This recitation was a scold. Ethan mentally saluted her for the calm with which she delivered it. “No doubt it would.”

She turned back to the books, but rather than bend down to the lower shelf, she sat on the floor cross- legged, as she’d sat on the rug the previous night. Then, she’d been swaddled in another plain, unremarkable dress, and banked with children on either side. For all her primness, she’d looked comfortable with the informality, if a little disgruntled to be interrupted.

Ethan’s correspondence started whining at him, but his eyes still stung too.

“So what did you name him?” Ethan asked. “The wolf with the unfortunate predilection for onions, that is.”

“That was a challenge,” Miss Portman said as she surveyed the children’s books on the bottom shelf. “Pris, being of a dramatic frame of mind, wanted to name him Sir Androcles of Lobo.”

“Wasn’t Androcles a lion?”

The governess turned her head and beamed a full-blown, pleased smile at Ethan. “Why, Mr. Grey, I am impressed, but Androcles was the young man who took the thorn from the lion’s paw. The lion never earned his own sobriquet.”

“Lobo is Spanish for wolf,” Ethan said, his gaze straying around the room lest he betray a reaction to that smile. Ye gods, the plain, prim, buttoned-up Miss Portman had the smile of a benign goddess, so warm and charming it hurt to see.

“Pris is learning Spanish, French, and Italian from her uncle Thomas, who is a noted polyglot.” Miss Portman chose a book, frowned at it, and put it right back.

“What’s wrong with that one?” Ethan asked, amused at her expression.

“No pictures,” she explained. “Who in their right mind prints a storybook for children without pictures?”

“Somebody trying to save money on production costs. Did the wolf acquire a name?” He was asking to be polite, to make small talk with somebody who was likely not much befriended below stairs.

“He acquired various names.” Miss Portman chose another book and opened it for perusal. “Wolfgang Wolf was John’s nomination. Ford, being our youngest, voted for Poopoo Paws Wolfbottom.”

She said this with a straight face, which had probably made the children laugh all the harder.

“And the winner was?” Ethan hopped off the desk and crossed the room to help the lady to her feet. She frowned delicately—a puzzlement rather than a rebuke, Ethan surmised—then put her bare hand in his and let him draw her up from the floor.

“Lord Androcles Wolfgang Poopoo Paws Wolfbottom Wolf the fourth,” she recited. “Children like anything that makes the telling of a story longer and are ever willing to mention certain parts of the anatomy.”

“I see.” What he saw was a flawless complexion, velvety brown eyes staring up at him in wary consternation, and a wide, full mouth that hid a gorgeous smile. He stepped back and dropped her hand accordingly.

“I am off.” Miss Portman edged around him in the confines of the shelves, and Ethan caught a whiff of lemons. Of course she’d wear lemon verbena. This was probably a dictate in some secret manual for governesses.

“You haven’t joined the cavalcade of pony carts making for the scene of this bacchanal?” Ethan asked, standing his ground.

“I am not fond of equines,” Miss Portman replied. “Nor of animals in general, though I can appreciate the occasional cat. I choose to walk instead. The exercise is good for me, and I am less likely to be ridiculed by the children for my fears.”

“Shall I provide you escort?” Ethan heard himself ask.

Now where in the bloody, benighted hell had that come from? “It’s a pretty day,” Ethan went on, the same imp of inspiration not yet done with him. “I’ve missed my family, and I can work on correspondence any time.”

She wanted to refuse him. From the fleeting look in her eyes, Ethan deduced that his company ranked below that of Mr. Wolfbottom Wolf after a large meal of mutton and onion sandwiches.

And wasn’t that cheering, to find one’s company distasteful to a mere governess?

“Don’t let me impose, Miss Portman.” Ethan offered her a polite retreat. A bastard, even a wealthy one with passable looks, learned the knack of polite retreats. “I can always saddle my gelding and join the party later.” He saw his mistake when her eyes narrowed, saw she took the reference to his horse as a personal taunt.

“My apologies.” He was not sorry, he was behind in his correspondence. “I meant no offense, but you do not seem at a loss for company.”

“I am not,” she replied, peering at him. “Your children need to spend time with you outside this house, and you can carry the blanket and the book. Shall we?”

Oh, she was good, reducing him to the status of her bearer and making him work for even that privilege. An idea blossomed in the back of Ethan’s mind, borne of the realization she’d tamed the precocious Priscilla and could likely handle younger children even more easily. He let this idea unfurl in his awareness, where he could consider it from several angles at his leisure.

“Let me tidy up the desk,” he said, “while you find us that blanket, and I’ll join you in the kitchen momentarily.”

“As you wish.” She whisked off, her words implying Ethan had arranged matters to his own satisfaction, when in fact, he was at a loss to explain what he was doing trundling after a prim spinster to spend hours swatting flies and trying not to let the shrieks of children offend his beleaguered ears.

When he met Miss Portman in the kitchen, she sported a wide, floppy straw hat on her head, a blanket over her arm, and the book in her hand. She wore gloves as well, which should not have surprised Ethan, but disappointed him for some reason.

“There’s a shortcut to the orchard through the home wood,” Ethan said as they left the house. He’d rolled the book into the blanket and tucked the blanket under his right arm, leaving his left free for escort duty.

Except the lady was striding off across the terrace like she was intent on storming the Holy Land single- handedly.

Ethan waited by the back door. “Miss Portman?”

“Sir?” She perfectly matched his condescending tone. His own children could not have mimicked him more precisely.

“When one escorts a lady,” he said, “one generally offers the lady his arm.” He winged his elbow at her and waited. He was disproportionately gratified to see Alice Portman blush to the roots of her lovely dark hair. Petty of him, but there it was.

“My apologies.” Alice strode back to his side, put her hand on his arm as if he were clothed with venomous snakes, and fixed her bespectacled gaze straight ahead. Had she started singing some stalwart old hymn, he would not have been surprised.

“Is it really so distasteful, Miss Portman, to stroll with a gentleman on a pretty day?” Ethan asked, setting a deliberate pace.

“I am not used to the company of gentlemen.” Gentlemen might have been “grave robbers” or “highwaymen” in the same inflection. “Most men don’t know what to do with me if they know I’m a governess. I’m considered above the maids, but certainly not family. I’m not spoken for, but I’m not fair game, rather like taking holy orders. It can be awkward.”

She was blunt, which he liked. At the rate they were going, their progress would take some time. “I have the impression this might be awkward for the gentlemen, but not particularly so for you.”

“I am content to be what I am,” Miss Portman said, her posture unbending a little.

“So content”—Ethan’s tone was as mild as the breeze—“that I found little Priscilla crying into her pillow in the library this morning, for her friend Miss Portman is abandoning her.”

Miss Portman paused minutely in her forward progress, and Ethan regretted his comment. Her feet hadn’t stumbled, but he sensed her resolve momentarily wavering.

“Priscilla is dramatic,” she said at length. “She will learn one can survive the comings and goings of others in one’s life.”

“Not an easy lesson for a girl. Has she really outgrown you?”

Miss Portman turned her head to glare at him. “Yes, she has, Mr. Grey. Priscilla has her uncle’s facility for languages, and while I can teach her some drawing-room French, I cannot by any means provide what she needs.

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