Your Sterling Service: A Short Story Free Gift. No Purchase Necessary. Not Void in Any State.

Your Sterling Service

 

Boredom was true the assassin of a man’s body, mind, and soul. Kitt pretended he heard the particle of soul within him gasping for breath. Boredom was worse than paperwork. Paperwork made him want to gouge a screwdriver into his brain, however, the tediousness of paperwork had an outcome, whereas boredom was hellish nothingness. Kitt despised doing nothing. Soon, he thought, his soul would emit something akin to a death rattle of ennui.

When the car rolled, the air bag performed as it had been designed to, and Kitt had walked away from the mangled Bentley, bruised, cuts on his arms and legs, one retina severely detached. He was alive and back home, amid unpacked boxes and personal belonging, sitting nose down, chin and forehead resting against the padded edges of what was essentially a massage chair, and doing nothing for 50 minutes of every hour was slowly killing him.

He’d been seated this way, sleeping this way, for the last two days, with five listless, exasperatingly dull, coffee-less days to go. Yes, recovery time post-vitrectomy was important, keeping his head still was important, particularly if he wanted to maintain sight in both eyes. Being able to see was rather essential to his work and Kitt wanted to keep his job and finish the one he’d started in Rome, despite Tilly having been assigned to complete the task.

Kitt adjusted his knees on the positioning chair Bryce had hired for him, lifted his head slightly, settled his face back into the hole, and regulated his breathing, focusing his attention on something other than eons of looming tedium. Although his left eye felt scratchy, he followed the floral pattern on the Persian rug and began to count the knots of the fringed end near the entry to the kitchen. It was a very pretty rug. Not much of it was visible amid the packing boxes, but the blues, creams, and the small bit of green in the rug matched the walls and flower sprigs on the pillows that dotted the window seat in the sitting room. Mrs Valentine, the woman he’d rented the recently renovated flat from last week, had fine taste in colour and fine hazel eyes similar to the green in the rug, walls and pillows.

Over the noisy, agonal breathing of his dying soul, he heard his hazel-eyed landlady opening the door to the flat she was renovating below. Mrs Valentine would be up shortly, to tell him she was about to recommence replastering the ceiling. She’d say she hoped she didn’t disturb him too much, to which he’d reply she would not, even though she disturbed him in a most inconvenient manner.

Kitt considered the idea of moving, but the pros of living in Maresfield Gardens outweighed the cons of an irritating landlady. He resumed counting the fringe knots on the rug and waited to be disturbed.

In a moment or two the door buzzer rang. “Christ,” he muttered and spat out a few choice words as well. The landlady was not the answer to boredom he was looking for. Gingerly, he lifted his head and disengaged from the chair. Just as gingerly he walked, nose down, eyes on the floor. He reached the door, and opened it a little to the woman on the other side. The scent of cinnamon wafted in from the landing. Mrs Valentine smelled like cinnamon. How wonderful. Kitt bit his molars together.

Mae looked at her new tenant. He held the door half-shut, mouth turned-down, cold grey-blue eyes glancing up at her once before fixing back on the polished wood beneath his bare feet. The day they’d met she’d thought he’d looked hard and stern, but that had been before the car accident that had battered his face and sent him to have surgery on his left eye. He’d worn an eyepatch the day he’d come home, the day a massage chair was delivered. The patch had given him a craggy, belligerent appearance, but this morning the man looked positively brutal. Shaggy, somewhat gingery dark blonde hair stuck out at the front his forehead, one tuft a rhino horn accentuating the red crescent indentation above his eyebrows. “Good morning, Major Kitt,” she said.

Her barefoot new tenant heaved a disgruntled sigh. “Mrs Valentine.” His sullen attention stayed on his feet. Or maybe he was looking at her shoes.

Mae glanced down at her Doc Marten Mary-Janes. White plaster dust coated the black toes, and there was a smear of it on the messenger bag she wore cross-wise too. The bag was beginning to dig into her right shoulder. “Eye giving you a bit of bother this morning?”

