Seven Minutes in Heaven
All of Eugenia Snowe’s problems start when Edward Reeve, an arrogant bastard son of an earl, bursts into her registry office. He wants a governess and he wants her. She gives him the governess he demands, but she refuses to give herself.
No question that Eugenia enjoys crossing wits with the brilliant inventor, but she will never tarnish her reputation with an affaire, particularly with a man who doesn’t realize she’s a lady!
She holds her ground…until he kidnaps her.
Ward will stop at nothing to convince Eugenia that they’re meant to be together. He promises her heaven.
She gives him seven minutes.
Warning! In describing relations between characters, I may wreck a book for you by making it clear who someone marries, or the outcome of a book. Please do not read about The Inside Take if you're wary of knowing who is paired with whom!
While it’s not at all essential for reading Seven Minutes in Heaven, it can be a lot of fun to go read about Eugenia and Ward when they were little. Teddy (or Ward) is a funny, adorable boy in Desperate Duchesses, the story of his father and stepmother. And Eugenia is a wise, eccentric little girl in Duchess by Night, the story of her father and stepmother.
“James woos readers with another irresistible liaison of lushly sensual romance and deliciously wicked wit, and her flair for crafting unforgettable, richly dimensional characters is the satisfying center of this scrumptious literary confection.”
“Ward is a swoon-worthy alpha male that will be invading many women’s fantasies…”
~ Romantically Inclined
Enjoy an Excerpt
Wednesday, April 15, 1801
Snowe’s Registry Office for Select Governesses
14 Cavendish Square
Nothing ruins a dinner party like expertise. A lady who has attended fourteen lectures about Chinese porcelain will Ming this and Tsing that all evening; a baron who has published an essay about vultures in a zoological magazine will undoubtedly hold forth on the unpleasant habits of carrion-eaters.
Eugenia Snowe’s area of expertise, on the other hand, would have made dinner guests howl with laughter, if only it were appropriate to share. For example, she knew precisely how the Countess of Ardmore’s second-best wig had made its way onto the head of a terrified piglet, which dashed across the terrace when the vicar was taking tea. She knew which of the Duke of Fletcher’s offspring had stolen a golden toothpick and an enameled chamber pot and, even better, what he had done with them.
Not only did she have to keep those delicious details to herself, she couldn’t even burst into laughter until she was in private. As the owner of the most elite agency for governesses in the whole of the British Isles, she had to maintain decorum at all times.
No laughing! Not even when her housemaid ushered in a boy wearing a brocade curtain pinned like a Roman toga—although the gleaming blue that coated his arms and face clashed with the senatorial drape of the curtain.
The boy’s mother, Lady Pibble, trailed in after him. Eugenia didn’t see many blue boys in the course of a day, but she often saw mothers with the hysterical air of a woman ill-prepared to domesticate the species of wild animal known as an eight-year-old boy.
“Lady Pibble and Marmaduke, Lord Pibble,” her housemaid announced.
“Good afternoon, Winnie,” Eugenia said, rising from her desk and coming around to greet her ladyship with genuine pleasure. Her old school friend Winifred was lovely, as sweet and soft as a soufflé.
Alas, those were not helpful characteristics when it came to raising children. Fate or Nature had perversely matched Winnie with her opposite: Marmaduke was a devilishly troublesome boy by any measure, and Eugenia considered herself an expert on the subject.
“I can’t do it!” Winifred wailed by way of greeting, staggering across the room and collapsing on the sofa. “I’m at my wit’s end, Eugenia. My wit’s end! If you don’t give me a governess, I shall leave him here with you. I mean it!” The way her voice rose to a shriek made her threat very persuasive.
Marmaduke didn’t seem in the least dismayed at the idea of being abandoned in a registry office. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Snowe,” he said cheerfully, making a reasonable bow considering that he was holding a fistful of arrows and an extremely fat frog. “I’m an ancient Pict and a smuggler,” he announced.
“Good afternoon, Marmaduke. I was not aware that smugglers came in different hues,” Eugenia said.
“Smugglers may not be blue, but Picts always are,” he explained. “They were Celtic warriors who painted themselves for battle. My father told me about them.” He held up his frog. “I started to paint Fred too, but he didn’t like it.”
“Fred is looking considerably plumper than last time I met him,” Eugenia observed.
“You were right about cabbage worms,” he said, grinning. “He loves them.”
“I can smell beeswax—which I gather turned you blue—but is that odor of river mud thanks to Fred?”
Marmaduke sniffed loudly, and nodded. “Fred stinks.”
“Don’t say ‘stinks,’ darling,” his mother said from the depths of the sofa, where she had draped a handkerchief over her eyes. “You may describe something as smelly, but only if you absolutely must.”
“He smells like a rotten egg,” Marmaduke elaborated. “Though not nearly as rank as Lady Hubert when she came out of the river.”
Winnie gave a stifled moan, the kind one might hear from a woman in the grips of labor. “I almost forgot about the river. Eugenia, I am not going home until you give me a governess.”
“I cannot,” Eugenia said patiently. “I’ve explained to you, Winnie, that—”
Winnie sat up, handkerchief clutched in her hand, and pointed to her son. “Tell her!” she said in throbbing accents. “Tell her what you said to Lady Hubert! I wouldn’t drag him here if it was simply a matter of turning blue. I am inured to dirt.”
