In the early morning light, she could make out ripples on the edge of a wide pond in the grounds of the stately home. And there he was. As he emerged from the cold water, droplets ran down his muscular chest. His smooth, powerful thighs rippled as he straightened and looked directly towards her.
“I would mount him in a trice,” said Elizabeth. The stallion flicked his mane then dipped his head.
“Ah,” said Mr Bumbletoes, touching a scented silk kerchief beneath his nostrils. “I have never taken to bare back riding. And I would never trust a horse that chooses to swim unbidden.” He paused. “As the new governess you will, of course, be expected to maintain the highest standards of personal hygiene. When did you last bathe?”
“October,” she replied.
“Very wise,” he said. “Cleanliness is one thing. Obsessiveness is quite another.”
Their carriage passed between stone plinths topped by marble sculptures of the Duke of Levingham and his wife.
“Is he a widower?” asked Elizabeth.
Her eyes widened, revealing even more of her powder blue irises. Mr Bumbletoes’ temperature soared. Ignoring his frantic dabbing of sweat on his forehead, she asked: “Is the Duchess being held against her will in a high tower while her husband behaves like a rutting rogue?”
“Actually, she is in Catford visiting her sickly old nanny.”
Wheels crunched over fine gravel. Crows cawed. Elizabeth peered. The sullen grey walls of Levingham Hall were made even bleaker by a sprawling, leafless Virginia Creeper which held the stonework in a death hug. Without the vine, the walls may well have fallen onto the carriageway.
Before a liveried footman could reach for the door, Elizabeth pushed it open and stepped down. Leaning forward as one, the footman, the carriage driver and Mr Bumbletoes attempted to glimpse her stockinged ankles. A collective sigh followed her to the Hall.
In the doorway, with arms folded and pointy chin out, stood a woman of indeterminate age dressed in the welcoming black of a Mother Superior.
“Mrs Dartmoor”, Mr Bumbletoes whispered to Elizabeth as he scurried alongside her, his solid figure accentuated by a high-collared white waistcoat. “She is a right bitc …” The woman moved forward. “How absolutely wonderful to see you again, Mrs Dartmoor,” he enthused, reaching for her hand. “I never tire of seeing you in the same dress.”
She let his hand hang in the cool air while she ran two icy eyes down Elizabeth. “Since you are travelling with your family’s and the Duchess’ dressmaker, I would have expected something more …” The sight of Elizabeth’s black leather high heeled shoes dried up the remaining words. After a moment, she sniffed. “While those abominations may be fashionable in the bordellos of Whitechapel, I run this Hall and they are forbidden here.”
Elizabeth appeared puzzled. “Mr Bumbletoes assures me this style is all the rage in Mayfair. He spent an inordinate amount of time fitting them.”
Mr Bumbletoes pulled at his collar to make way for the trickles of sweat that coursed down his neck.
“Now, who is this?” A deep voice from the darkened hallway combined arrogance with – even from that distance – a hint of halitosis.
Elizabeth held her breath. What would the Duke be like? At first glance not traditionally handsome, she decided. The Duke was of average height, build, dress sense and with the pasty demeanour she associated with funeral directors. Still, needs must. She strode forward to meet him. “I am Keane …”
“Elizabeth Keane … Governess to the gentry.”
The right hand side of the Duke’s face turned scarlet. Elizabeth’s glove had left a palm print that ran from ear to receding chin.
There was a long sigh before, in an elegant faint, Mr Bumbletoes flopped onto a Persian rug.
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Copyright © 2013 GREG FLYNN