Venetia

This is the third part in the Sam and Laura series. See the first part, second part, and prequel here (especially for fans of Critical Role) . Sam and Laura are currently inhabiting a certain Heyer novel…

Sam woke up, the early light of the short autumn day filtering through the window and resting on her face, and felt rested as she had not felt for days since their arrival here. Laura’s arms lay around her waist, and she glanced at her face as she lay still sleeping, her breathing soft and deep and her expression relaxed. Sam’s lips pulled upward in a smile. She reached over and brushed Laura’s tangled fringe back. Laura murmured in her sleep but did not wake.

It took some getting used to, this need their bodies now had for the patterns and rhythms of life which they had only sometimes, and voluntarily, practised  in the shop. There never seemed to be enough sleep and they had, neither of them, remembered what it was like to need food and to rarely have sufficient. Whatever kind of housekeeper Venetia had been, Mrs Scorrier was a pinchpenny…and most of the pennies she pinched she made sure never affected her but the effects spread outward in a ripple usually hitting the lowest in the pile first.

She knew that this moment of relative comfort would come with a price. It definitely shouldn’t be happening and before she had really even had time to appreciate the feeling of warmth, comfort and well-being, there were footsteps on the stairs to their attic garret. The door burst open and an irate housekeeper, Mrs Gurnard, bustled in.

‘Well, I never in all my days. You two lazy slugabeds! Good for nothing layabouts! Do you have any idea what time it is? You should have been up an hour ago. I have had to go and prepare Mrs Lanyon’s tea myself, for I will not have nurse tell me that I can’t even get a cup of tea ready on time…’ pausing for breath in the middle of her paroxysm of rage, her eyes took in the sleeping arrangements and widened still further. ‘And WHAT are you two girls doing in the same bed? Isn’t there a perfectly good one for you, miss?’

Sam was about to answer (although what she was going to answer was beyond her) when she felt Laura’s hand withdraw from around her waist, giving her a quick squeeze on the way. Laura sat up and impatiently brushed her fringe back.

‘We’re sorry, m’m. It was so cold in here last night. There are to be no fires in the servants’ quarters as you know on Mrs Scorrier’s orders. And we’re sorry for this morning, m’m, as well. We were so tired after doing all of them gardening chores for Mrs Scorrier yesterday. She would have ‘em done right, m’m, but me and Samantha, we’ve no knowledge really of them things and…’

The Housekeeper’s face had changed during Laura’s calculated excuses at the name of her arch-nemesis and her voice was somewhat softer as she interrupted now.

‘Well, girls, it seems that they make girls softer than in my day when we wouldn’t blink at twice the work you are expected to do…but it was mighty cold last night and you were doing work you are quite unsuited to yesterday. That woman…’ here she drew herself up short, an inward struggling between maintaining a proper sense of distinction between herself and two lowly maids and an opposite desire to bring down her enemy from a distance warred in her bosom. Integrity won and she closed her lips with self-conscious righteousness over the criticism which had been about to escape them.

Sam volunteered, ‘We are sorry, m’m, it won’t happen again.’

‘Make sure that it doesn’t, girls. I will expect you downstairs in ten minutes,’ was her parting shot as she turned through the door.

Waiting to be sure she’d left, Sam with an expression of simulated horror turned to Laura, ‘Ten minutes! It takes me that long to get my stockings on. Petticoatless today, I think.’

‘Hmm,’ said Laura with a glint, ‘you’re always trying to get me out of my petticoats… Get on with you!’ she said as she shoved Sam toward the edge of a bed. With an undignified ‘whoomph’, Sam slid off the edge and onto the floor.

‘Oops,’ giggled Laura, trying hard to keep a straight face.

‘You’ll pay for that, my girl!’ whispered Sam, wiggling her eyebrows in a decent assumption of dastardly intent.

‘We’ll see about that,’ laughed Laura. ‘But come on…we really do need all of the remaining 9 minutes. I’ve never seen so many layers of fabric in my life.’

