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a brave new world (but not that brave)

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The thick muslin of the uniform is surprisingly warm, Felicity notes, as she follows Mrs Schwartz through the maze of the back staircase. She’d been given just a few minutes to settle in before the small, stern woman had appeared, ushering her into the dress, apron, and cap before ordering her to follow her down to the main floor of the house.

Also provided are thick, leather heeled boots that Felicity is grateful for in the long chambers of plain, grey stone that make up the service stairs. The outside breeze whistles through them with nowhere to go but up and then back down, mimicking the movement of the men and women they pass on their journey. All are in a hurry, clutching a shawl to be mended, shoes to be shined, or water buckets to be filled.

Felicity must admit that she appreciates the bustle. It’s what she always loved about the Earl of Chichester’s house and the War Office too. Everyone has a purpose, something to do, and all she has to do is fulfil her own.

Finally, Mrs Schwartz turns to the side when they’re just a floor above the service floor and Felicity manages a small smile when she turns back to check that the new maid is still with her. She prays she doesn’t look as out of breath as she feels; she’s just not used to traversing stairs anymore. She knows she’ll get back into the swing of it quickly enough, however.

The housekeeper pulls at the door and as Felicity follows her through, the utilitarian façade of the service staircase gives way to the elaborately decorated main hall.

Felicity feels her breath catch as she takes it in. Dark wood lines the walls with gold leaf decoration in gentle floral patterns. Elaborate tapestries hang each side of the great stone fireplace in brilliant reds and greens and Felicity’s boots click against the marble floor. It’s as beautiful as Evelyn described but unlike the girl’s giddy excitement to step foot into these grand spaces, Felicity merely feels out of place.

“Come on, you’ll have time to stare later.” Mrs Schwartz prompts, not-unkindly but curtly and Felicity swallows, hastening her pace to keep up with her.

The housekeeper knocks smartly on one of the doors off the main hall, holding her hand up to still Felicity as she steps through herself.

“Your Grace, if I might introduce the new housemaid?” She bobs in a curtsey and Felicity suddenly finds herself dusting imaginary lint off her apron as she awaits the response of the duchess.

“Of course, send her in.” The duchess speaks clearly with an obvious warmth to her voice, even though Felicity cannot yet see her face. Mrs Schwartz turns to look at her, beckoning her into the room and Felicity tugs at the apron once more before obeying.

The drawing room is far more homely than the Great Hall. It’s still incredibly grand with its high ceilings and sparkling chandelier, but the pastel green on the walls and the soft furnishings bring a far softer touch than the entranceway.

The duchess is a grand-looking woman, middle-aged with honey coloured hair and a cold-looking face that she attempts to offset with a warm smile in Felicity’s direction. She’s dressed extremely grandly in a deep purple colour trimmed with white lace, although Felicity does not that the gown looks as if it might be a few years old now. She knows that the war has made its impact even in the drawing rooms of the incredibly wealthy.

She is not alone in the room, however. Sat on the other end of the sofa upon which she perches is a young lady dressed in a white lace blouse and a long skirt in a deep red colour. The girl’s face is sharp like her mother’s but far warmer, and she too smiles at Felicity in what looks like pleasant surprise. Her hair is a deep brown colour, like that of hot chocolate, and tied away from her face in an elegant updo.

The final figure is familiar to Felicity from where he sits in the armchair adjacent to the sofa. The marquess who had been so kind to her earlier regards her with a sparkle to his eye and a gentle smirk to his lips. He appears so much grander here than he had in the automobile, now dressed in a dark blue suit that becomes him greatly. The sight of him and the memory of his kindness from earlier calms Felicity as she turns properly to face the duchess.

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Your Grace.” She greets properly, ducking into a curtsey. The duchess regards her for a moment before her polite smile grows and Felicity feels herself calm further at the sight of even the slightest hint of agreement from her employer.

