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A scapegrace will not hesitate to tell falsehoods when it suits his purposes. One such man is Lord N.C., who continually lies to his creditors by promising payment on his bills . . .
The Rogue Report
Two weeks later
As the gray-bearded old man shuffled out of her office, Lady Julia Corwyn still hadn't made a decision.
She felt hot and sticky and out of sorts. Late afternoon sunlight slanted across the pristine mahogany desk with its tidy stack of papers. If only the solution to her dilemma could be so neat, Julia thought. She'd spent a long, tiresome day interviewing a parade of applicants for the position of mathematics instructor at the Corwyn Academy.
And not one of them was perfect for the job.
To make matters worse, the weather was unseasonably warm for early September. She had the mad urge to strip down to her chemise, stand in front of the open window, and catch what little breeze riffled the tall green draperies. Wouldn't that shock the neighbors and confirm their ill opinion of her? She would only add fuel to the fire of their attempts to oust her school from this respectable area of London.
Resigned, she plucked the lacy fichu from her bodice and used it to vigorously fan her face. Little corkscrew curls sprang free from her bun and plastered themselves to her damp neck. Under any other circumstances, she would have repinned the irksome devilscurly hair was truly a cursebut today she didn't bother. The hour was late, and there were no more appointments left in her schedule book.
She forced her attention to the notes from today's final round of interviews. The autumn term had been in session for only a week when Miss Dewhurst, the mathematics instructress, had been called away to her sick mother's bedside in Lancashire. Julia needed a replacement, and quickly. The trouble was, the best teachers had already found positions at other schools. And none of the dozen or so men who had answered her advertisement met her high standards.
Which one was she to hire?
Not old Mr. Blatts; he barely spoke above a whisper, a detriment to controlling a class of spirited children.
Not young Mr. Knightly; he had fidgeted and blushedwhile stealing glances at her bosom.
Certainly not pompous Mr. Grimshaw; he had gazed down his sharp nose at her as if disdaining to speak to a fallen woman.
Julia had dismissed him at once. She had long ago vowed to ignore those who judged her. It was far better to expend her energies on worthwhile tasks than to rage at small-minded bigots.
Picking up a quill, she dipped the nib into the ink pot and crossed through those three names. Then another and another, until she threw down the pen in disgust. Either the candidates resented having to seek employment from a lady with a checkered past, or they disliked the notion of teaching the illegitimate offspring of servants.
Blast them all!
And blast the scorching temperature. It made her irritated and indecisive.
On impulse, Julia scooted back the chair, kicked off her shoes, and removed her garters and silk stockings, leaving them in a damp heap beneath the desk. Still fretful, she sprang up to pace the spacious office with its shelves of textbooks and her collection of figurines. The floorboards, at least, felt blessedly cool beneath her bare feet. With its ivory striped chaise, marble mantelpiece, and tall windows, the office was usually a soothing retreat. Yet today, the trill of childish laughter that drifted from the small garden served as a reminder of her dilemma.
By the heavens, if she weren't a complete dunce at sums, she'd teach the class herself!
Swiping at a trickle of perspiration on the side of her neck, she had a sudden vision of herself lying submerged in a cool bath. But the flood of blissful longing met the dam of common sense. The staff had enough to do, preparing supper for forty-eight hungry children, without the headmistress of the school making selfish demands.
Unless she pumped the water herself and hauled the cans upstairs. Yes. Half an hour of hard labor would make the end result all the more heavenly. If she had to ponder the dilemma of finding a mathematics instructor, she might as well do it in comfort.
Performing an about-face, Julia started toward the door. She could only imagine what her parents would say to the notion of a Corwyn doing the work of a servant . . . Mama, who considered a trip to the shops exhausting; Papa, who grumbled if he had to get up from his chair in the library to pour himself a brandy. But of course, they knew nothing of her daily life; they had washed their hands of Juliaand their grandsonseven years ago. A deep-seated bitterness stirred in her, but she buried it beneath wry amusement. At least she need never complain of idleness or boredom.
As she reached for the knob, the door swung abruptly inward, forcing her to step back. Agnes poked her head into the office. The young maidservant's blue eyes sparkled beneath a white mobcap, and her cheeks glowed with excitement. That flirtatious look put Julia on instant alert.
"Ye've a gennelman caller, m'lady," Agnes said, her Cockney accent more pronounced than ever. She glanced over her shoulder, then added in a reverent whisper, "A right fine one fer a perfessor."
