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The Governess Game Tessa Dare 2022/8/3 13:55:29

“Oh,” he said. “Well, then. Good.”

“You made a mistake,” she said. “And not a small one. A grave one, with terrible consequences. You broke a promise to your uncle, and you deserted your cousin when you ought to have stayed at his side. Did you wield the knife that spilled his blood? No. But you weren’t there to prevent it, either.”

He swallowed back a lump in his throat.

“If you feel guilty, I won’t try to dissuade you. In truth, I’d respect you a great deal less if you didn’t feel regret.”

“What do you mean, you’d respect me less? When did you start to respect me at all?”

“I’m not certain. But it must have happened at some point. If it hadn’t occurred beforehand, you rescuing Millicent from the Serpentine would have sealed my regard.”

“That was sheer stubbornness. That cursed doll wasn’t going to die for good. Not if I could help it.”

She smiled a little. “I know. And that’s why I believe you’ll make the girls an excellent guardian. Because you’ve made mistakes and you’ve learned from them.”

“I’ve learned, yes. I’ve learned that I’m not to be trusted with that kind of responsibility.”

“Your only true responsibility is to love them. Everything else will fall in line.”

She ticked off a sequence of statements on her fingers. No sugar lumps or liquor decanters about, he supposed.

“You care for them. They worship you. Financially, you can provide for their every need. They’re bound to break things, and you’ll get to hammer them back together.” She was down to her little finger. “Without them in your life, you’ll be alone.”

That last one twisted like a dagger in his chest.

She held out her hand, fingers extended. “Look, Chase. It’s as plain as the fingers on my hand. All you have to do is reach out to them. And then hold tight.”

She didn’t understand. Chase didn’t doubt his capacity to love. Rosamund and Daisy had captured his heart within hours of entering his life. The problem was, he couldn’t imagine ever ceasing to despise himself—and that was his downfall, again and again. Self-loathing was what drove him to the distraction of a woman’s embrace. Not boredom, not lust. Concentrating on a woman’s pleasure was the only way he could forget his shame. When a lover wrapped her legs tight about his waist, when he heard a husky, feminine voice begging him for more . . . for a few blessed minutes, he felt something other than worthless.

And then afterward . . .

Well, was there a word for being less than worthless? Because the moment lovemaking was over, he felt that.

No matter how many times he vowed that he’d stop—telling himself he ought to be man enough to shoulder his well-deserved guilt, rather than go burying it in the depths of a lady’s bountiful cleavage—inevitably, he caved to temptation. The nights were too dark and quiet. Memories took advantage of the emptiness, rushing in to fill the void the way rainwater collected in a ditch.

The way blood filled the cracks between cobblestones.

The way handfuls of dirt filled a grave.

The clubs, the parties, the brandy . . . they helped, but they helped only so much. Perhaps he’d manage a week of celibacy, sometimes two. But in the end, he always gave in.

How the devil could he vow to take care of these girls? He couldn’t even keep the promises he made to himself.

“Consider the rumors that swirl about me,” he said. “How can I raise those girls in any respectable fashion when people believe me a murderer? You heard the duke. There’s no denying that his death worked to my benefit.”

“Very well,” she said. “A good part of the ton doubts your character. Perhaps they even have reason to do so. But by withdrawing from polite society you’ve made certain they don’t have any evidence to the contrary. Seeing you dote on a pair of young girls, and watching you encourage and protect them as they grow into remarkable young women . . . that would probably cause some to reconsider their opinions. Don’t you think?”

Everything she said was so relentlessly logical. Of course it was. She was always sensible.

He hadn’t realized how badly he’d been craving this. Someone who didn’t have any wish to accuse him or forgive him, but to sit down and discuss the facts of the matter in a calm, rational way.