About the book
He is her reason for existence. She is his ultimate risk...
After losing both her parents, Teresa Dowels' future seems uncertain. Forced to leave the house she grew up in, she finds employment as a governess at the Duke of Rowfex’s mysterious manor.
Luke Morton, second son of the Duke of Rowfex, is trying to preserve a well-hidden family secret. But life as he knows it changes the day he saves his younger sibling’s ravishing governess from rape.
However, it is only a matter of time before the attacker, a notorious criminal with an ulterior motive, strikes again...
When Luke disappears, all pieces seem to connect. With Teresa discovering the ugly truth about his family, time is against her. And only a miracle can keep them both alive...
A stormy gray sky loomed overhead as the carriage trundled along the country roads, the wheels bouncing over every stone and rut. Miss Teresa Dowels clung on for dear life, her heart lurching with every jolt, splintering her already fractured nerves.
The coach had arrived earlier that morning, in the wilds of Cumbria, and was set to deliver her to her new life at the Rowfex Estate. Having never been more than a few miles out of her home town of Holmleigh Thatch, this was already proving to be a rather tremulous adventure. She longed to turn back, and retreat to the place she had known all her life, but she knew she could not. There was nothing there for her now.
I must be strong.
At two-and-twenty, it seemed foolish that she should call herself an orphan, and yet the title remained. The word echoed in her heart, hollow and painful.
This is for the best. If she had remained in Holmleigh Thatch, she would have been destined for a life of spinsterhood, isolated in the cottage she loved so dearly. Either that, or she would have become the wife of some farmer or other.
She had wanted more from life, and this opportunity was to be her way out of the banality of her former existence. She could not balk now, no matter how scared she was. The position of governess to a wealthy family was not one to turn away from, and what hope did she have to use her education, back in the little village she had come from?
She wished she might have one familiar face to look upon when she reached her new home, but that was not to be. Her dear friend, Rachel, who had been the very person to acquire this position for her, was the departing governess. Married now, with a child due very soon, she would be gone before Teresa arrived. She had decided to move back to Cumbria, to be with her family, while her husband was away in France, fighting in the war. Teresa could not blame her. Family was so very important.
She swallowed her nerves as the carriage continued to bounce along the road, sending a sharp pain through her spine as they hit a particularly brutal rut.
The first spots of rain began to spit against the windows of the coach as Teresa tried to settle. Alone in the carriage, she wished she might have had some company, to keep her calm. It was unusual to travel alone, but her future employer had sent the carriage without a chaperone to accompany her, so she supposed it was acceptable, this once.
They had been traveling for hours already, and she did not know when she might reach the distant horizon of her new life. It only gave her mind free rein to wander as it pleased, conjuring up a thousand fears.
What if they do not care for me? What if they send me away?
That was infinitely more worrying than leaving her village, for she would have to return in shame and disappointment. I will not give them such an opportunity. I will prove myself and make myself invaluable to the family. She knew very little of the Rowfex family, but Rachel had informed her, via correspondence, that they were well-respected amongst the upper echelons of society.
Once she reached the estate, she would be responsible for the three youngest children. There were six of them, in total, by all accounts, but the eldest three were of an age where they no longer required the attention of a governess. Three children is a manageable number.
She had assisted in the village school on several occasions, and taught from her own home, and those young ones had been much less well-behaved than the Rowfex children were likely to be.
All will be well. All will be well. She repeated the mantra until she started to believe it.
Suddenly, thunder growled in the distance, sending a shiver of terror through her body. She counted quietly, to try and sense how far away the ensuing lightning would be. Her slender hands trembled on the squabs, her sweet voice humming softly to try and stay her anxiety. She turned her gaze out towards the countryside beyond, the autumn sun beginning its descent into night. It would soon be dark, and she did not know what terrors the gloom might bring, in this strange new world.
With every roar of thunder, she jumped violently. Being the only coach upon the road, and the only carriage she had seen in a long while, she felt woefully exposed. And, with the driver sitting upon his box, she could not even look to him for comfort. Never had she felt more alone.
A few minutes later, lightning split the atmosphere, sparking through the bruised clouds and shivering down to the ground in a crackling fork. She reeled back from the window, pressing herself up against the backboard, wanting to hide from the blinding light. Nature’s destructive impulse in all its terrifying glory. She hoped the carriage would be able to outrun it, especially in their vulnerable position upon the open road.
Trees swayed in the near distance as the wind whipped up, howling past the windows, a draught creeping in through the narrow gaps in the door and window.
