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A Matter of Duty
By Sandra Heath
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2007 Sandra Heath
All rights reserved.
The August night was hot and still, and at Lawrence Park by the Thames Sir Ashley Lawrence's eight-year-old daughter, Emma, tossed in her immense four-poster bed, her sleep disturbed by the approaching thunderstorm.
Outside, there wasn't any moonlight. The lights of Brentford town shone across the meadows, and the silhouette of London rose faintly on the horizon. On the opposite bank of the river, the gables of the royal residences at Kew could be seen among the shadowy trees.
Lawrence Park was a fine Palladian house, with grounds sweeping down to the river steps. Its parterre boasted tall fountains, and on the newly laid croquet lawn, a very recent innovation, the ghostly shapes of white peacocks strutted in the moonless darkness. There were few lights in the house, for Sir Ashley, his beautiful new bride, and Captain Geoffrey Lawrence, Sir Ashley's son and heir by his first marriage, were attending a reception at Devonshire House and weren't expected home until the early hours.
Suddenly there was a bright flash of lightning, followed closely by a loud clap of thunder, and Emma awoke with a frightened start, her brown ringlets tumbling down from beneath her frilled night bonnet as she sat up. She was afraid of the dark, and even more afraid of thunder. Where was the lighted candle that had been there when she'd gone to sleep? And where was her governess?
Her lips began to tremble. 'Cherry?' she ventured timorously. 'Cherry, where are you?'
The door opened almost straightaway, and a slender young woman came in with the lighted candle. She was about twenty-two years old and wore a high-waisted white muslin gown. Her long dark-red hair was piled up in a knot on top of her graceful head, and her complexion was pale and clear in the flickering light. She had large gray eyes, and her generous mouth curved in a way that suggested a warm nature and a willingness to smile. There was an indefinable air of quality about her, for she was that most unfortunate of creatures, a lady fallen on hard times. But for the gambling ways of her much-loved wastrel of a brother, she'd have been assured of a Season in London, with the prospect, if not of marrying into the aristocracy, certainly of into the landed gentry. Miss Louisa Cherington, once of Cherington Court in the county of Wiltshire, was now reduced to being a governess and had no hope at all of ever being mistress of a house like Lawrence Park.
She quickly set the candlestick down on the table and went to sit on the edge of the bed, taking the child's trembling hands. 'It's all right, Emma, I'm here now,' she said soothingly.
The candle flame still flickered and the shadows moved monstrously against the walls. Emma watched them fearfully. 'I'm frightened, Cherry,' she said, tears shining in her brown eyes.
Louisa hugged her quickly. 'It's only another storm, sweeting; it won't hurt you. We've had lots of them this summer, and nothing's befallen you yet, has it?' She spoke lightly and a little teasingly, hoping to make the child smile at her fears.
'But it's going to happen, Cherry! Stepmama said it would. I was naughty yesterday, and she said that the next thunderstorm would punish me for my wickedness.'
'What nonsense,' murmured Louisa, her voice still light. Her gray eyes were angry that the new Lady Lawrence could say something so deliberately cruel and frightening to a child, especially one as lonely and timid as Emma. Sir Ashley's second wife was a cold, spiteful woman who'd only married him in order to advance herself socially, for he was no longer the man he'd once been. His age and health were beginning to tell; indeed, he was sometimes confined to his bed, but he was exceedingly wealthy, and that was all that mattered to his beloved Anne.
Emma clung to Louisa. 'Wh-where were you? I woke up and the candle had gone, and —'
'The candle went out, sweetheart, and I just slipped out to light it from the one that's always left burning in the passage. I was only gone for a moment.'
Emma was a little reassured. 'Is Papa back yet?'
'No, he and Lady Lawrence will be at Devonshire House for some time yet.'
'Isn't Geoffrey back either?'
'No, sweeting, I'm afraid he'll be there for a long while yet as well. It's a very grand reception, you know – the Prince Regent will be there.'
'Oh.' Emma drew back forlornly. She loved her handsome elder brother, even though he didn't have a lot of time for her. He was an officer in a crack hussar regiment and was home on leave from Spain; he seemed somehow to always manage to be free at this time of year for the newly fashionable regatta at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, where he liked more than anything to race his fast cutter, the Cyclops. This year, however, his plans had been frustrated because his other great passion, gambling, had finally caught up with him. The moment he'd set foot in England the duns had pounced, demanding full settlement of his mountainous debts, and for once Sir Ashley had refused to come across with the necessary sum. Nothing Geoffrey said would change his father's mind on the matter, and so the Cyclops, a costly vessel that would fetch a good price, awaited a purchaser. She rocked at her moorings by the river steps, a constant reminder to Geoffrey that his father was being very unreasonable indeed; at least, that was how Geoffrey saw it. As a consequence, the atmosphere at Lawrence Park was chill, for Captain Geoffrey Lawrence wasn't one to appreciate being thwarted.
