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Authors: Sally Quilford

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BOOK: Imitation of Love
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As most of the guests were still feeling
the effects of the night before, they refused. Catherine was sorely tempted to
ask if she could join him, so they could speak, but when she tried to catch his
eye again, she felt sure he pointedly ignored her and left the room.

 

She thought to go with him anyway, but
before she could, Phoebe Somerson followed him out, so she lost her chance.

 

***

 

“Xander… Xander, wait,” said Phoebe.
“You are being so mean to me this weekend.”

 

Xander was already on his way out of the
front door. “Don’t make a scene, Phoebe,” he said, in mild but firm tones. His
groom was waiting with his horse, and Xander wasted no time in mounting it. He
hoped that Phoebe was too self-absorbed to notice him wincing. His side still
hurt, and he knew he probably shouldn’t be riding at all, but he was desperate
to get away on his own for a while. He could see that Catherine wanted to speak
to him, but he couldn’t deal with her until he had worked out a plan of action.
He’d seen the realization in her face when she heard about the Captain’s injury.
He had to find a way of putting her off that track, before she shared her idea
with someone else.

 

“I’m not making a scene,” said Phoebe.
He had almost forgotten she was there. “No one else is here.” Clearly his groom
didn’t count as somebody, which annoyed him greatly.  “I expected you to come
to me last night, and you didn’t.” The well-trained groom moved away, and went
around to the side of the house.

 

“And neither did I intend to. You must
see the impropriety of such behaviour when I am responsible for two young girls
living in my house.” He was beginning to see that inviting Phoebe at all had
been a bad idea. He had mistakenly thought she would take the girls under her
wing and perhaps even help him with to guide them in society. Whilst she’d made
a fuss of Alyssa to begin with, she had soon grown bored of playing the big
sister, and he couldn’t help noticing that she’d been particularly rude to
Catherine from the very beginning.  The weekend was probably the longest he’d
spent in Phoebe’s company. Before then, they’d either met at functions in Court,
surrounded by many others, and during the times they’d been alone, they hadn’t
done much in the way of talking. Familiarity had made her seem tiresome. Or
perhaps, if he were more honest, comparison with Catherine had brought that
about.   

 

“Fatherhood has turned you into a bore,”
said Phoebe.

 

“I’m their guardian, not their father.”
Did she have to insist on reminding him of his age in relation to Catherine?

 

“Guardian, father, it makes very little
difference. You’ve become all moral and upstanding. You were much more fun when
you weren’t.  I do have other beaus, you know. Men who would be more than happy
to spend time with me.”

 

“I hope that one of them will make you
happy, Phoebe.” He spoke as kindly as he could, but he had to let her know it
was definitely over. “I doubt very much that I could.”

 

“You’re a brute!”

 

Xander rode away, wondering what on
Earth had got into Phoebe. They both knew how the game was played. When it was
time to move on from a love affair, both parties were meant to leave with their
dignity intact. As he rode on, and the breeze cleared his head, he began to
feel guilty. He’d treated Phoebe badly. It was a mistake to bring her to Oakley
Castle this weekend. It had given her the impression that he was planning to take
their relationship further by making her his wife. He was sure she wasn’t the
only one who thought so.

 

He would have to do something to ease Phoebe’s
feelings of abandonment. A present perhaps. A transaction to buy her off.
Pulling the horse up a mile from Oakley Castle, as pain seared his side, he
wanted to cry out in anger and frustration. He had become the sort of man he
was sure he only pretended to be; a part of the hypocritical society he secretly
despised. He was little more than a dandy who treated his lovers in a cavalier fashion
and then paid them not to make a fuss when it was over.

 

He found himself wondering what
Catherine would think of his behaviour. Catherine. It all came back to her. Had
she not disturbed his equilibrium, he might have found a kinder way to end his
romance with Phoebe when the inevitable end came. From the moment he’d spoken
to Catherine in the study at Willoughby Manor, and he’d seen her stick out her
proud little chin, he hadn’t wanted any other woman in his life.

 

She’d shown great courage in dealing
with his injury too, whereas most women of his acquaintance would have fainted
on the spot, but that didn’t mean he could ask her to share the dangerous world
he inhabited. His instinct was to protect her and keep her from harm.

Perhaps he should marry Phoebe. She’d be
as good a wife as any if he couldn’t have the woman he truly loved. But the
idea of a marriage which would surely end with both of them taking other lovers
disgusted him. He had to get away. To escape. Perhaps it was time for another
trip to France.  Except that it would mean leaving Catherine. It was the right
thing to do, to keep her out of it altogether, but that didn’t mean he felt
good about leaving her.

Recklessly he spurred on his horse,
deciding to spend the day checking the far reaches of his estate. He’d
neglected it lately, with so many other things happening. It would give him an
excuse not to return to Oakley Castle and Phoebe’s resentment until the
evening.

 

***

 

Mrs. Somerson had no compunction about
letting all the guests at Oakley Castle know she was in a foul mood. Mid-morning,
one of the maids, Kitty, dropped a tray she was carrying when Mrs. Somerson
careered into her.

 

“You stupid creature!” said Mrs.
Somerson, striking out at Kitty and clipping her around the ear. “If it were up
to me you’d lose your post.” It was a very unladylike way to behave, thought
Catherine, and she could see the other guests were embarrassed. But no one
stepped forward to speak up for Kitty.

 

In the face of everyone’s seeming
indifference, though she accepted it was probably more down to embarrassment, Catherine
instinctively went to help the girl pick up the mess. “No, Miss Willoughby, you
shouldn’t do this,” said Kitty, with tears in her eyes. The poor girl was
trembling with terror. “I’m ever so sorry.”

