Elizabeth Mansfield (17 page)

With her breath frozen in her chest, Caro cautiously crept down three stairs and stared at the prostrate form. At best, she thought in terror, he’d surely have broken some bones. At worst, he was dead.

She stood there staring down at him, aghast. She did not hear the knocking at the door, not its opening, nor the footsteps crossing the entryway. Stunned, her head throbbing and her knees shaking, she stood paralyzed, not knowing what to do next. It was only when she heard someone call her name that she was shaken from her stupor. She turned her head in the direction of the sound and found herself staring down into the shocked face of Kit Meredith. “Caro!” he exclaimed. “Good God!”

She could not believe her eyes. “Mr.
Terence!

was the name that came to her lips, while her heart leaped up in her chest with a joyful feeling of relief, relief that here was someone to come to her aid.

“Kit,” he reminded her as he came up the stairs two at a time. He looked from the body spread-eagled on the stairs to her ashen face and torn bodice. “Are you all right?”

“I don’t know,” she murmured, forcing herself to look down at the inert Mr. Duckett. “I ... I ... p-pushed him down the stairs. Is he d-dead?”

Kit knelt beside the body and felt for a pulse in his neck. “He’s very much alive,” he assured her, tapping Mr. Duckett’s side with the toe of his boot. Mr. Duckett obligingly stirred and moaned.

Caro sighed in relief. “Thank goodness I didn’t kill him.”

“Yes,” Kit agreed, getting to his feet, “for it gives
me
the chance to kill the fellow myself, when he comes to.” He looked over at her with a worried frown. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“No, not really. The only damage seems to be to my gown.” Flushing in embarrassment, she put a trembling hand to her torn bodice and tried to secure it. “What are you doing here, my lord? How did you manage to find me?”

“Aunt Letty gave me your direction. As for what I’m doing here, I came to—”

Another moan issued from the throat of the stricken Mr. Duckett. The fellow opened his eyes, groaned piteously, and struggled painfully to sit upright. Then he took notice of the two people who stood looking at him, one from the stair above and one below. At the sight of Kit Meredith, who was glaring at him in disgust, he flushed beet red. “An’ who the devil might you be?” he asked in defensive belligerence.

“Never mind who I am,” Kit said between clenched teeth. He grasped the man by his neckerchief and hauled him to his feet “Did you maul that lady?” he demanded.

“Wh-what business is it o’ yourn?” Mr. Duckett countered nervously, backing up along the wall.

Kit tightened his hold. “I asked you a question.”

“An’ I asked you one.” Duckett eyed the stranger sullenly as he tugged helplessly at his collar. “This is my house, blast ye. How’d ye get in here?”

“I knocked, but no one answered. Then I found the door unlocked. When you plan a seduction, you maw worm, you should be more careful about the door. That
is
what you were planning, wasn’t it? To have your way with the governess?”

“Don’t know as it’s yer right to question me,” the red-faced fellow muttered. In a spasm of fear, he wrenched himself loose and quickly scrambled up the stairs.

Kit sprang after him and caught him at the landing. He grasped the man by the lapels of his coat with his left hand and pulled him so close they were nose to nose. “You damned lecher,” he hissed, “if you’re well enough to make it up those stairs, you’re well enough for a taste of my fives. Perhaps this will make you think twice before you try anything like that again.” And with his right fist, he swung hard at Duckett’s chin.

The blow knocked Mr. Duckett back against the wall with such force that he bounced off and fell forward on his face. He lay unmoving, legs spread out across the landing and one arm hanging pathetically down between the slats of the banister. Kit glared down at him for a moment and then, rubbing his knuckles, stepped over him and marched down to Caro. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, reaching for her arm.

