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Wanted: For Gentleman's family in Yorkshire. A Healthy Young Person from good family, to supervise education of young children. She will not be expected to dine with servants or do any menial work. Any person able to provide proofs of their pedigree, education and character may call at the Black Swan, Holborn, on Tuesday, 6th June, between the hours of three and four in the afternoon.
Miss Aimee Peters sighed as the church clock of Beckforth chimed the half-hour. Again.
It meant she had been sitting on her trunk in the coaching yard of the King's Arms for well over an hour.
Of course, no governess could expect her employers to send one of their other servants to wait for the stage to come in, and to meet her as though they regarded her as a significant member of the household. There was not a creature on earth of less significance than a governess.
Which had been the whole point of going to such lengths to secure this position. Nobody ever looked twice at a governess. Her background and education separated her from the servants, and her status as paid employee kept her apart from the family. She would belong neither above nor below stairs.
To all intents and purposes she would be invisible.
Which was exactly what Aimee wanted.
Thoughshe shivered as the wind skirled round the corner of the yard in which she was sittingit was one thing to have pulled off such a successful disappearing act, but where on earth was Mr Jago?
He had left a letter for her at the Black Swan, telling her that if she still wanted the position for which she had undergone that rather cursory interview, it was hers. All she had to do was go to the Bull and Mouth and collect the tickets he had purchased for her transport as far as this inn in Beckforth, which was the closest village to her employer's home.
But what if the letter she had sent, along with the requested references, to tell him she was indeed accepting the post, and would be travelling to Yorkshire immediately, had gone astray? What if nobody was expecting her to arrive today at all? She could not just sit on her trunk in this ramshackle inn yard indefinitely!
She gripped her overnight bag, which she had kept on her lap the entire way, a little more firmly, stood up, and brushed a few stalks of dried, muddy straw from her skirts.
It was not as though she was not perfectly used to fending for herself. Her lips twitched into a wry smile. Her willingness to travelnay, her experience of travelling had been, she was convinced, the deciding factor in landing her this post. Mr Jago had scarcely asked anything about her pedigree, but had sat up and looked very interested once she had told him how she had spent her childhood becoming fluent in Italian and French by flitting from one European city to the next. Naturally, she had not mentioned that these moves had usually occurred at dead of night, with outraged creditors in hot pursuit.
Mr Jago, after pursing his lips and looking her up and down with those keen blue eyes of his, had unbent far enough to tell her that his employer, the man who had placed the advertisement in the London papers and had sent him to conduct interviews, was a naval captain who was looking for a woman with backbone. Aimee had only briefly been puzzled by his choice of words, for she perceived that a naval officer would probably need to uproot his family regularly, depending on where he was to be stationed. She saw that she would adapt to a peripatetic lifestyle more readily than any of the other applicants, and so had proudly replied that she had a backbone of steel.
Aimee picked her way carefully through the piles of droppings, refuse and puddles that made up the surface of the yard, to the half-open inn door. If Mr Jago really had hired her because he had thought nothing would daunt her, she had better prove him right! Beginning by finding out how far it was to The Lady's Bower, the charmingly named house where her new employer and his family now lived, and making her own way there.
She might have cheated her way into this post, but she was so grateful for the chance to earn her living doing honest work that she was utterly determined that neither Mr Jago nor the naval officer whose children she would be caring for would ever have cause to be sorry they had hired her.
The smell of spilled ale, tobacco fumes and unwashed working men hung over the threshold like a thick curtain. She had to mentally push her revulsion to one side before she could go inside.
'Can you tell me, sir, how far it is to The Lady's Bower?' she asked the stringy individual who was leaning on his elbows on the far side of the bar. 'And whether it is practical for me to walk there?' She could probably hire some form of conveyance from this inn, if not. She had enough coin in her purse, tucked into a side pocket of her overnight bag, to provide for such contingencies.
He sucked air in through his teeth. 'You don't want to be going there, miss,' he said, shaking his head. 'You want to put up here for the night, and take the stage back to London in the morning. I'll have a room made up for you, shall I?'
'No, thank you!' Aimee drew herself up to her full height and glared at the slovenly landlord. She had enough experience of his type to tell from the state of the yard and his clothing that his bedrooms too would be dirty, the sheets damp, and any food on offer poorly cooked.
'I most definitely do not want to return to London. I just want to reach The Lady's Bower before nightfall!'
The landlord's patronising expression hardened into a sneer.
'On your own head be it, then,' he said, eyeing her in a way that made her even less inclined to sample the dubious quality of his lodgings. 'T'aint more than three, mebbe four miles across Sir Thomas Gregory's lands. Course, a stranger to these parts, taking the direct route across his land would like as not run foul of his gamekeeper '
'You expect me to believe this area, being so far from London, is so savage that people go around taking pot-shots at strangers?' she scoffed.
'Do I look like a poacher?' she exclaimed, indicating her neat little bonnet, deep green travelling dress and serviceable cloak. She had chosen each item carefully, from second-hand dealers that stocked a better class of cast-offs, so that the entire outfit made her look exactly what she thought a governess ought to look like.
'Or an imbecile?' It had suddenly dawned on her that her outfit actually made her look fairly well off, as well as eminently respectable. The man was obviously trying to scare her into giving him her custom. Just because she was a stranger to the area, he thought he could hoodwink her into staying the night, then hiring some overpriced conveyance from his stables in the morning to take her on a journey that would probably turn out to be hardly any distance at all!
He sucked air through his teeth again, running his eyes over her slender frame with a decidedly hostile expression.
