A Very Unusual Governess
A Very Unusual Governess
Miss Petrie was far from dull.
Edward Barraclough was not quite sure why. She dressed quietly enough, with no attempt to attract. If he had not seen those honey-gold curls that had tumbled about her shoulders at their first meeting he would never have known they existed. Miss Petrie wore her hair in a firmly disciplined knot, or even under a cap. She was not particularly tall, and her figure, from what he had seen of it, was slight. Apart from her forget-me-not-blue eyes, he would not have said there was anything interesting or attractive about her.
But Miss Petrie wasn’t dull. She was quick-witted and amusing. And there was something about that small figure…Her carriage was graceful, her manner unassuming, but Miss Petrie was neither humble nor respectful, not underneath.
Edward Barraclough was intrigued. Perhaps he should spend more of the time he was forced to spend at Wychford in getting to know his nieces’ governess!
A Very Unusual Governess
Available from Harlequin®Historical and SYLVIA ANDREW
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A VERY UNUSUAL GOVERNESS SYLVIA ANDREW
TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON
AMSTERDAM • PARIS • SYDNEY • HAMBURG STOCKHOLM • ATHENS • TOKYO • MILAN • MADRID PRAGUE • WARSAW • BUDAPEST • AUCKLAND
A VERY UNUSUAL GOVERNESS
Tall, with black hair, broad shoulders and a powerful stride, Edward Barraclough was an impressive sight as he walked through Green Park on his way back to North Audley Street. Though he was plainly dressed, his dark green superfine coat, silver-mounted cane, buckskins, and boots were all of a quality which indicated to the discerning that he was a man of wealth and distinction. The discerning might also have wondered what such an obvious member of the ton was doing in London, for this was the time of year when Society deserted the town for the pleasures of their country estates and the capital was very thin of company.
So, when Viscount Trenton saw Mr Barraclough emerge from the Park and prepare to cross Piccadilly, he hailed him with surprise and pleasure.
‘Ned! What the devil are you doing in town?’
‘The same as you, I imagine,’ said Mr Barraclough. ‘Business.’
‘I didn’t think the Foreign Office did any work till next month.’
‘They don’t. This was family business—bankers over here from Vienna.’
‘Ah! What a bore, old chap!’
Mr Barraclough gave his companion an amused glance. ‘Not at all! I enjoy talking to bankers.’
In Viscount Trenton’s experience, interviews with bankers, or any men of business, were usually to be avoided at all costs, but he knew that Ned Barraclough did not suffer from the same reluctance. With good reason. The Barracloughs were enormously wealthy, with large estates in the West Indies and interests in banking and trade all over the world. And though you would never have guessed it, Edward Barraclough had a strange liking for work. Not only did he keep a personal eye on his own family fortunes, he also spent hours giving the Foreign Office the benefit of his considerable experience in the Americas. But, though it might seem odd, it did not prevent him from being a popular member of London society, and welcome wherever he chose to go. Jack Trenton liked him.
As they went up Clarges Street towards Grosvenor Square, he gave Ned a sly look and asked, ‘Is Louise in town, too?’
‘I wouldn’t expect her to be anywhere else,’ Mr Barraclough replied. ‘She hates the country. Though she informs me that she wouldn’t object to a trip to Brighton.’
‘Are you going to take her there?’
‘You want to keep a careful eye on that particular bird of paradise, Ned,’ said Jack. ‘If you hope to keep her, that is. Louise Kerrall is a damned handsome creature. You’re a lucky dog to have such a prize. There’s quite a few fellows in London who would soon take her over if you gave them half a chance.’
Mr Barraclough’s teeth gleamed in a mocking smile. ‘Are you one of ’em, Jack? I don’t advise you to try. I’ve no intention of letting Louise go at the moment.’
‘Oh, Lord, Ned! I didn’t mean—! Y’needn’t worry about me. I couldn’t afford her! And I’m sure she’s devoted to you—’
‘Devoted?’ Mr Barraclough’s smile took on a cynical twist. ‘Louise’s devotion is in direct proportion to the value of the last trinket I happen to have given her. Particularly if it is diamonds. She’s very fond of diamonds. But you needn’t worry, Jack. It’s not devotion I look for when I’m with Louise. Nothing so abstract.’
With a picture in his mind of Louise Kerrall’s dark hair and languorous brown eyes, her creamy skin, red lips and generous curves, Jack said appreciatively, ‘I dare say not!’
‘So if you’re not planning to take my mistress away from me, Jack, we’ll forget her. Tell me instead why you are in town.’
Lord Trenton’s expression grew gloomy. ‘That’s business of a sort, too. I’ve been seeing the lawyers.’
‘Your father disinheriting you at long last?’
‘No, no! Just the opposite. I’ve finally given in and made an offer for Cynthia Paston.’
‘Have you, begad? Which one is that? The one with the teeth or the one with the nose?’
‘The one with the teeth and a dowry of thirty thousand pounds.’
‘And she accepted you?’
‘Oh, yes. I may not be much myself, but the title is quite a draw, y’know. The Pastons like the idea of having a future Countess in the family.’
Mr Barraclough looked at the expression on Lord Trenton’s face and burst out laughing. ‘You’re obviously the happiest of men! My congratulations!’
‘It’s all very well for you to laugh, Ned! Y’don’t know how lucky you are! No one’s putting any pressure on you to marry. No one’s reminding you day after day that you’re the only son and there’s the damned title to consider. I’m not like you, with two brothers both older than me!’
‘Only one now, Jack. My eldest brother was killed earlier this year. So was his wife. I thought you knew.’
‘I’d forgotten. Sorry, Ned!’
‘It’s all right. Antigua is a long way away. Why should you remember?’
‘All the same I ought to have. Carriage accident, wasn’t it…? Is your other brother still out there in the West Indies?’
‘Not at the moment. He and Julia are on their way here—they should arrive any day now.’
‘Till next year’s Season. They have my two nieces with them, daughters of the brother who was killed. Lisette, the elder one, is to be brought out next Spring. She’s a lovely girl, I don’t doubt she’ll be a success. But I’m not looking forward to their arrival.’
‘I’m fond enough of my brother. And Lisette and Pip are delightful. But Julia, Henry’s wife…Believe me, Jack, she’s the best argument I’ve come across for a man to remain single!’
‘I say, old chap, that’s not very tactful!’
‘Why? What’s wrong?’
‘It’s downright unkind when you know I’ve just put my head in the noose!’
‘If you feel that badly about it, why did you?’
‘I’ve told you! Noblesse oblige and all that! Don’t look at me so—you’ve no idea what it’s like to have the family at your back all the time, rattling on about duty, preserving the line and all the rest. In the end I just gave in. It’s enough to drive a man to drink.’
‘Come and have one, then,’ said Mr Barraclough sympathetically. ‘The lawyers will wait.’
Lord Trenton met a few other cronies at White’s, and after a while seemed to be drowning his sorrows so effectively that Mr Barraclough felt able to leave him. He resumed his walk back to his house in North Audley Street. The afternoon breeze was agreeably cool, and as he walked along he considered how very fortunate he was. At thirty, he was still free, rich and comparatively young. He had a mistress who was everything a man could want, beautiful, passionate and very willing—and, unlike a wife, she had no other claims on him. He was free to come and go as he pleased, and, when he tired of her, she would find someone else without any effort on his part.
Yes, his life was particularly well arranged. Unlike poor Trenton he was under no pressure to settle down. He could, and would, remain unencumbered for as long as he wished.
The only shadow on the horizon was the impending arrival of his sister-in-law. He frowned. It was an unfortunate truth that he and Julia cordially disliked one another. When to her chagrin he had inherited his uncle’s fortune, she made no secret of the fact that she thought he should have stayed in the West Indies instead of choosing to travel the world as he had. His later decision to live in England was another source of displeasure. But he suspected that what really made her angry was the fact that, unlike his poor brother Henry, he took not the slightest notice of her.
This was as well, he thought as he crossed Berkeley Square and turned into Mount Street, for there really was no pleasing her. Far from neglecting his family responsibilities, he had allowed them to keep him out of England for a large part of last winter’s hunting, and most of the London season this spring. What had started as a simple visit to Antigua had developed into a series of crises. Overnight his elder brother’s two daughters had been made orphans, minors in the care of his brother Henry and himself. Making sure of their safety had been a major consideration, and he believed he had done more than his duty in that respect. It was now up to Henry and Julia to look after them.
Edward himself planned to make up for the last year’s sacrifices as soon as he could leave London. He might spend a few days in Brighton with Louise, but afterwards he had various invitations from his friends to spend the later months of the year with them on their country estates. If and when that palled, he would return to London to enjoy town life again. A very attractive prospect, and one that he deserved, whatever Julia said!
Heartened by this thought, he leapt up the steps to his house, nodded cheerfully to his footman as he handed over his hat and cane, went into the hall, and started towards the stairs. But before he got to the first step he was stopped by his butler.
‘Sir! Mr Barraclough!’ Harbin looked as disturbed as Edward had ever seen him.
‘What is it?’
‘You have visitors, sir.’ Harbin held out a salver on which was a card.
Edward read it. ‘Lady Penkridge…? What does she want?’
‘I don’t know, sir. She has two young people with her.’
Edward frowned. ‘I’d better see her, I suppose. Where are they?’
‘In the library, sir.’ Harbin went to the library door, opened it and announced Edward. Then he withdrew.
‘Edward!’ He was attacked by a small whirlwind. ‘We’ve been waiting ages for you! Where’ve you been?’
Edward laughed, took the little girl into his arms and swung her round. ‘I wasn’t expecting you so soon, Pip! You should have warned me.’ He put the child down and surveyed the room. Raising his eyebrow, he smiled at the other young person he saw, and went over to give her a hug. ‘Lisette, I’ll swear you’re prettier than ever.’ Then he turned and looked at the other occupants of the library. One was dressed in black, and stood ramrod straight. She had what looked like a permanent expression of disapproval on her face, with pursed lips and a nose like a hatchet. She was soberly dressed in rusty black, and what looked like the quills of a porcupine sticking out of an ugly bonnet. Not Lady Penkridge. He turned with relief to the other female, who was obviously waiting to speak to him. ‘Lady Penkridge? I don’t believe we’ve met?’
‘No, indeed, Mr Barraclough. But I am very well acquainted with your brother and his wife.’
‘Yes. And dearest Julia. I have been a friend of hers for many years.’
‘Indeed? Then I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Lady Penkridge. But…but I don’t quite understand. Are my brother and his wife not here?’
‘Julia is still in Antigua. And so is your brother.’
Edward looked at her in astonishment. Clearly enjoying the drama of the moment, Lady Penkridge nodded solemnly and added, ‘They were unable to travel, Mr Barraclough. Julia broke her leg the day before we were all due to sail and Mr Henry Barraclough has stayed behind to look after her.’
‘But…’ Shocked, Edward demanded details of the accident. Lady Penkridge told him the tale, with frequent interruptions from his younger niece, who seemed to find the gory details of the accident more interesting than sad. But the conclusion was the same. It would be some time before Julia Barraclough could walk, and even longer before she could attempt the voyage to England.
At the end, somewhat bewildered, Edward said, ‘But I still don’t understand! Why, in that case, are my nieces here in London?’
‘Edward! Don’t say you don’t want us here! We thought you’d be glad to see us!’ This came from the small girl who had greeted him so rapturously a moment before.
Smiling reassuringly at her, Edward said, ‘I am, midget, I am! I’m just a little puzzled, that’s all. What are you going to do in England without your aunt?’
‘It’s all settled! We’re to have Miss Froom as a governess. And you are to come with us to Wychford to look after us all.’
