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Authors: Sandra Heath

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BOOK: A Matter of Duty
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‘There’s something I must know before I answer you, Lord Highclare.’


‘Will I encounter the woman you wanted first?’

‘You’re bound to.’

‘Where is she now?’

‘Attending the regatta at Cowes.’

‘Does she know about me?’

‘How can she? I didn’t know about you myself until a short while ago.’

‘Did you love her very much?’


She lowered her eyes. ‘Then I must ask if she’s really in the past, Lord Highclare.’

He hesitated. ‘Yes, she is.’

‘You don’t seem very sure, sir.’

‘I’m sure.’ But was he? In his heart of hearts he really didn’t know, for how could it be possible to be completely over someone in so short a time? Especially someone like Thea.

She looked down at Tom’s letter, now rather crumpled in her hand. ‘Lord Highclare, we’ve talked of your duty, and of my brother’s, but perhaps we should also mention mine.’


‘To Tom. He wanted me to marry you, and he wouldn’t have urged me to do so unless he thought it was the right thing. I loved him very much, and if it was his duty to do right by me, then it’s also mine to do as he wished.’ For a moment he thought her tears would overwhelm her again, but after a moment she continued. ‘He said that our marriage would mean that he could rest in peace, Lord Highclare, and so I will accept you.’

‘You do me a great honor, Miss Cherington.’

‘We’re strangers, sir. We’re to be man and wife, but we’re strangers.’

‘Time will rectify that.’

‘But will time also make us regret our actions?’

He smiled. ‘I don’t think so. Now, then, are you ready to face your former employers?’

‘I – I think so.’

‘If you need to compose yourself …’

‘I’m ready.’

He drew her hand over his arm. Her fingers were cold and they trembled a little. He left his own hand gently over hers. It was a comforting gesture, and was all he felt able to do. She was right: they were strangers.


little later, as Kit conveyed Louisa to London and her astonishing new life, the atmosphere they left behind at Lawrence Park was stunned, to say the least.

Sir Ashley was appalled that he’d been persuaded to so summarily dismiss the future Countess of Redway, and he blamed Anne for having forced it upon him with her constant importuning. He didn’t give his own weakness a second thought; he put it all down to her. He was acutely embarrassed at the thought of the stories that might soon circulate in London, for he was sure that Louisa would use her new position to paint a dark picture of her former employers. And why shouldn’t she? She been dealt with very unfairly. She’d been told to leave immediately without a reference, and she’d been blamed for Emma’s misconduct, misconduct that, if he were honest with himself, was really Anne’s fault.

Maybe there wasn’t much Sir Ashley could do to stop Louisa saying what she wanted, but at least he could deny her the opportunity of spreading monstrous tales of little Emma’s banishment to school. His daughter would remain at Lawrence Park, where she belonged, and there wasn’t anything Anne could do about it. Informing his furious wife of his decision, he retreated to the safety and privacy of his rooms, where he reflected that life had been very fraught ever since his second marriage. Standing by the window, gazing out at the rainswept park, he dwelt wistfully upon the calmer, more pleasant days of his widowerhood.

Anne was in a rage about everything. Nothing had gone as she wished, nothing at all! First there’d been Geoffrey, and now this. Not only was Emma to stay, after all, but Ashley had had the temerity to stand up to the wife he’d never denied anything before. And last, but certainly not least, the governess hadn’t been reduced to penury, after all; she’d instead somehow emerged with the prospect of one of the most enviable matches imaginable! Louisa Cherington had presumptuously reached out of her station toward Geoffrey, but she hadn’t been punished for her impudence; instead, she’d been rewarded with the infinitely more glittering prize of Lord Highclare. Anne’s jealous frustration was boundless, as was her capacity for malevolent spite, and just as she’d sworn to play a waiting game if necessary in order to have her revenge on Geoffrey, so she now promised the same for Louisa.

Up in her bedroom, Emma wept hot tears in her pillow. She was immeasurably relieved that she’d wasn’t to be sent away to Kensington, after all, but she was heartbroken that her beloved Cherry had gone away forever and hadn’t even been permitted to say good-bye properly. There’d never been another governess as loving, sweet, kind, and thoughtful as Cherry,

Geoffrey returned to the house to find the astonishing news waiting for him. At first he was dumbfounded. Louisa Cherington was soon to become Lady Highclare? It simply wasn’t possible. But he’d soon had to accept that it was true, and with that acceptance had come an initial savagery that his prey had eluded him. Then the savagery had gone, to be replaced by his former burning anticipation, for he could pursue the governess when her new husband took her to the Isle of Wight. A new life wouldn’t be the only thing she’d find there; her old life would be swift on her heels. He smiled to himself. He’d possess her yet; she wasn’t going to escape that easily.

