Chapter 5: The Countryside

The Duke of Muncester did not appear in the flesh, but several burly men -- sailors -- with trunks and crates appeared at the back of the house in the course of the day, saying they had been sent by the duke. They worked quickly and efficiently and by nightfall they had packed two rooms.

Clementine had watched their progress with a feeling of confused detachment. Something or someone had taken control of her life again, similar to four years ago. She could only let it happen and wish it would turn out for the best. From one of the men she had obtained the address of her new home, but it did not mean much to her. She knew nobody in that area.

At dawn, the men set off with the cart and her move was inevitable. She would have to follow her trunks. There was no turning back anymore. Why had she gone along so passively? She did not even know in what sort of house she was going to end up. It might barely hold a roof.

Her attorney called on her after breakfast, but she could barely attend to what he was saying. The house was to be leased. It was nice of him to check whether she as the owner was aware of the plans the Duke of Muncester had made with regard to her property and any feelings of indignation were solely directed at His Grace the Duke of Mysteriousness.

If the man had a plan he did not waste a second. He did not even allow anybody to become used to any changes. She was usually better able to wrap her mind around financial arrangements, but now they baffled her.

"And the proceeds of the lease of this house?" she inquired. "How do they pay for the lease of the country house?" Everybody seemed to forget that the other house had to be costing something as well. It would be useful if the two sums balanced each other.

"I was not told about the country house arrangements," said the attorney. "Perhaps you would not be paying any rent? The Captain did not tell me. Pardon, His Grace. He had it all thought out."

He might have it all thought out, but as usual he had kept most of his thoughts to himself. "Does he think he is still on a ship where he is in sole command? The feeble-brained woman might like to be informed," she asked with some exasperation.

"I shall make inquiries, Madam," the attorney promised. "But the lease of this house would revert to you. I assumed he had explained how."

It would perhaps not reflect well on her to reveal she had in fact not been told anything at all. Which other woman would agree to be sent to the countryside without giving the matter any thought at all, simply saying yes because the question had caught her unawares?

Should the countryside not suit her, she was now able to think, she could always return. That was a relief. Her house was not being sold.

The attorney had stayed true to his word, for before dinner a note was delivered. It appeared she was to be stowed away at the duke's former house, for which he no longer had a need. Apparently he was also so wealthy now that he did not require an extra income from letting it to her.

Clementine could not decide whether he was generous or meddlesome. Time would tell whether he meant to keep her under his influence, eager to pound on any missteps, or whether this move was an attempt to let her restore her respectability.

His Grace has suggested that you be known as Mrs. Rigby, a widow.

That line in the letter pointed to the latter option. Posing as a widow was certainly a good deal more respectable than presenting herself to a new community as an unmarried woman with a child. The men who had packed her trunks had already referred to her as Mrs. Rigby, but she had not corrected their mistake. Did that man really think of everything?

She wondered what people in the neighbourhood would make of her connection to him. Some eyebrows would be raised. There was no doubt about that. She would have the same thoughts if a man's house was so suddenly let to a young woman, widowed or not. But she would not give anybody any reason to entertain their suspicions for very long.

Settling in

The house was very much to her liking. It had a stuffy smell inside that even open windows could not immediately dispel and the furniture was a bit old, but it was pleasantly situated in the village. She was probably merely lazy, but she did not feel as though much had to be altered in the house.

The garden had grown wild and it was more important to start there, so that Julia could play in it. The servants were excited about the move, although rather daunted by having to restore the garden to something useful. It was considerably larger than in town.

Understandably the neighbourhood wished to know which young widow with a small child had taken possession of this house, not to mention how she had come by this opportunity. Her first few weeks were spent unpacking, personalising the house and receiving visitors.

Clementine was glad they came to her, for getting to know anyone would otherwise have been more difficult. She was slow to trust, but despite her caution she had forced herself to be friendly and grateful when people visited. They would look less kindly upon a reserved and silent woman.

Fortunately her story was easy. She wanted her daughter to grow up in the country and she shared an attorney with the Duke of Muncester, who was still known here as Captain Lenton. That was how it had all come about and the duke did not need this house any longer, having inherited the vast estate of his cousin nearby. It made perfect sense to everyone that he should have looked for a tenant. That the tenant turned out to be a pretty young widow could not yet be significant if she was still in some state of mourning.

Clementine had not worn black in town, not having been wed. It had been her own choice to wear grey most of the time. Moving here, she would not have much of a choice, but she would be expected to display soberness. To revert to the old black gowns that she had not worn for four years simply to fool the villagers proved to be impossible. She had constantly been in black between the deaths of her parents, but she had shed the colour upon her departure to London, so that she had not worn the gowns since.

When she tried them on, they no longer fit in such a way that she could appear in public with them. Four years ago she had been a girl, now she was a mother and that made a difference. She settled for other sober colours, as she had done lately. There was no time to alter the gowns to make them fit.

The duke had not given her enough notice to deal with this. She had been sent off within a few days and he had obviously not given the mourning aspect any thought. He had better be clever enough not to give the villagers a precise date for her husband's demise, since she was not in the easy position that she could merely slip on an armband. It was unfair. The duke was furthermore not required to mourn his cousin for a similarly long period. He could don gay colours fairly soon, although she could not imagine him in anything bright.

This matter had troubled her for most of the journey hither, but she had eventually decided to be lax about it. Other considerations sometimes took precedence and she had survived one time before after shedding her mourning clothes too soon. There could not be any connection between that and landing in trouble, she supposed. A girl in mourning, all alone. She would think that indicated even more clearly that there was no one looking out for her.

There was but one catch, as she discovered, and it had nothing to do with the colour of her clothes. Even by objective standards she was a pretty widow, living in the house of a man who shared her daughter's name, at least the masculine form of it. She had not realised it until someone innocently pointed it out. Yes, the connection was there, but in a different form. Both had been named after the same Julia, she supposed, but could not say so. She only smiled and said it was a happy coincidence, since she believed the captain to have been at sea for the last few years and she had not met him until her daughter had long been named.

Of course if someone insisted on thinking of Julia as the captain's indiscretion, they still would, despite evidence to the contrary. She hoped he had indeed been at sea three years ago. That would make it a little more difficult for a persistent gossip. That had been the only difficulty and thankfully the subject had not come up again.

After a few days Clementine began to recognise people in the village. She was timid about greeting them in the beginning, since she had lived mostly unacknowledged in the past four years, but life was different here and some greeted her first.

Clementine had initially half expected the duke to follow her shortly to instruct her in proper village behaviour or in anything else he deemed necessary. She had also almost expected him to call as soon as possible to make sure she had not struck up an acquaintance with a local man, but perhaps the fact that she had not done so would reach him by way of the village tradesmen and his servants, with possibly a few more intermediaries.

However, after his frantic efforts to send her out of town had been successful he appeared to have left her alone. She had been glad to start a new life here without interference or insults, so she soon forgot to wonder too often about him and his objectives.

For days she lived quietly without seeing or hearing from her generous landlord. He was mentioned in the village sometimes by people who expected him back any day, for it surely was time for him to take possession of his new estate. Mr. Newman the steward was rumoured to have said such a thing and Mr. Newman was always trustworthy.

It was not until she heard about Mr. Newman's expectations that she consciously reflected upon her current situation as being the result of the duke's machinations. Whatever his objective had been, it had turned out extremely well for her.

The villagers believed her to be respectable, which she was in essence, and people's acceptance never failed to make her return their greetings with a grateful smile. She was back in the life she would have had if her father had not incurred any debts. Everything depended on behaviour, she discovered. She had been behaving in a modest and unassuming manner, not drawing any attention to herself. If people had had any doubts or questions about her situation, those were soon forgotten.

