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Authors: Karla Darcy

Tags: #Romance, #Historical

The Five Kisses (6 page)

BOOK: The Five Kisses
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For a long time Gillian sat behind the potted palms until she was able to rejoin the party. When she said her goodnights, she schooled her expression so that Nelda would never know that her secret had been discovered. Only in the security of her darkened bedroom did Gillian shed a tear with the knowledge that she might lose Nelda’s friendship when she married Robbie.

The next morning she slept late, talking little at the breakfast table. By late afternoon she was totally out of sorts. She read for a while and finally began to work on a new stitch for her sampler under Penny’s critical eye. She did not have much enthusiasm for the work so she was delighted when she heard the sound of a carriage arriving. From the window she watched as a hackney, horses lathered from an extensive trip, stopped at their door. Her father let in the visitor and led him down the hall toward the library. After a few minutes, her father returned and opened the doors of the drawing room.

“Begging your pardon, Miss Pennington,” Ethan said. “There is a gentleman here to see you.”

He crossed the carpet and presented her with a calling card. She took it gingerly in her long fingers, tilting it toward the light. By the blankness of her expression it was apparent she did not recognize the name.

“Eldridge Thackery is a solicitor,” Ethan explained. “He has come from London expressly to see you on a matter of business.”

For the first time since Gillian had known Penny, the older woman appeared flustered. “What do you suppose it is about?”

Ethan smiled. “Mr. Thackery is a very proper gentleman and refused to give me any hint of the intelligence he wishes to impart. No matter what the information however, I feel certain you will be able to deal with it. You are a woman with more sense than most men I know.”

Penny blinked at the enthusiastic compliment of her employer. Her mouth twitched in amusement and her confident manner returned. “Thank you, Professor Foster.”

“I have left Mr. Thackery in the library,” he said, escorting the governess to the foyer. “If I can be of any service I will be here, trying to keep Gillian from listening at the door.”

“Papa!” Gillian cried, glaring at him in reproach.

“No need to look at me so, poppet,” he said, winking at her. “We will hear Miss Pennington’s news in good time.”

Although Ethan feigned indifference, Gillian noticed that he never turned the pages of the book he was reading. She held her sampler but her mind was occupied with so much curiosity that she could not concentrate enough to sew. For almost five years, Penny had received no mail or visitors; she had never gone away to visit anyone. It was as if the woman had no family or past life. What did the arrival of the solicitor signify?

It was an age before, the library door opened. Footsteps sounded down the hall and Gillian caught a glimpse of a dapper little man who gravely shook Penny’s hand before he left the house. When the older woman turned toward the drawing room, her face was so pale that Gillian cried out.

“Quickly, Papa, some brandy.”

Gillian helped Penny to a seat by the fire, rubbing her cold hands until Ethan returned with a decanter and glasses. He poured the liquor, handing one to the governess and raising another to his own lips. Penny took a sip of the amber liquid. She gasped for breath but the color returned to her cheeks.

“Well done,” she said. “That was just what I needed.”

“Was it dreadful news?” Gillian asked.

“In actual fact, no.” Penny shook her head as if she were having trouble coming to term with the information she had just received. “Mr. Thackery informed me that a relative I did not know has died and left me a veritable fortune.”

“Never say!” Gillian cried.

“What excellent news, Miss Pennington,” Ethan said. He raised his glass in a salute.

“Mr. Thackery was my great aunt’s solicitor. He is a dash older than I and at first acquaintance appears to be totally devoid of humor. I do not know how well we shall deal together since my every comment appeared to offend him. He was clearly expecting tears not laughter at such good fortune.”

“What now, Miss Pennington?”

“The worthy solicitor has informed me that I have inherited an estate called Fieldings in some quiet village two days from here.” Her imperturbable tone could not hide the fact that Penny was very well pleased.

“You will be leaving us?” Gillian wailed. She was ashamed of the tears that filled her eyes at the thought of her friend and companion’s departure. “Oh, Penny, what a selfish beast I am! Please know that I am thrilled for you but I am desolated at the thought of how much I will miss you.”

