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Authors: Anna Jacobs

Tags: #Historical Fiction/Romance

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BOOK: Marrying Miss Martha
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He looked at his stepmother. “Perhaps you’d ring for a maid to pack her things tonight? I’ve asked the carriage to come at ten tomorrow morning.”

She nodded.

“Is there any chance of something to eat . . . ?”

“Mercy, I’m forgetting my manners.” She rang the bell and began to give orders, her expression now smug.

Ben stared into the fire, leaving his stepmother to maintain the conversation by telling him all about her dearest Ambrose. He knew only too well what he was taking on, because he had been called upon before to sort out Georgie’s scrapes. He had already decided that this time he would need help. A governess, perhaps—although he knew his sister considered herself too old for a governess at sixteen.

Belinda had foolishly dismissed the last woman a few months previously and made no attempt to find another. Well, that particular governess had never managed to control Georgie. It would take a very special sort of woman to manage such a wilful girl, and how he was to find such a person he didn’t know.

He sighed. His peace in his own home was undoubtedly at an end and duty made a hard bedfellow. He was already fully engaged, trying to sort out a cotton spinning mill that his father had allowed to run down into near bankruptcy. Perhaps he should start thinking seriously of marriage himself so that he could provide a proper home life for his sister?
If
he could find a woman he could trust this time.

Oh, hell, why should he lumber himself with a wife when Georgie would undoubtedly marry and leave him within a few years? He had decided when Amanda jilted him for someone richer that he would never marry and he wasn’t about to change his mind.

There must be someone available to look after her each day, though.

* * * *

At nine o’clock on the second morning after his return to Tapton with Georgie, Ben walked across from the mill to his house, which was situated at one corner of the big yard, separated from it by a low wall. After washing his hands and changing his jacket, he went into the breakfast parlour. His sister’s place was untouched so he rang for Hepzibah. “Is Georgie not up yet?”

She shook her head. “I sent Nan upstairs a few minutes ago with the hot water and Miss Georgie told her to go away.”

Hepzibah, who had been housekeeper to the Seatons since his mother’s time, and who had not been grand enough for Belinda to take with her to Bradford, thank goodness, screwed up her lips in a way she had when she disapproved of something and didn’t feel it her place to say so openly.

Ben held back a smile only with difficulty. He usually had breakfast sent across the yard to his office at the mill on a tray, but after being accused yesterday of leaving his sister alone all day, he’d decided to make the effort to eat breakfast at home from now on. It was only a short walk, after all.

He sighed. Georgie had turned up her nose at coming to live here because it was the original mill house. She had grown up in a grander place outside town because Belinda had refused point-blank to live so close to
“that dreadful noisy mill”
so his father had built her a new house. Ben had moved back here when he’d grown too old to live with them and Hepzibah had come with him. After his father’s death he had needed capital, so had sold the new house to some county gentry who considered themselves too grand to associate socially with a mill owner, but not too grand to snap up a bargain.

“It was near eleven when she got up yesterday,” the housekeeper told him with a sniff. “She says she doesn’t like early mornings.”

Ben didn’t try to hide his own disapproval. “I’ll go and see if she’s awake.”

He took the stairs two at a time, impatient to get on with his day, and rapped on his sister’s door. When there was no answer, he knocked more loudly.

A voice yelled from inside. “I told you to go away.”

“It’s me, Ben.”

“Well, you can go away too. Why does everyone want to wake me up? I can’t possibly get up this early.”

He opened the door and scowled to find Georgie still lying in bed. “We all get up early here, as you well know. And you did too when Father was alive.”

“Well, I don’t any more. Mama says real ladies don’t rise at the crack of dawn like servants.”

“It’s inconvenient for Cook to have to provide two breakfasts and for Nan to keep setting and clearing the table, so you’ll get up in time to join me for breakfast at nine o’clock from now on.”

“I shan’t and you can’t make me.” She slid down and pulled the covers over her head.

He walked over and dragged the covers off again, ignoring the screech of outrage and pulling her out of the bed when she remained huddled where she was. “I’ll expect you downstairs in twenty minutes.”

“It takes me far longer than that to dress.”

