A Wallflower for the Marquess
Woolfe Manor, Midsummer, Early Morning
Her name was Theodosia. Not Theo.
Having said that, Theo was heartily sick of correcting people on that head. Even in her own mind, she called herself Theo now. At the ripe old age of twenty-six, she could assume that she was known well and truly Theo by now.
It wasn’t her fault, really. Theodosia was a bit of a mouthful. Now, Evangeline was much easier. That name simply flowed off the tongue. Mary was nice and brusque, plain and to the point. It suited her younger sister, just like Evangeline suited her older sister.
Theo, however, was the middle child, so there was really no telling what sort of person she would be, and how she would suit her name. There wasn’t much of an expectation for the middle child.
Theo had assumed that once Evangeline – tall, gawky, forthright Evangeline – was married and out of the way, Theo would go into Society and become a huge success. She had been determined not to barrel through the balls and parties like Evangeline had, always clumsy and unladylike, always saying the wrong thing.
Well, she hadn’t, but at the age of twenty-six, Theo was still unmarried. Looking back, she wasn’t at all surprised to have found herself disillusioned with Society in general. After all, she’d longed to come Out for years, dreaming of parties and gowns and handsome gentlemen asking her to dance. She’d built it all up into such a wonderful, magical experience that it was no surprise that she’d been disappointed with the truth.
Society was an ugly, brutal thing, and the Season was nothing more than a vicious free-for-all. Theo had never been as outspoken as Evangeline. She knew she wasn’t quite so quick-witted as her older sister, nor as ruthless and fearless as her younger sister. She found herself the butt of jokes far too often in Society.
Oh, Theo could have married quite easily, if she’d wanted. She was pretty, if not as slender as fashion dictated, and with her sister married to the famous Doctor Nicholas Woolfe and the Tilleyard estate mostly restored, she had plenty of admirers.
Evangeline and Nicholas had found that they were expecting a child only a few months after the wedding, so Evangeline couldn’t accompany Theo on her first outing into Society. She was disappointed and more than a little nervous, but the niggling worry about her sister’s health was her main concern. Their mother had always had troublesome pregnancies, and pregnancy did not seem to suit Evangeline so far.
Theo had left her first Season halfway through, to attend Evangeline as she gave birth. It was a complex birth, resulting in the twins, Verona and Vincent.
The years dragged on, and Theo attended Season after Season. She found herself dancing with bland, uninteresting young men whose names she could barely even recall. She politely refused a handful of suitable but boring proposals. She never met anyone who made her heart quicken, the way Nicholas had made Evangeline’s heart quicken.
Perhaps such a feeling did not truly exist, or perhaps it was simply not meant for Theo.
She was relieved to get an invitation to stay with her sister and brother-in-law, and Theo had lived there ever since. She was tutoring her nephew and niece, and it was clear that she had a knack with children. Evangeline and Nicholas were more than happy to let her stay.
There was a faint knock at the door, and Peggy poked her head around the door.
“Morning, Miss! I thought I’d help you dress before I tended to the young master and mistress.”
Peggy was nineteen years old, a fresh-faced, red-haired young maid that Evangeline had employed to wait on Theo, although the poor girl ended up waiting on Verona and Vincent more often. She didn’t mind, however – Peggy was from a very large family, and liked children.
“That’s alright, Peggy. I’m already dressed,” Theo replied, indicating the pastel-blue gown she’d chosen for today. She now had a monthly allowance from the Tilleyard estate, which easily covered whatever she needed or wanted to buy and would continue even after she was married.
In short, Theo was comfortable and well-cared for, and if she kept herself busy and cheerful, she didn’t stop to think about the gaping hole in the centre of her life.
She wasn’t lonely. How could a person be lonely in a busy house like this? She had her beloved family with her. Being lonely would simply be nothing sort of selfishness, or ingratitude. And Theo was not ungrateful.
Peggy bobbed a curtsey, and withdrew, no doubt to wrangle the troublesome twins into their day clothes. Theo turned back to inspect her reflection.
She still had her hair to do. There was no point in wasting time on elaborate hairstyles, so Theo simply scooped back her wild, dark ringlets into a simple knot at the nape of her neck. After a moment’s consideration, she pulled free two thin, corkscrew ringlets at her temples, letting them hang down to her collarbones.
The pastel-blue dress suited Theo well. It was an old-fashioned cut, but Theo found that the newer styles of dresses hugged her curves in a way that made her feel uncomfortable, emphasizing the extra flesh she carried. The fashion was very much for slim, willowy, graceful young ladies, and Theo was none of those things. Oh, she was pretty enough – she had pleasant features, beautiful blue eyes, and a delicate heart-shaped face. She was prettier than Evangeline had been. Still, at least Evangeline was slim.
Theo blew out her cheeks, pulling a face at herself in the mirror.
There was really no point in wallowing. The extra flesh wasn’t going to melt away with wishing, and Theo had long since convinced herself that she didn’t care.
She bustled around her room, tidying things away. Theo had a suite of rooms here at Woolfe manor, with a bedroom, her own private parlour, a small library, and of course a washroom. Theo hurried into the library, taking out the books she intended to look over with the twins today.
She had a writing desk in the corner of the library, and two letters sat open on the desk. The first was from Edmund Mills, a pleasant young man who had already proposed to Theo twice. She liked him well enough, but she couldn’t imagine marrying him. He’d sent her yet another letter, asking to see her. Theo did not relish writing out her reply.
The second letter was from her grandmother. Her grandmother’s letters were mostly about Mary, unsurprisingly. Theo picked up the letter with a smile, rereading a passage that had made her laugh and cackle like a madwoman last night.
I think I shall die from embarrassment. I knew that bringing Mary to tea at the vicar’s was a bad idea, but I had no idea it would end this badly. Well, for the most part, she was very well behaved. The new vicar is a pleasant young man, married to an amiable young woman.
