Cassandra fumbled with the latch on the servants’ door in the lower level of her father’s London manor, unable to see the mechanism in the dim light below the stairs. She silently cursed the rattle of metal against metal as the lock at last drew back, worried that the maids humming in the laundry would hear and come looking for her. It was better if her father, the Viscount Elliot, were ignorant of her departure at present.
To accomplish this task, she’d dressed in her plainest clothes—a doe-brown day dress with a forest green shawl and a plain bonnet tied low to shade her face. She hoped she would just be another girl passing in the street outside, not the viscount’s daughter on a desperate mission to escape her fate. She held, clutched in her hand, the letter summoning her to her aunt’s house across town, along with a valise holding a few of her belongings and two dresses. It was the least she had ever travelled with, but anything more would have raised suspicion.
She had left a note under her pillow for her father, knowing he would not discover it until her absence had raised enough of an alarm to warrant searching her bedchamber.
I couldn’t marry him, Papa and Mama. I’m so sorry.
There was more than that in the note—assurances of her safety and a request not to seek for her—but the real reason behind her flight was contained in that one thought. I can’t marry him. I simply can’t.
She slipped out of the door and shut it quietly behind her, squinting at the morning light outside. It was good to leave in the morning. Her father wouldn’t notice her absence until she missed the evening meal, suspecting she was simply spending the day with friends or, heaven forbid, in the company of the odious Lord Humledge.
It was Lord Humledge she was fleeing. Two days prior, her father had confirmed her worst fears about the ageing earl, who had been calling on her more and more of late.
“He has asked for your hand in marriage, and I have agreed,” her father said in a tone that brooked no argument. “I hope you know what an honour this is—for a man of his station and influence to seek your hand … it is an immense privilege he is offering you.”
It did not feel like a privilege. Lord Humledge was in his late 50s, more than 30 years her senior, with goitre and dreadful sideburns that quivered when he laughed. He had roving eyes and a way of gripping her elbow that made her almost frightened—as though she already belonged to him. Worse than his age and appearance by far was how he conducted himself, cruel and mocking to anyone he considered less than him and snivelling and whining to those he considered his senior. The lucky few he deemed his peer in the London ton were allowed into his endless stream of gossip and condemnation of the others. It was exhausting, and Cassandra simply could not bear to be saddled with the man for her whole life.
But she was an only child, the one hope her father had of rising in the world, and he seemed to believe that her marriage to an earl was his saving grace. He would not hear her protestations, nor would his heart soften to her pleas to wait.
“You will grow to love him,” he said simply. “You are a child of one and twenty who thinks that love is like your story books. It is not. It is a slow thing that comes with time and practice. The sooner you marry the man, the sooner you fall in love with him.”
Casandra shook at the thought of sharing a marriage bed with that leering, raucous old face. What if love did not come? Then she would be tied forever to a man she despised, who treated her as though she were merely a means to an end. The thought drove her to write in desperation to her Aunt Pearl, the Dowager Lady Newport, who lived in a manor only a few streets away.
Aunt Pearl had been watching the terrible, bumbling courtship of Lord Humledge unfold and had been a safe listening ear for Cassandra’s growing distress.
“Perhaps nothing will come of it,” Aunt Pearl always said, hopeful. “I cannot imagine my brother would bring such a thing about. He loves you, my dear.”
Faced with the evidence that her brother, Lord Pemberton, was set upon this course of action, she had written back that she had a solution and that Cassandra was to slip away from the house without drawing suspicion to herself. A short packing list was included, as well as the moratorium to “tell no one.” Cassandra had obeyed at once. Perhaps, before Lord Humledge, she would have been too frightened to do any such thing. She loved her father and did not want to make him fret over her absence. But dread will drive a person to do things never before considered.
She began walking swiftly down the alley and along the path to her aunt’s manor. Familiar streets of her childhood passed on either side, as well as the homes of neighbours and shopkeepers she had known all her life. She kept her face averted.
