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The Runaway Debutante

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When her father loses everything in a gambling debt, including her, Matilda can take her role as a passive and dutiful daughter no longer. She finds a strength and willfulness she never recognized before and the courage to leave this intolerable situation. Fleeing the kisses of the fifty-year old Earl of Lark, a man notorious for his womanizing ways, Matilda finds work as a cook in London. Her culinary skills so impress Major Robert Bruce that he hires her as his personal chef. But the earl is still pursing her ...
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Overview

When her father loses everything in a gambling debt, including her, Matilda can take her role as a passive and dutiful daughter no longer. She finds a strength and willfulness she never recognized before and the courage to leave this intolerable situation. Fleeing the kisses of the fifty-year old Earl of Lark, a man notorious for his womanizing ways, Matilda finds work as a cook in London. Her culinary skills so impress Major Robert Bruce that he hires her as his personal chef. But the earl is still pursing her and Matilda has been trapped in a whirlwind. Her love is beginning to grow for the handsome duke, but does he love enough to give her shelter from the nefarious earl?
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Editorial Reviews

Greg Bear
Elizabeth Chater is a treasure.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781585869121
  • Publisher: eReads.com
  • Publication date: 2/28/2001
  • Pages: 140
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.38 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Chater was the author of more than 24 novels and countless short stories. She received a B.A. from the University of British Columbia and an M.A. from San Diego State University, and joined the faculty of the latter in 1963 where she began a lifelong friendship with science fiction author Greg Bear. She was honored with The Distinguished Teacher award in 1969, and was awarded Outstanding Professor of the Year in 1977. After receiving her Professor Emeritus certificate from President John F. Kennedy personally, she embarked on a new career as a novelist with Richard Curtis as her agent. In the 1950s and 60s she published short stories in Fantastic Universe Magazine and The Saint Mystery Magazine, and she won the Publisher's Weekly short story contest in 1975. She went on to publish 22 romance novels over an 8 year period. She also wrote under the pen names Lee Chater, Lee Chaytor, and Lisa Moore. For more information, please visit elizabethchater.com.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

It was a very nasty night in London. Cold rain, whipped by a bitter wind, lashed down upon the dirty cobblestones. At the Cock and Pheasant Posting House (Proprietor, Matt Dodd), even the usual pandemonium of shouting grooms, grinding coach wheels, neighing horses, and infuriated passengers was muted into a dull rumble of discomfort.

Standing just under the meager shelter of the side entrance, two young women huddled wretchedly.

"It ain't yer fault we ain't got enough cash to buy us tickets out o' Lunnon," gasped the smaller of the two girls. "We'll just have to get me a job, like I said, and when I've saved enough--"

"Polly, we shall both find work," announced Lady Matilda Mountavon decisively. "It is absurd for us to be standing upon dignity when we are half-frozen and completely starved! Now come inside the inn with me, and we'll have a meal to put heart in us. And then we'll hazard our luck with the innkeeper. Surely so busy a hostelry must need two more excellent serving maids!"

Smiling, she ignored the other girl's muffled and not very convincing protests and led the way through the side door into the warm, well-lighted common room. Polly followed meekly. After a trying wait, they were at length able to secure seats at a large table crowded with grim-faced travelers. A harassed serving wench finally began to slop platefuls of food haphazardly in front of the muttering patrons, ignoring their complaints. Matilda, too hungry to talk, tasted the nondescript offering. Then she glanced around the greasy board for salt and pepper.

A woman seated across from her expressed Matilda's own opinion. "No taste to this grub," shesniffed.

Her sullen spouse snapped, "Well, it's 'ot," as though that were mercy enough in itself.

"We 'eard that their cook went an' lef' them without a word of warnin' today," gossiped a man next to Matilda. "It's a wonder they got even this much on the table." He chewed morosely. "Whatever it is."

Matilda's pale face began to brighten. Her eyes, a strange dark amber in color, seemed to give off golden light. Polly, glancing at her mistress, read the signs with a sense of alarm. Whenever Miss Matilda got one of her ideas, she looked just like a kitten about to pounce. She'd looked that way last night, when, comforting Polly after her brusque dismissal from Milord's service, Matilda had shared her plan to run away from a proposed marriage that revolted her every feeling.

