Old Acquaintances: Christmas Regency Tale (Regency Tales Book 2) (4 page)

BOOK: Old Acquaintances: Christmas Regency Tale (Regency Tales Book 2)
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He felt that the situation could not be worse, until he looked up from his breakfast and met the startled gaze of the woman who had once jilted him. His smile was sardonic. He had been prepared for this encounter, though perhaps it had come earlier than he had anticipated. “Good morning, Miss Grantham. I trust that you slept well,” he said with the manner of a perfect guest. But he did not rise to offer his hostess a chair, instead leaning back a little in his own so that he could survey her better.

Judith had gone rather white, but she managed to nod coolly at him. She approached the table and seated herself. It took all her fortitude not to allow how shaken she was by this totally unexpected encounter to show. “Sir Peregrine, this is quite a surprise. I had no notion of your arrival,” she said, and knew instantly how inane and inadequate were the words. Questions tumbled through her still sleep-fogged mind. She knew that she must get hold of herself, and quickly. Desperately, she looked about and she seized gratefully upon the coffee pot.

“Meaning that if you had known you would have given orders to bar the door against me, leaving me to freeze slowly on the steps,” said Sir Peregrine.

Judith could not stop the faintest tremor of her hand as she poured steaming coffee into her cup. Anger at herself for the slight betrayal steadied her nerves. She cast an irritated glance at her companion. “How idiotic! Of course I would not have. Though if you mean to rip up at me this early in the morning, I shall probably wish that I had had the opportunity,” she said.

Sir Peregrine smiled, though with little amusement. “You have always been quick to take fire, Judith.”

“And you, sir, have always had the singular knack of setting up my back,” said Judith swiftly. All her hopes of a quiet easing into the day had vanished with Sir Peregrine’s unexpected presence, and that did nothing to improve her overall mood. She eyed him in a decidedly unfriendly way. “Why have you come to Elmswood? I do not mind telling you, it is an unpleasant shock to discover you at the breakfast table.” She was still thinking of her lost solitude and therefore his reaction caught her by surprise.

“Thank you, ma’am! I had long ago been brought to realize that you held me in contempt, but I was not aware of those feelings of revulsion that you have harbored,” said Sir Peregrine. His piercing blue eyes were bright and hard.

Judith flushed, realizing belatedly how uncivil she had sounded. She had always prided herself on treating others as kindly as she herself would like to be treated. No matter what history lay between herself and Sir Peregrine, it did not give her license to insult him unnecessarily. “I am sorry. I was unforgivably rude. My excuse must be that I am not at my best in the morning. I am not usually so prickly after I have had my coffee.”

Sir Peregrine stared at her. After a long moment he allowed a fleeting grin to cross his face. “I have overset your hopes of a solitary breakfast, have I? If it will ease your disgruntlement in any measure, I was not best pleased to have my own breakfast interrupted. I detest making conversation so early in the day.”

“And so do I,” said Judith.

He laughed and turned his attention to his unfinished plate, obviously with the intention of suspending communication until they were both ready to resume it.

Judith helped herself to eggs and ham and then set to with relish, finding that she had quite an appetite after her light repast the night before. She finished eating and began her second cup of coffee in the ensuing silence. Over the cup’s rim she watched Sir Peregrine begin on a second helping of steak and kidneys.

Finally, she sighed. “It is of no use, Perry. I still wish to know why you have come to Elmswood. You cannot have a sudden uncontrollable desire for my company.”

She meant the last to be a light touch of humor, but when she looked into his suddenly frowning eyes, it occurred to her that it would not be such a bad thing if he had come with the object of seeking her out.

Sir Peregrine was apparently not subject to the same wistful thought. “Believe me, nothing short of necessity would have brought me to Elmswood Hall. I was informed at the posting house that you arrived there with a young lady who was subsequently persuaded to come on with you here. I believe that you are harboring my ward, Miss Grantham.”

Judith, who had flinched at Sir Peregrine’s blunt disclaimer, now looked at him in stupefaction. “You? You are the beastly, overbearing cousin that that poor girl is fleeing?  I cannot credit it.”

