tagNonConsent/ReluctanceCarnal Knowledge Ch. 07

Carnal Knowledge Ch. 07

byEmmeline©

Hello, dear readers!

Thank you for following along with my story. I so appreciate your kind words. They mean the world to me! Your comments give me the encouragement to keep going.

Much love, Emmeline :)


*****

"If she pinches my cheek like last time, I'm going to kick her in the knee," Anna said, tossing her head. The young girl's long tresses had been painstakingly curled into long ringlets and gathered back from her face with a wide ribbon tied into a bow.

Nicholas shook his head. "Won't do any good. Too many skirts in the way."

"There will be absolutely no kicking or ill manners of any sort with your relatives," Eliza said sternly. "Both of you must be on your best behavior. If not, it could reflect badly on your father."

Though why she should care if anything made Rockdale look bad was a mystery. Eliza smoothed sweaty palms down the front of her skirt.

Nicholas slipped his hand into hers and smiled up at her shyly. "You look pretty, Miss Lockhart," he whispered.

"Thank you, dear," she said, beaming back at him. "You look especially handsome yourself, Lord Langley. And you, Lady Anna," she continued, turning toward the earl's daughter, "look very lovely, even with that snarly frown upon your face."

Anna fixed one narrowed eye on her governess then giggled when her brother attempted a snarly frown of his own.

If only she were outfitted as smartly as the children, she thought ruefully. Her only evening gown was out of fashion, and the once-bright cornflower blue silk had faded to a more washed-out hue. And despite lacing her stays as tightly as she could manage, the bodice fit more snugly than she would have preferred.

The last time she had worn this particular dress had been more than a year ago, and she had paired it then with her mother's lace shawl. But alas, she had no shawl of her own here that would suit the gown. She rather fervently hoped her bosom would stay in place within the low oval neckline that left her shoulders and a great deal of cleavage bare.

Eliza could just imagine reaching for her soup spoon, and a nipple popping out spontaneously from the confines of her neckline.

"That would certainly make for interesting dinner conversation," she said under her breath.

"These shoes hurt my toes," Nicholas grumbled.

"Stop whining," Nanny Goodson admonished, coming to join them at the top of the stairs. "Gentlemen never complain."

"They do if their toes are bleeding," the little boy muttered darkly.

Eliza squeezed his hand. "Chin up, now! Big smiles! Let's make your father proud, shall we?"

And get this over with, she added to herself.

Once downstairs and outside the drawing room where the others were gathered, Eliza took her own advice, lifting her chin and forcing a genial smile.

She urged the children ahead of her into the large room. Nicholas took a nervous step backward, pressing himself against her skirts, and her heart gave a compassionate lurch.

The rumbling of voices and feminine titters halted as Lady Pelham exclaimed, "Oh, look how these little angels have grown! Come to me at once, darlings!"

The children seemed frozen in place. Eliza steeled herself and spoke in a low voice. "Go on, now. Mind your manners."

Anna straightened her spine then stepped forward and dipped into a pretty curtsy. "Good evening, Papa, Auntie, and Cousin Caroline. It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Pratt," she chorused sweetly.

A resigned Nicholas moved beside his sister and bowed. "Good evening, everyone."

Lady Pelham clapped her hands in delight. "Precious!"

Eliza's traitorous heart thudded when Rockdale left his lazy stance by Miss Pratt and came over to greet his children. His eyes slid over her, the heavy-lidded gaze almost palpable as a touch.

"Didn't I tell you they were adorable, Lydia?" Miss Stanley asked as she and her friend approached.

"Adorable," Miss Pratt agreed, smiling at the earl. "Lord Rockdale, you do have beautiful children."

Faced with their combined brilliance, Eliza couldn't help but imagine the well-dressed trio could have just stepped out of a London ballroom. Rockdale was even more strikingly handsome in evening attire, a perfect foil for his dark, brooding good looks.

Lydia Pratt obviously thought so as well, her eyes had barely skimmed over the children before returning to the earl. The young brunette looked sleekly sophisticated in a coral- and cream-stripped brocade evening gown with a dropped, pointed waistline that accentuated her slim curves. And the earl's cousin Caroline was no less lovely in an elegant creamy silk dress embroidered with small, pink roses and trimmed in exquisite blond lace.

"Do they sing?" Caroline inquired, tilting her head and looking the youngsters over, almost as if she was expecting them to perform tricks.

Eliza bit her lip when Nicholas cast a quick horrified glance back over his shoulder.

