The Governess Was Wild
March 3, 1860
Somewhere on the road
between London and Yorkshire
Jane Ephram woke in the unremarkable room of an inn situated in a village of no consequence with the distinct impression that she was alone.
It took a half second for her usually sharp mind to begin whirring, but the moment the creaky cogs clicked together she bolted up in her cot. She was alone. The massive bed that dominated the center of the room was empty, and Lady Margaret Simon, only daughter of the Earl of Rawson, was nowhere to be seen.
Jane jumped up, rushed to the bed, and threw back the covers, hoping in vain that she’d discover Lady Margaret nestled somewhere underneath the mound of linen.
There was no sign of her charge.
“No no no,” she muttered as dread began to gnaw at her stomach.
Crossing the room, Jane threw open the doors of the tall armoire where Lady Margaret’s maid had stowed the hand luggage meant to save them the trouble of pulling their trunks down from Lord Rawson’s carriage every night. Jane’s modest, slightly tattered bag had fallen over, no longer supported by the most substantial weight of Lady Margaret’s smooth leather valise.
“Oh, you foolish girl!”
Jane didn’t curse—what governess would risk such vulgarity?—but in the bright light of the late-winter morning she was closer than she’d ever been in her life. This was her nightmare realized—the one that had made for restless sleep the last three nights on this slow progress to their exile at Lord Rawson’s West Riding estate.
Jane breathed deeply and tried to calm her already frayed nerves. Yes, the bed was empty, and yes, Lady Margaret’s bag was gone, but that didn’t necessarily mean she’d run off. Even the young lady who’d sulked during the entire journey from Rawson House on Berkeley Square to this little village couldn’t be so irresponsible. So selfish.
“She’s headstrong enough to ruin her reputation just to spite her father though,” Jane muttered.
She yanked at the ties of her night rail and ripped the plain garment with a patch on the right elbow over her head with lightning speed. She’d been dressing herself since she was seven, and that morning she couldn’t have been more grateful that she was used to lacing her own corset, strapping on the modest crinoline that went with her traveling dress, and working the long buttonhook down her back. She shoved her feet into her serviceable flat boots, snatched up her reticule, and sprinted from the room.
She clattered down the hall and up a small set of stairs to a floor of considerably less well-appointed rooms where Lady Margaret’s maid, a Highlands girl named Elspeth, slept. She rapped hard on the door, not stopping until the stiff bolt groaned in the lock.
“What do you want?” demanded a sleepy young woman with wild black hair escaping from its braid.
“Elspeth!” Jane called, peering around the woman’s shoulder. “Elspeth, get up right now.”
There was a muffled protest and the sound of sheets rumpling, but a few seconds later the maid was at the door of her shared room yawning, her cap slightly askew. “There’s no need to carry on like Revelations are upon us. I can’t have overslept. Not when you can hear every creak through these thin walls.”
“Where is Lady Margaret? Did she call on you to dress her?” Even as she asked, Jane knew the question was foolish, but there was still a part of her that hoped against all hope her charge hadn’t done something incredibly stupid. Maybe Lady Margaret had risen early and dressed to take a meal in a private room downstairs. Maybe if Jane wished hard enough, she could will that into being true.
Elspeth’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What’s the matter?”
“When was the last time you saw her?” she pushed. While Jane could ready herself for the day without assistance, Lady Margaret’s traveling costume was far too complicated to manage on her own. Besides, the young lady had likely never dressed without a maid’s assistance.
“I haven’t seen Lady Margaret since yesterday evening. She asked me to brush out her hair, but then told me that she wanted to undress herself because she was too tired for a fuss,” said Elspeth.
Jane rolled her eyes and prayed for the strength not to shake the gullible young woman. “When has Lady Margaret ever not wanted a fuss to be made over her?”
Elspeth’s face crumpled and the tears began to fall. “I didn’t think there was any harm in it.”
Of course there was harm in it, but Jane didn’t have the heart to berate the girl. She was just as culpable as Elspeth. She’d thought nothing of the fact that Lady Margaret was already in bed with the covers pulled up to her chin when she returned to the room yesterday night after having a word about their morning meal with the innkeeper’s wife. Jane had been exhausted from the slow, long journey in the carriage and wishing for the speed and comfort of the Midland Railway trains that would’ve brought them within five miles of Holmesfield Hall. She’d been distracted and careless and now the worst had happened.
“Elspeth, look at me,” Jane said. “There are times for crying, but right now is not one of them. I need you to think back to yesterday. Is there anything else that Lady Margaret did that struck you as odd?”