It’s odd, the way even stepping into this room has reverted her to the nervous servant she was before the war. As much as she detests that she must be here, she cannot deny that it seems like it will be an easy transition of sorts.

“What is your name, dear?” The duchess questions and Felicity straightens, clasping her hands in front of her.

“Felicity.” She replies quickly and then startles at the sound of Mrs Schwartz’s gentle reminder in the form of a cough. “If it pleases you, Your Grace.” She hastens to add, swallowing thickly as she catches the housekeeper’s warning look sent in her direction.

“That’s very pretty.” The duchess comments and Felicity resists the urge to heave a sigh of relief. She should so hate to have to learn to answer to a different name.

“Thank you, Your Grace.” She nods in acknowledgement of the compliment and she smiles softly. 

“A Catholic saint, no?”

The marquess’ voice draws her attention and Felicity turns her head to see the extremely handsome man looking at her with an eyebrow raised in question.

“Miss Raisa said the same, milord. I must admit I was not aware of such a connection. My mother merely liked the name.” She explains, trying to ignore the way heat spreads across her cheeks and down her neck. It baffles her, there were plenty of men at the War Office who were incredible flirts and it’s never made her blush like this before. It’s not even as if Lord Oliver has been particularly flirtatious but there’s something about his chiselled jaw with his smile that seems to send her aflutter.

She’ll have to learn to deal with that.

“It is a beautiful name.” The duchess speaks again, drawing Felicity’s eyes away from the marquess and back to her actual employer.

“Thank you, Your Grace.” She nods appreciatively, smiling politely at the younger girl when she noticed the scrutinous eye with which she is regarding her. Felicity assumes that she is Lord Oliver’s sister and the Duke and Duchess’ daughter, Lady Thea Queen. Felicity knows that she is seventeen and very elegant but not much else.

“You are welcome to use the library, there is a ledger by the window through that door. I recall you are well educated?” The duchess informs her, gesturing to an open doorway behind her. A brief look reveals a room lined with bookshelves that quickens Felicity’s heartrate. It’s a generous offer from an employer and she is extremely excited at the prospect of getting to explore such a well-stocked library.

“I’ve received more teaching than most of my age and sex, that’s right, Your Grace.” Felicity answers the question, attempting to not let her excitement show too much. It’s clear that she’s not particularly successful as Lord Oliver lets out a small, almost affectionate chuckle as he regards her.

“Well, if you wish to continue to exercise your brain, please do so.” The duchess tells her and Felicity smiles with a nod.

“Thank you, Your Grace. That is most kind.”

“Alright, let us not keep Her Grace any longer.” Mrs Schwartz prompts after a moment and Felicity nods, turning back to the duchess to be dismissed.

“I hope you settle in well, my dear.” The grand woman tells her kindly and Felicity is truly grateful. It seems that her employers are kind and that is a grace she couldn’t have banked on. She’s glad that, if she must return to service, that it’s in service of people who seem to treat their staff with grace and kindness.

Not all are so lucky, she knows.

“Thank you, Your Grace.” Felicity bobs into another curtsey before receiving a nod from the duchess that indicates her allowance to exit the room. Felicity chances one last glance at Lord Oliver as she turns, unable to resist returning his kind smile.

Just as they reach the door, the voice of Lady Thea reigns over the room. “Do you think she might dress me? Jenkins is so boring and I’ve missed having a maid of my own.”

Mrs Schwartz continues out of the room, making it clear to Felicity to follow as even though they are discussing her, the young lady is not addressing them. The housekeeper, however, stops on the other side of the door to hear the end of the conversation.

“You mean one that doesn’t report back to me?” The duchess questions and Felicity watches as Mrs Schwartz’s lips curl into a smile. It’s clear that she holds the family in her affection and that makes Felicity smile as well.

It’s intriguing to Felicity that she might be elevated to the status of dressing one of the ladies of the house so quickly. She knows it’s more to do with a distinct lack of people in service anymore, rather than any impression she’s made on the young Lady Thea, but it’s encouraging for her experience here nonetheless.

