“I never meant to kill him. Not for the most part.” Victoria Knight hesitated, because honestly compelled her to make the hideous admission. “For just a second, I probably did wish him dead,” she added.
When Sir Dominic Hunter and Aden St. George exchanged knowing glances, Victoria grimaced. “I know that makes me awful person. I wouldn’t blame you for marching me straight to Newgate and washing your hands of my very existence.”
Chloe, Lady Hunter, patted Victoria’s hand. “Nonsense. Fletcher was obviously a villain of the first order. No sensible person could blame you for defending yourself.”
Victoria and Chloe sat on the silk chaise in the back drawing room of the Hunters’ London townhouse. The late afternoon sun filtered through the sash windows, casting a soft glow on the cream and rose-colored carpet and the elegantly papered yellow walls. An elaborate silver tea service sat on the low table in front of the chaise, but the generous plates of little sandwiches and iced teacakes were mostly untouched. Apparently, Victoria wasn’t the only person in the room lacking appetite.
“I do blame myself,” she said gloomily. “If I’d thought about it, I’m sure I could have found a better way to manage the situation than pushing Mr. Fletcher down the stairs.”
“But you didn’t have time to think, that’s the point,” said Lady Vivien St. George. Perched opposite Victoria on the edge of a Sheridan chair that was as graceful and dainty as the lady herself, Vivien gazed at her with earnest concern. “Besides, Lord knows how many people Aden has killed over the years. It’s not like the tendency doesn’t run in the family.”
Victoria blinked, unsure how to respond to that startling declaration. Aden had served for several years under Wellington’s command in some vague capacity she had yet to understand. It apparently involved dispatching large numbers of people. As she eyed his tall, powerful frame and his austere, intimidating air of competence, she could well believe it.
“For God’s sake, Vivien,” Aden said from the wingback chair beside her. “That is hardly a helpful observation, nor is it germane to this particular situation.”
Vivien shrugged, unmoved by his scold. “I’m simply telling the truth, dearest. And, by the way, your cousins are just as bad when it comes to piling up dead bodies.”
“My goodness,” Victoria said. Those cousins were hers, too, and all illegitimate sons of royal dukes. She’d never met them and was beginning to think she preferred to keep it that way. They sounded much too exciting.
“The blackguards were all deserving of their fates,” Aden said, “as you well know.”
“As was the man who attacked Victoria,” his wife replied. Then she flashed an apologetic smile at Victoria. “Forgive me. I mean to say, Miss Knight.”
“There’s no need to apologize,” Victoria said, smiling at the charming, willowy blonde. “After all, we are…”
“Sisters-in-law?” Lady Vivien finished.
“Yes, I suppose we are,” Victoria said, feeling awkward. She’d been introduced to Lady Vivien only this morning.
Like Aden, Victoria was an illegitimate child of the Prince Regent. She’d met her half-brother for the first time last year, and had only seen him once since then. Aden’s mother was a wealthy dowager countess, whose husband had accepted her son as his own. Victoria’s mamma, however, had been the unmarried daughter of an innkeeper. While he was a fairly prosperous innkeeper to be sure, Grandpapa had spent his life waiting on members of the ton, not socializing with them. To the lords and gentlemen who’d passed under the lintel of the Royal Stag Inn, Rose Knight had been little better than a barmaid—good enough for a romp, but certainly not marriage.
Aden was a powerful man, with a position at court and a wife who was the daughter of an earl. Victoria was only a governess and an unemployed one at that. She would never presume on her relationship with the St. Georges, despite their kindness.
“Indeed we are in-laws,” Vivien said with a warm smile. Then she tilted her head. “Although we look enough alike to be sisters. I always wanted a sister.”
“That’s very kind, but no one could ever think so,” Victoria protested. “You’re so elegant.”
She winced as soon as the clumsy words had passed her lips. But they were true, since Vivien was a diamond of the first water. Victoria, on the other hand, was entirely ordinary—perfectly neat and pleasant to look at, but no more than that.
