The Governess Affair

Page 4

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But he didn’t speculate. He leaned back, and the iron bench creaked. “You think Clermont would have you brought up for talking to me?”

“Oh, surely not Clermont himself. But his man… Who knows what he might do to keep the duke’s secret?”

“His man,” Mr. Marshall repeated, setting his hat next to him on the bench. “You won’t talk to me because you’re frightened of Clermont’s man.”

“Surely you’ve heard of him. They call him the Wolf of Clermont.”

“They—what?” He pulled back.

“The Wolf of Clermont,” she repeated. “The duke hires him to get things done, things that an ordinary man, fettered by a conscience, would not do.”

He stared at her for a few moments. Then, ever so slowly, Mr. Marshall picked up his hat once more and turned it in his hands. “Ah,” he said. “That Wolf of Clermont. You’re acquainted with the fellow?”

“Oh, yes.”

He made a polite sound of disbelief.

“From the gossip papers only,” she explained. “I’ve never met him, of course. But he has the blackest of reputations. He was a pugilist before he took over the duke’s affairs, and from what I’ve heard, he’s handled His Grace’s matters with all the aplomb that one could expect from a man who made his living prizefighting. They say that he’s utterly ruthless. I can see him now: some squat, stocky man, all shoulders, no neck.”

“All shoulders,” he repeated softly. “No neck.” His own hand rose, as if of its own accord, to touch his cravat. “Fascinating.”

“But if you work near here, surely you must have seen him. Do I have the right of it?”

He gave her another one of his friendly smiles.

“Yes,” he said softly. “You’ve described him precisely. If I were you, I’d not want to set myself opposite him. I’d think long and hard about that. And as you’re not talking…” He picked up his hat and set it on his head. “I’ll wish you a good day, Miss Barton. And much luck.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” he replied. “If you’re in opposition to the Wolf of Clermont, luck won’t do you any good. It will just make his chase interesting.”

Chapter Two

ONCE AGAIN, SERENA’S SISTER had not left home all day.

Serena could tell because Frederica’s cloak and gloves were still gathering dust on the small table in the entry. A bit of a stretch, to call this haphazardly walled-off section of hallway an “entry.” The word brought to mind marble floors, crystal chandeliers, and liveried butlers who whisked hats and gloves away.

Here, there was only the rickety wood table and yellowing whitewash of an old house, once grand, now little better than tenement housing for women who had slipped into the depths of genteel poverty. The air was cold and musty.

Nonetheless, Serena removed her own cloak and gloves and set them next to Freddy’s, and then peered into the adjoining chamber. She could scarcely make out the silhouettes of furniture in the unlit room. Oil and candles were dear, when one scraped by on fifteen pounds a year.

Freddy sat before the window, holding her sewing up so that the faint illumination from the street lamp shone on her work. Serena had been told she looked like her sister, but Freddy’s skin was pale and her hair was orange, like their mother; Serena took her darker hair and skin from their father. If there was a resemblance, she’d never seen it.

“Good evening, dear,” Freddy said absently, as she worked her needle through the cloth.

Serena came to stand behind her. “Good evening.” She set her hands on her sister’s shoulders, and gave her a light squeeze. “You’ve been working on this all day, haven’t you? Your shoulders are so stiff.”

“Just a few moments longer.”

“You’ll ruin your eyesight, sewing in this failing light.”

“Mmm.” Freddy made another precise stitch.

She was piecing together another quilt of interlocking rings. She didn’t sell her work—that would have made her a laborer, and ladies, as Freddy so often explained, did not labor. Instead, Freddy gave her quilts away to charitable organizations. Almost half her extra income went to scraps and second-quality yarn for the deserving poor. More than half her time was spent knitting scarves and sewing blankets for babies. It didn’t seem quite fair to Serena; without stirring from her rooms, her elder sister managed to make her feel both exhausted and inadequate.

Serena sighed.

“You don’t have to do this, Freddy. Why do you force yourself to it?”

“Don’t call me Freddy. You know I hate that name.” Freddy laid down her work. “You don’t have to do this, either. Serena, you know I love you, but this is not what we were born to do. Why must you bother Clermont? He hurt you once; why give him the chance to do so again?”

An image of a dark room tucked under the eaves darted into Serena’s head. She could see Clermont ducking through the too-short doorway, could hear the sound of the door shutting behind him.

She shivered.

She wanted proof that she wasn’t the sort to cower in the corner, no matter what had happened to her. She wanted to conquer that complex burden of shame and confusion and anger.

Serena set her hand over her still-flat belly. She had enough to contend with as it was.

“I want justice.” The words were flat in her mouth, and yet sharp, so sharp. “I want to show that he can’t win.” Her fingers curled with want. “That he can’t just—”

Freddy sniffed dismissively. “We’ve enough to survive on,” she said as if money were a substitute for fair play. “Stay with me. I always said you should. But no; you had to run off governessing, when we were left with the sort of competence that could see us through our lives, if we economized.”

“We were left fifteen pounds a year,” Serena protested. Enough to avoid starvation; enough to have a roof over their heads. But every year, costs went up. It hadn’t taken much forethought to see that in twenty years, expenses would outrun income.

“But,” Freddy said, continuing with the lecture, “you had to want more. You’ve always wanted more. And see where it’s left you? You can’t eat justice.”

No. But at least she wouldn’t choke on it. Serena unclenched the fist she’d made at her side.

“By the by,” Freddy said more casually, “where has it left you?”

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