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Beth. Sometimes, it still jarred. Was that truly her name? 'Dear Beth' had been the only legible words on a soggy, much-folded note in the pocket of her threadbare gown. They had found no other clue to her identity. All their discreet enquiries had yielded absolutely nothing more. So, after more than six months, Beth was still in Fratcombe with her benefactors, and still the woman of mystery she had been on the night Jonathan rescued her. It nagged at her that she might not even be 'Beth' at all.
Mrs Aubrey had appeared in the doorway. 'Yes, ma'am?' Beth said brightly.
'Do you think you could fetch me some ribbon from Mr Green's when you finish at the school today?'
'Yes, of course,' Beth replied immediately. 'What do you need?'
Mrs Aubrey brought out a length of dress fabric, and they spent a comfortable few minutes discussing the style the old lady planned to stitch.
'You have chosen a delightful shade, ma'am. Not quite purple and not quite garnet red, either. The only difficulty will be finding a ribbon to suit such an unusual colour. But I promise I will do my very best.'
'You will have time?'
'Oh, yes. Mr Green's will be open for at least an hour after the children have gone home. If it takes me longer than that to find your ribbon, Aunt Caro, I shall be a failure indeed.' She smiled down at the little old lady. Beth had come to love Mrs Aubrey like a mother, for she was kind and generous, as well as surprisingly full of fun and mischief. Neither Mrs Aubrey nor the rector cared that Beth had no history before her arrival in the village. Her educated speech and soft hands proved her a lady, the Aubreys said, and so, over Beth's guilty protests, they had insisted she remain with them. Indeed, the rector's wife had let it be known from the first that Beth was a distant relation, come to make a long stay in Fratcombe. Most of the village had accepted it without question. As the months passed, even Beth had come to think of herself as Miss Elizabeth Aubrey, one of the rector's family. It was a warm, comforting feeling, one she treasured. But it could not quite overcome the guilty fears that sometimes gave her nightmares. What might she have done in the past? What could be so bad that her mind refused to let her remember?
Gathering up her basket with the lesson materials she had prepared, Beth dropped a kiss on Mrs Aubrey's cheek and made her way out into the bright morning sunshine. The rectory stood next to the Saxon church
at one end of the village. The school had been set up in a vacant house near the middle of Fratcombe alongside the main shops. It was an easy walk, though the day promised to be very hot later.
Beth smiled up at the clear blue sky. A Spanish sky would be a darker, deeper blue, she supposed, nearer the colour of Jonathan's eyes, as far as she could remember it from that single, pain-hazed meeting. She had never even had a chance to thank him. The morning after the rescue, he had left Fratcombe Manor in response to an urgent summons from Horse Guards. There had been an apologetic farewell note to the rector, as good manners required, but he had taken the trouble to include good wishes for Beth's recovery as well. That thoughtfulness still warmed her heart, though it saddened her that she had not seen him again. It was the life of a soldier, she supposed. Apart from that one fleeting spell of home leave, he had been in the Peninsula for years, fighting the French.
She had not thought it her place to ask questions about her rescuer. That would have been vulgar. But, by listening to others, she had learned to admire him even more. His name was Jonathan Foxe-Garway. And although the Aubreys had known him as a boy and still referred to him as 'Master Jonathan', he was in fact the Earl of Portbury, a man of rank and great wealth. He was the rector's patron, of course, but he was also a man the Aubreys valued for himself. They spoke of him often, telling tales of outrageous childhood escapades at the Manor, and amusing pranks when he had first gone up to Oxford. No doubt he had also done things that the rector judged unfit for a lady's ears but, if so, his sins were far outweighed by his devotion to duty and his bravery on the battlefield.
Whatever the rector might say about duty, it seemed strange to Beth that an earl should have chosen to join Lord Wellington's army, to face the hardships and dangers of campaigning. Did he not have a greater duty to his name and his estates? He could not possibly be managing them from a windswept tent in Spain.
She was unlikely to discover the truth of that. The Aubreys' tales were entertaining and sometimes revealing, but never indiscreet. In any case, it was not her concern. However, it was impossible for Beth to forget Jonathan Foxe-Garway. He was her rescuer. The passage of time could not change that, even though his image was a blur. No wonder, for she had been barely conscious. She had little more than a vague impression of height, and strength, coupled with penetrating blue eyes and that reassuring voice as he carried her up the rectory stairs and laid her on a warm, soft bed. Sometimes, in her dreams, she saw him clearly, but only there. Once, she had even dreamt he was galloping towards her, clad in silver armour and mounted on a white charger, like a knight in a fairy tale.
That, she knew, was quite ridiculous. She was a grown woman. She must be at least twenty-four or twenty-five. A woman of such advanced years should certainly know better than to cling to childish fantasies. Yet the sound of his voice kept haunting her dreams. She imagined it would be so until the day she died, a schoolmistress, and an old maid.
One of her pupils, a little boy called Peter, came racing up, bowling a hoop. 'Miss Aubrey! Oh, Miss Aubrey, look at my hoop!' At that moment, he lost control and it toppled into a patch of nettles by the lane. Before Beth could stop him, he had dived in after it. He cried out in pain.
Poor Peter. He was only five and knew no better. Beth lifted him into her arms and wiped away his tears with a gentle finger. 'You are a brave boy, Peter. Come, let me set you down and we will find something for that sting.' She carefully retrieved the hoop with her gloved hand. 'Hold that for me, while I look.' She used the handle of her parasol to brush aside the lush greenery of high summer. 'See this, Peter?' She pointed to a dock plant. 'For nettle stings, the sovereign remedy is dock leaves. Let me show you.' She picked a few, stripped off her gloves and began to rub the leaves on the reddened patches on his skin. Then she wrapped some larger leaves around his injured arm. 'Hold those against the sting, Peter, while I take your hoop. It will soon stop hurting.'
