Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book (9 page)

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
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“She’s fair and pretty and she has lovely laughing blue eyes. Even when she is telling us off, as she sometimes does, her eyes are still kindly.”

Clarissa, his one and only love. It was as if fate were punishing him for denying his feelings, for letting his own past get in the way of their happiness. He’d had a chance and it had slipped away from him.

Or had it?

Sometimes, in his more impulsive moments, he toyed with the idea of riding down to Hampshire and visiting her and then he would imagine her confusion, or worse, her pity, or worse still, her complete disinterest. Just as well he’d never gone ahead and done it. But then his sister became ill and Meredith’s fees were neglected and suddenly he had the opportunity to fulfil his romantic wish.

He really was a fool to think she would still care for him. And now she knew he’d lied to her; she was always so clever, she was working it out as they spoke. She would hate him for that. And she had every right to.

Which was a shame, thought Alistair, because it only took one look for him to realise how much he still loved her. She’d been his love, always, and he’d been an idiot not to ask her to marry him that day outside the school, when he’d said goodbye. Perhaps then everything might have ended differently.

***

Clarissa sat at her desk, wondering why suddenly her world felt topsy turvy. Not just because she had been brought face to face with the man she loved all those years ago, but because there was something wrong. His evasiveness, his wary expression, the fact he had never married after all.

Clarissa closed her eyes and instead of trying to fend off the memories she let them sweep over her.

She was back in time; it was twenty years ago.

She had come into the cottage after school finished, hoping as always there would be a letter from Alistair, and . . .

No, she must go back further. To a week before, and a morning as she was leaving for school. Her father was saying that there was someone coming to see him and not to come back to the cottage. He’d had such an odd look on his face but she’d thought nothing much of it. An old friend, he’d said, but as far as Clarissa was aware he had no old friends.

That was the day that Annie had come to Lyme for her lessons, and she said she’d seen Alistair on the Cobb—she was so sure it was him. She’d even mentioned his hair was sticking up in the wind and reminded her of that day they’d first met. He was injured, she’d said.

At first Annie had been so sure it was him but Clarissa had talked her out of it and in the end she was no longer sure. But the incident had worried her, and she’d even mentioned it to her father, and wondered why he suddenly looked so uncomfortable. He’d become angry with her and told her to let the subject be. Shortly afterwards Alistair’s letter had arrived and she forgot Annie’s words, too busy wallowing in her own misery.

And now she knew he wasn’t married.

He’d never married.

In a flash she saw it all laid out before her, the whole wicked plot her father had woven to keep her with him. Alistair had come back but her father had persuaded him that he would be a burden on her. Her father had persuaded him to write the letter so that she would not keep hoping. She could almost hear him saying it, “Better to give her a short swift shock than a long drawn out one.”

Alistair had come back because he loved her and he had allowed her father to persuade him to fob her off. All these years she had mourned him when she could have been his wife.

He had never married.

The significance of those words brought Clarissa back from the past. She heard the ormolu clock striking again.

She had to find him! 

In a flash she was out of her chair and flinging open the door. Annie started up, mouth agape, but Clarissa was already out into the hallway and running in a most unladylike manner. Where was he? Was it too late yet again? Had he already left?

“Oh please,” she murmured to herself, “don’t let him be gone.”

But there he was!

Alistair was silhouetted in the doorway, a lonely figure, while about him the girls went about their business, incurious of this stranger.

“Alistair!”

Her voice was louder than she’d meant. He turned, startled, and had to catch his balance. She couldn’t see his face against the light, but a few steps more and she could. There was something in his eyes, almost . . . could it be hope? But a moment later the wariness returned and he waited for her to reach him.

“It was my father, wasn’t it?” She hardly noticed the girls had all stopped and were staring at the two of them. “
He
persuaded you to write that wretched letter?”

He looked as if he might deny it, as if he might keep up the pretence, but then he sighed. His voice was matter of fact. “He didn’t have to persuade me, Clarissa. I knew it was the right thing to do.”

“Right for whom?” she retorted, and to her horror her voice cracked.

He lifted his arms and let them drop. “I’m crippled. What use would I be to you? I didn’t want a nurse, I wanted a wife, and I knew you would feel obliged to marry me just so that you could look after me. What sort of life would that have been for you? For me? We’d have ended up resenting each other.”

