About the book
Changing the past is not an option, but you can always try to define the future...
The poisoned needle that threatens a little child’s life is the only clue for Miss Lucretia Brent to solve the puzzle of a deadly disease that comes upon the Dukedom of Breckenridge.
Sampson Claridge, the fraught Duke of Breckenridge has to manage not only his dukedom but also his little sister. Completely enamored by the new governess, he needs her help to find the way out of the impending tragedy that threatens his kin.
Sins of the past awake and they are all used for blackmail. As time runs short, Lucretia and Sampson have only a few hours to solve the puzzle or forever be gone.
“Miss Lucretia! Miss Lucretia!”
She glanced up from her task of assisting the three and four-year-old foundlings into their day clothes. Willie, a ten-year-old orphan wearing dark grey woolens and a shirt that used to be white, waited at the door for Lucretia’s permission to enter. He bounced from foot to foot, his round face eager. Picking up a brush, she stroked it through the tiny girl’s thin, scraggly hair, gently tugging out the knots acquired during her restless sleep the night before. The child stuck her thumb in her mouth to suck.
“Now, you are too old for that, Rose,” Lucretia admonished quietly. “You are no longer a baby, am I right?”
Rose pulled her digit from between her lips, her pinched face puckering as though she were about to cry.
“You are a big girl now, sweetling,” Lucretia told her, reaching around Rose’s neck to gently stroke her cheek. “And big girls do not suck their thumbs.”
“I sorry, Miss Luce.” Rose scrubbed her eyes with her small fists.
Lucretia waved for Willie to enter the chamber filled with small, narrow beds. Toys were scattered on the stone floor and thin, colorful rugs. Two children quarreled over a wooden horse, and Lucretia decided it was not yet fierce enough to warrant her interference. “You look as if you need to use the privy, boy,” she said, as Willie stood beside her, still shifting from foot to foot with impatience.
“Mrs. Marsh sent me to fetch you,” Willie said, his missing front teeth clear as he grinned. “I think it is important.”
Lucretia reached out and straightened his collar, tucking his shirt into his breeches tidily. “Have you finished your breakfast, Willie?”
“Yes, Miss. It was stewed apples with cinnamon. I loves cinnamon.”
“Good. Now run back to Mrs. Marsh and tell her I must see these children to breakfast, then I will come to her office.”
“And then you practice your sums. I will look at your work shortly.”
Willie ran through the toddlers’ room and out the door as Lucretia rose from the three-legged stool she sat upon. Breaking up the quarrel over the toy horse, she clapped her hands. “Come now, children. Time to break your fast. Line up at the door.”
At her words, the nine small orphans lined up obediently, waiting for her to lead them to the dining hall. As she was more frail than the others, Lucretia picked Rose up and carried her, then walked briskly down the corridor with her charges giggling and chattering behind her. The small dining room at the Foundling Hospital was on the same floor as the ward for small children, thus she did not have to take them far. Handing them over to the kitchen matron, Lucretia then walked up the many flights of stairs to the upper chambers.
Pausing at a window to observe her reflection, Lucretia tidied her red-gold tresses, coiled into a neat bun at her neck. Wiping a smudge of dirt from her cheek, she inspected her light complexion and wished, not for the first time, she could wipe away her scattering of freckles from her nose. Of all her features, she liked her eyes the best – light brown, like new honey fresh from the comb. Most people who met her complimented her on her unusual eye color.
Straightening her pale blue gown trimmed with white lace, Lucretia retied her apron, and decided she appeared presentable before knocking on the Hospital Matron’s door.
“Come in,” came the call from within.
Lucretia opened the door and entered, closing it softly behind her. She curtsied to Mrs. Marsh, seated behind her desk, and waited for her invitation to approach. As one of the administrators of the Foundling Hospital, Mrs. Marsh could often be quite harsh in her discipline. Yet, once Lucretia grew old enough to help with the care and education with the other orphans, she and Mrs. Marsh got along quite well.
“Come here, child,” Mrs. Marsh said, at last looking up from her papers.
As she often did when inside Mrs. Marsh’s private domain, Lucretia gazed longingly as the shelves and rows of books. The matron kept an extensive collection, and willingly loaned them to Lucretia, always with the admonition to return it quickly and without damage. If any of her precious books came back not in the same condition, the lending of books ceased immediately.
