Daniel was the Earl of Winstead; there were only so many men who outranked him. A handful of dukes, a few more marquesses, and the royals. Surely Anne had not managed to make an enemy among that exalted population.

But when he had marched up the steps of Pleinsworth House to demand an interview, he had been informed that she was not at home.

And when he had repeated the request the folowing morning, he was met with the same answer.

Now, several hours later, he was back, and this time his aunt came in person to deliver the refusal.

“You must leave that poor girl alone,” she said sharply.

Daniel was not in the mood to be lectured by his aunt Charlotte, so he cut straight to the point. “I need to speak with her.”

“Wel, she is not here.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Aunt, I know she’s—”

“I fuly admit that she was upstairs when you caled this morning,” Lady Pleinsworth cut in. “Fortunately, Miss Wynter has the sense to cut off this flirtation, even if you do not. But she is not here now.”

“Aunt Charlotte . . .” he warned.

“She’s not!” Her chin lifted ever so slightly in the air. “It is her afternoon free. She always goes out on her afternoon free.”

“Always?”

“As far as I know.” His aunt flicked her hand impatiently through the air. “She has errands, and . . . And whatever it is she does.” Whatever it is she does. What a statement.

“Very wel,” Daniel said in a curt voice. “I shal wait for her.”

“Oh, no, you won’t.”

“You’re going to bar me from your sitting room,” he said, giving her a look of mild disbelief.

She crossed her arms. “If I must.”

He crossed his. “I am your nephew.”

“And amazingly enough, the connection does not seem to have imbued you with common sense.” He stared at her.

“That was an insult,” she mentioned, “in case you’re having difficulty sorting it out.” Good God.

“If you have any care for Miss Wynter,” Lady Pleinsworth continued imperiously, “you will leave her in peace. She is a sensible lady, and I keep her in my employ because I am fuly certain that it is you who have pursued her and not the other way around.”

“Did you talk with her about me?” Daniel demanded. “Did you threaten her?”

“Of course not,” his aunt snapped, but she looked away for a split second, and Daniel knew she was lying. “As if I would threaten her,” she continued in a huff.

“And furthermore, she’s not the one who needs a talking to. She knows how the world works, even if you do not. What happened at Whipple Hill can be overlooked—”

“What happened?” Daniel echoed, panic rising within him as he wondered to what, precisely, his aunt was referring. Had someone found out about his visit to Anne’s bedroom? No, that was impossible. Anne would have been thrown out of the house if that had been the case.

“Your time spent alone with her,” Lady Pleinsworth clarified. “Don’t think I was unaware. As much as I would like to believe that you have suddenly taken an interest in Harriet, Elizabeth, and Frances, any fool could see that you’ve been panting after Miss Wynter like a puppy dog.”

“Another insult, I assume,” he bit off.

She pursed her lips but otherwise ignored his comment. “I do not want to have to let her go,” she said, “but if you pursue the connection, I will have no choice.

And you can be sure that no family of good standing would hire a governess who consorts with an earl.” And you can be sure that no family of good standing would hire a governess who consorts with an earl.”

“Consorts?” he repeated, his voice somewhere between disbelief and disgust. “Don’t insult her with such a word.” His aunt drew back and regarded him with mild pity. “It is not I who insults her. In fact, I applaud Miss Wynter for possessing good judgment where you do not. I was warned not to hire such an attractive young woman as a governess, but despite her looks she is extremely inteligent. And the girls quite adore her. Would you have me discriminate against her for her beauty?”

“No,” he bit off, ready to climb the wals with frustration. “And what the devil has that to do with anything? I just want to speak with her.” His voice rose at the end, coming dangerously close to a roar.

Lady Pleinsworth leveled a long stare at his face. “No,” she said.

Daniel practicaly bit his tongue to keep from snapping at her. The only way his aunt was going to let him see Anne was if he told her that he suspected that she had been the target of the attack at Whipple Hil. But anything that hinted at a scandalous past would have her fired immediately, and he would not be the cause of her loss of employment.

Finaly, his patience worn down to a threadbare string, he let out a between-the-teeth exhale and said, “I need to speak with her once. One time only. It may be in your sitting room with the door ajar, but I would insist upon privacy.”

His aunt regarded him suspiciously. “Once?”

“Once.” It was not strictly true; he wished for a great deal more than that, but that was all he was going to request.

“I shal think about it,” she sniffed.

“Aunt Charlotte!”

“Oh, very wel, just once, and only because I wish to believe that your mother raised a son who has some sense of right and wrong.”

“Oh, for the love of—”

“Don’t blaspheme in front of me,” she warned, “and make me reconsider my judgment.”

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