Clara breathed in, smelling the rich scent of yeast. The smell brought back her earliest memories from when she was five years old, standing on the little four-legged stool by her father as he worked the breaddough. She recalled his smile and how he’d given her a lump to knead too, her tiny hands pressing on the springy, soft substance as hard as she could.
Now, she scraped a strand of pale hair back from one eye, her long, slim fingers lifting from the bowl of dough, and turned to him. He was still standing beside her, but fifteen years later there was no need for the stool and Clara was a good inch taller than he was.
“Could you pass me that tray, Clara? There’s a fine lass.”
Clara smiled fondly at him. “Here we are,” she said. “All ready.”
As he nodded thankfully and started to divide out the rounds of dough into loaves, Clara went to the oven. It was afternoon and she’d cooked a batch of buns, ready to be sold around tea-time. They were almost ready, and the air was filled with the delicious scents of steam.
“Now, we’ll have to get these in for a good hour,” her father was saying. “Can you…oh! Thank you, daughter.” He smiled up at her as she carefully lifted the tray from his hand. Her baking was ready to come out of the oven, and it was time for the loaves to be cooked. She glanced across at the little clock on the mantel – an old, battered one, but essential in their trade – and saw it was almost five o’ clock.
“In a moment the place will be filled with customers,” she observed, starting to unload the buns.
“Yes, it will,” her father grinned. “And I’ll be even more thankful than usual for an extra pair of hands. You’re a fine help. What would I do without you?”
Clara swallowed hard, her father’s affectionate words warming her. She had no other family save him, but, even had she done, she knew he would always have held a special place for her. Her heart filled with love as she looked at that worn, familiar face.
“I don’t want to think about what I’d do,” Clara said firmly. “I don’t want to think of losing you.”
Her father’s hazel eyes misted suddenly. “No, daughter,” he said thickly. “No. We’re not thinking about that.”
Clara nodded, turning away to hide her confusion. She thought perhaps she’d made him think of losing her mother – it had happened almost twenty years ago now, but sometimes it still hurt him. She didn’t have a moment to think. She heard footsteps in the front of the shop and turned to see Mrs. Hudson coming in.
“Afternoon, Mrs. Hudson,” she greeted her. She was a big figure in Dunham village – one of the oldest residents, there was no-one she hadn’t met and nobody who hadn’t met with her sharp-eyed scrutiny.
“Oh! Fine afternoon, Clara. Are those Bath buns?” she asked, pointing at the buns that Clara was laying aside to cool. “I’ll take five of those. I’m having visitors for tea.”
“Of course, Mrs. Hudson. That’s lovely. Just waiting for them to cool. Oh! Hello, Mr. Simmons.”
“Afternoon, Miss Clara,” Mr. Simmons greeted, taking off his cap. “An unusually warm day, eh?”
“It is,” Clara nodded. It was late autumn, and she was pleased to see some sunshine.
The bakery was filling up, as it always did. They were not the only source of baked bread in the village – the innkeeper’s wife also sold it – but their loaves were the most sought-after.
“Got some loaves ready?” Mr. Simmons asked eagerly.
“Yes, yes,” her father answered, taking over as Clara bent to check the buns. They were not quite cool enough to ice yet – they would need a good twenty minutes. She was about to tell Mrs. Hudson so, when another customer came in.
“Hello, Mrs. Delford,” she greeted. She was about to ask the diminutive woman what she could fetch for her, when a rumbling noise started. They all turned to stare.
“It’s horses’ hoofs,” Mr. Simmons said authoritatively. As the man who ran the inn stables, nobody questioned him. Clara nodded.
“That’ll be the earl and his cronies,” Mrs. Hudson said. The look on her face was stiff.
“What’s he doing?” her father asked lightly. “Leading the charge?”
Clara bit her lip to stifle a smile. Her father was so funny sometimes.
“Just him and his friends, heading up yonder.” Mrs. Hudson indicated the manor house, which was a good half hour’s walk away. “Bad lot, likely.”
“Not necessarily,” Clara said lightly, reaching for a bowl. She had certainly never met the earl, and she wasn’t about to pass sentence on anyone.
