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Schooling the Viscount
By Maggie Robinson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Maggie Robinson
All rights reserved.
April, 1881 Puddling-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire
It was a cosmic joke. Exiled to a Cotswold village, the most candy-box, utterly banal sort of burgh one could ever hope to find, with a name fit for a nursery rhyme. Rolling hills, sun-kissed stone, front gardens and window boxes bursting with the kind of vegetation which would have kept the maddest gardener up all night in delight.
There had been other exiles, he knew. Apparently this Puddling-place was some sort of a secret reformation spot. A health spa without the filthy-tasting mineral water. A Bath without Bath chairs and Roman ruins.
Despite his infirmities, he was plenty healthy, thank you very much. He'd spent his first week marching up and down the streets — all five of them — staring into the faces of passers-by, wondering who else was subject to his current indignity. Visiting each shop — all five of them. Peering into cottage windows that overlooked the cobbled road — you couldn't help but look in. He saw polite, bland inhabitants, seemingly happy to be living in a place time forgot.
One hardly knew that this was the late nineteenth century, for God's sake. Newspapers always were sold out when he came around to the combination Post Office and grocery on Market Street. There was not a modern invention to be found — no local train, no telegraph towers. Or burlesque girls. He was completely cut off from the world as he knew it, except for his daily afternoon tea with the vicar.
Tea. Vicar. Two words usually not in his vocabulary.
All of the Puddling people looked innocent. Jolly and clean. Untouched by any kind of debauchery or depravity. Well, that's what fresh air and an excess of sheep and sleep did for one, he supposed. Any kind of conversation with the local specimens had resulted in a boredom so profound he was tempted to stick a fork in his working eardrum.
He wasn't going to let Puddling-on-the-Wold change him one iota. This petunia-scented imprisonment couldn't last forever. The pater would eventually relent and allow him back to Town. All he had to do was steer clear of trouble and look sufficiently saved in front of the vicar. Born again. Slayer of his demons and ready to do battle as one of Britain's young hopes.
Faugh. He'd tried that in South Africa, and where had that led? Ten short brutal weeks of war, his disfigurement and a dependency on drink and the occasional opium pipe.
And women. Lovely, curvy, wanton women, none of them candidates to follow in his late mother's footsteps as the next Marchioness of Harland, not that he wanted his pater the marquess to pop off any time soon, no matter how draconian his father had been sentencing him to live in this blasted storybook village.
Captain Lord Henry Challoner had some heart, after all.
Henry wasn't really a captain any more, although the paperwork hadn't quite caught up to him. He shouldn't have been one in the first place. Hadn't done much to deserve it. Men he'd commanded had died, and he himself had wound up captured with those who lived in a barn not fit for a flea-bitten jackass. There were no jackasses in the veld as far as Henry knew.
He was on his required damned daily walk this bloody beautiful spring afternoon, equipped with a stout staff that wasn't purely decorative. He'd been shot in the foot — thankfully, he hadn't done it to himself or that really would have been the cosmic joke — and would probably limp for the rest of his life.
Henry supposed he was lucky he still had a foot; the Boer farmers who'd briefly held him prisoner after the ambush had not been surgically adept. Now, if he'd been about to calve —
The absurdity of his train of thought made him laugh out loud. He hadn't laughed in a week, and the sound startled him. A bird trilled loudly enough for him to hear it from the clipped hedgerow, a temperate sun shone serenely overhead in the cloudless sky, and Henry wanted to raise his stick in revolt.
Puddling-in-the-Wold was just too perfect. Each stone cottage was snug, each little shop stocked with exactly what one would want, providing one had taken a temperance pledge. There were no alcoholic spirits on offer — Henry had inquired everywhere. His bribes and blandishments had been useless. The entire town was teetotal.
Even the Communion wine in the little Norman church appeared to be grape juice, and watered down at that. Moderation was all very well, but abstention? Henry shuddered.
Perhaps there were some berries in a bush he could ferment somehow. Wine was made with dandelion weeds, wasn't it? Being a viscount, he knew nothing about cookery, but knew better than to ask Mrs. Grace, his current housekeeper. She'd come with the cottage he'd been assigned, and was implacable in regards to his health and diet. It was as if he was back in the nursery again with Nanny, with wholesome soups and scrambled eggs and stewed fruit.
At five and twenty, he was too old to be treated like a child, no matter how childish he'd been. He'd been in his African garrison for years keeping the Zulus and the Boers at bay. Bad enough Chelmsford had invaded the Zulu territory without the authorization of the British government, resulting in the bloodiest battles imaginable, but then the idiots at Whitehall decided to annex the Transvaal Republic to stir up the Boers. Henry had done his duty on both fronts, and he wanted a roast, by God, and horseradish sauce. New potatoes larded with butter and parsley. Sponge cake filled with jam. Apricots in brandy. Something rich and delicious he could sink his teeth into, since he was no longer nibbling on any slender necks. In the week he'd been here, he'd not seen one woman in the village under fifty, and he'd looked.
