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Authors: Sally Quilford

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BOOK: Imitation of Love
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“Now you’re mocking me. Besides, from
what I hear, the Captain has more than enough admirers.”

 

“True. It’s a wonder he gets anything
done.”

 

Catherine laughed. “I’ve often thought
the same. And if he kisses every woman he saves, he’s clearly not very
discerning. But he is very brave and noble and his cause is a good one.”

 

“You should beware of fairy stories,
Miss Willoughby. Sometimes people are not what the legends say they are.”

 

“You sound as if you know him.” The
thought hadn’t occurred to Catherine before, but she supposed that if Jimmy had
known the Captain then Mr. Oakley might have too. In fact, he could be in the
room now. She scoured the faces of all the man, wondering, before her eyes
naturally fell upon Oakley.

 

“I have never met the man,” said Oakley,
firmly. “And I doubt very much he’s here. He is, by all accounts, the son of a
tradesman.”

 

“Now I’m disappointed in you,” said
Catherine.

 

“Why?”

 

“I did not think you were a snob.”

 

“I’m not, but many of the people here
are. And whilst they may cheer on the Captain’s adventures, I can assure you,
he would not be allowed to set foot in their drawing rooms.” There was
something harsh about the way he spoke, as if such snobbery mattered to him
personally. “Which reminds me. You and I need to…”

 

“Xander…” Phoebe Somerson stepped
forward and put her hand on Oakley’s arm, her pretty lips set in a pout.
“You’re neglecting me after I’ve come all this way. What are you and Miss
Willoughby talking about? Were you teaching her some new nursery rhymes?”

 

“Actually,” said Mr. Oakley, “we were
discussing fairy stories.”

 

Mrs. Somerson laughed, obviously
relieved to hear it. “Well I refuse to let you tuck her in. Leave that to the
servants. Come, I wish to play your wonderful piano, and you must turn the
pages.”

 

Catherine felt as though she’d been
slapped. Whilst she didn’t care what Mrs. Somerson thought of her, Mr. Oakley’s
words put her very much in her place. To him she was nothing more than a child.
If only he knew the truth! She bit her lip to stop some tears that threatened
to fall, wondering why it mattered so much to her what he thought. A few weeks ago
she hadn’t even liked him.

 

She glanced up to find him looking down
at her, with a quizzical look in his eyes.  Phoebe was already on her way to
the piano which was in the salon adjoining the drawing room.

 

“Now you are upset,” said Mr. Oakley.
“Why?”

 

“Xander? You promised to turn the
pages,” Mrs. Somerson called from the adjoining room.

 

“I think Mrs. Somerson wants you,” said
Catherine.

 

***

 

Xander had trouble concentrating on
turning the pages, wondering what on earth had got into Catherine. Everything
had been fine until Phoebe had come along. Then it began to dawn on him. But it
couldn’t be true and if it was, he would have to nip it in the bud. He was
nearly thirty years old, Catherine was only nineteen. What’s more he was her
legal guardian and responsible for her welfare. But he’d have been a fool if he
hadn’t noticed how her initial coolness with him had turned to admiration.
Clearly she was building him up in her mind as some sort of hero because he’d
helped her and Alyssa and because of the story he’d told at dinner the night
before.  He hadn’t considered how impressionable young girls could be, having
spent most of his time in the company of either men or older women.

 

No, he’d definitely have to find some
way to get down off the pedestal on which Catherine had clearly placed him. Her
admiration was a complication he couldn’t afford, especially if he was going to
encourage her to marry someone else. At that thought he felt himself getting
angry. What if he chose the wrong man for her? What if she ended up living a
miserable life with a husband who treated her badly? Or to a man who didn’t
understand that, rare amongst women, she liked to discuss topics other than her
pretty new bonnet? His duty would only last until the day she married, yet part
of him felt that it went beyond that.  It then struck him like a flash of
lightning that the idea of her being married to anyone else but him was
anathema to him. That came with the knowledge that she was very young, and if
he approached her in a romantic way, she might even see it as a betrayal of the
trust she’d put in him. He’d be guilty of taking advantage of a vulnerable
young woman who, in the past two years had lost both her father and her
brother, leaving her without a stabilizing male influence in her life.

 

No matter how much she might think she
admired him, it could only be puppy love. He had to be the sensible one, though
he had to admit that he didn’t feel very sensible at that moment. It took every
ounce of his self-control not to go and find her and tell her how he felt.

 

The age difference and her vulnerability
wasn’t the only reason. The life he lived, as the Captain, was a dangerous one.
It also meant a lot of time travelling that, as a single man, he might be able
to explain away to outsiders, but would find much harder to explain to a wife
waiting at home for him. It might also put her in peril if anyone ever found
out the truth about him. The thought of her being used to get at him was horrifying.

 

The more he thought about it, the more
insurmountable the problem of Catherine and his feelings for her seemed. There
were too many reasons not to tell her he loved her, fighting against his heart
which told him that reasons didn’t matter as long as she didn’t marry someone
else.

 

“Xander, for goodness sake,” said Phoebe.
“You are absent-minded tonight.”

 

“I’m sorry,” he said, turning the page,
and realizing that everyone had been waiting for him.

 

“I’ve rather a lot on my mind.”

 

“Fairy stories, I suppose,” Phoebe
hissed as she played. She smiled at the assembled guests before muttering under
her breath.  “The sooner you get these little girls off your hands, the better.
Fatherhood doesn’t suit you.”

