Snarling in a fit of undignified temper, Pascoe Ives whacked his walking stick against an inoffensive hedge. A terrified rabbit leapt from its hiding place.
Imagining swinging the ebony cane at His Majesty’s ministers, forcing them to leap like frightened conies, defused the worst of his frustration. Throwing back his shoulders, Pascoe relaxed his grip on the cane’s crested gold handle—a crest that didn’t belong to him, which was part of the whole problem. Without a title to wield, he was at the king’s mercy.
As if to counter his foul mood, the gold knob reflected the fading rays of the sun on what would have been a beautiful day to escape to Brighton.
He had promised the children and servants a visit to the shore, if only in vague hope of restoring sanity in a household where none existed. The meeting with the king’s cabinet shattered any illusion that he could escape the life he’d carved for himself—a life that hadn’t included family until he’d arrogantly acquired one under the assumption that a wife would tend the family hearth.
As he approached his townhome, he noted a battered ostrich plume brushing the railing of his kitchen stairs. His heart stuttered and tripped. Lily always forgot her keys. She had used to sit on the step and read. . . . But this was not the modest cottage he’d once shared with his late wife.
Even thinking of Lily at this moment was a denial of the dilemma sitting on his doorstep. With a sigh, Pascoe stopped at the rail. Wearing her best traveling costume, the young nanny he’d recently hired wept on his kitchen stairs. Her tears ground all pretense of normalcy into grains of sand, the sand he would not be seeing anytime soon.
Did Brighton have sand? Traveling on official duties, he’d only seen the insides of inns, taverns, and cavernous palace chambers—never the coastline.
“What is it the children have done now?” he asked in weariness. “Vanished from the nursery? You knew they would not speak when I hired you.”
Startled, the nanny hastily wiped at her eyes with a handkerchief. “Oh sir, I tried. I truly did.”
“Yes, yes, they all do.” He impatiently tapped his stick against the stone steps. “Did they leave snakes beneath your pillow? Climb up a chimney? Or simply find a way to the roof?” His adorably precocious toddlers had done all that and more in the past.
More tears poured as she stood to face him. He towered uncomfortably over her and had to lean over to listen to her whispers. “They hate me, sir. They can hear me, I know they can, but they do nothing I say unless they wish to do so.”
Nothing he hadn’t heard a hundred times before. Impatiently, he swung his stick against the step. “Dealing with bright children requires a backbone.”
She stiffened said backbone. “Sir, I could not forgive myself it they truly vanished or got themselves in trouble, while I thought them safe and did nothing. I have no way at all of knowing where they are or what they are doing. They are so silent.”
“Until they’re not,” he added, knowing just exactly how loud they could be when they chose. “It’s a blamed inconvenient time to leave.”
“They’ll be fine with you, sir,” she said bravely. “They are eager to go to Brighton. It’s just me they find offensive. I cannot teach them if they will not listen. They are not bad children, sir.”
“They are undisciplined brats,” Pascoe growled. But there was no point in arguing. He’d tried that with the first few nursemaids, nannies, and governesses who had left, usually in tears. This one, at least, had lasted until he returned home.
She visibly steeled herself and raised her chin. “What they need is a mother, sir, a mother who can be there when you are not, who can hug them if they are frightened, and read them stories until they sleep, someone they know will always be there for them.”
They’d had a mother like that for two years. She’d died. Pascoe didn’t know when in hell he’d have time to hunt for another. If he couldn’t hire a reliable nanny, it wasn’t likely he could find a saint who would endure his absences and his children’s eccentricities, a sweet, maternal sort who would love and nurture instead of fleeing in fury and tears. Or become ill and die, he conceded blackly.
“Did Mrs. Black give you the reference I left on my desk?” he asked in resignation. He’d had hopes for this nanny. She was highly experienced, educated, intelligent, and his nephew’s wife had said her astrological chart was propitious, whatever that meant.
But he always prepared a reference for the servants working with the twins before he left town—which he would be doing shortly, again, and not for sunny Brighton but for the gray wilds of the north. He didn’t want to be responsible for women starving in the streets because his children drove them there.
“Oh, yes, yes, she did, thank you so very much, sir.” She curtsied her relief.
He left her waiting for whatever transportation she was expecting and stomped up the steps, letting himself in the unlatched front door. The footman was nowhere in sight.
His beautiful—usually mute—four-year-old twins, however, bounced down the stairs crying, “Papa, Papa, see new mama now?”
He nearly keeled over in shock—his nursemaid-terrorizing urchins had just miraculously learned to speak? And the first words out of their mouths were that they wanted a mother?
How could he tell them that finding a saint did not fit into his schedule?