The Counterfeit Governess – Part Nineteen

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Nineteen – The Lures of Temptation

 

As soon as his right arm encircled her lower back, Beth found herself yielding to Stephen’s enticing, as if it were the most natural thing to do. He took her right hand into his left one, inducing her to place her other hand on his shoulder. When he started moving in a circular way, she felt the muscles in that shoulder shift and flex in a most agreeable manner. He was strong and well-built and … very male, with the faint scent of cologne and tobacco assaulting her senses, making her body respond in a strange way. Her breasts suddenly seemed too large for her dress but the tingling feeling was very pleasant and exciting. Her lower stomach developed a life of its own, aching all of a sudden with a spiralling, throbbing wave of … what only could be named ‘desire’!

As they circled the room, enchanted by the lovely tones of the waltz, Beth raised her head and met Stephen’s gaze. His very blue eyes were glowing softly and with an expression she never beheld before. His mouth, finely chiselled and smiling, opened slightly to reveal his perfect white teeth.

“May I express my admiration on the lovely attire you chose to wear tonight, Miss Williams? You are looking exactly how I knew you would as soon as you abandoned that gloomy black you usually prefer.”

Beth felt her cheeks go hot, not as usual in anger, but in genuine pleasure, for his voice had not been mocking. Instead he had spoken in a gentle tone as if he had been admiring her in truth. She had donned a gown of burgundy coloured taffeta, with only the shortest of puffed sleeves so that the neckline, not that low at all, still gave the impression of revealing more of her bosom than it truly did. The loose, flowing skirt, worn without a crinoline, swirled becomingly as they circulated the room.

Light as a feather – that was how Beth felt. Being in Stephen’s arms, close to him as she had never been with a dance partner, did not frighten her as she would have thought it would. Instead, a strong notion of unmistakeable safety warmed her whole person.

Yet, as pleasant as it was, it was not enough to dispel her experiences of what Stephen was, nor her suspicions of what his intensions were towards her. She was acutely aware of one thing; she did not truly know the Master of Brixton Abbey.

Between the disastrous dealings with him during her youth and the present time, their lives had been led separately in different places. Beth had been tucked away in Provence with her father and her aunt, safely guarded and blissfully protected from the evils of the world, while Stephen had come into his title and position as the master of his family’s estate. He had married Florence, and it had been a love match. True, he had taken care over his illegitimate offspring, but only when his marriage had proved barren and after his wife had died.

“You seem preoccupied, Miss Williams. Are you displeased with the way I am conducting this waltz? I would hate to think myself responsible for preventing you of enjoying it.”

Beth did not know what troubled her most, the very words he had spoken or the sweet concern ringing through them.

“No, no, my lord! You have nothing to reproach yourself for and certainly not your dancing! It is excellent. Please, forgive my loss of concentration. I confess to feeling an extreme weariness over the events of the past few days, what with Mrs Bradley’s passing and the children’s grief.”

Stephen did not reply but gently tightened his hold. Beth found herself with sudden tears in her eyes when she realised he was offering her a quiet comfort when she needed it. When the music ended soon thereafter, Stephen raised her hand to his lips, turned it upward and kissed her wrist, just above the cuff of her glove.

“I very much would like to speak with you, Miss Williams. There still are some matters we must discuss about my children’s future. Does ten o’clock tomorrow morning suits you?”

“Very well, my lord.”

Beth curtsied when Stephen brought her back to her chair. She sat down next to the children who were playing on the carpet with the toys they found under the Christmas tree and watched her employer move around the room and speak to several of his neighbours and senior staff members.

With a pang of unexpected sadness, she noticed how several of the young and unmarried ladies had their eyes glued on Stephen’s tall, elegant frame in black evening coat, golden waistcoat, buff coloured breeches and shiny black Hessian boots. His fine white shirt was of the finest linen and his snowy-white cravat accentuated the strength of his firm jaw.

He was elegant and so very, very male, and amiable to every young lady present. Whenever he addressed them, albeit polite and distant, the girls would batter their eyelashes at him and flush becomingly. Their mamas would show a great deal of teeth and put an affectionate hand on his sleeve to convince him of their approval. Stephen was, Beth realised, a much-coveted widower, still young and handsome and, more to the point extremely wealthy.

To these well-bread members of society, the presence of a young, unattached governess at Brixton Abbey must constitute a genuine thread. Surely, that was the reason why Beth herself had been most pointedly snubbed by all the female guests of the Dowager’s Christmas party.

 

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Mrs Bradley’s death had not solely affected her grandchildren, Lily and Oliver. Beth too had been shaken and hurt when Granny Bradley died because she had always been fond of her father’s former housekeeper. After the tragic death of her mother and her brother Julian, Beth’s father was in sore need of a housekeeper and a female presence in the house for fourteen-year-old Beth. Granny Bradley, who needed the meagre salary Vicar Williams offered her to raise the twins, gladly and thankfully took on the task. It had been only natural that Beth renewed the bonds of affection with Granny and the children after she came back from France. She had always felt very safe and loved in Granny’s presence.

That was only one of the reasons why Beth had finally decided she would return to England, besides the fact she wanted the master of Brixton Abbey to atone for the death of her relatives. She had been struck by a wave of homesickness when both her father and her aunt passed away. Who better than to turn to than Granny Bradley and go back to her childhood village?

During her stay at Brixton Abbey, Beth had become acutely aware of one notion; she had developed a great love for Lily and Oliver. So deep an affection that she forced herself to come back – even after Stephen wounded her with his caddish behaviour – and make sure the children were taken care of.

Now, that request had been fulfilled. Lily and Oliver bore the Fenton name and would have a share of their father’s fortune.

Beth was free from the promise she made to Granny Bradley. She was free to leave Brixton Abbey and start another life. A life away from Stephen Fenton.

