The Counterfeit Governess – Part One

 

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One – A Governess For Two Forlorn Children

 

Henrietta, Dowager Baroness Brixton, took in the slender form of the young woman, standing in front of her. Way too pretty to suit a governess, she thought, but she would have to do. Her son Stephen would finally stop harassing her about searching for a governess to discipline his wretched bastard twins.

Lily and Oliver Bradley were the offspring of Stephen’s youthful misstep with a village wench when he was seventeen. The Baroness could easily forgive him for having taken a tumble in the hay with Molly Bradley on a hot summer’s day, and even understand it. So many young gentlemen did foolish things when they were still too young to know what they were doing. It was nothing of consequence. But, to take those two brats in his own house and treat them like they were gentry, was too much for the sixty-year-old dowager. Besides, she was not entirely sure about her son’s intentions for the twin siblings. What did he expect of two common brats who had lived with their old grandmother in a derelict village cottage up until now? They could not even read or write and they were totally undisciplined.

The baroness sighed when she thought about her beloved son. At the age of thirty, he should have had a legitimate son to raise; one he begot from his lawfully wedded wife during their short marriage before Florence had died in the curricle accident, just three months ago. Stephen had only his wife’s considerable fortune left from that marriage. Florence had not even been with child once, and the Dowager suspected her of being barren.

Straightening her back, Her Ladyship forced herself to concentrate on the task at hand and addressed Miss Elle Guillaume in a haughty voice.

“Miss Guillaume, it will be expected of you to educate the children as completely as possible. First you will teach them the basic accomplishments such as reading, writing and arithmetics. They are to be instructed in French, German and English, of course, and also mathematics, geography, music and poetry. Etiquette is of the essence, as you will undoubtedly understand. The twins have come to Brixton House only recently, having lived in the village with their grandmother. They are not yet used to the workings and manners of a noble household so you will find them a little … wild.”

Henrietta smiled and looked conspiratorially at Miss Guillaume.

“You will be expected to keep them to their suite as much as possible. My son, Lord Brixton, does not wish to be burdened with their company too frequently. His valet will be the one to inform you, if his lordship wants to see the children. Do not try to hoist them upon his lordship without a summoning.”

The Baroness signalled to the livered footman who stood in attendance near the wall.

“For the moment, this should do. Terence will show you to your rooms.”

“I beg your pardon, Your Ladyship,” the voice of the governess sounded in a heavy French accented English. “I have a few questions I would like to be answered.”

A pair of dark eyes, almost black as obsidian, met the Baroness’ grey ones with a frankness that could have withered her, had she not been so steeled in her long years of dealing with servants.

 

~~~~

 

As soon as the footman closed the door behind him, Elizabeth Williams, alias Elle Guillaume, took in the small, bare room that was to be her bed chamber. She had been given one of the maids’ room on the fourth floor of the house, one floor beneath the attic.

Beth knew the house very well. As a child, she had accompanied her father, the vicar of St Mary’s at Woolworth, when he came to confer with the old Baron about parish matters. Her father, a widower, used to take her with him everywhere and at any time, reluctant as he was to leave her at the parsonage on her own. So, while her father talked with his patron, Beth had been left alone in a downstairs parlour. The active, inquisitive child that she was, she could not stay put but started wandering through the huge house with its many rooms and corridors. That was how she had come to know Brixton Abbey almost as well as their own, modest little parsonage.

A weird sound, as if made by mice running over wooden floorboards, pulled Beth out of her reverie and she looked around to see a side door creep open.

“Yes?” she enquired and now, the unmistakeable sound of open footsteps running away from the door, made her go over there. The door led to another small and dismal bedroom, one with two cots and a washstand and two frightened children clutched together against the far wall. Their eyes were huge with fear and their frail figures were shivering with anxious nerves.

One of them was a skinny boy of about twelve, an incredibly dirty one, to boot.

“Go away!” he yelled. “Leave us alone or I’ll kick ye in the legs!”

He threw an arm around his sister’s body, who was actually taller than him. Beth smothered a smile and looked at him defiantly.

“You could try,” she replied evenly, keeping her face bland, “but you won’t succeed in kicking me. I’m bigger and taller than you and I’ll punch you in the face.”

She held up her fist for good measure and shook it at him.

“On the other hand,” she said, pouting her lips as in deep reflection, “I could give you another chance in introducing yourselves. I am Miss Elle Guillaume and I have come to be your friend.”

She dipped a curtsy toward the two stunned children and smiled sweetly at them.

The girl, her voice small but not breaking, dipped back awkwardly.

“Me name’s Lilly Bradley,” she said, “an’ this is me brother Oliver. Where d’ye come from? Ye speak so funny!”

“I am from France,” Beth answered. “Do you know where that is?”

They both shook their heads and seemed to relax a trifle. They were beautiful children with honey-coloured curls and large grey eyes, straight little noses and wide mouths. Oliver still had the round, soft face of youth while Lily’s heart-shaped one began showing signs of adolescence. Her body too was more developed than that of her brother’s, the tiny peaks of her budding breasts beginning to show through the bodice of her drab, brown homespun dress.

“You will learn where it is and many other new things too, but not today. Today we are going on a walk. The weather is too beautiful to be cooped up inside. Fetch your coats and you, Lily, bring your bonnet.”

“I ‘aven’t got one, Miss,” came the shy reply.

“Leave it, then. We will find you one later.”

As the trio left for their walk, Beth smiled when she saw the children hopping and chatting happily. She followed them at a more measured pace, satisfied about their first meeting. Clearly, Lily and Oliver were lost, and they did not fit into this magnificent estate at all. Beth would walk to the village with them and ask to meet their grandmother. She knew old Mrs Bradley well enough from the time she lived here with her father, the vicar. There were some things she needed to ask the old lady about the new Baron Brixton.

 

