Her Perfect Earl

Her Perfect Earl

Beth Pattillo

August 2013 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-328-3

One priceless manuscript. Five untamed children. A widowed earl in search of an heiress. And a scholar-disguised-as-a-governess with designs on his library.

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One priceless manuscript. Five untamed children. A widowed earl in search of an heiress. And a scholar-disguised-as-a-governess with designs on his library.

Has a happy ending ever been more unlikely?

Plain Esmerelda Fortune must make her own way in the world, which is difficult for a lady when the men of her class seem to want beauties with no brains. She plans to take employment with the Earl of Ashforth for as long as it takes to gain access to the Life of Corinna—a rare manuscript rumored to belong to the earl and the key to her paper for a scholarship prize. That prize will allow her to open a school for young ladies who want more from education than painting and embroidery skills.

Julian, Earl of Ashforth, needs an heiress or the Ashforth name and estates are forfeit. Julian is no stranger to sacrifice and duty in the name of maintaining the Ashforth façade of perfection. He's resigned to marry for money, but first he must tame his unruly children. Miss Fortune seems the perfect candidate for the job—that is until the gray-eyed governess arrives at Ashforth Abbey and proceeds to turn his life head over ears.


Coming soon!


Chapter One

England, 1822

ESMERELDA FORTUNE half hung out of the carriage window, ignoring both decorum and the blustering of the Earl of Ashforth's coachman.

"Women. A great lot of trouble and not worth 'alf the bother!” The coachman's imprecation stung, but Esmerelda Fortune ignored his thunderous objection. She could not come so close to the manor house—her manor house—without stopping. Her late stepfather, the Duke of Nottingham, had left her the property, derelict as it was. A man would desire to see his inheritance if he passed through the neighborhood where it was situated. She was no different simply because she was female.

With a growl, the earl's coachman turned the carriage off the main road and down the rough lane. The verdant shades of June shimmered in the unkempt hedgerows. Spikes of ragwort and prickly thistles flourished amongst the gravel of the short drive, but the slender, silver beech trees along the lane stood vigilant guard. Esmie waited, breath held, until the house came into view. A lump rose in her throat.

To anyone else's eyes, the modest manor house covered in ivy and soot might appear as a poor dowager whose jointure had long run out. To Esmie, the damp, crumbling house was everything. Here, tucked away across the River Isis from the spires of Oxford, lay her future.

The coachman pulled the horses to a stop in the overgrown drive, and Esmie scrambled from the carriage.

"Five minutes,” he barked. "The earl don't tolerate tardiness.”

Considering that the earl's offspring had driven off three governesses since Christmas, Esmie didn't think he could afford to be intolerant, but she couldn't afford to annoy the earl before she'd even begun her employment. She flung open the door and jumped to the ground.

Her steps slowed as she approached the house, and a fierce sense of possession spread through her, thick as honey. Here she was at last. Home.

The ancient oaken door of the manor house had been placed askew in the façade, flanked on either side by irregular, mullioned windows that gave the house a topsy-turvy appearance. To Esmie, though, it was as good as a palace. With trembling fingers, she fished the key from her reticule. She had worn the metal surface dull from much handling, and it almost slipped from her fingers. Often, at night, she rubbed it for luck and dreamed of her future in this place, when she might escape her life of service and call her days her own.

The rusty lock proved a bit of a challenge, but Esmie would not be denied. After some impatient jiggling, she coaxed the door open and stepped into the cool air of the foyer.

Relief flooded her, allowing her heart to resume its normal rhythm as her eyes traveled over every feature. Nothing had changed, save that the faded green wallpaper showed even darker streaks from the damp and mold. Almost forgetting to breathe, she crossed the tiled floor and opened the drawing room door. Here, the bits of furniture her mother had not sold out from under her had grown more faded under the strong effects of sun through the curtainless windows. For the first time her spirits drooped at the visible price of neglect. Time was growing short. The house could not stand inattention much longer and be restored to its former state.

One by one, Esmie moved through the familiar rooms, as if by stepping foot in each of them she could assure herself they still waited for her to make this her permanent home. Drawing room, morning room, dining room—all lay empty, the plaster moldings and mantelpieces covered in dust. Upstairs, the six bedrooms remained undisturbed except for the scratching of mice within the walls.

