The Valet and the Stable Groom: M/M Regency Romance (4 page)

BOOK: The Valet and the Stable Groom: M/M Regency Romance

“I assure you, I could not have failed to notice,” Clement said, trying to suppress his own laughter as he picked up a puppy in either hand and deposited them back in the basket. “Letty, what the devil…”

What is going on here
?” Mr. Midgley cried, stumbling into the room in haste.

Letty, Clement, and the mother dog all paused in their puppy-retrieval efforts and stared at Mr. Midgley. The puppies that Clement had just returned to the basket squirmed free of the wicker constraints and resumed their search for trouble.

“We,” said Clement, as he searched his wits for an appropriate excuse for the situation. He was unaccustomed to deferring to Mr. Midgley in any matters whatsoever, and particularly unaccustomed to considering Mr. Midgley a subject of respect or authority, and found himself uncertain as to how to respond.

Letty, for better or worse, simply announced: “Puppies!”

“How did they get in the house?” Mr. Midgley asked, going over to rescue the curtains from the attentions of the puppy, whose appreciation for fine lacework pertained mostly to its enthusiastic destruction. In the process of seizing upon the puppy to tug it away from the curtain, he provided the puppy with the leverage which it had previously lacked, and the delicate curtain tore with a dramatic ripping noise.

“Who,” asked Mrs. Ledford, voice thundering with all the intimidating authority that Mr. Midgley lacked, “is responsible for this?”

Clement winced like a child caught stealing mincemeat pies from the pantry. The mother of the puppies hid herself behind Letty’s skirts.

Letty likewise froze, but she swiftly drew herself up to face the housekeeper with her full complement of stubborn determination. “I am.”

Mrs. Ledford’s rage rippled and rose like a tide. Clement fought down the urge to flee.

“Dogs,” Mrs. Ledford said, “are not allowed in the house.”

Clement felt sure that he would expire on the spot under the force of Mrs. Ledford’s disapproval, and he wasn’t even the direct target of it. Letty, who was, had been graced with such a generous quantity of irreverent courage that she didn’t falter.

“Mrs. Devereux,” said Letty, “is exceedingly fond of puppies and I am taking these to her.”

“Absolutely out of the question.”

The housekeeper’s fury could have frozen a duck pond. Letty glared at her. “Am I to tell the mistress of the house that you defied her will? My mistress will have these puppies, and I hope you might be reminded that
decides what is and isn’t acceptable in this house, not you.”

Clement had never in his life heard such open disrespect directed at a superior, and braced himself to witness Letty’s immediate dismissal from her position.

Instead, Mrs. Ledford collected her temper and smoothed down her skirts, realising at once what took Clement several moments longer to understand. Letty was the obvious favourite, and had been with Jane for years, while Mrs. Ledford possessed only a one-day acquaintance with their mistress. If either of them reported disapproval upon the other, it would be Mrs. Ledford who would pack her bags.

“Of course,” said Mrs. Ledford, voice only one degree above glacial. “It will be as Mrs. Devereux wishes. I trust you’ll take full responsibility for the dogs and any damage they might cause?”

“Of course,” Letty said, continuing to glare at her superior.

Without another word, Mrs. Ledford turned and strode from the room.

Mr. Midgley, Clement, and Letty all stood in stunned silence in her wake, which was broken only when one of the puppies yipped, then urinated upon the floor.

“Letty,” Clement hissed, quickly resuming the business of retrieving puppies.

“Don’t you dare scold, Clement. You know perfectly well that Jane…” Letty glanced toward Mr. Midgley and corrected herself. “Mrs. Devereux loves puppies, and the Viscount Devereux always let his dogs have the run of the place. Of course there’s no way Mrs. Ledford might have known that…”

“You might not have made an enemy of the housekeeper on our first day,” Clement said, depositing two puppies into the basket and then lifting the basket off the floor to lower their chances for escape.

Mr. Midgley was still standing frozen by the torn curtain, holding the canine culprit. Clement took that puppy from his hands, added it to the basket, and placed the basket into Mr. Midgley’s hands. “I think you’d best hold that, Mr. Midgley,” he said.

“Ah,” said Mr. Midgley, opening his mouth on a possible objection, but Clement had already let go of the basket, leaving him stuck with it.

