Authors: Allison Lane
Andrew nodded, but said nothing.
“With no dowry, marriage was impossible. But to leave on my own, I needed funds,” she continued. “I started teaching music and manners to Squire Porter’s daughters.”
“Have they improved any with age?” he asked. “I always thought they resembled butter balls.”
“They slimmed for their come-outs, but it didn’t last. Both have regained their youthful figures and then some. Perhaps I could have tempered their love of sweets, but they were not with me for long. Within the month, Father discovered what I was doing and forbade it.”
“Pride. He feared that people would learn that he couldn’t keep his family in style – as if they didn’t already know. His penchant for bad judgment and worse investments had titillated the neighborhood for years.”
“Yet he allowed you to work for Laura, knowing what she is.”
“Exactly, though he had little choice by then. All the valuables were gone – Mother’s jewelry, the silver, paintings, the Somerset property. So he let me accept. For me, it was the answer to a prayer. Not only could I escape Fields House, but the salary William offered was large enough that I could save more than half.”
“That still doesn’t explain Peter’s anger.”
“Part of it is rooted in my job. By betraying my birth – which is how he sees service – I forfeited any claim on the family. He was already upset about the jewelry casket, for Father had sworn to cut me off when I left. The trust was too much. And when Mr. Barry mentioned that it had been set up very recently, Peter lost his temper. He must think that Father slipped funds out of his grasp to spite him. Which might well be true, though Mr. Barry explained it differently.”
“Where did Sir Nigel find the money?”
“Something must have paid at a time when he was feeling guilty, for he also set money aside for Gramling.”
“So why am I driving you to Moorside?” asked Andrew, relaxing. “You can stay at Seabrook until you find a cottage. A footman will collect your belongings.”
“No.” She shook her head. “I cannot leave without warning. It would be unfair to Laura, unfair to William, and set a bad example for my future students.”
“She can manage for two days. Or William can send for her today.”
“No. Laura is already upset because I left her alone. Learning from someone else that I am quitting would make her furious. She would refuse to leave Moorside and would probably turn off Mrs. Monroe during the inevitable argument. Can you leave your sister alone and defenseless, no matter what she did to Kevin?”
He opened his mouth, then stopped. “No, I cannot justify leaving her alone. But I will find her a new companion as soon as possible. I don’t like you working for her, either.”
“I won’t stay above a week – two days at Moorside, then five at Seabrook. I will resign after the house party. That way Laura can stay at the manor until William replaces me. If I quit now, she is sure to cause trouble. I know her well. When she feels ill-used, she finds someone to blame, then makes their lives a misery.”
“I’d hoped she’d outgrown that.”
“She hasn’t. I doubt she ever will. First she would have to admit that she is subject to the same rules that govern others. William doesn’t deserve the tumult she would cause. But if I could ask a favor—”
“Could you see if there is a suitable cottage near Exeter? I cannot afford to live in town, but I would like to be close enough to attract students from the merchant class.”
“I ca—” He bit off his refusal as Kevin’s accusing eyes glared at him. Leaving in the morning was no longer possible. “I will see the house agent tomorrow, though I wish you were not reduced to this. You deserve better, Chloe.”
“So did Kevin. But we must play the hand we are dealt. For me, that means taking charge of my destiny rather than sitting around hoping that some man will wed me or a distant relation might invite me to look after his children. My nearer relatives hated Father so much, they’ve likely forgotten I exist.” She felt her face heat, for it sounded as though she were whining.
They rode in silence for a time, then conversed lightly about the day, the scenery, and innocuous childhood memories. She was grateful for the reprieve. It kept her mind away from troubling topics. Not until they approached Moorside did she again grow serious.
“I have one other favor,” she said.
“Finding you a companion?”
“I don’t need one.”
“But you do.” He halted the team on a rise overlooking Moorside. “No respectable family will put its daughter in your care if you are living alone.”
She smothered one of Kevin’s favorite curses. “I had not considered that.”
“Exactly. So before you move into a cottage, you had best find a companion. She must be old enough to maintain propriety and have sufficient breeding to command respect.”
“That will stretch my budget.”