~~~~

 

Standing at the window of his study, Stephen Fenton, the new Baron Brixton, stood watching the three people who left for the village of Woolworth. The woman must be the new governess, he mused. What was her name again? Elle Guillaume – or was it Beth Williams? Fenton recognized her from the first moment he saw her slender form stride along the drive. He would always recognize Beth Williams, whenever and wherever she chose to appear.

They had a history, Beth and he, one in which he had the worst part. Ten years ago, she disappeared from his life, and he had been glad about it. Now she was back – on the sly – he realised. He needed to draw up a strategy to ready himself against her attack.

 

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The Counterfeit Governess – Part Two

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Two – Haunting Ghosts From The Past

 

Lily and Oliver gave a squeak of delight when their grandmother’s dilapidated cottage came into view, and ran like lightning toward it. By the time Beth reached it, they were in Mrs Bradley’s embrace. The three of them were crying, but from joy, not from sorrow.

“Dear Beth!” the old lady exclaimed. “Do come in, child! Thank you for bringing back my sweethearts to me. They have been away for three weeks and they were not allowed to come and see me. I missed them something dreadful.”

“Granny, can we have tea and biscuits?” Oliver piped, his distress already soothed, now that his worries about his grandmother had been laid to rest.

“Yes, of course, you little glutton! Go and ask Ruby if she wants to brew us some tea.”

Ruby Merton was Mrs Bradley’s neighbour and she looked after her when necessary and did a bit of household chores for her. The children swiftly disappeared through the back door.

“So, my child, tell me all about you!” Mrs Bradley asked Beth. “It has been six weeks since your last letter from Saint-Saturnain. Have you been able to tie up your aunt’s affairs after she died?”

“I have,” Beth replied. “Aunt Lucie left me a small nest egg in her will, safely invested but the income is not enough for me to live on, so I was forced to apply for a position as a governess. Mrs Bradley, no one knows I am Beth Williams. I took on the name of Elle Guillaume because I want to live at Brixton Abbey incognito and investigate at my leisure. I want to find proof of the Fentons’ involvement in the cart accident.”

Mrs Bradley nodded. “Yes, my dear, you need to know for sure if the present Lord Brixton is responsible for the death of your beloved mother and brother. You have not yet reached closure regarding their demises.”

All of a sudden, Beth was back to when she was eight years old, and on that dreadful day when she lost her mama and Julian, her older brother. Mama had been visiting the sick of the parish, as was her habit as the vicar’s wife. She had been driving her small gig to reach the parishioners who lived far from the village. Julian, Beth’s twelve-year-old brother, had been allowed to accompany her, while Beth, not having completed her homework, had been ordered to stay home. Furious, Beth took her little pony and rode after them, but she was far behind, because she had lost time, saddling her mount. By the time she reached them, she could only watch helplessly how Lord Septimus Brixton’s phaeton, racing like hell and not taking heed of other carriages on the narrow country road, came thundering from the opposite direction. Mama had startled, pulled the reins too sharply and her cart had gone off the road and down the hill, overturning several times before crashing on the boulders lining the river. Mama and Julian had been caught under the heavy vehicle’s body and died before help arrived.

The incident was hushed up by the baron who did not want to jeopardize his son’s future. It had been thirteen-year-old Stephen Fenton who held the phaeton’s reins and not his father.

And Beth had witnessed that. She had, however, kept her mouth shut until she was thirteen when she blurted it out to her father in a fit of anger over some trifle they bickered over. Peter Williams had then gone to confront Baron Septimus about it, and the latter promptly turned his vicar out and bought an army commission for his only son to remove him from the scene. Beth and her father had no other option but to exile themselves to France and the small village of Saint-Saturnain, Provence.

 

Lily and Oliver were pretty worn out when the trio returned to Brixton Abbey. After they were bathed and dressed in their nightgowns, Beth gave them their tea. A bed time story was all the children needed to doze off and go to sleep. Beth left the room with a satisfied smile on her face. She was pleased with her first day at the home of her worst enemy because she had succeeded in making it happy for two of his most vulnerable victims.

As she dressed herself for dinner with the help of Grace, one of the upstairs maids, Beth’s attention was diverted from her reflection in the mirror by a knock on her bedroom door. It was Trixie, the eleven-year-old tweenie.

“Beg yer pardon, miss. The master asks if yer want to come down and meet ‘im in ‘is study before dinner.”

“Thank you, Trixie,” Beth answered, wondering what His Infernal Lordship would want from her before they met at the dinner table. Steeling herself, she looked in the mirror one last time to see if everything was as it should be. It was. Her formal black bombazine dress gave her a stern, unforthcoming look as befitted a woman in mourning. Beth took care not to resemble the bright, young and joyful child she had been, ten years ago; Fenton was not to recognize her as Beth Williams. She made the sign of the cross and left the room.

 

Stephen Fenton, the ninth baron Brixton, sat behind his large study desk, cradling a glass of golden cherry. His long legs stretched before him, he was brooding over what might be coming to him, now that his Nemesis had returned from France. For long years, Fenton had both dreaded and welcomed this day, preparing himself on how he would deal with Beth Williams.

He was the first to admit that his father dealt wrongly with Vicar Peter Williams and his family. Trying to cover up the facts about the accident had been a mistake, but one the former baron made out of fatherly love for his young son, after he granted the latter permission to drive the phaeton.

Fenton still could not comprehend what had happened in those seconds in which he lost control over the pair of greys he had driven recklessly over the country lane. Had he turned their heads, ever so slightly, so that they swivelled toward Williams’ old mare and made her go off the road? Had he screamed out of sheer fear and frightened the mare himself with his cry? He did not clearly recollect what transpired, but only saw the results; the vicar’s battered cart going over the road’s edge and crashing down the slope. He could still hear the terrible noises of the horse, screaming with mortal fear, of the cart’s breaking wooden body and clanging metal of hinges, springs and wheels. His father took over the reins in a split second and halted the phaeton.

