The Earl’s Return- Chapter Two

Here we go with Chapter Two!

earl's return 3

Chapter Two

 

The following morning, after breakfast and his first proper bath in ages, Stephen rode the twenty miles to Mrs. Alderly’s School for Girls. If his colleagues in India could see him now, they would roll on the floor with laughter. Harangued into calling on a little girl at school by his mother. But then, he owed his mother, at least, this much.

Growing up, he was her favorite child, being several years younger than his brother. As a young man, he was so eager to prove his worth to his father and cast off his mother’s overprotective worries that he was willing to risk life and limb to defend his father’s honor and name after being stripped of his title due to perjury.

More than a dozen years ago Clara Lumley had questioned his father’s integrity, and he could not stay and listen to anything else she had to say. Years later he discovered just how dishonorable his father was, but he could not forgive Clara. She had no way of knowing the truth. She had said it only to hurt him; the man she professed to love.

It was a lesson worth learning, however. He had seen many a man fooled by a mercenary and manipulative woman in India. Stephen arrived already knowing the truth. Like so many things in life, a woman’s exterior might be beautiful and blemish free, but deep inside it was rotten to the core. He had little doubt the young lady he was about to meet would prove just as deceitful. Undoubtedly mothers and schools began training girls for their cunning arts at a young age.

Arriving at noon, Stephen wondered what the etiquette was for calling at school. He never recalled receiving visitors while he was at school but put it down to the difference between male and female education in general. He had only known one lady who was interested in things beyond his opinion, dancing, and embroidery.

A maid showed him to an ample sized drawing room, and a moment later an older lady with graying hair and old-fashioned clothes bustled into the room.

“Lord Lowther, how very nice to meet you!” She said far too cheerfully for a woman whose business it was to mind young women.

“And you are?” His tone removed the brightness of her smile.

“Pardon me. I am Mrs. Alderly, of course. Your mother promised you would come and has written so much about you that I felt we were already acquainted.”

After they both sat and tea was called for, she broke the silence. “I suppose you are here for the yearly tour.”

Was it his imagination or did she seem uneasy? “No, ma’am. I have far too much to see to. I cannot spare the time to inspect your school.”

“Well, I would be pleased to answer any questions you might have.”

Stephen nodded his head. “Certainly. Can you show me the books? I only need to know that the girls’ needs are being met, and it is not a financial drain. I leave their happiness entirely to your care.”

Mrs. Alderly paled. Undoubtedly his brother had been a far more active landlord and benefactor. “I know very little about education and emotional fortitude of ladies of any age, and I make no pretension about it. Surely, you know it is in your best interest that your students return home content and accomplished. Therefore, it is in my best interest to leave well enough alone and allow you to govern the school as you see fit.”

His hostess smiled a fraction. “Very well, my lord. I will call for the books to be brought in. Would you care to see Miss Ward now or afterward?”

Stephen gritted his teeth. It was like asking if he would rather be shot in the foot or the hand. “Bring her now and I will take the books home with me.”

Far too soon, a short girl with the budding figure of a woman entered the room. She had plain brown hair, simply arranged and held a book in her hand. She certainly looked nothing like what he expected from an opera singer’s daughter. Then, Mrs. Alderly did the unthinkable. She left them alone.

Miss Ward sat on the settee across from him, the book still in her hands clenched tight, and her eyes cast down. After several minutes of silence, he cleared his throat. “Pardon me, Miss Ward, but I do not know what I am doing. I have never done this before.”

His voice seemed to startle her, but she reacted to his statement with giggles. “Excuse me,” she gasped between the laughter.

Lord Almighty in Heaven. She giggled. At him! If Fred weren’t dead, Stephen would punch him square in the jaw for this. “May I ask what you find humorous?”

“Of course, you have not visited a girls’ school before, very few men ever have. Then the image of you dressed as a lady with feathers and wearing a lacy and a hideous bonnet came to mind, and I could not repress my laughter,” she said all the while fighting a smile.

Stephen wanted to rant and rail that hundreds of men in India that would testify on behalf of his manliness but the girl’s nervous laughter was endearing. “Should you not apologize for being so free with my person in your imagination?” He pretended to scold and winked, sending her tittering again.

When she caught her breath, she smiled and put the book to her side. “You remind me a little of your brother.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I suppose that is a good thing?”

She eagerly nodded her head. “I know it sounds strange, but I liked your brother.” She frowned and explained, “I do not have many friends. They do not like who my mother is. At home, I am surrounded by her silly friends. Lord Lowther would talk to me about serious things and actually listen to me.”

