Rebellious Rake, Innocent Governess Elizabeth Beacon Charlotte turned her head to find Ben watching her with amused speculation. Sometimes it seemed to her as if the wretched man had been regarding her so since they’d first met. ‘I am here as a chaperon, sir, not an idle guest with nothing on her mind but flirtation and gossip,’ she said tartly, hoping he wouldn’t realise she’d been covertly watching him flirt mildly with a lovely blonde widow for most of the evening. ‘I really don’t think it would be a good idea for me to indulge in an amour with you tonight, Miss Wells,’ he murmured silkily, revealing that he was as conscious of her uneasy disapproval as she was of feeling it. He gave a soft chuckle when she sent him a look that should have turned him to stone. He sat on, as serene and content as an alderman at the Lord Mayor’s banquet. ‘I have no wish to indulge in such wanton behaviour at any time, sir, and least of all with you.’ Oh, how she wished that last caveat were entirely true! About the Author ELIZABETH BEACON lives in the beautiful West Country, and is finally putting her insatiable curiosity about the past to good use. Over the years Elizabeth has worked in her family’s horticultural business, become a mature student, qualified as an English teacher, worked as a secretary and, briefly, tried to be a civil servant. She is now happily ensconced behind her computer, when not trying to exhaust her bouncy rescue dog with as many walks as the inexhaustible Lurcher can finagle. Elizabeth can’t bring herself to call researching the wonderfully diverse, scandalous Regency period and creating charismatic heroes and feisty heroines work, and she is waiting for someone to find out how much fun she is having and tell her to stop it. Previous novels by the same author: AN INNOCENT COURTESAN HOUSEMAID HEIRESS A LESS THAN PERFECT LADY CAPTAIN LANGTHORNE’S PROPOSAL REBELLIOUS RAKE, INNOCENT GOVERNESS Elizabeth Beacon www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Chapter One It had been a mistake to come. In fact, Charlotte decided crossly, it would have been better if she had never left her post at Miss Thibett’s select academy for young ladies in Bath in the first place. She’d been perfectly content with life as an ordinary teacher until the new Countess of Carnwood had offered her the position of governess to her younger sisters. How she wished now that she’d refused to listen to Miranda Alstone’s persuasion and was still a humble schoolteacher. As a schoolgirl herself, she’d been in awe of the lovely and vivacious Miranda, a year older than she was and a world away in looks and confidence. When Miranda had turned up at Miss Thibett’s two years ago, married to her late grandfather’s scapegrace heir and very distant cousin, Charlotte should have recalled that spoilt young miss Miranda had once been and hardened her heart against this much more likeable Miranda Alstone and refused point blank to leave her job and her sanctuary. Charlotte had enjoyed teaching her classes more than she had expected when she had become a schoolmistress out of dire necessity seven years ago. Miranda’s little sisters, Katherine and Isabella Alstone, were delightful young women of course and her lot was much happier than that of the average governess, but she had her future to consider and even the youngest Miss Alstone was now fifteen. Already they were in town for Kate’s dеbut and that fact alone might prove Charlotte’s undoing. She surveyed the overheated ballroom and tried not to wish for delicate muslins or a mere satin slip with a light gauze over-gown, instead of the acres of suffocating grey crepe she now wore. How much better off she would have been marking essays and contriving next day’s lessons in her last employment, she thought disgustedly. Instead here she was, reluctantly accompanying the Honourable Katherine Alstone, granddaughter of the last Earl of Carnwood and sister-in-law to the current one, to this society crush in the Countess of Carnwood’s stead and enduring the company of the most infuriating male she had ever had the misfortune to encounter, which only added to her miseries. When Mr Ben Shaw joined herself and Kate in the carriage tonight he had looked at her as if she were akin to a piece of furniture astray from its rightful place. A side table, suddenly putting itself forward in the centre of the room perhaps, she decided crossly, or more likely a plain deal kitchen table trying to pass itself off as something far more elegant in a lady’s drawing room. Well, she certainly hadn’t asked to come, and if he didn’t like her company he should never have forced her into the role of chaperon for the night. Doubtless he’d only remembered her existence once he had exhausted every other possibility and it wasn’t her fault if she looked more like an antiquated quiz than a lady a man like Ben Shaw would be proud to accompany to a ball. After all, she was an antiquated quiz and perfectly content with her lot. Yes, of course she was; the sort of ladies Mr Shaw normally accompanied had very different ambitions from hers, and she had no wish whatsoever to end the evening in his bed, thank you very much. They might not have been more than nodding acquaintances at school all those years ago, but she and Miranda had become good friends over the last two years and she knew that, while Ben Shaw was rich and astonishingly successful now, he’d grown up on the same squalid streets as the new Earl, but without the benefit of legitimacy to protect him from some of the slings and arrows thrown his way. Even Charlotte had to secretly admit he was a powerful and handsome man who gathered beautiful women like bees did honey, but, Miranda had cautioned unnecessarily, he’d long ago forsworn marriage and regarded the idea of fatherhood of any sort with unswerving revulsion. Yet despite all that tonight, as he handed her up into the carriage she’d felt a ridiculous flutter in her usually cynical breast and briefly longed to be beautiful, so she could at least wipe the bland, condescending smile off his handsome face and make him take notice. Not that she would know what to do with it if he centred that formidable will and intellect on her, but it would have been satisfying to see him rocked back on his heels by admiration and desire for someone he couldn’t have for once, instead of the mild surprise she had detected behind that social smile that such a plain and spinsterish female was about to share his exotic company for an entire evening. To soothe her ridiculous agitation over such a masculine and utterly maddening irritation as Mr Shaw, Charlotte let nostalgia for her former quiet existence overtake her for a moment, if only to blot out the discomfort of sitting in this noisy ballroom, trying desperately hard not to be noticed. After all, she had been content over the last two years to be invisible to the world outside the schoolroom and Mr Ben Shaw, so why should tonight be any different? No reason at all, she reassured herself and went back to reviewing her career as a schoolmarm. It had begun with awe at the task ahead and sheer hard work, as she learnt her trade from a mistress of the art. Not for Miss Thibett the perfunctory education and insipid accomplishments most establishments for the education of young ladies insisted upon. No, a young lady who graduated from her elegant academy in Queen’s Square would have an unusual grasp of mathematics, literature and the world around them, as well as more ladylike skills such as watercolour painting, music and fine needlework. Not that many people here tonight would appreciate such a breadth of knowledge, Charlotte mused cynically. She observed the haut ton at play and concluded that they took their amusement as seriously as those less fortunate did the hard work needed to keep the wolf from the door. At least she had escaped the chaperons’ benches for this quiet niche, she decided, trying hard to see a silver lining to her current cloud, and she wondered how many of the duennas present tonight understood they were as wrapped up in commerce as a Lord Mayor’s banquet. Instead of silks, perfumes and spices, or raw materials to feed the voracious manufactories in the north, they were the purveyors of delicately brought up young ladies of course. Even so, it was a commercial transaction and Charlotte sat a little further back in her alcove as she tried to reassure herself that her particular young lady was very much her own person and would have something very pungent to say to anyone who suggested she sold herself in return for a fine house and a title. The idea was laughable. Charlotte considered Miranda’s appalling misadventures after such a charmed beginning, and her husband Kit’s early life at the mercy of a drunken, spendthrift father living precariously in the meanest part of town. They had both been forged into something more than they might have been if the fates had been kinder to them, and overcome their troubles magnificently, so forcing Miranda’s sisters into marriage for the usual dynastic reasons was unthinkable. The Earl and Countess of Carnwood would never do that, even if they lost every penny of their vast fortunes, Charlotte thought wistfully, and tried not to wish her happiness had been of such crucial importance to her own relatives. No, she refused to sit about repining about the past, or she would do if there was only something better to do, she thought crossly, and wiped the frown off her face and tried to look inconspicuous as possible in this ill-lit corner of the ballroom. It wasn’t easy to efface yourself when you were about as tall as a lady could get without being publicly displayed as a curiosity, but she managed it more often than not nowadays. Charlotte fiddled with her snowy cap and adjusted a strategic piece of lace to conceal the suggestion of a curl that she pushed back into hiding with exasperated efficiency. She had a job keeping her rebellious locks in place at the best of times, but if they showed themselves here the results could be disastrous. It would never do for some sharp-eyed dowager to detect even a hint of the gangling dеbutante who had once sat out so many dances at her chaperon’s side beneath the guise of a humble duenna. ‘Ah, so there you are, Miss Wells,’ a deep voice rumbled at her side and made her jump at least six inches. Charlotte shivered in the stuffy air of Lady Wintergreen’s elegant ballroom with an infuriating mix of apprehension and excitement. How could such a very large man move so silently that she had no idea he was anywhere near her until he spoke? And where else did he think she would be when this entire fiasco was his fault in the first place? ‘Go away!’ she ordered rudely, even as she strained her neck to meet Mr Benedict Shaw’s altogether too intelligent grey eyes challengingly. He just laughed at her as usual, and gave her the quizzical smile that usually swept all feminine opposition before him so effortlessly, despite his dubious credentials as cavalier to an innocent young dеbut ante. She had a very long way to look, she decided absently, and put a hand to the back of her head to make sure her cap stayed securely in place. Unused to being towered over by anyone and recalling the humiliation of looking down on nearly all her dance partners during her ill-fated Season, she firmly squashed the idea that to waltz with the very tall and broad-shouldered Mr Shaw could quite possibly feel a little too wonderful. ‘May I not sit beside you for even a short time while I rest my weary bones then, Miss Wells?’ he asked mildly and she wondered what he was about this time, for in her opinion Mr Shaw had never been meek or mild in his entire life and probably only slept when he could spare a few moments from his busy schedule to do so. ‘What a ludicrous idea,’ she dismissed tartly. ‘Ludicrous?’ he echoed contemplatively. ‘I have been called many things during the course of my chequered career, Miss Wells, but so far that’s not one of them. If you can tell me why my sitting beside Miss Alstone’s very respectable chaperon whilst I politely await my dance with her charge could be construed as ludicrous by anyone but yourself, I might even oblige you and take myself off.’ ‘For the very reason that I am her chaperon and about as dull a female as you could find if you scoured every ballroom in Mayfair,’ she parried crossly as he sat anyway, despite her embargo. ‘Nonsense, you are very far from dull, Miss Wells, although it’s plain to me, if to nobody else, that you study very hard to appear so,’ he observed coolly and watched her steadily, trying to look as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth and not succeeding at all well. ‘I have the misfortune to be very tall, you see,’ he said with a look of quite spurious innocence as she continued to glare back at him in a most unladylike fashion. ‘You would have got a crick in your swanlike neck had I continued to stand, Miss Wells, and no doubt that would have been my fault as well.’ ‘Well, of course it would,’ she answered and made herself look away from the suppressed laughter in his apparently guileless grey eyes. Finding nothing fascinating enough to engage her attention, she shot him an even more irate glare and wondered how he knew everything about tonight’s dеb?cle was to be laid at his door. ‘You should never have sought me out in the first place,’ she informed him grumpily and turned her head to find him watching her with amused speculation. Sometimes it seemed to her as if the wretched man had been regarding her so since they first met, and she was heartily sick of being the butt of some private joke. ‘I am here as a chaperon, sir, not an idle guest with nothing on her mind but flirtation and gossip,’ she added tartly, hoping he wouldn’t realise she’d been covertly watching him flirt mildly with a lovely blonde widow for most of the evening. ‘I really don’t think it would be a good idea for me to indulge in an amour with you tonight, Miss Wells,’ he murmured silkily, revealing that he was as conscious of her uneasy disapproval as she was of feeling it. He gave a soft chuckle when she gave him a look that should have turned him to stone and sat on, as serene and content as an alderman at the Lord Mayor’s banquet. No wonder her palm itched to slap that parody of a gentleman’s politely interested smile in the face of small talk off his handsome face. ‘I have no wish to indulge in such wanton behaviour at any time, sir, and least of all with you,’ she said sharply and wished that last caveat were entirely true. There was a silly, and usually firmly suppressed, side to Charlotte’s nature that had never quite relinquished the romantic rebellion of her youth. That Charlotte had stood to attention the moment Ben Shaw hoved into view two years ago, and had annoyed her everyday self at the most inconvenient moments ever since. Now the silly idiot clearly yearned to become the sort of female who could exchange languishing glances with a gentleman in search of more sophisticated amusements, and lure him to heaven knew what wanton and forbidden rendezvous that a true lady shouldn’t even know about, let alone consider in her wildest fantasies. She was rather foggy about how a femme fatale behaved once she had lured her quarry into her perfumed lair, of course, but that other Charlotte was quite willing to improvise, at least if the shortness of breath she suddenly suffered at the very idea was anything to go by. It was all utter nonsense, of course, sensible Miss Wells informed her fiery secret self, and met Mr Shaw’s eyes with chilly resolution. ‘I, sir, am a chaperon. It is my duty to watch over Miss Alstone and make sure nobody can level the accusation that she was so laxly chaperoned that her reputation might be in danger. That is my purpose and my destiny,’ she finished rather wistfully and quite spoilt the effect of her first chilly statement. ‘Now you are being ludicrous, Miss Wells. Those young cubs wouldn’t even blink the wrong way with your stern eye on them, even if they were intent on mischief, which I doubt as they’re clearly besotted with the little minx and have sickeningly honourable intentions. Besides that, I dare say young Shuttleworth is so upright and respectable he could chaperon Kate himself, if you weren’t here to play the watchdog so determinedly, and nobody would raise an eyebrow,’ he asserted outrageously. Such a foolish notion appealed to the sense of humour she usually managed to conceal in mixed company and she couldn’t help smiling at such a revolutionary notion. Lord Shuttleworth was indeed a very virtuous and earnest young man, but he would look very odd indeed sitting with the dowagers, frowning at Kate’s many admirers and shaking his head over the more rakish of their number. Come to think of it, he would probably perform the role far too diligently, and make sure Kate only danced with himself. ‘You are most certainly mistaken in that notion, sir, and I still wish you would go away,’ she informed him forthrightly, having long ago discovered there was no point in wrapping up her meaning in the polite conventions where Mr Shaw was concerned—and almost as useless as trying to carve rock with embroidery scissors, in her experience. ‘And there I was hoping you’d take pity on me and grant me a dance. You must admit it’s a confounded nuisance for a tall man to stoop over his partner like a grazing crane every time he’s fool enough to take to the floor with the usual run of female,’ he teased, doing his best to look as if he needed her sympathy when he was the least deserving case she had come across. Despite his lowly upbringing, or maybe even because of it, Mr Benedict Shaw had succeeded in cutting a swathe through the more sophisticated beauties of the ton, and Charlotte suspected his great wealth had very little to do with that success. He was very much a man among the shallow youths who usually clustered about Kate, and even those gentlemen who were his equal in years faded to insignificance in his vibrant company. She couldn’t currently recall another single gentleman who matched him in either height or presence herself, which was very annoying of them now she came to think of it. No, hardship and sheer bull-headed stubbornness had honed him from an illegitimate waif from the slums into a subtle and dangerous man of power, and only a fool would underestimate Mr Shaw. If she had ever been among their number, the ease with which he moved among the finicky ton would have opened her eyes to his dubious talents. And he had even done his best to conceal rather than reveal the fact that some very aristocratic blood indeed came to him on one side of the wrong blanket he was born under. He cheerfully admitted to being the son of a seamstress on the other, and still the rigid rules of society had first bent and then broken under the impact of his peculiar brand of charm, and the weight of his lifelong friendship with the current Earl of Carnwood, of course. Charlotte surveyed Ben Shaw surreptitiously, while pretending to watch the dancers as if utterly absorbed in the figures of the dance. He made few concessions to the outward conventions, she decided, with a sniff of disapproval she hoped would be drowned out by the music. In this day and age, a gentleman did not go abroad with his unruly blond hair allowed to grow so overlong that he had to tie it back in an old-fashioned queue, which she absently noted was tied with black velvet rather than leather tonight, and really rather becoming. Giant that he was, he cut a magnificent figure in a superbly cut black tailcoat and restrained grey silk waistcoat. To herself, she could admit to feeling incredulity that he had donned the meticulously correct knee breeches and stockings of a gentleman’s evening dress as well. He must be very fond of Kate to have forced himself into such a concession for her sake, she conceded, as Charlotte could never recall seeing him in such garb before. Mr Shaw usually claimed to be far too big for such refinement, but secretly she thought he looked magnificent. It was a demanding fashion to carry off, and some of the dandy set padded their puny calves to make them look shapelier, but he certainly had no need for such artifice. Long, strong and muscular, his limbs were honed to perfection by his energetic lifestyle and, if she secretly compared every gentleman she had seen tonight to his mighty form and found them not only wanting but almost invisible, there was no reason on earth why anyone should know it, least of all Ben Shaw himself. Charlotte allowed her silly heart to flutter just the tiniest bit as she forced her gaze back up to his perfectly tied cravat, and told herself she should have the experience to hide her thoughts and feelings from him and the rest of the world by now. His face was rather memorable as well, she decided distractedly, trying hard to disapprove of the ridiculous hairstyle he habitually adopted and failing as she finally met his amused grey gaze and realised he had known exactly what she was thinking all along. ‘Am I to have an answer at all, Miss Wells, or do you consider me unworthy of one?’ he asked brusquely and she thought she caught a lightning glimpse of a much younger and surprisingly sensitive Ben Shaw under that pose of indifference to the world and his wife. ‘I thought you merely jesting, Mr Shaw, for you know as well as I that chaperons don’t dance,’ she informed him flatly, even as her heartbeat increased at the very thought of doing so with him, because it would expose her to far too many interested eyes, of course. ‘Nor do cits,’ he replied with a rueful grimace she refused to even countenance—he was far too much at ease in company, of whatever kind, for her to feel the least need to bolster his self-esteem. ‘And I really don’t think Mrs Ramsden agrees with you,’ he added with an expression of such dowagerly shock that she had to suppress a silly urge to laugh with him at the follies of mature society beauties who ought to know much better than to openly pursue rather risquе gentlemen, while supposedly chaperoning her innocent young daughter. ‘Miss Ramsden has my sympathy,’ she said truthfully and shot the still lushly beautiful Mrs Ramsden a covert glance as that lady danced airily past with another admirer and received a furious glare in return. ‘Maybe you should dance with Mrs Ramsden again if you really want to set the dovecotes fluttering,’ she added cynically. Without even trying to, she had won herself at least one enemy tonight, and how right she had been to wish herself a hundred miles away. ‘I’m told the lady has extensive gambling debts and is in search of a new husband with limitless credit and an accommodating nature. As my chief detractor, you must surely admit that she is very much mistaken in thinking I might be that man, Miss Wells,’ he told her with an ironic smile. ‘You would have me save you from fortune hunters, sir?’ she said lightly, in an attempt to avoid the thought that she could indeed pity him just a little after all. Never to know if the slavish feminine attention he received was the product of lust, or lust and avarice, must be a severe trial to a proud man, and something told her Ben Shaw was a very proud man indeed. Some of the so-called gentlemen she had encountered would no doubt pour scorn on the notion that a dressmaker’s by-blow had anything to be proud of, although probably not to his face, but she thought they erred rather mightily. ‘Or at the very least from a female I overtop by at least a foot and a half and must always make ridiculous, Miss Wells,’ he returned lightly enough, but suddenly she could see something more in those fascinating grey eyes. It was almost as if he could read her thoughts, she decided, resolving to stop them being on show to a shrewd man like Ben Shaw a little more determinedly in future. ‘As ludicrous as you must make a governess by such attentions,’ she told him steadily enough, as she looked coolly away and saw with relief that the quadrille