R u i n e d
a d a r k R e g e n c y r o m a n c e
The duke of Ashton sits at the Opera at Vauxhall Gardens, bored out of his mind, and plans murder.
He curses the day that brought the little governess, destitute and sad, at his door eight months ago, to upset his careless if a bit meaningless existence.
How could he have guessed the terrible, evil secrets she was hiding? And now that he knows all, the truth appears wilder, even more despicable than even he could have imagined. He hadn’t counted on losing his heart to her, of course, but he did.
What he doesn’t know is that a tendril of the shadows of madness and sin that followed Beatrice to his door is still out there, looking for something to devour.
The only one who can save him from the darkness is the girl herself, but he knows he’ll never see her again. He who once prided himself on his indifference to other human beings, feels his chest constrict with pain every time he even thinks of her.
Beatrice, smart, gentle, kind-hearted, lovely.
A perfect blend of darkness and light, this Regency reverse retelling of Jane Eyre will break your heart as well as uplift it.
Readers say about R u i n e d:
This book reminds me of These old shades [by Georgette Heyer]. M.C. Frank is a terrific writer and her characters are beautifully written. I enjoyed it a lot and now she has a fan!
I am so hooked...
Lovely story -compelling twist on a classic, beautifully written prose, believable and great pacing.
This is an interesting take [on a classic tale] and M.C. Frank writes it very well. Her turn of phrase is lovely and the detailing is particularly good.
I am so hooked...
Lovely story -compelling twist on a classic, beautifully written prose, believable and great pacing.
This is an interesting take [on a classic tale] and M.C. Frank writes it very well. Her turn of phrase is lovely and the detailing is particularly good.
The writing was gorgeous and everything from the setting to the character development... was pretty much perfect. I loved it. It was so beautifully written and grabbed me right from the very first paragraph. It truly was such a wonderful experience to get to know Beatrice and Dominic.
~This Bookish Endeavor on youtube
You'll never read a darker tale.
Get this gorgeous, heart-breaking and intensely
romantic historical novel for only 99 cents now!
~This Bookish Endeavor on youtube
You'll never read a darker tale.
Get this gorgeous, heart-breaking and intensely
romantic historical novel for only 99 cents now!
A few paperback ARCs are still available. If you would like to request one for review, just go here. I usually give out books to anyone who offers to review them honestly, so I'll get back to you within a day!
Read on for a free sample of Ruined, and get ready to swoon.
Read on for a free sample of Ruined, and get ready to swoon.
Tomorrow it ends.
With that fortifying thought, Dominic Edward Halifax, ninth duke of Ashton, raised a monocle to a bored eye, crossing his long legs before him with a languid movement, his posture drooping with a tediousness that did not in the least diminish its gracefulness. Egad, but when had the opera at Vauxhall turned so morbid? He would give anything to be seated by his own hearth right now instead of being ogled by all these painted creatures and simpering misses hopeful of a great catch before the end of the Season.
What madness had prompted him to choose this infernal place for his amusement tonight? The duke examined an imaginary speck of dust on his cream silk sleeve and exhaled a long and delicate sigh.
“My dear Ashton,” a jovial and good-mannered, if somewhat coarser than his own voice said to his left, “well, isn’t this an improvement!”
There was no need for his grace to turn his head in order to identify the owner of the voice. There were few people, if indeed any, who would dare address him so casually when he was in a black mood, and even fewer who would be allowed entrance inside his opera box unannounced.
“Be gone, Charles,” said his grace cruelly, “I let you drag me here against my will, but I’ve no taste for your theatrics.”
Encouraged by this heart-warming speech, Charles, Lord Burns, a young, fashionable viscount of the same age as the duke, sat himself down next to his grace, and offered his hand, palm up. The duke took his sweet time in handing over a blue and gold snuff-box to his friend, but at last the viscount’s patience was rewarded by a couple of powerful sniffs.
“So,” that worthy gentleman began, “are you out of the dumps yet?”
His grace turned to look at lord Burns, thus revealing a pleasing countenance, even though at present it appeared to be scowling in a most frightening manner and a strong Grecian profile and long, dark curls that crowned his white forehead in a most intricate à
la Brutus hairstyle. At present his steely blue eyes were rather dimmed by boredom and a slight indulgence in spirits, but in general they were thought to be by far his best feature, as well as a reason for ladies of all ages to swoon for a mere glance from them.
He was older by some eight months than his pleasant companion, lord Burns, for as it happened they had met during their teenage years at Oxford: they were both eight and twenty. Still, to observe them together, one would think him his superior by many years and a great deal of world-weariness, at least judging from the way his lips were pressed thinly together.
“You are going to make a nuisance of yourself again, aren’t you?” his grace answered lord Burns pleasantly. “I suppose it is too much to ask for an evening of relative peace.”
“Killed anybody lately?” the viscount continued, leaning back.
“Not since last Thursday,” Ashton answered him easily. He lifted a well-formed eyebrow to send a quizzical look of enquiry to him, before turning an indifferent eye upon the stage.
Lord Burns bent forward in his chair, leaning his elbows on his knees, a habit he hadn’t gotten over since his childhood.
“My dear Dominic,” he said, placing his hand on his grace’s arm and taking his life in his own hands by so doing, for the duke passionately hated to be touched, “I wish you would simply grieve her loss. It would not make you any less… respectable or fashionable, I assure you. Not in my eyes, or in anyone else’s. This spree of duels you have begun on, that always must result in a fatality, since you are the Nonpareil…”
His grace lifted a white hand to stop him.
“Not always,” he amended. “Not anymore.” Not since the girl was what he meant to say, but damn him if he’d be driven to mention her to Burns. It was none of his blasted business anyway. “Why, only last week,” he continued, peering at the crowds through his monocle, “that boy from Kent… I forget his name, but I assure you I merely winded him.”
Lord Burns gave out an exasperated sigh. “Ashton,” he said slowly and significantly, trying to contain his anger, “the ‘boy from Kent’ was your own cousin, thrice removed. You said you wanted to teach him a lesson. And you broke his arm!”
“I suppose you will come to the point of what you mean to say to me in your own good time,” his grace said coolly.
It was nobody’s business but his own why he was slowly making his way into the lower ranks of the London society, picking duels here and there, keeping up his usual style of violence and carelessness. But now there was a reason behind it. He was planning murder.
Slowly but surely the circle had been closing in. And now, finally, after tedious weeks on end of careful research, he’d found the man he was looking for. As he had predicted, the ton had thought nothing of it: everyone supposed he was challenging him in one of his usual dark moods, two nights ago at a notorious gaming hell. No matter that such establishments weren’t his style; everyone expected of the duke of Ashton an outrage per week -at least. He’d let the scoundrel have his pick of rapiers, swords or pistols, whatever blasted weaponry his cowardly nature preferred; and finally, tomorrow he’d meet him at dawn in front of two witnesses.
And then -what a tragic accident- he’d kill him, no one the wiser of the true reason behind this particular death. After all he was known as ‘the devil’ already.
