Chapter One: Miss Middleton goes Home to Gloucestershire
The newly invested Earl of Treyhern stood at his bedroom window, absently sipping tepid coffee, and pondering the state of his life, when his black traveling coach spun merrily into the long drive, returning from its errand in the nearby village of Cheston. An ancient dray, which the earl did not recognize, rumbled along in the coach's wake. Lord Treyhern gazed wearily across the perfectly manicured lawns of Chalcote Court, watching as the faint November daylight reflected off the carriage roof, and wondering what next he ought to do.
He did not care for life's uncertainties, for he was a precise, controlling sort of man. And yet, the preceding month had been a difficult one; harder somehow than he had expected. It had brought home to him the stark realization that while his father's death had removed an undeniable burden from his life, it had been by no means the only one.
Indeed, following the sudden departure of her most recent -- albeit incompetent -- governess, Ariane had crawled ever deeper into her dark silence, and he was at a loss as to what should be done for the child. In all of his twenty-nine years, the earl had never felt so alone, nor so old.
As his valet moved quietly about, neatening his room, Camden studied the carriage, its yellow wheels spinning inexorably toward the front door as it trundled beneath the blazing oaks which lined the drive. And as his eyes followed its progress, Cam began to fervently pray that it held at least a part of what his life so desperately needed right now. Oddly enough, he had the most fanciful feeling that it did, and he was not a man much given to optimism or prognostication.
He could hear the crunch of gravel as his coachman neared the steps which led down into the sweeping circular drive. In a flash, a liveried footman trotted dutifully down to open the door, a second following to unload the luggage. Through the open carriage door, Cam saw an arm extend gracefully; saw the flash of white skin just where her cuff met her glove. Surprisingly, both sleeve and glove were a deep, rich shade of purple, like a well-cut amethyst viewed by candlelight. Subdued, but nonetheless opulent.
At a glance, neither her attire nor her bearing looked quite like that of a governess, and yet, Cam could not have said precisely why that was so. She stepped down into the drive, her burnished black tresses swept tightly up in what Cam always thought of as "governess hair." But once again, on this woman, the arrangement looked strangely paradoxical, particularly so when topped by a dark purple hat, trimmed with a rakishly tilted black feather.
The footmen were unloading her luggage now as she stood beside the dray, gesturing her instructions to them in a decidedly bold, Gallic way. Good God! Had the woman come to stay forever? A veritable heap of boxes and trunks seemed to be accumulating in his driveway. Cam was taken aback; he had never known a governess to own so many things, let alone to travel with them.
Somehow, it seemed inappropriate. This was the country, and she would have little need of such fripperies and fineries, if that was what her luggage held. Indeed, what else could it be? Cam recollected that Miss de Severs's decidedly French name had initially given him pause when Brightsmith recommended her. Perhaps his hesitation had been justified. What Cam had wanted was a sturdy, stoic Englishwoman, yet as the pile of baggage grew, he began to be very much afraid that was not at all what he'd got.
Damn his luck to hell.
"Crane!" the earl called sharply to the valet who was busily brushing his frock coat. "What sort of luggage do you make that out to be, eh?"
The portly valet stepped up to the glass and peered down at the drive. "Well, my lord...'tis mostly packing crates, I should say. Four o' them." He squinted mightily. "Aye, with two trunks, a dressing case, a small leather valise, and a portmanteau. All trussed up with a length of rope, that one is."
"Good eye," mumbled Lord Treyhern. His gaze left the mountain of luggage to study his new employee. He could not help himself; Helene de Severs was fascinating, even at a distance. She was a tall woman, yet she moved across the drive with an almost athletic grace. Not the mincing steps and rigid hips of most women, but a leggy, confident stride, her shoulders back, and her chin up.
Her cloak was of the severest black, her gown suitably trimmed for a house in mourning, and yet she seemed to glow with inner radiance. He could not help but wonder at the color of her eyes. Something exotic, most likely.
Then, just as Cam lifted the lukewarm cup to his lips, the new governess looked up to smile beatifically at the helpful footman, and Cam sucked in his breath with an audible gasp, very nearly choking on his coffee.
Bloody hell, it was Helene!
