Authors: Kristin Bailey
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For Mom and Dad.
Thank you for everything you are and everything you’ve done for me.
I love you.
SIX MONTHS. IT HAD ONLY BEEN SIX MONTHS
Heavy flakes of snow drifted past the black iron bars of the front gate. I watched one flutter and land on the muzzle of one of the enormous bronze lions standing guard. His glassy eyes caught the first light of dawn breaking over the eastern garden wall.
In that moment he seemed alive somehow, watching me with a grimace that displayed his awful teeth. I didn’t recall noticing the statues the first time I’d walked through the gate, but now I stared, transfixed by the guards holding me within my beautiful prison.
On the quiet London street beyond the gate, time brushed
past like the flakes of falling snow. I could no longer feel the cold breeze making the snowflakes dance. My whole body felt frozen, frozen in place, frozen in time.
Before I arrived here, I thought I had known frustration.
As it happens, I knew nothing.
A distant conversation rumbled through my memory. “I have an offer of employment for you, Miss Whitlock.” Fateful words from the mouth of my late father’s solicitor. At the time they had brought me hope. I hadn’t imagined they would lead to this.
The solicitor had leaned back in his chair, stretching his too-tight waistcoat until his buttons nearly popped off. “Lord Rathford sent me a letter after hearing of the tragedy. He claims to have been a good friend of your family and has offered you a respectable position under the supervision of his housekeeper, Mrs. Pratt.”
“A housemaid?” My voice had cracked as I’d said it. I had hardly spoken in the weeks after the fire that had claimed the clock shop on Oxford Street. The flames had taken my home and the lives of my parents, leaving my life in ruins.
“You’ll be paid, fed, and clothed, and you’ll have a roof over your head. Seeking respectable employment is your best option, child.” He had tried to pat my hand as if he were
placating a little girl who had dropped her favorite poppet in the mud.
Pompous old boar. I was not a child, and he had had no inkling of what he was sentencing me to. Lord Rathford was a stranger to me.
“It’s your only option. I suggest you take it.” His final words to me had felt as immovable as the brass lions at the gate.
That was six months ago. Only six months. It seemed like six lifetimes.
I shook the snow from my starched white apron, then gently lifted out the blackened pocket watch I kept on a chain around my neck. It was all I had left, a broken timepiece I had found next to my father’s charred hand.
It twisted on the chain, tarnished and black against the snow. I knew I should polish it, but every attempt I made felt wrong, as if I were trying to undo the past. I looked back at Lord Rathford’s house.
I had moved into a place where time had stopped altogether.
It was my job to make it certain it never moved again.
As was my habit, I touched the watch to my cheek, feeling the kiss of cold metal, before slipping it back into place behind my bib. Gathering my skirts, I shook off the snow then hurried back to my master’s house. My thin boots and
stockings did little to save my feet from the sting of the cold as I stepped lightly down the snow-filled stairwell that led to the servants’ entrance to the kitchens and cellar.
If I didn’t have the fires lit before Agnes, the cook, woke, she’d have my hide. Every day was exactly the same, and I had worked the routine into my bones.
With an effort that would have appalled my delicate mother, I cleaned the kitchen grate, thankful I didn’t have to blacken it with the foul-smelling polish I had to use on all the other grates in the fireplaces throughout the house. I started the fire, set the tea, and prepared the kitchen for breakfast.
As soon as the tea steeped, I carried a pot of it into the sitting room. On the table near the window, a cup rested on its side, the spilled contents drying on the marble top. I cleaned the mess, carefully polishing the cup before setting it on the saucer and filling it only one third with the piping hot tea.
Then I reached over and tipped the cup, carefully spilling the tea on the table, making sure the handle rested to the left as always. Only then could I dust the room no one would ever sit in.
In the upstairs bedroom, I tugged at the freshly laundered linens, pulling them over the soft feather mattress, so much like the one I used to have. How I wished to fall into the bed,
let my eyes close, and sleep. Perhaps I could wake from this nightmare.
I smoothed the rich red fabric of the bed cover until the bed was perfect. Every morning I ached and strained to make it neat, then I yanked the cover down, creasing the blankets. With my fists I pounded a deep indent into the pillow and tugged it askew.
