Beauty Like the Night
Sonnet Books, November 2000
|Excerpt from the novel Beauty Like the Night|
In which Lord Treyhern Visits his Governess
Cam found her in the schoolroom, standing amidst what looked like the aftermath of a windstorm. Her boxes and crates had been pried open and a dozen thick, well-worn tomes and a stack of notebooks were scattered across the desk. A wooden flute and small drum sat perched atop a jumble of playthings.
Well—! It seemed his new governess was unpacking. Folding his arms over his chest, he leaned one shoulder against the frame of the open doorway. At first, Helene did not see him, for she was rummaging about tattered portmanteau which sat in the floor, her perfect rear-end tilted up invitingly.
Good God, she was a beauty. Age had merely enhanced the classic lines of her figure and the fine bones of her face. Today, Helene was dressed in a shade of dark amber. Just as yesterday’s gown of deep purple had not been quite black, the amber of her morning dress was not quite brown. Apparently, Helene the Governess danced on the edge of propriety where her wardrobe was concerned. And in some other ways as well, he did not doubt.
Well, that was none of his business, was it? Helene was somewhat past the first blush of youth, and no longer an innocent, though the latter was partly his fault.
Suddenly, Helene straightened up from the portmanteau, one hand pressed into the small of her back, the other clutching a bedraggled doll. She looked exasperated and pink-cheeked as she puffed upward at an unruly bit of hair which had tumbled down to tease at her nose.
"Unpacking?" he asked softly.
For only the second time in his life, he saw Helene blanch. "Unpacking?" she asked, aghast. "Indeed not! I am repacking. Your footmen must have pried open these crates. To be sure, I did not!"
Pulling himself away from the doorframe, he forced himself to smile in spite of his discomfort. "Do not trouble yourself about the open crates, ma'am. No harm has been done."
She gave a little half curtsy. "I thank you, Ca—my lord. I shall have these remaining things collected in a trice."
Stepping into the room, Cam tried to draw a deep breath. "You—you mean to go then?" He kept his tone light, but something seemed caught in his chest.
"Yes." She hesitated, her dark, finely arched brows drawing inward in confusion. "I thought that was your wish." Cam opened his mouth to reply, but Helene did not pause. "And you are perfectly correct."
"Correct?" he echoed, his hands on his hips.
Helene bent down to shut the portmanteau and set it upon the worktable. "In truth, I am not as . . . as comfortable here as I had hoped I might be."
"Not comfortable?" Inexplicably, alarm shot through him. "Have you not been treated well? Is your room unsatisfactory? Is there something I can—"
"There is nothing, I thank you," she interjected, turning toward the desk and beginning to gather up the books that had been uncrated. A box sat nearby, and she dropped the first few into it.
From the corner of her eye, Helene watched Cam advance toward the desk, his expression masked. Nonetheless, she had the impression that he was displeased. But by what? Had he not told her to go? Yet as he came closer, she could feel the strength of some tightly controlled emotion vibrating in the air around him.
Cam halted on the other side of the narrow desk, his hands clasped behind his back. "Miss de Severs, I think I must insist—" He stopped abruptly and swallowed hard. "That is to say—I wish you to remain here. As you said, I must put Ariane’s needs first."
Helene dropped another book into the box. "But my lord," she protested despairingly, "you’ve already said my staying would be imprudent. And quite rightly! Mrs. Naffles has recognized me—and inquired after Maman, too! In time, someone may even mention our—"
"Nothing will be mentioned, Miss de Severs," he coldly interrupted. "No one here knows anything, and if they did, they would not dare speak of it."
Helene felt a flash of prideful anger. "Nonetheless, my questionable background—"
"—is my business. I do not suffer gossips or mischief-makers amongst my staff."
"Yes, my lord, but as we discussed—"
"And as for Mrs. Naffles, given my father’s escapades, all else pales by comparison. This household is all but inured to scandal."
"I . . . but you said—"
"Never mind what I said, Miss de Severs," he snapped. Helene watched his mouth pull into a tight, thin line as he folded his arms across the wide plane of his chest. "Just do the job you’ve been employed to do, and we shall all be well pleased."
Helene braced her fingertips lightly on the desk, intently studying Cam’s expression. Again, she felt confusion war with humiliation. She was not this man’s dog, to be ordered to go or sit or stay at his whim! Certainly she did not want his charity. As for her reputation, he had been the first to voice his concern about it. And it still hurt.
"My lord, I would have you suffer no embarrassment on my account," Helene answered stiffly. "I came only because I had agreed to Mr. Brightsmith’s bargain." She moved as if to turn away from the table.
Swiftly, as if to force her to his will, Cam’s hand came down to cover hers, squeezing her fingers far too hard. "Do not put words into my mouth, Helene," he answered in a voice that was suddenly low and rough. "I did not say that I was embarrassed by our . . . friendship. You will refrain from using that word again."
Abruptly, Cam lifted his hand away, only to reach into the box and draw out the books. One by one, he began resolutely stacking them atop the desk, as if the matter were resolved. A wicked stubbornness took hold of her then, and Helene moved to grab the books once more.
