Authors: Janet Woods
Zachariah smiled at her. ‘Shall I ask the musicians to sign the programme for you? I imagine our host has a pen and inkwell they can use for the occasion. Sit there and I’ll go and ask him for it.’
People were gathering in little groups to talk. In the time he was away nobody approached her, though people kept looking her way, the women sometimes sniggering behind their fans, the men’s eyes bold and speculative. She knew why, and tried not to mind.
Alexandra was in the centre of a group consisting mostly of younger people. She was talking animatedly and seemed to be the centre of attention. Basil Cheeves hung on her every word.
‘It looks as though Miss Tate has attracted an admirer,’ Julia said, coming up behind her. ‘Have you enjoyed yourself, my dear?’
‘Immensely. Zachariah has gone for an inkwell, so the musicians can sign my programme.’
‘How very low class,’ whispered a woman to her companion, within earshot of Clementine.
As the pair began to drift away her companion replied, ‘She called him by his Christian name. Miss Tate told me in confidence that the children’s governess was too forward, but Mr Fleet allows her to get away with it because the children like her. He will probably tire of her before too long, then we’ll see where it gets her.’
‘Mr Fleet is certainly handsome.’
‘And a good match for any woman, since he is worth a fortune. I hear that Miss Tate is an heiress of some considerable endowment. The gown she’s wearing is the latest fashion in London.’
‘The young Mr Cheeves paid Miss Tate a lot of attention this evening. I saw Mr Fleet’s eyes on them earlier, and he didn’t look happy about them being together …’
Surely Zachariah hadn’t fallen in love with Alexandra, Clementine thought. What if he married her? She would be miserable for the rest of her life. It was unthinkable!
Clementine pretended she hadn’t heard the gossip, and then pretended not to mind that the slap down had wounded her. Neither worked, however, and tears glinted in her eyes.
Julia placed a hand on her arm. ‘Take no notice. See, here comes Zachariah with the inkwell.’
The members of the orchestra were pleased to sign her programme, and Zachariah kept her by his side for the following half an hour and drew her into the conversation.
‘You’ve met Reverend Cuthbert, haven’t you, Miss Morris?’
The man smiled at her. ‘Miss Morris comes to church regularly, and I’m pleased to see the young baron and his sister with her. A pity you don’t set such a good example, Mr Fleet.’
‘My life is mostly lived in London.’
‘Then I’ll have to make sure the spiritual education of the children is adhered to in your absence.’
‘I think not, Reverend Cuthbert. At this early stage of their lives, Miss Morris is perfectly able to manage their spiritual education as well as she manages to tutor them in their letters and numbers.’
‘And if she needs help in such matters?’
‘Then I will know where to turn, Reverend,’ said Clementine. ‘I was, in fact, thinking of enrolling the children in the church school next year. Edward in particular needs the company of boys to interact with. However, I have yet to discuss the matter with Mr Fleet, who will no doubt be interested in the curriculum.’
They left just as darkness began to fall. Alexandra had obviously enjoyed herself, and she chattered incessantly about the people she’d met, and repeated the gossip she’d heard.
‘I have promised to play the piano and sing for Mrs Cheeves and her friends. There will be a small professional fee.’
Zachariah said, ‘Accepting a fee is out of the question, since you’re my guest and they are my clients and business associates. You don’t want them to think you’re somebody I hired to entertain us, do you?’
His barb hit home and there was a sudden chill in the air. Alexandra turned to gaze out of the window, a mortified expression on her face. ‘I didn’t think my remarks would be passed on.’
‘Yet they were, and at the expense of Miss Morris. I expected better from you.’
Distressed, Clementine placed her hand on his arm. ‘Can we leave it at that, please, Zachariah? Alexandra has apologized. Despite everything, I enjoyed the concert and I thank you for that.’ She nearly kissed his cheek but held herself back just in time.
She had a sudden longing to be seated before the nursery fire with the children either side of her, their eyes filled with sleep and dreams as she told them a story.
She loved Martingale House and the children, and she loved Zachariah Fleet. There, she’d admitted it to herself – she loved Zachariah Fleet.
What would she do if he fell in love with Alexandra?