Taking the icy water from the jug on the stand, they quickly flannelled their faces in the frigid air before beginning the hurried process of layering up. Sam proceeded in an orderly fashion, cursing occasionally at buttons and laces. Almost finished, and ready to run a comb through her disordered red locks, she glanced across at Laura and had to stifle a laugh. She sat in the middle of the floor, one arm in her shift and dress, the other lost between the two in a cascade of fabric.

‘Well,’ she glared. ‘Are you going to help me!?’

‘Oh my God, woman, how did you get yourself caught between the layers! Alright, alright, keep your…what even are we wearing?… bloomers?…on.

A few minutes of tussle and Laura was decently dressed although she looked like she’d met a hedge going backwards at some point in the newly begun day and her fringe was a lost cause. They clattered downstairs and were grudgingly given some bread before being admonished to mind themselves today and make sure they did their work to a better standard than usual for she wasn’t going to let standards slip in this house, and they shouldn’t think it.

What ensued was a whirlwind day, sent from one place to another, they began to wonder if the massive house had an end of corners to clean, floors to wax, beds to make and chamber pots to empty. Mrs Gurnard kept them busy with one task after another, a punishment for their morning’s indiscretion, and these were interlaced with often contrary commands from Mrs Scorrier. They had just been caught by her as they scrubbed the floor in the long gallery and were now being sent on a mission of ‘mercy’ to the library for ‘that poor boy must be distracted with all the dust’ and ‘they simply must do something about the issue while he was out riding that he might come back to a little comfort’. Mrs Scorrier’s sly smile was quite in evidence and as they finished the scrubbing, which they had insisted on in the dough-faced gormless obstinacy Mrs Scorrier expected from lower servants, they wondered aloud whether she knew that she was quite so transparent or whether she just thought they were too stupid to merit subtlety.

As they swapped their buckets and brushes for dusters, Laura turned to Sam, ‘Well…this is taking our life in our hands!’

‘Yes, rather, but I have to say…I do want to see the library.’

‘My little bookseller… I think you have a librarian’s soul really for if you could you’d never let them go.’

Sam smiled, ‘Well, let’s make the most of it before we get horse-whipped out of the room.’

Cautiously, they entered the library but it was empty. Aubrey’s rides grew longer and longer and they knew it wouldn’t be more than a matter of a few days before he moved to Damerel’s estate. They couldn’t blame him. Mrs Scorrier’s shrill voice haunted their dreams and much though they might pity Charlotte, the sight of her dejected, spiritless form brought an urge to just the sort of encouraging pep-talk that would crush her spirits. Neither Laura nor Sam had a great deal of sympathy to waste on someone so universally incapable of decision or of insight. They recognised it as a fault in themselves but still found the gentle eyes of Charlotte almost as heavy a burden as the sharp tones of her mother.

Both Sam and Laura largely forgot about their dusters. Every few minutes a laconic hand would jerk out in simulation of a cleaning stroke before the arm fell again and they were absorbed by the books.

‘Oh my God, look! An original copy of the Castle of Otranto! First edition,’ cried Sam sotto voice.

‘Ooh, let me see! You and your Gothic literature!’

‘What have you found?’

‘Well, he has an amazing range of books… His ‘classics’ section is to die for! Look at this! What a gorgeous copy of Asinus Aureus!’

‘What…’

Sam didn’t get to finish her sentence before a sharp voice broke in.

‘Yes, quite an excellent copy and perhaps you can explain who you are and why you are touching it,’ Aubrey’s acerbic tone froze them both. He stood silhouetted in the doors which led out from the library to the lawn.

Sam and Laura glanced hurriedly at each other but received no inspiration.

‘I’m…’

‘We’re…’

They both started at the same time. Sam gestured Laura forward with a grimace.

