What the Governess is Hiding – Abby Ayles

Six-year-old Ailsa Johnson held on to her governess’s hand tight as the world burned down around her. Her four-year-old sister Davina was in Miss Kathy’s other arm, cradled against her side like a baby. The younger girl was screaming and crying wildly. Ailsa wished she were a baby, or at least a bit younger, so she could sob like that too. The water engines were working hard, water pouring out of their massive pumps. Six firemen held each hose, trying their best to save Ailsa’s burning home. “Where are my mummy and daddy?” she asked, her Scottish-accented voice trembling when she spoke. “Miss Kathy, tell me they are n’ae still inside.” “Aren’t,” Kathy corrected absently, mostly out of habit, Ailsa supposed. They’d been working on elocution lately, and their father wanted them to be able to speak like English ladies, in the event they went back south. Her hand tightened around Ailsa’s. “And I don’t know where they are, love. I don’t know.” “I want my mum!” Davina shrieked. “Miss Kathy! Take me back in! I dinnae care about the fire at all, I just want Mum!” Miss Kathy’s usually lovely warm voice sounded hollow and empty.

“I know you do, sweetheart,” she said. Ailsa glanced up and could see how the governess’s eyes were focused intently on the flames, the fire’s reflection dancing on her hazel irises. “Are they gonnae … I mean, are they going to die?” Ailsa asked, biting her lip to stop the scream threatening to break from her lips at the thought. “Mummy and Daddy? Is the fire going to take them?” Miss Kathy didn’t answer. The three of them were covered in soot, and the hem of Davina’s dress was charred. Kathy had pulled them both out of the nursery, crying out about the fire, shouting as loud as she could. Ailsa was sure that if Miss Kathy weren’t there looking after them, she would have dived right into the flames to go back for their parents. Ailsa’s parents were Lucas and Isla Johnson, the Lord and Lady of Gretness, their lands situated in the Scottish Midlands. They weren’t only Miss Kathy’s employers – they were also her friends. She had been here as a nurse when Ailsa was young and had also been a nurse for Davina, until the two children grew up enough to have a governess.

Ailsa was six now, nearly a young lady. She didn’t need a nurse, but she was glad Miss Kathy had stayed on as their governess. If she hadn’t, they might have been lost in those flames. “What about Kitty?” Davina whined desperately. The cold wind felt strange as Ailsa looked up at her little sister, especially with the blazing hot flames of their home burning in front of them. “We need to get Kitty, and Mummy, and Daddy!” “Kitty’s just a dolly, Dina,” Ailsa tried to reassure her, using the pet name their father often called Davina. “The firemen will get Mummy and Daddy out, and then we’ll get you a new one. Is n’ae that right, Miss Kathy?” “They’ll do their best,” Kathy told them again, though Ailsa saw she looked sad. “They’ll do everything they can, girls. Don’t worry.

I’m here.” But Ailsa did worry. She had once visited a farm on her father’s land shortly after a fire had burned down the pigsty. She’d seen the destruction, and though she didn’t understand it, she knew none of the pigs that didn’t get out were left alive. A large crowd of neighbors and local villagers had gathered in front of the house, trying their level best to help the fire crew, but Ailsa saw a single tear roll down Miss Kathy’s cheek. Ailsa was only six, but she was old enough to know what that meant. She was old enough to know sorrow. It was the same feeling she felt clenching at her own little heart, shrinking it in her chest. They stood in silence as the fire blazed on, and the attempts to rescue everything she’d ever known slowly failed. A few minutes later, something changed in the air.

Ailsa didn’t know what it was, but something was different. A fireman approached them. He was even more covered in soot and ash than the girls and Miss Kathy, and his face was ruddy red from being near the flames. He had lovely blue eyes, though, and he seemed youngish for an adult. Ailsa decided she could trust him. “Ye’re the governess, aye?” the fireman asked in a broad Scots accent. Obviously, he hadn’t had any elocution lessons. “May I speak with ye for a minute, Miss?” “Of course,” Kathy replied. She gently lowered Davina to the ground. “Ailsa, dear, look after your sister, won’t you?” Ailsa’s tummy hurt, but she did as she was asked.

Davina sat on the cold, muddy ground, still sobbing wildly about her missing doll. Ailsa walked over to her baby sister and put her arms around her. “It’ll be all right,” she whispered. “Hush now.” “Will it?” Davina asked. “Truly?” Ailsa bit her lip, tears flooding her eyes once more. She wanted to promise, but, how could she? What promise could she give that wasn’t empty? Her Mummy had always taught her not to lie, after all. Soon, Miss Kathy walked back over to them. The governess was crying steadily now, her face red, not even bothering to try to hide it. As soon as she reached the girls, she knelt in the mud next to them, no care in the world for what a mess it made of her dress.

“Come here, darlings,” she sobbed, pulling both children into her lovely warm embrace. After a moment, Ailsa said in a whisper, “Are they gone?” Miss Kathy just nodded. Davina didn’t understand, not really, but Ailsa felt the whole world around her shatter. Her manor. Her home. Her toys, clothes, and books. Our mummy and our daddy. Gone forever. The three of them cried. Even little Davina, who didn’t know better, seemed devastated.

