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Miss Diana Hamilton glanced up from her embroidery, her brows raised in surprise. "You did what?" she exclaimed.
The young man standing before her shifted his feet, and said defensively, "I could not help it, Diana, indeed I could not."
"You could not help wagering our home?"
The young man cleared his throat. "'Twas not merely our home, I'm afraid."
"What do you mean--not merely our home?" Diana said, laying her embroidery to one side, and fixing her brother with a stern look.
"You were part of the wager, Di," he said, flushing. "I am sorry, but Fenmore insisted upon it, and I...."
"You were in your cups, no doubt, Anthony," Diana said coldly.
"Indeed I was!" Anthony said, seizing upon this as a reasonable excuse.
"But why would Lord Fenmore wish to marry me?"
"Er--it is not quite that, Diana. The thing is--Lord Fenmore is not the marrying kind, I would say. You see, his sister and her husband died two years ago in a carriage accident, and he was left the guardian of their twin boys. Their--their tutor is, at present, recuperating from scarlet fever--it was a severe attack, I believe--and Fenmore does not wish to employ a new tutor to take his place. So Fenmore suggested that you act as the boys' governess until their tutor has recovered..."
Diana stared speechlessly at her brother for a long moment. Finally, recovering the use of her voice, she said, "Act as their governess? What ever gave Lord Fenmore the impression that I would be an appropriate governess?"
"Fenmore said that you appeared to be an uncommonly well educated female when he stayed here last year."
"But I barely spoke to himwhen he was here--in fact I received the distinct impression that he considered me amusing in some kind of diabolical way."
"He told me that your disapproving air quite cowed him, and that he thought your quelling gaze would have a marvellous effect on his ten-year-old nephews--apparently they are--er--rather difficult to handle."
Diana shook her head. "I cannot believe that you have done this, Tony. To--to wager our home--and me--It is beyond belief..."
"But Fenmore will be doing you a favour, Di--he is offering you his home!"
"It was kind, indeed, of his lordship to take me into consideration," Diana said silkily.
Anthony nodded his head enthusiastically. "I knew that you would see sense, my dear. As I told Fenmore, you're a most sensible girl."
"Your love of gambling, Tony, has led us to this downfall! How could you have been so irresponsible, so heedless as to gamble Aldridge away? And how can you believe that I--I would wish to live in the same house as a man without honour or a sense of responsibility? The Earl should have seen that you were in your cups and refrained from fleecing you. Especially as he is as rich as Golden Ball himself!"
Tony stared down at his boots, shamefaced. "The Earl did not propose the wager, Diana. I did."
"That does not make any difference, Tony! The Earl should not have accepted it."
Tony continued to stare at his boots, wondering if he should enlighten his sister as to what had really happened the previous evening. Finally, deciding that it would in all probability soften her attitude towards the Earl, which could only be to her benefit, he said, "I have not fully explained what happened, Diana. Fenmore was very reluctant to take me up on the wager. However, I was a bit on the go, and when I said that I would transfer the wager to Marcus Bateman who was watching the play and seemed very agreeable to it..."
"Bateman!" Diana exclaimed. "Why he is the biggest libertine in all London!"
"Yes, well--the Earl could see that there was no moving me so he agreed to the wager. He then asked me what you would do if I lost to him as he is aware that your dowry is small..." He looked anxiously at his sister. "You must believe me, Diana, that until that moment I had completely forgotten about you--bosky you know! Otherwise, I would not have staked Aldridge, I swear I would not have! But, one cannot draw back from a wager once placed, of course, so I told the Earl that although Aldridge was your home, you could perhaps move to Berkshire and live with Marianne..."
Diana stared at him in distress. "Live with Marianne! Oh no, Tony! You must know how that would be!"
"Yes--well, I know that you have never cared for Edward--can't abide the fellow myself. Prosiest bore imaginable. Don't know why Marianne married him." He shook his head mournfully. "I said as much to Fenmore, and that is when he made his proposal..."
"And what do you plan to do with yourself, now?"
Anthony's face brightened. "I've always had it in mind to buy myself a pair of colours, and considering what is happening on the Continent at the moment, it is a perfect time to enlist. And without Aldridge to worry about, I'll be free to do what I want to." He shrugged his shoulders. "You know as well as I, Diana, that the estate is more a hindrance to us than anything else."
Diana studied her brother soberly. "Nevertheless, Tony, it is my home, and I have been doing everything in my power to keep things running. You ought to have thought of me before gambling away everything that I hold dear. You may detest Aldridge, but I have always been perfectly content here."
