Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book (6 page)

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
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They sounded slow, as if he was as unwilling as she to have this confrontation.

“Your mother would have known how to handle you,” he said. “She would have done a better job than I have. You wouldn’t have disobeyed her so blatantly.”

“My mother is dead, as you keep reminding me,” she said, and then wondered at herself. She turned and saw the shock in his eyes. He looked old, grey faced, lined, an old man. Suddenly her heart ached for them both, a father and daughter with nothing in common, not even liking. They were strangers forced together because of their bonds of blood, nothing more.

“Get to your room,” he said, his voice shaking, as was the finger he pointed toward the door. “We will speak in the morning.”

Clarissa went, tears running down her cheeks, and reached her room. There she lay on the bed and sobbed. She loved a man who didn’t love her and her future as a teacher was probably going to come to nothing. She was ruined without having had the pleasure she’d longed for.

She had never felt so alone.

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

It was ironic, thought Alistair.

If the orders from the Admiralty to return to his ship had come a little earlier he would never have taken Clarissa out in the sailing boat and they would never have capsized and she would never have had to come home to her angry father.

He looked down at the paper from his commanding officer, then folded it carefully and set it down on the table.

Mr. Debenham had been less than reasonable last night but he could hardly blame the man. Any father would be angry at the possible loss of his daughter’s reputation, and the fact that he hadn’t known where they were going compounded the matter. It had been intended as a special surprise for a lovely young girl he might never see again but he should have used his common sense. He should have been more conscious of the fact that Clarissa was very young and innocent and perhaps her father had every right to be informed of her plans. He’d been foolish and it might well have cost more than her reputation, which was bad enough. It could have cost her life.

He supposed it would be better for everyone if he slipped away and never saw her again, just left a note, but he couldn’t do that. He didn’t want to. He wanted to see her again and say goodbye properly no matter what her father, and his common sense, thought of that.

The clock on the mantel said that school would be in now and Clarissa would be there teaching her pupils, but soon it would be time for lunch and surely he could meet her for a moment?

The truth was, he supposed wryly, he didn’t want her to think badly of him. It seemed an unnecessary cruelty to simply leave. And yes, if he was honest with himself then he had enjoyed her company, enjoyed it a great deal, and if he had kissed her once . . . well more than once, then he couldn’t regret that either. She would stay with him when he sailed on his ship, a happy memory of his shore leave.

When he reached the school Alistair found the children outside playing in the sunshine. Clarissa was seated by the wall, reading a book, and at first she did not see him. She looked tired and pale, her eyes shadowed. Had he done this to her or was it her father? They both should probably bear equal blame. It wasn’t until he was nearly at her side that she looked up and then her expression changed to one of joy.

Again his conscience gave him a kick. He should never have singled her out so blatantly. What if she were in love with him? And yet seeing the warm glow in her blue eyes and the curve of her pink lips, Alistair really couldn’t help but be glad he had.

“You took no ill from our adventure?” he asked her gently.

“I am well, thank you. And you?”

He shrugged. “I am a tough old sea dog, remember? But I’m sorry to have lost my shoes.”

She kept her finger in her place in the book, as if she didn’t expect him to stay long. It made him sad somehow and he sat down beside her to prolong the moment.

“I have come to say goodbye,” he began.

“Really Alistair, I know my father said some awful things but . . . but we can still be friends, surely?”

He realised she thought her father had frightened him away. He shook his head. “No, not that. I have had my orders. I will be returning to my ship as soon as I can manage it.”

“Oh.” She looked away, into the distance. “You’re going then.”

“Yes, I am.”

She seemed to rally, forcing a smile very different from the earlier one, almost defiant, and turned back to him. “I’m sorry for it. I will miss you.”

That was one of the things he liked about Clarissa. She did not prevaricate or pretend to something just because she thought it was the polite thing to do. She told the truth. She was honest and straightforward.

“I will miss you too,” he said and knew that was the truth too. He
would
miss her, more than he admitted to himself.

“Will you write to me?” she asked softly. “I will write to you.”

He nodded. “Please, I would like that, and when I can I will reply. Don’t worry if the letters are few and far between, they will have to travel across the seas.”

A frown creased her smooth brow. “I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am about my father. I—”

He put a finger to her lips and then, realising they could be seen, took it away again. “No need for you to say a word. It was my fault entirely. I am just glad you took no hurt.”

She reached up to touch her lips with her own fingers and then, realising what she had done, blushed.

He pretended not to see. “I must go.” He stood up and reached to take her hand in his. “Goodbye, Clarissa. I will not forget you.”

She pressed his hand. “Nor I you,” she murmured.

He walked away then, turning only to lift his hand in salute. She was sitting staring at her lap, where the book rested, and did not see. He thought he would remember the sight of her always, seated there, her hair pale against the dark stone wall of the school, her pale pretty face drawn into such sombre lines. If he was a more romantically inclined man he might even say his heart was aching.

What was it about Clarissa Debenham that had crept inside him and made a home there? And how could he have allowed himself to imagine, even for a moment, that anything would ever come of it?

“You’ll forget her soon enough,” he murmured to himself. “You have Boney to think of.”

But a seagull flying overhead mocked him with its mournful cries.

***

Clarissa found, as the weeks passed, that without Alistair to fill her every waking thought her attention became more focussed on her work at the school. At first it was a way of distracting herself from missing him, but gradually she became more and more convinced that this wasn’t just something to fill in the time, while she waited for real life to begin.

This
was
her life, and she felt it as a calling.

And she was clever at it. Children enjoyed learning from her, and adults too. She began to grow in confidence.

Annie, the maid from the inn where she and Alistair had made their impromptu stay, had come to see her. Clarissa was a little surprised by her visit, remembering the scene the girl had witnessed, but she knew that there had been no word of the kissing incident, as she had feared there might be. The gossips had been remarkably silent.