“No. What gave you that idea?”

“Perhaps it was all the swearing I heard before you opened the door.”

“Was I swearing?” His exhale was a thinly cloaked impatient sigh. He pulled at the neckline of his grey tee and shoved a hand into a side pocket of his jogging bottoms.

She glanced at her dusty shoes again. “Well, it’s possible my ears are full of plaster dust. At any rate, I’ll be filling them with more soon enough. I won’t keep you. I just wanted to give you these to thank you for your patience while I grind and make a racket beneath you.” Jaysus, that came out a bit bawdy, but lost in his own misery and gloom he’d missed it—or he had no sense of humour at all. Whatever the case, she held the tray under his line of sight and pulled back a corner of the aluminium anyway.

“Are those…Chelsea Buns?”

“Yes, they are.”

“Where did you get them?”

“I baked them.”

“You baked them?”

“Yes.”

“You baked them for me?” he said, a clear note of annoyance in his voice.

“Yes, I was feeling compassionate this morning.”

“If you were truly compassionate you would have brought coffee.”

“I’d ask if you were feeling sorry for yourself, but you don’t strike me as the sort of man who ever feels sorry for anything. Hasn’t anyone ever done something nice for you before?”

“Not without wanting something in return. What is it you want, Mrs Valentine?”

“Oh, you are prickly.”

“I prefer to think of myself as surly.”

“Well done, you excel at surly.” Why had she bothered trying to be considerate? Before he’d signed the lease, the man told her he that his work could be sensitive and his privacy was essential, which she should have realised meant she was to leave him the hell alone. Mae thrust out the Chelsea buns and was a little surprised when he took them. She opened the flap on the messenger bag she’d overstuffed and pulled out the old Thermos Caspar had always used. “Here is where my compassion ends,” she said, shoving the insulated container beneath his nose. “Your coffee.”

Her new tenant exhaled once more, but the sound was tinged with amusement rather than testiness. His head came up and he smiled, and what a smile it was. He’d smiled pleasantly when they’d first met, and again when he’d moved in, but seeing this smile, this genuine smile he’d kept hidden behind his spiky privacy was a little arresting and, somehow, dangerous. It made her wonder what else her new tenant kept hidden.

“Forgive me.” He took the Thermos. “I apologise, Mrs Valentine. I am feeling sorry for myself. I’m spending my days with my face stuck in the hole of that…thing, that chair behind me.” He turned and looked at a blue-padded massage chair to the left of boxes dotting the sitting room behind him. “Perhaps I didn’t explain it well enough when you were here the other afternoon, when the chair was delivered. The vitreous gel was removed from the inside of my left eye for retinal re-attachment an—”

Mae made a face and held up a hand. “I don’t think I want to know that part.”

“Alright. Post-op recovery means I sit in that chair. All day. I can get up out of that chair for ten minutes every hour, to eat, shower, that sort of thing, but I need to keep my nose pointed down so my eye heals properly. That’s the pattern of my life for the next five days and I don’t do well trapped indoors.”

“You really need coffee, don’t you?”

“You have no idea.”

“No, no, I have a very good idea.”

Chelsea buns in hand, he laughed and stepped back, pushing the door open. “Do come in. Join me for a cup. I have cups in here somewhere. I also have a lovely Chemex coffee maker I’ve yet to unearth.”

Mae handed over the insulated carafe, crossed the threshold, and gazed around the flat. The man had not unpacked a thing. Boxes stretched from the kitchen to the entry. A suitcase sat open on the window seat, clothes jumbled to the right and left of the green pillows. Two small plastic bags, tops neatly tied, were full of takeaway containers. The lid of a pizza box was ajar, the half-eaten pizza inside visible. An ice bucket, a spent bottle of Vodka, green bottles drained of Heineken, and a half-empty bottle of some American bourbon stood behind the rubbish on the little table near the big bay window. She frowned.

And he noticed.

