Lillian Paine counted out each pace as she made it. She slowed as she stepped carefully off of the curb, then paused and listened as a carriage rolled slowly by. She waited a moment after it had passed to discern for any further traffic before she walked again and resumed her unspoken count. She slowed down when she reached twenty and carefully reached her toe out to feel for the edge of the walkway.
"Ah, good Morning Miss Lillian," a raspy voice bellowed out from the shop keeper's belly. He held open his door, two small brass bells jingling in the movement.
"Good Morning to you, Mr. Stewart," she smiled in his direction, allowing his hand on her elbow to guide her inside the store. She picked up a basket from near the door, where it always lay, and walked three paces towards the counter.
"What will it be today?" he asked, stepping behind the counter.
"Just some stew meat and bacon for now," she smiled politely at him as he gathered her order.
Lillian stood quietly for a moment and listened as the shopkeeper bustled about, preparing her small request. Her back itched incessantly and she longed to reach her hand around the back to soothe the twitchiness of her small sores and scratches. Instead she settled for a weighty sigh and a silent wish that life were a bit different, even if only for a moment.
It took the butcher a few minutes to finish with her order. His shuffling steps returned to her and he put her small order into the basket. She shifted her hold on it as the weight increased.
"There you go, Miss Paine. Bring the basket back on your next visit," he said as he returned to the counter.
"I always do, Mr. Stewart. Thank you," she smiled in his direction and then turned on her heel, stretching her hand out only the slightest bit as she neared the door.
Logan McMillan, Earl of Harksbury, ambled down the sidewalk, watching as his tall black boots kicked a small stone and sent it tumbling off the walkway. He looked up as a fair-haired woman exited the shop to his left, a heavily laden basket in her arms. She turned right upon leaving the door and nearly ran straight into him. He reached out and grabbed her shoulders to avoid a head-on collision and she gasped out loud, surprised at the unexpected contact.
Her eyes widened and she looked up at him.
Except that she didn't look at him, but almost through him, as if he wasn't even there.
"I'm so sorry. Please excuse my haste," she said cordially, but added nothing more as she nodded her head and then moved around him, continuing on her way.
Logan stood in silence for a moment, completely unsettled. Her eyes were a shade of blue he'd never seen on any living being. He'd been so entranced by them he'd forgotten to speak to the girl. They were an odd color, somewhere between white and pale blue. Her pupils were a stark black in comparison but much smaller than normal, making it look as though her entire eye was the color of blue ice.
"Strange eyes on that one," he said to his friend, shaking his head.
"Well, yes, that's Miss Lillian Paine. She's blind," he replied, as though that knowledge was as obvious as anything else.
"What a shame," Logan said, shrugging his broad shoulders.
Roland MacMurray laughed in response. "Perhaps you only think that because your good looks will get you nowhere with a blind woman."
Logan's green eyes danced with hearty laughter, but he only smirked in response. "Perhaps," he conceded.
They continued their walk to the gentleman's club, the blind servant quickly forgotten.
Lillian muttered to herself for the balance of her walk to the carriage, annoyed that she hadn't been paying more attention to her surroundings. She knew better than to rush out of a shop like that; she should have listened for others before turning. It frustrated her to no end when she ran into people. It showcased her biggest flaw as though she were actually trying to make it more obvious than it already was.
It was the very reason she didn't use a walking stick when she went to town. She'd tripped dozens of times when she'd made that decision but eventually she'd adjusted. She'd learned not to forget her count, to lose track of how far she'd gone before the trip was done. It was important that she not get distracted.
She returned to the carriage she had left around the corner and stuck her hand out, feeling for the edge before raising her foot and settling it onto the step.
She wished she didn't have to use the carriage at all but it was necessary. It wasn't as if she could gallivant around the streets completely alone. They were dangerous, rutted and muddy. She would let Christopher drive her within a block of her destination, then she would carefully find the walkway and she could be independent again.
She was lucky that he indulged her even that much. Most men wouldn't allow a woman to walk about unescorted, even just a block. She wasn't sure if he liked her enough to allow her the liberty or if he just liked the few moments of idle time, sitting in the carriage and waiting for her. It didn't really matter though; she was just thankful he stayed behind.
The carriage arrived back at Lord Clarkson's estate within minutes and she jumped carefully out once it rumbled to a stop near the back entrance. Just a few dozen more paces and she arrived, bursting through the servant's entrance as though she hadn't a moment to spare.
