“Please, Miss Swift?” George whined as he hauled himself onto a tall, flat rock. “Do we have to do this? I just want to go for a walk.”
Miss Lydia Swift sighed. She looked very flustered, her cheeks red from walking.
“Your father hired me to teach you and your sisters, including French. Just because we’re out in the wilderness doesn’t mean that you can get away from it.”
“It’s hardly the wilderness, Miss Swift. It’s just our estate.”
“It feels like the wilderness. You three might be used to it, but I’m not.”
“You’ve been our governess for eight years.” Ellie pointed out, hopping up onto a fallen tree and walking along the trunk. “You should be used to it by now.”
Claudia frowned as her younger sister skipped along the broken bark.
“Just be careful up there, Ellie. Remember the last time you did that? Father wasn’t impressed that you broke your arm.”
“I’m not going to break anything, Claudia. Honestly, sometimes you’re just as bad as Miss Swift.” Ellie reached the end of the tree and climbed down, snagging her skirt on a root. She unhooked herself and dropped down. “Besides, I was eleven when that happened. That was six years ago.”
Claudia sighed. Ellie was one of those children who liked to be boisterous and run about playing in the mud. Only six months to go, and she would be eighteen when she would be attending her first society ball. But it felt like there was a lot more to do than just make sure Ellie behaved like a lady.
Then again, living at Elvaston Castle with the huge grounds, it was no wonder that Ellie wanted to behave like a child. It was a huge area to play in and explore. Claudia was meant to be a grown woman now, but she still loved it. There was so much to do without leaving the estate.
Which was a good thing, seeing as she was barely allowed to leave without a chaperone, and if she did leave, she had to stay close to the estate. It was frustrating, and it made Claudia feel like she was in a gilded cage. Her sister was going to feel the same way once she turned eighteen. Right now, she had a little more freedom.
As such, it wasn’t much, but Ellie didn’t have extra pressure on her to find a potential husband. Claudia would happily share it.
“Master George, would you not go too far ahead!” Miss Swift called as George ran off, disappearing from sight. “I can’t keep up with you like that.”
“He’ll be fine, Miss Swift.” Ellie started off at a quick trot. “I’ll make sure he keeps out of trouble.”
But then Ellie was gone, disappearing through the trees. Miss Swift sighed and brought out her handkerchief, mopping her forehead.
“Those two are far too lively for me.”
“You did offer to come with us.” Claudia pointed out.
“I know, and I’m beginning to regret it. I’m meant to be in a schoolroom, not running around the estate like this.”
Claudia smiled. Miss Swift did complain about doing anything extra, but she was good company. She had been Claudia’s age of twenty when she arrived at Elvaston, surprisingly young for a governess, and had fitted in well with everyone. From the Duke of Somerwall, Claudia’s father, down to the boot boy, she was well-liked.
At eight-and-twenty, it was strange that she kept behaving like a far older lady. Her auburn hair was sticking out at odd angles, and her face was streaked with sweat.
“Oh, lord.” She started to adjust a few pins, attempting to flatten her hair. “Why does my hair always do this when I step outside? It’s like some strange reaction to being outside.”
“Your hair is curly. That is harder to tame.”
“All the more reason why I should stay inside.”
“And who’s going to keep me company while Georgie and Ellie go running around? If I’ve got to keep an eye on them, I want someone with me.”
Her former governess gave her a smile that made her eyes twinkle. Leaving her still messy hair, she linked arms with Claudia.
“And I’ll do my best to keep you entertained while your brother and sister play. I’ve got to do something useful.”
“You’ve always been useful.”
“I’m pleased you think so, Lady Claudia.”
Claudia squeezed the woman’s arm. She wasn’t in need of a governess anymore, not at the ripe old age of twenty, but Miss Swift was more like a friend and companion now. Even if she could be a little absent-minded and wander off in her own thoughts, even if her style of only wearing brown made Claudia cringe on occasion. She was fun, and she was able to keep all of them distracted when needed.
Especially when conversations about travel came up. Claudia had overheard many discussions about her cousins currently visiting Europe, travelling through France to places like Germany, Austria, and Italy. She had had to listen at dinner while her aunt and uncle gushed over the fact that their sons were exploring a country England had been at war with for some time and were being treated like kings. It gave Claudia a pang of regret that she wouldn’t be able to join them. Her father wouldn’t allow it because a lady wouldn’t be allowed to go gallivanting around the continent.
