The Counterfeit Governess – Part Twelve

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Twelve – First Battle

 

Five seconds later, Stephen caught Beth on the first floor landing and gripped her arm in a crushing hold. The force of it caused her to whirl around and bump into his chest so violently that tears of sudden pain filled her eyes. She had a stinging reproach ready on her lips but Fenton did not grant her a chance to speak. He dragged her along to the nearest door, forcefully shoved her inside and threw the door shut, never releasing the vice-like grip on her arm.

“Confound it, Beth Williams! I will have you listen to me, right here and now!”

Beth was in no fit state to listen to anyone, least of all to this scoundrel of a man who treated her like a mad dog! She thumped his chest with her free hand and, breath burning in her lungs, she tried to wrench her arm loose!

“Let … go … of … me …” The words came in staccato gasps, as if she could not find the air to speak them, but every one of them bit into Stephen’s heart like sulphuric acid drops. Belatedly, he realised he was bruising the soft flesh of her upper arm! He abruptly lessened his grip – only, to stroke the damaged spot with the back of his fingers. Heat flared up in his groin like molten gold, and he fixed his eyes upon the sweet curve of her rosy mouth, now trembling under her fury.

“I am so sorry, Beth. I had no wish to injure you but …” He felt his lips twist in a painful smile, meant as an apology but sadly lacking. “I always seem to anger you or hurt you, do I not?”

His eyes bore into Beth’s with vulnerable honesty, causing her heart to flip-flop inside her chest. He was apologizing? Stephen Fenton? Impossible! And how could she possibly answer that question of his without uncovering her own uncertain and foolish heart? Speechless and hurting, Beth just kept on staring into those impossibly beautiful blue-grey eyes, her blood hammering in her ears.

“Look,” he said, his voice soothing and gentle, “I know what I did, all those years ago. Beth, I have not lived a day without regretting it deeply and painfully!”

Stephen saw the hurt blossom in her eyes, spilling over in big, shiny tears, that came rolling down her cheeks, and he instantly regretted his heedless words. My God! How could he have been so rude and thoughtless!

“Come here, my sweetling,” he whispered and gathered her into his arms, where she dissolved into mindless sobbing, shaking with every heart-wrenching gasp she made. Revelling in the feeling of her slender, soft body against his heart, Stephen dreamily stroked her back with soothing gestures, while his head went empty of thoughts except for the huge tenderness he felt for Beth.

Beth … who still had not stopped fighting him and was still trying to pummel his chest, though her strength was beginning to fade away. Beth … so intimately near and yet, so distant.

 

~~~~

 

Beth was so thoroughly immerged in her excruciating memories that she felt completely lost. All conscious thoughts were drowned in that overwhelming, bone-deep feeling of miserable loss, the death of dear Mama and darling Julian. Again she re-lived those terrible hours of that long-ago day, when villagers brought back the bodies of the two people she loved most in her young live. Mangled, disfigured, broken bodies … of her mother and brother, whose curricle she had witnessed being driven off the road by Lord Fenton’s phaeton. Those few seconds, when she stood there, rooted to the spot, alone and paralyzed with horror, when she watched Lord Septimus as he peered over the rim of the abyss that swallowed her family. He had not done a single thing to assist them, nor had he gone down the slope to investigate. Instead, he had gripped his young son’s arms in a tight grasp, brought his face close to the boy’s and hissed. “Do not ever tell anyone you were the one driving that phaeton, Stephen! Better, do not betray to anyone that we were here at all. There are no witnesses. No one will ever know what just happened. Promise me, Stephen, swear it!”

Beth could still hear those words in her dreams, even after all these years. The pain was hot and searing, burning her heart to ashes, robbing her from every happiness she ever felt. Oh, how she longed for the pain to go away and leave her free to start a life without the images of Mama and Julian, lying dead and broken on a wooden board.

“Shhh, my sweetling, be still. All is well, all is done. I will make it up to you, my dearest, I swear I will.”

Those words, uttered in Fenton’s mellow baritone rumble, penetrated the misery Beth was in and she startled when she felt his strong heartbeat against her flushed cheek. She ventured to look up at him. In his eyes was a soft glow that made her heart jump. His gaze travelled over her face and settled on her mouth, and in the dim light of the room, Beth saw his lips part for just a tiny bit. The tip of his tongue slid over his finely outlined lips, awakening a response, deep in Beth’s stomach. Mesmerized, she stared at that beautiful mouth and could not stop her hands from moving upwards, along that broad, hard expanse of chest, towards his neck.

 

~~~~

 

Stephen lowered his face to Beth’s and brushed her lips with his in a divinely tender caress. She just felt so good in his arms, her fragrance muddling his senses and her soft, slender body complying to every pressure of his. Under the gentle assault of his teasing tongue, her rosebud mouth opened and her own tongue dashed to meet him. He was pleasantly surprised and instantly aroused. God knew he did not need much to be swept into arousal by any gesture she made!

She allowed him to kiss her, first gently, then, as he deepened their kiss, responding to him with a passion of her own. A small cry of delight, coming from her as he pressed closer to her, sent him reeling with burning need.

