Authors: Maggi Andersen
Caroline and the Captain
A Regency Novella
Caroline and the Captain
Copyright © 2016 by Maggi Andersen
Published by Maggi Andersen
Edited by: D.J. Coleman
Cover Artist: Melody Simmons
Love seeketh not itself to please
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease
And builds a Heaven in Hells despair
The Clod and the Pebble
Twenty Years Earlier
“Do you know how I’m going to make my fortune, Nick?” Georgie asked, as he and his brother lay on their backs in the orchard, eating apples.
“But you’ll be the Earl of Debenham,” Nicholas said, spitting out a seed. “You won’t need to. But I shall, I suppose.”
“You’ll be all right. You have the brains. You’re like Father. I bet you’ll be the prime minister one day.”
Nicholas shrugged. “How are you going to make all this money?”
He laughed at his big rangy brother. “You’ll be too heavy to ride ’em.”
“I don’t want to ride ’em,” Georgie said. “I want to breed ’em. One day I’ll win the Derby Stakes.”
“What about all the things an earl has to do? Father is busy all the time. He’s always saying how we must live up to our ancestors and preserve the estate for future generations.”
“I don’t care much for any of that. It’s a pity you won’t be earl, Nick. You’d make a much better one than I will.” Georgie jumped up. “It’s hot. Let’s ride to the river for a swim. I’ll race you.”
Nicholas shook his head. “You know you always win.”
“You’ll beat me one day, Nick.”
Nicholas jumped up. “Right, you’re on.”
Gloves clasped in his hands, a black armband gracing the sleeve of his uniform, Captain Nicholas Bonham watched the coffin bearing his elder brother, George, Earl of Debenham, lowered into the ground. Nicholas was glad his mother hadn’t lived to see this day. George had been her favorite. It was impossible to tell what his father’s preference was if he’d had one. He’d been a cool man who didn’t show his emotions, and was more involved in politics than family life.
The wind whistled through the trees, and a cold drop of rain splattered onto Nicholas’ cheek. Dashed English weather, couldn’t the shower hold off for an hour or two until George was decently buried? He angrily swiped away a tear. He’d been away fighting in Wellington’s Peninsular Regiment, the 52nd Light Infantry, and hadn’t been back to England to see George in years. Now there was no chance of it.
His neighbor, the Baronet, Sir Marcus Mirrington stood amongst the small crowd with his wife and daughter. Miss Mirrington had been engaged to George when he suffered a fatal fall from his horse. She stood silent, her pale face partly hidden by her black straw bonnet. It was not usual for a young lady to attend a funeral. She must have insisted she be allowed to come. However, when she raised her chin to observe him, Nicholas could detect no sign of anguish in her still features. Her marriage to his brother had been arranged for financial reasons, as the Mirringham and Debenham properties ran together on the western boundary. His brother was an amiable fellow, might she have loved him?
Amiable, but lacking a good financial head on his shoulders. George would not have wanted to leave Debenham Park in such a sorry state for Nicholas. He would rightly feel, at thirty-two, that he had years to rectify it. George admitted he’d never been good at handling the estate’s affairs. He was too trusting. When he’d left the running of the estate to his manager, the fellow had absconded with a large sum of money, and that, coupled with poor crops, and the sorry state England was in after years of war, the coffers of Debenham Park were now severely depleted. Not Dun Territory quite yet, but not far off, it seemed, unless something could be found quickly to remedy the situation. Nicholas hated that the tenant farmers were struggling with ramshackle cottages and not enough coal for next winter. He’d found a pile of tradesmen’s bills unpaid.
George’s marriage to Sir Marcus’ daughter would have brought about the joining of two fine estates. The fact that the Debenham name could be traced back to Tudor times when the estate was gifted to Nicholas’s ancestor by Henry VIII, was undoubtedly attractive to the immensely wealthy, newly knighted baronet, for he had offered a much needed infusion of the ready, in the form of a lavish dowry.
As Caroline was their only child and there was no entail, his estate, Mirrington Manor would one day have been George’s. A very attractive option, which George apparently had had no hesitation in accepting. Nicholas studied Miss Mirrington. Willowy in her dark-blue pelisse, she stood beside her mother in black bombazine. He wondered why Miss Mirrington hadn’t married long before she met George, as her first Season would have been five years ago.
Apparently, when his back was to the wall, George had borrowed against Aunt Hetty’s inheritance. Foolish in the extreme, for Aunt Hetty was like all the Debenham’s—or at least those who didn’t die of an accident or on the Spanish plains—likely to live to be ninety. And good luck to her, Nicholas thought, with a fond glance in her direction, for a livelier lady he had yet to meet. She was one of the few who would remember Nicholas and George when they were lads.
Nicholas stepped forward to sprinkle a handful of earth over the coffin, followed by the other mourners. The sound of dirt thudding onto the lid had a terrible finality about it. George’s dreams would now never be fulfilled.
Caroline surreptitiously studied the captain in his striking, scarlet infantry uniform, as he stood by the graveside. How different he was to dear George. Nicholas was a head taller, his broad shoulders slumped in grief, his face angular and somber where George’s had been pink and English and cheerfully round. A scar marred the smooth, tanned skin of one sharp cheekbone. The captain looked altogether too strong and harsh. Dangerous and unpredictable. He held his Shako under an arm and his brown hair, streaked blond by the sun, ruffled in the damp breeze. A curved sword hung at his side.
