SIMPLY PERFECT by Mary Balogh A Delacorte Press Book / April 2008
Claudia Martin had already had a hard day at school. First Mademoiselle Pierre, one of the nonresident teachers, had sent a messenger just before breakfast with the news that she was indisposed with a migraine headache and would be unable to come to school, and Claudia, as both owner and headmistress, had been obliged to conduct most of the French and music classes in addition to her own subjects. French was no great problem; music was more of a challenge. Worse, the account books, which she had intended to bring up-to-date during her spare classes today, remained undone, with days fast running out in which to get accomplished all the myriad tasks that needed doing. Then just before the noonday meal, when classes were over for the morning and discipline was at its slackest, Paula Hern had decided that she objected to the way Molly Wiggins looked at her and voiced her displeasure publicly and eloquently. And since Paula’s father was a successful businessman and as rich as Croesus and she put on airs accordingly while Molly was the youngest—and most timid—of the charity girls and did not even know who her father was, then of course Agnes Ryde had felt obliged to jump into the fray in vigorous defense of the downtrodden, her Cockney accent returning with ear-jarring clarity. Claudia had been forced to deal with the matter and extract more-or-less sincere apologies from all sides and mete out suitable punishments to all except the more-or-less innocent Molly. Then, an hour later, just when Miss Walton had been about to step outdoors with the junior class en route to Bath Abbey, where she had intended to give an informal lesson in art and architecture, the heavens had opened in a downpour to end downpours and there had been all the fuss of finding the girls somewhere else to go within the school and something else to do. Not that that had been Claudia’s problem, but she had been made annoyingly aware of the girls’ loud disappointment beyond her classroom door as she struggled to teach French irregular verbs. She had finally gone out there to inform them that if they had any complaint about the untimely arrival of the rain, then they must take it up privately with God during their evening prayers, but in the meantime they would be silent until Miss Walton had closed a classroom door behind them. Then, just after classes were finished for the afternoon and the girls had gone upstairs to comb their hair and wash their hands in readiness for tea, something had gone wrong with the doorknob on one of the dormitories and eight of the girls, trapped inside until Mr. Keeble, the elderly school porter, had creaked his way up there to release them before mending the knob, had screeched and giggled and rattled the door. Miss Thompson had dealt with the crisis by reading them a lecture on patience and decorum, though circumstances had forced her to speak in a voice that could be heard from within—and therefore through much of the rest of the school too, including Claudia’s office. It had not been the best of days, as Claudia had just been remarking—without contradiction—to Eleanor Thompson and Lila Walton over tea in her private sitting room a short while after the prisoners had been freed. She could do with far fewer such days. And yet now! Now, to cap everything off and make an already trying day more so, there was a marquess awaiting her pleasure in the visitors’ parlor downstairs. A marquess, for the love of all that was wonderful! That was what the silver-edged visiting card she held between two fingers said—the Marquess of Attingsborough. The porter had just delivered it into her hands, looking sour and disapproving as he did so—a not unusual expression for him, especially when any male who was not a teacher invaded his domain. “A marquess,” she said, looking up from the card to frown at her fellow teachers. “Whatever can he want? Did he say, Mr. Keeble?” “He did not say and I did not ask, miss,” the porter replied. “But if you was to ask me, he is up to no good. He smiled at me.” “Ha! A cardinal sin indeed,” Claudia said dryly while Eleanor laughed. “Perhaps,” Lila suggested, “he has a daughter he wishes to place at the school.” “A marquess?” Claudia raised her eyebrows and Lila looked suitably quelled. “Perhaps, Claudia,” Eleanor said, a twinkle in her eye, “he has two daughters.” Claudia snorted and then sighed, took one more sip of her tea, and got reluctantly to her feet. “I suppose I had better go and see what he wants,” she said. “It will be more productive than sitting here guessing. But of all things to happen today of all days. A marquess.” Eleanor laughed again. “Poor man,” she said. “I pity him.” Claudia had never had much use for the aristocracy—idle, arrogant, coldhearted, nasty