(Lively St. Lemeston #3)
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“The two leads have an exceptionally erotic chemistry.”
—RT Book Reviews
One of NPR’s
Great Reads of 2016
She’s a maid-of-all-work, and he’s a valet of no play…
John Toogood always prided himself on being the perfect gentleman’s gentleman, skilled, discreet, and professional. But now he finds himself laid off and blacklisted, stuck in tiny Lively St. Lemeston until he can find a new job. Any job.
His instant attraction to his happy-go-lucky maid Sukey Grimes couldn’t come at a worse time. Her manners are provincial, her respect for authority nonexistent, and her outdated cleaning methods…well, the less said about them, the better.
Sukey can tell that John’s impeccably impassive facade hides a lonely man with a gift for laughter—and kissing. But she also knows he’ll leave her sleepy little town behind the moment he gets the chance, and she has no intention of giving him her heart to take with him.
John learns that the town vicar needs a butler—but the job is only for a respectable married man. Against both their better judgments, John and Sukey tie the knot. The ring isn’t on her finger long before Sukey realizes she underestimated just how vexing being married to the boss can be…
other books in the Lively St. Lemeston series
November 14, 1812
Lively St. Lemeston, West Sussex
Sukey Grimes, maid-of-all-work, gave the chipped mantel a last pass with her duster. Empty of furniture, the two attic rooms looked nearly a decent size. But on a rainy day like this, nothing could hide the leak in the roof. The boards in the ceiling swelled and rotted, and water dripped into a cast-iron pot with a constant plip plip plip.
“Mrs. Dymond, is that you?” Sukey called. “I’ve been over these rooms, and if your sister happens to be missing a hairpin with a lovely rosette on it, I simply can’t imagine where it could have got to.” She pulled the pin from her hair and held it out as she opened the door.
It wasn’t Phoebe Dymond, former lodger in these rooms, or her new husband Nicholas Dymond either. It was a very tall, very well dressed, very—“handsome” wasn’t in it. Oh, he was
handsome; there weren’t any bones to be made about that. But handsome was ten for a penny. This man had character. His jaw might have been hewn from oak, and his nose jutted forward, too large on someone else’s face but perfect on his. His warm, light-brown eyes stared right into her, or would have if he’d seemed the slightest bit interested in her.
He glanced down at the hairpin, lips thinning. His eyebrows drew together, one bumping slightly up at the side. The tiny, disapproving shift brought the deep lines of his face into sharp relief. Oof. He as good as knocked the breath out of her, didn’t he?
“I’m that sorry, sir, I thought you were somebody else.” She tucked the pin back into her hair with relief. Mrs. Dymond’s little sister had made the rosette from a scrap of red ribbon that showed to advantage in Sukey’s brown hair. “Are you here about the rooms for let? They come with a bed,” she said encouragingly, quite as if the mattress had been restuffed in the last half a decade.
The eyebrows went up together this time. “I am Mr. Toogood. Mr. Dymond’s valet.” The calm, quiet growl of his voice knocked the breath out of her too. Deep and powerful, it was made for loudness, even if he kept it leashed. Tamed, he probably thought, but Sukey didn’t think you could tame a voice like that, only starve it into temporary submission.
She wondered what Mr. Toogood would sound like tangled with a woman in that lumpy bed. Were bitten-off growls all he’d allow himself there as well? She’d never find out—she had never tangled herself up with any man yet, and never planned to—but it was nice to think about nevertheless.
Tardily, her brain caught up with her ears. “Not anymore, are you? Or you’d know not to look for him here.” She didn’t expect Mr. Dymond could afford a valet now he’d married beneath him.
Mr. Toogood didn’t flinch. If anything, he looked more calmly superior than before. “No, not anymore, that’s correct. Can you tell me where I might find the Dymonds?” That voice rubbed up and down her spine.
She made a show of considering. “I don’t know as I’d ought to tell you. How am I to be sure you are who you say you are?”
To her surprise, his lips twitched. He pulled a card out of his pocket. John Toogood, it read. Gentleman’s Gentleman. His own card! Upper servants were another species, right enough.
She pocketed the card to show the maid next door. “Oh, that don’t prove a thing. Anybody can have cards printed.”
His lips curved, the lines between his nose and the corners of his mouth deepening in a very pleasant way. “And anybody can sweep a floor thoroughly, but I don’t accuse you of doing it.”