‘We’re just maids, sir,’ said Laura, fighting desperately against the linguistic ticks which were so much harder to fight ‘on stage.’ Heyer had paid little if any attention to servants in their own world so the novels speech patterns were fairly easy to resist when they were on their own, out of the eye of the novel, novelist and reader. When they interacted with other characters, higher up… well, every other word would be ‘ma’am’, ‘sir’ or ‘lawks’ if they didn’t concentrate and this seemed a sticky enough situation for decided concentration.

‘Maids?’ inquired Aubrey with a supercilious raise of his eyebrow.

‘Maids,’ said Sam flatly.

‘Maids who read.’

‘Yes,’ returned Laura. ‘Maids who read. It may not be quite within the normal run of things but it is certainly not the divine intervention in the running of the world that you appear to suggest.’ She stared at Sam, surprised by her own coherent loquacity. They felt the story shift around them but did not have the time in mid-confrontation to trace the changes. Registering the change, they exchanged a nervous glance. Whatever change had come, sassing your employer wasn’t the best continuation to a day which started with sleeping in.

‘Well, raritas conciliat admirationem,’ said Aubrey, ‘You are certainly a rarity.’

‘Parit enim conversation contemptum,’ she replied, ‘Where I come from it is not so rare.’

Sam’s eyebrows attempted to fly off the top of her head and Aubrey’s eyes opened wide.

‘Loquerisne Latine?’ he gaped.

‘Sic, paululum linguae Latinae dico.’

‘Well, I am amazed. Amazed. Come, sit here, I must speak with you,’ already half in his other world, he gestured roughly to the table. Sam and Laura shared a look, both expressions managing to convey something along of the lines of ‘well, that could have gone worse’ before Sam gave a thumbs up behind Aubrey’s back and Laura bit her lip to keep from laughing.

As the two of them conversed in Latin, from which Sam only remembered a couple of words from a long forgotten GCSE, Sam continued to browse the shelves, her fingers lingering lovingly on titles in passing.

‘Oh my Lord,’ she gasped, as her fingers caressed the spine of the volume. Unable to resist she pulled it out. ‘The original Ossian translations!’ She heard a sharp sigh behind her and turning she looked to Aubrey and his face of peevish discontent. ‘I apologise, sir,’ she said, ‘but I have never seen a first edition. It’s like holding history, before we knew… people believed this copy.’

‘You hold to Mr O’Connor’s view,’ asked Aubrey, his eyes narrowed.

‘Not entirely, I believe…and I forget when…’, discretion being the better part of valour, Sam, failing to remember dates, avoided naming figures of the controversy. ‘I mean certainly there are some earlier sources, it isn’t complete invention. The Glenmason manuscript, for example,…’

And they were away, it was Laura now who sat back smiling interjecting a word here and there, while Sam, throwing caution somewhat to the winds, engaged in a debate on Ossian’s debt to earlier ballads. Both Sam and Aubrey lost themselves in the argument and Laura couldn’t help but smile at that identical passion. She volunteered a view now and again and soon all three were engaged in conversation. So much so that none heard the door open until a voice spoke from the door frame as a step entered the room.

‘I’ve come to see where those maids have got to. I’m dreadfully sorry Aubrey dear, I know how you don’t like to be bothered when you’re reading your little books, so clever, such a shame…’

The three of them stopped their discussion, creating a tableau which Mrs Scorrier couldn’t quite understand. Aubrey sat at his desk, his leg stretched out in front of him, one of the girls (who looked positively deranged with her hair no better than a tinker’s mate’s!) seated across from him and another stood between them with a book in her hand. Latching on to the few details which she could process, Mrs Scorrier began her harangue. ‘Well, I did not expect to find you in here still! I will speak to the housekeeper about your work. I do not see why we need two idle girls…I gave you quite a simple task. And you… put that book down at once. I did not give you permission to touch it. You will not know how to hold it, I don’t doubt. And Aubrey, you should not let these maids bother you. Your leg is obviously tiring you, would you like to lie down?’

