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by Carola Dunn
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Lord Pomeroy has been rejected by his long-time fiancé and must find a woman to marry for his ill father's sake. His sister suggests Claire Sutton, who has been on the shelf for years. And Bertram is willing to consider her, except that she's shy and her sister is such an outspoken, outrageous chit. Then there's Lord Winterborne, heir to the Marquis of Bellingham, who pretends to court Lizzie Sutton--at her instigation--but is intrigued by her older sister Claire. Add to this bumblebroth the fact that it was Winterborne's brother who stole Pomeroy's fiancé, and no two couples could be more at cross purposes. A delightful Regency romp.
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1989
eBookwise Release Date: August 2003
61 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [304 KB]
Reading time: 194-272 min.
Without raising her eyes from Cushing's Exotic Gardener, Claire Sutton absently tucked a vagrant lock of light brown hair into the loose knot at the nape of her slender neck.
"Claire, you are scattering hairpins again!" snapped her mother. "I wonder you will be so careless. It is as well you are an old maid for you would drive a husband to distraction, I vow. And you may fidget with your hair forever without the least improvement in your appearance. I am sure you have something better to wear than that old brown rag."
Only a slight tightening of her sensitive lips showed that Claire had heard Lady Sutton's disparaging rebuke. However, the third occupant of the shabby parlour dropped her needlework and flew to the defence of her sister with a toss of her blonde curls.
"That is unfair, Mama! If she is not married, it is because none of the gentlemen she meets are interested in anything beyond Papa's horses."
"Don't be pert, Elizabeth," said Lady Sutton sharply. "Your sister had her Season in London, and a great disaster it was. Nor is yours likely to be more successful if you do not learn to curb your tongue. Not that I think your father should waste his money on such an ungrateful child. With a third son starting at Cambridge this autumn there are better uses for it."
"But Mama, I am twenty! My come-out has already been postponed twice!"
Claire's quiet voice forestalled the approaching storm.
"Lizzie, I must find some more briar roots before this thaw ends. Will you walk with me?"
Having girded up her loins for battle, Lizzie was reluctant to abandon the field. Clair read the mutinous sparkle in her blue eyes.
"Do come, it is a beautiful day for midwinter. Pray excuse us, Mama." Claire rose swiftly to her feet.
"I will not have you wandering about the neighbourhood dabbling in the mud, Claire. Claire! People are already saying that you are peculiar. I forbid you to take your sister with you."
Lady Sutton's harangue faded as Claire gently closed the door behind them. The sisters went up the stairs to dress for walking.
"I know it is worse than useless to protest," said Lizzie penitently. "Only I cannot bear it when she abuses you so. I do manage to pay no heed when I am the target, I promise you, but it will be the outside of enough if I cannot go to London next month."
"You shall go, dearest, and neither Papa nor our brothers shall be called upon to make any desperate sacrifices. I could not think it right to go against Mama last spring, or the year before, however specious her excuses. A death in the family, even though both were very distant cousins, must have put us in the wrong. But if her only reason now is lack of funds, why, I have plenty thanks to Godmama. I am eight and twenty, sufficiently ancient to be your chaperone without raising too many eyebrows, should Mama decide not to accompany you."
"Claire, you darling! I should have known I could trust you." Lizzie flung her arms around her tall, slender sister in a hug that sent the last few hairpins flying. "When shall we leave? We must have time to order new gowns before the Season begins. And where shall we stay? At your house at Bumble's Green?"
"No, that is too far out of the city. I shall rent a house in the centre of things. When we return from our walk, remind me to write to my lawyer about finding a place."
"You will not forget. I know, if no one else does, that your absentmindedness isall for show."
She smiled at Lizzie's exuberance. "Hush, you will give me away." With her fine, straight hair tumbling about her shoulders and the vagueness in her grey eyes replaced by a glow of amusement, Claire's face showed a piquant beauty which was more than mere prettiness. The glow faded as they entered the chilly, north-facing bedchamber they shared. She shivered. "Put on your warmest cloak and boots," she advised. "Thaw or no, it is still January."
