She was fast asleep when the crash sounded. It jerked her awake, startling her so badly that she sat straight up with a gasp. Gazing around her room, it took Layla Conolly a handful of seconds to gain her bearings and realize where she was, and what had woken her so violently.
Another crash boomed through the house. Jumping out of bed, Layla hurried from her room and followed the commotion down the stairs. The noises were coming from her father’s study, she realized, and her heart began to beat with dread as she made her way toward the room.
Reaching the doorway, Layla paused. The sight before her left her baffled. Her father was in a frenzy. Usually a calm, even-tempered man, at that moment Richard Conolly appeared half out of his mind with panic.
His graying hair stuck out at odd angles, as if he had been running his fingers through it over and over again. His clothes were disheveled, and he was running around his study like a madman, frantically grabbing up what Layla recognized as his accounting ledgers and throwing them in the fireplace to burn.
“Father!” Layla exclaimed, rushing forward to grab at his arm. “What is going on? What has happened?”
He ignored her, pulling his arm from her grasp as he continued his harried endeavor. He was muttering to himself, and Layla realized he had not even registered that she was in the room with him. She strained to hear what he was saying as he flitted back and forth between his desk and the fireplace.
“Must burn it. Must burn it all. Cannot let anything remain.”
His words terrified her. Gazing around, she quickly thought of what she could do to stop him. Realizing she needed help, she ran back to the door and shouted for help from the servants.
“Will someone please help?” she cried up and down the darkened hallway. “I need assistance in my father’s study! Please, it is urgent!”
She waited, but there was no response. No sound of hurried footsteps. No sign of life from anywhere else in the house whatsoever.
A terrible suspicion settled into her mind.
Slowly, she turned back to her father, who was still scurrying about like a madman.
“Father, where are the servants?” she demanded.
When he did not acknowledge her and give a response, she marched over and grabbed hold of his shoulders with as much strength as she could muster, forcing him to face her. At last, his eyes locked on her and lit up with recognition.
“Layla?” he murmured. “What is it?”
“Where are the servants?” she asked again in a firm tone.
He blinked, as if surprised by the question. “I let them all go.”
The shock of his words caused her grip to loosen and her father slipped away from her again and resumed his dashing about.
“Burn it, burn it, burn it all,” he began saying again. “No one can claim what I owe if they do not have proof.”
His continuous feeding of the fire was causing it to grow larger and larger. Embers were flying out of the hearth, and with a jolt, Layla realized if he did not stop, he might set fire to the whole house.
When he passed her with another armful of ledgers, she grabbed at him again.
“Father, stop!” she pleaded. “You will burn the place down if you do not stop!”
“Why does it matter?” he wailed. “It no longer belongs to me anyway!”
Layla had no idea what he meant by that, but before she could interrogate him further, a loud pounding sounded from the front door. Both Layla and her father froze. Who on earth would be at their doorstep at this time of night?
Layla let out a startled cry when she heard the front door burst open. Heavy footsteps stormed down the hallway, and moments later, the doorway to the study was filled with the imposing presence of a man. She recognized him immediately.
It was the Duke of Hestex.
“Conolly,” the Duke barked, his expression dark with rage. “Where is my money?”
Her father began trembling next to her.
“Your Grace, I will have your money,” her father insisted in a voice that cracked with his fear. “I…I just need more time…”
The Duke stormed further into the room, his glare ferocious as he towered over Layla and her father.
“You have had more than enough time,” he growled. “If you do not have the means to pay me this instant, you will be dragged out of here in shackles.”
“No, please, I beg you, Your Grace,” Layla’s father clasped his hands together, his face draining of all color. “I…I have nothing. There is nothing here to give you. Please, give me one more chance. I swear to all that is holy, you will not be left wanting.”
Layla had never seen her father like this. So broken and brought so low. She did not fully understand what was happening, but she could guess that he had gotten into this mess because of his cursed love of gambling.