She was stuck in Elvaston, having to help keep an eye on her siblings while everyone her age was off doing exciting things.
“Penny for your thoughts, Lady Claudia?”
Miss Swift tilted her head and gave her a sympathetic smile.
“You’re thinking about your cousins Charles and James, aren’t you?”
“Am I that obvious?”
“I’ve known you a long time. I know when you’re thinking about something. And I know you’ve been despondent about your cousins being sent to travel throughout Europe, and you’re not allowed.”
“You’re far too observant.”
“I need to be.”
Claudia huffed and kicked at a fallen twig on the path.
“They’re probably going to get lost. Charles never had a good sense of direction, and James never pays attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were just going around in circles and genuinely believed they were going forward.”
Her companion laughed.
“Whereas, if you were there, you would be telling them where to go and the exact coordinates of where they were.”
Claudia puffed out her chest.
“Of course, I would. Nobody gets lost when I’m around.”
Miss Swift giggled.
“Careful with that attitude, my lady. While it’s true, you don’t want to embarrass the gentlemen. Nothing upsets them like knowing that a woman can read a map better than they can.”
Claudia smirked. She had had the knack for reading maps since a young age. She could navigate herself across the country without getting lost, given half a chance. It wasn’t even that difficult, so to hear that her cousins weren’t able to figure out which way up a map went was meant to be amusing.
At least she could do something better than them. It was frustrating having to listen to everyone talk up her cousins and about how good-looking they were, how successful they were in life, and how everyone loved them. Claudia was barely allowed off the estate, having only travelled to London and Bath during the Season, so she was not quite comparable.
Especially when her family had given up on her with regards to marriage. That was all she was useful for now, getting an advantageous marriage. Claudia hated that she was seen differently because she was a woman. How was that fair?
It had been two years since Claudia had had a proposal, and she didn’t want another one. If it meant she was to live like a spinster, so be it, but that one proposal was enough for Claudia to be put off entirely. It drove her father, who wanted her to marry, to despair. Claudia wanted nothing to do with it, although she was painfully aware that it was going to cause Ellie problems when she was of age; young women had to wait for their elder sister to marry first.
Even then, the thought of getting married made Claudia shudder.
“You’re doing it again, my lady.”
“What am I doing?”
“Thinking too hard.” Miss Swift tapped the side of her head. “You just need to take a deep breath and calm down. Otherwise, you’re going to give yourself a headache.”
“I just wish I was given similar freedoms to my cousins. It’s not fair that I have to do as my father says and stay close to the estate. I’m sure once George comes of age, he will be allowed to go wherever he wants, while Ellie and I are stuck here.”
“That’s just how it is with ladies and gentlemen. There are always different rules.”
“And that’s just ridiculous. We should be allowed to do whatever we want, within reason, and we should be allowed to have some judgement.”
Miss Swift smiled.
“You’re really envious about your cousins being in France, aren’t you?”
“Can you blame me? I would love to go to different places, see new things.” Claudia gestured at her surroundings. “I can walk around this estate with my eyes closed. I don’t know if that’s an incredible thing or a sad acknowledgement that I know my home so well.”
“I think it’s a bit of both.” Miss Swift tilted her head. “You know that you can do something about it.”
“You mean get married?” Claudia shuddered. “That is not an option!”
“I never said anything about marriage. Perhaps ask your father to go with him on his trips. You’re not a child now, and you can keep yourself entertained while he’s busy.”
Claudia shook her head.
“He would never allow it.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I’m sure. He would rather me get married than accompany him.”
Claudia knew because she had asked before, and she had been turned down. Also, the last time she had travelled for a long period of time in a carriage, all she heard about was how the Duke of Somerwall was disappointed in the fact Claudia had broken her only engagement and refused to reconsider. Claudia was not about to reconsider something she had realised was a mistake. She wasn’t going to marry a man she couldn’t trust or love.
All she wanted was a husband who would love her for her and not for what she could bring into a marriage. Was that too much to ask?
“Oh, dear, where are Miss Ellie and Master George?” Miss Swift searched the trees. “I’m sure they’ve vanished.”
“I’m sure they’re down by the lake skimming stones. They’re always doing that.”
“But they’ll frighten the ducks!”
“Those ducks can move fast.” Claudia tugged the governess into motion. “Come on, let’s go and find them. We’ll circle back after that, and then you can sit down.”
