Mr. Montgomery was a gentleman. That’s what Josephine decided and it wasn’t necessarily a compliment. Upon arriving at their home, he had greeted them warmly enough. He was good looking, smiled often, and she found the slight burr in his voice—his Scottish accent—rather appealing.
But after a very short visit, her father had invited him into the library for a gentleman’s discussion. Translation: come look at the lands that would soon be in her dowry. Yes, her father had explained the exact details of his plans regarding her “assets.” He thought she’d be pleased, but instead the shame burned in her gut. Her father had to pay an exorbitant amount to get her wed. And her future groom was clearly more interested in the land than he was in her.
But it was done, and now Mr. Montgomery was closeted with Papa and Will Benton, discussing, dissecting, and probably directing her assets in minute detail. All without her even in the room. Because, of course, her assets had absolutely nothing to do with her. It was the land, and what was her relevance to that?
It was the way of the world, she knew, but it still hurt. If she and this gentleman were going to marry, you would think he would want to spend some time with her and not their damned steward!
And right there was yet another person who made her blood boil and her brain seethe: Will Benton. Damn the man for finding a new way to torment her. It was bad enough that he’d spent the last five years looking down his rather prominent Roman nose at her, but two nights ago he had explained in excruciating detail exactly why he thought so little of her.
Because people didn’t change. That’s what he’d said, and yes, he’d been speaking about his brother, but she had been easily able to extrapolate that to herself. He’d hated her from that first summer, and that was never going to change.
And while his bad opinion of her became set in stone, he’d committed the unforgivable sin of making her feel sympathy for him. He’d made her feel for all that he’d lost. Hell and blast, he’d made it sound like he was the victim of some heinous crime when nothing was further from the truth. In her mind, he was the second son of the Crowles and had done exactly what second sons did. If they didn’t go into the military or the clergy, they managed the land they’d been born to. They became a steward. It didn’t matter that he was steward to someone else, namely her father. Many second sons went to other people’s estates to manage their lands. That too was the way of the world.
It had never occurred to her that he might want something different. That it might gall him to work land that had been sold to her father. After all, it had never been his land. It was his brother’s and before that his father’s. What did he care who had it when it wasn’t his?
But he did care and he did want, and she had true sympathy for anyone who longed for something he’d never have. Just the way she longed for an acceptance that would never be hers. Real, undiluted acceptance of who she was inside. Because who she was in truth was too wild, too untamed ever to be a lady and therefore ever to be acceptable to anyone.
Her lacks ate at her just as the loss of his lands obviously ate at Will. And that deeply rooted bitterness was something she understood very well. And that, in turn, changed Will from the damned steward who hated her to that damned Will who was in as much pain as she was. Perhaps more.
The bloody bastard. How she hated him! Almost as much as she felt for him now.
Josephine released a sigh of frustration and kicked at a stone. They were outside for tea, as her mother had a deep appreciation for the clean Yorkshire air. It was, in fact, about the only thing she appreciated about Yorkshire, and they took tea out on the back lawn whenever possible. Josephine, Megan, and their mother were outside now, all dressed in their afternoon best, just to impress a man who was taking his drink with her father and steward. Was there ever anything more ridiculous?
“If you keep sighing like that, you will start a storm.”
“What?” Josephine asked, turning to her sister who was naturally sitting as serene and composed as a picture.
“It is something they say here. Sighing. Wind. Storm. It makes sense.”
“No, it doesn’t!”
Her mother released a sigh of her own. “You are remarkably out of sorts, Jo dear, and I grow tired of it. Do try—”
“To compose myself,” Josephine said over her mother. It was what her mother always said to her and never to her sister. Because Megan was perfect and Josephine was not. That too would never change, according to Will Benton.
When had she devolved into a child in the fury of her own thoughts? Releasing a grunt of disgust, she pushed to her feet. “I believe I shall go for a walk.”
“A walk! But…” her mother exclaimed, her eyes drifting to the house and, by extension, the men inside.
“If I am to marry this man, then he will have to learn that I…” Detest being made to wait. “I like walks.”
“Where will you go?” asked Megan, her lips pursed into a slight moue of disfavor. But at least her sister knew better than to argue.
“I believe I shall help nanny with the twins. They are in the village today. Something about a package from their mother. A simple trip into town doesn’t sound like that hard a task, but you know how the village children always join in, and—”
“And you always encourage them,” her mother snapped, “pushing everyone to wild displays!”
Josephine looked at her mother and barely restrained herself from a very unladylike retort. Instead she lifted her chin in a challenge more to herself than to her mother. “And what if I simply help the boys release their wild spirits without so much as dirtying my skirt?”
Megan released a sound that might have been a snort if it weren’t coming from her. Her mother rolled her eyes and drawled, “That would be a miracle indeed.”
