Authors: Sue London
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Regency, #Genre Fiction, #Holidays
by Sue London
When the earl’s valet falls desperately ill
with a fever the household isn’t sure what to do, until one housemaid steps forward to care for him.
Sissy Devonport has known her share of grief. Her family was laid low by a fever that only she survived. Now a member of her new household appears to be suffering from the same illness and she is the only one sure she can care for him without falling ill herself.
Whit Whitman is a known flirt. A clever man who prefers to tease and gossip rather than do anything of substance. To his surprise, his illness has upset the household. And garnered the attention of one woman he thought he could never have.
(A Haberdashers Tale)
by Sue London
Copyright © 2014
All rights reserved
Cover by Kim Killion, Hot Damn Designs
This book may not be reproduced by any means including but not limited to photocopy, digital, auditory, and/or in print.
Table of Contents
everyone who is looking for love. May you find the person who sees and loves you for who you really are.
If this is the first story you are reading in my little slice of Regency England, then welcome to the world of the Haberdashers! This story isn't about the Haberdashers per se, but rather about some of the employees in the Harrington household. The
story takes place around Valentine’s Day, which means it is concurrent with the first official book of the Haberdashers,
Trials of Artemis
Also of note: while the Haberdashers books are hot (explicit), the Haberdashers Tales are sweet (just kissing). Would hate to have anyone going between the two and surprised that they were so different.
The rose is red, the violet's blue,
The honey's sweet, and so are you.
Thou are my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it
shou'd be you.
February 1815, London
Whit Whitman ran the brush over his lordship's coat one last time. Perfection. Now if he could convince Gideon to stay precisely like that for the rest of the evening it would be his
. But Gideon Wolfe, Earl of Harrington was a force unto himself.
"What is the entertainment tonight, sir?" He didn't ask out of any curiosity
; it was possible he knew the earl's social calendar better than the earl himself. But it was something of a tradition to finish off their preparations with a chat about where Gideon was going.
Wynders tonight, Whit."
"That should prove to be a pleasant evening."
"I think you mean boring, and typically I would agree. But Lady Spencer asked me especially to attend. She has something she wants to show me in the library."
Whit grinned. "Ah, that makes a good deal more sense. You are an inspiration to us all, my lord."
Gideon grinned in return. "Far be it from me to disappoint a beautiful woman."
"I can only hope to live up to your fine example, sir."
And with that the earl left for his social occasion, like a ship set to sail. Whit tidied the dressing area and inspected the wardrobe to ensure all was in readiness for the morrow. It was still early. There was probably a card game in the stables. Or if he went downstairs to the kitchens his cousin's wife Grace might have left out some biscuits. But he felt unsettled and restless, and didn't want to do either of those things. He felt like he needed to be somewhere else entirely, and that feeling had been plaguing him more and more of late. If it weren’t his duty to be at beck and call upon the earl's return from this evening's social obligation he would have been tempted to go to a pub. But it was his duty, and he didn't plan to do anything that would cause Gideon to think of replacing him. Although surely there would be time enough for one drink. Gideon was rarely home early when he had planned an assignation.
If it were only the drink that Whit
were after, he could certainly find something here in the townhouse. But it was the company he was seeking. Anonymous, convivial company. He had friends among the house staff, but there was always a certain strain when you were around people you knew, people you had to keep up appearances with. Yes, he would go for one drink and be home in plenty of time to greet the earl.
* * *
Sissy Devonport finished polishing the crystals that usually dangled from the chandelier in the dining room, her final assignment for the evening. She loved finding out the stories of the various objects around the house and this particular chandelier was made of Bohemian crystal, purchased by the earl’s family three generations ago. Her favorite room to clean was the earl’s study, since he had many
tucked away on shelves and even in the backs of his drawers. She hadn’t quite found the way to ask after all the items without sounding like she was appraising them to make off with them in the night. The thought made her laugh softly to herself. Of all the things she had daydreamed she might do, being a thief wasn’t one of them. But her curiosity was getting the best of her when it came to the earl’s study. There were so many interesting things, clever things, which she wanted to know more about. She had always had an interest in oddities and some of his things were odd indeed.
She held up the last crystal to the light, inspecting it for any further smudges.
Manual labor had an odd satisfaction that she hadn't expected. And the routine, while mind numbing, was also comforting in its way. She knew precisely what she was to be doing every day, every week, every month, and she supposed every year once she had been here long enough to observe the pattern. The housekeeper Mrs. Norcross was a wonder of efficiency and organization. In the six months that Sissy had been here she had learned a new level of respect and appreciation for the intelligence and effort required to maintain the home of a London family. Or, in this case, one man, the Earl of Harrington. It seemed an age ago that she had been the one on the receiving end of such solicitous care. When she had been better known as Miss Cicely.
She set the crystals aside for a footman to hang later and tidied the table where she had been working. Her mind was elsewhere
, dreaming up a story as she moved toward the back stairs that would lead to her tiny bedroom on the top floor and she nearly collided with someone coming down. She jumped back with a start and he held her arm to steady her.
