Henrietta Knight looked around the hotel reception room they were using to host her father’s wake and watched her mother, dressed in an elegant black outfit, complete with hat and black veil, play the grieving widow part to a tee.
What a hypocrite.
She snagged a glass of whiskey from one of the servers’ trays and took a large sip. Harry hoped the alcohol might dull the anger and frustration she was feeling. This whole funeral was a farce from start to finish and she couldn’t wait to get away.
Earlier in the day they’d had the briefest service she had ever observed at the crematorium, then back here for the wake where only ten people turned up.
The worst part was taking her place as the head of the family and giving a speech about a man she hoped would burn in hell.
I need to get out of here. Harry could think of many different—better—ways to spend the day of her father the Earl of Axedale’s funeral. She finished her whiskey and was about to slip out when her mother, Lady Dorothy, came over to her.
“Harry, you must circulate and thank people for coming. You are the head of our family now. You are the Countess of Axedale, and it’s your responsibility now, not mine.”
“I am Dr. Knight, Professor of Archaeology, first and foremost, Mother. That will always be my top priority,” Harry said with bitterness in her voice.
Lady Dorothy looked around anxiously, but everyone seemed to be happily engaged in conversation. “Keep your voice down, Harry. We don’t want everyone to know our business.”
Harry gave a wry laugh. “How do you do it, Mother? How do you keep up this pretence in front of everyone when we both despised Father? How can you be so hypocritical?”
In a low firm tone, Lady Dorothy answered, “Years of practice. Charles embarrassed me and humiliated me throughout our marriage with his countless mistresses, and the only way I could cope, the only way to minimize my humiliation was to learn to keep up the pretence of a strong marriage in the face of scandal. That’s why. When I heard that Charles had died, I cried with happiness, but I will see him off with as little embarrassment and fuss as possible. Once this is done, I can live again.”
Harry loosened the black tie that felt tight around her neck. “I can’t do that. Look around, Mother. When ten people turn up to your funeral, and they include your doctor, your lawyer, and your banker, I think it tells its own story about your character and your life.”
Lady Dorothy sighed, unable to counter that argument. “I thought Bridget might come, to represent her father at least.”
Bridget, Harry’s best friend whose father had been Lord Charles’s friend, had wanted to come for Harry’s sake, as she knew how hard it would be for her.
“I told her not to come. As I said, I think it’s hypocritical. She didn’t like him either.”
They were both silent for a few moments before Lady Dorothy asked, “Are you going to Axedale Hall or staying on at Cambridge?”
“Both. I’m taking a year’s sabbatical from Cambridge to refurbish Axedale. I promised Grandpa that when I finally took control of the estate, I would restore it to its former glory. Father has let it crumble and die, but once my promise is fulfilled, then I will be going back to Cambridge. I’m head of my department, and that is my world, my kingdom.”
Lady Dorothy took a glass of sherry from one of the servers as he passed. “That’s probably best. I’ll be staying at my house in Monaco, if you need me for anything.”
Harry felt her anger return in an instant. “Need you? When have I ever needed you, Mother? You left Axedale and me when I was thirteen years old to fend for myself.”
A look of guilt flashed across Lady Dorothy’s face. “You had Mrs. Castle to look after you. She always loved you and took care of you. Your father wouldn’t have allowed me to take you, and you wouldn’t have liked to move to the Continent.”
“You left me trapped there with him, trapped in that house, on my own.” Harry had never voiced these truths to her mother before, but today of all days she just couldn’t hold back.
“Keep your voice down, Harry. I had to get away. I couldn’t stay with him one minute longer. He destroyed who I was,” Lady Dorothy said desperately.
“But you left your child, didn’t you? I’ll never forgive you for that, and I’ll never forgive him for making my childhood a misery. I’m leaving now. I’m not taking part in this charade any longer.”
As she went to walk away, Lady Dorothy said, “Don’t make the same mistakes in life that I did.” Lady Dorothy had drummed that into Harry for years. “Don’t fall in love, Harry. Don’t ever let someone have that power over you, or you may be in my place one day.”
Harry turned around and sneered. “Love? I’m not capable of it. You and Father made sure of that.”
She walked out of the room and went directly to the hotel entrance, where her Aston Martin was waiting for her. The doorman opened the door for her, and she tipped him.
“Thank you, m’lady. Have a good day.”
Harry pulled off her tie, stuffed it into the top pocket of her black suit, and put on her sunglasses. “I will now.”
She roared off into the streets of London to find the only thing that would relieve her anger and frustrations.
Harry grasped her bed partner’s wrists lightly above her head as she thrust into her. She looked down at the woman and felt a rush of power listening to her deep moans and groans as she kept her on the edge of orgasm. It was exactly what she needed today, to feel in control of everything and everyone around her, and to work her deep-seated frustrations and anger out with one of her casual lovers, Clara Fitzpatrick-West.
“Yes, Harry. Just like that. God, I need to come.”
