The Governess Affair

Page 2

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But Clermont wasn’t meeting his eyes. Instead, he frowned and looked out the window. “It’s not quite so simple.”

That woman was still sitting on the bench. She’d turned her head to the side, and Hugo caught a glimpse of profile—snub nose, a smudge of pink for her lips.

“You see,” Clermont muttered, “there was this governess.”

Hugo rolled his eyes. Any confession that started thus could not end well.

Clermont gestured. “It happened over the summer, when I was seeing to business at Wolverton Hall.”

Hugo translated this mentally: The duke had been drinking himself silly with his useless friends after his wife had flounced off and his father-in-law had tied off the once-generous purse strings. But no point in insisting on honesty from the man. He’d never get it.

“In any event,” Clermont said, pointing to the bench outside, “that’s her, now. Waiting. Demanding compensation from me.”

“Your pardon?” Hugo shook his head in confusion.

The duke huffed. “Must I spell it out? She wants things from me.”

Had he thought the duke a child? An infant, more like. Hugo kept his voice calm. “Between seeing to business at Wolverton Hall and a governess waiting outside your home demanding compensation, there are a great many events missing. For what is she demanding compensation? Who brought this matter to your attention?”

“She caught me just now, when I was returning from…well, never mind where I was,” the duke said. “She was on the street, waiting for the carriage to arrive.”

“And what does she want?” Hugo persisted.

Clermont gave an unconvincing laugh. “Nothing! Nothing, really. I, uh, at Wolverton Hall, I saw that she was good with the younger children. So I offered her a position taking care of my son.”

“Your as-yet-unborn child.”

“Yes,” Clermont mumbled. “Exactly. And so she quit her position at Wolverton. And then I had no work to offer her because the duchess had left. Now she’s angry, too.”

The story didn’t sound remotely plausible. Hugo considered, briefly, calling His Grace a liar. But it wouldn’t do any good; long experience had taught him that once the duke made up a story, he’d hold to it doggedly, no matter how many holes one poked in it.

“She says she’ll sit there until she receives compensation,” Clermont said. “I do believe she means it. You see my dilemma. If everything works out well, I’ll be bringing back the duchess in a matter of weeks. This is devilishly awkward timing. The old girl will think…”

“…That you seduced and ruined a servant?” Hugo asked dryly. That was where he would place his money.

But Clermont didn’t even blush. “Right,” he said. “You can see the very idea is absurd. And of course I did no such thing—you know that, Marshall. But matters being what they are, she needs to be gone by the time I return.”

“Did you force her?” Hugo asked.

Clermont did flush at that. “Gad, Marshall. I’m a duke. I have no need to force women.” He frowned. “What do you care anyway? They don’t call you the Wolf of Clermont for your conscience.”

No. They didn’t. But Hugo still had one. He just tried not to remember it.

Hugo looked out the window. “Easy enough. I’ll have the constables take her in for vagrancy or disturbing the peace.”

“Ah…no.” Clermont coughed lightly.

“No?”

“I wouldn’t precisely say it was a good idea to put her into a courtroom. You know how they have those reporters there, writing a few lines for the papers. Someone might ask questions. She might invent stories. And while I could certainly quash any legal inquiry, what if word of this got back to Helen? You know how touchy she is on the subject of other women.”

No, he wasn’t getting anything useful from the man. Hugo sighed. “You talked to her. What kind of compensation does she want?”

“Fifty pounds.”

“Is that all? We can—”

But Clermont shook his head. “She doesn’t just want the money. I can’t give her what she wants. You’ll have to persuade her to go. And keep my name out of the gossip papers, will you?”

Hugo pressed his lips together in annoyance.

“After all,” Clermont said, striding to the door, “it’s my entire future that’s at stake. When I return, I expect that you’ll have sorted out this entire unfortunate affair with the governess.”

It wasn’t as if Hugo had any choice in the matter. His future was at stake, too, every bit as much as Clermont’s. “Consider her gone.”

Clermont simply nodded and exited the room, leaving Hugo to contemplate the bench in the square below.

The governess sat, turning her head to watch people passing on the pavement. She did not look as if she were about to burst into hysterics. Perhaps Clermont hadn’t wronged her all that much, and he could solve this over the course of one conversation. He hoped so, for her sake.

Because if talk didn’t work, he was going to have to make her life hell.

He hated having to do that.

IT WAS HARD FOR Miss Serena Barton to keep from fidgeting at the best of times; today, a chill wind had arisen in the afternoon, sending clouds scudding overhead and robbing the day of sunshine. The breeze sent autumn leaves rattling across the cobblestones. It sliced through her inadequate pelisse, and it was all she could do to refrain from wrapping her arms around herself. Still, she forced herself to sit, her spine straight. She wasn’t going to freeze to death; she was just going to get very, very cold. Nothing that a cup of hot tea wouldn’t fix when she returned to her sister’s rooms that evening.

She glanced sidelong at the small cluster that had gathered on the gangway in front of the Duke of Clermont’s home. In the lull of the late afternoon, a few servants had come by; they huddled in a little knot to gawk at her. No doubt they knew she’d talked to Clermont. She was counting on their gossip. Speculation would embarrass the man more than a simple recounting of the truth, and her only hope was to embarrass him a great deal. Speculation bred gossip; gossip gave rise to censure.

Three maids in ruffled aprons were whispering to one another when a man turned the corner onto the street. He scarcely seemed to notice them, but the group of women took one look at him and scattered to their respective houses, like hens fleeing a hawk overhead.

He didn’t look like an aristocrat. He wore a brown suit, simply made, and a cravat, plainly tied. His linen was not the snowy-white that the wealthy insisted upon; his cuffs looked clean, but—as whites were wont to do upon washing—faded to a less respectable ivory. He stopped on the street just opposite her, and raised his head to meet her eyes.

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