The Earl’s Return- Chapter One

I’m a little bit crazy and am working on finishing up The Secrets of Netherfield Abbey while also working on my first Regency Romance, The Earl’s Return. Oh, and then there’s Sufficient Encouragement’s sequel, Renewed Hope too. I’m posting The Earl’s Return on Wattpad as well.

This is a very rough draft and I’m still working on a blurb. The Love and Duty Series begins when several school aged girls make a vow to marry only for love after witnessing it’s transformative powers on their most hated teacher. Years later, they discover life has other plans for them.

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The Earl’s Return: Stephen Clifford had no compassion when Clara Lumley needed it most. She broke his heart by belittling his family. Thirteen years later, anger and bitterness have set in. The last thing either one of them expects is a second chance at their lost love.

Chapter One

 

Giggling, carefree girls irritated her more than anything else in the world. Didn’t they know their happy lives could crumble in an instant? Clara Lumley, Mrs. Alderly’s School for Girls’ youngest teacher, glared down the main hall at a group of girls. In the ten years she had been educating the next crop of society’s empty-headed, passably pretty and tolerably rich debutantes, she had never met a group she could not curtail. Long ago, she used the same glare on her sisters.

Marching to the gaggle of ninnies, Clara saw the precise moment the favorite of the group noticed her. The young lady in question, Lady Hannah Edgecumbe, silenced and nudged her friends. The other girls soon fell in step, but Clara’s watchful eyes did not miss the shifting of a book behind Miss Cecilia Ward’s hand.

“Hand it over,” Clara said.

“I do not understand what you mean,” Lady Hannah said sweetly. Her large eyes and angelic face could allow her to get away with highway robbery.

Unfortunately for Lady Hannah, Clara needed this job far more than any highwayman needed his stolen acquisitions. “That won’t do. Miss Ward, you know the rules. Forfeit the contraband or I shall ring for Mrs. Alderly, and you will be dismissed immediately.”

Terror lit Miss Ward’s eyes and she handed over a small book.

Lady Hannah met Clara’s eyes. “It is my book, Miss Lumley.”

Clara turned it over in her hands. Histories, or Tales Past Time. Clara knew the book well, as a young girl she reveled in the fairy tales translated into English by Robert Samber. The topic would certainly fit Lady Hannah’s romantic sensibilities, but she could easily read it in original French. She was by far the most intelligent and cleverest of this odd circle of ladies. No, Clara would wager the book belonged to either Miss Ward or Miss Penelope Jenners. Miss Ward was very much like her mother—a former opera singer and social climber, currently the third wife to her fourth husband, an aging baronet. Miss Penelope came from trade but her father amassed a fortune as a japanning factory owner in the North. Her older sister’s arrogance was well-known in the school, and Clara had seen nothing to show Penelope was any different. Clara had been only a few years older than these girls when she discovered the pretension and vanity of tradesmen who found themselves grotesquely wealthy.

“Then I shall return it to your father at the end of the term,” Clara said. “As the book is yours, you will an essay on the comparing Queen Elizabeth’s handling of the Spanish Armada and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s involvement in her son’s revolt.”

“Com—comparison?” Lady Hannah’s voice squeaked.

“Indeed. You will turn it in at the end of the week.” Clara thrilled at the stupefied look on the insurrectionist’s face. “Now, return to your rooms. The dinner bell rings in an hour, and I believe Lady Helen and Miss Cole have already been late twice this term, and I have no shortage of essays to assign.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the ladies whispered, and Clara resumed her walk to the stairs.

Once in her room, she tossed the book on her bed. Fairy tales! She did not agree with Mrs. Alderly’s curriculum for young ladies—surely they needed more than to be an adornment to some man—but fairy tales could not be further from what life offered. But then, the girls of this school were blessed far more than she ever was. The students were made up of a few daughters of peers. Like many others, the ladies Edgecumbe—Hannah and Helen—were beautiful and clever. Daughters of an earl, they had never known a moment of want in their lives. A handful of heiresses, such as Miss Rachel Cole, existed as well. The real money, however, came from sources like Miss Ward’s family that skirted the edge of propriety and the Miss Jenners whose family owned a large and lavish house and park with just a few tenants. Their income came nearly entirely from trade, not the land.

