arranging neck cloths, but like one who was at home in the saddle. He was unsmiling, his regular features handsome enough if you liked that sort of thing, she thought critically, watching from the side of the stairs. Then he saw her. Daisy frowned as a pair of deep blue eyes swept over her from head to foot in a comprehensive and very male assessment. Impertinent wretch! Her lips were parted as she almost spoke the set-down aloud, and then in the nick of time she remembered who and where she was.

Her teeth snapped shut, catching the tip of her tongue painfully. Eyes watering, Daisy stood in fulminating silence as the valet passed. And then he winked at her. Nothing else on his face moved except for that one lid, and then he was vanishing up the stairs, long legs taking them two at a time.

She had just been winked at by a valet. A valet! It was the outside of enough. And this would be just the start. She had half a mind to-

'This all there is, then?' Six foot of liveried footman was standing at her elbow. 'Where's yours?' She pointed to a pair of even more battered valises. His lip curled. 'Right, then. Jim, you take those up to miss's room in the North Turret and we'll take the others. For some reason,' he added over his shoulder as they climbed,

'your mistress has got the Pink Suite. Very nice, too. Seems a bit odd, though-one of the best suites in the place and she's no one much, is she? Still, I expect they've got their reasons.'

Yes, they have indeed, Daisy thought grimly as she followed. And it will take more than some pink suite to ensnare poor Penny in their plans if I've got anything to do with it. Impertinent upper servants and chilblains must be endured. This was all her own idea, but she knew who to blame for it. Oh, yes indeed. The Earl of Danescroft was going to regret the day he decided that Miss Maylin would make a conformable and grateful wife.


'Rowan, this is going to be ghastly!' Penelope cast herself down on the chaise and fumbled blindly in her reticule for a handkerchief. Her cheeks were unbecomingly flushed from the heat of the great fire and her eyes were suspiciously moist. 'Lord Danescroft is here, and he is even more forbidding close to than I ever dreamt.'

'You must call me, Daisy,' Rowan reminded her, casting an eye at the door. It was securely closed. 'Or Lawrence if you are going to pretend to be starchy. When did the Earl arrive?'

'Just before you went upstairs. I saw you waiting at the other end of the hall, and then they took your things up after his.' Penny blew her nose and looked around at the rose-pink draperies and the gilded furniture. 'What a beautiful room. Do you think they made a mistake, putting me here?'

'No, I think this is a room suitable for a young lady an earl is about to propose to,' Rowan said, provoking a little gasp from Penny. She put away the last of her friend's meagre store of silk stockings and turned to lift the lawn petticoats out of the valise. 'I did not see his lordship, but I have seen his valet, the impertinent wretch. He winked at me.'

That at least made Penny smile. 'Well, you do look very pretty. That severe hairstyle suits you. Let me help you with those; you shouldn't wait on me.' She reached for an unopened valise, but Rowan gave her a little push towards the chair.

'No, you must act the lady and forget who I really am. If anyone observes any undue familiarity-' There was a tap and the door opened. 'Ah, the tea-put it there, please.' Rowan gestured to the table beside Penny's chair and waited until the maid left with a bobbed curtsey. 'You see-you never know when they are going to pop up. Mind you, they gave me a very odd look when I asked for two cups.' She poured, handed Penny her tea, and sank down on the padded fender. 'Bliss.'

Penny was still looking miserable, even after two cups of tea. 'Lie down and rest,' Rowan ordered, 'and I'll shake out your evening things and put away your day clothes.'

By the time Penny was undressed and tucked up in bed, the simpler of the two evening dresses unpacked and hung up and the rest of the accessories laid out, Rowan was beginning to feel considerable sympathy for her own dresser, the unflappable Alice Loveday. She was used to finding everything to her hand, just when she needed it, but trying to recall exactly what Penny would need required more effort.

Done at last, she glanced at the clock-more than enough time to put away the day clothes and go to her own room and organise her modest wardrobe, before changing and coming down again to organise Penny's evening toilette.

'Oh, rats!'

'What?' Penny sat bolt upright in bed, eyes wide.

'Look at the hem of your pelisse! All muddy splashes. And your boots.'

'That was when I got out of the carriage,' her friend apologised. 'A stone slab tipped under my foot and sprayed up dirty water.'

'Oh, well. Time to explore below stairs,' Rowan said, feigning more confidence than she felt. Intensive study of the Maylins' servants' quarters in the company of Miss Loveday was not, she strongly suspected, going to be much help when confronted with the complexities of Tollesbury Court. Nor was her own experience very relevant. Her father's position with the diplomatic mission meant that they had a steward who dealt with every domestic detail, leaving Rowan to make final decisions on menus, flowers and draperies and very little else.

'I need the brushing room and the boot boy. I will not be long.' Fortunately she remembered to use the back stairs, emerging slightly dizzy from its tight twists into organised chaos below. After being comprehensively ignored for several minutes, Rowan stepped firmly in front of a footman, his arms clasped around two filled flower vases. 'Where will I find the boot boy?' she asked crisply.

'Back there-first on the left past the pantry,' he replied, blowing ferns away from his mouth.

After some false turns she located the pantry, then the boot boy in his cubbyhole, panting slightly as he leathered a pair of tall boots on a jack. 'These are for Miss Maylin, the Pink Suite. And where is the brushing room?'

This time she found her way more easily, having spotted some of the landmarks already. It was thankfully empty, so Rowan was able to turn up the lamps against the winter gloom and explore the racks of mystifying brushes and leathers until she found something that looked stiff enough to remove mud without damaging the nap of the cloth.

The tables were padded and covered with baize, so she selected one, laid out the pelisse and began to attack the hem. With all this equipment it was surely going to be the work of minutes.

Lucas strolled through the passageways, Will's buckskin breeches draped over his arm, receiving a gratifying amount of attention from the resident domestics. Below stairs, as above, status was everything, and he was an earl by association. It amused him that as a servant he'd acquired a higher rank than his own, and he allowed an amiable condescension to creep into his manner. If he were to engage his fellow staff in gossip about their employers, and specifically Miss Maylin, he needed to make a good impression: top lofty enough to demand answers to questions, pleasant enough so as not to cause resentment.

A housemaid with a pert manner and a dimple showed him to the brushing room, then bustled off with a swing of her hips and a backward glance over her shoulder. He was smiling faintly from the encounter as he stepped inside and saw the room was already occupied.

The young woman had her back to him, bent over the garment on a long table and presenting a vision which drove the memory of the housemaid right out of his mind. Slender, curvaceous, and clad in a dull black that served only to focus all attention on her figure, she had not heard him come in.

She was muttering under her breath as she brushed. Lucas suspected her words were curses, for she seemed to be more than a little hot and bothered. Her honey-brown hair had been braided and strained back into an elaborate knot but had begun to come down. Little wisps clung to the damp skin of her neck. He moved closer, his feet silent on the oilskin floorcloth.

'Damn and blast and botheration…'

It was a very pretty neck. He found himself transfixed by the nape, the tender white skin, the faint sheen of perspiration. What would it be like to bite? Just very, very, gently.

'Oh, drat!' She banged down the brush and straightened up so fast that she had to take a balancing step

Вы читаете A Mistletoe Masquerade
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