Read A Matter of Duty Online

Authors: Sandra Heath

A Matter of Duty (5 page)

BOOK: A Matter of Duty
10.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

‘I didn’t ask you.’

‘So you didn’t. Well, Louisa isn’t a
, she’s an angel, and I’ve been the very devil to her. And in spite of my sins, she still loves me. I’ve denied her her chance in society and reduced her to governessing, but she still writes me loving letters and looks forward to the few occasions when we can meet in Brentford. We were due to meet very soon, but I haven’t heard from her, so she probably can’t have the time off.’ He paused, meeting Kit’s gaze. ‘I failed in my responsibilities, my friend, and now I wish with all my heart that I hadn’t. I went blithely on with my gambling, even when I could see the way things were going, and in recent months my conscience has been very hard to bear. That was how I felt the evening I sat down opposite Rowe, and that’s why when I detected his chicanery, it was all just too much. I decided that enough was enough, and it was time I acted honorably for once.’

Kit was silent.

‘Don’t do the same as me, Kit,’ went on Tom. ‘Oh, I know your situation isn’t quite the same, but you’re still shirking your responsibilities.’

‘Don’t bring Thea’s name into this again, Tom,’ warned Kit.

‘But I must. It’s because of her that you’re still unmarried.’

‘It’s impossible to state categorically that I would have married someone else if I hadn’t taken up with her,’ pointed out Kit.

‘I think you would.’ Tom took the miniature again, looking at it for a long, pensive moment. He placed it on the table next to the whisky bottle and then sat down again, still gazing at Louisa’s smiling face. Then he smiled too.

Kit watched him. ‘I can’t imagine what you’ve got to smile about, my friend,’ he said, resuming his own place on the sofa.

‘It was just a passing thought. A rather ironic one, actually.’


Tom paused, glancing almost speculatively at him. ‘It occurs to me that there’s a way we could both, at one fell swoop, attend to our neglected family duties.’

‘And what, pray, is this singular thought?’

‘That you would marry Louisa.’

Kit gave an incredulous laugh. ‘You sound serious!’

‘I am.’ Tom was a little startled himself at the simplicity of the idea. ‘Yes, dammit, I
serious. Consider it for a moment, Kit. You have to marry to continue the family line; with an ancient title such as yours, it’s your particular duty. I should provide for Louisa’s future, as her brother it’s
particular duty. If you marry her, Kit, both problems are immediately solved.’

Kit was still incredulous. ‘Tom, this is quite preposterous. I think you must have had too much at the Prince of Wales, after all.’

‘I’m not in drink, Kit. Far from it, I’ve never felt more sober in my life. Look at her likeness. She’s everything you could want in a wife. Will you at least think about it?’

Kit drew a long breath. This was all quite unreal. ‘Tom—’ he began.

‘Please, Kit. At least consider it as a serious proposition.’

‘It’s progressed to a proposition?’

‘Yes. I’m in earnest about this. Will you consider it?’

After a moment Kit nodded. ‘All right.’

Tom smiled. ‘Thank you.’

‘I only said I’d think about it.’

‘That’s enough. Common sense will do the rest. By God, you’ve done me good, I feel hungry for the first time since I crossed Rowe. Where shall we eat?’

‘Where do you want to eat?’ Kit was still a little bemused.

‘I’m a dying man, I need a very hearty meal.’

‘That wasn’t very funny.’

‘No. Forgive me.’ Tom Iooked a little chastened and got up, draining his glass. ‘You hold the purse strings, Kit; my pockets are as empty as ever.’

‘Will Long’s do you?’

‘What a very foolish question, dear fellow; of course it will do. I’ve a fancy for deviled soles, and no one does them better.’

‘I won’t argue with that.’

Tom smiled a little. ‘You won’t argue with anything I’ve said, not when you’ve thought about it.’

‘Go to blazes,’ replied Kit amiably.

‘At dawn I very probably will.’ Tom went to take his top hat from the hook and then turned to look at him again. ‘You can thank your lucky stars you’re such a good shot, my friend, because when Rowe eventually finds out about you and Thea – and find out he will – you at least have the comfort of knowing he’ll think twice about calling you out.’

‘I suppose I might as well tell you. I doubt very much that he’ll be calling me out, because my affair with Thea is over.’

Tom stared at him. ‘Over? Why?’

‘I wanted more than she was prepared to offer. In short, I wanted her to leave him and become my wife.’

