The lettered affair, p.1
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       The Lettered Affair, p.1

           Alice Ayden
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The Lettered Affair
The Lettered Affair

  Alice Ayden

  Copyright 2016 Alice Ayden

  Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are fiction. Any similarity to any real persons, characters, events or incidents is entirely coincidental. All Rights Reserved.

  For Mom and Dad

  Table of Contents

  Part One Letters 1 – 17

  Part Two Letters 18 - 52

  Part Three Letters 53 - 84

  Part Four Letters 85 – 113

  Thank You!

  Also by Alice Ayden

  Part One

  Letter 1 ~ Cassandra to Juliana

  January 3, 1810

  Dearest Juliana, please forgive your sister for what I am about to write. It is improper and shameful, and I am likely to be punished for eternity. I seek my husband’s forgiveness for something he must never discover.

  I met Lord Halithorpe - Henry. Oh, dearest sister, if you could see me, you would have quite the laugh at my nerves. My hand barely writes fast enough as my mind leaps forward thinking of him.

  I stood up straighter around him, smiled more, and worried if my pink dress - the one you made me buy three months ago - brought out the colour in my normally pale complexion. I even lamented if my light brown hair were too drab for someone of his taste and wished I had your depth of brown.

  His blue eyes absorbed me and would not release me. His gaze did not wander to someone more beautiful. His attention was not swayed by someone more interesting.

  Henry possesses such confidence - true confidence based upon strength of knowledge and not the ineptitude of so many newly titled gentlemen who cannot tell a footman from a chamber pot.

  Did I exist in a perpetual trance of mediocrity? When Henry’s eyes met mine, and he spoke my name… it was the first time I took notice of my heart. I assumed it to merely function much like a limb. I never realized it could simultaneously induce madness and passion.

  Since you are staying with Lady Rebecca, who lives so near to Edenfield and Henry, dare I ask? Do you see him often? Forget that. I am ashamed of my lingering thoughts. It is not proper.

  I have only been married a month! But I am convinced Henry is the man I should have married. During the last years of his life, Father worried what would become of the Bering family and Ashland. I had to keep the estate within our family. I had to ensure his wife had a home, and you would be free to choose your own husband. This I gladly accepted without regret. I married father’s heir. I did what was expected of me. I did my duty. James is no more in love with me than I of him. I am sorry that I relate to you what you, of course, already know. I do not recognize myself. I exist on a precipice between the allure of madness or the temptation of unattainable happiness.

  I am not the person I have aspired to be. I have sought to be true and respectful and an example to you. I believed I was a good person. Perhaps that was a lie. Oh, what would my mother think of me? Her sacrifice would have been for naught. I would have gladly lived my days with James unaware of love’s cost. Will it be enough for me to know Henry exists if I may never know the happiness of him?

  I have released my deepest thoughts to you. I trust your discretion, dearest sister. Please do not allow your faith in me to be shaken. I will not disgrace our father's name or my mother’s memory. I will not dishonor my husband, or endanger your future. I can never see Henry again nor receive another of his letters.

  I draw strength from my mother’s memory. Not one ever uttered a harsh word about her, and they mourn for her still. I must be more like her. I shall convince myself I am suffering a curable malady. Perhaps a new blue hat or purple sash will cure the madness. I must cease to think of him and a future which is impossible. Do not fret, Juliana. I will return to my normal self in due time. Forgive me for my indiscretions. It was never my intent to shake your confidence in me.

  Your sister, Cassandra

  I am including the letter Henry wrote to me. It is safer with you. I do not want it under Ashland’s roof; I fear disgracing my mother. And if any of the servants found it… I could not face their wrath again. Being called a selfish child whose saint of a mother sacrificed her life for nothing is not something I wish to relive ever again. Please do not think harshly of me.

  Letter 2 ~ Henry to Cassandra

  January 3, 1810

  Cassandra, you haunt my dreams and invade my days. I am ardently in love with you, and I am yours forever. This letter is highly improper, but I am not the sort of man to deny our connection. It is no use wishing things were different. You are spoken for, but I will never love another.

  I think of our first meeting every day. It started innocently with the arrival of guests, and you walked into the parlour with James. You arrived in a blur of pink, and James introduced you. For a few minutes, I had not realized he had stopped talking. I only remembered him saying, “Cassandra.” He must have said more, but I fear James never held my attention. I am sorry. I should not speak of him like that. Forgive me. There, I am glad I was able to write those words. I feared my nefarious mind would prevent me from bestowing any compliments upon him. And now, I have realized I did not compliment him at all. I am sorry for that as well.

  This is not my way of turning you against him. It is just my way. Most find me impertinent and rude. Or they would were I not in possession of the title Lord Halithorpe. People forgive much as long as money and title are attached. Why is that? If a servant acted the way I did or even entertained my thoughts, he would be ostracized immediately or possibly imprisoned. Would I have been different had I been born with less? Would I have conformed to convention? Interesting how I can write to you as if we were talking still.

  Back to that glorious day in the parlor at Edenfield where we first met:

  “Henry and I were schoolboys together at Eton and Oxford where we went to school during our schooldays,” James said, as if reciting from a paper.

  James had a way of obviously stating the obvious.

  “Right.” James stopped to clear his throat a few dozen times. I knew him well enough to realize the noises he made were not of necessity but rather of irritation to what he was about to say. “Henry is Lord Halithorpe now with the passing of his father who died. It has been just about six months, has it not Henry? I am sorry for your loss because I always respected your father who was coincidentally friends with my father because they in turn went to school together too.” James fidgeted too much as his eyes darted back and forth between us.

  Then my butler told him about the gardens, and he scampered off. Eventually.

  You sighed slightly as you smiled at me. I fear James might wear you out with his nonsense chatter.

  “I am sorry to hear of the passing of your father, Lord Abbotden,” I said.

  You smiled. “Thank you. Most people talk about how he survived longer than he ought which I find rather strange - as if he did something wrong and should be ashamed for his continual living.” You looked at me startled as if you said something wrong. “I am sorry, Lord Halithorpe, I do not know why I told you that.”

  “Henry,” I corrected only because I selfishly longed to hear my name on your lips. “Perhaps you find me easier to communicate with.”

  Your perfect porcelain complexion blushed with a slight shade of pink to match your dress. I must confess: I was not slighting your husband. I was giving myself a compliment. One of my many grievous sins is over confidence in my abilities. “I guess that is another problem with the ruling class. We were never given boundaries to learn the art of humility.”

  You laughed.

&
nbsp; “I do not plan on saying outrageous things. They just scamper about and run amok.”

  You laughed again. Then it was my turn to blush for I rarely ever said things like that aloud. I wondered if you thought me odd or careless with my affections.

  “No one has ever talked to me like that,” you said.

  “We are English. We rarely talk about important things at all,” I whispered as if I would have been hanged immediately.

  Then my grandmother arrived with the flurry of black that is expectant of her being in mourning the past thirty years. “That is what Joan said. The wretched woman informed me of the child's name. After much insecure digestion, I was able to chew on said name - such an unfortunate name for an unfortunate child.” My grandmother stopped quickly and stared at us. “Henry, I did not know you were entertaining.”

  “This is Countess Abbotden,” I said. “Countess Abbotden, this is my grandmother the Dowager Countess of Halithorpe.”

  “Countess?” she asked, looking horrified as if she had squashed a maid. “Why is someone as young as you a Countess?”

  “She is married to James Hawksley,” I whispered.

  Do you remember the look on my grandmother's face? She looked you over as if you were a hat in her favourite soup. I was not sure if she were more mortified that you married or that I mentioned James' name. She quickly lost most of her colouring and looked as pale as that pale soup the cook unwisely served us last week. “James Hawksley? He is here?”

  She glanced to the sofa by the fireplace as if he had thrown himself under before she entered.

  I motioned towards the gardens.

  She peered in that direction and squinted until James came into view. Her expression can only be described as aghast - part fright and part fear – as if I had just married her off to a footman.

  “Oh my, they are here. Good grief. I mean... what are we to do?” Then, she looked at you, and everything clarified. “You are Cassandra Bering. Oldest child of Lord Archibald Bering. Of course.” She looked you up and down and then glanced again towards the gardens. “I understand, dear child, I do understand. I admire your sacrifices to be loyal to your family. It is a rare quality these days. Your father would be pleased that Ashland remains within the Bering family, but I do apologize for it. If only your brother had survived infancy... The entail is a most dreadful business.” She shook her hands to be free of the idea. “I am just glad I had one son and two grandsons and did not have the worries of a most inconvenient union. I am more sorry than you can ever realize.” She glanced a few more times towards the garden and then disappeared down the hall muttering of catastrophes and famines as she wrung her hands.

  “Well,” you smiled. “That was interesting.”

  “Yes, she is. I hope you are not offended.”

  You waved your hands away. “It is nice to meet someone who admired and liked my father.”

  “And your mother?” I only asked wanting to know more about you and to prolong your visit. But my question, I fear, offended. Your colouring changed as if you became instantly ill and lightheaded.

  “She died giving birth to me,” you said, barely above a whisper.

  I had to catch my breath. I had forgotten that. “Please forgive me. I meant your step-mother.”

  “I have no idea. She is away and was never much for writing. I should be grateful. Not reading a tiring list of my shortcomings, negative traits, and varied disappointments gives me more time in the day.”

  I flinched because it pained me to hear of anyone causing you distress. “Surely she is happy Ashland will remain within the immediate family.”

  You shrugged. “I am happy my sister will have more choices.”

  “More choices than you were offered?”

  You quickly glanced away from me to study the rug in the parlour that I admit had not crossed my attention in years. I did not even remember it possessed so many bright, yellow flowers, and I hoped you liked it. If you despised it, I would change it immediately. I did not regret saying what I did. Maybe I should have, but regret is not an emotion I am quick to entertain.

  Uninterrupted, I was able to study you clearly. As your green eyes watched me, strange and silly things grasped my thoughts. Your beautiful light brown hair was held up with some contraption. Ladies’ accoutrements fall well beyond my purview. I wondered of your hair’s length and how it fell across and over your shoulders. I have never looked at a woman’s head and wondered anything about her hair. Then I thought about your beautiful eyes and all they had seen in your young life. I hoped few tears crossed your cheeks, and that smiles introduced themselves easily to you. You have the most inviting smile. It takes my breath away and makes me forget my own name.

  I hoped you looked at me without utter disgust. I fear my hair is shorter than convention and have spent hours listening to my grandmother rail against it. My forehead sometimes juts out too far, and, if I am not careful, too easily betrays my disgust and anger. It is hard for me to hide my intentions, but I hoped you were gracious enough to not be too offended how I looked at you.

  For an entire hour, we talked about nothing and everything. No one interrupted us. It was the finest hour in my life. I have never felt more content to be so accepted and understood. I did not fidget as I often do when bored. My mind did not wander. I did not worry or misbehave. Peace. That is what I felt. Calm swept through me like a warm summer’s day of pure joy. It was everything I had always longed for but never knew was missing.

  Then James returned. Time continued to chug as it had before, and nefarious thoughts invaded me.

  James must have stood there for a few minutes before I even realized anyone else existed. You had already become my everything.

  “The beautiful gardens are beautiful, Henry.”