But hold on. He heard children singing up ahead as he stumbled down the ever-narrowing lane that looked like it led to freedom from the Puddling Valley. Beyond was a perfect green hill and perfect white sheep, wide open spaces without a cottage in sight.
If there were children, there had to be mothers, right? Women of childbearing age were youngish, and perhaps one of them was a lonely widow. Henry made an effort to trot a little faster, gritting his teeth at the grinding pain in his foot.
He hadn't come this way before. He was, in fact, breaking a rule. There was a fixed itinerary for his walk, and he wasn't on it. Take that, Puddling prison guards!
Rounding a corner, there was before him a gated stone wall, and beyond it a stone schoolhouse, with perhaps a dozen urchins dancing about in a circle in the grassy field. Henry's own dancing days were finished, but he could appreciate the enthusiasm and joy before him, and he leaned on his stick to watch.
He was spotted immediately by a towheaded girl of about six, who pointed and screamed. Even with his hearing loss, he was impressed with the infant's lung power. He hadn't had a reception like that since his father Arthur Challoner, the Marquess of Harland, discovered Lysette LaRue and Francie Jones in his bedroom at Harland House a week ago.
Henry should not have brought the girls home. He'd still be carousing in London, smoking and drinking and dining and trying to forget if he'd only kept his pants buttoned. Sneaking Lysette and Francie in had been the last straw, and the pater had had enough. Hero or not — and Henry really wasn't — Something Had To Be Done.
Hence Puddling and rehabilitation. That same morning, Henry had been bundled up without his valet and incarcerated in the ancient Harland travel coach, his father blistering him verbally the many miles it took to reach this godforsaken place. Henry was almost grateful for the partial deafness in his right ear — he'd been a little too close to a jammed cannon, and when it unjammed, the damn thing let him down in the most audible way.
He had been much better off with his Martini-Henry singleshot rifle, although in his opinion, the British army had been damn poorly outfitted all the way around. Much of the weaponry was obsolete, and it wasn't very strategic to pop up on the dusty plain in bright red uniforms. The filthy, khaki-covered farmers they'd fought against for a short but hideous two months had been expert marksmen, bruising riders, and determined to maintain their independence by any means necessary.
So now Henry was half-deaf and half-lame. Delightful.
He knew there must be train service to this part of the world, but then his father would have been deprived of his limitless lecture if he'd purchased two tickets. Upon arrival, the pater had met with the vicar in the Rifle and Roses — whoever heard of a pub that sold no ale? Or, for that matter, a vicar who did business in a pub? — while Henry was confined to the carriage, practically in handcuffs. His head had been too sore to object to his treatment, and he knew he deserved it on some level. Almost welcomed it.
He was a disappointment, and he was tired of himself beyond belief.
It seemed he was some sort of devil as well. The shrieking child before him acted as if he had horns. Henry ran a hand through his hatless blond hair to make sure none had sprouted up.
Someone stepped out the schoolhouse door at the commotion. A female someone, who was not over fifty. Henry felt his heart leap.
She was dark-haired and rosy-cheeked, built along sturdy country lines, ample of hip and bosom and the most luscious thing he'd seen since he'd arrived. Henry grinned.
The screaming continued. Did he have a spinach leaf from his nutritious but dull lunch stuck in his teeth?
"Now, Mary Ann, be quiet. It's just one of our Guests," the young woman murmured in a low, soothing voice. She knelt in front of the little girl as the rest of the students gave Henry the stink-eye.
"Good afternoon." His voice was rusty, unused except when falsely complimenting Mrs. Grace on her culinary skills or inquiring everywhere about alcohol, although he'd given that up after the third day. Henry's conversations with the vicar every afternoon were mostly one-sided, and the side wasn't his.
The children stared back at him, silent. Had they been warned about him? As far as he knew, he'd never hurt a child. Hurt men, yes, but that was his job. He'd been in the army for six years, much to his father's displeasure, and he'd killed a lot of people one way or another.
"I'm relatively harmless. You don't have to be afraid." Harmless Henry. There was a certain ring to it, even if it was untrue.
The young woman rose and took Mary Ann by the hand. "Say good afternoon, sweetheart. We must be polite to our Guests."
