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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
"He' s home! Papa is home!" Ten-year-old Matthew Chase and his younger brother Alfie ran into the entry hall of Amberwood Hall shouting the news of their father's arrival to everyone within earshot.
A powerful wave of relief washed over Evangeline Fairfax, accompanied by a cold undercurrent of annoyance. Mr. Chase should have returned from Manchester several days ago for his summer holiday with his family. His guests were due to arrive soon, and she had been frantic with worry that he would not be there to welcome them.
The guests were not exactly his, Evangeline reminded herself. His mother-in-law had extended the invitations, at her prompting. It had taken weeks of planning and work to organize this house party, which could mean so much to her future. She did not want anything to spoil itleast of all her obstinate, work-obsessed employer.
She had to admit that description hardly fit Jasper Chase when he strode through the door behind his elder sons. Her widowed employer seemed to have left the hard-headed cotton mill owner back in Manchester to become the genial, doting father of five. His youngest daughter, Rosie, rode on his shoulders, chattering away, while seven-year-old Owen clung to his hand. Emma, the oldest of the children, walked beside her father, staring up at him with an adoring gaze.
Seeing her dear pupils so happy brought a smile to Evangeline's lips and made her forget her simmering resentment of how much time Mr. Chase's business kept him away from them.
"Look, Papa! I lost a tooth!" Alfie grimaced to show the gap in his smile.
"How did you do that?" asked Mr. Chase, swinging Rosie down from his shoulders. "Take a tumble off the roof?"
"No!" Alfie laughed at his father's teasing suggestion. "It was only a tree. And the tooth was wiggly before that."
Evangeline recalled the boy's latest calamity, sustained while trying to rescue a nest full of baby birds that he feared had been abandoned by their parents.
While his son spoke, Mr. Chase cast a puzzled-looking glance around the entry hall. It was much tidier than usual and crowded not only with his children, but also with maids and footmen toting armloads of bedding and doing some last-minute cleaning.
"Welcome home, Jasper dear!" Mrs. Thorpe cast an anxious glance at Evangeline as she greeted her son-in-law. "You look well."
"Thank you, Mama." Mr. Chase stooped to kiss his mother-in-law on the cheek. "I hope all this fuss is not on my account. I would hate to think myself a guest in my own home."
Then perhaps he ought to live here and visit Manchester rather than the other way around. Evangeline bit her tongue to keep from saying what she had so often thought.
"It's not for you, Papa," cried Alfie before his grandmother could answer. "It's for the real guests. We're going to have a party!"
"A party?" A sharp note crept into Mr. Chase's deep North County voice. "What sort of party?"
"A house party, of course," Mrs. Thorpe replied in a cheerful tone as forced as her smile. Lately she'd grown worried that her son-in-law would not approve of their plans. "Only a very small one. A handful of friends who might enjoy spending a few weeks in this beautiful countryside."
Judging by the look on his face, Mrs. Thorpe had been right.
Mr. Chase spied Evangeline and fixed her with a glare that might have driven his mother-in-law to tears. "Did you know about this?"
Evangeline refused to be intimidated. During her miserable girlhood years at the Pendergast School for Orphaned Daughters of the Clergy, she had often stood up to harsh teachers and bullies who had picked on her friends. She'd learned not to betray any sign of weakness they might exploit. But the controlled fury in Jasper Chase's blue-gray eyes reminded her of the North Sea before a storm.
"Of course I knew." She tilted her chin defiantly. "The house party was my idea."
Beneath her intrepid facade, Evangeline tried to stifle an unexpected quiver of fear.
What had provoked that? She questioned her uncharacteristic response.
Mr. Chase was a tall man with broad shoulders and a powerful build. His dark hair and full dark brows could easily make him look severe. His features were handsome, but in a rugged way that did not seem entirely civilized.
But did she expect her employer to erupt in violence because she had vexed him? Hardly! In the six years since she had come to Amberwood to teach his children, Evangeline had never once seen him lose his temper. Not even with the older boys, who could be a handful at times. Perhaps it was seeing his control threaten to slip at last that shook her.
Or perhaps it was something even more unexpected she spied behind the anger in his eyes. He looked at her as if she had betrayed him.
"Reverend Mr. Brookes will be coming." Mrs. Thorpe's hands fluttered like a pair of small pale birds. "And Mr. Webster. You must remember him. I'm certain they will be delighted to see you again, Jasper dear."
