The Marquess of Kerr was having a very bad day. As if breaking an axle on his ancient family traveling carriage on the most deserted portion of the drive from London to the south coast hadn’t been inconvenience enough, there was also the fact that his favorite horse was miles back, tied behind the coach carrying his baggage and valet. To compound his situation, after instructing the coachman and outriders to wait for help, he’d set out on foot for the coaching inn some three miles up the road only for the skies to open up and release a deluge not felt on Earth since the Great Flood, he was convinced. If it hadn’t been for a chance meeting with his cousin the day before, he’d not have been traveling to the downs at all. But the news that his late aunt Celeste had done what she’d always threatened— left her estate to a bevy of blue stockings—had meant beating a hasty path to her manor house near the village of Little Seaford before any of her hangers-on arrived. At least that had been the plan when he set out. At this rate all four harpies would have descended upon Beauchamp House before he had a chance to so much as hide the silver. Thus it was that when he reached the Fox and Pheasant he was not only wet, muddy, and exhausted, he was hungry. Which, as his old nanny could attest, made for a very grouchy Torquil, indeed. Despite the rain, the inn yard was bustling with activity, as the bright yellow mail coach, which had just arrived, released its passengers into the already crowded doorway of the hostelry. Cursing beneath his breath, Quill elbowed his way through the crowd until the quality of his garments seemed to register with them and, despite their own fatigue, the passengers began to defer to him. All save one. Had he been in a better mood, he might have noticed the auburn-haired lady’s curvy figure or her warm brown eyes behind her spectacles. But he was too annoyed by her blatant disregard for him as she shoved in front of him carrying a small, but obviously heavy, trunk. And as if that weren’t enough, she had the bad manners to drop the aforementioned trunk directly onto his booted foot as he attempted to slip around her.
“Hell and the devil!” he cursed as the weighty box landed. Despite the thickness of his boots, they were no match for whatever it was she traveled with. “Oh dear,” the woman said, crouching at once to clutch the handles of the offending thing. “I am so sorry. I should have waited for the coachman, but I was so afraid to leave them, you see. They’re quite valuable.” But when she heaved on the trunk, it was obvious that she’d need a bit of help lifting it. Wordlessly, Quill pushed away her hand that gripped the handle and took both sides in his own grasp and lifted it. “What are you carrying in this, madam?” he asked as he jostled it up close to his chest. “It feels as if you’ve weighted it with gold bars.
” It was only then that he took a moment to really look at her. And was intrigued despite his annoyance. She really was quite pretty despite the spectacles and the obviously dated gown. Before she could respond to his question, however, the innkeeper rushed over. “My lord, I am so sorry you were accosted by this”—he waved his hand in the direction of the lady, as if unable to come up with a suitable description for her, finally settling upon—“person. I’ll have our finest room made up for you at once. Be gone with you, madam. His lordship has no wish to be bothered by the likes of you.” Wordlessly he gestured to a footman, who stepped forward to take the trunk from Quill, wincing as he did so. “There’s no need for rudeness, Stepney,” Quill chastised the innkeeper.
“It was an accident, nothing more. Please have your man carry the lady’s trunk wherever she has need to take it.” “Oh that is too kind of you, my lord,” the young woman said with a bright smile. “I would have left them in the coach, but one hears such tales about the mail coach and the thievery that takes place even amongst the passengers. I simply could not risk them. My books are so necessary to my work, you understand.” As she spoke, Quill noticed that her eyes were a clear green. And at her confession, something clicked into place. Of course. She was a governess.
That would explain the spectacles and the books. She was likely on her way to a new position. Before he could respond, however, Stepney bowed deeply and ignored the governess. “Very good, my lord. I’ll see to it at once. Now, if you’ll follow me I’ll see you to your room.” And since the young woman was already directing the footman into the taproom where she was doubtless going to have a meal before she joined the rest of the passengers on the mail coach again, he gave her one last look, then followed Stepney up the stairs. Grateful he’d thought to bring a small bag with him when he left the traveling chaise, Quill was soon bathed and wearing a fresh change of clothes. If his cravat wasn’t as skillfully tied as his valet might have managed, then the clientele of the Fox and Pheasant would simply have to make do. Deciding to dine downstairs in the taproom rather than alone in his room, he was nearly at the bottom of the stairs when he heard a feminine shout.
A premonition had him racing the rest of the way down and hurrying into the dining room, which took up the entire width of the building. Though it was still daylight, the lack of windows made for a dimly lit room, the only light source coming from the lamps on the tables and in sconces on the walls. But it wasn’t too dark for him to see the little governess standing defiantly before a great lummox of a man who clutched a hand against his cheek. “I’ll no’ take tha’ from the likes o’ye,” the man growled, launching himself forward and gripping the lady by her upper arms. “Who d’ye think y’are?” In the tradition of all bystanders everywhere, the rest of the taproom seemed to settle in for a spectacle. At least that’s how it seemed to Quill, who pushed his way forward, and snapped, “Unhand the lady at once, sir.” * * * If there was one thing Quill could not abide, it was a man who laid hands on a woman. And there was something about seeing this particular lady in the other man’s grip that made him particularly angry. Not pausing to consider the wisdom of his actions, and not waiting for the fellow to obey his orders, Quill pulled her away from the ruffian and stepped between them, watching as her attacker lost his balance in his surprise and fell backward into the table behind him. Standing over the man, lying in angry shock on the floor, Quill scowled.
