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Lavender Lady

Lavender Lady by Carola Dunn
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Hester Godric’s grandfather was in trade, but her stepmother had taught her to be a lady--before leaving Hester with four half-siblings to raise. The victim of a carriage accident lands in her home to recover, but does not reveal that he is the Earl of Alton. Hester learns his identity only when the whole family descends on London—and involves my lord in a variety of scrapes.

Regency Romance by Carola Dunn

Originally published in hardcover by Walker and paperback by Warner

Belgrave House; July 1983
182 pages; ISBN 9780802707345
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Lavender Lady
Author: Carola Dunn
 
Excerpt

“Hester! Hester! Come quick! There’s been a dreadful accident!”

Accustomed to her youngest brother’s wild exaggera­tions, Miss Godric dusted the flour off her hands on her blue gingham apron in a leisurely way. The small boy burst into the kitchen. His white face and the panic in his voice galvanised her to action.

“It was Skip,” cried Robbie. “He got out somehow and went for Mr. Borden’s terrier just as a curricle came round the corner. The driver was thrown right into the road, and he’s unconscious and there’s blood everywhere. Do you think he’s dead, Hester?”

“Surely not,” soothed his sister in an anxious voice as she hurried after him. “The road is so muddy after all this rain that he must had quite a soft landing. Where are Jamie and Geoff?”

“Jamie went for the doctor already, and Geoff is calming the horses. There wasn’t a groom.”

“Well, at least I have a family with common sense,” declared Hester. Picking up her skirts, she ran down the front steps and out of the white wicket gate into the street. For once she did not stop to admire Geoffrey’s magnificent display of snapdragons, marigolds, cosmos, and delphini­ums. The warm summer air was full of the scent of lavender as she knelt in the mud beside the injured stranger.

Geoffrey already had the pair of chestnuts under control, so Hester was able to turn all her attention to the man before her. He was lying quite still, and his left leg was at an odd angle, which convinced her that it was broken. His face was very pale, and there was indeed, as Rob had reported, a good deal of blood liberally splashed on his once-white neckcloth and soaking into the dirt around his head. With tentative fingers, she brushed back his fair hair and found the wound—a long gash that was still bleeding but did not seem very deep. She looked at her muddy petticoat, at her grubby brothers, and with a sigh sent Robbie into the house.

“Find Alice,” she instructed, “and tell her to bring some clean linen to bind this cut. Quickly, Rob; it is still bleeding. Geoff, you had best take the curricle round into the yard and unharness the horses. Then come back; I’ll need your help.”

A few minutes later, her eldest brother appeared from the direction of the town centre, running and panting in a way he would normally have stigmatised as highly undignified.

“Jamie, give me your cravat,” Hester greeted him. “Is Dr. Price coming?”

“Yes,” gasped the youth, wrestling with his neckcloth. “I met him just down the road but going in the other direction. He had to turn the gig, so I came back at once without waiting for him. Is he badly hurt?” He handed his sister the crumpled but clean cloth, and she pressed it firmly to the cut on the stranger’s forehead.

“As far as I can see, he is not likely to die,” reassured Hester. “However, I am sure his leg is broken, and I have no idea what to do about it. I hope Dr. Price will hurry.”

“Here he comes already,” cried Robbie, reappearing in the doorway. “Dr. Price, Dr. Price, can I hold Bo’sun?”

“Indeed to goodness, Mr. Midshipman,” answered the stout, white-haired Welshman with a twinkle in his eye, clambering down from his seat with Jamie’s assistance. He handed over the reins of the placid nag, who was standing stock-still. “Do not let the old rascal stray, my boy.”

‘Aye, aye, sir!” responded Robbie joyfully.

“So! What have we here?” queried Dr. Price in his lilting voice, casting a comprehensive glance over his sprawling patient. “Broken leg; looks nasty. What of his head, Miss Godric?”

Hester gingerly removed the cloth from the wound. It seemed to have stopped bleeding. Breathing heavily, the old physician bent down to have a closer look. “That’ll not make him slip his anchor. Better bind it while I look at that leg.”

“Robbie, where is Alice? Did I not send you for her?”

“Oh, she is having hysterics,” said the boy scornfully. And Susan just started praying, so I told Ivy. She made Susan go with her to get some cloths, so I expect she’ll be out in a minute.”

“As if Ivy did not have enough work!” objected James. “I’ll give Alice a piece of my mind, see if I don’t.”

“Oh, Jamie, it is very trying, but you know your sister’s excessive sensibilities,” calmed Hester. “We have enough trouble here without you picking a quarrel with her. See, here is Susan.”

