Authors: Amy Rose Bennett
An Improper Governess
Copyright © 2016 Amy Rose Bennett
Editor: Cathleen Ross
Cover Design: © By Hang Le
First E-book Publication: July 2016
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This book is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of fiction or are used in a fictitious manner, including portrayal of historical figures and situations. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
For Richard, my hero. I love you always.
, Sussex, July 1819
... Abigail if I should be so forward... and I know this is probably quite unexpected...”
Abigail gripped the rough granite edge of one of the gravestones in Hedgecombe Priory’s cemetery and wished herself somewhere else entirely. Looking into the vicar’s round, flushed face, she knew what the earnest young man was going to ask her before he’d even uttered the words. And she really didn’t want him to. To see the disappointment in his eyes when she had to refuse him, the situation was far too awkward and wretched to even contemplate. “Mr. Wentworth,” she began in an attempt to circumvent his proposal.
“Please,” Elias Wentworth grasped her bare fingers in one of his large, sweaty hands, “I beg you to indulge me just this once, Miss Adams...” He closed his eyes briefly before wiping the perspiration off his brow with a crumpled silk kerchief. They stood in the deep shade of an ancient yew tree, but in this sticky summer heat, it made little difference. Not a breath of air stirred the dark green leaves overhead. Both of them may as well have been standing in the middle of the Sahara or the depths of a Bengali jungle. “Even though you have only been a resident at Hartfield Hall, and a parishioner at this church for six months,” he continued, “I feel as if we have known each other much longer. And from the very first moment I laid eyes upon you, I knew you and I would be well-suited. You must know how highly I esteem you, Miss Adams.”
Abigail swallowed and tried to withdraw her hand from the vicar, but to her dismay, he only tightened his grip. “I... Why, thank you, Mr. Wentworth. You are too kind. But I really must be going,” she said firmly. “Lady Barsby is expecting me back at the Hall. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Sir Nicholas is due home after his year long sojourn on the Continent and Lady Barsby was most adamant that I return in good time to ensure Miss Lavinia and Miss Kitty are ready to greet their uncle.” Even though it was a half-truth—she really wasn’t expected back until five o’clock, an hour before her charges’ dinner—it was better than a complete untruth... Perhaps the only question that really mattered was, would Mr. Wentworth believe her? And let her go?
“Yes, I had heard Sir Nicholas was returning...” Mr. Wentworth’s mouth flattened briefly and Abigail sensed he did not think much of the baronet. She had not yet met Sir Nicholas; he had been absent when Lady Barsby, his sister-in-law, had secured her as a governess. Before she could think on Mr. Wentworth’s reaction further, he added in a softer tone, “Be that as it may, I had rather hoped... Because it is your afternoon off...” His light blue eyes pointedly dropped to the jumble of parcels tucked into the basket on her arm. “Well frankly, Miss Adams, I was hoping that perhaps you might join me—and my sister of course—at the vicarage for a spot of tea after we... Well, after I had finished asking… When I saw you taking your usual shortcut across the churchyard...” Mr. Wentworth used a finger to pull at his tight clerical stock. “Oh, bother, I’m making a complete hash of this. This really is the wrong moment, isn’t it?”
“It would seem so,” Abigail said, offering a smile that probably looked pained rather than sympathetic. She almost felt sorry for him. But curse the man. He was pleasant enough but she really did not want him to pay court, let alone offer marriage.
She might be five-and-twenty but that didn’t mean she was desperate to wed; aside from knowing she would never make a suitable vicar’s wife, being married to a man she felt not one whit of affection for, or indeed attraction, was not her idea of an idyllic union.
Tamping down a surge of exasperation, Abigail attempted to extricate herself again. “As I said before, I really must be on my way, Mr. Wentworth. It would be foolish of me indeed to upset her ladyship. Or Sir Nicholas for that matter. I certainly do not wish to make an unfavorable first impression, considering he is my employer.”
Mr. Wentworth sighed heavily. “You know, you would not be at her ladyship’s beck and call, or Sir Nicholas’s if you let me—” A low grumble of thunder suddenly reverberated ominously in the distance and the vicar at last released her hand. “Go then, Miss Adams. It appears the elements are working against me as well. Only, please do think on what I have said... and intimated. You and I—” Thunder rumbled again, this time closer and the boughs above them shivered as a small gust of wind passed by. He gave her a courtly bow. “I would offer you a ride home in my gig but I’m afraid one of the wheel spokes is broken. I’d best not keep you any longer. I wish you well, Miss Adams. I trust I shall see you this Sunday?”
