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Authors: Sally Quilford

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She can hardly wait to make her debut
now she has so many beautiful gowns.”

 

“It is that I wished to speak to you
about.”

 

“I’m sorry, have we spent too much? I
know it seems a lot and I have asked Alyssa to be more circumspect but…”

 

Xander held up his hand. “That is not
important. Miss Alyssa may have as many gowns as she pleases. So may you. This
is why I wanted to speak to you. I gather from the dressmaker that you have
ordered only two black dresses for yourself.”

 

“I’ve already told you that I have no wish
to be presented to society.”

 

“But society may come to you.”

 

She looked up at him wide-eyed. “What do
you mean?”

 

“I realize you do not want to be
presented at court, but I intend to invite guests here to stay beforehand, as
part of your sister’s coming out, so that she has a chance to learn how to
behave in society before being thrust into the limelight. Do you think you are
doing Miss Alyssa any favours by dressing like a servant?” His eyes took in the
cheap black muslin dress Catherine wore. “Or that any man would be impressed by
a woman when her sister’s clothes are threadbare?” He saw her hands go
instinctively to a patch on her sleeve.

 

“I would just rather not take too much
from you. At least not for myself,” she said.

 

“But you must see how that reflects on Miss
Alyssa. And not just on her, but on me.”

 

“On you?”

 

“I am the legal guardian to you both.
What does it say that I keep one sister in style and the other in rags? People
might even consider I favour Miss Alyssa for other reasons.”

 

He watched her face as his words sank
in, just as he intended them to.  In truth, he doubted his friends, who knew
him well, would think any such thing, but he was determined that Catherine
should stop denying herself pretty clothes.  “Can I tell the dressmaker to
visit you?” he asked.

 

“Yes. Yes, of course,” said Catherine,
quietly.

 

“I will be very angry if I find you have
ordered less than an entire wardrobe.”

 

“I’m not afraid of you, Mr. Oakley,” she
said, her mouth turning up slightly at the corner.

“Well you should be. I’m told I’m ferocious.”

 

To his surprise she laughed. “Hardly. You’ve
been very kind to both of us. Kinder than I ever…”

 

“Than you ever what?”

 

“Kinder than I’m sure Jimmy expected.
I’m sure he thought you might just put us in a cottage somewhere and pay the
rent.”

 

“Mr. Willoughby knew me better than
that.” His voice became grim as he thought of his young friend. If any of them
were to die, he expected it to be for the cause. Not knocked down on one’s own
doorstep by a group of murderous vagabonds.  “I wish to talk to you about
Jimmy. I haven’t wanted to say anything sooner, because I know his loss
affected you deeply. As it did me. But we must find out who murdered him. I
know the local authorities have put it down to vagabonds in the area, but I’m
not convinced. Do you know anything about the men who came to the house that
night?”

 

Catherine shook her head. “No, I’m
afraid not. It was all so quick.”

 

“Do you know of any reason why they
might have been there? Perhaps Jimmy had debts.”

 

“He did have debts; those Papa left us
with, but most of them had been paid off. The people we owed money to were
tradesmen. Not the type to send men around.”

 

Xander knew that to be true. He’d always
paid Jimmy over the odds for the forged documents, determined to do something
to help his proud friend. “Did he ever discuss anyone else he might be involved
with? I’ve heard, though it may just be a rumour, that Jimmy knew the Captain.”

 

“Oh but the Captain didn’t do this! He
and Jimmy were friends. He’d never hurt him.”

 

“No, I’m not suggesting he did,” said
Xander, feeling unaccountably jealous about Catherine’s passionate defence of
his alter-ego. “But it may have some bearing. Do you know what Jimmy did for
the Captain?”

 

Catherine appeared to hesitate. “I’m
afraid to tell you, in case it makes you think less of Jimmy.”

 

“Believe me when I tell you that I hold,
and will continue to hold, your brother in the highest esteem. I know how much
he cherished you and Miss Alyssa, and how he wanted to release you all from
your penury after your father left you all penniless.”

 

“You did?”

 

“Yes, and believe it or not, I have
offered to help in the past, but Jimmy was too proud to take it.”

 

“I didn’t know that. I knew he was
proud. I didn’t know you’d offered.”

 

“I imagine Jimmy was also too proud to
admit it. But we’re getting off the subject. You must tell me everything you
know. Do you know who the Captain is?”

 

Catherine shook her head. “No. I’ve only
seen him from a distance and then his face was covered.”

 

“Jimmy never hinted at who he might be?”

 

“No, never. I suppose I should tell you
the truth. It doesn’t really matter now Jimmy’s dead. The Captain relied on
Jimmy, because of his talent for forgery.”

 

“Forgery?”

 

“Oh, see, now you’re going to…”

 

Xander held up his hand. “No, I’m not
shocked. Only surprised that you should know about it. Jimmy once told me about
how he forged notes from your father to get out of lessons at school.”

 

Catherine laughed a little. “Yes, he
did.  Then he put it to less selfish uses. Whenever the Captain needed forged
documents to get into France, Jimmy provided them for him. Then…”

 

“What?”

 

“Someone else found out about Jimmy’s
talent, and they offered him a lot of money. I wasn’t sure, but Jimmy said it
would help Alyssa to have her season in London. I should never have agreed…”

 

“You think the men who killed him were
something to do with that?”