was over at last and Kate was making her way towards them with her very correct young swain. ‘That appears to be a favourite word of yours tonight, Miss Wells, but I have no desire to make you so, whatever you may think. One day, my dear Miss Wells, I’ll have that dance with you and you’ll be forced to agree that we complement each other to the finest degree, or prove yourself a liar to both of us,’ he threatened as he rose to his feet and towered over her once more. For a moment even she felt a little intimidated by his mighty presence, and Lord Shuttleworth looked as flustered as he might if a mountain suddenly uprooted itself and walked towards him. Profoundly annoyed with her unwanted companion for making all four of them conspicuous against her express wishes, Charlotte forced herself to breathe deeply and evenly as she also rose to greet the newcomers. For a moment there had seemed to be a promise in that complex gaze of his that she dare not read, but surely she was mistaken? Gentlemen who towered over the general run of their kind with no effort or noticeable gratification didn’t flirt with plain and virtually penniless governesses, who had long ago given up on their last prayers. It simply didn’t happen, not to her and not to any other sensible female in her position who valued her peace of mind. Charlotte ordered her thudding heartbeat to resume some semblance of its usual smooth rhythm, and tried to ignore the disturbing fact that she felt so stupidly at home standing at Mr Shaw’s side. It took an assured gentleman to ignore her inches and, just for once, she felt like most women must as he towered over her. Fragile she most certainly was not, but she felt so for a reckless moment. Reminding herself it was her declared aim in life to be the most quiet and mouse-like of duennas, despite her natural disadvantages, she forced her shoulders to slump and adjusted the eyeglasses on her nose so she could peer at the world as if quite lost without them. Fortunately for her that was another lie, but there was no sensible reason to waive an extra layer of camouflage in such dangerous company. ‘What a squeeze,’ Kate observed wearily as soon as she had got her breath back, and Charlotte hid a smile at the weary sophistication of the young lady standing in front of her. Not six weeks ago Kate had begged to be excused her dеbut, on the grounds that she could never learn to comport herself properly in the drawing rooms of the ton, even if she wanted to. As Charlotte eyed her flame-haired former pupil with wry amusement, she knew Kate had grown up at last and told herself to be glad. Even so, she couldn’t help but eye her former charge anxiously. Rich and aristocratic young women had a harder furrow to plough through life than most people thought, and Kate had more brains than were probably good for her. A sillier young miss might be content with a marriage of convenience and quietly bearing the future lords of England, but what would Kate make of the marriage mart and all the pitfalls it contained for a young lady of spirit? The Honourable Miss Alstone was tall for a lady, although not on her own unfortunate scale, as well as being a beauty of rare distinction. In fact, her former pupil showed every sign of becoming the belle of the Season, and Charlotte silently predicted a procession of smitten hopefuls clogging up Lord Carnwood’s busy schedule when he returned from Ireland. Not that Charlotte had seen any sign of partiality when Kate’s deep blue gaze rested on any of her court. If anything, she thought Kate rather amused by their antics and thought them no more than boys. She was right of course, Charlotte decided, at least for the most part. Young Lord Shuttleworth was sincerely attached to her friend and a warning not to trample too heavily on his dreams might not go amiss when she found the right moment. ‘Would you care for refreshments, Miss Alstone?’ he asked earnestly now with a look of rapt worship. ‘Heavens, no, I feel as if I’m awash with lemonade already,’ Kate replied carelessly, ‘but Miss Wells has not indulged quite as often as I have, so perhaps she is thirsty?’ Lord Shuttleworth bowed politely and tried to look as if he could think of no greater honour than fetching orgeat for a dowd. He really had the most exquisite manners, Charlotte concluded and wondered if he’d truly thought about Kate’s suitability as the wife of such a serious young peer. No doubt Kate would lead him about by the nose if she ever succumbed to his serious air, ancient title and rumoured fortune. Charlotte sincerely hoped her eldest protеgеe would wait for a gentleman who would challenge and stimulate her excellent mind, as well as doing the same for the more sensual side that almost certainly lay under her innocent impulsiveness and fiery temper. And when had Miss Charlotte Wells become an expert on love and marriage? She refused to answer that question, even in the privacy of her own mind, and obligingly declined Lord Shuttleworth’s polite offer of refreshment. Obviously feeling towered over by Mr Shaw and humiliatingly overtopped by Kate’s chaperon, that young gentleman bowed and took himself off. ‘Never mind, Miss Wells,’ Mr Shaw consoled outrageously, ‘I’m made of far sterner stuff and shall bring you a glass of champagne after I’ve done my duty and danced with this irritating little chit.’ Charlotte contented herself with raising her chin in the air and enjoying looking down her nose at a very disobliging gentleman for once. ‘How dare you call me so in public?’ Kate flamed back at him. ‘Because you’re an appalling brat, and likely to become completely intolerable if these silly young pups convince you you’re a cross between a goddess and an angel come down from heaven to dazzle them, which is very far from the truth, I’m pleased to say,’ he said with a grimace of distaste. ‘Oh, I pay no attention to them,’ Kate dismissed with an airy wave of her hand and Charlotte thought she was telling the truth, even if Mr Shaw doubted her from the frown pleating his unfairly dark brows together. ‘Have a care, princess,’ he cautioned, ‘they’re just whelps and quite unused to dealing with feisty little monkeys like you. You’ll break their silly hearts if you don’t watch out. I don’t want you branded a heartless flirt, for all you’re a confounded nuisance.’ ‘No, for you’re as soft hearted as Kit’s favourite mastiff under all that “to the devil with you all” air of yours, aren’t you, Mr Shaw?’ Kate taunted softly. ‘Don’t forget how fearsomely Spartacus barks and growls at anyone he doesn’t like, minx, and have a care for my skin. I make far too large a target to be called out for thumping one of the young idiots when they try to force what they can’t get with your consent.’ ‘I don’t see what business it is of yours,’ Kate responded rather sulkily. ‘Anyone would think you were my chaperon, not Miss Wells.’ This last was said with a reproachful glance at Charlotte, who was trying hard to look both innocent and sympathetic, while secretly agreeing with Mr Shaw for once. ‘I’d rather have half my teeth pulled,’ he responded amiably enough and Kate laughed, her temper forgotten as soon as it fired. ‘You really are the most disobliging gentleman I ever came across. I’ve half a mind to marry you and make both our lives a misery, just to serve you with your own sauce,’ she told him, her bluest of blue eyes sparkling with mischief and Charlotte thought not one gentleman in a thousand could fail to be charmed. ‘I’ll manage without any teeth at all to be spared that,’ he responded, giving Kate a straight look to discourage any more experiments in flirtation. ‘Don’t worry, the other half of my mind is the sensible one and couldn’t tolerate a domestic tyrant like you, Ben Shaw,’ Kate replied. ‘Good, you need a stern critic to keep you in line, miss, but it won’t be me. Now, if we don’t make haste they’ll start the dance without us and I’m conspicuous enough on the dance floor without insinuating us on to it after the music starts.’ ‘It would give the faster ladies of your acquaintance more chance to admire your manly form,’ Kate teased relentlessly and Charlotte wondered at her courage, but all he did was shake his head sadly, as if despairing of her former charge. ‘Behave yourself, brat,’ he ordered not very seriously, and with one last, complex look at Charlotte that made her feel more confused than ever, he led his partner on to the dance floor. Satisfied Kate was intending to behave herself, Charlotte could resume her anonymity and brood in peace. She should be profoundly grateful to be spared Ben Shaw’s infuriating company, she decided, but somehow she wasn’t and sat back on her uncomfortable sofa feeling out of sorts with herself and the rest of the world. Watching them dance so harmoniously caused her a pang she had a terrible suspicion might be jealousy. Heartburn, she assured herself prosaically, and considered the idea that Mr Shaw could be the man of sufficient character, humour and humanity to become Kate’s husband. Some remnant of the silly romantic girl she’d once been rebelled at the notion of that match for the girl she’d come to love over the last two years. And while she was about it, that part of her seemed to hate the notion of Mr Shaw becoming permanently unavailable to plague and infuriate her. Reminding herself never to eat apricot fool again, she tried to divert herself with the company, but failed rather badly as her eyes were drawn to that well-matched pair gliding about the floor in such harmony. Charlotte suspected she was not the only one speculating that their partnership might become more permanent in time. It would be a splendid match in material terms, she supposed. Kate was very well dowered and of ancient lineage and Ben Shaw was so fabulously wealthy his irregular birth was largely ignored, except in the most finicky circles where she doubted Kate had the least wish to shine. He could be charming as well as amiable when he chose to be, and apparently he could take his pick among the highflyers against some very aristocratic competition. She really shouldn’t know about that side of his life, she told herself sternly, and must stop pricking up her ears whenever his name was mentioned by the Alstones’ footmen and they thought she wasn’t listening. Then there was his avowed intention of never marrying anyone. Given that he would have to be so deeply in love with Kate as not to be able to stop himself offering for her, why did the very idea of a marriage between Ben Shaw and Kate seem an abomination? Was it because he must be about three and thirty and Kate was just eighteen, perhaps? A significant gap, but hardly insurmountable. Nobody with the slightest intention of being fair-minded could accuse Ben Shaw of being anything but in his prime, and Kate had wit and a keen intelligence to add to her youthful glowing beauty. When she matured, she would be a rare creature indeed, and Charlotte thought her former pupil would become a real force for good if she wed the right man. So was the right man the infuriating giant dancing so lightly with the vibrant young creature who absorbed the attention of most young gentlemen in the room one way and another? No, the bone-deep certainty of that answer surprised her, and sent Miss Wells, governess, home with a very thoughtful frown on her shadowed face as all three sat silent in the Earl of Carnwood’s comfortable town coach later that night. Chapter Two Ben lay back against the luxurious squabs, considering a curiously unsatisfactory evening. He’d gone to Lady Wintergreen’s ball to keep an eye on Miss Kate Alstone in his best friend’s absence and, with Miss Wells’s reluctant help, had successfully done so. Yet something crucial had been missing and he tried to reassure himself it wasn’t the lack of a dance with the disapproving dragon seated opposite. He wondered idly if she concealed an elegant little tail under the acres of grey crepe that she used to conceal her figure from the eyes of the world. There was no doubt