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The Governess Was Wanton
Mary Woodward sat awaiting her fate in the middle of what she could only assume was just one of No. 12 Belgrave Square’s impressive drawing rooms. She wasn’t anxious—she’d never admit to being flustered—but she was beginning to think that taking a new position as governess to the Earl of Asten’s daughter sight unseen might have been a grave mistake indeed, for both the gentleman and his daughter seemed to have forgotten her very existence.
Just a month before, she’d watched Lady Caroline, daughter of the Viscount and Viscountess Eyling, walk down the aisle at St. Paul’s Knightsbridge and out of her life. She’d told the family she intended to leave her position as soon as the engagement had been announced, cutting short any awkward explanations of how the soon-to-be-married Lady Caroline would no longer need the services of a governess. Then Mary had packed her bags and decamped to the home her dear friend Elizabeth shared with her new husband, Dr. Edward Fellows, with little more than a second thought. She was already on the hunt for a new position.
A few careful letters to her former charges spread the word around London’s elite that she was once again available. The initial flood of responses was of little interest to her. Then, ten days ago, a letter written in a man’s strong, slashing script had come in the morning post. The Lord Asten wanted her to educate his daughter, Lady Eleanora, a young woman of seventeen who had just been presented to the queen.
“I know, as surely every parent in London does, of your reputation for educating young ladies not entirely at ease in society,” Lord Asten had written. “In the past year my daughter has become rather retiring, and I hope your guidance may help restore her natural vivacity as she navigates her first season and secures a suitable match. Eleanora has not been herself for some months, and I worry for her happiness.”
Something about the earl’s letter gave her pause. It was polite, but the faintest hint of a father’s frustration came through the lines. It was so contrary to the man she’d read about in the papers. Lord Asten was known for his political prowess in the House of Lords, and everyone who had the good sense to study their Debrett’s would surely be aware of his reputation as steadfast and moral—a rare combination among the peerage. This wasn’t the sort of man who ever needed to ask for help, because he never seemed to have problems in the first place.
More intrigued than was perhaps prudent, Mary had written back and accepted the position that day.
Now, fifteen minutes past their appointed time, she was still waiting for the earl and his daughter to appear. It did not bode well for Mary’s future in the house.
Never one to let boredom conquer her, she began a slow circle around the room, taking in the casual display of wealth that typified each of the seven homes she’d worked in during the last fourteen years. In some ways, however, this house was different. A Chinese vase here, a carved Spanish chest there—the room she stood in was jammed with all manner of eclectic things. It was a home built for comfort rather than posturing elegance.
She passed by a sizable pianoforte that sat open and ready between two high windows. Her fingers trailed over the ivory keys, playing C, D, E, but before she could strike a chord, a large portrait of a young, raven-haired woman caught her eye. A collar of emeralds set in halos of diamonds circled the beautiful woman’s throat. Those, she reasoned, must be the famous Asten emeralds, and that must be the earl’s late wife.
She moved to examine the portrait more closely when a young woman’s shout came from behind the drawing room’s closed door.
“I don’t want another governess!”
“Oh no,” she murmured.
“Miss Woodward is one of the best governesses in London. She comes highly recommended,” said a man—presumably Lord Asten—in a muffled baritone.
She appreciated the earl’s vote of support, but shouting matches in the hallway didn’t exactly instill confidence.
“All I want is to be left alone,” said the girl as a dog close by started to yip. “Why can’t you just let me be?”
“Lady Laughlin says—”
“Why do you always take her side, Papa?” cried the girl.
Mary moved as close to the door as she could without pressing her ear against it—although eavesdropping would have been more effective with the aid of a water glass.
“Eleanora,” said her father in a warning tone.
“Why can’t it just be you and me?” the girl asked, her voice so soft that Mary could hardly hear her over the dog’s whimpering. “Why does Lady Laughlin always have to be around?”
“Enough of this,” Lord Asten said. “We’ll go in and meet Miss Woodward together, and then you’ll ready yourself for the opera tonight. We’re due at Lady Laughlin’s at six thirty, and I expect you to treat her and her daughters with respect.”
The conversation was finished, but the dull thump of feet pounding against thick carpet and the jangle of a dog’s collar told Mary that Lady Eleanora had gotten the last word by running off. A little smile touched her lips. She couldn’t help liking the girl for that.
As quickly and quietly as she could, Mary hurried over to a tasteful gold and cream sofa. She was just rearranging her skirts when the doorknob turned. She looked up and her heart jumped straight to the top of her throat.
The man filling the doorway wasn’t just handsome. He was devastating.
