‘Everywhere and at all times, Christmas has been the season of miracle and surprise...’
December 20, 1812.
Lady Seraphina St Clair came to Blackhaven Castle on the edge of the worst storm to hit Essex in living memory. Hailstones as large as golf balls pelted the carriage roof and the snow at the edges of the winding country lane was deep.
‘Not an omen, not an omen,’ she whispered to herself, repeating
it over and over again as the coach jolted violently and stopped.
Before her the castle loomed, walls high and dark. A single light
was held by a figure standing on the large front portico.
Blackhaven. It suited its name; forbidding and isolated. Sera drew in breath. She must not be seen to be criticising. She must place a smile on her face and be unremittingly merry. Was that not what Mrs Jennings at the agency had impressed upon her? ‘No sour faces in this profession, Miss. The client is always right and beggars cannot be choosers.’
Beggars like her! The panic that lay beneath her careful
veneer was only just buried. She wanted to run from this place
across the frigid ground and away from a world that was increasingly
indecipherable to her.
Instead she waited until the door was opened, lifted the hem of her velvet cloak and stepped out into the night, the servant with the lamp indicating the care needed on a patch of frozen ice as she followed him into the house.
Trey Linton Stanford, the Sixth Duke of Blackhaven stood against
the windows in his library, turning as the woman entered, accompanied
by his man Elliot. He had seen her alight from the coach, her hair
the colour of the burnished angel wings that graced the stained
glass panels in the family chapel and bright in the falling dusk.
He hoped like hell that she was not beautiful, was not young and
was not one of those governesses who placed a false smile upon
their lips and never let go of it.
When she came closer, however, and pale blue eyes met his own he knew himself to be sorely disappointed on all three accounts. He swore beneath his breath.
‘Welcome to Essex.’ He could hear the lack of charity in his words
but did nothing to alter the tone. Six governesses in three years
and this one looked to be the most fainthearted of the lot. His
sons would eat her up in a day. ‘I am Blackhaven.’
‘I thank you for the kindness of the offer of a position here,
My Lord. I am Miss Sarah Sinclair, from London.’ She curtseyed
with grace and her voice held the cadence of a genteel upbringing
as she went on. ‘I shall, of course, do my very upmost to be the
sort of teacher you desire for your children, Sir, for this post
has arrived at a most opportune time for me.’
Trey almost smiled at that. Almost. He could see desperation in her eyes. ‘You have experience then in the role of a governess?’
The flush in her cheeks told her she had not, though to give her
her dues she did try to dredge up something. ‘I have often minded
the children of friends, My Lord, and found the experience most
Silence followed the word, though a frown deepened on the delicate
lines of her forehead as he came into the circle of light thrown
from the lamp on his desk. Damn, he kept forgetting about his appearance
in the company of strangers until he saw the reaction on their
‘I was hurt in Corunna under Moore, and I apologise for any fear
such a visage might engender.’ The explanation was the one he gave
to all who looked at him in the way she did, word for word, rolling
off his tongue like a favoured poem!
‘Oh, it is not your countenance I frown over, My Lord. My oldest
brother was killed in Rueda in the same campaign you mention, and
such an injury reminded me of him. You were lucky to at least be
able to come home.’
A surprise. He seldom enjoyed them anymore. To be called ‘lucky’ was a new experience too. For the first time in a long while he laughed. The sound was rusty and broken.
‘You mentioned this post arrived at an opportune time. Why?’
‘My father has just died and my brother found he had not the space to house me.’
‘Marriage was not an option then?’
She reddened from one edge of her face to the other, fear in the quiet blueness of her eyes. Deciding now was not the time to pursue such a topic Trey switched subjects altogether.
‘My boys are ten, eight and six. They need tight control and good
discipline. They wake at seven and go to bed at seven. If you can
teach them something of literature, mathematics and science I should
be well satisfied.’
The uncertain nod of her head told him such subjects were probably as much a mystery to her as they were to his sons though under the circumstances he could ill afford to be strident. Someone to watch over chaos was the most he could ask for. Eton should see to the rest. ‘Your room will be on the same floor as the children though a night nurse is employed. Breakfast will be served in the downstairs salon at eight and the hours of schooling are between nine and four. Weekends, apart from Saturday morning, shall be your own and if you wish a ride to the nearest village you only need ask. Are there any questions?’
He watched while Miss Sarah Sinclair mulled the rules around in
her head and was surprised when she nodded. None of the other governesses
interviewed had ever asked anything more of him.
‘Do you travel back to London much, Sir?’
Waiting for chagrin he got relief instead and as she pulled at
the front of the cloak he noticed that her fingernails were all
bitten down to the quick.
His leg ached from standing and he longed to sit, the cold gnawing into his bones as pain. All he wanted was some solitude and a stiff brandy but Miss Sinclair did not look as though she were finished.
‘I would also like to ask if you would allow me to bring a small
dog into your house, My Lord? She has nowhere else to go you see
The cloak fell back and the russet head of a mongrel came out from between velvet.
‘It seems one is already in my house, Miss Sinclair.’
‘I know and I am terribly sorry, Sir.’ Her cheekbones were hollowed in anxiety, eyes beacons of absolute entreaty as she stared at him. ‘But I promise she is the quietest dog in the whole world and she loves children.’
‘A paragon then.’ The disordered world of his house was becoming even more disorderly. Miss Sinclair’s bare hands were white knuckled and shaking but short of throwing the small animal out into the cold there was very little else that he could do. Jesus, the dog looked as frightened as its mistress with its timid stare and downturned mouth. The only hound he had ever owned was his father’s cast off mastiff and that canine had been both surly and dangerous.
He did not like dogs. He did not like surprises. He did not like
forced joviality or the further promise of future chaos.
However, the newcomer was not quite finished. ‘Would there be any chance, Sir, of a tit-bit from the kitchen for Melusine. I know it is late but she is hungry and it has been a very long journey.’
Two things hit Trey simultaneously at her request and both interested
him. She was as hungry as her dog but had not asked for her own
succour, and she knew the obscure legends from the house of de
Melusine. The dragon princess. A beautiful woman by daylight and a serpent by night.
Beautiful and secretive. The same might be said of Miss Sarah Sinclair.