“Oh, Beth … sweet, beautiful, exquisite Beth! Are you aware of what you are doing to me? Can you not feel what I am feeling for you? I want to worship your body with mine, my beauty! God is my witness but I confess I have always burned for you, my splendid governess!”

 

~~~~

 

Through the woolly layers of rapture bestowed upon her by Stephen’s sweet kiss, Beth fought to regain her composure when she heard those last words. This was no kiss of love but one of lust! Her eyes flew open and she cast a glance to her surroundings. His bedroom, they were in his bedroom!

“What … what did you just say?” she stammered, blinking into focus.

“You know what I said, my exquisite beauty! You and I are made for each other. We were meant to give pleasure and delight to each other. It feels so good, Beth, so right to hold, kiss, caress you. Let us seal this wonderful feeling with our union, my sweet. Be my love, now, tonight!”

“I … I cannot understand … whatever do you mean?” Beth breathed, hurt blurring her voice, and still unable to comprehend what just happened, she cautiously freed herself from Fenton’s hold.

“I wanted you the minute you stepped into this house, Beth! I have wanted you for … my whole life! Your beauty, your body, your liveliness and passion, everything about you makes me ache for you, my sweet!”

Beth could swear she felt her heart shatter into pieces, the pain of it so deep and churning that she backed away, just to increase the distance between them and be safe from being charred by his hideous lust. So that was how he felt? That was what he thought her to be? A harlot?

When Fenton took a step towards her, extending his hand, Beth gave a choked cry and fled.

 

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Eleven

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Eleven – Frantic Searches For Answers

 

Beth knew she had to act – somehow do something sensible and to the point – but her brain seemed too numb to find answers. She had always feared the Dowager Baroness for the cruel, cold-hearted woman she was, since that long-ago day when her father had been dismissed as a vicar by Lord Septimus Fenton.

Beth, frightened with awe for the tall, stern master of Brixton Abbey as he strode into the vicarage’s tiny parlour, instinctively looked at the mistress for compassion, because she hoped the baron’s wife would somehow soften him. How she had been mistaken! Henrietta Fenton was even more unforgiving than her husband and she had looked upon the trembling fourteen-year-old vicar’s daughter with eyes full of unmitigated fury and burning revenge.

“The insult, inflicted upon our family by your daughter, vicar, is beyond redemption! We cannot allow this lying, scheming girl to live in a house where only the worshipping of the Lord must dwell. You must therefore leave our service and take the sinner far from here. You have three days to prepare yourself. Good Day!”

Those had been the dowager’s words while her husband stared broodingly ahead without meeting her father’s pleading gaze for mercy. Vicar Peter Williams, devastated by the loss of his beloved wife and son, did not riposte. He simply bowed to the will of his lord and master and left within three days for France. Beth’s aunt Lucie lived in Avignon, in the south of France, where she had been the wife of a rich wine merchant, before she had been widowed. Lucie Cordier had a beautiful house – much too large for one person – and the childless widow welcomed her brother-in-law with a warm, compassionate heart. She had been appalled to learn of her sister Camille’s tragic death and immediately began mothering her sister’s only child with a deep love.

But – what was she to do now? Beth’s thoughts, reluctantly withdrawing from the happy times she knew in France, raced through her head like a caged bird wanting to escape. Hurriedly, she withdrew to her room.

 

~~~~

 

Fenton raised surprised eyebrows at his mother’s remark.

“You, my lady mother? You will speak with Miss Williams? And what, pray tell, might you say to her?”

Henrietta was a tall, thin woman and when she drew herself up, she was quite impressive.

“I will tell her that she will be sent away, for beguiling my son with her girlish wiles, Stephen. From the moment she laid eyes on you, she set her cap on winning you. That, my son, would be the ultimate revenge, would it not? Trapping you into her bed and forcing you to act upon your honour by taking her as your wife so she will become mistress of your ancestors’ house.”

When Fenton was about to protest, Henrietta stilled him with an upheld hand.

“No! Do not think me a fool, Stephen. Your countenance betrays you, every time you look at her. You are infatuated, my son, and if you follow this foolish passion, you will soon be damned!”

Stephen Fenton held her fiery gaze with a steadiness he had a hard time summoning up.

“I am stunned, Mother, and deeply hurt that you think me shallow enough to let myself be drawn to a woman who could be dangerous to our family name. That would never do, would it not? Yet, I think you are thoroughly mistaken about Miss Williams’ character. She would never go so far as to give herself to me, just to punish me for what I did. Do you remember, Mother? I was the one who robbed her of her beloved mother and of the brother she adored.”

He fell silent, lost in memories. Henrietta saw the raw, excruciating pain sweep over his sensitive face and it tore at her very heart!

“Stephen …” Her hand touched his bleak face in a tender caress to make him look at her. His gaze turned to her, and she spoke to him with all the love she could muster.

“Stephen, my dearest boy … I know all too well that you think yourself responsible for that long-ago accident but that is where you are wrong. It was an accident, nothing more, nothing less.”