Let the lightning strike those boughs instead. Please, I beg of you.
She did not know whom she was praying to, though she hoped that the Lord above might be listening to her pleas.
Suddenly, the carriage skidded to an abrupt halt, catapulting her towards the opposite side of the interior. She hit the floor with a thud, scrambling to regain her purchase. Beyond the door, she heard the horses whinnying in fright. Something was wrong, but she could not see the front of the coach to decipher what.
Her whole body was shaking as she dragged herself back across the carriage, to sit back down on the squabs. Surely, they had simply hit a treacherous ditch, and would soon be on their way? She decided to remain where she was, and let the driver contend with the problem. After all, she would only get in his way.
No sooner had she made the decision to stay put than she heard the sound of strange voices—deep and masculine. Her eyes widened in panic. They sounded brusque and abrasive, muffled by the stormy winds that tore around the carriage. And the horses were whinnying far louder now, their worried snorts striking fear into her heart.
Should I investigate? Truly, she did not know.
She ducked back into the darkness of the carriage as a shadow loomed across the window. Glimpsing a figure, she almost screamed. It was a tall gentleman with fabric wrapped around the lower half of his face, a hat cocked atop his head, shrouding his features. She clamped her hands across her mouth as the door handle turned, and the door itself was wrenched open, letting in the elements. Only, that wasn’t what scared her. It was the barrel of the flintlock pistol, pointed at her face.
“You,” the disguised gentleman growled. “Give me your money and your valuables. All of it, now!”
Tears sprang to her eyes, as she sat there, utterly petrified, unable to speak.
“Are you mute?” the gentleman barked. “Your money, now!”
“I… I do not have any, Sir,” she whispered, barely able to breathe, much less speak.
“Nonsense. This is a Rowfex carriage. I would know the crest anywhere,” he snarled. “You must be one of their daughters, so do not try to fool me. Your money and your valuables, or I will take your life as payment. Perhaps I will take more, if I so please.”
She shook her head frantically. “Please, I have nothing. I… I am the governess. I do not have anything to give you. Please, I beg of you.”
His eyes narrowed. “What about that necklace?”
Her hands shot to the pendant at her throat, covering it as though that would somehow divert his attention away from it. It was her sole, treasured possession in this world—a gift from her mother, which had been passed down from her mother, and so on, throughout the female line of their family.
“It is worth nothing to you,” she said, her voice catching in her throat.
“I will be the judge of that.” He spoke very well for a common highwayman, but that did not make him any more amenable to Teresa. She gripped the pendant tight, frozen with terror. She would not give it up. She could not. It was all she had left of her mother.
“Please, Sir. It is all I have,” she begged.
“It is a small price to pay for your life, is it not?” he replied. She could tell he was smirking beneath the black handkerchief that covered his mouth. It would have angered her, but she was too terrified to feel anything.
He will kill me. I will die here if I do not give this to him. And yet, she could not bring herself to do it.
“It was my mother’s. It is all I have of her.” Tears trickled down Teresa’s face, as she sought to find some empathy in this man. “Please, do not take it. Please.”
“But I want it. Would you deny me what I want?”
“Please…” The word came out on a strained breath, her lungs empty.
He lunged forwards before she could attempt to defend herself, snatching for the necklace about her throat. His gloved fingertips scraped across her chest, tugging hard at the pendant. She thrashed against him, but there was nothing she could do. He was determined to have what belonged to her.
She was certain she could hear her own heart breaking as the chain snapped, the pendant falling away in his hand as he tore it away from her. Spurred on by sudden impulse, she dove forwards and grappled with the fellow, trying to wrest the necklace back, the two of them falling out of the carriage and onto the sodden ground beyond.
Pummeling him with her fists, she struggled in vain to retrieve her precious possession, but his fingers remained gripped around it like a vise, unyielding.
“Smith!” the gentleman yelled. “Smith!”
She tried to cover his mouth, but it was too late. Another figure appeared around the side of the coach. Teresa’s eyes darted toward a body on the wet road, blood mingling with the rainwater. The driver… She did not know what these brutes had done to him, but he did not appear to be moving, which meant she was in far more danger than she realized.
The figure, who appeared to be the man named Smith, hurried to aid his accomplice, grasping Teresa by the shoulders and flinging her away from him. She crashed into the exterior of the carriage, smacking her head against the wood with a hard thump that ricocheted through her. Dizziness swam through her skull as she struggled to get to her feet, knowing that her only choice was to run.