He cast a dismissive glance in her direction. Might he blame her in some way? She straightened her shoulders and sniffed back a tear. George was gone, along with her safe haven. She bit her lip at her own needy selfishness. But what would she do now?
The funeral service concluded. “A sad business,” her father murmured. “Come my dears.” He ushered her and her mother to their waiting carriage.
The small group filed past Nicholas to offer their sympathy. So few it seemed an insult, but George wasn’t one to socialize, and many of their relations had lost touch after moving to other counties. George had preferred to live a quiet life. Nicholas nodded his thanks at each expression of sympathy, while his grief and confusion at his brother’s untoward death caught in his throat and made it difficult to speak. Soldiers didn’t cry—not in company at least.
When he was left alone at the graveside, he remained a few minutes to say goodbye. “Sorry I didn’t come home to see you, Georgie.” He turned with one last glance, and made his way to where his tiger waited with his horses. There was the wake to be got through somehow. When he’d witnessed so much violence and death, it was odd to think that nothing during his years away at war had prepared him for this.
Ahead of him, Mirrington helped his wife and daughter into his carriage. Nicholas climbed into his phaeton and took up the reins as his tiger jumped up behind. Little had been explained about George’s death. He wasn’t prepared to leave matters alone; he was determined to find out what really happened. Perhaps the truth lay with Mirrington’s daughter. His gaze hardened as he watched their carriage disappearing down the road. Surely, she would have seen or heard something?
When Caroline arrived at Debenham Park with her parents, the mourner’s carriages were lined up along the gravel drive. The rambling stone house, which she’d begun to think of as her home, looked unfamiliar and unwelcoming, as if George’s spirit had left it. Inside the long drawing room, everyone gathered in a quiet huddle while food and drink was served by the sober-faced servants. She knew every member of the staff. They had suffered a sad loss too. George was universally liked.
The new earl stood with his Aunt Henrietta, holding a glass of Scotch, while recalling episodes from his and George’s childhood, his mellow baritone voice at odds with the stark expression in his eyes. Caroline stood close enough to hear him praise George: his love of horses and his skill at riding to hounds. The earl recalled how George had ridden bareback from an early age. “Taught me a few riding tricks too,” Lord Debenham said. “They came in handy at times on the Peninsular.”
Two of the guests standing behind her spoke of how strange it was that this had been George’s ultimate demise. “A woman can be a dangerous distraction,” one gentleman said.
Caroline flushed angrily and turned to glare at him. He had the grace to look shamefaced. She despised the opinionated men of the
. She’d never met one she liked except George. George’s brother had given her little reason to warm to him, either.
When the captain spoke of his brother, his taut features softened. Seeing him vulnerable had a disturbing effect on her. George could never have been called handsome, but Nicholas undoubtedly was. Even while he stood with a glass in his hand, he seemed like a coiled spring. He tightened his chiseled jaw when he glanced at her, and his brown eyes drilled into hers, causing a nervous stirring deep in her belly.
Caroline smiled at Harold, the house’s lone footman, who, like Kettle, the butler, had been in service at Debenham Park for many years. She refused his offered plate of food, fearing her stomach would reject it. The image of George lying dead still flashed into her consciousness. A vigorous rider forever stilled. Her fingers trembled and she put down the crystal tumbler of lemonade on a table. Would that image never fade? It might be easier if she didn’t meet Nicholas Debenham again. She calmed herself with the realization that as her father hardly ever attended parliament and then only the Commons, he was unlikely to run into Lord Debenham. He rarely went to London these days preferring to remain in the country. It was unlikely she’d meet the earl socially here either so her withdrawal from society could continue undisturbed.
She hugged the good memories to herself to get through this dreadful wake. How much she’d enjoyed his companionship. But what she’d felt for George was not love. He’d been a steadfast friend, and her future with him would have been safe and comfortable. Her girlish dreams of marrying for love had been extinguished years ago.
Caroline’s father went to speak to Lord Debenham. A moment later, he brought the captain to be formally introduced.
“My lord.” She dropped into a curtsey.
The earl bowed. “Miss Mirrington.” Up close, he had a generous mouth, his brown eyes reflecting the tortured dullness of disbelief, were completely different to his brother’s sunny hazel. For a moment, she wanted to reach out and touch him. The desire vanished when a hint of speculation crossed his face. Unnerved, her throat tightened. She fiddled with a stray lock of hair at her nape. “I’m sorry for your loss, Lord Debenham.”
“Thank you. It’s your loss too, is it not, Miss Mirrington? You were with George when the accident happened I believe.” He raised his dark brows slightly. He wished to know more. What more could she tell him?
“We rode together that day, but I didn’t witness the accident.”
His searching gaze carried a world of experience which made her tremble. As if he was gauging the honesty of her words. He nodded, she hoped satisfied with her answer, and moved on to speak to others. The word leonine came to mind. The long hair streaked with gold, she supposed. She would never want such a man in her life.