The Duke scoffed. “Empty words from an impoverished man with nothing left to his name. No, Conolly. I will not give you a second chance. It is to debtors’ prison with you. Men!”
At his command, a group of men flooded into the room. There were several constables, but also a handful that wore the Duke’s crest. They swarmed Layla and her father, grabbing hold of him and dropping him to his knees.
“No!” she cried. Running to the Duke, she forgot all sense of decorum and grabbed at the front of his coat. “Please, Your Grace, do not do this. Do not take my father. Whatever his debt, we can find a way to pay it back.”
The Duke gazed down at her with a calculating eye for several long moments. Layla grew uneasy under his stare, but she did not look away. It was at that moment that she remembered she had rushed from her bed without donning a robe. She crossed her arms over her chest to try and achieve some form of modesty, though it was clear by the heat in his gaze that he had seen plenty of her already.
At length, he lifted his hand to run his finger along her cheek. She flinched, his touch sending an uncomfortable shiver coursing down her back. He smirked, as if amused by her discomfort.
“Perhaps we can come to some sort of agreement,” he said, his voice taking on a heated tone that twisted her gut. “An arrangement of sorts, between you and me, my dear, that would make me more amiable to dismissing your father’s debt.”
Layla gawked up at him. She might be innocent, but she was not naïve. She knew what he meant by arrangement, and the idea horrified her.
She stepped out of his reach. “Your Grace, I do not know what kind of woman you think I am, but I am a lady. Such a proposal is unseemly.”
The Duke let out a bark of laughter. “A lady? Do you think you can really say that now? With this man as your father?” For a brief second, the Duke almost looked sorry for her. “I am afraid once word gets out, Miss Layla, your father’s name will be tainted, and yours by extension. Your days as a proper lady are over. You would do well take my offer more seriously. It might be the only way you are ablet to maintain the comfortable lifestyle you have grown accustomed to.
His words shocked her. Her stomach twisted with worry as she realized he was likely right. Her father’s reputation would be ruined by this, and so would hers by association. Along with her reputation would likely go any proper marriage proposals.
Was the Duke’s offer really the best she could hope for? Surely not…surely she could find her way through this disaster without sinking as low as the Duke suggested.
“You will not touch my daughter!” her father screamed, fighting against the men holding him down. Layla turned to gaze at him in astonishment. Only moments before, he had been all but defeated by the Duke, broken and pathetic, but now that she was being threatened, there appeared to be some fight left in him after all.
How could one man make her so proud and disappointed all at once?
Shoving past her, the Duke marched up to her father and struck him across the face with his fist. Layla screamed as her father fell flat on the floor, blood spurting from his mouth.
“Good Lord! What is happening here?”
Layla whirled around and let out a sob of relief when she spotted Margery, her family’s housekeeper, standing in the doorway of the study, a shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders. Without thought, Layla ran to her.
Margery opened her arms and Layla fell into them, crying as though she were a small girl again. She had never been so fearful in all of her life.
The Duke turned back to her and snapped, “Well? What do you say to my proposal? It is a generous offer, and one that will save your father from chains.”
Margery tightened her hold on Layla, who was too overwhelmed to form a response.
“Begging your pardon, Your Grace,” the housekeeper hissed, “but it appears as though you have gotten what you came for. Miss Layla has nothing to do with this. You are most welcome to leave.”
The average woman would not stand up so boldly to a man like the Duke of Hestex, but Margery was no ordinary woman. She had always been fiercely protective of Layla, catering to her like a mother hen and warding off whatever dangers and misfortunes she could.
For a long moment, the Duke said nothing, merely stared at the housekeeper and her young mistress as though they were unfortunate flecks on the bottom of his shoe. At length, he glanced over his shoulder back at his men and the constables.
“Bring him,” he ordered with an icy tone.
“No!” Layla shrieked. Margery’s hold tightened around her even more so that she could not dash forward to her father. She watched, helpless, as he was dragged off the floor. He appeared dazed, no doubt still feeling the aftereffects of the Duke’s blow.
