Lady Marian Russell, daughter of the Marquess of Waverly, knew she was making a horrible mistake from the moment she set foot outside that evening, but she had stepped too far into disguise to go back now. Maybe if she had not worked so hard on the accent, she wouldn’t have been believed to be of the lower class so easily. But the taverner who ran the Bow and Crown, Mrs. Tuttle, had talked with her less than two minutes before agreeing to take her on as a kitchen maid on a trial basis, so now Marian was finding herself whisked inside through the back door.
It was Will’s fault, probably. He had given her too good a recommendation, and the woman had had to listen to his praises for only a minute before she’d realized the girl in front of her was worth more than the wages she was asking for. Marian could see him sitting in a corner, his eyes locked on her notwithstanding the older fellow at the next table over trying to engage him in conversation. Will would likely be watching her all night despite her insistence she would be perfectly safe.
“You don’t know those men when they have too much to drink,” he had told her multiple times on the walk over. “I trust them only for a glass or two.”
Marian did not know why he would keep company with such men, but she kept her questions to herself. Her cousin had spent his life among them, and if anyone understood why she was doing this, it was him.
That did not, however, make her any less nervous. Sure, she had been given the job, but her fate rested on how well she was able to play the part from now on. If anyone realized who she truly was . . .
“You’ll be givin’ out the drinks,” Mrs. Tuttle said as she shuffled through the dingy passage to the kitchen. “And don’t be givin’ out anythin’ until they’ve paid. I’ve had too many a leech comin’ through lately, and I’ll have none of it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Marian said. Yet again, she gripped the folds of her skirt and lifted them out of the way of her feet. The maid she had borrowed the clothes from was a good three inches taller than her, and there had not been time to take up the hem. According to Will, the position would not stay open for long, so she couldn’t afford to wait until her dress fit properly. Will frequented the pub often enough that Marian figured he knew what he was talking about.
How hard could it be, really, serving drinks? From what she had seen when she first glanced through the window earlier that day, all she had to do was walk around with a tray and provide the right man with the right cup. True, she never indulged herself, so she would not know what drink was what, but as long as she was told what she was given, she could keep track of things. She had always considered herself rather clever, though only time would tell if her self-praise was warranted.
“Now, get to it.” Mrs. Tuttle grunted and dropped a tray into Marian’s hands.
Was that really all the training she was going to receive?
“Here,” a timid voice behind her said, and Marian turned to see another serving girl near her age. “The missus thinks everyone can read her mind. Take this to the table in the corner, and don’t let ’em push you around.” She handed Marian two cups brimming with something that smelled stronger than anything she’d ever tasted.
“Um, thank you, . . . ?” she said.
“Dinah,” the girl said.
Dinah smiled, then gave Marian a nudge.
All in all, the work was not as bad as she had feared. Some of the men had evidently had more to drink than they ought and laughed a little louder than she would like, and others watched her with keen eyes as she made her way around the room, their expressions making her nervous. Will seemed to watch them as closely as he watched her at first, though he got more and more distracted by his companions as the night went on and had stopped nearly jumping to his feet every few minutes to come to her rescue. Marian was glad she did not need her cousin to rescue her, particularly because she had told him over and over that she would be perfectly safe on her own. Besides, if ever anyone got a little too close, Dinah seemed to appear and distract them long enough for Marian to get away.
The worst part was the things the men said. Marian had overheard some of the servants back home talking, and she knew the lower class had varying degrees of lewdness compared to members of polished Society. Most of the men in this tavern were soldiers and dockhands and sailors, and they certainly did not know how to hold their tongues when inebriated as they were. Marian did her very best to ignore them unless they were asking her for another drink, but as the night wore on and the men got drunker, she worried how long she would be able to keep up her charade. Will had not been exaggerating their level of judgment.
“’Ere, miss!” came a man’s shout, startling her as she passed a table she had served multiple times already, and she bumped into a sailor as she side-stepped to avoid his friend’s wandering hand. Her foot caught on his chair, and she stumbled forward and watched in horror as her tray of drinks slid from her hands directly toward a man in a hat who had only just sat down.
As she fell along with the tray, she thought to herself that this was definitely her first and last night as a barmaid because she was most assuredly going to be dismissed.
But the hatted man reached out his hands and deftly caught the tray, balancing the drinks, and he slid it onto one palm so he could reach out and take her by the shoulder to keep her from falling right onto his lap. Only, her momentum kept her moving, and though he tried to steady her, she found herself slipping onto his lap anyway.
She waited for the drinks to spill on top of her, but when her wince of anticipation was met with nothing, she opened her eyes in surprise. The man still held the tray in one hand, and his other was wrapped around her shoulders in a protective hold.
“Easy there,” he said, his voice gentle as the tavern erupted into cheers around him. “You all right, miss?” His accent was decidedly lower-class, but he spoke with a softness she had not yet heard during her few hours as a barmaid.
