December 1814, London
The townhouse was quiet. Sometimes this was how Dibbs liked it best, with no one in residence. Since the earl had retired to Kellington for the holidays as usual, Dibbs had sent most of the staff back to their families as well. Now he was in the warm and toasty kitchen polishing the silver. When he had been a boy, it was quiet times like this that his father had taught him everything about being a proper English butler. His father reigned supreme over Kellington, the earl’s seat south of London. Sometimes at the holidays Dibbs missed being with his family. But his first duty was to this household and his father had taught him too well for him to shirk his responsibility now.
Further, as he was now coming upon five and thirty it was past time that he consider taking a wife and having a son of his own to teach. He had almost married once. His polishing rag slowed as he considered how things might have turned out differently. What would that be like, he wondered, being tucked away here in London with a family of his own for the holidays? It would certainly lessen how much he missed being at Kellington for Christmas.
Lost in his own thoughts, he almost didn’t hear the knock at the back door. He tucked the last spoon back into the silver chest and closed it before going to attend to his visitor. As it was the back door he could be relatively certain it wasn’t anyone of consequence. If it were a beggar he would need to send them on their way because doling out handouts made them gather worse than cats. He opened the door to find a figure huddled on the step, covered in a thin cloak against the sleet that had started earlier in the day. The light outside had gone to a silvery grayness that denied the ability to tell what time it was, although Dibbs knew it had to be getting late in the afternoon. He was about to issue the order for the beggar to move along when the figure looked up at him, the movement causing the hood to slide back from her hair. He saw lovely yet sorrowful deep brown eyes and light chestnut hair in a simple plait coiled on top of her head. She struggled with one hand to reassert the hood as a covering to keep the sleet from her, while her other arm clutched something to her bosom. It took him a moment to push away the unexpected pang of pity he felt.
“Please, sir,” she said softly. “Any food or shelter you could offer would be a blessing.”
Dibbs felt a sinking in his chest. The bundle she held so protectively was most likely a babe. He would either hate himself for turning her away or hate himself for not doing so. If it were his own home he would never hesitate to offer aid to a young mother in such a state. But it was not his home. It was the earl’s home. As such it was not in his purview to offer the hospitality of his lord to every beggar who came calling. His moment of silent indecision seemed to be enough answer for her, as she silently nodded and backed down a step, pulling the hood further over her face.
He found that he couldn’t leave it like that. “Missus?”
Her gaze returned to his, filled with hope. “Miss Ashman, sir.”
The child had no father. He wasn’t sure if that increased or decreased his sympathy, but the young woman’s eyes continued to plead. “Is the babe…?” He wasn’t sure what he wanted to ask but her confused expression stopped him from forming a full sentence. After a moment, comprehension dawned on her face.
“Oh! Oh, no sir.” She pulled the cloak back from where she clutched it so closely, revealing a scrawny and quite miserable looking black kitten that meowed loudly in protest at the sleet. He saw her expression change again as she realized that perhaps pretending to have a child might have gained her more in the way of food or other provisions.
But to Dibbs, inherent honesty was far more valuable. Hoping he wouldn’t regret the decision, he stood to the side and held the door wider. “Come in.”
As she tentatively mounted the steps and crossed the threshold, she reminded him of the does that wandered the Kellington meadows. Shy, easily spooked, and ready to run at the slightest hint of danger.
* * *
Grace couldn’t believe her luck. After a week of living off scraps, being turned from doorways of what she had formerly thought of as friends, being chased and harassed, she might finally be warm again. Eat again. Although at what price she still wasn’t sure. The man seemed nice enough, but things weren’t always as they seemed. When he had first opened the door her heart had risen in hope, as so many of the homes hadn’t even answered her knock. Hope was a thing that couldn’t really be killed, it seemed. But then seeing him she had become unsure of his welcome. Tall, austere. In just his shirtsleeves and blue waistcoat he managed to look better dressed than many men of her acquaintance. His hair was dark, pulled back in a tidy queue. And his eyes. Sweet heavens, his eyes were the color of a cloudless summer day.
“May I take your cloak to dry it by the fire?” His voice was deep, smooth. She imagined he had asked that question countless times. She nodded and released her grip on the garment, planning to shrug out of it to hand to him, but he swiftly removed it and set to spreading it out on a chair near the fireplace. She hadn’t even felt him touch her. She doubted that a pickpocket could have removed it with as deft a skill. He indicated a chair at the table but near the fireplace. “Sit, please.”
She sat, holding the kitten close and running her fingers through its fur as it purred. Perhaps they were safe. Perhaps.
* * *
Dibbs set to making a tray. Sandwiches, biscuits, and a strongly brewed tea. The young woman looked soaked to the skin and was still shivering, even sitting close to the fire. It would be a wonder if she hadn’t caught her death. He hadn’t foreseen that by removing her cloak he revealed how much her wet dress clung to her. A finely made and fetching gown, in fact. Whatever her circumstances, she wasn’t a street beggar. Or at least wasn’t yet. As the wet cloth was distracting to him and undoubtedly uncomfortable for her, he would need to find something clean and dry for her to change into. He was now regretting sending absolutely every one of his maids, as well as the housekeeper, away for the remainder of the season. Yesterday it had felt magnanimous sending off the very last maid four days before Christmas so that she could see her parents. Now it felt dangerous. There should be another female in residence to make this young woman more comfortable. But it wasn’t as though he could turn her back out into the sleet simply because of a sense of propriety and he wasn’t comfortable entertaining her alone. He set the table for the two of them, focusing on the quiet efficiency of a duty he had been practicing since before he could remember. He poured her tea and set the tray of food on the table.
“Eat, Miss” he said simply.
Her soft voice ventured, “Thank you, Mister…?”
“Thank you, Mr. Dibbs.”
He took a bit of roast and chopped it into small pieces that he placed on a saucer. When he knelt to set the saucer near her feet he heard her sharp intake of breath, making him think that she didn’t like him being so close. “For the kitten,” he clarified.
As he backed away she nodded and set the cat down near the dish. The feline set to devouring the meat with a loud, rusty purr. He noted that Miss Ashman had placed some tidbits on her plate but hadn’t eaten yet, opting instead to sip at her tea.
“Please eat,” he encouraged. “I’ll be back very shortly.” With that he scooped up the silver chest to secure it before setting out to find her some dry clothing.