THE SINNING HOUR
The Unmasked Series: Book One
She came from the alleyways, adorned by grime and soot…
Simon Astley has no reason to hire Miranda Post as his housemaid. She has no experience, no credible qualifications. She looks and smells better suited to the East End rookeries than to his West End town house. Worse yet, she reminds him of a soul-staining past he’d prefer to forget.
Unfortunately, she also becomes his fascination.
Physically scarred and lost to a life of poverty, Miranda has but one goal: survival. Although she distrusts her new employer’s generosity, she is determined to save herself, to save her father, and to crawl her way out of despair.
Each wants nothing more than to continue their roles of master and housemaid. But one night, in one sinful hour, when everything changes, a sensual battle begins between the corrupt and the innocent, and to win both Simon and Miranda must lay at stake something neither can afford to lose: their hearts.
Not yet available.
London, September 1851
Simon noticed the stench of her first.
His head was crooked over the ledgers when he answered his housekeeper’s knock, his eyes aching from another night with too little sleep.
Later, he would fault fatigue for erasing his caution. He’d regret seeing his wealth scrawled in unbroken black columns—that splendid lullaby of a miser’s heart, incomparable except to fistfuls of coin.
Later, he would examine the other excuses for his inattention: the three brutes he’d hired as butler and footmen; the house’s hulking brick walls tucked inside its West End bosom; the record he kept of past intruders—all husbands or lovers, all jealousy-stricken and noisy with rage.
For now, a draft heralded the opening of the study door. One he gave no heed, for Simon knew the drafts of the old Georgian town house as one might the breaths of a lover—at times they heaved, at times they shuddered…sometimes, as at present, they scattered like heated little sighs across his skin.
A familiar fragrance disturbed this current: the rose perfume of his housekeeper, Mrs. Dunworth. When she drew near enough, he knew, he would also smell the honeyed essence of beeswax, the raw tang of sweat. The same combination greeted him day after day, as though she dabbed herself from a fluted crystal bottle labeled L’Eau de Domestication.
Something unexpected soon followed the perfume, however—something new. It swallowed the scents of beeswax and sweat. It trapped him on the opposite end of the long, age-muted room, sneaking through the air before he could identify the tap, tap, tap across the threshold as two pairs of footsteps, not one.
Simon ceased breathing, then let the rancid odor invade his nostrils again. His left hand curved around a phantom knife then opened, lonely. Such was the problem with overcoming bad habits: inevitably, despite one’s best intentions, they were missed.
A flick of his wrist shut the ledgers. After confirming the movement hadn’t upset the plate of meat pastries on the desk’s corner, he lifted his head.
A stranger stood beside his housekeeper: a woman. Rather, he assumed her to be female by evidence of the boat-sized bonnet clinging to her face, the dress sagging from her shoulders like a pricked balloon. If he were to judge by streaks of grime and stench alone, she would have better matched a gutter rat.
“Interesting,” he murmured. An original Raphael would have been interesting; this taunted his heart into vicious staccato strikes. “What have we here, Mrs. Dunworth?”
“Another for the new maid’s position, sir.”
Another, her tone said, who shouldn’t have been permitted past the kitchen door.
Simon noted the objection while his gaze roamed over the woman: a hodgepodge of lost and found and possibly stolen. Coal-blackened shoes too wide for her feet. Two strips of muddied stockings. Her dress—tattered, nondescript as sackcloth, and also varnished in mud. A fringed brown shawl served proxy for a breastplate, its ends seized in a fist beneath her high-necked collar. The bonnet would be an heirloom of at least two threadbare generations, or else the last scavenged at the pawn shop.
Between the fraying straw edges Simon caught a gleam; surprise prodded a closer regard.
Yes, her eyes were raised to his, appraising him with an equal amount of boldness. Fancy meeting such a creature in his study.
A lion in rodent’s clothing, as it were.
Seconds ticked thick and slow inside the nearby case clock, lumbering to the end of each pendulum swing. A minute passed, perhaps more, yet not once did she lower her gaze.
If she had shown him defiance only, Simon would have expelled the woman to the streets; the rot of gin and offal and flesh stink alone professed her to be unsuitable for his household. But it was the emotion she tried to conceal—emotion bared by a hitch of her chest, a flutter of her throat—that saved her from immediate ejection.