 

Catherine nodded. “Yes. I think that for
whatever reason they silenced him. They might have hurt me and Alyssa too but I
heard Jimmy tell them we were away visiting relatives. Then they…” She put her
hands to her face. “It’s my fault. I should never have…”

 

“Miss Willoughby, listen to me.” Xander
gently moved her hands from her face and held them in his. “It isn’t your
fault. It was foolish of Jimmy to get involved with other … clients beside the
Captain.  Do you know anything about them? Even the names on the forged
documents might help. I don’t suppose Jimmy shared that with you.”

 

“No,” she said. “No, he didn’t. I think
Alyssa wants me.”

 

Catherine got up out of her chair and
rushed off towards the house. He half expected to see Alyssa on the terrace,
but there was no one there. She was hiding something, Xander was sure of it.
But what? He was about to follow her, when he bumped into the easel, knocking
it to the ground. The scarf fell away, revealing her painting of Oakley Castle.

 

“Good Lord,” said Xander, hardly able to
believe his eyes. It wasn’t a bad painting at all. He would have gone so far as
to say it was excellent. Admittedly it owed a lot to Gainsborough. All that was
missing was a gentleman and his lady in the foreground.

 

Had Miss Willoughby been a less
honourable young lady, she might even have passed it off as a Gainsborough
original.

 

Catherine barely noticed what gowns she
picked, as the dressmaker bustled around her, obviously delighted to have the
extra business. She was too busy thinking about Jimmy and whether she could
really trust Mr. Oakley. Even in the short time she’d spent in his company, she
began to wonder if she’d been wrong about him. He’d been more generous than he
ever needed to be to her and Alyssa. What’s more, she’d enjoyed talking to him
at dinner, finding him very knowledgeable once he got past his initial
reservations about discussing politics and philosophy with a mere woman.

 

Even if she told Oakley the names on the
forged documents, what could he do about it? They might have been used by now,
assuming Jimmy’s killers had achieved their aim. But why would they need to
kill Jimmy first? If all they planned to do was leave the country and take on
new identities, then there’d be no reason to silence him. Unless what they
planned was something different. Something they feared might come to light
before they achieved it. And if that were the case, did she not have a duty to
let Mr. Oakley know so that he could inform the proper authorities? Added to
which, she wanted Jimmy’s killers brought to justice, and it might be the only
way to do it.

 

On the other hand if she told him what
she knew it might lead to other questions, such as how did she know so much? It
could lead to her and Alyssa being thrown out onto the streets. She had a
feeling that Mr. Oakley was not a man who would take kindly to being deceived.

 

It was strange how he’d appeared at her
side whilst she was painting. Engrossed in her work, she hadn’t been aware of
him walking towards her, yet the moment she knew he was there, she became
acutely aware of him, to the point her heart beat faster and she lost her
normal cool reserve. In his company she felt as dizzy as Alyssa. She only hoped
he hadn’t noticed it. She’d hate for him to think of her as a simpering young
female. Though she doubted he thought much of her at all.

 

“I will leave you these gowns, Miss
Willoughby,” the middle aged dressmaker was saying, “and bring you more
tomorrow.”

 

“Thank you,” said Catherine, barely
looking at the gowns the dressmaker had placed on the bed.

 

“And may I say it’s been a pleasure
dressing you. Your sister is beautiful, but you have something else about you.
To see my clothes on you is like … Oh I don’t know. Like seeing a portrait in
its proper frame.”

 

 “That’s a very kind thing to say, thank
you.”

 

“I must admit I hated to see you dressed
in mourning, especially when there’s no need anymore. It’s such a waste of a
beautiful young lady.”

 

“Stop!” said Catherine, holding up her
hand and laughing. “You will make me very conceited.”

 

“I don’t think there’s much chance of
that, Miss Willoughby.”

 

“Do you make Mr. Oakley's clothes?”

 

“Lors, no. He has a tailor in London for
that. I have sometimes…” the dressmaker clamped her lips shut as if she’d said
too much.

 

“Yes?”

 

“It’s nothing I should discuss with a
nice young lady like yourself…” Then as if she couldn’t help herself. “But
sometimes Mr. Oakley might buy a new dress for a lady friend. Like Mrs. Somerson.
Though she turned her nose up at my dresses.” The dressmaker sniffed. “Only
Paris fashions are good enough for her. Not that she’ll get many of them with
things the way they are.”

 

“Mrs. Somerson is coming this weekend, I
believe.” Catherine felt her heart drop. She’d heard from Aunt Harriet that Mr.
Oakley was besotted with the beautiful young widow.

 

“So I hear.”

 

“In that case, Miss Alyssa and I will
wear your beautiful clothes with pride,” said Catherine, smiling, “and show her
what she’s missing.”

 

At that the dressmaker’s eyes filled
with tears of gratitude. “What a lovely young lady you are. It’s a pity that Mr.
Oakley…” She left it there, and despite Catherine’s entreaties, refused to be
drawn into any further discussion.

 

When Catherine entered the dining room
later that evening, dressed in a gown of pale blue silk, Alyssa ran towards
her. “Oh darling, you look so pretty. Does she not, Mr. Oakley, Mr. Harrington?”

 

Mr. Oakley stood up and bowed. “I fear that
with the two Miss Willoughby’s and Aunt Harriet,” he bowed to his aunt, who was
already seated on account of her age, “we’re surrounded by far too much beauty
for mere mortals, Andrew,” he said.

BOOK: Imitation of Love
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