She would be happy he’d found love and would wish them both every joy in life. She grinned. Damn it … no she wouldn’t. She didn’t have it in her to be that noble and self-sacrificing. She might poison Alexandra instead.
As if he’d read her thoughts, Zachariah slid his hand over hers and gently squeezed it.
Sunday came and Clementine readied the children for church.
Zachariah joined them in the hall, impeccable as always. She had a strong urge to reach up and ruffle his hair.
When she looked sideways at him he said, ‘I’m coming with you.’
‘You don’t usually.’
‘I thought I should set the children a good example.’ He gazed around him and lowered his voice. ‘Let’s hurry before Miss Tate gets wind of it.’
‘I’m sure the children will appreciate your sacrifice.’
Laughter rumbled from him and his voice purred against her ear like a satisfied cat. ‘You have a wicked bite to your tongue this morning, my Clemmie.’
‘At least it’s not forked.’
She wrapped Edward’s scarf around his neck. ‘Make sure you sit still during the prayers, Edward, and don’t misbehave.’
‘I like the singing best. Can I sit next to you, Uncle Zachariah?’
‘If you want to risk experiencing a bolt of hellfire.’
‘And me,’ Iris said, and then came a puzzled, ‘What does misbehave mean?’
In the distance the church bells began to ring. ‘Do Julia and John intend to join us as well?’
‘They’ll be attending the friends’ meeting in Poole.’
‘I hope you’re not joining us just because you think the gossips will snub me?’
‘They will snub you. Why else would I go to church, unless some miracle was to occur and the gossips were struck dumb? Can you imagine their mouths opening and shutting, with nothing coming out?’
She grinned at the thought.
‘Your nature will make you walk past them as though you’re deaf, or as though they don’t exist. They will have you bottling up your tears while you try to show them that you don’t care, and you will be upset for the rest of the day. I thought you’d like someone on your side, so with your permission I will be your knight in shining armour.’
‘And if I don’t give my permission?’
‘I’ll come anyway, if just to give the Reverend Cuthbert a shock.’
She gazed at him. ‘You must know that your presence will make them gossip more. I imagine they’ll save the worst venom for when you’ve returned to London. It was nice of you to think of me.’
‘I think of you often.’
She turned to fiddle with Iris’s bonnet while her blush came and went, and managed to say, ‘Do you?’
‘You know damned well I do.’
‘I’ve got a wobbly tooth, Uncle Zachariah,’ Edward said, bursting with self-importance. ‘Miss Clemmie said that when it comes out I’ll grow a new one in its place.’
‘Well done,’ he said. ‘It’s a sign that you’re growing up.’
Iris scowled at Edward. ‘I want a new one too.’
Zachariah stooped to kiss her cheek. ‘You’ll have to wait until you’re older, little Iris. Let’s go out to the carriage now. The church bells are ringing and we’re going to be late.’ He straightened and gazed at her, his eyes narrowing when the ringing stopped. ‘Far be it from me to accuse you of duplicity, Clemmie, but was it your intention to cock a snoot by walking down the aisle after the service started, so they’d think their treatment of you had shamed you into hiding?’
A smile crossed her face. How well he read her. ‘Would I admit to such provocation? Mr Cheeves always uses your family pew, by the way.’
‘Does he … does he indeed? That’s interesting.’
They arrived just as the first hymn had ended, and then entered the church on a blast of cold wind. Every head turned as they proceeded down the aisle, leaving Ben to join the servants at the back of the church. Zachariah, his hat held on his arm, nodded pleasantly to people of his acquaintance.
When they reached the family pew at the front, he said to the rector, ‘My apology for being late and disrupting the service, Reverend Cuthbert.’ Turning to Mr Cheeves he disrupted it further by informing him, ‘I’m given to understand that this pew was donated by my great-grandfather for my family’s use.’
‘Usually the pew is empty.’
‘How odd. Miss Morris assures me that she brings the children to church every Sunday. Is that not so, Reverend?’
He nodded. ‘I believe Miss Morris usually seats herself further back, sir.’
‘I will move, of course.’ With a stiff little bow and a terse apology on his lips, Mr Cheeves ushered his family together and moved them to an empty pew. Basil Cheeves offered Zachariah a challenging look on the way past – something he ignored.
