It Started with a Scandal

By: Julie Anne Long

“He’s well spoken and well bred. If you’re very polite, too, you may grow up to have a big house.”

It was never a mistake to seize an opportunity to instill incentive in the child, she thought dryly.

“That’s good, then,” Jack said cheerfully, giving what amounted to his blessing. “Can we read ‘The History of Mother Twaddle and the Marvelous Achievements of Her Son Jack’ by Benjamin Tabart again?”

It was the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. She’d named him John, but they both preferred Jack because of this story. She’d also named him for his father and her father, neither of whom she’d seen in six years.

She leaned across him to light the lamp and opened the book.

“Make it a song, Mama!”

“Oh, very well. Let me think a moment . . .”

Jack’s breath seemed held.

And then she had it. As she tucked him snugly in, she sang:

When Jack went to market with his cow

And came back with beans instead

His mother cried, “Oh Jack how

Could you be so touched in the head?”

But Jack planted the beans and one day found

A stalk soaring into the heavens.

He climbed up and . . .

He . . . climbed up and . . .

She’d sung herself into a corner, blast, with the word “heavens,” but that was all right, because Jack was asleep before he’d had a chance to say his prayers.

She’d say prayers enough for both of them.

She went to take one last look out the window. She wouldn’t miss the view when she looked onto the downs because, if she craned her head, she could see the trees that marked the clearing. She remembered the delicious surprise of the sun and breeze on parts of her body that had never been exposed to sunlight, let alone a man’s eyes. Edward’s eyes, so like Jack’s eyes, as he’d moved over her, and how perfect and simple her joy had been, and how very, very ill advised.

She supposed she’d done the metaphorical equivalent of trading her magic beans, as it were, and she’d gotten Jack in return.

And now all they had to do was win over the giant.

AS ORDERED, SHE arrived at Lord Lavay’s residence the very next morning. She eyed those servant’s stairs, her hand firmly gripping Jack’s.

How ironic that they should go irrevocably up and up to the very top of the house, when her social status seemed to be doing just the opposite.

Suddenly the reality of her “circumstances” gave her vertigo and there was a rush of blood to her head. She acutely understood the impulse to throw a vase.

She would do it. She could do it.

The little hand tucked into hers was the reason she did anything.

“Hurrah! We get to sleep at the top of the house, Jack, where the view of the stars is the best,” she said. “I’ll race you.”

Jack won, much to his gloating delight, and they patrolled their new home.

The room was spacious enough, at least compared to her former room at Miss Marietta Endicott’s Academy, and it might have been reasonably comfortable if it hadn’t been as cold as a tomb. The hearth was dead, dark, and dirty. The heavy curtains were flung open on the main culprit, a large window with an aging frame through which winter air squeaked; if she lasted longer than the fortnight, it would presumably allow in a lot of sun come spring; the aged, if thick, carpet bore witness to this. It had likely once been an unobjectionable deep green, but it was now a faded memory of that. She peered out on rain-­soaked grasslands and soft rolling hills interrupted by clusters of oaks and birches. She could see all the way to the vicarage. The view had its charms.

When she gave the curtains a vigorous tug to close them, a little puff of dust rose, and she coughed irritably.

She knew the small staff was kept on by the owner of the house at reduced wages while the house was empty of a tenant. When it was let, the tenant—­in this case, Lord Lavay—­paid them full wages. He’d been here for more than a month.

But what the devil did the staff do, precisely?

She was going to enjoy finding out.

It was going to be lovely to have a long list of things to accomplish, to have ­people to order ab—­er, organize. She didn’t have the constitution for limbo. And since the future was certain for at least the next fortnight, she could afford to be cheerful. She was going to be the best bloody housekeeper who ever lived.

She turned around, and that’s when she noticed the great cluster of keys on the desk, which seemed a rather insecure place to leave them, given that they would unlock the stores, the porcelain, silver, and linen cupboards, and every other important locked thing in the house. Symbol of her new status. She hefted them, and they jingled pleasingly and portentously.

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