Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book (8 page)

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
11.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“Nonsense,” said Averil. “There are lots of spinsters who do very well. Look at Miss Debenham. She seems perfectly happy on her own.”

“But is she?” Eugenie spoke up, always ready for mischief or a joke. “Perhaps she has a memory tucked away, of some sad love affair, never forgotten. A cad who broke her heart.”

“Oh, Eugenie, really! Miss Debenham?” said Marissa. “She is far too level headed to have ever given her heart to a cad.”

Clarissa felt a tremor in that part of her chest where her heart resided. It was silly really. The girls didn’t mean anything by it, and she knew that her girls respected her, but they had touched a nerve.

Time to put a stop to this.

She tapped briskly on the door and heard them whispering, but when she opened it wide they were all turned to her, books and needlework in their laps, wide-eyed and innocent. She tried not to smile.

“I think you should consider your dancing practise, girls. No man will marry you if you stand on his toes.”

Glances were exchanged and they rose and hurried out.

They were young, she told herself. They would learn that life never quite turned out the way you expected it to. Clarissa had also learned that a woman must stand on her own two feet if she was to make a fulfilling life for herself. No use in depending upon a man. First, her father whose only wish was for her to keep cooking his supper, and for her to marry a man who had no interest at all in her, and second Alistair, who had let her down . . .

She shook her head.

That wasn’t true. Alistair hadn’t let her down. He’d given her a great deal of joy and she’d loved him with all her heart, loved him so much that she’d never found a man to replace him. She had kept his letters and occasionally she would open them up and read them. They still made her smile.

And that was one of the important lessons in life Alistair taught her. How to laugh at adversity—how to smile when you were at your most miserable—how to look at the positives rather than the negatives.

By the time Clarissa was seated once more at her desk, the ormolu clock on her mantelpiece was striking the hour.

The father of Meredith Wentworth was late.

Meredith was a very bright and promising girl, but her family had neglected to pay their bills for the past four months and Clarissa knew she had let things go as long as she dared. Her school needed fees to keep operating, and although she saw much to like in Meredith she couldn’t continue to teach her for free. Surely some arrangement could be made? A small amount paid when possible, or at least the intention to settle the account at some future date.

She’d written to Mr. Wentworth and he had agreed to see her this afternoon at four. Now, in fact. So where was he?

With a sigh she went to the window and peered out. Down in the courtyard there were girls sitting and reading, others sketching, some simply gossiping. Her reflection stared back at her and she saw that her hair had become disarranged and patted it back into place.

At thirty nine she was still a young looking woman; her figure was slender and she was without a grey hair, well perhaps one or two. Her skin was good and any lines on her face were faint; her eyes had the same clear gaze they’d always had. Some days she felt ancient in comparison to the girls she taught, and sometimes she felt lonely, wishing she had a sibling, or a parent, with whom to share anniversaries and birthdays and memories. There was Annie of course, but she had a family of her own. But it did no good to dwell on what could not be, she reminded herself. In so many ways she was extremely fortunate . . .

The tap on her door took her by surprise and she turned, calling, “Come in.”

Annie poked her head in and there was something odd about her expression. As if she had seen a ghost. “Your visitor is here, Miss Debenham,” she said, and her eyes seemed to be trying to convey something.

Puzzled, Clarissa asked Annie to send him in.

When the gentleman came through the doorway she understood why Annie had looked like she’d seen a ghost. Because Clarissa was seeing him too.

The man who came into her room was someone she had thought never to see again.

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

When the door opened Clarissa stared in disbelief. It flashed through her mind that all her remembering of the past was playing tricks on her eyes, because the man who came into her room was someone who could not possibly be here.

But he was! He was here!

Joy flooded her, and then washed away again, leaving only confusion.

He was older; his hair was not so long and there were lines on his face that had not been there before, as well as an old scar, but it was him.

Alistair McKay.

Was he Meredith’s father? But no, he couldn’t be. The surname was wrong.

He was standing inside her office, looking at her, but there was no recognition in his face. Why didn’t he recognise her?