“Indeed, can you not?” Sir Peregrine’s smile was grim. “I am certain that Cecily has spun a fine tale for you, but do now allow her to play too strongly on your sympathies. She is too young to know what she is about, besides possessing a decided turn for the dramatic. I have had little ease of mind since succeeding to her guardianship. If the truth be known, I would as lief wash my hands of the business.”

Judith had listened to him with increasing stiffness. Everything he said seemed to confirm Cecily’s assertions. “I am persuaded that you do not mean that. Surely you are not grown so callous that you have forgotten what dreams one may hold at age seventeen! Of course the girl is high-spirited and romantic. What young girl is not?”

“I was never a dreamy youth, even in my salad days. And you, dear Judith, did not allow romantic fancy to turn
your
head. Indeed, far from it. I doubt there was ever a more prosaic young lady in all of England,” said Sir Peregrine with irony.

Judith bit back the impulsive retort she was about to utter. It would not do to cup up at Sir Peregrine over the past, not if she was to discover how best to aid Cecily out of her predicament. She took a deep breath to calm herself, though Sir Peregrine’s unfair observation stung. “Cecily is still a child, I grant you, but there is a hint of fortitude, of determination, about her that is appealing. My interest was caught by her story of an unwanted suitor and an overbearing guardian. However, I certainly do not approve of the course of action she has taken, and I hope that while you are here, Sir Peregrin, you and Cecily may iron out some of your differences.”

“Your concern is misplaced and misguided, ma’am. I think that I know better how to deal with Cecily than would a stranger,” said Sir Peregrine coolly.

Judith lost her temper. “Indeed, and see what has come of your handling of her! She was fleeing from you in a common mail coach, intending to solicit a position as a lady’s maid. I do not pretend to understand the desperation of a gently bred girl who feels compelled to such a course, but I do think that if you had had an ounce of common sense you would have attempted to sound out her feelings before –“

“My God, do you think that I have not tried reason? But it is akin to addressing a whirligig. My precious ward has tumbled headlong into love not fewer than six times in two years. The last was the dancing master at her boarding school, who, I am given to understand, thought it might be lucrative to encourage the simpering adoration of an heiress,” said Sir Peregrine. He gave a short bark of laughter. “Cecily was not best pleased to learn that her inamorata chose a purse of silver and flight over the less charming prospect of enduring penury with her.”

The years rushed over Judith, an echo of long-ago hurt. “How odd that you should choose the same means to direct Cecily’s destiny,” she said with a brittle smile. Her gray eyes had lightened almost to transparency, so great was her fury.

Sir Peregrine was taken aback by the sudden blaze of passion in her expression. He was given no opportunity to question her oblique statement, however, as the breakfast room door opened and a man and woman unknown to him entered.

At sight of Judith, Mr. Nickleby smiled and nodded. “There you are, Mrs. Nickleby. Did I not tell you that early hours are kept in the country? We have almost missed breakfast with our kind hostess. Your servant, Miss Grantham, sir,” said Mr. Nickleby, making a courtly bow to the two sitting silent at the table. If he had been a sensitive man he would have been struck by the electric tension in the room, but as it was he never noticed the flush of temper in Miss Grantham’s face or the coldness in the gentleman’s expression.

He held a chair for Mrs. Nickleby, who seated herself with a sniff of disapproval. “I cannot for the life of me understand why some insist on breakfast at the crack of dawn, and then it must be kippers and eggs. So heavy and unhealthy for one, I am persuaded. I myself take only chocolate and toast. Mr. Nickleby, I do not see any chocolate. It must be an oversight, surely. Pray pull the bell and have a pot brought.” She glanced across the table and her brows rose. “Miss Grantham, you are not leaving us surely?”

Judith, who had arisen from her seat, paused momentarily. Her eyes glittered. “Mrs. Nickleby, allow me to make known to you Sir Peregrine Ashford, who arrived some time in the night. I am persuaded that he will be spellbound by the story of your unlucky trip on the mail coach. Pray do excuse me, but I have a hundred and one items to see to this morning,” she said. She swept out of the breakfast room, deriving a certain satisfaction at leaving Sir Peregrine to the Nicklebys and their unceasing conversation this early in the day. She hoped that it would give him a fine case of indigestion.