Harry’s own orgasm was close, but as with everything in her life, Harry kept it under strict control and would not come until she was well and truly ready. She had been fucking Clara much longer than usual, working her up into desperate need. Her long, deep, slow thrusts were punctuated by a roll of the hips which made Clara grasp at the bed sheets.
“Make me come, make me come. I can’t take it any longer,” Clara said desperately.
Harry groaned in pleasure. That was all she needed to hear. Clara was a feisty, enthusiastic lover, and hearing her beg gave her almost as much pleasure as an orgasm.
Harry began to hasten her thrusts dramatically. They both groaned as they raced towards the edge. Harry pumped her hips into Clara a few more times until she heard the telltale sounds of Clara’s impending orgasm and finally allowed herself to let go. She threw her head back and thrust all the frustrations of the day out into one long release.
They collapsed onto the bed and rolled apart, gasping for breath. There was no hugging or holding each other, that was not Harry’s way, and those she met for casual sex knew the rules well. She had known Clara for the longest and she was the woman who could claim to be closer to Harry than the rest.
“That was inspired,” Clara said, running a fingernail around the tattoo on Harry’s biceps.
Harry was still regaining her breath but already thinking about making her way out the door. “I aim to please.” She clutched at Clara’s hand and pulled it away from her arm. “No touching, Clara. You know how this works.”
“You’re such a bore, Harry.” Clara sat up in bed and lit a cigarette. “Not the usual way to spend the evening of one’s father’s funeral.”
That was Harry’s cue to go. She didn’t want to talk any more than she had to about him, especially with Clara. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood, took off the strap-on she was wearing, and threw it on the bed.
“On the contrary. It is the perfect way to spend the evening after my bastard of a father’s funeral. No one will miss him, least of all me.”
She pulled on her boxers and the black suit trousers that she’d worn to the funeral, and gathered her white shirt and black tie.
“So? How does it feel to go from Lady Henrietta Knight, Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge, digging up your dusty Roman artefacts, to Countess of Axedale?” Clara asked.
Harry finished doing up her buttons and gave her a smile. “It feels wonderful to get my father’s grubby hands off the estate before he destroyed it, but I will always be Dr. Knight. I’m only taking a year’s sabbatical from Cambridge. Just enough time to get the estate back on its feet and restore the house to its former glory.”
Harry put on her designer suit jacket, her tie still peeking out of her pocket.
“One whole year in the country,” Clara said. “One whole year without your giggling students following you around, and falling into your bed. How will you cope, darling?”
“It’s only Kent, Clara, not the back of beyond. I can come back to London to enjoy…some female company whenever I wish. In any case it’s not much to give one year of my life to fulfil a promise to my grandfather. I restore the house and its grounds, and I know he will be looking down on me with a smile on his face.”
“What about your mother?”
Harry gave an ironic laugh and picked up her watch from the bedside table. “My mother would dance on my father’s grave if she could. She’s released from all obligations now. She tells me she’s going to Monaco to recover.”
She picked up her smartphone and was ready to go, but Clara reached out to touch her hand. “You fuck me and leave more quickly every time. I could feel used, you know.”
Harry couldn’t help but laugh. “Of course I use you, as you do me and all the other lovers you have.”
Clara gave an exaggerated sigh. “Perhaps if I could cheer myself up with a little shopping, I wouldn’t feel so used.”
There it was. The real cost of no-strings sex with Clara. Harry took out her wallet. “How much?”
Clara put on her little-girl look that Harry suspected got her anything she wanted from most of the people she shared her bed with. “Well there’s this darling little Chanel handbag at Harvey Nichols, but Daddy keeps telling me I need to stop spending so much. He’s put a limit on my credit card.”
Harry sighed and pulled some notes out of her wallet. “Just tell me how much. I’m driving down to Axedale Hall right now.”
“Twelve hundred pounds? It’s not that much really.”
Harry threw some notes on the bed. “I don’t carry that much cash. Here’s three hundred, I’ll transfer you the rest from my bank.”
Clara grabbed the money and kissed it. “Thank you. You are the best, darling.”
As Harry walked out of the door, Clara shouted, “Oh, and remember, when you’re playing at being lord of the manor, don’t get any maids from below stairs into trouble.”
It had been some time since Harry had driven down these long and winding country roads of Kent, heading towards the small village of Axedale. The late July sun filtering through the trees did make the rural scene beautiful, but the place of her birth filled her with such mixed emotions. It was where she’d spent time with her beloved grandfather, but also was home to the man she hated absolutely, the father she had buried today.
She looked into the driver’s mirror of her Aston Martin and gave herself a smile. “He’s gone, and Axedale Hall is mine.”
Harry saw the entrance gates up ahead and turned off the road. She drove on for a few minutes through the large estate grounds before she saw the house come into view. She stopped the car and took off her sunglasses.
The large English Baroque country house looked dilapidated and unloved, but still had the same charm and beauty that her grandfather Henry had taught her to appreciate.
“I’ll bring her back from the dead, Grandpa. You’ll never know Father had his grubby mitts on the place.”