She laughed, startled. “You’d better not. I don’t like having false rumors spread about me.” So she’d missed some spots in the corners. Who cared? Mrs. Dymond wasn’t paying her to clean this attic anymore. She’d done it out of the goodness of her heart, and to help lure a new tenant. Old Mrs. Pengilly, who owned the house, didn’t seem in any rush about that, but Sukey needed the money.
She eyed Mr. Toogood. “You must need a place to stay now you’re out of work.”
He looked about the room. “I don’t plan to be out of work for long.”
“Nobody does.” He was too tall for the place. He’d hit his head on the eaves dunnamany times a day. Sukey didn’t say so.
“I don’t need anything so large.”
She smothered a laugh. “It’s cheap. On account of the leaky roof. And Mrs. Pengilly might give you credit for furnishings, if you engaged to leave them here when you go.”
“And what is your interest in the matter?”
She grinned at him. “It’ll cost you threepence a week to have me clean and cook for a bit Friday and Saturday afternoons.”
“I see. Are you a good cook?”
“I’m not bad.”
He sighed. “If you give me the Dymonds’ direction, I’ll stop by again this afternoon to speak with…Mrs. Pengilly, I believe you said?”
* * *
Mr. Dymond surveyed his Cuenca carpet as if it could tell him what to say. This gave John Toogood, gentleman’s gentleman, ample opportunity to observe that his former master’s hair was growing far too long, that he had been consistently failing to shave a spot under his left ear, and that his cuffs were ink-stained. He did not dare look about the room.
“My mother’s refused to find you another position, hasn’t she?”
John kept his hands folded behind his back. “I wouldn’t say ‘refused’, sir. She has not replied to my letter. Naturally the weeks after an election are a very busy time for her ladyship.”
They both knew that Mr. Dymond’s mother, the influential Countess of Tassell, never neglected any correspondence unless she meant to.
“I’m so sorry, Toogood,” Mr. Dymond said. “I never expected this. I was sorry to have to let you go, but it never occurred to me that Mother would put you on the black list. You’re bound to find another place, even so. You’re an exceptional valet.”
“Thank you, sir. Please do not apologize. I would not have troubled you in the first weeks of your marriage, had I not hoped for a letter of reference.”
“Of course.” Mr. Dymond went at once to a writing table and exchanged his cane for a pen. It became clear as he wrote that the pen needed mending.
John clasped his hands tighter together so as not to reach for the pen-knife. He wasn’t looking forward to going about town, hat in hand, asking for work. He’d never done it before, having worked for the Dymonds all his life.
He hadn’t even been Mr. Dymond’s valet anymore. For the past four years, John had worked for his elder brother Stephen, Lord Lenfield, who sat for Sussex in the House of Commons.
But when Mr. Dymond sold his commission after a serious injury, the Tassells had judged a stranger’s care too much for their son’s nerves. The countess had asked John to serve him through his convalescence as a particular favor. She’d promised both John and Lord Lenfield that they’d be reunited in a matter of months.
Few politicians, asked what smoothed a man’s way in government, would mention a close shave, clean linen and polished boots. Yet those things took subtle root in the minds of others, hinting softly, This is a fellow worthy of respect, who knows how things ought to be done. Lord Lenfield would be a great man someday, and John had thought to help him in his rise to greatness.
That was before Mr. Dymond married a poor widow and broke all ties with his mother.
Now the most glowing letter of reference wouldn’t help John if the angry countess had really put him on a black list among her acquaintances. He had few connections outside that circle, and no man in it would alienate powerful people like the Earl and Countess of Tassell merely for an improvement—however marked—in his comfort, appearance and mode of dress.
And by the time Society trickled back to London for the opening of the new Parliament in a few weeks, news of Mr. Dymond’s fall from grace would be through the entire ton like wildfire. Everyone would know John had been dismissed from the family’s employ.
Unless he was minded to work for a Tory, which he wasn’t, he’d have to seek a position among strangers who cared nothing for politics.
No, John wasn’t pleased about the current turn of events. But unlike Mr. Dymond, it had occurred to him that the countess might punish him for failing to warn her of her son’s inappropriate attachment. He’d done it anyway, and he regretted nothing. He would just have to venture into new spheres of greatness.
It came to him with a sinking feeling that many distinguished professions were famed for inattention to dress. Might neat attire even hamper the career of a scholar or man of science, raising suspicions that he couldn’t be so brilliant as all that?
