Lisette finished arranging the flowers in the vase, stepping back to admire her handiwork. Yes, that would do nicely. Now all she had to do was wait for Lord Jacobs to arrive. Picking up her feather duster, she began to idly dust the window to pass the time.
The life of a maid was no bed of roses, but she had gotten lucky in her position here. Her rooms were comfortable, the food was good, and Lord Jacobs was a very warm and open employer. He didn’t treat the servants as though they were invisible, he would always greet them when they passed in the hall or engage them in conversation if they happened to be working in the same room. Everybody who worked for him loved him, and Lisette was no exception.
In fact, she probably held him in more affection than the others, given the fact that he was willing to indulge her mischievous streak. Other employers would have fired her on the spot if she’d so much as smiled at their expense; Lord Jacobs just smiled back. Sometimes he even joined in the joke.
How the two of them had fallen into this little routine, Lisette couldn’t say. No doubt it had been accidental the first time, deliberate the second (on her part) and it had just developed gradually from there. All she knew was that she always looked forward to three in the afternoon.
The latch on the door clicked, and she immediately set down the duster and turned towards it, hands folded in front of her demurely. Lord Jacobs entered his study and smiled when he saw her. “Good afternoon, Lisette. How are you today?”
“In good health and good spirits, my lord,” she answered, curtseying, “And yourself?”
“Much the same, thank you. Unfortunately, I have a lot of correspondence that commands my attention, so I’m afraid I shall be sequestered in here for most of the evening.”
“My sympathies,” Lisette said, as she gestured almost casually to the vase, “Hopefully these will brighten things up a little.”
Lord Jacobs’ smile widened slightly, his expression becoming a little more knowing as he examined the vase. “And what sort of flowers are these today?”
“Amaryllis,” Lisette answered, “There were so many different shades, I thought they would be just the thing to add some color to the room.”
“That they are.” Lord Jacobs agreed, rubbing a petal between his fingers thoughtfully. Then he bent down and gave the bouquet an experimental sniff.
Almost immediately, his nose crinkled, and he took a step back, hand rising automatically to his face. His eyes closed, his posture stiffened, and then…
Lisette responded as she always did; covering her mouth politely, she laughed, a low chuckle that spoke of intense amusement. Then she lowered her head and smiled sympathetically. “A vos souhaites.”
She wasn’t entirely sure why her employer’s sneezes amused her so much. Perhaps it was because they sounded so delicate, unlike the more powerful sneezes of the male servants. Or perhaps because he took sneezing with good humor, again unlike the other people she knew, who used them as an opportunity to complain about allergies or that they were almost certainly coming down with something. Or maybe it was just the slightly dazed expression on his face after each sneeze, which made him look oddly endearing. Whatever the reason, they made her laugh, and so it had always been.
Lord Jacobs withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket and rubbed at his nose, smiling ruefully. “I’m afraid these are another dud, Lisette. You’ll have to try again.”
“Of course, Monsieur,” Lisette answered, “Shall I leave the flowers here for now?”
He considered them. “I don’t think they’ll affect me while I’m at my desk. But if you wouldn’t mind taking them out with you when you’ve finished cleaning, just in case?”
“Certainly,” she said, “At least they aren’t on par with the Oleanders.”
“Don’t remind me,” Lord Jacobs said, although his tone was more amused than anything, “I couldn’t escape the scent. Even after you removed the flowers, I was still sneezing. I don’t think I stopped until I’d showered and gone to bed. Potent stuff.”
Lisette remembered that day; she’d lingered by the door as long as she dared, biting her lip and both hands over her mouth to stifle the sound of her laughter. It hadn’t helped that he’d muttered a few choice turns of phrase about the pollen in the air, which somehow made the whole thing even funnier. Her sides had ached for the rest of the day.
In the here and now, though, she just shrugged and said, “Perhaps we’ll have better luck tomorrow. The florist recommended the Passion Flower. It doesn’t seem like it contains much pollen.”
“I have my doubts. How many flowers have we found that don’t trigger my hayfever?”
“Five, I think. Irises, Daffodils, Snapdragons, Petunias, and one I can’t recall at the moment.”
“We’ll keep experimenting. After all, we need to know what flowers I can safely be around once I start courting a lady. It wouldn’t do to be unable to enjoy her company through all my sneezing.”
“As you say, my lord,” Lisette smiled, “Shall I continue my cleaning?”
“Go ahead. Forgive me for getting in your way.”
“It’s no trouble. In fact, I appreciate the company.” Lord Jacobs’ eyes twinkled slightly as he went over to his desk and set down a stack of envelopes. He hadn’t been joking about the amount of work he had to do. Lisette winced in sympathy and began her work in earnest.
