About the book
She was the answer to every prayer he had whispered...
Miss Lucretia Nelson has never felt such despair before.
With the School for Young Ladies she works at closing down, she is left not only without work but also without a place to live. Her silver lining comes in the form of a governess position in the employ of a Duke.
Still traumatized by his wife’s accidental death, Benedict De Clare, Duke of Tradegrove, has become obsessed with collecting perfect portraits of women that resemble her. That is until he finds himself falling in love with the most disheveled governess he has ever met.
With the Duke slowly mending his relationship with his estranged son, Lucretia and Benedict’s blossoming love bridges the social chasm between them.
However, as tensions rise among the staff and Lucretia finds herself on the receiving end of vicious threats, up-until-then hidden clues are tied to the late Duchess’ accident. And the only person who can save Lucretia's life has no tongue to speak…
Lucretia watched as her charges put away their needlework and then formed a proper single-file line on their way to the dining room.
She packed her belongings and made her way back to the teachers’ quarters. She had taught her last class for the day, not that it meant her day was over. By no means. She would have to spend the afternoon preparing for the following day.
Fortunately, given that the following day was Thursday, her most favorite day of the week, she did not mind at all. For on Thursdays, she got the chance to teach the subjects she was truly passionate about, instead of needlework and music, subjects she secretly despised.
Lucretia Nelson had been a tutor at Mrs. Doringcourt’s School for Young Ladies for almost six years now, having been taken on as a tutor right after departing from the nunnery where she had been raised.
She loved the school and its headmistress, the kind, elderly Mrs. Doringcourt. While smaller than other facilities in Bath—only thirty girls attended year-round—it was a well-respected school that taught its charges more than just needlework and dance. Among the subjects Lucretia was tasked with teaching the young girls were French, Geography, and History, as well as basic Arithmetic.
Not that these young ladies would have much use for them later in life. No, these young girls were destined to become proper ladies of the ton, their knowledge and education little more than a leg-up in the competitive quest for suitable husbands. In their society, skills in dance and music were valued much higher than the ability to count or know history.
It is fortunate for all involved that Mrs. Doringcourt realized I have two left feet right from the start. Now that the other teachers are tasked with the dance lessons, these young dears might have a chance to learn the Quadrille properly. If it were left to me, they would never find a dance partner.
She chuckled at the memory of her first attempt at teaching dance and the headmistress’ swift decision to use her talents elsewhere.
“Lucy!” A voice called from behind her. She turned and saw Mary Hastings running her way. She stopped and waited for the young woman to catch up to her.
“Are you finished with your lessons for the day?”
Mary, the youngest teacher at the school, had arrived two years prior and she and Lucretia had shared a room ever since. Mary was accomplished in all the subjects Lucretia found herself lacking in. Mary possessed the grace and talent to teach dance, the delicate hands to create magnificent needlepoint works, and a love for poetry that was infectious and inspiring to their young charges. The only subject they both enjoyed equally was music. While able to play the pianoforte, Lucretia was not especially talented at it. Not the way Mary was. She taught the instrument with such joy even the most tone-deaf students would pick it up posthaste.
“I just finished teaching my needlepoint class. Alas, I must prepare the French exam for the morning. Why do you ask?”
“Faith! Lucy, can’t it wait? I have rather a mind to take the air, for it is beautiful outside. Come join me for a walk along the promenade?”
Lucretia smiled. While a dedicated teacher, Mary did enjoy time to herself, away from the students. And Lucy knew that the young woman harbored hopes of finding a dashing young man to marry her and rescue her from a lifetime of teaching. Thus, walks along the promenade, where she could see and be seen, were among Mary’s favorite pastimes.
Lucretia, on the other hand, was quite content with her place in the world. An orphan since birth, she had been raised by the Order of Our Sacred Mary, a convent of nuns in the Derbyshire countryside. She’d rarely had exposure to the world and given little thought to the idea of marriage. She’d always assumed that she would end up either a nun or a teacher, never a wife. Always alone.
In fact, before coming to Mrs. Doringcourt’s school, she hadn’t had many friends, either. Thus, having Mary had been a true blessing, even if she sometimes proved a rather bad influence when it came to preparing her coursework, such as today.
“I suppose I can always prepare the examination tonight. Before we go, I must first call on Mrs. Doringcourt, for she has asked to see me.”
Mary’s cheerful, jolly face took on a dark shadow at the mention of the headmistress.
“Is she unwell still? Oh Lucy. It has been many weeks since she last taught any of her classes. What shall we do if she does not recover?”
Lucy shook her head. “She will be just fine. Indeed, the physician has been to see her just this morning and he did not appear alarmed upon his departure. Do not fret, Mary. All will be well.”
“I wish I were as confident in the matter as you are. And I shall fret, for you know as well as I that we would be utterly devastated if the school closed. The other teachers have families to go back to, you and I do not. This is all we have.”
Lucretia nodded. It was true. She and Mary were the only ones that did not have a family to support them. An orphan just like Lucretia, Mary had been raised in an orphanage until an elderly uncle took her in and gave her an education. Unfortunately, that uncle had passed away the previous year, leaving Mary as alone in the world as Lucretia.
Truly, the school was their home and there was nowhere else for either of them to go. Unlike Mary, Lucretia preferred to not worry herself over the matter. There was no use in fretting. In any case, the headmistress would recover soon enough. Wouldn’t she?
“Why don’t you ask her to train you as her successor? Perhaps you can take over the school one day.” Mary suggested this in all sincerity, but Lucretia laughed out loud, so amused was she at the mention.
“I am not qualified to be a headmistress. Neither is anyone else at the school. I am far too young, for one. And I have not the right qualifications, as you well know.”
They had almost reached their chamber, which was located on the lower floor of the teacher’s building, across the main building which housed the school. Along with the teacher’s chambers, it also housed the dining room, kitchen, and scullery.
“You are far more educated than any of us. You speak Latin and Greek.”