"Not tonight, Caro," Rockdale drawled, ruffling Nicholas' hair.

Lady Pelham settled back into a large armchair. "Nicholas, come over here and visit a moment with your Aunt Louisa so that I may see you up close. I declare you are the very image of my dearly-departed Papa!"

Nicholas hunched his shoulders and headed for his great-aunt with all the enthusiasm of a man headed for the gallows.

Miss Pratt tucked her hand inside the earl's elbow. "I'm told I have a pleasing singing voice, my lord. Would you care to hear me sing for you after dinner?"

"Perhaps," the earl said.

He bent forward suddenly, forcing Miss Pratt to release his arm. The lord swung Anna up into his arms, and the startled girl giggled in delight.

Lady Pelham sniffed in disapproval. "My goodness, Rockdale, you'll spoil these children with that coddling."

Rockdale lifted one brow, his eyes meeting Eliza's. She arched her own brow in remembrance of their earlier conversation.

His head bowed to whisper something in his daughter's ear. Anna smiled shyly and nodded. He carried her across the room to the pianoforte.

Eliza followed them slowly, watching as the earl gently lowered Anna down in front of the large instrument.

The young girl took a seat and looked uncertainly over at Eliza, who nodded in encouragement. After a quick deep breath, Anna began to play, stiffly at first then with more confidence as she relaxed.

Eliza smiled at the look of pleased surprise on the earl's face when Anna finished the sprightly tune and launched into a more complicated classical piece.

"Excellent," he murmured to Eliza. "Shall we hire a music tutor for her?"

"I would recommend so," Eliza answered and laughed softly. "She has already reached the limits of my own skills." She gave the earl a quick, measuring look. "I'm surprised you remembered what I said to you earlier about Lady Anna and the pianoforte."

He leaned a bit closer. "Seeing you in that dress you're barely wearing, I'm not sure I can remember my own name."

His words were barely audible, but a red-hot flush enveloped her, from embarrassment or thrill, she couldn't have said. The man's brazenness knew no bounds.

"Perhaps it's merely old age impairing your memory," she replied crisply.

Rockdale's snort turned into a small cough as Anna finished her impromptu performance. She stood and curtsied, face beaming with pleasure as everyone applauded, her father loudest of all.

Nanny Goodson stepped forward, and the children said their good nights to the guests. Eliza sighed after they exited, wishing she could join them.

"Good evening, Miss Lockhart."

She glanced over and smiled, seeing John Willoughby standing to her side. "Good evening, Mr. Willoughby."

He bowed with an appreciative glint in his eye. "May I escort you into the dining room?"

Briefly, she considered what Rockdale would say, and even without looking at him, she felt the weight of his gaze.

Her chin lifted. Her employer could not control her every decision. "Yes, thank you, Mr. Willoughby. That would be lovely."

She accepted his proffered arm and once again noted the younger man's obvious contrast to the earl. He looked almost out of place as she did against the glittering refinement of the others, Eliza mused with a little amusement. His dark woolen suit was not expensive in cut or cloth but suited his understated attractiveness and pleasant demeanor.

An unsmiling Lord Rockdale offered an arm to both his aunt and cousin, and they led the way into the adjoining dining room. Lydia Pratt trailed behind, a small frown marring her lovely features.

"So, tell me, Mr. Willoughby," Eliza said, slanting her gaze his way as they followed the others. "How is it I haven't met you before now?"

"I'm asking myself that same question, Miss Lockhart," he returned with a small smile that held a hint of flirtation. "But I've recently been working from his lordship's townhouse in London, finishing up some business for him there."

"I see," Eliza murmured. "Will you be working here at Verity Hall now?"

"Well, that depends on Lord Rockdale. I go where I am commanded," he said lightly, releasing her to be seated by a footman.

Once at the table, Eliza resolved to remain unnoticed in the background. Shouldn't be too difficult, she told herself, after all, she was only the governess. Thankfully, Mr. Willoughby was seated across from her, his quiet presence somehow reassuring.

Eliza stiffened, seeing the brawny footman named George enter the dining room. Her hand flexed in her lap. Every time she saw the man, it made her uneasy, remembering how he had so vulgarly spoken to her that horrible morning at breakfast.

There seemed to be a ghost of a smirk cross the footman's face when he caught sight of her. She stared back, refusing to give him a reaction. If given the chance, she'd enjoy stabbing the lout in the hand with a dinner fork, or perhaps his more sensitive parts if necessary.

