Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
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MISS DEBENHAM’S SECRET

SARA BENNETT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Sara Bennett

 

Also by Sara Bennett

 

Wicked Earl Seeks Proper Heiress

Sin With a Scoundrel

To Pleasure a Duke

A Most Sinful Proposal

Led Astray by a Rake

Her Secret Lover

A Seduction in Scarlet

Mistress of Scandal

The Rules of Passion

Lessons in Seduction

Kissing the Bride

Beloved Highlander

Once He Loves

The Rose and the Shield

The Lily and the Sword

 

 

 

1812, Lyme Regis, England

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Clarissa Debenham walked quickly along the high street, stepping over the puddles from last night’s rain, lifting her dark blue skirts over her plain brown boots in an attempt to keep them from getting damp. Not that the children at the school where she was assistant teacher would notice, but Mr. Marly, the headmaster, would. Young and handsome as he was, Mr. Marly was a stickler for everything being in its proper place, and Clarissa’s damp hem would not go unnoticed.

She’d left the cottage early this morning so that she could collect some tobacco for her father’s pipe on her way to work at the school. He’d run out and he never thought it worth his while to do something if he could get Clarissa to do it for him. She didn’t mind, not really. There were only the two of them, Clarissa’s mother having died at her birth, but despite Clarissa being a dutiful daughter she had always had the sense that he blamed her for her mother’s death and she was constantly trying to make it up to him.

She’d almost reached the tobacconist when something caught her eye in the draper’s shop and brought her to a complete standstill.

There was a bonnet in the window and it was one of Mrs Frobisher’s more lavish creations. The owner of the drapery store liked to think of herself as a creative type but this time she had truly outdone herself.

The straw brim was covered in greenery meant to represent leaves, perhaps a vine; the crown was resplendent with silk ribbons and bright flowers and hanging jauntily over the side was a bunch of what Clarissa thought must be red cherries. Although, she thought, peering at them closely, surely they were too big for cherries? Plums then? Crab apples, even?

Clarissa smiled. She imagined herself wearing the bonnet into school and the screams of laughter from the children. They would love it. But Mr. Marly would be less than impressed and she was rather in awe of Mr. Marly. She wanted his approval and she did not think the bonnet would gain her anything but a cold stare.

It was a shame because Clarissa liked to hear the children laughing. Did school always have to be so stern and joyless? Surely there was room for a balance? If she was in charge of the school it would be a different matter altogether.

With a sigh she went to turn away just as a deep voice spoke behind her.

“A bonnie bonnet for a bonnie lassie.”

Her eyes widened and there, in the glass window, she saw a large reflection. A man standing behind her wearing a naval uniform. Their eyes met. His were dark; dark smiling eyes. And there was something about them that sent a tingle all the way down to her toes—it was a sensation she was completely unfamiliar with and it threw her off balance. It was an effort for her to drag her gaze away from the image in the window and turn to face him.

At once he stepped back so that she didn’t bump into him and she saw he was tall as well as muscular, with a strong, rugged face, and although he was nowhere near as handsome as Mr. Marly, she thought he’d be a good man to have by you in a crisis.

He bowed, a lock of his dark hair tumbling forward over his brow so that he had to sweep it back with his big, blunt fingers.

“I’m sorry. I startled ye,” he said apologetically, but his dark eyes were merry.

He was a Scot and therefore very much a foreigner in Lyme Regis. Clarissa knew she should walk away. That would be the proper thing a young lady should do; the man was a stranger. On the other hand, the fact that he was a stranger and probably knew no-one in the area—perhaps he was lonely and he did look very nice. Surely just talking to him couldn’t do any harm?

“I’m sure it is very bonny but I don’t think it would do,” she said with a smile, gesturing toward the bonnet in the window. “I am an assistant teacher and the headmaster says my students are already somewhat unruly. If I were to wear a bonnet like that he would lose all hope for me.”

He laughed. He had nice white teeth. Mr. Marly, handsome as he was, had several missing teeth. Not that he smiled very often. Certainly not at school in front of the children. That would never do. He insisted on their respect and he had their fear. Was that the same thing? She wasn’t sure. Not that he would ever wish the children harm of course. Some needed a little more discipline than others but Mr Marly was not one of those headmasters who enjoyed meting out punishment. It was just a necessary part of his job.

“A teacher, you say?” the Scot looked interested.

“And you are a sailor?”

He smiled again but this time she could tell that she’d amused him. Perhaps ‘sailor’ was a landlubber’s word. “Aye, I am. I am second lieutenant on a ship called the Amazonian. She’s being repaired at the moment. In dry dock. I was visiting here with another officer from on board—the midshipman—but he’s had to return to duty. He kindly offered me the loan of the cottage he’d taken for the summer. Until I’m needed again.”

People often took out leases on cottages and houses along the seafront, and it appeared this was what the midshipman had done.

Clarissa gave her new acquaintance a curious glance. “Unless I’m mistaken you are a long way from home, sir. Don’t you want to visit your own friends and relatives?”

“Aye, I am a long way from home, but there isn’t much for me now in Portobello. No reason to visit at all unless it’s for the memories.”

He sounded pragmatic and practical and yet Clarissa thought she saw a glint of sadness in his eyes, as if there were some tragedy in his past. Although, as Mr. Marly had scolded her often enough, she was a romantic and prone to day dreaming so perhaps there was nothing in his eyes at all but a speck of dust.

