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The Grange, near the Peak District, Derbyshire, England
"He'll blow us all up this time, he will."
At the maid's prediction, Emma Pyrmont glanced up from where she'd set her charge's afternoon tea to steep. The scullery maid, laundress and chambermaids had their noses pressed to the glass of the Grange's wide kitchen window. Even Mrs. Jennings, their cook, was peering over their shoulders, her ample bulk blocking some of the summer sunlight.
"It's more like steam than smoke," the white-haired cook said with certainty born from experience.
"Looks more dangerous to me," argued Dorcus Turner. Even though Emma had only been working at the Grange for a few months, she'd noticed that the buxom chambermaid had an opinion on every subject. "I'll bet the master is coughing." She elbowed the laundress. "And there'll be more smelly clothes to wash, too."
Emma returned her gaze to the elegant teapot sitting in front of her on the worktable in the center of the kitchen. The curve of the silver gave back a reflection of her face, from her light blond hair to her pursed lips. It seemed she had an opinion on the matter, too, but she wasn't about to voice it. She had no business caring what her employer, Sir Nicholas Rotherford, did in his makeshift laboratory to the south of the Grange. It was not her place to rescue the master from his folly. In this house, her place was in the nursery.
And thank You, Lord, for that! You've kept Your promise to never forsake me, even when others haven't.
"You may be right," Mrs. Jennings said, and Emma could see her shifting this way and that as if trying for a better view. Her blue wool skirts and white apron brushed the worn wood floor. "Perhaps it is smoke. Come have a look, Miss Pyrmont, and tell us what you think."
Emma lifted the lid on the teapot and peered inside. Not quite therethe tea looked far too pale. And that meant she couldn't avoid the cook's request by claiming her duty. Biting back a sigh, Emma slid the lid into place and went to join the group by the window.
The Grange sat at the end of Dovecote Dale, with its back to the Derbyshire peaks and its front looking down the dale and the swirling waters of the River Bell. The house had been built of creamy stone in the last century and was a solid block with a portico at the front and a veranda at the back. She knew the master had turned one of the nearest stone outbuildings into some sort of laboratory where he conducted experiments, but she'd made it a point not to learn what sort and why.
Now she could see that gray smoke was seeping from under the wooden door. But a light gleamed through the paned windows, and a shadow of someone tall crossed in front of it. Whatever he was doing, Sir Nicholas did not appear to have taken any harm.
"It isn't dangerous," she promised the concerned onlookers. "You only need to worry if the smoke turns black."
The maids gaped at her as she returned to her tea.
"As if she'd know," Dorcus grumbled.
"An expert on smoke, are we now?" Mrs. Jennings challenged the maid. "Get about your duties, all of you, or you can be sure I'll bring the matter up with Mrs. Dunworthy."
The threat of Sir Nicholas's widowed sister-in-law, who had come to manage the household for him four years ago, sent them all scurrying from the kitchen. Emma breathed a sigh of relief. She had only caught a glimpse of her reclusive employer as she sat in the back pew for Sunday services and he sat near the front of the church. She rather liked keeping her distance. She was fairly certain he'd been a caller at the house where she'd lived in London, and she didn't want him to wonder how she'd found her place working at the Grange. The fewer people who knew about her background, the better. She couldn't risk her foster father learning where she'd gone.
But Mrs. Jennings did not seem disposed to let the matter go. She walked over and laid a hand on Emma's shoulder, the touch surprisingly light for an arm so large and capable.
"Very clever of you, miss," she murmured. "How did you learn about smoke?"
Emma smiled at her. Though she couldn't remember her grandmothers, she thought Mrs. Jennings a perfect example. The thick strands of her white hair were tucked neatly into her lace-edged cap. Her brown eyes often twinkled with merriment. From her round face to her wide feet, she exuded warmth and affection. Mrs. Dunworthy might run the household now, having displaced Mrs. Jennings's once-larger role, but everyone knew the cook was the heart of the Grange.
Still, Emma couldn't tell Mrs. Jennings the truth about her past. Mrs. Dunworthy had insisted the matter remain between her and Emma. The lady thought Sir Nicholas might take offense if he knew his daughter was being cared for by a woman who had had an unconventional upbringing.
"I had foster brothers who experimented," Emma told the cook, knowing that for the truth. Of course, they hadn't experimented because it amused them, as it probably amused a gentleman like Sir Nicholas. They had had no choice in the matter.
