He watched, standing poised by the wall, tray in hand, as she stood at her balcony and rhapsodised about love, and wasn’t sure she even remembered he was there.
It twisted something in his chest, hearing her wax poetic about some great love that wasn’t him.
It was unprofessional, was what it was- the way the woman grew on him until he couldn’t imagine a life without her, until he had to hold himself back from taking her by the hand and telling her how much he cared. But he couldn’t bring himself to distance himself from her. Every time he made up his mind, trying to take himself out of this spiral of unrequited affection, she was there. She would grab him by the arm and drag him off to another corner of their villa and show him something she’d shown him a thousand times before, and he was right back where he started.
It was alarming how he allowed himself to think of it as their villa. It was even more alarming how much the thought comforted him.
Her influence on his life- indeed, on him- was something he would never be without. Before her, he was Edward. Now, he was Underling. Where once he would have found the name nothing less than an insult, now the warmth in his chest he felt every time he was with her bloomed a little more when she said it. That she only called him this because she couldn’t recall his real name didn’t matter to his heart- if it took discarding his pride to be worth remembering to her, it was worth it.
Perhaps he was being melodramatic.
The lilting timbre of Mrs. Tottendale’s voice cut through his mind’s wanderings. Snapping back to reality, the tray in his hands slipped, cool metal against the fabric of his gloves. His lady’s face was only a few inches from his, peering over the porcelain adorning the platter he held.
He failed to bite back a small noise of shock as he jerked back, the demitasse he held toppling from the tray and shattering as it hit the floor.
Mrs. Tottendale jumped back in fright with a small, indignant noise of protest, her mountains of skirts swirling around her ankles. The porcelain shards skittered across the floor, skidding to a stop by Underling’s polished dress shoes, as the coffee it once held pooled upon the smooth wood.
Faltering for only a second in doubt, he made for the cleaning cupboard, determined not to let the stray liquid stain the floors. Before he could dart away, Mrs Tottendale grabbed his sleeve, turning him around to face her.
“Underling? What happened?” she asked him, round, bespectacled face full of confusion.
He hung his head, bowing. “Apologies, madam. You frightened me, and I dropped your coffee. I will clean this up and bring you another.”
Her face cleared instantly, features smoothing out into an easy smile, eyes crinkled up with crow’s feet adorning their corners. Her blue eyes twinkled behind her glasses.
“No need!” she cried, with an ease of forgiveness that only she could give. She tugged him by the arm towards her with a grin, and he could only slide the tray out of his arms and onto the side table to follow her.
Underling would have been content to let her spin him around forever, but he carefully extracted himself from her arms before he could let himself think about that for any longer than a passing moment, lest it become too appealing to let pass.
“I’m sorry, madam, but I must clean this before it stains your floors,” he excused, turning away to ignore the way his madam’s face dropped. Walking just a touch faster than necessary, he left her standing in the middle of the drawing room alone.