Before they could grasp at her with their disgraceful hands, she sprinted for the open fields beyond, the world around her rumbling with thunder, as lightning flickered through the clouds, striking the ground with a deafening crack. Grabbing the cotton skirts of her forget-me-not blue gown, she ran for her life, the squelching mud and slithering weeds trying to claw at her ankles with every step she took.
She had barely managed to run twenty yards when she felt something barrel into her, knocking her into the dirt, face first. She did not need to look to know it was one of the highwaymen. She could feel his hot breath on her neck as his weight crushed her into the mud, stealing the ragged air from her lungs.
“You cannot run from me, Miss.” He chuckled darkly. “Perhaps you need to be taught obedience. I can think of a few lessons that might bring you to heel.”
She panicked as she felt his hand slide down her back and across her thighs, tugging up the edges of her skirts. “No!” she screamed, as she thrashed with all her might, desperate to get away from this callous wretch.
“Smith!” the man yelled. A moment later, she saw the other gentleman appear, similarly disguised in black clothing, with a handkerchief wrapped around the lower half of his face.
“Yes, Boss?” he replied.
“Hold her down.”
Teresa screamed louder, fighting him with everything she had. She would not allow herself to be dishonored.
“What?” Smith sounded dubious.
“Hold her down!” the other man bellowed.
“Are you sure, Boss?”
“Do it, or you will be the one to suffer the consequences,” the other man shot back, venom dripping from his words. Meanwhile, Teresa howled and kicked, trying to escape the weight of him upon her. Her panic reached fever pitch, as she felt Smith grasp her arms, twisting them up behind her back with such vehemence that she thought he might tear them from her very body. The pain made her grimace, but she pushed it away, kicking and squirming with all her remaining strength.
Her skirts were almost up around her waist, the fight fading from her limbs, when a sound pierced the air. At first, she thought it was another fork of lightning striking the earth. Only when the two men jumped up in terror did she realize she was mistaken. It was a musket.
A second shot rang out, hitting Smith in the shoulder. He fell backwards, only to be dragged back up by the frantic hands of his accomplice. Putting his fingers to his mouth, the devil whistled so loud it shivered right through Teresa. The ground rumbled beneath her, as two horses appeared, charging towards the sound.
A moment later, Smith and the other man leapt up into the saddles and dug in their heels, thundering as far away from the scene of their crime as possible. Even then, Teresa could not bring herself to sit up. She lacked the strength, her body shuddering violently from the fear and the cold of the water that drenched her.
Black spots danced in her field of vision as the dizziness took over. Soon, she was going to faint. She could feel it, creeping through her veins, threatening to steal away her consciousness.
He has my mother’s necklace… Despite everything, that was the only thing she could think about as she battled to keep awake.
She did not know who had frightened the two highwaymen away, nor did she care at this current moment. That wretch had stolen something more valuable than all the gold in the world. Determined, she tried to get to her feet, her knees knocking as she struggled upwards. Even though she knew it was futile, she tried to go after the highwaymen, only to collapse a moment later, hitting the ground with one conclusive thud.
Presently, she became aware of arms around her, picking her up and carrying her back to the road. Looking up at her rescuer, she saw his face illuminated in the flash of a lightning strike. Water drenched his hair, making the color impossible to decipher, but he had two shining, blue eyes that reflected the stormy landscape raging around them. His features were strong and masculine, with a hint of freckles across his nose.
“Did they hurt you?” the gentleman asked.
“They… they took my necklace,” she whimpered.
“Are you injured?”
Teresa shook her head slowly. “I… I do not believe so.”
“That is good news, indeed. It is fortunate I arrived when I did, otherwise… well, that does not matter now.” He offered a reassuring smile. “You are safe, Miss, but we must get you to a physician. You are so very cold, and your lips are turning blue.”
“You rescued me,” she murmured, holding his gaze.
He nodded. “You are safe now. But, tell me, where is it you are headed?”
“The Rowfex Estate.”
He stared at her in bemusement. “Are you certain?”
She nodded. “Yes… at least, I think I am. My mind is so clouded. I am to be the new governess to the Duke’s youngest children.”
A curious smile lifted the corners of his lips. “Is that so? And might I know your name?”
“Miss Teresa Dowels.”