"Ah, so you understand this business of natural philosophy!" The cook leaned closer with a satisfied nod. "I thought as much. I've had my eye on you, Miss Pyrmont, ever since you joined this household. You see, we have a problem, and I think you're just the one to solve it."
Emma busied herself adding a bowl of lumped sugar to the tray she would carry to the nursery. Sugar and tea had been kept under lock and key where she'd been raised, but Mrs. Jennings was more generous about who was allowed access to the costly goods.
"I'm always happy to help, Mrs. Jennings," she told the cook as she worked.
"I know you are. You've been a real blessing to this family. Wait a moment." She hurried to the larder and back and set a plate on the tray with a flourish. "Here. I baked you and Miss Alice the biscuits you both like so much."
Emma grinned at the cinnamon-sugar treats. "Thank you! Alice will be delighted. Now, how can I help you?"
She glanced up to find Mrs. Jennings back at the window again, this time with a frown.
"It's Sir Nicholas," she murmured, more to the view than to Emma. "He's lonely, you know. That's why he spends so much time out there."
Emma thought more than loneliness motivated her employer. She'd seen the type beforemen whose work drove them until family, friends and even faith had little meaning. That was not the sort of man she wanted near her. She lifted the lid on the teapot again and was relieved to see that the tea was a rich brown. Time to take it to Alice.
"You could save him."
The lid fell with a chime of sterling on sterling. Emma hastily righted it. She could not have heard the cook correctly. "I should get this to Alice," she said, anchoring her hands on the tray.
Mrs. Jennings moved to intercept her. Concern was etched in her heavy cheeks, the downturn of her rosy lips. "He needs a wife. He doesn't move in Society anymore. He doesn't associate with the lords from the neighboring houses when they're in residence. How else is he to meet a marriageable miss?"
"Marriage?" The word squeaked out of her, and she cleared her throat. She had once dreamed of the sort of fellow she would marry, but she was beginning to think he didn't exist. That didn't mean she was willing to compromise her ideals.
"I am not a marriageable miss, Mrs. Jennings," she said, using her sternest tone. "I am Alice Rotherford's nanny. I like my post."
"But wouldn't you like to be mistress of this fine house instead?" Mrs. Jennings asked, head cocked as if she offered Emma another treat as delicious as her famous cinnamon-sugar biscuits. "To travel to London like a lady when he presents his work to those other philosophers in the Royal Society?"
Emma shook her head. "Mrs. Dunworthy is mistress of this house. And I have no need to see London again, I promise you."
"And sweet little Alice?" Mrs. Jennings pressed, face sagging. "Wouldn't you like to be her mama rather than her nanny?"
A longing rose up, so strong Emma nearly swayed on her feet. How sweet to see Alice beyond childhood, to guide her into her place in the world. Emma knew how some might try to minimize the girl, to stifle her gifts claiming she was merely a woman. She'd had to fight that battle for herself. She could protect Alice, help her achieve her dreams, whatever those might be.
But she'd known the restrictions of her job when she'd accepted the post. Nannies might be beloved by their charges, but they were often only useful until the governess or tutor arrived.
"I'm afraid I cannot help you in this instance, Mrs. Jennings," she said, lifting her tray and keeping it between them like a shield. "If you'll excuse me, I must see to my duties." She turned for the door, blocking her sight of the cook, the window and Sir Nicholas's pursuits.
A gasp behind her made her glance back, thinking the cook meant to plead. But Mrs. Jennings wasn't looking at her. The cook's gaze was once more out the window, and her plump hand was pressed to her mouth.
Dropping her hand, she turned anguished eyes to Emma. "You have to help him, miss. You're the only one who understands."
"I understand that I have a responsibility to Alice," Emma started hotly, but the cook shook her head so hard a few white curls fell from her cap.
"No, miss, your responsibility right now is to the master. You see, the smoke's turned black."
Out in his laboratory, Sir Nicholas Rotherford placed another damp cloth over the glowing wool and stepped back to cover his nose with the sleeve of his brown wool coat. Carbon always turned acrid. He knew that. He'd figured it out when he was eight and had burned his first piece of toast over the fire. He should have considered that fact before treating the wool and attempting to set it ablaze.
Now the smoke filled the space, and he could no longer even see the locks of black hair that tended to fall into his face when he bent over his work. His nose was stinging with the smell, and he shuddered to think what was happening inside his paisley waistcoat, where his lungs must be laboring.