Tom drew a long breath, doubting very much that it was as definitely over as his friend claimed. ‘I won’t pretend I’m sorry. She was the wrong one for you, I’ve always thought it.’

‘And now you think your sister is the right one?’

‘Yes, more than Thea ever will be.’ Tom smiled again, tapping his hat on and then going out into the darkness.

Kit got up and picked up his own hat and gloves, pausing for a moment to look at Louisa’s little likeness again. The sweet face smiled enigmatically back at him, revealing nothing of the real woman.

Putting on his hat, he followed Tom outside. Behind him the clock began to strike ten.


t Lawrence Park the clocks were also striking ten. Louisa slipped down through the house to keep her appointment with Geoffrey. She avoided the servants and kept well clear of the card party taking place in the drawing room. The sound of laughter and conversation drifted behind her as she crossed the entrance hall and emerged into the darkness.

She paused at the top of the portico steps, looking down at the carriages drawn up before the house. The coachmen and postilions were standing together on the far side of the elegant vehicles, talking and playing dice out of sight of the drawing-room windows. No one noticed Louisa as she went stealthily down, keeping well out of the light of the lanterns that had been suspended between the portico columns.

The night air felt cool as she crossed toward the grounds and the path leading down to the summerhouse and the river. Her white muslin gown was a little too light and flimsy, and she drew her shawl closer. But it wasn’t really the temperature that was making her feel cold, it was her deep doubts concerning the wisdom of meeting Geoffrey Lawrence like this.

She halted for a moment by the parterre, looking back at the drawing-room windows where she could see the card party. The gentlemen were distinguished in full evening dress, and the ladies wore silk and jewels, with plumes in their hair. Their reflections moved in the immense gilt-framed mirrors on the rose damask walls, and the chandeliers glittered in the warm air.

Turning, she looked down toward the summerhouse, outlined against the river. All day she’d been filled with misgivings about this meeting, but each time common sense nearly prevailed, her conscience had reminded her of Geoffrey’s words that morning: ‘I behaved monstrously toward you last night, and I’m thoroughly ashamed of the fact.… Can you forgive me, Miss Cherington?… I want to redeem myself in your eyes…. I promise on my honor to behave like a gentleman…. You’re condemning me out of hand, and what could be more unfair than that? You mustn’t deny me the chance to prove that I’m truly repentant….’ She’d disliked him from the moment he’d returned to the house; she still disliked him, but her sense of justice decreed that she kept this appointment. Slowly she walked on, passing the croquet lawn and approaching the summerhouse.

She’d almost reached it before she saw him. He was standing at the top of the river steps, keeping the little summerhouse between him and the house. Smoke curled from his Spanish cigar as he gazed at the

For a moment her nerve almost failed her. Memories of his conduct the previous night came rushing back, and her steps faltered, but then he seemed to sense that she was there, turning quickly to look directly at her.

He dropped the cigar and crushed it with his heel. ‘Good evening, Miss Cherington.’

She didn’t go any closer. ‘G-good evening, sir.’ The doubts were suddenly stronger than ever. Oh, why hadn’t she stayed in the house? Why had she been such a fool as to come out here in the dark? She swallowed nervously, casting around for something innocuous to say. A little self-consciously she nodded toward the cutter: ‘Will you really have to sell her?’

‘Yes. The old boy’s sticking to his guns this time. No more funds for wicked gamblers. I think I’ve solved the problem, though. I’ve thought of the very man to approach about buying her.’

‘You have?’

‘Lord Rowe. He lost his yacht in the spring and needs another.’ He smiled inwardly, guessing her thoughts. She’d come here against her better judgment. Now she was nervous, anxious to talk about anything that might deflect him from some ulterior purpose. How lovely she was, so fragile and soft – so alluring in her innocence.

She detected the warmth in his glance and looked a little uncomfortably back toward the house. ‘Won’t you be missed from the card party?’

‘Most probably, but I’m not a child to be confined under strict orders.’ He paused, gauging her. ‘I’m glad you came,’ he said softly.

‘I shouldn’t have.’

‘Yes, you should. Shall we sit down?’ He indicated the summerhouse.

It was too dark in there, and far too private. She shook her head. ‘I’m sure that what you wish to say can be said out here.’

Annoyance flitted through him, but he didn’t reveal it outwardly. ‘As you wish.’

‘If I’m perfectly honest with you, sir, I don’t think there’s anything to be gained from this meeting. I have accepted your apology about last night, and I believe that that ends the matter.’

‘But I wish to know you better, Miss Cherington.’