“I’ll bet so,” Mrs. Hudson said firmly. She wasn’t the sort to bet on things, so Clara was convinced of how strongly she felt.
“That lot’ll be trouble like flies be bothersome,” Mrs. Delford said.
Clara started to laugh and her father laughed, turning to check on the breadloaves in the oven. She went to the window to hold the glaze up to the light – she couldn’t see if it was thick enough yet – and as she did so, the first horse in the group rode by. She caught sight of a man with a thin, handsome face. He had dark hair, a firm jaw and a narrow but well-shaped nose. He looked haughty and a little cold. When he turned around to glance at the bakery, she shivered at the remote and distant expression on his face. He was riding close by and Clara hastily looked away, lest he see that she stared at him.
“That’s the earl,” Mrs. Hudson, who had appeared beside her, commented. “Difficult soul.”
“He does seem that,” Clara agreed with a shiver. Something about him had struck her. Her mind lingered on his eyes. He didn’t seem wicked – rather, he looked unhappy.
Why would he be sad? She had no reason to assume that! He was just a difficult earl, and she would never meet him anyway, so why make herself worried on his account?
“The buns will be ready soon, Mrs. Hudson. Can you wait ten minutes?” she asked.
“Of course I can,” she nodded. She went to sit restfully on the stool in the corner. Clara returned to the kitchen, but found her father absent.
“Father?” she called. She went to the back door, which led to the plot of land where they grew herbs and garlic. She heard a heavy cough.
That sounds unhealthy.
She turned away from the door and back to the counter, hurrying to fetch goods for the customers, putting aside the shiver of worry that went down her back. A moment or two later, he came back in again and Clara felt relieved.
“A fine day, eh, dearest?” he asked her with a smile. “So many customers.”
“Yes,” Clara nodded. “I’m glad the party has passed by,” she added.
“They did make a fine lot of noise,” her father nodded with a grin. “Rattled the roof-tiles.”
“Oh, father,” Clara chuckled.
He laughed too and patted her hand and she forgot about the earl and his cold, sad eyes and all her worries and turned to the customers. She loved being a baker. Her mind was restless, though, and uneasy, despite her attempt at calm.
She couldn’t stop worrying about her father, and she hoped that he was not unwell.
Clara shut the door of the bakery. She looked out of the glass panes and onto the cold morning. It had started to rain. She closed her hazel eyes and tried to feel brave.
She could not do this.
She looked through the window where the scrolled paintwork was emblazoned with the name “Dunham Bakery”. She hated the thought of closing these doors. It was just over a week since her father’s first cough, and now she was astonished she had thought so little of it then. She made herself roll the curtain across the panes and walked back to the counter. The bakery was cold and empty, and dark behind the curtain.
Her father slept upstairs.
“At least I hope he’s finally fallen asleep,” she murmured nervously.
He had been awake all night, coughing and wheezing. She had done her best to nurse him, but she knew there was little to do. She had summoned the physician that morning, but he only said what he’d said when they’d last talked, not two days before: I can do nothing.
That’s not possible! He will recover soon. I know he will.
She had called for the physician the week before, and he’d said the same thing then. There was nothing he could do, and he had no idea what this illness that had afflicted him was.
She couldn’t make a noise, but she wanted to break something, to cry out her frustration and anger. She felt helpless! Her father was going in and out of fever every day, and that terrible cough…she was worn out and distressed and she had no idea what to do. And nobody could help.
And I can’t do this all by myself.
She couldn’t spend the mornings trying to run the bakery when her father was upstairs, feverish and shaking. It was impossible to focus on her work when she kept on wondering if he was breathing, if he was hungry.
She shut her eyes as she heard Henriette Glenfield, her neighbour, at the door. She was fond of Henriette, who was close to her in age, but she didn’t want to talk now.
I don’t know what I’ll say.
“Clara? Are you there? It’s Henriette.”
Clara took a deep breath and stood, walking to the door. She checked her reflection in the window before she opened it – her long blonde hair had come loose around her, and her face was thin and pale.
She looked drawn and exhausted, but there was no remedying it. She went to open the door.
