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Prologue

Susan

Three Years Ago

“Now, Liam, Arnold, who can tell me what planet this is?”

Two identical pairs of brown eyes narrowed in concentration as they focused on the large, illustrated chart Miss Susan Langdon was holding up for them, her finger pointing to the large red circle near the paper’s center. She knew it was likely a difficult question for the five-year-old boys, but they were fascinated by stars and planets, and she wanted to indulge that innocent curiosity.

After several moments of furious thinking, Arnold’s hand shot up.

“Yes, Arnold?”

“Mars?”

Susan smiled. “Yes, excellent. Well done.”

The little boy beamed with pride. His brother gave a little pout.

“I was going to say that too,” he insisted.

Susan’s smile softened, an all too familiar feeling of tenderness pouring from her heart.

“I’ve no doubt you were,” she agreed. “You two are quite brilliant. I’m proud of you both.”

Liam’s smile widened to match his brother’s.

“Thank you, Miss Langdon!” he grinned.

She chuckled. “You’re very welcome.”

Susan loved her position as governess in the household of the Baron of Winthrop. She had been with the family since the twins’ birth and adored the two children as if they were her own. She also enjoyed working for her employers, Lord and Lady Winthrop.

They had given her more than just employment when they’d taken her on. They’d given her independence and a future that wasn’t dependent on her marrying well, something she’d given up hope of doing long ago.

“Miss Langdon, when will father be home?” Arnold suddenly asked, his little boy mind jumping to a new topic without missing a beat.

“I’m not sure,” she replied. “It will likely be at least a week, I would imagine.”

Both boys frowned, concern etched on their little brows.

“That’s too long,” Liam whined.

“Why does he have to be gone for so long,” Arnold grumbled.

“Now, now, none of that,” Susan gently scolded. “There’s no reason to complain. Your uncle needs your father just now, and—”

Suddenly, the door to the nursery opened, interrupting Susan. She glanced over to see her employer and close friend Harriet Johnson, Baroness Winthrop, cross the threshold. The lady smiled at her two sons, who both jumped up to run to her and hug her legs in glee.

“How are you, my darlings?” she asked, ruffling the hair on both their heads.

“We have been learning about the planets, Mama!” Arnold declared.

“Miss Langdon said Papa will be gone a whole week!” Liam pouted.

“I have just received a letter from your papa,” Lady Winthrop told them.

“Oh? Did Lord Winthrop arrive safely?” Susan asked, standing from her chair, and rolling the chart of planets up into a tight tube.

Harriet extricated herself from her boys and crossed the room to Susan.

“He did. He got there in good time for the duchess’ funeral.”

Susan felt a stab of sympathy shoot through her. She had never met Joseph’s elder brother, the Duke of Kent, or his wife, but she couldn’t imagine the pain His Grace must be going through. A heavy sigh escaped her lips, her heart breaking for a man whom she’d never met.

Liam and Arnold wandered up to their mother, and each grabbed one of her hands. Little Liam shook Harriet’s arm.

“Mama, what will happen to my cousins now that their mama has gone away?”

Susan and Harriet’s gazes met. For a moment, Susan could see a small spark of panic in the lady’s eyes. She realized Harriet likely didn’t know how to answer the question.

How easily I forget how she must be going through some amount of pain as well. The duchess was her sister-in-law.

“I suppose they shall have to rely on their father now,” Susan quickly said, hoping to give Harriet a chance to collect herself. “They may need to employ a governess as well, if they haven’t got one already.”

“A governess would be nice for them,” Arnold said with a somber nod. “You are a very good governess, Miss Langdon. If my cousins get a governess like you, they will be lucky, just like we are.”

Susan smiled softly. “I am the lucky one, to be able to live here and spend my days with you boys.”

The twins grinned up at her, still holding their mother’s hands, and she couldn’t help but think of their poor cousins, who would never hold their own mother’s hands again. Two little boys, just a few months older than the twins, and two girls.

Liam suddenly gazed up at his mother.

“Mama, are you going to leave us like our aunt has left our cousins?”

Susan watched Harriet’s expression flicker with agony, but she managed to maintain her gentle smile for the sake of her boys. She lowered herself, so she was squatting between them. It wasn’t a ladylike position by any means but a very motherly one.

“Now, my darlings, you listen very closely to me, all right?” She gathered both her boys in front of her and squeezed their hands in hers. “I will never leave you. Even if it seems that I’m not here, right beside you, I promise that I will be.”

Both boys nodded. Arnold glanced over his shoulder to gaze up at Susan.

“We’re going to keep both of you forever,” he stated. “Mama and Miss Langdon. Aren’t we, Liam?”

Liam nodded firmly. “Yes, we’ll make sure we always have you both with us.”

Overwhelmed by their clear adoration, Susan lowered herself down to their level as well, though it was not a comfortable position, given her weak leg. She gritted her teeth against the ache that immediately began to throb in her calf and work its way up to her hip. Forcing a smile, she opened her arms to the boys.

“Come here, both of you.”

The boys moved from their mother and dove into Susan’s arms, hugging her tight as she held them against her. She looked over their heads to meet Harriett’s gaze again. Her expression was soft and tinged with sadness.

Neither needed to speak a word to know what the other was thinking. The boys needed and clung to Susan . . . for the time being. However, it wasn’t a governess’ place to stay with the children forever.

One day, they would grow up. They would start attending school. They wouldn’t need her anymore.

One day, not so far in the future, her boys would move on with their lives, becoming men . . . and leaving her behind in the process.

Chapter 1

Eldridge – Present Day

“Are you all quite happy with yourselves?”

Four pairs of eyes glanced between each other and back to him. None held even a scintilla of remorse. Eldridge Johnson, the Duke of Kent, folded his arms over his chest and glared down at his four children, exasperation making his head pound.

