A young man—about our age and dressed in a footman’s uniform—answered the door, immediately letting out a sigh of relief when he saw us, smiling. “Oh, thank goodness you’ve arrived. We were so worried when we heard about the storm in Spain. The duchess will be so pleased. Oh, I apologize, how rude of me.” He laughed and stepped aside, sweeping his arm wide. “Do come in.”
Catherine and I exchanged a surprised look before following the man inside. He took us down a tight hallway to a small room with one long wooden table. It was surrounded by several maids and footmen. All their heads turned when we walked in, the footmen jumping to their feet, chairs screeching loudly.
“These are the duchess’s maids,” the man beside us announced. “I am sorry, I didn’t catch your names.”
“Catherine and Elizabeth,” I answered.
Catherine pinched my side, obviously not happy that I had used our real names. I shushed her as inconspicuously as possible.
“Catherine and Elizabeth,” the man greeted. “I am His Lordship’s valet, Reginald. That is Gideon,” he said, pointing to each person in turn, “and that is Margaret and Jeffrey and Edward and—"
“Yes, yes, that is enough, Reginald,” said an elderly woman coming from around a corner which sounded like it led to a kitchen if the clinking of pots and pans was any indication. “I am sure they will learn everyone’s names soon enough.” She looked at us with stern eyes, peering through thick glasses perched on the tip of her nose. “I am the housekeeper, Mrs. Bell. If you have any questions or concerns, please address them to me. Now, if you will follow me, I can show you where you will be staying…” She glanced down at the space around our feet in confusion before glancing back up at us. “Where are your things?”
My heart plummeted and sweat immediately spread across my palms. This plan had clearly not been thought out enough and now the entire thing was going to come crashing down around us.
“They were being carried on the cab behind us,” Catherine replied calmly. “They, unfortunately, have gotten caught in the storm, so I am afraid we are without a change of clothes for the duration of our stay.”
Mrs. Bell narrowed her eyes. “You rode separately cab from your belongings?”
Catherine hesitated for just a moment. “Yes.”
“Why on earth would you do that?”
Catherine swallowed, her eyes flicking to mine momentarily for help. I licked my suddenly dry lips and tried to come up with a reason—any reason—why we wouldn’t travel with our clothes.
“Well…” she tried. “You see…”
“Please, Mrs. Bell, they’ve just arrived,” Reginald cut in. “Surely their travels have been difficult enough. Perhaps you can allow them a moment to settle in before you begin with your interrogation?”
Mrs. Bell studied us a moment longer, her gaze hard and unwavering, squinting at us through her glasses like she thought we would confess some terrible sin if she only watched us long enough. My blood raced and my hands shook. I didn’t know what would happen if she realized we were frauds but I knew enough about this time period to know that impersonating a duchess’s maids was not taken lightly.
“Very well,” she relented, finally turning to one of the maids sitting at the table.
Relief washed through me and I couldn’t help but give Catherine a small smile.
“Joanna,” Bell said, a young girl popping up from her seat at the table, “please show our visitors where they will be sleeping.” She handed her a ring of keys.
“Yes, Mrs. Bell.” Joanna smiled at us. She seemed to be about our age, but much taller than either Catherine or myself, her head nearly touching the top of the doorway as she walked by. Her brown hair was tied in a tight bun at the nape of her neck and her black dress—identical to ours—hung off her thin frame. She led us up so many stairs that by the time we reached our destination it took all of my power not to cling to the wooden banister and gasp for breath. Catherine was not much better than me, holding on to her sides and drawing long streams of air.
Joanna looked at us apologetically as she turned the lock in an old white door. “I suppose your quarters in the Duke’s estate are not as difficult to reach as ours?”
“No,” I coughed, doing my best to hide exactly how out of shape I was compared to her.
She swung the door open and continued walking down, not the least bit exhausted by the never ending staircase. “When I first came to work for Her Ladyship, I could hardly even make it to my room without falling faint. But I assure you, the both of you will become accustomed to it soon enough. Now, here we are.” She unlocked another room and stepped back to allow us in first.
It was incredibly sparse, two thin cots taking up most of the room. Next to one of the beds was a small armoire and even smaller nightstands stood beside each of them. What little sunlight had managed to sneak through the thick clouds outside shone through two windows on the ceiling.
I started, “This is, um…”
“Splendid,” Catherine interrupted, flashing Joanna her brightest smile. “Thank you very much.”
She nodded. “You said you’ve not got your things?”
“There should be spare uniforms downstairs. Typically, Mrs. Bell would allow you about thirty minutes to settle in before you must begin working, but seeing as you haven’t much with you…”
“I should think ten minutes would be ample for us to recuperate from our long journey.” Catherine smiled warmly at her.
Joanna nodded. “Find Mrs. Bell when you are ready.” She closed the door softly behind her and her feet pattered back down the stairs.
My knees gave out and I dropped down on to one of the cots, blood still rushing in my veins. “How are you so relaxed?” I demanded.
Catherine shrugged, taking in the small room. “This was my life before I was taken.”
My brows furrowed. “You were a lady’s maid?”
“Lady’s maid? No. But I was part of the staff.”
Suddenly that moment of Carter teaching Catherine to fence came to my mind and I nodded. “You were in the stables.”
“Was I in your special novel too?” she asked sarcastically.
I narrowed my eyes. “Carter told you about that?”
“Caspian,” she stressed, “has told me everything.”
“But you don’t believe him.”
“I don’t believe you.” She sat on the cot opposite me. “I think you’re a bit mad.”
“Yet here we are.”
“You were my only option.”
