To my husband. Each day with you is a perfect beginning to the rest of my life.
To the extent that this book is any good, most of the credit goes to my editor, Caitlin Alexander, for refusing to accept anything less than my best work. It is not every editor who can send a sixteen-page, single-spaced revision letter without making the writer quit. And when she tells me to take my head out of my rear end, I laugh and actually listen.
Kristin Nelson and Sara Megibow, for the best spa day ever. And that’s on top of the best professional support in the business.
Heidi, for bailing me out in my most desperate hour. Janine, for going over the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb and spotting problems that I’d missed. And Sybil, for doing an emergency read for me when Janine was out of the country.
My wonderful family, for rallying to my aid during the year I was both in school and writing
. It melted my heart every time my husband answered to calls of “Mom!” with “I’m Mom.” Household chaos was kept down to a minimum thanks to my mother, who came every day to fight a valiant battle against entropy. And how fortunate to have a mom-in-law so lovely that kids always want to visit her for weeks on end!
My sisters at Austin RWA. A better group of friends I’ve never met.
All the bloggers, reviewers, authors, booksellers, and readers who got the buzz going on
and the talented team at Bantam who launched the book so beautifully. I can never thank you enough.
And as always, if you are reading this now, thank you. Thank you for everything.
“When I write about hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmt
h, and the love of it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied.”
n retrospect people said it was a Cinderella story.
Notably missing was the personage of the Fairy Godmother. But other than that, the narrative seemed to contain all the elements of the fairy tale.
There was something of a modern prince. He had no royal blood, but he was a powerful man—London’s foremost barrister, Mr. Gladstone’s right hand—a man who would very likely one day occupy 10 Downing Street.
There was a woman who spent much of her life in the kitchen. In the eyes of many, she was a nobody. To others, she was one of the greatest cooks of her generation, her food said to be so divine that old men dined with the gusto of adolescent boys, and so seductive that lovers forsook each other as long as a single crumb remained on the table.
There was a ball; not the usual sort of ball that made it into fairy tales or even ordinary tales, but a ball nevertheless. There was the requisite Evilish Female Relative. And mostly importantly for connoisseurs of fairy tales, there was footgear left behind in a hurry—nothing so frivolous or fancy as glass slippers, yet carefully kept and cherished, with a flickering flame of hope, for years upon years.
A Cinderella story indeed.
Or was it?
It all began—or resumed, depending on how one looked at it—the day Bertie Somerset died.
The kitchen at Fairleigh Park was palatial in dimension, as grand as anything to be found at Chatsworth or Blenheim, and certainly several times larger than what one would expect for a manor the size of Fairleigh Park.
Bertie Somerset had the entire kitchen complex renovated in 1877—shortly after he inherited, two years before Verity Durant came to work for him. After the improvements, the complex boasted a dairy, a scullery, and a pantry, each the size of a small cottage; separate larders for meat, game, and fish; two smokehouses; and a mushroom house where a heap of composted manure provided edible mushrooms year-round.
The main kitchen, floored in cool rectangles of gray flagstone, with oak duckboards where the kitchen staff most often stood, had an old-fashioned open hearth and two modern, closed ranges. The ceiling rose twenty feet above the floor. Windows were set high and faced only north and east, so that not a single beam of sunlight would ever stray inside. But still it was sweaty work in winter; in summer the temperatures rose hot enough to immolate.
Three maids toiled in the adjacent scullery, washing up all the plates, cups, and flatware from the servants’ afternoon tea. One of Verity’s apprentices stuffed tiny eggplants at the central work table, the other three stood at their respective stations about the room, attending to the rigors of dinner for the staff as well as for the master of the house.
The soup course had just been carried out, trailing behind it a murmur of the sweetness of caramelized onion. From the stove billowed the steam of a white wine broth, in the last stages of reduction before being made into a sauce for a filet of brill that had been earlier poached in it. Over the great hearth a quartet of teals roasted on a spit turned by a kitchen maid. She also looked after the civet of hare slowly stewing in the coals, which emitted a powerful, gamy smell every time it was stirred.
The odors of her kitchen were as beautiful to Verity as the sounds of an orchestra. This kitchen was her fiefdom, her sanctuary. She cooked with an absolute, almost nerveless concentration, her awareness extending to the subtlest stimulation of the senses and the least movement on the part of her underlings.
The sound of her favorite apprentice
stirring the hazelnut butter made her turn her head slightly. “Mademoiselle Porter, the butter,” she said, her voice stern. Her voice was always stern in the kitchen.
“Yes, Madame. Sorry, Madame,” said Becky Porter. The girl would be purple with embarrassment now—she knew very well that it took only a few seconds of inattention before hazelnut butter became black butter.
Verity gave Tim Cartwright, the apprentice standing before the white wine reduction, a hard stare. The young man blanched. He cooked like a dream, his sauces as velvety and breathtaking as a starry night, his soufflés taller than chefs’ toques. But Verity would not hesitate to let him go without a letter of character if he made an improper advance toward Becky—Becky who’d been with Verity since joining her staff as a thirteen-year-old child.
Most of the hazelnut butter would be consumed at dinner. But a portion of it was to be saved for the midnight repast her employer had requested: one steak au poivre, a dozen oysters in sauce Mornay, potato croquettes à la Dauphine, a small lemon tart, still warm, and half a dozen dessert crepes spread with,
mais bien sur,
Crepes with hazelnut butter—Mrs. Danner tonight. Three days ago it had been Mrs. Childs. Bertie was becoming promiscuous in his middle age. Verity removed the cassoulet from the oven and grinned a little to herself, imagining the scenes that would ensue should Mrs. Danner and Mrs. Childs find out that they shared Bertie’s less-than-undying devotion.
The service hatch burst open. The door slammed into a dresser, rattling the rows of copper lids hanging on pin rails, startling one of them off its anchor. The lid hit the floor hard, bounced and wobbled, its metallic bangs and scrapes echoing in the steam and smolder of the kitchen. Verity looked up sharply. The footmen in this house knew better than to throw open doors like that.
“Madame!” Dickie, the first footman, gasped from the doorway, sweat dampening his hair despite the November chill. “Mr. Somerset—Mr. Somerset, he be not right!”
Something about Dickie’s wild expression suggested that Bertie was far worse than “not right.” Verity motioned Letty Briggs, her lead apprentice, to take over her spot before the stove. She wiped her hands on a clean towel and went to the door.
“Carry on,” she instructed her crew before closing the door behind Dickie and herself. Dickie was already scrambling in the direction of the house.
“What’s the matter?” she said, lengthening her strides to keep up with the footman.