Miss Swift heaved a sigh of relief.
“Thank goodness for that! My feet are going to be sore for a week!”
The children were by the lake, Ellie skimming stones while George was climbing a tree. Miss Swift gasped and hurried over.
“Master George! You shouldn’t be climbing trees! Your clothes will be ruined!”
“He’s seven, Miss Swift,” Ellie said as she picked up another stone. “It’s going to be difficult to tell him not to do something at that age.”
“But what if he falls? Trees are dirty, as it is.”
“And Mrs Baver can get them washed and mended if he ruins them.”
“Mrs Baver isn’t there to be George’s personal seamstress, Ellie.”
“She’s the housekeeper, isn’t she? That’s what servants do.”
She did have a point, although Claudia felt a little more guilty about taking the servants for granted. She saw how her father treated them, and it was something she was not comfortable with. They may be the household staff, but they were human beings as well. Ordinary people. It wasn’t their fault that they had to serve the rich and wealthy part of society. Claudia couldn’t imagine how degrading it could feel if they were serving the wrong person.
She had a lot of respect for those who did serve a member of the nobility. She certainly couldn’t do it.
“Hey, look!” George stared, pointing in the direction of the house. “Look there!”
“You know we can’t see where you’re pointing with the trees in the way.” Claudia leaned on the trunk, peering up to see her brother. “What do you see?”
“There’s a man walking up the house. We’ve got a visitor!”
George was beginning to bounce up and down on his branch. Ellie squealed and clapped her hands. Even Claudia felt the first stirrings of excitement. Summer was the most interesting time of the year. Their father often returned from wherever he was, and they had multiple visitors. They looked forward to it all year; people didn’t come to Elvaston outside of that. Claudia couldn’t even remember the last time they had celebrated Christmas with their father. He chose to stay in Bath on his own.
Seven years since their mother had died on Christmas Eve, George’s birthday, and he was still grieving. To the point the Duke practically ignored his only son. Claudia knew George was hurt by that, but there was no point in talking to their father. He just didn’t listen unless the voice sounded like his.
“Let’s go back!” George began to scramble down. “I want to see who it is!”
“Couldn’t you see from up there?” Ellie asked, hurrying over to stand next to Miss Swift, who was still looking anxiously up at the boy. “You can see the drive from the top of that tree.”
“It was too bright. But it was definitely a man.” George giggled, slipping onto the lowest branch. “Might be a potential suitor for Claudia.”
“What? He was good-looking enough, from what I could see.”
“And I’m not going to marry some random stranger who turns up at the door.” Claudia snapped.
“It’s a possibility.” George dropped down to the ground. “I can’t see it being anyone who’s come to marry Ellie. Not when her sister’s an old maid.”
Miss Swift gasped.
“Don’t talk like that, Master George!” She admonished him. “That’s not fair.”
“Is it not? Father’s always saying Claudia needs a husband.” George stuck his tongue out at his oldest sister. “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about girls. They’re horrible.”
“You won’t be thinking that in a few years.” Ellie ruffled his hair. “Come on, brat. Let’s go and see who it is. Race you back to the house!”
Then she took off, running along the bank. George whined and chased after her.
“Not fair, Ellie! You’re bigger than me!”
The only response from Ellie was laughter. Claudia shook her head and set off at a brisk pace. Miss Swift hurried after her.
“Honestly, I’ve never seen the three of you behave in such a manner when it comes to visitors. There’s nothing fascinating about people coming here.”
“You’ve been here eight years, and you still haven’t gotten used to how we behave with guests? We barely get any!”
“And it also signifies that your father is coming home shortly.” Miss Swift nodded. “I have noticed the pattern. And I also notice what happens afterwards.”
So had Claudia, which she didn’t want to think about. She was old enough to know that whenever her father was home, he wanted people around him who weren’t his family. It was like he was desperately trying to fill the empty void and use anything to forget the fact that his wife wasn’t around anymore. Looking at his children reminded him that she was gone and never coming back.
That was another reason Claudia was reluctant to get married. Her mother had died giving birth to George, and it had completely broken the Duke. Claudia had been thirteen at the time, and she saw the change in Somerwall after that. He barely interacted with George, and he distanced himself from his two daughters. Looking back at it now, it shouldn’t have been a surprise; the Duchess of Somerwall had struggled with several miscarriages after Ellie’s birth, and the doctor had advised that she shouldn’t get pregnant again as it was going to be harder on her. But Somerwall wanted that son and heir. He got that, but he lost the woman he adored.