Plus, often extra tasks such as that come with extra money, and every penny she can send home to her mother will help.

“I don’t know what you mean, Mama.” They hear Lady Thea answer through the door and both Felicity and Mrs Schwartz can’t resist a small chuckle. For a brief moment, they both break their roles and share in their amusement, both of them clearly remembering similar statements of theirs to their own mothers.

“I’ll speak to Mrs Schwartz.” The duchess answers and Mrs Schwartz gives Felicity a nod, signalling the end to their brief eavesdropping session before she leads her back over to the service door.

“We’ll give you something simple to start I think. The back rooms in the West Wing need airing. I’ll show you where the supplies are and you can get started on those.” Mrs Schwartz comments as she leads Felicity back down to the service floor.

“Yes Mrs Schwartz.” She answers simply, ready to get stuck into the work.

If she’s going to be here, she’s going to do the job well and find as much enjoyment as she can in it.

 


 

Oliver smirks to himself as he watches Thea out the corner of his eye.

Their mother left the room two minutes ago and it took Thea less than thirty seconds to start sighing impatiently. In amused obstinance, Oliver has buried his head in his book and is waiting for her to speak rather than succumbing to the young woman’s whim.

“The new maid is very pretty.” Thea finally comments and Oliver has to hide his exasperated smile as he makes a show of closing his book and looking up at his sister.

“She’s a maid, Speedy, I wasn’t particularly looking at how pretty she was.” Oliver replies simply, levelling his sister with a look. His words aren’t entirely true, he certainly has observed how warm a countenance Felicity has.

Felicity.

He did not learn of her Christian name on their ride up to the house from the train station. It is certainly unusual, as it seems she has been made aware of numerous times since arriving, but he finds that it suits her well; she is clearly not the most usual of girls. His recall of the little attention he paid in Latin reminds him of the connection to their word for happiness and he finds that rather apt.

The sound of Thea clearing her throat drags Oliver out of his thoughts and he sends her a sheepish smile when she purses her lips at him. “I’m just saying. She has a very pleasant face and she seems very kind. I shall be glad to get to know her better.”

Oliver chuckles at the declarative way in which his sister speaks. “Father has to sign off on her dressing you before you let your mind run wild on that one.” He reminds her but his tone is gentle and kind as he regards her affectionately. Despite how much she has grown since he last saw her, Oliver is glad to see her strong spirit was not one of the many casualties of the war.

“When have you known Papa to say no to me?” Thea counters with a teasing smile and a preening tilt of her shoulders, making Oliver scoff with an affectionate shake of his head.

“Of course. I forgot that he does your bidding like the rest of the world.” He teases and Thea gasps.

“Ollie!”

“Did I say it was a bad thing?”

“The implication was there!”

Oliver chuckles, reaching for the small parcel he’s had by his side since he entered the room. “I apologise, Speedy. Here.”

Thea’s eyes light up and she launches herself across the sofa in a way Oliver knows she never would if their mother were still in the room. “What is it?”

“A present.” Oliver replies in a deadpan voice and Thea sends him an unimpressed look as she takes the parcel and rights herself into a more ladylike position. Being back with his sister in the familiar environment, teasing her and making her smile, almost makes him forget where he’s been and the monstrosities he’s seen for a moment.

Almost.

“Only you would bring a present back from the front line of a war.” Thea hums as she carefully unwraps the brown paper and Oliver chuckles. The lack of tact doesn’t bother him, not from Thea, it’s all just a part of her charm.

“Technically, it’s from Paris. I stopped there on my way back.” He explains with a smile, watching as she opens the paper fully to reveal the red cardigan. He remembered during his stop in Paris how much Thea would talk of La Maison Chanel, both before he left and in her letters, so he had stopped at the boutique. He’s not at all confident in his fashion abilities but the women in the shop had been very helpful.

“Oh, Ollie! It’s so beautiful! Thank you so much.” Thea gasps, pulling the soft fabric out with a wide grin on her face.