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Eighteen

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Eighteen – A Time For Reflection

 

Mrs Bradley’s funeral occurred on the Tuesday before Christmas 1819. It was a remarkable event with the whole village and the occupants of Brixton Abbey attending the service at St Mary’s church. The Reverend Mr Carter, assisted by his curate, Mr Sage, moved the congregation to tears with his praise of Mrs Bradley’s virtues, all of which were only very true, as Stephen knew.

His children were sitting very still and white-faced, clasping their governess’ hands as they sat on both sides of her. Stephen could clearly see their distress but also, their braveness in mastering their tears and controlling their grief. Beth, he noticed, did not weep at all but sat very upright and solemn in her black mourning clothes. He was unsure if her apparent aloofness was a good thing. He would have preferred some tears over this rigid control.

When the service was finally over, and they had laid Granny Bradley to rest beside her daughter Molly, the congregation split. The Dowager took the children to the carriage where their father was waiting for them. As her charges had no immediate need for her, Beth’s steps were drawn to Granny’s cottage before she could help it. She pushed open the door and a huge gulf of grief suddenly gripped her. Granny … dearest Granny, who took her in after Beth finally came back to the place of her youth … How was she supposed to continue now? Whom could she turn to if ever she would be in need of a comforting presence in her life? With a sob, breaking from her, Beth sank into Granny’s chair by the hearth and wept.

 

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After Stephen sent his mother and the children back to the Abbey, he followed Beth when she directed her steps to the cottage. The look of sheer forlornness in her eyes had thoroughly alarmed him. He wanted to watch over her because he knew she was upset. The unexpected sight of her, huddled in a chair and sobbing her heart out, appalled him.

He ached to comfort her – no, to take her in his arms and hold her close but … He sighed inwardly with suppressed frustration. Had he not spoiled his chances of winning her heart by his rude, lustful behaviour, he might not have to restrain himself so.

Yet, Stephen knew all too well he would have to be careful not to shock Beth with brusque manners, lest she would again think him a confessed cad.

So, he waited patiently for her to put her hands down from her face and stare at him in surprise and dismay. With some awkwardness, she began searching her pockets for a handkerchief, which she failed to find, whereupon he presented his own large white one to her.

“Come on, Miss Williams,” he said evenly. “It is not at all in your nature to be so downcast. Normally, you tackle setbacks with fortitude and alacrity. Do so now, too. The children will need you at the Abbey.”

His rather blunt approach seemed to do the trick for Beth obediently rose while she blew her nose and wiped her eyes with his handkerchief. She glided past him without a word and left the cottage, clutching – at least – at some shred of her dignity.

 

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Christmas came at last. Stephen and his mother went out of the ordinary to make it a memorable one for Lily and Oliver and so – the baron observed – did the whole household staff, including his governess. Everybody wanted the children to feel less forlorn about their grandmother’s death.

Henrietta took the children with her in the carriage when she visited the tenants. She encouraged them to talk to them and give them presents. A sure way for Lily and Oliver, she knew, to become familiar with the many tasks of the gentry they belonged to from now on.

Stephen made them ride over the estate with him and taught them the names of the staff members who were of vital importance to the day-to-day workings of Brixton Abbey. Especially Oliver soon became acquainted with Mr and Mrs Robinson, the steward and his family. They were a friendly couple with three children, the eldest of them a boy of Oliver’s own age, by the name of Crispin.

To her own surprise, Lily found herself liking Mrs Tremayne a lot, whose husband was the home farmer. The Tremaynes were young and had been married for only a year and Mrs Tremayne was expecting her first baby in the spring.

Mr Darton, the game keeper, was more to Oliver’s liking. He was impressed by the man’s knowledge on the woodlands and promised himself to go out with Mr Barton frequently as soon as spring returned.

Beth, on the other hand, planned outings for her charges with the head gardener, Mr Burrows, and his helpers, who took the three of them with him into the woods to collect greenery and berries. Afterwards, the children and Beth helped the indoor maids to decorate the Great Hall and stairways with holly and fur branches and mistletoe. They had so much fun that Stephen was drawn out of his study by the giggles and laughter. Mrs Banton, the housekeeper, was trying in vain to keep the excitement down but, as soon as the baron appeared in the hall, voices died down instantly. Stephen felt himself growing irritated! Was he such a tyrant, then, that the maids cowered when he entered? Even Beth seemed startled and was staring at him with big brown eyes.

“Oh, Papa!” Lily’s high-pitched voice rang. “Come and join us! This is so much fun!”

The awkward mood was instantly chased away and soon, Stephen found himself standing on a ladder to attach some greenery to the post of a hallway door or to a chandelier, with Lily and Beth handing him branches of various shrubs. To his amazement, he enjoyed it a great deal, especially when Lily handed him a branch of mistletoe and ordered him to place it in the drawing room doorway.

“Why here, Lily?” Stephen asked. “Why not in the library door?”

“Because the drawing room is the one we use most, silly! We pass this door the most so you will have the greatest opportunity to kiss under the mistletoe here!”

“Oh? Is that what it is used for? I did not know that!” Stephen said, pretending not to know, but he winked at Beth, who suddenly blushed violently. He was absolutely delighted by that!

 

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Yet, Stephen had to wait until Christmas Day and the party his mother gave before he had a chance of coming close enough to Beth to have a private moment with her. She had stubbornly and most efficiently avoided being alone with him during the last few weeks and he was growing very irritated with that.

Finally, the Christmas dinner party saw the Abbey’s friends and neighbours assembled around Henrietta’s table in a quiet but comforting gathering. Lily and Oliver had been officially presented as the Baron’s heirs. Stephen’s neighbours were delighted to make the children’s acquaintance and treated them with affection and good humour.

Beth, who had been presented as the children’s governess, had not expected the unaffected friendliness of the guests. She was being treated as an equal, she realised with surprise and several of the young, unattached gentlemen politely asked her to reserve a dance for them. Yet, when the dancing began, Stephen forestalled every other suitor by claiming a waltz right away. He had the immense satisfaction of seeing Beth startled yet again.

