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Authors: Laura Matthews

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BOOK: Lord Clayborne's Fancy
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Stunned, Clayborne stood irresolute, then picked up a stone and hurled it with all his strength against a luckless tree some fifteen yards away. He stumped down the lane violently, muttering curses and throwing stones to punctuate each one. When he had vented his spleen he returned to the stables and rationally discussed with his head groom the merits of the gray he was proposing to purchase from Sir John.

Much as she wished to hide in her room to recover from her emotional outburst, Rebecca could not avoid the household matters which awaited her on her return to the house. Mrs. Lambert and the French cook were indulging in a loud argument and Rebecca had to spend time with each of them to regain peace. When she looked in on the progress of the lantern painting, she found George alone in the room, with red and yellow paint striped on his face, hands and clothes.

“I’m a Red Indian,” he announced proudly.

She laughed until the tears, already too near the surface, threatened to flow, and then shook her head. “It won’t do, George. Come, let’s get you cleaned up.”

He placed his hand trustingly in hers and looked up through his eyelashes. “Couldn’t we show Miss Mary and Miss Exton first?”

“Only if we meet them on the way, young man. What would your uncle say if he saw you like that?”

“Oh, Uncle Jason wouldn’t mind. He’s a great gun.”

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

In the bustle of Will’s arrival and last minute preparations for the party, Rebecca saw Clayborne only briefly the whole of the next day until their guests began to arrive. Standing beside him for their last party, she smiled determinedly on each new arrival. Clayborne had never looked so elegant as he did in the velvet-trimmed coat of forest green broadcloth with buff-colored pantaloons. She nervously fluffed out the white ruffles at her cuffs and wondered anxiously if the violet-blue muslin gown with its sash of deeper violet had been the wrong choice. But her husband caught her eye with a nod of approval which sustained her through the ordeal of welcoming their neighbors. Really, one could not blame them for their obvious curiosity, what with Clayborne away from home for most of their marriage. Automatically she chatted with each in turn, directing one to the card tables and another to the courtyard. When she opened the dancing with her husband, she felt sure that the evening was going well.

“I believe it is even more charming here tonight than it was at my mother’s party. And a youngster’s memory is notoriously exaggerated,” he commented.

“I admit I’m pleased with it myself, and we’re lucky to have such a fine night. You know, you might leave some of these extra plants about after the party for they do add to the courtyard considerably.”

“Please, Rebecca, no mention tonight of your leaving.”

“Of course not. Forgive me,” she said contritely.

“Look, do not Mary and Mott make an attractive couple?”

“Yes, and it’s good to see him enjoying himself. He has lived secluded for so long that I feared he would not join in our amusements.” The movement of the dance separated them for a while, and when they returned to each other he asked, “Did you order some treats to be sent up to George?”

“Yes, and I have allowed that he may stay in Constance’s room for a while, for it overlooks the courtyard. He’ll love the music and watching the dances, and he has been helpful in preparing for the party.” She laughed, remembering his painted face.

When the dance ended, Rebecca joined the older women to talk for a while and assure herself that they were enjoying themselves. Some of them remembered the former Lady Clayborne’s party in the courtyard and expressed their appreciation of its revival. Rebecca watched Constance whirl by to a waltz with Mott and Mary with Will, while Meg danced with one of Sir John’s sons and Clayborne with one of his daughters, a pretty young lady with auburn ringlets who seemed to find him vastly amusing. Stifling an incipient melancholy, Rebecca slipped away to visit George.

She found him settled on the window seat in Constance’s room, a cake in one hand and a glass of lemonade in the other, his kitten cavorting beside him. He greeted her with delight. “It’s a famous party, Aunt Rebecca. I can hear the music ever so well and just look at Papa dancing. I’ve never seen him dance before!”

“Well, I hope he is having a good time. We shall miss you both when you leave. Do you look forward to going home?”

“Yes, for Papa has promised me a pony of my own, quite as nice a one as Bessie.” He stifled an enormous yawn and asked, “Shall you come to visit us and see my pony?”

Rebecca hesitated before answering. “I am sure Jason will come one day soon, but I may not be able to.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I have a project that could prevent it,” she evaded.

