“Who on earth are you, girl? Where’s Hobson?”
“Begging your pardon, m’lord, Mr Hobson told me to bring you your tea.”
Lord Dartmouth restrained his impulse to cover his papers. She spoke with the thick Devon burr of a woman who would not be able to read, but who would sense furtiveness as keenly as one of his hounds could scent a fox.
“Who are you, girl?” he asked. “Why didn’t Hobson tell me about you?”
“Please, m’lord, I be Daisy Farne. Mr Hobson said he’d try me out for two day.”
“He did, did he?”
Lord Dartmouth would have to have words with Hobson.
The girl put the tea on his desk, curtseyed and lingered until he waved her away. As she turned, he darted out a hand to squeeze her rump. She scuttled away.
No, she wouldn’t do at all. Not even a decent squeal in her.
Lord Dartmouth turned back to his papers, but his concentration had deserted him. What the devil was Hobson thinking? New staff had to be tried out of course, but there was a reason why Hobson cleaned the study himself and a butler’s dignity be damned. Lord Dartmouth had made sure Hobson had invested enough in the scheme that if the magistrate got his hands on these papers, Lord Dartmouth and Hobson would stand side by side in the dock.
Lord Dartmouth poured the tea and took a sip to calm himself. It was cold. He nearly spat it on to his papers.
He tugged the bell-pull that would summon Hobson.
He waited. No sign of Hobson. It really was the limit. When the wicket keeper makes a habit of dropping the ball, a wise captain sends him to the pavilion, but he couldn’t sack Hobson. The scheme tied them to each other.
No harm in giving the man a flea in his ear, and if Hobson wasn’t coming to Lord Dartmouth, Lord Dartmouth would go to Hobson. His appearance in the servant’s downstairs domain would cause enough consternation to underline his point.
He strode through the study door. “Hobson! Where are you, man?”
Hobson was ascending the stairs with a tea tray. Lord Dartmouth found himself chin to pate with him.
“Your tea, m’lord,” said Hobson.
“That you requested.”
“This is the tea I told you to bring?”
Hobson’s voice was as neutral as when Lord Dartmouth’s eight year old son announced he was going to glue feathers to his arms so he could fly like Daedalus.
“Damn it, Hobson. If this is the tea I ordered, why the devil did you send that girl?”
“A girl, m’lord?”
“Yes, the girl. The bloody girl. And where were you when I rang the bell?”
“The bell, m’lord?”
“Yes, Hobson. The girl! The bell!”
“I am very sorry, m’lord, I don’t follow. I’ve sent no girl, nor have I heard the bell.”
“The bell! The bell!”
Lord Dartmouth reached up to the string connecting the study to the kitchen and gave it a tug. He didn’t feel the resistance he expected from a taut string. It slipped out of its guides and slithered to the floor between him and Hobson.
“The string has broken, m’lord,” said Hobson.
“I can see the blasted string’s broken, Hobson, I’m not blind.”
Hobson crouched, put the tea tray on a step and gathered up the string. No doubt he was trying to do his duty for once, but the top of his head was an insolent receptacle for Lord Dartmouth’s upbraiding.
“What about the girl, Hobson? I am asking you about the girl!”
Hobson held up the end of the string. “It isn’t frayed, m’lord. It’s been cut.”
“Frayed, cut, be damned. Will you answer me about the…”
Hobson looked up and their eyes met for a moment in which they were no longer lord and butler, but conspirators facing unmasking.
“The girl.” Hobson stood.
Lord Dartmouth shot up the stairs, leaving Hobson to creak along in his wake. He felt the chill from the open window as soon as he opened the study door. The girl stood at his desk, having changed her maid’s dress for a pair of breeches that would be much more practical for climbing a ladder.
She swept the papers under her arm. He lunged for her. She nudged his chair in front of him with her booted toe. As he stumbled over it, she grabbed his wrist in her free hand and turned it inward with her thumb. He found himself bent over the chair, facing the tops of her boots.
He tried to push forward with his feet and grab her with his other hand. She pressed his wrist. It hurt. he subsided.
“Stay there, Hobson,” she said.
Hobson had must have made it as far as the door, but he wasn’t likely to be much use even if he came into the room. The man couldn’t take an order for tea without letting a wrist-twisting harridan into the study.
“You are aware that trading slaves is now against the law?” Her voice had shed all traces of Devon and moved closer to the capital.
“We can -”
Lord Dartmouth was ready to offer her fifty guineas for the papers, but she tightened her grip and stifled the words in his…it was not a squeal. A cri-de-couer, perhaps, but it definitely did not take the form of a squeal.
“Now if you’ll excuse me,” she said, “I must pay a visit to the magistrate. You’re not going to give me any trouble, are you Hobson.”
She phrased it as a question, but her tone made it a fact.
She released his wrist and stepped around him to the open window. Lord Dartmouth had a blessed moment of pain withdrawn.
Then a slap across his buttocks overturned the chair and sent him sprawling on the floor with a yelp.
“Fat arse,” she said.
He levered himself off the floor with a hand on the side of the chair.
She was gone.