Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book (2 page)

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
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She was searching his face, reading far more than he wanted her to, and now he was the one who felt he was on the back foot.

“This is my school,” she said. “Thank you for taking the trouble to walk with me, Lieutenant McKay.”

“My pleasure,” he assured her.

She would have walked away then, but the gentleman who’d rung the school bell approached them. “Mr. Marly,” she said, “I hope I am not late.”

Mr. Marly took out his pocket watch and checked. “I assume your father is not well again,” he said in answer to her question. He shot Alistair a curious and not entirely approving glance.

Clarissa felt herself feeling rather cross about that. Naval officers were to be admired, surely? They were gallantly fighting for England.

“This is Lieutenant McKay. Lieutenant, this is Mr. Marly, the headmaster of our school.”

The two men gave perfunctory bows. Alistair understood now why Clarissa had blushed when she said Mr. Marly’s name. He was very handsome, the sort of man many women would probably day dream about, but Alistair thought him stiff and joyless, just the sort of fellow Clarissa should
not
fall in love with. Good Gad, it would be like marrying her father!

“I must go now,” he said, speaking to Clarissa. “Shall I see you tomorrow as we arranged? At ten o’clock on the Cobb?”

Clarissa’s blue eyes widened at his lie but she managed to retain her composure. “Oh, um, I . . . that is, Mr. Marly sometimes requires me to come in on Saturdays, to set out lessons for the following week.”

“I’m sure Mr. Marly won’t mind this once,” Alistair said with such authority that even Mr. Marly found himself agreeing that yes, this once, he could spare Miss Debenham.

Clarissa set off after the headmaster and soon there were children running around her, vying for her attention. But she turned her head to look back, just before she reached the door, and he saw her smile. Just a small smile, but it was there.

With a grin of his own, Alistair McKay strode back the way he had come, back to his lonely cottage and pleasant thoughts of Miss Clarissa Debenham.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

The Cobb was a stone breakwater that had been first built hundreds of years earlier. It was vital for Lyme’s harbour and to protect the town from storms. When the sea was rough sometimes the waves would wash right over the top of it and there had been some tragic drownings over the years.

Today the sun was shining and the sea was smooth and Clarissa hurried down to meet Alistair McKay, her heart thumping, not quite knowing why she was doing this.

Was it because she knew she was going against her father’s wishes? Well she would be, if he knew. Or was it because Mr. Marly had seemed to look at her with new interest after Alistair McKay walked with her to school? Probably a little of both. Clarissa rarely asserted herself. She was eighteen and nearly always did as she was told. Doing what she wanted to do instead felt very liberating.

Alistair McKay was standing by the Cobb, the sharp breeze tugging at his dark hair. He wasn’t wearing his naval uniform today but brown trousers and a green jacket, with his white cravat tied loosely about his tanned throat. He looked big and strong and Clarissa had the oddest sensation when she looked at him, as if she wanted to throw herself into his arms and burrow in.

No, not burrow in, that would be cowardly or the actions of one of those weak females Clarissa was determined never to be. No, she wanted to be held by him, his hard body against her softer one, his smiling mouth dipping to cover hers . . .

“Stop it,” she murmured to herself, knowing she was flushed now. “That is just silly.”

But today, just for a moment, she wanted to be silly. She wanted to enjoy herself and forget the weight constantly upon her young shoulders. She wanted to be with Alistair McKay.

He had seen her. “Miss Debenham,” he said, with a bow, and his dark eyes were alight.

She looked up at him. She’d forgotten how tall he was. How on earth did he walk about below decks in his ship without bumping his head? She opened her mouth to ask him and then changed her mind. He’d think her rude, or worse ignorant.

“Shall we walk along the wall?” he asked, holding out his arm.

With a smile she took it and they set off. The breeze wasn’t overly strong but it tugged at her skirts and her bonnet, so that she had to put her hand up to hold it on. Out to sea there were small fishing boats, all surrounded by flocks of seagulls hoping for scraps.