lot—though the marriage of two of her teachers and closest friends to titled gentlemen had forced her to admit during the past few years that perhaps some of them might be agreeable and even worthy individuals. But it did not amuse her to have one of their number, a stranger, intrude into her own world without a by-your-leave, especially at the end of a difficult day. She did not believe for a single moment that this marquess wished to place any daughter of his at her school. She preceded Mr. Keeble down the stairs since she did not wish to move at his slow pace. She ought, she supposed, to have gone into her bedchamber first to see that she was looking respectable, which she was quite possibly not doing after a hard day at school. She usually made sure that she presented a neat appearance to visitors. But she scorned to make such an effort for a marquess and risk appearing obsequious in her own eyes. By the time she opened the door into the visitors’ parlor, she was bristling with a quite unjustified indignation. How dared he come here to disturb her on her own property, whatever his business might be. She looked down at the visiting card still in her hand. “The Marquess of Attingsborough?” she said in a voice not unlike the one she had used on Paula Hern earlier in the day—the one that said she was not going to be at all impressed by any pretension of grandeur. “At your service, ma’am. Miss Martin, I presume?” He was standing across the room, close to the window. He bowed elegantly. Claudia’s indignation soared. One steady glance at him was not sufficient upon which to make any informed judgment of his character, of course, but really, if the man had any imperfection of form or feature or taste in apparel, it was by no means apparent. He was tall and broad of shoulder and chest and slim of waist and hips. His legs were long and well shaped. His hair was dark and thick and shining, his face handsome, his eyes and mouth good-humored. He was dressed with impeccable elegance but without a trace of ostentation. His Hessian boots alone were probably worth a fortune, and Claudia guessed that if she were to stand directly over them and look down, she would see her own face reflected in them—and probably her flat, untidy hair and limp dress collar as well. She clasped her hands at her waist lest she test her theory by touching the collar points. She held his card pinched between one thumb and forefinger. “What may I do for you, sir?” she asked, deliberately avoiding calling him my lord—a ridiculous affectation, in her opinion. He smiled at her, and if perfection could be improved upon, it had just happened—he had good teeth. Claudia steeled herself to resist the charm she was sure he possessed in aces. “I come as a messenger, ma’am,” he said, “from Lady Whitleaf.” He reached into an inner pocket of his coat and withdrew a sealed paper. “From Susanna?” Claudia took one step farther into the room. Susanna Osbourne had been a teacher at the school until her marriage last year to Viscount Whitleaf. Claudia had always rejoiced at Susanna’s good fortune in making both an eligible marriage and a love match and yet she still mourned her own loss of a dear friend and colleague and a good teacher. She had lost three such friends—all in the same cause—over the course of four years. Sometimes it was hard not to be selfishly depressed by it all. “When she knew I was coming to Bath to spend a few days with my mother and my father, who is taking the waters,” the marquess said, “she asked me to call here and pay my respects to you. And she gave me this letter, perhaps to convince you that I am no impostor.” His eyes smiled again as he came across the room and placed the letter in her hand. And as if at least his eyes could not have been mud-colored or something equally nondescript, she could see that they were a clear blue, almost like a summer sky. Susanna had asked him to come and pay his respects? Why? “Whitleaf is the cousin of a cousin of mine,” the marquess explained. “Or an almost cousin of mine, anyway. It is complicated, as family relationships often are. Lauren Butler, Viscountess Ravensberg, is a cousin by virtue of the fact that her mother married my aunt’s brother-in-law. We have been close since childhood. And Whitleaf is Lauren’s first cousin. And so in a sense both he and his lady have a strong familial claim on me.” If he was a marquess, Claudia thought with sudden suspicion, and his father was still alive, what did that make his father? But he was here at Susanna’s behest and it behooved her to be a little better than just icily polite. “Thank you,” she said, “for coming in person to deliver the letter. I am much obliged to you, sir. May I offer you a cup of tea?” She willed him to say no. “I will not put you to that trouble, ma’am,” he