“Someone had best give me an explanation as to how this happened. Now!” he growled.

His two boys, Theodore and Paul, pretended to be chastised and lowered their gazes, but he could see they were both struggling to keep a straight face. The youngest of the brood, little Lily, looked oblivious as to why she was even there. Anna, his eldest, looked downright defiant as she met his gaze with her chin held high.

All four remained silent, though, presenting a wall of solidarity that seemed, more often than not, to be set against him. It was both impressive and infuriating how staunchly loyal to one another his children were.

Eldridge released a sigh of frustration. “Lady Clayton did not deserve such treatment from you. She has been nothing less than kind and patient with all of you and would have fit well into our household.”

Theodore let out a stray chuckle and Paul elbowed him sharply in the ribs. Eldridge rolled his eyes at their antics. Lady Clayton was a well-off lady of good breeding, who would have made a fine match for him, both in rank and wealth. She also acted as a mother-like figure for his rambunctious offspring. But unfortunately, she had become the latest victim of his children’s pranks and been chased off.

She was the fourth lady in six months to meet such a fate.

Eldridge looked from the boys, whom he knew better than to rely on for any sense of logic and thoughtfulness, and let his gaze settle on his firstborn.

“I expect better from you, Anna,” he scolded. “You are nearly a young lady, and well past the nursery and such childish endeavors.”

As stubborn as he, Anna didn’t appear at all concerned by his censure. She merely shrugged, her expression of defiance unchanging.

“I won’t allow some outsider to come here and replace Mother,” she stated matter-of-factly. “No matter how noble or wealthy she may be.”

Of course, that was the crux of their problem. Of all their problems, really. It had been three years since his wife Elizabeth had passed away, and yet the pain of her loss still radiated throughout the household.

Eldridge sighed, wishing Elizabeth were there with them. He often had that wish, but more especially when his children were proving too difficult for him to handle. Elizabeth had always been better at reigning them in than he.

She’d had infinitely more patience than him and was able to be both tender and stern when needed. Eldridge loved his children fiercely and would die to protect them, but sometimes . . . sometimes they just proved too overwhelming. He was out of his depth when it came to their care, especially with Anna, whom he believed needed a mother’s influence, given how close she was to becoming a young lady and entering society.

It was obvious by just looking at the small horde that he wasn’t going to get a lick of regret out of any of them. None of them were sorry, and they likely never would be. He wasn’t sure what to do with them, or what else he could say that would make them understand his frustration.

“Go to your rooms,” he ordered, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose. He could feel a headache forming behind his eyes. “I must think of a fitting punishment. Now, off with you.”

They didn’t hesitate for a moment, nearly tripping over each other to get away from him and dash out through the study door. He heard their giggles from the hallway as they hurried away, obeying him by going to their rooms but defying him in their merriment.

Releasing a weary sigh, Eldridge made his way toward his desk and slumped down in his chair. What in the world was he going to do? His children were practically running circles around him, and he didn’t know how to get the upper hand with them.

Well, next year the boys will be starting school at Eton. That will even the playing field just a little.

Still, he needed to figure something out for the girls. The boys would be away at school, but the girls would still be at home and in need of someone to teach them how to be proper young ladies. He had hoped to be able to find a wife to take on those responsibilities, but that was proving a near impossible task, as his children continued to scare away any potential matches.

Perhaps hiring a governess would be my best option?

They’d had a governess before. She’d been a pleasant old woman with a tender smile and a firm hand to guide and correct the children when they stepped out of line. She’d retired nearly a year-and-a-half ago, and he’d just never gotten around to replacing her.

Perhaps now was the time, though. His children needed someone who could give them their sole attention. As much as he wished he could give them more of his time, his duties as duke were demanding, and he couldn’t simply put them off or ignore them.

Where to begin looking, though? He imagined it would take a very special kind of woman to put up with his brood. Not just any governess would do.

Suddenly, he remembered his brother Joseph had often sung the praises of his children’s governess. She was apparently a lady of significant education and poise, having grown up around nobility. She was somehow able to keep Joseph’s twins in line, although they could be as rambunctious and wild as his own children.

Joseph’s twins will be off to school within the year as well, I believe. Their governess will have no one to care for once they’re gone.

Though both brothers had been blessed, if that was the correct word, with twins—Joseph’s were identical, but Eldridge’s were not—Joseph and his wife had not yet had any girls.

It could prove quite a simple matter to snatch their governess away when they no longer had a use for her.

An idea began to form in Eldridge’s mind. Some might call it underhand, but he preferred to think of it as resourceful. Taking up pen and paper, he began to scribble out a brief letter to his younger brother, informing Joseph he would be visiting his family very soon.

To get the measure of the woman in question and determine if she’s really worth snatching away.

 He didn’t feel any guilt as he finished the letter and prepared it for the post. This was the way it always been between himself and his brothers; though they were loyal to a fault, ready to face any threat or answer any insult as a united front, when it came to their inner workings, they could be ruthless.

If one brother possessed something another might want, the second brother had no qualms in scheming to take it. It was a trait he desperately hoped his children would never develop, as he could only imagine the misery he would suffer should the four start squabbling with each other as he and his brothers had while growing up.

Still, this time he was plotting against his brother for his children’s sake. It was a noble cause and one he felt was quite justified, given the circumstances. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more selfish it seemed for Joseph not to give up his governess to Eldridge.

Eldridge was at his wit’s end. He was desperate for help with his children, but his pride wouldn’t allow him to voice such vulnerability to anyone, not even his brother. He had to do something, however, even if it meant stealing said help right from under Joseph’s nose.

Smirking, he summoned his butler to take the letter to the post, then he sat back in his chair and gazed out of the window, feeling very sly and clever. He was eager, now, to visit his brother and meet the woman in question. With any luck, he might convince her that working for him was a much more fortuitous opportunity than staying with his brother.

