Edith Neff handed over her hat and coat but politely declined the offer of a seat. She was nervous and sitting would just make it harder to conceal her fidgeting. The young man nodded once and left, his steps muffled by the carpet.
Edith didn't like to wait, but she did appreciate the opportunity to take in her surroundings. She needed a new job, but she didn't intend to work for a family as troubled as the last one. After twenty-seven years in service with them, she and the rest of the staff had been dismissed with barely more than a thank you and a pittance for severance.
This place seemed decent enough – the furnishings were in good condition and fairly new if a bit too exotic and masculine for her taste. Clearly this was the home of a bachelor with no current prospect for marriage. Well, that would probably right itself in time – she'd heard that his Lordship was young.
At first Edith thought she was being addressed by a boy, but then she realized it was a girl – a young woman actually – and a foreign one at that, with olive skin and short, dark hair.
"Yes…" Edith fumbled for a moment before extending the letter she'd received from the employment agency. "I was told you were looking for a new maid."
"We are." The woman extended her hand. "I'm Laila, thank you for coming so promptly. I apologize for the wait."
"Oh, it was no trouble," Edith insisted, perhaps a bit too quickly. It had been so long since she'd had to seek employment, she had forgotten how nerve wracking it could be.
"Lord Courland and his… companion are out this morning so we'll use his study." Laila set a moderate pace and Edith only had time to catch glimpses of several well-appointed rooms on her way past.
"Please, have a seat." Laila waited for Edith to sit in one of two comfortable chairs in front of the fireplace before wheeling over a small tea cart. "Will you join me? The cook is trying a new recipe and wants an opinion before Lord Courland returns." Without waiting for Edith to answer, Laila poured two cups of tea and placed a scone on each plate. She offered milk and sugar, but Edith declined politely, accepting the plate and cup. Laila prepared her own tea and took a seat with a grateful sigh.
"We've been short-handed for weeks. Ray, I mean Lord Courland, hates interviewing servants so it's up to me or Florian to handle them." She took a sip of tea and a bite of scone, giving the plate a thoughtful look. "A little too much honey, don't you agree? Florian and Noel will probably like them." She set the scone aside and sipped her tea calmly, as if she was in no hurry to continue their conversation.
Edith ate a few bites of the scone and would gladly have eaten it all if she wasn't so nervous. She tried to look around discretely while she finished her tea, keeping half an eye on Laila to try and get an idea of her place in the household.
"I needed that," Laila set her empty cup down a few seconds after Edith. "Now then, let's not prolong this, You've been highly recommended, but I do have to ask some questions. First, can you tell me a little about your previous employment?"
"I was with a lovely family for twenty-seven years. I started as a maid of general work when the Master was a young man just starting out. He married soon after and I was moved upstairs as a chambermaid where I remained until after their son was born." Edith tried not to let the memories of those days distract her. It had been a pleasant enough household at first, and the Lady had been strict but fair. It was after the Master took ill and the Lady miscarried that things changed. Edith had almost quit several times, as had most of the staff, but they remained and the situation improved when the boy was born – small but healthy.
"I assisted the nursemaid for a while, taking care of the child. But when he was old enough to walk, a nanny was brought in and I was moved downstairs and remained there for years, until the family fell into trouble and all the servants were dismissed." Edith almost teared up at the flood of memories. So many years and so much good and bad – the Master's death, her own great love and heartbreak. And then the end, the Lady so cold as she dismissed each servant with a formal thanks and a small envelope.
Edith often wondered what had happened to the boy - grown into a fine young man – suddenly gone from the household without explanation. There were rumors, but she knew better than to mistake gossip for fact. And then the worst thing of all...
"I'm sorry that I can't give you a reference. My previous employer – the Master died years ago and the Lady… there was a terrible fire not long after we were dismissed. The Lady, the mansion – everything gone. I don't know what happened to the son."
"I understand. A reference won't be necessary."
"Thank you," Edith stammered. She was stunned – she'd been turned away from every other interview because she didn't have a reference.
"Shall we take a tour? It will be easier to explain your duties if you can see where you'll be working."
The mansion was larger than Edith expected – larger even than her previous employer's – but the duties weren't unreasonable and the pay was generous. But more than that, Edith was anxious to meet the man who kept such an interestingly furnished home and employed such a motley assortment of servants. She'd never seen anything like this
before – they didn't even wear uniforms.
"Laaaiiiilllaaaa!" a young boy yelled as he raced down the hall dragging a bear almost as big as himself. He wrapped himself around Laila, looking up with huge eyes. "Can I have a cookie?"
"You're interrupting," Laila chided as she picked him up and balanced him on her hip. "Noel, this is Edith. She might be working here soon."
"Hello," Noel said as he leaned over to get a better look at the plump dark-haired lady. He looked at Laila again. "Florian said I could have a cookie if I got an A on my test."
"Did you get an A on your test?" Laila asked, already knowing the answer.
"Henry had a headache so he didn't grade it yet, but I must have. I studied!"
"Then go have a cookie. But only one or both of us will be in trouble." She set him down and Noel waved and ran off.
"He must keep things exciting," Edith said, amused and pleased. She loved children but didn't have any of her own.
"We have all kinds of exciting here," Laila said with a smile. "Are you up still interested in the job?"
"Absolutely," Edith assured her, feeling a surge of hope.
"Then we'll see you at seven tomorrow. A one-month trial to begin with. We'll go over more details in the morning."
Laila escorted Edith towards the door., but before they reached the foyer, the door opened and a young dark-haired man stomped in. He took off his hat and coat and tossed them at the coat tree all the while grumbling at someone. A
moment later a slightly breathless blond man arrived, red-faced and annoyed.
"You're the one who spent an hour in the bookstore. Don't blame me for being late!" The blond was saying as he removed his coat and hung it up with precise movements.
"And you insisted on tea with Lady Marcella!" The dark-haired man countered. Edith cast an uneasy glance at Laila but the woman merely crossed her arms and waited as if she were watching a play.
"It was good tea. And you said you were hungry," the blond responded. The men were toe to toe now and Edith was worried that there might be violence. She certainly didn't expect the blond to reach out and brush his hand against the other man's cheek. "You had a crumb there."
"Your hair's a mess," the dark-haired man responded, reaching up and smoothing the blond hair with a touch that was surprisingly tender. He leaned in close and Edith couldn't imagine what he was doing, but Laila cleared her throat loudly and the men pulled back, startled.
The women started forward, and it was then that Edith got a good look at the blond. Her eyes widened and she couldn't stop the small gasp of surprise.
"Master Florian?" He came forward, smiling widely, and took her hand.
"It's a pleasure to see you again, Edith. Has Laila given you the tour?"
"Yes, sir, and she served a lovely tea."
"You tried the new scones then? How are they?"
Before Edith could answer, Noel raced down the hall and threw himself at Florian. The man leaned down and caught the boy easily, as if they did this often. He lifted him up and turned back towards Edith.
"I hope you'll consider working here, Edith. It would be nice to see you again. If you'll excuse us?" He smiled and turned toward the other man, who Edith decided must be Lord Courland himself. For a moment, they were the very picture of a happy family and Edith knew she'd be content in working here.
She took her leave as quickly as politeness allowed and headed home with a smile. She was looking forward to returning the next morning, and was determined to work her hardest for both her new and old masters.