A prowler lurked outside her home—an awful, sneaking fiend who hugged to the shadows, paced the pavements, and overturned her rubbish bins just to spite her. He watched her at night through the windows. She felt his sharp eyes on her, even now.
After three nights of being stalked by such a predator, Margaret had finally confessed her fears to Uncle Chas, who sent their coachman to investigate. Of course, there was no one to be found.
As if the foul fellow would allow himself to be caught! No, her prowler was far too clever for that. A big, lumbering servant had been no match for a sneak. Heavy footsteps and a lantern’s glow were easy to anticipate, easy to avoid.
Whoever was scratching in the shrubberies beneath her bedroom window had expected a man to confront him—he would’ve been on the lookout for that—but the fiend underestimated his prey.
Tonight, Margaret would face him.
Her stalker would never return to Cambridge Terrace again.
“Right, Susan,” she whispered, careful to keep away from the windows. “You remember the plan? All you need do is sit at my dressing table and brush your hair. Do it slowly to give me time, and be sure to stay in the lamplight. I want him to see you.”
The maid fidgeted in Margaret’s heavy dressing gown. Susan’s dark hair—as close to Margaret’s own coloring as anyone in the household—hung purposefully loose down her back.
“Why must we do this, Miss? It don’t feel proper dressin’ up like a lady and pretendin’ to be what I ain’t. There’s sermons about it, warning ‘gainst falsehoods and deception.”
“There are sermons about thievery and warnings against lustful behavior, as well. I, for one, am confident we are in the right. And when our stalker is apprehended, I am certain you’ll feel much better about our little charade.”
Susan nodded, and then reached out a trembling hand to grasp the silver-handled hairbrush. Slowly, carefully, the young maid ran the bristles through her hair.
“Well done,” Margaret whispered, backing out of her bedroom. “Keep at it until you hear my signal.”
With that, she eased the door closed and slipped down the darkened corridor.
The rest of the house was quiet. Uncle Chas and Aunt Francie retired early, and the servants—save Susan—were snug in their beds. It was the perfect hour for a housebreaker to slip in unnoticed and rob them all blind.
“Not tonight, you cad,” she hissed, taking the back stairs.
Margaret had put on a brave face for the maid’s sake, but her heart drummed in her chest and her stomach pitched and rolled. Truth be told, she was terrified, yet Margaret Haselden never backed down from a challenge.
At last, she reached the tradesmen’s entrance just beyond the kitchen, where the butcher’s cart and greengrocers dropped off their weekly deliveries. Steeling her spine, bracing herself for whatever monstrosity she met on the other side, Margaret eased the rear door open.
The alley beyond was dark and damp.
Only a dim gas lamp sputtered in the cool night air. There were no servants, no horses, and—sadly—no policemen. With nowhere to run for protection, every shadow was a villain, and every muffled sound was an attack launched at her person.
She gathered her skirts and stepped out onto the pavement. The stones were slick, wet, and littered with refuse. The odor of spilled rubbish was…overpowering.
Margaret choked back a gag.
Surely, her family’s servants did not typically leave the work areas of the house in such a sad state. It was unsanitary—possibly even lethal. Uncle Chas would never allow it.
There had been someone rummaging through their bins.
She hadn’t imagined it, after all.
“Come out, you blackguard!” she called to the still night.
No one answered.
“I know you’re here. I know what you’ve been up to, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself! The Good Lord judges men who steal and…and slink behind honest people’s homes. But if you show yourself now, he might forgive you.”
Something moved out of the corner of her eye. Margaret blinked, and it was gone.
Ah. So there he was, hidden behind a milkman’s crate.
“I am not afraid of you. You picked the wrong house if you were looking for a victim. I might be a lady, but I am not so finely bred that I cannot give you a thrashing!”
She was. She couldn’t.
Why had she said that?
She’d never so much as raised her voice, let alone her fists.
“Out with you!”
Margaret lunged for the crate. It toppled and clattered to the cobblestones at her feet. Then, it began to rattle and shake. It danced across the pavement as if possessed—not by a lurking thief—but by a cursed demon spit from the mouth of Hell.
The dreadful thing was tormented!
Suddenly, the milk crate stopped. A small brown dog emerged from the opening. He sniffed, and scratched, and shook himself off. Then, he turned his gaze toward Margaret.
“Oh…” she whispered, “so it’s you.”
They locked eyes for a moment. The dog regarded her warily. Margaret blushed, feeling rather foolish for challenging such a small, sad-looking creature. He was no prowler. No peeping Tom.
She was no brave Valkyrie, only a foolish young woman terrified of…well…a terrier.
Margaret knelt on the wet stones. She held out her hands. “Shall I pet you?”
He—she checked, it was most certainly a ‘he’—sniffed her fingertips, and then offered his head for a scratch. She stroked behind his ears.
“You’re not so awful, are you? Just a little doggie. No harm to anybody.”