said, smiling again. “I understand you are to leave for London in two days’ time?” Ah. Susanna must have told him that. Mr. Hatchard, her man of business in London, had found employment for two of her senior girls, both charity pupils, but he had been unusually evasive about the id entity of the prospective employers, even when she had asked quite specifically in her last letter to him. The paying girls at the school had families to look after their interests, of course. Claudia had appointed herself family to the rest and never released any girl who had no employment to which to go or any about whose expected employment she felt any strong misgiving. At Eleanor’s suggestion, Claudia was going to go to London with Flora Bains and Edna Wood so that she could find out exactly where they were to be placed as governesses and to withdraw her consent if she was not satisfied. There were still a few weeks of the school year left, but Eleanor had assured her that she was perfectly willing and able to take charge of affairs during Claudia’s absence, which would surely be no longer than a week or ten days. Claudia had agreed to go, partly because there was another matter too upon which she wished to speak with Mr. Hatchard in person. “I am,” she told the marquess. “Whitleaf intended to send a carriage for your convenience,” the marquess told her, “but I was able to inform him that it would be quite unnecessary to put himself to the trouble.” “Of course it would,” Claudia agreed. “I have already hired a carriage.” “I will see about unhiring it for you, if I may be permitted, ma’am,” he said. “I plan to return to town on the same day and will be pleased to offer you the comfort of my own carriage and my protection for the journey.” Oh, goodness, heaven forbid! “That will be quite unnecessary, sir,” she said firmly. “I have already made the arrangements.” “Hired carriages are notorious for their lack of springs and all other comforts,” he said. “I beg you will reconsider.” “Perhaps you do not fully understand, sir,” she said. “I am to be accompanied by two schoolgirls on the journey.” “Yes,” he said, “so Lady Whitleaf informed me. Do they prattle? Or, worse, do they giggle? Very young ladies have an atrocious tendency to do both.” “My girls are taught how to behave appropriately in company, Lord Attingsborough,” she said stiffly. Too late she saw the twinkle in his eyes and understood that he had been joking. “I do not doubt it, ma’am,” he said, “and feel quite confident in trusting your word. Allow me, if you will, to escort all three of you ladies to Lady Whitleaf’s door. She will be vastly impressed with my gallantry and will be bound to spread the word among my family and friends.” Now he was talking utter nonsense. But how could she decently refuse? She desperately searched around in her head for some irrefutable argument that would dissuade him. Nothing came to mind, however, that did not seem ungracious, even downright rude. But she would rather travel a thousand miles in a springless carriage than to London in his company. Why? Was she overawed by his title and magnificence? She bristled at the very idea. At his…maleness, then? She was uncomfortably aware that he possessed that in abundance. But how ridiculous that would be. He was simply a gentleman offering a courtesy to an aging spinster, who happened to be a friend of his almost-cousin’s cousin’s wife—goodness, it was a tenuous connection. But she held a letter from Susanna in her hand. Susanna obviously trusted him. An aging spinster? When it came to any consideration of age, she thought, there was probably not much difference between the two of them. Now there was a thought. Here was this man, obviously at the very pinnacle of his masculine appeal in his middle thirties, and then there was she. He was looking at her with raised eyebrows and smiling eyes. “Oh, very well,” she said briskly. “But you may live to regret your offer.” His smile broadened and it seemed to an indignant Claudia that there was no end to this man’s appeal. As she had suspected, he had charm oozing from every pore and was therefore not to be trusted one inch farther than she could see him. She would keep a very careful eye upon her two girls during the journey to London. “I do hope not, ma’am,” he said. “Shall we make an early start?” “It is what I intended,” she told him. She added grudgingly, “Thank you, Lord Attingsborough. You are most kind.” “It will be my pleasure, Miss Martin.” He bowed deeply again. “May I ask a small favor in return? May I be given a tour of the school? I must confess that the idea of an institution that actually provides an education to girls fascinates me. Lady Whitleaf has spoken with enthusiasm about your establishment. She taught here, I understand.” Claudia drew a slow, deep breath