Desperation… This was what her body betrayed to him. Desperation: a weakness not even the dying in the rookeries cared to show.
He tilted his head. Breathed through his mouth. “Come closer, Miss…?”
She stiffened, the threads of her shawl-armor straining at her shoulders. “Post.”
“Miss Post, sir,” Mrs. Dunworth corrected. “And mind your curtsy.”
Simon’s attention snapped to the right. “You may leave us, Mrs. Dunworth.”
The housekeeper retreated beyond the study door: an example of obedience much deserving of emulation. The stranger, contrary to Mrs. Dunworth, made no move to accede to his wishes. She remained a sculptured warrior, straight and vigilant, patterned by shadows. An extension of the gloom unfurled on either side.
Indeed, she and the Tatham side table were of such accord, he might have dismissed her as similarly functional if not for her stare…and that persistent, irritating, foul-as-devil’s-teeth odor which continued to crawl inside his lungs.
A breath of laughter, unsolicited and painful, rose from his throat. Of course this would be his penance; how subtly cruel a torment.
He’d have preferred hanging his head over a chimney stack for an hour.
And yet, despite his reaction to the nauseating bouquet of poverty and despair—perhaps because of it—he stifled a second impulse to send her away.
He’d believed himself safe. Because he owned a town house with ceilings wreathed in doves and flora instead of mold? Because the rooms weren’t besieged by cockroaches but by servants who supposed him to be more human than demon?
The idea of safety became more ludicrous with each inhalation.
Here was proof of how near the grasping tangle of East End streets lay, of cobblestones slicked by blood as much as human excretion and vomited gin. Here stood evidence of how far he had yet to go, of how much he had yet to do: this begrimed, drab, fleck of a woman, who—requiring at most three hours on foot—had emerged from London’s abscess with its stench beaded on her clothes like poison.
His fingertips had curled into his palm and turned numb. Now he gestured with a flourish, choosing to pretend as if this reminder of his past bothered him no more than gristle inside a piece of mutton pie.
He’d become quite adept at pretending over the years.
“Well, Miss Post? Let us see you curtsy as a proper maid.”
She acquiesced with a movement quick and rough, a graceless fumble of limbs and skirt. Hips wobbled. Shoulders canted. Her mouth emitted the smallest sound of dismay: a glass-thin arpeggio of indrawn air.
He found himself tensed, more agonized than entertained by her struggle for balance.
He would’ve liked to have been entertained. An indolent smile waited offstage, but he couldn’t bear the contrivance at present. A lion—even one so filthily disguised—warranted more dignity than this.
The spectacle worsened as she tried to rise, and he feared she would go spilling to the floor, a torrent of disrupted courage and splayed appendages. As ordinary as the other large brown puddles ornamenting the city’s streets and alleyways.
His chair scraped from the desk at the same time she righted herself and stood again. Her gaze wavered then locked with his own, and Simon released a breath. He imagined them both secretly bemused by his belated attempt at heroics.
Once returned to his seat, he steepled his fingers. “Are you ill, Miss Post?”
“Sir,” he reminded idly. “One would think you’ve never had occasion to curtsy before.”
“Do you refuse to answer me?”
“You did not ask a question…sir.”
He blinked. Dragged the point of his fingertips across his mouth, back and forth, slowly. “Come closer, Miss Post,” he invited a second time.
She gave a single step.
Another step. Inside the well of her bonnet there were eyes, a nose, mouth: all ill-defined shapes any stranger might possess.
“Hmm. You do make a convincing mouse, though I have no intention of catching you. I prefer my prey to have bathed within the past month, you see, not to reek of refuse and cheap liquor.”
First he invited her to stay because he saw her vulnerability; as though he existed as the embodiment of charity.
And now he offended her.
He could only compare it to the boys who snickered and pretended not to blush when viewing the statue of The Greek Slave at the Great Exhibition. Though Miss Post stood neither naked nor chained, he felt just as voyeuristic and discomfited, too aware of his own cynicism.
Surely this display of fortitude was meant for someone who could appreciate the effort. Someone less likely to wager on how soon she’d flounder.
