London, February 1817
Isabelle Cortland tripped as she stepped over the threshold into the Duke of Eastleigh’s town house. Not a slight stumble from which she recovered, but a full-out loss of balance that sent her sprawling onto the marble floor in an ungainly heap, her skirts riding up the back of her legs in a most humiliating manner.
Was it too much to hope he hadn’t seen her? Or that she could melt into the gleaming white stone?
“Mrs. Cortland!” The voice of her employer, Lord Barkley, hit her just before he grasped her elbow. “Are you all right?”
“Fine, thank you.” Placing her palms against the floor, she pushed herself up and brought her legs beneath her. Once she was on her knees, Lord Barkley helped her up.
Caroline, the younger of Isabelle’s two charges, stepped forward and brushed at Isabelle’s dress. “You’re all disheveled now. Let me help.” All of ten years old, Caroline was always quick to offer assistance as well as her opinion.
“Thank you.” Isabelle looked around the hall in agitation. He wasn’t here. Thank goodness.
“Are you certain you aren’t injured?” Lord Barkley asked.
Just her pride, but even that had been spared in the absence of the duke. “I am certain.”
“His Grace apologizes for not greeting you personally,” the butler said. “He will be home shortly.”
Lord Barkley straightened. “Quite all right. Deuced hospitable of him to allow us to stay.”
Indeed it was. They’d arrived in London that morning only to find the town house Lord Barkley had leased for the Season was not yet habitable above the ground floor. It was undergoing refurbishment and would be ready in a fortnight—or so they’d been promised. In the meantime, Lord Barkley had asked his friend the Duke of Eastleigh if they could stay with him. The duke, who Lord Barkley assured her was a generous and magnanimous fellow, had invited them to stay as long as they needed.
The duke was also arrogant, clever, and far more charming than anyone had a right to be. At least he had been ten years ago. Was he still the same?
She doubted she would find out. Isabelle planned to keep as far out of his way as possible. If she were lucky, she would endure the entire stay without ever clapping eyes on him. Which meant she’d best flee upstairs with alacrity.
Turning to the butler, she offered him a smile. “May I accompany my charges to their chamber?” She glanced toward Caroline and her sister, Beatrice, who was older by three years. Their brother, Douglas, was at Oxford.
“Of course.” The butler inclined his head toward a white-haired woman with a kind smile and bright, earnest eyes. “Mrs. Watkins will show you up.”
The housekeeper, for that was what she had to be, beamed at Isabelle and the girls. “Come along. I have the perfect chamber for you dears.” She started toward the stairs.
Isabelle gestured for the girls to precede her.
“Barkley! Welcome to my humble home. I’m so pleased to see you.”
Isabelle nearly tripped again as she placed her foot on the bottom step. The unmistakable—even after all this time—voice of the duke locked her breath in her lungs.
“Humble, ha!” Lord Barkley’s deep chuckle echoed in the hall. “Thank you for inviting us to stay. The governess is just taking my girls upstairs.”
Isabelle forced herself to move. If she hurried, she could hopefully avoid meeting the duke. Rather, re-meeting the duke. Oh, this was going to be a disaster.
“You can make the girls’ acquaintance later,” Lord Barkley said, and Isabelle finally breathed.
There was a pause, and during that pause, Isabelle felt certain the duke’s eyes were boring into her back with all-seeing intensity. At any moment, he would call her by name and the secrets she’d long buried would be exposed. She’d lose her dignity, her post, and the goal that she was working so hard to achieve: her school.
“I’ll look forward to meeting them.” The duke’s response made Isabelle’s insides curl with envy. Envy? She didn’t want to see him. She shouldn’t want to see him.
She followed the housekeeper and her charges up, and when the staircase turned, she kept her face averted from the hall—right up until the last moment. Then she stole a glance at the man whose image was seared in her mind for all time.
He looked precisely the same, as far as she could tell at this distance. Tall, broad-shouldered, with those bow-shaped lips that had no business on a man’s face.
They ascended past the first floor up to the second, and Mrs. Watkins led them to the right and then into a well-appointed bedchamber that overlooked the square below. “Here we are,” Mrs. Watkins said. “Your things will be up shortly.”
Caroline dashed to the window and looked down. “What a lovely square.”
“Is this your first time in London?” Mrs. Watkins asked.
Caroline turned from the window. “Yes. We’re going to visit the British Museum and Gunter’s, and Beatrice is hoping to shop on Bond Street. Papa said we can’t because Mama didn’t come with us. She had to go take care of Great-Auntie again. She’s sick.”
Mrs. Watkins’s brow creased, and she gave Caroline a heartfelt nod. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I’ll convince him to let Mrs. Cortland take us,” Beatrice said firmly. “I already asked him, and he said he’d think about it.”
Shopping on Bond Street? Isabelle wouldn’t know the slightest thing. Traipsing around London with the girls sounded equal parts harrowing and exciting.
“You’ve been to London before, then?” Mrs. Watkins asked Isabelle.
She shook her head. “No.”
“Well then, this shall be an adventure for all of you!” The footman arrived with the girls’ luggage, and Mrs. Watkins directed him to place it over by the armoire.