through flared nostrils. Whatever reason could this man have for touring a girls’ school except idle curiosity—or worse? Her instinct was to say a very firm no. But she had just accepted a favor from him, and it was admittedly a large one—she did not doubt that his carriage would be far more comfortable than the one she had hired or that they would be treated with greater respect at every toll gate they passed and at every inn where they stopped for a change of horses. And he was a friend of Susanna’s. But really! She had not thought her day could possibly get any worse. She had been wrong. “Certainly. I will show you around myself,” she said curtly, turning to the door. She would have opened it herself, but he reached around her, engulfing her for a startled moment in the scent of some enticing and doubtless indecently expensive male cologne, opened the door, and indicated with a smile that she should precede him into the hall. At least, she thought, classes were over for the day and all the girls would be safely in the dining hall, having tea. She was wrong about that, of course, she remembered as soon as she opened the door into the art room. The final assembly of the school year was not far off and all sorts of preparations and rehearsals were in progress, as they had been every day for the past week or so. A few of the girls were working with Mr. Upton on the stage backdrop. They all turned to see who had come in and then proceeded to gawk at the grand visitor. Claudia was obliged to introduce the two men. They shook hands, and the marquess strolled closer to inspect the artwork and ask a few intelligent questions. Mr. Upton beamed at him when he left the room with her a few minutes later, and all the girls gazed worshipfully after him. And then in the music room they came upon the madrigal choir, which was practicing in the absence of Mademoiselle Pierre under the supervision of Miss Wilding. They hit an ear-shattering discord at full volume just as Claudia opened the door, and then they dissolved into self-conscious giggles while Miss Wilding blushed and looked dismayed. Claudia, raising her eyebrows, introduced the teacher to the marquess and explained that the regular choirmistress was indisposed today. Though even as she spoke she was annoyed with herself for feeling that any explanation was necessary. “Madrigal singing,” he said, smiling at the girls, “can be the most satisfying but the most frustrating thing, can it not? There is perhaps one other person out of the group singing the same part as oneself and six or eight others all bellowing out something quite different. If one’s lone ally falters one is lost without hope of recovery. I never mastered the art when I was at school, I must confess. During my very first practice someone suggested to me that I try out for the cricket team—which just happened to practice at the same time.” The girls laughed, and all of them visibly relaxed. “I will wager,” he said, “that there is something in your repertoire that you can sing to perfection. May I be honored to hear it?” He turned his smile upon Miss Wilding. “ ‘The Cuckoo,’ miss,” Sylvia Hetheridge suggested to a murmur of approval from the rest of the group. And they sang in five parts without once faltering or hitting a sour note, a glorious shower of “cuckoos” echoing about the room every time they reached the chorus of the song. When they were finished, they all turned as one to the Marquess of Attingsborough, just as if he were visiting royalty, and he applauded and smiled. “Bravo!” he said. “Your skill overwhelms me, not to mention the loveliness of your voices. I am more than ever convinced that I was wise to stick to cricket.” The girls were all laughing and gazing worshipfully after him when he left with Claudia. Mr. Huckerby was in the dancing hall, putting a group of girls through their paces in a particularly intricate dance that they would perform during the assembly. The marquess shook his hand and smiled at the girls and admired their performance and charmed them until they were all smiling and—of course—gazing worshipfully at him. He asked intelligent and perceptive questions of Claudia as she showed him some of the empty classrooms and the library. He was in no hurry as he looked about each room and read the titles on the spines of many of the books. “There was a pianoforte in the music room,” he said as they made their way to the sewing room, “and other instruments too. I noticed a violin and a flute in particular. Do you offer individual music lessons here, Miss Martin?” “Indeed we do,” she said. “We offer everything necessary to make accomplished young ladies of our pupils, as well as persons with a sound academic education.” He looked around the sewing room from just inside the door but did not walk farther into