London, December 24, 1820
Helen Lowe’s freckled nose had pressed against the cold window glass so long it was probably flat by now. But it had been fascinating watching the comings and goings for the Blessingtons’ Christmas Eve ball next door. Mysterious crates and gilded chairs and hothouse flowers had been arriving all day, with a veritable army of helpers trooping in and out. Some poor soul was festooning the front steps right now with holly and ivy, his thickly gloved fingers making a hash of it. It was so frigid outside Helen could see the man’s breath as he hunched over the iron railing, dropping branches and stomping on them in frustration.
It wasn’t as if Helen had anything better to do than spy. She’d been her usual efficient self from the moment she’d woken up too early. All of her former employer’s personal effects were ready for the removal men coming in two days’ time. There were plenty of crates right here, ready to be transported to the late Lady Epworth’s nephew’s estate in Yorkshire, though none of them were mysterious. Helen had inventoried each one, a list of contents in her neat handwriting lying atop tissue and packing straw inside, an identical one pasted to the outside. A monitor from the solicitor’s office had been present, just in case Helen might be tempted to help herself to a tasseled pillow or a silver-capped inkwell. There would be nothing that Lord Epworth could hold against her, apart from the fact his aunt had left Helen a small inheritance and a large ruby ring.
He was particularly incensed about the ring—or his wife was—but it was Lady Epworth’s to do what she liked with it. She’d bought it herself to celebrate her husband’s demise some thirty years ago, merry widow that she was, and it was not part of the Epworth family jewel collection.
Helen had loved Lady Ruth Epworth despite the fact the woman’s tongue was razor sharp and her mind even sharper. They had rubbed along well together for almost a dozen years, ever since Helen was plucked out of the charity school at the age of sixteen to serve as companion and general dogsbody to the dowager baroness. Lady Epworth had selected Helen out of the motley lineup herself, saying she preferred to train a green girl to her specifications, and she’d liked Helen’s plain, freckled face.
There had been a lot of specifications, but Helen was a quick learner. She’d given Lady Epworth no reason to regret her choice, though most her freckles had faded over time and she liked to think she wasn’t quite so plain anymore. And with Lady Epworth’s generosity, Helen might be choosy about her next position. In fact, if she were very, very careful, Helen might not have to seek employment at all for quite some time.
And that was the rub. As of noon Boxing Day, she had nowhere to go. Lord Epworth had very reluctantly allowed Helen and a skeleton staff to stay through Christmas and no longer, even though the new tenants were not expected until after the first of January.
So they were to be turned out. Instead of gawking out the window all afternoon, Helen really should have been reading The London List’s help wanted pages.
“Some tea, Helen?”
Helen turned to see Mrs. Fuller in the doorway bearing a tray. The house was being let furnished with the inferior pieces Lord Epworth didn’t want, so there was still a table upon which to set the cups and teapot. Since Lady Epworth’s death three weeks ago, Helen and the elderly housekeeper had shared this afternoon repast above stairs in the relative comfort of the parlor.
But without Lady Epworth’s paintings and books and bibelots—and the woman herself—the room seemed sterile and very quiet.
“Goodness, is it so late?” Helen left her post and settled into a wingback chair in front of the fitful fire.
Mrs. Fuller sat opposite and poured two steaming cups of tea into the third-best china, which was being left with the house. “Aye, and getting dark, too. Soon you won’t be able to see anything, Miss Nosy.”
Helen smiled. “You know you’ve been looking too.”
Mrs. Fuller passed her a plate of sliced brandied fruitcake, her one concession to the season. She was not a Christmas person. “Same as last year, and the year before that. I’m sure I don’t know why those Blessingtons go through all the trouble and expense. Tis a sin when people are starving in the street.”
Somewhere in Mrs. Fuller’s bloodline were Roundheads and Covenanters who treated Christmas as just another day. The woman had worked for the Epworths ever since Lady Epworth came to Berkeley Square as a young baroness, starting as a kitchen maid and working her way up to housekeeper-cook. Mrs. Fuller was retiring to the country with her modest savings and an equally modest legacy from cash-strapped Lady Epworth, and had invited Helen to join her if she wished.
As much as Helen loved Mrs. Fuller’s biscuits, she didn’t think she wanted to trade one opinionated old lady for another just yet.
“They’ll light the flambeaux, and the gaslights,” Helen said, a bit wistful. The Blessingtons were rumored to have every modern convenience. They had purchased the house next door two years ago, although had spent much of that time abroad except for Christmastide. Lady Epworth had never met them, so consequently the only thing Helen knew about them was from servants’ gossip and her own spying. They looked to be a handsome young couple, with Lord Blessington rumored to be doing something diplomatic for the government.
“Surely you won’t stand at the window all night long,” Mrs. Fuller said.
“No, of course not. I’ll go up with a book after supper and forget all about the party.” She’d try to anyway. Parties like that were not for the likes of her.
“You read too much. It will ruin your mind.” Mrs. Fuller paused. “You know, we have an invitation to the Blessingtons’ ball around here somewhere. I didn’t put it in the fire—it was too pretty, all the fancy engraving. I don’t hold with all the holiday nonsense, of course, but maybe you should go.”
