“Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,” chanted Marianne Redfern as she kneaded dough for the next day’s bread. “Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf of the ravined salt-sea shark...”
She trailed off when she noticed her assistant, Sally White, looking at her with some alarm. “Did you...are you making a new kind of bread, Mrs. Redfern?”
Mrs. The honorific always made Marianne smile. She’d never been wed in her life, but as cook at the exclusive Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies—and a young cook in addition, at age twenty-eight—she was due the status and protection of a fictional husband.
“Just amusing myself, Sally,” she reassured the girl. “Shakespeare’s got the right rhythm for kneading, but you won’t see me feeding our girls any of those ingredients.”
She liked the wayward sisters of Macbeth, the three prophetesses who drew a king’s notice when they predicted his rise—then his doom. There was a certain man whose face she liked to imagine in the dough when she punched it. She didn’t want to bring Jack Grahame to his doom, exactly, but when a woman had once had a lover’s notice, it was difficult to be cast aside.
Since then, she’d become a bit wayward herself. Though she had no magic but that created by a stove or an oven, carried out with grains and meats and vegetables. Bespelling only for the length of a bite or a meal.
It was enough. It had become enough.
Satisfied with her dough, she turned the worked mass over to Sally. “Divide this part into rolls for the second rising, this into loaves, and cover it all. Put it in the larder so it will proof slowly. It’ll be ready for baking in the morning, and the young ladies can have fresh rolls for breakfast.” At Sally’s nod, Marianne patted her on the shoulder. “Very good. I’ll be on to the sauces.”
Sally had been cook’s assistant in the kitchen of Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for only a week, having moved up from the post of kitchenmaid when Marianne’s previous assistant married the butcher’s son. Marianne could teach any girl who wanted to learn, and indeed Sally did, for she had dreams of heading her own kitchen someday. Katie before her had been a fair worker, but her heart hadn’t been in cookery. She’d wanted the kitchen post only because she was in love with the boy who brought the meat. For three weeks they’d called the banns, yet Katie had said nothing to Marianne of her plans to marry. As soon as the parish register was signed, she sent for her things—and that was that, with no notice.
Love, love. It made people so deceptive. Yes, it was a good match for the girl; as wife to a butcher’s son, she’d never go hungry. But even better than making a good match was knowing a body could take care of herself, come what might.
That was the purpose behind Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, and it applied to everyone, from the headmistress herself to the youngest scullery maid. Along with the usual French and drawing, the students learned forgery and how to hold their own in a fistfight and God knew what else. The servants were welcome to take the same instruction after their daily work was done, if a teacher would agree to it. And for a little extra pay—no one could accuse Mrs. Brodie of being an ungenerous employer—most of the teachers were willing indeed.
Marianne had arrived here eight years before, new from the country and without even rudimentary skills in the kitchen. She’d worked as kitchenmaid and then assistant under a fine cook, Mrs. Patchett, until that good lady had retired to Devon to live with her son and grandchildren on a family farm. From Mrs. Patchett, Marianne had learned how to use and care for knives, how to clean and chop produce, how to choose the best fish and fowl and meat, and above all, how to provide three meals a day for seventy-five teachers and students, plus the army of servants who kept the school running smoothly.
It was difficult work, and hot, and physical, and sometimes dull. And Marianne would do it forever rather than return to Lincolnshire. After eight years here, two as the head of the kitchen, she had never been stronger, faster, more skilled. She could split a sheep’s head, knee a presumptuous man, and stir a sauce of stock and cream to keep it from splitting—all at once and without turning a hair.
She had made something quite fine of herself, though the Miss Redfern who had first come to London might not have been so impressed. That young woman knew nothing but silk and song and embroidery and manners.
Marianne glanced at the clock that beamed from the corner. Eleven o’clock already, and most of the preparations were finally done for dinner at six. That was the main meal for the students; their midday repast was a simple one of breads and meats and cheeses, eaten between their lessons. She and Sally could assemble that in another hour, and the footmen would arrange platters for the young ladies in the refectory.
There was just enough time to begin a pastry for tarts before Marianne started the slow-simmering sauces. Tarts would be more special than a simple dessert of fruit and cream, and the young ladies deserved a treat now that they were nearly done with their spring term. The early apricots Marianne had bought that morning were fine and sweet; she could make do with them. It still smarted that she’d failed to win the first strawberries of the season from a greengrocer who’d wanted to charge the earth. Not that they’d have made tarts enough for all the students, but she had a weakness for strawberries.