it. “And do you teach other skills here in addition to sewing and embroidery?” he asked. “Knitting, perhaps? Tatting? Crochet?” “All three,” she said as he closed the door and she led the way to the assembly hall. It had been a ballroom once when the building was a private home. “It is a pleasingly designed room,” he said, standing in the middle of the gleaming wood floor and turning all about before looking up at the high, coved ceiling. “Indeed, I like the whole school, Miss Martin. There are windows and light everywhere and a pleasant atmosphere. Thank you for givin g me a guided tour.” He turned his most charming smile on her, and Claudia, still holding both his visiting card and Susanna’s letter, clasped her free hand about her wrist and looked back with deliberate severity. “I am delighted you approve,” she said. His smile was arrested for a moment until he chuckled softly. “I do beg your pardon,” he said. “I have taken enough of your time.” He indicated the door with one arm, and Claudia led the way back to the entrance hall, feeling—and resenting the feeling—that she had somehow been unmannerly, for those last words she had spoken had been meant ironically and he had known it. But before they reached the hall they were forced to pause for a few moments while the junior class filed out of the dining hall in good order, on their way from tea to study hall, where they would catch up on any work not completed during the day or else read or write letters or stitch at some needlework. They all turned their heads to gaze at the grand visitor, and the Marquess of Attingsborough smiled genially back at them, setting them all to giggling and preening as they hurried along. All of which went to prove, Claudia thought, that even eleven- and twelve-year-olds could not resist the charms of a handsome man. It boded ill—or continued to bode ill—for the future of the female half of the human race. Mr. Keeble, frowning ferociously, bless his heart, was holding the marquess’s hat and cane and was standing close to the front door as if to dare the visitor to try prolonging his visit further. “I will see you early two mornings from now, then, Miss Martin?” the marquess said, taking his hat and cane and turning to her as Mr. Keeble opened the door and stood to one side, ready to close it behind him at the earliest opportunity. “We will be ready,” she said, inclining her head to him. And finally he was gone. He did not leave Claudia feeling kindly disposed toward him. Whatever had that been all about? She wished fervently that she could go back half an hour and refuse his offer to escort her and the girls to London the day after tomorrow. But she could not, and that was that. She stepped into her study and looked into the small mirror that she kept behind the door but rarely consulted. Oh, goodness gracious! Her hair really was flat and lifeless. Several strands had pulled loose from the knot at the back of her neck. There was a faint smudge of ink on one side of her nose left there when she had tried to remove it earlier with her handkerchief. And one point of her collar was indeed slightly curled and the whole thing off center. She adjusted it one-handed, very much too late, of course. Horrid man! It was no wonder his eyes had laughed at her the whole time. She remembered Susanna’s letter then and broke the seal. Joseph Fawcitt, Marquess of Attingsborough, was the son and heir of the Duke of Anburey, she read in the first paragraph—and winced. He was going to offer to bring Claudia and the girls to London with him on his return from Bath, and Claudia must not hesitate to accept. He was a kind and charming gentleman and entirely to be trusted. Claudia raised her eyebrows and compressed her lips. The main reason for Susanna’s letter, though, was quickly obvious. Frances and Lucius—the Earl of Edgecombe, her husband—had returned from the Continent, and Susanna and Peter were arranging a concert at their house at which Frances was going to sing. Claudia simply must stay long enough to hear her and she simply must stay even longer to enjoy a few other entertainments of the Season too. If Eleanor Thompson had expressed a willingness to look after the school for one week, then surely she would be willing to do so for another week or so too, by which time the summer term would be at an end. The extended invitation was enormously tempting, Claudia had to admit. Frances had been the first of her teachers and friends to marry. With the encouragement of a remarkably enlightened husband, she had since become a singer who was renowned and much sought after all over Europe. She and the earl traveled for several months of each year, going from one European capital to another for various singing engagements. It was a year since Claudia had last seen her. It would be