Authors: Cynthia Wright
—George Gordon, Lord Byron
Holding a candlestick in one hand, Adrienne Beauvisage eased open the door to the Frakes-Hogg nursery. Little Ellie and Beth were sleeping peacefully in their beds as their governess tiptoed over for a closer look. Angelic pink cheeks, long lashes, and dark curls made them appear unscathed by their mother's recent death.
Sensing Adrienne's presence, Beth opened her eyes and whispered, "I wish you could be our mummy now."
How could she say that she despised their father and had stayed this long only because of the girls? "I couldn't love you more if I were your mummy."
"Good." Smiling, she went back to sleep.
Adrienne's heart ached as she tucked her in again, then returned to the corridor. Not a day passed that didn't find her struggling anew with the problem of the insidious attentions paid to her by the girls' father, Walter Frakes-Hogg.
Two years earlier, when Adrienne had completed her education at age eighteen, her parents had begged her to come home to the family chateau in France, but she'd insisted upon seeking employment and fulfilling her ambition to teach. Above all, Adrienne craved independence and she had no desire to enter London society, which she considered superficial.
After Walter Frakes-Hogg persuaded her to become the live-in governess to his tiny daughters, Adrienne had fallen in love with the girls instantly. Because their mother, Jane, was bedridden, she had tried to bring some warmth and cheer into the gloomy house. She was encouraged to feel like a member of the family, and to call the Frakes-Hoggs by their Christian names.
Now, making her way down the arched corridor lit only by her single candle, Adrienne was grateful that Walter was away tonight, paying a condolence call on his newly widowed sister-in-law. When had she first begun to have doubts about her employer? Although there had been unsettling moments before Jane's death, she had been too busy to ponder Walter's odd behavior. At times, she'd had the sensation that he was staring at her from across the room, but then he'd smile at her calmly and Adrienne would shake off the feeling.
Since Jane's death, however, Walter had begun to make remarks that gave her chills. He hinted that she could be well taken care of if she considered his needs as well as those of the little girls, but his threats were always so subtly veiled that Adrienne doubted her own instincts.
Once, when she had been climbing a tree with Ellie and Beth, Walter had offered to help them down from the lowest branch. He caught the girls, then insisted that Adrienne fall into his arms—and when she did, he slid his hand under her skirts. His scent, a mixture of sandalwood and strong spirits, caused her stomach to lurch.
Finally, there had been the night she awoke from a deep sleep to the sound of her doorknob rattling. If she hadn't taken the precaution of bolting her door, who knew what might have happened? Yet, in the daylight, Adrienne wondered if it had been a nightmare.
Many an hour she daydreamed about going home to France and the love of her family, or joining London society with her friends from Mrs. Harrington's Seminary for the Daughters of Gentlemen. Anything would be preferable to this gloomy place. Adrienne might be unconventional, but she wasn't a recluse. If only there were a solution for Ellie and Beth...
Her bedchamber, though spacious, was dark, cold, and lonely. Adrienne used her candle to light oil lamps on the bureau, then turned toward the bed and nearly screamed aloud.
"Good evening, my dear."
Walter Frakes-Hogg was sitting in a hard chair next to her bed, his coat lying near her pillow. The lamplight played eerily over his long face and tall, spare frame. Though only middle aged, he had prematurely white hair, and drink had reddened the ends of his ears and nose.
Her heart was hammering, but she strove for composure. It wouldn't do to let him sense her terror. "I must ask you not to enter my rooms uninvited, sir. If you like, I will speak to you in the sitting room...."
"No. I like it here, and I make the rules. Had you forgotten?" He drank from a glass on the bedside table and loosened his cravat.
She hated the way he could smile and be evil at the same time. "Why have you come home from Mrs. Halper's, sir?"
"My sister-in-law means to move into the house with us, to take care of the girls."
"But that's wonderful news! I think highly of Mrs. Halper, and she will be able to give them so much that was lost when their mother died."
"I don't want her here. I'd rather have just you." His dark eyes glittered. "But she hasn't any money, no place else to go. I came home early to think of a way to foil her plan."
Adrienne felt dizzy with fear as she noticed that Walter's speech was impaired by drink. Should she run from the room? "Sir, you really must consider the needs of the children. You're away a great deal, and they need the love of their aunt."
"We'd rather have
love." He got to his feet and advanced toward her. "I'm certain we can discuss arrangements... hmm?" Bleary-eyed, Walter looked her up and down. He began to unfasten his shirt, muttering, "Wouldn't you like that?"
Before she could run for the door, he had captured her wrist and was drawing her into his arms. Adrienne realized that there was only one way to ensure her escape. She returned his feral smile. "You are so commanding, sir."
"Ah, charming, charming." Boldly, he put a hand on her breast. "We must get rid of these missish gowns you favor, find something more revealing. You certainly have the shape for it."
Bile rose in Adrienne's throat. "No man has ever made me feel attractive until now."
"I can teach you things you never imagined."
"Oh, sir, I—I feel faint." She backed away from his looming mouth. "Can we sit down on the bed?"
"By all means, my dear girl! That's passion, going to your head. Come to think of it, I feel a bit lightheaded myself. Perhaps we ought to rest together...."
Adrienne watched him lie back. When his shirt fell open, she saw a strawberry birthmark in the middle of his bony white chest. There was a bulge in his trousers, and he was breathing hard. "Sir?"
"Yes, my beauty?"
She sat down beside him. "I feel so shy. Will you close your eyes and let me practice kissing you the first time?"