  I stared at him as if he were a statue. “Yes, thank you, James. We are blessed with good soil.” I heard myself speak but thought I detected a stranger. When I talked with you, I was honest, true, and genuine. Talking with anyone else, I heard the decayed enthusiasm in my voice. With you, I was eloquent - at least I would like to believe I was - and interesting. I can only hope you found me interesting. With James, I stammered and stalled as if I were back in school being accused of something I most surely and deviously perpetrated.

  James cleared his throat again. “Do you know how they achieved such a vivid shade of red on that flower by the edge of the property? Forgive me for not providing the proper name of the flower. I am sure, unless you have changed, you do not admire or study them as I do.”

  I relinquished the need to understand him fully. “You would have to ask the gardener.”

  “Of course,” James sniffed.

  Even as boys, I recognized the haughty nature James possessed. He was untitled but wealthy and smarter than the rest. He believed those of us born with titles were useless, and I am sure he was correct in his assessments of many of my class.

  James cleared his throat awkwardly as if he intended a symbolic meaning behind his irritation. “Henry is part of the class who fears getting his hands dirty and his mind opened.”

  I grinned. James tried to sting me, but he lacked the proper attachment. “Did you see the fern like plant by the fountain?”

  James looked upon me as if I were a lowly idiot. “I recognized it immediately. It is a—”

  “It is the most beautiful being I have ever seen,” I quickly interrupted. “Strong. Selfless. Unique. I did not believe those qualities could exist.” Of course, I was speaking of you, Cassandra, and not the fern. I am sure James did not suspect. He lacks the romantic nature that inspires most men to be deceitfully sly.

  Enough about James. My hand tires of writing of him, and my mind hardens to his descriptions. Before I met you Cassandra, I thought little of love. I regret I believed it to be a fairy tale or an infection for the afflicted. The moment I saw you, I knew how wrong I had been. I long to see your emerald eyes sparkle again. Circumstances might prevent us from ever being together, but I wanted you to k
now there was someone who ardently loved you, would fight for you, will die with your name on his lips. You are in possession of my heart.

  I am yours, Cassandra, now and forever.

  Henry

  Letter 3 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  January 12, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, do not fret, for I am incapable of judging you. Your secret I will hide away forever. Unfortunately, my acquaintance with your Lord Halithorpe has been postponed because Rebecca has ventured out little from Ramsbury in her brother’s absence. Lord Kemnay, Retton, is not only Henry’s cousin but also his dearest friend. Hopefully, I will soon encounter this great man who has captured your heart.

  You married James because you assumed it your duty. I never wanted you to do it. I only wish Father had not pressured you. Your marriage made him happy in his final days, and he died in peace knowing his beloved Ashland would remain in Bering hands. You should be proud of your sacrifice, but he should not have detained selfish desires.

  Yes, your mother was very beloved as are you. My own mother is not. She married Father because she wanted the title and money. She did not want him specifically. Neither made the other happy. Given their fifty year age difference, he should have realized as such. It pains me he suffered such a sour union and then expected you to marry out of responsibility rather than love. I am sorry of my obsession over the matter: I have said as much as I can without further offense but not as much as swirls consistently in my mind.

  Do you not think it strange James introduced you to Lord Halithorpe? You needed your new husband to introduce you to your true love. Quite peculiar, is it not? That awareness has stalked me. I also do not think it bizarre you love someone so soon after meeting. I would adore love. I imagine the heart beats fast like the speediest of horses, and the world’s mysteries finally reveal themselves from their foggy veil. I cannot wait.

  It pains me to think of your suffering,

  Juliana

  Letter 4 ~ Henry to Retton

  January 6, 1810

  Retton, you must help me, cousin. I have met Cassandra Bering, and I am doomed to a life of misery because she is recently married to James Hawksley.

  You may recall James from Eton and Oxford. He is rather congenially dull and odd. I am certain he would make an adequate husband to someone who did not require or expect much but not to Cassandra. Her home, Ashland, was entailed to him since neither her mother nor step-mother bore surviving sons. Originally, the estate was entailed to James’ grandfather, but Cassandra’s father survived much longer than anyone planned. The estate had to be entailed to James' father and then to James. Rare that Lord Abbotden outlived so many of his heirs.

  Not only is Cassandra the most beautiful I have ever seen, but speaking to her was absolute peace. I could have told her anything without fear of repercussion. I could stare into the clarity of her green eyes forever and never be bored or crave another. She is everything I ever wanted. She possesses such strength and loyalty mixed with the fragility of someone who knows not their own power.

  Have you ever succumbed to love? You suffered many a crush, but I am not sure if your feelings were ever as deep as the roots of the mighty oak. Trust me, cousin, it is everything you imagined or feared it to be - such a dichotomy of hope and anguish.

  What am I to do? My heart has been found, but hers will never belong to me. How do I submit to such agony? I wish you could tell me what to do, but I can hear your words. You would say she is married and lost to me.

  This age we live in can be so infuriating. Had not that illogical entail been enforced, Ashland would be Cassandra’s birthright. She would be free to marry her choice. I wish the newest earl of Abbotden no ill will except perhaps an untimely death. Sorry, cousin, forgive me for that impertinence. I do not wish James ill. I would never wish ill upon a soul, and I could not bear a single sorrow from Cassandra.

  I realize my actions rarely meet your approval. You are the morality and guardian of our souls - the best of our family.

  I failed to mention this fact: I wrote to Cassandra. Take a deep breath, cousin. I cannot dance around delicacies nor will I engage in petty flirtatious nonsense.

  I love her. I have said it. Yes, I realize I have only met her once, but that meeting changed my life. It changed the course of my life. It will alter you, cousin. Your reason will fail once your heart begs for another. I long to see the unflappable Retton’s sensibilities shaken.

  She has possessed me. I think of nothing but Cassandra Bering. I close my eyes and believe her to be here. Dangerous, I know, to tempt my sanity, but I will not risk her reputation to see her. Besides, I trust not myself.

  Should I die never losing myself in her beautiful green eyes or knowing her touch or hearing the lilt in her voice when she says my name or… I should end this letter before I fully regret where it is likely to proceed. My mood has soured with regret.

  Forgive me and I hope you can overlook my sins, Your cousin,

  Henry

  Letter 5 ~ Retton to Henry

  February 12, 1810

  Cousin Henry, I apologize for not answering sooner, but I was rather alarmed at your admission. I cannot say I fully understand your heightened emotions having never experienced love myself. Normally, I envy your passionate energy. Now, I fear your passion has mistreated you.

  Regardless of the ardent nature of your feelings, Countess Abbotden is indeed lost to you. You must cease your infatuation. I hold no ill will towards her, but she is married. Nothing can change that. Do not continue your correspondence. I fear of what would become of either of you should your letters be made public. Do not place her in rumour's way.

  Perhaps you could assuage your heart by knowing you did indeed love once. You might easily love again. Many a young lady long to be mistress of Edenfield and might make you happy. Please be not offended by my suggestions. We shall discuss matters further when I return to Ramsbury.

  Retton

  Letter 6 ~ Cassandra to Henry

  February 18, 1810

  Henry, I began this letter hundreds of times. I received your letter and can recite your words from memory as I have read them so often. Thank you for your candor. I have never been on the receiving end of such passion. I am not ashamed to admit I have lived all of my twenty years in an unromantic state.

  Being the oldest child without a brother, my father impressed upon me his desire that Ashland would never leave the Bering family. It was assumed at an early age I would marry his heir. I agreed only to appease him and alleviate his worries in the last few years of his life.

  I am not prone to romantic notions. I only professed a daughter's duty and fulfilled my promise. When I first met James Hawksley, I found him a very agreeable man, and all believed we made a good match. We did what was expected and married, but we exist as brother and sister without romantic allusions or stirrings.

  I fear I have lingered over an explanation you never sought. Why do you have such power over me? Is this the true meaning of love? Forgive me for using that word to a man who is not my husband. Will I be forever haunted by this sin? I fully intended upon pleading with you to never write me again. I wanted to tell you to forget about me. When I chose the paper upon which those dreaded words would be placed, my hand refused.

  I am well aware words without actions are still a betrayal to my husband. My father would be aghast. I hope I never once lent a crease to his face nor a shadow to his heart. I fear of what my mother would think. She sacrificed everything to give me life, and ever since I turned away from being a selfish child I have sought to live in her memory’s shadow. I allowed her example to guide me, but I am ashamed I have fallen so far.

  Each day I hear whispers and believe my secret is known. If someone glances at me suspiciously I become that little girl again overhearing the servants discussing why my mother had to die for such a useless and devilish child. I cannot return to that shame. The thought of it lays ruin to my appetite, heavies my head until I lose balance, and fills me wit
h dread knowing I am not worthy to have survived when my mother did not.

  All my life, I did what was right. I lived not for myself but for my family. I would have been content all my days to continue. Then I met you. Your gaze took me in and held me safe. I am not too naïve to believe you never looked at another like that. How did I capture your imagination? Why were the fates so cruel to delay our meeting until after my marriage? I should wish for you a proper wife and not a relationship based upon sheets of paper, but that would be disingenuous. The thought of another fills me with dread and worry. Until you return to your senses, I am grateful for your love. Please know it is returned a thousand times over. I am sorry I lack the language to profess my emotions more clearly.

  I exist in perpetual dizziness. I have to be the dutiful daughter, wife, and sister, but my heart longs for something that can never be. I only pray James never discovers this. I will not cause him shame. He does not deserve it. He is not a spiteful man nor is he evil.

  This has to be the first and last letter I write to you. The fact I have allowed myself to put pen to paper and admit my true feelings fills me with a malignant shame. And now I will be strong and ask that you do not write me again. You have awakened my heart to feelings I knew not that I possessed, but I must spend my remaining days in repentance for my sins.

  Forever yours,

  Cassandra

  Letter 7 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  February 26, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, I went to Edenfield! Can you tell I am grinning? I must purge this while it roams freely in my memory. Here is what happened...

  Rebecca flew into my room with two of her flustered servants and a dozen different coloured dresses. Rebecca’s thick black hair freely danced and tangled as she pranced. “Retton will be there, and I must see him for it has been so long,” she said in between gasps for air.

  Now, as you well know, I pride myself in understanding silences as well as speech. The furtive glances the maids exchanged expressed more than words alone could have conveyed.

  Rebecca picked up a yellow dress. “This one? Will it bring out my eyes? Will my brother like it?”

  I did not want to ask why yellow would bring out Rebecca's dark brown eyes, but I had not the chance. She threw the yellow dress down as if it suggested something nefarious.

  “This?” Rebecca picked up another dress which was much greener than it ought to be. “Better?” Her teary eyes pleaded with me as if my opinion would secure her happiness for years.

  Before I uttered a sound, she violently threw the innocent dress down. I swear I heard the dresses moan in terror. She picked up a bright pink one and held it under her chin. “This one? Would this one be better still?”

  The poor maids had a time of grabbing dresses and sashes and hats that flew this way and that, and it is a wonder someone was not strangled amidst the carnage - I must give her maids credit for their willpower.

  Rebecca is recently recovered from that mysterious sickness which almost claimed her last year, and I worried her breathing would labour again. I quickly picked up a rather pretty blue dress which almost matched the shade of a perfect sky. “What about this one? It is very pleasing.”

  Rebecca smiled and calmed immediately. “Thank you, Juliana, you are the best of a friend.” She picked up the dress and studied it. “Oh, to have that match my eyes. Your sister has blue eyes, does she not?”

  “Green,” I answered. “Cassie’s eyes are green like our father. I took after my mother with the brown eyes.”