Annie Brannigan stepped out of the taxi and gazed up at the huge and imposing Axedale Hall. Not only was the house large, but going by how long it took the taxi to arrive at the front door after entering the wrought-iron entrance gates, the estate must be vast.
The frontage was imposing to say the least. Two sets of stone steps led off from the left and right, up to the grand entrance. Six pillars supported a grand portico onto which the family crest was engraved, with a Latin inscription below it.
She had never worked as housekeeper in such a large home before, and even though she knew the owner only lived in one wing of the house at the moment, it was going to be a big undertaking.
“Wow, Mum. It’s huge.”
Annie looked down at her ten-year-old daughter with her beautiful honey-coloured hair so much like her own and smiled. “It is, sweetie.”
As ever, Riley had a book in her hand, learning everything she could about everything they ever did together. She knew Riley hated moving schools because of her agency job, but she had been so excited at the prospect of living in this ancient playground, as she saw it.
“It says here that the Knight family came to England with the Norman invasion in 1066.”
Annie pulled Riley in to her side for a hug. “Let’s hope the current countess isn’t as terrifying as them.”
The taxi driver started to get their bags from the boot of the car.
“Oh, and guess what?” Riley said, nearly bursting with excitement.
Annie chuckled softly. “I can’t wait to hear.”
“The Romans were here…in Axedale. There’s a Roman bathhouse we can visit.”
Riley had always been fascinated by the Roman Empire, since she’d covered the topic at school—so different from other ten-year-old kids. From then on she’d devoured books on the subject. That’s what made her daughter so special.
Annie paid the taxi and it drove off down the large drive leaving them standing at the bottom of the steps that led up to the front door. “You lift the smaller ones, Riley, and I’ll come back for the bigger ones.”
She struggled up the steps with a flight bag hanging around her neck and two heavy suitcases. She dropped them by the door and tried to get her breath back. Just then her attention was caught by a group of workmen standing around the bottom of a scaffold that extended down the east wing of the house. They were only a few hundred yards away and looking at some kind of plans while talking to another labourer sitting on the first level of scaffolding above them.
Annie was close enough to see she was a woman, and a tall, strong woman at that, wearing worn, ragged jeans, a T-shirt, and an equally well-worn baseball cap, with a black-ink tattoo on her right biceps. She’s gorgeous. I’ve got some eye candy at least.
“Mum? Are you listening?”
“What? Sorry, sweetie.” She looked up and saw that another workman in yellow jacket and hard hat had opened the front door. “Can I help you, miss?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m the countess’s new housekeeper, Annie Brannigan, and this is my daughter Riley.”
“Oh, that’s right, Lady Harry did tell us to watch out for you. I’ll take you down to the kitchen and tell the countess you’re here. The indoor staff aren’t working today.”
When they walked into the entrance hall both she and Riley let out a gasp. The marble-pillared hall must have been about sixty feet wide, with Greco-Roman busts and statues inset to the walls at regular intervals around the room. At the far end of the room were archways which she presumed led to a grand staircase.
“This is so cool, Mum.” Riley’s voice echoed off the high ceiling. The wide-open space was too tempting for the ten-year-old, and she dropped her bag and set off at a run.
“Riley, be careful.”
“It’s okay, miss,” the workman said, “it has a big effect on everyone when they first see it. I’m David, by the way, project manager of the refurbishment work.”
Annie smiled and shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, David.”
“You’re going to have a huge job trying to get this place in order, Annie. There hasn’t been a housekeeper here since I arrived, and the cleaners that come in from the village don’t seem to keep the place too clean.”
She looked around the huge room and saw, on second glance, that as magnificent as it all looked, it was extremely dirty. A thick blanket of dust and cobwebs covered the statues and decoration. “Well that’s what I’m here for. Hard work doesn’t frighten me.”
Riley raced back to her side. “I love it here, Mum.”
In all her postings, she had never seen Riley as excited as this. It looked like her stay here was going to be one big adventure.
David left the suitcases at the bottom of the main staircase and led them along a corridor and down stairs. “It’s just down here.”
She walked into the large kitchen. “Oh, my.” She hadn’t expected it to be tidy but the sight that greeted her was awful. It was a complete tip.
The workmen had been using it to make tea and heat up instant food snacks, pizzas, and other takeaway foods. The rubbish and endless stacks of dirty teacups strewn across the kitchen table and work surfaces were bad enough, but it looked like the kitchen hadn’t been cleaned in fifty years. The floor was sticky and disgusting, and the cupboards that held the pots and tablewear were caked in dust.
“If you want to make a cuppa for yourself, I’ll go and get the countess,” David said before heading back upstairs.
Thanks but no thanks. She wouldn’t have eaten or drunk a thing in this place but supposed the workmen were less discerning.
The kitchen was dominated by an enormous wooden table. Annie could imagine it would have been a hive of activity in the past, with cooks, maids, and footmen going back and forth with beautiful dishes of food and drinks.
