Paris, July 1789
Pierce Cardew, Viscount Blackspur, has played many parts - spy, smuggler, privateer captain. So when his family is threatened by a greedy blackmailer, and Pierce becomes convinced that the recently widowed Comtesse de Gilocourt knows more than she's telling, he takes a job that will keep her very close.
Surrounded by danger as the French Revolution begins, Pierce finds it unthinkable that this innocent beauty could be treacherous. And playing the detached footman becomes almost impossible when all he wants to do is take his mistress to bed!
Pierce stood in the empty hallway outside the first floor apartment, waiting to be summoned. The staircase which led down to the ground floor and up to the apartments above was elegant and well-proportioned. The French often made the staircase an important architectural feature of their houses, because it was usually the first thing visitors saw, but the Comtesse de Gilocourt had done nothing to make the hall outside her apartment more comfortable or inviting.
The door opened and the previous candidate emerged. Pierce threw him a quick, appraising look. The man had been smugly confident when he'd entered the room. Now there was a slight jerkiness to his movements which suggested the interview had not gone according to his plan. He avoided Pierce's gaze as he went past. Pierce heard footsteps within the room approaching the half-open door and turned fully towards it.
A lady in a dove grey muslin gown, with a mass of auburn curls tumbling around her shoulders suddenly appeared before him. Despite himself, Pierce almost blinked at the unexpected sight of so much fiery disorder. Curls were in vogue, but so was hair powder - white was generally considered the most flattering colour. Pierce had known Bertier's second wife was over twenty years his junior, so he'd expected the Comtesse to be young. But he hadn't expected her to be so vividly colourful. She had moss green eyes, clear, pale skin and freckles across her nose and cheeks she hadn't concealed with cosmetics. Nor had he expected her to look the epitome of fresh innocence.
He wondered if she'd known her husband was a master smuggler while he was still alive - or if she'd only discovered that after his death when she'd found the evidence she'd used in her blackmail scheme.
Despite his initial surprise, he stood submissively as she looked him up and down, his expression revealing none of his thoughts. Over the years he'd learned to let others see only what he wanted them to see, and it suited him that the Comtesse should see only a servant in need of employment. Her cheeks were pink with heightened emotion and there was a stormy expression in her eyes. Pierce wondered what the previous candidate had done to rouse her temper. Her eyes lingered briefly on the neatly mended pocket of the coat he'd bought from a second hand shop. Its original owner had been a member of the prosperous bourgeoisie and a slightly larger man than Pierce. He knew he looked like many other servants wearing the hand-me-down clothes of their betters.
The Comtesse glanced around the hallway.
'Are you the last one?'
'Yes, Madame.' He hadn't been, but it had only required a few well chosen comments to discourage the lad who'd been waiting with him.
'Hmm.' She frowned and turned with an impatient swish of her skirts. 'Enter,' she said.
He followed her into the room, appreciating the curve of her hips before his gaze was once more drawn to her hair. Several long, thick tresses cascaded down her back. Many ladies adopted such a style, but frequently they needed hairpieces to achieve such abundance. Its distinctive colour and lack of powder made it clear the lady needed no artificial assistance. Pierce felt an inexplicable urge to touch the shimmering curls. A brief, ironic smile twitched his lips and vanished before the lady could turn and see it. Since Rosalie's death he had been unmoved by feminine attractions. It struck him as somewhat perverse that the first woman who'd stirred his interest was a blackmailer. He'd not planned on seducing the information he needed from his quarry, but he was adaptable. And the lady was ... surprisingly alluring.
She wore a soft green sash around her waist which matched her eyes but was very definitely not mourning attire. Her husband had died eight months ago: she should still be wearing black silk and black jewellery. But she wore no jewellery, not even, Pierce noticed with sharpened interest, her wedding ring. What did that omission signify?
The lady's full skirts lengthened to a short train at the back and slightly muffled her footsteps, but Pierce's heels echoed loudly on the bare floorboards. It was a large salon which seemed even larger because it was almost entirely unfurnished. There were no pictures on the walls - though Pierce could see patches where they had once been - and no curtains at the tall, multi-paned windows which overlooked the square below. The only furniture consisted of a table and one upright chair. Pierce noted these signs of the Comtesse's reduced circumstances with dispassionate interest.
She sat down at the table. Several pieces of paper were scattered over the surface, most of which had been written on. She pulled a clean sheet towards her and picked up the pen.
'What is your name?' she asked briskly.
'Pierre Dumont,' said Pierce, and watched as she wrote it down.
'What previous experience have you had as a footman?' she asked, still focusing on the paper.
'I worked for the Duchesse de la Croix-Blanche and the Comtesse de Dreux,' he replied.