wonderful to see both her and Susanna together within the next week or two and to spend some time in their company. But even so… She had left the study door open. Eleanor poked her head about it after scratching lightly on its outer panel. “I will take study hall for you tonight, Claudia,” she said. “You have had a busy day. Your aristocratic visitor did not eat you alive, then? The school is buzzing with his praises.” “Susanna sent him,” Claudia explained. She grimaced. “He has offered to take Edna and Flora and me with him in his carriage when he returns to London the day after tomorrow.” “Oh, my!” Eleanor exclaimed, coming right inside the room. “And I missed seeing him. It is to be hoped that he is tall, dark, and handsome.” “All three,” Claudia said. “He is also the son of a duke!” “Enough said.” Eleanor held up both hands, palms out. “He must be the darkest of villains. Though one day I hope to convince you that my brother-in-law, the Duke of Bewcastle, is not.” “Hmm,” Claudia said. The Duke of Bewcastle had once been her employer, when for a short time she had been governess to his sister and ward, Lady Freyja Bedwyn. They had not parted on the best of terms, to put the matter lightly, and she had strongly disliked him and all who shared his rank ever since. Though if the truth were told, her antipathy to dukes had not started with him… But she pitied Eleanor’s younger sister from the bottom of her heart, married to such a man. The poor duchess was a remarkably amiable lady—and she had once been a teacher herself. “Frances is back in England,” she told Eleanor. “She is going to sing at a concert Susanna and the viscount are organizing. Susanna wants me to stay for it and some other entertainments of the Season. It is a pity it is not all happening after school is over for the year. But by then, of course, the Season will be all but over too. Of course, I have absolutely no aspirations whatsoever to move in tonnish circles. The very idea gives me the shudders. Only it would have been lovely to see both Susanna and Frances and spend some time in company with them. I can do that some other time, though—preferably in the country.” Eleanor clucked her tongue. “Of course you must stay in London for longer than a few days, Claudia,” she said. “It is what Lady Whitleaf has been urging and I have been encouraging all along. I am perfectly capable of running the school for a few weeks and of giving a suitably stirring and affecting speech on your behalf at the end-of-year assembly. And if you wish to stay even longer than a few weeks, you must do so without suffering any qualms. Lila and I will both be here over the summer to look after the charity girls, and Christine has renewed her invitation for me to take them to Lindsey Hall for a few weeks while she and Wulfric visit some of his other estates. It would give me a chance to spend some time with my mother.” Christine and Wulfric were the Duchess and Duke of Bewcastle. Lindsey Hall was the latter’s principal seat in Hampshire. The invitation had astonished Claudia when it had first been made, and she wondered if the duchess had consulted her husband before making it. But then, of course, the charity girls had stayed at Lindsey Hall once before, just a year ago, in fact, on the occasion of Susanna’s wedding, and the duke had actually been in residence at the time. “You must stay,” Eleanor said again. “Indeed, you must promise to stay for at least a couple of weeks. I shall be offended if you will not do so. I shall think you do not trust me to take your place here.” “Of course I trust you,” Claudia said, feeling herself waver. But how could she not stay now? “It would be pleasant, I must admit…” “Of course it would,” Eleanor said briskly. “Of course it will. That is settled, then. And I must be off to study hall. With the way this day is progressing, the chances are strong that a few desks will be chopped into kindling or some sort of titanic battle will be proceeding if I do not get there soon.” Claudia sat down behind her desk after Eleanor had left, and folded up Susanna’s letter. What a very strange day! It seemed to have been at least forty-eight hours long. What on earth was she going to talk about during all the hours of the journey to London? And how was she to keep Flora from prattling and Edna from giggling? She wished fervently that the Marquess of Attingsborough were at least sixty years old and looked like a toad. Perhaps then she would not feel quite so intimidated by him. Though the very use of that word in her mind made her bristle all over again. Intimidated? She? By a mere man? By a marquess? Heir to a dukedom? She would not give him the satisfaction, she thought indignantly, just as if he had expressed the overt wish of seeing her grovel in servile humility at his feet.