Edward’s smile abruptly disappeared. ‘What?’
Lady Penkridge frowned at Pip. ‘Philippa, I wish you would remember not to speak until you are spoken to! You must allow me to give your uncle the facts.’
‘That would be helpful,’ said Edward grimly. ‘At the moment I don’t believe what I’ve just heard!’
‘First, may I present Miss Froom to you, Mr Barraclough?’
Edward loved his nieces, and the last thing he wanted was to upset them. But he had no intention of giving up his plans for the autumn in order to look after them, especially not in such an out of the way place as Wychford! So as he nodded to the dragon-like figure standing next to Lady Penkridge he said, ‘Perhaps Miss Froom would take the girls into the saloon while you explain, ma’am? I’m sure Harbin could bring them some refreshments.’
Pip would have protested, but a look from her uncle silenced her, and she and Lisette followed Miss Froom meekly enough out of the room.
Edward waited until they had gone, then said, ‘There’s obviously some misunderstanding. I can’t have heard properly. Would you oblige me by sitting down and telling me everything, Lady Penkridge? Slowly.’
His visitor settled herself, then began, ‘You can imagine, Mr Barraclough, the confusion caused by Julia’s accident—so unexpected and so immediately before the packet boat left Antigua. The Barracloughs were deeply worried. It was really impossible to change all their plans completely. So, since I was coming back to England on the same packet, I volunteered to bring the girls with me. It was a great relief to them, as you can imagine. Julia cannot possibly look after her nieces until she can walk. So, it was agreed that I should bring the girls and hand them over to you to look after until their aunt is able to travel.’
Edward considered this for a moment. Then he said carefully, ‘You mean that I am to be responsible for my nieces? I alone? Without any help from my brother or his wife?’
‘You will have Miss Froom.’
‘Miss Froom!’ There was a short silence during which Edward struggled to find some way of expressing his feelings which would be acceptable to the ears of a gently bred female. He failed.
Lady Penkridge went on in an encouraging tone, ‘Julia is in good health. It shouldn’t take long for her leg to heal. Perhaps only six or seven weeks.’
‘Six or seven weeks! Only six or seven!’ Edward’s feelings got the better of him. ‘This is a bachelor’s establishment, Lady Penkridge. How the devil do you suppose I can keep Lisette and Pip here for six days, let alone six or seven weeks? I refuse! I damned well refuse!’
Lady Penkridge replied coldly, ‘Your sister-in-law had the gravest doubts about your willingness to help her, Mr Barraclough, though she did not allow this to deter her. But I confess that your lack of sympathy surprises me. It is of course out of the question that Lisette and Philippa should remain here. I have taken a suite of rooms at the Poultney on Julia’s behalf, and your nieces will stay there in Miss Froom’s charge until you can arrange to transfer them to the house in the country where they were due to stay. The place is called Wychford, I believe.’
‘Yes, yes, I know it. We had settled on a six months’ tenure there some time ago. But it is in the heart of the countryside, over twenty miles out of London. I have other engagements, invitations I have accepted, commitments that would make it impossible for me to spend the autumn at Wychford. You must make other arrangements, Lady Penkridge.’
‘I, sir? I’m afraid you are under a misapprehension. I brought the girls to England as a favour to your sister-in-law. But I now have to think of my own concerns. You will have to cancel these commitments of yours. I leave London in two days’ time for the north.’
Edward gazed at her blankly. ‘You can’t!’ he said.
‘I can and will. I agreed to bring the girls to England, but my task ends there. As Julia said to me, they will now be entirely your responsibility.’
‘My responsibility! Oh, yes, I can imagine Julia said that! This is all her confounded doing!’
‘Mr Barraclough! Are you completely devoid of feeling? Your sister-in-law is at this moment lying on a bed of pain—’
‘That is nothing compared with what she has done to me! And what was Henry doing all this time? Why hasn’t he come up with a better solution? Dammit, he’s the girls’ guardian!’
‘Your brother was naturally more concerned about his wife. And, as I understand it, you are also your nieces’ guardian.’
‘However, there is a substantial difference between us—Henry is married, and I am a bachelor!’
‘That is why Miss Froom is here, Mr Barraclough. By a fortunate coincidence Julia had written to her some time ago to engage her services—’
‘Fortunate! There is nothing fortunate about any part of this catastrophe!’ muttered Edward.
Lady Penkridge ignored him. She went on, ‘And I fetched her yesterday to join us. I am sure you may safely leave the girls in her hands. She comes with the highest possible recommendations. All that will be required of you is to take charge of the household at Wychford.’
‘But I live in London, dammit!’ Edward almost shouted the words. ‘And I already have plans for the autumn! Why the devil did Henry agree to this cork-brained idea? Just wait till he gets here. If he wasn’t my own brother, I swear I’d call him out!’
Lady Penkridge rose. ‘I am sorry that your reception of my news has been so unfavourable, Mr Barraclough,’ she said frigidly. ‘Particularly as you express yourself in such immoderate terms. But there is nothing I can do about it. I leave London in two days. You have that time to make your arrangements. And now, if you don’t mind, I shall collect the girls and return to the Poultney Hotel. Good afternoon.’
She gathered up her things and waited stiffly for him to send for Harbin to show her out. With a considerable effort Edward pulled himself together. It would do the girls no good at all if he antagonised this woman. Lisette was to come out in the spring, and for all he knew Lady Penkridge might have considerable influence among the London ton. He took a breath and gave her a charming smile.
‘You are right, ma’am. It was quite wrong of me. It’s just that…’ He took another breath. ‘It’s just that I was a little upset at the notion that I would have to abandon all my friends, break the promises I have made, leave London and bury myself in the country for eight or nine weeks at least, with only my two nieces and their governess for company. And all within forty-eight hours. Absurd as it might seem to you, I was just a little shocked.’
He drew another breath and forced himself to smile again. ‘But you have been very kind. I am sure Julia would wish me to show you our gratitude. May I call on you at the Poultney this evening? I should like to offer you and my nieces dinner there, if I may.’
Edward’s charm was potent when he chose to exercise it, and Lady Penkridge was no more immune than many another lady in the past. Her manner was perceptibly warmer as she said, ‘Thank you. Yes, the…the girls would enjoy that. And so should I. At what time?’
That evening Edward exerted himself to erase the unfavourable impression he had made on Lady Penkridge with such success that she began to wonder whether Julia had after all been mistaken in him. They parted on the best of terms, and after an exhausting two days of rearrangements, meetings, notes of apology and excuses, Edward saw Lady Penkridge safely launched on her journey north, then set out for Wychford accompanied by his nieces and Miss Froom.
As they left London behind them, he saw that something of his own gloom seemed to have affected the rest of the party. Lisette was gazing sadly out of the window, Miss Froom was sitting with a gimlet eye on Pip, and Pip herself was quite remarkably subdued. Edward roused himself. It was not his nieces’ fault that he had been forced into exile. The poor girls had had a terrible time in the last year, first with the upheaval caused by the accident and the loss of their parents, and then the business with Lisette and Arandez. And now this…
‘I dare say you would like to hear a little about Wychford,’ he began.
‘Has Aunt Julia bought it?’ asked Pip.
‘Don’t be silly, Philippa,’ said Miss Froom. ‘Your aunt will have leased it through an agent. It would be unnecessary to buy it when you are to stay there for such a short time.’
Edward regarded Miss Froom. This wasn’t the first time she had put the child down, quite unnecessarily. He would have to keep an eye on her. Pip’s lively interest in everything she came across was one of her main attractions, and he didn’t want it suppressed. He smiled warmly at his little niece as he said, ‘I’m afraid you’re both wrong. There’s more to it than that.’
Pip’s face brightened. ‘A story, a story! Tell us, Edward!’
‘Well, when we first heard about Wychford it belonged to Thomas Carstairs. Thomas owned some plantations in the West Indies, and he and his wife became friends with your grandfather. Some years later—just about the time you were born, Pip—Mrs Carstairs came out to see us again after her husband had died. She promised your father then that we could all stay with her at Wychford when you and Lisette were old enough to come to England.’
‘Like a good fairy at a christening!’
Edward smiled. ‘Something like. Though she looked rather more like a witch than a good fairy.’
‘Will she be there now?’
‘No. She died not long ago—’
‘And left the house to us!’
‘Philippa, how many times do I have to tell you not to interrupt? And get back down on to the seat, if you please!’
Edward felt a spurt of irritation. Pip was standing on the seat, leaning half against him and half against the cushions at the side of the carriage. It wasn’t safe, and Miss Froom had been perfectly right to object, but he had been pleased to see Pip once again her lively self. He ignored the governess and went on, ‘That would have been quite wrong. Mrs Carstairs had no children, but she had other family. She left the house to her niece.’
‘A niece? Like us?’
‘Mrs Carstairs was about eighty, so a niece would be much older, wouldn’t you say? Probably even older than I am!’
‘Have you met her?’
‘No, I’ve only dealt with her agent, a Mr Walters. But you must let me finish my story. I visited Mrs Carstairs several times at Wychford, and when I was last there, and told her you were all coming to England this year, she remembered her promise to your father.’
‘But she’s dead!’
‘That’s true, but she stipulated in her will that Wychford was to be available to the Barracloughs for six months after your arrival.’
‘That’s a very strange condition, Edward,’ said Lisette.
‘Mrs Carstairs was a very strange lady. But I liked her.’ He fell silent, remembering the last time he had seen the old woman.
She had been wrapped in shawls and huddled in her chair, obviously ill. But her gipsy-black eyes had been fiercely alive. She had looked at him hard, and then she appeared to make up her mind. She said, ‘You’ll do! The house likes you and so will she.’
Puzzled, he had asked, ‘Who is “she”, ma’am?’
Whereupon she had given one of her cackles and said, ‘Never you mind! But she will. Eventually! Make sure you come back here! But there! I know you will.’
Edward had been tempted to dismiss her words as the wanderings of an old lady whose life was almost spent. But they had stuck in his mind, and now here he was, about to return to Wychford, just as she had said…
Some thirty miles away, Mrs Carstairs and her house were also the subject of discussion between Rupert, fourth Earl of Warnham, and his daughter, the Lady Octavia Petrie. The day was cool, and Lord Warnham, who was in his seventies and felt the cold, pulled his shawl closer round his shoulders and gave his daughter a worried frown. In his gentle way he said, ‘I wish your Aunt Carstairs had not left you Wychford, Octavia. It was most inconsiderate of her. I knew it would be a burden!’
‘But, Papa, I assure you, I don’t find it any sort of burden.’
‘How can that be? You tell me that you must go to see it next week. All that way through the countryside to see a house that can be of no conceivable use to you! Of course it is a burden. She should not have done it. If she had consulted me in the matter I would have advised against it. She cannot have thought of the worry it would be to you to possess a house like that.’
‘Papa, it is no worry at all! I am very happy to be the owner of Wychford.’
‘But you cannot possibly keep it. You have no notion of what it means to look after a large house!’
‘I look after this one, Papa.’
‘That is quite a different matter, my dear. This is your home, and you have me to protect you.’
Octavia Petrie permitted herself a wry grin. It might be her home, but it was her father who needed protection. Even the most trivial of problems worried him. Much as she loved her elderly parent, she found shielding him from unnecessary distress far more demanding than looking after a house, however large it might be. She set about reassuring him.
‘Wychford won’t cause me any trouble, Papa! You know it won’t. The Barracloughs are to rent it for six months, as Aunt Carstairs wished. The agreement is signed and sealed, and so far I have had nothing at all to do. Mr Walters has dealt with it all.’
