Temptation of a Governess

By: Sarah Mallory
Chapter One

The April sun shone down brightly on the low-slung racing curricle as it bowled through the lanes and Alex Arrandale felt the winter gloom lifting from his spirits. A gloom that had settled and remained with him since he had heard of the shipwreck that had taken the life of his brother James and made him, Alex, the eighth Earl of Davenport. He had neither expected nor wanted the succession. James was only two years his senior and, at thirty, everyone had thought there was plenty of time for him and his countess to produce an heir. That was why the couple had set out on their sea journey, sailing south to warmer climes that the doctors advised might help improve Margaret’s health and allow her to conceive and carry a boy child full-term. The couple already had a healthy little girl, but a series of miscarriages had left the countess very worn down.

They had never reached the Mediterranean, a storm off Gibraltar in October had run their ship aground and all lives had been lost. The news had reached Alex several weeks later and the depth of his grief had been profound. Even now, six months on, he still wore a black cravat as a sign of his loss. In all other aspects of his life his friends found him unchanged. He had spent the winter as he always did, at a succession of house parties where hunting, gambling and flirting were the order of the day. Only his closest friend saw anything amiss in his frantic pleasure-seeking.

‘Everyone thinks it is because you do not care,’ Mr Gervase Wollerton told him, in a moment of uncharacteristic perception. ‘I think you care too much.’

Perhaps that was so, thought Alex as he slowed and turned his high-bred team of match greys through the gates leading to Chantreys, but he had been earl for a while now and it was time he made a few changes.

The drive curved between trees that were not yet in full leaf and sunlight dappled the track. Alex slowed, conscious that there might be holes and ruts after the winter. He was just emerging from the woods when he spotted a figure sitting on a fallen tree, not far from the side of the road. It was a young woman with a sketchbook. She had cast aside her bonnet and her red hair glinted with gold in the sunlight. He knew her immediately. He had not seen her for years but the red hair was unmistakable. It was Diana Grensham, sister of the drowned countess and governess to her only child and the other Arrandale waif who had been taken into the late earl’s household. She was so engrossed in her work that she did not even notice his arrival. Alex drew his team to a halt and regarded her for a long moment, taking in the dainty figure clad in a serviceable gown of green and yellow and with her wild red hair gleaming about her head like a halo.

‘Good afternoon, Miss Grensham.’

She looked up, regarding him with a clear, steady gaze. Her eyes, he noted, were unusual, nut brown but flecked with green and while she was no beauty her countenance was lively and her full mouth had an upward tilt, as if a smile was never far away.

‘Afternoon?’ Her voice was soft, musical and held a hint of laughter. ‘Heavens, is it so late already?’

‘You are not surprised to see me?’

She closed her sketchbook and rose to her feet.

‘I knew you would come at some point, my lord,’ she told him. ‘It would have been better if you had given us notice, but I am sure Mrs Wallace will be able to find some refreshment suitable for you. If you would care to drive round to the stables I will go and tell her.’

She took a few halting, uneven steps and he called out to her.

‘Let me take you to the house. Stark, get down and hand the lady into the curricle.’

She stopped and turned, saying with a challenge in her voice, ‘Because I am a cripple?’

‘No,’ he replied mildly. ‘Because I want to talk to you.’

She handed her sketch book and pencils to the groom and climbed easily into the seat unaided, affording Alex a glimpse of embroidered white stockings beneath her skirts. He could not recall ever being told why she limped, but there was clearly no deformity in those shapely ankles, or in the dainty feet encased in the neat but serviceable boots.

When she would have taken her sketching things back Alex stopped her.

‘Stark can carry them to the house. It is a fine day, let us drive around the park before we go in. I want to talk to you about the children.’ Without waiting for her assent he set the greys in motion. ‘I hope you do not mind?’

‘Do I have any choice?’

‘I thought it might be easier to talk out here than in the house.’

‘You are probably right,’ she told him. ‘You are a favourite with the girls and they will want you to themselves as soon as they know you are arrived.’ She added thoughtfully, ‘Although Meggie might demand to know why you have not been to see them before this.’