Isobel Erstwilder is in desperate need of a job. But her sex - female - and station in life - ruined baron's daughter - prevent her from working in any capacity due to societal pressures and the scandal being a working woman might bring to her already disgraced family.
Edward Blake needs a valet, among other things. But his lifestyle - adventurous - and his personality - dark and demanding - prevent many a man from lasting more than a week in his employ, and he is growing desperate.
When Isobel finds herself in a position to help Blake, she does not hesitate. But will he see through her web of lies? Or will the truth be revealed, and bring her entire world crashing down?
Chapter One: Facade
Pendleton Hall was, in a word, grim. In many words, it was perhaps the most impressive, enormous, and terrifying house into which my entirely undeserving heels had stepped, and my current predicament made things no less fearsome. With my long legs clad in trousers, my chest bound and covered by a simple white shirt, waistcoat, and jacket, and my rather feminine fingers disguised by worn leather gloves, I aimed to create the illusion of a young man worthy of hire to the somewhat nebulous position of a Lord Edward Blake's traveling valet.
But my heart beat double time as the curious glance I received from said Lord Blake's butler made me wonder if the illusion was solid. For, I was adequately skilled in the art of dressing myself to appear masculine, but my face may have given me away. My lips were a hair too full, my eyelashes belying my sex with their thick, dark curl, and my oval jaw was anything but manly. I could only hope that the dark hair I hid beneath my cap would not tumble down and reveal the charade completely. I prayed hastily that I would not have to remove the hat; that would be my undoing. A young man did not very well style his waist-length hair in braids around his skull. Indeed, a young man did not have waist-length hair.
I caught a glance of myself in a long mirror as I followed the butler through the echoing foyer and past a grand staircase, and was minutely reassured. To an unknowing eye, I appeared as a young man who was only soft around the edges and perhaps just breaking into manhood. My hairless chin and high voice could, I hoped, be explained by youth. 'My name is Alexander Elton,' I told myself silently. 'I am sixteen, and my father wishes me to gain some experience in the world. Aside from being well acquainted with the usual routes of a gentleman's attire, I am able to cook, clean, speak French, and read.'
In my mind, this facade had worked. In my mind, Lord Edward Blake, renowned as much for his frequent and lengthy trips to exotic places as he was for his rigid and tenebrous personality, would be too busy planning his next escapade to notice the miniscule details that could give my sex away. I could lower my voice convincingly enough, and had grown up amongst brothers whom I mimicked in my stride and the cocky placement of my hands in my pockets. Everything about me was male in appearance. Except, of course, the most prominent of my features, which currently enabled me to gaze about with curiosity and were entirely too large to assist my disguise.
I hoped that Blake would see me merely as a boy plagued with prettiness, and hire me based on my skill alone.
"Hands out of your pockets, boy!" the butler barked at me, and I felt an iota of relief. He, at least, did not question the more girlish features of my person, but treated me as an insubordinate young man. "Straighten up!" he admonished. "Lord Blake values carriage as well as punctuality. Do not forget your place, show respect, address him as 'Sir,' and only speak when he has spoken to you," the man delivered a run of sentences automatically, and unceremoniously pushed me towards a tall and menacing door.
He glowered at me. "Knock," he commanded, and turned on his heel and left.
Alone in the empty hall, I slowly removed my hands from my pockets, adjusting the stoop - which had helped to disguise my already painfully flattened breasts even more - into a ramrod straight posture and taking a deep breath before I tapped my fist against the mahogany door. 'I am Alexander Elton,' I told myself again. 'I am sixteen, and my father wishes to-'
My mental list of my identity and abilities was cut off by a deep voice within growling, "Enter."
I opened the door, marveling at its silence on its hinges, and found myself in an awe-inspiring study dominated by shelf upon shelf of books. Books that spilled from confinement into stacks on the floor, books that obscured the rugs, the tops of shelves, the cushions of lounge chairs, and, finally, the surface of a massive mahogany desk behind which sat one Lord Edward Blake. If I had found the room impressive, I found its occupant even more so.