There was nothing Layla could do. Through a sheen of tears, she could only stand back and act as a witness as her father was unceremoniously hauled out of their house, leaving her alone with the consequences of his actions.
Layla – Six Months Later
“Now, Miss Conolly, can you tell me about some of your responsibilities at your previous position?”
Layla’s stomach twisted at the question, which should have been simple enough to answer…had she actually worked in a serving position before. However, she had been raised to be a lady, and ladies did not work as women of lesser means did. Of course, she did not say any of that to the kind-faced older woman sitting across from her.
Miss Andrews, the housekeeper of the manor they currently sat in the bowels of, was watching her expectantly, and Layla’s mind scrambled to come up with some answer that seemed plausible. She thought back on the tasks she had helped Margery with in the past few months, as her father’s financial situation had grown more and more dire, and he had let members of their staff go.
“I…I have worked as a kitchen maid, assisted with the laundry, and…and did the dusting.”
She nearly flinched. Even to her own ears, her answer sounded vague and her tone was far from confident. Miss Andrew’s brow furrowed the slightest bit, but she maintained her kind smile and asked her next question.
“Did you work in a large house?”
Layla blinked. “It was…larger than most, but smaller than some.”
What was the matter with her? Now she sounded ridiculous, as though she were speaking in riddles. How she wished that Margery was there with her. Sadly, her old housekeeper had had to find another post of her own. Layla had stayed with her for a short time, but she knew she had been more of a burden than a help to the woman.
The mess that her father had left her in had her nearly in the poor house. If she did not find work, and soon, that would be her next unfortunate stop. She had to convince Miss Andrews to hire her…no matter how incapable of the job she may be.
“I see,” Miss Andrews replied slowly, her smile dipping at the corners. The woman was very kindly looking. She was short and rounded, with curling gray hair and green eyes that crinkled at the edges when she smiled. Layla had the feeling, though, that beneath her pleasant face, the woman was very serious about her position and would not hire just anyone into the household she helped to oversee. “Miss Conolly, I am afraid that this might not be the best fit…”
Panic seized Layla. No, no, no! She could not leave this house without securing a position. Before she fully realized what she was saying, the truth of her situation began pouring out of her mouth.
“Please, you must take me on, I am begging you,” she said earnestly. “I have not been entirely honest, I will admit. I have never worked as a servant before. I was actually raised among the Ton as a lady. My mother came from a noble family, and my father was a wealthy man. He was foolish, though, and lost everything gambling and has been arrested. He has left me with nothing. Not even a name with a reputation that would warrant me a place as a lady’s companion. I must find work, even if I do not have the skills for it yet. If I do not find work, I will be forced to live on the street. I have no one else who can help me. Please, do not turn me away. I am a fast learner and I will work very hard. I promise, you would not regret taking me on.”
Miss Andrews appeared stunned by Layla’s confession and merely stared at her for several minutes. At length, her expression softened and she regarded Layla with sympathy.
“What of your mother?” the woman asked gently. “What has become of her in all this?”
“She is gone,” Layla choked, a familiar lump forming in her throat at the mention of her mother. “She passed away when I was young.”
“I am very sorry for that.”
Layla nodded, needing a moment to collect herself.
“Is your father titled?”
The question caught Layla off-guard, banishing the lingering heartache away. She met Miss Andrews’ gaze. There was no sign of malice or busy-bodynets. The woman watched her with a genuine curiosity.
“No,” Layla slowly answered. “My mother came from nobility, as I said. She was the youngest daughter, and so a match to a wealthy merchant was not a shocking thing for her.”
Miss Andrew nodded in understanding. “But you were raised among the elite, I take it?”
“I was,” Layla murmured. Not that it benefited her in any way now. None of her so-called friends from girlhood had bothered to contact her since her father’s arrest. Her fall from grace had been swift and harsh, her family’s reputation draining away nearly as quickly as their wealth.
