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Book 3 of Lonely Lords Series

June 4, 2013
Sourcebooks
ISBN: 1402278578
ISBN-13: 978-1402278570

Ethan

At the age of fourteen, Ethan Grey was banished by his titled father into a hell his legitimate siblings never learned of. Now that the old earl is dead, and Ethan is a widower with two children to raise, he finds himself attracted to Alice Portman, the boys’ scholarly, reserved governess. Alice also has a shadowed past, and she and Ethan must face the demon haunting them both if they’re to win their chance for a happily ever after.

   

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

“Where in the bloody, benighted, perishing hell are my sons?”

Rage and fear drove the exhaustion from Ethan Grey’s bones as he tore open closets and peered under beds in what had become the boys’ dormitory at Belle Maison.

“Jeremiah! Joshua!” He tried to keep the panic from his voice, but he’d just ridden through a gale-force storm, and it was no kind of night for two little boys to be abroad alone. A long, deafening crack of thunder drowned out Ethan’s bellows, and lightning illuminated the room.

All four little beds were empty, the sheets rumpled.

God in heaven, could his sons have taken off with John and Ford and decided to sleep in a tree house tonight of all nights? Ethan had seen a tree hit by lightning before his very eyes not an hour past, and the idea of his sons wandering around at this hour, in this weather…

“I thought I heard you,” came a pleasant baritone from the doorway.

Ethan crossed the room in three strides and glared at his younger brother. “I leave my children here with you, Nicholas, so they can get to know their uncle, and I come back to find it’s damned near midnight, they’re nowhere to be found, and you’ve lost not one but four little boys. Well?”

More thickly muscled and even taller than Ethan, Nick yet managed to project a benevolence Ethan would never possess. “The children are safe. Come, I’ll show you.”

Safe… The word registered, but the empty beds had registered first.

“The storm has all the children awake,” Nick went on easily, but he cast a curious glance over his shoulder at his older brother. “I’m surprised you decided to travel tonight.”

“I told you I’d be here tonight.” In truth, Ethan had told his sons he’d be back to Belle Maison on this specific date. At five and six, Joshua and Jeremiah were literalists with faultless memories. If Ethan expected them to keep their word—and he did—then he was hell-bent on keeping his word to them.

“You said you’d be back.” Nick paused outside another door on the third floor. He signaled Ethan to wait, conferred momentarily with the footman at the end of the corridor, then returned to the door. “But unless I miss my guess, you’ve ruined a fine pair of boots, put yourself in a foul humor, and are likely courting lung fever as well.”

Ethan’s retort was cut off by Nick’s motion for silence. Slowly, Nick opened the door then gestured for Ethan to peek through.

He saw a bedroom apparently used for nannies and governesses, but a well-appointed room nonetheless. The fire had been built up, and there on the hearth rug were his two sons, one on each side of some governess-type female. She sported a gray dress, a book in her lap, glasses on her nose, and a bunned-up coiffure that did not countenance disorder from a single dark hair.

Two more little boys flanked Joshua and Jeremiah. Nick’s wife sat across the rug from the governess, an arm around the Belmonts’ daughter, Priscilla.

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“And the big, nasty wolf,” the governess said, “who had very malodorous breath from eating a deal of onions with his supper, said, ‘I shall bite off your toes and bite off your noses…”

“Wolves don’t eat onions,” Jeremiah interjected.

“On their steaks, they do, and this wolf liked them in his lamb and mutton sandwiches too.”

“What was his name?” Joshua asked. “The wolf. He has to have a name.”

“We shall call him…” The governess—a drab creature with an unaccountably pretty voice—glanced up from her book at Ethan and Nick in the doorway. “Mr. Grey. Good evening.”

“Papa?” Joshua and Jeremiah were on their feet, and Joshua had even taken a few running steps toward Ethan when Jeremiah’s hand shot out and grabbed his little brother’s nightshirt.

“Hello, Papa,” Jeremiah said, his voice quavering. “Uncle Nick said we might have more stories because of the storm. Priscilla was frightened.”

“Of course you must have more stories tonight.” Nick ambled into the room and lowered himself to sit beside his countess. “Your aunt Leah wasn’t frightened, but I was a little nervous. She decided if she was going to read me stories, you children should have a few extra as well.”

Ethan realized his sons were watching him warily, as were the other boys, and the girl; even Nick and Leah seemed to be regarding him with some caution. The governess, however, merely blinked at him through her spectacles and bent her head to the book.

She ran her finger down the page. “This wolf with the predilection for onions, he might like us to get on with the story. We were reaching the part he likes best.”

“Papa?” Jeremiah stood before his father, back more militarily straight than any six-year-old should stand, his hand still clutching his brother’s nightshirt.

Ethan tried for a smile, telling himself he was glad they were safe, glad there’d been an innocent explanation for his sons wandering the house at a late hour. “Of course you may finish the story. I’ll see you both in the morning. My regards to the wolf.” He nodded in the general direction of the women and children, then at Nick, and turned to leave.

“I’ll walk with you,” Nick said, rising in one smooth movement. “I am still afraid of the storm and require company on my way to my bed. Children, let Miss Portman get her rest; Leah, I will wait up for you, and I have sworn off onions for life.”

He blew his wife a kiss, growled at the boys, bowed to Priscilla, and waved to the governess. Had there been a dog in the room, Nick would likely have scratched its cheerfully proffered belly before he took his leave.

“My apologies for interrupting the fairy-tale festival,” Ethan said as they traversed the house to the second floor. His boots—a pair he’d just broken in to his satisfaction—were squishing. Walking the last two miles rather than riding a panicked horse was likely to ruin one’s footwear.

“You reassured your sons you were safely home,” Nick said, “and you would have been welcome to join us, you know. Miss Portman does the best job with the old standards, makes me wish I were a little boy.”

“You are a little boy. You’re just the largest little boy in the realm.” He eyed Nick’s great golden length as they approached his bedroom, and got a complacent nod for his comment.

“Was there something you wanted, Nicholas?” Ethan asked, opening the door. He saw a footman setting up screens by the fire, indicating Nick had ordered him a bath.

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“Some time with my brother, perhaps?” Nick suggested, following Ethan into the room uninvited. “There’s food on the way up, too, and you don’t need to tell me the roads were horrible.”

“A tree was hit by lightning not fifty feet from the road.” Ethan squished over to the fireplace and settled into a cushioned chair, which would no doubt bear stains from where his damp fundament came to rest. “Argus nearly tossed me in the ditch, and I walked him in hand from that point.”

He started tugging on his boots, only to feel a stabbing ache in his back brought on by walking in the mud, being cold and wet for hours, and having gone without decent sleep for more nights than he could count.

“Allow me.” Nick grasped the heel and toe of one boot and gave a stout tug. The boot barely moved, so Nick turned around, stepped over Ethan’s calf, and tugged more firmly. By degrees, the wet boot gave up its hold on Ethan’s equally soaked foot. The second boot was no easier, and in truth, Ethan wasn’t sure he could have gotten them off himself.

“My thanks.” Ethan rose—carefully—and hung his wet waistcoat over the back of a chair. “Shouldn’t you be in bed with your wife?”

“We were in bed, then we heard the patter of little feet—even over the thunder. Leah thought she heard Priscilla get out of bed. When we went to investigate, we found the boys were all awake, two to a bed, so Miss Portman hailed them across the hall for a story.”

None of which explained why a belted earl had troubled himself with the doings in the nursery.

“Doesn’t Leah need her rest?” Ethan asked, tugging his shirt over his head and glancing around for somewhere dry to hang it.

“Give it to me.” Nick hung the shirt over a bedpost, like a wet flag of surrender. “Your breeches too, and those stockings.”

“The stockings are beyond repair.” Ethan paused to yawn then stepped out of his remaining clothes and considered the tub. “I thought I was too tired to soak. I was wrong—you will note the occasion, it being a rarity.” He crossed the room and lowered himself into the steaming water with a grateful sigh.

Now if only Nicholas would take himself off.

“When did you get so cynical?” Nick asked, going to the wardrobe and extracting towels, a bar of hard-milled soap, and a jar of shampoo.

“When I was fourteen.”

Nick frowned but said nothing, passing Ethan the soap, which Ethan sniffed.

“Clove. This has to be expensive.”

“Not particularly.” Nick resumed his seat on the stool. “It lasts quite a while. So how is our dear brother Beckman?”

“This cannot wait until morning?” One very large male foot emerged from the water, was lathered, and subsided like a retreating sea monster.

“Morning.” Nick crossed his arms over his chest. “At the breakfast table we have my houseguests, the Belmonts, all three delightful people, but Priscilla’s voice when she’s trying to get attention would cut frozen glass. Then we have the real entertainment, as our nephew Ford and Leah’s brother John, both being five, still sport the peculiarly shrill voices of the very young. Your own two are models of decorum, of course, but often inspired by their confreres. Then we have Nita, Kirsten, and Suzannah, our sisters, whom we love to distraction even first thing in the morning, and let us not forget little sister Della, whose dramatics can be counted on to get the day off to a rollicking start.”

Ethan regarded his brother with a slight smile, comforted to know not all the local miseries were born of wet boots and an aching back.

“Other than the assault to your ears at breakfast, does all go well for you?” With their father’s death less than three months previous, Nick had inherited the earldom of Bellefonte. He’d married mere days before the old earl’s passing, and had taken up residence at Belle Maison with his family only at the start of the summer.

“Well enough. There is a great deal to be done, of course, and Papa’s affairs are not yet entirely settled. You saw Beckman?”