"Gods Alive Lilly, I thought I told you to make haste!" Mrs. Smith exclaimed, taking the small basket from Lillian's hands.
"Yes Mrs. Smith. I'm dreadfully sorry; traffic in town was particularly bad," she explained, bowing her refined head in remorse.
"If supper comes any later than it already is there'll be hell to pay. Just be sure it doesn't happen again. Lord Clarkson's been getting awfully testy lately. I'd hate to see him fire you," she said in her matronly tone, patting Lillian's shoulder dismissively. She could hear the portly woman set to work, putting the stew meat into a pan.
Lillian left the kitchen, knowing she'd be more of a hindrance than a help if she tried to assist in the kitchen, and returned to her small quarters. They were too small to house more than the smallest furniture and the window had a horrible draft, but they were her own, and she could retreat to them as needed. She thought occasionally of what the room might look like and for a moment was thankful for her loss of sight. The room was probably even more depressing than she imagined.
Logan McMillan returned to Harksbury, handing his jacket off to the doorman standing guard at the entrance. He retreated to his study, increasingly eager for his nightly bourbon. After pouring a generous amount into a snifter he sank down into his easy chair, sighing deeply. One hand held the wide, shallow glass and the other massaged his temple.
Today had been a long day. His current real estate holdings had increased to nearly a dozen properties, his most recent find a rather lucrative probability. He took pride in increasing his worth with each transaction, enjoyed the challenge that each property held. What he didn't like was the paperwork, the bookkeeping, and the hand holding he had to do with each reluctant seller.
He'd had to increase his last offer by ten percent just to convince the man to sell. He'd still make a tidy sum when he turned the property into a commercial venue but he hated to see any profit lost. He was a perfectionist by and large and he expected each deal to go as planned.
He sunk lower into his leather easy chair, his broad frame fitting into it like a hand to a glove. His long, muscular legs stretched out in front of him, he closed his eyes, trying to think of anything but business.
Icy blue eyes floated into his thoughts, and Logan sighed for the second time in as many minutes. Roland had been right earlier that day, for he had been disappointed when he'd discovered that the beautiful blonde girl had been blind. She would have been an easy catch, and a stunning one at that.
He took a giant gulp of his bourbon, downing the remainder of the glass.
She certainly was intriguing; she was blind and yet she gallivanted around town with more grace and independence then any woman he'd ever seen. He couldn't help but be impressed by her.
He wondered what it would be like to bed her.
Damn, but she was tempting. Assuming she wasn't a virgin, of course. He wasn't that selfish.
He clenched his teeth, his square cut jaw becoming more defined. Yes, it would certainly prove intriguing to try his charms on her. She was worth the endeavor, as she was the most striking young woman he'd seen in quite some time.
Lillian rolled out of bed a week later and winced at the pain caused by such a simple motion.
Each time her wounds would nearly heal she'd been beaten again. It seemed Lord Clarkson would always find fault in her actions and never failed to remind her of it. She'd been with him for nearly five years now and at one point she'd thought she could be happy there. He'd turned into the monster he was on a single pivotal night, one she'd hoped to forget.
Lillian grimaced as she pulled on her apron. She wished she could find the courage to leave the house and seek other employment but she knew such an idea was risky.
She'd lived on the streets for nearly two days when Lord Clarkson had agreed to hire her and she'd never felt such pain and misery as those days.
She wanted to leave so badly, but it had been hard to get this job, and she'd had help then. Raphael, a servant of her uncle's, had risked his job to help her escape. If she tried to find a job alone she wasn't sure she'd be successful. It would be especially hard with no references.
She tied the white cotton apron around her scratchy servant's dress, leaving it slightly looser than normal to allow the pain in her back to ease. She was about to leave her quarters when the door flung open, striking her on the side and pushing her backside to the wall. She winced, not moving for a moment as she waited to discover the culprit.
"Miss Paine," a low, gravelly voice spat out, and Lillian's stomach plummeted.
"Yes m'lord," she curtseyed quickly in front of him.
"What is the meaning of this?" he growled.
Lillian raised an eyebrow, unaware of what he meant.
"The meaning of what, my lord?" she asked, her voice remaining even toned.
"The basket that you stole from the butchers!" he shoved it into her, knocking her off balance.
"My Lord, I did not steal it. Mr. Stewart allows me to borrow them on my trips to town. I received that basket just yesterday," she replied, quickly righting herself and standing on two feet again.
