time they spent together in the shop was like an oasis of peace, essential to survival in the barren wasteland that was Catherine’s ire.
Regina had suffered greatly over the years from Catherine’s sharp tongue. She believed Regina’s mismatched eyes, one amber, one green, to be the sign of Satan and had no qualms about telling her so on a daily basis. She insisted Regina call her Mistress Smith, not mother, and Regina was all too happy to comply. When she thought of what a mother should be, Catherine Smith was not it.
Mark was the exact opposite of his wife. He had been a wonderful father. He had taught Regina to read, write, do arithmetic, and the trade of his forbearer’s. Due to Catherine’s distaste for her, Regina had never learned the usual skills a young lady would learn from her mother, such as sewing, cooking, music, painting, or any other aspects of the more dainty arts.
Mark had taught her many songs that they would sing together in time to the hammer striking the anvil. He praised her voice, saying that the angels in heaven had no choice but to pause and listen when she sang for its beauty. They were not allowed to sing in the house; Catherine forbade it.
Mark struck up a chord as Regina hammered the metal upon the anvil, his deep barrel chest allowing his voice to carry above the din. His rich baritone reverberated through the shop’s rafters and floated out into the street where an impromptu audience would gather to listen at the shop’s open doorway. Regina loved to watch the facial expressions of passersby peeking around the door casing.
Regina’s voice was quieter, more feminine, but when raised together their voices produced a harmony that transcended time and space. She had never met another person who could sing with her like her father, and it pleased her that they shared such a special gift. A small dark part of her was also pleased that it caused immeasurable discomfort to Mistress Smith, who sounded like a dying cockerel when she sang hymns each Sunday at the local parish church.
Shaking such unkind thoughts from her head, Regina continued to fashion the metal before her. If done right, it would produce a fine blade for any gentleman of discerning taste and means. Of all the pieces they produced together, Regina’s favorites were the knives and swords. Mark had even allowed her to make a set for her own personal use.
When a weapon was completed, her father would test them to ensure durability by giving Regina sword fighting and knife throwing lessons. Over time she had become quite skilled. It was yet another masculine nail in the coffin of her femininity, but Regina didn’t care. She would not have traded a single moment of it for all the porcelain from China.
As they closed up the shop for the day and began their diurnal trek homeward, Regina felt a heavy weight descend upon her soul knowing the greeting that awaited them. Together they trudged the short distance through the evening’s fading light—her hand in his for reassurance—to where Mistress Smith awaited them.
“‘Tis long past time that you should have been home,” Catherine greeted them no sooner had their feet crossed the threshold. “Supper has grown cold, and there will be no complaints from either one of you about it.”
“Yes, dear,” Mark answered as he and Regina removed the grime of the day’s work at the washbasin beside the door.
Regina was so tired she could barely keep her eyes open as they sat down to eat. All throughout the meal, Catherine complained about every aspect of their lives, as was her usual habit; however, today, the level of vehemence with which she punctuated each word hinted that something had angered her even more than usual.
Mark and Regina ate in silence only responding to her tirade when absolutely necessary. At one particularly unpleasant moment in the conversation, Catherine’s voice actually shrieked and broke under the strain. Regina giggled before she could stop herself. Catherine, further infuriated, reached across the table and struck her across the face.
“Enough!” roared Mark, rising from his seat to glare at his wife. Opening his mouth to expound further upon his displeasure at Catherine’s abuse of Regina, Mark went suddenly pale, clutched his chest, and collapsed upon the floor.
“Father!” Regina cried in distress, scrambling from her seat to fall at his side. “Mistress?” she petitioned Catherine with a wholehearted plea for the woman to do something, anything. Instead, Catherine simply stood over them and stared in silence. “Please,” Regina pleaded again, but her petition fell on deaf ears.
“Father,” she whimpered laying her head upon his chest. His strong muscled hand came up to caress her cheek.
“I love you, Daughter,” he whispered.
She felt his palm slipping away from her cheek and watched him take his final breath; her soul shattered beneath the weight.
Seven Years Later
“Regina? Regina!” Like a mythical banshee, Mistress Smith’s voice shrieked from below the stairs. “Come down here this instant!”
“Yes, Mistress,” Regina mumbled, rolled out of bed, and descended the stairs. “How can I be of service?” she inquired, dropping a quick curtsy as she reached the bottom.
