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"Just
so," nodded Madame in patently disbelieving fashion. "Yes, well,
since you seem to wish to be of such... use, perhaps there is something you
might do for me. I am leaving London to spend several days with old friends
once I've done some shopping, and I fear I am rather in a hurry. Do be so kind
as to run down to the kitchen with a message for Dorcas, would you?"

At
Monica's nod she walked briskly toward the main stairway, continuing rapidly
over her shoulder, "Tell her that letter we've been awaiting at last
arrived by this morning's post and she will find it on my writing table in
there." Madame gestured behind her as she reached the top of the stairs.
"Tell her that when I return, I shall expect Ashleigh Sinclair to be
gone." She paused and gave one last look at Monica over her shoulder.
"That should make you quite happy, I daresay, should it not, Monica?"
And with a low, throaty peal of satisfied laughter, Madame disappeared down the
stairs.

Monica
clenched her fists, attempting to control her rancor over Madame's amusement at
her expense. Then she took a deep breath and was about to head for the kitchen
to do Madame's bidding when an idea hit, its possibilities so overwhelming she
held her breath for a moment to make certain she was sure of it and not just
daydreaming some impossible foolishness.

Seconds
passed. No, it was real enough, she realized as she heard the downstairs door
close and knew that Madame was truly gone—and for several days!

Glancing
stealthily over one shoulder and then the other as she stepped farther out into
the hallway, she confirmed that she was alone and unobserved. She paused and
listened for any approaching footsteps, but the only sounds she heard were
those of the horses and wheels of the departing carriage that was taking Madame
from London. A slow, sly smile stole across Monica's face as she headed for the
doorway to her employer's chamber. She couldn't believe her luck!

Quickly
Monica opened Madame's unlocked door, taking care that she made absolutely no
noise. Then she stepped inside the antechamber and soundlessly closed the door
behind her.

Moving
rapidly, Monica headed for the delicate Louis XV escritoire that stood near the
room's double windows at the far end. There she looked down and spied a pile of
correspondence, some of it as yet unopened. Madame, she thought, must indeed
have been in a hurry to leave her mail in such a state. Finally she spotted
what she sought. It was a sheet of heavy white vellum that had been stood up on
its edge against the back of the writing desk, propped there by a beautiful
Clichy lily-of-the-valley paperweight.

Monica
could barely contain her excitement as she perused its brief contents:

 

To
Whom It May Concern:

This
missive constitutes, to the young lady who bears it, a promise of employment in
the household of his lordship, Baron Mumford, as governess to his youngest
daughters, the Honorable Misses Mumford, Diana and Daphne. The terms of
employment are as herein follows...

 

Monica's
elation was complete. Not only did the letter speak for itself, it contained
the name of
no specific
"young lady" anywhere in its body! In
short, it was completely usable by whoever bore it! Suddenly she began to
laugh, then quickly took care to stifle the sound. Here was the answer to all
her worries! All she had to do was appropriate the letter for herself and no
one would be the wiser—at least not for several days, and by then—she
shrugged—if she were not able to parlay this venture into something both
lucrative and stable for herself in a short time, then her name wasn't Monica
Chatworth. She knew the baron well. He was an old fuddy-duddy she had
"entertained" herself on numerous occasions, and she knew just what
his preferences were, knew just what to do to make him putty in her slim white
hands. Oh, but imagine his surprise when he found out who his daughters' new
governess was!

Just
then Monica's glance caught the unbroken seal bearing the arms of the duke of
Ravensford, on a fold of ivory parchment atop the stack of Madame's unopened
mail. The duke of Ravensford! Everyone knew of that distinguished lord's wealth
and power! Monica's palms began to perspire as a new wave of anticipation hit
her. What if there was something in this unopened missive that she could also
put to her own use? Suddenly a wealth of possibilities began to unfold,
crowding her avaricious, plotting brain.