“You shall see,” she said firmly as she shook out her skirt. Her bright yellow skirt that would show every speck of dirt. “I shall come to dinner in this dress, and it shall be perfect!”
Megan sighed. “Really, Josephine, why set yourself an impossible task? Even Princess Caroline would muddy her skirts out there.”
To which point their mother released her own snort. “Princess Caroline’s dogs muddy her skirts without her doing anything more than just sitting there.”
“True, but Mama—”
The discussion continued as the two bandied the merits—or lack thereof—attributed to the German Princess Caroline. It was an old topic and it bored Josephine to tears. So she turned on her heel and left, all the while wondering how she was going to keep yellow skirts clean while tromping through Yorkshire with a couple of boys.
The answer soon became clear. She was going to keep clean by being obsessed with it. By stopping the children from hugging her for fear they had dirt on their hands. By telling them to race to the edge of the village while she stood by and watched. By scolding one of the village children for jumping too close to her, thereby creating a puff of dust when his feet landed. By being in every way exactly what she had always deplored: a complaining, critical, no-fun-at-all priss of a girl. And she hated it.
And she got her skirt dirty anyway. She stepped back from a cart as it rolled by and accidentally backed into a fence. Her skirt brushed against some mud and suddenly there was a brown streak on the yellow and she’d lost the challenge just as everyone had predicted.
“Blast and damn!” she snapped as she looked at the smear.
Nearby, one of the village women gasped at her language. The boys—and three more village children—stared at her with open-mouthed shock. Nanny, God bless her soul, covered her laugh with a cough, then said in a very loud, calm voice. “Thank you Miss Josephine, that is an excellent imitation of my uncle. You have him to a tee, and now you will see boys, how there are other ways to express frustration. Miss Josephine, would you be so helpful as to say something equally vehement with different language?”
Josephine looked at the woman, startled to see a twinkle of amusement sparkling in her eye. And right there, her own sense of the ridiculous surged to the fore.
“Or more, if you can manage.”
She could manage it. She absolutely could. “Very well.” She looked down at her skirt again and poured all her frustration into her next words.
The boys chuckled at that and Nanny’s smile widened. “Oh, excellent choice. Do you mind if I give it a go?”
“Please do!” Josephine said with a wave of her hand.
Nanny pursed her lips to think, then abruptly stomped her foot and exclaimed, “Broken bottle!”
One of the village boys piped up. “Squealing pig! Squealing pig!”
Nanny clapped her hands. “Very good!”
And that was all it took for all the children to take up the challenge.
The expletives started getting more gruesome. They were boys, after all. But before they could start becoming truly disgusting, Nanny distracted them with yet another footrace. The twins did love competing and so it was an easy distraction. By the end of the summer, Josephine fully expected that each child would be able to run all the way to London. And as the children took off, Nanny turned to her.
“Now, will you please tell me why you are so desperately out of sorts today? I have never seen you get angry about a little mud.”
Josephine huffed out her breath, her entire body drooping with self-disgust. “I swore that I could play with the children and keep my dress clean. I said I would go to supper in this gown and everyone would see how perfect it was.”
“Ah,” said the woman, a wealth of understanding in the sound. “Well, as to that, I believe I have a solution. A way to clean the skirt so that no one will ever know.”
“Truly?” Josephine gasped.
“Absolutely. You don’t think I can run about with these two all day and still present myself in the evening without using a few tricks?”
“Well…” In truth she had never thought of such a thing. She just believed that others were… well, much neater than she.
Nanny laughed, the sound high and musical. “Never fear. I shall help you as soon as we get home.”
“And I will be ever so grateful. You cannot believe how hard it is for me to act proper all the time. I just can’t do it. My skirts are always dirty and my face is too. I say the wrong things, I think the absolute wrong things. And I spend most of my days wishing I could run screaming through the streets.”
“My! That would be rather extreme.”
“I am extreme. Have you any secret tricks to fix me?”
Nanny merely reached over and patted her arm. It was a motherly gesture, one that Josephine had received from other nannies and aunts and even her own mother time and again. It said without words that they understood her difficulty and truly, deeply wished they had a way to fix her. They didn’t, of course. No one did.
And then Nanny did something no one had ever done. She leaned forward and confided in an undertone. “I like to draw myself standing on a cliff, screaming into the ocean. I write out the wail and the letters get louder and louder until they fill the entire sky.”
Josephine gaped at the woman, shocked to her core. Could someone else truly understand? “Really?”
“Really and truly. And once I even drew myself naked and screeching.”
Josephine tried to imagine the image and completely failed. Or rather, what she saw was so supremely ridiculous and absolutely perfect at the same time. “Rotten turnips! That’s amazing.”
Nanny’s laugh was clean and wholesome, and Josephine found herself chuckling right along with her. And then, just as she’d finally relaxed enough to believe that there was hope, it was all dashed to pieces. Because as she turned from Nanny, it was to see the bright, smiling countenance of Mr. Alastair Montgomery. And from the dancing amusement in his eyes, he had heard every word they’d just exchanged.