“I did.” Ethan dunked and scrubbed his hair clean to give himself time to fashion a report. “Our brother is as brown as a savage and roundly displeased with Lady Warne for letting Three Springs get into such a sorry condition, but he’s doing a nice job with the place. He hasn’t entirely gotten things sorted out with the housekeeper, though.”

That should be enough of a hint without violating fraternal confidences.

“Oh?” Nick passed Ethan a glass of brandy, then rose to answer a knock at the bedroom door. When he returned, he was carrying a tray with meat, cheese, buttered bread, a bowl of strawberries, and a steaming bowl of soup.

Ethan regarded the tray and found the strength to dunk again and rise from the warmth and comfort of the tub. “Towel?”

“A moment.” Nick set the tray down and picked up one of the two ewers of rinse water. “Eyes closed.” With his superior height, Nick could pour the water directly over his brother’s head, sluicing Ethan clean from the crown downward.

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“Your towel.” Nick passed Ethan a bath sheet, and stepped back, taking both drinks and the tray over to the hearth while Ethan dried off. He stepped into the dressing gown Nick held for him and settled into a chair.

“You would make somebody a good wife, Nicholas.”

“Valeting my brother is hardly a difficult skill.” Nick passed Ethan the bowl of soup. “Finish this, or I will tattle to our sisters.”

“Beck sends them his love,” Ethan said after several spoonfuls of soup. He made and then devoured a sandwich, while Nick sipped his drink and watched the fire.

“Is there something you’re not telling me, Nicholas?” Ethan asked when the sandwich had also disappeared.

“I want you to think about something,” Nick said, still staring at the fire. “But just think about it. I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with it myself.”

“Think about what?” Growing up, the most harebrained schemes—also the most fun—were always Nick’s, but Nick’s tone was serious now.

“How would you feel about leaving your boys here, with me and Leah? We’ve offered to take her brother Trent’s children for the nonce, and all four boys are of an age. They’ve had great fun these past few weeks, and we’ve enjoyed having them.”

What the hell? “Leave Joshua and Jeremiah here? With you? You just met them, Nick, and why are you taking in Leah’s brother’s children? Belle Maison is large enough, I know, but it isn’t as if the place is empty. What makes you think you can have my sons too?”

Ethan was on his feet by the time he finished, and pacing in a rising temper. A throbbing started up at the base of his skull; an old rage at Nicholas and his high-handed notions throbbed along with it.

“When Ford goes back to his father’s house,” Nick said, “Leah’s brother John will have no company here his own age. I’m not asking that Josh and Jeremiah bide here permanently, but it might make sense in the near term.”

Ethan scowled at him. “You aren’t thinking. Of course they’re having a romping good time here this summer, of course the little boys are becoming fast friends, but what then? What about when Trent Lindsey recalls he has an heir, and Ford is whisked away? What about when they have a falling out, and Joshua and Jeremiah aren’t such good companions for John anymore? What about when we have to separate them again, when they’ve already grown as close as brothers?”

Old, old wounds—wounds that should have long since healed—lurked beneath Ethan’s volley of questions.

“I am only asking that you consider it,” Nick said mildly as he rose, “and it is an offer, not a request. I would not have raised it now, but my impression was you intended to repair to Tydings fairly soon.”

“Fairly.” Ethan made an effort to rein in his temper. “We can discuss this later, but I am their only parent, Nick. I have to decide what is best for them.”

Nick smiled at Ethan, all amiability, while Ethan wanted to wallop his brother, regardless of fatigue, headache, or backache. “Of course you do. Whether you want to or not. Good night, Ethan, and I’m glad you’re here, safe and sound.”

“Good night, Nicholas. You aren’t too afraid of the storm to walk back to your rooms alone?”

“Go to hell, Ethan.” Nick turned to leave but not before Ethan saw his smile. “And sweet dreams.”

“Scream if you see the wolf,” Ethan rejoined. Nick blew him a kiss and left, closing the door softly behind him.

Ethan sat by the fire, running a hand through his damp hair. He made himself another sandwich and lounged back, realizing part of his headache—not all—had been derived from hunger.

And some from fatigue. Ethan’s mind, however, was still slogging through storms, including the hail of correspondence he’d picked up at Tydings after his visit with Beck. There were all manner of memoranda, letters, and reports from his factors and agents, but there was also a letter of resignation from the boys’ latest tutor, who had been ostensibly holidaying with his sister in Bath.

Of course, he was.. Ethan gave a mental snort. More likely, Mr. Harold had been looking for a new position, somewhere far from Ethan Grey, bastard firstborn of the late Earl of Bellefonte, and his hellion offspring. It was a pity, too, because Harold had been making some progress with the boys academically.

Maybe Nick was right, Ethan thought as he negotiated the steps up to the bed. Maybe the boys should stay here. Ethan didn’t like the idea, but he’d accommodated ideas he hated, and survived.

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As his tired mind slowed then began to drift toward sleep, Ethan’s last thought was neither of commerce, correspondence, his feelings for his younger brother, his station in life, nor the prospect of parting from his children. His last thought as he drifted off was worthy of Nick prior to that fellow’s recent marriage.

It would have been deuced pleasant to snuggle up to a warm, sweet-scented governess and let her spin tales of ferocious wolves and brave little porkers, rather than battle storms in the mud, rain, and dark of night.

When the sun rose on a glorious summer morning, Ethan rode out with Nick to survey the storm damage. While the horses splashed along muddy lanes, Nick commenced the interrogation Ethan had no doubt been spared the previous night:

What was Nick to do with their dear brother George, whose left-handed tendencies were ever a worry? Ethan suggested foreign service, the Continent being more enlightened in at least a few regards.

Would Ethan attend Nick’s investiture in the autumn?

Ethan replied in the affirmative, not feeing it necessary to add that the request touched him.

And why wasn’t a man as good looking and wealthy as Ethan Grey remarried?

Argus had shied spectacularly at that query, almost as if the beast perceived his master’s reaction to the question.

Ethan was equally leery of the afternoon’s planned diversion—a picnic involving women, children, and all manner of noise, bother, and uninvited insects. Rather than subject himself to same, Ethan decided on the more familiar torment of dealing with his correspondence.

He opened the door to the library, thinking it would almost be a relief to bury himself in commerce, when he heard an odd, muffled sound from the couch over by the hearth. A dog, perhaps, having a dream, but Nick didn’t have house dogs—he had house cats, instead, claiming they were prettier, quieter, better smelling, and capable of placating women and eradicating mice.

Ethan closed the door behind him and crossed the room, only to find the Belmonts’ small daughter hugging a pillow, obviously in distress.

“I beg your pardon?” Ethan wasn’t sure how one dealt with a balled-up little girl who had a death grip on a pillow. “It’s Priscilla, isn’t it?”

Big teary brown eyes peered up at him. The child whipped her braids over her shoulder and clung to her pillow. “Go away, please.”

“I’d like to,” Ethan said, lowering himself to the couch, “or better still, I’d like you to find somewhere else to wax lachrymose, but you are a lady, and I am a gentleman, so we’ll have to muddle through. Here.”

She glared at him past his monogrammed handkerchief, then sat up, scrubbed at her eyes, honked into the handkerchief, and proffered it to Ethan.

“You’re to keep it, child.”

“Is it a token?” Priscilla looked at the damp linen. “It smells ever so lovely, like fresh trees and Christmas. I’m too young to accept tokens, except from family.”

So young and so artlessly charming. Thank God he had only sons. “It’s a handkerchief. Now, why were you crying?”

“My heart is breaking.” She sighed a larger sigh than one little girl ought to contain. “I will write much better stories after this.”

“You will divulge the particulars of this tragedy, if you please. I have correspondence to tend to.”

“Miss Portman is leaving me. She’s says I have grown too smart for her, and it’s time I had tutors, not just a governess.”

Ethan settled in more comfortably on the couch, though the need to deal with his correspondence nagged at him. “You are suffering a consequence of growing up. These are ever more inconvenient than adults might represent.”

“I hate it. Next I’ll have to wear a corset, curl my hair, and learn to flirt.”

Her tone suggested a worse fate had never befallen a young lady. “Don’t panic. I think you have some time before those miseries beset you.”

“Papa says the same thing, but he never wants me to grow up. He had only boys with his other wife, and I am his only girl.”

“His only daughter for now.” Ethan’s eyes had told him Mrs. Reese Belmont was in anticipation of a happy event. “You will correspond with Miss Portman when she moves to her next post, will you not?”

“I don’t know.” The girl smoothed out the linen on her lap. She had a grass stain on one bony little knee, and her pinny was hopelessly wrinkled. “I am not too smart for her, and she can be my tutor. She just wants to go, is all. I am mad at her for that.”

Children were horrendously canny when it came to sniffing out adult prevarications. Little Priscilla’s governess might well be simply tired of the child.

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“Maybe she wants to leave while you still think she’s smart and you still like her. She doesn’t want you to be smarter than she is. Word of advice, though?”

Priscilla nodded, apparently willing to entertain a confidence from a man who looked like her friend Wee Nick.

“You can be angry any time you please,” Ethan said, “but it could be that you are only picking a fight because you’re hurt, and maybe a little scared—scared because you like Miss Portman and you might not like your tutors as much.”

Priscilla kept her gaze on her lap. “I’ll miss her.”

And a child could miss loved ones passionately. A man, thank God, knew better.

“She’ll miss you too,” Ethan said, hoping it was true for the child’s sake. “If you’re really her friend, though, you want her to be happy. And I think you can trust your mama and papa to find you tutors you get along with.”

Outside the door, a herd of small feet thundered past, young voices shrieking about pony carts, kites, and pie.

“I have to go now.” Priscilla scrambled off the couch, flung a curtsy toward Ethan, and raced to join in the happy affray.

