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A South Landers Novel
By Virginia Taylor
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Virginia Taylor
All rights reserved.
South Australia, January, 1865
A warm, yeasty aroma wafted from the bread resting on the kitchen window ledge, making this the only compensation for being in the hottest room of the house. Garbed in the cook's second-best calico apron, Wenna Chenoweth sliced knobs of butter into a big white mixing bowl. Although a lady's maid wouldn't normally help the other servants, Wenna's employers kept their country house half-staffed during the summer sojourn into the Adelaide hills, and with a houseguest to cater for as well, Wenna had offered to make an almond cake.
Elsie, the scullery maid, glanced up shyly as she heaved a bag of sugar onto the table beside Wenna. "You've seen Miss Patricia's beau, Miss Chenoweth. What does he look like?"
Wenna used a cup to scoop and pour the sugar onto the butter. "I've only seen him from a distance, mind, but my impression of him is that he is very handsome. He dresses well."
"Rich, too, I suppose?" The trim gray-haired cook, Mrs. Green, dumped a load of washed vegetables onto the table.
Wenna considered her answer while she whipped her mixture of sugar and butter with a long wooden spoon. "Would that matter to the Brooks? What they want for Miss Patricia is class, and he is connected to our former governor, which makes him an English gentleman, or so Mrs. Brook said. I expect her father's money would be his lure."
"You're a one, you are." Mrs. Green laughed. Her gnarled fingers efficiently peeled the potato in an endless, almost transparent, length. "You don't want Miss Patricia to hear you talking like that, not when she's already got it in for you."
"She thinks finding fault is indispensable to a lady, but a real lady treats her servants with respect." Or so Wenna's mother had said, and she had been employed as the personal maid to a countess back in the old country, Cornwall, that she had taught Wenna to call home.
"I don't know why she treats you like dirt under her heel. You've gotta be one of the hardest workers I've met. Not too many lady's maids would take on all the extras you do."
"It's the extras that make my job interesting." The extras made Wenna's job bearable. She had risen to the top of her profession because she could read, match hairstyles to hats, gowns to jewelry, cook, run a household, and shut her mouth when need be. Her parents had never expected her to end up in service, but her parents had also not expected to die young.
"I s'pose you're right. Doesn't do a body no good to be too specialized, not if a body is planning to marry one day." The cook winked at her.
"When I find the right man, Mrs. Green." Wenna cracked two eggs into her bowl.
The cook stared at her, her bright brown eyes twinkling with humor. "Shouldn't be too hard. Just look around you. There's more men than women in this colony, and any man would snap up a smart woman like you."
Wenna smiled, hoping she looked flattered, but only in her dreams would a woman with skin that blotched like a bullfrog's in the sun, and shocking, bright red, frizzy hair attract the sort of man she would accept — a man with brains and ability, one who would work alongside her to better himself.
Light momentarily flooded the room as the back door opened. "Miss Chenoweth?" One of the men hired locally to help in the garden stood staring hopefully at Wenna. "Mrs. Brook sent me for you. Something about Miss Patricia's hat."
"What about her hat?" Wenna beat her egg-and-butter mixture into a frenzy while she frowned at the man.
"Dunno. S'pose she wants you to fix it."
She glanced at the almonds and flour on the table. "I wonder if she would rather have a readjustment to a hat, or cake for afternoon tea?"
The man laughed. "Reckon she'll get both."
"For the price of one." Sighing, Wenna wiped her hands and removed her apron. "I won't be long," she told the cook with a helpless shrug. "I'll be back in time to finish the cake, clean the house, sew a new gown, and repair the roof." She checked that she had the comb and the sewing kit in the little leather pouch she kept buckled around her waist, never knowing when she might be called.
"Likely you could do just that."
Wenna left the cook laughing, which pleased her. If she could learn to relax more often, people would grow to like her. Not too many in the household did because she was "uppity."