Mr. Dymond sanded his letter. “Stephen will stop in Lively St. Lemeston on his way to London. Mother wants him to make me forgive her. Maybe if you talked to him…”
John had written to Lord Lenfield already and received no answer to that letter either. His lordship would never rehire his valet against his mother’s wishes, but a personal appeal might persuade him to help John find a position elsewhere. “Thank you, sir. If you might tell me when you expect him?”
“If you give me your direction, I’ll ask him to come and see you.”
Heat crept up the back of John’s neck. He wasn’t sure why this should be embarrassing, but he was embarrassed nonetheless as he said blandly, “I was thinking of letting your wife’s old rooms, as it happens.”
Mr. Dymond blinked. “Can you afford them?”
John (when employed) likely earned twice what the new Mrs. Dymond did with her pen. But Mr. Dymond saw only that he was a servant and she was a respectable lawyer’s daughter. “I have a little money put by. And I am told the rooms are cheap, on account of the leaky roof.” Told by that puckish maidservant, who didn’t clean worth a damn and had a retroussé nose and pale blue eyes tip-tilted like a cat’s.
That wasn’t why he was taking the rooms. She was too young for him, and besides, the last thing he wanted was more scandal. Which there’d be if he was kicked out of lodgings for making advances to the maid. Or debauching her.
An image of her—naked, tossing back her unbound hair as she straddled him with a sly half-smile—appeared with startling speed and had an equally startling effect on him, though fortunately not to a degree visible to Mr. Dymond.
On reflection, John supposed it was only natural. While no Lothario, he enjoyed the company of women, both in and out of bed. He’d been accustomed to a healthy dose of it, living in London or traveling with Lord Lenfield to house parties that were nearly as convivial for the servants as their masters. Now for months he’d slept within call of a convalescent who barely left his rooms. There’d been few chances even to take himself in hand.
Lively St. Lemeston was full of women. He’d find someone older and more discreet.
Mr. Dymond nodded. “Be careful of the eaves. I’ve cracked my head on them more than once.”
John grimaced. He was at least three inches taller than his former master. “Thank you for the warning, sir. Pardon me—” Unable to resist any longer, he reached out to tighten the uneven knot of Mr. Dymond’s cravat. Their eyes met for a moment before John dropped his respectfully.
“I’ll write to some of my school friends and see if any of them are looking for a valet,” Mr. Dymond blurted out. “I really am sorry. If you ever need anything, you must come to me.”
I’m richer than you are now, John thought. “Thank you, sir. You’re very kind.”
* * *
John held up three fingers. “And a few pieces of mace, if you will.”
The North African peddler raised his tin spoon hopefully.
“Not spoonfuls. Three pieces.” He pointed at the dry, lacy husks that had once tightly cradled nutmeg seeds.
With a sigh, the peddler wrapped three husks in a square of thin paper. “Two pennies and a farthing.”
“Good morning, John Toogood, gentleman’s gentleman,” a voice said behind him. It took him a moment to place it. “How d’you do?”
John made himself count out the coins, tuck the mace into his pocket with his other purchases, and thank the peddler before turning to face his new maid-of-all-work. He hadn’t seen her in the handful of days since he’d let his new rooms. It developed that she lived in at the boarding house just across the street, and came by two days out of the seven. Mrs. Pengilly had represented it as a blessed economy for both houses, and John had hidden his disappointment.
The young woman was even prettier outdoors, pale face reflecting the gray autumn daylight and brown hair soaking it in. In her drab bonnet, gray gown and dark pelisse, she suggested an apparition glimpsed and gone, a fleeting impression of dark and light a man might spend his whole life trying to prove he’d seen.
“Very well, and yourself?”
“Pretty tightish.” She carried a basket full of market produce over one arm, and a cabbage and two parcels under the other. The basket was a third her height, and two or three times her width. “Fresh vegetables make my cooking eenamost good. Mind you, don’t listen to Madge Cattermole if she tells you her winter broccoli are the best. Tories will say anything. Mrs. Isted’s are just as good, and her carrots are sweeter.” She indicated the stall with a jerk of her shoulder.
“Eenamost” was a contraction of “even-almost”, used by uneducated Sussex folk to mean “nearly”.
I could teach you to speak better, he thought, and was promptly ashamed of it. Elocution lessons would help her to work in a great house, but not everyone wanted that. She seemed content where she was. “Thank you. I’m quite fond of pickled carrots.”
“Brine all the flavor out of them, why don’t you?”