“It is about time, you lazy girl,” Catherine grumbled.
Regina bit her tongue. She was many things, but lazy was not one of them. She had worked well into the night to produce enough customer orders to meet Catherine’s ever-increasing financial demands.
“I have arranged a rather advantageous marriage,” she informed Regina with smug satisfaction.
“I wish you every happiness. Who is the lucky gentleman?” Regina inquired, just barely succeeding in masking her insincerity.
“Not for myself, you dolt,” Catherine chirped with condescending scorn. “I have arranged a marriage for you, though why anyone would take you escapes me.”
“I beg your pardon, Mistress?” Regina replied in a state of shock.
“The local merchant, Miles Hughes, has agreed to take you and that despicable blacksmith shop off my hands. He has agreed to compensate me a tidy sum for the lot,” Catherine gloated.
“Mr. Hughes? But, he is…” words escaped her. Her thoughts whirled with a myriad of negative adjectives that befit the man.
“Foolish for taking you on,” Catherine interjected.
“Ancient, decrepit, I have witnessed pigsties with better hygienic habits!” Regina answered, her emotions flowing forth in a stream of consternation. “I simply will not do it!”
“You will marry him and you will do so with alacrity!” Catherine ordered.
“No, I will not,” Regina firmly refused gritting her teeth in frustration.
“Yes, you will, and until you agree,” Catherine grabbed Regina by the arm and flung her into a nearby broom closet under the stairs, “you will stay in here.”
Regina cringed as she heard the key turn in the lock and every thud of Catherine’s footsteps as she walked away. “Father would never have allowed this,” she screamed, beating on the door with such fury that she nearly broke her hand in the onslaught.
Trying to calm the emotional storm within, she pressed her hands to her heaving chest. She could feel her heart racing beneath her palms. Regina leaned her back against the door, slid down the roughhewn wooden surface, and plopped on the floor.
She tangled her fingers in her hair, fighting the urge to scream again; knowing such action would only exacerbate Catherine’s wrath. Try as she may, she could not help but hate the woman. What Catherine was proposing was tantamount to slavery. She had sold Regina off to the local merchant like a piece of horseflesh.
Catherine had never kept her contempt a secret, but she had been forced to limit her abusive behavior toward Regina while Mark was alive. Since his passing, all such regulations had ceased. Regina was not a fool. She knew Catherine had only been counting the days until she could get rid of her. It had always been just a matter of time and now that time had come.
Clenching her fists, Regina dug her nails into the calloused flesh of her palms drawing blood. She felt the hot liquid encircle her fingertips as it flowed forth to drip upon the floor. Lowering her head, chin trembling, she erupted into a broken sob. She was alone, completely alone in the world, without a champion to stave off the darkness.
Oh, Father, why did you leave me?
As the minutes ticked away, she began to calm down and found her rational mind once more. Plucking the pins from her hair, Regina picked the lock. Listening carefully for any sign of Catherine’s return, she eased the door open and peered around the doorframe. The room was empty. She emerged from the closet, listened for the sounds of approaching doom, and heard nothing.
Quietly, Regina tiptoed to her bedroom and closed the door. She quickly gathered what few belongings she possessed, disguised herself in one of her father’s old hats, and dressed in some masculine clothing she sometimes wore during her work at the shop. She climbed out of her bedroom window, down the tree just outside it, and disappeared into the night.
As swiftly as her feet would carry her, Regina put as much distance as she could between herself and the woman who had made her life an absolute purgatory. Unable to afford proper lodgings, Regina slept outdoors while just eating enough to maintain strength. What little funds she had managed to flee with did not last long, and within a few days’ time, hunger became a real problem.
She had fled on foot with little more than the clothes on her back, she had nothing of value to trade. A job was out of the question given her current circumstances. She knew her masculine costume would not hold up under close inspection, and no one was willing to hire a woman as a blacksmith. In desperation, Regina turned to theft.
She started out small at first, taking the eggs from a hen house, milking a cow before the farmer had awoke, snagging pastries that had been placed on a windowsill to cool, but winter would be upon her before long and lodgings would have to be sought. Accommodations required money and it was for this purpose that Regina turned to robbery. She was ashamed of her actions, but could think of no other way.