For the first time, Marmaduke looked a bit fidgety, shifting his weight to one leg and tucking the other up so that he looked like a blue heron. “Lady Hubert said that I should always tell the truth, so I did.”
“That sounds ominous,” Eugenia said, biting back yet another smile. “Where were you when Lady Hubert gave you this advice?”
“We were having a picnic by the Thames, at the bottom of our lawn,” Winnie said, answering for her son. “Did I mention that Lady Hubert is Marmaduke’s godmother and has no children of her own? We had hoped . . . but no. After today, no.”
“She gave me a sermon just like those in church except that she’s a lady,” Marmaduke said, apparently deciding to get it over with. “She said as how deceit and hippocrasty are barriers to a holy life.”
“Hypocrisy,” Eugenia said. “Do go on.”
“So I did that.”
“Well, first I entertained her by doing the dance of the Picts. They were wild savages. They howled. Would you like to see?” He gave Eugenia a hopeful look.
She shook her head. “I shall use my imagination. Did Lady Hubert enjoy your performance?”
“She didn’t like it much,” Marmaduke conceded, “but she wasn’t too crusty. She asked me what I thought about the book of church history she had brought me for my birthday last month, and had I read the whole thing.”
“Oh dear,” Eugenia said.
“I was being honest, like she said to. I told her that I didn’t like it because it was boring and three hundred pages long. Mother was ruffled by that, but she settled down and after a while, Lady Hubert asked me what I thought of her new gown. I said that it would look better if she hadn’t eaten an entire side of beef. Father always said that about her.”
“It was not kind to repeat your father’s comment,” Eugenia said. She had discovered over the years that children learned best from simple statements of fact.
He scowled. “I was being honest and besides, after I did the warrior dance she said that my father likely passed on because he needed a rest cure.”
“That was deeply unkind,” Eugenia said with her own scowl, “and very untrue, Marmaduke. Your father was a war hero who would have done anything to stay with you and your mother.”
She glanced over at Winnie, who was flat on her back with an arm thrown over her eyes. Her husband had been a naval captain who lost his life at the Siege of Malta while serving under Rear Admiral Lord Nelson.
Marmaduke hunched up one shoulder by way of reply.
“Did you throw, push, or otherwise inveigle Lady Hubert into the Thames?” Eugenia said, feeling a wave of dislike for the lady in question.
“No! She fell in all by herself.”
“After a horned beetle that my son had about his person found its way onto her arm and ran inside her sleeve,” Winnie clarified.
“I wouldn’t have thought she could leap like that,” Marmaduke said, with an air of scientific discovery. “Being as she was large and all, but she did, and into the water she went.”
“Head first,” Winnie added hollowly.
“I wish I’d seen it,” Eugenia said, pulling the cord to summon her housemaid.
“It was funny,” Marmaduke confided, “because her clothes were all frilly pink underneath. I had to run for the footmen and two grooms as well, because the bank was slippery with mud. The butler said that it was like hauling a Hereford steer out of a mudhole.”
“That’s an extremely vulgar description,” his mother said in the weary voice of a vicar sermonizing in Latin to an audience of squabbling children.
The door opened. “Ruby,” Eugenia said, “I should like you to take Lord Pibble into the garden and throw a few buckets of water over him.”
“Mrs. Snowe!” Marmaduke said, dropping back a step, his eyes widening.
“It’s not only Fred who smells. What did you mix in the beeswax to get that color?”
“Indigo powder from my paint box.”
“It seems to be pungent, which means smelly. A good washing should get off the indigo,” Eugenia said, turning to Ruby. “I’m not sure about the beeswax.”
“I don’t want to,” Marmaduke wailed. “Mummy said that I could keep it on until bedtime.”
“Fred is looking very dry,” Eugenia said firmly. “He needs a rinsing as well.”
After four years in her position, Ruby was adept at handling unruly children. She took Marmaduke’s arm, and marched him straight out of the room.
Winnie sat up to watch him go. “He wouldn’t have gone with me, nor with Nanny either. May I borrow your housemaid?”
Eugenia sat down beside her friend. “Marmaduke needs to go to school, dear.”
“He’s my baby,” Winnie said, her eyes filling with tears again. “He merely needs a governess, Eugenia. Why won’t you give me a governess?”
“Because Marmaduke needs to be around other boys. Didn’t his father put his name down for Eton?”
“I can’t let him go.”
“You don’t understand,” Winnie wailed. “Darling Marmaduke is all I have left of John. You just don’t know how hard it is to be widowed and all alone!”
There was a moment’s silence.
“I didn’t mean that,” Winnie said hastily. “Of course, you know; you’re a widow too.”
“But it’s different for you,” Eugenia said. “For me, it’s been seven years.”
“That’s what I meant,” Winnie said, blowing her nose. “I just want my son home with me, where he belongs.”
“He belongs with other boys. This is the third time you’ve been to see me in as many weeks, isn’t it?”
Winnie nodded. “That thing that happened to the cat—its fur is growing back in, thank goodness—and after that, the title pages of the hymnals. Yesterday the vicar greeted me in a wretchedly stiff manner. And my Uncle Theodore still believes that we have a monkey as a pet; I daren’t tell him what really happened to his corset.”
Eugenia wrapped her arm around Winnie. “Eton,” she said firmly. “Write a letter to them saying that Marmaduke will attend Michaelmas term. I’ll send you a tutor, a young man who can take your son fishing when they’re done with studies.”
