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Forever Yours

Forever Yours

Coming July, 2017!

Book #1 of the FOREVER series

CHERYL HOLT introduces her new “forever” series with four stirring novels of passion, drama, and love forevermore…

Abigail Henley is an earl’s daughter, raised to a life of wealth and privilege.  But all was lost when her parents died in an accident and distant relatives inherited.  With no prospects and her dowry squandered, she’s forced to work as a governess, caring for the children of the rich and notorious.  She’s lonely, chafing at the unfairness of her situation, and wishing she could change her fate—or at least regain some of the status and position she once had.

Alex Wallace was ruined by scandal.  With his being from a prominent military family, he expected to have a long and successful career in the army.  Instead, he’s a scorned, dissolute, and divorced man who was forced to resign his commission and is raising two daughters who were sired by another man.  He’s weary of gossip and innuendo, and he leads a reckless life, trying to prove he doesn’t care about anything.

When Abigail arrives to work for Alex and watch over his two girls, she stumbles on a family torn apart by tragedy.  Can she heal the wounds that have been inflicted?

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CHAPTER ONE

Abigail Henley felt a bump and a jolt as the wagon in which she was riding rolled to a stop.  She glanced over her shoulder at the friendly man who’d transported her from the village.

“Is this the spot?” she asked him.

“Yes, this is it.”  He pointed toward the trees.  “The lane is just there.  Follow it and you’ll come to the house without too much walking.  You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you.”

She climbed down and pulled her portmanteau to the ground.  It contained all of her belongings so it was very heavy.  It landed with a muted thud.

She wondered how she’d lug it to her destination.  For a fleeting instant, she considered requesting that he take her the rest of the way, but she’d never be that rude.  He’d already been more than helpful, and she wouldn’t presume on his kindly nature.

Her new employer, Mr. Alexander Wallace, was supposed to have sent a servant to meet the mail coach and deliver her to his home of Wallace Downs.  The fact that he hadn’t was annoying and disturbing.

At age twenty-five, she’d been a governess for the better part of a decade, having begun the year she finished school at sixteen.

Early on, she’d learned that the first days at a post were the best ones.  Initially, people were eager to impress her, but matters usually went downhill after their primary spurt of optimistic behavior.  With Mr. Wallace ignoring her arrival, she was off to a rocky start and certain that there would be no good days in the future.

But hadn’t Mrs. Ford warned her?

Mrs. Ford owned the agency that placed Abigail at her various positions.  The older woman hadn’t exactly been thorough in describing the problems Abigail would face with Mr. Wallace, but she’d been clear there would be challenges.

Abigail didn’t mind a challenge.  She didn’t mind hard work or frustrating situations.  What she didn’t like was discourtesy, disrespect, or harsh treatment.

“Will you be able to manage with your bag?” the driver asked.

“Yes, I’ll be fine.”

He frowned at her, his look worrisome, and she figured he had a few pertinent and derogatory remarks to offer about the occupants of Wallace Downs, but in the end they weren’t voiced.

“I’ll wish you luck then,” was all he said.

She grinned.  “I hope I won’t need it.”

He snorted and bit down a reply she was sure would have been caustic.  On what topic?  Her employer?  The children?  The family?

He called to his team, clicked the reins, and his horses lumbered off.  As he vanished from view, she was suffering from the worst urge to chase after him, to beg him to drive her back to the village.

She had coins in her purse and would love to purchase another ticket on the mail coach and simply head to London, but she wasn’t a coward.  She was one of Mrs. Ford’s favorites because she’d never shirked a task or refused an assignment.  She’d never failed in the past and she wouldn’t fail now.

The area where she was dawdling was surrounded by thick, verdant woods, and the summer afternoon was very quiet.

She cocked her ear, anxious to hear the sound of cows or horses or people—or perhaps even waves crashing on the beach.  The property where she’d be staying was right on the coast, but there was no hint of habitation.  There were just birds chirping in the sky and a slight breeze rippling the leaves in the trees.

She might have been the only human on Earth.

Yet she was in no rush to reach the residence.  Nor was she eager to meet Mr. Wallace.  According to Mrs. Ford, he was difficult and demanding and disagreeable, but Abigail expected she’d like his two daughters.  She was coming to teach them, not their father.

Mrs. Ford had had limited information about them except that they were nine-year-old twins, and Abigail imagined they’d get on brilliantly.  She was always better at handling girls than boys.

She plopped down on her portmanteau and stared toward the lane as if it was the road to Hades.  At breakfast, she’d squirreled away a slice of bread and a piece of cheese.  She retrieved them from her reticule and enjoyed small bites, chewing slowly so the moment would last.

It was never a good idea to show up with an empty stomach.  No one ever remembered to feed her, and she’d wasted many aggravating hours, yearning to declare that she was dying to eat and when would supper be ready?

Her personal circumstances were in total disarray, and she often felt as if she was outside her body and gawking at some other poor woman who was simply trying to scrape by.  How could she be struggling so furiously?  How could she have plummeted so far down society’s ladder?

In light of her sheltered, prosperous upbringing, it had never occurred to her that calamity could strike so quickly or so completely.  After it had, she’d frequently attempted to make sense of what had happened, but there was no rational explanation, and efforts to understand her plight were futile and exhausting.  The world was a mystery she couldn’t unravel, and she had to get up and get moving.

