Excerpt: Seducing the Governess
Book Four: Regency Flings
The English Lake District. Spring, 1816
The sensation of floating adrift did not abate even when Mercy Franklin stepped off the rocking mail coach into the sodden road that felt anything but solid. She no longer had any anchor, any substance. “Normal” no longer defined her life, not since she’d learned that her father and mother were not truly her parents. Reverend Robert Franklin and his wife, Susanna, had taken her in under circumstances unknown to Mercy, and raised her as their own.
And now they were both dead. Her questions would go unanswered, at least until she got up the nerve to open Susanna’s journal.
Mercy feared what she might read on those pages – whether the words would touch her heart or sadden her, she did not know, for her dealings with her parents had been strained from her earliest memories. She was hard-pressed to recall any demonstrations of affection, and yet she remembered every admonition and castigation she’d received over the years. She knew how her parents felt about her – she just hadn’t known why they’d been so cold and remote – until the day Susanna died.
Collecting her luggage into both hands, Mercy glanced around at the setting in which she found herself. Naught looked familiar here, so far from St. Martin’s church and the town of Underdale that had been her home for the last twenty years. She had been squeezed and jostled over at least one hundred rugged, mountainous miles, and her head ached. Her legs felt like jelly and she knew it would take more than just a moment to settle her stomach.
Yet there was no time. Mercy needed to move on. She had a living to earn, and had been able to find only one acceptable way to do so.
Sidestepping a deep puddle, she set down her traveling cases in the damp grass, hoping the gray skies would not open up and drench her before she reached Ashby Hall. She suppressed a wave of unease and reached into her portfolio for the letter she’d received from a Mr. Lowell, a man with some position of authority at the Hall.
“The mail coach will leave you at the top of the fell above Ashby Hall. Go round the curve and through the turnstile. From there, the path will bring you directly to the Hall.”
So it wasn’t much farther now. Her new home, so far from Underdale. So far from everything she thought she’d known to be true.
Mercy might have blamed Susanna Franklin’s strange and unexpected revelation on some horrible deathbed dementia, but her mother had been entirely lucid up until the end. And her words made a peculiar kind of sense, even though it was difficult to credit Susanna’s account of a man bringing her to Reverend Franklin’s rectory as a little child, and bidding the Franklins to raise her as their own. It didn’t seem possible. The Franklins couldn’t be anything other than her true family.
Yet Mercy knew the story must be true. Susanna Franklin’s breath had been short and painful at the end, but she had spoken in earnest.
The gray skies opened up and Mercy scrambled to put away Mr. Lowell’s letter before it was ruined. With all due haste, she gathered her heavy traveling cases and followed his direction, and as she rounded the curve in the road, noted that the ruts were already overflowing with muddy water from a previous rain. She stepped over and around each one as best she could, but the mud sucked at her shoes and she feared they would be ruined before she arrived.
Struggling to manage her luggage, the sudden sound of horses startled her, and she scuttled off the road just as a group of men on horseback rounded the curve at high speed and came upon her. Some of them wore the rag-tag remnants army uniforms, but none of them even noticed her cowering in the trees alongside the road. They splattered mud onto her simple brown wool coat, and as the last man rode by, he turned and caught a glance of her shocked face.
Without so much as a twitch of his thick, dark mustache, he turned back to follow the others as only a despicable barbarian would do.
With her already sour mood worsening, Mercy wiped the spray of mud from her cheek and resumed her walk, hoping she’d soon reach the turnstile. Perhaps she’d find a well where she could draw water to wash some of the mud from her clothes and face before meeting Mr. Lowell. It was unusual, to say the least, for a gentleman to be the person in charge of hiring a governess for the earl’s niece, but it had been Mercy’s only offer of employment. Unconventional or not, she desperately needed the position.
Her father had died suddenly last summer, leaving barely enough for her and Susanna to live on. Mercy had questioned her mother regarding their finances, but her only answer was that Reverend Franklin had made many investments that had gone bad.
They’d lived in a borrowed cottage and relied upon the kindness of her father’s parishioners. But after Susanna’s short illness and death, it had become clear that Mercy needed to make her own way.
She’d had to find employment.
She held tightly to her traveling cases and stepped back into the road, just as another horseman galloped into sight. He saw her a moment too late and his horse reared, throwing him to the muddy ground.
Somehow, Mercy managed to stay on her feet, but she gave a startled cry. As soon as the massive horse had ambled away, she collected herself and called out to him. “Are you injured, sir?”