“What kind of project?”

“I cannot tell you, for it is a secret right now.”

“I see. Well, could Miss Mary or Miss Exton come to visit me?”

“Really, George, I don’t know. Did you have an ice?” she asked in desperation.

“Yes, and they’re famous. Could I have another?”

“I shall go and make sure one is sent up to you immediately,” she promised, and gratefully escaped from the room, meeting Constance at the door. Once downstairs she directed that another ice be sent to George and rejoined the company on the terrace overlooking the courtyard.

Gregory Mott approached her with a smile. “I’ve been looking for you. Are you promised for the set that’s forming?”

“No, and I have acted the hostess quite long enough.”

“Then allow me the pleasure,” he said, offering his arm.

“I’ve just been with George, who is stuffing himself with cakes and lemonade and ices, and having a wonderful time. He said he’s never seen you dance before.”

“I’d forgotten how enjoyable it is.” His eyes became thoughtful. “I’d forgotten a lot of things until I came here. Perhaps I have denied George the society he needs. We’ve kept too much to ourselves, I fear, and it has been my fault.” He gave a gesture of dismissal. “I shouldn’t be discussing such weighty matters at your party, ma’am, but I did want you to know how much we’ve enjoyed ourselves while we’ve been here.”

“We’ve loved having you.”

There was no chance to rest after her set with Mott, for she was solicited by each of the young men and most of the older ones as well. Toward the end of the evening Clayborne claimed her for a waltz. “It’s been impossible to get near you. Have you enjoyed yourself, Rebecca?”

“Enormously, Jason. And you?”

“Yes,” he replied as he swung her around Mott and Constance. “I believe even Miss Turnpeck cannot complain, for she has won an enormous pile of shillings at the whist table!”

“No! A secret vice, I swear, for she was forever prosing at us that gambling is wicked.” They laughed together, causing several of the watching matrons to nod wisely and predict that his lordship would not be from home so much in future.

When the last guest had departed and the ladies had wearily retired to their rooms, Mott urged Will to his bed and stayed Clayborne, suggesting a glass of brandy in the study. Though he was more than ready for his own bed, Clayborne acceded gracefully and dismissed Griggs, telling him not to wait up.

Clayborne seated himself comfortably, stretched out his legs and heaved a sigh. Mott did not reply to his languid comment on the success of the party, but paced about the room with a distressed countenance.

“You have spoken with Rebecca?” Clayborne asked at last.

“No, I heard of the plan from Miss Exton. I do not mean to pry, Jason, but I cannot understand how you can sanction such an undertaking.”

“I am informed that I have nothing to say to it,” he replied ruefully.

“Be serious! Rebecca is your wife, and a more attractive, charming woman you could not find.”

“I am aware of it, Gregory.”

“Then how can you let this happen?”

“It is a private matter I shall not disclose,” Clayborne replied coldly.

“Of course not. Forgive me. But, Jason, they are such babes. I do not doubt that they can manage for themselves in a cottage, but I shall not see them set out alone. Do you know where they go?”

“No, Rebecca will not tell me. I can contact her if necessary through a solicitor in Chichester.”

“And you are satisfied with that?” Mott asked angrily.

“I have no choice. I cannot keep her here by force, Gregory.”

“Perhaps you should,” Mott retorted. “No, no, do not be angry with me. I shall convince Miss Exton that I am to escort them to their cottage, with a promise not to disclose our destination to you, of course. But it would ease your mind, would it not, Jason?”

“Certainly. Do what you can, Gregory. I have told Rebecca that she could stay here at Gray Oaks and I would not come here, but it will not do. There is no way to dissuade her from this madness.”

“Really, Jason, I’m surprised at you! A man of your address and experience really should be better able to manage his bride,” Mott said exasperatedly.

“Enough, Gregory. I have said it all to myself. She is a willful young lady and I am a stubborn, self-righteous man. Let’s go to bed.”

Mott was loath to drop the subject, but he realized there was really no more he could say. He managed to talk with Constance the next day and urge his escort on the two young ladies; and, though she knew that Rebecca would not be pleased, she was grateful and she knew Clayborne would be, so she accepted and presented Rebecca with the plan. “I shall feel much more comfortable with his escort, Rebecca, and anyway, I have already accepted.”