But
first she picked up the entire stack of unopened mail and hastily thumbed
through its contents. No, not much else that looked promising. Again her eyes
fell on the letter bearing the duke of Ravensford's seal. Should she chance it?
If, when Madame returned, she recalled she hadn't yet opened the letter before
she left, what of it? Monica would be long gone by then, whether by way of the good
graces of old Baron Mumford or...

With
fingers that shook with anticipatory eagerness, she took hold of the ducal
letter, tore open the seal and read:

 

Madame:

As
a supplement to my personal inquiry of last week on behalf of His Grace, The
Duke of Ravensford, I would remind you that the manner of professional we seek
from among your employees be, at all costs, in good health and
young
—under
twenty, let us say. She is to remain with the duke's grandson at Ravensford
Hall until she has instructed the young man in the ways of her expertise, to
the best of her ability. If she performs her task well, both you and she will,
under the terms stated last week, be many pounds the richer for it.

I
shall be arriving by carriage at precisely five o'clock on the evening of the
third, expecting to wait discreetly in the street outside your residence for no
more than five minutes, for the young woman to join me.

Moreover,
as discretion is ever of foremost consideration in these matters, I would ask
you to return this missive to me by way of your young employee. She is to hand
it to me when she enters the carriage; it will thus further serve as her
identification on that occasion.

Thanking
you in advance on behalf of His Grace, I remain

Your
Obedient Servant,

Robert
Adams, Solicitor

on
Behalf of His Grace,

The
Duke of Ravensford

 

The
gleam in Monica's eyes dulled with disappointment as she finished perusing the
letter. There was no help here. She was thoroughly familiar with the practice
among certain members of the aristocracy in hiring those of her profession to
tutor their sons—and grandsons, it would seem—in the ways of Eros. She herself
had even performed this function a few times. But the duke and his solicitor
were specifically requesting a
young
woman—"under twenty," the
letter said. (Why, Monica couldn't imagine; she herself would have thought that
the more experienced the instructress, the better the outcome of the
"lessons.") But Monica was twenty-eight years old— twenty-nine on her
next birthday, and no matter how well preserved her beauty might be, no matter
how much rest she took the night before, there was no way on earth she was
going to pass for a girl of less than twenty.

Ever
the practical opportunist, Monica shrugged, preparing to set aside the
solicitor's letter as she reached for Baron Mumford's, when suddenly an idea
took hold, and her resigned expression gave way to a feline smile. Of course!
Here was the perfect opportunity to both cover her tracks in the theft of
Mumford's letter and hand that little bitch, Ashleigh Sinclair, her comeuppance
at the same time!

Chortles
of glee emanated from Monica's throat as she scanned the solicitor's letter one
more time. Ah, it was perfect! There was nothing in the contents to specify the
nature of the "task" the woman was to perform. Now, all she had to do
was fabricate a suitable explanation for Dorcas as to the reason for the offer
of employment to be coming from the duke of Ravensford instead of Baron
Mumford. Moreover, she had to devise a way of seeing the letter fell directly
into Ashleigh's hands on the evening of the third, and not allow it to be seen
by the cook or—God forbid—Megan O'Brien! Ashleigh was naive enough to assume
the letter spoke of a governess's position, but Dorcas and Megan had been
around and were nobody's fools.... Ah! She had it! She would concoct the tale
that Madame had instructed her to tell Dorcas to have Ashleigh await the
arrival of her new employer's solicitor on the third, just as the letter
stipulated, but omitting the business about delivering the letter by hand. She
would say that Madame had herself been delighted by the duke's superior offer
(his position alone would attest to that) and had accepted it over Mumford's on
behalf of the girl, that it was clearly in Ashleigh's best interests to take
the duke's offer of employment. Then, only at the last minute on the evening of
the third, she would personally press the letter into Ashleigh's hand as she
prepared to go out to meet the carriage....

Again
and again, Monica went over these plans in her mind as she stood in Madame's
antechamber holding the two letters. Oh, it was going to
work
—it
was!
In just a few days' time, she would be delightfully installed within the
household of old Mumford as an upstanding employee while Ashleigh Sinclair...
Monica nearly choked on her own suppressed laughter. She could just picture
Ashleigh's face when she at last discovered what sort of instruction His
Grace's grandson desired! Oh, it was rich, it was!

