Someone to Love Page 3

He possessed himself of her hand—white, long-fingered, perfectly manicured—and bowed gracefully over it as he raised it to his lips.

“You may safely leave the matter in my hands,” he said—or in the hands of his secretary, anyway.

“Thank you,” she said. “But you will inform me when it is accomplished?”

“I will,” he promised before sauntering from the room and taking his hat and cane from the butler’s hands.

The revelation that the countess had a conscience had surprised him. How many ladies in similar circumstances would voluntarily seek out their husbands’ bastards in order to shower riches upon them, even if they did convince themselves that they did so in the interests of their own, very legitimate children?

* * *

Anna Snow had been brought to the orphanage in Bath when she was not quite four years old. She had no real memory of her life before that beyond a few brief and disjointed flashes—of someone always coughing, for example, or of a lych-gate that was dark and a bit frightening inside whenever she was called upon to pass through it alone, and of kneeling on a window ledge and looking down upon a graveyard, and of crying inconsolably inside a carriage while someone with a gruff, impatient voice told her to hush and behave like a big girl.

She had been at the orphanage ever since, though she was now twenty-five. Most of the other children—there were usually about forty of them—left when they were fourteen or fifteen, after suitable employment had been found for them. But Anna had lingered on, first to help out as housemother to a dormitory of girls and a sort of secretary to Miss Ford, the matron, and then as the schoolteacher when Miss Rutledge, the teacher who had taught her, married a clergyman, and moved away to Devonshire. She was even paid a modest salary. However, the expenses of her continued stay at the orphanage, now in a small room of her own, were still provided by the unknown benefactor who had paid them from the start. She had been told that they would continue to be paid as long as she remained.

Anna considered herself fortunate. She had grown up in an orphanage, it was true, with not even a full identity to call her own, since she did not know who her parents were, but in the main it was not a charity institution. Almost all her fellow orphans were supported through their growing years by someone—usually anonymous, though some knew who they were and why they were there. Usually it was because their parents had died and there was no other family member able or willing to take them in. Anna did not dwell upon the loneliness of not knowing her own story. Her material needs were taken care of. Miss Ford and her staff were generally kind. Most of the children were easy enough to get along with, and those who were not could be avoided. A few were close friends, or had been during her growing years. If there had been a lack of love in her life, or of that type of love one associated with a family, then she did not particularly miss it, having never consciously known it.

Or so she always told herself.

She was content with her life and was only occasionally restless with the feeling that surely there ought to be more, that perhaps she should be making a greater effort to live her life. She had been offered marriage by three different men—the shopkeeper where she went occasionally, when she could afford it, to buy a book; one of the governors of the orphanage, whose wife had recently died and left him with four young children; and Joel Cunningham, her lifelong best friend. She had rejected all three offers for varying reasons and wondered sometimes if it had been foolish to do so, as there were not likely to be many more offers, if any. The prospect of a continuing life of spinsterhood sometimes seemed dreary.

Joel was with her when the letter arrived.

She was tidying the schoolroom after dismissing the children for the day. The monitors for the week—John Davies and Ellen Payne—had collected the slates and chalk and the counting frames. But while John had stacked the slates neatly on the cupboard shelf allotted for them and put all the chalk away in the tin and replaced the lid, Ellen had shoved the counting frames haphazardly on top of paintbrushes and palettes on the bottom shelf instead of arranging them in their appointed place side by side on the shelf above so as not to bend the rods or damage the beads. The reason she had put them in the wrong place was obvious. The second shelf was occupied by the water pots used to swill paint brushes and an untidy heap of paint-stained cleaning rags.

“Joel,” Anna said, a note of long suffering in her voice, “could you at least try to get your pupils to put things away where they belong after an art class? And to clean the water pots first? Look! One of them even still has water in it. Very dirty water.”

Joel was sitting on the corner of the battered teacher’s desk, one booted foot braced on the floor, the other swinging free. His arms were crossed over his chest. He grinned at her.

“But the whole point of being an artist,” he said, “is to be a free spirit, to cast aside restricting rules and draw inspiration from the universe. My job is to teach my pupils to be true artists.”

She straightened up from the cupboard and directed a speaking glance his way. “What utter rot and nonsense,” she said.

He laughed outright. “Anna, Anna,” he said. “Here, let me take that pot from you before you burst with indignation or spill it down your dress. It looks like Cyrus North’s. There is always more paint in his water jar than on the paper at the end of a lesson. His paintings are extraordinarily pale, as though he were trying to reproduce a heavy fog. Does he know the multiplication tables?”

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