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Excerpt: A Soupçon of Poison

Prequel: Below Stairs Mysteries (Kat Holloway)

I am a cook, and better than most, even at my young age of nine and twenty, and the gentry and aristocracy pay highly to have me. 

Sir Lionel Leigh-Bradbury of Portman Square gave me less than I might have had elsewhere, but when the agency told me he’d agreed to the large number of days out a month I’d requested, I leapt at the position. 

I had never actually met Sir Lionel—the housekeeper and the agency made all the negotiations with me—until I’d been in his employ nearly two months. Then, one evening, he abruptly summoned me.

Copley, the thin, sour-faced butler with a walleye, delivered the news to the kitchen. “’Is royal ’ighness demands your presence. In ’is library.”

I stilled my knife on the carcass of an onion spread before me. “Now?” I asked crossly. 

I had much work to prepare for supper, having no assistant. Sir Lionel employed only one footman and a scullery maid in addition to housekeeper, butler, and cook. He kept the housekeeper and butler only because he’d inherited them with the house and title.

Copley banged down his salver and threw himself into a chair by the fire. “No,” he snarled. “’E must ’ave meant in a fortnight.”

Copley despised all women in general and me in particular. He was pinch-faced, bad-tempered and usually half drunk with gin. 

I began chopping again, with more vigor this time. “He stays above stairs, and I stay below,” I said. “It is the proper way of things.”

“Am I to blame for ’is upbringing? You’d best get to it, woman.”

I sighed, finished the onion, and carefully washed my knife before putting it away. Onion juice left to dry can be disastrous to cutlery. I put the onions in a bowl, wiped my hands, and went to face my employer for the first time.

Sir Lionel sat alone in the library on the second floor. The high-ceilinged, dark-beamed room was cold, musty, and dimly lit. Tall bookcases lined the room, each packed so tightly with books I doubted that any could be pried out and actually read. 

My employer reposed at a writing table with about a dozen photographs on it. As I came as close as I dared, I saw that the photos were of older Leigh-Bradburys, of Sir Lionel in formal dress, and one of a young woman, pretty, whom I did not recognize. That photo looked old, but the frame was new, so perhaps it was a beloved sister or beau who had passed away.

Sir Lionel had limp brown hair that hung from a bald place on top of his head, a white face, and a long nose. His limbs were almost as thin as Copley’s, and his long coat hung on his bony shoulders. He was middle-aged and had recently inherited this house, all its contents, and his baronetcy from his uncle.

I stopped a foot or so from the desk and folded my hands on my plump abdomen. “You asked to see me, sir?”

Sir Lionel looked me up and down, his prominent Adam’s apple moving. “You are my cook?”

I inclined my head. “I am Mrs. Holloway, sir.”

Mrs. Holloway.” He leaned forward a little as he said the name. “You are married?”

My matrimonial state was none of his business. “All cooks are called missus, sir,” I said stiffly.

Sir Lionel continued to stare at me, his blue eyes so wide they protruded. The good Lord had blessed me with a comely face—so I’d been told—a mass of curling dark hair, and a figure that was curved and not angular, but I saw no reason for such amazement. 

“You sent for me, sir,” I prompted as Sir Lionel continued to stare at me.

“Oh. Yes. I wanted to … I wanted …” He trailed off and assumed a fretful frown. “I am feeling unwell. The dish you prepared for my supper last night is to blame.”

“The cassoulet?” I said in surprise. “Of course it was not to blame. Everyone in this house partook of that dish, and no one has any ill effects. It was perfectly fine.”

“It tasted off.”

“Nonsense. The chicken was freshly killed and the vegetables fine and crisp. I was lucky to get them and at a fair price.”

Sir Lionel tapped the arms of his chair. “I have eaten only your cassoulet since last night, and I am ill. What else could it be?”

I eyed him critically. “If you’ve eaten naught else, it’s no wonder you’re ill. I’ll make you a cup of beef tea, sir, and send you up some seedcake.”

He looked indignant. “I do not want—”

“Certainly you do,” I interrupted. “Your humors are out of balance and need some easing. I ate a good portion of that cassoulet, and as you can see, I am fit and hale. You want a bit of grub in your belly, that is all.”

