Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book (4 page)

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
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Clarissa was wearing a dress with yellow daisies printed on the white fabric and short puffed sleeves; there was a green ribbon tied beneath her breasts and a matching ribbon decorating the hem of her dress. Her bonnet was straw and plain and beneath it her blue eyes sparkled up at him.

He wanted to lean down and kiss her but he knew it would be wrong. Clarissa was an innocent and he was just passing through; she deserved better than a man who might be killed in his next encounter at sea. And besides he had already decided a wife and family were not for him. But the longing was strong and he had to work hard to put it out of his mind.

The coastline here was famous. The cliffs were full of fossils, creatures that lived long ago and several times they stopped and climbed down to the beach to examine the oddities to be found there. Alistair had a book he had purchased in a shop in Lyme and read from it.

“The Blue Lias rock along the coast holds many well preserved specimens. Most of the fossils are the remains of sea creatures that lived during the Jurassic period.”

“My goodness.” Clarissa picked up something from below the cliff, where a rock fall had lately brought down quite a bit of material. It was the small fossil of a shelled creature, curved, like some sort of instrument you might have once been able to put to your lips and blow. Alistair’s book informed them it was an ammonite. 

“The children often bring fossils to school,” she said. “I’ll show them this one on Monday.”

She slipped it into the pocket of her skirt but she knew she wasn’t keeping it to show to the children. It was a memento of this day with Alistair. 

Back in the carriage they continued on along the cliff road until they came to a little seaside hamlet, with a very few houses and an inn, and there Alistair stopped.

“I have a surprise for you,” he said, his eyes twinkling, and led her down to where a small sailing boat was tied up in the walled harbour.

Her eyes grew wide as she realised his plans.

“Will it be all right?” she said.

“Why not? I’m qualified to sail a much bigger ship than this, Clarissa. You’re in safe hands.”

She relaxed and he arranged for their carriage and horse to be stabled at the inn and then helped her into the boat with the picnic basket. Before long he had cast off and they were tacking out of the little harbour and into the green water of the English Channel.

It was a beautiful day. Clarissa enjoyed herself, hardly worrying even when the little boat heeled
over with the wind gusting in her sail, tearing through the waves with white spray raining down upon them.

“Is this what it’s like when you’re at sea?” she asked, raising her voice above the flap of the sail as the boom swung around. She’d quickly grown adept at ducking low out of the way.

“Sort of,” he called back.

But it wasn’t, or rarely. Life on a naval sailing ship was very different from this and he didn’t want to tell her some of the unpleasant things he’d had to face, with rations low and the men muttering sedition and the captain drunk. Much as he loved the sea he did not look forward to facing the men again this time, with this captain. But he knew he would have to, and if he could do well, if he could make his fortune as some men did, then he would be set for life.

Whatever life he chose.

But to leave the sea? That would be a difficult decision, and one that didn’t bear thinking about, although one day he knew he must, but by then he hoped to have enough to retire comfortably in a cottage somewhere by the sea. Somewhere like Lyme perhaps.

They’d been sailing along the coast and there, almost parallel with them, was a sandy inlet. He turned the boat toward it and soon ran her up onto the shore. The tide was on the turn so they should be all right for a while.

Once the boat was secured Alistair went to help Clarissa. In the end it seemed easier to swing her into his arms, to save her shoes; her clothing was already quite damp from the journey but she would soon dry.

Beneath the blue sky they sat among the shelter of some rocks and ate their picnic, while the water washed against the sand and the salty breeze stirred Clarissa’s fair hair. They chatted but there were long silences when it didn’t seem necessary to say anything.

Being in each other’s company was enough.

He would miss her, Alistair admitted to himself. She had become an integral part of his life here in Lyme. Perhaps, if he were honest, that was the reason he was still here and not visiting London or his sister in Hampshire.

“Will you write to me? When you’re gone?”

She wasn’t looking at him when she spoke, but out to sea. He could see her profile and he thought there was a sobriety to her expression that made him think she would miss him too.

