To Love a Lord(5)

By: Christi Caldwell

Mrs. Belden propelled forward in her seat. She thumped her fist on the desktop once more, sending the lone page fluttering to the floor forgotten. “Mrs. Munroe, women do not have opinions. They are obedient, decorous creatures to be cared for by a husband and your Mrs. Wollstonecraft with her bastard children is not fit discourse for anyone.” Crimson blotches blazed upon the woman’s cheeks, and she stared at Jane with pointed condescension, her words a smidgeon shy of the insult she’d level at her.

For every employer from the previous households she’d found employment in to this dour creature, all knew the truth—the Duke of Ravenscourt’s requests of employment for Jane were more of an order than anything else and stemmed from some obligatory response to his by-blow daughter.

She tipped her chin up at a mutinous angle, daring the woman with her eyes to speak the whole truth. The woman wisely remained silent, likely fearing retribution if she were to issue that insult. Little did the nasty headmistress realize that Jane would no sooner humble herself before the man who’d sired her by asking for his aid than beg the pinch-mouthed crone.

“I agreed to His Grace’s request but was forthright in saying that if you did anything to jeopardize my charges, I’d be forced to release you from your responsibilities. After all, I’d heard rumors of you.”

Rumors. So the grounds of her dismissal from her previous employer had found their way to the far flung corners of Kent. Not even the duke could silence those scandalous whispers. Fury tightened Jane’s belly at the condescending sneer on the woman’s lips. A woman who instructed young ladies on blind obedience and their rightful position in Society would never believe the word of a duke’s by-blow daughter over that of a powerful earl’s respected son and heir. So she said nothing.

“I cannot provide you a reference…” Nausea turned in Jane’s belly. A knock sounded at the door and she looked blankly from the arbiter of her fate and to the wood panel. Mrs. Belden frowned and glanced briefly over at the door, and then returned her attention to Jane once again. “As I said, I cannot provide you a reference. It would not be the honorable thing for me to do as your employer.”

Honor. What did this woman or the Earls of Montclairs and Dukes of Ravenscourts of the world know of honor? Fear turned her mouth dry. Where would she go? For the briefest, infinitesimal moment, she entertained sending a missive to her father. She slid her eyes closed. God help her, she’d not be so weak to rely on the assistance of a man whom her mother had thrown away all hope of respectability and honor for. She could not, nay would not, appeal to her father. She’d not ever done so on her own behalf. Her foolish mother, who’d given away all happiness for that man’s love, had done so. The employers who cast her out, time and time again, had done so as a deferential respect for the revered Duke of Ravenscourt. “I ask that you allow me a fortnight, Mrs. Belden,” she said at last.

“You—” Another rap interrupted the woman’s words. On a huff of annoyance, she stood with slow, precise movements. “Yes?”

The door opened and one of the uniformed instructors, Mrs. Smythe, stood at the entrance. She momentarily glanced at Jane. Pity filled the woman’s eyes. Ah, so all knew. Nothing was private where she was concerned. “Mrs. Belden, there is a quarrel between Lady Clarisse and Lady Nora.”

Lady Clarisse. The very legitimate daughter of the Duke of Ravenscourt—the one not dependent upon the mercy of cruel employers and prey to lecherous gentlemen. Bitterness turned in her belly.

“A quarrel?”

The young woman had despised Jane from the moment she’d arrived at her new post, likely a product of a daughter who knew precisely the young woman her father had coordinated employment for.

“Yes, they are arguing about,” she cleared her throat. “Mrs. Wollstonecraft and,” she slid her gaze away from Jane’s as though unable to meet her stare. “Mrs. Munroe.”

The headmistress favored Jane with a black glower. “I will return in a moment to continue this.” This, as in the ensuing argument between Lady Nora who’d quite taken to the enlightened ideas of free thought and freedoms of choice and Lady Clarisse, who’d quite detested anything and everything Jane had lectured on or spoken of, including mundane mentions of the weather.

Together, the two women hurried from the office, leaving Jane alone. A thunderous quiet filled the room. Her shoulders sagged as the hum of silence in her ears blended with the frantic beating of her heart, nearly deafening. Filled with a restiveness, she shoved to her feet and began to pace before Mrs. Belden’s immaculate, mahogany desk.