“Sally,” she called. “I need you to work with the apricots once you’ve stowed the bread.”
When the answer yes’m came in reply through the open door of the larder, Marianne turned to her book of receipts and looked up her favorite ingredients for a tart pastry. How much flour ought she to remove, substituting almonds? One part ground almonds to ten parts flour might do the trick, enriching the delicate flavor of the apricots with melting sweetness.
She peered into the canister where she kept the nuts, pounded to powder and ready for use. Almost empty! She cursed. It was one of Sally’s tasks to keep a good supply of pounded almonds, but if Marianne didn’t direct her, the younger woman couldn’t be expected to remember every detail of their stocks. They needed another kitchenmaid to fill Sally’s old role, and soon. Mrs. Brodie’s annual Donor Dinner—Marianne couldn’t help but think of it in capital letters—was in a fortnight, after the term ended, and there was no way a single cook and assistant could prepare two formal courses and assorted desserts for one hundred people.
Well. She’d recruit the scullery maids to chop and peel if she had to, and she’d jug and stone and jar and press as much ahead of time as she could. And for today’s tarts, butter alone it would be in the pastry, and that would keep the cost of today’s meals down too. Mrs. Brodie was never mean with her kitchen staff, allowing Marianne all the budget she liked. Even so, the gentleman’s daughter who’d once spent several pounds on a single bonnet now measured out ground almonds in cautious spoonfuls and haggled to the ha’penny over the price of lettuce or fish. When it wasn’t her own money she was spending, she was more responsible with it.
Again, the face of Jack Grahame came to mind, and she wondered fleetingly if he’d felt the same about his father’s money. The money that had been needed, and that she’d had none of, and that had split them apart.
Money. Money. Money. This time, there was no dough for her to punch.
So she turned her thoughts to the tasks before her, the ones she did every day. She checked the joints slowly roasting in the ovens, confirming that the coal held out. She pulled out the ingredients for the sauces she’d make for dinner; she sifted shelled peas in her hand and approved the amount. These could be cooked shortly before the dinner service. They’d boil in a flash and be finished with fresh cream and...something else. Something surprising and flavorful. Chopped shallots maybe, fried crisp in lard and scattered like beads over the top. Yes, that would do well.
Now back to the tarts. Sally had finished with the bread, and at the other end of the long worktable, she was settled with a great pile of apricots. Clean, cleave, discard the stone, set aside. The halved fruits went into a huge bowl, piling up quickly.
“You’ve a good rhythm for that work,” Marianne told the younger woman. “Thinking of Shakespeare? Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf?”
Sally blushed. “Little Boy Blue. It’s a nice old rhyme, that. My mum taught it to me and my sisters.”
Marianne smiled as she dug her hands into the flour and butter, now coming together smoothly. “I have sisters too. Haven’t seen them in a long while, but I remember learning those old rhymes with them.”
But where is the boy who looks after the sheep?
He’s back in Lincolnshire. Do not weep...
No, that wasn’t right. That wasn’t right at all.
A knock sounded then on the door to the tradesmen’s entrance. The kitchen was a few rooms away, but the servants’ quarters were quiet at the moment. The footmen were likely upstairs, while Mrs. Hobbes, the housekeeper, would be making the rounds of the students’ chambers as the maids were cleaning them. She’d a keen eye and would come down hard on any maid who hadn’t done her work well. Her husband, the old butler, had grown hard of hearing in recent years. If he were polishing silver in his pantry with the door closed, he wouldn’t hear a Catherine wheel going off two feet away.
“Are we expecting another delivery, ma’am?” Sally asked with mild curiosity.
“Of kitchen goods? Not until I do tomorrow’s shopping.” Marianne eyed her butter-covered hands, then the pile of apricots her assistant had left to split and prepare. “I’ll answer that door. Back in a moment, Sally.”
She wiped her hands on her apron and wound her way past the servants’ stairs, their hall, and the housekeeper’s room. Unfastening the door to the area, she lifted her brows, prepared to scold a lost delivery boy for interrupting her work.
But it wasn’t a delivery boy at all.
Her startled brain took a moment to understand the sight before her. The thoughts went like this:
Oh! It’s a man.
A handsome man.
He looks familiar. Does he work for the fishmonger?
No, he’s not holding fish. Strawberries! He got those strawberries I wanted of the greengrocer. Look at him holding them, juicy and red, in that little basket. Does he work for the greengrocer?
Of course not. I’d have noticed him there.
No, he looks like...like...
