Excerpt from The Mistress Memoirs
At first glance Miss Kate Walcott fancied that the shadow stretched out across the far garden wall was the estate's gray tomcat waiting for a small creature to pass in the dark. It seemed to be hiding behind the branches of the sprawling birch tree to pounce. Kate shuffled her slippered feet through the grass, hoping to give the cat’s quarry a chance to escape.
"Go away," she whispered at the leafy branches. "I don't like to watch you catching things, or to hear you yowling for a mate. Cook feeds you so many table scraps that one day you’ll be caught by a dog. Why you behave so badly at night, I don’t understand. But I suppose on this estate, you aren’t the only one."
Strange. Malvolio didn't react to her voice. Maybe it wasn't a cat at all. Maybe it was a badger. Whatever it was had been watching her since the moment she'd slipped from the manor house to meet her friend at the garden gates. Could one of the children be playing a prank on her? The young devils delighted in scaring a scream from their governess.
"Get off the wall," she said again, staring uneasily at the gates.
Mr. Stanley Wilkes, the village apothecary's assistant, who was the young man she had an arrangement to meet, had not yet arrived. She grasped her ring of keys tightly in her palm. She counted Stanley as one in a dwindling population of villagers who defied convention to acknowledge Kate or her employer in public. Stanley treated her with respect and not the contempt she'd come to expect when she explained what she did for a living.
"Stanley?" she called uncertainly even though she couldn't see or hear him in the driveway that led to the gates. But that shadow upon the wall had stirred. And by the sound of its movement it was much larger than a cat.
She wondered if something had prevented Stanley from meeting her tonight. This was the third time he'd concocted a brew to ease the chest colds that often afflicted the two youngest children in Kate's care. Stanley claimed it was a mercy that Kate hadn't taken ill yet. She explained that she couldn’t afford the time to lie abed. Everyone depended on her. Moreover, Kate’s employer distrusted surgeons and would not allow one in the house.
But Kate and Stanley had not openly discussed her position. He seemed to understand that just because Kate had fallen on reduced circumstances and worked as a companion to a courtesan, as well as governess to her offspring, did not mean Kate practiced the world’s oldest profession herself. Often she feared it was a matter of time.
From the corner of her eye she glimpsed a long shadow on the grass. A shadow that appeared much longer and moved with more stealth than a cat or child. Her heart missed several beats.
She listened to the night. She recognized the muted cries of male voices drifting from the stables on the edge of the estate. The stable boys and servants might be gambling or boxing again, which meant she’d be tending black eyes and bloody noses later on as well as two sick children. Splendid. There went any chance of sleep.
She stepped around the rose bower and called toward the stables, “Lovitt? Lovitt, if you and the others are fighting -- ”
She swung around, her ring of keys slipping to the grass. She heard footsteps, distant but definitely advancing. She peered down at her feet. Lovitt was the manor house’s under groom who hoped to be promoted when the master returned. He was a cocksure young man, but she wouldn’t mind his company right now.
“Stanley!” she called in the direction of the gates. “Where are you?”
He didn’t answer. But all of a sudden the gates shuddered and groaned as if a demon were demanding entrance. She fell to the grass that bordered the path, searching frantically for the keys.
“Kate!” his frantic voice called through the clanking echo of iron.
“Stanley, where are you?”
“I’m hiding beside the damned gates! You were supposed to leave them unlocked for me!”
“I’ve lost the keys here in the garden,” she answered in relief, glancing up from the lawn. She could see the pale glint of his hair. “I’ll only be a moment.”
“We don’t have a moment!” he cried. “You have to let me in now. A small crowd of drunks at the pub have decided to cause trouble for your mistress tonight.”
Kate turned her head, her spine prickling. It wasn’t her imagination. There had been a person hiding behind the birch branches that grew onto the garden wall. Was it one of the troublemakers from the village, or merely another of Madam’s would-be customers? Either way, he would not receive a warm welcome. It would have been helpful if she’d brought a lamp out to expose him.
It would have been even more helpful if her employer’s new protector had waited for the ink to dry on their contract before he rushed off to business in Southampton instead of leaving his concubine and her dependants unguarded in a backward hamlet where spitting on a Sunday was considered a mortal sin.
Then again it would have been even better if Georgette had chosen a respectable means of support. Still, Kate was dedicated to her immoral mistress and devoted to her children. Georgette had redeemed Kate from ruin when society had branded her an outcast. If not for Georgette’s income, from her willingness to sleep with wealthy patrons, Kate would have landed in the poor house. The possibility still loomed in the future.
Still, at least in Georgette’s opinion, there was no need to worry. As Kate’s employer so often liked to misquote, “’Hell hath no fury like a harlot scorned.’” Then she would continue, “We shall yet have our revenge, Kate, when my memoirs are published. We will become rich and retire in luxury. The children will attend the finest schools, and those who have attacked us on moral grounds will grovel at our feet.”
“And will we forgive them?” Kate would tease her -- it was a game they played during lean times or low spirits -- a game to motivate each other and reassert their independence from society.
“We shall have to review each gentleman on a case by case basis. After all, the world would be too boring without men to cause us woe.”
The metal ring gleamed at Kate’s foot; the keys lay tangled in a patch of clover. She reached down and froze in dead fear at the loud thump of something landing behind her.
A pleasantly deep voice whispered in her ear, “I’ve been waiting over a week to speak to you alone, my darling, and it seems I’m not a moment too late. You appear to have made as many enemies as you have admirers. May I come to your rescue, or will you come to mine?”
She rose slowly. She didn’t recognize the voice. “Who -— ”
A pair of strong arms closed around her waist and drew her back against a hard torso in a hold she doubted she could escape even if she regained the ability to move. “Kiss me before I silence that idiot at the gates and inform him that you’re not available to tryst tonight.”
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