“His father meant to teach him to fish, just as soon as he returned from Malta,” Winnie said, hiccupping and dissolving back into tears.
“I’m so sorry,” Eugenia whispered, easing Winnie’s head onto her shoulder. When she had opened the registry office six years before, she’d had no idea that she’d find herself at the center of many domestic crises. She could write a book about the hidden dramas of polite society.
Though when it came to widowhood, one’s birth or place in society was irrelevant.
Her desk was piled with letters, and there were undoubtedly mothers waiting to see her. Eugenia rocked Winnie back and forth as she watched Marmaduke scampering around the back garden.
“I suppose I’ll take him home now,” Winnie said damply, straightening up. “Nanny will not be pleased by what’s happened to the nursery curtain.”
“I think tea and cakes are in order,” Eugenia said. “Eight-year-old boys are always hungry.”
“I couldn’t! You don’t want him to sit on your lovely chairs.”
That was true.
“Take him to a tea garden,” Eugenia suggested. “You can sit outside, which means Fred won’t cause a commotion either.”
“Only if you come with us.”
“I’m afraid I can’t. I have appointments this afternoon.”
Winnie’s eyes widened. “Oh no, I’m sorry!” She scrambled to her feet and snatched up her reticule. “My dear, you are such a comfort to me! Send me a tutor!” she called as she trotted out the door.
Eugenia ought to have returned to her desk, but instead she stood at the window and watched as Winnie chased her son, still faintly blue, around and around the fountain where Fred was enjoying a bath.
Even through the beveled glass, she could hear Marmaduke’s screams and Winnie’s laughter.
It seemed to her that widowhood would be bearable if your husband had left behind a child, a part of himself.
The door opened behind her. “Ma’am, may I send in Mrs. Seaton-Rollsby?”
“Yes,” Eugenia said, turning about. “Certainly.”
Later that afternoon
Theodore Edward Braxton Reeve—Ward, to his intimate friends—climbed the steps to Snowe’s Registry Office thinking about how many governesses he’d chased away as a boy.
He had vivid memories of the sour-faced women who had come through the door of his house—and what their backs looked like as they marched out again.
If his father and stepmother hadn’t been in Sweden, he would have dropped by their house to apologize, if only because his young wards seemed capable of topping his score, and it was a pain in the arse to be on the other side.
Frankly, his half-siblings, Lizzie and Otis—whom he hadn’t even known existed until a few weeks ago—were hellions. Devils. Small devils with trouble stamped on their foreheads.
Their governess, a Snowe’s governess, had been in the household for only forty-eight hours, which had to be a record.
The registry wasn’t at all what Ward had expected, from that burly guard posing as a footman to the unoccupied waiting room. He had envisioned a cluster of women sitting about, waiting to be dispatched to nurseries—and he had planned to choose whichever one most resembled a colonel in the Royal Marines.
This chamber looked more like a lady’s parlor than a waiting room. It was elegantly appointed, from the tassels adorning striped silk curtains to the gilt chairs. In fact, it was about as fancy as any room he’d seen in a lifetime of living in his father’s various houses.
And his father, Lord Gryffyn, was an earl.
That said, Snowe probably had to put on airs in order to convince people to pay his outrageous fees.
Since Ward needed to impress the House of Lords with his nonexistent parental abilities in order to secure guardianship of his siblings—not to mention getting Otis up to snuff before his brother entered Eton in September—he was prepared to pay whatever it took to get a first-rate governess.
A young housemaid appeared from a side door. “I’m here to see Mr. Snowe,” Ward told her.
A few minutes were needed to sort out the salient facts that Mr. Snowe was deceased, that Mrs. Snowe had opened the agency some years before, and that no one saw Mrs. Snowe without an appointment.
“They are arranged weeks in advance,” she told him earnestly. “You might request an appointment now, and we would inform you if she had an earlier opening.”
“That won’t do,” Ward said, smiling because her voice took on a reverential tone whenever she mentioned her mistress. “I sacked the governess you sent. I require a new one, but I have a few stipulations.”
Her mouth fell open and she squeaked, “You sacked one of our governesses? A Snowe’s governess?”
He rocked back on his heels and waited until she stopped spluttering and ran off to inform someone of his crime as regards Miss Lumley.
To be fair, even withstanding Miss Lumley’s regrettable habit of weeping like a rusty spigot, she had been better than many of the governesses he’d had as a child.
All the same, she hadn’t been right for this particular position. His recently orphaned half-siblings were opinionated and idiosyncratic, to say the least.
He needed a really fine specimen of a governess, someone special.
Eugenia hadn’t moved from her chair in three hours, and yet, to all appearances, the pile of correspondence on her desk had hardly diminished.
She stifled a moan when her assistant, Susan, entered with another fistful of letters. “These arrived this afternoon, and Mr. Reeve is asking to see you.”
A drop of ink rolled from Eugenia’s quill and splashed in the middle of her response to a frantic lady blessed with twins. “Bloody hell, that’s the third letter I’ve ruined today! Would you please repeat that?”
“Mr. Reeve is here,” Susan said. “You will remember that we sent Penelope Lumley to him a week ago, on an emergency basis.”
“Of course. He’s the Oxford don with two orphaned half-siblings to raise,” Eugenia said.
“Likely born on the wrong side of the blanket, just as he was.” Susan leaned against Eugenia’s desk and settled in for a proper gossip. “Not only that, but Reeve was jilted at the altar last fall. I suspect the lady realized what that marriage would do for her reputation.”
