Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book (3 page)

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
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She looked once more in the window and it was as if she saw a different girl there—the sort of girl who would wear such a bonnet—the sort of girl who was cheerful, who hadn’t a care in the world. She sighed and carefully removed the pretty bit of nonsense and put it back in its box. She would tell Alistair he must return it in the morning.

He was waiting outside and smiled when he saw her awkwardly carrying the large box.

“Let me take that. But why aren’t you wearing it?”

“I can’t possibly accept it, Alistair. Surely you can see that? People would think . . . My father would be horrified!”

He nodded solemnly. “I see. But could you not tell him you purchased the bonnet yourself? After all, you just lost one and you needed another, did you not?”

“Yes, but he wouldn’t approve of such a . . . frivolous . . . it’s just not suitable, Alistair.”

“Well, if you will just wear it for me today I’ll take it back tomorrow then.”

Clarissa pretended to consider his request but she already knew she would agree. With a smile she put the bonnet on and tucked her hair in as best she could.

“Let me,” he said quietly, as he took the blue ribbons and tied a ship-shape bow. “You look . . . you look lovely, Clarissa.” He stood back. “Very becoming.” He held out his arm and, blushing, she took it and walked beside him.

She felt daring in the bonnet—like the girl she’d seen in her reflection. If people saw her—if the villagers all gossiped, she didn’t care. For now she was a different girl, one who was happy and knew how to enjoy life.

They spent an hour or so walking along the Cobb and she nodded to two or three acquaintances, who looked somewhat surprised, but then nodded back. One elderly gentleman tipped his hat and said cheerfully, “Good to see you out and about, Miss Debenham. And looking so debonair,” and she found herself blushing in return.

Their time together was all too short and she knew she must go home and the bonnet must be returned. She took it off and handed it to Alistair.

“Tomorrow you’re coming to meet my father so I mustn’t be late now. He’ll be waiting for me to get his supper ready.”

“I look forward to it.” He took her hand and held it gently. “Till tomorrow.”

***

“Clarissa?”

Her father sounded querulous, an old man. He had never been the sort of father who complimented her or told her how well she had done, but these days he seemed even more glum. Or perhaps that was because of Lieutenant McKay. With his smiling face and laughing eyes he made everyone else seem gloomy. Even Mr. Marly had lost some of the shine he used to have, in her eyes anyway, and she found herself wishing he would not be so serious or pedantic all of the time.

Her father’s voice came again. “Clarissa? Where are you, girl?”

“Here, Father. I’m in the parlour.”

He came and stood at the door. Her father had been a tall man in his youth but with the passing years he’d grown stooped, until now he was not much taller than Clarissa.

“Who is this fellow you have invited to afternoon tea? Do I know him?”

Clarissa sighed inwardly. She just knew her father would be difficult.

“Lieutenant McKay, Father. He is in the navy and staying here while his ship is being repaired.”

“Where is his ship then? Is it here in Lyme?”

“No, it isn’t—”

“Shouldn’t he be with his ship then? And is Mr. Marly coming? At least then I would have someone sensible to talk to.”

“Lieutenant McKay is sensible, father. He knows all about the navy and the war against Napoleon. You know how you like to read the newspapers and discuss the war news. You can talk about it all with Lieutenant McKay, who has actually been there. And his ship is in dry dock being repaired so he cannot stay aboard; he has to wait until he is called up again and can go to sea. The Admiralty has to issue orders.”

Her father’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You seem very well informed as to this fellow’s business, miss.”

Clarissa felt herself blushing and wished she was not so prone to it. “Lieutenant McKay sometimes walks with me to school in the mornings,” she said airily.

And we meet afterwards and walk again, or we meet on the Cobb, and next week he is going to take me for a ride in a hired carriage to see the fossils in the cliffs west along the coast. Not that she was going to tell her father any of those things. It occurred to her that once upon a time she told him everything; she felt it was her duty to do so, and because she told him everything he never allowed her to do anything. Well nothing exciting, anyway. Now that she told him as little as possible her life was so much more interesting.

