She was surely going to die.
The carriage had rolled, skidded, and dumped them into a tight crevice and was now teetering directly above their heads, ready to complete its topple and utterly crush them. Rough hands grabbed her and moved her several feet over.
“Stand right here,” the voice attached to the hands commanded. It was deep and authoritative, like a man who was used to giving orders and having them instantly obeyed. “You there, stand near her and brace it with your hands.”
“Hello? Can you hear me?” a terrorized voice above the carriage called to them. It was their driver.
“We’re alive,” the commanding voice responded immediately. “All standing.”
“Thank God. I will go for help. The horses are gone and there’s no way I can haul that carriage out myself.”
She heard a groan and a muttered curse. “Go back to my carriage and get the horses and my driver to help,” the commanding voice called back. “Just hurry, I don’t know how long this thing will last before it falls on top of us!”
“Yes, sir. I will return as fast as I can.”
The commanding voice must belong to the military officer. He had just joined their carriage a mile back when his own had lost a wheel. He had left his driver and carriage to join theirs, clearly in a hurry to reach London by nightfall. The other passenger was a young man, probably about her age— she would guess him to be 19 or 20 years old.
At this rate they might never see London again.
“Help me to prop it up,” the military officer commanded. He was endeavoring to wedge sticks and branches up between the rock surface and the carriage to lessen the chance of it falling.
“Here’s one,” the younger man said as he handed him another branch, then turned to search in the dark crevice for additional branches that might be used. She did the same, her hands trembling and her eyes trying to adjust to the darkness. She’d hurt her neck when she was thrown out of the carriage and hit the floor of the crevice, and her shoulder ached badly as well.
She found a thick, but short stick. It probably wouldn’t do any good. She hung onto it anyway, continuing her search. She found two more and brought all three to the officer—a Colonel she thought she’d heard him tell their driver—though he hadn’t said a word to either of them when he’d joined them.
“Thank you,” he said, taking them from her and jamming them in various places around the carriage.
Dirt was still falling down around them, reminding her that at any moment, the entire thing could crash in on their heads. She went back to stand where the Colonel had positioned her before. It was right in the center of the carriage, so that if it fell the open door would provide room for her head.
The two men worked in silence for another fifteen minutes, until no more branches or rocks could be found. Then the Colonel ordered the young man to stand by her again.
“Are you hurt, Miss?” the young man asked her solicitously.
“No, sir. Not really. I’ll suffer bruises and a stiff neck. If we ever get out of here, that is.”
“We’ll get out of here,” came the determined voice of the officer. She wasn’t fond of military men, but in this situation his steely resolve and quick actions were a godsend.
“My name is Ned Bartlby,” the younger man introduced himself.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Downy,” he said. She felt something cold and metal pressed into her hand. “Take a sip,” he said, “it will calm your nerves.” He had handed her a flask of brandy. She hesitated, then decided he was right—if ever there was a time to drink liquor, it was now. She took a deep swig, then gasped and shuddered as the liquid fire went down her throat. Bartlby chuckled.
“Take another sip,” he urged her.
“That’s all right,” she choked, still coughing a bit, and handed it back to him. “Thank you, though.”
“And thank you, sir, for your immediate response to our danger.”
She thought she had directed her voice toward the Colonel, but it was Bartlby who answered.
“Oh, you’re quite welcome.”
The Colonel’s shadow grew closer until she could make out his face. “Thank you, sir,” she said clearly this time.
“I just hope it holds,” he said grimly.
“You stay right in this spot, Miss Downy, and don’t stray from it.”
“Yes, Colonel,” she said. “It is Colonel, isn’t it?”
He made an affirmative sort of noise, but said nothing else. After what seemed like hours, she sighed and settled herself down on the cold rock floor. Her legs were too tired to hold her any longer. Bartlby sat down next to her. “Have some more,” he said, handing her the flask.
She took a deep drink, shuddering again as it went through her.