Her father had been a mine manager in Cornwall when he had married her mother, an educated lady's maid. He'd always said Wenna was just like her mother. He'd meant "ambitious" like her mother. In looks, Wenna didn't compare.
Her beautiful Mumma had convinced Da they would be better off in the south land, Terra Australis, where thick copper lodes had been discovered. "A better life to bring up our children," she'd said, but she'd only produced one girl, much to Da's disappointment. Nevertheless, he had insisted Wenna have the education he would have provided a full house of sons.
In this new land, each man was as good as his work, and Wenna's work was superb. She'd made each of her mistresses into the stepping-stones of her ambition. Now twenty-six years old, and at the peak of her profession, she could only better herself by working for herself, which she planned to do as soon as she found a few more potential clients. She had an idea that might make her enough money to achieve her aim, which was to go back to Cornwall wealthy enough to be of use to her elderly grandparents.
She followed the gardener through the sun-dappled orchard to the scythed open grassland behind, where gentlemen in white stood dotted in various positions while playing their cricket match. The beautifully clad ladies sat in grouped chairs along the sidelines, guarding picnic baskets and stone bottles of ginger beer. In the paddocks beyond, tall gums stirred lazily in the heat.
The hollow knock of the ball sounded as the fair gentleman, the house-guest meant for Miss Patricia, swung his bat high. He ran, and even the leg pads he wore couldn't make him look clumsy. His effortless strides took him to the other wicket and back again before the ball was returned to the bowler by another gentleman. Wenna would have liked to stay and watch, but Miss Patricia was making hastening movements with her arm.
"My hat was dislodged, and now my hair is a mess," she said as Wenna reached her side. But for her pouting discontented mouth, she would have been very pretty, endowed as she was with thick brown hair and large brown eyes. "Don't dawdle. You've wasted enough time."
"Don't be ungracious, darling," Mrs. Brook, Wenna's mistress, said to her daughter. "It's unbecoming."
Since birth, Miss Patricia had been indulged with every luxury, her father having made his fortune in the colony's first building boom. With a flick of her head, she ignored her mother and dragged Wenna by the arm to a chair at the end of the row.
"Would you like me to fix your hat back on your head, or fix your hair?"
"Both, you stupid creature."
Miss Daphne Grace, a pretty young lady who invariably dressed in too many frills and flounces, turned, apparently surprised by Miss Patricia's words. Miss Patricia batted her lashes, and Miss Grace redirected her attention to her friend, an understated, dark-haired beauty. Most of the young ladies in the colony knew each other and attended the same functions. Wenna doubted that any would recall who she was, but she always remembered the names of the well-connected. In her profession, politeness and a scrupulous reputation were essential.
"Carefully, Chenoweth. Stand in front of me. I don't want the gentlemen to see my hair on end."
Dutifully, Wenna moved in front. While on holidays in the country, she "did for" the daughter as well as the mother. "I brought my comb. I'll have this fixed in no time." She removed the hastily placed hatpins from Miss Patricia's smart blue hat and put the creation on the lady's lap.
Miss Patricia tapped her foot while Wenna combed sections of the lady's enviable hair, re-pinning the loose curls. Satisfied, she stood back and placed the young lady's hat precisely. "Now you look perfect again," she said with a pleasant nod.
"You're so slow today." Miss Patricia checked her hair with her hand. "I'm sure you dawdle around just to annoy me. I hope you didn't do anything too fussy. My hair is my crowning glory."
"You're very lucky, Miss Patricia. If I could do my own as simply, I would be the happiest woman in the colony."
Miss Patricia cast disdainful eyes over Wenna's lace cap, which hid most of her tightly braided, densely packed hair. "The way you wear yours completely out of sight is suited to your position. It doesn't do for the maid to imitate the mistress."
Wenna nodded, hoping the fair young giant didn't need Miss Patricia's money. She was, without a doubt, a very unpleasant young woman.