'Stopped hurting already, miss.' He sounded much cheerier.
'Well done. You are very brave, and you will be able to teach all your friends about avoiding nettles, and curing their stings, won't you?'
He grinned cheekily, showing missing front teeth. Still, he was a clever boy, one who would make something of himself if Beth had her way, even though he was only the son of a farm labourer. In fact, his father had a cottage on the Fratcombe Manor estate. Jonathan's estate.
Everything kept coming back to Jonathan.
This was a matter of the future of a child, she told herself sternly. If Jonathanif Lord Portbury ever returned to Fratcombe, she would ask him to take an interest in Peter. She was quite sure he would not begrudge his help to a bright lad who had grown up on his own estate.
They had reached the school. Peter, mindful of the manners Beth had taught him, bowed neatly to her before racing away to show off his scars and his new hoop. The other children gathered round him, exclaiming excitedly in piping voices. There were only ten of them, six boys and four girls, but Beth was proud of what she had achieved with them in just a few short months. The village, and the rectory, had given her shelter. It was right that she should repay them with her labour, the only thing she had to offer. Besides, doing good for others helped to lessen her ever-present guilt at what might be hidden in her missing past.
She checked her watch. It was almost the hour. She laid aside her bonnet and gloves and lifted the handbell to call the children into class.
It took no time at all to select a ribbon from Mr Green's vast range, even though Mrs Aubrey's silk was such an unusual shade. Beth stowed the tiny parcel in her basket and stepped out into the afternoon heat, grateful for her parasol and straw bonnet. Mrs Aubrey would not be expecting her for at least another half hour. She had some time for herself.
She looked around a little apprehensively, wondering whether anyone from the gentry families might appear. They often drove by in the afternoons. Such an encounter would quickly spoil her sunny mood.
In spite of the care the Aubreys had taken, it had been impossible to prevent some gossip. The wealthy ladies of the district had descended on the rectory to inspect the new arrival as soon as she left her bed. Unfortunately, Beth's vague answers to questions about her background and family aroused suspicion among these eagle-eyed mamas, who lost no time in issuing instructions to their offspring. Their sons might ogle pretty Beth Aubrey from a distance, but they would never ask to be introduced. Just one young man had approached BethSir Bertram Fitzherbert's eldest sonbut his only interest was in a quick grope behind a hedge. He had not succeeded, and his fumbling attack had taught her to be extremely wary of all the young sprigs of fashion. None of them had Jonathan's honour and integrity where an unprotected female was concerned. He was a shining knight; they were arrogant young puppies. Or worse.
Not surprisingly, most of the society invitations arriving at the rectory were pointedly addressed to the rector and Mrs Aubrey alone. Mrs Aubrey had been minded, at first, to confront such appalling rudeness. But the mere suggestion had reawakened all Beth's guilty fears. She knew the rector could not afford to offend the great families, especially when Jonathan was not in England to take his part. Her nightmares had returned, and the sick headache that often followed. She had pleaded desperately for the insult to be ignored, and dear Mrs Aubrey, much affected by Beth's distress, had finally agreed.
Not all the families shunned her, however. In two of the grand houseshouses with no unmarried sons Beth had actually become quite well acquainted with the younger daughters. Beth's eye for fashion was particularly valued; the girls often sought her views on the trimming of a bonnet or the important business of changing a hairstyle. Beth enjoyed it all, although she had no place at the side of young heiresses, for she knew she was nothing of the sort. Nor had she ever been one. No heiress would have owned the dowdy clothes that Beth had been found in. They were fit only for a gypsy, or a tramp.
Beth glanced up and down the village street one last time. It was safely deserted. There was no one to see which way she went.
Instead of turning right, in the direction of the church and the lodge gates, she turned left. If anyone should question her, she would say she was going to call on old Mrs Jenkinson, who lived in the last house at the far end of the village, just before the sharp bend in the road. From there, it was but a step to Beth's goal.
Walking at a very brisk pace, she soon reached the woods, though she was uncomfortably hot by then. The turn in the road now concealed her from the village itself. And since it was highly unlikely that anyone would pass this way, she was at liberty to indulge herself. Just a little.
She put her basket and parasol on the ground behind a fence-post and leaned on the rail, gazing round at the clearing. This was where it had all begun. This was where Jonathan had found her.
There was nothing in the least unusual about it. It was simply a clearing at the edge of a wood, surrounded by thick evergreens and with a single, venerable oak where the clearing joined the main path. She smiled up at the branches of the tree, now green and youthful where, before, they had been black and bare. On an impulse, she ducked under the rail and started across the grass. In spite of the hot weather, it was still quite spongy underfoot. There was a stream close by, which never dried out. No wonder everywhere had been so muddy that night.
She made her way across to the overhanging shrubs and lifted the long branches to peer underneath. The heaps of leaves were still there, blown in, year after year, and too dry to rot. She was grateful for that. If she had lain down on wet leaves, soaked as she was, she would probably have died long before Jonathan could find her. His arrival was like a miracle.
She picked her way across to the path by the oak and stroked its wrinkled trunk. She had come here so many times, looking around, walking along the path, trying to retrieve some memory of what had gone before. It had never succeeded, and this time was no different.
Beth sighed. She had been here quite long enough. She must hurry back to the rectory. Mrs Aubrey must not have cause for worry.
It was only when Beth came out from under the shade of the oak tree that she realised how dark it was. In the space of only a few minutes, the sky had become almost black. There was going to be a fearsome storm. And she was here, far from shelter, with no protection at all!