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Мортимер Кэрол

Not Just a Governess

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Chapter Three

‘Thorne? Damn it, Hawthorne, wait up there, man!’

Adam came to a halt in the hollow-sounding hallways of the House of Lords before turning to see who hailed him. A frown appeared between his eyes as he recognised Justin St Just, Duke of Royston, striding purposefully towards him, several other members moving hastily aside to allow him to pass.

A tall, blond-haired Adonis, with eyes of periwinkle blue set in an arrogantly handsome face, and a powerful build that the ladies all swooned over, Royston was also one of the more charismatic members of the House. Although the two men were of a similar age and regularly attended sessions, and their respective grandmothers had been lifelong friends, the two men had never been particularly close. Their views and lifestyles were too different for that, especially so in recent years, when Adam had avoided most of society events, and Royston was known to have the devil’s own luck with the ladies and at the card tables.

Also, Adam had never been sure whether or not Royston had been one of Fanny’s legion of lovers…

‘Royston,’ he greeted the other man coolly.

The duke eyed him with shrewd speculation. ‘You seem in somewhat of a hurry to get away tonight, Hawthorne. Off to see a lady friend?’ He quirked a mocking brow.

Adam drew himself up stiffly, the two men of similar height. ‘I trust that, as a gentleman, you do not expect me to confirm or deny that question?’

‘Absolutely not,’ Royston drawled unapologetically. ‘You appear to have become something of a…recluse in recent years, Hawthorne.’

Adam’s gaze became glacial. ‘Did you have something specific you wished to discuss with me, or may I now be on my way?’

‘Damn, but you have become a prickly bastard!’ The duke’s expression turned to one of deep irritation. ‘Join me in a drink at one of the clubs so that we might talk in a less public arena?’ he added impatiently as several people jostled them in their haste to leave and received a legendary St Just scowl for their trouble.

Adam’s demeanour lightened slightly. ‘As it happens I was on my way to White’s.’

The other man grimaced. ‘I had a less…respectable club in mind, but certainly, White’s will do as a start to the evening. I have my carriage outside.’

‘As I have mine.’

The duke regarded him enigmatically for several long seconds before acquiescing. ‘Very well. We shall both travel in your coach and mine will follow. Unless you have it in mind to join me in visiting the other clubs later?’

‘No.’ Adam’s tone was uncompromising.

‘As you wish.’ Royston shrugged.

They did not speak again until they were safely ensconced at a secluded table at White’s and both nursing a large glass of brandy, the duke slumped comfortably in his chair, Adam sitting upright across from him.

The two men had met often in past years at one ton function or another. In truth, Adam had always liked the man’s arrogant disregard for society’s strictures. Indeed, his own reserve towards the man this past few years was caused by his doubts regarding any past involvement between Royston and Fanny; Fanny’s affairs had been so numerous during their marriage that Adam was sure even she had forgotten half her lovers’ names.

That Adam and Fanny had occupied separate bedchambers after the first month of their marriage had not been generally known and made Fanny’s adulterous behaviour, after Amanda was born, all the more of a humiliation. It would have been easier by far if they had occupied separate households, but that Fanny had refused to allow, preferring the shield of the two of them living together to hide her numerous affairs. Unfortunately, she had held the trump card, and had used the excuse of their baby daughter to enforce that decision. For, despite the awkwardness he often felt in being able to relax his emotions and draw close to Amanda as she grew older, Adam loved his young daughter deeply.

‘How does your grandmama seem to you nowadays?’

Adam’s eyes widened at the subject of Royston’s question; Lady Cicely had been the last thing he expected to be discussing this evening, with Royston or anyone else. ‘What do you mean?’

Royston stared down morosely into his brandy glass. ‘Mine’s acting deuced odd and I thought, as the two of them have always been in such cahoots, that I would see if yours was behaving oddly, too?’ He grimaced. ‘I hope to God it has nothing to do with this Sheffield business, because I am heartily sick of the subject! I liked Sheffield well enough, but all these weeks of speculation as to whether his granddaughter bumped him off, then stole the family jewels, has become an utter bore.’

The tension left Adam’s shoulders. ‘No, I do not believe Lady Cicely and the dowager duchess’s…current distraction have anything to do with the Sheffield affair.’

St Just perked up slightly. ‘No?’

‘No.’ Adam found himself smiling tightly. ‘I believe—and I only know this because Lady Cicely is obviously far less subtle in her intentions than the dowager duchess—that they have it in mind to somehow secure our future wives for us!’

The duke sat forwards abruptly. ‘You cannot be serious?’

Adam gave a mocking inclination of his head, enjoying the other’s man’s consternation. ‘They appear to be very serious, yes. Think about it, Royston—they are thick as thieves with the Dowager Countess of Chambourne, whose own grandson has just announced his wedding is to be next month.’