She had only been three-and-thirty years old. Still a young woman. And to have her snatched away like that had been devastating for everyone. Claudia had made her peace with the fact that her mother was never coming back. She still missed her, but she had accepted it.
From the way her father behaved, he would never accept it.
George and Ellie were already in the house by the time Claudia and Miss Swift reached the front door. Claudia hurried up the steps and almost barged into Hatchel as he was closing the door.
“Lady Claudia! Will you please be careful? I nearly hit you with the door.”
“I wanted to get in before you shut it.” Claudia gestured towards Miss Swift, who was still puffing up the steps. “Just wait a moment, Hatchel. Miss Swift is coming.”
The butler sighed and waited, leaning on the door. He looked like he needed it to prop himself up. Claudia had never met someone with so little energy in her life who could match Hatchel. He had been here since her father was a child, a boot boy to her grandfather. The progression up the ladder from boot boy to butler had been impressive, making Hatchel almost like he was part of the furniture.
You couldn’t have Elvaston Castle without Hatchel, the butler.
Miss Swift hurried in, a little redder in the face and giving Hatchel a grateful smile.
“Thank you, Hatchel. I thought I was going to have to go around the side of the house.”
“I do what I’m told, Miss Swift.”
Hatchel’s voice had little to no emotion as he spoke. Claudia couldn’t remember if she had ever heard him express any type of emotion. It was a strange thing to realise.
“Where’s our guest, Hatchel?” she asked.
“Guest, my lady?”
“Master George saw someone coming up to the house. We know someone’s arrived.”
“There is no guest, Lady Claudia. Just the arrival of our new cook. He was meant to arrive today.”
Claudia deflated a little. She had been looking forward to seeing someone new, someone who wasn’t the servants and her siblings. On the other hand, the cook was someone new. That was something.
“Where is he now?”
“Getting his belongings put into his room.”
“Well, tell him that I want to see him in the morning room.”
Hatchel gave her a blank look.
“You want to see him?”
“Someone in the house has got to greet the new arrival. And as the Duke isn’t here, it’s my duty.” Claudia nodded at Miss Swift. “You go and find Ellie and George and make sure they’re cleaned up and presentable. I’m sure they’ve got lessons to do.”
“Yes, my lady.” Miss Swift curtsied. “Do you want me to notify Mrs Baver that you’ll want some tea in the morning room?”
“Please. My mouth is dry.” Claudia gave Hatchel a brisk nod. “If you would, Hatchel?”
Then she walked away. It would be good to have a chef again. It had been two weeks since their last cook, Maurice Calder, had run off with the scullery maid to get married. Claudia had been confused as to why they had run until she heard that the maid had been betrothed to someone her family approved of, and they didn’t care for Maurice. Apart from a letter explaining why they had gone, nobody had heard from either of them since.
The Duke had been furious. Maurice had been in his employ for fifteen years, and he had never shown any indication of leaving so abruptly. From his place in London, Somerwall had promised that he would find a new cook.
And it sounded like he had been successful. Claudia was relieved about that. Even though Mrs Baver did try her hardest in the kitchen, she wasn’t a cook. Her food was a little bland, but it was edible. She would be relieved that they had someone whose job was to be in the kitchen. The housekeeper had far too much on her plate already.
Claudia entered the morning room and then wondered where she was going to stand or sit. Which one should she do? Should she be watching the door or doing something like looking out the window? First appearances were everything, and she didn’t want to look like she was eager to see him. Being a lady meant she had to be refined.
Her lessons were about being a lady, but they didn’t say how you were supposed to conduct yourself when waiting for someone. It was basically improvisation at this point. Claudia was not good at improvising.
She wandered over to the window and looked out at the long stretch of the driveway, lined on both sides by trees. They were not too far outside of Derby, but Claudia had never been there. Her father preferred for her to stay on the estate, especially when he wasn’t present. Someone had to look after the house.
Which meant greeting the new servants and getting them settled, something the head of the house should be doing, not his daughter. Claudia just wanted to be able to do something for herself.
Being a young woman of twenty with no proposal in sight, that was easier said than done. She was stuck here being the one who made sure the house was running smoothly. If it wasn’t, her father would hear about it, and Claudia would get into trouble.
