Rose Hollingsworth had never thought much about her appearance. It simply wasn’t the way of an orphan to think about aesthetics in such a way, not when there were so many other things to care for — namely, how she was going to make her way in the world alone. Seated in the back of a carriage, her head clicking to and fro with the turn of the rickety wheels beneath her, she gave first thought to her curly brown hair, her wide green eyes, all tucked there beneath her traveling bonnet. The sun hadn’t bothered much with coming up that morning, allowing a light reflection of her face in the window, against the grey of the clouds. She tapped her fingers across her curls, drew them down her neck, padded them across her second-hand coat, which her old employer had given her when she no longer had use for it. A ragamuffin, in every sense of the word: this was the orphan Rose Hollingsworth. And she was en route to her new position outside of London, at the home of the Marquees of Kensington—a mansion so enormous she saw it far down the road, a staggering dark building with three wings, these glowing enormous windows that reflected back that orb of the grey sky, and big trees that swept side to side with the early spring breeze.
“Calm your mind. You can do this,” she muttered to herself, slipping her sweaty palms across her lap.
“What was that, miss?” The driver of the carriage worked for Rose’s previous employer and now hollered from up front. He didn’t bother to turn around, take any sort of glance at her. The hour had been quite early when he’d taken her from the carriage house, and Rose felt he wouldn’t forgive her for his fatigue.
And it was no use, of course. She couldn’t talk down her anxious thoughts. Not so close to the mansion.
“Nothing, sir,” Rose returned, surprised at how bright her voice was. She could truly fake it when she needed to.
She inhaled sharply, telling herself not to make such a misstep again. She kept her chin high, gripped her one and only carpet bag at her side. This was the first day of the next era of her life.
“He’s a perfectly lovely man,” her previous employer, Jennifer Carrington, had told her about this upcoming employer. “And he so requires assistance in the form of a governess for his nephew, a darling boy. I imagine you’ll fit in with them quite remarkably. It’s a wretched thing that we cannot keep you any longer. But we’re leaving London, and I know you so wish to remain here.”
It was true that Rose had a single sister across the city, who also operated as a governess, and the thought of heading off to a distant place with an employer filled Rose with a sense of dread. Rose hadn’t lived with her sister Carrie in several years, not since she was a thirteen-year-old girl, which made Carrie a quasi-stranger. But the thought of having blood somewhere in the vicinity of her London world was the only thing she had to cling onto.
Now, Rose was 24 years old—24, with seven years of governess experience behind her, and who-knew how many years of governess work ahead of her. Her heart pumped as the carriage clipped to a halt outside the Marquees of Kensington’s mansion.
“Here you are, miss,” the carriage driver said. His voice jumped with his cockney accent. He leaped from the front of the carriage and hobbled to the side, yanking the door of the carriage open and splaying his palm out for Rose to take. She gripped her carpet bag and followed his guidance to the muddy path below.
Against her will, she gripped the driver’s hand a bit too hard, gazing up at the enormous, ominous mansion before her. After she’d taken up her first governess position at the age of seventeen, she’d worked primarily in small, cozy mansions—homes that glowed with candlelight and echoed with laughter. From where she stood, however, she felt that this new mansion was far too big—like an enormous skeleton without muscle and life and vitality. She imagined only a few people creaking about on the old hardwood, slipping around one another like ghosts.
“There you are,” the carriage driver said, his voice a bit too boisterous, now. It seemed he was more than ready to embark out on the road once more. “I pray you’ll do very well here, Miss.”
He almost had to shake Rose’s hand off of his. She blinked and stepped back, gripping her carpet bag with two hands and thanking him a final time for him taking her there safely.
“Wasn’t nothing, miss,” he said with a final shrug. He leaped up into the carriage seat and flashed his reins over the horses. They clipped away, flashing mud up onto Rose’s dark green dress. She coughed and tried to flick off the bits of dirt.
But in the midst of this quick-fix, she heard her name cried from across the front yard. Rose spun round to find a middle-aged woman—big of bosom, her blonde and grey curls piled high in an up-do beneath her bonnet, a grey dress trying its best to keep her cozy body from spilling out and jiggling everywhere. Rose forced her shoulders back and gave the housekeeper an anxious smile. She took several steps to meet the woman, arriving at the base of a mighty oak to meet her.
“Good morning, darling,” the housekeeper said, smiling to show half-crooked teeth. “It’s marvelous to see you, truly it is. I trust that your travel from the city went well?”
“Certainly,” Rose said, hating that her voice shook as she spoke. “Good morning to you as well. My name is…”
“Of course, of course. You’re Rose Hollingsworth,” the woman said, beaming. “And I’m Judith Leister. I’ve been the housekeeper for the Marquees of Kensington for many years. First with Colin’s father, Jeffrey, and now with Colin himself.” She flashed her eyes up toward the mighty, dark mansion, looking at it the way a mother looks at her child. “It’s been 15 years since I first darkened these doors.”
