Serena’s reputation as a dangerous woman with underworld connections played a much larger role in my early drafts. Here are two small scenes in which Solomon eavesdrops on gossip and fails to learn anything of value.
Solomon woke at eight o’clock, not at all refreshed. Serena, he knew, must be already awake and dealing with business, and he wanted to see her. Within twenty minutes he was dressed and on his way to her office.
He brushed past a knot of young men lounging on the stairs and turned the corner just as one of them said, “How’d a Ravenshaw end up a highflyer anyway?”
Solomon couldn’t help himself. He stopped and listened avidly.
“Blackthorne found out she wasn’t his daughter at all and tossed her out, of course,” one said.
“Gammon, she looks just like the old bugger,” said another. “I heard she seduced her mother’s lover.”
“You’re all miles off,” said a third. “Everyone knows it was her governess she seduced. My sister told me she made improper advances to half the girls at Parkinson’s Finishing School.”
Profound silence greeted this statement. Solomon looked back around the corner to see the young men in blissful contemplation of a young ladies’ boarding school gone wild. It was obvious they had no more idea why Serena was here than he did. He hurried on, feeling rather ashamed of himself.
It was cool in the pastry kitchen. The ice room next door nicely counteracted the heat from the enormous ovens. Solomon focused on his dough, letting the sounds from the kitchen next door wash over him. He came out of a brown study sometime later to realize that the kitchen staff was gossiping about Serena.
“She don’t seem so scary to me,” a girl was saying. “To hear people talk you’d think she was the bogeyman. I couldn’t believe it when I met her and saw she was just a scrawny little thing!”
“You’ve never seen her in a rage,” a young man said. “She can make ’em shake in their boots when she’s a mind to. Charlotte told me she took the ears off of a pack of lordlings for getting fresh with her.”
“Aye, and they scattered like roaches,” another voice chimed in. “They knew what was good for ’em.”
“Once a gentleman got hold of me in the courtyard at night, back when we first opened,” a girl said, “and I wouldn’t have got away, except Robert came out with the dishwater. Well, when she found out, she had him–“
“Hush!” an older woman said. “There are children present!”
“Well, I will just say it wasn’t pretty,” the girl finished proudly. “No one takes a hand to us anymore.”
“Have you all heard about Suzy Jenkins?” someone asked. There were a few assenting murmurs around the room, but to Solomon’s relief the speaker continued. “Lady Serena knew her before, if you get my meaning. Well, she was in the keeping of some fine gentleman, and found herself in the family way. This fine gentleman cast her off prompt-like.”
“Why didn’t she just have it taken care of?” someone asked.
“Sometimes girls die from that,” a woman said quietly. “Maybe she was afraid.”
“Well,” the original speaker continued, “this same gentleman who couldn’t afford to take care of Suzy liked to gamble. So he goes to the Green Fan, see, and he loses near four thousand pounds!”
There were whistles around the room. Solomon’s own eyebrows rose. Four thousand pounds was a lot of money.
“I heard it was five thousand!” someone said. Still another insisted it was ten thousand. A brief squabble broke out, but eventually the thread of the narrative was resumed.
“So he pays up, and the very next day he gets a note from Suzy that he needn’t trouble about her any longer, she had come into a legacy, and a tidy one, too–thirty-six hundred pounds!”
Murmurs ran around the kitchen.
“The Fan took a ten-percent commission, see? Everyone knew they did it as a favor to Lady Serena.”
“But the Green Fan runs honest tables,” someone protested.
“Usually,” the storyteller said with heavy significance.
“What did she do for them in exchange?” someone asked.
“Paid ’em off,” someone guessed.
“I heard she bedded Mr. Green,” another said.
“Naw, everyone knows she threatened to have his daughter killed,” someone chimed in.
“Don’t be a ninny, she saved his daughter from white slavers.”
Solomon almost laughed. It was evident the kitchen staff knew about as much of Serena’s crimes as the three lordlings he’d overheard that first morning. The ensuing debate lasted until Antoine walked back in, at which point the kitchen went abruptly silent.