She completed the brief note and looked up at him, surprising him with the quiet intensity of her scrutiny. Her mood had seemed so impatient he'd not thought she'd taken the time to study him closely. The man Pierce was pretending to be might well have shuffled uncomfortably beneath her gaze, but he wasn't inclined to give her that advantage, so he fixed his eyes on a point just past her shoulder and waited her out.
Nevertheless he was aware of the way her eyes measured the breadth of his shoulders and the fit of his coat. She looked at his hands. Then her gaze shifted to his thighs, hesitated - and stayed there.
Good God! The lady wasn't trying to hire a footman - she was measuring his ability to fulfill her requirements in a lover! For an instant Pierce was shocked by her boldness. Then he was coldly amused. It seemed he was not the only one who had seduction in mind.
He'd stood in the bare hallway, steeling himself not to feel sorry for a poor widow who'd made an error of judgment. But a woman who boldly recruited her lovers from unemployed servants didn't need his sympathy. He lowered his gaze to look into the lady's eyes.
The morning had not gone well. Mélusine had never hired a servant before. She didn't want to do so now. She'd left the responsibility for selecting the household staff to her lawyer, Monsieur Barrière, but she wasn't willing to delegate the choice of footman to anyone else. Her experiences had prejudiced her against the tribe. If she could have done without a footman she would - but a lady needed a liveried servant to escort her about town, run her errands and stand behind her chair to serve her when she dined as a guest in other people's houses. Since the man would be by her side every time she appeared in public she wanted one whose presence she could at least tolerate.
She stared at Pierre Dumont, trying to see past his impassive expression to the man beneath. The last candidate had sensed her lack of experience in such interviews and tried to take over the direction of the conversation. Mélusine had arrived in Paris resolved never to let a man make her decisions again. She hadn't appreciated a prospective servant trying to dictate her actions and her response had been curt. She didn't know which of them had been more ruffled by the encounter. She'd been glad to see him go.
Dumont hadn't tried to dominate the conversation. He hadn't done anything except obey her orders and wait patiently for her next question. Despite his wooden expression, she didn't think he was dim-witted. She'd seen his eyes flick to her unpowdered hair and then to her gown. He was wondering why she wasn't wearing mourning. She had in Bordeaux. For eight months she'd worn black twill gowns, a black crepe belt, black crepe hats, black gloves, black shoes ...
She was sick of black.
It would be another four months before she could wear colours in public. But for the first time in her life she was undisputed mistress in her own home - and here she could wear what she liked.
No black. No powder - and she'd have preferred no footman. But that wasn't a reasonable option.
Dumont was staring at a point past her shoulder. She didn't believe he was slow-witted. He clearly wasn't nervous of her, and his demeanour revealed none of his thoughts. All of which made her wary. She'd been in his position too many times - standing impassively in the presence of a more powerful person - to believe he had no thoughts. What was he thinking?
She took her time looking at him. It was disconcerting but very satisfactory to be the one in the position of power. She judged him to be five feet nine or ten inches. His plain wig was mouse brown. No doubt he'd worn something far grander when he'd served the Duchesse de la Croix-Blanche. His eyebrows were much darker, which made her wonder why he'd adopted the wig even when he was unemployed. Perhaps he was going bald and vain about his hair?
His coat didn't quite fit, but it was carefully mended. It was the wrong choice of colour for him and at first glance gave a false impression of his figure. He was straight and lean, but she suspected there was power in his compact body. He'd done no more than stand still and walk across the room, yet she'd seen men who had that unquestioned confidence in their physical prowess before.
Mélusine was fascinated by that masculine quality, though she'd come to the conclusion it gave more pleasure depicted in marble than experienced in the flesh. She looked at Dumont's hands. Hands could tell important stories. Dumont's hung relaxed and empty by his thighs. She looked at his legs, remembering the classical statues she'd seen in the Louvre and elsewhere. If he removed his breeches, would his thigh muscles be as clearly delineated as those in the statues she'd seen? Excitement quickened within her as she realised there might be unanticipated compensations to hiring a footman. She would have to word her request very carefully - and it wasn't his thighs that particularly interested her - but maybe ...
It belatedly occurred to her that she'd been staring at his legs for far too long. She looked up and her gaze clashed shockingly with his. She caught her breath as she realised he'd noticed the direction of her gaze. There was an ironic, slightly cynical gleam in his grey eyes which made her face flame with embarrassment.
'Do you have testimonials?' she demanded curtly.
He raised one eyebrow. 'In what capacity?'
'As a footman.' She resisted the urge to grit her teeth. 'You're no use to me if you've spent the past ten years as a schoolmaster.'