She determined to explain that to Alistair. It would make him laugh and she’d discovered that she liked to make him laugh. There was a sadness in Alistair, something in his past, and although she wondered what it was she was far too polite to ask.

“Are you sure Mr. Marly isn’t coming?” her father grumbled. “He is a fine young man, you know, with a promising future. I had hoped . . .” He saw her surprise and shrugged. “Oh well, I suppose he would hardly marry you anyway.”

Clarissa felt tears sting her eyes but she refused to let them fall. She waited as he left the parlour and then she took a deep breath. Did he mean to be so unpleasant to her, she wondered? Or was it just a habit after a lifetime—her lifetime—of speaking his thoughts without thinking, without considering her feelings at all? And the awful thing was that at one time she might have agreed with him; after all why would a man like Marly, so handsome, and with such a bright future ahead of him, want to marry a plain little nobody like her?

But lately she had begun to believe she had more to offer than she’d realised, that she could be quite amusing and interesting in her own right. At least she was if Alistair was to be believed. Alistair
made
her feel amusing and interesting. She liked the version of herself she was with him, so much better, she realised suddenly, than the little mouse she was around Mr Marly.

I won’t let Father spoil this, she told herself determinedly. Who knows how long Alistair will be here? And I want to enjoy every moment that he is, and I refuse to allow anyone to spoil it. I deserve a little bit of happiness and I am going to have it. Even if it is fleeting and doesn’t last it will be something to remember for the rest of my life.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Alistair had not been to Clarissa’s home but it was much as he expected. A neat, well-kept, rather forbidding two storey cottage with little to show that Clarissa, with her blue eyes and sweet smile, lived here. It was her father’s domain and he was not looking forward to meeting Mr. Debenham.

From the things Clarissa had said and what he had worked out for himself, reading between the lines, he did not think he was going to like him. And yet it was important that Mr. Debenham liked
him
if he was to continue his gentle friendship with his daughter. He did not ask himself why it was so important to him to keep meeting with Clarissa but he had no illusions that if Mr. Debenham determined he was not to see Clarissa again, then it would be so. She would not disobey him. He had the impression that all her life she had lived under his thumb and it was hardly likely she would wriggle out from under it now, was it?

All Alistair knew was that it would be a pity if he could not walk with her again, or make her smile. He was making such good progress. Her smile was so much more natural now and her laughter had an unforced sound. She was happier altogether and he did not want her to slip back into her former gloomy ways.

Of course when he went back to sea she would be alone again. Well, he corrected himself, she would be without him! But Alistair was determined to write to her; to find amusing little anecdotes to tell her and then when he wrote them he could imagine her smiling.

Clarissa opened the door to him. She had already told him they did not have a maid, only a man who came to chop the wood and do some gardening. Clarissa did everything else. Alistair could imagine her waiting on her father hand and foot and being criticised constantly by him for doing nothing properly—not like her saintly mother.

She looked anxious, a little pale, and he knew she’d been worrying about his visit. Impulsively he took her hand and squeezed it gently.

“You didn’t have to do this you know.”

“I did,” she said determinedly. “I wanted to.”

“Well, let’s get it over with then.”

Clarissa nodded and led the way into the house. The little parlour was rather shabby but he could see she had picked some flowers from the garden and arranged them in a tiny vase. The table was set with a lacy cloth and her best china. There were sandwiches, cake and some scones with jam and clotted cream, as well as a teapot steaming with tea.

“Father,” she said with false cheer, “here is Lieutenant McKay.”

The man’s face was deeply lined and they were not laugh lines, Alistair thought with a mental grimace. Clearly he had been unhappy for a long time, probably since his wife died. But surely any father would have made an effort to shake off his depression for his daughter’s sake? Not this man, Alistair decided. It was as he feared—he could not like him—but he made an effort to please.

“Mr. Debenham, how do you do?”

