LADY SARAH'S REDEMPTION (EBOOK)
LADY SARAH'S REDEMPTION (EBOOK)
DARING CHARADES (BOOK 2)
When spoiled heiress Lady Sarah Miles becomes the sole survivor of a shipwreck, she assumes the identity of her ill-fated travelling companion to avoid an arranged marriage.
Masquerading as governess to the daughter of dashing widower and MP Roland Hawthorne, Sarah finds herself falling for her enigmatic, secretive employer.
But her past returns to haunt her, revealing more than just her false identity.
Determined to redeem herself in Roland's eyes, Sarah unwittingly plays into the hands of an unexpected adversary.
Can Roland devise a cunning plan in time to protect Sarah's honour? Or will the woman he loves be lost to him forever?
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Letter received in India - December 1817
My dear Godby,
I cannot pretend to embrace the idea of accommodating your daughter but for the fact we were once as close as brothers and I would not deny you your dying wish.
While I would be more forgiving and therefore show leniency towards your daughter, I’m afraid Cecily has stipulated that if she is to agree to the arrangement, then Sarah will take up residence in the capacity of governess and must not expect more.
I’m sorry if the tone of this letter suggests the old wounds have not healed – indeed, they have not – but in the spirit of forgiveness and for the sake of the friendship we once shared, you have my assurance that Sarah will be treated with respect and kindness, but as a servant, not one of the family.
“Do you suppose she’s a dangerous Siren come to bewitch us all, Cosmo?” Brushing aside a beech tree branch, Roland reined in his mount beside his nephew’s. “Or have I acted properly in taking her in?”
“I wasn’t spying, sir!” Blushing, Cosmo turned in the saddle. “When I saw the new governess had arrived, naturally I was curious—” He broke off. “If indeed it is the new governess.”
Roland followed Cosmo’s gaze through the screen of trees, across the manicured lawns to the gravel drive where a carriage had just drawn up in front of the house. The slender young woman standing on the bottom step overseeing the removal of her trunk could have passed for any governess, anywhere in the country, she was so unremarkable.
Which was, of course, why Cosmo had sounded doubting and, understandably, disappointed. Miss Morecroft’s appointment had been so vehemently opposed by Roland’s sister-in-law, Cecily, that Cosmo had probably conjured up an image similar to the provocative siren suggested by his uncle.
Perversely, and despite his drollery, Roland was disappointed by this vision of ordinariness.
The young woman glanced briefly in their direction, before mounting the steps to the house. Her old-fashioned poke bonnet concealed her features at this distance but her outmoded, ill-fitting gown of faded puce lent her a homely air.
Cosmo stroked his chin, a new habit developed since he’d started shaving only recently, and asked, “Will she be here long? Aunt Cecily says it’s only until we find her another position. Caro says she’s too old for a governess and Miss Morecroft won’t last.” He shifted in the saddle then slid his eyes across to his uncle’s face. “You know what Caro’s like, sir.”
Roland nodded absently, still trying to reconcile the image of the dowdy governess with his memories of the young woman’s father. Any daughter of Godby’s should be brimming with exuberance, flashing her ill-afforded finery with the same devil-may-care defiance as her ill-fated Pater. Now Godby, his foster brother was dead, snuffed out in a far distant land, forever denying Roland the catharsis of reconciliation.
“I know, Cosmo.” He sighed. He had as much desire to dwell on his obstinate daughter as he had on the new governess. “I hope Caro and your Aunt Cecily will be kind to Miss Morecroft. First the death of the young woman’s family, now this terrible accident—” With a sigh he took up the reins. “Go and pay your respects to your foster cousin, Cosmo. She is to be treated with respect and not judged on account of her father’s actions.”
How, he wondered, as his mount picked its way over the stony ground to the rise at the far end of the Western paddock, should he deal with Miss Morecroft? Any hint of kindness would be sure to invoke Cecily’s wrath.
