Authors: Janet Woods
‘What about Iris, is she hurt?’
‘Miss Clemmie kissed her better.’
It sounded like a good deal to Zachariah.
‘Why did Iris scribble on the picture? We must look after that painting because it’s the only image we have of your parents.’
‘Iris was upset. She said the picture doesn’t look like them.’
‘And what do you think about that, Edward?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t think so too, but sometimes it does. Miss Clemmie says it’s because I’m trying to forget what happened, and that’s all right.’
‘Would you like me to move the portrait? There’s a space in the dining room.’
He nodded. ‘I don’t like looking at it. Sometimes I think Miss Clemmie is our mother, especially when she hugs me. Miss Clemmie’s eyes are brown and shiny … like Wolf’s eyes when he sees his dinner. Hers are pretty, but Wolf looks fiercer.’
Zachariah tried not to laugh. As compliments went, it was well observed. ‘Her eyes certainly are pretty,’ he said and then he changed the subject. He didn’t want to think about Clementine with her shiny eyes, else he’d think about her all day.
‘Here’s a ring with the family crest on that used to belong to your great-grandfather. It won’t fit you until you are older so we’ll put it in that box on the dressing chest. You can come and look at it any time you want to. There are a few small pieces of jewellery that belonged to your mother, as well. Iris can have them when she grows into a young lady.’
Edward dipped into the trunk. ‘Here’s a spyglass. It’s got my papa’s name on it.’ He pulled it from the case.
‘He’d want you to have it now, not wait until you’re grown up. It looks as though it needs a good clean because the leather case is going mouldy. I imagine Ben will help you with it. He knows how to clean brass and leather.’
Edward looked down at the telescope in his hands. ‘You can see a long way into the distance with it. Papa and me used to watch the kangaroos.’
‘I’ve never seen a kangaroo. What does it look like?’
‘A big rabbit, bigger than Papa even. It has a long tail and short front legs. Papa said it uses its tail to stop itself from falling over … it has a pouch at the front where the baby kangaroos sleep.’ He moved to the window and placed the telescope against his eye, screwing the other one up. ‘There’s Miss Clemmie. The wind is blowing her hair about.’
Zachariah joined the boy and physically stopped himself from snatching the instrument from Edward’s hands so he could get a closer look. He smiled when he saw her in the meadow. Clementine had no right to look so charming when her hair was flying about like a tail on a horse in a gale. When she picked Wolf up he stretched up to lick her face and she screwed up her mouth and her eyes and shuddered.
Both he and Edward laughed, though Zachariah couldn’t help but wonder what she tasted like.
‘Edward, I’ve found him,’ she called out softly as she came up the stairs a few moments later. ‘Where are you?’
Zachariah gave Edward time to scramble back on to the bed before he answered for the boy. ‘We’re in here.’
She appeared in the doorway and Wolf began to yelp when he saw Edward.
Zachariah smiled. If she’d been his wife she’d have a maid to take care of such matters as wind-blown hair, so as to delight him with her appearance.
If she’d been his wife!
He scotched that thought. He liked her as she was, completely natural, lacking in artifice and … unmarried! ‘The wind has unravelled you.’
Her free hand went to her head and she laughed, unconcerned. ‘So it has. Is Edward being of help?’
He took a moment to imagine that length of hair in his hands, flowing through his fingers like a river of amber silk … to imagine her face turned up to his, her eyes wide, her expression a cross between expectation and alarm at what the outcome might be. He felt the strength of his manliness in his reaction to her presence … but whether it was strength or weakness he couldn’t afford to indulge it … not here. And he couldn’t even betray what he was thinking. She’d walked away from other employers for lesser reasons.
‘These are his father and mother’s trunks.’
Edward gazed up at her, his eyes bright and pleading. His features were lean, like those of a miniature greyhound, for his body had only just begun to display a small amount of childhood plumpness. Both he and Iris had regained energy quickly as their illness came to a conclusion, but Clementine made them rest every afternoon so they didn’t tire themselves out.
‘May I stay with Uncle Zachariah?’
‘If he doesn’t mind, though he looks to be busy.’
