Ten – Complications
The dowager’s words rang clearly, and Beth heard them as she was about to step into the room. She froze in horror. Dispose? Did the dowager know what Beth was up to? Had she recognized her? Or had Fenton told her about her? Too many questions, too little answers! She looked at Stephen and was surprised to see a look of pure dismay on his face, yet he said nothing in response to his mother’s quip. Instead, he walked toward her and bowed, his mocking smile firmly in place.
“Ah, Mademoiselle Guillaume, I trust you received the book you were looking for earlier? It was not hard to find, once I remembered where I put it in the first place. That was, after I recovered from my ‘fall’, that is.”
He said this in a low voice, so that his mother would not hear the words. His bright, blue-grey eyes burned with suppressed anger now, and Beth swallowed, unable to reply.
Fenton left her standing there as if she were a servant he just scolded and dismissed. He turned to the twins, greeting them in a cordial way, and accompanying them to his mother so that they could pay their respects to her. Beth watched in utter astonishment as the dowager – usually quite stern with the children – now began a friendly conversation with them. Lily and Oliver seemed to respond spontaneously as always and soon, their laughter rang through the room. Beth smiled, her heart warming when she saw the children’s happy faces.
“What I would not give for that smile to be directed at me, Beth,” Stephen Fenton’s quiet voice sounded right behind her. Beth had not noticed him standing there and she startled. She also did not understand the meaning of his words, unless he meant them to be mocking. A ready answer would not materialise in her brain, so she just looked up at him, trying to keep her countenance bland. And why had there been a catch in his tone, as if he felt genuinely envious over her attachment to the children?
“What? No scolding reply to my friendly remark? How extraordinary, Mademoiselle Guillaume!” Fenton bent over to her so that the breath of his words tickled her ear when he spoke.
“You will be so good as to notice that I mean to keep up your little charade, my dear. If my mother knew what you are up to, she would have you on the streets in the blink of an eye.”
At that moment, Raleigh glided into the room to announce dinner and Beth was, once again, saved from having to answer. Dinner was actually quite pleasant, the two children being relaxed and behaving sweetly and naturally with the baron and his mother. Fenton amused the twins with stories of his childhood, occurring while he was home from Eton for the holidays. He spoke of his father, Sir Septimus, and the close relationship they seemed to have had. The previous baron apparently spent a good deal of his time with his only son and heir, fishing, hunting and instructing him on estate matters. To Beth’s astonishment, Fenton’s words rang with deep respect and genuine love for his father. He clearly seemed to have suffered a loss when the baron died.
When the dowager chimed in with funny stories about her son at Oliver’s own ten years of age, Beth’s astonishment grew into utter bewilderment. Henrietta, Dowager Baroness of Brixton Abbey, telling witticisms? Soon Lily and Oliver were merrily laughing and telling stories themselves, and the four of them were having a jolly good time. Once again, Beth was excluded from their company but it did not bother her. To watch the children growing closer to their father and grandmother, was a pleasant sight to her.
When the meal ended and the dowager rose to retire, Fenton addressed her courteously.
“My Lady, I would be very much obliged to you if you would stay with me for a short time. There are some matters in which I could use your advice.” Henrietta nodded and sat down again whereupon Fenton turned to Beth.
“Mademoiselle Guillaume, I have some new instructions regarding my children’s upbringing so I will need you to come down again, when you have seen to your charges. Meet me in the library in half an hour.” It was an order, not a request, and it stung. Beth had no choice but to curtsy and leave to put the children to bed.
Stephen’s thoughtful gaze followed Beth as she left the dining room, her back ramrod straight and her head held high. The sway of her hips when she turned away in anger had been particularly tantalizing in its utter defiance of him, so much that his cock had stirred as a violent shock of need stabbed through him.
Ah! But that was only one of his many problems, was it not? This powerful urge of him to bed this mysterious woman he knew for so long and yet, knew not at all. The frustration he felt when in her company, with that annoying ability of hers to challenge him with every word she spoke.
A sudden cough from his mother spun him back into reality and he hastened to apologize. His mother’s eyebrows rose in mocking surprise.
“I am astonished, My Lord, but you have nothing to apologize for. Yet, you seemed to be in a totally different place, just now, and it occurred to me that you might want to come back to this one and inform me about why you need my advice.”
Stephen turned away from the dowager’s keen gaze and, involuntary, gave a deep sigh. Then, realizing what he had just done, he felt his cheeks grow darker in dismay. Drat! His mother still had the power to upset him like if he had been a little boy! He squared his shoulders, looked directly at her and spoke.
“You should maintain a modicum of politeness toward Mademoiselle Guillaume, Mother. She is working miracles with the twins, and I want her to feel at home at Brixton Hall, at least until Oliver and Lily are ready to be sent to a boarding school.”
“Do not patronize nor underestimate me, Stephen. Did you think I had not recognized Beth Williams after all these years? Why is she still in your employment? She cannot have returned solely to be a governess to your bastard children. I am convinced that she has other purposes, one of them most certainly wanting revenge for her relatives’ death.”
“I do apologize most emphatically, Mother, for I was indeed patronizing,” Stephen replied swiftly, amused by his mother’s astuteness. He could have seen that coming, knowing how smart and observant she was. “Yes, you are right. Miss Guillaume is Beth Williams, and I think she is looking for evidence about our involvement with her family members’ accident. Beth knows I was the one driving the vehicle and she rightly holds me responsible for the accident.”
“Well, then you must put an end to this, Stephen! Dismiss her, immediately!”
The dowager looked at her son with firm determination, trying to convey the feeling onto him, but somehow, she knew she had failed. Stephen was smiling faintly, and his gaze took a faraway quality.
“No, Mother, I have something entirely different in mind for Beth, although I have no inkling on how I must succeed in my mission.”
It then hit Henrietta like a blow to the stomach! Stephen was infatuated with the wretched governess, and it was all Henrietta could do not to slap him in the face and bring him down to earth again! Yet, then she saw the hurt in his eyes and knew what she had to do.
“Shall I speak to her, My Lord?” Henrietta kept her voice level and her face bland, even when Stephen turned to her in bewilderment.
Found out! She was found out, not only by Stephen but – oh, horror! – also by the hostile dowager baroness! Beth stood rooted to the spot in the corridor just outside Fenton’s library where she had eavesdropped upon the two. On an impulse, she had sent the children upstairs on their own and returned to know what the baron had in mind for his charges.
Instead, she just heard the worst possible thing the future could have in store for her, banishment from Brixton Abbey and Stephen Fenton!