"We'll slip away together before anyone's awake tomorrow," she proposed. "I know why Mama dismissed you, Polly. It wasn't because of anything you'd done or failed to do. It's because Papa has been gaming again and lost our whole fortune to the Earl of Tark."

Polly had gasped with dismay at this monumental disaster. It was notorious that one nobleman had lost a whole town and outlying farms, his family's total holding, in a desperate day and night at the gaming tables. His final act, which had been to put a period to his own life, did not seem to the little maidservant a very sensible solution to his problem. She wondered if the cold and cynical Lord Mountavon would proceed to such lengths and decided that he would not, as long as he had a young daughter of biddable disposition and impeccable lineage to use as barter. The servants' quarters had buzzed with tales of the licentious peer who was the winner of Lord Mountavon's fortune. The Earl of Tark's reputation was so deeply stained that he was avoided even by matrons with several daughters to launch. Surely, protested the servants, Lady Mountavon would not sell her only child to that vicious creature?

It seemed that Matilda's parents had exactly that stratagem in mind. When the news flew like wildfire through the mansion on Portman Square, Polly made no further objection to the plan of escape. But when they reached the posting inn, on foot and by devious back streets in the dawn, the fugitives discovered that Matilda's meager allowance, so carefully hoarded, was not enough to get them to another city where they might seek employment safely.

A whole day of searching for work brought only failure, since Matilda's skills -- pianoforte, painting, and embroidery -- while eminently suitable for a young woman of breeding, were not salable at hostels or coaching houses. Polly refused to leave her mistress, so neither one had been able to secure employment.

Now it was apparent to Polly that her mistress had had an idea that pleased her. Matilda stood up and moved purposefully off through the crowd of impatient travelers standing behind the chairs of more fortunate diners. Hastily wiping her crust of bread to catch the last few drops of gravy, Polly jumped up to follow her young mistress. It seemed that Lady Matilda had the inn kitchen as her destination. It was not hard to find it. She had only to follow the path of the hard-pressed serving maids.

The big room was in an uproar. In front of the two great stoves stood a large, stout woman wearing a mobcap slightly askew upon her graying hair. From the loud stream of commands, criticism, and appeals to heaven for help that she was issuing, the formidable dame was easily to be recognized as the wife of the owner of the inn.

" 'Tis plain why the Frenchies are forever raisin' riot and revolution!" she was saying. "There's that Onree of ours, that my 'usband paid a king's ransom every month, walkin' out on us with nothin' in the oven for dinner! Unreliable -- that's the Frenchies! If ever I take on another of 'em, may the good Lord forgive me, for I won't forgive myself!" She glared around at her nervous staff. "An' per'aps someone will tell me where's the cook that promised to take Onree's place?"

With Polly hovering apprehensively at her shoulder, Matilda had been taking in the scene of confusion. She had never been in a public kitchen, but this one seemed reasonably well supplied with the necessary utensils. Perhaps they were not as clean as the ones Pierre had used in the Mountavon kitchen, but Matilda found herself very much at home with the whole situation. Obviously the treacherous Henri had had a good knowledge of his craft, for Matilda recognized jars and little tubs of exotic spices and herbs, now pushed out of the way by the amateur cooks.

Matilda seized the moment.

"I--" she began, then had to clear her throat. "I am the replacement for Chef Henri, ma'am."

Her clear, young voice had managed to penetrate the din in the big room. Mrs. Dodd's eyes swiveled to her and took in, with one shrewd glance, the slight figure, plain dark cape, and pale yet determined face of the tall, slender woman who had just made the announcement. Mrs. Dodd frowned suspiciously and went at once on the attack.

"And where have you been, then, miss, while we've been tryin' to feed 'alf o' Lunnon? You're too late to do us any good..."

All present knew this was merely a preliminary skirmish. Matilda smiled without replying as she stepped forward and began lifting lids from the massive pots bubbling on the stoves.

"Garlic!" she demanded, waving a hand at one of the older kitchen wenches. "And that jar of laurel leaves. This chicken could be anything -- or nothing!"

As the woman hastened to place the required items in Matilda's hands, Mrs. Dodd closed in on the interloper.

"And how would your ladyship know what it tastes like," she said with heavy mockery, "not having put so much as a morsel into your mouth?" She snorted rudely. "Onree was forever sippin' an' nibblin'."