Even seated, Edward Blake commanded attention like no one I had met in my admittedly limited life experience. He glared at me with dark eyes, his cleanly shaven jaw chiseled from stone, his brow punctuated by the somewhat wild black hair atop his head, his lips pressed together, his entire being exuding something that could only be identified as contempt. Electricity was in that gaze; lightning and fire and a heat that worked itself from his eyes to my face. I wanted to shy away, certain that he saw through my guise before I'd even uttered a word, but I made myself step forward instead.
"What are you?" he asked pointedly. "I ask for a man and I get this?"
I felt a jolt of disappointment spread through me and I willed myself not to stutter. "Alexander Elton, sir." It was a feeble answer, riding upon the fervent prayer that he was not calling me out at that very moment. To my ears, my voice was unmistakably feminine.
Blake's glower deepened. "A boy," he spat. "You're just a boy."
I felt the urge to turn and run when he stood; his person was even more impressive - and even more electric - in movement. In just a few long strides, he was before me, towering over me though I stood much taller than the average woman, and taller than most of my brothers. My neck crackled with nerves as he paced around me, scorching me up and down with an indeterminate gaze. He said nothing, and my lips parted.
"I am sixteen, sir." I said, faltering. "I... I can read and speak French, cook, and am... I am fully acquainted with the duties of a gentleman's valet, sir."
Still, he remained silent. I saw that his eyes, perceived black from a distance, were a deep indigo flecked with a smattering of green, and it was the narrowing of his lids and the blackness of his lashes that distorted their color into something altogether stormy. Under the examination of those eyes, I wanted to shield my face, bolt from the room, and - what I hoped was a hidden urge of my feminine self - melt into the floor.
Bravely, I filled the silence with the rest of my prepared facts. "My father would like me to gain some experience of the world, and the proffered position of traveling valet under your employ seemed most-" I was cut off by a wave of his hand.
"I don't care," he said rudely. "Can you shoot? Ride?"
I was surprised by the nature of the question, but pleased to answer honestly, "I can." My life as the only girl of six children had taught me many things, most of all to shoot, ride, and hunt just as well as - nay better than, for my competitive nature drove me - my five brothers.
"Have you any experience with hand to hand combat?" his question was abrupt, and this seemed to be a feature of his character.
I was a little less sure of myself. "Some." I had wrestled with my brothers, and been taught to throw a punch as well as could be expected, but it was here that my mother finally drew a line. I was to be a lady, and a lady had no use for such things. Or so she thought.
Blake's eyes narrowed a fraction, and he clenched a fist at his side. "If I am to hire you, you'll have to prove your abilities."
I lifted my chin to meet his doubting gaze. "Yes, sir. I can, sir," I said, feeling more confident that perhaps he did not see past the persona I had so carefully created. For good measure, I added, "I am good for my word, sir."
When he speared me with a look, I did not waver. "Most of my valets have retired within a week."
"I'll not do the same, sir," I replied confidently.
His brows lowered with disapproval. "Sixteen, you said?"
My heart hitched slightly. "My birthday was two months ago, sir." It was not a lie. I had, indeed, celebrated a new year of life just two months ago, on May the Fourteenth, Eighteen-Forty. My age, however, was a farce. Then again, so was the rest of me.
"This will not be an easy job," he warned me. "I expect hard work, persistence, and silence. As my valet, you will face danger, you will be expected to endure long days, and you may even grapple with death." There was a weight to his words and I knew that even if his intent was to frighten me away, he also spoke the truth.
Slowly, I nodded. How surprised he would be to know that these things excited me. "Yes, sir," I replied simply.
"Well," he said, "perhaps your youth will save you."
What he meant by that, I did not know, but suddenly I was being ushered to the desk, and a piece of paper was slapped down in front of me with a pen in its wake.
Blake's voice was menacing in my ear. "Once you sign this, you are sworn to utter confidence. Whatever may take place in my employ, you are not to breathe a word. No one is to know what I have you do." His hand clapped onto my shoulder threateningly, and he repeated, "no one."