From the top of the hill he looked down upon Larchfield, the lovely home he’d never expected to inherit. Its honey-coloured stone glowed, mullioned windows twinkled in the sunlight. It looked a fairytale castle. Once Roland had believed it was, until thieving passions had destroyed all that was good within its walls.
Until Godby, newly returned from war, had burst in upon their tranquillity. A boy no longer, he had changed the delicate balance, setting Roland against his brother, Hector. Three young men and only two women yet - despite her fortune -poor, plain Cecily, Hector’s wife, had still been discarded. Now she seemed to forget that Roland had lost a wife: his exquisite Venetia. So beautiful. So beguiling.
Strange, reflected Roland, as he turned his mount for home, how the pain still lingered, long after her image had blurred.
Now Godby’s daughter was here and, in truth, Roland felt as much enthusiasm as his sister-in-law for having her at Larchfield.
The image of Miss Morecroft’s quiet dowdiness was suddenly immensely reassuring. He felt confident Godby’s daughter posed no threat to the peace at Larchfield, after all.
* * *
Cecily Hawthorne’s critical gaze travelled from the top of Sarah’s dowdy straw bonnet to the tips of her worn leather boots which peeked beneath her gown.
She sighed, tapping her fingers on the arm of the sofa. “The truth is, Miss Morecroft, you’re not what I expected and, to be blunt, nor am I convinced you will suit. Mr Hawthorne, however, was most insistent.”
“Then I am greatly obliged at being given an opportunity to prove myself.” Sarah had not considered a hostile reception when she’d embarked upon her rash charade. She’d thought it bad enough wearing the second-hand boots which pinched horribly and which the nuns had retrieved from the waterlogged trunk they’d believed was hers when she’d been saved from the wreck of the Mary Jane. She’d nearly wept with shame at having to appear in public wearing such an abominable gown. Now anxiety gripped her as she tried for a suitably grateful smile. She’d have to summon up all the humility she’d rarely had to use in her cosseted life to temper the threat to her plans that Mrs Hawthorne’s hostility posed. Rarely, in her twenty-four years, had she felt at such a disadvantage.
The springs of the faux bamboo sofa creaked as Mrs Hawthorne shifted position, and the ormolu clock on the mantelpiece ticked loudly. They were the only sounds in this silent, oppressive house that was supposed to contain a brood of children.
Mrs Hawthorne sniffed. “I’m told your French is flawless and you can play the pianoforte, but can you waltz? Have they even heard of the waltz in India?” Looking quite fierce, she added, “A most inelegant dance, but Mr Hawthorne considers it an essential accomplishment. Caro is coming out next year.”
“I am an accomplished dancer, ma’am,” Sarah assented, trying to restrain her curiosity with regard to the novel hairpiece her employer had used to supplement her sparse ginger curls. She was sure the furry appendage peeping beneath the lappets of Mrs Hawthorne’s white lace cap had once adorned a squirrel’s behind.
“It’s not a question of how accomplished you are, Miss Morecroft, but how accomplished you are at imparting these graces to Caro and the girls.” Mrs Hawthorne reached over the arm of the settee and tugged on the embroidered bell pull. “No doubt you’re anxious to meet your new charges.”
“Lovely.” Sarah smiled weakly, wondering how she’d survive the two or three weeks she needed to remain at Larchfield. She didn’t like Mrs Hawthorne and, clearly, Mrs Hawthorne didn’t like her.
“Girls, meet Miss Morecroft, your new governess.”
Sarah watched them weave their way amongst the clutter of occasional tables and spindly chairs to curtsy before her. The youngest gave her a shy, gap-toothed smile, the redheaded ten-year-old, a cheeky grin. In their wake came a tall, ungainly black-haired girl with hunched shoulders and dark eyes burnt into a sallow face.
“Caro!” Mrs Hawthorne squawked and her hands flew to her cheeks.