Then, Fenton’s heart had skipped several beats as he saw his strong, masterful father falter, and back away in horror and flee from the scene, all the way home admonishing his son not to tell a soul they had been the cause of the accident. Instead, his father said, they would pretend to have come on the spot some time after and gone for help instantly. Who was to doubt the word of Baron Brixton, after all?

It had worked out perfectly. No one suspected their foul play until young Beth betrayed them. And now she had come back to her old haunt, Fenton thought, but why? It boded ill that she changed her name and posed as a Frenchwoman in order to have access to his home. She must be seeking revenge, then, and he, Stephen Fenton, was not going to let her have her way.

When the study door was thrown open by Raleigh, his butler, to announce Mademoiselle Elle Guillaume, Fenton braced himself just as determinedly as he did before battle, back in Badajoz, Spain during the Peninsular Campaign in April 1812.

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Three

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Three – Meeting With The Devil

 

When the woman stepped into his study and made her curtsy to him, Stephen Fenton had the oddest of sensations – some strange, unknown feeling that made his heart stutter and his brain go numb.

For a split second, he was convinced he had been mistaken, and this woman was not Beth Williams but just a stranger, a French governess who joined his staff. An employee and nothing more.

Then she raised her head and looked him straight in the face. Her eyes, the colour of chocolate, pierced right into his soul, and he knew he had been right; nobody he had ever encountered, had eyes like that. They were like the earth on the fields after a thunder storm, a deep, bottomless brown, with sparkles of green shooting through them when she was angry – or passionate …

“You wished to speak with me, my lord? I am Elle Guillaume,” the woman said, her voice a little hoarse and laced with a strong French accent.

Stephen cleared his throat and stood.

“Yes, Miss Guillaume. Please, come in.”

He gestured to a pair of dainty Empire style settees gathered around a matching coffee table and waited until she seated herself before he did the same, on the settee opposite hers.

“Miss Guillaume, I did not have a chance to confer with the Dowager Baroness about your position so I propose we do it now, before dinner. Your salary will be forty pounds a year. I hope this will suit you?”

“Excellent, my lord. You are most generous.”

Her eyes never left his and her mouth curved in a controlled smile. How was it that he used to find that mouth large and those teeth horse-like, ten years before, Stephen mused. There was nothing wrong with her teeth now. They were small, straight and perfect and her mouth was … well, just plain sensual and extremely kissable. God! Had he gone out of his mind? He was no green boy when it came to women! He was not in the habit of losing his head over a pair of dark eyes, confound it!

“As for the children,” he continued, relieved to find his voice steady, “I am afraid you will find them rather rough diamonds. Due to circumstances beyond my control, their education has been neglected for years. What I expect from you is that you school them in the basic skills of reading and writing, as well as proper behaviour in society gatherings, all this before three months will have passed. At Christmas, I will appraise the progress that you have made.”

Stephen readied himself to rise but was checked by the coolly interrogating voice of the governess.

“I beg your pardon, my lord, but I have a few questions of my own with regard to the children. If they are expected to behave satisfactorily in polite society, they will have to be given a chance to be in one. The best way to start, is to allow them to dine with you and the Dowager Baroness, when you are not entertaining. That way they can copy the manners of well-educated people who won’t balk at their mistakes. Shall I bring Lily and Oliver with me from tomorrow night on?”

For a few seconds, Stephen was rendered speechless by the sheer audacity of the woman  but he recollected himself quickly and replied.

“No, Mademoiselle Guillaume, you shall not. When I want you to do such a thing, I will inform you about it. Now, …”

“Do you not think the children must spend time with their grandmother and their father, at least once a day, my lord? I am certain it will only benefit …”

“Mademoiselle Guillaume! You forget yourself!” This time Stephen could not contain his anger, yet it had not the effect on the governess he would have thought it would. She cocked her head to one side and, with a sweet smile on her pretty face, dropped her next question.

“Why do I have the feeling that you are not telling me the whole of the story, my lord? If I am to educate Lily and Oliver, I must know everything about them. I already heard some gossip about the children’s descent but I would like you to give me the facts as you know them.”

His anger now fuelled to a downright rage, Stephen realised she had him neatly cornered, yet he would not give her the satisfaction of knowing it. He did admit, however, that she had a point.

“Suffice it to say, Mademoiselle, that the children’s mother was a commoner. The Dowager Baroness, my mother, will not allow them to be in her presence, and I prefer not to go against her wishes. Now, if you permit me, I will take you to dinner.”

With that, he extended his arm to her, giving her no choice but to swallow all remarks she wanted to give and take the Baron’s arm.

