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Authors: Sally Quilford

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BOOK: Imitation of Love
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“But I’ve told you. It’s a fake.”

 

“Shall we test that with the magistrate,
Catherine?”

 

“I’d be sent to prison… They’d hang me.”
Catherine felt her knees start to tremble. “Oh … I know what you’re trying to
do, and it’s wonderful of you…”

 

“Please,” he held up his hand to stop
her. “Don’t get any romantic notions about why I’m doing this. I should throw
you in the gutter, but I don’t believe your sister, who I am sure is innocent
of this crime, should suffer for your actions. So I will continue with my task
of introducing you both to society, and hope to God I find you a husband who
doesn’t find out about your past.”

 

Catherine’s hands flew to her face in
horror, as tears started to fall. She had expected him to be angry, and
justifiably so, but not this. After all, had she not helped him when he was the
Captain? And had he not been grateful for that help when he believed it came
from Jimmy? But, of course, there were the double standards she had considered
before. She just had not expected to be faced with the hypocrisy quite so
brutally.

 

He stepped forward with his arm
stretched out, and for a horrible moment she thought he might strike her. She
shrunk back. “I only did it for Alyssa,” she whispered. “That’s why I didn’t
want new dresses or anything for myself.”

 

“I er …” Mr. Oakley’s voice sounded
constricted, and his hand fell to his side. “I will give Alyssa until the end
of the Season, just to be sure she doesn’t fall in love with the next young man
who tells her she’s beautiful. You must accept that is a possibility, and it is
only right that we wait. If by that time she’s still in love with Harrington,
and he with her, I shall settle enough money on her so that they might at least
live in comfort.”

 

“Thank you.” Catherine turned and fled,
vaguely noticing as she stumbled up the stairs that Mrs. Somerson’s maid was
lurking in one of the corners.

 

***

 

“You were a bit harsh on Miss Willoughby,
old man,” said Harrington as he and Xander travelled by phaeton to London the
following morning. “In fact, if I’d been there I might have called you out. If
not for her expertise, the Captain and his band might have been arrested by the
French a long time ago.”

 

Though Xander did not like to talk about
his private feelings, the events of the night before disturbed him so much he
told Andrew some of what had happened. He could still see Catherine’s stricken expression
as he insulted her. He had only reached out his hand to comfort her, ashamed
with himself for hurting her, only to see her shrink back, as if she thought he
was going to hit her.  It left a deep shame burning within him. But he told
himself it was for the best.  He had hopefully killed two birds with one stone.
She could not possibly hero worship him now. Not after he had been so unkind.
The thought was like a sword piercing his heart, but he kept telling himself it
was for the best.

 

“I know, Andrew,” said Xander. “I’d have
probably let you win the duel. But don’t you see that I had to make sure she
never does it again?” His lips were set in a grim line as he explained the
other reason for his harshness. “Whether Jimmy wrote that letter about
guardianship or not, I owe it to him to protect her. Damn it, Andrew, if she’s
the one who’s been helping us these past two years, I owe it to her. Jimmy was
fooled by someone telling him that they had a noble cause, and he’d been taught
to be very careful. Who knows what danger she might get herself into if she
tried to make her living in such a way? She has no idea who to trust, and as a
woman in this difficult world she’s even more vulnerable than Jimmy was. I had
to let her believe it was reprehensible.”

 

“Thank God the crooks who wanted the
forged documents aren’t aware that she knows the names, or that she’s the one
who did the forgeries,” said Andrew.

 

“It doesn’t bear thinking about. It cost
him his life, but at least Jimmy protected her up to the end. “

 

“Do you really think they might be
something to do with the intelligence from France? About the attempt on the
king’s life?”

 

Xander nodded. “I’m sure of it. The
trouble is finding them before the day. It might be too late once they’re in amongst
the crowd.”

 

“Did you ever suspect it might not be
Jimmy doing the forgeries, Xander?”

 

“Not at first. Then I saw Miss
Willoughby’s painting, and she’s good. Very good. It also reminded me that I’d
never seen Jimmy so much as doodle. I didn’t know about the guardianship
letter, though I suppose I ought to have suspected, with it coming at the same
time as the announcement of his death.”

 

“Are you really angry with her about
that?”

 

“No.” Xander smiled. “It was a very
sensible and clever thing to do. And as I’ve said, I do have a moral obligation
to help Jimmy’s family. Just as I have the same obligation to see you and
Alyssa happy.”

 

“Thank you for that.”

 

“You realize you might lose her, Andrew.
She’s still very young.”

 

“I know. I’m prepared for that. Or at
least that’s what I keep telling myself. What about you, Xander?”

 

“What about me?” Xander stiffened.

 

“You’re not going to marry Phoebe, are
you?”

 

“No! Even if she hadn’t struck Kitty,
I’d already made up my mind that Phoebe was not meant to be Mrs. Oakley.”

 

“Do you have anyone else in mind?”

 

“No. No one at all.” Xander urged the
horses on, speeding up the phaeton and making it clear that the subject was
closed.

 

***

 

“Is it true?” Alyssa danced around
Catherine’s bedroom as sunlight streamed through the windows. “Did Mr. Oakley
really say that?”

 

“Yes.” Catherine forced a smile, wanting
to be happy for her sister. “You just have to promise me you won’t fall in love
with someone else with no money. I don’t think he’d be as generous for anyone
but Harrington.”

 

“I’ll never love anyone else. And if Mr.
Oakley settles enough money on me, then you can come and live with us.” Alyssa
grabbed Catherine around the waist and spun her around.

