Authors: Michelle Diener
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #General
“We’ve been fattening Mavis up,” Iris said, and something in the way she said it made Gigi go very still.
If this was evidence of Mavis with more meat on her bones, she must have been a walking skeleton when she’d gotten here.
There’d been deep, cold anger in Iris’s voice, and she looked across at her. Their eyes met, and Gigi felt a sense of connection bloom, their mutual anger and horror at Mavis’s suffering binding them together.
“And his lordship?” she asked. “No complaints about him?”
Mavis blushed again and looked away, the red flush creeping up her neck and into her cheeks, hot against her too-pale skin. “No, Cook. Ever so nice to me he is.” There was a flash in her eyes, an almost secret delight as she spoke, and something stuttered in Gigi’s chest.
He couldn’t be taking liberties with her, could he? And using her complete lack of self-confidence to make her eager for it?
going on there.
Iris was sitting straighter, her eyes on Mavis as well, as if she had just seen what Gigi had. She turned her head to look at Gigi and an understanding flashed between them again.
They would get to the bottom of this.
Whether Mavis wanted them or not, she suddenly had two guardian angels, although Gigi would have wagered Iris had been watching out for her from the moment she arrived.
Edgars went up in her estimation as well, for taking on a starving, skeletal child. Mavis couldn’t have looked strong enough for the work when she came in. She hardly looked strong enough now.
Gigi stood and went into the kitchen, and at that moment Harry and Rob came down the stairs, laden with the used
dishes. They set them down and went to finish eating, calling rudely to Babs about how much flan was left for them.
Edgars came a few minutes later, a half-empty bottle of wine in one hand and the fruit plate in the other.
“His lordship is most pleased with the meal, Cook. Would you please go up and speak with him?”
She’d expected at least one meeting. And what better way to get a sense of whether he could be trusted than to speak with him herself?
“Of course,” she said, and straightened her apron, then lifted a hand to her hair to make sure it was still secure under her cap.
Iris had come into the kitchen, and as Edgars set down the wine and the fruit plate, she fetched his soup, which had been sitting near the fire to keep it warm, and handed it to him. Gigi saw his eyes widen in surprise.
“Most kind. Thank you, Iris.” He looked flustered, more human than usual. “Do you know the way, Cook?”
Gigi shook her head.
“I’ll show you,” Iris volunteered.
Gigi murmured her thanks and waited for Iris to precede her up the stairs.
And at last, the sense of playacting, of playing dress-up, left her. She had to be believable. She had to convince Lord Aldridge she was a French cook.
Her life might depend on it.
woman stepped through the door into the dining room, and Jonathan was suddenly at sea.
Dark hair, beautifully coiffed under a white cap, and strangely light, hazel-green eyes fringed with thick lashes. There was a flush of color under the cream of her cheeks, and she regarded him with the same intensity with which he was watching her, her head tilted to one side on a long, slender neck.
He had the impression of someone who knew how to dress well, but he could not drag his gaze from her face.
He had no context in which to evaluate her. She was in his dining room, looking directly at him, and all he could think was that he had seen her before.
She was familiar.
Some old, long-forgotten memory stirred in him, along with a slightly guilty yearning, but although he tried to pin it down, it slipped elusively from him and left him flat-footed.
Belatedly he rose and bowed, and felt the heat of a blush steal over his cheeks at his poor manners.
“My lord.” She curtsied and watched him with a cool, composed expression. Then she nodded toward the crystal cup that had held the dessert. “Mr. Edgars says you wish to speak to me?”
Jonathan looked from the cup to her, but he still refused to believe it. This could not be his cook. She was supposed to be old and plump and slightly grumpy. He was sure that was compulsory for cooks.
And yet, it could not be anyone else.
She nodded. And almost as if she sensed what he was thinking, her lips quirked in a quick smile.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a meal I’ve enjoyed that much. Thank you,
.” She curtsied again and then stood, hands clasped together, a growing tension about her.
“What was this called?” He lifted the crystal cup.
Sabayon au muscat
“Well, I can never have enough of it. When in doubt as to dessert, rest assured, you can call on this as a staple.”
She looked momentarily surprised, and then she laughed. It lit her expression, and the feeling of knowing her rose again.
“My lord, there are so many desserts to make, I will never be in doubt. But if you wish it again, merely say so to Edgars, and I will make sure you have it.”
“You are very young, Madame Levéel, to be so accomplished
a cook.” He said it as a statement, but there could be no question that he wanted some response from her.
He saw her brace herself, and wondered if it were because she had heard the comment before and was used to defending herself against it, or whether she was getting ready to lie.
She paused. “Thank you.”
No explanation. He admired her for her nerve.
“How did you come by your skills?”
She smiled. “The honest way, my lord. Through practice.”
Enjoying the game of squeezing water from a stone, he grinned back. “Where did you work before?”
She hesitated, and her ease seemed to drain out of her. “I have not worked as a cook before.”
He stared at her. “This is your first position as cook?”
She gave a nod. Then she looked about the room, and he would have thought her bored, if he hadn’t noticed her hands. They were gripping her white cotton apron as if it were her lifeline.
She must have worked somewhere. How else could she have received her training?
He wanted to ask her, but she would no longer meet his eye, and he had the strong sense she would rather be anywhere but here.