Lucretia shrugged, “Thanks to the nuns, I do. Alas, it does me no good at this school nor would it help me become headmistress, should I so desire. In any case, I shall meet you shortly and we shall go and take the air. Put on your best walking costume, my friend. Perhaps we shall find you a dashing Baron or a Viscount, even.”
The two women laughed at the idea, knowing well that it would be difficult if not impossible to ever marry into the nobility, even if, through some miracle, a Baron came knocking.
She hoped that a kind, comfortably established young man might take an interest in Mary, for she knew that was what her friend truly desired.
Lucretia ascended the stairs to the headmistress’s chamber, which was located upstairs, in what was once the attic of the house. She’d always envied the headmistress this space, for while it was burdensome to climb the stairs, it was quite lovely.
While the teachers’ and students’ chambers were furnished comfortably, the rooms were sparse with only the most necessary furnishings. Mrs. Doringcourt’s lodgings were much more opulent.
In any case, Lucretia loved visiting, for the headmistress had created such a warm and welcoming space she always felt her spirits lifted when entering. However, it was not the case today.
For today, as soon as she entered through the front door, a terrible smell tickled her nose. It was the scent of disease. She was familiar with it, for she had often accompanied the nuns on their visits to the ill. She reached for her handkerchief and was about to cover her mouth when she realized that it may hurt the old woman’s feelings.
“Miss Nelson? Is it you? I am in the drawing room.”
The voice that called out her name was not the strong, demanding voice Lucretia was used to hearing. A feeling of unease spread in her belly as she approached the drawing room.
She entered and found the headmistress on her settee, wrapped in a blanket even though it was September and very hot outside. She looked terrible, her cheeks were sunken in, and the bones along her collar were visible. Beside her, on the end table, was a steaming pot of tea as well as a piece of bread with butter that had not been touched.
What a sight! Poor Mrs. Doringcourt. She looks like a skeleton. And it has been only a little more than a week since I last saw her. She is wasting away and appears much more ill than I had feared.
Mrs. Doringcourt looked pale and her hair was unkempt, which was most unlike her as she was one of the most proper ladies Lucretia had ever met.
She indicated toward the chair in front of her and Lucretia sat down. She found herself pushing the chair a little away from the old lady, for she coughed in the most alarming manner.
“Would you like me to pour you a cup of tea, Mrs. Doringcourt?”
She shook her head and dabbed the corners of her mouth with a handkerchief.
“I am quite all right, my dear.”
Lucretia gave her a curt nod and cleared her throat.
“I saw the physician this morning. I hope you are well on your way to recovery.”
The woman shrugged and coughed once more, this time holding the handkerchief in front of her mouth as she did. Lucretia caught her glancing at the handkerchief once the coughing fit subsided and quickly balled it in her hand and tucked it away.
“I shall not make a cake of you or me, Miss Nelson. I am not well. The physician seems to believe I am not long for this world.”
“Faith! Mrs. Doringcourt.” Lucretia found herself gasping, her mouth open with the shock of it all. She was aware her voice had been loud and shrill which drew the old woman’s ire.
“Now, now, Miss Nelson. Get a hold of yourself. We must maintain decorum even at the most ghastly of news. Have the nuns not taught you that?”
“Of course, I apologize, Mrs. Doringcourt. I am just so saddened at the news. I…”
The thoughts swirled through her head at a rapid pace.
“Do not fret quite yet, my dear. I have some time left. Alas, we must prepare for the eventuality when I am no longer here. This is why I asked you here, my dear Miss Nelson.”
She attempted to push herself up which resulted in another coughing spell.
“Please, let me assist you,” Lucretia said as calmly as possible. To her relief, the older woman sat back and straightened the blanket over her legs. Lucretia fluffed the pillow on which she had been leaning and found it drenched in sweat. The old woman leaned back and looked up at Lucretia, her eyes tired.
“Very well. In my desk.” She pointed at the old wooden desk by the window. “You will find a number of letters there. I would like you to go to the post office at your earliest convenience and post them.”
Lucretia did as she was told and retrieved the bundle. Upon seeing the question in her eyes, Mrs. Doringcourt cleared her throat.
“I have sent word to other schools in Bath, letting them know that we are in need of a headmistress-in-training. Perhaps one of our fellow educators can point us to someone suitable. In any case, I have let them know what excellent educators we have at our little school, should the need arise for…”
She stopped and broke into another coughing fit. To her horror, Lucretia saw little droplets of blood stain the white material. Quickly, she averted her eyes as the reality of the headmistress’ illness dawned on her.
Neither Lucretia, nor any of the teachers, had been told of the exact nature of their headmistress’ ailment. Even so, it had taken Lucretia only a few moments with her to know it, for she had seen it too many times before. Consumption. The old woman had all the classic symptoms. Lucretia had seen the disease ravage so many people, young and old, during her time with the nuns. She knew there was little chance of recovery from the illness, especially given the headmistress’ age.
My dear Mrs. Doringcourt. It is a tragedy. The only consolation I can cling to is that the disease progresses slowly and we may yet have time to find someone who can take her place as headmistress, should she not recover.
Suddenly, Lucretia felt herself overtaken by a wave of sadness as she realized the woman who had been her mentor for these last few years would likely soon be gone.
Mrs. Doringcourt had taken her under her wing and helped her adjust to her new life when Lucretia first arrived in the city. That was not all—seeing how gifted she was, the old lady had encouraged her to continue her own studies. And so, for the past five years, Lucretia had spent her days teaching young souls while at night being taught Geography, Italian, and European History by the headmistress. The old woman had done the same for Mary.
Somehow, Lucretia had never considered things might change. Not for her, at least, for she’d planned to be a teacher all her life and to remain at the School for Young Ladies until she was too old to teach. And she had never even considered what that might be like without the headmistress.
“Miss Nelson?” The woman’s strained voice drew her out of her thoughts.
“I am sorry, my mind drifted.”
“It is quite all right. As I was saying, I am confident I will be able to find someone capable to succeed me before this wretched disease takes me away. Soon news of my illness will spread, and certainly once the letters make their way to their recipient. I did not want you to be taken by surprise, for I know if the school closed it would be difficult for you, and Miss Hastings, of course.”
