Read The Uncatchable Miss Faversham Online

Authors: Elizabeth Moss

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #Historical Romance

The Uncatchable Miss Faversham (10 page)

BOOK: The Uncatchable Miss Faversham
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    He said nothing but looked away in the silence that followed, embarrassed by the inference behind her hurried apology. She meant, of course, that no woman in her right mind would marry him and bear him an heir – not with his ruined looks and weak leg.

    Jack said gruffly, ‘Quiet now, Rose. Let his lordship be. Have you finished with Joshua yet?’

    ‘That I have,’ she muttered, dropping a swift curtsy to Nathaniel as she rose from the fireside, and whisked the infant away upstairs to be dressed without another word.

    ‘I hope I haven’t disturbed you this morning, Jack. I was passing the cottage and thought I’d drop in, see how you are.’

    ‘I’m in excellent spirits, my lord,’ Underwood replied, but there was a slight hesitation in his voice. ‘We heard the sad news about Mrs Lovett’s passing. Poor soul. But at least her suffering is over.’

    ‘Indeed.’ Nathaniel settled back in his chair, pulling one ankle comfortably over his knee, then almost wished he hadn’t as the chair’s wooden frame creaked under his weight. ‘But what of your suffering, my friend? I know the doctor was due to call here yesterday. What was his prognosis? Does your sight improve at all?’

    ‘Barely, sir. There was some faint glimmering when he shone the light directly into my face.’

    ‘It is too bad.’

    ‘But not your fault, my lord.’

    ‘True enough,’ he agreed. ‘However, you were once under my command. I cannot help but take an interest in how you fare.’

    Underwood grinned. ‘I’m not complaining. Nor will the wife. She looks forward to your visits – and your gifts. A penny whistle and a packet of tea, no less!’

    ‘Offended, Jack?’

    The sightless eyes turned briefly in his direction, almost as though he wished he could see Nathaniel’s face, then the former soldier grunted and faced the warmth of the fire again. ‘Not I, my lord. Though if you were to start bringing me gifts –’

    ‘Oh aye, you’d chase me from the house with your stick, and no doubt beat me black and blue to boot,’ Nathaniel laughed, relieved by the man’s smile. Inwardly though, he owned to a stab of frustration. Jack was so damned stiff-necked, it was impossible to think what could be done for the young man without destroying his trust. ‘Still as fiery as you were at Corunna!’

    ‘Only gifts for the ladies, my lord.’

    Nathaniel inclined his head with resignation. ‘Only for the ladies,’ he repeated. ‘I hear you, soldier.’

    There was a comforting silence as both of them rested a while in front of the glowing hearth. Outside, a soft rain was beginning to fall. The sound of it pattered gently against the windows. Nathaniel wondered absent-mindedly if the puppy would still be there on the doorstep when he came out, or if it would have sought shelter in the hedgerow.

    The younger man stirred, shifting uneasily on his seat. ‘Forgive me if I’m speaking out of turn here, my lord. But we also heard that Miss Faversham is returned to the Hall.’

    Nathaniel made a pained face at the mention of that name, glad for once that his friend could not see him.

    His first instinctive response was to tell Underwood to mind his own damn business, knowing the younger man would take it in good part. But he also knew what village gossip was. To avoid the subject would be as revealing as to discuss it too eagerly. And even in this smoky little cottage he was not safe.

    There was a faint creak above his head as Rose Underwood stepped across the floor with a light tread, perhaps trying to listen from the top of the stairs.

    ‘Miss Faversham is indeed returned from London,’ he agreed, keeping his voice admirably even. He had no wish to add to the village gossip on that score. ‘To make the funeral arrangements and open up the Hall to visitors. The last remaining members of Mrs Lovett’s family live further north and could not be here earlier, so I believe she has taken that onerous task upon herself.’

    ‘Aye, that’s what we heard too. Some of the girls in the village have been taken on up there until after the funeral. And a few good lads, for a-looking after the stables and grounds.’ Jack Underwood sniffed. ‘The place was in a right poor state, they say. The drive peppered with pot-holes, none of the chimneys swept, and everything raggle-taggle in the upstairs rooms.’

    ‘I’m sure Miss Faversham has it well in hand.’

    ‘Not so black as some would paint her, then?’ Jack asked quickly, and the curiosity in his voice was now unmistakeable.