‘And you are saying our grandmothers are now plotting our own downfall?’

Adam could not help but let out a brief bark of laughter at Royston’s horrified expression. ‘The three ladies have always done things together.

Their coming-out Season. Marriage. Motherhood. Even widowhood.’ He shrugged. ‘My own grandmother’s less-than-subtle attempts at matchmaking these past few months leads me to believe it is now their intention that their three grandsons shall be married in the same Season.’

‘Is it, by God?’ The duke slowly sank back in his chair. ‘And have you made any decision as to how you intend fending off this attack upon our bachelor state?’

‘I see no need to fend it off when my uninterest is so clear.’ Adam frowned.

Royston eyed him pityingly. ‘You are obviously not as well acquainted with my own grandmama as I!’

‘No,’ Adam stated, ‘but I am well acquainted with my own!’

‘And you agree that marriage for either of us is out of the question?’

His mouth tightened. ‘I can only speak for myself—but, yes, totally out of the question.’ His nostrils flared. ‘I have no intention of ever remarrying.’

‘And I have no intention of marrying at all—or, at least, not for years and years.’ Royston looked at Adam searchingly. ‘Even so, I cannot believe that even the dowager duchess would dare—yes, I can, damn it.’ He scowled darkly. ‘My grandmother would dare anything to ensure the succession of the line!’

Adam gave a slight inclination of his head. ‘My own grandmother has also expressed her concerns as to the fact that I have only a daughter and no son.’ Not that he had taken any heed of those concerns; Adam felt no qualms whatsoever about his third cousin Wilfred inheriting the title once he had shuffled off his own mortal coil.

‘But I take it you do not intend to just sit about waiting for the parson’s mousetrap to snap tight about your ankles?’

‘Certainly not!’ Adam gave a shiver of revulsion.

Royston tapped his chin distractedly. ‘There’s not much happening in the House for the next week, so now would seem to be as good a time as any for me to absent myself from town and go to the country for a while. I have it in mind to view a hunter Sedgewicke has put my way. With any luck the grandmothers will have lost the scent by the time I return.’

‘Highly unlikely,’ Adam drawled derisively.

‘But, as I am genuinely fond of the dowager duchess, and as such have no wish to be at loggerheads with her over this, it is definitely worth pursuing.’ Royston stood up decisively. ‘I advise you to do something similar, for I assure you, once my grandmama gets the bit between her teeth there’s no stopping her. Oh, and, Hawthorne…?’ He paused beside Adam’s chair.

‘Yes?’

‘I make it a point of principle never to dally with married ladies,’ Royston declared.

His meaning was not lost on Adam as he answered cautiously. ‘That is a very good principle to have.’

‘I believe so, yes.’ The other man met Adam’s gaze briefly, meaningfully, before nodding to him in farewell, pausing only to briefly greet several acquaintances as he made his way out of the club.

Leaving Adam to mull over the predicament of how best to avoid his own grandmother’s machinations and to consider his unexpected, and totally inappropriate fantasy earlier regarding Elena Leighton’s sensuously plump lips and the uses they might be put to!

Elena assured herself of the neatness of her appearance one last time before knocking briskly on the door of her employer’s private study, having received the summons in the nursery a short time ago, delivered by Barnes, requesting she join Lord Hawthorne downstairs immediately.

‘Come.’

To say Elena was nervous about the reason for Lord Hawthorne’s summons would be putting it mildly—the sudden tension that had sprung up between them yesterday, and their unfinished conversation, were both still very much in her mind. She had no idea what she would say to him if, as she had suggested, he had decided to check her fake references and somehow found them wanting.

She did not see how he could have done so, when she had been so careful in her choice of an alias, her acquaintance with the Bambury family allowing her to write as accurate a reference as possible, considering she was not really Mrs Leighton. But that did not stop Elena from now chewing worriedly on her bottom lip. If Hawthorne chose to dismiss her—

‘I said come, damn it.’ There was no mistaking the impatient irritation in his lordship’s voice.

Elena’s cheeks felt flushed as she opened the door and stepped gingerly into a room lined with bookcases halfway up the mahogany-panelled walls, with several original paintings above them, and a huge mahogany desk dominating the room.

At least…it would have been the dominating feature of the study if the gentleman seated behind that desk had not so easily taken that honour for himself!

Tall and broad-shouldered in a superfine of the same dark grey as his eyes over a paler-grey waistcoat, his linen snowy white, the neckcloth at his throat arranged meticulously, his stylish hair dark as a raven’s wing above that austerely handsome face, Lord Adam Hawthorne effortlessly filled the room with his overwhelming presence.