 

At that harsh reminder of the age
difference that had been worrying him, Xander flicked the page over again,
knowing full well that Phoebe hadn’t yet reached that point in the music, and
was not talented enough to remember what the rest should be.

 

Later that night, Catherine sought the
solace of her own bedroom, having claimed a headache, glad to be away from the
party downstairs.  She’d been lying in bed for about half an hour when Alyssa
came into the room, dressed in her nightgown, and climbed in beside her. It was
something she often did last thing at night, so they could chat about the day.

 

“Wasn’t it a wonderful party, Cat?”
Alyssa snuggled down next to her.

 

“Yes, it was, darling. You had lots of
admirers.”

 

“Mrs. Somerson didn’t like that one bit.
I think she and Mr. Oakley have had a row.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes. He barely spoke to her after you
left, and then he and Mr. Harrington went off somewhere on their horses.”

 

“I wonder why, when he has guests in the
house.”

 

“I don’t know. He received a note or
something. But Mrs. Somerson is not happy about it. Have you seen her maid?”

 

“No.”

 

“Our maid Jenny says Mrs. Somerson’s
maid is half-French, her name is Celine, and that she’s stuck up and always
listening at doors.”

 

“Darling you shouldn’t listen to
servant’s gossip.”

 

“Why not, it’s the best sort there is.
But what if Mrs. Somerson’s maid is a spy?”

 

“I hardly think so. What would she learn
here? There are no battles being planned in this house.”

 

“Well, no, but what about around the
king and The Prince of Wales?”

 

“I gather from what I hear that he
doesn’t much bother himself with the war. He only cares about his parties and
lady friends.”

 

“Mr. Harrington said that it’s not quite
true. The Prince of Wales is far more intelligent than people give him credit
for, but His Majesty doesn’t trust the prince enough to share affairs of state
with him. Mr. Harrington said…” Alyssa went on in that vein for quite some
time, and Catherine couldn’t fail to notice quite how much ‘Mr. Harrington said’.

“You like him, don’t you?” she asked
eventually, when Alyssa had stopped to draw breath.

 

“Mr. Harrington, I mean.”

 

“He’s been very kind to me, and helped
me to learn how I should behave in society.  And it doesn’t hurt to have one
handsome man admiring me, does it? It’ll give all the others something to think
about.” Alyssa was silent for a while. “It’s not as if I’m falling in love with
him, Cat. I know what I have to do to help the family.”

 

“Oh darling…” Catherine felt the tears
she’d been fighting back all day start to fall. Despite Alyssa’s protestations,
it was clear that she was falling very much in love with Mr. Harrington. It was
what she’d feared would happen. Alyssa was so young and impressionable, and had
been shut away with her dreams at Willoughby Manor for so long, it was obvious
that the first handsome man who told her she was beautiful would become her
first great love.

 

“And poor people aren’t happy. Mr.
Harrington told me that. He said there’s a lot of poverty in London and that he
and Mr. Oakley try to help as best they can but he says it’s a bottomless pit.
No matter how much money Mr. Oakley gives, it’s never enough. So when I marry a
rich man and become a great lady, I shall be able to help people. It will make
me feel better about having things and not so bad about not being with someone
I love.” Alyssa’s voice trembled a little. “See, I’m not such a selfish person,
am I?”

 

“No, you’re not. You’re an angel. I
think perhaps I have been mistaken in bringing us here.”

 

“You? How can you say that, Catherine?
If not for you we’d have starved. If you hadn’t…”

 

Catherine put her hand out and covered
Alyssa’s mouth. “Careful, dearest, there may be a French maid listening.”

 

Although Catherine said it as a joke,
she was sure she heard someone moving outside the bedroom door. Telling herself
she was only imagining things, she nevertheless started to talk in a
deliberately loud voice about the party and the clothes everyone had been
wearing.

 

Chapter Four

 

Catherine must have dozed, because the
next thing she knew, she was awoken by the sound of whispering outside her open
window. Her bedroom was at the back of the house, above the kitchens. She crept
out of bed carefully, so as not to wake Alyssa, who had decided not to go back
to her own room because she wanted to talk a little more. She looked out to see
two men, one of whom seemed to be supporting the other.

 

“Wait a moment, Xander, whilst I open
the door,” she heard Mr. Harrington’s voice say. It was then she realized that
the stricken man was Mr. Oakley. Gasping in horror, and without thinking what
she was doing, Catherine threw on her dressing gown and almost flew down the
back staircase, reaching the back door just as Mr. Harrington helped Mr. Oakley
through it.

 

“Miss Willoughby,” said Mr. Oakley, “go
back to bed this instance.” His face was pale, and she saw a patch of blood
spreading over his white shirt.

 

She ignored him, and went to his other
side, to help Mr. Harrington, who led them to a small room at the back of the
house which had a single bed, and what appeared to be a medicine chest. Almost
as if it was ready for this very purpose.  “What happened?” she said. “Who has
hurt you?”

 

“A duel,” said Mr. Oakley, as they
helped him onto the bed.  His breathing was labored.

 

“Now go back to bed.”

 

Mr. Harrington lit a candle, casting
more light into the room.

 

“No, I want to help. I sometimes helped
Jimmy when…” she paused.

BOOK: Imitation of Love
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