It appeared in the time Stephen had been gone, Fred transformed into a responsible man, rather than the young rake who had an affair with this lady’s mother. Stephen considered what his mother told him of Lady Vernon. Miss Ward likely needed a positive male example in her life. “Is that right? And what are you reading, Miss Ward?”

She picked up the book and blushed. “It is about the life of Queen Elizabeth.” She leaned forward and dropped her voice. “Don’t tell anyone, but I am enjoying it. I love reading about history. I am supposed to be helping my friend Lady Hannah with an essay since she took the blame for my having a contraband book.”

“Oh? And what was the book?”

“Fairy tales, translated into English. I daresay that is half of what set Miss Lumley off. If it had been French, she would have believed Lady Hannah and not cared so much. She knows my French is deplorable and, therefore, knew it must be mine.”

“Ah. And she doesn’t like you because of your mother?”

“It is more than that. She doesn’t like anyone who comes from a trade background whose family is wealthy. You ought to see how her eyes snap with fire when she’s angry, though. You would think dragons were real!”

Stephen’s heart came to a halt. Surely, it must be a different Miss Lumley with fire burning in her eyes. Had not Clara said she had a sister? Was it two sisters? But they were much younger than her. Far too young to teach. Lumley was a common enough name, and they were one county away.

“Of course, if I dared say that to Miss Lumley,” Miss Ward continued, “I would have a dozen essays to write! She teaches history, but everyone knows her passion is science and medicine.” She dropped her voice again. “I saw her inoculating the cook once. Mrs. Alderly would be steamed to see the teachers mingle with the servants and for Miss Lumley doing doctor work like that!”

Stephen clenched his fist. He doubted there was another lady in the Kingdom let alone with the name Lumley as interested in the prevention of disease as Clara Lumley. He doubted even more that he could stay a moment longer. He always imagined Clara married long ago with a dozen children by now. Instead, she was an impoverished spinster teacher. He was surprised to feel compassion for her but absolutely could not risk seeing her. Indeed, being her employer in any fashion was insupportable. The school would just have to be sold. He stood abruptly.

“Forgive me, Miss Ward. I have just recalled an errand that needs my immediate attention. I must leave.” He bowed while she stuttered out a goodbye. He strode across the room, seeing nothing but the fire snapping in Clara’s eyes at their last meeting all those years before. Then, it had been a blow to his heart. Now, it was a blow to his head. Just before reaching the door it jerked open and hit him square in the face.

 

*****

 

Clara heard a hard thunk as she pushed open the door to the sitting room, intent on capturing her wayward pupil. “Oh, heavens! I didn’t mean to hurt you, Cece!” Hearing a masculine swear, she soon realized that Miss Ward’s guardian was her unintended victim.

A man stumbled away from the door and quickly pulled a handkerchief up to his nose to staunch the flow of blood. “I am so sorry, sir!” She exclaimed. “Here, allow me to help you.” She pulled him by his free arm to the settee. Cecilia stood frozen “Miss Ward, ask a maid to send a poultice up from the Kitchen. Some court-plaster may be needed as well and ice if Cook has any.”  The girl still did not move. “Now!”

Finally, Cecilia fled the room, and Clara turned her attention toward the gentleman again. “If you will pinch your nose and lean forward, the flow should stop in a few minutes.”

“Backward you mean,” the man replied in a gruff voice and rested his head on the back of his seat.

“I am sorry to correct you, sir, but forward is better. Allowing the blood to drain down the throat can cause you to cast your accounts.”

He remained still for a moment before complying.

“I truly am sorry.”

“Sorrier it was me and not Miss Ward? Save your apologies for someone else, Miss Lumley.”

Clara turned red. She knew she was hard on the students, but she did care for them. “I know I am not Miss Ward’s favorite teacher, as she so evidently has told you, but I would never wish to hurt her. I daresay any lady would be embarrassed by harming a gentleman and a stranger.”

An angry laugh rumbled from the man beside her and a maid bustled in with a tray of supplies. Clara supposed Cecilia was lurking in the door frame or gathering Mrs. Alderly. “Thank you, Molly. The ice first, please.” She applied it to the stranger’s nose and did not miss him wincing at the pressure.

“Again, I apologize.”

“I am surprised a teacher is serving as a nurse. Is the housekeeper not capable?”

“Mrs. Alderly tends to all the household things for the last year or two, but she leaves the medical things to me.”

“I am surprised you did not marry an apothecary then.”

Clara blushed and was thankful he could not see. Vexing man to torment her while she attempted to help him. “Shall I tie up the next single one I find and abscond to Scotland? I might have bloodied your nose, but do not think that gives you leave to be so impertinent. What care I for your opinion and ridicule?”