“Do you expect to return to your ship soon?” she asked.

A couple were coming toward them and she recognised them and nodded, smiling, aware of the rampant curiosity in their eyes. That was the trouble when you lived in a small place, everyone knew your business. It had never bothered Clarissa before but suddenly she wanted Alistair to be her own secret, and not a subject for gossip.

“Not yet. Not immediately, anyway,” he said comfortably. “I considered going to London for a week or two, to see the sights, but now I think I will stay here in the cottage.”

He let his eyes rest on her a moment, and she wondered if he meant that she was the reason he was staying. She’d opened her mouth to ask him, even though she knew she should not, when her bonnet was caught by a sudden gust of wind. Clarissa cried out, snatching at it, but the ribbons had pulled free and it was off. It began to bowl along the Cobb. Moving quickly Alistair stepped on it, to stop it. When he bent to retrieve it she could already see that the straw was broken.

“Miss Debenham, my apologies,” he said, with a grimace. “You must let me replace it.”

Clarissa shook her head and laughed and suddenly her fears and worries left her. “It was a very ugly bonnet,” she admitted, pulling a face at the misshapen thing. “I never liked it.”

He stared at her a moment and then he threw the bonnet up into the wind; they both watched it sail away and land in the sea.

He turned to face her and his fingers brushed her cold cheek. “That’s better,” he said.

After that it seemed easier to talk and they spoke about many things, finding much that they agreed on and some that they didn’t.           

The hours flew past and Clarissa’s cheeks ached from smiling so much. By the time they parted she knew she was in danger of falling in love with this man who had come so suddenly into her life. Would that, she wondered, be a good thing?

And she had asked him to afternoon tea at her home to meet her father. Already she was shaky at the thought because she knew that her father could be difficult. But she wanted them to meet; people had seen her with a stranger and word would get back to her father sooner or later. In this town, sooner was far more likely, so she must introduce them before one of the neighbours told him of his daughter’s scandalous activities. She wanted her father to know Alistair was her friend and, whatever restrictions her father might place upon her, that she intended to see more of him.

***

Alistair walked back to his cottage. He was in high spirits from the time he’d spent with Clarissa, remembering her smiles and laughter and her shining blue eyes. Had he thought her not beautiful? He must have been mad. She was a glorious girl. Had he thought her not his type? Well, obviously his type had changed!

He stepped inside, into the quiet of the cottage, and his mood sobered.

Clarissa was a lovely girl, but she was rather lonely and certainly inexperienced when it came to men. He would be ungentlemanly indeed if he allowed her to fall in love with him. Not that he was a vain man, far from it, but Clarissa led a very sheltered life and, he supposed, he must seem to lead a far more exciting one. Such a young girl might easily be swept up in the romantic notion of a man who spent his life at sea, and Alistair was well aware it would end in heartbreak for her.

He liked Clarissa Debenham. He enjoyed her company. He certainly did not want to hurt her, but neither did he want to leave the sea and live the life of a landlubber, not here or anywhere. For all the deprivations and trials it brought, the sea was his life.

Perhaps a gentle warning? But what if she had no intention of attaching herself to him? She would be even more hurt, or insulted, and he would feel like a fool.

Alistair flung himself down in the old shabby chair by the window and looked out. The tiny cottage, although comfortable and perfectly adequate, was rather neglected but the view made up for that. He could see the sea from here and now he fixed his eyes on it as if it would help him solve this puzzle.

Perhaps it would be best if he simply mentioned his plans to return to the navy as soon as possible, that he had no idea of remaining here longer than necessary? Yes, that might do it. Then, if she was falling a little in love with him she would be forewarned, and if she wasn’t, then she wouldn’t be upset by his presumption.

