It was happening again.
“You’ve mistaken me for someone else, my lord,” Lucy said, though she knew perfectly well he had not. She had endeavored to be less obvious with her pedagogical methods this time, but somehow he had found her out. Taking a step back, she tried not to panic, praying her voice would not shake. “Perhaps you meant to summon one of your guests. I’d be happy to fetch—”
“No,” snapped the viscount, who, in Lucy’s six months in residence at Galsmith House, had exhibited very little interest in his daughters, and hence, even less interest in Lucy, their governess. Until, apparently, he somehow discovered she was instructing his children according to the ideas put forth by the great—and controversial—writer Mary Wollstonecraft. “I meant to summon you. I know exactly who you are. Or, more to the point, I know exactly what you are.”
He took a step toward her, pupils dilated. Lucy’s breath quickened, and she glanced around, assessing possible escape routes. The study was tucked into a corner of the house, so there was only the one door, which led to a sitting room from whence she could easily make her way into the ballroom. Even from here, she could hear fragments of laughter and snippets of music. The night was advanced—her charges had long since gone to bed—but the unexpected arrival of a storm had kept the guests making merry into the wee hours.
The door was so close! A mere twenty feet away. The problem was the very large, and, judging from the smell emanating from him as he advanced, very inebriated aristocrat standing between her and it.
“And if I had known what you are, I never would have permitted my wife to retain you,” he sneered. “To think, you’ve spent months poisoning my daughters with that lewd woman’s lies! I can only thank heavens the youngest isn’t reading yet, or you’d most likely be swapping her primers out for A Vindication of the Rights of Women and God knows what other blasphemy.”
With every sentence, he forced Lucy a step closer to the bookshelves that lined the wall behind her, so she didn’t bother informing him that four-year-old Edna was, in fact, already reading—Lucy was a very good governess despite her distaste for the profession. She was fond of her charges and was diligent about doing right by them, even though she would be delighted if she never had to supervise another pianoforte practice session again. “I would be pleased, my lord, to have a rational discussion as to the inspiration behind my pedagogical methodology. You should know, for example, that until Mrs. Wollstonecraft’s husband published that account of her life that has become so infamous and, in the process, unjustly besmirched her reputation, she—”
“One shouldn’t even call her a woman, should one?” he interrupted, taking another step toward her.
Her back made contact with the books, and her stomach dropped as he placed a palm flat against the shelf next to her, effectively creating one half of a cage. “‘Unsexed.’ Isn’t that what Polwhele called her in his poem? A lightskirt at the very least, no? If a respected clergyman like Polwhele has found her character so lacking, who can reasonably defend her?”
“I can! If you took the time to read her actual works instead of merely the baseless ranting of her critics, you would see that—”
The other arm shot out. She was trapped. “I console myself that if you’re anything like your heroine, at least I’ll be able to enjoy you before I turn you out without a reference.”
Annoyance flared, though she knew fear was probably a more sensible response at this particular moment. “You’re not even listening to me! Are we having a conversation, or are you having a monologue?” She ducked, squatted, moved to one side, and popped up outside the enclosure of his arms.
After blinking for a few moments as if unable to comprehend that she’d escaped, he lunged at her. “You whore!”
Now it was time for fear—terror, even—as the unease that had been slowly churning in her gut exploded into panic. Lucy knew all too well what happened to governesses unable to escape the advances of their employers. Perhaps she was destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps after all.
So she ran. Or tried to—she only made it a few steps before he tore off her cap, causing her to cry out at the pain that whipped through her neck as her head and body moved in opposite directions. Though she’d dressed when she received the summons he’d relayed via the upstairs maid, she’d only had time to hastily shove her unbraided hair into a cap. The locks fell freely now, and he tangled his fingers in them and pulled, hard enough to make her yelp again as he slammed her back against him.
“I am going to make you sorry,” he hissed. “I will ruin you. In every possible way.” Reaching his hands around, he yanked the front of her bodice, the resulting tear louder in her ears than the thunder raging outside.
“No.” She spoke the word aloud this time, in unison with the voice in her head. The voice was familiar, yet it seemed not to be her own. Whatever it was, it was right. A kind of surety settled over her, bringing quiet to jangled nerves and making room for a fortifying breath where a moment ago there had been only ineffectual gasping.
Distantly, she registered the sound of him issuing vile threats, and she wondered if this was how it had happened to her mother. Making an effort to separate her mind from what was happening to her person, she allowed herself to be spun to face him, even as rough hands shoved their way inside her chemise, pawing at her breasts.