Regina became a pickpocket to survive. She couldn’t afford a pistol, but she had her knives for protection. She slipped in and out of crowds quietly without notice cutting purse strings and taking watches. Having been raised an honest girl, she was not skilled enough for anything more advanced than that.
Weeks passed as she moved from town to town, never staying in any one place for very long. Regina knew that the more she stole, her chances of being caught increased with each passing day. She began to wonder if living the life of a highwayman would be more profitable and allow her to steal less frequently.
With this idea in mind, Regina set herself along the road between the villages of Lyndon and Dutton. The woods were alive with the colors of autumn, providing Regina with adequate cover as she waited in the forest next to a stream for her prey. She felt an overwhelming sense of excitement mingled with fear. It was both exhilarating and shaming in equal measure.
A few hours into her vigil, she heard a solitary rider approaching. The rider rode up to the stream and dismounted, allowing his horse to drink, then walked upstream to rest beneath the shade of a tree.
Regina, seeing her opportunity, snuck up behind him knife in hand. Disguising her voice as best she could, she demanded he remain still, “Halt, sir, or prepare to meet your end.” The gentleman did as she asked allowing Regina to reach around to take the watch from his vest pocket.
Without warning, Regina went flying through the air into the stream. She sputtered toward the bank, was hauled out of the water, and the knife wrenched from her hand was placed to her throat.
She felt blood trickle down her neck and prayed for her execution to be quick. I will be with you soon, Father.
Benjamin Allen, the Duke of Lyndon, urged his horse forward as he made his way home from visiting his childhood friend, Anthony Turton, Duke of Dutton. He had spent three days in Anthony’s convivial company hunting and riding in an attempt to escape his ever pressing and wholly undesired responsibilities.
Duke of Lyndon... the thought echoed through his mind. It still doesn’t seem possible. His father’s untimely demise left him ill-suited to assume the responsibilities of the position. Wouldn’t serving as an officer in the military be a better fit for him?
He reasoned his uncle, Lord Gilbert Allen, would be the better choice as successor. As a former General of the Battle of Salamanca, Lord Allen was a far more qualified leader, but his father would never have suffered it. Benjamin was the heir and that was that. The Duke had silenced Benjamin’s youthful protestations, and to this day, the proclamation continued its ill haunt.
As the only surviving son, Benjamin had known from a young age that fulfilling all his father’s hopes and dreams for the future lay with him. He had spent his childhood being carefully tutored in the ways of running a noble estate. So much so, that when the time came for him to don the mantle of Duke, he had grown to despise everything about the occupation. However, he had loved his father and would never have dishonored him by abdicating the title.
Growing up, he saw his uncle as his hero, and every chance he had gotten, he had escaped to play soldiers with the other children of the estate. Since his father’s death, Benjamin saw Gilbert Allen as a second father. He would have been lost in the first days after the funeral if not for his uncle’s guiding hand and sage advice.
Stopping at a nearby stream, Benjamin dismounted to stretch his limbs and water his horse. He walked a pace then lowered himself to rest beneath the shade of a spruce. Closing his eyes, he conjured an image of his father’s face. So like his own in coloring and form, he mentally examined the sharp masculine lines, auburn-grey hair, and piercing blue eyes. How could such a force of nature ever be felled?
He heard a twig snap behind him. He was not quick enough to turn and see the cause, when a raspy voice near his ear demanded he remain still.
“Halt, sir, or prepare to meet your end,” the voice commanded, punctuated by a knife point at the back of his neck. A gloved hand came around to snatch his father’s watch from its usual place in his vest pocket.
Feeling emotional attachment to the item, coupled with many hours of faux combat with his fellows, Benjamin grasped the arm and launched his assailant into the nearby stream. Gasping and sputtering, the culprit floundered his way to the bank. Benjamin hauled the man out of the water, wrenched the knife from his attacker’s hands, and raised the knife to the scoundrel’s throat. He demanded to know the thief’s identity.
He knocked the hat from the pickpocket’s head to get a better view of his face and demanded, “Your name, sir.” Benjamin’s surprise brought him up short by the sight that greeted him. “A woman…!”
“Yes, a woman,” she snapped, attempting to free her wrists from Benjamin’s manacle-like grasp. “Release me this instant,” she demanded but to no avail.