Lucretia smiled before taking one of the chairs in front of the desk. “You wished to see me, Mrs. Marsh?”
“Yes, I did, dear.” Mrs. Marsh gazed at her with sorrow in her pale blue eyes. She folded her hands atop her desk, her full lips thinned, tense.
Lucretia felt a chill creep down her spine. Something was wrong. While a summons to visit the matron in her office was quite ordinary, Mrs. Marsh nearly always greeted Lucretia with a warm smile, and sometimes with a cup of tea. She ran her recent actions and behavior through her mind, thinking she had done something to attract the matron’s ire. If she had erred in some way, she had no idea what that could be.
“I am in receipt of a letter, Lucretia,” Mrs. Marsh said, picking up a piece of parchment. “It appears His Grace, the Duke of Breckenridge, is in need of a governess.”
Lucretia felt her heart stop. Resting in her lap, her fingers twisted together in anxiety.
No, she cannot possibly mean me. I cannot leave here.
Swallowing hard, she stared, unseeing, downward. The Foundling Hospital was the only home she’d ever known. While most young men and women her age left the Hospital with the education necessary to begin a trade outside, she expected to spend her life here, caring for the children. She wanted nothing else – not even marriage and her own offspring.
Glancing up, she forced herself to meet Mrs. Marsh’s eyes. “Perhaps Helen Murphy will make a good governess,” she ventured, hoping Mrs. Marsh had asked her here for her opinion only. Yet, deep down, she knew better. The matron’s tension would not manifest itself if she merely wanted Lucretia’s judgement.
“Helen is seventeen,” Mrs. Marsh said, her tone quiet, kind. “You are twenty, three years past the time you should be out of our care and custody. No, child, you must go to the Duke’s estates in Gloucestershire, and become His Grace’s new governess.”
A sudden flare of anger overrode her fear. She straightened her back. “No.”
Mrs. Marsh gazed at her, her brows lowering. “Do not defy me in this, Lucretia. Your time with us has ended. You must venture out into the world.”
“You cannot make me. I refuse to go.”
“I will not get angry with you at this moment,” the matron went on, her tone hardening. “I know of your fears. However, I will not tolerate this insubordination from you. You will leave this house and go to into the Duke’s service.”
Lucretia merely sat and waited. I will not go. I will not.
“It breaks my heart to see you leave here, child,” Mrs. Marsh went on. “But your only choice is Breckenridge or the workhouse.”
“You need me here,” Lucretia said, her tone as level as she could make it. “I look after the children, I keep them clean, teach them manners, and their letters and arithmetic.”
“And that is what makes you an excellent governess, Lucretia,” Mrs. Marsh replied. “Please do not fret. You will have your room and board, clothing, plus a nice salary. In time, perhaps the Duke will arrange a suitable marriage for you. The workhouse is a harsh place, and I would not see you go there unless you leave me no other option. Child, this Hospital is a temporary home only.”
“But you need me.” Lucretia gripped her skirts until her knuckles turned white. Workhouses are terrible places, but how can I leave everything I have ever known behind? Surely Mrs. Marsh will have pity on me.
Mrs. Marsh nodded. “You have done quite well here, too, I will admit. The other orphans are respectful and well-mannered, and during your tenure here many have gone to have good lives because of you. Believe me, you will be missed.”
Drawing a deep breath, Lucretia forced calm into her frazzled nerves, released her anger. “Then there is no chance of my remaining here?”
“When must I leave?”
Mrs. Marsh glanced at the letter. “His Grace expects you in six days.”
“Am I dismissed, Mrs. Marsh?”
Folding her hands once more, the matron gazed at her earnestly, a faint smile crossing her stern features. “I do understand your trepidation, Lucretia. You have been here since you were an infant, after your parents died in that dreadful accident. You have been training for this moment all your life. I know you will make me proud.”
Studying her hands, Lucretia stifled her sudden urge to plead, to beg to be allowed to remain, even without pay. Such would not help her. Orphans at the Foundling Hospital all grew up to find trades, marry, have children of their own. She knew this moment would arrive one day, despite hoping and praying she could be the one exception – the one foundling who remained to live out her life there, assisting other orphaned children into the world outside.