She hated that the only way to get the Duke’s attention was to get into trouble.
The door opened, and Claudia turned to see Hatchel stepping into the room. He gave her a stiff bow.
“Signor Armando Lacosta, Lady Claudia.”
“Thank you, Hatchel.”
Claudia smoothed her hands down her skirts and waited for the newcomer to enter the room, Hatchel disappearing from sight around the door. The man who replaced him, though, had Claudia freezing.
Oh, my! She had not expected him to be young. Or this handsome. Barely taller than Hatchel, his dark hair was tousled on his head, his strong-looking jaw dusted with the beginnings of a beard. He looked like he had spent time out in the sun doing heavy labour from the warm brown colour of his skin and the strong, lean form he carried. His clothes weren’t exactly the finest cloth, but they fitted him well.
Then Claudia saw his eyes. They were a light brown, just a shade darker than his skin. Hazel eyes, maybe. There was a slight twinkle in them and a gentle tug of his mouth that said he was one of those people who liked some joviality.
It just seemed to make him all the more attractive.
Why am I looking at him like he’s a potential suitor? He’s a servant!
Even so, there’s no harm in appreciating his looks.
That Claudia could not argue with. There was no harm in appreciating a good-looking man. As long as it stayed at that.
Armando didn’t know what he had been expecting when he was told by the dour-looking butler that the Duke’s daughter wanted to see him, but he had certainly not been expecting what he finally laid his eyes upon. Lady Claudia Dormer was a tall, slim woman with dark hair pinned back in a bun on the back of her neck. Her skin was fair and smooth, making her look like she had been a model for one of the Venus statues in Naples. Her demeanour, with her head held high and her back straight, said she was a confident woman, but the flicker in her eyes told Armando that she was nervous.
The housekeeper had warned him that while Claudia was a fair lady, she was also headstrong and could be a little blunt. Armando could handle that. He was used to people being blunt with him.
Although he had never had someone who was both blunt and beautiful.
Focus, Armando. You’re here for employment, not to ogle the Duke’s daughter. He won’t be impressed if he hears about it.
Pushing his thoughts aside, Armando took a deep breath and gave her a low bow.
“Mia gentildonna. My lady.”
“Good morning, Signor Lacosta.” Lady Claudia gave him a brief nod. “I trust you find your chamber accommodating.”
“Very much so, my lady.”
Armando jumped when the door shut a little too hard. Lady Claudia sighed.
“Ignore Hatchel. He’s been here since Father was a baby. I don’t think he likes change.”
“Has a lot changed around here?”
“You could say that. Father’s hired a famous artist to do some redecorating, but it’s taking a while. The man is in high demand around here.” Lady Claudia beckoned him over. “Come join me, Signor Lacosta.”
Armando hesitated. He had been told that he needed to maintain a respectful distance and not look directly at the people who employed him. His father had said he was a servant and should not be treated as an equal. That Armando had listened to since he entered servitude. But there was something about the way the young woman across the room said that he should join her that started a stirring in his belly.
Mio Dio! What is happening? That wasn’t an appropriate reaction. Why did that happen?
“Signor Lacosta?” Lady Claudia gave him a frown. “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, nothing’s wrong, my lady.” Armando had to choose his words carefully. He crossed the room. “I’m still recovering from my walk. I came from Elvaston, where the coach dropped me off.”
“They didn’t bring you up to the gate?”
“He refused to come off his route. And there were a few people in the coach who had been complaining the whole way.” Armando shrugged. “I didn’t want to inconvenience them more.”
“That is why it’s an advantage to have your own carriage.” Lady Claudia waved at a chair. “Please, be seated.”
“Are…are you sure, my lady? Servants should not sit on the furniture.”
“That may be the case normally, but I’m the only one here who’s going to object. And you have walked a long way.” Lady Claudia sat and smoothed out her skirts. “You can sit down.”
Sitting down on something that wasn’t moving around sounded like heaven. Armando had been travelling from London for the last two days, and he was grateful not to be squashed up in a tight space with people who were always moaning about how bad the journey was. Everyone seemed to be in a bad mood, and it had been difficult not to get grumpy himself.
He sat on the edge of the settee, hoping that he didn’t leave any marks. Lady Claudia gave him a smile, which seemed to make her eyes twinkle. There was some mischief in her, he could tell. And genuine interest. If the stories he had heard about her were true, then she was one of those people who liked to know everything while being stuck on the estate.
