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"It's not that you were a pickpocket, Samantha. It's that you persist in exposing your employers' foibles to your employers themselves, and they don't care for it." Adorna, Lady Bucknell, spoke in her soft and husky voice, and anyone listening would think she placidly accepted Samantha's most recent dismissal.
Samantha Prendregast didn't make that mistake. She stood before the desk with her chin up, shoulders back, just as Adorna had taught her. "No, ma'am."
The study of the Distinguished Academy of Governesses had been decorated in shades of pale blue, and Adorna's lush blonde beauty shone like a diamond in a satin setting. "I warned you about Mr. Wordlaw. I told you he was a martinet who believes women should be seen and not heard, and you assured me you would be able to handle him." Samantha resisted the desire to shift back and forth. "Yes, ma'am."
"Yet in two short months you are back at the Distinguished Academy of Governesses without a job, without a reference, and with a guarantee that Mr. Wordlaw's vengefulness will spread your larcenous reputation among the few of the ton who don't yet know it." Adorna folded her hands beneath her chin and fixed her large blue eyes on Samantha. "So what is your defense this time?"
Samantha thought of what she should say, how she could pacify Adorna, but she had given up lying at the same time she had given up stealing. "He bullies his son. The lad doesn't want to study the law. Little Norman stammers already, and when his father dragged him up in front of the entire family and mocked him, my heart ached for him, and I wanted to" -- she grewwarm as she thought about that day, or perhaps the heat of a summer day in the City affected her -- "teach that man a lesson."
"So you told his wife about his mistress and convinced his mistress to abandon him. How will that benefit young Norman?"
"Mrs. Wordlaw's father controls the money. She has taken her son and left Wordlaw, which she should have done years ago, but she was too proud to admit she'd made a mistake. Norman's grandfather will make sure Norman gets to follow his dream." Samantha remembered how science fascinated the boy. "I think the lad is going to invent something wonderful."
"And the mistress?"
Samantha grinned. "She's a friend of mine from my street days. She relished giving the old whoreson the heave-ho for a chance at young Lord Penwyn."
"How did she get that chance?"
"I arranged it."
Adorna's delicate sigh conveyed resignation. "I'll wager you did."
"My lady, I'm sorry I lost the position and brought disgrace upon the Distinguished Academy of Governesses." Samantha really was sorry, sorrier than she could say. "But I'm not sorry I helped Norman."
"No, I'm not sorry, either. But there are always more discreet ways of maneuvering."
Samantha hated that she had disappointed Adorna -- again. "I know. I really, really do. I try to remember what you tell me, but sometimes I lose my temper, and I don't get it back for a long time. By then it's too late."
"Sit down." Adorna indicated the blue velvet chair beside Samantha.
Samantha slid into it gratefully. Adorna had rescued her from the streets six years before, and for the first three of those years Samantha had studied Adorna's every word and move in hopes of emulating her charm and beauty. Now, at the age of twenty-two, Samantha faced the fact that a tall blonde Viking with outspoken tendencies could never squeeze herself into Adorna's dainty, circumspect mold. But the time spent contemplating Adorna had given Samantha insight into the shrewd mind her patron hid beneath her breathy voice and curvaceous body. The worst of the censure was over. Now she must face the consequences.
And she knew how to face consequences. She'd learned that, not from Adorna, but from a father who, from the time she could toddle, taught her to pick a pocket and smile charmingly all the while.
"Mr. Wordlaw had quite the black eye when he came here to complain," Adorna said.
Samantha bunched up her skinny fist.
Adorna nodded. "That's what I thought. Did he attack you?"
"He tried. After his wife had moved out." Their tussle had been brief and sharp, and Samantha's arm ached where he had wrenched it. She didn't allow herself to show the terror that struggle had engendered, nor would she admit how often she came awake, heart pounding, in the grips of a nightmare. "He really is a despicable little man."
"He's over six foot. Most people would not call him little."
"Not in stature. In character."
"Hm. Yes. Be that as it may, he is a respected judge --"
"For the moment. Until I can spread gossip to the contrary."
"You are good, my lady." Samantha folded her hands in her lap and tried to appear demure.
She obviously didn't succeed, for Adorna's voice sharpened. "Even then, my dear young crusader for justice, there are those who believe a woman should honor her vows regardless of how corrupt her husband is."
"Mostly." Adorna tapped her nails on the open letter before her and stared beyond Samantha. "Part of the problem with placing you is that you're an attractive young woman."
"Thank you, my lady." Adorna had taught Samantha many things, among them how to make the most of her best features. Samantha braided her platinum blonde hair and wrapped it over her ears, and into a loose knot at the back of her neck. She used her large brown eyes to flirt and admire, and never did she allow them to reveal her intelligence. Her lips were generous -- too generous, in her opinion, but Adorna had told her men would want to kiss them. That turned out to be true ...My Favorite Bride
. Copyright © by Christina Dodd. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.