Cassandra had never defied her father before. Not like this. Not even when he’d declared that her interest in astronomy was a waste of time and taken away her mathematics books to discourage her pursuits. Not when he’d dressed her up like a clownish princess and trotted her out at every ball of the Season in the hopes of securing her a husband. Not when he’d demanded she appear in the drawing room, polite and ladylike, every time Lord Humledge came calling.
All these things she had done meekly. Well, almost meekly. She thought of the astronomy book she’d squired away from her father, the one tucked in the bottom of her valise at this very moment. It had been a small defiance, after all, but nothing like what she was undertaking now.
Two streets over, at the end of a long row of white stone houses, was her aunt’s manor. Cassandra went to the back door, as her aunt had asked her, and knocked twice. The door opened almost at once, showing the small round cook who worked Aunt Pearl’s kitchens. The woman did not appear surprised to find her lady’s niece at the door—clearly, she had been prepped for just such an occurrence.
“Best follow me upstairs at once, Miss,” she said with a curtsy. “No use rousing the curiosity of the others, now.”
She led Cassandra up the servants’ staircase, through a partition, and into her aunt’s small sitting room at the far side of the house. Aunt Pearl was already there, looking drawn and sober, her hands folded in her lap and a few packages at her side. She stood when she saw Cassandra walking to her, gently taking the girl in her arms.
The sudden kindness brought tears to Cassandra’s eyes, and for the first time since she’d learned of her fate, she burst into tears, sobbing gently against her aunt’s shoulder.
“There, there.” Aunt Pearl patted her gently, the crepe shoulder of her gown softening under Cassandra’s tears. “Let it out, child.”
Cassandra allowed herself only a few more seconds of tears, then drew back, sniffling and trying to compose herself. “I’m sorry, Aunt,” she said softly. “I just … I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Aunt Pearl sighed and sat down, patting the settee beside herself. When Cassandra took a seat at her side, Aunt Pearl squeezed her hand gently. “I am not sure I’m doing the right thing,” she said. “Your poor mother will be frightened out of her wits by all this. And my brother—he puts on a fine front, I suppose, but he loves you desperately and will be more concerned than he allows.”
Cassandra felt a sick feeling growing in her stomach. “I don’t want to frighten them,” she said. She’d pushed thoughts of her mother to the side in all this. Lady Pemberton was a woman who prized propriety above all things. She believed that matters of marriage were entirely left up to the man of the house and had not been of any assistance when Cassandra begged her to change Lord Pemberton’s mind regarding the terrible betrothal. Still, Cassandra knew that her mother would fear for her safety. “I wrote a note, telling them both I was safe.”
“I do not believe that will assuage their fears much,” Aunt Pearl said, pursing her lips together, “but some things are worth sacrificing peace of mind for. The belief led me to arrange all this in the first place.”
“What exactly have you arranged?” Cassandra asked softly.
Aunt Pearl took a deep breath and folded her hands primly in her lap. “Please keep in mind that this is only an option. If you do not wish to pursue this route, you can always walk back home and return to your family. It is … beneath you, to be sure.”
Cassandra thought of Lord Humledge. “Sometimes rising above one’s station is worse than doing something … beneath oneself.”
“I agree.” Aunt Pearl shook her head in disapproval. “I could hardly believe your father and mother were considering Lord Humledge as an option. My late husband knew him well and did not like his politics or his private life. He is a grim man with little care for the feelings of others and an appetite that is … disgraceful. I would not wish to see a girl as bright and kind as you subjected to his whims.”
Cassandra nodded silently.
Aunt Pearl drew a paper from the table at her side and held it out to Cassandra. It looked like a letter, with numbers and figures in a table as well as text. She took it in hand and read through it quickly.
“It is a position,” she said. “As a governess.”
“It was posted by a friend of mine,” Aunt Pearl said. “Or … an acquaintance, at least. He is not very friendly with anyone these days.” She smiled wryly. “But I believe he is an honourable man, and though his children are rather wild, they are bright and intelligent. I think you will be able to do much as their governess.”
Cassandra looked at the location. “It is three hours travel outside London.”
“More than that,” Aunt Pearl added, “he is a bit of a recluse. He lost his wife in a fire six years ago and chose to disappear from the world after—bringing his children with him. No one but the staff will even know that you’ve arrived in the county. He hardly entertains guests, and those he does would surely not take notice of a governess.”