  “I used to pray for light eyes.” Rebecca’s voice drifted with her gaze. Then, she flew out of the room. It only took a few minutes for the two maids to scoop up the spilled madness, glance at me with a knowing look, and scurry after Rebecca.

  I assumed Rebecca’s panic had little to do with her brother. I do not have a reference as to how sisters should behave around brothers, but I rather doubt so much effort would commence upon a sibling. I would gladly sacrifice anything for you, but I would not introduce madness just for the right shade of fabric. I believed something else tempted Rebecca's mind rather than her brother's return.

  An hour later, I waited in the carriage. Rebecca changed her shoes then her hat then her sash and then finally her gloves before she joined me.

  “I am so sorry, Juliana. I am ready now.” Rebecca sat down gingerly in the carriage and wiped at her already glistening brow.

  The driver waited several minutes to ensure Rebecca would not flee again.

  “Are you alright, Rebecca? Dare we even venture out?”

  “Venture out?” Rebecca suspiciously looked at me as if I had just suggested a royal coup. “Why on earth would you even—”

  “I am sorry.” I touched Rebecca’s hand to calm her. “I worry about your health.”

  Rebecca sighed and stared through the carriage window at the bumpy countryside.

  Suspicions can quickly be appeased with words of concern. Most people are usually thinking of themselves and find it not at all peculiar when someone else inquires about them.

  I know I am devious, but I do not appear as such. Perhaps it is my angelic appearance, pleasing manners, or the innocence that rests behind my eyes. Forgive my madness. I am only having a bit of fun at my own expense.

  Rebecca sighed loudly. “I hope the Dowager Countess is away. My great aunt likes me not.” She fiddled this way and that with her already mangled gloves. “I do not know why I inspire such derision.”

  I quickly turned away as if admiring the scenery. I did not wish Rebecca to see my malicious grin. I have known Rebecca for a few years, but she is challenging company.

  We continued on the carriage ride, but Rebecca did not pursue her normal inane conversations. She has been known to casually chatter about strings or plants or leaves or monkeys as minds spin in a thousand directions.

  The carriage turned down the tree lined street that would take us to Edenfield, and I do not mind admitting my heart skipped a bit faster. I would soon meet the man who captured the heart of my favorite sister. Yes, I realize you are my only sister, but is it not better that you are also the favorite?

  I noticed Rebecca clasped her hand over her heart many times. As we neared Edenfield, my heart raced. The estate is grander than Ashland. The stone is a lighter grey, and the statues smile instead of being trapped in a frozen frown. The gardens feature every shade of green. The windows are quite large with at least a dozen panes each. I grew tired of Father's aversion to sun and resented Ashland’s heavy red drapes which trapped us in perpetual darkness.

  At our arrival, we were shown into the entrance hall. Cassie, dare I admit, I could see you gliding down the stairway as mistress? The ceilings were so tall I feared my neck would forever be ruined should I seek the end of the height. I allowed myself to peer over the many portraits of the former Lords and Ladies of Edenfield. Not a one could be described as hideous.

  Rebecca squealed quickly, and I feared the worst. She ran to greet a man who I assumed was the brother she speaks about nonstop. “Oh, Retton.”

  He was not different than I imagined, but Rebecca is not often accurate with her more descriptive adjectives. You might not recollect since you were usually busy with father, but Rebecca has grown quite beautiful with porcelain skin and deep brown eyes and midnight coloured hair. Her brother's hair is brown but anyone would believe them to be related given their perfect features.

  “Retton, I would like you to meet Lady Juliana Bering.”

  “Oh,” he startled himself, and I was not sure what he meant.

  “Juliana,” Rebecca said. “This is my brother. My oldest brother. Actually my closest of all my brothers and sisters. The rest long ago left.” Rebecca paused as if in deep thought. After a few moments, she shook her head and continued. “He is the direct heir to my father the Marquess. May I present Lord Kemnay.”

  I bowed. “Pleased to meet you, Lord Kemnay.” He might be the oldest brother, but he cannot be more than six and twenty.

 
Rebecca wrote that you were visiting,” he said. “I hope you have found Ramsbury pleasant?”

  Pleasant? I found myself lost six different times. I was not even sure if I were still in England when I visited the east corridor. “Ramsbury is quite extraordinary, Lord Kemnay.”

  “It is rather embarrassingly lavish,” he said shyly.

  It is rare that a gentleman would possess such dignity and humility. I assume him hesitant by nature, but he did not avert his attention from me as others would have.

  Rebecca giggled and blushed. “Is she not beautiful, brother? Is she not exactly as I described?”

  Lord Kemnay cleared his throat.

  “My sister is much more beautiful,” I said which I entirely believe.

  “Then you two must entice every gentleman you meet.” Lord Kemnay flinched as if he had not intended to say such things.

  Another man walked in behind Rebecca’s brother. I knew him instantly. This was the man I always imagined for my favourite sister.

  Lord Kemnay winced. “Where are my manners? Lady Juliana, this is my cousin, Henry. Lord Halithorpe.”

  Henry smiled at me. “Lady Juliana, I met your sister.”

  “Cassie told me,” I quickly said.

  “Cassie?” he asked. “I like that.” His eyes showed an understanding that I knew about everything. “I am glad you two are so close, and I applaud you for wrestling a compliment from my cousin.”

  “You believe me to be stingy with compliments?” Lord Kemnay asked playfully.

  “Just not as sure of yourself around a beautiful lady.” Intelligence and deviousness existed behind Henry’s blue eyes. He was handsome and direct with a confidence and never ending smile. It is little wonder he captured your heart. He had such an air of authority and compassion. If I had all the paper in the world, I would never tire of decent adjectives to describe him.

  Cassie, I wish you had not sacrificed yourself to save Ashland. I wish I were the older sister and you would have been free to marry Henry. I could have married James. Drat. That was most difficult to write. I do not mind him much, but he is peculiar. Sorry, but you must be with Henry. I will see you two married. I am sure of it. I mean nothing untoward, but, by my determination, it will be done. Now I only need to wrestle with the pesky details.

  Anyway, we were shown into a parlour with intricately carved fireplaces, more than two dozen chairs and sofas, various rugs, and a few statues and colorful vases on each table. The room had the most amazing glow as the light from the fire danced around the walls and instantly warmed us.

  I sat next to Rebecca on a small yellow sofa by the fire while the two gentlemen remained standing. I was well aware Lord Kemnay had not taken his eyes from me since meeting, and I was not sure yet whether to be annoyed or flattered. For that, I would require much thought. He is all Rebecca described with fine eyes and a pleasing smile, and, yes, he is very handsome indeed. If I was careless, he could take my breathe away. I cannot believe I wrote that...

  Lost in thought, I almost did not see an older woman stomp into the room and quickly sit down opposite me. She wore all black. Even her bracelets, necklace, and rings were black or a variation of dark. Only her pale face and curly white hair provided definition. She murmured and muttered, and I feared she was not at all well. I noticed neither of the gentlemen paid much attention. I did not believe there to be immediate danger, but Rebecca fidgeted as if uncomfortably sitting on a servant. I could only deduce it was her great aunt, the Dowager Countess.

  The woman made sure her dress was straight and all bracelets faced the right way. After much haranguing, whispering and muttering, she glanced up. “Henry, why was I not informed we had company?”

  “I am sorry, grandmother, but we have company.”

  She produced quite a determined look. Rebecca sunk further into the sofa. This woman could wither without saying a word. How grand was that? I already admired her immensely.

  “Are you in the habit of allowing me to wander about? Why did you not attempt to stop me?” the woman asked.

  “You give me too much credit to believe I could have stopped you from doing anything,” Henry said with a most devious grin.

  She stared at him with a mixture of disgust and admiration. Her expressions held such power and were more understood than an hour long lecture. It is an art that, as you well know, I have been practicing and trying to perfect for years.

  “Forgive my lapse,” Henry said as he stepped forward with a grand gesture. “Grandmother, may I present your great nephew, Lord Kemnay.”

  She produced another sour look. This was followed by a grand sigh. “You have such wit, do you not, Henry? Wherever did you acquire such wit?”

  He grinned. “I am sure it was inherited.”

  The woman could not suppress her smile. “It is good you have returned, Retton. And did your rest produce some much needed clarity?”

  I was not sure what she referred to. Since both gentlemen quickly glanced at Rebecca, she had to be the reason for his ‘rest.’

  Lord Kemnay studied the rug. “Perhaps in due time.” I tried to divert my eyes when his gaze returned to me. This is what I have been able to deduce so far: to his sister, his eyes reflected pain and pity. To his aunt, his behaviour hinted at fear and intimidation. With Henry, his demeanor told of a deep friendship and trust. To me, I received attention of a somewhat flirty and shy nature.

  Henry studied me for a few minutes as if trying to see you in me. “Grandmother, this is Lady Juliana Bering. Lady Juliana, this is my grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Halithorpe.”

  “Bering? You must be Lord Abbotden's youngest. I met your sister not long ago.”

  I nodded. “Yes, Cassandra was here. I am glad you met her.”

  Her gaze bore into me for several minutes as she studied my hair, eyes, dress, and the way I clasped my hands together in my lap. Then, she smiled. “I approve.” She leaned closer. “I admired your father very much. And your sister’s sacrifice was very admirable.”

  “Thank you.” It is so rare to have compliments about Father. “We miss Father so.”

  “That is much to your credit to miss him and much more to your credit to mean it.”

  I saw Henry's smile and Retton's blush again.

  Then the Dowager Countess snapped her neck and glared several times at Rebecca. “I see you are here with my great niece.”

  The temperature dropped sharply. Retton took a deep breath while Henry cleared his throat.

  “I have been staying at Ramsbury since my sister married.”

  “Of course,” she said, suspiciously eyeing her niece. “And how have you enjoyed the visit, Lady Juliana?”

  “Very much,” I said. “Although, I miss my sister terribly.”

  “Well, I am sure the visit will brighten now that my nephew has returned.”

  Rebecca shifted and stared deep into the fire conversing with the flames.

  The Dowager Countess smiled as if she enjoyed frightening her niece. “Lady Juliana, sit next to me so we can discuss things further.”

  I did as she requested but found it rather difficult to look at Rebecca who sullenly sat alone growing paler by the second.

  “Grandmother,” Henry interrupted the silence. “Will you not inquire about Rebecca?”

  She stared at Henry as if he had just barked. Then she forced her gaze to Rebecca. “If I had planned upon making inquires, dear boy, I would have already done so.” She shifted positions sharply so that her jewelry clanged together at once.

  After a few more moments of awkward silence, Henry cleared his throat. “Rebecca, we have a new pianoforte in the music room. Would you like to—”

  Before Henry finished, Rebecca clapped and ran out of the room. Her boots loudly clomped down the hall until the thumping grew quieter.

  The Dowager Countess slowly removed her hands from her ears. “Upon my honour! I do believe she is getting worse.”

  Retton quickly glanced at me and then placed his hands behind h
is back to steady himself. “There are days when she appears quite content.”

  “And others?” she asked.

  Retton shook his head without further response.

  “And have you made any decisions?”

  Retton glanced at me as if embarrassed to discuss delicate matters so openly. I was unsure if he was more embarrassed for himself or for me. I decided not to burden him with my all knowing gaze.

  “Think of yourself, Retton.”

  “I had better see to her.” Retton bowed to me before leaving the room.