Mrs. Marsh’s voice turned cool. “You are dismissed, Lucretia.”
Standing, she curtsied, then walked with her spine stiff and her head high to the door. Determined to not weep, Lucretia shut the office door behind her. Though she scarcely felt her legs under her, she maintained her youthful dignity as she traversed the corridor and down the stairs.
However much she recognized it as unreasonable and unworthy, hatred for the Duke of Breckenridge filled her heart. Fiercely resenting his need for a governess, Lucretia fervently wished he’d gone elsewhere to search for one.
As she walked, her knees shaking, Lucretia knew she would not long survive the Duke’s service.
How can I leave this place, my home? Workhouse or servitude to a Duke, how can I survive?
Trotting his bay stallion down the road, Sampson Claridge, the Duke of Breckenridge, did not look forward to returning home. He had ridden out shortly after dawn with his two closest companions to inspect his lavish stud farm a few miles south of his home. Though he never said so aloud, his stud was one of the finest in the realm. Even the Prince Regent bought his horses, and asked his advice.
Now, late in the afternoon, Sampson wished he had other work that might keep him away. The huge manor house seemed to echo with loneliness ever since the death of his mother, and Henrietta’s anguish only made the place more difficult to bear.
“Is something the matter, Sampson?”
He glanced to his right to find Oliver eyeing him closely.
“You are quiet,” Oliver continued, “even for you.”
Sampson offered a half-nod, half-shrug. “It is Henrietta,” he answered.
“She is not ill?” asked George from his other side.
“No, not ill.” Sampson shook his head. “No, I fear I have enraged her when I informed her I sent for a governess.”
Oliver Fortescue, the sixth Earl of Egerton, clicked his tongue in sympathy. “With the Duchess gone, she should be under the care of a governess rather than the household servants.”
“I agree. I told her that. But she insists she has no need for a governess. She claimed she will make any governess’s life miserable should I send for one.”
“You coddle her too much, my dear Sampson,” George said, smiling. “Show her a firm hand and she will learn obedience.”
Though he knew that would only make the situation with Henrietta worse, Sampson admitted he was right. He did tend to permit his ten-year-old sister to have her way more often than not, and now he paid the price. Yet, his intense love for her – the only family he had left – would not allow him to be strict with her. One glance into those hazel-green eyes and he eagerly granted Henrietta her every wish.
“If I know the girl at all,” Oliver said, “that will not be easy. She is as stubborn as you are.”
Sampson permitted himself a small smile. “We are siblings, after all.”
“When will your new governess arrive?” George asked.
George Carter, the third Baron of Gillinghamshire, was his friend since childhood. As their estates bordered one another, he and George often spent time at one another’s properties. Rather than breed fine bloodstock as Sampson, he preferred to raise cattle and sell them over the border in Wales. Yet, he spent more time at either Sampson’s home or Oliver’s than his own. Sampson never quite understood this, as he governed his own small realm with his own hands. As he enjoyed the Baron’s company, he never spoke of it.
“I have only just sent the letter,” he replied, gazing around at the beautiful rolling hills of Gloucestershire. “I do not expect her until next week.”
“Plenty of time to get Henrietta used to the notion,” Oliver said.
“What is the latest news from the Prince Regent?” George asked.
“Very little, I am afraid,” Sampson answered. “His Royal Highness has not called me to court, thus I am out of touch with London.”
“I heard rumors His Majesty the King has taken a turn for the worse,” Oliver put in.
George scoffed. “There are always rumors abounding over the King’s health. Every month we have a new influx of them – the King is dead; no, he’s quite well and might return to the throne; no, last week he lay abed, dying and receiving last rites. The week before, he slobbered all over the carpets in his madness.”
“I agree,” Oliver chuckled, shaking his blond head. “The rumors fly across all of England and which are to be believed?”
“We should not partake of rumormongering until we have facts,” Sampson told them.
Despite his words, the two continued their friendly wrangling over what rumors might be close to the truth, leaving him to ponder his own inner troubles. Up ahead, his manor house appeared around a bend in the road, its spreading green lawns and hedges a welcome sight despite his sister’s anger. He planned a private word with her before supper, as he wanted no tantrums in front of his friends and guests.