“A waltz, my lord? But … I did not think I was supposed to be attending the dance … I …”

“You are requested here tonight, Miss Williams. It is obligatory to attend the baroness’ Christmas party. And, now that you are here, it is also capital that you grant me this waltz. People would think you rude and impolite.”

The musicians struck up the introduction to “Invitation to the Dance” from the German composer Carl Maria von Weber who just made a name for himself with a new opera in Dresden, Germany.

Without further ado, Stephen put his arm on Beth’s waist and drew her with him onto the dance floor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Seventeen

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Seventeen – A Great Sorrow

 

“Oh, Miss Williams, Granny Bradley is so very ill! The fever will not abate, and I am at the end of my tether!” Ruby wrung her hands in despair and sobbed inconsolably. Beth quickly ran past her and entered the cottage.

Mrs Bradley’s body on the bed seemed to have shrunken so much that Beth was instantly in a panic. Ruby had covered her with a cotton sheet but Beth could see the ravishing effects of the fever all too well. The old lady’s face was ashen but her cheeks bore bright red spots as if someone had touched them with rouge. Her breathing was laboured and seemed to drain away the last vestiges of her energy with every intake of air. Beth knelt beside the bed and took one of Mrs Bradley’s gnarled hands in hers.

“Granny … oh, Granny …” She choked on the words and attempted to swallow the big lump in her throat. Her eyes misted over when Mrs Bradley looked at her.

“Beth, my child …” There was not much strength left in those whispered words. “Beth, promise me … you will watch over my sweethearts … promise me, please?”

“Of course, I will! I love them! I will do whatever is necessary to keep them from harm or hurt! I swear it!”

Mrs Bradley made an attempt to cough but failed. Instead, she weakly wheezed and her lips turned blue. Hastily, Beth dipped her clean handkerchief into a bowl of eucalyptus water and held it under the old lady’s nose. It brought only a little relief, she saw, and not nearly enough.

“You must … marry him …” Mrs Bradley croaked and grabbed Beth’s hand with sudden vigour. “It is … the only way to guard them. That way, you will become a mother to them.”

“I cannot do that, Granny, but surely there are other …”

Mrs Bradley squeezed her hand in a painful way and drew a deep breath.

“It will ensure you happiness, my child. You love him, Beth … “ She coughed and gasped.

At that same moment, Fenton entered and paled visibly when he saw the condition Mrs Bradley was in. Yet, he controlled himself and knelt at the opposite side of the bed.

“Mrs Bradley, I took the liberty of sending for my personal physician, Dr Forrester. He will be here shortly and …”

“My lord …” rasped Mrs Bradley. “Please … take care of  … my darlings … promise me … you will … protect and love them?”

Stephen laid his hand on top of hers and softly said, “Mrs Bradley, you have my gentleman’s word I will do everything in my power to take care of Lily and Oliver. I do love them, you know that.”

The old lady nodded faintly yet urged on.

“You must also … look after … my dearest Beth! Promise me! She has … no one …” A violent fit of coughs raked her frail body and Beth, in alarm, tried to make her drink a bit of water. Mrs Bradley pushed her hand aside and grabbed Fenton’s hand in a hard grip.

“Promise me, my lord! Promise me …”

She gasped one last time and then, her eyes lost all sparkle of life. Her head fell back on the pillow and she lay still and unmoving.

Slowly Stephen’s hand went up and closed the dead woman’s eyes before he solemnly said what she so fervently had wanted to hear during her last moments.

“I promise, Mrs Bradley, I do.”

Stephen knew beyond a single doubt that he would do as he promised. He simply had no choice but to fulfil that promise to the dying grandmother of his twins. His gaze wandered to Beth. She had her eyes closed but a single tear ran down her cheek and Stephen realised she must be very distressed. He wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and soothe her yet he knew she would not permit it. His ghastly behaviour of a few weeks ago had caused Beth to distrust and maybe even hate him.

“Come, Miss Williams,” he said softly, “we cannot help her anymore and must lay her to rest. I will see to it that Mrs Bradley receives all respect and dignity she is entitled to.”

 

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The days following Mrs Bradley’s demise were bleak and laden with sorrow. Stephen took it upon himself to take care of the necessary arrangements, so that Beth could devote herself entirely to Lily and Oliver. How she would be able to comfort the children, Stephen did not know. He had broken the news to them the following morning as gently as he could and asked his mother and Beth to be present when he did so. It had been one of the hardest things he had ever done in his life yet he must have accomplished it fairly good because the children – after the first outbursts of grief, of course – seemed to recover themselves a bit.

Lily had even asked in a timid little voice if they would be living at Brixton Abbey from now on, which caused his mother to forget her usual dignity and gather the two of them in her embrace. It was she who had assured the twins that, of course, the Abbey was now their home. When Beth took them away, they looked rather composed, to Stephen’s relief.

Yet, he again felt a pang of concern when Raleigh informed him that the children and Miss Williams would be dining in their rooms that night. They were too tired and too upset to come down. His mother too did not come down so Stephen dined alone downstairs, feeling like an outcast in his own home.

Afterwards, he hastened to the first floor where his children now occupied a suite of rooms. Beth’s bedchamber was adjacent to that of the children. Stephen knocked on the sitting room door but received no answer. Upon entering, he found his mother reading in the chaise-longue.

“My lady, how come I find you here instead of asleep in your chambers?”

Henrietta put down her book and sighed.

“I could not find sleep, Stephen. Poor Lily cried herself to sleep and Oliver tried comforting her with tears running down his cheeks, although he manfully swallowed them back. Miss Williams finally succeeded to calm them down. She is resting now and I volunteered to watch the children while she sleeps.”

“Let me relieve you, mother. You need to rest.”

“Stephen, I do not think …”

But her son helped Henrietta to her feet and soothed her.

