The Game and the Governess (5 page)

BOOK: The Game and the Governess
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It was a small moment of manly jesting, of camaraderie. It had been a long time since he and Turner had thrown easy, happy barbs at each other. Not since . . .

But then Turner straightened and put his heels into Abandon—lightly, Ned noticed—spurring him into a trot down a side path off the main road.

“You’re going the wrong way,” Ned said, once he caught up to Turner. “Hollyhock is two miles farther down the road.”

“We are not staying in Hollyhock. We are staying at Puffington Arms, the home of Sir Nathan and Lady Widcoate.”

Ned’s eyebrow went up. “Why on earth would we stay there?”

Turner sighed. “Because when I informed the town of our trip, they would not hear of an earl—especially an earl who hails from Hollyhock—staying at an inn. Since your mother’s old cottage is uninhabitable, the Widcoates were applied to. I am told theirs is the largest house in the area.”

“Which does not mean it is in any way large.” Ned narrowed his eyes, searching his memory. “I remember the Widcoates. Barely. Sir Nathan had just married when I left, his wife and her younger sister coming to settle in.”

Lady Widcoate had been a meddling woman. Always pretending solicitude, but really being smug and superior to his mother. And he was about to spend two tiresome weeks with her.

But still, there was the chance of a silver lining. “Perhaps they have a daughter or two,” Ned mused. “Just of age to be wooed.”

Turner’s eyes grew hard. “I doubt the Widcoates will do little more than act as introduction to the neighborhood.”

“Oh, I think I will do very well acting as my own introduction.” Ned smiled, his eyes having fallen on something that sparked his interest.

The road they had turned onto was lined by a long, low wooden fence, protecting a wide field with the odd cow from their path. And there, along the fence, was a woman—a plain wool scarf wrapped around her practical gray dress. Still, such bulk could not hide her thinness. Her flaxen hair was pulled back tight, and in
front of her ran two children, a boy and a girl, using sticks as swords.

There was no mistaking this kind of woman. She was, by her very air, her very posture, every inch a governess.

Not exactly a lady. But she was female, and therefore good practice.

“Well, Turner. Or should I say,
my lord
,” Ned challenged. “Time to take up our roles.”

Ned cantered up to the fence where the children had come to a stop, having seen the approaching horses.

“Hello,” Ned called out, jovially. He lifted his hand to his hat in acknowledgment of the lady. “Madam. What a lovely day.”

But then something strange happened. Usually, when anyone saw him, even strangers, they smiled back, with happy replies. But the lady was silent. And these children . . .

“That’s the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen!” One, the girl, all flushed of face and bouncing curls, ducked under the fence and ran up to Turner, admiring his mount. “Can I touch him?”

“She really wants to ride him,” the boy said seriously, joining the other at Turner’s side.

“Children!” the governess admonished. “Get away from the horse, please. We do not yet know his disposition.”

“His disposition is well behaved,” Turner offered, without a trace of his usual northern accent.

“Perhaps I was speaking of the rider,” she said tartly, causing Ned to smile and Turner’s brow to come down in confusion. “However,” she continued, “I cannot
know if your mount is well behaved with small children. Rose, Henry . . . move back. Now.”

“You should obey your governess,” Ned added, giving a wink to the woman in question.

But oddly, she did not blush. She did not even crack a smile. Instead, she turned her squinting, unblinking gaze to Turner. As if expecting . . .

Oh, yes! Introductions!

“Ah, my name is Mr. John Turner,” Ned offered. It felt odd on his tongue. “And this is—”

“Lord Granville, Earl of Ashby,” Turner offered with a slight bow—the best he could manage on horseback. “We are on our way to Puffington Arms. Are we  headed in the right direction?”

Then something happened. Ned only caught it because he was watching her so closely, hoping for something, anything that would denote the smallest interest.

But instead of such hopeful signs, she ignored him. Instead, when Turner spoke to the girl, she stiffened.

It was slight, almost imperceptible. But Ned saw it, clear as day. Odd. The pale, squinty governess was alarmed by Turner . . . and completely dismissive of Ned.

If Turner noticed, he said nothing. And she squelched whatever emotion had flitted across her face, and answered calmly.

“You are on the correct path. Puffington Arms is about a mile down the road, around the bend. You should see it shortly.”

“We live there!” the little girl called out, excited.

“Do you now?” Ned exclaimed. But again, he was promptly, unbelievably ignored.

“I’m Rose. That’s Henry. My lord, if you come home with us, can we ride your horse?”

“Oh—can I draw the horse?” the other, Henry, begged. But the hard-nosed governess kept a tight hold on the two of them.

“You should go, my lord,” she said, addressing Turner, but keeping her gaze resolutely low. “Everyone is waiting for you.”

And just like that, they were dismissed. The
governess
had dismissed them. There was nothing else to do but tip their hats and ride on.

“That was quite an introduction.” Turner flashed a grin. “She could not have ignored you more completely. Feel a little bit like your luck might be running out?”

“She did not seem terribly impressed by you either,” Ned countered. Something about how she shifted so quickly from smart to stiff bothered him.

“At least she looked at me. She didn’t even spare you a glance.” He shrugged. “She is a governess. She has likely never encountered someone with such an elevated title before.”

“Hang it,” Ned said, shaking off any deep thoughts that might intrude. “Who cares about the opinion of one common, miserable governess? We will find scores more young ladies, far more happy to be pleased.”

As they rounded the bend and Puffington Arms came into view, Turner flashed that tiger’s smile again.

“Do you know, I think you are right,
Mr. Turner
. I think this is going to be fun.”

      3

New players enter the game.

I
s he here? He’s here, isn’t he? That’s him, rounding the bend? Why are there two of them?”