Yes, he wished to offend her—God forbid he be the one before whom her composure failed.
“Just a little farther,” he said when she remained silent and immobile. “Come here, Miss Post.”
He motioned toward the carpet of blue and burgundy lying in front of his desk. Most of the curtains in the room were kept closed, but here the sun found its canvas, painting the Savonnerie in a golden rectangle of light. It was one of his favorite places in the house, serving to blind his guests while simultaneously leaving them exposed and illuminated for his regard.
Let her come to him and hear his questions, or let her refuse and be sent away. He needed a maid, one obedient and dutiful. A maid, willing to follow instructions without hesitation.
Thankfully, the brave lion before him seemed incapable of such a task.
Yet a moment later he watched as she strode the length of the room. When she reached the center of the Savonnerie she froze, then, as if to compensate for her earlier failure, sank into a curtsy deep enough to give homage to the Queen.
His eyes narrowed. “Have you any references?”
“No, sir,” she replied, her head bent horizontally to the carpet at her feet.
“Have you worked as a maid previously?”
“You read in the ad that I am a nude portraitist. Are you likely to run off, your sensibilities offended, as others have before you?”
He wondered whether she intended to remain in the position of poor, groveling subject for the entirety of the interview. “You may stand.”
She straightened. The westward sun should have pierced all of the secrets masked by her bonnet, yet she angled her chin until only a quarter of her features was surrendered into bright, shining revelation. Sunlight bisected the pool of one light eye and a dark winged brow; a stripe of pale skin gleamed along her jaw where the grime had failed to touch.
Simon’s fingers formed leisurely circles on the chair’s arm as his gaze traced over her face, considering.
“What was your last position?” he asked, then broke in with a smile before she could respond, one he usually reserved for the urging away of corsets and stockings. “You may confide in me, Miss Post. As your potential employer, surely I deserve to hear more than a one- or two-word reply.”
“I had applied to be a teacher at an academy for young ladies. Before I could leave for the position, my family fell ill. My mother and brother died. My father and I did not. I have not worked elsewhere.”
She related the tale without feeling—no sadness, no bitterness, no anger; not one emotion attached to this morbid recitation.
Her voice grated like chips of glass, though he couldn’t tell whether to attribute the hoarseness to nature, nerves, or an illness she had earlier denied. She enunciated each syllable clearly, in the educated way of the middle class, but he knew well how one could ape the accent of another station.
She presented a portrait of contradictions, Miss Post did: defiance and desperation; reluctance and assent; clumsiness one moment followed by a flowing grace the next; the appearance of a dock worker’s wife with the speech of a governess.
What surprised Simon the most, however, was that after studying her for more than a quarter hour, he still couldn’t determine which of these to be more truth than lie.
As a result, he found himself fascinated. Unwillingly distracted.
Even the odor diffused around her eased its grip on his senses, diverting his attention to the rigidity of her posture. Except to obey his directions, she didn’t move. Her fingers didn’t pluck at her shawl or skirt; her feet didn’t show a shifting of weight. Only her chest rose and fell in rebellion, and he imagined she condemned her lungs for this treason of breathing.
She was dull.
She was extraordinary.
She was his Mona Lisa: easily judged at first yet becoming more mysterious the longer he stared.
“Go on.” He settled further into the chair, into the accustomed posture of affable hedonist. “Why are you here now? Why not continue on to the academy as planned?” He lifted a brow. “I expect you wrote to your employer to inform them of your plight.”
“After the…deaths, my father was not the same.” Her hand clung to the shawl as if it might tighten into a noose were she less cautious. “I must find a position so I can care for him. That is why I am here.”
“But you do not wish to be here.”
Despite the smell, he almost regretted sitting and not standing before her, head inclined, close enough to feel the breath depart her lips and sough against his cheek.
Doubtless he would have felt her stop breathing at that moment.
“I would like this position.”
Not a contradiction, precisely. “You’ve never been employed as a maid.”
“I am diligent and quick to learn.”
“You are also reluctant and hesitant to please. That’s been clear from the beginning. I’m not surprised my housekeeper didn’t want you here.”
“Please.” The word came strangled from her throat: a prisoner breaking free from its dungeon cell.
Pride and desperation.