Overcome by lust, Walter squeezed his groin with one hand and put the other back on her breast. "Christ, you're so young and firm. I can't stand it—"
"Close your eyes, sir," she whispered coquettishly. When he obeyed, Adrienne reached under her pillow for the dagger that she had placed there the night he'd tried to come into her room. Now, trembling inside, she pushed it against his flabby throat. "I despise you! You have tried to use power to have your way with me, and I hate you for it. Now get up."
Disbelief and rage clashed in his eyes. "Little strumpet! Give me that thing before I turn it back on you."
"If you try, I'll kill you. I would have no regrets."
"Don't be stupid. If you do this, I'll make you pay!"
"There are ways I could make
pay if you threaten me. Couldn't I ruin your reputation if I chose? Now get up. Put your hands in the air. Higher!" Adrienne moved the knifepoint to the middle of his back and poked it in far enough to draw blood. "You know, I wish I could kill you. Your daughters would be happier without you."
Something in her tone gave Walter Frakes-Hogg pause. She meant it. He let her force him into the tiny dressing room, then listened as she locked the door.
"You are going to be exceedingly sorry!" he yelled.
"Save your breath. You'll never see me again!" As she spoke, Adrienne dragged a satchel out from under her bed. It had been packed and ready, just in case, since the day she'd hidden the dagger under her pillow. Thank God for her darkest suspicions! Now she stepped out of the room, locked the door, and fled down the shadowy corridor. She would take the girls with her in a hackney, drop them at Mrs. Halper's, and trust her to look after them.
For her own part, Adrienne knew that she must conceal her whereabouts from Walter Frakes-Hogg. He was capable of all manner of revenge, for she had humiliated him in the worst way a woman could humiliate a man.
As she got little Ellie and Beth out of their beds and prayed that Walter wouldn't break free and kill them all, Adrienne realized that she'd give anything to have her papa come to her rescue.
* * *
"Won't you have a whiskey, Papa?" Adrienne paused hopefully beside the celleret in the corner of her father's sitting room. Nicholai Beauvisage was occupying an elegant suite in the St. James Royal Hotel, but after a fortnight away from his French chateau and Lisette, his beautiful wife of twenty-five years, he was unappreciative of his surroundings. He wanted to leave London—and take his daughter with him.
"I don't want a whiskey. I'll tell you what I
"You are frightfully edgy!" she interrupted quickly. "Perhaps a drink would settle your nerves."
"I don't need whiskey to settle my nerves," Nicholai replied with a dark stare. "What I need is obedience and respect from my wayward offspring!"
She blinked. "I detest the word 'obedience.' While I was at school, Mrs. Harrington insisted that I must have been
with a rebellious streak, since I could not respond to her efforts to subdue my spirit."
"I suppose you mean to turn your behavior back on
somehow!" He watched his daughter laugh and tried not to betray the softening of his heart. Gad, but Adrienne was magical—an effervescent mixture of beauty, keen wits, blind courage, and sheer charm. Who could resist the sight of her, with her chestnut curls caught up in a soft Grecian knot, her thick-lashed green eyes sparkling with mischief, and her dimples setting off a flawless, creamy complexion? If she could cultivate manners to match her appearance, eligible men would clamor for her hand in marriage, and then someone else could worry about her safety.
"I recognize that wistful expression, Papa," Adrienne said more gently. Joining him on the Sheraton settee, she patted his hand. "I know that you still hope to convince me to return to France with you—"
"My dear, when you wrote to us last month, you didn't seem to need convincing. If you're in danger here in London, why have you changed your mind?"
"It was just a passing mood, Papa. I'm feeling much braver now, and I know that a quiet existence at Chateau du Soleil wouldn't make me happy. Nor am I suited to marriage, so you may as well cease gazing off into space and dreaming that I will be transformed into a proper member of London society." Adrienne leaned her head on his shoulder, as she had as a little girl. "We've had this same conversation every day since you came to London to take me home. Just because I am finished with school does not mean that I must either marry or live with you and Maman in France!"
"You are aging me decades each day," Nicholai lamented.
"Why can't you trust me to manage my own life?"
"Perhaps because you have gotten into one scrape after another ever since you were old enough to walk!"
"If you are referring again to that silly adventure I had when I ran away from Miss Harrington's school, please do not." Adrienne's cheeks were pink as the past returned, unbidden. It was embarrassing to think that she and her friend Venetia Hedgecoe could have foolishly fallen in with a woman like Mrs. Sykes, who took them in and promised to introduce them to London society. However, the lavish parties she'd taken them to had been filled with conniving, debauched men who had plotted to steal the girls' innocence. Mrs. Sykes had been searching for "suitors" for Adrienne who would pay for her lascivious brand of matchmaking.
"By the look on your face, my dear, I surmise that I still do not know the true extent of your imbroglio." Even four years later, Nicholai's torment was fresh.
"I escaped unscathed and I've grown up tremendously since then, Papa. I would never do anything so foolish now, but I did learn some important lessons, especially about men. They can be charming, attentive, and cultured, but in the end they try to use their male dominance to achieve their selfish ends. I would rather take care of myself than trust a man."
Frustrated, Nicholai nearly poured himself a whiskey. "I would not judge all men against the standard of Frakes-Hogg or those you met through Mrs. Sykes! When I hear you talk this way, I only worry more."
"I am nearly twenty-one, Papa: a grown woman." Stubbornly Adrienne continued, "I have supported myself since school as a governess, and although that situation ended badly I do not intend to surrender and retreat from a life of self-sufficiency. You insisted that I receive a proper education, and I am grateful. I can make my own way in the world."
Nicholai's face grew stormy as he thought of the villainous Walter Frakes-Hogg. Adrienne's letter had only hinted that he had made unwanted advances toward her and that she had made him angry when she fled, taking his daughters to the home of his sister-in-law. What
she told him?