AN/ It's been a long time since I've updated, but just know that I've not abandoned this story. :)
The next week, Lady Sherwood added an unexpected task to my job. "Miss Martin," she said, "We'll be attending a state dinner in two days. The children are required to come. You shall accompany them, of course, when they are presented to the Governor, then sit with the other governesses while the children talk to one another."
I nodded, though I was in a foul mood, "Yes, Lady Sherwood." I had gone to the market to meet with the boys, as promised, and they hadn't showed up.
She smiled tightly, as if she had expected that I would agree so easily. "And of your wardrobe? Do you have anything suitable to wear?"
"No, ma'am." I knew that my only fancy dress was not nearly fine enough for such an occasion.
"Very well," Lady Sherwood looked as if she had been expecting this answer. "I suppose you could wear one of my old gowns." She eyed me critically, as if assessing my dress size. "You're small though, so it will have to be hemmed."
It was true, though the lady was thin, she was several inches taller than I was. "Thank you, my Lady," I gave her a quick smile of thanks.
"I'll have Alice watch the children while you try it on." The woman moved to find the other servant.
And so, I found myself staring into a mirror two days later, wearing the dark blue dress. It was solemn, but much finer than anything I had owned before. The skirt was long and flared and it had been trimmed with dark lace. I had managed to fashion my hair up in an elegant knot.
"They're leaving soon!" Alice pounded on the door.
"Coming!" I called and tucked a curl behind my ear, then I opened the door, pushing past Alice and called out, "Elsa, Thom?"
The two children came skipping in. Elsa was all smiles and Thom was the splitting image of his father.
"You look pretty!" Elsa said in awe, stopping when she saw me. In her pink gown, she looked like a china doll.
"Thank you," I smiled, then grabbed a hand of each child. "You don't want to be late, do you?"
I rode with the children in a separate carriage. Apparently, it was not proper for children to arrive with their parents; rather, they showed up later.
The Governor's mansion was located a ways out of the city. It had expansive grounds for hunting and huge gardens. But, as the carriage pulled into the grounds, I saw that there were very sturdy gates, to prevent unwanted visitors
The line of carriages progressed slowly now. I pushed aside the curtains that framed the windows and peered out, watching the various nobles descending and chattering as they entered the house. I wondered why the Lord Magistrate's family wasn't given more preference over the others. He was perhaps the second most important man in the city.
Elsa and Thomas were beginning to fidget, and I put a hand on their shoulders. "We shall be there soon. You'll have to be on your best behavior."
But as they still wiggled, I wondered if this was perhaps not the best place for the children. It was with much apprehension that I stepped out the carriage and helped the two children down.
"Good Evening, Madam," A smartly dressed footman gave me a bow.
"Thank you," I said, grabbing hold of the children's hands and walking them down up the steps.
Once inside, I spoke quickly to another servant. "I do not know where the children's parents are."
He shook his head. "You and the children shall be presented."
I sighed, wishing that I knew more about the formalities. "Of course."
And so we waited in line for a moment, before reaching the large door. A man glanced at us for a mere second, before reading off of a piece of paper: "Lord Thomas Sherwood, Lady Elsa Sherwood and Miss Elinor Martin."
Elsa giggled at hearing her name, but I simply lead them down the steps into a large ballroom. As soon as we were at the bottom, I pulled the children to the side. Lady Sherwood had told me that under no circumstances was I to mingle with the other nobles and I was glad for that order. The swirling sea of color was intimidating.
The children too looked spellbound by all the finery. There were ladies in flouncing, colorful gowns that dripped jewels. Some of the men were just as colorfully dressed. I felt like a dour old maid in the dark dress.
"Here are my darlings!" Lady Sherwood sashayed over and pecked each of her children on the cheek.
I frowned at her. "What am I to do next?"
"Take them to the room over there," she waved an elegant fan towards a door to one side of the room. "I'll send someone to fetch them, if needed." She shook her head, "Normally, Jonathan greets his guests first."
I could tell that she was putting on all sorts of airs and wondered who she wanted to impress. The woman was haughty, but not one to name drop. So, I gave a little curtsy, as just as another lady called out, "Genevieve!"
Lady Sherwood tittered and left me to traverse the ballroom, with two small children in tow.