Then she realised she was standing against the window and he probably saw little more than a silhouette, and with her heart beating faster than it had for years she stepped forward to her desk.

He saw her now and recognised her. Shock made his brown eyes grow wide and some emotion flickered in them briefly, before he looked down, away from her. When he looked at her again his face was wary and his mouth was tight. He gave a her a polite bow and spoke.

“I am here about Meredith.” His voice sounded the same. Another jump of her heart; her emotions were running wild and she forced herself to rein them in.

“Meredith Wentworth?”

“Yes. I didn’t realise you would be seeing me in person . . .”

Did he mean that if he had known he would not have come at all? Clarissa felt the last of her joy seeping away. She forced herself to smile, although the movement felt stiff and false. Her voice was brisk and businesslike. “I’m sure we can cope with a few fading memories, Mr. McKay.  Is Meredith your daughter?”

He shook his head; he looked a little bemused still but he was quickly regaining his wits. “Meredith is my niece. She’s my sister’s child.”

“I see.” She would not admit it to herself, but Clarissa was glad Meredith wasn’t his daughter, although she knew how foolish she was being. Even if Meredith wasn’t his it didn’t mean he didn’t have several children of his own. Dozens, probably. Her own silliness almost made her laugh and it helped to release some of her tension. She sat down and gestured to the chair opposite. “Please, take a seat, Mr. McKay.”

He looked at the chair and seemed to gather himself before he made his way toward it. Clarissa was very glad she was sitting down. After his first few awkward steps she stared down at her ledgers so she didn’t have to look any more. Her hands, clasped beneath the desk, were shaking and there were tears in her eyes, blurring the cold hard fact that Alistair had been injured.

Beneath the plain brown stuff of his trousers he must have a wooden peg instead of flesh and blood. She could tell from the way he moved, fluid enough from practise, but no longer as fluidly as a real leg would move. Clarissa had seen such injuries before; in men who had fought in the wars of twenty and more years ago amputations were far from uncommon. She knew she must speak and act naturally. For his sake. She must not let him see how very saddened she was. The Alistair McKay she remembered would hate to be pitied.

When she heard the chair creak as he sat, she looked up with a determined smile, to find his hard eyes fixed on hers. Once he would have smiled and joked but there was no smile there today and, she thought, perhaps not for a long while.

“I wanted to talk about Meredith,” she heard herself say, and was glad her voice was its usual calm and even self. “As you know her fees—”

“Miss Debenham, there is no need,” he tried to stop her. “I’m aware of the situation. I wasn’t before, but I am now. My sister has been very ill and her illness has thrown her family’s financial affairs into chaos. My brother in law isn’t the best manager and he has rather let things slide. But it is all right. Now I am going to pay Meredith’s fees, just until they are able to take over once more.”

Clarissa found herself listening to his voice rather than his words, the sound of them brushing against her, taking her back to a time and a place she’d almost forgotten.

Alistair when she’d first met him outside Mrs. Frobisher’s shop, and then the bonnet he bought for her when hers was ruined, and his face as they clung to the capsized boat. His lips warm on hers. The memories were coming thick and fast and she was struggling to control them.  

She picked up her pen. Put it down again. “Thank you for explaining the situation to me.”

“I’ll make sure the payment is made in the next few days.” His voice was clipped, and she wondered whether he considered her penny clutching. It seemed important to explain. For him to think well of her, despite how ridiculous she knew that sounded after all these years.

“There’s no need to be . . . that is, I wasn’t going to force Meredith to leave. In fact the opposite. She is one of my best pupils and I wanted to do everything I could to see she remained here. It is just . . .” she sighed. “I do not charge exorbitant prices for my pupils. Well, only those who can pay. Towards the others I am more lenient because I want to see them receive the sort of education they deserve.”

Her voice had become earnest and with a shock she realised that the closed expression had left his face and he was smiling. It was the same smile she remembered from long ago, and it softened his features, making him appear younger and less careworn.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his smile turning wry and twisting up one corner of his mouth. “It was just . . . you sounded as you used to in Lyme. So earnest, so full of the effect you could have on young lives, so determined to help.”

