David Worthington, Duke of Penrose dislikes Miss Meredith Chambers, the American governess who accompanied his new wards. He especially detests his attraction to the insufferable woman, and is anxious for her replacement to arrive. Merry is thrilled when the Duchess Penrose hires her as a companion. Now she can stay with her beloved charges. But can she ignore how her heart thumps when the pompous duke gets close? Two people determined to ignore each other, despite the pull between them, and the sparks that fly whenever they're together.
Miss Meredith Chambers took a deep breath and smiled at the two little girls staring up at her with wide eyes. “Well, it appears we’re here.”
Her smiled faltered when they both grabbed her legs and hid their faces in her skirts. “What’s this?”
“I don’t want to live here,” Charlotte, the older of the sisters at eight years, wailed.
“Me neither,” Clare, the younger one at six years echoed.
Merry dropped to her knees and pulled them both close. “You are the duke’s wards. He is a very important man, your father’s best friend. You will love living here.”
Two curly, blond-haired heads shook furiously.
“Madam?” The front door of the massive house opened, and a tall, thin butler, his nose as long as the rest of him, glared down at them. “His Grace awaits you in the library.”READ MORE
Merry stood and patted her hair, which had come loose from her knot. Well, no time to fuss with it now. She took each girl’s hand in hers and made her way up the steps. The sound of the well-sprung coach that delivered them, its wheels clattering on the cobblestones, rang in her ears, the last link to their old life.
“Girls, release my hands, you’re squeezing too hard.”
They ignored her request as they made it to the top of the steps.
The butler viewed the group without expression. “This way if you please.”
Merry followed the man, still dragging her charges.
Goodness, the house was huge. The marble entrance hall was filled with delicate tables, over-stuffed Queen Anne chairs, and an immense clock, its sound almost as loud as her pounding heart.
“Madam? Do you wish assistance?”
Realizing she gaped like a ruffian from the street, she attempted to step forward, still impeded by the girls who had dug their heels in. “Ladies, you must move forward.” They clung tighter. She flashed a smile at the butler, whose countenance remained impassive, leaving her to wonder if a smile ever graced his stoic face.
Despite her best intentions, Merry twisted back and forth, amazed as she took in her surroundings. Plush carpets, silk wall coverings, priceless lamps, all reminding her of the wealth and status of the girls’ guardian. Her nose smacked into something solid as the butler came to an abrupt stop, but her body, with her two charges still dragging behind her, did not.
Lips twitching, but maintaining his austere demeanor, the butler opened a large wooden door with elaborate carvings, and sniffed before announcing, “Lady Charlotte Spencer, Lady Clare Spencer, and Miss Meredith Chambers.”
The girls moved with her, but with their heads down, staring at the floor. Breathless from her effort, she looked up into the most arresting brown eyes, with specks of gold, she’d ever seen. Above the eyes, sharp black eyebrows rose almost to the hairline of wavy black hair. Below the eyes an aristocratic nose led to sensual lips drawn into a tight line.
“Your Grace.” She puffed and attempted a clumsy curtsy.
The only sound in the room was the soft click of the door as the butler exited. Merry waited patiently to be invited to sit. Instead, the brown eyes kept staring at her, then leisurely slid their way down her person, and obviously from the additional tightening of his full sensual lips, finding her wanting.
Eventually, a long-fingered hand flicked in the direction of one of the two leather chairs in front of his desk. “You may sit.”
Merry sat abruptly, feeling like a dog panting in front of its master. The two girls ended up on her lap, still examining their shoes.
“Is there something wrong with the young ladies?” The deep voice rolled over her, setting her heart to pounding.
Merry grasped the girls’ chins and attempted to have them face their ward. Without success. She had no idea their neck muscles were so strong. “No, Your Grace. They’re merely a bit anxious.”
How was it possible to put so much disapproval into one word?
After a moment, he settled back in his chair, his fingers clutching a quill pen he tapped on the desk. “I trust you had a pleasant journey?”
With all the liquid in her mouth dried up, she merely nodded.
“I understand from my solicitors you’ve had sole charge of the girls since their parents passed away a month ago?”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Good. She was finally able to pry her mouth open.
“And you find it so difficult to control your charges that they do not sit as proper ladies?”
Heat rose to Merry’s face and anger washed through her. The arrogant arse! “They’re confused and a bit distressed. And, might I point out that there are only two chairs and we are three people.” She bent and whispered furiously to the girls. “Please move to the other chair. You can sit together. His Grace is not happy with you on my lap.”
“No.” Two voices piped up, murmuring to their knees.
She smiled slightly at the duke and shrugged. If possible his eyebrows rose further, disappearing underneath the wave that rested against his forehead.