At the head of the table, Rockdale spoke as required with his guests, his expression bored as Lady Pelham's cultured tones dominated the conversation. Glancing up, Eliza found him watching as she brought a spoonful of consommé to her lips. His gaze grew heated when his eyes dipped down to her bosom.

She resisted the urge to drape a napkin over her chest and deliberately turned away to smile brilliantly at Mr. Willoughby.

The other man froze, spoon half-way to his mouth, looking a bit dazzled but smiling back. His hazel eyes seemed to twinkle at her in the candlelight.

"I do have some lovely news to share, Rockdale," Lady Pelham announced. "Caroline has received an offer of marriage from Lord Atherton." She directed a proud smile at Miss Stanley.

Rockdale frowned. "Atherton? The man is old enough to be her grandfather."

"Good heavens, I think you have been living in a hole this past year. " Lady Pelham looked at him in exasperation. "The former Lord Atherton died months ago. The old viscount's son was supposed to inherit, you know, but the poor man got himself killed in a hunting party, so tragic! The title went to a distant cousin..." She paused for a moment. "He is a friend of yours, I believe. I can't imagine how you haven't heard the news."

The earl looked at her blankly. "A friend of mine?"

"Why, yes. Miles Barlow is now Lord Atherton, a viscount!"

Rockdale's expression briefly showed shock before turning stony. "Miles Barlow is no friend of mine," he said coldly.

"Don't be absurd, dear. The two of you used to be quite infamous around town." She tittered. "Have you had a falling out? He is not forthcoming when asked about you, either."

"The man is a blackguard," the earl bit out. "I cannot believe you would consider his offer of marriage to Caroline." He looked accusingly at his cousin. "You would willingly wed this poor excuse for a gentleman?"

Miss Stanley stared back at him in consternation. "But Cousin William, he is a viscount now...like Papa."

"A title does not a good husband make, Caro. For God's sake!" he said.

There was an awkward pause while the next course was served.

"This will be a brilliant match for my daughter," Lady Pelham said finally. "If you have a credible objection to the man, you must explain it to me. Thus far, he has been the epitome of gallant in courting our Caroline."

"Gallant, eh?" Rockdale shook his head. "I have excellent reason why she should refuse his suit, but it is not conversation fit for the dining table," he said tightly.

The ladies all paused.

Eliza sliced a forkful of beef, mind working furiously. Suddenly she remembered a conversation with the earl where he had said something...something about his wife and his best friend. Oh, dear heavens. She chewed and swallowed, her eyes drawn to the grim-faced Rockdale. Her heart turned over imagining what he might be remembering.

"Miss Lockhart, isn't it?"

Eliza's head came up in surprise to find Miss Pratt regarding her intently.

"Yes, though you may call me Eliza if you prefer."

"Eliza, then." Miss Pratt eyed her thoughtfully. "And you must call me Lydia."

Eliza inclined her head in response and brought her napkin up to pat at her mouth.

"I couldn't help but notice how well you seemed to interact with the children. An excellent quality in a governess, I suppose. Do you plan to stay here at Verity Hall for some time?" Lydia queried.

A trickle of awareness trailed down Eliza's spine. She saw something in the forthright gaze of the other young lady that made Eliza wonder if a deeper meaning lurked in the question.

"I do think very highly of the earl's children. They are delightful." Eliza smiled. "However, my position here is regretfully temporary. My mother and younger sister live in Lancashire, and I plan to rejoin them. It is my hope, now that I have acquired some experience, to someday teach at Mrs. Cromby's School for Young Ladies that is located nearby our home."

"How interesting!" Lydia said. "No hopes to snare yourself a husband then?" She regarded Eliza over her raised wine glass before taking a dainty sip.

Eliza felt her cheeks heat and prayed the low lighting hid her discomfiture. "Regrettably, my mother's health is not well. Marriage is not a priority for me right now."

Lydia nodded. "I quite understand. My own mother has been ill for several years." Her eyes shifted to Rockdale, her expression unreadable.

"Quite sensible, Miss Lockhart," Lady Pelham put in, nodding sagely. "You are not at all suitable for a governess."

Eliza blinked and turned to the earl's aunt.

"You're far too pretty, of course," she continued. "No lady with a brain bigger than her eyeball would have you in their house."

"Mother," Caroline protested. "You're embarrassing the poor girl."

Rockdale frowned at his aunt. "I'm very pleased with the work Miss Lockhart has done here. I find her teaching of the children to be exemplary."