And then she knit all the pieces together, and her jaw dropped.
“Jack,” she said faintly. “Jack Grahame. Why are you here?”
“Marianne. I brought you strawberries,” said the man she’d loved and hoped never to see again.
When he held out the little basket, she took it, bemused. She looked from the strawberries to the face of her first lover, her only lover, dressed as fine as ever and handsome enough to be in a painting. Then back at the basket. And then she remembered that her hands were greasy from butter, her apron had a bit of everything she’d cooked today upon it, and her hair—her long dark brown hair that he’d once run his fingers through, lovingly—was sloppily confined under a cook’s cap, and her cheeks were flushed from the heat of the ovens.
Ah, hell. If one’s long-ago love showed up unexpectedly at one’s door, it ought to be at a time when one looked one’s best. But Marianne was a cook now, and a cook was what she looked like.
She lifted her chin. Closed her hands around the basket of strawberries. Did he remember she liked them, after all this time? Bright as rubies, and she’d rather have them than gemstones.
“Well. Thank you,” she said with as much dignity as she could manage. “Is that all? As you’re here, you know I’m working as a cook. And since you were always a bright fellow, you must guess I’ve got to get back to work.”
“Since you asked, I’d like to come in and speak to you. Do the strawberries win me a little of your time?” His brows were puckish, his mobile mouth always at the edge of a grin.
So he did remember. “Time enough for you to say you’re sorry for keeping away so long.” She tried not to sound as soft as she felt, but her own words betrayed her.
The humor on his face melted. He looked at her with grave gray eyes and said, “I’m not here to apologize, Marianne. But I do want your forgiveness.”
HE’D ALWAYS LIKED HER eyes. In a face as calm as any cameo painting, her changeable eyes had betrayed her true feelings. If he read their green depths correctly now, he’d caught her by surprise, and she wanted to flay him alive.
But she also wanted to pop those strawberries into her mouth.
She teetered between the two urges. The strawberries made the difference; Jack could see the moment when they decided her. Her fingers tightened on the basket.
“Come in, then,” said Marianne in a harassed tone. “I’ve not a moment to spare till the afternoon, but if you want to watch me at work, that’s your business.”
The tone he’d expected; her turning on her heel, he’d also been prepared for. The sight of the academy’s servants’ quarters as she led him along was something new in his experience. A winding space with whitewashed walls and timber beams, it was divided with shelves holding every sort of household ware and cleaning supply.
The kitchen space was huge, much bigger than the equivalent room at his Lincolnshire estate, with a stone fireplace large enough for a man to step into if it hadn’t been crossed by an intricate arrangement of spits and hobs and hooks. There was a wall of ovens set into brick, atop which a long cooking surface—of some kind of metal, maybe?—held pots larger than any Jack had ever seen. They were practically washtubs, able to hold gallons of soup, and from them, savory smells issued forth.
At the center of the room was an immense table, wood-topped and scarred by cuts from kitchen implements. From a seat at one end, a young blond woman wearing a tidy white cap peered at Jack. A mountain range built of apricots surrounded her.
“Mrs. Redfern? Is everything all right?” she asked in an accent of pure Yorkshire. It made Jack smile—not only to hear one of the northern accents that sounded like home to him, but to hear Marianne addressed as Mrs. It must be an honorary title, for he knew she’d never married.
He couldn’t say the same. Which was part of why Marianne wanted to flay him alive.
“Miss White,” Marianne said in a crisp, formal tone. “Permit me to introduce an old acquaintance of mine. Mr. Grahame.”
“Grahame?” The girl perked up. “That’s a Lincolnshire name, isn’t it? Are you related to Lord Irving?”
“I’m his poor relation,” Jack admitted. “Or so his lordship thinks of my branch of the family. We’ve got land, but no title. His bunch of the Grahames have both, which as you know, makes them better.”
The kitchenmaid, he presumed she was, giggled at this.
“Are you indeed still poor? I thought you’d taken steps to remedy that.” Again, that crisp voice from Marianne. She had plunged her hands into a giant bowl of...he had no idea what it was. It looked like flour and butter, but the way she was squishing it to bits, he couldn’t imagine what it would become.
“No, I’m not poor anymore,” he said, feeling almost reluctant to say so. He reminded himself of the words he’d rehearsed so carefully: I am not here to apologize. He couldn’t, for if he did, it would make the last eight years of his life nothing but a wrong decision, a wrong path traveled.