Anthony frowned. "I never could understand why you enjoyed living here, Di, with only Cousin Rosalind for company. Why--it's not healthy to stay in a backwater like this! The curst place is depressing--that's what it is, depressing," he said, shuddering. "The only good thing about Aldridge is the hunting that's to be had here. You'll soon see, my dear, that I have done you a favour! Indeed, you will."
"What does Lord Fenmore propose to do with the estate?"
"I think he has it in mind to turn it into a hunting box. Great gun is Fenmore! Do you know that he fought in the Peninsula? He says that he believes that the army will be the very thing for me. He is generous to a fault, Di. He--he proposed that if I lost the wager, that the cost of an army commission should come out of the Estate ... And when he suggested this governess post for you, Di, I saw it as the mark of Providence."
"Both Aldridge and I taken off your hands, with a minimum of fuss."
"Precisely, my dear. Precisely. A stroke of good fortune, if ever there was one."
Diana sighed. "Well, I suppose there's nothing much to be done."
Anthony studied his sister a trifle anxiously. "Fenmore is coming to call on us tomorrow morning."
Diana raised her brows. "Is he? Well, it is a vast pity that I will not be at home to receive him then. I have arranged to visit Mrs. Finckley tomorrow morning."
"But you must be at home to receive him, Diana! He wants to know when you will be able to take up your post at Fenmore Park."
"He will have to wait until the afternoon to see me then, Tony. I am not wholly at his lordship's disposal. Well not yet," she added a trifle bitterly, as she stood up and, picking up her embroidery, left the room.
Diana hurried up the stairs to the Green Parlour, where her cousin was reclining on a day bed. Rosalind looked up with surprise when Diana entered the room, with something less than her usual composure. "What is it, my dear?" she asked, anxiously surveying Diana's pale face.
Diana sighed. "You will not believe what Anthony has done, Rosa." She paused for a moment, and shook her head, before continuing, "He staked Aldridge and me in a wager--and lost! To Lord Fenmore!"
"He did what? Oh my dear, I am so sorry! How could he have done such a thing? The foolish boy." A moment later, the anxious expression on Rosalind's round, pleasant face lifted however, as she said, "My dear--there are worse things in life than having to marry Lord Fenmore. Lady Sefton, in her last letter to me, informed me that he is considered one of the most eligible bachelors on the Marriage Mart."
"Lord Fenmore does not wish to marry me, Rosa--he wants me to go to Fenmore Park to act as a governess to his orphaned nephews."
Rosalind sat up from the daybed with a start. "A--a governess!" she spluttered. "What a preposterous idea! What was your brother thinking of?"
"Tony thinks it is a marvellous, idea, Rosa. He views it as Providence. Both Aldridge and I have been taken off his hands, and he can now buy himself a pair of colours."
Rosalind sank back onto the daybed again, a hand held to her forehead. "My dear child. I cannot believe it. Your poor mama would turn in her grave if she knew of this!"
Diana sat down beside her cousin, and stared meditatively ahead of her. "Lord Fenmore is calling on me tomorrow, Rosa. I have informed Tony that he will have to wait until the afternoon to see me because I am visiting Mrs. Finckley tomorrow morning. You will have to entertain his lordship in my absence."
"I will be sure to give him a piece of my mind, my dear!" Rosalind's eyes sparkled militantly as she contemplated the upcoming interview. She looked across at Diana, after a moment, and sighed. Although her cousin was four-and-twenty, and was, in the eyes of the world, on the shelf, Rosalind had entertained hopes that she might yet make a respectable marriage. Though not conventionally pretty, Diana's features were very pleasing. Dark brown hair curled becomingly around her heart-shaped face, and her large grey eyes looked out on the world with a natural reserve that was not unattractive, Rosalind thought. Although Diana had not "taken" when she had been presented in London, a few discerning gentlemen had made her the object of their attentions. Her cousin, however, had not developed a serious tendre for any of them and had returned home, perfectly content to invest her time and energy in nursing her sick mama, who had since died, and running Aldridge. And now her dear cousin was doomed to the life of a governess, Rosalind reflected unhappily. The last thing she would have chosen for her!
Diana rose from her chair, and murmured. "I have the headache, Rosa, so if you will excuse me, I think I will retire to bed."
"Of course, my dear. You have suffered something of a shock."
Diana left the room and walked up the stairs to her bedchamber, her thoughts in a whirl. Tomorrow, she felt sure, was going to prove something of a trial and she would need all her wits about her if she were going to hold her own against Julian Tavistock, Eighth Earl of Fenmore, and, in her opinion, the most provoking man in England! As she prepared herself for bed, a vague idea came into her mind and she fell asleep pondering it. There was a slight chance that it might work, she thought drowsily. A very slight chance...