Imagine my surprise when Mary told the vicar she could recite poetry. I could not believe my luck. I thought perhaps we’d turned a corner – that she was growing out of being a shocking hoyden and was ready to be a lovely, proper young lady.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Mary recited a limerick. There is nothing wrong with limericks, of course, but this one was… well, it was shocking. Very shocking. “Vulgar” doesn’t quite cover it. I shall not recount the limerick here, and I shall leave it to your imagination. I have no idea where she could have heard such a thing. The vicar very nearly fainted, Theo. I am sure his wife was trying not to laugh, but I was too mortified to think about anything else.
Oh, I wished the ground could have swallowed me up. Mary seemed almost gleeful at the chaos she had wrought.
Fortunately for us, the vicar was very understanding, and said that he was quite sure that Mary had no idea what the limerick meant.
How one could misunderstand a rhyme like that, I have no idea, but I was simply relieved to have an excuse. Nevertheless, I don’t believe we shall be invited to the vicar’s house for tea for a while.
On the way home, I told Mary she was terrible, incorrigible, inconsiderate, and intellectually corrupt.
Mary said, “Thank you, Grandmother.”
I give up. I quite give up.
Theo smiled again, imagining the chaos unfurling at the unfortunate vicar’s dinner table. Still, much as she was amused by Mary’s antics, she wished that her younger sister would be more considerate of their grandmother.
Lady Mildred, Dowager Duchess of Tillewood, was getting on in years, and was more frail that ever. If Mary wasn’t careful, her rambunctious behaviour would be the death of Lady Mildred. That wasn’t a pleasant thought at all, and doubtless one that had never occurred to Mary. At her age, Mary probably still thought that her grandmother would live forever.
Theo sighed, folding up the letter carefully and sliding it into the drawer with the rest of her grandmother’s letters. She’d have to compose a reply later. For now, though, she was going to be late for breakfast.
More to the point, the twins were going to be late for breakfast.
Theo stood outside the door to the nursery and listened. It was clear that Peggy hadn’t succeeded in wrangling the children into their clothes. She could hear screaming and laughter, followed by a noise which sounded suspiciously like a small child jumping on a bed.
“Come on, Master Vincent! Just put your shoes on,” Peggy pleaded from inside. “You’ve already got the one on. Miss Verona, stop jumping on the bed, you know it’s not allowed.”
Her response was a cacophony of squeals. Time to intervene.
Theo pushed open the door, and was greeted by a scene of carnage. The nursery was a mess, with toys and clothes everywhere, and the beds were unmade. The curtains hung crookedly from the window, and both her niece and nephew were wearing interesting combinations of their night clothes and day clothes.
“You’re going to be late for breakfast, children,” Theo said, careful not to show any sort of shock or disapproval. It would only egg them on.
“We’re not hungry,” Verona replied.
“Yes, we’re not hungry at all,” Vincent backed up his sister, although he seemed a little shocked at the prospect of missing out on breakfast.
Theo pursed her lips. “Not hungry? Well, you still ought to get dressed. Are you going to let Peggy help you dress?”
Verona pursed her lips, folding her small arms across her chest. She stared down her aunt, still standing defiantly on her messy bed.
“I don’t want to wear my day clothes. They’re uncomfortable. I don’t want to wear shoes today, either.”
“And why not?”
“Yes, but your feet will get dirty and you might stand on something sharp. You wouldn’t like that, would you?”
“I won’t stand on anything sharp,” Verona insisted. “We’re quite decided, Aunt Theo.”
“I see,” Theo mused. “Well, that’s terribly naughty. If you won’t behave, then I won’t be able to show you my special find later today.”
Verona’s eyes widened, but she kept her arms folded tightly.
“A special find?” Vincent said eagerly. He wasn’t nearly as good an actor as his sister. “Is it a plant? Is it better than the two-headed ladybird you showed us last week?”
“I couldn’t possibly say, but I’d be every so disappointed if you didn’t get to see it today. It might be gone tomorrow.”
Vincent scrambled in the mess for his other shoe.
“I’m getting ready, Aunt Theo, look!”
“Very good, Vincent,” Theo glanced over at Verona. “What about you, Verona?”
Curiosity and stubbornness warred in Verona’s face.
She’s so much like Mary, Theo thought, with a wave of nostalgia. She missed her younger sister more than she’d like to let on.
“And you’re sure that it’s a special find?” Verona asked suspiciously.
Theo raised her eyebrows. “Have I been wrong before?”
That seemed to clinch the matter. Verona bounced down from the bed and began meekly straightening the sheets.
Theo fought back a triumphant smile. She’d won. She glanced over at Peggy.
“Will you be able to bring the children down to breakfast when they’re ready?”
“Of course, Miss.”
Theo closed the nursery door behind her, and hurried on down to the dining room.
The dining room at Woolfe Manor had once been a dark, imposing place. Evangeline had torn down the heavy velvet curtains, letting in the light, and had replaced the dingy old wallpaper with something brighter and more pleasant. Now, the dining room was a pretty, airy space, where you could eat your meals without feeling oppressed.
The table was set for breakfast, and Evangeline and Nicholas were already down. They were sitting together, whispering urgently. The whispering ceased immediately when Theo walked in.
It seemed odd, but Theo tried not to think too much off it.
“Morning,” she said briskly.
“Morning, Theo,” Nicholas said, leaning back and picking up his newspaper again.
“Did you sleep well?” Evangeline asked brightly. A little too brightly, really. “Are the twins up and dressed?”
“Yes, they’ll be down soon,” Theo took her usual place, and began to fill her plate. Some of the more malicious ladies of Society had passed comments about Theo’s eating. She ate roughly the same amount as everyone else, but apparently she ought to be starving herself to achieve the willowy thinness that fashion dictated. Theo had no intention of doing anything of the sort.
“What’s your lesson plan for today?” Nicholas asked, glancing up at her over his newspaper. “Arithmetic? The sciences? English, perhaps? Maybe we could even get a start on some Latin? I know you said they were a little too young, but it’s worth a try, isn’t it?”