Not Helene de Severs. Helene Middleton. What the devil was she doing here? Despite the passage of eleven barren years, and the utter destruction of all his youthful fantasies, Cam truly believed that he would have known her anywhere. His first thought was that his elderly coachman had taken up the wrong passenger; that somewhere in the dust and disorder of the Rose and Crown stood a bewildered and abandoned governess. The real governess. A plain, sensible, middle-aged woman in proper, wrenlike attire. But there was no mistake. He knew it with a certainty.
Dear God! Cam had prayed hard for a miracle, advertised repeatedly for a governess, and yet what had the Good Lord and old Brightsmith conspired to send him? Helene! The unusual name had immediately drawn his eye when first he had skimmed her letter of introduction, the very sight of the word submerging him in warm memories of his nascent sensuality. Inexplicably, he had not slept well since. Perhaps his subconscious had held fast to those same memories this sen'night past. Perhaps he had even been hoping to see her.
Oh no. He had hoped never to see Helene Middleton again.
Helene found herself ushered into a vast but simply furnished gentleman's study, then offered refreshment, which she summarily declined. Left alone to await his lordship's pleasure, she cast her eyes about the room, taking in its obviously masculine warmth. In one corner, a fat ginger tabby snoozed peacefully, her impressive breadth taking up the better part of a stout leather armchair, one white foot hanging over the edge.
"Ah, le chat botté," murmured Helene, kneeling down. "Bonjour!"
The desultory cat greeted her with a wide, toothy yawn, extended one leg in a tremulous stretch, then returned to her nap, leaving Helene to her own devices. She strolled through the room, which was broad and deep, and filled with sturdy, simple furniture. This was a room she had never seen before, of that she was certain. More of a library, really, for a huge desk sat in its center, and massive bookshelves ran from floor to ceiling along three walls. In the center of the rear wall was a deep, Jacobean window with a tattered cushion laid across its seat.
It was the first tattered thing she had seen at Chalcote Court, beginning with the elegant stone gateposts which flanked the drive, to the obviously new Turkish carpets which warmed the massive entry hall. Quite a contrast to the crumbling manor house she remembered from her youth. Obviously, the new Lord Treyhern had gotten the whip hand on his dissolute sire before the place collapsed into the pile of Cotswold rubble from whence it had sprung.
Helene's gaze traveled across the walls as she paced the room's length. Books of every type were methodically shelved, apparently by subject, then size. Adjacent to the window seat, one entire bookcase had been given over to poetry, some of it of very recent origin. She pulled a well-worn volume from one shelf, and it fell easily open. To her surprise, the poem was one of her favorites, "Beauty Like the Night" by Lord Byron.
Thoughtfully, she slid it back and let her eyes skim across the titles. How very odd it was. The late, and probably not too lamented Randolph Rutledge had never given the impression of having literary inclinations. But then, if Helene's memory served, his lordship had inherited Chalcote Court from his Camden in-laws, hence his eldest son's name. Perhaps these finely bound books were theirs? Perhaps they were even Cam's.
Inwardly, Helene laughed at her foolishness. Of course, they were Cam's. The new Lord Treyhern had always been heir to Chalcote, under the terms of his mother's marriage settlements. But somewhere along the way, old "Randy" Rutledge had got himself an earldom, then passed it along to his eldest, too. The title had come from an ancient great-uncle, or so Nanny had learned. But Rutledge had held it less than two months before keeling over -- probably from celebratory excesses, Helene did not doubt. Oddly enough, Helene had no recollection of a title hanging about in the Rutledge family tree, but she would have bet her last sou that Maman had been keenly aware.
Despite the passage of time, however, Gloucestershire, and indeed Chalcote itself, seemed very much the same, and Helene was struck by how...well, how comfortable it felt to return. Not at all as she had feared. And why should she be afraid? She had been only seventeen when last she had come to Chalcote. Cam had been young, too. And they had been the best of friends. He would be glad, perhaps, that she had come.
Yet that optimistic thought had barely taken root when the study door flew open as if propelled inward by an unholy power, squashing all of Helene's tenuous hopes against the wall as it jarred the adjacent picture frame. The tabby sailed off her perch and pattered across the carpet with a throaty trill of greeting.
And suddenly, there he was. A man grown. And a fine specimen of manhood, at that. Not that Helene had harbored any doubt whatsoever on that score. As a boy, he had been lean and graceful. As a man, he was large and overpowering. Indeed, even her sudden fear could not obliterate the sheer physical presence of Camden Rutledge in a foul temper. And unless she missed her guess, such was his mood. Well! C'est la vie! Helene gave him a muted smile.