“I can assure you I do not normally live like a university student,” he said, placing the buns and coffee on the table.

“That is quite heartening to know.”

“Your relief is, shall I say, palpable. Would you mind looking in the box near the bookcase, the one on top of the ugly TV table? I believe you’ll find china in there.”

Mae set her bag beside the door and crossed the room, stepping around hip and knee-high cardboard containers until she reached the bookcase. “Isn’t there someone looking in on while you recover?” She found the box he’d indicated, opened it, and began to unwrap pieces of a vintage blue and white Minton pattern with a gilt edge.

“No. At my previous residence I had employed a very surly Scotsman, a man even more surly than I am, but he’s left me in the lurch and retired. And my colleague hasn’t been ‘round yet today.”

“Or yesterday.” She crumpled wrapping paper, searching for a cup and finding a milk jug. She dropped the paper next to the other refuse on the table. “Or the day before by the looks of it. How old is this pizza?”

“I don’t think I care for the way you’re ridiculing my breakfast and lunch.”

“You’re living exactly like a university student. Don’t you have a mother, a girlfriend or boyfriend who can stop by to visit and help out a bit?”

“Not at the moment.”

“How my heart weeps for you.”

“Yes, I can hear the sobbing from here. Please, Mrs Valentine, the coffee. If my watch is correct I have seven minutes left of being upright.”

Mae found a lump that felt like a cup and began to remove the paper.

“I understand you were a butler, Mrs Valentine.”

She turned. Above the crumpling of unwrapping china, he’d moved. Her new tenant stood right behind her, and she and looked up at him, cup in hand, feeling her eyebrows rumple her forehead as she looked at a face she found both ugly and handsome. “How did you…how did you know that?”

“I checked up on you.” He went to the table.

“Did you now?” China cup dangling from a finger, she crossed her arms, mouth pursing.

Kitt drew away the towel he’d left over the back of a dining chair and thought Mrs Valentine had a very pretty mouth. He like the way she looked in the shapeless, paint-spattered coveralls she wore with her silly Mary-Janes, liked her blonde hair in a tidy French braid, the way she played with the gold wedding band she wore on a chain around her neck, and the way the crows feet at her eyes crinkled when she squinted at him. Goddammit, she was annoying, and he reminded himself about birds and certain things birds didn’t do in their nests. That was a mistake he’d made before, when he was young, arrogant, and very, very stupid. While he may have still been arrogant, he wasn’t stupid. It was not a mistake he’d make again. This is where he wanted to, and was going to, live. “It seemed reasonable,” he said, tossing the towel onto a box. “You have my references, my employment history, my banking details. You know all about me. I wanted to know a little about you. I checked you out. Property owners check out prospective tenants. I thought it only fair I check out a prospective landlady.”

She stopped squinting, chuckled and came to the table where she set down the cup down and reached for the thermos, suddenly sounding Irish. “Oh Jaysus, you spoke with Mr Stephens next door.”

“Yes.” Indeed, Stephens, the film actor living in the flat below her home, had told him many things about Mrs Mae Valentine, but Bryce had told him even more. She sounded Irish, because she was Irish, despite her refined English accent. Kitt knew she was five years his senior, her husband, a Sicilian master gardener, had died over a decade ago, and she spoke five different languages. She also owned six properties in three very desirable areas around London, and had spent twenty-some odd years as the butler for a member of the Danish Royal Family and an Italian pasta magnate. In his line of work, it was standard operating procedure to evaluate the neighbourhood and neighbours in a new location before moving in. It was a safe thing to do. Bryce had checked out Stephens too, as well as Masterton, the tenant who had resided in the flat Mrs Valentine was renovating downstairs. It was the downstairs renovation that pegged this converted Edwardian suitable as a new residence.

“I’m sure Mr Stephens told you I’m a humourless, lonely, childless widow still pining for her dead husband. Or did you engage in that idle chatter that men have about middle-aged women, the ‘bet she was a real looker when she was younger,’ shite?”