Kit’s carriage bowled along the London road, passing through Brentford and then approaching Kensington. Louisa’s thoughts returned fleetingly to Lawrence Park. She wouldn’t miss anything about it, except Emma. She wished she’d been allowed to see the child before she’d left, but permission had been very firmly refused. Lady Lawrence had suffered too many setbacks to be in any mood to change her mind about that as well.

Staring out at the passing countryside, Louisa determinedly pushed all thoughts of Tom to the back of her mind. She didn’t dare think about him, for, if she did, then she would give in to the tears that she’d been keeping barely in check. She’d never been one to show her emotions in front of strangers, it was alien to her; this man was a stranger. She couldn’t succumb to her awful grief just yet. Not just yet.

Forcing memories of her brother to the recesses of her mind, she glanced at Kit. What was he really like? She knew nothing of his character or temper, but outwardly he was breathtakingly handsome, at once rugged and manly, and yet refined and elegant. There was something very nordic about his sunburnt complexion, blond hair, and vivid blue eyes, but he was an English aristocrat to his fingertips. There was immense strength in his firm chin and finely chiseled mouth, and as he lounged on the seat opposite, she was very aware of his athletic grace. He was dressed impeccably in clothes that were the very best London could provide, and he wore them with dashing style. But what was he really like behind all that perfection?

She looked away. He was a brilliant catch, and society was going to be very shocked indeed when it learned that he was going to take such a very unlikely bride. Not only that, it would be much intrigued that the wedding was to take place so very quickly. There was bound to be considerable speculation as to whether the bridal pair had anticipated their vows. She was going to be notorious, and every time they looked at her, they wouldn’t see Lady Highclare, they’d see a governess. She felt suddenly very alone and vulnerable, for this marriage was going to be based solely on duty. What if Kit should suddenly wish he hadn’t observed that duty? What if he wished to resume his affair with his former love? And what if that lady would suddenly become free?

Unknown to her, Kit was secretly observing her as well. His first impression still lingered, for she was a book with a most enchanting cover, but if he turned the pages, what would he really find? Was she as absolutely innocent as she seemed? Geoffrey Lawrence was a handsome man, with a reputation as a lover, and if he cast his amorous eyes in her direction, would she really have completely resisted such an accomplished admirer? Wouldn’t she, as a penniless governess, have been flattered by his attentions? Faced now with a direct question about Lawrence, could she with complete honesty say she’d never welcomed his advances? The question hung on his lips for a long moment, but as he looked at her demure profile, so sweet and pure, his doubts died away again. It was impossible to think ill of her.

The carriage drove on, passing through the outskirts of London, where Hyde Park was bathed in sunshine as the clouds sped by, leaving blue skies in their wake. The elegance of Mayfair surrounded them as at last they entered Grosvenor Square, drawing to a standstill before Kit’s fine town house in the corner.

Louisa waited nervously as he alighted and then held out his hand to her. Hesitantly she accepted, her skirt whispering as she stepped down to the sunny pavement. She glanced around. In the center of the square there was an oval railed garden covering at least six acres, and in its middle there was a gilded equestrian statue of George the First as a Roman emperor. There were trees, shrubs, and flower beds, and a spaciousness that was most appropriate for this most-sought-after part of Mayfair.

She turned to look at the house then, taking in the handsome red brick facade and pedimented doorway. It was very beautiful, but very intimidating. She’d known a life of comfort at Cherington Court, but that life seemed very far away now, and the thought of being mistress of a London property of such exclusivity was very daunting. She froze for a moment. The sounds of Mayfair drifted over her, from the clatter of hooves and rattle of fine carriages, to the calls of a pretty flower girl on the corner of Duke Street. A laughing group of ladies and gentlemen emerged from a house opposite, paying little attention to the carriage outside Lord Highclare’s residence as they entered a waiting landau and drove smartly away.

Kit sensed her trepidation. ‘Whenever you’re ready …’

‘I’m ready now.’

He still held her hand, drawing it gently over his sleeve. They proceeded toward the door, which opened as if by magic as the watchful butler anticipated their steps precisely. He was very like the butler at Lawrence Park, boasting the same full-skirted, light-brown coat and beige silk breeches. His thin face was dominated by a large nose, and his hair, whatever color it may have been, was hidden beneath a white powdered wig. He was so well disciplined that if he was surprised to see an unknown lady entering with his master, he gave no sign of it whatsoever. ‘Good morning, my lord. Madam.’

Kit led her into the hall, removing his top hat and gloves and handing them to the man. ‘Good morning, Miller. I trust all’s well?’

‘It is, sir. The Marquess of Hertford called, and so did the Earl of Eldon. There is also a note from Devonshire House inviting you to be a guest there next month.’

‘Very well, I’ll attend to it all in due course.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Miller, perhaps it’s best to inform you straightaway that my situation, and therefore the situation of this house, is about to change considerably. This is Miss Cherington, and she is very shortly to become my wife.’

