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The Flames

Six-year-old Ailsa Johnson held on to her governess’s hand tight as the world burned down around her. Her four-year-old sister Davina was in Miss Kathy’s other arm, cradled against her side like a baby. The younger girl was screaming and crying wildly. Ailsa wished she were a baby, or at least a bit younger, so she could sob like that too.

The water engines were working hard, water pouring out of their massive pumps. Six firemen held each hose, trying their best to save Ailsa’s burning home.

“Where are my mummy and daddy?” she asked, her Scottish-accented voice trembling when she spoke. “Miss Kathy, tell me they are n’ae still inside.”

“Aren’t,” Kathy corrected absently, mostly out of habit, Ailsa supposed. They’d been working on elocution lately, and their father wanted them to be able to speak like English ladies, in the event they went back south. Her hand tightened around Ailsa’s. “And I don’t know where they are, love. I don’t know.”

“I want my mum!” Davina shrieked. “Miss Kathy! Take me back in! I dinnae care about the fire at all, I just want Mum!”

Miss Kathy’s usually lovely warm voice sounded hollow and empty. “I know you do, sweetheart,” she said. Ailsa glanced up and could see how the governess’s eyes were focused intently on the flames, the fire’s reflection dancing on her hazel irises.

“Are they gonnae … I mean, are they going to die?” Ailsa asked, biting her lip to stop the scream threatening to break from her lips at the thought. “Mummy and Daddy? Is the fire going to take them?”

Miss Kathy didn’t answer. The three of them were covered in soot, and the hem of Davina’s dress was charred. Kathy had pulled them both out of the nursery, crying out about the fire, shouting as loud as she could. Ailsa was sure that if Miss Kathy weren’t there looking after them, she would have dived right into the flames to go back for their parents.

Ailsa’s parents were Lucas and Isla Johnson, the Lord and Lady of Gretness, their lands situated in the Scottish Midlands. They weren’t only Miss Kathy’s employers – they were also her friends. She had been here as a nurse when Ailsa was young and had also been a nurse for Davina, until the two children grew up enough to have a governess.

Ailsa was six now, nearly a young lady. She didn’t need a nurse, but she was glad Miss Kathy had stayed on as their governess. If she hadn’t, they might have been lost in those flames.

“What about Kitty?” Davina whined desperately. The cold wind felt strange as Ailsa looked up at her little sister, especially with the blazing hot flames of their home burning in front of them. “We need to get Kitty, and Mummy, and Daddy!”

“Kitty’s just a dolly, Dina,” Ailsa tried to reassure her, using the pet name their father often called Davina. “The firemen will get Mummy and Daddy out, and then we’ll get you a new one. Is n’ae that right, Miss Kathy?”

“They’ll do their best,” Kathy told them again, though Ailsa saw she looked sad. “They’ll do everything they can, girls. Don’t worry. I’m here.”

But Ailsa did worry. She had once visited a farm on her father’s land shortly after a fire had burned down the pigsty. She’d seen the destruction, and though she didn’t understand it, she knew none of the pigs that didn’t get out were left alive.

A large crowd of neighbors and local villagers had gathered in front of the house, trying their level best to help the fire crew, but Ailsa saw a single tear roll down Miss Kathy’s cheek. Ailsa was only six, but she was old enough to know what that meant. She was old enough to know sorrow. It was the same feeling she felt clenching at her own little heart, shrinking it in her chest.

They stood in silence as the fire blazed on, and the attempts to rescue everything she’d ever known slowly failed. A few minutes later, something changed in the air. Ailsa didn’t know what it was, but something was different.

A fireman approached them. He was even more covered in soot and ash than the girls and Miss Kathy, and his face was ruddy red from being near the flames. He had lovely blue eyes, though, and he seemed youngish for an adult. Ailsa decided she could trust him.

“Ye’re the governess, aye?” the fireman asked in a broad Scots accent. Obviously, he hadn’t had any elocution lessons. “May I speak with ye for a minute, Miss?”

“Of course,” Kathy replied. She gently lowered Davina to the ground. “Ailsa, dear, look after your sister, won’t you?”

Ailsa’s tummy hurt, but she did as she was asked. Davina sat on the cold, muddy ground, still sobbing wildly about her missing doll. Ailsa walked over to her baby sister and put her arms around her. “It’ll be all right,” she whispered. “Hush now.”

“Will it?” Davina asked. “Truly?”