“You’re both delightful young women and, Victoria, you’re as much a member of this family as Vivien,” Dominic said. “As I’ve said on more than one occasion.”
“And look how I’ve repaid you,” she said with a sigh. “I’ve handed you quite an awful mess.”
“I’ve dealt with far worse, as has Aden. We’ll get you out of this, never fear.”
“Lady Welgate said she would see me hanged for murder.” Victoria pressed a hand to her chest at the memory of her former employer’s rage.
Chloe wrapped her in a comforting hug. “I’m sure that was simply her grief talking. Please remember that you were defending yourself from a monstrous attack.”
“I wish Mr. Fletcher’s family shared your view,” Victoria said.
Dominic went to a sideboard that held a number of crystal decanters and matching tumblers and wine glasses. “You may be sure I will be telling Mr. Fletcher’s family exactly how to think about this matter,” he said as he brought her back a half-filled tumbler.
Victoria hesitantly sipped the brandy. It made her throat burn, but she welcomed the warmth that soothed her shaken nerves.
“We haven’t wanted to press you, my dear,” Chloe said, “since you only arrived last night. But the more we know about the incident, the more we can be of assistance to you.”
Dominic and Chloe had insisted that she relax after her precipitous arrival in London. They’d had a quiet family supper and then spent an hour playing with Chloe and Dominic’s little boy. Victoria had been almost pathetically grateful for their sensitivity, welcoming the small break from the nightmare of the last few days.
“Aden and I wait can wait in my library,” Dominic said, “so you can speak freely to the ladies.”
Victoria had known Dominic since she was a little girl. He’d never been anything but kind and supportive, especially after the death of first her mother and then Grandpapa Knight a few years later.
“I have no secrets from any of you,” she said. “If my account of that horrid day can help, then I’m happy to tell you more. I promise I will not succumb to the vapors.”
“That’s the spirit,” Aden said. His easy acceptance of her was a surprise, and quite wonderful.
She returned his smile then absently rubbed the plain twill fabric of her sleeve. “I hardly know where to start.”
“Perhaps by telling us about Mr. Fletcher,” Chloe suggested. “After all, he’s the cause of this dreary state of affairs.”
Dreary hardly began to cover it. “Very well. Thomas Fletcher was Lady Welgate’s brother. I met him shortly after I took up my duties as governess to the Welgate daughters. He often visited his sister’s household.”
“I attended school with one of Lord Welgate’s sisters,” Vivien said. “I found him to be a very kind gentleman. Lady Welgate, however, is a rude, sour-tempered woman. I was surprised when Welgate married her.”
“He didn’t have much choice,” Dominic said. “Welgate’s father was a gambler and a spendthrift who all but destroyed his legacy. Serena Fletcher’s father, however, built substantial fortunes in shipping and tobacco. Her dowry saved a distinguished family from ruin.”
“No one in this family would hold Lady Welgate’s background against her,” Chloe said. “Most of us have what can only be described as mixed parentage, at best.”
“True,” replied Dominic. “But Vivien is correct in her assessment. While I have a great deal of respect for her husband, Lady Welgate is another matter entirely.”
Dominic had counseled Victoria not to take the position, but the lure of working for such a well-regarded family that could give her excellent recommendations and a good salary had been too enticing. She should have listened to him.
“Her ladyship was not the easiest person to please,” she said, “but I’d been managing it without too much trouble.”
While Lady Welgate had been something of a harridan, Victoria had grown up in a houseful of brusque, sometimes-difficult women and was versed in dealing with the type. She’d made a point of performing her tasks with alacrity, and she’d never contradicted her mistress. Fortunately, her two charges, surprisingly well-mannered girls of six and eight, had taken a shine to her.
All in all, life in the sometimes-volatile household had been perfectly satisfactory until Thomas Fletcher had slinked onto the scene.
“Clearly her brother was not as easy to manage,” Aden said.
“He was not. I made a point of never being alone with him. Unfortunately, he became…” Victoria hesitated, groping for the right word. Even now it seemed ridiculous. She was the last sort of woman for any man to pursue with such single-minded focus, especially not a roué like Thomas Fletcher.