Julia remembered her shoes and stockings, lying behind the desk. And her lovely bath. "It's past five o'clock. Kindly inform him that I'm no longer taking interviews."
But Agnesimpetuous, silly Agnes, who tended to forget all propriety in the presence of the opposite genderwas already moving back to admit the visitor.
A tall, broad-shouldered man stepped into the office. Julia forgot her good manners and stared. No hunched old scholar this time. Despite her own better-than-average height, she had to tilt back her head to gaze at him.
He had hair the rich dark brown of coffee, slightly long and brushing the back of his collar. His clothing had seen better days. The forest-green coat, frayed at the cuffs, was cut a bit short for his long arms and powerful torso. The plain white cravat called attention to the strong line of his jaw. Tan breeches hugged his legs like a second skin.
Her bare toes curled against the wood floor. He was a man in his prime, around thirty years of age, and so strikingly handsome that she distrusted him on principle. Despite his ill-fitting garb, he exuded an air of panache. If he weren't here seeking a temporary post, she might have mistaken him for an indolent aristocratand she'd certainly encountered enough of them in her brief stint as a debutante.
The stranger absorbed the tidy surroundings at a glance, then focused his attention on Julia. Her insides lurched and shifted in a way she hadn't felt in eight yearsor perhaps ever.
Framed by dark lashes, they were the same forest green as his coat. Surely it was a sin against nature for a man to possess such beautiful eyes. The boldness of his gaze made her feel an unmistakable echo of the blithe, frivolous, foolish girl she'd once been.
He bowed, then held out his hand. "Good afternoon," he said, his voice deep and mellow with well-bred enunciation. "William Jackman. I'm here to interview for the teaching position. And you must be"he paused, those marvelous eyes flicking over her dishabille"Lady Julia Corwyn."
No hint of impropriety colored his tone. Yet with her low bodice, mussed hair, and the bare legs beneath her skirts, she felt at a distinct disadvantage. Mr. Jackman had a frankly sensual air about him and the easy confidence of a man who knows his effect on women.
Most women, anyway. Julia had more sense than to fall prey to a handsome charmer. For the better part of a decade, she had devoted herself to educating her pupils. Theyand her son, Theowere the center of her universe. Nothing could distract her from that purpose.
Especially not a man who looked as if he'd be more at home in a ballroom than in a classroom teaching children.
Ignoring his outstretched hand, she thumbed open the gold watch that was pinned to her bodice. "It's five-eighteen, Mr. Jackman. I'm afraid you've neglected to schedule an appointment during the appropriate hours."
He lowered his arm and gave her an apologetic look. "Forgive me, my lady. I'm new to town, and I only just saw the advertisement. I'd hoped perhaps it wasn't too late for consideration."
Julia parted her lips to voice a polite rebuff. But the thought of all those crossed-out names gave her pause. Was she being too judgmental? Mr. Jackman appeared to be well mannered, at least. What if he also had excellent credentials? Didn't she owe it to her students to interview every possible candidate?
She fought a brief battle with her selfish desire for respite, then inclined her head in a stiff nod. "I shall make an exception, then. Pray be seated."
Turning, she retraced the path to her desk. Sensing those eyes following her progress, she felt as stiff and awkward as a puppet on strings. At least her abandoned shoes and stockings were hidden from his sight. With luck, he wouldn't notice her toes peeking out from beneath her hem.
Then her gaze fixed on her desk. Atop the litter of papers, her fichu lay like a discarded undergarment.
Instantly, she scolded herself. There was no reason to feel so . . . exposed. The length of lace was hardly a corset or a chemise.
Reaching the desk, she casually picked up the fichu. And dropped it, for Mr. Jackman loomed at her side.
Her heart skittered madly. He had moved with the swiftness and stealth of a wolf.
"Sir, what are you doing?"
"Assisting you with your chair, my lady." All chivalrous politeness, Mr. Jackman crouched down and scooped the fichu from the floor. "I didn't mean to startle you."
The sight of his long, masculine fingers on the white lace unsettled her . . . as did a whiff of his dark, spicy scent. Her reply came out sharp and shrewish. "I assure you, I'm perfectly capable of seating myself."
"As you wish." He glanced down at the fichu, rubbing it between his fingers as if contemplating the fact that it had so recently lain against her breasts. "How beautiful."
His gaze lifted to hers, and the air seemed to sizzle. She had the distinct impression that his comment had been directed at her rather than at the lace. A giddy burn of pleasure threatened to melt the years of hard-won prudence.
