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'I'll take anything you have.' Maura Harding sat ramrod straight with her gloved hands folded demurely in her lap. She strove to sound affable instead of desperate. She wasn't desperate. Maura forced herself to believe the near-fiction. If she didn't believe it, no one else would. Desperation would make her an easy target. People could sense desperation like dogs smelled fear.
According to the small watch pinned to her bodice, it was half past ten in the morning. She'd come straight from the mail coach to Mrs Pendergast's Referral Service for Young Ladies of Good Breeding and she needed a position by nightfall. She'd been right on schedule up to this pointthe point where Mrs Pendergast peered over the rims of her spectacles and hesitated.
'I don't see any references.' Mrs Pendergast's impressive bosom heaved in disapproval as she made her pronouncement.
Maura drew a deep breath, silently repeating the mantra that had sustained her on the long journey from Exeter: In London there would be help. She would not give up now simply because she had no references. After all, she'd known this would be a likely obstacle. 'It's my first time seeking a position, ma'am.' First time using an assumed name, first time travelling outside of Devonshire, first time on my own quite a lot of firsts, Mrs Pendergast, if you only knew.
Mrs Pendergast's brows went up in an expression of doubt. She set down Maura's carefully written paper and fixed Maura with an uncompromising stare. 'I do not have time to play games, Miss Caulfield.' The false name sounded, well, false to Maura, who had spent her whole life being Miss Harding. Could Mrs Pendergast tell? Did it sound as false to her? Did she suspect?
Mrs Pendergast rose to indicate the interview was over. 'I am very busy. I'm sure you did not fail to notice the crowded waiting room full of young ladies with references, all eager to be placed in households. I suggest you try your luck elsewhere.'
This was a disaster. She could not leave here without a position. Where else would she go? She knew of no other referral agencies. She knew of this one only because one of her own governesses had mentioned it once. Maura thought quickly. 'I have something better than references, ma'am. I have skills.' Maura gestured towards the discarded paper. 'I can do fine needlework, I can sing, I can dance, I can speak French. I can even paint watercolours.' Maura paused. Her accomplishments did not seem to impress Mrs Pendergast.
When reasoning failed, there was always begging. 'Please, ma'am, I have nowhere else to go. You must have something? I can be a companion to an elderly lady, a governess to a young girl. I can be anything. Surely, there's one family in London that needs me.'
It wasn't supposed to be this hard. London was a big city with far more opportunities than those offered in the remote Devonshire countryside outside Exeter where everyone knew everyone, a situation Maura was trying very hard to avoid. She didn't want to be known, although she was fast discovering that choice came with its own consequences. She was now officially a stranger in a strange place and her carefully concocted plan was in jeopardy.
It worked. Mrs Pendergast sat back down and opened a desk drawer. 'I might have something.'
She rifled through the drawer and pulled out a folder. 'It's not exactly a "family" situation. None of those girls out there will take it. I've already sent five governesses in the last three weeks. All have left.'
With those ominous words, Mrs Pendergast pushed the file towards her. 'The gentleman is a bachelor with two young wards he's inherited from his brother.' Maura was only half-listening. Elation poured through her, drowning out her other sensibilities.
The large woman made a tsking sound. 'It's a bad business all around. The new earl is a dissolute rake. He's out cavorting at all hours of the night, getting up to who knows what debaucheries while the children run wild. Then there's the business with the earl's brother.' She made another tsking noise and peered meaningfully at Maura over her glasses again. 'The manner of his death was highly shocking and sudden. As I said, it's a bad business all around, but if you want it, the position is yours.'
If? Of course she'd take it. She couldn't afford to be choosy at this juncture. Maura was starting to see how precipitous her flight had been, even if it had been necessary. 'It will be fine. Thank you. You won't be sorry.' She would have gone on gushing her gratitude, but Mrs Pendergast held up a hand.
'I won't be sorry, but you might. Did you hear a word I said, Miss Caulfield?'
'Yes, ma'am.' It wasn't exactly a lie. She'd heard most of the words. She'd heard 'new earl' and 'two wards' and something about the suspect nature of the former earl's death. The situation didn't sound as bad as Mrs Pendergast was making it out. She had a position, that was all that mattered. Life could now proceed according to plan.