Henrietta sent her pleading gaze at her son who did not respond, not with words nor with gestures. She went on, urging, pleading, coaxing.

“I know you have been lonely since Florence died. I have felt every stab of your pain in my own heart, my sweetling. I understand your predicament but I also beg you; do not give in to this emotion! It will destroy you and it will annihilate the House of Fenton for good! Beth Williams is poison to us! Please, my son, heed my words!”

His voice was wrought with a strong emotion when he replied.

“Mother, please, do not continue in that way. I appreciate your concern but I have no need for it. I will deal with Beth Williams when and how I see fit. Now, please, leave me. The hour grows late and I still have obligations. Goodnight, Mother.”

However gentle the words, they were a dismissal and Henrietta did not press on.

 

~~~~

 

“Come in, Miss Williams, if you please?” Fenton made an effort to keep his voice level when he saw the paleness of Beth’s face as she entered his study. She was composed, he saw, but only barely so. Her dark brown eyes were filled with concern, and when she sat down on the chair in front of his desk, he noticed the slight trembling of her slender hands. What was going on behind that smooth, alabaster brow of hers?

“Miss Williams,” he began, smiling at her encouragingly, “I want you to inform me about the children’s progress, so far. I am seriously considering sending them to a good boarding school after Christmas.”

Beth blinked and swallowed with apprehension at this. She always knew her assignment was only temporary and now, she suspected it might soon end for good.

“The children are making a satisfactory enough progress, my lord. I believe they will be ready for school at the time you mention. However, I have one favour to ask of you on their behalf.”

Fenton gestured for her to continue and she did so.

“Lily and Oliver still have a strong bond with Mrs Bradley, the grandmother who raised them. I fear they will emotionally suffer from being taken from her. For Mrs Bradley, too, it will be hard. The children are her only family, my lord. I would like to prevail upon the goodness of your heart and reconsider this.”

Beth kept her own voice equally level, carefully avoiding emotion to seep through, because she knew all too well what it would mean if Fenton decided to carry out his plans for her beloved charges. She would be unemployed and she would have nowhere to go. Yet, first and foremost, she would never again see Lily and Oliver, and that was unbearable! The children had become so dear to her that a separation from them would break her very heart. She closed her eyes, not wanting Fenton to witness her sorrow. He surprised her, though, when he spoke, in soft and gentle tones.

“Why do you not admit that you would miss them, Beth? That you have come to love them, as I have done? That you do not want to be separated from them? Neither will I, Beth. Lily and Oliver will stay at Brixton Abbey for yet a considerable amount of time and so will you, Beth. I hope you will not disappoint me in this?”

Beth gaped at him in sheer bewilderment! She never expected this, never dreamed he would keep her in his employment, after what she had done! It took her a while to recover her strength of voice and respond.

“But … I do not understand! I … I was convinced that you would dismiss me, my lord, as indeed, you have a right to, after …” She could not finish her sentence because a lump of shame and fear had formed in her throat.

Fenton did not answer her right away, instead fixed her with friendly eyes.

“Beth …”, he began but stopped when he stared at the object she drew out of her skirt pocket. His diary! In astonishment, he took it from her outstretched hand. “Why?” he asked, incredulously. “Have you not read it? I want you to read it, Beth! I want you to …”

“My lord!” Beth cried out. “Please, do not continue! I … I am very grateful to you for not sending the children away and I will gladly keep the position you so graciously offer me. Now, if you will excuse me, my duties await me. Goodnight, my lord.”

She then fled the room, leaving Stephen with an intense feeling of frustration and disappointment.

He found himself trembling with the sheer fury of it! How dare she reject the honest expression of regret he had been on the verge of delivering? He had been willing to apologize to her for what he had done to her and her family, by Jove!

Anger wrenching in his chest, he bounded after her with long, distance-eating strides.

 

 

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Ten

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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!

 

 

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Nine

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Nine – Entrapped

 

She had no means of escape now, Beth realised with a shock, nor did she wish to. She was where she wanted to be, in Stephen Fenton’s arms. The very weak reservations that started in her befuddled mind about why she wanted to kiss her mortal enemy, soon faded away when his lips wrenched open hers and his tongue invaded her mouth, claiming it in violent attack. He pressed her to his hard chest, and Beth swore she could hear her ribs crack but still she did not mind! She only tried to bring her body even closer to his – if possible.

Beth – at twenty-five – was still a virgin, yet her body instinctively knew what to do when Stephen’s passion demanded it from her. She longed for him to touch her in places that had always been secret and unspeakable. A low groan – from deep in Fenton’s throat – awakened such unknown sensations in her belly and beyond, that Beth shuddered in response. Oh God … Stephen …

“So, my sweet, you forgive me? And you want to prove it? Good …” came his smooth, enticing voice.

A bucket of iced water could not have been colder than the rush of horrified feelings that crushed Beth to the core! Forgive him? No, never! With a sob, she raised her knee right into the hard bump at the front Fenton’s breeches, pushed him hard so that he had to let go of her and ran like hell!

 