“Clara!” Henriette looked up, her heart-shaped face a picture of relief. “I saw the bakery was closed! I was so worried! Are you unwell?” She stepped up the stairs, coming to the door.
“Come in, Henriette,” Clara said, feeling relief at seeing her. She had been alone with this for too long. “But please speak softly.”
“Of course,” Henriette nodded. Very sparkling and funny; it was not her nature to be soft, but Clara was touched to see her instantly start whispering.
“It’s my father,” Clara explained, walking to the kitchen. Her voice was weary and strained and she cleared her throat, coughing. She could make tea for them, at least – it was past midday, and she was hungry. “He’s ailing.”
“Oh! Clara! I’m sorry,” Henriette said, dark eyes crinkled with frowning. “You should have told me. Has Mr. Efton seen him?”
Mr. Efton was the physician. “Yes,” Clara said, face hard. “Several times…He said nothing.”
“Oh, Clara! That is terrible,” Henriette said, scraping a strand of sandy-coloured hair out of one eye. “I’m so sorry. Is there aught I can do?”
Clara took a breath. “No, Henriette. There’s nothing either of us can do.” She shut her eyes, trying not to think of how ill her father had looked. He was sweating and his face was badly flushed and she wasn’t sure he knew her, so high was his fever.
“Oh, my dear Clara.” Henriette took her hand and squeezed it, her long, thin fingers surprisingly forceful. “You know we’d all pitch in for you.”
“Oh, Henriette,” Clara said, and looked at the ceiling, trying to stop her tears from running down her face. She was so touched to think they would all help her. “But…but I’m afraid I’m going to have to close. I can’t do this.”
“Oh, Clara!” Henriette took her hand again. “Is it the money?”
Clara nodded. The only thing the physician could do, it seemed, was charge ludicrous sums for pronouncing his unhelpful opinion. And the one thing that did help her father – a chest-salve made by the apothecaries – was proving surprisingly expensive. Purchasing flour and yeast and the wherewithal to make bread was costing her more than it was making.
“It’s not just that. It’s…I can’t work and nurse him at the same time. And the bakery is barely covering the expense…” she shut her eyes, feeling tears well up.
“Oh, Clara,” Henriette said again. She rested a hand on her shoulder. “I have some little…”
“No,” Clara interrupted quietly. She felt her heart swell with emotions. Henriette had barely enough for herself. She had lost both her parents years ago, and worked as a governess to the Emery family in the next village. She earned barely enough to feed herself, and wore nothing besides the three threadbare gowns she owned. “No. I can’t let you.”
“I could try,” Henriette said with a grin.
Clara smiled sadly. “No, Henriette. I can’t ask others to help. I just need more work.”
“What will you do?”
Clara let out a sigh. “I have no notion.” She felt her fingers twisting the fabric of her kerchief round and round. She made herself stop. It was her nerves – this was worrying her.
What could she do? Aside from running the bakery, she had no skills. She could read and write, but she couldn’t teach, like Henriette, and that was the only other profession open to her, besides sewing or spinning.
“Well, something will happen,” Henriette said, nodding slowly. “The Lord works in mysterious ways, you know.”
Clara swallowed hard. She had to allow herself to hope, to think Henriette was right.
“I believe so,” she said softly.
Henriette nodded. “Now, we should have a look at those buns, eh? No use wasting them – not when we’re starving, eh?”
Clara chuckled and nodded. The last of the stock was still on the table. She felt her stomach rumble – she had been so busy with her father’s care that she’d neglected herself.
“I’ll butter those and we can have them with tea,” Henriette said. She walked to the counter and reached for the butter, ordering things with her businesslike hand.
When she had gone, Clara felt a little better. She stood and went to the window, opening the curtains. The rain was lessening, and sunshine flowed in. She felt a little of the hope from earlier returning – at least she had told someone. That had to count for something! And Henriette was right – there was always hope.
She turned away to clean the teacups. As she lifted the last one out of the big metal sink, she heard a knock at the door. She tensed.
Please, if that’s one of the villagers, just go away!
She didn’t want to have to face anyone. She felt strong, but not strong enough for that! And the explaining would still be hard.
“Good morning?” a man’s voice called through the door. It was cold and stiff and nothing like anyone here, the accent wrong. Too polished and clipped. Too cultured.