I felt dread mingle with the excitement spreading through me and wondered what it was I had gotten myself into. The manor was a place of mystery amongst my peers, certainly, but Blake's comings and goings had never raised anything more than a rumor or two that he had a mistress in a foreign land, or perhaps was keeping an illegitimate child somewhere in France. In what illicit affairs would I find myself playing a part? Try as I might, I could not keep the quiver from my hand as I took the pen, bent over the paper, and signed my male counterpart's name in dark ink.
And there it was. Alexander Elton, sixteen, speaks French, could ride and shoot and hunt with the best of them, and was now employed by the mysterious Lord Edward Blake. A fear began to creep through my veins as I stepped back from the table and lifted my eyes from the binding agreement to the man who had just hired me.
In reality, I was Isobel Erstwilder, a twenty-three year old spinster who, according to my mother, had lost all hope of marriage due to my indelicate nature and stubborn personality. My father was a ruined baron, condemned to the lower ranks of society as he sunk deeper and deeper into alcoholism and gambling. My mother was a woman once beautiful but now marred by bitterness, angered by the fact that her one chance to climb the societal ladder through marriage had been me, tomboyish and uninterested in most of the advances of the men she brought my way.
Most of these men had been twice my age, as alcoholic as my father, and riddled with lust, treating women as commodities to be had rather than beings to share life with. I would not condemn myself to such an existence. Thus, I had taken to learning from my brothers, all of whom now had the opportunity to hold respectable jobs, marry any woman they chose, and lead perfectly adequate lives beyond my father's house, while I was doomed by my sex and trapped by my determination to avoid the misery of the life my mother chose for me.
But my father's fortune, as vast as it had once been, was now failing. Soon, my parents would be but beggars on the street, and I could not let myself sink with them. Rebelling against my mother's sense of propriety, I set out in search of a job, a life, an opportunity to be anything but the woman I was expected to be. Thus, I was now Alexander Elton, a boy in search of adventure.
Of course, my family was not acquainted with my alter ego; indeed, they believed that I was currently visiting my best friend Imelda Gregor, who lived far enough across town that my absence for a few hours would go unnoticed. With the hope that my brothers would not notice their missing articles of clothing, I had slipped away and prepared myself for this interview in the dark corner of a public house, having already bound my chest beneath my girlish dress.
My hair was the largest problem of this disguise. It was long, thick, and unruly, and I could only hope that my station would not require me to remove my hat, for I did not know how else to hide the hair except to cut it off. And that was something I would never do. I had, on my walk to Pendleton Manor, considered finding myself a wig, but at the time it had seemed an unnecessary measure. This was, after all, an interview I had expected to fail.
Yet here I was, standing in the presence of Lord Blake, who now held my future signed on a piece of paper that bound me to him. He was walking back to his seat, folding said paper, tucking it into his breast pocket.
"We leave at six a.m. sharp," he said abruptly. "I expect you here and ready to depart."
I was taken aback. "Tomorrow, sir?"
His sharp eyes met mine, and he raised an eyebrow. "Yes. Is that a problem?"
It most certainly was. "Of course not, sir." What was I going to tell my family? In my desperation to take this job, I had neglected to plan my next course of action: extracting myself from my mother's determined grasp.
"Good," he stated. When I continued to stand there, he narrowed his eyes, an expression that was quite at home on his stormy face. "You are dismissed." He looked down at the book that had occupied him upon my arrival, and that was that.
I left the room quietly, the full realization of my rash actions finally filling me with utter panic. How would I leave my family so abruptly? What would I say? I had no distant relatives who would accept me, no foreign friends who would house me; no believable excuse to so swiftly leave the house for an indeterminate amount of time. And my mother, I knew, would be furious if ever she found out my disguise.
"Blast," I muttered, thankful the butler had not come to see me out. As I left the manor, I had two immediate problems: one, I had to create some illusion to explain my sudden and indefinite absence from my childhood home; two, as it had dawned on me that the position of a valet made it nigh impossible to constantly keep my hair covered with a cap, I needed a wig.