But again, it was the desperation that arrested his attention, left him transfixed as a movement of her mouth showed the inward draw of her lips, a swift wetting with her tongue.
“Please. I will happily tell you anything you wish.”
A pretty offer… And a half-truth, he suspected. She might become more earnest in her responses, concede the requisite number of words, but only enough to leave him placated.
He examined the ledgers he had left in disarray. Picking them up one by one, he stacked them neatly together. “I believe I’ve heard everything that interests me,” he said, then paused as he noticed a smear of ink along one ledger’s upper edge. He licked his thumb and rubbed it away. “You have no references, no experience in service, no qualifications beyond the dubious talents an instructor of young ladies must acquire. There is only one matter left, Miss Post.”
He stroked the spine of the last ledger, the supple leather its own caress against his callused skin. He was quiet—patient, ever patient now; he imagined he could hear the anxious knock of her heartbeat, feel the scrutiny she gave to his every movement. She likely resented him, perhaps had even come to hate him because she’d resorted to begging in his presence. He didn’t mind; he also resented her for not being an ordinary maid, for being more than a simple gutter rat…for attracting and holding his attention when the only fascination he’d allowed himself these past six years was for his art. And sometimes, even painting naked women lost its allure.
Finally, he lifted his eyes, waited for hers to move up from his desk. She had repositioned herself on the carpet, the length of her bonnet again a barrier between her face and the autumn sun. Their gazes collided—his a blade, flat and sharp; hers dark and wary.
“Remove your bonnet.”
“Shall I repeat the order?” Simon smiled faintly. “If you become a maid here, you’ll have no more than a mobcap to cover your hair. Disregarding your stench and the state of your clothing—both of which can be remedied—I require my staff to make a suitable presentation.” The next words spilled rich and decadent from his tongue, more satisfying than the finest blancmange. “I wish to know what you’ve hidden beneath the bonnet.”
She averted her gaze toward his desk, and he added softly, “You may leave now, Miss Post.”
Her hands responded to this dismissal by reaching for the knot beneath her chin. Unhurried, as if she were a lady just returned from a stroll; he half expected to hear humming as her matchstick fingers drew the ribbons apart. Her shawl, being released from her hold, slipped up and off her shoulders, dragged along her skirt, and formed a dreary brown stain upon the carpet beneath her feet.
At last, every shadow was banished as she removed the bonnet and let it hang by her side. The sunlight cascaded over her skin, forcing her to tip her head and close her eyes, granting him the freedom to study her as openly as he wished.
Simon leaned forward; he couldn’t quite help himself.
Brown hair, parted in the center, acted as a frame for the oval structure of her face. Her cheekbones were broad, her forehead high. The cleft in the curve of her chin lent a needed touch of femininity to the brash strokes of her jaw. Beauty retreated at the jut of her nose, the narrow line of her upper lip. Her closed eyes were deep-set beneath bold slanting brows, her lashes dark and trembling, and the red tint to her cheeks, veiled by a glaze of dirt, bloomed across her skin in a manner as careful as her words.
These details he gathered in seconds, following the light over her features as if she were just another model for his canvas.
Not until after this analysis, not until after he frowned and searched her face again, trying to understand why she concealed herself with shadows, did he go still; any hope he’d had for reducing her to a mere arrangement of hollows and angles disappeared.
She was perfection. Absolute perfection.
He stood and strode from behind the desk, the creaking of the floor underfoot announcing his advance. She gasped then clamped her lips, but her eyes remained shut.
“Your face”—Simon touched her jaw—“is perfectly symmetrical.” He urged her chin toward him, until he could see her fully, then felt the air wrenched from his lungs. “Or perhaps it’s not,” he finished, almost tenderly.
A large welt clawed the left side of her face from ear to the center of her cheek. Presumably painful, it glared scarlet despite the dirt: a fresh wound, the bleeding recently ceased.
No. Mistaken again. Healed, puckered skin furrowed near the edges.
His gaze traced the malevolent curve, lingering, and he heard himself utter something low and wordless, as if to soothe.
How vulnerable she appeared now. How weak and powerless. He had observed her these last minutes wearing the bonnet and so knew her strength, but someone who first saw her bared might assume she was fragile, incapable of defending herself from harm.