The next morning, Diana dressed in a gown that her maid, Ellen, deemed to be most unsuitable for a visit to the Vicar's wife, but she valiantly held her tongue when her usually sober mistress informed her that she wished to wear the pink gown that she had worn as a débutante, six years ago. Ellen could not help remonstrating a little, however, when Diana requested her maid to dress her hair in a mass of curls instead of the discreet hairstyle she normally favoured. "But, Miss Diana, you will look distinctly odd, with your hair worn in that style. And that gown--it does not suit you, indeed it does not!"
Diana smiled enigmatically. "Does it not make me look more youthful, Ellen?"
"Miss Diana, forgive me for saying so, but you look like--a--a, well, like a pink meringue!"
"Good!" Diana said, smiling again. Looking around her bedchamber, she said thoughtfully, "Now, I think I will wear my pink flowered bonnet--the one with the cherries and pink ostrich feathers that dear Aunt Sylvia gave me last year, and which I haven't worn as yet. Oh--and tie a few knots of purple ribbon onto the bonnet as well, Ellen."
This, however, was too much for her faithful maid to bear. "Oh, no, no, no, Miss Diana! You cannot go into public dressed like that. You will look a sight! Think of your reputation." Her eyes widened. "Think of my reputation!"
Diana shook her head. "I am afraid, Ellen, that both our reputations will have to suffer a little, but rest assured I know exactly what I'm doing. Now, the only thing that I am lacking is my fringed shawl. Thank you, Ellen," she murmured when her maid passed it to her with a wooden expression on her face. "Perfect! I shall be back this afternoon," she continued, hurrying from the room.
Mrs. Finckley was surprised when Diana, who was usually very elegant in her dress, was shown into her drawing room later that morning, but she was too well bred to show her amazement at her young friend's unwonted departure from good taste.
Noticing that Mrs. Finckley was studiously avoiding commenting on her rather startling appearance, Diana said with a rueful chuckle, "I can assure you, dear Mrs. Finckley, that I am not a candidate for Bedlam, as you may be thinking. I have a particular reason for dressing like this, this morning."
Mrs. Finckley's eyes widened when Diana explained how Anthony had wagered their home away. She looked even more aghast when Diana told her that she had been part of the wager, and that Lord Fenmore wanted her to act as a governess to his two nephews.
"You, as a governess, my dear? I cannot believe it!"
"Hmmm--neither could I. I don't think that Lord Fenmore will want me to take his nephews in charge, however, if I look like a frivolous young lady ... Do you?"
"Indeed, no! Forgive me for saying so, my dear, but you look quite dreadful!"
"Thank you, Mrs. Finckley. I find that most reassuring!"
Mrs. Finckley's brow creased in a worried frown. "What will you do if Lord Fenmore decides against engaging you as a governess, Diana? You will no longer have your own home ... Oh, my dear, this is terrible!"
"My sister, Lady Arlington, will, I am sure, be pleased to welcome me into her home. She has suggested as much to me in the past. She has a large family, and I could be of some help to her..."
"Well, that is indeed a relief--although you have been accustomed to being mistress of your own home for many years, and it will not be easy to adjust to your change in circumstances. You have my deepest sympathy, my dear."
Diana smiled at the older lady who had given her so much support since Diana's mother had died five years previously. "Thank you, Mrs. Finckley. Your concern is much appreciated." She sighed. "I must return to Aldridge, now. Lord Fenmore will be waiting."
Diana took her leave of her hostess, and hurried from the room. The drive home seemed to pass in a blink of an eye, and within a matter of minutes, a groom was letting down the steps for her to alight from the carriage. She walked briskly up the steps to the front door of the Manor house, which was opened by Harris, the old family retainer. He informed her in an impassive voice that Lord Fenmore was awaiting her in the Drawing Room, but that he was in no doubt that his lordship would not mind waiting a few minutes longer while Miss Diana changed her dress.
Diana smiled serenely up at Harris. "I don't think there is any need for me to change my attire, Harris. I will see Lord Fenmore now..."
"But, Miss Diana!" he expostulated. He subsided however when he saw the determined look on his young mistress's face. Shaking his head, he led the way to the Drawing Room, where he announced her name in an emotionless voice before closing the door behind her.
Diana advanced a few steps into the room, and her hands fluttered to her chest as her eyes passed from her goggling cousin to Lord Fenmore, who was seated beside her. He rose to his feet when Diana came towards him, and bowed over her outstretched hand.
"Oh, Lord Fenmore, what a pleasure, and indeed an honour, it is to see you again!" Diana said in a breathy little voice. "Why, when dear Anthony told me that you wished to see me, I was quite overwhelmed. Such an honour," she said again, bestowing a dazzling smile on his lordship.