Ethan closed the door as a rankling notion stole into his brain: Nick would see to it Joshua and Jeremiah had the best of tutors and nannies. He’d also play with them, as Ethan most assuredly did not. Ethan shoved that thought back into whatever mental dungeon it had sprung from and turned his attention to a pile of letters, some water stained around the edges. He was halfway through a reply to the steward of his sheep farms in Dorset when the library door again opened.

“Excuse me.” The governess—Miss Porter? Miss Portman, admitted herself to the room and closed the door behind her. “I’m returning one book and fetching another. My pardon for disturbing you, Mr. Grey.”

Ethan half rose from his seat and gestured toward the shelves. “Help yourself.” He paused to rub his eyes. They’d been stinging more and more of late, and sometimes watered so badly he had to stop what he was doing altogether and rest them. He rose from the desk and came around to lean against the front of it, watching as the governess bent to put the large volume of fairy tales on the bottom shelf.

“It’s Miss Portman, isn’t it?”

She rose slowly, as if feeling Ethan’s gaze on her, and turned. “Alice Portman.” She bobbed a hint of a curtsy. “You are Nicholas’s brother, Mr. Ethan Grey, father to Joshua and Jeremiah.”

“You call the earl Nicholas?” Ethan concluded she was one of those plain women who’d grown fearless in her solitary journey through life. He respected that, even as he had to concede there was something about Alice Portman’s snapping brown eyes he found… compelling. Her shape was indeterminate, owing to the loose cut of her gown, her dark brown hair was imprisoned in some kind of chignon, her gaze had an insect-like quality as a result of the distortion of her spectacles. All in all, Ethan suspected she was a woman of substantial personal fortitude.

She held his gaze with a steadiness grown men would envy. “When I met your brother, he was mucking stalls in Sussex and content to be known as Wee Nick. I do not use his title now, because he has insisted it would make him uncomfortable were I to do so.”

This recitation was a scold. Ethan mentally saluted her for the calm with which she delivered it. “No doubt it would.”

She turned back to the books, but rather than bend down to the lower shelf, she sat on the floor cross-legged, as she’d sat on the rug the previous night. Then, she’d been swaddled in another plain, unremarkable dress, and banked with children on either side. For all her primness, she’d looked comfortable with the informality, if a little disgruntled to be interrupted.

Ethan’s correspondence started whining at him, but his eyes still stung too.

“So what did you name him?” Ethan asked. “The wolf with the unfortunate predilection for onions, that is.”

“That was a challenge,” Miss Portman said as she surveyed the children’s books on the bottom shelf. “Pris, being of a dramatic frame of mind, wanted to name him Sir Androcles of Lobo.”

“Wasn’t Androcles a lion?”

The governess turned her head and beamed a full-blown, pleased smile at Ethan. “Why, Mr. Grey, I am impressed, but Androcles was the young man who took the thorn from the lion’s paw. The lion never earned his own sobriquet.”

“Lobo is Spanish for wolf,” Ethan said, his gaze straying around the room lest he betray a reaction to that smile. Ye gods, the plain, prim, buttoned-up Miss Portman had the smile of a benign goddess, so warm and charming it hurt to see.

“Pris is learning Spanish, French, and Italian from her uncle Thomas, who is a noted polyglot.” Miss Portman chose a book, frowned at it, and put it right back.

“What’s wrong with that one?” Ethan asked, amused at her expression.

“No pictures,” she explained. “Who in their right mind prints a storybook for children without pictures?”

“Somebody trying to save money on production costs. Did the wolf acquire a name?” He was asking to be polite, to make small talk with somebody who was likely not much befriended below stairs.

“He acquired various names.” Miss Portman chose another book and opened it for perusal. “Wolfgang Wolf, was John’s nomination. Ford, being our youngest, voted for Poopoo Paws Wolfbottom.”

She said this with a straight face, which had probably made the children laugh all the harder.

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“And the winner was?” Ethan hopped off the desk and crossed the room to help the lady to her feet. She frowned delicately—a puzzlement rather than a rebuke, Ethan surmised—then put her bare hand in his and let him draw her up from the floor.

“Lord Androcles Wolfgang Poopoo Paws Wolfbottom Wolf the fourth,” she recited. “Children like anything that makes the telling of a story longer and are ever willing to mention certain parts of the anatomy.”

“I see.” What he saw was a flawless complexion, velvety brown eyes staring up at him in wary consternation, and a wide, full mouth that hid a gorgeous smile. He stepped back and dropped her hand accordingly.

“I am off.” Miss Portman edged around him in the confines of the shelves, and Ethan caught a whiff of lemons. Of course she’d wear lemon verbena. This was probably a dictate in some secret manual for governesses.

“You haven’t joined the cavalcade of pony carts making for the scene of this bacchanal?” Ethan asked, standing his ground.

“I am not fond of equines,” Miss Portman replied. “Nor of animals in general, though I can appreciate the occasional cat. I choose to walk instead. The exercise is good for me, and I am less likely to be ridiculed by the children for my fears.”

“Shall I provide you escort?” Ethan heard himself ask.

Now where in the bloody, benighted hell had that come from? “It’s a pretty day,” Ethan went on, the same imp of inspiration not yet done with him. “I’ve missed my family, and I can work on correspondence any time.”

She wanted to refuse him. From the fleeting look in her eyes, Ethan deduced that his company ranked below that of Mr. Wolfbottom Wolf after a large meal of mutton sandwiches.

And wasn’t that cheering, to find one’s company distasteful to a mere governess?

“Don’t let me impose, Miss Portman.” Ethan offered her a polite retreat. A bastard, even a wealthy one with passable looks, learned the knack. “I can always saddle my gelding and join the party later.” He saw his mistake when her eyes narrowed, saw she took the reference to his horse as a personal taunt.

“My apologies.” He was resentful, not sorry. “I meant no offense, but you do not seem at a loss for company.”

“I am not,” she replied, peering at him. “Your children need to spend time with you outside this house, and you can carry the blanket and the book. Shall we?”

Oh, she was good, reducing him to the status of her bearer and making him work for even that privilege. An idea blossomed in the back of Ethan’s mind, borne of the realization she’d tamed the precocious Priscilla and could likely handle younger children even more easily. He let this idea unfurl in his awareness, where he could consider it from several angles at his leisure.

“Let me tidy up the desk,” he said, “while you find us that blanket, and I’ll join you in the kitchen momentarily.”

“As you wish.” She whisked off, her words implying Ethan had arranged matters to his own satisfaction, when in fact, he was at a loss to explain what he was doing trundling after a prim spinster to spend hours swatting flies and trying not to let the shrieks of children offend his beleaguered ears.

When he met Miss Portman in the kitchen, she sported a wide, floppy straw hat on her head, a blanket over her arm, and the book in her hand. She wore gloves as well, which should not have surprised Ethan, but disappointed him for some reason.

“There’s a shortcut to the orchard through the home wood,” Ethan said as they left the house. He’d rolled the book into the blanket and tucked the blanket under his right arm, leaving his left free for escort duty.

Except the lady was striding off across the terrace like she was intent on storming the Holy Land single-handedly.

Ethan waited by the back door. “Miss Portman?”

“Sir?” She perfectly matched his condescending tone. His own children could not have mimicked him more precisely.

“When one escorts a lady,” he said, “one generally offers the lady his arm.” He winged his elbow at her and waited. He was disproportionately gratified to see Alice Portman blush to the roots of her lovely dark hair. Petty of him, but there it was.

“My apologies.” Alice strode back to his side, put her hand on his arm as if he were clothed with venemous snakes, and fixed her bespectacled gaze straight ahead. Had she started singing some stalwart old hymn, he would not have been surprised.

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“Is it really so distasteful, Miss Portman, to stroll with a gentleman on a pretty day?” Ethan asked, setting a deliberate pace.

“I am not used to the company of gentlemen.” Gentlemen might have been “grave robbers” or “highway men” in the same inflection. “Most men don’t know what to do with me if they know I’m a governess. I’m considered above the maids, but certainly not family. I’m not spoken for, but I’m not fair game, rather like taking holy orders. It can be awkward.”

She was blunt, which he liked. At the rate they were going, their progress would take some time. “I have the impression this might be awkward for the gentlemen, but not particularly so for you.”

“I am content to be what I am,” Miss Portman said, her posture unbending a little.

“So content”—Ethan’s tone was as mild as the breeze—“that I found little Priscilla crying into her pillow in the library this morning, for her friend Miss Portman is abandoning her.”

Miss Portman paused minutely in her forward progress, and Ethan regretted his comment. Her feet hadn’t stumbled, but he sensed her resolve momentarily wavering.

“Priscilla is dramatic,” she said at length. “She will learn one can survive the comings and goings of others in one’s life.”

“Not an easy lesson for a girl. Has she really outgrown you?”

Miss Portman turned her head to glare at him. “Yes, she has, Mr. Grey. Priscilla has her uncle’s facility for languages, and while I can teach her some drawing-room French, I cannot by any means provide what she needs. She shows an equal propensity for mathematics, which I believe she sees as just another language, and she needs a teacher who cannot simply keep up with her but who can challenge and guide her. The intellect of a child must be nurtured carefully if learning is to be made a lifelong habit.”

“Even the intellect of a girl child?” He said it to goad her, to keep the fire in her brown eyes and the animation in her expression. If his sisters could have heard him, though, he’d be minced meat. He should be minced meat, in fact.

She would have stomped off had Ethan not caught her hand.

“My apologies.” He bowed slightly over her hand. “The question was unworthy of me, and you are right to take umbrage.”

