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Authors: M. C. Beaton,Marion Chesney

Tags: #Romance, #Historical

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BOOK: The Homecoming
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“You are very kind, Your Grace.”

“Now you may go.”

Peter closed the double doors of the drawing-room and did a little jig on the landing. He was beginning to detest Mannerling, to find the atmosphere of the great house depressing.

It was indeed a beautiful house, from its painted ceilings to its Persian-carpeted floors. The rooms were gracious and elegantly proportioned. He suddenly thought of Lizzie’s invitation and his heart lifted. He would call and pray that Lady Beverley might not find his visit presumptuous.

For some reason, the duke found the memory of Lizzie rankling. She had crossed swords with him and he felt he had somehow lost that first engagement. He had come into his dukedom at an early age. His parents were both dead. Although they had not spent much time with him, they had seen that he had the best of tutors, by which they meant an elderly Scotsman who had toadied to the duke quite dreadfully and the duke had taken that toadying as being exactly what was due to his consequence.

He had attended several Seasons in London in his early twenties, but had not found any female to engage his interest. He had turned his mind to his estates and then in his late twenties to the interests of foreign travel.

He had several people he considered as friends, people that the more ordinary ranks might consider acquaintances, for the duke could not bring himself to confide in anyone. Nor did he feel the need for affection. He had kept several clever and amusing mistresses and when he had tired of them had seen to it that his lawyers had seen each on her way with a generous settlement. When servants became too old to work, they were housed and pensioned.

It was only lately that he had begun to feel a black void in his life. He had justified the purchase of Mannerling to himself by considering it suitable property for an heir, and yet the truth was he had simply felt that this temporary move from his ancestral home might allay his growing ennui.

He felt Lizzie Beverley, she who was supposed to be consumed with ambition to regain Mannerling, had gaily dismissed him as old and boring.

On the following day, as he was walking back to the house after surveying some improvements to the gardens, he saw his secretary ride off down the long drive between the row of lime trees, and knew he was probably going to call at Brookfield House.

He shrugged and turned indoors. It would serve his aunt right if her precious charge became enamoured of a mere secretary.

He decided to get out the carriage and drive over to see old Lady Evans, whom he had once met in London several years before.

His valet laid out his morning coat and breeches and cravat and clean cambric shirt. Once he was dressed, he dismissed his valet and stood in front of the mirror in his room, drawing on his York tan driving gloves.

And suddenly an old man stared back at him from the mirror. It was himself, but horribly aged and stooped. He gasped and covered his face and looked again. But this time only his own well-groomed reflection looked back at him.

Some disorder of the spleen, he thought. The buttered crab last night perhaps had been too rich.

But as he walked down the grand staircase and as two footmen leaped to open the front door for him, he found he was still badly shaken.

His phaeton and horses had been brought round to the front door. He climbed in and picked up the reins. He badly wanted to tell someone what he had seen in the mirror, but winced at the idea of being thought mad.

There were strange stories about Mannerling being haunted, but he had jeered at all of them.

He drove slowly down the drive, feeling a certain lightness of heart as he reached the lodge-gates. Instead of going to Lady Evans’s home, he became convinced that it was his duty to call on his aunt and try once more to persuade her to give up her lowly position in the Beverley household.

Peter found Lizzie in the garden, cutting roses which she laid in a basket on her arm.

“Oh, Peter!” she cried when she saw him. “You are come. How is it you escaped?”

“His Grace gave me the day off.”

“Do step indoors and I will call Miss Trumble. Mama is lying down.”

“I trust Lady Beverley is not indisposed?”

Lizzie did not want to say that all her mother’s ailments were imaginary so she said, “Mama has the headache but Miss Trumble has given her something for it. Miss Trumble always manages to make Mama feel better.” She laid the basket of roses on a table in the hall.

Miss Trumble came down the stairs. “Mr. Bond,” she said, “you are welcome.”

Peter felt at ease. Not knowing that Miss Trumble was, in fact, the duke’s aunt, he felt on a social level with her.

“But you must have some refreshment,” said Miss Trumble. “It is such a fine day, it is a pity to waste it indoors. Lizzie, take Mr. Bond to the table in the garden and I will tell the maids to bring tea, and see if Josiah has some of his little scones.”