‘Walters is a good fellow. An excellent man of business! But he has done no more than he should. It would not be at all the thing for a lady to be concerned in property agreements and such matters. But I still cannot like it. Your Aunt Carstairs should have left her house to someone else. You would do much better to stay at home with me next Tuesday and let Walters get rid of it for you.’
Octavia smiled. Her father must be unique among parents. No other man would find it distressing that the youngest of his eight children, twenty-two and still single, had been left a large estate, including a house, by her godmother. But Lord Warnham’s intense dislike of any threat to his unvarying routine quite blinded him to the advantages of such a handsome inheritance. Octavia hardened her heart and said firmly,
‘I am not so very young, Papa. I shall be three and twenty next spring. And I really shan’t find it a burden to make a simple visit to Wychford. I merely wish to see the house before the Barracloughs arrive. It will take less than a day.’
‘A day! You must not be so foolhardy! It is all of ten miles.’
‘Fifteen. But it is still quite light in the evenings and the roads are good—’
‘You would subject yourself to travelling thirty miles in one day! I will not hear of it! Even with a closed carriage—’
‘Oh, I would take the gig. I’d like to drive myself. Will Gifford would accompany me, of course.’
This suggestion so outraged the Earl that it took several minutes of Octavia’s most skilful coaxing before he could be brought to resign himself to her absence. Eventually he said wistfully, ‘I suppose you will have to go, but I shall miss you.’
‘I hardly think so, Papa. Have you forgotten that Cousin Marjorie arrives tomorrow? You like her, don’t you?’
‘She is a very pleasant person, certainly, and plays whist and cribbage better than you do. You know you can be a little impatient, my dear. Yes, I like Marjorie.’ He sighed and added, ‘I can see you are quite set on this escapade, Octavia, so I shall say no more on the subject. But I do wish that Mrs Carstairs had not left you her house. I cannot understand why she did!’
‘Nor can I, Papa. Though…she did say when she was last here that Wychford would like me.’
The shawl dropped off her father’s shoulders as he sat up and stared. ‘Wychford would like you? A house liking someone? What a very strange thing to say! But then, I was often puzzled by the things she said. She did not resemble your dear mama at all.’
‘No, indeed! Harry and I were afraid of her when we were children. We used to call her the Witch of Wychford. But I got to know her better when she was here last spring, not long before she died. She…she seemed to understand…’
Octavia fell silent. It was true that there had been something witch-like about her mother’s half-sister. Though nothing had been said, she, of all the family, had seemed to divine Octavia’s growing restlessness, her boredom with life at Ashcombe. Octavia had found Mrs Carstairs’s gypsy-black eyes resting on her more than once and had wondered what the old lady had been thinking. But it had certainly never occurred to her that her godmother would leave her Wychford.
‘Understand? What is there to understand?’
‘Nothing, Papa. Nothing at all.’
‘A very odd person. Why should she leave you her house?’ He was obviously still struggling to understand. ‘What do you need a house for? Surely you’re happy enough here?’
Octavia longed to say, ‘I’m bored, Papa! I sometimes think I shall go mad with boredom!’ But she was a kindhearted girl and genuinely fond of her father, so she merely said, ‘Of course. And I have no intention of living at Wychford, Papa. In any case I couldn’t. The Barracloughs take possession in just a few weeks’ time.’
‘Who are these Barracloughs? Do I know them?’
‘Old Mr Barraclough was a friend of Uncle Carstairs. They knew each other in Antigua. They are now both dead, of course, but the present Barracloughs have some daughters, who are to be presented next year.’
‘That seems a very odd sort of arrangement. But the Barracloughs sound respectable enough.’
‘They are extremely respectable, Papa. Mr Walters has had the highest reports of their standing in Antigua, and Mr Barraclough is at present in London working as a temporary adviser to the Foreign Office. I am very unlikely to meet them. Certainly not this time, for they won’t be there.’
‘Well, I suppose you must go. I shall do as well as I can with Marjorie.’
Octavia laughed at his tone of resignation. ‘You’ll do very well indeed, Papa!’
‘You must see to it that she has the tapestry bedroom. She likes that.’
‘Indeed, she does. She has used it every time she has paid us a visit for the past twenty years!’ Octavia shook her head at her father in affectionate exasperation. ‘Really, Papa! What do you think of me? The room has been ready for two days now. It only needs fresh flowers, and I shall put those in it tomorrow before she arrives.’
‘And a warming pan for the bed, Octavia! Remind the housekeeper to make sure the bed is properly aired!’
‘I shall do nothing of the sort! I have no wish to offend Mrs Dewey. If I know her, there’s a hot brick in the bed already, and it will be renewed tomorrow. You may be easy.’
As soon as her father settled down for his afternoon nap, Octavia changed and made her escape to the stables. She collected her mare and Will Gifford, her groom, and set off over the fields. A good gallop might rid her of the feelings of impatience, boredom, weariness even, which were taking an ever-firmer hold of her spirits. Much as she loved her father, she sometimes felt an irresistible desire to get away. The fact that she had made her own trap, had chosen of her own free will to stay at Ashcombe, was little consolation now. How could she leave him? But she was looking forward to the following week when she would see Wychford for the first time. She began to feel more cheerful. Cousin Marjorie’s visit was something to look forward to, too. She might belong to an older generation, but she was still young in spirit, and a very sympathetic listener.
Octavia’s Cousin Marjorie, the Dowager Lady Dorney, was a widow, and lived some distance away in the Dower House of a great estate now owned by her son. She and Lord Warnham had always been good friends and since Lord Dorney’s death a year or two before she had been a frequent visitor to Ashcombe. She spent a great deal of time gossiping about the family with him, or playing backgammon, whist, or the many other games he enjoyed. Lord Warnham liked her company and her visits had always been a success. Octavia had no qualms about leaving her father in her care.
When Lady Dorney arrived the next day, Lord Warnham was still having his afternoon nap, so, after greeting her warmly, Octavia took her off to her own little parlour. For a while they exchanged news of the two families, then Lady Dorney said,
‘You’re not looking as you should, Octavia. What’s wrong? Is it this house your mother’s sister has left you? Wychford?’
‘Not you too!’
Lady Dorney raised an eyebrow at the exasperation in Octavia’s voice, and Octavia went on, ‘Papa wishes it had never been left to me. He thinks it too great a responsibility. Don’t tell me you feel the same!’
Lady Dorney laughed. ‘I am not as unworldly as your father, I’m afraid. No, I am glad for you. But if it isn’t that, why are you looking so unlike yourself? You’re obviously under some sort of strain.’
‘I had hoped I wasn’t showing it!’
‘Perhaps not to others. But I know you too well. What exactly is wrong?’
Octavia hesitated. Then she said, ‘You’re right, it is the house. When I first heard about it, it seemed like a way of escape. But I soon realised that I couldn’t possibly take it.’
‘I’m not at all surprised at your wish to escape! The life you lead at Ashcombe is no life for a pretty young girl. You should have married years ago. I’ve never understood why.’
‘That’s soon explained. I never met anyone I wanted to marry!’
‘You’ve never been in love?’
Octavia gave a small smile. ‘When I was younger I thought I was. With a very handsome young soldier, called Tom Payne—tall, blond, blue-eyed, and full of fun. He came down here on leave with my brother in the summer of 1812, and he and Stephen got up to such scrapes that I don’t think I stopped laughing for the whole of that fortnight. I’ve never forgotten it.’
‘That’s hardly my idea of a great romance! Did he make love to you?’
‘Of course not. I was only fourteen! I don’t think it entered his head. But if he had lived…I might have met him again…’
‘He was killed?’
Octavia nodded. ‘At Waterloo. Both of them. He and Stephen together.’ She paused then went on, ‘I got over it, of course. Our acquaintance had been too short for real heartbreak. By the time I went to London for my come-out I was quite my old self. But…I never had an offer there that I wished to accept.’
‘Oh, come now! That is absurd! You can’t have been short of choice! You’re not only a very pretty girl, you are rich and related to half the best families in England. You must have attracted any number of eligible young men!’
‘Perhaps so. But not one of them attracted me!’
‘You were surely not still pining for Tom Payne?’
‘Oh, no! It wasn’t that exactly, but…but he was always my ideal—blond, blue-eyed, and fun. And no one quite measured up to him. Compared with Tom they were so dull! I couldn’t face spending the rest of my life with any one of them. And then London was noisy, and dirty…and full of scandal…’
‘Then your mama died and you left town.’
‘Quite without regret.’
‘And you decided to stay at Ashcombe, to put off even considering marriage until your father could manage without you. I said at the time it was a mistake, if you remember.’
‘But there wasn’t anyone else! Harry couldn’t stay—he was already in the Army—and the rest of the family were married and established elsewhere. Papa would have had to move in order to live with any of them, and you know how he hates change. He even refused to move to Warnham Castle when Grandpapa died.’
‘So your brother Arthur took over the family seat. I must say, the Castle is more Arthur’s style! How is he?’
‘Much the same as ever. Pompous, opinionated and prosy! Sarah is expecting another child, and Arthur is full of hope that she will give him a son at last.’
‘How many daughters has he?’
‘And no son. His poor wife. She won’t get much sympathy from Arthur if she fails him again. I can quite see why your father wouldn’t wish to live in the Castle with Arthur! But I still don’t see why you had to sacrifice yourself?’
‘I assure you, ma’am, it was no sacrifice—at the time! But now…I feel trapped!’ She gave a little laugh. ‘Sometimes I feel quite desperate!’
‘You need to get away for a while. Could you not visit one of your sisters?’
‘What? To be a nursemaid to their children rather than to my f—’ She stopped short. ‘Rather than manage Ashcombe for my father? Here at least I only answer to him! But…with your help I shall have a brief holiday—all of eleven or twelve hours.’ She got up and walked about the room. After a while she turned and said with an impatient gesture, ‘Oh, pay no attention to me, ma’am! I wasn’t forced into my life here—I chose it. Marriage would not be the way out. From what I have seen of my sisters’ husbands, I would merely exchange one form of boredom for another.’
‘You still haven’t met the right man,’ said Lady Dorney with a smile. ‘He’ll turn up, you’ll see!’
‘That is romantic nonsense! At fourteen I might have believed in fairy tales, but at twenty-two I’ve given them up. No, when I no longer have Papa to look after, I shall turn into a crotchety old maid living at Wychford with a pug and a downtrodden companion, and children will think me a witch, as I did Aunt Carstairs!’
‘She had the air of one, certainly. She had a way of looking at people…I only met her once, but I felt she knew what I was thinking before I did myself! What is this Wychford like?’
‘I’ve never seen it. My aunt never invited any of us there, she was something of a recluse. I shall see it for the first time next Tuesday. I’m so relieved you’ll be here to look after Papa. I know how tedious it can be…’
Lady Dorney looked at Octavia in astonishment. ‘My dear girl, you are quite wrong! I shall look forward to it!’ She laughed at the expression on Octavia’s face. ‘You needn’t look at me like that, Octavia. I am quite serious. I love looking after people, especially someone as sweet-natured and gentle as your Papa.’
Lady Dorney took Octavia’s hand. ‘Since Dorney died there’s been such a…a hole in my life that I sometimes hardly know what to do with myself. Coming here might seem dull to you, but to me it’s most enjoyable! Indeed, I’d be happy to keep your father company for longer than a day if you wished! Now, tell me how you intend to travel. How far did you say it was to Wychford? And what do you know about these Barracloughs? Might there be a charming young, blond, blue-eyed Mr Barraclough who will “amuse” you?’
Octavia laughed. ‘If only there were, ma’am! But, according to Mr Walters, the Barracloughs are a sober, upright and highly respectable family. And since there are only two daughters, there are absolutely no prospects there for me, I’m afraid. In any case, I shan’t meet any of them—the Barracloughs won’t be there. They’re not due at Wychford for another week at least.’
