Adorna Viscountess Ruskin, looked at the ornate lettering on the calling card in her gloved hand, then up at the tall limestone townhouse. In London's overcast March sunlight, the place looked respectable, if slightly shabby, and while this neighborhood had been fashionable in the days of Adorna's youth thirty years before, many of England's best families still lived along this street. That information allowed her hope.
Tucking the calling card into her pocketbook, she mounted the steps and rang the bell. At once the door opened.
A butler stood there, a proper butler of the old school in a powdered wig and knee breeches. He summed her up in a single, comprehensive glance. His summation produced a bow so obsequious his corset creaked, and in an accent that was almost more upper class than young Queen Victoria's, he said, "How may I help you, madam?"
"I am Viscountess Ruskin."
From his expression, she knew he recognized her name, although whether for her wealth, her connections or her notoriety, she didn't know. Nor did she care. Adorna had long ago grown into her role as the most beautiful woman in England.
Taking a step back to allow her entrance, he said, "My lady Ruskin, we at Miss Setterington's Distinguished Academy of Governesses are honored."
As she stepped inside, she smiled at him with the admiration she showed every man, regardless of his rank or age. "And you are?"
A dark flush started beneath his cravat and dyed his cheeks and forehead, but his demeanor never changed. "I am Cusheon, my lady."
"Cusheon. What a lovely name."
The creaky old butler's lips lifted everso slightly. "Thank you, my lady."
"There's that smile. I knew you had one." Adorna enjoyed coaxing cheer out of the sourest puss. "Cusheon, I've come to speak to the proprietors of this establishment."
He snapped his fingers and a towheaded serving boy ran forward to accept her hat and coat. With her thumb, she rubbed a smudge off his chin. "You look very much like my son at your age," she said. "Right down to the flour."
"I've been helping Cook with the baking," the lad said.
"Wynter used to do that, too," she confirmed, and reluctantly let him go. So many changes had occurred in her life lately. Changes were good, of course. Of course they were.
"Miss Hannah Setterington is currently assisting a countess," Cusheon said, "but if you would allow me, I will see if they have concluded their business."
"Thank you. That is most acceptable." While the butler made his stately way across the foyer, she assessed her surroundings. Although the tables were oldfashioned, everything here sparkled with polish and smelled of beeswax. Impressive. Very well tended. She relaxed infinitesimally.
The butler rapped on massive double doors and, at a call from within, entered. He returned almost at once. "Miss Hannah Setterington and the countess have concluded their business. If my lady would come this way?"
As they neared the office, an elderly woman, stooped, heavily veiled and wrapped against March's chill, stepped into the foyer on the arm of a tall woman. In a creaking voice, the countess said, "Miss
Setterington, I am delighted with the companion you found me. You may be assured of my continued patronage."
This was Miss Setterington? Startled, Adorna studied the young woman in black bombazine. She hadn't expected the proprietress to be so lacking in years, yet Miss Setterington's easy manner bespoke experience in dealing with the peevish and crotchety. Indeed, she patted the gloved hand on her arm as she handed the countess over to Cusheon. "Thank you, my lady. We are always anxious to be of service." With a smile and a curtsy, she turned to Adorna. "And we are anxious to be of service to you, too, my lady. If you would come into the office. . ."
Adorna studied the old woman as she hobbled past, then followed Miss Setterington into a well-appointed library. A fire burned in the fireplace, the Aubusson carpets were clean if well worn and oiled leather books filled the shelves. "I thought I knew every titled person in England," Adorna said, "but I don't remember that countess."
"Lady Temperly travels abroad extensively," Miss Setterington answered. "That was why she had difficulty finding a companion. So many young people today want to stay only in England."
"Lady Temperly." The name was familiar. "No, I don't think I've ever had the pleasure." Although it seemed Adorna had recently heard gossip about her. But she didn't have time to worry about the elderly Lady Temperly. Her own personal crisis beckoned.
Miss Setterington offered a chair set before a delicate walnut writing desk, and Adorna settled into it.
The desk, too, was old-fashioned, well crafted and well tended, with a bottle of ink, a penknife and a pile of well-made pens. Files of every sort stood in stacks on its surface. As Miss Setterington rounded the desk to her chair, Adorna cocked her head to read the notations. Marchioness Winokur, proclaimed one. Baroness Rand, read another. The knowledge that she was not the first to utilize the Distinguished Academy for Governesses offered comfort. "I rely on your discretion, of course, Miss Setterington."
Miss Setterington seated herself in a delicate chair and reached for an empty file. "Of course, my lady."
"I need a governess." When Miss Setterington would have spoken, Adorna held up her hand. "Not just any governess. I find myself in quite an unusual situation, and the woman I would hire must be of strong moral fiber and unyielding determination."
"That would be Lady Charlotte Dalrumple," Miss Setterington replied instantly.
Adorna studied Miss Setterington, wondering if she was a fool.
"You doubt me, my lady, for my seemingly thoughtless reply," Miss Setterington continued, "but if I were to espouse two phrases to describe Lady Charlotte Dalrumple, they would be the phrases you chose. I suspect you have heard of her through the success of her pupils. In the nine years she has been a governess, she has taken six incorrigible pupils and prepared them for their debuts. Surely you heard how young Lord Marchant wished only for dissipation and fought the necessity of taking his bow before the queen?"
"Oh, yes!" Adorna had indeed heard the tale, and for the first time in two weeks, hope blossomed in her...