Miss Pennington opened her arms and Gillian did not hesitate to accept the embrace. Over the last five years a loving relationship had been forged between the two of them. They cried for the imminence of their parting and the possible loss of this friendship. Even Ethan had to clear his throat several times before he could congratulate Miss Pennington anew on her good fortune. Eventually order was restored.

“Now, Gillian, knowing what a lively imagination you have, I fear this revelation will come as a bitter disappointment. There was nothing dramatic, sad or mysterious about my becoming a governess.” Penny smiled at the chagrined expression on her pupil’s face. “For years you have speculated over the romantic disasters that might have forced me into such a life. The reality of it is that I like children and I always wanted to be a teacher. When my parents died, I had no responsibilities except to myself. I decided to go out as a governess and see how I liked it. You and your father made my first post very enjoyable indeed.”

Gillian was so fond of Penny that she was delighted to learn that her friend had not become a governess out of unhappiness. She had imagined such dire scenarios in her younger days that the very conventionality of Miss Pennington’s wanting to be a teacher would have been a dreadful let down.

Penny took another sip of brandy and continued speaking. “All my life I have dreamed of opening a school but of course I did not have the resources. Now I do. I am going to see if my new estate would be suitable for such a venture. If not, I will sell it and find something that is. The redoubtable Mr. Thackery will return to escort me to Fieldings. I know it is dreadfully short notice but I would like to leave in three days’ time.”

“So soon?” Gillian cried, tears threatening once more.

“If I were needed I would remain, but you have no need of a governess. And if I am correct in my assumptions, very soon after Robbie returns, you will not have any need of my services. At my age, child, there are not endless years ahead.”

Once it was decided that Miss Pennington would be leaving, there were endless details to consider. The next day sped by in a flurry of activity but by teatime of the second day, the frenzy had abated.

“How is your packing coming, Miss Pennington?” Ethan asked as he took a sip of tea.

“Most of my boxes are filled. It is strange how much one can accumulate in five years. I trust Mr. Thackery will have enough room for my things. He is already put out at my lack of propriety.” She rolled her gray eyes in amusement. “He was most horrified when he discovered I would not be accompanied by an abigail. We will be two days on the road. I think he fears his reputation will be in tatters.”

Both Gillian and Ethan burst into laughter.

“He could always bring his valet along for protection,” Gillian suggested.

“Speaking of valets,” Ethan said, “I ran into Chad’s man Royce in the village. He told me the earl arrived at first light.”

“Chad is home?” Gillian asked in surprise. “Why ever has he returned so close to Christmas? What do you think it means? Did he bring Lady Chesterley?”

“So many questions. I only wish I had the answers.” Ethan’s hand hovered over the pastries, trying to choose between the plum and the cherry filling. He decided on the plum, took a bite and chewed with deliberation. His eyes twinkled at the impatience written clearly on his daughter’s face. Patting his mouth with the linen napkin, he took a sip of tea before continuing. “All I know is that the earl came alone save for Royce. Though Chad’s man was loathe to be caught gossiping, he did confide the fact that the trip was quite sudden. He also stated that Chad’s fiancée would not be joining him. On my return from the village, I left my card at Maynard Hall with a note bidding him welcome.”

“Do you think Chad will call, Penny?” Gillian asked wistfully.

The older woman glanced across at Ethan, seeing in his compassionate gaze a confirmation of her own suspicions. She sighed and patted Gillian’s hand. “I don’t know,” she said. “We don’t even know what has brought him home, quite unannounced. For the moment, you need something to occupy your time, young lady. There are books to be packed and some notes to be written, if you have a mind to help me.”

“Of course, I will.”

Gillian’s voice was less than enthusiastic but Penny pretended not to notice. “Excellent. After all, I would not want to keep the proper Mr. Thackery waiting. It is too bad that we will be gone before Robbie returns from London. That young man would find much enjoyment in meeting the little solicitor, would he not?”

Thus reminded of her suitor’s impending arrival, depression settled around Gillian. She had spent the time while Robbie was away trying to decide what answer to give him. She had even gone so far as to list his virtues and his failings on a sheet of paper. The fact that his good points far outweighed the bad could be taken as a positive sign. Each night before she went to sleep, she reviewed her findings and made a decision. Unfortunately, it was never the same answer two days in a row.

