Authors: Lessons in Seduction
Vivianna put a finger to her lips, her hazel eyes…
Inside the tall, elegant London townhouse, Lord Montegomery was impatiently…
First things first: Make quite sure he cannot escape.
Oliver didn’t stay at Aphrodite’s Club after all. Not long…
Miss Greta and Miss Susan Beatty were like a pair…
“Miss Greentree is here, my lord. She wants to leave…
At Queen’s Square, Lil was waiting for Vivianna. “I was…
“Oliver? Have you had a chance yet to look over…
The Montegomery coach seemed very luxurious after the hackneys, or…
Vivianna could not believe what had just happened.
“It’s nice to see you again, Miss Greentree. Miss Aphrodite…
The meeting was held at the Mayfair home of the…
Oliver nodded at his aunt’s elderly butler as he stepped…
He looked up at her, his dark eyes blurred. He…
“I made a mistake.”
Sounds outside. Guests arriving. Servants calling, doors banging, and familiar…
Marietta was determined to see every fashionable shop in Regent…
Dobson answered the door in his red jacket, and his…
The following morning, Vivianna met the Beatty sisters at the…
Eddie and Ellen stood at the edge of the staircase,…
Vivianna should not have been surprised by the savage note…
“I want ye to come and live here, lass.”
“I received a letter from Mama today,” Vivianna said, setting…
The Greentree Estate
ivianna put a finger to her lips, her hazel eyes wide in her oval-shaped, grubby face, her curly chestnut hair in desperate need of a wash and a good comb. Her two little sisters, their faces as smeared with tears and dirt as her own, huddled close together, eyes big, and held their breath.
Voices, outside the cottage, were drawing closer.
Vivianna recognized one of them as the whiskered man who had been here earlier, peering at them through the window, trying to coax them outside.
The whiskered man frightened her.
When he had gone, stomping off and shaking his head, the three girls remained hidden in a dark corner of the bedroom. To amuse them, Vivianna had told her sisters a story about three little girls who had been stolen from their mother and taken far away by a
woman with a thin, narrow face and her evil husband, and then abandoned.
It closely resembled their own story, but in Vivianna’s version the three little girls had been reunited with their mother and all had been well. A nice happy ending.
“Hungry,” two-year-old Marietta had declared when the story was finished, her blue eyes wide, her fair curls dancing about her face.
“I know you’re hungry, ’Etta,” six-year-old Vivianna had replied softly, “but we ate the last bit of the loaf this morning. I’ll try and find some food outside. When it’s dark.” She had no idea how she was going to accomplish this, but she knew that as the eldest it was her job to look after her two younger sisters.
Marietta had smiled with complete trust. Francesca had simply whimpered and clung closer to Vivianna’s skirts. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, she was like a little pixie, and at one year old she wasn’t able to understand what was happening. Only that they were no longer safe in their warm and comfortable home with their friendly servants. Francesca had been asleep when the man had come and bundled them into the coach with Mrs. Slater and sent them away.
Vivianna did not know how much time had passed since that night—days and weeks had become confused in her mind. She was even beginning to forget how everything at home had looked and felt. Mrs. Slater had not been cruel to them, but neither had she been particularly kind. And once the man she said was her husband turned up, she was even more ambivalent. The couple had spent most of their nights and days locked in their bedroom, and fed the children only if they felt like it. It had fallen to Vivianna, a
child herself, to calm her youngest sisters and to try and look after them all as best she could.
When the man had grown angry, she had told them stories until they slept. And then Vivianna lay with her eyes wide open, trying to think of a way to get home. Her sense of helplessness and weakness made her stomach ache. She longed desperately for her home and her mother, but the awful thing was she did not know where they were.
Oh, she knew that her home was in the countryside, but she didn’t know what it was called or the village it stood near—she never
to know—she had always been kept away from anyone who might ask too many questions.
Somehow Vivianna understood, even as a tiny child, that her existence was a secret.
As for her mother…she had been “Mama,” and Vivianna had no idea of the names others called her and where in London she went when she was not with her children.
The Slaters kept them prisoners in the cottage, and then one morning, a few days ago, the girls awoke to find the couple gone. Alone in the cottage, the children waited. And waited. Vivianna had been certain Mrs. Slater would return, but she didn’t. The three young sisters had been effectively abandoned in that dark, sagging cottage.
Once more Vivianna did her best to look after her sisters—even at the age of six her sense of responsibility was highly developed. She was mature for her years; her hazel eyes held a determined expression that should have belonged to a much older person.
The voices came again now, drifting into Vivianna’s consciousness. She blinked and shook off her dreamy thoughts. By now she was so tired and hungry that she
tended to imagine things. Once she had seen a lion prowling through the overgrown garden, only to realize a moment later it was nothing more dangerous than a scrawny tabby cat.
But she could definitely hear the whiskered man. And then a woman’s voice. There was something achingly familiar in the soft, educated tones.
“Mama?” Vivianna whispered. She knew it wasn’t her mother, and yet the voice drew her. “Stay here,” she instructed her sisters. Very carefully, she crept out of the damp, pungent bedroom and into the front room. A small-paned, dirty window looked out to the garden, where weeds had strangled anything useful or pretty. Now she could see the whiskered man and, standing beside him, a tall and elegant lady, her honey-colored hair piled neatly on her head. Her gown was black, and beneath the ankle-length hem were a pair of elegant black slippers with a small heel. Vivianna knew that the wearing of black garments meant that someone close to the lady had died.