"I have just finished eating the dinner you are serving in the common room," explained Matilda, still stirring as she added the seasonings she had requested. Then, maddeningly deliberate, she raised a ladleful of liquid to her lips, tasted, closed her eyes, nodded once, and stirred again.

Polly fought to contain her nervous giggles. Her mistress had just given an accurate imitation of Chef Pierre at his most Gallic. The performance was apparently impressive enough to soothe some of the anger and suspicion from Mrs. Dodd's face. She came closer.

"Aren't you goin' to take off your cloak?" she demanded.

Idly, as though the question had no great relevance to an artist at work, Matilda nodded again and lifted a spoonful of the liquid for Mrs. Dodd's approval. Gingerly, with due respect for the temperature of the broth, the host's wife tasted. Then a grudging yet relieved smile twitched at her lips.

"It'll 'ave to do, I suppose," she said, savoring the rest of the large spoonful. "Take yer cape off. An' 'oo is this?" indicating a grinning Polly.

"She is my helper. We both work for the one price," Matilda hastened to add, as Mrs. Dodd began to frown horrendously.

After a minute's sharp scrutiny, the innkeeper's wife nodded. She was not about to refuse the services of another kitchen helper, if they came free. "Better tell me your names, then. When dinner's over, I'll have Peg show you your room." She accepted their capes and handed them to the older serving woman.

"My helper is Polly," said Matilda quietly. "And I am called Merielle."

Now you've gone an' done it, miss! thought Polly in despair. Didn' you hear what she just said about Frenchies?

It appeared, however, that the French, while heartily disliked for many reasons -- political, patriotic, and personal -- were still regarded with a kind of awe for their culinary skills. With only a sniff to mark her opinion of all foreigners, Mrs. Dodd said firmly, "I shall call you Mary," and swept out of the kitchen.

The next few hours were too frantically crowded to permit of anything but complete attention to the cooking and serving of food. The maids, eager for their own sakes to placate their mistress, did all they could to help the new cook. Gradually a savory order emerged from the chaos. It was hard, challenging work for Matilda, but the skills required were not unknown to the girl. She had spent many clandestine hours in the homely comfort of the kitchen at Portman Square. It was the warmest room in that chill mansion, and the friendliest. During the innumerable hours when her governess, Miss Alford, had been required to attend Lady Mountavon as secretary or courier, the child had drifted into the cozy bustle downstairs, standing shyly near the door until invited by Chef Pierre, "Entrez, petite mademoiselle!" The chef had taken pity on the plain, forlorn little female and had gradually allowed her to observe his work and, eventually, to share his more arcane culinary secrets. Matilda had proved an apt and delighted pupil.

Miss Alford, inevitably learning of her pupil's extracurricular activities, had had only praise, and gratitude that the young girl was able to enjoy a little human warmth in her parents' gloomy, loveless mansion.

"A knowledge of haute cuisine will stand you in good stead when you have an establishment of your own, my dear," she had informed Matilda. "Just imagine how it will help you when some arrogant chef presents his proposed menus, all written in the French language and full of culinary terms!" And had improved the moment by insisting upon a renewed study of the language mentioned.

Matilda wisely decided, on this her first day at the Cock and Pheasant, not to attempt anything exotic. Quickly she identified the contents of the various stew pots. Beef in the largest. Potatoes and cabbage boiling together in one kettle, submerged to drowning in hot water. Turnips in another. Matilda ground fresh black pepper and garlic generously into the beef. She ladled the extra water from the now-soggy potatoes into a large soup kettle and placed the cabbage in a flat pan. Then she threw in great dollops of butter and a scoop of sugar with more pepper into the potatoes. She set Polly to mashing this mixture -- one of her own favorites, although scorned by Pierre -- while she herself put ham fat on a griddle to render and brown. Soon she was able to set out plates of well-seasoned beef slices, cabbage with a drench of savory ham fat, turnips lightly dusted with cinnamon, and the mouthwatering mashed potatoes. The maids, invited to taste, rolled ecstatic eyes and licked hungry lips.

Very shortly the serving maids were returning with empty plates and requests for second helpings from the diners in the Commons. This necessitated a fresh burst of activity as vegetables were peeled and put into the already-boiling vegetable water Matilda had poured off to save for soup. While they worked, she instructed Polly and the kitchen wenches as Chef Pierre had instructed her.