“Letty, how many puppies are there? I have six.”

“Eight,” Letty said, retrieving the seventh puppy from underneath a chair.

“Eight!” Clement said. “Did you really have to bring all eight?”

“Clement, we agreed you weren’t going to scold.”

agreed I wasn’t going to scold,” Clement said. He looked around at a loss for the eighth puppy until he saw the mother dog retrieving the last one from behind a curtain. “There, that’s eight. Take them upstairs, I’ll see what can be done about setting the room to rights.”

Mr. Midgley once again opened his mouth to object, thought the better of it, and went off upstairs with Letty and the basket.

t took only
a quarter of an hour to fetch a pair of maids and restore the room to a civilised state. Clement helped as best he could with setting the furniture to rights, and the puddle on the stone floor was easy to clean. Only the empty space of the curtain remained as an accusatory reminder of the incident. The lace was taken away to be mended, but Clement did not imagine that the gauzy material would be possible to fully repair.

Despite Mrs. Ledford’s wrath, Clement found that he agreed with Letty. The puppies would be just the thing to cheer Hildebert and Jane, if only temporarily, and it might do them good if either felt inclined to take a pet. Somewhere upstairs, his master and mistress would be laughing with Letty and the basket of puppies. If he went up, he would be gladly received into the mirth.

And yet he didn’t want to join them. He’d come all this long way, but he wasn’t certain that he wished to stay. It would be easy enough to acquire a copy of a London paper, and to apply to some posting he found therein. He had friends back in London, and might write to them to ask that they watch the papers on his behalf and post at once to any position that suited his skills.

It wasn’t too late. He wasn’t trapped here.

Leaving the two maids to finish tidying the room, Clement stepped through the sunroom door and out onto the lawn. It was bright but cold, and the fresh spring grass was wet with dew.

Duties awaited him back at the house. Hildebert might need something at any time, and here he was, away from his rooms, away from the servants’ kitchen, away from anywhere that the bell marked
might ring if Hildebert required him.

His steps carried him to the edge of the pond. A mallard swam in little circles with a tail of ducklings.

Fat clouds dolloped the sky, one of them scuttling in front of the sun and casting the world in greyer shades of green and brown. Across the pond and the rest of the lawn Clement could see a stand of trees that might be as shallow as a grove or as deep as a forest. Hildebert’s lands. Clement found he didn’t know if the land was rich in flora or fauna, if there were valuable metals in the soil or if the grass grew particularly stout for grazing. Mr. Midgley would need to know such things, or else Hildebert would need a steward to oversee his lands and revenue.

The cloud moved past, and Clement realised he didn’t know how long he’d been standing at the edge of the pond. He turned his steps instead toward the glass walls of the conservatory.

The glass panes were grubby and smudge. They needed to be thoroughly cleaned, with the sort of attention that would make the faceted panes of the conservatory glitter. A conservatory, in Clement’s mind, ought to shine like a diamond with a heart of an orange tree.

Inside, he found the glass house to be warm. The heavy humidity was thicker even than the dew-rich clime outside. The array of plants within stretched up toward the glass ceiling, all of them thick with leaves. He remembered meeting the gardener—a woman, which was unusual, but she’d said to Hildebert that her father had been a gardener before her—and found himself impressed by the health of the conservatory flora.

At the heart of the conservatory was a round tiled space, framed with a watery parenthetical on either side by a pair of crescent-shaped pools. He glimpsed into one and saw a scattering of small lily pads and goldfish. At the centre of the space was a pretty cast-iron table, painted white, with a pair of matching chairs set on either side. It was the sweetest place Clement had ever seen for taking tea in any season, amidst the leafy abundance of the conservatory.

The table was overtaken by a tray of little pots with seedlings waiting, and had become more of a workspace than a retreat, but it wouldn’t take much to restore it. It would serve as a very charming and romantic surprise for Hildebert and Jane, if he wished to prepare one. He could drape the table with a lace cloth and line the edge of the pools with candles to make the room into a fairy bower.

He discarded the idea almost as quickly as it had occurred. For the time being, he wanted to leave the conservatory as he’d found it. It was as quiet as a secret, and he didn’t yet wish to surrender it to the spirited laughter and antics of Letty and Jane.