“His father is the Earl of Gryffyn,” Eugenia pointed out. She didn’t add that Reeve was outrageously wealthy, but it was a factor. Registry offices didn’t pay for themselves.
“He’s as arrogant as if he were an earl himself. I peeked at him, and he’s got that look, as if the whole world should bow to him.”
Eugenia gave a mental shrug. It was unfortunate that the conjunction of a penis and privilege had such an unfortunate effect on boys, but so it was.
Without just the right governess, they never learned how to be normal. Having grown up in a household that prided itself on eccentricity, Eugenia was a fierce proponent of the virtues of conventional living.
Better for oneself, and infinitely better for the world at large.
“He’s wickedly handsome, which probably plays a part in it,” Susan continued. “I could tell that he always gets his way. Though not,” she added with satisfaction, “with the lady who jilted him.”
Rich, privileged, and handsome, for all he was a bastard: a formula for disaster, from Eugenia’s side of the desk. She crumpled the ruined letter and threw it away. “I find it hard to believe that he has a complaint about Penelope.”
Some of Eugenia’s governesses were formidable, even terrifying women who could be counted on to train a child as spoiled as a week-old codfish.
Others were loving and warm, just right for orphans. Penelope Lumley was sweet as a sugarplum, and, admittedly, about as interesting. But to Eugenia’s mind, grieving children needed love, not excitement, and Penelope’s eyes had grown misty at the very idea of two waifs thrown into an unknown brother’s care.
“He told Ruby that he had sacked her,” Susan said. “I have a tear-stained note from Penelope to prove it.”
“Did she say what happened?”
“Lines were struck through and she’d wept over it. I couldn’t make out much beyond a reference to a locust, though perhaps she meant a swarm of them, à la the Book of Exodus.”
Miss Lumley’s Biblical reference was unsurprising; Snowe’s specialized in hiring daughters of vicars, as that circumstance often resulted in ladylike accomplishments with a total lack of dowry.
“I can’t think of a reference in the Bible to a single locust,” Eugenia said.
“I wouldn’t know,” Susan said with an impish grin. “My father’s Bible lessons never took hold.”
Eugenia leaned forward and gave Susan a poke. “There’s a reason I never sent you out as a governess. You’d unleash a plague of locusts on the man who tried to sack you. I suppose I’ll have to see him, but I shan’t give him another governess.”
“I would guess Penelope’s nerves got the best of her,” Susan said, standing up and shaking out her skirts. “She has masses of them and they make her twitchy.”
“That is no reason for dismissal,” Eugenia said firmly. “She is an excellent governess, and just what those children need.”
Mr. Reeve should have thanked his lucky stars that she had sent him anyone—twitchy or not—but the fact that he’d appeared in the office suggested that he didn’t appreciate the value of a Snowe’s governess.
The mother to whom she’d been writing—not to mention poor Winnie—was one of many begging her for help. Mr. Reeve had been sent Penelope only because of his orphans.
Snowe’s Registry office was the most elite establishment of its kind, renowned for its promise to take children “to majority or marriage, whichever came first.” As Eugenia saw it, that vow was a pledge to “her” children. She had been known to keep a governess in place, the wages paid by the agency, even if a family lost its funds.
But if a family simply didn’t like the governess? That was something different altogether. She couldn’t spend her time shuttling women around England because one interfering man thought his charges deserved someone better than Penelope Lumley.
“Please ask him to join me,” Eugenia said, coming out from behind her desk and walking over to the window looking onto Cavendish Square.
Every year she swore that she would take more fresh air and exercise, and somehow the days spun by in the whirligig that was Snowe’s. Her house was only a few steps from the office, which meant she often worked until she went home and fell into bed.
“Shall I order tea?” Susan asked.
“No,” Eugenia replied. “I mean to dispense with him quickly and go for a walk in the square.”
“I doubt you have time,” Susan said apologetically. “You have the Duchess of Villiers, and I squeezed in Lady Cogley after that.”
“Is there a problem in Her Grace’s nursery? I thought Sally Bennifer was very happy there.”
“Sally has accepted a proposal from the vicar. He must have behaved in a most unvicarish fashion, because she needs to marry spit-spot. Ergo, the duchess needs a replacement.”
“Is ‘unvicarish’ a word?”
“I suppose not,” Susan said. “But the man took his post only a few months ago, so he must have jumped on Sally like a cat on raw liver. My father would not approve.”
“How about sending her Penelope Lumley, since she’s now free?”
“Penelope might be put off by the irregular nature of the Villiers household,” Susan said doubtfully. Most of Villiers’s children were now grown, but he had raised six illegitimate children under the same roof as the three born to his duchess.
“Mary Tuttle,” Eugenia suggested.
Susan nodded. “I’ll ask her. And I’ll be listening during Reeve’s visit, in case his claim to being a gentleman isn’t as accurate as it might be. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in a ballroom.”
After a few unfortunate incidents during which degenerates had acted on their conviction that any woman engaged in commerce had no morals and would welcome their advances, Eugenia had had a discreet peephole drilled in the wall between her office and Susan’s; Susan could dispatch their footman to the rescue, if need be.
“Don’t worry,” Eugenia said now. “I’ll brain him with the poker.” Their replace implements were topped with solid brass knobs for just that reason.
