I'm glad you are finally giving greater responsibility to your teachers, instead of taking everything upon yourself. Miss Prescott in particular sounds like an asset, given her penchant for bookkeeping. I know how much you despise numbers — this way you can keep your hand in without having to submit to the tortures of doing sums.
Your friend and cousin,
Miss Madeline Prescott stared at the sealed envelope for the fifth time that day. Refused was written across it in a bold hand.
She couldn't believe it. Though she'd received no answer to her previous correspondence, she'd still hoped that Sir Humphry Davy might one day read one of her letters. If they were being refused entirely, she hadn't the smallest hope of making her case in person to the famous chemist.
Tears stung her eyes. Now what? She didn't know where to turn, and Papa got worse by the day. If she didn't find a solution soon —
"Ah, there you are," said Mrs. Charlotte Harris, owner and headmistress of Mrs. Harris's School for Young Ladies, as she entered the school's office. "I thought I might find you here."
Shoving the letter into her apron pocket, Madeline forced a smile. "I'm still balancing the accounts."
Mrs. Harris took a seat on the other side of the partner's desk, her red curls jiggling. "I don't envy you. I am so grateful you took those duties over."
Her employer wouldn't be nearly so grateful if she knew about the scandal clinging to the Prescott name in Shropshire. Mrs. Harris expected her teachers to be above reproach.
A footman appeared in the doorway to the office and said to Mrs. Harris, "A Lord Norcourt has come to call on you, ma'am."
Madeline's throat went dry. Sir Randolph Bickham's nephew, here? Could the Viscount Norcourt be seeking her out because of his uncle's wicked plot against Papa? Had Sir Randolph actually hunted them down here in Richmond?
That made no sense. Not only had the viscount never met her, but he and Sir Randolph were rumored to be estranged. Would Lord Norcourt even realize her family's connection to his?
Even if he did, he couldn't know she taught here. She hadn't told anyone at home in Telford. And she'd certainly kept her former life secret from Mrs. Harris.
Mrs. Harris looked perplexed. "But I don't know Lord Norcourt."
"He's here about a prospective pupil, I believe," the footman said.
Madeline slumped in relief. So this was a chance occurrence. Thank heaven.
"I have no openings for this term," Mrs. Harris said.
"I told him, ma'am. But he still wishes to speak with you."
Mrs. Harris turned to Madeline. "Do you know anything about Lord Norcourt?"
"A little," she said evasively. "He only inherited the title from his elder brother last month. Before then, you would have known him as the Honorable Anthony Dalton."
Mrs. Harris blinked. "The rakehell with a fondness for widows?"
"So they say."
"I wonder why he's here. He has no children to enroll." With a glance at the waiting footman, Mrs. Harris rose and touched one slender hand to her temple. "The gossips say he has seduced half the widows in London."
"That's impossible." Madeline did a swift calculation in her head. "Given a population of over one million, if even one-twentieth are widows, he'd have had to bed a woman every four hours over the past ten years to achieve such a feat. That would scarcely leave him time for gaming hells and wild parties."
Mrs. Harris's arch glance showed that she didn't particularly appreciate Madeline's practical perspective. But then, few people did. "I've heard about those parties," Mrs. Harris said tartly. "Cousin Michael even described one."
"Cousin Michael" was the school's original benefactor, a reclusive fellow who wrote Mrs. Harris of any intelligence he thought would aid the heiresses who attended. Privately, Madeline wondered if Cousin Michael was as removed from social affairs as he implied. But she wasn't likely to find out, since the man's identity had never been revealed to anyone, even Mrs. Harris.
"You don't think Lord Norcourt has come because I am a widow, do you?" the headmistress asked as she paced before the window that overlooked the school's extensive gardens.
"I hardly think it likely."
"Nonetheless, I want nothing to do with the man." Mrs. Harris whirled on Madeline. "Perhaps you should speak to him. It's time you learned to deal with this sort of thing, and you're more likely to be tactful than I, given his reputation."
"But — "
"Why should you be limited to teaching classes and doing the school's accounts? You've amply proved you can handle weightier responsibilities. So go explain to Lord Norcourt that we have no openings."
Madeline hesitated. What if the man recognized her surname as Papa's?
No, that was silly. Prescott was a common enough name. And he'd hardly be familiar with the physicians in his uncle's town.
Rising from her seat, Madeline nodded. "I'll take care of it at once."
The more she ingratiated herself with Mrs. Harris, the more solid her standing at the school and the less likely she'd be to lose her position if the scandal surrounding Papa ever caught up with her here.