“Is there anything wrong with that?” she asked coolly, ready to take offense.

His smile faded. “Nothing, nothing whatsoever. I always admired you for it.”

Admired her? When Clarissa had
loved
him.

Her heart ached at the memory, as if it was yesterday instead of twenty years ago, the words and feelings of her younger self clamouring to be heard. But she forced them down, forced herself to be calm and cool, the headmistress again.

Clarissa knew she shouldn’t ask anything personal of him and yet it seemed churlish not to. She needed to behave as if all that they felt was in the past, for her at least, and they could chat like old acquaintances.

“And your wife, Mr. McKay? She is well?”

He frowned and then looked away. He appeared uncomfortable and then he looked directly at her. “I am unmarried, Miss Debenham.”

But that couldn’t be right? He had written to her telling her he was to be married. All these years she had imagined him cosily domesticated with some other woman. She realised she was staring at him. “I thought . . .” she began, but her voice trailed off.

He was still watching her with that intense gaze. “I have never married.”

She put a hand to her hair as if to smooth it back into place and found her fingers were trembling. “I thought . . . that is you said in your letter . . . Surely I am not mistaken about that?” she finished, her voice trembling too.

He hesitated. “It was a very long time ago, Miss Debenham,” he replied at last. “I hardly remember what I said.”

That was cruel; he knew it was cruel and she could see he knew it. Didn’t he want to talk about it? Had the woman he planned to marry broken his heart? And yet there was something wrong. She knew it and she realised suddenly that she had known it all along.

“It was strange,” she said, and her eyes were on his, narrowed, searching, “but someone thought they saw you on the Cobb, before your letter arrived, and that you were injured. They were certain it was you but if you had come back to Lyme I thought you would surely have come to visit me. Wouldn’t you? Have come to visit me?”

Alistair glanced away. “They must have been mistaken,” he said woodenly. “Now, I’d best go. There are matters to deal with. Meredith and my sister,” he shrugged.

She wanted him to stay; she was disappointed by his evasiveness but she could hardly insist. They were near enough to strangers. “Very well. I think we are done here.”

He started to get to his feet and she let him, rising too, wondering whether or not to offer her hand. But he wasn’t looking at her; he wasn’t meeting her eyes.

He was at the door before she knew it, turning with a polite bow and then closing it after him.

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

Alistair’s mouth tightened, harsh lines appearing either side of his lips, a frown on his forehead. He was a fool; he must be a fool to have imagined for a moment that he could meet the famous Miss Debenham with impunity.

On his way here he’d tried to make himself believe that he would be seeing someone else, that Clarissa was in too lofty a position to be interviewing late-payers, and yet he’d known in his heart he would see her. And hadn’t there been some small dash of hope, that when she saw him they might fall into each other’s arms and be reunited?

Idiot.

He had lied to her all those years ago; he had hurt her and she would not forget that. Or was he giving his younger self too much importance? Clarissa had done well for herself, achieved her dreams. As far as she was concerned he was a happily married man who had moved on with his life. She probably never gave him a thought.

The truth was very different for Alistair.

There wasn’t a day went by when he did not think of her and wish things had been different. He hadn’t married and it had taken him quite a while to settle into a new life, one that satisfied him as much as the old one. He still missed the sea but he was content with his estate—his uncle had left it to him—and his farms, and prided himself on being a good landlord.

When his sister’s daughter had begun looking for a finishing school and Miss Debenham’s name had come up, at first he’d thought it must be a coincidence, but the more he thought about it the more it seemed very possible that Clarissa had managed to make a success of her chosen career. When Meredith began her term there she came home singing the praises of the place, and when Alistair questioned her—subtly he was sure—her description of the headmistress tallied with his memory of Clarissa.

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
11.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The French Girl by Donovan, Felicia
Then She Fled Me by Sara Seale
Girl on the Other Side by Deborah Kerbel
KiltedForPleasure by Melissa Blue
The Ghost and Mrs. McClure by Alice Kimberly
Fool's Experiments by Lerner, Edward M
Captive- Veiled Desires by Cartharn, Clarissa
Dirty by Jensen, Jenny