The man nodded, sizing him up, and he was no fool. “You have made the acquaintance of my daughter, sir, and she seems determined you should make mine. I believe you are awaiting orders to return to your ship?”

“Aye, I am. It shouldn’t be long now and I will be off into the fray with Boney again.”

They spoke stiffly about the war while Clarissa bustled about with tea and food, nervous as a kitten in the company of two growling dogs. When the subject of the war flagged she found something else for them to talk about; at least for her father to lecture them about—the state of education in little country schools like the one Clarissa taught at and how poorly they compared to the grammar schools, which he admitted could not be afforded by everyone. He had taught at a grammar school in a city as a young man, he said, and everything was superior,
far
superior, to the little school in Lyme where he’d gained the position of headmaster. He’d tried to introduce Latin and Greek to the children in Lyme but they preferred simple arithmetic and spelling. How could one teach children who did not wish to learn? Alistair pretended to be interested, but when Clarissa had to leave the room for a moment her father dropped all pretence of politeness.

“My daughter has no money,” he said bluntly, eyeing Alistair coldly. “I’m afraid a headmaster makes little, and I only have enough to see out my retirement. When I die there may be twenty pounds, no more. Clarissa will have to work for her upkeep.”

He was furious. “I’m afraid I don’t follow you, sir,” he said coldly, although he did, all too well.

“I assume you are after her money,” he said, waving a dismissive hand. “Clarissa is an innocent so she wouldn’t realise. Poor little thing hasn’t much to recommend her but I had hoped she and Marly might marry. I rather like Marly.”

“You are misinformed,” he said, when he had unclenched his teeth. “I have money of my own and hope to make more before this war is over. The only interest I have in your daughter is her delightful company while I await my orders.”

The man stared at him blankly as if he couldn’t believe it but said nothing else. They both sat quietly until Clarissa returned.

She was paler than ever and Alistair wondered if she had overheard the conversation. As soon as was polite he rose and said he must go back and Clarissa went with him to the door.

“I will call upon you tomorrow with the carriage,” he said.

Her eyes widened. “But we were going to meet at the Cobb, in case . . .”

“In case your father forbade it?” he said. “I don’t care if he does. I want him to know we are going out driving together. I want him to realise what a treasure he has in his daughter. And you, my bonnie lassie, must learn to stand up to him.”

She blinked, and then she smiled. “If you think . . .”

“I do, indeed I do.”

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Clarissa rose early so that she could do all the chores she normally did on Saturday before she left. She was nervous about Alistair coming to the door but she had already told her father, making it sound as if there were others accompanying them and it was not them alone. The way she had told it there was quite a little party going to see the cliffs that ran from Lyme along the Dorset coast and into Devon.

When had she grown so devious?

Well too bad. She didn’t want him trying to stop her going out with Alistair and after what she had overheard yesterday she wondered whether she would care or pay heed if he did. His cruel words had had the effect of destroying her respect for him and it saddened her to think she no longer had any admiration or regard for her own father. It was only duty that tied her to that embittered old man.

She wondered what her mother had been like. According to her father she had been a woman of perfection in all things but she could not believe that. Not anymore. Her mother probably had bad days; she probably wished for something else, she may even have been a little naughty. In fact, if she was Clarissa thought she would have liked her much better. What was her father like when she was alive, she wondered. Was he really as happy as he now imagined he had been or was he always resentful of whatever life threw at him? Did he treat his wife with affection or . . . the thought came to her suddenly . . . did he in fact treat his wife much as he treated his daughter?

Was it possible he resented her because she was just like her mother? She was certainly nothing like her father! Well, she would never know, but it was nice to imagine that her mother may not have been the saint her father portrayed her as. Just possibly she was a young woman not unlike Clarissa herself, who somehow found herself married to a domineering man who ruled her life as he now ruled her daughter’s.

The carriage drew up and Alistair helped her up onto the seat beside him, stowing away the picnic basket she had packed. He had a little treat in store for her when they reached their destination but he wouldn’t tell her yet, in case the weather turned rough and he could not go through with it.

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
10.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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