Esmie leaned against a doorframe and allowed herself to indulge her fancy. She pictured the bedchambers filled with serious young students who would sleep soundly after a day of vigorous study. The drawing room would serve as a schoolroom. In the evenings, in the oak-paneled dining room, they would eat their simple fare, for that would be all she could afford. But someday. She had heard tales of the sumptuous dinners served in the halls of the

Oxford colleges. One day her students, too, would feast on beef and turtle soup with as much enthusiasm as they feasted on Greek, Latin, and logic.

She trailed her fingers along the rickety banister as she returned to the ground floor. At the rear of the house, the medieval kitchen showed the worst signs of neglect, but beyond the door, the overgrown foxgloves still bloomed, and a few hardy asparagus pushed up through the tangle of the kitchen garden. Esmie stepped outside into the little haven before her and walked to the quince tree that grew in the corner beside the dissolute stone wall. Honeysuckle spilled over the top, filling the air with thick perfume. In the quince tree, the buds of the hard fruit hung thick on the branches. By fall, there would be a good harvest and a great quantity of jelly to be made.

Anxiety clogged her throat. Would she be here in the autumn to collect the fruit? To establish a credible school, two things were necessary: money and a reputation as a scholar. Unfortunately, she had neither, but she did have a plan to procure both. Then the young women in her mind's eye would no longer be figments of her imagination but flesh and blood students, books in hand, ink stained and hardworking and happy. She, Esmie Fortune, would be headmistress of a school for girls, but not a frivolous seminary that eschewed the mind and taught only drawing, dancing, and the pianoforte. No, in her school, there would not be an embroidery hoop to be found. The netting of purses would be banned, and no bonnets would be retrimmed. Instead, Homer, Ovid, and Plato would carry the day, and her students would be as proficient in the classics as any young man in the kingdom.

Esmie closed her eyes. No small wonder she'd never dared to mention a word of her dream to anyone, just as she seldom spoke of her own knowledge of the classics and ancient languages. Social disparagement occurred with sufficient abundance in her life that she had no need to cultivate it. Only her stepfather had known, for he had been her teacher. Her quick mind had amused him, and their quiet hours in his library had meant everything to her. Esmie had basked in the novelty of his attention. Knowing her dream, he had left her this house, but as a result of her mother's expensive habits, he had been unable to leave her the necessary funds for its upkeep. Nor did he think to specify its contents as hers—an omission her mother ruthlessly exploited.

With a sigh, Esmie sank down onto the little bench carved into the wall and let the warm sun wash over her. A breeze stirred the honeysuckle. A plaintive mewing caused Esmie to open her eyes. Not two feet from her, a stray cat emerged through a fissure in the wall. With its torn ear and mangy fur, the animal looked as piteous as the house. Esmie felt an instant affinity with the creature.

"Good day, cat,” she called, pleased to have a bit of company more congenial than the earl's coachman.

The cat jumped at the sound of her voice, but didn't bolt. Instead, it strolled towards her and paused to sniff the hem of her skirt. Esmie reached out to stroke the patchy fur and the prominent ribs. The cat meowed again, hungrily.

"I'm afraid the cupboard here is bare.” However, she'd left the remains of her luncheon from the inn at Reading wrapped in a napkin in the carriage. Perhaps that would suffice. "No cook here to slip you the odd bit, hmm?” She reached down and scratched the cat behind its ears. The creature emitted a loud purr of satisfaction.

"Like that, do you?” She could hardly leave the animal here to starve. Surely the Earl of Ashforth's stables could use another mouser. "Come along, and I'll feed you.” She scooped the cat up in her arms.

With a last fond glance at the garden, she made her way through the house. Reluctantly, she locked the front door and returned the key to her reticule. John Coachman lurked by the carriage, scowling.

"'Twas more than five minutes,” he growled. Esmie turned a deaf ear and instead waited for him to assist her into the carriage. The coachman frowned and made no move to open the door. "No cat, miss. Absolutely not.”

"I only thought to give him a bite to eat.”

"No cats in the earl's carriage.” He opened the door but made no move to hand her in.

"Why ever not?”

"Because the earl wishes it.”

And the Earl of Ashforth, that paragon of perfection, was always granted whatever he wished. Esmie had little doubt of that.