As she followed the footman into the hall, something else occurred to her. Though she'd heard much about his rakish reputation, the viscount had connections among men of science and learning. According to reports, he knew Sir Humphry Davy himself! She had to use this opportunity to her advantage to save Papa and get her former life back.
But how, if she had to turn his lordship away?
As she and the footman neared the foyer, she halted him in the shadow of the stairs, wanting first to study the man who paced the marble floor with spare, quick strides, his hands clasped behind his back.
Lord Norcourt was considerably taller and more handsome than his loathsome uncle. In his coat, waistcoat, and trousers of black superfine, with his equally black hair tumbling fashionably about his white collar, he was as glorious a creature as any wild fallow buck she'd described in her work of natural history.
She assessed his features in the mirror beyond him — the noble brow, the aquiline nose jutting above a full, sensual mouth, the square-cut jaw. But nothing compared to his well-knit figure, which bespoke many hours engaged in fencing or boxing or some other gentlemanly sport.
Yes, a splendid beast indeed.
Then he halted before the mirror with his head cocked, like a stag scenting danger, and she had only a second to prepare herself before he pivoted to fix her with amazing blue eyes, the exact hue of the azurite crystals she kept in a jar on her desk. And twice as sharp, not to mention unnerving. It seemed quite at odds with the outrageous fellow described by the gossips.
"Mrs. Harris, I presume?" he said, his brief bow every bit as haughty as one his uncle might have managed.
Heart thundering, she stepped forward. "No, my lord. I'm Miss Prescott." As she curtsied, she held her breath, waiting to see if he recognized her surname.
He merely shot her the same dismissive glance he would give any underling. "I wish to speak to the headmistress."
"She's busy, so she sent me." When Lord Norcourt frowned his annoyance, she dismissed the footman with what she hoped sounded like authority. Then she smiled coolly. "I handle the school's finances. I also teach mathematics. And natural history, when I can fit it in."
The viscount's chiseled features softened. "A naturalist? That is excellent. There should be more of that in schools for young ladies."
The casual compliment struck Madeline dumb. No one but Mrs. Harris viewed her interest in maths and natural history as an advantage. Certainly no man other than Papa ever had. How extraordinary.
But when he followed the compliment with a measured assessment of her, one that ended in a breathtaking smile, all white teeth and ingratiating appeal, she regarded him more cynically. He was very good at charming women, wasn't he? No wonder they fell into his bed so eagerly.
"I suppose you're wondering why I'm here," he went on. Abruptly, his smile vanished. "You see, my elder brother and his wife died in an inn fire last month."
"I'm very sorry for your loss," she murmured.
His nod of acknowledgment dropped a wave of silky raven hair over his brow. He shoved it back with a swiftness that hinted it was an oft-repeated gesture. "They were survived by a twelve-year-old daughter, the Honorable Miss Teresa Ann Dalton. That's why I've come. To enroll my niece in your academy."
"Surely the footman told you we have no openings at present."
He arched one brow. "Such matters can generally be got round for a price."
Thank heaven Mrs. Harris hadn't handled this — the implication that her goodwill could be bought would have ended this discussion. But Madeline refused to banish the viscount until she figured out if he could help Papa.
"As it happens," she said, softening her words with an amiable tone, "my employer need not take whoever offers her the most money. She will require some weightier reason before considering your request."
"Your employer's discriminating taste does her credit, as does her unusual curriculum. But surely neither of you would let some arbitrary limit on the number of pupils persuade you to turn away a girl of superior intelligence who might bring credit to your institution."
"There are other schools — "
"I wouldn't enroll my horse in them, much less an impressionable young woman. They're badly run, providing an indifferent and frivolous education."
Well, well, he'd certainly investigated the matter thoroughly. And surely Mrs. Harris could make room for another girl, with some adjustments. Besides, if Madeline could do this favor for Lord Norcourt...
But first she'd have to convince Mrs. Harris to allow it, and for that she must learn more. "Why have you been given charge of your niece? Isn't it unusual to name a bachelor as a guardian?"
"The married man that my brother named died a few years ago, and Wallace never took the trouble to change his will." An edge entered his voice. "Negligence was his particular talent."
So she'd heard. In Telford, Wallace Dalton was known as an extravagant dullard who'd neglected his Surrey estate in his pursuit of high living. Madeline wouldn't be surprised to learn that he'd left his younger brother a mountain of debt.
"Fortunately," the viscount continued, "my niece is to inherit a substantial sum through her mother's marriage settlement, which my brother couldn't touch. So if you're worried that her legacy can't cover the fees — "
"I'm simply trying to understand your legal standing. Are you Miss Dalton's guardian or not?"
