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Anyone who had ever read a novel knew that governesses were supposed to be meek and downtrodden. They were also supposed to be quiet, subservient, and obedient, not to mention deferential to the master of the house. Leo, Lord Ramsay, wondered in exasperation why they couldn’t have gotten one of those. Instead the Hathaway family had hired Catherine Marks, who, in Leo’s opinion, cast an unflattering shadow upon the entire profession.
It wasn’t that Leo found fault with Marks’s actual abilities. She had done an excellent job of instructing his two youngest sisters, Poppy and Beatrix, in the finer points of social etiquette. And they had needed an inordinate amount of help, since none of the Hathaways had ever expected to mingle in the upper circles of British society. They had been reared in a strictly middle-class environment, in a village west of London. Their father, Edward Hathaway, had been a medieval history scholar, considered a man of good blood but hardly an aristocrat.
However, after a series of unlikely events, Leo had inherited the title of Lord Ramsay. Although he had trained to be an architect, he was now a viscount with land and tenants. The Hathaways had moved to the Ramsay estate in Hampshire, where they had struggled to adjust to the demands of their new life.
One of the greatest challenges for the Hathaway sisters had been to learn the absurd multitude of rules and graces expected of privileged young ladies. Had it not been for Catherine Marks’s patient instruction, the Hathaways would have rampaged through London with all the finesse of stampeding elephants. Marks had done wonders for all of them, especially Beatrix, who was undoubtedly the most eccentric sister of an already eccentric family. Although Beatrix was happiest romping through the meadows and woods like a wild creature, Marks had managed to impress on her that a different code of behavior was required in the ballroom. She had even written a series of etiquette poems for the girls, with such literary gems as:
Young ladies must display restraint
When speaking with a stranger
Flirtations, quarrels, or complaints
Put our reputations in danger
Naturally Leo hadn’t been able to resist mocking Marks’s poetic abilities, but he had to admit privately that her methods had worked. Poppy and Beatrix had successfully navigated a London season, at last. And Poppy had recently married a hotelier named Harry Rutledge.
Now only Beatrix was left. Marks had assumed the role of chaperone and companion to the energetic nineteen-year-old. As far as the rest of the Hathaways were concerned, Catherine Marks was practically a member of the family.
Leo, for his part, couldn’t abide the woman. She aired her opinions at will and dared to give orders to him. On the rare occasions when Leo tried to be friendly, she snapped at him or turned away in scorn. When he stated a perfectly rational opinion, he could hardly finish a sentence before Marks had listed all the reasons why he was wrong.
Faced with the immutable fact of her dislike, Leo couldn’t help but respond in kind. All during the past year he had tried to convince himself that it didn’t matter if she despised him. There were many women in London who were infinitely more beautiful, engaging, and appealing than Catherine Marks.
If only she didn’t fascinate him so.
Perhaps it was the secrets she guarded so zealously. Marks never talked about her childhood or her family, or why she had taken a position with the Hathaways. She had taught at a girls’ school for a short time, but she refused to discuss her academic tenure or explain why she had left. There were rumors, passed on by former students, that she might have been a poor relation of the headmistress, or that she was a fallen woman whose loss of status had obliged her to go into service.
Marks was so self-contained and tenacious that it was often easy to forget she was still a young woman in her early twenties. When Leo had first met her, she had been the perfect embodiment of a dried-up spinster, with her spectacles and forbidding scowl and her stern hyphen of a mouth. Her spine was as unbending as a fireplace poker, and her hair, the dull brown of apple moths, was always pinned back too tightly. The Grim Reaper, Leo had nicknamed her, despite the objections of the family.
But the past year had wrought a remarkable change in Marks. She had filled out, her body slender but no longer matchstick thin, and her cheeks had gained color. A week and a half ago, when Leo had arrived from London, he had been absolutely astonished to see Marks with light golden locks. Apparently she had been dyeing her hair for years, but after an error on the part of the apothecary, she had been forced to abandon the disguise. And whereas the darker brown locks had been too severe for her delicate features and pale skin, her own natural blond was stunning.
Which had left Leo to grapple with the fact that Catherine Marks, his mortal enemy, was a beauty. It wasn’t really the altered hair color that made her look so different … it was more that Marks was so uncomfortable without it. She felt vulnerable, and it showed. As a result, Leo wanted to strip away more layers, literal and physical. He wanted to know her.
Leo had tried to keep his distance while he pondered the ramifications of this discovery. He was confounded by his family’s reaction to Marks, which amounted to nothing more than a collective shrug. Why weren’t any of them even a fraction as curious about her as he was? Why had Marks deliberately made herself unattractive for so long? What the devil was she hiding from?
On a sunny Hampshire afternoon when Leo had ascertained that most of the family was otherwise occupied, he went in search of Marks, reasoning that if he confronted her in private, he would get some answers. He found her outside in a hedged garden filled with flowers. She occupied a bench at the side of a graveled path.