Ailsa bit her lip, tears flooding her eyes once more. She wanted to promise, but, how could she? What promise could she give that wasn’t empty? Her Mummy had always taught her not to lie, after all.

Soon, Miss Kathy walked back over to them. The governess was crying steadily now, her face red, not even bothering to try to hide it. As soon as she reached the girls, she knelt in the mud next to them, no care in the world for what a mess it made of her dress.

“Come here, darlings,” she sobbed, pulling both children into her lovely warm embrace.

After a moment, Ailsa said in a whisper, “Are they gone?”

Miss Kathy just nodded. Davina didn’t understand, not really, but Ailsa felt the whole world around her shatter. Her manor. Her home. Her toys, clothes, and books.

Our mummy and our daddy. Gone forever.

The three of them cried. Even little Davina, who didn’t know better, seemed devastated. The flames finally started to die down in the background, and quietly Ailsa sniffed and said, “What do we do now, Miss Kathy?”

“I don’t know, love,” Miss Kathy replied. It hurt, but it was one of the things Ailsa loved most about her – she could always trust Miss Kathy to be honest and treat her like a grown-up. “I don’t know what we’ll do. But, girls, I promise I’ll always be with you.”

Ailsa started to cry again, clinging tightly to the governess. There might not be any blood there, but now she understood the truth. Uncles, aunts, and grandparents might be alive – but apart from Davina, at that moment, Kathy was the only family she had left.

Chapter 1

The Funeral

It had been a long, long time since Richard Johnson, Duke of Beresford, had felt comfortable in Scotland. He was a Londoner born and bred, but he’d enjoyed visiting the Highlands with his parents and brother in his youth. That was before Isla, of course. Before the day Richard had lost his heart.

“That all seems so petty now, doesn’t it?” he asked his friend, as the two of them walked away from the larger crowd of mourners at the joint funeral for Richard’s brother and his wife. “It seems so stupid that I let my love for a woman tear me away from my brother – and from Isla. She deserved my friendship still.” Richard’s friend, Stephen Thompson, the Earl of Gordon, stood out in most crowds. With his dark, tree-bark colored skin and wild curly hair, which he only managed to tame by tying it back, he did not fit in with the upper classes’ generally white populace. Yet, he seemed to feel much more comfortable in the current situation than Richard himself.

The pair had escaped from the barrage of well-wishers and mourners – and gossips, Richard supposed – giving the duke a little breathing space for a moment. They stood by the loch on the edge of the property’s grounds, listening to the water lapping and bringing back memories, both welcome and unwelcome.

Stephen put a hand on Richard’s shoulder. The earl was less afraid than many to show affection to his friends. Perhaps he was so used to his life as an outsider, he simply didn’t care. In some ways, Richard envied that. “Don’t torture yourself like this, Richie,” he said gently. “There’s nothing you could have done.”

Richie. Lucas used to call me that too when I was young. Why did I allow all this to happen?

Lucas was gone now. Isla was gone. Their meaningless feud had never had a chance to properly end before both Richard’s brother and the woman he’d once loved were nothing but ash. Richard knew it was cowardly, but part of him had almost wanted to stay at home, to avoid the funeral altogether. Part of him had feared it would kill him.

“I’m going to check on the ladies,” Stephen said, patting his shoulder one more time. “I’ll call you over in a minute.”

Richard nodded absentmindedly, his loss still making him feel numb. He didn’t know what he’d do without his bright, cheerful friend, who sailed around the world with a man who was half a pirate every year before coming home to work. Stephen was the only thing that had dragged him here in the first place.

But of course, he had to be here. Lucas and Isla had two girls, two little daughters left in the world without their mother and father. Richard swallowed; his throat hurt as he stared at the loch.

The girls have a similar age difference to Lucas and me. Did, I suppose, now he’s gone. I wonder if they played in these lochs, as their father and I once played in the lake at Beresford?

Lucas was supposed to be the duke, not Richard. Lucas was older, smarter, more charismatic, and handsome. Perhaps that was why Isla, the daughter of the Scottish Lord of Gretness, had turned her eye from her initial courtship with Richard and gone to Lucas’s side. Perhaps that was why Lucas had found love, while Richard was left with nothing but his duty. A duty that was never supposed to be his.

