The Governess Was Wanton

BOOK: The Governess Was Wanton
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For Laura,

who laughed and laughed

and then helped me make a plan

Chapter One

London, 1857

Mary Woodward sat awaiting her fate in the middle of what she could only assume was just one of No. 12 Belgrave Square's impressive drawing rooms. She wasn't anxious—she'd never admit to being flustered—but she was beginning to think that taking a new position as governess to the Earl of Asten's daughter sight unseen might have been a grave mistake indeed, for both the gentleman and his daughter seemed to have forgotten her very existence.

Just a month before, she'd watched Lady Caroline, daughter of the Viscount and Viscountess Eyling, walk down the aisle at St. Paul's Knightsbridge and out of her life. She'd told the family she intended to leave her position as soon as the engagement had been announced, cutting short any awkward explanations of how the soon-to-be-married Lady Caroline would no longer need the services of a governess. Then Mary had packed her bags and decamped to the home her dear friend Elizabeth shared with her new husband, Dr. Edward Fellows, with little more than a second thought. She was already on the hunt for a new position.

A few careful letters to her former charges spread the word around London's elite that she was once again available. The initial flood of responses was of little interest to her. Then, ten days ago, a letter written in a man's strong, slashing script had come in the morning post. The Lord Asten wanted her to educate his daughter, Lady Eleanora, a young woman of seventeen who had just been presented to the queen.

“I know, as surely every parent in London does, of your reputation for educating young ladies not entirely at ease in society,” Lord Asten had written. “In the past year my daughter has become rather retiring, and I hope your guidance may help restore her natural vivacity as she navigates her first season and secures a suitable match. Eleanora has not been herself for some months, and I worry for her happiness.”

Something about the earl's letter gave her pause. It was polite, but the faintest hint of a father's frustration came through the lines. It was so contrary to the man she'd read about in the papers. Lord Asten was known for his political prowess in the House of Lords, and everyone who had the good sense to study their
would surely be aware of his reputation as steadfast and moral—a rare combination among the peerage. This wasn't the sort of man who ever needed to ask for help, because he never seemed to have problems in the first place.

More intrigued than was perhaps prudent, Mary had written back and accepted the position that day.

Now, fifteen minutes past their appointed time, she was still waiting for the earl and his daughter to appear. It did not bode well for Mary's future in the house.

Never one to let boredom conquer her, she began a slow circle around the room, taking in the casual display of wealth that typified each of the seven homes she'd worked in during the last fourteen years. In some ways, however, this house was different. A Chinese vase here, a carved Spanish chest there—the room she stood in was jammed with all manner of eclectic things. It was a home built for comfort rather than posturing elegance.

She passed by a sizable pianoforte that sat open and ready between two high windows. Her fingers trailed over the ivory keys, playing C, D, E, but before she could strike a chord, a large portrait of a young, raven-haired woman caught her eye. A collar of emeralds set in halos of diamonds circled the beautiful woman's throat. Those, she reasoned, must be the famous Asten emeralds, and that must be the earl's late wife.

She moved to examine the portrait more closely when a young woman's shout came from behind the drawing room's closed door.

“I don't
another governess!”

“Oh no,” she murmured.

“Miss Woodward is one of the best governesses in London. She comes highly recommended,” said a man—presumably Lord Asten—in a muffled baritone.

She appreciated the earl's vote of support, but shouting matches in the hallway didn't exactly instill confidence.

“All I want is to be left alone,” said the girl as a dog close by started to yip. “Why can't you just let me be?”

“Lady Laughlin says—”

“Why do you always take her side, Papa?” cried the girl.

Mary moved as close to the door as she could without pressing her ear against it—although eavesdropping would have been more effective with the aid of a water glass.

“Eleanora,” said her father in a warning tone.

“Why can't it just be you and me?” the girl asked, her voice so soft that Mary could hardly hear her over the dog's whimpering. “Why does Lady Laughlin
have to be around?”