“Obsessed with you?” Chloe said.
Victoria winced. “I suspect he saw me as something of a challenge. The more I avoided him, the more determined he became.”
In the weeks before the incident, Fletcher had all but moved into his brother-in-law’s household. It seemed that every time she rounded the corner of a quiet hallway or went to the library to fetch a book, he would be lurking about, waiting to catch her alone.
“I’m grieved you had to endure such a dreadful situation,” Vivien said, her voice tight. “Before I married Aden, I found myself in similar circumstances. One feels enraged and helpless.”
Victoria nodded. “That’s exactly how I felt.”
“But you took action even before Fletcher attacked you,” Dominic pointed out.
“Yes. When he insisted I become his mistress, I knew I could no longer manage the situation.”
Victoria shuddered, recalling the way he’d backed her against the door of her bedroom and put his hands on her. Fortunately, a maid had come along, allowing her to make her escape. “I spoke to Lord Welgate immediately, who promised to instruct Mr. Fletcher to leave me alone.”
“And yet the bounder did not obey,” Chloe said in a quietly furious tone.
“For a few days he did,” Victoria said. “In fact, he made a point of ignoring me if Lord or Lady Welgate were nearby, or if I was with the children. But it was evident he was very angry that I’d gone to his brother-in-law to complain.”
When she was out on the terrace, playing with her charges one day, she’d glanced at the library’s French doors and caught sight of Fletcher standing there. The look on his face, a horrible mix of hatred and lust, had almost stopped her heart.
And his hand was on his groin as he watched her play with his two little nieces. She could hardly imagine how any man could be so depraved, and it had frightened and infuriated her in equal measure.
“Did he threaten you?” asked Dominic.
“No, but he made his intentions clear,” she said quietly. ‘There was no misunderstanding them.”
Dominic looked grim, but nodded for her to continue.
“I decided to write to you that evening of my intention to return to my family in Brighton until I could find new employment. I was going to inform Lord Welgate of my plans as soon as he returned from his short trip to London, and then leave immediately thereafter.”
Victoria would rue that delay forever. She should have packed her bags immediately and walked back to Brighton if she’d had to. But Lord Welgate had always treated her with kindness, and she’d not wished to show him even the slightest hint of disrespect. So she’d taken the risk that Fletcher would not have the nerve to attack her in his sister’s household, with two small children sleeping just down the hall. It had been a monstrous miscalculation.
“It was stupid of me to wait,” she said with a grimace.
“You did nothing wrong, Victoria,” Aden said firmly, “so, get that out of your head right this instant.”
“Your brother is right,” said Chloe. “The fact that you were not safe in your employer’s household is a reflection only on Fletcher and his sister.”
Victoria gave them a shaky smile. Most people would think her the guilty party, either for putting herself in harm’s way or for casting out lures, as Lady Welgate had put it. Life was often precarious for female servants, even in the best of households. She supposed she’d been lucky to reach the advanced age of twenty-five before finding out for herself just how ugly things could become.
“Thank you,” she said. “In any event, that very evening, Mr. Fletcher took advantage of the fact that Lady Welgate was attending a dinner party at a neighboring estate.” She huffed out a bitter laugh. “I’d assumed he’d gone with her.”
Relieved that she’d made the decision to leave, she’d celebrated with a small glass of sherry from the bottle she kept in her room—a present from one of her uncles the previous Christmas. Victoria only ever indulged on her half-day off—one glass in the evening, as a treat.
She drew in a breath, steadying herself for the next part of the story. “It was quite late. The children were asleep in the nursery, and the staff were downstairs in the servant’s hall or gone early to bed. I’d borrowed a few books from the library, and I thought to return them while I was thinking about it. I was coming down from the nursery wing, which has a separate staircase to the first floor. Unfortunately, Mr. Fletcher was coming up that very same staircase.”
“Did he have any cause to be coming up that particular staircase?” Aden asked in a chilling voice.