“Yes, of course. Goodbye, Mr. Wentworth.” Abigail picked up the skirts of her best sprigged muslin gown and threaded her way through the gravestones in the direction of the lych-gate with more haste than dignity. Hopefully Mr. Wentworth would think she was eager to reach Hartfield before the storm hit. Although she rather feared it was obvious she was running away from him.
Taking the shortcut through the field would shave at least ten minutes off her journey back to the Hall. However, as Abigail glanced at the darkening sky, she realized that even then she would be cutting it fine; there was a very good chance she may not reach shelter before the heavens opened. A mass of angry, purple-black clouds marched rapidly toward her and the teeth of a nasty wind ripped at her skirts and straw bonnet. Picking up her pace, Abigail all but ran toward the hedge and the stile in the middle; she calculated it would take too long to reach the gate at the far end by the road. A stretch of woodland and the grounds of the Hall lay on the other side of the field. If she were fast enough, she might just be able to outrun the storm.
By the time she reached the stile, Abigail was gasping like a landed carp. As she gathered her skirts preparing to climb over, thunder clapped so close, she shrieked. A bright bolt of lightning lit the air around her and she swore she could feel her hair stand on end. Ignoring all dictates of decorum, she hoisted her skirts even higher and clambered up and over the rough wooden steps. However, as she jumped down, the muslin snagged on something and she found she was tethered like a nanny goat, her skirts caught up about her waist.
“Damn!” Without thought, the coarse expletive escaped her. Not only was she about to get caught in a storm she’d probably ruined her best day gown.
Could this day get any worse?
It seemed it could.
Abigail whipped her head around and found herself staring up into the face of the most handsome man she had ever seen. Raven-haired with slashing brows and chiseled features, he sat astride a glossy black gelding with the confidence of a knight-errant, but alas, not the gallantry. As his deep blue eyes raked over her naked thighs and lower to her stockings, his expression was a mixture of sardonic amusement and a darker, heavier emotion she had no trouble recognizing at all—male lust.
“May I be of assistance, dear lady?” he asked, his voice a rich rumbling purr.
Abigail’s face burned as she attempted to wrench her dress and fine cambric petticoats down all by herself. The distinct rip of fabric tearing made her wince. “You might avert your gaze, sir,” she snapped as hot outrage and mortification made her sound more like a harpy than a damsel in distress.
“Yes, I might. But then, that would not be of much help to you now, would it?” Before Abigail could even think to protest further, the ill-mannered stranger slid from his mount and within moments, had released the stubborn snag.
“There,” he said with a wide smile that was probably supposed to be rakishly appealing. “The fair maiden is free.”
“I could have managed on my own,” she retorted. She wasn’t going to thank the man, not when he’d been eyeing her lower body like a hungry beast of prey sizing up its next meal.
Dear God, I hope he did not see my bottom, or worse, my—
Another crack of thunder made her start and the man glanced at the menacing sky. Lightning streaked above the dense copse of trees hiding Hartfield Hall from view. As he mounted his restive horse, a sharp gust caught his black traveling cloak and it flapped about him like the dark wings of a fallen angel. Perhaps even Lucifer himself. “Where are you going, Miss...?” he asked, his compelling blue gaze locking with hers again. “I really don’t think you should be wandering about the countryside in this tempest. In fact, it would be quite foolish if not altogether mad. I must insist you come with me.” He held out his gloved hand.
“My name is Miss Adams,” Abigail answered stiffly and hugged her basket against her like a shield, ignoring his invitation. “I’m going to Hartfield Hall, the home of Sir Nicholas Barsby. It is not far. I am sure I can make it there unscathed.” A heavy raindrop splattered on her nose, followed by another on her cheek. Whilst she knew the man spoke sense, she would not under any circumstances go anywhere in this rogue’s company. Beneath his cloak and noble façade, he was dressed only in his shirtsleeves, boots and form-fitting buckskin breeches; hot weather notwithstanding, it was hardly gentlemanly attire. Braving this storm would be safer than sharing a horse with him.
“Ah, the governess,” the man said, recognition flaring in his eyes. “Allow me to introduce myself then, Miss Adams. I am the ‘Sir Nicholas’ you speak of.”
Oh, Lord, no.
Her employer had just seen her half-naked. Horror squeezed Abigail’s heart and she blushed so hotly, it was a wonder she didn’t burst into flames. “S-sir, Sir Nicholas?” she stammered breathlessly. “I... I don’t know what to say...”
