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Married by Morning
By Lisa Kleypas
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Lisa Kleypas
All rights reserved.
Anyone who had ever read a novel knew that governesses were supposed to be meek and downtrodden. They were also supposed to be quiet, subservient, and obedient, not to mention deferential to the master of the house. Leo, Lord Ramsay, wondered in exasperation why they couldn't have gotten one of those. Instead the Hathaway family had hired Catherine Marks, who, in Leo's opinion, cast an unflattering shadow upon the entire profession.
It wasn't that Leo found fault with Marks's actual abilities. She had done an excellent job of instructing his two youngest sisters, Poppy and Beatrix, in the finer points of social etiquette. And they had needed an inordinate amount of help, since none of the Hathaways had ever expected to mingle in the upper circles of British society. They had been reared in a strictly middle-class environment, in a village west of London. Their father, Edward Hathaway, had been a medieval history scholar, considered a man of good blood but hardly an aristocrat.
However, after a series of unlikely events, Leo had inherited the title of Lord Ramsay. Although he had trained to be an architect, he was now a viscount with land and tenants. The Hathaways had moved to the Ramsay estate in Hampshire, where they had struggled to adjust to the demands of their new life.
One of the greatest challenges for the Hathaway sisters had been to learn the absurd multitude of rules and graces expected of privileged young ladies. Had it not been for Catherine Marks's patient instruction, the Hathaways would have rampaged through London with all the finesse of stampeding elephants. Marks had done wonders for all of them, especially Beatrix, who was undoubtedly the most eccentric sister of an already eccentric family. Although Beatrix was happiest romping through the meadows and woods like a wild creature, Marks had managed to impress on her that a different code of behavior was required in the ballroom. She had even written a series of etiquette poems for the girls, with such literary gems as:
Young ladies must display restraint
When speaking with a stranger
Flirtations, quarrels, or complaints
Put our reputations in danger
Naturally Leo hadn't been able to resist mocking Marks's poetic abilities, but he had to admit privately that her methods had worked. Poppy and Beatrix had successfully navigated a London season, at last. And Poppy had recently married a hotelier named Harry Rutledge.
Now only Beatrix was left. Marks had assumed the role of chaperone and companion to the energetic nineteen-year-old. As far as the rest of the Hathaways were concerned, Catherine Marks was practically a member of the family.
Leo, for his part, couldn't abide the woman. She aired her opinions at will and dared to give orders to him. On the rare occasions when Leo tried to be friendly, she snapped at him or turned away in scorn. When he stated a perfectly rational opinion, he could hardly finish a sentence before Marks had listed all the reasons why he was wrong.
Faced with the immutable fact of her dislike, Leo couldn't help but respond in kind. All during the past year he had tried to convince himself that it didn't matter if she despised him. There were many women in London who were infinitely more beautiful, engaging, and appealing than Catherine Marks.
If only she didn't fascinate him so.
Perhaps it was the secrets she guarded so zealously. Marks never talked about her childhood or her family, or why she had taken a position with the Hathaways. She had taught at a girls' school for a short time, but she refused to discuss her academic tenure or explain why she had left. There were rumors, passed on by former students, that she might have been a poor relation of the headmistress, or that she was a fallen woman whose loss of status had obliged her to go into service.
Marks was so self-contained and tenacious that it was often easy to forget she was still a young woman in her early twenties. When Leo had first met her, she had been the perfect embodiment of a dried-up spinster, with her spectacles and forbidding scowl and her stern hyphen of a mouth. Her spine was as unbending as a fireplace poker, and her hair, the dull brown of apple moths, was always pinned back too tightly. The Grim Reaper, Leo had nicknamed her, despite the objections of the family.
But the past year had wrought a remarkable change in Marks. She had filled out, her body slender but no longer matchstick thin, and her cheeks had gained color. A week and a half ago, when Leo had arrived from London, he had been absolutely astonished to see Marks with light golden locks. Apparently she had been dyeing her hair for years, but after an error on the part of the apothecary, she had been forced to abandon the disguise. And whereas the darker brown locks had been too severe for her delicate features and pale skin, her own natural blond was stunning.
Which had left Leo to grapple with the fact that Catherine Marks, his mortal enemy, was a beauty. It wasn't really the altered hair color that made her look so different ... it was more that Marks was so uncomfortable without it. She felt vulnerable, and it showed. As a result, Leo wanted to strip away more layers, literal and physical. He wanted to know her.
Leo had tried to keep his distance while he pondered the ramifications of this discovery. He was confounded by his family's reaction to Marks, which amounted to nothing more than a collective shrug. Why weren't any of them even a fraction as curious about her as he was? Why had Marks deliberately made herself unattractive for so long? What the devil was she hiding from?
