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Seven Minutes in Heaven

By:Eloisa James

Seven Minutes in Heaven - Eloisa James

Chapter One





Wednesday, April 15, 1801

Snowe’s Registry Office for Select Governesses

14 Cavendish Square

London



Nothing ruins a dinner party like expertise. A lady who has attended fourteen lectures about Chinese porcelain will Ming this and Tsing that all evening; a baron who has published an essay about vultures in a zoological magazine will undoubtedly hold forth on the unpleasant habits of carrion-eaters.

Eugenia Snowe’s area of expertise, on the other hand, would have made dinner guests howl with laughter, if only it were appropriate to share. For example, she knew precisely how the Countess of Ardmore’s second-best wig had made its way onto the head of a terrified piglet, which dashed across the terrace when the vicar was taking tea. She knew which of the Duke of Fletcher’s offspring had stolen a golden toothpick and an enameled chamber pot and, even better, what he had done with them.

Not only did she have to keep those delicious details to herself, she couldn’t even burst into laughter until she was in private. As the owner of the most elite agency for governesses in the whole of the British Isles, she had to maintain decorum at all times.

No laughing! Not even when her housemaid ushered in a boy wearing a brocade curtain pinned like a Roman toga—although the gleaming blue that coated his arms and face clashed with the senatorial drape of the curtain.

The boy’s mother, Lady Pibble, trailed in after him. Eugenia didn’t see many blue boys in the course of a day, but she often saw mothers with the hysterical air of a woman ill-prepared to domesticate the species of wild animal known as an eight-year-old boy.

“Lady Pibble and Marmaduke, Lord Pibble,” her housemaid announced.

“Good afternoon, Winnie,” Eugenia said, rising from her desk and coming around to greet her ladyship with genuine pleasure. Her old school friend Winifred was lovely, as sweet and soft as a soufflé.

Alas, those were not helpful characteristics when it came to raising children. Fate or Nature had perversely matched Winnie with her opposite: Marmaduke was a devilishly troublesome boy by any measure, and Eugenia considered herself an expert on the subject.

“I can’t do it!” Winifred wailed by way of greeting, staggering across the room and collapsing on the sofa. “I’m at my wit’s end, Eugenia. My wit’s end! If you don’t give me a governess, I shall leave him here with you. I mean it!” The way her voice rose to a shriek made her threat very persuasive.

Marmaduke didn’t seem in the least dismayed at the idea of being abandoned in a registry office. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Snowe,” he said cheerfully, making a reasonable bow considering that he was holding a fistful of arrows and an extremely fat frog. “I’m an ancient Pict and a smuggler,” he announced.

“Good afternoon, Marmaduke. I was not aware that smugglers came in different hues,” Eugenia said.

“Smugglers may not be blue, but Picts always are,” he explained. “They were Celtic warriors who painted themselves for battle. My father told me about them.” He held up his frog. “I started to paint Fred too, but he didn’t like it.”

“Fred is looking considerably plumper than last time I met him,” Eugenia observed.

“You were right about cabbage worms,” he said, grinning. “He loves them.”

“I can smell beeswax—which I gather turned you blue—but is that odor of river mud thanks to Fred?”

Marmaduke sniffed loudly, and nodded. “Fred stinks.”

“Don’t say ‘stinks,’ darling,” his mother said from the depths of the sofa, where she had draped a handkerchief over her eyes. “You may describe something as smelly, but only if you absolutely must.”

“He smells like a rotten egg,” Marmaduke elaborated. “Though not nearly as rank as Lady Hubert when she came out of the river.”

Winnie gave a stifled moan, the kind one might hear from a woman in the grips of labor. “I almost forgot about the river. Eugenia, I am not going home until you give me a governess.”

“I cannot,” Eugenia said patiently. “I’ve explained to you, Winnie, that—”

Winnie sat up, handkerchief clutched in her hand, and pointed to her son. “Tell her!” she said in throbbing accents. “Tell her what you said to Lady Hubert! I wouldn’t drag him here if it was simply a matter of turning blue. I am inured to dirt.”

For the first time, Marmaduke looked a bit fidgety, shifting his weight to one leg and tucking the other up so that he looked like a blue heron. “Lady Hubert said that I should always tell the truth, so I did.”

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