“Yes,” Cassandra said softly. “A governess is always invisible.” She raised her eyes to her aunt’s, a blossom of hope starting in her heart. “It is well thought out, Aunt. Thank you. Will he have me?”
“I did not tell him who you really are, of course,” Aunt Pearl said with a wry smile, “but we’ve been writing back and forth about the possibility for a few weeks now. I did not want to bring it up to you earlier for fear that it would cause you to do something dramatic before it was necessary. Your father’s decision, however …”
“… makes it necessary,” Cassandra finished for her. “What did you tell him of me if not the truth?”
“That you are a young woman of good education who needs a position. You are Miss Cassandra Clairmont to him.” She smiled tenderly at Cassandra. “I thought to make the surname close to your original background. That way, if you slip up and begin to say ‘Clayton,’ you can right the ship before you’ve made too much of a mistake. I told him that you are equipped to teach the children the sciences as well as humanities, and that you are skilled in both French and Italian.”
“I am capable in French and Italian,” Cassandra said with a nervous laugh. “I do not think either the French or the Italians would call me ‘skilled.’”
Aunt Pearl reached over and took the packages from her side. They were wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. “I took the liberty of having some of my housekeeper’s old things drawn down to your size at the tailor. It was the best I could do in such short time, but I think they will help fill out your wardrobe. I imagine you didn’t have many things appropriate for a governess in your own closet. Try them on here, and we will see if they are of added benefit.”
Cassandra went to do so, grateful. “You’ve thought of everything.” She slipped behind the screen in the corner of the room and struggled out of her brown day dress and into the two dresses her aunt had tailored for her. The housekeeper was obviously a little taller than Cassandra, who was short and petite, but Cassandra’s lace-up boots made the dress just brush the ground. Her aunt had guessed her dimensions correctly, and the sides and bodice had been taken in properly on both dresses.
The first was a grey, severe gown with a square neckline, under which she was to wear a thin muslin shirt that had sleeves buttoning at her wrist. The second was a cream gown with calico flowers dotting it and sleeves to the elbow. The neckline on this one was high and edged with a small, severe allotment of lace.
Cassandra changed back into her brown gown and folded the other two. She glanced at herself in the small mirror hanging against the wall. She was used to wearing silks and satins and jewels—her father and mother both preferred to have her garments reflecting her wealth and status—and now, without all that, she noted how much she looked like a forest creature. Her dark brown eyes were wide and frightened in her face, her chocolate hair pulled back into a plain bun, her shoulders thin and taut under her gown, as though she was poised to run.
You will have to do something about that frightened look, she told herself, drawing her lips into a thin smile as she stared at her reflection. It will not instill confidence in the children.
She walked out from behind the screen and held out the dresses to her aunt. “They work well,” she said. “Although I haven’t room for them in my valise.”
“I’ve managed that as well,” Aunt Pearl said, walking to a small chest in the corner of the room and opening it. “You may lay the dresses in here. I have also included a few books you may enjoy—you’ll note that astronomy volume you love to read when you visit me—and a shawl. I think that shall do nicely to outfit you.”
Cassandra felt tears well in her eyes again as she packed the chest. She turned and threw her arms around her aunt. “Thank you so much, Aunt Pearl. I could not have asked for a better advocate. I regret putting you in this situation at all.”
“Your parents have put me in this situation,” she answered grimly. “And I intend to tell them a partial truth when they come asking after you. I will say that I helped you run away and that you are safe. I will not tell them where you are, of course, but will assure them that I can communicate with you should the need arise.”
“Won’t that be enough of a hint to allow them to find me?” Cassandra asked anxiously.
“I do not think so,” Aunt Pearl said. “I have covered my tracks nicely, and the carriage that is to take you to your employer is a hired hack on a return trip to Scotland. They will have no one but my cook to enquire after, and she has not had any hand arranging your destination.”
She took a step back, taking in Cassandra’s appearance with a sad smile. “It seems wrong, somehow, to see you dressed so plainly. I know your mother would be horrified to hear I arranged for you to work so far below your station.”