He didn’t care if he’d be exiled to Paris till kingdom come after that; the sole thing keeping him alive and sane was this task he’d set for himself, and once it was completed he cared not whether he lived or died.
“Blast it all, Dom,” Burns was saying in exasperation, “by gad I wish you would stop acting like a child.”
“And I wish you wouldn’t scowl so at me, Charles. I suppose neither of us will get our wishes. Not tonight at any rate.”
“Do you…” Burns swallowed before continuing, but still he would not abandon the effort. “I suppose you still have… feelings for her.”
Before the duke could do more than send a smoldering look of pure murder his way, they were thankfully interrupted by the door creaking open. His grace suppressed the urge to groan aloud. Who was it this time? Hadn’t he suffered enough this night already?
The first thing he saw were her slippers.
They were showing a tiny bit underneath her heavy brocade skirts; little, delicate moccasins that hinted at little, delicate feet, made of satin blue with a silvery thread of embroidery showing through. His grace’s fastidious gaze traveled upward through his monocle, and was satisfied to discover that she was dressed like the night itself, in a fashionably cut, low-waisted gown of a dark blue, iridescent color, with small stars sewn into the material, so that it sparkled as she moved under the candlelight.
As though mesmerized, Lord Burns lifted his gaze to the narrow little waist and then to the small face that was, to his dismay, concealed by an intricate mask ending in a long ribbon which in its turn was clutched in an elegant, gloved hand. Not even her hair was showing, as it was obvious that the powdered confection she wore on her head was a wig, with colorful birds and butterflies balancing on the thick white curls, and framing her white cheeks in a most charming manner.
His grace too saw all of this, but no one would suspect his drooping eyelids of holding as much curiosity as the wide-opened ones of his friend.
The woman was scarcely tall enough to be more than a girl, and it was obvious by her attire and the way she carried herself that she wasn’t a courtesan, finding her way to his box in need for a few coins.
Though he would scarcely have admitted it to himself, his grace was waiting with a faint interest to hear the first words her surprisingly unpainted and childish-looking lips would utter. He was not to be given that pleasure, however.
The woman did not utter a word. She merely thrust forward her small fist, right above his hand, as though expecting it to open and receive her offering. Ashton, for once startled out of his cool and bored exterior, turned his blue eyes on hers. The woman flinched and opened her palm, almost impulsively, dropping something on his lap. Then, lowering his eyes and uttering a sound that resembled a sob, she fled. Immediately upon recovering his wits, a few heartbeats later, Lord Burns rushed to follow her. But she was gone. No trace of her remained.
After chasing her in vain down the hallway for a few minutes, he returned to the duke’s box, only to be surprised by a peculiar spectacle.
Ashton, eyes ablaze with anger and lips pressed until they almost disappeared, was feeding the woman’s note to the flame of one of the cream candles that illuminated the elegant opera box. Then, without so much as a word, he turned and exited, just as on the stage the prim donna entered the throes of her theatrical death.
He rushed out, relishing the chance to stretch his legs after sitting in that confounded opera box. He walked in a hurry through the moonlit gardens and shrubs concealing squealing lovers, intending to reach his barouche and be home in less than half and hour.
But, alas, it was not to be that he would find peace so soon.
A vulgar man, not slightly inebriated, pushed himself abruptly in his way -a man whose name Ashton, if he ever knew it, could not at present bring to mind. A few of the man’s cronies surrounded him menacingly, but their eyes had a glazed, drunken look to match that of their friend’s, and their presence failed to inspire any emotion but tedium in Ashton.
“D…dare you challenge me here and now?” the man stuttered and waved his sword unsteadily towards the duke.
“With pleasure,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation, neither calling to mind nor caring to learn what reason the man had to hold a grudge against him. He extended his clenched fists.
“En gua… grardre,” the man said, in an effort to appear collected, and thrust his sword towards his grace’s chest.
The man’s friends began spitting obscenities, and scattered for fear of being injured. There was no need. His grace avoided masterfully the man’s first, awkward thrust, and then promptly punched him on the nose, drawing his cork.
Then he stepped over his prone, moaning form and resumed walking.
In the distance he could discern the candle-lamps burning on his barouche, and he quickened his step to reach it before the crowds began to emerge from the Opera.
He was halfway to the street. He was watching the groom ahead gathering the reins in one hand, anticipating his terror when he would tell him to push the team forward as though the very devil was on their heels, when he froze. He’d heard a rustle in the leaves behind him, but at first he had paid no heed to it, expecting it to be a wandering drunkard or a bird of the night. But now he heard it again, and there was something definitively human as well as desperate about the movement that gave him pause.
No, that wasn’t it.
There was something familiar about it, strange as it would seem. Ashton turned on his heel. What he saw was the last thing he had expected.
It was a ghost.
Not just any ghost, too. It was well-known to him, almost as intimately as his own shadow.
It was her ghost.
As she approached him, the duke finally lost his cool. He stepped back a few paces, almost losing his balance in the process, his legs unsteady under him. Then he crouched down and hung his head between his knees, for a sudden faintness overtook him, dark spots dancing before his eyes.
Without realizing it, he gave out a low rumble, his voice cracking like a wounded animal’s. “Why must you still torment me?” he whispered, knowing no one could hear him in the deserted gravel path.
When he looked up again and stood, he saw that her ghost was still there, transparent in the dim light of the lanterns that adorned the road on either side. She was now making her way to the left, where a small gazebo stood, dark pink columns entwined with blood-red roses. She stepped lightly on the first step, moving as though she was weightless, her white wig gleaming in the moonlight. She didn’t turn to beckon him, but by this point Ashton had accepted his fate.
With a sharp intake of breath, he advanced to meet her, his mind involuntarily returning many months in the past, to the first time he had ever set eyes on her.
This was only the fifth governess he was interviewing, and by the looks of her, she was every part as unsuitable as the rest.
The duke of Ashton brought a slender white finger to his temple. This was going to take longer that he had expected upon undertaking the task. His headache was worsening by the minute.
Why was this so blasted complicated? He’d endeavored to hoist the task of hiring a chaperone for his ward to his secretary, Mr. Frost, but the first two he’d hired had proved inadequate within as many days, fleeing his house in tears.
Ashton grimaced to himself.
The chit was nothing more than a spoilt, selfish babe, entirely unfit for genteel company as of yet, but that was hardly his problem. Was it too much to ask that he’d find a drab lady of forty years of age or thereabouts, to accompany her to the milliner’s and teach her to hold her tongue?
All he wanted was to be left in peace to continue his mindless existence of sport, pleasure and the occasional glass of port. Even these occupations were, of course, beginning to lose their luster, still they were a way to pass one’s earthly days, especially if one found oneself neither inclined for company nor delighting in it, disillusioned of society’s manners, and with a vastness of wealth at one’s disposal.
Ashton placed his hands on the heavy oak desk that smelled faintly of old paper and tobacco. Daylight was streaming through the spacious windows, and outside a bird was trilling annoyingly in the chilly sunshine. The girl in front of him watched him, silent, waiting to be spoken to. She appeared neither eager nor indifferent, and yet her steady, honest gaze gave him a feeling that something wasn’t quite right about her.
