After a disastrous, short-lived engagement and years of caring for her ailing grandmother, Phoebe Hallsmith is resigned to spinsterhood. But if she must be unmarried, far better to be of use than languishing at home, disappointing her parents. As an employee of the Everton Domestic Society of London, Phoebe accepts a position at the country home of an old friend and discovers an estate-and a lord of the manor-in a state of complete chaos.
Losing himself in the bottle has done nothing to ease Markus Flammel's grief over losing his wife. Not even his toddler daughter can bring him back from the brink. Now this fiery, strong-minded redhead has taken over his home, firing and hiring servants at will and arousing unexpected desire. As not one, but two, suitors suddenly vie for Phoebe's hand, can Markus move past loss and fight for a future with the woman who has transformed his world?
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.55(d)|
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Upon arrival, an Everton lady will seek the head of household and announce her presence and purpose.
— The Everton Companion Rules of Conduct
Years in Scotland caring for Grand had kept Phoebe from Rosefield and her best friend, Emma. Along the front of the grand estate, Emma's beloved rose bushes were overgrown and the facade loomed with sorrow and loss. Hesitating on the first step, she brushed aside her imaginings about the stones mourning Emma's death.
There were no words that could comfort Markus Flammel. What would she say?
A wayward branch from the rose bush lay in her path.
Rubbing the chill of October from her arms, she took a breath, clasped her bag with her Everton lady's companion inside and pulled her shoulders back. She had faced her grandmother's recovery and eventually her death; she couldface this too.
She climbed the ten steps to the door and pushed aside her anxiety.
"This place is a bit unkempt, Phoebe." Honoria Chervil pranced up the steps beside her.
"Yes. That's part of why we are here, my lady." Phoebe grabbed the brass ring and knocked.
"We are arriving very early for paying a call. Perhaps we should have waited for the carriage to be repaired and come later with our belongings."
The hired hack rumbled back up the drive away from Rosefield. There would be no speedy escape.
Drawing a long breath, Phoebe pulled her shoulders back and her chin up. She was ready for whatever might come. "No. This is not a social call, Honoria. I did not wish to get a late start and it will take hours to have the wheel fixed at the inn. This will be better and the rest will follow this afternoon."
Glass shattered inside. Yelling and screaming and wood crashing sounded through the door.
"What on earth?" There was nothing worse than standing on the steps while screams and crashes filtered out. Phoebe pushed the door open.
As if her presence froze the scene, five pair of eyes stared at her in the threshold.
Two maids were on their knees surrounded by glass, faded flowers, and water. The round table lay in pieces behind them.
Mrs. Donnelly's bonnet was askew, her hair stuck out in all directions, and her chubby cheeks were as red as the overgrown roses in front of the house. The housekeeper scooped up a screaming toddler who was inches from getting into the dangerous glass.
Watson, the butler, stood like a statue staring at her with his hands in the air.
"What in the name of heaven is going on in here?" Phoebe never imagined her arrival would look anything like this.
Watson lowered his hands, smoothed his graying hair and approached. "I'm afraid you've caught us at an inopportune moment, my lady. The master has just arrived and we are preparing."
A maid sniffed as tears ran down her face and she used a rag to pull shards into a pile.
"Preparing for what?" Honoria asked.
"What on earth could be prepared by what I am witnessing?" Phoebe might have been out of line in questioning the staff of Rosefield before she'd even made her purpose known to Markus, but something was terribly wrong here.
Phoebe's mother had written about Emma's daughter, Elizabeth, being raised mostly by servants, but this was ridiculous. Elizabeth continued to wail as if being beaten with a stick and Mrs. Donnelly shushed her to no avail. Elizabeth grabbed a handful of Mrs. Donnelly's hair and they both shrieked until Phoebe's ears hurt.
"You might try back at another time, Miss Hallsmith." Sweat dripped down the side of Watson's long face.
Phoebe had a hundred questions, but would get no answers with the servants. What started as worry grew into annoyance, and she had to swallow down her emotions to remain calm. She turned to Mrs. Donnelly. "Madam, give me that child before she does you real harm."
Never had a woman of such girth moved with such speed. She foisted Elizabeth into Phoebe's arms. "It's not Little Elizabeth's fault, Miss. She misses her father and he —"
"That will do, Mrs. Donnelly." Watson's scolding tone stopped any further explanation and started the maid crying again.
Phoebe propped Elizabeth on her hip. "You are far too small to be causing so much chaos. I cannot imagine what your sweet momma is thinking looking down on you. Now I expect you to act like a little lady."
Just like her father, Elizabeth had large green eyes, and they were wide open staring at Phoebe. A black smudge marred her left cheek and some kind of jelly stuck all around her rosy lips and pert little nose.
"She doesn't speak, my lady, though we try to teach her," Mrs. Donnelly said.
At two years old, Elizabeth should have some vocabulary. Phoebe's heart clenched. She should have come sooner. Of course, that hadn't been an option, but it did not soothe her guilt. "Well, we need no words for the moment. I'm sure when Miss Elizabeth has something important to say, she will do so. I do not go by a title any longer. Miss Hallsmith will do."