“Actually, Mr. Reeve is so handsome that women likely just drop at his feet,” Susan said, with a smirk. “If I hear a thump as you fall to the floor, I’ll be sure to leave the two of you alone.”
Eugenia rolled her eyes. “I might prostrate myself before a freshly baked crumpet, but never a man.”
Susan took herself away, and a moment later the door opened again. “Mr. Reeve,” Ruby announced.
The man who strode into the room was tall, with thick brandy-brown hair and darker eyebrows, the color of tarnished brass.
He had a lean rangy look, but something about the way his coat fit across his upper arms made Eugenia suspect he was muscled. What’s more, his nose had been broken in the past.
This was not the sort of person who typically appeared in Snowe’s refined drawing room. He breathed a different kind of air than did the mothers she dealt with daily.
Abruptly, Eugenia realized that she was staring, her thoughts straying in directions they hadn’t gone for years.
Since Andrew’s death.
She didn’t give a damn what Mr. Reeve’s thighs looked like!
And she would do well to keep it in mind. He was a client, for goodness’ sake. Did she see . . .
No she didn’t.
And she didn’t want to, either.
Ward entered Mrs. Snowe’s office and checked in his stride.
No governess he’d ever seen had hair that was a curly, swirly mess of red caught up on her head, a delectably curved figure, and lips several shades darker than her hair. Her lips were lush, even erotic, despite being pressed together into a hyphen.
Ward paid little attention to women’s clothing, but he remembered his governesses in gray and black, like dingy crows.
Mrs. Snowe was wearing a pale yellow gown that celebrated her breasts. Her absurdly wonderful breasts. A delicate jaw, a straight nose... Their eyes met.
There was the look he remembered from governesses of old.
She was cross as the dickens, likely because he’d dismissed Miss Lumley. Under her controlled façade, she was practically vibrating with exasperation.
Mrs. Snowe was a former governess, all right, and she’d already summed him up and found him lacking.
He bit back a grin. The governesses he’d chased from the house as a boy hadn’t cared for him either. It was strangely comforting to realize that at least one type of woman was absolutely honest in her assessment of a man.
Eugenia took a deep breath and pasted a smile on her face. No matter how foolish Mr. Reeve had been to sack one of her governesses, it wasn’t his fault that she was irritated by her unexpectedly desirous reaction to his appearance.
She began to walk toward Mr. Reeve, but before she could take more than a step, his long legs had carried him across the room.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Snowe.” He extended his hand with an unhurried confidence that Eugenia recognized.
She ought to: she had grown up with it. It meant that Mr. Reeve, like her father, generally found himself the most intelligent man in the room.
She touched his fingers, thinking to withdraw her hand immediately and drop a curtsy. A good part of the allure of Snowe’s was that she was a member of the peerage. No one ever forgot that.
His large hand closed around hers and he shook it briskly.
Unless they had no idea.
Now he was nodding to her with all the detached civility with which one greets an upper servant. A housekeeper. Or, more to the point, a governess.
It had never occurred to her that he wouldn’t know who she was. They’d never met, but their fathers were friends. Though she had a vague memory that he’d spent years abroad...perhaps at university?
“How do you do?” she asked, withdrawing her hand. Her accent usually informed even the most bumptious father that in the current social hierarchy, she belonged at the top.
No such recognition seemed to occur to Mr. Reeve. He glanced about the room with lazy curiosity.
“Very well, thank you,” he said, bending over to look more closely at a small Cellini bronze that stood on a side table. “I wonder if we could come straight to the point, Mrs. Snowe.”
Eugenia’s registry was situated in a small but beautifully proportioned house in the most fashionable area of London. The chairs were Hepplewhite and the rug Aubusson. The wallpaper had been handpainted in Paris in an exquisite lattice pattern of violet and cerulean blue.
The chamber was so elegant that its atmosphere served as a correction to clients deluded enough to think that they were bestowing a favor on Snowe’s by seeking a governess. Moreover, it had a dampening effect on reprobates in pursuit of her person or her fortune.
Mr. Reeve was obviously as unaffected by his surroundings as by her person.
“May I offer you a cup of tea?” Eugenia asked, forgetting that she had intended to push him out the door without ceremony.
He straightened and turned, and the pure masculine force of him went through her like a lightning bolt.
“I would be grateful if we could dispense with formalities.”
There was no question about it; she was facing the rare client who had no idea who she was.
It was rather...fascinating.
The appeal of her agency lay in her rank—by right of being born to one nobleman and married to another. Her enormous inheritance didn’t hurt, but it was her birth that allowed her to be accounted “eccentric” for running a business, instead of being banished from polite society.
Although to be fair, there were a few who considered her to be a disgrace to her name. Still, even those recognized that her father was a marquis and her late husband the son of a viscount.
Mr. Reeve appeared to believe that she was a governess.
Eugenia was appalled to find that he was rattling her nerves. This was absurd. He was just another client, to be soothed or squashed as his complaint merited. Considering his termination of Penelope’s employment, he needed to be squashed.
She would be polite but firm, as was her practice. He was far from the first parent to whom she’d refused a governess, let alone a second one.
She sat down and nodded. “Won’t you please be seated?”
He dropped into the chair opposite her. “I imagine that you’ve learned that I had to dismiss Miss Lumley. I need someone else.”
“May I know the nature of your dissatisfaction?”
“I see no reason to get into particulars,” Mr. Reeve replied, drumming his fingers on his chair. “She’s a pleasant woman, but she won’t do.”
