April 20, 2012

Friday evening


I sat on the porch steps of the rental cottage, watching for a car to pull up and wondering for the millionth time if I was crazy for having agreed to take this job. But in the last eighteen months alone I'd been a housekeeper, nanny, cook, dog-walker and nursemaid. And for reasons completely not my fault, each job ended before its time.

So two weeks earlier, when I got sacked yet again, I'd gone back to the placement agency. My best friend Mary, who worked there and helped me find my last several jobs, had listened to my latest story of woe with a slowly-growing smile.

"That's perfect!" she exclaimed happily when I'd finished.

"It is?" I wasn't accustomed to my friends celebrating my unemployment.

"I was planning to call you tonight anyway," she said, pulling over a stapled packet of papers from the tray on her desk. "A new job came in just this morning and I thought of you first thing."

"Really?" I sat up from my dejected slump.

"The only bad news is that it's a temp."

"How temporary?"

"Two months."

I shook my head and slumped again, seeing myself right back in this chair in two months time. "No thanks. Just once I'd like to find something steady." I tapped a finger on the woefully small stack of folders on her desk. "Surely there's one good job in here, one that could last."

And then she quoted an amount of money that left me gaping at her. "You're joking, right? For two months work? What would I have to do, knock over banks?"

"It's perfectly legitimate." She looked back at the paper. "It's a sort of... assistant, I suppose."

"Ah. Assistant to the bank robber then."

She gave me a weary look. "No, to the son of a very wealthy, important man. From what I can tell, he's always lived a pampered sort of life, with cooks and servants. Now they want someone to teach him household skills, budgeting, that sort of thing. Show him how the other half lives."

"And I suppose I'm the other half."

"Sarah, we're all the other half."

I considered that. "So who are this very wealthy man and his son, exactly?"

"It only says 'a family of status in the capitol'. Which means the father must be someone very high-up, like a top government official or an earl or something."

"Wonderful," I grimaced. "So the son will most likely be pretentious and bossy and insufferable."

"Maybe, but you can handle that. You have before, or have you forgotten already?"

I hadn't forgotten. A year earlier, with so few jobs in our little village of Henley, I'd lucked into a nanny position in the "big city". But the family I'd nannied for turned out to be quite impossible, the parents a superior sort and their four children downright terrors. I'd just managed to get the children acting human when the father was promoted and transferred to France. I wasn't sad to see that job go, and I'd told Mary the stories. "I can, yes. But do I want to go through all that again?"

"A person can do just about anything for two months, Sarah. This kid might be all right, you know. And it's enough money to last a year. Or more."

I nibbled on my thumbnail as I considered that. Yes, I needed the money. My rented cottage was old and small, but it was clean and comfortable. I had no car, but I had a bike and two feet and I was fit from all the walking around our village. Still, my off-and-on paychecks made it a little hard to pay the bills.

"You should do it." Mary's voice interrupted my thoughts. "It's easy money. They're planning to get a rental for him here in the village, he'll work a real job and no counting on Daddy's fortune. He'll buy groceries, cook meals, and all you have to do is show him how."

"But why me?" I asked.

"Because you're a great cook, a sensible person, and you deserve a break." She leaned forward across her desk and lowered her voice. "You know as well as I do that there aren't many jobs around here, especially for women our age. I'm saying this as your friend, Sarah. Take it before someone else does."

"Fine," I blurted before I could talk myself out of it. "Where do I sign?"

A car slowed, then pulled to the curb and stopped. It was an upscale sedan, black and shiny with tinted windows, and I got to my feet. The first man out was familiar, a Mr. Davenport whom I'd met when I signed the contract and the job was explained to me. A neat and proper gentleman with hair just beginning to silver at his temples, he wore what seemed to be his standard uniform: dark suit, white shirt, black tie. He'd been the one to sign the lease on the vacant cottage I'd recommended, the same cottage whose back garden just happened to butt up to mine. I could walk to work by simply ducking through a loose board in the fence.

Two other men were getting out of the car as well on the street side, younger and of similar height, also smartly dressed but a bit more stylish in khakis and sport coats. One had dark hair and the other a light brown, but that's all I could see because Mr. Davenport strode right up to me and I had to greet him properly.

"Miss Bennett," he smiled as we shook hands. "I trust you're doing well."

"Quite well thanks, you?"

"Lovely day for a drive." He gestured for me to lead him inside as the other two unloaded bags from the boot of the car, and I did. "Is everything in place?"

"Furnishings, linens, blinds on the windows, kitchen equipment and so on. Grocery staples only, he has to shop for the rest himself," I recited as he starting having a look around.

"Right," he muttered, peering into closets and drawers as I followed him from room to room. He finished his inspection in the bedroom and turned to me solemnly. "And you remember rule number one?"

Yes, I remembered. I'd read the list of rules, multiple times, somewhat amused that this was such a big deal. The packet they'd given me included a copy of my contract (a long, indecipherable document that said basically that I was on duty 'at any hour required' for the next two months), a confidentiality agreement (so that I wouldn't go writing a book about Young Mr. Important later on), and a lengthy background form to fill out that would prove I wasn't a hardened criminal. Ah, rich people.

"He cooks, cleans, earns his own way," I answered evenly. "I'm here to supervise only. I teach him what he doesn't know, help if he needs it, but I make him do it himself or I'm fired." Okay, so it wasn't specifically said that way, but I'd read between the lines. And I must have read it right, because Mr. Davenport gave me a satisfied nod and gestured toward the doorway.

We came back into the entry again just as the door swung open and I stepped forward with a welcoming smile, ready to introduce myself. The man who returned my smile was tall and dark-headed and quite good-looking, and as he set down the two bags he'd been carrying I thought to myself that such nice scenery for two months wouldn't exactly be a hardship. But he only took a cursory glance around, then stepped aside so that the second man could come in. I turned, and that's when I got my first look at my new 'student'.

"Oh no," I exhaled, feeling my whole body go numb. "No, no, no no no."

And Daniel, second son of the King and therefore second in line for the crown, set down the last two bags, smiled and extended his hand.