“So, the truth of the matter is that you have never done the work of a housekeeper or servant.” Again, Miss Andrew’s tone was not accusatory nor mean, just matter-of-fact.
Layla shook her head. “No, ma’am. I have not.”
Hopelessness settled over her. She could not expect the woman to hire her with no experience whatsoever. While Layla could understand that, it did not stop her sorrow from welling up from deep within her.
She dared to peek up at Miss Andrews, who was studying her, a calculating look in her eye, as though she were trying to solve some puzzle or riddle in her head.
“We will try you in the kitchen,” the woman said at last, making Layla gasp. “You will assist with preparation of dinner and clean-up, and if you do well there, we might move you up to serving the meals.”
Layla was so relieved that tears sprang to her eyes. “Oh! Thank you, ma’am! I promise you, I will not disappoint you. I have been served enough meals that I am sure I will pick up on the work with a little practice. I will do everything I canto to learn, and quickly.”
“You will need to if you wish to keep the post,” Miss Andrew replied.
“Yes, yes, I do,” Layla insisted. “You need not worry, I will do my upmost to keep my place here. Thank you so much. You have quite literally saved my life.”
“Now, now, no need for dramatics,” Miss Andrews said with a slight grin. “You will be given a room to share upstairs in the servants’ quarters. You will also need a uniform, and your wages will…”
Miss Andrews was suddenly cut off by the door swinging open.
A gentleman walked in with long strides. He was tall, with golden blonde hair and bright blue eyes that settled on her for a moment before darting away to focus on Miss Andrews. If Layla had not known better, she would have thought he were shy.
“Pardon the interruption, but I have an urgent matter I need your assistance with, Miss Andrews,” he said in a voice that was authoritative but polite. “I have misplaced a collection of documents and require your help in finding them.”
“Of course, Your Grace,” Miss Andrews said without hesitation. “I will help you look. Perhaps you recall when you last had them?”
The two continued talking, but Layla stopped listening. Her mind had latched onto one detail that kept running through her head.
This man was the Duke of Werington, the master of this house and her new employer. Layla was a bit stunned, having not anticipated encountering him so soon. However, he did not look at Layla as he spoke, paid no attention to her whatsoever, and at that moment she fully comprehended how low she had fallen.
Not long ago, she might have met a gentleman like him at a ball or dinner party, and he might have flirted with her and perhaps they would have danced. No, it was as if he did not even see her. She was invisible to him, having dropped so far from where he stood in the world that she was not even worth acknowledgment.
Miss Andrews turned to Layla and spoke, dragging her from her miserable thoughts.
“You can go and find Mrs. Hutchins, my dear. She is the cook and will have someone show you where your room is and find you something appropriate to wear. Do not worry. You will fit right in here.”
Even though Miss Andrews’ words were spoken kindly, Layla’s cheeks heated with humiliation. It was not the woman’s fault, though. It was the entire situation, appearing before a gentleman like the Duke in her circumstances.
It did not make her feel any better that she found him immensely attractive.
Quickly pushing to her feet, she ducked her head to hide her shame as she dropped into a curtsy. She did not look up as she hurried from the room, but in truth, it likely did not matter.
He clearly had no interest in her.
It took all his willpower not to turn and watch the girl walk out of the room. She was exquisite, with a slender frame, hazel eyes, and light brown hair that she had had pulled back and out of her face. When he had first walked into the room, he had nearly forgotten all about his missing papers, the sight of her had stunned him so.
Her dress was rather fine, which had at first made him think she was a lady. However, when Miss Andrews had ordered her away, he had been confused by her immediate obedience.
“Who was that?” he asked once the door was shut behind her, and he was confident she was far enough down the hall that she could not overhear him.
Miss Andrews gave him a look that was difficult for him to interpret. It was almost thoughtful, but there was something else in her expression that made him a little anxious. It was almost as if she were plotting something, but what it could be, he had no idea.