    ‘I really wouldn’t know. But it’s growing late and I cannot keep you any longer from your day’s business.’ Nathaniel rose, firmly shaking the man’s hand before he too could rise. ‘No, stay where you are. I can show myself out.’

    Lucifer had indeed crept into the hedgerow to shelter himself from the rain. But at the sound of the cottage door opening, the puppy came bursting out again, wagging his tail with ludicrous enthusiasm.

    Nathaniel bent to stroke the grovelling puppy behind his ears, and laughed as Lucifer rolled onto his back with abject pleasure. ‘What am I to do with you, disobedient wretch?’ he demanded.

    The rain clouds had already begun to roll away beyond the little village of Darrow, heading across the valley toward the tree-hidden roofs of Faversham Hall.

    He was aware of a burning sensation deep inside that would not be repressed simply by wishing, and knew the cause of his frustration. The puppy at his feet barked and ran twice between and around his legs, wagging its tail with violent excitement now that the rain had eased off and the morning was good for walking once more. ‘Will you never consent to do as you are told?’ he asked the young dog, once more attempting without success to call him to heel.

    He could just as easily have asked the same question of the flighty, irrepressible Miss Eleanor Faversham: ‘Will you never consent to do as you are told?’

    He already knew what that lady’s answer would be. An unqualified and resounding No!

    Straightening up, his smile was quickly wiped away by the sight of that lady herself, strolling down the muddy lane towards him, her maid beside her, a dark-skinned figure he remembered instantly from his youth, a covered basket over her arm.

    What the devil?

    Nathaniel removed his hat, bowing with meticulous politeness as the two drew level with him.

    What was she doing in Darrow, walking right past Jack’s cottage, surely the last place he had expected to encounter Miss Faversham? This was his haven, his sanctuary from the outside world.

    Splendid in a dark blue velvet walking gown that nipped in her waist and emphasised the swell of her breasts, her feet clad in the most elegant half-boots he had ever seen, Miss Faversham looked at him coldly, unspeaking.

    ‘Your servant, Miss Faversham,’ he managed, feeling once again as though he had been kicked in the guts.

    Eleanor glanced momentarily at the cottage. Its front door still stood slightly ajar, to his great chagrin, almost as though to suggest that he had just left it. At a narrow upper window, he saw the faded curtain twitch, and caught a glimpse of Rose Underwood and her reddish, mop-capped head, curiously taking in the scene below before the curtain dropped and she vanished from sight.

    ‘Lord Sallinger,’ Miss Faversham replied, her smile a mere flicker of her lips, her nod barely discernible, and he knew himself to have been dismissed by an expert.

    Then she swept past in a rustle of smart blue velvet, and her maid cast him a long sideways glance out of those dark, liquid eyes, a living extension of her mistress’s contempt.

 

 

   

CHAPTER FIVE

 

The morning of Mrs Lovett’s funeral dawned cold and grey. Eleanor dragged herself out of bed and consented to be dressed, but one unsteady glance in the mirror persuaded her to rest another half an hour with cold lotion on her neck and face, and two of Suzanne’s special ‘herbal compress’ bags pressed against her eyelids to relieve the puffiness.

    The loss of her usual radiance stung, and made Eleanor even more resentful that Sallinger would be at the funeral today. It was as though the man’s very presence had the power to remind her how much she had changed, that she was no longer the fresh-skinned eighteen year old with whom he had been so wildly, so passionately in love.

    But what an ill-chance it had been, to be walking into the village to meet the vicar, and to run into Sallinger himself, coming out of that pretty little cottage at such an early hour.

    She had looked up and seen the red-haired woman at the window, gazing down at her with an impertinent expression, as though she had only just risen from her bed – a bed she had perhaps shared with his lordship, the guilt on his shocked face suggesting that explanation.

    So it was true that Sallinger was having an
affaire de coeur
with Mrs Underwood, and right under her husband’s nose!

    By the evening, Suzanne had uncovered more information for her, namely that the unfortunate husband was a blind veteran of the war, according to the understairs gossip, which made Sallinger’s behaviour all the more despicable. It must be simple enough, after all, to deceive a blind man, even under his own roof.