“It appears to me, Miss Chambers, that Lady Charlotte and Lady Clare have arrived into my keeping just in time.” He pushed his chair back and stood. “I arranged for a governess to train them in proper behavior. She will instruct the girls in the skills necessary for a lady of their station.” He waved his hand. “Sewing, French, watercolors, manners, rules of Society, and so forth.”
Merry stared at him, her jaw slack. Well over six feet, David, Duke of Penrose, was a sight to behold. Every inch the lord of the manor, his coat fit him as if it had been painted on. His white-on-white waistcoat hugged his impressive body above well-fitting tan breeches tucked into shiny black Hessian boots. A snow white, intricately tied cravat stood in stark contrast to his lightly tanned skin.
His Grace slowly rounded the desk like a lion stalking its prey and rested one hip on the edge, peering down at her, his foot swinging back and forth. “I shall allow a bit of transition time for the young ladies. You may stay on for a week or two. Then I will see you receive a generous stipend to tide you over until you can secure another position.”
Two young faces looked up and shook their heads in disagreement. “No!”
Penrose studied the two tiny anxious girls in front of him. So these were the children that might have been his, had Eleanor chosen him instead of Bedford years ago. He stopped his thoughts from wandering in that direction. He’d gotten over the defection of the lovely Lady Eleanor, but found it ironic that it was he who would raise her daughters, see them presented to Society, and married. Life takes interesting twists and turns.
Miss Chambers presented a whole other issue. Although pretty in a common sort of way, with her huge blue eyes and less than tidy golden blonde hair, her inability to handle the most minor directives to his wards did not bode well. In fact, it appeared he was about to face a mutiny before he’d even had the chance to speak to the young minxes.
“So you do possess faces. And voices.”
“Girls, curtsy to His Grace.”
Studying him with suspicion, they did a quick bob, then took the chair next to Miss Chambers. The older girl studied her lap, and the younger one began to chew on her fingernail.
Penrose’s gaze shifted to Miss Chambers, who had the grace to blush.
“They’re not usually this shy, Your Grace, but it has been a difficult month for them.”
“Take your finger from your mouth.” The order, coming out a bit stronger than he’d intended, had two sets of young eyes peering at him in terror.
“Young ladies do not chew on their fingers or speak to their shoes.” He shifted his gaze to Lady Charlotte. “And girls who will one day be presented to the queen do not mumble or refuse to look in the face of the person addressing them.”
Both girls returned to staring at the floor.
Penrose sighed. “Miss Chambers.”
The woman raised her chin, eyes flashing, and regarded him. “Yes, Your Grace.”
He chose to ignore the sarcasm in her voice. “I would be remiss in my duties as guardian to allow you to continue to supervise their activities. It is clear to me you have no control over them. They do not possess even a hint of good manners, and certainly not the demeanor required of their station.” He held up his hand as she opened her mouth to speak.
“As I mentioned before, you will be permitted to remain here at Penrose Hall for a week or two until the girls are settled in. I will be more than generous, so you will be able to take time in securing a new position.” He slid off the desk, and moved to return to his chair.
“Wait just a minute, Your Grace.”
Penrose came to an abrupt stop. No one in his life had ever addressed him with such derision. And to think it came from a governess. Horror gripped him as he swung around. “You are an American!”
Miss Chambers stood. “Yes. I am an American. And you, Your Grace, are an arrogant Englishman.”
Blood rushed to his face, his heart thumping at the insolence. Then, without thought, he threw his head back and roared with laughter. This sprite of a woman−this American–had just insulted him as no other in his entire life. Used to bowing and scraping from his peers, and flirting and admiration from women, he felt as though someone had opened a window and let in fresh air. However, as amused as he was at her behavior, she would still have to go. His charges needed a good, English governess to bring them to right.
“Miss Chambers, I will overlook your outburst and attribute it to your lack of proper upbringing. Lady Charlotte and Lady Clare are in dire need of direction that you apparently have not provided. As grateful as I am that you took them under your wing when their parents died suddenly, I must insist on you leaving them into the care of the governess I have secured for them who will arrive on the morrow. Once your presence is no longer needed to secure the cooperation of my wards, you will be released.”
He walked to the far right corner of the room and pulled the bell. Miss Chambers studied him as they waited for the servant he’d summoned. Within minutes, a young nursery maid entered the room and bobbed. “Your Grace?”
“See that Lady Charlotte and Lady Clare are settled. I believe Miss Chambers has been assigned the room adjoining theirs for the time being.” His arms crossed, he looked at the woefully inadequate governess. “The young ladies will have dinner in the nursery. I will expect you to present yourself in the drawing room at precisely eight o’clock to join myself, my brother, Lord Brandon, and my mother, the Duchess of Penrose, for dinner.”