I wish I could say I’m sorry, Joseph, but desperate times call for even more desperate measures.

Now, he merely had to hope that this governess was really all his brother had made her out to be. If she was, she may very well be the answer to all his unspoken prayers.

Chapter 2

Susan

“Mama! Arnold dusted my face instead of the cupboard!”

“I did not! Your face got in the way! It wasn’t on purpose!”

“It was so!”

“Was not!”

“Was so!”

“For the love of all that is holy, if you two little beasties don’t stop arguing right this instant, I will throw you both in the kennel with the dogs!”

“I want to sleep with the dogs!”

“Me too!”

Susan walked through the door of the house just as the twins took off with matching screams, before dissolving into wild barks as they ran from room to room like rabid animals. Eyes wide with surprise, she met Harriett’s gaze; she was standing outside the parlor door, looking exhausted and frazzled. She nearly broke out into tears when she saw Susan.

“Oh! Thank the Lord you’re back!” She rushed forward and threw her arms around Susan in a tight hug. “These little monsters are going to drive me mad; I swear they are!”

In the eight years that Susan had been governess for Lord and Lady Winthrop, she had never seen her friend and employer so careworn. Harriet was wearing an apron and had her sleeves rolled up, looking more like a maid than a baroness.

“What in the world is going on?” Susan asked, as Harriet released her from her hold and took a step back. “I leave you for a week, and I return to find the house has nearly collapsed without me!”

Harriet released a slightly crazed laugh. “You could say that, yes. We had an unexpected letter arrive the other day which has thrown us into utter chaos.”

“Who was it from?” Susan frowned. Who could have written, and what about, to cause so much fuss?

“Joseph’s brother,” Harriet sighed. “He wrote to tell us he is coming to visit us. The maids are working around the clock, and I have been trying to lend a hand to prepare the house for the duke’s arrival. But foolishly, I tried to get the twins to help too. Of course, they were of no help at all and have only gone wild, making it so much more difficult to get anything done at all.”

“I see,” Susan nodded. She glanced around, noting a few maids popping in and out of rooms with cleaning supplies and arms full of linens. The boys could still be heard barking and shrieking, their footsteps pounding across the floor somewhere in the house as they chased each other, completely oblivious to the tension filling the household around them.

It was truly a chaotic scene to behold, and Susan turned back to her friend with a sympathetic gaze.

Once upon a time, I created chaos . . . now, I help to fix it.

“All will be well,” she assured Harriet. “Why don’t you go into the parlor and rest for a moment? I’ll take care of the boys, and then I’ll join you.”

Harriet nodded before shuffling off to follow Susan’s suggestion. Releasing a heavy sigh, Susan turned her attention from the lady to the two boys running wildly through the house. She swiftly walked down the hallway, following the sounds of their mayhem, and discovered them running in literal circles in the library.

Liam was chasing Arnold, barking like a dog still, and Arnold was laughing like a madman as he avoided getting caught.

“What is going on here?” Susan demanded in a sharp voice. The boys came to an instant halt and looked at her with wide eyes. Susan was not the type of governess to shout at her charges, but when her voice took on a certain firm note, they knew she was not to be crossed.

“We were just playing, Miss Langdon,” Arnold tried to explain in a soft voice.

Susan folded her arms over her chest and arched her brow at them. “Playing? It does not sound to me as though you are playing but instead carrying on like little savages. You have nearly driven your poor mother mad with your tomfoolery. Is that what you want? To upset your mother?”

Both boys dropped their heads and looked properly ashamed of themselves.

“No, Miss Langdon,” they said in unison.

She nodded, satisfied they were well chastised.

“That’s good.” She moved closer to them and bent over with her hands on her knees to bring her line of sight closer to theirs. “Now, do you want to help your mother, so that she doesn’t actually go mad?”

They both glanced up at her and nodded timidly.

She smiled. “That’s my good boys. Now, let’s make a little game of it, yes?”

Their eyes lit up with interest.

“What kind of game?” Liam inquired.

“Let’s have a race. I want you boys to go around the house as fast as you can and pick up any toys or belongings of yours that belong in your room. Whoever collects the most in the shortest time and puts everything away neatly will get a treat.”

Now, their expressions became eager.

“What kind of treat?” Arnold gasped.

Susan made a show of thinking about the question very hard. “What if we had Cook make a custard tart for the winner?”

Both boys let out squeals of delight, as custard tarts were among their favorite desserts.

“I’m going to win!” Arnold declared.

“No, I’m going to win!” Liam insisted.

They glared at one another, and Susan realized she needed to add another rule to keep their competitive natures from getting out of hand.

“Now, there will be no fighting or arguing,” she firmly stated. “If there is, neither of you shall get the tart. Understood?”

The boys jerked their gazes away from each other, clearly taking her threat seriously. They both nodded eagerly.

“We understand, Miss Langdon,” Liam assured her.

“We promise, no fighting,” Arnold added.

Susan grinned and stood up straight once more. “Very good. All right, when I say go, the race begins. Ready. Set. Go!”

The boys shot off in an instant, both eager to win the coveted prize she’d dangled before them.

I’ll need to let the cook know we shall need a couple of tarts . . . though the winner’s will have to be slightly bigger, so he doesn’t feel slighted.

When she heard the boys laughing as they raced to pick up their things, she shook her head with a chuckle. Turning, she made her way back out of the library and wandered down to the parlor to find Harriet. When she reached the room, she found her friend slightly slumped in a chair by the fireplace, a dazed look on her face.

“My lady?” Susan said as she cautiously approached. “Are you alright?”

The lady blinked and met Susan’s gaze. “How in the world do women raise children without help?”

Laughing, Susan settled into the chair across from her friend. “I don’t think many women do. They might not all be able to afford to pay for help, but they have some assistance, whether it be family or friends. For those that are purely on their own, I heartily salute them.”

