Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book (7 page)

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
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She missed him terribly, but she’d rather miss him than lose him altogether.

“Clarissa, that is an appalling habit.”

Guiltily she removed her fingernails from her mouth. “Sorry, Father.”

“What are you reading that is so compelling?”

“The story about Alistair’s ship in action, Father.”

He nodded but said nothing. He still hadn’t forgiven Alistair and Clarissa knew he blamed him for making her far more assertive than she used to be. She rather thought her father was afraid that one day she would up and leave him to manage for himself in his old age. He’d probably blame Alistair for that, too.

“I must go,” she said, carefully placing the newspaper in a drawer for next time. “The students will be arriving soon and I haven’t put out the slates or written up the lessons.”

He shot her a look and for some reason she thought he appeared guilty. “I have an old grammar school friend coming for a visit today,” he said, as if it were of little consequence. “You needn’t come home for lunch, Clarissa. I will manage. I’d rather you didn’t interrupt us.”

He was acting strangely but Clarissa was too busy thinking about Alistair to give it much thought as she hurried away.


Debenham opened the door to the knock. He was prepared for this visit and he knew what to say, but nevertheless he was shocked when he saw his visitor, and felt a momentary inability to speak. He’d made Clarissa believe it was an old friend but he’d lied, to spare her feelings, he told himself self-righteously. This was all for Clarissa’s sake and nothing to do with his fears for his own lonely old age.

In fact the man who was visiting him today was Lieutenant Alistair McKay.

The young man had gone off to sea hale and hearty and he’d returned a cripple. He walked with the aid of crutches because half his leg had been sawn off, and there was a rather ugly scar on his face too.

“Come in then,” he said gruffly, and turned away so he wouldn’t have to watch the chap struggling through the doorway and into the parlour.

He waited until Alistair had sat himself down, with some awkwardness, and offered him tea.

“I won’t stay for refreshments,” Alistair said quietly, and there was no lurking smile in his eyes, as there used to be. Alistair was not only changed outwardly, physically, but inwardly too.

“I am here to talk to you about Clarissa,” he said with quiet determination.

Mr. Debenham had thought as much. It was why he had made certain his daughter would not be present at this interview.

“Clarissa is doing very well at the school,” he said quickly. “She is in charge now that Mr. Marly has taken a position at my old grammar school. She seems to have a real aptitude for the work.”

Alistair gave a ghost of his old smile. “I’m glad to hear it. I’m glad she is doing well. Is she happy, do you think?”

“Of course.”

“I had planned, when I returned, to ask her to marry me. I didn’t know it myself until I sailed away, but I think you did, didn’t you, Mr. Debenham?”

Debenham frowned and nodded slowly. “I did, and I didn’t approve although I suppose I would have allowed it, seeing Mr. Marly has gone off. But surely you don’t still intend to do so?” he asked, shocked. “You are a cripple, sir. You can’t mean to burden my poor daughter? And what of her work at the school? She is doing so well; you can’t surely expect her to give up all of that to live in poverty with a cripple?”

The words were probably rather harsh but Debenham refused to allow sentiment to interfere. They must be said.

The man was looking down, his hand closing and unclosing on one of his crutches. He seemed to be labouring under some intense emotion. When he finally lifted his head he was paler even than before, the scar standing out like fiery red, but he looked as if he had come to a difficult decision.

“You’re right, of course. I cannot marry her now. It would be unfair to burden her. But I fear if she knew I was injured she would come to me whatever you or I said to the contrary.”

Debenham grunted in agreement. Since his daughter had made the acquaintance of McKay she had become extremely wilful. “Then you must write to her and tell her you have met someone else,” he said. “The pain will be sharp at first, but it will fade, and it is better for her to suffer now, briefly, than to spend her whole life mourning. I’m afraid Clarissa is the sort to form a tragic attachment to your memory,” he added with distaste, forgetting he had done the same thing with his dead wife.