Marian could hardly breathe, knowing what would happen if anyone discovered her in such an intimate position—her cousin, in particular—but she could not find the will to move. She looked into her rescuer’s face as he held her, her eyes transfixed as if they wanted to memorize every little detail, from his strong jaw to the shadow of a beard on his dirty cheeks. He wore a wide-brimmed hat that shadowed most of his face, and though she could certainly see more of him than before now that she was looking at him from his lap, in the firelight she could not make out any distinctive features outside of a crooked grin.
“Er, thank you,” she said finally and struggled to get up when she realized she had lingered there just a little too long. She found it a miracle that he was not angry with her for nearly dousing him with gin, and she knew her best chance at keeping him in a good mood was to remove herself from his presence as soon as possible. “My sincerest apologies, sir. It’s my first day working here.” Her voice came out as a mere squeak, but she didn’t mind. It probably helped sell the role she was playing.
The man smiled again as she took the tray, the gesture warm and just as soft as his voice. “Pretty lass like you should be more careful,” he said and tipped his hat to her before turning to the young man—a boy, really—seated at the table with him. Was his companion even old enough to be in a place like this?
Marian could feel the heat of her red face the whole walk back to where Dinah had paused to watch the scene unfold, and she was inordinately grateful to see Will had engaged in a game of cards and was thoroughly distracted. The man had called her pretty. No one had called her pretty before, at least not without learning who she was first.
“I wouldn’t let Mrs. T. see you cozying up to the customers,” Dinah warned, but she was smiling. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen Robin warm to someone like that though,” she added, then hurried off to deliver her drinks.
“Robin,” Marian said to herself and peeked back at the man out of the corner of her eye. Maybe it was her imagination, but she thought maybe he was looking at her too, and her cheeks blossomed with heat again. It was not as if she would likely speak to the man again, but she enjoyed the idea of a man finding her pretty. Especially a handsome man like him. “Robin,” she said again and allowed herself a little giggle before she straightened herself up to get back to business. She had a job now, after all, and Will would give her an earful if she lost it on her first day.
It was a miracle he had not already forced her to leave, and she credited that to his game, which, according to the groans and cheers coming from his table, had become quite intense.
An hour later, though, Marian realized that working an evening shift was more exhausting than she had expected. She’d thought people would go to bed at reasonable hours, but the longer she walked around the tavern and the more her feet ached in her borrowed worn-down shoes, the more she remembered that she had no idea how the lower class spent their time. That was the whole point of all of this. There was a good chance she would work late into the night, but she could not work every night, not when her parents expected her to attend social functions now that the Season was starting.
This little experiment of hers would be short-lived. Based on the number of men who had tried to pull her onto their laps to recreate her encounter with Robin, she was really starting to see that as a good thing.
After the fourth man’s attempt, Will finally stood and caught her eye, likely in an attempt to convince her it was time for him to take her home. Before she could agree, a laugh caught Marian’s attention, and she searched for the man who owned such a bright and clear laugh that differed so much from the raucous chortling she had been surrounded by all night.
“Of course,” she muttered when she realized it was handsome Robin. He and his young companion were both laughing hard enough to draw tears to their eyes, and whatever Robin was saying, it had them both in apparent stitches.
She knew she would do better to mind her own business, but Marian crept closer to their table anyway, eager to learn what could bring such a wide smile to the man’s face.
“I think this will be our best one yet,” Robin was saying as Marian got close enough to hear over the ruckus of the rest of the tavern’s occupants. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man hoard so much in one place before. He makes it too easy.”
“And the way he looked at you when you warned him what might happen,” the younger one said and clapped his hand onto the table. “Looked just like a fish pulled out of water.” He mimicked the open-mouthed gaping of a fish.
“A whole lot of people are going to have him to thank for their full bellies come next week,” Robin said happily. “And he’ll think twice before keeping so much coin in one place after we’re done. Do you not think, Miss Clumsy?”
He turned to Marian, grinning beneath his hat but hiding his eyes as he kept his head low.
She gulped. “I am sorry, sir,” she said and took a step back. “I did not mean to—”
He rose to his feet, towering over her and pulling his hat even lower. He was so tall, though, that she could almost fully see his face as he looked down at her. She most certainly caught the green hue of his eyes, a color she’d never seen before. “Don’t fret,” he said and took one of her hands, pressing it between both of his. Something cold was between his palm and hers, and alarm shook through her until he smiled again. “It’s just a little redistribution of wealth,” he said quietly. “Them rich folk deserve a little comeuppance every now and then.” And then he tossed a coin onto the table and jerked his head for his companion to follow him out the door.
Marian waited until he was gone before she looked at the thing he had put in her hand, but when she saw several coins in her palm, she nearly dropped her tray. It had to be more than most of these men made in a month. So why would he give it to her?
She jumped, turning to see Mrs. Tuttle glaring at her from the other end of the tavern with an expression that clearly told her to get back to work.
But Marian had had her fill of being a barmaid, and Will was coming nearer with an expression that said she had better leave before she got herself into trouble. “Sorry,” she squeaked and set the tray on a table before darting for the door and into the night.
