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Winterberry Fire: A Silver Foxes of Westminster Novella (Winterberry Park Book 2) by Merry Farmer (1)

Chapter 1

Winterberry Park, Wiltshire – February, 1880

Ada Bell stood at attention in line with the rest of the maids and footmen of Winterberry Park, trying not to shiver in the icy February breeze. She still didn’t quite understand why every servant in the house needed to stand out on display when the master of the house, Mr. Alexander Croydon, and his wife and son departed for London. But she liked the Croydons. She enjoyed seeing them happy after such a difficult autumn, and if her job required her to wave goodbye to them from the front steps of the grand house, then so be it.

Mr. Croydon helped his wife into the carriage that would take them down to Lanhill’s train station, then handed his son, James, in after her. Ada’s heart squeezed with joy at the boy’s smiling face. Master James was a treasure. So was his nursemaid, her friend Ruby. As Mr. Croydon waved to the staff and climbed into the main carriage, Ada’s gaze shifted to the smaller carriage carrying the family’s luggage. Ruby and her new fiancé, Gilbert Phillips, Mr. Croydon’s man of business, looked so happy together. They’d been through the wringer, but Ada was confident that the two of them had nothing but happiness on the horizon. Especially if Ruby was able to stay in London as much as possible and far, far away from the troubles she’d encountered at Winterberry Park.

Ada shot a sideways look at her fellow upstairs maids, the sisters Mary and Martha Mull. The two of them were as spiteful, malicious, and meddlesome as anyone could be. They wore looks of complete innocence as they waved to the Croydons, but as soon as their employers weren’t looking, their expressions turned sour. Mary narrowed her eyes at Ruby and muttered, “Good riddance.”

Ada wanted nothing more than to tell Mary off for being a miserable old cow, but Mrs. Musgrave, the housekeeper, cleared her throat loudly. It was as good as a scolding, and a warning for them to keep quiet.

Before climbing into the smaller carriage, Ruby sent a wide smile and a subtle wave Ada’s way. Risking Mrs. Musgrave’s wrath, Ada waved back quickly. It truly did make her heart light to see her friend happy at last. Mr. Phillips helped her into the carriage, then climbed in after her. Ada sighed. He was so handsome, in spite of being ginger, and Ruby was truly the luckiest woman alive. She was glad that all the servants were allowed to wave as the two carriages pulled away from the house and started down the lane to the road. They were supposed to be waving at Mr. and Mrs. Croydon, but she was waving at her friends. Ruby even peeked out the window to smile at her one more time.

“Ugh. What a rotten kettle of fish that is,” Martha sniffed, lowering her hand once the carriages were gone and the servants began to disperse.

“That little whore gets away with everything,” Mary agreed.

Ada’s temper instantly soared. “How dare you criticize Ruby when you know you’re no better yourself?”

“I never sold myself to anyone,” Mary said, tilting her nose in the air and crossing her arms.

“No,” Ada agreed, crossing her arms as well. “You give it away to Wat Harmon.”

“Shut your gob!” Mary shouted, falling back into the lower class accent she’d been raised with. Her cheeks blazed red, though, hinting that Ada spoke the truth. She recovered fast enough to jerk her chin up and say, “Well, at least I have a bloke interested in me.”

“Unlike some people,” Martha continued where Mary left off. “Some people can only go sniffing around uptight schoolteachers who wouldn’t know what to do with a woman if he had one splayed in his lap.”

Ada gasped, fury and embarrassment heating her. “Mr. Turnbridge is a very nice man who has been kind enough to give me lessons after work,” she snapped.

“I bet he gives you lessons,” Martha drawled.

“He’s taught me to read and write and do my figures,” Ada said, standing taller.

“Figures, you say?” Mary exchanged a look with Martha. “I bet I know whose figure he’s studying.”

“That man?” Martha snorted and shook her head. “He’s a moony-eyed fool who doesn’t know what a cock is for.”

Martha and Mary laughed, but Ada shook with rage. “Mr. Turnbridge is a gentleman.”

“Sure he is, love,” Martha laughed. “A gentleman’s gentleman.”

“He is not,” Ada insisted.

“And how would you know?” Mary sneered.