“I have an interesting find in the grounds to show them later,” Theo said.
“And after that?”
“I haven’t decided yet. We have sums to finish off from yesterday, and I promised them both a creative writing task. You know how they love telling stories.”
Nicholas glanced at Evangeline, and a knowing look passed between them. Theo frowned, concentrating on her plate. Something felt off this morning. Had they argued? Had the twins done something naughty, which Theo should have prevented them from doing?
“It sounds like a very nice day, Theo,” Evangeline said briskly. “They are too young for Latin. I read the last creative writing assignments you gave them, and they were very good. Weren’t they, Nicholas?”
“Very good,” he echoed.
“What are you two doing today?” Theo asked, suddenly keen to change the subject from herself and her lesson plan.
“Oh, I have endless things to do,” Evangeline sighed. “No one ever told me that running an estate like this would be so much work. I have a newfound respect for our parents now, Theo.”
Theo chuckled. “What about you, Nicholas?”
Nicholas kept his eyes on his newspaper. A tiny frown appeared between his brows.
“I’m going into town. I have an important meeting.”
Well, that was uncharacteristically blunt for Nicholas. Theo knew her brother-in-law well by now, and although he could seem blunt and almost rude on first acquaintance, he was one of the cleverest, most pleasant men she’d ever met. He’d had a terrible upbringing with a cruel father and had lost his adored brother many years ago. He loved Evangeline wholeheartedly, and there was no doubt that the two of them were perfectly suited. He’d welcomed Theo into his home with open arms, and would likely have agreed to have Mary, that small fury, living in his home too.
Evangeline shot Nicholas a sharp look.
“Oh? I didn’t know you had a meeting in town.”
The implication was clear. Tell me where you’re going.
Nicholas did not pick up on the hint. He shook out his newspaper a little more and cleared his throat.
“It’s been rather recently engaged.”
“I don’t believe the steward mentioned anything. Did Mr. Robinson mention anything to you, Theo?”
Theo blinked, feeling like a cornered rabbit. Both her sister and brother-in-law were staring at her. There was no reason why their estate steward, Mr. Robinson, would have come and told Theo about anything.
She coughed. “Not that I can recall.”
“Well, it’s a mystery, then. I daresay I shall just have to die of curiosity.
Theo was feeling more uncomfortable by the minute. Evangeline was all but demanding for her husband to tell her where he was going, and Nicholas seemed just as keen to keep her in the dark.
The awkward silence was interrupted by the arrival of the twins. They came clattering into the dining room, followed by a red-faced Peggy. The twins hugged and kissed their parents and settled down meekly to eat their breakfast.
“Aunt Theo has a special find to show us today!” Vincent declared, clearly exciting. “We’re to bring notebooks out to take notes on it.”
“So I hear,” Evangeline said, smiling. “Are you excited?”
“Very much so. It’s so much better than arithmetic,” Verona added, and the twins giggled.
Nicholas frowned. “Arithmetic is very important. So is Greek and Latin, which you haven’t even started to learn yet. What about geometry? Have you done any of that this week?”
“They’re only five years old,” Evangeline said crisply.
“It’s never too early to start. We all know that they’re clever enough for it.”
Theo swallowed. “We’ll do a little geometry later, I think.”
The twins gave a disappointed chorus.
“But we’ll go to see the special find first, though, won’t we?” Vincent pressed.
Theo smiled. “Of course.”
“I only hope you have time,” Nicholas commented.
“Of course they’ll have time,” Evangeline replied, a little too sharply. “What time are you leaving, Nicholas?”
He shifted uncomfortably. “After breakfast, I think.”
“And what time will you be coming back?”
Theo winced. Wherever Nicholas was going, he had no intention of sharing it at the breakfast table. Why was he acting so strangely? It wasn’t like him at all. She shifted uncomfortably, suddenly certain that all of this was about her.
No, don’t be silly, Theo chastised herself. They probably just had an argument. Marriage isn’t all romance and roses, and both Nicholas and Evie can be so horribly stubborn.
She pushed away her plate, glancing over at the twins. They were oblivious to the tense atmosphere at the table, and Theo found herself wishing that she could be just as ignorant as the children.
Theo knew she was welcome here, and for the most part, she was very happy. But sometimes she felt like a fifth wheel in the family. She acted the part of a tutor and nanny, which was exactly what she wanted to do. But sometimes Theo felt more like a nanny than usual. Out of place.
She cleared her throat, attracting the twins’ attention.
“Have you two finished breakfast? If you are, we can go and get started on today’s lessons. I’m sure you’re keen to see my interesting find.”
“Make sure you take lots of interesting notes,” Nicholas murmured.
The twins bounced down from their seats, clearly eager to get started.
Theo got up from the table, and flashed a smile at her sister and brother-in-law.
“I’ll see you at luncheon, Evie. And Nicholas, I hope your meeting goes well.”
For some reason, Nicholas wouldn’t meet her eyes. Theo tried not to think too much about it.
A Coffee-House In Lancaster
The key to conducting a good interview, Henry had learned, was to find the correct balance between being calm and being nervous. Interviewers liked a little frisson of nerves in their interviewees, otherwise one could come across as arrogant. However, too much anxiety would lead to a bad impression, and the interviewer would go away thinking that you were in no way suited for the position.
Henry had sat through enough interviews to strike a good balance. Still, the interviews had petered out lately. This particular job opportunity was one he wanted very much. It also brought a lot of risk.
It was entirely possible that the man he was meeting would walk into the coffee-house, take one look at Henry, then turn on his heel and walk right back out again.
That had happened before.
Henry drained the last of his coffee. It was his second cup, and the caffeine was starting to jitter through his veins now. He drummed his fingers impatiently on the table, resisting the urge to summon over the waitress to request another cup of coffee.