She took a sip of her tea, while Lucretia noticed how much her hands shook.
“Are you quite certain there is enough time?” Lucretia felt awful having to discuss the matter of the woman’s impending death in such a manner.
Without blinking, the headmistress glanced at her over the rim of her cup.
“Quite confident. I will say that it was rather arrogant of me not to attend to this matter before now. Unfortunately for us all, I was under the impression that I was quite indestructible. I thought I had time.” She paused, “At the very least I had hoped that I would have enough time to train the person I thought would be my natural successor.”
Lucretia tilted her head and frowned. “I was not aware you had somebody in mind.”
“My dear child. Your one great fault has always been that you do not think highly enough of yourself.”
Lucretia raised her eyebrows.
Me? She means me? When Mary suggested it I dismissed it, for it is rather ridiculous to think that I could ever be headmistress. Let alone of an establishment as respected as this school.
“Do not look so surprised, Miss Nelson. You are extraordinarily gifted and will make a wonderful headmistress one day. Why else do you think I have bestowed all this knowledge upon you all these years? I saw your potential the moment you walked through the door, fresh from the nunnery. I knew all you needed was to find your confidence and to gain experience. I was hoping that in another two or three years you would be ready to unofficially succeed me. Unfortunately, we are out of time.”
“I did not know that you thought of me in such high regard.”
“That must be what living among the nuns has done to you, dear child. It is all very well that they teach you to be humble. It will serve you well in life, but do not ever forget your worth. Never forget that you are incredibly intelligent and your mind is sharper than that of any other. You have limitless potential if you can just believe in yourself.”
“I appreciate your kindness more than you know, Mrs. Doringcourt.”
Lucretia was touched by the woman’s words, for she had not known she was valued so. It was true, living among the nuns had made her humble but also unsure of herself. The world outside of the convent had been so different that sometimes she still felt she did not have a true place in it. The old woman yawned and cleared her throat.
“I trust you will comfort Miss Hastings, for you know she is rather sensitive in nature and will not take this news well. Reassure her. Please. And be reassured. Everything will be fine. I will not allow…
Suddenly, she clutched her chest and gasped for air, her body shaking in a violent manner. Her face lost all its remaining color and her eyes grew wide, almost bulging out.
“Ma’am? Mrs. Doringcourt!” Lucretia rushed across the room and knelt before her.
The woman clutched Lucretia’s hand in sheer panic, digging her nails into her skin. Her face turned an awful color and she gasped for breath.
“I will fetch the physician. I shall return at once. Please, I promise.” She removed her hand from the woman’s grasp and ran out of the drawing room and downstairs. She ripped open the door that led to Mrs. Doringcourt’s quarters and screamed at the top of her lungs.
“Help! The headmistress needs help!”
Mary burst from the other room and ran towards Lucretia who turned around and rushed back upstairs. She burst through the drawing room door and then froze in place.
Before her, on the settee, the headmistress had grown still and Lucretia knew. It wasn’t the open eyes that stared at the ceiling without focus, or the ashen skin. No. It was the smile. The frozen smile upon the woman’s face, one that spoke of relief, of release from pain that made Lucretia realize that her mentor, her teacher, the headmistress of Mrs. Doringcourt’s School for Young Ladies, had died.
Benedict stood and studied the portrait before him. At first glance, the lady in the painting was indeed beautiful. Her long, golden hair flowed in luscious waves down her back, her eyes were of a piercing blue as clear as a cloudless summer sky. Her gown was of the finest silk and shimmered under the painter’s gifted hand. And yet …
“No. Take it away,” Benedict waved his hand dismissively in the direction of the painting. An audible gasp escaped the painter.
“But, Your Grace, is it not as you had requested? I painted it with your specifications in mind.”
The painter, Sir Rodolfo Biasi, sounded utterly deflated at the Duke’s reaction. With a heavy sigh, Benedict turned around and walked toward the large painting in big steps.
“The eyes, they are too close together. She appears almost cross-eyed. And the manner in which they stare… It makes me feel utterly uncomfortable. No. I do not care for it. Take it away.”
He heard the painter inhale a gulp of air. When Benedict turned to face him, the painter’s visage was full of dejection. His shoulders were slumped forward as he glanced at the painting that Benedict knew had taken him months to complete.
“Do not take it so hard, Biasi. I shall pay you for the work, of course. And you will certainly find a buyer. The work is detailed and beautiful, as always. Alas, it is not to my liking. She is too…” He glanced at the woman in the painting again. “She is cold. She is not her.”
Cold. The opposite of his beloved Helena. She had been warm, giving, and loving. Looking into her eyes had been like bathing in a warm lake. Light and warmth had followed Helena everywhere she went. She lit any space she occupied, most of all Benedict’s heart. The woman in the painting did none of it. Nor did she resemble his late wife, as he had requested. And that, truly, was the problem.
He had asked Biasi to paint a portrait that resembled Helena. He’d let him study the three portraits Benedict possessed of his late wife, and had described her in great detail to the man. He’d been quite clear. He had not wanted another painting of a beautiful woman who resembled Helena. He had many of those. No. He’d wanted Helena. Given that Rodolfo Biasi was one of the most respected painters in the country, a man who had painted the Regent himself, Benedict had been full of hope. Until today. Until he saw the final result. It was not Helena. Not in the least. No. The painting could not remain.
“Take it away, Biasi,” he ordered. At once, the painter called his two burly assistants into the room and together, they carried the heavy frame away.
“Your Grace, I could perhaps modify…”
“No!” Benedict shouted. “I do not wish to have it modified. I simply do not wish to see it again.”
“I apologize that my work proved a disappointment to you. I…”
Benedict shook his head and leaned against the windowsill. “Do not let this vex you so, Biasi. It will be simpler to start over. It is my fault. I should have told you more about her. You do not know her as I did. Thus, it would be impossible for you to paint her accurately. It is all about her warmth, Biasi. Her passion. Her compassion. You shall start over, and I will ensure you know all you need to in order to capture her true essence next time. That is not a problem, I am certain.”