 

“Don’t be. You’ve done nothing wrong.
Griffiths…” Catherine beckoned the butler over. 

“Perhaps someone else could clean up
this mess. I believe Kitty needs a break.”

 

“I’ll see to it she has a cup of tea in
the scullery, Miss Willoughby,” said Griffiths, bowing and smiling warmly at
Catherine. “And I’ll send one of the other maids to clean up.”

 

“Thank you. I’ll come along and speak to
you later, Kitty. No, don’t look worried. You’re not in trouble.” Catherine
waited until Kitty had been taken away from the scene before turning on Mrs. Somerson.
She knew she should try to be calm and civilised, but her emotions ran away
with her. “You had no right to hit that girl.”

 

“I had every right. She’s a clumsy fool.
Mr. Harrington.” she appealed to that gentleman.

“The child is an imbecile, is she not?”
It was not entirely clear if Mrs. Somerson was talking about Kitty or
Catherine. Harrington stammered and shrugged, clearly not wanting to be drawn
in to the argument. “When I am mistress here, there will be some changes.”

 

“But as you’re not the mistress yet, I
think you might at least treat Mr. Oakley’s staff with civility,” said
Catherine in a firm, quiet voice which belied the pain she felt in her heart.
She knew then that she had to get away somehow. If what Mrs. Somerson said was
true, and she was going to be mistress at Oakley Castle, then Catherine could
not bear to live there and see her with Mr. Oakley.

 

“I’ll also tell him to reconsider his
regrettable habit of taking in penniless waifs,” said Phoebe, before holding
her head up high and starting to walk up the stairs. She turned back with a
parting shot. “But as I’m not an unkind person, I’m sure I could persuade him
to keep you on as a maid, since you’re so obviously at home in that sort of
company.”

 

“How dare you…” Alyssa started to say in
defence of her sister, only to be stopped by Mr. Harrington’s hand on her arm.

 

“Let her go, Alyssa,” he said in a low
voice. “I believe she has lost a battle, and this is one last rally before she
admits defeat.”

 

Catherine wanted to ask him what he
meant by that, but aware that in the lady’s absence all eyes were now on her,
she had a sudden need to escape. She murmured an apology for her behaviour and curtseyed
politely to the other guests, before excusing herself. She hid in the castle
library until lunch time.

 

When Mr. Oakley did not appear at lunch
or during the afternoon, she began to fear she might never get a chance to
speak to him. After lunch, she went to speak to Kitty.

 

“Are you well now, Kitty?” asked
Catherine, taking a seat at the kitchen table. There was still a red mark on
Kitty’s cheek.

 

“Yes, Miss Willoughby, I’m much better.
I’m not in any trouble, am I? Mr. Griffiths said I’m not, but …”

 

“I’m sure Mr. Oakley would be very upset
to know what happened. But he will not be angry with you, and if he is, I shall
tell him that he has no right to be. I can’t imagine he is ever unkind to his
servants.”

 

“On, no, Miss Willoughby. The master is
ever so kind. And very handsome.” Kitty blushed. “I mean… he’s a proper
gentleman.”

 

Catherine smiled. “I know what you
mean.”

 

“Do you think he’s going to marry Mrs.
Somerson? Oh, I shouldn’t ask. It’s none of my business, but … all the servants
are worried.”

 

“I don’t know, Kitty. But if he does I
will speak to him and get his assurance that you will all still be treated
well.”

 

“Thank you, Miss Willoughby. We have
liked having you and Miss Alyssa here. Mr. Griffiths said it’s nice to have
pretty young ladies living at Oakley Castle again. But he thinks Mrs. Somerson
is going to send you away.”

 

“We’d probably have to go away one day
anyway, Kitty. My sister may marry, and when she does, I shall probably go and
live with her.”

 

“You might marry as well, Miss
Willoughby.”

 

“No. I… I don’t think I will.”

 

“Sometimes it’s hard, when you love
someone so much to think of loving someone else,” said Kitty, with a perception
that surprised Catherine. “But you’re so beautiful. I’m sorry, I always speak
out of turn. Mr. Griffiths tells me off about it all the time. He says I’ll
never make a ladies maid if I don’t learn to be quiet.”

 

“Is that what you want to be?”

 

“Oh yes, Miss Willoughby. I’d love it.”

 

“Very well, I need a maid for when I go
to London. I’ve been sharing Jenny with Miss Alyssa.” Catherine did not tell
Kitty it was because she was trying to cut down on how much money Mr. Oakley
spent on her. “But it’s a lot of work for one girl, especially if we’ll be
attending lots of balls and coming home late. If you’d like the post as my maid…”

 

“Oh, Miss Willoughby that’s so kind of
you. I would love it. I’ll look after you ever so well.”

“I know you will, Kitty. Get a good
night’s sleep tonight then start in the morning. I’ll let Mr. Griffiths know
about your change of employment.”

 

“Will Mr. Oakley mind?”

 

“Leave that to me. He said I should have
my own maid, so he can’t really refuse.” With Kitty as her maid, Catherine
hoped it would not bring the girl into Mrs. Somerson’s orbit again, and she
might be able to take her with her when she left. Plus, Catherine liked Kitty.
She was open, honest and eager to do well.

 

All the guests started to worry when Mr.
Oakley also missed dinner. Apart from Mrs. Somerson, who drank heavily and
flirted outrageously with all the young men. But it was clear from their eyes
that she had lost some of her allure. They said the right things, but to
Catherine - although she might have imagined it – their compliments seemed
half-hearted. Mr. Harrington did not even bother to pretend. He spent the whole
evening talking to Alyssa. One of the young men, realizing that Catherine was
without attention, did his best to amuse her, but gave up when it became clear
that her mind was on other things.

BOOK: Imitation of Love
5.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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