“A bit of both. You’re not humourless, you’ll always be a looker, and Stephens is an arse.”

She snorted. “There no need to flatter me. You can have the coffee. And I must apologise. It is not my usual habit to make offhand remarks about my tenants. I’m embarrassed. Mr Stephens is a very good tenant, a property owner’s dream.”

“As I hope to be, Mrs Valentine.”

She pulled the cup from the thermos top. “Mae. Call me Mae. Yes, I was a butler, but, like your surly Scot, I retired.”

“He was nearly eighty. You’re too young to have retired.” Kitt watched Mae unscrew the lid of the old blue-green metal flask and pour steaming back brew into the china cup. The aroma of coffee drifted up when she handed him the Minton. It had been too long since he’d had anything resembling a decent cup of coffee, and it might have been euphoric recall, but the smell of this coffee was something almost holy and he breathed in the perfume.

“I’m young enough to enjoy my retirement from service, and old enough to know it was time to retire before I was surly and almost-eighty, and you are gazing at that cup like a man dying of thirst.”

“Am I?”

“It’s not instant, if that’s what worries you. May I sit?” she gestured to the chair where the towel had been.

“My manners have deserted me entirely. Please, make yourself comfortable amid the university student squalor.”

Chuckling, she had a seat, watched him drink, and poured her own cup.

Kitt went on standing, savouring being upright nearly as much as the cocoa and citrus overtones of the coffee rolling across his tongue. The coffee was a godsend and he had two incredibly ridiculous thoughts: the attractive woman drinking coffee from a metal cup was the proverbial Irish pot-o-gold and he’d just had some kind of life-changing moment. “Again,” he said after swallowing the coffee and absurd ideas, “I apologise for my appalling manners and behaviour earlier. It is not the first time I’ve been told I’m unpleasant before coffee.”

“Yes, you were a prick.” She peeled back the foil on the tray and slid it toward him.

“Are you always so honest?”

“I am.”

“Good. I like honesty. You’re not one to suffer fools. I like that too.”

“I suffer pricks even less gladly. Have a Chelsea bun.”

Kitt laughed heartily and took a bun. It was still warm. “I think I like you, Mae.”

“I’m on the fence about you.”

He laughed again. “Yes, I see I’ll have to earn your trust.”

She nodded and drank coffee. “Well, tell me about yourself.”

“I’d rather not.”

She handed him a napkin she’d found under one of the takeaway containers. “Afraid I’ll be disappointed?”

“I’m not interesting enough to be a disappointment to anyone.”

“Except your mother?”

“Now, why would you say that?”

“That’s what my mam told my brother, he’s a priest—yes, I know an Irish priest, what a cliché. When he joined the Army, she said, ‘What a disappointment ya are, Sean. I thought ya had more sense, bein’ an arrogant, educated, Jesuit!’ I don’t think he ever recovered from disappointing our mother. Were you in the Army or Royal Marines, Major Kitt?”

“Army.”

“How long? My brother spent twenty years as an Army Chaplain. He loved it until he had a traumatic experience in Bosnia. Struggles with it still. He doesn’t like to talk about his time in the Army.”

“I’d rather not discuss my time in the military either. I see no purpose in talking about the past.”

She pressed her lips together for a second. “I am sorry if I brought up unpleasant memories. With my brother’s PTSD, I ought to know better, I ought to be more sensitive. I hope I didn’t pry.”

“It’s alright. How were you to know unless you asked?” He had another mouthful of superb coffee. Do you think my reluctance to discuss my past makes me mysterious?”

“Is that what you think?”

“No, but don’t most women like men of mystery?”

“I am not most women, and men of mystery tend to be psychopaths.”

“Yes, they do.” Mrs Valentine laughed and Kitt bit into a Chelsea bun. The flavours of orange peel, cinnamon, and a hint of what his brain identified as cardamom brought another instant of unexpected delight. He licked lovely, sticky sweetness from his top lip. “These are incredible. Thank you.”