A girl of about twelve came through the gate, a basket over her arm.

“Here is the linen, Hester,” she announced. “May I help you succour the sick? The Lord says—”

“Bother the Lord,” exclaimed Geoffrey, appearing round the corner of the house. “Don’t be so sanctimonious, you little brat.”

“I shall pray for you, dear brother,” she responded with hauteur. “Hester, may I help?”

“Indeed, dearest, it would be of the greatest assistance if you would go to Alice and try to stop her working herself into a frenzy. Dr. Price, should I not wash his head before I bind it?”

The doctor was now on his knees in the mud, feeling the stranger’s leg.

“Put on a temporary bandach, Miss Hester,” he in­structed. “You can chanche it when we have the unfortu­nate chentleman indoors, look you. James, Cheoffrey, I shall need some wood for splints and some sort of stretcher to carry him.” He paused as a thought struck him. “I suppose you can find a bed for him, can you not? He should not be moved so far as the Bull.”

“Of course we can. He shall have Jamie’s room and Jamie will sleep with Geoff and Robbie. After all, it is in some degree our fault that he is hurt.” Hester explained about the dog fight.

Her brothers returned with armfuls of planks and staves, and a hurdle, which they piled beside the doctor.

“Skipper took off across the fields with Patches as soon as the damage was done,” reported Geoffrey. “He’d dug under the fence again.”

Dr. Price put a makeshift splint on the broken leg, and James and Geoffrey lifted the injured man carefully onto the hurdle. He moaned as the doctor manipulated his leg, but showed no other sign of returning consciousness.

“A mild concussion,” diagnosed the physician. “Let us get him into bed as soon as possible, and I shall set the fracture properly. There is more than one break, Miss Hester. I fear you may have him on your hands for some time.’’

“No matter,” Hester assured him.

Half an hour later, the stranger was tucked up, clean and well bandaged, in Jamie’s bed. A faint colour had returned to his cheeks.

“I expect he will come round soon,” Dr. Price told Hester. “Make him drink this if there is much pain. If he is not conscious in a couple of hours, you may send for me. He must not move. I fear he may find himself with a limp when all’s healed.”

Hester thanked him for his services, and he departed.

After a brief consultation with James, she left him to manage Alice and the children, handed over the dinner preparations to the servant, Ivy, and sat down in the rocking chair by her patient’s bedside. She felt uncharacter­istically fatigued. Her day had been busy, but no busier than usual. It must have been the. emotional disturbance, she decided.

The golden light of an August evening came through the open window, with the song of a blackbird. She studied the face on the pillow beside her. A strong face, she thought, even in relaxation. The bandage on his brow gave him a slightly rakish look. He was a big man—tall and broad-shouldered, though slim—and her brothers had had a difficult time carrying him up the narrow staircase. Even unconscious, he seemed to fill the small room, crowded as it was with Jamie’s books and papers.

She wondered who he was. They had found an empty card case in his pocket, and a few sovereigns, but no hint of his identity either there or in the one bag with which he had been travelling. His clothes, now exchanged for a voluminous nightshirt grudgingly given up by Grandpa Stevens, were of excellent quality, and his coat of blue superfine had fit so tightly that it had been a struggle to divest him of it. One of his glossy but mud-spattered boots had had to be cut off the injured leg and was ruined. Hester hoped he would not be too annoyed. Those boots must have cost him a pretty penny.

Her gaze returned to his face. The sun lit up his thick, wavy blond hair. Thinking of her own straight, mousy crop, she sighed. It seemed unfair that a man should have hair like that. It was hard to tell with the bandage in the way, but she rather suspected that the stranger might be excessively good-looking. She would have to keep an eye on the susceptible Alice. Of course, the man might be equally susceptible, and Alice’s beauty had already broken more hearts than one.

Pondering the problems involved in finding a suitable husband for her sister, Hester did not at once notice when the stranger opened his eyes. He contemplated her in silence for a few moments, seeing a young woman in her early twenties with a faraway look in her grey eyes. The evening sun brought out golden highlights in the soft coils of light brown hair that crowned her head and lent dignity to her thin oval face. Who was she? He frowned in puzzlement, and the pain caused by the movement made him groan involuntarily.

The grey eyes met his blue ones, and now they conveyed a smiling mixture of relief, worry, and, he thought, apology.

“You are awake!” she said in a low, gentle voice. “How do you feel?”

“I hardly know,” he replied. “My head hurts a little. Am I dreaming?”

Hester laughed.