In the stable yard, dogs leaped round their horses, barking, as grooms emerged to take their mounts. One held his stallion’s bridle as Sampson dismounted, others holding George’s and Oliver’s. Walking across the stone cobbles toward the house with his companions in tow, Sampson pondered his words to Henrietta. The wide oak doors opened as he approached, and his butler, Thomas, bowed low.
“Welcome home, Your Grace.”
“After I have changed,” Sampson said, “I wish to see my sister in my study.”
“Of course, Your Grace.”
“Tea in an hour, gentlemen?” Sampson asked, turning to his friends.
“Of course,” the both murmured, offering him short bows as he walked with quick strides up the huge, winding staircase to his private apartments. Martin, his valet, bowed low as he entered his rooms, ready to assist him in washing and dressing in clothes that did not smell of horses and the road.
Shortly after, now dressed in a white muslin shirt, pale blue waistcoat, and a white cravat, Sampson permitted Martin to help him with his Hessian boots, onto his feet and over his dark grey trousers.
Thus dressed, he found Henrietta already in his study, examining the books on his shelves.
“Dear Sister,” he said, warming at the sight of her.
Henrietta offered him a curtsey before wrapping her arms around his waist. “I missed you, Sampson.”
“And I, you. Come, sit and talk with me before we must go downstairs for tea.”
Taking an armchair for himself, Sampson watched his young sibling seat herself in a less comfortable, hard chair opposite him. He suspected she knew what he’d planned to say. Henrietta wore a gown of soft mauve with ruffled sleeves, lace hinting at her throat and wrists. He thought the color looked good on her, with her pale blonde hair and hazel-green eyes. Small for her age, his little sister gazed at him with a cool aloofness that had not been there a few months ago.
“You are going to lecture me, aren’t you?”
Sampson lit his pipe, puffing and squinting slightly through the smoke. “I prefer to call it a talk.”
“It is still a lecture.”
“But as I desire your input and opinions, it is not a lecture.”
The words he planned to say vanished from his head. She looked so alone, forlorn, sitting there as though awaiting her execution. Henrietta had been only five years old when their father died, and endured their mother’s, the late Duchess, slow slide into depression and death. Affected by it more than Sampson, who worked hard maintaining his ducal estates, his stud farm, and his role at court, Henrietta withdrew into herself, speaking little and smiling seldom. Sampson tried to remember the last time he had seen her laugh.
“I love you very much, you know,” he said.
His words apparently caught her off guard, for Henrietta glanced away, nibbling her lower lip. “I know,” she said, her tone soft.
“I would do nothing to ever hurt you.”
“Then tell the governess not to come.” Henrietta’s tears gleamed in her eyes, and Sampson’s heart wrenched in his chest.
“I cannot,” he said gently. “Whether you agree or not, you must have a governess.”
“No, I do not. She will try to take Mother’s place.”
At her fierce and desperate words, Sampson started up from his chair, his pipe forgotten. “Is that what you fear? That she will take Mother’s place?”
Turning her head so he would not see her tears, Henrietta nodded. “I will not have it. I will not.”
Sampson leaned forward. “Please listen to me, sweet sister. This governess will not take our sainted mother’s place in this house nor in our affections. She is to look after you, be your tutor, and I hope, your friend. I would ask this favor of you, Henrietta.”
“Give her a chance. It is all I am asking. If you give her time and patience, I am sure you will find it is not hard to have her here.”
“And if I hate her?”
He leaned back in his armchair, puffing on his pipe. “I hope it will not come to that,” he said slowly. “But if it does, we will reconsider the matter then. Are we agreed?”
Henrietta nodded, not smiling but meeting his gaze with a calm levelness that he thought only to see on faces much older than hers.
“But I know I will hate her,” Henrietta declared. “I know I will.”
With all her possessions packed, which amounted to a single decent-sized box, Lucretia stood outside the Foundling Hospital. Willie and a few of the older boys stood with her, trying manfully not to cry. The older girls, whom she helped raise when they were young, had no such constraints and wept. She had said her farewells to the small children, all who bawled when she told them she was leaving. Rose, one of her favorites, begged to be allowed to go with her.