“Boastin’, she was, in the village,” the man was saying.
“Who was boasting, Rawlings?” asked the lady, following him up the narrow path between the weeds to the front door. “Such a mess,” she added to herself, frowning at the garden. “I had not realized how much things had deteriorated since Edward…” Suddenly she looked very sad.
Rawlings had not heard her. “The Slater woman, ma’am. Saying the three girls were the daughters of some high-class London tart. Boastin’ how much money she’d been making by keeping them hidden away here on the estate.”
The lady gave the cottage a doubtful look. “Are you quite certain the children are still here, Rawlings?”
Rawlings met the lady’s pale eyes. “They are, my lady. Won’t come out. That oldest one, shaking like a leaf she were, but brave! She stood in front of the others as if she meant to fight me.”
“I can hardly believe it,” the lady said, again more to herself than Rawlings. “It is bad enough for those two to run off without a word, but to abandon three young children in their care! ’Tis monstrous.”
“There was a rumor that the Slater woman was a baby farmer, my lady. She was paid to care for unwanted children—children born out of wedlock or the children of soiled doves. She’d brought these three with her from down south, but no one knows exactly where they come from. I expect their mother, whoever she is, was glad to be rid of them.”
“They are children, Rawlings, and they are in desperate need of a home, and I intend to find them one.”
Vivianna felt shaky. There was something fierce and yet at the same time gentle about this lady that struck a chord deep within her. Instinctively she knew that here was someone she could believe in. Someone to whom she could entrust the care of her two little sisters.
The cottage door was opening. “Hello there?” called the lady in black. Then, in a quieter voice, turning to Rawlings, “What are their names? What are the children’s names?”
“The eldest one is Vivianna, my lady. I heard that, once, in the village, Mrs. Slater called her Annie, but the girl didn’t like it and wouldn’t obey her till she called her by her rightful name.”
The lady smiled. “Vivianna. And the others?”
“They’re just little ’uns—I don’t know their names, my lady.”
“Very well. Vivianna? Vivianna, are you there?”
Vivianna froze in the shadows. The lady entered the
cottage and stood, accustoming herself to the gloom. The three of them could probably still escape, if she was quick. But Vivianna had liked the way the lady had called her by her proper name, and she didn’t want to run away. Besides, where would they go? Here in the cottage she had been able to keep her sisters safe, but beyond it was another matter. She felt alone and afraid, and very, very tired. Again she sensed that there was something about this lady that made her trustworthy. That she was someone who could help.
“Vivianna?” The lady called again, softly, urgently. Her black skirts brushed against the filthy wall. She did not bother to exclaim and move away or to brush the dirt off; finding the children seemed to be her most important—her
“Here I am.”
The lady started and turned. Rawlings made as if to rush and grab Vivianna, but the lady held up a hand, her attention wholly on the little girl. Vivianna saw that her eyes were light blue and kind. They kindled a warm fire in Vivianna’s weary and frightened heart.
“Who are you?” Vivianna asked. She did not mean to be rude—during these months with Mrs. Slater she had begun to forget her manners—but she needed to know.
“I am Lady Greentree, my dear. I own your cottage and the land upon which it stands. This is my estate.”
There was a rustle in the doorway on the far side of the room and two little figures scurried toward Vivianna. Vivianna saw that her sisters’ faces were freshly tear-streaked and that Marietta was clutching her beloved rag doll that she had brought with her from home. She pulled her sisters close, holding them safe against her grubby skirts.
For a moment Lady Greentree looked as if she
might cry, too, and then she asked gently, “What is your full name, Vivianna? Can you tell me from where you have come?”
“Mrs. Slater brought us here,” Vivianna said slowly, and her eyes threatened to shut. It was the hunger, she supposed. “We came from the country, but I don’t know where. There was a village, but I don’t know what it was called. Our house was big and full of fine things, and there were servants…. No one ever called me anything other than Miss Vivianna, not until Mrs. Slater started calling me Annie.”
Vivianna wished there was something she could say or remember that would magically allow them to go home. She had a horrible feeling that now that they had been taken away, they would never find their way back again.
Marietta had been gazing intently at Lady Greentree, and now she lisped, “Mama?”
Lady Greentree’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh, you poor little dears!” She took a shaking breath and held out her hand. “I have no children of my own, and it has always been my sorrow and regret that I was not so blessed. My husband Edward was an officer in the army, in India, but now he is dead and I am a widow. I am alone, just as you are alone. Will you all come home with me and allow me to look after you?”
Vivianna looked longingly at the soft white hand held out to her. The hand that reminded her achingly of her own mother.
Rawlings drew in a sharp breath. “My lady, you don’t even know whose spawn they be!”
Lady Greentree gave him such a look that his face flamed red. Vivianna liked that, and she liked the way the lady’s hand remained held out toward them, steady and waiting. A promise. She took a step forward, and
then another, despite being hampered by her sisters’ clutching fists. Vivianna put her own hand, cold and faintly sticky, into that of Lady Greentree’s. Warmth enfolded her fingers.
And her heart.
Lady Greentree smiled down upon her as if it were Vivianna who had offered her sanctuary, and not the other way around. “Come, my dears,” she said softly. “Let us all leave this awful place.”