An unmarried woman of her age stuck in her own home. That sounded like the beginning of one of those strange fairy tales his mother had read to him at bedtime.
“So, Signor Lacosta.” Claudia tilted her head. “Is that Spanish?”
“The ‘signor’ part is Italian, but I’m actually French.”
“French. Then why are you addressed as ‘signor’?”
Armando spread his hands.
“I was born in France, and Father was a cook to a prominent noble. Then the French Revolution started, and my employer and his household were put in danger. Father took our family to Italy, so we could be safe. I was barely a year old, so I don’t have any memories of the country I was born in.”
“I see.” Lady Claudia bit her lip. “I’ve heard a lot of stories about the revolution in France. I’m sure it was one of the most terrifying things that could happen.”
“A lot of terrifying things happen in the world, my lady. You’re one of the lucky few who get to live a more peaceful life and not see such atrocities.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“As sure as I possibly could be.”
She regarded him thoughtfully. Then she cleared her throat and straightened up a little.
“So, tell me about yourself. What’s your work history? What brought you here to England?”
Armando was about to answer when the door opened, and a woman with auburn hair wearing a brown dress and a red face came hurrying in.
“Forgive me, my lady, but I thought I had enough time to find your brother and sister before joining you.”
“It’s fine, Miss Swift.” Lady Claudia gave the woman a smile that looked rather fond. She nodded at Armando. “This is Armando Lacosta. Miss Lydia Swift. She is the governess for my brother and sister.”
Armando got to his feet and bowed.
“Signora Swift. It is a pleasure.”
Miss Swift blushed even redder before she mumbled something and moved to sit in a chair by the window. Lady Claudia turned back to Armando.
“Forgive me, signor. I should have waited for someone to join us. Miss Swift refuses to let me be in a room with a man on my own. She’s very proper.”
“Is that so?” Armando glanced at Miss Swift, who was refusing to look at him.
“I’m here so much that I forget that there are proprieties that need to be kept to.” Lady Claudia tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “So, how long have you been in England?”
“Since I was about ten years old. Father couldn’t get proper work as a cook for the Italian nobles, so we were close to starving. So, he decided to bring us to England and try his luck here.”
“I presume he was successful?”
“He was.” Armando couldn’t help but smile when he thought about his father. “He first worked for a baronet we met on the ship coming across the English channel, and then he moved on to work for a…I think he was a marquis. I’m not too sure about the title as I was off at school for most of it, but he loved the work.”
“Is he still with us?”
“Yes, he is. He now works in Kensington Palace for the Prince Regent when he’s in residence. My mother works as a seamstress while making sure my younger brothers and sisters don’t get into trouble.”
“You’ve got a few, then?”
“I’m the oldest of fifteen.”
Lady Claudia’s eyes widened.
“Fifteen? I can’t imagine having that many brothers and sisters.”
“You get used to it.”
She tilted her head to one side. The interest flickering in her eyes seemed to be increasing.
“So, your father taught you how to cook, did he?”
“He did.” Armando felt his chest swelling with pride. “He was an excellent teacher and wanted me to have the best for myself. He also taught me the work ethic that I stand by.”
“That you are definitely going to need here, signor.” Lady Claudia glanced towards the window. “Although it’s going to be rather quiet for a while. My father, the Duke of Somerwall, is not present right now, and he is very often elsewhere. There are the servants to feed, obviously, but the only people you really need to impress are myself and my brother and sister.”
“What about the Duchess of Somerwall?”
Lady Claudia’s expression faltered, but then the strange look was gone.
“My mother died nearly eight years ago, signor. We are on our own.”
Armando hadn’t realised. He had only corresponded with the Duke, but he had made no mention about his wife. That hadn’t raised any questions. The only thing he knew about the Duke of Somerwall was that he was a man who didn’t like to be alone. Armando had assumed that his wife was always with him.
He should have checked with Mrs Baver when she showed him his room. Now Armando felt embarrassed. That was something he should have known. Now he was making a fool of himself in front of a beautiful woman.
She’s your employer, in essence. Don’t think about her like that.
That’s easier said than done.
Claudia watched as Armando’s face went red, and he looked at the floor. How did he not know that her mother was dead? Servants always made sure to know about their employers, including if they were alive or not. Then again, not every servant was very aware. Sometimes they preferred to focus on their job and less on the politics of families. That wasn’t their area.