“I am sorry, Rose,” she told the child. “You cannot come with me. But I promise, I will write you letters.”
“I cannot read,” the little girl wailed.
“Someone will read them to you, sweetling. And when you are older, you can read them for yourself.”
“Will you write letters to all of us, Miss Lucretia?” Willie asked, his pinched round face red with the effort to not imitate the girls.
“I promise, I will do my best,” she said, tousling his hair. “Remember, I am very fond of you all. I will miss you.”
As Mrs. Marsh told her the Duke would send a carriage for her, she stood waiting for it, her fears and anxieties reined in so as not to upset the children. Yet, she wanted to weep as the girls did. The Foundling Hospital was her home. It frightened her to leave it, to go across England to the service of the Duke of Breckenridge.
“It will be an adventure, right, Miss Lucretia?” Willie said, as though reading her fears. “You always told us you wanted an adventure. To see new places and things.”
She smiled, and cupped his chin in her hand. “You are quite right, Willie. It will be an adventure. And soon, you will be old enough to go on them, too.”
“When I am old enough,” he declared, “I will ride to Gloucestershire and rescue you.”
“That you will, my brave lad.”
As she spoke, a team of four with post boys riding the left-hand horses clattered around the bend and trotted toward them. The beautiful yellow carriage, a post chaise she knew were often called ‘Yellow Bounders,’ pulled up beside her as the small men reined in the team.
“You Miss Lucretia Brent?” the lead rider asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“We be hired to bring you to His Grace, the Duke of Breckenridge.”
“I am ready.”
As Willie and another boy struggled to stow her box aboard, she turned for one last lingering look at what once had been her home. Her face hidden by her bonnet, she permitted a single tear to track down her pale cheek. That was all. She wiped it away, and, lifting her skirts, climbed into the chaise.
With the children clustered so close, she touched each of their hands as the riders prepared to signal the horses to move out.
“Wait! A moment. Wait.”
The post boys hesitated, their team shifting restlessly under them, as Mrs. Marsh hurried from the huge double doors of the Hospital. “I am sorry I am late, but I just could not make up my mind.”
“Mrs. Marsh?” Lucretia asked, confused.
“Let me by, children, let me by.”
The Hospital’s matron pushed her way through the milling, crying children, a small box in her hand. She handed it up to Lucretia, who accepted it with a puzzled smile.
“A small token of my appreciation for all the help and work you have given us through all these years.”
Untying the string that held the box closed, Lucretia opened it. Several leather-bound volumes lay within – a book of poetry, three novels, and a book of essays. Tears brimmed in her eyes as she took Mrs. Marsh’s hand. “Thank you.”
“Be well, my dear. Godspeed.”
The post boys set the horses into a quick trot, carrying Lucretia away. Leaning from the chaise, she waved as the children and the stout matron waved back. A sick feeling swirled through her stomach when she realized she would most likely not ever see any of them again.
“This be your first time travelin’, mum?”
Swallowing hard in an effort to not cry, she glanced up. The wheel boy gazed over his shoulder at her, his expression cheerful.
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
“We be takin’ good care o’ ye, then, mum. You be needin’ anythin’ you be lettin’ us know.”
“I will. Thank you.”
He tipped his small cap to her, then faced forward. Despite her fears and despair, Lucretia stared out of the moving carriage in fascination. While she had often gone into the city shopping, she seldom ventured far from the Hospital, as the neighborhood shops carried most anything she needed. Now she found herself staring, dazzled, at the parts of London she had never before witnessed.
The wide street held a multitude of carriages, single horse-drawn cabriolets, an impressive landau drawn by four magnificent black horses. She wondered what lord passed her by in that carriage, as she did not recognize the coat of arms on its doors. She stared in fascination at hansom cabs, wagons drawn by huge horses and piled high with logs, or bricks. Despite the heavy traffic, people walked into and out of shops and along the sidewalks. Apprentices hawked wares, yelling to be heard over the cacophony.
The chaise passed through a big market teeming with shoppers, delivery men, vendors. Street urchins ran amok amid the thick crowds, grabbing what they could before dashing off. Dogs barked, often running between human legs, all but toppling their victims to the filthy street.