Harriet nodded. “Indeed. I cannot tell you how invaluable you are to this household, Susan. Without you, I’m sure we would fall apart at the seams.”

“That’s not true, my lady,” Susan insisted. “You would manage perfectly well, I’m sure.”

Harriet gave her a pointed look. “It’s just the two of us, dear. I insist you call me Harriet.”

Susan sighed. “Oh, very well . . . Harriet.”

It was a tiny, ongoing argument they’d been having almost since Susan’s arrival at the Winthrop house. Though they might count themselves as the best of friends, Susan still felt it improper to call Harriet anything but Lady Winthrop, as she was not only providing Susan’s wages, but held a station far above her own. Harriet, on the other hand, believed just the opposite, and would have had Susan calling her by her given name in all situations every day if she had her way.

Susan, however, was nearly as stubborn as Harriet, and so they had reached a compromise. Around others, Susan would refer to Harriet as Lady Winthrop. When they were alone, no titles would exist between them.

“If you’re not going to honor the terms of our agreement, why do we even have it?” Harriet groused.

“I only agreed to it because you would not stop nagging me to call you by your first name,” Susan grumbled. “But I suppose that’s neither here nor there at present. You say the house needs preparing for the arrival of Lord Winthrop’s brother. Why all the fuss?”

Harriet tilted her head back against her seat and hissed to the ceiling. “That’s just what happens when a duke decides to come and stay with you.”

Susan’s jaw dropped. The duke? His eldest brother, then?

She had assumed the brother coming to visit was Lord Winthrop’s younger one, Mr. Johnson. Susan had met him a few times previously, but she’d never met the eldest of the Johnson brothers.

The widower.

Her heart ached a little bit at the thought. It had been three years since the duchess’ passing, but Susan couldn’t imagine such a loss ever became easier to bear. She knew what it was like to lose a parent, having lost both of hers to fever when she was young, but she had no idea what it was like to lose a spouse.

To lose the person you loved above all others.

“He’s also bringing all the children,” Harriet added, slapping her hand against her forehead. “Mind you, I love my nieces and nephews dearly, but that’ll be six children running rampant in this house. I don’t know that we’ll be able to survive it.”

Susan chuckled. “You’ve nothing to fear. I’ll help with the children, naturally, and I’ll also help you organize things, so the house is ready for their arrival. When are they arriving, by the way?”

Harriet leveled her with a look of despair.

“Tomorrow.”

Susan blinked, some of her friend’s panic immediately setting into her own thoughts.

“Tomorrow?” she gasped. “You cannot be serious!”

Harriet nodded, then threw her hands over her eyes with a groan. “Why do they do these things to me? Just because he’s a duke, he thinks he can just descend upon us with such little notice whenever he chooses. I should wring his neck when he gets here!”

Susan stood and moved closer to Harriet, so she could wrap her fingers around her wrists and gently pull them away from her face. She gave her friend a reassuring smile, hiding her own misgivings about having to be ready for the visit in less than a day.

“Worrying is not going to help us,” she said. “Also, murdering your brother-in-law in front of his children would likely not be advisable.”

“I’d wait until they were all out in the garden with the boys,” Harriet murmured. “I’m not a monster.”

Susan couldn’t help the chuckle that slipped past her lips. “I know you’re not, Harriet. Now, up you get. We have much to do and very little time to do it. The boys are picking up their belongings from around the house as we speak. What else has been done? Have rooms been prepared?”

Sighing, Harriet allowed Susan to pull her from her chair and straighten out her apron.

“The duke’s room has been readied. His twins will stay with Arnold and Liam in their room, and the girls will have their own room. I’ve no idea if the rooms have been fully prepared yet or not. There is still the matter of approving Cook’s menu for the duration of their stay, and, since he’s a duke, certain social protocols must be met with the local magistrate . . .”

Harriet was beginning to ramble, her stress heightening with each word she spoke. Susan grabbed the woman’s hands and squeezed them gently. Harriet fell silent as she met Susan’s steadying gaze.

“Take a breath,” Susan ordered. “Now, we must take this one task at a time. I will go and make sure the girls’ room is ready, as well as the extra beds in the twins’ room. You can go down to the kitchen and sort out the menu with Cook. I shall also check with Mrs. Beyer to see if Cynthia and Bernice have the cleaning in hand throughout the house. Does that sound like a workable plan?”

Visibly calming, Harriet slowly nodded. “Yes, yes. That sounds like a very good plan. A very good plan indeed.”

“Very well,” Susan patted her friend’s hands affectionately, “then we shall get through this swimmingly, I believe. We simply need to take it one task at a time.”

Harriet released a deep breath. “You’re right. Of course, you’re right. Oh, Susan, I really mean it when I say I’d be lost without you. What are we going to do when the boys go to Eton? I don’t want . . . I don’t want to lose you.”

Susan gulped, emotion threatening to overwhelm her, but she forced it back. “It’ll be all right. Things will be fine. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Until then, we have more pressing matters to worry about, wouldn’t you agree?”

Harriet looked as if she wished to say more on the matter, but she pressed her lips together and reluctantly stayed silent.

“All right, we’re not getting anything done standing here dawdling,” Susan declared, desperate to move away from the tricky topic of her position and the boys’ upcoming departure for school. “Off you go to the kitchen.”

She released Harriet’s hands and made a show of shooing her away. Harriet hesitated only a moment, but then turned and made her way out of the parlor without a backwards glance.

When she was alone, Susan took a moment to calm her racing heart. She didn’t want to think about what would happen to her once she was no longer needed in the Winthrop household. She adored her life with the family, though she wasn’t without her regrets.

Before becoming their governess, she had made several mistakes which had all but guaranteed she’d never be able to have a family of her own. Harriet, the boys, and Lord Winthrop had become her world, and she hated the idea of leaving them.