“Well, Miss Dowels, my name is… you may call me Mr. Morton.” He carried her towards the largest horse Teresa had ever seen, its coat a moonlight silver, with a mane the color of white silk. “Now, it may seem somewhat uncouth, but I must ask that you ride with me the rest of the way. You cannot remain out here in the bitter weather, or you shall catch your death of cold. As for any further injuries, I will arrange for a physician, do not fear.”
She nodded uncertainly. This gentleman may have saved her life and her honor, but that did not mean she trusted him. “If you insist upon it, Sir.”
“In this instance, I must.”
With some awkwardness, Mr. Morton lifted her up onto the front of the saddle. He got up behind her and shuffled his long, dark coat from his shoulders, wrapping it around her with a gentle touch. She sank into its warmth, as he slung the strap of his musket across his chest, grabbed the reins, and led the horse towards the driver. The poor man was now sitting up in the middle of the road, his hand pressed against a wound to the side of his head.
Mr. Morton paused beside the man. “I shall send men to assist you.”
The man nodded weakly. “Gratitude, Sir.”
Setting off down the road, Teresa’s whole body stiffened. She did not like to be this close to a strange man, especially after what she had just endured. She glanced back, studying her rescuer more closely. He was a handsome man indeed, with chiseled features and a noble nose, and a sweet smile that reassured her of her safety.
Although she could not ignore that he only wore a shirt and waistcoat, as she had taken comfort in his coat. With it being so late, she hoped that nobody would see them on their journey to the Rowfex Estate. She did not want to have her reputation in tatters before she had even begun her new life. Not here. Not after what had just happened. She had almost lost her honor, and the tears began to fall as relief washed over her, the droplets hidden by the rain that spattered down.
However, he did not seem to be a man of means, though it was hard to tell when he was sodden from the storm. A nobleman would never have suggested something like this. His station cheered her slightly, reducing her embarrassment. At least they were on an even footing. At the very least, she would not have to suffer the mortification of having her new employers know what had happened.
This is for necessity, she told herself. Your employers will see that this is only for necessity, once you explain. They did not need to know that those highwaymen had almost stolen her honor, as well as her mother’s necklace. She could leave that part out and tell them only that they were accosted upon the road.
Swallowing her sense of propriety, she watched the horizon. Her head pounded viciously, a pressure pushing at the inner sides of her temples. Staring straight ahead, she gathered her thoughts, letting gratitude wash over her. Things may have taken a turn for the dangerous, but at least she was still breathing.
She just hoped those highwaymen would not seek revenge upon her, for having escaped with her life.
Luke Morton’s horse, Moonstruck, clopped to a halt outside the grand manor of the Rowfex Estate, its hooves crunching on the gravel. Soft lights glowed from the endless windows that ornamented the exterior, embedded in the elegant sandstone. He loved this house, a peace settling upon him whenever he was near it.
Home at last.
He did not know why he had pretended he was not the second son of the Duke of Rowfex, but it had seemed like the right thing to do at the time, given the poor young lady’s perturbed state. If she had realized she was within the arms of her new employer’s son, he was certain she would have fainted into a catatonia from which she could not be stirred.
You have endured much this night. I am sorry for it.
It had been fortunate indeed that he had been returning from a military exercise with the local militia, to fulfil his military duties, at the very hour in which Miss Dowels had required immediate aid. Otherwise, he might not have had the advantage of his musket, nor happened upon her at all. He did not like to think of what might have occurred if he had not passed when he had.
She lolled forward, piquing Luke’s concern for her. She’d been in a daze since they’d left the wrecked carriage, the front wheels destroyed by those despicable highwaymen, and things appeared to be getting worse. She could barely hold her head up.
He had tried to urge her to rest against his chest, but she had stubbornly kept herself forward. He could not blame her, considering what those men had tried to do to her. It was a wonder she was even allowing herself to be this close to him. Although, he could not deny how pleasant it had felt, to have a young lady’s body flush against his. It was not something he had experienced too often, though he pushed any improper thoughts away, reminding himself of what she had endured.
She will not appreciate any amorous attention.
Instead, he satisfied himself with glancing at the curve of her neck, wondering what it might be like to kiss that soft, pale skin. If only to show her that there were good gentlemen in this world, who could show her the gentle nature of ardor. And, perhaps, that would serve to chase away the demons of those brutish wretches. But not right now. If he touched her, in any soft way, he was certain she would bolt.
Drawing as close to the front of the house as he could, he jumped down and pulled her from the horse, holding her tightly in his arms as he walked up the elegant front steps of the manor. She nestled her head against his chest, making him feel like her safe haven. He liked the way her head felt against him, though he did not dwell on such thoughts. He could not.