After precisely a fortnight, a man came up her garden path. He took off his hat and bade her a good day, introducing himself as Mr. Newman, the duke's steward. "I have come about the rent," he announced cheerfully.

She was startled by the question. "The r-r-rent?" She had been told she would not have to pay any, what then was this rent Mr. Newman spoke of? Although she was comfortable financially, she could not afford to spend too much. She did not, but she had not laid any money aside for the rent either. Perhaps it was not money he had come for. This thought sent her into a small panic.

"Do not look so anxious, Mrs. Rigby," he said with a wink.

"I was not told I had to pay rent. Of any kind." She lifted Julia onto her arm as a barrier, not being very trusting of winks.

"Why do you look as if I have come to eat you, Madam?" Mr. Newman asked curiously. "Some tea would suffice."

"Tea," she repeated. "You came to have tea?"

"I would not impose on you in such an unmannered way, but we must have a chat about the rent and whether you serve tea or not is entirely up to you."

"But I did not have to pay any rent to anyone here." Clementine wondered if it had been sensible to say she was not to pay anything at all. People might think that strange.

"The village expects me to collect your rent as well as all other tenants' rents, Mrs. Rigby, every fortnight. In other words, I shall be coming around for a cup of tea every fortnight."

She felt some tentative relief. "You had best come in, Mr. Newman." The maid was instructed to serve some tea and they seated themselves in the sitting room. "Tea and no money?" she asked, wanting to make sure she had understood his implication correctly.

He gave a nod. "Those were my instructions, Madam."

"He thought of this as well?" she asked in a plaintive voice. It was nearly impossible.

"Actually, he did not," said Mr. Newman. "But I received some veiled inquiries from villagers as to how much rent you would be paying and what your income was, did I know, and so forth. I had not thought about your rent, since Captain Lenton's affairs were his own and I was working only for His Grace. Captain Lenton is my employer now, though. Since the inquiries were veiled I could easily not answer, but I wrote to Captain Lenton, I mean His Grace, and he wrote back with these instructions."

"What do you know of the arrangement?" Clementine asked softly. "Had you wondered why I am not paying?"

"Not really," Mr. Newman admitted. "There is much difference in character between him and his cousin, Madam, which explains everything."

She cast down her eyes. Indeed it did. And if he mentioned the cousin he had to know everything. How else could the cousin be connected to this?

"But I do not speak about my employer's private affairs," the steward continued with a reassuring smile when she seemed dejected. "The present duke was quite furious when I informed him I would treat his private affairs with the same discretion as I had treated those of his cousin, which is how I excused myself for not informing anybody of the fact that the late duke had a lady set up in town, something he had once boasted of to me."

It was quite obvious that Mr. Newman knew who that lady was and Clementine sighed. She wondered to what she owed his politeness then. He knew what sort of woman she was. Perhaps he was genuinely kind. She did not want to think about anything else.

But the duke had been furious, he said. Somehow Clementine was not surprised. "I have had my share of confrontations with His Grace."

That created a bond between them, for Mr. Newman laughed. "I have no problems believing that, Madam. I was present at the reading of the will and Captain Lenton nearly had two fits, first when the will was read and then when I said I knew."

"I hope the reading was not a public affair," she said cautiously.

"No, Madam. You need not be concerned for there were only three of us. His aunt was there as well. I did not immediately think you were the same person, until the question of the rent came up." He took a letter from his pocket and handed it to her.

In response to your question, this is a charitable arrangement connected to my cousin's will.
I suggest you visit as usual every fortnight and ask for a cup of tea.

Clementine frowned at it. "His Grace is so eloquent." And longwinded.

Mr. Newman did not reveal his opinion on that. "But I will not be sent on a fool's errand, so I wrote back to him requesting some more information about you, saying that Mrs. Newman did not look too kindly upon his suggestion."

"I am sure he had never even considered you might inform Mrs. Newman. He does not seem to think women are capable of running even their own affairs."

"He does not yet know Mrs. Newman," Mr. Newman said with a wink. "She read his letter too, by the way."

"Of course." Clementine was smiling. She thought she would like his wife. Her interference in her husband's affairs seemed to be appreciated rather than resented.

"I wrote back to him, also adding that as his steward I would have to have full knowledge of any business concerning the estate and that furthermore I was more versed in these matters than he was, so if he wished to handle something on his own there was a danger of it becoming known to undesirable parties, especially if it considered setting up a woman in a house without rent to be paid."

She pressed a hand to her mouth and her smile faded. "Would the duke have appreciated such a letter?" It practically accused him of being a fool with a mistress.

He shrugged. "They employ me because they do not know how to run an estate on their own. If they do not allow me to do it properly, they are welcome to do it themselves." He handed her another letter. "This was his response."

I am not setting her up. She is not paying any rent because my cousin neglected to make any honourable provisions for his own child. I do not know any other way of securing the child's future than to banish them to the country, for I have observed few prospects for them here in town.

Clementine lowered the letter. He had their well-being in mind? Surely not. And he was setting her up, even if he did not want to realise it.

If Mrs. Newman continues to object, I suggest you take her along.

"That advice is most generous of him," Clementine said a little mockingly. "Considering that she is your wife. But why did you not bring her as he suggested?"

"She recently had a baby. I never told him that. I am sure he knows nothing about births anyway, so it might in fact not have mattered if I had."

She smiled at him. "Congratulations. Was it very recently?"

"The birth is not so recent that I could not leave the house, but it was too close for her to leave."

"This was not why she objected to tea, was it?" She supposed that would have had more to do with her being a young widow. Nobody would like her husband to have tea with a young widow very regularly, especially not if one was confined to the house with an infant.

"No, Madam."

"And quite right she was. I remember fearing that about Julia's father. I hope all goes well with your baby. I also hope Mrs. Newman is not too concerned right now. She is always welcome to visit me when she is out in public again."



Chapter 6: Trouble returns?

It was after two months that she heard that Captain Lenton, alias the duke, had come home. It was Mr. Newman who brought the news. He was more reliable than the villagers, who had all known precisely what the duke had been doing in town. Some believed he would never come, that after settling his affairs he would sail again. Others believed he had spent his time choosing a suitable wife and about half of the adherents to this theory believed he would bring her.

In the village Clementine had also heard that the Dowager Duchess of Muncester had arrived over a week ago, but she had no idea who else belonged to the family and who else could have his home here.

This was Mr. Newman's third visit. He always drank only one cup of tea, saying the collecting of the rent did not take long and that if he were treated to biscuits everywhere he would soon grow rotund. Still, there was always enough time for a short chat. On the previous two they had either spoken about the village or his family. The recent addition to his family gave her enough to ask about.

As she had discovered, he had been a widower once and he had married the woman he had hired to look after his young son. She had laughed at his confession that he had been very wicked when he had not hired any of the ugly older women who had applied for the position.

"The village spoke ill of my choice; it could only lead to mischief," he had said with a chuckle. "But she was the only one whose face did not make Thomas scream in fear."

Despite his speaking very warmly of Mrs. Newman, Clementine had been very interested in hearing whether his second attachment was happy and it filled her with hope when he assured her that he was delighted with his second wife. Such happiness might at some point be granted to her and she hoped for that fervently.

She had expressed a curiosity to see Mrs. Newman for herself when she was recovered from the birth and Mrs. Newman, the baby and the four-year old boy had now all come along. Julia liked the boy and Clementine liked Mrs. Newman, who was a very shy young woman, but who must be speaking a lot more to her husband in private, on account of her even reading his mail.