she breathed fire, he decided ruefully, as he recalled some of the barbs she had shot at him tonight. Yet there was something about Miss Charlotte Wells that made him eager to know what lay under all that disapproval. Under her formidable exterior no doubt there was a formidable woman, but, whoever she was, she fascinated him, and he’d never been one to shirk a challenge. The question was, a challenge to what? He wasn’t rake enough to make a dead set at a lady in impoverished circumstances. He frowned as he contemplated the careless actions of such men, for hadn’t his father seduced his mother, then denied her and his bastard as if they were strangers he might pass in the street? Ben admired his late mother more than any woman he’d ever known, but he was certain her life would have been far better if he’d never been born. He could never inflict such suffering on a woman and he’d made sure no woman he was involved with risked carrying his child. So, if he didn’t intend to storm the stoutly defended Fortress Wells, why on earth had he been trying to flirt with her in the middle of Lady Wintergreen’s over crowded ball? Because trying was all he would ever manage, the uneasy answer occurred to him as he stared broodingly into the darkness. Had she just become a challenge he couldn’t quite resist? He shook his head and hoped not and his stern expression softened as he watched Kate asleep on her dragon’s shoulder, as if it was far more comfortable than it appeared. Then they passed a lamp-post and he saw Miss Wells’s face momentarily through the gloom and it looked curiously softened. She’d removed those ugly spectacles and the clear-cut lines of her finely made features were momentarily visible, both illuminated and shadowed by the soft glow. He recalled the first occasion he’d met the Alstone girls and their fearsome governess, almost two years ago now, and he’d keenly enjoyed the clash of arms between them on the rare occasions he’d met her since then. Kit Alstone had been his best friend ever since they could both walk, and Ben had agreed to escort the carriage from Bath to Derbyshire, despite the fact he had a hundred things to do and a dozen other places to do them in. He’d been a little impatient of the whole business, but knew his very presence riding by the Earl of Carnwood’s travelling carriage would stop most highwaymen in their tracks. After all, there was every reason to guard three unprotected females allied to his friend, when they’d made too many enemies for comfort in the rise to success. In a spirit of resignation, he’d set out to escort two no doubt timorous young girls and their superannuated governess and found the artlessly outgoing Misses Alstone and their young dragon instead. No doubt one glare from the formidable Miss Wells and the most enterprising villain would instantly have turned to stone, or hastily dropped his pistols and run home to his mother, but they’d met with no reckless challenges on that memorable journey. Ben just managed to hide a grin as lamplight now splayed over him instead of his own particular dragon. Ever since he laid eyes on the very correct Miss Wells, he’d struggled with the urge to kiss her until she was breathless and bemused, and finally giving the lie to her rigidly severe exterior. So far he’d stopped himself, just, but if she went on producing those comedy spectacles at every opportunity his self-restraint might not last. Yet in the two years since he had first set eyes on her, he’d managed to learn almost nothing about the elusive Miss Wells, which was a mystery in itself. He could usually discover whatever he needed to know about a person within two days of setting eyes on them, so either Miss Wells had lived a life of such tedious respectability that she had rendered herself thoroughly unmemorable, or she wasn’t exactly who she seemed. Up until now he’d been content to trust his judgement that the woman was harmless, at least to her charges and his friends, and she even seemed quite fond of them and unbent noticeably whenever she thought he wasn’t about. Yet lately he’d been experiencing a familiar tension that warned him trouble was too close, and anything out of kilter must now be considered a threat. He frowned thoughtfully and shot the stately figure of the governess a sidelong glance. What was it about the wretched female that goaded him into being less kind than he should be, he wondered? He wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t that aloof air of superiority; or perhaps her disapproving sniff; or maybe even the hideous cap that hid her scraped-back hair. He wondered what colour it was under that monstrosity and considered her dark brows and eyelashes with what he told himself was purely a spirit of scientific inquiry. The latter were extraordinarily lush and even curled in enchanting crescents when they rested on her creamy cheeks, he remembered with a jolt. He’d seen her so undefended on that memorable trip to Wychwood; one day she had slept in the carriage and as he rode closer to check on his charges and saw her face all soft and unguarded and wondered if she was much younger than she pretended. Not that he had been allowed so much as a glimpse of such sweet vulnerability since that day, nor had those oddly enchanting eyelashes swept down over eyes heavy with sleep in his presence ever again. He found he regretted that lack and supposed that, when all else was covered and battened down, even the most ridiculous detail became intriguing. Tonight he’d been forced to exert every ounce of willpower he possessed not to rip off that ridiculous dowager’s cap and sweep prim Miss Wells up into the dance. A waltz for preference, he thought with a wicked smile, as darkness engulfed him once more. Although come to think of it that dance was quite circumspect by the standards of the poor. Nights at Kate Long’s when the girls swung from one partner to the other with joyful abandon would undoubtedly shock Miss Wells to the soles of her proper feet, he concluded wryly. Perhaps, his imagination persisted, she would have brushed against him even in such select company as they were forced together by others on that overcrowded dance floor. Or maybe she would feel drawn to engineer such closeness of her own accord. Yes, and pigs might fly. He was quite certain Miss Wells would consider such rakish liberties repulsive, and tell him so in no uncertain terms if he ever ventured one. Yet the idea of any other gentleman stealing a kiss from her lips, which he noted were very well shaped and surprisingly full as they went past another lamp, made him feel strangely discomfited. He frowned so fiercely at her the next time they passed a streetlight that she looked startled. His gaze softened and he had to suppress a surprisingly strong urge to reach across and pull her to him, so he could reassure her, of course. Enough! He didn’t want her to realise the ridiculous state even the thought of holding her got him in and avoid him even more assiduously in future. Ben spent the rest of their brief journey back to Alstone House in Cavendish Square watching a largely uninteresting view of shadowy streets and thinking of cold and barren wastes to get himself back under strict control, before he must step out of the carriage and escort them inside. Even he was shocked to find the Countess of Carnwood waiting up for them when he escorted Kate and Miss Wells up the steps and into the marble hall. From the expression on the latter’s face, she disapproved of her employer’s over-protective attitude to her sister nearly as much as Ben did, so at least for once they were in accord. ‘I know what you’ll say,’ Miranda Alstone claimed with a disarming smile her lord was quite unable to resist, but it had no noticeable effect on the trio facing her. Her ladyship sighed. ‘I can’t help myself,’ she admitted. ‘With Kit away so long I can’t convince myself all is well with the world.’ Since he shared her apprehension, Ben allowed himself to be pacified and gave her an encouraging smile as he urged her upstairs and back into the cosy sitting room she had made there, despite the strict Palladian style that made the rest of the house a little too sternly elegant for his taste. ‘Tea, if you please, Coppice,’ he requested the stately butler with a manly exchange of glances that admitted there was no point in trying to send her ladyship off to bed to worry away the little hours alone. ‘All will certainly not be well if Kit comes home and finds you have fretted yourself into a decline, particularly in the present circumstances,’ he then told his friend’s wife as gently as he could, as he manoeuvred her towards the fire. After the hothouse atmosphere of Lady Wintergreen’s ballroom, even a mild night felt frosty to the partygoers and the warmth was welcome. ‘True, his lordship will be very put out if all is not as serene as he left it, but I fail to see why he should blame you for my folly,’ Miranda told him with a return of her usual spirit. ‘Because I happen to be handy, I expect,’ he said with a rueful grin she returned weakly, as she obediently sat on the nearest sofa in response to Miss Wells’s urging and even consented to put her feet up. ‘And at least you’re big enough to mill him down if he loses his temper,’ Miranda admitted with a fondly exasperated smile as she considered her sometimes fiery lord. Kit’s lady knew her husband all too well, but Ben suspected she also knew they only sparred when nobody else was brave enough to enter the ring with them at Jackson’s Boxing Saloon. Neither had much taste for gratuitous violence, having witnessed the dire effect a selfish and violent drunkard could have on his unfortunate family during their boyhood. Ben’s mother had been one of the Alstones’ lodgers in the shabby house in St Giles that Mrs Alstone somehow contrived to keep, in the face of all her husband’s efforts to drink it down the River Tick along with everything else they had ever owned. There Ben and the Alstone children had learnt far too much about the bitter realities of life with a man who made no effort to control his temper or his fists. ‘My shoulders are broad enough to take whatever fate throws at them, even with the help of my lord the Earl of Carnwood,’ Ben said lightly. ‘True, but I shall not demand of you the sacrifice of taking tea with me at this unearthly hour of the night,’ Miranda observed, and Ben was relieved to see her resume her usual self-command and order her protesting sister off to bed, before she fell asleep in her chair. ‘Oh, and bring brandy for Mr Shaw, if you please, Coppice,’ she asked, then smiled her approval as another footman followed on the heels of the first one with the required decanter and a fine glass. ‘Why did I ever expect otherwise?’ she asked ruefully as the doors closed behind the butler and his cohorts. ‘I have no idea. Especially considering Coppice adores you just as foolishly as the rest of your staff,’ he informed her with a smile and watched Miss Wells pour tea with her usual stern disapproval. Miranda flushed with pleasure at the thought that those around her actually liked her and, if Ben needed a reminder of why his friend had fallen so hard for her in the first place, that would have provided it. As the Countess carefully sipped at her fragrant China tea, Ben thought she looked considerably better now that two of her chicks were back under her roof unscathed. He fleetingly wished he could find such a wife, then dismissed the thought as paltry—there was only one Miranda Alstone, and an even bigger rogue than himself had already captured her. For himself, he enjoyed his state of single blessedness too well to give it up for married life. He dismissed such ridiculous ideas as seeking a bride for himself among the belles of the Season, whilst he kept his eye on Miranda’s sister whenever Kit was unavailable. Instead he wondered why on earth her ladyship should consider the self-contained and dauntless Miss Wells in need of her protection. It was beyond Ben, but he sipped his brandy and watched them thoughtfully while they chatted of nothing in particular, as if to soothe each other’s ruffled feathers. There seemed to him to be a sincere friendship between countess and governess, and he was suddenly intrigued by the idea that Miss Wells must be a very different creature whenever he was not by. Perhaps feeling his speculative gaze on her, she turned and shot him a fierce look of either suspicion or condemnation, and suddenly he felt very tempted to live down to her expectations. Good behaviour or bad seemed to cut no ice with the haughty dragon. Next time he was in the position to do so, he might just snatch a kiss to see if her lips were as cold as her eyes, which were once again glinting so disapprovingly at him that she didn’t even need those wretched eyeglasses to emphasise her aloof dislike. Thank goodness Miranda had never provoked him to turn her upside down and shake her to see if there was a real warm and breathing woman under all the hairpins, caps and spectacles Miss Wells came armoured in. It was perfectly obvious from looking at his friend’s beautiful wife that she was all of those things, and a few more into the bargain. As he didn’t have the least wish to meet his best friend early one morning on Paddington Green for a very unfriendly encounter, it was very lucky Ben needed no proof of the Countess of Carnwood’s humanity. ‘Why are you flying in the face of experience and worrying about your husband, my lady?’ he turned and asked Miranda in an attempt to get at the truth, and distract himself from the remarkably sweet notion of finding out if Miss Wells’s rather lush mouth would yield under his and give the lie to her fearsome appearance. If anything it was even more disapproving now, as if she could somehow read his errant thoughts. Anyway, how did she think they could soothe Miranda’s fears when they had no idea what they were? He sent her a fiercely repressive glance and then regarded his friend’s wife with gentle enquiry, having no idea that the contrast in his gaze when resting on the two women in front of him could have hurt the formidable governess. ‘Because I hate being apart from him, I suppose,’ Miranda admitted slowly, then seemed to come to a decision to confide more deeply. ‘And I have received a letter from Cousin Celia,’ she finally added. Now he would happily have taken a joint share in Miss Wells’s most icy look of disdain if the wretched Celia were actually here to receive the full benefit of it. No wonder the poor girl was fretting herself into a headache if that murderous bitch had been stirring up the Alstone pond once more. ‘Not at all the sort of letter I would expect of her,’ Miranda added hastily as she observed his thunderous frown. ‘Indeed, I suspect that Celia has discovered actually living with Nevin is even more of a punishment than we all intended. Maybe she’s trying to soften Kit’s heart by warning me, in the hope he’ll allow her return to England without her husband.’ ‘She has mistaken her man then. Kester will never forgive her for what she did to you, both before and after you met him. Even if he didn’t love you quite ridiculously, how could he forget her wanton cruelty to a vulnerable young girl who happened to be her own cousin into the bargain? But besides bringing up that mare’s nest again and upsetting you, what does the vixen have to say? If you’re able to tell me the details, of course,’ he said with a cautionary glance at Miss Wells. ‘Oh, there’s no need to hide any of it from Charlotte,’ Miranda said blithely, ‘she knows all about my past. Kit and I decided it was necessary that we told her, in order to make sure neither Nevin nor Celia could approach the girls in our absence.’ And it had been an understandable relief to unburden herself to a sympathetic female, Ben concluded, rather surprised at his sudden conviction that the suffocatingly correct Miss Wells would make a stalwart and very partisan ally. ‘I wonder she dared set pen to paper after she had done her best to ruin your life by urging her secret husband to elope with a seventeen-year-old girl, then bigamously wed you, as well as the pair of them doing their best to kill you when you returned to Wychwood and threatened her supremacy. So what on earth has the repulsive female got to say?’ he asked impatiently, trying to ignore the fleeting thought that he would quite like to meet a friendly dragon, rather than the condemning one he knew all too well. ‘That we’re in danger,’ Miranda finally admitted. ‘She says the crime you and Kit have been investigating for so long is about to be exposed, along with a good many others, and someone very rich and powerful is furious about the threat to his income and position.’ ‘The devil he is!’ he exclaimed and began pacing up and down the fine Aubusson carpet as he considered the implications of such an attack. ‘How much does she know?’ he rapped out. ‘I would remind you that you are inhabiting a lady’s drawing room and not a board meeting in the City, Mr Shaw,’ Miss Wells rebuked him, ‘and, come to think of it, you must speak a little more politely to those gentlemen if you wish to retain their good will.’ ‘Much you know about it,’ he told her with an unrepentant grin, even as he was secretly grateful to her for checking the temper his anxiety threatened to spark into formidable life. He might as well store that up for the enemy who had stolen one of their ships and murdered far too many good men for him to think about too deeply and stay sane. She was quite right, though; he needed a cool head if he wasn’t to let the villain behind it all slip through his fingers once again. ‘I beg your pardon, Lady Carnwood,’ he said with a nicely judged bow and exquisite irony, ‘would you inform me of any further details you might have gathered from this missive? Just so we might guard ourselves against any harm, you understand?’ ‘Of course I do, but my cousin was very vague. The one thing I can tell is that she’s terrified of the man. Too terrified to give me more than the most obscure clues as to his identity, I’m afraid.’ ‘Which probably explains why Mrs Braxton sent her warning in the first place—so that you and his lordship would defeat him for her, Mr Shaw,’ Miss Wells put in shrewdly. Ben was impressed by her acute grasp of the situation. There was no false optimism, no impulse to think the best of a woman who so far as he could tell had neither heart nor soul under all that chilly blonde beauty. Which, he decided, argued that Miss Wells had been forged in a very fiery furnace indeed, and he was astonished by the powerful wave of protectiveness that suddenly swept over him at the thought of her so vulnerable that she had been forced to armour herself against the world so sternly. ‘Very likely you’re right,’ he agreed absently. ‘How astonishing of me,’ she replied sweetly. ‘If I ever feel myself growing self-satisfied, I’ll rely on you to depress my pretensions, Miss Wells,’ he parried with a rueful smile. ‘Then it will be my pleasure to oblige you, Mr Shaw,’ she replied pertly and he was once more overtaken by a strange compulsion to kiss her soundly, if only to stop her wicked tongue for a few moments. He turned and caught Miranda’s thoughtful gaze on them both and cursed himself for a fool. His friend’s wife was loyal to a fault and capable of going to the most ridiculous lengths to secure the happiness of those she loved. The last thing he needed was the Countess of Carnwood matchmaking between him and the governess. So respectable a bride might increase his standing with the more cautious of his investors, but it would do very little for his personal comfort, he suspected. Having his fiercest critic on hand on such a permanent basis might even sap his adamantine will. ‘To get back to our sheep, exactly when’s his lordship due home?’ he asked, partly because he wanted to know and partly to divert Miranda’s attention from his determination never to wed anyone, let alone Miss Wells. ‘Last night,’ Miranda said mournfully and he could have kicked himself for reminding her, then his friend for giving her so precise a date for his return. ‘I’d best go and find the rogue for you then, hadn’t I?’ he said and immediately felt better on making that decision, so he must be more worried about Kester’s thick hide than he’d let himself know. Then he glanced at Miranda’s intent face and decided Kit hadn’t stood a chance against those brave blue eyes of hers. No, he amended, his friend hadn’t a hope in hell of resisting his true love, and that was just how it should be, he supposed. Suddenly the lure of such a love was strong after all—to be loved and to love so deeply seemed like a wonder to a boy brought up on the harsh reality of one of the poorest neighbourhoods in London. Yet it had also forged him into a man suspicious of all human weakness, and he really had no idea that he was now regarding Miss Wells with a stern frown that even made her shiver briefly under its frosty reproach. ‘If only I could come with you,’ Miranda said wistfully and Ben reminded himself he’d cause to deal with her gently and wiped the glower off his face. ‘The best thing you can do for him is stay safe and keep close,’ he said, horrified by the idea of taking any pregnant woman on such a quest, let alone his best friend’s precious countess. ‘Indeed,’ Miss Wells backed him up, which must go sadly against the grain, ‘nothing would worry his lordship more than knowing you were abroad and vulnerable and, given the vagaries of the weather, let’s hope the sea crossing was calm. Not even Lord Carnwood could swim the Irish Sea if the captains won’t leave port,’ she added shrewdly and he nearly cheered. ‘That’s true,’ Miranda conceded, relief taking some of the tension out of her braced shoulders at last. ‘And I’m being a terrible widgeon, am I not?’ ‘You always look more like a swan than a duck to me, my lady,’ Ben teased lightly. ‘Say that again in a few months’ time and I’ll very likely hug you, if I can reach you,’ Miranda said with a rueful smile and he sensed the worst of her megrims were fading at last. ‘And as I’ve no wish to be challenged to a duel by my best friend, I beg you’ll contain your transports, my lady,’ he observed with mock terror and even got a laugh out of her at that very unlikely idea. ‘I hope Kit knows he’s no need to be jealous of any other man on this good earth of ours,’ Miranda said cheerfully enough, reminded of the passionate love that existed between herself and the man Ben had once thought too damaged by his early life to let himself love so completely. Again he felt the tug of feeling that sort of love, then dismissed the notion as impossible even if it did make him feel at odds with himself. Seeing Kit happy in the midst of so much domesticity must be turning him soft, for suddenly he longed not to be forever guarded and aloof from the wider world. If there was some special she he could lay aside his omnipotence in front of, he felt as if some gap in him might feel complete. The idiocy of being able to set the man he had made of himself aside for a space occurred to him at the same time as he frowned formidably at the coal scuttle. It would take an exceptional kind of woman to love him once she knew who he really was, deep inside. And he could never be innocent or unguarded enough to let them find out, he reflected bitterly, nor could he lay himself open to the danger of such hurt if he ever dared do so. The truth was that he had outgrown the wenches of the streets, both honest and otherwise, and would never be admitted far enough into the ton to win himself an aristocratic wife brought up to expect a marriage of convenience. He wasn’t fish, or flesh, or good red herring, and he could hardly search for some pale imitation of his friend’s countess, even if he wanted to. A picture of a certain stern and very respectable female who would certainly never approve of him slipped into his mind and he did his best to dismiss her, for even the idea seemed absurd. Miss Wells