Benjamin looked about to see if the girl was alone or had brought comrades along for the merry hunt. “Where are your parents?”
“Dead,” she snapped, still struggling.
“I see.” Benjamin’s heart went out to the poor girl. He knew all too well the pain of losing one’s parents. His mother had died in childbirth along with his baby brother, and the pain of the loss of his father was still all too fresh.
“Unhand me, you fiend!” the girl cried, kicking Benjamin in the leg.
“Fiend?” Benjamin chuckled. “You are the fiend. I should have you transported to the Australian penal colonies,” he threatened, making the girl go quiet with fear. “But, I will not. Such places are wholly unsuited to properly guard the virtues of the feminine sex. What is your name may I ask?”
She stopped struggling in favor of seeing what her captor intended to do with her. “Regina Buxton.”
“Benjamin Allen, Duke of Lyndon, at your service,” he introduced himself with a slight bow.
“Your Grace.” She lowered into a mock curtsy; Benjamin shook his head at her hubris. The girl was beautiful in spite of her attire, with long chestnut curls and mismatched amber-green eyes.
Benjamin had never seen anything like her before. He assumed many orphans of common birth turned to thievery to survive. On his trips to London, he would see many such individuals darting in and out of the crowds taking whatever their nimble fingers could extract. He surmised from her lack of prowess that Regina Buxton had not been a thief for very long.
Had she been a man, Benjamin would have turned her over to the authorities without a second thought. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with a woman. He couldn’t countenance such beauty being snuffed out at the end of a rope, but he also could not in all good conscience allow her to continue roaming free to rob any unfortunate wayfarer passing through.
What am I to do with you? He removed the blade from her throat and wished he had taken another route home to avoid the incident altogether. To hand her over to the authorities was not an option his scruples would allow. Sending her to a workhouse was not an ideal alternative as such institutions were little more than deathtraps. There were not any nunneries he could take her to, and he highly doubted that the local minister would be able to handle a girl such as she.
Benjamin examined her from head to toe. She was strong, obviously used to a hard day’s labor. Just before he left for Dutton, he remembered his valet, Jones, mentioning a servant shortage in the kitchens. The shortage had led to his dinner being late, and his valet had been given the task of informing him as to why. He mulled the idea over in his mind. There was no way she could be trusted fully, but given half a chance… I wonder.
Taking a step back, Benjamin put his thoughts into words. “I am of a mind to take you into my service. Being an orphan, I realize you are at a disadvantage in life. Can I assume that you have turned to theft due to this?” Benjamin received a nod in reply. “If I were to bring you on as a servant in my household, would you vow to never participate in any form of skullduggery ever again or at least while under my employ?”
Regina considered her options. There was nothing for her back home but pain and misery. She had been forced to steal to survive, and every time she did so, she pictured her father’s disappointed face. The worst that could happen by working for him would be failure and I would be forced to run again. It is certainly better than transportation to an Australian penal colony, and if he wished to do me ill, he could have already done so right where we stand.
Regina nodded. “Yes, I vow it.” She had many reservations about the situation, but she knew she could not continue on as she had been. She did not trust easily, but she had been given little choice. It was highly doubtful that living the life of a servant in a grand house would be any more dangerous than the life she now led.
“Very well, I will hold you to your word, but should you violate it in any way, I will have no choice but to hand you over to the authorities.” The Duke mounted his horse and Regina took his hand to assist her up behind him. “I realize this position is a bit indelicate; however, you will need to hold on to me so as not to fall off. We still have some distance to travel before arriving home.”
Regina wrapped her arms around the Duke’s waist and held on for her life. She had never really liked horses. Anything she couldn’t control while riding atop it made her nervous. One could not read the mind of a horse, so one never knew what they were thinking or what they were about to do. She was sure there was some kind of trick or skill to it, but one she had not been born with.
When horses had been brought in for her father to shoe, she had stayed well clear of them. Her father had found it somewhat humorous, a blacksmith’s daughter with a fear of horses, but he had never forced her to work with the equines that frequented the shop knowing she had more than enough to overcome in life already.
A brave girl like you is allowed at least one unchallenged fear, her father would say while tousling her curls as she hid behind a work bench. Regina had been forced to hire a farrier to deal with the horses and assist around the shop upon her father’s passing.
