To Love a Lord(8)

By: Christi Caldwell

The day she’d been assigned a post at Mrs. Belden’s Finishing School, she’d met the other instructors—dour-faced, always frowning, as though they’d feared a grin would result in their immediate expulsion from their esteemed post. Dragons, every last one of them…. and she’d become one by default.

A dragon. Jane raised her fingertips and traced the ice cold fabled creature. A slow smile turned her lips up. She raised the knocker and pounded hard. She’d little other choice. She knocked once more. Nay, she had no alternative. Another knock. Either lie her way into a post for two months’ time or face an uncertain life on the streets. She flattened her lips into a firm line. Or, she could swallow her injurious pride and appeal to the man who’d sired her until—“Bloody unlikely,” she said between gritted teeth and pounded all the harder.

The door opened and the alacrity of that movement wrenched her forward. She released her grip upon the dragon so quickly she sprawled forward and came down hard, half-inside and half-outside the home of the illustrious Marquess of Waverly. Despite the chill of the rain, humiliated shame set her body ablaze with fiery heat. Mustering a smile, she raised her gaze upward to the gray-haired butler towering over her. The wrinkles lining his weathered cheeks marked him at some ancient age. She frowned. Was the marquess one of those monstrous sorts who abused his servants and didn’t provide a deserved pension at the end of their years of service? Jane scoffed. Then, didn’t all noblemen place their interests and desires before—?

“Ahem,” the older man cleared his throat.

She started and belatedly recalled she lay prone at his feet, her backside presented to any members of polite Society who happened by. She stared up at his outstretched fingers and the burn on her cheeks threatened to set her face afire. “Er, yes. Thank you.”

With the older man’s assistance, Jane climbed to her feet. Her hem dripped a sizeable puddle onto the otherwise immaculate, marble foyer. Oh, dear. This was hardly an entrance that would earn her the marquess’ favor. She braced for the sneering condescension in his servant’s cool, blue stare and froze. A twinkle lit the servant’s rheumy eyes.

He was one of the kind ones. Having been born a bastard, she’d had a good deal of experience in sorting out the kindly ones from the sneering, disapproving others. Unfortunately, there had been a shortage of the kindly ones.

She cleared her throat. “I am Mrs. Munroe.”

The man stared at her in confusion.

“I am here to see the Marquess of Waverly.” Jane fished around for her reticule and opened the sopping piece. She withdrew the well-read note. She held it up for the other man’s inspection. “I’ve come from Mrs. Belden’s Finishing School at the marquess’ request to serve as companion.” He accepted the note from her trembling fingers. Her breath caught in dreaded anticipation of the gods sending a bolt of lightning through the sweeping foyer to smite her for her lies.

The butler eyed the page in his hands and she braced for him to jab his finger at her and thunder “Liar” into the towering space. He folded the note and handed it over. There was nothing in his kindly eyes to indicate he’d seen her for the charlatan she was. Instead, he inclined his head with a smile. “Allow me to show you to the marquess.” He motioned to her cloak.

Jane followed his discreet gesture and then glanced back at him. She gave her head a small shake. What was he on about?

A ghost of a smile played on his lips. “Er, your cloak, Mrs. Munroe.”

“Oh, yes!” She widened her eyes. “Of course, my cloak.” With jerky movements, she fiddled with the clasp of her modest, brown muslin cloak and then turned the wet garment over to his care.

A footman rushed over to claim the cloak and then disappeared. A protest sprung to her lips as he carried off the only one she had in her possession.

“If you will please follow me, Mrs. Munroe?”

Jane jumped at the servant’s quietly spoken request. She wet her lips. Fear always chose the worst time to present itself. She stood rooted to the floor. Unease turned in her belly. Her future hung upon the following exchange; upon the benevolence of a nobleman who’d hired a companion for his sister and had instead received a sacked, former instructor and, well, a liar. Guilt needled at her insides. I am a liar.

Desperate, but a liar all the same and desperation did not pardon the sins of a liar. Alas, survival superseded honor in the cold, uncertain world in which she dwelled.

The butler coughed, breaking her from her panicked reverie. He stood at the edge of the corridor looking at her expectantly. “I—” She flitted her gaze about the foyer and then her stare collided with her bag. “I cannot—”