“Then I trust you are the very best person to show me around,” Rose said, marveling at the strange dichotomy of the warmth within this woman, versus the rather horrific darkness of the mansion. How could such a woman maintain her cheer for 15 years, after living in such a place?
Judith beckoned for Rose to follow her up the porch steps, through the foyer. The door itself looked as though it weighed 50 pounds, but Judith didn’t struggle against it. The foyer’s ceiling was three stories up, with two winding staircases leading down to the marble floor below. Rose blinked into the blank space, staring up at a mighty painting of a middle-aged man with crisp white hair, wearing a military uniform and looking glum, yet confident.
“That’s the current master’s father, Jeffrey,” Judith informed Rose. “He’s been dead for four years. The current master is only 28 years old, meaning he took on the title of Marquees at the tender age of 24.”
“My goodness,” Rose murmured, although she hadn’t any real fascination with this “youthful” age whatsoever. In her world, people had to grow up quite young. She’d seen orphans take adult positions in the workforce at the ages of eleven, twelve. It didn’t much impress her that the Marquees had had to take on his incredibly lucrative, old-world position at the very-adult age of 24. But she wouldn’t open her lips to say as-such.
Judith led Rose down the wide hallway, pointing out the library toward the western wing. “Colin is quite a reader, although he’s terribly busy. I imagine he’ll want to instill a love of reading in his dear nephew.”
“I imagine that’s something you’ve discussed with him?” Rose asked, arching her brow. “The day to day expectations for the young boy? It was certainly strange, in my perspective, that he didn’t wish for any sort of interview prior to hiring me…”
Judith waved her hand about a bit. “It’s simply his way, darling. You’ll discover it as you go along, I’m sure. Here we are at the kitchen—“
Judith pressed a worn hand across the white-painted wooden door and wedged it forward, passing through to the kitchen, all bustling with life for the first meal of the day. Biscuits were baked; porridge was stirred; an enormous bucket of apples—seemingly freshly picked—perched on the center of the countertops.
A square-shaped woman with a very flat head spun around and beamed at Rose. She was perhaps 45 years old, similar to Judith, and had these ruddy, bright cheeks. She flashed a flour-painted hand toward Rose, chirping, “It must be our governess! Welcome. I trust you had a safe journey? My name is Alice.”
“Alice, I’m Rose,” she said, smiling broadly. “You must be in charge of the kitchen?”
“Absolutely. For ten years now,” Alice affirmed. She flashed her hand toward a platter of freshly baked biscuits and dabbed one of them onto Rose’s palm. She bowed toward it, saying, “These are the specialty of the house. The Marquees asks us to bake them nearly every morning. It’s the only thing we can get to stick on his bones. Go on. Try one.”
Rose did as she was told, digging her teeth into the glorious, flaky baked biscuit. Her eyes dropped closed immediately. The crusty outside gave way to a gooey, perfect middle. The experience was very nearly religious.
“My goodness,” she moaned.
Suddenly, a girl about Rose’s age burst in from the back door, carrying an enormous vat of sloshing water. the water dotted the front of her apron, and her long blond hair swept down her shoulders, seemingly unable to be kept in her bonnet. Alice beamed at her, drawing out the girth of her arm toward her.
“Come along, Anna. I want you to meet someone.”
Anna placed her bucket of water on the floor by the counter and smacked her palms together. “Terribly sorry. I was just running to the stream and I’m just a mess.” She tore a strand of hair behind her ear and turned her attention back to Rose. “I’m Anna. As she said, I suppose.”
“Anna. So good to meet you,” Rose said, giving Anna a little curtsy. She sensed she was approximately her age. Although it was clear that Anna had been raised in a much lower class than the Marquees, Rose couldn’t get a firm grasp on just how lower-class she was. Anna certainly spoke with a gritty accent, one representative of the poorer families of London. This immediately endeared Anna to Rose, as Rose had so often felt like a very poor fish in a very rich pond.
“I’ve been here since I was 17 years old,” Anna continued. “So if there’s any problems you’re having, any questions at all, come to me. I can help.”
There was a strange pause. Anna’s smile stretched out wide, warmer than Rose had ever seen. Rose returned it, hoping that Anna didn’t sense her inner hesitance. She couldn’t help it: she was simply terrified to begin this new chapter, yet knew it was entirely necessary. She hadn’t another route.
“I daresay you and Anna will be fast friends,” Judith said, as she and Rose strutted back into the hallway, toward the back staircase. “She’s a dear thing, although she can be quite naive at times. I suppose it’s all due to growing up here at the Marquees’ estate. How could she possibly have much of an opinion on the world—or know how to handle it—if she hardly leaves these walls? Ah, shall we go upstairs?”
Rose followed Judith onto the second floor, where Judith pointed out several important guest bedrooms, an art study, and the entrance to the Marquees’ quarters. As they walked, Judith introduced Rose to still more employees of the Marquees: several manservants and maids, along with a spare gardener who’d come up to ask one of the maid’s opinions on trimming a bush. To Rose, the environment was vibrant and light, again a contrast to the darkness that seemed to shroud the mansion.
