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?”