  Henry waited until his cousin was out of the room. “Grandmother, must you frighten him so?”

  The Dowager Countess shrugged her shoulders. “Your cousin is much stronger than he allows himself to believe. And, if he is ever to capture the heart of this one…” She patted my knee. “Then he had better show himself sooner rather than later.”

  I should have blushed or protested or something ladies are meant to do, but blushing is not in my true nature. Besides, a woman as wise as the Dowager Countess would have seen through any emotions and thought lesser of me. I was determined to remain on her good side.

  The Dowager Countess smiled at my discretion: her temptations did not trap me. “And how has Rebecca seemed to you?” She raised her hand. “Before you answer, be aware you do not have to spare your words to spare feelings. Some of us...” She gestured towards her grandson. “…prefer the harsh realities of truth rather than the mediocrity of a soothing lie.”

  I could not help but smile. “Can I be you when I grow up?”

  The Dowager Countess laughed.

  Henry sat down opposite us. “You are wise beyond your years.”

  “You are not intimidated by me. Good,” the Dowager Countess said. “It is refreshing to be confronted with admiration rather than complimented with fear.”

  Henry snorted. “I do not scare easily.”

  “Of course not. Otherwise you would not have entertained an infatuation with a married woman.”

  Henry quickly glanced at me.

  “You do not have to be so shy, Henry. Lady Juliana is much too smart.”

  I shrugged. “Cassie wrote me.”

  He closed his eyes. “What am I to do?”

  “Try not to throw yourself into the pit, dear boy. It would make such a mess.”

  Henry shook his head. “You are a stone, are you not wicked woman?”

  She chuckled and then returned her attention to me. “I am anxious to know your thoughts concerning the awkward situation known more simply as my niece.”

  “In regards to Lady Rebecca…” I hesitated because there is a thin distinction between speaking one’s mind and offending. “I do not believe it my place to discuss, but since you have asked... I can only admit she is a bit emotional lately and prone to rather disruptive outbursts. She has been looking forward to her brother's return, and I can only hope Lord Kemnay’s presence alleviates.”

  The Dowager Countess laughed. “That was probably the best way of saying exactly what needed to be said in the most delicate manner possible. You give your father credit for your manners. Henry, might you trouble yourself to fetching my new shall.”

  He immediately stood up to leave and then looked his grandmother over. “You are wearing your new shall.”

  “Then might you trouble yourself to leave so that I may speak more candidly with my new friend?”

  Henry waited for me to protest, but I did not. He then directed his attention to his grandmother. “Be civil.”

  “Aren't I always?”

  She did not see his reaction since he was almost at the door and out of her line of vision. Once alone, she turned to me. “Now that the fusspots are away, pray tell me how does someone as intelligent and interesting as you befriend my grand niece?”

  “Several years ago, we met at a party. We were both in London visiting relatives.”

  She jerked back a bit. “You met her and still wished to befriend her?”

  I could not admit I found myself fascinated with Rebecca. I rarely come across someone of her temperament. I looked about the room to ensure we were still alone and leaned closer to the Dowager Countess. “Has she been like this always?”

  “Dreadful, is it not? My dear grandson tries not to impress upon her anything which might produce a fit, and Retton must get away on occasion when she has exhausted him. It is no wonder her parents stay away as long as they do. They hope they will be greeted with news of their youngest daughter's impending marriage and will only return to Ramsbury on the assurance she will live there no longer.”

  I could not help but frown. “But to be forced to stay away from your own house?”

  The Dowager Countess nodded. “And have you been witness to many of her fits?” She scrunched her face into a most unflattering position. “They are dreadful, are they not? I did not believe it possible for someone to shatter one's nerves and produce so many tears over such trivialities. She has obsessed over the post, the moon, and my other grandson, Nathaniel. Of course, I need not chastise her for that. Nathaniel could produce fits in even the holiest of men.”

  I could not prevent myself from laughing. “Can I say what a pleasure it is to meet someone who does not allow convention to force themselves to act contrary to who they really are?”

  “Now that, my dear, is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. We are going to be friends. I knew upon waking this day that it would be a great one.” She studied me further. “And how do you find my grandson?”

  “He is very handsome and well thought of by everyone.”

  She glanced at me slyly. “And do you approve of his feelings towards your married sister?”

  I could not suppress my smile. “Honestly, I wish Cassandra had met Lord Halithorpe before her marriage.”

  Her eyes narrowed. “And how do you find your new brother-in-law?”

  I looked at her quickly and thought of you Cassie, but I could not help myself. Being around her is absolute freedom. I dared not lie or even deceive a little. “He is nice but dull and not one I would have chosen for my sister. He lacks passion, and I fear she has challenged her life with someone who could not possibly produce even the slightest bit of interest in her. To see my beautiful, intelligent sister wither is more than I can bear.” I was not afraid to allow the tears which I have kept hidden for so long to spill. I quickly dabbed at my eyes. “Forgive me. I do not wish you to be burdened.”

  “Fear not, dear child. Your feelings matter and are valid. I met James Hawksley many times. Dullness is a hereditary trait shared by all in his family. His grandfather pursued me most ardently many years ago.” She shook as if the feelings were too difficult to remain with her. “Let us talk of happier things.”

  “May I say, meeting you makes me wish I had known my own grandmothers.”

  “You did not know either of them?” She asked with eyebrows raised. “Oh, what am I saying? Your father was my age. But what about your mother's mother?”

  I shook my head.

  “That is probably just as well. I will not pretend to have heard flattering compliments about your mother.”

  I lowered my head in shame. “No, I can imagine few would seek to flatter her.”

  The Dowager Countess patted me on the knee. “Dear child, do not bear the sins of your mother.” She sat back and studied me further. “You remind me of myself. Perhaps that is why I like you so much.”

  We shared a laugh and were about to broach nicer subjects, but Rebecca screamed back into the room and threw herself down on the chair in a pout. This was soon followed by the return of Retton and Henry.

  The Dowager Countess quickly glanced at me and drew a breath before she inquired. “What is the matter now?”

  Rebecca folded her hands together tightly. Her cheeks were bright red as if she’d been crying, and some of her hair stuck to her neck. “The keys on the pianoforte treated me ill.”

  The Dowager Countess threw up her hands.

  Retton leane
d close to Rebecca, “I am sure our cousin will allow you to try again when the situation is much improved.”

  “Of course,” Henry added. “You are welcome anytime.”

  The Dowager Countess smirked and snorted to which Henry pleaded with her not to further torment.

  She leaned close to me and whispered. “Why must civilized people be held hostage by the madness of a few?”

  Henry then caught his grandmother's attention and gestured to her as if prodding her to say something.

  She shook her head.

  He mouthed, 'for Retton.'

  She rolled her eyes and sighed. “Yes, Rebecca, you should come again and play. Your music...” She gritted her teeth as if each word produced a sandy response. “...manages to fill the room.”

  Rebecca’s eyes widened. “Really? Do you mean it?”

  “I rarely say things I do not mean.”

  Rebecca jumped up and lunged towards her aunt hugging her before she could slither from her grasp. “Thank you! Oh, thank you! That means the world to me. I will try again right now!” With that, she ran out of the room leaving her aunt to smooth out her dress and readjust her jewelry.

  “That is why I dislike physical contact. It ruffles too many things which took a great deal of time to be properly placed.”

  “Thank you,” Retton said.

  The Dowager Countess nodded. “Now would you please do as I have asked and either get that girl a proper doctor or a proper husband. Or perhaps save some time and combine them. I hate to see you wasting your life for her.”

  Retton shook his head. “I am fine.”

  “You are the heir, Retton. The eldest son of the Marquess. Your father’s title will be yours before you know it. You must not forget the loyalty to your parents as well as yourself.”

  He shook his head, and I saw in him a stubbornness I admired. “I will not abandon her as others have.”

  The Dowager Countess did not take that as a slight against herself. She shrugged. “Your parents have lost much, Retton. Do not begrudge them their sanity as well.”

  My heart beat a little faster as I studied Retton. He is very handsome indeed. Have I mentioned that already? No matter. It could be repeated. His loyalty is obviously unsurpassed. You and I could be married to cousins and best friends and would see each other always. I know, I am getting ahead of myself. Your husband still breathes.

  Forgive me for that last statement. I thought of crossing the words out, but I know you would be able to read them still. I plotted beginning the letter again, but I lacked the energy. I only wish things were different, but I do not wish tragedy to make them so.

  I have more to say but must get this to the post. I dare not allow my letters to meander unattended. I trust not some of Rebecca's maids. I found one collapsed in the corner last week. I feared the worst, but she claimed a lost hat stirred strong feelings in her. Does Rebecca’s infection spread to the unwitting?

  I miss you terribly,

  Juliana

  Letter 8 ~ Cassandra to Juliana

  February 28, 1810

  Juliana, perhaps you have touched the mad. Did I not make myself clear? I cannot and will not betray my husband any more than I already have.

  Shame taunts me every day. I can never take that back, but I will not proceed further.

  I am married to James. It is done. Do not waste your time trying to procure something that will not, cannot, and should not take place. I refuse it! James is an honorable man. He is my husband. I am most determined to be happy. I hope I can make James happy with me as well. I must conclude this letter. My health and mood have entirely soured.

  Think not of me. I beg you to let me forget my foolishness. Concentrate solely on your own happiness.

  Cassandra

  Letter 9 ~ Henry to James

  February 28, 1810

  James, I am not sure if you knew about the birthday celebration for my cousins, Retton and Rebecca, but may I be the first to invite you and Countess Abbotden. As you know, Lady Juliana has been staying with Lady Rebecca at Ramsbury. She has expressed her deepest interest in seeing her sister again, and Retton was very sorry he missed you in December.

  Please do not disappoint my cousins or Lady Juliana. Ramsbury and Edenfield will be more than welcome to you. I hope we can renew our friendship.

  Halithorpe

  Letter 10 ~ Cassandra to Juliana

  March 1, 1810

  Juliana, what have you done! Only a day after sending my last letter, James spoke about nothing but attending the birthday celebration at Ramsbury.

  I cannot be certain, but I assume you had something to do with the invitation. Do you not have enough to worry about with your own life? Must you continue to meddle in mine?

  I do not know how to make myself more clear. I am not pleased. I cannot go. I will not attend! Rumours would swirl, and James would be hurt.

  Your plans will most assuredly come to a hideous end. Speaking of which - your mother has returned to Ashland. She is planning on visiting Ramsbury soon. Having her hover over you will most likely stop your dangerous plots.

  Please use the next few days to ponder upon the foolishness of your schemes and cease them. For my sake, Juliana. I implore you!

  Cassandra

  Letter 11 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  March 3, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, I will not apologize for seeking your happiness. Unfortunately, your letter warning me about Mother arrived with her. I had just stepped out the front door, and my heart leapt when I saw one of Ashland’s carriages. I so hoped you had reconsidered and arrived early to scold me.

  I waited eagerly for the carriage door to open. I imagined all the fun we would have and all the times I could see you blush under the weight of Lord Halithorpe’s gaze. I longed to hear your justifications about your marriage and witness you struggle with your temptations. My eager smile quickly evaporated like a sad, unwanted raindrop. Mother and her most disapproving glare jumped out of the carriage.

  I have heard Patience Bering described as hauntingly beautiful, but she uses disdained expressions to their full effect. For years, I hated her for not giving you much attention, but you, sweet sister, were blessed. Attention from Patience Bering is entirely unpleasant.