She tensed. It couldn’t be, could it?
Then she remembered.
It was the second Thursday of the month, and the day that Lady Dunham chose to make her pastoral rounds. As the leading family of the district, the earl’s family always checked on the parishioners once a month. That usually consisted of a talk with the local priest, not actually visiting them.
Why are they here? And why him?
She swallowed hard. If they were here, the earl and countess, it could only be because they’d heard about her father’s state. And the last thing she wanted was insincerity from the likes of those arrogant bounders.
“No,” she whispered to herself.
She would not let them in.
Charles Blackstone, forth Earl of Dunham, blinked distractedly. He was standing on the doorstep of the village bakery, beside his mother the dowager countess, who was holding a basket. And, though they had plainly heard dishes being washed in the bakery interior, nobody answered.
“This is ridiculous!”
It was Lady Dunham who said it, but Charles had to agree that he thought so too. He took a breath.
“Mr. Sedley?” he called loudly through the door. “You’re here?”
No answer. Charles, feeling impatient, stepped to the window. He distinctly heard some footsteps. They were going up the stairs. What was the fellow thinking?
“Good morning?” he called through the window. He could hear the frustration in his voice, cold and hard. He took a breath.
This is not how it is supposed to happen!
He was here, he reminded himself forcefully, to do good. He was in the village with his mother, accompanying her on the rounds she insisted on making – though why she did it, when she so plainly hated this, he’d no notion – and their intent was kind. They were here to inquire about the baker, since they had been given news by Mrs. Hudson – who was somehow connected to the church, he’d no idea how – that he was ill.
He took a deep breath. “Mr. Sedley?” he called again, trying to keep the irritation hidden. “If you are there, will you inform us as to your state of health?”
“Charles…he’s the baker, not the dean! Why are you speaking that way?” Lady Dunham hissed. “Just ask him plainly if he’s well and we’ll be off. I have plenty of houses to visit, and these sheets to take to the infirmary…I cannot waste the time.”
Charles took a deep breath. If there was something that made him upset, it was his mother’s insistence on finding fault in him. He could barely open his mouth, or even appear in a room, without her finding the need to castigate him. If he said nothing, he was over-silent. If he talked too much, he was loquacious. He couldn’t seem to manage to get anything right!
“Yes, Mother,” he said. He was about to shout through the door again when he heard footsteps running from the back of the house. At almost the same time, the front door burst open.
Charles, leaning in through the door, stepped sharply back. He was sure he was gaping amazedly and he hastily shut his mouth, aware that his first impression was somewhat ridiculous. He stood up straight, hastily recovering his poise.
“Good morning,” he said coldly.
“Greetings.” The voice was stiff. The woman sounded as affronted as he felt.
He looked at the newcomer. She was tall – almost his height, in fact – with long, pale hair that hung to her waist, left loose about her shoulders. Her face was a long oval, her mouth straight and firm, and her eyes were wide and hazel-green. He took a deep breath.
She is quite lovely.
He instantly pushed the thought aside. She had burst the door open, almost toppled him and made him wait on the steps for a full five minutes, caterwauling like the village scrap-collector. He found the anger and used it to push aside the feeling of attraction.
“You were late,” he said.
She raised a brow, “I didn’t know you were coming.”
Charles felt a jolt of amusement. The retort was so quick, and he couldn’t help admiring it. He instantly schooled his face to neutral, hearing his mother gasp, horrified.
“Maybe so,” he said swiftly. “But it was inconsiderate. And rude. We came to inquire about your father. We heard he is ailing?” he cringed at the sound of his own voice – it was arid and cool, as if he was reprimanding her.
She did insult me. And I cannot allow that.
“Yes,” the girl said. She didn’t embellish it with any address. Her hazel eyes held his.
“Is he resting?” he asked, deciding to ignore the lack of address. He could see the bakery was closed, though it was an hour before luncheon. The baker must be resting, or it would be open. He almost felt foolish for asking.
“He cannot leave his bed,” the girl said. She sounded angry.
“I see,” he said. “And, of course, you cannot run the bakery.” He smiled, as that was surely self-evident.