Benedict nodded, confident he would be able to assist the painter in creating the perfect painting of his wife the next time around.
Biasi’s lips trembled as he shrugged. “No, Your Grace, no problem at all. We shall get started right away. In the meantime, I have a lead on a lovely painting I have located in Edinburgh. Lovely. Exquisite work and it would match perfectly in Your Grace’s collection. I am traveling to Scotland next week, and I will be able to bring it back with me, should Your Grace agree.”
Benedict smiled, his mood somewhat lifted after the disappointing reveal of his commissioned portrait. “I trust your judgement, Biasi, and I look forward to your return.”
The painter departed and Benedict left his study, walking with large, thundering steps toward the drawing room.
There, he stopped before the fireplace, and gazed up at the painting that hung there. It was one of only three paintings that showed her true face.
Helena, his beloved, late wife. Painted while she was still living. He remembered her sitting for this painting, shortly after the birth of their son, Henry. He’d been in the nurse’s arms, just to the right of Helena. It was why her gaze was slightly focused in that direction in the painting. A bystander would not have noticed the glance at all. Alas, Benedict had been there and he knew what she’d been looking at while the painter was working.
Oh, my love. If only we had more time. If only you did not have to leave me.
“Excuse me, Your Grace,” the deep voice of Swindon, his butler, sounded from behind him. Benedict turned to face him.
“What is it, Swindon?”
“Your Grace, Lord Winterton has…”
“Tradegrove!” A familiar voice boomed from behind the butler, cutting Swindon off mid-sentence. Benedict smirked as his good friend, Jordan Foley, the Marquess of Winterton, rushed past the butler, and made his way into the drawing room, a grin on his rugged face.
“Winterton! Old chum, how are you? What brings you here?”
He marched toward his friend, a wide grin on his face. The two men had been friends since their childhood days, and he much enjoyed spending time with him. It was unfortunate that, given their busy lives, they often found themselves apart for long stretches of time. In fact, Benedict had not seen his friend since the beginning of the month.
“I am well, Tradegrove. Devastated that you have evidently forgotten that I am scheduled to beat you at a game of billiards today.”
Benedict gasped. He had indeed forgotten.
“Forgive me, Winterton. I was preoccupied. I am ready now. And it shall be I who beats you, not the other way around, I declare.”
“Zooks, if you so declare.” Winterton laughed but then grew serious once more. “Was your preoccupation related to Biasi? The painter? I saw him leave, looking rather sullen with what appeared to be a canvas made of five hundred oak trees.”
He chuckled at his own joke, although Benedict did not see the humor.
“It was a painting I commissioned, of Helena. It was—unsatisfactory.” He rumpled his nose at the memory of the unfortunate result.
The two men walked through the hall, followed by Swindon. Benedict, in preparation for the billiards match, was presently relieving himself of his cufflinks and cravat, which he handed to Swindon.
“I do not know why you bother, Tradegrove. You are never satisfied with any paintings you commission of Helena. Why not simply collect your paintings of other blonde beauties as you have been? Why risk the disappointment each time? Or better yet, stop tearing open your wounds and cease collecting paintings all together. Or perhaps branch out. How about a lovely still life? Or a painting of…” Winterton waved his hand about in a dramatic fashion, “A sunset, perhaps?”
A sunset? A still life? Preposterous!
Benedict felt his irritation grow at a rapid pace but contained himself. He’d always had a bit of a temper, before meeting Helena. She had soothed his moods and brought out the gentle, more mild-mannered side of him. Following her untimely death, he’d tried hard to hold onto that, to hold on to the good she’d brought into his life. It was one of the many ways he chose to honor her memory. And most days, he succeeded. Unless anyone called into question the manner in which he chose to remember his wife.
Of all people, Winterton knows the meaning behind my portrait collection. He was there the day I first laid eyes upon a painting that so resembled my beloved I simply had to purchase it. He knows how much finding that very first portrait soothed me after many months of suffering. I still recall the way my blood froze upon seeing it, as if confronted with Helena once more. Winterton even helped me negotiate a fair price for the artwork. For him to question it now—I cannot comprehend it.
Benedict sighed, remembering the day he’d returned home with the painting. He found that it comforted him. Even though it was not Helena, it looked enough like her to where it helped him conjure up her image in his mind. Soon, a second painting had joined it and now, at last count, he owned twenty-five paintings. And yet, it was not enough. No. It was never enough.
As they walked along the hallway, he glanced up at the paintings. The women looked down upon him from high up as he felt his heart grow heavy.
“No, old chum. I have no interest in a still life or sunsets.” He turned to his friend. “It is one of my greatest regrets to not have commissioned more paintings of Helena. Thus, I must attempt to make up for it by finding those that resemble her. It is my only way to keep her memory alive.”
His friend sighed and shook his head. “By Jove, her memory lives within you. Indeed, I worry that being surrounded by these paintings will keep you from finding happiness once more because they hold you captive. Captive to a memory, captive to the past. Benedict, it has been four years since you lost Helena, do you not feel that one day there might be another who…”
Benedict stopped in his tracks and turned to his friend, one finger rapidly moving back and forth.
“Do not say it, Winterton. There are no other women out there. Not for me. Helena was perfection. She was all I ever wanted and ever dreamt of. No. I shall be content spending my life surrounded by her likeness. And one day Biasi will succeed in capturing her beauty in another painting. Then I will commission more from him. That shall be my goal. That will sustain me until I am reunited with her.”
He turned and marched on, not waiting for a response from his friend. He heard the Marquess sigh as he rushed to catch up with him.
They had reached the billiards room and Benedict picked up two sticks, handing one to his friend, who looked at him with a deep crease upon his forehead.
“Are we going to play, or have you decided to concede before we even start?”
He shrugged. “Let us play.”
“Very well.” Benedict set up the table and indicated for his friend to take the first shot. He did, sending the billiard balls flying wildly across the table, sinking one.
“A good start!” Lord Winterton said and indicated where he intended to sink the next ball.