“He did not. That part of the manor is reserved for the children, the two nursemaids, and me.”
“So the lout was deliberately seeking you out,” Vivien said with disgust.
Victoria would never forget the horror that had surged in her when she saw him on the landing. Although she’d carried only one candle, a full moon had shone through the large window above the staircase, illuminating the flare of lust in Fletcher’s eyes. He’d clearly been on his way to her room.
“When he saw me, he laughed,” she said. “I told him to get out of my way, and that I would scream if he came any closer.”
“Surely someone would have come to help if you had,” Chloe said, her normally serene features pulled tight with distress.
“Yes, if they’d heard. But it was mostly an empty threat, which he knew. The door at the top of the stairs was shut, and I was too far from the servant’s hall for anyone to hear a call for help.”
“If the bastard wasn’t already dead,” Aden growled, “I’d rip out his throat with my own damn hands.”
The look on her brother’s face suggested he’d have done exactly that and not lost a moment’s sleep over it. Victoria supposed it was rather awful of her, but his outrage partly dispelled the chill that had settled around her like a casket of ice since that terrible night. That Aden could do something like that wasn’t a question. That he would do it for her was nevertheless rather amazing.
Dominic crossed his legs and rested a hand on his knee. “A laudable if rather gruesome sentiment, Aden. Fortunately, it’s an unnecessary one, since Victoria ably extricated herself from a very dangerous situation.”
She choked back a spurt of nervous laughter. “That’s one way of putting it.”
“It’s the best way to put it,” Chloe said. “So, Fletcher attacked you on the stairs, and then you struggled. I hate to embarrass you, my love, but did he injure you in any way?”
Victoria pressed her eyelids shut as she flashed back to the awful interlude. “Not really. He ripped my bodice and scratched me a bit, but that was the worst of it.”
Aden breathed out a rather shocking oath as even Sir Dominic’s calm expression disappeared under a barely contained fury. Victoria was exceedingly happy that both men were on her side. It was unlikely that anyone on the receiving end of such intense fury would remain in one piece for very long.
She managed a tight smile. “Fortunately, I was able to give him a sharp elbow to the chin as he took me down to the floor. He fell to the side instead of on top of me, which enabled me to scramble to my feet. He was so furious that I resisted. At that moment I thought he actually wished to…”
She couldn’t say the words, momentarily swamped by terrifying memories that flickered through her mind. She’d been mere moments away from a brutal assault and possibly even death. It had taken every particle of strength to push back against a fear that had threatened to turn her limbs into leaden, useless appendages.
“It’s all right, dear,” Chloe said, taking her hand again. “He can never hurt you again.”
“Yes, I saw to that, didn’t I?” Victoria’s little attempt at insouciance fell horribly flat.
“You don’t have to finish if you don’t want to,” Vivien said in a warmly sympathetic voice.
Victoria mentally shook herself. The deed was done and she was safe, at least for now. There was no point in indulging in self-pity or guilt.
“No, I’m fine,” she said. “Fletcher grabbed for my legs, but I was able to step back and give him a good shove with my foot. The next thing I knew he was tumbling head-over-heels down the staircase.”
It had all happened so quickly. A few moments after she pushed him, Fletcher lay in an inert heap on the tile floor below, his head and neck at a hideously incorrect angle. Victoria had suspected instantly that he was dead, but had run down in the vain hope that he might have survived the fall. When she crouched over him and saw the fixed, lifeless look in his eyes, she’d come to the wrenching realization that she’d killed a man.
A vile one, to be sure, but still a human being, one whose life she’d ended.
“And that was it,” she awkwardly concluded. “It was over so quickly I could hardly believe it had happened.”
“You did what you needed to do, Victoria,” Aden said gently. “Never second guess yourself on that score.”
“Aden is correct,” Chloe said. “It’s a perfectly dreadful story, but we’re all grateful you were able to overcome him. Some women are not physically strong enough to defend themselves, or would have been paralyzed with fear.”