He sat up gingerly, and when he shoved his hat off his face where it had slumped, Mercy noticed his scars. One side of his face had been injured – probably burned. A thick webbing of damaged skin marred the peak of his cheek and his brow, and clouded the eye in between. Likely he had not seen her in the road.
Mercy could not imagine what cruel fate had marred such a striking face. His nose was nicely shaped, his jaw square and strong, and slightly cleft, indicating a more potent masculinity than she’d encountered in any other man. His lips were neither too thin nor too full, but were stretched into a solemn line that indicated a fair degree of irritation.
Mercy immediately realized he was not the kind of man she ought to be alone with, not when she could feel his powerful physicality even from where she stood.
Fortunately, he did not look at her, but scowled and reached for his ankle through his highly polished Hessians. And as he did so, Mercy wondered if her conscience would allow her to slip away without further congress. Without offering her assistance.
“Aye,” he muttered. “Injured.” His tone was wry, as though such a simple mishap could hardly be called an injury. He gave an incredulous shake of his head, then tried to rotate his foot, but grimaced with discomfort.
She took a step toward him. “Sir…”
He glanced up and caught her eye. Mercy stopped in her tracks and held her tongue, doubtful that he was a man who would willingly accept assistance.
“A mild sprain, I think.”
A muscle in his jaw tensed. “You’ll have to help me take off my boot.”
“I beg your pardon?”
His voice was stern and his words carried the tone of command. “The boot must come off now, else the swelling will prevent it coming off later. Come here.”
He glared at her with his good eye, its clear gray color going as dark with annoyance as the murky storm clouds above. “Do you plan to stand gaping at me all afternoon? I am quite certain I cannot be the only one who hopes to get out of the weather sooner rather than later.”
Mercy gave herself a mental shake. She had no business ruminating upon his beautiful, scarred face or allowing the rumble of his deep, masculine voice to resonate through her, clear to her bones. He was an overbearing boor, in spite of his pleasing features, and the sooner she was done with him, the sooner she could be on her way.
Mercy had experience in dealing with an autocratic man, for her father had been one, and more severe than most. He had never approved of her speaking her own mind. And yet her usual demure manner did not suit the current situation in the least.
“You would not be in this position had you taken more care around that curve.” Mercy nearly clapped her hand over her mouth at her rude retort. But he was not her father.
She raised her chin a notch and mentally dared him to reprimand her.
“You’re an expert at riding, then?” He did not bother to hide his sarcasm.
Mercy let out her breath when he did not retort as her father would have done. “Hardly.”
She glanced about for an optimum spot for her bags and set them down. Swallowing her misgivings, she approach the man once again. “But I know the difference between good common sense and foolhardiness.”
He made a rude noise. “Like stepping into the road in front of a galloping horse?”
“I did not hear you coming after that last bunch of ruffians…”
He waved off her words. “I haven’t got all day.” He raised his foot in her direction.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to manage on your own, sir. It is hardly proper–“
“What are you, a priggy society miss?” he said roughly, giving her the once-over with a critical gaze. “Give the boot a good heave and be quick about it.”
“I am no prig, sir.” But even as she denied it, she wondered if it were true. Was she a prig?
No. She was a well-bred lady who knew better than to dally with a handsome rogue on an isolated stretch of road.
“Then kindly give me a moment’s assistance,” he said impatiently, “and I will depart your precious piece of road.”
Mercy had never felt so awkward in her life, though she found it oddly invigorating to speak her mind for a change. After years of responding so carefully to her father and every other member of the parish, Mercy’s tongue felt surprisingly loose with this stranger.
She placed her gloved hands on the boot and pulled, ignoring the ignominious position in which she found herself. She couldn’t even imagine bending like this over Mr. Andrew Vale’s foot. He had been the perfect gentleman who’d asked her to marry him, not a wretched horseman who thought nothing of running down people in the road.
“You’ll never get it that way. Turn around,” he said.
“How am I to–“
“You’ll have to take my foot under your arm and–“
She dropped said foot and he grimaced in pain. “I’ll do no such thing.”
“You’ll barely have to touch me, I promise you.” Mercy detected a hint of amusement in his tone. He was actually enjoying this. “I’ve done this many times before. Go ahead. Turn around.”
She huffed out a harsh breath and did as she was told, gingerly taking his foot in hand once again.
She jerked the boot away while he leaned back and pulled in the opposite direction.
“You have a very fetching backside,” he said, just as the boot came off. Mercy lost her balance and took a few quick steps forward, landing in a deep puddle in her path, destroying her shoe.