“I fear not, sir. You had an accident and have been unconscious for an hour or more. Unfortunately, your head is the least of our worries. You have broken your leg, and that badly, according to the doctor.”

“The devil!” he exclaimed. “Yes, I feel it now. I remember—I was driving into Henley when the horses took fright at something. A dog fight, was it? And you are . . .?”

“My name is Hester Godric. I’m afraid it was my brothers’ dog that caused the upset. I cannot blame them, for he dug under the fence, but I must offer you the most sincere apologies.”

Seeing the anxiety on her face, he managed a smile.

“Doubtless the dog was at fault. However, my team are over high-strung, and I had been thinking of disposing of them. Were they injured, by the way?”

“I think not. Geoffrey would surely have mentioned it.” She noted his grimace as he tried to shift his position, suppressing a groan. “Are you very uncomfortable, sir? The doctor left a draught lest you should waken in great pain.”

“Truth to tell, my leg begins to feel as if it were on fire, Miss Godric. I shall be glad to try your doctor’s prescription.”

Hester stood up and moved to the desk, where she had left the bottle of medicine and a glass. He saw that she was of medium height, perhaps a little too slender, and that she moved with a quiet grace which made her seem taller. Her dress was a simple round gown of dove grey, elegantly cut but showing signs of wear. Wondering about her condition, he realised he had not yet introduced himself. On a sudden whim, he decided he would not mention his title. It might prove amusing to see how these people, unaware of his identity, would react to him.

“Miss Godric,” he said, as Hester approached the bed carrying a glass with an inch or so of vile-looking green liquid, “I find I have been remiss in not giving you my name. I am David Fairfax.”

She smiled at him in a motherly way.

“Well, Mr. Fairfax, I trust you are not going to make as much fuss over swallowing this potion as my brothers and sisters generally do when I must physic them. Come, let me help you sit up a little.”

With the aid of her surprisingly strong arm, David George Homer Fairfax, Earl of Alton, raised himself to drink his medicine.

“Ugh!” he exclaimed, sinking back on his pillows. “Had you not warned me, I’d have behaved just like your siblings. Have you many?”

“Five,’’ replied Hester. Hoping to distract him from his pain, she elaborated. “There’s Alice; she’s eighteen and quite the most beautiful girl you ever saw. Then Jamie, who is seventeen. He’s very bookish, and we hope he will go up to Oxford next year. This is his room. Geoffrey is fifteen and an excellent gardener. He grows all our vegeta­bles and fruit, which helps a great deal, as you may imagine. Then there’s Susan—only she wishes her name were Theresa. She is just twelve and wants to be a nun at the moment. Last winter she wanted to be an actress, so I am not overly concerned, but she does annoy the others with her sermons. Robbie is my baby. He’s eight and is quite determined to be a sailor. I do not think he will change, as he has been of the same mind since he first went on the river in a rowboat at the age of four.”

“And your parents?” enquired Mr. Fairfax sleepily.

“We have only Grandfather Stevens. He is an old dear, and you are wearing his nightshirt. Now go to sleep. You may ring this bell if you need anything, and I shall come up later to see how you do. Sweet dreams, Mr. Fairfax.”

As the drug he had swallowed took effect, Lord Alton watched her draw the curtains across the window. A last gleam of sun lit her hair like a halo. An angel of mercy, he muttered thickly to himself. Before she reached the door, his heavy eyelids dropped and he slept.

Hester descended the stairs and entered the drawing room, where she found the whole family assembled. Even Grandfather Stevens—an independent old man who had a separate cottage at the bottom of the garden—had con­descended to join them to hear the news about the stranger who was wearing his nightshirt.

They were a handsome lot, thought Hester lovingly. The children were all dark-haired and dark-eyed, Alice with a voluptuousness that belied her age, Jamie tall and thin, Geoffrey strong and sturdy, the little ones healthy and happy. Old Mr. Stevens was a veritable patriarch, with snow white hair and a flowing beard to match. His eyes twinkled beneath bushy eyebrows.

“Well, granddaughter, and how be your unexpected guest?” he asked.

That was the first of a flood of questions that came so fast she was quite unable to answer them all.

“Hush, my dears,” she cried, laughing. “Here is Ivy to say dinner has been spoiling this half hour and more. I will tell you all I know while we eat.”

She knew little enough, in fact, and was forced to leave their curiosity unsatisfied.

“I daresay Mr. Fairfax will feel more the thing tomor­row,” pointed out Jamie, “and he is bound to reveal more of himself. Stop bothering Hester now, Susan, or you’ll not have time for some apple pie.”