"Hullo there, Miss Devonport. Sneaking about in the back hallways this evening?"
She blushed and looked at her toes. "Good evening, Mr. Whitman. My apologies, I didn't hear you coming down the stairs."
"No bother. Have a pleasant evening."
He nodded to her and set off to the back door. When she had first arrived months ago she had felt something of a
for the earl's attractive, flirtatious valet. He had an easy smile and eyes that reminded her of the richest caramel. Taken with his fair hair and dapper style, it all served to make him rather devastatingly handsome. Mr. Dibbs, the butler, had warned Mr. Whitman off from being too attentive to her and of late he only flirted with her when the butler was within earshot, making it clear that he did it more to devil Dibbs than to express any interest in her. In the face of his apparent disinterest her own attraction had waned. It was for the best, really.
* * *
Since he was endeavoring to avoid those he knew, Whit eschewed alehouses he might have frequented in the past. He turned down a street a bit darker, a bit seedier, than he might normally, and found a place such that he might enjoy a bit of anonymity while the locals called to one another in friendly greeting and chatted about their day. His dress and manner were a bit out of keeping with the roughness of the place, but he tucked himself into a corner to observe. The mugs were unclean, the service surly, and the patrons loud. For this evening it suited him down to the ground.
Whit was significantly
mellower when he returned to the house. He looked around the corner before proceeding up the steps, to ensure that he wouldn't run into the guileless, green-eyed Miss Devonport again. With her dark hair and tiny stature she reminded him of a charming little songbird. Recalling their earlier encounter he had to smile.
She was a sweet girl, far too sweet for a man like him.
She had caught his fancy when she arrived, of course. Lovely women always caught his attention, and to his good fortune he often caught theirs. But it had shortly become obvious that Miss Devonport was far too good for the likes of Whit Whitman. She had comportment that outshone a typical housemaid, and spoke more demurely. On the occasions that he had tried to draw her into conversation she had merely blushed furiously and Dibbs had come out of nowhere to her defense. It was as though the butler had a sixth sense about any distress among the house staff. Being who he was, Whit merely used that knowledge to his advantage and continued to periodically flirt with the girl whenever he suspected Dibbs was near.
Perhaps that wasn’t fair to Miss Devonport herself. He’d had some chance to observe her, and s
he seemed sad at times when she thought no one was watching her. Introspective. No chatterbox, that one. She was primarily quiet and... sweet. He really couldn't think of a better word. Although upon reflection it made him laugh. He was known for his love of sweets. He wondered if she was spicy, like gingerbread, or tasted dusky like chocolate. No, perhaps she was like a fruit fool. The dense sweetness of ripe gooseberries immersed in creamy custard.
He pulled up short at Dibbs' quiet voice. Was the butler somehow monitoring his
"The earl has returned from his evening."
"Already? Is he upstairs?"
The austere butler shook his head. "He closed himself up in his study. I think that he's drinking again."
Whit frowned. "Any idea what happened?"
"Not as of yet, but I wanted you to be prepared that he might be in a foul mood."
"How was he when he arrived?"
"Fetch me if you need help carrying him up."
"It's all right, we can handle it."
Whit nodded, knowing that the footmen were more than capable of carrying the large earl up the steps. He went upstairs to wait for the earl a great deal more subdued than he had been when arriving home.
The house was abuzz with news of the earl's unannounced engagement. Dibbs always turned a baleful eye on anyone he caught gossiping, but as soon as the butler was out of the room the talk would begin again. Sissy was entertained by how curious the staff was about their employer. She wondered if any of the Devonport help had ever taken half as much interest in her.
Thinking of her family gave her pause.
Although it had been some months now, it was hard to remember their household without seeing it as it was toward the end. So dark, so empty. All the sleepless nights she’d had, caring for first one family member and then another. Her sister’s lifeless face… She bit down hard on her lip to stop the tears that were gathering, and turned her attention back to the chatter of the Harrington staff.
Since the new countess would have dominion over the domestic staff, it made sense that they had
reason to be concerned. The earl was known as a fair and kind employer, so anything disturbing that would be worrisome indeed. To distract herself from thoughts of her own family, Sissy lingered in the kitchen to listen to the speculation.
"My sister heard tell that her family can't rub two quid together. Nice enough placed they are, related to a marquess and such, but no money to speak of."
"I heard that this was her third Season, practically on the shelf."
"Nice enough looking gel, I hear, but too tall. It's not good enough to be pretty when you're tall, you have to be striking, too."
"Well, himself is tall as well."
"Men are admired when they're tall, love. Women are not."
"What I've heard is that she hardly ever speaks. Likes to read."