‘I’m a governess, sir, and you are my employer’s son and heir, which means that there’s absolutely no point in getting to know each other better. Besides …’ She broke off, decidedly against what she’d been about to say.



‘Please say what you were about to, Miss Cherington.’

She colored a little in the darkness. ‘I was going to say that there was also no point because I don’t want to know you any better.’

For a second his outward air of calm friendliness was breeched, allowing the real Geoffrey Lawrence to gaze coldly out from his brown eyes, but then he dissembled again with a smile. ‘You cannot mean that, Miss Cherington. If you do, why on earth have you come here tonight?’

‘Because it is as you said, I owe you the courtesy of a hearing.’

There was an aloofness about her that told him she meant every word. She was immune to his charm and indifferent to any soft words he might choose to employ. If he wanted to possess her – and he did – then he’d have to force her. But first she must be lulled into a false sense of security, so that even if she didn’t find him irresistible, she did at least trust him to conduct himself correctly.

He smiled again, looking toward the
. ‘I’ll be very sorry to see her go, but maybe if I choose my words carefully, I’ll be able to persuade Rowe to invite me to Cowes with him. I’d dearly like to see the race between Highclare and Grantham, it’s all the talk. I was entertaining hopes of taking Highclare on myself with the
, but that’s not to be now.’

‘Lord Rowe hasn’t bought her yet,’ she replied, relieved that he’d apparently accepted what she’d said.

‘He will, I’m sure of it.’ He pretended to admire the cutter. ‘What do you think of her figurehead, Miss Cherington?’

‘Figurehead?’ She glanced at the vessel’s sleek prow. She thought the carved cyclops very ugly indeed, but could hardly say so. ‘It – it’s very handsome.’

‘And very clever, don’t you think?’

‘Clever? I don’t understand.’

‘Haven’t you noticed? No, evidently you haven’t, or you’d know straightaway what I was talking about. Come here, and I’ll show you.’

He smiled reassuringly. ‘Don’t be nervous, I won’t bite you.’ Slowly she went closer, but not too close.

‘I doubt if you’ll see even from there,’ he said, pointing toward the figurehead. ‘It’s the cyclops’ eye. Can you see?’

She shook her head. ‘No. What is there to see?’

He laughed a little and with seeming innocence moved over to her, gently taking her arm and pointing again. Then he shook his head. ‘No, you still can’t see, you’ll have to step over here.’ He maneuvered her to where he wanted, so that the summerhouse stood between them and the house.

She was very aware of his hand holding her arm, and aware that he stood very close to her. Too close. Distrust rose sharply in her, and her breath caught as she glanced up and suddenly saw the truth written large upon his handsome face.

What a fool she’d been! Panic almost seized her, but with a superhuman effort she remained calm. He mustn’t guess that she’d seen through him – he must be made to believe she felt at ease with him – but her heart was pounding almost unbearably and she knew she was totally defenseless. He had her at his mercy.

He didn’t know he’d alerted her. ‘Now can you see the figurehead’s eye, Miss Cherington?’ he inquired reasonably. ‘From wherever you look at it, it seems to be staring directly at you. Can you see?’

‘Y-yes,’ she replied, trying to quell the tremble in her voice. ‘You’re right, Captain Lawrence, it is indeed very clever.’

At that moment, to her immense relief, a new sound broke the silence of the night: the sound of voices and laughter as the card party emerged from the house to indulge in the amusing diversion of playing croquet by lantern light.

Geoffrey gave a low curse, whipping around as the party came into view beyond the summerhouse, their lanterns bobbing. The ladies’ jewels winked and flashed in the moving light, and there was a great deal of hilarity as they discussed what forfeits should be paid for losing.

Louisa didn’t need bidding; the moment his attention was diverted she wrenched herself free and gathered her skirts to fly toward the shelter afforded by some shrubs on the far side of the croquet lawn. She knew he wouldn’t dare pursue her, not when his parents and their guests were so nearby, and her only thought was to reach the safety of house.

Geoffrey could only watch her flee. For a moment his thwarted desire made him savage. God damn her, she’d been within his grasp but was free yet again without his thirst being slaked. He’d been too sure of himself and he’d misjudged her. Bitter fury darkened his eyes and made his lips a thin, cold line. He wasn’t used to being denied, especially not by a woman he regarded as little better than a servant.