“I hope it fits. Mama gave me your measurements.” Oliver explains and Thea smiles, grinning up at him. “Just a little something seeing as you’re so grown up now.”

“I have a feeling I will always be your Speedy to you.” Thea tilts her head, regarding him with a soft smile, and Oliver chuckles, standing and walking the few steps to the sofa.

“The way it should be.” He tells her gently, bending to press a kiss to her forehead.

 


 

It takes Mrs Schwartz longer than Felicity suspected to show her around the supply cupboard. Everything is bigger here than it was at the Earl of Chichester’s and that apparently includes the cleaning closet. Soon enough, however, she’s on her way to the ground floor of the house once more to head to the back rooms of the West Wing.

She’s making her way back across the marble floor of the hallway, following the directions Mrs Schwartz told her, when an authoritative voice stops her in her tracks.

“You there!”

Felicity freezes, immediately turning on her heels to see a tall man in an impeccably tailored suit making his way across the hallway to her. He moves as if he commands the whole place and Felicity’s eyes widen as she realises that this is her employer, the Duke of Starling.

He’s certainly an impressive man. He is well passed middle aged with an authoritative air that commands the room. His suit is extremely clean and his hair well-groomed without a lock out of place. He reeks of wealth but there’s less kindness in his face as he looks at Felicity than his son held. He raises an expectant eyebrow and Felicity’s eyes widen as she ducks into a curtsey.

“Your Grace.” She greets appropriately and his face softens slightly, although he still regards her with a very superior look.

“Are you the new maid?” He questions bluntly and Felicity bites her tongue as she wonders why he’s asking when she is quite clearly dressed in his house’s maid uniform.

“I am, Your Grace. My name is Felicity.” She explains, keeping her head bowed. She supposes he may take it as a sign of deference but truly, the intensity of his gaze just makes her uncomfortable.

“You worked in the War Office?” The duke questions and Felicity is taken back for a moment but she quickly schools her shock as she nods her head.

“Yes, Your Grace, as an analyst.” She explains and watches as the duke’s eyebrows furrow, looking at her quizzically.

“What an interesting job for a woman. I am glad to hear you did your bit for the country but I’m sure you are glad to get back to a job better suited to your abilities.”

Felicity feels her entire body tense.

This is what makes her blood boil. It’s what makes her so mad she can barely speak. It’s this attitude that lost her the job at the War Office, even though her Commanding Officer admitted she was better at the job than the man who was taking it from her. The idea that she shouldn’t work a job that involves mathematics and the sciences simply because she’s a woman is why she found herself out in the street, turned away from a job she loved in favour of a man.

She forces herself to think of her mother, forces herself to think of how the money she sends home helps her. Her mother needs the money Felicity sends. She needs it for medicine and to stay warm in the winter. She needs it for food and to buy paper and ink to write to Felicity.

“Yes, Your Grace.” Felicity bites through her teeth but the duke doesn’t appear to notice. He nods and turns walking away, leaving Felicity to turn on her heel once more and continue on her way.

She thinks of how happy she was just an hour ago. The duchess was so lovely and seems to respect the intelligence Felicity harbours. Whilst she has no reason to assume that the duke is unkind to his staff, he clearly is not accepting of women working anywhere other than service.

She supposes that keeps him in line with most of his sex, however.

She’s so deep in thought as she winds her way through the empty corridors that she is unaware of the other figure in the room she enters upon arriving at her destination.

“Good afternoon.”

Felicity squeaks as she jumps, knocking a bottle out of the basket she holds, and her eyes widen at the sight of the marquess stood by the window to the room. He’s clearly just been staring out the window, but she can’t help but think it’s an odd choice considering all the furniture is covered in cloth and there’s plenty of dust around the room.

“Oh! I’m terribly sorry, milord. Mrs Schwartz assured me none of the family would be in here.” Felicity explains, eyes dodging from side to side in an awkward shuffle. She’s very unsure of what to do, she knows she should not work in a room where a member of the family is sat.

