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Berkshire, England 1815
Most governesses heading off to meet with a prospective employer for the first time would have made every effort to look their best.
But Grace Ellerby did quite the opposite.
In her tiny room at Reading's George Inn, Grace retrieved a small, cracked mirror from her trunk to check that not a wisp of golden hair peeped out from under her cap. With long lappets down each side, it was the type of cap worn by older women who had entirely given up hope of finding husbands. Grace approved of the way it narrowed her face, making her features appear flatter and plainer. Its starched whiteness conspired with the drab green of her high-necked dress to drain all the color from her complexion. Once she put on the tiny spectacles to obscure her eyes, she would be prepared to meet Lord Steadwell.
From outside, the bells of a nearby church tolled the half hour. She must be on her way.
Grace tucked the mirror away and donned her dark bonnet and shawl. Then she slipped out of her room and made her way to the Old Castle Coffeehouse, where she had been directed to meet the gentleman.
The entire process was most irregular in Grace's experience. Most families seeking a governess simply inquired among their acquaintances until someone recommended a suitable candidate. When they were obliged to place a notice in the newspapers, the hiring would all be managed through an exchange of correspondence. Grace had never heard of a prospective governess being summoned for an interview, especially from such a long distance with funds supplied for her traveling expenses.
That irregularity had worked to her advantage, Grace reminded herself as she picked her way through the streets of Reading, her gaze modestly downcast yet alert for any potential threat. From the money Lord Steadwell sent for her journey, she'd been able to save a bit by riding on the outside of the stagecoach, eating sparingly and taking the cheapest rooms. Even if she did not secure this position, surely she would have a better chance of finding another here in the south. The funds for her return trip together with what she'd already saved should keep her for a while if she was careful.
She hoped it would not come to that.
Spying the sign for the coffeehouse, Grace rummaged in her reticule and pulled out the spectacles that were her only tangible reminder of her late father. When she peered through the thick lenses, the world swam and wobbled, forcing her to squint in an effort to focus her vision.
She breathed a fervent prayer that the interview would go well then crossed the threshold of the coffeehouse and glanced around for his lordship. The baron and his wife had put themselves to some trouble and expense to find the best possible governess for their children. He had written good letters, tooplain and direct without the superior airs Grace had expected from someone of his rank. Those things led her to hope a position with the Steadwells would be more agreeable than any of her previous ones.
No sooner had she entered than a gentleman rose from a table near the door and approached her with a respectful bow. "Have I the honor of addressing Miss Ellerby from Lancashire?"
Squinting through her father's thick spectacles, Grace could not make out his features very clearly, but she could tell he was tall and lean with dark hair. His voice had a most agreeable timbre, rich yet mellow. His courtesy certainly recommended himaddressing a humble governess as if she were a fine lady. If she had met him without her disguise, Grace might have been suspicious of his intentions. But she could have nothing of that nature to fear in her present state, especially not from a happily married man.
"I am Grace Ellerby, sir." As she curtsied, Grace reminded herself not to smile. She dared not risk anything that might make her look more attractive. "Are you Lord Steadwell, with whom I have corresponded?"
"I am, indeed," he replied. "I hope you had a tolerable journey south. I appreciate you indulging this whim of mine to meet in person before making you an offer of employment. As a countryman born and bred, I cannot reconcile myself to buying a pig in a poke when it comes to the education of my daughters."
Some women might have resented being compared to a market sow, but Grace welcomed it. There was something about his lordship's direct, down-to-earth manner that made her feel more at ease in his company than she did with most men.
Once again she fought the dangerous urge to smile. "My journey was quite satisfactory, sir. And your concern for your daughters' education does you credit."
That was something else Grace found odd about this whole situation. In her experience the gentleman of the house seldom took any interest in hiring a governess unless a young son of the family was to be among the pupils before being sent away to school.
"Charlotte, Phoebe and Sophie are all the world to me." Lord Steadwell's tone of warm affection for his daughters raised him even higher in Grace's esteem. "Let us retire to a private parlor where we may discuss my girls and your qualifications at greater length."
He led her through the main room, where a number of men sat reading newspapers and talking together in hushed tones. The rich aromas of coffee and chocolate hung in the air, making Grace's mouth water.
She followed Lord Steadwell up a set of narrow stairs to a snug parlor on the upper floor.
"Pray be seated, Miss Ellerby." He gestured toward a pair of armchairs and a small settee clustered around a low coffee table. "And tell me what manner of refreshment I may order for you. Do you prefer coffee or chocolate?"
Though the toothsome luxury of chocolate tempted her, the last thing Grace wanted was to relax and enjoy herself.
"Coffee, if you please." She replied as she sank onto one of the chairs. The bitter, stimulating brew would help keep her wits about her.
