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By Zoë Archer
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Zoë Archer
All rights reserved.
Wiltshire, England. 1886.
"What are you doing here?" a woman's voice demanded in the hallway. "Who are you?"
Ada Merrow spun to face a middle-aged woman in a dark dress. The cluster of keys at her waist proclaimed her to be the housekeeper for this massive country estate, Covington Hall.
Dipping down into a curtsy, Ada said, "Excuse me, ma'am. I'm Ada Moore." The character she'd been given to get the job called her by this alias.
The dour expression on the housekeeper's face lightened. Slightly. "One of the temporary servants to help with the holiday. I'm Mrs. Byrd. You'll be answering to me."
"Yes, ma'am," Ada murmured, curtsying again.
"This way, then. Ada, is it?"
Before Ada could answer, Mrs. Byrd swept past her. Together, they entered a large room with a long table down the center, and chairs lined up along the table. Mounted onto one wall were dozens of bells, each labeled with words such as Library, Blue Parlor, Master's Bedchamber. For now, the bells were silent. But later in the day, they would ring. And ring.
"This is the servants' hall," Mrs. Byrd informed her. "This is where you and the other under servants will take your meals, and when your duties above do not require you, this is where you'll perform the usual small jobs."
"Mending and cleaning," Ada said. She knew the routine like breathing.
"The other temporary servants haven't thus far arrived," Mrs. Byrd said. She peered at Ada. "You're punctual, so I cannot fault you that."
"Thank you, ma'am." Her partner on this assignment would be another one of the temporary servants. Whoever he was, he'd likely pose as a footman.
"Wait here." Mrs. Byrd waved toward the chairs. "Once all the fill-in help arrives, the butler, Mr. Keene, and I will review everyone's duties."
With that, Mrs. Byrd quickly walked away, keys jingling with each step. Ada was alone in the servants' hall, though she heard the hallways buzzing with activity. An upper maid she'd known once said great houses were like theaters — actors swanning gracefully before an audience, while backstage there was controlled chaos, with the stage crew frantic to make the performance seem effortless.
It was the existence Ada had known for most of her life. Girls from tiny villages — and her with five siblings all fighting over one small loaf of bread — didn't have heaps of choices. There was factory work, but the idea of standing on a line doing the same dull task over and over seemed like a prison sentence. The teacher at her dame school had called her bright. Meant for something more than hunching over a loom or sewing buttons on ready-made waistcoats.
A grand house near her village had needed a tweenie. Tweenies were the lowest on the servants' social scale, and their work didn't challenge the brain, but the position did provide a bed of your own, regular meals, and the possibility of rising in the ranks. She'd taken the job.
She'd never minded the hard work. It meant going somewhere other than to a life of dire poverty. But once she left, she never thought she would come back. This time, though, it wasn't about just having a job.
Now Ada sat and waited. She curled her hands into fists to keep her fingers from tapping nervously on the table. Today and for the next week, she was someone else. Not just a servant, but an agent for Nemesis, Unlimited. In a short-term capacity, yes, but when they'd come calling only a week ago, asking for her help, she gladly agreed. How could she not? They'd helped her out of a bad situation six months ago. The least she could do was return the favor.
The secret organization doled out justice for those who couldn't get it for themselves. Ada had heard of them through the servants' grapevine. Nemesis's missions often involved going up against the roughest and meanest elements in society — including aristocrats. She knew that from bitter experience.
Which Nemesis agent would be her partner? The only two members of Nemesis she'd met had been that appallingly handsome nobleman, Simon, and ... Michael.
Ada's heart kicked. Don't think of him, not now. Not on her very first Nemesis mission. A clear and focused mind was what she needed. She'd been told there would be guests who required careful watching, but other than that, she had no idea what kind of wrongdoing Nemesis was trying to stop, or the specifics of her assignment.
Two girls, clearly temporary maids like Ada, drifted in and took their seats.
A strapping young man stepped into the room, dressed in traveling clothes and carrying a valise. Ada sat up straighter. Maybe he was her partner.
If this lad was her contact, hats off to him for giving nothing away, since his awkward smile was aimed not just at Ada, but all the women.
Soon after, another man came sauntering in. He draped himself in one of the chairs and gave Ada a wink. She only nodded politely. If this bloke was her contact, he'd understand her chariness.
Both chaps were handsome, the way most footmen were handsome, but that didn't matter. She had a job to do — whatever that might be — and she wouldn't risk anything by getting dizzy over a man. That had been a hard lesson she'd learned, but learn it she did. Personal feelings and desires had no place when it came to dishing out justice.
So you tell yourself. Six months later.
Three extra maids meant there'd likely be three extra footmen. So far, two had arrived. Either could be her partner. But there was also the third footman. Who hadn't shown yet.
