She could find no place to sit save the floor, so she plopped down on the cold, uncarpeted wood, leaned up against a bare patch of wall near the door, and prepared to wait out the brawl. Whatever was going on, Anne wanted no part of it, but more importantly, she wanted to be nowhere near it when they were discovered. Which they surely would be, given the racket they were making.
Men. They were idiots, the lot of them.
Although there seemed to be a woman out there as wel—she’d be the one doing the shrieking. Anne thought she heard the name Daniel, and then possibly Marcus, who she realized had to be the Earl of Chatteris, whom she’d met earlier in the evening. He was quite besotted with Lady Honoria . . .
Come to think of it, that did sound a bit like Lady Honoria shrieking.
Anne shook her head. This was not her business. No one would fault her for staying out of the way. No one.
Someone slammed into the wall right behind her, jolting her a good two inches across the floor. She groaned and let her face fall into her hands. She was never going to get out of here. They’d find her dried-up and lifeless body years later, flung over a tuba, two flutes making the sign of the cross.
She shook her head. She had to stop reading Harriet’s melodramas before bedtime. Her young charge fancied herself a writer, and her stories were growing more gruesome by the day.
Finaly the pounding in the corridor stopped, and the men slid down to the floor (she felt this; right through the wal). One of them was directly behind her; they would have been back to back had it not been for the wall between them. She could hear them breathing hard, then talking as men did, in sentences short and terse.
She didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but she could hardly help it, stuck as she was.
And that was when she figured it out.
The man who’d kissed her—he was Lady Honoria’s older brother, the Earl of Winstead! She’d seen his portrait before; she ought to have recognized him. Or maybe not. The painting had got the basics right—his coffee brown hair and finely shaped mouth—but it did not capture him truly. He was quite handsome, there was no denying that, but no paint or brushstroke could convey the easy, elegant confidence of a man who knew his place in the world and found it quite satisfactory.
Oh, heavens, she was in deep now. She’d kissed the infamous Daniel Smythe-Smith. Anne knew all about him, everyone did. He’d dueled several years earlier and had been chased out of the country by his opponent’s father. But they’d reached some sort of truce, apparently. Lady Pleinsworth had mentioned that the earl would be finaly coming home, and Harriet had filed Anne in on all the gossip.
Harriet was quite helpful that way.
But if Lady Pleinsworth found out what had happened that evening . . . Wel, that would be the end of Anne’s governessing, for the Pleinsworth girls or anyone.
Anne had had a hard enough time getting this position; no one would hire her if it got out she’d consorted with an earl. Anxious mamas generaly did not hire governesses of questionable moral rectitude.
And it wasn’t her fault. This time, it absolutely wasn’t.
She sighed. It had gone quiet in the hal. Had they finaly departed? She’d heard footsteps, but it was difficult to tell how many sets of feet had been included. She waited a few more minutes, and then, once she was certain there would be nothing but silence to greet her, she turned the doorknob and carefuly stepped out into the hal.
“There you are,” he said. For the second time that evening.
She must have jumped a foot. Not because Lord Winstead had surprised her, although he had done. Rather, she was astonished that he’d remained in the hall for so long in such complete silence. Truly, she hadn’t heard a thing.
But that wasn’t what made her jaw drop.
“You look awful,” she said before she could stop herself. He was alone, sitting on the floor with his long legs stretched out across the hal. Anne hadn’t thought a person could look so unsteady while sitting down, but she was quite certain that the earl would have falen over if he hadn’t been propped up against the wal.
He lifted one hand in a floppy salute. “Marcus looks worse.”
She took in his eye, which was turning purple at the perimeter, and his shirt, which was stained with blood from heaven knew where. Or whom. “I’m not certain how that can be possible.”
Lord Winstead let out a breath. “He was kissing my sister.”
Anne waited for more, but he clearly considered this to be explanation enough. “Ehrm . . .” she staled, because there was no etiquette book with instruction for a night like this. In the end, she decided her best bet would be to inquire about the conclusion of the altercation, rather than whatever had occurred to cause it. “Is it all worked out, then?”
His chin dipped in a magnanimous tilt. “Congratulations will be in order very soon.”
“Oh. Wel. That is very nice.” She smiled, then nodded, then clasped her hands together in front of her in an attempt to keep herself still. This was all terribly awkward. What was one supposed to do with an injured earl? Who’d just returned from three years in exile? And had rather a naughty reputation before he’d been run out of the country.
Not to mention the whole kissing business a few minutes earlier.
“Do you know my sister?” he asked, sounding terribly tired. “Oh, of course you do. You were playing with her.”
“Your sister is Lady Honoria?” It did seem prudent to verify.
He nodded. “I am Winstead.”
“Yes, of course. I had been informed of your pending return.” She stretched out another awkward smile, but it did little to set her at ease. “Lady Honoria is most amiable and kind. I am very happy for her.”