Seeking Celeste, страница 1
“SHALL I GOVERNESS YOU, TOO?”
Anne’s well-modulated tone was caustic, for she could only ascribe her tumultuous passions to fury.
A strange curve crossed Edgemere’s wide, masculine, hopelessly sensuous lips. Anne was too drawn to them to look up and see what might be reflected in the golden eyes that regarded her, she knew, with steady avidity.
Amusement? She thought not, for her traitorous pulses were raging in her temples and a wave of heat threatened to envelop her entire, untutored body.
“That could be arranged, my dear, though I fear the lessons I seek are not strictly as dry as the curriculum you have outlined.”
Anne looked up sharply. “Then, you shall have to look elsewhere for your lessons, my lord.”
“You have a hard heart, Miss Derringer, but I accept your terms.”
“You shall invest my siblings with some modicum of common sense, some degree of formal education, and a good dose of happiness. I am not so shortsighted that I cannot see what is at the end of my nose. As for myself. . . much as I may desire to be schooled by you, I shall forgo the pleasure in the interest of your ongoing virtue.”
“However ...” Edgemere drew closer, and Anne thought she was likely to faint. “If you continue to blush so rosily at every utterance I make, I cannot answer for the consequences.”
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Table of Contents
“SHALL I GOVERNESS YOU, TOO?”
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“Robert, you are a beast!”
The voice would have been a wail, had it not turned out to be a sad and rather quavery squeak. The eighth Earl Edgemere sighed.
Contrary to the belief of his two rapscallion siblings, he was not, as they would have him believe, a monster. Indeed, even now he was experiencing a curious mixture of remorse, regret and resignation at the pain his pronouncement was causing.
Katherine—or Kitty, as she was more affectionately known—was undoubtedly the apple of his eye. True, he had been blessed with only one sister—and a half one at that—but had he a dozen to choose from, he was certain that none could have been dearer. In spite of her defiant copper curls and stubborn, decidedly roguish chin, she was an Edgemere through and through.
Her eyes were blazing now, and he rather wished she would have done and pour the pitcher of blackberry cordial over him, or at least brandish a prized house plant in his direction. Heavens, there were enough of them around! One of the ornamental cycads or even a potted palm would have served the purpose perfectly. Anything but the sorry sniff and the tiny trickle of tears he detected beneath woebegone lashes.
He hardened his resolve and coughed impatiently. If Lady Lucinda had been alive, none of this would now be happening. Unfortunately, she was not, and now that the mourning period was over, it was time to take action. Heaven knew, the whole of the ton seemed set to remind him of his responsibilities.
He placed his hands squarely behind his back and sighed. “I am not a beast, Kitty, and you know it!”
“But you still mean to send us away!”
“Miss Parson’s Academy for young ladies is most unexceptionable, I assure you! I have spoken with Miss Parson myself, and though she may appear a formidable creature to begin with, I am perfectly certain she has the best interest of her charges at heart. It is not as if it is forever ...”
He stopped as reproachful eyes upbraided him unmercifully.
“And what of Tom? Surely you cannot mean to ... to ... abandon him, too ...”
“Abandon? What nonsense is this? Kestridge is one of the foremost schools in all of England! It is not as if—”
“Robert, we shall be lonely!”
The words impaled the golden-headed, sublimely good-looking gentleman before her. Garbed impeccably in a morning coat of sapphire superfine, he seemed unaware that his profile singularly resembled one of the marble statues it was his passion to collect. Though he sported several fine white ruffles on his shirtsleeves, he preferred to remain otherwise unadorned. Modish but Spartan. My lord Robert never had much use for fripperies.
He wavered, for a moment, for the young girl who entreated him with anxious eyes and a profusion of sadly disordered curls made an excellent point. After the warmth of Carmichael Crescent, his little half brother and sister would be lonely. He closed his eyes and pushed the image away roughly.
“You shall make friends, I assure you! Lady Dawson has been most kind in her offer to present you when you are of age. It is no small thing to have her as sponsor, though she will undoubtedly balk at introducing such a harum-scarum miss as you are to the ton. Let Miss Parson afford you some polish, my dear, and I assure you, you shall never be happier.”
Kitty could see by the set of her beloved Robert’s mouth that his mind was quite made up. She swallowed hard, but there was a lump in her throat that made it curiously impossible to say anything at all.
Her brother, divining her thoughts, assumed a gentler tone, for despite the troublesome larks his kin were inclined to get up to, he loved them dearly. If their last governess had not been so unforgivably prim, the scamps might not have been inclined to ruffle her feathers sufficient to cause such a hasty and indignant resignation. Then he, at least, would not have had to look for other options. He sighed.