    Eleanor had listened to her maid’s catty repetition of the servants’ gossips with a churning stomach. She did not know why this confirmation of Sallinger’s libidinous ways should upset her so much, but it had been difficult to hide her reaction from Suzanne’s shrewd gaze.

    Once her maid had taken herself away for the night, Eleanor had thrown a hideous old Chinese vase across the room in a seizure of violent rage – then spent the next half an hour on her hands and knees, hunting for broken shards and throwing them guiltily into the hearth.

    Now she was barely able to face going downstairs to greet the Lovetts, her guests for the duration of the funeral. How could that infuriating man reduce her to a tangled mess of nerves without even being in the house?

   
Damn him!

    By the time she felt presentable enough to descend the stairs, her guests were already at the breakfast table.

    After Eleanor had visited them and put her carriage at their disposal, Mrs Lovett’s grown-up children had grudgingly consented to travel up from Oxfordshire for the funeral. It was not an over-long journey, yet they had shown no sign of being inclined to make it. Indeed, Eleanor felt sure that her mention of the terms of Mrs Lovett’s last will and testament had made the difference and finally prompted them to come. The family were in trade now, and not wealthy, as she had known, but once Mrs Lovett’s jewellery and various possessions were sold, there would be a little money. Enough, perhaps, for the younger Lovett boy to enter polite society for a season or two.

    Still, the older Mr Lovett had been strangely reluctant to come down to Warwickshire. She had always assumed that friendship had prompted her father to allow the widowed Mrs Lovett to live at the Hall for a peppercorn rent. It was clear, however, that the family had been right to consider the arrangement a suspicious one, and that was why they had shunned their mother even in her final sickness.

    Both soberly attired in black mourning dress, the two gentlemen stood up as she entered the room.

    ‘Please,’ she waved them to sit down again, ‘pray do not disturb your breakfast. I am so sorry to be downstairs so late – what a poor hostess I am. But Foster has been attending to your needs, I trust?’

    ‘Cooked meats, fresh eggs and soda bread, strong hot tea. Nothing has been missed,’ the younger Lovett insisted, smiling as he pulled out a chair for her at the head of the table. ‘Allow me to serve you from the sideboard. If you would you care to sit, Miss Faversham?’

    ‘Thank you,’ she murmured, seating herself.

    His name was Thomas, and he seemed a personable young man of about eighteen, with casual manners of the sort she was familiar with from London circles. His dress was perhaps not all it should be, but that was only to be expected from a regional tailor. Despite his countrified origins, Thomas had a certain air about him and such twinkling, flirtatious eyes, she knew he would be a great hit if he ever came to Town.

    With his light blondish hair, cut very much
à la mode
, Thomas was quite handsome too – though in a smooth, youthful way, nothing like Sallinger’s rugged looks.

    By contrast, the older brother Bernard was sombre and conservative in his manner, despite not being much older than herself, an unsmiling gentleman of some five and twenty years of age. His wife Matilda was slightly older and German, though her English was very fair. They both greeted her with deep seriousness, frowning at Thomas’s inappropriate levity as the young man continued to talk of the weather and the attractiveness of the grounds.

    Matilda was a large but handsome woman, her skin fashionably pale against the black lace mourning dress. She waved away the tea, preferring to drink coffee at breakfast instead, much to Foster’s disapproval. Considering they were the deceased’s children, they were not much given over to grief. It was clear they would never have attended the funeral if it had not been for Thomas’s desire to travel on to London afterwards for his first season.   

    Though knowing that her father had pursued an affair with the widowed Dora Lovett, installing her at the Hall and visiting her whenever he was in England, Eleanor found it hard to feel too much sympathy for her. Such an outrageously open arrangement must have deeply hurt her mother – assuming that word of it had ever reached her ears in Jamaica.

    Her own mother had died when Eleanor was twelve, and it would have been remarkable indeed if her father had not been lonely after that. But her mother had still been very much alive when Dora Lovett had moved into Faversham Hall. Why, she had even taken on the chaperonage of the eighteen year old Eleanor when she arrived here alone from Jamaica. Eleanor had barely given that unusual situation any thought at the time, never having grown close to Dora Lovett, whose somewhat cold countenance she had always avoided. But it would certainly explain some of the whispers and sympathetic glances thrown in her direction soon after settling in London, and why the lady herself had stubbornly refused to follow her there as a chaperone.

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