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'Everywhere and at all times, Christmas has been the season of miracle and surprises '
Blackhaven Castle, Essex, England 19 December, 1812
Lady Seraphina Moreton came to Blackhaven Castle on the edge of the worst storm to hit Essex in living memory. Hailstones as large as golf balls had pelted the carriage roof and the snow at each side of the winding country lane was deep.
'Not an omen, not an omen,' she whispered to herself, repeating it over and over again as the coach jolted violently and stopped. Before her the castle loomed, walls tall and dark. A single light was held by a figure standing on the large front portico.
Blackhaven. It suited its name, forbidding and isolated. Seraphina drew in breath. She must not be seen to be criticising. She must place a smile on her face and be unremittingly merry. Was that not what Mrs Jennings at the agency had impressed upon her? 'No sour faces in this profession, miss. The client is always right and beggars cannot be choosers.'
Beggars like her! The panic that lay beneath her careful veneer was only just buried. She wanted to run from this place across the frigid ground and away from a world that was increasingly indecipherable to her.
Instead, she waited until the door was opened, lifted the hem of her velvet cloak and stepped out into the night, the servant with the lamp indicating the care needed on a patch of frozen ice as she followed him into the house.
Trey Linton Stanford, the sixth Duke of Blackhaven, stood against the windows in his library, turning as the woman entered, accompanied by his man Elliot. He had seen her alight from the coach, her hair the colour of the burnished angel wings that graced the stained-glass panels in the family chapel and bright in the falling dusk. He hoped like hell that she was not beautiful, was not young and was not one of those governesses who placed a false smile upon their lips and never let go of it.
When she came closer, however, and pale blue eyes met his own, he knew himself to be sorely disappointed on all three accounts. He swore soundly beneath his breath.
'Welcome to Essex.' He could hear the lack of charity in his words, but did nothing to alter the tone. Six governesses in three years and this one looked to be the most fainthearted of the lot. His sons would eat her up in a day. 'I am Blackhaven.'
'I thank you for the kindness of the offer of a position here, my lord. My name is Miss Sarah Moorland, and I hail from London.' She curtsied with grace, her voice holding the cadence of a genteel upbringing as she went on. 'I shall, of course, do my very upmost to be the sort of teacher you desire for your children, sir, as this post has arrived at a most opportune time for me.'
Trey almost smiled at that. Almost. He could see desperation in her eyes. 'You have experience, then, in the role of a governess?'
The flush in her cheeks told him she had not, though to give her her due she did try to dredge up something. 'I have often minded the children of friends, my lord, and found the experience most rewarding.'
Silence followed the word, though a frown deepened on the delicate lines of her forehead as he came into the circle of bright light thrown from the lamp on his desk. Damn, he kept forgetting about his appearance in the company of strangers until he saw the reaction on their faces.
'I was hurt in Corunna under Moore, and I apologise for any fear such a visage might engender.' The explanation was the one he gave to all who looked at him in the way she did, word for word rolling off his tongue like a remembered poem.
'Oh, it is not your countenance I frown over, my lord. My brother was killed in Rueda in the same campaign you mention and such an injury reminded me of him. You were lucky to at least be able to come home.'
A surprise. He seldom enjoyed them any more. To be called lucky was a new experience, too. For the first time in a long while he laughed. The sound was rusty and broken.
'You say this post arrived at an opportune time. Why?'
'My father has recently passed away and my only remaining brother found he had not the space to house me.'
'Marriage was not an option, then?'
Her face reddened from top to bottom, fear in the quiet blueness of her eyes. Deciding now was not the time to pursue such a topic, Trey switched subjects altogether.
'My boys are nine, seven and five. They need tight control and good discipline. They wake at six and go to bed at eight. If you can teach them something of literature, mathematics and science, I should be well satisfied.'
The uncertain nod of her head told him such subjects were probably as much a mystery to her as they were to his sons, though under the circumstances he could ill afford to be strident. Someone to watch over chaos was the most he could ask for. Eton should see to the rest. 'Your room will be on the same floor as the children's though a night nurse is employed. Breakfast will be served in the downstairs salon at seven and the hours of schooling are between nine and six. Weekends, apart from Saturday morning, shall be your own; if you wish a ride to the nearest village you only need ask. Are there any questions?'
He watched while Miss Moorland mulled the rules around in her head and was surprised when she nodded. None of the other governesses interviewed had ever asked anything more of him.
'Do you travel back to London much, sir?' 'Never.'
Waiting for chagrin, he got relief instead and as she pulled at the front of the cloak he noticed that her fingernails were short.
His leg ached from standing and he longed to sit, the cold gnawing into his bones as pain. All he wanted was some solitude and a stiff brandy, but she did not look as though she were finished.
'I would also like to ask if you would allow me to bring a small dog into your house, my lord? She has nowhere else to go, you see, and '
The cloak fell back and the russet head of a mongrel came out from between balding velvet.
'It seems one is already in my house, Miss Moorland.'
'I know and I am terribly sorry, sir.' Her cheekbones were hollowed in anxiety, eyes beacons of absolute entreaty as she stared at him. 'But I promise she is the quietest dog in the whole world and she loves children.'
'A paragon, then.' The disordered world of his house was becoming even more disorderly. Miss Moorland's bare hands were white knuckled and shaking, but short of throwing the small animal out into the cold there was very little else that he could do. God, the dog looked as frightened as its mistress with its timid stare and downturned mouth. The only hound he had ever owned was his father's cast-off mastiff and that canine had been both surly and dangerous.
He did not like dogs. He did not like surprises. He did not like forced joviality or the further promise of future chaos.