Brushing out her hair and repinning the tight coiffure, Clara could not help but recall her life at fourteen. Her father had died when she was young, and her mother married a country clergyman when Clara was nine. She joyfully welcomed Dorothy, called Dottie, the next year and hoped for many more siblings. Her wish was granted at fourteen when Esther was born. Sadly, her mother died from a fever outbreak months later.

Clara maintained her happy disposition, however. Taking an interest in medicine and the science of preventive disease, she counseled her step-father on the importance of smallpox variolation, but he desired to wait until the children were older as many still became sick with a weaker version. Disaster struck the family when Clara was seventeen and on a holiday from the family. Dottie and Esther became ill with the pox. Ten-year-old Dottie’s rash remained flat, unlike the usual course of the disease, and her fever was very high and raged for days. When at last it broke, her senses remained addled.

The illness caused Clara to cut her holiday short. She would never regret coming home to assist Dottie and Esther, she only hated how faithless her one suitor proved. Refusing to understand her reasons for departure, he broke their engagement and then left the country for duties in India.

There proved no compassion about Stephen Clifford. He was determined to demonstrate his father, a baronet whose title was revoked due to perjury, innocent. Clara smoothed her skirt. She supposed Stephen succeeded there. A few years later Sir Francis Lumley was reinstated just before dying. The title passed to Stephen’s elder brother and, last she heard, Stephen remained in India. Clara’s step-father died shortly after Sir Francis and, resisting the advances of her step-father’s benefactor, Mr. Jones, she argued for her sisters to live in a small cottage on the estate.

She worked first as a governess for Mr. Jones’ but then took a position at Mrs. Alderly’s school. It was several hours from home and did not allow her to visit often. She wished with all her heart Dottie and Esther could live nearer, but the physician did not believe a move would be good for Dottie.

The door clicked behind Clara as she left for dinner and with it, she locked the door on melancholy musings of a missed youth as well. She was no princess in a tower, and she needed no prince to rescue her.

 

*****

 

Stephen Clifford’s body ached as his horse walked ever closer to his childhood home. Indeed, he was little more than a child when he left it thirteen years ago. He thought then that his heart had broke and traveling to an exotic land filled with jewels, spices, and bright sun would cure him. Now,  he understood there was only ugliness in the world.

It was still dusk, but Stephen easily made out the outlines of familiar buildings. Little had changed in this corner of the world. Would that he could be as untarnished. The manor house finally came into view and in a few more yards he made out a black wreath on the door. Curiosity and affection would compel most to ride faster, but Stephen slowed the horse. He had left India six months ago upon notification of his brother’s illness. He and Frederick had never been close; Stephen came only to support his beloved mother. Seeing the wreath—which looked as though it had been up for several weeks—only reminded Stephen of the responsibilities that awaited him. He must now be the Viscount of Lowther and by God, he intended to use his new clout and political opportunities to right injustices his family perpetuated.

Arriving at the stable a young boy he did not know took the horse. “You the master?”

“I am Stephen Clifford. Is her ladyship well?”

“She right heartsick. Been waiting for you for months now.”

The boy took the reins and shook his head in disapproval. It appeared a few things had changed around Turnstall Hall. Of course, Stephen’s mother was always indulgent with servants. It was his father that would have beat the boy for such insolence. He walked onward and was greeted warmly by the old butler.

“Master Stephen! Beg pardon, Lord Lowther.”

“None of that,” Stephen said and looked around the main hall.

“Her ladyship is in the breakfast room. Or would you prefer to refresh first?”

“Yes, thank you. I dare not shock my mother smelling of horse and road.”

“If it pleases you, we kept Thompson on after my lord’s passing. We did not know when to expect you. I shall send him up.”

“Thank you. My trunks come behind me by at least a day, but there is a fresh change of clothes in the saddle pack.”