Below his fingertips, her pulse lurched and thrashed against her dirt-browned throat.
“You’ve been refused work because of this.”
One couldn’t have visitors gawking at the servants, after all, though he supposed she could have done well as a kitchen or scullery maid. He discarded the idea of suggesting jobs outside of service—in the factories, perhaps, where productivity ruled over appearance. He also shrugged off the knowledge that his housemaids’ work included the front rooms, where she would be subjected to his guests’ stares quite frequently.
“How many times, Miss Post?”
Her eyes opened and her pupils constricted in the sunlight. She had brilliant irises—the clear, pale green of a leaf bud newly formed, their purity striking given her otherwise wretched state.
“Yours is the eighth ad, sir.”
He stepped back, withdrawing his hand. The decision came easily now.
As a reminder of the darkness he’d escaped, he wouldn’t have hired her. For all of her contrasts and contradictions, he would have sent her away. Even the suspected symmetry of her face couldn’t have induced him to keep her. Any of these aspects might have resulted in his continued fascination, and fascination for one of his maids—for anyone—was not something Simon could accept.
He circled her, his hands inside his pockets, relishing the sense of his bones aligning again, no longer volatile and threatening to explode from his skin.
Well, it seemed he’d underrated that lesser emotion.
Pity—colder than compassion, requiring only an acknowledgment of her lamentable circumstances—meant nothing.
He could even pity her and determine how best to make use of such an injury in the same breath… Certainly no other maid would work so hard once she was bathed and trained; Miss Post’s scar, unlike the filth covering her body, could never be washed away. Her choices for employment would remain negligible despite any experience she obtained. Yes, he could use the scar to trap her here if he wished.
He paused. None of these thoughts should have pleased him as they so thoroughly did.
“Four maids in the past six months have left my employ.” He bent to retrieve her shawl and held it out. “However, my misfortune has become your good luck. You say you are quick to learn. Give me competence and obedience, and you’ll have no reason to fear being turned out for your wound.”
She made no reply.
“This means I have hired you, Miss Post. You may react now.”
She nodded, a jerk of her head, and seized the shawl from his grasp.
Simon moved to ring for Mrs. Dunworth then strolled back toward the desk, his thoughts already turned to the figures waiting inside his ledgers. If not for the enduring stench in his nostrils, he told himself, he’d have forgotten his new servant altogether.
Unfortunately, no matter how adept he’d become at pretending over the years, he’d yet to begin believing his own lies.
Miranda wrapped the shawl around her shoulders then returned the bonnet to her head, carefully tying the ribbons in a bow. Shadows edged her vision as she watched Mr. Astley stride back to his chair.
Envy curled in her chest at the way he moved: no tucking of the chin or stooping of the shoulders for him. No hustling as if through dank and filthy lanes, racing toward the salvation of the next alley. He had a home, clothes without tatters or holes, security. She, too, would have strutted about.
She, once, had also been fearless.
Despite her attempt at restraint, her gaze flew to the plate of food on his desk. The tower of food. Pastries stacked so thick and high, with golden, flaky crusts, and he ignored them all. Hadn’t even spared them a glance while toying with her earlier, arranging his books into their own sturdy little tower.
Cherry. They would be cherry tarts, she was certain. The sauce sweet and voluptuous, juice exploding from the bits of fruit and gushing over her tongue. A buttery shell, so soft and moist as it crumbled against the roof of her mouth—
God. Saliva ran slick over the insides of her cheeks. Her stomach clenched with greedy fervor.
Wicked, her father had called her, for daring to seek work from a nude portraitist. Wicked, he said she’d become, convinced her duties in such a household would mimic those of a harlot.
Perhaps he’d been right, Miranda thought, swaying a little. She’d stood in Astley’s house for less than an hour and already felt quite wicked. Envy and greed and taking the Lord’s name in vain. Next, the sins of theft and gluttony. Lust, presumably, could not be far behind.
Astley had hired her. Hired, when she’d received nothing but threats and sneers seven times before. And all she could think of was snatching the plate of pastries and scurrying away like the mouse he’d likened her to, hunkering down in the nearest corner as she shoveled the tarts into her mouth—one, two, three…there would never be enough to calm the gnawing inside.