He was about to take his shot when the sounds of laughter sounded from outside. Benedict watched as his friend lifted his head and looked outside. On the grass, just outside the window, Benedict saw that his son Henry was running in circles around his nurse, Miss Babette. The woman appeared utterly frazzled and, despite her young age, had trouble keeping up with the boy.
“He is looking more and more like his mother, Lord Henry is,” his friend commented.
Benedict swallowed hard. It was true. Henry had inherited his mother’s blue eyes and fair complexion. Even his laugh reminded him of her. It was one of the reasons he found it so hard to be around the boy. While the paintings that resembled his wife comforted him, being near his son who had so much of the woman he loved in him, was unbearable.
He watched the little boy run and stumble. He shook it off and began to run once more. The nurse lifted her blue uniform gown and rushed after him, her hair wild in the wind. Then, suddenly, she stopped and placed her hands on her thighs, bent at the waist and gasping for air.
“Indeed, he does. He inherited her endurance and love of the outdoors, too.”
Winterton straighten up and faced his friend.
“Perhaps he needs to expel some of his energy. We could take him for a hike or a ride. We could take him for a tour of the estate.”
Benedict shook his head. “Perhaps when he is older. For now, he needs to be taught manners and proper decorum. And he needs an education.”
His friend looked at him from the corner of his eyes.
“Indeed, he does. Perhaps it is time for the boy to have a governess, rather than a nurse. Horace and Frances have had a governess for some time now and it has been wonderful for them.”
Benedict shrugged. He had not been in charge of his son’s education nor care since the death of Helena. His sister, Clementine, the Dowager Marchioness of Blinddale, had taken the responsibility after Helena’s death. She had arranged for the nurses and overseen Henry’s care. Alas, she’d been called away, back to her late husband’s estate, in order to settle affairs with her husband’s heirs. She would not return for quite some time.
“Perhaps when Clementine returns, I shall discuss the matter with her.”
Winterton shrugged. “I shall ask Mrs. Lester for a recommendation in the meantime.”
“Ah, Mrs. Lester. You would not be interested in parting with her, would you? Given how you like to sing her praises.”
Winterton gasped in mock horror. “Zooks! My darling governess? How dare you, Tradegrove. She is worth her weight in gold. Now, before you talk me into giving up my most treasured employee, how about we resume our game?”
“We shall, my friend. We shall. Now, I was about to beat you, was I not?”
“In your dreams perhaps, Tradegrove,” his friend laughed and sunk the next solid colored ball into the left-most pocket.
After three rounds of billiards, Benedict found himself the unlikely victor in his game with his friend, which lifted his spirits. It had been refreshing to spend some time with his good friend. Unfortunately, both he and Lord Winterton had business to attend to and so their afternoon was cut short.
Benedict was taking his friend back through the Great Hall toward the front door, where his carriage would be awaiting him, when something caught Winterton’s attention.
“That is some interesting tiling, Tradegrove,” he said and pointed up ahead where splashes of brown were splattered among the black and white tiling.
Benedict glanced down as they got closer and indeed, the entire floor was covered in splatters of mud and two different sets of shoe prints were visible. One adult, one child-sized.
A moment later, his housekeeper, Mrs. Harrison, appeared with a bucket of water in hand. When she saw him, she stopped so abruptly that water splashed out over the sides.
“Your Grace. I am sorry about the mess. I’m afraid there has been a little incident.”
“I can see that, Mrs. Harrison. Now, pray tell, why is my head housekeeper about to wash the tiles? Where is Maggie? And Molly?”
Mrs. Harrison swallowed.
“Maggie has taken ill again due to the pregnancy and Molly is attending to her. I’ve dispatched one of the footmen to fetch Maggie’s mother from the farm, thus…”
Benedict raised his hand to stop her. “Very well. Have one of the scullery maids clean the floor. That is not one of your duties. A few more moments of mud on the floor shan’t make a difference. It is not as though we are hosting a house party. But first, tell me, what has happened here?”
Mrs. Harrison sighed.
“It appears as though young Lord Henry has discovered a mud hole in the garden, due to the rains we’ve had. According to Miss Babette, he has grown rather fond of it, much to her chagrin. She’s been able to draw him away from it the last couple of days, but today Lord Henry got away from her and found his way to the mud hole.”
“I can see that.” Benedict took in the mess on the floor while beside him, his friend chuckled.
“I’m afraid the chase led through the house and back outside where Miss Babette is presently running after Lord Henry.”
“I am telling you, old chum. Henry is in need of a governess. Structure. None of this child’s play. Don’t you agree, Mrs. Harrison?” Winterton crossed his arms in front of his chest.
Mrs. Harrison’s eyes grew wide. She had been in his employ for so long that Benedict could not remember a time when she had not been part of the household. She’d been a house maid when he was a boy, working her way up to serve as his mother’s lady’s maid and then eventually, she’d been promoted to be the housekeeper, in charge of the entire household. She was capable and ruled the household staff with a kind, but stern and guiding hand.
Benedict was well aware that Mrs. Harrison was not used to being asked her opinion and she was clearly uncomfortable at Winterton’s question. To his surprise, however, she cleared her throat.
“Well, since Lord Winterton has brought it up. I was wondering if Your Grace may have a moment to speak with me regarding a…. That is to say I, I have a cousin who is…”
Benedict frowned. It was unlike the old woman to speak in such a halting manner.
“What is it, Mrs. Harrison?”
“Well, I was going to speak to you about my cousin who…”
She could go no further as they were all startled from the commotion outside. They heard a loud shriek, followed by some rather unladylike language being uttered by a woman.
“By Jove! Tradegrove, look at that sight,” Winterton laughed as he looked out the window. Hesitantly, Benedict joined his friend, followed in short order by Mrs. Harrison, who gasped.
“That poor woman.”
Benedict had trouble controlling his laughter. Outside, the nurse, Miss Babette, was walking toward the house, covered from head to toe in mud. Henry was nowhere to be seen which, given the nurse’s expression, was perhaps best.
