Lady Juliana, only remaining daughter of the Earl St. Maur, could have screamed. She’d had a more abominable morning than usual, and that was saying something.
First, she’d been called away from the Duke of Devonshire’s ball by the appearance of Robbie, one of the orphans from the Sunnybrooke Home for Boys. He’d told her she must come immediately. There was an emergency at the orphanage, and she’d made her excuses and run out, much to her father’s annoyance. It probably hadn’t helped matters that she’d taken the family coach.
Then she’d arrived at the orphanage just as the sun was rising to find that her cook was packing her bags to leave. Julia had known it would happen sooner or later; she’d simply hoped it would be later. Mrs. Nesbit had been complaining for months about the state of the kitchens, claiming she could hardly be expected to work in such conditions. Julia had agreed. The ovens smoked, the roof leaked, and the boys had stolen all the decent knives. Lately, Mrs. Nesbit had also complained the staples she stocked had been steadily disappearing as well—flour, cornmeal, potatoes, and garlic. Julia wondered if perhaps Mrs. Nesbit was cheating her and selling the stock on the sides, but she had no proof and couldn’t afford to lose the cook. She’d begged Mrs. Nesbit to give her more time to ask the orphanage’s board for money and make the repairs.
She’d thought she’d succeeded at persuading the woman, until, of course, the boys had thought it amusing to loose three tame rats in the kitchen as Mrs. Nesbit prepared breakfast. When Charlie had shown her the rats again, just to prove they were harmless, the poor cook had shrieked loud enough to wake the dead—or at least the dead tired, as Juliana thought of herself—and resigned effective immediately.
Which meant Julia had to cook the boys breakfast. One could not simply allow a dozen boys to go hungry, and she did not have the funds to buy them all pies from the hawkers’ carts. Not when each boy ate as much as a horse.
And so, Julia had calmly collected the rats, placed them back in their straw-lined box with a bit of bread for their breakfast, and in her jewels and dancing slippers, heated oats in a large pot she could barely move. She tried not to feel sorry for herself. Even as she rolled and kneaded bread until her arms ached, she pushed memories of walks in the promenade and ices at Gunters aside. And when her once lovely copper ball gown was covered in flour and sticky pieces of dough, Juliana did not allow her thoughts to stray to all the lovely balls where she had worn the gown and danced with countless handsome and charming gentlemen.
Or at least she didn’t allow her thoughts to stray much.
But no sooner had she placed the bread in the oven than Mr. Goring, her manservant, had knocked on the open door and informed her Mr. Slag was waiting for her in the parlor.
Julia had stared at the servant as though the man had gone mad. Sticky white hands on her hips, she’d glowered at Mr. Goring until he’d lowered his eyes. “Why on earth did you seat Mr. Slag in the parlor?” She also wanted to ask where he had been when the boys he was supposed to be watching in her absence were foisting rats on the cook, but she couldn’t afford to lose Mr. Goring too.
“There ain’t nowhere else except the dining room, and the lads is in there making a racket about wantin’ their vittles.”
Julia had heard and ignored the noise. If the boys had wanted to be fed in good time, they shouldn’t have taunted the cook with the rats. “What I meant, Mr. Goring,” she clarified, though she knew he’d understood her perfectly, “is why did you admit Mr. Slag? I told you never to admit him. Not under any circumstances.”
Goring scratched the sparse hair at the crown of his forehead. “Did you want me to close the door on him?”
“No.” She spoke slowly and deliberately, as she often spoke to Charlie, who was four. “I wanted you to say what I told you to say.”
“But, my lady, you are home.”
“Not to him!” Defeated, she removed the apron that was supposed to protect her ball gown and tossed it on the worktable. She’d deal with Mr. Slag then serve breakfast. Before leaving the kitchen, she closed the box with Matthew, Mark, and Luke and perched it under one arm. She did not want to risk the rodents escaping into the kitchen and causing more mayhem.
With a last look of annoyance at Goring, she marched toward the parlor, passing the dining room as she did so. She studiously avoided turning her head to look in. The boys were stomping their feet on the floor and banging their plates on the table. They needed a lecture, and she had no time at present to give it.
She wanted to be angry at Mr. Goring for admitting Slag, but she supposed Goring was as frightened of Mr. Slag as everyone else in Spitalfields. The crime lord ran the rookery, and his methods for dealing with those who displeased him were rather…harsh.
Julia was frightened of him as well, but she was able to mask her fear better than most. After all, she’d met other imposing figures—the King, the Queen, Wellington, and Brummell—to name a few. If she hadn’t flinched when Brummell had scrutinized her dress with his quizzing glass, she would not flinch when confronted by Mr. Slag. And truth be told, until recently, he’d been no more than a minor irritation. But as she’d been forced to spend more time at the orphanage and less at her father’s home in Mayfair, Mr. Slag had been harder to push to the back of her mind.
She opened the door to the parlor, and Slag rose immediately. He was a robust man and not very tall, only a few inches taller than she. He had mentioned on several occasions that he had been reared in a foundling house. She knew how cruel and heartless such institutions could be, which was one reason she was here and trying to improve the lives of the orphans under her care. But Joseph Slag had obviously found no such protector. He might have been a handsome man if not for the ravages of his brutal youth. His crooked nose, the deep lines around his eyes and mouth, and his cold hard eyes were testament to the harsh life he’d led. Even dressed in fine linen and well-tailored clothing, he wore his low station like a permanent mantle. Joseph Slag was known to always carry an ebony walking stick with a golden handle in the image of a flame. The rumor was that he’d beaten more than one man to death with the stick.
Julia glanced at the stick now, leaning against the armchair Slag had occupied, and tried not to shudder. She pasted on a bright smile. “Mr. Slag, how lovely to see you this morning.” She set the box of rats on the table just inside the room and curtsied prettily. Her mother would have been proud.
Slag bowed with some style of his own. “Lady Juliana, how kind of you to take time from your busy morning to see me.”
He hadn’t given her much choice, but she merely smiled and took the seat across from the one he’d occupied. “I’m afraid I am not at leisure to chat this morning, sir. My cook has given her notice, and as you no doubt can hear, I have hungry boys to feed.”
“Ah. No wonder you look”—his eyes traveled down her dress, lingering a bit too long on her breasts, all but on display in the ball gown—“out of sorts. May I be of some assistance?”
“Do you cook?” she asked.
He gave her a look of appalled shock.
“Then I’m afraid not.”
“What I meant, my lady, is that maybe I could find you a new cook. I’m well connected, I am. Maybe I’ll hire a maid for you too.” He didn’t look at the dust covering the table near him, but Julia knew he’d seen it nevertheless.
“I thank you kindly, Mr. Slag, but I have a maid”—though she only came once a week—“and I already have another cook in mind.” This was a blatant lie, but she knew that without a doubt it would be a mistake to put herself in Mr. Slag’s debt. She’d made that mistake once before, and she would not repeat it.
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a lady can do anything a man can do: backwards and in high-heeled dancing slippers.
Lady Juliana, daughter of the Earl of St. Maur, needs all the help she can get. She's running a ramshackle orphanage, London's worst slumlord has illicit designs on her, and her father has suddenly become determined to marry her off.
Enter Major Neil Wraxall, bastard son of the Marquess of Kensington, sent to assist Lady Juliana in any way he can. Lucky for her, he's handy with repairs, knows how to keep her and the orphans safe, and is a natural leader of men.
Unfortunately for both of them, the scandal that ensues from their mutual attraction is going to lead them a merry dance...