In Bed With A Stranger(5)

By: Mary Wine

Anne joined the maids bringing in water to begin dressing the mistress. Depending on Philipa’s mood, it might take up to two hours to dress their mistress. The maids flowed around Philipa cleansing her feet and hands before easing the knitted stockings up each of her legs. A fine chemise was lowered over her head and a quilted petticoat followed. It was a lovely garment, the harsher wool covered with expensive cotton from India and thousands of tiny stitches worked in pleasing designs to hold it together. Even in early spring it was needed to keep the lady warm. Warwickshire was the last estate under English rule before the land belonged to Scotland. The lord of the manor was constantly being summoned to court because of his importance as a border lord.

Anne missed her father greatly.

Times were good when the earl was in residence. Her lips twitched and she clamped them back into a firm line lest she offend Philipa. But her heart was happy as she thought about her father. Her mother was always filled with joy when he returned, even dancing at her age when the front riders burst through the gate to announce the approach of the lord of the manor. He had been at court all winter. Four long months of Philipa’s sour disposition to tolerate without his loving attention. He did adore her and her siblings but clung to tradition. Philipa was the lady of the house, so Anne fell under her direction.

Still, it was better than many others had. She had a roof over her head and food on the servants’ table below. There was a good wool dress on her back and shoes on her feet that had been made for her, not passed on from someone else. There was much she had to be thankful for. One unhappy mistress was less than many had to suffer.

At least Mary wasn’t at home.

Anne shuddered. The legitimate daughter of the house was a mean-hearted bitch and she didn’t feel a bit of shame for thinking it, either. Mary whined like a babe and could throw tantrums better than a madwoman. Even going so far as ripping good fabric because it was not as fine as something one of her friends attending court had. Philipa coddled such outbursts, finding money in the estate coffers to buy the things her daughter demanded.

Anne frowned as she faced away from Philipa. More rightly put, it was she who found the funds that made Lady Mary stop her howling. By tradition the ledger books should have been kept by Philipa and the duty taught in strictest detail to Mary. ’Twas not the case here at Warwickshire. After seeing to the duty of dressing Philipa, Anne would spend the rest of the daylight hours and even more into the night ensuring that the estate books were balanced. Her lord father had insisted that she and her siblings be educated. Yet Philipa was the one who directed where their education was put to use. Anne’s duty was the estate books and making sure that the budget was tight. Every time Lady Mary demanded more gold, it was Anne who was set the task of finding it where the lord would not notice. The funds were found either from the sale of lambs or from the cloth woven by the household staff. Anne hated seeing the waste. Warwickshire would be stronger if it wasn’t being plundered so often for vanity.

A heavy thud came from the door. A maid hurried to open it. As the wide wooden panel swung wide, the ringing of the wall bells became clear.

“The master returns, madam.”

Philipa scowled. “Well, finish dressing me you lack-wits.”

Everyone hurried while keeping their eyes lowered. Anne handed things to the other maids because she’d learned to keep out of the mistress’s reach when she was getting ready to receive her husband. Philipa was quick with a slap when she was anticipating a conversation with the earl. One of the girls fumbled a shoe and there was a sharp pop of flesh on flesh. “Get out.”

The maid lowered her head even as she backed toward the open doorway. A bright red splotch marked her face. Anne tightened her courage and knelt to take up the shoe.

“Why is it I am cursed with the worst staff in England? These Warwickshire families all breed idiots for daughters.”

No one spoke but a few stares met behind the mistress’s back. Disgruntlement was shared with silent glares. Anne stood up, grateful to have finished her task. Philipa eyed her when she failed to lower herself promptly upon standing in her eyesight.

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