“What a wonderful surprise!” Sarah said as she held the girl’s slight frame to her ample bosom. “Why, you’re nothing but skin and bones, love. Sit down and have a cup of tea with us.”
Emily finally let go, then noticed Ben sitting at the table.
“Stand up, lad,” Sarah said sharply. “This is Emily, your . . . stepcousin, I suppose. Emily works up at Farrington House, and we’re all very proud of her. Emily, this is Ben, Mary’s son.”
Ben stood up, surprising himself with his quick response to his aunt’s orders, and nodded.
“Hello.” Emily looked to Sarah for more explanation. But her stepmother wanted her all to herself, at least for a little while.
“Ben, if you’re finished why don’t you go out to the wash house and have a look round the place? Emily and I haven’t seen each other for donkey’s years.”
Ben was all too eager to be free. Gulping down his tea, he took himself off.
“Emily, sweetheart.” Sarah’s eyes were warm and questioning, and Emily sank down in front of the hearth.
“Has Ben come for a visit, Sarah?”
“I’ll tell you about it later. But first I want to hear all about you! How long can you stay?”
“Just a couple of hours.”
Sarah took the girl’s hands. If only she saw more of her, the only one of Joseph’s children she really felt comfortable with. Such a sensible girl.
The wind had whipped some colour into Emily’s freckled cheeks, but now it faded.
“You look very tired, dear.”
“You can’t imagine how things have been, Sarah!”
It was a relief to spill out the situation to Sarah.
“I feel so trapped, no matter which way I turn. What if I can’t make a success of looking after both ladies and I lose my job? But then, if Lady Farrington engages a maid for Miss Allbright, there’s the worry of how I’ll get on with whoever it is.”
“The new maid might be a kindred spirit,” Sarah offered.
“Or she might be another Hester! We know how unusual it is to be a lady’s maid at my age, and coming from, well, here.” Emily waved a hand round the dark little room, now brightened with sprigs of holly that Sarah had tucked here and there for Christmas. “Hester resents me, and a new maid probably would, too. But I have an idea.”
Her face brightened as she pulled her chair closer.
“What if Jenny were to come and take up a post? I don’t know how I could put it to Lady Farrington, but I think Jenny would get on well with Miss Allbright.”
“That’s a splendid idea! You are a clever girl. Perhaps I could speak to the vicar’s wife about it, for a good word.”
“Thank you. But, Sarah, would you be all right without Jenny’s help? And with the baby coming?” Emily glanced to the corner of the kitchen where Sarah kept a stack of newspapers that she’d begun to collect, ready for the birth.
“Of course I will! It’s high time Beth did more. And between you and me, it’ll be a relief to have Jenny away for awhile. Fond as I am of her, I just can’t seem to get things right with the girl.”
She and Emily both looked round as they heard someone approaching.
The door burst open.
“Jenny!” Emily leaped up and hugged her sister.
Jenny pulled off her woollen scarf and tossed back her long hair.
“Goodness me, a surprise visit from Lady Florence’s lady’s maid is quite an honour,” she said with a smirk.
Emily ignored her sister’s cool welcome.
“Oh, Jenny, I have such a wonderful plan!”
But she was cut off by the arrival of Joseph.
“My darling girl’s come home! I hope it’s for a long visit.” He gathered her up, then beckoned to Sarah and Jenny. “’Tis a happy day when I’ve got three pretty women in my house at the same time.”
Only Sarah noticed Ben, who had slunk in after Joseph. He stood in the corner of the room, his eyes locked hopelessly on to Jenny, with her mass of golden bronze hair tumbling carelessly over her shoulders.
Sarah’s face clouded.
“Joseph, Jenny? Ben has arrived. Come and say hello.”
Jenny cut her off.
“I don’t know whether anyone’s interested in my news.”
She held her head high and cast her sparkling eyes round the group with satisfaction.
“I’ve got myself a job at the glove factory in town,” she announced triumphantly. “And I start tomorrow!”