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Authors: Laura Matthews

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BOOK: Lord Clayborne's Fancy
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“I am sure you will have no objection to any improvements I might make. I am thought to have exquisite taste,” she taunted, desperate for some sign of interest from him.

“No doubt,” he replied dampingly. “I shall mention the matter to Bridge.” He refused to be drawn into any further conversation with her. It was painful for him to talk with her, to even see her in his home. When he had found, on their wedding night, that she was not a virgin, it had shattered him. He had invested the whole of his affection and trust in her, and she had deceived him.

For years he had considered himself gripped by a hopeless passion for Alexis Hannis. As a young man he had courted her assiduously for a year before she had chosen an older, richer and better-titled man. The blow had driven Clayborne to some excesses of behavior which he looked back on with regret. As Lady Hillston, however, Alexis had produced the required male heir and then had looked about her for amusement. When she had beckoned to Clayborne, he had come. He had despised himself for the weakness, and had seen as little of her as he could bear, but he had gone.

It had surprised him, therefore, to find that his meeting Rebecca had upset his equanimity. He was charmed by her youth and enthusiasm, her eclectic search for knowledge, her personal integrity. Compared with Alexis, Rebecca was a shining gem, pure and enchanting. After a mere few weeks of acquaintance, Clayborne had found to his amazement that he had fallen in love with Rebecca.

He did not tell her so. There was a reserve in her relations with him that warned him to proceed with caution. But he felt she was fond of him and he knew her mother would press for his suit, so he had asked her to marry him. She had not given her answer immediately, and he was glad that he had not told her that he loved her. It would have frightened her from him, to think that she could not reciprocate his affection.

Wish to God that he had told her, he thought angrily as he watched her across the length of the table. He would not be sitting with her now, this gem with its fatal flaw! The triteness of the sentiment made his hurt no less real, and it did nothing to assuage the pain that his wife acted the injured party. If she had told him before they wed, he supposed he would have accepted it. How could he not when he loved her? Surely such a confession would have been a sign of her remorse. But she had not admitted it then, and she would not admit it now. He took himself off from Gray Oaks filled with anger, confusion and hurt.

 

Chapter Three

 

Clayborne was gone the next morning before Rebecca awoke, and she wasted no time starting her project. Since Bridge, the estate manager, was by far the least amiable of the Gray Oaks staff, Rebecca had to marshal all her resources to approach him, but she was determined to spend her days doing something useful and refused to let him deter her.

Mrs. Lambert, once she recovered from the shock of finding that Clayborne had no intention of taking Rebecca with him to Yorkshire, did her best to ease her new mistress’s loneliness by appearing to share her enthusiasm for the schemes Rebecca laid before her. A new bride should not be left at home, in Mrs. Lambert’s humble opinion, and although she could not help but be horrified that the Green Saloon was to be done over in blue and gold, she did no more than unconsciously purse her lips when shown the new drapery and upholstery materials. She watched, perplexed, as Lady Clayborne threw herself wholeheartedly into the project, with excursions to Chichester, hours spent studying fabric samples and evenings doing needlework chair covers by the light of several candles. It was Mrs. Lambert who urged Rebecca to take time out for her rides on Firely, and who informed the butler, Griggs, who was inclined to sniff at all the activity in the lovely old house, that his new mistress knew what she was about. She even approached the estate manager in her zeal to vindicate Rebecca’s projects.

“You may be sure, Mr. Bridge,” she told him, “that Lady Clayborne is not spending a farthing above what is necessary. Why, she works the whole of each day on this undertaking. Never have I seen a more industrious young lady. And when her hands are not busy with a needle, she has her nose in a book in the library. Can’t imagine what she sees in some of those old volumes—nasty, dusty things they be—but bless me if she doesn’t forget her very meals with all her studies there.”

Although Bridge might grunt at this evidence of Rebecca’s activities, the young lady herself was in earnest. The books she pored over were any she could find—old medical texts, home remedy recipes, scientific journals—that might give her a clue to why her husband had thought her lacking virginity on her wedding night. In spite of her spate of redecorating, her paramount problem was never far from her mind and, although she learned a great deal from all her reading, she did not find what she was looking for. As she exhausted the resources of the Gray Oaks library, and the work neared completion in the three rooms she had chosen to refurbish, she found herself a prey to depressing thoughts which threatened to overwhelm her. There was no one to talk to, no one to whom she could confide her troubles... except Firely.