Louisa had only been the governess for a year, but in that time she'd seen a sad change come over the household. From being a lonely but cheerful widower who doted on his small daughter, Sir Ashley had become a tired, short-tempered old man, beset by an arrogant, self-centered son and badgered by a new wife into doing everything she wanted, whether he approved or not. It was his grave misfortune to be cursed with such a bride; it was even more his misfortune to be cursed with a son who matched her in every unpleasant way. Anne, Lady Lawrence, had already been bored with her marriage when her handsome stepson had come home for the first time, and in retrospect Louisa saw that it had been inevitable that she'd been immediately attracted to the young man, who had all the swagger and virility her elderly husband lacked. But it was one thing to be attracted, quite another to actually indulge in an improper liaison, and to their eternal discredit it had been upon the latter course that they'd immediately embarked.
Louisa had regarded it as none of her concern – her duty was toward Emma – but through no fault of her own she'd been dragged into the tangled web, because Geoffrey Lawrence's roving eye didn't stop at his beautiful stepmother, it wandered toward his sister's pretty governess as well. He'd made little secret of finding Louisa Cherington desirable, a fact that aroused Anne's considerable jealousy and vindictiveness, and it wasn't long before Louisa realized that her position at Lawrence Park had become very precarious indeed.
Anne's method of ridding herself of a rival was very simple indeed: remove the need for a governess, and Louisa would be dismissed. And so Sir Ashley had in recent weeks found himself under constant pressure to send Emma away to a certain highly recommended seminary for young ladies in Kensington, a move Anne justified by pointing out the deterioration in the child's conduct. The apparent deterioration was there for all to see, for, unknown to trusting Sir Ashley, his wife was working upon the little girl, goading her into misconduct that could be laid fairly and squarely at the feet of her seemingly incompetent governess. He was resisting so far, because he adored his daughter, but how much longer he would withstand such concentrated pressure was a matter of conjecture. Louisa could see the time fast approaching when she'd be without a position, forced by a spiteful woman's jealousy and an unprincipled young man's selfish arrogance, to find another situation in order to keep a roof over her head.
Another loud crash of thunder reverberated across the night sky, and Emma gave a frightened cry, flinging her arms tightly around Louisa's neck. 'D-do you think Geoffrey will keep his promise?'
'To come home early from Devonshire House.'
Louisa's heart sank, for there could only be one reason for him doing that: he intended to see if he could make progress with her while his stepmother was otherwise engaged.
Emma looked at her. 'Will he come home early, Cherry?'
'I-I don't know, sweeting. Come, now, it's gone midnight and you really should go back to sleep. Don't forget you have extra lessons to do in the morning.'
Emma scowled. 'Because of her,' she said, referring to her stepmother. 'She'd do anything to make me unhappy. She only said I had to do extra lessons because she wanted to stop me going for a ride with Geoffrey. She's going with him herself now, did you know?'
Louisa did know. 'Never mind, Emma, there'll be other days to go riding.'
'She'll find reasons to stop me, I know she will. I hate her.'
'You mustn't talk like that, Emma. Now, then, please try to sleep.'
'I won't be able to, Cherry,' said the little girl, shrinking against her as another roll of thunder grumbled through the night.
'But I'll be here now, the room will be lit, and I promise to sit with you.'
'Will you ring for a glass of milk? If I could drink that and listen to a story, I think I'll be able to sleep.' Emma looked hopefully at her.
'Oh, all right, you minx, but I'll have to go down for the milk, you know the servants never answer the bell when your parents are out and they know it's just me ringing. Will you be all right on your own for a few minutes?'
Emma's face fell a little. 'Couldn't I come with you like I used to?'
'I don't think you'd better. Lady Lawrence has said you're not to go to the kitchens, and she'd be bound to find out if you'd disobeyed.' Yes, the servants had very quickly discovered they could curry favor with the mistress of the house if they told tales on the child or the governess.
Emma's expression was sullen. 'I hate her,' she said again. 'You won't be long, will you?' she added nervously as Louisa went to the mantelpiece to take down another candle to light.
'Of course I won't.' Louisa shielded the new flame with her hand, waiting until it had gained strength before going to the door. She glanced back at the bed, where Emma had curled up tightly beneath the bedclothes and was now only a trembling mound. Smiling, she went out, closing the door softly behind her.
She moved swiftly along the spacious passage, where past members of the Lawrence family gazed down from the gilt-framed canvases lining the elegant walls. The solitary night candle on the console table near the top of the stairs fluttered in the draft of her passing, the light shimmering in the beautiful mirror above.