  Mother's wide brown eyes looked me over, and I could hear the disapproval in her noisy sighs. Her smile, at once so wide and eager with absorbing the splendor of Ramsbury, melted into a wicked smirk as she glared at me. “I see you are still the same.”

  Was that a compliment or a threat? Upon my honour! She confounds me. She has always confounded me. She has to be the most insufferable creature to ever stalk the earth.

  Then, she provided her not sought after advice. According to her: my hair is too dark for my fair complexion. My eyes are too wide for my face. My nose is too awkward to be of use. My waist is too small for my figure, and I am entirely too short. My jewelry is too common, and my curls are not common enough. Would you believe the wind managed to frenzy the situation by misplacing many of my most favourite curls? It does amuse that she insulted my appearance. I gritted my teeth and remembered how much she and I look alike. Patience Bering is many things, but she lacks the intelligence to understand subtlety.

  Finally, Retton arrived to greet her. She studied him as if he were going to be her next project. That I will never allow.

  At first, I was alarmed or annoyed or flattered by Retton’s clumsy flirtations. My reaction depended upon the time of day, the proximity of Rebecca, and whether I had cake that day. Cake helps all things. Initially, it was exhausting. As soon as I believed the room was safe, Retton appeared as if he were a ghost waiting in the shadows. If I was at the fireplace, he appeared with a sweater, and I had to lie and say that I was too warm. I even did so clattering my teeth so loudly I was unsure if he understood me. If I was in the gardens, he found me behind even the hardiest of flowers. I admitted to being tired when I had just woken up or being full when I was still hungry or hungry when I had just ea
ten.

  One day, I saw what was right in front of me. Lord Kemnay – Retton is handsome and intelligent. He is quiet when needed and conversational when necessary. He listens to anything I want to talk about. I do not worry around him but feel as if all will be fine. I have yet to introduce a subject to which he is not intimately familiar, and he is even attempting to teach me Greek. I have not a need for Greek, but I admit I am searching for excuses to be near him. I could love him easily, but I refuse to think of myself while you remain unhappy.

  In between Mother’s attempts to seduce Retton, she whispered to me. “Have I taught you no manners or have you done your best to discard them?”

  I assume she meant I should introduce her, but I would rather have introduced a lonely twig to an inconvenient grouping of sticky leaves. I did my best to curl up the edges of my mouth to resemble a smile. “Mother,” I said, choking on the word as if I had consumed that horrible marmalade substance cousin Charles sent a few years back. Dreadful. Why must I ponder hideous things when Mother is around?

  “This is Lord Kemnay.” I hoped my painful expression pronounced my most humble apologies to Retton. “Lord Kemnay, may I introduce my mother, Countess Abbotden.”

  Retton smiled at me as if he understood my struggles. He bowed. “Welcome to Ramsbury, Lady Bering. We have been most delighted to have Lady Juliana as our guest these past few months.”

  “You are indeed a true gentleman to have tolerated her presence for this long.”

  Retton surely lacks the evil Mother proudly maintains. He hesitated before continuing. “Please, come inside.”

  In the parlour, Mother gazed at the rugs, chairs, sofas, statues, vases, flowers, and tapestries as if mentally surmising the costs. She gingerly sat down on a petite chair and arranged herself for best effect.

  “Madame...” one of her servants interrupted.

  Mother twisted out a most unseemly glare.

  The poor servant’s eyes widened, her skin paled to the colour of her frayed collar, and she aged a few decades. “I was unsure of what to do with—”

  Mother sighed. “I would not know. I am not a servant. Can you not manage the simplest of tasks?”

  I meekly smiled at Retton to inform him her behaviour was quite expected.

  After a few more glares, the poor servant scampered away to parts unseen. Mother, on cue, smiled at Retton as if nothing had happened. “Oh my!” she said upon seeing Rebecca coming down the stairs. “Is this another servant? Do you really allow your servants to take advantage of you, Lord Kemnay, by permitting them the use of the family stairs?” Mother shook her head coquettishly as if she had just trapped Retton in a most egregious situation. “Surely, a grand house such as Ramsbury has an area where the less fortunate might congregate unseen?”

  “This is my sister, Lady Rebecca Frome,” Retton said firmly to let me know he would not be taken in by Mother’s act.

  Mother blushed before quickly recovering. I would not be surprised if she timed her impropriety for the fullest effect.

  “Rebecca,” Retton said. “This is Countess Abbotden.”

  Poor, sweet, simple Rebecca clapped. “Juliana! You must be so happy to have your sister here!”

  I almost fainted. The room swirled a bit like a confused summer cloud trapped in a winter’s storm. Rebecca thought Mother was you. I concede Mother is extremely young: she looks even younger than her true age, but it is unforgivable to confuse her with my most beloved sister!

  “No, Rebecca,” Retton said quickly as if he understood immediately the affect on me. “This is Lady Juliana’s mother.”

  “Oh,” Rebecca blushed naturally. “I am so sorry.”

  “That is quite alright,” Mother said. “I have often been confused with my step-daughter.”

  “How?” I asked. “Your hair is dark brown like mine. Cassie’s hair is light brown, thin, and wispy as the most delicate flower. Yours is thick and curly and hangs in a clump if not attended to appropriately. Your eyes are brown as mud, but Cassie’s eyes are the brightest and greenest I have ever seen.”

  Mother's mouth curled at the ends, and her eyes squinted as she did her best to control her temper. I do pride myself on knowing exactly how to wound her. Always attack her appearance: this is her only attribute.

  “Well,” Mother snorted and held her head higher. “Cassandra obviously took after her mother since your father, as you remember, was not a handsome man. Pity I had the misfortune of so many wasted years with him.”

  I glanced at Retton. I wanted to retort with vile, but I resisted. “Father always flattered you. Pity you cannot return the favor.”

  Mother's complexion darkened with anger. It has been a long time since I have been frightened of her outbursts. After Father found her in my room beating me when I was seven, he shamed her into leaving me alone. Luckily, her verbal insults do not leave lasting scars.

  Retton cleared his throat. “Lady Bering, could I tempt you into a tour of the house?”

  Before she answered, a door opened quickly to reveal a young man.

  Retton set his jaw squarely and took a deep breath. “Why are you here, Nathaniel?”

  The man, handsome with darkened hair and a devilish grin, was no more than nineteen. He glanced about the room as if determining his audience, and his manner insinuated privilege without merit.

  Immediately upon seeing him, Rebecca fled the room.

  “I see Rebecca still holds me in her thoughts.” The man grinned as he walked up to Retton. “My dear cousin, did you say not merely eight months ago I would be welcomed at Ramsbury?”

  Retton blinked very rapidly as if trying to either relive that particular conversation or find an escape out of it. “Your brother—”

  “Please,” the man interrupted. “Speak not of ill things.”

  I liked him not. He held onto an air of deviousness meant to provoke rather than harmlessly tease.

  “Does Henry know you are returned?”

  The man plopped himself down on the sofa with an air of both familiarity and contempt. “Henry would not care if I breathed. He made that quite clear.”

  This was the nefarious brother I had heard about - Henry's younger brother. Henry’s handsome nature was born of compassion and confidence. This Nathaniel’s brash and contemptible energy made him dangerous indeed.

  Retton sighed and studied his hands, and I wondered what he was thinking. “This is Countess Abbotden and Lady Juliana.”

  Nathaniel leapt up and grabbed Mother's hand. “Countess.”

  Her eyes met his. The way they looked at each other as if no one else were in the room unnerved me.

  “May I say, Countess, that you are more ravishing than the rumours.”

  Mother grinned but would not take her eyes from him.

  “This is my cousin, Mr. Nathaniel Seaton,” Retton uttered with the civility he could muster but without the enthusiasm I have known.

  Nathaniel only nodded in my direction while still holding Mother's hand as their eyes danced together. “Tell me, are you the newest Countess or the fortunate widow?”

  Retton cleared his throat and glanced at me. I have to tell you, Cassie, I like Henry very much. He is ripe with courtesy and intelligence. This brother of his lacks every good quality. Can you imagine being in the company of a devoted daughter and asking if her mother were the fortunate widow? My stomach churned, and it was only courtesy to Retton I did not immediately excuse myself.

  Mother, of course, was not shocked nor was she offended. She giggled like a smitten school girl who had meandered too close to a fire. “I am the latter, sir.”

  “Ah,” Nathaniel said. “Condolences I am assuming are not needed for you are much too young and beautiful to be the wife of someone so old and feeble.”

  “Nathaniel!” Retton admonished. “Show some decorum in my house. Lady Juliana does not wish for you to carelessly discuss her father.”

  Nathaniel glanced at Retton and then looked casually at me as if I were but a leaf b
lown in through an open door. I swear, Cassie, it is the same look Mother gives me often. How can so much contempt and disgust be contained in a fleeting glance?

  “Apologies to the Lady,” he said looking me up and down before returning his gaze to Mother. “Mourning I might guess is not her chief preoccupation. The girl must have more profitable motives on her mind for being here.”

  Retton closed his eyes, and I could tell from witnessing Father's many years of dealing with Mother's outbursts that Retton tempered his own anger. He walked to the wall and quickly rang for the servant. When one arrived, Retton addressed him just as quickly. “Please see my cousin and the Countess out to the gardens.”

  “Perhaps your cousin or the beautiful Countess Abbotden does not wish to see the gardens,” Nathaniel said as Mother giggled.

  “I did not ask whether you wished to go. I only wish you to go,” Retton said firmly.

  Nathaniel glared at Retton but did not contradict him further. He held his arm out, and he and Mother giggled their way into another room.

  Retton shook his head and then approached me. “I am so sorry, Juliana. Please forgive—”

  I held up my hand. “You need not apologize. I am intimately familiar with my mother’s contempt, and I will not allow you to grieve over the actions of your cousin.”

  Retton stared in the direction they had left. “He is a troubled soul and one that has given Henry pain since the moment of his birth.”

  I must interrupt the story to thank you, Cassie. I tend to forget how lucky I am to have you. Many I fear were not quite so lucky with their siblings. I only hope I have been and will be the type of sister you deserve. I long to be someone you can respect who never shames you.

  Cassie, I was about to post this when something happened. Rebecca came down and sat with me in the drawing room. Retton read in his normal chair. I minded not the glances he stole from his book to look at me. I was so pleased Mother’s unwelcome visit did not alter his feelings. It would have served me right had Retton disavowed any previous connection with me just at the moment when my heart toward him thawed.

  But, alas, I was writing to you concerning Henry. It is amazing, is it not, that my letters meander back towards myself? Why am I the sole heroine in my little story? What a foul thing it must be to be me!

  These are the events as they happened. A servant burst in the door scaring poor Rebecca. Her book leapt in the air, and I am unsure if it ever did return.

  “Lord Halithorpe is here for you sir,” the servant said.

  Henry burst in. “Where is he?”

  “I believe he and Countess Abbotden are dining in the hall,” Retton said.

  Henry's complexion lost a few shades. He stilled like a statue without breath or blinking.

  “That is my mother, Lord Halithorpe,” I was quick to admit. “Not my sister.”

  Henry's complexion returned as he caught his breath. “Not Cassandra...” he whispered to himself. “Your mother is here?”

  “She arrived this morning with little warning.”

  Henry nodded as if he understood. “Did Nathaniel say anything? Did he admit anything?”