“Still, we haven’t seen the Marquees?” Rose asked suddenly, surprising even herself with her forwardness. “I imagined that the Marquees would wish to know the new face staying in his estate…”
“Such an incredibly busy man he is,” Judith said. She tapped the very tip of her nose with her finger. “In fact, he isn’t even sure he’ll have time to speak with you about the boy’s education. I’ve prepared a bit of a plan for you. Perhaps we could meet tomorrow morning to discuss this? Once you’re fully settled in.”
There was a light tapping up a thin, winding staircase, toward the third floor. Always terribly conscious of the possibility of ghosts, Rose stopped short and blinked toward the darkness above. Perhaps Judith sensed this fear. She immediately squashed it, rapping her knuckles on the staircase railing and calling up, “Is that you, Duncan?”
“Quite.” This was the voice of a young boy.
Rose’s ears perked up. She knew immediately that this was the reason for her stay at the Marquees’ estate. She gripped the railing and peered up into the darkness, watching as little feet rapped down the staircase, drawing the boy and head of the boy into the light.
Duncan was a slender, almost meek-looking boy, with dark brown hair and enormous orb-like eyes. When he was half-way down the stairs, he halted and peered at Rose with an incredible amount of intensity, stitching his eyebrows together.
“I don’t suppose this is my new governess?” he asked. He sounded almost doubtful.
Instead of letting the silence stretch on, Rose dipped into a curtsy and bowed her head. “Yes, sir. It is I. Rose Collingsworth, at your service. I will be your new governess. You are quite astute for a boy of…”
Here, she trailed off. It had long been top-level knowledge in her life that boys and girls loved to tell you their age. It was always a point of pride.
“I’m ten,” Duncan told her. He tapped the rest of the way to the second floor and then placed his hands on his hips, staring up at her. He clicked his tongue and continued. “You know, I’ve been here only five days. That’s five days more than you.”
Rose hadn’t known it had been such a quick decision, bringing her there. She swallowed and said, “Has it been a very difficult transition for you, Duncan? I imagine so. It’s terribly difficult to move.”
Duncan shrugged, although his eyes clouded. “Mother is quite sick. It was decided that it was too difficult for me to remain there. The doctors came in and out every morning and afternoon and night and there simply wasn’t time left for me anymore.”
Rose turned her eyes toward Judith for just a brief moment. Judith gave her a soft nod, an affirmation.
“I’m terribly sorry to hear that, Duncan,” Rose said. She had a strange inclination to lean toward him, drawing her hands over her knees and meet his eyes with hers. But then, she reasoned that Duncan might think she was belittling him in some manner—and she forced herself to remain upright. “Truly. Having a sick parent must be a very real struggle.”
Duncan nodded his head somberly, like an adult. “Where are your parents?” he asked.
Rose hadn’t expected this question out of such a young child. She swallowed and said, “My parents both died when I was quite young.”
“Oh. How did that happen?” Duncan asked. His eyes glittered with a mix of curiosity and sadness.
“They were quite ill,” Rose said, although word of the definite reason for her parents’ death had never met her nor Carrie’s ears. “And my sister and I were raised at an orphanage.”
Normally, when people learned about the tragedy that had befallen Rose’s early life, their eyes dropped to the ground with embarrassment. But Duncan’s reaction was far different. He didn’t drop Rose’s eye contact; he didn’t seem at a loss for what to say. He had unbridled curiosity, and he faced reality without hesitation. In some respects, Rose wished she had that kind of strength.
“Would you like to see my bedroom?” Duncan asked. It seemed that he’d decided to trust her already, for better or for worse.
“If that’s all right with Judith,” Rose said. She arched her brow toward Judith, who gave her a little playful nod.
Duncan padded back up the stairs, with Judith and Rose yanking themselves up behind. Judith whispered, “I dare say, these stairs get more difficult every single year,” and let out a light chuckle. Rose cranked her head around and gave Judith a sneaky grin.
“I think he’s quite fascinating,” Rose muttered.
Judith pressed her finger into her lips, as a means to “shush” without the sound. She batted her eyelashes and said, “Be careful what you say. He hears everything. And he’s an incredibly intelligent child, as you can tell. If you give him too much power, you won’t have a chance on this earth.”
Rose grinned wider, knowing this was entirely true—with children, you couldn’t show too many of your cards. She stretched up the last length of the staircase and landed on an Asian rug at the top, beaming down at Duncan who gave the air of having had to wait for her for several minutes, rather than seconds. He pointed toward the door next to them, saying, “This is my bedroom. Please, follow me.”
The formality of the young boy was quite fascinating to Rose, especially since she’d grown up in an orphanage. There, children had run wildly, cackling and leaping about and getting into all sorts of trouble. Duncan seemed the sort of child to sit off to the side, taking notes on the situation at-hand like one might analyze birds or animals in the zoo.