A boy in livery ran in just then. “Any of the ovens needin’ coal, mum?” he tossed over a shoulder as he lay hands on a full scuttle.
“They’re all right, Evans,” Marianne replied, “but check again in a half hour, please.” When the boy bobbed his head, then tore from the kitchen as swiftly as he’d entered, she turned to Jack with a faint smile. “Oh, for the energy of the young. Now I see that if you’ve something to say to me, there will be other ears about.”
“Can you walk out with me?” As if he were twenty-two again, and she twenty, and he were calling on the neighboring landowner with an eye to the eldest daughter.
“I can’t get away for a minute until luncheon is tidied away. However...” She eyed the mountain range of apricots. “How are you at cutting fruit?”
“I’ve used a knife before, if that’s what you’re asking, and I can tell stone from flesh. Why?”
“That’ll do.” Her faint smile turned wicked. “Sally, I’ll need you to see to the young ladies’ luncheon today. You’ll find everything you need in the larder and the meat safe.”
“Oh, mum!” The young woman—surely she could be no more than twenty?—popped up from her seat, eyes wide and eager. “Do you mean it? Cut it and plate it and everything?”
“The footmen can help you with the plating, and they’ll take the dishes upstairs to the refectory. But they’ll be yours to command.” Marianne added as if an afterthought, “I’ll just need you to prepare everything in the servants’ hall.”
“Oh. Not in here?” The girl’s light brows knit. “But shouldn’t I finish with the apricots?”
“You can’t do that and arrange luncheon.” Again, that wicked smile. “Mr. Grahame wishes to visit a kitchen? He can become a kitchenmaid for a while.”
Miss White—Christian name Sally, Jack now gathered—looked as if she found this highly entertaining. Shaking out her skirts, she practically danced from the long kitchen. Off to put together a luncheon for a school full of, as the academy’s name told Jack, Exceptional Young Ladies.
“If her enthusiasm is anything to go by, she’s a good assistant to you,” Jack observed once they were alone.
“She is, and better every day.” Marianne rubbed the doughy mass in the bowl between her hands. “We’ve a little less than half an hour before the boy returns, and you’ve all those apricots to cut up. If there’s something you want to say, say it now. While you work the knife.”
“I like a woman who knows her own mind,” Jack decided, settling himself in the chair vacated by Sally. “I’m not intimidated by things like apricots, you know. They’re little and cute. Not frightening enough to scare a fellow away.”
“I’m not trying to scare you away.” Wiping her hands, Marianne scattered flour over a few square feet of her giant worktable, then heaved the mass of dough onto it. “I’m trying to get on with my work. And I sincerely hope your ‘little and cute’ comment was only referring to apricots.”
“What else could I have possibly been referring to?” he said blandly. “I don’t see anything else little and cute in this kitchen.”
No, Marianne had never been cute, nor was she exactly little. She was of medium height, and he thought her striking, a woman of frank eyes and a straight nose and a full mouth and a stubborn chin.
Now she used that full mouth to frown at him. “First you don’t intend to apologize. Then you say I’m not little and cute. You could have kept all that to yourself. You could have stayed in Lincolnshire.”
“Then why the devil are you here, Jack? Are you trying to win me over again?”
He hadn’t prepared this answer; he spoke on instinct. “I’m not apologizing because I can’t say I’m sorry for the life that brought us to this moment. And I didn’t say you’re little and cute, because you’re so much more than any word I could apply to you.”
For a moment, she only stared. Then she sighed, her shoulders relaxing. “So glib. As always.”
“It was rather good, wasn’t it? And it’s even true.”
“Cut the apricots,” was all she said, though to his ear, it sounded like, Fine, you’ve won a bit more of a reprieve before I boot you out.
Instead of cutting an apricot, he reached for a strawberry from the basket. They’d been ungodly expensive, probably forced in a hothouse, but he’d never forgotten Marianne’s yearly delight when strawberries appeared for a scant few weeks in the kitchen gardens.
Taking the large knife up in his other hand, he carefully cut the little green leaves from the top of the fruit.
Marianne was watching him, lips parted. “What are you do—”
He held out the strawberry to her. She looked down at her hands, covered in flour and what he realized now was pastry dough, then returned her gaze to Jack. He kept holding out the strawberry to her.
Maybe, he realized, he had come to apologize after all. But not in words. In strawberries.
At last, she relented, opening her mouth so he could pop the berry between her lips. The gesture was familiar, friendly, intimate—yet strange. They’d done this so many times in the past—first as childhood friends feeding each other berries and later as lovers sharing the sensual fruit. Now they were strangers.