~~~~

 

Stephen sank to the floor in a heap of misery and excruciating pain, clutching his assaulted groin with both hands. Bloody, damned, despicable chit! If he ever got his hands on her again, he was going to throttle her and enjoy himself immensely watching her choke! What a low, underhand blow that was, kneeing a bloke when he was fully aroused! It was bloody enough to mutilate him for the rest of his life!

After a few, agonizing minutes, he regained enough of his wits to drag himself to his cabinet, take out his bottle of whisky, serve himself a generous measure in a tumbler and gush it down. Ah, much better! Taking tumbler and bottle to his desk, he lowered himself gingerly into his chair, fully determined to drink himself into oblivion. The calming effects of the second glass, however, made him reconsider and instead, reflect on how he would punish Miss Beth Williams – aka Mademoiselle bloody governess Elle Guillaume – for her dastardly deed.

What would be the cruellest thing to do to her? Beth Williams knew she had been found out by him so she would be terrified of being either dismissed from his services or arrested on the magistrate’s orders. On the other hand, both those actions would afford her to move on from her life at Brixton Abbey. If she was dismissed, she could go and find another situation. But not at Brixton Abbey. If she was arrested, she would go on trial and maybe to prison. Away from Brixton Abbey. Away from him.

For some reason, that terrified him, so he would keep Beth Williams at Brixton Abbey – with him.

 

~~~~

 

Stupid, stupid, oh so utterly stupid! Beth could not even begin to analyze the myriad of feelings that were clawing at her! Hot, scorching anger was one of them and it was directed at herself! She had let herself being kissed by her fiercest enemy without any restraint at all. Why? What in the world possessed her?

A small voice in her head jangled; ‘Because he is so very handsome and you are attracted to him, that is why!’

No! No, no, no, no! She could not be attracted to Fenton! Fenton, for God’s sake!

Oh, the confusion! Her head was spinning and her body was sore with suppressed … what? Beth grew so utterly cold that she feared her very bones might freeze; her body was aching with frustrated lust.

For Stephen Fenton.

 

~~~~

 

Beth did not sleep a wink during the rest of that long, agonizing night. She lay listening to every creak and noise in the silent house, expecting at all times for a maid coming to knock at her door with the order that she pack her things and be gone, but it did not happen. When morning came, she rose and prepared herself somewhat hesitantly for a new day with her charges.

To her utter relief, she did not encounter Fenton all day. He also did not summon her to instruct her gone from the house, which puzzled her to the extreme. She worked through her usual schedule with the children, her normal routine taking over from her befuddled thoughts. Yet, when she returned from their visit to Granny Bradley, and the children were dressing for dinner, she ached to have a lie-down before she would meet her employer and his stern mother, just to regain her composure. When she entered her bedroom, she saw the item on her nightstand, and it was all she could do not to let her trembling legs give way. It made a pretty contrast on the white, marble nightstand top. A small, leather-bound booklet, red as poppies with the inscription in gold – Stephen Fenton’s Diary.

 

~~~~

 

Henrietta, Dowager Baroness Brixton, covertly studied Stephen as he entered the dining room. She had not missed the signs of distress on her son’s countenance, signs that were increasing with every day that passed. Contrary to what her stern behaviour showed, Henrietta loved Stephen very much.

She knew he had been heart-broken when poor Florence died, blaming himself for steering their curricle away from a bunch of children crossing the road from the undergrowth with no warning. Stephen had loved his young wife very, very much and her death had left him devastated.

Henrietta had not much appreciated when he took in his bastards but she had understood nevertheless. Until he married again and begot another child, these two commoners were his only offspring. She was ready to follow his judgement in this and would stand by him, should he need it to be a little happier again.

To say that she was prepared to tighten the bonds with the children, was another matter altogether, but she would not neglect anything that made Stephen whole again.

For now, though, Henrietta could very well see that something was eating away at her son. He looked almost as pale as he had been after his return from France, and the dreadful fever had been consuming him for weeks. She could remember all too well those horrible weeks of mental agony when she had sat beside his bed, fearing that the fever would take him from her.

In addition to that, there was a restlessness in his demeanour that bespoke of a certain fear. Stephen was – very clearly – afraid about something and Henrietta knew what that was. The reason for all of this walked into the room at this very moment; the confounded French governess.

In a discrete, ladylike manner, Henrietta cleared her throat before addressing her son.

“If she is becoming a problem, my lord, you should dispose of her.”

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Seven

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Seven – Under Attack

 

To Beth’s infinite relief, Fenton had no chance to go further down this dangerous path because Raleigh, the butler announced that dinner was ready. The three of them, Beth and her charges, made it through the meal with tolerable ease. Lily and Oliver were quiet but ate well, only darting quick glances at the baron, every now and then, as if they were not entirely sure what to think of him. When the dowager rose to retire, Beth gathered her charges and made it upstairs as well, ignoring Fenton’s dark, brooding gaze.

“I am so very proud of you, my darlings!” she praised while the children were readying themselves for bed. “You have behaved like real genteel-born children, without any flaws, at all!”

“The old lady is very …” Lily frowned for the word so Beth supplied it.

“Intimidating?”

“Yes! Her eyes were like glowing coals! It thought she was going to set me aflame!”

“Silly!” Her brother scowled. “Eyes cannot do that! The baron was nice, do you not think so, mademoiselle?”

“Yes, he was,” Beth agreed and gestured them to bed. She tucked them in and kissed their brows. “Now, you two have a good night’s sleep and then tomorrow, we will go on a walk to collect wild flowers.”

“Can we go and see Granny, too?”, came Lily’s small, sleep-stained voice.

“Promise! We will do that! Sleep well, darlings!”

 