She knew it was inevitable, however. The only way to stay in the household was to become a maid, but that was hardly a solution. She would have even lower status in the household, and it would be rather unconventional for her to maintain her close friendship with Harriet.

No, that wasn’t a solution. She would need to find another position somewhere else. While starting over again with a new family was far from an appealing prospect, she knew it was necessary for her to continue to maintain her life and independence.

With a sigh, Susan gazed around the parlor, trying to commit to memory as many details of the room as she could. She didn’t want to forget a single thing about her time in this house. Every second she still had left to her, she would cherish and hold onto as the special gift she knew them to be.

Taking in a deep breath, she pushed away the emotions threatening to overwhelm her. Now was not the time for such sentiments. There was much to do and no time at all in which to do it.

They would get through the duke’s visit, and then she would allow herself to bemoan her inevitable departure from this place. In the meantime, she was still the governess of the house, and her employer was in desperate need of her services. She was not about to start letting Harriet down now, not when they were so close to the end.

Chapter 3

Eldridge

“Papa, why are we visiting Uncle Joseph and Aunt Harriet?”

Frowning, Eldridge glanced toward perceptive little Anna, who sat across the carriage from him, a serious expression on her face.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Don’t you want to see your cousins?”

She shrugged. “I suppose, but we’re staying with them for so long. Isn’t their house small? Will we all fit?”

“Their house isn’t that small,” he sighed with a shake of his head. “Our house is just uncommonly big. There will be plenty of room, don’t you worry.”

She appeared thoughtful for a long moment, and then said, “All right, I believe you. The house will fit us all. You haven’t explained why we’re staying with them in the first place, though. Usually, they come to us.”

“That’s true,” he conceded. “But I thought it would be a nice change for you and your siblings to get away from the manor for a bit and just enjoy yourselves with your cousins. Was I wrong to think so?”

Anna turned to look at her brothers, who were curled up on the bench next to her, fast asleep. Then, she turned her gaze to little Lily, who was snuggled against Eldridge’s chest, snoring softly.

“I suppose a change of scenery would be good . . . for them,” she hurriedly clarified. “Such considerations are not really necessary for me, as I’m hardly a child anymore.”

When you speak like that, I almost believe you.

He forced a smile, not wishing her to see just how devastated he was by her quick leap into adulthood. It had been this way since her mother had passed, however. Little by little, Anna had taken on more and more of a serious demeanor, letting go of her childhood enjoyments and fantasies.

It broke his heart in a way because he wasn’t ready for her to grow up. However, he knew it was pointless to try and stop her. She was her mother’s daughter through and through, the stubborn little thing.

Lily shifted in his lap, and he patted her back soothingly to keep her from waking up.

“Of course not,” he replied to Anna, indulging her desire to be seen as a grownup, even though he doubted he could ever truly do so. “You won’t be entertained by such pursuits as hide-and-seek and that treasure hunting game your cousins so enjoy playing. You’ll be much more content sitting with your aunt in her sitting room, quietly sewing or reading poetry, or whatever it is proper young ladies do to keep themselves busy.”

She made a face of distaste, having not yet mastered the ability to school her features and hide her true feelings. Clearing her throat, she resumed her serious expression and nodded.

“Yes . . . exactly. Those pursuits are much more suited to me than . . . than running around like a wild chicken.”

He arched his brow at that. “A wild chicken, eh? I suppose that would not be very becoming of a young lady at all.”

She shook her head firmly. “No. Not in the least.”

He sighed dramatically and looked down at Lily. “It’s a shame, though. Poor Lily.”

“What do you mean, poor Lily?”

He glanced back up at Anna. “Oh, it’s nothing. I simply mean . . . well, she’ll be quite outnumbered, won’t she? While you’re busy with your womanly activities, she’ll be stuck playing with the four boys all by herself. I can’t imagine they’ll be very kind to her, as she’s the littlest and the only girl. I suppose she’ll just have to buck up, though. No point in getting upset about something she can’t change, is there?”

Anna blinked, then furrowed her brow in concern. “I . . . I hadn’t considered that. I don’t want Lily to be outnumbered . . .”

“But you’re far too old for such things as playing and fun, as you’ve said,” he continued in a mournful tone. “You shouldn’t be forced to belittle yourself. Not even for your sister’s sake. No, no, it’s best this way. One day she’ll grow out of her need to play, as you have, but until then, she’ll just have to make do with the four boys.”

“Papa, that won’t be necessary,” Anna quickly said. “I can join the children, if only to protect Lily, so she isn’t bullied by the boys. True, it’s not a very womanly thing for me to engage in, but it is my duty as her older sister. I’m afraid that must come first, in this case.”

“Only if you’re certain,” he replied, making his tone grave.

“I am,” she nodded.

He released a deep breath. “I’m sure your sister will appreciate the sacrifice you’re making for her. You are a most excellent sister, my dear.”

Anna beamed. “Thank you, Papa. I try my very best, you know.”

“I know,” he assured her with a smile of his own. When he was one-on-one like this with his children, he didn’t feel so overwhelmed. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy spending time with all his children together, but he was simply not at all skilled at managing all four children when they ran wild.

I pray this governess is as skilled as Joseph claims she is.

“Oh, Papa, look! We’re here!” Anna declared, pointing out of the carriage window.

He twisted in his seat, so he could glance outside as well, and, sure enough, they were entering the short drive to his brother’s modest country home.

“Wake your brothers, please,” he told Anna. She immediately went to work, shaking them both a little harder than was necessary.

Theodore and Paul both groaned and whined in protest at being so abruptly roused from sleep, but when Anna told them they’d reached their destination, they both sat straight up, wide-awake with excitement.

Eldridge considered waking Lily, but then thought better of it. His sweet baby was all angel-faced and loving when she was well-rested, but if her nap was cut short, she was terror incarnate.

