It was the laugh that drew his attention. Low and husky, but not like a woman to her lover. The sound was more like a taste—rich and sweet on the tongue but with an extra spice to make it sassy. Those thoughts, right on the heels of the unusual sound, stopped him cold. And that was very odd indeed, because Anthony Michael Pierce was not a man prone to flights of fancy. But it was an unusual sound, and that made him pause even though this was not a place for him to loiter.
Anthony was looking for his father, who worked as secretary and chief accountant to Mr. Richards, the wealthiest milliner in London. Normally, his father worked at the shop, but today was Friday, the day of the weekly accounting, and so his father was here, and Anthony was joining him in the hopes of getting a position as bookkeeper.
But then the sound came–again–and he had to look. Who was the woman who laughed like that? She was in the kitchen, so he craned his neck around and saw the flash of a furry tail and heard scrambling. A kitten, obviously, and a bushy ginger one at that.
The laugh came again, and this time it seemed to slide down his spine, but not in a comfortable way. The spicy note in her voice set his lower back to tingling and—even more uncomfortable—it stimulated areas best not awakened when visiting the home of his father’s employer.
Unable to resist, he stepped into the kitchen, easing around the central worktable. But no one was there! Two steps more and he saw the kitten again. It was a ginger tabby, rolling around trying to disentangle a red ribbon from its body. Someone was clearly playing with the feline, using the ribbon to tease the kitten. It was a game he’d enjoyed himself back when he was a boy and prone to destroying his sister’s ribbons. But then he’d learned how much each ribbon cost, and he’d become more vigilant than his sister regarding her hair adornments. And their kitten had learned to entertain herself with catching mice.
Obviously, this woman had no such fear, which meant she was in a position to be careless with her things. He took another step, belatedly realizing the woman with the laugh must be crouched behind the worktable. He was just about to turn the corner when she spoke, her voice even more unsettling than her laugh.
“There you are, you greedy thing. Play with that and not my tarts.”
He watched as a milky white hand wound the last of the ribbon around the kitten’s tail. Milky white—he noticed—in part because it carried a dusting of flour. Ah, the woman was the cook. Excellent! A cook was well within his social strata. He had a moment. He could talk with her. And if he could manage it, he might even try to flirt.
So he pulled up his most charming smile and stepped around the table. The woman was just straightening from her crouch, but his appearance made her leap up even faster, her hand going to her mouth in alarm.
“Sir!” she squeaked—her voice high and tight—and he mourned the loss of her throaty, relaxed chuckle. He mourned also the view he had of her, bouncing up before him like that.
Judging from the shapeless dress, the woman was oversized. Plump. There was no more delicate way to put it. Plus her hair was pulled too tightly back from her face, giving the impression that she was perpetually startled. Or perhaps in a very strong wind.
And yet, even as he absorbed her appearance, he could not forget her laugh or her voice. He longed to hear it again, even as he mentally classified her appearance as somewhat below average.
“My apologies,” he said as he gave her a bow. “I did not mean to startle you.”
“I…” She bit her lip and looked around almost in panic. “I’m just not used to anyone coming here. They all know it’s my time to cook. Everyone, that is, but this greedy thing.” She gestured to the kitten who had managed to wrap the ribbon more tightly around itself and was right then chewing on a ragged edge.
He crouched down, using the kitten as an excuse to linger. “So you are the cook here?”
“Goodness no!” He heard a note of wistfulness in her voice. “I make the desserts. Since everyone likes them, they let me have the kitchen on alternate afternoons.”
He took an appreciative sniff. Cinnamon and apple. “It smells wonderful.”
“They should be out in a bit. I was just cleaning up.” She looked at a large bucket filled with dirty bowls, but everything else about the room was pristine. “Come back in an hour. The real cook will give you a tart.”
“It seems to me that you are a real cook, if the smell is anything to judge by.”
She flushed and looked down, her skin becoming the color of a flower petal. A pink rose on white. He saw it and he could not look away, which left them a pretty pair, she staring at the floor and he transfixed by her face.
They might have remained frozen like that for hours if not for his father. The man had a way of clearing his throat that could silence a room. It never failed to jolt Anthony to his feet, and it did so now.
“Sir!” he cried on his way to his feet.
“I thought I heard your voice,” his father snapped. “What are you doing in the kitchen?”
He didn’t have a ready excuse. It wasn’t like he could say he’d been distracted by a throaty laugh and creamy white skin. For one thing, his father would never believe him. He was not usually a man to be distracted by such things, not when a business opportunity was at hand.
Fortunately, while he was scrambling for something to say, the Not‑Cook answered for him, her voice taking on a tone of caustic authority despite her polite words.
“It was my fault entirely. I’m afraid I required someone to help me lift that pot.” She gestured to a gleaming thing set neatly on the sideboard. “He was nearby, so I asked him to help. Have I delayed him from something important?”
His father dipped his head in a minimal kind of bow. “Nothing of significance. Assuming, of course, he leaves immediately.” That last was accompanied by a dark look at the woman.
Anthony frowned, surprised momentarily into silence. His father clearly disliked this woman. It wasn’t anything overt, but Anthony knew his father well. There was a clear distaste for the Not‑Cook. What could she possibly have done to earn such scorn from his usually unflappable father? It didn’t matter. She was lovely and sweet, and he had no desire to insult her. So Anthony faced her directly and gave her a respectful bow.
“Thank you for allowing me to help,” he said. “I enjoyed it and your kitten.” Then he straightened. “Did you need anything else?”
She stared at him, her mouth going slack in astonishment. Then her eyes darted to his father before returning back to him. “Um, no,” she finally managed, her voice dimmed somehow from confusion. “Th‑thank you. You have been…very nice.” Then she bit her lip and turned away, another blush coloring the white of her skin.
A lovely sight, until it was ruined by his father’s sniff and more stern words. “I believe your food is burning,” he said coldly. “Come along Anthony. Mr. Richards is not a patient man.”
The woman started, and then said a very unladylike curse. She was already pulling open the oven, her back to the room at large. Clearly she was busy, and he was late. So much as he wanted to linger, Anthony knew now was not the time. He gave her another quick nod even though she wasn’t looking, and rushed around the table to join his father who was already striding through the house. They left the servants’ area and crossed into the main house. A moment later, he was ushered into the presence of the very formidable Mr. Richards.
“Look sharp!” his father snapped under his breath.
Anthony didn’t need the reminder. It was imperative that he focus. Mr. Richards had the power to make Anthony’s career and assure his future. So why was he still thinking about a pink blush on creamy white skin?