~~~~

 

Stephen Fenton sat behind a desk in his library enjoying a fine old brandy. He had shed his coat, opened his waistcoat and rolled up his shirtsleeves because he truly needed to wind down after the day he had. The cuts and bruises he received in the cottage fire, were troubling him so he poured himself a stiff brandy. With only one small lamp breaking the darkness of the late September night, he leaned back, resting his head against the wall. He did not need more light because he was not working. A glass of brandy and a quiet room were all he needed tonight. He wanted to do some thinking.

Too many unfamiliar feelings harassed him, too many strange emotions but none of them unwelcome.

First, there was the budding warmth he was beginning to feel for his twins. They were fine, sweet children and all these years, he had not known that. He had been a fool, not only for begetting them with silly, young, inexperienced Molly Bradley, but also, once they were born, for not paying attention to them. He needed to remediate that.

Secondly, there was Beth Williams. Pretty, lively, intriguing Beth Williams, who did not want him to know she was in England, on his own estate, in his own home. Did she want revenge for what he did, all those years ago?  Stephen could understand that. He had done a terrible thing and so had his father in hiding the truth about her family’s carriage accident.

The lamp on the desk sputtered and went out. Cursing under his breath, Fenton stood and fuddled with his tinderbox to light the other one when the door of the room opened and someone entered, carrying another small lamp. He ducked behind a book rack and waited. Who could this be, sneaking into the library, that late?

It was a woman but the small lamp did not give enough light to see her face. Fenton, however, would have recognized her everywhere. Beth! That ramrod straight, very slender figure, the way she held her head and the elegance of her step had become very familiar during the weeks she was staying in his home.

What was she doing, he mused. Placing her lamp on one of the many desks in the room, Beth ducked a hand into her skirt pocket and retrieved something that looked like a small briefcase. She took several items out of it and began picking the desk drawer lock. Fenton was stunned! Why would she want to investigate his desk?

In the space of half an hour, Beth searched most of the locked-up furniture in the library and sorted through the contents, becoming more impatient by the minute. Fenton watched her the whole time with growing anger, until he could no longer stand it.

“Good evening, mademoiselle,” he said quietly, stepping from behind the book case. Beth startled so violently that she nearly jumped.

“My lord? Oh, I … I am sorry to have disturbed you. I … erm … was looking for a book and I ignored you were here.”

“A book, you say? Well, mademoiselle, books aplenty, as you can see, but you will not find them in a desk,” he said in a low voice, coming to stand beside her so closely that she was forced to step away.

Her back was now against one of the book cases and in the lamp light, Fenton could see her huge, dark eyes widen with fear. Her breath came in short, shallow intakes, causing her chest to rise frantically beneath the black bombazine of her dress. Fenton’s eyes wandered from her alabaster throat over her face and hair and back to her mouth. That mouth slightly opened and was extremely lovely. He bent his head and touched her lips with his in the lightest of kisses. Her mouth was cool, smooth and firm. She did not draw away but softly whimpered, a sound that went right down to his groin.

Tracing the curve of her cheek with a trembling finger as his hand slipped around her head, Stephen could feel the rapid beat of her heart in her slender neck. Her hands came up to rest upon his chest, the warmth of her small palms searing through the fine cotton of his shirt.

 

 

~~~~

 

In all her twenty-five years, Beth had never been touched by a man. The tender assault of Fenton’s warm mouth was exquisitely pleasant and caused her breath to catch fiercely in her throat. Under her hands, she could feel the muscled wall of his chest, hard as steel and unmoveable as rock. Yet the sensation was strangely reassuring and filled her with an immense feeling of safety. She realised she was not afraid, only increasingly excited as her fingers slid sideways to his back. The movement brought her closer to him and she was forced to tilt back her head so that it lay cradled in both his hands. His mouth was still on hers when he spoke softly.

“What did you come here for, ma belle? What were you searching for? It was no book, was it?”

Pressed close to a healthy male in a sorry state of dishabille should have terrified her, Beth thought, yet it did not. Instead she felt safe and content.

Then, realisation struck her! Safe? In the arms of the man who caused the death of her mother and Julian?

Now, finally, terror shot through her like lightning. Beth tore herself free from Fenton’s grasp and fled.

 

~~~~

 

Damnation!

For a split second, Stephen envisaged going after her and forcing Beth to explain her strange behaviour but then, he gave up the idea. Instead, he lowered himself back into his chair and considered the events that had just taken place.

