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Authors: Laura Matthews

Tags: #Regency Romance

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BOOK: Lord Clayborne's Fancy
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She stared up at him, her blue eyes enormous in their wonder and concern. “I see. Thank you for explaining. But…”

“You had no maidenhead.”

“But, Jason, that could not be. You must be mistaken!”

“It was your mistake, ma’am, to think that I would not be able to tell of your previous indiscretion.” His face was set in the harsh lines with which she had become so familiar.

The injustice of his accusation, coming as it did upon his unnerving bluntness in describing virginity, shook her resolve to remain calm. “I had never been with a man before you! You must believe me!”

“I see no reason why I should, ma’am. Now, if you will excuse me.” He was turning to leave when he noticed one large tear roll down her cheek, to be dashed away immediately. With an effort he forced himself to repress the stirring of compassion he experienced. He handed her a handkerchief and, feeling very self-righteous, was stomping back to his room when he heard her give a watery chuckle and say, “Well, at least now I know you aren’t daft. I was worried about your fixation with the bed, you know.” He slammed the door after himself.

* * * *

The next day dawned hot and humid, giving Rebecca a slight headache and making her wish they were not going on the picnic. Her spirits were low after the discussion with her husband the previous evening and she felt that she had much to contemplate now, a matter which could hardly be aided by a picnic.

Abandoning her bed reluctantly, she went in search of the cook to make arrangements for the food hamper and spent some time there, wishing the meal, at least, to be sumptuous, a sentiment with which the cook was in perfect agreement. When Clayborne was away from Gray Oaks, which recently was the majority of the time, Rebecca was in the habit of ordering far simpler meals, and the cook, with all his Gallic fervor, could indulge in an orgy of roasting, baking, grilling and such only when the master was in residence. Together they planned a menu which would have satisfied the appetites of a far larger party, but which pleased them both, and they parted in perfect charity.

Meg was in high good humor and looked charming in a pale blue muslin dress, trimmed with tiers of broad darker blue bands around the hem. She joined Rebecca in the breakfast parlor, exclaiming, “It is a perfect day for a picnic! Shall we take an open carriage? I think you can see the countryside so much better that way and you would not mind, would you, Miss Turnpeck?”

“Not a bit, my dear. I shall wrap myself about with plenty of warm shawls, and I shall bring along some extra ones for the two of you. I feel sure it will be the most delightful expedition,” she enthused, quite rosy with the thought of it.

Rebecca mused that she would give a great deal to know exactly how many shawls dear Miss Turnpeck could call her own, but stifled her curiosity and chatted with her companions about the picnic, only excusing herself to discuss the matter of a carriage with Clayborne. She found him in his study, going over some papers with an abstracted air. Since she had never before sought him out for any reason during their marriage, he appeared a bit surprised when she entered to his summons.

“I wonder if you would arrange for an open carriage for the picnic, Jason, as Meg has desired it and Miss Turnpeck is agreeable.”

“Certainly, if you all wish it. Do you feel well? You look a trifle downpin,” he remarked, his intent brown eyes surveying her pallor.

“It’s just the headache. I’m sure it will go away when we’re out in the air. I’ve arranged for the picnic hamper and we should all be ready in an hour, if that will be convenient.”

“As you wish, but we could put the picnic off until another day if you’re not feeling well.”

“No, I shall be fine. Everyone is looking forward to it.”

When the carriage was rolling along the country lanes, Rebecca did feel better, laughing with Meg and listening to Miss Turnpeck’s monologues on the countryside. Clayborne chose a spot where a brook bubbled by, with a view over the fields and forests. Meg and Rebecca wandered off arm in arm to discard their half boots and stockings and wade in the brook. The sound of their laughter and the sight of skipping stones brought an affectionate, indulgent smile to Miss Turnpeck’s countenance.

“I remember the picnics we used to have at Farthington Hall when all four girls were there. So much giggling and getting into mischief as they did. I thought they would never grow up, but look at them now,” she sighed, and though Clayborne did look at them, his expression was unreadable.

Miss Turnpeck had set to helping the coachman lay out the food, and Clayborne, considering this an excellent opportunity, pursued his desire for more information.