Benedict watched, his eyes wide, as the nurse made her way across the garden and up the stairs. Her face was like thunder and when he caught a glimpse of her eyes, the laughter froze in his throat. Upon seeing the nurse’s face, Winterton turned to Benedict.
“I believe you have a full plate, old chum. I shall bid you farewell. And I will ask Mrs. Lester for the recommendations, as it appears you may need them sooner rather than later. Mrs. Harrison,” he tilted his head to the housekeeper and went out the door, just as the nurse entered.
Her pale face was caked in mud, only her amber eyes were visible and they were positively aflame with anger.
“Your Grace!” She said loudly, stomping one mud covered foot on the already dirty floor. “This is too much. There are not enough guineas in the entire realm to make up for this. I have had enough. I shall resign at once.” She stomped once more, sending mud flying around the room and then stormed away the way she had come, leaving Benedict behind and unsure if he should laugh or cry.
Lucretia returned from her last lesson of the week and found Mary already in their chamber. Sitting on her bed, her friend had her head in her hands and sobbed quietly. Lucretia sat beside her and wrapped one arm around her, rubbing the other along her forearm.
“All will be well, believe me.”
Mary looked up, her face and her eyes red from the tears she shed almost daily over the last two weeks.
“How? The postman has just left and I’ve had another rejection, this time for Mrs. Marvis’ School for Little Ladies. Nobody is looking to hire a teacher in the middle of the school year. What are we to do? We have only a fortnight before we are homeless. We shall be sleeping in the streets like beggars. Oh, Lucy. I will end up a lady of easy virtue.”
Mary had spent the past two weeks in an utter state of despair. First, the death of Mrs. Doringcourt had shaken teachers and students alike, for she was an immensely popular lady, and then news that the school was to close by month’s end had been announced.
It appeared as though the good Mrs. Doringcourt had not only not secured a successor to her position, but she had used much of her own fortunes to purchase school supplies, leaving nothing in reserves to pay for the property.
More than half of the students had already departed, and the ones who remained would soon be collected by their parents as well. All of the remaining teachers, Lucretia included, had sent letters to other schools, looking for employment. But Mary was right, nobody was looking to take on new teachers in the middle of the school year.
What shall we do? Certainly, we will not be made homeless. Certainly, the owners of the building will show mercy and allow us to stay. Someone will surely need a tutor for their child. I cannot believe how our lives have been upended in so short a period of time.
“Mary, have you thought of writing to Almack’s, in London? It is the London season soon and perhaps they may know of some young lady in need of a dance teacher? Or a harp teacher?”
Her friend looked up and wiped her eyes.
“Faith, Lucy. I do not think that is how Almack’s works. They do not concern themselves with hapless women such as ourselves. They have their own established tutors for the ton. No. I shall have to go into the poorhouse. At least you can return to the nuns, if you must.”
Lucretia swallowed hard. She had considered it, though she was not certain they would take her back.
“I do not believe I can. Not unless I wish to become a nun. Sister Agnes, the Mother Superior, passed away some years ago, and Sister Marie, her successor, does not care for me. She has held a grudge against me ever since I refused to eat her dreadful pottage as a child. No, Mary, I am afraid we shall both be headed for the poorhouse, my dear.” Her friend shook her head.
“This is a travesty. All of it.” She turned to face Lucretia.
“You have had some letters also. Yolanda placed them on the desk for you. Perhaps you shall have better luck than me.”
Lucretia got up with a heavy sigh and picked up the letters from the rickety old desk by the door. She ripped open the first one and found herself rejected from a girl’s school in Brighton, after having already been rejected by all the schools in Bath. She dropped the letter in the garbage can. It was soon joined by another, this a letter from a family she’d hoped might take her on due to her having given their daughter private tutoring lessons in French earlier in the year.
“I am sorry, Lucy,” Mary said as she shook her head.
Lucretia shrugged and picked up the last letter. Her heart skipped a beat when she realized it was not a letter from a school or a private family she’d applied to. No! It was from Betsy Harrison, her mother’s cousin. Lucretia sat down on the old wooden chair and opened the letter with shaking hands. She read the few lines her cousin had written in her neat, tiny script and clutched her chest.
“What is it Lucy?” Mary jumped up and was by her side in no time at all, placing a hand on her shoulder as if to comfort her.
“It is from my mother’s cousin, Betsy.”
“The one who works for the Earl, down in Gloucester?”
“He is a Duke, but yes, she is the one. I wrote to her last week, utterly desperate and in hopes she might be able to help me find employment among one of the families in her area. Faith, I would work as a scullery maid to avoid being out on the streets.”
Mary bounced up and down beside her. “As would I. Now, what does the letter say? Is it good news?”
Lucretia nodded. “It is. Let me read it to you.” She raised the letter up and shook it to straighten the paper.
My dearest Lucretia,
I was overjoyed to receive your letter, as it has been too long since you last wrote to me. I am ever so sorry to hear of the events at Mrs. Doringcourt’s School for Young Ladies. I know you were fond of the headmistress. Alas, you must look forward and secure a position for yourself. As you know, I would never allow a family member of mine to fall into a desperate position and would certainly do all I can to assist you. To that end, I am pleased to report that His Grace, Benedict De Clare, The Duke of Tradegrove, has agreed to give you an audience and discuss possible employment here at Amberley Manor, as governess to his son, Henry De Clare, The Marquess of Tenwerth, five years of age. Bring proof of your qualifications and come at once.
“I am to report immediately. Can you believe it?”
Mary clasped her hands in front of her mouth and then went to hug her friend tightly.
“Faith, Lucy. You must collect your papers at once. And find a coach. I am so pleased for my dearest friend.”
Lucretia looked at her friend’s bright face and while she was greatly relieved at the prospect of finding employment, she felt a sense of sadness. Indeed, she felt guilt. She was perhaps saved from the poorhouse, but what of Mary? What would happen to her best friend?
Mary, always seemingly one step ahead of her friend, placed a hand on Lucretia’s shoulder.
“Do not worry about me, my dear. The worry is written all over your face. I shall be fine. Any day now I shall receive a letter myself with a wonderful offer. You’ll see.”