Aubrey’s face had turned to thunder at this speech but Sam and Laura’s were both stoically blank. Looking at them, and clearly making some sort of decision, Aubrey speared Mrs Scorrier with his glance. ‘These maids have been helping me. As it is I who am master of my brother’s house in his and Venetia’s absence, I believe my orders are to be followed. They have been assisting me in … arranging a number of my new works. I will send them to you when they can be spared.’ He turned from her and Mrs Scorrier looked with loathing at his back before narrowing her eyes at Sam and Laura and turning to flounce out of the room with a sniff of tremendous dignity.

Their talk though had been interrupted and the threads were not picked up. Aubrey looked on them with a measuring glance. ‘You are not maids,’ he said authoritatively.

‘Yes, we are,’ Laura and Sam chorused defensively.

‘No. Well, I suppose now you are. But you weren’t.’

‘We weren’t born maids, no-one is,’ Laura sallied.

Aubrey let out a short bark of laughter. ‘Well, that gave me mine again, didn’t it? It doesn’t matter. If that’s what you choose to be…although why on earth… But that’s not my concern.’ He looked at them assessingly and then haltingly continued, ‘I have heard of such things as… I have read, of course, that it is not always… that some people do not need the other sex.’

‘No. Some people don’t,’ replied Sam, her hand clasping Laura’s, hidden behind their skirts.

‘It doesn’t matter to me,’ said Aubrey. ‘I don’t think I need them, either,’ he gulped slightly. ‘But you must have to sacrifice a lot to make that choice.’

‘Yes,’ said Laura. ‘And no.’

‘Yes and no,’ said Aubrey contemplatively. ‘Well, you are the only sensible people that I have met since Venetia left. You will come tomorrow and assist me. I really do need assistance. This library is in a shocking state.’

‘Of course, sir,’ they replied.

‘Well, run along then. I doubt not but the wrath of that execrable woman will be waiting for you.’

He was right and when Mrs Scorrier next found them, the words ‘encroaching’, ‘uppity’ and ‘above their station’ were all mixed together in a tirade that both of them ignored. She was able to make the next few days hellish though and Sam and Laura were hardly able to move by the end of each day, falling asleep exhausted with half-formed goodnights on their lips. That first evening though, before dropping into sleep, Sam looked at Laura’s face inches from her own on the pillow. ‘I didn’t know you spoke Latin,’ she said.

‘There’s lots you don’t know about me. I’m a bundle of surprises.’

‘The gift that keeps on giving!’ Sam smiled and she thought she felt Laura’s lips brush her own but her dreams were coming fast to take her and she passed away into darkness.

——-

Each day, they had enjoyed a small oasis in their hours in the library. Aubrey usually engaged in a short conversation but turned away to his own private world, allowing them a few hours of relative leisure among the books and sporadic conversations with the irascible scholar. On the last day of the week, he had been absent when they entered the library. Mrs Gurnard had sent them up anyway at the usual time and they continued to sort through the pile that he had left them yesterday, teetering by the side of the great stone fireplace.

Suddenly, the door was thrown open and Aubrey stormed in. ‘I can’t live like this anymore,’ he stated baldly. ‘My dogs. My dogs, if you please, are dangerous beasts, my horse is an uncommon brute, I am a helpless cripple and I am worrying Mrs Lanyon with my reading and…’ and here his voice rose to a higher octave, the words almost choking him with disbelief, ‘and now I am corrupting ‘her’ staff! Do you know, she had the audacity to suggest that our afternoons were spent in wild orgies. The bacchanals of the Dionysians have nothing on us. She must thing I am inexhaustible… although the way she harks on about my leg, it’s a wonder she thinks I’m able to move at all.’

Sam and Laura both looked at him, unsure of how to reply.

‘Well, don’t just stand there,’ he said. ‘I’m leaving and you’re coming with me.’