 

~~~~

 

During dinner, Beth had the leisure of letting her thoughts go astray from the boring exchange of village and estate matters between mother and son and instead, study the Baron covertly.

Stephen Fenton, she mused, had always been a comely lad but now, at thirty, he was just devastatingly handsome. His black hair, thick and curly, framed his strong-boned face and emphasized his skin’s light tan. He had always loved to be outdoors, she remembered.

Her heartbeat fluttered as she watched those grey eyes express every emotion the conversation with his mother conjured up – passion for the land and its needs, compassion for the estate’s tenants who had encountered setbacks, enthusiasm for those who had managed to pull off a renovation in agricultural techniques.

His wide mouth constantly curved into smiles as he narrated the day’s events to the Dowager who seemed to relish in his stories with as much gusto as he. Beth knew they had temporarily forgotten she was there but she did not mind. She sat quietly enjoying her meal while she let her mind slip back to the past, ten years before.

From a very tender age, Beth had always been painfully aware of Brixton Abbey’s young heir, but it had been hate that raged in her, every time she saw him canter through the village on that black steed of his. Blind, hot hate because he was the one that caused the death of her sweet, beautiful mother and her handsome brother. Every time she found her gentle father weeping in his study, something he was subjected to whenever the memories haunted him, every time again and again she had hated Stephen Fenton more. And she swore he would pay for that with as much heartache she could give him.

Beth’s compassionate heart burned with anger when she thought of the two innocent children that were sleeping upstairs, the fruit of Fenton’s love affair with Molly Bradley, Beth’s childhood friend. Granted, he had taken them into his home and was prepared to give them an education, but there was no love for Lily and Oliver, only guilt he sought to soothe by taking them away from their old grandmother. Had Fenton experienced but one inkling of what love between parents and offspring meant, he would have known how much grief it brought to Granny Bradley and how much her grandchildren missed her. She vowed herself to bring them to Granny Bradley every day, from now on.

And … she promised herself she would force those children onto Stephen Fenton and his icy mother, so that they would realise what they had missed, all those long years – the simple, undemanding love of a child.

“Mademoiselle Guillaume, may I congratulate you on your excellent English? Where have you learnt it?”

The voice of her employer tore Beth out of her reverie. His mocking grey eyes were staring at her with intense curiosity, and Beth felt a shiver of apprehension go down her spine. She must not betray herself, she thought.

“At the Lycée in Montpellier, my lord. I spent six years as a non-resident pupil and would have continued at the Université, had not my father died. I inherited a small income from my aunt and was able to come to England. As you know the political situation is not yet stable in France. Have you ever been to France, my lord?”

“I have fought in France, mademoiselle, so you could say I was there, though not as a tourist.”

“My son,” the cold voice of the Dowager cut in, “has had more than his share of grief from your fellow countrymen, Miss Guillaume. He fought in France and Spain and was badly hurt at Badajoz. I took me six months to have him healthy again.”

A sudden, very unexpected quiver of concern tore at Beth’s heart at those words. Fenton had been wounded?  She had not known that! She schooled her voice into polite concern, though.

“I am sorry to hear that, my lady. All I can say is that not all Frenchmen are supporters of Bonaparte. My family certainly was not.”

The Dowager inclined her head and rose to her feet.

“I am retiring now, my lord,” she said to her son. “I wish you a good night. And to you, Miss Guillaume.”

Both Fenton and Beth stood and bowed to her, after which she left the room in a sweep of silken skirts. The Baron took Beth’s arm and guided her to the drawing room where he poured her a sweet sherry.

“Now that we are alone, mademoiselle, you need no longer keep up appearances. Out with it! What are your intentions?”

 

 

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Four

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Four – The Beginning of Battle

 

Beth’s face froze at the casually spoken accusation. He could not have found her out, she thought. Had he recognized her despite all the precautions she took? Even as the colour left her face, she realised she would have to answer him – and quickly.

“Intentions, my lord? I do not understand!” To give herself space to breathe, Beth did not sit down but wandered to the high windows to contemplate the beautiful rose gardens below. When Fenton’s voice suddenly came but from inches away, she started involuntary. Her hand, holding her glass, wavered and the golden cherry spilled over her employer’s coat sleeve.

“Oh, I am sorry, my lord! Here, let me …”

He grabbed her hand, removed the glass and put it on a nearby table. Not releasing his grip, he slid his other hand under her chin in a gesture of pure male dominance.

“I will not be distracted, mademoiselle. Why are you badgering me into forcing your charges upon me and my mother?”

Regardless of the consequences, Beth only listened to her own, indignant fury and snapped at him.

Because you are their father! Because you have a sacred duty to them to care for them – no, to love them! They are very young and extremely distressed to have been taken from the grandmother they love! Telling Lily and Oliver that you love them and that you want them near you, would be the only explanation they would accept. If you do not give them that, they will simply wither away with misery.”

Fenton’s grey eyes were alight with rage, she saw, and in his livid face, his mouth quivered with the effort of restraining himself not to slap her. Narrowing her own eyes at him, to show him she was not intimidated by his fury, she tilted her chin and wiped his hand away.

 

He ached to kiss her! No, he just wanted her! That was the only thing on his mind because all other coherent thoughts seemed to have vanished like water drops a hot stone. As his gaze travelled from her rosy, moist lips to the spot right under her ear where her blood pulsed vigorously, Stephen Fenton felt his stomach muscles tighten with a knot of sheer desire. By Jove, what the deuce was wrong with him? He needed to get a hold on these uncontrolled feelings and right now, before she noticed them!

His long years of rigid army training served him well as he drew himself up to his full 6’2 and cut Beth off in a voice as clipped as a razor blade’s edge

“Mademoiselle Guillaume, let me clarify the position in which you serve this household. You are a governess on my payroll and you follow the rules I deem appropriate for the education of my bastard children. My bastard children, mademoiselle. Kindly take care you do not lose sight of that tiny little detail. Lily and Oliver are to be given a basic , and I do not expect them to behave as if they were to have a London season and a presentation at court. I provide for them in a very generous manner so that they can make their way through life. I believe that is already more than I am obliged to give them. Love is no part of the arrangement so keep your French emotions in check and stop interfering where it is not wanted.”

Beth could not believe her ears at this ice cold little speech but she would rather die than letting him see her indignation. This man, she told herself, was a cold-hearted rogue and immune to feelings of the heart. And she would be wise to always remember that.

“Very well, my lord,” she replied as politely as she could manage. Making him a perfect curtsy, she added a little sting. “I will tell Lily and Oliver that they do not need to love you, only pay you the respect you are entitled to as their provider. It will make matters much simpler. Goodnight, my lord.”

She had almost reached the door before his barked reply stopped her.

“For the love of God, what do you want me to do? I do not know these children at all! How am I supposed to convey feelings to them that I do not have?”

“I leave that entirely up to you, my lord,” Beth answered neatly. “A man of your breeding and experience surely must know how to convey his feelings if he puts his mind – and his heart – to it.”

With that, she left the room and went upstairs on shaky legs.

 

~~~~

 

Beth’s first month at Brixton Abbey had every day fully packed with various activities. She imposed a strict schedule to her charges and kept to it. Mornings were for study – reading, writing and arithmetic. As the weather was fine in this month of September, she often took Lily and Oliver outdoors, instead of keeping them cooped up in the dreary classroom on the top floor of the manor. They found a quiet terrace in the gardens where they could not be seen from the house. It was surrounded by yew hedges and had a stone table and benches.