Sir Nicholas extended his hand again. “You don’t need to say a thing. Just put your foot on my boot and climb up on my deuced horse, Miss Adams, before we both get soaked or indeed struck by lightning. Believe me, sharing a saddle and worrying about propriety are the least of your concerns at this very moment.”
Still Abigail hesitated. Her wariness must have shown on her face, but Sir Nicholas mistook the reason for it. “Confound it, woman,” he growled, “I promise you, Oberon won’t bite.”
Nevertheless, as thunder rolled all around them and yet another jagged bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, Abigail at last grudgingly acknowledged she would be foolish indeed to walk the remaining distance of a mile, perhaps more, to Hartfield. With a resigned sigh, she placed her hand in his.
As Sir Nicholas hauled her up and deftly arranged her in front of his lap, a squall of freezing rain hit them. The horse, Oberon, shied but Sir Nicholas swiftly lashed one strong arm around Abigail’s waist to stop her from falling. With a click of his tongue and a flick of the reins, he urged Oberon into a trot, then a swift canter, heading directly for the Hall.
Abigail barely registered the fact her back was pressed up hard against Sir Nicholas’s muscular and invitingly warm body. Screwing her eyes shut against the battering wind and ice-cold needles of rain, she gripped the pommel as if her life depended upon it. She’d never learned to ride and this breath-snatching, mad dash through the woods, around the edge of the lake and then across the vast expanse of lawn in front of the Hall was terrifying in the extreme.
By the time Sir Nicholas’s mount gained the shelter of the stables at the back of the Hall, some ten minutes later, Abigail was a sodden, quaking mess. Somewhere along the way she’d lost her bonnet, her basket and all of its contents and one of her kid slippers. What a sight she must look. A bedraggled hussy in the arms of Sir Nicholas. If Lady Barsby caught sight of her... She shivered even harder.
A groom appeared and held the gelding’s bridle whilst Sir Nicholas dismounted; he then reached up to help her down. My goodness, the man was tall. And strong. His large hands neatly spanned her waist and as he lifted her off Oberon, as if she weighed nothing at all, she slid in the most disconcerting way against the entire length of his body.
His lean, hard, wet body
Trapped between the horse and Sir Nicholas, Abigail felt every inch of him. His wide chest, narrow hips and muscular thighs encased in those tight, buckskin breeches pressed against her for one long moment and her pulse began to race wildly. As wildly as Oberon in full flight. Her nipples, already pebbled from the cold, furled tighter still. Looking up into Sir Nicholas’s harshly handsome face, she caught a fleeting glimpse of midnight blue eyes beneath the sweep of his soot-black lashes right before he stepped back and her legs crumpled out from underneath her.
Faster than she could even draw breath to gasp, Sir Nicholas caught her beneath the forearms. Muttering something that might have been a curse, he then swept her up into his arms.
“N-n-no, you m-must p-p-put me down,” she protested as he carried her out into the driving rain again and across the yard, heading toward the back entrance of the Hall with long, sure strides. “I c-can walk.”
“And I can fly to the moon and back,” Sir Nicholas replied in a dismissive tone that grated on her already raw nerves. One of the Hall’s housemaids, Keziah, waited at the door with her mouth agape.
“Sir Nicholas,” she gasped, bobbing into a curtsy. “Miss Adams...”
Sir Nicholas acknowledged her with a slight inclination of his head, but didn’t break stride as he marched down the corridor in his muddy boots and streaming clothes in the direction of the main entry hall.
“P-please. This really isn’t necessary,” persisted Abigail trying to ignore how wickedly good it felt being held against Sir Nicholas’s hard-as-marble chest, despite the fact it was covered in wet, clinging cambric. The man even smelled divine too—a heady mixture of fresh rainwater, and the earthier scents of leather, sandalwood, and male musk made her want to bury her face in his neck. Even though she was half-frozen, the warmth of long-forgotten and right now, unwanted desire suddenly flickered low in her belly. “I will be quite f-fine, I’m sure. I’m j-just a little c-cold. If Lady Barsby sees me—”
“My sister-in-law will mind her tongue.” Sir Nicholas scowled down at her as he crossed the flags. Ignoring the stammered greeting of Hartfield’s flabbergasted butler, Lawson, he began to mount the stairs to the upper floors. “Now, where is your room, Miss Adams? You’re a slip of a thing and need a warm bath.”