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Authors: Sally Quilford

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“What will we do?” asked Alyssa, as they
walked back to Willoughby Manor. Mr. Oakley, and his friend, Mr. Andrew Harrington,
a good looking young man of about twenty-four, walked several paces behind
them, as if understanding their need for sisterly solitude. “I won’t have my
coming out or my pretty dresses now, will I, Cat?” It was just like Alyssa to
worry more about that than whether or not they’d be able to eat for longer than
a few weeks before the money ran out. Whoever killed Jimmy failed to pay him
for the forged documents, so they were no better off than before.  Not that
Catherine would have wanted to use it. There was only a little of the money
left over from the Captain. Jimmy’s funeral had taken much of it.

 

 Catherine had spent the first few hours
after Jimmy’s death trying to work a way around it. At first she thought she
might try and contact the Captain, to seek his help, but then she had a better
idea.  After all, the Captain was not a rich man, but Mr. Oakley was, and
Catherine, in her anger and grief, believed he owed them something for Jimmy’s
loss.

 

“I’m sure something will turn up,
dearest,” said Catherine. “But if not, you and I can live quite happily as long
as we’re sensible.”

 

“I’m tired of being sensible,” said
Alyssa, jerking away from her sister. Her beautiful face became petulant. “I’m
seventeen, Cat. I’m supposed to be going to parties and having men fall wildly
in love with me. I know you think I’m selfish, and not really thinking of
Jimmy, and perhaps I am selfish. But I’m also thinking of you, Cat. If I
married someone very rich then I could take care of you, just as you’ve always
taken care of me and Jimmy.”

 

“I’d never ask you to sacrifice yourself
to marriage just for me, dearest.”

 

“But I don’t care like you do, Cat. I’m
not the falling in love type. I want pretty things and for lots of men to think
I’m beautiful.” What Alyssa said very much echoed what Catherine and Jimmy had
always known about her. In many ways, Alyssa was probably more realistic than
they were about the expectations of women in society. She knew what was
expected of her because of her beauty and was quite happy to use it to her
advantage. “I don’t care if the man I marry loves me or if I love him. So
really we wouldn’t be fooling anyone and I’d finally be able to do my bit for
this family. Because I’ve always hated that you and Jimmy were the clever ones
who took care of me.”

 

“I had no idea you felt that way.”

 

“No, because you think that I’m
incapable of thinking of anyone but myself, and I accept that’s true most of
the time. But whilst I may never love a man, Cat, I do love you, and I loved
Jimmy.” Her voice broke a little at the mention of her brother’s name. “That’s
the only love that matters to me. What our family feel for each other. Even
Papa, with all his problems, knew that. He used to say to me ‘however many
admirers you get, and you’ll have lots with your beautiful face, always
remember that your family are the only people who love you for yourself’.”

 

Catherine put her arm around her
sister’s shoulders and drew her in. “I’m so very proud of you,” she said. “It
will make things much easier.”

“What things?”

 

“You’ll see.” Catherine stole a glance
back at Mr. Oakley, wondering how much he’d heard of the conversation. What did
it matter? If he thought Alyssa was a gold digger it would only confirm his
views on women. All that mattered is that he would be willing to help them.

An hour later, most of the other guests
had gone, but Mr. Oakley and Mr. Harrington remained, talking quietly with the
family solicitor, Mr. Parry.

 

“Miss Willoughby, Miss Alyssa,” Mr.
Parry said eventually, “I wonder if I might have a word with you in the study?
It is about your brother’s will.”

 

“As far as I am aware, Jimmy had nothing
to leave,” said Catherine. “The estate is automatically entailed away to our
cousin, George.”

 

“That is what we wish to discuss,” said
Mr. Oakley. Apart from a few brief words of condolence, it was the most he’d
said to Catherine all morning.

 

“What’s happening?” said Alyssa, trembling
slightly as Catherine took her hand and led her to the study, where the two men
were already waiting.

 

“I’m not sure, dearest,” said Catherine,
“But it can’t be anything worse than what’s already happened.”

 

It was unmistakable who was in charge of
proceedings in the study. Mr. Parry virtually sank into the background.

 

“Please take a seat,” Mr. Oakley said.
Catherine bit back a retort about not needing to be offered a seat in her own
house, but then remembered that strictly speaking it wasn’t her home anymore.
She meekly took a seat and Alyssa sat next to her, holding her hand tightly.

 

That Alyssa was overwhelmed by Mr.
Oakley was undeniable. Catherine found him frightening and she was usually the
courageous one. “I am sure,” said Mr. Oakley, who went to the front of the desk
and leant back on it, folding his arms, “that you have both been very worried
for your future. I understand that the estate will now go to a distant cousin
who, I gather, is on his way to claim it. Regrettably, not in time to attend
Mr. Willoughby’s funeral.” His tone on the latter statement became brittle.

 

“That is correct,” said Catherine. “And
in his letter to me, Cousin George has made it clear he has no place for me and
Alyssa at Willoughby Manor.” It came as no surprise to Catherine that her
cousin George had behaved in such a way. There had always been bad feeling in
the family, mainly due to the money her father had borrowed from Cousin George
then not repaid. Their cousin, perhaps understandably, felt that the Willoughbys
had cost him enough, so he was not willing to spend anymore on assisting the
two girls.

 

“I understand that you and Miss Alyssa
are virtually penniless.”

 

“Yes.” Catherine put her chin up, as if
by doing so, she might suddenly make herself rich and feel less ashamed than
she did at that moment. “We are not sure what we will do now.”