“I almost was paralyzed,” Victoria confessed. “But I had the advantage of growing up in a coaching inn, where one does learn to deal with unruly or drunken males.” Her grandfather had insisted that she learn to defend herself, and she would bless his memory every day for that lesson.
“After you ascertained that Mr. Fletcher was deceased, what did you do?” Dominic asked.
“I ran upstairs to the nursery and woke one of the nursemaids. I told her Mr. Fletcher had suffered an accident and asked her to fetch the butler and housekeeper. Then I went to my room for a shawl to tie around my bodice.” She grimaced, recalling how disheveled she’d looked. “For all the good it did me. The nursemaid made a point of relaying her impression of my appearance in the most lurid terms to anyone who would listen.”
“Did either the housekeeper or the butler set any store by the girl’s description?” Dominic asked.
“No, but others in the household were only too happy to listen.”
Lady Welgate had certainly believed the nursemaid. Her ladyship had been all too happy to listen to the girl’s version of events, one that had grown more salacious with each retelling. That particular nursemaid had never liked Victoria, accusing her more than once of putting on airs. It was a common complaint about governesses. They were often looked down upon by their employers and often resented by other servants for their somewhat privileged role in the household.
“Lady Welgate arrived home shortly afterwards, did she not?” prompted Dominic. “And Lord Welgate also returned from London that evening as well?”
Victoria nodded. “Both came home to a total uproar, I’m afraid. Two of the footmen were carrying the body upstairs to an empty bedroom when her ladyship arrived. She immediately fell into hysterics.”
By that time Victoria had managed to change her dress and brush her hair after giving the butler and the housekeeper a quick recitation of events. Mercifully, they’d believed her. The senior staff had disliked Mr. Fletcher, although they would never have openly expressed such an opinion. When it came to running the household, Lady Welgate ruled the roost, and she’d been devoted to her brother. Complaining about his unfortunate proclivities would have only resulted in finding oneself out of a job without references.
“You told me, however, that Lord Welgate kept his head,” Dominic said.
“Yes. He convinced his wife to lie down in her room, then he sent for the magistrate. Lord Welgate made it clear to him that Mr. Fletcher had importuned me in the past, and that he did not consider me at fault in the accident.”
Chloe let out a relieved sigh. “I shudder to think what might have happened without Lord Welgate’s support.”
“I owe him a great debt of gratitude,” Victoria said. “Initially, the magistrate was not inclined in my favor, since Lady Welgate was so insistent that her brother’s death was a deliberate act on my part.”
“How did she arrive at such a ridiculous conclusion?” Aden asked.
Victoria glanced down at her folded hands, a mortified heat rising in her cheeks. “She accused me of trying to seduce her brother in the hopes of luring him into marriage. According to her, when he refused me, I murdered him out of spite.”
“That is insane,” Vivien exclaimed. “Why would she invent such a tale?”
“Lady Welgate was several years older than her brother,” Victoria said. “Their mother died when Mr. Fletcher was quite young, and her ladyship all but raised him. She was devoted to him and devastated by his loss.”
“Her grief is understandable,” Chloe said in a clipped voice. “But that’s no reason to accuse you of murder, against all evidence.”
“It could have been worse,” Dominic said. “Despite his wife’s accusations, Lord Welgate allowed Victoria to send me an express, asking for assistance. That was quick thinking, my dear,” he added, giving Victoria a warm smile.
“I didn’t know to whom else to turn,” she confessed. “My family wouldn’t have any idea how to help me in a situation like this.”
Actually, they would be mortified by her predicament. Her mother’s family held a degree of affection for her, especially Aunt Rebecca, who’d essentially raised her. But they also found her existence rather an embarrassment, and would not welcome being pulled into the middle of a scandal.
“I was happy to help,” Dominic said.
Thankfully, he’d arrived at Welgate Manor less than a day after the incident. Dominic and Lord Welgate had disappeared into the study, along with the local magistrate and the surgeon. They emerged with the agreement that Fletcher had been the victim of an unfortunate fall, and that Victoria was free to leave with Dominic. Lady Welgate’s shrieks of rage had all but rattled the windows, but Lord Welgate had stood firm. It was clear he wished to avoid the scandal resulting from a public inquest that would expose his brother-in-law’s sordid behavior.