But he had work to do, and nattering on about his health wasn't going to get it done.
Behind him, he heard footsteps on the marble floor he'd had installed in the old laundry outbuilding when he'd made it into his laboratory. No doubt his sister-in-law Charlotte had come to berate him again for missing some function at the Grange. She couldn't seem to understand that his work was more important than observing the social niceties.
Of course, it was possible she'd noticed the smoke pouring from the building and had come to investigate.
"It's all right," he called. "I have it under control."
"I'm certain the good Lord will be glad to hear that when you report to Him an hour from now in heaven," a bright female voice replied. "But if you prefer to continue carrying on this work here on earth, I suggest you breathe some fresh air. Now."
Nick turned. The smoke still billowed around him, made more visible by the light from the open doorway. He could just make out a slender female form and
He blinked, and the figure put out a hand. "Come along. You've frightened the staff quite enough."
It was a kind tone, a gentle gesture, but he could tell she would brook no argument, and he was moving before he thought better of it.
Once outside, he felt supple fingers latching on to his arm and drawing him farther from the door. The air cleared, and he sucked in a breath as he stopped on the grass closer to the Grange.
It was sunny. He could see the house, the planted oak forests on either side, the sweep of fields that led down the dale toward the other houses that speckled the space. Odd. He was certain it had been pouring rain when he'd set out for the laboratory that morning, the mists obscuring the peaks behind the buildings. How long had he been working?
"Take a deep breath," his rescuer said.
The advice seemed sound, so he did as she bid. The clean air sharpened his mind, cleared his senses. Somewhere nearby he thought he smelled lavender.
"Better?" she asked.
"Better," he agreed. His gaze traveled over her, from her sturdy black boots to her muddy brown eyes. She appeared to be shorter than he was, perhaps a little less than five and a half feet. What he'd taken as a halo was her pale blond hair, wound in a coronet braid around a face symmetrical enough to be pleasing. Her brown wool dress with its long sleeves and high neck hardly looked like heavenly apparel.
But then how could he be certain? He'd been avoiding thoughts of heaven and its Master for several months now.
"Who are you?" he asked.
She dipped a curtsey, but her pink lips compressed as if she found the question vexing. "Emma Pyrmont." When he continued to wait for clarification, she added, "Alice's nanny."
He eyed her and batted away a stray puff of smoke. "You're the new nanny?"
She raised her chin. "I have that honor, yes. Is there a problem?"
"No," he admitted, although he wondered at her tone. Was that a hint of belligerence? "I merely expected someone older."
"Mrs. Dunworthy was satisfied with my credentials," she said, chin a notch higher. Interestinghow high could a woman raise her chin without sustaining a neck injury? Not a topic he'd choose to pursue, but he might pass it on to one of his colleagues who specialized in anatomical studies.
"And I'm hardly new," she informed him. "I've been here three months."
Three months? He had lost touch. It felt more like three days since his sister-in-law had informed him that the previous nanny had quit. Nanny Wesling was one of many who had fled his employ after his reputation as a natural philosopher had been questioned, even though she'd initially moved to Derby with the family. He had never heard what she had found about the Grange to be so unsatisfactory.
Still, the young woman in front of him did not conform to his notion of a nanny. He would have thought the wisdom that came from age and the experience of raising children to be requirements. She looked too young, at least five years his junior. He also hypothesized that family connections or beauty would be lacking, as either could qualify a woman for an easier life as the wife of a well-situated man. While he could not know her family situation, that bright hair and smile would certainly allow her to make some claim to beauty. If she'd been dressed more like the young ladies of the ton, she would likely have found any number of young men eager to pursue her.
But she did not appear interested in pursuit. In fact, the way her foot was tapping at the grass, this lady already regretted looking in on him, as if she had far more important things to do than possibly save his life.
If she was Alice's nanny, he had to agree.
Alice! He glanced about, seeking the dark-haired head of his daughter. "Tell me you didn't bring Alice with you," he ordered.
She frowned at him. "Certainly not. I thought a four-year-old should be spared the inhalation of carbonic fumes." She shrugged. "Old-fashioned of me, I'm sure. Clearly you prefer it."
He should take umbrage, but she said it all with such a pleasant tone he could not argue. That trait alone probably made her an exceptional nanny.
He should find out.