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End of January 1814Ladywell, Northumberland
'W e have arrived, miss.'
Snow swirled around the Honourable Phoebe Benedict as she alighted from the carriage. Not the soft downy flakes of her Cotswold childhood, or the coal-flecked ones of London, but hard biting snow with a wind to match, the sort of snow that crept into the bones and lingered. Phoebe peered through the veil of white. The house rose up in front of hergrey, stern, without a hint of candlelight to welcome her.
For the first time since she'd started this journey, her optimism vanished and the nerves coiled around the pit of her stomach, waiting to strike. She was truly alone here, without friends or family. Phoebe gave her head a decisive shake, banishing all thoughts of failure back to that dark and lonely place. She would demonstrate to all her family and acquaintances that she was capable of more than visiting and pouring endless cups of tea.
'Are you going to take this this creature with you, miss?' the coachman asked, reaching into the carriage and withdrawing a wicker basket. He looked at it with distaste as the 'creature' in the basket gave an angry cry.
'Yes, of course.' Phoebe took the basket and peeped under the cloth at the scrawny kitten. A pair of green eyes blinked up at her before the cat let out another ear-piercing yowl. She hated to think about what could have happened if she had not spotted it lying beside its dead mother, friendless and alone. 'I refused to leave the creature to die in the cold of the inn, and I am hardly likely to leave it now.'
'I have no idea what Mr Clare will say about a cat.' The coachman grimaced slightly. 'The big house doesn't have any, like. No pets whatsoever now that Miss Diana I mean Lady Coltonby has left with her terrier. I should have said at the time, but I just wanted to get on with the journey. Mr Clare is not going to like it.'
'Cats are a useful addition to any home.' Phoebe tucked the basket under her arm. She would find a way. How could anyone turn a helpless kitten away? Simon Clare's sister, Diana, Lady Coltonby, was the epitome of grace and charm combined with practicality. Her brother was bound to be the same. He would see the necessity of keeping a cat, if he did not already possess one. 'They help to keep the mice down and only ask for a saucer of milk and a warm place by the fire in return.'
'You are braver than I. The master doesn't take kindly to his will being crossed. I can tell you that for nothing.'
'Once Mr Clare understands the situation, I feel certain that he will be amenable.'
'I say nothing.' The coachman shook his head gloomily. 'Mr Clare gave me orders to return with Miss Diana or not to come back at all. Mayhap we should have stayed in London.'
'Lady Coltonby specifically sent word.' Phoebe juggled the basket with her large portmanteau and withdrew a letter. 'She assured me that this would suffice. Lord Coltonby agreed. Mr Clare wants help with his son. I am here to provide it. It is a sensible, practical solution to the problem.'
'I just wouldn't want to cross him, not on account of a kitten that was likely to die anyway.' The coachman tapped the side of his nose. 'You ain't seen him in a temper, miss.'
'One must do one's duty as one sees it. One's destiny is not written until it is lived. Something had to be done.' Phoebe looked towards the house again and knew she had to believe the words. This was about more than saving a kitten. She had to face Simon Clare and break the news that his sister would not be returning to Northumberland as he demanded. Mr Clare had to accept the inevitable.
A blast of freezing air drove the snow into Phoebe, hitting her like a thousand pinpricks, making her stagger back. With one hand she clasped her bonnet, and, with the other, the basket and portmanteau. Slowly she struggled towards the house. The door crashed open. A tall dark figure stood silhouetted as he held a lantern aloft. Great arcs of yellow illuminated the white of the driving snow. 'Is that you, Diana? You took your time. Come into the warmth at once, you will catch your death in this perishing cold.'
'Miss Phoebe Benedict. The Countess of Coltonby sent me in her stead.' Phoebe started forwards, but the snow brushed against her skirt, weighing her down, making her footsteps heavy, as if even the weather had decided that this was a bad idea. 'I have a letter.'
'John, Diana is there, isn't she?' The man's voice held a note of impatience. 'I sent you to bring back my sister, not some stranger off the wayside.'
