The Mrs. had to be a courtesy title. Love might be blind, Gard reasoned, but this was asking too much. The woman had jaundiced skin and a chest so flat you could iron a neckcloth on it. She wore a black dress obviously made for someone two sizes larger, and a grayish mobcap with lappets that covered whatever hair she might have, except the three long ones growing out of the mole on her cheek. Dark spectacles most likely hid an awful squint or worse, and, since she never smiled, the earl assumed her teeth were as bad as her eyes. She stood perfectly, rigidly erect, except for the one shoulder that was permanently higher than the other.
Love would have to be deaf and dumb besides to settle on Mrs. Annie Lee. The notion of an unfortunate Mr. Lee offended the earl’s sense of justice. The unfortunate notion of Mrs. Annie Lee in his cozy little love nest offended his aesthetic soul. There just had to be a way of getting the house without this housekeeper from hell.
“You seem young for such a responsible position,” he began with a lie, having no way to guess the woman’s age with so little of her showing. At least she had not gotten out of breath on the stairs.
“I have been holding house for years,” Annalise quickly replied, happy to be telling the truth. She’d been managing Thompson Hall since her mother’s death. “Hen—my aunt Henny trained me. That’s Mrs. Tuthill, in the kitchen,” she added. “Her, ah, rheumatics make it too hard for her to manage anything but the cooking.”
Blast, the witch was a relative to the Tuthills. That meant he’d have to give up the treasure in the kitchens and that man who was a dab hand with the horses, too, just to be rid of her ugly phiz. It was worth it.
“Have you been here long?’ he asked, preparatory to mentioning that he had an old family retainer in mind for the position.
Annalise knew she’d be found out as soon as he made inquiries, so she answered, “Not personally, but the family…” She let her words trail off.
Ross knew all about lines of service passing from father to son, mother to daughter. Hell and tarnation. Well, if he had no grounds to dismiss her on issues of loyalty or longevity, he still had the matter of remuneration. He could just refuse to pay.
“The rental agent mentioned nothing about your salary being included in the terms. I am not prepared to—”
“Oh, but we have nothing to do with the land agent. It’s more a private arrangement with Lady Rosalind. Here.” She whipped a letter out of her pocket, held it under his nose for a moment, then snatched it back. As far as he could tell, Lady Rosalind had abominable handwriting, but her signature was there, all right, under a line that seemed to have read, Annie (something), Always welcome. Stay as long as you want. Fondly.
“Lady Rosalind took her butler and abigail along with her, of course,” Annalise went on, thinking that sounded likely, “but meant for us to stay with the house. She said any gentleman hiring the premises could be expected to honor her commitments.”
That tore it. Gard was trapped with the subtle emphasis on gentleman and honor, the hag’s intention, of course. He’d have to keep her on. At least his mistresses wouldn’t have any jealous complaints. And she seemed surprisingly well spoken for a servant. See, he congratulated himself, there was something to admire even in the homeliest woman. “Yes, yes, I’ll take the house.”
“Excellent. Our salaries amount to eighty pounds per annum. Thirty for myself, twenty for each of the Tuthills, ten for Lorna, the maid. That’s twenty pounds quarterly, payable in advance. Uniforms not included. Vacations and half days as per custom. Additional wages for extra servants for heavy cleaning or large parties shall be determined later. Housekeeping expenses cannot be estimated until we know the style you wish to maintain. Oh, and we require advance notice for company.”
On the other hand, Lord Gardiner told himself, there was nothing whatsoever admirable about an ugly woman with the mind of an accountant and the arrogance of the royal we. He swallowed a sharp retort. The demands were not outrageous. Gads, he spent more than eighty pounds on a pair of boots. He simply was not used to dickering prices with servants—that was Foggarty’s job, or his man of business’s. He had certainly never haggled with a female employee in his life. The women he usually had dealings with were never so vulgar as to mention money at all, merely hinting at a pretty brooch they’d seen or a diamond pendant. That was obviously not suitable in this instance. He nodded curtly.
Annalise released the breath she’d been holding. “Fine. When shall you be bringing Lady Gardiner around to inspect the premises?”
“Lady Gardiner? Mother? Here? When hell freezes over, Mrs. Lee!” Gads, he wondered if the woman was queer in the attic besides being ugly as sin.
“I meant your wife, my lord,” she offered hesitantly.
His bark of laughter shook the hairs on her cheek. “I’m glad to see you have a sense of humor, Mrs. Lee. You were bamming me, weren’t you?” She was wringing her hands again like something out of Macbeth. He laughed again. By all that was holy, the woman was a prude! Here he had the perfect solution, a way to get rid of the cloud and leave the silver lining. “I thought you understood, working for Lady Rosalind and Lord Elphinstone as you did. I shall be bringing lady friends here, daily, nightly, whatever. Of course I’ll give notice when possible, as I agreed.”
He got no response. Blast, he wished he could see behind those tinted lenses! “And I shall expect you to make my…friends welcome. You know, flowers, bonbons, bath salts, the kinds of things women like.” Then again, perhaps she didn’t know. Damn, she was nodding mutely. The woman was as hard to get rid of as a toothache. So be it.
The earl took out a roll of bills and peeled off a small fortune in pound notes. “Here are your wages, and uniform and household expenses. As you can see, I do not wish to stint on anything. I’ll make separate arrangements with Tuthill about acquiring a carriage to leave here, but I wish you to purchase personal items my friends might forget to bring with them, robes, hairbrushes, et cetera. Do you understand?”
The woman was clutching her stomach as if she were about to be sick. Gard refused to feel sorry for her. Be damned if he was going to go shopping for negligees and perfumes when he was paying such a handsome wage. If she wanted the position so badly, she’d just have to earn her keep. “Oh, yes, and fetch me a dressing gown, a banyan or something. Can you do that?”
She grunted her assent, or groaned. He couldn’t tell which, but she took the money from his hand. “I’ll send over a change of clothes later. It will be a relief to have fresh linens on hand. I do like things clean, Mrs. Lee. That’s one of the reasons I decided on this house, your excellent housekeeping. Keep up the high standards and we’ll get along just fine.” He could swear her lip curled, but he went on anyway. “There’s just one thing more, Mrs. Lee, and then I will let you go about your duties. Understand this: you are all sacked if a single word of my involvement here reaches my mother’s ears.”