Clearly dressed for the country, Cam paused to stare heatedly at her for a moment, his broad shoulders filling the doorway. His long, booted legs were set wide; his stance rigid. Obviously, Lord Treyhern had come down in some haste, for he had not paused to don his frock coat, and stood before her now in his rolled linen shirtsleeves and plain waistcoat. He looked for all the world like an irate young squire who had just discovered a vagrant poaching his pheasants.
The effect of this intimidating entrance was somewhat diminished, however, when the ginger cat began to purr resonantly, twining herself sensually back and forth around his topboots in a gesture which clearly belied his cruelty.
"Welcome to Chalcote, Miss de Severs," he said, ignoring the cat. "Or is it not Miss Middleton? You look so very much alike, I vow, I cannot make it out."
"You were ever a wit, my lord." Helene gave a light, casual laugh as she dropped into a smooth curtsey. "Can you forgive the confusion? For in truth, I have always been Helene de Severs."
"Indeed?" he replied, strolling into the room. "I never heard you called so."
"Maman's first husband, my lord -- ? That rather obscure Frenchman who lost his head in the September massacres? I'm given to understand that he was my father, but perhaps Maman thought the pretense made her seem younger. Too many husbands, you know...not very bon ton."
"Ah!" he answered sharply. "And your mother...?" Cam lifted one hand in the barest gesture of civility, then flicked it toward the desk to show that she might sit down. "Mrs. Middleton is, I hope, w -- "
"Dead, my lord," interjected Helene, sinking gratefully into the proffered chair. "After the war she died in Paris. Cholera. Since then, I have rarely come back to England. Which is to say, only if Nanny needed me."
Cam took a seat behind the wide mahogany desk and laid his hands flat against the desktop, pressing down as if the act might restrain his own emotions, which were plainly in turmoil. "I knew none of this," he said at last. "I'm sorry for Mrs. Middleton's death. I am sure you feel her loss very deeply."
"Yes, much to my amazement, I do," Helene admitted. "And allow me to extend my condolences on the death of your father, my lord. I pray your brother and sister are well?"
Something which looked like exasperation flared in Cam's eyes. "Catherine married too young, and Bentley is floundering at Oxford," he answered with a curt half-nod. "But I suppose they are well enough."
Helene bowed her head deferentially, pausing to gather her scattered wits. Despite the fact that she had had ten days in which to prepare herself, it was difficult to maintain the semblance of professionalism while in the presence of this man. This man.
The word shocked her still. For Cam was more than a man grown; he had a hint of silver glinting at his temples. The boyishly attractive face was gone, too, the skin now drawn taut and closer to the bone, and darkened by the shadow of a heavy beard. No less handsome, but far more intimidating.
In her own mind, Helene supposed, she had irrationally fixed him forever in time. There, in her daydreams, and sometimes in her nocturnal fantasies, Cam would always be her gentle, laughing beau. Nonetheless, it took but one quick glance at the harshly drawn lines of Cam's face, and just a scant few moments of conversation, to see that the love of her life had grown dour, distant, and humorless.
"It has been rather a long time, my lord," she said quietly, lifting her eyes to his. "I feel the passage of it most keenly." And there, for the briefest moment, she saw his gaze soften.
"Yes, a very long time," he murmured, then set his hands firmly down on the desktop again. Surprisingly, her heart lurched when he then absently lifted one up again, raking his fingers through his thick, black hair in a boyish, achingly familiar gesture. The awkward cowlick which had always plagued him was still there, she saw. Inwardly, she smiled at the memory, and tried not to permit the familiar wave of bitterness to surge forth.
He stared at her blankly for a long moment. "I -- well! Indeed, Helene, I cannot think how this has happened."
"How what has happened, my lord?"
"Your returning here. To Chalcote. After so many years."
"It is a rather simple matter, I collect," she answered dryly. "I am a particular sort of...of governess. And you required a teacher of children who are -- "
"You, Helene?" he interjected. "A governess? I vow, I never could have dreamt such a thing."
"Really, Lord Treyhern?" she asked archly, emphasizing his title. "Whatever did you fancy would become of me?"
She watched the muscle in his jaw harden and twitch. "Why, I am sure I had no notion," he said at last.