Meanwhile, some three miles from Wychford, the ‘sober, upright and highly respectable’ Mr Barraclough, grim-faced, got out of his carriage, which was leaning drunkenly to one side, examined the broken wheel-pin and swore fluently and comprehensively. Three heads popped out of the window, one interested, one nervous and the third dressed in a black bonnet, its feathers quivering with outrage.
‘Mr Barraclough! Sir! You forget yourself,’ said the black bonnet severely. ‘Lisette! Philippa! Sit back this minute and put your hands over your ears.’
‘You’d do better to tell them to get out as quickly as they damn well can, Miss Froom,’ said Edward brutally. ‘I cannot promise that the whole lot won’t topple over any moment. Out with the lot of you!’
‘But there’s too much mud on the road!’
‘Better muddy shoes than bruised bottoms! Out with you! You first, Pip!’ Ignoring Miss Froom’s gasp of outrage at his language, he lifted the youngest of the three occupants out and swung her over to the dry verge of the road. ‘Now you, Lisette. Don’t hang back, you’ll be perfectly safe with me.’ Lisette was lifted and deposited next to her sister. ‘Miss Froom?’
‘Thank you, Mr Barraclough, I’ll get out by myself,’ Miss Froom said with dignity.
‘As you choose, ma’am,’ said Edward with ironic amusement. But when Miss Froom landed in the pool of mud and would have slipped he caught her by the waist and bundled her to the side to join the others, where she stood, ramrod straight, bristling with indignation.
He left her there while he went back to examine the damage done to his carriage. Meanwhile, Pip took advantage of the situation to scramble up the nearest tree where she perched on one of the branches. When Lisette looked up and saw her she gave her a very sweet smile, but Miss Froom exclaimed loudly, ‘What on earth do you think you are doing, miss? Get down this instant! Get down, I say! Mr Barraclough, tell that child to get off the tree. Look at her! I must protest—’
‘Protest all you wish, Miss Froom, it won’t do you any good,’ he said impatiently. ‘I have more urgent things to do than listen to you at the moment. If you can’t control the child, then I suggest you leave her up there. She’s perfectly safe.’ Then, turning his back on her he shouted, ‘Jem! Jem! Where the devil are you? How bad is it?’
Scarlet-faced, Miss Froom drew a deep breath, pursed her lips, and sat down on a nearby tree trunk. ‘Sit here with me, Lisette,’ she said coldly. ‘And you may take that silly smile off your face. I do not find your sister’s disobedience at all amusing.’
‘She’s not really disobedient, Miss Froom,’ said Lisette earnestly. ‘Pip always looks for somewhere to perch. She likes being high up. Papa used to call her his little marmoset…’ She bit her lip. ‘She…she used to make him laugh…’
‘That may be, but if I am to be responsible for her that child will have to behave like a young lady, not a street entertainer’s monkey! My previous charge, the Lady Araminta, was younger than Philippa when I first started to teach her. You would never have found her up a tree, she was a model of good behaviour. But then so were all her sisters and brothers. The Marchioness, their mother…’
Both girls sighed. They had known Miss Froom for a mere three days but they had already heard more than they wished about the Marchioness of Ledbury and her perfect family.
After Miss Froom had finished on the subject of the Ledburys she turned her attention to Lisette. ‘Try to act like a lady, Lisette! Put your feet together and sit up straight. That is better. Now! You may list for me the kings and queens of England in order of succession. We needn’t waste time while we are waiting to continue our journey.’
‘I…I don’t know them.’
‘You don’t know them?’
‘Not…not like that. In a list.’
‘William the Conqueror,’ shouted Pip. ‘He shot an arrow into Harold’s eye!’
Miss Froom ignored her. ‘Then you will have to learn. What about the prophets of the Old Testament?’
‘The prophets? Er…J…Jeremiah…’
‘In order, if you please!’
‘I…I can’t do things like that, Miss Froom. It’s not the way Mama taught us.’
‘I see.’ Miss Froom’s tone suggested that she thought poorly of Mama’s methods.
‘Her lessons were fun, and we learned a lot!’ said an aggressive voice from above.
‘My methods of instruction are directed towards the acquisition of knowledge, not fun,’ said Miss Froom coldly. ‘Lady Ledbury fully approved of them. At the age of ten the Lady Araminta could recite all the…’
‘The Lady Araminta sounds a dead bore to me,’ muttered Pip rebelliously. ‘And so does the Marchioness of Ledbury.’
‘What was that, Philippa?’
‘Look, Miss Froom! Edward is coming! I think the carriage is ready,’ cried Lisette hastily. ‘Come down, Pip, dear. We shall soon be on our way.’
Mr Barraclough reported that the pin had been replaced, and they could now complete the last three miles of the journey to Wychford. ‘So, we’ll be off! Into the carriage with you! Miss Froom?’
They set off once again. But the silence was oppressive. Mr Barraclough looked sharply at Miss Froom’s pursed lips and pinched nostrils, and then at Pip. ‘Is there something wrong?’ he asked.
‘Philippa is a very rude, undisciplined, ill-mannered little girl,’ said Miss Froom sharply.
Pip sat upright, looking mutinous, and Lisette put a restraining hand on her arm. ‘She didn’t mean to be rude. She’s tired, Edward. It’s been a long day. I am sure she is sorry. Please forgive her, Miss Froom.’
There was silence. Mr Barraclough said, ‘Miss Froom?’
‘I do not mind so much for myself, though it is not what I am used to,’ said Miss Froom stiffly. ‘But when an ignorant little girl criticises the family of as great a nobleman as the Marquess of Ledbury, whose family goes back hundreds of years—’
Mr Barraclough, too, had heard his fill of the Ledburys. It was his private opinion that the Marchioness would have done better to pay less attention to her children and more to her husband. Ledbury’s amours were the gossip of London. But he said, ‘Yes, yes, it is absurd. You should not regard it, Miss Froom. In future you must try to guard that unruly tongue of yours, Philippa. Now, do you see the house?’
They had just passed through some gates. Ahead of them was a long drive that wound round a lake. Pip leaned out dangerously and shouted with excitement, ‘I can see it, I can see it! Edward, it’s lovely! It’s got funny little windows—and look! Barley-sugar chimneys and a tower! Can I have a room in the tower? Please let me have a room in the tower!’
Lisette peered round. ‘What a beautiful colour it is in the evening sun,’ she said. ‘And just look at the trees! Green and scarlet, brown, gold—they’re glorious! I think we shall like living here. What do you think, Miss Froom?’
Miss Froom had not recovered her humour. She threw a glance at the house. ‘I doubt very much that I shall,’ she said repressively. ‘I know these old houses, though I have fortunately never had to live in one before. This one looks like all the rest—dark and damp. And those windows will let in the draughts.’ She stared disapprovingly at Pip’s lichen-stained skirt and tumbled curls, and surveyed Lisette with a frown. ‘I can also see that I have a great deal of hard work before me before I achieve the standards I expect in my pupils.’
Mr Barraclough observed the excitement in Pip’s face slowly die. He looked at the shadows in Lisette’s eyes and said abruptly, ‘I am sorry you find the prospect of teaching my nieces so repulsive, Miss Froom. They’ve had—we have all had—a difficult time of late. You were engaged to be responsible for their education, but until their aunt and uncle arrive from the West Indies I had hoped that you would see to their happiness and welfare as well.’
‘Discipline and hard work bring happiness, sir,’ said Miss Froom. ‘That has always been my philosophy, and children are the better for it.’
Mr Barraclough regarded her with a thoughtful frown, but said nothing as the carriage came to a halt in front of shallow steps that led to a massive oak door. He ushered the girls and their governess into a large stone hall, where Mrs Dutton, the housekeeper, was waiting to welcome them.
She took Miss Froom and the girls on a tour of inspection while Edward went into the library, but after a short while the two girls came back alone and joined him there.
‘That was quick!’ he said. ‘Where’s Miss Froom?’
‘She…she said she would lie down for a little,’ said Lisette. ‘She has the headache.’
Pip ran to her uncle and grasped his arm. ‘Edward! Edward, please, please send her away. I don’t like her! She’s horrid!’ she said fiercely.
‘What’s all this? Have you been rude to Miss Froom again?’ asked Edward sternly.
‘She deserved it! She said I had to sleep in a horridly poky room next to her so she would know what I was up to. But I wanted the little corner room! The one in the tower. Why couldn’t I have the tower room?’
Their uncle looked harrassed. ‘That’s not my sphere, Pip, and it’s a very poor reason for this tantrum! Or for being rude again.’
‘It wasn’t that! It wasn’t that at all! She…she’s cruel!’ Pip threw herself on the sofa and burst into tears. Edward swore under his breath and looked on with a frown as Lisette took the child in her arms and comforted her. What the devil had he done to deserve this? He had always prided himself on the ease with which he could handle any woman in practically any situation. But this one tired, lost, little girl defeated him. Confound Julia! Why the hell did she have to break her leg just at this particular time! And what was Henry thinking of to send the girls over without her? He looked at his nieces and his mood softened. With a sigh of resignation he sat down beside them and said, ‘What was it, Lisette? Tell me the whole. Is it true that Miss Froom was so disagreeable?’
Lisette said quietly, ‘I’m afraid so. Miss Froom isn’t at all a kind person. When she refused to let Pip have the tower room, Pip got angry and said that Mama would have wanted her to have it. Miss Froom said…she said she didn’t doubt it. That Philippa was a spoiled little girl and the sooner she learned who was now in charge of her the better.’
‘Miss Froom is tired after the journey. Pip can be confoundedly trying…’
‘She said more than that, Edward. She said that our mama…She said that our mama was dead and wasn’t coming back. And that if Pip carried on being such a naughty little girl she wouldn’t go to heaven to see her mother again.’
‘She said what?’
‘That Mama was dead. It’s true, of course.’ Lisette looked down at the child in her arms. ‘It was cruel of her, though.’
Edward Barraclough looked grimmer than ever and said with formidable calm, ‘That settles it. Your aunt and I have made a mistake. Take Pip into the morning room, Lisette, and stay there with her. One of the maids will bring a drink for you both. You needn’t concern yourselves any further with Miss Froom.’ He strode to the door.
‘What are you going to do?’
‘The carriage is still harnessed up. It can take her to Kingston tonight, and she can take the London stage tomorrow.’
‘No, Edward, you can’t send her off into the night like that.’
‘I can and will! I’ll have that woman out of the house before she says another poisonous word to anyone.’
‘No, you can’t do that. It’s too late. She mustn’t be asked to stay alone in an inn. You must let her spend the night here. Send her away tomorrow.’
Edward scowled. ‘You’re just like your mother—too tender-hearted for your own good, girl.’
‘Please, Edward! Miss Froom may be unkind, but we ought not to be the same.’
Edward was about to refuse, but he looked at Lisette’s face and his expression softened. He said reluctantly, ‘Very well. She can stay the night. Now off with you. I want to speak to Miss Froom.’
Miss Froom departed the next morning with pursed lips, a month’s salary and a carefully worded letter for her agency. Pip was beside herself with glee, but her uncle was not so happy.
‘Stop that war dance, Pip and try to think what on earth we’re to do now! We’re in a mess! Who the devil will look after you now that Miss Froom has gone? I can’t leave you alone here, but I shall have to go to London occasionally.’
‘To see that lady?’
Edward coloured angrily. There had been an unfortunate incident in the hectic rush of the past two days when Pip had accidentally seen him with Louise. What was worse, she had overheard a footman’s comment about her. It was not the sort of thing that should happen and he had been both furious and ashamed. He said now as sternly as he could, ‘I’ve told you to forget that lady, Pip. You’re not supposed to have seen her. If I hear you mention her again, there’ll be serious consequences. Understood?’