For the first time since she'd greeted him, the viscount's confident manner faltered. "I am not," he admitted, then added quickly, "But I hope to be soon. The court must appoint someone and I've petitioned for guardianship. I fully expect to have my petition granted."
With his reputation? Madeline didn't know much about the courts, but she doubted they'd assign a bachelor rakehell as guardian to a young girl.
Still, he was a viscount. And would he be here if he weren't certain of the outcome? "Your niece has no other relations interested in serving as guardian?"
A muscle flicked in his jaw. "My maternal uncle and aunt have also petitioned the court for guardianship."
Did he mean the Bickhams? But their daughter, Jane, was grown. Why would they take on a young relation at their age? Unless...
"Your brother's estate must offer a nice sum to the guardian," she said.
Any vestige of his charm vanished. "It's not my niece's money I seek."
"Oh, I didn't mean that you — "
"Tessa has been living with my Aunt Eunice and Uncle Randolph since her parents died, and they make her more miserable by the day."
Madeline could well believe that. The Bickhams would make anyone miserable, especially a grieving girl who needed comfort, not moralizing.
Poor Miss Dalton. When Madeline had lost her mother to consumption a few years ago, she'd at least had time to prepare herself. Nor had she been caught in a battle between her relations afterward.
"Misery is one thing," she said, "but surely your relations wouldn't actually mistreat her."
"That's precisely what I fear." His features grew shuttered. "They've done it before."
To whom? Surely not him. If she remembered correctly, he'd lived with the Bickhams for a brief while as a child, but his father had been alive then, and even the Bickhams weren't so arrogant as to mistreat a viscount's son.
Perhaps Lord Norcourt referred to his cousin Jane. She'd married and settled in Telford, yet noticeably avoided her parents. That gave Madeline pause.
"I must get Tessa out of that unspeakable place," he went on. "Neither of those two is fit to raise a child, especially my aunt."
"I understand your concern," she said softly, "but I don't know how enrolling your niece here can help."
"The Bickhams cultivate a façade of cozy domesticity. They're a high- ranking, respectable family in a stolid country town. In the eyes of the court, their advantages outweigh the disadvantages of my being a bachelor with an unsavory reputation, even a titled one. The only way to tip the balance is to show I can offer her other advantages — the refinements of town, exposure to a society more fitting her rank, and an exemplary education, the sort she couldn't possibly receive in the country. That's why it's so important that you accept her."
She saw a great deal. His niece's situation was almost as desperate as her own. But they could both be helped if Madeline could do this favor for the viscount.
"Very well, my lord, I shall speak to Mrs. Harris on your behalf. Wait here until I return, if you please."
She walked off, tamping down the pain roused by the viscount's clear affection for his niece. Papa had been just as protective of her own future, until Sir Randolph had ripped his reputation and livelihood from him.
A sob rose in her throat. These days, Papa couldn't drag himself from the bed, much less defend her. His melancholy overwhelmed him too much to fight, and without the income from his practice, they would soon run out of funds, despite her modest position here.
She must restore Papa to his former life — even if that meant begging a favor from the viscount. But she could only do that if she convinced her employer to enroll Miss Dalton.
That proved more difficult than expected. Even after Madeline explained Miss Dalton's dire situation, Mrs. Harris still wavered.
"He's a scoundrel, for heaven's sake," Mrs. Harris bit out. "He shouldn't be raising a young lady."
"He wouldn't be," Madeline pointed out. "We would. Besides, you know how the gossips exaggerate. His reputation can't be nearly as bad as reported."
"You think not?" She snorted. "Then you haven't heard what I have. What about those debauched social affairs that his lordship throws, the ones they're always writing about in the papers?'
"If you're speaking of my nitrous oxide parties, madam," came a taut male voice from the doorway, "those are held for the sake of intellectual enquiry."
Madeline groaned. She should have known that the viscount wouldn't leave this to her. He was the sort of man to take charge.
As Lord Norcourt entered, anger flared in his finely carved features. "My parties are attended by some of the leading minds of science and the arts."
Which was precisely why Madeline was trying to help him. But right now, with his temper up, the arrogant fool was sealing his fate with Mrs. Harris. "Lord Norcourt, this is my employer," she said hastily, determined to regain control. "Mrs. Harris, may I introduce — "
"No need to introduce a man whose reputation precedes him," said Mrs. Harris, her own temper high as she turned to the viscount. "And your 'leading minds' aren't the only guests, sir. What about the half-dressed females who cavort about while the young men 'of science and the arts' puff on their bladders and ogle the women for sport? According to my very reliable sources, your parties aren't always given for the 'sake of intellectual enquiry.'"