He was a man who relentlessly went after answers when he needed them. A man who didn’t trouble himself too much with manners and niceties if they got in his way. And here he was, absolutely unable to ask his own cook where she had learned her craft.
He shook his head in astonishment.
He wanted her to be at her ease with him more than he wanted resolution.
“Well, I won’t keep you from your kitchen anymore, Cook. Thank you again for a wonderful meal.”
She raised startled eyes to his and then smiled. It was a smile of such heartfelt gratitude, it was clear that she knew he could have asked more probing questions and had not. And that she was very glad of it.
A cold thought occurred to him. If he probed too much, she could simply leave and find another job.
She had held excellent references, Edgars had told him—another mystery—and she could walk into any job she chose. After eating at his club far too long, and after the meal he had just enjoyed, Jonathan didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize keeping her.
She held out her hand, and for a moment, he had no idea what she wanted from him. Her hand was small, delicate. She reached forward and took the crystal cup off the table, and he felt a fool. He had almost taken it to kiss it, while all Madame Levéel had had in mind was washing the dishes.
If cooks actually washed dishes. He had a feeling the maids did the washing up.
And had he ever been this much of a lump? Who washed the dishes had never crossed his mind before tonight.
She started to turn and then changed her mind, stopping to look him boldly in the eye.
“Mavis,” she said.
“Mavis?” He scrambled to keep up.
“What secret do you share with her?”
He blinked. “Secret? Oh! The bonbons.”
She kept her gaze on him. Steady.
“She’s too thin. And I don’t really like bonbons, but my aunt sends them to me anyway. So I give them to Mavis, a few at a time. But I know Edgars wouldn’t approve, so I told her it was our little secret.”
“Ah.” She gave a pleased nod, and there was a definite quality to it, as if she had decided on something important. “Good evening, my lord.”
As she walked from the room, slim, diminutive, with the figure and bearing of a lady, he finally understood Edgars’ demeanor the day he’d hired her.
Just like she’d done to his butler, his cook had picked him up like a bottle of champagne and shaken him vigorously, and now, at last back down on his feet, he could only stumble about, ready to explode.
It was a sensation he suddenly craved again.
he did remember him. Or she remembered an impression of him.
How could she forget? She had thought him the most handsome man she’d ever seen. Tall, with dark blond hair, his shoulders so wide and his eyes so blue.
He had changed enough she would never have known him out of context. He was a lot taller now, and bulkier—more
muscled. A man in his late twenties, not a boy of seventeen. But at the time she had been only ten, and he had seemed like a man to her then. A man with eyes only for her mother.
Despite everything—her mother’s death, her father’s murder—the thought of him, that long-ago day, making calf eyes at her mother, along with his father and older brother, made her lips twitch. She had been quite invisible. Not one of the Aldridge men had even known she existed, despite her mother’s attempts to draw her into the conversation.
Seeing him again brought back the memory, as clear as if it had just happened, and that was getting rarer as time moved on. She was grateful and delighted.
Her mother had claimed the limelight, as she should, but even when she’d all but placed Gigi on her lap to keep her included, the viscount and his two sons had had eyes for no one else.
Gigi and her mother had giggled like schoolgirls about it on their short walk home, about how the three men, father and sons, had vied for her mother’s attention.
“One day it will be you,
, who will have the men fighting each other to hand you cakes and give you cups of tea. One day all too soon.” Her mother had stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head, holding her close with one arm.
It was the last time they went out to tea together. Her mother had fallen ill the following week, and the worst six months of Gigi’s life had begun.
At least she could be sure that Lord Aldridge would have
no recollection of her. He wouldn’t even remember she’d been present that day.
She sighed as she took the stairs down to the kitchens. He certainly knew she existed now. And she knew he was suspicious of her. For the time being, he’d respected the wall she’d flung up between them, but it might not last.
She would have to keep a low profile. Become invisible, hiding in her new domain.
She stepped into the kitchen to find Babs and Mavis drying and putting the dishes away while Iris washed them.
The kitchen looked much cleaner than it had this morning, and she gave a nod, rolling her shoulders to loosen the knot of tension that had settled in her upper back. “
She handed the crystal cup to Babs and started making the dough for tomorrow morning’s brioche, ignoring the interested looks of the girls, who were obviously desperate to know how her talk with his lordship had gone.
She was in a strange situation. Edgars had said there wasn’t enough for the maids and footmen to do, with so much of the house closed up, so she could have their help as she needed it. It meant they would have two masters, herself and Edgars.
She couldn’t get too friendly with them, if she had to give them orders. But she didn’t want to live in isolation, a fierce dictator like Georges.
The sound of the front door closing came from the floor above—his lordship going out for the night.
And for the first time since dinner began, Gigi let herself relax. She worked the dough and then set it in a bowl near the fire for the first rise.
“You’re not going to make the bread now, are you?” Iris asked, and Gigi looked up to see she was the only one left in the kitchen, putting away the last of the pots.
“No. It needs a first, quick rise in the warmth, then I’ll punch it down and set it in the cold store to rise again slowly, overnight.”
Iris gave a nod. She moved toward the passageway that would take her to the servants’ staircase, up to her room at the very top of the house, but slowly, as if she was working up the nerve to say something before she left. “About Mavis.” She stopped and bit her lip.
“It’s all right.” Gigi waved a floury hand in her direction. “I should have realized it involved food, the way she attacked her dinner.”
“Wot?” Iris frowned.