Lucien Balfour, the Sixth Earl of Kilcairn Abbey, leaned against one of the marble pillars bordering the front entry of Balfour House and watched the storm clouds gather overhead. "‘By the pricking of my thumbs, ‘" he murmured, puffing on his cigar, "‘something wicked this way comes.’"
Though lowering clouds and an ominously darkening sky hung over the west side of London, that particular storm was not the one that concerned Lucien Balfour. A larger tempest was galloping its way over the horizon: he was about to welcome Satan’s handmaiden and her mother into his house.
Behind him, the front door opened on well-oiled hinges. Lucien glanced skyward as a long boom of thunder rolled across the rooftops of Mayfair. "What is it, Wimbole?"
"You asked me to inform you at the hour of three, my lord," the butler answered in his usual flat monotone. "The clock has just struck."
Lucien took another drag of his cheroot, letting the smoke curl from his mouth and be snatched away by the stiffening breeze. "Make certain the study windows are closed against the rain, and provide Mr. Mullins with a glass of whiskey. I imagine he’ll be needing it, shortly."
"Very good, my lord." The door clicked shut again.
Droplets of rain began plopping onto the shallow granite steps before him just as a coach clattered onto Grosvenor Street and turned toward the mansion. Lucien took one last, long draw on his cigar, snuffed it out against the pillar, and cast it aside with an oath. The demons had splendid timing.
The front door opened again. Wimbole, flanked by a half dozen liveried footmen, appeared at his elbow as the great black monstrosity of a coach rocked to a halt at the foot of the steps. A second vehicle, less ostentatious than the first, stopped just behind.
As Wimbole and his troops marched forward, Mr. Mullins took the butler’s vacated position on the portico. "My lord, I must again commend you on your attention to familial duty."
Lucien glanced at the smaller man. "Two dead people signed a piece of paper, and I am left with the results. Don’t commend me for getting trapped into something I’ve simply been unable to avoid."
"Even so, my lord . . ." The solicitor trailed off as the coach’s first occupant emerged into the light drizzle. "My goodness," he choked.
"Goodness has nothing to do with it," Lucien murmured.
Fiona Delacroix stepped out onto the drive and with a flick of her gloved fingers beckoned Wimbole to return her walking cane. She didn’t seem to notice the rain, but given the size of the hat perched on her bright red -- orange -- hair, she likely would have no idea of the downpour until the weight of the water capsized her.
"Lucien!" She gathered her voluminous pink skirts and marched forward as he descended the steps to meet her. "How like you to wait until the last possible moment to send for us. I’d begun to think you meant for us to rot in mournful solitude all summer!"
Mountains of luggage began sailing off the roofs of both coaches and into the arms of the waiting footmen. Lucien spared the heap one look, noting that he’d have to give over another room simply for female wardrobe, before he took her gloved hand and bowed over it. "Aunt Fiona. I trust the journey from Dorsetshire was a pleasant one?"
"It was not! You know how traveling upsets my nerves. If not for my dear, dear Rose, I don’t know how I should have managed." She swung her rotund, schooner-topped form around to face the carriage again. "Rose! Come out of there! You remember your cousin Lucien, don’t you, my sweet?"
"I’m not coming out, Mother," echoed from the bowels of the cavernous vehicle.
Aunt Fiona’s smile became more radiant. "Of course you are, my dear. Your cousin is waiting."
"But it’s raining."
The smile faltered. "Only a little."
"It will ruin my dress."
Lucien’s determined good humor began to crumble a little at the edges. His uncle’s damned will did not in any way obligate him to catch pneumonia.
"Rose . . ." his aunt trilled again.
"Oh, very well."
The incarnation of hell on earth -- as he’d thought of her since their last meeting, when she’d been seven and throwing a screaming, stamping tantrum at being denied a pony ride -- emerged from the coach. She stepped down amid a cloud of pink lace and ruffles that perfectly complemented her mother’s frothy gown.
Rose Delacroix curtsied, the blond curls that framed her face bobbing in pert unison. "My lord," she breathed, rising and batting her long lashes at him.
"Cousin Rose," Lucien responded, suppressing a shudder at the horrifying thought that some of his gender would find her angelic appearance attractive. With her great puffy sleeves and feathered frills she looked more like some ungainly bird than any angel. "You both look colorful this afternoon. Shall we go inside, out of the rain?"