She changed out his bloodied handkerchief for hers, and he did not bother to reply as their hands grazed. She took a moment to study him. Long ago she cared a great deal for the opinion of a well-dressed gentleman of muscular build and with dark hair. Of course, eyes were her true weakness then, and she had never seen another pair that could capture her the way Stephen Clifford had. She had long since stopped looking for even a paltry stand-in. Why should she rely on a gentleman for her security when she could make her own?

At last, it was time to assess the patient for other injuries to his face. “If you will remove the handkerchief, I will see if the other items are needed.”

The gentleman seemed hesitant at first but then sat upright and removed the handkerchief. Already, bruises were forming under his eyes.

“Yes, there is a cut under your eye as well. If you could slide lower, or perhaps lay on the settee, I could apply the plaster easier.”

“Is there not a footman who can do this?” He asked in a gruff tone.

“We have no footmen, sir.”

He repositioned himself, and he closed his eyes as Clara set to work. Something about the man unnerved her, and she chose to chatter. “You are very tan, sir. Have you been on a holiday?”

“I have just returned from India.”

“India! Tell me about it.” She hated the fact that she was so curious about a place Stephen spent much of his life, but it was common to be curious about such exotic lands, was it not? “Molly, could you fetch some wine for our guest?”

After the maid left, the gentleman finally spoke. “What do you wish to know? The landscape, the language, the people?”

“No, all that I have read in countless books. Tell me what it is like having been there.”

The gentleman furrowed his brows, a deep line marring his tan forehead and making him seem much older than she had first thought him to be. “India is like a woman’s love,” he said in shocking coldness. “It is beautiful on the outside but once sufficiently acquainted she turns dark and cruel.”

Clara gasped and withdrew her hand. “Sir, I will remind you again to not be so impertinent.”

“Because we are strangers?”

“Yes, we have not been introduced; among many other reasons. I am finished now.” She allowed her hand to fall back and waited for the man to return to an upright position.

He opened his eyes, and they locked on hers. Clara turned pale as she stared into the familiar depths of Stephen Clifford’s dark blue gaze.

“Ste—ste—” she stuttered before clearing her throat. “Mr. Clifford,” she managed to say.

She wanted to look away, but she could not. His eyes always held her captive. Recalling his words, she could not understand his tone of anger toward her. Instead, she was moved to compassion, when she had been angry at his abandonment for years. She hated the woman and country that turned his expression now to anguish. She hated even more that he must have loved that woman more than he had ever loved her. She hated most of all that it still hurt.

“Miss Lumley,” he said with a slight nod of his head.

“You are returned from India.”

“As you see.”

“And Cecilia Ward is your guardian?” She attempted to rack her brain of what she knew of Cecilia’s arrangement. Her step-father did not pay for everything, as he was the second or third one she had. A guardian was chosen for her after her mother’s divorce. Something about an affair…

“She was my brother’s,” he supplied.

“I am sorry for your loss,” she said. She had never met Stephen’s family and was distracted by still attempting to piece together the strange being before her, so very altered from the Stephen Clifford she had known. If his brother was the one to have an affair with the opera singer, then why did he sound so bitter?

“Miss Ward is a good girl, but perhaps you can convince her to take her studies more seriously.” It was not meant as a harsh critique. It was a problem most of the girls at the school had.

Hearing a step in the hall, Clara stood. “Here comes Molly with the wine. I will go and fetch Cecilia to resume your meeting.” She curtsied and turned to leave just as Mrs. Alderly stepped inside with Cecilia trailing behind.

“My lord,” she said and hastened to Stephen’s side.

Clara blushed. How had she forgotten that his brother’s death must make him the Baron of Lowther?

“All is well, Mrs. Alderly,” he said with more composure than Clara had thought possible. “I am sorry to cut our meeting short, Miss Ward, but I am needed at my estate.”

“Oh,” the girl said seemingly strangely shy.

“Next week I leave for London and will be quite busy with my seat in Parliament.”

Clara fumed and tapped her foot. Treating a girl as an afterthought for his ever-important travels. There was the Stephen Clifford she knew!

“The ledgers, madam?” His question set Mrs. Alderly to frowning, but she handed over several account books. “Good day, ladies.”

He bowed and quit the room, leaving Clara more unsettled than ever. Why would he need the accounts? She decided she did not wish to know.

“Come along, Miss Ward. We have already wasted half of the lesson, and you will have to work late tonight to make up for the reading your classmates have done in our absence.” Clara quickly walked through the room, refusing to meet Mrs. Alderly’s eyes, and toward her classroom noting the sound of Cecilia’s feet behind her.

 

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