“Do not concern yourself about propriety, mother. I trust you know me well enough to assume I would never break its rules.”

Henrietta relinquished and retreated to her rooms. Stephen opened the door to the children’s room.

Lily and Oliver were in their beds, sound asleep, and in a chair next to Lily’s bed sat Beth. At one point she must have been in her own bed for she had donned her nightgown. It was a plain, white cotton one without any frills or laces. It was the most fetching one Stephen had seen in his whole life.

Beth was sitting upright in what must be a very uncomfortable position. Her head had fallen aside and was resting against the chair’s high back. Her hands were still clutching her shawl of lavender blue wool against the night’s cold.

Poor sweet darling, Stephen thought. She must be exhausted and yet, she chose to stay at his children’s bedside, to be there, should they need her. Her fine, beautiful face was very pale in the light of the bedside table lamp. A few shallow lines showed next to her pert little nose, and the sight of them clutched at his very heart. He loved her … he simply did. He would court her and woe her until she loved him back and then, he would ask her to be his wife. It would be difficult because he had to gain her trust which he himself had destroyed with his rudeness. It did not signify. He would do it, slowly and gently.

But for now, she needed to rest in a thorough, soothing way. So Stephen carefully lifted her into his arms and carried her to her bed where he gently laid her down and tucked her in. She did not even stir.

He returned to the children’s room and took his place beside their bed. He had all night to think about how he would conduct his courtship.

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Sixteen

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Sixteen – Coming Closer

 

Struggling for balance, Beth gripped the edge of the desk and prayed her legs would not buckle beneath her. All the blood seemed to drain from her face and the air from her lungs. It should be declared a crime to be so overwhelmingly handsome as Stephen was looking just now, she thought. His proud bearings, his powerful body, his beloved face, eyes as blue as ice on a sunny winter day, eyes scorching hers.

No, she was wrong. Eyes softening suddenly as if … no, that could not be!

Before her incredulous gaze, he bowed deeply to her, taking off his hat, and spoke in a very respectful tone.

“Miss Williams, ma’am. Forgive me for intruding on your privacy unannounced but there was no one about and the outer door stood ajar.”

Somehow she managed to curtsy and allow some sound to escape from her frozen lips.

“My Lord Brixton …”

Her voice broke suddenly when speaking his name, and all air seemed to be lacking in the entire room. His eyes grew darker with concern and he took a step toward her, taking her arm to offer her some support.

“I daresay you need to sit down, ma’am. Here, let me guide you to …”

“No!” In sudden panic, Beth tore herself loose and leaned back against the desk. She could not bear the softness of his tone nor the concern in his voice. It could not be genuine, surely? No, she would not delude herself in thinking he somehow might care for her.

“What are you doing here, my lord?” she said, her voice wavering.  “Why have you come? If it is your intention to take away the children, it will only be over my dead body!”

Fenton’s face grew grim, and his mouth became a thin line of disapproval, but he did not move.

“Miss Williams,” he said, his voice rigid with suppressed emotion. “I have no such intention, I assure you. I have no right to take Lily and Oliver away from their legal guardian and I am extremely sorry to have done just that, a few months ago. I will apologize to Mrs Bradley if she will grant me to visit her.”

Beth watched him as he closed his eyes and she heard the distress in his voice when he went on.

“The truth of the matter is, Miss Williams, that I miss them. I have come to love them over the past few months and so has my mother, the dowager baroness. I beg you to listen to what I have come to ask you. Please, hear me out.”

Her heart made a sudden somersault when his gaze bore into hers with burning intensity, all unexpectedly! All Beth could do, was to make a small hand gesture, permitting him to continue.

“My proposition is that you and Mrs Bradley and the children all come to celebrate Christmas at Brixton Abbey – as our guests, that is. My mother has a habit of hosting a small dinner party on Christmas Day for our neighbours and for a few of our estate employees, such as Mr Robinson, my steward and his wife, Mr Tremayne and his wife who run the Home Farm and Mr Darton, my game keeper. After Boxing Day, you will be free to do whatever you like, Miss Williams. So are the children. If they choose to go and live with their grandmother, I will not be opposed to it. If – on the other hand – they prefer to stay at Brixton Abbey, I will ask Mrs Bradley permission to have them be declared my offspring. I fervently wish to give them my name and be their father, Miss Williams.”

 

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She must have heard wrongly, Beth thought. Stephen Fenton, Baron Brixton, was humbly asking them to come and spend Christmas at the Abbey. He was prepared to give his name to his bastard children and make them legally his. He was even prepared to let their grandmother have the final word.

“My lord,” she croaked, all confusion, “if that is your wish, then I suggest I take you up to see Mrs Bradley. As for myself, I must decline your kind invitation. I cannot, in all honesty, be a guest at Brixton Abbey since I was your employee and left your employment without giving notice. People would talk, and I do not want that. It would be very bad for the children.”

“You did not leave my employment, Miss Williams. On the contrary, it was I who drove you away through my outrageous behaviour, all for which I humbly beg your forgiveness. You too are free to act as you wish, Miss Williams. You can either come back as their governess, should Mrs Bradley deem it suitable that Lily and Oliver were to stay at the Abbey, or you can stay with us during the Christmas festivities as my esteemed guest and friend. After the holy days, you can do as you please. If you wish to find some other employment, I would gladly and wholeheartedly give you the best of references. However, Miss Williams, I would hate to see you disappear from my life forever.”

Beth stared at him, her mind reeling under what she had just heard.

“I … I do not understand you, my lord,” she stammered. “Your … guest? Your … friend? How can that be since I was a mere governess in your house?”

He smiled so sweetly that her heart once again did that strange flip-flop inside her chest.

“Miss Williams, I do not wish to explain anything. I do not want to influence you in any way. Think about my proposition and act accordingly to your conscience.”

He bowed again and left the room, leaving Beth in utter confusion and turmoil.