The coffee-house was a pleasant place, respectable enough to attract decent ladies and gentlemen. There were a series of nice rooms upstairs, one of which Henry had rented for a few days, especially for this particular interview. A little more expensive than he’d have liked, but it gave the appearance of respectability. He needed that now, more than ever.
He glanced at his pocket watch for the hundredth time. A quarter past ten. The man he was meeting was late, but not shockingly so. Henry had already created a dozen different reasons why the man was late, all perfectly fair and believable.
Anything to stop him considering the real reason – that he had discovered who Henry really was.
How long should I wait before I give up and just go back up to my room? Henry wondered. There was a bottle of cheap whiskey with his name on it that he’d been trying to ignore all week. It simply wouldn’t do to meet with this man while stinking of alcohol.
Feeling eyes on him, Henry glanced over to his left. A young lady with a pink gown in the latest fashion and a gold ring on her wedding-ring finger was staring at him. She was pretty, in the wispy, blonde way that was so popular now, and her eyes were almost bulging out of her head as she stared at Henry. It was clear that she was a fashionable miss, with the standard unflattering hairstyles, with countless tiny curls rioting around her temples.
When their eyes met, she gave a little gasp and turned sharply away, pressing a pristine, lace-edged handkerchief to her mouth.
Henry sighed. Wonderful.
He wondered what it was about him that had shocked her so much. His eyes, perhaps? With one pale blue and one brown, he received lots of stares from strangers. As a child, he remembered countless old crones and toothless old men informing him that his mismatched eyes were a sign that he was cursed, and that he was going to be a beacon of bad luck.
Although, come to think of it, it seemed as though they were right about that.
Aside from his mismatched eyes, Henry didn’t consider that anything about himself merited a second look. He had dark, curly hair, cut in the same Brutus style that many other gentlemen preferred. He was of average height, tall enough to be impressive but not tall enough to tower over everyone. He had an ordinary sort of face and pleasant enough features, and that was all. His nose was a little longer and more hooked than was considered handsome, but Henry had enough self-awareness to know that it suited him, oddly enough.
Anyway, with his odd eyes, nobody was going to give his big nose a second look.
The second possibility – and one that worried Henry far more than the other – was that she’d recognized him. He’d signed the guest book as Henry Blake, which was an ordinary enough name to be inconspicuous. However, everyone knew that the Marquess of Ware, he of the shockingly soiled reputation, had odd, mismatched eyes. There wasn’t anything he could do to hide that.
If she had recognized him, that didn’t bode well for the interview. Would she speak up? Would gossip go round that she’d seen Lord Ware at an otherwise respectable coffee-house, speaking with another well-known and respectable gentleman? Henry wasn’t that far from home. He didn’t expect to be openly recognized around ordinary people – this wasn’t the snooty realm of Society, after all – but the possibility was always there. If it wasn’t for his distinctive eyes, Henry was sure he would have done a better job of melting away into obscurity. Unfortunately, he couldn’t go around with his head in a sack, so he ran the risk of being recognized just about everywhere he went.
Of course, there was also the possibility that the woman had thought him handsome, and was either embarrassed at being caught ogling, or simply was put off by his odd eyes.
It would so much easier if it was that possibility. Henry didn’t let himself look in her direction again. He was sure that she was looking at him again but didn’t want to risk turning around.
The door to the coffee-house slammed, making Henry and probably the fashionable young lady jump. He turned to see a tall, strongly built man weaving his way across the floor towards him. Henry leapt to his feet. The fashionable miss was now staring at the newcomer with obvious admiration, jaw slack.
She’d probably just been ogling him, then. Henry felt a rush of relief at that.
“Doctor Woolfe, I presume? It’s good to see you,” Henry said, clasping the man’s hand firmly.
Doctor Woolfe towered over Henry, head almost brushing the low ceiling. He was the sort of man who was always too large for his surroundings, too tall, too strong, too heavy. He gave a sharp nod.
“Yes, that’s me. It’s good to see you in person, Mr. Blake. I’m sorry for being late. My wife bought me a rather fine pocket-watch for our last anniversary. It was a rather pointed gift, if an expensive one. I’m afraid it’s not working.”
Henry smiled politely. “Please, don’t concern yourself.”
He didn’t bother to say that he’d been writhing in anxiety, terrified that Doctor Woolfe had decided not to show up, and Henry had just wasted money on a room, a dinner, and several cups of coffee.
“Shall we?” Doctor Woolfe said, gesturing to the table.
The two men sank into their seats, Doctor Woolfe folding himself into the narrow, spindly chair with difficulty.
“Coffee?” Henry asked, but Doctor Woolfe shook his head.
“No, thank you. Although if you’d like to eat or drink, please don’t let me stop you.”
Henry was very hungry. He’d waited for Doctor Woolfe to arrive, assuming that they’d eat together. However, he wasn’t about to dig into a plate of meat and vegetables while trying to give a good interview, so he only smiled thinly and said nothing. He could eat later, after all.
Doctor Woolfe took out a sheaf of paper, and began busily leafing through them. Henry cleared his throat, suddenly feeling very underprepared. He should have realized that a doctor would make a formidable interviewer.
“I believe we covered some of the main points in our letters,” Doctor Woolfe said, glancing up at Henry. “You know that my children are twins and are five years old. I expect my daughter and son to be given equal education. Some tutors have baulked at the idea of teaching complex subjects to a girl.”
“Well, they’re fools, then. I’ve met too many females to think that women are somehow intellectually inferior to men. I would be teaching both children together, and they would learn the same subjects at the same pace.”
“Good,” Doctor Woolfe said approvingly. “Now, I’m sure you have lots of parents telling you this, and I daresay many of them are wrong, but my children are very intelligent. I’d like them to be taught complex subjects. This was why I considered you for the post, even though you said you were more suited to teaching older students. If I offer the post, and if you accept it, you can draw your own conclusions and make suggestions.”
