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Authors: Janet Woods

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BOOK: Different Tides
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Her cheeks took on the intensity of fire. ‘That will do perfectly well.’

‘Do you want it in writing, signed, sealed and witnessed?’ he asked pointedly.

‘I will take your word for it and … trust you. Now I have answered your questions and you have answered mine and we are satisfied that we’re reasonably decent, can we drop the subject?’

He chuckled. ‘Good Lord … what a provocateur you are turning out to be. I thought you were embarrassed, yet it seems I didn’t shock you with my plain speaking. Perhaps I shall not hire you after all.’

She could have kicked herself for being so straightforward. She needed this position, whatever it was. ‘I’m sorry, sir. It wasn’t my intention to be rude, and I certainly didn’t set out to provoke you. I just wanted to state my terms. I mean … I didn’t want you to think …’

‘Yes, yes … let’s forget all that.’ Without turning to his companion, he said, ‘Miss Morris will do me nicely, John, since she has no intention of taking any nonsense from man or beast. I’m finding out more about you with each second that passes, Miss Morris. You’re hired, if you are satisfied with my credentials, since you should be more than satisfied with the wage and conditions. I’ll expect you to work for me for an initial period of at least one year, after which we’ll assess our arrangement. Please try and curb your habit of breathing fire all over me every time you speak.’

She let out a breath slowly. ‘I’ll try. Thank you, sir.’

‘May I just remind you that the workhouse will be under no obligation to allow you shelter again, as they have in the past. My lawyer, John Beck here, will settle up with this establishment and arrange your release. We are in business together.’

And whatever that business was, it seemed to pay well, for they were both well heeled.

‘Mrs Beck has kindly offered you accommodation for a few nights, and she will take you shopping so you may purchase something suitable to wear. Your current garments will be returned to the institution. I’ll collect you and your chattels when we’re ready to travel.’

‘New clothing?’ Surprise filled her and she remembered her mother’s gaudy dresses. ‘What exactly will I be employed to do, Mr …?’

‘My name is Zachariah Fleet. You will be entrusted with the care of my relatives, Sir Edward Fleet, who is a baron, and Lady Iris. The position is one of great trust.’

‘May I ask if Sir Edward and his wife are infirm?’

He stared at her, his expression slightly startled, and then twisted a grin her way. ‘Not yet, they’re not. Edward is five years old while his sister is a year younger.’

‘Ah … I see.’ She tried not to laugh but couldn’t help it. ‘Have you considered I might be too young for such a responsibility?’

‘Of course I’ve considered it. However, their mother was young, just turned twenty-two when she died. Nobody told her she was too young to be a mother, yet by all accounts she was a good one. The children will be grieving for both their parents, I imagine. John thinks an older and more experienced governess would do a better job.’

‘I would want the same for my children, I think.’

‘You can teach the children, which is a bonus. You might like to brush up on your own manners while you’re teaching them theirs. You are too outspoken and that might upset some people.’

‘Does it upset you?’

‘Not unduly.’ He sighed, and said to the lawyer, ‘Perhaps you could go and make the arrangements for her release, John. I’d like to speak to Miss Morris alone.’

When the door closed behind the lawyer, Zachariah Fleet said, ‘I beg your pardon, Miss Morris. That remark about your manners was uncalled for, since you have every right to question me, especially after your former experiences. Please don’t be worried about the responsibility since you will have an older nursery maid who will be available to assist. Most of the servants are of a mature age, which is why I prefer a younger woman for the children. You appear to have a sensible head on your shoulders, and are not too talkative or frivolous. And I think you would welcome some responsibility.’

‘What exactly is my position to be then?’

‘Your role is to be a companion to the two children … an older sister perhaps. I want them to have someone they can trust – someone they can go to, who will treat them with respect and understanding rather than censure. What I don’t want is somebody upright and rigid with disapproval and held together with as many stays as a spinster’s corset. In other words I want my wards to enjoy their childhood in every way possible.’

‘I see.’