“Umbrage.” Miss Portman snatched back her hand. “Umbrage is taken by vicars and duchesses, Mr. Grey. I am offended you would question the appropriateness of developing a mind as talented as little Priscilla’s. Given the unfortunate circumstances of her birth, her education might someday be all she has to fall back on.”

“Mr. Belmont wouldn’t allow that,” Ethan said. Hell, Nick wouldn’t allow that. “I wouldn’t allow it.”

“You barely know her,” Miss Portman shot back, but her tone had taken on an edge of curiosity.

“I don’t know her well, personally,” Ethan said, “but I do know, personally, what it’s like to be raised with only immediate family for company, Miss Portman. I know what it’s like to have my mother’s name as my own, what it’s like to require letters and dispensations to be able to claim any tie to my titled father. Priscilla’s parents can love her—mine loved me, after their fashion—but they cannot ease her path through life once she leaves their care.”

She stomped along in silence beside him, not deigning to take his arm, and Ethan could only guess at the thoughts rocketing around behind her grim expression.

He was about to open his mouth to stumble through further apologies, when a rabbit bolted from the undergrowth, followed closely by a second of the same species. His companion startled, gave a muffled shriek, and then toppled sideways, her gloved hand slipping from his grasp as she fell.

Chapter Two

In the instant between losing her balance and knowing she was going to fall, Alice had time for thoughts.

Please, God, not this, not now, with the arrogant and condescending Mr. Grey on hand to witness it, and only him to help me. Please…

“I’ve got you.” The words were gruff, the grip on her arms ungentle, but the way Ethan Grey held her against his chest was secure and such a relief Alice hung there, catching her balance in something very like an embrace.

“I’ve got you,” Mr. Grey said again, his grip relaxing, though he didn’t step back.

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And neither did Alice. The near fall had scared her; the near falls always scared her, had her heart hammering in her chest, her breath coming too quickly, and memories—the worst memories in her possession—obliterating rational processes.

Panic swirled close. Alice forced her breathing to slow rather than allow it closer.

“Here.” Mr. Grey tugged at her, his arm slipping around her waist as he guided her to a fallen tree large enough to sit on. He tossed the folded blanket over the tree and urged her down, sitting beside her with his arm still around her waist.

Ethan Grey was an awful man. He beat his children, and Alice hadn’t once caught him smiling; but he was tall, strong, and solid, and he smelled of cedar and safety. When he urged her against him, she leaned just a little.

“You’re pale as a ghost,” he said, his tone displeased. “If I had smelling salts, I’d be waving them under your nose. Are you going to faint?”

She shook her head, though she had to swallow twice to find her voice.

“I have a bad hip,” she said, eyes on her lap so he couldn’t see her embarrassment. “When it gives out, it can lame me for a considerable time, and the house is not close.”

“As if I’d leave you here for the gamekeeper to discover on his fall rounds some months hence. Does your hip pain you now?”

“You caught me in time.” Though her hip did pain her. It pained her nigh constantly, and this little slip would mean a bad night at least. It could have been so very much worse. “My thanks.”

“Hmm.” He regarded her, no doubt seeing her lips pinched against pain, her complexion pale, and her composure—upon which she prided herself—eluding her. “Has your hip always been unreliable?”

He made it sound as if her hip was a shifty, shady sort of character, not a body part they shouldn’t even be alluding to.

“I wasn’t born this way.” She glanced up at him, some of her irritation coming back, and wasn’t that a relief, probably to them both. “It’s worse if I’m tired, or I try to move too quickly.”

“We’re about halfway between the house and the picnic grounds. What’s your pleasure?” He stood with his hands on his hips, looking put out. That was some comfort.

“Press on,” she said, trying to rise, only to find Mr. Grey’s hand on her arm restraining her.

“Soon.” His eyes—a startlingly handsome blue—lit with what had to be his version of humor. “Rest a minute longer, Miss Portman. You can do it if you put your considerable will to it.”

She shot him a truculent glare, which caused his mouth—also curiously well formed—to quirk up in a smile. The expression was unexpectedly charming on him, taking years off his features and showing an astonishingly winsome aspect to her escort.

Manners compelled her to smile back.

“Is this hip of yours the reason you do not enjoy horses?” he asked, glancing around at the surrounding woods.

“In part,” she replied, thinking again he talked as if her joint were naughty. “I can sit a horse if I have to, but it’s very hard to get on and off, and I pay for the privilege.”

“This is why God invented coaches, perhaps. Though for my part, they are mortally stuffy and cramped.”

“One can see how this might be true for you.”

“I cannot help my height, Miss Portman.”

“I don’t refer to your height, Mr. Grey.” She shifted, testing her hip and wincing at the result. “I refer to what might be a familial tendency to take the reins rather than be a passenger.”

“You still hurt.” He treated her to a frown while some lunatic bird started chirping above them. “And yes, as a family we tend to charge forth rather than sit back. Shall I pass some time reading to you?”

“Fairy tales?” She resisted the temptation to smirk. “That might be entertaining.”

“Not nearly so much as it might be were you to read to me.”

“What?” She frowned right back at him, wondering if he was attempting to flirt with her in some backhanded way. “You could do better than Lord Androcles Wolfgang Poopoo Paws Wolfbottom Wolf the Fourth?”

“Not on my best day, but we might get the story actually read.”

“And then it would be bedtime, Mr. Grey. Were you truly never a child? Nicholas would have me believe you were, but he likes to tease.”

He eyed her up and down, his disapproval now encompassing her entire corpus. “I can see Wee Nick taking on the challenge of teasing you with some degree of relish, but yes, I was once upon a time a child, though it was long ago and far away, and a folly briefly concluded. I am debating fetching my horse to ferry you to our destination.”

Alice waved a hand that had lost its glove—drat the luck. “No horses, please. If we take our time and avoid steep cliffs and earthquakes, I can manage.”

“Very well.” He rose, looking none too happy with her decision, which yielded a measure of satisfaction in itself. “If you please?” He extended his bare hand, and when Alice laced her fingers through his, he drew her to her feet, tucked his arm around her waist, and held her to his side.

“We are to promenade?”

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“Let’s see how you fare through the woods. If you’re foot-sound, you can charge across the orchard at a dead run.” She stiffened, contemplating a rousing good argument, then realized their verbal altercation would take place with his arm about her waist.

As that would hardly serve—and her hip hurt, and her escort was tall and strong—Alice set off at a sedate pace.

***

As he guided Miss Portman along through the sunlight and shadows of the old woods, Ethan had an odd sense of pleasurable discovery.

Alice Portman was in disguise. She looked all prim and tidy, not a hair out of place, but she smelled delectable—not just lemons, but something more too—spices both soothing and intriguing. And against a man’s body, she felt quite… feminine. She was apparently wearing only country stays—a married man learned of these things, will he, nil he—and her breasts were pleasingly full. Then too, no corset on earth could disguise the feminine swell of a woman’s hips.

“Are you in pain?” Ethan asked as they strolled along.

“A little,” she admitted, but he wasn’t fooled, so he moved slowly with her, mindful of her steps, and while his grip was snug, it was also careful.

“We’re almost out of the woods,” Ethan said, forcing himself to adopt a more conventional escort’s stance. “You will take my arm, Alice Portman, and you will behave.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Grey.” She rolled her eyes, likely forgetting her straw hat had fallen down her back, revealing her face to Ethan’s view. Nonetheless, she wrapped her hand into the crook of his elbow and honestly let him take some of her weight.

Priscilla spotted them first and came gamboling over to grab her governess’s free hand. “We’ve made you a necklace of clover, and Papa showed me how to skip rocks, because Wee Nick was tossing the boys into the water, and boys don’t skip as well as rocks, at least our boys.”

“Ethan!” Nick’s voice rang with pleasure as they crossed the green to the grassy bank of the stream. “You honor us. Now get out of those boots and help me repel the pirates trying to board my ship. Alice, release the prisoner into my custody. He’ll be a good boy, or we’ll make him walk the plank.”

A chorus of juvenile voices took up the cry, “Walk the plank!” which Nick quelled by slapping water in the direction of the four sopping-wet boys trying to splash him back from the shallows.

For a total of five boys, if one included the earl.

There was no hope for it. Ethan aimed a scowl at the child capering around on Miss Portman’s other side. “Miss Priscilla, you will not yank on Miss Portman’s arm. We are setting a dignified example for my hopeless little brother.”

“Younger brother,” Priscilla corrected him. “I still have your handkerchief, Mr. Grey.”

“Pleased to hear it,” Ethan said, wondering if he could get out of joining Nick and his band of cutthroats in the stream.

“Go on.” Miss Portman dropped his arm. “If you take Nick down, you will be a hero in the eyes of little boys throughout the realm.”

And perhaps in the eyes of one governess. The notion had peculiar appeal.

“Until he takes me down,” Ethan muttered. Nothing would do but that he spread the blanket, sit, and pull off his boots. “And his countess will fuss at him, but she’ll be wroth with me.”

“Whining, Mr. Grey?” Miss Portman offered him another one of the dazzling, heart-stopping smiles.

“Absolutely.” Ethan stood up. “Can you manage?” He glanced down at the blanket meaningfully. When she only frowned, he offered his arm and got her settled on the blanket before pulling his shirt over his head and striding off for the water.

“Stand down, Wee Nick,” Ethan bellowed. “I’ll not have you terrorizing the peasants.”

“We’re not peasants,” John said. “We’re tars.”

“Them either.” Ethan winked at John, whom he hadn’t said two words to in the previous three weeks. “Prepare to meet your doom, Wicked Nick.”