The girl looked at him. “I could,” she said lightly. “I just cannot afford to.”
Charles looked at her in amazement. Could she truly? She was so young, and he simply could not imagine a young woman running a business.
“Girl, are you aware who we are?” his mother asked. Charles cringed inwardly – he hated using his title like a weapon, but sometimes he had to agree that it was needed. The girl had unsettled him, with the way she talked to him like an equal.
It unsettled and amazed him.
“You’re the dowager countess, and the earl,” she said, as if that was perfectly obvious. “And I wonder why you are here, since the bakery is closed.” Her gaze was wide.
“Girl! We did not come to make purchases!” the countess said, her voice angry. “We came to inquire about the state of health of your father.”
“And I have told you he is ill,” the girl said softly. “And I must tend him. If you will excuse me?”
“Yes,” Charles began to say, and then, without warning, the door closed gently and they were left staring at it, the faded gold writing on the window mocking them.
His mother stared. “Charles!” she said. “Why…the upstart child! How dare she? Has she any idea who we are?” Her thin face was a picture of indignation.
“Yes,” Charles said lightly. “I think she does know – you did ask her.”
“Charles!” His mother rounded on him. “Was that supposed to amuse me? I don’t know what you thought you were doing! You’re the earl…you ought to have reprimanded her! You shouldn’t let people treat you like that! You never did learn to defend yourself!”
Charles swallowed hard. I might have, he thought lightly, but you wouldn’t much care if I defended myself against you. And besides, that was a slip of a girl and she was more likely to need defending from you…from us.
“Yes, Mother,” he said lightly, taking the basket and helping her down the steps. He ignored her tirade, as he always did, and walked on beside her.
They returned to the coach, where they had left it on the hillside on the outskirts of the village. The coachman was there, the horses peaceably cropping the grass. Charles sat back and shut his eyes.
He thought back to the girl at the bakery. He couldn’t help it. Something in her manner had caught his attention.
Beautiful, she certainly was. But it wasn’t only that. Upstart..? To use his mother’s word. Yes, she was certainly that. He had never been spoken to like that by anyone before. Yet, all she had done was tell him the truth, like an equal.
He pushed the thought away. It was confusing. The girl raised questions within him that he didn’t feel able to address.
Charles didn’t like uncomfortable questions – he liked his world to be orderly and neat. It was one of the reasons he never argued with his mother, no matter how he might have liked to – it would have caused too much unrest.
“Don’t bother helping me down,” his mother said haughtily as he offered her his hand. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
Charles swallowed hard. He knew she was feeling betrayed because he hadn’t gone out of his way to reprimand the girl at the bakery. It was something he didn’t really understand – his inability to feel angry about it, that was. He tried to forget about her, but the harder he pushed the image of the girl aside, the more it clung.
She’s so alone.
He couldn’t forget the look in her eyes when she spoke to them – those big hazel depths were lonely and afraid, and they resonated with feelings he had never acknowledged before.
What would anyone think of an earl – a Blackstone, no less – being lonely and afraid? He tensed his spine and resolved to feel only anger towards that upstart girl. She had touched on too many difficulties within him.
“Clifford? There you are,” he greeted his friend, who had already arrived and who was waiting in the drawing-room. They had planned to have a drink together before dinner and discuss Clifford’s investments in the East-India company. As it was, he felt less enthusiastic about it then he had the day before.
“You seem distracted,” Clifford commented as they sat in the drawing-room, the smell of leather and brandy redolent as Charles poured their drinks.
“Distracted? No,” Charles said, leaning back in the big leather chair. “Well, maybe slightly. Nothing to it…just a tiring afternoon.”
“I see,” Clifford said, setting the matter aside. “I do wonder about your opinion about rope-making? Albert said it was a terrific chance, since sales have doubled lately…”
Charles tried to focus on the talk – Clifford had plenty of enthusiasm for the topic, he had to admit – but he couldn’t concentrate.
The image of the girl in the bakery kept haunting him.
He couldn’t forget those eyes, and the unspoken fear he had seen there. He felt he had to do something, however much he hated the questions she’d raised in him and the fool she’d made of him.
