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Manhattan, New York
Snap! Blazing pain tore through her breasts and Claire O'Reilly's eyes opened in stunned surprise. "Oh, heavens," she gasped scrambling up.
Her hands flew up to protect herself from further blows and she groaned in horror at Mrs. Henderson, the head housekeeper, standing over her with a cane in her hand.
"What be ye about girl? Ye can't be sleepin'. Christmas will soon be here. Sleepin's not what Master Stanton's paying ye fer, either. Ye'll need to learn and the only way I know to teach ye is to beat ye, according to the master's rules!" Mrs. Henderson narrowed her already small eyes and raised her arm as she moved closer, ready to strike a second time.
"Please, I couldn't keep my eyes open. I hate Christmas season. All it means is more heavy work than I do now for the same pitiful pay." Claire raised her arms to protect herself.
Shaking in outrage, the woman snapped, "And if ye didn't stay awake all hours of the night readin' those silly books ye wouldn't be too tired to do yer work. Plenty more of your type to fill yer shoes," she said, her arm raised as she went after Claire.
Claire crouched, protecting her face from the blows raining down on her.
"What in the world is going on here?"
A man had asked the question, in a calm but menacing voice. Mrs. Henderson immediately dropped the cane on the floor. Claire looked toward the parlor entrance. There stood a tall, broad-shouldered, fair-haired man. With the brilliant sunlight streaming through the windows Claire noticed he dressed rather formally for morning. But the frock coat, white shirt and silver-grey waistcoat enhancedhis masculinity and his handsomeness. His face held a mixture of exhaustion, inquisitiveness and anger as he stared at Mrs. Henderson.
Claire heard the gossip from the staff. This man, the master of the house, arrived home from a business journey yesterday, and spent his first evening with his mistress. Upon his return in the wee hours of the morning, he'd instructed the staff to leave him be for he'd sleep the day away. Now Claire believed she was in even more trouble for he'd wakened early, likely because he'd heard the ruckus Claire and his housekeeper had made.
Upon this first meeting, Claire decided that her employer was the most virile and handsome man she'd ever seen. With great effort she looked away and focused on the housekeeper hunched over, cane lying on the floor at her feet. Mrs. Henderson wrung her hands and perspiration dripped from her forehead.
"I asked you a direct question, Mrs. Henderson. What has the girl done to warrant your wrath?" The master entered the parlor, bent and picked up the cane. Proceeding to tap it against his thigh he glared at the housekeeper.
The woman straightened a bit and blustered, "She was sleepin' that's what! It isn't allowed, Master Stanton."
Claire cowered now as her employer's piercing gaze settled on her. "Is that true? Were you sleeping instead of working?"
With a short nod Claire averted her eyes, not wanting to see his anger. Andrew Morgan-Stanton possessed the face of an angel, yet she wondered at his imminent reaction to her transgression. He had every right to be furious for she'd disobeyed one of the rules of the house.
Master Stanton directed his argument back to his housekeeper. They moved further away from Claire, who ignored their words and instead studied this man she'd heard so many roguish things about. What a horrid thing to happen; meeting her employer for the first time under such awful circumstances. She sat down quietly on the divan, the arguing pair didn't notice. So taken by him, all thought of anything else left her mind.
Not for the first time did she wonder why an unmarried man would reside in such an enormous house--a house with an enormous name--Morgan-Stanton's Settle, named after Andrew Morgan-Stanton himself, who'd 'settled' there five years ago upon making his fortune. She thought it a rather pompous name but there was no accounting for nouveau-rich folks' eccentricities she'd learned since her arrival in America seven years ago, at the age of twelve.
Oh, how she longed to rest. She secretly worked late at O'Gara's Pub in the evenings, sneaking off when the household was quiet. Last night she'd had very little sleep. She leaned back to wait for them to stop. Perhaps she'd been lucky with his intervention. Unable to help herself, she closed her eyes, awaiting her punishment. How much worse could it be?
"Would ye look at that, sir? She's at it again!"
Claire's eyes shot open, startled by Mrs. Henderson's shrill voice and she sat up straight. She met the master's eyes, saw he'd crossed the room to her side without a sound, his expression looked concerned. She started to stand but sank down and shrunk back when he reached out and placed his hand against her forehead.
"I won't hurt you," he murmured. "Mrs. Henderson, she's quite warm," he said. "I'm wondering if she has the fever."