Nick grinned an evil, piratical grin and dove for his brother. The water was only about two feet deep, perfect for making a huge ruckus without any risk of harm. The little boys squealed and hopped around, calling encouragement to their pirate of choice; the big boys bellowed and splashed and dunked each other repeatedly, until Nick and Ethan were both sitting on a log downed in the shallows, panting and licking knuckles scraped on the bottom of the stream.

“Now look what we’ve done,” Nick said as the smaller boys began to roughhouse in earnest. “The seven seas will never be safe again.”

“True, but at least our breeches stayed on.”

The boys had been wading in their smalls, and when waterlogged and held around slippery little bodies by only a drawstring, Joshua’s and John’s clothing was being dragged into the briny deep.

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“What on earth has Joshua done to his backside?” Ethan frowned as he spoke.

He slogged across the water toward his son, his brain taking a moment to comprehend what his eyes insisted was fact. He discreetly pulled up Joshua’s sagging drawers and did the same for John before turning a thunderous expression on his brother.

“Nicholas Haddonfield, did you beat my son?” He kept his voice down, while both hands curled into tight fists.

“I did not,” Nick said, keeping his voice as low as Ethan’s. “He came to us like that, Ethan. Alice noticed it when she gave them a bath the first night, and brought it to my attention.”

Nick’s disclosure made Ethan want to hit someone—something—all the more. “That has been healing all this time? He never said a word.”

Nick eyed Ethan’s hand. “I asked him if he fell. He said he was bad and he deserved it.”

“He’s five,” Ethan shot back. “How could he deserve a hiding like that?”

“So you didn’t do it.”

“You thought…” Ethan dropped Nick’s gaze, his eyes going to his youngest son. “It had to hurt like hell, Nick.”

“If you didn’t do it, then who did?”

“I am ashamed to say I do not know.” Ethan watched as Joshua’s backside peeked into view again. “I suspect it was Mr. Harold, their tutor, but until I talk to Joshua, I can’t say. I feel sick.”

“I feel relieved,” Nick said. “A man’s children are his own business, but to think you might have done that to your son did not sit well with me or my countess. They’re good boys, Ethan. If anything, they’re too good.”

Ethan wasn’t listening. A muscle worked in his jaw, and he could feel the vein just beyond his hairline throbbing. His eyes were fixed on his sons, sturdy little men having a grand time on a summer day. To appearances, all was well with them, but Ethan still felt the urge to kill whoever had hurt one of his boys.

“Come on.” Nick prodded him with an elbow. “I brought spare breeches, and you can borrow a pair. Into the bushes with us. Beware the savages, as we’re fair game for attack.”

When they’d changed their clothes, they returned to the blankets to find the boys still cavorting in the water—though their lips were blue and their teeth were chattering.

“Joshua and Jeremiah, out!” Ethan barked. “Now!”

They came right out of the water and presented their shivering little selves to their father, while John and Ford whined and dallied and made excuses to Nick.

Ethan bent down and wrapped each boy in a towel. “You will be dried off and dressed and eating yourselves sick while John and Ford are still dripping on their blankets.” He grabbed for Joshua and rubbed the child briskly all over with the towel, until the shivering had subsided.

And if he stole a surreptitious hug in the process, he was the only one who knew.

Alice glanced up from where she was reading the children a story, to see a groom leading an enormous golden gelding from the direction of the house.

“It’s Argus,” Jeremiah informed her in a whisper. “Papa’s horse. Is Papa going somewhere?”

“I am not.” Mr. Grey spoke from where he stood towering above the children. “Miss Portman requires escort back to the house, and Argus volunteered.”

“Your horse?” Alice tried to scramble to her feet, but found she was lifted there instead by Mr. Grey’s hands under her elbows. “What about the story?”

“Mrs. Belmont?” Mr. Grey’s smile sported an alarming complement of perfect white teeth. “Can you or Priscilla finish the story?”

“Let me!” Priscilla yelled before her mother could respond. Mr. Grey passed the girl the book.

“We’ve no mounting block,” Alice said. Also no sense, for the last thing, the very last thing she was going to do was climb onto that enormous golden beast. The idea of it made her chest pound and sent Hart Collins’s taunts skittering through her memory.

“No problem.” Nick appeared at her elbow, oozing friendly concern, the wretch. “We’ll get you on board easily enough, provided you’re willing?”

“I can’t ride by myself.” The admission hurt, even all these years later.

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“Nor would I expect you to,” Mr. Grey said as he swung up. “Nick?”

And just like that, Alice found herself gently deposited before Mr. Grey in the saddle, the horse ambling off in the direction of the house.

“Put your arm around my waist,” Mr. Grey said as he guided the gelding away from the picnic spot. “You’re sitting gingerly, as if the saddle were too hot, and that will just make the horse nervous and you more prone to tipping off.”

“You frequently ride about with damsels before you?” Alice tentatively slid an arm around Mr. Grey’s lean waist, reasoning he’d done the same with her when they were on foot.

“I never ride about with damsels before me.” He passed the reins to one hand and circled her waist with the other arm. He drew her back against his chest and left his arm where it was. “Relax, and I’ll have you safely home.”

Relax. She was on a horse large enough to rival an elephant, snugged up against an equally large, grouchy man who smelled too good, and he wanted her to relax.

“Is it the horse you’re afraid of,” the man asked when Alice was still barely letting her body touch his, “or is it me?”

“What have I to fear from you?” Alice didn’t dare turn her head. It might upset her balance, the horse, anything.

“Nothing.” He leaned back as Argus negotiated a slight slope, and Alice clutched his waist. “Easy.” Mr. Grey straightened slowly. “It must have been a very bad fall.”

Alice did risk peeking at him and wished she hadn’t, because his mouth was exactly in line with her eyes. God above, it was a lovely sight. Those perfectly sculpted lips were the boon of a god both generous and perverse.

“It was a bad accident,” Alice said. “I was dragged for quite some distance and lucky I didn’t lose my leg.” Or her mind. She shoved the memory of Collins’s cronies jeering at her back into its mental vault. The memory of Avis’s eyes was a more difficult struggle.

“You’re lucky you didn’t lose your life. Being dragged is usually far worse than simply being pitched off. You’ll tell me about it?”

What an odd request—until Alice realized he was trying to distract her from her perch before him. “Sometime. I don’t even like to think of it.”

“I know.” His tone turned bleak. “You want to forget, but you never will, so neglecting the memory is the next best thing.”

He spoke from experience, leaving Alice to wonder what a wealthy, handsome man like Ethan Grey had to forget. He was a bastard, true, but that hardly seemed to bother him. Perhaps the pain in his eyes stemmed from grief over the recent loss of his father. It might explain his distance from his sons, and even an occasional loss of temper with them.

“Nick said you were the one who noticed the marks on Joshua,” he said, as if divining her thoughts.

“They were very angry,” Alice replied, though this was hardly a more sanguine topic than her fall. “It must have hurt him to sit, but he wouldn’t talk about it, so I had Nick give the boys their next bath. Joshua didn’t want to talk to him either.”

“I didn’t do it. I didn’t even know about it, and in a way, that’s worse than if I had done it.”

So she could remove from the list of Ethan Grey’s numerous faults that of child beater. It was an odd relief, but she was willing to do it.

“One cannot keep one’s children safe from all harm,” Alice said gently. “Joshua thinks he deserved the punishment. You might consider talking to Jeremiah. He is very protective of Joshua and could not be happy to see his brother treated so poorly.”

“Good suggestion. Is it the case you haven’t yet secured another position, Miss Portman?”

Oh, no. No, no, no. Alice would have pokered right back up, except Mr. Grey’s arm around her middle prevented it.

“I have not.” She went on the defensive, despite her precarious perch and the fact that she was depending on Mr. Grey for her safety. “I am not well versed in the nuances of dealing with little boys, Mr. Grey. I do not know your sons well, and I am not cheap.”

“Neither am I,” he replied, amusement in his voice. “I will pay you exactly what I paid their previous tutors, if you’ll take them on even a temporary basis.”

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She might have hopped off the horse and stomped away rather than conclude the discussion, but money was always a consideration, and with a bad hip, one didn’t hop off eighteen-hand behemoths or stomp very far.

“How much?”

He named an astonishing figure, one that would allow Alice to add considerably to her savings. But no… These were boys, and two of them, and that was bad enough, but then there was Mr. Grey…

“I can’t. They are active little fellows, Mr. Grey, and I cannot be responsible for getting them into the fresh air and sunshine each day as I should.”

“I’ll manage that part, if you’ll handle the schoolroom and the rest of it.”

“What is the rest of it?” She should hop off, bad hip or not.

“They’ll have a nursemaid, of course, for tending them at the start and end of each day. The grooms will supervise them in the stables, and I’ve enough footmen to toss cricket balls at them, and so forth.”

Here was purchase in a negotiation she intended to win. “Not footmen. You.”

“I beg your pardon?” He frowned again, but then made a little fuss over steering the horse, who no doubt could have found the barn blindfolded in a high wind.

Was he trying to scare her?

“You did not have your sons’ trust, Mr. Grey,” Alice said. “You can’t simply command them to trust you. They have to see and experience you as trustworthy. You can’t do that if you’re shut away with your ledgers and they’re off with a groom on their ponies.”

This would nicely scotch his schemes, and without them having to argue about it. Alice congratulated herself on her brilliance as she relaxed against his chest. She was out from under his offer, and nobody need be offended. For the first time in years, she almost enjoyed being on a horse.

“Three days a week,” he said, “I will spend at least an hour in recreation with both boys.”

Drat. Her brothers had taught her some rudimentary gambling as she’d recovered from her injuries; being a governess had taught her strategy. She raised the stakes. “And you’ll take a walk with each child once a week, weather permitting, or play cards, or somehow spend an hour with each child individually.”

