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The Bachelor's Wedding
By Betty Neels
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCLAUDIA leaned up, took another armful of books from the shelves lining the little room, put them on the table beside her and sneezed as a cloud of mummified dust rose from them. What had possessed her, she wondered, to take on the task of dusting her great-uncle William's library when she could have been enjoying these few weeks at home doing as she pleased?
She picked up her duster, sneezed again, and bent to her task, a tall, slim but shapely girl with a lovely face and shining copper hair, which was piled untidily on top of her head and half covered by another duster, secured by a piece of string. Her shapely person was shrouded in a large print pinny several sizes too big, her face had a dusty smear on one cheek and her nose shone. Nevertheless she looked beautiful, and the man watching her from the half-open door smiled his appreciation before giving a little cough.
Claudia looked over her shoulder at him. There was nothing about him to make her feel uneasy - indeed, he was the epitome of understated elegance, with an air of assurance which was in itself reassuring. He was a big man, very tall and powerfully built, not so very young but with the kind of good looks which could only improve with age. His hair was pepper and salt, cut short. Hemight be in his late thirties. Claudia wondered who he was.
"Have you come to see Great-Uncle William or my mother? You came in through the wrong door - but of course you weren't to know that." She smiled at him kindly, not wishing him to feel awkward.
He showed no signs of discomfort. "Colonel Ramsay." His commanding nose twisted at the dust. "Should you not open a window? The dust ..."
"Oh, they don't open. They're frightfully old - the original ones from when the house was built. Why do you want to see Colonel Ramsay?"
He looked at her before he answered. "He asked me to call."
"None of my business?" She clapped two aged tomes together and sent another cloud of dust across the room. "Go back the way you came," she told him, "out of the side door and ring the front doorbell. Tombs will admit you."
She gave him a nod and turned back to the shelves. Probably someone from Great-Uncle William's solicitor.
"I don't think I like him much," said Claudia to the silent room. All the same she had to admit that she would have liked to know more about him.
She saw him again, not half an hour later, when, the duster removed from her head and her hands washed, she went along to the kitchen for coffee.
The house was large and rambling, and now, on the edge of winter, with an antiquated heating system, several of its rooms were decidedly chilly. Only the kitchen was cosy, with the Aga warming it, and since there were only her mother, Mrs Pratt the housekeeper, Jennie the maid and, of course, Tombs, who seemed to Claudia to be as old as the house, if not older, it was here that they had their morning coffee.
If there were visitors Mrs Ramsay sat in chilly state in the drawing room and dispensed coffee from a Sevres coffee pot arranged on a silver tray, but in the kitchen they all had their individual mugs. However, despite this democratic behaviour, no one would have dreamt of sitting down or drinking their coffee until Mrs Ramsay had taken her place at the head of the table and lifted her own special mug to her lips.
Claudia breezed into the kitchen with Rob the Labrador at her heels. Her mother was already there, and sitting beside her, looking as though it was something he had been doing all his life, was the strange man. He got to his feet as she went in, and so did Tombs, and Claudia stopped halfway to the table.
She didn't speak for a moment, but raised eloquent eyebrows at her mother. Mrs Ramsay said comfortably, "Yes, I know, dear, we ought to be in the drawing room. But there's been a fall of soot so the fire can't be lighted. And Dr Tait-Bullen likes kitchens."
She smiled round the table, gathering murmured agreements while the doctor looked amused.
"Come and drink your coffee, Claudia," went on Mrs Ramsay. "This is Dr Tait-Bullen who came to see Uncle William. My daughter, Claudia."
Claudia inclined her head, and said, "How do you do?" in a rather frosty manner. He could have told her, she thought, instead of just walking away as he had done. "Uncle William isn't ill?" she asked.
The doctor glanced at her mother before replying. "Colonel Ramsay has a heart condition which I believe may benefit from surgery."
"He's ill? But Dr Willis saw him last week - he didn't say anything. Are you sure?"
Dr Tait-Bullen, a surgeon of some fame within his profession, assured her gravely that he was sure. "Dr Willis very wisely said nothing until he had a second opinion."
"Then why isn't he here now?" demanded Claudia.
"You could be wrong, whatever you say."
"Of course. Dr Willis was to have met me here this morning, but I understand that a last-minute emergency prevented him. I have been called in as consultant, but the decision concerning the Colonel's further treatment rests with his doctor and himself." He added gently, "I was asked my opinion, nothing more."
Mrs Ramsay cast a look at Claudia. Sometimes a daughter with red hair could be a problem. She said carefully, "You may depend upon Dr Willis getting the very best advice darling."
Claudia stared across the table at him, and he met her look with an impassive face. If he was annoyed he showed no sign of it.
"What do you advise?" she asked him.
"Dr Willis will come presently. I think we should wait until he is here. He and I will need to talk."
"But is Great Uncle William ill? I mean, really ill?"
Her mother interrupted. "Claudia, we mustn't badger Dr Tait-Bullen." She looked round the table.
"More coffee for anyone?"
Excerpted from The Bachelor's Wedding by Betty Neels Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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