God! He could not believe what he just witnessed. Beth, trying to pick a lock using a set of real pickpocket instruments!

Beth had been searching for something, that was obvious, but what? He would have to find out so that he could unearth what it was that had brought her here. Stephen realised he had now the perfect opportunity to throw Beth out on the streets, since she had been found out stealing.

Yet, for some reason, he did not want Beth to leave Brixton Abbey at all!

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Six

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Six – Severe Complications

 

All around Beth was instantly forgotten and she had only eyes for Fenton’s  prostrated form. He had fallen onto his side and one arm was trapped under his body. Wanting to do something – at least, to help him – she knelt down beside him. To make him more comfortable, she carefully turned him onto his back – and gasped at the sight of the long, ragged scar that crossed his abdomen. It was of an ugly red and marred the beautiful muscles of his stomach, slicing across the fine spray of dark hair that covered his chest. She put out a trembling hand and touched it. Fenton’s stomach muscles rippled in response, causing a knot of fire to pop up, low in her stomach. Oh, sweet Lord!

There were many burns on his arms and shoulders, some of them bleeding, and he was trembling rather badly. He was in shock, she knew, and needed care but somehow, all she could do, was take his head onto her lap and caress his face.

“Stephen …”  Was that her voice, so shaking and full of despair?

“You there, boy!” Granny Bradley’s voice sounded. “Run to Brixton Abbey and fetch help! Mary, bring on some blankets! Ben, Tom, Jack, I need him to be transported into my house, now!”

Then Granny touched Beth’s arm and spoke softly to her. “Come, my child. You must leave it to me.”

Blinking back tears, Beth realised she was compromising herself immensely, sitting in this very close position to a man in full sight of everyone. When the men and Mary came toward them with the items requested by Granny Bradley, she slowly rose and took up her position again with her charges. She waited, however, until they finished carrying Fenton inside before she rode back to Brixton Abbey with the children.

 

~~~~

 

“Stephen …”

The soft, wavering voice pulled at his very heart as his awareness slowly came back. He could not quite believe his ears, though. Nobody ever had spoken to him that way, so full of concern, of caring, of – dare he think it – love?

When Fenton finally managed to open his eyes, he found himself lying on a board that was carried away by four men, but what he saw most clearly, was the retreating figure of Beth Williams. Beth? Beth, speaking his name so lovingly that his heart was still singing with joy from the memory? Impossible!

“Well, my lord,” an old woman’s voice drew his attention. “I certainly never dreamed of letting you into my home!”

“Mrs Bradley!” Fenton exclaimed, recognizing Molly’s mother.

“Yes, and I should let you rot in hell for what you did to my angel.”

She said it in a controlled voice, however. Fenton found himself breathing again, although he never knew he had stopped doing so.

“I am trying to repair the damage by taking the children into my home, Mrs Bradley. They have an excellent governess to see to their education.”

The old woman’s face was impassive when she neither thanked him nor cursed him for taking her charges from her.

“I will see to your injuries now, my lord,” Mrs Bradley said, matter-of-factly. “You have quite the number of them. So, as we are clear about this, I am only doing this because you rescued little Johnny. Is that understood, my lord?”

“Quite so,” he replied curtly, then continued in a softer voice. “Is the baby alright? He was so quiet when I took him out of his cradle.”

“Yes, he is fine, thank you. Ruby is already nursing him at her parent’s house and his appetite was as good as ever.”

Without further ado, she began examining him, causing him to curse under his breath when she applied some sort of ointment onto his burns.

 

~~~~

 

For the rest of the day, Beth kept her charges inside, asking them to make a drawing about what they had been subjected to, that afternoon. Lily and Oliver applied themselves to it with an unexpected zeal, allowing Beth to sit quietly with them and give herself a break. She badly needed to recover from the appalling emotions that hit her on seeing Stephen Fenton pass out and getting hurt.

What struck her the most had been the realisation that he was concerned enough about his people to risk his own life to save them. She never suspected that of him, nor would she have thought him that brave. He must possess a great deal of courage, judged by the seriousness of the injuries he suffered during the Peninsular War. That scar was horrible and it was little wonder it had cost him months to recover from it.

As the hours passed by, Beth found she could not concentrate on the book in her lap. Her scattered thoughts kept wandering to Stephen Fenton, a man she thought she knew but in fact, did not know at all. A man she was undoubtedly attracted to, which made her panic a little. How could that be? Was it because, today, for the first time, he had shown a genuine interest in his children? He had been patient with their efforts on horse riding, had even praised them.

Their rooms on the fourth floor overlooked the stable yard, and the rattle of the Brixton carriage wheels on the cobbles drew her to the window. Stephen Fenton alighted from the vehicle, a blanket thrown over his shoulders. Denying the help of his valet, he strode toward the house, apparently strong enough, after his ordeal.

Beth resumed her seat again, imagining Fenton’s progress through the house. He would first go to his chambers to bathe and change. By then it would be dinner time, and Beth fervently prayed she would not be required to dine with him and his mother. She would be unable to bear it.