"If you've finished with my hair, check the fall of my gown, would you?" Miss Patricia said in her loud, over-privileged voice. She stood.
With a critical eye, Wenna rearranged the loops at the back of the pink crinoline so that when Miss Patricia sat, the skirts would fan around her.
"You've done well, Chenoweth. You may go."
Wenna inclined her head and turned, only to be stopped by Mrs. Brook at the other end of the row of chairs.
"Thank you," her elegant mistress said in a low voice. Under Wenna's tutelage, Mrs. Brook had become one of the most stylish ladies in the colony. "Daphne Grace tried to help her, but she couldn't do a thing with her hair, and then Patricia starting making such a fuss that I thought she might not be showing herself to her best advantage. You have an efficient way, Chenoweth, of smoothing out situations."
Wenna smiled. "Or at least smoothing out hair. I'm glad I could help."
Unfortunately, her mistress' gratitude didn't abate Wenna's irritation about being told that she was only a maid, when she was a lady's maid, and her position didn't call for her to hide her ugly hair. If she chose, she could leave off her silly frill of a cap. She glanced one last time at the fair cricketer who was standing with his bat waiting for the bowler to run up, knowing handsome young gentlemen would never be part of her world. Her cake awaited.
Already pulling off her cap, which she decided she would never wear again, she reached the slatted gate of the orchard. With her tight arrangement now disturbed, some of her pins had loosened, and the long plait of her hair unfurled down her back. Using her fingers as a comb, she loosened the braiding and shook out the frizz of her hair in defiance. Behind, she heard the shout of male voices yelling, "Out, out," and she glanced back.
The young gentleman walked to the closest wicket, trailing his bat along the grass, a big smile on his handsome face. "Thank you, Worthing," he called as he walked. "I'll bowl you out when your turn comes."
The auburn-haired man holding the ball laughed. The guest passed his bat to another man, fixed his gaze on Wenna, and starting walking in her direction. She stood transfixed, not knowing what he might want of her. Her first thought was to pretend she hadn't noticed and go on her way, but he was staring straight at her and coming closer with each step.
"Do you need me for anything, sir?" she asked before he got too close. His cricket whites and light hair contrasted with his golden tan.
"I'm parched. Could you lead me to a gallon of cool water?"
The color of his hair reminded her of Da's, and her heart constricted. Her father, the big, blond Cornishman, had been crushed during a mine cave-in. Always frail, her mother had died soon after, leaving Wenna to fend for herself from the age of thirteen. But fend she had. In the thirteen years since, Wenna had worked her way from being a kitchen helper in the mining town of Clare, to being a lady's maid in a wealthy urban household.
In two paces, he stood beside her. She glanced up at him, watching his gaze travel over the untamed outlines of her hair. His expression said that he, unlike everyone else, didn't find a frizzed mass of bright red appalling. He lifted a hand, wound a spiral around one finger, and smiled down at her.
She stepped back, jerking her head away, her cheeks heating. He wasn't her father, but a stranger taking liberties, as gentlemen liked to do, though not usually with prickly Wenna. "Water. Yes. In the kitchen."
A flock of lorikeets swooped into the orchard, their bright red-and-green plumage blending into the leaves, which trembled as they searched for ripening pears.
Wenna stiffened her spine. The man was a golden god with a straight nose and a perfectly chiseled jaw, and he strolled beside her as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a handsome young gentleman to accompany a spinsterish tongue-tied maid through an orchard.
"I'm Devon Courtney," he said in a cultured voice, staring at her with a question in his eyes. He had the thickest brown eyelashes she'd ever seen, and stark clear blue eyes. His hair shone dappled white in the orchard.
Her pulse quickened, and she lost the thread of her voice. "I'm Mrs. Brook's maid."
"Is that Cornwall I hear in your accent?"
"Is it? I don't know."
"It sounds like Cornwall." He rolled his words with a lilt like Da's. "Do you have a name? I can't call you 'maid.'"