Ada tried to join in the others' conversation so she wouldn't stand out by her silence, but she was too on edge to say much.
Footsteps sounded in the hall.
She and all the others turned and looked at the man standing in the entrance to the servants' hall. Like everyone, he wore traveling clothes and had a small case for his belongings. He was tall, with a lean, muscular build beneath his serviceable brown suit. He had a long, angular face, a wide mouth, bright blue eyes. The respectable pomade in his hair couldn't hold down his blond curls. Curls that should look silly on a grown man, but only made him look wild and a bit roguish. Wicked.
The girls giggled, and the two other footmen shuffled their feet, making noise for attention.
Ada could do nothing. Only stare.
Her partner had arrived. Michael Hayward. The very same man who'd broken her heart six months ago.
* * *
He kept his cover well, glancing at Ada with the same distant curiosity he showed to the other temporary servants. One of the last times she'd seen him, they'd been kissing like the world was about to end. Now he barely looked at her. Did that make him a good Nemesis agent? Or did it make him a cad who didn't think about their kiss, and everything that had surrounded it?
And there'd been his complete silence since then.
Ada's cheeks burned as he entered the servants' hall. Forcibly, she kept her gaze from following him as he pulled out a chair and took a seat.
"I'm Michael." His voice stroked along Ada's nape. "Michael Hathaway." Everyone greeted him, even her.
Mrs. Byrd and a bald, mustachioed man in a black suit entered the room. The man commanded the attention of everyone in the room — though Ada felt Michael's presence as if he were a burning coal, giving off heat and light.
"I am Mr. Keene, the butler," the man said sternly. "Your services have been engaged because Lord and Lady Cowan are hosting guests during the Christmas season. There will be a total of six additional people staying at Covington Hall, including Lord Cowan's cousin and his wife, the esteemed Lord and Lady Larkfield, who normally spend the holidays either in town or abroad. Lord Cowan is eager to display to his cousin the graciousness and hospitality for which Covington Hall is famed. Thus the necessity of hiring on supplementary help."
Ada hadn't heard of the Larkfields, but then, she wasn't one of the dandy set. Unless she'd changed their bed linen, or, more recently, waited on them at the mercer's shop, there'd be little cause for her to know them. But one or more of the guests the butler had named would be her target for this job.
Mr. Keene fixed everyone with a sharp look. "Everything must run with absolute perfection, or else you not only shame yourself, but this house and the family."
A chorus of "Yes, sir" rose up from the group.
"Footmen," the butler continued, "follow me to my pantry, where I shall review your duties, and have you fitted for your liveries."
"And you maids come with me to my room," the housekeeper added, "and I will apprise you of your responsibilities while you are employed here." Her face tightened into an even more stern expression. "I shall say this once only. Here at Covington Hall, we expect the utmost propriety from our staff. No immodesty between servants shall be tolerated. If either Mr. Keene or I detect the slightest hint of indecency, the offenders shall be turned out immediately with no pay and no character, Christmas or no Christmas. Is that understood?"
"Yes, ma'am," came the immediate answer. Yet Ada's heart stuttered. She and Michael were going to be under constant watch — complicating an already shaky situation. What her work here for Nemesis might be, she didn't know. Whatever it was required a partner — him. He must know what the details of the mission were, and he would need to tell her about them. But they couldn't be caught together. Not without risking everything.
No chance in Hades I'll let there be any indecency between us. But even just a private conversation could be thought unseemly.
"Maids, follow me," said Mrs. Byrd. "Footmen, go with Mr. Keene."
Silently, the maids and footmen filed out of the servants' hall.
Ada followed, moving slowly, not sure what she was supposed to do.
Her pulse jumped when Michael, on his way out of the room, brushed close to her.
"Meet me in the stillroom at three," he murmured. And then he was gone before she could answer.
She felt herself planted like an old, old tree, unable to move. After six months, she should've been well past this. Past him.
Now they were working together. On what might be a risky assignment.
"Step lively," snapped the housekeeper from down the hall.
Ada managed to uproot her feet, and hurried toward the unknown.CHAPTER 2
Michael paced the tiny stillroom. He barely saw the rows of bottled cordials and preserves lined up on the shelves. All his attention was fixed on the sounds in the corridor outside, listening to footsteps going back and forth — and waiting for one particular set of footsteps.
Despite his gloves, he rubbed his palms on the front of his snug dark blue livery breeches, trying to dry his hands. He tugged on his blue and silver braided livery jacket and smoothed the front of his silver waistcoat. There was no use pretending his case of nerves came only from the upcoming mission.
The door to the stillroom opened and shut quickly. Ada stepped from the shadows of the doorway. Light from the small, high-set window lit her wary face.
