Read The Uncatchable Miss Faversham Online

Authors: Elizabeth Moss

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

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BOOK: The Uncatchable Miss Faversham
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    ‘Lord Sallinger,’ she murmured, ‘will you not ask Miss Faversham to dance? Ah, this is a Scotch reel starting up. Come, nothing could give me more pleasure than to see you partner Miss Faversham in a delightful Scotch reel.’

    Resplendent in deep yellow silk, bordered with gold and white rosebuds, Eleanor made a strangled noise of dissent. Her eyes had not left his face throughout Lady Allenby’s rambling introduction. Now her lips were parted, trembling.

    A grim smile touched Nathaniel’s mouth fleetingly.

    Could it be that this chance encounter had pained his tormentor as much as it did him?

    Then suddenly Eleanor was curtseying before him, her flirtatious laughter turning heads all around the room. No girl in Leamington could compare with her beauty, and he felt sure she knew it. Shameless as a peacock, she was showing herself off, holding her silk gown out like a bright wing as she bent low, her blue eyes alight on straightening.

    ‘I am indeed very glad to see you again, Charlotte. And you too, Lord Sallinger.’ Her smile teased him, as though the past meant nothing to her, as though Nathaniel had been utterly forgotten in the relentless parade of her admirers. ‘It seems we are to dance. All is decided. So, shall you take my arm or should I take yours?’

    He heard himself from a distance, replying instinctively in the negative. His voice sounded odd, stilted, almost a stranger’s.

    ‘Neither, I’m afraid. Forgive me but my sister is unwell. We must take our leave immediately. Goodnight to you, Lady Allenby. Miss Faversham.’

    With a curt bow to both ladies, Nathaniel led Charlotte away by the hand, ignoring both Eleanor’s stillness and the scarlet look flung at him by his speechless sister.

 

At the torchlit entrance doors to the assembly hall, waiting in silence for the carriage to be brought round, Charlotte pulled her wrap tight about her shoulders with a gesture of despair.

    He knew his sister was embarrassed, and that he had behaved utterly inexcusably in public, but none of that could be helped. At that awful moment, as his eyes had met Eleanor’s, the urge to escape had been stronger than his will to stay and appear polite.

    His sister had a smile on her face, largely for the crowd milling about them, but her whisper was agonised.

    ‘How could you, Nath? I shall never be able to look Mrs Allenby in the face again. And poor Nell! What a jarring set-down you gave her.’ There was a sudden, unexpected defiance in Charlotte’s voice. ‘I promise you, I intend to see her while she is up from town. Nell is one of my dearest friends. Or was, until she left us so suddenly.’

    He said nothing to this, ever mindful of her condition, and the carriage arrived. Nathaniel helped her up the narrow steps and onto one of the velvet padded seats inside.

    When Charlotte began again, he interrupted. ‘I do not wish to discuss it, if you please.’

    ‘I have no doubt of that, you surly thing! But I am still amazed at the encounter. What a strange meeting. And why was old Lady Allenby hanging on her arm like that?’

    Charlotte’s mind was soon diverted, he thought, helping his sister to make herself comfortable against the cushions.

    ‘I’m afraid I cannot furnish you with an answer. Perhaps you should have asked her yourself.’

    ‘Oh, don’t tease!’ She gasped at a sudden thought. ‘I wonder if Nell has come up from town alone? She always was unconventional. Not even in black tonight – though of course Lady Allenby is right, Dora Lovett was not a relative. Indeed it would not be considered strange if Eleanor was to shun the funeral altogether, given that Mrs Lovett was ... well, you know ... not altogether what she seemed. It is good of her to have come at all. But what a scandal if Eleanor is staying at the Hall unchaperoned.’

    Nathaniel gave his order to the coachman. ‘Back to Sallinger House!’

    He sat back opposite his sister, noting thankfully that Charlotte’s anger, always temporary, seemed to have abated somewhat. He settled himself in the semi-darkness, folding both arms across his chest and stretching out his aching leg as the carriage lurched forward. His sense of gloom deepened with every mile. He had settled into a routine these past five years, a routine of solitude and isolation. He had been content with that existence, not questioning its necessity. Now Eleanor had reappeared and everything had changed. Even the familiar countryside outside the coach window seemed darker, each shadow more alive, more menacing.

    ‘Are you in need of another cushion, Charlotte?’ he asked, catching his sister’s curious gaze on his face. ‘There is a spare one here.’