“Sorry!” wailed the future debutante, struggling to right the brass Argand lamp in danger of toppling and singeing the fringed damask tablecloth.
The little girls sniggered and Sarah felt a rush of sympathy for the girl quailing beneath Mrs Hawthorne’s withering scorn. Poor Caro was the most unprepossessing debutante Sarah had ever laid eyes upon.
“Never mind, Caro,” she said, “it’s in such an awkward position, I nearly did the same.”
This, of course, did nothing to endear her to Mrs Hawthorne. Nor did it appear to gain her any advantage for Caro lanced her with look of suspicion as she took her place beside the other girls.
Sarah had rarely encountered hostility in her life. It was an uncomfortable sensation. Swallowing, she retained her smile. “I’m sure we’ll all deal together, famously,” she said bracingly. For weren’t little girls easy to win over? As for Caro, Sarah remembered being a rebellious adolescent herself, the despair of her beloved Papa.
Her beloved Papa.
She cut the thought off at the root. A little pain now while she saw through this vital element of her plan ensured she could soon resume her valuable role at his side.
All heads turned at the sound of footsteps in the passage before a tall youth with a mop of sandy curls above immensely high collar points put his head around the door.
“Aunt Cecily, forgive the intrusion,” said this eager young slave to fashion. “I’d forgotten you were receiving the girls’ new governess.”
His assessing eye as it roamed over Sarah gave the lie to his erring memory, though she would have expected more of an appreciative gleam. Smiling up at him, she consoled herself that one hardly looked one’s best in someone else’s cast-offs; and puce, which always reminded her of coagulating blood, was definitely not her colour.
“Master Cosmo is unaccustomed to the company of young ladies,” said Mrs Hawthorne after dismissing her nephew. “He’ll be returning home soon.” She rose. “Let me show you your quarters.”
Sarah followed her new employer, listening to her strictures regarding the girls’ education.
“—And you’ll have to curb Caro’s preoccupation with knowledge. The girl is likely to turn into a blue-stocking.” Halting at the end of a long passage she threw open the door to a tiny chamber. “You’ve just enough time to put away your things and change, Miss Morecroft. The girls have their supper at five.” Mrs Hawthorne turned on her heel. “I shall see you in the nursery when you’re ready.”
Sarah was too dispirited to take consolation from the sight of the squirrel’s tail now dangling at a rakish angle over her employer’s left eye.
“Yes, ma’am,” she managed, disappointed nevertheless that the hairpiece retained its tenuous grip.
With dismay she took in her sparse surroundings. Apart from the bed, wash stand and chair, the garish rag rug provided the only splash of colour. On top of it rested her trunk — or rather, the other Sarah’s trunk. After all the trauma she’d endured lately, she was visited by such a wave of loneliness and longing for home that she sank against the door frame and covered her face with her hands. Could she really endure a ticking mattress and coarse woollen blanket when duckdown and fine linen and all the other comforts she’d taken for granted were just a five-hour carriage ride away?
She’d have to, wouldn’t she? she told herself as she sank to her knees and struggled with the corroded buckles. She might not have actively chosen this course, but she had endorsed it with her silence, thinking at the time it solved all her troubles. Just a couple of weeks was all she needed and then her darling papa would welcome her home like the prodigal daughter. Never again would he ride roughshod over her happiness.
Though her hands were still tender from their long immersion in icy sea water, making the chore more painful than difficult, she forced herself to count her blessings. Her maid was dead and poor Sarah Morecroft, the governess whose place she’d taken, was at the bottom of the North Sea.
The clattering of hooves on the cobblestones outside was a welcome diversion. Throwing open the casement Sarah looked down into the stable yard, wondering what other diversions Larchfield offered.
The horseman who’d just arrived raised his head at the sound and doffed his hat with a cursory glance at Sarah, before dismounting.
Sarah retreated a little.
