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'Her Grace will see you now.'
Daphne Collingham followed the servant to the door of the sitting room, and took an involuntary breath as she was announced. Was it always this intimidating to seek employment? She certainly hoped she would never have reason to know.
Once her mission here was finished, she could return to her real life in London. And she would miss none of the Season: the parties, the balls and the tiresome chore of hunting up a husband who would meet with her father's approval. But for now she must remember that she was a humble governess, whose only intent was to make a future in caring for the children of the Colton house hold.
She tried not to shudder at the idea.
Perhaps it was worse for her because she knew that her petition was a sham. And while it might be rather nerve racking to meet a duchess on a social occasion, it was much more so when the duchess stood as gatekeeper to a place one wanted to enter. Even more so when one was still trying to memorise an employment history that one had bought off a stranger on a northbound coach.
The Duchess rose as Daphne entered, which was entirely unnecessary, given their difference in class, and reached out to take her hand. 'Miss Collins.'
'Your Grace,' she responded with what she hoped was appropriate subservience.
The Duchess sank back on to the divan, and gestured her to a nearby chair. The woman in front of her looked more like a schoolteacher than the wife of a peer. But looks could be deceiving. Daphne hoped that the Duchess believed the same, for she doubted very much that she was managing to look the part of a prospective governess. Her curtsy alone should have given her away. It would have suited in a drawing room, she suspected. But she had practised curtsying like a governess in front of a mirror at the inn, and could not seem to manage it.
The Duchess narrowed her eyes as Daphne bowed to her, as though she had recognised the deficiency. It had not been unfriendly. Merely a sign that the fact had been noted, recorded and filed appropriately. The Duchess of Bellston suspected she would prove difficult.
But now, the woman was examining her references, and smiling. 'These seem to be in order. Although they refer to you as Daphne. I understood, from your original letter, that your Christian name was Mary.'
'There was already a Mary in the last house, your Grace. So they called me by my middle name, Daphne. I've grown to prefer it.'
The Duchess nodded. 'Daphne. Very pretty. And it suits you much better than Mary.'
She certainly hoped so.
The Duchess was reading more carefully. 'These are most exceptional.'
'Thank you.' She had laboured long to erase the name of their previous owner, and insert her own. The fact that they were exceptional forgeries needn't enter into the conversation.
'You have been in service long?' There was a definite upturn at the end of the sentence, as though the Duchess had her doubts. Probably the fault of that damned curtsy.
'When one enjoys one's work, the time passes quickly.'
'And you do enjoy your chosen profession, and are not doing it solely from duty, or a need to make a way for yourself?'
'I adore children.' And there was the biggest lie of all. For while she hoped that she would manage to adore her own, she had never found the children of others to be better than a necessary evil.
'Excellent,' said the Duchess, eager to believe her. 'For that is just what this family needs.' She looked at Daphne with the same searching expression she had used upon the paperwork. 'The residents of this house have undergone a loss, and the children's behaviour has been somewhat .' she paused significantly ' difficult.'
'Difficult?' Oh, dear. It had never occurred to her that the children would be part of the problem.
The Duchess smiled encouragement. 'But it will be nothing to someone as experienced as you. It is just that they will need more than rote learning and a firm hand. They need understanding. And affection, of course.'
What they needed was justice. But Daphne nodded enthusiastically at the Duchess's words. 'The poor dears. One can never replace a mother, of course. But if it is possible to provide stability, and a woman's touch?' She gave a deprecating shrug. 'One tries.'
The Duchess let out a visible sigh of relief. 'I think we are in agreement. While I place a high value on education, the Coltons are bright children, and naturally inquisitive. Advanced for their years.'
Daphne nodded, as though she understood. It was strange that a woman who was little better than a neighbour should take such interest in another man's children. Perhaps she thought it her duty, as lady of the land. Or perhaps there was some other, more ominous reason that she felt a need to insinuate herself into the household.
The Duchess continued. 'They will find their own way. They need less help in that area than they need a sense that they are safe and cared for.'
As long as their father was present, there was little Daphne could do to ensure their safety. But she nodded again.
The Duchess rose and straightened her skirts. 'If you will just wait here, while I speak to Lord Colton, the butler will be along shortly with some refreshment for you. When I return we will go to meet the children.' She said it with confidence, as though the hiring was a foregone conclusion, even without the consent of the master of the house. Then she turned and left the room. Daphne could hear her on the other side of the partly closed door, speaking with a servant about tea and cakes.
She let out the breath she had been holding. The first hurdle was cleared. When she had met the real Miss Collins, while travelling to Wales for a family visit, Daphne had thought it amazing good luck. Here was a woman heading straight to the place that she had really wanted to see: the home of her beloved cousin, Clarissa. And since the true governess was heartily sick of tending the children of others, it had not been hard for a persuasive young lady to talk her out of her identity.
It had cost Daphne two of her favourite gowns, a garnet brooch and the spending money she had been given for her visit. But the total was more than a year's salary for Miss Collins, and would give her an opportunity for a well-deserved rest. She could have her dreary life back, once Daphne was done with it, and no one would be the wiser.
Daphne got quietly up from her chair, and moved to the doorway. She stayed well in the shadow of the door, listening for the Duchess's steps as they turned down the corridor to the left. Her slippers clicked quietly against the marble in an efficient staccato, pausing after a few seconds. There was the sound of her voice, distant and barely intel ligible, re questing entrance.
It was impossible to hear the response.
