It was evident that Storm Deverell lived alone. Several old newspapers— some yellowed with age and edged with a scalloped pattern of mice teeth— sat folded up on the arm of a tattered and patched chair, which was the only cushioned seat in the house. Every shirt drying on that wooden rack had seen better days. Clearly, he had no one to sew new ones or repair those he had. And he cooked for himself with a skilled, casual ease that proved he did it often.
"I had a housekeeper once," he told her, perhaps noticing her critical gaze taking in the shambles. "But she had to split her time between me and my father, and he's always been more demanding than me. Now he's getting married again and she'll be needed there more often, so I asked Reverend Coles to find me a handy woman."
She wondered why he had no wife of his own to take care of the house for him. He looked... healthy enough to manage a wife. Of course, it was hardly a question she could ask. One of them at least ought to have manners.He kept a clean shirt in his hand and disappeared into the scullery. She heard water splashing from a pump.
"What made you come so far from London?" he shouted.
"It was Reverend Coles' idea." She sighed, looking around at the mess again. "He made the west country sound so appealing in his letters."
"You've experience as a housekeeper?"
She could lie, of course. The state of his house suggested this man wouldn't know a good housekeeper if he met one. But she decided to be honest. After all, this was a new beginning, a new life.
"I have not," she said, anxiously gripping her teacup.
"What about references? You must have some."
"I'm afraid not."
"None at all?" Deverell exclaimed, emerging from the other room, still in the process of tugging the clean shirt over his shoulders and exposing a tanned slab of naked torso at the same time. "But you can cook?"
She averted her gaze at once, her heartbeat suddenly leaping up into her throat, making it very difficult to swallow. "Yes. No." Oh, what was she saying? "I'm an abysmal cook... but not for want of trying."
"I see. What about sewing?"
"Not a stitch."
"What about laundry?"
"I'm sure I can learn."
"Lighting fires? Cleaning windows?"
Still avoiding his gaze, she tucked that persistent stray curl back under her bonnet brim again. "How hard can it be?" How did she explain that when one lived a nocturnal life, clean windows were unimportant? And fires were for the wealthy who could afford coal— unless they scrambled for it in the Thames where it sometimes fell from barges.
There followed another short silence and then he said, "At least you've got a pretty face. We seldom see the like of you in these parts."
She gripped her cup of tea in both hands and took a hearty gulp.
Don't look up. Don't look...Oh, has he got the damnable shirt on yet?
Then he added, "Those lips alone might be worth the twenty-five pounds a year salary I promised."
Alas, she had to look. What else was a woman supposed to do when a man said such a thing to her? And in front of her son too. Had he no propriety?
Not that Flynn was listening. A quick glance reassured her that the boy was too busy eating bacon and playing with the man's dog.
Her new employer tipped his head to one side, hands paused in the motion of tucking the shirt into his well-worn riding breeches. "Did I speak amiss? You look all...peevish."
"Sir, it is not the sort of comment one should make to one's housekeeper."
He shrugged, only drawing her attention to his wide shoulders again. "You'll have to forgive me, if I'm too straightforward. I'm a country fellow, Duchess. I don't complicate matters. I tend to say what I think, as soon as the thought comes to me."
"I'm sure that causes you many trials and tribulations then."
"Once in a while," he admitted frankly, with a quick grin. "Mostly I manage to avoid trouble."
"Yes. Men generally do. After they've caused it."
He laughed. "Back to that again, are we?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"The inadequacies of men and how we are to blame for all the world's problems. And all because I was honest and said you were bonny, when I might have kept it to myself?"
"I wish you had kept it to yourself," she muttered.
"Can't you take a compliment, Mrs. Kelly?"
"We have scarce been introduced, sir." He had better not think she was that sort of woman. "I wonder what you could mean by it." Kate had been told she was fair of face before, but no good ever came from it, and the men who tried to flatter her had only one intent. If anything, her face was a disadvantage when she sought to make an honest living.
"I meant no harm by speaking the thought aloud, but don't fret." He held up his hands in mock surrender. "I shan't worry you with another, now that I know you're not of a mind to receive any graciously." He said all this in a calm voice, more amused than angry. His eyes narrowed, crinkling at the corners, which explained the thin white lines in his sun-browned face. He must puzzle over a lot of riddles, she thought. "But 'tis a pity if you can't appreciate your own good looks," he added. "I know my face is as scratched up as a pair of old boots, but I value it all the same. It's well lived in and still has its uses. At least it has the required number of features and mostly in the expected order."
Old boots, indeed! Her gaze drifted from his damp, ruffled hair to his thick arms, firm chest and the fluttering tail of his shirt as he continued tucking it sloppily into his breeches. She closed her lips tightly, gritting her teeth.
Now she knew how Eve felt in Eden, with only one man as far as the eye could see. And oh, what the eye could see!
(copyright Jayne Fresina 2015)
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Hope you are intrigued enough to read on ;)
Storm (The Deverells - Book Two) - available from all good online book sellers on September 30th, 2015.