Robert Townley prides himself as an efficient and indispensible valet to Phillip, Duke of Bartlett. But when Robert is coerced into teaching the poor children at the duchess' chapel school, he’s out of his element. Thankfully, he has assistance from some of the other servants, including the prickly Miss Brown. Jeanne Brown is lady’s maid to the Duchess of Bartlett. She loves working with the children but can’t abide Robert’s lofty attitude toward them. She’d love to put him in his place — but she needs her job. When the duchess decides to hold the school’s Christmas party in her home, Robert and Jeanne must put aside their differences and work together to ensure that the holiday celebration goes off without a hitch. Will they be able to endure the partnership, or will their sparks ignite something more?
ROBERT TOWNLEY SWALLOWED, hoping to hide his discomfort. As valet to Phillip Peartree, Duke of Bartlett, he prided himself on being efficient and able to handle any emergency. He’d often used his resourcefulness to get his deaf master out of a jam. But right now his resourcefulness failed him.
The little boy looked up at him with wide eyes, waiting patiently for an answer to his question.
“Well, I, er, that is to say — that’s simply the way it’s done. There are two ways to write each letter, and you must learn them both.”
“This isn’t open for discussion, young man. You will do as you are told.”
The boy frowned and bowed his head over his slate.
Robert went on to the next student. He would rather be almost anywhere but inside the chapel of St. Paul’s Cathedral, instructing a group of ragtag ruffians how to read and write. But the little school was the duchess’ pet project, and what was important to the duchess was important to the besotted duke. In previous years, the former Lady Amelia Partridge had been the instructor in the makeshift school, and the duke had often come to help her. But the impending arrival of the family’s newest addition meant the duchess could not continue her work in the school.
“Please, Robert,” the duchess had implored him. “You’re the perfect instructor. You taught little Bertie Crabtree when his mother came here to work. I know you could help these children too.”
Blast. He’d hoped she’d forgotten about those tutoring sessions. He hadn’t minded working with little Bertie, but that was after the boy had been cleaned up. The child’s grammar was awful, but he had good manners, so he’d agreed. And it hadn’t been too awful. Bertie had been bright and eager to learn.
But having to stand close to so many dirty, bedraggled children — it was almost more than he could bear. If it weren’t for Jeanne, lady’s maid to the duchess, watching his every move, he’d be tempted to end the lessons early and stop at a nearby pub before returning to the townhouse. But the bothersome woman would definitely inform her mistress, and then he would be in trouble with the lady of the manor.
After determining the children’s abilities, they’d agreed to split the children into two groups. Jeanne instructed the younger students, and Robert took the older ones. The arrangement suited him just fine. He had no patience for whiny little brats.
Jeanne crossed over to his side of the room and stopped behind the urchin who’d questioned the need for upper and lower case letters. She whispered to him and patted his shoulder. The boy nodded and straightened his back and shoulders. How did she get him to work so willingly? Had she bribed him with an extra treat?
The boy — Andrew, if he recalled correctly — was bright enough, and he usually behaved appropriately. But his clothing was even dirtier and more threadbare than the rest of the children’s. It looked like he wore someone else’s castoffs and had taken them in just enough that they wouldn’t fall off his body. How did people live like that? The boy constantly sniffled, as if he was about to cry. He could use another coat to keep warm in the winter weather.
Having lived his entire life in the duke’s homes, Robert had heard plenty of discussions about the various societies Phillip’s mother and grandmother had promoted. Surely one charity or another could take care of this child’s clothing, or lack of it.
Still, he couldn’t help taking another glance at Andrew. Jeanne took a clean cloth and wiped it over the boy’s face. What had happened to him? A closer look at the boy’s hands and arms revealed more of the purplish spots. Bruises? Perhaps he’d taken a tumble. Little boys were always getting into scrapes. He’d certainly had his share, climbing trees and running about the Peartree estate with his master Phillip. Geoffrey Townley, valet to the Ninth Duke of Bartlett, had received permission to have his son live with him after his wife had died, and Robert and Phillip had grown up together. Later on, as young men, they’d gotten braver, exploring the sordid back streets of London, where proper gentlemen were not encouraged to go. Until that disastrous day…
“Mr. Townley, I believe everyone is finished with the writing assignment.” Jeanne’s voice cut into his thoughts, bringing him back to the present.
After the lessons, it was time for the treats. Robert distributed the napkins, and the students dutifully placed the cloth squares across their laps. He nodded when they waited patiently for the little sandwiches and cakes prepared by the cook at Bartlett Manor. Thank goodness the duchess had taught them some manners. He recalled the first time he’d observed the class with his master. Phillip had followed Lady Amelia Partridge, wondering why she’d been dressed so plainly, and discovered her running the little school. Back then the children had wolfed down their treats like heathens. Now, at least, they’d learned to take smaller bites, though they still made terribly annoying sounds as they chewed.
Jeanne didn’t seem bothered by their noises. In fact, she didn’t seem bothered by anything they did. She bent close to them, speaking to them quietly, even touching them. She’d brush a little girl’s curls out of her eyes, or hug a little boy when he got frustrated.
When he reached Andy, the boy didn’t reach for the napkin but shrank back as Robert placed it on his lap. His stiff posture remained until Robert had gone on to the next child. Odd. He believed in discipline, but he’d never raised a hand to any of them. Why would the boy be afraid of him?
Andy showed none of that fear when Jeanne followed with the sandwiches, but he stiffened again when Giles, the footman who’d come to assist them, distributed the dessert. Why would the boy have an aversion to the men, but not to Jeanne?
No matter. It was nearly time to pack up and leave. Then he could return to his comfortable, sensible world.
“Children, we seem to have a few treats left. Why don’t we have a contest? We’ll start with Mr. Townley’s students. The first to recite the entire prayer on the back of your horn book will receive an extra sandwich or scone.” Jeanne’s announcement was met first with silence then excited murmuring. But none of the children stood.
Except Andy. Hesitating, he slid off his chair. He kept his gaze down and shuffled his feet. Jeanne knelt in front of him and lifted his chin. She waited until he met her gaze then took his hands in hers.
“I know you can do it, Andy. Let’s show everyone else.”
In a halting voice so quiet Robert needed to lean forward to hear, the boy began. “Our Father…” His voice shook, and he paused. Jeanne kept his gaze, and the boy gained confidence. By the end, his volume had grown, and the shakiness had disappeared.
The other children listened patiently, and cheered when he finished.
“Excellent, Andy! Would you like another sandwich, or a scone?”
He puckered his brow. “Sandwich, please.”
Robert nodded his approval when the boy thanked Jeanne politely.
THE WALK BACK to the duke’s rented townhouse was rather quiet. A few years ago, the duke had sold his London home to defray the last of the debt his father had incurred. He and the duchess spent most of the summer and harvest time at Bartlett Manor, his estate in Lincolnshire, coming to London only during the months when the duke needed to fulfill his Parliamentary duties. Until her pregnancy, the duchess had spent her London time with the Ladies Literary Society and writing, in addition to teaching the poor children at the church school.
The group made an odd procession walking back to the townhouse. Robert and Jeanne took the lead, Giles and one of the maids behind them. Normally he would follow his master and mistress, but tonight, as an upper servant of the household, he led the way. He was half-tempted to offer his arm to Jeanne, but thought better of it. They weren’t a couple, and the people behind them weren’t their servants.
Still, the idea of being one half of a couple held a certain appeal. Curious. He’d never given any thought to marriage and a family for himself. Perhaps it was a passing fancy.