“Then we’ll have to get you some simpler clothes.” He cast an angry glance at the garments scattered all over the floor. Fussy, frilly things, none of them pleased him and they certainly didn’t flatter his sister who was as short as her mother. “Who do you think is going to pick these up?”

“The maid, of course.”

“Nan has enough to do without you adding to it. She’ll clean your bedroom, but you’ll need to keep it tidy yourself. If it’s not tidy, I won’t allow her to clean it.”

Georgie burst into tears. “Mama said I was old enough now to have my
own
maid, a lady’s maid. She was going to get me one, too, until she met Ambrose.”

“Why? Can’t you dress yourself? Twenty minutes,” he repeated. “And if you’re not in the dining room by then, I’ll come and carry you down, whether you’re dressed or not.”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“Oh, but I would.”

Their eyes met and hers fell first. Her noisy sobbing followed him down the stairs. He popped his head round the kitchen door to ask Cook to send breakfast through in twenty minutes, then told Hepzibah that Nan wasn’t required to pick up after Miss Georgie and was only to clean her bedroom if it was tidy. “Just tell me if there are any problems.” He saw the housekeeper smile and grinned back at her. “She’s been rather spoiled.”

“And neglected.”

That surprised him. “Why do you say that?”

“From what she’s let fall, that mother of hers hasn’t spent much time with her. That’s a very lonely and unhappy girl, Mr Ben.”

He was surprised by this, but valued Hepzibah’s opinion, so vowed to be more patient with Georgie and perhaps win her confidence.

Twenty-two minutes later, just as he was about to go upstairs again, his patience already fading fast, Georgie came down with her hair hanging unbrushed down her back. She flung herself into the chair next to his, drank a cup of tea and spurned the food offered with every appearance of loathing.

“There’ll be nothing else to eat until one o’clock,” he warned, but she didn’t respond so he ate a hearty breakfast, made one or two remarks to which she replied in monosyllables, then dismissed her from the table. He left the house via the kitchen, telling Cook, “Miss Georgie refused to eat breakfast, so don’t give her anything to eat until I come back from the mill at one o’clock.”

“There’ll be ructions before we’re through, Mr Ben,” she replied.

“Then there will have to be ructions.”

The midday meal was again marked by a lack of conversation, but at least Georgie ate well.

“Did you go out at all this morning?” Ben asked.

“No. There’s nowhere to go in Tapton.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing.”

It was, he decided, like living with an angry wasp. And it was hard to win over someone who refused to hold a proper conversation and did nothing but sulk.

On Saturday morning Ben invited his sister to go for a walk with him that afternoon once the mill had closed.

“No, thank you.”

“You used to enjoy walking with Father.”

She blinked her eyes furiously and tried to hide the tears.

Ben’s voice softened. “You need some exercise. If you don’t come willingly, then you’ll come unwillingly.”

“I don’t want to walk anywhere with
you.”
The look she gave him would have curdled milk.

When he got back to take her for a walk, having left several jobs at the mill until later, he had to go up to her bedroom and personally select some stout shoes for her to wear, since she turned up in soft kid slippers more suited for an evening engagement and an elaborate hat that would have blown away in the lightest of breezes.

“Those shoes hurt my feet.”

“Then we’ll walk slowly.” What excuse would she offer next? he wondered.

She got tired very quickly even though he’d chosen a gentle stroll, and she was as grumpy as ever, with hardly a word to say for herself.

When they got back she retreated to her bedroom and he went to sit in the parlour, at his wits’ end about what to do with her. He couldn’t go on like this.

And Hepzibah was right. Georgie was a very unhappy girl.

After much thought, he decided to consult his friends, Jason and Libby Wright. Jason owned the largest of the three mills in Tapton, and although Libby was now an invalid, she was a woman of sound sense and had four delightful daughters of her own. She might have some ideas.

If she didn’t, he couldn’t think what he’d do.

* * * *

Having heard nothing from Edward for over a month, Martha and Penelope had quite forgotten his promise to help them and were debating where to look for lodgings while they continued to pursue their inquiries about schools. Then he turned up unexpectedly on a bitterly cold day in early November. 