Duncan’s room hadn’t yet been decorated to suit a child. Judith also mentioned this as they entered, saying, “The Marquees has told us that we can arrange it however we like—even ordering in paint and rugs and anything else Duncan might find that suits him…”
“Yes, but I’ve brought my own toys…” Duncan said, pointing toward an enormous chest at the far end of the room, near the four-poster bed. A stuffed teddy bear’s hand stuck out of the part in the chest, like it was trying to crawl out from the inner belly. “They all came from my mother and father’s house—and all bought here in England. You see, we arrived back from the West Indies when I was just seven years old. I wasn’t allowed to bring many toys back from there, because Mother said they may be infected with disease.”
Duncan skipped over to the edge of the room and began to draw out more of his toys, introducing them and dotting them in a line before her. A papier-maché doll, a rocking horse with a slender body, even a small doll’s house, along with several books.
“They’re marvelous,” Rose said. In her own childhood, she’d had very little to play with, and she felt a strange jump of jealousy. It wasn’t that she wanted to go back to her youth; yet she truly did ache for her past self, wishing it had all been different.
Judith perched in a little chair near the entrance to the bedroom, while Duncan moved toward the bed tapped his hand across the bedspread, insisting that Rose sit with him. When she did, Duncan bounced a bit on the mattress. He felt like a cartoon character in a comic strip, a boy completely drawn out of the smoke in the air. He gave her yet another sneaky smile and said, “I’ve already begun concocting my own secret plans for this estate.”
The sentence surprised Rose. She stitched her eyebrows together and said, “Pardon me, Duncan? I suppose I don’t quite understand what you mean.”
Duncan’s skin glowed with his excitement. “It’s just that I like to create… my own games,” Duncan said. It seemed as though he wasn’t accustomed to telling anyone about his secret plans. “I’ve been an only child my entire life, and back in the West Indies, it wasn’t customary for me to spend time with other children—only with my governess, who we left behind.”
“Did she play your secret games with you?” Rose asked.
Duncan’s shoulders drooped. “Unfortunately not,” she said. “She was far too serious for my liking. She frequently told my parents that I had an active imagination, but she never said it like it was a good thing. She always said it like she needed to warn them. Like my creativity was going to make me a—a pariah…”
“That is quite an excellent word to use,” Rose said. “What makes you have such a remarkable vocabulary?”
Duncan shrugged. “I suppose that isn’t terribly important to the story, is it?”
Rose tried her best not to show her inner laughter, which now bubbled up. She pressed her lips together and shook her head.
“Very well. Would you like to hear about my games?” Duncan asked.
“Very much so,” Rose returned. Already, her heart swelled with adoration for this young, strange, endearing boy.
“During one of them, I pretend that I’m a ghost,” Duncan said, lowering his voice. “I imagine that I’m just like my mother’s father’s father’s father—who wandered through these hallways hundreds of years ago. I pretend I’m like him as a boy and imagine it: what my day might look like, what I might do with my friends and siblings. It’s quite exhausting, imagining such a reality so different from ours, but it really is so splendid as well. You must help me sometime. I know for certain that this other, much older boy had a governess, as well.”
“I hope I can play the role as good as you envision it,” Rose said.
Duncan nodded his head severely. “You can’t understand how lonely it’s been the past five days. All I wished for was someone to play with. Someone to speak with.” He lowered his voice, casting his eyes toward Judith—who, it seemed, wasn’t paying even a slight lick of attention. “I’m so grateful not to be the only new one in the house. It is quite a creepy place, is it not? It has nothing of the warmth of my old home. Mother always said it was quite creepy, growing up here. Of course, I had never seen it until I was seven years old. That was just a year after grandfather died. I was never able to know him. I regret that, although Mother doesn’t have terribly pleasant things to say about him, either.”
Judith burst up from her chair, seemingly ready to put a halt to Duncan’s aimless, round and round speaking.
“I dare say it’s time for our new Rose to see the rest of the house,” she told Duncan, her voice reproachful. “You’ll see a great deal of her later.”
Duncan popped off the edge of his bed and bowed his head, looking somber, like he was on the brink of prayer. “I trust I will see you soon,” he said, as Rose tapped the top of his head and followed Judith out into the hallway. He continued to make heavy eye contact until Rose finally had to drop it and turn her head toward the staircase that led back to the second floor. For reasons she couldn’t fully comprehend, she felt very drawn to the boy—perhaps just because of his oddities. It was obvious that because he’d grown up in the West Indies, he had marvelous stories, and perhaps didn’t stitch so easily into the cultural backdrop of Londoners.
This was something Rose understood a great deal, as she’d grown up in an orphanage.
When they reached the second floor, Judith let out a twinkling laugh. “I’m terribly sorry. I’m only just getting used to him after five days. He can be quite… intense. Perhaps that’s the word I’m looking for, although I can’t be certain.”