She hoped Mrs. Newman was not so quiet because reading her husband's mail had told her too much, but Clementine was never put off by a little reserve. Not everyone talked easily. She did not reveal her secrets to everybody either and perhaps Mrs. Newman wanted only a little more time to feel comfortable. She did smile shyly now and then.

"Captain Lenton -- I must teach myself to call him the duke -- now seems to have handled everything in town to his satisfaction," said Mr. Newman, "because I saw him this morning and I assume he arrived last night."

"Oh," Clementine said politely, refraining from asking if he had brought the wife and children some villagers thought he had acquired in the meantime.

She had barely given the man any thought in the past two or three weeks, she believed. His return could not affect her. He was her landlord and he sent his steward to deal with his tenants. It was unlikely that he should come here himself. She could be easy.

She was quickly proven wrong by the steward. "He said he would call on you soon on account of his personal belongings that he has not yet moved to the big house. He has not been here since his return to the shore."

She had encountered a few items, but she had assumed he was not in need of them. There were so few personal touches that she had assumed they had already been removed. The house had been strangely devoid of any traces of occupation. "But there is very little of personal or sentimental value left in the house, I would say. I hope he does not mean to deprive me of all the furniture. Did he say whether he would be civil?" She bit her tongue after those last words.

"Civil?" asked Mr. Newman interestedly. "I found him quite civil as long as he was not confronted with shocking news. Did you find otherwise?"

"Any incivility was probably entirely my fault," Clementine said swiftly. "We shall see. But I do hope he does not mean to take any furniture, for I do not see what else he left behind. Books, perhaps. I saw a few locked chests in the attic as well. Why did he have a house if he was never here and if he never made his mark on it?"

"It was his father's house."

"How lucky of him to have inherited it! I had to sell my father's house because I inherited debts along with it," she explained her remark. "I tried to convince His Grace of my ability to handle such matters, but of course it never occurred to him that I might have had to do this at some point and he insisted on handling it all behind my back."

Here Mrs. Newman gave a shy little smile -- of recognition or amusement. "He will learn," she said softly.

Clementine leant towards her, glad for the reaction. Mrs. Newman might not be unfavourably disposed towards her then. They had come from similar backgrounds, after all. If she could see this, so could Mrs. Newman. "Do not tell him there is something he has yet to learn!" she said with a teasing eye roll.

"Do you not like him?"

"After some of the conclusions he has jumped to with regard to me," she said reflectively. "No, I cannot say I like him. But if he is civil I can tolerate him. I do not expect we shall meet much here, belonging to different circles and all, so it does not signify much."

"But you were willingly relocated here," Mr. Newman commented with a puzzled look.

"Mr. Newman, you are his steward. I should warn you. He will give you no time to think."

His Grace came a few hours later, accompanied by a few menservants with a cart. He had not improved by much, for without further ado he scrutinised Clementine's abdomen, with the sight of which he appeared pleased. "It is good that you are not with child, for that would upset the entire scheme."

She controlled herself for the sake of the footmen, who could see even if they could not hear. She turned to hide her gaping mouth and astonished expression, because it would soon give way to anger and a desire to slap him. Undoubtedly he believed these things could be said without running the risk of insulting anyone. She sank down on the sofa and pondered his incomprehensible character.

"You will understand, Mrs. Rigby," he said hurriedly in an apparent attempt to save himself. "That it would have looked"

"I understand how it comes about, Your Grace," she seethed. "But seemingly you do not. If anything had happened in the meantime, you would not be able to see it yet. What are you thinking?"

"I do not mean --" But seeing her furious expression he decided to give up arguing and he went to instruct the footmen.

Clementine did not see anything of them for almost an hour and then he returned, alone, for the footmen had taken the cart back to the big house. She had sat on the sofa, shaking her head and abusing him silently. She shook her head again speechlessly when he came back to her. Despite all the angry speeches she had practised in her head, she came up with nothing to say.

"I must apologise," he said.

That astonished her even more than an insult. She stared at him, not really believing she had heard that correctly. He wanted to apologise?

"I did not think," the duke continued in a hurried manner, afraid he was going to be interrupted. "I was suddenly concerned, because it was the one thing I had not reckoned with."

She recovered her voice. "Do not concern yourself with thinking about those matters, Your Grace, and certainly refrain from revealing your ignorance about them."

That startled him.

She had been thinking in the past hour and she had tentatively concluded that he had not intended to insult her. He probably feared that Daniel had left her with child when he died. Had something like that come to light only now, she would indeed be in a fix, but as it was, she had not even been allowed to visit Daniel during the last two months of his life and she would have known about a pregnancy the first time she had seen the new duke. As soon as he had voiced his plans for her, she would have informed him of the possibility that they might go awry. Why was he thinking she would not have done so? He had to be clueless.

"I am not ignorant," Muncester protested.

"If you are not ignorant, you are insulting me," she said calmly, feeling she had the upper hand -- in this matter at least. He was probably thinking women would not find out until the birth surprised them.

"Neither! I certainly do not think you would have done anything untoward in the past two months."

"Thank you."

"Yet it might have dated from before then," he continued, not wise enough to give the matter up.

"You are not as well-informed as you like to think, Your Grace," Clementine said after a loud groan. It was not very ladylike, but how else did one give expression to such mixed feelings? Everything he said was contrary to his purpose, she began to think. If he had been speaking of any other woman she might have laughed.

A few seconds passed before he answered. "Why is that?"

"Either you were not informed about the length of your cousin's illness, or you were not informed of --" She bit her lip. He was looking at her quite blankly. "I do not know how to put this in refined terms. I should, because otherwise you would have an even lower opinion of me, yet I fear you would not understand me if I did."

The duke's face assumed a very reserved expression. "You do not have to explain anything. I know it all."

"And you know as well as I do that you do not," said Clementine, determined to have the last word.

"You are entitled to your opinion, Mrs. Rigby."

"That is most generous of you. Promise me one thing, Your Grace," she said in an earnest voice.

"Which is?"

"Promise me you will ... er..." She grimaced, but she could not turn back now. "You will ... er ... come and ask me for advice before you unleash your ignorance upon some girl?" She saw him change colours, but she continued. "So love will remain love."

Clementine watched and marvelled at her ability to make the duke disappear. He had looked very shocked and then he had simply gone away with saying another word. Perhaps she had insulted him back now, but in that case he deserved it. She would have been interested in his answer, but she could predict that it would be something along the lines of not being ignorant.

Julia's nursery maid had remained in town, but Clementine had not expected to have many outings or engagements and she had not bothered to find a replacement. The few times that she would have to be away the other servants would be able to look after the little girl for a few hours. So far she had always taken Julia to the shops and it had always gone well.

Julia could even play with the children of the neighbours. They were a bit older, but at least they were children. She was very happy to have some so nearby. Mary and Sylvia were very well-mannered girls too and so were their elder brothers, but the boys were usually occupied by lessons. Their father was a clergyman, which had made Clementine rather hesitant to speak much to either him or his wife. One never knew what they would say. She should not be so silly, but she was on her guard nonetheless.

The tradesman on the other side might not be as picky about the conduct of a young widow, or perhaps even more so because he was obviously on his way to become rather wealthy due to his trade. But he had no children for Julia to play with, so they never spoke about anything very specific.

On the whole she thought she could feel very fortunate with where she had ended. There was that situation with His Gracelessness, but she had not seen him since he had felt insulted. Perhaps he required some time to cool off before he would feel meddlesome again.