She walked to the back of the kitchen and popped her head around a door there and discovered the scullery, where clothes would be washed, and further on through it looked like there was an adjoining boot room.
Riley came running over, practically bursting with delight. “Mum, I looked down the corridor outside the kitchen and found a butler’s room and housekeeper’s room. They have plaques on the doors. Can you imagine, you get your own special room?”
Excitement wasn’t an emotion Annie was feeling at the moment. The sheer enormity of her task hit her full square in the face. This house was a relic from the past, a sleeping giant that took a great deal of staff to tackle, and now here she was, one woman taking it all on herself.
“This is going to be a hard job, Riley. Let’s get started.”
“Mum, I’ve found a cupboard with brushes and cleaning stuff, but there are cobwebs everywhere.” Riley gesticulated wildly with her arms. “There might be a tarantula or something.”
“Tarantula? Really?” Annie smiled and lowered a pile of dusty plates onto the kitchen table. “Well why don’t you put all the rubbish in the bin for me then, and we’ll get the other things out when we’re settled.” She looked down at the mess the plates had made of the front of her white blouse and black skirt and sighed. “Why didn’t I get my apron first?”
She was sure it was in her holdall that sat just outside the kitchen. She walked quickly towards the door, smacked right into a tall, solid body coming through at the same time, and was knocked to the floor.
“Are you okay?” Riley rushed to her side.
Annie looked up and smiled when she saw the good-looking builder from outside. “You’ve swept me off my feet,” Annie joked, but the woman above her did not crack a smile. In fact she looked rather annoyed.
“You need to be more careful—there’s a lot of dangerous work going on here.” She extended her hand and pulled Annie up.
The posh upper-class accent that came out of her mouth surprised Annie greatly, but even more shocking was the surly attitude she had. “It was just an accident. I’m waiting on the countess. Do you know if she’s coming? I’m the new housekeeper.”
The builder crossed her arms and looked at her with hard, steady grey eyes. “I am Henrietta Knight, Countess of Axedale, but I prefer to be called Harry.”
Annie’s stomach fell to her toes. She closed her eyes and prayed that when she opened them again, Lady Axedale—Harry?—would be gone, and she hadn’t really smashed face first into her new employer.
She opened them and, sure enough, there was the countess. “Do excuse me, my lady. I had no idea who you were. I…”
How could she have been expected to spot a countess dressed up as a good-looking butch in worn jeans, muddy work boots, and baseball cap? It wasn’t fair at all.
As her words died in her mouth, she felt Riley sneak to her side. “I…was going to get my apron out of my bag. It is a bit dusty in there.”
“You’ll have no need of it as you won’t be staying,” Harry said harshly.
“What do you mean? The agency—”
“I asked your agency for a live-in housekeeper, not a family. If you’ll just get your things together and ready to leave, I’ll telephone your agency to ask for a replacement, and I’m sure they’ll give you another assignment.”
Annie was shocked. She’d worked for some bad-tempered, surly clients, but no one had ever had this reaction to her and Riley before.
“It’s Harry. I already told you.”
Annie was getting angry now. “There’s no need for rudeness, Harry. My daughter is ten years old and is no bother to anyone. She can sleep in my room if you can’t spare another.”
“It is not a question of space. We have many and precious artefacts and antiques around Axedale Hall. It is not the place for a child. I’m sure your agency will find you a more suitable post. You may stay here until I contact them.”
Harry turned and marched away to make the phone call.
“Please?” Annie called after her.
But the countess didn’t turn around.
“Mum? What are we going to do? She doesn’t want us here. I’ve left my old school and everything. Tell her I won’t touch anything, I promise.”
Annie held her daughter tight and kissed her softly on the head. “Don’t worry, I’ll sort it out. I always do.”
This was not her usual reception. As one of the most sought after housekeepers on the agency’s books, her employers were usually happy to retain her services. If she and Riley stayed, the Countess of Axedale was going to be a difficult woman to subdue.
Harry sat at her ornate wooden desk in her wood-panelled study getting increasingly frustrated with every passing second as she spoke with Annie’s agency on the phone.
“That is not acceptable, Mrs. Hendry. I’m refurbishing one of England’s oldest stately homes, a home with priceless artwork, artefacts, period features, and you send me a woman with a ten-year-old to run amok amongst them?”
“I can assure you, Lady Axedale, we’ve never had any complaints about Ms. Brannigan or her daughter, and in fact she is the most popular housekeeper we have. There’s usually a waiting list for her services.”
Harry sighed. “That may be, but Ms. Brannigan is entirely unsuitable for my home and my life. I value my privacy and a child running around the place would be inconvenient.”
“If that is your wish, m’lady. I could have a replacement for you in…eight to ten weeks.”
“Eight to ten weeks? You must have someone available before then?”
“I’m sorry, Lady Axedale, but all our staff have placements at the moment. Ms. Brannigan had just become available again and that’s why we were able to send her at short notice.”