Mrs Pendergast communicated her doubt with a hard stare. 'Very well then, I wish you luck, but either way, I don't want to see you back here. This is the only position you'll get without references. I suggest you find a way to make this work where the other five have failed.'
Maura rose, hiding her surprise. Clearly, she'd missed a little something while she'd carried on her mental celebration. 'The other five?'
'The other five governesses. I did mention them, Miss Caulfield. Did you miss the dissolute-rake part, too?'
Maura's chin went up, determined not to show her surprise. She hadn't listened as well as she'd thought. 'You've been very clear, ma'am. Thank you again.' The 'dissolute' part was unfortunate. She might have launched herself from the frying pan and into the fire, exchanging one dissolute male for another. But she doubted anyone could be as dissolute as Wildeham, the man her uncle had chosen for her to marry. Besides, she doubted she'd see much of this roguish Earl of Chatham. Dissolute rakes weren't exactly the stay-at-home types when surrounded by the entertainments of London. It was difficult indeed to be rakish at all by staying home.
An hour later, a hired hackney deposited her in front of the Earl of Chatham's Portland Square town house and departed with the last of her coins. In her estimation, it was money well spent. On her own, she would have walked for hours and never found the place. To put it mildly, London was daunting! Never had she seen so many people crammed together in one place. The traffic, the smells and the noises were enough to intimidate even the heartiest of country souls. Maura shaded her eyes and looked up at the town house.
It fit in perfectly. It was daunting, too, all four soaring storeys of it. There was nothing for it. The only way ahead was forwards. She picked up her things and walked up the steps to face her future. Forewarned was forearmed. She would focus on the positives. One positive was that her plan was proceeding according to schedule. Another was the address.
When she'd set out from Exeter, she'd imagined being placed in the comfortable home of a well-to-do family, possibly one hoping to launch a daughter on to the bottom rungs of society. Never had she thought to find a position in an earl's home. Of course, she'd also never thought to have to find a position in the first place. For that matter, she'd never thought to leave Exeter. She'd faced a lot of 'nevers' in the past month she'd not expected to encounter.
As a gentleman's daughter, the granddaughter of an earl, she'd been raised to expect more, although those assumptions had been misplaced. She could have kept those assumptions intact. Her uncle had made it clear she could live in comfortable luxury and marry a title, but for a price she'd been unwilling to pay. Even now, with Exeter a week and miles behind her, that price made her shudder in the noon sun.
Her lack of co-operation had made it impossible to stay so here she was, a stranger alone, ready to start her life afresh, which was a nice way of saying she'd cut all ties to her uncle's family. It had either been cutting ties with them or cutting ties with her true self and in the end she'd hadn't been able to bring herself to that ultimate sacrifice. So, they'd been left to their own devices and she was now left to hers. There could be no going back, although she was certain her uncle would try. She wouldn't let him discover her. She'd disappear into the earl's household and her uncle would eventually give up and find another way to fulfil his obligations to the odious Baron Wildeham.
Her resolve firm, Maura raised the carved lion-head knocker and let it fall with a heavy clack against the door. Inside, she could hear the undignified running of feet and a yelp, followed by a giggle, followed by a crash. Maura winced at the sound of something shattering. There was a shrill scream. 'I'll get it! It's my turn to get the door!' Then chaos spilled out on to the front step.
Maura saw it all happen in slow motion. The door flew open, answered by a man in stockinged feet and dishabille, dark hair ruffled in disarray, shirt-tails flying. He looked like no butler she'd ever seen. But Maura hadn't the time to appreciate the odd sight. Behind him, two children came barrelling into the corridor. They skidded to a tardy and incomplete halt behind him and oomph!
Their momentum set off a chain reaction, sending them all down in a heap, Maura at the bottom, looking up over the tangle of arms and legs into the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. Even with two children heaped higgledy-piggledy on them, she was not immune to the fact that those blue eyes went with an entirely masculine body of hard ridges and muscled planes which, at present, had landed on her in a most indelicate manner.
'Hello.' He grinned down at her, walnut-dark hair falling in his face with casual negligence.
'I'm here about the position,' Maura managed to get out, but she immediately regretted it. 'Position' wasn't quite the best word to use, although given the situation, she was fortunate to formulate any coherent thoughts with all that well-muscled maleness pressing down on her.