His grace stole a glance at the paper bearing her credentials.
“Miss Devon, is it?” he asked coolly. “Miss Beatrice Devon, of Darbyshire?”
The girl -she was scarcely more than that- nodded seriously. She hardly knew enough of him to be able to understand what one of these icy looks of his meant. She would find out soon enough.
Her appearance was rather pleasing to the eye; she was short and smallish looking, a bit on the slender side, but her cheeks were blooming with the pink color of health and her neck was long, slender and swanlike. Her dark curls were meticulously combed back on her head, trying to give her face a look of severity which eluded it, still in general her appearance gave off a muted air of elegance. She wasn’t dressed elegantly though or, he marked as he took note of her frayed pelisse, even respectably.
“Miss Devon,” he repeated, “I would be obliged to you if you were to stop wasting my time. You are clearly ill-suited for this position.”
At that, he saw a spark of fire in her warm, clear eyes. “You cannot have read my credentials,” she answered with a touch of authority in her voice that he hadn’t expected.
“Oh but I did,” he retorted. “The question is, did you?”
“I beg your pardon?” She looked perplexed, and perhaps even charming, if a fellow was inclined to admire this sort of innocent, waif-like look in a woman. He himself wasn’t. He tapped a long finger to the papers in front of him.
“Or, can you read it, I should say?”
The girl appeared unfazed by his extraordinary question. She met his eyes unwaveringly. “You appear to have doubts,” she replied calmly, “as to my reading abilities.”
“Well, how else am I to explain your presence here? I placed an advertisement for a chaperone for my ward, a young… Miss of about sixteen years of age. I assume you are not much older than that yourself?”
“I will be nineteen this April, your grace,” the girl answered with dignity. “And I humbly presume to tell you that I would be the best choice for a companion and chaperone for your young ward.”
“Pray, enlighten me,” Ashton dripped with sarcasm.
She inclined her head as though he had spoken with true civility. “I understand, your grace,” she began gently, and for the first time Ashton realized that the girl might be young -too young indeed- but she had more grace and refinement in the way she spoke and carried herself than most ladies of his acquaintance. “I understand that the young girl in your care is in somewhat difficult… circumstances.”
“She is unmanageable,” he said simply.
The girl’s eyes sparkled with appreciation at his simple statement. “Would then not a chaperone closer to her own age be viewed as more of a companion, and therefore be more willingly listened to and taken into account?”
The duke considered for a minute. There was some truth in her words. “And what makes you think, a mere child yourself, that you are the person she will listen to, even if I cannot inspire her respect?”
The girl’s mouth trembled with a secret laughter. Ashton’s cool exterior dropped like a cloak. Was she, a mere slip of a girl, laughing at him? But the expression disappeared from her face immediately, and he persuaded himself he had imagined it.
“You may take me on for a week, as a trial period,” she pronounced majestically, as though she was the one doing him a favor.
His grace stifled a chuckle.
He hadn’t laughed in so long, his throat was rusty with it. “Wait outside,” he waved to the girl, and she obeyed at once.
That was more that the other ones had done so far, he thought. She was pleasing to look at, somewhat witty and obedient. Her age, appearance and birth, however, were so much against her that it was, of course, out of the question that he employ her in his household.
Dominic Edward Halifax, or as he was known since inheriting the title from his cousin a mere few months ago, the ninth duke of Ashton, had earned his reputation as a cold-hearted rake from years of living the scandalous life of a bachelor with a complete indifference -indeed, scorn- for the rules that reigned over the ton. His fine Grecian profile, crowned by thick black curls, which was infallibly styled by his long-suffering valet in the most elegant of styles, and his strong, athletic body, sculpted by long hours spent boxing at Jackson’s, succeeded in making him one of the handsomest men of marriageable age and status ever to hold such an illustrious title. Yet his steely, blue eyes, had a coldness in their depths that made them appear void of any sentiment, thus frightening many a lady who dreamed of conquering his heart.
Indeed it was doubtful if his grace was in possession of such an organ at all, given the way he acquired and discarded mistresses with no thought to pre-existing husbands or amorous feelings on their part.
He had suffered, some claimed, a great deal of disappointment in his younger years, and yet no one seemed to think that this fact, though striking a chord of sympathy in the bosoms of hopeful young debutantes, was any excuse for the trail of broken hearts the duke seemed to leave behind him every Season, nor for the cynical way he behaved to all but two of his closest personal friends.
When, a few months ago, rumors had begun that he had been left with the daughter of his late cousin the duke, the dowagers shook their heads with doom and the young bucks looked about them with a gleam in their eye, sensing that a new and well-feathered prey would soon be dropped in their midst, ready for the plucking. In the most elegant of salons where ladies lounged after their morning coffee selecting designs for their daughters from The Ladies’ Journal, it was whispered that the duke’s late cousin had once been entangled in an erotic triangle with the duke, then a mere marquis with expectations, when they were both no more than eighteen years of age. The fact that now the daughter of his sworn enemy would reside right beneath his roof and be his own responsibility as well, gave many a flutter in scandal-monging bosoms, pushing a few thoughtless but not ill-meaning ladies to even frighten themselves with talk of intrigue, evil plots and dark corners where, horror of horrors! murder lurked.
Whatever the actual case was, the fact remained that his grace’s ward, Lady Adelina Halifax, had been left motherless at infancy, and consequently had been brought up very ill by an overindulgent father, away from any sort of beneficial society. Ashton had elected to omit any mention of the scandal surrounding her father to the governess, but had kept her abreast of the basic facts of his niece’s upbringing, leaving the rest to her discretion.
He had no thought whatsoever of this slip of a girl bringing about any other outcome in his ward than a few failed efforts, a flood of tears and an exit dramatic enough to test the wooden countenance of his butler.
Thus it came about that a mere three days later he returned to his townhouse in High Street after a brief absence to his country seat with every hope of being amused by the little chaperone’s efforts. The last thing he expected to find was his ward transformed from a spoilt, mischievous child, to an orderly -albeit green and unruly- young lady, yet that was exactly the case. Adelina still had a long way to go if she was to be ready to make her debut in time, for the Season would be upon them in but a few weeks, but the duke knew that, whatever his objections, he would be a fool to let such a miracle-worker slip through his fingers.
The most any other of the middle-aged, moth-smelling matronly women he had interviewed had done, was to scold the girl until she gave way to hysterics and they found their way to the door without him having to even dismiss them.
So stay she would. In spite of this surprising decision, he let the governess wonder for many more days about her position before confirming her employment. If however he was hoping to entertain himself by watching her squirm, he was disappointed. It seemed that while awaiting on his verdict, Miss Devon was fast becoming friends with Adelina.
Lady Adelina Halifax was a tall, beautiful, spoilt girl with luscious blond curls and fresh, pink lips, accustomed to being entitled to everything the best of money could offer and refusing to accept anything than her own way. Her father, the slightly older and much more traditional-minded first cousin of the present duke, had died a few months ago, brotherless and friendless, and it had occurred to him before his death, that it would be a fortunate thing indeed if his poor, lovely daughter was to be brought to London and live with his morally depraved cousin after his own passing. Therefore, he left him his daughter in his will, like he did with his most prized possessions, stating that his ‘poor motherless daughter’ was to be entitled to the best that society and his fortune combined could offer.
