Book Two—Lessons In Love
For Allegra Proctor, tutoring the Earl of Wrexham’s son has its disadvantages—namely the widowed earl himself. He is arrogant, high-handed, impossibly moody . . . and distractingly dashing! But Allegra’s real motives for accepting the position at isolated Stormaway Hall have little to do with teaching—or finding love. She has come for revenge . . .
Max discovers her secret and demands to help, but when the earl catches them scaling the wall of a neighboring manor at midnight she is forced to reveal explain about a purloined family heirloom and the evil deeds of earl’s influential neighbor. To her surprise, Allegra finds an unlikely ally in the Wrexham—plunging them both into a dangerous plan to expose the villain’s misdeeds . . . and a passion that they had never dreamed possible.
The young man shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “You said I might inquire as to a suitable person.” A note of defiance had crept into his tone.
The Earl of Wrexham regarded his son over steepled fingers. It was not the challenge to his authority that disturbed him, rather it was the pinched, confused look that pulled at the lad’s sensitive mouth. Not for the first time in the past few months did he wonder whether he had been fair in keeping Max isolated up in the wilds of Yorkshire for so much of his life.
It hadn’t really been a concern until recently, for the two of them had gotten on splendidly together. But now it seemed that everything he said rubbed the lad in the wrong way. Lord knew, it was difficult enough to pass from adolescence into manhood, but perhaps the transition was made even more awkward with only a father for company and without other young men the same age to cut a caper with. Not that Max showed any inclinations towards wildness—that, in fact, was another cause for concern. The lad was perhaps a trifle too studious….
“The applicant is most qualified, I assure you,” continued his son.
“You might have consulted me in the matter before making such a decision,” replied the Earl dryly. “I do have a modicum of experience in this sort of thing.”
“You are always… busy,” muttered Max, struggling manfully to keep his lower lip from jutting out as if he were six instead of nearly sixteen.
Wrexham’s brows came together. Was he really such a neglectful parent? It was true that he spent a goodly amount of time in the library but the lad had never voiced a complaint before. Why, his own nose was usually buried in a book as well. A sigh escaped the earl’s lips. At least in another few years, Max would finally be able to enter Oxford and study to his heart’s content.
But until that time, there was this matter to attend to.
“But was it truly necessary to appeal all the way to London? Surely—”
“You know as well as I do that I’ve exhausted the store of knowledge possessed by any of the vicars within a few day’s journey of the Hall,” interrupted Max. “So why not advertise in London, if one advertises at all? You have always told me to eschew bargains and purchase the very best quality one can.”
The earl’s mouth crooked ruefully at having his own pompous advice thrown back at him, but he had to admit his son was right—on both accounts.
“Very well. I shall meet with the man, and if he is as qualified as you say, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be hired as your tutor.” He smiled pleasantly. “After all, it is an abominably long journey he has endured to reach us.”
The young man swallowed hard. “I… I should warn you of one little thing, sir.”
Wrexham folded his long hands on the tooled blotter of his desk. An eyebrow arched up in query.
“Go on, Max.” The earl’s lips twitched in amusement. “Do you wish to warn me that he has a harelip or a squint?”
“Er . . . actually, it’s not a he, sir.”
Allegra Proctor stiffened in her chair. The roar of the oath was audible even through the heavy oak of the library door. The young viscount, obviously unaware of the usual social graces, had bade her to take a seat in one of the formal wooden sidechairs flanking a console in the hallway rather than in the drawing room, so she was more privy to the discussion between father and son than the earl realized.
Things did not seem to be going well.
Drat it, she thought as she shoved an unruly lock of hair back into the prim bun wound tightly at the nape of her neck. It would be most annoying to have to turn around and make the arduous trek back to London now that she was so close to her goal—not to speak of the expense that she could ill afford. Her hands tightened round the worn fabric of her reticule and her chin rose a fraction.
A deal was a deal, she reminded herself. The ad had asked for a person of certain qualifications, and upon examination of her credentials, she had been hired. So the earl could bloo—blooming well live up to the bargain. Surely the little matter that neither of the parties was legally entitled to enter into such an agreement was a mere technicality.
A fleeting smile came to her lips at the thought of the meeting earlier that morning. She wasn’t sure who had been more shocked—the young viscount on learning the scholar he had hired was a female, or herself on learning that her employer didn’t as yet shave. Given the initial misgivings, the long carriage ride back to Stormaway Hall had proceeded amazingly well. The young man had quizzed her rigorously—and quite knowledgeably, she had to admit—until finally his expression had relaxed and a boyish grin had split his face.
The pronouncement that, as far as he was concerned, she was bang up to the mark and could start that afternoon had gone a long way to relieving her first fears. And she, too, was well pleased with the situation. The young man was undeniably bright, which infinitely more appealing than dealing with a sluggard But on top of that, he was refreshingly direct, with none of the haughty airs and graces she had come to expect from those possessing a title. His emotions were as readable as an open book, ranging from childish enthusiasm to awkward adult in the span of a few minutes. She found herself wondering if it was his father that he was unconsciously imitating when he drew his dark brows together in an attempt to look forbidding.