“Miss Lumley is not a glass of milk that you can send back for being curdled,” Eugenia stated.
“‘Curdled’ is a good word for her. Let me be clear that I’m not blaming you. Or her, for that matter. The blame for Miss Lumley’s curdled nature must be put at the feet of her parents.”
Since when did Oxford dons have husky voices that made a woman think—not that Eugenia was thinking of that, because she wasn’t. Still, her tutors had spoken in polished syllables, whereas Mr. Reeve had a gravelly timbre. “Could you be more specific about Miss Lumley’s perceived shortcomings?”
“She hasn’t the strength of will or the wits needed to deal with my siblings.” A hint of impatience passed over his face. “I could make allowances if Lizzie and Otis were fond of her, but they aren’t. Surely you can spare a governess? I’m told all the best ones work for you.”
“Yes, they do,” Eugenia said. “But as a general rule, I do not reassign my employees. Inasmuch as you were not happy with Miss Lumley, you are welcome to look for a governess elsewhere. I can direct you to several respectable registry offices.”
Any ordinary client would have panicked at this pronouncement, but Eugenia was forming the impression that panic wasn’t in Mr. Reeve’s arsenal.
“I’d rather you gave me a new one.” His mouth curved upward in a smile that—that—
Eugenia spent a second wrestling with the fact that his smile set her heart racing. “Mr. Reeve, forgive me, but you don’t appear to understand the nature of Snowe’s Registry Office.” She sounded like a pompous fool, but what could she do? He seemed to know nothing at all about her or her company.
“I suspect you are correct.” The faint humor in his eyes was extraordinarily irritating, but it was certainly not unusual to meet gentlemen who underestimated her.
“My governesses are highly trained and much in demand,” Eugenia stated. “They are considered essential in the best nurseries. Parents have been known to hide their children in the country and pretend they didn’t exist if I can’t find them a governess.” She paused in order to emphasize the statement. “I cannot offer you another of my governesses.”
Mr. Reeve didn’t even blink. “Surely you could spare just one? We didn’t have the chance to meet before you sent Lumpy—I mean, Miss Lumley, but—”
Eugenia cut him off. “‘Lumpy?’”
“The children didn’t take to Miss Lumley,” he said apologetically.
“‘Lumpy’ is a highly disrespectful epithet,” Eugenia snapped.
“I’m fairly certain they never used it to her face.” He seemed to think that was sufficient. “But as I was saying,” he continued, “given that you and I did not have a chance to meet before Miss Lumley was dispatched to my household, I came to London in order to ensure that the next governess will be more suited to the position. To be frank, I need a cross between a lion tamer and a magician.”
“Never mind the impossibility of that; your request implies that I would trust you with another of my governesses,” Eugenia countered. “You will have to seek your lion tamer elsewhere.”
By way of reply, he gave her another wicked smile. The sort that made a woman likely to give in to whatever he asked. “May I first tell you about the children?”
Eugenia spared an incredulous thought for the woman who had jilted him. She must have been as chaste as an icicle to reach the altar without succumbing to that smile. Yet there was no question but that his fiancée had held him off.
This man would never let a woman go after he had made love to her. Eugenia was certain of it.
She drew in a soundless breath. What on earth was getting into her today? She must be having a reaction to being cooped up in the office for the last few weeks. She needed fresh air.
“Lizzie is nine,” Mr. Reeve was saying. “I would describe her as excessively dramatic and unnaturally morbid.”
“What form does her morbidity take?” Eugenia asked.
“She wears a black veil, for one thing,” Mr. Reeve said.
Even after years of hearing about children’s eccentricities, that was new.
“I have the idea that only widows wear mourning veils,” Mr. Reeve continued, “but most nine-year-olds don’t make their governess faint by dissecting a rabbit on the nursery table, either.”
“Dissecting, as in, cutting to pieces?”
“Exactly. Though I think Miss Lumley found Lizzie’s attempted conjuration of the rabbit’s ghost more disturbing,” Mr. Reeve added, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.
“I see,” Eugenia said. “I gather the conjuration was unsuccessful?”
Mr. Reeve’s sudden grin kindled a hot cinder in her stomach. “No phantom rabbit appeared, if that’s what you mean. Lizzie’s brother Otis is eight, and far more conventional. He’ll go to Eton in the fall, but since neither of them has had any schooling, he has to catch up first.”
Eugenia was thinking about ghostly rabbits, but her attention snapped back to him. “No schooling?”
What? Had they been raised by wolves? Mr. Reeve’s initial letter had only said that he needed a governess, not that he needed a miracle worker.
“No formal schooling,” he amended. “They both know how to read. Otis seems to be quite good at mathematics. A few days ago he opened a betting book in the stables, offering proper odds.”
“What bets are involved?”
“The question of which horse would produce the most dung collected ha’pennies from every stable boy.”
A gentleman never mentioned excrement before a lady but, of course, Mr. Reeve didn’t think she was a lady.
“Until it was discovered that Otis had gifted his chosen steed with fistfuls of carrots in the middle of the night. The bets were returned,” Mr. Reeve added.
“My uncle is a member of the Thames River Police,” Eugenia said. “I could arrange to have him give Otis a stern talking-to. Has your brother been informed that gentlemen do not take money from stable boys, no matter how interesting the wager?”
