Chapter OneDevon, England
Like the finest silk threads twisted and crossed to form a net of gossamer lace, Anne Webster's plan had to be executed perfectly or it would unravel into a thousand strands. The seedcake must be steaming, the ripe quinces baked to perfection, the tea piping hot. The Limoges cup and saucer must gleam in shades of blue and gold on the black lacquer tray. Every facet of the silver teapot must reflect the fire crackling on the grate. Nothing could be out of order, for this afternoon Alexander Chouteau, son of the Duke of Marston, was taking tea alone.
A shaky breath clouded the creamer Anne took down from the Welsh cupboard at the back of the large, dimly lit kitchen. Lifting the hem of her apron, she buffed the silver vessel. She must not tremble when she poured Sir Alexander's milk. Her voice must not quaver when she offered the sugar. Above all, she must remember to shut the door behind her when she went in. If anyone heard her speaking to him ... if anyone knew what she had planned ...
"Anne, do stop your dawdling." Mrs. Smythe slid a dish of baked fruit down the slick boards of the scrubbed pine worktable. The glass clinked as it hit the tea tray. "Sugar those quinces, and be quick about it. I shall not have Mr. Errand screeching at me because the tea was late and His Grace complained at it being tepid. The duchess cannot bear cold toast, and you certainly know how their son demands punctuality."
"Of course, Mrs. Smythe." Anne glanced at the pink-cheeked cook and wondered what the portly woman would do if she knew about the roll of delicate Honiton lace tucked into the pocket of her housemaid's dress.
Mrs. Smythe must never know. If she found out, Anne would be forced to sell her work to the laceman who came out in his chaise every month from London. The long, narrow panel of lace had taken her three months to design, its pattern two months to prick onto parchment, and its silk threads another ten months to weave with her pillow and bobbins.
In France, where it was illegal to own lace, such a panel would be worth a king's ransom. Even in London, the laceman could sell her work for a small fortune, though he would pay her only a fraction of its value. Thus she had designed the pattern for the Chouteau family alone, praying that her plan would succeed. Into this bit of lace she had woven her future.
Quickly Anne took the nippers and broke several lumps from the hard sugar cone. She slipped one lump into her pocket as a treat for Theseus, the duke's mastiff; then she sprinkled a spoonful of sugar crystals across the peeled quinces.
Dear God, she lifted up in a swift and silent prayer, please let these satisfy Sir Alexander's exacting tastes.
As she carried the dish across the kitchen, the chill of the black-and-white-tiled floor crept through her thin slippers and around her ankles. Her toes ached. She had been on her feet since before dawn, and she would work at Slocombe House until the last dinner plate was cleared and washed that evening. In between, she must pray that the duke's son would have the temper to listen to an impertinent, headstrong housemaid, that he would have the patience to inspect her length of Honiton, and that he would have the wit to realize the value of the lace.
As she set the dish of quinces on the tea tray, Anne squeezed her eyes shut. Lord and Father above, this is my only hope, she reminded Him. God already knew her dire predicament, of course, but she felt it behooved her to call it to His divine attention one more time. If Sir Alexander paid her even half the market value of the Honiton, she would have enough money to quit her position at Slocombe House and return to her family's home in Nottingham. She could hire a barrister to secure her father's release from prison and save her sisters from the mills.
Satan's workshops, her father called the drafty, machine-filled buildings with their deafening clatter and sooty windows. The mills, he had preached in more than one sermon, caused women to sicken and children to die early deaths. As the eldest child in the Webster family, Anne knew that what her father said was true, and she had supported his association with the Luddites even though their activities had landed him in prison.
Now the family's only hope rested in her hands. Could a length of lace, more air than thread, be their salvation? Anne swallowed at the gritty lump in her throat. It had to.
"Head in the clouds, as usual," the cook huffed as she bustled past with a plate of steaming cinnamon and currant scones. "Have you remembered to put tea in the pot, Anne?"
"Yes, Mrs. Smythe."
"She probably put in coffee." Sally Pimm, the first kitchenmaid, eyed Anne as she sifted salt into a copper pot of soup on the stove. In the scullery a cluster of maids giggled at the notion while they scoured stewpans, colanders, and utensils.
"Will not Sir Alexander be surprised," Sally continued, "if he sips up a mouthful of coffee when he is expecting his afternoon oolong?"
"No more than when his oxtail soup tastes as though it were made with water from the English Channel," Anne returned.
Mrs. Smythe's wooden spoon cracked across Sally's knuckles, and she let out a shriek.
"Have mercy!" Sally cried.
"Then stop your chatter and pay heed to the supper, girl! Shall we all be tossed out on our ears thanks to your heavy hand with the salt? Have this as a reminder!"
Forcing herself to turn a deaf ear on Sally's wails as the cook added another whack for good measure, Anne laid a starched cloth over the tray and set the tea things on it. She knew the kitchenmaid was envious of her position. Under normal circumstances, Anne would have joined the staff as a scullery maid. After several years, she might have worked her way up to second kitchenmaid, first kitchenmaid, and then, possibly, cook.