"It’s silk and taffeta," Aunt Fiona crooned, fluffing up one of her daughter’s drooping wings. "They cost twelve pounds each, and came directly from Paris."
"And flamingos come directly from Africa."
The comment was a mild one, particularly for him, but as he turned to usher Rose toward the steps, her blue eyes filled with tears. Lucien stifled an annoyed sigh. Sometimes one’s memories remained perfectly accurate, despite the passage of time.
"He doesn’t like my gown, Mama," she wailed, her lower lip trembling. "And Miss Brookhollow said it was the very thing!"
Lucien had meant to behave himself, at least for today. So much for his good intentions. "Who is Miss Brookhollow?"
"Rose’s governess. She came highly recommended."
"By whom -- circus performers?"
"Good God," Lucien muttered, wincing. "Wimbole, get their things inside." He returned his attention to his aunt. "Does all your attire match so . . . vividly?"
"Lucien, I will not tolerate your insulting us five minutes after we’ve arrived! Dear Oscar would never tolerate such cruelty!"
"Dear Uncle Oscar is dead, Aunt Fiona. And as you well know, he and my father conspired to see that you would end up here in the case of that eventuality."
"‘Conspired?’" Aunt Fiona repeated, in an ascending voice that could shatter crystal. "This is your familial obligation! Your duty!"
"Which is precisely why you are here." He climbed the steps unaccompanied when they seemed content to stand about bellowing in the rain. "And only until she," and he jabbed a finger in his soggy cousin’s direction, "is married. Then you can be someone else’s familial obligation and duty."
He glanced at his sobbing cousin again. "Would this same Miss Brookhollow be the one who has taught you everything necessary to ensure your success in society?"
"Yes! Of course!"
"Splendid. Mr. Mullins!"
The solicitor emerged from behind one of the marble pillars. "Yes, my lord?"
"I assume dear Miss Brookhollow is cowering in the second coach. Give her twenty pounds and the directions to the nearest spectacle shop, and send her on her way. I want a posting in the London Times. Advertise for a finishing companion for my lovely cousin. Immediately. Someone knowledgeable in music, French, Latin, fashion, and--"
"How dare you, Kilcairn!" Aunt Fiona snarled.
"--and etiquette. Have them apply in person to this address. No names. I bloody well don’t want the world at large to know that my cousin has the appearance of a poodle and the stylings of a milkmaid. No one in his right mind would want to be leg-shackled to either animal."
Mr. Mullins bowed. "At once, my lord."
Lucien left the screeching females behind and strode into the house. Well, that had deteriorated nicely. The headache with which he’d awakened resumed with a vengeance. He should have had Wimbole pour him a whiskey, as well.
At the top of the stairs he paused, leaning his wet backside against the mahogany railing. A series of paintings covered the opposite wall, a sampling of the vast portrait gallery in the Great Hall at Kilcairn Abbey. Two of them, hung several yards from one another, bore black ribbons across their top right corners. One was a passing likeness of Oscar Delacroix, his mother's half-brother. He'd barely known the man and had liked him even less, and after a brief moment Lucien turned his attention to the nearer portrait.
His cousin, James Balfour, had actually died a little more than a year ago, so Lucien should have had Wimbole remove the ribbon by now. The mourning band served as a reminder, though, of exactly what sort of predicament James had left him in.
"Damnation," he murmured without heat. His nearest male relation, James would have -- and should have -- inherited Kilcairn Abbey. His young, headstrong cousin's thirst for adventure, though, had collided fatally with Napoleon Bonaparte's quest for power. As a result, he had been left with dear Uncle Oscar as his sole breathing male relation.
The female cacophony entered the foyer below, and with another sigh Lucien started again for his bedchamber and a change of clothes. As the inheritance now stood, once the weepy pink confection downstairs married, her offspring would have the Balfour titles, lands, and wealth. But after setting eyes on her again, he was of no mind or temperament to allow that to happen.
And so, the inconsiderate mortality of all his male relations had effectively trapped him into taking the one road down which he'd sworn never to venture. The Earl of Kilcairn Abbey needed a legitimate heir -- and so by logical if unfortunate extension, he needed a wife. But before he could begin that task, he needed to conclude his obligation to Rose Delacroix and her mother with all possible haste.