Afternoons were for visits to Granny Bradley’s or horse riding lessons in the paddock near the stables. Beth thought it important that the children should learn to handle a horse.

Four weeks after they started, both children were tolerably fluent in reading. Lily had the upper hand  in writing and Oliver excelled in riding. Their weak point seemed to be arithmetic, although Oliver was better than Lily. The latter showed a knack for French, which Beth had introduced fairly quickly. All in all, she was very pleased with her charges’ first accomplishments.

Lily was a quiet girl who could concentrate, if she put her mind to it. Her brother, being a healthy, twelve-year-old boy, hated sitting still for more than a quarter of an hour at the time. He relished the horse riding and the thought of it kept him focussed during the other lessons.

However, Beth’s major accomplishment during that first month was that she succeeded in gaining the children’s trust and friendship, which was even more important for their well-being than the rest.

 

~~~~

 

It was one of those splendid September mornings when one did not think it would ever be Fall again, Stephen Fenton thought as he rose from behind his desk in the library. He had been working on estate matters and was eager to take a stroll and stretch his legs. As he began walking the path beside the large lawn toward a set of secret gardens and terraces, he acknowledged his master gardener‘s  good work in tending his vast grounds. Everything was in perfect order.

He descended a flight of shallow stairs that separated the lawn from the formal gardens beyond, when suddenly his left knee gave way, causing him to stumble and flail his arms to regain his balance. His reward was a sharp stab of pain on the right side of his abdomen where a French sabre left him with a horrible scar. The sabre cut and a bullet in his thigh were the injuries that had brought him on the brink of death after the Badajoz siege in 1812. If his mother had not moved heaven and earth, first to get him home and secondly to nurse him, he would have died far away from home and under miserable circumstances. His battle scars kept troubling him from time to time, though, causing him to be bitter and ill-tempered.

As he neared one of the secret gardens, the sound of a voice irresistibly drew him to it.

“Mon … nom est … Lily et je … suis une … fille,” Fenton heard. It was Lily’s voice, he realised with surprise! Reading in French? Her accent was not even that bad but he would have to thank the governess for that.

Elle Guillaume – aka Beth Williams – seemed to be doing a great job, Fenton mused. Who would have foreseen that the awkward vicar’s daughter would grow into so refined a lady.

“Très bien!” came Beth’s voice. “Et maintenant, Oliver, c’est à toi.”

“Oh, must I, miss? I do not know how to!”

“Yes, you do, Oliver. Come on, make an effort! You know the rules; if you do your lessons well enough to satisfy me, you’re allowed to make the trip to Granny’s on horseback, this afternoon.”

And, to Fenton’s surprise, Oliver obliged in a mangled French and recited the required words.

“Mon nom est Oliver et je suis un garcon.”

What surprised Fenton even more, was that Beth had arranged for the boy to have riding lessons! Nothing had been said about riding lessons, and Fenton was determined to have a serious conversation with Mademoiselle about that! His horses were not to be touched without his strict permission and it seemed that his head stable master had neglected his orders.

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Five

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Five – An Unexpected Hitch

 

After luncheon, Beth prepared for the children’s riding lessons by providing them with clothes suitable for the activity. She planned to take them to Granny Bradley on horseback, thus providing them with an occasion to test their skills. Michael, the youngest groom, helped Lily onto Pearl, the pony he had chosen for her, while Thompson, the head groom, assisted Oliver onto his gelding Rainstorm. Beth mounted on her own; she was very fond of her placid mare Sparkle. That was a badly chosen name, for there was not a quieter animal in the Brixton Stables. Thompson had chosen well for her.

They were just getting ready to leave when the master’s deep baritone sounded through the stable yard.

“Just a minute, lads! Michael, go saddle Parsifal. I am accompanying Mademoiselle and the children.”

Beth felt the colour drain from her face when Fenton addressed her.

“I want to see the children’s progress first, mademoiselle. Perhaps you had better dismount until I deem it appropriate for us to leave?”

So she watched from a bench in the yard while Fenton judged Lily and Oliver’s riding in the paddock. The children looked nervous but they nevertheless seemed to manage quite well. Their father was satisfied and gave his praise whereupon the small group departed for the village.

 

~~~~

 

She rode extremely well, Stephen Fenton admitted to himself. He had not even known Beth could ride at all. Ten years ago, she blundered about the country side on that ridiculous pony of hers, and had not had the slightest notion how to handle the beast but now … now she was an excellent horsewoman, her seat easy and graceful.

The first sight of her on horseback had him baffled and shocked at the same time. Dressed in a peculiar sort of riding habit, the colour of green olives, Beth rode astride instead of sideways. The full skirt of her habit was divided and the legs of the trouser-like garment were broad and flowing, allowing her to ride without violating the rules of propriety. They were also shorter than a normal skirt would have been, showing her lower legs in their long chestnut boots. It was so attractive Fenton felt his groin tightening in a rush of pure, unmitigated lust. Sweet Lucifer! He needed to keep a tight rein on his rampaging emotions, now and without delay.

It was not the first time he had lusted after Beth Williams, he remembered. Years ago, even before his affair with Molly Bradley, Fenton had been visiting Vicar Williams with some errand on his father’s behalf when Beth returned from a ride after a sudden rainstorm. The sight of her young, slender body in the soaked clothes, the budding breasts peaking through the clinging fabric of her dress, had fired him up so violently he had needed to retreat in haste before the vicar – or Beth herself – would witness his embarrassment. For a few days, he had toyed with the thought of accosting her and try kissing her, but some strange feeling of reserve had held him back. In a sudden surge of conscience, he had shied away from defiling her, somehow. He had not had the same reservations with her friend Molly, though, with the well-known consequences.

While the two children rode ahead, holding a race between them, Fenton kept his black stallion apace with Sparkle.