  Retton shook his head, and they both glanced at Rebecca who glumly stared into the fire as if divining secret messages. Retton walked towards his sister, but she quickly fled the room.

  I soon felt out of place. “Perhaps I should—”

  “No,” Retton said. “Please stay. You provide us with much needed balance.”

  Henry nodded. “Indeed, when it comes to my brother, I need quick wit and advice.”

  “Are you sure?” I did feel awkward at such family drama, but I would much rather have stayed to witness what would or should or must be done than to retire to my room to wonder.

  “Yes, stay,” Henry said. “You do yourself and your sister credit for not admitting to knowing anything about my brother.”

  “I really do not know, Lord Halithorpe. The past few years I have been too preoccupied with my father's health to take part in gossip.”

  “Of course,” Henry said, as he turned ashen again. “Forgive me. I should have realized as such. I am sorry.”

  “About that,” Retton said. He glanced at me. “May I relate what Nathaniel said earlier concerning your father? I do not wish to cause you distress and would never want you to relive anything if—”

  I held up my hand. “I am fine. Please tell Lord Halithorpe what must be known.”

  Every muscle in Henry’s face twitched as if waiting for the worst news. “What did he say concerning Lord Abbotden?”

  Retton took a deep breath before continuing. “He was very disrespectful. He did not properly greet Lady Juliana. He fixated onto her mother and would not release her hand. He asked if she were the newest Countess Abbotden or the fortunate widow?”

  Henry sighed and stared at the floor. “I am sorry for him, Lady Juliana. I would never wish anyone to disgrace the memory of your father. He was a good and honorable man and well respected.”

  “Thank you,” I said. I am not ashamed to admit those were the only words I could utter. Tears rushed, and my vision blurred.

  “He called Lord Abbotden old and feeble with a widow who did not deserve condolences because of her new freedom.” Retton hesitated as he glanced at me. “I will not convey what else he said about Lady Juliana out of respect. That will never be reiterated.”

  I could not help but smile at Retton. To have him defend me was more than I could ever deserve. I remember telling myself not to look so happy; he might think me quite mad.

  Henry threw himself down on the sofa. “What am I to do with him? He disgraced the family from the time he was fifteen. Mother and Father were so disgusted by his behavior they routinely found relatives to take him. That only lasted a few months because he would find a way to ruin that.”

  “I have offered the suggestion before,” Retton said. “Both Preston and Bertch would be willing to see Nathaniel into the military. He would arrive an officer, and...”

  Henry shook his head. “He refuses.”

  A ghostly silence clotted the air as Retton and Henry contemplated their next actions. Then, a group of giggles descended the stairs. Retton, Henry, and I waited, but nothing could have prepared me. Mother's shame is sure to reach us all. The giggles down the stairs belonged to Mother and Nathaniel. They held onto each other as if both were stricken ill. They arrived at the bottom step and kissed until Henry dragged his brother away. Nathaniel’s jacket was missing, and his shirt was opened. Mother tried to button up her dress and reshape her messy hair.

  Henry stood directly in front of his brother trying to shield me. “Nathaniel, cover yourself for god's sake. What is the matter with you?”

  Once Nathaniel buttoned up his shirt, Henry studied Mother. I could not see his expression, but I am sure he thought of you. “Countess,” he said, barely containing his contempt. “Please remember your place.”

  And this next part fills me with shame I did not know existed. Mother stepped forward. I thought at first she was to be sick. She stepped close to Henry and slapped him. Yes, she actually hit him.

  What did Mother do after this? She laughed. Nathaniel laughed so hard he fell back on the stairs. She picked him up, and they stumbled through a door out of sight.

  “I am so sorry, Lord Kemnay,” I bowed formally to him. “Lord Halithorpe.” I did not know what else to say. I had never needed to frame an apology for such behaviour. I ran up the stairs and sat down partly because I feared my legs would take me no further and partly because I needed to know what they would say in my absence. I refused to remain in their hospitality should I not be welcomed because of her.

  “I am so sorry, Retton,” Henry said. “I wish...” he mumbled something I could not understand. “I will take Nathaniel back to Edenfield. If you would be so kind as to have the Countess removed.”

  “Of course,” Retton said. “Word will not get out about this. She will not and must not be allowed to sully the reputation of her daughte
r or step-daughter.”

  That is how our night went. I will not sleep tonight as I replay the events over again. I have never felt such shame and horror. To dishonour Retton’s generosity and to provide further anxiety to Henry is unforgivable. I wish I did not have to tell you, but you need to know what has happened.

  Mother had only been here a few hours, but she destroyed everything so quickly. She has quite the gift. Be forewarned she is on her way to Ashland. At the party, we must have private time to discuss what should be done about her. Perhaps we can send her abroad for a few decades? Or maybe she would prefer to reside permanently at Bath if she has not made too many enemies there.

  Juliana

  Letter 12 ~ Cassandra to Juliana

  March 13, 1810

  Dearest sister, Patience has indeed returned to Ashland, but she has been sublimely pleasant. You and I both know that only means one thing: she plots. For a few days, I knew not the meaning of her moods. She awakens late as usual and is dreadful to the staff, but she is always within reach whenever the post is delivered. I asked Mr. Ramsey to capture all the mail yesterday and say that Patience had received none. It was then I was able to ascertain the source of her good mood. She is receiving regular letters from Mr. Nathaniel Seaton.

  The scandal will damage us all: Patience is recently widowed. Mr. Nathaniel Seaton is half her age, and I am sure no offer of marriage has been discussed. We both know she will not marry without the enticements of title and wealth.

  I am unsure of how to proceed. If I hid all the subsequent letters from Mr. Seaton, he might make his way here. That is a scene I do not wish to experience - especially after your descriptions of him. I am sorry, dearest one, of what you witnessed. It must have been quite the indignity especially in front of Lord Kemnay. Lesser men would have turned on you immediately for being the daughter of such a being and forced you out only to spread rumour and gossip. He is a true gentleman.

  Forgive me. I am the older sister and should have all the answers. Father taught me many things concerning Ashland management and business. I am afraid he was quite unsure of how to deal with Patience. I must rely on your keen sense of personalities. James fears treading upon such delicate matters. If things proceed poorly, I am sure he will be of help - especially if her behaviour has ill effect on us.

  I am so proud of and admire your strength. I await your letter anxiously.

  Cassie

  Letter 13 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  March 15, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, I am both glad and sorry Mother is back at Ashland - glad she is no longer with Mr. Nathaniel Seaton to provide further gossip but sorry for you and James. How to proceed?

  I fear you give me too much credit with my powers of perception. Or perhaps not. Knowledge of other personalities is perhaps the one and only area I surpass my beautiful and intelligent sister. While you achieve so much else with your talents, perhaps my gift is ascertaining people's true motives and determining the legitimacy of their deceitful words.

  Yes, I imagine you violently shaking your head while reading this, sweet sister, but you must know your many skills. You play piano better than I. You certainly draw and paint better. I always end a mess with scratches where there ought to be trees and squashed acorns where there ought to be faces. You can speak better than I or me or whatever the grammar dictates. You are much more sociable: you do not say things which are better left unthought. Most fortunate of all, sweetest one, is that your own mother possessed a good soul. Patience Bering’s blood does not clog your sensibilities. I fear what I might have received from her. She excels only in sinister things.

  Yes, both Retton and Henry have been very generous indeed. Unfortunately, we have seen little of Lord Halithorpe. I fear he occupies himself with his brother's nefarious deeds, and, if Henry realized Nathaniel was in communication with Mother, he would surely be disgraced more. I will also let them know your fears Nathaniel might show up at Ashland. Any threat of your distress will force Henry to ensure nothing untoward takes place.

  I am not so naïve. I am sure Mother will anticipate our maneuvering; she never lacks in plotting or scheming or finding ways of humiliating her family. I can only hope she finds a new husband soon. I pray he lives far away so her future behaviour will be no consequence to our happiness.

  I will let you know soon how I managed to bring this all about. Insert appropriate space for laughter. Not even I have confidence enough to believe we can so easily defeat Patience Bering! I cannot wait until next week when you will finally be here for Rebecca and Retton's party.

  Your very busy sister,

  Juliana

  Letter 14 ~ Cassandra to Juliana

  March 17, 1810

  Dearest Juliana, thank you in advance for your efforts. I am sorry the burden falls to you. It is your own fault: you are much too clever in deciphering human nature.

  I do regret this letter offers more ill timed news. A few hours after my last letter was sent, I took a walk around the gardens and tripped on a bit of earth. It is nothing serious, but my ankle is quite swollen and painful. The doctor said I should not travel until healed. I persuaded James to attend the celebration at Ramsbury without me. It would be good for him to be on his own for a few days.

  This will help ease my nerves upon which you are well aware and I dare not speak. I have been struggling every day, but I am determined to choose happiness over regret about what will never take place. Please send my condolences to Lady Rebecca and Lord Kemnay.

  Cassie

  Letter 15 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  March 18, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, I received your letter and appreciate it not at all. I have so been looking forward to seeing you. I blame either you or the ‘bit of earth’ you mentioned. I am unsure which to blame more. I do not discount your pain and suffering and am very sorry for it.

  I am glad you persuaded James to come without you. I did understand what you said and, more importantly, what you did not say concerning his absence. I will keep you informed as to all that happens. I will ensure James is properly attended to and does not meet with an accidental death by a certain gentleman who remains miserable without you. I am sorry for my petulance, but I lack the ability to control my behaviour. Recover and enjoy the solitude of Ashland.

  Your all wise and knowing sister,

  Juliana

  Letter 16 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  March 22, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, I prepared both Retton and Henry for the likelihood Mother might surprise us and attend. Perhaps, that is my calling: educate kind souls to the devious nature of those most sinister.

  Oh, I wish you could see the festivities. The splendor of Ramsbury is breathtaking. The stone sparkles. The brightly colored tapestries shine. Flowers adorn each table. Even the fireplaces are clean and inviting. The entire house, although too large for my taste, is comforting. I am warm here - physically and mentally. That is the only way to describe it.

  I told Retton I would not leave his sister’s side for the duration of the party. Rebecca, bless her shy heart, likes not to be the center of attention. Ill indeed since it is her birthday party. I have taken it upon myself to protect her interests from unscrupulous beings. I owe it to her brother.

  It is interesting how a birthday celebration entices certain gentlemen of good breeding but little money. Rebecca could fall prey were it not for my brazen abilities to ascertain their true financial motivations. She is much too beautiful and high strung to be taken with anything less than true love. I will not allow it. There, I feel much better now. Sometimes I irritate myself with such high minded thoughts, but I am glad I can unburden myself with you.

  I hope your untimely injury is righting itself and you can enjoy the solitude of Ashland. I must go for I hear Rebecca’s giggle. She was supposed to be in her room resting. Her squeaky laughter can only mean another gentleman might have captured her fancy. He has not been approved by me, so I must dissuade him at once.


  I have returned. Another of the unscrupulous glommed onto Rebecca. She smiled, giggled, and pleaded for rescue. Why are some so reluctant to be rude whenever a handsome smile is sent their way? Rebecca thanked me for the rescue and has retreated to her room again for a few minutes of peace.

  You will be happy to know James is here. He has been talking for quite some time with Retton. Henry has been very nice to him. I should ensure he does not poison his drink. I am only kidding. Henry realizes a murder will not get him any closer to you. I hope. Just a minute. I must be sure...