"This lace," he went on after a pause, "is it Belgian?"
She snatched the fichu from him. "Yes."
Seemingly unperturbed by her snappishness, Mr. Jackman remained standing respectfully until she resumed her seat behind the desk. Only then did he settle onto the straight-backed chair opposite her. Despite the sluggish heat, he appeared cool and at ease.
And far more collected than Julia.
Determined to regain her usual efficiency of command, she opened a drawer at random and dropped the fichu inside. She doused the fire in her cheeks with the salt of common sense. He was here to apply for a job. It must be the high temperature that had addled her senses.
That, and the fact that she'd never conducted an interview without shoes and stockings. But she could hardly pull them on while he sat watching with those unsettling eyes.
Taking a deep breath, she launched into her prepared speech. "As stated in the advertisement, I'm in need of an instructor who is well versed in all aspects of mathematics, from simple arithmetic to geometry and algebra. The position involves teaching a wide range of ages, including a class for those just learning their numbers."
Did he blanch ever so slightly? Several of the other candidates had balked at working with very young children.
But Mr. Jackman merely nodded, so she went on. "I would also point out that my pupils are not the typical boarding-school students. All of them have come from an impoverished background. To put it more bluntly, they are the illegitimate offspring of women from the streets."
He showed no sign of distaste or superiority, only keen interest. "A charity school. Is it funded by you, my lady?"
"I prefer to use the term academy," she corrected. "And it is funded by those who have an interest in educating the less fortunate."
Julia refused to feel guilty for misleading Mr. Jackman. He was a stranger, after all. He needn't know that a substantial inheritance from her grandmother provided the sole financing for the school.
Men, after all, had a habit of taking advantage of heiresses.
"I see," he said.
Did he? Julia felt the need to impress upon him the importance of her mission. "It is my strict belief that no child should be judged by the circumstances of his birth," she said. "Consequently, my students must be treated with the same respect one would afford the privileged children of the gentry. If you've any objection to that philosophy, Mr. Jackman, then there is no point in further discussion."
"I've only admiration for your work, my lady. Pray, go on."
Sitting relaxed in the chair opposite her, he looked both alluringly handsome and incongruously earnest. Flustered by his compliment, Julia picked up the quill, dipped it in the inkwell, and added his name to the bottom of the list of candidates. Mr. William Jackman.
In the next instant, she had to subdue the dreamy, schoolgirlish urge to doodle Julia Jackman on the paper, as well.
She laid down the pen at once. Her cheeks were burning again, her body overheated beyond the effects of the sultry day. What was wrong with her? She was no longer a flighty debutante who fell in love with every attractive man who tossed her a compliment. Harsh reality had scoured her life of all romantic inclinations. Maturity had awakened her to the value of devoting her life to a worthy cause. Now, she had a school to operate and a position to fill.
Besides, for all she knew, William Jackman already had a wife and half a dozen children. Her gaze stole to his hands. They looked elegant, proficient, masculine. He wore no gold ring, but that didn't necessarily mean anything.
Annoyed with herself, she continued crisply, "What is your experience in teaching, Mr. Jackman? I should like to know the names of the schools at which you have been on staff."
"I'm afraid the answer is none."
He flashed a winsome smile, and Julia found herself paying undue heed to the dimples that bracketed his mouth. "None?"
"Quite so. You see, I've spent the past ten years as a tutor for a family in Devonshire. The last son has gone off to attend Eton, so I'm in search of new employment."
She seized on the deficiency. "Then you've never been in charge of a classroom of students."
"I beg to differ. The Ballingers have a dozen energetic children who required my firm guidance."
Julia had to admit Mr. Jackman looked eminently capable of handling high-spirited students. She couldn't say the same about the other candidates she'd interviewed.
"Firm guidance?" she questioned. "Under no circumstances would you be permitted to use physical force in my school as a means of discipline. I am not an advocate of corporal punishment."
"Nor am I. As the saying goes, one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."
Was that a comment on her acid tone? The thought stung, but she could read only geniality in his expression.
Irked nonetheless, she picked up the quill again. "Why would you not seek another position as a tutor? It would certainly be less strenuous."
He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. "I've grown disenchanted with tending the coddled youth of the wealthy, my lady. I've a wish to teach children who crave learning in order to better their lot in life. Poor students who have been denied the advantages of a proper education."