“Yes, of course I will.”

A smile curved her lips.

“And you must write to me,” he added, and saw her eyes widen as she turned to him.

“Must I? I mean, I would like to, but there is so little that happens here that  . . . I mean, you will find anything I have to say all very tedious, Lieutenant McKay.”

“But I want tedium.” And when she laughed, he added, “Believe me, Clarissa, some days tedium would save my life.”

Her smile faded and she reached to touch his cheek with her trembling fingertips.

And suddenly Alistair was kissing her.

Just as he’d promised himself he would not.





Alistair’s lips on hers were firm and she found herself returning the caress without a second thought. It seemed so natural he should kiss her and that she should kiss him back. She could taste salt on his skin and the lemonade she had brought for their picnic; her arms went around his neck of their own accord and the kiss deepened.

She liked the way his tongue moistened her bottom lip and then dipped inside her mouth as if he were enjoying her taste. She allowed herself to copy him and an ache started in her chest, a tingle of warmth that made her suddenly languid and sensuous.

Was this what it meant to love a man? To give oneself to him?

He’d lain her down upon the sand now and she saw him silhouetted above her against the sunny blue sky. “Tell me to stop,” he said, but she didn’t think he expected her to do that and nor did she intend to. Alistair was the best thing that had ever happened to her and she wasn’t about to tell him to stop.

He was heavy, although she was sure he wasn’t pressing his entire weight onto her, but just enough for her to feel the hard muscles of his chest beneath his jacket and the silver buttons. His skin smelt of the sea and the spicy lotion he put on his skin when he shaved; there was a scar under his jaw when he lifted his head, just a little one, but she had so longed to touch it and now she did. She ran her tongue along it and kissed it.

He groaned as if she had hurt him but she knew she hadn’t. He kissed her face and then her throat and then his kisses moved down to the neckline of her dress, and the tingling inside her grew more pronounced.

She thought, rather wildly, that she might let him do whatever he wanted to, despite knowing it was foolish to allow such liberties to a man who was going to leave her, perhaps for a very long time. He buried his face in the softness of her breasts and groaned again and she stroked his dark hair.

And then he sat up with a heavy sigh. His dark eyes were gleaming and his tanned cheeks were flushed, and when he touched her lips with his fingers the caress was almost clumsy.

“Enough,” he said huskily.

“Why is it enough?” she asked, but she sat up and brushed the sand from her clothing, pretending that her hands weren’t trembling. 

He looked annoyed. “You know why, Clarissa. I can make you no promises and I think anyway that you are destined for Mr. Marly.”

She felt hurt. As if he was making excuses to rid himself of her or so he wouldn’t feel guilty when he sailed away. “Mr. Marly is too busy with his own ambitions to worry about me,” she said quietly. “He wishes to teach at a larger and more prestigious school and my father is helping him.”       

Alistair had stood up and now he looked down at her. “But isn’t that what you want too, Clarissa? A fuller life? What is there for you here in Lyme?”

She didn’t know how to answer him without giving herself away. Clearly his thoughts were not on the same plane as hers. Because she knew she loved him, and her dreams were of spending her life with him, of marrying him and having his children and every day waking to his smile.

“I enjoy teaching,” she said, just to say something. “I sometimes think I might have my own school one day. Nothing grand, just a small establishment. Mr. Marly is a good teacher, but some of his methods . . . It may be arrogant of me but I think my ideas are better. I think children respond to kindness and patience as well as order and discipline. I would like to put my ideas into practise so that others could see what I already know.”

“There you are then. You have a future in mind already. You want your own school; you want to teach in your own way.”

He held out his hand to help her up but she ignored it and stood up herself, quickly packing up the picnic. She felt her heart ache and tried to ignore it. The day was not over yet, she reminded herself. They had yet to sail back and that meant more time to be spent with Alistair.

Time to remember when he had gone.

He helped her into the little sailing boat and after pushing it out into the water, his shoes and stockings flung into the bottom of the boat, he jumped in and they set off.