“I’m glad you like them. They’re all yours.”

“Did you make them for Stephens when he moved in to the flat beneath your home?”

She snorted. “No. You’re a special case.”

The corner of his mouth quirked. “You think I’m special.”

“Oh yes. You’re not mysterious, but you are special. Since you left the Army, you’ve worked for, if I remember your lease application correctly, Regent’s Park Consortium as a Special—there’s that word again—Risk Assessor? Is that something I can ask you?”

“Yes, that’s fine, and it’s Risk Assessment Specialist. You have a very good memory.”

“Risk Assessment Specialist, what does that mean?”

“I assess risk.”

“You mean like insurance?”

“In a matter of speaking. The Consortium transacts in precious metals, chemicals, fuels, land. I deal with people, places, and situations that are of a sensitive nature and are, at times, inhospitable. It’s my job to ensure things are safe for business to proceed. Sometimes I do that before trade commences and sometimes I do that after trade has commenced. Not so different from the army when I think about it; it’s hazardous, I see lots of the world, and there’s a non-disclosure clause in my contract, but the pay is better.”

“I see. You were in that part of the Army. Indeed, you are very mysterious.”

“Are you calling me a psychopath? No, no. After these last few minutes, I think I know you well enough to say if you believed that you’d be very honest and come right out and tell me I’m a psychopath.”

Her grin sly, she gave a nod and fell quiet.

Kitt devoured another bun, and there was nothing awkward in their silence, which was easy, companionable even. The ease should have been something he found worrying, but it felt natural. Yes, she was irritating, frustrating, and he liked her nearly as much as he liked the flat’s location, second floor position and layout with its front and rear entrances—and wasn’t it an odd thing to compare an attractive woman to an attractively laid out flat? He laughed at himself, a tiny puff of air puffing from his lips.

Mae looked at him over the rim of the metal cup as she finished her coffee. When she set the cup down she looked at her watch. “I ought to let you get back to working on embedding that red crescent indentation in your forehead.”

“I have a crescent in my forehead?”

“Right here.” Mae drew an arching line below her own hairline. “It’s like a scar, like Dr Frankenstein went in a few years back, and you healed up quite nicely after he removed your brain.”

He looked back at her wry smile. Attractively laid out flat? Had he really compared her to this flat? Had he actually thought that? Yes, he had. Maybe he’d had some of his brain removed when the vitreous gel had been drained from his eye. Kitt let out another little puffy laugh. “You’re very amusing.”

“Thank you. And you have two minutes.”

“I have three minutes,”

“Your watch is slow.” She, said eyes on the stainless Citizen on his left wrist.

“Have you grown tired of me already?”

“You are exhausting. Not as exhausting as my husband was, but a good match to his dark soul. You’re both wearying company.”

“Is Valentine your name or your husband’s?”

Her smile was soft, wistful, reverent. She touched the wedding band on the chain around her neck. Her voice as soft wistful and reverent as her smile had been, she said, “You have two minutes, and it’s Caspar’s name, but I kept the same initials. I was Mae Vincenzo. My father was Italian.”

“And your mother Irish.”

She let go of the ring and slipped back into an Irish accent. “Margaret Mae Case, from Inchigeelagh, County Cork. What about your family?”

Kitt shook his head. “No. Sorry.”

“I see,” she said. “I’ll bear in mind a never to ask about your army career, your current career, or your family again.”

“It’s nothing personal.”

“No, but it’s personal to you. I understand. I suppose we’re all, in some way, haunted by something in the past.” She rose and screwed the lip back on the thermos.

“You don’t need to leave, Mae.”

“But I do. Your mistress is calling.” She looked over to the damned massage chair and Kitt knew she was right.

He swore and she laughed. “I think you are very cruel,” he said.

“My hideous cruelty has left you enough coffee for another cup. It will stay hot in the thermos for a few hours, and if you keep the buns covered and you can have them for lunch—unless you’re,” she touched the flat, square box, “set on finishing off this pizza.” Mae stared at the box for another moment, put her hands on her hips, and gazed around the sitting room. All at once, she huffed. No, this was not going to do.

