Bethany House Publishers
Run! Faster! Hurry! The warnings tolled in Olivia's mind like a death knell. She raced toward the kitchen door, the rear stairway now in sight. Approaching the final obstacle, she rounded the kitchen worktable at breakneck speed. Her momentum abruptly slowed as the pocket of her starched white apron caught on the table's corner. The rasping tear of the cotton cloth echoed in her ears, and she quickly cast a downward glance at the frayed pocket. Still hoping for time enough to flee, she urgently yanked at the apron. She'd not been fast enough.
Chef Mallard's long fingers surrounded her forearm in an iron grip. She winced as he tightened his hold, certain she'd be bruised by the morrow. Shoving her against the table, he eased his grip only slightly and leaned his full weight against her. The edge of the heavy worktable cut into the small of her back, and she groaned.
A look of triumph shone in his small dark eyes. "Do not toy with me, Miss Mott. I know you desire my affections."
"Desire? You disgust me! Turn me loose or I shall report you to the countess."
Her angry rebuff served only to incense him further. Instead of releasing her, he pinched her chin between his thumb and index finger and pressed his thin, hard lips against her mouth in a bruising kiss. The legs of the massive worktable scraped across the stone floor as she struggled backward, trying to gain her freedom. He captured her waist with his arm and pulled her into a fearsome embrace. A lustful gleam lurked in his watery eyes and penetrated her very soul. He traced his tongue across the vindictive smile curving his lips. She shuddered.
Beneath the collar of the chef's white tunic, his Adam's apple bobbed uncontrollably. "Quit fighting me!"
"Never! I'll not yield to you." She spat the words into his face.
With a wicked laugh, he grabbed at the hem of her skirt. How dare he! Without hesitation, Olivia stomped the heel of her shoe atop his foot. The despicable chef yelped and his grip loosened. Wresting free of him, she hastened to the opposite side of the table while straining to remain calm. Across the expanse of the wooden table, she stared at him. The man was a lecherous fiend.
He bent forward and rested his palms against the table. "You'll find speaking to the countess will do you no good." He wagged his index finger at her. "The Countess of Lanshire needs an excellent chef on her staff. Scullery maids can be found on any street corner. Be advised that others have tried that tack and none have succeeded." His stale breath wafted across the table and assaulted her. "You will permit me the pleasure of your body whenever I so desire, or you will find yourself among the unemployed, Miss Mott. You have but two days to give me your decision."
Outwitted! Olivia should have known the calculating chef would have a trump card at the ready, and that he would use it whenever and wherever he saw fit. Each of his words hit like a blow to the midsection. Swallowing hard, Olivia forced down the lump in her throat. If she disgorged herself of the morning meal, the chef would offer yet another serving of his brutal humiliation.
He moved away from the table and gestured toward the stairway. "I'll not detain you further. Consider your options carefully, Miss Mott. Either you'll be my mistress or you'll be unemployed."
Careful to maintain her distance, Olivia sidestepped toward the stairs on wobbly legs. She hoped to maintain some sense of decorum until she finally escaped the kitchen. He was watching her every move. Only when she reached the stairs did she turn her back toward him and race up the flight as though the devil himself were on her heels. She didn't stop running until she reached the third floor.
Leaning against the far wall, she gasped for air, her chest heaving. As her breathing slowed, she realized those few minutes in the kitchen had changed the course of her life. She'd seen her dream evaporate as quickly as ice melting on a summer day.
When she'd arrived at Lanshire Hall fourteen months ago, she had hoped Chef Mallard would lead her on the path to a successful career. Like everyone else who had eaten his expertly prepared delicacies, Olivia had been in awe of his culinary abilities. Until today the desire to become a renowned chef had outweighed all other dreams. Unfortunately, the Mallard, as she privately referred to him, had drawn a line in the sand—a line she would never cross, no matter how deep the desire to achieve her goal. Today he had proved himself to be the odious man about whom she had been forewarned.
With a quick swipe she brushed away the tears that stained her cheeks and dejectedly walked to the end of the hall. She sniffed loudly and pushed open the door to the room she shared with Ludenia, Lady Charlotte Spencer's personal maid.
At the sound of the latch, Ludie glanced up from her stitching. Her eyes opened wide, and she dropped the embroidery on the side table as she rushed forward to enfold Olivia in a gentle embrace. "Now what's this all about, dearie? Tell Ludie what's troubling you."
