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Now,
as she again glanced at the man's distinguished profile, she wondered if she
ought to say something to him, question him, perhaps, about the nature of the
household he was taking her to, or the daily routine her duties would involve.
But suddenly Adams himself turned toward her, and while she blushed at having
him catch her looking at him, he saved her the trouble by addressing her
instead.

"I
wonder... Miss Sinclair, isn't it?" At her shy nod he smiled and
continued. "I wonder if I might ask how old you are, Miss Sinclair?"

Surprised
by the question, but beginning to relax somewhat under his benign gaze,
Ashleigh smiled back. "Nineteen, sir, or I shall be, at the end of the
month."

A
nod, coupled with another smile. "Very good. Now, I should like to ask you
only a couple more questions, Miss Sinclair, and then perhaps I can be of some
service if you should have questions of your own."

At
her smile he continued. "Although my letter stipulated it, I cannot
underscore enough the necessity that you meet His Grace's foremost request. Are
you
certain
that you—ah—enjoy excellent health?" He watched her
face carefully as he awaited Ashleigh's response.

"Oh,
yes, sir!" she replied eagerly. "I am, as they say, in the very pink
and can assure you, I've never been sick enough to lose a day's work—um—since
I've been old enough to do work, that is, sir."

"Ah,
yes, well, I'm glad to hear it," replied Adams, perplexed by the nature of
her reply. He wasn't sure why, but he was beginning to feel slightly
uncomfortable in the role he was playing. He wondered if it had anything to do
with the girl's youth. Of course, he had been expecting someone young after the
letter he'd sent, but Ashleigh Sinclair somehow did not fit the picture he'd
had in mind. To begin with, she looked not only young, but actually
innocent!
He supposed it had something to do perhaps with a kind of studied allure
she affected. There must be some call in these brothels for women who gave off
the
appearance
of innocence, and so, he assumed, any shrewd madame who
knew what she was about would cater to such tastes, as well as to heaven only
knew what others among her clientele. Yes, that must be it: it was a pose.

But
moreover, the girl was a stunning beauty. Oh, he'd long come to expect physical
attractiveness among women of her ilk; hadn't some of the greatest beauties of
the past been courtesans? Du Barry? De Pompadour? Or on England's own soil,
Castlemaine in Charles II's time, not to mention Nell Gwyn? But the beauty of
the girl sitting beside him now had almost robbed him of breath when he'd first
seen her: hair of a midnight hue, so thick and lustrous it almost begged to be
touched; delicate, chiseled features of perfect proportions, covered by creamy,
flawless skin; and those eyes! Incredibly large and deep blue in color, they
truly resembled sapphires—only there was far more warmth in their depths, and
when they turned on a man, as they were regarding him now, they affected such a
perfect image of unblemished innocence, of allure without guile....

And
then there was the
rest
of her! She wore a high-waisted cornflower-blue
walking dress, well displayed when she'd loosened her pelisse in the warmth of
the carriage's snug interior; it was in no way immodest or overly revealing,
but he could easily discern, through its soft, gauzelike folds, the outlines of
a high, rounded and well-endowed bosom as well as other lithe curves and
lissome lines of feminine loveliness on her diminutive, almost fragile-looking
young body.

And
that brought him to the final aspect of Ashleigh Sinclair that was so
disconcerting: she appeared for all the world like a delicate, fragile flower,
all freshness and youth, coupled with a look in the eyes that said, "Be
gentle with me... handle me with tender care, lest I snap and break like some
poor faerie creature's child." Even now, as she sat looking at him with
those wide, lovely eyes, he thought he saw the brightness of unshed tears in
their depths....

My
God!
he
almost exclaimed aloud.
She makes me feel all at once tender and protective,
as though she could be my own daughter! What am I doing, procuring her for—

Quickly
Adams cleared his throat and addressed Ashleigh with sudden haste. "Your
employer has assured us you come with all the necessary—ah—skills and
qualifications for the position, Miss Sinclair. Do you feel she is correct in
this assessment?"

