A month after the funeral, Chris had regained his assurance regarding the Rose Hall household. The earl and his siblings were at home and going about their daily business, both at the hall and in town. Lord Johnnie had visited Doncaster by train and planned to do so at least once a month for the foreseeable future, as he still needed to see to the family business in the capital. But he’d made it clear that he was in residence, and the lady had hosted a number of dinners and small parties for the Rosenton elite to foster that fact. Chris had begun to hire work crews now and then to help clear some of the rooms that had been closed during the elder earl’s illness and see to some projects that had been put off.
Today’s crew was small, just Bernard Symons and his two men. A longtime Rosenton resident with whom Chris had a passing acquaintance, Symons was a master carpenter who worked for the Thorn for the preseasons and on custom furniture and moldings during the off-season. Chris had hired him to repair some woodwork in a few of the newly reopened bedchambers. As Symons had worked for him before, Chris’d had James show them to the room and start them at their task while he was deep in a discussion with the head gardener. It was later in the afternoon before he found time to seek out Symons to check on their progress. They were in a bedroom intended for higher nobility, removing an intricately carved molding. A mysterious crack had developed in it and had only been noticed during a thorough cleaning of the room.
“Ah, Mr. Faith.” Symons left supervising to speak with him at the doorway. “Things are coming well.”
Chris nodded, watching two young men, both on ladders, one holding the molding while the other carefully pried it from its mooring. Both men were dressed in drab brown trousers over boots with rough-spun cotton shirts. One had short brown hair, the other, straight blond pulled into a queue that hung barely past his neck.
“You’ve finished in the ballroom?”
“We have.” Symons too watched his men. “We should be able to replace the planks from local stock. But for windows…”
Chris listened with half an ear, noting what Symons said but distracted as the young men descended their ladders in tandem, carrying the length of carved wood. He watched the blond in particular, admiring the man’s profile. There was much to admire. Average height with a strong build to fill out his work clothes, firm curves of jaw and brow about the softer lines of lips and cheeks. Laugh lines bracketed his mouth, hinting at the smile he didn’t currently bear. His hair was a delight of fine pale gold without a trace of curl. The men placed their burden on a drop cloth between them, then straightened to face Chris and Symons. The blond caught his gaze and smiled before executing a very small but very proper bow in his direction. Chris’s blood warmed. Quite fetching. For the first time in a very long time, an instant desire to have
someone sparked in his loins. It caught him off guard.
“Beg pardon, Mr. Symons.” The blond’s voice was just as lovely, a strong baritone.
Symons paused in his narration to Chris to give his attention to the man.
Who bowed his head slightly in deference before he spoke. “The carving isn’t Yolan. It’s Lucerne.”
Chris didn’t see Symons’s reaction, enjoying his own pleasant surprise. “Are you certain?” he asked, using a mild tone to match the blond’s.
Large, deep brown eyes focused on him over a slight smile. “Quite, sir. Yolan’s focal flower is a daisy, not a rose. Lucerne is known for her roses.”
“That’s absurd.” Symons drew himself rigidly upright. “The tosen wood is Lyonese.”
“It is, sir, but the carving is Lucerne.”
The other workman’s eyes darted between the blond and Symons with some alarm, prompting Chris to intervene. “Apologies, Mr. Symons, but I’m afraid your man is correct. The carving is Lucerne.” He drew a smile for the blond. “Your eye is quite good.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Where did you learn wood sculpture?”
Brown eyes widened a tad, and Chris had the impression he might be scrambling for an answer. But he didn’t fumble for long. “I worked in an upper-class household for a time, sir. The man of the house was a fan of the art.”
Chris nodded, wondering if it was true. Then he turned a smile onto the flustered Mr. Symons. “It’s of no matter, sir. The wood, as you’ve said, is tosen, and you are an expert in such things.” Although, as a resident of Rosenton, Chris would have thought he’d know a famous sculptor of roses.
“Yes, sir.” Symons frowned at his men. “You two, wrap this up and take it downstairs.”
Chris and Symons remained in the doorway, discussing materials while the blond and his companion wrapped the carving in thick cloths. Chris had time to wonder if the blond had worked in a household, why was he here now at menial labor? Was he let go? What might have been the reason? He trusted Symons not to bring a criminal into the hall, but clearly the man had known less of the blond than he’d thought. They watched the workmen heft the carving, then moved out of the way so they could take it away. The blond glanced at him once more with a very small smile before ducking his head to be about his business.
. Chris suppressed the smile that wanted to display the amusement in his head, then turned to Symons once the men had left. He reached up to adjust his glasses. “I agree about the hardwood. Make a list of the additional materials you’ll need, along with costs, and I’ll discuss the matter with Lord Rose.”
* * * *
“Not very smart,” Rob said after they’d laid the carving down in the back of the cart. “Making Symons look bad like that.”
Darien cringed. “I know. I couldn’t help it.” He had nothing against Symons, and he shouldn’t have embarrassed him like that. But when the opportunity had come up to get the butler’s attention focused on him, to impress the man with the brilliant gold-green eyes, he hadn’t been able to resist. Mr. Faith was just as imposing and gorgeous as Darien had suspected from glimpsing him at the funeral. Tall and slim, he wore a potent air of command with the same calm assurance as his black suit and pale rose waistcoat. His face was all long lines, to match his height, and his hair was sleek and shiny, the off-brown of elm bark with gold shot through. Darien’s thoughts had skittered helplessly when the man was in the room, searching desperately for a way to get him to look, to see
Darien. He’d accomplished his goal, but in a very stupid manner.
“How’d you know that anyway?” Rob hitched himself up on the open back. “That true that you worked in an uppity house?”