Harry let her head fall back against her leather chair, pulled off her trusty baseball cap, and threw it on the desk. The east wing of the house, the wing she lived in, had become a complete mess. It wasn’t pleasant to work hard all day in the grime and mess of the refurbishment area, and return to equally messy living quarters. The two women who came in from the village to clean were far from experienced and didn’t seem to be able to cope with the work needed. A live-in housekeeper was essential.
Mrs. Hendry punctuated the silence by saying, “You are free to try a different agency of course, but I doubt you will find one with such a good reputation and discreet workers.”
Harry thought of her most prized possession, a Roman sword bought from an antiquities dealer by her grandfather, which sat pride of place in the centre of the library, vulnerable to a child’s hands. And she thought of her need for clean clothes and food every day. Having never done her own laundry or cooking in her whole life before, she’d had many accidents while trying to take care of herself.
The decision was made. “Well it seems as if I have no choice, Mrs. Hendry, but I will be giving them strict rules for staying in the house, and I want you to contact me as soon as you have a replacement.” Harry ended the call and threw her smartphone on the desk. She hated to be forced into anything in her life, but what choice did she have?
“A bloody child? Well, Ms. Brannigan, you’d better keep her under control or there will be trouble.”
Annie struggled to keep up as Harry marched ahead of them up the ornate staircase to the back of the magnificent entrance hall. The marble theme continued with a few evenly spaced alcoves housing similar Greco-Roman statues, and four finely upholstered chairs at the half landing area.
She must be strong, thought Annie. She took a breath at the landing while Harry continued to climb effortlessly with two of their heaviest cases. At least she would get fitter in her new role.
But the most important thing was that she and Riley were allowed to stay. Annie had no idea what Mrs. Hendry had said to Harry, but when she returned and said they could stay for the time being, she made a promise to give Mrs. Hendry a hug the next time she saw her.
As they trudged up the stairs, Harry barked out orders like a sergeant major. “Your daughter is not to touch anything. Any breakages will come out of your wages. You both may feel free to use the grounds as you will, but do not distract or talk to my refurbishment team. They have a great deal of work to do and only a year to accomplish it.”
Harry came to a stop between two bedroom doors. She dropped the cases unceremoniously and said, “These will be your rooms. The servants’ quarters in the west wing are not refurbished as yet, so you’ll need to make do with these two family rooms. I will warn you, they are neither clean nor are the beds made, so you will have to take care of that.”
Riley took hold of Annie’s hand clearly needing a bit of reassurance. Harry opened the door on the right and pointed in, “This will be your room, Ms. Brannigan…or is it Mrs.?”
“Ms.,” Annie said pointedly. She was sure she could see a ripple of interest or amusement in Harry’s eyes at that response. She clearly liked to be challenged, but Annie was sure few ever did.
“Of course, Ms. Brannigan. This is the green bedroom.”
Annie could feel Riley squeeze her tighter in repose to the tension in the air. She peeked into the room and saw the most beautiful old oak four-poster bed, with green drapes embroidered with gold and light green walls with beautiful painted birds and trees. It was a bright, open room, and she could only imagine what the view from the window was like.
“It’s a lovely room, thank you.” She smiled, but Harry’s face remained stern.
“Your room has a connecting door through to your daughter’s room on the left.”
It irritated Annie that Harry couldn’t even return a smile. Even if she wasn’t pleased with them being in her house, she could at least display some manners. “And where is your bedroom, Harry?”
Harry stood up straighter and asked in a higher pitched voice, “My bedroom?”
“Yes, of course. How else do you expect me to pick up your laundry and change your bed?”
Annie was sure she was onto something when she saw Harry search her face questioningly. Her employer couldn’t work her out by the looks of it, and Annie liked it just like that.
But instead of a sharp retort, Harry pointed to the end of the hallway, and said in a compliant voice, “It’s just down at the end.”
“Wonderful. You can leave us to settle in then. Was there anything else you wished to tell us? Any other rules or…?”
Harry looked confused. She had lost control of the conversation and wasn’t quite sure how to respond by the looks of it.
Annie had worked with all sorts of challenging clients, aristocrats like Harry, pop stars, movie stars, business people, and politicians, but she had always managed to find a way of making them calmer and more malleable. That was why she was the best at what she did, and the most popular and most sought after employee with her agency.
Mrs. Hendry said she should have been a psychologist instead of a housekeeper, but she had simply always been good at reading people’s emotions, and it came in handy.
“I’ll go and rejoin my refurb team and…leave you to it,” Harry said gruffly.
As Annie watched her walk away she thought, I’ll work out how you tick, Henrietta, Countess of Axedale and have you house-trained in no time.
“Come on, sweetie,” she said to Riley. “Let’s get ourselves settled.”
Riley sat on her bed and held her head in her hands. She always felt sad when her mother started a new assignment and she had to leave friends she had only just made at school, but this time she had consoled herself that this new place would be exciting.