Lord Asten could no doubt bring a woman to her knees with a mere look. He had a square jaw, razor-sharp cheekbones, and a pair of piercing green eyes that signaled an intelligent mind. His nose canted slightly to the right—not from a break but from a quirk of nature—but this strange little flaw only added interest to his serious yet open expression.
Yet it was not the most interesting part of him, Mary thought before she could stop herself. That would be his wide mouth that, even pressed into a line, tempted her. She wanted to run her thumb over his bottom lip before slipping it between his lips to mark her with his taste. She wanted to kiss him hard, letting his tongue slide over hers.
Don’t you dare, she thought sternly. Desiring one’s employer was never allowed. Ever.
She was a governess, and she mustn’t forget it. Not quite a servant, but certainly not a lady any longer, Mary relied upon teaching to survive. She’d seen firsthand the way one false step could cling to a woman’s reputation like sticky spring mud on a boot. She wouldn’t compromise her good name no matter how much she might want to know how the rasp of Lord Asten’s beard might feel against her cheek, her wrist, her thigh . . .
“Miss Woodward,” Lord Asten said, mercifully breaking into her thoughts. “Thank you for coming.”
She curtsied deep enough to show respect and shallow enough to let him know that she was not impressed. He might be devilishly handsome—and a peer to boot—but he’d kept her waiting.
“It’s my pleasure, Lord Asten. Although I fear I may not have come at the most opportune time,” she said.
He cast a glance back at the door. “I suppose you heard that.”
“All of it,” she said with a nod as she returned to her seat. “I had the luxury of time.”
The earl blinked as though a little taken aback by her critique of his negligence. “My apologies that you had to wait, Miss Woodward. I’d asked Warthing to arrange for tea to be delivered, as my meeting with my secretary went longer than expected.”
“I appreciate your thoughtfulness, sir,” she said, knowing her gentle but pointed censure had done its job. “I take it Lady Eleanora is not delighted at the news of my arrival?”
Lord Asten dropped into a chair that could’ve been dolls’ furniture the way he filled it. “My daughter and I never used to fight, but now it seems that’s the only time I can get her to speak to me at all.”?
“I gathered from your letter that Lady Eleanora has become somewhat unmanageable.”
He scrubbed a hand over his face, rasping at whiskers that were already beginning to show. “Not unmanageable so much as unhappy, and quiet. I see flashes of her carefree nature from time to time, but mostly she seems to have receded into herself, much as she did after her mother died when she was three. For a year she hardly spoke at all. When she finally began to engage with the world again, we grew close. Now I can’t get through to her.”
The drawing room door opened, and Mary looked on with approval as a maid wheeled in a cart laden with tea things. Not all of her former employers had thought highly enough of governesses to do something as simple as provide tea upon their first meeting. There was no end to the snobbery and slights that some people would lob at a gentlewoman forced to take a position. Despite their inauspicious beginning, she took it as a good sign that Lord Asten had arranged for the same pleasantries he might provide a lady of quality. Also, his cook’s tea cakes looked excellent.
Lord Asten, however, shot a rather dubious look at the tea set. “I would have asked Eleanora to pour, but . . .”
Mary raised a brow. She imagined there weren’t many instances when the commanding earl felt off his footing, but pouring tea was out of his realm.
“It’s such beautiful china. Might I be so bold as to ask for the privilege of pouring?” she asked.
The man sat back, looking quite relieved. “Please.”
As she busied herself with the strainer and teapot, she said casually, “Sometimes I’ve seen large changes unsettle a young lady and bring out elements of her personality that weren’t so evident before. When did this start?”
The earl worried the chain of his pocket watch as he sat back to think. “Eight months ago, but it’s gotten worse in the last three.”
“Milk?” she asked, her hand hovering over the delicate handle of the china jug.
“Please. No sugar.”
She poured the milk and handed him the cup edged with a wreath of bluebells. Their fingers brushed and a jolt of awareness shot through her. She snatched back her hand, lips parted in surprise. Lord Asten simply stared into his teacup, lost in his thoughts. There was nothing there. She was just overexcited by the prospect of a new position—messy as this one might seem.
“What altered during that time?” she asked.
She pursed her lips as she set about fixing her own cup. If the man believed that, he was deluding himself. Gently raised daughters didn’t just get into rows for no reason when visitors were in the house. Something prompted this change.
“Perhaps it is something more mundane,” she said, pushing him a little.
He took a sip of tea and then set the cup down on the table next to him. “Other than her presentation at court last month, the only thing I can think of is that one of my late wife’s friends returned from the Continent and began to call again.”
This must be the Lady Laughlin that Lady Eleanora had shouted about in the hallway.