Taking a deep breath to try to regain his calm, he took another cigar and lit it, watching the party on the croquet lawn. He’d promised himself success with the governess before he left for London in the morning, but now there was no hope of that; she’d seen through him once and for all. Suddenly the thought of remaining at Lawrence Park tonight wasn’t to be tolerated. He wasn’t in the mood to be amiable to his father’s guests, and he certainly wasn’t in the mood to endure Anne’s clinging jealousy. The cigar smoke curled into the night air. He’d leave for London straightaway and amuse himself at a certain house of ill repute in Covent Garden, where there was a golden-haired demimondaine whose charms would placate him for the disappointment with the governess; and after his business in town tomorrow, he’d return by way of the Green Dragon Inn in Brentford, where one of the plump serving girls could be relied upon for a night of pleasure. Drawing on the cigar, he began to walk toward the croquet lawn to tell his father of his change of plan.

Anne watched him approaching. The diamonds in her hair flashed in the lantern light, and the sequins shimmered on her mauve silk gown. An elegant feather boa was draped idly over her arms, and she toyed with her closed fan. Her face was very still, her eyes bright with jealousy. She’d seen Louisa fleeing from the summerhouse, and now she knew that Geoffrey had been with her. She’d feared his interest in the governess for some time; now she knew beyond a doubt that she’d been right. The jealousy intensified, burning through her like a flame. Louisa Cherington had to go, and the sooner the better.

Geoffrey sensed nothing as he approached his father, who turned irritably. ‘Geoffrey, where the devil have you been?’

‘I merely took a stroll.’

‘I’d appreciate it if in future you informed me of your whereabouts. I dislike having to make excuses when my guests ask after you.’

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t think.’

‘You seldom do,’ retorted his father caustically.

‘Well, it so happens that I’ve been thinking tonight, about my appointment in the morning. It occurs to me that I might be cutting it a little fine by leaving after breakfast, and that it might be wiser to go to town tonight. It wouldn’t do to be late for Lord Palmerston and the War Office. I can stay at Long’s, or at the club.’ He smiled a little blandly.

‘Very well, leave tonight if you wish.’

‘Thank you. I’ll bid you good night, then.’

‘Good night.’ Sir Ashley returned his attention to the croquet.

Geoffrey walked quickly away toward the house, and Anne could only watch. To hurry after him now would look questionable, especially as it was almost her turn to play. The jealousy still consumed her. Where was he going? To the governess’s room? Was he going to be that blatant?

After a while she heard hooves and looked toward the stable in time to see his curricle being led out. Her lips parted. He was leaving the house tonight! That at least meant he couldn’t be with the governess. As she watched, the groom halted the light vehicle before the house, and then Geoffrey emerged, dressed for traveling. He vaulted easily into the curricle and took up the reins. A moment later he was driving swiftly away toward the lodge and the London road; before he reached the capital, he’d pass through Kensington, where unknown to him, the duel was to take place at dawn.

It was some time before the party broke up and Anne was at liberty to inquire about his plans. She didn’t ask her husband; she went directly to the man who’d have been told the absolute truth – the butler. Geoffrey would have left precise word with him about his whereabouts, in case of an emergency; he’d only have told his father what he wanted him to know.

She found the butler in the drawing room, supervising the clearing away of the supper tables. ‘Ah, there you are,’ she said lightly, waving the other servants away. ‘Sir Ashley and I have been left rather in the dark as to Captain Lawrence’s plans. Where exactly will he be tonight?’

He colored a little, not wanting to divulge the truth.

‘I’m waiting,’ she said, her fan tapping impatiently.

‘He’ll be at – at …’

‘Yes?’ She raised a cold eyebrow.

He capitulated. ‘He’ll be at an, er, establishment in Covent Garden tonight, my lady, Jerry’s Coffee House, and tomorrow he’ll be at his club or keeping an appointment with Lord Palmerston at the Horse Guards. He intends to spend tomorrow night at the Green Dragon in Brentford.’

She said nothing, turning abruptly on her heel and walking away, her skirt rustling. So, he’d be in Brentford, would he? What a coincidence that it was in Brentford that the wretched governess had wanted to meet her brother. Her
indeed! No doubt she hoped to be able to sneak away from her duties, after all, so that she could join him there and spend a cozy night
à deux!

BOOK: A Matter of Duty
10.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

THE SANCTUARY by Cassandra R. Siddons
fml by Shaun David Hutchinson
Finding Home by Ann Vaughn
Hungry Eyes by Celeste Anwar
Children of Tomorrow by A. E. van Vogt
Dark Awakening by Kendra Leigh Castle
Dream Keeper by Gail McFarland
A Colt for the Kid by John Saunders