“Enough of this,” Lord Asten said. “We'll go in and meet Miss Woodward together, and then you'll ready yourself for the opera tonight. We're due at Lady Laughlin's at six thirty, and I expect you to treat her and her daughters with respect.”


“Enough, Eleanora.”

The conversation was finished, but the dull thump of feet pounding against thick carpet and the jangle of a dog's collar told Mary that Lady Eleanora had gotten the last word by running off. A little smile touched her lips. She couldn't help liking the girl for that.

As quickly and quietly as she could, Mary hurried over to a tasteful gold and cream sofa. She was just rearranging her skirts when the doorknob turned. She looked up and her heart jumped straight to the top of her throat.

The man filling the doorway wasn't just handsome. He was devastating.

Lord Asten could no doubt bring a woman to her knees with a mere look. He had a square jaw, razor-sharp cheekbones, and a pair of piercing green eyes that signaled an intelligent mind. His nose canted slightly to the right—not from a break but from a quirk of nature—but this strange little flaw only added interest to his serious yet open expression.

Yet it was not the most interesting part of him, Mary thought before she could stop herself. That would be his wide mouth that, even pressed into a line, tempted her. She wanted to run her thumb over his bottom lip before slipping it between his lips to mark her with his taste. She wanted to kiss him hard, letting his tongue slide over hers.

Don't you dare,
she thought sternly. Desiring one's employer was never allowed. Ever.

She was a governess, and she mustn't forget it. Not quite a servant, but certainly not a lady any longer, Mary relied upon teaching to survive. She'd seen firsthand the way one false step could cling to a woman's reputation like sticky spring mud on a boot. She wouldn't compromise her good name no matter how much she might want to know how the rasp of Lord Asten's beard might feel against her cheek, her wrist, her thigh . . .

“Miss Woodward,” Lord Asten said, mercifully breaking into her thoughts. “Thank you for coming.”

She curtsied deep enough to show respect and shallow enough to let him know that she was not impressed. He might be devilishly handsome—and a peer to boot—but he'd kept her waiting.

“It's my pleasure, Lord Asten. Although I fear I may not have come at the most opportune time,” she said.

He cast a glance back at the door. “I suppose you heard that.”

“All of it,” she said with a nod as she returned to her seat. “I had the luxury of time.”

The earl blinked as though a little taken aback by her critique of his negligence. “My apologies that you had to wait, Miss Woodward. I'd asked Warthing to arrange for tea to be delivered, as my meeting with my secretary went longer than expected.”

“I appreciate your thoughtfulness, sir,” she said, knowing her gentle but pointed censure had done its job. “I take it Lady Eleanora is not delighted at the news of my arrival?”

Lord Asten dropped into a chair that could've been dolls' furniture the way he filled it. “My daughter and I never used to fight, but now it seems that's the only time I can get her to speak to me at all.”

“I gathered from your letter that Lady Eleanora has become somewhat unmanageable.”

He scrubbed a hand over his face, rasping at whiskers that were already beginning to show. “Not unmanageable so much as unhappy, and quiet. I see flashes of her carefree nature from time to time, but mostly she seems to have receded into herself, much as she did after her mother died when she was three. For a year she hardly spoke at all. When she finally began to engage with the world again, we grew close. Now I can't get through to her.”

The drawing room door opened, and Mary looked on with approval as a maid wheeled in a cart laden with tea things. Not all of her former employers had thought highly enough of governesses to do something as simple as provide tea upon their first meeting. There was no end to the snobbery and slights that some people would lob at a gentlewoman forced to take a position. Despite their inauspicious beginning, she took it as a good sign that Lord Asten had arranged for the same pleasantries he might provide a lady of quality. Also, his cook's tea cakes looked excellent.

Lord Asten, however, shot a rather dubious look at the tea set. “I would have asked Eleanora to pour, but . . .”

Mary raised a brow. She imagined there weren't many instances when the commanding earl felt off his footing, but pouring tea was out of his realm.