'No, Mr Clare, I brought this one on your sister's expressed instruction. Miss Diana sent her with her best wishes. It ain't my fault.'
'Throw her back at once.' Mr Clare lowered the lantern. Phoebe put her hand to her mouth, unable to stifle a gasp. The light suddenly highlighted a black eye patch and a scarlet burn that covered half the man's face. His hair was far longer than fashionable, flowing ragged about his shoulders. She had thought to meet a model of urbanity, but Mr Clare bore a closer resemblance to a wild savage. 'I sent for Diana. She is the only one who can help! I do not have time to waste on strangers.'
He began to swing away. In another moment, the door would be closed, and her chance gone, all down to her weakness and indecision. She would have to go back cap in hand to her sister-in-law and admit that she had failed and had been utterly wrong to try. Phoebe tightened her grip on the basket. Impossible after the scorn the Dreaded Sophia had poured on Phoebe's head when she had explained her determination to save James from his fate. And how could she condemn her stepbrother to life in a debtors' prison because a man's appearance shocked her into inaction?
Phoebe squared her shoulders and looked directly at Mr Clare, willing him to keep the door open. 'Lady Coltonby sent me. I have a letter from her in my portmanteau explaining.'
'The devil she did. Who precisely are you?'
'Phoebe Benedict.' She made sure her words were clear and precise. Said it slowly so that he could understand. 'I am Lord Coltonby's second cousin.'
'And why in the name of all that is holy should Diana send you? Why should she wish to foist you on me? My sister should know her duty. When you have finished gawping at me, you may go.'
Phoebe winced, hating that he had seen her bad manners.
Whatever had happened to the man, it was not his fault. Nor was it any of her concern. Her concern was with James and the aid that Lord Coltonby would give him because she had agreed to this task. The Benedicts might be poor now, but they would never stoop low as taking charity. There had to be a payment for the favour. 'I have had experience with scarlet fever. My younger stepbrothers had it several years ago. Lady Coltonby felt I was ideally placed to look after your son.'
She refused to flinch under his gaze and ignored the stubborn downturn of his mouth. She could be immovable as well. She returned his dark brooding gaze, measure for measure. Suddenly something flared in his eyes and she knew she had won a small victory.
'Miss.Miss Benedict, it is all very well and good, but I sent for my sister. I specifically requested her. Why isn't she here? Why has her husband sent you? Jenkins! Jenkins! Where is that butler when I need him?'
'Is there a problem, master?' A tall man appeared behind Mr Clare. 'Where is Miss Diana? I heard the coach.'
'Lord Coltonby has kept her from me and has sent this person in her stead.' Mr Clare gestured imperiously with his cane. 'Once again Coltonby has turned my world upside down.'
'Lord Coltonby told me that I was specifically to inform you that he opposed my coming here.' Phoebe drew a calming breath. She had worried her cousin was being sarcastic, but now she saw he had known the sort of welcome she might encounter. 'It was my cousin's considered opinion you would not allow me past the front door and would waste everyone's time, pigheaded idiot that you arehis words, not mine. He was most insistent that I say those words to you. I apologise for them.'
'I know what my brother-in-law is like. I am well acquainted with his way of speaking.' The scar on his temple throbbed. 'Continue with the story.'
Phoebe kept her head up and concentrated on the warm enticing pool of light behind Mr Clare, rather than on his thunderous scowl. She did not have the luxury of walking away. There was more than her pride at stake. 'Lady Coltonby disagreed. She felt you would understand her reason. It was only through her pleading that Lord Coltonby relented.'
'Ah ha, why didn't she send her maid Rose? Rose understands the situation. She knows Robert and his escapades.'
'Lady Coltonby's reason for remaining in London is not something I would like to discuss during a blizzard. May I come into the warmth?' Phoebe took several steps forward. Another blast of arctic air drove the stinging snow against her body. Her toes and the tips of her fingers no longer appeared to possess any feeling. He couldn't be such a monster as to slam the door in her face, not after she had journeyed all this way. 'Your coachman and I have been travelling almost straight from London, with only brief stops to change horses, and I am near perished. If you will not allow me entrance, Lord Coltonby indicated that I could rest at his house before returning to London.'