“Have another,” he prompted when she tried to hand it back.
Well, if she was going to die anyway, she’d might as well make it pleasant. She took another big swig and gasped.
“This would be a strange way to die, wouldn’t it?” Bartlby mused.
“Aye,” she sighed. “It’s not the way I ever imagined it.” The fire from the brandy he’d given her was warming her body nicely and she could feel her muscles relax. “That stuff is not half bad, once you get it down, is it?”
Bartlby chuckled and handed her the flask again. She took another deep drink and felt her head swim a bit. She hadn’t eaten since morning and the liquor was affecting her.
“Do you live in London?” Bartlby asked.
“Yes. I was just visiting my mother in Huntington. She’s taken ill.”
“Do you work in London, then?” Bartlby asked.
“Aye, I’m a governess. I’ve been there nearly five months.” She noticed vaguely that the liquor had loosened her tongue. Not that she’d said anything she might not ordinarily say, but she spoke without thinking. She felt a keen friendliness toward the young man, who may be the last person to see her alive.
“So do I,” said Bartlby. “I’m a secretary. Were you a governess somewhere else before this post?”
“No. My need to find work was a bit of a surprise, actually. My father died six months ago, and it turned out that his estate was entailed. My mother and sister and I were forced to leave. My mother is staying with relatives, and my sister and I have both taken governess posts. She is in Banford.”
“I see. I’m very sorry to hear about your father.”
“Thank you,” she said, her voice wavering. She felt a wave of grief at his offer of condolences. She had not allowed herself to think about her father’s death since the funeral. Her eyes burned momentarily with tears. As if he sensed it, he passed her the flask again.
She threw back another large swallow and choked. As the liquid warmth burned down her throat, her head swam. “The distant cousin who took over our estate is dreadful. We didn’t have the time or means to remove our possessions or prepare in any way. My mother’s sick because of it, you see,” she told him. He murmured something encouraging and she went on. “The grief of my father’s death and the pain of having to beg a place with relatives have just been too much for her to bear.” She continued freely pouring a stream of words from her mouth. “It’s not her first reversal of fortune though, the poor woman. Her parents were members of the French aristocracy. They were executed in the square during the Revolution and she was smuggled to England as a child by her nursemaid.”
She had the vague notion that she was chattering too much, but couldn’t seem to make herself care. He clucked sympathetically. Before she knew it, she was pouring out all the trials and tribulations of the past months.
“It was quite a shock for my sister and I. We weren’t raised to work, so we had no references to start. I am ashamed to tell you that I lied to my employer about my previous experience, as I had none. One of our neighbors provided a false reference for me. Shocking, I know. It’s not something I would ordinarily consider, but we were quite desperate, you see.”
“Well, of course you were,” Bartlby said sympathetically.
Tears burned in her eyes again. “It hasn’t been easy at all,” she said, her voice choking. “The children are wonderful, but the rest of the household is perfectly dreadful. I haven’t met the father, he’s a military officer—in Burma right now, you know—but their aunt is horrible to me. She treats me like a member of the staff, which I suppose I am.”
“No, you’re not,” Bartlby contradicted indignantly. “You’re a lady. A governess is not staff.”
“Thank you,” she said gratefully. “But that’s not how they see it. I feel as if I am constantly demeaned. Oh, but I don’t wish to complain. I do have one friend there, other than the children. Their nursemaid is quite sweet to me. Of course, I’m always covering for her when she disappears. She runs off to the stables to flirt with the carriage driver so she has to be my friend, doesn’t she?”
Mandy found she could hardly stop her mouth from speaking now that it had started. “It seems ironic to me now that I’m practically penniless, considering how many excellent offers for marriage I turned down. My parents were a love match and so my mother always encouraged us to wait for love. Now here I am, borrowing against my future wages just to visit my sick mother.” She sighed dramatically. “But I guess I don’t regret it. I’d rather be working and available to the possibility of love than trapped and financially comfortable with some stiff military officer or self-important parson. No offense to you of course, sir,” she said to the Colonel. Her speech was starting to slur.
