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Authors: Cheryl Holt

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BOOK: Dreams of Desire
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The man was an idiot.
“I was also governess,” she said, “to various girls who went on to marry. Once they were wed, my services were no longer required.”
At this news, he harrumphed as if her charges had done something shocking by marrying, and she could barely contain her exasperation.
What sort of woman was he seeking, a saint?
He opened the file and began to read, poring over every detail as she fidgeted and fumed in her seat.
Ultimately, he exhaled a heavy sigh. “Fine. You’re hired.”
The remark was the exact opposite of what she’d expected, and she gaped at him. “What did you say?”
“You’re hired.”
“Oh.” She’d been so sure of rejection that acceptance was almost a letdown.
“You don’t seem very excited,” he mentioned.
She flashed a tight smile. “I’m positively ecstatic.”
He barked out a laugh, the sound rusty, as if it didn’t happen often.
“Is this you in
, Miss Lambert?”
She couldn’t abide his condescending tone and answered more sarcastically than she should have. “Would you like me to leap up and twirl in circles?”
“I doubt my poor heart could stand the sight. A simple
will suffice.”
“Thank you.”
His chin balanced on his hand, he leaned back and assessed her. She scrutinized him in return.
He was thirty, so there was only five years difference in their ages. But he was so urbane, so patronizing and sophisticated, that he seemed decades older. Wealth, station, and life experience separated them as clearly as if a line had been drawn.
His long legs were stretched out, one foot crossed over the other. Even though he slouched in his chair, he appeared to be uncomfortable, and she wondered if he ever relaxed.
“You’re very interesting, Miss Lambert.”
“Why do you say so?”
“I’ve given you a place in my household, but you’re not gushing. Most females—when I take the time to personally interview them—are a tad more obsequious.”
“I offered to rejoice, but you said you’d rather I didn’t.”
“So I did.”
“Have you changed your mind? Would you like me to flatter and compliment? I certainly can, if it will make you happy.”
“Don’t you dare go all sycophantic on me. We’re merely completing a business transaction.” He tapped a pensive finger against his lips and scowled. “There’s just one problem.”
“What is it?”
“You’re very pretty. It worries me.”
On hearing the comment, she felt as if they’d stepped into a murky bog. She didn’t consider it vanity when she admitted to being pretty. There was nothing wrong with her vision, and she could see her reflection in a mirror. She was blond and blue-eyed, with a heart-shaped face and pouting lips. Her high cheekbones and dimples had driven several aristocratic sons to write absurd, unwanted poetry about her.
In addition to her comely features, she was pleasingly plump, rounded in the right spots, with a bosom that was fuller than it should be, a small waist, and curvaceous hips. Her shapely figure attracted male attention that she didn’t solicit or condone, and she occasionally received risqué proposals that involved her posing in the nude.
“My looks are . . .
to you?” she tentatively ventured.
“Yes, so I’m afraid I have to set some ground rules.”
“Ground rules?”
“Such as?”
“There will be no flirting with the footmen.”
“Definitely not.”
“Nor can I permit drinking or cavorting. No frolicking with boys in the village. No late-night dips in the pond in your undergarments.”
She was so insulted she couldn’t think straight. “Anything else?”
“No gambling. I absolutely draw the line at wagering.”
“I’ll do my best to avoid it.”
He raised an imperious brow. “Are you mocking me, Miss Lambert?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Recently, we’ve had a rash of untoward behavior, and it’s my opinion that much unpleasantness could have been averted if I’d been clearer from the start as to the conduct required.”
“Your housemaids have been disruptive? They’ve been swimming in the pond and dallying with the footmen?”
“Not my maids. The companions I’ve hired for my wards.”
“How many have you hired?”
“In the past year? Seven.”
His cheeks flushed as she gawked at him, trying to make sense of the information. Why would so many have come and gone over such a short period? Was he just particularly bad at choosing capable people? Or was he an impossible brute?
Lily was acquainted with many of the women from Mrs. Ford’s agency, and there was no more boring, humdrum group in existence. She couldn’t imagine any of them instigating the type of trouble he’d described.
Suddenly, she was swamped with misgivings, and an alarm bell began to chime. “You’ve had
“Yes, and none of them has had the fortitude to stick it out.”
“May I inquire as to why?”
“No, you may not. Suffice it to say that it was a lack of character on their parts.”
their parts?”
“Yes,” he haughtily insisted. “I asked of them what I ask of myself. I maintain the highest standards of decency and decorum. I would never cause a scandal, initiate gossip, or involve myself in an immoral situation. I demand the same of my servants.”
What a dreadfully dull household it must be,
she mused. Then again, it had to be better than being groped in a dark hallway or having your employer’s husband sneak into your bed in the middle of the night.
“I don’t suppose any of this was due to mischief by your wards?”
“My wards? Why would you even suggest such a thing? Their reputations are beyond reproach.”
“So . . . it was simply a scourge of amorous, flighty lady’s companions?”
That imperious brow was raised again. “You doubt me?”
It would be completely impolitic to answer
, so instead, she stood.
“I had said
thank you
,” she told him, “but I must change my reply to
thank you.”
“What do you mean?”
“This job sounds to be quite above my level of competency. I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t be right for it.”
Cursing herself for a fool, she started out. They were at his country manor, Penworth Hall, a two-day journey from the city. Mrs. Ford had loaned her coach fare to attend the interview, with the understanding that Lily would pay her back from her first month’s wages.