The older lady fixed her nephew with a gimlet eye. "Yes, I'm sure. I can see the young lady has an... abundance of attributes," she said dryly and shifted her gaze to Eliza.

Lady Pelham's gaze dipped lower upon her person, and Eliza flushed furiously as understanding flooded her. Had the old bat actually just referenced her bosom at the dining table?

Mr. Willoughby made a choking noise and began coughing, momentarily drawing everyone's attention.

"Pardon me," he said, cleaning his throat. "Must have swallowed wrong."

Eliza tried to finish the remainder of her meal, but her appetite had been lost. Lady Pelham had made it clear she viewed Eliza little better than some sort of harlot pretending to be a governess. And it was true, she thought bitterly. She hadn't been chosen for the position at Verity Hall on the merits of her intellect or education as she had first thought. Sir Harold had arranged for her to become an unwitting sexual slave in the earl's twisted idea of entertainment.

Eliza swallowed hard; the food tasted like ashes in her mouth. Her eyes were drawn to the earl once more. His outer appeal was undeniable, and her body responded to his nearness, like it or not. If only the darkness inside of him could have matched the handsome exterior.

Likely there was something broken inside of him, she brooded. Whether it had been his cold, loveless upbringing or tragic marriage, she could not say. And perhaps he was not completely rotten, but she could not be certain enough good remained in him to waste her sympathy.

Or your heart... a voice in her head forcibly reminded. You would do well to remember that he is a ravisher and a blackmailer.

Eliza stared down at her plate. Something to be dallied with and discarded, that's all she was to Rockdale and Sir Harold. Silently she vowed to never again be a pawn in any man's game.

The conversation had gone on without her, but a question from the earl's cousin caught her attention.

"Will you remarry, Cousin William?" Caroline had asked, looking toward the earl with a gleam in her eyes.

"Never," he answered and downed the rest of his wine.

"Oh, pish," Lady Pelham chided. "You just need to meet the right young lady. Those children need a mother, you know."

"I do not foresee a time that I would ever reenter that lamentable state again. Whatever my children need, I will purchase for them."

"But, Rockdale, surely..." Lady Pelham protested.

The earl held his hand up."Some men are perhaps suited for marriage, but I am not one of them. I already have fine children, an excellent staff to oversee my homes, and plenty of money to buy anything else I desire. Why on earth would I need a wife?"

"Why indeed?" Lydia remarked tightly, her eyes flicking over Eliza with obvious disdain.

No one seemed inclined to venture an answer, and there was silence again as dessert was served.

Caroline cleared her throat. "What about you, Mr. Willoughby?" she said. "Do you wish to marry?"

"I hope to, yes," he answered. "Before my mother died, she and my father had a certain connection...a companionship." He shook his head then ducked it shyly. "It may sound foolish, but I live in hope of finding a lady who will look at me the way my mother looked at my father. As if the entire world could disappear in an instant, but as long as they had one another all would be well."

"How poetic and lovely, Mr. Willoughby!" Caroline said with a dreamy sigh.

Rockdale muttered something under his breath and gestured for more wine.

***

Martha Biddleton stood just outside the dining room doorway, out of sight of those inside. The housekeeper held one fist clenched tightly. It galled her to no end to see that little light-skirted governess eating finely-prepared cuisine in the earl's dining room while conversing with his lordship and his guests like she was someone special.

The wretched girl had been telling tales to Lord Rockdale making him think that she needed a new, fancier room. A governess in a room meant for family! Shameful, it was. Everyone knew exactly what was going on here. His lordship was like any other man, susceptible to a bitch in heat. Especially a cow-teated hussy like her.

Martha sniffed. And no doubt the chit had enjoyed making the housekeeper appear incompetent. A drafty room, the very idea! As if Martha Biddleton would ever allow anything inferior under her watch at Verity Hall.

Oh, to return to the days before Lady Rockdale had passed, she thought wistfully. That fine lady had known the value of an excellent housekeeper, to be sure.

She grabbed the coat sleeve of her nephew as he came out of the dining room holding a serving platter.

George looked at her in surprise. "What is it? Something wrong?"

"Something needs to be done about her," Mrs. Biddleton said in a low voice.

George looked inside the dining room then back at his aunt, perplexed. "Who? The governess?"

"Keep your voice down, boy," she hissed, leading him away from the room and down the hallway. "Yes, I mean that worthless girl. I want her out of this house."

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byEmmeline© 24 comments/ 108032 views/ 97 favorites

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