“Girls!” The conversation was cut short as Mrs. Musgrave marched back out of the house, where the rest of the staff had retreated, and stood at the top of the stairs, hands on her hips. She glared at the three maids and shook her head. “Just because the Croydons have left for London for the season does not mean you are on holiday. We have a mountain of work to do. Every room in the house needs a thorough cleaning, from top to bottom. Starting now.”

“Yes, Mrs. Musgrave,” Ada murmured, along with Mary and Martha. Regardless of how they felt about each other, if they didn’t get their work done, they’d all have hell to pay.

Ada picked up her skirts and scurried into the house under Mrs. Musgrave’s furious frown. The housekeeper was right about the work they had to do. Having the Croydons in residence meant they were at their employers’ beck and call day and night, even though they hadn’t done much entertaining, thanks to the difficulties they’d gone through. But now that they were gone, the entire house really would be scrubbed from top to bottom. Linens would be changed in every bedroom, even the ones that hadn’t been used. Carpets would be taken outside and beaten. Floors and walls would be scrubbed to remove the soot of the fireplaces that had been burning all winter and the lanterns that illuminated the house at night. Fireplaces would be scrubbed and the fireirons polished to a shine. Every inch of brass and silver would be polished, wax would be scoured off of floors and furniture in rooms that were lit by candles instead of gas, and every inch of wood in the house would be oiled and polished.

And yet, despite all that work, there would be more time in the upcoming weeks for rest. The Croydons wouldn’t be back until summer, and without grand dinners to plan and prepare, the staff would have more time for their own pursuits. Which meant they’d be able to participate in activities in town for a change. Like the upcoming Valentine’s Day dance.

Ada sighed and smiled to herself as she unhooked the curtains in the morning parlor and brought them down from their rods to be washed. She’d been looking forward to the dance ever since she heard about it, just after Christmas. Dances were the perfect place to start a romance. And as much as she resented it, Mary was right. She was sweet on Tim Turnbridge. Tim was good and kind. He was handsome in a way that was so much more refined than the working-class men and farmers she’d been around most of her life. Rumor had it that he was actually the son of a nobleman, but that he’d had a falling out with his family when he’d told them he wanted to open his own school to educate village children. Whether that was true or not, Ada adored the fact that he was so dedicated, even if his school now had so many children in it that he couldn’t always keep order. She’d helped out on the rare occasions that her duties at Winterberry Park had let her, but more than anything, she was grateful that Tim had let her come to the school at night to learn. Reading had opened whole new worlds to her.

“Look at her,” Mary’s derisive voice popped the bubble of Ada’s happy thoughts. “Dreaming away while covered in curtain dust.”

“We all have to dream,” Ada insisted, folding the curtain and taking it to the pile that would be washed that afternoon.

“She’s dreaming of that milksop teacher,” Martha said.

The sisters were carrying buckets of steaming water and rags to wash the windows as Ada took the curtains down. In spite of the work, with their sleeves rolled up and their backs no longer ramrod straight in case the Croydons saw them, they were the picture of insolence and informality.

“Tim is not a milksop,” Ada insisted, walking back to the ladder she had set up against one window to fetch another curtain. “He’s sophisticated.”

“Ooh!” Mary and Martha intoned together, making fun of her.

“Sophisticated,” Martha said.

“Is that what they’re calling it these days?” Mary added.

Ada let out a breath and shook her head as she climbed the ladder to unhook the next curtain. She shouldn’t let the sisters get under her skin. They were just two rotten apples, not the whole barrel. All the same, she would have given her eye teeth to find a way to get back at the two of them for the way they’d treated Ruby.

Unfortunately, it was clear that they held a grudge against her for sticking up for Ruby and trying to discredit them.

“I wonder what Timmy-Tim-Tim would do if faced with a real woman,” Mary said, plumping her ample bosom and shooting Ada a look.

“I think he’d run screaming,” Martha snorted.

“And I think he’d unman himself within seconds,” Mary said. “He’d be begging for it on his knees.”

“He’d do no such thing,” Ada growled, scolding herself for listening to them.

“How would you know?” Martha called to her from across the room, where she and Mary had started on the windows. “Have you ever tried anything with him?”

Ada kept her mouth shut. She knew they were either trying to upset her or get information from her, and, either way, she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. But she had tried to subtly catch Tim’s fancy before, only with mixed results. Perhaps she’d been too subtle. Perhaps a stronger approach was needed.