The horses stirred forward several paces. When the coachman moved to reassure his team, Esmie seized the opportunity to climb into the carriage, cat and all. She stuffed the poor animal into her bandbox, where it might easily find the bread and cheese. The cat cried out, but then, discovering the food, fell silent.

The coachman returned and looked suspiciously into the carriage, searching for the cat. Esmie pasted an innocent look on her features; seeing no sign of the contraband, the coachman growled, spun on his heel, and climbed to his perch. Esmie smiled with satisfaction at thwarting the man. He had tyrannized her since he'd collected her in London and was due his comeuppance. She doubted the earl himself would exhibit half the condescension and contempt his servant displayed. Whatever the earl's feelings might be about cats, she could hardly leave the poor animal to its fate here at.... She faltered. The house's true name was Cortland Manor, but in her dreams she called it Athena Hall. Named for the goddess of wisdom, of course. The first school of its kind, or it would be, as soon as she won the prize of the Classics Society. And used the prize money to put the house to rights and hire tutors. And found students. And...

Well, first things first. Today, she must travel to Ashforth Abbey to serve as governess to the earl's children. While she was there, it should be a simple matter to discover if the paragon earl did indeed possess the Life of Corinna, a rare manuscript she needed to complete her compendium on noble Greek and Roman women. She had only two weeks before she must submit her work to the Society for its prestigious competition, and any new information about the celebrated ancient Greek poetess would only add to the importance of her scholarship. Once she submitted her work, the Society could not help but honor what she had achieved. Satisfaction filled Esmie. It had taken three years of late nights, cramped fingers, and tired, bleary eyes, but now her efforts would receive their due.

Esmie settled back into the plush squabs of the Earl of Ashforth's carriage. The earl himself, the man who had spurned her every effort at scholarship, was to be the means of her triumph, a fact that suited her sense of irony. She enjoyed a particular warmth whenever she imagined the earl's reputedly handsome face, stunned at the depth of her learning. There would be a gleam of respect in his eye, and no more of those vile, patronizing letters.

AN HOUR LATER, Ashforth Abbey appeared at the end of a much longer drive than the one that led to her little manor house. Once more, Esmie leaned out the window for a better view, and what she saw robbed her of breath.

Ashforth Abbey nestled in a bowl of green, surrounded by woodlands, lakes, and vistas in a panorama of nature too perfect not to have been sculpted by human hands. The house itself was not an abbey at all, though a priory had been pulled down to make way for the current structure. No, instead of the Gothic arches, pitched roof, and layers of dirt found on her medieval manor, golden Cotswold stone rose three stories high in plain Palladian fashion, the center pediment above the main door supported by six massive columns. She knew from her reading that each story of Ashforth Abbey bore the stamp of one of the three classical orders—Doric below, Ionic in the middle, and Corinthian at the top. An Italianate balustrade ran across the highest story from which, fittingly, busts of several Roman emperors scowled down. Esmie swallowed hard, certain they directed their displeasure entirely at her, an imperfect interloper in this carefully cultivated paradise of perfection.

The carriage rolled to a stop on the gravel drive where not a weed could be seen, and Esmie clutched her bandbox until a footman appeared. She prayed the cat would keep its peace long enough for her to smuggle him to the stables. The footman offered no greeting, but merely opened the door of the coach and handed her down.

She had never been so overwhelmed in her life, faced with the wide marble steps that led to the Abbey's massive double doors. She glanced about for some sign that her arrival had been marked, but the footman disappeared with her trunk, and no one else appeared to welcome her. In truth, the house lay oddly quiet.

Esmie mounted the steps as if approaching a holy shrine. An ominous teakwood door stood partially open. Heart aquiver in her breast, she gave it a gentle push and slipped inside.

To her surprise, the great hall was as empty as the yard. She steeled her jaw to prevent it from going slack with wonder at the majestic proportions of the room. Overcome, she twirled on her heel as she took in the massive medieval tapestry, the burnished, oak-paneled walls, and the vast fireplace. She crossed the parquet floor, her steps echoing up to the elegant fan vaults of the ceiling. She had seen cathedrals that paled in comparison to this.