Ashleigh's
face lit up. Madame had been generous, indeed, to make such a recommendation!
"Oh, yes, sir! I've been fortunate enough, you see, to have the ablest of
tutors to prepare me—"

"A
tutor, you say!" exclaimed Adams. The girl had been taking lessons!

"Oh,
yes," replied Ashleigh. "I was tutored for twelve years."

"Twelve
years!"
Adams
choked. "You had a tutor for
twelve years!"

"Yes,"
responded Ashleigh, a little puzzled at Adams's surprise. "He was a
Frenchman, you know—"

"Ah!
A Frenchman!" exclaimed Adams with a nod of comprehension.

"Yes,"
smiled Ashleigh, "fresh from the court of Louis himself, poor man."
She shook her head sadly, suddenly filled with compassion at the recollection
of all she'd heard of the terrible Reign of Terror from Monsieur Laforte.

Adams
nodded and smiled weakly, uncomfortable again. Here it was once more; just as
he'd begun to think he knew and understood what she was, she presented him with
a look of tenderness and compassion so sincere, so believably filled with
concern for others less fortunate, that he was hard put to think of her as
anything less than good—wholesome and pure in a manner that totally conflicted
with his knowledge of what she was.

Dammit!
he
swore to himself.
She's only a whore—nothing more! And you'd better not let
yourself forget it, old man!
He took another deep breath and addressed
Ashleigh again. "Well, then, Miss Sinclair, now it is your turn to ask
questions. Is there anything you would care to know of the—ah, arrangements
that await you?"

Ashleigh
thought for a moment. Questions! She had dozens of them! How old was the duke's
grandson, for example; she hoped he was about six or seven—an age at which she
could instruct him most comfortably. And what was the duke, his grandfather,
like? Would she be seeing much of him as well? And what of the boy's parents,
and the rest of the household? Yes, she had all too many questions, and she
suddenly felt as if, perhaps, it might be rude or seem too forward of her to
bombard this poor man with all that weighed on her mind. It wouldn't do to make
a nuisance of herself before she'd actually begun her stay or assumed the
governess's position. So in the end she settled for merely one query, and a
rather innocuous one at that. "What is His Grace's grandson's name, sir?
I'd like to know that."

Adams's
eyebrows lifted mildly at the question. For some reason he hadn't thought such
a female would be interested in the identities of her clients, and certainly
not to the extent that it would be her first question regarding the task she
was to perform. He'd rather expected questions about money, for example, or the
nature of the amenities she would enjoy while staying at Ravensford Hall—the
size of her chamber, perhaps, or the number of servants at her disposal. Well,
she had surprised him again, and with a shrug to try to dispel the aura of
perplexing intrigue she'd begun to weave, he answered her. "His lordship's
name is Brett Westmont—Lord Westmont to you, Miss Sinclair. He currently holds
one of His Grace's lesser titles. That is, he is officially known as Viscount
Westmont. Of course, on the day his grandfather passes away, he will become His
Grace, duke of Ravensford. He is the heir, you see."

"I
see," said Ashleigh, somberly nodding her head. She was recalling the now
faraway world of her own early upbringing, where the daily use of such titles
was automatic and taken for granted. Her own father had been a peer with the
lesser hereditary title of baronet, but his line had been an old one, reaching
back to the days of William the Conqueror, and their small but closely knit
family had enjoyed many of the privileges she felt she could expect to witness
under the roof of her new employer. Suddenly a lump formed in her throat and
she felt the sharp sting of tears threaten her eyes as, for the first time in
years, she allowed herself a keen sense of longing for the life and family she
had once had.

Oh,
Mother, Father!
her
heart cried out.
Why did you have to die so young? I can barely recall your
faces, yet sometimes, like now, I miss you terribly! And Patrick... how could
fate be so unkind as to rob me of you as well? Sweet brother with the devil's
own mischief in your eyes! What I wouldn't give to be going into this new
adventure with you by my side!

But
as the hoofbeats of the carriage horses and the turning of the wheels moved
steadily onward, Ashleigh's longings faded and she knew she must face her
future alone. Closing her eyes, she forced herself into a state of calm
acceptance, laced with just the barest hint of a plea.
Oh, let them be kind,
she prayed.
If
they will just be kind and decent, I shall surely
manage the rest!