“He’s quite lovely,” Rose insisted. “I dare say I haven’t met another boy like him in all my years of governess-ing. I imagine it will be an adventure.”
Judith sniffed and spoke sarcastically. “An adventure of the highest order, I imagine so.”
At this, Rose had a moment of apprehension. After all, wasn’t Judith meant to be on her and Duncan’s side? She gave Judith a strange look, clenching her cheeks, and then said, “But I imagine he’s also just like all the other boys. Just a bit lost in the wake of his mother’s illness…”
Judith waved her hand, as though she was casting the entire incident under the rug. “No, no. Silly Rose. Obviously, he’s a very strange boy with a very strange curiosity and creativity. I hope you can manage him. Otherwise…”
“You won’t have to send for anyone else,” Rose blurted, frightening herself with her certainty.
“I certainly hope not. It’s rather difficult to find an upstanding governess—and certainly one that the Marquees trusts…”
“But he hasn’t yet met me!” Rose couldn’t help herself from saying this. She spread her fingers out on the fabric of her dress and sanded it down.
“As I’ve already said,” Judith said—not entirely unkindly—“He’s incredibly busy. Shall we proceed?”
Judith finished giving the grand mansion tour to Rose nearly 30 minutes later—through the greenhouse, past the stables, toward the study (where Rose was meant to stay far away from, since it was imperative that the Marquees receive enough quiet time by himself). Outside the kitchen door once more, their feet spread out on the grass, Judith smacked her thighs and said, “I suppose you’ve seen as many nooks and crannies of this estate that I can think of.”
The air filled, growing pregnant with the smell of baking bread. The smell was like a pillow in the air, cushy and cozy. It also reminded Rose of those lost days at the orphanage. They’d strained for nights on-end, laying and staring up at the ceiling, aching with hunger. When the air filled with this such smell from the baker down the street, it was as though they were allowed an alternate reality—one in which baking bread was an everyday reality.
“I don’t suppose I’ll be able to meet the—“
“You should really stop requesting it,” Judith said, although her manner wasn’t unkind. “Here, darling. Have a biscuit. I can’t imagine that you’ll be needed for anything else today.”
Again, she dotted a biscuit on the top of Rose’s palm and nodded toward it. Rose held it on her flat palm for several moments, completely nonplussed. Finally, Judith said, “Oh, goodness me. I’m meant to show you where you’re going to be staying. I can’t believe I forgot. Come along.”
Rose followed Judith down the second-floor hallway, back toward the foyer, and then up a separate staircase, which would around and around in the corner of the mansion. Rose couldn’t help but think of herself as kind of abandoned out there so far from the rest of them. The shadows seemed to grow longer as she and Judith marched up the thin staircase. The air was thick with darkness.
The stairs ended at floor three. Judith kicked at the door and it squeaked open. Rose took several delicate, very soft steps into the room, feeling her heart sink into her belly. The room was perhaps the most boring, most bland of any room she’d ever seen. The bedspread was completely white; the walls were bare; the side table was a bit rickety, as though someone had made it their mission to bust it but had given up halfway.
Even so, it was largely much better than the rooms Rose had stayed in over the years. She nodded her head with intense delight, thankful that they’d set aside this space for her.
“Thank you, Judith,” she said, drawing up the most genuine smile she could muster. “I really do believe that I’ll like my time here.”
Judith returned her smile. “Tomorrow, it’s essential that we sit together and discuss Duncan’s education, along with what’s expected of you here at the Marquees’ estate. I know you’ve done this a great deal before, but you can imagine, we like to ensure that you have all the rules and structure set before we begin.”
Judith glanced around the room. Rose realized she’d neglected to answer, as her thoughts had taken on an anxious swirl. She swallowed and said, “That’s quite lovely of you. Thank you. I look forward to speaking tomorrow.”
“I’ll leave you here, then. You’ll be called for dinner later. The servants ordinarily eat in shifts, so that nobody is taken from their posts for too long. Perhaps you can eat with Anna, as she’s closer to your age. It’s been a terribly long time since Anna had a friend.”
Rose’s heart beat like a rabbit’s. She thanked Judith and watched as the older woman clipped out into the hallway, drawing the door closed behind her. The moment Rose was all alone, she sprung back on the bed and stretched out, extending across the entire tiny thing. She gazed at the ceiling, feeling both morose and terrified. There was nothing to do but press forward, live in the excitement this world could bring her. She had nothing else but this.
When Rose awoke the following morning, the birds outside chirped in a severe manner, almost as though they were trying to warn her of something. It was curious. Although she’d grown up in the city, she’d grown accustomed to the soft well of the sound of birds conversing in the morning. These birds sounded much different. It was as though she’d embarked on an expedition, arrived on another planet.