Irritation glittered in his eyes. "You must have very interesting sources. And yes, I am aware I will have to be more discreet with a young woman in my household. There will be no more parties for bachelors at my lodgings, and no women except a respectable lady's companion to attend Tessa. When my niece isn't here, she will live the same life as any young daughter of a lord."
"So you mean to give up your mistresses and your long nights at the clubs?"
"She'll never hear or see aught to shame or corrupt her," he said evasively. "I doubt you'd get more than that from any married man whose daughter attends here, blissfully ignorant of her papa's... activities."
Mrs. Harris knew better than to claim that her pupils' fathers didn't engage in such behaviors; many men of fashion did. "If I thought your lordship capable of discretion, I might make a place for your niece this term, but given your reputation for flaunting your wickedness, I rather doubt — "
"Do you question my word, madam?" He spoke the words softly, which only made their quiet menace more chilling.
And Mrs. Harris had always despised being threatened. "Let's just say that through the years, I've grown cynical about a man's ability to change his habits."
The viscount stalked up to plant his hands on the desk. "Cynical is one thing, cruel and heartless another. I swear that if my niece is raised in the household of my harsh relatives, her spirit will be scarred for life."
Though Mrs. Harris flinched, she didn't relent. "Then you will have to enroll her in another school for ladies."
"I can't!" He grimaced, then shoved away from the desk with an oath, as if he hadn't meant to admit that. "I can't enroll her anywhere else."
"Why not?" Mrs. Harris demanded.
"They won't take her."
"I thought you said that you did not want them," Madeline put in.
"I don't. But they also refuse to promise her a place until I gain guardianship. They don't want to become embroiled in my fight."
"Neither do I," Mrs. Harris said.
"Yes, but you have the reputation to pull it off. They don't. Unfortunately, unless I find a reputable school to enroll her, so I can prove that being raised by me is an advantage, I won't be approved as her guardian. That is my dilemma."
Mrs. Harris tipped up her chin. "Your dilemma is that headmistresses aren't as easily charmed into betraying their principles as your usual female companions."
He clenched his jaw. "I see that even a woman as forward-thinking as you can be exceedingly small-minded when it comes to men. I didn't approach you until the end of my search because I suspected that your well-known 'principles' would keep you from helping me. Apparently I was right. Good day, ladies."
As he stalked away, Madeline panicked. She couldn't let Mrs. Harris drive the viscount away. He might be her only chance to help Papa!
"Perhaps his lordship could prove that he would make an acceptable guardian to a young female," Madeline burst out.
As the viscount halted, a wary hope flickering in his face, Mrs. Harris glowered at her. Oh, dear. Madeline had to handle this delicately. She couldn't afford to lose her position in her zeal to gain her favor from the viscount.
"If his lordship demonstrates he can keep his private activities discreet," Madeline went on, "wouldn't it benefit the school to enroll his niece? Think of the cachet of having a student who is a previous viscount's daughter and a current viscount's niece. We have few noblemen's daughters as pupils."
"True," Mrs. Harris said, "but by agreeing to take her, I'd be showing approval of his lordship's petition for guardianship, which makes me uneasy."
"You wouldn't commit to anything until you're satisfied that Lord Norcourt is capable of being a good guardian."
"I cannot twiddle my thumbs waiting for some overly high-minded headmistress to decide my fate," he growled. "I have my brother's debts to settle, an estate to put to rights — "
"I understand. But proving your suitability shouldn't take more than a couple of weeks. My proposal would enable you to be useful to the school... and in the long run, to your niece."
"Really, Madeline, this is pointless," Mrs. Harris put in. "What could his lordship possibly offer of use to the school?"
Madeline focused her persuasive power on her skittish employer. She wouldn't let this chance slip through her fingers! "How often have you bemoaned the girls' lack of practical experience in dealing with fortune hunters and scoundrels? No matter how much you warn them, the minute they're in the presence of a handsome gentleman spouting compliments, they forget everything."
"What is your point?" Mrs. Harris said irritably, not denying Madeline's claim. They often despaired over the foolishness of impressionable young girls.
"If the girls could hear warnings from an expert in such manipulations, they might actually heed them." Squaring her shoulders, she faced her employer down. "I think the viscount should give our girls lessons."
Mrs. Harris gaped at her. "What kind of lessons could he possibly — "
"He can teach them how to avoid the machinations of scoundrels and rogues." Madeline smiled. "Rakehell lessons."
Copyright © 2008 by Deborah Gonzales