“You will have him promise not to tell Clayborne our destination?” her friend asked.

“I have already. And he will have Firely tied behind his carriage, too, which I am not sure you could do with a post chaise. It is agreed then?”

“Certainly. You are good to put up with my cork-brained ways, Constance, for no one else would.”

Constance refrained from pointing out that Clayborne probably would, and went off to her room.

* * * *

There were all of Miss Turnpeck’s shawls to be retrieved from various locations in the house, and Meg’s music to be sorted from Rebecca’s own, while Mary could not resist one last ride on Firely, but the preparations for their departure were eventually completed, and there was a minimum of confusion in the morning as the household gathered around the carriage to see them off.

In a final spate of rhetoric, Miss Turnpeck allowed Clayborne to assist her up the steps. “Too kind! No right to expect such distinction! A lovely home, perfectly lovely. So good of you to have us. I am sure Meg and Mary have thanked you, haven’t you, girls? Yes, I was sure you had. No one could have been kinder...”

Meg cast a despairing glance at Rebecca, who grinned and said, “Just remember that Will is riding alongside, my love. Surely you can bear anything when he is with you.”

As Meg climbed into the carriage, Rebecca turned to Mary. “Do spare Turnip any trauma on the journey, my dear. I shall miss you.”

Though little George was desolated to have Mary leave, he solemnly shook hands with her, and his father took the opportunity for a few extra words while helping her into the carriage.

And then they were gone, the sound of hoofbeats slowly dying away in the morning heat. George immediately ran off to the stables but the four adults stood silent for some time. To break the awkwardness, and ever hopeful in leaving Clayborne with his wife, Mott urged Constance to ride with him, but Rebecca merely took the opportunity to settle some last-minute considerations.

“Gregory will take us to the cottage, Jason, as I suppose you know. It is thoughtful of him, and I am sure we will be much more comfortable with his escort. Should you like me to leave Mrs. Lambert with the impression that I am going to visit with Constance?”

“I am sure Mrs. Lambert is not so dull that your leaving with all your belongings, to say nothing of your horse, will escape her attention,” he said coolly.

“You’re right, of course. I had not thought of that.”

“There are a lot of things you have not thought of,” Clayborne retorted.

“I doubt it, Jason,” she said softly.

“What will happen if Constance leaves to marry or go back to her mother?”

“I shall face that problem when it arises. But mind,” she laughed, “I have thought of it.”

“Will you call on me if you need help, Rebecca?”

“I cannot say. It would depend on the nature of the problem.”

“I insist,” he began hotly, then grinned sheepishly as she raised her eyebrows at him. “Very well, just know that I shall always assist you out of some scrape or finance some necessary luxury as I would if you lived with me. Promise me that much, Rebecca.”

“I promise,” she said solemnly, extending her hand for him to shake, which he did with due gravity, afterwards lifting it to his lips.

Tentatively, they smiled at one another, her eyes wistful but with a determined hope for the future. She could not blame him for his belief, but she could not live with his constant anguish. In his eyes she read his regret for the past, and something more.

Clayborne steeled himself not to ask her to stay again. Letting her go was the only thing he could do for her to ensure some measure of peace in her life. Much as he wished he could forget her lie, his pride still rebelled at it, and even his reawakened love could not guarantee that he would not let her see his torture. If she left, there was no hope of reconciliation, and he had thought recently that perhaps she had, once or twice, looked on him more tenderly. That she... Well, he could not be right. She was leaving.

Rebecca forced herself to speak over the lump in her throat. “I must finish packing now. Would you see that they have Firely ready for the morning?”

 

The harpsichord was crated, their gowns packed, knickknacks carefully boxed, and by late afternoon their rooms already possessed a deserted air. Dinner was a subdued meal and conversation languished in the saloon afterwards. Rebecca leafed through some music that had just arrived from London and she accompanied Constance as they worked their way through it. No one spoke of what was on each of their minds. Eventually Mott and Clayborne were induced to join in the singing and the evening passed quickly, though they retired at an early hour.

BOOK: Lord Clayborne's Fancy
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