The butler’s great experience hadn’t prepared him for such a bold announcement. His jaw dropped and he gaped at Louisa for a moment, before recovering his customary serenity. ‘May I offer you my congratulations, sir. Madam.’

Kit nodded. ‘She is to reside here until the wedding, which will take place very shortly, and I therefore wish the main guest room to be made ready immediately. And would you have, er, Pattie, come here straight away?’

‘Yes, sir.’ The shaken butler bowed and withdrew.

Louisa had been glancing around the entrance hall. It had very pale ice-green walls, with little white niches containing statuettes of Greek gods and goddesses, and the doors opening off it had surrounds of particularly decorative gilded plasterwork. The floor was black-and-gray-tiled, and the staircase rising from the far end was of black marble, with a graceful, gleaming handrail. Glittering chandeliers were suspended from the high ceiling, and shining, gilt-framed mirrors adorned the walls above the white marble fireplace and the solid console tables. She glanced at her reflection in one of the mirrors. She looked so pale and drawn. It was like looking at herself in a dream.

Light footsteps approached from the kitchens, which lay beyond the staircase. A neat maid came quickly toward them. She was dressed in a gray seersucker dress, with a white apron and muslin mobcap, and she had fair hair and a round-cheeked face with bright, hazel eyes. The butler had evidently broken the news about the sudden advent of a future Lady Highclare, for as she bobbed a respectful curtsy, the maid’s glance moved curiously toward Louisa. ‘My lord. Madam.’

Kit looked at her. ‘Pattie, I seem to recall that you were once a lady’s maid.’

‘I attended Mrs Hancock of Oxford when her maid was indisposed, sir, but I wasn’t exactly a lady’s maid.’

‘But you know how to go on?’

‘Oh, yes, sir.’

He glanced at Louisa. ‘Will she suit to be your maid?’

‘Yes, of course.’

The maid’s eyes lit up at such unexpected promotion. ‘Oh, thank you, madam.’

Kit surveyed her a little sternly. ‘Being a lady’s maid requires discretion at all times, Pattie. See that you remember it.’

‘I will, sir.’

Kit returned his attention to Louisa. ‘Forgive me if what I’m about to say sounds a little blunt, but I take it the rest of your wardrobe is like the clothes you’re wearing now?’

She flushed self-consciously. ‘Yes, sir. A governess can hardly expect to keep up with Mayfair.’

Pattie stared. A governess?

Kit smiled a little. ‘I realize that a governess is hardly a person of means, but Lady Highclare most certainly is, and will accordingly be expected to dress in the very latest modes. I’ll send for Madame Coty immediately, instructing her to bring with her any items that may recently have been left on her hands. Unpaid bills frequently mean undelivered goods. The dressmaker will also be useful when it comes to putting word around about our match. She can be told exactly what we wish her to be told and thus determine what story goes the rounds.’

Louisa was silent. Madame Coty was the most sought-after couturière in England, and not even when at Cherington Court had she ever dreamed of possessing a wardrobe by her; only the cream of society aspired to Madame Coty, and the Cheringtons, respectable and well-off as they’d been, had never been the cream of society.

Her unexpected silence concerned him a little. ‘If Madame Coty isn’t acceptable …’

‘She’s very acceptable indeed, sir.’

‘Good. I’ll mention in the note that the funeral is the day after tomorrow and that if she has anything that might do, she’s to be sure to bring it.’

The funeral. It sounded so very final. She looked quickly away, biting her lip.

He found her determined composure a little disconcerting. She was obviously devastated by grief, and yet apart from the first moments, she’d controlled her tears. He couldn’t help but compare her with Thea, whose tears would by now have been a veritable flood and whose lack of composure would have been audible all through the house. Thea had always indulged to the full in theatricals, picturing herself as a dramatic heroine; Louisa Cherington was evidently cast in a much more subtle mold. He touched her arm. ‘If you’ll go with Pattie now, she’ll show you to the main guest room. Luncheon will be served in’ – he glanced at his fob watch – ‘about half an hour in the dining room. You may join me if you wish, or you can have something served to you in your room if you’d prefer.’

‘I’ll join you.’

She followed the maid up the staircase. The main guest room was at the front of the house, on the second floor overlooking the square. It was a fine room, exquisitely decorated and furnished. Its walls were paneled alternately with pink floral Chinese silk and tall mirrors, and its ceiling was coffered in pink and gold. The magnificent French four-poster bed was draped with golden silk, tasseled and fringed, and on the floor there was a specially woven Wilton carpet that matched the ceiling design exactly. There were elegant chairs and a sofa, and a dressing table laden with little porcelain dishes and pots. The wardrobes were cunningly concealed in the walls; their doors formed by the Chinese silk and mirrored panels, and so the room seemed very spacious and uncluttered. The fireplace had beautiful ormolu decorations, and on the mantelpiece there was an ornate gilded clock supported by plump cherubs, and some graceful silver-gilt candlesticks.

BOOK: A Matter of Duty
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