* * *
It seemed to Colonel Charles Watson that the young secretary named Bartlby was getting the lovely governess drunk on purpose. He was probably hoping to steal a kiss or make some other inappropriate advances on her.
“Here,” the young man said, passing the flask to the lady again.
He simply couldn’t keep his mouth shut any longer. “I think she’s had quite enough,” he said crisply. The young governess drew her hand back in shock, looking confused. At least she still had the good sense to respond to his implied rebuke. She seemed bright and was obviously well-bred in addition to being nothing short of beautiful.
“I think the lady can decide for herself,” the secretary said coldly.
“No,” she shook her head, as if trying to clear it. “I will trust the officer’s judgment,” she said slowly. “And I’ll ask you to please not be rude on my behalf,” she said primly, the natural sweetness of her voice modulated with a slight rebuke.
Though it should not have had any effect on him whatsoever, he found himself pleased that she had accepted his judgment over the secretary’s. He had joined their carriage only a half an hour before the accident—his own had had its wheel come loose and rather than wait, he’d accepted the offer to join theirs. Fate had obviously not been kind, however.
“Hello?” At that moment, a voice called down to them from above the carriage. They all scrambled to their feet.
“We’re all right!” he shouted.
“All right, we are very carefully going to attach ropes to the side of the carriage, and then see if the horses can pull it out.”
“Be careful when you attach the ropes,” he warned. “Do not put any weight at all on the carriage—we are directly beneath it, with nowhere else to go.” The danger of the carriage collapsing the final five feet into the crevice and crushing the three of them was very real, despite the precautions he’d taken by wedging stray branches in to hold it.
“Yes, sir. Understood,” the driver called back.
He waited, listening to the sounds above them. The dirt and rocks were pouring down around the carriage again, and the creaks it made sounded ominous. The groans and cracking sounds only increased as the shouts above urged the horses to pull. He was concerned the carriage would break in two, rather than come unstuck. If it did, they were in danger of being struck by whatever parts fell. The shouts above took on a chaotic sound, with many voices yelling conflicting things at the same time and then a loud crack came from the carriage and pieces of it started to fall on them.
Charles instinctively grasped the governess and pulled her tight against his chest, pressing her head down and covering it as best he could with his hands. She clung to him and he could feel her soft small body trembling with fear, her breasts pressing against his low ribs. Her hair was silky soft under his fingers and she smelled faintly of lavender. He could hardly blame the secretary for trying to take advantage of the situation to gain her attention—she was an extremely enticing package.
He waited until the cascade of falling carriage parts and stones had stilled. The bulk of the carriage had been pulled out, and he could see the darkened sky through the dust.
“Everyone all right down there?”
He reluctantly released the governess and brushed the debris off her back. “Yes, we’re all right,” he called out.
“Colonel,” she pronounced decisively, as if she hadn’t been sure which man had been holding her until he’d spoken. For some reason that ruffled him, though why he would care that she knew it was he who protected her was a mystery. He was not a young man trying to court a wife. He was a widower who did not plan on ever remarrying. Falling in love was not something he wished to repeat.
“I’m lowering a rope down to help you climb out. Can you see it?”
He moved away from the lady and reached for the rope, which came tumbling down the rocks. “I have it!” he called up. “Come, Miss Downy,” he said, holding out his hand to her. She approached and he pressed the rope into her hands. “You’re going to use your feet against the side of the rock wall and your hands on the rope to climb out, you see?” he said, boosting her up so that her feet scrambled against the wall and caught hold. “That’s it. Now keep climbing. I’ll give you another boost and then you see if you can do it for yourself.”