From this distance, he appeared to be in his late thirties. Mrs Hawthorne’s husband? At a pinch their ages might make it possible, but surely not even a vast fortune could entice a man as elegant as this one to throw in his lot with Sarah’s demanding employer.
His expression was serious, distracted, as he threw the reins to a stable boy and strode towards the kitchen steps.
Thick dark hair swept back from a high forehead and framed a pair of well-chiselled cheek bones. His manner was decisive. She noticed the way the servants bowed and scraped. The head groom tugged his forelock and the kitchen maid, scurrying across the cobbles with an apron overflowing with vegetables, curtsied and dimpled at his brief greeting.
Sarah strained forward to observe him better before he disappeared. This was no country bumpkin. Highly polished top boots reached the knees of a pair of buckskins that covered shapely, muscled legs. The immaculately cut coat of navy superfine that stretched across his broad shoulders was surely Savile Row.
Unlike Master Cosmo, there was nothing of the fop about him, although his attention to detail was apparent in his attire. A nonpareil, decided Sarah with satisfaction. And a particularly dashing one.
Dashing, just like James – Captain James Fleming.
She sighed. No point reflecting on the past. And she mustn’t hold dear James entirely accountable for her predicament despite his volte-face regarding a marriage between them.
Sarah listened to the ring of his boots upon the stairs, two floors below as she crossed to the tarnished looking glass. A critical perusal of her reflection hardly bolstered her spirits. However, she reassured herself, with her chestnut tresses shining and her normally flawless complexion glowing, the lowly governess Sarah Morecroft would soon receive the same admiration to which she, the feted beauty, Lady Sarah Miles, was accustomed.
Feeling almost reconciled to her new life at the thought, she returned to her unpacking, only to gasp with horror as she pulled out the first garment that came to hand.
Dropping the drab, high-necked grey merino gown, she put her hands to her flaming cheeks. How could she possibly hold up her head in public wearing such a repulsive object? It would be more mortifying than anything she’d ever done in her entire life.
Swallowing convulsively, she reassured herself this must be the worst of the garments Miss Morecroft had packed. She’d probably tossed it into her trunk at the last minute.
But as Sarah began laying out the gowns, petticoats, chemises and other items in an orderly pile, her dismay grew. By the time she’d pulled loose a beige fustian gown adorned with two rows of badly sewn flounces that might just pass muster for eating nursery tea she was close to tears. What was she to wear for family dinner in the formal dining room? Regardless of what Mrs Hawthorne said there was no way Sarah was going to subsist on a diet of endless bread and butter, disgusting lumpy suet puddings and — she swallowed — no Madeira for more than a week.
What, then, could she deck herself out in? She had no money. Her reticule had gone down with the boat. She fingered the gold cross at her throat. She’d have to pawn that, she supposed.
A cursory rap on the door heralded the entrance of a young personage who bustled into the centre of the room as if she owned it. Judging by her starched cap and apron, Sarah assumed she must be the nursery maid.
“Miss, you’re not even dressed!” The stout, ruddy-faced creature, who looked as if she was in the habit of gobbling up all the nursery leftovers, scowled, hands on hips. “And there’s the little girls waiting for their tea!”
“They’re hardly going to starve if I’m five minutes late.” Enraged at the maid’s impertinence, Sarah pretended to examine the beige dress. Tossing it over the iron bedstead, she sank back onto the threadbare grey blanket and covered her face with her hands. “I declare, the sea water’s ruined my entire wardrobe. Isn’t that a greater calamity than keeping a couple of children waiting for nursery tea?”
“Yes, Miss.” Sarah’s lofty tone appeared to have put the girl in her place. She shifted position, scuffing the oilskin floor covering with her toe as Sarah dragged herself into a sitting position. “Right sorry we all were to hear of the accident, miss. First losing your family to fever in India and then nearly going yerself, afore yer time. Beg pardon, too, for me lack of manners only the mistress gets on her high ropes when it comes to punctuality. I’m Ellen, by the way. And Mrs Hawthorne’ll be bound to forgive you considerin’ yer terrible ordeal, Miss.”