"Rubbish!" he roared, throwing the basket into her face. "Come with me and we will return the stolen basket at once!" He grabbed her elbow violently, dragging her out of her quarters. Lillian barely managed to hold onto the item, willing her feet to catch up with him as he dragged her along.
She knew arguing was pointless, as he had these tantrums often.
Lillian struggled to keep up, trying her best to discern their location with each passing step. He pulled her along quickly as his chubby fingers dug into the flesh on her upper arm. The shuffling paces she had to do to keep up with him were disorienting her. He hauled her into the carriage and shoved her so hard she fell to her hands and knees. She quickly scrambled up onto a seat and pressed her body into the corner but he merely dropped his heavy body down inches from her, so close she felt suffocated by his presence.
They arrived in the small village just moments later and he hauled her out, giving her no chance to find the steps before pushing her violently. She stumbled and rolled into the dirt, dropping to the ground with a loud thump that forced the air from her lungs. She coughed and sputtered, hoping to catch her breath, but Clarkson grabbed her by the wrist and hauled her to her feet. Her shoulder throbbed. She felt like he'd ripped her arm straight from its socket. She grimaced at the metallic taste of blood in her mouth; her bottom lip had been throbbing since she struck her mouth on her kneecap when she fell.
Logan watched the charade from his position across the street where he'd just exited the bank. The poor young woman looked terrified and yet she adjusted her skirts and wiped the dirt off her front as though she hoped to maintain some semblance of dignity. The man clearly had other ideas. He yanked on her arm again as they crossed the street.
He could make out a faint red mark near her bottom lip as they got closer, and knew the fall had caused it. His blood heated with anger as he watched the man, his thick sausage fingers gripping her arm so tightly that her thin cotton dress had bunched under his hold. She scurried along, trying to keep pace with his enraged strides. It was all she could do to keep herself upright as the man hauled her across the street.
Logan walked a few paces down and stopped in their path. The portly man swung her around him and pushed her. He looked furious. Her feet flew from under her, trying to regain their balance, only to hit the curb of the walkway.
She cried and her hands flailed out, hoping to catch herself. Logan was there, gripping her shoulders and pulling her back to her feet. He deposited her on the walkway slightly behind his own body.
Logan watched the squat, ugly man continue forward, intent to resume his march towards the butcher's, his gaze evading Logan's face.
"Excuse me, my Lord," the stranger said in a gruff voice, as if he expected the broad shouldered man to move.
"No," Logan spat out, unmoving. The man disgusted him. How dare he harm a woman? No matter that she was a servant, she was still a woman. He didn't have to turn around and look at her to see that she was trembling.
The stranger's round eyes widened in surprise, and he looked up at the man in front of him. Logan's jaw clenched in anger as his deep green eyes blazed with fury. It was easy to see the portly man was far overmatched. Though he was thick and burly, he wasn't very tall. Logan towered over him.
"The serving girl's been caught stealing, and I intend to teach her a lesson if you'll let us be on our way," he said evenly but his eyes betrayed him. Logan saw apprehension. He saw the man for what he was- a coward who used women for his own ego, enjoying the power he had over them.
"That won't be necessary, sir. I've seen the girl in town alone and she can return the item without your assistance," he said the last word as more of a growl, finding it difficult to contain himself as his hands clenched at his sides.
"Nonsense. She works for me and I'll deal with her as I see fit," he reached for her, snaking his arm around her back and pulling her abruptly towards him.
She cried out, not a sound of surprise but rather of agony, and Logan's gaze flew to her face. It was taut with the tension of pain. He looked from the man's grip on her back to her expression once more and put two and two together.
A rush of white hot anger coursed through his veins.
"You will get your hands off of her this instant," he demanded, his voice low with fury.
The man's eyes widened but he obeyed, slowly releasing her.
They stared at each other for a moment and Logan could see the man was weighing his options.
A smirk suddenly crossed his face, puzzling Logan but doing little to lessen his rage.
"You know what, you can have her. I'm done being generous. I only took her in because I pity her, just as I expect you do. She's hardly worth the food she eats and she's worthless as a servant," Lord Clarkson continued to smirk, thinking he'd won the battle. The stranger couldn't possibly want to take in a blind servant.
Logan stared at him, unflinching. Now what should he do? He didn't want the girl for himself either; he just didn't want the man to hurt her. He looked at her face, considering the options. Her chin was stuck out in a pose of defiance, her eyes narrowed in anger at the man before her. As Logan looked down at her he remembered his previous week's thoughts.