Leaving the market and the heavy traffic behind, the post chaise took her toward the River Thames. Long before she saw it, Lucretia scented the stench of fish, and for the first time ever, she heard the lonely crying of seagulls. As they drew closer, she saw the great ships tied to the piers, sailors loading or unloading, bobbing gently against their hawsers. She’d seen drawings of ships, but never an actual sea-going vessel. Until now. Leaning out of the chaise, she watched them until they finally passed out of sight.
Having never been out of London, Lucretia gaped at the green, open fields, farmers and their sons planting oats or barley. Other travelers, many farmers in laden wagons heading into the city, passed them by, most offering friendly waves as they passed. Had she not been so frightened of what awaited her at the Breckenridge estates, she would have found her first adventure thrilling, exciting.
Thusly enrapt by the sights before her, the hours passed quickly. Before she realized how the time had fled, the post boys reined the team to a halt in a small village. Glancing up, Lucretia realized they must stop to change horses and post boys, as the afternoon waned toward dusk.
The cheerful little man helped her down from the chaise. “Go on inside, mum,” he said. “There be a box dinner and a bed fer th’ night awaitin’ ye, courtesy of His Grace, the Duke.”
After taking advantage of the privy, she sat at one of the clean wooden tables. A stout, red-faced matron approached with a basket covered by a cloth napkin and a tankard. Setting the fare in front of her, she offered only a quick nod before hustling away to serve the inn’s patrons.
The tankard held crisp, cold water, the basket had hot fried chicken, a small roll of bread, and a hard, yellow cheese. She had not known how hungry she was until she breathed in the fine odors. Trying to maintain some decorum of manners, Lucretia ate everything, licking her fingers before wiping them, and her lips, on the napkin. The matron showed her to a small room, with a tiny bed covered in clean, fresh sheets.
She slept well that night, and after a quick breakfast the next morning, the new wheel boy came in search of her, informing her they were ready to depart. He helped her climb into the chaise, then vaulted onto the wheel horse. Within moments, they set out once more, Lucretia belching contentedly into her fist.
“How long until we get to Tewksbury in Gloucestershire?” she asked.
“We be takin’ ye as far as Oxford, miss,” the wheel boy said. “But ye should reach Cheltenham before nightfall. Ye will stay at an inn, courtesy of the Duke.”
Mrs. Marsh said His Grace’s estates were close by the town of Tewksbury. I hope it does not take too long to get there.
Sitting back in the comfortable seat as the carriage rolled smoothly over the road, she hoped the Duke would prove to be a fair and just master. If he was not…
Her fears returned, despite her delight in watching the countryside slide past at a quick pace. What if the Duke of Breckenridge proved to be a harsh or wicked man? What would his children be like? Would they be hellions, out to make her life miserable? She knew nothing of the Duke’s reputation, his family, or his nature. Mrs. Marsh told her only that he owned a townhouse in London for his frequent trips to the Prince Regent’s court and his duties in the House of Lords.
Of course, growing up in an orphanage, Lucretia had listened to dark tales of evil masters murdering their servants in the night, of horrible beasts that roamed the moors after nightfall, howling under a full moon. She’d heard wild stories of man-sized bats that fed on the unwary traveler, of highwaymen and robbers who robbed the rich and the poor alike and left their bodies to rot on the ground.
Shivering as she gazed at the green, rolling hills, she wondered what roamed out there when the good people of the land slept. Feeling very glad she would not be traveling after the sun set, she resisted the urge to ask the wheel boy about huge bats and highwaymen.
No doubt, he would think me a fool and laugh.
The hours passed as quickly as the miles, and just before supper, the chaise halted at another inn in the village of Cheltenham. Once again, she found a hearty, hot meal and a clean bed awaiting her, paid for by His Grace. In the morning, fresh horses and boys would continue conveying her to her new home. The next stop the following day, after a short journey, would place her at the door of the Duke.
“Have you met His Grace, the Duke of Breckenridge?” she asked as the new wheel boy assisted her into the chaise.
“Nay, mum,” he answered with a gap-toothed smile. “I’ve not the honor.”