“Yes,” Alistair nodded. “You are right. A small lie is better than letting her continue to hope.”

Alistair struggled to his feet again and Debenham looked away uncomfortably. Once at the door he held out his hand and his eyes stared into the older man’s, to an almost unnerving degree. “I will leave you then, Mr. Debenham. Please, look after Clarissa. She is a treasure, and I don’t think you quite realise how lucky you are.”

And he was gone.

Debenham shut the door and didn’t watch him depart. He was relieved that the matter had been dealt with so easily, and now they could be comfortable again. And yet there was a niggling sense of guilt when he remembered the expression in the man’s eyes.

Pain and sadness, almost as if his life was over now.

He shook his head. Lives did not end because hearts were broken. He knew that well enough himself. No, this was for the best and he refused to believe it could have ended otherwise.


Alistair stood on the Cobb and stared at the sea. He’d wished many times since he lost his leg that he could have died that day, that he might have been taken as a whole man, and not left as a cripple.

But such thoughts seemed ungrateful to the doctors who had sweated to save him, and the kindness of those at the naval hospital who had helped him to learn to walk again. At least he had enough savings to keep him from penury, no matter what Debenham seemed to think.

He could have kept himself and Clarissa quite nicely, and there was talk of a job with his uncle in the country, helping to run the estate. “You don’t need legs to give orders!” the man had said, when Alistair explained the situation. Perhaps his uncle felt some guilt, as he was the one who had bought Alistair his commission in the navy.

But there was more to marrying Clarissa than being comfortably off. Debenham was right there, as much as Alistair loathed the man. He could not burden Clarissa with a cripple for a husband, not when she was working at a job she loved and making her own way in the world. It wouldn’t be fair.

She would probably come to resent him and he would come to hate himself for causing her to do so. They would end up just like his parents, and the very thought of it made him even more certain he was doing the right thing.

It was just as well he’d given her no sign that he meant to come home and marry her. Quite the opposite in fact. He’d struggled so hard to hide his love from her, and himself, that she could never have guessed the depth of his true feelings.

No, far better to do as Debenham suggested and write a lie to her, a quick cut that might sting for a while but would heal relatively quickly and allow her to get on with her own life. She’d meet someone else. How could any man not want her?

He tried not to let that hurt him, but it did. The pain was so great that he swayed and only just caught his balance. The swirling water looked inviting but he wasn’t a coward. He would not end it here, not when he had come through so much.

His mouth tight, Alistair made his way back to shore.


A week later Clarissa hurried home from school, hoping as she did every day there would be some news. A letter. And this time there was. The letter was waiting for her and Clarissa clutched it to her breast and hurried upstairs to read it.

She felt anxious. Annie had said something strange to her when she came for her lessons and she couldn’t shift it from her mind. Annie claimed she had been walking by the Cobb a week past and had seen Alistair standing on the far end of the wall, staring out to sea. “Only it couldn’t have been him, because this man was injured. He’d lost a leg and was on crutches. I would have gone to speak to him, but he was too far away and I was late.”

Clarissa agreed that it could not be him, and yet the words played with her mind, niggled at her fears.

With shaking hands she now tore the letter open and her eyes feasted on his familiar writing.

But as she read on the words seemed to blur and she blinked and read them again. ‘Will be marrying very soon . . . know as my friend you will be very happy for me . . . will always treasure our time together . . .’

He was marrying someone else. He wasn’t coming back to her.

After she’d sobbed into her pillow she wiped her eyes and tried to pull herself together. He’d never said he would marry her, it was true. He had never promised her anything, and yet she had believed . . . hoped . . . and now there was nothing.

At the end of the letter he’d wished her well and hoped she would soon find someone to give her as much happiness as he had found himself.

Clarissa shook her head. She would never marry. Alistair had been the man she loved, the only man, and there would never be anyone else. Teaching was her love now and she would make it the most important thing in her life. The only thing in her life.

