Read an Excerpt
Woodbridge Hall, Leicestershire, England, 1816
Dominic Granville seldom troubled himself with the running of his household. He had a spinster sister and a host of servants to take care of that. Besides, he had plenty to occupy him, between his land and its tenants. Oh, yes, and his children.
His assumption that things would continue very much as they had for the past five years had proved correct. Until today.
Until he'd opened the letter newly arrived from London, fixed with a seal of aristocracy that he remembered from his school days at Eton, but hadn't had much occasion to see since.
Dominic reread the letter, penned in a firm, elegant hand. It said exactly what he thought it had on his first reading.
He tugged the bellpull behind his desk. While he waited for his butler, he scrutinized the letter a third time. How inconvenient.
"Sir?" Molson had a habit of materializing silently; somehow he'd opened the library door without Dominic noticing.
Over the years, Dominic had mastered the art of hiding his start of surprise, so now he looked up calmly.
"Is Miss Somerton in the schoolroom?" he asked.
"I believe, sir, Miss Somerton and the children are" Molson hesitated "in pursuit of lepidoptera."
"Chasing butterflies?" Dominic said blankly. "Why?"
"Miss Somerton felt it was an occupation Masters Thomas and William should practice, sir. I believe she called it a lesson in nature sciences."
"What about the girls?" Dominic asked. "Shouldn't they be stitching something?"
"Misses Hester, Charlotte and Louisa are also pursuing lepidoptera."
Dominic frowned. In the past three weeks alone, he'd had to send word to the governess that shrieking outside the library window wasn't acceptable. That allowing the children to drink lemonade in the billiard roomwhich, technically, was forbidden territoryleft a sticky residue everywhere. Both times, instead of contrition, her response had been to invite him to play with the children. Extraordinary.
When he'd found her timing the children as they slid down the banisters, his instinct had been to dismiss her on the spot. For his sister's sakeMarianne had hired the woman, and would be distressed at having to replace herhe'd constrained his reaction to the delivery of a stern lecture about safe pursuits.
Maybe today's letter was timely, after all. "Send Miss Somerton to me as soon as they come inside," he ordered.
"Certainly, sir." Molson's confiding tone said he knew just why Dominic needed to see the governess. The butler glided from the room.
Dominic wondered if he was the last to hear the news. He seldom traveled to London these days, and didn't read the society pages of the newspaper. Unlike his butler, apparently. He presumed Marianne hadn't
A scream from outside the library brought him to his feet. He strode to the door and flung it open.
The entrance hall teemed with peopleall five of Dominic's children, Molson and a footman on his hands and knees, grimacing as he groped behind the oak chest that had been in the family since Elizabethan days. A maid stood pressed against the wall, her hand over her mouth: she must be the screamer. The last participant in this pandemonium was the governess, Miss Serena Somerton, who was patting the maid's shoulder.
"There, there, Alice," she soothed. "It was only a lizard. It couldn't possibly harm you."
Which told Dominic all he needed to know. "Thomas," he barked.
Silence fell, sudden and absolute.
Eleven-year-old Thomas stepped forward. "Yes, Papa?"
His twin sister, Hester, younger by thirty minutes, slipped her hand into his. Whatever trouble Thomas was in, Hetty would insist on sharing it. Which made it dashed hard for Dominic to discipline his son.
"Did you bring a lizard inside, Thomas?" he asked.
"Yes, Papa, but it was one I'd never seen before, and it was bright green and it looked right at me."
"It's very beautiful," Hetty said loyally.
The younger girls, Charlotte and Louisa, nodded.
"Only, it escaped," Thomas explained, as if Dominic might not have guessed.
Dominic rolled his eyes. "Did I not expressly forbid the bringing inside of wildlife because of the pain and inconvenience the household suffers when it escapes, as it invariably does? If my dogs can live outside, so can your lizard."
A flicker of agreement crossed the face of Gregory, the footman, who was straining to reach farther behind the chest. Seven-year-old William sucked in a tiny breatheither in awe at his brother's daring to disobey, or in fear of the consequences.
"Yes, sir," Thomas said. "I'm very sorry."
With a tiny jerk of his head, Dominic indicated the maid, still being thoroughly shoulder-patted by Miss Somerton.
"I'm very sorry, Alice," Thomas said.
"I didn't mind at all, Master Thomas," the maid lied brazenly, eyeing Dominic as if he was about to take a switch to his son's behind. "Like you said, it was very pretty."
Thomas flashed her the charming smile that, more often than not, got him off the hook.
What discipline would Miss Serena Somerton employ against this offense? Dominic wondered. He turned his attention to the governess. Goodness, she looked as if she'd been dragged backward through a bush.
An assortment of leaves and twigs clung to the skirt of her pale gray dress. Her bonnet was decidedly askew, and although Dominic was no expert on fashion, he was fairly certain the blond tresses curled on her shoulders were meant to be inside the bonnet.
And she had a smudge on her nose.
The urge to restore order, to reach out with a handkerchief and wipe away that smudge, was almost overwhelming. But of course, he couldn't do that.
"Children, could you all please go to the schoolroom immediately." The governess belatedly recalled her duties. "We will sketch some of the butterflies we observed." She held up a hand to forestall Thomas's protest. "I'm sure that when Gregory finds Captain Emerald" Captain Emerald must be the lizard "he will take him outside."
"You'll put him somewhere safe, Gregory, won't you?" Thomas pleaded.
"Yes, Master Thomas," the footman said through gritted teeth.