“I didn’t tell anyone,” the girl admitted. “It wasn’t my business, was it, and you were kind to me, miss.”

“Thank you,” Clarissa said, and meant it sincerely.

“The navy gentleman. Is he still . . . ?”

“Lieutenant McKay has left with his ship.”

“He were a jolly man and handsome with it. I’m sorry for you, miss, that he’s gone. Do you think he’ll come back?”

Clarissa said she wasn’t sure and changed the subject. As far as she was aware Alistair was never coming back to Lyme. 

Annie was keen for her first lesson; Clarissa set her some homework and the girl agreed to return at the same time the following week. As the months went by they became friends. Clarissa found it was very pleasant to have someone to talk to. She was also grateful to Annie for keeping quiet about the kiss. Her father was still angry with her but she was doing her best to soothe over the matter, and she certainly didn’t want anything else to stir up the matter again.     

And then Alistair wrote to her!

Her father grunted when he saw the letter but he didn’t forbid her to read it—not that she would have listened—and when she showed it to him he barely glanced at it.

The fact that he had taken the time and trouble to write put a skip in her step. Not that Alistair said a great deal, only described the ship and what he was doing, and how weevilly were the current crop of ships’ biscuits. A lieutenant seemed to have a lot to do, and he said he was now a first lieutenant—he’d been promoted upon his return, and he was having a jolly time ordering all the other lieutenants about.

He made her smile, but then he always had. She closed her eyes and imagined his face and then his voice and it was enough.

When she had a moment she wrote back to him, telling him how she was doing well at the school, and how Mr. Marly was soon to leave and he had put her name up to the board of governors as headmistress. She was proud of her advancement and couldn’t help but boast a little. Alistair would be proud of her too, she thought.

She told him to take care and come home safely; she didn’t think there was anything wrong in that. They were friends, after all.

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

They’d engaged the enemy over an hour ago and already the stench of gunpowder and blood was heavy in the air. Alistair was grim faced, his skin blackened, as he roared out orders in a hoarse voice, urging his men to greater efforts when he knew they were as exhausted as he. But there was no other option, certainly not surrender.

His Majesty’s navy did not give up and nor did he.

Another blast from the enemy’s cannon almost deafened him. They were coming around, drawing closer, and although that was good for his range of fire it was also good for theirs. Any shot from this close would be devastating and if it holed the ship . . . most vessels could stay afloat for a good while, but if a spark reached the gunpowder in the holds below . . . well, that would be the end of them. Alistair was determined that wouldn’t happen to the Amazonian, nor to his men.

He had a fleeting thought of Clarissa, her image so clear he could have reached out and touched her. She was smiling, her blue eyes bright and happy, her fair hair brushed by a gentle breeze. Lately, since her letter arrived, he’d been thinking about her a great deal. He’d even been considering whether he should return to Lyme when he was back on shore. Some nights he dreamed of her and he woke with that strange ache in his chest.

Now, in the midst of battle, he was bitterly glad she wasn’t waiting for him.

“Steady!” he roared. “Get ready, wait! Aim . . . hold . . . fire!”

The cannons on the starboard side roared. He saw some of the cannon balls strike home, ploughing into the decks of the enemy ship. He ran down along the deck, checking that all was well, eyes taking in the damage and automatically assessing what would need to be done later. One of his men lay still and bleeding and he quickly ordered him to be carried below to join the others who lay waiting for help. The ship’s surgeon was frantically doing his best to repair damaged and mangled limbs but his skills were limited and he was forced to choose which of the men he was most able to save and leave the really severe cases to die.

Alistair’s hand went to his pocket and he felt the letter in there. The last one he’d received from Clarissa. It had come all the way from Lyme to Gibraltar, and in it she said that her letters were far more travelled than she would ever be, and she was quite jealous of them.

It made him smile even now, in the midst of all of this hell.

Another blast of enemy cannon and he was back in charge, shouting orders, before he hurried toward the poop deck where the other officers were standing with strained faces. Things were close. They may not win. They may not survive. He knew that in the pragmatic way of any sailor who went to sea, but he also knew he wanted to live.

Before he hadn’t had a reason to stay alive, no one who would miss him terribly much. His sister would mourn, and his friends, but there was no one else. Suddenly there was Clarissa, and his desperate need to get back to her, to tell her that he’d been a fool and he wanted to marry her after all. How she would laugh at that!

Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion. It seemed to be right on top of him. His head rang, and then there was a terrible ripping pain in his leg.

He fell and the sky whirled around him, filled with puffs of smoke from the guns and the tattered remains of a flag. Alistair stared upwards and wondered why everything was so quiet. Just for a moment he imagined himself back in the sailing boat with Clarissa, and the rogue wave coming over them, capsizing them. Only this time he was sinking, down, down, and then there was nothing but darkness.

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

Clarissa read the details of the Amazonian’s dramatic encounter in the newspaper, her eyes wide, and a chewed fingernail between her teeth. She’d read it many times already and it was old news, really, but she kept hoping she’d missed something. Some mention of him.

Alistair’s ship had fought hard and although they had won the battle, coming away heroes, there was no further news about casualties or deaths. She prayed he was all right. Lieutenants, as he had told her once, were always in the thick of things, on the gun deck, giving the orders to the gunners. The gun deck was a dangerous place and she didn’t dare to think he might be injured.

Or worse.

Her heart fluttered wildly when she thought of ‘worse’.

She tried to concentrate on her teaching, that was the only way she could keep her mind from dwelling on dire possibilities, but sometimes she couldn’t help herself. Now the day they had capsized in their sailing boat seemed somehow a prophesy of things to come, which was very silly, and so Alistair would tell her next time he wrote.

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
13.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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