There was no reason to delay.  She’d taken the job and had contracted to remain for a year, with the possibility of a second year if Mr. Wallace was satisfied with her teaching skills.

But as she stood, she realized a man was over in the woods, leaned against a tree and watching her.  He was focused on her in a way that was alarming and acute, and she blanched with dismay.  How long had he been there?

She was alone, and with the exception of the teamster who’d conveyed her from the village, she hadn’t seen another soul.  What was his intent?  If he had wicked designs, she was in trouble.

He noted that she’d observed him, and he emerged from the shadows.  On her being able to view him more clearly, much of her trepidation eased.

He was thirty or so and quite tall, six feet at least, with broad shoulders and a muscular physique that indicated strenuous endeavor, but she perceived no menace.  He definitely appeared as if he could be violent or aggressive if provoked, but he exuded no outward belligerence.

He was dressed in casual clothes—tan trousers, black boots, and a flowing white shirt—and the garments were professionally tailored and sewn from expensive fabric.  Who was he and why was he lurking in the forest?

He approached until he was much too close, and with his excessive height and her being barely five-foot-five in her stockings, he towered over her.  He was a male so he would automatically assume he was superior to her, and she never liked to feel that anyone was above her.  Few people were, but that was a story from a very different period in her life.

His hair was dark black, worn too long and curling about his shoulders.  He hadn’t bothered to tie it back with a ribbon.  He had an aristocratic face—strong forehead, stark cheekbones, a generous mouth—but it was his eyes that held her rapt.  They were an amazing sapphire color, probably the shade the Mediterranean was reputed to be.

His skin was bronzed from the sun as if he spent much of his time out-of-doors and engaged in arduous activity, but he didn’t look like a farmer or laborer.  His demeanor was much too refined.

Most odd and bewildering was the fact that he had an earring in his ear.  An earring!  A little gold hoop.  She’d never seen a man with an earring before, and it made him seem especially exotic.  Had he traveled to foreign lands?  If so, he would prove to be a fascinating character.

“Did I frighten you?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“I apologize.  I wasn’t going to announce myself, but with you noticing me I don’t suppose I can continue to pretend I’m invisible.”

“You’re adept at hiding.  I’ve been sitting here forever without realizing you were there.”

“I was spying on you—and being blatantly uncivil about it too.”

“Yes, you were.  I was simply loafing.  Weren’t you bored to tears, waiting for something exciting to transpire?”

“Nothing exciting ever occurs at Wallace Downs.”

“That’s not so bad.  I’ve had tons of excitement in my life and I’ve had plenty of monotony and tedium.  Between those choices, I prefer the monotony and tedium.”

“You climbed out of that wagon ages ago, but you didn’t walk on.  Are you lost?”

“No.  I’m merely being slothful.”

“Are you regularly a slacker?”

“No,” she said again.  “Usually, I’m energetic and vigorous, but I’m in no hurry to arrive at my destination.”

“What is your destination?”

“Wallace Cottage.  I’m starting a new job.”

“Ah…” he mused.  “It’s why you’re in no hurry.”

“I like working, but the first day can be…interesting.  I’m proceeding with caution.”

He chuckled and assessed her, his gaze a tad irreverent as it brazenly slid down her torso then back up.

“Let me guess what your post is to be,” he said.

“Considering my conservative attire, I doubt it’s much of a mystery.”

“You’re the governess Mr. Wallace hired.”

It was her turn to chuckle.  “You’re very clever to have figured it out—and so swiftly too.”

“Yes, I’m renowned for my cleverness.”

“And your quick thinking?”

“Absolutely.”

“I am Miss Barrington.”  She used the false surname she’d adopted once calamity had tossed her out into the cold, cruel world.  She never liked to proclaim her true identity.  There was no point.

“Hello, Miss Barrington.  Welcome to Wallace Downs.”

He didn’t mention his own name, and she was curious as to why he wouldn’t.  He was too tidy and well groomed to be a bandit or shady rogue.  She had a dozen reasons to conceal her real surname, but she couldn’t fathom why he would need to.  Despite the name he supplied, she’d have no idea who he was.

“The teamster who brought me said the cottage is up the lane, but he didn’t say how far up the lane.”

“It’s a bit of a distance.”  He gestured to her portmanteau.  “Your bag looks heavy.  May I carry it for you?”

She’d like to accept his gallant request, but she couldn’t have an unknown man escort her to the door.  What if he was a scandalous fellow?  It would definitely get her off on the wrong foot with Mr. Wallace.

“I can carry it myself,” she insisted, “but thank you for offering.”

He stepped in even closer, the toes of his boots slipping under the hem of her skirt.  Suddenly, the air between them was charged with a potent surge of energy as if their proximity was generating sparks.

His expression was very smug, as if he’d planned to produce just such a sensation and was eager to see how she’d react.  His bold manner provided her with the distinct impression that he was a flirt.  He was probably hoping she’d flinch away or swoon, but he was in for a rude awakening.  With how she’d spent the past decade, there was very little that could daunt her.

“Who are you?” she asked.  “You never said.”

“No, I didn’t,” he maddeningly replied.

