Phyllis Baxter sat in the chair avoiding the mirror before her. Several minutes ago, an hour maybe, it had seemed such fun. Too much wine and celebrating the birth of young Lady Caroline Talbot had rendered the normally-staid Miss Baxter slightly more open to suggestion than she otherwise might be.
If she were honest, the last few weeks of Lady Mary’s pregnancy had been grueling for them all. Lady Mary had been somewhat snappish during her third trimester, but when her due date came and passed with no labor in sight, she’d escalated to downright cranky. Anna Bates did her best, but she was also a new mother, sleep-deprived and exhausted. When Johnny came down with a nasty cold a week past the due date, Doctor Clarkson had banned Anna from Lady Mary’s side completely to avoid potential contagion.
Baxter did what she could to pick up the slack, but between the anxious mother-to-be, the anxious grandmother-to-be, and the extremely exhausted lady's maid, they were all relieved when Lady Mary’s waters finally broke and she delivered a healthy baby girl.
That was several hours ago.
Several glasses of celebratory wine (courtesy of His Lordship) ago…
One tipsy, ridiculous conversation with Mrs. Patmore and Daisy ago…
Somehow, that perfect storm of nerves, wine, and foolishness had led her here to the bathroom shared by the female staff at Downton Abbey.
At some point, she might have had better sense. Had Mr. Carson and his wife Mrs. Hughes not already returned to their cottage, perhaps they would have spoken up before it was too late. Had Anna not been holed up at home with a sick child, she might have said something. Even Thomas Barrow would have given her a warning look had he been privy to the scheme she and Daisy concocted as they kept Mrs. Patmore company in the kitchen.
But none of those sensible voices had been around when Daisy and Baxter snuck up to the bathroom with a sharp pair of sewing shears in hand. There was no voice of reason when Daisy began to cut Baxter’s hair, giggling like schoolgirls at the novelty of it. With the exception of Mrs. Patmore, who had gone straight to bed once they’d finished the kitchen, Daisy and Baxter were pretty much the only unmarried women left on the women’s side.
And they were neither of them thinking quite responsibly at the moment.
It was one of those moments that, in retrospect, would seem unreal. But it was all too real.
“Oh, dear heavens,” Baxter gasped as she saw the results of Daisy’s handiwork in the mirror. “What have I done?”
“It won’t take much to fix,” Anna said as she surveyed the uneven mess of Baxter’s hair with a chuckle. “Amazingly, Daisy did a better job tipsy than she did sober.”
Baxter resisted the urge to glare at her friend from under the mop of chaos her hair had become. After all, with Lady Mary more dependent on Nurse than her lady’s maid at the moment, Anna had volunteered to dress Lady Grantham and let Baxter rest after the long day and night just finished.
And she’d promised to help with the mess they’d made of her hair.
Baxter looked mortified at herself in the mirror. In her younger days, perhaps she could have pulled off an almost-all-nighter topped with several glasses of wine. But as she approached middle age, she found that her face reflected her bad choices just as clearly as her newly-shorn hair. “I can’t believe I did this.”
Anna laughed. “It’s only hair. It’ll grow back, although you might find you prefer it short. I know I love mine.”
“I look ridiculous,” Baxter groaned.
“Hold still.” Anna snipped at the length on the right, evening out the sides until they framed her slender face in a gentle curve. “Honestly, you should have done this ages ago,” she added as she brushed through the finished product. “Just run a damp comb through it in the morning, and you’ll tame the flyaways.” She pulled the towel from Baxter’s shoulders. “And you look lovely. Ten years younger, if you ask me.”
“I seriously doubt that,” Baxter said as she brushed herself of any stray hairs that might have landed on her uniform. “But thank you. For this, and for taking care of Her Ladyship this morning.”
“Just paying you back for the extra you did for Lady Mary,” Anna said as they exited Baxter’s room into the hall. “And you look great,” she added as they both headed off to do their morning work.
“I love it!” Lady Grantham proclaimed, insisting that Baxter do a slight pirouette so she could fully examine the change in her maid’s coiffure. “Whatever possessed you to bob it?”
“Equal parts foolishness, exhaustion, and celebratory wine,” Baxter said wryly. With a self-deprecating blush, she touched her short hair. “It doesn’t look too silly?”
“You are the very picture of chic sophistication, Baxter,” Lady Grantham assured her as she sorted through her morning mail. “I’m half-tempted to bob my own hair, although I think His Lordship might die of shock if I did!”
Baxter chuckled quietly at the mental picture as she gathered together her mending for the day.
“I’m sure Mr. Molesley will find it very fetching, too,” Her Ladyship added in that conspiratorial tone she sometimes got.
Baxter was happy her back was to her employer so she couldn’t see the blush that shot across her cheeks at Mr. Moseley’s name. She hadn’t even thought about how Mr. Molesley might react. They’d become quite good friends, of course. Nothing more, though, no matter how much Barrow liked to insinuate.