For several long moments she lingered awkwardly in the midst of the hall, but still no one appeared. A door at the far end of the room opened onto a corridor lined with French windows that overlooked a central courtyard. And there, at last, Esmie saw servants—in fact, she saw a great many servants, all clustered in the middle of the courtyard and looking towards heaven as if they expected a god to descend from Mount Olympus. Esmie's discomfort faded, and she moved forward, intrigued by the curious sight.

One of the French windows had been left ajar, and so Esmie slipped through it and onto the neatly manicured path that wound its way through the courtyard. She looked up, curious to see what so captivated everyone—and gasped in horror when she saw a girl of five or so perched on the flat edge of the roof high above. Her little half-boots slapped against the warm stone as she contemplated the anxious knot of people below.

"Lady Caroline,” a man's voice cajoled. "Pray come down, Lady Caroline.”

The little girl pouted, not just with her lips but with her slumped shoulders and tangled blond curls as well. "No.”

The staff groaned in one accord, and Esmie, her panic receding, guessed it was not the first time Lady Caroline had taken up this perch. She wondered where the other children could be, for the employment agent had particularly stressed the earl had five very difficult offspring. No doubt the other children were accustomed to such displays and hadn't bothered to emerge for the drama. Esmie could not fault them.

An older woman, the large ring of keys dangling from her waist identifying her as the housekeeper, stepped forward from the group and raised a bony finger towards the child. "I will summon your father, my lady, if you do not come down this instant.”

Esmie rolled her eyes at the thought of the perfect earl called to such a scene. She had no doubt he would lift his quizzing glass, survey the situation through its superfluous lens, and give the child the cut direct.

A faint mewing from her bandbox inspired her. Unfastening the lid, she pulled out the mangy cat and lifted it against her shoulder, cradling it as a mother would an infant. The cat hissed in protest, and its sharp claws dug into Esmie's traveling gown, but the ham-handed weaving of the garment protected her.

"Meow!” the cat protested loudly.

"Cat!” shrieked the little girl, and Esmie looked up to see a whirl of skirts as Lady Caroline scrambled back from the edge of the roof. "Cat!” the child trilled in delight, and then disappeared from sight.

"Cat!” screeched the housekeeper as she hurried towards Esmie, her eyes wide with horror, and her keys jangling with each step.

"Cat!” screamed the girl a moment later when she reappeared. She ran headlong through the open French window and skidded to a stop in front of Esmie. The little girl glowed with triumph. "My cat!”

Esmie stroked the cat. "Do you like him?” Gaining the upper hand with this one would require only the liberal application of a bundle of questionable fur.

"No cats. Absolutely no cats.” The housekeeper jangled to a stop in front of Esmie, her thin cheeks pinched and hollow. "The creature must be gotten rid of. Immediately!”

Lady Caroline shrieked in protest.

"Gotten rid of?” Esmie rounded her mouth into a little O of shock. She would not surrender such an advantage to her new charge so easily. "Not my precious... my precious...” She'd have to invent a name. Surely the cat wouldn't know the difference. "Not my precious... Plutarch!”

"Plutarch!” This exclamation came from a new quarter. Esmie turned to see a dark-haired boy of about twelve striding across the courtyard. He was perfectly turned out in coat and cravat. No doubt this was the paragon earl's heir.

The boy curled his lip in a most unattractive fashion as he regarded the cat. "Only a woman would so debase the name of a great historian. And that is the most worthless beast I've ever seen.”

Esmie tried to summon the appropriate indignation, but it proved difficult when she quite agreed with the unpleasant boy.

"Plutarch, like his namesake, has qualities of which the majority of the world remains unaware.” Esmie sniffed and met the boy's contemptuous gaze. So he fancied himself a scholar of the classics? He would find her a worthy opponent, and her intuition told her that was exactly what he sought.

"What would you know of Plutarch?” the boy sneered. "If you have read him at all, I would wager 'twas only in translation.”

Esmie bristled at the affront to her intelligence. "Dryden's translation is quite fine and will, I wager, be the definitive one for many years to come.”

"Hah!” The boy's dark eyes gleamed with triumph. "Then you have not read him in the Greek? But, of course, you are only a female.

Even the five-year-old hellion understood her brother's insult to womankind. Lady Caroline darted forward and kicked him in the shin. The boy jumped back, yowling in pain; the sound so scared the cat that it leapt from Esmie's arms and darted into the house through the open French window.