"You know I never feel the cold. I am better padded than you." Lizzie patted her rounded hips cheerfully. "Though I wish Mama would allow us a fire in here, for your sake. Here, sit down and let me pin up your hair properly. If it falls down while we are out you will get it caught in the thorns."
A few minutes later, the two girls slipped down the backstairs to a side door. Claire wore a short cloak of dark brown wool with a hood. Her sister was elegant in a blue pelisse, fitted to her softly curvaceous figure, and a matching bonnet which was the last word in fashion as far as the nearby town of Banbury was concerned. If the pelisse was worn at the hem and elbows, and the bonnet carefully constructed by her own nimble fingers, itwas not apparent from a distance.
The side door was the shortest route from the house to both the gardens and the stables where Sir James Sutton kept his much sought-after hunters. As Claire and Lizzie started down the gravel path in the pale winter sunlight, their father came towards them. With him were their eldest brother, Edward, and another gentleman whom they guessed to be a customer. The three were deep in discussion of equine pedigrees.
"Good-day, Papa," the girls murmured, stepping aside.
Sir James nodded curtly as he passed, neither looking at them nor pausing in his conversation. The customer cast an appreciative glance at Lizzie's blonde comeliness. Edward dropped back to greet them with a scowl.
"Must you go about looking like a servant, Claire?" he demanded petulantly. "You put the whole family to shame. And you're the only one of us who can afford to dress decently."
"Gammon!" snorted Lizzie vulgarly. "I happen to know that your coat was delivered only yesterday from that tailor in London, what's his name? Nugee, isn't it? And that waistcoat must have cost a fortune."
Edward glanced down at the purple brocade, lavishly embroidered with gold thread, and had the grace to look a little disconcerted.
"And very odd it looks with riding boots and breeches," added his younger sister. "At twenty-six you ought to be capable of deciding whether you want to be a dandy or a sportsman."
"Impertinent chit! I've a mind to tell Mama..." His voice trailed away as Lizzie left him without ceremony.
Claire had wandered on as soon as she realised that her brother, as usual, had nothing to say that was worth listening to.
"Edward is a popinjay!" said Lizzie decidedly as she caught up. "I am not precisely sure what a popinjay is, but it sounds right. I cannot wait to go to Town. I shall find someone to marry right away so that you can go and live in your little house and never see the rest of the family again."
"Oh no," cried Claire in distress. "I knew I ought not to have told you my plan. I shall never be happy if you rush into marriage only to rescue me. You must wait until you find a man you can love, however long it takes."
"I'm not at all sure I believe in romantic love. It is all very well in a novel, but sadly impractical for daily use. If I catch a husband who is agreeable, and not a popinjay, and who does not ignore me as Papa does, then I shall be perfectly satisfied."
Claire had long ago given up hope of finding romance herself, but her sister's prosaic dismissal of the idea dismayed her. She resolved to impress upon Lizzie the foolishness of a hasty match.
They reached the garden shed, and Claire went in to fetch a basket and a trowel. An ungainly youth dressed in homespun stood by the rough wooden table. Tufts of ginger hair topped his broad, flat face, which wore an expression of despair as he regarded the clay flowerpot held in his large hands. The despair changed to joy when he saw Claire.
"I bin sorting them pots, Miss Claire. Big uns here an' little uns there like you said. Only this un be middling an' I don' know where to put it."
"Let's find a special place for middling ones," Claire said gently. "I think there is room on that shelf. You are doing an excellent job of tidying my mess, Alfie."
"Good. Very good. Now where is my basket? Miss Lizzie and I are going to find roots."
"I come an' help--" the lad begged.
"Not today, Alfie." She was loath to disappoint him, but she wanted to talk to her sister without interruptions. Alfie tended to become utterly absorbed in studying a tree or a rock or a fence post, and it took constant urging to make him keep up with them. "You can help me best by finishing here," she assured him. "I shall need those pots when I bring the roots home. And then you must carry in some coals for Cook."
"I don' like Cook," he muttered.
"Alfie, you promised."