She shrugged. She had no doubt she would learn that soon enough. Again, she thought back to part of the conversation that had taken place as the carriage drew closer to the Hall.
“Not exactly,” had been the young man’s reply when asked if his family was aware of the new addition to their household.
“Since we are going to be studying the nuances of language, sir, that answer will not fadge. In this instance there can be no equivocation. It is either ‘yes’ or ‘no,'” she had said.
His eyes had slid to the floor of the carriage. “My father is actually very broad-minded. He studies a vast range of cultures and history and with his scientific bent, he does not jump to conclusions…”
“I take it that is a ‘no.'”
He had reluctantly nodded.
Ha! In her experience, there were precious few men broad-minded enough to…
The door flung open and young viscount stalked out with as much dignity as his wounded pride would allow. “The earl will meet with you now,” he said, casting a last, withering look over his shoulder. A few other unintelligible words followed, but Allegra imagined they weren’t for her ears in any case.
She rose and smoothed the travel worn gown over her slim hips. “Thank you, sir. I hope we may start this afternoon, as you suggested.”
His mouth twitched as if he were going to speak again, but then he merely made a quick nod and walked quickly down the hall, his long, coltish legs beating an angry tattoo on the polished parquet.
The eyes facing her from across the massive desk were equally disturbed, though by his languid posture and impassive countenance it would be impossible to guess anything was amiss with the man seated in front of her.
“Take a seat, ” said the earl curtly, dispensing with all pretenses of civility.
She did, noting that she needn’t wonder any more as to where the young viscount had learned to look intimidating.
A long silence stretched out before them. Logs hissed and crackled. The large Scottish deerhound stretched on the oriental rug in front of the fire whined softly in his sleep. Allegra repressed a smile as she calmly ignored the earl’s scrutiny. No doubt it was a highly effective technique in most cases—people found the lack of words more unnerving than being shouted at. But he was wasting his time trying to scare her. She didn’t scare easily.
Perhaps sensing just such a thing, Wrexham finally spoke again. “Maybe you would care to explain to me this absurd situation.”
Her eyes came up to meet his. “Absurd? The only thing that seems absurd, sir, is the fact that I have traveled for days to take up a position for which I have been deemed qualified, only to be threatened with dismissal before I even have a chance to begin. It seems hardly fair.” When she was angry, the hazel color of her eyes would fleck with gold. At this instant, the sparks were flying. “In fact, it seems more than absurd,” she went on. “It seems cork-brained.”
Wrexham stared at her in disbelief.
“You won’t find many people of my ability willing to come to the wilds of this place. How long has your son waited before he found me? How long will he wait if you send me away?”
The earl’s black brows drew together once again.
“He is a very intelligent young man. He needs some intellectual challenge else he is apt to become bored—and bored young men get into trouble.”
“He needs a tutor! A young man does not have a…a governess.”
“What is the difference?” she shot back. “If I can do a good job, why should anything else matter?”
He looked nonplussed for a moment. “I… ” Then his look became even darker. “I warn you, Miss, if you are one of that sort of female who thinks to cozen up to an impressionable youth and encourage a certain attachment… well, he does not come into his majority, or his money, for quite some time. And I shall have something to say about it in the meantime.”
“I have no idea what you mean, sir, ” she answered coldly. Of course she knew exactly what he meant.
The earl had the grace to color slightly. “How old are you?” he demanded in an effort to conceal his discomfiture.
“Old enough to be of no interest to a fifteen-year-old,” she countered. Observing the few threads of silver at his temples she added. “And you needn’t worry that I shall attempt to sink my hooks into you either, my lord. I have no interest in gentlemen nearly in their dotage.”
“Dotage! I’ll have you know I’m not yet forty,” he managed to sputter, before he realized the utter indignity of gracing her words with a reply. His jaw snapped shut.
“In fact, I have no interest in men for that sort of reason at all,” she went on. “Believe me, the parson’s mousetrap has no more appeal to me than it evidently has for you. But as my employer, you have a right to ask the question. I am twenty-nine.”
He made a show of studying the sheaf of papers in front of him. “Mis, ah, Proctor,” he began.
“Mrs.” she corrected.
His head shot up.
“My condolences,” he muttered.
“The same to you. I understand from Max that you have also lost a spouse.”
“It was a long time ago,” he replied in a low voice as he fell back to perusing the sheet on top of the pile. Suddenly he looked up again and spoke to her in Greek.
She answered without hesitation. For the next twenty minutes they were like two pugilists in the ring, he hurling arcane questions at her in Latin, Greek, French and Italian, she punching back the correct answers with equal aplomb. Finally, he left off and his fingers began to drum once again on the desk . . .