“There is nothing shameful about plain things and hard work.” Cassandra smoothed her dress with her hands.
“I am pleased to hear you say it,” her aunt answered, “although I do not think your parents share your view.”
“With all luck, they will never know the full truth,” Cassandra said softly. “Perhaps … one day … if they change their mind …”
“I hope you can return,” Aunt Pearl said, but a look on her face denied this possibility. Cassandra could see it there, and she knew from which it came. Her father was a stubborn man and would not be easily dissuaded from seeing her married to Lord Humledge.
She led Cassandra out of the house and into the carriage waiting outside. Cassandra made certain her chest and valise were safely stowed and then leaned out the window to bid her aunt goodbye.
“I have just thought,” she said, with a nervous smile, “that there is a silver lining to all of this.”
“And what is that, my dear?” her aunt asked, looking around as though to be sure they were unobserved.
Cassandra thought of the books she carried with her and felt a sense of expectation for the first time since this had all unfurled before her.
“Papa will not be able to keep me from my studies,” she said softly.
Her aunt nodded, her eyes glimmering with fondness. “That is true, dear. You’ll have the stars, at least.”
Cassandra sat back in the carriage and heard the driver’s call ahead of her. There was a lurch, and then the wheels began to turn. Out the small window, she caught a brief glance of her aunt hurrying back into the house, and then there was only the street and the neighbourhood rolling by. The houses became less and less familiar. There were alleys she had never seen, hovels, and a dusty marketplace she was sure her mother would have sniffed at, then the window showed only countryside and passing inns.
She sat back, clutched her valise, and waited for the new life ahead.
Edward White, the Baron of Lincoln, peered down at his children in the garden below the house. The wavy pane of glass made the scene more muddled than it was, but he could still make out the slim form of his 14-year-old Margery hiding behind the narrow trunk of an old wisteria in the arbor while his 8-year-old, Ethan, stalked her in the hedges.
The housekeeper, Mrs Smith, sat nearby with embroidery in her hand, looking peeved. She disliked watching the children, as she reminded her master repeatedly, but there was not a governess to watch over them at present. Edward knew he could leave them to find their own wild adventures, but he feared for them. When they were gone too long from his sight, he would remember the charred smell of burning wood, the crack of falling embers, and Margery’s terrified screams.
He blinked and stepped away from the window, pushing away the memories that seemed to lurk just there, on the edges of his consciousness. It did him no good to think of the tragedy that had occurred six years ago. It had taken so long to move beyond his paralyzed state the first time. He feared that if he let himself dwell on the past, he would turn back into numb, immovable granite—he could not do that to his children again.
He walked over to his dressing table, where his valet had laid out the clothes. His was the only manservant not responsible for dressing his master. Edward knew Mr Green would have been happy enough to assist him, but Mr Green was also a bit of a gossip, and Edward did not wish the truth of his condition to be known to the town or the surrounding houses. He stood a moment before the mirror, looking at the angry scars that mottled his chest and his right arm all the way down to his hand. Burns were gruesome things—not the pretty thin scars of swordplay or the crisp gashes of the battlefield. This was something ragged and unkempt that made even he, who knew his scars well, look away after a moment.
He was 37 years old now, and if it weren’t for the terrible scars, he would have been considered a handsome man. His face had been spared—a strong, sharp-cut face that housed dark, brooding eyes and a prominent jaw—and his curling black hair fell just below his ears. The scars were not just on his body, however. He could see them reflected in his eyes even now, and they drove the handsome quality out of his face. He looked … tired and angry.
The fire, now six years gone, had stolen everything he owned … and the only woman he had ever loved. After the blaze, he’d built another manor, small and further away from town. While he drew away from society, however, society refused to draw away from him. The scars glimpsed only on occasion at a point where his sleeve met his wrist, caused gossip to flower and grow everywhere he walked. No one knows what caused the fire. Why won’t the baron talk about his wounds? He is hiding something.
And he was hiding something. Only none of them deserved to know it. It was a truth dark and terrible, and he harboured it in a part of his heart that he no longer accessed.