Circumstances were not normal. After the Luddite riots and her father's subsequent imprisonment in Nottingham, Anne had journeyed by coach to the south of England. In London, she had found a position at Trenton House on Cranleigh Crescent in the tony Belgravia district. Hired as a housemaid, she displayed a wit and propriety that soon elevated her to the station of lady's maid to the widowed homeowner's sister, Miss Prudence Watson. Not long afterward, Lady Delacroix had returned from a sea voyage to the Far East. When the young, wealthy baroness took up residence in Trenton House once more, Anne became her trusted assistant and companion.
In that position, Anne had hoped she might earn enough money to pay for a legal defense for her father. But it was not to be. To the shock of London society, Lady Delacroix fell deeply in love with a common tea tradesman. Their winter wedding stripped her of her title-though not her immense fortune-and she was now known simply as Mrs. Charles Locke. Sadly, she had informed Anne that their association could not continue, for she intended to travel with her husband. He had formed a partnership with two men, one of whom was Sir Alexander. Because of this relationship between the two families, Mrs. Locke had penned a glowing referral that led to Anne's joining the staff of Marston House, also on Cranleigh Crescent.
Despite Mrs. Locke's commendation of the clergyman's daughter, the housekeeper at Marston had intended to put Anne into the kitchen, until Mr. Errand intervened.
"Look at the girl, Mrs. Davies," the butler had intoned, one bushy white eyebrow arching as he inspected the newcomer. "With that face she will be wasted in the kitchen. She has kept all her teeth, her eyes are clear, and though she is no great beauty, she has a certain grace to her carriage. The letter from Mrs. Locke indicates she may have a measure of wit, as well. Put her in the house, and you will please His Grace, for you know the duke despises the fishermen's daughters we normally get."
Anne had been given a position in the grand home, though she was once again a housemaid and earning very little. While most of the ton went to London for the spring social season and thence to the beach for the summer, the Duke of Marston preferred Slocombe, his country house in Devon. And in March, he went there with his wife, his younger son, and most of his staff, Anne included.
Not long after their arrival, however, word came that Miss Prudence Watson had fallen prey to a nervous malady and would benefit from a sojourn away from the city. The duke and his wife insisted she be brought to them at Slocombe, and once again, Anne had the pleasure of waiting upon her as a lady's maid. Anne attended solely to Miss Watson's needs except on Saturday afternoons. On that day, Miss Watson kept to her rooms to write letters, the footmen took their leave, and Anne was given the honor of serving tea to Sir Alexander.
A knock sounded on the door. "Now what?" Mrs. Smythe mopped her forehead. "More charity? Sally, see to them."
"I beg your pardon, mum, but I am in the midst of beating eggs." The kitchenmaid shot a glance at Anne. "Perhaps Anne will do it, if she is not too proud."
"I should be happy to feed the poor if I had the time," Anne said, surveying the hungry men, women, and children who had gathered around the door that led from the kitchen. She could so easily be one of them, and yet she had worked hard to improve her lot. Now she must press forward with her plan.
Touching the lump that was the roll of lace hidden in her pocket, she lifted her chin. "Sir Alexander-"
"Do it now, Anne, and quickly," the cook cut in. "We cannot have them loitering about and gawking at us. The leavings are in a stew pot by the back door."
"But the tea. The duke's son-"
"Ooh, she is in a hurry to be off," Sally Pimm taunted. "Have you an assignation with Sir Alexander today, Miss Webster?"
Anne's cheeks went hot. "He is awaiting his tea."
The cook gave a snort. "Tend the charity first. His Grace's tea has just gone up to the library, where he is meeting with the vicar. The duchess is in the drawing room with two ladies from church, and I am sending theirs now. Sir Alexander's scones will not be ready for five minutes." She pointed her spoon at the door. "See to them, or I shall have to tell Mrs. Davies of your impertinence."
Anne grabbed a ladle. "Yes, Mrs. Smythe."
As she hurried past Sally Pimm, the kitchenmaid smirked. "Do not dirty your apron now, Anne. They say Sir Alexander likes his girls pretty, unsullied, and clean. You must try to please him on at least one count."
"Sir Alexander admires respectful manners and silence," Anne retorted. "That is why his attendant at tea today is I and not some other."
In the scullery, Anne stacked clean bowls and spoons in which to ladle the leavings. She must ignore Sally and hurry. Trying to steady her fingers, she loaded a tray with the dishware and carried it back into the kitchen.
The poor of Tiverton village watched her, eyes shining with hope in their dirt-darkened faces. How could she think only of her own plans when such people were starving around her? Yet she must not let her father go on languishing in prison. And what of her sisters?
"Thank ye kindly, miss." An elderly man tipped his battered hat as she filled a bowl with leavings and handed it to him.
"God bless the duke." A man with no teeth gave her a smile. "And God bless the duchess."