But it was a presence that Elena did not find in the least frightening, as she did so many other men following her cousin Neville’s cruelty to her. Indeed, Adam Hawthorne, despite—or because of?—his air of detachment, was a man who inspired trust rather than fear…

His mouth thinned disapprovingly as he leant back his chair. ‘Did you have some difficulty just now in understanding my invitation to enter?’

‘No. I—’ She breathed out softly through her teeth before straightening her shoulders determinedly.

‘No, of course I did not,’ she answered more strongly. ‘I merely paused before entering in order to…to adjust my appearance.’ It took all of her considerable self-will to withstand that critical gaze as it swept over her slowly, from the neat and smoothly styled bun at her nape, the pallor of her face, down over the black of her gown, to the toes of her black ankle boots peeking out from beneath the hem of that gown, before once again returning to her now-flushed and discomforted face.

He observed her coolly. ‘Might I enquire why it is you still choose to wear your widow’s weeds when your husband died almost two years ago?’

Elena was visibly taken aback by the directness of his question. Nor did she intend—or, in the circumstances, was able—to explain that she chose to wear black out of respect for the death two months ago of her beloved grandfather, George Matthews, the previous Duke of Sheffield!

He raised a dark brow. ‘Perhaps it is that you loved your husband so much that you still mourn his loss?’

‘Or perhaps it is that I am simply too poor to be able to replace my mourning gowns with something more frivolous?’ Elena felt stung into replying as she easily heard the underlying scepticism in his derisive tone.

Adam eyed her thoughtfully. ‘If that should indeed be the situation, would it not have been prudent to ask me for an advance on your wages?’

Elena’s eyes widened. ‘I trust you are not about to insult me further by suggesting I might use your money with which to purchase new gowns, my lord?’

Adam frowned his irritation with this young woman’s prickliness. He tried to not remember Royston had accused him of having the very same fault only yesterday evening…

Adam owed his own withdrawal from society to the adulterous behaviour of his deceased wife. His fierce pride would not allow him to relax his guard when in the company of the ton. Elena Leighton’s surliness also appeared to be a matter of pride, but in her case, it was pride over her lack of finances. ‘It would be money you have earned in taking care of Amanda,’ he pointed out calmly.

‘Except, as I suggested might be the case yesterday, I believe you may be dissatisfied with my services…?’

Damn it, Adam wished she would not use such words as that!

The word ‘service’ once again conjured up images of this woman performing all manner of intimacies he would rather not be allowed to distract him at this moment…

Adam found had already been distracted—and aroused—enough already by the pretty pout of her reddened lips when she entered his study a few minutes ago. So much so that the material of his pantaloons was now stretched uncomfortably tight across the throb of his swollen shaft beneath his desk.

He stood up to try to ease that discomfort before realising what he had done and turning away to hide the evidence of his arousal, gazing out of the window into the garden at the back of his London home. ‘I do not recall making any such remark.’

‘You implied it when you questioned my lack of years—’

‘Mrs Leighton!’ Adam turned back sharply, linking his hands in front of him to hide that telltale bulge as he observed her through narrowed lids. ‘I believe we have already discussed my views regarding you making assumptions about any of my comments or actions. If I have something to say, then be assured I will not hesitate to say it. How long will it take you to make ready to leave Hawthorne House?’

Elena stepped back with a gasp, her face paling as she raised her hand in an effort to calm her rapidly beating heart at the mere thought of being cast out alone into the world once again. ‘You are dismissing me…?’

‘For heaven’s sake, woman, will you stop reading meanings into my every word, meanings that are simply not there!’ Adam exploded as he scowled down the length of his aristocratic nose at her. ‘I have several things in need of my attention on my estate in Cambridgeshire, and it is my wish for you and Amanda to accompany me there.’

‘To Cambridgeshire?’

He nodded tersely. ‘That is what I have just said, yes.’

‘Oh…’

He flicked a black brow. ‘There is some problem with that course of action?

It was a county in England that Elena had never visited before, but of course she had no objection to accompanying Lord Hawthorne and his daughter there.

Not as such…

The truth of the matter was that Elena had made a conscious decision to move to London after her grandfather had died so suddenly, and following the terrible scene with her cousin, which had occurred after the funeral.

Her grandfather, once a soldier, had told her that the best way to hide from the enemy was in plain sight, which was the reason Elena had chosen to change her appearance as far as she was able and adopt an assumed name, before accepting the post as governess to Amanda Hawthorne, a post that largely involved staying inside the house with her charge. Even if Neville Matthews, her cousin and abuser, and the new Duke of Sheffield, did decide to come to town, then he was unlikely to accept any but private invitations following the recent death of their grandfather.