No longer frantic, her mind turned inward, methodically looking for an escape. Then, suddenly, the question came to her all at once, crystalizing in her being, the question that had yet to let her down.
What would Mary Wollstonecraft do?
The answer came too, right on the heels of the question.
She smiled, retracted her leg, and kneed the viscount in the groin with all her might.
* * *
There was something exceedingly satisfying about weathering a storm inside one’s own home. Remarkable, really, how wind rattling the windows and torrents of water lashing the just-finished roof could feel so rewarding.
Trevor had suffered through plenty of storms in his thirty years. Sipping brandy as he stared at the fire in the small library he’d built as part of his personal apartment atop the soon-to-open hotel he was building, he thought back to some of them.
The worst were in Portugal, in tents—if they were lucky—awaiting the carnage that would descend as whatever battle they faced unfolded. In those miserable days, cold and wetness were the last thing the men needed on top of the ever-present hunger, depravation and, he would freely admit, fear. England’s cause against Napoleon had been just, but one couldn’t help but wonder during some of those sodden nights whether God was.
The storms of his childhood had been annoyances more than anything, necessitating pauses in whatever grift he had going at the moment, but he had endured most of them hungry, just like in Portugal.
Recent years had passed high and dry, for the most part. His rooms in Bartlett’s Buildings, home until a month ago, had been comfortable, luxurious even, as his fortunes rose steadily. But there was nothing like owning the walls that kept one safe from a storm, nothing like being sheltered by a structure that had been built to one’s exact specifications. A home, at last. And, nestled atop London’s most spectacular new building, what a home it would be.
He sipped his brandy and tucked the edges of a blanket around his feet. The dozens of candles he’d lit—another rewarding consequence of financial success—cast a warm glow on the shelves that lined two walls. Soon, they would be filled with books. He couldn’t contain a sigh of satisfaction. Yes, of all his ventures—shipping, mining, investing—the hotel that would also be his home was going to be the best. The best meaning not just the most lucrative—though he hoped it would be that, too—but the most fulfilling. He raised his glass, even as he recognized the absurdity of making a toast in an empty room.
He laughed a little as he tried to summon the appropriate words. “To the hotel,” he finally said, favoring, as usual, a brief but accurate summation of the circumstance. “To the Jade.”
As the balance of the brandy in the glass slid down his throat, the hairs on the back of his neck rose. He was up in an instant. Four years with the Earl of Blackstone—both on the battlefield, where they’d become bosom friends despite their class differences, and in their post-war intelligence careers—had honed his senses. He’d learned to trust those back-of-the-neck hairs. They were the reason he was still alive.
Picking up a branch of candles, he made his way out into the main corridor. He was five flights up, but as he started down, he could begin to make out a thudding, distinct from the wind and the rain, coming from somewhere below him.
As he descended, the noise resolved itself into a rhythmic pounding he followed to the empty kitchen at the back of the hotel. On the other side of the heavy oak door was a small, presently empty courtyard he intended to convert to a kitchen garden next spring. Someone clearly wanted in—someone who would have known there was a back entrance through the courtyard, or had nosed around enough to discover it.
He devoted a fleeting thought to whether he ought to have armed himself, but he and Blackstone weren’t working on a mission now, so his pistols were upstairs locked in a case in an armoire. Rummaging through one of the boxes he had yet to unpack, he searched for a knife. Blackstone the spymaster would not be impressed. Just because they didn’t have an active mission—Waterloo had finally ended the wars against Napoleon—was no reason not to keep his guard up.
The wind screeched—even after a week, the storm raged on—and the pounding continued. Whoever it was, friend or foe, the poor bastard must be soaked to the bone.
Trevor palmed a paring knife, threw back the bolt, and swung open the weighty door.
He heard his own sharp intake of breath as the knife clattered to the floor.
She looked exactly the same as she had all those years ago when they’d run wild on the notorious streets of Seven Dials. Mahogany hair a tangled mess, clothes dirty and torn.
No, that wasn’t entirely correct. There was one significant difference. Back in the rookery of their childhood, there would have been a hint of mischief in those light brown eyes. It had never made sense, given the circumstances, but it had been there all the same, telling him that she was well, that the impossible, hardscrabble life they led hadn’t defeated her yet.
For it to be gone…maybe he had made a mistake that day. Because preserving her spirit had been the whole bloody point of sending her away.
“I need help,” she whispered.
The years fell away, all at once, like a great, heavy coat falling to the floor.
“Lucy,” he said, his voice catching. “Lucy.”