 

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Stephen watched from his library window as his carriage rolled over the Abbey’s driveway towards the front of the house. While it performed a perfect half circle to round up before the main entrance and came to a standstill exactly on the right spot, he felt a thrill of something stir his heart. His footman opened the door and lowered the steps while extending a hand which was taken by a slender black-gloved hand. And there she was, Beth, his wayward governess, looking up to the windows behind which he was standing. Stephen raised a hand and smiled. She did not respond to either gesture, he noticed. Instead, she followed Raleigh inside. Lily and Oliver jumped from the carriage, all laughter and merriment. They saw him and their voices rang with joy as they waved and shouted.

“Papa! Papa! Oh, Papa, how we missed you!”

That did it. Stephen was suddenly running down the stairs toward the hall where the twins jumped into his arms, and he clasped them close and kissed them! His heart almost burst with joy and happiness. He had missed them so badly … oh, how he had missed them …

“Oh, my dear darlings!” he said in a choked voice, swallowing at the lump in his throat.

 

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Beth had not wanted to come back to the Abbey. It had been Mrs Bradley who convinced her it was best for the children that she did, and Beth knew she had been perfectly right, of course. Lord Brixton’s protection was vital to Lily and Oliver. Nevertheless, Beth had been frightfully worried when she witnessed Mrs Bradley signing the agreement with the baron, in which he granted the children recognition and gave them his name. It was such a final step. Lily and Oliver were not solely family to Mrs Bradley anymore.

However, it was a solid agreement in which Lily and Oliver were established as the baron’s heirs and officially proclaimed his offspring. Fenton had not even demanded that the children live at the Abbey yet expressed the fervent wish that would be allowed to do so by Mrs Bradley if they wanted it. He even offered that Mrs Bradley come and live at the Abbey, should the children wish it. But the old lady had refused, and secretly, Beth felt very relieved. There still would be a place of refuge in case she needed one.

Now, Beth was horribly shaken by what she had just witnessed. Lily and Oliver seemed very fond of Fenton and he of them. She certainly had not been prepared for this and she did not know how to deal with it. Yet, she had another surprise coming when the dowager hurried into the hall and embraced the children with equal fondness and what seemed to be happiness!

While his mother took the children upstairs, Fenton bowed and extended a hand to Beth.

“Miss Williams, allow me to express my joy on seeing you here with my twins. I am so glad you have accepted my invitation. How is Mrs Bradley? Is she settled in her cottage again?”

“Indeed, my lord, she is but she is not well. She caught a nasty cold, a few days ago, and I will need to go and see her. Ruby Merton offered to take care of her but I feel it is my duty to be at Mrs Bradley’s side, just now.”

Fenton nodded, an earnest expression on his face.

“Allow me to escort you there, Miss Williams. We will call on Dr Forrester, who is my personal physician. I insist that he examine Mrs Bradley so that she may receive the best of treatments.”

Beth had never seen him so concerned nor so generous and she hesitated, not sure how to deal with this new attitude of his.

“Please, Miss Williams, give me some credit. Do not look as if I were to have mischief on my mind. Mrs Bradley is not that young anymore and colds can be serious at her age.”

Beth bowed her head in acquiescence and they both left for the village.

When they arrived at Mrs Bradley’s cottage, Ruby Merton could only offer them sad news.

 

 

 

 

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Fifteen

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Fifteen – Struggling

 

“Confound it, man!” Fenton glared at Ben Merton in frustration and raked his hand through his hair in sudden misery. “Does it not occur to you that I might be worried about my children? That I am concerned if they are safe, fed, clothed, cared for?” He realized with a shock that it was true! He did worry about his children, even though he had never done so before. But now, at this very moment, he needed to know how they fared.

Merton, however,  stood his ground, an expression of profound stubbornness upon his ruddy face.

“They’re with their granny and with Miss Beth, melord. Nothing will ‘appen to ‘em. They’ll be cared for because Miss Beth loves ‘em like they’d be her own.”

And she does love them, indeed, Stephen thought. If he witnessed anything at all in the past months, it was Beth’s genuine love for Lily and Oliver. But how was he going to put proof of his own love for them into this man’s thick skull?

“Mr Merton,” his mother’s soft voice sounded behind him. “Please, Mr Merton, if you know where they are, tell us. I am their grandmother and I miss them dearly.” Yet another stunning realisation hit Stephen in the guts! His mother was pleading a commoner for help? Never had he thought to behold that!

Henrietta, her eyes glistening in a pale face, turned toward Ruby and took her hand. “Mrs Merton, you are a mother yourself. Surely, you understand how much I am suffering for the loss of them?”

Ruby Merton glanced at her husband who stood there like a rock, his brawny arms crossed over his chest, his face impassive. Yet Stephen could see a softening in the man’s eyes when his wife spoke his name. “Ben?” Merton looked at her and then, finally nodded.

“My lord,” Ruby said, “you saved our little boy from the fire and I will be forever in your debt for that. My husband made a promise to Mrs Bradley but I did not. For my Johnny’s sake, I will tell you. Mrs Bradley is in Manchester.”

 

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Stephen Fenton arrived in Oxford Street, Manchester three weeks before Christmas 1819 around tea time. The snow had been falling steadily during his journey and now it clung to his black greatcoat in lumps of ice because the temperature had dropped considerably as soon as dust had set in. Grateful to have found a suitable inn that bore the not too original name of “The Queen’s Head”, he assured himself that his horse was taken care of properly before entering the tap room for a pint of ale. Behind the counter, a short, burly innkeeper was serving a few patrons, all sturdy workers in drab dark blue clothes, lounging around the room or indulging in a game of cards. The man welcomed him cheerfully.

“Good evenin’, sir! Bet you’re frozen to the bones, ain’ it? What can I serve ya with?”

“A pint of your best ale, sir, and a room for the night, if you please!”

The innkeeper drew him a tankard of ale and shoved a ledger his way.

“I am Wat Burton, sir, you host for tonight. Would you kindly write down your name and the town you’re from?”