The journey back was slower and the wind was in the wrong place so he had to tack constantly but she didn’t mind. She enjoyed watching him work, seeing how clever he was. How very much at home he was on the water. It was as they rounded the headland into the little bay that the wave came out of nowhere. It reared up, looming over the little boat, swamping them.

Next moment they had capsized.

Clarissa felt herself sinking, the world suddenly all green with sunlight streaking through it. Her mouth and nose filled with salty water and she wondered if this was to be the end of her life, right here and now. And then she bounced back to the surface, her clothing full of air, and splashed her arms to try to keep herself afloat. She felt his hands fumbling to grab hold of hers and then she was being tugged along toward the upside down keel of the boat. He hauled her up onto the hull, giving her a hard shove until she was able to clamber further herself, until she was safe and out of the water.

Half sitting up, she pushed the long wet strands of her hair from her eyes. Her bonnet was dangling about her neck, sodden and ruined, and no doubt her dress was too. She shivered as the breeze blew on her wet skin and looked down to where Alistair was swimming beside her, his face upturned to hers and his dark hair plastered to his head. His eyelashes were clumped together, she noticed inconsequently, and his lips were a little blue from the cold.

Suddenly he shook his head and water sprayed everywhere and now his hair stood up in tufts. He looked so funny that she laughed. She tried to cover her mouth but the laughter kept coming and suddenly he was laughing too.

When finally they stopped he said, “You are an amazing woman, Clarissa Debenham. I don’t think I have ever met a woman as amazing as you.”

And he was gazing at her with a look that told her he meant it.

She knew she should be frightened; she should be anxious, but all she could think was that she was here in the sea with Alistair and he thought her amazing.





“Ooh, miss, you’re soaked.”

The maid’s eyes were round as she helped Clarissa off with her wringing wet clothes and offered her a towel to dry herself on. The inn was small and the only private room left was tiny, being upstairs in the attics. Clarissa thanked her, shivering still, and very glad to be on dry land.

A fisherman had come to their aid when he saw them waving and calling out for help. They’d been taken to the harbour, the upturned boat towed behind them, and now they were in the inn being tended to by the kindly inn-keeper and his staff.

“There’s a rogue wave comes along the rocks out there,” the fisherman had informed them. “I’ve lost count of ‘ow many folk get upturned by it. You’re not the first, sir.”

“The first second lieutenant in the navy, I’ll bet,” Alistair murmured to Clarissa with a wry smile. “I wouldn’t want word to get out that I can’t even stay afloat in a dingy.”

She bit her lip but her eyes must have shown how amused by it she was because he shook his head at her. “You have a cruel twisted sense of humour, Miss Debenham.”

Did she? she wondered now, shivering before the fire. Or was it just that these days she was more willing to find the humour in most things, even being overturned in a sailing boat?

The truth was Alistair made her smile, even when he wasn’t trying to. Mr. Marly only made her feel inadequate and rather worried about her future. How could her father think it was better for her to marry Mr. Marly and spend her life with him, when she just knew she would be miserable? As handsome as he was it seemed incredible now that she’d actually ever considered the thought—that she would have counted herself fortunate indeed had Mr Marly suggested they might have a future together. What a cold man he was, she realised, when compared with Alistair McKay. She would be better off alone than married to another like her own father.

Because it seemed extremely unlikely that Alistair had any intention of asking her to marry him.

“I’ll find you some clothes to wear, miss, and you can come down to the parlour and have something hot to eat and drink.” Annie, the maid must have thought her sad expression was to do with her current state.

“Thank you so much, Annie.”

It was no use thinking about the future now, Clarissa told herself sternly. She should enjoy the moments she had left with Alistair and not try to imagine the long days ahead. Besides, he’d promised to write to her and that would give her something to look forward to.

“You’re the school teacher over in Lyme, aren’t you?” Annie was hovering in the doorway, eyeing her curiously.

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
3.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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