He remembered the first time the brothers had seen Isla. She’d been so beautiful, with her long auburn hair, her bright eyes, her smile, and charming accent, and her infectious, joyful laugh. She—

No. Richard couldn’t think about Isla, not now. It was hard enough to accept she was dead and gone; hard enough that Lucas, too, would never see the sun again. Opening old wounds would do Richard nothing but harm.

“Lord Beresford,” Stephen’s voice called. “They’re ready for you.”

Richard smiled a little tiredly. It was always strange to hear his irreverent friend address him by his title rather than name. He supposed it was time to meet his nieces – his new wards. He’d only met them once, some four years earlier, when the oldest was two and the youngest newly-born. It was supposed to be the start of his reunion with his brother.

It wasn’t, though – it never turned out that way. We left it too late. I left it too late.

Sighing, he turned and walked toward Stephen’s voice. When he crested the small hill, he found Stephen solemnly shaking hands with a tiny girl, who looked so much like Isla, it almost stopped Richard’s heart. This must be the oldest daughter, Ailsa. She had her mother’s auburn hair, but her eyes… Those were Lucas’s green eyes.

The younger child was nowhere in sight, but Ailsa was smiling as she spoke to Stephen. Despite her black clothes and evident sorrow, she obviously felt the same pull toward Stephen so many others did. The same pull that had drawn Richard to him when they were schoolboys.

“You have very strange skin, Mr. Stephen,” the little girl said in an accent that stung like needles. She was obviously Scottish, but someone had been giving her lessons to pronounce words in the English fashion. She sounded exactly as Isla had all those years ago. “But it’s very pretty. How do you make it shine like that? Is it brown all the time?”

“Ailsa!” An undoubtedly English lady’s voice scolded from behind her. “Don’t comment on such things! It’s unseemly.”

Stephen started to laugh. “Oh, don’t worry, Miss Kathy,” he reassured her, winking at Ailsa. “I’ve heard much worse.”

Richard looked up to see who had spoken. A woman stood where she hadn’t before, also dressed in mourning. There was a younger child in her arms – the younger girl, Davina, he supposed. Given Stephen’s form of address, he assumed she must be the children’s governess.

She was lovely. Hazel eyes and gently sun-bronzed skin, this was a woman unafraid of hard work. She was tall and slim, her blonde hair tied modestly under a mourning cap. Judging by the way Davina and Ailsa looked at her, it was clear they adored her.

Stephen looked up, noticing him for the first time. “Oh, Richie, there you are. Little ones, meet your Uncle Richard, the Duke of Beresford.”

Ailsa turned to him shyly. “It’s good to meet you, Lord Uncle Beresford,” she said in a prim little voice that almost caused Richard to smile. “Are we gonnae – I mean, are we going to live with you?”

The answer was yes, of course, though he had little idea of how it had come to that. Isla had brothers, but they were all married and scattered around Scotland, with their own wives and children. Her father and mother, the girls’ grandparents, were too old and bereaved to raise them.

Which only leaves me.

“I believe so,” Richard replied. He hesitated, then a little awkwardly added, “You may call me Uncle Richard if you wish. May I call you Ailsa?”

The girl flushed, obviously pleased by the question. “You may,” she said. “Mr. Stephen wouldn’t tell us his title.”

“Lord Gordon I might be, but I’m practically family,” Stephen commented with a wink. “Just Stephen will do.” He somehow now had Davina in his arms, who was pulling at his curls curiously, despite the governess’s best efforts.

The lovely woman accompanying the girls covered her mouth, perhaps hiding a smile. Richard examined her again and saw the redness around her eyes. She’d obviously been weeping for the departed. “Pardon me, I didn’t catch your name, Miss,” he lied.

I certainly won’t be addressing such a well-spoken young lady as Miss Kathy. Not all of us can get away with such charming disrespect as Stephen!

“My name is Kathy … Wright, Your Grace,” she replied politely, giving a proper but brief curtsey. He wondered why she had stumbled over her surname but supposed it may have been merely her grief muddling her tongue. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“You’re an Englishwoman,” he observed.

“I am,” she agreed. “My father was a minor lord. When my marriage prospects fell through, I came here to my friends, so that I might help raise and then teach their children.”

“So, you are their governess?” Richard asked. He’d assumed as much only a few moments before, and yet he still felt a little surprised. Her obvious bond with these girls felt more profound than that, somehow. If he didn’t know the truth, he might have suspected she was their mother.