Everything in each room of the enormous house had to remain exactly as I had found it the day before. Nothing in the house ever changed. It was my job to make sure of it, and I did my job well.
It was infuriating. At times all I wanted to do was walk along the tables and sideboards with my hand out, knocking everything over until I created such a mess no one could possibly put it right.
But I couldn’t. I didn’t dare. If I lost this job, I would have no home, no food. I’d be out on the streets. So every night, in an intricate exchange, I rotated each candle in the house to ensure that in the morning they’d all seem as if they had never burned.
For all the polishing and dusting, the baron’s house remained quiet, cold. It had been frozen as deeply and surely as the ice-covered garden still gripped by the cruel hand of the lingering winter.
I descended the stairs feeling the slow burn of my frustration. Soon enough, Mrs. Pratt would order me to polish five dozen sets of silver spoons no one would ever use.
As I reached the bottom of the steps, I nearly tread on a piece of the broken vase that remained shattered at the foot of the stairs.
I let my boot hover over the delicate shard. Oh, I was tempted, so tempted to kick it straight into the sitting room. Or stomp on all the pieces until there was nothing left but dust. Then perhaps I could finally stop dancing around them every time I had to go up or down the stairs.
In the end, disturbing the shards would only cause me grief, and I knew it. I placed my foot to the side and turned away from the vase. The soft chink of the porcelain on the polished wood floor broke the oppressive silence of the house. A curved piece of the broken vase spun slowly, like a ballerina caught in a dream.
Hands shaking, I scrambled to rearrange the pieces as they should be. I was always too careless when flustered, but never had it hindered my efforts as much as this. The edge of a triangular shard sliced into my middle finger and I let the piece fall to the floor. I cringed as it clattered against the wood, but thankfully it didn’t shatter.
My eyes stung as I brought my finger to my mouth.
“Heaven’s mercy, Meg. What happened?” Mrs. Pratt’s voice sounded like a tree limb breaking under a heavy burden of ice.
The housekeeper fell to her knees by the shards, her full skirts billowing around her.
“They moved.” I took a step back to give her a better look. “My skirt brushed them.”
“How could you be so careless?”
I felt the flush of anger heat my face. “It was an accident. Why can’t we just leave them? It’s not as if anyone would notice.”
“He’s watching,” the housekeeper warned, glancing over her shoulder, her pinched expression growing tighter. “You must take care at all times, Meg. He is always watching.”
I’d never met the baron, or even seen him, but the thought of him watching every moment crept through my mind like a rat in the dark.
I struggled to my feet, clenching my bleeding hand in my skirts, then ran down the back stairs into the kitchens. Once inside, I took a deep breath and pulled my mop cap from my head. This was insanity, sheer insanity. I’d had enough of it.
I concentrated on stanching my bleeding finger, but a
shifting shadow caught my eye in the flickering light of the cold, empty kitchen. I hoped it wasn’t a rat.
The house was modest in comparison to some of the city palaces in St. James, but with its high-walled garden, courtyard, and carriage house, it used to be a stately gem. Now it was dour and faded.
The enormous labyrinth of kitchens, pantries, cellars, and laundry had once provided every conceivable comfort for the elegant family living above. Now the servants’ world beneath the stairs remained dark and empty except for the main hearth and a single pantry. How humble the kitchen seemed with rosemary hung by the frosted window, racks of unused pots and pans, a dented teakettle, and the itchy tick filled with straw that served as my bed.
Eerie shadows swayed, cast from the hanging pots clinging to the exposed girders. The kitchen was the only room that was allowed to age, clinging to the last vestiges of vibrancy while the rest of the house remained as lifeless as a tomb.
I reached for the broom, keeping a wary eye on the corner. Two luminous green eyes stared back at me, reflecting the fire in the hearth.
I sighed. It was only Old Tom. The distinguished silver tabby emerged from the shadows with the grace of a duke.
He lifted his chin in a haughty feline acknowledgment of my existence.
Putting down the broom, I turned my attention back to my sliced finger, grabbing a rag to clean the dried blood.