Just then the mother of one of her pupils hurried past and opened her mouth to call out a good morning, only to notice the lieutenant by her side. Instead of a greeting she cast Clarissa a doubtful look and hurried on. Oh dear, thought Clarissa, by this evening word would be all over the school that Miss Debenham had been chatting with a complete stranger. Lyme, like every other small place the world over, was well known for its gossip.

“I must go,” she said, and heard the regret in her voice. “I will be late to school.”

He must have heard it too, because he offered her his arm. “May I walk with you?”

Clarissa hesitated again but the thought of never seeing him again overcome her doubts. What was it about this man that made her want to throw caution to the winds? Putting aside her doubts she smiled.

“Miss Debenham. Clarissa Debenham.”

He bowed. “Lieutenant Alistair McKay, at your service,” and he held out his arm a second time; this time Clarissa took it.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Alistair McKay
was
lonely. It was the truth. The cottage his midshipman friend had taken the lease on was comfortable and Lyme Regis was attractive, but after a few walks about the place and a stroll on the Cobb, he felt as if he’d seen all there was to see. He was champing at the bit for action, and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Napoleon was up to his tricks again, but until the Amazonian was repaired her crew were all landlubbers.

Clarissa Debenham was not the sort of girl he usually noticed. Petite and not exactly a beauty, her fair hair and blue eyes were striking, and when she smiled, well he noticed her then. She had a rather shy, tentative sort of smile, as if she wasn’t really used to smiling. Aye, she was a serious sort of girl, or perhaps it was just that she hadn’t had much to smile about in her life.

Alistair was one of the jollier characters aboard his ship. Liked by everyone, he was always making jokes and cheering the others up, and subsequently everyone liked him. Or at least they liked the version of him they knew—Alistair had his secrets too. But he was not one to share them or mull over the past; he’d always found it more productive to keep his eyes firmly fixed on the future.

Now, walking with Clarissa Debenham, he noticed she had a little frown between her fair eyebrows, and wondered what it was that weighed so heavily on the shoulders of one so young.

“It must be wonderful to visit foreign places,” she said, and he knew then that she was thinking how insular was her own life here in Lyme.

“Eating weevilly biscuits and drinking rancid water?” he teased. “Being given orders by a captain in a temper, and then having to convey them to your men in a way that doesn’t make them want to mutiny? Foreign travel on a navy ship isn’t quite as wonderful as you might think, Miss Debenham. I’d much rather be here in Lyme teaching pupils their alphabet.”

“I think you’re trying to make me feel better, Lieutenant McKay,” she said, but her smile peeped up at him. “You don’t have to. My life may be very quiet but I enjoy what I do and I think I do it well.” No apologies in her blue eyes. She was confident when it came to her teaching even if not when it came to herself.

“Have you lived in Lyme all your life?” he asked after a moment.

“I have.”

She could have stopped there; she should have stopped there, but for some reason his interested expression encouraged her to say more and she found herself telling him, a stranger, the story of her life.

“My mother died when I was born. She was a beautiful woman, and loved by all, so her death was a terrible tragedy. Now there is just my father and I. He was the headmaster at the school, before he retired, and now Mr. Marly has taken his place.” She blushed, and he wondered why. “I am his assistant at the moment but I hope to rise further in time. If I had been a boy my father would have sent me to the grammar school but for a girl he did not think it worth his while. Instead he taught me at home and he was very thorough. So in spite of not going to grammar school I can’t claim any lack in my education.”

Personally, Alistair thought the father sounded like an old horror. True, he had lost his wife, but did he have to tell his daughter how marvellous she had been? To make her feel as if she had deprived the world of this paragon and she was unworthy to have taken her place? And then, because she was a female, having to be educated at home, and no doubt with the constant reminder of what her birth had taken from her father? He could imagine it and Alistair had a very good imagination when it came to cruelty. The little slights, the silences, the sense that if she had been a boy then perhaps, just perhaps, her mother’s death might have been forgiven.

Alistair decided he would make it his mission while he was in Lyme to make Clarissa smile as often as possible.

Starting now.

“I think you have made a mistake, Miss Debenham.”

She looked startled, those blue eyes so big and wide he felt as if he could happily sink into them. “A mistake?” she repeated anxiously. “What do you mean, Lieutenant McKay?”

“I mean, Miss Debenham, that you should have purchased that bonnet. What if there is an occasion that calls for it?”

The anxiety left her eyes and she smiled. “What possible occasion could that be?”

“Hmm. One that requires a bonnet with a bunch of red cherries on it.”

Now she laughed, but it had a rusty sound. “Perhaps you should buy it yourself for your . . . wife?”

He met her curious gaze and she blushed as if she had said something wrong.

“I have no wife,” he said quickly, before she could back away from the subject. “Nor do I have a fiancé or a girl I am courting. I am all alone, Miss Debenham, just like you.”

She hesitated.

“Go on, ask me,” he told her, “I won’t bite, I promise.”

“Well, I was going to ask whether you are all alone because you prefer it, or whether it is because of lack of opportunity?”

He waited until they reached the end of the street. Ahead he could see a square brick building that had the look of a school house. When the bell in its wooden crate began to ring solemnly, the rope pulled by a man with a handsome face, wearing a sombre jacket, he knew he was right.

“Lack of opportunity,” he admitted wryly. “When you are at sea so much there is little time for romance, and then if you find someone and attempt to write letters, they are always going astray. In my experience, Miss Debenham, girls do not forgive letters going astray. They soon find someone with a nice safe occupation on shore, who comes home every night for his supper and isn’t sailing to the other side of the world.”

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
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