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.
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.