“You don’t appear inclined to introduce yourself, which is your prerogative, but you’re being incredibly brash and forward.  If you’re expecting to rattle me, you couldn’t possibly.”

“Why is that?”

“Because I take care of children for a living, and I have suffered through every bizarre, astonishing situation you could ever imagine.  You could never disconcert me in the slightest.”  She nodded and moved away.  “Good day, sir.”

“Good day, Miss Barrington.  It’s been a pleasure.”

She scoffed at that and picked up her satchel.  It was as heavy as she remembered it to be, but she was determined not to show that she had any difficulty lifting it.  She spun and walked away, the cumbersome bag banging against her thigh so she was forced to limp as if she was crippled.

Before she realized what was happening, he snuck up behind her and yanked the portmanteau away from her.

“I can carry my own bag!” she protested more vehemently.

“Of course you can, but you don’t have to.  I intend to assist you.  Don’t be so stubborn.”

“I’m not stubborn.  I simply don’t believe I should waltz up to the front door, accompanied by a strange man.”

“And there’s no one stranger than me.”

She shot him such a hot look of agreement that he laughed.

“Who are you afraid might see us?” he asked.  “Mr. Wallace?”

“Yes.”

“He’s never at the cottage so don’t worry about him.”

She scowled.  “If he’s never there, where is he?”

“Over at the main house.”

“His daughters live in the cottage without him?  That’s ridiculous.”

He shrugged.  “It’s a long story.”

“It certainly must be.”

“The servants will fill you in on all the gory details.”

“I’m sure they will too, but I hate to gossip.”

“Do you?  You’ll be the first governess in history to ever feel that way.”

“You don’t have a very high opinion of the women in my profession.”

“It’s not just those in your profession.  I don’t have a high opinion of any woman.”

“We have a lot in common then.”

“How so?  You don’t like women either?”

“No.  I don’t have a high opinion of any man.”  He laughed again, and she said, “You seem to be extremely familiar with the Wallace family.”

“I wouldn’t say extremely familiar, but yes I know a bit about them.”

It was unseemly for her to inquire, but she couldn’t stop herself.  “What is Mr. Wallace like?”

“You haven’t met him?”

“No, I was sent by an agency in London.  He hired me sight unseen.”

“That’s quite daring.  Why would he?  What would have swayed him?  Was it your stellar qualifications?  Your impeccable references?”

“I assume those were the reasons.”

“Or perhaps it’s such an awful position in such an awful spot that you were the only one brave enough to come.”

“I hope that’s not true.”

She peeked up at him, and there was a twinkle in his eye.  Was he jesting?  Was he teasing her?

“You still haven’t told me what you think of Mr. Wallace.  Are you acquainted with him?”

“Yes.  He’s crossed swords with nearly everyone in the area.”

“Crossed swords?  Is he temperamental?”

“Yes, he’s bossy and arrogant.”

“Rich men usually are.”

“He’s also domineering, overly confident, exceptionally rude, and wildly dissolute.”

“Be serious,” she scolded.

“I’m serious as an apoplexy.  He’s passionately attached to extravagance, and he never behaves appropriately.  The rumors about him are so severe that the vicar offers up special prayers on Sundays.”

“For his debauched, immortal soul?”

“No, for the servants who work for him at Wallace Downs.  It’s a veritable den of iniquity, and the entire neighborhood has been in an uproar about it for years.  But there’s nothing they can do.”

“Why can’t they?”

“A man is entitled to revel in his own home.”

“I suppose, but doesn’t he care what others say about him?  Isn’t he worried about his reputation?”

“Trust me.  Mr. Wallace’s reputation is the very last issue that concerns him.”

Abigail digested the information, wishing she hadn’t pried.  The oaf was uncouth and crass, and after they parted company, he was the type who would march into the local tavern and stir trouble for her by announcing that she was a gossipy chatterbox.

“Even though Mr. Wallace is dissolute,” she asked, “is he kind to his servants at least?  Is he courteous to them?”

“No.  He’s vulgar and abrasive and no one likes him.”

“No one?”

“No, not even his mother.  He’s that depraved.”

She peeked up at him again, and he was grinning, brimming with mischief.  He probably didn’t even know the Wallace family.

“I can’t decide if you’re telling the truth or not,” she said.

“I guess you’ll see for yourself very soon.”

“I guess I will.”

“Have you any fortitude, Miss Barrington?  Can you muddle through in difficult circumstances?”

“Yes, but I’ll have to wait to learn if I’m about to encounter difficult circumstances or not.  I’m convinced I shouldn’t take your word for anything.”

“I’m honest as the day is long,” he huffed with feigned offense.

“You won’t even reveal your name so I’m sure I shouldn’t seek your opinion on any topic.”

“You just might be a very good judge of character.”

“I couldn’t have succeeded at this if I’d been a ninny or a fool.”

“How long have you been a governess?”

“Nine years.”

“Nine!  You don’t look to be twenty.  When did you start?  When you were ten?”

“I was sixteen.”

“So you’re twenty-five.”

“Yes.”

“You never married?”

“No.”

“Why haven’t you?  Has no man ever asked?  Or is it because you have such a low view of the male species that you weren’t interested?”