"Cat!” shrieked the housekeeper.

"My cat!” shrieked Lady Caroline, and took to her heels after the beast. The tangle of servants moved as one, streaming into the house after the little girl. Even the boy followed, keen to witness what would be a prodigious chase. In the pandemonium, Esmie didn't notice the Earl of Ashforth enter the courtyard until he spoke.

"Who in the name of Jupiter are you?”

Esmie whirled. Her heart leapt to her throat, and pure physical attraction crashed over her as if the very stones of the house had tumbled in. For there he stood, as perfect, as proud, and as distressingly handsome as she'd expected.

He stood tall, of course, but not too tall. His dark, wavy hair might have belonged to the very Brutus of antiquity, from whom its arrangement derived its name. His nose, likewise, reflected the shape one might find embossed upon an ancient Roman coin. The only parts of his appearance that prevented him from being taken for a Caesar were the well-tailored coat of Bath superfine, buff-colored pantaloons, and shiny top boots that glistened like mahogany in the sunlight. His high, starched shirt points remained crisp despite the warm June sun.

Now her charade must begin in earnest. Never in her life had she been more aware of her physical imperfections. She could all but feel every frizzy curl, every lack of feminine curve, every irregularity of her features. Esmie swallowed the lump in her throat, straightened her spine, and looked the earl in the eye. "I am the new governess, my lord.”

Chapter Two

JULIAN ARMSTONG, Lord Ashforth, stifled a groan. Governess, indeed! But who else could such a creature be? He raised his quizzing glass and surveyed her more closely. Skin and bones, flyaway hair the color of a dormouse, a sour expression upon her pinched features. Her one redeeming quality lay in a pair of fine gray eyes.

"So? Who in the name of the gods are you?” The harsh repetition of his question didn't cow the chit. Her chin rose, but fell just short of actual defiance. He was accustomed to servants quaking under his regard, but this upstart of a girl showed no sign of knocking knees or a trembling lower lip.

She smiled with forced pleasantness. "I believe you demanded to know who I was in the name of Jupiter. Perhaps, my lord, you should determine which deity you mean to invoke, and do so consistently.”

Her manner ensured he could only stare at her in return. To make matters worse, the girl stared right back with her clear, gray eyes until he dropped his gaze. He! The Earl of Ashforth! It was not to be borne. But bear it he must, for he had no choice. He must have a governess.

"Mrs. Hazelwood says you come well recommended, ma'am.”

"You are known for your standard of perfection, my lord. I will not disappoint.” The girl's plain speaking startled him. The earl lifted one dark eyebrow, and she appeared uneasy for a moment at her boldness. She must be fully acquainted with his children's reputation, or perhaps Mrs. Hazelwood had forced her into coming. But the girl would not escape so easily. Someone must take the children in hand, for they held the power to ruin the delicate negotiations ahead. The Earl of Ashforth was to acquire a new countess—one whose dowry would keep this temple of perfection standing for another generation. He had no intention of allowing this poor excuse for a governess—or his gaggle of children—to keep him from his duty.

He dropped his quizzing glass, and it swung harmlessly from its ribbon. "You are called by what name?”

She blushed. "Miss Fortune, my lord. Miss Esmerelda Fortune.”

The earl prevented himself from rubbing his temples with thumb and forefinger. His fingers closed around his quizzing glass instead, but his reply, which he did not mean to speak aloud, slipped from his lips. "How appropriate.”

Her blush faded, and something like hurt crept into her eyes. The girl straightened her spine and looked him in the eye. "I will not relinquish my cat, my lord.”

Ah, so she had introduced the creature into his household. "Miss Fortune—” He paused to swallow an ironic laugh. "I shall make you a bargain.” Indeed he would, for he excelled at bargains. Heaven knew he had made enough of them with his late wife. He cleared his throat. "Since Christmas, no governess has managed to retain this post for more than two months. If you can manage to outlast that mark—let us say three months?—I shall reward you quite handsomely. One thousand pounds for each month of service.” A veritable fortune, enough to ensure the problematic Miss Fortune's independence, but it would be money well spent. Within that space of time, the marriage contract would be drawn up and his new bride wedded and bedded. Then the new countess could attend to the problem of keeping a governess.