She loved history and reading about it, and thought she would have lots of fun exploring the house and the grounds. Instead she couldn’t wait to leave. The countess was scary and didn’t want her here, and wouldn’t even look at her.
She stood up and went for a look around her new quarters. It was a grand room with yellow, gold, and white striped wallpaper, with a few landscape paintings hanging on the walls. The bed was a smaller version of the one in her mother’s room, except colour-coordinated with the yellow walls, and a marble fireplace was a main feature of the room.
In the corner of the room, there was a desk, shelving, and a bookcase, and a large cork noticeboard on the wall. On the noticeboard were a few posters of Roman-themed films and gladiators from computer games. There were lots of history books on the shelves—more particularly, Roman history. Then she spotted something really interesting on the desk. She picked up a folder with plastic sleeves and little pockets. “This is amazing.”
The pockets were full of coins, old worn coins. It was difficult to tell what period they were from as they were so worn, but on a few she could see an emperor with a crown of laurel leaves. Roman, they’ve got to be.
Whoever stayed in this room loved Roman history, just as she did. As she flicked through the pockets of coins, she could hear the countess’s words ringing in her ears: Do not let your child touch anything.
With a sigh she put down the plastic folder and went back to sit on the bed. The last thing she wanted was to get her mum into trouble.
The connecting door to her mother’s room opened and she came in. “How is your room, sweetie?”
Riley looked down at her toes and just shrugged.
Annie hurried over and knelt down beside her. “Riley? What’s wrong?”
She needn’t have asked. Deep down, Annie knew what the problem was.
Every time they had to move, she felt more and more guilty. She had joined the housekeeping agency five years ago, and in that time, they’d had to move once, sometimes twice a year, and every time Riley had to leave school friends and make new ones, which she had found more and more difficult as she got older. Annie knew from her conversations with Riley’s teachers that she was becoming increasingly isolated, not fitting in with the already formed groups of friends. Over the last year or so, she’d started to not even try to make friends.
Annie’s logical mind told her that she had no choice, that this was the best life she could provide her daughter. By serving the rich and sometimes famous clients her agency dealt with, Riley got to live in safe, affluent areas, and attend better schools, better than Annie’d ever had when she was young.
And that’s what drove her, to give Riley everything she never had.
“I know it’s always hard to move somewhere new.”
“She hates me, hates kids. How can we stay here, Mum?” Riley said angrily as the tears spilled from her eyes.
Annie sighed. How could she explain to a child that their way of life was so much better than the alternative? She cupped Riley’s cheek and used her thumb to wipe away her tears. “Lady Harry doesn’t hate you. She’s just not used to being around children. She’ll come around. I promise.”
Riley looked up at her with wide hopeful eyes. “You think so, Mum?”
“I know so.” She stroked her daughter’s cheek. “You are such an adorable girl, she’ll have no choice but to like you. Now why don’t you get your suitcase open and I’ll get some clothes hangers from the wardrobe.”
Annie breathed a sigh of relief when Riley gave her a small smile and got up to empty her case. She stood and surveyed the room. It was a bigger bedroom than Riley was used to. The decoration was grand, as in her room, but there were a lot of books in the bookcase that she was sure Riley would enjoy—although the film posters seemed out of place.
I wonder whose room this was? “Did you see all the books, Riley? Someone likes Roman history like you.”
“Yeah, and there’s a coin collection in a folder over there. I only looked quickly, I know Lady Harry doesn’t want to me to touch anything.”
She smiled and gave Riley’s short ponytail a tug. “Relax, sweetie. Don’t worry.”
Riley handed her some shirts and jeans, and said, “Mum, on TV, big houses like this usually have great libraries. Do you think she might let me use hers?”
“I’m sure. I’ll ask her if she stops scowling long enough,” she joked. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Riley gave her a huge hug. “Thanks, Mum.”
When Riley went back to unpacking, Annie opened the wardrobe and was surprised to find posters of glamour models, actresses, and pop stars tacked to the inside of the doors.
Annie chuckled to herself. Aha. We have someone who likes Roman history but loves to look at beautiful women…
Harry sat at her desk typing on her laptop with various texts by her side. As much as she enjoyed the hard manual work of restoring her family home during the day, she loved getting time to herself at night to work on her first love, Roman history.
During her yearlong sabbatical from Cambridge, she had committed to writing her second book on the Roman occupation of Britain. Excavating new Roman sites both here and abroad was what she loved best, but researching and writing was a nice change of pace.
There was a knock at her study door. “Come in,” she called out.
The oak door creaked as it slowly opened and Ms. Brannigan walked in. “Could I have a word, Harry?”
Harry sat back in her seat, confident and relaxed. She always liked to make it clear who was in control. “Of course, Ms. Brannigan. You may sit.”
“I prefer to stand, thank you,” Annie said with an equally confident smile.
Something inside Harry jarred, and her self-assurance was disrupted for a second or two. This was happening each time she spoke to Annie, and she didn’t like it. This was not how her game was played, especially with women. She could always have them eating out of her hand with a few words or even a look. And she knew how people reacted to her. Men were intimidated or impressed by her intelligence and station in life, and women were putty in her hands with her looks and charm, and commanding attitude. Clearly with Ms. Brannigan she would have to try another angle.