“What a strange cut your riding habit has, Mademoiselle Guillaume! Is this the latest Parisian fashion for ladies, fond of riding?” he attempted to start a conversation.

“No, my lord, not at all,” Beth chuckled. “I got this as a present from some American relatives who claim it is rapidly becoming fashion in the United States. When a woman is forced to cover the vast distances over there on horseback, she needs something much more comfortable than a side saddle and, accordingly, must adjust her clothing.”

Fenton caught her gaze in his and smiled languidly into her brown eyes.

“It is unusual,” he drawled, “but very attractive. It emphasizes a lady’s … lower limbs to perfection.”

The sudden glow of Beth’s cheeks gave him a wicked satisfaction. He loved to get her fired up, had always loved to! God! She was irresistibly beautiful! When her mare took an unexpected side step, Fenton’s hand reached for the bridle but instead, caught Beth’s hand. Even through the leather of their gloves, he could feel the heat of their skins. Panic darkened her eyes, and he instantly released her.

“I am sorry, mademoiselle, but for a moment, I feared Sparkle would stumble.”

She nodded, and they continued in silence.

 

~~~~

 

Inwardly Beth blazed with suppressed fury!  Damn him! It was so typical of Fenton to turn on the charm on a woman he had only just gotten acquainted with and one who was in his employ and all! She was raking her brain for some retaliation when she heard his alarmed cry.

“By Jove! There must be a fire!”

He dug his heels in Parsifal’s flanks and galloped toward the village. He was right! A black plume of smoke rose from between the thatched roofs of the village and a crowd of people was gathering and running toward it.

Beth suddenly saw Lily and Oliver go after Fenton and she spurred on Sparkle to follow them. When she drew nearer, for a split second she thought it was Granny Bradley’s cottage that was on fire! Panicking, she hurried on, just in time to see Fenton jump off his horse and toss the reins into some farmer boy’s hands.

“Lily! Oliver! Take care!” she shouted, suddenly afraid they would fall off their mounts. Then she reached the children, hastily got off Sparkle and helped first Oliver, then Lily down.

“Stay here!” she ordered. “Do not go near the cottage.”

“But it is Ruby’s house!” Lily screamed.

“Yes, I can see that but look, there is Ruby and Ben, her husband!”

Ruby, however, stood wringing her hands in despair and panic.

“Oh, my lord, help us! My little Johnny is still inside!”

The baby! Beth ran toward Ruby and took her hands in hers.

“Ruby, where is he? In which room?”

“The ground floor room, at the back! Oh God! Oh dear Lord!”

People were running to and fro with buckets of water, throwing it into the fire without result until Fenton quickly organized them into a line, so that the buckets could be passed on in a chain. He then tore off his riding jacket and emptied one of the buckets over his head. Dripping with water, his shirt clinging to his chest, he shook himself vigorously. Beth found herself staring at the outlines of that broad torso, the long muscles rippling. Her mouth went dry and breathing became difficult. Fenton snatched a shawl from the shoulders of one of the women, dipped it in water and threw it over his head.

Before Beth’ horrified eyes, he then disappeared into the burning cottage. Beth’s heart stopped beating that same moment, as she realised he was putting his life at risk to rescue Ruby’s baby. Ruby, who was hysteric with fear … Beth went to put her arms around the slim figure of the young women.

Ben, Ruby’s husband, had put himself at the head of the chain and was desperately throwing water onto the flames.

Interminable seconds lengthened into minutes, slowly killing Beth with every beat of her terrified heart. Stephen – for the love of God, Stephen was in that hell fire! Pacing up and down in front of the cottage, now roaring with huge flames, she bit her knuckles in sheer agony! When would he come out? Soon – it would have to be soon! This was not happening, she could not lose Stephen!

Abruptly she stopped and realised what she had just been experiencing – a huge, heart-wrenching feeling of panic, because Stephen Fenton could actually be in mortal danger and perish. Stephen Fenton, the murderer of her family – the man who destroyed her life. Yet, she was so anxious about him, about facing a life without him, that her heart was aching with a tremendous pain, right then and there.

To calm herself and get out of her strange mood, she went back to Lily and Oliver and was relieved to see that their grandmother had joined them.

“I never thought to see the day when a Fenton would risk his life to save someone else’s,” Granny Bradley said in surprise.

“No, me neither,” Beth murmured in return.

A cry from the crowd drew her gaze back to the burning cottage. Covered with soot, Stephen Fenton came staggering out, a small bundle clutched against his bare chest. He seemed to have wrapped the baby in his own shirt. Hands reached out for little Johnny but his mother was first and took him from the baron.

Beth gave a sudden cry of alarm when she saw Fenton collapse onto his knees, blood running down his face and torso.

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Six

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Six – Severe Complications

 

All around Beth was instantly forgotten and she had only eyes for Fenton’s  prostrated form. He had fallen onto his side and one arm was trapped under his body. Wanting to do something – at least, to help him – she knelt down beside him. To make him more comfortable, she carefully turned him onto his back – and gasped at the sight of the long, ragged scar that crossed his abdomen. It was of an ugly red and marred the beautiful muscles of his stomach, slicing across the fine spray of dark hair that covered his chest. She put out a trembling hand and touched it. Fenton’s stomach muscles rippled in response, causing a knot of fire to pop up, low in her stomach. Oh, sweet Lord!

There were many burns on his arms and shoulders, some of them bleeding, and he was trembling rather badly. He was in shock, she knew, and needed care but somehow, all she could do, was take his head onto her lap and caress his face.

“Stephen …”  Was that her voice, so shaking and full of despair?

“You there, boy!” Granny Bradley’s voice sounded. “Run to Brixton Abbey and fetch help! Mary, bring on some blankets! Ben, Tom, Jack, I need him to be transported into my house, now!”

Then Granny touched Beth’s arm and spoke softly to her. “Come, my child. You must leave it to me.”

Blinking back tears, Beth realised she was compromising herself immensely, sitting in this very close position to a man in full sight of everyone. When the men and Mary came toward them with the items requested by Granny Bradley, she slowly rose and took up her position again with her charges. She waited, however, until they finished carrying Fenton inside before she rode back to Brixton Abbey with the children.

 

