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Yours Until Dawn
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My dear Miss March,
I pray you'll forgive me for being presumptuous enough to contact you in this rather unconventional manner ...
"So tell me, Miss Wickersham, have you any experience?"
From somewhere deep in the sprawling Jacobean mansion, a tremendous crash sounded.
Although the portly butler who was conducting the interview visibly flinched and the housekeeper standing at rigid attention beside the tea table let out an audible squeak, Samantha refused to so much as blink.
Instead, she drew a neat packet of papers from the side pocket of the battered leather portmanteau resting at her feet and held them out. "I'm sure you'll find my letters of reference are in order, Mr. Beckwith."
Although it was midday, the light in the modest breakfast parlor was abysmal. Shafts of sunlight bled through the cracks in the heavy velvet drapes, striping the rich ruby weave of the Turkish carpet. The wax candles scattered across the occasional tables filled the corners with flickering shadows. The room smelled musty and close, as if it had gone unaired for ages. If not for the absence of black swags over the windows and mirrors, Samantha would have sworn someone very dear to the household had recently died.
The butler took the papers from her whitegloved hand and unfolded them. As the housekeeper craned her long neck to peer over his shoulder, Samantha could only pray the dim light would work to her advantage, preventing them from studying the scrawled signatures too closely. Mrs. Philpot was a handsome woman of indeterminate age, as sleek and narrow as the butler was round. Although her face was unlined, silver frosted the black chignon anchored at her nape.
"As you can see, I served two years as governess for Lord and Lady Carstairs," Samantha informed Mr. Beckwith as he gave the papers a cursory thumbing-through. "Once the war resumed, I joined several other governesses in volunteering to treat sailors and soldiers who returned from sea or the front with debilitating wounds."
The housekeeper could not quite hide the faint tightening of her lips. Samantha knew there were still those in society who believed women who nursed soldiers to be little more than glorified camp followers. Immodest creatures who wouldn't even blush to look upon a strange man's nakedness. Feeling heat rise to her own cheeks, Samantha lifted her chin another notch.
Mr. Beckwith examined her over the top of his wire-rimmed spectacles. "I must confess, Miss Wickersham, that you're a trifle bit ... younger than what we had in mind. Such strenuous duty might require a woman of more ...ma turity. Perhaps one of the other applicants ... " At Samantha's arch look, he trailed off.
"I don't see any other applicants, Mr.Beckwith," she pointed out, sliding her own ill-fitting spectacles up her nose with one finger. "Given the generous, even extravagant, wages you offered in your advertisement, I fully expected to find them lined up outside your gates."
Another crash came, this one even closer than the last. It sounded as if some sort of massive beast were lumbering toward its den.
Mrs. Philpot hastened around the chair, her starched petticoats rustling. "Would you care for some more tea, my dear?" As she poured from the porcelain pot, her hand trembled so violently that tea splashed over the rim of Samantha's saucer and into her lap.
"Thank you," Samantha murmured, surreptitiously dabbing at the spreading stain with her glove.
The floor beneath their feet visibly shuddered, as did Mrs. Philpot. The muffled roar that followed was peppered by a string of mercifully unintelligible oaths. There could no longer be any denying it. Someone -- or something -- was approaching.
Casting a panicked look at the gilded double door that led to the next chamber, Mr. Beckwith lurched to his feet, his prominent brow glistening with sweat. "Perhaps this isn't the most opportune time ... "
As he shoved the letters of reference back at Samantha, Mrs. Philpot whisked the cup and saucer out of her other hand and deposited them back on the tea cart with a noisy rattle. "Beckwith is right, my dear. You'll have to forgive us. We may have been entirely too hasty ... " The woman pulled Samantha to her feet and began to tug her away from the door and toward the heavily curtained French windows that led to the terrace.
"But my bag!" Samantha protested, casting the portmanteau a helpless glance over her shoulder.
"Don't worry, child," Mrs. Philpot assured her, gritting her teeth in a kindly smile. "We'll have one of the footmen bring it out to your hack." As the thunderous crashing and cursing swelled, the woman dug her nails into the sturdy brown wool of Samantha's sleeve and yanked her into motion. Mr. Beckwith dashed around them and whipped open one of the floor-toceiling windows, flooding the gloom with bright April sunshine. But before Mrs. Philpot could urge Samantha through it, the mysterious racket ceased.
The three of them turned as one to gaze at the gilded doors on the opposite side of the room.
For a moment there was no sound at all except for the delicate ticking of the French gilt clock on the mantel. Then came a most curious noise, as if something were fumbling, or perhaps even scratching, at the doors. Something large. And angry. Samantha took an involuntary step backward; the housekeeper and butler exchanged an apprehensive glance.
The doors came flying open, striking the opposite walls with a mighty crash. Framed by their wings was not a beast, but a man -- or what was left of one after all the genteel veneer of society had been stripped away. His tawny hair, shaggy from neglect, hung well past his shoulders. Shoulders that came close to filling the breadth of the doorway. A pair of buckskin pantaloons clung to his lean hips and hugged every curve of his muscular calves and thighs. Several days' growth of beard shadowed his jaw, lending his visage a piratical aspect.