With some difficulty, he managed to grapple with the door handle and open it, stumbling into the entrance hall. The butler stood nearby, his face turning to a mask of alarm as he witnessed the limp young lady in Luke’s arms.
“Send for the physician,” Luke instructed. “Miss Dowels is unwell. Very unwell indeed. The coachman will require assistance, also—we must send men to attend on him and bring him back here.”
Miss Dowels stirred in his grasp, looking up at him with some confusion. She was a slender, pretty creature with raven black hair and dark brown eyes, that reminded him of a doe. High on her blanched cheeks, there was a small, pink birthmark in the shape of a heart. He admired it for a moment, forgetting why he was there.
“Mr. Morton… where am I?” she croaked.
“You are at the Duke of Rowfex’s residence.” He held her tighter as he moved further into the entrance hall and set her down on a green, velvet chaise.
Her eyes held a shadow of confusion. “Have they allowed you to stay by my side?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
She shook her head. “No, they must not see me like this. They must not see me with you. They will think they worst.”
“I will explain all, Miss Dowels. Rest easy, I will see to it that all is well.”
Just then, two more figures appeared on the curved staircase that led down from the first floor. Archibald Morton, otherwise known as the Duke of Rowfex, approached Luke and Miss Dowels, a stern look on his brow. He was a tall man of broad build, with salt-and-pepper hair, who shared the same blue eyes as Luke.
Beside him stood the Duke’s firstborn, and Luke’s elder brother, Edmund. Though he stood to inherit the dukedom, he also held a title of his own—the Marquess of Harpington. At nine-and-twenty, he did not look much like his father, with a curly tangle of fair hair, his eyes a much paler shade of blue, but they were of similar height and build, and gave off the same air of confidence.
A silvered scar cut down from the apple of his cheek to the bottom of his jaw, inflicted during his time fighting on the continent. There were other wounds, too, though they were not visible. A scar beneath his hair where he had been struck by a spray of debris, and a noticeable limp that grew worse in cold weather. Although, Luke’s brother always tried to walk straight, even though it caused him further pains.
“What is the meaning of this?” the Duke asked.
“Your Grace, I pray that you do not scold Mr. Morton,” Teresa replied weakly. “He has only delivered me here as I have been in something of an accident. Forgive me, Your Grace. I had not hoped to arrive like this.”
The Duke cast Luke a curious expression. “Mr. Morton?”
“I had yet to get around to telling Miss Dowels of my position in this household,” he admitted, a little sheepishly. He had hoped to see her settled before he revealed the truth. However, with her in a rapidly decreasing state of health, he felt a twinge of guilt. She would be embarrassed upon discovering who he really was. And he loathed the idea that he might cause her further unrest.
She blinked at him. “Your position here?”
Luke grimaced. “Yes… you see, I am not Mr. Morton, I am Lord Luke Morton. I am the Duke’s second son.”
Her gaze turned cold. “You did not tell me… I would not have ridden with you, had I—” A sudden fit of coughing silenced her words, prompting Luke’s father and brother to jump into action. What little color remained in her cheeks instantly bled away, leaving a waxy blue pallor.
“I see you have not learned when it is appropriate to play your little games, Luke,” the Duke chided. “Has a physician been sent for?”
“They have, Father, and I was not intending to toy with her. I only—”
“Did she say her name was Miss Dowels?” The Duke cut him off.
Luke nodded. “Miss Teresa Dowels.”
“The new governess. Well, this is a strange occasion indeed.” The Duke reached out and lifted Teresa from the chaise in his still-mighty arms. Without another word to Luke, he carried her up the stairs and took her into one of the nearby bedchambers. Luke followed, with Edmund bringing up the rear.
“Where in heaven’s name did you find her?” Edmund nudged his brother in the ribs.
“Highwaymen attacked her carriage. I came upon them whilst I was returning from my training with the local militia,” Luke explained. “Miss Dowels was very lucky that I came along when I did, for she was close to… being harmed. I believe they stole some of her jewelry.”
“You must think yourself quite the hero.” A playfully teasing note prickled through Edmund’s voice. The sound of it irked Luke. It was part of the reason he had not told Teresa of his true identity, for he had longed to bask in a little respect before returning to a household that never treated him with much dignity. Had he told her that he was the Duke’s second son, she would not have allowed him to be chivalrous. She would have rejected his request to have her ride with him, and then where would they be?