Now his own fortune, though considerable, had been nothing compared to that of Ashton’s -who was already being hailed by Society as ‘a veritable Croesus’- and, that being the case, it was indeed a wonder that his grace should even consider taking upon himself such a great encumbrance as a young girl completely untrained in the ways of society; but still, that is what he did.
Having done this, of course, he seemed eager to evade his responsibilities, or at least to postpone them for as long as he could: it had been a complete fortnight after Beatrice’s first interview with him, when she was once again called to his study.
Miss Beatrice Devon had celebrated her eighteenth birthday a few months ago, still she had enough of experience with the ways of the world to know that her young charge had a bevy of secrets following her. Still she wasn’t without them herself -secrets, that is- that she couldn’t understand the duke’s tight-lipped ways, although that hardly meant he didn’t irritate her to no end.
A near lifetime spent looking over her shoulder, fearing and preparing herself for the worst, had trained her as nothing else could in endless patience, so she didn’t mind Adelina’s temper tantrums. Indeed, she had taught herself to be grateful for this position, taxing as it was, in the duke’s household, for it meant for her a security she could have hardly dreamt of when she’d left her home one rainy night two weeks prior to answering the duke’s advertisement for a chaperone.
She was therefore reluctant to obey the duke’s second summons, certain that it meant her trial period was over and she would have to pack her meager belongings and run God knows where, hoping for another unbelievable piece of good fortune to drop in her lap. She was almost certain that such an experience wouldn’t be repeated. She had read his grace’s advertisement in the Herald upon arriving to London, down to her last pennies, the shabby dress she had disguised herself in torn and damp, her stomach growling with hunger. Upon reading it she had practically fallen to her knees and thanked the good Lord for saving her life.
Because, not to put too fine a point upon it, that’s what this position was: salvation.
And now she was about to lose it.
Going back was not an option, but dying destitute in the workhouse definitely was, and yet Beatrice tried bravely to put all such dismal thoughts from her thoughts. First and foremost in her mind was the determination that no one would suspect her of duplicity. As far as the duke of Ashton and everyone in his employ was concerned, she was a well-educated country girl, simple and pure, looking for a way to support herself and her impoverished orphan siblings.
She was determined to stick to this story if it was the last thing she did.
It was a crisp November morning, and Adelina was dressed in her smart new riding outfit, ready for a ride at the park.
Miss Devon had spent many a painful morning there with her, at a far earlier hour than the fashionable crowds appeared, trying to teach her proper riding etiquette, and so far she felt that her efforts hadn’t seen the justice they deserved. Still, she put a smile on her face, smoothed the worn-out pleats of her nondescript grey dress, and knocked on her charge’s door.
Adelina was seated at her elegant vanity and was occupied with making her lady’s maid cry.
Beatrice took in the situation at a glance, and, approaching the girl, she nodded to the tortured maid to leave the room.
Then, while trying to avoid Adelina’s flailing arms, she set about the task of calming her. First, she touched her hair. Her half-finished coif was a thing to behold, but soon enough, under the dexterous and capable fingers of Miss Devon, it began to take form. In only a few minutes, the girl’s hair was as beautiful as if a French maid, trained in the renown salons of Paris, had coiffed it.
“There,” Beatrice said with a note of accomplishment in her voice.
Adelina regarded herself in the mirror with a dissatisfied gaze. “Now, bring me my hat,” she said, royally. Behind her, Miss Devon’s reflection stood out in stark contrast, her small, slight figure almost fading to oblivion next to Adelina’s dimpled, blonde looks, her brown hair pulled tight in a bun underneath her hat and her pale, little face smiling in self-deprecation.
Beatrice stifled the urge to sigh. “You will remember to speak with a manner appropriate for a young lady of society,” she said, her tone gentle and firm all at once, “even to your maid.”
“I am tired of her incompetence,” Adelina spat.
“And yet,” Beatrice answered calmly, “speaking like a spoiled child that isn’t yet out of the nursery will not get her work done any sooner or with better quality.”
Adelina tossed her pretty curls with indignation. “I am ready,” she declared. “Let us go.”
“Not yet, my dear,” Miss Devon said, letting the authority creep back into her voice. “Your uncle and guardian first desires an interview with me. And besides, there is the matter of apologizing to your maid.”
At that, Adelina bristled. “Let her apologize to me! Whoever heard of a lady apologizing to her maid. And as for my uncle, we have not seen him inside this house for a fortnight. Now that he finally wants to talk to you, you may tell him he’s to wait. After our ride, you are welcome to talk with him to no end.”
“In that case,” Beatrice replied quietly, “I wish to inform you that you are in no way prepared to enter the park at this fashionable hour, your manner leaving much to be desired in the way of civility and refinement, and therefore our ride is cancelled.” And she took off her own bonnet, in a dramatic fashion.
Adelina turned on her, eyes ablaze. “What?!” she screamed, close to hysterics.
Beatrice was at the door, her escape almost complete, when Adelina rushed to her and slapped her soundly on the left cheek.
“And,” she said, to add insult to injury, “I am not even sorry for that.”
With this, she slammed the door in her governess’ face and went to throw herself on her bed with the commendable intention of spending the rest of the day in misery, crying her pretty eyes ou.
Meanwhile Beatrice, cheek smarting and eyes fighting back hot tears, rushed to her room to survey the damage. She would not admit it to anyone, but this act of violence from her charge had given life to most unwelcome and painful memories, and as a result she found she needed more than a few moments to compose herself.
Then she dared look in her mirror.
The room she had been given for her temporary stay at his grace’s Townhouse was a cozy little corner overlooking the back gardens, with a simple tapestry of light green stripes covering the walls, a dresser, a small vanity and a soft, narrow bed. When she had been first shown in to it by a disgruntled maid, she had felt her eyes misting as though at a glimpse of heaven. Now her tears had quite another cause.
On beholding her own visage on the mirror she cringed, and hastened to wipe her red-rimmed eyes and put a cool cloth, slightly dipped in water, over the angry red mark that Adelina’s emotion had left on her cheek. Her efforts were mostly in vain, as she had feared, and the little pocket-watch she kept fastened to her waist like an old-fashioned housekeeper, showed the time to be a quarter past eleven.
She must hurry or his grace would be in a fine black mood by the time she got downstairs. She was taking a step towards the door, when she stopped short, her breath knocked out of her as though she’d been punched in the stomach.
“You won’t elude me forever, you stupid she-devil!”
The rough voice reaches Beatrice’s ears through the thick drapes. She has concealed herself on the window-seat, a thick volume of Shakespeare’s tragedies clasped to her chest. She intended to spend the afternoon here, reading, safe from intruding eyes, but he’s found her. Fear is keeping her immobile.
“Please, papa,” she whispers.