“Stephen Fenton, Baron Brixton of Brixton Abbey in Derbyshire.” They shook hands and Stephen signed the ledger before taking a good swig of his ale. He then bent over the counter and lowered his voice before speaking.

“I wish to know the whereabouts of a Mrs Oakham who, I am told, lives here in Manchester. Can you help me in finding out where exactly I could find her?”

“Mrs Oakham? Dr Oakham’s widow? Well, yes, me lord, she lives here, in Oxford Street, at number 17. Everyone could point out her house to ya! She’s very well known, here about!”

“How is that so?”

“Well, me lord, she’s kindness in person! She helps people with all kinds of sufferin’, as well as she can! From miles around, people come to ‘er with their sicknesses and injuries. I daresay she’d had hard enough times helping ‘em all before her sister arrived with Miss Beth and the children. They all help her, ya know, especially Miss Beth! That is one angel, if I ever saw one!”

There was a general approval coming from the rest of the patrons in the room.

“Miss Beth ‘elped me poor mother when she suffered a bout of rheumatism!” one of the men said, nodding emphatically in the process.

“And she delivered me son, just a few days ago!” another one exclaimed. “And made a dashed good job with it, when old Lizzie, the midwife, was out of ‘er wits, not knowin’ what to do!”

“I’m sure she did save my little Mary’s life when she used her own medicine to cure that nasty cough of hers!” a third man shouted, his eyes gleaming with tears.

Stephen felt a strange tug at his heart as he realised what he was witnessing here; a bunch of unwashed, unshaven workmen in drab clothes, singing the praise of his wayward governess who seemed to work here as some sort of nurse. Of his Beth … but why should he be surprised by that? Did she not win the heart of just everyone that had the good fortune of being smiled upon by her? Did she not always made her way to whatever she set her mind to … or her heart?

All of a sudden, Stephen was not sure anymore that he would be able to bring her back with him to Brixton Abbey. And, oh … how he wanted to do just that …

 

~~~~

 

Beth stretched her painful lower back and sighed. Another very busy morning at the infirmary had kept her on her feet almost from after breakfast until now. It must be near luncheon, she thought, and began ranging the room and readying it for the afternoon rush that would soon begin.

She had been extremely thankful that Mrs Oakham had asked her to help out with the patients. Most of the day, Beth had no time to even think about Brixton Abbey and its despicable master. No, that was unfair. Stephen Fenton was just like any other man of his social class and upbringing. He assumed that he had a right to do as he pleased and to take what he liked. Beth knew she had been too rash when she took Lily and Oliver with her, that night six weeks ago, but she could not bear the thought of leaving the two innocent children under Fenton’s roof without her. Fenton would most certainly try again to lure her into his bed. Beth could not, under any circumstances, risk them to witness or even glimpse something of the ongoing.

So, she had fled to Mrs Bradley and told her, in private, what had transpired. Sensible as she was, Mrs Bradley immediately sent for Ben Merton and Ruby and explained that the four of them would go in hiding from the baron.

Since then they all lived under Mrs Oakham’s roof in Manchester, in the big, old house that she had shared with her husband when he had been alive. Beth had been instantly drawn into Mrs Oakham’s charity work for the poorest of the workers and their families, all undernourished and suffering from lung diseases, due to the cotton fluff that filled their workrooms. There was a great deal of misery in Manchester, especially after the riots earlier in the year, that had cost so many lives and left so many women widows.

Yes, Beth reflected, she had been devastated after fleeing Brixton Abbey. She had begun to fall in love with Stephen and she had thought he was beginning to fall in love with her, too. Oh, how she had been wrong, so terribly wrong! Stephen was planning to make her his mistress, instead, and that, she could not bear to be. She could not even bear the thought of giving herself to him when he did not love her. Never, never, would she give herself to him without love, mutual love, shared love. How else would she be happy again? How else would she be able to make him happy again?

Oh, she was so tired. The morning had been hectic, with loads of very young children, all in need of relief for their coughs and running noses and fevers. Beth was glad she had sent Mrs Oakham upstairs for a much needed rest.

Behind her, the door of the surgery opened suddenly. There had been no knock. Due to her exhaustion, Beth was irritated when she turned around to see who had been so bold as to enter without waiting for an answer.

In the doorway, looking extremely attractive in his black greatcoat and black beaver hat, stood Stephen Fenton, a rakish smile on his handsome face.

 

Happy New Year!

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Fourteen

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Fourteen – Organizing the Search

 

The first days of December brought snow and frost in a most severe manner, keeping man and beast inside with gusts of Northeast winds. The small village of Brixton buried itself indoors to await better times and to prepare Christmas.

There was still no word of Mademoiselle Guillaume and her charges. Stephen Fenton and his mother had grown quite a bit dispirited over the whole affair. Not, that the Baron had not done everything he could about it.

He had been to London to consult his lawyers about his legal rights in the affair. After all, Lily and Oliver had been living under his roof when they were – and he could not mince words here – abducted by their governess.

It all came to nothing. He had no rights at all to warrant an official search for them since he was not their legal guardian. The fact that he had fathered them did not signify since he had failed to grant the children official recognition. Mrs Bradley, their grandmother and guardian, had exactly done that after their mother Molly died in childbirth.

Appealing to the magistrates and asking for an officially conducted search on the entire British soil, had also proved impossible, due to him having no legal rights. Besides, Stephen guessed they might not be inclined to hear him out, should they learn he used his authority as a baron to take the children away against their grandmother’s will.

So Stephen had used the ultimate remedy in appointing a private detective to search for the missing children. The fact that the poor man had virtually no clues at all to start his investigation did not count in Stephen’s eyes.

Now, after five weeks of excruciating concern for Lily and Oliver, Stephen was none the wiser as to their whereabouts and he felt almost ready for Bedlam with fretting over them!

 

