At Bowerly Hall – 13

THE invitation to dinner came as I was reading a story to Mary in the nursery before she ate that evening. Mrs Dane’s pursed lips indicated her displeasure. I was sure she wanted me to refuse.

Part of me wished to. But another part of me was too intrigued to say no.

I nodded my thanks gracefully. She swept away on bristling skirts.

What was I to wear? Eventually I chose my green silk dress. It accentuated my waist and the skirt flowed prettily over the petticoats. I liked the neat sleeves and the cool whisper of the material on my wrists.

At my neck I wore my mother’s pendant as always. It gave me courage.

Who had given the invitation? Was it Lady Anne? Did she wish to speak to me further about my mother and their childhood days?

In which case, would her son disapprove of having the governess at their dining table? Or was it Charles who had invited me? Perhaps our conversation earlier had inclined him well towards me. Or maybe he pitied me.

I hoped not. I did not want to eat with them out of charity.

If Charles had initiated the invitation, was I then to be faced with Lady Anne’s annoyance?

Questions, too many questions. I sighed. There were to be no answers until I made my way downstairs to dine.

I need not have worried. Both Lady Anne and Charles greeted me pleasantly.

They were dressed formally and I was glad of my green gown’s elegance. I might be lower than my hosts on the social scale but tonight, no-one watching would have been able to tell.

The dining-room was invitingly warm. A fire crackled in the enormous hearth and the table was lit with candles. The yellow candlelight glinted off the crystal ware and silver cutlery.

There was a beautiful arrangement of pink and red roses as a centrepiece and I caught their sweet scent as I took my place.

“You look very charming tonight, Miss Thorne,” Charles said politely.

“Doesn’t she?” Lady Anne agreed with a smile. “That wonderful shade of green is perfect for your hair.”

I felt Charles’s gaze flicker briefly to my head and felt strangely self-conscious. A little heat rose in my skin. I wasn’t sure what to say.

Thankfully, I was spared answering. At that moment the door crashed open and a young man entered.

Startled, we all looked to him. I had the oddest sensation that I had met him before. Immediately I realised why. He was the image of the viscount, but not quite. His features failed to create the same handsome face.

The strong jaw was lacking. This man had a slightly receding chin and a flabbiness to his cheeks which spoke of indulgence.

“Francis!” Lady Anne cried happily and went to embrace him.

I glanced over at the viscount. His face was shadowed. Clearly, he did not share his mother’s pleasure in their guest.

“This is most unexpected and most welcome,” Lady Anne trilled, guiding the newcomer by hooking her elbow into his and bringing him to the table.

I was unsettled to look up and find him watching me.

“And who is this, dear Aunt?” he said. “You must introduce me this instant.”

“Francis, this is Miss Amelia Thorne, governess to little Mary and the daughter of a friend of mine. Amelia, this is my nephew, Francis Williams. How lovely of you to visit. You should have told us you were coming.”

“And spoil the surprise? Never!” he teased.

He slid into the chair next to mine.

“I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Thorne − or may I call you Amelia?”

“You may not, Francis,” Charles cut in sharply. “It would hardly be proper, since you don’t know Miss Thorne.”

His face was hawk-like and if I had been his cousin Francis, I’d have been shaking in my highly polished boots.

Francis took little heed. He pressed rather close to me as if to share a secret. I saw the pores in his skin and smelled brandy fumes on his breath.

“Charles always liked to be the boss of me,” he whispered loudly. “Even when we were boys together.”

“I seem to remember that you needed a firm hand,” his cousin said. “It was my duty as the elder to look after you.”

Mrs Bidens’s words came back to me. She’d described Charles as a solemn boy.

“Ah, well,” Francis said, leaning back on his chair, very much at his ease. “What delights are for dinner, Aunt? I am desperately hungry, even if it’s bad manners to say so.”

He had a boyish charm, a mischievous way that contrasted with his cousin’s stoniness. It was hard not to find it appealing.

He winked at me. I found myself warming to his charm. What was Charles’s problem? The viscount sat at the head of the table, glowering.

“If you didn’t play the cards so often, you’d be able to afford a decent dinner at your own home,” he said.

Francis put up his palms in mock despair.

“I don’t have the wonderful Mrs Bell cooking for me. My own cook provides stew after stew. I desire variety.”

His lazy smile included us all in his little joke.

Lady Anne looked pleased.

“No stews tonight, you’ll be glad to hear, then. I believe we are having chicken dishes. Seriously, my dear, how are you? We haven’t had the pleasure of your company for weeks.”

He waved a vague hand in the air.

“My dear Aunt, I have been busy with various ventures. Tonight, however, you have all my attention.”

His eyes met mine and it was hard to look away.

When I did so, Charles was frowning at me. Well, really, I thought. Was he annoyed with me now? I was doing nothing wrong.

Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!