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Should she have accepted a position as governess at this secluded country estate rather than helping her friends establish a new charity school? Second thoughts nagged at Leah Shaw as she stood before the imposing front entrance of Renforth Abbey.
She could not deny it would have been a stimulating challenge to seek suitable premises, hire teachers and otherwise prepare to educate the orphaned daughters of clergymen. But her friend Evangeline would be much better suited to such tasks than she. No doubt it would be a fulfilling project to create a compassionate, well-run alternative to the miserable institution she and her friends had endured.
But an equally vital mission awaited her here, Leah reminded herself. Somewhere in this vast, splendid house was a child who needed the kind of help she was uniquely qualified to provide.
"Is this all the luggage you've got, miss?" The cart driver who had conveyed her from the village unloaded her trunk and two boxes. "Or will there be more coming?"
"This is the lot." Leah fished in her reticule for some coins to pay him. "I prefer not to encumber myself with too many worldly goods. They would only weigh me down and make it difficult to move from place to place."
After spending so many years as a virtual prisoner of that horrid Pendergast School, Leah could never bear to remain in one place for long. Besides what did it matter how many possessions she owned? The true measure of a life well-lived was in experiences accumulatedsights seen, books read, friends made. Those she would carry with her in the bottomless portmanteau of her memory. It would not need to be repacked next year when the time came for her to leave Renforth Abbey.
The massive oak door opened to reveal a vexed-looking servant, whose severely erect posture made him look taller than his actual height. He eyed Leah and her small amount of baggage with a critical scowl. "May I inquire your business here, miss? I fear you have come to the wrong house."
Refusing to be intimidated, Leah fixed him with her brightest smile. "If this is Renforth Abbey then I am in exactly the right place. My name is Leah Shaw.
I have been engaged as a governess for Lord Renforth. And you are ?"
"Adolphus Gibson, butler to His Grace, the Duke of Northam," he announced as proudly as if the peerage belonged to him. "I beg your pardon, Miss Shaw, but I was not aware a governess had been engaged for young Lord Renforth."
"No need to apologize, Mr. Gibson." Leah breezed past him, tugging off her gloves and untying her bonnet. "I am certain if you'd known I was coming you would have arranged a much warmer reception. But I am not one to stand on ceremony. If you would kindly direct me to the nursery to meet my new pupil, I can make the acquaintance of your staff later. I suppose it takes a great many servants to run a place this size. What an immense responsibility it must be for you."
The butler's severe expression eased. "The staff is indeed numerous, Miss Shaw. It is an honor to supervise a house of such long and noble history."
"You must be frightfully good at what you do." Leah swept a glance around the entry hall as she strode through it. Though the room looked scrupulously cared for, it seemed strangely neglected, too, as if it did not get much use. "Most butlers in great houses are considerably older than you by the time they reach such a position."
She pointed to an elaborate staircase of gleaming reddish-brown wood. "Is this the way to the nursery?"
"Indeed it is." The butler started to close the door. "Allow me to escort you. Then I shall inform His Grace of your arrival."
"That would be very kind of you, Mr. Gibson. Might I also prevail upon you to have my belongings brought in and taken to my room?"
"Of course, Miss Shaw. I must see to that immediately." He sounded scandalized by the thought of her bags sitting outside, as if Renforth Abbey were some common rooming house. "If I may ask you to wait a moment."
Leah waved him away. "Do not trouble yourself about me, sir."
The moment he was out of sight, she headed up the stairs. As she'd expected, there were plenty of servants going quietly about their work from whom she was able to ask directions.
At last she located the nursery and marched in. After one look, she nearly turned around and walked out again. Surely this magnificent room could not be the nurseryeven if it belonged to the heir to a dukedom. The massive bed was nearly as large as some rooms Leah had occupied in the past. The hearth was equally imposing and looked to be made of marble. The walls were hung with tapestries showing fantastical beasts and birds, though they were not easy to see in the dimness. The thick curtains that draped the windows did a thorough job of keeping out the summer sunshine.
"Is that you, Papa?" A small voice emerged from within the cavernous bed. "Is my rest time over yet? I hope so, because I haven't slept a wink."
The child's words woke a housemaid who had been dozing in a chair near the bed. "What is it, Master Kit? Can I fetch you something?"