“Come, show me your face.” The voice turns soft, pleading, moist, and Beatrice fights the urge to vomit. Her stomach clenches at the thought of what usually follows the man’s soft, pleading voice.
She feels cold sweat run over her spine as she hears the door to the library creak open, and she scrunches her eyes closed and leans forward, fighting the urge to swoon. She won’t let it happen to herself again, she vowed after the last time. She’ll be awake the whole time, turning her fear and disgust into energy, planning her escape, planning his murder.
“Beatrice, my love, don’t hide from me…”
He’s getting closer.
She stills entirely. Her only hope is that his voice has started getting rough again, slurring with drink and anger. Maybe he’ll only hit her this time.
“Our father, who art in heaven,” she begins inwardly. “Hallowed be thy n…”
She doesn’t have time for more.
The curtains are snatched back abruptly and the next thing she knows she’s thrown to the ground, her head pounding in agony, the metallic taste of pain in her mouth, her nose choking with blood.
She fights against losing consciousness for a full five minutes of the beating, and when she finally feels she can’t hold on any longer, it’s with a prayer on her lips that she lets the darkness swallow her.
She prays that he’ll spare her half-dead body from his evil appetites. Or, if these can’t be stopped, that today will finally be the day his slaps kill her.
Blinking her eyes to dispel the memory, Miss Devon squared her shoulders, loosened a curl to drape over the mark on her cheek, and hurried down the stairs to the library.
“It’s over now,” she whispered to herself, shivering slightly. “Stop it. You’re safe now.” Still, she couldn’t prevent herself from stealing a quick glance out the window as she descended the wide staircase.
All was silent in the sunshine, no dark figure lurking in the shadows, no heavy step hurrying towards her, no burning breath echoing in the silence.
She breathed a sigh of relief and stood before the library’s door, waiting for the footman to announce her, but he merely motioned at her to get in.
A huge fire was blazing in the hearth, but the silence was complete and for a moment she relaxed, thinking she was alone.
“You certainly took your time,” a bored voice pronounced from the general direction of the French windows.
“Your grace.” She hurried to curtsy before him.
He barely lifted his gaze to acknowledge her, so she apologized for the delay. Then she fell silent and watched him.
He was seated in a large armchair, his long, slender form sprawled elegantly across the velvet tapestry. His white hands emerged from the folds of his laced sleeves to delicately hold a thick book, and the emerald ring he wore on the little finger of his right hand caught a ray of the sun and sparkled as he turned the page, seemingly oblivious to her presence.
As always, he was dressed immaculately from the top of his dark, luscious curls to the shining tip of his Hessians -he was dressed for riding, Beatrice surmised. His cravat was a masterpiece of tumbling folds, and his simply-cut dark blue coat must have required a super-human effort on the part of his valet to put on his person, so exactly was it sculpted to his slim figure.
When she had first set eyes on him, she had been struck by his appearance, for there was a heart-wrenching combination of intimidation and beauty on his person that left her slightly out of breath. She knew enough of men, of course, to know that the darkest beastly nature could dwell beneath glorious looks as his, and she had quickly gotten herself in check.
At the present, however, there was nothing charming about his grace’s posture, as he appeared every bit the oaf he no doubt meant to appear, ignoring her most rudely and making her cool her heels while he turned the pages of his book in a most irritating manner.
“I understand you to consider yourself a woman of no mean comprehension,” he drawled at last, without lifting his gaze to meet hers. “Am I then to suppose that you have no inkling of what this interview is concerning?”
Miss Devon strove to keep the right side of her face in the shadows, which was no mean feat since the room was flooded in sunlight, in case his grace decided to look up from his book.
“I fear you mean to dismiss me, your grace,” she answered simply.
“And why would you fear that?” he asked after a long-suffering pause.
How absurd, that she should address this man, a little more than a youth, so formally! Surely inheriting a dukedom at this young age -he couldn’t be a day over twenty-nine, maybe younger- hadn’t done him any favors. His brow was arrogant beneath his immaculately combed hair, and his lips appeared firm and as though they’d forgotten how to stretch in a smile.
Now why would she think of his lips? Or of the high angle of his cheekbones that made him look vulnerable when he turned to the side. Beatrice was suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to touch the tender spot under his eye, where a shadow of the boy he’d so recently been still lingered.
No, she must focus. He’d asked her something. She must keep her cool at all costs. She thought for a moment, deliberating what the correct reply would be. It would not do to show him how desperate she was to keep this post.
“Your grace…” she stopped to clear her voice, because an annoying tremor seemed to have crept into it. “Your grace appears to be a man of few words. And, if I may so add, even fewer appearances in this household. I surmised, therefore, that I had been summoned for no less important a reason than the one of my original interview.”
Here she abruptly stopped.
At last, his grace had lifted his piercing eyes to her face and seemed to fasten them on her own in a most disconcerting manner. She could not but lower her gaze and hope that her emotion was not entirely visible to that shrewd gaze.
“I see,” the duke said and stood. He paced the carpet for a second, turning his back to her, but she did not let herself relax. “Instead of pleading for your position, Miss Devon,” he went on, in mockingly surprised tones, “you appear to be making an attempt at chastising me. So,” at that he abruptly turned to face her, and she felt her knees tremble at the hostility in his eyes, “you mean perhaps to tell me that I am not enough involved in my ward’s affairs?”
Oh dear, Beatrice thought miserably, this does not seem at all promising. The duke lifted a slender eyebrow, waiting for her reply. She could apologize again, but he seemed to already anticipate such a reply and to mock her in advance for it.
“That was indeed what I thought, your grace,” she said as quietly as she could, “but it was ill-mannered of me to hint at it, especially so soon after having entered your employ. And for that I apologize.”
Ashton found himself at a rather odd position while listening to the governess’ answer. Namely, he found himself fighting back laughter. That was quite out of the known sphere of his hitherto existence. “I am to hire you then, am I?” he said, more softly that he had yet spoken.
“I thought you already had,” Miss Devon replied demurely.
For a second time Ashton tried in vain to suppress a smile that threatened to blossom on his lips.
Then he turned severe again.
“I trust you will not give me reason to regret my decision, Miss Devon,” he said in such a serious tone that the girl quaked before him.
He was surprised to see that she curtsied deeply in reply, no words leaving her lips. That act alone was sufficient to spark a glimpse of respect within him. He was reluctant to trust, let alone grant his respect to anyone, and much more to tiny governesses who didn’t know when to keep their mouths shut.
Yet this one seemed as though she was holding herself back for whatever reason, her eyes luminously turned to his, thanking him silently beyond words, even as her lips refused to acknowledge it. She was exercising a restraint rarely seen in a female, and for that he would give her his reluctant approval.
He hoped though that she didn’t fancy herself a creature of mystery and hidden depth, for he abhorred secrecy above all things, especially in those he trusted to be in his employ.
Well, we’ll see, he thought.
“I should also inform you,” he added out loud, “although I must leave the details of your future to my secretary, that you are to immediately remove yourself and my ward from this household, which has already harbored you both for far too long.”
She raised questioning eyes to his.