    ‘Depend upon it,’ she muttered, accepting the proffered cushion and stuffing it behind her back, ‘your cut tonight will have provided Warwickshire with enough gossip for the next month. What must you have been thinking?’

    ‘My dear Charlotte, whatever I was thinking is entirely my own business. Shall we philosophise all the way home, or can I rely on you to drop the subject with your curiosity unsatisfied?’ He struggled for a moment with his temper, then managed a determined smile. ‘I forgot to say, by the way, that your new gown is very pretty.’

    Somewhat mollified by this compliment, Charlotte glanced critically at herself in the dim carriage interior.

    ‘Do you think so? I shall not fit into it for long, not the way I am increasing. Though it was fearsomely expensive, of course, and is fresh come from London this week.’

    Her gown was not the only expensive thing ‘fresh come from London’, Nathaniel thought darkly. But he contented himself with a few well-chosen remarks on current fashions that allowed his younger sister to talk gowns comfortably until they reached the familiar grey stone of Sallinger House.

    Thankful to have reached this point of refuge without giving in to the dark turmoil of emotion churning inside him, Nathaniel let out a slow breath as the carriage bowled up the gravelled driveway. Despite the lateness of the hour, his private study was already beckoning, with a steady fire burning and a decanter of brandy waiting to be poured.

    There at least he could allow the past to torment him unobserved, without a certain pair of laughing blue eyes to mock his pain.

                    

Perusing a note which had arrived by hand early the next morning, Charlotte gave a sharp cry, and stared down the length of the breakfast table.

    His sister looked a little wild at times, Nathaniel thought, laying down his knife and fork with a wary frown.

    ‘What is it, Charlotte?’

    ‘It is a note from Nell. I mean, Miss Faversham.’ Charlotte made a face at her untouched breakfast, pushing away the plate, and turned the paper over in her hand. ‘Such a charming and generous letter too. Listen! ‘Mrs Lovett’s funeral is set for Thursday, and you are both welcome to pay your respects if you wish.’ After last night’s affront too! But wait – there’s more. Eleanor invites me to dine with her at Faversham Hall this evening or tomorrow evening, “whichever will be more convenient”.’

    ‘Neither will be convenient,’ he muttered heavily in response, and picked up his fork again to resume eating his ham and eggs.

    There was a tense silence in the morning room; when he looked up again, he noted with irritation that his sister’s bottom lip was trembling in an ominous pout.

    ‘What now? You surely cannot have been countenancing a visit to Faversham Hall?’

    ‘Why not?’

    He frowned, searching for a reason. ‘There has been a bereavement there. It would not be considered the done thing to go calling. Why, Miss Faversham herself should by rights be in mourning dress.’

    ‘But Nathaniel, she can hardly be considered to be grieving. Mrs Lovett was once her father’s mistress! Yes, I’ve heard all the rumours, as has half the county, so don’t roll your eyes. Besides which, we are Eleanor’s closest neighbours and her oldest friends in England. There can be no impropriety in our visiting her.’

    He shook his head. ‘I don’t like it. It was bad enough that you had to drag us out to that ridiculous assembly last night, and as a result, you are too delicate to eat properly this morning. You are certainly not well enough to go chasing about the countryside, dining with strangers – ’

    ‘Nell is not a stranger!’

    ‘Is she not?’ His jaw worked for a moment, then he shrugged, realising it would be fruitless to argue further and could only end in awkward questions he had no interest in answering. ‘Very well, go to your friend then. But if you catch a chill in this damp weather, you alone will be to blame.’

    His sister bit her lip, putting down the letter at once. ‘Oh Nathaniel, do you truly believe I might catch a chill? It has been exceptionally damp this month. I would not wish anything to endanger the baby.’

    ‘Then take my advice and don’t visit.’

    ‘But I wish to see Nell so much.’

    Charlotte sat back and seemed to think for a moment – always a dangerous thing, he thought grimly, watching her.

    Then she gave him a tremulous smile. ‘I have the very solution! I shall invite Eleanor to dine with us here tomorrow evening. But now why are you frowning? It has been an age since Lord and Lady Rundle came to dinner, and they were such dull company. You said so yourself.’

    ‘I absolutely forbid it,’ Nathaniel snapped. ‘Anyway, I was at Oxford with Rundle; he wasn’t always so dull.’