  Alright, I crept to the top of the stairs. Retton, Henry, and James were discussing business related things. I do find business so incredibly dull; the words scramble themselves before they reach my brain. I am sure you would understand perfectly. I hear the words crops, livestock, and managing, and I almost faint dead away. Satisfied a murder would not ensue, I was going to return to this letter, but Retton's smile beckoned me downstairs.

  James greeted me very warmly. “Cassandra was so sorry she was unable to attend.”

  “I know,” I said, smiling. “She wrote to me about her fall.”

  Luckily, I had already informed Henry. If he had turned ashen, rushed out of the room, grabbed a carriage, and driven to Ashland, I am sure even James would have suspected something.

  “I did not want to leave her,” James said. “And I should not have.”

  “But she wanted you to come,” I assured him. “She was so anxious that you enjoy yourself with your old friends.” Henry's face did crease ever so slightly as if it pained him when I said that. “But she is doing better, is she not?”

  “Yes,” James said. “The Doctor did think it best that she continue to rest until she is healed properly.”

  “And hopefully Mother will leave her be.”

  Bless James, for he frowned at me as if he had not the slightest knowledge of what I meant. Is there such a man? Could he really not understand what Mother is? Henry and Retton glanced at each other. Yes, there were kind men who did understand the likes of Mother. “James, you will be staying for a few days?” I asked quickly to change the subject.

  “Yes,” James said. “Lord Halithorpe was kind enough to offer a place at Edenfield.”

  I nodded without reply for I trusted myself not a wit.

  “I would have offered Lord Abbotden to stay here,” Retton said. “But it seems all of the rooms have been taken.”

  “Well, you are too popular, are you not?” I kidded him. “Everyone is anxious to celebrate you and your sister.”

  “Perhaps Rebecca, but I am unsure of celebrating me.” He smiled at me. It was not an ordinary smile. Nothing that Retton did was ordinary. Most smiles from most people are carelessly tossed, but Retton was not the type of man who gave away anything so casually. His smile betrayed his feelings for me, and I forgot we were at a party. I forgot about Henry or James or Rebecca. My stomach fluttered, and I hoped Retton never stopped smiling at me.

  I will admit, dearest sister, James is an honorable man and perhaps attractive in his own way, but standing beside the handsome cousins pales him further.

  Henry, as you know, is incredibly handsome with an air of dignity. He is the one anyone would seek for help. And Retton? His deep and dark eyes trance me. I shook my head to release my thoughts. Retton distracts me, and I had to excuse myself. Before I could find Rebecca, the Dowager Countess arrived.

  She looked around the room at three dozen people who anxiously waited to be noticed and glided over to me. “I am glad there is at least a friendly face to greet me.” She leaned in close to whisper. “I was unaware we knew so many unattractive people.”

  She grabbed my arm and led me to the chairs furthest from the center of the room. “It is best to be in the background and not directly in the center of the drama.”

  I sat down next to her. “It makes it easier to ascertain motives if one is not forced into conversations with the very people I am trying to figure out.” For most, I would have hesitated to speak so openly, but the Dowager Countess is one that admires honesty and can instantly see through artifice.

  “Exactly. This is what I am always saying. Oh, I do so hope you have softened your heart towards Retton. You would make such an addition to my family.”

  I studied my folded hands. “I had convinced myself I should not be happy until my sister is, but...”

  “I am afraid your sister sacrificed herself, and now you owe it to her to marry for love. Speaking of Countess Abbotden, I expected to see her by now.” She glanced around the room.

  “She twisted her ankle, and the doctor said it was best not to travel.”

  “Oh, that is a shame. I know my grandson longed to see her again no matter the impropriety. Henry is quite the stubborn one when it comes to finding a mate, and I have long wished that he choose wisely.”

  Oh, he chose wisely, but he lacked the timing to meet her before her wedding. But that would not have saved Ashland, would it? A non-Bering would have inherited. Father would have been heartbroken for he longed to give his house to his favourite daughter. Now do not believe I am shaming myself or seeking a compliment. I have always been well aware you were Father's favorite, and I loved him more for it. Back to the party…

  A most unfortunate looking man approached cautiously. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, but it took him about twenty minutes to stalk from the center of the room. Unfortunately, his appearance did not improve as he neared us. He possessed only a few hairs on his head, had more hairs on the back of his hands, wore his clothes as if they had been made for a much larger man, and stammered before speaking.

  “Lady Halithorpe,” the ill timed man said.

  “Yes?” She looked him up and down. “Oh, Lord Stratford, I seem to misplace my knowledge of you every time we meet.”

  “I am honored, your most Honorable Dowager Countess of Halithorpe, that you recognize me.”

  The Dowager Countess produced a somewhat short coughing noise that was not exactly flattering.

  The man stared directly at me with little fear of reprisal.

  “This is Lady Juliana Bering.”

  “Oh!” he said as I stood up and bowed to him. “Yes! You will do fine, will you not?”

  I frowned and looked to the Dowager Countess for clarification.

  She shrugged. “Can you excuse us, Lord Stratford? We were in the middle of a conversation.”

  Lord Stratford continued to look me over as if I was the strange red hat in the shop. “Your mother was right about you.” He stared at me a few more minutes before walking away.

  I slowly turned away from his leer. “What was that?”

  The Dowager Countess shook her head. “He is not one to waste precious minutes contemplating.”

  I wondered how the strange man knew Mother, and my growing angst alarmed me. Then Retton appeared to help ease me into a smile.

  “Retton, you are very handsome,” the Dowager Countess said with a grin as she glanced at me.

  He smiled at his aunt. “Thank you, and may I say that you are—”

  She held up her hand to stop him. “I no longer accept compliments unless they are spontaneous.”

  Retton nodded. “You do have many rules. How does Henry remember them all?”

  She smirked. “You are definitely much improved, Retton. Might you stand a bit further to your right?”

  He did as she asked. “Why?”

  “Lord Stratford has become quite a nuisance to Lady Juliana. It took him at least three days to make his approach, but now his inane grin has frightened her.”

  Retton quickly glanced behind him, and Lord Stratford's gaze withered like old asparagus. I had never seen Retton so forceful. I assumed he normally shied away from confrontation, but I was impressed he did not. His aunt was also duly impressed.

  “That is how Lord Kemnay should act and certainly how the son of a Marquess should act,” she said.

  Retton grinned. “He is harmless. Much like a moth that gets into the house
and refuses to leave the inhabitants alone.”

  “So either ignore him, allow him an exit, or end his life? Are those our only options?” The Dowager Countess flinched. “My dislike for the man is deeply rooted. I had always assumed I would not like him, and it would be very inconvenient indeed should I be forced to change my opinion of him.”

  “He said something about my Mother was right about me,” I said.

  Retton blanched a bit as if I had said something so foul he could not bear to hear it.

  “Do you know what he meant by that?”

  Retton shook his head and sighed. “Excuse me.”

  I did not mind watching Retton defend me. I can only assume he is scarier to others than he is to us; his close proximity caused Lord Stratford to lose all colouring and flee not long after Retton whispered something to him. Retton is much more complex than I first gave him credit. I admire complexity. So many hide little of who they really are, but others provide many wonderful layers.

  I am convinced, sweetest Cassie, that people are either good or pure evil. The good would do anything in their power to right wrongs and help others. But the evil ones? They are insufficient in character and morals. Their little minds spin with self-obsessed plotting. They assume themselves to be clever so no one could possibly deduce their true motivations. It vexes me when others who are much better than I in both temperament and soul do not see them for what they are and are taken advantage of in the most egregious ways.

  That vexes and disturbs me and makes me wish I had the courage to profess a scene or be instantly cruel and expose them. Then, of course, I think of you and would never want to do anything to which you would feel obliged to apologize for or pity my victims. Now I have a headache.

  “Are you alright?” the Dowager Countess asked me.

  “Oh yes,” I said. “I was just thinking of my sister.”

  “Oh dear, it is as I feared and much too late to make an escape.”

  I looked in the direction that she stared and saw a group making their way towards us.

  She whispered. “Lady Genny and Lady Abigail and their idiot brother, Mr. Simons. Why can natural disasters not be compelled on demand?”

  They approached with loud grins, and I winced upon seeing so many teeth prominently displayed. The girls had very large curls which grew in various shapes and directions, and they wore the same exact dress. It would be almost impossible to tell them apart. Unfortunately, their brother looked like them but with larger fang like teeth. I had to steady myself because I was not sure if they were indeed human.

  “The Countess Dowager of Edenfield,” one said.

  “It is of Halithorpe, my dear child. Halithorpe. Remember? Edenfield is the house where I live.”

  The sisters looked at each other, whispered, seemed to speak a strange language, and then giggled uncontrollably. “Right, Edenfield like I said. The Countess of Dowager Edenfield who lives at Halithorpe.”

  The Countess sighed. “I was not aware your family was back in town. I am usually warned in advance.”

  “We just got back this morning,” the brother said. “Was it not this morning?” he asked his sisters. “Forgive me for I usually forget what I was needing to remember. We would not have missed the party for the world. You must be so proud of your grandchildren. Have you seen them lately?”

  “They are my great niece and nephew. Lord Halithorpe is my grandson.”

  The brother tilted his head back until his forehead was almost parallel to the ceiling. “But the party is for Lady Hannah and Lord Keminimay?”

  “Exactly,” one of the sisters said giggling.

  “No, you are wrong as usual, Genny. It is Lord Retton Halithorpe that is her grandson.”

  “I told you not to embarrass me tonight. It is not Abigail. It is Lord Henry Kemnay that is her grandson.”

  “No, you are both wrong,” the brother said. “It is neither that is her grandson. She only has granddaughters.”

  And so the argument commenced and continued. One protested this way whilst the other protested the opposite to the point where they confused even me.

  The Dowager Countess rose. “Silence! You have damaged my nerves and endangered my hearing!”

  The sisters looked at her in horror, but she winked at me.

  The brother whispered to his sisters, and they left in a flurry of confused bows and vexed ribbons.

  Then a chill coursed through me, and I immediately stood up. I could not see Rebecca anywhere. I excused myself to search the house. Henry saw me first and motioned to Retton while he continued to engage James.

  Retton walked over to me. “What is the matter?”

  “I cannot find Lady Rebecca.”

  Retton glanced at Henry, and Henry immediately understood what was happening. It does make it easier, does it not to have allies?

  Retton smiled at me, and I for once felt better. “We will handle it,” he said. “Fear not. You are a good friend to my sister.”

  So, for once, I merely thanked him and actually accepted that someone else would take care of it. It is amazing being able to rely upon someone else. It is important, I should point out, that the someone else be competent. So, I was going to return to the Dowager Countess but she was deep in conversation with someone and looked not at all perturbed. So, I returned upstairs to this letter. But before I could write more than a few words, giggles could be heard outside my room. Honestly!

  I opened the door fully expecting to find some crazed maid, but it was worse than that! It was Nathaniel and Rebecca! Oh, Cassie, it was worse than I feared, and my attention wandered towards the end of the hall where I thought I saw movement and hoped that it was Henry with a fire poker. It was Mother. She stood there watching Nathaniel and Rebecca, and she smiled this sickening all knowing grin which hurt my stomach.

  I had only one recourse. I rushed down the stairs and I am afraid I might have bumped into a few of the party guests, but their feelings will heal. And, if not, than they need thicker skins.