Clementine was surprised to receive an invitation from the big house for tea. It was not with the duke, which would have been strange, but with the duchess. It had been unclear to her so far whether the duchess knew that her grandchild was now living nearby, but this must be her answer: the duchess knew.

She had looked at the manor from a distance, without resentment. Keeping her independence was more rewarding than feeling as though Julia was entitled to something and then feeling injured because it was not given.

Now she felt her excitement rising as she was being taken towards it. She told herself not to feel too excited, because it might be a disappointing experience. The duchess might not even be friendly. She would simply focus on seeing the inside of the manor because it was interesting to see that.

Julia was merely excited by being picked up by a carriage and she sat with her nose pressed to the window, enjoying being so much higher than she usually was. Her mother had decided against explaining where they were going, since her words might be repeated out of context at the most embarrassing moment.

Clementine wondered who else would part of the gathering. It could not be only her, yet Julia was invited specifically as well and it was uncommon for such a young child to be exposed to company at someone else's house. Other guests might not enjoy it.

Only the duchess and another older woman, presumably her companion, were present when she arrived.

"The village would think it strange if we did not meet," said the duchess after she had greeted her guest and introduced her to the other woman. Her manner was not disapproving, but it was not warm either.

Clementine wondered what to say in response, but she could not think of anything. This implied that in the eyes of the village she was at least someone whom the duchess was wont to invite at some point, which made her quite respectable. Yet the duchess seemed to imply that she was only inviting her for appearances' sake. This did not put her very much at ease.

She seated Julia beside her on the sofa, hoping the girl would be on her best behaviour. The duchess was Julia's grandmother, which might explain why she had been invited, yet acknowledgement or interest were probably out of the question. Just before they had arrived she had urged Julia to be a good girl, to curtsey and to sit quietly beside Mama. The message might have got through, but Julia might also still be subdued by the impressive surroundings.

"Are you settled, Mrs. Rigby? How do you like the house?"

"I think it is perfect," Clementine said truthfully. "It was very kind of your nephew to let my attorney know about it," she said for the benefit of Mrs. Black, of whose knowledge she had no information.

"Had you not wanted to stay in town?"

She might be tested with these questions about her tastes and preferences. Perhaps the duchess wished to determine what sort of person she was, whether she liked the grandeur of the town and things like that. "I was given to understand that it was not desirable."

"No, indeed. Gossip and such is always so much worse there. I quite agree that you are much better off here. There is less to do here, or perhaps of a different nature." The duchess' eyes bored into hers searchingly. "Some find it boring."

"I grew up in the country, Your Grace," Clementine answered. "I prefer it to town."

They were interrupted by the entrance of three gentlemen -- the duke and two others. He introduced them as Mr. Lenton and Mr. Pritchard. They joined the ladies for tea, but left the initiative for conversation to the duchess.

Clementine used that time to study them, not only the strangers but also the duke. He had left her in an offended mood, after all. At present he did not give them impression of still being grievously offended, but he was merely reserved and did not look her in the eye. Mr. Lenton, the duke's brother, was in his early twenties and evidently very interested in the new acquaintance. The same applied to Mr. Pritchard. He too was rather young and presumably he was Mr. Lenton's friend and not the duke's. Both younger men glanced at her appraisingly.

Only the duke acknowledged Julia; his two companions only had eyes for Clementine. Julia knew what to do with men who bowed -- she slid off the sofa and made an adorable, if unrecognisable, curtsey with one hand on the sofa to steady herself.

"Where have you been?" asked the duchess. Apparently they ought to have returned sooner to share some of the responsibility of talking to Mrs. Rigby.

"Riding," answered her eldest nephew curtly.

"Business?" she inquired, as if riding for fun was not allowed.

"Of sorts."

"How is Lady Pritchard?" she asked of the more talkative Pritchard, of whose glances at Mrs. Rigby she did not really approve. She meant to engage his attention elsewhere.

"My mother?" he asked in confusion, as if he did not understand why anyone should want to know about her.

"Is there another Lady Pritchard?"

"No, no, but my mother is fine. She is over her cold," he said without much feeling.

"You sound glad for it," she observed.

"Oh indeed. My mother in good health is much more agreeable." Pritchard resumed his observation of Clementine.

"That counts for any mother," said the duke.

"More so for mine, but we are having dinner guests, so I suppose she is all right again."

"Who are coming to dine with you?" the duchess wished to know, trying to return his attention to her.

Pritchard looked vague. "I forgot. The Farleys? Those people who live in that cottage behind the blacksmith's."

Muncester did not know them and he did not care. He saw one other who also did not care and he began to converse with Julia in a soft voice. Clementine had been listening to who the Farleys were and she did not immediately notice until the two went away. She could not openly express her fear and disapproval and it was impolite to run after them. He was the duke and this was his house. He was supposed to be trustworthy, but she could not help looking afraid.

Mr. Lenton and Mr. Pritchard engaged her in conversation and she had to give them her attention, despite her alarm at the abduction of her daughter. They asked her what sort of evening entertainment she enjoyed. She smiled politely, for this was a dangerous question. A widow should not have enjoyed much recently, but if she said so they might ask when her husband had died and then it might come to light that she ought to be in mourning still. "I have a child, so I did not often go, but if the company is agreeable it tends to make any outing agreeable as well."

"Oh, a child," said Mr. Lenton as if he noticed only now. "But you can leave it with the nurse."

Again it took a while before she answered. She could not forget that Julia had been taken away. "I used to. My nurse could not leave town, so I do not have one anymore."

"Not to worry. Julian will step in if you need one," his brother said with a smirk. "He is practising already. Must be broody." This caused some snorts from him and Mr. Pritchard, but not from either of the ladies.

The greatest attraction of the room was probably the aquarium. Clementine had never seen one in a house before, but she was too old to run over to investigate. The duke was holding Julia up in front of it, pointing at fish. Her first instinct was to order him to put her down, but Julia seemed to be enjoying herself. She was also pointing and babbling. This was very unsettling and she had trouble tearing her eyes away from the scene, but she was being asked a question.

"Are you in need of a new nurse, Mrs. Rigby?" the duchess asked. "I may be able to give you some recommendations."

It would be uncivil to turn down the offer entirely and therefore Clementine smiled uncertainly. "But I am not often away from home at the moment and I am not likely to have another child. I have nothing left but her. I enjoy looking after her. In a year or two she may be ready for some serious lessons."

"Do you plan to hire a governess?"

"Not for as long as I can do it myself." She should be able to manage that for a few years. After all, she had once planned on becoming a governess herself.

"And extra pupils?"

She had never considered that. The question startled her now. "I have not been here long enough to give that any thought. I do not know, but perhaps it might be nice for Julia."

"Indeed," the duchess said thoughtfully.


Chapter7: A Small Emergency

The Duke of Muncester had felt somewhat appalled at the speed with which his brother and Pritchard had turned into gaping fools when confronted with a woman they had never seen. Since said woman had eyed him coldly and the only one who had treated him civilly had been the little girl, his general dissatisfaction with sitting room scenes had prompted him to sit down beside the girl.

He had needed to get away from there and he had made her a suggestion, never mind that he was as skilled at handling children as he was at handling silly chit-chat. Whether Julia understood or not, she had complied and they had walked away.

He did not know what small children liked, but he always liked to look at the aquarium, so he took her there. It was too high for her, so he had to divine how to lift her up, but she put her arm around his neck as if he was really nice. This prompted him to talk back to her when she babbled at him.

In her excitement about the fishies Julia forgot her recently acquired skill and wet the duke's sleeve on which she was sitting. He froze when he realised what had happened, but he felt his brother and Pritchard had best not hear of this, ever, so he could not inform the child's mother in their presence. He had heard the broody comment, which had been their objective considering how loudly they had spoken, and knowing them they would bring it up at some later point to make fun of him.

