It Started with a Scandal(4)

By: Julie Anne Long



And “such a one,” was it? Surely the world could not withstand another such man.

She drew in a long breath.

“I’ve taught classrooms full of unruly children possessed of a variety of natures, and I know how to make them listen and learn and like it. I understand the concerns and politics of household staff and am prepared to address and manage them. I have experienced a number of, shall we say, economic conditions, and can adjust to any of them. I am scrupulously organized. All in all, I have a very good brain. And I am afraid of nothing.”

Except you.

She’d just told a brazen lie to the man who claimed he would not tolerate them.

She suspected he looked at men just this way before he decided whether or not to run them through: it was sort of a mildly interested, fixed expression. She was not a woman to him; she was a problem to address, a code to decipher, a decision to coolly make. At one time her vanity might have been wounded.

Now nothing else mattered apart from what Lord Lavay did next.

“You may have the position on a trial basis for a fortnight, Mrs. Fountain.” He said it almost idly. “You will start immediately.”

She froze.

And then an almost violent relief sent heat rushing into her face and blurred her vision. For a merciful second, an infinitely safer, softer version of him swam before her eyes.

He drew one of those crumpled-­then-­smoothed sheets of foolscap toward him and perused it. As if he’d already forgotten her.

She freed her hands from their demure knot and absently swiped her damp palms along her skirt before folding them again.

She was proud that her voice was clear and steady.

“Thank you. You shall not regret your decision, Lord Lavay.”

“I seldom have cause to regret my decisions.” He said it coolly, almost absently, eyes on the correspondence, not on her. Indulging a serf just this once. “You may leave now, Mrs. Fountain.”

As she departed, she surreptitiously dragged her hand across the top of the chair as if it were an exotic pet. A thank-­you for the comfort.

PHILIPE GLANCED UP in time to see Mrs. Fountain take a quick little extra step at the doorway of his study as she departed.

It looked suspiciously like the beginning of a . . . frolic.

He frowned.

God, how the little details of running a household bored him. Odd, when the details involved in running a ship were so very similar and he relished those. It was just that one was a job for a man, and one was a job for a woman.

He doubted Mrs. Fountain was that woman.

Why should she succeed when three others had already failed? He’d sacked two of them, and the third had fled.

He of course already knew certain things about her, the things the worthy Mrs. Winthrop had chosen to divulge, anyhow—­that she was capable of the job, at the very least, and the fact that the quality of her character had allegedly been endorsed by the Redmonds. His closest friend, the Earl of Ardmay, happened to be married to a member of that esteemed family.

If there was any advantage to all of the ­people and events that had led to his convalescent exile in Pennyroyal Green, Sussex, England—­cutthroats and kings, seductions and beheadings, exquisite pleasure and excruciating pain, sword fights, gunfights, pirate fights, the utter destruction of his way of life until all that was left of him was the stony-­cold, ruthless determination to restore it—­it was that he could read ­people as fluently and swiftly as he read five languages. Questions were merely a way to distract his subject while he quietly summed them up.

Mrs. Fountain’s posture, her diction, her ability to look him in the eye and string together formal, persuasive English sentences, to use a word like “politics” . . . all of it betrayed more breeding than the usual housekeeper possessed. She was proud. Proud ­people often did excellent work; proud ­people often thought they were above their work. Proud ­people would find it difficult to use the servant’s stairs. His intuition told him she had a temper.

And she blushed and pet the furniture, as if she’d never seen velvet before.

Mrs. Fountain was also, he suspected, a trifle desperate.

He knew a bit about desperation.

But while she’d spoken, a spiral of glossy black hair had escaped from its bondage of hairpins and settled against her temple like a treble clef. She hadn’t seemed to be aware of it. It had been so at odds with her precise speech and rigid spine that his mind had blanked and he’d almost forgotten what he’d been about to say. He’d almost forgotten to even think.

He sighed. He’d unnerved her. It didn’t matter. She would doubtless be gone within a fortnight, and hopefully the desperate Mrs. Fountain wouldn’t take the rest of his silver with her.

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