Downstairs she set to work on supper, her eyes swollen and red, her face chalk white. Her father didn’t seem to notice anything wrong, and she was glad not to answer any questions.

Clarissa vowed to herself she would never speak of Alistair again.






“The Wentworth girl’s father will be here soon.”

Clarissa looked up at her senior assistant with a smile. Annie hadn’t changed that much over the years—a little plumper perhaps, but she had five children now, and was very happily married.

“I know. I’m ready for him.”

Annie pursed her lips. “Those girls are in the sitting room. They’re rather loud and I’ve told them to hush once. Should I tell them to go and do their dancing practise?”

‘Those girls’ were a group of five students who had become very close since they started at the Finishing School. Clarissa liked to see girls getting on together and she shook her head at Annie.

“Leave them for now. If they get too rowdy I’ll have a word with them.”

“Very well, Miss Debenham,” said Annie in her primmest voice and returned to her desk.

Annie was a treasure and Clarissa didn’t know what she would have done without her all these years. They’d first met that day at the inn, and then Annie had begun taking lessons, making astounding progress really, showing a talent for learning that Clarissa felt privileged to foster. Once Clarissa had moved to her own small school, Annie had been her first employee, and then the school had grown and she’d moved again, and finally she’d purchased the large house in Hampshire that became Miss Debenham’s Finishing School for Young Ladies.

Her school had built a fine reputation and she catered to the elite families in the country. Lately she had been thinking there never seemed to be enough hours in the day to do all that needed to be done. The school had grown far bigger than she’d ever imagined. She loved her work though; even after all the years—perhaps because she’d put so much of her time, so much of herself, into her schools.

And her students.

They had the daughter of a duke coming next term, and no doubt if she was happy then others would follow, but Clarissa wasn’t fussed by the quality. She liked to teach all girls and it didn’t matter whose daughters they were, not really.

There was a personal pride in seeing a girl arrive without the necessary skills to go through her life and then to see her leave with them tucked away inside her head. Clarissa didn’t just teach her girls the fundamentals of stitching and dancing and running a house; she taught them to hold their own in a world where women were becoming increasingly independent. Or at least, she hoped so.

She tried not to have any favourites amongst the students but some of them, especially those who came from less fortunate backgrounds, deserved more attention, she felt, than those who came from happy homes. Or perhaps it was just that she felt more empathy with them, considering her own background.

She was proud of her students and recalled every one of them, but just lately she had begun to wonder if the school had outgrown her. She was starting to remember when she was running a smaller school, with just a few girls, and how much greater the satisfaction was at seeing them succeed.

A burst of laughter reached her from outside, probably from the small sitting room. With a sigh Clarissa got to her feet and went to find the culprits. Annie rolled her eyes as she passed her but Clarissa only smiled. The five girls in question had lately formed a club called The Husband Hunters Club. They didn’t think anyone else knew; it was very secret, but Clarissa overheard things and was told things and knew most of what happened in her school.

When she reached the small sitting room the door was not quite closed and she paused a moment to listen. She could hear Averil’s clear, definite tones. Lady Averil Martindale was very definite about most things; she was an heiress and planned to give her fortune away to the poor. And there was Olivia Monteith, or Livy to her friends, with that pale English beauty so admired but with such a passionate heart beating beneath. And Marissa Rotherhild, who tried very hard to be a proper lady despite her infamous grandmother. Eugenia Belmont giggled at something Tina Smythe said; she had an infectious giggle. Both girls came from unfortunate circumstances, although Clarissa made certain to keep that to herself. Eugenia probably wouldn’t care—her family were notorious—but Tina would be mortified if anyone knew how desperate were her current circumstances. 

Olivia was announcing to the others, “We cannot possibly live the life of spinsters. One of those women who end up being shunted around from relative to relative? Imagine being someone’s unpaid help, going out to fetch things in the rain, and trying to be
for it.”

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
9.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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