‘Yes. I didn’t like the look of her much anyway. So why do you have to go to London?’
‘I have business in London,’ he said curtly.
Lisette, the peacemaker, saw that her uncle’s patience was rapidly wearing thin. She said to Pip, ‘Edward looks after our money, Pip. Not just his own but all the family’s. And he has talks with important people at the Foreign Office in London. He really does have to go back sometimes.’
Pip was unabashed. ‘All right, Edward. You’ll have to send for another governess, then. But choose a young one! A pretty one.’
Edward shook his head and said with decision, ‘On no account! You’re too much of a handful, midget. I’ll choose someone with her mind on her work, not some pretty flibberty-gibbet whose sole aim is to set her cap at the first eligible bachelor who happens along. She’d be more nuisance than she’s worth.’ He sighed and went on, ‘I’ll write off to the agency today, but it will be at least a week before we hear anything. And then there’ll be interviews…It means I shall have to postpone some important meetings, but it can’t be helped.’
Lisette followed him out of the room. ‘Edward, I’m sorry we’re such a burden to you,’ she said. ‘I’m sure we could manage without a governess for a while. I can look after Pip.’
Edward’s habitually sardonic expression softened into a rare smile. Much as he chafed at the restraints that had been forced on him by the care of his two nieces, he was very fond of them both. Lisette’s sadness worried him. She was too young to be so serious. ‘Pip needs a firm hand and a lot of attention,’ he said gently. ‘And I want you to have fewer things to worry about, not more.’
‘Pip will always listen to someone she likes. She still misses Mama and Papa. She needs kindness as well as firmness, Edward.’
‘Leave it to me, Lisette. I’ll make sure I find someone who will know how to deal with her. Not another Miss Froom, I promise.’
The following Tuesday, blissfully unaware that the Barracloughs had already taken up residence, Lady Octavia Petrie said goodbye to her father and Cousin Marjorie, took up her groom, and set off for Wychford with a sense of excitement out of all proportion to the event. Apart from one stop to rest the horses, she wasted no time, and when she arrived at the gates of the house the hour was still comparatively early. She looked up the drive, which led away curving and twisting through an avenue of trees. It was very strange. She felt a tug of recognition, a stirring of adventure. The place seemed to beckon to her…
‘Take the gig back to the inn in the village, Will,’ she said making up her mind. ‘It isn’t far to the house and it’s a glorious day. I’ll walk the rest of the way. You can fetch me in a couple of hours.’
When the groom demurred Octavia said impatiently, ‘Don’t be such an old woman! I shall be perfectly safe. Mr Walters has engaged a full staff for the house, including a housekeeper. I can’t believe there’ll be any villains among them, can you? Off you go!’
Octavia watched Will’s familiar figure disappear down the road, then walked through the gates. The weariness of spirit that had dogged her for months slowly lifted as she walked up the drive, and she was filled with a sensation of release, a feeling that she was in an enchanted world. She smiled. Perhaps she was under the spell of the Witch of Wychford! On either side were magnificent old trees, some of them with branches hanging low, their foliage touched with gold, scarlet and brown with glimpses of a deep blue sky above. Here and there a bright midday sun flashed and sparkled through the leaves, dazzling her with fairy gold. She walked on towards the house, gazing about her with delight. It was as if she had drunk a glass of champagne, or been wafted off to a land of fairy tales…She nearly jumped out of her skin as a voice from above said,
‘He won’t have you!’
Octavia stopped and looked up. The sun blinded her and it was a moment or two before she could make out an elfin figure perched on one of the branches. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘He won’t have you. You’re too young and pretty.’
‘How very kind of you to say so!’
‘He said you’d be more trouble than you’re worth.’
‘Did he, indeed? How was he to know that? Though I’m not sure I fully understa—’
‘He’s looking for another Miss Froom, but I wish he’d have you. You look far more interesting.’
‘Er…thank you again. I think.’ Octavia pulled herself together and made an effort to begin a more sensible conversation. She asked, ‘Forgive me, but may I ask who you are?’
‘I’m Pip. Philippa Barraclough.’
‘It’s rude to say “what”. Miss Froom got very cross with me for saying it.’
‘But…but what are you doing here?’ stammered Octavia. ‘You’re not supposed—’
‘You mean I should be inside? On a glorious day like this?’
‘Oh, no! That’s not it. No sensible person would want to be inside on a day like today. That’s not what I meant—’
‘I’m exploring. We’ve only been here a few days, and yesterday I explored the other side of the house. It’s a beautiful house. Have you seen its chimneys?’
Octavia gave up trying to be sensible. She was enjoying this bizarre conversation. It all seemed to be part of the madness of the day. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Will you show them to me?’
A little girl dropped out of the tree. Black curls tumbled over a pointed face. The child was thin, but crackled with energy and spirits. Great grey eyes, sparkling with life, gazed at Octavia, examining her with critical interest. What she saw seemed to satisfy her. ‘Come on!’ she said, and set off.
Octavia laughed. ‘Right!’ she said and followed.
Pip suddenly stopped. ‘Look!’
Octavia obediently looked, then gasped with pleasure. On the other side of a small lake lay Wychford, a rose-red house nestling among lawns and trees, its windows twinkling in the sun. Its somewhat crooked timbers and a small round tower to one side gave it a lopsided, slightly quizzical look. A friendly house, an enticing house…a magic house. And on top…‘Barley-sugar sticks!’ she cried.
Pip looked immensely pleased. ‘I knew you’d recognise them,’ she said. ‘Oh, I do wish Edward would have you! He’s at his wits’ end, you know.’
‘I’m sorry to hear it. Why is that?’ asked Octavia.
‘Because we’ve lost our governess. The last one. But I wouldn’t be rude to you.’
‘Is that why she went? Because you were rude?’
‘No. Edward dismissed her. Sent her away without a character,’ said Pip with relish. ‘She was unkind. Lisette didn’t like her, either, and she usually likes everyone.’
‘Lisette is your sister?’
‘Yes. She’s much older than I am. I’m ten. Do you believe in lists?’
‘What kind of lists? Laundry? Shopping? Christmas presents?’
‘No! Lists of facts to learn—the kings of England, for example.’
‘Definitely not!’ said Octavia firmly. ‘That’s a very boring way to learn anything.’
‘I knew you were all right! I must go and find Edward. He simply must engage you!’
‘As our governess, of course. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, no! I—’
But Pip had darted off like a dragonfly.
‘You mustn’t be annoyed with Pip.’
Startled yet again, Octavia swung round, and began to wonder if she really was in a fairy tale, and this the enchanted princess. Standing behind her was a girl with one of the loveliest faces Octavia had ever seen. She had black hair like her sister, but her eyes were a deep purple-blue, the colour of violets. Every feature was perfect: a generous brow, a beautifully straight nose, delicately modelled cheekbones, rose-petal complexion, softly curving lips…The girl looked shy, and bore an indefinable air of sadness. The impulse to comfort her was almost overwhelming. A faint flush stained the girl’s cheeks as Octavia stared.
‘I…I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m sorry. Only I’m sure Pip didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that she sometimes forgets her manners when she is in a hurry. My name is Lisette. Lisette Barraclough.’
‘I’m Octavia Petrie. How do you do.’
They exchanged curtsies. ‘Won’t you come in?’ Lisette asked. ‘I’m not sure it will do any good, Edward seems determined to have someone older, and he seldom changes his mind. But I’d like you to meet him.’
Octavia was not sure what stopped her from telling Lisette the truth about her visit to Wychford. Every canon of good manners demanded it, but she held back, intrigued by the situation, and highly interested in the two girls—the one so bright and spirited, the other so lovely, and so sad. So she said nothing as they set off up the drive.
‘I expect you’re wondering why we need another governess,’ said Lisette. ‘Edward engaged someone in London—someone who was very highly recommended to my aunt by the Marchioness of Ledbury.’
Octavia had met the Ledburys. No wonder Pip didn’t like Miss Froom, she thought. No one who had the approval of such a self-satisfied windbag as Lady Ledbury and her awful children could hope to please a lively spirit like Philippa Barraclough!
Lisette went on, ‘But hardly two days had passed before it was clear that Pip and Miss Froom would never get on, so Edward sent her away.’
‘Without a character. I heard.’
‘Is that what Pip told you? I’m afraid she was just romancing. Edward gave her a perfectly good reference.’
Octavia nodded. ‘I rather thought that might be the case. But what did your aunt have to say about it?’
‘She’s not here. She broke her leg and is still in Antigua. She won’t be able to travel for some time, so there’s only Edward here to look after us at the moment, and he is a very busy man. That’s why we need someone else so urgently.’
‘I see. In that case, wasn’t it rather hasty of your uncle to send Miss Froom away?’
‘Perhaps. But once Edward makes up his mind about anything he does things right off. He would have sent Miss Froom away the first night we got here, even though it was very late. He can be quite ruthless when he chooses. But I persuaded him to wait till the morning.’
Octavia began to dislike ‘Edward’. ‘Poor Miss Froom! To be sent away so summarily—’
‘Oh, no! She really wasn’t at all kind, Miss Petrie. But he did give her a month’s salary and saw to it that she was taken all the way to London.’
‘I suppose that helped. But do tell me. Who is “Edward”? Mr Barraclough?’
‘Yes. He’s our uncle, but he told us years ago to call him Edward. We are a great burden to him. At least for the next eight or nine weeks until our aunt arrives.’
Lisette fell silent and Octavia was left to her own thoughts. The situation was becoming clearer. The two girls were not the Barracloughs’ daughters, but their nieces, and an accident had delayed Mrs Barraclough’s return to England. A governess had been engaged, but Edward Barraclough had decided to get rid of her, and was now looking urgently for someone else until his wife arrived. For about two months…Just two months…
They had reached the lawn in front of the house.
‘Miss Petrie, would you care to wait here for a moment? There’s a seat in the shade over there. Or shall I take you inside? Edward asked me to deliver a message to our housekeeper, and I should really do it straight away. It will only take me a minute.’
‘I think I should like to stay here,’ said Octavia. ‘This is all so beautiful…’
‘You think so, too? Miss Froom said the house looked dark and damp.’
‘Did she? Then the house didn’t like her,’ said Octavia without thinking. ‘That’s why she had to go.’
Lisette gave her a puzzled look, but didn’t stay to ask what she had meant. She ran across the lawn and into the house, and Octavia was left to contemplate her inheritance…It was quite extraordinary—Wychford seemed to be smiling! How could a house smile? Of course it couldn’t! It was just that the window-panes were twinkling in the sunlight.
She had a sudden vision of her aunt’s gipsy-black eyes staring at her, then turning to rest thoughtfully first on her father, and then on Lady Dorney, last spring. What had been in Aunt Carstairs’s mind? Here at Wychford Octavia suddenly saw what an excellent thing it would be if her father and his cousin decided to marry. They had always been close, and Lady Dorney was a caring, loving woman who needed companionship and someone to look after. Yes, it would be ideal. But it would never happen. Papa was too set in his ways—it simply wouldn’t occur to him to ask.
The windows were still twinkling, still reminding her of those black eyes. What a strange house it was! Octavia’s thoughts returned to her father. What if Lady Dorney could be persuaded to take her place for a while—two months, say? It might occur to her papa that his Cousin Marjorie was more comfortable to be with, more patient, easier to talk to, someone nearer to his own generation…
Two months. Would it be long enough? She was sorely tempted to try. She liked these Barraclough girls, and felt she could do something for them, especially as their uncle seemed to be something of a martinet. Should she go along with their assumption that she was a prospective governess?