On a sunny Hampshire afternoon when Leo had ascertained that most of the family was otherwise occupied, he went in search of Marks, reasoning that if he confronted her in private, he would get some answers. He found her outside in a hedged garden filled with flowers. She occupied a bench at the side of a graveled path.
She was not alone.
Leo stopped at twenty yards' distance, drawing into the shade of a heavily foliated yew.
Marks was sitting beside Poppy's new husband, Harry Rutledge. They were engaged in what appeared to be an intimate conversation.
Although the situation wasn't precisely incriminating, neither was it appropriate.
What in God's name could they be talking about? Even from this remote vantage, it was clear that something of significance was being said. Harry Rutledge's dark head was inclined over hers protectively. Like a close friend. Like a lover.
Leo's mouth fell open as he saw Marks reaching beneath her spectacles with a delicate hand, as if to wipe away a tear.
Marks was crying, in the company of Harry Rutledge.
And then Rutledge kissed her on the forehead.
Leo's breath stopped. Holding still, he sorted through an emulsion of emotions and separated them into layers ... amazement, worry, suspicion, fury.
They were hiding something. Plotting something.
Had Rutledge once kept her as a mistress? Was he blackmailing her, or was she perhaps extorting something from him? No ... the tenderness between the pair was evident even at this distance.
Leo rubbed the lower half of his jaw as he considered what to do. Poppy's happiness was more important than any other consideration. Before he went dashing over to beat his sister's new husband to a bloody pulp, he would find out exactly what the situation was. And then, if circumstances warranted, he would beat Rutledge to a bloody pulp.
Taking slow, measured breaths, Leo watched the pair. Rutledge stood and went back to the house, while Marks remained seated on the bench.
Without making a conscious decision, Leo approached her slowly. He wasn't certain how he was going to treat her, or what he was going to say. It depended on which impulse leaped out most strongly the moment he reached her. It was entirely possible that he would throttle her. It was equally likely that he would pull her to the sun-warmed grass and ravish her. He found himself stewing in a hot, unpleasant rush of feeling that wasn't at all familiar. Was it jealousy? Christ, it was. He was jealous over a skinny termagant who insulted and nagged him at every opportunity.
Was this some new level of depravity? Had he developed a spinster fetish?
Perhaps it was her very reserve that Leo found so erotic ... he had always been fascinated by the question of what it would take to demolish it. Catherine Marks, his fiendish little adversary ... naked and moaning beneath him. There was nothing he'd ever wanted more. And that made sense, actually: When a woman was easy and willing, there was no challenge in it. But taking Marks to bed, making it last a long time, tormenting her until she begged and screamed ... now, that would be fun.
Leo walked toward her casually, not missing the way she stiffened at the sight of him. Her face became pinched and unhappy, her mouth strict. Leo imagined taking her head in his hands, kissing her for long lascivious minutes, until she was limp and gasping in his arms.
Instead he stood with his fists in his coat pockets, surveying her without expression. "Care to explain what that was all about?"
The sun glinted on the lenses of Marks's spectacles, momentarily obscuring her eyes. "You've been spying on me, my lord?"
"Hardly. Whatever spinsters do in their personal time doesn't interest me in the least. But it's difficult not to notice when my brother-in-law is kissing the governess out in the garden."
One had to give Marks credit for composure. She showed no reaction except for the tightening of her hands in her lap. "One kiss," she said. "On the forehead."
"It doesn't matter how many kisses, or where they landed. You're going to explain to me why he did it. And why you let him. And try to make it credible, because I'm this close" — Leo held his thumb and forefinger a mere quarter inch apart — "to dragging you bodily to the coach road and putting you on the next cart bound for London."
"Go to the devil," she said in a low voice, and sprang to her feet. She had taken only two strides before he caught her from behind. "Don't touch me!"
Leo turned her to face him, controlling her easily. His hands closed over her slender upper arms. He could feel the warmth of her skin through the thin muslin of her sleeves. As he held her, the innocent scent of lavender water rose to his nostrils. There was a faint dusting of talc at the base of her throat. The fragrance of her reminded Leo of a freshly made bed with pressed sheets. And oh, how he wanted to slip into her.
"You have too many secrets, Marks. You've been a thorn in my side for more than a year, with your sharp tongue and your mysterious past. Now I want some answers. What were you discussing with Harry Rutledge?"
Her fine brows, several shades darker than her hair, gathered in a scowl. "Why don't you ask him?"
"I've asked you." Met with her mulish silence, Leo decided to provoke her. "Were you a different kind of woman, I'd suspect you of casting your lures at him. But we both know you don't have any lures, don't we?"
"If I did, I certainly wouldn't use them on you!"
"Come, Marks, let's attempt a civil conversation. Just this once."
"Not until you take your hands off me."