As they waited for their beverages to arrive, Lord Steadwell told her a little about his estate. "Nethercross lies ten miles north and east of here on the bank of the Thames. It has been home to my family for more than two hundred years. The countryside is some of the finest I have ever seennot that I am any great traveler. Why venture abroad when one has been blessed with such a beautiful home?"
"Your estate sounds like an ideal place to raise children." Grace's desire to secure the position intensified. Nethercross sounded like a wonderful place to live and work.
His lordship nodded. "As a boy, I was sorry to leave it for my schooling and very happy to return whenever the opportunity arose."
Grace could sympathize with his reluctance to go away to school, though she envied his chances to return home at holidays. Once she'd been sent away to the Pen-dergast School at the age of eight, she never saw the vicarage in Oxfordshire again. This was the closest she had been to her old home in nearly twenty years.
"My girls love the old place, too," his lordship continued. "Though Charlotte is only thirteen, she takes a great interest in all matters of housekeeping. Only last week she suggested we hang new wallpaper in the music room. Sophie, my youngest, is six. She likes nothing better than to explore the house from cellars to attic. Once she disappeared for hours and we were frantic until she was found napping on the window seat of a back landing."
Lord Steadwell's daughters reminded Grace of two of her friends from schoolHannah, the capable domestic, and Evangeline, the intrepid explorer. She felt certain she would get on better with them than with some of the proud, sulky and downright malicious pupils she had taught in her previous posts.
"What about your other daughter?" Grace racked her memory for the name of the middle child, who was ten, as she recalled from his lordship's letter. "Does Phoebe love Nethercross as much as her sisters do?"
A waiter appeared just then with their coffee and a plate of muffins. Grace feigned a cough to cover the rumbling of her empty stomach.
"Ah, Phoebe." The baron greeted Grace's question with something between an indulgent chuckle and an exasperated sigh. "I fear she is more attached to the stables and the grounds than to the house. She would sleep in her pony's manger if she thought she could get away with it."
As Grace added a little cream and sugar to her coffee, she warmed even more to Lord Steadwell's middle daughter than to her sisters. She admired and rather envied Phoebe's indomitable spirit.
"Enough about me and mine." His lordship leaned back in his chair and took a sip of his coffee. "Tell me about yourself, Miss Ellerby, and why you feel you would make a suitable governess for my girls."
"Very well, sir." Grace recited a brief account of her background. "I was educated at the Pendergast School in Westmoreland and later served as a teacher there before becoming a private governess. Since then I have been employed by three families in the north, most recently the Heskeths of Burnley in Lancashire. I have a letter of recommendation from Mrs. Hesketh if you would care to read it."
She retrieved the letter from her reticule and held it out to Lord Steadwell.
His lordship unfolded the letter and quickly scanned its contents. "It is perfectly in order and says the same things most such letters do. What I wish to know, Miss Ellerby, is what sets you apart and makes you uniquely qualified for the position of governess to my girls?"
Relieved though she was that he had found Mrs. Hes-keth's recommendation acceptable, Grace scarcely knew how to respond to his lordship's unorthodox question. Harsh experience had taught her that security and peace came only at the price of conformity. She had gone to great lengths to mask her uniqueness.
"I do not know what to tell you, sir." She cast her gaze down to her lap where her fingers toyed with the strings of her reticule. "I am not accustomed to recommending myself. From a young age, I was taught the importance of humility. All I can say is that I want this position very much and if I get it, I will do everything in my power to give satisfaction."
She cast a fleeting glance up over the top of her father's spectacles and saw Lord Steadwell's face clearly for the first time. He looked younger than she had expected, with strong, attractive features and dark eyes. He considered her reply with a thoughtful nod as if it was what he'd wanted to hear. But how could that be?
"You are the last of the applicants I have interviewed, Miss Ellerby, and I suspect the best suited for the position."
A sob of relief rose and caught in Grace's throat. "Thank you, sir."
"But before I can make you an offer of employment, there is one matter we must first settle to my satisfaction." Though his lordship spoke in a kindly tone, his words chilled her. "Three different positions in ten years is more than one would expect of a governess who gave satisfaction in her work. How do you account for it in your case?"
Why must he ask the one question above all others that she could not bear to answer? Grace's breathing sped and a wave of dizziness came over her. How would Lord Steadwell react if she blurted out the truththat she had fled each of those households after receiving unwelcome advances from men?
Coming from a woman who looked as she did, he would probably think she was stark, raving mad! But she would not dare pull off her cap and spectacles to reveal her true appearance. His lordship seemed an honorable gentleman, but Grace knew all too well the effect her cursed beauty could have upon men.