As Rebecca galloped across the fields on the patient little mare, she often spoke her thoughts, which were harmlessly carried away by the wind, while Firely’s ears flickered back and forth at the sound. “Why can’t I find out what it meant, that night in the bedroom? Is there some secret thing that should have happened? I cannot imagine anything more than I felt! Oh, why did Mama not tell me more? Why didn’t I ask?” She drew in the mare on a hillock to survey the home farm and the stream which lay in the valley.

“Everything looks so peaceful. I shall have to ride over to the farm soon and see how little Jennie goes on. Jason could at least have introduced me to someone my age. He has left me a virtual prisoner here, with no hope of reprieve. I trusted him, Firely. He was so kind and considerate before that night. No matter what Mama said, I would not have married him otherwise. And not even a letter from him! How does he think that looks to his precious household?”

She urged the mare forward once more, trying not to take her exasperation out on the horse. Instead, they pounded across the fields until Firely and Rebecca both were ready to rest, and Rebecca had achieved a more satisfactory frame of mind. “I shall be especially conciliating when he returns. Perhaps this long absence will have restored his equanimity. He will have thought better of his absurd notion, and even if he hasn’t, well, I shall talk to him and he will understand.” Through the rest of September and well into October she cherished this dream, clasping it like a talisman, as her only hope.

Rebecca was seated in the topiary, her favorite spot, and reading an entertaining novel when she heard footsteps approaching her along the path. The lingering smile on her face faded as she saw that Clayborne was wearing the scowl she had come to associate with him before he left. She did not speak as he approached her.

Surveying her critically, Clayborne commented “You have put on some weight since I left.” He had meant to add, in a sarcastic tone, of course, that he was glad she found it possible to enjoy her meals when spared his company, when the blaze of fury in her eyes shocked him into silence.

“I am not increasing, your lordship, as any maid in the house could no doubt inform you,” she flared. “I see your journey has not dispelled your ridiculous obsession”

“Nor improved your disposition, ma’am. If you will excuse me.” He sketched the travesty of a bow and left her, with breast heaving in agitation and anger, to glare after his retreating form. She could have wept with frustration to have all her plans upset at one blow. Why had she allowed herself to flash at him that way? Deep down she knew that it had been her fondest wish that when he saw her again there would be some sign of welcome from him, some tentative gesture of reconciliation. His scowl had unnerved her, and his words had brought back his cruel speech that morning long ago in the breakfast room. She had meant to meet him halfway, more than halfway, and she had failed. With a sigh, she closed the book in her lap and walked slowly back to the house.

The gown she chose to wear to dinner was one of the most becoming, and certainly the most modest, of the dresses she had purchased as her wedding clothes. Although she arrived at the Blue Saloon well before the dinner hour in hopes of encountering her husband there, he did not present himself until Griggs was about to announce the meal. Clayborne formally placed his wife’s hand on his arm to lead her in, but did not speak until they were seated. While a footman ladled the potage aux lantilles into their bowls, Rebecca asked, “Did you find the Yorkshire estate in good order, Jason?”

“Yes. The harvesting went very well.”

“And your brother-in-law and nephew, were they pleased to see you?”

“Yes. They sent their regards.”

“Bridge seemed to find no difficulties here. I suppose you have spoken with him?”

“Yes, most of the afternoon.”

“Mrs. Lambert told me that you are partial to sweetbreads with mushrooms,” Rebecca suggested hopefully as she tasted the dish just served her.

“It was kind of her to remember.”

A flush of annoyance crept into her cheeks, but she stoutly ignored this slighting of her having ordered the dish for him. “Your cook has introduced me to a number of new dishes. He makes a superb loaf of beef collops.”

Clayborne offered no reply to this pleasantry and they sat in hostile silence for some time, attending to their meal with unusual concentration. Aware though he was of the beautiful new draperies and the delicate shade of the new paint, Clayborne could not bring himself to speak of them. Somehow it seemed a sacrilege that she had put her hand to his ancient, honored home. True, he had said that she might, and the results were certainly charming, but that she had done it...