“Ivy made it; it won’t be as good as Hester’s,” pouted Susan.

“Thank you for the compliment, love, but I hope you will not say such a thing in Ivy’s hearing,” reproved Hester gently. “She is not hired as a cook, and it is very good of her to help out.”

“I’ll not deny that Mistress Ivy roasts a fine leg o’ mutton after me own heart,” said Mr. Stevens, helping himself to a third slice. “None of they fancy French sauces as Hester dresses up good plain English food with.”

“Now, Grandpapa, you must confess that you adore Hester’s tarragon chicken.” Alice had quite recovered her spirits now that the emergency was over. She looked at Mr. Stevens teasingly.

“Don’t you Grandpa me, Miss Impidence,” he growled. “I bain’t no grandpa o’ yourn. Nor want to be.” He beamed at her. Well into his seventies, he still had an eye for a pretty girl, and, dearly though he loved Hester, he had to admit that Alice outshone her in looks.

“You said you’d be our grandpa, too!” accused Robbie. “It’s not fair if only Hester has a grandpa.”

“He’s only teasing,” explained Susan scornfully. “Aren’t you, Grandfather? ‘Sides, you know Hester’s mama died when she was born, Rob, so she never had a proper mama and that’s not fair either.”

“Hush, children. I shared your mama, and you share my Grandpapa, so all is perfectly fair.” Hester quickly changed the subject. “Jamie, in the morning you had best remove your books from your bedroom. You may use my desk for your studying as long as Mr. Fairfax is with us.”

“Thank you. I’ll not disturb your accounts.” He hesitat­ed. “I suppose you could not tell from his conversation whether Mr. Fairfax is a university man? I do not wish to. sound conceited, but I rather think I know as much Greek as the vicar, and I should welcome assistance from some­one who has studied somewhat more recently.”

Since the Reverend Smythe had not seen the inside of a college in fifty years, not opened a Greek volume in near as long until he offered to coach Jamie, Hester considered this a reasonable request.

“You must ask him,” she proposed. “Be tactful, though. You will not wish him to feel mortified should he be unable to help. Even if he was at Oxford or Cambridge, I daresay it is nine or ten years since. I am sure he must be thirty. Geoff, are you able to manage the horses, or shall you see if they will put them up at one of the inns?”

“Jarvis would take ‘em at the Catherine Wheel, but we have room enough for them,” replied Geoffrey, “and I can take care of them. I’ll have to buy fodder, though, unless Jarvis will give me a bale or two. Of course, I shall get the manure for the garden, so—”

“Geoffrey! Must you discuss such things at the dinner table, you horrid creature?” objected Alice in disgust. “Really, you grow more like a farmer every day, I do declare.”

“And why not?” queried her brother indignantly. “I should like nothing better than to be a farmer. And I notice you do not despise the fruits of my labours, all grown in good aged cow manure.”

Alice dropped the peach she had been about to bite into.

“Hester!” she wailed. “Stop him, or I shall never be able to touch another morsel!”

“And a good thing, too,” said Geoff maliciously. “You are growing positively fat, Allie.”

“You are both at fault,” reproved Hester. “Geoff, it is not at all the thing to speak of such matters at table. Indeed, you almost put me off my food. There is no harm in being a farmer, but there is no reason you should not be a gentleman, too. And Alice, you are by far too old to indulge in squabbles like this. If your aunt invites you to London, she will think I have made a sad failure of teaching you to behave as a lady ought.”

“Oh, Hester, I am very sorry. It is not your teaching that is at fault. I daresay my aunt will not invite me anyway. I do not think she remembers our existence.”

“We do very well without her,” growled Jamie. “She did not offer to help when Papa died, not even when we had to sell Hilltop Manor.”

“Lady Bardry is not particularly well-to-do, and I don’t expect any help in that direction, James. However, if I pay all expenses, I can see no reason why she should not introduce Alice to the Fashionable World and give her a proper season. She moves in the highest circles, as Papa did, you know. I was not going to tell you, lest nothing should come of it, but I have written to her suggesting just such an arrangement.”

“The expense must come out of the estate, Hester,” protested Jamie hotly. “It is outside of enough that your fortune provides the greater part of our living. I cannot let you pay for Alice’s come-out.”

Grandfather Stevens took an unexpected hand in the discussion. “When I settled twenty thousand pounds on Hester at her birth,” he declared pedantically, “I niver thought her papa would get through my Muriel's dowry so fast, nor that Hester’d be taking on the bringing up o’ you lot. But being as how she’s done it, I taught her how to reckon, and she’ve got it all figured out jist fine, and all ye’ve to do is what she says.”