He used his hands to push her bottom, trying to ignore how pleasingly soft and round its shape was. The lady was still tipsy and appeared to have a difficult time negotiating the rope and the rock wall in the darkness, but eventually he saw with relief that she made it to the top where two men pulled her to safety. He sent the secretary up next and then followed himself. To his relief, his own carriage driver had repaired the wheel on his carriage, and was ready to take him home.
“Would you care to ride in my carriage?” he asked the other two passengers.
“That’s all right,” Bartlby answered. “Our driver has already borrowed a replacement carriage.”
“And you?” he asked Miss Downy. He couldn’t wait to get home, but he also hesitated sending her off alone with the secretary.
“No, thank you—the driver has my luggage loaded. Good night, sir, and thank you again.”
His conscience pricked him again at leaving her, but they were not far from London, and the driver was with them—surely she would be all right.
It had been almost a year since he’d seen his own children. His heart ached with guilt over having left them so long, even if it was to serve his country. He tried to enter the house quietly, but Violet, one of his staff members, came out to see who it was and then exclaimed, “Colonel! Welcome home!” so loudly that the entire staff and family came out of bed to greet him.
His sister Lucinda, ten years his junior, came running down the stairs in her dressing gown, throwing her arms around his neck and nearly strangling him. He laughed and squeezed her, then greeted Mrs. James, her paid companion and chaperone, and was halfway through greeting the staff individually when Tom and Rosie came barreling down the stairs, shouting “Papa! Papa!” at the tops of their lungs. They balked when they actually reached the bottom of the stairs, though, timidity taking over.
“Come, children. Don’t be afraid. I’ve missed you so much!” He crouched down and held his arms out. Lucinda nudged them forward and they approached him nervously, eyes downcast. He squeezed them both and then picked them up, one on each hip, carrying them to their beds and tucking them in, promising to take them to the park the following day.
* * *
In the morning he sat down to breakfast with his sister and Mrs. James, and realized the only person he had not seen or met the night before was the new governess.
“Where is the new governess? I’ve forgotten her name.”
His lawyer had hired her several months ago when the previous governess did not meet expectations, so other than reading the letters about it, he knew very little.
“Miss Downy,” Lucinda said, slightly sourly.
The name sounded familiar, now that she said it. “Are you pleased with her?”
“Oh she’s wonderful with the children, yes,” Lucinda said nonchalantly, as if that part was the least of her concern.
Lucinda shrugged. “She’s everything you could ask for, I’m sure,” she said a little too primly.
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Does that mean she’s too pretty or too talented for your taste?” he asked drily.
Lucinda flushed. “Charles!” she exclaimed indignantly, but then she laughed at herself. “Both,” she said with an exaggerated sulk.
“Mrs. James, I was hoping your influence would have improved my sister’s sense of grace. What is the point of a companion for a young lady if you cannot instill good manners in your charge? Or if you could not, surely you could have paid her compliments enough that she would not feel threatened by ladies who might show her up.”
Mrs. James had paled at the rebuke. Only Lucinda was accustomed to his manner of speaking bluntly. She threw him an aggrieved look. “Well, I don’t know why Miss Downy is late to breakfast, unless she did not return last night as she promised. Oh, there you are!” she exclaimed. “Did you mean to sleep the whole day away?”
He stood up and turned to face the young lady entering the dining room, then stopped short in recognition, watching as her eyes widened and her face paled. Her expression was one of absolute horror.
* * *
Oh no. Ice washed over her and her mouth hung open in shock. It was the man from the carriage. The Colonel. Surprise flickered momentarily on his face as well, but then his face went blank again, as it had appeared the night before.
“You must be the governess,” he said, inclining his head in a slight bow.
She swallowed. Her mind was reeling. All the things she had said the night before came back in a wash of anguish—that she’d lied about her references, that the family she worked for was dreadful. She could feel the blood drain from her face completely, and she swayed a bit on her feet. “Miss Downy,” she managed to choke out with a curtsy.
“Colonel Watson,” he said coolly.