The maid hiccuped between sobs. “She asked me to get down a few things from her trunk and pack them in her valise. She said she wasn’t sure what she wanted to wear the next day.”
“Oh, Elspeth, you should’ve let me know!”
“I’m sorry!” Elspeth wailed. “I was so tired of being in that carriage. I just wanted to go to bed.”
“I know,” Jane said, trying once again to dull the sharpness in her tone. The maid was young and in many ways naive. How was she supposed to know what Jane had learned over ten years of teaching Lady Margaret—that the girl was crafty as a Whitechapel street urchin and just as slippery.
“Why didn’t we take the train?” Elspeth cried.
Jane didn’t have time to explain—yet again—that Lord and Lady Rawson felt traveling in a private carriage with no family crest through tiny villages would be far more anonymous than parading their daughter through the middle of Euston Station with her governess, maid, and a footman in tow. It would be too hard to maintain the pretense that Lady Margaret had fallen ill and was confined to her Yorkshire home for her convalescence if she was seen healthy and traveling on one of the country’s most trafficked railways.
“Elspeth.” Jane gripped the girl by the shoulders. “I need you to dress.”
“Where are you going?” Elspeth asked, her sobs replaced by a hint of panic.
“To see if anyone saw Lady Margaret leave. If we’re lucky, she might not have too much of a head start.”
The maid sniffled but nodded before withdrawing.
Jane turned on the hard heel of her boot and swept down the passageway, trying her best to rationalize the situation as she went. Lady Margaret had always been the sort to push boundaries before pulling back and smoothing ruffled feathers with cooing words and sweet smiles. Several times she’d run off from Jane while they’d shopped on Bond Street, only to be found a few hours later enjoying a cup of tea with an equally willful friend in the back of a tearoom, chaperoned by the well-meaning but far too indulgent Elspeth. But Lady Margaret’s latest stunt—well, that had been a step too far for Lord and Lady Rawson.
Jane hadn’t been in the room two weeks ago when Lady Margaret announced to her mother and father that she’d secretly become engaged to Mr. James Lawrence, but she—and no doubt the rest of Mayfair—had heard the ensuing row. Lady Margaret had made a vast miscalculation if she thought that the earl and countess would allow their only child to attach herself to a man with no prospects, no title, and no fortune who’d engaged himself to two heiresses in as many seasons before jilting the poor women for richer prey. They immediately forbade their daughter from seeing or communicating with Mr. Lawrence again.
This, naturally, only made Lady Margaret try harder to continue her attachment to the roguish and admittedly dashing young man. When, a week after the ill-fated engagement announcement, Lady Rawson had discovered a stack of letters from Mr. Lawrence stashed among her daughter’s needlework, she’d ordered the girl packed off to Yorkshire. Locked away in the great house to think about the life-changing mistake she’d nearly made, Lady Margaret would be able to do far less damage to her reputation than she could while surrounded by temptations of London. It would also give the earl time to arrange a meeting, open his bankbook, and pay off Mr. Lawrence to end the engagement discreetly. That would be that.
And Jane? She’d simply been collateral damage in the war between daughter and parents—the governess caught up in the middle of a family dispute. She was going north as well, away from the few friends she had in London. She’d always wanted to travel, to see the world outside of the confines of a governess’s restricted, disciplined life, but this wasn’t what she’d had in mind.
On the ground floor, Jane pushed open the door to the inn’s public dining room. It was empty except for the innkeeper’s daughter, who’d served them the night before.
“The young lady I was traveling with,” Jane called out to the girl. “Have you seen her?”
The girl started but dropped her gaze to the counter she was wiping down. “I haven’t seen anyone today, ma’am.”
The girl was lying, not that it was surprising. Lady Margaret had a way about her that drew people in, and those she couldn’t win over were usually more than happy to put their loyalty up for sale.
“What’s your name?” Jane asked, trying to keep her voice light and friendly.
“Sally,” the girl mumbled.
“Sally, Lady Margaret isn’t in her room. That means that she has to have come downstairs at some point. Since I doubt she would have thought to go through the kitchen, I assume she walked through here. Now, I want you to answer me honestly this time. Did you see Lady Margaret this morning?”
“My horse!” A man’s voice cut through the quiet of the morning. “Someone’s stolen my damned horse!”
Jane groaned and picked up her skirts. Only Lady Margaret could stir up that sort of frustration in a person before breakfast.