“Let that be a lesson to you that there are consequences for the mistreatment of ladies traveling alone. I don’t know how things are done in the dark hole from whence you hail, but in the civilized world, men treat women with decency and respect. Especially when they are not noticeably under someone’s protection.” Turning away from where the man sat stunned, he turned his attention to the governess, who was gaping at him with suspiciously bright eyes. “I … I don’t know how to thank you, my lord,” she said, her voice shaking. “If you hadn’t arrived when you did, I fear things would have gone very badly indeed.” Handing her his handkerchief, Quill led her to a booth on the far side of the room, where he gestured for her to take a seat. “Why are you still here?” he demanded tersely, his residual anger making him short. “The mail coach should have departed by now.” And as he quickly scanned the room, he saw that the others who had crowded into the inn with her were missing.
Wincing, she looked down. “The driver took on more passengers here, and he claimed there was no room for my trunks. When I refused to leave them behind, he left without me.” As she finished this disclosure, she lifted her chin and glared defiantly at him, her eyes bright with anger. “They are necessary for my studies and I saw no reason why I should be the one to give up my trunks when there were plenty of others with far larger ones. It was grossly unfair.” “Surely you could have had them sent after you,” Quill pointed out with a raised brow. From his time at university he knew that books were essential for study, but it was hardly practical for her to give up her seat for them. Any employer of merit would see the necessity of paying to have them delivered once he was informed of her situation. Which brought up another question.
“Why didn’t your employer make arrangements for your travel? Surely governesses are not required to travel on the common stage. I know my father always sent the traveling carriage for my sister’s teachers. Or at the very least a hired carriage.” At this, she raised a brow in annoyance. “I know my gown is not of the first stare of fashion, but I hardly think I’m so drab as to be mistaken for a governess.” She pursed her lips. “Not that there is anything wrong with governessing, you understand. It is a respectable profession—and one of the only ones available for a single lady of gentle birth.” Quill surveyed her appearance, taking care not to be seen doing so—a skill every young gentleman perfected in his teens lest he be forever receiving raps on the knuckles from his mama. On closer inspection, her gown, while dark gray in color, was well made.
And her modest bonnet was constructed of if not the finest silk, then at the very least not the meanest. Even the trunk of books that she had lowered to the taproom floor beside her was not cheaply made. In short, he’d judged her wrongly from the start. What he’d concluded to be a lady in reduced circumstances was actually just a lady of modest tastes. He felt his brow furrow. “If you are not a governess then, who are you?” It was a highly inappropriate question considering they’d never been properly introduced, he knew. And it would be highly unusual for him to do the honors himself. Was she an actual governess, she’d likely read him a scold that would blister his ears. But, she didn’t seem to take offense at the inquiry. “I am independent scholar,” she informed him, her pride in it evident in her squared shoulders and elevated chin.
And to his surprise, she offered him her gloved hand. “Miss Aphrodite Wareham, Ivy to my friends.” His hand was already clasping hers when the name registered, and it was all Quill could do to stop himself from dropping the offending extremity and turning his back on her. But good manners had been instilled in him almost from birth, and he had been taught not to be rude to a lady. No matter how grasping or conniving that lady proved to be. He gave a quick, mirthless laugh. “I might have known we’d meet on the road to Beauchamp House. Since it is, after all, the family estate you and your cohorts wish to steal out from under my family’s nose. Well, I beg leave to inform you, madam, that while my late aunt was eccentric, she was not without family protection. And we will not stand for this scheme you’ve concocted.
No matter how you might protest your friendship with my aunt.” Her nose wrinkled in confusion. “I don’t know what you mean, sir,” she said with a little shake of her head. “I never met Lady Celeste while she was living. Indeed, I wish I had for I’d have offered up my sincere thanks for her generous bequest.” She frowned, tilting her head as she scanned his face. She was quite skilled at playing the puzzled innocent, he thought bitterly. “I assume from your accusation that you are Lady Celeste’s relation?” As if she didn’t know it already. Hell, he’d not be surprised if she’d arranged for her little contretemps with the man earlier to gain his sympathy. He sketched a mocking bow.
“Torquil Beauchamp, Marquess of Kerr, at your service.” Rising to see her still maintaining her air of bewilderment, he continued with a disgusted shake of his head. “But you doubtless knew that already. Tell me, how long did it take you and your friends to choose my aunt as your target? For I have little doubt she proved a ripe pigeon for plucking given her generous nature and genuine interest in scholarship. I know there must not be much opportunity for fortune in the arts for ladies. You must have been beside yourselves with glee when you found her.” But rather than let his derision break her, she seemed to gain strength from it. “I’m not sure where you get your information, my lord, but I have never met your aunt before in my life. Nor am I acquainted with the ladies you refer to as my cohorts. As far as our scheming to somehow steal your family estate out from under you, I was given to understand that Lady Celeste owned Beauchamp House outright and that it was not included with the rest of the Beauchamp estates, which is what made it possible for her to bequeath it to us in the first place.
” Her color was up and she was bristling with anger now, which Quill had no doubt was genuine. Well it might be, given that her plans were being challenged instead of what she’d likely thought would be smooth sailing on her trip to take possession of her new home. Let her be angry, he thought with a pang of self-mockery at how quickly he’d fallen prey to her wounded-innocent act. She was probably as mean as a snake and twice as venomous. The Beauchamps were not known for their pacifism. And as the head of the family, Quill didn’t mean to let a passel of scheming harpies lure him onto a rocky shore in hopes they could take an estate that had been in the Beauchamp family for hundreds of years. “Then, my dear Miss Wareham,” he said coldly, not believing her protests for a moment, “you were sadly misinformed. And I will do my utmost to ensure that you and the other ladies who tricked my aunt are not only prevented from taking ownership, but are prosecuted for your fraud.”