“Yesterday when you were speaking of the stray dog Rebecca befriended,” he began, “I think you mentioned a fellow with whom I have a slight acquaintance—Thomas Burns.” He was trying to invent some physical description or pinpoint the area the fellow lived in, but it was unnecessary, as Miss Turnpeck seldom needed much encouragement to free her rambling tongue.

“Oh, do you know Mr. Burns? It turned out that he lived not so far from us, on the other side of Salisbury. Have you been to his family home? Wilsted Manor, I believe it is called.” She did not allow Clayborne a chance to reply to this, so he merely smiled to encourage her. “Dressed like a dandy, he was, the day we met him. He wore those high shirt points so he could hardly turn his head. It’s a wonder he didn’t run over the both of them. We had been in Salisbury, you know, shopping for yardage for the girls’ gowns for Trudy’s wedding. Such a lovely wedding it was, with Trudy absolutely radiant and her young man so pale I was sure he would faint. They were married from the village church and I feel certain there were never so many people there before. And the wedding feast afterwards...” she exclaimed, ready to divulge all the details of it.

Clayborne did not wish her to be sidetracked yet, so he said quite untruthfully, “Most splendid it must have been. My wife has often spoken of it. And I believe Thomas,” he unblinkingly used the young man’s Christian name as if he were his oldest friend, “was there, too.”

“Yes, and I was that surprised to see him. I didn’t know that he was acquainted with Mr. Chalmers, Trudy’s husband, you know, but they appear to have been close friends over the years. And I am surprised, as Mr. Chalmers is the most upright young man and I cannot for the life of me imagine his racketing about the countryside with Mr. Burns. Oh, excuse me, Lord Clayborne, if I am speaking of one of your close friends, too,” she mumbled in embarrassment.

“No, no, a mere acquaintance. I have heard,” he continued helpfully, and without the least remorse, “that he was quite ramshackle in those days.”

“Yes, for Mary brought tales of him and teased Rebecca with them. Heaven knows where Mary would hear such gossip. I am sure she never kept her ears so wide open in the schoolroom,” she sniffed. “Mary is the one for hanging about the stables and gossiping with the maids at the Bird in Hand, though I am sure that I do my best to have her act as a young lady should. I cannot imagine what it will be like if she is my only charge in the schoolroom next year. I shall be so distracted,” she moaned piteously.

“Mary could certainly be a handful,” Clayborne agreed. He flashed his most sympathetic smile at Miss Turnpeck and urged, “What was it Mary had learned about the young rascal?”

“Dear me, I am hard pressed to remember,” she demurred, only to continue in full flow, “but he seems to have wagered and drunk a lot, in London and in the neighborhood. Mary told us of a curricle race he had with a friend of his where he drove another carriage into a ditch and did not stop to help for fear of losing the race. Such a wicked thing to do, and ladies in the carriage, too, no doubt. Young men these days are certainly outrageous—not you, my lord, of course I did not mean that.” She became flustered again and dropped silent

“Yes, Thomas was forever up to some mischief,” Clayborne pronounced pontifically. “But I imagine such a scamp would seem fascinating to your four charges, off in the country at Farthington Hall.”

“Well, you know how it is with these girls—any new face. But no, I think they were just given to funning about him amongst themselves, for though I saw him in the neighborhood several times, he came to the house but rarely. Though, as I said, I did see him the day the dog went missing, and I have always had my suspicions,” she said nodding wisely, as she placed the last of the rhubarb tarts on the picnic rug.

“You think he took the dog? Why should he do that?” Clayborne asked curiously.

“Now there I cannot help you, for I cannot think of the least reason. But then, he seems to have done many things which don’t bear scrutiny, so why not take the dog? Though I cannot believe that he would do it when he knew that Rebecca was so fond of Rags, for Mr. Burns seemed rather taken with Rebecca. But then he soon wed little Sybil Caruthers, whose grandfather’s made a fortune in India. Such a sweet girl she is, shy and quiet-like, but ever so kind and thoughtful of others. She’s a neighborhood girl too, you know, though my young ladies didn’t see her so much, as she spent a great part of her early years with her grandfather. Only came back to Foxton when the old gentleman died. And imagine inheriting his entire fortune! It was the talk of the neighborhood for weeks, I assure you. But it did not affect her manner one bit, still the dearest girl.”