He had been the victim. That would be amusing to them because they would like to see him squirm. They would know he had not seen a child for years and the first time he was near one, it wet him. That would be incredibly amusing. He did not agree and he was too proud to be made fun of in such a manner. He would solve this in secret.

Julia, who could feel pretty well what she was doing, pressed two small hands to her mouth. "Julia was bad!" she said softly, but with a sweet and innocent look calculated to make him forgive her.

It worked. He could not be angry with her if she looked like that. "Julia or Julian?" he inquired, not having heard that correctly since her pronunciation of their names was not yet perfect. He had been the bad one before.

"My name is Julia," she said as if he was being rather silly.

"I know that. I am Julian. You called me bad."

"I was bad." She gave him an angelic chuckle.

"I was bad too," he said. She had told him that when he had been speaking to Admiral Henson, who had asked what he had been up to and it had been very difficult to talk himself out of that. Perhaps she had changed her mind about him now. She seemed artless.

"You bad, you bad. I bad, I need dry clothes," Julia informed him in an earnest tone. "Ask Mama."

"No, I will not." He would try anything else before he would approach Mrs. Rigby in company. He had his pride. She would probably assume he had been awful to Julia and that she had been terrified. The truth of the matter was that he was terrified of Mrs. Rigby.

"Wet clothes off." She nodded fiercely to convince him and wriggled on his arm.

"Yes, I agree, but..." He sighed. Her mother did not like strange men undressing her daughter. She had slapped him for that. She might slap him again if she knew. "Hush, do not tell Mama. I shall take you out of the room." He carried her out through the door furthest away from the rest of the company, hoping they would not notice their departure.

He took Julia up to his room to change his coat and shirt, having requested to have his man sent up as well. Perhaps Jones had a clue. If not, Jones would soon have to get one.

"Do not sit down," he warned her. It was difficult to set down the chamber pot with one hand while preventing her from sitting on the ground, the bed, or a chair with the other hand. This was a new environment that she longed to explore and she constantly pulled in the opposite direction.

He had just managed it all when his valet arrived, much surprised by the scene. "Ah," the duke said in relief. "The young lady has had an accident on my sleeve. Can you see to the prevention of further accidents while I change my coat?"

The valet kept his face straight at this information, but he did not immediately take action. He kept staring.

"I want dry clothes," Julia informed both of them again. So far she had not seen any evidence of them. She lifted her skirt and looked under it, showing them white drawers with a large wet spot. "I was bad."

"Use the chamber pot first, Julia," the duke said, taking off his coat. "I assume you know how." She was no longer protected against accidents. He hoped with all his heart that she had learnt something that she could now put into practice. He was not certain that he would like to learn anything at this moment, if only because he feared he might prove incompetent.

She looked at the pot, then at her underclothes and frowned. She approached him with her skirt still held up, evidently with the intention to have him take off her drawers. "Take it off!"

"That is what Jones is for," he said patiently, but feeling terrified.

"I do not know how, Your Grace," Jones said hesitantly and with probably the same amount of fear. He would rather see the duke do it.

"Why do you not have any children, Jones?" That would have made matters so much easier. He was still eyeing Julia's drawers in trepidation. "It cannot be very difficult. I assume she has to be undressed several times a day. I am busy." And he was: he was removing his shirt.

"That requires having a wife and having time to find one, Captain. Your Grace."

"I shall give you an extra half day off to find one so we can avoid this in the future." He examined the wet spot on his sleeve and then tossed the shirt onto the floor.

"With all due respect, Your Grace, it might be easier if you stayed away from children."

"Tell them to stay away from me," said the duke in fear when Julia advanced on him with her skirt still held up. "Go to Jones. He is nice."

"Julian is nice."

"Again with all due respect, Captain, but the young lady's partiality can evidently not be influenced," said Jones.

It was a nice game, Julia thought. She chuckled in delight and chased the duke around the room, crying "catch Julian!"

"This is not a good thing," he realised after two rounds. "Excitement increases the risk of more accidents happening." He stopped and let Julia catch up with him. He caught her little hands and held them still. "Listen, Julia. Jones is the clothes man. If you want new clothes, you ask Jones. If you want your clothes taken off --" He looked at his valet. "I cannot believe I am corrupting a child in this manner." He held out one of Julia's hands. "Take her, Jones."

Jones gingerly took the small hand.

"Have it rinsed and dried -- discreetly. I do not suppose we can ask for a spare." He appeared formal, but he supposed he was a fool. It only took one toddler to flatter him and then he enjoyed being chased. Jones must not be allowed to see this enjoyment.

Jones sighed and set to work. It was indeed not very difficult, although he felt like a fumbling fool. "Why can we not ask for a spare?"

"She wet me, Jones. Do you think I would mention that in company?"

Jones supposed not. He directed Julia towards the chamber pot and placed her on it. Luckily she did not protest and she sat on it very regally. "I shall go and rinse this then, Your Grace." He would be glad to leave the pot and its occupant to his master.

It had taken some time to make Julia dry and presentable again, but she had chatted cheerfully throughout. It had been a very ironic contrast with Muncester's embarrassment, since that vile Jones had stayed away forever, leaving his master to do the tidying up.

The duke had never felt so embarrassed and so clueless, but when he lamented his fate audibly, little Miss Julia had ordered him what to do. She thought it was a game and she was always eager to impress.

Julia had in fact talked so much that the duke was afraid she would disclose the secret the second he returned her to the rest of the company. He was terrified that she would describe exactly what he had done. It would have been so much more comfortable if she described exactly what Jones had done, but that vile man had not returned until Julia's drawers were rinsed and dried, as if nothing of importance could have happened in the meantime.

The duke had fanned himself thoroughly when he was done, so that the blush might leave his face and Jones would not smirk. He would dismiss Jones from his service if the man did that, he swore.

With a little help from the mirror he managed to look studiously bored by the time Jones returned, although he had been fearing what the company downstairs was making of their absence. He might have to come up with some excuse.

Although Julia's stories were difficult to follow, now and then she hit upon some truth with amazing clarity. She did the same when she cried "Papa!" at a painting hung on the staircase. It was indeed her father, but the duke did not think anybody was allowed to know.

Sliding Julia down the banisters proved to be a wonderful memory wiper. He had to do it ten times before she would reluctantly allow him to take her back to the sitting room. He entered through the same faraway door, but Julia's high-pitched chuckles gave them away.

The whole incident had given him some confidence in his abilities where children were concerned. He still failed with women -- notably with Julia's mother -- but apparently he was not utterly hopeless. Julia was an easy child, true, but he would like to think he had played a role in this some way too. She had not been afraid of him and she had seemed to like it best when he did something without thinking.

"Where were you, Julian?" the duchess called. "When did you leave us?"

"I thought I would take her away so as not to disturb anyone's conversation," he said impassively. He no longer felt warm and embarrassed, so he could look back coolly.

Clementine only looked at Julia, who came to sit beside her again. She seemed all right, not injured in any way and not at all frightened, but rather as if she had been enjoying herself.

"I slided down the stairs. I saw Papa on the stairs," Julia babbled, forgetting that she had been asked to sit and be quiet. Someone had, after all, just solicited her input and advice very often, and she was now very willing to inform everybody of everything.

"You slid down the stairs?" Clementine asked quickly. Any mentions of Papa had to be obscured, especially in the present company. She had seen the duchess flinch. "How?" She had not even known Julia knew those words. Someone had been talking to her about sliding down the stairs.

"The banisters," Muncester explained.