“She will be one of the new girls working in the kitchen, Your Grace,” Miss Andrews explained at last. “A bit inexperienced, but that would be expected of someone from such fine stock. Poor thing. Tis such a shame, really.”
Niklaus frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
“Beg pardon, Your Grace?” Miss Andrew gazed up at him with wide-eyes, the picture of innocence.
“Fine stock,” he stated. “What do you mean she comes from fine stock?”
“Oh, pay no mind to me and my prattling on, Your Grace,” the woman replied with a dismissive laugh. “What papers were you looking for, Your Grace?”
Niklaus struggled to keep up with the change in conversation and murmured, “The…the papers with the names of those in debt to me…”
“Oh, I know where those are,” she replied with a cheery grin. “I saw them this morning when I was straightening up your study. I will go and fetch them now.”
Before Niklaus could respond or insist she elaborate on his previous question, the housekeeper bustled from the room, leaving him baffled.
For a moment, he considered going after the woman and demanding answers. However, he quickly recognized why to do so would not be such a good idea. To show such interest in a servant, even a rather innocent curiosity, would have tongues wagging.
Still, he could not quite put from his mind the way the girl had looked at him when he had entered the room. Her gaze had been locked on him, as though it were her right to gaze on him so openly. She had not acted at all shy and demure like the other servant girls he had crossed paths with.
Odd. She was indeed odd, whoever she was.
Shaking his head, he stepped into the hallway, determined to forget all about the mysterious and alluring new servant girl. When he heard voices around the corner, he moved toward them curiously, and found his sister and Miss Andrews in conversation.
His sister, Elizabeth, looked up at him as he approached. Her brow furrowed, but he could not really tell if it was concern or irritation that darkened her expression. With Elizabeth, it was never easy to tell where her mood was taking her until she opened her mouth and spoke.
“Goodness, Niklaus,” she said. “What is the matter with you? You look as though you have seen a ghost.”
Concern then, though no one could accuse his sister of warmth when dealing with the struggles of others.
“It is nothing,” Niklaus replied.
“His Grace just met the new maid,” Miss Andrews chuckled. “She is a right pretty thing, I must say.”
Miss Andrews often spoke more boldly around Niklaus and his siblings than any of the other servants because the woman had practically raised them all. As a result, they forgave her much, which was why Niklaus did not scold her for her words.
However, he very much wished she had not said anything about the maid.
Laughing, he attempted to convince his sister that Miss Andrews was only being humorous. “Oh, yes. I have been shaken by a maid. What a silly notion.”
He laughed again, but one look at Elizabeth’s face told him that she did not believe him…and that she was displeased.
“I hope, brother, that you are being mindful of our family’s reputation, as well as your own,” she said sternly. “Other lords may enjoy more unsavory pursuits, but not you.”
Niklaus clenched his jaw, irritation bubbling up within him. He hated when she spoke to him as though he were a child. She was not his mother. Not lord of the manor. What right did she have to lecture him so?
Once, he and Elizabeth had been close. As children, they had played together and had the run of the house together. However, as they had grown up, she had changed. He supposed he had too, having been forced to focus more on his duties as their father’s heir and the future Duke. He had always sensed a bitterness in Elizabeth toward him, almost as if she were jealous of his position.
However, whenever he questioned her about it, she denied having any such feelings. Still, he never fully believed her. What else could account for her drastic change in demeanor toward him?
“You need not worry about me, sister,” he snapped. “I am well aware of my place in this family and my responsibilities. You would do well to remember yours. Excuse me.” It was a mean thing for him to say, but she just irritated him beyond rational thought sometimes.
Before his sister could say anything more, Niklaus brushed past her and Miss Andrews. He did not want to risk losing his temper in front of either of them. Niklaus prided himself on maintaining his emotions and keeping a cool head, but Elizabeth was among the few people who could push him to lose control.
It was frustrating, not having any privacy when it came to what he did or even what he thought. He knew his lofty position came with a certain amount of expectation and scrutiny, but he was still just a man and he felt there were certain aspects of his life that should be his and his alone.