“Mr. Montgomery!” she gasped, her heart abruptly pounding in her throat. “Whatever are you doing here in town?” And wasn’t that the rudest thing to say?
He bowed by way of his greeting, his bright hair looking rather dashing in a wild way. “Your mother told me you’d gone walking with the boys and I thought to join you. Though I’m afraid I don’t see any boys.”
“They’re in the tree over there,” answered Nanny. “You can’t see them, but their shoes are at the base. And I can tell from the way the branches are shaking that they are having a right, jolly good time.”
“Ah,” he answered, turning to inspect the tree. “Nothing like a good, sturdy tree to amuse a boy.”
Or a girl, Josephine thought. After all, she’d spent many a summer day up in the boughs when she was young. And just yesterday too as she’d been the one to bring the twins down. Only fair, since she’d been the one to challenge them to go up.
Meanwhile, the silence stretched a bit, and Josephine realized—belatedly—that she had failed to introduce the two. “Oh! I beg your pardon. Mr. Montgomery, may I introduce you to Miss Bethany Clark, the twins’ nanny? Nanny, this is Mr. Alastair Montgomery, who will be staying with us for a time this summer.”
Nanny dropped into a very proper curtsey while Mr. Montgomery possessed her hand and did a very charming bow.
“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Clark,” he said.
“The delight is all mine,” she responded demurely. She’d even managed a very ladylike blush to her cheeks, and Josephine watched with a smile. Truly, their nanny was a lovely woman. It was only the happenstance of birth into an impoverished family that had forced the woman into employment as a nanny. With the right clothes, she’d do rather well on the Marriage Mart. Possibly very well.
Meanwhile, they headed toward the boys and tree. In general, the children were strong and nimble. They should be fine playing in the tree so long as no one dared another to do something stupid. Which meant, of course, that they had perhaps another fifteen minutes before the boys thought of something ridiculously dangerous to try.
So they walked, Mr. Montgomery slipping easily between them. He extended his arms, and they both took hold, just as proper ladies would. The conversation was easy and filled with generalities. He asked about the village, they commented on the weather, together they deplored the coming heat and laughed at the antics of children. Quite a lot of topics to cover in fifteen minutes, but the conversation flowed easily. Mr. Montgomery was the reason. As a fine gentleman, he kept the topics light, amusing, and all completely acceptable. Which meant, of course, that it was all perfectly boring!
Josephine struggled to cover her yawn. Worse, she looked longingly up at the tree. The boys were having a great time pretend fencing with branches while they scrambled like monkeys. They were having such a great time, she started laughing along with them, completely losing the thread of conversation.
Until, of course, Nanny called out that it was time to go home. Everyone groaned, herself included. She hadn’t even been climbing in the boughs, but she had enjoyed the late afternoon sun on her face, the breeze as it stirred her hair, and the antics of the boys. She felt relaxed, and the idea of returning home to a stuffy house and an excruciatingly proper supper was infinitely less appealing.
Then she glanced back at Mr. Montgomery and felt her insides freeze. He was looking at her, his expression thoughtful. Had he heard her groan? She felt her face heat. Of course he had. And he’d heard her conversation before, so the jig was up now. He knew her to be exactly the wild creature she was. To cover, she raised her voice to the boys, making sure it was extra stern.
“Come along, children. Enough dallying. We can’t stand around here all day.”
They dropped from the boughs like ripe fruit. Plop. Plop-plop. Five in all, and she had to stabilize the youngest or watch him fall. She did it without thinking and got sap on her dress for her efforts. She stifled her curse, but not well enough. And she hadn’t said anything like “rotten turnips,” either.
As the village boys waved their good-byes and scampered off, Josephine managed a discreet glance at Mr. Montgomery. His brows were drawn together in a frown, and she had to bite back another curse. There was no help for it but to carry on. It was a long, excruciating walk back to the manor while she mentally cataloged her sins.
The polite conversation continued, of course. Mr. Montgomery was too much of a gentleman to let his disapproval show. But Josephine was all too aware of her lacks. And if she weren’t, there was someone to remind her less than two dozen steps along the road.
Will Benton sat on his horse watching them. He was in the shadows, half hidden by the trees, but she saw him. She knew his size, his hat, and even his sturdy brown horse. And despite the distance, she knew he was frowning at her.
Really, it was too much. After everything she’d done to be perfect this afternoon, the sight of him made her fury boil over. But she was a lady, and so she held it inside. Or rather, she tried. She waited until the proper moment. The boys had run ahead. Nanny was pointing to something in the opposite direction so Mr. Montgomery’s attention was directed elsewhere.
It was at that exact second that Josephine turned to their steward and stuck out her tongue.