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If Grace Curtis, formerly known as the Honourable Miss Grace Curtis, had decided to waste her life in fruitless self-pity, she knew several genteelly poor persons to use as her character models.
Agatha Ralls lived in rented rooms over the Hare and Hound, a steep decline from her childhood in Ralls Manor, a structure built during the reign of one Edward or the other, which now housed bats. Family fortunes had taken a dismal turn when a now-distant earl had backed the wrong horse in the era of Cavaliers and Roundheads. That the family's resounding crash had taken some 150 years was some testament to earlier wealth. Now Miss Ralls lived on very little and everyone knew it.
Or Grace could have looked to the ludicrous spectacle of Sir George Armisted, who maintained a precarious existence on the family estate, when it would have been much wiser to sell it to a merchant with more money than class. Instead, Sir George sat in threadbare splendour in a leaking parlour.
Grace had watched her own father shake his head over Sir George, asking out loud how such a fool justified the expensive snuff he dipped and wine he decanted. That Sir Henry Curtis was doing the same thing never seemed to have occurred to him, even when he lay dying and advised Grace, his only child, to 'make a good match in London during the next Season'.
Grace had been too kind to point out to her father that there were no funds left to finance anything as ambitious as a Season in London, much less induce any gentleman of her social sphere to ally himself with a cheerful face and nothing else. It wouldn't have been sporting to point out her father's deficiencies as he was forced to pay attention to death, as he had never paid much attention to anything of consequence before.
Grace had closed his eyes, covered his face and left his bedroom, resolved to learn something from misfortune and build a life for herself, rather than gently glide into discreet poverty and reduced circumstances. Poor she would be, but it did not follow that she couldn't be happy.
Dressed in black and wearing a jet brooch, Grace had endured the reading of the will. Papa had had nothing to leave except debts. In the weeks before his death, his solicitor had made discreet enquiries throughout the district in an attempt to smoke out potential buyers from among the merchant class who hankered after property far removed from the High Street. He had found one, so Grace had had to suffer his presence as the solicitor read the will.
There had been paltry gifts for the few servantsall of them superannuated and with no hope of other employmentwho had hung on until the bitter end, because their next place of residence would surely be the poorhouse. When the old dears turned sad eyes on her, Grace could only shake her head in sorrow, as she writhed inside.
What followed was precisely what she had expected, particularly since the solicitor had told her the night before that the manor and its contents were all going to the new landlord, an enterprising fellow who had made a fortune importing naval stores from the Baltic. With that knowledge, Grace had deposited her amethyst brooch, her only keepsake, in her pocket for safety.
And that was that. Grace had signed a document forfeiting any interest in her home, then had led the new owners through the threadbare rooms.
It was almost too much when the wife demanded to know how quickly Grace could quit the place, but Grace had always been pragmatic.
'I can be gone tomorrow morning,' Grace had said, and so she was.
That she might have nowhere to go never occurred to the new owners, so intent were they to take possession. Her two bags packed, Grace had lain awake all night in her room, teasing herself with the one plan in her mind. She discarded it, reclaimed it, discarded it again, then shouldered it for the final time after breakfast. She straightened her shoulders, picked up her valise and walked away from her home of eighteen years.
Grace had had only one egg in her basket. That it proved to be the right one had given her considerable comfort through the next ten years. It had been but a short walk from her former home to Quimby, a village close to Exeter. The day was pleasantly cool for August, with only the slightest breeze swaying the sign of Adam Wilson's bakery.
She had hoped the bakery would be empty, and it was, except for the owner and his wife. Grace set down her valise and came to the counter. Adam Wilson wiped his floury hands on his apron and gave her the same kindly look he had been giving her for years, even when she suffered inside to beg for credit.
'Yes, my dear?' Mrs Wilson asked, coming to stand beside her husband.
Grace took a deep breath. 'We owe you a large sum, I know,' she said calmly. 'I have a proposal.'
Both Wilsons looked at her, and she saw nothing in their gaze except interest. They had all the time in the world to listen.