She could have begun a lengthy diatribe about her past, but she never talked about herself.  On her initially signing with Mrs. Ford’s agency, Mrs. Ford had insisted she not mention her name or history.  It would simply upset potential employers and make it harder for her to find work.

And she absolutely had to work.  She had no other option.

When she was fifteen and near to finishing her education, her parents and brother had been returning from a trip to Italy.  Their ship had sunk, and they were presumed deceased.

Her cousin, Jasper, had inherited her father’s earldom and his title of Lord Middlebury, as well as her family’s home and other properties.  He and his wife, Desdemona, had swooped in like greedy vultures, and they’d been adamant that Abigail and her two sisters, Catherine and Sarah, weren’t welcome at Middlebury.

She and her sisters all earned their livings.  They had no other choice.  Jasper claimed their father had been a spendthrift, that the estate was bankrupt and their dowries squandered.  They had no money to fight Jasper in the courts, no power to prove he was lying.

In the blink of an eye, they’d lost everything, and she had no idea how to get it back.

To add insult to injury, Jasper was a gambler and notorious roué, his repute as black as a kettle.  She didn’t dare admit he was her cousin.  She had to maintain a pristine reputation, and with his careless habits known by all, people might wonder if she possessed any of the same despicable tendencies.  Who would hire her then?

“If I thought it was any of your business,” she said, “I would tell you that I haven’t married because I never had the chance.”

“No dowry, huh?”

“No dowry.”

“But if a rich, stable fellow swept you off your feet, would you jump at the opportunity to be a bride?  Would you run off and leave poor Mr. Wallace in the lurch?”

“No, I wouldn’t leave him in the lurch.”

“Why not?  Aren’t you eager to wed?”

She scoffed.  “In my experience, fairytales are silly.  There will be no wealthy beau to sweep me off my feet.”

“You’re not a romantic at heart?”

“No.  I don’t have a romantic bone in my body.”

“What an odd woman you are.”

“Why?  Because I don’t pine away for a husband?”

“No, because you don’t believe in love and romance.  I’ve never met a female who didn’t obsess over both.”

“I’ve never had the time to obsess over them.”

“How boring your life must be.”

“My life is fine,” she said, and usually it was.

She missed her sisters though.  And she’d never quite accepted that her parents and her brother, Hayden, were deceased.  Especially Hayden.  He’d been so vibrant and charismatic.  She still expected to glance over her shoulder someday and he’d be sauntering toward her.

She missed her prior existence too.  She missed their home at Middlebury and the easy, opulent era she’d passed there.

She recognized that Fate could be cruel, that situations could change in an instant, but why did they have to change so drastically and completely?  Why couldn’t she have lost just a bit of what she’d had?  Why did she have to lose every blasted thing?

They’d been walking through the woods, and suddenly the trees spit them out into a clearing.  The cottage was up ahead.

It was a beautiful house, two stories high with big windows, flowerboxes, red brick and black shutters.  The summer foliage was bright green, and behind the house she could see the ocean, the blue of the water providing a stark contrast.

Rose bushes splashed color everywhere, and ivy climbed up a trellis.  She thought it was the kind a place where a person could be happy, where a person could settle in and not note how the years were drifting by.

“Oh, my,” she breathed, “it’s lovely, isn’t it?”

He wrinkled his nose.  “I don’t know if lovely is the word I’d use to describe it.”

“What word would you use?”

“Tiny.  Drafty.  Inconvenient.”

“Have you been inside?”

“No, I’ve simply heard people talking.  The rooms are small, the ceilings low, and the chimneys smoky.”

She snorted with disgust.  “For some reason, you’re trying to discourage me or perhaps ruin my arrival, but I can’t figure out why you would.”

“I’m not trying to discourage you.  I’m testing your mettle.”

“Has if withstood your barrage?”

“I haven’t decided.”

He dropped her portmanteau on the ground.  “This is where I leave you.  Can you get your bag to the door on your own?”

“Yes.  I could have lugged it all the way myself, but you wouldn’t let me.”

“It was too heavy, and you’re a woman so I wasn’t about to listen to you.”

“I stand corrected.  I’m weak and feeble, and you have rescued me from myself.”

“You’re lucky I came along when I did.”

“Why were you lurking in the woods?  You never explained.”

“No, I didn’t.  Goodbye.”

He raised a hand to his forehead and gave a jaunty salute, then he turned and left.  She watched him go, and it seemed she should offer a pithy parting remark, as if the conversation hadn’t really ended.

“Goodbye,” she called.

He glanced back, and his focus was riveting and cheeky.  His impertinent eyes wandered down her torso again, assessing spots he had no business assessing.  Through the entire encounter, he’d deliberately attempted to rattle her, and she would deny him the satisfaction.

“Thank you for carrying my bag,” she told him.

“Even though you didn’t want me to?”

“Even though.”

“I didn’t have anything else to do this afternoon.”

“Well, that certainly makes me feel special.”

“We’ll cross paths again,” he said like a threat.

“Will we?”

“I guarantee it.”

“Will you tell me your name when we do?”

“Maybe.”

They both grinned, and it occurred to her that she was flirting with him, which was insane.

Governesses were to be quiet and invisible, to be dull and placid and content, to have no opinions or convictions, and most particularly not to appear pretty or witty or interesting.  Under no circumstance were they to notice any gentleman in the immediate vicinity.