“You cannot possibly remain in the house of a confirmed bachelor for the Season,” he explained. “I have made arrangements with my aunt, Lady Augusta Edgerton, an amiable widow of regrettable health. She is currently settled in one of my own houses, in Grosvenor Square, and has gracefully offered to act as hostess to you both for the duration of the Season and beyond, supposing that your efforts in finding a husband for my ward prove unsuccessful.”
A pregnant silence followed this severe pronouncement.
His grace deigned to curl his lip in ironic amusement. “You press your lips so firmly, Miss Devon,” he said, “that I cannot help but ask: which part of my speech has offended you?”
“Well,” Miss Devon began, “I did not speak at once, for I was not certain you would wish for my opinion, but truly I cannot help but feel that the wishes you just now expressed were deeply wrong. Indeed, every sensibility must be offended.”
“My dear girl,” his grace replied, his amusement turning fast to anger, “whatever can I have said that made you think I wish for your opinion?”
“You cannot in earnest want her wed, sir?” she asked bluntly, looking straight into his eyes.
Ashton froze for a split second.
Then, as abruptly as it had left him, his aloofness seemed to settle again upon him like a garment. “Indeed I do,” he said, once again bored. “What else am I to do with her, after all?”
“She is but sixteen years of age,” Miss Devon insisted, “and very ill brought up. Indeed, from what I have so far gathered, she has had a most lonely and inappropriate childhood.”
“Has she now?”
Miss Devon bent her head down, seeking to conceal her expression from him. His eyebrows met as he considered what kind of gossip concerning the child’s circumstances of birth the governess had given credit to, and he rebuked himself for being disappointed by her readiness to believe the worst of him. He knew well enough that most of the ton laid Adelina’s parentage at his door, let alone that almost every living-room was ablaze with talk of how he wanted to get rid of her as soon as possible, by means either legitimate or illegitimate.
Still that was no reason for the annoyance the severe expression on the governess’ face caused him. He alone knew his own motives in wanting to get the chit respectably wed before a fortune hunter flattered her out of her meager brains, or, worse yet, her mother’s light morals drove her to a similar path as her. He had an obligation to her father, his cousin, to keep her from ending up in the same way, and he meant to keep it.
What other solution was available to him but marriage?
Was not the very presence of the blasted governess a testimony to his good intentions?
Yet Miss Devon’s eyes were clouded as though none of these considerations had passed through her small, tightly-braided head.
“Oh, I see,” Ashton said. “Before you were half in jest, but now you seriously disapprove of me.”
“I do not disapprove, your grace,” Miss Devon replied. “I am merely disillusioned. I had thought of you as someone… quite different. If this is what you wish for her, I suppose I must do my best to prepare her for the hardships of a married life. I trust you will want to approve of the bridegroom yourself?”
She had gone too far. Steel sparkled in the duke’s gaze, and Miss Devon took an involuntary step back, looking very much as though she wished the words unspoken, but it was too late for that.
In two strides Ashton was beside her, taking her arm in quite a painful grip and fixing her face with a scowl so cold that he saw the color leave her face. “Madam,” he spat, bending over her, his nose mere inches from hers, “do not presume to know me, or to tell me how I should conduct my affairs. This is the last time I have tolerated criticism from you. Is that understood?”
She could only nod imperceptibly, paralyzed by his closeness. He searched her eyes for a second, trying to get a grip on himself.
He was fuming; angry beyond words at himself, for letting this mere slip of a girl wrench out of him such emotion than he had rarely allowed himself to show.
She parted her rich, trembling lips and he watched them, mesmerized.
“Forgive me,” she whispered and drew her brows together as though she was in pain.
He remembered his grip on her and released her abruptly. She stumbled, then righted herself and rubbed her arm, wincing.
He turned aside, unable to watch. “You can go now,” he said at length.
She started towards the door with small, uncertain steps, as though her legs were trembling, and that was when he cracked.
He’d seen the mark of a slap on her face from the moment she walked in, out of the corner of his eye, although he’d appeared to be turning the pages of his book, indifferent to her very presence. His gut had tightened at the sight. Yet he hadn’t mentioned it, seeing how careful she was not to let him see her bruised cheek, willing to concede her this small privacy.
As she prepared to leave, however, he found he couldn’t let the matter simply drop. She was at the door when he once again walked to her, calling her name to halt her. “Miss Devon,” he said. “Let me look at you.”
He lifted her chin with one long finger and ran his thumb along the red mark on her cheek. His throat went dry. “Did she hit you?” he said quietly, almost in a whisper, “I wonder what you did to arouse her temper. Were you as harsh on her as you were on me? I think… I think you cannot have been.”
“I cancelled our excursion,” Miss Devon merely said, raising those soulful eyes to his. Ashton dropped his hand.
“Hmm…” was all he said, then he stepped away from her, moving to his abandoned book on the armchair, which he proceeded to tidy on the secretaire with very slow and deliberate movements.
Finally, he turned to her. “Tell your charge,” he said with dangerous calm, “that the next time she lifts a hand on you, I will kill her.”
Miss Devon stared at him. “Rather a violent threat for such a small crime, your grace,” she replied with some bewilderment.
“Think you so?” was the only reply she received before he abruptly changed the subject. “You will, I trust, be satisfied with the further details of your salary, Miss Devon, but as I cannot be detained any longer, you must discuss these with Mr. Frost.” He pointed to the door, where that worthy personage had appeared, serious and forbidding within his plain dark suit.
“As you wish, your grace,” Miss Devon said with dignity, drawing her small frame proudly up.
Ashton regarded her with some surprise, which he was thankfully soon able to overcome. Without a second glance or other words of farewell, he left her and strode to the door.
“Miss Devon, I presume,” said Mr. Frost in a serious, forbidding baritone as he approached her civilly.
He was a tall man of some thirty years, a confirmed bachelor devoted to the service of his grace. He had taken the measure of Lady Adelina’s chaperone at one glance and was quite reluctant to place any sort of trust in this slight, girlish person, who claimed to be a miracle worker.
“Mr. Frost, ma’am, at your service,” he coughed.
Beatrice curtsied politely. He was a youngish-looking man, whose severe demeanor belied his years, and she detected in his eye a hint of genius and a great deal of honesty which well satisfied her.
“Mr. Frost,” she repeated. “If we are either of us to survive the changes that will no doubt descend upon his grace’s household with the beginning of the Season, you must learn to call me Miss Beatrice and not stand upon so severe a ceremony with me. I confess I fear I will need a great deal of assistance.”
“Miss Beatrice,” he replied, bowing slightly, “I am honored to be your guide and assistant in everything you may require.”
She smiled at him, and twin dimples appeared on her cheeks. “Thank you.”
Mr. Frost, for once lost for words, stammered something intelligible.
That was the moment he lost his heart to her. From then on, he was to be her most devoted slave.
The very next morning, Miss Devon and her charge, Lady Adelina Halifax, moved to Grosvenor Square, in the elegant apartments of Lady Augusta Edgerton, a lady, Beatrice soon was to discover, much inclined for any kind of company, for she was confined to a chair.