‘I don’t think I caught your meaning,’ said Laura.

‘Well,’ said Aubrey, somewhat shame-faced, ‘I may have said something you wouldn’t quite like. I told her, and I don’t regret it, that I knew where to find much better bacchanals that were to be had under her parsimonious, sanctimonious roof… and I told her that I was going to stay at Damerel’s because he had invited me, you know. And she turned around and crossed herself, she crossed herself! And she said I could take my two whores with me… And I said I would. And I’m sorry about that but you won’t want to stay here. Who could stay here. She’s the very devil.’

Sam and Laura exchanged glances. ‘Closer to the action,’ marked Sam. ‘Closer to Mark,’ mouthed Laura and they both nodded.

‘Won’t he object to two extra members of staff?’ asked Laura.

‘He won’t notice. Can’t keep staff, it seems. Terrible reputation, you know. But that won’t put you off, I know, sensible girls, the pair of you.’

‘Hmmm,’ said Sam. ‘Well, in for a penny…’

‘In for a pound,’ finished Laura. ‘Lead the way, sir, we just need to collect our few belongings.’

The move to the wicked Baron’s house was an improvement, that could not be denied. The hours were far more flexible. His Lordship didn’t wake up until after noon after his night’s carousing and the duties were comparatively light. There was no Mrs Scorrier here even though the low number of staff meant that they became jack of all trades. Although Aubrey’s studies consumed him, they were able to continue their library afternoons in this new setting as he enjoyed at times their company and discussion and enjoyed presenting them as wonders to Mark who play-acted surprise and shock remarkably badly.

Finally they had the opportunity to talk to Mark and they learnt their first mistake of inter-textual travel. By ‘desire your journey’, he had meant that they should choose the role or place in the text that they desired. The books were usually accommodating and after a first uncomfortable role as a teacher of magical history at Hogwarts (a continual feat of fictionalised memory), he had been a librarian ever since. He laughed immoderately at their tales of landing in the Lanyon house under Mrs Scorrier’s rule as chamber maids.

He taught them also how to see beyond the book. It was a matter of focusing, similar to the magic eye pictures of their youths. Focusing on the distance, with a great deal of patience and practice and a strange motion of the eyes allowed them to see beyond the fictional world and back into the real world. That, Mark explained, was how to choose your next home. You only got to live through the span of a book. When the novel ended, your time there ended and the book expelled you. You had to choose a new home and there was little time in the void to make your choice before you started to feel the pull of disintegration. Best to get in a choice beforehand. As they looked through the book, they could see the new home that their text had found and smiled at the well-stocked bookcase. Mark was shocked to know that so little time had passed outside the book when he had been gone for several years by his reckoning. His aging, however, appeared to match up to the time in the outside world as there were nothing more than a few added grey hairs to suggest the passing of time.

After their long explanation, the old habits of intercourse were resurrected and Sam and Laura could pass days without exchanging a word with Mark. All four sometimes shared the library, with Mark and Aubrey completely oblivious to the world around them.

‘I wonder if I’d have been like that,’ wondered Laura one day.

‘I wonder if I would,’ echoed Sam. ‘But I don’t think so. Not really. Maybe we saved each other from it but those two…I think they were born that way!’

‘Probably,’ said Laura, smiling. ‘I can’t imagine Mark without a book in his hand! He’d look like something had been amputated…