“Miss Post?” Suddenly he was there, in front of her again, his hand cupping her elbow.
How she resented him for his casual disregard of the pastries, for knowing he need only ring the servants’ bell to summon more food from his kitchens. He should have emptied the plate upon its delivery; the contents should be stretching and warming his stomach rather than lying there untouched, taunting her.
He probably knew nothing of hunger’s sour taste, of these awful black shadows that dimmed sight, of the cold and hollowing numbness. He’d likely dripped with sweat under the summer sun, when at noon in August not even a shawl and her thickest stockings had succeeded in keeping her warm.
Indeed, he was hotter than the sun now: the fingers he closed about her arm sent heat sinking into her skin, through her flesh, to her very bones. Miranda fought the instinct to lean into him, to climb up and wind her body around his. She could steal his food and all of his heat and not worry about hunger or cold until tomorrow.
Hired. The word whispered again in her mind. She’d not yet settled her faith on it, though. It sounded like a promise. A very nice promise, but then she knew how transient promises could be. And this one didn’t possess nearly as much substance as the endless ache to which she woke and fell asleep each day.
“Miss Post?” he repeated, neither altering the inquiry’s volume or tone. He seemed to employ patience like some men used a blade; it made her wary. “You denied illness yet appear as if you might collapse at any moment. And retrieving you from the floor would be very inconvenient. The mud, you see.”
The whores across from the tenement would have crawled all over themselves for a chance at Mr. Simon Astley, so kind and chivalrous was he.
“Come now,” he coaxed. She wondered whether he was conscious of stroking the inside of her elbow with his thumb, whether a caress—like patience—was just another of his tools in extracting information. She wondered whether he realized she had mud at her elbow, too. “We’re not strangers anymore, are we? You may tell me the truth.”
She hadn’t said the words in two months. She’d rather have stolen the pastries, but his grip wouldn’t allow her escape. She darted another covetous glance at the plate and immediately felt her pulse throb with regret.
Foolish. Foolish. Confessing her weakness in such a way.
Astley tilted his head, studying her, then twisted to look behind him. His fingers flexed against her arm, five burning points of possession. When he turned back his expression was inscrutable. “You’re hungry.”
Her constant, silent litany. It chased her during the day, at night. When she walked, when she sat, when she lay down. Even after she ate the food her father hadn’t consumed, for those few scraps did nothing to fill her stomach. The words felt engraved in her thoughts, as permanent as the color of her eyes, the birthmark on the inside of her right knee. The scar on her cheek.
Still, she couldn’t say it aloud.
Astley stared for a moment then led her—or rather, dragged her—to one of the chairs across from his desk. A victory: she only stumbled once.
“When did you eat last?” He released her arm and motioned for her to sit. Miranda found herself grateful for the way he treated her: with the assumption she was more steel than china. As if she could not break.
Seconds passed as she weighed each of his syllables and struggled to follow with an appropriate response. Before, during her interview, he’d simply gone on talking. Now he stood and waited, his gaze steady on hers as she sifted through words.
“Two days ago,” she finally said, her heart beating faint and frantic. She cleared her throat. “I had a loaf of bread.” And then she smiled at him.
It was a ferocious overstatement. Her first theft, and she’d been so clumsy from shame and fear that she’d torn off only one tiny corner of the loaf, a piece little more than crumbs.
Astley reached for the plate of pastries; a resonant anticipation vibrated from the top of Miranda’s head to her toes like he’d instead reached deep inside her and plucked a string. He shoved one of the pastries into her hand, his fingers squeezing hers around the food.
“Here,” he said. “Eat.”
She wanted to keep it trapped inside her fist, to never let it go. Instead, she ripped off piece after piece and stuffed them into her mouth. When the crust became lodged in her throat, she pushed another bite in and swallowed the obstruction. Astley watched her closely, his gaze following the pastry when she lifted the remainder to her lips and bit into the center.
Not cherry. Meat. Pork. Or…beef? It was the best food she’d ever eaten, and heat surged into her cheeks and up into her scalp. More warmth spread in currents from her stomach to her arms and legs and along her spine. Her heart still raced, but the movement felt fierce now instead of weak. Her thoughts, scattered heretofore like stones cast from a child’s hand, began assembling themselves into coherence.
