The Mysterious Governess
by Beverley Oakley
Daughters of Sin series ~ Book 3
Two beautiful sisters – one illegitimate, the other nobly born – compete for love amidst the scandal and intrigue of a Regency London Season.
Lissa Hazlett lives life in the shadows. The beautiful, illegitimate daughter of Viscount Partington earns her living as an overworked governess while her vain and spoiled half sister, Araminta, enjoys London’s social whirl as its most feted debutante.
When Lissa’s rare talent as a portraitist brings her unexpectedly into the bosom of society – and into the midst of a scandal involving Araminta and suspected English traitor Lord Debenham – she finds an unlikely ally: charming and besotted Ralph Tunley, Lord Debenham’s underpaid, enterprising secretary. Ralph can’t afford to leave the employ of the villainous viscount much less keep a wife but he can help Lissa navigate a perilous web of lies and to ensure everyone gets their just desserts. With a little help from unexpected quarters there may even be a surprise Happy-Ever-After for the star-crossed lovers.
Publish Date: May 31, 2016
Print Length: 188 pages
Heat Rating: Mild sex themes
Lissa watched Cosmo from the shadows of the schoolroom, reluctant to reveal herself, for the young master only visited the third floor when he wanted something. She’d come to fetch a pile of mending, one of the many “extras” Mrs. Lamont had added to Lissa’s governessing duties.
Finally, curiosity got the better of her. Even from three yards away, Lissa could see that the cast of the nose Cosmo was attempting to sketch—or rather copy—of the angel framed upon the wall was all wrong.
He must have become aware of her, for turning suddenly, his expression suggesting first embarrassment, then triumph, he beckoned her over.
“What do you think?”
Cosmo was always quick to crow his dubious triumphs. As quick as he was to anger. Lissa had learned to temper her responses.
“Beautifully rendered,” tripped off the tongue, followed by a hesitation, her frown indicating the considered, critical response of a fellow artist to a great work that might be made greater with just a charcoal stroke here or a blending there.
The gentle snoring of Clara, the nursery maid, sleeping in the next room beside the cot containing the youngest Lamont child, was reassuring. It reduced the need for Lissa, who was becoming increasingly uncomfortable in Cosmo’s uncertain company these days, to manufacture a reason to scuttle away. However, courting Cosmo’s professional regard had its benefits, she’d realized, and was one way to ensure the security of her job.
Overseeing the education of the two middle Lamont children had its trials but it was better than the fate that had been forced upon Lissa’s sister. Poor high-spirited Kitty had been required to remain in the tiny village where they’d grown up and were branded the local “bastards”, caring for their mother in the final term of her latest pregnancy.
Another full-blood sibling. Another Hazlett bastard. Or Partington by-blow.
Cosmo looked smug. “I thought the same,” he said, studying his work with, if possible, even greater appreciation.
Lissa, a bad liar, was reminded of the fact when Cosmo glanced at her, his self-satisfaction wiped away by suspicion before Lissa affected sudden astonishment.
“Why, it looks just like Miss Danvers!” she exclaimed. “Miss Danvers in the guise of an angel.” It had been fortuitous that she’d gleaned from conversation that this young lady was the object of Cosmo’s current interest and therefore quite possibly the subject of his artistic endeavors, for in truth, Cosmo had not a jot of painterly talent in his little finger.
“You think so?” Placated, he apparently strove to sound insouciant. Since attaining his majority, Cosmo had worked hard to cultivate an attitude of sophistication edged with patent boredom. Lissa’s brother, Ned, had been the same, though he had fortunately grown out of it. He’d had to, since unlike Cosmo, he had no pretentions to respectability. “Well, it so happens, Miss Hazlett, that is indeed who it is, and it is my plan to present the painting to Miss Danvers when I see her on Friday.”
“Oh, but she will be flattered by your attention and impressed by your talent, sir.” Lissa gathered up the mending and had taken several steps toward the door when Cosmo called her back. Inwardly she groaned, for she knew what was coming; and she had so hoped to have an early night.
“A moment, Miss Hazlett.” The supercilious flare of Cosmo’s nostrils and the disdainful cast of his mouth could not hide his inner desire that Lissa help him. Twice in the past two weeks she had, with a few artful brush strokes, transformed Cosmo’s work in progress from hopelessly inept to a strikingly faithful rendition of his subject. She was not vain; she simply knew it was so.
Cosmo tapped his fingers on the wall beside the painting as he apparently gave thought to his next words. Lissa knew this was all part of the act. Wearily, she waited for what was to come.
Predictable as ever, Cosmo frowned as he turned toward her, biting his lip as if in the grip of great deliberation. “I am extremely busy over the next couple of days, Miss Hazlett, and I barely know where I shall find the time to finish my painting, though as you can see it is all but complete.” He stared at her, no doubt waiting for her bright offer of assistance.
Lissa hesitated at the door, the mending gathered in her arms, a polite smile upon her lips. She remained silent.
Cosmo shifted his weight. Clearly he’d expected she’d blithely offer to assist, as she had the last time. And the time before that. Now she merely raised enquiring eyebrows.
The silence lengthened. Upon a gusty exhalation, Cosmo muttered, “There are but two days before I see Miss Danvers and I cannot find even five minutes from the pressures of my busy life. However, you, Miss Hazlett, enjoy a leisured lifestyle in the employ of my family. I wonder if I could prevail upon you to sacrifice just several minutes to order this painting with the minor details I have not the time to manage so that I might present it to Miss Danvers.”
Lissa pretended to give the matter thought, then shook her head and said upon a sigh, “I’m terribly sorry, Master Cosmo, but I’m on call with the young girls all day for the next week and, in the evenings, your mother has been assiduous in ensuring I have not a second to call my own, much less to help others.”