Especially if those thoughts were about a lovely maid in a lady’s dress, with the most beguiling eyes he had ever seen.
“I warn you, if you can’t do your duties properly, don’t come to me for help. I do not have time for a useless highborn girl with no skills.”
Layla blinked at the girl in front of her, Hattie, who she was to share a room with. She was a mousy little thing with brown hair and eyes. Somewhat plain in appearance, but perhaps Layla would think her prettier if she was not scowling at that moment.
Just as Miss Andrews had told her to, Layla had made her way to the kitchen. Mrs. Hutchins, the cook, had not been there, however. Instead, she had met Hattie. Once Layla had told her who she was, the girl had looked her up and down with an assessing eye and then told her she knew where she was supposed to go.
When Layla had realized they would be sharing a room, she had confessed her true background to the girl. Now, she was regretting doing so.
“I promise not to be a burden to you,” Layla said in a demure tone. She maintained a calm exterior, but inside she was fighting down the urge to put the girl into her place, as would have been her right not long ago.
The girl let out a huff and nodded her head. “See that you’re not. I will be far too occupied with my own duties to help you. Now, settle in quickly and return to the kitchen. Mrs. Hutchens will be eager to meet you, I’m sure.”
Layla nodded, but did not say a word. She was afraid of what might slip out if she opened her mouth.
Hattie made her way out of the room and shut the door behind her, a little more forcefully than was altogether necessary. Layla released a long breath. She had hoped for a warmer reception, but she could not afford be picky in her current situation.
She was angry as she unpacked her few belongings, but not at Hattie; she was angry at her father. Resentful of him for ruining her life and forcing her into such a predicament.
I should have accepted that marriage proposal while I had the chance.
She had had a suitor, or rather, a gentleman who very much wished to be a suitor, propose to her six months ago. At the time, she had not known the full extent of her father’s folly, and that particular gentleman had been odious. She had turned him down as gently as possible, but as she stood in the tiny room she was meant to share with a girl who clearly disliked her, she felt a small amount of regret for not accepting the offer.
It would have been an escape. She would have been able to maintain the sort of life she was used to.
But to be latched to such a man would have been a trial in itself.
Perhaps it would not have been better than her current state, but she would never know. It was far too late now. She would not even be permitted to enter the gentleman’s house anymore, let alone get him to put forth his proposal again.
Sighing, Layla finished unpacking and turned for the door. There was no point dwelling on what-ifs, when her current reality was waiting for her. She made her way back out into the hallway and backtracked to the kitchen using the servants’ staircase.
An older woman with frizzing gray hair and a wide belly was standing in the kitchen. She looked up from her task of cutting a chicken apart when Layla walked through the door.
“You must be the new girl,” the woman declared. “Come in, then. I ain’t got all day.”
With unsure steps, Layla hurried forward to the woman’s side.
“Are you Mrs. Hutchens?” she asked in a nervous mumble.
The woman nodded. “That I am, dearie. Now, grab that tray over there and arrange some of those there cakes on it. You will be helping to serve the Duke and his sisters their afternoon tea.”
“Oh…yes…yes ma’am,” Layla stammered, surprised that she would be jumping right into things so quickly.
When she did not move right away, Mrs. Hutchens waved her hand, as if shooing her. “Go on, now. We ain’t got all day.”
“Yes ma’am,” Layla said again, turning and hurrying to grab the tray. She set it down next to the pastries that had been prepared for the tea. There were all different sorts, and Layla took care in their arrangement.
When she had finished, she showed Mrs. Hutchens what she had done. To her surprise and delight, the cook looked rather impressed and gave her a nod of approval.
“Very pleasing,” she said. “You seem to have a talent for making things pretty.”
Layla brightened up at the compliment.
Perhaps this will not be quite so difficult after all!
“Now take them on upstairs,” Mrs. Hutchens ordered.