~~~~

 

“I never thought I would miss them so dreadfully,” Henrietta said softly when she and Stephen were dining in the much too quiet dining room. Her son looked up from pushing his food around on his plate and cast weary eyes on her.

“Yes … I know, mother. I too had grown fond of sweet little Lily and valiant little Oliver.”

He said nothing further but inwardly, his heart sighed deeply with the memory of Beth Williams. He missed her so dearly that he sometimes wondered why he had not realized it before, while she was still under his roof. He yearned for her laughter, her bickering, her lovely smile, her beautiful face and her exquisite figure far more than he could ever have imagined! He felt as is a part of him had been ripped out, a vital part, like his heart or his very soul!

“Why do I have the distinct feeling that the children’s fate is not the only thing troubling you, my son?”

She had taken him completely by surprise, and he lifted a gaze so deeply pained at her that Henrietta felt her heart clench in sympathy. She narrowed her eyes in sheer dismay and spoke angrily.

“What does that little wench possess to make you ache for her like a love-besotted schoolboy, my lord?”

Stephen abruptly stood and went to the sideboard to pour himself a stiff brandy. This, Henrietta thought in panic, was totally uncalled for! Brandy, when dinner was still going on! But her son downed the liquid in one swift motion and instantly refilled his glass.

“My lord! I beg, do not indulge yourself like that!”

Her son whirled around and his fierce blue eyes bore into hers.

“And since when, my lady mother, do I need your permission to do whatever I wish in my own home?” Whereupon he gulped back his second brandy in a blink of the eye.

Henrietta stood and left the room in indignant silence.

 

~~~~

 

Stephen put down the brandy bottle he had taken with him to his bedroom and shoved it aside. He was not again going to drink himself senseless over the disappearance of a wayward governess! Instead, he was going to use his brains in a proper way to discover where she was hiding. For in hiding she had gone, for sure, by Jove!

First of all, she had removed herself from Brixton Abbey in a hurry, with all her belongings and with two children and their belongings in tow! She would have needed transport of some kind. A cart and horses and a driver, for instance. And that, she would only have found in Woolworth where she had friends and acquaintances galore.

So, all he needed to find was the villager who drove the three of them to a hitherto unknown destination. And Stephen Fenton had a pretty good idea who that might be.

 

~~~~

 

The next day, Stephen had Parsifal saddled despite Thompson’s protests. The head groom wisely pointed out that the weather was far too inclement for such a ride, ice and snow making the roads treacherously dangerous, yet his master had no ears for his serious words. Instead the baron took his steed into a brisk canter over the frost-hardened country road.

The village seemed to sleep under a ten-inches blanket of pure, white snow, and only the plumes of smokes from the chimneys indicate that there were people living under those roofs. Stephen first went to the vicarage where the Reverend Carter had taken up residence after Vicar Williams left.

“Ah, vicar!” Stephen greeted him jovially when the housekeeper let him into the study.

“My lord,” Mr Carter replied, standing up from behind his desk and extending a hand to his sponsor. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary, vicar! Just that, with this inclement weather, I thought it best to hand out the Christmas baskets early, this year. Would you inform the congregation that the event will take place in the Assembly Rooms above “The King’s Head” on Sunday next after Mass?”

“My lord, that would be very welcome! The harsh and early winter has been hard on some of the villagers. They will be very much relieved if they were to have extra food.”

“Then it is settled! I will make the necessary arrangements.”

 

~~~~

 

While dozens of families were queuing to receive their Christmas baskets from the hands of the Dowager Baroness Brixton, her son kept watch for the one family he thought might have something to do with Beth’s flight. He did not have to wait long. Ben and Ruby Merton soon made an appearance, their son Johnny cradled in his mother’s arms. Stephen waited until they had received their parcel before he approached them, a warm smile on his face as not to scare them.

“Mr and Mrs Merton, might I have a word with you in private?” he addressed them and made a gesture towards the vestibule to have some privacy. They followed him in there, concern clearly written on their ruddy faces.

“Mr Merton,” Stephen began, his tone of voice level. Yet immediately, he was checked by the implacable expression on the man’s face! Only for a second, though.

“I have the unwavering certainty, Mr Merton, that you are able to tell me where I might find my wayward children and their governess. They have been missing for six weeks now and Her Ladyship and I are most concerned about their well-being. I pray you will enlighten me.”

While he looked Merton straight in the eye, Stephen was aware of Mrs Merton’s growing discomfort. The woman had given a surprised gasp when he spoke of Beth and the children, and she was now fidgeting with the baby’s frilled shawl, not looking at him directly. Merton himself, a big, sturdily built man with hands like coal shovels, had paled visibly but he had not altered his facial expression, though.

After a long, uneasy silence, Merton drew himself up to his full and considerable height.

“I promised Granny Bradley I’d never tell, a’ least not to you, melord. Me word is as good as anybody’s and I’ll no’ break it and that’s the end to it!”

A very happy Christmas to all of you. May joy and friendship be your companions the whole year long.

9987f616-f90d-3220-9e9b-590159418001Luce Fleming

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Thirteen

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Thirteen – Uproar

 

For the second time that night, Stephen dashed after Beth but this time, she outran him and reached her room to close and lock the door, right in his face. He spent the good part of an hour pleading in whispered tones to listen to him so that he might explain himself. He still did not grasp what he had been amiss in his conduct nor what he was going to explain but still, he tried to make her hear him out. To no avail, for there was no sound coming from Beth’s room, not even sobs or muffled weeping. When he finally gave up, the bleak November dawn was not far away.

 

~~~~

 

“I beg your pardon, my lord, but I am afraid I have some disturbing news.”

Stephen looked up from the estate ledgers he was trying to inspect and sent his butler an inquiring gaze. Raleigh was not his usual, stony self, this morning, he thought. The man was white as a sheet and his hands were shaking, despite the control he was trying to enforce on them.

“Yes, what is it?” he replied, far more harshly than had been his intention.