Her first night in the estate had been rather bizarre, as only firsts can be. She’d met Anna for dinner and had begun to open up to her, little by little. But Anna was soon robbed from the dinner table to attend to her own chores. Since Rose’s duties hadn’t yet begun, she’d stared sadly down at her food and felt strangely alone. She knew that this feeling always passed, that it wasn’t around for long. She’d had to learn to live with the feeling, especially after her sister had left her at the orphanage and she’d had to fend for herself.
This first morning in the estate, Rose dressed in a dark frock and splashed water on her face. She tapped down the staircase toward the kitchen, where she’d agreed to meet Judith for a light breakfast. Already, the tiny table had been set with toast, eggs, and tea. Rose sat in one of the empty chairs and watched as the cooks scrambled about, apparently preparing a breakfast feast for Duncan and his uncle, the master. Again, Rose found it peculiar that she hadn’t a clue who the Marquees was. She couldn’t even visualize his face.
Finally, Judith appeared in the kitchen. “I’m terribly sorry to be late,” she said, walking slowly toward the table and sitting across from Rose. She flashed a napkin across her lap and beamed at Rose, before continuing. “The Marquees had a series of questions and demands this morning, as is his custom, and it took a bit longer than expected. I do hope you can forgive the tardiness.”
“Of—of course,” Rose said. It was a rare thing for anyone to apologize to her. Normally, regardless of who was really to blame, Rose was the one to apologize in any given circumstance.
“I trust you slept well,” Judith said. She ripped into a piece of toast in a manner that seemed to say she didn’t wish to waste any time. Breakfast was to be eaten, and quickly so that one could continue on with one’s duties.
“I did, thank you,” Rose said, although it wasn’t necessarily true. She’d tossed about, sweating in her sheets, lost in the chaos of her dreams. But Judith didn’t need to know that—nor did she need to have the belief that Rose was some wild-dreamer, with the potential for mental collapse.
“Very good. Very good. Well. As you know, Duncan is ten years old, which means his reading and writing is coming along quite swimmingly. His mother passed along a list of books she was planning to have him read over the following year…”
Here, she pressed a piece of paper onto the top of the table and slipped it over. Rose read the list of science textbooks, historical texts, and stories about the West Indies, perhaps so he wouldn’t lose that part of himself.
“I have a few that I could add, as well,” Rose said. “If it doesn’t displease the Marquees.”
“I’m sure it won’t. You have a great deal of experience working with children. He knows that. Beyond this list, it will be essential to walk him through mathematics, spelling, grammar. That sort of thing.”
“Of course,” Rose affirmed.
“But beyond anything else, you are here because the Marquees has very little time, and the young boy needs guidance and a friend. The Marquee hopes that you know the grounds are yours to explore. The house is yours to explore. As long as Duncan is safe and happy and well-cared for, everyone will be pleased.”
“Of course, this all comes with one exception. Everything comes with an exception, don’t you find? Anyway, perhaps you saw it yesterday on our brief tour. Near the forest, there’s a tall tower, a very old stone building. It’s on the verge of collapsing. You are absolutely prohibited from approaching the tower. Several years ago, a gardener was caring for roses around the perimeter. One of the old stones came out of the walls and landed on his shoulder, causing him a severe injury.”
“My goodness.” Rose was horrified, imagining this. “Why doesn’t he just tear it down?”
“I suppose because it’s a part of the cultural history of the estate. He honors his estate and his deceased family far more than anything,” Judith said. “It’s one of the reasons he allowed his sister back into his life, despite his dislike of her chosen husband and her decision to move to the West Indies…”
Rose arched her brow. This was indeed fresh information, although she hadn’t anything to do with it but marvel at it.
“Why did he dislike him?” she asked.
“Oh, I’ve probably said too much already,” Judith said. She dropped her lips over the side of her tea cup and sipped.
Rose noticed now that Judith’s entire plate was clean, that she’d finished her breakfast in a matter of moments.
“Regardless, I need your word that you will not approach the tower, either with or without Duncan,” she finished.
“Of course,” Rose said.
“Finish your breakfast,” Judith said, dropping her chin. “It’s a beautiful autumn day outside. The first real day of your new employment. I hope you enjoy it.”
Judith tapped away, back toward the hallway. Rose stared down at her eggs, at the yellow yolk that circled around the plate. She felt suddenly that she couldn’t eat. She stood and walked toward the large window, gazing out toward the forest. Sure enough, there was a tall stone tower, beaming up toward the blue sky. She shivered, thinking again of the falling rocks, the hurt gardener.
Anna shuffled into the kitchen, then. She chirped a friendly, “Hello! Good morning,” before informing Rose that Duncan had finished with his breakfast and was now prepared for his lesson.
Rose wished Anna well, adding that she hoped they would find more time to eat together at dinner some time. She then walked toward the foyer, where she found Duncan gazing up at the portrait of the most recently deceased Marquees. Duncan’s eyes were like enormous eggs, looking as though they might drop out of his head and roll about on the floor.
Duncan gave no sign that he even noticed Rose was there until she stood directly beside him, matched the tilt of his head, and waited.
“That’s my grandfather,” Duncan told her.
