"As you can see, I served two years as governess for Lord and Lady Carstairs," Samantha informed Mr. Beckwith as he gave the papers a cursory thumbing-through. "Once the war resumed, I joined several other governesses in volunteering to treat sailors and soldiers who returned from sea or the front with debilitating wounds."
The housekeeper could not quite hide the faint tightening of her lips. Samantha knew there were still those in society who believed women who nursed soldiers to be little more than glorified camp followers. Immodest creatures who wouldn't even blush to look upon a strange man's nakedness. Feeling heat rise to her own cheeks, Samantha lifted her chin another notch.
Mr. Beckwith examined her over the top of his wire-rimmed spectacles. "I must confess, Miss Wickersham, that you're a trifle bit...younger than what we had in mind. Such strenuous duty might require a woman of more... maturity. Perhaps one of the other applicants..." At Samantha's arch look, he trailed off.
"I don't see any other applicants, Mr. Beckwith," she pointed out, sliding her own ill-fitting spectacles up her nose with one finger. "Given the generous, even extravagant, wages you offered in your advertisement, I fully expected to find them lined up outside your gates."
Another crash came, this one even closer than the last. It sounded as if some sort of massive beast was lumbering toward its den.
Mrs. Philpot hastened around the chair, her starched petticoats rustling. "Would you care for some more tea, my dear?" As she poured from the porcelain pot, her hand trembled so violently that tea splashed over the rim of Samantha's saucer and into her lap.
"Thank you," Samantha murmured, surreptitiously dabbing at the spreading stain with her glove.
The floor beneath their feet visibly shuddered, as did Mrs. Philpot. The muffled roar that followed was peppered by a string of mercifully unintelligible oaths. There could no longer be any denying it. Someone—or something—was approaching.
Casting a panicked look at the gilded double door that led to the next chamber, Mr. Beckwith lurched to his feet, his prominent brow glistening with sweat. "Perhaps this isn't the most opportune time..."
As he shoved the letters of reference back at Samantha, Mrs. Philpot whisked the cup and saucer out of her other hand and deposited them back on the tea cart with a noisy rattle. "Beckwith is right, my dear. You'll have to forgive us. We may have been entirely too hasty..." The woman pulled Samantha to her feet and began to tug her away from the door and toward the heavily curtained French windows that led to the terrace.
"But my bag!" Samantha protested, casting the portmanteau a helpless glance over her shoulder.
"Don't worry, child," Mrs. Philpot assured her, gritting her teeth in a kindly smile. "We'll have one of the footmen bring it out to your hack." As the thunderous crashing and cursing swelled, the woman dug her nails into the sturdy brown wool of Samantha's sleeve and yanked her into motion. Mr. Beckwith dashed around them and whipped open one of the floor-to-ceiling windows, flooding the gloom with bright April sunshine. But before Mrs. Philpot could urge Samantha through it, the mysterious racket ceased.
The three of them turned as one to gaze at the gilded doors on the opposite side of the room.
For a moment there was no sound at all except for the delicate ticking of the French gilt clock on the mantel. Then came a most curious noise, as if something was fumbling, or perhaps even scratching, at the doors. Something large. And angry. Samantha took an involuntary step backward; the housekeeper and butler exchanged an apprehensive glance.
The doors came flying open, striking the opposite walls with a mighty crash. Framed by their wings was not a beast, but a man—or what was left of one after all the genteel veneer of society had been stripped away. His tawny hair, shaggy from neglect, hung well past his shoulders. Shoulders that came close to filling the breadth of the doorway. A pair of buckskin pantaloons clung to his lean hips and hugged every curve of his muscular calves and thighs. Several day's growth of beard shadowed his jaw, lending his visage a piratical aspect. If he'd have had a cutlass gripped between his bared teeth, Samantha would have been tempted to bolt from the house in fear for her virtue.