Swallowing her trepidation that within a few hours, she would meet him face to face, she settled back into the seat as the carriage rocked forward. She clenched her trembling fingers into her lap, vowing that neither he nor his children would make her cry. No matter what they did.
Watching the sun sink toward Wales and distant Ireland, Lucretia’s nerves strung tight as the carriage left the road and headed north on a narrow lane. Sheep and cattle grazed the green hills behind low walls made of moss-weathered stone. Smoke curled up from the chimneys of crofters’ huts, and she listened to the chirk-chirk of a hunting hawk. As the chaise rounded a sharp bend in the lane, she sucked in her breath, not realizing she held it.
Passing under a wrought iron sign held up by two tall stone pillars, she read the words Breckenridge and Quantum Fidelis. Her Latin being a tad rusty, she thought it translated to, as faithful. Finding it a hopeful sign, hoping that the owner of the magnificent house straight ahead was as honorable as his family motto, she stared in wonder.
I have never seen anything as stunningly beautiful as this place.
Sprawling green lawns hemmed in by neat hedgerows spanned the front. Tall white pillars graced the wide veranda. The manor house stood four stories tall, and nearly as wide as a London street was long, and a dozen stone chimneys poked up from the roof in her view. Outbuildings and sheds sat well back from the house as to not mar its singular magnificence. Stars danced in front of Lucretia’s eyes, reminding her she had not drawn breath since sighting the place.
As the chaise entered the wide circular drive in front of the house, she noticed several people standing between the pillars, awaiting her. Several liveried footmen in powdered wigs, and two female servants in white caps and aprons, stood behind a tall man and a young girl. Reminding herself to breathe, she felt her heart fluttering in her breast as the team drew her closer to her fate. Fear returned with a vengeance, and she fought to keep it from showing on her face.
Halting, the team snorted and stamped as the post boys stared straight ahead. The tall, dark-haired man walked down the steps, dressed in casual breeches and blue waistcoat, a silk cravat encircling his neck. He wore no coat nor hat.
He approached her, his face devoid of emotion. No smile of greeting, nor a scowl of annoyance, he seemed cold and aloof. Exactly what she imagined a Duke to express on his face.
Only then, through her fear, did she notice he was strikingly handsome. And far younger than she had expected. Brilliant green eyes flashed in his dark face, his strong jaw held long, clean lines. His full lips twitched as though he wanted to smile and then stifled the impulse. Thick, black hair fell untidily to his collar, yet the hand he extended to her to assist her down felt warm in hers.
Her body suddenly felt hot, as though she had walked too close to a fire.
She could not look away, despite the fact she stared rudely at a Duke.
“Miss Lucretia Brent?”
His voice, deep with a fascinating timbre, entranced her, and broke the spell. Some of her fears melted away. The instant her feet touched the gravel of the drive, she spread her skirts and sank into a low curtsey.
“Welcome to Breckenridge,” he said, putting his hand in hers to raise her up. “Come. I wish you to meet my sister.”
His hand in hers made her heart beat faster. Walking beside him, she felt his masculine power, and discovered herself slightly breathless. Forcing herself to pay attention, she remembered his words.
All this time, Lucretia assumed she would be caring for his offspring. Walking with him, his hand still holding hers, she climbed the steps to the veranda. The girl, about ten years old, regarded her coldly through hazel-green eyes. Quite pretty, with silken blonde hair tumbling over her shoulders, she wore a white gown trimmed in lace, a small necklace of pearls gracing her throat. She offered Lucretia a small, stony curtsey as the Duke formally introduced them.
“Miss Brent, this is my sister, Lady Henrietta Claridge. Lady Henrietta, please say hello to your new governess, Miss Lucretia Brent.”
However, Lady Henrietta remained silent, her face frozen as though afraid to release any emotion.
“My Lady.” Lucretia offered the child a proper curtsey, wondering why the little girl appeared so antagonistic. Hoping that speaking to her directly would break some of the tension, she said, “I am happy to meet you at last, Lady Henrietta. I am looking forward to being your governess.”
Instantly, the small pale face scrunched up into the visage of an evil imp. “I hate you,” she screeched. “You will never be my governess. Never.”
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