Perhaps Penny was right. If she kept busy she would have less time to worry. With the firm resolution to banish all troubling thoughts from her mind, she rose to help clear away the tea things.

It seemed to Gillian that she did not have a moment of free time until she was ready for bed. Penny had kept her running most of the evening and even her father had chores for her to do. She shivered as she slipped the linen night rail over her head. It was cold in the room but she opened the draperies so that she could watch the falling snow, the flakes a sharp white in contrast to the blackness of the night sky. Standing in front of the window, she glimpsed the lights of Maynard, visible through the leafless trees.

Why had Chad come home?

She snuggled under the comforter, and as the warmth seeped into her body, she dozed, drifting in and out of a dream where she accepted Robbie’s offer of marriage. The wedding was in the drawing room. Her father leaned against the mantelpiece, smiling proudly. Her bride dress was beautiful and she twirled to show off the lace medallions on the skirt. She raised her head but above the bride’s dress it was Nelda’s blue eyes and golden curls that wavered and melted into the darkness.

Gillian came awake with a start. Her mind was fuzzy, still caught on the edge of the troubling dream, not yet fully returned to the reality of the moonlit bedroom. Something hit the window with a sharp ping and she jerked upright. For a moment she heard nothing and then it happened again. Identifying the sound, she was not afraid. Someone was throwing stones at the window.

In a twinkling she was out of bed and across the room. She rubbed at the frost coating the glass until she had cleared a small patch. The snow had stopped and she could see a man, dark against the whiteness of the ground. She unlatched the window, sucking in her breath at the icy blast of wind. The figure moved and she recognized Chad.

“I’m coming,” she whispered.

She closed the window, clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering. She slipped her arms into her dressing gown but did not take time to locate her slippers. Quietly she slipped out of her room, gliding soundlessly past her father’s door. She wondered what time it was and, as if in answer to her question, the clock in the drawing room chimed two.

Guided by the light from the upstairs hall window, she found the walnut handrail and followed it downward into the darkness of the foyer. Sliding back the bolt, she pulled open the heavy front door. Chad eased over the threshold and then helped her close the door. They tiptoed into the drawing room and closed the pocket panels so they would not disturb the rest of the household.

Without a word Chad handed Gillian into the overstuffed chair close to the hearth. She curled her feet close to her body and tucked the dressing gown around her for additional warmth. Noting the shivers that shook her body, Chad reached for the poker and stirred up the banked fire. He placed a small log on the embers, kneeling down to blow it into life. In the flickering glow, his face was all light and shadow, almost haggard. His eyes, hidden in dark pockets, gave him an air of menace that would have frightened Gillian if she did not know him so well.

“I probably shouldn’t have come,” he said.

“I’m glad you did.”

There was something wrong. She heard a whisper of pain in the deep rumble of his voice. If they had still been children she would have asked what troubled him but he was a man now and there was distance between them. They had lost their ease of communication.

He was twenty-three, she thought with some amazement. His life was in London now and in the last five years she had not seen much of him. She wished the light were better so that she could see him more clearly. From what she could tell he was very tall and well proportioned. He had lost the soft prettiness of his youth. His face was unlined and there was an elegance and refinement of features that marked him as an aristocrat.

“Tomorrow…. Or, more properly, today,” he amended as he glanced ruefully at the clock, “I will be leaving.”

“Back to London?”

There was the slightest hesitation before he answered. “Yes. And from there I cannot say. I have bought a commission.”

“I see,” she said, although she was shocked at his words.

“Have you no questions?” He crossed to her chair, glaring down at her. His face was harshly shadowed and there was an air of controlled violence in his stiffly held body. “Where is your facile tongue? Is there nothing you would ask?”

“No,” she answered. His tone was cutting but she did not flinch, keeping her eyes steady on his face. She wanted so much to ease the hurt that was so clearly manifest in his voice. “Would it help to tell me?”

BOOK: The Five Kisses
7.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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