“I know. I’m told he was a marvelous man,” Rose said, although she’d hardly heard much about him.
“I didn’t know him,” Duncan said. “He sent me several toys when we were in the West Indies. There seemed to be something wrong between him and Mother. She never spoke of him, and when she did, she did it with an air of…”
Rose waited, watching as the young boy pondered through his incredible list of vocabulary, hunting for the right word. Finally, he gave up and shrugged his shoulders, saying, “I’m not sure quite what to say. Only that I wish I had known him, wish I could feel what it meant to have a grandfather. It’s not as though I currently have friends—but the ones I did back in the West Indies were quite close with their grandfathers. It seemed that they had a level of wisdom that would never be allowed for me.”
Again, Rose was left without a response. The amount of emotion behind this young boy’s words was staggering.
Finally, Duncan spun his head back toward her and said, “I suppose today is the first day of my studies, then?”
“I thought that it might be better for us to take a walk around the grounds,” Rose said, grateful that Duncan had given her an “out.” “It’s far too beautiful to remain indoors today, and I think you deserve just one more day off before we dig into the tough arithmetic, don’t you?”
Duncan glanced toward the front windows. The sky glowed bright blue, eggshell blue. “It will be a long winter,” he agreed.
Rose and Duncan walked down the hallway, toward the back exit of the mansion. There, Rose felt the strong gaze of Judith, who stood in the doorway to the kitchen, having apparently returned after their conversation. Rose gave her a soft smile, hoping to translate the fact that she was doing her very best.
Outside, their feet dotted across the stone path. They walked silently. Rose struggled in the back areas of her brain, wishing she could concoct something interesting to say. In her previous positions as governess, the children had been constant speakers, always delighting in telling her various fictional tales, or about what they wanted to be when they grew up. They’d taken control. But Duncan seemed far more serious, living in his memories of the West Indies, of a grandfather he’d never really known.
“How do you find the grounds so far?” Rose said. Around them, the plants in each of the gardens remained bright and green, as though they didn’t yet know that autumn was fast approaching.
“They’re quite beautiful,” Duncan affirmed. “When I arrived, I asked that my uncle give me a tour of the grounds, perhaps allow me to ride a horse or even hike through the forest. But it seems that he’s terribly busy.”
“That’s what everyone says. He must be incredibly important.”
“Yes. I hope I never become important,” Duncan said.
“Why’s that?” Rose asked.
“It’s just that you lose all sight of what you used to care about, it seems,” Duncan said. “It seems that you become a very separate person from your true self. What’s the point of living a life like that?”
They wandered out past the last garden. Rose glanced through the iron gate to find a selection of rose bushes—all of them still holding onto their bright red, pink, yellow flowers, which shifted in the light autumn breeze. She imagined an afternoon off in the midst of all that color, daydreaming. Perhaps she would find the space for it before the weather changed.
Duncan pointed toward the stone tower, located about a quarter of a mile away, at the entry to the forest. “My mother told me that the tower is quite old. Perhaps two hundred years. Maybe more,” he said. “Nobody really remembers who built it.”
“Perhaps if we find a day to walk through the woods, we can enter the forest another way,” Rose said. “It would be lovely to have a day learning about flowers and herbs and trees, don’t you think?”
“They’re quite different here than they were in the West Indies,” Duncan said. “It’s a funny thing. I feel precisely the same as I did back then, but just with far different surroundings. My father and mother are no longer in my life. And the trees stretch high into the big sky, with leaves that change with every day that goes by. Reds and oranges and yellows…”
Rose made a mental note to have an entire lesson about medicines and herbs in the forest, to allow the boy to pick various plants and keep a notebook filled with them. This had come in handy for Rose in recent years, as she’d turned to ancient medicines and herbs to attend to the children she cared for. The doctor wasn’t always correct in his suggestions.
As they continued to walk, there was a pounding, followed by a wild whiny in the distance. Rose yanked around to see a mighty black horse, bounding from out of the forest. Atop the horse was a wild-looking man, with brown hair that whirled back with the wind, honey brown eyes that glowed as he grew closer and closer. His lips were pressed tightly in a thin line. He stared at her severely.
Beside her, Duncan shrunk against her leg. His body was stiff, his face anxious.
“That’s my uncle,” he whispered.
It was obvious that the boy was frightened of his uncle, although Rose hadn’t a clue why. She ducked back, bringing Duncan along with her, as the horse clopped to a slow halt in front of them. The man on horseback remained stern, gazing down at them. His hair flowed aimlessly in the breeze. He bowed his head slowly, as though this was enough of a greeting, and then cast his eyes back toward the mansion.
Duncan hugged closer to Rose’s thigh. Rose waited for the man to say something, anything of greeting. They hadn’t yet met, and the air was taut with tension. Wasn’t it an appropriate thing for the man who’d hired her to say something? A word of greeting?