Elizabeth relaxed and her little body conformed to Phoebe's side as if they were two parts of a whole.
"You know, your mother and I were very good friends, Elizabeth. I think that you and I will be as well, but you must behave with more manners. Shall we go see your father?" A wide smile showed off several teeth and brought a lovely pink to her sweet cheeks.
Watson stepped forward but kept enough distance as to not fall into Elizabeth's reach. "That's what started all of this, Miss. I'm afraid his lordship does not wish to see ... anyone."
A low growl issued from deep in Elizabeth's chest.
Taking another step back, Watson paled.
"Ladies do not growl, Elizabeth. Where is his lordship?" Phoebe had spent years reining in her temper and learning to act like a lady even when she wanted to tear someone's hair out. It was becoming obvious that she would need to use all she had learned to get through the next few moments.
"In the study, but as I said, Miss Hallsmith, he does not wish to be disturbed." Watson held out his arms blocking her way.
Lifting Elizabeth higher on her hip, Phoebe turned toward the study. "I could not possibly care less about what his lordship wants. Lady Chervil, will you please wait here and explain our purpose?" Honoria's chest puffed out as she lifted her shoulders and double chin. "I will be happy to, Miss Hallsmith."
Phoebe strode past Watson to the door and pushed through.
The enormous desk that Emma had purchased as a wedding gift for Markus took up most of the room. Phoebe's heart broke at the memory of how proud her friend had been of the custom-made gift. She had thought the sun rose with her husband, and the two had been the perfect couple. Wood, though dusty, paneled three walls while one boasted three large bookcases separated by two benches. A musty odor, from disuse and lack of cleaning, tickled Phoebe's nose.
Markus faced the cloudy window overlooking the side garden. "I do not wish to be disturbed. Go away."
The petulance of his tone only raised Phoebe's ire. Behavior of that sort should be disregarded, even if on the inside she seethed. Placing Elizabeth on the floor, Phoebe said, "That is too bad, my lord, as you have company who will not be turned aside. I am here on business."
His chair scraped across the wood floor as he stood and turned. He narrowed green eyes, shadowed with dark rings and sunken into pale skin, and he swayed. The strong, handsome man Emma had loved and married was no longer present in Markus Flammel.
Phoebe propped her fists on her hips and met his gaze.
"Phoebe Hallsmith?" She dropped her hands and fell into a polite curtsy. "My lord."
"What are you doing here? Emma is gone."
His raised voice brought a whimper from poor Elizabeth who shrunk back and hid her face in Phoebe's skirt.
Turning, Phoebe called out the study door. "Mrs. Donnelly?" Still frazzled and tattered, the housekeeper poked her head in the door. "Miss?"
"Please take Miss Elizabeth to the kitchen and see if Cook has a nice biscuit for her. Then see that her hands and face are washed before you bring her back here to visit with her father."
Mrs. Donnelly's face went white and she stiffened. "Little Elizabeth does not care for face washing."
"Do not tell me you are afraid of that child, Madam. I will not hear of it. Miss Elizabeth will be happy for the cookie and act the proper lady when it is time to wash. Isn't that right?" She gave Elizabeth a pointed look.
Red-faced, Elizabeth stared at Phoebe with her mouth open. Never taking her gaze away, she toddled over to Mrs. Donnelly and took her hand.
Once they left, Markus ran his fingers through his overlong hair. "How did you do that?"
Phoebe wanted to feel sympathy for him but she couldn't keep her annoyance in check. "What on earth is wrong with you? How can you talk about Emma that way in front of your daughter? I am well aware of the loss of my dear friend, so your attempt to hurt me was wasted. Why is your house in chaos? Why are Emma's roses along the front entrance overgrown? Why is your staff terrified of a small child? Where have you been that they are shocked at your arrival? I demand answers."
"You demand? Who are you to demand anything? Where were you when Emma lay in her coffin and they covered her up with dirt? You have no rights here." He collapsed into his chair.
Guilt swelled inside Phoebe, and she sat across from him. "I was in Scotland with my grandmother. She was ill and I could not leave her. I received a letter from my mother about Emma's passing, and you may believe me when I tell you I was quite devastated. However, there was nothing I could do for her as she was and is in God's hands." Pulling herself together, she added, "I have been sent here by the Everton Domestic Society at the behest of your mother."
"I do not care why you are here. Get out of my house. You only serve as a reminder of her."
Where was the Markus of old? The man who Emma had gushed over. Markus would stop in and enjoy tea and conversation with the ladies. "Answer my questions. Then maybe I will leave you in peace."
He lifted a bottle of liquor out of his desk drawer, banged it onto the surface, removed the top, and took a long pull.
Phoebe had never seen this side of Markus. Running might have been the smart thing to do, but she held her place and swallowed her fear. He had always been calm and polite. Everything admirable had gone with her friend and the child suffered for it. Something had to be done. "Have you taken to the bottle as well as neglected your responsibilities, my lord? I always imagined you were smarter than your father."