“Well, sir, it seems that Mademoiselle Guillaume and the children are nowhere to be found. Nobody has seen them since dinner last night, and, when Trixie went up to bring them breakfast this morning, she found their rooms empty and all their belongings gone.”

“Poppycock, man! They probably are gone to visit the grandmother in the village and will return soon.”

“I beg to differ, my lord, but would they have taken all their belongings with them, would that be the case? Besides, I have taken the liberty to send a footman to Mrs Bradley and inquire after them but she too has not seen her grandchildren since yesterday.”

A small knot of concern began forming deep in Stephen’s gut, yet he did not immediately give in to its nagging. Surely, there must be an explanation? The events of the night before again popped up in his mind, again churning his stomach with disgust and humiliation.

Damned the woman! He had practically flaunted himself at her feet, with his heartfelt apologies! He had as good as said that he loved her and wanted her to love him back but she had acted like a schoolgirl being toppled over for the first time! She was twenty-five, for God’s sake, and she had lived in bloody France for ten years! In no way could she be ignorant in the ways of love and courtship!

Stephen rose and began pacing the Aubusson carpet on his library floor.

“Let us not do foolish things, Raleigh, at least, not immediately. Mademoiselle Guillaume might return any time from a long walk in the countryside with her charges. Wait for another three hours and then, we will see what is needed.”

“Certainly, my lord,” Raleigh replied, his voice even but his eyes doubtful. The butler then left the room in offended silence, leaving his master to brood over the events that were about to stir up the whole household.

 

~~~~

 

By dinner time, it was abundantly clear that Lily, Oliver and Beth were gone with no indications as to their whereabouts. Stephen had ridden to the village at breakneck speed to question Mrs Bradley but her cottage had been deserted. The neighbours – no, the whole village – had been interrogated but every single villager said the same thing; Mrs Bradley had gone to visit her widowed sister, and no one had seen nor heard anything about the governess or the children. When asked where Mrs Bradley’s sister lived, again every single one of the interrogated villagers denied knowing anything at all. They did not even know the name of the woman, let alone where she lived, my lord, I am so very sorry, my lord.

Now, Stephen and Henrietta were in their dining room, manfully forcing down a charred meal, being smacked down in front of them by a stony-faced footman. Raleigh was overseeing the proceedings with a face rigid with disapproval, though he kept himself quiet enough, giving only reluctant replies to Stephen’s remarks.

“Did Mademoiselle tell anybody where she was going or what her plans were, Raleigh?”

“No, my lord.”

“Have you found any note, issued by her?”

“No, my lord, none.”

“Damn it, man, can you tell me nothing about her intentions, then?”

Raleigh stood next to Stephen and was about to serve him with a glass of port. He threw back his shoulders, and his back was ramrod straight when he replied.

“No, my lord, nothing. I should think Mademoiselle would have informed you of her plans, as her employer, not me. I am the butler, my lord, and, although relations between me and Mademoiselle were excellent and cordial, she did not deem it fit for me to know of her plans.”

“That will be enough, Raleigh!” Stephen barked, irritated by the man’s clipped tones. “You may leave us now!”

All the servants left the room, blatant disapproval on their countenances. An awkward silence filled the space as mother and son were staring after them in stunned surprise.

“What the devil has gone into them?” Stephen fumed. Henrietta put a steadying hand on his.

“Calm yourself, my lord. The whole staff have taken a liking to the children and, alas, also to the confounded governess. They do not know you had to put her in her rightful place. I would not have thought she would take her charges with her, though.”

Stephen frowned at the dowager, not grasping her meaning.

“Put her in her place, mother? I did no such thing!”

“That is not how I witnessed it last night, my lord. She taunted you with her charms and you turned her down and very skilfully, if I may say so. The minute you proposed that she become your mistress, the game was up and she fled.”

The words his mother so contently uttered rankled in Stephen’s mind for some unknown reason.

“Have you been eavesdropping, dear Mama? How shameless of you!” he said, in a more lightly tone than he felt himself to be in.

“My lord! Who do you take me for? No, I only overheard your last words to her and had to hide myself most precipitously when she came running out of your bedroom. I am most grateful that you found a way to get rid of her without having to pay her salary for the entire time she stayed here. She was trouble, my son, and she would have inflicted great misery upon our House. Yet, I think you should find out where they went to. I already miss Lily and Oliver and their sweet chattering at dinner time. Bring them back to me, Stephen.”

The dowager rose and bade her son goodnight before retiring.

 

~~~~

 

Lounging in the comfortable chair in front of his bedroom fire, Stephen cradled a glass of brandy in his palms. He sipped absently at the pale, golden liquid, but without even tasting it. Instead, his memories of what had transpired in this same room the night before kept invading his peace.

They had an altercation, he and Beth, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. They frequently quarrelled. In fact, if he were to be honest with himself, he liked their bickering. It enlivened his days of dreary estate business, and he appreciated seeing Beth at the dinner table and bickering with her.

He admired her courage in trying to search for proof as to his involvement in her family’s accident and would have given it gladly, had she asked for it. And then, there was the attraction they had begun feeling for each other … so thrilling and exhilarating.

After his darling wife’s tragic death, Stephen had vowed never to marry again. Florence had been his soul mate, his dearest friend, his heart, and even the sadness of not conceiving children together, had not estranged them. Her demise had been sudden and violent, and excruciatingly hard on him. From one minute to the other he had been robbed of the most precious person in his life. Losing Florence left him aching, not only for a pleasant and satisfying bed partner, but also – and this far more drastically – for a supporting, loving companion. Replacing the first need had not been difficult – bed partners were easy to find – but finding companionship, matching the quality of one he had with Florence, had proved to be utterly impossible amongst the simpering young ladies in the shire or Town.

Impossible, but for Beth Williams … his wayward, counterfeit governess came very close to what he lost when his beloved Florence was taken from him, Stephen realised with a shock.