Again, Colin’s eyes turned back to her and seemed to trace her body. Under his gaze, she felt strangely immobilized, as though he could see directly through her and there was nothing she could do about it but remain there and let it happen. She swallowed, and her throat grew tight. This was unlike any other interaction she’d had in her life. And although she was tremendously uncomfortable, she still didn’t wish for the moment to end. It could have gone on and on and on.
Finally, the man named Colin yanked his horse’s reins toward the mansion. The horse followed suit, prancing in the other direction. Rose remained with Duncan, blinking out across the moor as the master returned to the estate. Her heart pounded with confusion. Why had the man nearly completely ignored she and Duncan? Hadn’t he a word of comfort for the small boy, who was clearly lost and feeling anxious and unloved in the wake of his parents bringing him to the estate?
Rose and Duncan proceeded. Rose kept her mouth shut, waiting as they ambled across the moors, their feet padding across the grass.
Finally, Duncan said, “He’s terribly strong and powerful, isn’t he?”
Rose hadn’t expected this from Duncan. She glanced down at him. She had a strange desire to stretch her hand across his forehead and soothe him, tell him that everything would all be all right.
“I imagine that if I’m ever as strong and as powerful as him, I will be quite successful in life,” Duncan continued. “But of course, I do wish—in a very childish manner—that he took more time out of his busy life to play with me. I know that’s a thing that will soon pass. That I will one day find no meaning in play, and I will want to be as serious as he is.”
“I hope that doesn’t happen to you very soon,” Rose said. “And to be quite honest, the desire to play has never really left me.”
Duncan glanced up at her, his eyes glittering. He licked his lips and then said, “And I know my mother has her struggles with my uncle, as well. I’ve overheard my parents speaking about it a great deal. But I can’t help but think, there’s much more to my uncle than meets the eye. I imagine that he deserves a chance to open up. To show the sort of man he really is. I dare say my sister hasn’t allowed him that chance, certainly not since we’ve moved back to England.”
Rose was yet again unsure of what to say. She glanced again toward the mansion, but it seemed that the master had returned to the stables on the other side. The wind shifted her hair. Suddenly, Duncan swept forward. She yanked back around to see that he’d discovered a bright yellow butterfly, floating through the air, its wings flapping so tenderly. Duncan’s arms did a similar motion, flapping about in the air above him as he tried to capture the butterfly. Rose’s lips curled into a smile. Although she ached to ask Duncan to explain more of what he meant about the master, she decided this wasn’t the time. This moment was the first in which she’d felt Duncan was acting like an actual boy, the proper emotion for his age. She wanted nothing more than for him to ride that wave.
Still, she remained nonplussed at the way the master had looked at her. Dark eyes, somber expression, seeming to know every little chaotic and anxious thought stirring in the back of her mind. She ached to have a more proper conversation with him in the coming hours, if only to stamp out the strange thoughts that stirred within her. But she imagined it would be ages before she even heard his voice aloud.
Duncan and Rose found themselves easing toward the forest, dotting their feet along the edge of the trees, discovering still more late-season butterflies, yellow and red leaves that had already cast themselves to the ground, and little animals, like squirrels and chipmunks. The young boy took immense pleasure in chasing them through the woods. When he reared back to look at Rose, his cheeks were bright red and his two front teeth stuck out over his lower lip.
“This is positively brilliant!” he called to her, his voice echoing out across the tops of the trees.
Rose hoped that she could bring this level of comfort and color to his life every single day. Yet her heart ached and beat slowly, feeling apprehensive about this strange world she’d entered into. A dark-eyed, evil-seeming master—one who seemed to both thrill and frighten his nephew. A mighty, shadowy house, without a sense of life or love. And a tower, peeking up toward the sky, with its stones apt to cast toward the ground and destroy.
“The Marquis’ Game of Seduction” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Rose Hollingsworth does not expect much from life. Raised as an orphan in a dodgy part of London, she will now find herself a governess in a secretive estate, the home of the brash and arrogant Marquis of Kensington. Society dictates that a governess should be modest, quiet, and keep to herself; she may never contradict her employer and above all, she must not attract the attention of any male in the household. But what if this governess is the one breaking all the rules?
Colin, the Marquis of Kensington has a kind heart, but he finds it hard to open up and show his tender side. When his sister becomes deathly ill and his nephew Duncan requires a temporary home, he will hire Rose. But the moment the stubborn little governess attempts to reform him, he will make her understand he won’t be tamed, by teaching her how to behave. When pleasure overwhelms them and Rose ends up being more than he bargained for – clever, perceptive, passionate- will Colin be able to reach her heart without risking his own?
The Kensington Estate is rife with secrets, some of them being very dark. Rose can sense that the Marquis is lying to cover up his dark past and she’s determined to prove it. Slowly, she peels back the layers of this chaotic world, discovering the truth about the ghost rumors in the mansion. In a game of truth and power, how can Colin maintain his defenses when the only thing he wants to do is let the tempting lady win?
“The Marquis’ Game of Seduction” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.