It was only fair. And Charles Blackstone, fourth earl, was a fair man.
As he was falling asleep that night, memories of her sweet body and lovely face, and her fine humor, kept haunting him.
After a night of bad sleep Clara walked up the stairs to the bedroom, feeling her knees buckle. The faint morning light shone on the stairs from the windows, illuminating them so that she could see the edges of the stairs, the cavernous shadows beneath them black in the half-darkness. She was exhausted, her back was bent and aching and she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had rest or real sleep.
She had thought about the earl’s visit more than once the previous afternoon, but more immediate concerns had thrust it aside. She was annoyed that the image of those dark eyes kept coming to her mind unbidden sometimes, especially in quiet moments when she wasn’t focused on her father’s needs.
She went up to her father’s room and opened the door swiftly. She didn’t want to risk waking him, but she needed to make sure he ate and drank.
“Father?” she whispered.
He opened his eyes. He sat up as she came over, taking his hand in hers. It felt cool, but not over-cold. She felt her legs weaken with relief.
“Did you sleep last night?” she murmured. “I can give you some water. You need to drink…” she reached for the cup of water that stood on his bedsidetable, illuminated by the light that leaked from between curtains. She ignored how his bones were so prominent below the skin, the fever eating the flesh off him. He hadn’t eaten properly in weeks.
He murmured as she held the cup to his lips, his eyes focused and then unfocused as she tipped a little water into his mouth. He swallowed, face tight with pain. She leaned back, trying to be encouraging.
“Good,” she said softly. “That’s good. Will you eat? I can make a gruel or porridge? You might like porridge?”
Her father grunted and she realised she was probably tiring him. His throat ached and was raw and she knew speech was difficult. He had been barely managing to speak to her for a while. She wished she could do something to reduce the pain. She wished she could do something.
“I’ll put some gruel on to heat,” she said. She slipped downstairs.
When she had finished feeding him, she went down to the parlor where she sat down, fingers twisting in her hair. The table was awash with books of tallies and she didn’t want to look: she didn’t care to know how the money was decreasing and how she could barely afford to pay the increasing bills and debt.
“I need to do something.”
She had no idea what. She shut her eyes a moment, trying to think of something.
The money is running out. I need to find work.
She considered her options. As a woman on her own, there were not too many options available for her – or, not many that she was actually willing to contemplate right now. She could spin wool, if she knew how to, or teach children, or sew shirts. Those were the only respectable options for her.
And I can’t sew, not really, or teach. My only real skill is cooking.
She stood and went to the window, looking out. It was raining outside, a slight rain that soaked the streets and made the sky pale gray. She felt as hopeless as the day looked. She saw Henriette leaving the house, an oilskin cloak wrapped around her to keep her dry, door banging shut behind her as she headed into the rain. She considered going to her, and begging her to help her find a teaching position somewhere. Then she remembered Henriette’s words.
The Lord works in mysterious ways.
She shut her eyes and sent out a silent prayer. She wasn’t usually much of a believer, but it was certainly worth a try.
She felt a little better as she turned back from the window. She reached for the dirty dishes by the copper sink and started to wash them, planning what she would make her father. They had enough ingredients for gruel, but she had only baked one loaf of bread – trying to make the bag of flour in the cellar last as long as possible.
She was just stirring the pot on the fire, the gruel bubbling and scenting the air, when the knock of a fist on wood sounded through the house.
“Who could that be? It’s Tuesday.”
Henriette would be at the Emery house all day, Mrs. Hudson wouldn’t be calling today, and Clara couldn’t imagine who else might visit.
“I don’t want to see anyone.”
Her reluctance was justifiable – she was exhausted, hungry and she hadn’t the strength to face even the smallest of threat. She tiptoed to the window and peered under the curtain.
A man in a suit stood there.
Dressed in black, with a plain white shirt below the coat, he didn’t look like a nobleman – there was something too restrained and plain about the clothing. He had grey hair that was finely combed, and a slim nose and a long oval face that was quite haughty, and she didn’t know who he was. Yet he stood there with a stiff, distasteful expression on his face. She could not guess who he might be.
Something prompted her to open the door and, curious rather than afraid, she opened it.