Wary, but to him, an unforgettable face. Her starched white cap partly covered her dark brown hair, smoothed down into a tight bun. Her hazel eyes looked at him with caution, and her small candy of a mouth was drawn tight.
"I half thought you wouldn't show." He was careful to keep his voice low to avoid detection from outside.
"I half thought not to come," she answered softly, though her tone was still sharply edged. "They didn't tell me you'd be my partner."
"Had you known, you'd have refused the assignment?"
"Don't be daft." She looked appalled he'd even suggest the idea. "But I might've been better ... prepared." Her gaze flicked to him, then away.
He, though, looked his fill. The past six months had treated her well, shown by the trim fit of her dark uniform. She'd lost some of her housemaid's boniness that had hollowed her cheeks and pinched her waist. How might she feel in his arms, with these sleeker, lusher curves?
He crushed that thought like a cigarette beneath his boot heel. The mission always came first — and she looked as though she'd try to snap his wrist clean off if he so much as touched the ties of her apron. He couldn't blame her.
"Simon planned on sending someone else," he admitted. "I changed his mind. This is your first real assignment for Nemesis —"
She scowled. "You forget my help in the past?"
"Like hell. A damned fine job you did." He didn't miss the quick flare of pleasure in her gaze, or how she smothered it.
Damn. This wasn't going to be the reunion he'd imagined.
"But you haven't been one of the chief agents on a case. I couldn't ..." He struggled to find the words. "The only one I trusted to look after you on your first job was me."
Yet she was set on being angry. She folded her arms across her chest. "You don't trust me, after everything Nemesis has done for me. After everything I've done for them."
God, he wanted to run his hands through his hair, but it was slick with the massive amounts of pomade he was required to wear while in service at Covington Hall, and he'd get it all over his gloves.
"Bloody right they trust you," he growled, "but any operative's first real assignment needs a senior agent's help."
"Are you a senior agent?"
"Getting there," he admitted.
"Then why send you?"
"I'd just gotten back from a mission. They told me what was happening at Covington Hall, and that you'd be there. Straight out, I said I'd be the one to partner you. Nemesis didn't tell you because they didn't know — not until thirty minutes before I left for Wiltshire."
He didn't say that he'd been bone-tired from his last job: six months in a shady duke's retinue as they traveled across the Continent. Michael had finally gathered the evidence he'd needed of the duke's trafficking of kidnapped girls, then took the first steam packet across the Channel. He'd literally stepped off the hackney at Nemesis headquarters, suitcase in hand, and learned of the mission at Covington Hall and that Ada would be one of the agents. With her experience as a housemaid in a great house, Simon had vouched for her as the perfect operative for the job. Michael would've endorsed her, too, but he'd been out of the country. Minutes after arriving at headquarters, he was on the train, heading to Wiltshire. Weary as a dog, he still hadn't been able to catch any sleep on the ride. His mind was a boxing match between thoughts of the mission and seeing Ada again.
"Simon wired the house with my character," he continued. It showed how respected Simon Addison-Shawe was in the world of the elite that his recommendation for a last-minute staff addition had been accepted without question. "Just like you. His word got me the job. To do the mission. And see you again."
She continued to gaze at him warily.
You thought it'd be so bloody easy? A few words from you and she'd melt into your arms?
She'd always had a strong will. And it dawned on him that the very thing that drew him to her could force them apart. Did keep them apart.
He'd been a green fool to believe she'd be happy or eager to see him again. A knife of disappointment sliced into him.
"How are you?" he asked gently. "Moving to London's a ruddy big change."
"What's our assignment?" she demanded instead of answering him. "Nemesis said we'd be watching some of the guests, likely because they'll be gathered here for the Cowans' holiday festivities."
She had a swift, sharp mind. That's why she'd been a perfect ally on the job when Michael had first met her. And why Nemesis had called in a favor from her when a woman with a housemaid's training was needed.
"The guests," he said. "Two in particular." He lowered his voice even more, so Ada had to lean closer. "The Larkfields."
"The esteemed Larkfields," she quoted.
"Maybe in society's eyes. But rotten as a side of ten-day-old beef."
She made a face. "A smelly comparison."
"Fitting, though. Most aristos of their status have their little charities or causes they support. Some of the patrons are more involved than others."
"And the Larkfields have their own charity," she surmised.
"An orphanage," he said. "They were the patrons."
"Were, meaning something made them give it up."
"Last week, the authorities raided the place. Found it wasn't an orphanage so much as a workhouse." His jaw clenched. "The children were forced to work fourteen hours a day making cheap jet mourning jewelry."
Ada brought her hand to her mouth. "My God."
Footsteps sounded outside. He and Ada froze, breathless and waiting, until whoever it was outside passed.
Excerpted from Winter's Heat by Zoë Archer. Copyright © 2013 Zoë Archer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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