“Generally speaking, they have been confined to the gardener’s shed. And, on occasion, the potato cellar,” he added.
Mia frowned. “Why on earth are they in a shed? They’re used to having the run of the house.”
“I would ask you to bend your eye to the carpet in this room.”
Through a triumph of will, Mia did not roll her eyes, but instead looked down at her toes. “Yes?”
“Silk, woven in the mountains of the Kashmir,” the butler said, his voice exhibiting signs of enthusiasm for the first time. “Not only are claws deleterious, but I regret to inform you that in the wake of the duchess’ passing they developed a propensity for unconstrained urination.”
Mia took a moment to work out what he was saying. “They were probably in shock! And no wonder, if you confined them to the potato cellar. Did the duke approve of this treatment?”
“I do not disturb His Grace with domestic arrangements,” the butler said loftily.
“You didn’t even ask him?”
Nottle’s eyes shifted. “The duke has no interest in such trivial matters. However, as it has transpired, His Grace accompanied Lord Carrington to the kitchens for a late-night snack, and the dogs were discovered. I should be most grateful, Your Grace, if you could ensure that the animals are confined to the nursery at all times. I will have the carpet in that room taken up.”
“Winky and Dobbie will not be confined to the nursery, any more than they should have been in a cellar,” she told him. “Accidents will cease as they grow calmer.”
If possible, the butler’s long face grew even longer. “Am I to understand that the rugs are hostage to the emotional state of those animals? May I have your permission to keep them confined until they achieve a point of serenity, Your Grace?”
“One might almost think you were trying to be humorous, Nottle,” Mia said. But it was clear he was not. She sighed. “The dogs will reside with Charlie; since he is unlikely to spend much time downstairs, the carpets will be protected.”
Nottle inclined his head, apparently mollified. “Perhaps you can inform me, Your Grace, what sort of accommodations we should make for your ward, given his . . . condition.”
Mia’s eyes narrowed. Was that revulsion she detected? She gave him the benefit of the doubt. “My nephew is somewhat restricted in his movements, but he never causes trouble.”
“I was wondering whether some of the chambermaids who do not have strong stomachs should be reassigned.” There was a look in his eyes that confirmed he would prefer that Charlie live in the potato cellar to the nursery.
With this, Mia’s previous doubt was erased. Her face must have conveyed a warning, because he added, “For the good of the young master, of course. No one would want him discomfited by the foolishness of a country girl.”
“‘The foolishness of a country girl,’” Mia repeated. “What precisely do you mean by that?”
The butler looked down at her from his considerable height. “This household prides itself on overlooking disagreeable particulars whenever possible. It is the way of the Dukes of Pindar.”
“I understand there have been more than enough to avoid,” Mia said. “But I am the current Duchess of Pindar. Are you telling me that you foresee maids fainting at the mere sight of Charlie?”
“One would hope not,” Nottle said. “But one must be awake to such possibilities, given the child’s malformation.”
Mia came to an abrupt decision.
“You are dismissed,” she said, pulling herself up as tall as she could, which unfortunately was only to his armpit. “I am letting you go. If the duke wishes to furnish you with a recommendation, that will be entirely up to him. But I would like you gone by noon.”
Mia had dismissed only two servants before, in both cases for stealing. And in both cases, the servant in question had responded with every sign of guilt.
Nottle did not adhere to that pattern.
He too pulled himself upright until he towered over Mia—obviously using his height to try to intimidate her—and announced, “I have served the Dukes of Pindar since I was eighteen.”
“In that case, His Grace must see virtues that I do not,” Mia snapped. “He can enumerate them in his letter of recommendation. But no one in this household will retain his or her position if my nephew is treated with even the slightest sign of disrespect. You might wish to impart that to the household, Nottle, before you pack your belongings.”
“We’ll see what His Grace says to this,” the butler said, his voice all the nastier for verging on a hiss.
A sound came from the open door behind him and Chuffy walked into the breakfast room, clapping his hands lightly. “Come, come, Nottle. You don’t really think that a newlywed duke will countermand his wife’s control in domestic matters, do you?”
“This is unconscionable,” Nottle said, for the first time looking a trifle disconcerted.
“I shall not stand up for you,” Chuffy advised. “I don’t care for the way you look at me when I’ve had a drop more than is advisable.”
“I’m sure that I have never offered you the least offense.”
“Well, you’d be mistaken. I think you’re often offensive when you believe you aren’t,” Chuffy retorted. “Come now, my dear, would you like a glass of Canary wine? It’s just the thing to settle a morning stomach, I find.”
Mia discovered that she was shaking. She wasn’t used to this sort of confrontation. She retreated out the door Chuffy had just entered, followed—to her dismay—by both men.
“If you’ll excuse me, I must return to my chamber for a moment,” she said to Chuffy, ignoring Nottle. She walked back up the stairway, keeping her hands in front of her so that neither man could see they were trembling.
Upstairs, she darted back into the room, closed the door, and leaned against it. Susan looked up in surprise. She was unpacking the trunks that had arrived the night before, carefully putting Mia’s gowns in the clothes press.
“Goodness, my lady,” Susan asked, “whatever is the matter?”
“I’ve just dismissed Nottle.”
“You did what?” her maid cried.
“I let him go,” Mia said, sinking into a chair. “I told him to be gone by noon.” Her heart was still racing. “It was dreadful, Susan. He initially refused to leave until he’d spoken to the duke, but mercifully, Sir Cuthbert was very supportive.”
“Sir Cuthbert is a drunkard, but a sweet one, by all accounts,” Susan said, dropping the gown she was holding onto the bed and coming over. Her face was alive with curiosity. “What on earth made you so angry at Mr. Nottle? Mind you, I don’t care for him. He thinks entirely too much of himself. You’d think he was the duke.”
“He was rude about Charlie,” Mia said. “Beastly, really. He implied that the chambermaids would faint at the sight of his foot.”
“That is beastly.”
Mia’s heart was beginning to slow. The dark, frumpy gowns lying on the shelves of the clothes press caught her eye and she made another lightning decision. “I need some new gowns, Susan, made from silk, in beautiful colors.”