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The Governess Game Tessa Dare 2022/8/3 13:55:30

He despised himself for putting it to her so viciously. But apparently, it needed to be done. Any alternative would have been crueler, on balance.

“There, now.” He dragged air into his lungs. “I hope we understand each other.”

She nodded. “I think we do.”

And then, to put an ironic punctuation mark on this little speech, Chase staggered two steps sideways and fainted at her feet.

“Chase.” Alarmed, Alexandra shook him by the shoulder. “Chase.”

No response, other than a low mumble. Something about sheep and manure.

She loosened his cravat. Good heavens, he was burning up. His breath came in shallow rasps. He was even more ill than she’d thought.

Alex surged into action. What with waking the house, calling for physicians, boiling water for tea, and dragging some fifteen stone of weakened, feverish man to his bed, the next few hours passed in a rush.

The following days, however? They slowed to a snail’s crawl.

The longer Chase remained ill, the further Alex slipped toward madness. The nature of her relationship with the master of the house was—she hoped—a secret to everyone but the two of them. She didn’t have an excuse to visit Chase’s bedchamber, let alone sit by his sickbed and keep a nightly vigil, as she yearned to do. Neither could she use the excuse of bringing the girls in to visit. Too much risk of contagion.

The situation served as a painful dose of reality. A reminder of her true status in his life. She’d fancied herself to be something more than just another of his illicit lovers, but she wasn’t. Not really. Not in any way that counted now.

She couldn’t lay claim to him.

Her only news came from overheard scraps of conversation and bits of information shared by the servants. The doctors came and went, they said. Mr. Reynaud wasn’t improving. A pneumonia had settled in his lungs, and his fever hadn’t broken.

Alex wore a brave face for Rosamund and Daisy, but fear tightened its grip on her heart. Chase was a strong, healthy man in his prime of life—but even strong, healthy men in their prime of life could be struck down without warning. She knew that all too well.

After three days, she couldn’t bear it any longer. She waited until the house went to sleep and then took the chance of slipping into his bedchamber. There would certainly be a maid or footman present, watching over him. On the way, she sifted through a dozen pitiful excuses. Mrs. Greeley was calling, or a new poultice had been prepared, or she, the governess, had been charged with keeping watch for an hour, for some unfathomable reason in a house full of servants.

To her relief, she found him alone.

Alex rushed to his bedside. “Chase.”

His eyelids fluttered, and he moaned through cracked lips.

“It’s me. It’s Alex.” She stroked the sweat-dampened hair from his forehead. Sweet Lord, he was still on fire with fever.

She took a cloth from the washstand, dampened it with tepid water, and dabbed his brow and neck.

“Alex.” He opened his reddened eyes, struggling to focus on her face. “Sorry, love. Can’t lick your cunny tonight. I’m sick.”

She laughed aloud, even as tears of relief came to her eyes. The real Chase was still in there somewhere.

“I know you’re sick, darling. It’s all right.” She kissed his forehead.

The door swung open behind her. Alex leapt to her feet and wheeled about.

Mr. Barrow entered the room.

“I didn’t mean to intrude,” she stammered. “The children have been asking how he’s coming along. I thought I’d—”

“Don’t worry. No excuses needed. I know about the two of you.”

She was briefly stunned. After a moment, she found her tongue. “I know about the two of you, too.”

“I’m not surprised.” He pulled up a chair, and they sat next to one another at the bedside. “You’re clever. And he’s not very good at hiding it when he cares for someone.”

“No, he isn’t. And you’re too promising a solicitor to take this post without a compelling reason. No one would remain in Chase’s employ unless they were either desperate for work, or cared too much about him to leave.”

“So what’s keeping you here?” Her voice was quiet, but steady. “Desperation? Or love?”

“To be honest, I’ve been asking myself the same question. A bit of both, I think.”

Chase had lapsed back into a fitful sleep. His rattling breaths were an unsettling accompaniment to their conversation.

“He isn’t getting better, is he?” she asked.

Mr. Barrow exhaled heavily. “No. Much as I hate to even countenance the idea, the lawyer in me is cruelly pragmatic. We may need to prepare for the worst.”

A painful lump rose in Alex’s throat. “What would happen to the girls?”

“For the time, they’d pass back to the old duke’s guardianship, just like everything else attached to the estate. That is, until the next in line can be granted power of attorney.”