"Promised I do what you say an' what Miss Lizzie say. Will do, Miss Claire. Don't like Cook, will carry coals for you."
"Thank you, Alfie. Now, remember to put the middling pots on this shelf. You are a great help to me."
She left him beaming as he carefully set the pot on the shelf. He was slow, but he was not an idiot, and since she had rescued him from a life of tormented misery as a scullery boy he had been devoted to her and Lizzie. He followed their simple directions with a literal-minded patience and thoroughness which occasionally brought unexpected results. She smiled as she remembered the time she had set him to dig over a flowerbed. She had come back some time later to find it twice as large. Alfie had been quite disappointed to learn that she did not want the entire lawn dug up.
Claire slung her basket over her arm, and she and Lizzie set out. They crossed the park beyond the kitchen gardens, past the paddocks where grazed the stallions, mares, colts, and fillies which were both Sir James's passion and his livelihood.
Claire and Lizzie walked on with the brisk stride of countrywomen until they left the Sutton estate to enter pasture and cropland, crisscrossed with hedges of hawthorn and hazel. A pair of speckle-breasted thrushes flew up from a cluster of crimson haws as they passed; the hazel bushes were bare, stripped of nuts long since by squirrels and thrifty villagers.
Here and there scarlet hips showed where wild briar roses had flowered in June. Claire took her sharp knife and cut a thorny, dead-looking main stem several inches above the ground, then dug up the root and put it in her basket.
She passed by the next few rose vines, leaving them to delight the eye and nose next summer, before taking another. The local farmers and landowners were used to her depredations and waved indulgent permission if they happened to see her at it. She knew their indulgence was tinged with pity and some derision. Lady Sutton was right to say that people thought her peculiar. Still, come July her rose garden would draw admiring visitors from as far away as Oxford.
Her basket filled, she hurried to join Lizzie who sat patiently on a stile, holding the bunch of green-veined snow-drops and yellow aconites she had gathered as they wandered.
"What a charming sight," Claire said, conscious of her own muddy gloves and hem. "I wish I could paint."
"They will look pretty embroidered on a cushion cover, do you not think? Like a mediaeval tapestry."
"Certainly, but you are the charming sight I referred to, goose. Is it not odd that I, who am timid and fearful, should enjoy so active an occupation as gardening, while you, the lively one, prefer embroidery?"
"I daresay everyone needs some contrast in their lives," said Lizzie wisely as she jumped down into the winding lane.
Claire was following when a carriage swept around the bend, startling her. She stumbled, slid down the bank, and landed in a crumpled heap at the bottom, dropping her basket.
The driver had seen the mishap and pulled his team of four superb bays to a snorting halt some yards beyond them. Handing the reins to his companion, he descended from the box and hurried towards them.
His many-caped greatcoat was open and it was obviousto Claire from her glimpse of his clothes that he was a gentleman. Feeling foolish, she took Lizzie's hand and scrambled to her feet. As soon as she put her weight on her ankle, agonising pain shot up her leg and a wave of dizziness overcame her. Though she clung to Lizzie she felt herself sinking, until strong arms caught her up, lifting her easily offthe ground.
"I fear she has injured herself," a concerned voice said close to her ear.
Through a whirling mist she heard Lizzie answer. She strained to make out her words as consciousness slipped away.
It must have been a brief swoon, for she was still in the stranger's arms when awareness returned. After making such a cake of herself, she did not want to face him. She kept her eyes closed and tried not to stiffen as he lifted her into his carriage. Then Lizzie was pulling off her boot, and it took all her self-control not to moan aloud.
"It is dreadfully swollen already. What shall I do?" Lizzie sounded frightened and Claire wanted to comfort her, but her head was swimming again.
"I daresay it is only a sprain," said the man's deep, reassuring voice. "They can hurt as much as a break, I believe."
"Surely she ought to have come round by now?"
"She is probably feeling lightheaded."
"I hope she did not hit her head."
Claire forced herself to open her eyes. She looked up into a handsome face full of solicitude. The gentleman had dark hair, tousled, touched with grey at the temples, dark eyes, a patrician nose whose haughtiness was belied by sensitive lips. Faint lines about his mouth gave him a slightly cynical air, but despite those and the greying hair, she thought he could not be much above five and thirty.