After waxing lyrical over his wife and new daughter’s excellent state of health, he asked abruptly, “Have you found anywhere to set up your school yet?”

“Not yet,” Martha admitted.

“Well, in that case I might just be able to help you. Not that I approve of what you're doing any more than I did before, mind. Let that be clearly understood from the start.”

“You mean you actually know of somewhere suitable?” asked Martha in surprise.

“I may do. Though it’s not exactly a school, but rather a private arrangement with two gentlemen.” With a smugly triumphant glance at them both, he continued, “Through a mutual friend I made the acquaintance of one of these gentlemen when he was visiting his wife’s relatives in the district.” He frowned, then qualified this statement, “Well, he’s a mill owner, so one can hardly call him a
gentleman
, but his wife is gently born and he’s done well for himself—one has to respect that, at least—and no one could fault his manners.”

Penelope made an encouraging noise.

Martha kept her lips firmly pressed together.

“This Mr Wright comes from somewhere in Lancashire—now what did he say it was called?” Edward began drumming his fingertips on the table, muttering syllables beneath his breath and shaking his head. Then suddenly his expression cleared. “Tapton, that’s it! Such a vulgar-sounding name. No wonder I had trouble recalling it.’

He nodded approval of himself and continued, ‘Anyway, Mr Wright’s wife is an invalid and his children are all girls. He doesn’t wish to send them away to school, so he and his wife have decided to find a lady who will act as governess-companion to them. A house will be provided nearby for the governess, and the children are to go to her every day because his own house is next to the mill and isn’t large enough—imagine living so close to one of those dreadful places! Mr Wright’s offer would possibly suit you for the time being and it is, at least, respectable.”

“It’s worth considering,” Martha admitted. Maybe they’d be able to turn it into a proper school once they’d settled down.

“After I’d questioned him about the details I mentioned you two, though I made it very plain that I wasn’t happy about your taking up employment and—”

“What is he offering to pay?” Martha inquired.

‘I will engage to make suitable arrangements for your remuneration.’

‘I’m doing nothing unless I know that from the start.’

He breathed deeply and let out a sniff. “Wright is prepared to be generous, amazingly generous, actually—I should never pay a governess that much—and his friend Mr Seaton is to pay you an additional emolument as long as you will tutor his younger sister during the day as well.”

“How—much?” she repeated.

“If you didn’t interrupt me so often, Martha, I’d be able to get on with my tale.” He saw her opening her mouth again with that stubborn expression on her face and added hastily, “Mr Wright will pay sixty guineas a year for the two of you, plus providing the coal. Mr Seaton will provide the house and pay a further thirty guineas per annum. Oh, and Mr Wright will supply all the materials needed for teaching his girls—paper, books and so on—because he doesn’t want any skimping on that side of things.”

Knowing that the more she questioned him, the more stubbornly Edward would withhold information, Martha picked up Penelope's embroidery to distract herself and began stabbing the needle viciously into the material. “Pray continue.”

“Well then, where was I? Ah, yes . . . We decided in the end that I should take the two of you to Tapton because he wishes to meet you and introduce you to his wife before he will commit himself, which is only right and proper. And of course, for our part,
we
cannot decide anything either until we see the town and the house being offered, as I told him.”

Martha opened her mouth to protest his assumption of having a part in the decision making, but Penelope forestalled her. “How very clever of you, Edward, to seize the opportunity so promptly! We're extremely grateful for your help, are we not, Martha?”

“Yes. Extremely.” Stab went the needle, giving the flower a garish yellow stem with big, uneven stitches. “We must definitely arrange to go and see this Tapton place.”

“My dear Martha, you cannot have been listening. I have already arranged it. That’s why I’m here today. Mr Wright is impatient to get matters settled, so if you could be ready by tomorrow morning and could offer me my old room for tonight, I’ll take you there in my own carriage. Two ladies travelling all the way to Lancashire without a gentleman’s escort is not to be thought of.”

He leaned back in his chair and beamed at them, abominably self-satisfied, and they could do nothing but thank him and accept his kind offer, because this way they would not even have to pay coach fares.

BOOK: Marrying Miss Martha
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