When she finished the first piece, he nodded toward another. A few minutes later, she took a third.
Halfway through the fourth, when her stomach grew uncomfortable, Astley smiled and leaned his hips against the desk. A low sound of approval encouraged her when she reached toward the plate for a fifth, and when she sought a sixth pastry he lifted it from the dish and extended his hand.
Their fingertips touched as hasty footsteps entered the room behind her. “Yes, sir?” Mrs. Dunworth asked.
He relinquished the pastry to Miranda. “I’ve decided to hire Miss Post. We intend to celebrate with a tea service.”
Miranda ate despite her surprise. She ignored the voice she’d obeyed all of her life, the one that urged her to stop before she became ill, to cling to the last of her dignity and act more human than animal. This was the same voice that had prevented her from stealing for so long, then attacked her with shame when she did.
She’d ceased listening to the sound of her own righteousness when the crumbs she’d stolen had disappeared with one swallow. She would eat everything Astley offered, even if her stomach must purge itself once or twice before she could do so.
“Do you have a particular food you prefer with your tea, Miss Post?”
Miranda’s chewing slowed. His question confused her…and made her even warier. He’d said he would hire her, had kept her from fainting. Strange enough he gave her the food from his desk instead of sending her below stairs; stranger still to take tea with her, too.
His kindnesses were excessive.
She glanced up then blinked, feeling as if the world which had righted itself as she ate abruptly became upended again. As if her previous interactions must have occurred in a different room with a different man. The one who fed her had vanished, revealing in his place another whose attention was far too invasive, a man much more dangerous than any who might only lead her into various acts of debauchery.
For the first time since entering his study, all thoughts of hunger and food retreated before the excruciating intensity of Astley’s blue eyes. So fiercely he stared—as though searching inside of her for pieces of her soul.
She couldn’t breathe. Dear God, she couldn’t breathe.
Then his gaze flicked over her head, toward the housekeeper, and Miranda’s answer rushed from her mouth. “Cherry tarts, please.”
He inclined his head toward Mrs. Dunworth. “And cherry tarts, too.”
After the housekeeper left, the voice inside Miranda prompted. “Thank you for the food,” she said, forgetting to ignore it.
“Please and thank you, Miss Post?” he murmured. The plate of meat pastries, its contents reduced to a small hill, spun beneath his fingertips. “If I’d known all you required for good manners was food in your stomach, I’d have asked Mrs. Dunworth to bring an entire sideboard at the beginning of your interview.”
A jest. He made a jest.
His eyes didn’t laugh, however; they regarded her with a polite deference, as one would treat a tolerated third cousin who unexpectedly came to call.
For a moment she remained motionless, bewildered by the sense that she’d just witnessed some sort of con. Gone was the sudden intimacy he’d forced on her, gone was the connection he’d demanded, and Miranda pressed her toes into the floor, her calves aching—as though she could ground her trembling there, destroyed and forgotten with an equal amount of efficiency.
He was supposed to be lecherous.
He was supposed to be salacious and obscene.
She would have preferred stupid. Insipid. Evil.
Anything other than this, this cruel shifting between generosity and interest and remoteness, an act that left her exposed, always exposed, a woman forever made destitute by men who couldn’t decide which parts they wished to play and who took twice as much as they gave and who left her with nothing—absolutely nothing—but helplessness in return.
A knock sounded on the study door.
“Enter,” Astley called.
These footsteps fell heavier on the boards. “Mr. Utermann is waiting in the drawing room, sir,” a man’s voice informed.
Miranda didn’t look around to see whether he was the butler or a footman. She did nothing but stare past Astley’s desk to the rows of books beyond. After a moment she lifted the pastry she held in her hand—the pastry she’d forgotten—and continued to eat.
“Give him whatever refreshment he desires until I’m done here,” Astley said to the servant, “as well as my apologies for the delay.”
On Miranda’s second bite the significance of his earlier words thrummed through her: she was Astley’s servant now, too.
He had hired her for the maid’s position. This was the important part, not who he was or how he acted. She would regard him as a step. Another step to rescuing her father. To crawling her way out of despair. She would not break.