The portrait that started to come together of Jacqueline Walters reminded Sissy too much of her own past. Her family hadn't been as highly placed as the Walters, of course. Barely hanging on to the fringe of polite society, in fact. She had never had a Season or made any
pretensions to the level of society that the earl traveled in. But the image of a poor, shy, intelligent girl was close enough to her own story to give her some pause. However, it seemed Jacqueline Walters was far luckier than Cicely Devonport. In Sissy's experience men only married for two reasons: money or love. Usually money. But the Earl of Harrington was one of the richest men in England. And the unspoken question among his staff was - if he was marrying for love, why was he spending so much time frowning and drinking?
* * *
Whit was tying Gideon's cravat for the second time when he heard footsteps in the hall.
"Announcing his grace, my lord," Dibb
s intoned from the doorway.
That was a surprise. It had been years since the Duke of Beloin had graced
the Earl of Harrington's household with a visit, since well before he was a duke in fact. As boys in school the two had been inseparable, but once the earl had inherited they had drifted apart. The earl had gone down a dark path of drinking, gaming, and whoring while his friend had all but withdrawn from society. In the early years there had been times that Whit and Dibbs had to call on the friendship between the two so the then-marquess could help extricate Gideon from various scrapes. Then when the elder duke had died, Whit had accompanied Gideon to the ducal seat where the earl helped his friend set affairs to rights. Other than that, however, the two had seemed essentially estranged.
The duke's arrival had the predictable effect of improving the earl's mood. The two bickered, of course, but in the lighthearted way of old friends. Whit found the distraction helpful since a headache had been growing behind his eyes for most of the day. He was hopeful that a cold compress and a nap before the earl returned would set him to rights.
Two days later, rather than improving, Whit's headache worsened. He felt
nauseous and ached all over. Obviously he had some sort of ague, and hoped that it would pass quickly. He found that he was increasingly sensitive to light and noises. The earl's mood had worsened as well, something that Whit was in no condition to deal with. The third time Gideon barked at him he considered going to find a footman with aspirations to fill in for him, but the earl seemed to finally notice the effect of his mood and moderated his behavior.
With a final brushing of the earl's coat, Whit asked, "Where are you off to tonight, my lord?"
"The Yancey ball. Are you all right, Whit?"
"I'll be fine, my lord."
"You look pale."
"Nothing to worry with, my lord."
Gideon frowned, an expression he wore far too often of late, but simply nodded and left for his social obligation. Whit sought his cot for some additional sleep before the earl returned.
* * *
Dibbs heard the bell pull from the earl's bedroom and went to see to his lord himself.
"Josh!" the earl called in a panicked voice as soon as the butler reached the top of the steps. "Whit isn't himself. I'm not sure what's wrong."
The butler preceded the earl into the small room beyond the dressing room that served as Whit's quarters. The valet was sprawled on his cot.
"Whit?" Dibbs crouched down near his cousin and shook his shoulder. "Whit?"
"It's probably not the rats," he mumbled.
Dibbs looked up at the earl. "I haven't seen him since noon. How was he earlier this evening?"
"I noted he was a bit pale and out of sorts, but there was nothing significant."
The butler nodded. "He hasn't seemed well the past few days but I hadn't thought much of it." He felt Whit's forehead. "He's hot, it's some sort of fever."
"Open the window," Whit mumbled.
Not entirely delirious then. Dibbs stood, "If I have your leave to fetch the doctor, my lord?"
"Of course. Whatever he needs."
Whit rubbed his forehead. "My head hurts, Josh," he said in a pleading tone. "I think I hit it on the rocks."
Dibbs recognized that Whit was talking about an incident of more than twenty years go. Nodding tightly to the earl, he rushed to dispatch a footman to retrieve the doctor.
* * *
The house had been abuzz this morning that Mr. Whitman was unwell. When Sissy heard that the doctor had diagnosed a fever that included a red rash she went to see Dibbs immediately.
"If you need someone to care for him, I've survived this fever already. And cared for others who have had it."
"That's a very kind offer, Miss Devonport, but are you sure?"
She nodded. It was difficult to explain, but she had seen far too many die from the fever and couldn't imagine losing the carefree Mr. Whitman in such a way. If there
was anything she could do to help, then she would do it
Dibbs crossed his arms and sighed, probably the most emotional reaction she had ever seen from him. "He's very ill. The doctor recommended that we send him to the sanatorium to ensure the infection doesn't spread but..." the butler cleared his throat. "But we don't feel that would be the best course."
"Of course not," she agreed.
"The earl has had him moved to the
red bedroom. Whoever cares for him will be essentially isolated there with him in an attempt to forestall anyone else contracting it. I was planning to do that myself."
"Oh. Have you had the fever before?"
"Please," she said, setting her hand on the butler's arm. "Let me." She gave him a sad smile. "You wouldn't want to leave Grace a widow after only a month or two of marriage, would you?"
She saw the muscles in his jaw clench and knew that it had been a low blow, but when it came to matters of life and death there were few things that were beyond the pale. She was fairly certain that she was now immune to the disease that had ravaged the Devonport family and staff.
"If you're sure?"
"I am, sir."
"Then I am in your debt, Miss Devonport."