A knock on the classroom’s door startled Beth but it was only Trixie who came in.

“Beg yer pardon, miss, master asks you to come down ter dinner with the children. Says they’re ter dine wi’ the family, ternight.”

 

~~~~

 

As she walked into the dining room, preceded by her two very nervous charges, Beth hoped they would remember what she taught them. Lily was wearing a light blue muslin dress which gave her grey eyes a hint of blue, and her honey-coloured curls were brushed into a neat ponytail. For Oliver, Beth had chosen white knee breeches and stockings, a white linen shirt, grey waistcoat and a jacket of dark grey wool. His unruly curls had been cut shorter so that they were easier to handle. Beth wore her usual black bombazine dress because she was still in mourning for her father.

The Dowager Baroness stood near one of the windows when the children came to stand before her, just like Beth taught them. Lily made a reasonably acceptable curtsy while Oliver executed a nearly perfect bow to their paternal grandmother. Beth saw the surprised look in the dowager’s eyes and was secretly satisfied with her charges.

“Good evening, my lady,” she said, as she made her own curtsy.

“Good evening, mademoiselle,” the dowager replied, but curtly and without warmth. The proud elderly woman had only managed the briefest of acknowledgements on the children’s greetings.

The Baron’s reply to his children was genuinely warmer than it had ever been before. He bowed back to Oliver, then took Lily’s small hand in his and kissed it. The little girl’s eyes widened and her mouth gaped open, which got her a jab in the ribs from her brother. Lily snapped her mouth shut but sent a furious glance to Oliver. That made the baron laugh so spontaneously that Beth felt her heart warm in response. When the children went to sit down on a settee and wait for the butler to announce dinner, Beth addressed the baron.

“I trust, my lord, that you were not seriously injured, this afternoon? It showed of great courage to rescue Ruby’s baby, and I thank you for it from the bottom of my heart.”

Stephen Fenton’s eyes narrowed and he drew in his breath sharply.

“You know that woman? How come?”

Beth bit her lip when she realised she was close to betraying herself if she could not turn this around.

“I must confess to a subterfuge, my lord. I have taken the children to see their grandmother for several times, since I have been in your employ. I beg your forgiveness for it.”

The baron’s cool grey eyes raked over Beth’s figure like a cold north wind, sending shivers all over her spine. His voice was equally cool when he spoke.

“Why do I have the feeling, Mademoiselle Guillaume, that you have many other ‘subterfuges’ to confess? Rest assured that I will find them all out, in due time, ma belle!”

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Five

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Five – An Unexpected Hitch

 

After luncheon, Beth prepared for the children’s riding lessons by providing them with clothes suitable for the activity. She planned to take them to Granny Bradley on horseback, thus providing them with an occasion to test their skills. Michael, the youngest groom, helped Lily onto Pearl, the pony he had chosen for her, while Thompson, the head groom, assisted Oliver onto his gelding Rainstorm. Beth mounted on her own; she was very fond of her placid mare Sparkle. That was a badly chosen name, for there was not a quieter animal in the Brixton Stables. Thompson had chosen well for her.

They were just getting ready to leave when the master’s deep baritone sounded through the stable yard.

“Just a minute, lads! Michael, go saddle Parsifal. I am accompanying Mademoiselle and the children.”

Beth felt the colour drain from her face when Fenton addressed her.

“I want to see the children’s progress first, mademoiselle. Perhaps you had better dismount until I deem it appropriate for us to leave?”

So she watched from a bench in the yard while Fenton judged Lily and Oliver’s riding in the paddock. The children looked nervous but they nevertheless seemed to manage quite well. Their father was satisfied and gave his praise whereupon the small group departed for the village.

 

~~~~

 

She rode extremely well, Stephen Fenton admitted to himself. He had not even known Beth could ride at all. Ten years ago, she blundered about the country side on that ridiculous pony of hers, and had not had the slightest notion how to handle the beast but now … now she was an excellent horsewoman, her seat easy and graceful.

The first sight of her on horseback had him baffled and shocked at the same time. Dressed in a peculiar sort of riding habit, the colour of green olives, Beth rode astride instead of sideways. The full skirt of her habit was divided and the legs of the trouser-like garment were broad and flowing, allowing her to ride without violating the rules of propriety. They were also shorter than a normal skirt would have been, showing her lower legs in their long chestnut boots. It was so attractive Fenton felt his groin tightening in a rush of pure, unmitigated lust. Sweet Lucifer! He needed to keep a tight rein on his rampaging emotions, now and without delay.

It was not the first time he had lusted after Beth Williams, he remembered. Years ago, even before his affair with Molly Bradley, Fenton had been visiting Vicar Williams with some errand on his father’s behalf when Beth returned from a ride after a sudden rainstorm. The sight of her young, slender body in the soaked clothes, the budding breasts peaking through the clinging fabric of her dress, had fired him up so violently he had needed to retreat in haste before the vicar – or Beth herself – would witness his embarrassment. For a few days, he had toyed with the thought of accosting her and try kissing her, but some strange feeling of reserve had held him back. In a sudden surge of conscience, he had shied away from defiling her, somehow. He had not had the same reservations with her friend Molly, though, with the well-known consequences.

