…Natalia came to a great gothic gate with the words Saint-Cloud on it with a bright smile on her face. Then she looked up the long drive to the sprawling gray manor house and her face fell.
Gray stone, steep roofs, and turrets. The house looked like it should stand not under the California sun, but weather-beaten on an English moor. It seemed desperately out of place and unloved and she felt a twinge of sadness. Anxiously she walked up the drive, peering at the gray stone pathways and overgrown gardens, still fountains and dirty reflecting pools.
After knocking at the servant’s entrance, the door opened to reveal a tall, middle-aged woman in a black dress, sandy hair threaded with white, slate-gray eyes and round face narrowed in scrutiny.
“Miss Alexander, I presume.”
“You’re not slow, are you?”
What an odd first assumption to make, she thought. Do I look slow?
The woman considered her with a speculative gaze.
“And you can bend your back to hard work without complaint?”
“I suppose you’ll do for now. Follow me, please.”
They wended through narrow hallways and pleasant rooms that Mrs. Bonnie described as the servants’ dining room and living room.
“This is your first time in service?”
“Then this is your first lesson: I am Mrs. Bonnie, the housekeeper; the butler is Mr. Graham; the master’s valet is Mr. Beck. At all times we should be referred to and addressed as such by you. Never ma’am or sir. You are officially the mistress’s lady’s maid and will be addressed by the staff as Mrs. Alexander, as befits your rank as an upper servant. It hasn’t anything to do with your marital status.”
They climbed stairs up and up to another hallway.
“Are you married? Mrs. Raymond said you were unmarried.”
“No, ma’am. I’m not married.”
Mrs. Bonnie stopped before a door and gave her a perturbed look.
“I’m sorry. No, Mrs. Bonnie, I’m not.”
The housekeeper unlocked the door to a creamy milk on buttermilk white room. There were two small beds tucked under a large dormer window, a nightstand, dresser, and wardrobe for each, a round table and two chairs. A short-sleeved black dress with sheer white cuffs and a matching sheer white apron and headpiece hung on one wardrobe.
“This will be your room. Normally, you would share with the housemaid, but, as I said on the phone, we are understaffed at the moment and must all do our best to meet the duties of the estate.”
“Of course, ma—Mrs. Bonnie.” The housekeeper puckered with impatience while Natalia reddened. That habit will take some undoing.
“That is your uniform. You’ll find three more in the wardrobe. They are your responsibility to launder, maintain, and replace, if necessary.”
Uncertain what was expected, Natalia merely stared at Mrs. Bonnie.
“Well, go on, then. Put it on.” The housekeeper went to the door. “The mistress will be wanting to meet with you.”
Heart racing, Natalia quickly put on the uniform, then checked her reflection in a mirror. She smoothed an errant hair under the black velvet ribbon crowning her head. I’m a maid, she thought with some pride.
She emerged from her room and set to following Mrs. Bonnie’s long strides. Soon tight and stark hallways opened to cathedral-high ceilings and gleaming chandeliers, carved grand staircases and mahogany paneling. Archways on the first floor led to open walkways on the second, black and white diamonds of Carrara marble on the floors throughout.
“The master and mistress of Saint-Cloud are Mr. and Mrs. Dillon and you will refer to them as such. At all times you will address them as ma’am and sir. They will choose a name for you as is their right and custom.”
“They will choose a name for me?” asked Natalia.
Mrs. Bonnie stopped and narrowed her gaze. “Have you a problem with that?”
Had she? She never expected such a thing and the idea rattled around in her head for a moment. “No,” she finally replied. “Not at all.”
“Now, Mrs. Raymond has vouched for you and in lieu of an interview, you are here on a probationary basis. Perhaps a month or so. After which time, you will be reevaluated for a permanent position.”
They entered the master’s suite dressing room, soaring ceilings, gilded finishes, and a size that rivaled the entire footprint of her West Hollywood home. Mrs. Bonnie directed her to stand in the middle of the room as if she were a present to be unwrapped.
“We’ll discuss your duties later. For now you’re to meet Mrs. Dillon.”
As she waited, Natalia considered the turn of events. Only twenty-four hours before, she had accepted a call and a position she’d dreamed of but never dared expect. Now she stood less than three miles from her West Hollywood neighborhood and felt, somehow, as if she were on the other side of the world. For how suddenly different her life seemed.
She was free and employed. A mere maid but mistress of her own fate. It was early yet. She could easily return to West Hollywood and no one would be the wiser. It was strangely heady to consider. Then a couple—a much younger couple than she’d been expecting—strode into the room.
The woman, petite and pretty and polished, extended her hand. “We’re Mr. and Mrs. Dillon. You’re getting settled in, are you, Natalia?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said. Mrs. Bonnie hadn’t directed her what to do beyond addressing them, so she clumsily kissed her hand and curtseyed.
“Isn’t she a bunny?” Mrs. Dillon directed a laugh to her husband, then turned back to her. “I know this is your first time in service, but you needn’t do all that. I’m not a queen. A polite nod will suffice.”
But Natalia heard little of it. Because she was riveted by the man. Mr. Dillon. Tall and fit in an indigo sport coat and tan trousers. Auburn hair side-parted and smoothed high. Cool sage-green eyes that pinned her where she stood. He was simply beautiful, his square features raw and understated. Both young and old, somehow. His skin was high with color but lightly lined. And he wore an age-old sadness in his eyes. Perhaps it was that he bore an uncanny resemblance to Billy. Or perhaps it was because he looked at her, his gaze traveling all over her and through her, as if he needed her. Her heart felt as thick as pudding in her chest. It seemed to take everything she had to summon her attention back to her mistress.
“Yes, ma’am,” she managed to choke out.
“We’ll call you Alex. All right?”
Short and sharp and neat like Joe or Rich or Frank, she felt it very American to have a nickname and loved it instantly.
“Of course, ma’am.”
“Are you married?” Mr. Dillon asked, looking to her ring finger. “Have you any children? You are aware this is a live-in, full-time position. It will require a lot of your time.”
It seemed a bold question and Mrs. Dillon regarded him with the same astonishment Alex felt. She wasn’t nearly naïve and considered he might be one of those who abused his authority with his female staff. She would have to be on her guard.
“Go on with you to work.” Mrs. Dillon waved a shooing hand at him. “You’ve met her now. And after all, she is my maid.”
Just for a moment, he hesitated. He looked at her, seemed to look to her, his smile not lecherous but soft and sincere. And despite having just told herself to be on her guard, his searching appraisal zinged through her body and mind, lighting her up in ways she couldn’t remember feeling.
© Catherine C. Heywood 2017