He nodded to the cottage.  “I believe they’re expecting you.”

“How would you know?”

“You’d be surprised.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

Without further comment, he continued on and was swallowed up by the trees.

She tarried, his departure leaving her a bit sad.  It had been a long time since she’d strolled down a country lane with a charming, handsome fellow.  Would ever she see him again?  He’d insisted she would, and she hoped he’d meant it.

Ready for any type of debacle, she hefted her bag off the ground, went to the front door, and knocked.

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CHAPTER ONE

Abigail Henley felt a bump and a jolt as the wagon in which she was riding rolled to a stop.  She glanced over her shoulder at the friendly man who’d transported her from the village.

“Is this the spot?” she asked him.

“Yes, this is it.”  He pointed toward the trees.  “The lane is just there.  Follow it and you’ll come to the house without too much walking.  You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you.”

She climbed down and pulled her portmanteau to the ground.  It contained all of her belongings so it was very heavy.  It landed with a muted thud.

She wondered how she’d lug it to her destination.  For a fleeting instant, she considered requesting that he take her the rest of the way, but she’d never be that rude.  He’d already been more than helpful, and she wouldn’t presume on his kindly nature.

Her new employer, Mr. Alexander Wallace, was supposed to have sent a servant to meet the mail coach and deliver her to his home of Wallace Downs.  The fact that he hadn’t was annoying and disturbing.

At age twenty-five, she’d been a governess for the better part of a decade, having begun the year she finished school at sixteen.

Early on, she’d learned that the first days at a post were the best ones.  Initially, people were eager to impress her, but matters usually went downhill after their primary spurt of optimistic behavior.  With Mr. Wallace ignoring her arrival, she was off to a rocky start and certain that there would be no good days in the future.

But hadn’t Mrs. Ford warned her?

Mrs. Ford owned the agency that placed Abigail at her various positions.  The older woman hadn’t exactly been thorough in describing the problems Abigail would face with Mr. Wallace, but she’d been clear there would be challenges.

Abigail didn’t mind a challenge.  She didn’t mind hard work or frustrating situations.  What she didn’t like was discourtesy, disrespect, or harsh treatment.

“Will you be able to manage with your bag?” the driver asked.

“Yes, I’ll be fine.”

He frowned at her, his look worrisome, and she figured he had a few pertinent and derogatory remarks to offer about the occupants of Wallace Downs, but in the end they weren’t voiced.

“I’ll wish you luck then,” was all he said.

She grinned.  “I hope I won’t need it.”

He snorted and bit down a reply she was sure would have been caustic.  On what topic?  Her employer?  The children?  The family?

He called to his team, clicked the reins, and his horses lumbered off.  As he vanished from view, she was suffering from the worst urge to chase after him, to beg him to drive her back to the village.

She had coins in her purse and would love to purchase another ticket on the mail coach and simply head to London, but she wasn’t a coward.  She was one of Mrs. Ford’s favorites because she’d never shirked a task or refused an assignment.  She’d never failed in the past and she wouldn’t fail now.

The area where she was dawdling was surrounded by thick, verdant woods, and the summer afternoon was very quiet.

She cocked her ear, anxious to hear the sound of cows or horses or people—or perhaps even waves crashing on the beach.  The property where she’d be staying was right on the coast, but there was no hint of habitation.  There were just birds chirping in the sky and a slight breeze rippling the leaves in the trees.

She might have been the only human on Earth.

Yet she was in no rush to reach the residence.  Nor was she eager to meet Mr. Wallace.  According to Mrs. Ford, he was difficult and demanding and disagreeable, but Abigail expected she’d like his two daughters.  She was coming to teach them, not their father.

Mrs. Ford had had limited information about them except that they were nine-year-old twins, and Abigail imagined they’d get on brilliantly.  She was always better at handling girls than boys.

She plopped down on her portmanteau and stared toward the lane as if it was the road to Hades.  At breakfast, she’d squirreled away a slice of bread and a piece of cheese.  She retrieved them from her reticule and enjoyed small bites, chewing slowly so the moment would last.

It was never a good idea to show up with an empty stomach.  No one ever remembered to feed her, and she’d wasted many aggravating hours, yearning to declare that she was dying to eat and when would supper be ready?

Her personal circumstances were in total disarray, and she often felt as if she was outside her body and gawking at some other poor woman who was simply trying to scrape by.  How could she be struggling so furiously?  How could she have plummeted so far down society’s ladder?

In light of her sheltered, prosperous upbringing, it had never occurred to her that calamity could strike so quickly or so completely.  After it had, she’d frequently attempted to make sense of what had happened, but there was no rational explanation, and efforts to understand her plight were futile and exhausting.  The world was a mystery she couldn’t unravel, and she had to get up and get moving.

There was no reason to delay.  She’d taken the job and had contracted to remain for a year, with the possibility of a second year if Mr. Wallace was satisfied with her teaching skills.

But as she stood, she realized a man was over in the woods, leaned against a tree and watching her.  He was focused on her in a way that was alarming and acute, and she blanched with dismay.  How long had he been there?

She was alone, and with the exception of the teamster who’d conveyed her from the village, she hadn’t seen another soul.  What was his intent?  If he had wicked designs, she was in trouble.