He radiated sincerity. And he expressed himself with a fervor that was ideal for a teacher. So why did she feel a compulsion to find fault with him? Why did she wonder if he voiced platitudes designed to win him the post?
Perhaps simply because . . . he was a man.
Men had caused nothing but trouble in her life. For that reason, she had employed only female teachers until now, when circumstances had denied her that leisure.
"I trust you have the proper credentials," she said. "Along with a letter of reference."
"Indeed, I do." Mr. Jackman reached into an inner pocket of his coat and withdrew a folded paper, which he handed across the desk. Their fingers brushed, transmitting a flash of lightning. Instantly, her bosom felt swollen, heavy with heat.
Resisting the urge to fan herself, Julia broke the red wax seal with her thumb, unfolded the paper, and scanned the letter. A Mr. Oscar Ballinger enumerated the excellent qualities of his children's tutor, William Jackman, praising his skill at settling disputes, his organizational abilities, his superb grasp of mathematics.
She looked at Mr. Jackman. "I'm not familiar with the Ballingers."
"Landed gentry. A number of tenant farmers provide much of the family income."
Was that a hint of inbred arrogance in his voice? "You speak like the nobility yourself."
His eyes narrowed slightly, masking his thoughts, adding to the mystery of William Jackman. He chuckled, his dimples giving him a disarming aspect. "Hardly," he said. "My father was the vicar of a small church in Devonshire. He provided me with an exceptional education. So you see, my background is quite humble."
Humble was not a word Julia would have used to describe Mr. Jackman. He was charming, smooth, polished. Yet he appeared to have all the intelligence and dedication she required in a teacher. Like rich cream, he had risen to the top of the other applicants.
So why did she hesitate?
Those dazzling eyes made it difficult to think. It certainly couldn't be because she doubted her ability to resist him.
She afforded him a cool nod. "That will be all, Mr. Jackman. If you'll tell me your address, I'll send a note when I make my decision."
Although she sat with quill poised, he did not provide the information. Instead, he regarded her with a frown, as if struggling with an inner demon. "You'll award the position very soon, I hope. It pains me to admit this, my lady, but my nest egg has been stolen. I'm in dire need of employment."
Julia blinked. "What happened?"
"On my way to London, I was set upon by brigands. You see, in order to save the price of a room at the inn, I'd camped outdoors. A gang of thieves came upon me while I slept. I fought back"as if to assuage a bruise, he absently rubbed his ribs"but there were four of them and they'd caught me off guard. They overturned my satchel and found my money . . ." Mr. Jackman smiled sheepishly. "But never mind. You'll think I'm playing on your sympathies."
"Oh, no! Certainly not." But the thought had occurred to her, and she felt lower than a worm for always assuming the worst of a man.
Her mind revisited a worrisome incident that had happened the previous week. After checking on an ill child one night, Julia had been returning to her bedchamber when she'd heard a muffled crash downstairs. Wondering if a student was up to mischief, she had gone to investigate, only to startle an intruder in her darkened office. The man fled through an open window, leaving the drawers of her desk pulled out, the contents strewn over the floor. Now, a lingering sense of horror and violation clamped like a vise around her rib cage.
Luckily, the villain had stolen nothing. She kept only papers in this office along with a collection of figurines that held more sentimental than material value. But Mr. Jackman had not been so blessed.
"I'm afraid I can't give you a permanent address," he went on. "If it isn't inconvenient, may I call on you tomorrow to find out your decision?"
Aghast, Julia realized he must be homeless. Did he have no money at all, not even a few shillings with which to secure a roof over his head?
The thought threatened to breach the gate of her resistance. Her lips parted, though she had no idea what to say. She was saved from responding by the patter of footsteps in the corrider.
A young boy dashed into the office and barreled straight toward her. The sight of his perpetually tousled russet hair and liberally freckled face made her heart clutch with a powerful mix of emotions: love, exasperation, protectiveness.
"Mummy, Mummy, I have a riddle for you!"
"Not now, Theo," she said, jumping up to hasten around the desk. "You mustn't intrude when I've a visitor."
Ever polite, William Jackman rose, as well.
Brown eyes wide with curiosity, Theo craned his neck to look up at him. "Who are you?"
"Mr. Jackman. I'm here to apply for the post of maths instructor."
"You can't," Theo said bluntly. "Only ladies are teachers."
His naïve logic underscored the fact that at seven, he had seldom experienced the male-dominated world outside the walls of this school. A familiar worry niggled at Julia. Not for the first time, she wondered if she'd been wrong to insulate him here.