Oh, but I think you did, she responded, but with her eyes, not her lips. "Rest assured, my lord, that I am relatively untarnished by my mother's reputation," she coolly returned. "I am respected in my field. Indeed, your money has bought you rather more than a governess. I believe my training and experience speaks for itself, but if you do not wish to avail yourself of it, someone else will be glad to do so."
Cam swallowed hard. She watched the movements of his throat with fascination. "Yes, yes! To be sure," he admitted vaguely.
Suddenly, Helene found herself a little angry at her new employer's veiled remarks and pregnant silences. In the years since she'd left Gloucestershire, Helene had learned to govern her wild exuberance and passionate nature, but her temper was far less obliging. "Forgive me, Lord Treyhern. I grow weary of having my past suspiciously poked and prodded. Might we discuss your daughter?"
Cam took an obvious exception to her tone, jerking from his desk chair and crossing to the wide bow window. He stared silently through the glass, one hand set at his narrow hips, the other absently massaging the muscles in the back of his neck. In the weak morning sun, a sprinkling of dark hair was visible across the corded tendons of his raised forearm.
"I do not believe, Helene, that this is wise." His voice was thick with some emotion she could not identify. "Indeed, it just won't do. I think you know it as well as I."
"Quelle sottise, Cam!" she exploded, rising from her seat to stride after him. "Particularly when your daughter is in want of help! What do you think really matters here? Your pride? My sensibilities? I like this no better than you, but there is a child who must come first."
"I am only too well aware of that, Helene," he snapped.
Helene softened her tone. "The child requires a teacher -- and a good one, from all I have heard. Moreover, I accepted your offer and signed your contract, all without knowing who you were. But upon learning it, I have kept my word. I will go, and gladly, if you will release me from our agreement. But if you wish me to stay, I want to see Ariane now."
Cam turned to look at her, his straight dark brows drawing taut across his eyes. "No, Helene. I am afraid it is out of the question."
"Why?" she demanded. "Because of my mother's reputation?"
"No. But Helene -- after what has passed between us, I cannot -- you cannot possibly think -- "
"Think what, for God's sake?" Helene's voice took on a bitter edge. "I can assure you, my lord, that I think of nothing but your daughter's welfare. You and I were naught but friends. At worst, we were two forsaken children, thrown together by selfish parents. I was fond of you, and you of me. Is that such a bad thing?"
Almost of its own volition, her hand reached out to rest lightly upon his shoulder. Despite her height, she had to reach up to do so. As if under her command, Cam sunk down into the window seat, and pressed the heel of one palm against his brow.
"No," he answered at last. "For the most part, it was a very good thing, our friendship. And it came at a time when I needed a friend. Rather badly, perhaps."
Helene's knees turned to pudding at his frank response, and she realized how close she had been standing. Stepping slightly backward, she let her hand slide away. "Perhaps you need a friend now, my lord. It is no small matter to bury a parent, no matter their failings. No one understands that fact better than I. And your daughter, she concerns you greatly, does she not?"
Cam stared at her, unblinking. "I have changed, Helene," he said simply.
She laughed unsteadily. "My lord, we are none of us what we once were. You and I, well, we are all grown up now. We may do as we please, just as we always wished. And yet, for my part, I feel decidedly old."
"You do not look old," he answered gruffly. "You look the very same. I would have known you anywhere."
When she made no further response, Cam rose and pulled the bell. "I must think on this, Helene. Milford will show you to your room. Please make yourself -- " His words faltered for a moment. "Please make yourself at home here. We'll speak again tomorrow."
As she stood to leave, the cat rose, stretched languidly, then crossed the room to leap up onto a folded newspaper which had been left atop the desk. Cam followed Helene's every move as his butler ushered her from the room.
"Damn it, Boadicea!" he growled to the ginger cat after the door thumped shut. "What the devil was I thinking? Why did I not simply send her away?"
Boadicea stared at him, blinked her eyes slowly, then stretched out a coppery leg and began to nibble between her toes. It was probably the most sagacious response one could expect, given the sheer stupidity of his behavior. Perhaps, Cam inwardly admitted, Helene was an excellent teacher. Nonetheless, he was not sure he could bear to have her beneath his roof. Helene enticed a man to live his life as if it were meant for laughter and pleasure. A tempting but treacherous illusion, that.