Markus's face colored a horrible shade of purple, and he hurled the bottle across the room. It shattered against the wall in a starburst of glimmering shards. Brandy ran down the wall in rivulets and the stench of alcohol swamped the room.
If she left now, she could escape whatever wrath she had unleashed inside of him, but where would that leave poor Elizabeth? "Are you quite through or are there other objects you'd like to destroy? Maybe you will hack up that desk Emma bought you next?"
The air went out of him and he slumped onto his folded arms atop the desk. His shoulders rose and fell several times before he sat up. "I have not been home because everything here reminds me of her and I am not strong enough. As to your other questions ..." He shrugged. "I fired the gardener and the child has put a strain on the household. Did you say my mother sent you?"
Many things she should have said, but his eyes shone from too much brandy and practical matters needed addressing first. "I work for Everton Domestic Society. Your mother contracted for someone to help you with Rosefield."
"Help me? How can you help me? No one can help." He put his forehead on his arms.
Nothing was ever easy. She needed a dozen questions answered, but one or two would have to do while he was in this state. "Why is there no nanny?"
"I may have fired one or two." He leaned his head back against the leather and closed his eyes.
"What about your mother? Has she not come to help with the staff?"
The green of his eyes was as intense as his daughter's. He scoffed. "I tossed her from the house the last time I was home. I think she said something about never darkening my door again. Just as well."
The situation was coming into view, and the remedy would not be an easy one. "I see. Lady Chervil and I each have a lady's maid. We will need rooms made up. I expect your staff can handle that small task. Our carriage needed repairs so we hired a hack this morning. The Everton Domestic Society's carriage with our bags and maids will arrive later today. They will need to be brought in. I will explain to your staff my needs and expectations."
He stood, and pressing his knuckles to the wood, leaned forward. If the desk had not been so big, his looming might have been threatening, but as it was, he was too far away to leave her awed.
"You cannot live here. I am an unmarried man," he said, voice cracking.
It wrenched her heart. "Everton's is aware of your situation. That is why Lady Chervil is here as my chaperon. She is speaking with Watson now."
Raising his voice, he pointed at Phoebe. "I do not want her or you here. I do not need you here."
"Your rage does not scare me, my lord, so you might as well save it for someone else. You could tell me you will hire a reputable nanny and allow her to sort out your house. You might tell me you have met a fine woman and plan to remarry. You could step up and be the man Emma married and take care of your own house. If you can look me in the eye and guarantee me these things will happen, I will walk out that door and report to my superiors that all is well here and leave you in peace."
He sank back into his chair. "I will not be responsible for you or Lady Chervil."
"No. I imagine you are not even responsible for yourself these days. One more thing, my lord. When Mrs. Donnelly arrives back here in a few moments with your daughter in tow, you are to put aside whatever sorrows you have and pay her the attention she deserves. Do I make myself clear?" If she was overstepping her boundaries, she didn't care. He had suffered, but so had Elizabeth and at his hand. There was no time like the present to start a change.
"She looks too much like Emma." Pain etched lines around his eyes and mouth.
Sympathy shared the space with her disgust. He was in pain but his behavior could not be ignored. "And quite a lot like you too, Markus. She is a smart child and she needs you."
Tugging at his badly tied cravat, he pulled it loose. "You have been here not twenty minutes. How do you know she's smart?" Phoebe sat on the edge of the monstrous desk. "Your daughter is two years old and has not spoken, yet she clearly understands what is said to her."
He sat up. "Has not spoken?"
It took a force of will not to rail at him for being so self-absorbed he didn't know his child was mute. "According to your staff, Elizabeth does not speak. I think that is a sign of her intelligence."
"To be so filled with sorrow at her age that she chooses not to speak to anyone means she understands a great deal of what is happening in her world. Perhaps she has nothing to say in a world that left her without a mother and a father."
Staring down at his hands in his lap he nodded.
One scratch at the door and it opened. Elizabeth ran several steps into the room, stopped and stared at her father.
Softening his expression, Markus looked up. "Come here, Elizabeth."
Elizabeth looked from him to Phoebe. She spotted the broken glass on the far side of the room and took a step back.
Phoebe smiled. "It's all right. Go to your father."
Going to one knee, Markus opened his arms.
Blinking, Elizabeth cocked her head before running into his embrace.
It was all Phoebe could do to keep from breaking down into sobs at the sight of father and daughter hugging. What had she gotten herself into? She must be mad. If Emma had not been her closest friend, she would have left Markus Flammel and his problems to someone else at Everton. Though, now that she'd seen Elizabeth, she wanted to see her happy.
Mrs. Donnelly watched from the doorway. She dabbed her eyes with her apron and sniffed back her tears.
Lifting Elizabeth, Markus sat in his chair and propped her in his lap. "I am sorry I have not been at home, Elizabeth. I promise to try to do better."
Elizabeth put her palm on his cheek and father and daughter stared into each other's eyes.
Excerpted from "A Lady's Honor"
Copyright © 2018 A.S. Fenichel.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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