“I am, and their nurse before that,” she replied with a smile. She had an attractive smile – not too broad, not too small, but enough to light her face. She was quite pretty, though, in an intriguing way. She wasn’t particularly beautiful, but she was far from ugly. Still, something about the gentleness of her face made her too intriguing to look away. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace. And, actually, I have a request for you.”

Richard saw Stephen look around in surprise, but he ignored his friend, his attention still fixed upon Kathy. He wasn’t used to women speaking so forwardly, but it certainly was not a bad thing. “What request would that be, Miss Wright?”

She curtseyed briefly again. “I wondered if I might not continue my appointment as the girls’ governess in your London home,” she said. “I have known both almost since birth, and I have grown very attached to them. It would be my honor to continue seeing to their education.”

Richard hesitated. To hire a young woman with no background and no parents was a risky move, even if she clearly knew and cared about the children. But then, his brother and Isla had thought her good enough. Who was he to say otherwise?

He was still debating when little Ailsa said, “Excuse me, Uncle Richard, but I think it would be awfie … awfully good of you to accept. Davina and I, we like having Miss Kathy around. She’s family.”

Richard glanced at Stephen, who shrugged. When the little girl put it like that, it didn’t really leave Richard with much of a choice. Besides, he had to admit, he worried about how he was going to raise them. How could he put aside his own guilt and confused feelings of grief to help two children deal with their own mourning? What did he know of young girls?

“If you do not mind moving back to England, Miss Wright, I would be happy to offer you a position in my household,” he said.

He saw joy spark in the woman’s eyes, but there was something else there too, something too quick for Richard to identify. He fancied it looked almost like fear … but that didn’t make any sense. No doubt, his sorrow was confusing his mind.

“Thank you, Uncle,” little Ailsa said. She held out her hand so formally that Richard almost wanted to laugh, but he held it in as he took the small hand and shook it.

Davina finally clambered down from Stephen, walking over to Richard with a look of open curiosity on her face. “We’re gonnae live with you?”

“You are,” Richard agreed. “Your father was my brother. Is that agreeable to you?”

The four-year-old pouted her lip, considering him, then said, “Will ye buy me a new Kitty?”

A cat? But they make me sneeze!

Still, how could he refuse? The girl had asked so earnestly, and both her parents were gone. “Stephen, you can arrange an animal, can’t you?”

“Wait, Uncle, Kitty isn’t—” Ailsa started, but Stephen spoke over her.

“Of course, I can, Richie,” he said. “Anyway, ladies, I’m very sorry, but your Lord Uncle and I have some preparations to make before we leave. Miss Kathy will take you round to say your farewells.”

The group separated, the men walking off in one direction and the governess and girls heading in another. When they were clear of the crowd again, Richard sighed.

“Well,” he said, “The most painful part is done. I wasn’t expecting to add another person to my staff today, that’s for sure.”

Stephen shrugged. “Well, a built-in governess can only be a good thing. You know how tiring finding the right person for a job can be.”

He sounded so confident. Richard wished he could share his friend’s attitude. Perhaps it came from being the son of a duke’s affair with a black London shopkeeper? It was an open secret, of course – but nonetheless, he’d been passed off as the legitimate third child of the duke’s marriage and raised alongside his white brothers. Maybe it came from hearing and dismissing rumors all his life – rumors that were, of course, true, but that didn’t seem to bother Stephen unduly. Whatever it was that made him so easygoing, Richard envied it.

“A good thing?” he asked. He glanced over to the other side of the area, where Miss Wright and the girls had stopped to talk to someone else. He couldn’t help the uneasy feeling in his stomach, which seemed to hint that something was about to change forever. Richard didn’t like change very much. It had taken everything from him. “If you say so, Stephen. I certainly hope you’re right.”

Chapter 2

The Governess

The new governess at Beresford Manor was a proper young woman of mysterious background named Kathy Wright. At least, that was what most people thought. Katherine was glad, as the little white lie had made it much easier to steel herself to return to England after four long years of anonymity and freedom.

But I had to come back. I couldn’t very well abandon the girls to London without me. Bad enough that…

Katherine cut off that thought, her eyes filling with tears, as they had every time she’d thought of her deceased friends over the last week. They’d been so good to her after everything. She was loath to think what position she’d be in now if Isla and Lucas hadn’t stepped in to help.

“At least I’m in the countryside rather than in London,” she muttered to herself as she fixed her hair in the mirror above the fireplace in the schoolroom. Katherine wasn’t vain, but she knew she was pretty enough. She strove to present herself as well as possible, especially when on duty. It was good for the girls to see how a lady should behave.