Lizzie’s hair was still worn up. She had protested to Miss Trumble that there was no need, surely, to wear her hair up and be gowned in her prettiest dresses when no one came to call, but Miss Trumble said, “I sent a note to Lady Evans. She might call at any time. A lady must always look as if she is expecting callers.”

Lizzie led the way to the table in the garden under the cedar tree. Peter sat down with a little sigh of pleasure.

“How fine it is here.”

Lizzie smiled. “You cannot think it finer than Mannerling.”

“But I do! I thought you were being fanciful, Lizzie, when you told me about the chandelier, but when you left last week, and I entered the house with my master, the chandelier was turning and there was a brooding air of menace. I pointed it out to the duke but he dismissed it. He felt nothing.”

“I think he is probably a very insensitive man.”

“I cannot discuss or criticize my employer, Lizzie.”

“No, of course you cannot. Here is Miss Trumble. Miss Trumble, you will think me very forward, but I have asked Peter here to call me Lizzie when we are not in company.”

“Be sure you do not let anyone hear you,” said Miss Trumble reluctantly.

The two maids came out carrying tea, scones and cakes. Miss Trumble had dismissed them and was just pouring tea when one of the maids came running back, the streamers of her cap flying.

“Miss Trumble, my lady wishes to see you.”

Miss Trumble gave a little sigh, but rose obediently to her feet. “I shall leave Lizzie to entertain you, Mr. Bond.”

“So tell me, Peter,” said Lizzie, “about the duke’s plans to marry. He did tell us that those were his plans, so you will not be out of order in talking about them.”

“There is something I can tell you in confidence which shows that my master has considered your future.”

“What can it be?”

“I have invited several people to come on a visit. His Grace asked me to find a suitable young gentleman for you, Lizzie.”

“And have you?”

“Yes, a very pleasant young man. A Mr. Gerald Parkes.”

Her eyes flashed. “That is very high-handed of him to find someone for me. He should have asked me.”

“I think he only meant to be kind.”

“And I think Miss Trumble asked him to find me someone.”

Peter looked surprised. “Estimable governess as she obviously is, a governess cannot ask a duke to do such a thing.”

“No, I suppose not, Peter,” said Lizzie quickly. “Tell me about yourself. Are you happy in your employ?”

“I should be.”

“So what is amiss?”

“I would like to tell you, Lizzie, for we are friends, but in my home village, there is a certain lady…”

He blushed and looked down.

“What is her name?” asked Lizzie gently.

“Sarah. Miss Sarah Walters.”

“And is she very fair?”

“Miss Walters has great vivacity and charm. She is Squire Walters’s daughter. The family hope for better for her than a mere secretary, even the secretary to a duke. I could not declare myself.”

“How sad.”

“Yes, it is sad. I cannot even write to her.”

Lizzie nodded wisely. It was a world in which one’s parents opened and read one’s letters first.

“Perhaps,” she said tentatively, “you might broach the subject to the duke. Who knows? He owns so much property, he might allow you to have a house of your own and sufficient to wed your Sarah.”

Peter gave a mirthless laugh. “Servants do not marry, as you know very well.”

“I wish there was something I could do for you, Peter.”

He put a hand over hers where it lay on the table and gave it a little squeeze.

The duke, entering the garden, saw what he believed was his secretary holding the hand of Lizzie Beverley in a fond and amorous clasp.

He went straight to the house. The door stood open. “Miss Trumble!” he called.

Miss Trumble came down the stairs.

“How good of you to call.”

“Come into the parlour,” he said grimly.

Now what? thought Miss Trumble, as he held open the door for her and then shut it firmly behind them.

She sat down, but the duke began to pace up and down. “Do stand still and tell me what the matter is,” said Miss Trumble.

He ceased his pacing and looked down at her.

“When I arrived, my secretary was sitting in the garden holding hands with Lizzie.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, very sure, Aunt. There is something badly wrong when a young miss allows such familiarity and on such short acquaintance.”

“It is all very simple, Gervase. Lizzie, despite her unruly tongue, is not a flirt. We shall go together to the garden and simply ask them what they are about.”