But some things remained the same, such as the bliss on Marianne Redfern’s face as the taste of a strawberry spread across her tongue.
She allowed herself that moment of pleasure, then snapped back to work. It happened so suddenly Jack was caught by surprise. One second, her eyes were heavy-lidded and her lips berry-wet. The next, she was taking a rolling pin to the pastry dough before her.
He set down the knife, leaning forward. “Marianne, don’t you—”
“Cut the apricots.” Under her rolling pin, the dough became an even, flat sheet. “And did you know you’re still wearing your hat?”
He cursed, then tossed it onto a chair beside him and raked his fingers through his hair. “How do I look? Handsome?”
“Wash your hands,” was all she said as she turned to a shelf and took down a stack of tart cases.
He grumbled his way to the pump in the scullery, then back. Seating himself again, he took up the knife and applied it to the first apricot. “You used to think I was funny.”
“I did. You used to think I was a lot of things.” Roll, roll, cut, cut, press, press. A tart shell took form in one of the cases, then was set aside as Marianne took up the next round of dough.
How could he explain what she’d meant to him? She’d been more than a first love. She had been his companion for as long as he could remember. He’d wanted to marry her. When he was twenty-two and she twenty, he’d asked her, and she had agreed as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
But Helena Wilcox had had money, and the Redferns hadn’t, and if the Grahames hadn’t got money at once, they would have been ruined. Tenants lost, lands fallow, dowries drained. All Jack had needed to do was wed the merchant’s daughter, and he’d spare everyone.
Everyone but himself and Marianne.
In the end, the marriage had lasted only six years before illness took Helena. Marianne knew she died, because she sent a proper letter of condolence—not to Jack, but to his mother and his eldest sister, Viola. She’d done the same when Jack’s father had died a year later. Only recently had Jack put off mourning clothes for them both.
“I thought you were everything,” he said slowly. The knife cut the pale flesh of the apricot, revealing the stone. If it weren’t for the stone, the fruit could go right into the tart. But there was always a stone.
He cut another, and another, a whole pile of them as tart cases stacked up under Marianne’s quick hands. Finally, she replied. “I loved who I thought you were. I’ve missed that man.”
He couldn’t argue with that. “I miss that man too. Do you know, you’re the only person who ever loved me without thinking of how I could serve, or who else I could become?”
She stared at him. “Surely not.”
Which was not a denial. Her disbelief warmed him, that not only did she grant she’d loved him just as he was, but she thought someone else must have too.
“Not that I’m aware. Anyway. That’s why I wanted to find you. Not because I want anything from you now, but to remind myself that once, it was enough for me to be Jack Grahame.”
“You said you wanted my forgiveness.”
He cut more apricots, wanting to finish this small thing she’d asked of him. “True. I do want that of you. I couldn’t have acted differently eight years ago unless I were...not me. If that makes sense?”
“Yes, it makes sense.” She slid the bowl of cut fruit toward herself, eyed the quantity, then added a few fistfuls of flour. “If I had to marry to save my family from ruin, I’d probably have done it too.”
His heart skipped upward, lightened. He tossed the last few apricot halves into the large bowl. “Then you don’t blame me?”
She added sugar to the fruit. “Who else am I to blame, Jack?”
When she put it like that... “If you’ve the need in your heart to blame, then no one. There’s no one to blame but me.” A sapskull with a pile of stones before him, his hands covered in juice.
“I don’t know,” she said, and he drank in every flicker of emotion that crossed her features. “I hold you responsible for your actions. For the way you dropped me so quickly. But do I think it was the wrong choice? No, I don’t suppose I do.”
“Then you forgive me?” He was holding his breath.
“There’s a distance between don’t blame and forgive. I’m not ready to step across it yet.” She took a breath. “But if you’ve two weeks to give, I could use a kitchenmaid.”
She raised a brow.
“Oh. You’re serious? A kitchenmaid?”
“I’m serious,” she said, worry creeping into her tone. “I can’t take any more time like this, to talk with you and eat strawberries. I’m behindhand with today’s custards and sauces, and there’s a great dinner to prepare in two weeks’ time for all sorts of people who help fund the academy, and we’re short on staff since Katie left, and—”
He popped another strawberry in her mouth. “Don’t eat the leaves.”
She bit the red fruit from the top, still in mid-word, and questioned him with her big green eyes.
And because he’d never been able to deny her anything but his hand in marriage, he agreed.