She placed her hand on his shoulder. He felt wiry and warm, boyishly sturdy. "This is Theodore Corwyn. My somewhat outspoken son."
A hint of speculation in his eyes, Mr. Jackman gazed straight at her.
She stared coolly back. He knew. He had heard of the scandal. Had Agnes blurted it out? She must have.
But he couldn't possibly know everything. Only a handful of people were privy to the truth. Julia had made certain of that.
He bent down to shake the boy's hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Theo. I promise you, I'm as skilled at mathematics as any lady."
"Oh, not all ladies," Theo confided. "Mummy isn't very quick at sums. That's why I make up riddles for her."
Mr. Jackman gave Julia a teasing look. "Never mind. I'm sure your mother has other, equally important talents."
A flush suffused Julia. Was there a hidden meaning to his words? Or was she reading layers into a casual remark because of her own wayward desires?
He addressed her son. "What is your riddle? Let's see if she can solve it."
Theo's eyes took on a crafty light. "How many feet are in a yard?"
"Three," Julia said promptly, although she suspected there was a catch.
Sure enough, Theo giggled. "No. The answer depends on how many children are playing in the yard!"
Mr. Jackman chuckled with what appeared to be genuine amusement. "I'll do you one better. Why was the arithmatic book unhappy?"
"Because it had so many problems."
Theo shouted with laughter. "Oh, oh, that's funny! Wait till everyone hears it!" He started toward the door, then paused. "May I tell it, sir? It's your riddle."
"Go ahead," Mr. Jackman said with a wave of his hand. "I've plenty moreincluding some true mathematical puzzles."
"You do?" Theo's freckled face revealed avid interest. "What are they, sir?"
"They'll have to wait for another time, I'm afraid. I don't want to take up any more of your mother's time."
The boy dashed to Julia and tugged on her gown. "Mummy, will you hire Mr. Jackman? Please, you must."
The exuberance of his request overwhelmed her misgivings. Her resistance lay in shambles, anyway, after hearing Mr. Jackman's story about being waylaid by brigands and then watching him trade silly jests with her son. With uncanny accuracy, he had penetrated the very center of her vulnerability. Theo adored numerical puzzles, and she often felt woefully inadequate in satisfying his craving for them.
Another thought nagged at her, too. Perhaps Theo needed a man's influence in his life . . .
She looked at Mr. Jackman. "I have indeed decided to offer you the post. Provided you're willing to start at once."
Something flashed in Mr. Jackman's eyes. Triumph? "I accept with great pleasure, my lady."
His mouth curved in a warm smile that brought to mind other pleasures. How she wanted to trace those dimples with her fingertips, to feel the raspiness of his cheek against hers. Until this moment, Julia hadn't realized how much she had missed being close to a man.
The dangerous awareness triggered caution in her. She must take especial care to hide her combustive reaction to him. It would be unethical to indulge in a personal attachment with a staff member. As headmistress of the Corwyn Academy, she had trained herself to be aloof, self-possessed, professional.
"Mummy, why aren't you wearing your shoes?"
She looked down to see her bare toes visible beneath her hem. Mr. Jackman looked down, too, and she hastily readjusted her skirt. "It's a hot day," she said by way of explanation. "Run along now and tell your riddle. Then you and the other children should wash. It will be suppertime soon."
Theo dashed out of the office, leaving her alone with Mr. Jackman. The trace of a smirk curled his lips, making her wonder if he was pondering the unstockinged state of her legs. Embarrassed, she threw out a distraction. "The position includes room and board."
"Indeed? The advertisement said nothing of it."
Julia battled a blush. Although the other four teachers lived under her roof, she'd had no intention of offering that same privilege to a man. But she could hardly let him sleep in a doorway somewhere. "The carriage house is unoccupied. It's yours if you would like. In fact, if you'd care to move in straightaway, you may certainly do so."
"That's very kind of you. I'll need to fetch a few belongings. You may expect my return at eight o'clock."
He bowed, then started toward the door. His commanding manner ought to have annoyed Julia. But the rare prospect of an attractive man on the premises filled her with treacherous anticipation.
Unable to stop herself, she called out, "Mr. Jackman. Will you be bringing your family?"
Looking back, he gave her an inscrutable stare. "I've no attachments, my lady. No children . . . and no wife."
Copyright © 2006 by Barbara Dawson Smith