What was this guest business? If Henry was being entertained in any way by the Puddling populace, they were doing a piss-poor job of it.CHAPTER 2
Drat. Rachel Everett bit her lip. Lord Challoner was not supposed to see her. Up until today, he'd been methodical in his afternoon perambulation, following his prescribed schedule, turning left at his gate and wandering about the steep, twisting village streets aimlessly for an hour just as he was supposed to. Reports were that he looked cross and uncomfortable, which was the normal course of events for Puddling-on-the-Wold's special Guests.
Things were always hard in the beginning. There was resentment, and, very occasionally, some violence. The poor vicar and those before him had survived many a tossed teacup — and worse.
The school was difficult to find, tucked away in a field near the bottom end of the hilly village, and not on Lord Challoner's map. Rachel knew he had been strictly forbidden to leave the area — he hadn't much money, and the nearest train station was five miles away. A walk of that distance was not impossible, but a man with his injury would find it unpleasant.
Likely he would have a hard time getting back up the lane to his cottage today and might even need assistance. Everyone in Greater Puddling-on-the-Wold had been informed of his residence and would be on the lookout for any difficulty or irregularity.
Like escape. It had happened. In 1807, a duke's daughter smuggled herself out of town in a laundry hamper. The Sykes family, with whom she had lodged, were still living down the breach in security, although Lady Maribel had married Sir Colin Sykes so that had turned out all right in the end. And in 1854, an unfortunate Guest had climbed the church's bell tower in a poorly-planned attempt to fly. Umbrellas had not been designed for such a purpose, even if he'd sported two of them. The young man had been coaxed down carefully and sent to Bethlem Hospital, which was better equipped to deal with his avian ambitions.
Or so the people of Puddling-on-the-Wold hoped. Treatment methods had evolved over the decades, and there had not been an Incident in quite a while. The vicar kept a full accounting of the many success stories achieved in the last seventy-odd years by his predecessors. Their Guests had grown up, gotten married, become fathers and mothers. Most were respectably settled. Pillars of society. Their youthful follies were behind them, their families forever grateful. The coffers of Puddling-on-the-Wold were full, and each resident received a generous bonus every year just for living within the village's boundary lines, whether they were instrumental in a Guest's recovery or not.
And that was crucial to the well-being of the town. The North had siphoned off the wool trade, and crop prices had been depressed — like some of their Guests — since before Rachel was born. There was no industry hereabouts but a small group of mad potters and furniture makers who were trying to redesign the art world. They contributed nothing to the economy of Puddling save for misshaped mugs and uncomfortable chairs for the church fete. Puddlingites bought them out of pity.
Each Guest required an individual program, and Rachel Everett was not on Lord Challoner's. He was meant to avoid female companionship, which had been somewhat awkward to arrange. Eventually the younger women of Puddling would be allowed out of their houses and back into the church and shops, but for the first two weeks of his stay Henry Challoner was to remain unaware of their existence during his walks until his carnal appetites were cooled and under control.
The poor man was a sexual deviant. Addicted to spirits and drugs too. Rachel imagined his war experiences had left him shattered, and had some sympathy. She'd heard her own father had spent far too many hours in the Rifle and Roses after the Crimean War.
The entire town was anxious to see the back of young Lord Challoner so the pub could open its taps again. It didn't seem quite fair to some of the residents that they should have to suffer right along with their Guests, but sacrifices had to be made. Excessive drinking was a very common problem among the beau monde.
At least they were not still hosting poor Greta Holmes-Hamilton, who had been sent to Puddling on a slimming regimen before her wedding. Rachel had missed the bake shop very much during the three months it had closed during Greta's visit. It was much more convenient to buy treats than to bake for herself and her father, but Rachel had sealed up the windows of their cottage with dish towels so Greta wouldn't smell the cinnamon rolls as she happened to pass by on her daily walk.
Greta had been a vision in her bridal gown. The vicar had clipped the photograph out of The Times for the villagers to see, although she was not smiling in it. The poor girl was probably forbidden to eat her own wedding cake. From the conversations Rachel had with Greta, Mrs. Holmes-Hamilton was something of a martinet when it came to organizing Greta's life.
But Greta was gone now, hopefully to domestic bliss, and here was someone else in her place.
"Tom, you may ring the bell. Children, you are dismissed."
It was only ten or so minutes before the usual time. The children reentered the schoolhouse for their lunch pails and belongings, then skipped away through the gate in the wall, scattering uphill through the village. A few glanced backward at the Guest and their teacher, who faced each other over the golden Cotswold stone.
"Allow me to introduce myself," he began.
"I know who you are," Rachel said, making him sound like Dr. William Palmer, the Prince of Poisoners. It was imperative that she freeze him out and send him back where he came from. In another week she might nod coldly if she encountered him, but not yet.
Excerpted from Schooling the Viscount by Maggie Robinson. Copyright © 2017 Maggie Robinson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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