She opened the lid of the pizza box, lay the empty bottles inside, folded down the lid, grabbed the bags of rubbish, and set them on top of the box. Once everything was arranged, she lifted the stack and moved toward the door.

“Whatever are you doing?” His look was quizzical.

“I’m taking out your rubbish.”

“Why?”

At the door, she held the box against her hip, one hand on the doorknob. “Because I don’t want my flat to reek of old pizza, your time standing is up, and I feel sorry for you—well, sorry for your state. So, you sit for the next hour. I’ll get things in here a bit organised for you.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because you’re <>special, remember?”

Mae watched his cool, grey-blue eyes narrow. His mouth took on a slightly unpleasant twist. “And here we are. What do you want in return,” he said, slipping a hand into a pocket of his jogging bottoms, “my help painting or moving something heavy downstairs, once my eye has healed?”

“Why would I want anything in return?”

His head cocked to one side. “It’s called reciprocity, something for something. It’s how the world operates.”

“It’s not how I operate.”

The coldness left his features and a frown that touched on embarrassment creased his brow. “I’ve insulted you. I’m very sorry.”

Mae shook her head. “You don’t know me well enough to insult me.”

“You’re very forgiving.”

“I know you’re…a little out of sorts.” She shrugged. “Besides, life’s too precious and too short to waste time holding a grudge.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“I didn’t turn heel when you opened your front door and glowered at me a little while ago, so you decide.” Mae opened the door and set the rubbish on the other side of the threshold.

A minute later, her new tenant was in the blue-padded crescent-shaped temporary scar fabricator, and Mae began moving boxes. An hour later, in his next ten-minute ration of time on his feet, he’d showered and changed his clothes, she’d cleared three quarters of the boxes from the sitting room and organised his kitchen. The hour after that, he did ten minutes of gentle, standing stretches and read The Times and The Financial Times, the laptop on a side table propped under his nose, while she’d moved on to his arrange his bedroom. When noon rolled around, he’d dozed off, and she prepared lunch. Since the dining table near the bay window was stacked with framed pictures yet to be hung on the wall, she’d set a place for him eat at the kitchen worktop.

She started for the sitting room, to rouse him. The soles of her shoes squeaked softly on white tiles and turned soundless on the Persian rug her new tenant had asked her to leave in the flat. Not quite hunched, the man was situated in an awkward, uncomfortable-looking position on his knees, bare feet poking out over where the blue padding ended. His forearms rested on left and right padded platforms, while his face lay not quite wedged in a padded oval covered with soft-cotton cloth. His chin and forehead bore the weight of his head and took pressure off his bowed neck.

Mae thought forty-five minutes to an hour in that chair, having massage, would be relaxing. Hour after hour, with only small breaks in between, would be unpleasant, while enduring an entire week akin to torture. Jaysus, no wonder the man had been irritable this morning. She felt sorry the poor sod and she moved a little closer to the chair, to him, ready to give him a little shake to wake him, but she hesitated. He’d sprayed on a pleasant cologne, or washed with a soap that smelled of orange, bergamot, and a whisper of spicy nutmeg. It was subtle, utterly the right choice for him, and Mae decided she liked it more than was appropriate. He was her tenant, not date material or casual lover material, but she took a moment to appreciate the scent and looked at him, really looked at him, at his hands dropping over the edge of the armrest, at the small grazes across his knuckles, at a scar that ran along the inside of his left arm, at the curved pale line where a stainless watch had sat on skin that was tanned and a little freckly, at the crown of his head, at his messy, shaggy, sun-bleached at the ends dark gingery blonde hair. This man, this new tenant had a natural magnetism and strong character.