The girl sprang up when she spied Leah. "Who are you, miss, and what are you doing here?"
"I am his lordship's new governess." Leah twitched the window curtains open. "And I have come to meet my pupil. I'm dreadfully hungry after my journey. Would you be so kind as to fetch me something to eat?"
The girl blinked rapidly as if wondering whether she might be only dreaming Leah's sudden arrival. Then her training took over and she bobbed a curtsey. "Yes, miss. Right away."
"Governess?" piped the small, clear voice from the bed. "What is a governess? Tilly, if you're fetching biscuits, I want one, too."
"Yes, Master Kit," called the maid as she rushed away.
Leah dropped her bonnet and gloves on the nearest chair.
"I am a governess." She pulled back the bed curtains so she could get a look at her new pupil. "Your governess. A governess is a lady who teaches children in their homes. My name is Leah Shaw. You may call me Miss Shaw or Miss Leah if you prefer."
She smiled down at the boy who lay in the bed. His hair was dark and close-cropped. She had been told he was almost eight years old. Though he appeared smaller than most boys of that age, his thin face and the dusky shadows beneath his blue-gray eyes made him look older than his years, until he smiled back at her. There was such a winsome air about that expression, it immediately dispelled her doubts about accepting this position.
"Welcome to Renforth Abbey, Miss Leah." The boy greeted her with quaint formality for his age. "I am Christopher Latimer, Lord Renforth. But everybody except Dr. Bannister calls me Master Kit. I wonder why nobody told me I am to have a governess. Perhaps they thought it would excite me. Dr. Bannister says it is not good for me to get excited."
"Nonsense!" Leah did not care for the sound of Dr. Bannister. She had rebelled against too many people like him over the years. "A little excitement now and then never hurt anybody."
No wonder the poor child looked so pale and peakedtrapped in this room with nothing to do but lie about and be tyrannized by a repressive old physician.
Kit's smile widened and a silvery twinkle kindled in his eyes. "Do you mean it?"
Leah gave a vigorous nod. "For a start, let's get you out of that bed. It is a fine day outside, one of the nicest we've had all summer. Would you like to see?"
"I would." Kit sighed. "But I cannot walk. There is something the matter with my legsthey are very stiff and will not bear my weight."
"I know." Leah tried not to make too great a matter of his difficulty. "But your arms work well enough, don't they?"
When Kit nodded, she twitched back the covers and lifted him to the edge of the bed. "I can carry you on my back if you put your arms around my neck and hang on tight."
"I can do that," said Kit, latching on to her.
"Very good." Leah brought his stiff, thin legs out on either side of her waist, hooking her arms around them for additional support. "Are you ready for your ride?"
Kit chuckled. "Let's go."
As she got to her feet, Leah was surprised by the child's light weight. It took almost no effort for her to whisk him over to the windows.
The view from there was splendid indeed. Wide terraces planted with a vivid array of flowers lined the gentle slope that tapered down to a lush green lawn in front of the great house. A pair of ornamental lakes spread on either side of the wide, smooth lane. A picturesque stone bridge spanned the narrow stream that ran between them. An elegant folly crowned the top of a low hill that overlooked one of the lakes. Leah had worked in some fine houses before but none could begin to compare with this.
"The sky is so big and blue." Kit sounded delighted by the simple act of looking out a window. "The flowers are very pretty. I have never seen so many at once. Mostly I only see a few in a vase."
The child's reaction convinced Leah this must be the first time he had been allowed to look out his window. The repression she had suffered at the Pendergast School was nothing compared to that!
They talked for a while about the things they could see but eventually Leah's arms grew tired. "I believe it is time I got you back to bed."
"Oh, no, please," Kit begged. "Let me stay a little longer."
Leah had handled enough children over the years to have learned a trick or two about getting them to cease an activity they were enjoying. "Shall we pretend you are a cavalry officer and I am your horse? Perhaps you are riding back to your tent after a long day scouting. Does that sound like fun?"
She started toward the bed with a trotting step and gave a rather good imitation of a horse's whinny.
Kit chuckled, his reluctance apparently overcome as Leah had hoped. "I shall call you Shawberry. Do you like that name?"
"I do. It is very clever. You can say giddyap to make me go faster or whoa to make me stop. But do not strike me with your whip or I might rear up and throw you."
