by Mirune Keishiko
"You heard about that affair with the Campbells, didn't you?"
"Why yes, though not in too much detail..."
"Don't know much about it either, but there's the one person we can ask."
She might have been near-blind, but she was certainly not deaf. And though the girls had been several feet away and sounded more curious than malicious, Emma had keenly felt the heat blazing in her cheeks.
Even with the mere memory of it, her face burned. It seemed not even the steady drone of the rain outside could drown out the echoes of remembered girlish voices from the night before.
Resolutely, she bent over the dough, kneading it with floury fingers.
"You're kidding me! A maid!"
"How mortifying for Miss Campbell!"
She still wondered—how on earth had she kept up her composure, overhearing such words?
Ah, but of course. William had been there, after all. If he had noticed the way her hand tightened on his arm or the strange mechanical stiffness her smile acquired, he had made no mention of it.
"All the proper families have cancelled their ties with the Joneses, of course."
"Yes, I'm surprised to see them here myself!"
To anyone else, he must have seemed utterly oblivious to the whispered conversations bubbling around the ballroom. He smiled and spoke as graciously as ever with the other guests, chatted about horse racing and fox hunting with eyes that sparkled with interest.
But there had been a set to his mouth and a tautness along his jaw that had never gone away, even in his most affable moments; and Emma, who knew how and where to look, had been torn between loving pride and miserable guilt.
She cut the dough carefully into neat circles, then brushed the tops with egg and cream until they glistened in the lamplight.
"I can't believe she's a maid. I bet you're exaggerating again."
"Well, I'll admit the story does sound a bit stretched..."
"I've never really known the Joneses, but I doubt they would compromise their standing so recklessly. A scandal like that..."
She had wanted to cry right then and there, or even find some excuse to leave the room, but—oh, it would only harm things, and William needed her there, she needed to be there if they were to have any hope at all—
"Ah, I'll introduce you to a good friend of mine who's here tonight. She'll set us straight about what happened..."
Moving with a slow, leaden grace that betrayed the heaviness in her heart, Emma placed the tray of scones into the hot oven and quietly shut the little door.
For a moment the weight became too much to bear; and she stood silently, bracing herself against the table on trembling arms, trying to will away the painful knot in her throat.
Outside, the rain continued to pour.
Then she drew a deep breath, looked up. It was deathly cold for early morning, even with her woolen dress on, but she hardly noticed. Absent-mindedly pushing up the spectacles that had slipped down her nose, she reached for the little yellow fruits in the bowl on the table.
He had introduced her as simply "Emma." His mother and Dorothea had decided that mystery would be better than honesty, at least for the present.
And to the various gazes that followed the couple as they went about the room—from curious, astonished, envious, admiring, to downright scornful—William's tender attention to her, the evident affection with which he kept her at his side, must have spoken well enough.
So absorbed was she in the task of scraping the zest off the lemons that she scarcely noticed the rumbling boom of the thunder outside, or the gradual lightening of the rain; and William Jones had to stoop down and drop a kiss on her forehead before she started and glanced up.
"Mr. Jones!" She leaped to her feet, dropping lemon and paring knife with a clatter. She thanked the heavens that she hadn't accidentally stabbed him in her surprise.
He went after the little half-naked lemon as it rolled merrily across the floor. "What are you doing up so early, Miss Emma?"
"I-I couldn't go back to sleep after a few hours." I'm still used to waking up this early. Emma blushed as she accepted the fruit he held out to her, their fingers lingering. "I'm so sorry if I woke you!"
"Don't worry. I woke up because of the storm, and because"—here William sniffed at the air, and she thought the blood would be seared permanently into her cheeks—"something smelled too good to ignore."
His hair was sticking up all over his head from sleep and the old dressing gown his mother had lent him had lost its sheen in several patches, but his green eyes were warm and the smile he turned upon her boyish. Emma clutched her shawl around her shoulders, suddenly self-conscious.