Henry nodded, carefully not making a remark on how intelligent Doctor Woolfe’s children may or may not be. He knew a little about the Woolfe family. Doctor Nicholas Woolfe, the man he was currently interviewing with now, was a formidably intelligent man. Their mother, Lady Evangeline, had also been known in Society as a very clever woman. Of course, she was described that way as an insult, along with claiming that she was plain, tall, and gawky.
Henry didn’t consider it an insult, and he imagined that Lady Evangeline and Doctor Woolfe didn’t, either.
Doctor Woolfe shuffled his papers and continued.
“I see that you’re proficient in all the standard subjects. Arithmetic, geometry, geography, the sciences, English, the classics, Greek, Latin, French, and so on?”
“Yes, I am,” Henry said shortly. He hoped that Doctor Woolfe didn’t want him to go into great detail about how he learned those subjects. He learned them under his tutor, and then at Eton. If he said that, Doctor Woolfe might follow up, and learn that it wasn’t just Henry Blake the tutor who went to Eton – it was the Marquess of Ware.
Fortunately, Doctor Woolfe seemed satisfied with this answer.
“Everything seems in order to me. Tell me about yourself, Mr. Blake. Tell me about your family.”
Henry looked up sharply, meeting Doctor Woolfe’s eye.
He doesn’t know, Henry realized, a feeling of euphoric relief sweeping through him. He doesn’t know who I am, or where I came from, or how my reputation got torn into shreds. He truly doesn’t know.
Henry sucked in a breath, resisting the urge to grin like a fool.
“Not to much to say, I’m afraid. My parents are both dead, and now I work as a tutor. I was neither deprived nor indulged, and I have no wife or children of my own.”
“Are you fond of children, Mr. Blake?”
“I am, yes. I don’t dote on them like some people, and I wouldn’t say I have a definite knack for small children. However, I very much enjoy teaching. I do believe that I have the knack of making a lesson interesting. You can force children to learn all you like, but they will do much better if they enjoy what they are learning.”
“I appreciate your honesty. While I agree with you about children enjoying their lessons, I am hoping for…” Doctor Woolfe broke off. “How would you describe your teaching style? Lots of outdoor lessons, perhaps? A free-and-easy lesson plan?”
It was very clear that Doctor Woolfe didn’t approve of that. Henry wanted to smile. If he was a dishonest teacher, he would simply lie and say whatever the good Doctor wanted to hear. Fortunately, in this case, the truth was what Doctor Woolfe wanted to hear.
“I’m afraid I take quite a traditional approach. Variety and interesting lessons are all very well and good, but I believe that children learn better with routine. In my opinion, taking children outside for lessons is a recipe for disaster. There are too many distractions. The children will naturally want to go and play, and then the lesson turns into a power struggle instead of a calm, pleasant environment for a child to learn. While I’m happy to occasionally deviate from my set out lesson plan, most of my instruction will be given in the classroom.”
“Excellent,” Doctor Woolfe said happily. “My children can be mischievous, and I think they will greatly benefit from a proper schedule and routine. Can you give me an example of a lesson plan you might conduct?”
“Certainly. I wrote one down earlier, just in case you wanted to ask,” Henry was pleased with himself for his foresight. So far, the interview was going well. He took a folded piece of paper out of his pocket, and pushed it across the table for Doctor Woolfe’s perusal.
8-9: Writing exercises
11-11:30: Break. This may be conducted in Outdoor time or a light snack and cup of tea or milk.
11:30-12:15: English Language Study (creative writing?)
1-2: The Sciences
2-3: French Vocabulary, plus Fifteen-minute break
3-4: Literature and The Classics
End of Lessons
“As your children are very young, I would only schedule Latin and Greek two or three times a week,” Henry explained. “This is of course just an idea, and you will likely have your own subjects you would like me to cover. I feel as though eight o’ clock to four is quite sufficient for children of their age.”
“I agree,” Doctor Woolfe said, happily. “I am glad that you scheduled regular breaks for them. As to field trips, their aunt often takes them out on silly little botany trips.”
“How nice,” Henry said politely.
Privately, he thought that the schedule he’d set out was too vigorous for children of five years old. However, he knew what was expected of children at that age if they were sent away to school, and parents tended to have very high standards. Either way, Doctor Woolfe seemed thrilled.
Of course, “mischievous” children were generally just badly behaved children. Henry wasn’t overly worried about that. He knew that he had an authoritarian manner about him, and usually had no issues in commanding respect, especially with young children. He didn’t dislike children, but neither was he too soft and soppy to give them proper discipline. Children with no boundaries or discipline grew up spoiled and dissatisfied, and made terrible mistakes in adult life because they had no idea how to rein themselves in.
Henry would not let that happen to one of his students.
Not that the Woolfe children were his students yet, of course.
That was up to Doctor Woolfe, but Henry was starting to feel very confident about his chances. The man looked impressed with Henry’s rigorous schedule and traditional methods. That was good, wasn’t it?
“What about you, Mr. Blake? Do you have any questions for me?” Doctor Woolfe asked.
“Where will I be staying?”
“With us, of course. Woolfe Manor is a large place, and there are plenty of fine rooms. We can arrange for you to have a room with an adjoining parlour, if you like.”
“That would be nice, thank you. Is it a large household?”
“Large-ish, I’d say. As to the family, there is me, my wife, our children, and my sister-in-law, who lives with us. It’s a roomy place, you won’t feel overcrowded.”
“I’m sure it’s a lovely home,” Henry said neutrally.
He liked Doctor Woolfe. The man seemed open and straightforward. He was a little brusque, but once you got past that and the entire lack of social graces, he was a pleasant man. He treated Henry like an equal, not a potential servant.
That boded well for how Henry would be treated at Woolfe manor. He knew how tutors and governesses fared in fine houses. The pay was better and the living quarters usually very nice, but they were neither servants nor part of the family. They lived in limbo, neither here nor there, a lonely life spent managing other people’s children. And then, once the children were either old enough to go to a fine college or were too old for a tutor, the tutor was unceremoniously packed off, to either live on their savings or find another position.