For a while, there was a companionable silence between them, Lisette dusting the tables and cabinets while Lord Jacobs worked, the only sound the scratching of his pen. But the minute she heard a sniff from the desk, her ears pricked up, and she began to make her way towards his desk. She opened the window and shook out the duster, wanting it to be relatively clean for what came next. After all, she didn’t want him to suffer too much.
She moved behind Lord Jacobs’ chair (murmuring an apology as she did so) and started to dust the bookshelves. While she was, of course, careful, it wasn’t her fault that a certain amount of dust wound up in the air. And it was just an unfortunate quirk of nature that Lord Jacobs was rather sensitive to dust.
(Of course, she could have waited until he left the room or wasn’t using it before she cleaned his study. But where was the fun in that?)
Lisette heard him sniff again, and turned her head to watch, still dusting. Lord Jacob’s hand had paused mid-sentence, his other hand lifted up to rub at his nose. After a moment, he continued to write. But a minute later, he sniffed again, the sound unquestionably wet. He knew what was coming, because he quickly finished his current sentence and set the pen down. Retrieving his handkerchief, he lifted it to his face and held it at the ready. His shoulders tensed, and…
Lisette laughed again, not bothering to cover her mouth this time. “A vos amours, my lord.”
“Thank you.” he rubbed his nose and gave a quiet sniff before picking up his pen again. Lisette turned her attention back to her cleaning. For his sake, she hoped he finished the current letter before he needed to sneeze again.
Ten minutes and three sneezes later, she had finished dusting everything around his desk. She retreated to the window and shook out the duster again. “Almost finished, my lord. All that’s left is your desk. I can come back later if you wish.”
“Nonsense!” Lord Jacobs answered, plenty of genuine verve in his voice even though they went through this routine every day, “I prefer the job to be done all at once. Go ahead and dust. I’ll just move the papers out of the way.”
She shrugged her shoulders and approached the desk. Lord Jacobs had his papers in his hand, watching her with a mixture of amusement and affection. Lisette smiled at him and set to work. She was always extremely thorough when it came to the desk, partly because of his scrutiny, partly because it was the item he used most in the room, but mostly because it made what came next that much more entertaining.
“Chiew!” Lisette jumped at the unexpected sneeze. “A vos amours,” she said, genuinely apologetic, “There must have been more dust here than I thought.”
“I don’t mind,” Lord Jacobs answered, “It just means that it’ll be dust-free afterwards.”
“Very true,” she said, finishing the last corner, “I hope this meets with your approval.”
He ran a finger over the top of the desk and examined it critically. “It’s perfect. Have you finished in here?”
“Almost.” she said, trying to restrain a wicked smile; this was always her favorite part. “There’s one other item in the room, after all.”
With that, she crouched down next to his chair and started to dust the legs, both the chair’s and Lord Jacobs’. She slowly worked her way up, alternating between Jacobs and the chair, until all that was left was Jacobs’ face. Coming round to look him square in the eyes, she cocked her head at the duster, silently asking permission, like she always did. He inclined his head very slightly, and she reached out and placed the duster against his face, wiggling it ever so slightly.
His face was obscured by the duster, but she could imagine what he was feeling. Not only were numerous black feathers invading his nose, almost all of them had a generous layer of dust over them. It must tickle like mad. But she continued to wiggle the duster back and forth, waiting for a certain signal.
“Hih…” and there it was. Lord Jacobs’ sneezes never had any buildup, unless he was about to have a small fit. Quickly, she pulled the duster away, took a second to admire the pre-sneeze expression on his face, then moved to the window to shake out the duster one last time, ears straining to catch every sound.
“Hih…hihh…Hitchh! Ishh! Pt-chh!”
Even though her duster was clean, she remained at the window, hand over her mouth to keep her laughter from being too audible over the sound of his sneezes. They made quite a pair at the moment, him sitting at the desk in the throes of sneezing, her shaking with barely contained laughter, both paralyzed in their own way, and due to their own making. Not that Lisette minded, at least, and clearly Lord Jacobs agreed. Otherwise, they wouldn’t do this every day.
At last, Jacobs’ fit subsided with a sharp “Pshhew!” After waiting a moment to make sure there wouldn’t be any more, Lisette turned to him with a smile and a “A vos souhaites.” She had to repress another chuckle at the sight of him blinking and shaking his head, like he’d just been woken up by a beam of sunlight. How some society lady hadn’t snapped him up already…
Lord Jacobs smiled back over the top of his handkerchief, eyebrows raised. “Now really, Lisette, you are impossible. When I say to dust the objects in the room, I don’t include myself among them.”
