Eleanora stood for a moment by the refreshment table as she gathered her thoughts about her once more. It was not everyday that she inadvertently mingled with duchesses and earls in quite such proximity in the middle of a ball. And thank goodness it was not for she would never be able to keep such a close eye on the happenings about her if her attention were always so judiciously averted. Especially by the Earl of Stryden. She knew he was married even though she had never seen his wife, but she also knew that did not matter when it came to his seductive powers. And for the first time that she could remember, Eleanora suddenly wondered what it would be like to be seduced by a man. A real man. A gentleman.
She physically shook her head in the middle of the crowded ballroom as if to shake the thought from her head. The heat was clearly getting to her, and she would have to seek fresher air or risk collapsing on the spot. She moved quickly then, sliding around the refreshment table and escaping through a door at the back of the ballroom. Her sturdy shoes made no sound as she quickly moved below stairs, expertly dodging the footmen as they carried the trays of champagne above stairs.
It was a maze of hallways and staircases on this level of the house, and Eleanora moved quickly through them. She knew Hawkins was likely to be in the kitchen if he were not above stairs where his energy could be put to good use. Eleanora would speak to him about that tomorrow, but tonight it would do her no good to argue with the man.
She dodged a rather green footman who still carried his tray with two hands and rounded a corner to turn expertly out of the way of a rushing kitchen maid exclaiming something that sounded like the hen is on fire. Eleanora did not spend a moment’s worry on whether or not that was exactly what the maid had said for she trusted Cook to have everything under control. Finally, Eleanora spun into the kitchen and stopped.
Hawkins hovered in the doorway on the other side of the room where another staircase lead up directly into the dining room where an elegant banquet table had been laid with the night’s supper assortments. There were to be plates of cold roast beef and ham, a radiant display of cheeses and rolls, and decadent savory pastries and sweetmeats for the guests to enjoy. And Hawkins should have taken his place amongst the footmen in the room to ensure that the meal neatly progressed. He should not have been below stairs worrying a hole in the floor with his concerned pacing.
Eleanora approached him carefully.
“Mr. Hawkins, I do believe you have expressed concern over the number of footmen with us this evening.”
She kept her hands behind her back, tucked under the bow of her apron. She felt the scratch of starch even through the fabric of her gloves. She wondered for a moment what it would feel like to wear clothing of a more luxurious fabric like the gowns she had seen on the dancing women upstairs. The thought was preposterous, and she quickly banished it to take care of the matter at hand.
Mr. Hawkins paused in his pacing, turning his sagging face toward her. Every time he cast her a look of dismay, she thought of the long face of a Basset hound and felt the corners of her mouth pull upward, which never helped the situation involving Hawkins.
“There are only eleven footmen, Miss Quinton. Surely, we need an even dozen.”
Eleanora nodded in sympathy.
“Yes, Mr. Hawkins, I can see where an even number would feel more solid and provide a sense of security, but Gregenden House is fortunate enough to say the best footmen that can be found in all of London are here tonight, and they are serving the guests above stairs now even as we speak. But do you know what would make it a solid dozen servants above stairs ensuring the meal is as much of a success as the ball itself?”
She watched Hawkins peel himself out of his misery as if it were a physical thing that clung to him like a wet cloak on a dreary day. It gave her such a start to watch it unfold, and she knew that she had him.
“You, Mr. Hawkins,” she continued, “You would make a solid dozen servants and a perfect completion to the evening’s meal.”
Hawkins straightened, a noticeable change coming across his features.
“That would be a dozen, indeed, Miss,” he said, scanning the room above her head. What he was looking for, she had not a single idea, but it did not matter as long as he moved his body upstairs.
She turned quickly, snatching a tray from a footman’s outstretched arms. She shooed the young man away, pushing the tray into the Hawkins’ ready arms. He looked down at the tray as if it had magically appeared.
“You are our twelfth and most gifted footman, Mr. Hawkins. Now, go up those stairs and make this a memorable occasion.”
Her talks with Hawkins were starting to sound like the drivel found in ladies’ novels, and she worried her mind would turn to philosophical mush. But Hawkins only stared at her in no apparent sense of recognition before turning and moving up the stairs before her. She waited until he had reached the top and disappeared through the door leading into the dining room before she turned round.
Cook watched her from the other side of the large table that took up much of the center of the kitchen. The table was strewn with bits of mauled vegetables and scattered pieces of dough. The older woman’s red cheeks rounded on a smile.
“You get better at that every day, love,” she said and moved away to retrieve bread from the ovens.
Eleanora relished the moment of resolving another issue but put aside her feelings to return to the matter at hand. Guests who required attention and a lord and lady to serve. But what would it feel like to have no one to please? No one to serve? Would it be as refreshing and exhilarating as Eleanora imagined?
She quickly looked over her shoulder, down the hall that led off the kitchens to a door at the very end of the corridor, hidden in the dark recess and just as quickly pushed the ridiculous thought away.
Returning to the ballroom, she found it just as she had left it. Not that she had any doubt that anything would be amiss. Hawkins was in his place, and supper could be served.
The grandfather clock in the hall chimed midnight. One, two, three strokes of the bell so far. The guests should start milling into the other room where the banquet table was set up. A few had straggled in, but most were still here in the ballroom wanting to gossip a little more while their mouths were free of the ridiculously expensive food set out for them in the opposite room.
Eleanora looked to the footman across the floor guarding the doors to the buffet. He shook his head once to the left. Less than ten people had moved then. Well. She would have to make an announcement to get the rest moving, or they would never get them out of the house by dawn.
She stepped away from the pillar she had been pushed against as she had come back into the crowd and began to make her way to the orchestra in the far corner. It was a crush as always, and various bodies stuffed into outrageously huge garments impeded her way. She had said Pardon me more times now than she cared to count and suddenly did not feel like saying it any more. She just started pushing as the rest were pushing back against her. It really was the only way to move some people.
The grandfather clock had struck four more times now. Seven down, five to go. She had almost reached the orchestra. The crowd was starting to lessen over here. It being so close to the orchestra was probably the reason. One cannot gossip with loud music pounding in one’s ears. She passed the Earl of Stryden, and he winked at her again. Blasted man. Why did he keep doing that? She nodded politely back at him and thought once again of his reputation of seductive powers.
Seduced by a man as wickedly handsome as the earl?
She wondered again ever so briefly before her mind snapped away from the thought.
She reached the platform where the orchestra had been set up and turned to face the noisy crowd of the ton’s most important peers. She cleared her throat as the clock in the hall tolled its twelfth stroke. She opened her mouth to get the crowd’s attention.
Then a gunshot cracked through the air, and a body fell from the balcony above to the ballroom floor.
Eleanora closed her mouth, realizing she really should give Hawkins more credit for all his worrying.