The dog followed her fingers as she drew him into her lap. He did not protest when she picked him up.
“What a sweet fellow you are! I bet you are hungry. Let us find you something better than kitchen rubbish to nibble on.”
The dog only yawned in answer.
“What you got there, Miss Margaret?”
She carried the scratching, squirming dog through her bedroom door and presented the little fellow to the wide-eyed maid. “I believe it is a terrier.”
Susan knelt on the carpet to offer her hands to the dog’s eager nose. “You certain, Miss? Don’t smell like no terrier. It smells like a rat caught up in so much rubbish.”
Margaret caught a strong whiff of the wriggling stray. “Ugh!” She nearly gagged. “The poor dear could use a scrubbing, that’s for sure. I cannot possibly present him to Uncle Chas and Aunt Francie in this sad state. They’ll turn him back out onto the streets before breakfast.”
The maid looked up, stunned. “You mean to keep the little beggar?”
Of course, she meant to keep him. A frightened, hungry creature in need of love and care. An orphan—much like herself—in want of a home. How could she not keep him?
“I mean to ask. Ultimately, the decision will be with my aunt and uncle. It is their home. They might object to having a dog.”
“You might object to havin’ a dog. This ‘un reeks and is like to be riddled with disease. Begging your pardon, Miss, but I needn’t remind you of the damage a flea can do.”
Fleas brought pestilence and plague. They spread quickly, furiously. They cared not for the wealth or status of their victims. Not for the good doctors who treated the fallen, nor for teary-eyed little girls who loved their mamas and papas very much.
Perhaps that was why she’d never been gifted a pet—the risk was simply too great.
But Margaret was grown now. No longer a lost, weepy girl covered in stinging red welts. Surely, she could weigh the risk herself.
“I’ll wash him. I’ll scent him. I’ll cover him in powder until he’s as white as a poodle and as fragrant as summer clover.” She stroked his matted fur from the top of his head to the tip of his tail, which wasn’t a terribly long distance, yet the little fellow seemed to revel in her soft touch.
He wagged, and whined, and gave his whole body a great shake. Then, he lay down in the pool of her skirts and breathed a long, happy sigh of relief. As if he were finally where he belonged.
Margaret smiled at the sleepy little bundle in her lap. “I shall call him Clover.”
“That’s no name for a boy dog. The other lads’ll tease him for it. Ought to name him Shadow, or Splinter, or Scrapper. Or Scratcher! Or…or…Sharp!”
She couldn’t help but laugh. “Now you’re getting carried away, Susan.”
The maid blushed and grew quieter. “Sorry, Miss. I reckon Clover is a good a name, too.”
“We shall see. Uncle Chas might not allow me to keep him. There’d be no sense naming a dog only to turn him loose. We might be getting our hopes up.”
Susan sighed. “He is right cute, in an ugly sort of way. Be a shame to let him starve.”
“Precisely. Which is why we must bathe Clover thoroughly, give him a good brushing and a decent breakfast, and hope he doesn’t piddle on the floor before I can plead his case.”
The young maid crawled to her feet. With her dark hair shining in the soft candlelight and Margaret’s rich, quilted dressing gown hiding the frayed calico frock beneath, Susan looked warm, and bright, and…happy. Together, they were like two giggling schoolgirls sharing a confidence.
Margaret was pleased to find such a friend.
“Thank you, Susan,” she said, softly. “You’ve been a great help to me tonight. Clover and I are forever in your debt.”
The maid smiled. “The night’s not over yet, Miss. We’ve still got washin’ and scrubbin’ to do, and if I don’t miss my guess, that little lad ain’t going to take kindly to any of it. One of us’ll have to hold him still whilst the other puts the soap to him.”
“But I thought dogs liked water…”
“They might if they’re born to it, but that ‘un hasn’t seen the inside of a tub in his life. He might think we’re tryin’ to drown him.”
Margaret frowned, and then gave Clover a gentle scratch behind the ears. He wasn’t a puppy. He wasn’t a house-dog or a lap-dog. He likely wasn’t even tame.
She had never owned a pet dog before. There was a great deal to learn about the clever creatures, and so very little time to do it.
“You’ll help me?” she asked.
Susan offered her a chapped, calloused hand. “I’ll help you, Miss Margaret.”
She stood, clutching a sleeping Clover in the crook of her arm. “Very well. Put a pot of water on to warm and I’ll fetch some towels. Then I shall meet you in the kitchen, and we can see what our little sneak looks like beneath all this filth.”
The three of them had no idea what they were in for.
As soon as Margaret lowered Clover into the warm, soapy bathwater, he began to growl and scratch. He nipped and gnashed, and fought with all his might to escape what was most certainly his execution.
“Oh! Hold him, Miss!” Susan cried, blindly lathering the dog through clenched, flinching eyes.