“Me?” Helen squeaked. “I’m in mourning! And it wouldn’t be proper. Lady Epworth was invited, not me.”
“If she were here to go, she would take you with her, wouldn’t she, God rest her soul.”
Helen shook her head. “She never would have gone to begin with. You know she hadn’t left the house in ages. She hated wearing shoes at the end, too.” And clothes. For the last year of her life, Lady Epworth had remained in a dressing gown all day unless she had an important appointment. Beautiful dressing gowns, however, made of the finest imported silks and satins, trimmed with lace and braiding and beading. One was even lined with fur! They were left over from the time her husband was alive and had spoiled her with material things to make up for his infidelity.
“You’re probably right. And she didn’t know the Blessingtons either. Didn’t want to know them. Funny how old people get set in their ways.”
Helen willed herself not to spit out her mouthful of tea. Mrs. Fuller and Lady Epworth had been the exact same age.
“It was nice of them to invite her.”
“Oh, everyone on the square got an invitation. Lord Blessington’s in the Foreign Office. He might as well make an effort for his own neighbors as well as the Russians and whatever other savages he has to deal with.”
“I suppose there will be important people there tonight.” Maybe she should keep looking out the window. She might see a Russian prince, or even an English one, although that lot should probably be avoided.
“No doubt. But you’re as good as they are, orphan or not,” Mrs. Fuller said loyally.
Helen didn’t remember her parents at all. The grandmother who had taken care of her had died when Helen was six, and no other relatives could be found. The little money there was left went to a reputable charity school for her tuition, room, and board, and Helen had spent ten long years there before Lady Epworth had rescued her.
“Now, Mrs. Fuller, you’ll be carted off as a revolutionary,” Helen teased. “I’m sure I know my place.” And it was not very elevated in the scheme of things.
The woman set her teacup down with some violence. “Bah. I don’t like the Frenchies, but I think they meant well in the beginning. Equality and all that.”
The bloody end result still terrified the British aristocracy. Lord Liverpool was not known for handling protesters with kid gloves.
“We’re all equal under God’s eyes,” Helen murmured. She’d heard that often enough at school and in church, and wanted to believe it.
“You shouldn’t have to wait until you’re dead to find out,” Mrs. Fuller said with some asperity. “You are going to that ball.”
Helen’s mouth dropped open. When she recovered herself, she cried, “But I can’t! I wasn’t invited.”
One of Helen’s greatest strengths was her honesty. Lady Epworth had prized her for it, even when Helen had to say something unflattering, like “That turban makes you look like an organ-grinder’s monkey.” It had taken her some years to know she could speak her mind with the old lady, and was encouraged to do so in the most outrageous fashion.
As Lady Epworth always said, the truth will set you free. But Helen might not have the freedom to express herself quite so colorfully in the future when she sought another position as a companion after the money ran out.
“Lady Epworth hasn’t been seen in society in half a dozen years at least. You could be her…niece.”
“If I were truly her niece, I’d be related to awful Lord Epworth, so no thank you. And I’d be in mourning. I mean, I am in mourning,” Helen said, looking down at her dyed black dress. She did feel Lady Epworth’s loss quite keenly.
“All you need to do is get through the front door. The footman won’t even read the name on the invitation. If he can read. You can pretend to be anyone you like once you’re inside.”
Helen set her own cup down, rather more gently. “Mrs. Fuller! What on earth has come over you?”
“It’s time you had some fun. You can’t tell me it’s natural for a girl your age to be at the constant beck and call of a cranky old lady and have no social life whatsoever.”
“I’m hardly a girl. I’m almost eight and twenty. If anything, I’m on the shelf. A…a spinster.” The word tasted funny in her mouth, but Helen knew it was untasty but true.
“Pooh! Maybe you’ll meet a man who will sweep you off your feet. And if not, you’ll have a night to remember and see how the other half lives. What’s the harm?”
Helen hardly knew what to say. She wondered if Mrs. Fuller had somehow mixed the tea leaves up with something more sinister and hallucinatory in the kitchen.
“I have nothing to wear.”
The triumphant gleam in Mrs. Fuller’s eyes nearly paralyzed her. “The dressing gowns, you silly. I’m somewhat handy with a needle and thread, and all I’ll have to do is do some basting. It’s not as if the stitches have to last a lifetime. That turquoise brocade one will bring out the blue of your eyes, and the current Lady Epworth will never miss it. She’d look like a parrot in it anyway.”
“I don’t know where it is,” Helen fibbed. Thanks to her meticulous record-keeping, a list of every piece of Lady Epworth’s clothing was affixed to the outside of the box.
“Leave it to me—I’ll find it. You’ll have to do your own hair, though. And not scraped back as it is now. Something fluffier, with a curl or two. It’s almost blonde. We’ll do a lemon rinse to bring out the golden highlights.”
Mrs. Fuller was completely mad. Helen’s hair would never dry by the time—
My God! What was she thinking? She wasn’t going to go along with this mad scheme, was she?