She shook her head and tears were dripping, running like rain, and she couldn’t seem to stop them. Pain lanced through his expression and suddenly he was the Alistair she remembered all those years ago.

“Oh my love,” he said in a hoarse voice. “My dear love.”

She was in his arms. Right there, in the middle of the Debenham Finishing School for Young Ladies. Alistair was holding her tight and she didn’t want him ever to stop.

They seemed to be incapable of doing more than clinging together.

Luckily that was when Annie came to order the girls back to their lessons, and suggested, with a twinkle and a tear in her eye that the two of them should go to the parlour where there was more privacy. Tea was brought, and some of the special cake Clarissa saved for important parents, like dukes. Alistair sat beside her and held her hand.

“I loved you with all my heart,” he said, “and that was why I did what I did.”

She shook her head at him. “You broke my heart.”

He sighed. “I’ve made a mess of it then?”

That made her smile through her tears. She took out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes and blew her nose, and then she took a sip of her tea to revive her.

“But looking about me,” he went on, “I see a great success. You have done a marvellous job, Clarissa, and I know from Meredith how much she loves it here. Don’t tell me you regret any of this because I won’t believe you.”

She gave him a sideways look. “All right, I won’t then. No, I don’t regret it; of course I don’t, I just . . . I am sad at how we allowed someone to manipulate us out of the happiness we might have had.”

He lifted her fingers and kissed them.

“Do you think . . .” she began and then shook her head. “Cake?” she offered him the plate.

He grinned, and she saw he was still essentially the same after all. “Is this a moment for cake, do you think?”

“I will have you know that this is our very best cake. Only dukes and earls are allowed to eat this cake and sometimes even earls don’t get it.”

He laughed at the thought of cake being served according to social ranking.

“Then I am privileged indeed,” he teased, but he didn’t take a slice. He was watching her with such warmth in his eyes she felt weak and dizzy.

“Alistair.”

“Is it permissible to kiss you, Miss Debenham?” he asked.

“Why? Do you want to kiss me?”

“Oh I do, very much.”

He kissed her and she thought it might be different from her memory, but it was even better. As soon as she was enclosed in his strength that sense came back to her, of wanting to burrow into his chest and stay there forever. He might be older, but so was she. They might have lived separate lives, but he had always been in her heart, and she in his.

She peeped up at him, and he was smiling down at her. He bent his head to brush her lips with hers, so gently, as if she might break, or reject him. She kissed him more firmly, just to make sure he couldn’t still believe she didn’t want him, or that he was a burden.

“Do you know,” she murmured, “I still have that fossil I found, that day under the cliffs. I’ve kept it all these years.”

“We will revisit Lyme,” he announced, “and I will take you sailing. I miss the sea. Where I live now there is a lake, but it isn’t the same.”

“And will you capsize the boat again?” she teased.

He kissed the tip of her nose. “If you wish.”

Clarissa laughed. “I wonder what my pupils must think.”

“Your stern reputation will be shattered forever,” he sighed, and then laughed too. After a moment he said, more seriously, “Will you marry me, my love? Will you be my wife? I promise not to be a burden on you, indeed I am quite well off these days. I inherited my uncle’s estate and we do quite nicely.”

Clarissa thought a moment. “There is my school,” she said, with a little frown, “but I have been thinking lately that Annie would make a fine headmistress. I could safely leave it in her hands. And do you know, I miss the days when I ran the village school in Lyme. Is there somewhere . . .”

He gave her a quizzical smile. “You are amazing, Clarissa, and yes, there is somewhere. My estate has a great many families who need their children schooled. If that is what you truly want, my love? Believe me, I do not mind sharing you with this place. I have learned to compromise at last.”

“Then yes, I will marry you,” she announced, “and I do not want to waste a moment of the time we have left together.”

“Neither do I, my bonnie lassie,” he murmured, his voice deepening, as he leaned forward for another kiss.

Table of Contents

Also by Sara Bennett

1812, Lyme Regis, England

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

BOOK: Miss Debenham's Secret: A Husband Hunters Club Book
7.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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