She liked to think she was, and had been, a good judge of character. He’d made that joke about being mysterious, and he was mysterious, but she was certain he wasn’t a psychopath; being in service for so many years, she’d dealt with a fair number of well-educated, manipulative men with charming façades and no remorse for their actions. This sleeping former army officer was ugly, handsome, and mysterious, but more than that, he was fascinating. Mae hadn’t met a fascinating man, a truly fascinating man, who came close to being as intriguing as Caspar, in years. She must have made some small sound of surprise. The Major stirred, groaned and lifted his head.

Another crescent bisected the other two on his face, the new one always deeper and redder than the last. Seeing it made her heart hurt in an extraordinarily wistful way that she wanted to chalked up to missing the way a man smelled, missing Caspar’s tousled bed-hair and sleep-rumpled face in the morning, missing the bright ginger cropping up in his beard the way bright ginger patches shone on her new tenant’s whiskery chin. Mae looked at bright gingery stubble on another man’s chin and laughed because bursting into tears over a dead man she still loved could be quite off putting to others.

“What?” her new, ugly-handsome, nice-smelling, enigmatic tenant said.

Mae swallowed her longing with another laugh. She made little arcing lines in the air above her forehead. “I’d tell you to go look in the mirror, but you only have ten minutes to eat your lunch.”

Kitt untangled his limbs from the chair, stood, and stretched his arms out behind his back, clasping his hands until his shoulders popped. He looked at Mae. She’d tied a makeshift tea-towel apron around her waist. He found that amusing considering she wore a pair of paint-stained coveralls. He watched her smooth the towel over her hips. “You made lunch?”

“I suspected you were tired of takeaway. So, I did what I could with what you had.”

“And what did I have?”

“Breakfast.”

She turned about and he followed her into his newly-organised kitchen, the room filled by the aroma of melted butter and fresh coffee. A stool sat beside the end of the work top peninsula where a china place setting was laid out on a placemat.

Mae gestured. “Sit or stand it’s up to you. Everything is ready.” She took the plate, moved to the cooker, lifted the lid from a frying pan, and began scooping out a billow of scrambled eggs. She returned the china to the placemat. Then she filled his cup with coffee from the glass Chemex carafe she’d found sometime in the last hour. “I’ll leave you to it now.”

“You’re not having any?”

“It’s all yours, as is the coffee. I’ll finish off the things in the pantry back there.”

She left him and went into the little room off the kitchen, the one that led to the back staircase. It dawned on Kitt that that little room was the butler’s pantry, and it amused him that the butler who was no longer a butler was organising his butler’s pantry for the next butler he’d employ. With a laugh, he pushed aside the stool, remained standing, and settled into having lunch, lifting the fork and knife, loading the pretty yellow staple of many a breakfast table onto his fork and into his mouth.

The eggs were not what he expected. The eggs were a revelation. The eggs were simple, elegant, perfect, absolute bites of joy. The eggs were the most gloriously heavenly scrambled eggs he had ever tasted.

Mae came out of the Butler’s pantry, a bottle of bourbon in hand. He looked at her, and back at the eggs, and back at her again.

“Are you choking?”

He looked at her again and smiled. “No, I’m quite fine. It’s just these eggs…”

“Are they off?” She set the bottle on the work top with a thump.

“No. They’re not off. They’re exquisite.”

“Exquisite. Right.” She scratched her cheek. “I think three-day old pizza and having your face stuck in that horrid chair must have killed your tastebuds.”

“My tastebuds are fine and these eggs are extraordinary.”

“They’re just scrambled eggs.”

They were scrambled eggs, simple scrambled eggs. Kitt had never realised he’d been looking for an anchor, but he’d knew he’d found one to hold him to a semblance of routine in his anything-but-routine life, and it all came down to scrambled eggs. What a thing to call attention to how he was getting older. Scrambled eggs, he glanced at them again and then back at Mrs Valentine. Scrambled eggs were a ridiculous thing to tell him to stop drifting. Bryce would laugh at him for that. Reed would laugh at him for that. Hell, he was laughing at himself. Maybe this was a consequence of age, of growing older and possibly wiser. Those two men were older than he was and had discovered, years ago, what he’d just ascertained. For years, he’d ribbed them about it and now the proverbial shoe was one the other foot.