Then, as a child hides from his governess to avoid discipline, Stephen nearly ran to his old chamber. Anything to give him a few more minutes before greeting his mother and filling his father and brother’s shoes.

An hour later he returned downstairs, prepared to brave his mother and was directed to the blue drawing room.

“Mother,” he quietly said upon opening the door.

“Oh!” she cried in alarm and stood, dropping her embroidery. “Is it really you? I would think you an apparition, but you are too tan! No, I could never have imagined you looking like this! I gave you up for dead, though! I thought I was alone in all the world!” Her body shook with excitement, and soon she began to weep.

“Calm yourself,” he said and walked to her side. He touched her hand. “See, I am alive and whole.”

“Darling Stephen!” she cried, and he lead her back to her seat. He retrieved a glass of wine for her. “My last baby, such a very good boy,” she said and patted his hand when he sat beside her.

She was the most affectionate mother in the world, and Stephen hated the selfishness in him that kept him from her all these years. “Do not cry, Mother. I do not believe I deserve such praise. I ought to have returned when Father died.”

“You ought to have never left,” she said between sniffles.

“I am sorry you have been so alone. Fred’s wife did not stay?”

Lady Lowther frowned. “You never could make that woman stay with the family. Always in London with her paramours! I told Freddie I did not like her, but he would not listen to me. She had been picked by your father, you know, and Freddie never could disappoint his lordship.”

Stephen ran a hand through his long and thick hair, Unlike me.

“It is a blessing they did not have children.”

“Indeed,” was all he could say.

“There is the issue of his ward,” Lady Lowther said.

“He has a ward?”

“From when he was involved with that opera singer. She’s Lady Vernon now.”

Stephen blinked. “We seldom got news of London gossip.”

“Let’s see. She was Miss Sophia Ward when she first came to stage. She’s been unlucky in love, getting taken in several times by unscrupulous men who were already married! It is a good thing your brother was chosen as guardian for Miss Cecilia Ward. She is supposed to inherit money from her uncle and girls of fourteen have been seduced before for a fortune.”

“Fourteen!”

“But never mind, she is a very good girl. She is in school at Mrs. Aldersy’s, of course. We get a monthly report from the school. She has many friends and is happy but for one teacher who seems to dislike her because of her origins. A natural daughter, you understand.”

“Certainly.”

“Really, I believe after you meet her you will have no complaints at all.”

“Meet her?”

“Freddie would visit a few times every year, and he always inspected the school once a year anyway.”

“I trust she is a nice girl, and everything is run properly. There is no need for me to stick my nose into it.”

“Just because it is a school for girls does not mean you should shirk your responsibilities to them any more than other parts of being Lord Lowther.”

“What do you mean? Get to the point, please, Mother. I have not been away so long that I cannot recall your ability to prevaricate.”

“You are the landlord. Laura got it in her head to start a girl’s school some years ago. Her friends were all making a fuss over charities. She lost interest soon enough, and Freddie was stuck paying for it all.”

“He could have sold it.”

“He did not want to lose the money on it.”

“And this Miss Ward is a charity case of Fred’s then?”

“No, ‘tis only that they do not charge her tuition. Lord Vernon sees to everything else. There’s really no trouble to her as you will see at the meeting next week.”

“Absolutely not. I will be far too busy seeing to Parliament and the estate to bother with a school. They can send someone to me.”

“I rather think Miss Ward depends upon the visit. She was quite attached to Freddie and could do with some cheering.”

“Then I will ride over tomorrow but a long tour at a school next week is impossible.”

“You always were a good boy,” his mother said and kissed his cheek. “Now, I must rest. I tire so quickly these days.”

When she left the room, Stephen muttered to himself. “What am I to do with a fourteen-year-old girl who admired the brother I have not seen in a decade as her guardian?”

One thought on “The Earl’s Return- Chapter One

  1. My Oh My but you have a lot on your plate. I am going to have to save this too read at another time as my plate is spilling over. It does look intriguing. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

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