“I can do that.”

“And you will join them for breakfast,” Alice plunged on, concluding Mr. Grey must not be thinking sensibly. “And one evening meal a week.”

Behind her, Alice felt Mr. Grey draw in a breath and go silent.

“Fridays would suit,” he said at length, “and you must agree to join me at that meal too.”

“Of… of course.” Alice felt her world slipping, and she inadvertently held more tightly to Mr. Grey, whose arm tucked around her closely in response.

“You’ll have pin money and a clothing allowance besides,” he went on, while Alice grappled with the import of their discussion. “And a half day every Saturday. Nobody is expected to work on Sunday at Tydings, including the kitchen. You will have two weeks paid in the summer to see friends, such as Miss Priscilla, and the use of a horse or pony trap, should you need it. We are agreed?”

Alice was quiet, stunned at how her world could change in the space of a half mile. She had not lined up another position because she preferred to deal with agencies to screen potential employers. Any place in London itself would not do, there being a surfeit of titles around the place, and Collins—may he rot slowly in a malodorous corner of hell—was liable to visit other titles from time to time.

Any household that had too many grown sons or uncles or male cousins was out of the question as well. Any place that expected her to ride with the children or march them about the estate every day of the week, any place that would not pay a decent wage or give her even a half day a week to catch her breath…

Mr. Grey was offering her more than she usually demanded, in every regard. He had no title; his children were dear and very much in need of someone who would care for them.

“This is temporary,” Alice said as the horse shuffled into the stable yard. “You said this was temporary.”

He nudged the beast to a halt. “I said I’d hire you even if you were only willing to take us on temporarily. I suggest we give the matter a three month-trial. If you are not content, we can agree to part at that point, but you must allow me at least that long again to search for a successor.”

The condition was practical and would ensure the children did not suffer a lapse in studies. It also ensured that for six months Mr. Grey would not be left with the dilemma of finding another tutor .

“So it’s a six-month position, at least.”

“At least,” he agreed, then swung off the horse, leaving Alice perched on the pommel, mind reeling. “Miss Portman?”

Alice glanced down to see Mr. Grey regarding her patiently from the ground. She put her hands on his shoulders and felt herself lifted easily from the saddle. Though Mr. Grey was careful to settle her onto her feet slowly, her left leg buckled when she tried to put weight on it.

“Steady.” He held her still, letting her lean against him once more. “Give it a minute.”

She bit her lip and shook her head. “It’s shot,” she muttered miserably as the horse was led away. “The only thing that helps now is bed rest.”

“Can you lean on me?” Mr. Grey asked, wrapping an arm around her waist. But he was too tall to be properly leaned on, and Alice hadn’t the strength or the balance to hop up three flights of stairs on one foot.

She shook her head, feeling tears threaten, not exclusively as a function of the ache in her hip.

He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “bugger this,” and Alice felt herself being swept up against his chest.

“We’ll have you surrounded by hot-water bottles in no time.” He headed across the gardens to one of the house’s back entrances.

“The servants’ stairs are closer,” Alice said, looping her arms around his neck. She hadn’t been carried like this since she’d fallen off that horse, and though she was full grown and well fed, Mr. Grey carried her as if she weighed no more than little Priscilla. It was disconcerting, sweet, comforting, and awful, all at once.

He bent his knees a little at her door, so Alice could lift the latch, then he kicked the door shut behind them. Alice found herself gently deposited on the edge of the bed, facing a stern-faced Mr. Grey, who was glaring down at her, his hands on his hips. Without warning, he dropped to hunker before her and took one of her boots in his hands.

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She stared down at him. “What are you doing?”

“Removing your shoes,” he replied, unlacing her half boot as he spoke. “Bending at the waist is likely uncomfortable for you.”

Protests dammed up behind the truth—bending at the waist hurt abysmally, though Alice nearly died of mortification and shock when she felt Mr. Grey’s hands slip under her skirts and tug down her stockings.

“Mr. Grey!” She tried to scoot back on the bed, but that hurt like blue blazes, so she had to settle for glaring at him as he rolled her stockings like a practiced lady’s maid.

“Oh, simmer down.” His tone disgruntled, he looked around and put the stockings on her vanity. “I was married for several years, you know, and it isn’t as if I’ll be ravishing you over the sight of your dainty feet.”

Alice went still on the bed, all other indignities and imprecations forgotten. “What do you mean, you were married?”

“My sons are legitimate.” He frowned at her, his hands back on his hips. “I would not wish bastardy on any child, much less my own.”

“But you said you were married,” Alice pressed. “You aren’t married now?”

“I am not,” he replied, cocking his head. “And were I not in polite company, and did it not sound insufferably callous, I would add, ‘thank God.’ My wife expired of typhoid fever a little more than three years into our union. I would not have wished her dead, but she is, and I quite honestly do not miss her.”

“Mr. Grey! Surely you haven’t voiced those sentiments before your children?”

“And if I have?”

“You would have much to apologize for,” Alice shot back. “Much to be forgiven for. She might have been the worst mother in the world, but those little boys need to believe she was in some way lovable, much as they would need to believe the same about you, lest they see themselves as unlovable.”

His gaze narrowed. “You presume to know a great deal about my sons.”

“I knew well before you did that one of them had been birched too severely,” Alice retorted. “And I know they need to regard their parents in some reasonably positive fashion.”

“Well, then fine.” He ran a hand through his hair in a gesture Alice had seen his younger brother make often. “Your expertise confirms my choice of you as the boys’ next governess.”

Alice opened her mouth to say something, then shut it abruptly.

“I will take my leave of you.” He stepped back from the bed. “A maid will be along posthaste. Will you want some laudanum?”

“No. Thank you, that is. No, thank you.”

“Good day, then. I’ll have our terms drawn up into a contract and provide a copy for your review.”

She nodded, not even watching as he took his leave. Her hip hurt, and it was going to hurt worse in the next few hours, and she’d just made a devil’s bargain with a man who smelled divine and handled her like she was a sack of feathers. Alice was tucked up in her night rail, a glass of cold lemonade by the bed, before she realized she was just as disgruntled with Mr. Grey for being widowed as she was for his handling her like she was a sack of feathers—and not even a female sack of feathers at that.

Chapter Three

Argus churned along ahead of the dust and racket of the coach, no doubt sensing the approach of home even though Tydings was still at least an hour distant. With luck, they'd beat the inevitable thunderstorm building up to the north.

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Ethan had not slept well the previous night, his mind a welter of thoughts and feelings left over from his visit to Belle Maison. When he was a boy exiled from his home, he'd missed Nick so badly he'd cried at first, and a six-foot-plus fourteen-year-old male did not cry easily. Now that the old earl was dead, and he and Nick were free to be family to each other again, Ethan hadn't been able to get away fast enough.

And Nick had been hurt.

For all of Nick's glee over his new wife, all of his excitement at the prospect of having a family with his Leah, Nick had still known Ethan was dodging, and had let him go without a word. He'd merely hugged his brother tightly, then patted Argus and told the horse to take good care of his precious cargo.

Well, life wasn't a fairy tale, Ethan reasoned when more of the same kind of musings finally brought him to the foot of the long driveway leading to Tydings.

"Papa!" Joshua was standing on the box, the headsman's hands anchored around his waist. "We're home! I can see the house, and there goes Mrs. Buxton to fetch the footmen."

Ethan's housekeeper, Mrs. Buxton—Mrs. Buxom, among the footmen—was indeed bustling down the long terrace at the side of the house.

"Sit down, Joshua," Ethan called back. "Standing up there is dangerous, and Andrews will need to hold the horses. He can't be holding you as well."

Joshua dropped like a rock but bounced on the seat like any small boy would upon sighting his home. When the coach pulled into the circular drive in front of the house, footmen trotted up to lower the steps and begin moving the luggage. The headsman scrambled down to grab the leaders' bridles, and a groom came bouncing out of the stables to take Argus.

"Welcome home, Mr. Grey," the senior groom called cheerily, "and welcome, young masters. Did you have a grand time with your uncle in Kent?"

Joshua was jumping around on the box again. "Miller, we had the best time, and Uncle Nick is even taller than Papa, and he has a huge horse named Buttercup, and a huge house, and his cook makes huge muffins. Enorm…" Joshua paused and looked to his brother.

"Enormous," Jeremiah supplied. "And he let us ride his mare once, because we were very good, and we picked raspberries with Uncle Nick, and Aunt Leah is very nice, and there were other boys there, and they were all littler than us, but very nice, and we played Indians in the trees, and everything."

"Gentlemen." Alice Portman's pleasant tones glided into the ensuing silence. "I'm sure your papa will help you down now that we're safely home. Please don't run until you're away from the horses, and then I will expect you to give me a tour of your rooms once you're settled. What do you say to John?"

"Thank you, John Coachman!" both boys chorused. Ethan had swung off Argus, intending to get to his library with some cold, spiked lemonade and a small mountain of correspondence. Footmen were capable of getting the boys down from the high seat. Hearing both boys extol Uncle Nick's huge, tall, enormous virtues grated, though, so Ethan plastered a pleasant expression on his face and turned back to the coach.

"Here you go, Joshua." He held up his arms and hoisted the first child to the ground. "Up to the house, as Miss Portman said. Time to pester the grooms later. Jeremiah, down you go."

"Yes, Papa." Jeremiah stepped back as soon as his feet hit the ground. "Joshua, let's go. Miss Portman wants a tour."

"But I want to go see Lightning and Thunder," Joshua retorted, his chin jutting.

"Later, Joshua," Jeremiah said through clenched teeth. "We have to go to the house now."