“You must forgive me, my lady. I had no idea about your mother.”
“It’s fine. I’ve made my peace with it.” Claudia bit back a comment about her father. That was not something she should be discussing with a servant. “Father will likely be back in the next few weeks, and then there will be more people. He tends to bring many members of the ton with him whenever he returns home, so that time will be the busiest.”
“I’ve helped with banquets at Kensington Palace when I was training with my father. I can handle it.”
“I hope so because Father has a big appetite.” Claudia bit back a giggle. “A bit like my brother. You wouldn’t think a seven-year-old could eat so much and still want more, would you?”
“If he’s a growing boy, my lady, then that’s no surprise.”
Claudia was beginning to wish that Miss Swift wasn’t present. She had, much to her surprise, felt more relaxed when it was just her and Armando. How that was possible, she had no idea, but Claudia wanted that back. With her former governess sitting behind her, it felt more restrictive. That was how things should be, and Claudia didn’t like it.
She wanted to know more about the man before her. He was from Italy? Claudia had never been to Italy, only heard about it when learning Geography. It sounded like an exotic place.
“Do you miss Italy?”
“I haven’t lived there for almost twenty years.”
“That wasn’t the question I asked, Signor Armando.”
The cook tilted his head as he pondered the question.
“I suppose I do miss it. Even though the majority of the time, we were scraping by and hoping we got another meal. But the country itself is beautiful. At some point, I would like to return just to see it through different eyes. My sister, Marcine, is already back in Naples with her husband. She says it’s more beautiful than she remembered.”
“You will join her one day?”
“One day. I don’t know when. Probably when I’m old and infirm.” Armando smiled. “I’m sure I’ll be busy until the day I retire. There are many noble families looking for someone to cook for them.”
“I guarantee you won’t be short of work here.”
Claudia glanced at Miss Swift, who was pretending not to listen by looking out of the window. Should she start deviating, or should she stay on topic? Claudia should have been asking for his credentials and querying where her father had found him, but instead, she found herself wanting to know about the country he had been raised in.
“What do you remember about Italy, signor?”
“Why do you ask, my lady?”
“Because I’m curious. I like to learn, and I’m sure you’ve heard of many stories that people believe of Italians.”
Armando frowned. They weren’t close, but Claudia could see his eyes more clearly. They were definitely a hazel colour, and she could see flecks of green. She could stare into his eyes and never grow bored. They were that beautiful.
Focus, Claudia. Focus. No daydreaming now.
“What is it that you want to know?” Armando asked slowly.
“A lot of things. We might be here all day if I do start asking questions.”
“Maybe I can head you off at the pass by dispelling a few myths about Italian men and women.” Armando sat forward, his gaze piercing. “I’m sure I know what you’re going to ask.”
“It’s not that difficult, Lady Claudia. You see plays by Shakespeare, and opera is getting popular nowadays. There are many settings in Italy, and what comes with it may sound exotic and fascinating but couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
Claudia didn’t know what to say to that. With his attention focused firmly on her, she was frozen to the spot. It wasn’t intense, but it sent a warm shiver curling up her back. She could also feel her heart picking up the pace. What was wrong with her? This shouldn’t be happening.
“I’ll start with the most common myths that people believe in Italian men and women.” Armando held up a finger. “We’re not enamoured of horses to the exclusion of everything else. We do love our horses, but we’re just like everyone else. And horse breeding is extraordinarily popular in parts of Italy, so it can be prosperous.” Another finger went up. “No, Italian women are not locked up in their homes and only allowed to go out wearing veils. That is something William Shakespeare made up to make it sound like they were furthering themselves by breaking free of their gilded cages.” A third finger joined the others. “And that belief that Italian men put off marriage until they are of an older age, although they are prone to taking multiple lovers? My father married when he was four-and-twenty. Hardly an old man. Those who do choose to go down that route of living life to the fullest and settling down later isn’t an Italian thing. I’m sure there are plenty of English gentlemen who have done the same thing, but it’s not considered exotic.”
Claudia hadn’t expected any of that. And Armando seemed very intent on getting his point across. The passion in his voice had made her mouth go dry. She swallowed.
“I…that was…I don’t know what to say to that.”