"She is awake!" cried Lizzie. "Thank heaven. Is it very painful, Claire?"
"Yes...No...It does not signify," she whispered feebly. "My basket?"
"I'll get it, don't worry. Only I cannot move without disturbing you."
"Slade shall fetch the basket," said the stranger.
Claire became aware of a small man dressed in the fastidious black of a gentleman's gentleman, sitting on the opposite seat. The carriage was luxuriously upholstered in supple leather, dyed dark blue. She was unhappily certain that the mud on her gown must have transferred to the seat, and since she was leaning against the stranger, with his arm supporting her, his clothes must also be suffering.
"It does not matter," she murmured as the valet rose to his feet with a resigned look.
"Yes it does," Lizzie contradicted. "You will doubtless be confined to your bed for a few days and unable to collect more roots. Pray make sure you find them all, Slade, and the trowel and knife as well."
"Rose roots. They cannot have fallen far from the basket, so you will see them."
The handsome gentleman turned a look of amused enquiry onLizzie. "You are a gardener, ma'am?"
"Not I. Embroidery is my forte. Claire, you are shockingly pale. I am sure your ankle is hurting."
"It throbs a little. As long as I do not move, it is not too bad."
The valet scrambled back into the coach, setting the basket on the floor.
"Thank you, Slade," said the gentleman. "And now I must direct the coachman, Miss..."--
"I am Elizabeth Sutton. Our house is just a mile or so along this lane."
He knocked on the roof and called "Peter, drive on!"
"It is very kind of you to take us up, sir," Lizzie said as the carriage started off.
"The sooner your maid's injury receives attention, the better, Miss Sutton. You are Sir James's daughter, I presume? I was on my way to purchase a mount from him."
"Yes. I am glad we do not take you out of your way. But Claire is my sister, sir, not my maid."
He looked down at Claire with surprised interest. She felt a hot flush of embarrassment rise in her cheeks as she quickly closed her eyes and wished she had not so soon abandoned her feigned swoon.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Sutton," he said, a note of amusement now colouring the deep voice. "These are your gardening clothes, I collect--"
Bravely she opened her eyes. She read sympathetic understanding along with the amusement in his gaze, and nodded. The motion, slight as it was, somehow transferred itself to her ankle and the pain shot up again. She bit her lip, holding back a cry.
Lizzie squeezed her hand. "We are nearly home, dearest," she said. "It is lucky that your carriage is so well sprung, sir, for it jolts hardly at all."
"Lucky indeed, Miss Elizabeth," he responded smiling.
Her head on his chest, Claire noticed the vibration of his speech and realised she could feel his heartbeat and the rise and fall of his breathing. It was a shockingly intimate position, but she did not dare move. She was grateful for the warmth of his body and the comfort of his strong arms protecting her from the inevitable swaying of the coach.
Who was he? A wealthy man, to judge by his vehicle, though of course it might not be paid for. A sportsman, if he meant to buy a horse from her father. The coat against which her cheek was pressed was smooth, of Bath cloth she guessed. His linen was snowy white. His neckcloth, though neat, was simply knotted. Better dressed than the average country squire, yet no dandy, he must be a member of the Corinthian set, Claire decided.
More important, he was a true gentleman, kind and considerate even when he had thought her a servant. This was the sort of man she wanted Lizzie to fall in love with and to marry.
The carriage turned in between familiar gate posts and pulled up before the manor. Slade let down the step, hopped out, and scurried to knock on the front door. The unknown Corinthian carefully lifted Claire and carried her into the house, followed by Lizzie with the precious basket. The butler hovered, clucking at them anxiously.
"Golightly, send a groom for Dr. Farrow at once," ordered Lizzie, taking charge. "Sir, will you be so good as to carry my sister above-stairs?"
He was nodding his willingness, when Alfie charged into the hall. Seeing Claire in the arms of a stranger, he raised his fists, his face thunderous.
"What you done to her?" he demanded. "Leave her be!"