Galloping through the countryside, Regina wished now she had found the courage to overcome that fear. Bouncing along upon the hindquarters of a steed was not her ideal mode of transportation, but it would have been made considerably better had she not been rigid with fear. If the Duke noticed, he was too gallant to say so, and for this, at least, she was grateful.
In an attempt to distract herself, Regina examined her new employer. He was well built, tall with shoulder length auburn hair quite unlike the shorter styles currently dictated by the ton. His piercing blue eyes appeared to delve into one’s very soul. The man exuded masculine strength.
Upon reaching their destination, Regina’s eyes lit up in wonder and awe.
“Welcome to Lyndon Manor, home to the Dukes and Duchesses of Lyndon for nearly five-hundred years,” the Duke announced as they galloped up the drive, “and now your home as well.”
Regina was speechless. As they approached the manor house, a footman in black livery stepped forward to take the reins. “Welcome home, Your Grace,” he greeted bowing.
He dismounted, then kindly clapped the servant’s shoulder and replied, “Thank you, Arthur.” He reached up, grabbed Regina by the waist and lifted her from the horse’s back to place her gently on firm ground once more.
Regina sighed with relief and took a step back from her dapple-grey nemesis. The Dukes of Lyndon, like many of their neighbors, had built an elegant manor house in accordance with the custom of the age, but had retained the medieval stone from the castle of their forefathers. The grey stone edifice towered overhead blocking out the sun with its high walls.
Entering through the front doors, the Duke greeted his butler, a tall stately fellow who took the riding crop and hat. “Vaughn.”
“Welcome home, Your Grace. Lord Allen awaits you in the library.”
“Yes, thank you, Vaughn,” the Duke responded. “Could you please take Miss Buxton here to the stairs below to confer with Mrs. Harrington about a suitable position for whatever skills she may possess in the kitchen? Jones informed me of the staffing needs in that area.”
“Of course, Your Grace.” Vaughn bowed then motioned for Regina to follow him.
“I will come down and see how you are faring presently,” the Duke addressed Regina, bowed slightly and went off in search of his uncle.
Curtseying to the Duke’s retreating back, Regina turned to follow the butler. She didn’t imagine they had need of a blacksmith in the kitchens. She couldn’t cook, evidenced by all the burnt meals along the road during her brief stint as a thief. She couldn’t imagine what kind of employment she could possibly find in a house such as this and hoped this Mrs. Harrington had a better notion. One step into the kitchen and every head turned to take in the newcomer.
“Mrs. Harrington, I have a newcomer for you. A gift from His Grace to use as you see fit,” Vaughn informed the cook.
“Thank ye, Mr. Vaughn.” Wiping her hands on the apron enwrapping her massive girth, the cook took in Regina from head to toe. “What are ye good at girl? I am in need of a new scullery maid. Mine up and got herself married to the grocer’s son. I should have known better than to allow their flirtation when he made his deliveries. Ah well, isn’t that the way of it, lax attentions now leads to repentance later. Can ye clean and tend fires, girl?”
“Yes, Mrs. Harrington,” If there was one thing Regina knew well, it was tending fires—a crucial element of blacksmithing.
“Excellent. Now let us get ye into something more suitable, shall we? What in heaven’s name are ye wearing?” Mrs. Harrington bustled off motioning for Regina to follow.
Climbing a back set of narrow stairs to what appeared to be the manor’s version of an attic, Regina found herself in a narrow hallway lined with doors. Mrs. Harrington led her to one of the rooms at the very end of the hall. “These are the servants’ quarters,” she explained. “This section is for the female staff. Ye are to never under any circumstances enter any of the male servants’ rooms at the other end of the hall.” She motioned with her hand indicating which end of the hall held the men’s quarters.
“Yes, Mrs. Harrington.” That would be easy enough. She had no desire to enter said rooms under any circumstances.
“This will be your room,” Mrs. Harrington informed as she opened the door and motioned Regina to enter. “Ye will share it with Joceline, one of the housemaids. Ye will have to borrow one of her uniforms until we can find one in your size. Normally, such staffing issues would be dealt with by the head housekeeper, Mrs. Carr, but she is away just now on a family matter.”
“Yes, Mrs. Harrington,” Regina responded, once more taking in her surroundings.