“Then everything’s all cleared up,” Vivien said with a relieved sigh. “Splendid.”
“Not entirely, according to the letter I received from Lord Welgate this morning,” Dominic said.
“Fletcher’s father arrived at Welgate Manor last night, and apparently he’s very unhappy with the magistrate’s decision,” Victoria said, trying to sound calmer than she felt. “He and his daughter believe I should be arrested for murder.”
Aden scowled. “Well, that’s not going to happen.”
She smoothed her palms over her skirt to mask the trembling of her hands. “It’s difficult not to worry, though.”
“And I will repeat what I told you this morning, Victoria,” Dominic said. “Leave Mr. Fletcher to me. The only thing you need think about is what you want to do next.”
Victoria had been pondering that question a great deal when she wasn’t envisioning a trip to the gallows. “I must find another position, although obviously I cannot depend on any references from Lord or Lady Welgate.”
She’d been counting on another few years of employment to support her plan to establish her own school for girls. Her dream of independence had just receded farther into the distance.
“Are you sure you wish to return so quickly to work?” Chloe asked. “We’d be delighted if you stayed for a nice long visit.”
Victoria was tempted. Chloe’s serene, comfortable household could be the perfect refuge from her troubles. It had always surprised her how quietly she and Dominic lived, with very little ostentation. Most of the nobility enjoyed flaunting their wealth and extravagant lifestyles. Such was not the case with Sir Dominic Hunter even though he was a powerful magistrate who had the ear of the Prince Regent.
The Prince Regent.
She’d never met her father and he’d never shown the slightest interest in knowing his daughter. Nor would he, of that she was quite certain. After all, Mamma had been nothing but a glorified barmaid. Victoria had long ago realized the folly of indulging in the belief that she had any place among the privileged classes, other than as a servant.
“Thank you for your kind offer,” she said, “but I should find another position as quickly as possible. The sooner I can put this terrible incident behind me, the better.”
Chloe wrinkled her nose. “Are you sure? There’s no need to rush.”
“Absolutely not,” interjected Vivien. “You could visit with us, too. What you need is rest and a little pampering from your family.”
“You are all incredibly kind,” Victoria said, “but you mustn’t think I’m unhappy with the idea of seeking another position. I love teaching. My greatest fear resulting from this horrible episode is that I won’t—”
Her throat suddenly went tight. Teaching was the one thing that truly gave her a sense of purpose, challenging both mind and heart. There was nothing more satisfying than the look of joy on a little girl’s face when she read a fairy tale or nursery rhyme all by herself for the first time. It was like having the opportunity to discover the world anew through fresh eyes every day.
Chloe picked up the half-empty glass of brandy from the low table and handed it to Victoria. “That will never happen, my dear,” she said. “Dominic and your brother will not allow it.”
“Certainly not,” said Dominic. “But I would like to get Victoria away from London as quickly as possible.”
Aden nodded. “Out of sight, out of mind is the best way to quell the gossip that might result from this situation.”
Like them, Victoria knew that even the slightest hint of scandal would be a deathblow to her dreams of opening a school. Her sterling reputation was her most precious asset. If she lost that, she lost the future. Given that she was illegitimate, even with royal blood, she was already fighting with one hand tied behind her back. If Fletcher’s death were to haunt her, she was finished.
“Then where will I go?” she asked. “Unless you have knowledge of an available position, Sir Dominic, I will have to advertise.”
“Surely that won’t be necessary,” Vivien protested. “The last thing you need is to be pitched into another uncertain situation with a family that cannot be trusted.”
Dominic studied Victoria with an intensity she found slightly odd. It was as if she were a vexing mathematical equation he was trying to solve.
“As a matter of fact,” he said, “I do know of a family in need of a governess, and I think you will fit the bill. Tell me, my dear, how would you feel about spending the winter in Scotland?”