“That’s a very good point,” Mr. Reeve agreed. “Perhaps I should explain that our mother spent the last decade of her life in a traveling theater troupe.”
Oh, for goodness’ sake.
She had known—all polite society knew—that Mr. Reeve was the illegitimate son of an earl. But the information that his mother was an actress had been concealed.
Once people learned about his mother, Mr. Reeve would never receive another invitation. He clearly didn’t care—which explained why she had never met him, and why he had apparently never heard gossip about the widowed lady who opened a registry office.
In fact, she’d guess that Reeve was so arrogant that he didn’t give a damn what society thought of him.
No, “arrogant” implied that he had an inflated sense of his own abilities. Eugenia had a shrewd feeling that he judged himself in relation to other men without exaggeration.
“Do Snowe’s governesses tutor only the children of the rich and titled?” he asked. A note in his voice made Eugenia’s nerves tighten in a primitive response, like a rabbit cornered by a fox.
She was no rabbit.
She gave him her frostiest look. “Certainly not. My governesses can be found in more than one irregular household; the Duke of Clarence’s five children share three Snowe’s governesses at Bushy Park.”
Amusement lit his eyes and the air of danger about him evaporated. “I am far more proper than Clarence. There is no counterpart to the lovely Dorothea in my household.”
Her heart skipped a beat at his lazily flirtatious reference to the royal duke’s mistress.
“Do you expect commiseration for your household deficiencies?” It was a feeble answer, but all she could come up with.
Ward shouldn’t be teasing a respectable former governess, but Mrs. Snowe was irresistible. That peony pink in her cheeks was the prettiest thing he’d seen in weeks.
And she was widowed, after all. He never flirted with married women, or members of his household, but she wasn’t his servant, no matter how much he had paid her for Lumpy’s lachrymose services.
“I suppose I shouldn’t have mentioned my lack of companionship,” he offered. Her scent was sweet and elusive...like dewberries. Tiny berries that smelled sweet but were tart on the tongue.
“Gentlemen do not bemoan their lack of companionship. Nor, I might add, do they speak of excrement in the presence of ladies.”
He let out a bark of laughter. She was tart, indeed. “I can tell what you’re thinking, Mrs. Snowe. You think that I need a governess.”
“It’s too late for you,” she said roundly. “More to the point, I’m afraid that it’s also late for your siblings. How can your brother possibly go to Eton if he’s had no schooling whatsoever?”
“Otis will learn anything required in no time,” Ward said. “Both children are remarkably intelligent.” After a pause, he qualified reluctantly, “Not that I know any other children their age.”
She smiled at him—for the first time?
When she smiled, her whole face changed.
Every damn bone in Ward’s body—including his most private one—flared with heat. Mrs. Snowe had eyes, a nose, a chin...all the ordinary features every woman had. But that smile turned her face into the most beautiful he’d ever seen.
Maybe they weren’t ordinary features.
Red lips. Porcelain skin. Hair the color of autumn leaves on fire. She was speaking and he should be listening, but instead he was—
What the hell was he doing?
Simmering with desire for a governess, albeit a former governess? He’d lost his mind. At least she was a widow; he’d truly disgust himself if he found himself lusting after a married woman.
He’d never felt this madness when he was with Mia—
He seized on that idea with relief.
This all had to do with his former fiancée. He’d been rejected. This extreme wave of desire was the result of that unpleasant surprise.
It explained the insistent beat of his heart, which echoed right down his body to—
It made sense.
More or less.
He’d always enjoyed bedding women, and clearly the months of abstention during his betrothal to Mia had taken a toll. He needed to take a mistress.
Or perhaps make an appointment with a cheerful, welcoming tart. A woman who expected nothing but guineas, and would be surprised by pleasure.
With an effort, he wrenched his mind back to the present.
“Miss Lumley is capable of teaching both of them everything they needed to know,” Mrs. Snowe was saying. “She is an excellent teacher of Latin, history, and etiquette—as well as crucial skills such as how to run a household, play tennis, and bake a cake.”
“Bake a cake!” Ward said. “Why on earth would they be taught that particular skill?”
Eugenia watched as Mr. Reeve’s face cooled into that of an offended peer. Susan was right: he had a distinct resemblance to an earl.
“I can assure you,” he stated, “that my siblings have no need for culinary skills. I had a succession of governesses as a child, but not one ventured into the kitchen.”
“Snowe’s children all learn to bake a sponge cake,” Eugenia explained. “Baking requires concentration and precision, and it has the potential for serious injury. Children enjoy it.”
He gave her a wry smile. “Knives. Fire. I suspect I would have loved it.”
“I suppose that you were a very naughty child,” Eugenia observed, despite herself.
“‘Wicked’ was the word most often employed,” he offered. That smolder in his eyes should be outlawed. It sent a frisson, a little shock, right down to her toes.
Occasionally she would catch a glimpse of a gentleman turning the corner in front of her, and something about the set of his shoulders or the gleam of his hair would make her remember the excitement she felt on seeing her husband for the first time.
No gleaming hair here. Mr. Reeve had tumbling brown curls that he clearly hadn’t done more than glance at. Probably no valet.
Definitely no valet, she amended, glancing at his neckcloth, which was tied with a knot. Not a gentlemen’s knot, but the knot children learned how to tie.
“Snowe’s cakes have become something of a secret code,” she said hastily. “An excellent way by which Lizzie and Otis can fit in with their schoolmates.”