Alexandra Beatrice Gallant stepped down from the London hack she'd hired and straightened her pelisse. The blue morning dress was the most conservative one she owned, and the high neck scratched at her. Uncomfortable or not, though, she'd been on enough interviews over the past five years to know that a conservative appearance and manner could do wonders for one's employment prospects. And at the moment she needed all the help that she could get.
Shakespeare, her white Skye terrier and most faithful companion, jumped down beside her. Without a backward glance, the hack driver turned his coach back out into the light midday traffic. Alexandra looked up and down Grosvenor Street. "So this is Mayfair," she mused, eyeing the staid facades of the massive homes on either side of the road.
Though she’d taken positions with landed gentry and minor nobility in the past, nothing compared with this. Gilded Mayfair, the favorite haunt of England’s wealthiest and highest born, bore little resemblance to the rest of noisy, crowded, dirty London. She’d passed a section of Hyde Park just a moment ago, and from the hack’s window she’d spied what seemed to be numerous pleasant walking paths for her and Shakespeare to explore. Finding employment in Mayfair could have definite benefits, provided the young lady and her mother weren’t completely reclusive.
She pulled the folded newspaper advertisement from her pocket and read the address once more, then tugged on the terrier’s leash and strolled up the street. "Come along, Shakes."
This would be her second interview of the day, and the ninth of the week, with one more prospect in Covent Garden remaining. If no one wanted to hire her in London by the end of the week, her scanty savings would have to see her up north. Perhaps they had never heard of her in Yorkshire. Lately, though, she’d had the sinking feeling that every household, or at least those needing a governess or a companion, knew every blasted detail of her life. In light of that dismal fact, the best she had come to expect was a polite refusal to offer her employment.
The first interview she’d sat through had been less than pleasant; three mewling children all under the age of ten, and none of them possessing the least bit of self-control. She hadn’t minded all that much when Mrs. Fenning had asked about her last employment. After that, she’d made an easy escape. The problem was, though, that she was running out of places to which she cared to escape.
"Ah, here we are, twenty-five." Alexandra paused to survey the mammoth townhouse that stood at the far end of a short, curving drive. What seemed like half a hundred windows peered toward the street and overlooked the small, simple garden on the east side. Bordered by a carriage run to the west, not much distinguished it from the other splendid houses with which it shared the way. So far, so good.
Taking a deep breath, she walked up the carriage drive around to the back of the house and climbed the three steps to the rear entry. Before she could even rap on the door, it swung open.
"Good afternoon." A tall, thin man dressed in impeccable gold and black livery dating from the height of George III’s reign, stood just inside the kitchen entry and gazed at her. The dusting of silver at his temples served as an exclamation point to his declarative statement of dignity. "I presume you are here in answer to the advertisement?"
"This way, miss."
Without even a glance at Shakespeare, the butler turned on his heel. Alexandra followed him through the huge kitchen, down two long intersecting hallways, and into a large, spacious study tucked beneath a winding staircase of carved mahogany. She took in the scattered, tasteful paintings by artists as celebrated as Lawrence and Gainsborough, the ornate Far Eastern carvings in ivory and flawless ebony wood, and the gold-inlaid cornice running along the top of the walls. Tasteful, elegant, interesting, and very wealthy, the house seemed curiously unfeminine for the residence of a young lady and her mother.
"Wait here, miss."
Alexandra nodded, absorbed in her observations. Shakespeare found an interesting scent beside the massive mahogany desk, while she approached the fireplace to warm her hands. A carved elephant stood guard on the mantel, and tentatively she touched its smooth, ebony leg.
Footsteps padded down the stairs that curved above her head. With a start she abandoned the hearth and seated herself in the chair placed opposite the desk. A moment later, the door opened. Alexandra affixed her best look of professional yet sincere interest on her face, ready to begin her well-rehearsed speech about her experience and mostly impeccable references, and looked up. And then forgot everything she’d been about to say.
He stood in the doorway, gazing at her. At first all she took in were his eyes -- a fine light gray beneath dark, sardonic brows. Gradually the rest of him sank into her senses. Tall, with dark hair curling at his collar and an athlete’s lean build, he had a French aristocrat’s high cheekbones and arrogant, shamelessly sensual mouth. He remained where he was, unmoving, for several long seconds.
"You’re here for the governess position?" he asked in a deep, cultured drawl.
"I . . ." Alexandra nodded, shivering a little as the sound of his voice resonated down her spine in electrifying spirals. "I am."
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