In Which a Fair but Penniless Governess longs for the Heart of a nefarious Highwayman pretending to be a Duke, though he is Betrothed to another
Last night, I dreamt I went to Netherloin again
Miss Julia Fitzgerald sighed and traced one finger down the fogged pane of glass, gazing out at the broad expanse of the estate. What an addle-pated thought, of course. How could she return to Netherloin again if she had never left it?
Other people left. Even the Duke left, for a short time at least, on his daring piratical adventure.
But Julia Fitzgerald?
No, she would be here until she drew her last breath, faithfully fulfilling her duties as governess to Ward, the Duke’s ward.
That gave her, what, a good ten or twelve years, right? Until Ward was too old for a governess?
She shook away the sudden chill, determined to look on the positives. Mayhap the Duke and his intended would have children of their own someday, adorable little girls to dress in the latest mode and charming boys to chastise for climbing on the furniture. She could stay on as governess to their little darlings.
A single tear tracked down her English-rose cheek, and she quickly brushed it away. Only here, in the quiet solitude of the nursery, could she admit the truth, even to herself.
She was in desperate love with His Grace, and would be until the day she died.
Hopefully long after Ward reached his majority, of course.
She resolutely pushed away her maudlin thoughts. Far better to focus on the positive, she always said. For instance, the return of the Duke to his home.
His uncle had been furious at his disappearance, storming around Netherloin, waving a glass of sherry as he ranted. None of it made sense, something about ducks and valets, so Miss Fitzgerald had taken Ward and wisely hidden the both of them in the nursery whenever the gentleman was on a tear.
Thankfully, the Duke’s uncle had apparently forgotten they were even part of the household, until yesterday when he’d burst through the entryway shouting that the lost heir had been found. Then he’d pressed her into service in the kitchen.
The joy at having the Duke returned had taken the sting out of being mistaken for a … a… server.
She shuddered briefly at the thought.
Still, it was good to have the Duke back home at Netherloin at last. Difficult as it was to be so near to him, knowing she would never be his, it was far preferable to wondering if he was safe out on the high seas.
Someday perhaps he would share the story of his adventures with her. In her mind’s eye, she could see him standing atop a sailing vessel, the wind tossing his glossy dark locks, his narrow-eyed gaze fixed on the horizon. How brave! How dashing! How romantic…
She sighed again, pressing her forehead to the cool glass. The joy of his return was tempered by the fact that his betrothed had joined them in the welcome home celebration. She was never one to denigrate other members of the fairer sex, but in this case she’d make an exception. That loathsome woman – so grasping, so vulgar. A man like the Duke needed someone sweet, someone loving, someone who would adore him forever.
No. She could not even think it. It was impossible.
And it would be agonizing to stay on here after the Duke married his fiancée. To watch the two of them strolling the grounds hand in hand, gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes, feeding each other bits of venison at supper…
The door to the nursery opened and she dashed another tear off her glistening eyelashes. “Good morning, your Grace,” she said as she turned around. Then, realizing it wasn’t the Duke, she pulled herself out of an awkward curtsey without tumbling to the ground completely.
She counted it as a win.
“Good morning, Miss Fitzgerald,” Ward said, peering at her closely. “I say, are you all right?”
“Perfectly fine, thank you, Ward.” She glided briskly to the classroom area of the nursery and picked a book up off the table. “Are you ready for today’s lesson?”
He followed her across the room, frowning at the book in her hand. “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue?”
She thrust the book behind her, hiding it in the voluminous folds of her overskirt. “Oh, my. I wonder how that ended up in here.”
Ward leaned forward, peering at her face. “I say, Miss Fitzgerald, you’ve been crying.”
“Pish posh and nonsense,” she said, patting him on the head. “Governesses never cry.”
“And glad I am to hear of it,” a low voice murmured from behind her.
Both Julia and Ward turned in unison. Julia’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of His Grace lounging against the doorframe, his hair rakishly dipping over one eye. He looked…dangerous.
Clearly, his time at sea had changed him in more ways than the obvious.
He had not intended to visit the nursery today.
Truth be told, he had not even known he had a nursery. But the oily Wickham had disappeared earlier that morn and Westley knew it was one of the only opportunities to search for his dear Brigid.
She had to be missing him by now. And what if she was hungry?
He had walked quietly through the halls of this great house, opening doors and trying not to focus too much on how his darling Brigid must be suffering right now.
And at the end of yet another long, dark, confusing hallway, he’d opened yet another door, and stumbled upon this vision of domesticity and geniality.
He should have closed the door again and continued on. It was clearly an area of the household outside the Duke’s purview. The young man standing next to the table was too old to be Colin’s son.
