Read The Uncatchable Miss Faversham Online

Authors: Elizabeth Moss

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

The Uncatchable Miss Faversham (9 page)

BOOK: The Uncatchable Miss Faversham
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    She sat up at once, thrilled by a brilliant white flash of lightning that illuminated the edge of her curtains.

    The thunder came again, almost instantaneously, a mighty whip cracking through the skies.

    She slid out of bed and padded on bare feet to the window, pushing back the curtains to see better. The grounds were lit up by the next flash, as bright as day, every tree a blinding white that dropped abruptly back into darkness. Even the lake shivered under that momentary light, beautiful and ethereal.

    Eleanor was not frightened. The violent thunderstorms she had experienced as a child out in the West Indies had been far more powerful than any in these isles, and that knowledge had long since cured her fear of English storms.

    This storm was, at least, a distraction from her fears. And one which filled her with inexplicable excitement and desire.

    Eleanor’s hand clenched hard on the curtain. The memory of the night she had spent with Nathaniel still held great bitterness for her, yet her skin tingled as she remembered the high tower room at Sallinger's Folly where they had in secret that night.

    That summer storm had lashed at the narrow windows of the folly while they made love inside on a bare straw mattress.

    It had been a mutual thing, that nagging desire for each other’s bodies, a hunger that had built up between them all summer until it became intolerable even to be in each other’s presence – the slightest glance had been enough to set them alight, like a tinderbox left in dry grass.

    The next morning, Sallinger had called to propose marriage to her, his bearing stiff and formal, presumably driven by a sense of honour. He had despoiled the daughter of a wealthy neighbour, and in his world, the only solution was matrimony.

    His first letter, received after she had fled to London in the wake of that rejected offer, had shocked her. Wounded pride was something she could understand, but not the revelation that he loved her so deeply that he could consider taking his own life after her refusal. She thought perhaps the recent horrors of war out on the Peninsula had turned his mind.

    The second letter – full of anger, of wild accusation – she had thrown onto the fire, sure that she had done the right thing in refusing him.

    Nathaniel had kissed her so passionately tonight, almost violently, yet there could be no question of intimacy between them now. Eleanor had given herself to him, then thrown his honourable offer of marriage back in his face, as only the lowest kind of ‘teasing wanton’ would have done. Or so he had complained in that second, furious letter.

    Her body had changed since those days, of course. At eighteen, she had been too thin, her breasts small and high, barely noticeable under gowns that hung rather than clung. Now her breasts were full and round. Her waist was still narrow, it was true, but she was no longer as lithe and willowy as she had been at eighteen.

    What did Nathaniel think of her body now? Was he disappointed by the changes he could see?

    Eleanor threw herself back across her wide, empty bed, burying her face in the chaste white bedclothes. Whatever Sallinger thought of her body, it did not matter. She had mortally offended him five years ago, rejecting that earnest offer of marriage, and for all his demanding kisses tonight, he would never see her naked again now.

 

Nathaniel had left Sallinger House before dawn, too restless to stay in bed any longer, and strode out through the bracken and woodland about his estate with only his new young spaniel, Lucifer, for company. The violent storm during the night had left trees broken in the copses, plants beaten down by the rain, ivy trailing loose from shattered branches. He took the long route round, noting the damage and what needed to be done to restore order, and by the time he reached it, the tiny village of Darrow was awake.

Never had the sight of those houses been so welcome to him, with their ragged hedgerows and a smell of wood smoke already rising on the damp air. Two elderly neighbours conversing over a damaged boundary hedge straightened as he passed.

    One of the men touched a knuckle to his forehead with a muttered salute. ‘Morning, your lordship. Bad storm last night.’

    ‘That it was, Hawkins.’

    He whistled to the young spaniel who had scampered eagerly over to investigate the two men and their fascinating smells. Lucifer glanced back, wagging his tail, but did not obey the summons. The puppy was proving devilish hard to train, he thought irritably.    

    ‘Heel, Lucifer!’

    Underwood’s cottage lay at the north end of the village, one of a row built by his grandfather to house workers on the Sallinger estate. They were still in good repair, though he noted several roofs with missing tiles or cracked chimney stacks that would need repairing over the summer months. Last night’s storm to blame again? Something for him to mention to his estate manager, Nathaniel thought soberly. It was his responsibility now to keep the estate in good repair and to look after the interests of his tenants, and although the Sallingers were no longer as wealthy as they had once been, he would not let down his forefathers by neglecting that duty.