“It is better so. Tom cannot be in leading strings forever, and a household of women can do him no good.”
“If you came home more regularly ...”
The eighth Earl Edgemere felt a stab of guilt.
“Speak sense, Kitty! I have to take my seat in the House of Lords. It is not my will, but my duty. Besides, I am too often away on King’s business to reliably reside out here in the country. Tom will have to go to Kestridge, and there is an end to it.” His words were final as he r
He was not so hardhearted a brother, however, that he did not first tousle her ringlets and produce an exquisitely crafted wooden marionette from his drawer. He watched in indulgent amusement as unmitigated delight danced with mutiny on Miss Carmichael’s expressive, childlike face.
“Not such a beast, after all?”
“Oh Robert, you know I speak without thought! I just wish ...”
“So do I. I wish your mama had not been taken from us. I wish, too, that Papa had not contracted inflammation of the lungs all those years ago. You hardly even knew him. You would have liked him. Stubborn as a cart horse. Just like you.”
He grinned all of a sudden, and Miss Kitty Carmichael could not help allowing the corners of her lips to quiver with an answering quirk. Robert could be so engaging when he chose. His smile, God bless him, was quite impossible to resist.
She shook her head, unaware how her bouncing curls bobbed impetuously down her shoulders and across her face, quite heedless of the grown-up pins Lauder had painstakingly placed that morning.
“Stubborn like me? I think, Robert, you must really mean like yourself!”
“Baggage!” The harmony between them restored, they allowed the conversation to run to other things before coming back to the point that hovered silently between them.
“By the by, Kitty, I have secured for you a place with a most unexceptionable travelling companion—a Miss Danvers or Danforth or some such thing, I must check—to convey you to the seminary. Tom shall go by chaise, as is fitting his title.” His lordship’s eyes softened, though he hushed Kitty firmly with a finger to his lips. “Now, Miss Curly Tops, I want no more tears. Miss Ellen shall see to your packing, and you and Tom may have the whole day off.”
With that, Miss Kitty Carmichael was forced to be satisfied. He resolutely refused to notice the hazel eyes, so like his own and brimful of tears, that scorched his person long after the door had closed.
“Good gracious, Samson! You cannot mean to leave me stranded!” Miss Anne Derringer assumed her most baleful look and glared at the coachman who had been paid a most handsome consideration to set her down at the village of Kingsbury. Though she was not three miles from her final destination, the weather was inclement, and she found herself disinclined to set her finest pair of kidskin boots to the dubious rigours of the country road.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, ma’am! This ’ere be Kingsbury and Kingsbury be yer final stop!”
“But I had thought ...”
“Never do that, ma‘am! Don’t never do no one no good to be thinkifying! That be for the gentry folks, and beggin’ pardon, ma‘am, that is somethin’ you are not. Leastaways,” he corrected himself, “not no more.”
Anne nodded quietly. Samson had always born a grudge. Now, she supposed, he was enjoying her situation twofold. She resolved not to show him her discomfiture, but rather to hold her back as rigidly straight as she always had and to step out of the conveyance with as much dignity as she could muster. This, fortunately, was no real hardship, for she was a lady possessed of quite singular poise and a self-restraint that belied her tender age.
Samson scowled as he handed down the corded bandbox and set it flatly upon the cobbles. A few tears or pleas would have suited him better than the imperious nod of the head and a back half turned in his direction.
He considered, for a moment, divesting Miss Derringer of more than the last guinea he had already extracted for the ride. Perhaps she felt the vile direction of his thoughts, for she turned and the flint in her eyes was unmistakable. No wonder they called her the ice maiden.
He shook his head and cursed. The wench would probably put up the devil of a struggle, and there was no saying who was likely to shortcut the pike to ride on, past Kingsbury, toward Hampton. Since he had no desire to be taken before the magistrate and sentenced to rot in Newgate or worse, he merely permitted himself a snigger and a few earthy profanities. Unfortunately, the redoubtable Miss Derringer appeared not to hear them, so he shrugged, turned the horses round and began the long journey home.
Anne released her breath. She refused to allow the cold misery that coursed through her veins to take hold. If she did that, she knew, she would become an embittered little spinster, no better than Lady Apperton or the equally spiteful Miss Chatterley. She shuddered at the thought, for despite her well-bred bearing, she was an imp at heart.