Daphne eased the door open, expecting to hear a squeak of hinge. But it moved noiselessly. It hardly mattered, for when she poked her head into the hall, there was no one to hear any sound she might make. If she was quick, she could begin her investigations, and be back in the room before a servant appeared with the tea tray. No one need be the wiser. She followed the direction of the Duchess's steps, taking care that her shoes made no noise at all as she moved, and counted off the paces she had heard the Duchess take. As she progressed, she could hear the sound of voices from an open doorway, increasing in volume as she approached.
'And just what gives you the right, Penny, to meddle in this at all?' It was a man's voice, brusque and irritable.
Daphne slowed her steps to listen.
'Do I need permission to help a friend, when I know he is in need?' The Duchess's voice had lost the edge of efficiency. It was warmer. Perhaps there was something more than friendship between the two. Daphne inched along the wall that held the door and glanced across the hall.
There was a large, gilt-framed mirror on the wall opposite her, meant to bring light to the dark corridor from the conservatory at the end of the hall. As she moved closer to the open door, she could see the reflection of the study where the two were speaking.
After a frigid pause, the man responded to the Duchess. 'Yes, your Grace, you do require permission.'
'Your Grace?' She could see the hurt on the woman's face, as her reflection crept into view. 'Suddenly we are to be formal, Lord Colton?'
'I see no reason to pretend that engaging servants to spy upon me is an act of friendship.'
'That is not what I am doing,' the Duchess protested. And Daphne flinched. He had guessed her own purpose without meeting her, even if he was wrong about the Duchess's part in it. 'I am concerned for the welfare of the children.'
'If you were motivated by concern, you would leave them in peace. And me as well.'
She had inched forward to the point where she could see most of the room and the Duchess in profile before the desk, and the man seated in front of her. She was not sure what she expected, but it was not what she saw. Clare had described her husband as weak, anaemic, cruel. In her own mind, Daphne had seen him as a great, grey spider, pale and thin but deceptively strong, and with influence far beyond the reach of his thin grasping fingers.
But that did not fit the real Timothy Colton at all. Dark brown hair falling forward on to the healthy complexion of a man who enjoyed the sun. His shoulders did not speak of great height, but they were straight and unbent. He was quite ordinary. And if she was honest about it, rather handsome.
It seemed her adversary was nothing more than a man.
The Duchess leaned forward, on to the desk, trying to catch his gaze, which was directed sullenly downward.
'Perhaps solitude is the best way for you to deal with your grief. But must the children suffer?'
He raised his face to hers. 'Grief? Is that what you think my problem is?' He gave a bleak laugh. 'I am glad that Clarissa is gone. In time, so will the children be, if they are not already.' There was no hesitation as he spoke, no sign that he might feel guilt over speaking so about his wife of twelve years.
Daphne felt a fresh wave of hatred for the man seated behind the desk.
The Duchess whispered, almost as though she feared that there was a listener. 'We are quite aware of your feelings on the subject. It would be easier for all of us if you were not so plain about it.'
'Is that what this is about, then? An attempt to make things appear more normal than they are? Your husband is the magistrate. He would have been better off had he admitted the truth, and dealt with this when he had the chance, just after she died. I would not have faulted him for it. You can hardly blame me if you find that maintaining the lie is difficult.'
So it was just as she suspected. Her cousin's death was not the accident that everyone pretended.
The Duchess straightened, and her tone became chill. 'It does not matter to me, Tim, if you wish to wallow in your misery. I care only for the children. It will not be as easy for them as you seem to think. A female presence will be a comfort to them, if you allow it.'
'The only comfort they are likely to have will be gained far away from this mausoleum. Edmund is old enough for school, as is Lily.'
'You mean to send them away, do you?'
'I want what is best for them. And that is to be far away from the memory of their mother's last day. And far away from me.'
She saw the man stiffen in his chair. 'I will find a place for Sophie. She is my daughter, after all. And no concern of yours. I do not need your help, your sympathy, your friendship or your misguided attempts to make right a thing that can never be repaired.' Then he looked up out into the hall, and into the mirror. 'And I do not need a governess.'
His eyes met hers in the mirror, and for a moment, she knew what it was to face death. They were the soulless black eyes of a murderer, and they stared into her as though he had known that she was there the whole time.
She turned and fled back to the drawing room, not caring how much noise she made.
Tim Colton leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. The Duchess gave no indication that she heard the prying governess clattering off down the hall. She seemed near to explosion. 'You do need a governess, Tim Colton, if you mean to act like a spoiled child. Perhaps Miss Collins will be able to persuade you, since I cannot, that your behaviour is doing injury to the children you seek to protect. She will be an employee in this household, no matter what your opinion on the subject might be. If you resist me in this, I shall go to my husband, just as you ask. He will have you locked in your room until you can stand before the House of Lords and explain yourself. When you are gone, we will pack the children off to stay with their mother's family. Does that suit you?'
'You know it does not.' And in his own ears, his voice sounded sullen. A spoiled child's muttering, just as she had said. He had best gain control of himself, or the children would end up with the Collinghams. And the last thing he wished was for them to grow up to be just like their mother.
'Then we are agreed. I shall go back to Miss Collins and arrange for her salary. You shall put on your coat, comb your hair and come to meet your new servant.' She turned and swept from the room.
Tim sat at his desk, head cradled in his hands. Penny had made another effort to arrange his life. He supposed he was expected to be grateful for it, but felt nothing more than numb.
Perhaps she was right in it. If he was as concerned for his children as he claimed, then surely he did not wish to cause them more pain than he had already. And at this late date, an airing of the family secrets would do more harm than good.