“Forgive me for speaking in such a fashion, my lady, but those are questions I often get from curious young ladies like yourself. They want to see if the fantastical worlds Shakespeare has created are actually true. All of them are disappointed, but that’s nothing to do with me. They shouldn’t believe such myths.”
“They do make Italy sound impressive.”
“Italy is impressive without those stories.” Armando tilted his head to one side. “I’m sure you don’t want people to believe things about you.”
“What do they believe about me?”
“I don’t know, but if there was a rumour going around about you, say that you have declared that you shall never marry, wouldn’t you want them to know the truth?”
Claudia stiffened. That wasn’t a rumour, though. That was the truth. She had made it public that she was not going to marry, no matter what. After the disaster of her only engagement, Claudia didn’t want to go through that again. It didn’t matter what her father thought. That was not something she wanted.
If her father wanted her to marry, he should have found her a better match.
“When truth and fiction are so close to each other, Signor Armando, how do you know what’s the truth and what isn’t?”
“Then you won’t have people believing such ridiculous things. The fiction of life is far more interesting than reality, so they cling to the lies and hope that it comes true. Even when it’s shown to be a myth, they double down and sink into denial.” Armando spread his hands. “I’ve seen it many times, and while I’m used to it, those remarks still annoy me. I’m not something you put on a pedestal for people to see. I’m an ordinary man trying to make a living for myself.”
“Which is admirable of you.” Claudia’s curiosity won over her slight annoyance, and she pushed on. “If your father married at a younger age, then how are you not married?”
“How do you know I’m not?”
“I….” Claudia faltered. She hadn’t thought about that. If Armando was married, his wife was a very lucky woman.
Why was she even thinking something like that?”
“You came up to the house on your own. My brother saw you.” She gulped. “If you were here with your wife, she would have come with you.”
“Not necessarily.” Armando’s eyes glinted. “But I’m not married. My love is my work, nothing more.”
“So, you’re more like the belief that Italian men marry later and remain as rakes in their younger days?”
Armando’s jaw tightened.
“You seem to have forgotten that I’m French, not Italian. And why are you so fixed on that belief? Do you feel a natural affinity with it or something?”
Claudia stiffened. She didn’t need to ask what he meant by that. He had just implied that she would not marry but take lovers. Did he really think that was appropriate?
From the widening of his eyes and the reddening of his face, Armando seemed to have realised this. He shot to his feet, his eyes on the floor.
“Forgive me, my lady. That was a very inappropriate thing to say.”
“You’re right. It was.” Claudia took a deep breath and wished that her heart would stop racing. “I think you need to leave now and start with your duties, Signor Lacosta. Hatchel will give you a schedule of what we like to eat and the times we dine. Anything else you require, speak to Mrs Baver.”
“Yes, my lady.” Armando gave her a quick bow. “Again, forgive me. I forgot myself for a moment.”
“I noticed.” Claudia watched him walk away. “And signor? Make sure you have a shave before you start work. I don’t want the servants looking scruffy.”
“I’ll tend to that immediately, my lady.”
Armando didn’t turn around, although Claudia saw a stiffening in his shoulders. Then he went to the door and let himself out, closing the door behind him. It was only then that Claudia realised that the room was a little colder now that he was gone.
“Irresistibly Drawn to the Duchess” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
The enthralling Claudia wants nothing more in life, but to explore. However, after walking away from a dreadful proposal, she’s been forced to stay home, all alone. Being completely isolated, she is craving a thrilling escape from reality… So, when the new tantalising cook arrives for the vacant post, Claudia will feel captivated by his seductive eyes and soon, desire will grow into the most scandalous affair.
They say the way to one’s heart is through the stomach…
Being a passionate chef, Armando knows it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cook for a Duke, so he instantly accepts the invitation. Taking charge of a team of distrustful servants is not an issue for him, but maintaining a professional demeanour around his employer’s seductive daughter will be the real challenge. Her tempting beauty draws him in, and Armando can feel that he is stepping towards a very dangerous territory…
Will a simple man like himself offer a Lady the most sizzling romance?
Even though he maddeningly worms his way into her heart, they soon find themselves threatened by Claudia’s former lover, who has suddenly come back into her life. What is his motive for appearing out of the blue, and what will happen to Armando once rumours threaten his reputation and his position? In a twist of fate, will Claudia be the one to lose everything or will the sinful couple finally get their happily ever after?
“Irresistibly Drawn to the Duchess” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.