He noted that she’d observed him, and he emerged from the shadows.  On her being able to view him more clearly, much of her trepidation eased.

He was thirty or so and quite tall, six feet at least, with broad shoulders and a muscular physique that indicated strenuous endeavor, but she perceived no menace.  He definitely appeared as if he could be violent or aggressive if provoked, but he exuded no outward belligerence.

He was dressed in casual clothes—tan trousers, black boots, and a flowing white shirt—and the garments were professionally tailored and sewn from expensive fabric.  Who was he and why was he lurking in the forest?

He approached until he was much too close, and with his excessive height and her being barely five-foot-five in her stockings, he towered over her.  He was a male so he would automatically assume he was superior to her, and she never liked to feel that anyone was above her.  Few people were, but that was a story from a very different period in her life.

His hair was dark black, worn too long and curling about his shoulders.  He hadn’t bothered to tie it back with a ribbon.  He had an aristocratic face—strong forehead, stark cheekbones, a generous mouth—but it was his eyes that held her rapt.  They were an amazing sapphire color, probably the shade the Mediterranean was reputed to be.

His skin was bronzed from the sun as if he spent much of his time out-of-doors and engaged in arduous activity, but he didn’t look like a farmer or laborer.  His demeanor was much too refined.

Most odd and bewildering was the fact that he had an earring in his ear.  An earring!  A little gold hoop.  She’d never seen a man with an earring before, and it made him seem especially exotic.  Had he traveled to foreign lands?  If so, he would prove to be a fascinating character.

“Did I frighten you?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“I apologize.  I wasn’t going to announce myself, but with you noticing me I don’t suppose I can continue to pretend I’m invisible.”

“You’re adept at hiding.  I’ve been sitting here forever without realizing you were there.”

“I was spying on you—and being blatantly uncivil about it too.”

“Yes, you were.  I was simply loafing.  Weren’t you bored to tears, waiting for something exciting to transpire?”

“Nothing exciting ever occurs at Wallace Downs.”

“That’s not so bad.  I’ve had tons of excitement in my life and I’ve had plenty of monotony and tedium.  Between those choices, I prefer the monotony and tedium.”

“You climbed out of that wagon ages ago, but you didn’t walk on.  Are you lost?”

“No.  I’m merely being slothful.”

“Are you regularly a slacker?”

“No,” she said again.  “Usually, I’m energetic and vigorous, but I’m in no hurry to arrive at my destination.”

“What is your destination?”

“Wallace Cottage.  I’m starting a new job.”

“Ah…” he mused.  “It’s why you’re in no hurry.”

“I like working, but the first day can be…interesting.  I’m proceeding with caution.”

He chuckled and assessed her, his gaze a tad irreverent as it brazenly slid down her torso then back up.

“Let me guess what your post is to be,” he said.

“Considering my conservative attire, I doubt it’s much of a mystery.”

“You’re the governess Mr. Wallace hired.”

It was her turn to chuckle.  “You’re very clever to have figured it out—and so swiftly too.”

“Yes, I’m renowned for my cleverness.”

“And your quick thinking?”

“Absolutely.”

“I am Miss Barrington.”  She used the false surname she’d adopted once calamity had tossed her out into the cold, cruel world.  She never liked to proclaim her true identity.  There was no point.

“Hello, Miss Barrington.  Welcome to Wallace Downs.”

He didn’t mention his own name, and she was curious as to why he wouldn’t.  He was too tidy and well groomed to be a bandit or shady rogue.  She had a dozen reasons to conceal her real surname, but she couldn’t fathom why he would need to.  Despite the name he supplied, she’d have no idea who he was.

“The teamster who brought me said the cottage is up the lane, but he didn’t say how far up the lane.”

“It’s a bit of a distance.”  He gestured to her portmanteau.  “Your bag looks heavy.  May I carry it for you?”

She’d like to accept his gallant request, but she couldn’t have an unknown man escort her to the door.  What if he was a scandalous fellow?  It would definitely get her off on the wrong foot with Mr. Wallace.

“I can carry it myself,” she insisted, “but thank you for offering.”

He stepped in even closer, the toes of his boots slipping under the hem of her skirt.  Suddenly, the air between them was charged with a potent surge of energy as if their proximity was generating sparks.

His expression was very smug, as if he’d planned to produce just such a sensation and was eager to see how she’d react.  His bold manner provided her with the distinct impression that he was a flirt.  He was probably hoping she’d flinch away or swoon, but he was in for a rude awakening.  With how she’d spent the past decade, there was very little that could daunt her.

“Who are you?” she asked.  “You never said.”

“No, I didn’t,” he maddeningly replied.

“You don’t appear inclined to introduce yourself, which is your prerogative, but you’re being incredibly brash and forward.  If you’re expecting to rattle me, you couldn’t possibly.”

“Why is that?”

“Because I take care of children for a living, and I have suffered through every bizarre, astonishing situation you could ever imagine.  You could never disconcert me in the slightest.”  She nodded and moved away.  “Good day, sir.”

“Good day, Miss Barrington.  It’s been a pleasure.”