“Where will Mrs. Cortland sleep?” Caroline asked. “At home, her room is just up the stairs from ours.”
“Her room is upstairs here too.” Mrs. Watkins tipped her head toward Isabelle. “Shall I show you?”
Isabelle smiled in appreciation. “Thank you, but I’ll stay and help the girls unpack. I’m sure I can find my way if you give me the direction.”
“Just up the stairs—the door is at the end of the gallery—then to the right, second door on your left. I could send a maid up to unpack their things,” the housekeeper offered.
“Thank you, but that isn’t necessary.” Isabelle was more than happy to help the girls herself. She loved them as much as if they were her own children, in part because she didn’t have any and never would.
The housekeeper nodded. “I’ll leave you to it, then.” She departed with a smile, closing the door softly behind her.
“When will we meet the duke?” Caroline asked as Isabelle opened and began to unpack their valises. “I’ve never met a duke before.”
Isabelle hid a smile because Caroline had made that statement no less than half a dozen times since they’d learned they would be staying with the Duke of Eastleigh.
The name alone had caused Isabelle a fright. She’d never thought to hear it again, let alone be staying in his house. When she’d taken this governess position in Staffordshire five years ago, she never dreamed she’d come face-to-face with Valentine Fairfax, the Duke of Eastleight again.
And hopefully she wouldn’t.
Could she really stay here for a fortnight without seeing him? She was going to do her best.
“Maybe we’ll meet the duke at dinner,” Beatrice said, answering Caroline’s question about meeting the duke. “If we’re invited.”
Isabelle suffered another moment’s panic. What if Val invited them to dinner, and what if, God forbid, that invitation included her? She’d occasionally dined with Lord and Lady Barkley and the children, but hopefully, a duke’s household was far more formal, and she and the children would be excluded. “I’m not sure you should expect to dine at the duke’s table,” Isabelle said as she handed a stack of undergarments to Beatrice to put away in the dresser.
“I suppose not,” Beatrice said, opening a drawer. “But it would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?”
Caroline snorted. “You would think so.”
Beatrice’s dark curls bounced against her narrow shoulders as she pursed her lips and threw her sister an irritated stare. “Who’s to say I’ll ever have cause to dine with a duke again?”
Indeed. Isabelle never had and hoped she never would. Not this duke and not any duke. She was not and had never been like Beatrice, who looked forward to her come out and being the belle of the Season. Isabelle just wanted to educate girls like Beatrice and help them understand there was more to life than dukes and balls. While Beatrice had soaked up knowledge like a dry biscuit dipped in tea, she remained steadfastly enchanted with becoming a debutante and shopping the Marriage Mart—for now. The girl was, after all, only thirteen.
Caroline held her arms out for a stack of clothing to put away. “Do you suppose he has a library?”
“Probably.” Isabelle had no idea if London homes had the same sorts of libraries as country houses, but the Val she remembered had been an avid reader, so she suspected he would. Unless he wasn’t the Val she remembered. Ten years was an awfully long time, and they had been incredibly young…
“I hope so,” Caroline said. “Perhaps we should go look after we unpack?”
Isabelle gave her a warm but firm look. “I think it’s best if you both rest for a bit while I go upstairs and see to my things.”
Caroline exhaled with disappointment. The girl hated to sit still. “If you say so.”
They finished unpacking, and Isabelle gave them both instructions to read and practice writing their Latin. She’d return in an hour for their lesson.
“Is there no schoolroom?” Beatrice asked.
“I don’t know.” Mrs. Watkins hadn’t mentioned it, and Isabelle wasn’t sure she wanted to ask. To do so might draw attention to herself, and she planned to be as invisible as possible.
“I hope so, because this room only has that small desk and a single chair.” Beatrice was, unfortunately, correct.
Isabelle supposed she would have to ask, but she’d bring it up with Lord Barkley and leave it to him to sort things out. “I’ll speak to your father. Time to read.” When they were ensconced on the bed with their books, Isabelle left.
Closing the door behind her, she recalled what the housekeeper had said. The door is at the end of the gallery—to the right, second door on your left. Or had she said to the left, second door on your right? Exhaling, Isabelle strode to the end of the gallery. She put her hand on the latch and paused. Had Mrs. Watkins meant this end of the gallery?
Isabelle looked back the way she’d come. Suddenly, the door in front of her opened, and standing there in all his ducal glory, his sun-gold hair swept back from the wide plane of his forehead and his jade-green eyes widening in surprise, was the man she’d tried—and failed—to forget.
* * *
Val stared at the woman standing outside his door as if she were an apparition. Was she? She had to be. Why else would she be there?
He blinked, closing his eyes with purpose and keeping them shut for a moment. But when he opened them again, she was still there.
“Isabelle?” She was older, of course, and far more beautiful than he remembered. He hadn’t dreamed that could be possible. Most of her light brown hair was pulled back in a rather severe chignon, but two curls bobbed in front of each ear. A faint pink blush stained her angled cheekbones, and her full coral lips were parted in surprise.