She wasn’t keen on having to share a room with another person; low-level servants were not allowed the luxury of privacy. The room consisted of two narrow beds, a plain wooden armoire, and a washstand with a pitcher and bowl. The walls were plain, without decoration, as were the wooden floors beneath her feet.
Except for one lone stem of dried bluebells in a chipped white vase on the corner of the washstand the room lacked joy or personality of any kind. She could almost feel the effervescent hopes of the young housemaid who had placed it there emanating from that one tiny speck of color in an otherwise drab world.
“Hurry, now. There is much to be done if we are to serve His Grace’s supper on time,” Mrs. Harrington ordered as she bustled from the room as fast as her short, round legs would carry her.
Regina smiled. Her father had always said you could tell a good cook by their shape. A plump chef is a good chef.
Changing out of her clothes, Regina bathed at the washstand, then donned the borrowed garment Mrs. Harrington had laid out for her. The sleeves and length were a bit short, and it was a little tight in the chest, but it would do until something else could be procured. Whoever owned this dress was a tiny lass indeed. Unable to fit into the house maid’s shoes, Regina donned her boots and returned to the kitchen.
When Mrs. Harrington laid eyes on her once more, she clucked her tongue in dismay. “Needs must,” she responded to the scene before her, shaking her head in disapproval. “We will need to remedy the issue as soon as possible. I will set one of the maids to it after supper. Now see to peeling those potatoes.” She gestured to a brown sack of spuds, handing Regina a knife.
Regina was feeling a bit numb from the swiftly changing course her life was taking. A myriad of possible scenarios had passed through her mind in the days following her escape from Catherine, but becoming part of the Duke’s service certainly hadn’t been among them. If anything, she had counted on spending the rest of her life pretending to be a man.
She knew all too well from past experience working in her father’s shop that few people would hire a woman blacksmith regardless of her skill. She had never considered becoming a scullery maid. Her independent spirit made her ill-suited to a life of servitude, but necessity had demanded otherwise. I should be thankful. I could have been arrested for attempting to steal from a Duke. Or worse…
She absently lifted a potato from the sack and set to work wielding the knife along the dirt covered surface of each tuber preparing it to be boiled. Knife work was akin to breathing for Regina and required very little of her mental capacity to accomplish. Her mind wandered as she peeled taking in her new surroundings and the people who inhabited them.
The kitchen was rather large in size with all the accoutrements required for the preparation of many lavish dishes. Mrs. Harrington wielded her authority like the captain of a ship, brisk and unyielding in its absolutism. Whomever she directed her attentions toward, they would scurry about to obey as if their very souls depended upon the outcome of her good grace.
When she had finished peeling the potatoes, Mrs. Harrington set Regina to peeling and cutting up an assortment of other vegetables varying in shape, texture, and size. “When His Grace has been out hunting and riding, he likes to come home to a good, warm soup,” Mrs. Harrington stated as she stirred the soup stock on the stove. “A good, nourishing soup warms the bones and lifts the spirits.”
“Right you are, Mrs. Harrington,” the Duke’s deep voice agreed from the doorway behind them startling the cook.
“Your Grace,” Mrs. Harrington curtsied deeply, motioning for Regina to do the same. “How can we be of service?”
“I won’t be underfoot for long. I simply wished to ensure our newest arrival had settled in,” he inquired lifting his eyebrows in Regina’s direction.
“Yes, Your Grace.” Regina curtsied. “Mrs. Harrington has been most accommodating,” she replied, taking in Mrs. Harrington’s gape-mouthed expression somewhat resembling the salmon she had been stuffing earlier. Apparently, His Grace did not make frequent appearances belowstairs.
“Excellent! I will leave you to your duties then.” Nodding his head at Regina and Mrs. Harrington in turn, the Duke left the kitchen.
“Well, I never.” Mrs. Harrington turned to gawk at Regina before recovering her senses and returning to her usual authoritarian manner. “Hurry up girl! Those vegetables will not cut themselves,” she admonished.
That night, as Regina climbed the stairs to bed, she was exhausted beyond all measure. She was overwhelmed by the path her life had so abruptly taken.
She had received many suspicious looks from the other servants for her sudden appearance in their household. Their suspicions seemed to grow as Regina had remained silent and distrustful herself throughout the evening’s tasks. By end of day, she had grown surly from tamping down the myriad of emotions she was feeling.