"Wenna." She should have said "Miss Chenoweth." She should have kept her hair confined.
"Wenna. Definitely Cornwall."
"My parents came from Cornwall. I might have picked up their speech."
"No doubt about it, lass." He stood, blocking her way, glancing from her hair to her mouth. If he wasn't trying a line with her, she didn't know the ways of the gentry.
Her insides tickled in reaction to his scrutiny. No young man before had shown such blatant interest, but no sensible maid would be foolish enough to be flattered by his attention. His sort would see a working-class woman as a mere diversion, a quick tumble to be forgotten in a second. "You said you wanted water."
"Indeed, I do need cooling off," he said with a mischievous smile as he stepped aside.
She slowly let out her breath and marched on, not about to let him see her confused reaction.
He followed her into the kitchen, compounding her acute embarrassment. "This is Mr. Courtney," she said to the cook, breaking the thick silence of the servants in the room. "He wants a cool drink of water."
"If it's not too much trouble." He smiled at Mrs. Green. "If it is, just direct me to the pump, for I'm sure I need to wet my head as well to completely cool down."
Mrs. Green finally closed her jaw. "Just out from the old country, are you, sir? Takes some time to get used to the heat."
He laughed. "I'm not a very new chum. I've been here two years now. You must take into account I've been playing a very strenuous game of cricket and make allowances for that." He flashed a wide complicit smile at Wenna.
She didn't know if he was a natural-born flirt, or if he was looking for an easy conquest. However, he had charmed Mrs. Green and impressed the scullery maid, and his resemblance to Wenna's father had almost torn her heart from her chest. If he meant to charm her, too, he would have quite a road to go, making a wasted trip, for he would not take a lady's maid in marriage. Anything else she would not consider.
She crossed her arms while she watched him gulp down a pint of water, wipe his sleeve across his mouth, and smile at a room full of new admirers. He nodded at her, then left through the back door.
"You're right. Miss Patricia will be lucky to get that one," Mrs. Green said after the door had closed. "My, did you see those shoulders?" She glanced at Wenna.
"He talked, Mrs. Green. I barely glanced at him." Wenna realized she'd been holding her breath. Yes, she had seen those shoulders and she had seen those eyes. She could allow herself a moment of envy of Miss Patricia, whose papa could buy her almost any husband she wanted.
Wenna squared her shoulders and took up her basin and wooden spoon. She couldn't buy a husband, but she wouldn't want one she could buy. She made cakes as well as she styled hair. Taking into account her spotless reputation, she would always have well-paid employment. She didn't need a husband. She could support herself.
* * *
Devon Courtney duly took his opportunity to bowl out all his friends, some of whom had lost their competitive edge. Devon hadn't lost his yet, nor the interest of parents with daughters. He'd accepted Waldo Brook's invitation to the country cricket match and the weekend stay, although aware that Waldo had an eye to marrying off his only child. The fortune that came with Patricia Brook would endear her to Devon's father, but she was a vain nineteen-year-old who didn't have a word to say that wasn't about her.
At this stage of his life, Devon wanted little more from a woman than an enthusiastic tumble. He should have politely fobbed off the invitation, but his friend Anthony Hawthorn had recently married and decided to entertain his new bride elsewhere, which left Devon's accommodation open to change. Keen on the game of cricket and, unlike the others, happy to make up the numbers on either team, Devon therefore accepted the first invitation he received — that of Waldo Brook.
Excerpted from Wenna by Virginia Taylor. Copyright © 2016 Virginia Taylor. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Only a few books come along in an avid readers life that you feel like youve read a Classic. This the second author from Australia that I have read and fallen in love with. These books are the ones that you cant wait to see what happens, but slown down because you dont want it to end. BRAVO Ms Taylor. CB
This is a new author to me and i look forward to reading more of her books. The Australian setting was great and I loved the characters.