She did not believe that she had any acquaintances living in Cambridgeshire, but she nevertheless felt safer in the anonymity of London…

‘Perhaps,’ Adam continued relentlessly as he saw the uncertainty in her expression, ‘it is that you have…acquaintances, here in London, you would be reluctant to be parted from, even for a week or so…?’ Just because the woman had been widowed for almost two years, and she still wore her black clothes as a sign of her continued mourning, did not mean that she had not taken a lover during that time. Several, in fact.

Indeed, Adam had heard it said that physical closeness was one of the things most lamented when one’s husband or wife died. Not true in his case, of course; he and Fanny had not shared so much as a brief kiss from the moment he had learnt of her first infidelity just a month after their wedding.

But Elena Leighton was a young and beautiful woman, and she had already explained that she still wore her widow’s attire for financial reasons rather than emotional ones. It was naïve on Adam’s part to assume that she had not taken a lover. Quite when she met with that lover—perhaps on her one afternoon off a week?—he had no wish to know!

‘We would only be gone for a week?’ Her expression had brightened considerably.

Irritating Adam immensely. Which was in itself ridiculous; the woman’s obvious eagerness not to be parted from her lover for any length of time was of absolutely no consequence or interest to him. ‘Approximately,’ he qualified. ‘At the moment, the exact length of time I will need to stay in Cambridgeshire is undecided.’ Mainly because Adam felt a certain inner discomfort about this departure for Cambridgeshire at all.

It was true that there were several matters there in need of his attention, but he had no doubts they were matters he could have settled by the sending of a letter to his man who managed the estate in his absence. His decision to visit the estate in person had more to do with his conversation with Royston last night, than any real urgency to deal with those matters himself.

Not because Adam was in any real fear of his grandmother being successful in her endeavours to procure him a suitable wife—that, he had vowed long ago, would never happen!—but because, much as his grandmother might irritate him on occasion, he did have a genuine affection for her, and as such he had no wish to hurt her. Like Royston, removing himself from London, far away from his relative’s machinations, seemed the best way for him to avoid doing that.

However, he could not avoid having dinner at Lady Cecily’s home this evening, when no doubt a suitable number of eligible young ladies would be produced for his approval—or otherwise, as he absolutely knew would be the case!—but as it would also give Adam the opportunity of telling his grandmother in person of his imminent departure for Cambridgeshire, he was willing to suffer through that particular inconvenience.

He frowned as he saw the look of consternation on the governess’s face. ‘I repeat, is there some objection to your travelling into Cambridgeshire with myself and Amanda?’

Elena drew herself up stiffly. ‘No, of course there is not. And to answer your earlier question, I can have my own and Amanda’s things packed and ready for departure in a matter of hours.’

Adam gave a tight smile. ‘It is not necessary that you be quite so hasty,’ he drawled. ‘I have a dinner engagement this evening. First thing tomorrow morning will be quite soon enough. I trust that will give you sufficient time in which to…inform any relatives and friends that you are to be absent from Town for the next week?’

‘Approximately.’

‘Indeed,’ he conceded drily.

The only relative Elena had left in the world was Neville and the moment he learnt of her whereabouts he would no doubt call for her immediate arrest!

And Elena had decided at the onset that the less she involved her friends in her current unhappy situation—and she did have several who still believed in her innocence—the better it would be for them.

She necessarily had to accept a small amount of financial help from her closest friend, Lizzie Carlton, after fleeing the duke’s estate in Yorkshire in late February, and she had also informed Lizzie by letter that she had safely reached London and secured suitable lodgings. But Elena could not, in all conscience, allow her friend to become embroiled in this situation any further than that.

Indeed, she had resolved to completely become the widowed Mrs Elena Leighton, a schooled young lady who had fallen on hard times since her husband’s untimely death. As she must, if she were to be successful in her endeavour of hiding in full view of the populace of England’s capital; it was sad, but true, that the ton rarely noticed the existence of the people whom they employed, let alone those employed by the other members of England’s aristocracy.

‘There is no one whom I would wish to inform, my lord,’ she answered her employer coolly. ‘If I might be allowed to return to the schoolroom now?’

‘Of course.’

‘Thank you, my lord.’

Adam tapped his cheek thoughtfully as he watched her quietly exit the study before closing the door behind her, irritated at the realisation that she had once again avoided revealing anything about herself or her connections. As she was perfectly entitled to do, he allowed; her family connections, or even her romantic ones, had been of no significance to him at the commencement of her employment with him, and they should not be of any import now.

Except he could not prevent himself from wondering—despite her denial of the need for her to inform anyone of her imminent departure for Cambridgeshire—as to which gentleman might currently be the lucky recipient of the ministrations of those full and sensuous lips…

.

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