Sir Lionel gave me a dazed look, as though not used to being told what to do, even if it was for his own good. “Er, yes, quite. Yes, yes, send it up, whatever you like.”

I gave him a little bow and turned away, feeling his gaze on my back all the way to the door. 

Downstairs, I cut up seedcake and fixed a thick broth of beef with black pepper. I set this all on a tray, which was carried upstairs by the footman, because Copley was snoring and unlikely to rouse himself the rest of the night. 

My cakes seemed to have done the trick, as did my supper of thick slices of pork, hearty bread, and onion soup, for I heard no more complaints about illness and no more words against my cooking. I did not see Sir Lionel again for another three weeks.

Late one night, after the other staff had gone to bed, I sat in the kitchen at the wide wooden table, sharpening my knives. 

A cook’s knives are her greatest asset, and if they go dull, they are no use at all and should be replaced. As decent knives are hideously expensive, I kept mine in good repair.

I did not trust anyone with the task of sharpening but myself, so I sat on my stool, alone, and drew a blade across the damped stone. The only sound in the silent room was the scrape of stone on steel and the hiss of the oil lamp beside me. 

The solitude comforted me. I’d had a trying day. Copley’s bunions had played him up, making him more sour than usual, and he’d gone so far as to throw a bowl of porridge at me. John the footman had dropped and shattered a crock full of sugar. The scullery maid had taken sick, so I’d had to do all the washing up myself.

Because of that, by the time I’d gotten to the market, all the best produce was gone. My bread had over-risen and deflated upon itself while I was out because John had been too stupid to follow the simplest instructions.

I’d made my disapprobation known, and the others had retired somewhat earlier than usual, leaving me alone with my knives.

Where Sir Lionel found me.

“Mrs. Holloway?”

I peered through the kitchen’s gloom, my comfort evaporating. The master of the house stood at the door to the stairway, his breathing loud and hoarse. He moved across the flagstones to the table where I sat, and gazed at me with eyes that were sunken and petulant.

I jumped to my feet, annoyed. The kitchen was my demesne. The master might own the house, but a good employer understood that not interfering in the kitchen made for a tranquil domestic situation. Sir Lionel had his rooms above stairs where I did not trespass, and he had no reason to trespass on me.

“Might I help you with something, sir?” I asked, striving to remain polite.

“Good heavens, Mrs. Holloway.” Sir Lionel, his voice breathy, looked past me at the table. “What is it you’re doing?”

Dancing naked upon Hampstead Heath. “Just giving my knives a bit of attention, sir. I like them nice and sharp.”

“Yes, I am certain you do.”

Before I could decipher this comment, Sir Lionel had moved abruptly to my side and pinned me against the table. He was stronger than his size let on, and he held me fast with his spindly arms.

“Mrs. Holloway, I can think of nothing but you. Of your eyes, your hair …” He pulled a lock free from my cap. “Your bosom, so comely. Do you have children?”

“One,” I gasped, the truth I kept hidden bursting out in my amazement.

He did not seem to hear me. “My nursery maid had a bosom as large as yours. She let me feast upon her.”

I scarcely wanted to think about that. I desperately craned my head away from his port-laden breath and bloodshot eyes.

“Let me feast upon you, Katharine.”

Oh, this would never do. I groped behind me across the smooth boards of the table and closed my fingers around the handle of a knife. 

It was my carver. I pulled it around and brought it up right under Sir Lionel’s chin.

Sir Lionel squeaked in alarm. His gaze shot to the knife then back to me, spots of red burning on his cheeks. He must have seen something in my blue eyes he so admired, because he released me and took a hasty step backward.

“Sir,” I said in a hard voice. “You employ me and pay my wages. I cook. That line should never be crossed.”

Sir Lionel’s mouth opened and closed a few times. “It should not?”

“No, sir. It should not.”

His petulant look returned. “But you are so beautiful.”

I held the knife point steady, though I was shaking all the way through. “You flatter me, sir. I am a cook, is all. You go along upstairs and to bed. You will feel better in the morning.”

“No, no …er. I am going out.”

“Right, then, sir. Off you go.”