Joshua's lips compressed into mutinous lines, but before Ethan could assert paternal rank, Miss Portman extended a hand in Joshua's direction.

"Come along, Joshua, or I shall get lost in a house as grand as this." She wrapped her hand around his. "And if I get lost, well then, I might not be found in time to read a couple of perfect gentlemen, and very fine singers, their bedtime story."

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Joshua brightened. "We sang really loudly. I bet the horses' ears flippered around."

"I'm sure horses all over the shire were flippering their ears." Miss Portman slipped her other hand into Jeremiah's and led them off, chattering about horses in China and flippering ears.

"Prettier than old Harold," the groom remarked with the familiarity of long service. "Bet she reads a mean bedtime story."

"See to the horse," Ethan replied, watching as Miss Portman sauntered along with the boys toward the house. She should have waited for Ethan to escort her, but the view of her retreat was most pleasant, so Ethan kept his disgruntlement to himself. Joshua stopped, dropped her hand, and crouched to study the dirt—an insect, most likely, Joshua was apparently going through a bug-studying phase—and Miss Portman crouched down to peer at the dirt right beside him, her skirts pooling on the dusty ground.

Argus, after balking for form's sake, let himself be led to the stables. The coach clattered away toward the carriage bays while the small parade of footmen hefted the luggage off to the house.

Still Ethan stood in the drive, wondering if he'd ever seen Mr. Harold once pause to study a bug? Seen him take either boy by the hand? Heard the man sing?

Had Ethan ever done those things with the boys himself? Even once?

The questions were vexing him several hours later as he made his way to the family parlor where Miss Portman would join him prior to the evening meal. Perhaps it was the effect of several hours at his desk, but Ethan realized he was looking forward to the next hour. Food was always a pleasure, but Miss Portman's presence was the added spice that had him glancing at the clock and wondering what she'd wear to the table.

She wore a frown and the same dusty traveling dress she'd had on all day.

While Ethan had bathed and changed into clean clothes.

"I see you did not change for dinner," Ethan remarked as the footman closed the door behind her.

Miss Portman eyed him up and down. "I was told you keep country hours, and you do not change when you bother with sitting at the table at all."

Ethan gave her the same up and down perusal she'd given him, though compared to a governess's virtuosic ability to communicate disapproval at a glance, he was a mere tyro. "I gather you would prefer to be spared this ordeal?"

She peered around the room. "Honestly, the chance to sit down and eat something appeals greatly."

"You've been standing the livelong day? I should offer you a drink, at least some wine."

She shook her head. "No wine. It does not agree with me, but thank you. And yes, I have been on my feet."

"If you're to forego your gustatory glass," Ethan said, "why don't we go in to dinner, and you can regale me with the details of your day while we dine?"

"Because that would be unappetizing," Miss Portman informed him, her tone so wistful, Ethan felt his lips trying to quirk up. He offered his arm, keeping his eyes on the door instead of Miss Portman's face.

"As bad as all that?" he asked, leading her toward the folding doors to the informal dining room.

"As tiring. What have you done with yourself since abandoning your children in the driveway this afternoon?" A small silence followed, while Ethan observed the courtesy of seating a woman who delivered scolds as casually as others might offer pleasantries.

"Forgive me." Miss Portman closed her eyes and blew out a breath. "I am fatigued, and cranky therefore."

"And here I go, demanding you put up with me when all you want is to climb into bed. Are your rooms acceptable?" He poured her a glass of wine as he spoke, and passed it to her.

"They are lovely." She offered a tired smile, and Ethan noticed for the first time she had smudges of shadow under each eye and a slight droop to her shoulders. "The view of the back gardens is wonderful, and the balcony is a luxury this time of year."

"All the bedrooms at the back of the house have balconies." He gestured to the footman, who served the soup, then waved the man away. The remaining courses were put in the center of the table so the diners might serve themselves. When the footman had retreated and closed the door behind him, Ethan found a familiar frown on Miss Portman's face.

"You are going to be difficult," he surmised. "You would rather have us discussing the weather all evening than allow us the privacy of a single meal?"

She answered him with a measuring look. "I would rather you had asked me."

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Ethan sipped his wine and waited for her to take the first taste of her soup. "How did you spend your initial hours here at Tydings?"

"Chasing your offspring."

"You were touring the premises?"

"The grounds first." Miss Portman kept glancing around the table, as if looking for something or finding fault with the settings. "After two days of travel, the boys needed to stretch their legs, and then too, you've gone and gotten them ponies, whose acquaintance I had to make or civilization would crumble. When they'd burned off the worst of their mischief, we inspected the house from top to bottom, with particular attention paid to all the best hiding places for when Papa goes on a tear."

Ethan set his wineglass down. "I beg your pardon?"

"I gather it's a rare occurrence and mostly consists of a lot of yelling at solicitors and stewards, and cursing, and stomping about, followed by a slammed door or two and the sound of Argus's hoofbeats tearing off at a gallop."

"They told you this?"

"With great relish. You had best eat your soup, Mr. Grey. I do not intend to consume mine."

"Whyever not?" Ethan picked up his spoon, manners be damned.

"It has onions in it. They do not agree with me."

"And you are probably not partial to mutton sandwiches, either," Ethan remarked. He hadn't noticed the onions in the soup until she'd pointed it out. He liked onions in his soup, and if he were to eat mutton sandwiches, he'd probably like onions on them too.

"Nobody from the North is partial to mutton. But by all means, enjoy yourself."

Ethan put his spoon down, certain she was teasing—rudely, of course—but unable to detect a hint of it in her expression.

"It's gotten a bit too cool," he decided. "Shall we see what else the kitchen has prepared?"

Miss Portman's brows flew up. "Who sets the menus?"

"Haven't the foggiest." Ethan lifted the lid of a warming dish and found a tidy little quarter of a ham, with potatoes arranged around it. "The food shows up when I'm hungry, and the dishes disappear when I'm done. Ham, Miss Portman?"

"Please." She watched as he sliced her a generous portion, chasing little boys being a tiring proposition. "A bit less, if you please?"

"Less?" He cut off a corner of her intended portion.

"Even less. About half that, in fact."

He complied without comment and deftly moved it to her plate. "Potatoes?"

"One," she instructed, so he chose the largest one.

"Well, then." Ethan served himself portions that made his guest quite frankly goggle, a lapse in her manners he noted and politely ignored.

"Let's see what else awaits us." He uncovered a plate of roast beef. Another platter held a small roasting hen complete with bread stuffing, a basket of bread, and a tureen of dumplings swimming in more gravy.

"This will do for me," Miss Portman said, putting a bite of ham into her mouth.

"You're not having anything else? Nothing?" He had the oddest sense she wasn't being rude.

"This will do." She took a sip of her wine, grimaced, then set the glass down.

"Suit yourself." Ethan proceeded to put decent helpings of food on his plate, then to make it disappear with a kind of relentless dispatch that did not allow for conversation. And even as he demolished his dinner, he did so wondering how he would endure meals with Miss Portman for the next six months. When his plate was nearly clean, he looked up to find his guest regarding him curiously.

"Is this the kind of fare your sons consume?"

"I suppose." He sat back but did not put his utensils down. "Why?"

"Don't you see something missing from your table, Mr. Grey?"

"Dessert. Fear not, it will be here, as I do enjoy the occasional sweet."

"Not dessert," she replied, her tone annoyingly patient. "Something more conducive to the good health of a growing child."

"I'm not serving ale at my table, Miss Portman. We have it in the kitchen, and I'll occasionally have a pint, but it hardly adds to a genteel supper."

She eyed her wine glass balefully and forged ahead.

"Vegetables, Mr. Grey," she said on a longsuffering sigh. "You have no summer vegetables. You have nothing from the abundance of the good earth but potatoes. I know this will strike you as a radical notion, but children need vegetables, even if they should forego the spicier preparations."

Ethan glanced around the table, nonplussed. At Belle Maison, there had been vegetables at every meal save breakfast. It was high summer, for pity's sake, when the garden was at its best.

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He put his utensils down. "I am willing to concede the wisdom of your point. Henceforth, you will meet with Cook and approve the menus. I will have my desserts, though, Miss Portman. It's little enough to ask in life at the end of a man's busy day."

"Fear not," she quoted him. "I will agree with you—mark the moment—a little something sweet at the end of the day is a deserved reward."

Unbidden, the question of what Alice Portman might consider a treat at the end of her day popped into Ethan's mind. A fairy-tale read to a rapt juvenile audience, or did she harbor girlish fancies to go along with her tidy bun and studious spectacles?

He took a fortifying sip of his wine and offered her a salute with his glass.

"A moment of accord," he noted gravely. "How unusual."

"I won't make a habit of it. The books in your schoolroom being a case in point."

"Oh?" Ethan resumed the demolition of his dinner.

"They are boring, for one thing," she said, sitting back and watching him eat. "And they are far too advanced, for another, and lack anything like the breadth of subject matter little boys require."

"You were a little boy once, perhaps, that you are expert on the matter?"

She leveled a reproving look at him, which he noted between bites of potato.

"There is more to a boy's education than drilling into him the dates of ancient battles, Mr. Grey. More to history than the Greeks, the Romans, and the British. More to languages than five declensions and four classes of verbs."

"You know Latin?" She was an intelligent woman—and he did not mean that insultingly, to his surprise—but Latin?

"Latin and Greek. Once you get the knack of the structure of the one, the other isn't so difficult to grasp."

"Good heavens." Ethan set his utensils down again. "What else has been stuffed between those ears of yours?"