“If you do not, I shall find you a placement, if I am fortunate enough to receive this position. We shall plan it all when I return.”
The two friends embraced, and Lucretia set out in search of a coach that would take her to the Duke’s manor.
Lucretia rushed to the hackney station and haggled with the jarvey for a fair price to take her to Gloucester, given that it was a fair distance and very late notice.
She boarded the coach, dismayed to find that it was dirty inside. She wiped the seat and found a considerable amount of dust flying into the air. With a sigh, she sat.
The journey to Amberley Manor, while taking some hours, was rather adventurous. The jarvey directed the coach along a side road which proved bumpy, sending even more dust into the air. In addition, Lucretia discovered that the window was broken and could not be closed. This, at first, proved to be enjoyable. The coach was hot and her gown, while of a light material, had begun to stick to her skin in an uncomfortable manner. The light breeze that came through the broken window helped ease the burden of the summer’s heat on the passengers.
Alas, a half hour into the journey, the weather changed and the breeze swiftly turned into a strong wind which whipped into the carriage, causing Lucretia’s mop cap to fly off her head. Her hair, arranged in an elegant half-up do by Mary, began to come loose as strands hung in her sweaty face. Soon enough, rain began to pour and—to the passengers’ great dismay—the roof of the coach proved leaky.
Droplets of water soon turned into a steady drip overhead. Lucretia found herself pressed against the side of the coach as her fellow passengers attempted to avoid the water that now poured from the ceiling.
I shall smell like a wet dog by the time I arrive in the Manor. What a disaster. I must impress the Duke, for certainly he will not want to hire a governess who looks as though she was dragged to the manor by wild horses. Perhaps Betsy can assist me.
By the time the coach stopped on the road outside the Manor, Lucretia was well and truly frazzled. Her hair had come undone and while the rain had stopped, the water dripping inside the carriage had left dirty stains on her pale blue gown.
She made her way along the driveway, all the while scrubbing at the stains on her gown. When she realized there was nothing to be done about it, she decided to fix her hair as best she could. By the time she arrived at the Manor, she felt somewhat dejected and hopeless. Certainly, the Duke expected someone much more sophisticated.
With a heavy heart she knocked on the front door, and to her delight, was met by Betsy Harrison, her mother’s cousin. She had not seen her in years, but recognized her at once. She had brown eyes with a small speck of amber in each eye, similar to Lucretia’s own. Her old face was wrinkled but kind, and the smile on her face when she saw Lucretia warmed her heart.
“Lucretia! My darling! Come here, let me hug you.” Lucretia bent down, for Betsy was nearly one whole head shorter than her. “Faith, Lucretia, what has happened to your gown?” Betsy asked. Lucretia’s smile fell off her face and she cast her eyes down. “And your hair.”
“It has been a difficult journey. Oh, Cousin, can you help me clean up before the Duke sees me?”
The old woman’s kind smile returned and she beckoned her younger cousin inside.
“We haven’t much time for the butler, Mr. Swindon is his name, has already informed the Duke of your arrival. But come…” She led Lucretia through the large hall which was adorned with antique columns and lined with magnificent marble tiles. They arrived at a small staircase that led downstairs, to the servant area.
Lucretia followed along a narrow path, past an array of maids and footmen and past the many servant quarters until they arrived in Betsy’s office.
“Sit, sit,” Betsy motioned for a chair. With quick, steady hands she pinned Lucretia’s hair up around her head in a style more often seen on maids than on ladies. Still, it was much better than the messy state Lucretia’s hair had previously presented itself in.
“Mrs. Harrison!” A voice bellowed along the hall.
“That’s Mr. Swindon now. The Duke will be ready for you, my dear. Here.” She pulled a white apron from a hook by the door and threw it over Lucretia’s neck. She tied it behind her, covering most of the stains on the gown. She clapped her hands together.
“Very well. It shall have to do. No matter. His Grace invited you due to your credentials, not due to your looks. Now, when you speak to him, address him as Your Grace, never with My Lord or anything of that nature. Highly disrespectful. Keep in mind, Dukes are only one step below the Royal Family itself. Show respect, answer when questioned, and you shall be fine. You are what he needs, and we shall convince him of it.”
“Mrs. Harrison! Where are ye? Where is this governess of yours? His Grace…”
A man stopped outside Betsy’s office. “Is this her? Well, then. Let us go. His Grace is waiting.”
Lucretia followed Mr. Swindon along the narrow staircase and through the parlor. They walked down the Hall which was lined on both sides with a collection of portraits. At first glance, they all appeared to be of the same lady, the Duchess, presumably.
She was a gorgeous woman with pale skin and luscious, thick golden hair which was complemented by lovely, rich gowns. Her eyes were of a deep blue.
The more paintings she saw, the more apparent it became that the woman in them was not the same at all. No, they were simply women who resembled one another.
In some, the woman had a heart-shaped face and in others it was round. Sometimes, her eyes were very close together and others far apart. How curious it all was. Lucretia frowned.
The Duke seems rather fond of blondes. Not a painting of a dark-haired woman anywhere to be found. I hope he is not by nature opposed to brown hair, for I shall have no hope of getting this job. I am as far removed from a blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty as one can be.
The butler walked down a smaller hallway and stopped outside a large double door. He knocked and then opened the door after receiving word from within.
“Your Grace, Miss Lucretia Nelson has arrived.”
He nodded his chin for her to enter as she followed. Too closely as it turned out, for she accidentally kicked him in the heel with her toe, causing both of them to stumble forward.
“I am ever so sorry,” she mumbled as Mr. Swindon glared at her. Ahead of them, she saw a man sitting behind a large, dark oak desk with his head buried in papers. He casually waved one arm in their direction, unaware of the small scene that had just occurred.
“That will be all, Swindon.”
The butler nodded and turned, glaring at her once more before closing the doors behind him.
Lucretia stood there and waited for the Duke to lift his head. As she stood, she attempted to smooth her wrinkled gown. While the apron her cousin had given her covered some of the stains, the rest of the gown was still wrinkled from the journey. Giving up on the venture, she instead opened her reticule and retrieved her papers of reference when at last the Duke looked up.