Ha! As if I, of all people, can talk of how a lady should behave.

She scowled, brushing the thought away. Instead, her mind turned back to the days spent journeying from Scotland to here. It had only been the four of them in the carriage – Katherine, the girls, and the affable earl. The duke had gone ahead on business.

Katherine had taken a liking to Stephen immediately. Who wouldn’t? His kindly manner, the way he put the girls at ease, and the way he cheerfully leveraged his noticeable physical differences – she admired it. She thought she might have already found a good friend in him.

Then, when she had arrived here, she was reacquainted with Richard, Lord Beresford. He was reserved and quiet, the polar opposite of his friend. And yet…

“Do you often travel, Your Grace?” she’d asked him.

“As often as most men,” he’d replied.

Another time, she’d spied some flowers in a vase and idly asked, “Which is your favorite color, Your Grace?”

His green eyes had blanched as if in pain under his red-brown hair, but his only reply was, “I have never thought about it, Miss Wright.”

It didn’t seem to matter what question she had asked over the past week – general or personal, big question or small, he avoided answering. This was a man determined not to speak about himself in any way.

So, why do I find him so intriguing?

Her thoughts were interrupted by a hesitant little knock at the door. She fixed a smile on her face and opened it, revealing the two Johnson sisters standing there, hand-in-hand, ready for their daily lesson.

“Miss Kathy!” Davina whined immediately. “Ailsa will n’ae let me go play!”

“That’s because it’s time for lessons, Dina,” Ailsa said sternly. Katherine had to hide her smile. It always made her giggle how much Ailsa acted like a little mother toward her sister.

“But I don’t want to do lessons,” Davina protested furiously.

Katherine saw the tell-tale signs of a four-year-old tantrum about to spring forth, and knew she had to intervene immediately. “Well,” she said, “Nobody wants to be stuck in this stuffy classroom all day. I have a good idea, though – why don’t we go outside? It’s a lovely day, and we can have our lessons there.”

“By the loch?” Ailsa asked excitedly, then frowned. “I mean, by the lake?”

Katherine decided not to comment on the mistake. “Yes, why not? Does that sound nice, Davina?”

Davina looked uncertain for a moment, then said, “Are there ducks?”

“I think so,” Katherine replied.

“I like ducks,” Davina said, nodding her head. Before the other two could react, she had already turned and started walking away from the classroom. Katherine smiled to herself, took Ailsa’s hand, and followed.


The gardens of Beresford Manor were breathtaking in a very English way. While their Scottish manor had overlooked wild fields and farmland, these gardens were beautifully kept. The grass was uniformly and neatly trimmed, an array of flowers of all colors – roses and tulips, the kind of neat, well-kept gardens Katherine remembered from her own childhood.

The lakeside held its own beauty. The water was a clear blue, reflecting the sky. A perfect image of the manor was reflected on the shimmering water too, towering imposingly, just as it did in real life.

It was quite an old building, large, and stonewashed in a way somewhat different from the general contemporary style. Katherine thought it must have belonged to some medieval country lord and been continuously renovated since then. Still, the high arches and the ivy growing on the side s– natural against the uniform – was not just beautiful but genuinely enticing.

She couldn’t see the farms from here – which meant, thankfully, she couldn’t smell them either – but she could taste the freshness in the air. They might border London, but this place didn’t have the tang of urgency she associated with London Town.


They placed blankets on the ground next to the lake’s gently drifting water, and Katherine set out the books from her bag. She closed her eyes to enjoy the sun for a moment before turning back to her students.

“Very well,” she said. “Now, last time, we were going over our letters – A is to apple as B is to…?”

“Ball,” Ailsa answered promptly. She was already quite the reader, but it didn’t hurt to go over the basics now and again at her tender age. “And button, and brogues, and…”

“Very good,” Katherine interrupted with a smile, and the girl glowed with pride. “Davina? What about C? Can you think of any – what are you doing?”

Davina wasn’t paying attention at all. Her hands were lost in the loose soil next to her blanket. At hearing her name, she looked up and held up her prize. “Look! Worms!” she said enthusiastically. “I found three!”

Ailsa giggled, then covered her mouth. Katherine only just managed to keep the smile from her face.

“Girls,” she scolded, though both she and the children knew there was no harshness behind it. “Come now, we must have our lessons.”