A
sudden recognition of the need to be away from Madame's chambers spurred Monica
to action. Grasping both letters, she secured them carefully out of sight in
the folds of her dressing gown and turned toward the door. She opened it and
peered carefully down the hallway in both directions and, finding no one about,
exited, a look of triumph on her face. She felt she was at last on her way as
she entered the haven of her own chamber. "Ashleigh Sinclair," she
whispered as she closed her door behind her, "your days of sweet innocence
are numbered!"

* * * * *

 

Ashleigh
sat beside the distinguished-looking gentleman who had identified himself
briefly as Mr. Adams while the richly appointed carriage carried her steadily
away from Hampton House and all she had known there for the past twelve years.
In view of the obvious dignity and businesslike mien of her escort, she tried
valiantly to hold back the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes at any
moment. She knew she should be happy to be where she was—on her way to a
brand-new way of life, one that would relieve her of the uncertain future that
had awaited her in the house where she'd spent the major portion of her
formative years—but she felt only sadness instead. Hampton House had been her
home for so long! And if she wasn't pained at the thought of leaving behind the
place itself, or what it stood for, she was more than miserable at bidding
farewell to some of the friends she had made within its walls.

There
was Dorcas, dear old thing that she was, who had functioned almost like a
mother to her all these years. Oh, how the two of them had wept in each other's
arms late this afternoon when the moment of parting had become imminent!

And
Megan, wonderful, wildly beautiful Megan, who had a heart of gold and the soul
of a poet, no matter what she did to earn a living! Megan O'Brien, for all her
worldly ways, had become her friend and her foremost protectress at Hampton
House, teaching her how to defend herself from bodily harm and just as deftly
teaching her the words to many a Gaelic song once she'd learned Ashleigh was
half Irish, insisting it was her right as well as her duty to awaken and keep
burning the flames of that noble heritage. Megan had spent half last night
sitting up with her and talking of the good times they'd shared together under
Madame's roof, and then, too, the tears had flown freely....

And
then there was Finn. In some ways leaving the great wolfhound had been the
hardest of all, for the big dog somehow seemed to sense she was going without
any need for parting words or gestures, and the sad, soulful look in his eyes
had told its own story.

Now,
as she sat beside the immaculately groomed gentleman on her right, blinking
back her tears, Ashleigh wondered if she hadn't made a mistake. Who was this
duke of Ravensford, after all, or the grandson he seemed eager for her to
instruct? Oh, she'd heard Megan's account of the rumors about the man—his
fabulous wealth, the importance attributed to his particular title and its
power, and she'd seen the looks of envy in the eyes of several of the women when
word got around as to who her new employer would be. Then, too, Dorcas's
friend, Roger, had told them that the duke of Ravensford had a reputation for
being morally upstanding—straitlaced, even— so Dorcas and Megan had given their
blessings to the arrangement when they'd heard, and here she was....

She
glanced surreptitiously at the silver-haired man beside her. He hadn't said
very much to her after she'd handed him the letter Monica had given her on her
way out to meet the carriage, though he'd taken a good, long moment to look her
over from head to toe when she'd appeared. This open perusal of her person
brought the suggestion of a blush to her cheeks even now as she thought about
it; it had been a more thorough examination than any she'd ever received, with
the exception of a few unwelcome looks she'd gotten from some of Hampton
House's visiting "guests" on the few occasions when she'd
inadvertently been seen by such gentlemen. Her thoughts fastened with distaste
on the look she'd seen on the young lord Monica had been entertaining the
evening she'd forced her to help her out of her gown; the look had not been
intended entirely for Monica, she knew, and what bothered her now was
something—she wasn't sure what, exactly—but there was a flicker of similarity in
the expression of Mister Adams when he'd studied her out there in the street
before turning away with a nod and bidding her enter, apparently satisfied.

BOOK: Sattler, Veronica
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