The flames finally started to die down in the background, and quietly Ailsa sniffed and said, “What do we do now, Miss Kathy?” “I don’t know, love,” Miss Kathy replied. It hurt, but it was one of the things Ailsa loved most about her – she could always trust Miss Kathy to be honest and treat her like a grown-up. “I don’t know what we’ll do. But, girls, I promise I’ll always be with you.” Ailsa started to cry again, clinging tightly to the governess. There might not be any blood there, but now she understood the truth. Uncles, aunts, and grandparents might be alive – but apart from Davina, at that moment, Kathy was the only family she had left. Chapter 1 The Funeral It had been a long, long time since Richard Johnson, Duke of Beresford, had felt comfortable in Scotland. He was a Londoner born and bred, but he’d enjoyed visiting the Highlands with his parents and brother in his youth. That was before Isla, of course.

Before the day Richard had lost his heart. “That all seems so petty now, doesn’t it?” he asked his friend, as the two of them walked away from the larger crowd of mourners at the joint funeral for Richard’s brother and his wife. “It seems so stupid that I let my love for a woman tear me away from my brother – and from Isla. She deserved my friendship still.” Richard’s friend, Stephen Thompson, the Earl of Gordon, stood out in most crowds. With his dark, tree-bark colored skin and wild curly hair, which he only managed to tame by tying it back, he did not fit in with the upper classes’ generally white populace. Yet, he seemed to feel much more comfortable in the current situation than Richard himself. The pair had escaped from the barrage of well-wishers and mourners – and gossips, Richard supposed – giving the duke a little breathing space for a moment. They stood by the loch on the edge of the property’s grounds, listening to the water lapping and bringing back memories, both welcome and unwelcome. Stephen put a hand on Richard’s shoulder.

The earl was less afraid than many to show affection to his friends. Perhaps he was so used to his life as an outsider, he simply didn’t care. In some ways, Richard envied that. “Don’t torture yourself like this, Richie,” he said gently. “There’s nothing you could have done.” Richie. Lucas used to call me that too when I was young. Why did I allow all this to happen? Lucas was gone now. Isla was gone. Their meaningless feud had never had a chance to properly end before both Richard’s brother and the woman he’d once loved were nothing but ash.

Richard knew it was cowardly, but part of him had almost wanted to stay at home, to avoid the funeral altogether. Part of him had feared it would kill him. “I’m going to check on the ladies,” Stephen said, patting his shoulder one more time. “I’ll call you over in a minute.” Richard nodded absentmindedly, his loss still making him feel numb. He didn’t know what he’d do without his bright, cheerful friend, who sailed around the world with a man who was half a pirate every year before coming home to work. Stephen was the only thing that had dragged him here in the first place. But of course, he had to be here. Lucas and Isla had two girls, two little daughters left in the world without their mother and father. Richard swallowed; his throat hurt as he stared at the loch.

The girls have a similar age dif erence to Lucas and me. Did, I suppose, now he’s gone. I wonder if they played in these lochs, as their father and I once played in the lake at Beresford? Lucas was supposed to be the duke, not Richard. Lucas was older, smarter, more charismatic, and handsome. Perhaps that was why Isla, the daughter of the Scottish Lord of Gretness, had turned her eye from her initial courtship with Richard and gone to Lucas’s side. Perhaps that was why Lucas had found love, while Richard was left with nothing but his duty. A duty that was never supposed to be his. He remembered the first time the brothers had seen Isla. She’d been so beautiful, with her long auburn hair, her bright eyes, her smile, and charming accent, and her infectious, joyful laugh. She— No.

Richard couldn’t think about Isla, not now. It was hard enough to accept she was dead and gone; hard enough that Lucas, too, would never see the sun again. Opening old wounds would do Richard nothing but harm. “Lord Beresford,” Stephen’s voice called. “They’re ready for you.” Richard smiled a little tiredly. It was always strange to hear his irreverent friend address him by his title rather than name. He supposed it was time to meet his nieces – his new wards. He’d only met them once, some four years earlier, when the oldest was two and the youngest newly-born. It was supposed to be the start of his reunion with his brother.

It wasn’t, though – it never turned out that way. We left it too late. I left it too late. Sighing, he turned and walked toward Stephen’s voice. When he crested the small hill, he found Stephen solemnly shaking hands with a tiny girl, who looked so much like Isla, it almost stopped Richard’s heart. This must be the oldest daughter, Ailsa. She had her mother’s auburn hair, but her eyes… Those were Lucas’s green eyes. The younger child was nowhere in sight, but Ailsa was smiling as she spoke to Stephen. Despite her black clothes and evident sorrow, she obviously felt the same pull toward Stephen so many others did. The same pull that had drawn Richard to him when they were schoolboys.