"Oh, Julian!" said his aunt in alarm. "That is dangerous."

Clementine studied her fingernails. It would be too much to hope for some concern, she supposed, even if it did sound as if Julia's grandmother would be concerned if Julia fell. However, anyone would be concerned if a small child fell. It did not even have to be related.

"Not really," he said coolly.

Perhaps Julian was not concerned at all. Well, he had been there, so he would know how dangerous it had been and again his reaction might not signify anything. She wished she would not have to wonder whether they had any interest in Julia. She wished they were not a cousin and a grandmother.

"She is a good talker for a little one," the duchess commented.

"Thank you, Your Grace," Clementine answered. "She understands everything and forgets nothing."

"Do you speak a lot to her?"

"Yes, I do." She thought she perceived a twitch in the duke's face, but since she had been looking at him to see a reaction, it was probably wishful thinking. He would know she said too much to Julia, though. Perhaps Julia had even repeated some more to him.

Mr. Lenton and Mr. Pritchard had kept the conversation going, with corrective and cautioning interruptions from the duchess. Clementine had been reserved, not wanting to make a wrong impression by being drawn in by the young men's follies. She was a few years older and she managed to keep that edge over them, responding to their enthusiasm with calmness. Yet she was pretty enough to keep them talking, a fact of which the duchess showed herself well aware.

They wished to know whether she liked carriage rides, because then they would take her around the neighbourhood.

She might enjoy seeing the neighbourhood, but perhaps not with them. "Only if you do not go too fast."

"It is no fun going slowly!" protested Mr. Pritchard.

"Indeed! And we never go too fast! We have never overturned," added Mr. Lenton.

"Young men always go too fast. I am a sedate older woman. Besides, if you take me to show me the sights, you must not pass them too quickly for me to see anything."

"You are not old!" said Mr. Lenton immediately.

So that had been a wrong comment. She had not intended to be flattered. "I am not convinced you would reduce your habitual speed to accommodate me, though."

They were like little boys. "We would!"

"And we must take Julia." She smiled, for she knew they would rather only take her. She might be a widow, but she was young enough to be interesting.

"You had best be driven by Julian," said the duchess, who had more faith in her eldest nephew.

"I do not like driving," he responded dismissively.

In the carriage home, Julia revealed some secrets. "Grace has an ugly pot."

"Grace?" Clementine asked absentmindedly. "Who is Grace?"

"I sat on Grace's pot." She expected to be complimented, the way her accomplishments were usually acknowledged. "Kiss me, Mama." The duke and Jones had forgotten to do this.

"But who is Grace?"

"Julia. He has fishies."

There was but one male Grace and that was the Duke of Muncester, yet it was the duchess who was Julia and the real owner of the fish. Clementine inhaled. Julia did not even always know who was a he and who was a she, but in this case she was probably correct. "Julian. I think."

"Yes, Julian. He is not Mama."

Clementine wondered about the pot. The pair had indeed been absent for a while, but it was simply unthinkable that the priggish duke had put Julia on a chamber pot. He would have run screaming. She tried to draw some more information out of her daughter, but that was impossible. In Julia's opinion there was nothing else that could be said.

For some reason the duke, who was sometimes referred to as Grace and sometimes as Julia, had sat Julia on an ugly chamber pot and he had not mentioned anything about this to her. Why not? Julia was two. It was very natural that she would have wanted to go at some point, but it would have been much less embarrassing if her own mother had tended to her.

He might now be resenting her for putting him through something like this. He might even think Julia savage and uncultured and unfit to be taken anywhere. But she was only two. She could not yet be discreet about her natural urges. In fact, she was still being rewarded for not being discreet.

"Jones is the clothes man," Julia sang, glancing out of the window. "I cannot leave. I am corrupting."

Clementine wished Julia was less of a sponge. She soaked up words that sounded nice and repeated them at random. It was probably impossible to find out who Jones was and who had been doing any corrupting.



Chapter 8: Undesirable Alliance

Considering her mother's opinion of him, it was rather vexing that Julia should now be completely wild about Grace, despite his ugly chamber pot. Her partiality became even more clear in church where she insisted on leaving her place to talk to Grace before the service. Clementine was highly embarrassed, especially since she had narrowly escaped something even worse. At least the appellation Grace drew appreciative chuckles from the people around them. Julia called the duke Julia with the same ease, however.

Clementine could not bring herself to move. She left it up to His Grace to send Julia away when he had had enough. So far, she had seen him stand up to bow very earnestly and then he had sat down to listen. Julia learnt new words with an amazing speed, Clementine knew. Her stories were beginning to be very impressive and detailed, so it might take a while before this one was told.

"What can she have to say?" asked her neighbour in awe. "Going up to Captain Lenton just like that!"

"I have no idea," Clementine said truthfully. She watched as the duke leant forward with his elbows on his knees and spoke to Julia. At the end of his speech she nodded and skipped away, back to her mother.

Julia climbed on the bench and sat down, oblivious to everybody's curiosity.

"What were you doing?" Clementine asked.

"I showed my new dress."

"What did he say?"

"Hush, you be quiet in church, Mama. The man in the dress comes, you be quiet. Julia said I am big, he marries me," she added in a whisper.

Clementine's ears buzzed for most of the church service. That man had told Julia he wanted to marry her? Was he insane? Julia did not even know what marriage was. How could the fool speak to her of things like that? He was not looking at them, so she could not convey her displeasure.

After the service, Clementine went to see if she could walk by Daniel's grave. She needed to be alone for a while to sort out her thoughts. They were in a jumble.

It was not always possible to make a tour of the graveyard if there were other people walking there, because then they would see where she wanted to go and they would ask themselves why. Her surroundings also made her as contemplative as they made Julia wild, so a good compromise was never possible.

She slipped away from the crowds as soon as she could, walking around the church. She wished Julia would enter the private section of the Dukes of Muncester and their families, since she would otherwise not have a good reason to look there. It would look very innocent if she had to chase Julia out of there.

Julia did as predicted and entered the closed section. There was no fun in staying on the beaten paths. Anything inaccessible was attractive and any closed gate had to be opened. She immediately climbed onto a distant forefather's grave.

"Get off that grave, Julia," Clementine admonished. "You should not climb onto graves."

"Play hide and seek?" Julia requested. All these things standing upright were out there for that reason alone.

"All right, but do not go outside the fence." The family's graves were neatly fenced off from those of the common people and it would be perfect for a game. "I will count to ten. One, two, three..."

Julia shrieked in anticipation and hid herself behind another grave. She did not know how long it took to get to ten, only that the word ten was crucial.

Clementine had watched her through half-closed eyes to make sure nothing would happen. She did not plan to find Julia instantly, though. There was no fun in that. "Where are you, Julia? I cannot see you!" She knew behind which grave Julia was hiding, but there was none of the customary giggling and peeking, which was odd. The girl could never really stay hidden. She always gave her hiding place away.

"Julia?" her voice rose in a slight panic and she went around the grave. "Oh God!" she cried.

Julia, with her finger pressed to her mouth in apparent imitation of someone, was leaning amicably against none other than the Duke of Muncester, who was sitting with his back against the tombstone reading a book.

"Is she safe with you? I cannot believe you said you wanted to marry her! She is only two!" Clementine cried, rushing forward in agitation. She stopped just short of them when Julia gave her a befuddled glance that signified that she was being a strange mother.

The duke gave her a disturbed look and returned his attention to his book. He appeared to share Julia's opinion of her strangeness.

Clementine had no choice but to sit down next to him to see whether it would please him to answer. She would not go away until this was settled. "She is two!" She hugged Julia and stroked her hair so she would stay quiet.

