Charles Evermore, Duke of Clairmont, glared at his solicitor, narrowing his eyes until he could no longer see the small framed man before him. There had to be a mistake. There was no other explanation for the words coming from the man’s mouth.
“Your grace, if you’ll simply read the documentation for yourself…” Mr. Burrows spoke with practiced patience.
Charles stood and stalked around the desk, ripping the papers from his grasp. Mr. Burrows leaned back, folding his hands and watching Charles with unaffected impassivity. Not for the first time, Charles thought the man looked like a praying mantis, all long and lean with exceedingly large eyes and a patient demeanor that was all too deceptive.
But he was the best solicitor available.
He had better be for what Charles paid for his services.
“If you’ll start on the second page…” Mr. Burrows suggested.
Charles read the endless prattle of legal terms until his eyes focused on the chilling phrase.
Three girls, to be exact. Ranging from ages seven to sixteen.
And, as heaven stood by laughing, he was to be their guardian.
Charles stared at the words, willing them to disappear. He hadn’t the time, the energy, or the inclination to take over the raising of three insufferable miniature females! He could hardly tolerate his mistresses, and they were full grown and low maintenance! He studied the rest of the document, searching for any other names that might take this plight away from him.
“You’re likely curious as to why you were chosen,” Mr. Burrows suggested.
“The question had crossed my mind.” Charles remarked sarcastically.
Mr. Burrows wisely ignored the duke’s surly attitude. “It was a tragedy, to be sure. The poor girls lost both parents in a carriage accident—”
“And there were no aunts or uncle to take them in?” Charles interrupted.
Mr. Burrows simply blinked, raising his eyebrows slightly and waiting.
“Carry on.” Charles waved his hand, somewhat chagrined at his idiotic question. After all, if there were a spinster aunt or bachelor uncle, hell, any relative at all, they wouldn’t be given to him as wards.
“As I was saying…” Mr. Burrows shot Charles a pointed gaze. “The girls were left quite without any family. Only providence connected them with you, your grace. You see, they are actually your mother’s second cousins, God rest her soul.”
“So I’m the urchins’ cousin? Bloody perfect.” Charles mumbled under his breath.
“So it would seem.” Mr. Burrows stood, collecting the papers from Charles’s outstretched hand. “You’ll not need to worry about a dowry or any such things for the young ladies. Their parents left them quite a bit of wealth. However, I would suggest you begin a search for a proper governess.”
“Bloody hell, another female in my house. Exactly what I need.”
“Yes, well, that female might be your salvation in helping you train the children into young ladies. After all, they’ll need to someday make a match.”
“That’s the only way I’m ever going to be rid of them, isn’t it?” Charles combed back his jet-black hair with his hand, feeling a miserable headache beginning at the base of his neck.
“Perhaps.” Mr. Burrows nodded and turned away, but not before Charles saw the slightest hint of a grin. “The young ladies will arrive in a few days, I expect. If you need anything more, you know where to reach me. Good night, your grace.” Mr. Burrows paused at the door.
“Good night, Mr. Burrows.”
Charles strode over to the fire, studying the orange and red flames. Truly, this was the worst sort of news. At three and thirty, he wasn’t necessarily old, but he was quite accustomed and comfortable with his way of life. Oh, he knew eventually he’d have to suffer through a woman’s presence enough to marry her and produce an heir, but he still figured he had at least five years before that would be necessary.
And to be sure, he was waiting until it was absolutely necessary.
A few days, a mere forty-eight hours and his entire existence was going to be in upheaval. To think, only four hours ago he was looking forward to a cozy evening with Céline, the opera diva he had sequestered in a little townhouse not far away. Under the present circumstances, he no longer was looking forward to anything. Rather, he was quite content to stand before the fire and feel sorry for himself.
Of course! He could take the girls to the country and leave them there with a governess.
Why hadn’t he thought of it before? It was a stroke of brilliance. He needn’t have his life interrupted after all! Surely the young ladies wouldn’t want him around anyhow. Why, he’d only be in the way. A governess would be infinitely more suitable for them. He needn’t interfere!
Suddenly the evening was brighter, even the fire cast a cheerier glow about the room. All he had to do was secure a governess. And that couldn’t be hard to do. He’d simply inquire about and interview prospective persons. Better yet, Mrs. Pott, the housekeeper, could interview. She’d be far more capable and wise in knowing what made a good governess.
Charles congratulated himself on his brilliant plan and to celebrate, strode over to the liquor cabinet, and poured himself a glass of amber-colored brandy.
“Cheers,” he murmured.
Already those girls were as good as gone.
Two Days Later, Near Bath.