Octavia jumped up and took a firm hold of herself. Twinkling windows, gipsy-black eyes, marriages, pretending to be a governess—where was her common sense? It was a mad idea! Her day of freedom had gone to her head! She would go inside to meet Edward Barraclough, and would inform him of her true identity before the mistake went any further. As Lisette approached her across the lawn the sun seemed to go in and Wychford’s window-panes were dull. There was an air of reproach about the house and Octavia had an absurd feeling of guilt.
Lisette led her through the oak door and into the hall. Octavia kept a firm hold on her imagination as she looked about her. The house was not huge and the hall was of manageable size, with a large refectory table down the middle and a fireplace at each end. It had a superb plaster ceiling and two massive, symmetrically placed, brass chandeliers. A handsome oak staircase led to the upper storey, with a gallery leading to the bed-chambers. But Lisette led her through the hall and on into a room at the far end. This was some kind of parlour or morning room, and it was reassuringly normal. A fire burned invitingly in the hearth, and the furniture was obviously meant for comfort rather than style. Octavia was invited to sit down.
‘I…er…I don’t think I will yet,’ said Octavia. ‘Not before I see your uncle.’
The door opened and Pip burst in. ‘Here she is, Edward!’ she cried. ‘Please say she’s suitable!’
A tall, broad-shouldered man followed her into the room. Though he was younger than she had imagined, he looked…dangerous, with an uncompromising chin and a hard mouth. He was quite handsome, though his nose looked as if it might have been broken in a fight. Black hair, clear grey eyes, and a tanned complexion. A small scar lifted the outer corner of one eyebrow and gave him a faintly devilish look. His expression was not welcoming. Oh, yes! thought Octavia. If this was a fairy tale, then here was the ogre!
Mr Barraclough stopped and gazed at her for a moment, coolly assessing her. Octavia became conscious that her person was slight, and not very tall, that her dress was unimpressive, that one or two of her honey-gold curls had escaped from her bonnet and were now tumbling over her shoulders. She flushed angrily under his gaze and wished she had taken time to tidy herself. As he came towards her his stride was arrogantly athletic, his air one of impatience.
‘Edward Barraclough,’ he said curtly. ‘May I have your name?’
‘Certainly, sir. I am Octavia Petrie.’
‘Well, Miss Petrie, I don’t know how you heard so quickly about the post of governess here, but I’m afraid you’ve had a wasted journey. You’re not at all what I’m looking for.’
‘You are quite wrong—’
‘Am I? Whatever you may have said to charm my niece, give me one good reason why I should employ a woman who arrives on my doorstep—’
‘I don’t wish—’
Mr Barraclough swept on. ‘Arrives on my doorstep without warning, hoping to be engaged on the spot.’
Octavia forgot her embarrassment. ‘I should have thought that was exactly what you required, sir,’ she said tartly. ‘From what your nieces say, you need someone rather urgently. Or am I mistaken?’
Mr Barraclough stopped. He looked at her again, this time speculatively. ‘No, it’s true that we need someone…’ After a pause he said slowly, ‘Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps you’re not the pretty featherhead you look. You sound mighty sure of yourself.’
‘Featherhead!’ Octavia took a deep breath. ‘Really, sir! I assure you I am far from being a featherhead. Nor, unlike others I have met, am I a blockhead! Permit me to tell you—’
Mr Barraclough interrupted her yet again, but to Octavia’s astonishment, instead of taking offence at her words, he laughed and nodded in approval as he said, ‘That tone was fierce enough…And you’re quick. There might be more to you than I thought.’
Octavia replied, ‘I can be much fiercer than that, I assure you, sir! Not that I wish—’
‘Edward, do say she may stay! Please!’ called Pip from her perch on the window-sill. ‘She doesn’t believe in lists. She wouldn’t need to be fierce with us. I’m sure I could behave well if she was my governess.’
‘It is only for two months, Edward.’
Lisette’s intervention seemed to give Mr Barraclough pause. He looked at Lisette sharply. ‘You’d like her to stay, too? It isn’t just because you’re sorry for her?’
Lisette shook her head and said emphatically, ‘I think she would be absolutely right for us.’
Octavia could see that Mr Barraclough was impressed by Lisette’s words, and decided that it was high time she said something. ‘I’m sorry, but I must tell y—’
‘What are your qualifications?’ he asked. ‘I suppose you have some?’
Octavia was once more annoyed by his tone. He could do with a lesson or two in good manners himself, she thought. ‘I think I may say that I am qualified to teach the necessary skills,’ she said coldly, remembering all the expensive tutors and governesses insisted on by her mother, her sojourn at a highly exclusive Seminary for Young Ladies. ‘But that’s not the point—’
‘I suppose I’d be satisfied as long as you can keep them safe and happy, and under control. Can you do that? You wouldn’t have to teach them very much. Lisette is to come out next year, but I expect her aunt will see that she knows how to behave in Society.’
‘I do know something of that, too, but—’
‘This would be the very highest society, Miss Petrie. I wouldn’t expect or ask you to cope with that. I don’t suppose Mrs Barraclough would want you to teach Lisette the manners of some Dame’s School or other. She would want better.’
While Octavia was choking at hearing a Seminary that had been patronised by the cream of the English aristocracy described as ‘some Dame’s School,’ he went on, ‘Well, I suppose we could try you. If you’ll come into the library I’ll give you the terms and so on. You’ll find the salary generous, but the appointment is only for a short time—eight or nine weeks at the most. You do know that, do you?’
‘Your niece did say something of the kind. But I didn’t come—’
‘Good! Then it’s settled. Come through to the library.’
Am I never to be allowed to finish a sentence? Octavia asked herself. This Mr Barraclough absolutely deserves to be deceived! She looked at the two Barraclough girls, Pip nodding her head and almost falling off her perch with excitement, Lisette smiling for the first time since they had met, her wonderful eyes glowing with pleasure. Gipsy-black eyes hovered at the back of her mind…sparkling window-panes…To her astonishment she found herself saying, ‘Very well, sir,’ and meekly followed ‘the ogre’ into the library.
At the end of her interview with Mr Barraclough Octavia fervently hoped that Lady Dorney had been sincere in what she had said. She wasn’t sure whether she had succumbed to the force of Mr Barraclough’s powerful personality, or to the equally powerful force of this strange house. But to her bewilderment she found she had agreed to come back in four days’ time, complete with suitable references, to take up duties as a governess companion to the Barraclough girls. The ‘ogre’ had proved to be more accommodating than she would have imagined—or perhaps more desperate. After she had explained that she would like to keep an eye on an elderly relative who lived some distance away, she was promised two days a month, together with the use of the gig.
However, Mr Barraclough had made it all too clear that he was still not convinced that she could manage. This poor opinion of her abilities so annoyed Octavia that, as she took her leave of the Barracloughs, she swore to herself that she would prove him wrong if it was the last thing she did!
She refused the girls’ offers to accompany her down the drive, and set off in good time to be at the gate when Will Gifford came to pick her up. Having committed herself to a totally mad impersonation, she wanted to make sure it was carried through without any hitches, and Will and the gig were a potential giveaway. Most chance-met governesses did not leave in a well-cared-for gig with a groom who treated them with the deferential familiarity of an old servant!
Perhaps ‘impersonation’ was not the word—escapade was more like it. After all, she was not impersonating anyone else, and she had given Mr Barraclough her real name, if not her proper title. And though she had never sought employment of any kind, she was fully competent to look after two girls for two months, whatever their uncle thought. She would earn the very generous salary he had promised her…
But she still couldn’t understand why on earth she had agreed to do it! The house must have bewitched her. She stopped, turned and looked at it again. Wychford was once again sparkling and smiling in the sunlight. Perhaps there was more to the stories about the house than she had realised? Perhaps Aunt Carstairs had been the witch she and Harry had thought her! Why had she left her house to Octavia? Had she seen her goddaughter’s restlessness, yet understood Octavia’s reluctance to marry simply to escape from Ashcombe? It was possible.
But even the Witch of Wychford couldn’t have foreseen the Barracloughs and their problem. Or…could she?
As Octavia walked on down the drive she was thinking of the last time she had seen Aunt Carstairs. They had said their farewells and the footmen were waiting to assist the old lady into her carriage. But just before she got in her aunt had turned round to take Octavia’s hand and say, ‘Be patient, child. Rescue is at hand.’ Then, as the carriage prepared to drive off, she had put her head out of the window and added with a crow of laughter, ‘There’s even a hero in prospect, though you’ll take time to recognise him.’
Octavia was turning these words over in her mind now as she drew near the gates of Wychford. A hero? Not among the Barracloughs, that was certain! Edward Barraclough was not only already married, he was the opposite of all her ideals. Dark, abrupt, discourteous, and not much gaiety about him…Anyone less like Tom Payne would be difficult to imagine! No blond prince among the Barracloughs, then. So where? Perhaps one of the local neighbours had a son…But how could she meet him if she was an employee, a governess at Wychford? Octavia gave a sigh. Surely Aunt Carstairs could have managed better than this! But as Will Gifford drove up she laughed out loud. She was beginning to believe her own nonsense!
Octavia got back to Ashcombe in daylight and, wasting no time before setting her plans in motion, invited Lady Dorney to have tea with her in private. ‘It’s an age since I saw Papa so happy, ma’am,’ she began as they sat down in her parlour. ‘You are so good for him.’
Lady Dorney looked at her with amusement. ‘I’m glad to hear that. But I believe I know you too well to think it an idle remark,’ she murmured. ‘Tell me, what plans are you hatching in that pretty head of yours? I don’t believe you invited me here just to pay me compliments. Incidentally, you, too, look happier—excited even. What happened today?’
Octavia hesitated, then launched into an account of her adventures. When she reached the point where Edward Barraclough said that she wasn’t the featherhead he had thought, Lady Dorney was so amused that she nearly dropped her cup.
‘So when did you tell him that, far from being an indigent governess in search of a post, you were the daughter of the Earl of Warnham, and the owner of the house he was renting?’
‘I didn’t. I haven’t.’
‘What? Why on earth not?’
Octavia took a breath and said defiantly, ‘I’ve agreed to begin as their governess in four days’ time.’
‘But how can you possibly manage that? Rupert would never agree! To say nothing of pretending to be something you are not! No, no! You can’t do it, Octavia!’
‘I could. With a little help from you, ma’am.’
‘Your papa will never consent.’
‘I wouldn’t ask him. I would tell him that it was as he feared—Wychford needs further attention than I thought, that I need to spend some time seeing to it. It’s not quite a lie, ma’am!’
‘It’s not the truth, either! What do you think he would feel if he learned that his daughter was working as a governess?’
‘I don’t suppose he ever will. At the end of two months I’ll come back here and take up my old life again. But I wish I could explain to you…Those children need me, ma’am.’
‘So does your father. How will you persuade him to do without you?’
‘Ah! That’s where the favour comes in.’
‘Well, you did say that you’d like to stay longer this time. And if you were here Papa wouldn’t miss me nearly as much. Our housekeeper is perfectly competent, and the servants are all familiar with the routine of the house…’
‘If you are suggesting what I think you’re suggesting, the answer is no, Octavia! I won’t do it! Take charge of this house? Certainly not!’
‘You needn’t take charge, exactly—just be here. I could come back regularly to see that everything is working, though I’m sure it won’t be necessary. Please say you will, ma’am!’
Lady Dorney said somewhat coolly, ‘You realise, I hope, what I would be risking? Rupert and I have always been good friends. He would hardly believe it if he found out that I had helped you to deceive him. He would certainly be distressed. It might well mean the end of our friendship!’