Miss Fortune, it seemed, was his last hope. How fitting. "Do you agree to my terms?”

"Oh, yes.” The triumphant light that shone in her eyes fed a niggle of doubt, but he ignored the feeling, just as he ignored most of his feelings.

"Your duties begin immediately. You may start by locating your cat. I have a particular abhorrence for cats, and if I find him first, I will have him drowned in the river.” He never would, of course, but she couldn't know that. To own the truth, he rather liked cats, with their imperious natures, but they must be admired from a distance. Their dander caused him to gasp and hack in a most undignified manner.

The governess looked at him to verify the truth of his words, and he refused to move so much as an eyelash. An undercurrent of rebellion flowed through his newest employee, but he should have no trouble keeping it in check. After all, he was master here, and the more quickly she could be brought to heel, the easier the next three months would be for both of them. Three thousand pounds should buy him the docility of a saint.

"Agreed, then, my lord.” Without another word, the girl spun on her heel and returned to the house, leaving him to wonder whether he'd just made a good bargain for himself... or sold his soul to a gaunt, gray-eyed chit who might very well prove to be more than she seemed.

Well, little could be done now. In for a penny, in for a pound—or three thousand pounds, in this instance. He turned on his own heel and crossed the courtyard to enter the house by another door, intent on placing himself as far from the cat, his children, and Miss Fortune as he possibly could.

ESMIE'S SHOULDERS slumped with relief as she wandered a long hallway lined with grim portraits of the Earl of Ashforth's ancestors. Her knees quaked beneath her traveling costume as she bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling. She had spoken with the perfect earl and had held her own. Her name had meant nothing to him, of course, and he had not connected her with the scholarly essays he so easily repudiated. But she had stood before him, near enough to reach out and lay a hand upon his sleeve, and though he found her sorely lacking, she could no more have prevented her heart pounding in her chest than she could have burned her copy of The Aeneid. He was arrogant and proud and far above her touch, but her body had leapt to life in his presence.

Esmie sighed and sat down on the bottom step of the nearest staircase. How odd to be attracted to a man she despised. Better not to think of it. Best to go about her duties and ignore the earl. She would not be one of those ridiculous women who fell prey to attraction any more than she would paint a pair of table screens or net a purse.

Almost as shocking as her response to him had been his offer. Three thousand pounds. Once she won the prize and her identity was revealed, he would not want her to remain at Ashforth Abbey, but honor would dictate he meet the terms of their agreement if he dismissed her. Three thousand pounds would do a great deal of good at Athena Hall. She would think of the money and of the rare manuscript somewhere beneath this magnificent roof and not give another moment of her thoughts to the earl.

The long corridor beneath her feet boasted an expensive carpet, in stark contrast to her worn half-boots that rested against it. So far she had seen no sign of the cat, and she had lost her way as well. And then she saw herself in the tall mirror that hung opposite where she sat. If she were more inclined to weep, the sight would be enough to induce sorrow. Not loud, obvious weeping, but slow, silent tears. She tried to look at her reflection dispassionately, to see herself as the earl had just seen her. It was not an encouraging exercise. Why, oh why, couldn't she possess even one small claim to beauty, so men would look at her with respect instead of contempt? A jabbing pain knotted her midsection.

She would never be lovely, she knew that. She turned her head first one way, then the other, exposing the sharp line of her jaw. At her best, with the help of her mother's maid during the London season, she had been only presentable. She was too thin and had no bosom to speak of. Indeed, she resembled the sharp edge of a knife and was about as comely as one.

A few tears did make their way to her eyes then and down her cheeks, where they fell and dotted the dark cloth of her cheap traveling costume. There, lost in the long hallways of Ashforth Abbey, disturbed to the depth of her soul by the earl's disapprobation, the despair she held at bay with Homer and Aristophanes and Virgil escaped its containment. It had all been too much. The coachman. The cat. The earl. The prospect of managing five unruly children, finding the Corinna, and the urgency of completing her own scholarship as well. Esmie laid her head against the banister and indulged her lower nature.

"Sh! She's crying, you oaf. Don't disturb her.”

The childish voice pulled Esmie from her dismals, and she looked up to find two pair of bright blue eyes regarding her with curiosity. The eyes belonged to a boy and a girl of about eight years old, the two faces mirror images beneath their identical shocks of bright red hair.