    He paused on the doorstep, listening to the soft dripping dawn of the English village, its silence broken only by the mewling of a kitten crouched somewhere under the damp hedgerows and the hungry cry of an infant in one of the neighbouring cottages. All around were the scents of wood smoke and fresh leaves and mud, some of it still clinging to his boots.

    Such a peaceful scene, and one he had often longed for during the war, stationed thousands of miles away on the Peninsula, wondering if he would end his days in that arid, dusty hell-hole.

    He knocked lightly at the door. His knock was answered within seconds by Mrs Underwood, full-bosomed and blousily attractive despite her somewhat rustic-looking gown, one edge of which had been tucked up to reveal her dusty petticoat. Red hair peeped out recklessly from under her white mob cap, and there was a soot smudge on one cheek as she flung open the cottage door.   

    ‘Good morning to you, Mrs Underwood.’

    She did not seem surprised to see him on her doorstep at such an early hour. But then, perhaps he had made too much of a habit of visiting the young family in recent months. In truth, looking at his behaviour from an outsider’s point of view, it was hard to explain away these visits in rational terms. All Nathaniel knew was that speaking to Jack every week or so, and seeing his young children playing at his feet, so happy despite their father’s disability, had become the perfect tonic to his low spirits.

    Nathaniel gave a courteous nod of his head. That was when he realised that a naked babe had also come to the door and was gurgling happily to itself at his feet, clutching at its mother’s skirts. He eyed the unclothed infant with some misgiving, hoping he had not arrived at an inopportune moment for the busy housewife.

    ‘I beg your pardon for calling at your door so early, Mrs Underwood. Is Jack at home?’

    Far from shooing him away, the well-endowed Rose Underwood wiped flour-whitened hands on her dingy apron and grinned at the sight of her landlord on the doorstep. She dropped him a curtsey with her usual surprising grace, snatching up the intrepid babe before it could escape the cottage.

    ‘Well now, your lordship, where else would he be at this hour?’ she demanded, then seemed to realise the forwardness of her tone, blushing a little. The gurgling child wriggled in her arms and she swung it easily onto her hip, wrapping a fold of her apron about its bare legs. ‘But here’s me in my oldest gown – looking a mighty fright, I’ve no doubt. You’d best come in. Don’t mind little Joshua here, he’s due for his bath. Indeed, you are most welcome.’

    Raising her voice, she called back over her shoulder. ‘Jack, are you decent? It’s his lordship come to visit.’

    Nathaniel scraped the mud from his boots, and made sure to bend his head on entering the tiny cottage – he knew from experience how much it hurt to crack his head on one of these low roof beams!

    Enthusiastically, the dog tried to follow him indoors. But Nathaniel shook his head. ‘Sit,’ he ordered him in a stern voice.

    He was relieved to see the wayward pup obey his orders for once, easing himself back onto the step with an appeasing wag of his tail.

    ‘Behave yourself, sir. I’ll be back soon enough.’

    Downstairs, the cottage consisted of one narrow room, with a gloomy kitchen area curtained off to one side. A small fire crackled in the hearth and cast a warm, flickering light over floor and walls. In front of the fire there was what appeared to be a cylindrical baking dish, half-filled with water, poised on a stand; this, Nathaniel guessed at a glance, was to be the baby’s bath.

    The place would be little better than a cow-byre by haut monde standards, but it was cosy and welcoming enough on a dank March morning.

    The Underwoods had lived there now for five years. Jack had served under him during the war, losing his sight in that bloody conflict. His first-born had died of a fever while he was absent, and his wife had been turned out of her home for non-payment of the doctor’s bills. Jack was too stiff-necked to ask for charity, but his wife Rose had sought Nathaniel, and begged him to help.

    Nathaniel had employed Rose as an occasional seamstress up at Sallinger House, which had allowed him to install the young family in the cottage as his tenants. There was not much else he could do, but Nathaniel did like to call in every few weeks with a small gift, hoping in that way to ease their poverty without causing offence.

    Jack was seated by the fire, an old rug over his knees. His head turned as Nathaniel approached, firelight reflected in his sightless eyes, and he tried to rise.