Henry didn’t let himself think about that. His future was uncertain enough as it was.
“Do you like the classics? Things like Shakespeare, I mean?” Doctor Woolfe asked impulsively. “I know they’re important to learn, but I hated them as a child.”
“I enjoy Shakespeare. I think I can make it interesting enough for children to enjoy. If you like, you can sit in on any or all of my lessons.”
“I think I will do that, thank you,” Doctor Woolfe shuffled his papers together, running his eye down Henry’s list of references, such as they were. “Now, I really do think that you would be a good fit for my family. Are you interested in the position?”
Henry sucked in a breath. “I… I would like that very much.”
Doctor Woolfe raised an eyebrow. “You haven’t even asked how much I’ll pay.”
Henry smiled. “How much will you pay?”
Doctor Woolfe grinned – well, he grinned wolfishly – and chuckled.
“Oh, it’ll be enough, Mr. Blake. Easily enough.”
Well, that sounded good, didn’t it? The men stood up, shaking hands.
“My steward will send over the details later,” Doctor Woolfe said, smiling. He seemed every bit as happy at securing Henry’s services as Henry was to offer them. “I’ll think you’ll fit into our family very well, Mr. Blake.”
“I hope I shall,” Henry said fervently. “I really do.”
“Althaea Officinalis,” Theo said, pointing to a small lilac-pink flower growing underneath a bush. “Otherwise known as a Marsh Mallow. This one, I believe, is a common mallow. We’re lucky to find any at all this time of year, but it’s been rather warm so far. The Mallow can be used to treat sore throats, bad stomachs, and respiratory problems.”
“What’s respiratory problems?” Vincent enquired.
“It’s when you struggle to breathe. The cause can be a simple as a blocked nose and a bad cold, or it can be something more serious.”
The children carefully scrawled notes in their books, with unformed, childish handwriting. Theo was privately impressed that her nephew and niece had learned to read and write so early. Their spelling and handwriting left much to be desired, of course, but it was still a start.
“If you can use herbs like this to treat sore throats,” Verona said thoughtfully, “Why do people need Doctors like Papa?”
“That’s an excellent question, Verona. The truth is, that while herbs like this can be very helpful for dealing with mild ailments, serious illnesses need stronger medicine. If you take too much of certain herbs it can make you very ill, too. As you both know, you should never eat herbs or plants without me, your Mama, or your Papa there. Some plants can look exactly like something harmless, but are in fact very poisonous.”
The children nodded seriously. Theo watched them scribble down more notes, smiling. Vincent enjoyed drawing and was making a wobbly yet surprisingly good sketch of the plant.
“Now, if we’re all done,” Theo said briskly, “We’ll dig up a few of these plants, and the cook is going to show you a rather delicious treat that can be made with the roots. Would you like that?”
Naturally, that suggestion was met with great excitement. Theo produced the basket she’d brought especially for this, and helped the children dig up a handful of plants. If the cook needed more, she could always send one of the maids out for it. Armed with their findings and a little bit of new knowledge, the children ran ahead all the way home, skipping and whooping, racing each other to finishing lines known only to themselves.
Theo followed behind, smiling to herself. The rolling hills behind Woolfe Manor were beautiful indeed and offered a spectacular view of the house and grounds itself. The climb up the hill to find the Marsh Mallow had been a little difficult, but going down was easy as pie.
“Vincent, let’s roll down the hill!” Verona shouted.
“No, don’t do that,” Theo called. “You’ll get grass stains on your clothes.”
Verona pouted, but obeyed. Theo had worked hard to make the children mind her, and her efforts had paid off.
It was a fine day, unseasonably warm, with a crisp blue sky spread out above them. Theo breathed in deeply, enjoying the scents of fresh green grass and wildflowers, mixed with the familiar earthy scent of wet soil.
Vincent came running back up to Theo, and proudly presented a small bouquet of raggedy-stemmed flowers. Theo accepted them, smiling.
“These are beautiful, Vincent. Thank you.”
“I helped pick them out!” Verona put in, keen to get her share of the credit.
“They are lovely, you’re both very kind. Why don’t you collect some flowers for Cook, too? She can put them in a vase.”
The children ran off eagerly to collect a second bouquet, and Theo added hers to the basket of mallows. She would press those flowers between the pages of a book, and keep them always.
At times like this, it was easy to pretend that Vincent and Verona really were her children. That sort of pretending was never good, because at some point or another Theo would have to wake up, and then the sadness would close in again.
It was true, Theo was envious of Evie’s good luck. Oh, she was glad that Evie was happy. Evie deserved the finest family in the world, and all the happiness that was to be had.
But didn’t Theo deserve a little, too?
The truth was that Theo had always imagined herself with a husband and children. Unlike Evie, who had been indifferent to the idea of children, and Mary, who openly declared her intentions to never ever marry, Theo had wanted a family. She liked babies and small children, and loved the idea of raising a contented, happy family of her own. Didn’t every woman secretly dream of marrying the perfect man, who would love and adore her forever?
Abruptly, the trees and undergrowth cleared away, and Theo found herself looking right down onto the terrace, where Evie sat, reading a book and taking tea. She waved at the three of them, even though they would be nothing but specks on the hillside to her at the moment. Theo swallowed down her guilt and loneliness and waved back.
“Are you coming to see Cook with us?” Verona asked. “Are you going to have some of the treat too?”
“Perhaps later,” Theo. “I’m taking tea with your Mama first. We’ll take half an hour before we resume lessons. Meet me in the schoolroom, won’t you?”
They nodded obediently. Even if they forgot – accidentally or deliberately – Theo knew that Cook and Peggy would round up the children when it was time to resume their lessons. That meant that Theo had a little time to rest and relax before the afternoon’s chores began.
She handed the basket to Vincent, whose little face went red with effort, and watched them scurry off towards the kitchen door, disappearing into the cool darkness inside.
Theo sighed. Wasn’t it odd how the things you looked forward to all day – like showing the children her Special Find – were gone in a blink, and you were left with a sad, bitter taste in your mouth?