As if summoned by her thoughts, as she brought the curtain down the ladder, she glanced out the window and saw Tim strolling up the drive. Her heart caught in her throat, and a warm blush spread across her cheeks.

“I’m just going to take this load downstairs,” she said in a rush, crossing the room to gather an armful of heavy curtains.

“Aren’t Tad and the other footmen going to take those down?” Martha asked.

Ada barely heard her. She was already at the door, rushing into the hall. She left the load of heavy curtains inside the doorway before pushing open the huge front door and stepping onto the front stairs just as Tim arrived.

“Oh.” He stopped suddenly and blinked when he saw her. A fond grin spread across his handsome face. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“I spotted you coming up the lane,” Ada said with a conspiratorial wink. “I thought if I got here first, I might be able to talk to you.”

Tim’s smile widened. “Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?”

Ada’s heart fluttered, and her fingers went numb. She couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Not one word made it to her lips. Her mind was a blank. All she wanted to do was look at Tim, how handsome he was, tall and dark, with a fine suit and fetching bowler hat. How his eyes sparkled with knowledge and goodness. How his lips were perfect for kissing, even though she would never dare.

“Ada?”

She gasped, realizing too late she’d been staring. “The Croydons have gone to London,” she blurted. It wasn’t at all what she’d wanted to say, and she flinched, blinking rapidly at her stupidity.

“Ah.” Tim nodded, his smile even wider. “I suppose that explains why James didn’t come to hear about the next concert we’ll be giving.” He paused, his smile a little unfocused as he gazed at her, as if his thoughts too were scattered. “He does like to sing,” Tim went on. “James, that is.”

“Yes, he has quite a talent for it,” Ada agreed. “His natural mother was an actress, after all.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she gasped and clapped a hand to her mouth. Everyone, of course, knew James was the son of Mr. Croydon and his deceased mistress, Violetta, but since he’d married Mrs. Croydon, and since she’d taken so much of a shine to James that she’d requested they adopt the boy formally, it was as though the collective memory of everyone who worked for the Croydons and everyone in town had been adjusted to assume James had always held the position he now did.

Tim shuffled awkwardly, and Ada didn’t know how to recover from the misstep. “Uh,” she started. She wanted to tell Tim that she thought he was wonderful, that she’d never met another man like him, and that if he wanted her, she was his. But nothing came out.

“The weather is very nice for February,” he said at last.

“Yes,” Ada smiled, bristling with awkwardness. “It’s warmer than usual. And it’s been sunny.”

“Spring will be here before you know it,” Tim said.

Their stilted conversation was cut suddenly short by the deep sound of Mr. Noakes, the butler, clearing his throat behind Ada. The sound nearly made Ada jump out of her skin. She jerked to press her back flat against the doorpost as Mr. Noakes glowered his way into the conversation.

“Mr. Turnbridge,” he said, sending a disapproving scowl Ada’s way. “Can I help you?”

“I just came to see about Master James and why he wasn’t at the school today,” Tim said.

Mr. Noakes pulled himself up to his full height. “Master James is not enrolled at your school, sir.”

“Yes, I know,” Tim said, handling himself in front of the imposing butler far better than Ada ever could. “But we’ve started rehearsals for a new concert, and I know Mr. and Mrs. Croydon like him to participate.”

“The Croydons have departed for London,” Mr. Noakes said, then, without hesitation, went on to add, “And the staff is far too busy with their duties for idle chatter in the middle of the day.” He sent a look Ada’s way that turned her knees and stomach to jelly.

“Yes, sir,” Tim said. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to interrupt. Now that my curiosity has been satisfied, I’ll return to my school.”

Tim sent Ada a warm look, smiled, then touched the brim of his hat. He nodded to Mr. Noakes, then turned to go.

Mr. Noakes narrowed his eyes at Ada. She didn’t need him to tell her to get back to work. The command was clear without a sound. She whipped away from the door and scurried back into the house before she could land herself in more trouble.

Mary Mull ducked her head back around the corner into the morning parlor as Mr. Noakes chased Ada into the house. It served that upstart chit right to be scolded the way she had been. Ada had started out as nothing more than a kitchen maid, but now she was an upstairs maid—one who gave herself airs and acted as though she was better than the lot of them. Well, she had a thing or two to learn.