However, the newcomer was not quite finished. 'Would there be any chance, sir, of a tit-bit from the kitchen for Melusine? I know it is late, but she is hungry and it has been a very long journey.'
Two things hit Trey simultaneously at her request and both interested him. She was as hungry as her dog but had not asked for her own succour, and she knew the obscure legends from the house of de Lusignan.
Melusine. The dragon princess. A beautiful woman by daylight and a serpent by night. Beautiful and secretive. The same might be said of Miss Sarah Moorland.
'You will both be fed in a few moments and your duties tomorrow shall only be light ones whilst you recover from the trip.'
Lord, what had made him say thatthe tip-tilted nose or the dimples deepening in her cheeks every time he did her a small kindness? Her hair in the light of his lamp was shining spun gold, a few of the pins loosened and allowing strands to fall unbound to her waist. He wondered what his wife might have made of her and then dismissed the thought completely. Catherine Stanford had been a woman who seldom thought of anyone else, her death mirroring her selfishness in life.
She had caught pneumonia in a gown that would have been better suited to a London whorehouse. She had gone to a party, riding home on horseback afterwards through the darkness with a neighbouring lord. Trey had arrived at Blackhaven three days later, war-shocked and sickened from the storms the British sea transports had endured across the Bay of Biscay, his left cheek red, raw and infected.
He might have taken her to task for such inappropriate actions had she lived beyond the following week. But she had not and the rumours of her faithlessness had swirled about the chapel even as he had buried her, the neighbouring earl inconsolable in the front pew.
On the day before the coming of the Twelfth Night, no less. He had always hated the Christmas season since.
Seraphina turned away from him, trying to regroup. Do not cry, she told herself firmly. All men hate tears and this one will be no exception. But she was tired and hungry and scared and the bravado she had worn like a shield all the way from London was beginning to crumble at an alarming rate. Melusine's warm body next to her own was shaking, a result, she suspected, of too little food and too much travelling. If her dog should be sick on the expensive Aubusson rug beneath her feet, they would both be tossed out. The thought made her swallow as the duke watched her intently.
He was beautiful, though the scar across his cheek gave the comeliness an edge of menace and threat. No small wound that, no easy recuperation either. His wife had died three years before at Christmas, the woman at the agency had impressed upon her, so this time of year would hold hard memories.
Yet he had not bade her gone, even with her dog, and had also promised them both some supper. She swallowed again and felt some small hope return. He did not travel to London at all, and this place was as isolated as they came. Perhaps she would be safe for a little while until she could devise a better plan and escape England altogether.
No. She could think of none of it until she ate something for the dizziness was back, whirling around her head in a cloud.
The door had opened, too, three small children peering through behind it, their eyes as dark as their father's.
Reaching for the back of the sofa to steady herself, Seraph-ina's fingers felt too strange to grip and then she was falling down and down and down, the room spinning as she went.
Trey caught her, scowling at the knowledge that she was hardly even the weight of his oldest son. The threadbare velvet in her cloak enveloped him and her animal had made a last-moment leap for safety and sat panting in one corner of the library, the whites in her eyes brushed with fear. Her tail had a strange bend to it.
'A dog?' Gareth, his youngest son, rushed over to sit before it, his hand reaching out with care whilst his brother David tossed a variety of cushions from the old sofa, leaving a bed on which to place this unexpected visitor. Terence, his middle child, did nothing but stand and stare and Trey's heart tumbled in recognition of the familiar lack of response.
Already Miss Moorland was coming around, the colour in her cheeks pale. A thin beading of sweat covered the skin above her top lip and plastered her fringe to her forehead. She looked younger and more vulnerable than she had done awake, the darkness of her lashes a contrast to her hair. When Trey untied the fastening on her cloak to try to give her more air, he saw that the white dress she wore was at least two sizes too big. The pieces of the puzzle of Miss Moorland were not adding up somehow, for the leather in her boots was fine and skilfully fashionedas fine as her voice and the one pearl she had on a silver chain hanging around her neck.
'I fainted?' Her query was laced with horror as she tried to sit up.
'I would stay lying down for a moment if I was you.' She ignored him. 'Melusine?'
'Is in the corner looking about as alarmed as you are. My son is tending to her.'
'Thank you.' The pulse at her wrist raced and Trey thought she might very well faint again. Placing her hand down, he stood.
'Gareth, bring the hound to Miss Moorland, please. Pick her up. I am assured by this lady that she is the kindest of dogs.'
His youngest son pulled the small animal towards him by the collar, making his best attempt at lifting it, but just as he was about to secure it in his arms, the thing bounded straight out of them and on to the circular table next to the sofa, tipping both it and the ancient urn of Great-Uncle Tobias, with the ornate porcelain-twisted handles and painted woodland scenes, and sending them headlong to the floor.
A thousand pieces shattered around the room in a single loud explosion, causing the hound to simply draw into itself and urinate all over the rug, her whines of apprehension becoming more insistent as a hush fell in the library.
Then Terence began to laugh, a sound Trey had not heard him make in three long years and so foreign that he could not believe he was hearing it. The dog, understanding that one member of the human population in the room was not about to kill it, sidled immediately up to his middle son and waited patiently to be lifted into a careful embrace.
The answer to his prayers.
Though Miss Sarah Moorland, newly arrived from London and now sitting open mouthed on his burgundy-velour chaise-longue, looked very much as if she was going to be violently sick.
Harlequin; November 2011 288 pages; ISBN 9781459215788 Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Gift-Wrapped Governess
Author: Sophia James; Annie Burrows; Marguerite Kaye