He wore stockings, but no boots. A rumpled cravat hung loose around his throat, as if someone had attempted to knot it several times, then given up in frustration. His lawn shirt was untucked and missing half its studs, revealing a shocking slice of well-muscled chest lightly dusted with golden hair.
Poised there in the shadows of the doorway, he cocked his head at an odd angle, as if listening for something only he could hear. His aristocratic nostrils flared.
The downy hair on Samantha's nape prickled. She could not shake the sensation that it was her scent he was seeking, her he was stalking. She had almost convinced herself she was being ridiculous when he started forward with the grace of a natural predator, heading straight for her.
But an overstuffed ottoman stood in his path. Even as a cry of warning caught in her throat, he tumbled right over the ottoman and went crashing to the floor.
Far worse than the fall was the way he just lay there, as if there really wasn't any particular point in getting up. Ever.
Samantha could only stand paralyzed as Beckwith rushed to his side. "My lord! We thought you were taking an afternoon nap!"
"Sorry to disappoint you," the earl of Sheffield drawled, his voice muffled by the rug.
"Someone must have forgotten to tuck me into my cradle."
As he shook off his servant's grip and staggered heavily to his feet, the sunlight streaming through the outside door struck him full in the face.
A fresh scar, still red and angry, bisected the corner of his left eye and descended down his cheek in a jagged lightning bolt, drawing the skin around it taut. It had once been an angel's face with the sort of masculine beauty reserved only for princes and seraphim. But now it was marked forever with the devil's brand. Perhaps it wasn't the devil, Samantha thought, but God himself who had been jealous that a mere human could aspire to such perfection. She knew she should have been repulsed, but she couldn't look away. His ruined beauty was somehow more compelling than perfection could ever be.
He wore his disfigurement like a mask, hiding any hint of vulnerability behind it. But he could do nothing to disguise the lingering bewilderment in his sea-foam green eyes. Eyes that didn't gaze at Samantha, but through her.
His nostrils flared again. "There's a woman here," he announced with utter conviction.
"Of course there is, my lord," said Mrs. Philpot brightly. "Beckwith and I were just enjoying a spot of afternoon tea."
The housekeeper tugged at Samantha's arm again, silently begging her to make her escape. But Gabriel Fairchild's sightless gaze had riveted her to the floor. He began to move toward her, slower now, but with no less determination than before. Samantha realized in that moment that she would be a fool to mistake his caution for weakness. His desperation only made him more dangerous. Especially to her.
He advanced on her with such resolve that even Mrs. Philpot melted back into the shadows, leaving Samantha to face him all alone. Although her first instinct was to shrink away from him, she forced herself to stand straight and tall. Her initial fear that he might run into her—or even over her—was unfounded.
With uncanny perception, he halted a mere foot away from her, sniffing warily at the air. Samantha wouldn't have thought the tart, clean fragrance of the lemon verbena she'd dabbed behind her ears would be all that enticing to a man. But the look on his face as he filled his lungs with her scent made her feel like some scantily-clad harem girl awaiting the sultan's pleasure. Her skin tingled with awareness. It was as if he was touching her everywhere at once without lifting a finger.
When he began to circle her, she turned with him, some primitive instinct refusing to trust him behind her. He finally stopped, so close she could feel the animal heat radiating from his skin and count every one of the gilt-tipped lashes ringing those extraordinary eyes.
"Who is she?" he demanded, fixing his gaze just over her left shoulder. "And what does she want?"
Before either servant could stammer out an answer, Samantha said firmly, "She, my lord, is Miss Samantha Wickersham and she has come to apply for a position as your nurse."
The earl adjusted his empty gaze downward, quirking his lips as if amused to find his quarry so small. A snort escaped him. "Nursemaid, you mean? Someone who can sing me to sleep at bedtime, spoon porridge into my mouth, and wipe my"—he hesitated just long enough to make both servants cringe with dread—"chin if I dribble."
"I haven't the voice for lullabies and I'm sure you're perfectly capable of wiping your own...chin," Samantha replied smoothly. "My task would be to help you adjust to your new circumstances."