She stood there trembling, waiting for him to tell her to pack her things, that was she dismissed effective immediately, but he merely sat back down to his toast and jam. She stood there stupidly for another moment and then managed to walk to the table and take the seat opposite him.
“Have the children already eaten?” she asked, forcing herself to speak.
“Yes, Julie fed them in the kitchen this morning,” Miss Watson said crisply.
Had he not recognized her? Impossible. He most certainly had. But why say nothing? Was he sparing her the embarrassment? If so, she was grateful for the temporary reprieve, though she couldn’t choke down much for breakfast. Miss Watson was prattling on, informing her brother of every member of their societal circle, including all the gossip that Mandy had heard her repeat tirelessly for the past five months.
She was grateful when the children peeked their heads into the dining room. She smiled at them encouragingly and beckoned them in, speaking in French, as she always did, to help them learn it. “Come in, children. Are you happy your Papa’s back?”
They came in cautiously and stood with a curious mixture of eagerness and formality. Rosie, the seven-year-old, clasped her hands in front of her and her brother Tom, the four year old, hid partially behind her. “Oui, Mademoiselle,” Rosie said, her accent perfect. Then the child switched back to English. “Papa said he’s going to—”
“En français,” she interrupted with a smile.
Rosie plowed ahead, used to her corrections, translating into her stumbling French. “Papa said he’s going to take us for a ride in the carriage this morning, to go to the park. Would you like to come?”
She swallowed convulsively at the idea of being alone in a carriage with the Colonel. “If your father permits it,” she managed to say, still speaking in French.
“Well, I’m not sure there will be room, will there?” Miss Watson interjected shrilly in English. “Mrs. James and I wish to go as well.”
“Will you and Mrs. James take responsibility for the children, then?” Colonel Watson asked with one eyebrow raised.
Miss Watson blanched. She seemed to like her niece and nephew well enough, but considered their care to be beneath her. “Well, no, we wished to walk about the park, of course.”
“Then Miss Downy will accompany the children and me and you and Mrs. James may take the other carriage.”
Miss Watson looked irritated at that, but there was nothing she could say, as the Colonel’s logic was sound.
“When do we leave?” she asked the Colonel.
“When do the children have their lessons?”
“Lessons are normally from after breakfast till noon, but I am flexible. I’m sure the children are quite anxious to spend time with you after your long absence.” She dared a look at him and caught her breath a little when she found him regarding her coolly. He was older than she—at least by 10 years—but his face was handsome, with broad planes that gave him the look of strength and determination. He had dark curly hair and dark eyes that held a penetrating intelligence. She’d never been attracted to a military man, but suddenly she could see the appeal. She felt herself flush immediately under his gaze, wracked with guilt and fear over the lies she had told to gain his employ. Something in his look told her he knew exactly what she was thinking.
“We will go after lunch, then. That will give me time to begin getting things in order here. All right, children?” he said, turning to look at them.
“Yes, Papa,” Rosie said.
Mandy’s heart went out to her—the child seemed nervous. Not having seen her own father for so many long months seemed to make it awkward for her to interact with him now. Mandy stood and took the girl’s hand.
“Come, my love, it’s time for you to read to me,” she said in French.
“And to me?” Tom asked in English, taking her other hand. He understood French but didn’t speak it much yet.
“Et pour vous,” she said, squeezing his hand and smiling warmly.
She spent the morning fully engrossed in the children’s lessons, because if she let herself think about the utter precariousness of her employment, she would surely fall apart. To get through lunch, she directed her attention to the children, engaging them in lively conversation in French about what they might see and do in the park. It wasn’t all that different from usual, as she had always taken refuge in the children, except that this time half her mind was occupied with worrying over every word the Colonel spoke.
Mrs. James did not accompany them to the park after all, so Mandy was not forced to ride in the carriage with the Colonel alone, which was a relief. Instead, Miss Watson rode with them and monopolized her brother’s attention for the duration. Mandy was left to her own thoughts, which only served to increase her anxiety.