She scoffed at that and picked up her satchel.  It was as heavy as she remembered it to be, but she was determined not to show that she had any difficulty lifting it.  She spun and walked away, the cumbersome bag banging against her thigh so she was forced to limp as if she was crippled.

Before she realized what was happening, he snuck up behind her and yanked the portmanteau away from her.

“I can carry my own bag!” she protested more vehemently.

“Of course you can, but you don’t have to.  I intend to assist you.  Don’t be so stubborn.”

“I’m not stubborn.  I simply don’t believe I should waltz up to the front door, accompanied by a strange man.”

“And there’s no one stranger than me.”

She shot him such a hot look of agreement that he laughed.

“Who are you afraid might see us?” he asked.  “Mr. Wallace?”

“Yes.”

“He’s never at the cottage so don’t worry about him.”

She scowled.  “If he’s never there, where is he?”

“Over at the main house.”

“His daughters live in the cottage without him?  That’s ridiculous.”

He shrugged.  “It’s a long story.”

“It certainly must be.”

“The servants will fill you in on all the gory details.”

“I’m sure they will too, but I hate to gossip.”

“Do you?  You’ll be the first governess in history to ever feel that way.”

“You don’t have a very high opinion of the women in my profession.”

“It’s not just those in your profession.  I don’t have a high opinion of any woman.”

“We have a lot in common then.”

“How so?  You don’t like women either?”

“No.  I don’t have a high opinion of any man.”  He laughed again, and she said, “You seem to be extremely familiar with the Wallace family.”

“I wouldn’t say extremely familiar, but yes I know a bit about them.”

It was unseemly for her to inquire, but she couldn’t stop herself.  “What is Mr. Wallace like?”

“You haven’t met him?”

“No, I was sent by an agency in London.  He hired me sight unseen.”

“That’s quite daring.  Why would he?  What would have swayed him?  Was it your stellar qualifications?  Your impeccable references?”

“I assume those were the reasons.”

“Or perhaps it’s such an awful position in such an awful spot that you were the only one brave enough to come.”

“I hope that’s not true.”

She peeked up at him, and there was a twinkle in his eye.  Was he jesting?  Was he teasing her?

“You still haven’t told me what you think of Mr. Wallace.  Are you acquainted with him?”

“Yes.  He’s crossed swords with nearly everyone in the area.”

“Crossed swords?  Is he temperamental?”

“Yes, he’s bossy and arrogant.”

“Rich men usually are.”

“He’s also domineering, overly confident, exceptionally rude, and wildly dissolute.”

“Be serious,” she scolded.

“I’m serious as an apoplexy.  He’s passionately attached to extravagance, and he never behaves appropriately.  The rumors about him are so severe that the vicar offers up special prayers on Sundays.”

“For his debauched, immortal soul?”

“No, for the servants who work for him at Wallace Downs.  It’s a veritable den of iniquity, and the entire neighborhood has been in an uproar about it for years.  But there’s nothing they can do.”

“Why can’t they?”

“A man is entitled to revel in his own home.”

“I suppose, but doesn’t he care what others say about him?  Isn’t he worried about his reputation?”

“Trust me.  Mr. Wallace’s reputation is the very last issue that concerns him.”

Abigail digested the information, wishing she hadn’t pried.  The oaf was uncouth and crass, and after they parted company, he was the type who would march into the local tavern and stir trouble for her by announcing that she was a gossipy chatterbox.

“Even though Mr. Wallace is dissolute,” she asked, “is he kind to his servants at least?  Is he courteous to them?”

“No.  He’s vulgar and abrasive and no one likes him.”

“No one?”

“No, not even his mother.  He’s that depraved.”

She peeked up at him again, and he was grinning, brimming with mischief.  He probably didn’t even know the Wallace family.

“I can’t decide if you’re telling the truth or not,” she said.

“I guess you’ll see for yourself very soon.”

“I guess I will.”

“Have you any fortitude, Miss Barrington?  Can you muddle through in difficult circumstances?”

“Yes, but I’ll have to wait to learn if I’m about to encounter difficult circumstances or not.  I’m convinced I shouldn’t take your word for anything.”

“I’m honest as the day is long,” he huffed with feigned offense.

“You won’t even reveal your name so I’m sure I shouldn’t seek your opinion on any topic.”

“You just might be a very good judge of character.”

“I couldn’t have succeeded at this if I’d been a ninny or a fool.”

“How long have you been a governess?”

“Nine years.”

“Nine!  You don’t look to be twenty.  When did you start?  When you were ten?”

“I was sixteen.”

“So you’re twenty-five.”

“Yes.”

“You never married?”

“No.”

“Why haven’t you?  Has no man ever asked?  Or is it because you have such a low view of the male species that you weren’t interested?”

She could have begun a lengthy diatribe about her past, but she never talked about herself.  On her initially signing with Mrs. Ford’s agency, Mrs. Ford had insisted she not mention her name or history.  It would simply upset potential employers and make it harder for her to find work.

And she absolutely had to work.  She had no other option.

When she was fifteen and near to finishing her education, her parents and brother had been returning from a trip to Italy.  Their ship had sunk, and they were presumed deceased.

Her cousin, Jasper, had inherited her father’s earldom and his title of Lord Middlebury, as well as her family’s home and other properties.  He and his wife, Desdemona, had swooped in like greedy vultures, and they’d been adamant that Abigail and her two sisters, Catherine and Sarah, weren’t welcome at Middlebury.