I do not know what I expected from Catherine, but it definitely wasn’t the disdain that was now reflecting in her eyes. I couldn’t imagine what I done to her to deserve that, but now was not the time for confronting that issue.
“Perhaps we ought to go over our plan?” she asked.
She stared at me expectantly. “Well, then, what is it?”
Instinct is a powerful thing. When I was ten years old, it helped me catch a vase before it fell off Mom’s stand and shattered all over the floor. When I was twelve, it made me pause before stepping off the curb just as a car came barreling around the corner. And when Dad passed, it gave me the ability to survive without the help of my mother. Instinct is the only explanation for why Catherine and I had taken off on horseback after Carter, and after a prolonged pause from me, Catherine seemed to realize that there had never actually been a plan at all.
“Let me see if I understand this correctly,” she said, standing again, each word louder than the next. “We have posed as the maids of a duchess in the fourth Earl of Dawburn’s home without even an inkling of what we are going to do next?”
“Keep your voice down,” I hissed.
“Have you any idea how much trouble—"
“Okay, calm down, I’ll think of something!”
“It’s a bit too late for that, isn’t it?” She dug her fingers into her hair, breathing hard. “We’ve no idea where Caspian is and everyone believes that we are the duchess’s maids.” Her head tilted her head as an idea formed in her eyes. “So that is what we will have to be.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it, Elizabeth. Whenever Caspian needed to slip into a house undetected, he posed as a footman. Being a member of the staff makes you practically invisible. That will allow us the ability to search for both Caspian and his siblings.”
“So basically,” I said as Catherine’s eyes shone with pride, “you want us to use our positions to sneak around the house.”
“Yes, Elizabeth, did you not hear a word I said?”
“And if the duchess need her maids?”
“Then we shall be her maids.” Catherine paced to the door, resting her hand on the knob. “For years before I was taken, I watched the maids work. I will know what to do.”
“But I won’t!”
She glared at me. “Have you a better idea then?”
Of course, she knew I didn’t. Apparently, my mind only worked quickly for five minutes at a time. But the amount of trouble we could get in just for stepping in this house… “What if the Springtons see me?”
“They will not.”
“They might. The Springtons are not as oblivious to their staff as you may think. And they know my face.”
She shrugged. “Then do not let them see your face.” She pulled the door open and began to walk out the room.
“Wait, where are you going?”
She threw her arms down in frustration. “Is there something stuffed in ears or you truly just that slow?” Giving me her back—and completely missing the daggers I was shooting out of my eyes--she started down the hall.
Not seeing another option, I raced after her. “You’re going to look for Carter now?”
“Oh, I apologize, did you have another appointment?”
She spun around and I jerked to a stop before running into her. “Despite what you may think,” she said, “I do not need you. So if you do not want to come along, that is bloody fine with me. But this cowardly whining and terrified whimpering rubbish has got to stop if there is even a needle’s width chance we are going to work together. It is one thing for you to do it back on the ship but it is another thing entirely when it could prevent us from saving Nathaniel.”
Cowardly whining? It took everything in me to keep from raising my voice, but I could feel my cheeks heating and my heart pounding. “If you despise me so much, why did you ask me to come along?”
She shrugged. “Old habits, I guess. But if there is something I have learned since you left on your little holiday to the states is that we do not need you.”
“He does not need you,” she hissed at me. Catherine had yanked me behind a stack of crates in the stables and away from the sounds of laughter in the backyard, her grip surprisingly strong for a girl’s but I supposed working in the stables had that affect on a person.
“I beg your pardon?” I tried to jerk my arm out of her hand, but she held strong.
“He thinks he does, but he does not.”
“Carter?” I scoffed. “What are you—"
Catherine pulled me closer to her, nearly growling as she said, “You are engaged to Lord Lowery.”
“I am aware—"
“Yet you toy with Carter’s emotions on nearly a daily basis.”
“Toy with his emo—this is bloody ridiculous. Unhand me at once!”
“What he feels for you is simply a childhood fancy and nothing more.”
I stopped struggling, finally understand what was going on. A laugh bubbled out of me and I patted her hand on my arm. “My dear Catherine, envy is not becoming.”
She dropped my arm as if I had burned her. “I am not envious of you—"
“But you are. You want Carter yet you know I am the only person whom he desires, whom he will ever desire.”
She glared at me. “Have you no remorse?”
Amusement colored my voice as I asked, “Remorse? For what?”
“He fell in love with you when you were children, you knew that. And you knew that you never felt the same for him. Yet you fluttered your lashes and you twirled your hair and you flashed your smile and you kept him by your side all this time. And now…” She shook her head as she glanced nervously around the crates toward the sounds that were coming from outside. “Now he believes you are essential to his life. But he is wrong. He does not need you.” She glared at me one last time, leaning in close to make sure I did not miss her next words. “Today is his birthday and you will allow him this one day to be surrounded by those who truly do care for him. Do you understand?”
I hesitated. Yes, it was true; I knew Carter cared for me in a way which I could never return. But what Catherine said was not true. I did love him. I loved him and he could never know how much. However, despite the complications of any romantic interest, Carter was--above all else--my friend. I still deserved the opportunity to celebrate with him.
Yet looking at Catherine’s enraged face I realized she was right. I could allow him—and her—this one day to themselves. It was only fair.
And besides, Gretchen told me James was waiting for me back in the house.
I sniffed and looked down my nose at her. “I understand. But there is something I wish for you to understand as well.” I leaned even closer to her, happy when she backed away slightly. I whispered, “If you dare to make this a competition between us, know that I will be more than happy to run the race with you.” A smile stretched across my face as I saw a glimmer of uncertainty in Catherine's eyes. “And I think we both know who would win.”