    Charlotte stared at him resentfully, her colour heightened. Nathaniel shot a warning glance toward the servant who had slipped in quietly to refresh their coffee, and she lowered her voice.

    ‘You said when I came to stay with you that I should be allowed to invite my own friends to dinner. Well, this is whom I wish to invite.’

    Nathaniel closed his eyes, trying to ignore the furious blood throbbing in his temples. The last thing he wanted was that flirtatious witch in his home. God only knew what damage she could achieve in a single evening.

    Yet even as he thought so, a traitorous desire to see her again caught hold of him, and he found himself saying, just as though he had never been against the idea, ‘Oh, very well. Invite Miss Faversham to dinner if you must.’

    ‘You are not angry?’

    ‘It is not how I should have liked to spend my evening, but if it pleases you that much, I shall endeavour to bear her company for a few hours.’ He frowned in concern as his sister rose; her hand clutched unsteadily at the table, her complexion pale. ‘Last night was a mistake though. No more outings for you, at least until you are more yourself. I’m sure the doctor would agree. Perhaps you should return to bed.’

    ‘That’s just what I intend to do,’ she agreed, sighing. ‘Are you going riding this morning?’

    ‘In all probability.’

    ‘So if I were to write Nell a quick letter, you could ride over to Faversham Hall with it?’ Charlotte obviously saw him stiffen, because her tone grew defensive. ‘You need not call formally – just leave it with old Foster at the door.’

    ‘Can not one of the servants take it?’

    ‘Joseph is gone on an errand into Leamington for me, and poor Isaac is laid up with a touch of gout. Unless I am to send your butler or manservant.’

    ‘Write your letter, then,’ he said impatiently, ‘and I shall deliver it for you.’

    Nathaniel stood up from the breakfast table, and wondered why it felt as though his veins were running with quicksilver, the pain in his leg almost forgotten. Faversham Hall. He had stood and stared at that house from the lakeside often enough, under cover of darkness and with a spaniel at his side, brooding on the past. Yet now that Eleanor was back at Faversham Hall, everything had changed. Even the way he breathed and smiled and held himself felt different, as though his entire being were charged with some strange new excitement.

    ‘And pray God that Joseph returns before nightfall,’ he added with a last flash of temper, ‘or no doubt I shall end up mucking out the stables and feeding my own dogs too.’

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

‘Foster?’

    Standing at the locked door to her father’s library, Eleanor called after the elderly butler as he bore away an offending vase of dead flowers, no doubt overlooked by the housekeeper in the general confusion following Dora Lovett’s death. She raised her voice when he did not answer. Foster, it would seem, had grown a little deaf since her last visit to Faversham Hall.

    The old butler turned, one hand on the door leading into the servants’ quarters, and looked back at her in bewilderment, as though he had already forgotten who she was.

    ‘Foster, do you have the key to my father’s library?’ she asked patiently. ‘The door appears to be locked.’

    ‘The library, Miss?’ Foster cast down his grey head in thought. ‘I’d better ask Mrs Foster. My wife keeps all the house keys on her belt-chain.’

    ‘Very well.’ Reluctantly, she turned from the library door. ‘If there are any other locked doors, I’d like them unlocked at once. And all the Holland covers removed. I fully understand that such measures were taken on the orders of Mrs Lovett, to preserve the furniture while she was too unwell to receive visitors, but there is nothing gloomier than the feeling that one is living in a mausoleum.’

    ‘As you wish, Miss.’

    ‘I expect to stay at least a se’ennight, possibly two or three weeks. Now let me see ... ’

    Eleanor consulted a daunting list of tasks in her hand, compiled on her long and tedious journey up from London.

    ‘Mrs Foster will require additional help about the Hall,’ she continued, ‘especially on the day of the funeral itself. There should be several girls in the village who could be hired for the duration of my stay, and you will need suitably strong men about the house and garden too. Furniture will have to be moved, fresh flowers brought in, and the whole house cleaned and aired.’

    ‘Maidservants … men … flowers,’ Foster repeated, staring dolefully down at the large Chinese vase in his arms. The dried-up blooms were tickling his nose. ‘Yes, Miss.’

    ‘And don’t forget,’ she added firmly, ‘those potholes in the drive are shockingly deep and must be filled in at once! I was jolted all over the place on my arrival.’

BOOK: The Uncatchable Miss Faversham
11.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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