As she spoke, Leah heard the nursery door open. It must be the maid bringing refreshments. That should encourage Kit to leave off their riding game without a fuss.
She did not expect a harsh voice to crack through the air like a lash. "What are you doing with my son? Get him back to bed this instant!"
The shock of that unexpected sound made Leah start and lose her balance. As she began to topple, a wave of panic engulfed her. What if she landed on top of this fragile child and injured him worse than he was already?
A blaze of protective anger seared through Hayden Latimer when he spied a strange woman prancing about the nursery with his son clinging to her back.
Who on earth was she and what did she want? She had bluffed her way into his house by pretending she'd been engaged as Kit's governess. But that was a wicked lie.
When he heard her threaten to throw the child, paternal instinct overcame his manners.
He moved toward her just as disaster struck. The woman reared like a real horse that had been reined in too hard. She lost her balance and fell backward.
Hayden lunged forward, catching her and Kit before they hit the floor. A wave of relief crashed over him when he realized he had averted one of his most feared calamities. But it did not quench his dread of what could have happened or his rage at the person who had put his son at risk. He despised the flicker of satisfaction it brought him to have his arms around a woman again after so many years. He had no business thinking of anything but keeping Kit safe.
Resisting the odious urge to linger near her, Hayden wrenched his son away and cradled the child in his arms. "Do you hurt anywhere, Kit? What did this woman do? Did she frighten you?"
Before his son could answer, the woman spun around to confront Hayden. "I could not have frightened him half as much as you did with your shouting. And I would not have lost my balance if you hadn't startled me."
In a grudging tone she added, "I am grateful to you for catching us, though."
As Hayden bore Kit back to the safety of his bed, the woman straightened up and smoothed out her skirts. They were white, sprigged with pale green that matched her fitted spencer. Her rich, dark brown hair was gathered in a wild cascade of curls, some of which had come loose when she had fallen. With a traitorous pang, Hayden noticed she was quite pretty, in a lively, vibrant way he wished he did not find so appealing.
Her accusation unsettled him nearly as much as her appearance. Had his actions placed his son in jeopardy? His conscience forced him to admit it was possible.
Guilt made him defensive. "How else was I supposed to react when I found a strange woman in my son's nursery, cavorting with him in such a dangerous manner?"
The poor little fellow was clearly shaken by the experience. His eyes, so much like Celia's, looked larger than ever and his pale cheeks were flushed. His thin chest rose and fell rapidly beneath his nightshirt.
"Please, Papa." The child shrank from him when Hayden ruffled his hair in a reassuring caress. "Don't be angry with us. Miss Leah only wanted to show me how fine a day it is outside."
"You see?" The woman's tone roused Hayden's antagonism. "I am not responsible for frightening him. The two of us were enjoying a pleasant time until you barged in, snapping and snarling. Don't fret, Kit. Your father is not vexed with you."
The gall of her! Offering his son words of comfort as if there could be any possibility his anger was directed at the child.
"Of course I'm not angry with you, Kit." He tucked the bedclothes around the child. "I was only worried that some harm might come to you, as it nearly did.
And I was shocked to find a stranger here with you instead of Tilly."
"Miss Leah isn't a stranger," Kit protested. "She is my new governess. She's going to teach me here at home because I cannot go to school."
The note of eagerness in his son's voice struck Hayden a blow. Even if the child were strong enough to undertake a course of study, this woman possessed none of the qualities he would require in a governess.
"We'll see." Hayden knew better than to deny Kit any odd thing that took his fancy. The child had inherited a measure of his late mother's willfulness and could make himself ill with fretting when thwarted.
Hayden had received enough warnings from the doctor about keeping his son calm and quiet. Over the years he had learned to delay giving an answer until Kit forgot his request. Now, much as he wanted to insist that pigs would fly before he allowed this heedless creature to teach his invalid child, he resorted to the usual evasions.
"Miss Leah and I should talk it over." It felt odd to refer to this odious stranger in such a familiar waysweet and sour at the same time. "Did you get any sleep while I was away meeting with Mr. Forster?"
Kit shook his head. "I wasn't tired. The time dragged until Miss Leah came."
"Then perhaps you should try to sleep now," Hayden suggested, "while I talk to her. By the way, where is Tilly?"
What had possessed the nursemaid to desert her post at such a time?