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.