The boy reached into his pocket, pulled out a dirt-streaked handkerchief, and thrust it at Esmie. "Here, miss.”

Esmie looked at the handkerchief and then at the boy.

"Take it,” the boy insisted. "I have others.” He tucked the handkerchief into her hand. Esmie regarded the crumpled square of linen dubiously.

The little girl wrinkled her nose, and the freckles that dusted it danced. "Now, miss, don't take on. We're not such a bad lot. If we like you, we can be quite helpful. 'Twas only that we didn't care for the way we were treated before.”

"Before?” Esmie echoed, confused.

"By the last three governesses,” the child answered patiently, as if she were the adult and Esmie her charge.

Esmie sat up and started to wipe her eyes with the disreputable handkerchief before she caught herself and dropped her hands to her lap. "And you are?”

"Phillip and Phoebe, miss,” they answered in unison.

Twins, of course. She hadn't known there were twins. "Well, Phillip and Phoebe, I am Miss Fortune.”

"Sorry?” The boy looked puzzled and stuck a finger in his ear, as if to clear it.

"You heard correctly. I am Miss Esmerelda Fortune, and given my rather unfortunate surname, I give you leave to call me Miss Esmie.”

The twins' indistinguishable looks of astonishment were a wonder of nature. Amazing that despite the difference in their gender, two individuals could appear so similar.

"Call you Miss Esmie? Really?” Phillip looked both appalled and intrigued at the suggested liberty. And then, after a moment's hesitation, "The earl won't like it.”

The earl? His children referred to him as "the earl”?

"His lordship will no doubt agree that given the harsh realities of my name, Miss Esmie is best for all concerned.”

The twins looked skeptical.

Esmie rose from the steps. The moment for self-pity had passed, and as she had learned so many times before, she must play the hand she'd been dealt.

"Have you by any chance seen my cat?” she asked the twins, and both their heads snapped up.

"Cat?” they repeated with enthusiastic, questioning smiles.

"Yes, my cat. Plutarch. He's run off, and I've been searching for him. Perhaps you might assist me?”

"Cat!” they shrieked as one, and with a sharp whirl, they raced off down the hall as they screamed with delight. "Cat!”

Esmie watched them flee in search of the misbegotten creature as she clutched the filthy, if kindly meant, handkerchief. Her heart still ached, but perhaps not quite so much as before.

IN THE GREAT HALL, Esmie found the housekeeper, whose keys still jingled with each step as she paced before the empty fireplace. The older woman's head snapped 'round, and her fierce dark eyes fixed on Esmie.

"There you are. Have you not found that godforsaken creature?”

Esmie bristled. "No. But he will emerge presently, when his stomach begins to growl. I expect you'd best warn the cook to be on the lookout in the kitchens.”

The housekeeper sniffed. "Warn that Frenchman? I think not. The man screams like a fishwife if I so much as step foot in his domain. No, I will let him discover the intruder for himself. Perhaps he will put him in a fricassee.”

Esmie decided that the wisest course was to hold her tongue. The housekeeper recovered herself and fixed her eyes upon Esmie once more.

"I will show you to your room in the nursery. You must be within easy reach of the children.”

Esmie stifled a groan. She would much rather be at the opposite end of the house. The manuscript likely lay somewhere nearer to the earl's apartments than in the vicinity of the nursery.

"I'm sure it will suit me very well,” Esmie lied.

She followed the housekeeper up several flights of steps and down three hallways—none of which looked familiar, even after her ramble through the house in search of the cat. Belatedly, she wished she'd saved the breadcrumbs she'd fed to the beast. She could have used a trail to follow when it came time to reverse her course.

The suite of rooms designated for the nursery was situated on the top floor, overlooking the courtyard. It must be from here that little Lady Caroline had found her way to the roof. The open doorway led into a large schoolroom that contained several low tables and chairs, as well as a prodigious amount of charts, maps, and precious, wonderful books. The sight of such riches helped restore some of Esmie's sangfroid. An abacus and a large atlas lay on the window seat. Strangely, Esmie saw no toys. Perhaps the children kept them in their bedchambers, which the housekeeper indicated opened off the schoolroom. The portly woman paused at the last door and opened it as she motioned for Esmie to enter.