She stilled when the footsteps retreated, but Astley didn’t speak again. Instead he walked around his desk and sat, sorting through the tower of books until he bent his head over one in particular. Miranda counted the lethargic ticking of the nearby clock while waiting for the muscles in her stomach to uncoil. She peered about the room as she finished the pastry.
The only illumination came from the window behind her, where the sun saluted a hazy farewell. The tenement was a coffin of windowless walls, but here Astley had so many that he could choose to cover all but one with curtains.
A surfeit of books lined the shelves behind his desk: a ceiling to floor collection of pages to be read instead of used for kindling. Elsewhere stood statues and pedestals, costly objects that served no purpose but to be admired. Paintings peppered the walls like shrapnel, jumbled rows and columns not of nudes that might advertise his work, but of docile landscapes and foamy seascapes and somber fruits in bowls.
All pretty and expensive and all useless for survival.
Miranda’s throat grew tight, and she imagined the air itself had a texture of wealth, a heaviness composed of age and silence, poised to suffocate any who didn’t belong.
She focused on a corner of the desk as she swallowed the last bite, then stood when she heard Mrs. Dunworth enter through the study door again. She might lack previous experience as a servant, but she could certainly arrange a tea service.
Astley noticed her movement and frowned. “Sit.”
She practiced obedience and sat. Spine straightened, hands clasped. Her body caked in half the mud of Vallance Road as she watched the housekeeper lay out the service so Miranda could take tea with a man paid for the pleasure of painting naked women.
Perhaps she’d have understood him better if he’d continued treating her as a curiosity. If he’d stared again, or asked questions about her scar—or, to the contrary, if he’d dismissed her because he wearied of her presence. But he seemed content to keep her there and ignore her, as though he were a schoolboy and she a day-old toy, forgotten until his next whimsy to play.
Miranda acknowledged the words with grim humor. She really must try to evoke new comparisons in the future. A resilient pug, perhaps.
The housekeeper stirred milk and sugar into Astley’s cup. When she looked at Miranda with a raised brow—her expression vacant of any thoughts as to the new maid taking tea with the master—Miranda said, “Black, please.” Because it seemed prudent to show, despite his treatment of her, that she didn’t believe herself Astley’s equal.
“Give her milk and sugar, too,” Astley said without looking up. “At least three spoonfuls of each.”
The same as his.
Miranda smiled at Mrs. Dunworth, certain her teeth would crack behind the brittle gesture. But the housekeeper remained expressionless as she finished with the tea. After she removed the warming lid from a silver dish, she curtsied and again retreated from the room.
Cherry tarts lay stacked high on the plate she’d uncovered—another tower.
Like the meat pastries, these too were golden and flaky. But the meat pastries had cooled and gave off no scent, while the aroma of the cherry tarts seemed to burst from their tops along with the bright red filling.
Miranda inhaled sharply, willing away the images from the past conjured by the smell of warm sugar. She ignored the protestations of her stomach, which had no memory of ever being less than glutted.
She glanced toward the desk as she reached for the first tart. The man on the other side fit well with the room’s lacquer of wealth: the precise trim of his bronze-coin hair and the smooth, sharp planes of his jaw; the stiff press of his jacket and the neck cloth no wrinkle would dare malign. She could see the fingernails of his left hand as it curved around the book, as though shielding the contents from her view, and these too gleamed in the faint light.
He was the opposite of her dishevelment, all crispness and polish and solemn masculine elegance, and Miranda should have felt powerless, perhaps, in comparison. Or inferior or bitter, because he had so much when she had so little.
She pondered in amazement the force of goodwill one plate of cherry tarts could summon, for all she felt, in truth, was a sweeping rush of gratitude. Not even her prior resentment or knowledge of the ceaseless, weary burden she carried could stop its tide.
“Thank you, Mr. Astley, for hiring me. I neglected to say so before.”
His thumb paused in tapping against the page’s upper edge. After several moments he turned his head toward the cherry tarts. Then he lifted his gaze and said, “You’re welcome, Miss Post”, his voice low, reserved, and yet a new sort of heat rose to Miranda’s skin as if kindled by his command.
Her heartbeat stalled in realization:
Lust had come at last.