An expression of acute distaste crossed the handsome features of Lord Fenmore as he surveyed the woman standing in front of him. But he recovered himself sufficiently to murmur, "Miss Hamilton--the pleasure is all mine." He waited for her to be seated, before sitting down on the sofa across from her.
Diana frowned slightly at Rosalind, who was still gaping at her, before turning her attention to her guest once again. She batted her eyelashes at him. "Lord Fenmore--my brother has informed me that you have won our home--and me--in a wager! Why my heart is all in a flutter. Indeed, it is the most romantical thing that I have ever heard!"
Lord Fenmore made no response, and Diana felt rather uncomfortable as he subjected her to a thorough appraisal. She felt even more uncomfortable when, blue eyes gleaming, he murmured, "Bravo, my dear. You are most convincing."
Diana looked sharply at him. The arrogant devil appeared to be laughing at her. Laughing at her! She pinned a smile on her face. "Lord Fenmore--" she stopped, at a loss for words. The Earl, she realised, had seen right through her pretences, and she felt at a terrible disadvantage, seated before him in all her pink finery.
"My dear Miss Hamilton, I am relieved that the prospect of acting as governess to my nephews has sent you into raptures," Lord Fenmore said blandly. "Your brother informed me that you would probably need some persuasion, but this is obviously not necessary. When will you be able to take up your position?"
Diana's eyes narrowed. "I am surprised, my lord, that you think that I will be an appropriate governess for your nephews. I have no experience in that field."
"Your brother informed me that you are a bluestocking, Miss Hamilton..."
"Did he indeed?" Diana said smartly.
Lord Fenmore looked lazily across at her. "He did, and I can see that your quelling eye will have a remarkable effect on my nephews. It is delightfully incongruous with your appearance, I might add," he murmured, lips twitching.
Diana felt the colour creeping up into her face, and wished with all her heart that she had not attempted such a foolish pretence. "Lord Fenmore, I would prefer to move to Berkshire and live with my sister, than take up a position as a governess in your household. Will you not release me from this wager?"
The Earl studied her thoughtfully. "I think that you are under a misapprehension about the nature of the post, Miss Hamilton. My mother's companion, a distant cousin of hers, has recently left Fenmore Park to attend to her ailing mother. Miss Wilson was not the most intelligent of females, and I am sure that my mother will be delighted to have you in Miss Wilson's stead. You will be a companion to my mother, and I only request that you act as my nephews' governess until their tutor has recovered his health and can return to Fenmore Park. Thus your position in my household will be chiefly that of a companion."
Diana lifted startled eyes to his face. "Oh--I had not realised..."
"My nephews are running wild at present, and I think you will be a good influence on them, Miss Hamilton ... Will you not fulfil the conditions of your brother's wager?"
Diana looked away from the Earl. By asking her to fulfil the terms of the wager, the Earl had reminded her that Tony's pride was at stake. If she refused to come to Fenmore Park, Tony would feel that he had not fulfilled a debt of honour, and although she did not think that her brother deserved her consideration when he, himself, had not spared a thought for her future, she realised that she could not, for the pride of the family name, refuse to fulfil the conditions of the wager--especially as Tony was now able to buy his army commission because of the Earl's generosity. The only way that she could be freed from this debt of honour was if the Earl agreed to release her from the wager, and from what he had said, she gathered that he was not inclined to do so. So raising her eyes once again to his face, she said, "I will be able to take up my post next Monday, Lord Fenmore."
He nodded. "I will send my coach to fetch you."
Diana cleared her throat. "Is it possible for--that is, will my personal maid be able to accompany me, my lord? And--and my dog, Chloe? She is a friendly little creature and should not be any trouble..."
"Of course, Miss Hamilton." He smiled at her. "Your arrival at Fenmore Park will be eagerly anticipated. I am sure that you will succeed most admirably in managing my nephews."
"In fact, I am proving most useful to you," Diana said sweetly.
"You are, indeed. It was a fortunate day for my family when I won you in that wager." He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece, and stood up. "I am travelling back to London this afternoon, so I must take my leave of you now," he said, bowing in Rosalind's direction. Diana stood up, and Fenmore looked steadily at her. "I look forward to seeing you next week, Miss Hamilton."
Diana felt her heart quicken under his intense gaze, but she bid him a determinedly cool farewell, before turning away from him. Unfortunately, she caught her foot in a rent in the worn carpet, and losing her balance, stumbled, and fell straight into Lord Fenmore's arms. He held her for a moment, and as she stared up into that dark, handsome face, her heart began to beat even faster. He smiled down at her. "You should be more careful, Miss Hamilton," he said softly, as he set her once again on her feet. And as Diana watched him striding from the room, she reflected that she would indeed have to be careful in the future if she were to survive living in the same household as the maddening Earl of Fenmore!