"If you want to take a poke at me, lad," said the gentleman calmly "wait until I have set your mistress down."
"Alfie, Miss Claire has hurt herself," Lizzie hurried to explain. "You must fetch some coal from the shed and take it up to our chamber. Then ask one of the maids to light a fire. Do you understand? Take some coal up and ask Molly to light a fire."
"Un'stand, Miss Lizzie. Miss Claire be all right?"
"Right as rain, Alfie. Hurry now and have a fire made up in our chamber."
Lady Sutton, sweeping into the hall, heard these words.
"What do you mean by ordering a fire in your chamber, Elizabeth? It is quite unnecessary. Heavens, Claire! What disgraceful scrape have you landed yourself in this time? You will be the death of me, I vow. Sir, I beg you will not allow my daughter's shocking behaviour to disturb you."
"Miss Sutton has hurt her ankle, ma'am." The stranger's composure was unimpaired. "If you will allow me to carry her up, I shall return at once to present myself in due form. I am George Winterborne. Sir James is expecting me, I believe."
Lady Sutton gasped. "Lord Winterborne! Of course, my lord! But pray put Claire down, I am sure she can walk up, the silly girl."
"No, she cannot, Mama," interrupted Lizzie firmly. "If you will follow me, my lord, I shall show you the way."
With a nod to her exasperated ladyship, Lord Winterborne strode after Lizzie.
Claire wanted to die of humiliation. She ought to be used by now to being scolded in front of strangers, she told herself, but she still found it difficult to bear, impossible to ignore. And somehow it was worse because this stranger had been so kind and understanding. Now he must think her a ridiculous old maid. She avoided meeting his eyes as he laid her gently on her bed.
"Thank you, my lord," she whispered.
"I wish you a speedy recovery, Miss Sutton," he said, then turned to Lizzie. "Will your servant remember the fire, or do you suppose your mother has rescinded the order?"
"He will bring it," Lizzie assured him. "He obeys Claire and me without question, and will take no notice of anything Mama tells him. I do not mean to be rude, my lord, but as soon as you leave I can make Claire more comfortable."
He grinned, looking almost boyish. "Then I shall godown and explain matters to her ladyship. May I have your abigail sent to you?"
"We have none. We help each other."
"Admirable," he murmured, and departed.
Soon Claire was in her nightgown and under the covers. Alfie and Molly came, and a fire burned merrily in the small grate. Dr. Farrow arrived, diagnosed a bad sprain, and promised that it would heal quickly if she did not put her weight on it for a few days. He bound her ankle and left laudanum, but she discovered that as long as she kept still it only ached a little. Lizzie brought their favourite book of poetry and read to her. She was warm and comfortable and beginning to be drowsy, when Lady Sutton burst unannounced into the chamber.
"Elizabeth, I cannot imagine how you managed it, but Lord Winterborne complimented me on your pretty manners. He admired your appearance, also, and your care of your sister. I do believe Claire's clumsiness may be turned to good account for once."
"Who is he, Mama?"
"How shockingly ignorant you are, child! Why, he is the Marquis of Bellingham's heir. He is one of the most eligible gentlemen in the country. Rich as Croesus in his own right, and he will inherit I know not how many estates. You must try if you can catch him, Elizabeth. I have persuaded him to spend the night here, and you shall sit next to him at dinner."
"But he is quite old, Mama."
"Not a day over six and thirty, and handsome into the bargain. What more can you ask? Besides, you will do better with an older husband to hold the reins. I depend upon you to set your cap at him."
"Rome was not built in a day," murmured Claire.
Her mother rounded on her. "I will not have you interfering in this, miss! Just because you could not bring any gentleman up to scratch in an entire Season, there is no reason to suppose that your sister cannot make an impression upon Lord Winterborne that will at least bring him back. He already admires her, after all. Now, let me see what you have in your wardrobe that will be suitable."
As they searched through the meagre collection for the least shabby dinner gown, Claire mused on the extraordinary fact that for once she agreed with her mother. Lord Winterborne would be a splendid match for Lizzie.