“Theo, over here!” Evie called from the terrace. “Stop lollygagging, your tea is getting cold.”
Despite what Evangeline had said, the tea set out for Theo was still plenty warm. She sipped it thoughtfully, watching birds riot around above the rose gardens, where the maids scattered seeds and stale bread for them every morning. For a few moments, the sisters sat quietly together. Evangeline broke the silence first.
“I hear that Edmund Mills wrote you another letter,” she said lightly.
Theo sighed. “Yes, he did. I really think that I’d better not respond this time. Even a polite response seems to be taken as encouragement. I don’t know what to do about him.”
“We could have Nicholas write a strongly worded letter back to him.”
“Oh, don’t. Mr. Mills’ constitution is so weak I think one good conversation with Nicholas would kill him.”
The sisters chuckled together.
“I take it that you’re determined not to accept him, then?” Evangeline said, after a while.
Theo glanced at her sister out of the corner of her eye. “You think I should accept him, don’t you?”
“I think nothing of the sort. He’s well-bred, rich, and a kind sort of man. Dull as bricks, of course, but eligible and respectable. I wouldn’t object to your marrying him.”
“Oh, that’s high praise, indeed. I don’t feel anything towards Edmund Mills. Nothing at all. I thought that perhaps, given a little time… maybe that’s why he’s so determined now. I suppose I might have encouraged him a little, at the start. He can’t conceive that I might have changed my mind. I don’t wish to be rude or hurtful to him.”
“Well, the Season is beginning again, so he may well find somebody else soon enough,” Evangeline said, taking a biscuit from the delicate tea-tray. “And so might you, for that matter.”
Theo stared down at her pastel-blue skirts, made almost luminous by the strength of the sun. “I doubt that.”
“Well, do you want to find somebody?”
Theo rolled her eyes. “You know I do, Evie.”
“Well, then why not?”
“I’m older than you were when you married Nicholas.”
“So what? That hardly signifies.”
Theo slumped back in her seat, tilting back her head and closing her eyes, letting the sun play over her face. The weather would get cold soon, so she might as well enjoy it while she could.
Evangeline tried again. “Grandmother wants us to come to a few balls and parties this Season, so that we can take Mary. I think she’s tearing out her hair over Mary.”
Theo winced. “Yes, I don’t envy her on that task. If I were Grandmother, I’d just let Mary do what she wants.”
“I suppose so, but Society will be expecting Mary to join the Season. It’ll look odd if she doesn’t. Oh, and apparently, we’ll get a chance to meet this Season’s Diamond, too.”
Theo sighed. She’d seen several Diamonds over the years, each one a debutante selected for her beauty, breeding, and fashionable looks. In the past few years, each Diamond had been a carbon copy of the last – pale, slim, willowy, fair-haired and blue-eyed, and so on. The first year that Theo had come out, one of her closest friends, Tabitha Nickels, was selected as that Season’s Diamond. Tabitha was very pretty, in a fragile, waif-like way. Tabitha was nice enough, but not particularly clever.
Not that the gentlemen minded that. She had a decent fortune, fashionable looks, and she was the Diamond after all. Theo received three proposals that Season, all from men old enough to be her grandfather, and Tabitha received somewhere between thirteen and fourteen.
She married a nice enough man, with protruding teeth and a weak chin, and they retired to the country to produce babies at an alarming rate.
That was the only time any Diamond had ever been passably pleasant to Theo. Why would they? Theo was dark-haired – unfashionable! – quietly spoken, intelligent, and curvaceous. None of those things were admirable qualities in a lady, and the Diamonds and Beauties of each Season were playing a game that they were determined to win.
Well, let them play, Theo thought.
“Who is it this year?” she asked, since it seemed impolite to let the comment go without a remark.
“A Miss Camilla Vale.”
“Never heard of her.”
“Neither have I, but she’s supposed to be tremendously wealthy and extremely beautiful.”
Theo sighed again. “They always are.”
She drained her cup of tea, and tried to calculate how much longer she had left before she needed to go up to the schoolroom and continue with the lessons.
“Well, if you want to get married, you’ll have lots of time to look for a husband this Season,” Evangeline said, with the air of one about to break some news. Theo glanced at her, frowning.
“What do you mean?”
Evangeline drew in a deep breath.
“Well, Nicholas has engaged a tutor for the children, so you’ll be able to cut right back on the lessons and try and enjoy Society a little bit.”
Theo was glad that she’d set the teacup back on the table, because she would surely have dropped it. The delicate porcelain – a wedding present from Mildred, if Theo remembered correctly – would have shattered into a million pieces.
“I… what?” Theo managed, numbly. “A tutor? But why? Aren’t my lessons good enough? The children love them, and if Nicholas really wanted them to start learning Latin and Greek now, he should have just said, and I would have…”
“It’s nothing personal, Theo,” Evangeline said hastily, although her gaze kept slipping around Theo’s face as she talked, not quite meeting her eyes. “You know how determined Nicholas is that the children should get a really superior education.”
“I can give them a superior education,” Theo said, hoping and praying that she wouldn’t burst into tears.
Evangeline swallowed hard, setting her teacup aside. She reached for Theo’s hand and squeezed it. The whole thing smacked of pity, and Theo longed to snatch her hand away and storm off to seethe in her room.
Mary would probably have done that. Or started throwing teacups onto the ground, to show her displeasure.
But Theo was desperate not to seem bad-tempered. It was apparent that the tutor was already engaged. Nicholas wasn’t the sort of man to talk about his plans but never realise them. If Evangeline said that he had engaged a tutor, he had engaged a tutor. There wasn’t much to be done.
“He’s a very learned man,” Evangeline carried on, as if she thought this would hold weight with Theo. “Of genteel birth too, I understand. Nicholas liked him very much. He’s to live here, on the other side of the manor. I don’t want you to think that you won’t be able to spend time with the children, Theo. You can take them out on field trips, and Nicholas says that you can still teach them botany and things like that. They do enjoy your Interesting Finds.”
