Jane found Oliver Bream thoroughly amusing. She couldn’t take his declaration of passion seriously, and wondered how good an artist he was. The duke didn’t strike her as a man who would accept inferior performance in anyone he hired. Then she thought of the way he’d engaged her as governess with the slimmest of qualifications. On second thought Bream might be a complete incompetent.
“Does the duke buy your pictures?” she asked.
“Oh no! Julian would never do that.”
“What happened to the pictures in here?” She pointed at six dark rectangles in the paint where art had been removed. “There are similar marks all over the house.”
“One of the dukes was a patron of Hogarth. If that’s what hung there it is a tragedy. Julian’s taste in painting is execrable.”
“Maligning me again, Oliver?”
The sight of him in the doorway, color heightened by exercise and his black hair so disheveled she itched to sweep it off his forehead, made the slight, fair-haired artist fade from her consciousness. Denford grinned at Bream with an unveiled affection that presented a new facet of the dark duke, and a most appealing one. Not that she needed a new reason to find him attractive.
“Julian!” Bream said. “I’ve been making the acquaintance of Miss Grey. She is a goddess, an Aphrodite or Artemis.” He showed no embarrassment at speaking in such extravagant terms, and the duke merely cast his eyes heavenward. Jane would have done the same but she didn’t want to hurt Bream’s feelings. He was quite harmless, she was sure, and she wasn’t a woman to object to being addressed like this. She knew men, Denford included, found her beddable; she also knew that she wasn’t a great beauty.
“What is your name, Miss Grey? I cannot think of you like that. It’s such a barren name. I’m sure your Christian name reflects your matchless beauty.”
“I am afraid it is Jane.”
“Never mind. You need no adornment. From this day forth, Jane is the finest of names and shall belong only to you.”
“There may be a few thousand ladies who will object.” She stole a look at Denford to share her appreciation of the nonsense.
Their glance of amusement turned hot and dark. She wrenched her eyes away and sipped her cooling tea.
“Are you in love again, Oliver?” the duke said.
“I have never been in love before, never! Jane has made me forget every other woman.”
“Doubtless true, until the next one comes along. I don’t wish to make light of your charms, Miss Grey, but I think I should mention that Oliver finds a new object of his adoration on average once a week. If his passion for you lasts a month you can claim to have inspired an exceptional degree of devotion. Héloïse and Abélard, Romeo and Juliet, Beatrice and Dante, Oliver and Jane. You will join the list of the world’s most celebrated lovers.”
Jane couldn’t help it. She started to laugh. Fortunately Bream seemed undisturbed, merely continuing to gaze at her as though moonstruck. “I am honored to have inspired you, Mr. Bream,” she said, shooting a duke a warning look. “I shouldn’t laugh but His Grace is quite droll in his way. Please believe that I do not mean to mock you.”
“Don’t worry, Jane. I’m quite used to Julian and never take the least notice of him.”
“True enough,” the duke said.
“Your Grace,” Jane said. “I have a request if you can spare me a few minutes.”
“I do hope it’s one I’ll enjoy fulfilling. If so, I’ll agree to anything.”
“I doubt this matter will affect your pleasure either way.”
“You disappoint me again. Oliver, just this once do what I ask and leave. Go up to the Blue Saloon to prepare for your pupils. I need to speak to Miss Grey.”
“My request is not a private one.”
“You’ve made that perfectly clear, alas. Go, Oliver.”
“You will be coming, Jane, won’t you?”
“Of course, Mr. Bream. I won’t be long. The young ladies will be down soon with their drawing materials.”
She watched him go with some trepidation, leaving her alone with Denford. He took a place at the table and, as though he had all the time in the world, poured himself some coffee. She ought to be safe from her unruly desires at nine o’clock in the morning with the humdrum accouterments of breakfast spread on the table; nevertheless she averted her eyes from his lips on the rim of the china cup.
“Oliver doesn’t always show such good taste,” he remarked. “The array of women he has loved in the five or six years I’ve known him is positively dizzying. They have only one trait in common: that of being unattainable. Women always seem able to resist him.”
“What makes you think I could? Mr. Bream is a very agreeable young man. For all you know he could be the kind of man I prefer.”
“No, he isn’t.”
“What kind of man do you think I prefer?”
She peeked at him from lowered eyelids and found him staring at her with a wolfish smile. “The matter is still under investigation but I am making progress. You are flirting with me.”
“I am not!” But she was, of course. Dalliance should be the last thing on her mind, especially with a member of the Fortescue family. She stiffened her spine and tried to think like a governess. “Last night,” she began, “I was up late.”
“Do go on. Your bedtime habits interest me greatly.”
“I found Laura crying in bed.”
“She was well, thank you for your concern, merely missing her mother. But had she been ill no one would have known. Miss Bride was, as usual, in a drunken stupor.”
“Is this your request, that I dismiss Bridey? I won’t do it. For your information, Miss Grey, Bridey suffers badly from rheumatism. If she were a fine lady maybe she’d dose herself with laudanum. It happens she prefers a nip of whiskey to make the aches and pains of age easier to bear at night.”
“Not just at night, but that’s not the point. I wouldn’t presume to recommend you dismiss one of your servants. I was going to suggest, rather, that I sleep up in the nursery, where I can keep an eye on your sisters’ well-being.” She didn’t mention that this morning she’d been woken on Laura’s bed by the sound of Fenella trying to sneak out. She didn’t want to get the girl in trouble again. “They need more attention than Nurse Bride can give them.”
“You can give them attention when they aren’t asleep.”
His patent indifference raised her hackles. “They are your sisters,” she said, striving for calm. “They would appreciate more attention from you too.”
“I promised to take them to the theater, didn’t I? Under certain circumstances.”
“Your Grace,” she said, as politely as she could. “I am asking you for permission to move to the nursery floor. It’s more suitable than the room you gave me.”
“You don’t like your quarters?”
“Of course I like them. Who would not?”
“Then keep them. I’ll hire a maid for the nursery to watch the girls at night. Better still, you choose someone. You’ll have to work with her. Pick someone alert.”
“The rooms you gave me should belong to your duchess, not to a governess.”
“Since I have no duchess, it pleases me to have you use them.”
“I’ll be honest, Your Grace. I do not feel at ease in the rooms adjacent to yours. The door between the dressing rooms is locked, but I don’t have the key. I presume you do.”
“I thought I’d made myself clear last night,” Denford said with a look that made her think it better not to arouse his enmity, “but apparently it bears repeating in daylight. You have nothing to fear from me. I am not interested in unwilling women and you may sleep in peace, knowing that I have no intention of using that door.”
“Good,” Jane said. There wasn’t much more she could say or do, apart from speaking to herself very firmly about wishing the door to remain closed. “Now I must go. It’s time for the lesson, and I shouldn’t leave the young ladies alone with Mr. Bream.”
“Heaven forbid,” the duke said, pouring more coffee. “He’s a danger to all womankind.” She turned her back smartly, but he called to her when she was halfway to the door.
“One more thing, Jane. Should you decide to knock on my door, I will welcome you in.”