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.