“Your name wouldn’t happen to be Mary by any chance, would it?”
Her eyebrows were short and flyaway, set wide enough not to touch the bridge of her nose when she frowned in puzzlement. With her pointed chin, they made her face seem not even heart-shaped, but outright triangular.
Then her mouth, already a touch crooked in repose, curled into a twisted half-smile so engaging as to seem a carnal invitation. “Because I’m contrary, you mean? I suppose I am, at that. But I was baptized Susan Grimes. Everybody calls me Sukey.”
The name suited her. In France, she would be a Suzette. If he’d met her as a French lady’s maid, he might have acted on this attraction. He bowed slightly. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Grimes.”
She looked touched and amused, as if she thought a show of respect for her sweet but a little ridiculous. “Thank you, Mr. Toogood. I’ll see you Friday, then.”
“If you’ll wait for me to finish here, I’ll carry your basket.” His neck heated.
She looked indecisive. “Will you be long? Mrs. Humphrey don’t like me to dawdle.”
“I shall hurry,” he promised. Hopefully she would think it manners and not eagerness.
“Well, I’d be a fool to turn that down, and my mother didn’t raise any fools.” She shifted the heavy basket on her arm and teased, “Maybe I’d ought to buy a few more potatoes.”
Potatoes: the only thing denser than cabbages. John didn’t react. “By all means. Where shall I meet you?”
“I’ll be staying warm by the hot-gingerbread woman.” A heavy drop of water fell from the sky and landed on her hand. “Or crowding under the Market Cross if it rains.”
John hesitated a moment before offering her his umbrella, thinking regretfully of the damage to his wool overcoat if it were to be soaked.
“Of course you’ve an umbrella.” She shook her head admiringly. “You keep it. I’ll be all right if I can get to the Market Cross ahead of the crowd.”
Before he could insist, she made for the ancient stone canopy. She went swiftly, for she gave herself no fashionable airs and wore thick-soled leather boots. Her stockings were undyed blue-gray worsted, her petticoats muddy and none of them a shade approaching white.
Her slim, tapering calves only appeared daintier emerging from her heavy boots. She’s a pharisee come to play tricks on me.
Well, if she was a fairy disguising herself as a lowly maidservant to see what treatment she received at the hands of mortals, hopefully John’s manners would earn him a gift. Human men ensnared by fairy women never ended well, but they enjoyed themselves along the way. Seven years in a green bower with her, drugged on fairy wine and subject to her delightfully cruel whims, would indeed pass like a day.
Before he could imagine much more than summer heat, her wicked smiles and tumbled hair and bare skin twined in grass-green silk, he set the fancy aside. Sussex fairies were a diminutive race who labored, drank beer and sweated; they had little in common with Sir Walter Scott’s seductive elves. And it would serve a valet very ill to be cursed to speak nothing but truth, like poor Thomas the Rhymer.
A memory surfaced, of his father catching him listening to the maids’ fairy stories at Tassell Hall and correcting his laziness and credulity with a fresh willow switch. He’d never heard how that tale ended. It had been something about a man who laughed at some pharisees, and nothing ever went right for him again. Maybe Miss Grimes would know the rest of it.
It was strange to remember that he’d believed the stories then. How old had he been when he stopped?
Don’t let me ever hear you use the word pharisee, either, his father had said. It was an ignorant word—the product, presumably, of an ancient and widespread confusion between the Sussex double plural fairieses and the Christian gospel—but John liked the way it sounded.
He’d never hated the pain of the switch as much as the humiliation of being forced to present his naked buttocks.
Why should he think of all that now, when it was decades ago?
A drop of rain darted past the brim of his hat and splashed against his nose. John shook himself, laughing at his own distraction, and hastened to finish his shopping.
“The two leads have an exceptionally erotic chemistry.” —RT Book Reviews
“The romance between John and Sukey is awkward and hard but also full of so much compassion and understanding…[T]hese two undergo a LOT of character development over the course of the book and it is AMAZING.” —Rashika, The Social Potato
“I think Rose Lerner is a must read for anyone that is a fan of Mary Balogh, especially if you often think Balogh’s romances need a little more steam.” —The Book Adventures
“What an EXCELLENT romance. It gives me hope for finding a permanent home myself someday.” —Jasmine Stairs
“Another cracking Regency from Rose Lerner, one of my favourite historical authors…A real portrait of a marriage.” —KJ Charles