A faint crease appeared briefly between his brows. He was either offended or confused by her comment. She didn't know what had put the idea into her mind either, except that he was dressed all in dull brown and his reserved demeanour gave him a certain austerity.
'I am not a schoolmaster,' He drew some folded sheets from an inner pocket, and presented them with a graceful bow which reminded Mélusine uncomfortably of her own lack of grace. The merchant's daughter had been educated in a convent alongside the daughters of noblemen, and even married a Comte - but her deportment had never quite reached the pinnacle of languid elegance.
She tried to read the flowing writing, but she was distracted by the knowledge he was watching her. His position, standing before her while she sat, was entirely appropriate to their stations, but she disliked the way he was now looking down at her with self-controlled, ironical scrutiny.
'Sit down at once!' she ordered.
Both his eyebrows elevated, then he glanced around the bare chamber.
'Do you want me to sit on the floor?'
'Oh for Heaven's sake!' Mélusine exclaimed, taking refuge in exasperation. 'I'm not surprised you're seeking new employment if you're always so insufferably supercilious!' She jumped up and planted her own chair in the middle of the room. 'Sit there. Now!'
Part of her thought she would be wiser to terminate this interview, but Dumont was the last candidate for the post. He was unsettling her, but he didn't make her skin creep. After two years of enduring Jean-Baptiste's services, that was a very important qualification for any footman she employed in future. Besides there was an element of pride involved. She'd come to Paris determined to take charge of her own life. At the very least she should be able to hire a footman.
She took several brisk paces away from Dumont, then turned to face him. This was better. He was sitting, looking up at her, and she was free to move about the room as she pleased.
'Why are you looking for a new position?' she asked, feeling in control again.
'I travelled to America with my previous mistress. She decided to stay in America longer, but I wanted to come back to France.' He shrugged slightly. 'So, here I am.'
'America?' Bertier had been one of the French officers who'd fought beside the Americans in the War of Independence. He'd been a friend of the Marquis de La Fayette. There had been many American visitors to Paris over the past few years and Mélusine had been fascinated by the stories she'd heard about the new republic.
She opened her mouth to ask Pierre about his experiences in the new world, and then thought better of it. Instead she stood by the empty hearth and read the testimonials he'd given her.
'The Duchesse de la Croix-Blanche writes very highly of you,' she said at last. Madame de la Croix-Blanche's comments were verging on fulsome.
'She was graciously willing to give me a reference when I left her service,' Dumont replied.
'Hmm.' Mélusine tapped the papers against the palm of her hand as she stared at him through narrowed eyes. 'If I employ you - and I am in grave doubt as to your suitability at present - I expect you to be loyal, discreet and obedient in all things.'
'Would you be better able to assess my suitability if I remove my breeches?' Dumont asked.
'What?' Mélusine thought she must have surely have misheard him, but to her shock he stood up.
'These are the attributes in which you are most interested, are they not?' he said, and began to unfasten his breeches.
'Stop!' She thrust out her hands towards him, the papers she still held rustling wildly. 'Do not move a muscle!'
In MY LORD FOOTMAN, Pierce Cardew becomes Mélusine de Gilocourt's footman-hairdresser because he is looking for a blackmailer and he suspects she may be the guilty individual.
I had the original idea for a story featuring a hero who takes a position as the heroine's footman while I was reading the autobiography of Henrietta-Lucy Dillon, the Memoirs of Madame de la Tour du Pin. Henrietta-Lucy was a young, fashionable lady in French noble society who witnessed at first hand all the upheavals and dangers of the Revolution. Within the space of a few years she was presented to Queen Marie-Antoinette, had to hide from zealous Revolutionaries, and then fled to safety in America.
Her footman, Zamore, was with her throughout these adventures. He is mentioned briefly but frequently in her memoirs. He was so talented at dressing Henrietta-Lucy's hair that, when Henrietta-Lucy was staying with her husband at the Court in The Hague, the Princess of Orange wanted Zamore to dress her hair. But Zamore was also loyal and brave. Even when she no longer trusted her other servants, he played an important part in helping Henrietta-Lucy and her children remain safe during hazardous episodes in her life.
I loved the idea of writing about a hero in a role which not only made it possible for him to become part of the heroine's household within hours of meeting her, but actually required him to stay close to her.
On the other hand, Mélusine, the heroine of MY LORD FOOTMAN, has unhappy memories of her previous footman, and initially only decides to hire another one because social convention demands she has a liveried servant to wait upon her. She notices immediately that her new footman has a natural air of authority he can't quite conceal - and he's also disturbingly attractive….
From the book: My Lord Footman by Claire Thornton
Imprint and Series: Mills & Boon® Historical Romance™
Publication date: 2007.
Copyright © 2007 by Claire Thornton
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books SA