She was most certainly going to be dismissed. Why the Colonel was waiting, she couldn’t guess. Perhaps he wanted to secure a new governess first. If not, she would have to ask him if she could remain until the end of the month, as she had borrowed against her wages just to make the trip to see her mother, and didn’t have a farthing to her name. If he did not allow her to stay, she would literally be on the street with no means to even hire a coach to get to her mother or sister.
She could try to sell her locket, she supposed. It was silver, a lovely oval shape with filigreed etching. Her father had given it to her on her sixteenth birthday. If she could pawn it at a shop somewhere, she might have enough money to get herself to her relatives. But how horrible that would be! They hardly had the room or means to keep her mother, much less her. Well, she would just have to beg the Colonel to let her stay until he found a suitable replacement. It was her only option.
She entertained the children at the park—sitting on a park bench and sending them on a scavenger hunt for various things she invented for them to find—a feather, a heart-shaped rock, something purple, five different colored flowers, etc. They ran to and fro, eagerly seeking the items she named and racing breathlessly to bring them to her. She focused on them with only half her attention, as the rest of her mind was occupied with observing every move the Colonel made as he walked with his sister. The building tension was dreadful.
She watched the pair round the corner toward her, Miss Watson stopping to speak with a group of ladies and the Colonel leaving her behind, advancing directly to where she sat. Rather than invite him to sit with her, she stood up before he arrived.
“Miss Downy,” he said coolly, more like an ending statement than the beginning of a conversation.
“We have some things to discuss, don’t we?”
Her heart beat faster than a little bird’s. “Yes, sir.”
“After supper. In my study.”
“Yes, sir,” she squeaked. Just then Tom ran up and wrapped his little arms around her leg, chattering on about the dove he had chased. Her eyes blurred with tears, realizing suddenly that she would have to say goodbye to these children who had become her whole world.
* * *
Miss Downy followed him to his office after supper, looking as though it were her death sentence. He was satisfied that she at least understood the gravity of the situation. Lying about a reference was an offense he didn’t take lightly and it needed to be dealt with. However, from what he’d witnessed and from interviewing the staff, it seemed that she was an excellent governess, despite her lack of prior experience.
“Miss Downy. Have a seat,” he said, settling himself behind his large desk and indicating the chair opposite it.
“Colonel Watson, if I may just make one request?” she asked in a rush, looking anxious.
He raised his eyebrows. “All right, Miss Downy.”
“Please, I beg of you, allow me to stay through the end of the month. I had to borrow against my wages for my holiday this past weekend, and I want to be able to make that up to you.”
He frowned. He didn’t like the idea that she’d had to travel to see her sick mother without the necessary funds. What if a carriage hadn’t been found to bring her home after the accident? Would she have had the money necessary to secure lodging? The thought of her being alone in the country with no means to provide for herself made him feel inexplicably protective of her. “I wasn’t planning on dismissing you,” he reassured her.
Her mouth fell open. Clearly she’d been prepared for the worst.
“But I don’t need to tell you how serious I consider lying about your references to be.”
She nodded her head. “I understand, Colonel. I am terribly sorry. I just was afraid you wouldn’t accept me without real work experience, and I had none.”
“No,” he agreed. “Miss Downy, I have spoken with everyone in this household and not a single person could make any critique of your care and education of my children. That is the only reason I have decided to keep you on.”
She heaved a sigh, which drew his eye to her décolletage. Her skin was creamy white and her breasts were lifted and framed alluringly in a square-cut neckline. Feeling a prick of heat rising from the sight, he quickly looked away with a mental shake.
“Thank you, Colonel,” she gasped.
“I cannot allow your lie to go unpunished, however,” he said firmly. He would treat her as he would an errant soldier. In the military, they certainly couldn’t dismiss the men for not following orders—they needed them. Instead, they flogged them so it wouldn’t happen again.
He opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a leather strap.