“I take it you will not be coming back tomorrow,” Will guessed when she slipped her arm into his after he joined her. He tensed as soon as they started walking. “Marian, you’re shaking like a leaf. What—”
“I am cold,” she said, though she drew nearer to him not because of a chill but because she was so unnerved by the whole evening. If that was what life was like every day for a barmaid, it was no wonder being a lady’s maid was such a sought-after position. Her abigail, Millie, had never had to deal with wavering hands and leering gazes, and she’d certainly never encountered men like Robin. Or, if she had, she had never told Marian about it.
Will still seemed concerned as they walked back to Aspen House in Grosvenor Square, which probably explained his hurried pace. “I should not have let you do it,” he muttered, more to himself than to her. “There are so many things that could have gone wrong, and you’re . . .”
“What?” she asked as anger rose a bit in her chest, replacing the fear that had been burning since leaving the tavern. “I am what? Not capable of taking care of myself?”
“That is not what I was going to say,” he said through his teeth, which meant he was lying. He threw her a glance, then sighed. “You are barely eighteen, Marian. And the Bow and Crown may have been the tamest pub I could find, but that does not mean the men inside wouldn’t . . .” He swallowed the rest of his words and shook his head. “Just promise me you won’t do something like that again. Please. I nearly died of worry in there.”
She chanced a smile. She did feel guilty for dragging him into her schemes, but she could not have done it on her own. “I told you not to stay with me,” she tried, though she was not surprised when he immediately tensed up again. Will may have been a soldier for half his life, but he had still grown up in polite Society and knew better than to leave a young woman alone, particularly in a place like that.
“You must be out of your mind if you think I will ever let you wander London on your own,” he muttered.
“You want to be seen following a serving girl around Town?” she said, hoping she sounded like she was joking. She had to make sure he thought she was perfectly unaffected by the evening’s adventure. “What would the ton think of you then?”
“I don’t care what they think of me,” he said rather roughly. He may have been raised among nobility, his father being the younger son of a marquess, but being a second son himself, Will had spent most of his life among the common. Now that he was expected to live among high Society after the unexpected death of his elder brother, George, he was having a hard time adjusting. He had confided to Marian more than once how much he enjoyed being an equal amongst his fellow soldiers. Now that he was heir presumptive to a marquessate, he felt out of place, like an imposter, but returning to his life as a soldier would risk some distant relation inheriting everything instead.
Marian pulled just a little closer to him, glad they could walk under the cover of darkness without being seen. She liked to think she was brave, but she did not particularly want to be seen cowering on her cousin’s arm. Even if no one would recognize her as who she really was, dressed as a maid like this. She and Will had practically grown up together, so she had nothing to hide from him, but she wanted the rest of the world to see nothing but confidence now that she was out in Society.
“I know you miss being in the militia,” she said after she had calmed a bit, “but I am glad you are here. I don’t know if I would survive the Season without you keeping things normal.”
“I’m afraid normal might be a thing of the past,” he replied. “But you still haven’t promised.”
“To stop doing dangerous things like pretending to be a barmaid.”
“I want to make a difference in the world, Will,” she said with a sigh, dropping her head onto his shoulder as they approached her family’s London residence.
Chuckling, Will gave her a little shove, then gently knocked on the servants’ door. “Then you probably should have been born a man,” he said just as Millie opened the door. She ushered Marian inside before Will headed back to his flat.
“I’ve been worried something awful, my lady,” the abigail whispered, a candle in hand as she led Marian along the back way to her bedchamber. “You were s’posed to be back an hour ago.”
Marian apologized as much as she could, but her abigail was still in a bit of a mood when she finally left Marian alone in her chamber and closed the door behind her. She would be back to her happy self in the morning, Marian hoped.
Curling up in her blankets, she recognized how incredibly plush and warm her bed was. The whole room was warm, thanks to the glowing fire in the hearth. Most people didn’t have this sort of luxury—couldn’t even dream of affording it—and Marian got to sleep in utter comfort simply because she had been born into the right family.
“It isn’t fair,” she said to herself. Everyone deserved the basic comforts of life.
Going to the Bow and Crown had given her a taste of lower-class life, which had been her goal, but there was still so much more she needed to see. There was a whole world out there, outside of all the parties and plays and musicales. Marian had never been content to sit for hours and embroider, and she was barely average at the pianoforte and singing. She could put on a good show when forced to socialize with her equals, but like Will, she had yet to feel like she was one of them, and she did not have the excuse of having been abroad among all different ranks. Despite his greater experience, however, Will did not seem to understand that she had good reason for doing what she had.
It had started when she had caught sight of a starving street urchin on the day she and her parents had left for the country last summer, and something had changed inside her. When she’d realized people lived the same way outside of Town, she had become determined to find a way to help them.
She had been sheltered by her wealthy life, and she had resolved to change that.
The memory of a charming smile came to mind as if in reply to her thoughts, and she silently repeated Robin’s words to herself: “Them rich folk deserve a little comeuppance every now and then,” he had said.
Marian wholeheartedly agreed.