"Er—yes, breakfast will be ready in a few minutes." She averted her gaze from those too-entrancing eyes and reached hastily for the pitcher of cream, the bowl of lemon peel, anything to busy herself with. The scones were starting to smell about done, too... "I shall get you some tea, Mr. Jones—"
She looked up, shocked. William hurriedly withdrew the hand he had placed on hers, the color high in his own cheeks.
"You don't need to do this." He bent over her anxiously. "You don't have to do this kind of work anymore."
She flushed. Did he somehow know that she'd scrubbed the pots and cleaned the stove? They hadn't been that dirty, but there had been little else for her to do...
"It's the least I can do," she murmured, ducking her head in embarrassment.
It's all I can do, really.
She turned away, away from his nearness that scattered all her thoughts, and hastened to remove the scones from the oven before they burned. A wave of fragrant steam washed over her as she opened the oven door, the aroma telling her from long experience that the scones were perfectly almost-done.
He watched her silently from his seat at the table, green eyes intent and thoughtful as she brought the tray over and sifted sugar over the tops of the scones with a practiced hand.
"The sugar makes it all crisp on top, doesn't it?" asked William curiously as she slid the tray back into the oven.
"Yes," said Emma absently, wiping traces of sugar from her hands on her apron. "You could skip the sugar, of course, but many people like their scones this way." Now to finish that lemon curd...
"I like my scones that way," said William, fondly remembering the scones he had had at Mrs. Stowner's, that fateful day long ago when he thought he had come for his gloves one last time.
Stricken, Emma stared at him. He had propped up his head on his hand and had shut his eyes dreamily, nose upturned to the air. Inside the kitchen, whose windows had been shut to keep out the tempest, the perfume of fresh pastry hung rich and sweet.
"I'm glad," she said simply, and turned back to the stove.
He was sound asleep, tousled golden head drooping on the fist that propped it up, by the time she set out the scones on a platter before him and placed the bowl of steaming curd alongside it. She noted in gentle amusement that he was snoring, very, very softly.
He roused with a start just as she was pouring the boiling water into the teapot.
"Good morning, Mr. Jones." She tried to keep from teasing him, she truly did. She laid the tea service next to the scones. "I'm sorry, I wasn't sure where you'd like to eat. If you'd care to wait, I can move this to the conservatory or the dining room."
"Miss Emma..." He trailed off, and sat staring wordlessly at the small feast spread out in front of him for so long that Emma, standing by in equal silence, began to worry. At the troubled look that gathered on his face, she felt the heat of shame start to creep up her neck.
"Forgive me, Mr. Jones—" I've gone too far again...
"We'll move this together, you and I," interrupted William, rising to his feet so quickly the chair scraped across the stone floor. "It's too much for one person alone."
"Oh, but I managed fine with Madam Stowner—"
"Miss Emma." The hand she had laid on the tea tray, he covered with his own. "Please, let me help you."
Now fully red, her head bowed, she nodded mutely.
William had to upturn her face to his with gentle fingers. Her distress must have shown, for suddenly his brow smoothed, and the young man gave a smile.
"Thank you," he said, more somberly.
Emma couldn't help leaning her hot face into his cool palm, just for a moment. "I would like," she said near-inaudibly, "to do what I can for you, Mr. Jones."
"Oh, but Miss Emma"—he gently tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear—"you already do so much."
They might have kissed, but the servants could be heard coming to work.
They had breakfast in the conservatory that morning; the storm cleared enough for a beautiful sunrise. And William would forever after say that those scones were among the best he'd ever had.
A.N. Hooray! My first fic for VRE. I hope it manages somehow to do justice to this beautiful series and these utterly adorable characters.
Oh, and please correct me if there are any factual or historical mistakes. I've done a little research, but I've only just begun to really learn about the Victorian era. So if they're not supposed to be having breakfast in the conservatory, or if woolen dresses are totally out of place (or perhaps I should say "time"), please be so kind as to let me know!