By the time the carriage came to a stop, the boys were practically vibrating in their seats. When Eldridge glanced out of the window again, he spotted his brother and sister-in-law waiting in front of the house to greet them, along with their own twins, who appeared to be barely containing their excitement. There was someone else with them as well.

A young woman.

The governess?

As soon as the door was opened, the boys went crashing out onto the drive, scrambling to get to their cousins. Anna stepped out of the carriage after them with a little more dignity, though she leapt from the doorway, bypassing the step altogether, so her skirts went flying. Still cradling Lily to his chest, Eldridge carefully made his way out after his older three, already feeling exhausted.

His boys rushed to their cousins, who looked equally as excited to see Theo and Paul. However, unlike his wild offspring, Arnold and Liam remained in place, though they did start bouncing on their heels eagerly. They glanced up at the woman standing beside them, their gazes pleading with her.

With a small smile, she nodded to them, and like dogs being let off their leashes, they shot off with their cousins. The four boys quickly disappeared around the side of the house, their collective laughter and hoots of joy fading slightly as they ran further away.

Eldridge shot the woman a look of surprise. How was it that she had such influence over his nephews that even in their overwhelming excitement to play with their cousins, they didn’t move an inch without her permission?

That is quite promising.

Before he could think further on the matter, or the governess, his brother came hurrying toward him. Eldridge adjusted his daughter, so he could embrace his younger brother with one arm without disturbing her.

“It’s good to see you, brother,” Joseph declared in a hushed tone as he eyed the sleeping child. “We’re so happy to have you here with us.”

“Indeed,” Eldridge grinned and nodded. “It is good to be here. Your home is as lovely as ever.”

He gazed up at the house with a smile. It was, indeed, much smaller than his own, but, in truth, he actually preferred it. Eldridge would never admit it out loud, but he envied his brother his simpler lifestyle. Though he did not often mind the burdens of his title, the trappings often seemed to him trivial and unnecessary.

His brother’s wife, Harriet, came up behind her husband, her own face bright with happiness at seeing them.

“Welcome, your Grace,” she said, offering her cheek to him to kiss. “I trust your journey went well?”

“As well as can be expected with four hellions to keep hold of,” he replied with a chuckle. “Though I’ll admit the ride became much easier when three of them fell asleep.”

“I see one still is.” Harriet’s gaze turned tender as she looked at Lily, still tucked in his arm.

He nodded. “I hated to wake her, as she can be a bit of a demon when she hasn’t gotten her full rest.”

“Would you like me to take her, Your Grace?” a soft voice asked from his side. “I can take her up to the room that’s been prepared for her.”

Eldridge turned and found the young woman smiling up at him. She was not very tall, only coming up to his shoulder, and she had to tilt her head back to look at him. Her brown eyes were big, with rings of gold around her irises, and her dark red hair was held neatly back from her face by a braid which wound into a glossy crown atop her head.

Still, little wisps of hair escaped and framed her face, brushing against her pale cheeks with each movement she made.

As she continued to stare up at him, he realized he hadn’t responded to her offer.

“Oh . . . uh . . . yes, that would be most helpful, thank you, Miss . . .”

Still, he hesitated to hand his daughter over to a perfect stranger.

Joseph, perhaps sensing his paternal worry, said, “Brother, this is Miss Susan Langdon, our governess. Believe me when I say Lily could not be in better hands than hers.”

“It’s an honor to meet you, Your Grace,” Miss Langdon said, dropping into a low curtsy.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you as well, Miss Langdon,” he stammered, bowing awkwardly as he continued to juggle his daughter.

When she straightened and gazed up at him again, he was struck by how young she appeared. From the little he’d heard of her, he had expected a strict old woman, like a former schoolmistress. Instead, he was faced with this lovely woman, who looked to be in the prime of her youth.

How could someone like her be so capable of handling such rambunctious children as his nephews? What magic powers did she possess?

Joseph suddenly cleared his throat, snapping Eldridge from the daze he hadn’t realized he’d fallen into.

“All right there, old man?” his brother teased. “Miss Langdon will take Lily and make sure she’s well cared for. You have my word.”

Eldridge glanced back down at the woman next to him, and her smile was so warm, her demeanor so welcoming, that he found himself handing his youngest to her without another moment’s hesitation.

“She’s heavier than she looks,” he warned softly.

Miss Langdon carefully took Lily into her arms, holding the girl, so her cheek was pressed against her shoulder.

“Worry not, Your Grace,” she whispered. “I’m stronger than I look.”

He couldn’t help the awed little smile that curled his lips, as she turned and began to walk back into the house. To his surprise, he noted a slight limp in her gait, but it didn’t appear to slow her down at all. His curiosity only grew, as he wondered how a young woman of her apparent strength and health had come to walk in such a way.

Joseph suddenly slapped him on the shoulder, jerking him from his musings about the pretty governess.

“Come, Brother. Let’s go inside and get you settled. You must be tired after your journey here, and you should take advantage of a little peace while the children occupy themselves.”

Anna, who had been gazing at the house critically all this time, turned to him and said, “Really, Papa. I don’t see how we’ll all fit inside. It just doesn’t seem possible.”

Joseph released a deep belly laugh, as he reached down to pat Anna on her head as they passed by.

“Fear not, my dear. We’ve prepared our finest broom closet for you. You should be most comfortable in there.”

Eldridge snickered at his daughter’s horrified face.

“Oh, don’t listen to those scoundrels,” Harriet insisted, coming up beside Anna and placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. “We’ve prepared a lovely room for you and your sister. It overlooks the garden. Miss Langdon has helped to make sure it is absolutely perfect, ready for your arrival.”

“She has?” his daughter murmured, with a slight tinge of pink in her cheeks.

Harriet nodded. “Indeed, she has. Would you like to see it? We’ll have to take care not to wake Lily, but I’ll take you up there now if you would like.”