Pleased with this compromise, Alistair leaned back in the old chair, arms folded behind his head and stuck his feet up on the little table before him. The trouble was Alistair had never been able to settle down anywhere, not since he was a boy in Portobello. His home life had been unhappy to say the least and the thought of being in that sort of situation again kept him moving from place to place. The navy was ideal for him and when he was ashore there was never really time to put down roots, even had he wanted to. He would see his sister when he was able to, and he always enjoyed the visits, but they were very different people and he thought they would probably not get on as well if he were there more often. She had been quick to find herself a husband and a home and have children, whereas he . . .

Alistair was a rolling stone. Or an ocean wave, perhaps.

He always wondered if his father had been of a similar disposition and being forced on land to work and live had soured him. He was a miserable man, cruel in word and deed, but over the years that Alistair had been at sea himself he’d met many old sailors who’d known his father and they told stories of a man he hardly recognised. No longer in the navy of course, one old fellow had been a cabin boy on a ship with Alistair’s father and he told tales of a far different person to the bitter man Alistair had known. In his youth his father had apparently been happy, travelling up and down the coast, until a fall from the crow’s nest had injured his back so severely he was rendered unfit for life on board.

He’d taken work with a cobbler and although the sitting didn’t help his back pain it paid enough to keep his family from want. But it didn’t sweeten his temper. Alistair had received many a backhander from the man, mainly when he tried to protect his sister from the same punishment. His mother had come from a far better life and ran off with his father for the sake of love. When that love was soured she grew more and more stooped and unhappy, withdrawing into her own thoughts. It was impossible to imagine them ever as a young couple with not a care in the world, believing that nothing mattered but their love.

His parents were dead now and his sister had her own family and was living in Hampshire. His mother’s family, when they discovered she was dead, seemed keen to make amends and had started Alistair out in his career with the navy. He was content and he had no desire to test his luck by setting up house with a wife and bairns as his father had. Love was a fleeting emotion and not to be trusted.

Was he lonely? He supposed he was, but he had his friends to keep him company and if he craved a child to dandle on his knee then there were plenty of his friends’ children. No, all in all, Alistair was very contented with his lot and despite his growing affection for Clarissa Debenham with her blue eyes and soft fair hair, he had no intention of changing it.

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Clarissa was alone in the schoolroom, cleaning the board and tidying up after the children. Mr Marly had already left and she was happy to have some time alone with her thoughts. It seemed she had so much more to think about these days. Her dream of one day having her own school was still there. But it was being pushed into the background by a vision of a tall Scot with dark eyes who she could not get out of her mind.

A timid knock on the door surprised her and she thought she may have imagined it but she went to check. There was a young boy standing there with a rather large box.

“Miss Debenham?”

“Yes. What is it?”

“A parcel for you, miss, from Mrs. Frobisher’s Drapery.”

Now she knew where she’d seen the boy before; he was one of Mrs Frobisher’s many sons, who helped out at the store. But what on earth was he doing here?

“I think there’s some mistake. I didn’t order anything.”

She started to close the door but he pushed the box at her. “No, miss. A gentleman paid for it—it’s a gift, like.”

She blushed and took the box without another word except a muttered thank you. Putting the box on her desk she cautiously removed the lid and the tissue wrapping. There was a note in an envelope and she opened it with trembling fingers.

Dear Clarissa,

Please accept this to replace the bonnet I so carelessly ruined. I’ll be waiting outside after school and I hope to see you wearing it.

Alistair.

For a moment her heart sank and she thought it must be the preposterous bonnet in the window, with the cherries, but when she took it out she saw it was a much more elegant concoction, with blue ribbon almost the exact shade of her eyes and a tasteful selection of dried flowers. Of course Mrs. Frobisher hadn’t been able to resist embellishing her creation with a feather that curled over the brim.

Of course Clarissa couldn’t possibly accept it; it must be returned at once. Still, since no-one else was here it couldn’t hurt to try it on.

She carefully placed the bonnet on her head, tucking her hair under it at the sides, and then tied the blue ribbons in a neat bow under her chin. She smiled at her reflection in the glass of the window; she looked like one of those confident girls who came to holiday in Lyme, always dressed very elegantly, who charmed all the locals. Even the feather seemed to flatter her.

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