Are you ready to meet Stephen Clifford? Even though this is a second chance romance, I picture someone that looks closer to Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon. Maybe it’s because they both spent time in India. Well, I like to leave my characters vague enough for readers to picture their own person. I do say he has blue eyes, which Alan Rickman does not have. So, imagine whoever you please. 🙂
Previous Chapters: Chapter One
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 broken in half 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.
Dusk drew near, but Stephen easily made out the outlines of familiar buildings. So 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 Earl Clifford. He intended to use his new clout and political opportunities to rectify the 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 Clifford 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 Clifford.”
“None of that,” Stephen said and looked around the main hall.
“Her ladyship is in the drawing 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 your brother’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 embraced him fiercely.
Stephen hesitated before lifting his arms around her. When she let go, he led her back to her seat, then retrieved a glass of water 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 Clifford frowned. “Laura? 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.
“Although, there is the issue of his ward,” Lady Clifford 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 the 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.”
“But never mind, she is a very good girl. She is in school at Mrs. Alderly’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.”
“Really, I believe after you meet her, you will have no complaints at all.”
“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 Clifford.”
“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. Unfortunately, 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?”
After breakfast and his first proper bath in ages, the following morning, Stephen rode the twenty miles to Orchard Hall 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.
He was her favorite child growing up, being several years younger than his brother. As a young man, he was eager to prove his worth to his father. He cast off his mother’s overprotective worries. After Parliament stripped the past earl of his title due to perjury, Stephen risked life and limb to defend his father’s honor and name.
More than a dozen years ago, Clara Lumley had questioned his father’s integrity, and Stephen could not stay and listen to anything else she had to say. Years later, he discovered 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 men 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. The memories of Clara made him wary of what he might encounter in the form of Miss Cecilia Ward.
Arriving at noon, Stephen wondered the etiquette for calling at a 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 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 Clifford, 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. Believing her reaction due to his curt words, Stephen clarified matters.
“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 straight 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. But, 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. Finally, 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 like 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 would testify on behalf of his manliness. Still, 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.
She smiled and put the book to her side when she caught her breath. “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 acquaintances. Lord Clifford would talk to me about serious things and actually listen to me.”
It appeared while 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 Sylvia 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 the teacher off. If it had been French, she would have believed Sylvia and not cared so much. However, 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 from a trade background whose family is now wealthy. You ought to see how Miss Lumley’s 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? However, they were much younger than her. Far too young to teach. On the other hand, Lumley was a common enough name in their county.
“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.