‘Shall we pray?’ the Reverend Cuthbert said, his sigh hovering on the fringes of exasperation.
Zachariah smiled. ‘By all means.’
The sight of the Cheeves family had spun a small pebble of thought into Clementine’s consciousness. As she bent her head and went through the motion of praying, it nagged at her. The concert programme came to the fore. Had there been some anomaly on it? Not one obvious enough to capture her attention completely. She would inspect the programme when they got home.
Her mind wandered off to her favourite subject – Zachariah. The children adored him, though he put no special effort in to make it so. He appeared to enjoy his time with them and listened to what they had to say, however childish. Considering that he’d been badly treated for most of his childhood his gentleness was surprising. But perhaps he was gentle because he knew only too well what the alternative was like.
A kiss touched her cheek and she smiled. Zachariah?
Her eyes flew open. She was almost disappointed when she saw Iris smiling at her. But what was she thinking? Of course it wouldn’t have been Zachariah!
After the service a few people stopped to engage Zachariah in talk, while Clementine settled the children in the carriage.
‘You were saying a long prayer,’ Iris said. ‘Was it about me and Edward?’
‘I wasn’t really praying, I was pretending to.’
Iris giggled. ‘That’s naughty.’
‘I know it is. I was thinking how lovely it was to have such well-behaved children in my charge. Your mama and papa would be proud of you.’
‘I can’t remember them. I love you and Uncle Zachariah instead now, Miss Clemmie.’
‘So do I,’ Edward said fiercely. ‘You’re better than our parents.’ He turned to stare out of the window, stiff with the outrage he felt at being orphaned. Even after all this time his resentment would probably stay with him through life.
Clementine stroked her fingers through his hair. ‘Don’t be angry with them, Edward. It wasn’t their fault that they died.’
‘What if they didn’t die? What if they didn’t want us, and pretended to die, but just ran away?’
Gently she asked, ‘Is that what you think happened?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’
‘I know how you feel, my dear. My father died before I was born, and my mother sent me away to school when I was just a bit older than you. I never saw her again.’
He turned, the anger being replaced by interest. ‘Did she die?’
‘Yes, she did, and I was sad for a long time.’ She placed a hand against his chest. ‘Sometimes the thought of her made me hurt inside here. It’s called grief. It gets less painful after a while.’
Zachariah joined them in the carriage, tapping at the roof with his stick to signal to Ben that they were leaving.
Iris informed him, ‘Edward’s caught grief. I hope I don’t catch it. I don’t want to have itchy spots again.’
Clementine exchanged a smile with Zachariah when Edward sent a snort his sister’s way.
‘When they reached Martingale House, Zachariah passed the children over to Polly with the instructions, ‘Bring them down to the hall in ten minutes, and they can eat breakfast with the guests. Best manners today, children.’
‘What was that grief thing all about?’ he asked after they’d gone.
‘Edward remembered his parents and he was angry.’
‘Come into my study, I’ll ring for some tea and we can talk.’
‘This and that; I rarely see you alone these days.’
‘Because I have very little idle time on my hands, and neither do you.’
He took her by the hands and drew her into his domain, a shabby half-panelled but pleasantly warm room that was packed with gloomy furniture and books. Battle-scarred leather chairs faced each other on either side of the fireplace like a couple of sagging old warriors. A chess set with a chair either side of a wooden chess table was set up in mid-game.
‘I’m sorry the room is so shabby. I meant to have the place refurnished and redecorated, but I’m hardly here.’
‘It could be quite a pleasant room if it was refurbished.’
‘It doesn’t look like the home I would like to live in.’ He stirred the fire up with an iron poker and added a log. The flames caught and the log began to spit sparks up the chimney. He placed a spark guard around it.
Mrs Ogden came into the room with the tea tray, smiled benevolently upon them, and then left with instructions to keep some breakfast for both them and the children.
Zachariah moved to the chess set, contemplated the board for a moment, then smiled. He moved the white knight before looking her way and saying, ‘Have you noticed how Mrs Ogden smiles when she sees us together?’
‘She’s been here a long time and likes having a family to look after.’
He moved to the window and stared out. ‘I daresay she does. Most of the house servants were loyal and stayed on after Gabe went abroad, even though he hadn’t paid them for some time.’