Though at least they can still talk. On the journey here, neither said a word from their grief and uncertainty.

“I have a question, Miss Kathy,” Ailsa said after a moment. “But it isn’t about the lesson.”

Katherine raised an eyebrow. “Go ahead, dear,” she said. “You know that I always welcome questions, and I’ll give you answers when I can.”

Ailsa smiled a little bashfully. “I know. I just … when are Dina and I going to officially meet our uncle? I ken… I know we met him back home, but we haven’t really seen him since we got here. He is our guardian now, after all.”

“He does n’ae like us,” Davina said in what she probably thought was a wise tone. “He is n’ae interested.”

Katherine was surprised, and she stared at the little one. “You know that isn’t true, darling. The duke is just a very busy man.”

The children exchanged looks – looks too old for their tiny faces. Ailsa hesitantly said, “Well, yesterday, Dina and I were walking in the hallway. He kind of ignored us, and then, when Dina tried to talk to him, he told us we should be in bed, as if he was angry!”

“Told ye, he does n’ae like us,” piped up Davina.

Ailsa shrugged. “It’s all right. Our mummy and daddy are deid … dead. We shouldn’t expect love and affection so much anymore.”

That broke Katherine’s heart. What an awful thing for a child to say! Worse, what a horrible thing for these poor girls to think. She would have to speak to the duke and let him know his behavior was unacceptable.

But carefully, Kathy. You can’t reveal your secrets.

“You know I love you, girls,” she said, trying to keep her voice light. The more she thought about what they’d just said, though, the more she boiled in a fury. No doubt the man was grieving – but did he not know that his nieces were, too? This behavior was beyond unacceptable.

“We love you as well, Miss Kathy,” they chorused.

“Now, back to lessons,” Katherine said. She had to distract them somehow, though her own mind was far, far away from any thought of letters now. “Davina, B is to ball as C is to…?”

“Curly! Like the worms!” Davina said proudly.

Katherine couldn’t help it. This time she laughed, and the rest of the lesson continued in a much more lighthearted manner. After their letters, she helped with their numbers. Ailsa even read them a whole passage from her favorite simple book.

Afterward, they spent some time in the lovely gardens, exploring their beautiful new home. Still, Katherine could see the sleepiness in Davina’s eyes. The little one usually took a short nap just before luncheon, and the meal was approaching.

“Let’s go up to the nursery, girls,” she said. “You can play a little before it’s time to eat.”

Both agreed, and she took them back to the house, holding hands.

A few seconds after they entered the nursery, Davina had already flopped down on her lacy white sheets and fallen asleep. Ailsa, acting the little mother she was at heart, moved over to tuck her in.

“Shh,” Ailsa told Katherine. “I’m going to stay here and play quietly. You should go and wash up and let Davina sleep awhile, Miss Kathy.”

Katherine kept her face sober, because she knew Ailsa took her duty of care for her little sister very seriously. She loved these girls as if they were her own children. How could she not? How could anyone not?

She made sure Davina was comfortable, and then kissed Ailsa’s forehead before leaving the room. As soon as the nursery door closed behind her, her fury returned from its dormant state at the bottom of her belly.

“We shouldn’t expect love and affection anymore.”

Well, now, that was entirely unacceptable. Katherine was not going to let her little charges live in such a manner, no matter how self-important and mysterious the Duke of Beresford might think himself to be.

She straightened her skirt, fixed her hair, and took a deep breath, before marching off in the direction of the duke’s study. It was high time she and Richard Johnson had a little chat about the immediate future.

Chapter 3

The Chess Game

“Your move,” Stephen said smugly, moving his knight decisively and pocketing one of Richard’s rooks. “Honestly, where is your mind today? I know I’m better than you in general, but this is just a poor show.”

Richard brushed off his friend’s teasing with an exaggerated eye roll. The worst part was that Stephen, though he joked, was obviously concerned – and no wonder. Richard glanced at the board, frowning at the limited number of black pieces remaining, since Stephen found it amusing to always play as white. He realized he hadn’t lost this badly in a long time.

It’s Isla. It’s Lucas. It’s those girls.

He knew he should have paid more attention to the little things since they arrived. It wasn’t so easy, though; he had never once learned how to speak with children in all his nine-and-twenty years. He wasn’t like Stephen. How did he know he wouldn’t say something wrong and upset them even further?

