Jared’s lungs seized up, and he coughed hard to get some air.
“Back are ye? Ye should have tol’ someone, Yer Grace,” a feminine voice squealed.
He stared up at the oddly dressed stranger addressing him. “You know me?”
“Know ye? I’ve knowed ye so long, I walked ye on leading strings a time or two when Nurse got too deep in her cups.”
Oh, good Lord. That couldn’t possibly be true.
“Of course, you are Miss—”
“Miss?” She cackled. “Ye always were a charmer. Look at ye now, calling old Cook a miss!”
The woman’s clothes appeared worn—a long flowered skirt with a white blouse and a bodice of sorts and a white mobcap on her head. She looked a couple hundred years out of place. He grinned sheepishly and shifted to glance around. He still sat on the low fountain wall in the secluded back garden, but he must have blacked out from the headache. Only—
He frowned. Everything in the little garden looked immaculate—no weeds—and tiny hedgerows separated groups of delicate plants.
“Are ye feelin’ all right, Master Jared? And what be ye doin’ back here in me herb garden and wif yer head all wet? Did ye dunk yer head in the fountain?”
Herb garden? He smoothed damp hair back from his face for a better look. His hair was indeed soaked, as were his clothes. What the hell had happened to him? And who was this person called Cook? Had Everston hired someone without telling him? That would be the last time his estate manager did so.
“Blimey, did ye fall in the fountain?” The odd woman frowned down at his wet clothes, her hands at her generous hips. “Ha’ ye been drinkin’ again, Master Jared? And what strange clothes be those now? Some sort of Frenchie’s clothes? Good thing His old Grace cocked up his toes, or he would take a strip off yer hide, showin’ up drunk here at Haverly and lookin’ like that.”
“His old Grace?”
“Yer pa,” she said, frowning a bit.
Was the woman some kind of ghost? And what the hell had happened to the weed patch he had stumbled through? He could not have been out more than a minute or so, and that was if he fainted—which he never did. Ever.
“Where do you live?” he asked suddenly, in case this was a joke played on him by his reprobate friends, Halworth and Bertleven—Viscount and Earl of, respectively.
She did not answer. She marched over or rather rumbled over and pressed a gnarled, greasy hand to his forehead, which he fought the urge to swat away.
“No fever,” she said and grinned, which immediately forced Jared to look away.
The sight of her teeth and gums close up would make him faint for real. Her breath unfortunately could not be avoided, for it lingered in the air and forced him to his feet. The sudden movement had him swaying unsteadily. Had he struck his head? Could he have a concussion and merely be hallucinating?
“See ’ere,” she said and grabbed his arm to steady him. “I’d best get ye into the kitchen and get ye a bite to eat. That is prob’ly what’s wrong. Drinkin’ and no eatin’.”
She tugged him through the arbor gate toward the main garden and then up a side path toward the back kitchen door. She certainly knew her way around his manor for his never having seen her before.
“I knows things are bad ’ere, Master Jared, but I’d not leave ye high and dry without old Cook. I still lives here, I do. Though I wouldn’t mind ye payin’ me the last six months of wages ye owes me.”
“Six months!” he exclaimed and stopped dead in his tracks, which almost jerked her backward as she still had a firm grip on his arm. He grabbed her mushy arm to keep her upright, not totally sure he could heave her bulk up off the ground if she fell. “Steady.”
“I didn’t mean to startle ye.” She tugged at his arm again. “Come along.”
He resisted. “Are you telling me you have not been paid in six months? And you’re an employee here?”
She looked at him as if he had grown an extra head. “I’m a servant ’ere,” she said warily.
“That’s impossible! We’ve never made our employees wait for salary.”
“I s’pose not,” she said. “No one would wait for celery. Leastways not me.”
“Not celery. Salary,” he almost shouted.
“Pay.” He tried again. “Wages. We have never made anyone wait for wages.”
“Maybe nots when ye’re here, but ye’re off in London all the time,” she pointed out calmly.
“Well, of course I am. I live in London, and I have investments to manage.”
She raised her brows, and he bristled. “Come inside. I will give you a check right now for your wages.”
He was twelve steps down the path before he realized he was alone. The woman called Cook stood where he had left her.
“What?” he said impatiently.
“A check?” The ebullient, oversized woman finally frowned. “Ye want to check on me before payin’ me wages?”
Had he fallen down the rabbit hole? He stalked back. “No, not check on you—give you a check.”
“Gimme a check?” she echoed.
Was the woman daft? Everston would certainly get an earful. Forgetting to tell Jared about this Cook woman is probably how her wages were overlooked in the first place. But for so long? Why had she not complained before now? Which he promptly asked her.
She smiled. “I weren’t about to complain about me wages iffen ye were havin’ a bit of a bad spell. I weren’t leavin’ no how. Why, I’ve known ye since ye were a babe.”
He finally understood her leading strings remark, and he stared hard at the woman. No, he had never seen her before. “You must mean my father.”
He sighed. “Come along. Let’s get your check.”
“If it’s all the same to ye, Master Jared, I’ll be waiting till ye can pay me gold sovereigns like always. I don’t know about no check.”
They were almost at the kitchen door, and the side wall of the house caught his eye. The thick coating of moss had recently been cleaned off, and the ancient bricks looked almost—not ancient. Well, at least Everston had paid for upkeep.
“Look, Cook,” he said, since that was the only name she had given, “I am not having financial problems, and I can and will pay you. Today.”
She grinned, and he winced.
“I do not—”
The sound of hoofbeats and wheels churning came from the path to the old stone stable. Seconds later, what looked to be a perfectly restored nineteenth century curricle pulled up with a magnificent pair of spirited blacks in harness. The young man driving tied off the reins and jumped down, and Jared could only stare in stunned disbelief.
Curricle Man matched Jared’s height and build and wore scuffed knee-high boots, what appeared to be knickers, and a woolen waistcoat over a loose, long-sleeved white shirt with a linen scarf stuffed in the collar. A wave of dizziness struck Jared again. Curricle Man strode over and bowed.
“Chappy said you were back, Master Jared. So I took the liberty of bringing round your curricle, so you could take straight off to see Lady Wilder.”
This tableau had quickly turned into a nightmare.
“I do this often,” Jared said. The words came out sounding like a question, and he received two incredulous looks.
“As soon as you arrive, Mast—uh, Your Grace. At least, you did on the last few visits before you left for the continent,” Curricle Man offered. “I only thought―”
“Well, do not think. Maybe this visit I choose to be different. I can change.”
Jared got the you-must-be-daft look again. Truth be told, he felt a bit daft since he had not known he owned a curricle and had no intention of driving this one until he learned how. Harness-racing sulkies he knew.
Restored curricles, not at all.
“Begging your pardon, Your Grace,” Curricle Man persisted, “but you always said if you did not go there, Lady Wilder would come here. And you hate that.” The man gave him a wary stare. “Of course, that was more than two years ago.”
Jared’s head pounded in earnest, and he fought off a wave of nausea brought on by the accompanying dizziness. He did not know these people, he had no idea what or whom they were talking about, and he feared a climactic ending to this delusional scene.
“Yes, but this year is—” He had meant to say different, but Cook—who had been strangely silent throughout their discourse—beat him to the punch.
“—Eighteen sixteen, of course,” she said, looking worried. “Are ye sure ye didn’t hit yer head back at the fountain, Master Jared?”
“Eighteen sixteen?” he asked weakly.
“Right,” the two strangers agreed in unison.
Oh, dear Lord in heaven! I am not just named after Jared Langley. I am Jared Langley, seventh Duke of Reston.
Then everything went black.