Perhaps he did want her, in a way. Certainly not as a servant but if she was one she'd be that much more accessible. He was certain he could find something for her to do as a servant. There was something about her that was undeniably fascinating.
Besides, he wasn't the sort of man to leave a woman in the hands of someone like Clarkson. He'd never be able to look at himself in the mirror if he allowed the poor girl to be dragged home in the same violence with which she arrived.
His eyes turned back to the poor excuse for a man in front of him, and he stretched out his hand.
"You've got yourself a deal," he said and watched as the smirk melted from the man's face. He stared at Logan's outstretched hand with the look of a wild animal that had been backed into a corner. He seemed surprised that Logan had agreed to the deal.
He sighed heavily but didn't put his hand out to clasp Logan's.
"She has nothing to bring with her but the clothes on her back," the man added before spinning on his heel and marching home, leaving Logan with his new servant.
Logan turned his eyes from the retreating figure of Clarkson and instead looked at his new charge. Lillian stood still, her mouth slightly agape at the situation. Surprisingly enough, she didn't look scared. The trembling had disappeared and she was standing stock-still, her shoulders squared and her chin held high.
The two stood on the sidewalk in silence for a moment, both slightly dumbstruck by the quick turn of events.
"I suppose we may as well return that basket while we're in town," he finally said, nodding at her. He rolled his eyes at his own gesture, realizing she couldn't see him.
"Yes, of course," she replied in a quiet, mellifluous voice, and she turned and walked towards the shop, hardly slowing as she reached for the door and opened it easily.
She was certainly graceful for a blind woman.
"Hello Miss Paine," Mr. Stewart said as he looked up from his work, nodding towards Logan with a look of suspicion.
"Hello Mr. Stewart. I've brought your basket back today," she replied, setting it on the pile near the door.
"Thank you Miss Paine. Are you picking up anything for the Earl while you're here?" he gestured at the man in the doorway, more for Logan's benefit than Lillian's.
Logan watched her, wondering if she was surprised by his status. It was a small town and though the aristocrats didn't know each of the townspeople, most of them knew the aristocrats. For most it would be easy to remember those that were titled. They were wealthy and powerful.
"No thank you, Sir," Logan replied for her. The question was not lost on him. It wasn't proper for her to be walking the streets alone as she did but it would be worse for him to be seen walking with her, especially if she were not employed by him.
Lillian stayed motionless.
"Well, Miss Paine, I suspect I'll see you tomorrow then," the butcher replied and turned back to his work.
Lillian nodded and slowly exited the shop.
The two stood once again on the walkway, unsure how to proceed. "I may as well take you to Harksbury."
He reached out and grasped her wrist as if he intended to lead her. The carriage was a full three blocks' walk.
"My eyes may not work properly but my legs are just fine," she glowered, then walked on without him.
Logan couldn't decide whether to scowl or laugh at her. She certainly had an independent streak, and for a moment he wondered if he'd gotten himself in over his head. He followed her, for at least she'd gone in the right general direction.
He walked for several moments in silence, at a loss for words. He noticed that once they'd gone a block and a half, she slowed down and walked closer to him. He wondered if she was using the sound of his footsteps to help navigate but resisted the urge to ask.
"Miss Paine, if I may ask, what is your normal rate of pay?" he finally said after two blocks' walk, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
"Room and board," she replied as she walked.
"Well, yes, of course, but aside from that," he said.
"That is it, M'lord. I receive room and board in return for my services," she said, her eyes narrowing slightly.
He watched her, observing the way her eyes moved as she spoke, watching the way they adapted to her emotions. It was strange to think that she couldn't see from those eyes, and yet he could certainly see into them. They were quite expressive, showing anger, defiance and annoyance at different times.
"You receive no other compensation?" he asked again, not sure if he understood what she meant. Surely, she received at least a small stipend. All of his servants did.
"Are you daft, my lord, or just hard of hearing?" she asked, turning her head to face him.
He stopped abruptly, and she followed suit, having no other choice.
"I am neither, Miss Paine, for I hear quite fine and am far more intelligent than you may be giving me credit for. I simply find it reprehensible that the man would behave as though he is doing you a favor and then simply treat you as a slave."
His voice growled with anger again, still fuming over her situation. The man barely gave her what she needed to survive and she was left with nothing. No wonder she'd stayed with him- she certainly couldn't have saved any money to leave with if she didn't receive any! He stared at her as he fumed, so angry at Lord Clarkson that he almost didn't realize she'd spoken back to him. Almost.