She rushed outside to find a tall, imposing man standing at the door of the inn’s large stable. He was gesturing wildly with a riding crop, a long lock of his blond hair falling into his eyes as though a rake of his hands had knocked it out of place.
“Excuse me, sir,” Jane called as she forced herself to put one foot in front of the other, striding toward the avenging god while keeping a close eye on the crop. It wasn’t as though she thought the man would use it on her, but it made her nervous nonetheless.
“What?” the man snapped, whirling around. As soon as he discovered who had addressed him, he sucked a breath in and said, “I’m sorry, madam. You’ve caught me at a disadvantage.”
“Your horse has been stolen.”
Instead of starting to yell again, as she expected, the man offered a crooked grin and whacked the crop sheepishly against the top of one of his muddy boots. “Is it that obvious?”
Jane blinked, caught up in his smile. “I—I did manage to overhear something about it.”
“I also apologize for that. I don’t usually make a habit of yelling curses in public before breakfast.”
“And after breakfast?” she asked.
The man’s eyebrows jerked up. “Only on special occasions, of course.”
“Of course. Well,” she said, bracing herself for their conversation to turn sour, “I might be able to shed some light on the situation.”
Sure enough, the man’s eyes became slits. “What do you know about Merlin’s disappearance?”
A laugh bubbled up to her lips. “Merlin?”
“It’s a perfectly sensible name for a horse,” said the man, his tone a little defensive.
Except it wasn’t. Not really. The thought of a man as powerfully masculine as he was doing something as fanciful as naming a horse after an old wizard in a children’s tale was strangely touching.
She could see the veins in his neck tense so she kept her opinion to herself. “The young lady I was traveling with was not in her bed this morning.”
“You think that she stole my horse?” he asked incredulously, cutting straight through her delicate choice of words.
“I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility.”
“I think not.”
It was Jane’s turn to look skeptical. “Why?”
“Merlin stands fifteen hands high and snaps like a badger defending its den. He’s too much for anyone but the most skilled rider.”
“Lady Margaret is the best horsewoman in the West Riding and rides to hounds with the most talented sporting men in the county,” she said, drawing herself up to her full height. She might be furious with her charge, but Jane would still defend the young lady’s skill. “She’s more than capable.”
“Of handling a stallion that goes like a bat out of hell—excuse my language?”
Oh, how little he knew. “That sounds like exactly the sort of horse Lady Margaret would’ve chosen.”
The man looked shocked. “She’ll break her neck.”
“That’s part of the appeal, I’m sure.”
The man smacked the riding crop against his boot again, though this time there was nothing but anger fueling the gesture. Jane flinched, and his mouth tensed into a thin line. “I don’t even use the thing when I ride. I’m not entirely sure why I continue to carry a whip.”
“Tradition, perhaps,” she said, her eyes not leaving the crop.
“A silly tradition at best.” He let it go so and it fell, harmless in the packed dirt of the innyard.
“Thank you,” she said. “I understand why a crop is used, but I’ve never been able to reconcile myself to put it into practice.” Not that governesses rode all that often . . .
“Supposing that your Lady Margaret has Merlin, where would she be going?”
Oh, Jane had a pretty good idea. She’d known since she pulled back the covers and found the young woman’s bed cold, but she hadn’t wanted to admit it. Not when it seemed she’d be able to chase her charge down and talk some sense into her. But now . . . now a plan was quickly forming in her head. A crazy plan, but a plan nonetheless.
“I have some thoughts,” she said slowly.
“If you care to share those details, I’d appreciate it.”
He shifted his weight from side to side like an eager pugilist waiting for his opponent. His whole body seemed primed for action, ready to sprint off and ride Lady Margaret down. He was just the sort of man she was going to need to try to catch up with her errant charge and force her back on the road to Holmesfield Hall before the girl ruined both of their futures.
Jane put on her brightest smile and prepared herself for battle. “I’ll be happy to tell you, sir, as long as you promise to take me with you.”
Nicholas stared long and hard at the pretty woman whose blond ringlets spilled alluringly out of her simple chignon, not entirely sure he’d heard her correctly.
“Take you with me?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, her voice soft but clear. “I’m afraid I must go along.”
“No.” Of course she couldn’t come along. He’d be riding at breakneck speed, doing everything he could to retrieve Merlin and get to Lord Ashby’s home for his appointment in a week’s time. The last thing he needed was a lady slowing him down, and he certainly didn’t want this woman there with her big blue eyes and lips so full they seemed almost indecent.