    ‘My lord,’ he began, laying aside his colourful woollen cover, but Nathaniel laid a firm hand on his shoulder, telling the younger man to sit down again and not be such a noddlecock. ‘I had not expected to see you this morning, my lord. Not after that wicked storm last night.’

    ‘Any damage here?’

    ‘No, my lord. Though they’re saying the roof blew clear off old Darby’s hen house during the night.’ The young man sat down, feeling his way. ‘Have you breakfasted? Rose, is there any of that good ale left for his lordship, and maybe a bite of that cheese we had last night?’

    ‘No, no cheese. Many thanks, I’ll have whatever you’re drinking,’ Nathaniel said quickly, seating himself on the wooden settle. He was not there to deprive the family of their meagre rations nor to take the best seat by the fire. His drink arrived in a small, rather dusty-looking pewter tankard and he sipped at it cautiously, but to his relief found the ale perfectly palatable. ‘How are you, Jack? You look much improved since last week.’

    ‘Couldn’t be better.’

    ‘Excellent news.’ Nathaniel reached into his pocket and withdrew a carved penny whistle and a small tin box that weighed heavily in his hand. The tin box he handed to Rose with a smile. ‘A present from Mrs Allenby. We never seem to drink what we have before the new order arrives, but I’m sure you can find a use for this.’

    Rose opened the tin and sniffed at the black powdery substance inside. ‘Tea, sir?’

    ‘I believe so.’

    Closing the lid, she secreted it hurriedly somewhere in the folds of her voluminous yellowish gown. Perhaps she was worried Jack would make her return the gift if she did not hide it. ‘I’d be happy to accept it, your lordship, and with many thanks indeed. You do bring marvellous things!’

    Suddenly, Nathaniel became aware of a child standing silently in the corner. She must have descended the stairs on tiptoe, for he had not heard her come down.

    He smiled at the girl, and held out the penny whistle. ‘And this is for you, Jemima.’

    Still in her plain bedshift, with a rough woollen shawl about her shoulders to keep out the cold, Jemima shot a swift glance at her mama for approval, then darted across to take the penny whistle from his hand. Scurrying backwards a few steps, she stared down at it for a moment in wonder and awe, her wide, mismatched eyes reflecting the firelight.

    Nathaniel smiled. The girl was so cautious. She reminded him of nothing so much as a tiny brown mouse snatching a morsel of cheese from a trap before it could snap shut on her.

    ‘It’s a penny whistle. Something to entertain yourself and the baby with in your leisure time, and to drive your poor mother mad.’ He turned to Rose with a laugh. ‘I apologise, ma’am, for any squeaks and sour notes you may have to endure as Jemima learns to master the instrument. I can assure you, though, that the whistle is not a difficult thing to learn. Before long, her tunes will be sweet as any songbird’s.’

    Rose was seemingly preoccupied with the naked babe squirming on her hip, but she managed a glance at her daughter. ‘Be a good girl and thank his lordship for the gift.’

    Jemima bobbed a curtsey, smiling shyly up at him. ‘Thank you very much, your lordship. May I try it now?’

    Her mother shook her head. ‘Time for you to be up and dressed, missy. Little Joshua will be ready for his nap soon, bless him, once he’s had his bath. Off with you now!’

    Once Jemima had vanished back upstairs with her new whistle, Rose seated herself by the fire with the infant on her towelled lap, and scooped a little trickle of warm water over his bare legs. The child didn’t seem to mind, though he gave a small whimpering cry from time to time. She kept his wobbling head wrapped in the towel, careful not to get his face wet, as the boy seemed to dislike that the most.

    Rose glanced apologetically at Nathaniel, her face a little flushed. ‘You don’t mind, do you, my lord? It’s only once a month. My sister says it clears the lungs, and prevents dropsy.’

    ‘No, indeed ma’am.’ He smiled. ‘It will be quite a novelty, to be honest. I’ve seen many things in my life, as your husband will no doubt testify, but never a baby having his bath. This is something of an education for me.’

    ‘Oh, when you’re married, my lord, you’ll see it again, I’ll be bound. Nothing so sweet for a wife as awashing of her own dear babe, once it’s grown big enough to be out of swaddling.’ Rose rattled on blithely, then pulled herself up short, shooting both him and her husband a worried glance as though she had been indiscreet. ‘Sorry, my lord. I spoke out of turn and shouldn’t have done.’

BOOK: The Uncatchable Miss Faversham
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