“I did what I had to. She would not have survived, otherwise.”
“Listen to you, lauding your exploits for all to hear. No doubt you will expect a medal of some sort next?” He chuckled softly. Edmund had been a different sort of fellow since returning from the war, injured. Sometimes, Luke found him staring into the distance, his expression blank. As though haunted by something. He always rallied, however, and often liked to tease Luke for not having taken his duties as far as Spain. Indeed, it was a sore point between them.
Luke scowled at his brother. “You understand that she is to work for our family, do you not? I saved her without knowing who she was. Not that it would have changed my behavior.”
“You always did love a damsel in distress, Brother.”
“Is it so difficult for you to admit that I did something good? Or is it envy, knowing you would not have done the same in my position?”
Edmund winced. “You wound me, Brother.”
“With the truth?”
“I have been heroic in my time.”
“Have you? You almost never mention it.” Sarcasm dripped from Luke’s words.
Edmund smiled. “Must we always fight?”
“If you continue to lessen the value of my endeavors, then yes.” He gave a small laugh, knowing his brother was right. They were fond of one another, but what brothers did not have an element of competition between them?
With only two years difference in age, the two of them were perpetual rivals in most things. Whilst Edmund excelled in the intellectual arts, Luke was a far more practical gentleman. Horsemanship was where he shone, though Edmund liked to think otherwise. Luke knew that his brother only made such claims in order to annoy him, but it usually worked. Patience and restraint had never been Luke’s strongest suits.
“Well, when you actually do something heroic, I will be the first to congratulate you. As you said, it was blind luck that led you to her, although I’m sure Father is glad that you rescued her. Otherwise, he would have had to employ an entirely new governess. The children are unruly without a touch of discipline, and we would have had to endure bedlam a while longer.”
Luke gaped at his brother in horror. “How can you be so cold and unfeeling in the face of an extremely unwell young lady?” Edmund had always been masculine to a fault, never showing any unnecessary emotion. It had worsened after his return from the war. Luke wondered if there was legitimately something amiss in Edmund’s brain, though he would never have dared to say so out loud.
“You know that is not what I meant. I am glad you brought her here safely. You must not be so sensitive.” Edmund frowned, clearly perplexed by Luke’s words, as though he wondered if he was being unfeeling. “Of course I am concerned for her.”
Within the bedchamber, the Duke lay Miss Dowels down on the covers of the bed. The housekeeper, Mrs. Fields, had joined them, alongside a maid who was quick to light a fire. This would not be where she would stay, Luke was certain of that. It had simply been the most convenient room. Curious about her, he moved to the opposite side of the bed and sat down in the armchair beside it.
The Duke eyed him strangely. “You do not need to stay. She will be well cared for.”
“Nevertheless, I would like to.”
Miss Dowels’ eyelids fluttered. “I would… prefer it… if I could be… left alone.”
“You see, Son, she does not want you to stay. Your lies have evidently caused trouble, which I shall have to deal with when she is better.” The Duke sighed and sat in the opposite armchair. “I will attend to her until the physician arrives. Your mother is away with friends, otherwise I would ask her to do so in my stead. It is unseemly for so many gentlemen to be hovering around her bedside. Both of you, go. Mrs. Fields and I will attend on her.”
“But, I did not mean to—”
“I said go,” the Duke barked, leaving no room for negotiation.
Edmund stifled a laugh as he turned and left the room. Luke glanced at Miss Dowels, only to find himself met with a steely stare. He realized that what his father said was true. Miss Dowels did not appear to appreciate his untruth, though it had been well meant.
I shall make amends for it when you are feeling more like yourself, he promised.
Indeed, he wondered why he cared so much about the opinion of a strange governess whom he had never met before. I ought not to, he told himself sternly. Fixing on that resolve, he stood and followed his brother out of the room.
Together, they passed an hour in the drawing room in stony silence. Any word uttered from Edmund’s mouth was bound to lead to conflict of some sort, and so they retreated into shared solitude. A mutual agreement not to say anything, if they could not say anything nice. Besides, Luke was in no mood to be toyed with.
Hearing a movement in the hallway beyond, Luke leapt to his feet and hurried out. Doctor Partridge stood in the entrance hall, ready to receive his coat from the butler, Lewis. He had spent the last half-hour with Miss Dowels, checking on her welfare.
“How is she?” Luke asked.