Theo wanted to scream. Am I supposed to be grateful? Glad that you’ll allow me to keep teaching them one or two subjects? Vincent can recite twenty-five different plants, along with their Latin names, colloquial names, and medicinal uses. Verona can almost recite fifty. That’s hardly a silly little field trip, is it?
She said none of this, of course. Evangeline looked anxious, searching Theo’s face and biting her lip.
Perhaps Nicholas hadn’t discussed it properly with Evangeline, either. Theo remembered the odd conversation that had passed between the two at the breakfast table only that morning, before Nicholas’ mysterious meeting in town.
“Did you know that Nicholas planned to engage a tutor?” Theo found herself asking.
Evangeline dropped her gaze. “I… I did. Frankly, I thought that it was a little too soon, but you know, we’d always intended them to have a proper tutor when they were old enough.”
Proper tutor. That stung. But Theo kept a smile on her face.
“I see. How interesting. Well, what is his name? When is he coming?”
“His name is Henry Blake. He’s coming early tomorrow morning, I believe. He is very well qualified. Shall I show you his letters?”
“No, thank you.”
Evangeline wavered a little at that and had the grace to blush. “I’m sorry to spring this all on you, Theo. I know how you love the children, and how hard you’ve worked. Nicholas had his heart set on it, though, and you know, we always intended…”
“I know,” Theo interrupted, flashing a brittle smile. “Please, think no more of it. Now, I really must be going, Evangeline. Lessons to complete. Although not for much longer, of course. Goodness, I won’t know what to do with myself.”
She was babbling, and Theo knew it, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. Evangeline was staring at her with resignation, and Theo was suddenly very afraid that she would burst into tears right here and there. Then the pity would simply be too much to handle.
They hadn’t even mentioned it to her. No word of warning, no request for her help to find a proper tutor. She’d been dismissed, almost as if she really was a hired governess.
Theo got to her feet abruptly, her hand dropping limply out of her sisters.
“Theo…” Evangeline began, but Theo neatly cut her off.
“I really must be going, Evie. I’ll see you at supper!”
Theo did not go to the schoolroom. She went to her bedroom and slumped onto her bed. She burst into tears, making her bedspread all damp.
“Miss?” Peggy peered around the door; eyes wide. “What’s the matter.”
Theo swallowed down her sobs and wiped ineffectually at her wet cheeks.
“Well, Evangeline and Nicholas have just engaged a tutor for Vincent and Verona. A proper one. Isn’t that nice, Peg?”
It was no good. She burst into tears again. Peggy’s face hardened, slipping inside and closing the door behind her. She moved over to the bed, sitting down beside Theo and slipping an arm around her shoulders.
“They didn’t tell you about it, Miss?” she murmured.
Theo shook her head. “I knew it would probably happen eventually, but… oh, what am I going to do now, Peggy? He’s coming tomorrow, and I have lessons to finish today.”
Peggy pressed her lips together. “I think you should rest this afternoon, Miss. Let the tutor catch up tomorrow.”
“I can’t, I have lessons.”
“I’m going to tell them you have a megrim,” Peggy said firmly. “Too much sun. It’s unseasonable for this time of year, so everyone should believe that. I really think you should rest, Miss.”
Theo sighed and found that she didn’t have the energy to fight.
“I suppose you’re right. Oh, Lord, he’s arriving tomorrow. I’m going to have to meet him. I have to be gracious and friendly. How am I going to do that?”
Peggy chuckled. “Just be yourself, Miss. You’re much kinder than me, that’s for sure.”
Early Next Morning
“He’s here,” Peggy said, peering out of the window. “Just coming up the drive now.”
Theo’s parlour overlooked the winding drive that led up to the house and grounds, flanked by tall trees on either side. Despite herself, Theo rushed to the window, peering out.
She’d expected an old man, gruff and unfriendly and more than a little bit deaf. Instead, a young man, probably no older than she herself, was walking up the drive. He carried a large leather suitcase as if it weighed nothing at all and had a decided spring in his step. He had curly dark hair, a lithe frame, and well-tailored clothes, just fashionable enough not to stand out, but as plain and simple as he could get them.
“I thought he’d be older,” Theo murmured.
“He’s handsome,” Peggy remarked.
Theo shot her a look. “That’s hardly important.”
“Well, it means he’s nice to look at, doesn’t it?”
Theo rolled her eyes. “Oh, Peggy.”
“Don’t try and say that you weren’t thinking it, Miss.”
“I was not,” Theo said primly.
Peggy retreated from the window, saying something about making sure that the children were ready. The whole family was going to greet the new tutor down in the hall. Theo felt a pang of sympathy for him. It must be nerve-wracking enough to approach a new position, in a house as grand and imposing as theirs, and meet a whole parcel of strangers.
Still, he was a tutor, wasn’t he? This was his profession. Perhaps she was wrong, and he barely felt a frisson of nerves. Perhaps he’d be condescending and overconfident.
Or would he? After all, Nicholas would hardly hire someone arrogant. Unless, of course, this gentlemen was clever enough to act differently around the man who would be paying his wages.
The tutor was nearly at the top of the drive now. He paused, glancing up at the house, taking in all the details. Theo realized, with a burst of surprise, that his eyes were not the same colour. Before she had time to gather that one eye seemed to be blue and the other brown or black, the man dropped his gaze again, and carried on towards the front door.
There was a word for it, wasn’t there? When someone’s eyes didn’t match? Theo couldn’t remember what it was, though. Instead, she reminded herself of the tutor’s name, rolling it around and round in her head.
Blake. Henry Blake.
She drew in a breath, and moved back from the window before he could glance up and see her there, staring down at him.
It was time to go downstairs and face the music.
I’ll need to make sure that the twins behave, Theo thought grimly.
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel “A Wallflower for the Marquess, Theodosia” is now live on Amazon!