Housemaids are the invisible work force. The idea is that the house should remain clean but the family should move through their property never seeing that work happening. 

“Please, go about your work. I can move.” Lord Oliver tells her, shaking his head as he moves towards the door.

Felicity freezes; she also knows she should never turn a family member out of a room for her to complete her work. “It’s fine, I can go and do the hall.”

“Well you’ll certainly run into someone there. We’ll both stay and speak nothing of it to the others.” He tells her with a kind smile and Felicity is baffled at the blush that spreads across her cheeks when he winks. She’s so confused by her instinctive reaction to him; she was so sure that dealing with all the flirty officers at the War Office had made her immune.

It seems that is apparently not the case with the Marquess of Starling.

He returns to his spot by the window, opening a book Felicity hadn’t noticed was on the windowsill and she finds herself watching him for a moment. He’s an extremely handsome man, well groomed and clean cut, with clear evidence of strength underneath his suit. That isn’t what keeps her staring at him though. There’s something in his eyes, something darker and harsher underneath the polite façade that being a marquess requires. He’s tense as well. It might not be too noticeable to the untrained eye but Felicity has been around enough men just back from the front to know how they hold their shoulders differently. They’re jumpier and more insular. She can spot all the signs in Lord Oliver.

When she realises she has been staring for far longer than acceptable, she jumps to pick up the bottle she missed and starts about airing the room. She takes her time dusting down the surfaces and removing the linens that line the furniture.

She is bending to clean the gilding on one of the sofas when the marquess speaks, making her jump once more. “Is this your first job in service?”

“I know I’m a little rusty, milord, but I didn’t realise I gave off such an unexperienced air.” Felicity comments as she rights herself, the words slipping out of her mouth before she thinks about them. She was never shy in teasing the officers at the War Office but she forgets where she is now. Whilst Lord Oliver is not her employer, he’s the son of her employer and she could get in major trouble for snarking.

The marquess, however, just looks down for a moment and Felicity swears she can see a slight smirk on his face. “Not at all. In fact, I was remarking on how quickly you appear to have picked up the trade.” He comments when he looks back up and Felicity chuckles herself, moving to work on cleaning the gilding on the top of the couch so that she’s not giving him her back.

“It is not my first job in service, milord. I worked for the Earl of Chichester previously.” She explains as she works the cloth across the gold pattern.

“Oh. I know his son, Carter. We were at Oxford together.” Lord Oliver comments almost absentmindedly and Felicity smiles awkwardly, not knowing what else to say.

She turns back to the gilding when he doesn’t offer anything else, the both of them falling back into what is a surprisingly comfortable silence.

Felicity is almost done when the sound of heels on the wooden floor come clacking down the corridor and she lifts her head to see Mrs Schwartz stood in the doorway. Her expression morphs from shock as she looks at Lord Oliver to stern as she turns to Felicity. “Oh! Your Lordship! Felicity, what did I tell you about avoiding the family? This might be how you did it at the Earl of Chichester’s but here we are more fastidious!”

“Please, Mrs Schwartz. Felicity tried to leave but I insisted.” Lord Oliver cuts in before Felicity can make an excuse for herself. It only would have been along the same lines but she appreciates the marquess speaking up as it holds far more weight with the housekeeper coming from him.

“I’m very sorry, milord.” Mrs Schwartz apologises nonetheless but Felicity watches as he waves the stern yet kind woman off.

“It was me, not her. I assure you. I quite enjoyed the company.” He explains gently and Felicity does not quite know how to interpret the way his eyes soften as they turn towards her.

“As you say, milord. Come on, Felicity, Lady Thea would like to see you.” Mrs Schwartz says curtly and Felicity nods, gathering up the supplies and following the housekeeper out the room. She turns quickly to bob into a curtsey to the marquess and the image of his warm smile lingers in her mind even once she’s left the room.