Now she blinked, her dark lashes briefly closing over her vivid cobalt eyes. Finally, she said, “Yes.”
“I can’t believe it.” He reached for her, but she took a step back. He frowned. “What are you doing here?”
“I am governess to the Misses Spelman.”
“Governess? How on earth did you become a governess? I thought you were supposed to marry…some gentleman.” Val couldn’t begin to recall the man’s name. If she hadn’t married him—damn, was that his fault? Val’s insides swirled with discomfort.
Relief poured through him.
“He passed away six years ago.” Her placid features didn’t reveal a hint of emotion beyond solemnity.
“I’m so sorry. I did hear that your father died, and I was very sorry to hear it. He was a wonderful man, an exemplary teacher.” He’d been warden of Merton College, and several of Val’s friends had been matriculated there. “Wasn’t it around that time?”
“It was,” she said quietly. “I lost my father in January and my husband just three months later.”
His heart ached for her that she’d lost so much in such a short span. “That must not have been easy.”
“No.” She clasped her hands before her and wrung them together briefly as she looked to the side. “I’d hoped to avoid seeing you, Your Grace. I was looking for the stairs. To my room on the third floor.”
“They are at the other end of the gallery,” he said rather absentmindedly as he focused on the other things she’d said. “Why would you want to avoid me? And don’t call me ‘Your Grace.’”
She arched a brow, and oh, how he remembered that expression. She had a way of looking at him that was equal parts seductive and haughty. It had never failed to arouse him, and he’d be damned if she wasn’t doing it again. Suddenly, he was eighteen years old—as he was when he’d first met her—and absolutely smitten.
“What should I call you?” she asked.
“What you always called me.”
She clamped her lips together and looked instantly more like a governess than the woman who’d captivated him as a lad. “I can’t do that. You’re a duke, and I’m a governess. We shouldn’t even be standing here talking.” She abruptly turned and started along the gallery.
Val stepped out of his private sitting room and leapt after her. He reached for her elbow, and the moment his hand closed around her sleeve, he felt a swooning sensation in the pit of his belly.
She pulled her arm from his grip with a gasp. Turning toward him, her eyes blazing a cold fire, she opened her mouth, and he actually leaned toward her, craving her indignation. She’d delivered him so many set downs when he’d begun to flirt with her. It had taken months for her to finally admit she was attracted to him too.
But he never got to hear what she was about to say, because they’d stopped in front of Barkley’s room, and the door opened to reveal the baron.
Barkley looked from Val to Isabelle and back to Val again. “I see you’ve met our governess.”
Anything Val might have said next was drowned out by her response. “Yes, we’ve just met. I’m afraid I got turned around looking for the stairs. His Grace was kind enough to direct me. If you’ll just excuse me.”
Val looked toward her, narrowing his eyes slightly. They’d just met?
Her gaze met his, and in the depths of her eyes, he saw a silent plea. Apparently, she didn’t want him to say they knew each other. What did she think he would do, reveal the extent to which they knew each other?
“Before you rush off, Mrs. …”
“Cortland,” she supplied.
Not knowing her name certainly supported her insistence that they’d just met. To him, she’d been Isabelle Highmore, the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.
“Before you rush off, Mrs. Cortland, I do hope you’ll join us for dinner.”
Isabelle looked toward Barkley, who inclined his head, then returned her attention to Val. “What time shall I have the girls ready?”
The girls? Barkley’s daughters. Val hadn’t invited them. But to exclude them now, in front of their father no less, would be rude. The fact was that he didn’t even want Barkley at the bloody dinner. He wanted Isabelle alone so he could learn every single thing she’d done in the past decade.
“Seven,” Val said.
Isabelle dipped a curtsey and turned. Val tried very hard not to stare at her swaying backside as she walked to the other end of the gallery. With great reluctance, he turned to Barkley. “How long has Mrs. Cortland been in your employ?”
Barkley cocked his head to the side and stuck his lower lip out while he pondered the question. “Going on five years now, I think. Yes, has to be five. When Caroline had her fifth birthday, we hired Mrs. Cortland to tutor the girls. When she wrote and said who her father had been, I knew she was perfect for the job. Truth be told, she’s more clever than I imagined a woman could be.”
Val stared at the man, momentarily bereft of speech at his implication. Rather than call out Barkley’s rudeness—and idiocy—Val ignored the asinine comment. Unlike Barkley, Val wasn’t the least surprised by Isabelle’s intellect. She’d always had her nose in a book. It was one of the things he’d liked best about her. In fact, the times they’d sat together on a bench outside simply reading side by side were some of his favorite memories. “It sounds as though you are quite fortunate to have Mrs. Cortland.”
“Indeed we are,” Barkley said with a nod. “Are we still having that glass of brandy before dinner?”
Val wanted to interrogate Barkley about Isabelle—did she still love Voltaire, and did she still snort if she laughed too hard? Instead, he pasted on a smile and clapped the baron on his shoulder. “Yes, let’s.”
They went downstairs, and all Val could think of was the woman upstairs and how in the hell he was going to get her alone.Return to One Night of Surrender