“You’re their guardian now, Richie,” Stephen said, a little more gently. “Isla, Lucas – they’re gone, and they’re not coming back. The girls don’t have anyone else but that governess of theirs.”

Richard sighed. He hadn’t said a word, yet Stephen had cut to the heart of the matter with that uncanny, keen eye of his. “Weren’t you losing a few minutes ago?” he asked, ignoring the comment, and focusing on the game. Or, at least, he pretended to. It was the only distraction available to him, after all.

Stephen sighed. His eyes bored into Richard, trying to prompt him into sharing feelings he not only didn’t want but didn’t even know if he was capable of sharing. Then Stephen’s face brightened; thankfully, Richard’s friend would be good enough to go along with his fiction after all. “Well, yes, but it’s no fun if you don’t at least think you can win sometimes. I do take pity on you, you know.”

Richard snorted, relieved by the banter as a distraction from more serious matters. “I don’t know how Jack tolerates you at sea,” he said, referring to the sailor friend, who often amused his lackadaisical friend at sea. Richard would often go months without seeing Stephen, as he and Jack were off searching for their next adventure, finding new islands and new treasures. “I can barely tolerate you, and I’ve known you since we were boys.”

He smiled to let Stephen know he was joking and moved another piece, trying to mount a defense.

“You approached me in that schoolyard all those years ago,” Stephen replied.

There was a gentle smile on his face for a moment. Richard wondered if he was also remembering that day – the day when Stephen, only thirteen, had been shunned and mocked for his stand-out skin color. The bullies had jeered that, obviously, either the duke or the duchess had been unfaithful, and Stephen was a bastard.

It’s true, of course, but he’s legitimate, as far as the law is concerned, thanks to a loving stepmother claiming him as her own. Not that it should matter.

Richard had responded furiously, marching right up to the boys who were torturing poor Stephen and yelling at them that they were no better than anyone. Richard had always been comparatively quiet, but, at that point, he had lost his temper. He could still feel the hot rage pulsing in his veins all these years later, as he’d told the boys he’d fight them if they didn’t leave Stephen alone.

And we’ve been inseparable ever since.

Stephen’s face rearranged itself back into the easy-going expression it usually wore. “Obviously, it’s just my dashing charm. What a shame for the ladies of London that I have sworn myself to bachelorhood.” He glanced at the board and frowned. “Now, my dear Richard, why did you go and do that?” His voice sounded truly pained, as if it embarrassed him to witness his friend’s mistake.

“Do what?” Richard asked, glancing at the board as well.

“Why would you move your bishop there?” Stephen replied.

Richard stared at the board, trying to see the flaw, and Stephen sighed. The earl picked up one of his white pawns, and, in seconds, he’d claimed Richard’s bishop, landing directly by his king.

“Checkmate,” Stephen said, grinning and showing his fine teeth. “Honestly, Richie, it’s not sport when you’re moping like this. Pay up.”

Richard scowled at him. “That one doesn’t count,” he said. “I was still waking up. Come, let’s play another.”

Stephen shrugged. “If you want to gamble all your money away on my superior chess skills, be my guest,” he said.

Richard snorted, and the two of them began to set up the board again. However, just as the game was about to start, there was a tentative knock at the study door. Richard and Stephen looked at each other in confusion – luncheon was still most of an hour away, after all – before Richard said, “Come in.”

Their butler entered. He was a faithful old man by the name of Patrick Waters, who had been with the family for longer than Richard had been alive. “I’m sorry to interrupt Your Grace and your Lordship at play,” he said, nodding at both Stephen and Richard with respect. “But you have a … visitor.”

Richard opened his mouth to ask more, but before he could, the ‘visitor’ had pushed past the butler and stormed into the room.

Miss Wright looked furious; her freckled cheeks blushed red with anger, and her lovely eyes were narrowed. She marched directly up to the chessboard and said, “Your Grace, you and I must talk immediately.”

Richard stared at her, shocked. He glanced at Stephen, but his friend was of little help – in fact, the earl seemed to be struggling to bite back a laugh.

Before Richard could formulate a response, Miss Wright had launched into her complaint. “I have just come from the girls, Your Grace, and it is time we had a conversation about them,” she said, frankly. She was controlling her voice, keeping it low, but somehow that made it more pointed.

It’s just the same as the voice my tutors would use when I was a misbehaving child.

He found his voice. Miss Wright was exceptionally forward for a woman, and while he was curious about what she had to say, he certainly didn’t want his servants overhearing. “That will be all, Patrick,” he said.