'I can see that.' Mischief twinkled in those blue eyes, suggesting he wasn't oblivious to their unorthodox circumstances, circumstances, she noted, he didn't seem to mind. Whoever he was, he should be chagrined. No tutor or footman worth his salt would be caught in such raucous behaviour if he valued his post. But it was clear this attractive mess of a man wasn't the least bit worried. He was laughing, quite possibly at her, as he rose and helped the children up.
Everyone apparently thought the accident a great lark. The children were both talking at once. 'Did you see the way I came around the corner?'
'I grabbed hold of the banister post and slingshotted myself into the hall!'
Slingshotted? Great heavens, was that even a word?
'You were amazing, William. It was like you were a cannon ball!' the blue-eyed man put in with an inordinate amount of enthusiasm.
'We broke Aunt Cressida's vase!' The little girl giggled nervously.
The man ruffled her hair. 'Don't worry, it was ugly anyway.'
Unbelievable! Had they forgotten about her? Maura was halfway to her feet, struggling with the tangle of her skirts and luggage when a large hand reached down for her. 'Are you all right?' The rich baritones of his voice were easy and friendly, further sign he was a man who took nothing too seriously.
'I shall recover.' Maura tugged at the fitted jacket of her travelling costume and smoothed her skirts, trying to restore some proper order to the encounter. 'I am the new governess. Mrs Pendergast assigned me just this morning. I should like to speak with Lord Chatham, please.' That should get some results.
His eyes twinkled with more mischief, if that was possible. 'You are speaking with him.' He gave her a gallant half-bow at odds with his dishabille. 'The Earl of Chatham at your service.'
'You're the earl?' Maura tried not to gape. Dissolute earls weren't supposed to be handsome, hard-bodied males who flirted with their eyes.
The corners of his eyes crinkled in amusement. 'I believe we've established that. Now, what shall we call you?' He fixed her with a white-toothed smile that probably made most women go weak at the knees. Maura liked to think her knees were weak from having been ploughed over on the doorstep instead. He turned to the children, who were staring up at him with wide eyes full of obvious hero worship. 'We can't very well call her "new governess". That's no sort of name at all.' They started to giggle again.
The little girl smiled up at him and clapped her hands. 'I know! I know! We'll call her Six.' The little girl curtsied very prettily. 'Hello, Six, I'm Cecilia and I'm seven. This is my brother, William. He's eight.' She laughed again. 'Six, seven, eight, we're all numbers in a row. That's funny. Uncle Ree, did you get my joke? Six, seven, eight?'
'I most certainly did, my dear. It was the funniest one yet.' The earl smiled down at her indulgently and wrapped his hand around her considerably smaller one. The gesture was endearing and it succeeded in doing queer things to Maura's stomach.
'Perhaps we should step inside,' Maura suggested, well aware, even if they weren't, that their little coterie on the porch was drawing stares from the street.
'Oh, yes, do forgive me.' The earl jumped into action and ushered them all indoors to the hall where the remnants of Aunt Cressida's vase were being swept up by a maid. 'Now we can have proper introductions and ' He paused, his brow furrowing as he groped for the right words. 'And a pot of tea. That will be just the thing. You'll have to excuse me; I seem to have left my manners on the floor with the vase.' He pushed a hand through his dark hair, looking entirely likeable.
She'd not been ready for that. She hadn't planned on liking him, Maura realised as they settled for tea in the drawing room, children included. What she had expected was a middle-aged man with greying side-whiskers, lecherous eyes and wandering hands, a man like her uncle's crony Baron Wildeham.
Tea came and Maura discreetly looked towards the doorway. 'Are your wards going to join us?' There were four tea cups on the tray. Surely the children weren't staying for tea?
The earl looked at her queerly, gesturing to the children. 'They're already here.' Then he laughed, his mouth breaking into his easy smile. 'Mrs Pendergast didn't tell you, did she? That tricky old woman, no wonder she got someone here so quickly.'
Maura sat up straight, feeling defensive. 'She mentioned the wards were young.'
'She'd be correct. It's William and Cecilia I need a governess for,' the earl explained, motioning that she should pour out.
Maura was glad for something to do, something to occupy her hands while her mind restored order. There'd be no young girls to shepherd into society as she was expecting. Instead, there were two slightly precocious children who slid through the hallways in stockinged feet. She told herself she could manage. She'd helped her aunt with her young cousins, after all. She just needed to readjust her thinking.