“But Kit . .... Your Lordship ...” she murmured dubiously, edging away from him up a stair. “I can’t just leave like this. I have to give notice. There are the children to think about. And I’d have to pack my—”

At that moment they heard the front door fly open. “Rudd? Where the deuce are ye?” they heard Mrs. Duckett shout. Caro was startled. They were not to return before five, and it was now scarcely three. Something must have gone wrong. She threw Kit a pleading glance and went down to the entryway. Mrs. Duckett was just stepping over the threshold, surrounded by her four children. They all looked irritated and disheveled. Mrs. Duckett’s fine bonnet was askew, her pelisse was dirty, and she looked a great deal less grand than she had when she’d started out. As for the children, Jackie’s coat was torn, Florrie had spilled something on her dress, Peter had a scraped knee, and the four-year-old’s nose was running. It had obviously not been a pleasant outing.

Mrs. Duckett, after giving the governess a quick glare, went directly to the mirror-topped table at the right of the doorway and proceeded to remove her bonnet. “I must say, missy,” she said in disgust, “ye don’t seem to have improved the conduct of these brats one whit! They were so wild I couldn’t bear to stay another minute. We didn’t even see the ascension. It seems to me that after a month under yer tutelage, they should be better beha—”

Florrie had wandered over to the stairway while her mother was scolding the governess and now saw fit to interrupt. ‘There’s a strange man here, Mama,” she said, staring up at Kit.

Jackie ran over to look. “And Papa’s layin’ on the landing,” he added as he wriggled out of his torn coat.

Mrs. Duckett, puzzled, turned from the mirror and stalked to the foot of the stairs. She gaped for a moment at Kit and then turned to glare at Caro. “Miss Whitlow!” she exclaimed angrily. “Have ye been entertaining a
male guest
in my house without ... ?” And then she caught sight of her husband, who’d just begun to stir and groan again. “Oh, my
God!

she screeched. “What’s been going
on
here?” She wheeled on Caro, her face reddening in alarmed hysteria. “Just what’ve ye been
doin’ ... ?

Caro bit her lip. “Perhaps, ma’am, you should ask Mr. Duckett. Peter, come here and let me see your knee.”

But the hysterical woman would not be put off. “I demand to know what’s
happened
here!” she shouted.

“And I demand,” said Kit firmly, having seen quite enough, “that Miss Whitlow
not
be the one to tell you. In fact, I demand that she have nothing more to do with you. Any of you. Even Peter with the bloody knee.” And without waiting for Caro to say a word in reply, he lifted her up, slung her over his shoulder, marched past the openmouthed children and their flabbergasted mother, and stalked out the door.

 

 

 

 

TWENTY-TWO

 

Kit stood framed in Martha’s drawing-room window, the dim evening glow silhouetting his form. Caro and Aunt Martha, from their places near the fire, could not see his face. Only by the intense fury in his voice could they determine the extent of his irritation. “Confound it, Caro, how can you possibly wish to go back there,” he stormed, “after that blasted bag-pudding mauled you?”

“I
don’t
wish to go back,” Caro explained patiently, “but I haven’t the luxury of indulging my wishes.”

It was a few hours since he’d carried her from the Duckett household. (“Like a deuced sack of potatoes!” she’d snapped when he’d finally put her down.) They now sat in his aunt Martha’s drawing room arguing bitterly about the day’s events. Martha had insisted that they take tea and calm themselves, but even after she’d provided them with a sumptuous repast, they were not calm. “And to even
consider
returning to the employ of that vulgar woman is beyond my understanding,” he went on. “She’s too overbearing for words! And she hasn’t the least appreciation of your merits—”

“Please, my lord, enough of your ranting. I’ve learned that there are many people—most, perhaps—who must endure putting up with overbearing employers if they want to eat.”

“But
you
are not in such desperate circumstances,” Martha put in. She’d promised herself not to interfere, but she could not contain herself. “You could live here with me and eat as much as you like. You know I’d be delighted to have you.”

Caro merely shook her head. Her feelings about accepting charity had been expressed too often to bear repeating.

“But there are other posts,” Kit said, coming forward and taking a chair opposite her. “You could work for me. That, you know, is the reason I came to see you today.”

“To offer me a post?” Caro asked suspiciously.