The manor where he and his children now lived had a small staff. Outside of Mr Green, the young man who had taken the position only a year prior, there was Mrs Smith, a cook everyone called Miss Mary who also tended the gardens, a maid who only came from town three times a week to tend to her duties, and the sour old butler—Mr Greyson—who perhaps fed the rumours with his ominous eyebrows and curt sentences. There was nothing at all friendly about Mr Greyson, something Edward had worked on before the tragedy, but embraced after. Frowning butlers were better than watchdogs sometimes, stubborn enough to keep away all the nosy neighbours and their endless questions.
A knock sounded on the door. Edward shrugged into his shirt, buttoning it quickly before bidding his valet enter. Mr Green stepped in with a friendly smile and set a letter on the side table.
“News from Lady Newport, My Lord.” He bowed, his gaze drifting to Edward’s toilette table. “Shall I tell the children you are ready for their visit? Mrs Smith is … eager to return to her daily duties.”
Edward shrugged into his coat and slipped on his boots. “Indeed. I shall meet them in the library.” He slid open the letter, examining the contents with a grim smile. “Mrs Smith will be relieved to know a new governess is on her way as we speak. She shall soon be released back to the dusting and the mending.”
Mr Green raised his eyebrows, peering over Edward’s shoulder discreetly. “Ah. And is this lady made of sterner stuff than the last one?”
“The last three, you mean.” Edward turned, raising an eyebrow. “I have no way of knowing until we meet, of course, but I would warrant not. She is … very young. I cannot imagine she will be able to prevail where the others have failed.”
Mr Green kept his response polite and vague. “Your children are quite imaginative, My Lord.”
“My children,” Edward said stiffly, “are riotous and destructive. Margery is cold and conniving, and Ethan more suited to a menagerie—at least, that’s what the last governess said.” He sighed and set the letter down. “If this Miss Clairmont is not successful, I’ve half a mind to put Margery into a boarding school. At least then she would gain a good education.”
Mr Green said nothing, but Edward could read a censure in his eyes. He knew why. Margery put on a mask most days, behaving as though she was wise to the ways of the world and uninterested in authority, but she was still a child. Edward did not know how to reach that tender, lonely part of her—but he was convinced that boarding school would kill off whatever gentleness remained.
“Ah,” he said, waving his hand. “It is no matter right now. We shall find a solution to that problem when it well and truly arises.” He finished tying his cravat and presented himself to his valet for inspection.
Mr Green crisply adjusted a fold and then nodded his agreement. “Very well, My Lord. I shall tell Mrs Smith to send the children to the library and ask her to prepare Mrs Delilah’s rooms for the new governess.”
“I don’t suppose we have to call them Mrs Delilah’s rooms any longer,” Edward said with a wry smile. “I do not suppose she will come back, after all she said in her departing.”
He walked downstairs to the library, only waiting in his chair a few minutes before his children arrived. Ethan looked the most like his mother, with bright green eyes and a blond tangle of hair that cascaded nearly to his shoulders. He was a slim little thing and always dirty. At present, he was wearing shoes, but Edward noted that he went without more and more of late.
He came in first, grinning at his father and sitting on the edge of the couch as though unwilling to fully commit to a piece of furniture. His sister followed. She looked wary, her darker hair pulled back from her face in a braid. Her eyes were green, like Anne’s had been, but in every other way she looked like Edward. She was tall and sturdily built, with a caution etched on her face as though she had given up on the world going her way. She was dressed in green muslin that fell just above the top of her laced boots. There was a pinafore tied lazily over the top, and she clutched a book in one hand.
“Good day,” he said, more formal than he intended.
“Good day, Father,” they answered in unison, sitting beside one another.
This was how he had been raised—by a tutor, while seeing his father only at scheduled moments throughout the day. It was not how Anne wanted to do things, and though Ethan doubtless did not remember her, Margery surely must recall the long days in her parent’s company. If she did, however, she never spoke of them. Edward didn’t know how to raise them without his beloved wife. He felt like a man lost at sea and clung to the familiar to survive the storm as such men will do. The familiar was what he had grown up with, a formal and careful relationship with his children that belied his true affection for them both.