Cam sprang like a cat, leaning into her, slapping his broad hands on top of the stack, and anchoring it to the desk. "Stop it, Helene," he said, a little too softly. "Look at me. Look at me, Helene!"
Helene lifted her eyes in a bold challenge, stubbornly locking them with his. "Let go of my books, if you please," she coldly enunciated. "You are hurting my fingers."
"I want you to stay," he demanded.
"Do you indeed?" She lifted her chin a notch higher. "But what of my lax morals? My wicked French blood? And let us not forget that carefree continental lifestyle I have been living!"
Cam looked at her coldly. "That is your business, Helene. I have not thrown it in your face. I want you to stay."
His acceptance further angered her. "I am a servant, my lord, not a slave,"
"Damn it, stop parrying words with me, Helene!" Cam hissed through gritted teeth. "I am no longer your biddable swain, to be led about at your whim. It would be unwise to press the issue."
Helene still grasped the books, her fingers squashed beneath them. She should have pulled away, leaned back from him, but her fingers were trapped beneath the stack. Or so she told herself. Yet Cam would not break his gaze from her own. He looked so different now; far more hardened than she had ever remembered. "I am not parrying with anyone, sir!" she retorted, dropping her eyes to the stack of books.
As he leaned over her, Cam’s face drew so near that Helene could feel the warmth of his breath as it stirred the wisps of hair around her forehead. And she could smell him, too. Cam, and the heat of his anger, mingled with the sharp, clean scent of shaving soap. In the implacability of his grip, Helene could sense a ruthless energy which she did not recognize. She could feel the intensity of his stare. She did not know this man. And yet, he was so near, she knew that if she looked back up at him now, her forehead would almost certainly brush his chin, and their lips would be far too close.
"I apologize," he said stiffly. "I wish you would stay."
Angry at the path her thoughts were taking, Helene yanked her hands free from the books, raking a little skin off one knuckle. Turning to face the wall behind the desk, she drew the wounded hand to her mouth. She was beginning to suspect just what this might be about, and it sickened her.
Cam wanted her. But he was ashamed of the wanting.
Suddenly, a faint, muffled sneeze fractured the precarious silence.
Cam’s stern gaze swiveled toward a wide, old fashioned corner cupboard which appeared to have been built into the walls of the schoolroom.
"Ariane," he said, in a surprisingly gentle voice. "Come out of the cupboard, sweet."
Immediately, all thoughts of what had just passed between them fled from Helene’s mind. Cam strode across the schoolroom and tugged open the lower half of the door. Inside, a fair-haired, wraith-like child was curled up in the empty bottom, her knees tucked neatly beneath her chin. The girl made no sound whatsoever.
Without comment, Cam leaned down and offered his hand. Blinking against the sudden light, the child reached out obediently to take it, then with obvious reluctance, clambered out. Helene was surprised to see that her tiny feet were bare of shoes or stockings. Her hair was in wild disarray.
Quietly, Cam knelt down to gather the child into his arms then stood up, staring over the girl’s tousled blonde hair to catch Helene’s gaze. The unguarded pain in his eyes pierced her in a way his angry words could never have done.
The little girl turned her face into her father’s starched neckcloth, refusing to look at Helene. "Ariane," said Cam in a calm, matter of fact tone, "this is your new governess, Miss de Severs."
"Good morning, Ariane," said Helene brightly, taking her cue from Cam.
Urging her face deeper into the folds of her father’s cravat, the child tightened her grip on her father. "Sweetie," said Cam softly, "please look at Miss de Severs. Give her just a little smile, hmm?"
After a long moment, Ariane half turned to look at Helene through one narrow eye, but no smile was forthcoming. The child’s fine, curling hair was so blonde as to be very nearly white, and her eyes—at least the one Helene could see—was a startling shade of blue against her pink, almost translucent, skin. Her face was round, sweet, and utterly beautiful. The whole effect was ethereal, as though she were an angel instead of a real child.
"Don’t worry, Ariane," she said, placing one hand lightly on the girl’s thin shoulder. "I am sure you must be weary of training new governesses. I shall try to learn quickly."
The girl gave Helene what might have been a weak smile, but at that moment, a young servant materialized in the open doorway, a pair of tiny slippers clutched in her hand. "Oh, beg pardon, m’lord! She bobbed perfunctorily. "I went to fetch her shoes, and when I turned me back, she disappeared."
Fondly, he gave the girl a fatherly swat on the rear. "Go with Martha, imp! Finish dressing so that I may see you with your socks and shoes at luncheon!"
Helene watched as the pair left the room and disappeared down the corridor. In the emptiness which remained, it felt as though a cold breeze had swept into the room, returning with it the uneasiness which had previously lingered between them. Behind her, she heard books sliding back and forth, as if Cam was sorting through the pile on the desk, but she did not immediately turn around.
"Well," he said at last, his voice sad. "You see how—how unwell she is, Miss de Severs."
Helene spun about to face him. "What I see a very frightened child, my lord. Whether there is anything more to it than that I cannot yet say."