He leaned even closer to her. "What if I don't want to adjust? What if I just want to be left the bloody hell alone so I can rot here in peace?"
Mrs. Philpot gasped, but Samantha refused to be shocked by his casual profanity. "You needn't blush on my behalf, Mrs. Philpot. I can assure you that I am no stranger to dealing with childish outbursts. During my stint as a governess, my young charges often delighted in testing the limits of my forbearance by throwing tantrums when they didn't get their way."
At being compared to an obstinate three-year-old, the earl softened his voice to a menacing growl. "And I suppose you cured them of that habit?"
"With adequate time. And patience. At the moment it seems that you're blessed with one and I the other."
He startled her by wheeling toward the general direction of Mr. Beckwith and Mrs. Philpot. "What makes you think this one will be any different from the others?"
"The others?" Samantha echoed, arching one brow.
The butler and housekeeper exchanged a guilty glance.
The earl wheeled back around. "I suppose they neglected to mention your predecessors. Let's see, first there was old Cora Gringott. She was nearly as deaf as I was blind. We made a fine pair, we did. I spent most of the time groping for her ear trumpet so I could bellow into it. If memory serves me, I believe she lasted less than a fortnight."
He began to pace back and forth in front of Samantha—his long strides carrying him precisely four steps forward, four steps back. It was only too easy to imagine him pacing the deck of a ship with such effortless command, his golden hair blowing in the wind, his penetrating gaze fixed on the distant horizon. "Then came that chit from Lancashire. She was a rather timid creature from the start. Barely spoke above a whisper. She didn't even bother to collect her wages or pack her belongings when she left. Just fled screaming into the night as if some madman had taken after her."
"Imagine that," Samantha murmured.
He paused briefly, then continued pacing. "And only last week we lost the dear widow Hawkins. She seemed to possess a sturdier constitution and quicker wit than the others. Before she went huffing out of here, she recommended that Beckwith hire not a nurse, but a zookeeper, since his master obviously belonged in a cage."
Samantha was almost glad he couldn't see her lips twitch.
"So you see, Miss Wickersham, I am beyond any assistance, especially yours. So you might as well trot yourself back to the schoolroom or the nursery or wherever it was you came from. There's no need to waste any more of your precious time. Or mine."
"Really, my lord!" Beckwith protested. "It's hardly necessary to be rude to the young lady."
"Young lady? Ha!" The earl threw out a hand, nearly decapitating a potted fiscus tree that looked as if it hadn't been watered in over a decade. "I can tell from her voice that she's a tart, vinegary creature without an ounce of womanly softness about her. If you were going to hire me another woman, you could have probably found one down on Fleet Street who would have suited me far better. I don't need a nurse! What I need is a good—"
"My lord!" Mrs. Philpot shouted.
Her master might be blind, but he wasn't deaf. The woman's scandalized plea silenced him more effectively than a blow. With the ghost of a charm that must have once come second nature to him, he pivoted on one heel and bowed to the wing chair just to the left of where Samantha was standing. "I pray you'll forgive me my childish outburst, miss. I bid you a good day. And a good life."
After he was gone, Samantha bowed her head.
Mr. Beckwith rose, his fleshy cheeks and drooping countenance making him look like a melancholy bulldog. "I do hope you'll forgive us for squandering your time, Miss Wickersham. I realize you had to hire a hack to bring you out here. I'll be more than happy to pay for your return to the city out of my own pocket."
Samantha stood. "That won't be necessary, Mr. Beckwith. I won't be returning to London at the moment."
The butler exchanged a baffled glance with Mrs. Philpot. "Excuse me?"
Samantha moved to the chair she had originally occupied and scooped up her portmanteau. "I'll be staying right here. I'm accepting the position as the earl's nurse. Now if you'll be so kind as to have one of the footmen fetch my trunk from the carriage and show me to my room, I'll prepare to commence my duties."
Yours Until Dawn
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