Claire couldn't tear her gaze away from Mr. Stanton, so delightfully cool was his hand on her. She felt captivated by him, and the rest of her world dwindled away to nothing. Heavens, she was drawn to him as a moth to light, as a bee to honey.
"Are you ill?"
Shaking her head Claire started to stand once more but he held her down with a hand on her shoulder.
"Then what ails you, girl?" he asked. When she didn't reply he added, "Are you with child?"
She stiffened. "No!"
He swept her body a long look and heat permeated her from top to bottom at the displeasure on his face. Looking down at her ugly, heavy wool gown she didn't see any tears or stains--nothing for him to show his distaste.
He strode to the hearth and laid the cane down upon the mantle, addressing Mrs. Henderson gruffly again. "Do I, or do I not, provide coin for proper staff attire?"
Mrs. Henderson nodded. "Ye do, Master Stanton."
"Then why is the poor girl dressed in this heavy, itchy woolen gown when you've stoked the heat so high? My God, no wonder she's exhausted and can't stay awake."
But, sir, it's freezin' cold outside! Some of the other household workers were complainin' it was cold in the house."
"Perhaps, if the rest of the household actually worked hard they'd warm up some. By the way, since I installed the furnace, the heating bills over the past few months have been horrendous. First thing you'll do is lower the furnace heat. And if lowering the heat doesn't improve the heating bills, we shall return to heating the house in the old-fashioned way, by stoking up the fireplaces."
Another heating source? Claire thought. No wonder she always felt so warm when the hearths were never lit.
A large degree of satisfaction filled Claire as she stared at the head housekeeper, who appeared flushed and decidedly uncomfortable under her employer's harsh scrutiny.
"She's only been here a month, sir. Just haven't had time to purchase the clothing yet," Mrs. Henderson muttered.
"Make it a priority, then," he replied. He went on to list some examples of suitable clothing. Claire withdrew to her own thoughts again.
So, the old biddy had lied, telling her it was Claire's own coin and responsibility to provide work attire. Claire heaved a relieved sigh. The little she'd tucked aside to purchase new work gowns could now be turned over to her aunt whom she paid to care for her poor, sick mother. She was so thankful for the Lord of the Manor's appearance now she found herself feeling positively joyous.
Master Stanton's protectiveness made Claire's heart beat wildly. What was there not to like? Though she knew, upon occasion, a man's handsomeness could conceal an arrogant attitude, perhaps even a ruthless and nasty disposition. But then she thought about how highly the other staff spoke of him. There was much talk about Master Stanton being a fair man. Claire decided he couldn't possibly be anything but decent and honorable. Then she came back to reality.
She was certain several admiring ladies fawned over him, besides his mistress. He didn't need Claire doing so as well. And she'd heard from gossiping staff, how he'd been searching seriously for a wife. Claire knew he'd never give her so much as a miniscule look of interest, she was a maid, and her heart clenched at that.
He came closer to pick up the cane, and Claire tuned back into his words, vehemently spoken to Mrs. Henderson. "Well, then, is this how you usually punish my staff?"
The housekeeper gave an abrupt nod. "And no meals for an entire day, besides."
Another lie! Claire thought. The beatings were not his rules but hers.
He frowned. "I don't abide abuse in my household, Mrs. Henderson, as you are well aware. Though a bit of physical correction helps in some cases." He nodded at Claire. "Do you believe it will in hers?"
The woman nodded curtly and folded her arms across her matronly breasts. "This isn't the first time I've caught her slumberin'. Besides," she added, "What's correct for one is correct for the next."
He moved again, pausing directly in front of Claire.
"Well, stand up, girl!" Mrs. Henderson snapped. "Show some respect for your master."
While she wanted to inform both of them that no man, only God above, was her master, she jumped to her feet and kept quiet. Twisting her hands in front her, she stared at his broad chest, specifically at the third black onyx button on his waistcoat. He was tall, but then, she was quite short so everyone was tall in comparison.
"Explain to me why you fell asleep, Miss...?"
She just stared at his shirtfront until the housekeeper shouted, "Reply to the master, you insolent girl!"
"O'Reilly, sir. Claire O'Reilly."
"Claire," he said softly, his low voice caressing her. "Pretty name and it suits you. Irish, are you?"
She nodded and looked up at him.
Claire caught the admiring glint in his eyes and faint smile. He'd managed, with his low voice to make her short, simple, common name sound beautiful.
Posted November 14, 2010
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