Beatrice and Adelina settled in the house in Grosvenor Square quite nicely. They began to prepare heatedly for the Season, endeavoring to pass their time in the most genteel of ways imaginable by making an almost daily pilgrimage to the milliner’s, sewing flowers on new bonnets, perusing fashion journals and learning the infamous new dance, the waltz.
At the same time, little by little, Miss Devon managed to draw out of her charge the stories of her unhappy childhood and started attempting to mend what she could of her loneliness for a friend and her selfishness of nature. The first was easily done, but the second required much hard work on her part, including long and tedious arguments and many insults to her person, which she all bore with good grace for she had, in a short time, learned to love her young charge. Of his grace the duke, neither the young ladies nor the dowager saw anything for weeks, until a fortnight before Christmas, when he rode up to the house and stepped inside, ignoring Lady Augusta’s gentle-mannered steward, who took his heavily-caped green overcoat and mumbled that if his grace would but wait a second, he would go in and apprise her ladyship of-
“Dominic! Is that you? Are you come at last to visit your poor, invalid aunt?” that worthy lady’s accents reached him as soon as he had stepped further from the entrance, and he sighed, but not entirely in displeasure.
Ashton proceeded in the small parlor that he knew his aunt to prefer infallibly on such a gloomy winter’s morning as this, for it was the middle of December.
Perceiving her at her little invalid’s chair by the window, her eyes aglow and her pale, wrinkled cheeks rosy with pleasure, he felt a momentary pang at not having had the impulse to make his visit sooner. He approached her and, bending at one knee elegantly, kissed her hand.
“Most excellent of aunts,” he said, his lips rising in that contained, half-smile of his, “how entirely miserable I have been these past few months for missing your dear face.”
Upon hearing this sentimental speech, Lady Augusta burst into a much inelegant laughter and then thought it wise to slap his hand away, which was still holding her own, in a movement one uses to chastise a naughty but well-loved child.
“You know well, Dominic, as I do,” she said severely, “that coming to visit me was the last thing that crossed your mind this last half year!”
His grace tried to look ashamed of himself, failed, and got up to sit in a small brocade sofa across from her. “I find you well, aunt,” he said presently, abandoning his jovial tone for a more serious one.
“Better than expected,” his aunt smiled and petted his hand with her gnarled fingers that must surely be giving her a lot of pain. Then she endeavored to change the subject with an indifference that reminded him of himself, for he knew it to be feigned.
In fact, nothing was much amiss with her, except for the rheumatism that forbade her to walk. She was a small, slender woman, with refined character and manners as well as a goodness of disposition that made her much more of a mother figure for Ashton as he was growing up than his own indifferent, fashionable mother had ever been. She was a cousin of his father and, by her own choice, ever present in his childhood, inasmuch as she was childless herself, having survived a harsh and uncaring husband who only wed her for the sake of her money, and then promptly abandoned her for various mistresses.
“I am glad to hear it,” said his grace, speaking genuinely for once.
“Well, I can safely presume that you did not come here with the sole purpose of enquiring after my health, my dear boy,” his aunt replied affectionately.
“No, indeed I did not,” he answered he without any embarrassment. “How does my charge?”
On hearing this enquiry, Lady Augusta’s countenance darkened and his grace saw with concern a shadow pass over her brow.
“Do not tell me she has been giving you grief, madam?” he asked, leaning forward in his chair.
“Then I shall not tell you,” she replied. “However, as you have taken it upon yourself to enquire after her well-being, I will answer you as honestly as I can.” She paused to take a breath before she went on. “The best thing that you ever did for that girl was hiring Beatrice, although you being the one who employed her, I suppose you know that already. For a kinder, more intelligent and refined person you would be hard-put to find…”
“Madam,” his grace interrupted impatiently, “I will beg you to forbear singing that lady’s praises. She is in no danger of losing her position, whatever I may find when I examine Adelina’s progress, on that head you might be easy.”
“I am pleased to hear it,” his aunt said, casting a quizzical eye upon him. “What I meant to say was, that charge of yours is wearing her companion to the bone. Beatrice is constantly under attack for the smallest things… but she, poor dear, is the gentlest being imaginable, armed with limitless patience. Not with word or look has she ever shown any resentment towards Adelina…” Lady Augusta leaned towards her nephew to whisper close to his ear. “You see, I suspect she has begun to love the little one. Did you ever hear of such a thing? However, and this I have wanted for quite some time to say to you, dear nephew, a man’s strong guiding hand will be required at work here before the chit is ready for polite society.”
His grace allowed his eyebrows to meet. “If I am not mistaken,” he said, “you mean to recommend that I take a more active hand in her upbringing.”
Lady Augusta impulsively took his hand in hers. “My dear boy,” she replied, “it was Beatrice who suggested it first, and I must say that I whole-heartedly agree with her, namely that the child’s chief lack of a good character stems from a prolonged and thoughtless neglect on the part of everyone who should ever have been present in her life.”
His grace stood. “So,” he said, “that is what Beatrice thinks, is it not?”
“It is also your aunt’s humble opinion, Dominic,” Lady Augusta said firmly, “and you need not laugh so at your young governess’ opinions. I assure you she is one of the most well-read people I have ever encountered.”
“Well, that is high praise indeed, coming from you,” he said, raising a mobile eyebrow.
Whatever his aunt was going to say next was interrupted by the commotion of the door being thrust open with forced restraint. Their quiet interview was interrupted as both Ashton and Lady Augusta turned to face the entrance and beheld Adelina, entering with a bouncing step and glowing cheeks, her riding habit a stark burgundy complimenting her golden curls. She was in the process of flinging her riding whip on the couch, when she stopped short, seeing his grace.
Immediately she was transformed.
She stood straight, holding her shoulders back and lifting her chin with dignity as she carefully sank in a little curtsy. Then, opening her lips, she pronounced with great care: “Your grace.” After this pretty exhibit, she proceeded to stand there, in front of him, awaiting his pleasure.
Ashton lifted a monocle to his eye. He took in her elegant appearance, the style of her bonnet and the grooming of her hair.
“Amazing,” he whispered under his breath. Then he strode to her and, taking both her gloved hands into his, bestowed a fatherly kiss on her cheek. “I trust I find you well, my dear?” he asked affably. “I scarcely knew you, so improved is your appearance since the last time I had the pleasure of conversing with you. Your manner too, is most gentle… I declare I am speaking to an altogether different creature.”
Adelina’s eyes sparkled in delight. “You think so, your grace?” she asked childishly.
“Adelina, my dear,” Lady Augusta interrupted this charming scene, “his grace your guardian has been so kind as to agree to stay for tea. Now, should I ring the bell?”
“No aunt,” Adelina dimpled as she hurried to the settee in a flurry of muslins and ribbons, “pray, let me!”
“Is this the unmanageable child I had described to me but a few moments ago?” Ashton bent and whispered in his aunt’s ear.
“Ah,” that lady said, as the door once again opened to admit Miss Devon. “Here comes the lion-tamer herself.”
His grace turned to the door, and hastily rose to his feet. “Miss Devon!” he cried, much astonished.