Mr. Burrows regarded his young client, impressed with the poise and grace in one so young. Why, she couldn’t be a day over eighteen. Miss Carlotta Standhope was uncommonly pretty, it was a shame that she’d not have a come out. The ton would have celebrated her golden hair and clear green eyes, but it was her character that made her supremely appealing, he decided.
It must have been a severe blow for her to discover the future she’d anticipated was no longer available to her. It was part of his business, delivery of unwelcome news. However the young woman was taking it all in with such grace and poise, it caused him to greatly respect the young woman. Pity pinched his heart. Unaccustomed to any emotional response when dealing with his clients, he fidgeted with his spectacles “I’m sure you’d like a moment…” He stood to leave, offering her a moment to gather herself in private.
“No, please.” Her green eyes widened as she visibly swallowed. “I need to understand the full depth of my change in situation. Please…continue.” She took a deep breath as if fortifying herself.
“Very well, Miss Standhope.” He nodded then resumed his seat. “As I know you’re aware, upon you parents passing several years ago, the substantial inheritance they left for you was primarily invested overseas, in the Caribbean. The interest from that investment has been what you’ve lived on these past years. I’m sorry to say that with the recent tropical cyclone, the investment in the Caribbean was a total loss.”
“Total, as in I’m penniless, or total as in I’ll still have enough food to eat and won’t be turned out of my own home?” she asked her voice cracking.
“Garden Gate is entailed, so you’ll not lose the manor or lands, but you’ll also not have any funds to maintain their upkeep.”
“So, it’s as good as being completely penniless.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“I see.” Her slight shoulders slumped as if carrying a burden too heavy to bear.
“However, you could possibly lease the land and manor out, not requiring you to sell. That could produce some revenue.”
“That could work. But what, then, of me? What am I to do?” Tears welled, glistening in her eyes and, though none fell, her green orbs took on the luminosity of glowing emeralds. Captivated by her vulnerable gaze, Mr. Burrows struggled to find some good news to give the poor young woman.
“I’m not sure, Miss Standhope. Do you have relatives you can impose upon?”
“None that I’m aware of.”
He leaned back against the chair and a thought tickled his mind. Studying her once more, he nodded. Perhaps he did have some promising news to offer after all.
“I see. Are you…are you perhaps willing to consider employment?”
Carlotta stiffened at the idea of employment. Her father hadn’t been a high-ranking earl or marquis, but even as a baron, he had impressed upon his daughter the place and position of the titled. It chafed to think of working, of becoming a bluestocking, but she saw no other options available.
She was rather fond of having food to eat and didn’t plan on starving to death.
“I’m willing—” Carlotta swallowed and drew a breath to compose herself. “I’m willing to seek employment.” She folded her hands in her lap, clutching them tightly.
“A governess or companion position would be quite suitable, I’d imagine.”
“Governess, yes. I could do quite well in that position. I’m well educated, you know.” Carlotta’s mind began to spin with possibilities. Being a governess wouldn’t be half bad. She could do it, she was certain.
She could hear her own heartbeat, its pounding cadence reminded her that she was, indeed, alive when she felt like she had shriveled up and died. To think, only hours before she had been planning her wardrobe for the season and daydreaming about her first kiss.
None of it was to be. None. In the span of ten minutes, her entire world had come crashing down upon her, leaving nothing but rubble.
“If you don’t mind,” said Mr. Burrows as he took off his spectacles and leaned forward slightly, his balding head shining, “I have a client who might be interested in hiring you. If you wish, I’ll make arrangements for an interview.”
Could she do it? Work? Leave behind all she knew? Carlotta glanced about the parlor, studying the tall windows that overlooked the small gardens. It wasn’t grand, but it was home. And if she took a position as governess, she’d be leaving it all behind to a stranger. But what choice did she have?
“Thank you, Mr. Burrows. I’d appreciate the opportunity.”
Charles Evermore, Duke of Clairmont
Carlotta studied the card and swallowed a lump of fear that lodged itself in her throat. Of course, she would be interviewing for a position in the devil’s lair. That was precisely the kind of luck she was having recently. Not only had her trunks fallen off the carriage on her way to London, resulting in all of her clothes being muddied and some torn, but also, she had caught a chill. Thank heavens she’d been able to secure some elderberry tea. But regardless, the resulting sniffle wasn’t proper governess behavior at all. It would be a miracle for her to get this position, but as she studied the name on the card sent from Mr. Burrows, she wondered if maybe God was protecting her. Surely, there were other positions that didn’t involve bargaining the devil.