'I will work off that debt,' Grace said, 'if you can provide me with a place to live. When I have paid the debt, and if my work has been satisfactory, I'll work for you for wages. I know you have recently lost your all-around girl to marriage with a carter in Exeter.'
To her relief, nothing in Mr Wilson's face exhibited either surprise or scepticism. 'What do you know about baking?' he asked.
'Very little,' Grace replied honestly. 'What I am is loyal and a hard worker.'
The Wilsons looked at each other, while Grace stared straight ahead at a sign advertising buns six for a penny.
'My dear, you have a pretty face. Suppose a member of your class decides to offer for you, and then we are out all of our training?' Mrs Wilson was the shrewder of the two.
'No one will offer for me, Mrs Wilson,' Grace said. 'I have no dowry to tempt anyone among the gentry. By the same token, no man among the labouring class will want a wife who he fears would take on airs and give him grief, because she is elevated in station above him and can'tor won'tforget. I am completely marriage-proof and therefore the ideal employee.'
So she had proved to be. The Wilsons lived above the bakery on the High Street, but had gladly cleared out a small storeroom behind the ovens for her use, a fragrant spot smelling of yeast and herbs. She had cried her last tear, walking to Quimby. Once that was done, she became an all-around girl and never looked back.
The first time one of her acquaintances from her former days had come into the shop, Grace had realised she could never afford to look back. She knew the moment would happen sooner or later; blessedly, it was sooner. The morning that one of her dearest friends had come into the shop with her mama and ignored Grace completely, she knew the wind blew differently. Discreetly put, Grace Curtis had slid.
The matter bothered her less than she had thought it might, considering that she had debated long and hard about throwing herself on the mercy of that particular family. Grace's decision had been confirmed most forcefully a year later. She overheard Lady Astley say to an acquaintance that they had taken in a poor cousin. And there she was, middle-aged and obsequious, always nervously alert in public to do her cousin's bidding, for fear of being turned off to an unkind world. No, Grace knew she had been wise in casting her lot with the Wilsons.
When two years had passed, Mr Wilson declared the family debt eliminated. He seemed surprised when she took a deep breath and asked, 'Will you keep me on still?'
'I thought that was the term,' he told her, as he set yeast to soften by the mixing bowls.
'I hoped it was,' she replied, reaching for the salt, afraid to look at him.
'Then it is, Gracie. Let us shake on it.' He smiled at her. 'You're the best worker I ever hired.'
The years had passed easily enough. After a brief peace, the war set in again. The Wilsons' two sons sailed with the Channel Fleet, one dying at Trafalgar and the other rising to carpenter's mate. Their daughters all married Navy men and lived in Portsmouth. Grace found herself assuming more and more responsibility, particularly in keeping the books.
She had never minded that part of her job because she was meticulous. Her real pleasure, though, came in making biscuits: macaroons, pretty little Savoy cakes, lemon biscuits, all pale brown and crisp, and creamy biscuits with almond icing.
It was these last biscuitsshe named them Quimby Cremesthat had attracted the attention of Lord Thomson, Marquis of Quarle. Mr Wilson always thought he was aptly named, because the old man always seemed to be picking one. Colonel of a regiment of foot serving in New York City during the American War, Lord Thomson suffered no fools gladly, be they titled like himself, merchants with more pretension than the Pope, or the smelly knacker man, who regularly cleared the roads of dead animals. Lord Thomson was equally disposed to resent everyone.
Grace was the only person in Quimby who had a knack for managing the marquis and she did it through his stomach. She had noticed his marked preference for her Quimby Cremes when he visited the bakery, something he did regularly.
His bakery visits puzzled Mrs Wilson. 'My cousin is an upstairs maid in his employ and I know for a fact he has any number of footmen to fetch biscuits on a whim. Why does he do it?'
Grace knew. She remembered her own treks to the bakery for the pleasure of the fragrance inside the glass door, and the fun of choosing three of these and a half-dozen of those. Invariably, after Lord Thomson made his selection, Grace watched him open his parcel outside the shop and sit in the sun, eating one biscuit after another. She understood.