‘It won’t! I swear it won’t. I just have a feeling…Cousin Marjorie, please do this! I know I am asking a lot. I can’t even explain why it is so important to me. Perhaps it’s the escape I’ve been looking for. Please help me!’
Lady Dorney hesitated, started to speak, then stopped again. Octavia waited in silence. At last her cousin said, ‘I’ve tried to persuade you so often to escape that I suppose I can hardly refuse to help you now. And I haven’t actually made any plans for the autumn, nor for the winter either. I don’t imagine I’ll be missed at Lutworth…’ She sighed, then sat up and said with decision, ‘Very well! I’ll do it! I’ll stay for two months. But I think I am as mad as you!’
With Lady Dorney’s help Octavia was on her way back to Wychford less than a week after her first fateful visit there. Will Gifford was once again her companion on the journey, but this time he would return to Ashcombe without her. At the back of the gig was a small valise with a selection of Octavia’s simplest dresses. Her hair was severely drawn back under an unadorned bonnet, her cape was of drab grey cloth plainly cut, and her gloves and boots serviceable rather than elegant. Lady Octavia Petrie, youngest child of one of the richest families in the south of England, and heiress in her own right of a handsome estate, had been replaced with simple Miss Petrie, newly engaged governess-companion to the Misses Barraclough.
A casual observer would not have known just how nervous she was. Her outward demeanour was composed and quietly confident. But the spirit of adventure had not disappeared. Inside Octavia was an unholy mixture of anticipation, apprehension, surprise at her own daring, and exhilaration at her escape. Two months. Two months to find out what she really wanted of life.
If anything, Wychford seemed more welcoming than ever. The day was overcast, but as the gig approached a fleeting ray of sunshine was reflected in those extraordinary windows. The house was smiling its quizzical smile. Lisette was hovering on the lawn, clearly waiting for her arrival. And as Octavia stepped out of the gig, Pip climbed down from the nearest tree. They took her over, Pip leading her to the door like a small tug in charge of a clipper, Lisette giving orders to the housekeeper.
‘We’ve given you a room near mine,’ said Pip. ‘Not exactly in the tower but nearby. Did you know that the old lady who used to live here was a witch? Mrs Dutton wasn’t here then, she lived in the next village, but she says all the villagers here were frightened of Mrs Carstairs.’
‘Really?’ As they went through the oak doors Octavia once again had the strange feeling that the house was enfolding her, welcoming her. ‘I think she must have been a good witch, Pip,’ she said, smiling. ‘Wychford is a friendly house. Don’t you agree?’
As a daughter of the Earl of Warnham Octavia had been accustomed all her life to the deference due to her rank and her wealth. But it was not difficult now for her to maintain her ‘disguise’. She was neither arrogant nor conceited, and she had more than her fair share of charm. Her normal, easy, matter-of-fact manner served her very well with everyone at Wychford. Everyone, that is, except the master of the household. She was still very much on trial as far as he was concerned, and more than once Octavia found herself biting back an unbecoming response when he made one of his critical remarks.
Fortunately he was frequently away on short visits to London. She learned that there had been three Barraclough brothers. John, the eldest and father of Lisette and Pip, had inherited a wealthy plantation on Antigua. Henry, the second son, also had land in the West Indies and was still over there. But Edward Barraclough, the youngest, had had little taste for plantation life, and when he had inherited a fortune made in banking by his uncle he had travelled the world. Now he apparently intended to settle permanently in England. At the moment he was attending meetings in the Foreign Office, advising the experts there on affairs in the Americas.
There had been some sort of plan for Lisette to marry the son of one of their neighbours in Antigua. But John Barraclough had suddenly changed his mind and decided to bring both girls over to England, where Lisette would be presented to London society. They had been busy with arrangements for the trip, when tragically both parents had been killed when their carriage had gone off the road, and the girls had been left orphaned. Their guardians, John’s surviving brothers, had decided to carry out John’s wishes, which was why they were now in England. But, the day before they left Antigua, Mrs Barraclough had slipped and broken her leg, and the girls had had to sail without their aunt. So the present plan was that the girls should live at Wychford in the care of a governess-companion until Mrs Barraclough could join them all there.
Octavia pieced this all together from what she learned in her first week at Wychford. Not from Lisette, who tended to be somewhat reserved, but from her sister. Discretion was not a word in Pip’s vocabulary. Once she had decided that Miss Petrie was a friend, she confided everything she knew of her family’s affairs quite freely.
One fine autumnal afternoon, after a morning’s work in the schoolroom, Octavia and Pip were walking in the woods behind the house. Lisette had stayed behind to finish a book she was reading.
‘You know, Miss Petrie, I think Uncle Henry was quite glad when Aunt Julia broke her leg,’ announced Pip.
Shocked, Octavia stopped short and looked at her. ‘What was that?’ she asked.
‘I said that I think Uncle Henry was glad Aunt Julia had broken her leg,’ Pip repeated patiently.
‘But that’s a dreadful thing to say, Pip! How could he be?’
‘It meant that he had to stay behind to look after her. Uncle Henry didn’t want to come to England, you know, and Aunt Julia’s broken leg meant he had to stay in Antigua a bit longer.’
‘But…I’m not sure I understand. If your Uncle Henry was so reluctant to leave the West Indies, why was it necessary for him to come at all? Surely your Aunt Julia and Uncle Edward would have been enough?’
‘That’s what Uncle Henry wanted. But Aunt Julia wouldn’t hear of it. She said Edward couldn’t be trusted to do the thing properly without the rest of the family to keep an eye on him.’
‘Tell me, if you call your uncle “Edward”, why don’t you call your aunt “Julia”?’
‘Oh, we couldn’t! She’s much older than he is! She looks a bit like Miss Froom.’
‘Really?’ Octavia was surprised. Older than he was, and looking a bit like Miss Froom? It seemed a most unlikely wife for Edward Barraclough.
Pip went on, ‘She and Edward don’t like each other very much. It’s easy to tell when people don’t. They’re always extremely polite to each other.’
Octavia pulled herself together and decided it was more than time for a proper governess to stem these confidences. ‘Philippa, you should not tell me such things. What happens between husband and wife is not for the outside world to know.’
‘What do you mean?’ Pip looked puzzled at first, then bent over in a fit of giggles. ‘Miss Petrie! You don’t think…You don’t think Aunt Julia is married to Edward, do you?’
‘Of course I do! Isn’t he?’
Pip went off into another paroxysm of giggles. ‘He’d rather die! He said so! Aunt Julia is Uncle Henry’s wife! And I once heard Edward telling Papa that he would never know why Uncle Henry had married such a sour-faced prune!’
Octavia bit her lip and managed to say severely, ‘Philippa! You must not, you really must not, repeat things like that, especially not to me! I’m sure your uncle would be very vexed to know that you had heard his words, and even angrier to know you were repeating them! Or even talking about him at all!’
‘Of course he would!’
‘Then I won’t say any more. I like Edward. But let me tell you this one thing. He isn’t married, Miss Petrie. Lisette is sorry for him. She thinks he must have a broken heart, but I think that’s rubbish. Some of the prettiest ladies in Antigua made a fuss of him, but he never paid them any attention. I was glad, I didn’t like any of them much. I want him to marry someone nice.’ She looked confidingly up at Octavia. ‘You would do very well, Miss Petrie. I’d like Edward to marry you. You’ll have to set your cap at him.’
Octavia gasped. What would the child say next? Choking back another urge to burst into laughter, she said sternly, ‘That’s enough! You must never let me hear you use such a vulgar expression again, Philippa! Where on earth did you pick it up?’
‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘To accuse someone of setting her cap at someone is not at all the thing. It’s not only vulgar, it’s unkind. You mustn’t use the expression.’
‘Edward used it. When we were talking about governesses. He said he didn’t want some pretty flibberty-gibbet whose sole aim was to set her cap at the first eligible bachelor who happened along. I don’t think he meant himself, though he’s very rich, you know. Lots of people have set their—’ Pip caught sight of Octavia’s frown and corrected herself. ‘Have tried to make him like them. Why don’t you want to?’
Repressing a mad impulse to tell the child that Edward Barraclough would be the last man she would ever consider, Octavia forced herself to think as a real governess would. The child’s capacity for verbatim reporting was amazing, but she would have to be taught to keep such things to herself. ‘I can see that you’ve been left to your own devices for too long, my girl!’ she said firmly. ‘You need a little discipline. Oh, don’t look like that! I’m not a Miss Froom. But you’ll have to learn to keep gossip and the things people say when they’re not thinking strictly to yourself. It’s called good manners.’
Pip sighed. ‘I’ll try to do as you say, but it’s very hard. Lisette thinks Edward needs a wife, and you would be so suitable! I’d like you for my aunt—you’re much nicer than Aunt Julia.’
‘Philippa! What have I just said?’
‘That I mustn’t gossip. But that wasn’t gossip, it was just an opinion! You would be good for Edward! You’re prettier than any of the ladies in Antigua. And much prettier than the lady he visits in London. Though he must like her a lot. He gives her lots of presents.’
Octavia gasped. What else would the child come out with? And what had Edward Barraclough been thinking of to let her see him with someone who, from the sound of it, was quite possibly his mistress?
‘I assure you, Philippa, that even if it were possible I would not consider marrying your uncle under any circumstances whatsoever!’ she said emphatically. ‘And we shall now finish this conversation and return to the house, where you will spend the rest of the afternoon improving your mind! Come!’
They turned to go back. Edward Barraclough was just walking towards them. He was only a few yards away, and looking more than usually sardonic. He could not have helped overhearing what she had just said.
‘Mr Barraclough!’ Octavia felt her face grow scarlet as she stammered, ‘We didn’t see you, sir…’
‘Edward!’ Pip launched herself at her uncle. ‘We thought you were in London! What are you doing here?’
‘Looking for Lisette. I have a letter from Antigua for her, but I couldn’t find her in the house. I thought she would be with you, Miss Petrie.’
With a considerable effort Octavia mastered her confusion and said politely, ‘Is she not in her room, sir? We left her there reading.’
‘She isn’t there now. I suggest you find her as speedily as you can. How long is it since you left her to her own devices?’
Octavia coloured again, this time with anger. But she said calmly and carefully, ‘About an hour, sir. I left her, in her own room, with a book she said she wished to finish. It did not seem to me to be a very hazardous occupation.’
Mr Barraclough nodded. ‘And if she had stayed there we should not now be looking for her. But she didn’t. Nor did she answer when I called. Where do you suppose she is, Miss Petrie? While you have been…exchanging confidences with Philippa, my other niece has been unsupervised for over an hour.’
‘Don’t be angry with Miss Petrie, Edward. Lisette’s safe. I expect she’s sitting in the sun on the top of the tower. She likes it there.’
‘On top of the…’ Octavia picked up her skirts and began to hurry back to the house. Mr Barraclough overtook her after just a few paces. By the time she had reached the foot of the stairs to the tower he was already coming down, followed by Lisette.
‘Why are you annoyed, Edward?’ she was saying in a puzzled voice. ‘It is perfectly safe up there! The parapet is high and the roof is sound.’
‘I called you. Why didn’t you answer?’
‘I didn’t hear you.’ Lisette had reached Octavia. ‘Miss Petrie, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to give you a fright.’
‘It’s all right, Lisette. I was anxious for a moment or two, but I should have known you are too sensible to do anything rash. Your uncle was worried when he couldn’t find you. Did you finish your book?’
‘Yes. And then I sat in the sun and fell asleep. That’s why I didn’t hear his call. Don’t be angry with me, Edward!’
‘I’m not angry,’ he said abruptly. ‘I was worried when I couldn’t find you.’