“When Lady Laughlin returned, it seemed natural that we should rekindle our acquaintance,” he said. “She’s a widow, so she also knows something of loss, and she has two daughters who have already been through the season with an aunt of theirs. Eleanora has some friends of her own, but they’re also just in their first seasons. I’d hoped that Miss Laughlin and Miss Cordelia would help guide her.”
Mary chewed the inside of her lip and weighed the intelligence of asking a very personal, possibly delicate, question. Finally deciding that between his lateness and the awkwardness of the fight there was little else that could go wrong with this first meeting, she asked, “When did it become clear that Lady Laughlin wishes to become your countess?”
The man sputtered his tea. “I beg your pardon?”
It probably would’ve been better if she’d just kept her mouth shut, but she’d never been one to walk by when there was a sleeping bear she could poke.
“You’ll have to excuse me for being so forward, Lord Asten, but as your daughter is already a month into her season, I don’t have much time for pleasantries. If Lady Eleanora suddenly became unlike herself around the time Lady Laughlin began visiting, and she—if my memory of your row serves—does not enjoy being around the lady, I can only conclude that your daughter sees Lady Laughlin as a threat.”
“For your affection, yes. That’s why I assumed Lady Laughlin sees herself filling the role of your next countess. It’s really the most logical explanation.”
The earl looked as though he couldn’t decide whether to shake her or to throw her out of the house. Surreptitiously, she crossed her arms and slipped a finger into her cuff where, folded into a little square, was her talisman—a handkerchief embroidered by her onetime governess, Mrs. Cooper. It was one of only a dozen, each numbering among her most prized possessions. It was silly that a thirty-two-year-old woman still needed the reassurance of a good-luck charm, but knowing it was there comforted her nonetheless.
Finally the earl began to laugh. “Do you know, there are members of the prime minister’s cabinet who could take lessons in fearlessness from you?”
“I would never call myself fearless. Cake?”
He shook his head, and so she helped herself.
“Don’t be modest, Miss Woodward. Courage is an admirable quality.”
She glanced up to find Lord Asten watching her. Just the sensation of his eyes on her felt good. Mary gripped the cake plate harder, grasping for reason and common sense like a shipwrecked woman clinging to driftwood. Nothing good would come of hoping that the earl would vault the tea cart, haul her up into his arms, and kiss her senseless. Imagining the press of his body and his hot lips working over her and the feel of his hands in her hair as the pins that kept it tamed scattered to the floor—
What are you doing?
She slammed the lid on the Pandora’s box that held her unruly desire. This was insanity.
“I have no intention of marrying Lady Laughlin,” said the earl. “I have a cousin who’s eager to inherit my title and the lands that go with it. My favored estate, Rose Hollow, isn’t entailed, and neither is the bulk of my fortune. I plan to settle both on Eleanora, which makes her an heiress of considerable means. Naturally, I’m very protective of her. I want to ensure that she marries a good man, and I can only keep the fortune chasers away if she talks to me. How can I tell if she really wants to encourage a young man to court her if she hardly speaks to him or to me?”
It was the most reasonable, rational, affectionate approach to a daughter’s marriage she’d ever heard. Lady Eleanora, just like every young lady she’d taught, deserved as much happiness as she could grasp in this life. If they were also able to make their choice of husband, even better.
“I will do my best to help Lady Eleanora along in whichever way I can,” she said, “if the offer of a position is still available.”
He shook his head. “My entire plan is you, Miss Woodward. I have no secondary scheme to make a success of Eleanora’s season.”
“That’s very generous of you.”
“Generosity has nothing to do with it. I’m desperate to see my daughter happy.”
“Then I will make every effort to earn your confidence.”
“Do that, Miss Woodward.” He cocked his head. “Why do I feel as though everything’s about to change now that you’ve walked into our lives?”
The slight gravel of his voice sent desire shooting straight to her core, making her wet between her legs. God, she wanted this man.
It wasn’t going to happen. She wasn’t going to let it. The stakes were simply too high.
She would help Lady Eleanora just as she’d helped seven other girls before her, and then she’d pack her bags and move on just as she always did.
“I couldn’t say,” she said, dipping her head just a fraction to show her deference to him. “I only hope Lady Eleanora and I get along well. Now, perhaps we should discuss the terms of my employment.”
Asten sat across from the tall, statuesque Miss Woodward, a little stunned. He hadn’t been entirely sure what to expect when he wrote to the woman some ladies called “The Fairy Godmother of Belgravia” with whispered reverence, but it wasn’t Miss Woodward.
His daughter had had two governesses to date. They were respectable, quiet women who would deliver Eleanora to his study for her additional afternoon lessons with him. One of them made a few objections about his insistence on teaching his daughter Greek, Latin, and botany, but the most recent governess—a Miss Fairhart—had simply accepted his eccentric views on a lady’s education with silent passivity.