Outside the library, their other duties were not so much onerous as dispiriting. Cleaning and kitchen work was all that was expected and high standards of either cleanliness or cuisine were not demanded. Damerel had reached the stage of drowning his sorrows nightly in flagons of wine and sitting, a maudlin drunk, at his table till all hours. Sam and Laura weren’t expected to wait upon his finishing. After the dinner things had been cleared, and as he gradually drank himself into oblivion, their duties concluded in the kitchen and they were free for the evening. Ribble or Marston had the unenviable task of dealing with broken bottles, wine stains and an incoherent master. They both agreed that they pitied Damerel, he was trying (rather stupidly and domineeringly) to be noble. Hard not to if you’d read the book and Sam found herself giving ‘his side’ to Laura when reality seemed to instinctively stir a different ‘reading’ in the mind of one who’d never read the ending. Sam couldn’t help remembering Heyer’s own dismissive comment on the appeal of Damerel – that he was a dark-hearted rake in form only on the page. His rakery was a thing of the past and the worst the reader saw was the hero in his cups. Well, close up … that was usually bad enough. Especially when you were up at the crack of dawn, trying to make the dining room look like it hadn’t been the sight of a single-handed Dionysian feast.

This last evening, some weeks after their arrival, Damerel had hardly eaten. He looked like he hadn’t shaved or seen a mirror in days. He had descended into little more than grunts and Aubrey had escaped early from the table. Sam and Laura had waited, urged on by Marston, to see if he couldn’t be coaxed (by the sheer wordless pressure of a nearby feast) to eat something to soak up the wine he shouted for at irregular intervals. Now at last they had been allowed to go and clear the table. As they entered, Damerel let out a burp.

‘Sexy,’ Laura whispered into Sam’s ear as they entered and Sam was hardly able to control the corners of her mouth from twitching into a wrath-inducing smile.

Ignored, they began to clear the table. Laura took away the used and unused crockery and Sam grabbed the chaffing dish. The rhythm of their movement was upset. Sam’s load slowed her and by the time she was almost at the kitchen, Laura had passed her in the other direction.

When Laura reached the room, the door had closed and she wavered for a second before knocking. Who knew what was going on in his mind and whether he was demanding privacy. After a moment of waiting, however, she heard movement and then the door opened and his bleary face peered down at her somewhat owlishly.

‘What do you want?’ he said thickly.

‘Just clearing the table, sir, begging your pardon,’ said Laura. A flicker of distaste running through her mind at the linguistic patterns the interaction was forcing on her. Heyer’s linguistic ticks were always most oppressive when Sam or Laura hooved into view of the storyline.

‘Come in,’ he glared, throwing the door back. ‘You should have cleared this hours ago.’

‘Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Mr Marston said as how we should leave you to eat.’

‘Damn him,’ he uttered before turning away towards the decanter on the side.

Laura moved round him to the table and began to collect some of the damage he’d apparently done to the dishes and their contents in their short absence. She heard footsteps behind her and felt a body standing uncomfortably close. A hand closed around her wrist and pulled her round.

His face wasn’t far from hers and his winey breath stung her nose. ‘You have a fine figure,’ he slurred. ‘Perhaps, one is as good as another. And I have been so good but why? What’s the point of it?’ And in slow motion, as his arms reached out to pull her closer, his head lowered towards her. Before it reached her, however, he had the unwelcome experience of a knee directed sharply towards his groin and he staggered backwards gasping. Laura narrowed her eyes and was in the act of weighing up the situation when she heard Sam’s footsteps approaching and she sighed in relief.

Sam entered the room in a bustle and was drawn up short by the evident signs of discomfort both physical and mental in the room.

‘Laura, what’s wrong?’

‘Popular romance fiction.’

‘What…’ she began before comprehension and rage flashed across her face. Striding across the room, she placed herself in front of Laura grabbing her hand in passing and holding it firmly as she faced a slowly recovering Damerel.

‘You won’t touch her again,’ she almost shouted and Laura gave her hand a squeeze whose meaning Sam couldn’t quite interpret. Laura was looking at her in mild shock. This wasn’t the easy-mannered, laughing Sam that she was used to. Damerel too looked up in surprise, his wine-pickled braining struggling to deal with the different sensory assaults from the raging pain in his groin to the sharp voiced command in his ear. Sam and Laura both stood tense as he straightened up but there was no belligerence on his face.