Smiling, Layla picked up the tray and began to move to the door. At that moment, however, Hattie and a few other maids entered, chatting among themselves. Layla made to step out of the way, but Hattie’s hip suddenly thumped into her, knocking her off balance.
The tray of pastries went flying from her hands and clattered to the floor. Layla gaped down at the mess and then looked up at Hattie. The girl was smirking, and Layla grew convinced in that moment that this had been no accident.
Her anger burst back to life and she nearly began yelling at the girl, but she bit her tongue when she remembered just how precarious her situation was. She needed this post. If she fought with Hattie, she would be the one to be sent away. Hattie was an established figure in the household, at least more so than Layla. She would be safe from losing her position.
“What in heaven’s name are you lot doing?” Mrs. Hutchens demanded in an angry voice.
Layla stood straight and faced her, taking small consolation in the fact that the cook was glaring between both her and Hattie. The other maid had her head bowed and her face was flushed as Mrs. Hutchens continued her scolding.
“I will not tolerate such clumsiness in my kitchen,” the cook stated. “If such accidents continue, there will be consequences for the both of you. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes ma’am,” Layla and Hattie said nearly in unison.
“Now, new girl, grab up that tray and arrange more pastries on it,” Mrs. Hutchens instructed, jerking her chin to the plethora of cakes and treats that remained sitting on the countertop. “Quickly now.”
Layla hurried to obey. Hattie moved to pick up the tea set that was waiting to be taken up.
As she passed by Layla, she murmured, “We all know you’re only here to snag the Duke, Miss Highborn. Don’t try to act as though you’re better than the rest of us.”
Layla could hardly believe how unfair the girl’s assumptions of her were. She stared at her as she bit her tongue to keep from lashing out. She tasted blood when the other maids who had come in with Hattie snickered having obviously overheard the girl’s cruel words.
Layla said nothing in response. She could not, and she hated that fact. She wanted to defend herself, but she knew she was walking a fine-thin line as it were.
Turning from Hattie, determined to ignore her, Layla went about arranging the new pastries. The second group did not look as pretty as the first, but Mrs. Hutchens still nodded in approval and ordered her to take them upstairs.
As Layla walked out of the kitchen, tray in hand, she felt pressure at the back of her eyes as tears welled. She blinked, forcing them back, refusing to let her hurt and frustration show. It would just give Hattie more to criticize her about.
Still, Layla had gone from feeling hopeful that this arrangement could actually work back to feeling helpless and angry. She was trying to make the best of things, but it was not fair. None of this was her doing.
It was not her fault that she had been born to a wealthy family and raised to be a lady, yet Hattie seemed to hate her for it.
She had done everything she had thought she was supposed to do throughout her life, and yet it seemed she was being punished for things beyond her control. It made her sick to think about. It. Was. Not. Fair!
Yet, a nasty voice at the back of her head kept whispering, Whoever said that life was supposed to be fair?
He stared down at the numbers on the papers before him, and they seemed to mock him. Niklaus gritted his teeth as annoyance lanced through him. He did not like to lose, but this recent financial setback had cost him.
“At least you are still wealthier than I could ever hope to be,” his estate manager, Sam Williams, said from where he sat across from Nicklaus’ desk. “Such losses happen. That is the risk of investment.”
Though Niklaus knew the man was right, it still bothered him. He had earmarked the money for another investment that had already paid out handsomely to the lucky man who had been able to put up funds faster than him.
“Losses do happen,” he told Williams, “but this is a bothersome way to go about it.”
Williams shrugged. “I do not suppose there is a preferable way for one to lose money.”
“No, but there are less bothersome ones.” Laying the papers back down on his desk, Niklaus leaned back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose as he felt a headache beginning to settle in. “Why must I endure such trials and tribulations?”
Williams chuckled. “You have a talent for the dramatic, I will grant you that. Not quite Shakespearean, but engaging nonetheless.”
Niklaus almost laughed at that. He dropped his hand and arched his brow as he gazed at his manager.