Anna glanced toward Eldridge with a question in her eyes.

Smirking, he nodded, silently giving her permission to go upstairs with her aunt. She beamed, her excitement at seeing the bedroom rather endearing. When Harriet offered her hand, Anna took it without hesitation.

Eldridge felt a strange pain in chest at the sight of his daughter hand in hand with a woman who was about the same age his wife would have been had she survived. He knew Anna, sooner than the others, was going to be the one in need of a mother the most. She was growing into a beautiful little lady, and he hadn’t a clue what to do with her.

When she and Harriet disappeared down the hallway off the second-floor landing, Joseph wrapped his arm around Eldridge’s shoulders.

“Shall we have a drink before you freshen up?”

Glancing toward Joseph gratefully, Eldridge let his brother lead him through the small house toward his study. Once inside, Joseph poured them each drink of brandy and they sat together in front of a large-paned window which looked out over a neighboring field.

Eldridge took a sip as he gazed at the view. “It certainly is lovely here, Joseph. I envy your home. It’s so warm and comfortable. The manor often feels cold and empty. Even with the four children running around.”

It’s as if something’s . . . missing.

Joseph gave him a sympathetic look. “You know, a wife would probably make the manor feel more like a home again.”

Eldridge gritted his teeth. “I’m well aware . . . but that’s a conversation for another day, I believe. For now, let’s just enjoy each other’s company and not worry about such things. It’s been too long, Brother, since I saw you last.”

Joseph nodded. “Indeed, it has. I am very glad to have you here, and so is Harriet. Though, I must confess, she wanted to wring your neck when you first informed us you were coming.”

Eldridge arched a brow in surprise. “Oh? Whatever for?”

Joseph chuckled. “Brother, you practically invited yourself to our home with your entire litter. Accommodating five guests in this house is no small thing. If it hadn’t been for Susan . . .”

“Miss Langdon?” Eldridge perked up with interest. “What about her?”

“She was able to keep my poor wife sane as the household prepared for your arrival. In all honesty, you should probably thank her for saving your neck, though I’m not yet convinced Harriet still wouldn’t like to have a go at you, just to watch you squirm.”

Eldridge chuckled. “Well, I’ll have to find some way to make it up to my poor sister-in-law . . . and thank Miss Langdon at the same time.”

Joseph nodded. “Indeed. It is usually in one’s best interest to get oneself into a favorable light with the ladies of this household if one wants any kind of peace. Otherwise . . . well, you don’t really want to know otherwise.”

Eldridge didn’t think his brother was joking. He took another sip, his mind scrambling to come up with some gesture to help him earn Harriet’s forgiveness. Yet, all he could seem to think of was Miss Langdon and what he could do to show his gratitude.

Besides offering her a larger sum than his brother to secure her services.

He kept his thoughts to himself, of course, not wishing his brother to discern his true motivation for visiting. Instead, he let the conversation change to a safer topic, that of the political tensions currently at play in parliament. As the two continued to talk and bring the other up to date on the goings on in their lives, Eldridge relaxed and simply enjoyed his time with his brother.

There would be plenty of opportunity to put his plot into action later. Although, from the sounds of things, to prevent Harriet from hating him forever after he stole her precious governess, he was going to have placate her with something very big and extremely expensive.

***

 Once he had finished his drink with his brother, Eldridge retreated to the room readied for him to freshen up and rest a little. As he rooted through his luggage to find a fresh shirt and jacket, his mind once more returned to Miss Langdon.

He was curious about her. How did a pretty young woman like her end up as a governess? Especially if she had familial ties to nobility, as he’d learned she did from Joseph.

And that limp . . . had she been in an accident? Did it still hurt her? It didn’t seem to impede her ability to do her duties, which was a relief.

Joseph hadn’t mentioned anything of the sort, but Eldridge was beginning to wonder if they had taken her on as a favor of sorts. That would certainly make convincing her to come away to work for him slightly trickier, as she would likely feel loyal to Joseph and Harriet. An admirable trait, no doubt, but one he would have to circumvent if he were to get what he wanted.

He considered the best way to approach her with his proposition, and thought he might ease into it. He didn’t want to startle her with his offer, and he didn’t want to alert his brother and sister-in-law while they still had influence over her to make her stay with them. He needed to come up with a very well-thought-out plan to secure her services before Joseph became the wiser.

Finding his shirt at last, Eldridge quickly changed out of the one he’d worn on the journey, which was soiled with sweat and road dust. As he yanked the fresh linen over his head, he moved toward a window in his room which overlooked the garden. He gazed out of it and tensed when he spotted Miss Langdon herself with his three oldest and Joseph’s twins.

All five children were standing in a circle with her, and they were kicking a ball back and forth. Though he couldn’t quite determine the point of the game, they did all seem to be having a splendid time. Including Anna, who was laughing and participating as thoroughly as the rest of them.

Miss Langdon, too, was smiling and laughing. She was much more cautious with her kicks than her young charges, no doubt because of her leg, but she was otherwise acting in as carefree a manner as a young girl herself. Except, when she spoke, all the children appeared to listen.

Including his.

He continued to watch for what stretched into long minutes, fascinated, and hardly able to believe she had gained so much control over his children so quickly.

She is perfect. I shall tuck her under my arm and run off with her if need be.

If he’d had any doubts upon seeing her and realizing her youth, those doubts were instantly banished. He was refortified in his determination to steal her for himself. In truth, he had no choice.

If he didn’t soon find some sort of relief for the burdens not only he himself, but his children too, were carrying, he feared what might happen to his family. He would likely go mad . . . and his children might come to resent the inept parent who had been left to them.

Chapter 4

Anna

Staying with her uncle and aunt wasn’t turning out to be quite the dreary experience she had expected it to be. In fact, had to admit she was rather enjoying herself, playing with her cousins and siblings every day. It wasn’t very ladylike, she knew, but she felt as though she didn’t have to quite be such a lady in this house.