Leticia kept her tongue firmly in her cheek and her eyes coolly on the two gentlemen on horseback who had appeared in the distance.

“Calm yourself, Fanny,” Leticia singsonged, never moving from her particular vantage at the window. It was the perfect spot—she was afforded the best view of the lane, but was seated at a long comfortable bench. Why, with a book in hand, one would think that she had spent the morning reading.

Not that Leticia would ever be caught dead spending the morning reading.

But while Leticia cultivated an air of serenity, Fanny’s pacing behind her was doing a cracking job on her nerves.

“Do we have everything ready?” Leticia could prac
tically hear Fanny wringing her hands. “You there!” She called out to the poor girl who happened to be clearing the tea tray at that moment. “Oh, Nanny—whatever are you doing here? Where are your charges?”

Nanny, a stout girl with a good temperament for children, bobbed a curtsy. “My lady—the children are having their walk before tea with Miss Baker. And the other girls are busy readying the rooms for the earl, so I told Cook I would help.”

“Oh. Well . . .” Fanny seemed momentarily flummoxed, as she often was when things did not go exactly to plan. “Take that tray away! The earl can’t think that we eat muffins and cakes all day! And tell the other girls they are beyond lazy.”

Fanny then came over and nervously twitched the drapery over Leticia’s head, causing a bit of dust to come flying free.

“Dust! Heavens! He’ll think us slovenly. Nanny, put that tea tray down and come clean this immediately.”

Poor Nanny
, Leticia couldn’t help but think, shortly followed by
Poor me!
as Fanny forced Nanny into actively beating out the curtain. Directly over Leticia’s head.

“Fanny—
ahCHOO!—
that is enough!” Leticia said in her sternest voice. Then, kinder to the girl, “Clear the tea tray, then have one of the regular girls sent up to clean this room—it won’t be in use until just before dinner anyway. Just make certain it sparkles before then.”

Nanny bobbed her head, a grateful blush spreading across her cheek, as she quickly gathered the tea tray and ducked out of the room.

“And since when do you contradict
my
orders to
my
servants?” Fanny said in a huff.

“Ever since—
achoo!
” Really, Fanny’s curtain-twitching was having long-lasting ramifications. Leticia’s nose would be as red as an apple by the time the earl made it up the lane. “Ever since you began acting like a ninny. Which was around dinnertime last night.”

Fanny shot Leticia a look reserved specifically for elder sisters to give their younger sisters.

“Well, it’s true. You began fretting as soon as the first course was served,” Leticia replied with a slight smile, even though her eyes stayed on the approaching men. From this distance, she could not distinguish the better man from the other—but she could distinguish the better horse from the other. The large, gorgeous stallion—that one must bear the earl. Of course it did, she could make him out better now—the fine gray of his coat, the way he bore himself upon what was apparently a problematic mount.

“How was I supposed to stay calm with the first course in shambles and a household of guests to oversee?” Fanny pouted defiantly.

“The first course was not in shambles—it merely arrived fifteen seconds later than you expected.” Leticia sighed, turning to her sister for the first time since Fanny had entered the room. “And do not fret about the houseguests. They are a very merry group of girls.”

“Flibbertigibbets, the lot of them,” Fanny huffed, unaware of the irony of her naming anyone else as such. “I have no idea why you insisted I invite them
all—and Mrs. Rye! That woman sets my teeth on edge. Why, I thought the point of this was—”

“I know very well what the point of this is,” Leticia interrupted, smoothing her skirts as she rose. “Now, the earl will be at the door any moment. Do you think it perhaps a good idea to gather—”

“Lady Widcoate! Countess Churzy!” The shrill voice broke into their conversation as the door to the drawing room opened with a loud crash. Both sisters turned toward the noise—Leticia, with her outward calm, and Fanny, startled to the point of letting a small “Eek!” escape. Miss Henrietta Benson, flushed and breathless, had burst through the door. Now that she had the attention of the two ladies in the room, she seemed for a moment at a loss for what to say.

“Yes, Miss Benson?” Leticia prompted. The girl remembered her purpose and jolted directly into a rapid speech of great import.

“Have you seen down the drive? Clara and Minnie and I were on the side of the house playing bowls in the yard by the large oak tree near the pond and when Minnie lost her ball in the water she had to step into the muck to get it but it afforded her a better view of the lane and we saw two gentlemen approaching on horseback! Mrs. Rye is certain it’s the earl, even though he was not expected until this evening, and Minnie went upstairs to change her dress—should we all assemble to greet them, do you think?”

To her credit, Leticia thought, Fanny did nothing more than blink twice before answering the girl.

“Of course, Miss Benson! How very astute of you—why, the countess and I were just saying the same thing.
If you girls would like to assemble in front of the house, we shall meet you there shortly.”

Leticia smiled serenely at her sister once Henrietta had bounded her way out the door. But Fanny’s brow remained raised to the ceiling.

“They are all very respectable girls,” she placated. “And I was indebted to their families for being such good friends in Bath. How could I not invite them up to Puffington Arms for a country respite?”

“I do not pretend to know your sophisticated ways, Letty,” Fanny replied, using the nickname she knew would raise Leticia’s hackles. “But I do know that those girls—and their chaperone—are only here to win the hand of an earl.”

“I know, Fanny.”

“But
you
are here to win the hand of the earl.”

Leticia just shrugged. “Well, that, and to see my sister and darling niece and nephew.”

“Oh heavens!” Fanny started fluttering again. “The children! That dratted governess took them for their walk, and now when the earl meets them they’ll be covered in dirt, I’m absolutely certain! I shall have to send someone out to fetch them.”

“Never mind that,” Leticia replied. “They’ll meet properly when the children are brought round before dinner. Having the earl meet them now would simply be a distraction.” And any distraction from herself simply would not do.

BOOK: The Game and the Governess
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