Nothing about Miss Woodward struck him as demure or passive.
Her reputation was legendary enough that he’d assumed she must’ve spent decades as a governess, but she could hardly be a day over thirty. She had high cheekbones and deep brown almond eyes fringed with thick black lashes. Her cherry-red lips looked good enough to taste, but what distracted him most was her chestnut hair. It twisted away from her face and gathered at the back of her head in smooth coils that reminded him of silken ropes. He wanted to see that curtain of russet spill down her back, shimmering in the light. He nearly sat on his hands, so powerful was his desire to reach over and pluck out one, two, three pins until he found the anchor that kept her hair all piled up.
Except he couldn’t. Asten knew that there were men all over London who took advantage of their elevated rank to exploit situations just like this. From a young age he’d watched the glacial ice grow between his father and his mother as housemaid after housemaid was dismissed without a reference. But while his mother’s jewelry box had grown fuller, her disapproval of her husband had as well. Then, just before he’d been sent off to Eton, he’d found his mother crying in her sitting room. It had shocked him in his childish naivety. She was such a strong, stiff-lipped woman he’d never even thought that she might be affected by her husband’s infidelity. Instead, she’d just become skilled at hiding her distress.
When Asten became the fourth Earl of Asten just months after his unhappy mother’s death, he vowed he’d never touch a woman in his employ. That meant that Miss Woodward was absolutely, unconditionally not for him.
He tried to keep that at the front of his mind as he forced himself to focus on the matter at hand. “I’ve asked Warthing to prepare a room for you. Perhaps you’d like to see the schoolroom before you arrange for your things to be brought around?”
“Very much,” said Miss Woodward.
“If you’ll follow me.”
She didn’t move when he stood. “You’re going to show me?”
It pleased him more than it should that he’d surprised her. “I’m as able as Warthing, although if you’d prefer he do it I can certainly arrange that.”
This time she rose, smoothing out the creases in her unadorned blue skirts. “Not at all.”
“You’ll find this a rather informal house when only my daughter and I are at home,” he said as he led her out into the corridor. “I spend much of my time at Westminster when Parliament is in session. That’s quite enough pomp for me.”
He probably should also mention that he spent much of his time at home in just his shirt and waistcoat, but there was no need to shock Miss Woodward unduly this early.
She followed him silently as they climbed the stairs to the third floor and he showed her through to the schoolroom. He’d ordered it redone when Eleanora was born and now it was bright and cheery—a complete change from the dark, dreary nursery he’d been raised in.
“A very pleasant space,” she said, admiring neat rows of books sitting on their shelves.
“These were the books Miss Fairhart felt were appropriate for Eleanora’s education. Of course, my library is open to both you and my daughter if you find the collection lacking.”
Miss Woodward reached out and ran her fingers over the spines of volumes by Bewick and Ruskin. “Is Lady Eleanora a great reader?”
“She enjoys a good book, but her real passion is the harp.”
Miss Woodward’s eyes twinkled a little bit and he felt an irrational amount of pleasure that he’d pleased her. “Is that right?”
“I think you’ll find that she’d rather play for you than conjugate French verbs.”
She laughed. “Even so, I’ll find a way to make sure that her French sparkles.”
“I’m sure she’s in very capable hands, although I do ask that after luncheon you bring Eleanora to my study when I’m home. I’ve taken it upon myself to educate her in certain subjects,” he said.
“And those would be?”
“Latin, Greek, mathematics, and botany,” he said. “The latter is of particular interest to me, and I’m lucky she indulges me.”
He watched her pull a volume of Dickens off the shelf and leaf through it. “Most fathers don’t encourage a girl’s education, especially not in the subjects traditionally taught to boys.”
“Eleanora has more than enough aptitude to handle a classical education,” he said with more than a little pride in his voice.
“That’s most encouraging.” Miss Woodward snapped the book shut. “And my own room is through here?”
He nodded and tried his best to keep his eyes off the sway of her hips as she passed, but her full skirt drew his attention. A powerful urge to see her spread out over the clean, crisp sheets he’d ordered be put on her bed gripped him. His fingers twitched to trace over the smooth swell of her breasts and down the softness of her stomach to where her hips flared out. He ached to taste her, feel her, be inside her. She would be magnificent, he had no doubt.
It was only when he realized he was playing with the chain of his pocket watch—an annoying habit he’d been trying to break for years—that he snapped back to reality. Miss Woodward was in his employ. He wouldn’t touch her. He couldn’t.
“Please excuse me,” he said, clearing his throat. “I have an appointment. I’ll send Warthing to make arrangements to retrieve your things.”
And without waiting for a response, he strode out of the room before he did any of the things he’d promised himself he never would.