Oh, blast it all, was he now supposed to be a father, too? This could be awkward. The boy might notice if his father apparently didn’t know who he was.
Mentally cursing that fopdoodle nobleman for thrusting him into this role without the knowledge he needed to be convincing, he took a step back, then froze to the spot when his gaze fell upon the vision in a simple cotton dress.
He blinked, then blinked again. What was the lovely server from last night doing in the nursery?
Her golden hair shone like treasure in the dappled light streaming through the window. Her peaches and cream complexion looked good enough to nibble upon. And if he closed his eyes and drew in a breath, he could almost smell the tempting scent of perfectly roasted meat.
It was far too enticing to tear himself away.
And so he spoke, and she turned, and it was as if time stood still. Such delicacy! Such grace! Such sweet disposition!
“So lovely of you to condescend to visit us, Your Grace,” she said, dropping into a perfect curtsey.
“He visits us every day, Miss Fitzgerald,” interjected the young man. “Or at least he did, before he went away.”
She frowned at the boy. “That was before.” Her gaze softened, turned far-away. “An adventure at sea can change a man.”
Inwardly, Westley snorted. She had no idea.
“Come in, please,” she said, sweeping one arm to indicate the room. “We are honored by your presence.”
The boy rolled his eyes. “I’m sure his tenants would say the same thing,” he muttered. “If they ever had the opportunity.”
Westley ignored him. Children should be seen and not heard, you know. Though he wouldn’t mind if they skipped the whole “being seen” part as well.
“I cannot wait to hear all about your time away from land,” Miss Fitzgerald continued. “Did you meet any real pirates?”
Perhaps the woman was touched in the head.
“I know you were naught but the perfect gentleman, regardless,” she breathed, her eyes alight.
Now he knew she was slightly addlepated.
But ravishing nonetheless.
“I do so wish I could share the smallest details of my adventures with you, my dear,” he lied smoothly. “But afraid that’s not possible. Pirate’s code and all.”
She nodded, her golden tresses bouncing around her shoulders. “Of course, your grace,” she said. “I should have thought of that.”
“Pirate’s code?” The boy shook his head. “Never heard of it.”
“Of course you haven’t,” Westley-now-Colin retorted. “You’ve never been to sea on a pirate ship, have you?”
Miss Fitzgerald patted the young man on his head. “Now, now, Ward,” she said. “You’ll have your chance for adventure. Someday. A long, long time from now.”
“How did your uncle find you, your Grace?” The boy rocked back on his heels, head cocked. “If you were at sea, that is.”
“Shore leave,” the false Duke muttered. “Don’t you have a lesson to study?”
Ward sighed and took a book out of Miss Fitzgerald’s hands. “Yes, your Grace.” Then he slumped into a chair and began to read.
The former highwayman stepped closer to the golden beauty. “How did you come to be a governess, my dear?”
She blinked. “Well, it came about quite suddenly several years ago, your Grace. See, my loving parents died in an unfortunate milking accident, leaving me penniless…”
“Shouldn’t you already know this?”
Westley glared at the young whippersnapper. Then he turned back to the lovely lady.
“No, I meant, last night you served our meal, and today you are teaching this charming young man,” he said.
“Oh, that was due to the celebration,” she said, her eyes suddenly downcast.
“Your return, of course! And your… your engagement.” Her voice stumbled over the final statement.
Truth be told, he had completely forgotten about his betrothed.
He had even forgotten about Brigid for a moment!
“Oh, that.” He glanced around the room, hoping to catch a glimpse of his beloved ferret. Alas, it was not to be. “Yes, I suppose that a celebration was in order. Kind of you to pitch in.”
“It’s just so wonderful to have you back at home, your Grace.” She gazed adoringly at him.
He could get used to that.
Perhaps she would be willing to help him locate Brigid. She seemed a trustworthy sort.
Taking her by the elbow, he steered her across the room, away from the keen ears and prying eyes of the irritating young man at the table.
Her breath hitched, making her bosom swell appealingly. Far more appealing than that unfortunate woman he was apparently meant to marry.
“My dear, I have a favor to ask,” he said in a low voice.
She leaned forward, eyes wide. “Anything, your Grace.”
“I’m afraid I’m in a bit of a pickle, you see.” He glanced around. “I want to propose—“
“Yes!” She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. “I accept!”
Westley blinked, his mouth dropping open. Apparently, his attempt to enlist her assistance in locating his ferret had resulted in gaining a spare fiancée.
He had a feeling Wickham would not be amused.
Tune in next week for chapter six, In which Innocence is Plundered and the dire Threat of Ruination looms, and in which Jealousie rears its Head along with various and sundry other Head-Rearings
Click here to read chapter four.
Click here to read chapter six.
Click here to read from the beginning.