Soap suds flew about the kitchen. Water splashed across the cold slate floor. Margaret’s arms ached from the strain of wrestling the little devil.
All the while, the ungrateful baggage tried to rip her fingers off.
“Ouch, Clover! No!”
She shook her hands to break him loose. His tiny teeth were needles stabbing her tender flesh, but with soap in her eyes and a mad beast in her arms, she daren’t look to see if he’d drawn blood.
At last, he wriggled free.
Clover dropped into the bath with a loud splash, sending a wave of murky grey water breaking over Margaret’s skirts. His claws scraped at the sides of the old copper tub as he scrambled free of his watery grave.
“Catch him, Susan!”
The young maid dove for the dog. But Clover hadn’t survived years on the streets by being slow. He dodged Susan’s groping hands with ease, dashing out of the bath and scampering across the slates.
Susan landed face-first in the tub.
If it had not been a sodden horror show, it might have been funny—but neither Susan nor Margaret felt much like laughing.
Both young ladies recovered in time to see Clover slide beneath the wooden worktable. He sent a clatter of dishes and crockery in his wake, and the sound of breaking plates was loud enough to wake the laziest of maids from their lofty attic garret.
“Shh!” Margaret hissed at the pair of beady brown eyes watching her from beneath the table. It would be hard enough to explain the broken dishes without a wet dog souring her aunt and uncle’s sleep. “You’ll wake the house, you little devil!”
She reached for a folded towel and tossed it to Susan. “We’ll never drag him out from under there, but we might be able to scare him out. You go ‘round the back and drive him forward. I’ll catch him on my side.”
The maid crawled behind the worktable. She crouched low onto the slippery slate tiles, and then began poking and flapping at the hidden hound. “Get! Shoo! Come out, now!”
With a yelp, Clover darted from beneath the table.
Margaret was ready for him. She caught him in her arms and wrapped him in a soft, warm towel.
Wet—and now caught—Clover yowled bloody murder. Margaret gripped his squirming, scratching body as best she could, but it was like wrestling a crocodile. Or a greased piglet who believed himself destined to the slaughterhouse.
He leapt from her trembling arms and made a break for the kitchen steps.
“If he goes upstairs, we’ll never catch him!”
Before Clover reached the landing, a dark figure burst into the dim room. Uncle Chas, clad in his dressing gown and cap, raised a fire poker to the ceiling and prepared to strike.
“What is the meaning of this?” he bellowed.
The little dog yelped and slid across the tiles. As soon as his paws caught traction, he ran as fast as he could from the new threat…and buried himself in Margaret’s soggy skirts.
“Margaret?” Uncle Chas lowered his weapon. “Susan? What are you two doing in the kitchen? I thought we’d been set upon by burglars.”
Her heart thundered in her chest. This was not how she’d hoped to introduce her new pet to her family. With a crate’s worth of shattered dishes, a filthy, overturned tub, and two wet, defeated women, it was impossible to claim the dog civilized.
But she lied the best she could.
“…And so you see, Uncle, what I believed to be a prowler was in reality just a small dog looking for supper. He’s very sweet, only a little frightened.” Margaret scooped Clover into her arms and stroked his damp face. He looked more like an otter than a dog.
Good. Otters were adorable.
“I should like to keep him,” she continued, “as a pet. Something of my very own.”
Her uncle softened. When not fighting off housebreakers, he really was a kind and gentle soul. “Your aunt won’t like it.”
“I’ll take such good care of him—bathe him, feed him, walk him. Train him. Aunt Francie will hardly notice he is here.”
“Somehow, I doubt that.”
Margaret rose to her feet, handing the sweet and docile dog to her maid. Clover was no fool. He knew when to behave, when to make a good impression. He was doing a fine job of it now.
“Please, Uncle Chas,” Margaret begged. She was almost to tears.
Her uncle looked from the small, sleeping dog to Margaret’s upturned face. In all the years since her parents’ unfortunate deaths, she had never been a burden. She’d never gone over her allowance or defied her tutors. She never argued or pouted. She had been good and grateful toward the couple who took her in when she had no one else to turn to.
Surely, he could allow her a little indulgence, just this once.
“Very well, Margaret, but whatever he destroys comes out of your pin money.” He noted the broken dishes and flooded kitchen floor, and then chuckled lightly. “You’ll be stony broke by summer’s end.”
She grinned. Finally, something to spend her money on besides frocks and frivolities! She would buy Clover a fine basket with a warm blanket tucked into the bottom. And a leather collar with his name stamped in brass. And tug-ropes and gnaw-bones and…whatever else dogs required.
“Thank you! Thank you!” She wrapped her uncle in a tight embrace.
“You’ll clean this mess up before morning. I do not want the servants waking to such destruction.” He leveled a loving finger at her. “Your dog, your responsibility.”
Laughing, she hugged him again. “Oh! Thank you!”
Kiss Me, Your Grace is COMING SOON in 2019!