“Did he leave?” Martha asked as she walked back into the parlor to continue cleaning windows.

“Mr. Turnbridge?” Mary asked.

“Yeah, himself.”

“He’s gone.” Mary retrieved her rag from the bucket of hot water, vinegar, and lemon juice. She wrung it out, then joined Martha at the window. “There he goes.” She nodded to him striding down the lane through the glass.”

“What a tosser,” Martha laughed.

Mary hummed. “He does look good walking away, though.” She would never let Ada know, but she considered Mr. Timothy Turnbridge to be quite the looker. He was slimmer than her Wat, less muscular, but she liked the sway of his hips. She would be willing to bet he could do wonders with those hips too.

An idea struck her, spreading a grin across her face from ear to ear.

“Our miss priss likes Mr. Schoolteacher, doesn’t she?” she said, her voice sly.

“You know she does,” Martha snorted. “Though I don’t see why.”

Mary watched until Mr. Turnbridge had disappeared around the corner. “I think our Ada needs to be taken down a notch, don’t you?”

“Always,” Martha laughed.

“And I know just the way to do it,” Mary went on.

“How?” Martha turned away from the window and her work, mischief sparking in her eyes.

Mary paused, grinning at her sister. “I’m going to make good and sure that Ada and the schoolteacher never get together.”

Martha’s face lit with glee. “How are you going to do that?”

“Cleverly,” Mary answered.

They both turned to the parlor’s doorway as Tad, one of the younger footmen, walked in. He headed for the pile of curtains.

“And I’ve just discovered another wedge to drive between them,” Mary said. She handed Martha her rag and swayed across the room to Tad. “So, Taddy-boy, have you heard about the Valentine’s Day dance coming up next week?”

Tad blinked and straightened from gathering curtains. He was tall, as most footmen were, and handsome enough, but instead of that light of intelligence that Mr. Turnbridge had, Tad was like a house with nobody home.

“Dance?” He blinked. “There’s a dance?”

“Indeed. Next week. At the town hall. It’s a sweetheart’s dance.” Mary sidled closer to him. “Are you going to invite your sweetheart?”

“Uh, I haven’t got a sweetheart,” Tad said.

“Sure you do.” Mary’s smile widened. “Ada Bell.”

Tad blinked. Then he blinked again. “Ada’s not my sweetheart.”

“But you’re sweet on her, aren’t you?”

Tad shifted. “Am I?”

“Of course you are. Ada is pretty and…sweet.” She batted her eyelashes over the ridiculous lie. “And she’s awfully sweet on you.”

Tad grinned, pink splashing across his face. “Is she?”

“Absolutely.”

Footsteps sounded in the hall, and they both turned to look. Ada was returning from wherever she’d gone after Mr. Noakes had told her off. She paused when she saw Mary and Tad looking at her. Tad broke into a huge, dopey grin. Ada smiled politely back at him and continued into the parlor. Mary raised a hand to her mouth to hide her mischievous grin.

“See?” she whispered to Tad as soon as Ada was back to taking down curtains. “She’s completely besotted with you.”

“Is she?” Tad watched Ada, who, admittedly, did have a dreamy look about her. Tad didn’t have to know that look was most likely for the schoolteacher. “Maybe she is,” he said, smiling even wider.

Mary leaned closer to him. “I think you should go after her.”

“After her?”

Inwardly, Mary wanted to roll her eyes. She was afraid she’d have to beat the lout over the head to get what she wanted from him. “Pursue her,” she whispered on. “Woo her. Make love to her.”

Tad’s eyes popped wide. “I don’t know about that.”

“Why not? I’m sure it’s what she wants. Can’t you see it?”

The two of them glanced in Ada’s direction. She was grinning and humming to herself, but as soon as she noticed she was being watched, she snapped to attention. Luckily, she sent Tad a smile.

“See,” Mary whispered. “Go after her, man. Fortune favors the brave.”

“Why, I think I might,” Tad said.

“Here, you ready with these?” Ben, the head footman, walked into the room, drawing Tad’s attention back to the curtains.

“Yes, sir,” Tad said, jumping to help Ben gather the curtains up.

Mary let him go, grinning as she went back to work. She’d planted the seed, and all that was left now was to watch it grow. That and put her own part of her plan into motion.