“My apologies, my lord. I’ll remember better next time.” She curtseyed.
“I’m sure you will,” Lord Jacobs’ answered, although she could have sworn he gave her a wink, “But if you’ll excuse me, I really do have to get these papers sorted by evening. And you, I believe, have other rooms to attend to.”
Though his tone was light, there was a note of finality lurking in there. On other days, he would let her stay and they would chat while she polished and rearranged things. But he needed his privacy, and Lisette was all too happy to respect it, given all that he did for her.
She straightened up, moved to the end table, and picked up the vase of Amaryllis. “Of course, my lord. I’ll get out of your way. But if you need some tea or more ink, just ring and I’ll make sure to bring it to you.”
“Thank you, Lisette.” His head was bent over the papers again, and he was clearly getting lost in his work. Knowing she had been dismissed, she crossed over to the door and let herself out, holding on to the knob to keep her exit as silent as possible.
Once outside, she considered the vase in her hand. It seemed a shame to let the flowers go to waste. Considering her list of options, she decided to give them to the cook. Lord Jacobs would be giving a dinner party soon, and it wouldn’t hurt to butter the older woman up. Perhaps then she’d sneak Lisette and her fellow maids some samples of the delicacies she’d prepared for the occasion.
Plucking one of the blooms, she tucked it behind her ear (she would, of course, remove it before the dinner service) and set the vase in an out of the way corner for now. Then she brandished her duster and made her way towards Lord Jacobs’ bedroom, determined to make it shine for him.
A few days later, Lord Jacobs was called out into town, and was expected to be gone for most of the day. While Lisette was disappointed that they wouldn’t be able to play their usual game, she understood that his social duties took precedence, and merely set the vase of Sweet Pea flowers in her room to keep until the next day, treating the study as any other room on her duty roster.
The sky had been grey and overcast all day, but around mid-afternoon, it started to rain. It quickly went from drizzle to rainstorm to downpour, and the staff scurried around to make sure windows were closed and fires were stoked. Through it all, Lisette kept glancing at the clock, hoping Lord Jacobs had found a place to stay dry until things let up a little.
At around six o’clock, the front door opened, and there was Lord Jacobs, soaked to the skin, the cloak around his shoulders having done little to protect him from the rain. Despite looking like he’d been pulled out of the river, he retained his sense of humor. “If someone could help extract me from these wet things…?” he said mildly.
Lisette immediately stepped forward. “Of course, my lord. Mrs. Frew has already lit a fire in your room and put a warming pan in your bed. We’ll have you dry in no time.”
“I have no doubt of that. If someone could ask the cook to bring up a pot of tea…?” he said to the other servants as the two of them made their way up the stairs. As Lisette looked over her shoulder, she could see the others snapping into action. As usual, they had everything under control.
They walked into Lord Jacobs’ bedroom, Lisette shutting the door firmly behind her. “Forgive me for being so blunt, my lord,” she said as she removed his cloak, “but couldn’t you have remained in town until the storm subsided? You’d have saved yourself a lot of hassle.”
“I left when it was just a drizzle, and took shelter in an inn when it started getting worse,” Jacobs conceded, “But as it got later and later, I knew I needed to get home before you and the other servants started worrying about me. Besides, I’d rather sleep in my own bed than in a drafty inn.”
“I can understand that,” Lisette said, tugging at one of his boots, which was firmly sticking to his calf, “And on behalf of the other servants, I appreciate your thinking of us.”
“It’s the least I can do. You all do so much for me.”
“And we’re glad to do it,” Lisette smiled, “You’re a pleasure to work for, Lord Jacobs.”
She fancied she saw a flush on his cheek. “You flatter me, Lisette. Hold on, I’ll try to give you a little leverage for that boot.”
It took ten minutes to tug both boots off, Lisette being forced to work it off inch by inch. As she did so, she couldn’t help but notice that Lord Jacobs was sniffling quite a bit, even with the warmth of the fire and the steaming pot of tea that arrived for him. His voice was sounding rather blocked as well. She looked up at him in concern as she set the boots by the fire. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, of course. A little chilled, but nothing the fire won’t cure. Why…oh.” He tapped his nose and smiled a little. “Don’t worry, it takes more than a rainstorm to get me sick. This just happens sometimes. The change in temperature from cold outdoors to warm house leaves me a little congested. I’ll be fine.”
“Is there anything we can do?” Lisette asked, “Draw you a hot bath? Make you something to eat?”
“I just need to get out of these wet clothes,” Lord Jacobs shrugged, “Although…”
“Go to your room and get your feather duster. I’ll change into dry clothes while you’re gone.”
She blinked at him. “My lord?”