Sir Lionel eyed the glinting knife blade, stared at my bosom with stark regret, turned on his heel, and marched out of the room.

Not until I’d heard him tramp all the way up the stairs and slam the door above did I let out an explosive breath and drop to the stool, the strength gone out of me.

“Fool,” came a voice.

I smothered a yelp as Copley materialized from the shadows. My knife clattered to the table.  “What the devil do you mean, skulking about like that?” I cried.

Copley gave me a sickly grin, his walleye gleaming. “Ye could ’ave gained some favors with ’im, woman. You give ’im a bit, and ’e gives you a rise in wages. Any sensible woman would think it a bit of luck.”

“I am a sensible woman,” I said firmly. “Which is why I told him to be gone.”

“Maybe ’e’d even marry you.” Copley sniggered, a dry sound.

“Oh, most like. The gentry don’t marry cooks.” Thank heavens. On the other hand, I might have just lost myself my post.

Copley scooted close enough to me that I could smell the gin on his breath. “I’ll keep this atween you and me. Can’t let it get about that you cast your eyes upon the master, can it?”

He’d turn it about and spread that story, simply because he could. “You are a little swine,” I said. “I did nothing of the sort.”

“But none know it but me, you, and ’is nibs, do they? And I seed ’ow quick you was to shove a knife at ’is throat.”

“I only meant to frighten him.” I let my tone grow chilly. “I thought it most effective. Didn’t you?” 

Copley’s gaze slid to the knife that rested near my hand, and he faded back from me. “I’ll remember it. I will.” And thankfully, he shuffled away, heading upstairs to his bed.

I went back to sharpening the blades that had done me so much good tonight, but it was a long time before I could stop shaking. Longer still before I could make myself retire to my tiny bedchamber tucked behind the kitchen and sleep.

* * *

The next day, Daniel McAdam came whistling down the kitchen steps to deliver a bushel of apples.

Daniel McAdam had, as we ladies put it, a way with him. I’d known him for about a year, ever since the day he’d stepped into old Mrs. Pauling’s kitchens, where’d I’d formerly worked, to get out of the rain. Daniel ever after paused to flirt with me, harmless like, whenever he made a delivery to Mrs. Pauling’s house, and now to Sir Lionel’s.

I knew little about Daniel, even after a year. He was a man of all work and a jack of all trades. He delivered goods, carried messages, and ran far and wide about London—once I’d seen him driving a hired carriage, competently maneuvering it through the crowds.

I did not know where he lodged or where he disappeared to for weeks at a time. He’d only wink and answer evasively whenever I brought up these subjects. 

I knew Daniel wasn’t married because I’d asked him that, point blank. When a man flirts with a woman, she ought to know where things stand.

Daniel had dark hair and dark blue eyes and a tall, attractive body. He could read and write and was quite clever, though he never admitted to any schooling.

I concluded that he must be the son of a middle-class gentleman, possibly illegitimate, but he never spoke of his family. He turned his hand to a good many menial tasks, things even a destitute gentleman might shun, which was why I thought him a bastard son. Father genteel, mother a tavern maid or something of the sort, and now Daniel had to grub for a living.

No matter who he was, Daniel seemed to be happy puttering about London, making friends with everyone he met and doing any odd job he could.

It was a daft way to live, and I told him so. He only laughed and said: Some of us were born to work and others to keep the devil amused.

He always said something nonsensical when he did not want to give an answer.

This morning, Daniel set down the apples and waited with good humor while I wiped my hands of puff pastry dough and poured him a cup of steaming tea.

Daniel swallowed a long drink and grinned at Copley, who leaned against the wall, barely able to stand. “You’ll kill yourself with gin, Copley.” Daniel took a flask from his pocket and dropped a dollop of whiskey into his own cup.

Copley gave him a sour look. He’d woken with a raging headache and had been sick in the basin twice already. “I were up late. Woke by the master and Mrs. Holloway a’carrying on, weren’t I?”

Daniel raised dark brows. I dumped a large ball of butter onto my dough and vigorously attacked the mess with my rolling pin.

“Why don’t you tell ’im, Mrs. H?” Copley rasped. “About ’ow the master tried it on with you, and ye almost slit ’is throat?”

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