When we finally reached the children's room, there were surprising number of small children running about. After a quick assessment, I let my charges roam free and took a seat with the other governesses in one of the chairs that lined the walls.
"Good evening," I turned to the woman who sat next to me.
She barely looked up for her knitting to answer, "'Evening." Her voice was gravelly and rough.
"I'm Elinor Martin," I held out my hand, "I'm the governess for the Sherwood children."
But the woman merely grunted and turned back to her work. She finished her row, then with her free needle pointed to a wan boy. "That's my Eddie."
When she returned to her knitting with even more fervor, I decided that it was a lost cause. I sat back in the chair, abandoning all hopes of having an interesting night.
"Hello!" A chirpy voice said from my right, and I turned to see a much younger woman with blonde ringlets smiling brightly. "Do you care to come over with the rest of us?" She pointed to a close group of governesses who were chatting brightly.
"Thank you," I sighed, leaving the quiet companion behind.
The woman held out a hand in greeting. "I'm Kitty."
Kitty pulled me into the group of women, "Is there an extra chair here for Elinor?"
Someone pushed one my way. "Thank you," I smiled, taking a seat.
"Which ones are yours?" A woman perhaps five years older than I was asked.
I turned around and saw Elsa and Thom playing with the other children, looking free and happy. "Those two," I pointed them out, "The Sherwood children."
At the name "Sherwood," the whole circle gasped. "The Lord Magistrate?" Kitty confirmed with wide eyes.
"Yes." I had assumed that the name would get less of a reaction among the servants of other nobles, but apparently, Sherwood was still an awe-inspiring name.
"You see him daily, then?" One girl chuckled wickedly.
I pretended not to know what she meant. "Who?"
The woman giggled again. "Lord Sherwood, of course!"
"No," I said tersely, annoyed by her attitude. It wasn't like I had any claim to him, and even if I might want to, that was never going to be a possibility. "In the Sherwood household, children and servants stay very separate from the Lord and Lady." That quieted the girl, but I wondered what she had been trying to insinuate. Did she just think that my master was good looking, or did he have a reputation for being less than faithful to his wife? I hoped it was the former, and assured myself by thinking that if the Lord did have a reputation, I would have heard by now.
I barely paid attention to the idle gossip of the other governesses. They seemed so petty, bragging about their children's accomplishments and embellishing tales of their romances. I felt that I had little in common with the women. I had never really had a good ear for gossip and besides, I could care less about their stupid, petty events.
I found my mind wandering back towards the bakery and the boys who I had left there. I had no idea what they might be doing now. I knew that Market Square had never been the same after the riot, but I didn't know how much business had diminished.
I realized how much I missed my boys. Greg wasn't there to tease me. Rush couldn't talk with me. Noah wasn't there to protect me and complain. And Jay. I missed him most of all, though I couldn't pin down why. He bothered me to no end, with his sharp wit and his confusing messages. But when he wasn't there, it was worse. At that moment, I would have done so many things just to see his face again. Christopher Sherwood's mystery might have been enticing, but at the moment, I craved Jay's constancy.
"Elinor?" Kitty was waving her fan in front of my face. "That man over there wants to speak with you."
A well-dressed servant was standing politely at the door. I stood up and walked over to him. Trying to ignore the giggles from behind me. "You wish to speak with me?"
"You are Elinor Martin?" He asked.
"Yes," I said. "I am."
The man gave a small bow, "Your presence is requested in the dining hall."
I nodded, "One moment," I told him, glancing around for someone to ask to watch Elsa and Thom while I stepped away.
Briefly, I considered asking Kitty, but realized that she and the others in the circle weren't really watching the children at all So, I went over to the women who I had tried to speak with before. "Excuse me, ma'am." I said, waiting for her to look up. "I'm needed in the dining hall. Would you be so kind as to watch over my children?" I pointed out the two young Sherwoods.
"Yes." The woman gave a curt nod, and then went back to her knitting.
I smiled and thanked her, before hurrying back to the man. "Who needed me?" I asked him.
He gave a shrug and walked with me across the now empty ballroom. "Down that hall," he pointed to a narrow stone tunnel that ended in a door.