"Astronomy is among my favorites," she confessed, casting a bashful glance at Ethan's half-eaten potato. "Mathematics, of course, including geometry and trigonometry, though only the rudiments of the calculus. History, though I fear European history defines the limits of my command of the subject at this point. I am competent in French, but my command of modern languages is lacking. I read voraciously when I've the time."

"And what of needlepoint?" Ethan pressed, knowing he should have made these inquiries several days ago. "Tatting lace? Watercolors? A little piano or voice?"

She waved a dismissive hand. "I can mend what needs mending, and I'm a passable accompanist, but it hardly signifies."

"And why should the refinements of a lady hardly signify?" This bluestocking quality made perfect sense, given what he knew of the woman, but it impressed him as well. He liked a woman who didn't attempt to trade solely on her face and figure.

"They are not useful, Mr. Grey. The world does not need lace from me, though lace is charming. The world does not need a note-perfect rendition of the simpler Haydn sonatas at my hands, though music is a gift from God. The world does not need another vague rendition of some fruit and a towel, could I manage it, though painting is another gift from God."

"What does the world need?" He genuinely wanted to know.

"From me," she said, studying her plate this time, "it needs education. Were I proficient in those ladylike pursuits, I'd be a finishing governess. That is not my gift. I am far more interested in cultivating the minds of my charges than I am in assisting some schoolgirl in her quest to snatch up a spotty young swain on a few weeks acquaintance."

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Ethan propped his chin on his hand and surveyed her. "You are an anarchist, Miss Portman. And here I've placed the care of my sons in your rabble-rousing hands."

Her blush was all the more enchanting for being unexpected.

"You are teasing. Do you have all those books in your library for show, then, Mr. Grey? I hadn't taken you for a man driven by appearances."

"I'm not. I love to read." This was not a matter of pride; it was a simple truth. "One can't be managing business affairs every hour of the day, and reading is a solitary pleasure, suited to my nature."

"If you say so."

That was a governess's version of casting a lure. Even so, Ethan took the bait. "What?"

"You don't live alone here, Mr. Grey."

"Of course not. I dwell with my sons, and the servants and staff in my employ, and now—heaven be praised—with your very useful self."

"Have you seen your sons since the coach pulled up here today?" she asked in the same peculiarly quiet voice.

"I did, actually." He was pleased with himself to be able to say it. "Out the window, as they dragged you around the rose gardens. A charming tableau, made blessedly quiet by the distance involved. Better you than me, Miss Portman."

"They miss you," she said flatly. "Though God knows why, Mr. Grey, as the concept leaves me quite at a loss. Now, if you will excuse me, I find I am intolerably fatigued, and though the meal has been appreciated, I must seek my bed."

She pushed back from the table and left the room before Ethan was halfway to his feet. He sat back down, his meal lying uneasily in his gut, and thought over the conversation.

He'd said something to push her past her limit, something… not funny. Cruel, perhaps, from her perspective. Well, there was no decoding the whims and fancies of females, bluestocking or otherwise. He eyed the table, intent on helping himself to more food, then changed his mind.

He'd been sitting too long, and this made for dyspepsia, so he took himself through the house, his wine glass in his hand, and headed for the back gardens. A man needed to stretch his legs from time to time if he was to have a prayer of remaining civilized.

Except his sons had been stuck in the coach for two days, and they had needed to stretch their legs. Alice Portman had reasoned that out; Ethan had not, and he wanted to smash the damned wineglass on the flagstones as a result. Because he was an adult, and civilized, he did not give in to the urge but wandered around in the moonlight until the shadows and breezes and pretty scents had soothed him past his anger.

Three floors above him, on her balcony, Alice watched the dark figure moving along the gravel paths. Moonlight suited him, though in daylight, he was deceptively golden. His hair was more burnished than Nick's wheat blond, and his features more austere. Still, he gave the impression of light, with his blue, blue eyes, light hair, and quiet movement.

He wasn't light, Alice concluded as she took down her hair. He was dark, inside, in his heart and soul. It still surprised her after she'd had days to observe him, but he looked so much like Nick, she still expected him to laugh like Nick, smile like Nick, flirt like Nick.

She missed Nick, and because it wasn't any kind of sexual longing, she could admit it. She desperately, pitifully missed Priscilla, and worried for how the child was going on.

In years of governessing, Alice had dealt with enough overly tired, cranky, distraught, fractious children to know if she didn't get herself to bed, posthaste, she was going to treat herself to an undignified, unproductive, useless crying spell. She was already hungry again, exhausted, in need of a bath, and facing a situation she should have examined more carefully before leaping into it.

"You're just discouraged," she told herself. "Braid your hair, get to bed. Things will look better in the morning."

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But in the morning, things didn't look at all better.

In the morning, things looked much, much worse.

"You will leave in the morning, Hart, and you will not come back in my lifetime." The Baroness Collins had never taken that tone with her son before. Not when he was a child, not when he'd been a young man, and not now, when inchoate middle age and a dissolute lifestyle were making him look like an old child, an aging boy becoming less and less attractive with the passing years.

Predictably, Hart bristled. "I'll damned well come and go from my own property as I please, madam. You would do well to recall upon whose charity you survive." He tossed back another glass of brandy, adding to the amazing amount that had disappeared in the course of the conversation already.

"You are not safe here."

Somewhere in the depths of her maternal heart, the baroness could not allow her son to knowingly court danger, regardless that it was danger of his own making. "Your scheming and violence, your disregard for proper behavior, your disrespect of every woman you meet will be the end of you if you stay here in the North. I am not asking you to leave, Hart, I am insisting."

He paused before putting his empty glass down on the harpsichord. That harpsichord had belonged to the baroness's grandfather, and yet, she did not rise and remove the glass—not while Hart was in such a mood.

"You are insisting? How will you insist, dear Mama, when I cut off your allowance?"

Perhaps it was the French disease or the drink, but Hart's memory was growing faulty. "You cut off my allowance years ago, Hart. I manage on my portion." Which, thank her sainted papa's shrewdness, no venal, grasping son could touch.

He turned his back on her, making the bald spot on the back of his head apparent. He'd hate that, if he knew she could see it. Hart Collins was so vain, so unhealthy, that he'd see even the normal impact of time as victimization.

She did not wish her son were dead. In the manner he went on, he'd meet his end soon enough.

"I'll need money."

Of course he would. The old baron's solicitors were a pack of jackals well up to dealing with Hart's tantrums and bullying. Not one penny of estate money would get into Hart's hands until the very day it was due him.

"I have a few jewels." Those had belonged to her grandmother. "You will leave in the morning, Hart, and I'll write to some people I know in the South, who would welcome you to their house parties."

He was no longer welcome in Rome, and neither was he safe in Paris or Marseilles. His duns in London had already found him at the family seat in Cumbria and were becoming impatient.

The baroness unfastened the pearl necklace her grandmother had given her upon her come out and held it out to her son. In the flickering candlelight of the once-elegant parlor, the jewels looked like a noose.

Perhaps the English countryside would shelter him for a time. It was just a thought, not a wish, not even a prayer.

Ethan slept badly, but got up early and heeded the impulse to get out of the house. Confinement never improved his mood, so he made for the stables after a quick breakfast. Miss Portman and her charges were not in evidence at breakfast, which suited him splendidly.

As he took his second-favorite mount out for a bracing hack in the cool of the earliest morning, Ethan forced himself to consider he might owe Miss Portman an apology. On general principles, it irked him to apologize to anyone, particularly when he wasn't quite sure where he'd transgressed.

One thing he'd realized as he surveyed the remains of supper: there had been nothing to drink except wine, and Miss Portman did not enjoy wine. He should have seen to it she was offered something else. Had she not been so provoking, he might have been a better host.

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He let his gelding come down to the trot after they'd cleared every stile and fence between the house and the home farm. Maybe Miss Portman was peeved at him because he'd teased her for her degree of education.

But that explanation didn't feel quite right.

The horse halted without Ethan cuing him, as the realization sank in that Miss Alice Portman did not care one bean—a vegetable, mind you—how much Ethan teased her. She minded bitterly the way Ethan disregarded his children.

Bloody, bleeding hell.

He did not know what they ate.

He did not know what they learned.

He did not know how they passed their days.

He had not known his youngest had been harshly beaten, or why.

As the horse started walking forward, Ethan knew in his bones he was facing an opportunity—a challenge. He could continue as he'd gone on, largely trying to ignore that his wife had borne two sons, or he could transcend his pique and be the kind of parent his sons deserved.

The kind of father he himself had not had.

Which decided the matter, foot, horse, and cannon.

He did not want to be a father at all, but he was damned if he would do to his children what the old earl had done to him. The man had presided over his family as a benevolent dictator, but had been so badly informed regarding his own children he'd tossed Ethan away on the strength of ill-founded suspicion alone. Banished him.

That line of thought was worse than bleak, so Ethan patted his horse, turned for the stables, and mentally rearranged his day. He'd start with the nursery and find some way to talk to his children. It couldn't be that hard, after all. Miss Portman did it easily, didn't she?

But as he made his way through the house, he was accosted by a chambermaid hurrying down the stairs, eyes wild, cap askew.

"Oh, Mr. Grey, I don't mean to be getting above myself, but you best come quick. Mrs. B is off to the village and Cook's abed and Mr. B. is down to the mill." She reached for Ethan's arm, then dropped her hand and dipped a little at the knees, as if she were resisting an urgent call from nature.

"I'm coming," Ethan said, keeping the irritation from his voice. "What exactly is the problem?"

"It's the new governess," the girl moaned as she turned back up the steps toward the nursery wing. "I think Miss Portman is dying!"

End of Excerpt

This is book three of the Lonely Lords series.
Read an excerpt from book four, Beckman