“I’m afraid those are my terms,” she said, arms crossed. He’d lived his entire life outnumbered by women, and he could spot her determination from twenty paces out. But she wasn’t coming with him.
“This is not a negotiation,” he said.
“I don’t see why not. I have information you want, and you can offer me the protection I wouldn’t have if I were to travel alone.”
Nicholas pressed his thumb and index finger to his forehead, trying to fend off the headache that was building behind his eyes. “You’d be no safer with me than you would on your own. Surely you must see that.”
She shook her head.
This was exactly like trying to reason with one of his sisters. “Madam, you are a lady and I am a bachelor. It would be unthinkably improper for us to travel together unchaperoned.”
He knew he sounded like a disapproving matron, but that didn’t change the fact that he was right.
But if he expected her to wilt, he was sorely mistaken. The woman stared at him, blinking her long lashes a couple of times, and then promptly burst into laughter. “It’s very generous of you to think I’m a lady, sir, but you can rest assured there’s no danger here. You see, I’m a governess.”
Nicholas couldn’t school the surprise off his face quickly enough to hide it. A governess? Her? His sisters’ governesses had all been meek older women who seemed to fold in on themselves whenever he spoke to any of them. They had allowed his sisters to run roughshod over them before one after another had handed in their notice for no doubt easier assignments. He couldn’t accept that this woman who seemed to almost radiate with life could be cut from the same glum cloth.
“You’re not a governess,” he said.
“I swear as I live and breathe that I am,” she said, the corners of her eyes still crinkled in amusement.
He crossed his arms in a mirror of hers. “Then you certainly can’t travel with me. Your reputation is just as fragile as any young lady’s. You’ll be ruined if anyone finds out that you traveled alone with a man.”
She arched a brow. “And I won’t be ruined if it’s discovered I’ve lost my charge? If I don’t find Lady Margaret, I’ll be dismissed without a letter of reference. I can promise you that I’ll never find employment in England again, because who would want to hire the governess who can’t control the young lady she was supposed to be minding?”
She was right. Damn it, she was right. He might’ve lost Merlin when her Lady Margaret ran off in the night, but this woman had further to fall than he.
“I can see your point,” he conceded with a sigh. It appeared that he was losing this argument whether he liked it or not.
She had the good manners to look only slightly smug. “What if we strike a deal?”
“What sort of a deal?” he asked, still a little bowled over by this shrewdly dealing woman who happened to look like the perfect English rose. It was fortunate that ladies with her genteel manners weren’t allowed in London’s gaming halls because she would’ve been a menace at the table, widening those huge, innocent eyes while efficiently fleecing everyone out of their winnings by the end of the night.
“Agree to take me along to find Lady Margaret, and I’ll tell you where I think she’s heading. You’ll do better with me by your side anyway,” she said.
He already knew he was caving, but still he asked, “How’s that?”
The lady shrugged. “I know her. You can be certain she’s not traveling under her name, and since you don’t know what she looks like, she’ll be hard to spot.”
That was unfortunately an excellent point.
“We would be traveling swiftly,” he warned.
“I can ride quite well, considering.”
“Considering what?” he asked sharply.
A light dusting of the most appealing pink flushed over her cheeks. “It’s just an expression.”
He could tell she was lying and so he pushed again. “It will be hard on the road. If I’m to chase this Lady Margaret, we won’t be stopping at inns every time it begins to rain, and since it’s March it will rain. Cold, miserable rain that goes on for hours.”
The woman lifted her chin. “I will have you know that I’m not some delicate flower.”
Oh, but she looked like one. She was fine boned and straw blond—a ray of sunlight on the first day of spring. Her lips were as red as cherries in the snow, and her carriage betrayed her natural elegance. She made a man want to ride up on his steed like Saint George, brandishing a broadsword and proclaiming he was ready to fight for her. Except he suspected she didn’t need his help at all when it came to slaying dragons.
Knowing that he was probably making a huge mistake, Nicholas sent up a plea to whichever god looked after men who found themselves outsmarted by pretty women. “Fine. You can come with.”
“I’m so glad you’ve come ’round,” she said, losing the fight against the smile that threatened to spread over her lips. She looked positively delighted, as though he’d asked her to take a jaunt in a riverboat on a sunny day rather than ride like the devil through the Midlands.
“We’ll see how glad you are when you spend all day in the saddle,” he said with another look at the sky. “I’d bet five pounds it’s going to rain.”
She followed his gaze and frowned, little lines etching her otherwise smooth forehead. “Well, it isn’t as though the day could get any worse.”