"This will be yours.”

Spartan would have been too kind a word for the little cell the housekeeper revealed. A narrow bed. A small table with a basin and pitcher. A lantern. Some pegs along the wall. But no chair, no wardrobe, no concession to comfort could be found anywhere, certainly not a small fireplace or even a brazier. The low ceiling slanted towards a window so tiny even sunshine was denied entrance to the room.

Her trunk had been tucked into a corner. The housekeeper gestured towards it. "You'll want to unpack. The children have their tea at five o'clock. You will supervise them.”

Supervise? Tea? Why should five children need any help consuming their share of toast and jam?

The housekeeper waved a dismissive hand. "I shall leave you to unpack.”

The woman departed in a swish of bombazine. With a sigh, Esmie lowered herself to the floor beside her trunk and fished the key from her reticule. She opened the lid and removed the meager contents. Two serviceable brown day dresses and a morose gray sarcenet, should she ever be called downstairs in the evening. "The requisite gowns for a governess,” her mother had said as she removed Esmie's other clothing from the wardrobe. The prettier dresses that had seen Esmie through two London seasons, modest as they were, had been sold to help shore up the household ledger. Esmie's throat tightened at the thought of the small amount of muslin and satin that had once been hers.

No point, however, in regrets. Esmie hung her gowns and pelisse on the pegs and placed her comb and hairbrush beside the basin. There was no place for her books, so she left them in the trunk and lowered the lid.

A noise from the doorway startled her, and she turned to see a girl of ten or so standing there. She had dark hair and eyes and a smooth, olive complexion.

"Hello,” Esmie offered. Something about the tight set of the girl's lips made her wary.

"You should return those things to your trunk.” The girl said the words in a matter of fact tone that belied their rudeness. "You're not wanted.”

Esmie rose to her feet. "Your father thinks I am needed.”

The girl leaned against the doorframe and rolled her eyes. "No one here wants you.”

Esmie had not expected open hostility, but perhaps such feelings reflected the rapid succession of governesses the children had experienced. Or perhaps it was the other way around, and the hostility was the reason for the quick departure of Esmie's predecessors.

"Since I am in the earl's employ, not yours, I believe I shall let his wishes be my guide.”

With a snort, the girl rolled her eyes. "Is it just the money, then? I shall pay you to go away.”

"Pay me?” The chit's boldness astonished her. "I see. What sum of money would you be offering, then?”

"Five pounds.”

Esmie almost laughed. "Yes, well, while that is an interesting proposition, I am in your father's employ.”

"He's not my father!” The girl's cheeks reddened. "Don't say that again!”

Esmie frowned. Perhaps this girl was a poor relation. The thought roused a fair measure of sympathy in Esmie's breast. "I'm sorry. I thought you were one of the earl's children.”

The girl's lower lip quivered before she bit down on it, hard. Esmie winced in sympathy.

"I have no father.” The girl's eyes glittered. "I'm an orphan.” At that moment, the older boy, the heir who had insulted Esmie's intelligence, appeared in the doorway.

"Sophie!” the boy scolded. "The earl warned you not to spread such Banbury tales.” He looked at Esmie. "Ignore her, miss. This is my sister, Sophia, and the Earl of Ashforth is indeed her father, just as he is mine.” He bowed formally, apparently all the apology she would receive for his earlier rudeness. "I am Viscount Stanleigh.”

The girl's face fell, and she stomped her foot. "He's not my father, James. He's not!” She whirled and raced past him through the schoolroom.

Esmie was too disconcerted to offer any comment. The young Viscount Stanleigh dismissed his sister with an imperious wave of the hand he no doubt copied from the earl.

"Pay no attention to Sophie's flights of fancy. She is just being disagreeable.” He paused, his eyes troubled. "The twins say you have given them leave to call you Miss Esmie.”

Esmie nodded.

The boy looked as grave as if he attended a funeral service. "My sympathies, miss, on your unfortunate...” He blushed. "On your name.” With that, he turned on his heel and left Esmie standing in the middle of her barren chamber, fully aware why the last three governesses had fled. She, however, could not afford the luxury of a hasty departure. Jaw set, she followed the boy into the schoolroom to supervise the tea and cakes that would soon arrive.

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