This time Darien suppressed the cringe, but on the inside he was yelling at himself. Stupid
. Hard to remain in hiding if he drew attention to himself. No help for it.
He leaned against the truck, shading his eyes as he looked up at the top floors of the hall. “It’s true.”
He shook his head. “Rather not talk about it.”
Rob accepted this with an amiable nod.
“How big is
this place?” Darien asked. He’d been to fine houses in Doncaster, but this was the first country estate in which he’d set foot.
“Massive, init? I forget how many rooms it’s said to have.”
Rob continued to tell him interesting facts about the hall, and Darien was content to listen, enjoying the calm before Symons came and he’d have to apologize.
To Darien’s delight, Mr. Faith was with Symons when he emerged. The afternoon sunlight burnished the butler’s smoothly combed hair and glinted off his glasses. At a gesture from Symons, Darien and Rob hopped into the back with the carving while he and Mr. Faith walked to the front. Darien kept an eye on the butler, but the man only glanced his way once, with a slight nod of farewell before he turned on his heel to disappear back inside.
Symons waited until they were out of sight of the hall before calling him out. “You,” he said, turning fully around in the cart’s seat, leaving the horse his head for the moment. “How dare you show me up like that.”
Darien dropped his gaze. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir. It won’t happen again.”
“By great Jotan’s beard, it will not
.” His scowl was so fierce that Darien wondered if he would get paid for the day. “But the all-father looked kindly on you this day. Or maybe it was just Mr. Faith.”
Darien arched a brow.
Symons grimaced. “Mr. Faith specifically asked me not to be too harsh on you. Made excuses for your youth.” Symons gave him the eye. “But you’re not that
young, laddie. You hear me?”
“Good.” With a nod, Symons regained his seat and the reins. The gray nag didn’t miss a plodding step. “I’ll keep you on, but another stunt like that and no more, you hear me?”
Darien exchanged a relieved smile with Rob. Not only wouldn’t he be punished, but Mr. Faith
had spoken for him. Had noticed. His mistake wasn’t a complete loss.
* * * *
The young man—Darien, Symons had called him—was back a week later when the carving was returned. Chris was pleased to sense no tension between him and Symons and was glad that the carpenter had put the incident behind them. Chris had seen laborers fired and disgraced for less and wouldn’t allow it if he could help it.
Darien smiled at him, but there was no opportunity for Chris to speak to him this time. Symons kept up a steady patter while his assistants hung the carving. Chris noted with amusement that Symons was sure to praise the correct artist this time, so Chris made sure to admire the man’s restoration work. If his admiration of said work brought him closer to the ladder on which Darien stood, all the better. He wished it were easier to judge Darien’s shape through the baggy clothing. The best he could manage was an impression of broad shoulders and a slim waist. Strength, certainly, as he held his end of the heavy carving with ease. Chris wondered at his fascination with the man, amused by the stirring of interest in his belly. But Symons took his men away quickly this time and asked that Chris pay him the wages for him to distribute. Had he noted Chris’s interest in Darien? No, that wouldn’t do. Chris gave him the money and bade him farewell.
When he hired a crew of day laborers the next month to cut and carry the Yul tree for the holidays, Chris was delighted to see Darien as one of the eight. He noted Darien’s easy manner with the other men as they wrestled the massive pine tree into its place of honor in the front hall. Chris hadn’t hired a foreman for this project, simply asked at one of the boarding houses for a group of men to be sent. He’d trusted the boarding house mistress to select a good crew, and she had. There was much good cheer even though the day was frosty with wet snow. The cheer increased when Lady Paxton and Mrs. Jones had spiced cider and cookies distributed among the men during a break.
* * * *
This Yul tree job was a pleasure in spite of the nasty weather. Inside the hall’s massive foyer, it was warm and cozy, and many of the servants came to help or to cheer on the work. Darien found himself laughing often, especially when wet pine branches managed to smack him in the face and knock him on his arse.
The icing on the cake came at the end of the day when, full of spicy cider and warm, luscious cookies, Darien waited first for personal thanks from the beautiful Lady Cambron, then for Mr. Faith himself to hand him his pay.
Mr. Faith held out a folded square of fine linen paper, presumably with Darien’s wages within, but he barely noticed. Instead his focus was on the gold-and-green eyes of the man before him. The smile that graced him warmed him to his very core.
“Thank you for your hard work. Darien.”
Thrilled that the handsome man knew his name, he smiled. “A pleasure, sir. I like coming to help at the hall.”
“Yes. You’ve been here before. Twice now.”
As Darien was last in line, Mr. Faith lingered, his gaze roaming Darien’s face. It could have been a simple perusal, but Darien hoped it was more. Hoped Mr. Faith liked the look of him. “Have you permanent employment in town?”
“Not at the moment, sir. But I find enough odd jobs to get by. I worked at the Thorn during the preseason.”
“Ah. Well. Where are you staying? I’ll contact you directly have we any more work.”
He knew his face lit up. “That would be aces, sir. I’m staying at Mrs. Withom’s.”
Mr. Faith nodded, graciously dismissing him. He hadn’t, Darien noted, asked for contact information from anyone else.
“Careful,” said Rob once they were back out in the cold, mounting the open cart that would take them back to town.
“You might land a job in the hall,” said Richard, a man who was more frequent acquaintance than friend. “They’ll put you in a suit with one of those pink waist cinchers and have you bending over for the earl.” A rude gesture made it clear his meaning was blatantly sexual.
This made the others laugh to varying degrees. Darien cocked his head, then said with apparent sincerity, “You think I could be so lucky?”
The laughter surged as Richard turned red.