But then again it wasn’t. This merely had the potential to be a shoe on the other foot. It all hinged upon what his attractive, slightly older, obviously wiser landlady had to say to what he was about to suggest. “Would you like to work for me, Mrs Valentine?”

She pulled off the tea-towel apron. “Did you just offer me employment?”

“Yes,” Kitt said. “Temporarily.”

“I am not a nurse.”

“I don’t want a nurse. I want an excellently trained butler and household manager. After watching you this morning I believe, perhaps incorrectly, that you received excellent training as a butler. You appear to have a knack of knowing exactly where everything should go. I noticed that with the way you put things in the cabinet in my ensuite. Are you excellently trained, Mrs Valentine?”

She folded up the tea-towel. “Would you care to see my references?”

“Perhaps I should see your references.”

She smiled, eyes crinkling. “Thank you, but as I said, I’m retired from service.”

“Well, I’m asking you not to be. At least for the next eight to ten weeks while I’m home recovering and working from the office. You could help me with the rigmarole of searching for a permanent replacement for my surly Scot.”

What an absurd idea. Mae looked at him, studied him, really, and mulled over the idea as much as she mulled over him. There was much about him to mull over. Chiefly, she liked him. Liking an employer was important, however, she knew very little about him, save the information on his lease application. Then again, how much had she known about her other employers when she’d first begun work for them? This was work, a business arrangement, a service arrangement, a friendly relationship, but not a friendship. She inhaled to say yes, then thought the better of it. She inhaled again, opened her mouth to say no, reconsidered, and closed it, went through the process again, and concluded that his proposition was hare-brained. At last, she shook her head. “My days in service are over, well and truly.”

“Might I point out that you live next door, above Stephens the busybody. Your commute would be brief. Also, I am hardly ever here.”

Mae gave a sigh of amusement. “How desperate you are.”

“Yes. Quite.”

She laughed again. “Might I point out you’d pay me a substantial salary for my doing very little for you.”

He frowned. “I’d pay you a substantial salary?”

While her head tipped ever-so-slightly to the right, her eyes remained level and unblinking beneath arched brows.

“I’d pay you a substantial salary.”

Mae set the tea-towel on the worktop, beside the glass coffee carafe, and an unexpected buzz gave her a nudge. She was certain she’d live to regret this, maybe even regret knowing this ugly-handsome enigmatic, moody man, but in the meantime, it was going to be interesting, challenging, refreshing. Of course, it would only be temporary, eight to ten weeks at most, and, if, at any time it didn’t suit her she could simply walk away. She said, “If we can agree on a sum, I’d be happy to accept your offer of temporary employment, sir.”

Kitt wrinkled his nose. “Sir? I’d rather you call me by my first name.”

“That would hardly be professional. There are distinct formalities best left in place. Our positions are clear. We may be friendly neighbours, but we are not friends. These are business transactions. I am your landlady, you pay me rent, and I provide you with a home. I am your employee, you pay me a salary, and I provide you a service.”

Kitt leaned against the edge of the worktop. “Yes, It’s a service arrangement. You are in service to me the way I am in service to my employer. That is very clear. I think I’d like your scrambled eggs every day for breakfast.”

“I’m serious.”

“I can see you’re a serious professional.”

“What gave it away?”

“In that big speech, you never cracked a smile. It was a little frightening.”

She arched an eyebrow. “I frighten you?”

“Frighten, irritate, impress—all that serious is terrifying, but these eggs, and your honesty are impressive, and even a bit charming. When can you start?”

“I thought I already had.”

“Indeed.” He held out his hand and she took it. The handshake sealed the deal. Bryce would draw up a contract that she would sign, and if it didn’t work out, if Mae Valentine became more of an irritation than she already was, Kitt could always let her go. And there was no way he’d ever be fool enough to let that happen.