“You have very strange skin, Mr. Stephen,” the little girl said in an accent that stung like needles. She was obviously Scottish, but someone had been giving her lessons to pronounce words in the English fashion. She sounded exactly as Isla had all those years ago. “But it’s very pretty. How do you make it shine like that? Is it brown all the time?” “Ailsa!” An undoubtedly English lady’s voice scolded from behind her. “Don’t comment on such things! It’s unseemly.” Stephen started to laugh. “Oh, don’t worry, Miss Kathy,” he reassured her, winking at Ailsa. “I’ve heard much worse.

” Richard looked up to see who had spoken. A woman stood where she hadn’t before, also dressed in mourning. There was a younger child in her arms – the younger girl, Davina, he supposed. Given Stephen’s form of address, he assumed she must be the children’s governess. She was lovely. Hazel eyes and gently sun-bronzed skin, this was a woman unafraid of hard work. She was tall and slim, her blonde hair tied modestly under a mourning cap. Judging by the way Davina and Ailsa looked at her, it was clear they adored her. Stephen looked up, noticing him for the first time. “Oh, Richie, there you are.

Little ones, meet your Uncle Richard, the Duke of Beresford.” Ailsa turned to him shyly. “It’s good to meet you, Lord Uncle Beresford,” she said in a prim little voice that almost caused Richard to smile. “Are we gonnae – I mean, are we going to live with you?” The answer was yes, of course, though he had little idea of how it had come to that. Isla had brothers, but they were all married and scattered around Scotland, with their own wives and children. Her father and mother, the girls’ grandparents, were too old and bereaved to raise them. Which only leaves me. “I believe so,” Richard replied. He hesitated, then a little awkwardly added, “You may call me Uncle Richard if you wish. May I call you Ailsa?” The girl flushed, obviously pleased by the question.

“You may,” she said. “Mr. Stephen wouldn’t tell us his title.” “Lord Gordon I might be, but I’m practically family,” Stephen commented with a wink. “Just Stephen will do.” He somehow now had Davina in his arms, who was pulling at his curls curiously, despite the governess’s best efforts. The lovely woman accompanying the girls covered her mouth, perhaps hiding a smile. Richard examined her again and saw the redness around her eyes. She’d obviously been weeping for the departed. “Pardon me, I didn’t catch your name, Miss,” he lied.

I certainly won’t be addressing such a well-spoken young lady as Miss Kathy. Not all of us can get away with such charming disrespect as Stephen! “My name is Kathy … Wright, Your Grace,” she replied politely, giving a proper but brief curtsey. He wondered why she had stumbled over her surname but supposed it may have been merely her grief muddling her tongue. “It is a pleasure to meet you.” “You’re an Englishwoman,” he observed. “I am,” she agreed. “My father was a minor lord. When my marriage prospects fell through, I came here to my friends, so that I might help raise and then teach their children.” “So, you are their governess?” Richard asked. He’d assumed as much only a few moments before, and yet he still felt a little surprised.

Her obvious bond with these girls felt more profound than that, somehow. If he didn’t know the truth, he might have suspected she was their mother. “I am, and their nurse before that,” she replied with a smile. She had an attractive smile – not too broad, not too small, but enough to light her face. She was quite pretty, though, in an intriguing way. She wasn’t particularly beautiful, but she was far from ugly. Still, something about the gentleness of her face made her too intriguing to look away. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace. And, actually, I have a request for you.” Richard saw Stephen look around in surprise, but he ignored his friend, his attention still fixed upon Kathy.

He wasn’t used to women speaking so forwardly, but it certainly was not a bad thing. “What request would that be, Miss Wright?” She curtseyed briefly again. “I wondered if I might not continue my appointment as the girls’ governess in your London home,” she said. “I have known both almost since birth, and I have grown very attached to them. It would be my honor to continue seeing to their education.” Richard hesitated. To hire a young woman with no background and no parents was a risky move, even if she clearly knew and cared about the children. But then, his brother and Isla had thought her good enough. Who was he to say otherwise? He was still debating when little Ailsa said, “Excuse me, Uncle Richard, but I think it would be awfie … awfully good of you to accept. Davina and I, we like having Miss Kathy around.

She’s family.” Richard glanced at Stephen, who shrugged. When the little girl put it like that, it didn’t really leave Richard with much of a choice. Besides, he had to admit, he worried about how he was going to raise them. How could he put aside his own guilt and confused feelings of grief to help two children deal with their own mourning? What did he know of young girls? “If you do not mind moving back to England, Miss Wright, I would be happy to offer you a position in my household,” he said. He saw joy spark in the woman’s eyes, but there was something else there too, something too quick for Richard to identify. He fancied it looked almost like fear … but that didn’t make any sense. No doubt, his sorrow was confusing his mind. “Thank you, Uncle,” little Ailsa said. She held out her hand so formally that Richard almost wanted to laugh, but he held it in as he took the small hand and shook it.

Davina finally clambered down from Stephen, walking over to Richard with a look of open curiosity on her face. “We’re gonnae live with you?”

.

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