 

Chapter Five

 

              Judith went upstairs at once. She knocked at Cecily’s door and, at her soft invitation, entered the bedroom. Cecily was sitting before the cheval glass while a maid put the finishing touches to the heavy curls that had been swept back and were held away from her face by a bright pink riband. The result was not unlike a soft dark cloud framing Cecily’s huge eyes and heart-shaped face. Judith thought that she had never seen a more beautiful girl.

              Cecily leaped up at once when she saw her hostess in the glass. She held out her hands. “Miss Grantham! I do apologize for falling asleep last night when I was to join you. It was just that I was so sleepy and I thought that I would close my eyes for only a moment. When I awakened, it was morning! I was never so mortified.”

              Judith pressed Cecily’s fingers briefly before letting go her hands. Laughing, she said, “Never mind, dear girl. I shan’t eat you.”

              “How well I know that! You have been all that is kind,” said Cecily, looking at her with gratitude.

              Judith sighed. She gestured for the maid to go and when they were alone, she said, “Cecily, I must tell you that Sir Peregrine is here.”

              The normal color was driven from the girl’s cheeks, leaving a hectic patch high on each rounded cheek. “Here! But he cannot be. However did he find me so quickly? Oh, Miss Grantham! I beg of you, do not allow him to take me away. I shall be so desperately unhappy. You have no notion what he is like when he is angered.”

              “Oh, don’t I just?” uttered Judith under her breath. The whole encounter with Sir Peregrine had left her seething, and she was not at all repentant that she had saddled him with the Nicklebys. She saw that Cecily was looking questioningly at her and she pushed aside her own perturbation to answer. “My dear girl, I have no right to keep you from your guardian, if such he is.”

              Cecily took a step backward and regarded Judith with a look of betrayal. “I had thought of you as my friend.”

              “And I trust that I am still.” Judith saw that Cecily was regarding her with the old wariness and she said urgently, “Cecily, you must see that I have no choice in this. Why, Sir Peregrine would have every right to call in a constable if I were to deny you to him. You shall simply have to meet with him.”

              “No, no! I cannot. He has such a
cutting
way  about him, you see. He makes me feel so awkward and inadequate that I become tangled in knots whenever I try to speak to him,” said Cecily.

              Judith felt sympathy for the young girl’s plight. She also had once been too reticent and shy to express herself well. And that inability had cost her dear. “If you wish it, I shall go with you when you meet with Sir Peregrine. I shan’t allow anyone underneath my roof to be browbeaten, I promise you.”

              Cecily shook her head quickly. “Miss Grantham, I beg of you, if you will not shelter me from my cousin, at least lend me a chaise. I shall be gone in a trice and I will send your carriage back the instant that I have found a mail coach to London. Just give me an hour or two before telling Sir Peregrine that I am gone.”

              “It is out of the question. Even if I were inclined to do anything so absurd, it would not serve you. We are all snowbound and likely to be for the remainder of the day,” said Judith.

She watched as Cecily flew to the window and lifted the curtain. She was not entirely amused by the girl’s bitten-off exclamation and the stomping of one dainty foot. “Cecily, you really have no choice but to speak to Sir Peregrine. Perhaps this is just the opportunity you have needed to set things right between the two of you, since you both are forced to remain at Elmswood for the time being.”

              Cecily turned swiftly. She was flushed. “Nothing could persuade me to step foot into the same room with Sir Peregrine. I shall remain upstairs.”

              Judith experienced a feeling of disappointment. “I am sorry for that, Cecily. I had thought you possessed more courage. But I see now that I was mistaken.” She turned and left the bedroom, leaving Cecily to stare after her in astonishment and gathering gudgeon.

              Judith slowly made her way downstairs, her brows knit. She did not know what to do about the standoff between Cecily and Sir Peregrine. But fortunately it was not her problem and she could easily wash her hands of it, she told herself, though without much success. However much Cecily behaved in just the sort of dramatic, childish fashion that Sir Peregrine had said to expect of her, Judith could not but wonder if there was not more substance to the girl. Her own initial impression could not be entirely incorrect.

BOOK: Old Acquaintances: Christmas Regency Tale (Regency Tales Book 2)
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