 

“I think … I think I may find somewhere
else to live,” said Catherine.

 

“Why? Don’t you want to be with me?”

 

“Of course I do, but I’ve a feeling you
and Harrington will prefer to be very much alone.”

 

The truth, that Catherine didn’t want to
admit to Alyssa, was that Mr. Oakley would probably be a regular guest at their
home, and Catherine knew beyond a doubt that she had to go somewhere she never
had to see him again. Her love for him was too deep, and the pain his angry
words caused too raw. She only hoped she could get through the Season and
Alyssa and Andrew’s wedding without making a fool of herself in his company. The
good thing was that it was unlikely she’d have to be alone with him. Or that
he’d even want to be alone with her, which caused her even more pain, despite
knowing it was for the best.

 

“What’s happened, darling?” asked
Alyssa. “I know you’re unhappy. I can tell.”

 

“I’m not. I’m very happy for you.”

 

“You think I don’t notice things, but I
do. I’ve seen the way you look at Mr. Oakley.” Alyssa caressed her sister’s
cheek.

 

“Please, Alyssa, don’t ask me anything.
I can’t … I can’t …” Catherine was saved by Kitty knocking the door and
entering the room.

 

“Sorry to interrupt, Miss Willoughby, I
just brought back your gown. I’ve darned the hem and it’s as good as new.”

 

“Thank you, Kitty. Will you put it
away?”

 

“Yes, Miss Willoughby.” Kitty looked
excited about something.

 

“What’s happened?” asked Catherine.

 

“Oh, Miss Willoughby, I shouldn’t gossip
I know, but there’s been all sorts going on this morning. Mrs. Somerson has
just left. Mr. Griffiths says good riddance to bad rubbish, which I know he
shouldn’t. Anyway, she caused such a fuss, screaming and shouting at everyone
that she wouldn’t set foot in this … I can’t say the word she used then, it’s
blasphemous… place again. Then, would you believe her maid, Celine, steps
forward and slaps her on the face? Then Celine says ‘you’ve ruined everything’.”

 

“What?” Catherine and Alyssa spoke
together. That a servant should behave in such a way to her mistress was
incomprehensible.

 

“I know, we couldn’t believe it either,
but Griffiths was in the hall and saw it happen with his very own eyes. Then when
Mrs. Somerson had gone, Mr. Oakley told Griffiths that she wasn’t to appear on
any of his guest lists ever again.”

 

“Did Mrs. Somerson dismiss her maid?”
asked Alyssa.

 

“No, Miss Alyssa. She actually said
sorry to her for being so hysterical, Griffiths said. It was so funny.” Kitty
laughed, and then remembered who she was with. “Not as I’d ever slap one of my
ladies. And Mr. Oakley comes to me, when I was in the servants’ hall eating my
breakfast, and said in such a kind voice, ‘I’m very sorry for what happened
yesterday, Kitty and that I wasn’t here to deal with it at the time. I know
you’ll be well-treated as Miss Willoughby’s maid’. He didn’t have to do that at
all, did he? He’s such a nice gentleman.” Kitty’s face took on a dreamy
expression, suggesting that she had her own fantasies about Mr. Oakley. “Let’s
hope he finds himself a real lady to marry now. Not that I should be saying such
things. Sorry, Miss Willoughby, Miss Alyssa.”

 

“Don’t worry, Kitty. I hope so too,”
said Catherine.

 

Kitty had gone when Alyssa turned to
Catherine and after giving her a lingering look, said, ‘Oh dearest…”

 

Catherine took Alyssa’s hand. “Help me,
Alyssa, to get through the next few months.”

 

“Of course I will, darling. You wait
until we get to London. There’ll be so many handsome men wanting to dance with
you, that you’ll soon forget him.”

 

Catherine doubted that very much, but
she nodded and quipped, “I shall be the belle of the ball. Or at least the belle
of any ball that you don’t attend.”

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Mr. Oakley’s London mansion was every
bit as luxurious as Oakley Castle. Situated in Kensington, it was perfectly
placed for the many entertainments that London had to offer. On Catherine and
Alyssa’s first night in the Capital, he’d arranged a ball, to which over a
hundred people were invited.

 

“Isn’t it wonderful, Catherine?” said
Alyssa, as walked to the ballroom. Alyssa was dressed in a pure white tulle
gown, with a sprig of snowdrops in her hair, looking the epitome of spring.
Catherine had chosen a dress of green satin, and had piled her dark hair high
on her head.

 

“It’s very exciting,” said Catherine.
She couldn’t deny that the setting was thrilling, even if she had convinced
herself she would hate being in London. The room was a symphony of colour, as
men and women vied to wear the most colourful outfits. Mr. Oakley wore a jacket
of dark red, with an intricate, but subtle gold pattern woven into it. Despite
the relative plainness of his attire, Catherine couldn’t help thinking that he
stood out from all the other men in the room.

 

Alyssa was naturally a sensation, but
Catherine also drew her fair share of admirers, as young men queued up to dance
with her. At one point she looked across and saw Mr. Oakley dancing with her
sister, and hoped that she might be asked next. They had barely spoken since
she arrived in London with Alyssa, and then they had only exchanged the usual
pleasantries.

 

 As the evening wore on, it became clear
he was not going to ask her to dance. She tried not to let it matter, as she
smiled and chatted with the men who were interested in her whilst barely
remembering their names. The triviality of it all only increased her feelings
of disassociation. Her heart grew heavier, and she wondered how she was ever
going to survive the Season.

 

BOOK: Imitation of Love
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