Not at all suitable to become the companion of the ageing Countess Eversleigh, but there! She had no choice. She had gambled her last farthing recklessly—daringly—on the merchant ship Polaris. Not because it was better than any of the other prospects she might have chosen, but because of its name. Polaris of the night sky, the polar star, the guiding light. She had hoped for some small return on the competence she had invested. Instead, Polaris had sunk. And with it, her cushion between gentility and outright poverty. Only the offer of twenty pounds a year and ample board now stood between her and total ruination. No one in her right mind, she had been firmly assured, would employ a young, impossibly attractive woman with curling lashes and tourmaline eyes to be governess in any household worth its salt. The temptation to its male occupants would be too great a hazard.
The three miles to Kingsbury were not as irksome as Anne might have imagined, for the air was crisp, light streamed through the thin, spring-time clouds and her long, lithe legs seemed to take on a life of their own now that they were released from the confines of Lady Somerford’s cramped and rather poorly sprung chaise.
True, the bandbox felt, after a while, as though it were filled with rocks. Anne had to remind herself sternly that sensible gowns and neat linen shifts could not simply be abandoned at the side of the road. Only the thought of her few precious books, tucked snugly at the bottom—at the expense, one might add, of a rather elegant muff and several fine brocade spencers—saved the whole wretched lot from being ditched. Despite the burden and the rather novel sensation that her arms might drop off at any given point, Miss Derringer found her spirits to be unaccountably lightening.
She wondered what the stars would be like in this little country village. London, with its odour and gaslamps and trails of dirty smoke, was no longer a good vantage point for her to carry out her nightly studies of the sky and its heavenly secrets. Talking about secrets ... she must take good care not to let her treatise on comets be found upon her person. She had been labeled a bluestocking once before with disastrous effects upon her first season. Better that her employer find in her an unexceptionable companion rather than a learned and—yes, to herself she would admit the grim truth—scholarly one.
She sighed, then scolded herself for being such a flibbertigibbet. No use having a sudden fit of the dismals. Doubtless the stars would be spectacular and she would, after all, have an excess of time to regard them at her leisure. Why did the thought not console her? She put the question from her mind and breathed deeply.
Anything—anything was better than sinking into a decline. With her usual firmness of nature, she set her delightfully dainty foot forward, then emitted a yelp of pain as her ankle twisted hopelessly upon a clump of vines that had enmeshed themselves upon the path.
“Double damnation!” The oath was out before she had time to reflect upon the entirely unladylike nature of the tone. She set down the carefully corded bandbox and examined her foot. The delicate, turquoise kid boots—her one concession to vanity—were still tangled in the muddy vines. She brushed them off quickly, then set one ungloved finger to the aching spot.
The pain told her instantly that the sprain was more serious than she had first feared. In despair she looked at her trunk, merrily corded in canary yellow and weighing, to her mind, a ton at least. She shifted herself off the footpath and considered her narrowing options.
If she did not make Kingsbury by nightfall, she would undoubtedly miss her connection to Staines, thereby angering the dowager countess, who would have sent a
Fortunately, her serviceable blue merino, whilst not the very height of fashion, was nonetheless the very thing for a crisp spring morning: warm and remarkably resistant to damp. It was in this position, then, that she shifted her plain, untrimmed chip straw hat, resigned herself to her fate and settled for what might turn out to be a long and tiresome vigil.
After what seemed like an age but was really closer to the far side of an hour, Miss Derringer began to feel the faintest prickle of misgiving. Surely, by now, a cart should have passed her way, or a horse and trap. Even a lone rider would have been comforting. She shifted position and winced. Her boot, once modishly loose, now seemed jammed to her swelling foot. She fiddled furiously with the laces, but the damage was done. The kidskin, she realized, would have to be cut, but since she had nothing so practical at hand as a knife, she desisted from her efforts.
Anne startled and swung round, as best she could under the circumstances. Too late she realized the indecorous manner in which her long, slender legs revealed themselves to appreciative eyes.
Colour danced to her cheeks as she immediately swept the blue merino down over lengths and lengths of excellent white linen petticoats.
The gentleman, clad indecently in buckskins that left little to the imagination and a severe dark riding coat that appeared faultless in its elegance, discarded his gun and advanced a trifle closer.
To Anne, who had fretted that no one would find her that day, the gentleman’s amused chuckle came as a mixed blessing. On the one hand, she had undoubtedly been found; on the other ... well, she did not wish to reflect on the other, for her pain was suddenly forgotten in the confusion of several emotions that seemed to have taken over her foolish, dreadfully immodest person.