would obviously rather eat nails than marry a parvenu like himself, then he forced himself to be a little fairer to the formidable governess. Somehow he doubted his low beginnings made her look at him as if he had just emerged from under a stone. He’d seen her look icily severe in the presence of any unattached male, from the third footman to the septuagenarian Duke of Denley, when he visited Wychwood and was reckless enough to ogle any female under the age of fifty. It occurred to him that perhaps Miss Wells was a man-hater, but she would never have an easy friendship with Kit if so, or the young vicar of Wychwood village, who was almost as happily married as Kit himself. So the lady was wary and perhaps that was just as well, but what if she could be persuaded out of her formidable shell and he discovered the real Charlotte under all that starch? He eyed the stately figure seated across the room from him and considered that prospect with surprising pleasure. He’d long ago decided those truly awful gowns and ‘you can’t see me’ caps were a disguise. And she was the one female he knew who didn’t make him feel like an awkward and ungainly bear in her company, considering she easily reached as high as his chin. If her slender, long-fingered hands were any indication, under all the acres of grey shroud there could be a very different female. He forbade himself to dwell on that incendiary subject in mixed company and coolly examined the idea that a lady in her circumstances might be persuaded to accept a less-than-perfect suitor. He was certainly wealthy enough to turn even the most resistant female’s thoughts to marriage, if money was her overriding concern. He knew that without vanity, especially since one or two of the grand ladies of the ton had hinted they would welcome such a rich lover even if, regrettably, he wasn’t noble enough to pay court to their daughters and become their rich son-in-law. So maybe he was handsome enough as well, as even for the pleasure of plundering his deep pockets he doubted such grande dames could get the smell of the shop out of their delicate noses without a healthy seasoning of desire. His smile was cynical as he met Miss Wells’s eyes with some of his thoughts in his clear grey eyes and, when he saw her shiver, immediately regretted it. She was different, he assured himself with a certainty that almost shocked him, even if he didn’t know quite why. Glaring at the very annoying Mr Shaw, Charlotte wondered for perhaps the hundredth time since she had first met him why he made her either want to prickle like a rolled-up hedgehog, or itch to be the sort of blonde pocket Venus he seemed to admire. It was almost as if he regarded her as he might some odd curio he had spied in a museum and came back to inspect now and again, in the mistaken belief that one day he would work out her mechanism and remove all mystery from the conundrum. Little did he know that there was far more to the curio he sometimes eyed like a botanical specimen than he, or anyone else, suspected, she thought, and smiled rather secretively. If he ever had an inkling that she was other than what she seemed, he would never give her a moment’s peace until he had her worked out and suitably recorded. Not having the least wish to be considered an intellectual challenge by the famously astute Mr Shaw, she told herself it was almost her duty to be as tediously predictable as possible and took a certain joy in fulfilling his low expectations. In his presence she became a parody of the correct governess, and, remembering that fact now, she dug about in her reticule and triumphantly pulled out her spectacles. Perching them on her nose, she felt as if she had assumed a latter-day version of a shield before going into battle and dared him to comment. It proved to be a wasted gesture, as he was listening intently to some sound so indistinct that she had yet to hear it, and she might as well have been wearing a wig and a false beard for all the notice he took. Then she heard the faint noise of a carriage in the square herself, followed by the subdued fuss of an arrival who knew this was a ridiculous hour to turn up in a respectable neighbourhood. She looked questioningly at Mr Shaw, who gave a very slight nod and casually got to his feet. ‘I dare say Coppice is wishing me at the devil, so it’s probably high time I relieved you of my presence, your ladyship, Miss Wells,’ he said with rather mocking formality and a bow to each, then he raised his eyebrows at Charlotte as if to inform her she shouldn’t intrude on a private reunion. ‘I believe I shall retire,’ she informed him regally and, bidding her employer a hasty goodnight, allowed Mr Shaw to hurry her out of the room before Miranda had even fully taken in that they were going. No doubt she soon forgot about them, considering the Earl of Carnwood rushed up the stairs and into her ladyship’s sitting room, without even seeing them, as far as Charlotte could tell. She sighed audibly, then ordered herself back to battle order as Mr Shaw met her unguarded look with a rueful acknowledgement that, yes, it was a very unusual marriage, and yet a very desirable one, even in his cynical view. Their eyes stayed locked as if they were united in longing for the forbidden for once, but she made herself look away and told herself she was imagining it. Somehow it made him seem oddly vulnerable to want such an impossibility, especially when they were both too chastened by life to believe it could exist, either separately or, heady, forbidden thought, together. ‘There’s no need to fret about his lordship’s health from the speed of his run upstairs,’ Mr Shaw remarked ruefully. ‘Yet he was carrying his arm rather awkwardly, don’t you think?’ she asked anxiously. She might not want to believe her employers were truly under threat, but there was no point fooling herself it didn’t exist after such a warning, and from such a source. ‘It would take more than a strained arm to keep him from his lady, but I dare say Coppice will know what’s been going on, he knows everything.’ ‘So I long ago concluded,’ she agreed with rare amity and surprised him by accompanying him downstairs to satisfy her curiosity. Somehow tonight had proved such an upheaval of her usual steady world that she couldn’t bring herself to poker up and retreat into stately solitude just yet. Ben Shaw’s presence at her side made her feel oddly safe anyway, a notion that could hardly be more dangerous, she chided herself, as they descended the elegant stairs at a far more reasonable pace than their owner had just run up them. Coppice was in the act of closing the door on the Earl of Carnwood’s travelling equipage and turned to face them with his usual calm omnipotence, yet for some reason Charlotte thought it concealed his true feelings on this occasion. ‘Your hat and cane, Mr Shaw?’ the butler asked blandly. ‘No, an explanation if you please,’ Ben demanded impatiently, ‘and don’t pretend you’ve no idea what I’m alluding to, you old fox.’ Coppice shook his head as if about to reproach a cheeky young boy and then one look at the giant, and very adult, figure seemed to remind him that Ben Shaw was a force to be reckoned with on any man’s terms. ‘I understand his lordship met with a slight accident,’ he finally admitted. ‘How and where?’ Ben snapped, evidently too preoccupied with worrying about his friend to modify his abrupt tone. Coppice met Charlotte’s gaze with a shrug as if to say ‘ah well, boys will be boys’, ushered them into his pantry and shut the door against any listening ears. Awed by being admitted into his very private quarters, Charlotte allowed herself a quick look around this holy of holies and told herself she shouldn’t be surprised to see it was unusually comfortable, as well as rigidly tidy. The earl and countess took their servants’ comfort very seriously and she knew how well the governess was lodged, so of course they would see to the well-being of so crucial a person as Coppice. ‘Reuben informed me that his lordship was waylaid by thieves when riding about Miss Kate’s estate. He seems to think that, if he had not been following Lord Carnwood at a discreet distance, the day might have gone rather ill with his lordship. As it is, he had his hat shot off and took a blow to his right arm that would have kept anyone else from travelling for a sennight, or so Reuben seems to think, but his lordship insists we make light of the matter for her ladyship’s sake.’ ‘And you think they were not common thieves?’ Mr Shaw asked. ‘Most unlikely from the sound of it,’ Coppice assured him, with a significant look at Charlotte she supposed she was not meant to see. ‘If her ladyship’s peace of mind is to be guarded, you might just as well tell me, because the more of us who are close to her know the truth, the better she’ll be protected,’ she informed them both with what she thought exemplary patience on her part. ‘Very well, ma’am,’ Coppice admitted rather stiffly, as if she was at least twice her actual age, Charlotte decided very impatiently. ‘So who were they really?’ she demanded. ‘I have no idea, madam, but Reuben said they wore silk masks and appeared very prosperous for common thieves, as well as carrying the very latest in firearms. When they were turned over to the local magistrate they refused to say anything, preferring to take their punishment rather than betray even their names, which you must admit, sir, is highly suspicious.’ Ben nodded sagely and they exchanged manly looks as Charlotte was torn between fuming at Coppice, for addressing only what he obviously considered the important part of his audience, and terror for her friends. Added to the letter Miranda had received, it seemed something deeply sinister was coming to a head, and who knew what hurt might befall those she’d come to love in the process? When she had time and privacy, she might take herself to task for letting herself care for her employers so much, but now there were more important considerations than icy self-sufficiency. ‘I wonder just what the magistrate made of that,’ Ben mused. ‘Not a great deal, sir, he sentenced them to be transported for life.’ ‘And they still said nothing?’ ‘Yes, sir—quite significant, don’t you think?’ ‘Indeed, most criminals would name their own grandmother an accessory to avoid such a sentence.’ Charlotte thought of Celia Braxton’s letter, where she too refused to name the man who was threatening the Earl and his family as well as Ben Shaw and shivered. An implacable will lay behind such a depth of fear, and she wondered what he had done in the past to make his tools prefer the penal colony at Botany Bay to his vengeance. He was obviously more than just another common criminal, and tracking such a Machiavellian mind to his lair would be a task fit for Hercules himself. Her gaze turned inevitably to the giant at her side and she became even more thoughtful. If there was a man capable of the quest, it was surely Mr Benedict Shaw and she thought him capable of being every bit as subtle and unrelenting as his quarry, in the pursuit of those out to harm the man he considered a brother. For some reason that notion warmed rather than chilled her as it should have done. Such single-minded pursuit of his enemy should have made her shudder with revulsion, instead of feeling his protection was cast about her as well as her friends. Something else she must chide herself over later, along with the chill that dissipated that warmth as soon as it occurred to her that he would be in acute danger while pursuing a seemingly invisible, untouchable enemy. ‘Her ladyship will soon have the story out of him,’ she insisted in the face of two sceptical males. ‘All the more reason for Miranda to be away from here and safe at Wychwood,’ Ben Shaw said grimly and for once Charlotte agreed with him wholeheartedly. Indeed she could think of no better scheme than them all returning to Derbyshire post haste and staying there for the foreseeable future. Then the unpalatable truth of such a hasty withdrawal occurred to her. ‘The gossips will say Kate has committed some grand misdemeanour and had to be taken home,’ she warned. ‘Which is why she will have to stay here, with a suitably responsible female to bear her company, of course,’ Mr Shaw said with a significant look that Charlotte distrusted intensely. ‘I’m a governess, not a chaperon, Mr Shaw,’ she informed him sternly. ‘What’s the difference?’ he asked with an interested expression that had her clenching her gloved hands at her sides. ‘I should think that quite plain,’ she said repressively. ‘Then pray consider me just a stupid male and explain it to me,’ he replied with spurious meekness. She shot him a furious look, but in front of Coppice she couldn’t give way to a strong urge to inform him what she truly thought of him. ‘A governess is an educator of young ladies, and sometimes of even younger gentlemen, Mr Shaw. A chaperon is a lady who has the entrеe into the ton that will help secure her charge a marriage suitable to one of her lofty station in life,’ she said blandly, hoping it was very clear to both of them that she was the former and not the latter. ‘Are you telling me that you weren’t born a lady, Miss Wells?’ the wretch replied with a mock deference that made her long to slap him. ‘Let us say I possess no turn for matchmaking,’ she informed him with what she hoped was a superior smile. All the same, she felt profoundly uncomfortable discussing such a role under the interested gaze of Coppice, who seemed secretly amused by their discussion for some reason. Ben Shaw was either unaware of the butler’s feelings or indifferent to them, for he continued to look at her as if she was some odd curiosity he currently found fascinating. ‘Surely that makes you uniquely qualified for the position?’ he said and, when she haughtily raised her brows in question of that statement, added, ‘Being a cynic of the worst sort, you would see through the fortune hunters and shady characters and find your charge a paragon among men.’ ‘I’m far too stern a critic to manage that, I’m afraid,’ she explained shortly and treated both men to one of her best icy looks before turning to make a fighting retreat. ‘If I might suggest someone writes to the Countess’s godmama and offers Lady Rhys the role? From all I have seen of her, she would be highly entertained by the notion of chaperoning Kate in polite society, and might prove a shrewder matchmaker than any doting mama. I know she offered to take up the task weeks ago, but her ladyship was so eager to present her sister to the ton that I suspect she overestimated her own strength under the present circumstances.’ In front of Coppice she couldn’t refer directly to Miranda’s pregnancy and Charlotte felt distinctly impatient with the ridiculous conventions of a society that refused to refer to the very natural process of pregnancy and birth openly in mixed company. ‘Yes, it took Kit weeks to persuade her ladyship she wouldn’t blight her sisters’ prospects with unfounded gossip about her own past if she did bring them out, but I dare say he’s wishing he hadn’t made such a good job of it now. Nevertheless, that’s an excellent notion of yours and I’ll suggest it to him in the morning,’ Mr Shaw informed her rather pompously and she spared a little impatience from her general supply of it. ‘How do you know that he’ll consult you about any of this?’ she weakened enough to ask, as she stood with one hand suggestively on the doorknob, but couldn’t quite turn it and escape his infuriating presence. ‘And how could you think he wouldn’t, ma’am, especially as he doesn’t share your low opinion of my abilities, or lack thereof?’ ‘I really couldn’t say,’ she replied snippily and opened the door and went through it with a frigid goodnight, before she said something she might truly regret. Chapter Three ‘Kindly pay attention, Miss Wells,’ Miss Isabella Alstone ordered her governess the following morning. ‘I should probably make you stand in the corner for that piece of impudence,’ Charlotte returned placidly. ‘Well, you might as well actually be in the Americas for all the attention you’re paying to your lesson about them,’ Isabella replied with the warm smile that would have the young gentlemen of the ton lining up in fervent hope of winning another in a few years’ time. ‘I certainly seem to have failed dismally in my task of turning you and your sister into well-behaved young ladies, so perhaps I might just as well go there,’ Charlotte admitted ruefully. ‘Who wants to be a milk-and-water miss? I certainly don’t and I doubt Miranda and Kit would thank you if I suddenly became one. There are far too many of them about already, at least if the girls at Kate’s waltzing parties are any indication of things.’ ‘I agree that they can seem a little giddy, but I dare say it’s all the excitement,’ Charlotte managed to defend those silly young ladies half-heartedly in the face of her own doubts about their common sense. ‘In a watering place full of senile octogenarians they would still contrive to be the most foolish creatures imaginable, but when are you going to tell me what happened last night, dear Miss Wells?’ ‘Since you avow contempt of the fashionable throng, I really can’t imagine why you’re interested in their sayings and doings,’ Charlotte observed slyly, ‘and in any case there are the Americas to consider.’ ‘Yes, and you obviously need to do so, as you can’t seem to concentrate on either their geography or history this morning.’ ‘I have the excuse of having been from home and out of my bed until the early hours of the morning and you do not, miss.’ ‘Then why not tell me everything that went on at the Wintergreen ball instead and get it over with? After that I would have no excuse not to take a proper interest in geography, now would I?’ ‘I’m quite sure there’s something wrong with the grammar of that sentence as well as its intent, Isabella.’ ‘I dare say, now cut line and tell all, Miss Wells, before one of us falls asleep.’ ‘You really are a shocking minx, Isabella Alstone,’ Mr Shaw’s distinctive deep voice informed her from the doorway. ‘Ben!’ Isabella screamed in a manner that had Charlotte shuddering to the depths of her govern-essly soul. ‘Hoyden,’ he greeted her, laughing as his youngest adopted sister jumped into his mighty arms and he swung her round as easily and unselfconsciously as if she had been five instead of fifteen. Charlotte was forced to admit that, while there were any number of gentlemen she wouldn’t trust with a young girl’s open adoration, Ben Shaw was not one of them. When it came to her charges, or any other female he considered himself bound to by ties far stronger than blood, there was an absolute integrity about him. She’d seen enough of the relationship between Lord Carnwood and his oldest friend to know they were more like brothers than most men born in the same bed. What was more, that kinship extended to his lordship’s true sisters, who were as easy with Mr Shaw as their brother was. It was those outside that magic circle who needed to be wary of him, and Charlotte was conscious she was excluded and should be very cautious of letting her thoughts linger on his very large person and subtle mind. Now where on earth had that odd idea come from? And why did her exclusion suddenly seem so chilling? She must be more tired than she realised, she decided with an impatient sigh, and did her best to dismiss such ridiculous thoughts. She hadn’t the least desire for Ben Shaw to act like a brother towards her and refused to countenance the shocking fantasy of any attentions he might pay her instead. Since last night a stupid fantasy of being gowned and groomed as finely as the beauties of the ton, and dancing the night away in the arms of a man ideally suited to enchant a very tall lady, had troubled her as never before. Charlotte wondered if tiredness and terror of being recognised had relaxed her usual iron grip on her traitorous emotions and reminded herself who and what she was. A governess, she informed herself flatly, a woman unfortunate enough to be forced to make her own way in the world and relying on an unblemished reputation to secure every post that came her way. ‘Miss Wells won’t tell me what happened at the ball last night and Kate was still asleep last time I looked, so what was it like, Ben? Did she dance every dance and slay a legion of suitors with just one blink of her beautiful blue eyes?’ ‘Something like that, minx, and isn’t it bloodthirsty to wish so many youthful hearts trampled on?’ ‘Not in the least, they’ll recover soon enough,’ Isabella replied cynically and Charlotte felt herself frown even as she ordered the crease from between her brows and did her best to banish all expression from her face as she became conscious of Mr Shaw’s acute gaze. Did he think she was responsible for such cynical observations from one so young? She sincerely hoped not. While anything other than a distant acquaintance was clearly impossible between them, somehow she didn’t want him to think she’d foist her own views of the world Isabella must move in sooner or later on her pupil. She suspected he would need to look closer to home for that, to Celia Braxton and her stony-hearted mama, who seemed to have had too free a hand in the education, or lack of it, provided to the younger Miss Alstones before their grandfather finally realised it and sent them both to school. When Charlotte first met them there, she had been shocked by both girls’ ignorance of so much that seemed essential to a well-adjusted young lady, especially considering the acute minds concealed by their often careless behaviour. Four years on she was fairly confident they’d realised more of their potential, and would make fine wives and mothers as their destiny surely dictated. She sincerely hoped, however, that they would wait to feel something more than the bare tolerance that seemed to Charlotte to constitute most society marriages. She wondered what Mr Shaw would expect from marriage and felt herself blush, as the combination of his speculative gaze and her improper fantasies blossomed into something downright outrageous. Still, a cat could look at a queen, or a king. Some instinct told her he would be a magnificent lover and she tried to meet his gaze with an indignant question in her own, even as her mind skittered over the mental picture she suddenly had of Ben Shaw naked and superb and very masculine indeed. Building a picture of what he might look like under that finely cut coat and all that pristine linen ought to be far harder for a respectable spinster lady than it actually was. She could imagine hard muscle rippling under a sweat slicked, satin supple skin, and really those breeches and his very highly polished boots left far too little to her fertile imagination! Shaking her head sadly at her own folly, she looked up again and encountered laughter and what looked suspiciously like a reflection of her own state of unwilling arousal in his eyes, which she did her level best to return with her best governess look. Perverse creature that he was, her formidable frown seemed to encourage rather than reproach him and his firm mouth actually had the cheek to tip into an open grin as she fought off her ludicrous state of confusion, made even worse by that inviting, too-understanding smile. ‘What think you, Miss Wells?’ he asked mockingly and she had to fight hard to keep her own expression serene as he openly challenged her. ‘That hearts aren’t quite so easily broken, and that Isabella needs to learn some compassion toward vulnerable young gentlemen before she makes her own come-out,’ she managed to say calmly enough; at least formulating a reply gave her something to do other than speculating about Mr Shaw’s masculine at tributes. ‘How very well done of you, Miss Wells,’ he returned softly and still she could read secrets in his eyes no governess could afford to look for and stay sternly respectable, and therefore in employment. ‘It seems to me that young ladies require protection against the gentlemen rather than the other way about,’ Isabella put in and Charlotte finally managed to give more of her attention to her pupil than their visitor, and saw there was more than just youthful scepticism behind her attitude toward Kate’s suitors. ‘That is always a consideration, of course,’ she replied carefully, ‘but your sister is a beautiful young woman with plenty of native wit and a great deal of family influence at her back. It would be a very reckless, or downright foolish, man who would risk bringing all that to bear against him.’ ‘Why? It didn’t stop that worm of a Braxton creature Cousin Celia married from deceiving Miranda into eloping with him and then treating her abominably, and I don’t want to lose Kate from my life for five years as I did my other sister, thank you very much.’ As Isabella stuck out her chin and looked determinedly defiant after making that pronouncement, Charlotte knew they had finally got to the crux of her pupil’s restless moods and uncharacteristic irritability of late. She had thought it came from taking her lessons alone and being bound to the schoolroom while Kate shopped, danced and was driven round the park, and, yes, slayed gangling young gentlemen through the heart with just one limpid look from her famous dark-blue Alstone eyes. Really she should have known there was more to it than that, and it wasn’t Mr Shaw’s fault she had failed to look deeper, so why she was scowling at him instead of thanking him for bringing the whole matter into the open, even she could not have said. ‘Ah, but Braxton didn’t have Kit Alstone to deal with now, did he?’ Mr Shaw asked with apparently academic interest. ‘And can you honestly see Kate falling for some plausible rogue with such an example before her? I’d say she’s got too much common sense to do anything of the sort, but if you think otherwise I suppose I must bow to your superior knowledge.’ Isabella looked thoughtful and Charlotte could see her testing his words against her experience of both her sisters and some of the tension went out of her young shoulders and a smile began to dawn. ‘Miranda always was a dreamer,’ she finally admitted ruefully. ‘Kate is much more practical.’ ‘You can’t be too practical when your future happiness is at stake,’ Charlotte said impulsively, then immediately regretted it when Mr Shaw’s attention centred on her once more. What a fool she was to give him so much to speculate on, she condemned herself, and risk revealing painful decisions she had made when no older than Kate. ‘I suspect there’s a happy medium between being a dreamer and Miss Practical,’ Mr Shaw drawled with a sidelong glance at Charlotte that she was quite sure was intended to provoke her. ‘Perhaps we can rely on you to find it one day, minx,’ he challenged her pupil on just the right note of affection and speculation to set Isabella a task she would find irresistibly challenging. With an internal groan as she dreaded Isabella practising it on every susceptible young gentleman in Derbyshire, Charlotte cast Mr Shaw an impatient look, but at least he’d diverted Isabella from Kate’s future. ‘Whichever you plan to be, Isabella, a sound education is going to stand you in good stead, so perhaps it’s time I got on with providing it?’ she suggested and won a moan of protest from Isabella and another of those speculative, sensual looks from Mr Shaw. ‘Trying to get rid of me, Miss Wells?’ he asked inexcusably and perched himself on the corner of a map table she was certain would bow under the pressure, but even that piece of inanimate oak failed her and remained as stout as ever. ‘Not with notable success,’ she managed to say coolly, as his wicked grey eyes met hers with an open invitation to look her fill, as he had so obligingly put himself on her eye level. Well, she wouldn’t! That way lay the ruin of many a good governess’s future and one she would have thought him all too conscious of. Shooting him a hostile look, she pulled the book she’d found on the lives and customs of the Native American tribes toward her and tried hard to focus on it, only to find it might as well be written in one of their languages. ‘Please stay, Ben,’ Isabella urged him traitorously and Charlotte found herself quite unable to insist he went away and left them in peace in the face of his innocent look and Isabella’s pleading one. ‘Then you may take over the lesson, Mr Shaw. After all your voyages, doubtless you know the customs and habits of our American cousins much better than I do, or the author of this book,’ she informed him briskly and met his eyes with a certain triumph in her own. Unfortunately he confounded her by returning her gaze with one that answered her challenge and returned it with utterly wicked intent. Part of her was fascinated by the prospect of being teased and maybe even seduced by a master, but another was horrified. She retired to a usually comfortable corner of the room and delved in her bag for her spectacles, fully intending to pick up her embroidery and pretend she wasn’t here and neither was he. He soon put paid to that idea by coming far too close, so that her heart beat so loudly she barely took in his words. ‘Put those ridiculous things away, Miss Wells,’ he warned with the hint of a driven growl in his gruff whisper, ‘you don’t need them any more than I do, and every time you put them on in my presence from now I shall claim a forfeit.’ ‘I’ll do as I like,’ she sparked back, but Charlotte knew he could almost see the shiver of delighted apprehension sliding languorously down her spine at the very thought of what such defiance might cost her. ‘Oh, I guarantee that you will like, Miss Wells, but I’m not at all sure it would be proper for such a correct governess as you are to like it so much.’ ‘Which is one very good reason why you should leave me alone,’ she pointed out rather breathlessly and cast a warning look at him, then at Isabella, who was eagerly paying attention to all she could catch of this highly improper conversation. ‘For now,’ he half-threatened and half-promised and Charlotte sat back in her chair with what must be relief as he finally swung away from her and her world could expand again. Ben did his best to consider the book Miss Wells had set on her neat schoolmistress’s desk and finally decided she had completely shot his concentration, and that she was right and it wasn’t a very good book to start with. Sweeping it aside, he perched on her usual desk instead and tried to muster a description of his first meeting with the inhabitants of that young country, both native and more recently arrived. He must have succeeded, for Isabella hung on his every word and even Miss Wells stayed silent in her corner and didn’t interrupt once. The very thought of her there, quiet and sceptical and far more of a woman than she had ever let the world see, was in danger of distracting him, but luckily Isabella had a keen interest in the world and kept him busy with questions and challenges. His respect for governesses grew, although he suspected Miss Wells was far more learned and genuinely accomplished than most and he could see why Miranda valued her so highly. And nobody could accuse her of being encroaching with any justice, since she was so determined to efface herself in company that at first he used to quiz himself on whether she had actually been in a room while he was in it or not. But that blessed state of oblivion now felt as if it had happened years ago and he knew exactly where and when she was there now, however hard she pretended to be invisible. Just by the reaction of his rebellious body he was all too aware of every look and movement she made. He was sincerely glad she didn’t know it, or how infuriating he found his ridiculous susceptibility. Just thinking of her reaction if he gave in to his baser instincts and kissed her passionately, to prove she wasn’t the icily correct governess she wanted to believe, made him feel like grinning like an idiot and moaning like a soul in torment at the same time. He was a damned fool to stir up a hornet’s nest that didn’t need stirring, he decided, and did his best to answer Isabella’s questions. No, more than that, the hornet might win and it only took the quiet, elusive scent of Miss Wells, the sight of her pretending to be obliviously stitching, to let him know he was in danger of being stirred up more than she would think at all proper. Last night he’d tossed and turned in his very comfortable bed in his comfortable house and told himself he had everything he needed in life. It had taken until the dawn was threatening for him to acknowledge that, no, he didn’t have one very significant thing and stood very little chance of ever securing it. That he should suddenly be afflicted with the desire to lie with Miss Vinegar and Propriety in his arms in that grand feather bed all night was anathema to him, and would certainly be to her if she ever found out! He’d come here, after assuring himself that Kit Alstone was as indestructible as ever, with the noble object of curing himself of Miss Wells with as large a dose of disapproval and uninterest as a man could physick himself with. And she’d let him down! Even now he almost refused to believe it, but while Miss Charlotte Wells might hate him for it, she would kiss him right back if he were ever fool enough to risk it and why did that make him more confused, instead of re-armoured against her? Over in her isolation corner, he could tell she was as conscious of his every move and mood as he was, and he felt her sensitivity like a fever running over his skin. She would never admit it, of course; he could imagine her fighting the attraction between them with every fibre of her being and with a slightly bitter twist in his gut he couldn’t blame her. No doubt she’d been born a lady, and remained one despite her dependent situation. She might be impoverished, but his Miss Wells would never weaken and seek the primrose path to damnation by accepting a rich man’s protection and, as he hadn’t the slightest intention of getting married, now or ever, there could be nothing else between them. He should avoid her as if she had the plague and see as little as possible of his adoptive family until Kate was safely settled, and Izzie firmly closeted in her schoolroom and keeping her governess too busy to disturb him. ‘Really, Ben, you’re as bad as Miss Wells for wandering off into dreamland this morning,’ Isabella informed him disgustedly and watched him artlessly with those astounding Alstone eyes he wondered idly how Kit had missed. He needed to take care in the face of the sparkling intelligence he knew lay behind them, and gave Isabella a mock frown to try and distract her from considering the cause of such mutual distraction. ‘However much your sister pays Miss Wells, she needs a raise,’ he told her with a sternness that wasn’t entirely assumed. ‘You’d drive me to distraction in half a day.’ ‘Miss Wells is made of sterner stuff, or we’d have parted company years ago,’ she informed him, unimpressed with his attempt to distract her and bringing him back to the subject of her personal dragon instead. ‘I am here, you know?’ she told them mildly, looking up for a moment from her infernal stitchery with a slight smile that jarred at something inside him and reminded him he was in no danger of forgetting. ‘My admiration for that fact is growing by the moment, ma’am,’ he informed her with a slightly mocking bow. ‘I’d have departed for the Americas myself rather than endure two weeks of trying to instruct this ungrateful urchin alone—two years of it must be considered heroic.’ ‘Oh, it’s not so very bad when you get into the way of it,’ she told him mildly and he knew she was informing him that she was perfectly content with her lot and had no intention of seeking another—particularly not one that might end with her spending each and every night rendering his rest disturbed for a very different reason than she had last night. 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