Clearly his mother-in-law hoped it would ease Mr. Chase's annoyance to hear that his old friend and her late husband's business partner would be among the guests. Evangeline appreciated her efforts to smooth things over.
It seemed to work. At least it gave Mr. Chase a moment to recover his composure. Some of the blazing intensity faded from his eyes.
"Of course I remember Piers Webster, Mama. I used to see him quite often in Manchester. Miss Fairfax, might I have a word with you in private?"
Others might have quailed at the threat of a private interview with their displeased employer, but Evangeline relaxed a little. Mr. Chase was welcome to rail at her all he liked as long as his children were not around to hear and become upset. The girls and Owen already looked a little anxious.
"Certainly, sir," she replied in an unruffled tone that she hoped would reassure them. Then she signaled to the nursemaid. "Children, go up to the nursery with Jane and get your hands and faces washed for tea. I shall be along as soon as I finish talking to your father."
Emma tugged Rosie toward the stairs. "Are you going to take tea with us, Papa?" she asked.
"Of course, my love." All trace of annoyance vanished from his face, replaced by a comforting smile, for which Evangeline was grateful. "I wouldn't miss it. I hope there will be plenty to eat. My long ride in the fresh air has given me an appetite."
Not for the first time, Evangeline asked herself why a man who so obviously doted on his children could spend so much time away from them. She was only their governess, yet the thought of leaving her young pupils was the one blight upon her plans for the future.
The children headed off, Matthew and Alfie at a headlong run while the other three followed at a more sedate pace.
The smile quickly faded from Mr. Chase's lips as he turned and stalked toward his study. Evangeline marched after him with her back straight and her head high. What was the worst her employer could do to her, after alldismiss her? She had been trying to leave Amberwood Hall for nearly two years!
When she stepped into Mr. Chase's study, he had already taken a position behind his writing table with his hands clasped behind his back, glowering at her.
Evangeline closed the study door and began to talk at once, before her employer had a chance. "I hope you wanted to speak to me about my replacement, sir. You promised faithfully at Easter that you would engage a new governess as soon as possible. That was more than three months ago."
"I know when Easter was, Miss Fairfax." Her words seemed to take a little of the steam out of his overheated engine. "But I do not recall making any such promises. I am a very busy man. British industry is still trying to recover after the war and between last year's poor harvest and those misbegotten Corn Laws "
"All the more reason why a new charity school is so desperately needed." Evangeline had long since run out of sympathy with Mr. Chase's business difficulties. "The patrons of the school have been very patient with me, as I have tried to be with you. But we cannot delay indefinitely while there are children who need our help."
The moment she'd received the letter from her old friend Hannah Fletcher, Evangeline had known this new charity school she'd been invited to set up was the Lord's calling. Her late mother had often told her the Almighty had some great purpose in store for her. When she'd been sent away to the Pendergast School, with its deprivations and petty tyranny masquerading as charity, that belief had helped Evangeline look to the future. She had tried to think of every hunger pang, chill and punishment as a lesson, training her for the work she would undertake one day.
It had been more difficult to continue believing in her future purpose after she left school to work as a humble governess. Surely this could not be the great service her mother had foreseen for herteaching spoiled daughters of wealthy families a few superficial accomplishments. Raising the Chase children after their mother's death had made Evangeline feel she might have found her vocation at last. But when she learned of her friends' plans to endow a new charity school, she knew that was what she had been preparing for her whole life. She could no longer postpone her destiny to suit Jasper Chase's convenience.
His gruff voice broke in upon her thoughts. "There are children in this house who need you, Miss Fairfax. Or does their welfare not matter?"
"Of course it matters!" A surge of affection and pro-tectiveness rose in Evangeline's heart. "At least it does to me. That is why I gave you so much time to hire them a new governess. Your refusal to use that time makes me question your commitment to your children, as well as your respect for me."
"I do respect you!" Mr. Chase insisted. "I would not have entrusted you with the care of my children otherwise. It is because I respect and value you as their governess that I do not want my children to lose you."
Was that true? His reply took Evangeline aback. All this time, she had taken his delays as a sign that he did not consider her needs worthy of his attention. Yet he claimed the opposite.
"I shall be sorry to leave them, too." The words caught in her throat, like tiny, sharp fish bones. Though she looked forward to the important responsibility of founding a new school, she had tried not to dwell on the prospect of leaving her young pupils.