Dr. Partridge turned in surprise. “Oh, My Lord, I did not see you there.” He straightened up in a rather comical fashion. “Miss Dowels will recover in due course. The cold does not appear to have affected her lungs too much, and the knock to her head is not considerable. I have prescribed rest, and a tincture to help her breathe much easier. There is no cause for alarm.”
“That is good news.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
He waved Luke’s praise away. “Think nothing of it, My Lord. It is simply my occupation. By all accounts, you were the one who rescued her. So, it ought to be you who receives thanks.”
“Nevertheless, I thank you.” The day somebody praised him for an act of heroism would be the day it began to snow in Hell. Still, he had the news he had hoped for. Miss Dowels would make a full recovery, and for that he was glad.
Now, if only he could come up with a means to punish the fellows who had done this to her. That would be a sure way of regaining her favor, though he still did not know why it bothered him so much.
I will find these highwaymen, Miss Dowels, and I will make them suffer for the pain they caused you.
A week after she had been brought to the manor, Teresa awoke to a figure sitting in the armchair beside her. The past seven days had been plagued with coughing fits and headaches, which had made even the simplest of tasks almost impossible. Even having the drapes opened had made her feel as though an explosion had gone off in front of her very eyes.
Maids had come and gone, attending to her. On several occasions, Louisa Morton, the Duchess of Rowfex, had come to visit with her, though she did not remember much of those meetings.
So it was a surprise to see the Duchess sitting there that very morning. She watched Teresa closely.
“You are awake at last,” she said, her voice kind.
“My apologies, Your Grace. Have I slept too long?”
“No, no, I merely hoped I would catch you in a state of consciousness. Every time I have come to you before, you have been drifting in and out of a feverish slumber. However, the doctor tells me that your fever has broken at last.” She smiled warmly. “Tell me, do you feel much improved?”
Teresa nodded. “Yes, Your Grace.”
“Are you able to walk?”
“I can attempt it, Your Grace.”
“Excellent, then I should very much like for you to join us at luncheon. It is a little unorthodox, but we can make an exception, this once,” the Duchess proclaimed. “The children are very eager to learn more about you, as are the rest of us. You gave us quite the fright, arriving in the manner that you did. We have all been terribly concerned about you. Now, shall I send one of the maids in to help you change?”
“That would be exceedingly generous, Your Grace.”
“Nonsense, it is the least I can do after the horrors you have endured.”
“Horrors, Your Grace?” Teresa’s eyes widened. Please say you do not know the truth.
“Being attacked by highwaymen, Miss Dowels. You must have had the fright of your life.”
Teresa breathed a small sigh of relief. “Yes, Your Grace. Of course.”
With that, the Duchess stepped out to call in one of the maids—a petite, mousey-haired young thing who trembled like a leaf. Beside the Duchess, who was tall and slender and infinitely graceful, with piercing blue eyes and a mane of curled blonde hair that had been piled high atop her head, the poor maid looked like an urchin.
Good looks seemed to run in the family, though the thought prompted Teresa to blush. Lord Luke is a Duke’s son; he is no commoner. You must not think such things. Her mindset changed instantly, as she remembered the cruel trick he had played upon her. How he could have allowed her to wander into the jaws of embarrassment like that, she did not know. Yes, very cruel indeed. Her heart began to race as she realized she was about to come face-to-face with him again.
Ten minutes later, Teresa emerged from the bedchamber in a gown of marigold cotton. The Duchess had waited for her outside the room. A smile lit up her elegant features as she laid eyes upon her new governess. Truly, it made Teresa feel less anxious, though a lingering tremor remained. She was still so very embarrassed about the manner in which she had arrived. It took every ounce of courage she had to join the Duchess in descending the stairs.
Teresa was made of far sterner stuff than this, and she had work to do. Chin up, she told herself.
Becoming the governess to a Duke was no easy feat, but she had managed it with an impeccable history of education, and her friend’s glowing reference. In acquiring employment such as this, she hoped to secure a good future for herself. It did not matter how intensely a young man had embarrassed her; she would not let anything stand in her way.
The light seemed much too bright as she stepped into the dining room, to join the rest of the Rowfex family at their luncheon. It had yet to be served, and she got the feeling they were all waiting for her. She offered a shy smile to the room, whilst expertly skimming over Lord Luke. He did not seem too perturbed. In fact, he did not even appear to have noticed that she had entered the room.
What a proud, impertinent young man.
“Ah, Miss Dowels, I trust you are feeling better?” the Duke broke the silence first, as was customary.
She curtseyed awkwardly, still unsteady from her illness. “Yes, Your Grace. Much better.”