‘You’re educated to a certain level. That’s all the better because the children will benefit – and so will you. You will find plenty to keep them occupied in the country, and there is a small town nearby. I will visit as often as possible.’ He gave a wry smile. ‘I’ve had very little experience with children. For five of my early years I was raised by a cleric who beat me on a regular basis, whether I deserved it or not, so we do have that background in common, Miss Morris. I was supposed to follow in his footsteps.’

She tried not to laugh. ‘I don’t know why, but I cannot imagine you in a frock, standing comfortably in a pulpit spouting about the perils of sin.’

‘Then we have that in common as well, since neither can I. One thing I would like to say, and I’ll be blunt: if you stay here, in this city and under your present circumstances, we both know what the eventual outcome is likely to be, despite your shyness to admit that you’re unaware of such matters.’ He held out his hand. ‘Shall we shake on it, or would that be considered an advance by you?’

His smile told her he was teasing now. His hand was warm and firm, his handshake brief, and he gave a little bow, as if she were a respected acquaintance instead of Clementine Morris, young woman with no means, no background she’d care to speak of – if she had one at all – and no prospects, except the one currently on offer.

The beatings seemed to have had a beneficial effect on Zachariah Fleet because he was mannerly, and without being foppish, she reflected as he picked up his hat, cane and gloves. But then, he wanted his wards to have more than just a governess. He wanted them to have an older sister they could turn to in times of trouble. It was a big responsibility; bigger than Zachariah Fleet could imagine.

Well … she could fill that role even though it might come at a price. Love was a commitment, and was hard to walk away from. Already, she felt the tug of the two motherless children in need, as if they were calling to her from afar like lost baby birds.

God knew, there were hundreds of hungry orphans in the workhouses. Mr Fleet’s little chicks were lucky. They would never lack for anything material, and would be raised with all the love and care she could find in her. Then she would have to move on and her heart would probably break.

She told herself she should say no, but even a small amount of love was better than none to a child – and what else could she do?

‘I’ll see you in a few days’ time then,’ he said.

She nodded.

As they walked through the crowds back to John Beck’s office suite, Zachariah said, ‘You know, John, I feel guilty about not telling her she may be a distant relative.’

‘Why get her hopes up when it might not be true. All you’ve got to go on is a rumour that someone called Howard Morris existed, and an annuity had been paid to a school for the orphaned children of army officers in his name, and on behalf of his daughter Clementine. You’ve always had a tidy mind, and that’s what comes of your need to set the family papers in order. It might be for a different person altogether.’

Zachariah nodded in agreement.

‘How many females do you know called Clementine who have fathers named Howard Morris? She’s not on the family tree. She probably comes from the wrong side of the blanket and she’s not your responsibility.’

‘I remember the days when I wasn’t
responsibility. I remember standing in front of you and my ears shrivelling from the lecture you gave me. And later, when you’d turned me into a man and I thanked you, you told me to repay you by improving the life of somebody who needed it on my journey through life. That person is Clementine Morris. What say you to that, John Beck?’

‘That Julia and I did well at setting you straight.’

‘So why the reservations? Clementine Morris was probably overlooked. Nobody paid much attention to keeping the family records up to date. The girl we interviewed attended the named school until the money ran out. That’s no coincidence. Neither is the fact that her father was a distant relative of mine through my mother’s side.’

‘The blood connection is too distilled to signify.’

‘All the better since the girl is alone in the world and she has nobody but me to turn to. She’s already struggling to survive. I can either leave her to sink, or help her up. You know what happens to young women like her eventually … especially one so fair of face.’

‘So, you noticed her looks. Look, Zachariah, you’ve offered her a decent position in your household, and given her more freedom than any other servant would be afforded. Forget that she might be a relative and leave it at that. Eventually she’ll marry the gardener and have ten children to care for.’

Zachariah laughed. ‘I like her … She’s straightforward but she has a soft heart as well as being able to think for herself. Besides, I need her for Gabe’s children.’

‘They’re your children now. May I make a suggestion? Marry the girl yourself, then you can take advantage of her services for nothing, as well as enjoy the comforts a wife brings.’

‘I have no intention of marrying. I prefer my own company – and besides, I’d make a terrible husband, since I’m too argumentative. You said so yourself.’