While the two children rode ahead, holding a race between them, Fenton kept his black stallion apace with Sparkle.

“What a strange cut your riding habit has, Mademoiselle Guillaume! Is this the latest Parisian fashion for ladies, fond of riding?” he attempted to start a conversation.

“No, my lord, not at all,” Beth chuckled. “I got this as a present from some American relatives who claim it is rapidly becoming fashion in the United States. When a woman is forced to cover the vast distances over there on horseback, she needs something much more comfortable than a side saddle and, accordingly, must adjust her clothing.”

Fenton caught her gaze in his and smiled languidly into her brown eyes.

“It is unusual,” he drawled, “but very attractive. It emphasizes a lady’s … lower limbs to perfection.”

The sudden glow of Beth’s cheeks gave him a wicked satisfaction. He loved to get her fired up, had always loved to! God! She was irresistibly beautiful! When her mare took an unexpected side step, Fenton’s hand reached for the bridle but instead, caught Beth’s hand. Even through the leather of their gloves, he could feel the heat of their skins. Panic darkened her eyes, and he instantly released her.

“I am sorry, mademoiselle, but for a moment, I feared Sparkle would stumble.”

She nodded, and they continued in silence.

 

~~~~

 

Inwardly Beth blazed with suppressed fury!  Damn him! It was so typical of Fenton to turn on the charm on a woman he had only just gotten acquainted with and one who was in his employ and all! She was raking her brain for some retaliation when she heard his alarmed cry.

“By Jove! There must be a fire!”

He dug his heels in Parsifal’s flanks and galloped toward the village. He was right! A black plume of smoke rose from between the thatched roofs of the village and a crowd of people was gathering and running toward it.

Beth suddenly saw Lily and Oliver go after Fenton and she spurred on Sparkle to follow them. When she drew nearer, for a split second she thought it was Granny Bradley’s cottage that was on fire! Panicking, she hurried on, just in time to see Fenton jump off his horse and toss the reins into some farmer boy’s hands.

“Lily! Oliver! Take care!” she shouted, suddenly afraid they would fall off their mounts. Then she reached the children, hastily got off Sparkle and helped first Oliver, then Lily down.

“Stay here!” she ordered. “Do not go near the cottage.”

“But it is Ruby’s house!” Lily screamed.

“Yes, I can see that but look, there is Ruby and Ben, her husband!”

Ruby, however, stood wringing her hands in despair and panic.

“Oh, my lord, help us! My little Johnny is still inside!”

The baby! Beth ran toward Ruby and took her hands in hers.

“Ruby, where is he? In which room?”

“The ground floor room, at the back! Oh God! Oh dear Lord!”

People were running to and fro with buckets of water, throwing it into the fire without result until Fenton quickly organized them into a line, so that the buckets could be passed on in a chain. He then tore off his riding jacket and emptied one of the buckets over his head. Dripping with water, his shirt clinging to his chest, he shook himself vigorously. Beth found herself staring at the outlines of that broad torso, the long muscles rippling. Her mouth went dry and breathing became difficult. Fenton snatched a shawl from the shoulders of one of the women, dipped it in water and threw it over his head.

Before Beth’ horrified eyes, he then disappeared into the burning cottage. Beth’s heart stopped beating that same moment, as she realised he was putting his life at risk to rescue Ruby’s baby. Ruby, who was hysteric with fear … Beth went to put her arms around the slim figure of the young women.

Ben, Ruby’s husband, had put himself at the head of the chain and was desperately throwing water onto the flames.

Interminable seconds lengthened into minutes, slowly killing Beth with every beat of her terrified heart. Stephen – for the love of God, Stephen was in that hell fire! Pacing up and down in front of the cottage, now roaring with huge flames, she bit her knuckles in sheer agony! When would he come out? Soon – it would have to be soon! This was not happening, she could not lose Stephen!

Abruptly she stopped and realised what she had just been experiencing – a huge, heart-wrenching feeling of panic, because Stephen Fenton could actually be in mortal danger and perish. Stephen Fenton, the murderer of her family – the man who destroyed her life. Yet, she was so anxious about him, about facing a life without him, that her heart was aching with a tremendous pain, right then and there.

To calm herself and get out of her strange mood, she went back to Lily and Oliver and was relieved to see that their grandmother had joined them.

“I never thought to see the day when a Fenton would risk his life to save someone else’s,” Granny Bradley said in surprise.

“No, me neither,” Beth murmured in return.

A cry from the crowd drew her gaze back to the burning cottage. Covered with soot, Stephen Fenton came staggering out, a small bundle clutched against his bare chest. He seemed to have wrapped the baby in his own shirt. Hands reached out for little Johnny but his mother was first and took him from the baron.

Beth gave a sudden cry of alarm when she saw Fenton collapse onto his knees, blood running down his face and torso.