Warily, I looked at him, "But, surely that's not the way to the dining hall!" I was afraid that my skirts would get caught in the door. And my dress was much smaller than those of the other ladies! There was no way they could have squeezed through that entrance without removing their lavish gowns.
"It's the servants entrance, ma'am," he said solemnly.
I tried not to be offended and nodded. "Of course," I waved a hand airily, as if I had known all along. "Thank you so much for your help."
He nodded curtly, and walked rapidly back across the room, leaving me to squeeze through the servant's hallway. I hoped fervently that Lady Sherwood's dress wouldn't be ruined, but wasn't too optimistic, as I heard the lace catch on the stone several times.
Luckily, the hall was short enough and I reached the door quickly. I paused for a moment, to smooth my hair into place, then realized that I didn't hear the sounds of people on the other side. Perhaps this door led to a larger antechamber, which then led to the dining hall.
I slowly opened the door, and affirmed my guess. Only, it seemed that there was even more to traverse before reaching the hall. Shaking my head, I kept walking down the hall, thankful that it was much wider.
I had to marvel at the number of passages in this manor, for there were many other side doors leading off of this main passage. And I thought the Sherwood house was grand! I only hoped I wouldn't get lost.
Suddenly, something grabbed at my dress from behind, then found my waist. Before I could think to scream, a hand was over my mouth and I was unable to move.
For a moment, I thrashed wildly, but soon realized that this was not the most effective technique. As I thought through my options, someone whispered something in my ear. "Don't scream, Nor."
But, the use of my nickname, and the voice that said it made me want to scream for a different reason. I stopped struggling and felt the arms around me relax so that I could turn around. "Jay!" I whispered excitedly.
He grinned at my reaction, then pushed me away slightly, so we weren't standing so close together. "Scared you, didn't I?" He laughed quietly.
I shrugged, not wanting to admit that I had been terrified. "What are you doing here?" I looked him over, and saw that he was wearing the livery of Governor Sweeney.
"They hired help for the party here. More servants, more power, you know."
I did know. And it disgusted me. "And you volunteered. Why?" The question popped out of my mouth before I could stop it.
"Would you believe it if I told you for the money?" He said, eyes twinkling.
I shook my head. "Not for a second." My tone was joking, but I was secretly flattered that he had gone to all the trouble to come see me.
With a grin, Jay moved closer and tentatively wrapped his arms around my waist. I returned the embrace, unsure as to what it meant. I hadn't seen him for weeks. And I would have done the same with the others. I just wouldn't have thought about it.
Finally, he pulled away and I let him go. "Jay," I began, but stopped unsure what I wanted to say to him. There were so many questions I had.
"Missed me?" He grinned hugely and slid down the wall to sit on the floor.
I rolled my eyes, but sat down next to him, all concerns for the dress's well being dismissed. "I missed all of you," I teased.
I shuddered at the name. "You know who I meant."
"Nor," Jay paused. "How is it? Are they treating you well?"
"Well, there is one thing," I said, just to see the expression on his face. But when he looked stricken, I giggled and finished. "I eat an intolerable amount of eggs and boiled potatoes."
Jay reluctantly grinned and reached over to pick up my right hand. He held it in both of his, "You're happy, then?"
I sighed. "No. Not happy." Even if Jay didn't want to hear that, I would never lie to him. "Not exactly happy," I repeated. I couldn't be happy when I was so torn between what I knew was the right choice, sensibly and what my mind though. Jay or Sherwood. I felt guilty for even thinking that I might have the luxury to choose.
He nodded, as if he understood, then leaned towards me, "Nor." He got closer and closer, until it looked like he was about to kiss me.
Time seemed to slow down. I wasn't sure if I wanted to kiss him. I liked him, yes. And maybe in a way that was not entirely brotherly, but I didn't want to start anything between us. So, as gently as I could, I held up my hand to stop him. "I can't," I whispered.
Jay's eyes hardened, burning away all traces of vulnerability that I had seen before. "Oh," his said, pulling back and dropping my hand. "I see how it is then, Elinor."
"No," I shook my head frantically. "It's not that, Jay. It's just that, well," I paused and felt myself blush furiously.
"What?" His voice was scathing.
"The children will wonder where I am," I finished lamely, unable to tell him the truth, because I knew he would hate me for it and pushed past him, running down the hall—away from him.