She crossed her legs nonchalantly and simply looked at Annie, hoping her silent gaze would unnerve her. Her eyes caressed Annie’s curves, which she could see despite the slightly unflattering shape of the black tunic she wore on top, with white collar and edging. That along with her sensible black skirt and ballet flats were weirdly sexy on Annie, but the only jewellery she wore were a pair of gold stud earrings and a crucifix around her elegant throat.
Annie was a beautiful woman. Not like the glamorous women she normally mixed with. No, she had a simple, natural beauty, but there was something else about her that made her ever more attractive. Harry couldn’t work out what it was, but what most unsettled her were Annie’s eyes. She held her gaze with confidence, not with a penetrating stare like her own, but with an open warmth that made her feel emotionally naked and defenceless.
Harry knew she would have to up her game, because apart from being an archaeologist and a Romanist, women were her specialist subject, and Ms. Brannigan, a little different from the usual aged housekeepers, was not going to get the upper hand with her.
Annie lifted her notepad and pen and said, “I wanted to find out your daily routine, your likes and dislikes—”
“Where is your child?” Harry said sharply.
“Her name is Riley, and she’s unpacking her things.”
“Riley? A strange name for a girl, isn’t it?”
“Oh? Do you think so, Harry?”
Harry couldn’t help but smile at that reply. It was clear she was going to enjoy these verbal tussles between them. “Point taken. To answer your question, I have simple tastes, Ms. Brannigan, but I like things done well and to my specifications. Why don’t we walk while we talk? I was remiss in showing you around.”
Harry walked over to open the door and indicated for Annie to go first. “Shall we?”
“If you want. Call me Annie, by the way.”
“Annie?” She tested out the name and liked the way it sounded. “Come this way, Annie.”
“My father lived his last years in the east wing, so it didn’t need too much attention except to check the electrics and central heating system. I had that done before I arrived at Axedale. The rest is just cleaning and cosmetic.”
Annie had difficulty keeping up with Harry’s long stride but was determined not to show it. Their footsteps echoed on the old wooden flooring as they walked down the corridor leading from Harry’s office, which she guessed led to the vast marble entrance.
“We’ve painted here and there, and polished the floors. Nothing too drastic.”
The house might have been a bit dusty and dirty but the decor did look beautiful. The walls of the corridor were decorated in period red wallpaper embossed with gold to match the gold-painted cornicing.
“It looks like you’ve done a great job.”
Annie’s heavy breathing must have caught Harry’s attention because she slowed until she was by Annie’s side.
“You’re going to have to get those little legs of yours fitter to work here.” Harry gave her a smug smile that aggravated Annie no end.
“I’m fit enough to take care of anything you might need me to, believe me.”
She saw whatever witty retort was forming in Harry’s head die away after that reply and her trademarked serious facial expression returned.
They arrived in the vast entrance hall and Harry stopped in the middle of the space. “This is what I’m most proud of, I think. It’s the most impressive part of the house, and a gateway to all the other rooms.”
Annie looked around with the same awe as she had when she first walked in. “It is truly stunning. Did you have a lot of work to do in this part?”
“No, this part my father actually did keep in good repair, since it was the main entrance to the house. Now, you have two maids that come in from the village twice a week to help you with the cleaning, and of course as more of the house opens up, I will have to engage more staff to work with you—if you’re still here and I find your work satisfactory of course.”
“And if I find your employment satisfactory. I haven’t said I’ll stay yet,” Annie said without missing a beat.
“You’re awfully confident for a housekeeper under my employ.”
“I’m confident in my work and its worth. I can turn this house around and make it a home, if I’m allowed to.”
Harry scowled and took a step into her personal space. “I don’t want a home. I want to discharge a promise to my grandfather to restore the house to its former glory and return to my teaching post at Cambridge.”
“Everyone needs a home, Harry, no matter where life takes them.”
“And where is your home, Annie?”
“My home is with Riley. We don’t have a place to call home yet, but we will…one day.”
Harry walked on and led her around all the rooms that she would be taking care of, and she began to see the enormity of the job. There was so much to do, and when she met the staff from the village they would need to come up with a plan of action.
She was led down a stone staircase to a lower part of the house. “At the end of the corridor is the poolroom. It’s still having some cosmetic repair but it won’t take long.”
They walked through a stone archway at the end of the corridor and Annie gasped. The swimming pool was empty of water at the moment, but that didn’t diminish the room. It gave the impression that you had stepped into a cave hewn from the bedrock below the house. “This is beautiful.”
“Thank you. My grandfather had it designed to resemble a Roman bathhouse. It’s always been one of my favourite rooms.”
She could see why. The pillared walls were covered in Roman mosaic tiles with depictions of gods and goddesses that she couldn’t identify. “Are these gods?”