This was the most sensible course and the duke followed her reluctantly out, feeling all the same like a middle-aged gossip.

Peter rose to his feet when he saw his master. Lizzie rose and curtsied. Both young faces were polite blanks and yet the duke sensed he had interrupted something important and that they wished him at the devil.

“We shall all sit down,” said Miss Trumble. “Lizzie, His Grace was startled, on entering the garden, to see you holding hands with his secretary.”

Peter blushed miserably. “It was not what you think. There was something troubling me. I told Miss Lizzie and she was so concerned and so understanding that I was moved to cover her hand with my own. Pray accept my apologies.”

“If such be the case,” said Miss Trumble, “you need not apologize.”

“No, indeed,” said Lizzie. “But I think you should tell the duke what it was about. He may be able to help you.”

Peter hung his head.

“Is it something so very dreadful that you fear you might lose your employ?” asked Miss Trumble.

“Oh, no.”

“Tell me about it,” commanded the duke, noticing however the silky sheen of Lizzie Beverley’s red hair in the sunlight.

“I am in love,” said Peter wretchedly.

The duke raised his thin eyebrows but said nothing. He simply waited patiently.

“Her name is Sarah Walters,” went on Peter in a low voice. “She is the daughter of Squire Walters in the village of Syderham, where I grew up. I could not declare my love as I am not in a position to do so. That is all.”

“Does the lady return your affection?” demanded the duke.

“I believe she is not indifferent to me.”

“How old is this village charmer?”

“She will now be eighteen years.”

“And when did you last see Miss Walters?”

“Two years ago.”

“Two years! She may be wed.”

Peter shook his head. “No, Your Grace. I have a friend in the village who writes to me from time to time. The last letter received was a month ago and Sarah was still unwed. She is very young.”

“May I point out that two years is a long time,” said the duke, “and in that time Miss Sarah may have changed a great deal. If you put it from your mind, you will forget her.”

“You do not believe in undying love, Your Grace?” said Lizzie with that mocking note in her voice that irritated him.

“As a matter of fact, I do not believe in love at all,” said the duke.

“It might ease Mr. Bond’s mind were he allowed time to travel to his village and see for himself,” pointed out Miss Trumble.

“If I recall, Mr. Bond lives in Cambridgeshire,” said the duke. “Too long a journey. I need him here. Besides, secretaries do not marry. Mr. Bond knew that very well when he took up the appointment.”

“Why should not secretaries marry?” asked Lizzie. “Is it because they are supposed to be married to their employers?”

“Please
, Miss Lizzie,” begged Peter, looking at the duke’s hard face.

“Does Miss Walters have brothers and sisters?” asked Miss Trumble.

“She only has one brother, serving in the navy. She had two sisters, younger than she, but they died of cholera.”

“So that is only three—daughter, mother and father,” mused Miss Trumble. “Mannerling is such a large place and so many rooms. Why, three extra guests at your house party would practically go unnoticed.”

The duke was aware of a pair of mocking green eyes on his face waiting for him to give Miss Trumble a set-down.

“Yes, why not,” he said, locking eyes with Lizzie. “Mr. Bond, you may send out an invitation to Squire Walters and his family.”

“Oh, Your Grace. How can I ever thank you?”

“By not letting your unrequited passion interfere with your work,” said the duke acidly.

“Oh, now that is settled,” said Lizzie, clapping her hands, “would you care for a game of croquet?”

Mr. Bond looked at the duke who said, “It is your free day. You may do as you wish.”

“We will all play,” said Miss Trumble.

What should have been an amiable and friendly game became a serious contest when it became clear that Lizzie and the duke were determined to beat each other.

At last Lizzie won and danced around the lawn, waving her mallet in the air and crying, “I beat you! I beat you!”

“Unruly child,” admonished Miss Trumble. “Let us repair indoors and have some nuncheon. The exercise will have given us an appetite.”

The duke hesitated. He felt he had lowered himself by playing croquet with a noisy hoyden and his own secretary. And yet a feeling that they would all enjoy themselves immensely once he had gone made him say, “How kind.”

BOOK: The Homecoming
3.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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