Olivia fell into the warmth of the woman's fleshy arms and wept, her body heaving up and down with each giant sob. When her wrenching wails subsided, Ludie loosened her hold and handed Olivia her handkerchief. The woman's eyes shone with sympathy as she lovingly patted her shoulder.
"Now, then, sit down and tell me what has happened."
They settled themselves on the only two chairs in the small room. In between hiccoughs and sniffles, Olivia explained Chef Mallard's sordid ultimatum.
"If I don't give in to him, he says he'll make certain I never work in another reputable kitchen in England." She wiped her tears on the linen hankie. "Oh, Ludie, what am I going to do?"
"Oh, my dear! Surely there's an answer. We merely must find it." She jiggled her knee up and down, a sure sign she was deep in thought.
Olivia remained silent, waiting for words of wisdom to pour from the older woman's lips.
"What about your aunt Eleanor Mott? Could you go and stay with her? You'd be safe from Chef Mallard."
Olivia slumped in her chair. She didn't want to go live with Cousin Albert's mother. She'd be required to work in one of the local shops or, worse yet, take a dreary job in a factory to support herself. Not that she didn't love Aunt Eleanor, but Olivia had expected a more resourceful solution from Ludie. Though Olivia's dream seemed outlandish to most, Ludie had encouraged her to pursue training as a chef from the first day she'd arrived at Lanshire Hall.
Suddenly Ludie's shoulders squared. "Didn't your cousin Albert move to America? Perhaps you could follow him there. Chef Mallard's malevolent threats to ruin your future can't follow you all the way to another country." She beamed at Olivia. "What do you think, luv?"
Olivia's heart pounded with a mixture of fear and excitement. Could she possibly do such a thing? She'd never even seen all of her native England, or even London for that matter. How could she consider such a journey on her own? Her heartbeat slowed as she remembered how many months Albert had saved for his voyage to America. Even if she could garner the courage, she didn't have money to purchase her passage.
Ludie jumped up and adjusted her bodice. "I'm late. If I don't hurry, I'll be the object of Lady Charlotte's wrath. I know her sharp tongue all too well." She stopped when she reached the door. "We'll keep thinking. There is a solution; we've just got to find it." After one final embrace and a warning to remain upstairs, where she would be safe from Chef Mallard, Ludie disappeared down the hallway.
Olivia slouched in her chair, settling her gaze on the scuffed toes of her black work shoes. One thing was certain: she would be a resident of Lanshire Hall for only two more days. Instead of staring at her shoes, she must pack her belongings. With a sigh, she pushed herself up from the chair and pulled open the wardrobe. She would be greatly relieved to never again see Chef Mallard, but she would surely miss living and working at Lanshire Hall. Even more, she would miss the woman whom she'd grown to love like the mother she'd never known. Tears threatened at the thought of leaving Ludie. Saying good-bye would be difficult.
* * *
Olivia's starched white cap wobbled precariously above her left eyebrow. She gaped at the formidable Lady Charlotte Spencer. Perhaps Olivia wasn't quite awake yet and hadn't heard correctly. "You want me to what?" Olivia blurted the words without so much as adding a polite "your ladyship" to the question.
The only daughter of the Earl and Countess of Lanshire Hall, Lady Charlotte was twenty-three, older than Olivia by two years. More often than not, however, she acted like a spoiled ten-year-old. Shoving her hat back toward the center of her head, Olivia prayed she'd misunderstood the young mistress.
With a hefty yank, Lady Charlotte pulled Olivia into the darkness of the linen closet and bid her remain quiet. She squeezed Olivia's arm in a viselike grip while she whispered a detailed and upsetting plan. When she'd hissed the final words, Lady Charlotte nudged Olivia toward the door and back into the hallway. Trembling, Olivia hurried off to the kitchen. She pinched herself as she descended the steps. Perhaps this was merely a dream. Unfortunately, the painful pinch revealed she was wide-awake.
She should never have confided in Ludie! The older woman meant well, but she chattered constantly. Even now, Olivia could picture the scene: Ludie serenely brushing Lady Charlotte's hair in long flowing strokes while regaling her ladyship with the daily gossip that circulated throughout Lanshire Hall. Unfortunately, this day's tittle-tattle had included the possibility of Olivia sailing for America once she accumulated funds enough to pay her passage.
Instead of dealing with Chef Mallard, she must now submit to Lady Charlotte's threats and demands. And this time, she couldn't ask for Ludie's help.
In the Company of Secrets (Postcards from Pullman #1) by Judith Miller
Copyright © 2007; ISBN-13 978-0764202766
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.