Mr. Reeve shrugged. “They show no signs of anxiety about their manners and are, in fact, astonished when dealt a rebuff. I doubt the ability to bake a sponge cake will prove a magic talisman.”
“Social bonds come from shared experiences,” Eugenia said. “In the normal course of events, most children will never touch a kitchen implement again, though they are hopefully more respectful to kitchen workers than they might have been. What I have been trying to say, Mr. Reeve, is that I think you should take Miss Lumley back, if she will agree to return.”
He frowned at her.
“I have some twenty families waiting for a governess,” she added, “and I think we’d both agree that you have a pressing need.”
“Miss Lumley will not do.”
“I exchange governesses only in extremity,” Eugenia said. And, in answer to his raised eyebrow, “For example, one governess attended an extraordinarily compelling sermon on her day out, and thereafter swore off dancing and French lessons. I moved her to a Quaker household.”
“I wouldn’t mind that one,” Mr. Reeve said. “Lizzie and Otis could do with a reminder of the Ten Commandments, especially the one about honoring your older half-brother.”
“Which doesn’t exist,” Eugenia pointed out. “My point is that no one rejects a Snowe’s governess merely because he doesn’t like her. ‘Liking’ is not the point.”
“Tears roll off her like fleas from a wet dog,” Mr. Reeve said flatly.
Eugenia narrowed her eyes. “None of my governesses should be compared to a canine under any circumstances. Nor a flea.”
“My siblings have recently lost their mother.” He gave Eugenia a plaintive glance that didn’t fool her for a second. Susan was right; he was used to getting his way and he had no scruples about how he got it. “A sobbing governess—who faints at the slightest distress—is a drawback, to say the least.”
Eugenia felt a prickle of misgiving. “I know that Miss Lumley is plagued by nerves, but I wouldn’t have thought her anxiety would take the form of constant weeping.”
“You can take my word for it. It’s not a good example for Lizzie. My sister is already preoccupied by death.”
“It’s unfair to condemn Miss Lumley for fainting at the evisceration of a rabbit. It’s likely a messy business.”
He shrugged. “Everyone else managed to stay on their feet.”
Mr. Reeve had an air of defiance about him now, as if he expected Eugenia to censure his little sister, but she couldn’t hold back her smile. “Lizzie sounds like a most unusual and interesting child, something of a natural philosopher.”
She almost confessed to her own childhood interest in mathematics, but thought better of it.
“My sister has arrived at an intriguing theory about bone formation and blood circulation. I am virtually certain that she is wrong, but it hardly matters.”
“I wish that I were able—” Eugenia began, but she was interrupted.
Mr. Reeve clearly realized she was about to refuse his request for the last time. His face changed, all its humor gone, his mouth thinned to a tough line. He leaned forward and met her eyes.
“The children have no family on their father’s side, but their maternal grandmother, the Duchess of Gilner, is pressing to become the guardian of Lizzie and Otis. Given my irregular birth, she has a strong case.”
“Oh dear,” Eugenia said. And she meant it: Her Grace was a disagreeable old woman whose cutting remarks were feared throughout society.
“She attempted to wrench Lizzie’s veil away from her, and I only found my sister hours later, hidden in the attics. Otis has a pet, Jarvis, to which he is deeply attached and his grandmother has demanded that Jarvis be disposed of.”
Eugenia frowned. “A dog or cat can be a wonderful companion for a grieving child. If you’d like, I could—”
Again, she was cut short. “Jarvis is a rat.”
“A rat,” Eugenia echoed faintly. She had a horror of rodents, having nearly died of rat-bite fever as a young girl.
“If Jarvis is banished to the stables, Otis will follow,” Mr. Reeve said. “I have no parental experience, but I believe that taking Lizzie’s veil by force was not a good idea.”
“Their grandmother is a harridan, Mrs. Snowe, who has already expressed her belief that the children should be whipped into shape. Whether or not she means it is hardly the point: she is not a suitable guardian for children who have lost both their father and mother in a matter of a few years.”
“You make a very good argument,” Eugenia said, adding, “None of my governesses employ corporal punishment under any circumstances.”
“I need a governess,” he stated, eyes still focused on hers with unnerving force. “When you signed a contract giving me Miss Lumley, you promised me just that. A woman in constant floods of tears cannot persuade the House of Lords that my household is a suitable place to raise Lizzie and Otis. I need a governess with backbone, who can stand up to the Duchess of Gilner during her visits.”
He was right.
“I believed Penelope Lumley would do well because she is loving and an excellent model for conventional behavior,” Eugenia explained. “I do see that she was not ideal under the circumstances. I shall find you a replacement.” She hesitated. “Is there anything else I should know about the children? They are eight and nine years old, am I right?”
“Perhaps you could tell me more about the veil?”
“It is black lace, falling to Lizzie’s shoulders. She removes it only for meals and dissection.”
Eugenia felt a sudden twinge, remembering how she herself had longed for a mother as a young girl. “She must desperately miss her mother,” she said softly.
“So it seems,” Mr. Reeve replied.
That was an odd answer, but Eugenia didn’t have time to investigate; she had a prickling awareness that the Duchess of Villiers had certainly arrived for her appointment by now. One did not keep a duchess waiting.
“I shall do my best to find you a new governess,” she assured him, holding out her hand. “In three days at the most.”
He shook it, briskly. “I appreciate that, Mrs. Snowe. I shall return on Monday.”