“Miss Sedley, I assume?”
Clara drew in a breath, surprised. It was not the politest greeting she’d ever heard, and besides, he knew her name. He was a stranger.
“Good morning, sir. Who are you?” she said, deciding it was best to neither confirm nor deny her identity.
“I am Mr. Wellford. I came to bring a message to a Miss Sedley, the daughter of the local baker. Are you she?”
“I am,” Clara said cautiously. “What was the message? Will you come in?” she added, belatedly realising that he was standing on the thin step, barely out of the light rain.
“No. Thank you. I must hasten away,” the man said, sniffing as if his discomfort in being here was unbearable. “I will deliver the message personally. Lord Dunham, the earl, requests you to present yourself at the manor to be interviewed for the role of cook.”
“What?” Clara said, then hastily remembered her manners, and covered her mouth, embarrassed. “Beg pardon, Mr. Wellford? Why would he ask me?”
The butler sniffed again. “He heard good news of your baking skills,” he said, as if complimenting anyone came as an unbearable hardship. “And he requested me to invite you. You will be interviewed, of course, to decide your suitability for the position. Will you come now?” he asked, already walking away as though her assent was given.
“Now?” Clara stared at him. She felt her stomach twist with a mix of excitement and fear. Was he speaking truly? The earl had asked for her? Personally? And there was work! She could earn money! She could have cried with relief.
I needed work so badly.
It was like a miracle.
“Yes. Now. Or in ten minutes, if it suits you?” the butler said. “I need to fetch my horse from the inn. I will meet you here directly.”
“I need to tend my father,” Clara said quickly. “Allow me ten minutes.”
Clara felt the stiffness in her back suddenly give way and she sat down heavily on the chair in the parlor. She had work! Or, the possibility of it.
“And I need to be there in ten minutes.”
She ran to the kitchen to check on the gruel – it had stuck to the pot a little and burned, but it was still able to be eaten – and ladled out a few spoons into a bowl. She went swiftly upstairs and into her father’s bedroom. He was awake.
“Father,” she said gently, sitting down slowly and reaching for his hand. “I have brought you gruel. I will need to be away for an hour – will you be safe?”
He grinned. “Not…” he wheezed, “not…fall…off the bed.”
She felt her heart twist with a mix of love and sadness – even now, he managed to make light of his affliction. She took his hand in hers and tried to hide the tears.
After feeding him a few spoons of the gruel, she saw he was exhausted and tiptoed quietly from the room.
She raced down the stairs and had just the time to dump the bowl of half-finished gruel by the sink and grab her cloak before the knock sounded at the door.
“You’ll have to walk,” the butler said, as she walked down the steps into the rain.
He was leading a black horse, the fur of his muzzle threaded with white. Clara could half-wish he would let her ride the horse, especially as her boots sank in a big puddle, but she knew she had no idea how to ride.
All I can do is cook.
Her mind went back to the earl and his mother. They had been there, a day ago. Had he asked for her, knowing of her situation? She felt her stomach twist in a way that had little to do with nerves.
No. It wasn’t possible. He must have been looking for a cook and heard of her from the village – that was all. She knew their bakery was much appreciated – yes, that was it.
She felt a tingle inside her as she thought of that. She knew she could cook! She had been working in the bakery since she was five years old. She could cook anything – her experience was not limited to bread and buns, but she also had experience with stews, soups and all manner of grills and fries. She could cook whatever they required.
She looked up at Mr. Wellford, but all she could see was his back, stiff-set, as he walked through the slight rain beside his horse.
They walked for half an hour, and then she found herself looking up at the gabled front of a house. The pebbles under her feet crunched and it was silent in the garden, the sound of rain dripping from the trees making the place seem bathed in an unnatural silence. She tiptoed forward and realised she had taken root by the steps, the butler already walking up.
“Come on, you don’t want to keep them waiting,” he said. He didn’t turn around.
Clara swallowed hard as she stared up at that huge house, the windows looking down at her like eyes – and ones that found her lacking. She took a deep breath and headed up the stairs behind him.
She found herself in a hallway.
The tiles under her feet were white, the stone streaked through with pale gray like the stones on the altar in the church. She took another deep breath. Her footsteps echoed on the floor.