 

“You have no need to worry,” said Mr. Oakley.
“Just before he died, it seems your brother had some sort of premonition. I
received a letter from him. I would have come to your aid sooner, except I’ve
been away and didn’t read it until I returned home yesterday. Sadly it came at
the same time as news of his death.” His face became a grim mask again.

 

“You said there was a letter?” said
Catherine when Mr. Oakley did not speak for a few moments.

 

“Yes. Mr. Willoughby wrote a letter
asking that should anything happen to him, I would become the guardian of you and
Miss Alyssa. I’m assured by Mr. Parry that the letter is legally binding.”

 

“But not morally, surely?” said
Catherine. “What I mean is, you do not have to follow his wishes.” Catherine
was surprised to hear herself speak, but she wanted to give him a way out. Then
perhaps she would not feel the constriction in her chest which she knew was
born of shame.

 

“On the contrary. For reasons I prefer
not to share with you, I consider your brother’s request both morally and
legally binding. You may both come and live at Oakley Castle, where I have
arranged for my Aunt Harriet to come and chaperone you. So, Miss Alyssa,”
Oakley bowed in Alyssa’s direction. “You shall have your pretty dresses, and make
your debut, when your proper period of mourning has passed, and I am sure that
every man there will fall in love with you.” His tone changed and he became
more businesslike. “We might as well leave today, before your cousin has a
chance to turf you out.” His lips closed into a tight line, suggesting that he
did not much approve of Cousin George.

 

“Oh this is wonderful!” Alyssa clapped
her hands together. “I mean, it’s awful, about poor Jimmy, but wonderful that
he thought of us. Isn’t it, Catherine?”

 

“Yes,” said Catherine, who was blushing
because Oakley had heard what Alyssa said on the way back from the churchyard.
“Deareset, why don’t you go and pack, and I will discuss the details with Mr.
Oakley?”

 

Alyssa did not need telling twice.
Catherine could see that her young head was already full of the joys of new
dresses, attending balls and having handsome men dance attendance on her.

 

“Mr. Oakley, Sir,” said Catherine, when
Alyssa had gone, and Mr. Parry had also excused himself. “I hope you won’t
think ill of my sister. She’s very young and as she believed she might not be
able to make her debut, it is something she is very excited about.”

 

“I believe your sister has a very
pragmatic view of life, Miss Willoughby. For someone so young, she seems to
understand exactly how society works.”

 

“I do not believe that to be true,” said
Catherine, hotly. She hated that he might think Alyssa was like some of the
mercenary ladies in the Beau Monde, even if Alyssa had done much to give him
that impression.“Alyssa has been shut up at Willoughby Manor for most of her
life, and she is a complete innocent. She reads about the ladies in society,
and believes that she wants to be like them, having no true understanding of
the politics of … of love.”

 

Oakley’s eyes crinkled with amusement.
“And you, Miss Willoughby, know all about the politics of love?”

 

“I know that it is not nearly as
glamorous as Alyssa believes. That being a wife involves other duties that she
probably has not considered.” Catherine blushed again. She had always spoken
openly to her brother about anything and everything, and it was only now that
she wondered if such a discussion was appropriate with Mr. Oakley.

 

“Yet you’re happy for her to make her
debut in this society that you seem to despise so much?”

 

“I want Alyssa to be cared for, and as we’re
both unable to make our living in this world, then I must concede that finding
her a wealthy husband is the only way of ensuring that.”

 

“And what about you, Miss Willoughby? I
shall have to find you a wealthy husband too if I’m to do my duty as your
Guardian.”

 

“I am not interested in marrying. At
least not in the way Alyssa is content to be married. The reason I wanted to
speak to you alone was to assure you that you have no need to introduce me to
society at all. I shall be quite content if I can take my books and my easel with
me to your home, and then when Alyssa is married, I’m sure she will allow me to
live with her, and I shall no longer be a burden to you.”

 

He bowed his head gallantly. “I consider
you a very charming burden.”

 

Chapter Two

 

Xander had not lied about finding Catherine
Willoughby a charming burden. Something about her intrigued him. Most women of
her age would be fluttering their eyelashes at him, desperate to become Mrs.
Oakley. Catherine always met his gaze head on, and during her first few days at
Oakley Castle, he’d learned that she was very intelligent. She was also very
stubborn, which was why he was at that moment searching the grounds for her.  

 

He had not seen her for six months,
having left his Aunt Harriet to take care of their needs whilst he took dealt
with problems in France, where the revolution was causing untold misery. Despite
the length of time that had passed passed, he was surprised to find that
Catherine was still dressed in mourning.

 

He found her sitting under an oak tree,
lost in concentration at her easel. Even though he walked towards her, in full
view, he was aware, and somewhat intrigued, to realize that she hadn’t even
noticed him.  Although everyone agreed that her sister, Miss Alyssa, was the
stunningly beautiful sister, Catherine had something else. Something
indefinable. To Xander, and many other men, Alyssa was like the sun. Shining
and bright, but if you looked too long your eyes began to hurt and you were
forced to look away. Catherine was more like the moonlight, soft and
shimmering, and not nearly as painful on the eyes.

 

“May I see it?” he gestured to the
painting, at which point she looked up startled.

 

“Mr. Oakley,” she said. “I didn’t realize
you were there.”

 

“No, I gathered that. So, may I see what
you’ve made of my house?”

 

“No, not yet.” She became a little
flustered, quickly covering the canvas with her scarf. He imagined it was
because the painting was very bad and she knew it. “What I mean is, I want to
surprise you with it. You have such a beautiful house. I always thought
Willoughby Manor was the most wonderful home in Britain, but Oakley Castle is
exquisite. So I wanted to paint it then give the painting to you. It’s a gift,
to say thank you for all you’ve done for Alyssa.

BOOK: Imitation of Love
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