"Her being two years old is exactly the reason why I can never have said that. Do not believe it because you are all too willing to lay offences at my door." He spoke very quietly, without raising his eyes from his book. "Where did you get such a foolish notion anyway?"

He was correct, of course, so she bowed her head. She was more likely to take something as an insult if it came from him. Julia might indeed have invented it. That would indeed make more sense. "Julia told me."

He turned towards her and gave her -- not Julia -- a rather exasperated look. "She is two."

"But why would she invent such a thing?" Someone had to have mentioned marriage to her, not to mention being big.

"She strings words together that do not go together -- sometimes. You must have noticed."

"Sometimes," she admitted, reluctant to face that she had jumped to conclusions. Perhaps it was a coincidence that being big and getting married did go together in some sense.

"For instance, she called me a bad man."

"You are provoking me on purpose!" she gasped. Why was he implying that he was not a bad man? He must know that Julia had been repeating her mother's words and this was a good way of getting back at her.

"It might aggravate you to know she can make up her own mind with regard to me." He gave her a smug look. "She called me nice."

"Was that the first time ever in your life?" Clementine snapped out of discomfort. She did not want Julia to call the man nice.

"You cannot lay much claim to the adjective either, Madam," he pointed out.

That was true. "I shall believe you then," she murmured.

"Thank you."

For a while she sat without speaking, thinking she must appear very foolish to have believed Julia. She would have to try to employ more reason and less indignation in the future. "Why are you reading here?"

"It is a quiet place. The combined wisdom of my forefathers will, I hope, inspire me, even if they are dead," he said in a quiet, melancholy voice.

Perhaps he was inclined to converse normally. Clementine was intrigued, both at what he said and how he said it. Perhaps it was the fault of their surroundings, but it had not sounded very cheerful. "Inspire you for what?"

"I was happy at sea. I would have continued to be happy," he said, implying that becoming the Duke of Muncester was not what he had wanted.

"It is possible to be happy after changing directions," Clementine said cautiously, not yet wanting to feel any compassion for him. He never felt any for her either. "If you allow yourself to be happy." She did not see why he could not be happy ashore.

"There cannot be happiness in every situation."

"It always seems that way at first," she mused. "But even I managed."

"Did you change directions?"

"No, I was raised from birth to be somebody's mistress," she said sarcastically. He must know she had changed at least once.

"Did the changes make you happy?"

"It would not make any girl happy to inherit debts," she said dryly, avoiding a real answer. "And to be accosted at inns."

"By Daniel?"

"No, he saved me. So there you have it. It was Daniel or..." she shook her head. "Complete ruin, I imagine." She had often imagined it, but she had never felt comfortable with those thoughts.

"How can you think he saved you if in fact he ruined you too?" the duke asked tactlessly.

Clementine winced. So in his eyes she was ruined? But he was honest enough not to associate with her if he truly looked down on her, so she supposed this was merely another example of his gracelessness.

"He could have escorted you as far as London and placed you with a family," he explained.

He could have done that, but he had not. Beggars could not be choosers, she thought again. "I came close to my preferred option, though, which would have been a bag of money and a house of my own, but, as you put it very delicately, I was ruined along with it. True ruin, in my opinion, is when all your money and your hopes have been taken away, your body has been abused and injured, and you have no food and shelter."

"I do not know how to put it delicately. It cannot. It ought not. But you do not consider yourself abused then?"

"Not really. Is my spirit broken? Do you think I am ruined?"

He evaded the question. "I told you I do not know precisely how such situations work."

"The abuse would be in assigning all the blame to girls who are powerless. If men were not in the habit of visiting houses of ill repute, the people who run them would not be catching girls on the road. I do not suppose those gangs are catching governesses at coaching inns, at any rate. But these are my speculations only. I know nothing of houses of ill repute, other than that they exist." He should not be thinking she had moved in such circles.

He looked thoughtful. "That explains some more about the attractions of my cousin. I would still not say he gave you what you deserved, however, but did he make you happy?"

She looked reflective when she was forced to think about it. The duke was not the right person to talk to, yet she had been longing to voice her feelings to someone so that they might make some sense when they were expressed by sounds. Yet perhaps, considering that he spoke of what she deserved, he might be able to give some blunt direction to her doubts.

"That was why I came to his grave," she said. "I do not know. I was fond of him and grateful for saving me, but I think he did not truly make me happy. I only had a part of him. I did not feel it so much until I came to live here, because I was making the best of it there. Yet it is bad of me, ungrateful. I feel guilty for feeling like that. And he never married me either, which I should not have wanted, but..." She clutched Julia and kissed her. "I am very happy to have Julia and that is all I should be feeling."

"Would you have wanted more than a part of him?"

"Not of him." Then she blushed. "That is ungrateful and you should forget you heard that. I had only his good qualities, although I knew about his bad ones. They were kept away from me, though. I would have liked to have all of someone, of someone with only good qualities. But such men probably do not exist. I have never seen any perfect men. I got more than I thought I would get, so why am I ungrateful? I had Julia. She filled it up nicely."

To her surprise he gave Julia a warm smile. "Such a reward might even persuade me if I were faced with such a choice."

That stunned Clementine. "You are very much against!" So much that it would be impossible to change his mind.

"Yes," he said with a sigh. "However, I do not feel quite as strongly about it anymore as I used to do."

She felt strangely peaceful at that answer. He was not going to insult her so much anymore then, she thought. "That was inevitable. Your feelings could not possibly have grown any stronger than they were."

"If I had never said the things I said they would never have been corrected." It almost sounded apologetic, but of course it was not too gracefully phrased.

"But if I were not a sensible person I might now hate you for everything you have said," she pointed out.

"Do I care if I am hated by a person who is not sensible?" he asked with a shrug. "But you told me you hated me, even if you now imply that you do not."

"You touched my baby!" she protested, not wanting to consider whether she hated him or not.

"Very gently. I did not hurt her. Do you like me, Julia? She smiled at me." And he smiled at her very engagingly.

"Please do not propose to her again," Clementine interrupted his smile. It disturbed her, because if she had been Julia she might also have smiled back at him. "Even if you mean to wait twenty years, the answer is no."

"I could never wait that long."

"What do you mean?" she cried, fearing he wanted Julia at fifteen.

The duke sighed. "I mean I do not want to marry Julia. Not now and not in a long time. Be a little more trusting of people, Mrs. Rigby."

"I cannot. We should go, Julia and I." She pulled up her knees to stand up. If he could tell her to be more trusting of people he had apparently not understood her explanation at all. She had survived by distrusting people occasionally.

"You do not have to." He picked up his book again and turned a page to start reading at the top of a new one. "I am not bothering you in any way."

She sniffed uncertainly. No, he was not. "But you ask difficult questions."

"Some of them need to be asked and I am sure Julia does not yet ask them, despite her admirable progress in all kinds of areas."

That reminded Clementine of something. "What did she do on your pot? Was that another invention? Why did you not call me if she indicated she needed to use it?" It was her child and thus her duty. She blushed in embarrassment at having neglected that duty.

Muncester gave her a patient look. "She is not yet able to control herself all the time, is she?"

Clementine looked horrified at the implications. "She -- on what?" She imagined Julia ruining expensive furniture. "I must compensate the damage."

"On me." Amazingly he seemed to derive some pleasure from saying that, as if it had been a great privilege. "No damage."

She gasped. That was even worse than a chair or a carpet. She had wet a duke. "I must apologise for that. How could you be amused at it? But I hope you did not punish her," she said anxiously. Many people would not have the patience and understanding.