She probably never would have realised her eventual fondness for Lord Thomson if he had not come up short in her eyes. One morningperhaps his washing water had been coldhe elbowed his way into the shop, snarling at a little boy who took too long to make his selection at the counter. He poked the lad with his umbrella. The boy's eyes welled with tears.
'That's enough, Lord Thomson,' Grace declared.
'What did you say?' the marquis demanded.
'You heard me, my lord,' she said serenely, adding an extra lemon biscuit to the boy's choice. 'Tommy was here first. Everyone gets a chance to choose.'
After a filthy look at her, the marquis turned on his heel and left the bakery, slamming the door so hard that the cat in the window woke up.
'I fear I may have cost you a customer,' Grace told Mr Wilson, who had watched the whole scene.
'I can be philosophical,' Mr Wilson said, patting Tommy on the head. 'He's a grouchy old bird.'
She worried, though, acutely aware that Lord Thomson didn't come near the shop for weeks. Easter came and went, and so did everyone except the marquis. Quimby was a small village. Even those who had not witnessed the initial outburst knew what had happened. When he eventually returned, even those in line stepped out of the way, not willing to incur any wrath that might reflect poorly on Grace.
With a studied smile, Lord Thomson waited his turn. As he approached the front of the line eventually, an amazing number of patrons had decided not to leave until they knew the outcome. Grace felt her cheeks grow rosy as he stood before her and placed his order.
She chose to take the bull by the horns. 'Lord Thomson, I've been faithfully making Quimby Cremes, hoping you would return.'
'Here I am,' he said quietly. 'I'll take all you have, if you'll join me in the square to help me eat them.'
She had not expected that. One look at his triumphant face told her that he had known she would be surprised and it tickled him. She smiled again. 'You have me, sir,' she said simply. She looked at Mr Wilson, who nodded, as interested in the conversation as his customers.
To her relief, they ate Cremes and parted as friends.
Year in and year out he visited the bakery, even when the decade started to weigh on him. When an apologetic footman told her one morning that Lord Thomson was bedridden now, and asked if she would please bring the cremes to Quarle, she made her deliveries in person.
Standing in the foyer at Quarle, Grace had some inkling of the marquis's actual worth, something he had never flaunted. The estate was magnificent and lovingly maintained. She felt a twinge of something close to sadness, that her own father had been unable to maintain their more modest estate to the same standard. Quarle was obviously in far better hands.
She brought biscuits to Lord Thomson all winter, sitting with him while he ate, and later dipping them in milk and feeding them to him when he became too feeble to perform even that simple task. Each visit seemed to reveal another distant relativehe had no children of his ownall with the marquis's commanding air, but none with his flair for stories of his years on the American continent, fighting those Yankee upstarts, or even his interest in the United States.
His relatives barely tolerated Grace's visits. Her cheeks had burned with their scorn, but in the end, she decided it was no worse than the slights that came her way now and then. She found herself feeling strangely protective of the old man against his own relatives, who obviously would never have come around, had they not been summoned by Lord Thomson's new solicitor.
At least, he introduced himself to her one afternoon as the new solicitor, although he was not young. 'I'm Philip Selway,' he said. 'And you are Miss Grace Curtis?'
'Just Gracie Curtis,' she told him. 'Lord Thomson likes my Quimby Cremes.'
'So do I,' he assured her.
She returned her attention to Lord Thomson. She squeezed his hand gently and he opened his eyes.
'Lean closer,' he said, with just a touch of his former air of command.
She did as he said.
'I'm dying, you know,' he told her.
'I was afraid of that,' she whispered. 'I'll bring you Quimby Cremes tomorrow.'
'That'll keep death away?' he asked, amused.
'No, but I'll feel better,' she said, which made him chuckle.
She thought he had stopped, but he surprised her. 'Do you trust me?' he asked.
'I believe I do,' she replied, after a moment.