"Never use too much water in preparing vegetables," she told them. "The taste goes into the water, and then you have to throw it out. Of course you could make soup or gravies or a stew with it if you wished. I'll show you that later. But now we must get more food ready for Mrs. Dodd's guests." She peered into the nearest kettle. "Have we enough meat, do you think? I am not yet familiar with the requirements of your customers."

"There won't ever be enough if you plan to heap up the plates like you been doin'," came the sharp voice of the host's wife. "They think it's Christmas out there, what with second helpin's an' all! You must serve smaller portions, Mary," scolded her employer, but the other servants could tell that she was pleased at the new cook's success.

Mrs. Dodd's wary euphoria continued for several days. Matilda concealed her self-doubts and tremors successfully, and, aided by the admiring Polly, managed to revise the menus of the Cock and Pheasant so tastily that the word spread even among the residents of the area, who came to join the travelers at the board. Business in the Commons doubled. Of necessity, the amounts of money Mrs. Dodd was required to lay out upon provisions also increased, but her strictures and grumblings were remarkably mild as she totaled the profits at the end of each day. She was not one to fly in the face of manifest Providence and had soon decided not to challenge her very unusual new cook.

"She ain't no beauty," Mrs. Dodd told her spouse, "but she's got pretty eyes, kind of like a cat's. And she can cook."

Host Dodd privately considered that the new cook's best feature was her mouth. The beautifully cut lips, a soft rosy pink, reminded him of strawberries. Knowing his wife, he was wise enough to keep such romantic thoughts to himself and contented himself with admitting that the girl could cook.

"Sort of a foreign moniker she's got, ain't it? Maryell or whatever it is. Did she tell you what 'er last name is?"

"No, an' I didn' ask," snapped his wife. "If she's some sort of foreigner -- though that's hard to believe, considerin' the way she talks -- you an' me don't want to get mixed up in her troubles."

"She don't talk like no foreigner I ever heard," objected Dodd. "More like a poor relation or a 'anger-on of one of the nobs. Maybe you'd best sniff 'round a bit. We don't want to get mixed up in nothin' havey-cavey."

"One o' the nobs in my kitchen?" sneered Mrs. Dodd. "That I cannot believe!"

However, watching Matilda carefully the following day, Mrs. Dodd had to admit the girl presented a problem. She was no kitchen wench. Her accent was better than any usually heard in the Commons, and the chit Polly treated her more like a mistress than a fellow servant. Mrs. Dodd decided to get to the bottom of the mystery. She chose her moment shrewdly.

"It's time you told me who you are an' where you come from," she opened abruptly late that evening, catching the weary girl on her way up to her room in the attic.

Matilda's shocked expression at once confirmed Mrs. Dodd's suspicions.

"Have I not satisfied your requirements as a cook?" faltered the girl, looking mighty guilty.

This weak challenge still gave the host's wife pause. Granted, such an answer was enough to make a looby think; it also reminded Mrs. Dodd that she had stumbled upon a rare article in Mary Whatever-her-name-was. In fact, a jewel, since Mary and Polly together worked for less than Mr. Dodd had had to pay the treacherous Onree. Did she really want to discover that her fine new cook should be somewhere else than in the kitchen of the Cock and Pheasant? If trouble did come, the Dodds could always say they'd been gulled by a smooth-tongued adventuress. Her curiosity fully aroused, Mrs. Dodd pressed for an answer.

Matilda recalled the teachings of Miss Alford. Honesty is the best policy. Would it work in this situation? She was too tired to invent a convincing lie. Matilda shrugged fatalistically. "I am a runaway noblewoman. My father was forcing me to marry a very wicked earl--"

Any further disclosures were halted by the broad grin that spread across Mrs. Dodd's face. She shook her head in reluctant admiration. "If ever you lose your job with me, Mary, you could get another right away makin' up plays for one o' them theaters in Drury Lane. 'Runaway noblewoman,' you says! That's a ripe un! I'll warn Dodd not to let any wicked earls into the Commons, lest they steal you away from us."

She stumped away down the corridor, chuckling afresh at the fertile imagination of her wily cook.

Matilda was left to admire, yet again, Miss Alford's wisdom, and the advisability of always telling the truth.

Copyright © 1985 by Elizabeth Chater

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