'You had best come in, then. I refuse to give my brother-in-law the satisfaction.' Simon Clare gestured with his cane. 'Say your piece. In the morning, you may return to London and inform Coltonby that I require my sister. But I will not have put it about that Simon Clare fails to provide hospitality to Coltonby's messengers or relations on a night like this!'
Phoebe closed her eyes and willed herself to hang on to her temper. Mr Clare was upset that his sister was not there. She had seen his letter with its bold spiked handwriting and terse demand for his sister to return, but she had also glimpsed the blotch under his name as if he had hurried the words and had been far too worried to let the ink dry properly.
'I would not like to be in your shoes, miss. The master appears to be in a right royal temper,' the coachman said in an undertone. 'I ain't seen him like this for years.'
'He has had his expectations dashed.' Phoebe eyed the man in the doorway whose fury appeared to grow with each breath. 'He will understand once I give him Lady Coltonby's letter. He will see the sense in what his sister and I have done.'
'I will be ready in the morning, miss, early, like. I'd go now but them horses will only be fit for the knacker's yard if they don't get some rest.'
'I refuse to depart without performing my task. I have given Lady Coltonby my word.' Phoebe fought to keep her voice steady. 'All Mr Clare has done is to make me more deter mined.'
'Like I said, miss, the morning will suit me fine.' The coachman touched his hand to his hat and began to lead the horses away.
Phoebe straightened her spine and marched towards the house without a backwards glance. But suddenly the bone-rattling coach seemed far more hospitable than the large, grey house.
Crossing the threshold, she closed her eyes for a second, savouring the warmth. Hearing an impatient cough, Phoebe opened them and discovered she was staring into Simon Clare's furious face. He had been handsome once, but one side of his face bore fierce red marks, and he had a blaze of white running through his hair. He leant heavily on a cane as if his side pained him. Antagonism bristled from every pore as he moved slowly to let her in. Phoebe revised her opinionnot a savage, but a pirate captain, someone who wanted to bend the world to his will.
'I believe you said my sister sent a letter, explaining her reasons.' He held out a stern hand. 'I will have it now.'
The ticking of a large clock filled the silence as she waited for Mr Clare to finish reading. With each ponderous tick, a little more of her easy optimism faded, vanishing until it became the merest wisp. This scheme was not going to work any better than the half-a-dozen plans she had rejected. She should never have attempted it. Mentally she tried to rehearse the words she would use when she returned to Atherstone Court and begged Sophia's pardon. Her brief moment of triumph and independence was over before it had truly begun.
Phoebe struggled to keep herself upright. She refused to give this pirate captain the pleasure of seeing her burst into tears. She would simply have to pretend; if she pretended long enough, everything might work out. 'As you can see, Mr Clare, everything is straightforward.'
'So you say.' Simon Clare stared at the woman standing in front of him in the entrance hall and attempted to control his temper. Her cloak was fine, but worn, and her bonnet not of the best quality, but her voice held an educated tone. The woman was no demure and downcast servant. Instead she stood there, shoulders back and eyes blazing.
Exactly where had his sister found this woman and why had she sent her when his instructions had been precise? Robert needed someone who would understand. The simple words resounded in his brain. I am unable to come. She is immensely capable. The truth hit him. Diana had refused his simple request. Simon ignored the pulling of his shoulder. The pain behind his eye rose to a blinding crescendo. He had had such hopes. Diana would have instinctively understood what to do with the boy. Once she'd arrived, everything would have gone back to normal. Only now he was faced with some harpy of a cousin. 'Why did she send you?'
'Lady Coltonby assured me she had put the details in her letter.'
Simon glanced up at the ceiling, trying to regain control of his emotions. He hated being infirm, hated the indignity of asking for help, but most of all he hated that Diana had abandoned him. Abandoned him for her new husband and the bright lights of London. Even her letter was a single uncrossed sheet. He folded it and put it in his pocket. 'I must wonder what part of my letter my sister failed to understand.'