Ever loyal, the butler nodded his head once more and left the room. As soon as the door closed tight behind him, Richard turned to Kathy and said, “Now, Miss Wright, what on earth is it you think you are doing?”

All the limited poise she’d retained in front of the manservant vanished. The governess’s voice was low and furious as she said, “Do you know what Ailsa and Davina just told me, Your Grace? They told me they thought you didn’t care for them at all. Ailsa told me she didn’t think they deserved love anymore!”

Richard’s eyes widened, but he couldn’t get a word in as Kathy’s rant continued.

When did I start thinking of her as Kathy?

“You are their guardian now, whether you like it or not,” she snapped. “Not only that, but you are their uncle by blood. You owe those children better than this!” He opened his mouth to reply, but she kept going. “Do not tell me this is not my place! I do not care if it isn’t my place! You simply must listen to me…”

Stephen was his savior then. “All right, all right, Miss Firework, slow down, and do let the duke speak, won’t you?” he interrupted, his eyes still sparkling with mirth.

Though grateful for the interruption, Richard couldn’t help but feel a little annoyed at his friend’s obvious amusement at him being told off like a schoolboy. Still, it had the desired effect; his words seemed to make Kathy realize precisely what she was doing.

She blushed but didn’t look at all apologetic. Still, when she spoke again, her voice was calmer. “It is unacceptable that these young girls still in mourning should feel that way. That is all I came to say.”

Richard glanced at Stephen again, and his friend shrugged. Richard made a mental note to scold the earl for his amusement later, then turned back to Kathy. He had to take control of the situation immediately.

But what to tell her? How looking at these girls makes me think of the brother I have lost? Of the woman I once loved. No. But I have to say something.

Richard took a breath and then said, “Miss Wright. I have no experience with children at all. I’ve never been a father, or had younger brothers, or cousins close by. Of course, I care for my nieces, but I need time before I learn how to approach them properly.”

He met her eyes then and felt a jolt of … something powerful he didn’t understand. He wanted her approval, he realized, strange as that might seem. He wanted her to understand. And yet he couldn’t tell her everything.

“Your Grace,” she said. She was back to her usual calm self again, but he could see the stubbornness in her face and hear the steel backing up her tone. “I would have you remember, for both those girls and for your own sake, their needs are considerably more important than your hesitations.”

How to respond? He could hardly disagree. Those children … Lucas’s daughters, Isla’s daughters … none of this was their fault. They had lost everything, and he was the only person they had left. Kathy was right, of course she was right, but what could he do about it? How could he explain that even looking at the youngest girl made his heart seize in his chest?

“I … cannot learn to be a father overnight,” he said eventually. He was speaking quietly, measuredly, but though he tried to keep it out of his voice, he heard the note of frustration there. “I cannot be a replacement for Lucas in this. Children are far more precious and far more complicated than any duchy.”

Especially these children.

“You could start with being an uncle,” she said quietly. “Or even a friend to them. Lucas and Isla were both very close with their daughters. It was good to see.”

Did he imagine it, or did an expression of pity cross her eyes only briefly? With a start, he remembered Kathy was in mourning, too. Kathy hadn’t just been Isla and Lucas’s employee, but their friend. He wondered how close she had been – had she known Lucas first, or Isla? Had she loved them?

“Well, then,” Kathy said finally. Her voice was businesslike, back to that of the governess. “I have a proposal for you. You will meet me in the schoolroom tomorrow at dawn.”

Richard raised an eyebrow. “And why would I do that?”

“Why, for your lessons, of course,” Kathy replied. She smiled. “You obviously have a lot to learn, and so you will do so in my classroom, alongside your nieces. Do not be late.”

“I—” Richard started, but Kathy had already turned around. With her head held high, she walked out of the room, not glancing back once.

The silence in the room when she left was so heavy that Richard would not have been surprised to hear a pin drop to the ground. Then, as perhaps was inevitable, Stephen started to laugh.

“My God, Richie, she’s quite the firebrand,” he chuckled. “How delightfully inappropriate. It seems you have your work cut out for you.”

“Oh, hush,” Richard told him, but honestly, he was hardly paying attention. His eyes were on the door, the image of the love and passion on that face still firmly imprinted in the forefront of his mind.

This woman is like none I’ve met before.

The problem, such as it was, was that he really couldn’t tell whether that bothered him or excited him more.

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