The grand staircase swept down between Corinthian columns to the unlit entrance hall below. Her shadow leapt and danced against the soaring columns as she began to descend, and the moving light flashed on the magnificent chandeliers suspended from the domed roof far above. Another growl of thunder echoed across the sky outside, and she paused immediately, listening for Emma, but there wasn't a sound from the little girl.
Louisa waited for a moment more. From this point on the staircase it was possible to see between the columns and chandeliers to the main doors, above which a very fine fanlight allowed a view over the park. A flash of lightning illuminated everything, and she saw the fountains in the parterre and the ghostly white peacocks moving on the croquet lawn. Beyond she caught a fragmentary glimpse of the Cyclops at her moorings by the river steps, but then all was darkness again. There was still no sound from Emma, and so Louisa continued on her way down to the entrance hall. The main doors were once again obscured from her view by the columns and chandeliers.
A sudden draft almost extinguished the candle, and cool air swept fleetingly over her. She halted in alarm, protecting the guttering flame with her hand. Such a draft could only have been caused by someone opening the main doors. She hadn't heard anything, but she knew nevertheless that someone had come in. Who was it? Why hadn't they knocked? She felt suddenly very cold, and her heart began to beat more swiftly as she sensed that she was no longer alone.
Slow footsteps sounded on the black-and-white-tiled floor below, and her alarm heightened, touching her skin with ice in spite of the heat of the summer night.CHAPTER 2
The candle trembled in her hand, but then a tall figure in hussar's uniform came into the faint arc of moving light. It was Geoffrey Lawrence.
He smiled up at her, placing a gleaming, spurred cavalry boot on the lowermost tread of the staircase. His dark-blue dolman was braided with silver, and his tight white breeches might have been molded to his figure. A pelisse trimmed with black fur was fixed casually over his left shoulder, and a red-and-white-striped sash accentuated his slender waist. His dark-brown hair was thick and luxuriant, and he wore it with side whiskers and a mustache, as did all fashionable young hussar officers. He was twenty-seven years old, and only too aware of how attractive he was; but there wasn't anything remotely attractive about the knowing way he allowed his gaze to rake over her, taking in the outline of her figure through the flimsy muslin of her gown. She felt as if she were naked.
He smiled again. 'Good evening, Miss Cherington,' he said softly.
'I trust I didn't startle you.'
'I didn't realize anyone had returned.' She looked past him, half-expecting to see Sir Ashley and Lady Lawrence as well.
He interpreted the glance correctly. 'I'm alone, my father and stepmother are still basking in the royal presence at Devonshire House. I grew bored with the company.' Bored indeed, his dear stepmama was becoming tiresome and he thirsted for pastures new, pastures like the delightful governess. Seduction was very much on his mind, more so than ever now he'd seen again the soft curves beneath the so-revealing muslin she wore so innocently. He hoped she was as vulnerable as she seemed, for his kind preyed upon such vulnerability. His smile didn't falter, he was all that was agreeable and charming. 'You seem a little uneasy, Miss Cherington, I promise you're quite safe.'
She hadn't liked him from the moment he'd returned to the house, and she certainly distrusted his facile and rather superficial charm. 'I didn't for one moment think otherwise, sir,' she replied a little coolly.
'Tell me, Miss Cherington, are you much given to wandering around the house at night?'
'I'm going to get a glass of milk for Emma.'
'There are servants to do that.'
'They don't answer bells rung by governesses, sir.'
'No, I don't suppose they do,' he murmured, and she could see by his eyes that he was well aware of how the servants behaved because of the situation his return had brought about. He studied her. 'Why is Emma still awake?'
'She's afraid of the storm.' Another rumble of thunder chose that moment to roll overhead, rolling away into the distance for some time before becoming silent again.
'Afraid? And so you rush to comfort her with glasses of milk – and stories, no doubt. No wonder she worships the ground you tread, trilling constantly about her beloved Cherry.' His glance moved over her again. 'Mind you, I suppose I cannot blame her, for to be sure you're a truly delightful person, Miss Cherington, and had I known before that you were residing beneath the parental roof, I vow I'd have returned sooner.'
She wished he wouldn't speak to her like this, and she remained cool and unresponsive. 'You wouldn't have returned earlier, sir, you'd still have come for Cowes.'
'Ah, cruel heart, determined to dash my romantic aspirations.' His eyes were warm and dark, inviting so much. 'But nothing will dash the fact that I find you a most enchanting diversion, my sweet Miss Cherington.'
She drew warily back. 'Sir, you shouldn't —'
'Say such wickedly improper things? Probably not, but then I'm a wickedly improper fellow.'
She said nothing to this, and her silence was eloquent.
Excerpted from A Matter of Duty by Sandra Heath. Copyright © 2007 Sandra Heath. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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