“Your grace,” Miss Devon curtsied, smiling. “We are fortunate indeed this day.”
The unprecedented and unsettling feeling that had accosted Ashton at her sight did not owe its existence to her beauty. On the contrary, his grace found himself overwhelmed by feelings extreme distaste: Miss Devon looked entirely altered.
Her cheeks, which had been rosy with health and youth, had taken on a melancholy pallor that accentuated the angles in her small face. Her figure seemed visibly smaller, as though she’d lost weight, and her riding habit -for she too was dressed for an outing- was so shabby as to make her into a positive antidote.
Seething, Ashton got up and, taking her elbow, led her aside to a small corner near the window, noticing as he did so, quite unexpectedly, the charming way in which the morning sunshine played in her hair. The nerve of the girl, leading his niece out into society in such a state, and with the Season nearly upon them!
Why, the little governess appeared almost a martyr. Surely she was aware that this look had gone out of fashion eons ago.
“What,” he asked her as soon as she was seated, in his most severe tones, “is the meaning of this?”
He now saw, which he had not noticed before, that, to add insult to injury, her dress was slightly ill-fitting on her narrow frame. Her hair was in slight disarray from its austere bun, but at least the small dark tendrils escaping on her forehead and the nape of her delicate neck rather became her slender, sharp face, softening its contours.
“I presume you find much lacking in the manners of your ward, sir,” Miss Devon said in most dejected tones, and her whole figure seemed to droop with disappointment.
“You presume wrong,” Ashton began to answer, when he saw to his alarm that her face looked whiter than before. “You will sit down for a minute.” He led her to a chair, frowning slightly. “Was then my aunt correct when she complained of that child wearing you to the bone?”
The governess merely brushed his question aside with an eloquent gesture of her hand, not deigning to grace it with a reply. “You find her then somewhat improved?” she asked eagerly.
“Improved? Madam, she is almost an altogether different creature.”
“That, sir, is the greatest compliment I have been paid my entire life,” she said, leaning back in a satisfied manner.
“I seriously doubt that it is,” Ashton murmured under his breath. The chit was not ugly, not by any consideration, and he could warrant she might even have been pretty at one time, dressed decently and among a company of equals: she certainly had the unmistakable air of a poor relation, the feigned humility of a person who has lived in better circumstances. Those large, sparkling eyes, that tiny nose and the red-rose lips… yes, Miss Devon could certainly have been a beauty in another life.
Ashton made these observations in a completely detached manner, as he would appreciate a work of art, for he was a great connoisseur of beauty, and he was famed as a most fastidious judge of womankind amid the circles of wealthy widows seeking for diversion among the bachelors of the haut ton.
He wouldn’t tolerate one single flaw in a woman, some said, not a freckle half an inch in the wrong place, an unruly curl, or a bony turn of ankle. Whether this was true or not, at present his grace could not find anything wrong with Miss Devon’s young face and deportment, except her clothes and her slenderness. These two matters so far offended him as to diminish his pleasure at the way her fingers moved gracefully around the tea table, arranging the tea things for Adelina.
Then he had a sudden thought.
His purpose after all in coming here today had been to invite them all to his country estate, the illustrious Hartfield Park –he still couldn’t bring himself to call his new ducal seat, Ashton Hall, home. Maybe that fact in itself would push the chaperone to turn herself into a young woman fit for noble company. Yes, that was it.
He was a man used to taking control, never letting a problem, no matter how trivial, get the best of him. Ashton sat back in his chair comfortably. Satisfied that his cook along with a talented mantua-maker could take care of the little governess’ appearance soon enough, he fell to watching his ward instead, who, with the utmost solicitude, if not gracefulness, was endeavoring to pour his aunt a clean cup of tea.
“Let me tell you a secret,” Miss Devon’s voice was whispering near his ear, “your grace. This is all a mere act.” She raised her eyebrows in the direction of her charge.
“I do not doubt it is,” he replied easily, his lips curling in displeasure, “and yet you appear to have paid a rather high price for this ‘mere act’.”
Miss Devon found herself in a most awkward position. She swallowed down a fit of nerves, and would have gotten up and gone to Adelina, away from his grace, but he detained her with a hand on her arm.
“Stay if you would a minute,” he said, steely blue eyes meeting hers, oblivious to the shivers of fear that his mere touch was sending down her spine. “For I have an announcement which concerns you as well as my aunt and little Adelina.” She stopped and turned to face him, the hem of her skirt brushing his boots.
“You do?” she said. “I wondered to what we owed the happiness of your visit.”
He lifted a white hand. “There is no need for you to repeat my aunt’s chidings, Miss Devon, I assure you,” said he. “I have been made to feel thoroughly and entirely ashamed of my conduct.”
The absurdity of his words, spoken in his calm, mocking tones, struck her abruptly and, abandoning all despondent thoughts, she laughed aloud, a sound that sparked throughout the whole room. His aunt and Adelina lifted their heads and smiled, as though accustomed to the sudden sunshine of that sound.
It was true that, much to her surprise, Beatrice had found herself smiling and even laughing in the days she’d spent at Lady Augusta’s home. Happiness was something that she had taught herself neither to expect nor to hope for and now, in the company of these two women, she found it to be at her fingertips, and that unsettled her more than anything.
“She did not mean for you to be ashamed, your grace, I am sure,” she told the duke, lowering her voice. “Merely that you would bestir yourself a bit more on behalf of your ward.”
“Prompted by your superior wisdom, I find,” retorted he, taking snuff in a bored manner.
“Indeed the thought, though it finds me absolutely in agreement, was entirely hers,” she told him, smiling, and moved away from him.
She felt his gaze burning a hole through the back of her head as he observed her progress across the room silently for a while, and then he himself got resolutely on his feet.
“My dear aunt, you will be, I am sure, delighted to hear that I plan to amend the shocking neglect of which you so cold-heartedly accused me,” here he paused for effect. Beatrice found herself stifling another laugh. How absurd was he! He was acting like a little boy, chided yet unrepentant, trying to prove himself to his aunt, yet still refusing to openly admit his short-comings. A governess to take him firmly in hand, that’s what he needed.
At this last thought, a thrill of excitement ran through her whole body. What was that? His grace certainly did not inspire in her the horror other men had, but still she was far from attracted to him. Surely she did not…
“You are hereby invited,” the duke was saying grandly, “to Hartfield Park for the Christmas festivities. I intend to form a party to journey there on the seventeenth, and of that I am determined, if you all agree, that you should be a part.”
Beatrice took a deep breath.
So this was it.
She smiled at his grace, a smile of gratitude on behalf of Adelina, who seemed for the moment to have lost the ability to speak, and then turned her face away. No one should be witness to the sadness and despair that had descended upon her at his grace’s words. No one should feel the need to question her or, even more abhorrent the thought, pity her.
If she were to face Adelina or Lady Augusta, she was certain they would see it plainly written on her face, that her heart was breaking.
But it could no longer be helped. In an instant, she’d taken a decision. She’d be out of this house by the next morning.
*end of free sample of Ruined by M.C. Frank*