"That's settled, then. You will stay." The relief in Mr. Chase's tone made Evangeline almost wish it were true. "And I will raise your salary."
"I do not want more money!" She threw up her hands. "And I do not believe it will be difficult to find a replacement. Have you tried at all?"
Her employer's hesitation gave her the answer she'd suspected. "You have not. Not a single inquiry among the other mill owners or even a notice in the newspaper?"
"I kept hoping you would change your mind." His look of remorse reminded Evangeline so much of his son Alfie, she found it difficult to stay angry with him until he promptly changed the subject. "But that is not what I asked you here to discuss, Miss Fairfax. Would you kindly explain what possessed you to invite a bevy of strangers to stay at my house when I am trying to enjoy a quiet holiday with my children?"
She had wondered how long it would take him to get back to that. Part of her regretted intruding on the children's scarce time with their father, but she reminded herself it was he who had driven her to such desperate measures. "They are not all strangers. You heard Mrs. Thorpe. At least two gentlemen of your acquaintance will be among the party."
"Do not split hairs, Miss Fairfax. You know what I mean. These people will not be family."
That was true, Evangeline acknowledged privately. But she desperately hoped one of the guests at this house party might become a member of the Chase family.
Jasper brought his arms from behind his back to cross in front of his chest. "I am disappointed in you, Miss Fairfax."
His comment made her start. A complicated mixture of emotions played over her vivid features. Her full red lips compressed into a stubborn frown, but a shadow of guilt darkened her warm brown eyes. "I beg your pardon?"
He ought to tread cautiously in case the lady decided to pack her bags and storm away, leaving him stranded and the children bereft. But he resented the way she'd turned this discussion back upon him then evaded his question with a quibble about its wording. "Never in the six years of our acquaintance have I known you to be anything less than direct and truthful with me."
"Nor have I been, sir."
"Sometimes a little too direct, perhaps." Hard as he tried, Jasper could not keep one corner of his lips from arching slightly. "But I much prefer that to being deceived."
Her expressive dark brows flew up. "Deceived? I would never.! How can you accuse me of.?"
Her indignation did not sway Jasper, for he sensed the lady was protesting too much. "You forget, Miss Fairfax, I have spent many years in the world of commerce. I have learned to recognize when a person is keeping something from me. I suspect you have acquired the same skill in the schoolroom."
By the time he finished speaking she had grown calm again. Perhaps she recognized the futility of trying to conceal something he wanted to know. "I believe I have, sir."
Her gaze fella sure sign of an uneasy conscience.
"There is something you are not telling me about this house party." Jasper did not pose it as a question but stated it as a fact. "Now kindly save us both time by telling me what I want to know."
"Oh, very well." She inhaled a deep breath then raised her head to meet his gaze. "It is no great matter so you might as well hear."
Before she could say anything more, they were interrupted by an insistent rapping on the study door. Miss Fairfax glanced toward the sound then back at Jasper with her brows raised in a silent question.
"Go ahead," he growled, impatient with the ill-timed intrusion. "Answer it."
She opened the door to admit a flustered-looking footman. "Begging pardon, Mr. Chase, but Mrs. Thorpe bid me fetch you straightaway. Your guests have begun to arrive."
They were not his guests. Jasper barely stifled a gruff observation to that effect. They might be going to spend the next three weeks under his roof, but he had not invited them and he was far from certain he wanted them there. "Tell Mrs. Thorpe I will be along as soon as I am finished speaking with Miss Fairfax."
That was clearly not the response the footman wanted. "Mrs. Thorpe was very insistent, sir."
His mother-in-law was a good-hearted creature, but Jasper knew how little it took to throw her into a flurry and the effort it required to soothe her nerves again afterward.
"Oh, very well," he muttered as he strode toward the door.
As he brushed past his children's governess, he added, "This matter is not settled, Miss Fairfax, only postponed."
On his march back to the entry hall, Jasper tried to arrange his features into a hearty smile of welcome, but they resisted. However well-meaning the motives of Miss Fairfax and his mother-in-law, he resented the prospect of sharing his family holiday with a pack of strangers.
Still, none of that was his guests' fault. They would come to Amberwood believing he'd invited them. They did not deserve to be made uncomfortable or unwelcome. With that conscious alteration of his outlook, his features relaxed.