“That’s encouraging,” replied Sarah, getting wearily to her feet, her irony clearly lost on Ellen. “I shall be down shortly.”
Struggling into the beige dress was an effort and the response she received from Mrs Hawthorne, who was waiting for her in the nursery, made no secret of the other’s disparagement. But when Sarah cunningly and plaintively said, “Oh, ma’am, two days floating in the ocean has done my wardrobe no favours,” a look of guilt immediately crossed her mistress’s face.
“Of course not, my dear. I daresay there are a few of my things I no longer wear that can be altered. They may not be in the first stare, but that hardly signifies in your situation.”
No doubt they’d be simply hideous, thought Sarah, but at least they’d be of finer quality than Miss Morecroft’s coarse cottons and serviceable woollens.
The nursery was as Spartan as she had feared, the expressions of her charges hardly compensation. Not one to be daunted by a trio of little girls, Sarah swept past them to the window.
“First lesson, girls! There’s a difference between staring, and paying attention,” she said, softening her stern tone with a smile as she turned. Despite the appalling deprivations she’d have to endure, there were compensations, she decided, her optimistic nature rising above the gloom. It could even be fun: the erudition of three sponge-like little girls. It gave her a sense of power she was unused to at home, despite her privileges.
“Yes, miss.” Their blank looks were replaced with curiosity. Even Caro did not look quite so hostile.
“And while we’re waiting for the sumptuous fare about to be laid before us, you can tell me what you’d like me to teach you. I’ve no doubt I’ll be the best governess you’ve ever had.” She warmed to her task. She loved to learn. Now she’d find out if she were as gifted in imparting her knowledge. “I’m an authority on all the graces, with a special passion for the classics and, believe it or not, Caro, the sciences.”
Harriet looked down at her exercise book where she’d drawn a stern-faced insect wearing a monocle and lisped, “I want to learn about worms, and Mama says Caro’s going to need a lot of help if she’s to catch a husband.”
“Worms? We’ll make a worm farm, then.” Sarah spoke above Caro’s protests. “As for Caro—” Her tone was thoughtful. Caro glowered and mumbled something incoherent as she stared down at her empty place setting.
“Enunciate, Caro.” Sarah spoke crisply. “All I caught was the word ridiculous, and I do concur, it’s a ridiculous notion you’ll never catch a husband. Certainly you’re no beauty but that’s sure to change. I was at my most unprepossessing at sixteen, and I remember girls far worse off who turned into veritable swans and waltzed off with nabobs and dukes.”
“You didn’t hear, Miss Morecroft,” Harriet piped up as nursery tea — predictably, egg and toast — was served. “Caro doesn’t want a husband, but nobody ever listens.”
“Not want a husband?” Sarah frowned as she took her seat at the table.
“Finding a husband is not life’s most noble pursuit,” mumbled Caro.
“Noble? There’s nothing noble about securing a husband but unless one intends to be a nun it’s a young woman’s most important enterprise. A girl must use all her wits and wiles to ensure she is as well-placed as possible.”
“Caro wants to be a blue-stocking,” said Augusta.
“Will you be of independent means some day?”
“What?” Caro was clearly affronted.
“Unless you are,” said Sarah patiently, “an indulgent husband who will grant you the latitude to pursue your intellectual leanings is a far more desirable proposition to playing unpaid servant to those in the household who feel they have a legitimate claim upon your time.”
“You’re not married,” Harriet pointed out, “and you’re much older than Caro.”
Caro sounded triumphant. “So if there aren’t enough of the good ones to go around—”
“There are,” Sarah interrupted. “In fact, during my first Season out I found the perfect husband after turning down half a dozen manageable suitors.”
“But you didn’t marry him, did you?” Despite herself Caro looked interested.