"No, you'd only run. And it's too hot to chase after you."
Catherine bristled and pushed at him, her palms flattening against his chest. Her body was neatly packaged in stays and laces and countless yards of muslin. The thought of what was beneath ... pink and white skin, soft curves, intimate curls ... aroused him instantly.
A shiver ran through her, as if she could read his thoughts. Leo stared down at her intently. His voice softened. "Are you afraid of me, Marks? You, who bludgeon and cut me down to size at every opportunity?"
"Of course not, you arrogant ass. I only wish you would behave like a man of your station."
"You mean like a peer?" He raised his eyebrows mockingly. "This is how peers behave. I'm surprised you haven't noticed by now."
"Oh, I've noticed. A man fortunate enough to inherit a title should have the decency to try and live up to it. Being a peer is an obligation — a responsibility — but instead you seem to regard it as a license to engage in the most self-indulgent and disgusting behavior imaginable. Moreover —"
"Marks," Leo interrupted in a velvety tone, "that was a perfectly wonderful attempt at distracting me. But it's not going to work. You're not getting away from me until you tell me what I want to know."
She swallowed hard and tried to look everywhere but at him, which wasn't easy when he was standing right in front of her. "The reason I was talking privately with Mr. Rutledge ... the scene you witnessed ..."
"It was because ... Harry Rutledge is my brother. Half brother."
Leo stared at her downbent head, trying to absorb the information. The sense of being duped, betrayed, ignited a bonfire of rage. Holy hell. Marks and Harry Rutledge were siblings?
"There could be no good reason," Leo said, "for such information to have been kept secret."
"The situation is complicated."
"Why have neither of you said anything before now?"
"You don't need to know."
"You should have told me before he married Poppy. You were obligated."
"Loyalty, damn you. What else do you know that might affect my family? What other secrets are you hiding?"
"It's none of your business," Catherine shot back, now twisting in his grip. "Let me go!"
"Not until I find out what you're plotting. Is Catherine Marks even your real name? Who the hell are you?" He swore as she began to struggle in earnest. "Hold still, you little she-devil. I just want to' ouch!" This last as she turned and jabbed a sharp elbow in his side.
The maneuver gained Marks the freedom she sought, but her spectacles went flying to the ground. "My spectacles!" With an aggravated sigh, she dropped to her hands and knees and began feeling for them.
Leo's fury was instantly smothered by guilt. From the looks of it, she was practically blind without the spectacles. And the sight of her crawling on the ground made him feel like a brute. A jackass. Lowering to his knees, he began to hunt for them as well.
"Did you see the direction they went in?" he asked.
"If I did," she said, fuming, "I wouldn't need spectacles, would I?"
A short silence. "I'll help you find them."
"How kind of you," she said acidly.
For the next few minutes the two of them traversed the garden on their hands and knees, searching among the daffodils. They both chewed on the gristly silence as if it were a mutton chop.
"So you actually need spectacles," Leo finally said.
"Of course I do," Marks said crossly. "Why would I wear spectacles if I didn't need them?"
"I thought they might be part of your disguise."
"Yes, Marks, disguise. A noun describing a means of concealing someone's identity. Often used by clowns and spies. And now apparently governesses. Good God, can anything be ordinary for my family?"
Marks glared and blinked in his direction, her gaze not quite focused. For a moment, she looked like an anxious child whose favorite blanket had been set out of reach. And that caused an odd, painful twinge in Leo's heart.
"I'll find your spectacles," he said brusquely. "You have my word. If you like, you can go into the house while I keep searching."
"No, thank you. If I tried to find the house on my own, I'd probably end up in the barn."
Seeing a metallic glimmer in the grass, Leo reached out and closed his hand around the spectacles. "Here they are." He crawled to Marks and faced her in an upright kneeling position. After polishing the spectacle lenses with the edge of his sleeve, he said, "Hold still."
"Give them to me."
"Let me do it, hardhead. Arguing comes to you as naturally as breathing, doesn't it?"
"No, it doesn't," she said immediately, and colored as he gave a husky laugh.
"It's no fun to bait you when you make it so easy, Marks." He placed the spectacles on her face with great care, running his fingers along the sides of the frame, viewing the fit with an assessing glance. Gently he touched the tips of the earpieces. "They're not fitted well." He ran an exploring fingertip over the upper rim of one ear. She was remarkably pretty in the sunlight, her gray eyes containing glimmers of blue and green. Like opals. "Such small ears," Leo continued, letting his hands linger at the sides of her fine-boned face. "No wonder your spectacles fall off so readily. There's hardly anything to hang them on."
Marks stared at him in bewilderment.
Excerpted from Married by Morning by Lisa Kleypas. Copyright © 2010 Lisa Kleypas. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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