If she walked out, how would she square the debt? And if she snubbed the earl, why would Mrs. Ford place her at another post? Lily had lost many of the positions Mrs. Ford had found for her. Why would she keep Lily on?
She’d almost made it to the door, when Penworth barked, “Miss Lambert, sit down.”
“I can’t. I really must—”
“Miss Lambert!” he stated more fiercely. “I haven’t given you permission to leave.”
“I didn’t realize I needed it. I believe our appointment is concluded.”
“It’s not concluded until I say it is. Sit down!”
Brooking no argument, he gestured to her chair, and she vacillated, then slinked to her seat. He grinned malevolently, delighted to have his authority so blatantly demonstrated.
“You’ve been hired,” he declared, “and you will not refuse me.”
“As you wish,” she tersely retorted.
“We depart for Scotland on Saturday, and I don’t have time to interview anyone else.”
“Lucky me.”
“Your ungrateful attitude will not help matters, Miss Lambert.”
“I apologize for my discourtesy,” she insincerely muttered.
“Mrs. Ford assures me that you’re ready to commence your duties.”
“I am.”
“We’re sailing from London. I trust that mode of travel won’t be a problem for you?”
She’d never been on a ship and had no idea how she’d weather the voyage, but when he was such an ass, she felt justified in being contrary.
“I get seasick,” she lied.
“I don’t care,” he rudely responded. “It’s a minor distance, so your discomfort will be brief.”
“I’ll try not to be ill in your presence.”
He ignored her snide remark and continued. “I’ve been informed that you booked lodging at the inn in the village.”
“Yes, milord.”
“I will send for your bags. A chamber will be prepared for you, and you’ll join us for supper so you can be introduced to the twins. Tomorrow, you’ll assist them in their packing so that the three of you can become acquainted.”
“I can’t wait,” she lied again, and she couldn’t shield her distaste.
“You have a sharp tongue, Miss Lambert. I don’t like it.”
“Then perhaps you should reassess your decision.”
“No. I enjoy getting my way, and the more you protest, the more insistent I shall be that you do as I bid you. Might I suggest that—in our future dealings—you keep that fact in mind?”
“I will.”
“You may proceed to the foyer. The butler will meet you there and have a maid show you to your bedroom. We have drinks at seven and supper at eight. Be prompt and dress appropriately.”
There were a thousand replies she could have made, but what was the point? He hated to be denied, and she was no better. Nothing galled her more than having an arrogant male ordering her about, which certainly had her questioning her choice of career.
She imagined thwarting him, watching until he was off the property, then running away. Would he chase her down as if she was a feudal serf? Would he call out the hounds? Would she be dragged back in chains?
He was such a conceited beast that he just might, so she’d bite the bullet and obey, but she would loathe her job—and him—every second.
Why couldn’t she have had a different type of life?
Her parents had died when she was a baby, and she didn’t remember them. She’d had no relatives to take her in, so she’d been shuffled among the neighbors until there was no one left.
Since she was twelve, she’d supported herself. She struggled and toiled, but she couldn’t find a place where she belonged. It was her greatest dream to marry, to have a kind husband and a home of her own.
Instead, she had to rely on the whims of a man like Penworth.
They stared and stared at each other, his snooty expression letting her know how futile her spurt of rebellion had been. Her wishes were trivial compared to his, and she sighed and nodded, reluctantly acknowledging his power.
Without further disagreement or complaint, she stood and went to locate the butler so she could learn where her bedchamber would be.
Chapter 2
LILY was stomping toward the foyer when a door opened down the hall. Two young ladies stepped out to block her path. Since they were identical in appearance, it wasn’t difficult to deduce that they were the earl’s wards, Miranda and Melanie Newton.
Their hair was a silvery blond, their eyes an icy blue. In their matching white gowns, blue sash at the waist, they were lithe and willowy, sophisticated in a fashion Lily couldn’t have managed in a thousand years.
They watched Lily approach, as Lily watched them in return. It was an odd encounter, almost a confrontation, and she couldn’t figure out why it was occurring. Already, she sensed disaster.
They hadn’t moved, and at noting their heightened scrutiny, she was extremely uncomfortable. She stopped and smiled, but they didn’t smile back.
“Miss Lambert, I presume?” one of them said. Her voice was breathy and seductive, like honey on a spoon.
“I am Melanie Newton.”
“And I am Miranda Newton,” the other chimed in. “John must have hired you. He told us he planned on it.”
It took a moment for Lily to realize that in speaking of
, they were referring to Lord Penworth.
“Yes, he hired me,” Lily confirmed.
“He’s so anxious to depart for Scotland,” Melanie mentioned.
“He just loves his dreary old castle,” Miranda added, “and his horses and hounds. What about you, Miss Lambert? Do you love horses and hounds?”
“I can probably take them or leave them.”
“You don’t ride? You don’t hunt?”
“How will you entertain yourself in all that wild heather?”
They cocked their heads at exactly the same angle, as they studied Lily’s plain gray dress, the conservative collar and cuffs. Miranda peered at her sister, and a silent communication was exchanged. They both smirked.
“This is going to be so amusing,” Miranda crooned.
They circled Lily, assessing her as if inspecting a horse they might purchase. Then, at the same instant, they halted and leaned in, so Lily was wedged between them.
Their perfect faces were mere inches from her own, so she could see their creamy skin, their plucked brows, their ruby lips and dark lashes. They were very beautiful, but in a brittle manner that Lily found disturbing.
BOOK: Dreams of Desire
7.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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