With that command, he strode from the room.
Merry took a deep breath to keep from racing after the prig and giving him a piece of her mind. Lack of proper upbringing, indeed. Duke or no duke, Penrose was arrogant, condescending, and contemptuous. He’d frightened the girls and affected a most unpleasant welcome. She glanced at them still huddled together in the large chair.
“Come, let’s get settled in the nursery, and see what fine books and toys are there.”
Charlotte and Clare stood and took her hands. The trio followed the maid out the door and up the stairs. Wherever the contemptuous man had gotten off to, she didn’t see him the entire trip. And a trip it was. Even though her former employers, Lord and Lady Bedford, had an impressive home, this dwelling put it to shame. It would take her weeks to learn all the hallways, wings and sections of the place. Except, she reminded herself, the lord of the manor would be tossing her out on her arse in a week or two.
She sighed. Charlotte and Clare had been her charges for five years, and leaving them in someone else’s care troubled her. They’d been a mere one and three when Lord and Lady Belford hired her during their trip to America. Their nanny had succumbed to a fever, and Merry was only too happy to leave her home behind, where all the young men who had paid her addresses had married elsewhere.
As the daughter of a professor, she’d been educated beyond the expectations of most young ladies, and in fact, most men as well. Although the young bucks who attempted to court her were charming, they lacked the spark she desired in a lifetime mate.
She’d spent hours discussing books, plays and music with her father. Proud of her sharp mind, he’d taught her philosophy, economics, history, and languages. She’d picked up French and German quickly. A duck out of water in her circle of female friends, who only conversed about the latest gossip, gowns, and young men, the chance to travel to England shortly after her father passed away seemed her salvation. At one and twenty, it had been time for a new direction.
“Miss, this is the nursery. If you will follow me, I’ll show you to your chamber next door.” The young maid swung open the door to a brightly colored schoolroom. Small wooden tables and chairs took up the center of the room. A bookcase lined the walls, with puzzles, games and slates stacked on the shelves. On the far side of the room, a door led to what appeared to be a sleeping chamber.
The girls left her side for the first time since they’d alighted from the carriage earlier, hurrying to discover the wonders of the bookshelves.
“I’m going to get settled in my bedchamber, which is right alongside this one.” Merry addressed the girls, amused to see they barely acknowledged her as they flipped through books and pulled out puzzles.
The governess’s room was as large as the nursery. Blue and white striped silk covered the walls, broken up by windows on two of the four walls, bathing the area in bright sunlight. A large canopied bed with a flowered quilt and numerous pillows caught her eye as she viewed the room. Her shoes sank into plush carpet. The huge fireplace stood cold, causing her to run her hands up and down her arms against the chill.
“I’ll light a fire for you right away, miss,” the young maid assured her.
“Thank you. That will be nice.”
Merry wandered about the room, examining the dressing table and chair, the empty wardrobe, and more bookcases filled with books. Penrose might be an overbearing brute, but the family certainly took very good care of their governesses. Well, no matter, she wouldn’t be here long. Since the new governess was due to arrive tomorrow, this would probably be Merry’s only night in this splendid room.
Her stomach clenched as she recalled the conversation with the duke. He obviously held little regard for Americans. Well, this American was not going to bow and scrape. Let her English counterparts do that. She sniffed. The aristocracy meant nothing to her. Her previous employers had allowed leniency in their daughters’ upbringing, and having them now subjected to all the mores and strictures of Polite Society almost brought her to tears.
Merry sat on the floor of the nursery, legs crossed, Charlotte and Clare on either side of her, the three heads bent over the storybook Merry read. This was her favorite time of the day, when dinner was over, the girls washed and dressed for bed, and an engrossing story holding them hostage until time to sleep.
A maid had come to assist her to dress for dinner earlier, but she told the girl she would eat with her charges, and would not be joining the duke’s family in the dining room.
“And the prince charming swept her into his strong arms, and twirled her around the dance floor. ‘Will you marry me, my princess?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ she responded, much to his delight.”
She paused for effect, then sighed. “After the royal wedding, they lived happily ever after.” She gently closed the book. “The end.”
“I like that story,” Clare said as she rubbed her eyes.
“Me, too,” Charlotte added, dreamy-eyed. “One day I will meet a prince charming, who will twirl me around the ballroom.”
Her younger sister nodded, enthralled with Charlotte’s dream.
“I will wear the most beautiful gown, with matching−"
Merry jerked her head up as the door to the nursery flew open and slammed against the wall. Like the wrath of God, the Duke of Penrose stood in the doorway, fire in his eyes, his hands fisted at his sides.
“Miss Chambers, I ordered you to join my family for dinner.”COLLAPSE