He raised his right hand. “The truth and nothing but.”

“What sort of post, may I ask? As my brother’s governess, perhaps?” she asked sardonically.

“Nothing so fine as a governess, I’m afraid,” Kit answered in perfect seriousness.

Martha gaped. “Good heavens, Kit, you cannot insult the girl by asking her to take some menial post like a ... a ... housemaid!”

“I would not consider being a housemaid too menial,” Caro said to her aunt, “except that I would never consider accepting His Lordship’s employ. Whatever post he would offer me would be an act of charity ... as much an act of charity as your offer to give me a home here.”

“That, ma’am, is not true,” Kit declared. “I truly
need
you to come to work for me. Sowell has left my employ because he believes I drove you from your rightful home. And he’s convinced everyone else in Crittenden of it as well. No one will work for me unless he’s truly desperate for employment. However, if you yourself came to manage the household, Sowell would be proved wrong. Then, perhaps, the locals would realize that I am not an ogre.”

“Let me understand this.” Caro leaned forward and peered at his face, her brow knit. “Are you offering me a post as your
housekeeper?

Kit dropped his eyes and shifted in his seat awkwardly. “I know you must find such an offer humiliating... .”


Humiliating?

Martha jumped to her feet. “I should
say
it’s humiliating! How can you insult—”

“No, Aunt Martha, wait,” Caro said, putting up a hand to restrain her aunt. She remembered Letty’s remark that Kit was having difficulty hiring a staff. Was it really because of her? If so, perhaps this offer was sincere. With her head cocked, she studied Kit closely. “Do you honestly believe you need
me
to organize your household?”

“Yes, I honestly do. To run it as you did for Uncle Clement.”

There was a long moment of silence. Kit leaned forward, waiting. Finally Caro spoke. “What would my wages be?”

Kit’s eyes lit with hope. “Whatever you think is fair.”

“If I remember rightly, Uncle Clement paid his last housekeeper seventy-five pounds per annum.”

“That would be agreeable to me.”

“And to me, my lord,” Caro said, throwing him a smile. She was coming up in the world, she thought, amused. She’d just made a great improvement over the seventeen pounds her last employer had offered her.

Kit grinned back at her, feeling a glow of triumph. “Do you think, ma’am, that now that we’ve come to an agreement, you could cease addressing me as my lord? My name, as you well know, is Kit.”

“Oh, no, my lord. I must behave as any housekeeper would, and you must treat me as such. No proper housekeeper would call her master by his given name.”

His grin died, and he jumped to his feet in irritation. “Damnation, Caro!”

She raised her head proudly. “You will be addressed as ‘my lord’ and I as ‘Miss Whitlow.’ Can you agree to that?”

Seeing the resolution in her expression, his shoulders sagged. The triumph had been short-lived. “If I must,” he muttered.

“And of course I must have my own room in the servants’ quarters.”

Kit raised his eyes heavenward, striving for patience. “But, dash it, Caro, that won’t be necessary. You could just as easily have an apartment in the west wing, near Letty.”

She stiffened at once. “No! I must be a servant, like any other, or I will be forced to consider your offer charity.”

“Now, Caro,
really!

Martha objected.

Caro waved her to silence. “Well, my lord?”

He sank down in his chair and dropped his chin in his hands. “Very well, ma’am,” he said, defeated, “the servants’ quarters it will be.”

“And I will eat downstairs with the other staff.”

“Now,
that
is the outside of enough!” Kit slammed an angry hand on the arm of his chair before jumping to his feet again. He leaned over her until his face almost touched hers. “Ma’am, you go too far!”

“Yes, Caro, you do,” Martha agreed.

Caro met his eyes, her own narrowed and unwavering. “Those are my conditions.”

“Blast it, woman,” Kit sputtered, pulling himself erect and stalking across the room away from her, “what will people
think
when they learn that you are not eating at the family table? What will
Gilbert
think? They will all assume it was I who banished you belowstairs. They will think me a
monster!

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