She and her sisters all earned their livings.  They had no other choice.  Jasper claimed their father had been a spendthrift, that the estate was bankrupt and their dowries squandered.  They had no money to fight Jasper in the courts, no power to prove he was lying.

In the blink of an eye, they’d lost everything, and she had no idea how to get it back.

To add insult to injury, Jasper was a gambler and notorious roué, his repute as black as a kettle.  She didn’t dare admit he was her cousin.  She had to maintain a pristine reputation, and with his careless habits known by all, people might wonder if she possessed any of the same despicable tendencies.  Who would hire her then?

“If I thought it was any of your business,” she said, “I would tell you that I haven’t married because I never had the chance.”

“No dowry, huh?”

“No dowry.”

“But if a rich, stable fellow swept you off your feet, would you jump at the opportunity to be a bride?  Would you run off and leave poor Mr. Wallace in the lurch?”

“No, I wouldn’t leave him in the lurch.”

“Why not?  Aren’t you eager to wed?”

She scoffed.  “In my experience, fairytales are silly.  There will be no wealthy beau to sweep me off my feet.”

“You’re not a romantic at heart?”

“No.  I don’t have a romantic bone in my body.”

“What an odd woman you are.”

“Why?  Because I don’t pine away for a husband?”

“No, because you don’t believe in love and romance.  I’ve never met a female who didn’t obsess over both.”

“I’ve never had the time to obsess over them.”

“How boring your life must be.”

“My life is fine,” she said, and usually it was.

She missed her sisters though.  And she’d never quite accepted that her parents and her brother, Hayden, were deceased.  Especially Hayden.  He’d been so vibrant and charismatic.  She still expected to glance over her shoulder someday and he’d be sauntering toward her.

She missed her prior existence too.  She missed their home at Middlebury and the easy, opulent era she’d passed there.

She recognized that Fate could be cruel, that situations could change in an instant, but why did they have to change so drastically and completely?  Why couldn’t she have lost just a bit of what she’d had?  Why did she have to lose every blasted thing?

They’d been walking through the woods, and suddenly the trees spit them out into a clearing.  The cottage was up ahead.

It was a beautiful house, two stories high with big windows, flowerboxes, red brick and black shutters.  The summer foliage was bright green, and behind the house she could see the ocean, the blue of the water providing a stark contrast.

Rose bushes splashed color everywhere, and ivy climbed up a trellis.  She thought it was the kind a place where a person could be happy, where a person could settle in and not note how the years were drifting by.

“Oh, my,” she breathed, “it’s lovely, isn’t it?”

He wrinkled his nose.  “I don’t know if lovely is the word I’d use to describe it.”

“What word would you use?”

“Tiny.  Drafty.  Inconvenient.”

“Have you been inside?”

“No, I’ve simply heard people talking.  The rooms are small, the ceilings low, and the chimneys smoky.”

She snorted with disgust.  “For some reason, you’re trying to discourage me or perhaps ruin my arrival, but I can’t figure out why you would.”

“I’m not trying to discourage you.  I’m testing your mettle.”

“Has if withstood your barrage?”

“I haven’t decided.”

He dropped her portmanteau on the ground.  “This is where I leave you.  Can you get your bag to the door on your own?”

“Yes.  I could have lugged it all the way myself, but you wouldn’t let me.”

“It was too heavy, and you’re a woman so I wasn’t about to listen to you.”

“I stand corrected.  I’m weak and feeble, and you have rescued me from myself.”

“You’re lucky I came along when I did.”

“Why were you lurking in the woods?  You never explained.”

“No, I didn’t.  Goodbye.”

He raised a hand to his forehead and gave a jaunty salute, then he turned and left.  She watched him go, and it seemed she should offer a pithy parting remark, as if the conversation hadn’t really ended.

“Goodbye,” she called.

He glanced back, and his focus was riveting and cheeky.  His impertinent eyes wandered down her torso again, assessing spots he had no business assessing.  Through the entire encounter, he’d deliberately attempted to rattle her, and she would deny him the satisfaction.

“Thank you for carrying my bag,” she told him.

“Even though you didn’t want me to?”

“Even though.”

“I didn’t have anything else to do this afternoon.”

“Well, that certainly makes me feel special.”

“We’ll cross paths again,” he said like a threat.

“Will we?”

“I guarantee it.”

“Will you tell me your name when we do?”

“Maybe.”

They both grinned, and it occurred to her that she was flirting with him, which was insane.

Governesses were to be quiet and invisible, to be dull and placid and content, to have no opinions or convictions, and most particularly not to appear pretty or witty or interesting.  Under no circumstance were they to notice any gentleman in the immediate vicinity.

He nodded to the cottage.  “I believe they’re expecting you.”

“How would you know?”

“You’d be surprised.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

Without further comment, he continued on and was swallowed up by the trees.

She tarried, his departure leaving her a bit sad.  It had been a long time since she’d strolled down a country lane with a charming, handsome fellow.  Would ever she see him again?  He’d insisted she would, and she hoped he’d meant it.

Ready for any type of debacle, she hefted her bag off the ground, went to the front door, and knocked.

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