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The Governess Affair

By:Courtney Milan

Chapter One

London, October, 1835.

THE DOOR TO THE UPSTAIRS LIBRARY slammed viciously, rattling in its frame. Heavy steps marched across the room, bearing down on Hugo’s desk. Fists slammed against the wood surface.

“Damn it, Marshall. I need you to fix this.”

Despite that dramatic production, Hugo Marshall did not look up from the books. Instead he waited silently, listening to boots marking a path upon the carpet. He wasn’t a servant; he refused to be treated as one.

After a moment, his patience was rewarded. “Fix it, please,” the Duke of Clermont muttered.

Hugo raised his head. An untutored observer would focus on the Duke of Clermont, apparently in full command, resplendent in a waistcoat so shot with gold thread that it almost hurt the eyes. This observer would dismiss the drab Mr. Marshall, arrayed as he was in clothing spanning the spectrum from brown to browner.

The comparison wouldn’t stop at clothing. The duke was respectably bulky without running to fat; his patrician features were sharp and aristocratic. He had mobile, ice-blue eyes that seemed to take in everything. Compared with Hugo’s own unprepossessing expression and sandy brown hair, the untutored observer would have concluded that the duke was in charge.

The untutored observer, Hugo thought, was an idiot.

Hugo set his pen down. “I wasn’t aware there was anything in need of fixing.” Except the matter of Her Grace. “Anything within my purview, that is.”

Clermont positively bristled with an edgy nervousness. He rubbed his nose in a manner that was decidedly unmannered. “There’s something else. It’s come up just this morning.” He glanced out the window, and his frown grew.

The library in Clermont’s London home was two floors off the ground, and claimed an uninspiring view. There was nothing to see out the window but a Mayfair square. Autumn had turned green leaves to brown and yellow. A small bit of fading grass and a few dingy shrubberies ringed a wrought-iron bench, upon which a woman was seated. Her face was occluded by a wide-brimmed bonnet decorated with a thin pink ribbon.

Clermont clenched his hands. Hugo could almost hear the grinding of his teeth.

But his words were casual. “So, if I refuse to pander to the duchess’s ridiculous demands, you’d still work everything out, wouldn’t you?”

Hugo gave him a stern look. “Don’t even consider it, Your Grace. You know what’s at stake.”

The other man folded his arms in denial. His Grace really didn’t understand the situation; that was the problem. He was a duke, and dukes had no notion of economization. Were it not for Hugo, Clermont’s vast estates would have collapsed years before under the weight of his debt. As it was, the books barely balanced—and they only did that because of the man’s recent marriage.

“But she’s so unamusing,” Clermont protested.

“Yes, and a fine joke it will be to have your unentailed property repossessed. Convince your duchess that she well and truly wishes you back in her life. After that, you may laugh all you wish, Your Grace.”

There had been money up front in the marriage settlement. But that had disappeared quickly, paying off lingering mortgages and troubling debts. The remainder of the duchess’s substantial dowry had been tied up in trust by the girl’s father—the funds to be released on a regular schedule, so long as the duke kept his wife happy.

Alas. The duchess had decamped four months ago.

Clermont pouted. There was no other word for it; his shoulders slumped and he kicked at the edge of the carpet like a petulant child. “And here I thought all my money worries were over. What do I hire you for, if not to—”

“All your money worries were over, Your Grace.” Hugo drummed his fingers on the table. “And how many times must I remind you? You don’t hire me. If you hired me, you’d pay me wages.”

Hugo knew too much about the duke’s prospects to accept anything so futile as a promise of salary. Salaries could be delayed; wagers, on the other hand, sanctified by the betting book at White’s, were inviolable.

“Yes,” the duke groused, “and about that. You said that all I had to do was find an heiress and say whatever it took to make her happy.” He scowled at the carpet underfoot. “I did. Now look where it’s got me—every shrewish bitch in the world thinks it her right to harp at me, over and over. When will it end?”

Hugo raised his head and looked Clermont in the eyes. It didn’t take long—just a few seconds of an intent stare—and the man dropped his chin and looked away, as if he were the employee and Hugo his master.

It was embarrassing. A duke should have known how to take charge. But no; Clermont was so used to having others bow before his title that he’d never learned to command by force of personality.