Hurrying down the row of outstretched hands, Anne ladled meat and other scraps from the large pot. Quickly now, quickly. In all the months she had served Sir Alexander, this would be his first Saturday to take tea alone. Her only chance to speak with him! If she were late with the tea, he would be in a foul mood and would send her away at once.
"Thanks." A little girl looked up, her tiny face pinched and white as she wrapped one arm around her full bowl. "Be ye an angel from heaven, then?"
"I am but a housemaid, my dear." Unable to resist the child's sweet expression, Anne dug from her pocket the lump of sugar she had saved for Theseus and tucked it into the little one's hand. "There you are. A gift from the duke himself."
The girl turned the lump one way and another. "What is it?"
Anne could hardly imagine she had never seen sugar. "Put it into your mouth."
The child eyed the gift for a moment, then she gingerly placed the small lump on her tongue. "Mmm." Her eyes drifted shut. Long lashes fanned her cheeks. A smile spread across her lips.
The door blew open in the March wind as yet another of Tiverton's needy slipped into the kitchen. Anne took little notice. She knelt before the ragged girl and grasped her sparrow-thin hands.
"For this moment, you are a duchess," she said softly. "In your mouth is the taste of Christmas plum pudding, black currant ice cream, treacle, and Turkish delight. You are dressed in a gown of fine green silk caught up with rosettes of pink ribbon. At your neck is gathered a length of the most exquisite Pointe d'Angleterre lace. Your hair is braided, looped, and curled. Your skin is scented with fragrant heliotrope."
"Now that is a good 'un," a man said with a laugh. "She smells more like coal dust, I should think."
"Hush!" A woman gave him a sharp elbow. "Do not spoil it."
Anne watched the little girl drift in the vision she had created. "White gloves slide up your fingers and over your arms, all the way to your elbows. You have in your possession a lace fan figured with tiny Chinamen trotting across a footbridge. On your feet you wear thin slippers of emerald green kidskin. Pale mint ribbons wind around your ankles. You dance like the wind; your voice sings as high and clear as a bird's; you can draw and stitch and play the pianoforte better than anyone in the realm. In short, my little one, you are the most enchanting duchess in all of England. That is the taste in your mouth. It is dreams."
"Coo!" The little girl's eyes popped open, and everyone chuckled as she threw her grimy arms around Anne's neck. "I almost thought it was true!"
"And well it should be." The man who had just tramped in from the street swept off his dusty hat and gave the child an elegant bow. "The Marquess of Blackthorne, dear little duchess." Then he turned to Anne and repeated the bow. "I am at your service, madam."
Though heavily bearded and scruffy, he possessed a pair of gray eyes that sparkled with fun. What could she do but curtsy in return? "Queen Anne, of course."
"Your Majesty, the pleasure is all mine." Before she could react, he took her hand and lifted her bare fingers to his lips. Warm in spite of the chill outside air, his mouth brushed across her knuckles, lighting a tingle that skittered up her arm. His mustache surprised her in its softness, and she jerked her hand away.
"I beg your pardon!"
"Lavender," he pronounced, straightening. "A clean scent, slightly astringent, with all the promise of spring. Very appropriate."
"I was putting up ... putting up the linens this afternoon." She shoved her hand beneath her apron. "Tucking lavender among the sheets."
Disconcerted more by her reaction than by the stranger himself, Anne filled a bowl with leavings and handed it to him. Never mind. She must put him aside. He was the last of the charity, and she had not yet heard Sir Alexander's bell. There was still hope. She started down the row again, this time collecting spoons and bowls.
"If yer going to play at peerage, ye will not want to be Blackthorne," the toothless man said to the tall newcomer. "They say the poor man be dead."
"Dead? Good heavens, how did it happen?"
"Met with an accident while traveling in America. Scalped by them red savages."
"Better him than Sir Alexander," a woman uttered in a low voice. "The marquess was nothing but a rogue, he was. Roved about the country, spent money like water through a sieve, sired babes everywhere he stopped, but could not be bothered to marry here at home and give the duke an heir."
"Good riddance to the blackguard," Anne affirmed. Then she added, "God rest his soul."
"Abominable, was he?" the stranger asked. "Well, the devil take him."
"I should never wish the forces of darkness upon anyone." She set a handful of spoons on her tray. "But an heir apparent has his duties. The Marquess of Blackthorne rightly should have seen to his father's duchy. He was said to wager large sums at cards, and he engaged in more than one duel. He was even known to attend glove matches."
"And bare-knuckle boxing, too," the toothless man confirmed. "If yer bound to play at royalty, man, be the duke. He is well loved by everyone."
"Ah, the Duke of Marston." The tall man turned to the housemaid. "Your Majesty, Queen Anne, be so good as to acquaint me with the health of the master of Slocombe House."
Stacking the used bowls on her tray, Anne tried to suppress her growing irritation with the dusty intruder. She had no time for games. "His Grace is well. He is taking tea in the library."