Back home was another matter entirely. Home was a grand estate, the seat of her father’s duchy. It wasn’t a place for frolicking like a fool through the garden or running through the halls playing tag.

It was a dignified place, and she had come to realize she must be dignified when inside it.

At her aunt and uncle’s home, though, that pressure seemed to have disappeared completely. She could tramp around barefoot, or lounge in the window seat of the library with a book propped against her knees without fearing someone might notice her not sitting properly.

Her brothers and cousins were spread across the floor next to her seat, all gazing at books themselves. Lily sat at Anna’s feet, playing with one of her dolls rather than holding a book, which was for the best, as she didn’t know all her letters yet and would likely only get frustrated if she tried to read anything on her own.

It was a peaceful way to spend an afternoon, but Anna should have known it would be short-lived. When it came to the four boys spread out before her, nothing stayed peaceful for long.

“We have a plan,” Liam suddenly announced, putting down his book and gazing around at each of them.

Anna frowned, but it was Theo who asked, “What plan?”

Liam exchanged a look with Arnold, who answered, “A plan to get Uncle Eldridge to marry Miss Langdon.”

What?” Anna and her brothers exclaimed nearly as one. Lily was far too preoccupied with her doll to pay any real attention to what was going on around her.

“They’ve been quite nice to each other the past few days,” Liam explained. “And we want Miss Langdon to become part of the family, so she doesn’t have to be sent away when we go to Eton.”

Anna was shocked. “You can’t force a woman on our father like that! He’s our papa, not yours!”

“He likes her; we wouldn’t be forcing him,” Arnold insisted.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Anna was growing angrier with each word her cousins spoke. “I’m nearly a lady, and so I know much more about these things than you.”

“Oh, yes?” Liam frowned, irritation flickering across his face. “You think you’re such a grown up? Well, you’re not!”

Slamming her book shut, she moved to stand and braced her hands on her hips to glare down at him.

“I’m much more grownup than you,” she snapped. “And because I’m a lady, I know more about emotions and feelings than you do.”

Arnold snorted. “That’s silly. Boys know just as much about those things as girls. We have emotions and feelings too, dummy.”

“That’s not what I mean!” Anna just resisted the urge to stamp her foot in her frustration. “I’m talking about things like love and romance. You boys have no idea how any of that works.

“We don’t?” Liam asked before exchanging a look with Arnold, who shrugged. “What don’t we know?”

“How to tell when two people are in love, for one,” she said, holding up a finger to emphasize her point. “If you had any sense in your heads, you would see that there are no actual feelings between papa and your governess. They are not going to get married.”

“That’s right,” Paul piped up. “Besides, we’ve been working hard to make sure papa never remarries.”

Theo nodded. “That’s true!”

Anna now folded her arms over her chest. “We don’t want our papa to ever remarry, because we won’t let anybody replace our mother.”

“Miss Langdon wouldn’t replace your mother,” Arnold replied with a shrug. “She didn’t replace our mother, but she’s taken care of us and loved us almost like a mother. It’s been wonderful having her.”

“Which is why we don’t want to lose her,” Liam stated. “Which is why we think she should marry Uncle Eldridge.”

Anna curled her hands into fists by her sides. She wanted to pummel her cousins for being little fools, but she knew she would just get into trouble for it . . . even if they did deserve it.

“There is no chance our papa will ever marry again,” she growled. “He especially won’t marry a governess. He’s a duke, after all. Were he to marry again, it would be to a noble lady.”

“Or a princess!” Theo added.

Anna nodded in agreement. “Exactly. A princess. Our papa is an important man, and he would need to marry an important woman. Miss Langdon is nice, but she’s not important.”

Arnold and Liam’s eyes went wide in nearly the same way.

“She is important!” Liam exclaimed. “She’s very, very important! You don’t know her, so you can’t say that. You can’t say she’s not important.”

“She’d be a much better wife than some silly princess,” Arnold grumbled. “She knows all sorts of things and can take care of herself and anyone else she needs to. A princess couldn’t do that.”

Anna rolled her eyes in exasperation. “We’re talking in circles! It doesn’t matter if you think she’d be better than a princess, because my papa isn’t marrying either one of them. He loves our mama too much. He could never love anyone other than her.”

“Want to bet on it?” Arnold challenged.

Anna furrowed her brow at him. “What do you mean?”

“Let’s make a bet,” he clarified. “Liam and I will bet that Miss Langdon will marry Uncle within the year.”

“And we’ll bet that it will never happen,” Anna snapped, catching on. “What do we get when you lose?”

Arnold and Liam shared another glance.

“If you win, you’ll get all the allowance money we’ve saved.”

Anna’s nostrils flared. “Very well, if that’s what you want, I won’t turn down the offer. If we win, we get your allowance money, and if you win, you get mine.”

“Agreed!” Liam and Arnold said at once.

Just to be safe, Anna stuck out her hand for them each to shake, so they all knew it was serious. Once that was done, Anna stepped back and regarded her cousins with a stern expression.

 “All right,” she said in a firm voice. “The bet is set, the stakes are laid, and we’ve sealed it with a handshake. Now there’s nothing left to do but wait for you two to be proven wrong.”

Liam stuck his tongue out at her before saying, “We aren’t wrong. You’re wrong. You’ll see. Uncle won’t be able to resist Miss Langdon once he really gets to know her better.”

Anna furrowed her brow, worry making her belly churn. She wasn’t going to let that happen. Bet or not bet, she wouldn’t sit back and let another woman swoop in and steal her father’s heart from her mother.

She and her brothers had driven away with ease the high-class ladies and noblewomen who’d sought to be their father’s wife. Compared to them, sending the governess running should prove no challenge at all.

 

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