"The duchess is so very ... very ... well, really, most charming. So..." With an angelic smile, Mr. Postlethwaite, the vicar of Somersham, gestured airily.
"Continental, if you take my meaning."
Standing by the vicarage gate while she waited for the gig to be brought around, Honoria Wetherby only wished she could. Wringing information from the local vicar was always one of her first actions on taking up a new position; unfortunately, while her need for information was more acute than usual, Mr. Postlethwaite's comments were unhelpfully vague. She nodded encouragingly-and pounced on the one point which might conceivably mean something. "Is the duchess foreign-born?"
"Dowager Duchess." Mr. Postlethwaite beamed. "She likes to be called that now. But foreign?" Head to one side, he considered the point. "I suppose some might call her soshe was French-born and -bred. But she's been amongst us so long, she seems a part of our landscape. Indeed" -- his eyes brightened -- she's something of a feature on our limited horizon."
That much, Honoria had gleaned. It was one reason she needed to know more. "Does the Dowager join the congregration here? I didn't see any ducal arms about." Glancing at the neat stone church beyond the vicarage, she recalled numerous commemorative inscriptions honoring the deceased from various lordly houses, including some scions of the Claypoles, the family whose household she joined last Sunday. But no ducal plaques, helpfully inscribed with name and title, had she discovered anywhere.
"On occasion," Mr. Postlethwaite replied. "But there's a private church at the Place, quite beautifully appointed. Mr. Merryweather is chaplain there. The duchess is always reliable in her devotions." He shook his head sadly. "Not, I'm afraid, a general characteristic of that family."
Honoria resisted a strong urge to grind her teeth. Which family? She'd been chasing that information for the past three days. Given that her new employer, Lady Claypole, seemed convinced that her daughter Melissa, now Honoria's charge, was destined to be the next duchess, it seemed the course of wisdom to learn what she could of the duke and his family. The family name would help.
By choice, she had spent little time amongst the haut ton but, thanks to her brother Michael's long letters, she was reliably informed of the current status of the families who made up that gilded circle-the circle into which she'd been born. If she learned the name, or even the major title, she would know a great deal more.
However, despite spending an hour on Sunday explaining in excruciating detail just why Melissa was destined to be a duchess, Lady Claypole had not used the lucky duke's title. Assuming she would learn it easily enough, Honoria had not specifically questioned her ladyship. She'd only just met the woman; advertising her ignorance had seemed unnecessary. After taking stock of Melissa and her younger sister Annabel, she'd vetoed any idea of asking them; showing ignorance to such was inviting trouble. The same reason had kept her from inquiring of the Claypole Hall staff. Sure that she would learn all she wished while being welcomed to the local Ladies Auxiliary, she'd arranged for her afternoon off to coincide with that most useful of village gatherings.
She'd forgotten that, within the local area, the duke and Dowager Duchess would always be referred to in purely generic terms. Their neighbors all knew to whom they referred -- she still did not. Unfortunately, the patent scorn with which the other ladies viewed Lady Claypole's ducal aspirations had made asking a simple question altogether too awkward. Undaunted, Honoria had endured a lengthy meeting over raising sufficient funds to replace the church's ancient roof, then scoured the church, reading every plaque she could find. All to no avail.
Drawing a deep breath, she prepared to admit to ignorance. "To which-"
"There you are, Ralph!" Mrs. Postlethwaite came bustling down the path. "I'm so sorry to interrupt, my dear." She smiled at Honoria, then looked at her spouse. "There's a boy come from old Mrs. Mickleham -- she's asking for you urgently."
"Here you are, miss."
Honoria whirled-and saw the vicar's gardener leading the bad-tempered grey the Claypole Hall groom had harnessed to the gig. Shutting her lips, she nodded graciously to Mrs. Postlethwaite, then sailed through the gate the vicar held wide. Taking the reins with a tight smile, she allowed the gardener to assist her to the seat.
Mr. Postlethwaite beamed. "I'll look to see you on Sunday, Miss Wetherby."
Honoria nodded regally. "Nothing, Mr. Postlethwaite, could keep me away." And, she thought, as she set the grey in motion, if I haven't found out by then who this blessed duke is, I won't let go of you until I have!
Brooding darkly, she drove through the village; only as the last of the cottages fell behind did she become aware of the heaviness in the air. Glancing up, she saw thunderclouds sweeping in from the west.
Tension gripped her, locking her breath in her chest. Abruptly looking forward, Honoria focused on the intersection immediately ahead. The road to Chatteris led straight on, then curved north, into the path of the storm; the long lane to Claypole Hall gave off it three miles on.
A gust of wind plucked at her, whistling mockingly. Honoria started; the grey jibbed. Forcing the horse to a halt, Honoria berated herself for remaining out so long. A ducal name was hardly of earth-shattering importance. The approaching storm was.