For most of Alice Sharpe’s life, her relatives passed her from one home to another, the same way one might pass an unwanted family heirloom with little more value than sentiment. As she stood on the fine Persian rug before Her Grace, Sarah, the Dowager Duchess of Montfort, Alice reflected that this was the first time she had been given up to someone not even a part of the family. “You do not look like a governess.” The dowager duchess narrowed her eyes, the surrounding wrinkles deepening somewhat. She and Alice’s great-aunt had served Queen Charlotte together as ladies-in-waiting, years before. “But Lucinda says you are wellsuited to the position.” Alice swiftly lowered her gaze to the floor rather than be caught staring. “My greataunt paid for much of my education herself, madam. I am four-and-twenty, and I have acted as a governess in all but name to several of my cousins for half a dozen years.” The dowager turned to the only other person in the room, her daughter-in-law, the current Duchess of Montfort. “What do you think, Cecilia?” Her Grace, the Duchess of Montfort, made a thoughtful humming sound before she spoke, her beautiful voice low and cultured. “I think Miss Sharpe would do well here. She is old enough to keep the girls in check and has more than enough experience. It certainly helps that she is familiar with our set. Why has your great-aunt sent you here, rather than retain you as a companion or governess for someone in your family?” The exotic flowers swirling upon the carpet provided no reassurance, but Alice followed their lines with her eyes as she spoke.
“If it pleases Your Grace, my great-aunt learned of your need for a governess and thought there could be no greater honor than for me to serve in your household.” That was the reason Alice had been told, but she had heard the quiet conversations from the other end of the dinner table and the corners of drawing rooms. The family had tired of looking after her, and several of them thought Alice ought to make her own way in the world. At least until she was old enough not to compete with their daughters when suitors came to call. Apparently, her fair hair and blue eyes made her a competitor for the interest of gentlemen bachelors. Her unconscious place as a rival led to the three hour carriage ride that brought her to the castle, her trunks waiting in some unknown hall to either be swept up to some small bedchamber reserved for a governess or else tucked back into the carriage with her, sent back to her great-aunt in disgrace. Though the duchess must know she was one of the most powerful women in England, she spoke with a gentleness Alice had not expected. “You would not oversee all the instruction for my daughters’ education, of course. We bring in masters for riding, dancing, music, and art. I would expect you to see to their academic studies, and mind that they practiced everything else.
You are to ensure they keep to their schedules. Is that agreeable to you, Miss Sharpe?” “Your Grace, I am confident in my teaching abilities. I will make certain your daughters are well prepared to leave the schoolroom when you see fit. It would be an honor to serve you here at Clairvoir Castle.” Had Alice’s great-aunt not pronounced the name of ancient lands as “Clee-ver,” Alice certainly would have said it wrong. Despite the estate name being originally from the French, the early English inhabitants of the estate had corrupted the pronunciation hundreds of years before. The duchess lowered her voice to speak to her mother-in-law, their quiet whispers the only sound in the large sitting room awash in the afternoon sunlight. Alice’s fingers twitched with the need to push her wired spectacles up her nose, but instead she gripped her skirts tighter. She needed the spectacles to read but could do without them otherwise. Yet her great-aunt had insisted she wear them as often as possible, as “Society considers girls wearing spectacles plain.
” Yet another way to ensure she did not distract her cousins’ suitors. Even at that moment, surrounded by crystal chandeliers, plush furnishings, and the rich tapestries of the newly rebuilt Castle Clairvoir, Alice presented herself as no more than a brown smudge in the bright glittering world of wealth. She wore a dark brown gown with a cream-colored fichu to hide the smooth skin of her neck. Her hair she had pulled back, most severely, into an unattractive and severe twist. The ash-blonde curls that escaped the strict style might have framed her face prettily, if not for the spectacles. “Miss Sharpe.” The dowager duchess spoke, and Alice raised her eyes enough to acknowledge the salutation. “We have decided to take you on at the rate of one-hundred pounds per annum should you adhere to the rules of the household and uphold your promises of education for Lady Isabelle and Lady Rosalind, and you will see after Lord James until he goes away to school this winter.” Relief and dread mingled together in Alice’s heart. They would not turn her away, yet the weight of the new responsibility nearly made her sag to the floor.
The Duke of Montfort had three daughters and two sons. Alice now stood responsible for the three youngest of his noble children, girls as likely to marry into royalty as they were to catch cold, and the younger son. The eldest son, bearing the honorary title Earl of Farleigh, was not at home. Lady Josephine, the eldest daughter, had left the schoolroom years before. Alice hardly said another word for the quarter of an hour that the dowager and the duchess laid out their expectations and rules for her. Her behavior was to be as firmly controlled as the subjects she taught the girls, though the more she nodded and promised, the more Alice’s courage grew. She had always been clever, and she had always enjoyed learning. Thanks to her need to adjust and fit into numerous households and families over the years, she knew herself to be personable as well. I can do this, she told herself repeatedly during the last of the interview. When a maid came to show Alice to her room, Alice squared her shoulders like a good soldier and prepared for the first meeting with her charges.