After the disastrous affair with Peter Coyle, Baxter had resigned herself to a solo existence dedicated to honest work and moral redemption. Try as she did, though, she could not help but feel a flutter of nerves in her stomach at the thought of how Molesley would react to her changed appearance.
He’d never been anything but a perfect gentleman, but….well, he was the sort of man who wore his feeling very clearly on his sleeve.
“Will you be seeing him soon?” Her Ladyship prodded in a slightly coy tone.
The blush on Baxter’s cheek deepened as she continued her gathering. “Possibly,” she said. “I’ve been rather too busy lately…”
“Well, I’ll need you to pick up some things for me in the village this afternoon,” Lady Grantham said. “You can stop in and see him after school lets out.”
“Of course, milady.” Honestly, Baxter thought as she left with the mending in her arms. In her own way, Lady Grantham could be just as obvious as Mr. Molesley was.
She stood outside the school for a good ten minutes working up her courage. For the quiet woman, the day had been an agony of attention. There wasn’t a person she ran into, from the housemaids to Lady Mary herself, who didn’t stop to comment on her hair. A good lady’s maid prided herself on invisibility, so Miss Baxter found it doubly hard to bear the spotlight…especially since that so rightly belonged to Lady Mary and her newborn daughter.
When she finally was able to duck out to the village for Her Ladyship’s errands, she’d hoped for a moment’s peace to settle herself. But she was known well enough in town that the shopkeeper and the chemist had both commented on her “new look” and she’d gotten several smiles and nods from familiar villagers.
She was half-tempted to skip her hello to Mr. Molesley, and might have done so had Her Ladyship not specifically mentioned it. Besides, she was sure Molesley would have questions about Lady Mary and her child. Eventually, she steeled her nerves and walked quietly into the empty building.
The first thing she saw as she found him at his desk was the thin tuft of dark hair he swept over the center of his bald spot. His head was down, focused as he was on marking papers, and Baxter couldn’t help but grin at her own silliness. Poor Mr. Molesley had hair problems of his own, and she was foolish to burden him (even in her own thoughts) with hers.
She walked quietly towards his desk, not wishing to interrupt his work. But the sound of her heels clicking on the floor alerted him, and his head popped up immediately. The wide smile on his face was replaced almost instantly as he took in her new hairstyle.
If she hadn’t already been so self-conscious about her appearance, she might have found his reactions comical. His eyes grew wide as he half-stood, half-stumbled to his feet, knocking a stack of papers in his haste. “M-m-m-miss B-b-b-axter,” he stuttered as he tried ineptly to catch the forms flying in every direction. “I…erm…you….”
“I thought you might want to know that Lady Mary gave birth early this morning,” she said demurely. Part of her delighted in his reaction, while another part felt absolutely terrible for him. He was such a dear man, but how he’d ever managed as a butler being so easily flustered was a mystery to her. “A healthy baby girl. Both mum and baby are doing well.” Years of practice kept the neutral expression steady on her face, but she could feel her hand clutching Her Ladyship’s packages a little too tightly. “You’re welcome to come round and pay your respects tomorrow if you’d like.”
“Oh, that’s splendid,” he blurted out as he finally managed to get the papers into a crumpled but somewhat orderly pile on his desk. He struck a pose she suspected he’d intended as casual. “Y-y-you’ve done….” His hand fluttered in the general direction of where his hair would be, if he’d had hair down to his neck. “You’ve…erm…changed your….”
“I cut my hair,” she said, rescuing him from his own nervous babbling. “I’m still trying to get used to it.” It took every bit of restraint she had not to ask if he liked it. She knew it was foolish, but his was truly the only opinion that mattered to her.
By this time, she’d closed the gap between them, still clutching awkwardly to Lady Grantham’s packages. They were small, but she held them like a protective barrier in front of her as he appraised her appearance with an earnest, yet delighted expression on his face.
“It suits you,” he murmured. “It truly does.”
His simple words left a lump in her throat, and she blushed slightly at the compliment. All the flattery Peter Coyle had lavished on her once upon a time seemed vulgar in comparison to Molesley’s thoughtful assessment.
She kept her face carefully neutral, and her feelings as well. It would do no good to let her thoughts wander where they wished to go. It did no good to admire his strong, kind face, or his bright, intelligent eyes. While slightly built, she knew he was no stranger to hard work. Could she let her mind wander to the day when he’d managed to ring the bell in the strongman game? No, that would only lead to thoughts of his arms around her, and those thoughts only led places she dare not venture.
“I should really get back,” she blurted into the silence of their mutual gaze.
“I was pretty much done here,” Molesley said. “I’d be honored to walk you back, if you’ll allow me.”
Baxter smiled and nodded.
She forced herself not to read anything into the gesture as he tidied his desk and fetched his jacket. It was hardly the first time they’d walked together. It meant nothing besides Mr. Molesley being gentlemanly. And if he stared at her a little more than normal, it was only the strangeness of her hair.
She told herself…
It was all perfectly innocent.
She told herself…
They were only friends, she told herself as he took her arm in his and her heart fluttered slightly in her chest.
Just very good friends.