"She was ordering me about, asking for dry clothes. I think that was punishment enough."

"Ordering you about..." she repeated, shaking her head. "Why is that punishment?"

"She insisted that I undress her. That is punishment enough for a bachelor who has not seen a child for years." He even had the impertinence to chuckle.

"Why did you not call for me?"

"And reveal to the others that I had been ... no. I preferred to deal with it myself and call my valet, but he was no more eager than I was."

She fled into mockery, feeling rather intrigued by what must have transpired. Apparently he and the valet had acquitted themselves well. She did not want her heart to be softened by thinking of that scene. "Aha, you were not as broody then as Mr. Lenton supposed. A truly broody man would have done it himself."

"And have you slap me for touching your baby? No, thank you. You do not slap softly, Madam."

"Are you surprised?"

"No, not really. She is your most precious possession. If you had wished to..." he gestured at the graves. "I will take Miss Julia for a walk. Go home when you are finished. We will meet you there."

"Tell her your name is not Grace," Clementine said in resignation, baffled by his calling Julia precious. "It sounds strange for a man."

"She knows my name."

"Julian!" Julia supplied cheerfully, throwing her arm around his neck.

Clementine did not know what to think. She tried to stay practical despite this odd development. "Do you now know how to put Julia on the pot, just in case?"

He stood up and glanced about himself. Then he inhaled. "Madam, I now know everything and this time you may believe me. Come, Julia."

After they had disappeared through the shrubbery at the far end of the graveyard, she sat pensively. Could she trust him with her daughter? Julia certainly seemed to think so. She had hobbled along with him happily.

Be a little more trusting of people. Well, she would try. She supposed that if any man must be seen hauling Julia around, it had best be a duke. And a duke who knew about pots, at that! His parting comment had been intriguing. Which of his previous assertions had been beside the truth then? When had he claimed to know more than he did?

She bent her head and sat very still. First she would have to sort herself out with regard to Daniel, then she could contemplate His Gracelessness' influence on Julia.

The last time she had seen Daniel was several months ago. She had been frightened and sad at his steady decline, but when she had heard he had passed away eventually, it had been almost a relief not to have to worry anymore.

After a while, other feelings had surfaced. She had been very committed and concerned during his illness, but why? Was that because she had not loved him enough and her guilt about that made her concerned? Perhaps she would have loved him more if he had been more committed towards her and Julia. He could have made a respectable woman out of her and a respectable lady out of his child.

She tended to think herself selfish and ungrateful whenever such thoughts came to her, but she supposed humans were not flawless and everyone was inherently selfish to some extent. Daniel had been selfish. He had been young and easily led, and apparently other notions had led him more than her responsible nature had done. Had he been more sedate and steady, she would have loved him more. It was impossible not to love him at all -- such was his character.

This apparent contradiction bothered her. She was not a good person if she admitted she had wanted more, for then she admitted she had not been satisfied with what she had been given. Although, had she not given up her virtue out of greed?

It had really been fear and despair, but she was certain that greed and a desire for comfort had played a role as well. If Daniel had been a simple chimneysweep offering her his protection, she might have made a different choice.

Perhaps she should not strive to be too perfect. Nobody was. She should accept what had happened as the best that could have happened under the circumstances and move on. Her feelings had moved on, at any rate. She should accept that she had once been fond of Daniel, but that she could see his faults. Should she be in a position to choose again, she would want to avoid those faults.

But she would always have Julia to thank him for and that was why she could never forget. She would rather have her daughter than a title.

Now she could think of Muncester. He was odd.

He liked Julia. He slid her down the banisters and he put her on chamber pots. Apparently he was better at communicating with children than with women. Clementine knew she had to blame herself as well for the fact that their conversations always ended in disaster, but she could not disregard the fact that his manners fell short of the ideal.

Perhaps he was nothing more than an unhappy man, dragged off his beloved ship to act the role of a refined nobleman, who immediately had to solve crises involving a woman -- what was that anyway? -- whose association with his cousin had resulted in a child -- and how does a child happen?

Perhaps she should pity him for being out of his depth ashore, this entirely new world in which he had landed, populated by such unfamiliar and oddly provoking creatures who dared to speak back to him.

But while it was amusing, it would not do for an explanation. Such a man would never last as a commander of a ship, even if there were no women on it.

She would have to credit him with some insight and he had betrayed some, had he not, when he had offered to take Julia away so she could think. Perhaps they had simply started out with prejudices on either side. It was always difficult to abandon a prejudice, since she would have to review their entire interaction up to now and reinterpret it. Then she might find she had been stupid and guilty and nobody ever liked that.

Clementine returned to find Julia playing a memory game with the duke. She was turning over cards with great concentration, hardly marking her mother's entrance.

"She is good," he said in admiration. "Much better than I am."

"It surprises me that she is not yet tired," Clementine mumbled as she sat on the sofa. She supposed he still felt more at home here in his old house than at the stately home he now inhabited, which must account for his staying. It was no reason to monopolies her daughter, however. It made her uncomfortable to see how well they got along, so well that Julia forgot to see her. "Will you bring her to bed too when either of you is tired?"

He did not answer that question and she picked up a book, but she could not concentrate in the same room. At long last she took the book into the dining room where there were no distractions.

She had read a good forty pages when he appeared, holding Julia by the hand. "My aunt may want to know where I am," he said, implying that he had to go.

"Poor Julia." She could not account for this reaction -- she had resented feeling superfluous and logically speaking she should be happy that he wanted to go.

"My aunt?"

She realised they were both Julias. "My Julia. Her game must end because your aunt may become suspicious. Nice." She wondered why she could not simply thank him for playing with her.

He would not be drawn into an argument. "I think she may also be tired."

"Your aunt?"

"Your Julia."

"I am not tired," Julia said with a wide yawn.

He laughed at her. "Oh, indeed. Not at all. I am tired, Julia. What do you do with tired people?"

"I put them in bed!"

"I am tired."

She was too young to see through this deceit. "I put you in bed!"

They disappeared together and Clementine groaned at her book. She could do nothing to stop their friendship. She was curious about how he was faring, but she forced herself to stay in the dining room. Reading was much more difficult now and after starting her page four times over, she laid the book aside. Upstairs in the nursery she found Julia in her bed and the duke stretched out on the sofa.

He turned his head when she came in and pressed a finger against his lips. Then he walked towards her and took her out of the room. "She is asleep."

"Broody, broody, broody," Clementine said childishly. He had managed that far too quickly. It was not fair. He was a fast learner.

"Would you still call me bad?"

She huffed and went downstairs. He followed her, of course. She could hear his footsteps right behind her. "I thought your aunt needed your company," she said over her shoulder.

"My aunt will understand."

"Are you and your aunt trying to take Julia from me?" she asked, cursing herself for speaking more anxiously than she had wished.

"We would never do that. Perhaps I am indeed broody," he said with a shrug. "Or I am trying to see whether I can be that at some point."

"You would have to be, as a young duke." She had no intention of making him a compliment, but it was an objective fact that he was not yet middle-aged.

"Convenient, not obligatory. If I leave no dependent descendants I could not care less what happened to the title after my death."

"I think I heard last week that we are on earth to start families," she said to provoke him.

"Indeed, I am certain that earth would be a better place if I were to make some woman unhappy," he answered in a sarcastic tone.

"How could a duchess ever be unhappy?" she countered, equally sarcastic.

He shrugged and then bowed. "I must go."

"I must thank you," she with reluctance. "I do feel it and I should regret it later if I had not told you."

He only gave a nod to that and then he was off.


2005 Copyright held by the author.







Back to Novel Idea