“You appear to be in rather high spirits today,” he said. “Pray tell what lifts your humor so. Perhaps I can use it to lift my own mood as well.”
Williams grinned. “Well, as it happens, I have begun considering matrimony.”
Both of Niklaus’ brows shot up at that. “Matrimony? You want to marry? That is what is making you so happy?”
Williams nodded, a touch of pink coloring his cheeks. “Indeed I am. I am eager to make Hattie my wife. I do not want another man sweeping her away before I am able to make her mine completely.”
There was a flash of some strange emotion that crossed Williams’ face. It was there and gone so fast, Niklaus would have missed it had he not been looking directly at the man. Beneath his happiness, Niklaus could tell that something was troubling his friend.
“What is the matter?” Niklaus asked. “I can see in your eyes that something is bothering you.”
Williams hesitated to answer, but at length released a long breath and said, “My family is not pleased with my choice in bride. They do not like that she is a servant. I fear they might make things difficult for her if we wed.”
Niklaus could understand the man’s worries. Williams was the youngest son of a minor lord and would inherit neither title nor land, but he was still expected to maintain the family’s reputation and standards. Niklaus knew Williams’ family had objected to his working as an estate manager, but the man had taken up the position to prove that he could be self-sufficient.
No doubt they would object to his marrying a servant girl, but Niklaus was confident that Williams would not allow their disapproval to stop him.
“Such things should not matter when it comes to the heart,” Niklaus insisted. “If you care for the girl and she makes you happy, then why should you not marry her?”
Williams gave him a grateful smile. “My thoughts exactly, though it is admittedly easier to think them than to speak to them out loud to my family. Still, for Hattie, I will do what I must.”
Niklaus marveled at the man’s fortitude. What would it be like, he wondered, to feel so strongly for someone? To face down the expectations placed on oneself in order to be with that person?
For a moment, he thought of the new maid he had met earlier. Or, rather not so much met as crossed paths with. He could not help but wonder what her impression of him had been. Did she think he was cold, since he did not say anything to her? Rude for interrupting her interview?
He did not like the idea of her having a bad impression of him.
Why am I thinking of her at all? Such thoughts will only lead to trouble, surely.
Niklaus forced thoughts of the girl aside and focused on Williams and the question of the estate’s finances.
“Let us return to the matter at hand,” he said, his tone gruffer than he meant it to be.
Williams nodded. “Indeed. You had mentioned another investment opportunity the other day. Are you still interested in dedicating funds to it?”
Niklaus picked up another paper that was resting on his desk. This was a much better subject for him to focus on. Safer. It was easier to control and direct finances than it was people.
“I am,” he confirmed. “Unfortunately, it appears that it is going to take some effort to gather the necessary funds.”
“Why might that be?” Williams asked, though Niklaus was well aware that his estate manager knew why they were in their current predicament.
Giving Williams an exasperated look, Niklaus grumbled, “Sometimes your humor is exhausting, Williams. Too many people owe me money at present. The funds I would like for this investment need to be collected from those debts.”
He brushed aside the paper he had been looking over. It was a list of names of all the people currently in his debt. It was longer than he wished it to be and there were more names that had defaulted on their payments than he was pleased with.
“Your Grace, I mean no offense, but you are too kind in allowing people to maintain longstanding debts with you,” Williams sighed. “Others in your position would not be so merciful.”
Niklaus snorted. “Merciful? More like a fool. If I were wiser, I would not be so lenient to my debtors, and we would not have this mess to deal with.”
Williams leaned forward and picked up the list of names. He perused them for a moment in thoughtful silence.
“Some of these will not be easy to collect,” he murmured before placing the list back on the desk. “How would you like to proceed?”
Niklaus settled in to discuss his options with Williams. He wanted to get this matter settled so he did not miss out on another investment opportunity in the future. As he lost himself in the work, he was able to keep his mind away from the beautiful maid, at least for the time being.
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