“I was meaning to speak about your lessons today,” he began haltingly, “but I actually have some other news I learned only moments ago.” He put on a smile, feeling the farce behind his words. “I have found a new governess for you both. She should be arriving soon—either today or tomorrow, the message was not clear. Her name is—”
“You needn’t bother about the name,” Margery interjected dismissively. “I hardly imagine we’ll have time to learn it before she’s off again. I only recall Mrs Delilah’s name because it is biblical and made for such charming poetry.”
“Yes,” Edward said sternly. “I recall that ‘charming poetry’ quite clearly. You know, it is considered rude to write rhymes deprecating a person’s appearance.”
“Oh,” she said, her voice saccharine sweet. “And here I was thinking you’d approve. It takes a lot of creativity to rhyme ‘Delilah’ and ‘spider,’ when the rhythms are so different and the syllables scant.”
“I don’t approve of bullying, Margery,” Edward said quietly. Anne would not have approved either. But then again, if Anne had been here, Margery would never have needed a governess—nor would there have been the hard edge in his daughter’s cool eyes.
“Will the new governess teach us interesting things?” Ethan spoke at last. The hope in his wide eyes hurt more than Margery’s ice. “Like about toads and what the moon tastes like?”
“The moon doesn’t taste like anything,” Margery snapped. “It’s just a rock in the sky.” She shot a sharp look at her father. “And besides, I imagine the governess will teach us exactly what all the others have, about how to sit up straight and dance to dreary tunes played on the pianoforte.”
Ethan groaned, and Edward winced inwardly. Here was yet another area in which he felt he was failing his children. He knew they ought to be properly prepared for life as the children of a baron, but all the laws of etiquette seemed to be draining the joy from their world. He did not know how to support the governess’ firm lesson plans while still allowing Margery and Ethan to be children.
“Your governess knows what’s best,” he said unconvincingly.
Margery rolled her eyes. “Is that all you called us in to say, Father? It is hardly news. Governesses pass through here like the seasons.”
“Now that is poetry,” Edward said with a wry smile. “That is all I needed to share, but if you wish to stay and talk for a while, we may. I have no business until later this afternoon—”
“No, thank you,” Margery said, leaping to her feet. “I have no wish to stay.”
She took her leave, tossing her hair as she went. Her rejection hurt Edward all the more so because he knew it was his own doing. He did not know how to reach her. The one thing she needed more than anything in the world he could not be: a mother.
Ethan followed her wistfully with his eyes and then turned to Edward with a lopsided, toothy grin. “I’ll stay,” he chirped, “as long as you’re keen to talk about toads.”
“Destined for the Brooding Baron” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
In a world where societal expectations and loveless betrothals cast their heavy shadows, Miss Cassandra Clayton dares to defy the odds. She flees the gilded cage of her family’s estate and adopts a false identity as a governess. Seeking refuge in the unknown, she ventures into the enigmatic realm of the King’s Manor… That is where she becomes the nurturing figure of the Baron’s two troubled children and where her true journey of self-discovery begins.
Little did she know that the brooding Baron would forever alter the course of her destiny…
Lord Edward Lincoln is a tormented baron, marked by the haunting scars of a devastating tragedy that has imprisoned his heart for six long years. When he reluctantly hires Cassandra to tend to his unruly offspring, he has little faith in her ability to bring light into their shadowed lives. Yet, her compassionate nature and genuine love soon begin to melt the ice around Edward’s guarded heart. However, the painful memories of the past loom large, threatening to shatter his newfound happiness.
Can he accept a love that will ignite a flame of hope in the darkest depths of his soul?
Their feelings, born of mutual understanding and shared experiences, grow unbidden, unspoken, and yet undeniably powerful. However, both Cassandra’s hidden identity and Edward’s festering pain remain a constant barrier to their blooming romance. Together, they must navigate the tempestuous seas of adversity, unravel hidden truths, and face a climactic revelation that threatens to shatter all they hold dear. Will their love triumph or will their pasts forever shadow their future?
“Destined for the Brooding Baron” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.