~~~~

 

“Stephen …”

The soft, wavering voice pulled at his very heart as his awareness slowly came back. He could not quite believe his ears, though. Nobody ever had spoken to him that way, so full of concern, of caring, of – dare he think it – love?

When Fenton finally managed to open his eyes, he found himself lying on a board that was carried away by four men, but what he saw most clearly, was the retreating figure of Beth Williams. Beth? Beth, speaking his name so lovingly that his heart was still singing with joy from the memory? Impossible!

“Well, my lord,” an old woman’s voice drew his attention. “I certainly never dreamed of letting you into my home!”

“Mrs Bradley!” Fenton exclaimed, recognizing Molly’s mother.

“Yes, and I should let you rot in hell for what you did to my angel.”

She said it in a controlled voice, however. Fenton found himself breathing again, although he never knew he had stopped doing so.

“I am trying to repair the damage by taking the children into my home, Mrs Bradley. They have an excellent governess to see to their education.”

The old woman’s face was impassive when she neither thanked him nor cursed him for taking her charges from her.

“I will see to your injuries now, my lord,” Mrs Bradley said, matter-of-factly. “You have quite the number of them. So, as we are clear about this, I am only doing this because you rescued little Johnny. Is that understood, my lord?”

“Quite so,” he replied curtly, then continued in a softer voice. “Is the baby alright? He was so quiet when I took him out of his cradle.”

“Yes, he is fine, thank you. Ruby is already nursing him at her parent’s house and his appetite was as good as ever.”

Without further ado, she began examining him, causing him to curse under his breath when she applied some sort of ointment onto his burns.

 

~~~~

 

For the rest of the day, Beth kept her charges inside, asking them to make a drawing about what they had been subjected to, that afternoon. Lily and Oliver applied themselves to it with an unexpected zeal, allowing Beth to sit quietly with them and give herself a break. She badly needed to recover from the appalling emotions that hit her on seeing Stephen Fenton pass out and getting hurt.

What struck her the most had been the realisation that he was concerned enough about his people to risk his own life to save them. She never suspected that of him, nor would she have thought him that brave. He must possess a great deal of courage, judged by the seriousness of the injuries he suffered during the Peninsular War. That scar was horrible and it was little wonder it had cost him months to recover from it.

As the hours passed by, Beth found she could not concentrate on the book in her lap. Her scattered thoughts kept wandering to Stephen Fenton, a man she thought she knew but in fact, did not know at all. A man she was undoubtedly attracted to, which made her panic a little. How could that be? Was it because, today, for the first time, he had shown a genuine interest in his children? He had been patient with their efforts on horse riding, had even praised them.

Their rooms on the fourth floor overlooked the stable yard, and the rattle of the Brixton carriage wheels on the cobbles drew her to the window. Stephen Fenton alighted from the vehicle, a blanket thrown over his shoulders. Denying the help of his valet, he strode toward the house, apparently strong enough, after his ordeal.

Beth resumed her seat again, imagining Fenton’s progress through the house. He would first go to his chambers to bathe and change. By then it would be dinner time, and Beth fervently prayed she would not be required to dine with him and his mother. She would be unable to bear it.

A knock on the classroom’s door startled Beth but it was only Trixie who came in.

“Beg yer pardon, miss, master asks you to come down ter dinner with the children. Says they’re ter dine wi’ the family, ternight.”

 

~~~~

 

As she walked into the dining room, preceded by her two very nervous charges, Beth hoped they would remember what she taught them. Lily was wearing a light blue muslin dress which gave her grey eyes a hint of blue, and her honey-coloured curls were brushed into a neat ponytail. For Oliver, Beth had chosen white knee breeches and stockings, a white linen shirt, grey waistcoat and a jacket of dark grey wool. His unruly curls had been cut shorter so that they were easier to handle. Beth wore her usual black bombazine dress because she was still in mourning for her father.

The Dowager Baroness stood near one of the windows when the children came to stand before her, just like Beth taught them. Lily made a reasonably acceptable curtsy while Oliver executed a nearly perfect bow to their paternal grandmother. Beth saw the surprised look in the dowager’s eyes and was secretly satisfied with her charges.

“Good evening, my lady,” she said, as she made her own curtsy.

“Good evening, mademoiselle,” the dowager replied, but curtly and without warmth. The proud elderly woman had only managed the briefest of acknowledgements on the children’s greetings.

The Baron’s reply to his children was genuinely warmer than it had ever been before. He bowed back to Oliver, then took Lily’s small hand in his and kissed it. The little girl’s eyes widened and her mouth gaped open, which got her a jab in the ribs from her brother. Lily snapped her mouth shut but sent a furious glance to Oliver. That made the baron laugh so spontaneously that Beth felt her heart warm in response. When the children went to sit down on a settee and wait for the butler to announce dinner, Beth addressed the baron.

“I trust, my lord, that you were not seriously injured, this afternoon? It showed of great courage to rescue Ruby’s baby, and I thank you for it from the bottom of my heart.”

Stephen Fenton’s eyes narrowed and he drew in his breath sharply.

“You know that woman? How come?”

Beth bit her lip when she realised she was close to betraying herself if she could not turn this around.

“I must confess to a subterfuge, my lord. I have taken the children to see their grandmother for several times, since I have been in your employ. I beg your forgiveness for it.”

The baron’s cool grey eyes raked over Beth’s figure like a cold north wind, sending shivers all over her spine. His voice was equally cool when he spoke.

“Why do I have the feeling, Mademoiselle Guillaume, that you have many other ‘subterfuges’ to confess? Rest assured that I will find them all out, in due time, ma belle!”