Dominic suspected Gregory considered the safest place for the lizard to be under the heel of his shoe.
"Miss Somerton, may I see you in the library?" Dominic asked, as the children traipsed upstairs in a semiorderly manner.
"Certainly, Mr. Granville." She took a step toward him as she began untying the strings of her bonnet, the brim of which had an unmistakable dent.
"I suppose you'll want to tidy yourself first," Dominic said.
She looked surprised, but said agreeably, "As you wish." She lifted the bonnet from her head.
Alice shrieked; Molson made an exclamation, quickly muffled.
Miss Somerton turned to stare at them. "What's wrong?"
"It appears, Miss Somerton, you have a lizard on your head," Dominic said.
The green creature (emerald was a gross exaggeration) perched motionless, as if moving might reveal its location to people who hadn't noticed it.
Dominic braced himself for the governess to fall into a faint; he would be obligated to catch her.
Instead, she stilled, not in panic, but in cautious relief. "Isn't that just like a lizard?" she said. "I didn't even feel it, the stealthy little creature!" She beamed at the butler. "Rather like you, Mr. Molson."
So she, too, found the butler's ability to materialize out of nowhere disconcerting? Molson appeared to take being compared to a lizard as a compliment; his countenance retained its butlerish impassivity, but his eyes twinkled. Had Dominic observed his butler's eyes twinkling before?
"I don't suppose you have a jar you could put over Captain Emerald, Mr. Granville?" Miss Somerton asked.
"No, Miss Somerton, I do not carry a jar on my person for the purpose of trapping lizards on young ladies' heads." Dominic stepped closer. "But if you remain still, I hope to pluck it from your hair. With your permission."
It seemed to take her a moment to realize he was asking for that permission.
She smiled suddenly, but carefully, so as not to move her head. "Pluck away, Mr. Granville, please."
Her blue eyes were alight with humor. Dominic found himself grinning in return; the situation was quite absurd.
Though Miss Somerton was of above average height, he still looked down on her hair, which was, he noted objectively, a color the poets called flaxen. He lowered his fingers in a pincer movement and grabbed the lizard.
"Ha!" he murmured under his breath.
"Am I to assume from your cry of triumph, Mr. Granville, that you have Captain Emerald in your grasp?" Miss Somer-ton asked. "And that I am therefore free to move?"
"I have the creature, yes, but one of its feet has become tangled in your hair." Dominic was suddenly aware he was closer than he'd ever been before to his children's governessand that he was touching her hair. Chaperoned by a butler, a footman and a housemaid, to be sure, but still He wasn't sure if this morning's letter made the proximity more or less acceptable. "May I, er, attempt to extract it?"
"That would be an excellent idea." She encouraged him in much the same tone she used with Thomas.
Which had the effect of removing any improprietywhich was goodbut at the same time relegated her employer to the status of one of her charges.
Dominic narrowed his eyes and applied himself to his task. "By the way, I wouldn't describe my earlier reaction as a cry of triumph, Miss Somerton."
"My mistake," she said demurely.
"You might hear such a cry from me in, say, the hunting field," he continued, "but I scarcely think capturing a lizard is worthy of acclaim."
"Slaughtering a large animal is a far more admirable achievement," she said.
Dominic paused in his untangling to meet her eyes. They were wide and innocent.
He wasn't fooled. No wonder his children were running wild! Their governess valued chasing butterflies and lizards above the academic and sporting pursuits essential to the life of an English country gentleman.
Dominic freed the lizard at last and took a relieved step back. "Gregory, could you take this and deal with it as you see fit?"
"Yes, sir," the footman said with grim pleasure.
"Oh, Gregory, no," Miss Somerton protested. "You wouldn't harm one of God's creatures, would you?"
Gregory looked uncertain at this invocation of the deity. "It's a pest, miss. And it frightened Alice," he added virtuously.
"Only for a moment," the maid said. A quelling look from Molson sent her hurrying toward the kitchen.
"Gregory " Miss Somerton clasped her hands in front of her and gave the man a look so beseeching, Dominic was amazed the servant didn't melt into submission. "I realize you've been grossly inconvenienced by Captainby this lizard. It definitely does not deserve your mercy. But Thomas is anxious to have it as a pet."
When Gregory scowled at the mention of Thomas, she added quickly, "Hetty is, too. I'm pleading with you, for Hetty's sake, to leave it in the stables. In a jar. With a few twigs and leaves for comfort. And maybe a fly or twothe common lizard eats invertebrates, so any insect will do. A worm would be wonderful, if you happen to come across one."
As her list of demands grew more unreasonable, Dominic almost laughed. Clever of her to include the blameless Hetty in her plea for a reprieve for the lizard.
And plea it was, since strictly speaking she couldn't order Gregory to do anything. It was an awkward situation for Miss Somerton, Dominic knew. Since she was neither a member of the family nor a guest, she had no authority over the servants. But her status was unquestionably above Gregory's even more now than it had been.
"Unfortunately, miss, Mr. Molson would need to excuse me from my duties for me to perform such tasks." Gregory directed a hopeful glance at the butler, clearly wanting permission to be denied.
"You may do as Miss Somerton asks, Gregory," Molson said, and the footman departed in reluctant possession of one green lizard.
"I shall tell Thomasand Hettythe good news," Miss Somerton declared.
"The library first, if you please," Dominic said, deliberately forgetting his suggestion that she tidy herself. If he waited for the governess to comport herself in a more orderly fashion, he would be here until midnight.