“Excuse me,” someone said.

Clement spun about with a start. He was caught idling, away from the house and his duties. Sundays were his day of leisure, and it was only Tuesday.

A man stood in the conservatory, on one edge of the central ring. He was of moderate height, with unruly dark-brown hair. The golden-brown tan of his skin proclaimed him to be an outdoor labourer. A wry, apologetic smile hung upon his lips, showing a glimpse of straight white teeth, and Clement found himself arrested by the gruff charm that the stranger projected.

“This might seem an odd question,” said the man in the conservatory, rubbing sheepishly at the back of his neck, “but have you seen a litter of puppies?”

Clement’s mouth fell open, and then he flushed, recognising the stranger as the head groom of the stables. What was his name? Harren? Hodgson?

Letty must have whisked away the puppies without having consulted their keeper.

“Oh dear,” Clement said.

The groom laughed, striding forward to join Clement upon the centre tiles. “I take that to mean that you do know something about my best dog’s missing puppies?”

“And the missing dog, I imagine,” Clement said. He wrinkled his nose apologetically. “Yes. Miss Lockwood fetched them up to Mr. and Mrs. Devereux. They are… inside the house.”

The groom gave a gruff cough, pressing his fist to his mouth to stifle it. “Are they? Has Ledford had anything to say about that?”

Clement grimaced. “Mrs. Ledford was not best pleased.”

“Give her a wide berth and she’ll settle down in an hour or so,” the groom said. “She’s possessed of a harsh temper, but not so much that she would ever let it impede upon her responsibilities. Mr. Adair, was it?”

The groomsman’s good humour set Clement at his ease despite himself, and Clement couldn’t help but smile. His attitude made it seem as though the threat of Mrs. Ledford’s ill-humour and the incident of the missing puppies were harmlessly amusing and entirely manageable circumstances.

“Clement Adair,” he answered, offering his hand in greeting.

“Hugo Ogden. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Adair.”

Hugo’s hand was warm and steady, and Clement felt as though he’d suffered a loss when it was retracted and the stable groom retreated to the polite space of a step and a half away.

“Ah,” said Hugo, his apologetic and amused smile returning as the silence between them stretched a little too long. “Where inside the house?”

Befuddled, Clement blinked at him, trying to make sense of the query so that he could offer his usual diligent assistance. “Pardon?”

“The puppies.”

“Oh!” Clement startled, having forgotten the puppies whilst under the spell of Mr. Ogden’s smile. “Just this way, Mr. Ogden,” he said, hardly about to direct the stable groom to their mistress’ chambers alone.

Clement felt oddly melancholy as they departed the conservatory. He wished to return to his moment of quiet introspection, and the thoughts that had been stirring in his mind, but he also wanted to retain the pleasure of Hugo’s company. The threat of Mrs. Ledford’s potential wrath had been diminished by Hugo’s presence, which cast a rose-gold glow over everything. As long as Hugo remained alongside him, the unimaginable task of decorously retrieving a basket of puppies from their mistress’ rooms seemed like a perfectly ordinary endeavour.

As they entered the sunroom, Clement turned toward the main front stair which he, as one of the upper servants, habitually used. Hugo caught his wrist.

The grip was light, but it was enough to make Clement pause and turn his head.

Hugo nodded to the side hall which would lead to the back stairwell. Less likely, Clement supposed, to encounter Mrs. Ledford. He nodded, and they made their way quietly along the hall and up the stairs.

The hand on his wrist remained, half-forgotten, as they navigated the lower hall, and only released as they reached the stairs. Clement wanted to reach for him and clasp his hand again. Hugo projected such gruff good humour and steady warmth that being around him felt like sipping tea by a cozy fire, but there was of course no polite reason to take his hand.

Laughter trickled out from the door to Mrs. Devereux’s room. Clement paused in the hall and tapped at the door, awaiting permission to enter.

Within, they found the room in something of a shambles, with master and mistress of the house both seated on the floor while the puppies tumbled and explored around their laps and the nearby furniture.

“Clement!” Hildebert exclaimed with delight, sitting with one fat puppy dozing in his lap and another one tugging ferociously at his coat sleeve. Clement winced on behalf of the coat. “And … Mr. Ogden?”

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