1. Mr. Frost Comes to Dinner
“Mr. Agamemnon Frost is a trifle…eccentric.”
Mason said nothing. It wasn’t his place to comment on the strangeness of Sir Randolph’s guests. The Cadwallader family had secured his services from the registry that morning, as Mr. Frost had declared himself without a personal servant for the evening dinner party.
Mason was glad of the work. With a glut of former soldiers swelling the books of the servant registry, pickings were thin. The field of battle had changed. Men were no longer needed. Not in the way they once were. Monstrous machines were the foot soldiers of the British Empire now.
The butler, Williams, strode along the lamp-lit passage, setting a quick pace. “You will see to his every need, acting as his valet. You will also attend him at table tonight.”
“I believe Mr. Frost to be a most fastidious gentleman. Very particular in his ways. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? A very fashionable man.”
Mason held back a wince. A dandy. A man no doubt obsessed with the perfect waistcoat and the absolute shine of his shoes. Mason had specified early on at the registry that he was never to be hired out to an over-perfumed fashion plate. Now he didn’t have that luxury. There were too many men who would eagerly take his place, even for so brief a situation.
He resisted the urge to pull at his collar. Just one night. He’d been hired to wait at the Twelfth Night dinner. Nothing more. He’d be gone in the morning and would ask the registry for a more stable situation. Something out of the city. Anywhere. Any part of the empire. He had to stop being particular.
Williams was talking again. “Also Mr. Frost is very important to the master of the house. I believe—” his voice dropped, though there was no one on the landing to overhear them, “—that there is an…understanding between Mr. Frost and Miss Theodora.”
Mason stopped himself from frowning. From the other servants with their hints of hushed gossip, he thought that Frost had never set foot in Holt Hall. He was intrigued, despite himself. “It’s of long standing?”
“Lady Cadwallader was married before. Theodora’s father, Mr. Isaiah Holt, owner of this house originally, had a long association with the Frost family. Their engagement was something talked of…and now the master, it appears, wishes to cement that tie.” A thin smile touched his mouth. “But enough gossip.”
Williams stopped at a bedroom door and rapped on the wood once. A muffled “Enter” followed and the butler did so. He swung the door wide and nodded to the high-backed chair set before the hearth. The new fire spat sparks and trails of smoke, the scent of wood and coal mixing with the distinctive aroma of a Toscano cigar. “Sir Randolph believes that Mason here is the perfect fit for you.”
A well-manicured hand waved, a layer of grey smoke drifting over the chair. Leather creaked as Agamemnon Frost rose. The flickering light from the lamp on the mantle lit a tall, athletic man, clean-shaven, with dark hair and eyes. Mason kept his face impassive. Over-perfumed fashion plate was a kindness.
Frost was immaculate in his grey travelling suit, the fine material uncreased, the leather of his matte-brown boots buffed to perfection. Williams had said he’d hired an aeolipile and driven up from down south, possibly London, that afternoon. Only its speed and power could battle the freezing temperatures. And that unholy machine whipped up every kind of road dirt…but Frost was clean and stain free.
“Mason, are you?” Frost’s dark gaze flicked over him, narrowing briefly on his shoulders. He frowned and turned his attention to Williams. He waved his hand, smoke snaking through the air. “Standard livery? Surely, if he must be liveried, Sir Randolph can do better.”
Mason’s teeth pressed together. Poor Theodora. He kept his hands loose and his spine straight. One night. Just one.
Williams opened his mouth, but Frost made an impatient sound and flicked his fingers at the butler. “It’s only for this evening, but Sir Randolph should know, any man who attends me has to reflect my…sartorial perfection.”
Mason pulled in a steadying breath, tasting the rich aroma of Frost’s cigar smoke. This was no way for a decorated soldier to earn his pay. Come the morning, he’d work hard to find a military man, someone pensioned out from the African campaigns. An officer. A man who didn’t set his teeth on edge.