'You could go by the roads, I dare say. If you're so set on going there.'
'I am,' she snapped, her initial plan, of asking if he could provide some form of transport evaporating in the heat of her increasing irritation.
The directions he then gave her were so complicated, with a couple of left turns by the corners of beet fields, followed by right turns after blasted oaks, and making sure to take the right fork after Sir Thomas's beech plantation, that she was half-convinced she was going to go round in a great big circle and end up right back where she started.
In this benighted inn yard.
Having left instructions as to the care of her trunk, she strode off with her head held high, her overnight bag gripped tightly in her left hand, and a confirmed dislike of the inhabitants of Yorkshire simmering in her breast.
She eyed the fields to either side of the lane, wondering if the funny-looking reddish leaves within them belonged to beetroots. If they did, then she had to turn left at the end of the next one, then left again once she had crossed the little footbridge over the stream.
That she found a stream, complete with a footbridge, did not encourage her as much as it might have, had she not suspected the innkeeper was sending her on a wild goose chase. She had annoyed him, by not immediately falling in with his suggestions, and surely this was her punishment! She ought to have been more conciliatory, she supposed.
Her mother always used to say that there was never any excuse for forgetting her manners. Or surrendering to displays of emotion in front of vulgar persons.
How right, Aimee sighed, her mother had been. Vulgar persons did not waste time in getting their own back. Vulgar persons took great delight in sending you out on six-mile hikes. When rain was on the way.
She hefted her bag into her other hand, and glanced warily at the sky. When she had set out, the clouds had not looked all that noteworthy, but now they were building into a decidedly threatening mass. And there were no other buildings in sight. She was right out in the countryside now.
But she could, at last, see the woodland that the innkeeper had told her belonged to Sir Thomas Gregory. A stone wall delineated the boundary of his property, but if it really came on to rain hard, she would have no trouble nipping over it and seeking shelter under the trees.
She could only hope that the gamekeeper was the type who stayed at home on wet afternoons.
She shrugged down into her travelling cloak, flicking up the large shawl collar over her bonnet, forming it into a hood, as it began to rain. The shopkeeper had promised her that the cloak, though lightweight, would keep out the wet.
And had she been walking back to her lodgings from the shops, through city streets, it might well have done so. But the kind of rain that gusted across open fields, building up speed and force by the acre, could not be halted by one layer of merino wool, no matter how finely woven.
She eyed the wall uncertainly. And the trees on the other side. They did not look, now she was up close, as though they would offer that much shelter after all. Every time a gust of wind shook the branches, great cataracts of water flowed from the leaves, as though a million tiny housemaids were emptying buckets out of invisible upstairs windows. And the wall that from a distance, when it had been dry, had looked so easy to climb, looked positively treacherous up close, now it was slick with rain.
She had no wish to turn up on the first day of her new job looking like a drowned rat. But it would be far worse to look like a drowned rat in torn and muddy clothes. The only thing that could have been worse was to have stayed huddled on her trunk, in the inn yard, looking like the kind of helpless female that required the services of a nursemaid to so much as wipe her nose!
She stayed on the road. It was not as if she could get much wetter, anyway. The unmannerly Yorkshire rain sneered at cloaks fashioned for city dwellers, using its playmate, the wind, to flick it aside so that it could soak her dress directly. And because she was having to clutch her makeshift hood to her throat, to keep it in place, it also managed to trickle down her cuffs. Not to mention the way it alternately splashed up under her skirts, and dragged her hem down into the mud. And although her sturdy brown boots were watertight, it did her feet no good, because her stockings were soaked, which meant that the water oozing down her legs had no means of escape. She should have purchased a coat, she sighed, that buttoned fast all the way down the front. Had she had more experience of weather in the north of England, she would have known that labelling the season between June and September 'summer' was no guarantee that light clothing would suffice.
And to cap it all, she could hear a distant rumble that sounded as though a thunderstorm was approaching. She shivered. The way her luck was going today, that probably meant hailstones.
But then she spotted the fork in the road that the innkeeper had mentioned about halfway through his convoluted directions. Hopefully, that meant she was geographically halfway to her destination.
She changed her bag to her left hand, clutched her hood to her throat with her right and strode out a little faster.
The sound of thunder grew steadily louder; in fact, so steadily it began to sound more like carriage wheels. She glanced over her shoulder, and, sure enough, cresting the brow of the undulating lane behind her came a carriage and pair at a spanking pace. Such a spanking pace that she had to leap nimbly over the ditch that flanked one side of the road to escape being run down.
She managed to stay upright, even though the stubby crops made for a most uneven surface. Though naturally, given the way her day was going, she landed ankle deep in mud. She looked up from the quagmire in which she stood in some surprise when the driver hauled on the reins, drawing the carriage to a halt abreast of her, and shouted, 'Miss Peters?'
When she nodded, he pointed his whip at her and bellowed, 'Do you have any idea how long I've been driving up and down these lanes attempting to find you?'
His words sent a shiver of dread coursing through her. Surely he could not be a Bow Street Runner? Not after she had taken such pains to cover her tracks. Nobody could possibly know she was in Yorkshire.
Though how could he know her name, if he was not a paid investigator of some kind? She eyed him with trepidation, rapidly taking in the many-caped coat and tricorne hat of a typical coachman. His appearance was no consolation. A really good thief taker would naturally be a master of disguise. If he was masquerading as a coachman, then he would take care to handle the ribbons nonchalantly, as well as dressing the part so convincingly!