Harry leaned back against one of the pillars and crossed her arms. “Yes, the female is the Romano-British water goddess Sulis Minerva. The Romans already had their own water goddess Minerva when they arrived, and the Celts had Sulis. So instead of imposing a new goddess on a conquered populace, they put the two together to embody both cultures in one.”
Annie looked at Harry and smiled. “Clever.”
Harry pushed away from the pillar and stalked towards her with a smoky look in her eyes. “The Romans were always clever. They came, they saw, and they conquered, but they had one final trick up their sleeve.”
She was standing just a step too far into Annie’s personal space, and she could see that Harry would be a difficult person to resist if you interested her.
“Oh? What was that?”
Her heart started to thud when Harry reached out and touched her crucifix. She then trailed her finger down to the first button of her tunic, and then used an open hand to stroke the side of her face. “Hearts and minds, Annie. If you win someone’s heart and mind, you can get them to do anything.” Harry’s voice was thick with sexual innuendo, but Annie was determined to remain cool.
“Some people aren’t that easily swayed.”
The tension between them broke when Harry laughed at her words. “In my experience, most people are, but we can agree to disagree.” She took a few steps back and pointed up. “If you’ll look up to the ceiling you’ll see a painting depicting the birth of Venus from an oyster shell. It’s a stunning view when you are floating on your back in the water.”
Annie laughed softly. “I can imagine.”
“It shouldn’t be long till it’s finished. Feel free to use it—your daughter too of course.”
“Thank you.” Riley would love to swim down here.
“Shall we?” Harry indicated for her to go first, and all the way back upstairs she was sure she could feel Harry’s eyes on her body.
They ended the tour in the kitchen, and Annie got her notepad to record Harry’s daily routine. “What do you prefer for breakfast?”
“I don’t eat breakfast. I require only that you bring me coffee in the morning at six thirty.”
“You don’t eat anything? How can you possibly work—?”
“That is all I require Annie, so please do as I say. At lunch I like something simple such as soup and bread,” Harry said sharply.
Annie noted that down and asked, “And your team?”
“What about them?”
“What do your team do for lunch?”
Harry looked at her as if that was a stupid question. “I don’t know. They bring food with them or walk to the village for food at the pub.”
Annie realized there was a lot that needed to be done to make things right here and she was just the woman to do it. “What time would you like dinner served?”
“I don’t need dinner, just a sandwich at seven o’clock with coffee”
“You want a sandwich for dinner?” Annie looked at Harry’s sturdy, tall body and wondered how she could survive on what she ate daily.
“I’m researching and writing a book in the evenings, so I need something I can eat quickly. I find food a distraction in general that keeps me back from the tasks I need to accomplish.”
She couldn’t help but sigh at Harry’s reply. It was clear that she was starved both physically and emotionally if she thought food was an inconvenience. It seemed as if her life was as run-down and full of cobwebs as the house she was trying to rescue.
“Very well. Do you have an account at the village shop?”
“Yes, of course. They do send a box of food every Friday. It has been enough for me alone, but I would guess you will require more.”
“Yes, I saw the box of food in the kitchen, and yes, I will need more.” The box had been full of junk food and loaves of bread, obviously for the countess’s sandwich each evening. She didn’t think she had come across such a poorly stocked kitchen or someone in such need of taking care of as Harry, in her five years of housekeeping.
“Is there anything else you think I need to know?”
“Yes, the vicar will be dining with me every Monday.”
“I’ll take care of that. Is there anything you don’t like, foodwise?”
“No, I’ll eat anything. As I said, food isn’t really important to me. Oh, before I forget, you have use of a car. I’ll get the keys for you.”
Annie finished writing her notes and thought perhaps now was the time to ask about the library. “Could I have your permission for my daughter to use your library?”
Harry said nothing but looked at her intently. “Why would a ten-year-old be interested in the kinds of books I have in my library?”
“Riley is…well she’s different from most girls her age. She isn’t interested in pop bands or film stars, she loves reading everything—science books and encyclopaedias—and her favourite subject is history, especially Roman history. She will be so happy to lose herself in a library like yours.”
Harry’s expression was stony.
“Would that be all right?”
“I have precious artefacts on display in the library.”
“I promise she won’t touch anything. She’s a good girl.”
“It’s strange,” Harry said with a puzzled expression on her face.
“I told you I was an archaeologist? I’m also a Romanist. I specialize in Roman history.”
“That is a coincidence.” Annie thought about Riley’s room upstairs, and its interest in all things Roman but with the secret pictures of beautiful women. Could Harry have given Riley her own teenage room?
“You both may use it, but if she breaks anything…”
“Don’t worry, I know, but it will just be Riley who uses it. I only read romance novels and I doubt you have many of those among your leather-bound volumes.”
Harry’s eyes narrowed. “You would be right. I don’t have any nonsense like that in my library.”
Annie decided not to respond to that remark. From the looks of it, the Countess of Axedale wouldn’t know love if it came up and hit her in the face.