“Then, I should like to properly introduce you to the family,” he said, gesturing around the table. “I am uncertain how much you can remember from the night you were brought here, so I shall repeat some members for your sake.”
“Thank you, Your Grace. I should like that.”
“This is my eldest son, Edmund, the Marquess of Harpington. Next to him is my second son, Lord Luke. Across the table is my eldest daughter, Lady Felicity Morton. Beside her is the Duchess, whom you have met, and then we have our three youngest—Lord Thomas, Lady Philomena Morton, and Lady Elspeth Morton. The apples of their mother’s eye.”
Two pretty, identical little girls sat on Teresa’s side of the table. They could not have been older than five, with plump, pink cheeks and porcelain skin—they reminded her of her childhood dolls. Two pairs of twinkling blue eyes looked up at her with excitement, their smiles beaming through the room towards her. Nobody could fail to feel joy in the presence of such adorable creatures. They lightened Teresa’s heart in an instant.
On the other side of the Duchess sat a sullen little boy, who was perhaps eight, with the same dark hair and dark blue eyes as Lord Luke. However, his scowl softened as he looked upon Teresa, a mischievous smile breaking across his face.
“And they are to be my charges, Your Grace?”
The Duke nodded. “I see you are as smitten as the Duchess with these tiny urchins. They enchant everyone they meet, though they are little rascals at heart.” He chuckled softly. Coming from the Duke, it was a peculiar sound. He did not seem to be the type of man who was prone to light-heartedness, though it did suit him in a way.
“Papa, we are not urchins!” Philomena argued. Teresa knew her to be Philomena, as she wore a pink bow in her dark hair that was embroidered with the letter ‘P’. Elspeth wore a yellow bow, embroidered with ‘E’. The latter seemed to be the shyer one of the duo.
The Duke smiled. “You say you are not, but look at the jam smeared all over your mouth. Has someone been stealing tarts from Cook again?”
“Thomas did it,” Philomena replied, without missing a beat.
Her brother looked at her in shock. “I did not.”
“You did. You made me eat one.”
Teresa stepped into the argument before it could escalate further. “Now, you know it is a terrible thing to tell tales, don’t you?” She sank down to their level. “Honesty will make the angels smile down on you, even if you have done a naughty thing. Honesty can be forgiven more easily than a lie.”
Philomena glanced at her in surprise. “The angels will smile on me?”
“Oh yes, My Lady, if you tell the truth always.”
The little girl pondered the sentiment for a moment, before balling her hands into fists. “Then… I ate the jam tart. I took two from Cook, and I ate one. Elspeth and Thomas wouldn’t eat one before lunch, so I ate theirs, too.”
Teresa smiled. “There, see—that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now, we can forgive you and enjoy our delicious luncheon.”
“That was easy.” Philomena grinned triumphantly, rubbing her tummy at the thought of luncheon.
“Indeed, being honest is always the easiest course of action, in any situation.” Her eyes turned, almost subconsciously, towards Lord Luke. His gazed was already fixed on hers, an amused smile turning up the corners of his lips.
“A wise lesson, Miss Dowels,” he said softly.
She dipped her head. “It is good to learn such lessons at a very early age, so that the behaviors may be carried into adulthood. If children are not taught about being truthful, then they may grow to be young ladies and gentlemen who use deceit out of habit.”
A stillness settled across the room, as she realized that all eyes were on her. She had spoken vaguely, yet everyone knew that her target was Lord Luke. She could feel their shock and amusement, bristling through the atmosphere. All of them turned their gaze on Lord Luke, eager to hear is riposte.
He simply chuckled, the sound warm and inviting. “I could not agree more, Miss Dowels. Perhaps, I may learn a lesson or two from you.”
“She is our governess, Lukey, not yours,” Philomena chimed in, making everyone laugh. The tension shattered like a stone through glass, restoring the room to its former joviality. Even Teresa felt the weight sloughed from her shoulders as she took her seat. Lord Luke nodded towards her, though she did not understand the gesture. Did I win?
“Serve the luncheon,” the Duchess instructed. The staff began to move like dancers, bringing in the first dish.
Teresa was not unfamiliar with these sorts of things, but she understood that life in this household would take some getting used to. Her own home was all she had ever known, and this place seemed strange and alien. The children’s laughter was the only thing that soothed her, letting her know that everything would be fine.
She was here to perform a function, nothing more. If she could do that, then she would secure her future. That was worth enduring anything for.
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