Zachariah smiled at the boy, not wanting to disappoint him. ‘Edward is no trouble. Besides, I’ve nearly finished. It’s a task I should have done earlier. I’ll bring him back to the nursery in time for tea, I promise.’
‘Perhaps you’d care to join us, Zachariah? I can ask the cook to send up some extra muffins.’
‘Thank you, Miss Clemmie, I promise to be on my best behaviour.’
A smile winged his way before she left, taking the dog with her. Picking up some crumpled and smudged pages with writing on he left the small trunk for Edward to explore by himself, while he went to the window to examine the papers.
There was a letter addressed to him in Gabe’s handwriting, dated six months before.
My esteemed brother, Zachariah
My life is in ruins. I am up to my ears in debt.
I have arranged for my beloved children to return to England at the end of the spring. They will be supervised on the journey by a married couple called George and Sarah Sheridan, who we met when we were prospecting for gold.
George is a lawyer. Although I haven’t known them very long, I’m convinced they are trustworthy. You will recognize Sarah by the colour of her hair, which is russet. I have assured them you will cover my IOUs and process several expenses on my behalf.
This, I know you will do. You are the only person I’ve ever been able to trust, Zach, and you don’t have it in you to leave my children in need.
They set sail in two weeks’ time. I have already sent an account of my debts to your lawyer and friend John Beck. I beg that you honour them on my behalf. As always, Alice stands by me. Until we have made enough money to return home and run Martingale as it should be run. I’ve discovered a small amount of gold and am hopeful that more will be forthcoming. I’m determined to turn over a new leaf.
There were no new leaves for Gabe to turn over. Gabe had forgotten that the estate no longer belonged to him by right. Did he really think Zachariah would have paid his debts once more, and then hand the estate back to him to bankrupt all over again? Anger flickered through him, and then he grimaced. It didn’t really matter now, since Alice and Gabe must have died not long after he’d written this letter, and certainly before he’d had time to post it.
I implore you to care for my children as you would if they were your own, my dear brother, since nothing is their fault. Love them if you can, though I know your nature is dispassionate. At the very least treat them kindly until Alice and I can hold them in our arms once again.
Sir Gabriel Fleet Bt.
The addition of the formal title was a reminder to Zachariah that Gabe took precedence, and at the time he wrote the letter he expected the estate to be returned to him, as part of the family property attached to the title. Gabe’s intentions were always thwarted by his inability to carry them out, since he was inherently lazy. But Zachariah’s brother had always been a master of manipulation.
Zachariah’s glance fell on Edward and he experienced warmth in the region of his heart. He hoped Edward didn’t take after Gabe in that way. As for himself, Zachariah considered, was he as dispassionate as Gabe had suggested? He thought not. He just seemed to lack the ability to allow his emotions to express themselves fully.
Self-controlled, Clementine had called him, which wasn’t a bad thing to be. He smiled, thinking she knew damned little about men, and that any control they might possess depended entirely on the circumstances. He did know he was thinking about Clementine more and more. She was an attractive creature, even if she did have a sharp edge to her tongue, and he was a healthy man who appreciated the flirt of her skirt and the whisper of female fragrance she left in her wake. And thereupon lay the danger. Laughter huffed from him. He was loath to label such appreciations as love. It was simply a bodily reaction.
Edward looked up at his laughter. The box was almost empty and he was surrounded by a heap of bits and pieces. Here was Gabe’s pocket watch, stopped at four-thirty, the silver case with its crest tarnished. He ran his thumb over the face. Was that the time Gabe had entered the water to rescue Alice?
Because their meeting with the Sheridans was acrimonious he hadn’t asked them where Gabe and Alice had been interred. It must have been quite a flood to sweep him away, because Gabe had been a strong swimmer when they’d been boys. Zachariah wondered where his brother’s pistols were. In a pawnbroker’s establishment along with any jewels Alice had owned, he imagined, as they had been on several occasions.
Perhaps he should ask another male’s advice about love. ‘Can you remember what love feels like, Edward?’
The boy thought for a moment and nodded. ‘It makes you laugh as though somebody is tickling your stomach. And it feels like being thrown in the air and being caught by my papa. Sometimes it feels like Miss Clemmie when she strokes my head and kisses my cheek and I pretend to be asleep.’