“Boots – off,” the butler said coolly as he stopped at the hat-stand in the doorway. He turned to look at her. “You’ll find indoor shoes in the rack there. There will be something that will suit.” He turned away.
Clara looked at the rack of shoes, discreetly hidden around a turning in the wall. She looked down the corridor – it was dark and damp and she wondered at it being in this fine house. When she saw Mr. Wellford walking down the corridor before her, she guessed that this must be somehow restricted for the servants’ use.
This is a strange place.
She swallowed hard. She would have so much to tell Father! She felt the cold wooden floor through the thin soles of the shoes she’d chosen in haste, and followed the butler down the hallway to a door.
“My Lord? Lady Dunham? I present the girl you sent me to fetch,” Mr. Wellford announced. Then he turned to her, “This is his lordship, the Earl of Dunham, and his mother, the dowager countess.”
“Yes,” Clara whispered under her breath, “I know.”
The room was dark, and lined with shelves on which stood all manner of books. The air smelled musty. A fire burned in a grate, crackling and warm.
She looked up at the two of them and all her courage deserted. She saw those two faces – unsmiling, cold with distaste – and wondered what she had come for. They were looking at her with the same dismissal she had experienced when they called, apparently to offer their regrets. She didn’t think they looked regretful. Or kind.
“Sit,” the earl said. He gestured at the seat across the table from them. Clara swallowed. She thought his eyes did not look unkind – rather, he was staring out of the window over her head, as if he was trying to avoid her gaze. They were brown eyes, very dark. It was difficult to guess his thoughts.
Feeling uncomfortable beyond description, Clara drew her seat back and sat.
“You were brought here to be interviewed for the position of cook,” the earl said. He still wasn’t looking at her. “It is a serious role, and my mother requires you to answer a few questions. I am here to assist.”
Clara felt like she might faint. She was looking at him and his eyes moved to hold her gaze, and when his eyes held hers, she thought she saw a fleeting smile lift one lip. But it must have been her imagination, because he looked swiftly away.
All the same, as she leaned back in the chair, preparing for the questions, Clara felt a rush of feeling that had very little to do with fear. He was handsome, but he was also frightening, and something in her wished to know him more.
“The Recipe to Win an Earl’s Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Clara Sedley is an inspired cook and the daughter of a baker who has raised her with love and affection ever since her mother died. When her father falls seriously ill, she decides to put all her dreams aside and seek further employment, as the medical expenses are piling up. However, the only available position seems to be the one of the cook for the reclusive Earl of Dunham. Feeling like she has no choice, Clara hesitantly accepts the offer and joins their estate. She never expected, though, to discover a hidden side of this lonely man, a side so tender, that it would make her heart beat only for him. Even so, the challenge of a relationship between a prestigious son of a malicious lady and the daughter of a baker still persists. With her loving kindness and outstanding cooking skills as weapons, will Clara manage to capture the Earl’s heart? Will she eventually live the fairytale she has always been dreaming of?
Having grown up with a judgmental and tyrannical mother, Charles Blackstone, Earl of Dunham, has become a cold and detached man. His short temper and mean words have pushed away every single person around him and he is now doomed to a miserable and lonely life in an enormous estate. Everything changes almost overnight when he crosses paths with Clara and is taken aback by her generosity and remarkable beauty. While tasting her meals which reflect her talent and affectionate nature, Charles finds himself falling deeper in love with this wondrous woman. He is nevertheless utterly conflicted, knowing that everyone will be against this love, and above all, his own mother. Will Charles stand up for himself and escape from the loveless future his mother has planned out for him? Or will he simply avoid the risk of being with the woman of his heart out of fear for society’s judgmental prejudice?
Even though Clara and Charles develop an undeniable connection, his cruel mother will do whatever it takes to sabotage their blossoming love. An unexpected secret that Clara’s father kept buried for years makes things even more complicated, as it will irreversibly change the course of their life. In the end, will Clara and Charles defy society’s constraining rules and choose love on their own terms? Or will dominant norms and formidable barriers overpower their special romance?
“The Recipe to Win an Earl’s Heart” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.