It was well known among the ton and those who gossiped about them, that the Duke of Clairmont was not the type of man to cross. Although deliciously handsome —at least that’s what the rumor said— he had a reputation that boasted his arrogant nature and intolerance for women beyond their company in his bedroom —or their bedroom, for that matter. Carlotta’s cheeks heated with a blush at simply thinking those words. True, he could have his pick of any of the season’s Incomparables, but he wasn’t marriage minded. At least not yet. His hair was as dark as sin with eyes that were the color of a summer sky. His tall and powerful frame exuded power and dominance, shrinking down all other men in the room. Of course, one could not always believe the gossip.
Especially when it said he had kept no fewer than a dozen mistresses at one time. Certainly, that was exaggerated. Nevertheless, the stories about the handsome duke abounded and grew to mammoth proportions. Which was why Carlotta had to summon all her courage to walk up the steps to his home.
The one question that remained quite a mystery was why the duke needed a governess at all. It was well known he was a confirmed bachelor. Could he have a brood of children born on the wrong side of the blanket? Carlotta highly doubted it. After all, based on the gossip, he didn’t seem like the doting father type. No, with his reputation, he’d toss the poor woman unfortunate enough to have gotten pregnant, into the streets. Yes, his soul was a black as his hair. Of course, having never seen the duke in person, Carlotta could only imagine how dark his hair really was.
She walked to the door and knocked, willing her racing heartbeat to slow its galloping pulse.
“Yes?” an aged butler inquired.
“Miss Carlotta Standhope. I’m here to interview for the governess position. I’m here on Mr. Burrows’ recommendation,” she spoke her practiced words.
“Yes. Wait a moment.” The butler left her on the doorstep but returned less than a minute later.
“Mrs. Pott will be conducting your interview in the parlor. If you’ll follow me.”
Carlotta tried not to appear too curious as she studied the bachelor lodgings of one of the most notorious rakes of the ton. Dark woods covered the walls and rich rugs softened the floors. It was pristine and clean yet dark and brooding all at once. As she glanced about, she decided it had to be from the lack of light. For it being daylight outside, it was quite dark inside.
The butler opened a door that was already slightly ajar and waited for Carlotta to enter. As she did, a plump woman no younger than sixty years greeted her. She was cheery, her cheeks rosy and her smile warm. Carlotta felt a bit more at ease.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Miss Standhope. You come on excellent recommendation,” the woman greeted warmly.
“Where are my manners? Forgive me, darling. I’m Mrs. Pott, his grace’s housekeeper. You’ll have to excuse me. I’m not accustomed to interviewing governesses. Please, come and sit. Let’s have us a chat, shall we?” She gestured to a chair opposite her and Carlotta sat.
“Murray? Would you please have tea brought up?”
The butler nodded and disappeared.
“Now then, why don’t we begin with you telling a bit about yourself, Miss Standhope.”
“I’m nineteen this year, Mrs. Pott, and well versed in Latin, French as well as classic literature, mathematics and some of the more popular sciences. I studied under my own tutor until recent circumstances required me to seek my own employment.” Carlotta held her breath, hoping the words she’d rehearsed were neither too rushed nor divulged too much information on her current straits.
“I see. You’re quite the educated woman it seems.” Mrs. Pott nodded.
“Now then, have you experience in how to conduct ones-self in social situations? The duke has become the guardian of three young women, all in need of guidance not only in their formal education but also in other social graces.”
“Yes, I’m able to guide them in the various social situations they’ll likely encounter being associated with his grace,” Carlotta responded confidently.
“Lovely. His grace plans on moving the girls to his country estate in Bath. Do you have any connections that would prohibit your moving from London?”
“No.” Yet her heart pinched. Bath was awfully close to Garden Gate. What miserable torture to be so near one’s home yet so completely away at the same time!
“Delightful. Then, Miss Standhope, I’m extending the offer of employment to you, should you wish to accept. You seem very well suited for the position and with such a glowing recommendation, I’d be daft to not welcome you to his grace’s staff.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Pott. I humbly accept.” Carlotta barely resisted the urge to let out a huge sigh of relief. That had certainly been much easier than she had anticipated.
“Now then, that’s settled. We’ll have us a spot of tea and then I’ll take you to meet your charges. They are currently staying here, but will be traveling shortly. I’m assuming you’ll need to quit your current lodgings as well?”
“Yes, it shan’t take long.”
“No need to worry. I’ll have Murray task someone with fetching your belongings and ensuring your account is settled.”
“Oh, there’s not need, I can—”
“Of course there’s a need my dear. You’ll find that, being in the duke’s employ, while his reputation is less than above reproach, he is generous and kind to those he employs. I’m quite sure he’d be put out if I did any less for you, my dear.”
“Well, thank you.” Carlotta tried to be gracious but all she could think of was the sorry state of most of her clothing due to the muddy descent from the carriage. Hopefully, whoever collected her belongings wouldn’t look too closely.