“It's such beautiful china. Might I be so bold as to ask for the privilege of pouring?” she asked.

The man sat back, looking quite relieved. “Please.”

As she busied herself with the strainer and teapot, she said casually, “Sometimes I've seen large changes unsettle a young lady and bring out elements of her personality that weren't so evident before. When did this start?”

The earl worried the chain of his pocket watch as he sat back to think. “Eight months ago, but it's gotten worse in the last three.”

“Milk?” she asked, her hand hovering over the delicate handle of the china jug.

“Please. No sugar.”

She poured the milk and handed him the cup edged with a wreath of bluebells. Their fingers brushed and a jolt of awareness shot through her. She snatched back her hand, lips parted in surprise. Lord Asten simply stared into his teacup, lost in his thoughts. There was nothing there. She was just overexcited by the prospect of a new position—messy as this one might seem.

“What altered during that time?” she asked.


She pursed her lips as she set about fixing her own cup. If the man believed that, he was deluding himself. Gently raised daughters didn't just get into rows for no reason when visitors were in the house. Something prompted this change.

“Perhaps it is something more mundane,” she said, pushing him a little.

He took a sip of tea and then set the cup down on the table next to him. “Other than her presentation at court last month, the only thing I can think of is that one of my late wife's friends returned from the Continent and began to call again.”

This must be the Lady Laughlin that Lady Eleanora had shouted about in the hallway.

“When Lady Laughlin returned, it seemed natural that we should rekindle our acquaintance,” he said. “She's a widow, so she also knows something of loss, and she has two daughters who have already been through the season with an aunt of theirs. Eleanora has some friends of her own, but they're also just in their first seasons. I'd hoped that Miss Laughlin and Miss Cordelia would help guide her.”

Mary chewed the inside of her lip and weighed the intelligence of asking a very personal, possibly delicate, question. Finally deciding that between his lateness and the awkwardness of the fight there was little else that could go wrong with this first meeting, she asked, “When did it become clear that Lady Laughlin wishes to become your countess?”

The man sputtered his tea. “I
your pardon?”

It probably would've been better if she'd just kept her mouth shut, but she'd never been one to walk by when there was a sleeping bear she could poke.

“You'll have to excuse me for being so forward, Lord Asten, but as your daughter is already a month into her season, I don't have much time for pleasantries. If Lady Eleanora suddenly became unlike herself around the time Lady Laughlin began visiting, and she—if my memory of your row serves—does not enjoy being around the lady, I can only conclude that your daughter sees Lady Laughlin as a threat.”

“A threat?”

“For your affection, yes. That's why I assumed Lady Laughlin sees herself filling the role of your next countess. It's really the most logical explanation.”

The earl looked as though he couldn't decide whether to shake her or to throw her out of the house. Surreptitiously, she crossed her arms and slipped a finger into her cuff where, folded into a little square, was her talisman—a handkerchief embroidered by her onetime governess, Mrs. Cooper. It was one of only a dozen, each numbering among her most prized possessions. It was silly that a thirty-two-year-old woman still needed the reassurance of a good-luck charm, but knowing it was there comforted her nonetheless.

Finally the earl began to laugh. “Do you know, there are members of the prime minister's cabinet who could take lessons in fearlessness from you?”

“I would never call myself fearless. Cake?”

He shook his head, and so she helped herself.

“Don't be modest, Miss Woodward. Courage is an admirable quality.”

She glanced up to find Lord Asten watching her. Just the sensation of his eyes on her felt good. Mary gripped the cake plate harder, grasping for reason and common sense like a shipwrecked woman clinging to driftwood. Nothing good would come of hoping that the earl would vault the tea cart, haul her up into his arms, and kiss her senseless. Imagining the press of his body and his hot lips working over her and the feel of his hands in her hair as the pins that kept it tamed scattered to the floor—

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BOOK: The Governess Was Wanton
6.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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