She could see the thunderclouds gathering. His gaze darkened and his brow appeared to protrude over his angry eyes. When in fine temper he was a good-looking man. More often he resembled a sullen gargoyle. Master Cosmo did not like being crossed.
Well, Lissa might be a lowly paid governess but she was not going to be taken advantage of more than she already was.
Fortunately the storm didn’t break. Perhaps he remembered the sleeping baby, or was sufficiently cognizant of the likelihood she’d not help in future, for he kept a lid on his temper. “An inducement, then, Miss Hazlett?” Cosmo’s smile looked more tortured than pleasant. “You are busy, as am I, but perhaps I might be in a position to offer something that might make it worth your while.”
Lissa had never thought along those lines. An inducement? Goodness, a couple of shillings would go a long way toward the new gown she’d been saving for. Not the kind of gown a governess would wear, either.
She was about to accept when Lissa glimpsed her opportunity. Money was not the only currency to get her where she wanted to go in life.
With her eye on the prize, she pretended to deliberate even more. She was not calculating by nature, but since becoming a governess in this middle-class household, with its pretentions and aspirations, she’d learned how much more people wanted something when it seemed they could not get it. “An inducement, sir? When I am so very content with my lot? What could possibly serve as an inducement?”
When she saw him open his mouth she added quickly, adopting a dreamy look, “Though now I reconsider the matter, and the fact that you’re so kindly offering to facilitate my desires in order to further yours, then yes, there is one thing.” She wondered if she dared voice it. Cosmo had no imagination. He’d dismiss the idea out of hand as simply preposterous if she didn’t follow it up with how he might achieve it.
Her heart beat quickly, despite her pretense at whimsy, as she whispered, “Oh, Master Cosmo, the only thing I’ve ever truly wanted is to go to a ball. Yes, you have every right to look shocked that I harbor ideas so above my station, yet all I lack is a ball gown. A ball gown that does not mark me out as what I am: a poor governess.” Lissa raised her eyes heavenward and swayed slightly as, in truth, her dreams threatened to overcome her.
She knew her half-sisters went to balls regularly. Araminta, the elder, was in her second season—her first having finished under a cloud, Lissa recalled, after a young man had put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. The younger, sweeter one, Hetty, was now a regular on the dance floor, hoping no doubt to secure a husband before the season ended in a few weeks.
How wonderful if Lissa could secretly observe how these half-sisters, who did not even know of her existence, deported themselves in society. How wonderful to have just one night of seeing how her own life might have played out had her father, Viscount Partington, honored his promise to her mother, a lowly solicitor’s daughter, and made her his wife.
Instead, he’d left Lissa’s mother at the altar and married the earl’s daughter his parents had chosen for him, a decision he appeared to have immediately regretted, since he was quickly back in his true love’s arms, foisting upon Lissa’s mother four bastards during the next twenty years.
Though he could not be faulted in his attention to their mother, he showed more inclination to discipline rather than show affection toward his illegitimate children. All were expected to go out and make their livings. Lissa as a governess, when she longed more than anything to be a renowned artist; Ned, who’d been apprenticed to a goldsmith, as that conventionally led to a financial career; and Kitty, who frequently scandalized her parents with her declarations that the only living she was prepared to countenance was a career upon the stage.
Hiding her anger, Lissa fluttered her eyelashes in a gesture she hoped Master Cosmo would regard as more helpless than flirtatious and turned her face appealingly toward his. “How I would love one night to dance beneath beeswax candles and partake of champagne and thinly sliced ham, pretending I am not the lowly creature I know myself.”
Predictably, Cosmo was already shaking his head, his look making no secret of the fact he thought she’d taken leave of her senses. “Even my father, who as you know is a good deal plumper in the pocket than I am, balks at the cost of my sister’s ball gowns. I really do not think, Miss Hazlett, that you can be serious.”
Cosmo had no imagination. It was clear why he’d never be an artist.
But Lissa had both imagination and cunning and she was determined that somehow these would aid her.
Still wistful, she went on as if she’d not heard him. “I once heard a young man declare he had the cunning to achieve the impossible: get the kitchen maid into Lady Rutherford’s ballroom decked out and behaving like a lady so she’d be asked to dance by Lady Rutherford’s son.” Lissa was conscious she had his attention as she went on with her story. He stiffened as he appeared to study the angel painting.
Clutching the mending more tightly to her breast, she went on, ingenuously,“ You see, the young man’s sister was the same height as the kitchen maid, so he decided he’d borrow one of his sister’s ball gowns and accompany the kitchen maid to the ball. All he had to then do was effect an introduction…and after the dance was requested, he would win his bet.”
“How much was the bet?”
“A hundred pounds. He’d boasted to his friends at White’s that he could do it, and it was in their betting book. Oh, but there was such anticipation over whether he could be so clever…”
She really had his attention now. No doubt the possibility of making some money was very appealing. His eyes bored into her as he waited for her to conclude her story, finally asking a trifle acidly, no doubt because he had to, “Well, did he?”
“Sadly he was not so clever. In fact, he couldn’t even get so far as borrowing one of his sister’s gowns, because she caught him and quizzed him and point-blank refused to let him take what wasn’t his.” Lissa sighed and leveled her gaze at Cosmo. “Young ladies in high dudgeon can be formidable. And as I mentioned, he’d thought he was so much cleverer than he was but I’m afraid one has to be exceedingly clever to successfully put one over one’s sister. And your sister would be impossible to bamboozle.”
Lissa inclined her head. “Good night, Master Cosmo. I hope Miss Danvers likes her painting.”