Passing through the corridors of the castle, the maid rattled off which rooms they walked by and their purpose. The maid was well-acquainted with the house and had an air of superiority about herself that Society’s matrons would be hard-pressed to match. Alice smiled to herself. She might not be a princess of any sort, but what girl hadn’t wished to live in a place as lovely as Clairvoir Castle? The libraries and gardens were the stuff of legend, the family with a history reaching back to their aid of William the Conqueror. Few women of Alice’s lower birth would ever walk the grounds, let alone have access to the house and family. The opportunity thrilled her, as did finally having a purpose. And yet. Her gaze wandered to the wide windows of the ballroom as they passed its open door. For a moment, her breath hitched. Dreams of dancing in such a room with a handsome partner were a thing of the past.
They had to be. Governesses were not permitted any sort of courtship. They were almost non-entities. Swallowing back the bleak thought, Alice gave her full attention to the maid once more. She clasped her hands before her, feeling her father’s ring on her thumb. Though it was beneath her glove, the ring’s presence comforted her. The schoolroom would be her domain. The ballroom was better forgotten. A CHA PTE R 2 lthough most would think it strange to see a grown gentleman laying prostrate in the grass, Rupert Gardiner regularly put himself in exactly that position. At the moment, the majority of his body was pressed into the newly mown grasses of His Grace’s southern gardens.
With a sketchbook splayed open before him, Rupert made note of the colors he would need to render the object of his study in greater detail. Once he had made the appropriate notations, Rupert slowly reached for the water-net he had repurposed for his work. Water-nets were primarily used to capture smaller creatures from stream beds, but with a little modification, they were perfect for catching insects such as the common blue damselfly in his sight. Rupert hesitated, however, and considered the speed with which the damselfly normally darted through a garden. The net was likely his best chance at catching it, but he did have his net-forceps, too. Newly ordered from Paris, where the study of insects was more popular than in England, he had only used them on heartier species. Even though the pamphlet suggested the forceps were an excellent way to catch butterflies, he had yet to try them for that. Better use the net, then. First, he pushed his black hair out of his eyes. He ought to have it cut but forgot immediately about the issue the moment he accomplished the catch.
Quickly and in another careful series of movements, he secured the blue damselfly in a small cage with muslin meshed sides. The insect flitted about, knocking into the mesh, before settling on the leafed stem he had positioned inside. Rupert turned his attention to where the damselfly had been hovering. The small pond with a fountain in its center had attracted numerous insects throughout the morning. Some appeared to dip into the water for no more than a drink, but the damselfly had appeared busy in an area between lily pads, drawing his notice. He had captured a female. Rupert had watched, as awe-inspired as ever by the workings of nature, as the female now in his possession had mated, then gone beneath the water to lay her eggs. The male of the species had remained nearby until the female approached the surface again, at which point he lowered himself to the water to rescue her, for she seemed too tired to break the surface of the pond on her own. Why would an insect behave in such a way? What in the nature of the male damselfly drove him to rescue the female after he had already achieved his purpose in passing on his lineage? Most would say insects, and all creeping things of the earth, had no morality. What would drive the male to act so, save a natural urge to continue the species? He jotted down his musings, though he had no intention of including them in his current work.
The Duke of Montfort had requested a catalog of insects and flora of his gardens, filled with illustrations and basic scientific notations. It was a monumental work, and the nature of the project would be invaluable to future generations. It was precisely the type of publication the Royal Society of London would notice. If Rupert could gain the attention of the Royal Society, and the approval of its members, there was every chance of attaining a fellowship. Perhaps he might even get his work published in the Philosophical Transactions. He looked down into the mesh cage at his specimen, watching as the tired female crawled slowly up the stick. So simple a creature, yet, with such a vastly mysterious life, it could be the key to seeing his name printed in the same journal that published Isaac Newton. Though only seven-and-twenty years of age, Rupert had dreamed of being published by the Royal Society’s journal for nineteen years. Rupert went to work studying the plants in the pond. The damselflies had a liking for the area, likely due to the lack of predators.
There were no fish, ornamental or otherwise, in the water. Though a fountain poured into it, the fountain had plenty of lily pads and moss growing around its edges to keep certain parts dark and cool, even at the hottest part of the day. Sketching in the plant life always slowed the process of discovery. As vital as plants were to the insects, he simply did not have the love for the greenery that he did for the mysterious creepers and crawlers of the world. Flowers and trees grew where they were planted, then fed and sheltered wildlife. As lovely as pond fronds might be to one observing the scene, his time would be better spent elsewhere. After making notations for colors and the paints he would need for the sketch, Rupert stood and stretched his arms overhead. It was then that he remembered he had cast off his coat. His valet often bemoaned the state of Rupert’s coat and trousers, the knees and elbows of which he coated in mud quite regularly, crawling about in gardens to look beneath leaves and rocks. Today, it would be Rupert’s shirtsleeves that were moaned over.
Rupert grinned to himself and cast about, looking for the missing item. He had removed it in something of a temper, when the close-cut fabric made it difficult to get into the position necessary for observation of the damselfly. His hat had disappeared, too, though he didn’t recall where that had gone. After a few minutes of work, he found his coat beneath a shrub and his hat laid atop it. A moment later, he had gathered all his things and went in the direction of the castle. Though he could have stayed at his home part of the time, sixteen miles away, being on the duke’s property at all hours made some of his observations far easier. He took the servants’ stairs up to the guest quarters. Rupert doubted the duchess would appreciate the sight of him upon the grand staircase given the dried mud on his trousers. Likely most in the household would find disturbing the cages full of insects he took to his room for further study.