At Bowerly Hall – 14

I DETERMINED there and then to enjoy my evening.

If that meant being entertained by Francis, then that was fine and good. I would not be put out by my host’s stony expression.

The footmen brought in the first course, a thin consommé soup which was very tasty. I sipped at it slowly, wanting to linger over dinner, a meal that for once I wasn’t eating alone in my rooms.

Instead, there were voices chatting, the clink of cutlery and the sound of wine being poured into crystal glasses. The room was neither too cold nor too warm.

I was aware of all my senses absorbing the moment like a thirsty person in a desert craving water.

“Your accent suggests you are not from these parts, Miss Thorne,” Francis said.

“I am from the south coast,” I replied, conscious of the blue stare from my left at the head of the table.

“You must find our rough Yorkshire climate a shock.”

“I find it a little cold,” I said, “but I’m sure I shall soon adapt to it.”

“What a terrible time to arrive,” he said. “You have the cold months ahead of you. You must be sure to wrap up warmly.”

I felt his gaze on my skin above the neckline of my dress. Suddenly, it was uncomfortable. I was conscious that my neckline dipped and I wished I had tucked a ruche of linen into it.

“Miss Thorne is a horsewoman,” Charles said suddenly.

“Indeed? How wonderful,” Francis said. “You must come and visit my humble abode. I keep a good stable. You would be impressed.”

“I am certainly impressed with the stables here,” I said. “I’m looking forward to riding again. I’ve missed it so.”

“We can’t have you missing the horses!” Francis cried, all bonhomie. “Goodness, no. You must promise me to visit. I have a charming mare that is just right for you.”

I was conscious of all my companions, even while I met no-one’s direct gaze – Charles, to my left, seemingly stilled for my response; Lady Anne opposite, smiling fondly at her nephew’s kindness; Francis to my right, so close I felt the heat from him and a slight sourness of body odour.

His stare seemed to assess me. If I enjoyed horseriding, then I must be a gentlewoman of some sort. He was mentally placing me in a hierarchy, of that I was suddenly sure.

I didn’t like it.

Clearly, whatever he’d decided, I was worthy of an invitation to his stables.

I decided immediately that I had no wish to go there, no matter how gallant or amusing a companion he had made himself out to be.

“Come, what do you say?” he urged me.

I carefully laid down my silver knife and fork amongst the ruins of the chicken on my plate. The footmen glided silently into the room and removed the course.

It allowed me a moment to gather my wits. Equally, for no reason I could lay a finger on, I had no desire to spend time alone with Francis Williams.

Dessert was brought – a bright pink posset of rhubarb, an almond cake and preserved cherries in a dish.

Beside me, Francis gave a tiny cough – for attention. Like a small boy, I thought with humour.

“It is very kind of you to invite me,” I said, “but I have promised his Lordship to accept the offer of a horse from the stables here first.”

The two men locked stares briefly. Francis was the first to look away.

With a small sulk to his lip, he cut a wedge of cake without offering anyone else. A couple of gulps and the slice had disappeared.

Lady Anne filled the uncomfortable silence that had descended on the company.

“How is your mother? Does her health improve?”

“My mother’s lungs are in fine fettle. She complains like stink about everything. As for the rest of her, there is no change. She lies abed each day and has all the servants running around her.”

There was no mistaking the sulkiness in his tone now.

Lady Anne looked rather shocked.

“Francis, please, show charity. Your poor mother, my sister-in-law, is not a well person. We must surely find it in our hearts to show compassion.”

“You’re right. I am contrite. It is only that there is no peace in my home. I swear at times it’s as if she hates me…”

“Your imagination runs riot,” Lady Anne said sternly. “Come, there must be no more of this sort of talk.”

Francis leaped up from the table. He smiled widely but it did not reach his eyes. It fooled his aunt, though. She smiled back, obviously relieved his mood was over.

“Will you forgive me if I go downstairs to see Mrs Bell?” Francis asked.

“Oh, well, is that entirely…?”

He bestowed another golden smile upon her.

“You know how fond I am of your cook. I must have spent more childhood days here than at my own home.”

Lady Anne nodded.

“Yes, yes. I suppose that’s right. Well, I can see no harm in it. Charles?” Charles shrugged.

“It matters not to me. Francis must do as he sees fit. As he inevitably does.”

There was a veiled message there. But for the life of me, I could not tell what it was. Francis flushed darkly.

He offered a quick bow to me and left the room.

The meal came to an end quite soon after Francis’s departure. The mood had changed. Lady Anne was agitated and spilled her glass of wine.

Charles finished his dessert in silence. I thought how self-contained he was. He obviously felt no compunction to make chit-chat, even out of politeness.

I finished my desserts and then made my excuses, thanking my host and hostess for the pleasure of joining them at dinner.

It was no lie. I had enjoyed myself. I hoped there might be other such evenings in future.

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!