“He died on the Peninsula two weeks before our wedding day.” Sarah toyed with her food. She was dismayed to have experienced only the slightest pang recounting this distant chapter in her life. Not so long ago she’d believed she’d never get over it. Could she really have lost her heart? Certainly, she’d lost it to Captain Danvers, seven years ago. But was she now so old she was immune to the heady sensations that accompanied being in love?
When the girls pressed her she was tight-lipped. For one thing, she was not sure what the Hawthornes knew of Miss Morecroft’s history. For another, she hadn’t the heart to pursue the topic. Her first love had ended in tragedy, her second in disappointment. James, her distant cousin whom she loved like a brother, had betrayed her by supporting her father’s cork-brained quest to marry the two of them off to each other, simply because James was next to inherit Lord Miles’s title and estate.
“Not another word on the subject!” Sarah rapped upon the table for silence. “Life contains many disappointments.”
“You must be very brave, Miss Morecroft.” Admiration shone from Augusta’s serious dark eyes. “You’re not scared of spiders, are you? You wouldn’t even be scared of Master.”
“Your dog?” asked Sarah, and Caro giggled.
“My father,” she said. “Everyone’s scared of him.”
“Goodness.” Sarah frowned. “Nobody should be scared of their father. Why, mine’s the world’s most terrible ogre but I’m not scared of him. Or rather, I wasn’t,” she amended, hastily.
“You defied him?” whispered Caro, round-eyed as she fidgeted with her lilac sash, her food untouched before her.
Lilac! Shuddered Sarah. Only the most unfeeling guardian would dress a girl of Caro’s colouring in such a shade. Transferring her attention to the girl’s intense expression, Sarah said, “Not outright. That would have been to no purpose.”
“Then how did you manage such a thing?” Caro strained forward as if the question were of the greatest importance.
Sarah chose her words, carefully. Caro might not be such a lost cause, after all. “You have to work out how a person thinks.” She smiled. “Learn cunning, while all the time appearing ever so meek and obedient. They think they’re getting their way when, really, you’re getting yours. Or, at least, you’re not completely giving into them. Take these eggs, for example,” she added, gaining inspiration from the soft-boiled eggs that were growing cold in front of them. “Pass the charcoal, please, Harriet.”
Perplexed, the girls watched as Sarah drew a face on her egg. She pushed it towards Caro, together with the charcoal.
“Now draw the face of whoever frightens you most in the world.”
With great deliberation Caro pencilled in sideburns, a head of wavy hair, adding a smart cravat before touching up Sarah’s attempts at a face.
“You’re quite an artist.” Sarah’s tone was admiring. “Obviously this is a man of consequence. Now, face him squarely and tell him what you feel. Then chop off his head!”
The girls looked at Sarah, horrified.
“I couldn’t possibly,” gasped Caro.
“If you can’t even tell it to an egg, small wonder the man himself reduces you to a quivering jelly. You’re hardly going to get your own way if you lose your nerve every time he looks at you. So go on, face your egg sternly and tell it what you really think. Come now, Caro. Say: “I despise the way you …”
Caro hesitated. Then taking a deep breath she hissed, “I hate knowing you’re ashamed of me, that you’re so concerned at the impression I make upon people who in your opinion matter but who I don’t ever want to see again. I hate the way you ignore me, think I’m ugly and stupid—”
“Right! Well, I’d be surprised if your egg hadn’t got the message—” Sarah cut in. Caro’s voice had risen alarmingly. “Perhaps now is a good time to cut off its head.”
“So I cut off your head! Like this! So I don’t ever suffer the agonies of your ill opinion again!”
Seizing the bread knife, Caro sliced it through the air, wielding it with as much enthusiasm as any London executioner.
In shocked silence they all watched as the egg shot out of its cradle and hurtled through the air towards the door, levelling off at chest height … at the precise moment the door opened.
And as nursery dinner made contact with the immaculately clad torso of the handsome gentleman Sarah had made eyes at earlier that day, Caro cried out in anguish, “Father!”