“A tarnished reputation would prevent you from attracting students. What would that do to your budget?”
She nodded as he again set the team in motion. “Very well. But that was not the favor I sought. I wish you to keep Mother’s jewelry casket for me. Laura will be peeved enough over my absence. One of those brooches is quite lovely. She would resent that I own it.”
“I’ll hold it until the house party. And we can discuss any progress on cottages when you arrive at Seabrook.”
“I am deeply in your debt, Andrew. Thank you.”
Without waiting for a reply, she hurried into the cottage. Laura started scolding before the door even shut, drawing curses from Andrew as he pulled away.
Andrew frowned as he left Moorside behind. It was obvious that William was wrong about Laura – which boded ill for this house party. A vengeful Laura could wreak havoc.
But there was little he could do about it. Even if William accepted his assessment, he wouldn’t rescind the invitation. Once he made a decision he never looked back. Besides, such an insult would send Laura into a worse tirade, this one directed at Chloe. And unless Laura came to Seabrook, Chloe would remain at her post until they found a new companion. Loyalty was integral to her character.
He mentally kicked himself for agreeing to find her a cottage. It was bad enough that he must share a roof with her for the next week, but helping her would keep them close – stupid, considering the lust she raised. Remaining in her vicinity was dangerous. Yet he couldn’t turn her down, and she would need his help to control Laura.
By the time Andrew reached Seabrook, his leg was throbbing from bouncing along muddy, rutted lanes. He wanted nothing more than to lie down while Jinks loosened the knotted muscles with hot compresses.
That plan lasted no longer than his previous one.
Most of the guests had arrived while he was gone. He could ignore Martha and her mother and the Sullivans – Miss Sullivan was Martha’s closest friend. But the Rockhursts and Graysons were another matter. They were family. As soon as he talked to William, he must greet his sisters.
Catherine had married Lord Rockhurst four years earlier. They now had two boys in addition to Catherine’s daughter from her first marriage. Mary had wed Lord Grayson during Andrew’s last injury leave. They also had a son. He’d seen all of them after Waterloo, but he’d been out of his head with fever at the time, so it hardly qualified as a visit. The only reason he’d stopped in London had been to muster energy for the trip to Devonshire.
As he entered the hall, his eleven-year-old niece burst from the drawing room.
“Sarah!” He called, grinning – she always packed more activity into a day than most people managed in two, so keeping up with her was a challenge. “Slow down and say hello.”
“Uncle Drew!” She leaped into his arms so he could swing her around. When he finally set her down, she cocked her head, examining him from head to toe. “Much better,” she decided with a laugh. “You looked at death’s door the last time we met.”
“I felt it. But the leg is now recovered.” He flinched as a new cramp put the lie to his claim, but diverted her attention by asking about her governess. “Is Miss Griswold with you?”
“Of course. You know Blake never lets me go anywhere without Grissy. He’s afraid I’ll get into mischief.”
“He knows you well. I heard you dragged him into a host of adventures on his first visit to Seabrook. I’m amazed he found time to court your mother.”
She stiffened her back, thrusting her chin up in a parody of society’s most disapproving dowagers. Despite blonde hair, china blue eyes, and a classically beautiful face, she managed to look fierce. “You must know, my dear uncle, that I was executing a hostess’s duty by protecting him from Aunt Laura. You know how she was.”
He grimaced as Kevin’s face floated before his eyes. Rockhurst was another man Laura had wanted for herself. Another subject change was in order. “How is everyone?” Sarah always knew everything about the family. Keen ears and sharp eyes let nothing past her.
“Uncle Grayson’s father is finally dying. Uncle Grayson will be Earl of Rothmoor before the year is out, and glad of it, I’m sure.”
“Don’t suggest that, Sarah,” he admonished gently. She might be precocious, but the complexities of adult emotions still eluded her.
“Why? Uncle Grayson hates him, and vice versa.”
“Life isn’t that simple, sweetheart. While it is true that they have been estranged most of Gray’s life, the earl is still Gray’s father. A man who doesn’t feel the loss of a parent is stone cold – which doesn’t describe Gray at all.”
