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"You realize, of course, that there win be hell to pay if my mother catches us." Arabella Blydon looked over her costume with a skeptical eye. She and Emma had borrowed frocks from their maids much to their maids' dismay and were presently creeping down the back stairs of Belle's London house.
"There will be a lot more hell to pay if she catches you swearing," Emma commented wryly.
"I really don't care. If I have to supervise one more flower arrangement for your party, I'm going to scream."
"I hardly, think a scream would be appropriate when we're meant to be sneaking down the stairs."
"Oh, hush," Belle muttered ungraciously, tiptoeing her way down another step.
Emma surveyed her surroundings as she followed her cousin. The back staircase was certainly a change from the one she and Belle usually used in the main hall, which curved gracefully and was cushioned with luxurious carpets from Persia. In contrast, the polished wooden steps of the back stairs were narrow, and the walls were whitewashed and unadorned. The quiet simplicity of the stairwell reminded Emma of her home in Boston, which was not decorated in the opulent London style. The Blydon mansion, located in fashionable Grosvenor Square, had been in their family for over a century and was filled with both priceless heirlooms and exceedingly bad portraits of the Blydons of yesteryear. Emma glanced back up at the plain walls and sighed softy as she fought back a pang of homesicknessfor her father.
"I cannot believe I'm creeping around my home like a burglar to avoid my mother," Belle grumbled as she reached the bottom of the first flight of stairs and rounded the corner to begin the second. "Frankly, I'd rather curl up in my room with a good book, but she's sure to find me there and make me go over the menu again."
"A fate worse than death," Emma murmured.
Belle looked at her sharply. "I'll have you know that I've gone over that blasted menu with her countless times. If she corners me one more time with questions about salmon mousse or roast duck à l'orange, I really don't think I can be held responsible for my actions."
Belle shot her a wry look but didn't reply as she daintily moved down the stairs. "Watch out for this step, Emma," she whispered, hugging the wall. "It creaks in the middle."
Emma swiftly followed her cousin's advice. "I take it you sneak down these stairs often?"
"I used to. It's quite handy to know how to get around this place without anyone knowing what you're up to. I just usually don't go around dressed like my maid."
"Well, it wouldn't do to wear silks if we're going to help Cook get all the food prepared for tonight."
Belle looked dubious. "Frankly, I don't think she's going to appreciate our help. She's quite traditional and doesn't really think it's proper for the family to be belowstairs." With that, she flung open the door to the kitchen. "Hello, everyone. We're here to help!"
Everyone looked absolutely horrified.
Emma quickly tried to remedy the situation. "You could use two extra pairs of hands, couldn't you?" She turned to Cook and flashed her a wide smile.
Cook threw up her arms and shrieked, sending clouds of flour billowing through the air. "What in God's name are you two doing down here?"
One of the kitchen maids stopped kneading dough for a moment and ventured a question. "Pardon me, miladies, but why are you dressed like that?"
"I don't think the two of you ought to be in my kitchen," Cook continued, placing her hands on her formidable hips. "You'll get in the way." When neither of the two young ladies showed any inclination of leaving, Cook clenched her teeth and started waving a wooden spoon at them. "In case you hadn't noticed, we have a lot of extra work to do down here. Now off with you before I call the countess."
Belle quaked at the mention of her mother. "Please let us stay, Cook." She was fairly sure that Cook had a proper name, but everyone had called her that for so long that nobody actually remembered what it was. "We promise not to get in the way. We'll be a great help to you, I'm sure. And we'll be quiet, too."
"It just isn't right having you down here. Don't you two have anything better to do than play at being kitchen maids?"
"Not really," Belle answered truthfully.
Emma smiled to herself, silently agreeing with her cousin. She and Belle had gotten into nonstop mischief since they had arrived three weeks earlier. It wasn't that she'd meant to get into trouble. It was just that there seemed so little to do in London. Back home she kept busy with her work for Dunster Shipping. But in London, bookkeeping was not deemed an appropriate pastime for women, and it seemed that proper young English ladies had no other duties besides getting fitted for gowns and learning how to dance.
Emma was bored beyond belief.
Not that she was unhappy. As much as she missed her father, she rather liked being a part of a larger family. It was just that she didn't feel useful. She and Belle had started to go to great lengths to entertain themselves. Emma smiled guiltily at their exploits. It had certainly never occurred to them that the stray cat they'd taken in only two weeks earlier might be infested with fleas. There was really no way they could have guessed that the entire first floor of the Blydon mansion would have to be aired out...