‘What is … It doesn’t matter. Don’t fear, I won’t kiss anyone again. It was a mistake,’ and turning he staggered towards the decanter, poured himself and glass and cast himself in his chair. ‘You cannot… you cannot go back, you know. She left. I made her leave and you cannot replace her.’

‘No-one wants to,’ said Sam.

He grunted.

‘An apology would be appreciated,’ said Laura, pulling Sam back to stand beside her.

‘An apology? What is going on? A serving girl demands an apology of me!’ he laughed, the slightly hysterical laughter of the lost. ‘Well, why not, I apologise madam.’

‘Not really what I was looking for,’ said Laura into Sam’s ear.

‘Get out now,’ he said, voice raising. ‘Leave me in peace.’

Sam and Laura exchanged glances and turned as one to the door.

Outside, they looked again at each other and with wordless consent descended to the kitchen.

As they entered, Laura turned, ‘Thank you, you know, I didn’t know you could be so fierce.’ She smiled but there was no response from Sam.

‘I’m so sorry. God, are you alright what happened?’

‘An abortive kiss. Don’t worry about me. Unpleasant but it’s not like I wasn’t expecting something like it and I had my knee sharpened and waiting and my dress arranged for maximum efficiency.’

‘Expecting it?’

‘I mean, that’s how he met Venetia, isn’t it? It seems to be his style to believe that everyone beneath him will be fainting for his kisses. Dick.’

‘Dick, indeed. I didn’t even think about it.’

‘That, my dear, is because you’re so loathe to think the worst of people. I wouldn’t change that sunny temperament for anything, although the dragon I met today was undoubtedly…pretty sexy if I’m honest.’

Sam smiled somewhat perfunctorily. ‘It’s not that you know. I just, I don’t get those sort of things happening and so I don’t think about it. I don’t care what they say, it just doesn’t happen that regularly to pudding-faced wenches like me.’ With a wry smile she reached out to push a lock of hair out of Laura’s face. ‘But this face, this one I know to be irresistible.’ She said bopping her nose with a light finger, smiling.

Laura narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips in disapproval. ‘Don’t. Don’t do that. Your face is …well it’s impossible for me to resist.’ She drew Sam closer and placing her forehead on Sam’s and whispered. ‘I’m glad that not everyone sees it. It means that I get you and no-one stole you away before we met.’

‘Not all the brooding heroes and feisty ladies in the world could do that.’

‘I know,’ said Laura, one hand resting on Sam’s hip, the other at her waist pulling her closer. And then for a moment there was no air between them as Laura’s lips brushed Sam’s and there was only the two of them.

It was Sam who pushed back, breaking the hold and returning them to a world with mountains of cleaning waiting for them. ‘But this isn’t about me, you know, Laura. Are you alright? I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I’m sorry I didn’t think…’

‘You know…I am very fine. There’s something deeply empowering about kneeing someone’s nuts to jelly.’

Sam laughed. ‘Well, let’s hope he doesn’t make any similar mistakes again. He’s full of repentance now but when he’s in his cups again… I’m not leaving you alone with him in the future, that’s for sure.’

‘Nor I you. He seemed so much less obnoxious in his worst moments when he was a couple of centuries and a fictional world away.’

As they were finishing up, they heard footsteps rushing down the hall. ‘Come quickly, you’re needed,’ cried Marston.

‘What is it, sir?’ asked Sam.

‘Miss Venetia is here…and the master’s blind drunk. Brew the coffee and then one of you come up to the dining room with me, we need to make it presentable. And the other of you will have to prepare a room for Miss Venetia…’

‘Of course, sir, straight away,’ Sam said, turning to being the process of heating the coffee while Laura went to get the laundry cupboard key.

Marston clucked in frustrated anxiety. ‘Well, hurry along!’ he said before disappearing.

Sam felt a hand on her arm and allowed herself to be pulled round. ‘Looks like we’re leaving,’ said Laura smiling and Sam was sure she was relieved.

‘Yes…where to next?’

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