She felt startled at once, for he was much younger than she had expected him to be, given Betsy’s description. His face was pale, as if untouched by the sun. His eyes were blue, not unlike those of the ladies in the paintings. However, there was darkness in them. She recognized it at once, for she’d seen it many times in the eyes of the nuns who’d spent their time caring for the sick and dying. It was sorrow.
“Miss Nelson, I presume?” he said at last. His voice was deep and smooth, almost soothing.
She nodded at him and their eyes locked for a long moment before she realized—he was waiting for her to curtsy.
Lucretia found herself utterly discombobulated, for she could not remember the proper way to curtsy to a Duke. She knew there were a multitude of different curtsies, depending on who you were curtsying to.
She decided to bend as low as she could go, for as Betsy just told her a Duke was but a step removed from the Royal Family. She ended up wobbling and tumbling forward as she went, earning a smirk from the Duke who motioned to the chair across from him.
“Are these your papers?” He pointed at the reference letters in her hand.
“Yes, My Lo…I mean Your Grace.” She leaned forward to hand them to him, upset with herself for almost using the wrong form of address.
He did not appear to mind, however, and instead inspected her letters.
“Your aunt has spoken of you with the highest regards. One would be led to believe you are fit to tutor the Prince Regent’s children.” He chuckled a little at his own joke and Lucretia forced herself to smile. She wanted to correct him, to let him know that Betsy was her cousin, not her aunt, but she suddenly felt very aware of just what high a position this man held within the peerage. Surely one did not correct a Duke.
By Jove! He likely knows Prinny personally. Perhaps they are even friends. Could it be? Faith, does the Regent ever come visit? No. Don’t make a cake of yourself, Lucretia Nelson. Betsy would certainly have mentioned if he did.
Lucretia shook her head to chase away her rapid train of thought, for she knew her entire future depended upon this interview.
The Duke flipped through her letters of recommendation with some interest and then glanced up at her, his blue eyes wide open.
“You speak Latin and Greek, as well as French and Italian? That is rather impressive.”
“The nuns taught me all but the Italian. Our dearly departed headmistress taught me that. Along with history and needlework.”
The Duke grinned, and for a moment the sadness disappeared from his eyes.
“Well, my son won’t be needing your assistance in needlework. As a future Peer of the Realm, I should like him to learn history. Not just ours, but the continent’s as well. Arithmetic, too. And I see you are well-versed in all of that.”
“Indeed, I...” Before she could continue, he rang a little bell and a moment later, Mr. Swindon appeared.
“Swindon, please take our new governess to her chamber. Miss Babette’s former quarters will do.” He turned to her. “You will start his lessons in the morning. Let Swindon here know of anything you require. He can arrange to have your belongings collected from Mrs. Doringcourt’s School and brought here.”
Lucretia’s eyes grew wide. She was to start now? He had hired her? Without returning to Bath?
Sensing her confusion, he looked up once more. “Is there a problem, Miss Nelson? I was under the impression you were in need of immediate employment.”
Lucretia cleared her throat. “Yes, My L… Your Grace, I am. And I am ever so grateful. Thank you so much.”
“Well then. You are to start Henry’s lessons tomorrow morning. You may converse with your aunt, as she is aware of what he has been taught thus far. Once my sister returns, she will want to sit with you and discuss his lessons and so forth, but that will not be for another fortnight at least. Until then, I shall leave my son’s education in your capable hands.”
Mr. Swindon, the butler, had arrived while the Duke had instructed her further and now that he was done, he indicated for her to follow Mr. Swindon.
She swallowed and rose, giving him another curtsy, this time an impeccable one, and followed the butler outside.
Lucretia exhaled when the heavy doors closed behind her
“His Grace only appears intimidating, Miss Nelson. Don’t let him scare you. He’s a kind man at heart.”
Lucretia looked the butler in the eye and was surprised to find that his formerly stern countenance had been replaced with a kind expression and a slight smile. She nodded at the man, grateful for his words. The Duke had indeed intimidated her.
“Tis my first time speaking to someone so high up in the peerage. Thus far, the highest-ranking person I ever met was an Earl. The father of one of my students at Mrs. Doringcourt’s school.”
The butler indicated the direction in which she should walk and gave her another nod.
“I see. I find the nobility, in the end, are a lot like us commoners. They endure their hardships same as us, especially His Grace. Keep in mind, they’re all just human, only with a more comfortable way of life.”
Lucretia frowned. She wondered what hardship the Duke had endured. She had certainly sensed the air of sadness and suffering around him, but she was not certain what caused it. Now that the butler had made this ominous comment, she found herself all the more curious.
Alas, she did not have much time to wonder about the subject, for up ahead she heard a screeching sound followed by the sound of two sets of feet running across the marble floor. The sound echoed and then faded somewhat, somewhere behind them. Lucretia turned but saw nothing.
“Ah, Lord Henry is excited today. I shall warn you, Miss Nelson, our little boy has an abundance of energy, and the nurses have thus far struggled to contain it.”
The footsteps sounded once more behind them as they made their way back toward the main hallway.
“I trust you are of a more robust nature than those that preceded you. At least, Mrs. Harrison appeared to think so.”
“I have had my hands rather full with a classroom of energetic young ladies, Mr. Swindon. I trust I shall be able to handle one young boy.” She smiled at the tall butler who tilted his head back and forth.
“You may find one young boy more work than a classroom full of ladies, Miss Nelson. Particularly this young boy.”
They turned and Lucretia found herself back in the Hall which connected the various wings of the manor and she was once again confronted with the portraits of the strange, golden-haired ladies. She would have to ask Betsy about them, when she got the chance.
“I assure you, Mr. Swindon, nothing vexes me, not when it comes to our little…” she did not get any further because she felt herself pushed forward with some force and lost her footing.
Her arms grasping at nothing as she tumbled forward, she saw the great Hall’s magnificent marble floor coming toward her at great speed and then—suddenly—she found her world going black.
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