Miss Turnpeck gave Clayborne the impression that her life would have been a lot simpler if she had had the likes of Miss Caruthers to instruct in her schoolroom. “And now she is Mrs. Burns with a son. It does make one feel aged,” she remarked coyly.

“But it is just these young people who keep you looking so youthful yourself, Miss Turnpeck,” Clayborne responded gallantly.

Miss Turnpeck blushed happily, but disclaimed, “What a farradiddle, my lord. And there is Trudy about to set up her nursery, too, and who knows who next,” she said slyly, blinking up at him.

“Indeed, who knows?’ he responded calmly, if more coolly than she expected. “Shall we call the young ladies to luncheon? I fear there is a storm brewing,” he remarked, indicating that the fleecy white clouds they had started their drive with were now becoming ominously gray, while the heat had become oppressive.

When Miss Turnpeck summoned the sisters, who were loath to leave their sport, Meg whispered, “Just like Turnip to spoil our fun.”

“I have no doubt it was Jason’s doing,” Rebecca grumbled good-naturedly.

Overhearing this sally, Clayborne explained, “There is a storm brewing, Rebecca.”

“I have no doubt of it, my lord,” she responded saucily, and accepted his offer of assistance to seat her. She and Meg did justice to the extensive selection of cold meats, bread, fruit, wine and tarts while Miss Turnpeck kept up a rambling discourse on the vagaries of the weather, the destructiveness of storms, and somehow ended up complaining of the condition of the roads, a transition which her audience did not perhaps follow but whose obscurity was not commented upon.

With a glance at the sky, Clayborne rose first from the meal. “The storm is closer now. We should have everything packed away quickly.”

To have the first excursion she had planned for her sister so abruptly brought to a halt was distressing for Rebecca. It might be days before she got the nerve to solicit his attendance at another such expedition, and she did not want Meg to be bored after her busy London season. The darkening clouds were still some distance away and she made a face at her husband and lingered, finishing her tart and wine. But she did not ignore the glare he sent her, and rose shortly to join the others in their preparations. “I had hoped we could gather some periwinkle and columbine,” she said wistfully. “You see those clumps? Well, perhaps another day,” she conceded, as she helped Miss Turnpeck pack the last of the food in the hamper.

They arrived at Gray Oaks just as the rain came, large drops spattering the dusty ground where the carriage stopped. The three women reached the house with muddied boots and hems, and repaired to their rooms to change, while the storm grew wilder outside. Fires were hastily lit in their rooms, as the day grew dark and chill after the earlier heat.

Rebecca huddled in a chair near her fire, while the wind lashed rain against the mullioned windowpanes and the thunder and lightning rocked the world outside. She assured herself, as she had many times before, that her fear of storms was irrational, but she had once been pinned under a lightning-struck limb and had not been found for an hour, soaked, chilled and in shock. Regardless of how she tried she could not seem to overcome the shivering which thunder and lightning precipitated in her. She was about to seek out Meg for comfort when the door from her husband’s room opened and he stood there staring at her.

“I trust you will now wish to acknowledge the justice of our early return home,” he said coldly.

“Please leave me alone, Jason,” she murmured through chattering teeth.

“I am waiting.”

“Well, wait somewhere else,” she said with some asperity. She saw the muscle in his jaw tighten and said dutifully if exasperatedly, “Your pardon, sir. I fear I do not enjoy thunderstorms. I am grateful that we are safe at home and I regret delaying us.”

“I accept your apology.”

“Most kind of you, I am sure,” she retorted.

Thunder rolled outside and there was almost immediately a rending crack as lightning struck some nearby tree. She gasped and failed to conceal the shudder which shook her.

In a moment he was at her side, exclaiming, “I didn’t realize you were afraid of storms. Why hadn’t you said so?” But of course he already knew the answer, so he took her icy hands in his large warm ones and she felt immeasurably comforted.

There was a soft rap on the door, as Meg called softly, “Are you there, Becka? I thought you would like company.” Clayborne gently returned Rebecca’s hands to her lap and opened the door to Meg.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were here, Jason. I won’t stay,” Meg mumbled, embarrassed.

“No, don’t go. I am sure your sister will welcome your company, and I should see what damage has been caused by the lightning.” He looked at Rebecca and asked gently, “You will be all right now?”

BOOK: Lord Clayborne's Fancy
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