Her eyes narrowed, then lightened. “Aunt Mary will make him feel better.”
“Some. But only time can heal some wounds. The problem with death is that it ends any hope of rapprochement. The living will always wonder if there might have been some way to mend the breach.” As Chloe had done through much of the ride back to Moorside. Even when she’d remained silent, he’d seen regret in her eyes.
Sarah frowned. “That would explain Mrs. Harold.”
“Who is Mrs. Harold?”
“The Rockburn vicar’s wife. She hadn’t spoken to her sister in ten years when the lady suddenly called on her. They patched up their quarrel and parted the best of friends. Three days later, the sister was struck dead by apoplexy. The squire’s wife insisted that it was a shame the two had mended their fences, since it made the death so much harder. But Mrs. Harold disagreed. She thanked God for the week they’d had together.”
Sarah nodded. “I’ve always laughed about Uncle Grayson’s couriers, but I suppose concern for his father is why he is expecting them daily this time.”
Or he had an important business deal brewing. Gray kept in touch with his office wherever he went. It probably frustrated him to be two hard days from London instead of his usual four hours. But he said only, “I suspect you’re right.”
She lowered her voice. “I think Aunt Mary is increasing again.”
“Did she tell you that?” He backed into the corner so their voices wouldn’t carry upstairs.
“Of course not. Even Uncle Grayson doesn’t know, but she was yawning prodigiously when they arrived, and she turned positively green when Mama offered her some coffee.”
“It sounds more like carriage sickness. You know Mary has never been a traveler. She probably slept poorly at last night’s inn.”
“Well, maybe…” she grudgingly admitted. “But Mama was just like that with both Max and Richard.”
“Speaking of your brothers, how are the imps?”
Sarah giggled. “Richard still sleeps most of the time, though he’s past his first birthday. He reminds me of Lord Higgins, who moves always at a snail’s pace and cannot summon the energy even to smile.”
Andrew covered his mouth and coughed. The description was apt, though laughing would only encourage her. He’d known Higgins at school, where the lad had been christened Slug, as much for his rotundity as for his languid habits.
“Max is the opposite, and far too smart for his own good,” she added primly.
“Very like a certain young lady,” he murmured.
“I was never that energetic,” she insisted with a grin. “Max is always in motion and drives poor Haines to distraction.” Haines was the nurse.
“As I said, just like you. You ran me more ragged than Napoleon’s finest.”
“But how rude of you to say so.” She tried to pout, but laughed instead. “Do you know that Max managed to smuggle a hedgehog into the nursery last week? Three years old, yet he escaped Haines’s eye, captured a hedgehog, and slipped it into his bed. Haines was shocked.”
“Doubtful. Unhappy, perhaps, but she knows you are scapegraces. Yes, even you,” he added when she tried to object. “Who left that charming toad in the pocket of my dress uniform two years ago? It took Jinks the better part of a day to remove the stains.”
“I wasn’t thinking.” She lowered her head, lower lip thrust out, but spoiled the effect by peeking upward through her lashes. God help society when she staged her come-out.
He adopted the expression that could make hardened soldiers quail. “You should pass that lesson to young Max. Pranks that cause damage are not funny. Nor are they fair to the servants who must clean up the mess.”
“You sound like Papa.”
“And a very good man he was.” Her father had died when she was six. “Remember his wisdom always. It will stand you in good stead.”
The shadow slipped from her face, letting her natural smile out. “Cousin Nick is here, too. He isn’t much older than Richard, but is quite industrious and can spend hours building block castles or playing with his cloth dog.”
“Another precocious imp like Max?” he asked, leading her toward the stairs.
“Perhaps, though his concentration seems deeper. Much like Uncle Grayson, now that I think on it. Both are determined to succeed.”
“I must meet him. Alas, I know Nick only through Mary’s letters.” He’d been too ill to visit the nursery in London and barely recalled talking to Mary.
“They only called once while you were with us because you were so fevered.”
He nodded. “So I’ve not really seen Mary and Gray since their wedding day."
“Which I missed.” Sarah scowled. “I hope Uncle William will be as happy as Mama and Aunt Mary are. Miss Truitt seems awfully sober.”