Now Edward had found his voice he was growing increasingly eloquent. Despite his young age he was obviously a typical male, one who would instinctively feign an action to court a woman’s favour. The thought of tickling Clementine’s stomach was highly appealing, but throwing her up in the air wouldn’t be at all dignified, especially if he dropped her. As for pretending to sleep with his head against her breast and waiting for a kiss … ‘You like Miss Clemmie, don’t you?’
Edward smiled and nodded.
‘So do I. We’d better go and get our tea before she comes looking for us.’ As he pulled the boy up he tossed him in the air. Edward screamed with laughter as he landed safely back in Zachariah’s arms, then he began to giggle. Hoisting him on to his back, Zachariah set off at a slow gallop for the nursery with Edward clinging precariously to his back.
‘Giddy-up, horse,’ Edward shouted.
‘Hang on tight,’ Zachariah warned as they headed along a corridor and up two flights of stairs.
An alarmed Clementine came to the door with Iris clinging to her skirt and her hand to her heart. ‘I heard Edward call out.’
He lowered the giggling boy to the floor. ‘We were indulging in a little horseplay.’
‘Horses is it? No wonder you’re both late.’ She pursed her lips and sighed with a faked exasperation that didn’t fool either of them. Iris followed suit, the action of such a diminutive female making him grin. Obviously children learned by copying their elders. He reminded himself not to cuss when he was around them.
Lord … if Gabe and Alice knew that their daughter was going to be raised by such an independently minded female as Clementine, they would turn in their graves. Although the pair of them had been scatterbrains, they’d given every indication of being more conventional in their ways than Zachariah had ever been.
‘Don’t forget to wash your front hooves before you eat,’ Clementine said. ‘The horse trough is behind the curtain.’
Zachariah sent her an apologetic look when Edward whinnied, loathing to abandon the game. ‘Yes, Miss Clemmie. I’m not usually so childish, you know.’
Her eyes were definitely as shiny as Wolf’s, but with a hardly repressed amusement rather than doggy greed.
Taken aback he stuttered, ‘I have no answer to that, except to remind you that I’m not a child.’
She smiled. ‘I suspect you never have been a child, and the game with Edward has done you both good. You should be childish more often.’
‘It’s not in my nature to be childish.’
‘Until, or unless, we are confronted by it, do we ever know what our natures consist of?’
‘You’re right; we don’t.’ He smiled. ‘One day you might surprise yourself, Miss Clementine.’
Caution shimmered around her like a dusty cloud as she appeared to consider the possibilities of his meaning, and then she shrugged. ‘I’d rather not.’
‘Don’t you trust yourself?’
‘Sometimes I do. At other times I’m not so sure. It rather depends on the situation at the time. What has this got to do with you behaving like a child?’
‘Nothing … it was just a diversion. I’ll be going back to London at the end of the week.’
‘Oh … I see.’
‘Was that dismay in your eyes? Will you miss me?’
She rallied fast. ‘You’re my employer. It wouldn’t be seemly for me to miss you. The children will, and Edward in particular since he’s still insecure. You’ve stepped into his father’s shoes and he’s attached himself to you. When you leave he might feel abandoned.’
As Zachariah had felt abandoned on many occasions. He’d survived the parting from his parents and so would Edward. He would have to. But while he understood her concerns, he resented being pressured by the guilt that this snippet of a woman was layering on to him.
‘What would you suggest, that I take you all with me? That would make the drawing-room tongues flap.’
‘Ah yes … we can’t have that.’
Was that sarcasm? He mentally stamped on the flicker of ire he experienced. He would not allow her to rile him. Yet the next moment he found himself explaining, when he really had no need to.
‘I’m doing the best I can for the children. I can’t promise to be perfect but I will never abandon them. Edward needs to grow up in the home he’ll eventually inherit and learn how the estate is managed.’
‘He’s an awfully small boy to take the weight of the estate on his shoulders.’
‘It will give him a sense of pride to understand what’s expected of him in the future, and work towards it. He also has to get used to me coming and going. My business doesn’t run itself.’
‘Yes, of course. I hadn’t taken that into consideration. I’m sorry, I wasn’t judging you … I just feel sorry for Iris and Edward.’