“A sneeze is the quickest way to clear the sinuses, is it not?”
She had to admit, he had a point. “I’ll be back in a moment, then.”
When she returned with the feather duster, Lord Jacobs was in a thick nightshirt and dressing gown, wet clothes scattered haphazardly about the room. She quickly gathered them up and put them near the fire to dry, then gestured to the chair. “Sit down.”
“My maid is giving me orders? What is this world coming to?” But he grinned and obligingly sat down. She knelt beside him and considered the duster. “I’m afraid it’s not as dusty as usual. It might not work as well.”
“It should work just fine. I don’t think I ever mentioned, but feathers on their own can make me sneeze quite a bit. One more reason I’m glad to have grown up after quills fell out of fashion.”
Lisette processed this new information with a grin. “Then this will be easier than I thought. Hold still.”
She brought the duster to his face and wiggled, as she’d done so many times before. Hearing a thick sniff, she realized that he was deliberately breathing in, inhaling as many of the feathers as he could. Pulse quickening in anticipation, she redoubled her efforts.
At the first “Hih…” she withdrew, unable to repress a laugh at the sight of black strands of feather still clinging to his nose. Unable to speak with the impending sneeze, Jacobs gestured to his dresser, and she quickly opened the top drawer and extracted a dry handkerchief.
She had just closed the drawer again when he sneezed for the first time. “Krshh!” Crossing the room in two strides, she placed the handkerchief in his hand, laughter bubbling up in her chest. He managed a grateful glance before he put the cloth to his face to catch the sneezes. “Ekshi! Shh!”
Lisette gave the laughter free reign. She knew it was bad form to laugh, especially since he was still damp from the rain and no doubt tired from the journey, but he looked especially endearing, waterlogged hair brushing against his forehead and hunched in a chair close to the fire, the white handkerchief standing out against his dark dressing gown. She shook her head and sat on the floor beside him, waiting for the sneezes to subside.
Finally, he snapped forward with a “T-cha!” before sitting up and rubbing at his nose, removing the black fluff. He took an experimental breath. “Ah, much better,” he said, voice back to normal, “Thank you for your help.”
“You’re welcome. And A vos souhaites. Forgive me for laughing, I know it’s not my place, but…”
“There’s no need to apologize. Truth be told, I’m rather fond of it.”
That caught Lisette by surprise. “Really?”
“Yes. You may be laughing at my expense, but it’s not a malicious laughter. It’s…warm. Affectionate. And rather flattering to be the cause of.”
She could feel herself blushing. “It’s just something about the way you sneeze. It’s unexpected to hear a sound like that from you, and yet it suits you so. I can’t explain it.”
“You don’t have to. I’ve been amused by it myself on occasion. You should have seen me the time I tumbled headfirst into a haystack while learning to ride. Now I understand why they call it hayfever.”
Lisette started to laugh again, and Lord Jacobs joined in. “I’m told a made quite a sight. Long strands of hay clinging to my clothes and hair, and me sneezing fit to burst as I tried to extricate myself. I had a red nose for the rest of the day.”
Lisette gripped a chair leg to steady herself as she quivered with laughter. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. It makes for a fantastic story.” His laughter died down, though the amusement was still writ all over his face. “Sometimes I tell it at parties to draw a shy lady out of her shell.”
“Do they laugh too?”
“Naturally, though they try to pretend they’re not. Still, it warms them to me considerably. Perhaps I’m considered ‘approachable’ now.”
A drop of rainwater fell on his shoulder, and it brought Lisette back to herself. “Can I get you anything else to help warm you up, my lord?”
“A blanket for my legs and a towel for my hair should be all I need, thank you.”
Lisette quickly fetched them, and sat on a nearby stool, arranging the blanket around his knees while he toweled off his hair. Once he’d tossed the towel aside, he looked at her curiously. “If I may inquire…what sort of flowers were in store for me today?”
“Sweet Pea flowers. A beautiful bouquet of purple and blue.”
“Do you think they’d affect my hayfever?”
“Hard to say,” she answered honestly, “They do have a bit of a scent, but they don’t seem very full of pollen. I suppose it just depends how sensitive your nose is.”
“We’ll find out tomorrow, I suppose.” And that was most certainly a wink he gave her. She arched her eyebrows in response. “Yes, I suppose we will.”
Lord Jacobs drew the blanket around him and smiled at her. “I’ve kept you long enough, Lisette. Go down and have some dinner, you must be starving. Have the cook bring me up something.”
“Yes, my lord,” she said, rising to her feet, “Sleep well. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Naturally,” she said, shutting the door behind her with one last chuckle, “I’m looking forward to it.”