So fiercely did the old man pronounce this last that all James could do was stammer meekly, “Yes, sir, of course we will.”

Once again, Hester thought it prudent to change the subject, though she could see that all the children were bursting with questions.

“Grandfather,” she said pacifically, “I believe Alice finished your new shirt today. I shall iron it in the morn­ing, and you’ll have it by noon.”

“May I press it, please?” begged Susan. “I have been practising on Robbie’s shirts, and indeed I think I can do it well enough even for Grandpapa.”

“To be sure, you may. It will be a great help to me if you can do a good job. No one could ask for a more helpful family,” said Hester, looking round the table with a contented sigh. “Susan and Rob, if you please, clear the dishes for Ivy. I must go up and see how Mr. Fairfax does. I will join you all later.”

“I’d like a word wi’ ye, child, afore ye goes up,” requested Mr. Stevens.

“Come into the study, Grandpapa.” Hester led the way into the tiny back room where she kept her papers. “I must thank you for saving me from an argument with Jamie. The dear boy feels it sadly that he cannot provide for his brothers and sisters. I wish you would allow me to tell him how much help you give us. I am sure he suspects that we could not manage on my fortune alone.”

“Nay, lass, let be. I’ve enough for me needs and a bit over, I thank God. And I owe their mother summat that she brought you up a lady. ‘Tis not every stepmama’d’ve done it.”

“She was always very kind to me, and Papa was the dearest man, only not practical. I still regret that Hilltop Manor had to be sold, though I believe Geoffrey feels the loss more than James. However, enough of repining. What did you wish to say to me, Grandpapa?”

“Think ye this clutch-fisted aunt o’ theirn will take Alice?”

“I tried to word my letter in such a way that she will find it difficult to refuse,” replied Hester dryly. “The family never actually broke off all correspondence, you know, in spite of their disapproval of the ‘shopkeeper and his brat.’”

“If that’s what they call us, I suppose there’s no chance as Lady Bardry’d take you into Society along o’ Alice.” The old man sighed heavily as he abandoned his last hope of seeing his granddaughter well established.

“Oh no, Grandfather, I’d not expect such condescen­sion, nor want it. Whatever would the children do if I were to start gadding about to grand parties? Come, do not fall into the mopes. I’ve no pretensions to beauty and never desired to buy a husband with my fortune, so I’m happy to be able to use it for the good of the dear children. Such plans as I have for them!”

In all Hester’s plans, there was no room for thoughts of marriage for herself. Used to regarding herself as a nonde­script dab of a girl, she was oblivious to the improvements in her appearance wrought by maturity. She was aware that, in spite of her mother’s birth, a dowry of twenty thousand pounds might have brought her eligible suitors a-plenty. However, by the time Susan was of an age to be wed and Robbie to become a midshipman, her fortune would be much diminished, and at twenty-eight or -nine she would be firmly on the shelf. By that time, she had decided a little sadly, she would be so used to ruling the roost that doubtless the idea of submitting to a husband would be abhorrent to her anyway. She had every expecta­tion of dwindling into a maiden aunt.

Busy from dawn to dusk—running the household, cook­ing, teaching the children—she had no time for regrets. Her slight figure belied a resilient strength, and, serene in the knowledge that she was doing her best, she seldom lost the gentle assurance that guided her family through good times and bad.

Now she kissed her grandfather goodnight and watched him trudge through the twilight garden to his cosy cottage. On the threshold he turned to wave to her, and she waved back. Then she went upstairs to see to her patient.

Mr. Fairfax was still sleeping, though far from peaceful­ly. He moved restlessly as if trying to find a comfortable position, prevented by his leg. Hester laid a hand on the small area of his forehead that was not obscured by the bandage; he seemed somewhat feverish. She fetched lav­ender water and began bathing his brow. He soon grew still. The moaning and muttering ceased, and after a minute or two his eyes opened. They had a glazed look, which she attributed to the drug he had taken, and he seemed unable to focus on her face.

“Dreaming,” he mumbled. “No more lau . . . lau’num.” Then clearly: “Lavender lady!”

His eyes closed, and he seemed to sleep again. Now he lay peacefully, Hester was relieved to note. There was a slight smile on his face. Suspecting he had been having nightmares before, she wondered what he was dreaming of now and resolved to give him no more medicine without first consulting Dr. Price. She knew some people had unpleasant reactions to laudanum.

She sat by his bedside for another half hour. He contin­ued to sleep quietly, so she lit a fresh candle, took hers, and went to join her family.

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