Rebecca cleared her throat and said diffidently, “You have not commented as yet on the new decoration.”

“Very admirable, I’m sure,” he returned coldly. He thought perhaps he heard his wife, in a very soft voice, say “Toad,” but he could not be sure and aside from giving her a stern look, he said nothing.

Matters did not improve and Rebecca was not surprised, and not displeased, when Clayborne left Gray Oaks again a week later, this time declaring that he was headed for Somerset and Dorset to settle some estate matters there. He did not return again until the week before Christmas.

In an excess of seasonal high spirits, Rebecca had made every effort to decorate the house in the most Christmasy manner possible. The housemaids giggled as they assisted the footmen in hanging boughs of evergreen and holly, with sprigs of mistletoe ever prominent.

“You’ll have the girls good for nothing, my lady,” Mrs. Lambert cautioned her. “‘Tis the custom here that the young men may kiss a girl beneath the mistletoe so long as there is a berry left to pluck from the twig.”

“Would you have me remove all the berries, then?” Rebecca asked, laughing down at her from a ladder. “No, no, that would never do. Any footman who is so enterprising as to pluck a berry each time he kisses a girl should be rewarded for the feat. These ceilings must be eighteen feet if they’re an inch.” She surveyed the Blue Saloon critically from her high vantage point. “Perhaps the bow is not centered perfectly on the mantle. Yes, that’s just right. The house smells so delicious, and not just from the evergreen. What has M. Dussart in his ovens that makes me long for tea?”

Proud that she had declared a truce with the French cook for the duration of the holiday season, Mrs. Lambert beamed. “You’ll not credit the assortment of Christmas biscuits and plum puddings that are daily mounting in the kitchens, Lady Clayborne. I’ve not seen the like since his lordship was a lad, and his sister in leading strings. We couldn’t keep the two of them out from underfoot for love nor money.”

As Griggs entered the room bearing a tray laden with samples of M. Dussart’s work, he overheard these last comments and his eyes took on a faraway look. “Miss Caroline never left the kitchen without at least two gingerbread boys, and his lordship once spirited off an entire plum pudding, bless me if he didn’t.”

“And I’ve no doubt who helped him eat it,” Mrs. Lambert retorted.

“That kind he was to share his booty with me, Mrs. Lambert, and me just an underfootman in those days.”

He straightened up with suspiciously misty eyes. “Poor Miss Caroline. How she would have loved to see her own little lad with his Christmas gingerbread boy!”

“Tut! Let’s have no sadness for her ladyship,” Mrs. Lambert protested, with a tender smile for Rebecca. “Lord Clayborne was a mischievous lad in those days, and no mistake. Why, I searched for days for the Christmas ornaments his Mama kept specially for the mantles, only to find he had hidden them away so we’d buy more from the peddler who called at that time of year. A ragged fellow he was, that peddler, and his lordship always had a soft heart for the needy. Won’t he be proper pleased with the house all festive-like?”

“I hope so,” Rebecca murmured fervently as she finished a buttery biscuit. “You should be having your tea, Mrs. Lambert. Don’t let me keep you.”

“Pooh. We have time enough to do the hall now.” She gave an approving nod to the Blue/Green Saloon and marched from the room.

While Griggs bustled about unconsciously humming one of the Christmas carols Rebecca had been playing on the pianoforte the previous evening, and Mrs. Lambert ordered her underlings about in the quiet expectation that the lord of the manor would surely return for the holidays, Rebecca happily directed them all, feeling in charity with the whole world, even Clayborne. Her worthy sentiment was challenged immediately, as he chanced to arrive in the midst of this activity, with his perpetual scowl prominent.

“Welcome home, Jason. We are having the most wonderful time preparing for Christmas,” she called cheerfully, her arms loaded with boughs. She paused in the act of setting them down, as she noticed that he was not alone.

“I have brought my uncle to spend the holidays with us,” he explained stiffly. “Sir Henry Davert, this is my wife Rebecca.”

BOOK: Lord Clayborne's Fancy
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