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The position of governess is a respectable one for a young lady with an impeccable reputation and few expectations.
Helène let her portmanteau drop to the snow at the side of the road and sighed, rubbing her arm. It was not that the bag was heavy-her belongings were pitifully few-but the two miles or more from the coach stop to the Sinclair estate was a long way to carry something so unwieldy. Even as cold as it was on this late November afternoon, she was beginning to perspire.
Helène peered down the road uneasily, noting that it would soon be dark.
She wondered again why no one had met the coach, since the letter detailing her travel arrangements must surely have arrived at the estate by now. Yesterday's early morning start from a gloomy, soot-ridden London had been bad enough. Then there was the day and a half spent crammed in a mail coach with an odd assortment of other passengers, a number of whom were not particularly clean. The lecherous comments from several of the men, the incessant arguments over whether or not to keep the windows open--
It wasn't an experience she cared to repeat. And the inn they had stopped at last night! She was still scratching from the bed bugs.
In short, Helène was in no mood for excuses. Perhaps she should plan a set-down to give Lady Sinclair when she finally arrived at Luton Court.
How dare you--
I am not accustomed to being treated--
The Prince will be informed of your outrageous--
Helène repressed a tired giggle, imagining the scene. She would say nothing of the kind, of course. She needed this position, and an impoverished spinster ofevidently humble family had no business complaining about anything to the likes of the Marquess and Marchioness of Luton.
You are a governess, Helène reminded herself. They are Quality. You may not like the rules but you do have to play by them. She rested a few more minutes, sitting on the portmanteau, before getting to her feet and trudging on. It had been a mistake to stop, she decided. The struggle to carry her bag had taken her mind from how hungry she was, and now her empty stomach clamored for attention.
Botheration. Helène winced as the strap dug cruelly into her hand. If only I had a rope, she thought. I could tie one end around my waist and one end to the portmanteau and drag the blasted thing behind me. Through the snow and mud and all.
It would hardly matter, since she couldn't be any dirtier than she was already after a day and a half in the mail coach. Helène's thoughts moved to an uneasy consideration of her appearance. A governess was not required to be a fashion plate-in fact, it was discouraged-but her employers had every right to expect a reasonably tidy appearance. Helène wasn't sure she still qualified in that respect. She had lost weight in the stress of recent months and, although the brown merino wool had some years of service left in it, the dress now hung loosely around her waist.
I look like I'm wearing a sack, thought Helène gloomily. And not a very clean sack, at that. The revolting man sitting next to her in the coach-the one who kept pretending to brush dirt from her bodice-had not been careful with the greasy chicken he was eating--
Best not to think about him. But her skirts still showed the evidence of his noonday meal. Helène stopped and set the portmanteau down once again. She pushed the hood of her cloak aside and felt her hair. It was impossibly tangled, as usual, and half of it seemed to have fallen down around her ears. She rearranged several hairpins, jabbing blindly at the heavy mass in yet another futile attempt to wrestle her curls under control. She found little else to be cheered by in her appearance-her nose was a bit too long, her mouth too wide, her brilliant green eyes too bold-but Helène harbored a secret pride in her hair. Glossy and thick, its deep auburn color complimented the warm ivory of her complexion. Unbound, the silky locks fell in curls past her waist.
"I'll be cutting it off any day now, you daft girl," her father had told her, time and again. "Hair like that is the sign of the devil, don't you know, and a waste of time for the likes of you. 'Tis not like there's to be suitors banging at your door--"
Helène grimaced at the memory, though his words had been said affectionately, in jest. She never believed he would carry through on his threat. Still, in London, hair was only one more commodity, and if she could have convinced her father to eat a bit of meat, she would have cut off the tresses herself and sold them for a fine hock of lamb. But in the last few months of his life Nathaniel Phillips had wished for naught but his ale.
At the thought of food Helène's stomach growled, and she glanced down involuntarily at the bodice of her dress. A sapphire ring was pinned carefully in the lining, its large stone hidden from the waning rays of the November sun.
If she had known of that to sell, 'twould have been food for a year.
Helène walked on as the sun sank lower in the sky and the surrounding hills took on the bluish cast of a winter's evening. The broad hills and meadows of Bedfordshire were beautiful in the twilight, but Helène was feeling the first glimmering of fear. She really did not want to be outside after dark on a cold November's night. Her exertions no longer kept her warm, and her feet especially felt the cold, her toes almost numb, even through the leather of her half-boots.
What could Lady Sinclair have been thinking, to risk her new governess freezing to death before she'd even arrived? She didn't know the district, and it was certainly possible, thought Helène, that she might miss the turn-off to Luton Court in the dark. Perhaps she had missed it already! Her heart began to pound and she forced herself to breathe slowly. No matter how bad the situation, it would never do to panic. Now think-had she passed any cottages along the road?
No. She'd seen not another living soul or habitation since the coach had driven away.
But how much farther could it be? How long had she been walking?
Helène cursed herself for being a fool and not demanding more assistance from the coach's driver before he left. But the man had been ill-tempered and rude and she'd been sure someone from Luton would arrive at any moment.
Stupid. Stupid, stupid girl, to go haring off from the coach stop with no plan in her head other than she would soon find Luton Court conjured up in front of her. Should she keep walking? Should she attempt to find some kind of shelter for the night? Deep in contemplation of her precarious circumstances, Helène didn't hear the rider as he approached. Suddenly--
An enormous chestnut stallion was almost on top of her. Rearing up, its forelegs flailed the air as Helène backed away. She tripped over the portmanteau and fell hard to the ground.
"H'yah!" The rider yelled and the horse reared again. Helène rolled from under the plunging hooves, gasping as her hood fell back and snow cascaded over her face and down her neck. She managed to scramble off the road, but without her luggage. Down, down came the horse and she watched, horrified, as the portmanteau was trampled into a muddy, crumpled heap.
"What the devil?" she thought she heard the man shout. What the devil, indeed! The rider brought his mount under control and Helène shakily pushed herself to her knees. She started to brush the snow from her hair, taking care to keep clear of the stallion, which was still fitful and stomping. The man swore the entire time in a low, steady voice, using a number of words that she found unfamiliar.
That's a surprise, thought Helène, her mind starting to recover from the fright. One would have thought I'd heard them all by now. She clambered to her feet and glared up at him.