A scullery maid’s duties meant that they were frequently the last to bed and the first to rise. She was not looking forward to the morning. She found herself resenting the fact that a single person could own so much land and property, while the majority of people barely managed to scrape together an existence. On one hand, she was grateful to the Duke for taking her in, on the other, she despised him for his opulent heritage.
As she entered her room, she noted that her roommate had left a lamp burning for her on the washstand. She examined the delicate feminine features of the girl Mrs. Harrington had called Joceline.
The girl couldn’t have been more than sixteen years of age. She slept peacefully with the tiniest hint of a smile turning up the corners of her lips. Regina wondered if she were dreaming or if she were one of those people that was always happy, no matter the circumstances.
How could anyone be happy in service to another human being? she thought as she disrobed. First opportunity, once I have saved enough money from my earnings, I will be leaving here to pursue a better life. A life that will be all my own, where no one will dictate my fate—no one. Blowing out the lamp, Regina crawled into bed.
The next morning, Regina was awakened by the most cheerful whistling she had ever heard. Pulling the pillow over her head, she attempted to block out the sound. “Ugh, how can you be so bloody cheerful?” she inquired of her roommate. In her frustration, Regina had abandoned all sense of decorum and slid into her highwayman’s vernacular.
“What is there not to be cheerful about?” Joceline asked from her position at the washstand. Walking over to Regina’s bedside, she curtsied in greeting, “My name is Joceline Sinclair.”
“Regina Buxton,” Regina responded removing the pillow to peer at her roommate through shuttered lids. The sun had not yet made its appearance outside the room’s one tiny window.
“Best not to be late on your first full day of duties,” Joceline encouraged her to rise by pulling the blankets down to Regina’s feet. “Here, I altered a dress for you last eve knowing you would need it this morn.” She handed over the garment. “See you belowstairs,” she chirped, then practically skipped out the door.
Groaning, Regina rolled out of bed and readied herself for the day. As per Mrs. Harrington’s instructions last night, the fireplaces would need to be cleaned and laid before the Duke and Lord Allen arose. The last thing Regina needed was to be turned out before she had a chance to earn some much-needed funds.
Slipping quietly from room to room, Regina tended to her assigned duties. Being a maid was a far cry from blacksmithing. She missed the feel of the hammer in her hand and the orange glow of heated metal. Most of all she missed the satisfaction that creating a superb piece of weaponry endowed.
She did not, however, miss Mistress Smith’s cruelty. Regina would do whatever it took, including debasing herself to the level of scullery maid, to keep from going back. She supposed she should be scared of starting a new life in unknown environs such as she found herself, but she had lived through much worse and anything was better than what she had thus far endured.
While tending the fire in the library, she was startled by the voice of the Duke behind her. “I see you are off to a good start,” he stated coming around his desk to stand beside her. “You lay an excellent fire, Miss Buxton.”
Rising, Regina hit her head on the mantelpiece, “Oh,” she cried out startled.
“Here, allow me,” the Duke came to her aid leading her over to a chaise lounge. “Is it terribly painful?” he asked searching for signs of injury.
“No, Your Grace, I was simply startled,” she replied rubbing her head.
“My apologies, Miss Buxton. I shall attempt to be less frightful in the future.” He smiled mischievously.
“See that you do,” Regina replied, instantly regretting her impertinence. His words from the stream came back to temper her rebellion. She could not risk angering him and being sent away. “Forgive me, Your Grace.”
The Duke, however, only chuckled and returned to his desk. Regina rose from the lounge and quickly finished her work before silently retreating from the room.
As Regina exited, she heard an unknown masculine voice warn the Duke. “I would be careful with that one if I were you.” Something about the tone of the man’s voice made her feel uneasy.
“I fear you may be right, Uncle,” the Duke responded.
Hearing footsteps in her direction, Regina turned and fled. The last thing she needed was to be caught eavesdropping even if the conversation had been about her. Slipping into one of the manor’s many rooms, she was startled to find the footsteps had followed her. Looking about for a place to hide, she felt her heart racing in panic as the bedroom door hinges squeaked open.
Whirling to face her fate, her feet became tangled in the small rug at the foot of the bed. Regina cried out in horror as she found herself falling face first into the room’s newly lit fireplace.
God in heaven, help me!
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