Violently, he shoved his chair back from the desk, much to his cat's disapproval. Ignoring her glare, Cam told himself to get a grip on his thoughts. He was no green lad now. The woman was just a damned governess, for pity's sake. But she was right about one thing. His overriding concern had to be Ariane's welfare, and if Helene was as gifted as her references would have one believe, could he in all fairness to the child send her away? Life's challenges, which had seemed merely plentiful a quarter-hour ago, now seemed innumerable.
"And there are Bentley and Cousin Joan to sort out, as well," Cam murmured to Boadicea. "Bentley, I fear, will soon come to a bad end. And Aunt Belmont! God preserve me from her! I feel perplexed by it all."
The cat stretched out on the desktop with a low rumble of contentment, but otherwise had little to offer. Nor did Cam, for that matter. His young brother, Bentley, was an eternal font of misfortune. Although the boy had returned to Oxford after the funeral, disturbing rumors of his progress, or lack thereof, had already reached Cheston-on-the-Water. Not even Cam's wealth would be able to buy his brother another chance this time.
As to his Cousin Joan, she would shortly be eighteen, and Cam could sense that Aunt Belmont was anxious for him to announce their betrothal, and save her the expense of a London season. Cam kept telling himself that he was glad; that his aunt's zeal would help propel him forward into the future, for he had been too long mired in the past.
And yet, he did nothing. It was time to stop waiting, always waiting. And what the devil was he waiting for, anyway? For the hole in his heart to be filled by something greater than himself? Perhaps Joan was up to the task, though he was hard-pressed to feel much enthusiasm.
Nonetheless, he would do his duty. A Belmont match had been his mother's dearest wish, for her father had had no sons, so he had divided his land between his two daughters, with the vague hope that it might be reunited by a marriage between cousins.
But over the years, those dreams and many more had been tossed to the wind like so much cold ash, with Randy Rutledge hefting the shovel.
Now, however, things had changed. Cam was a wealthy widower, and Joan was of an age for marriage. There was an understanding. And no one could deny his cousin's suitability as a wife, for she was quiet, subtle, and delicate. Indeed, Joan would never challenge a man's opinion, poke her nose into his business, or leave him tossing and turning in his bed until dawn. And Joan would never wear purple, nor set such a rakish feather in her hat.
In the darkness, she listened. The pretty lady with the lilting voice was gone now. But Papa was still talking to his cat. Papa was perplexed. Per-plexed. She liked the sound that word made in her head. She shaped it with her lips, careful to let no noise escape.
Her leg was numb now. It was squashed against the door of Milford's service pantry. Quietly, carefully, she twisted about in her tiny cubbyhole beneath the shelves. Ooh, ooh! Pins-and-needles! She rubbed her leg, waiting for the pain to go away. She wanted out. She wanted to slip away, to follow the lady upstairs. But Milford was rumbling about in the parlor now, and Papa was still in his study. She was trapped between them.
She knew why the lady had come. Oh, yes. The lady was here to make her talk. They would sit together in the schoolroom, and the lady would show her the pictures on paper. The lady would say words, and scratch them with chalk, like little white birch twigs, onto the slate.
Anxiously, she shifted her weight again. Why, oh, why did Milford not leave? She wanted to follow, to see the lady up close. Miss Eggers had been bouncy and round like Mama, with...sunshine hair. The new one was like Milford. Like Milford but not like him at all. Tall and...and willowy, yes. But pretty, not ugly. Papa called her...not Miss something, but...Helene.
Hay-leen. Hay-leen. She said the word in her head, just as Papa did, with a little lilt at the end.
Well, well! Papa was per-plexed by Hay-leen. She wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing. She did not know. But she would find out. In the dark, Ariane suppressed a giggle.
In the dead silence which remained in the wake of Helene's departure, Cam could hear a mouse scrabbling about in the walls of the service pantry. There seemed to be rather a lot of them in the house lately. He pushed back his chair and glared at Boadicea, who now snoozed lazily atop his morning paper.
Abruptly, he rose from his seat to pace about in the oppressive stillness, letting his indignation fill the emptiness. Crossing the rug with long strides, Cam seized the poker and jabbed viciously at the coals until they sprang into full flame. Helene's flashing dark blue eyes had always been able to heat a room, and her departure had seemingly stripped all warmth from this one.
Abruptly, he was roused from his introspection by a loud, rapid knock.
Copyright © 2000 by S.T. Woodhouse