 

CHAPTER
FOUR

 

Robert
Adams looked down at the drawn, pale face on the pillows and felt a rush of
pity overwhelm him.
So this is how it all ends,
he mused darkly.
Here
is this man who in his time represented the best his era had to
offer—intelligence, strength, power, wealth, all of it, and yet, being so
richly endowed, he managed to use all of his gifts well, making the most of
what he'd been given. How we used to envy him, we common folk who had the
privilege of knowing and serving the man—and did so happily, yet always with a
twinge of regret that we were
not in his place...

Adams
closed his eyes for a moment, anxious to ward off the tears that threatened,
and which he, for all the world, would not have his old friend awaken and see.
There came to mind the time, in the past century, that the duke had made a
speech in the House of Lords, defending the rights of the American colonials to
fair representation in parliament, considering the taxes they were being asked
to pay their mother country. Adams smiled to himself.
You were so very
astute, old friend. You were among those who warned of dire consequences if no
one took heed of what was happening in America, and time bore out the truth of
those prophetic warnings. Sir Edmund Burke's speeches notwithstanding, yours
were the best and wisest of that time. Would that the nation had listened to
you!

Ah,
yes,
Adams
continued,
the best his era had to offer... and yet, now here he lies,
taking his final breaths and looking for all the world like any common
grandfather on his deathbed.... Well, John Westmont, duke of Ravensford, I
shall be saddened to see you go, and I shall miss your undeniable presence in—

"Robert!"
came the thin rasp of a voice from the bedclothes. "You can just stop your
looking at me like that! I'm not dead yet, you know... though it won't be
long...." The duke paused a moment, seeking to catch his breath, but he
held Adams's eyes as he did so, daring him to comment on his weakened condition.

At
last feeling he had gathered enough strength, he continued. "I have no
illusions about my own future, old friend, so spare me your pity, but what I am
anxious about is Brett's! Tell me, did you bring her? Is the woman here?"

Adams
nodded. "Lady Margaret has seen to her installation in the proper chamber,
Your Grace."

The
duke nodded weakly, even this small exertion costing him strength. "Good,
good," he rasped, then beckoned with a finger for Adams to draw closer.
"I hope," he added with an amused smile, "my sister's withering
glare did not scorch you when you presented the woman to her, Robert! Owing to
my poor health, I've been forced to include Margaret in my scheme, and she's
consented to go along with it because she's so hot to set up the alliance with
her dear Hastingses again, but if you could have seen her face the day I stated
my plans! Ah, Robert, it was a vision I'll carry to my grave." He
chuckled. "To see that haughty visage of hers wrinkled up in distaste at
my—"

Here
the chuckle gave way to a paroxysm of coughing; Adams leaned over him with
concern, then turned and reached for a goblet of water that stood on a nearby
stand; he quickly held it to the old man's lips, propping up his head at the
same time with a hand beneath the pillows. At length the coughing subsided, and
the duke fell weakly back upon the bed.

"Ah,
yes... best conserve my strength, I suppose." John Westmont's voice was a
mere shred of a whisper. "Especially since I'll need it in dealing with my
grandson! Now, Robert, will you do me one favor?"

"Anything,
Your Grace," Adams said quickly.

"Give
me a few minutes' rest," said the duke, "and then send Brett to me.
It's time I forged the final link in his education regarding women!"

* * * * *

 

Half
an hour later Brett Westmont was striding from the stables toward the rear
garden entrance to the house, it being the closest to the wing where the duke's
private quarters lay. He was still full of the exhilarating effects of the ride
he'd just taken across the lush countryside of his grandfather's estate.
Ah,
Kent in springtime!
he thought as he paused before the massive chestnut
tree in the garden where he used to play as a young child.
I'd forgotten how
lovely it can be!
His eyes roamed over the slowly darkening meadows and
shadowy trees in the distance, beginning to purple now in the fading light.
From the corners of the garden walls came the steady chirrup of crickets, and
not too far away, the mellow sound of cattle lowing, but all else was silent,
with not even the faintest stirring of a breeze to mar the still, evening air.

BOOK: Sattler, Veronica
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