Lisette shook her head at him. ‘You needn’t be,’ she said. ‘I’m quite safe here. Why were you looking for me?’
‘I have some letters from Antigua for you, including one from your Aunt Julia. If you and Pip will come down in a few minutes I’ll deliver them. I’d like a word with Miss Petrie first.’
Octavia looked at Mr Barraclough’s frown. ‘I think you’d both be better for a tidy up,’ she said with a smile at the girls. ‘The tower may be safe, Lisette, but it isn’t very clean. And Pip’s clothes always need attention! Tidy yourselves up before you come down.’
As she followed Edward Barraclough down the stairs, through the hall, and into the library she wondered what he would say. It would not be pleasant, she was sure. He had almost certainly overheard her words to Pip, and she steeled herself to be ready to apologise for them, though she was not at all clear what she could possibly say. But his attitude towards her supervision of Lisette was unreasonable, and if he were to accuse her again of neglecting her duties she would find that difficult to accept without protest.
She was surprised therefore when he invited her to sit down. He stared at her for a moment, then walked to the window. Without turning, he said abruptly, ‘I suppose you think I was too hard on you.’
‘About Lisette? Well…’
‘You needn’t hesitate, Miss Petrie. I believe I know what you think of me. But that is of no concern at the moment. I wish to explain why we are so careful of Lisette.’
He came over and sat down at his desk. ‘I’m not sure how much you’ve heard of our family history, though I imagine Pip has told you everything she knows by now. She seems to have taken a decided fancy to you.’ Mr Barraclough’s tone implied that he did not share Pip’s feelings. ‘She isn’t too much for you?’
‘I don’t think so, sir. She is a delightful little girl. And a highly intelligent one.’
‘Hmm! You seem to have her confidence at any rate. She’s brighter than Lisette, of course.’
‘More lively, certainly. But Lisette is utterly charming. She will be a great success in Society.’
‘And what would you know of that?’ he asked derisively.
Octavia bit her lip. She had spoken without thinking. Governesses would not normally be able to judge how Society would receive their pupils. But she recovered and said quietly, ‘Her beauty, her gentleness and concern for others, must endear her to anyone who meets her, here or in the greater world.’
‘You’ve read too many novels. I hope you’re not stuffing Lisette’s head with such nonsense. In my experience, gentleness and concern for others are not the qualities looked for in the ladies of society. Nor are they often found—’ He stopped as Octavia drew a sharp breath. ‘You wished to say something? No? Then I’ll continue. Lisette’s beauty will be a great asset, but she has a more reliable key to success, the most important one of all. Wealth, Miss Petrie. Money. She is a considerable heiress. That is what will make her a success in Society.’
Octavia could not let this pass. ‘I would not wish to stuff anyone’s head with romantic nonsense, sir. But neither would I wish to give any young person as cynical a view of the world as the one you have just expressed.’
‘Yes, yes, I dare say. But your experience is somewhat limited. What if I were to tell you that, young as she is, Lisette has already been rescued from an unsuitable association?’
This was a surprise. Lisette had never mentioned anything of the sort. ‘I suppose I would have to believe you,’ Octavia said slowly. ‘This was in Antigua, I take it?’
‘Of course. The son of one of the neighbours thought that marrying my niece would be an easy way to make himself rich. Ricardo Arandez has a great deal of address, and Lisette, as you may have observed, is too ready to believe what people say, too ready to like them. Her father was the same. Arandez persuaded him to consent to a betrothal. Fortunately Lisette was still very young, so, though John agreed, he insisted it should not be official before she was sixteen. By that time his eyes had been opened to Arandez’s true character.’ He smiled grimly. ‘I made sure of it. John withdrew his consent, and Lisette was saved from what would have been a disastrous marriage. Ricardo Arandez is a scoundrel.’
‘Was she in love with this man?’
‘Of course not! The girl was far too young to be in love.’
Octavia thought of Tom Payne and smiled. ‘Is one ever?’
Mr Barraclough surveyed her. ‘This is just what I feared. Miss Froom would have taken my point immediately, but you are still trailing clouds of romantic folly. Miss Petrie, let me make myself clear. Your task is to look after Lisette, and that includes guarding her from undesirable acquaintances until her aunt is able to take over from you. It is highly unlikely that Arandez will find his way to Wychford, but if he or any other potential fortune hunter appears on the scene, I wish to be told of it immediately.’
‘The risk here is surely slight, but I will certainly promise you that. However, I hope that doesn’t include acting as some sort of jailer, watching her twenty-four hours a day?’
‘No, no. I admit I overreacted to her disappearance this afternoon. My excuse is that I had just heard from my sister-in-law, who is somewhat too protective of our nieces, and always ready to accuse me of not looking after them well enough. I suppose I was still under the influence of her letter.’ He fell silent.
Octavia waited a moment, then said, ‘Is that all, sir?’
‘What? Oh, yes. Ask the girls to come in, will you?’
She went to the door. As she opened it he said, ‘By the way, Miss Petrie!’ She stopped and turned. ‘I know it is almost impossible to silence Pip, but I should prefer you not to discuss my affairs with her. However…I am relieved to know that I am safe from your attentions—whatever the circumstances!’ He sat back in his chair with a smile of satisfaction as she blushed and hurried out of the room.
Still grinning, Edward reached out and pulled a letter towards him. It was from his sister-in-law. Just as he would have expected, it was full of the usual mixture of pointed remarks about his life style, instructions about the girls and dire warnings. What she would say when she learned that he had got rid of Miss Froom and replaced her with a green girl he hardly liked to think. But this time at least Julia had some justification for her fears. She had heard that Ricardo Arandez had left Antigua and was on his way to Europe. She was afraid he might have ideas about meeting Lisette again…
Edward Barraclough sighed. Life at Wychford was not as awful as he had feared. In fact it was occasionally quite pleasant. But, much as he loved his nieces, he wished to heaven he had not been called upon to fill the gap left by Julia’s accident. Playing nursemaid to two vulnerable girls was no occupation for a grown man. There seemed to be no end to the problems, and meanwhile his personal life was suffering a marked decline. Louise was not a woman to tolerate neglect for long, and his most recent visit had been something of a failure. He had found her boringly possessive. What concern was it of hers how he spent his time away from her? He hadn’t told her how, of course, but she would never have believed him if he had! That he was living in the depths of the country with two young girls and a dowdily dressed young woman! She would have found the very idea ridiculous. And so did he! But that didn’t give his mistress—his mistress, for God’s sake!—the right to know where he went and what he did when he wasn’t with her! She was lovely enough, but her voice could get unpleasantly shrill. He was starting to lose patience with the old doddards at the Foreign Office, too, and beginning to think he was wasting his time on them. When would they learn to leave eighteenth-century politics behind, and step into the nineteenth century?
There was one bright spot in all this. Though he didn’t particularly want to admit it, Miss Petrie seemed to be a success, for all her youth and prettiness. Edward smiled again as he thought of her confusion when he had teased her a few minutes ago about her remark to Pip. Her cheeks had been bright red. Serve her right! No man liked to hear himself spoken of with such scorn, even by a dab of a governess!
No, that was wrong. She might be small, but she wasn’t a dab of anything. An intriguing young woman, Miss Petrie. The girls really liked her, and the servants all treated her with genuine respect. What was her background? She had brought a letter with her, but after a quick glance through he had put it away without bothering to study it more closely. He unlocked a drawer, took out a folder and opened it. The letter of reference was on top, and he picked it up and read it. It was from a Lady Dorney of Lutworth Court, who seemed to be a woman of intelligence and education. Edward remembered meeting Gerard Dorney a few years before. This was clearly his mother. Lady Dorney’s letter recommended Octavia Petrie without reservation, praising her patience, her efficiency, her trustworthiness, her high standard of education…All the virtues. It made the girl sound so worthy! A Miss Froom without the sourness. So very dull.
And yet he had the distinct impression that Miss Petrie was far from dull. He was not quite sure why. She dressed quietly enough, with no attempt to attract. If he had not seen those honey-gold curls that had tumbled about her shoulders at their first meeting he would never have known they existed. Miss Petrie wore her hair in a firmly disciplined knot, or even under a cap. She was not particularly tall, and her figure, from what he had seen of it, was slight. Apart from her forget-me-not blue eyes, he would not have said there was anything interesting or attractive about her to a man whose taste ran to women like Louise Kerrall. For a moment he tried to think of Louise as he had last seen her, petulant but still seductively lovely…but the image of Miss Petrie kept getting in the way.
Miss Petrie wasn’t dull. She was quick-witted and amusing. And there was something about that small figure: the imperious turn of the head, the straight back, the slender neck. Her carriage was graceful, her manner unassuming, but Miss Petrie was neither humble nor respectful, not underneath. Like Pip, she had a mind of her own, and though she was more skilled at disguising it, she was no more prepared than Pip to give way without argument.
Edward Barraclough was intrigued. Perhaps he should spend more of the time he was forced to spend at Wychford in getting to know his nieces’ governess! He told himself with a grin that he would be perfectly safe. No risk of being caught. He had heard it from the lady’s own mouth—Miss Petrie wouldn’t consider him as material for a husband, not under any circumstances! What was more, she had sounded as if she meant it. For a moment Edward Barraclough was tempted to prove her wrong, but he rejected it instantly. It might well be an interesting exercise, but one did not seduce governesses—not if one were a gentleman.
As a result of these musings Mr Barraclough began to pay more attention to his nieces’ progress at Wychford. He found Miss Petrie’s methods of instruction unconventional—certainly by Miss Froom’s standards. But to his surprise they were in fact quickly making up for lost ground. It was true that laughter was quite frequently heard coming from the room set aside for their morning lessons, but, when he stopped to listen, it always subsided after a moment and was followed by a period of eager discussion, then silence, or questions and answers. Sometimes Miss Petrie read aloud to them. Her voice was beautiful—warm, low in pitch and slightly husky.
When the weather was suitable the governess took her charges into the grounds in the afternoons, and Edward made an effort to join them occasionally. He discovered that lessons were not confined to the mornings in the schoolroom. The girls might not realise it, but they were learning a great deal more while they enjoyed themselves outdoors. Artists, music, scenes from history, a comparison of the plants to be found in the West Indies with those they found in the grounds of Wychford—these and many other topics were taken up to be discussed, dropped if they proved dull, or pursued the next day if they were interesting. At first Miss Petrie seemed inhibited by his presence, but as she grew more used to him he discovered that she used him quite ruthlessly to expand the scope of their discussions, and he was closely questioned by all three about his travels.
Each girl had a notebook for records. Lisette was their botanical recorder. Her exquisite line drawings of leaves, trees and late-blooming flowers were carefully dated and kept in a large folder. Some of them had been turned into delicate watercolours. Pip was more interested in animals and buildings. Her book was filled with bizarre sketches of birds, mice, insects, windows, gable corners, gargoyles and, of course, chimney pots. But the measurements and notes underneath were neatly kept, and checked by Miss Petrie.
And always, at some point in the walk, there would be a game, or some form of more energetic exercise. Pip needed no encouragement, but even Lisette was persuaded to run or skip.
Attracted by the sound of laughter and shouts, Edward came out one afternoon to find them behind the house, enjoying a particularly energetic ball game. All three, including Miss Petrie, were chasing about the lawn. Lisette was doing her best to dodge her governess and throw the ball to Pip. It was a lively, noisy scene, but when Miss Petrie saw him approaching, she left the girls to carry on by themselves and made frantic attempts to tidy herself up. She was still in the middle of twisting her hair into its usual knot when he joined her. Her cheeks were flushed and she was breathing quite fast. She looked about the same age as Lisette. He was amused at the air of challenge about her as she said,
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