"Aside from that I expect you to answer me politely. I don't tolerate disrespect," he said, and although he meant it, he didn't use a harsh tone.
Her face turned downward, as if suddenly sorry for what she'd said. "I apologize for my remark, my lord. It will not happen again." She bowed her head for a moment.
"You'll be given the same pay as the others, along with your room and board. While it may not make you wealthy you can buy what you choose with it."
He started walking again, suddenly wishing for his bourbon. While the woman's beauty was tempting, he was too distracted by the radical turn of events to really pay attention to her.
A quarter of an hour later, he watched as one of his maids walked down the hallway with Lillian, showing her to her quarters. Her small hips swayed in the movement, a single loose tendril of blonde hair gracing her back.
He ran a hand through his dark hair, sighing as he did so. The morning had certainly turned out interesting.
Lillian shut the door and leaned against it. Her eyes fluttered shut as she sighed quietly. She wanted to lie down and forget the morning had happened, despite the fact that her heart had already begun to hope for a brighter future.
The man seemed honest and the two servants she'd met seemed genuinely happy and friendly. Perhaps she finally found some good fortune; perhaps she was somewhere she could be safe.
She moved across the unfamiliar room, allowing herself the rare luxury of walking slowly, her hands held out to feel anything in her path. Her toe caught on the foot of a stool and she caught herself. The stool sat in front of a vanity and she realized as her hands roamed the surface that a mirror lay on top. A grim smile crossed her features as she shook her head, mildly amused.
She continued around the room and found not only a large bed with a thick quilt, but a small window. She couldn't see out it and enjoy the sights but she could certainly use it in the coming summer months for ventilation. In all the room felt nearly double the size of her old quarters and even had a thick plush rug near the bed to warm her feet on early mornings.
She couldn't see her new room, nor could she see her old one, but this one felt better. The damp chill in the air was that of a cool spring morning, not the bone chilling cold her old quarters had. She wondered what it looked like; she wondered if the walls were painted a bright color and if there was grass outside her window.
She sat on the edge of the bed, her thoughts shifting as she thought about her new superior. His large hands had gripped her shoulders tightly earlier that day, saving her from an embarrassing fall. He'd picked her up with such ease she could only imagine that he was a large man. His deep, throaty voice sounded quite masculine to her and she wished for a moment she could see him.
There was also something oddly comforting about him. When he'd stopped her from falling he hadn't just left her standing in front of him; he'd moved her behind his own body as if he sought to shield her from Clarkson.
It was a small gesture, really. She shouldn't have clung to that tiny fact as though it meant more than anything else she would learn about her new employer.
She sighed and pushed her thoughts away. Such feelings between a servant and her lord weren't proper, and would be considered scandalous if others knew of her thoughts.
Logan had been ambling down the main hallway when a movement caught his eye, and he stopped at the entrance to the main parlor.
Lillian was just in side, walking slowly from one side of the room to the other. Once she'd reached the wall she spun around and returned to the original side and started over again. He could vaguely hear the numbers she was whispering to herself.
Logan watched her from a distance, fascinated at her seemingly endless game. Minutes ticked by, but to Logan it seemed time was standing still.
There were times that he'd almost believe she could see where she was going. At first she'd been tripping quite a bit, sometimes on the edges of rugs, other times on chairs that had been left carelessly about. Logan grimaced slightly, knowing that he'd been the one to move the foot stool she'd tripped on, but he stayed mute, wanting to continue his silent vigil.
Her drab black gown hung on her frame loosely, hardly showing any of the curves he was dying to explore. Her thin, refined hands were held out only slightly in front of her. He leaned against a door frame and wondered why it was that she walked like that.
His movement caused very little noise but she dropped her hands and swung around, facing his direction.
He held his breath for a moment and stared at her. She looked directly at him and for a moment he doubted that she was blind. She truly did appear to see him, to be staring straight into his eyes with her pools of blue ice. He watched as she tilted her head to one side, then to the other, as if hoping to catch the noise she'd heard. He watched her shrug, dismissing it as a passerby and turning her attention back to her duties.
He knew he'd made her lose her count when she started over with a heavy sigh.
"1, 2, 3…" she counted it again, saying the numbers quietly aloud to help her memory.
Logan watched her for a few more minutes before reluctantly returning to his study. He had too much work to do to spend half the day staring at his pretty new maid.