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Seven

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Seven – Under Attack

 

To Beth’s infinite relief, Fenton had no chance to go further down this dangerous path because Raleigh, the butler announced that dinner was ready. The three of them, Beth and her charges, made it through the meal with tolerable ease. Lily and Oliver were quiet but ate well, only darting quick glances at the baron, every now and then, as if they were not entirely sure what to think of him. When the dowager rose to retire, Beth gathered her charges and made it upstairs as well, ignoring Fenton’s dark, brooding gaze.

“I am so very proud of you, my darlings!” she praised while the children were readying themselves for bed. “You have behaved like real genteel-born children, without any flaws, at all!”

“The old lady is very …” Lily frowned for the word so Beth supplied it.

“Intimidating?”

“Yes! Her eyes were like glowing coals! It thought she was going to set me aflame!”

“Silly!” Her brother scowled. “Eyes cannot do that! The baron was nice, do you not think so, mademoiselle?”

“Yes, he was,” Beth agreed and gestured them to bed. She tucked them in and kissed their brows. “Now, you two have a good night’s sleep and then tomorrow, we will go on a walk to collect wild flowers.”

“Can we go and see Granny, too?”, came Lily’s small, sleep-stained voice.

“Promise! We will do that! Sleep well, darlings!”

 

~~~~

 

Stephen Fenton sat behind a desk in his library enjoying a fine old brandy. He had shed his coat, opened his waistcoat and rolled up his shirtsleeves because he truly needed to wind down after the day he had. The cuts and bruises he received in the cottage fire, were troubling him so he poured himself a stiff brandy. With only one small lamp breaking the darkness of the late September night, he leaned back, resting his head against the wall. He did not need more light because he was not working. A glass of brandy and a quiet room were all he needed tonight. He wanted to do some thinking.

Too many unfamiliar feelings harassed him, too many strange emotions but none of them unwelcome.

First, there was the budding warmth he was beginning to feel for his twins. They were fine, sweet children and all these years, he had not known that. He had been a fool, not only for begetting them with silly, young, inexperienced Molly Bradley, but also, once they were born, for not paying attention to them. He needed to remediate that.

Secondly, there was Beth Williams. Pretty, lively, intriguing Beth Williams, who did not want him to know she was in England, on his own estate, in his own home. Did she want revenge for what he did, all those years ago?  Stephen could understand that. He had done a terrible thing and so had his father in hiding the truth about her family’s carriage accident.

The lamp on the desk sputtered and went out. Cursing under his breath, Fenton stood and fuddled with his tinderbox to light the other one when the door of the room opened and someone entered, carrying another small lamp. He ducked behind a book rack and waited. Who could this be, sneaking into the library, that late?

It was a woman but the small lamp did not give enough light to see her face. Fenton, however, would have recognized her everywhere. Beth! That ramrod straight, very slender figure, the way she held her head and the elegance of her step had become very familiar during the weeks she was staying in his home.

What was she doing, he mused. Placing her lamp on one of the many desks in the room, Beth ducked a hand into her skirt pocket and retrieved something that looked like a small briefcase. She took several items out of it and began picking the desk drawer lock. Fenton was stunned! Why would she want to investigate his desk?

In the space of half an hour, Beth searched most of the locked-up furniture in the library and sorted through the contents, becoming more impatient by the minute. Fenton watched her the whole time with growing anger, until he could no longer stand it.

“Good evening, mademoiselle,” he said quietly, stepping from behind the book case. Beth startled so violently that she nearly jumped.

“My lord? Oh, I … I am sorry to have disturbed you. I … erm … was looking for a book and I ignored you were here.”

“A book, you say? Well, mademoiselle, books aplenty, as you can see, but you will not find them in a desk,” he said in a low voice, coming to stand beside her so closely that she was forced to step away.

Her back was now against one of the book cases and in the lamp light, Fenton could see her huge, dark eyes widen with fear. Her breath came in short, shallow intakes, causing her chest to rise frantically beneath the black bombazine of her dress. Fenton’s eyes wandered from her alabaster throat over her face and hair and back to her mouth. That mouth slightly opened and was extremely lovely. He bent his head and touched her lips with his in the lightest of kisses. Her mouth was cool, smooth and firm. She did not draw away but softly whimpered, a sound that went right down to his groin.

Tracing the curve of her cheek with a trembling finger as his hand slipped around her head, Stephen could feel the rapid beat of her heart in her slender neck. Her hands came up to rest upon his chest, the warmth of her small palms searing through the fine cotton of his shirt.

 

 

~~~~

 

In all her twenty-five years, Beth had never been touched by a man. The tender assault of Fenton’s warm mouth was exquisitely pleasant and caused her breath to catch fiercely in her throat. Under her hands, she could feel the muscled wall of his chest, hard as steel and unmoveable as rock. Yet the sensation was strangely reassuring and filled her with an immense feeling of safety. She realised she was not afraid, only increasingly excited as her fingers slid sideways to his back. The movement brought her closer to him and she was forced to tilt back her head so that it lay cradled in both his hands. His mouth was still on hers when he spoke softly.

“What did you come here for, ma belle? What were you searching for? It was no book, was it?”

Pressed close to a healthy male in a sorry state of dishabille should have terrified her, Beth thought, yet it did not. Instead she felt safe and content.

Then, realisation struck her! Safe? In the arms of the man who caused the death of her mother and Julian?

Now, finally, terror shot through her like lightning. Beth tore herself free from Fenton’s grasp and fled.

 

~~~~

 

Damnation!

For a split second, Stephen envisaged going after her and forcing Beth to explain her strange behaviour but then, he gave up the idea. Instead, he lowered himself back into his chair and considered the events that had just taken place.

God! He could not believe what he just witnessed. Beth, trying to pick a lock using a set of real pickpocket instruments!

Beth had been searching for something, that was obvious, but what? He would have to find out so that he could unearth what it was that had brought her here. Stephen realised he had now the perfect opportunity to throw Beth out on the streets, since she had been found out stealing.

Yet, for some reason, he did not want Beth to leave Brixton Abbey at all!