John huffed with laughter. ‘It seemed to me that Clementine Morris enjoys a good argument. Let things lie then. The less she knows about you the better. You don’t owe the girl a thing except her wage. If you tell her you’re related she’ll try and take advantage of that. As the situation is now she’ll be grateful to you.’

Two hours later Clementine found herself in a comfortable room in a more prosperous area of town. She’d been examined for lice and bathed. A maid had washed her hair with perfumed soap and she now smelled like a flower garden. The stench of bodily odour that permeated everything in the workhouse had been washed away and she felt all the better for it.

She stood now in a plain cambric petticoat in front of the fire. Under it she was as naked as the day she was born – and poor, for her discarded clothing had been consigned to the bag destined for either the workhouse or the rag-and-bone man. She’d discarded all the old items and would shortly be reborn in another skin. She welcomed the feeling of being clean.

Julia Beck was an elegant, mildly fashionable woman who eyed her up and down, but not unkindly. ‘Your hair is so very pretty with that touch of auburn in it. It suits your eyes. I always think light-brown eyes can look rather ordinary.’

Clementine had never wondered if her eyes were ordinary or otherwise. She had good eyesight, something for which she was thankful. ‘Yes … I suppose they are.’

The woman had meant no harm. She’d spoken without thinking, and she said hurriedly, ‘Oh, my goodness, I didn’t mean that to sound like a criticism. You will forgive me, won’t you? I meant to add that your eyes are far from ordinary, though, since they are so large, and you have such a long sweep of lashes. I admit to feeling quite jealous.’

‘You needn’t be, Mrs Beck. I wasn’t offended in the least, and I’ve always thought blue eyes like yours to be very pretty.’ An image came to her of Zachariah’s eyes, as blue as cornflowers in the field and reflecting from the workhouse window. He had a calm, direct sort of gaze, and was a man so very in control of himself.

As if she’d picked up on Clementine’s thoughts, Julia said, ‘You’re young to be given the responsibility of Zachariah’s wards, Miss Morris. I do hope he knows what he’s doing.’

‘Mr Fleet sounded very sure of himself to me.’

‘He’s certainly a confident man. Are you experienced with children?’

Having already gone through the questioning process with her employer, Clementine wasn’t inclined to repeat the exercise to satisfy the curiosity of this woman, as nice as she seemed to be.

‘Mr Fleet considered I was experienced enough to suit him.’

‘Ah yes … Zachariah is very thorough. He would have had your background examined in advance of offering you the position. Still, he may have overlooked some things, such as languages for the children. The pair of them will need to learn French and the boy must be tutored in Latin as well. Then there are music lessons to consider. Oh dear, you have such a task ahead of you … boys are so different to girls.’

‘I’ll make sure to discuss these points with Mr Fleet when the time comes. Thank you, Mrs Beck. Your advice is invaluable.’

‘Oh, do call me Julia, and I shall call you Clementine … such a pretty name for someone who was obliged to take shelter in a poorhouse, like a flower in a field of weeds. Was it very bad there?’

‘Nobody likes having to accept charity but it’s better than the alternative. As for my fellow inmates, they were no better or worse than me, and some of them had very pretty names. Poverty is a great leveller and I was grateful to have a roof over my head and a meal in my stomach.’

‘Zachariah Fleet’s sentiments too. Mine as well, but one wouldn’t want to leave a legacy of poverty for one’s own children and I count Zachariah as one of them, but don’t tell him so. I didn’t mean to pry.’

‘I know, Julia, but when you’ve been poor all your life you like to savour a meal when it’s offered to you.’

‘I have some books you might like to borrow, since my children are grown up and married. There is one on social etiquette you might find useful. I bought it for Zachariah but he said he was as social as he intended to be. He can be such a rogue at times … and proud.’

‘Thank you for warning me.’

Julia made a little humming noise in her throat. ‘Thank goodness you have a figure that is well-proportioned and not overly heavy at the top or the bottom.’

This woman’s mind is like a dragonfly that darts about from one thing to the other
, Clementine thought.

BOOK: Different Tides
3.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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