  Henry excused himself from his conversation with some much too giggly girls and came over. He was quickly followed by Retton.

  “I have found Mr. Seaton.”

  Henry nodded. “I have convinced him, and he has assured me to not have anything more to do with your Mother so you do not need to worry.”

  I shook my head. “No, but you have to worry,” I said looking at Retton.

  Retton's smile withered when he grasped my meaning. “Rebecca,” he said as he rushed by me and up the stairs.

  Henry closed his eyes. “He will be the death of me.” He followed his cousin up the stairs.

  I stayed downstairs for an appropriate period of time. I did not really want to be there to witness. Actually, I did but feared it would not look proper following two gentlemen up the stairs to the private rooms. Unlike my mother, I will not allow my family to fall prey to gossip and innuendo.

  I chatted up various earls and ladies and there was even a duke. I had heard about dukes, but had never laid eyes upon one. I do hope that other dukes are better suited to dukedom for the one I met was older than the country, could barely hold a drink, laughed at nothing, and spoke in either a whisper or a shout. It was amazing though that the woman, whom I believed to be his great granddaughter was his newest wife, and apparently, he had outlived even some of his great- great- grandchildren.

  I smiled and acted like a fool as I chatted about weather, the latest sash, and the newest fashions. I pretended to know nothing of politics or history and only smiled meekly when some Countess mentioned about how eligible both Retton and Henry were and how it was her duty to get one or maybe both of them to marry one or maybe all of her daughters.

  I finally, after what seemed to be a half century, meandered past couples and groups and went into a door but found myself in a dining room that apparently has not been used in a thousand years since there were no chairs and the table or what resembled the table was covered with cloth. I stayed there for a few minutes just to coll
ect the courage and to find another doorway that would lead me in the opposite direction of the party. I did manage to find a small door that lead to a smaller hallway past another grouping of doors and stairways where I heard servants and whispers and whatnots. I knew not if I were still in England, but I kept going along my journey until I came across a small hallway where a half dozen maids were stuck together trying to see out a small crack in an open door to what I can assume was the party. They immediately stopped and stared at me.

  “Can I help you, Miss?”

  “I am sorry,” I said. “Do not mind me, but I was hoping to find my room upstairs.”

  One of them pointed towards another door. “That one'll take you all the way up, Miss.”

  “Thank you,” I said. “Now, do not stop what you are doing on my account. There is much to be seen in there.”

  Some giggled and continued to look while I made my escape.

  After going through the door and finding a small stairway, I discovered I was indeed upon the second floor just at the far end from where my room was. Perhaps, there would be an invention of an indoor carriage for the truly enormous houses. I walked for a few miles, and I knew I was getting closer for I heard a raised voice which I took to be Henry. Then I heard another which I recognized as Retton and another man's voice which I recognized not at all. I assumed the unknown voice belonged to Nathaniel. Then as I approached a closed door, the door swung open and Rebecca ran out sobbing. She took one look at me and grabbed me. “Tell them, Juliana. You understand, do you not?”

  Henry and Retton appeared in the doorway and I was unsure what to do. I did not want to force myself out of Rebecca's confidence, but I had to make her realize the situation. “I understand, Rebecca, but you must listen to your brother and Lord Halithorpe.”

  The way she looked at me. I can only say, I felt instant regret on saying anything.

  “But you must understand. I love him.”

  I steadied myself because I was truly afraid of what I might say to that stupid statement. Love? What does she know of love and with Nathaniel? He was no more capable of love than a three pronged instrument or a piece of paper. “They do not mean to hurt you Rebecca, and would not deny you, but you must understand they wish only the best for you.”

  At this, she wrangled out of my reach and looked at me as if I were now her enemy. Then she gazed at her brother and cousin. “I hate you all.” She ran down the hall and slammed her door shut so hard I swear the entire house shuddered.

  Oh, I blame Mother for this. It is convenient, is it not, to be able to blame her for so many woes?

  Henry looked more angry than hurt, but Retton...Oh, if you could have seen his face Cassie I fear that you would have immediately fallen in love with him. Oh, listen to the words I just wrote. Honestly. Sometimes I surprise myself. Forget all of that. He was the most sad I have ever seen anyone. He and Rebecca have always been so close. They have other siblings, but he, being the oldest brother, always treated his youngest sister as if she were the most precious doll and determined to take care of her. “I am so sorry. It is all my fault.”

  Retton sat down on the chair as if he could no longer stand and stared at his hands which he folded and unfolded continuously.

  “How on earth?” Henry asked. “How could you be to blame?”

  “My mother,” was all I could whisper.

  “Forgive me,” Henry said. “But may I ask how both you and your sister...” I credit him with not finishing the question, but I understood his meaning.

  “I credit our Father,” I said. “My sister's own goodness of soul for not being born to her, and my tenacity with never wanting to be anything that might resemble the one who gave me birth.”

  “You are very wise,” Retton said, but I fear his spirit was broken.

  “When I heard a noise I assumed that it was Mr. Seaton and my Mother. When I saw that he was with Rebecca.” I went over and sat down beside Retton. I know it to be improper but propriety has little to do with common decency during times of distress. “I thought it my duty to protect Rebecca.”

  Retton looked into my eyes with such kindness.

  “She is a trusting soul. Too trusting for her own good.”

  Retton smiled at me. “You are very wise, Lady Juliana. So wise indeed to understand so much and be so young.”

  “You understand,” I found myself saying.

  He could not help but laugh. “But I am older than you.”

  “By only eight years!”

  “Is it? I feel ancient around you.”

  “Well,” I said, glad that he was able to smile in spite of himself. “Perhaps that is more your fault than mine.” I am not ashamed to say we did share quite a moment together. I was not even sure if Henry was still in the room, but we heard Rebecca's door slam again. Henry moved out of the way to make way for her.

  Rebecca glared at her brother and then at me. He instantly stood up.

  “Is that how it is?” she asked. “You can have your choice…” Rebecca’s glare startled me. It was not a glare of quick anger but one of pure hate. “But I am not allowed my own choice?”

  “Rebecca,” Henry said trying to calm her down. “Unfortunately, I know my brother. I wish I did not.”

  Rebecca shook her head. “But you do not know him. Not like I know him.”

  “Five minutes ago, he was in love with my mother!” I am afraid I did scream it much too loud for I did scare Rebecca a bit.

  “That is not true. You are just making lies up to discredit him. If you marry my brother you will get the title and house and everything.”

  “Rebecca!” Retton admonished. “You cannot talk to Lady Juliana like that.”

  “She does not even like me, do you Juliana?”

  Retton glanced at me, and I tried to hide my expression. Rebecca was smarter than I gave her credit. “That is not true, Rebecca,” I said hoping my voice sounded more sincere than my thoughts.

  “I read your letter to your sister!” she screamed.

  Oh, no. It was worse than I thought, and I tried to imagine which letter she would have read. I glanced at Henry, and he too hoped I was not indiscreet. But we got our answer when she glared at Henry. “And you writing to a married woman and declaring your love.”

  “Oh, no.” I stared down at the ground ashamed that I had written those words.

  “Why would you read something that is not yours?” Retton asked.

  Rebecca looked at him at first with wonder and then with a glare. “You knew? And you did nothing?”

  “Henry is not the issue,” Retton said. “Do not change the subject. You are not in love with Nathaniel.”

  “Saying it will not make it different,” Rebecca said as she folded her arms across her chest as if she were suddenly made of stone. “I love him, and I have accepted his proposal.”

  Henry shook his head. “No. Do you understand that he does not have any money?”

  “I do not care about that.”

  “He has no prospects. How is he to support you? Where will you live?”

  Rebecca looked down at the ground, and it was clear she had not thought more than the wedding ahead. “Here. This is my home.”

  Retton shook his head and took a deep breath. “No. You will not live here if you marry Nathaniel.”

  To this, Henry put his head up higher as if glad that Retton finally put his foot down.

  “Are you serious?” Rebecca asked. “You would kick me out of my own home?”

  “For your own good. Yes.”

  “So, Rebecca, I ask again. Where will you live?” Henry asked.

  Rebecca's eyes darted around as her mind thought and dismissed and then rethought various possibilities. “Relatives?”

  “Who?” Retton asked. “I can assure you neither mother nor father will allow it. You are the youngest daughter of a Marquess. You will be lost forever if you choose this path. All doors will be closed to you. You will receive a fraction of what is otherwise owed to you which means you
will be penniless within six months. Then how will you live?”

  Tears formed in Rebecca's eyes, and I felt sorry for her. I really did. The prospect of marriage should be a happy one and not one filled with threats and recriminations and penniless wallets. “Listen to them, Rebecca. They love you and are only doing this to protect you. You do not know what he is.”

  Rebecca's chin started to shake, and I hoped she was beginning to see the errors. “I love him.”

  I walked over to her and held her arms. “I know that, but he does not deserve it. Why would your brother go to such lengths if he cared so little for your well being?”

  Rebecca looked at Retton. Her gaze softened but it still did not have the affection it held before. “I will not abandon him like others have.” To this, she glanced at Henry.

  Henry laughed. “Is that what you think? Oh, Rebecca. You truly are too sweet of a soul to know the darkness that exists within some.”

  “I will not abandon him. I have given him my word. I will not back out.” To this, Rebecca marched down the hall and slammed her door yet again.

  Is it wrong that I worried for the hinges and how they must be suffering?

  I stayed in my room the rest of the night and did not rejoin the party so I cannot provide gossip on that. I feared I lacked the will to be sociable. I failed Rebecca so dearly. I can only hope she returns some sense or she will be ruined forever.

  I do hope your day and evening was brighter and am glad you were not here to witness this,

  Your broken hearted sister,

  Juliana

  Letter 17 ~ Cassandra to Juliana

  April 2, 1810

  Dearest Sister, I am sorry Mother continues to cause you distress, but Henry assured me he will fix everything. Yes, Henry. Today began calmly - not having received your letter concerning Mother - and I woke, had breakfast, settled the accounts, answered the correspondence, and decided to read in the gardens. Footsteps approached, and I thought Mr. Ramsey or Mrs. Kather needed me for something. Lord Halithorpe stood there! I could not believe it. I jumped up and dropped my book. He picked it up and handed it back to me, but I stood in disbelief.

  Henry smiled at me. “I am sorry to scare you, Countess Abbotden.”

  I looked around quickly believing his formality indicated we were not alone, but I saw no one else. Given the height of the hedges in the gardens, I did not fear lingering eyes from the house. “What are you doing here?”

  “I know this is not what you wanted.” He approached closer, but I backed away. It was a mere reflex but one he recognized.

  “If you want me to go, I will do so.”

  I swear, Juliana, I longed to say the words. I should have said the words, but they would not be compelled from me. “The party,” I stammered, sounding like a half wit.

  He glanced down at my foot. “Your ankle? Is it much improved?”

  “Why are you here?”

  “I had to see you. You asked me not to write. Hearing your sister praise your many attributes has only made me miss you more.”

  What woman would not long to hear those words from someone who has taken residence in her heart?

  “I am sorry, Countess Abbotden...”

  “Cassandra,” I whispered. “We are alone. Please call me by my name and not my married title.”

  He nodded. “Cassandra, I would never have come if James were here. I do not want to cause you distress.”

  He spoke deliberately by choosing his words most carefully as if either afraid to speak them or afraid for me to hear them.

  “I respect your wishes that we should not write, and I have done as you asked.” He looked down at the ground. Oh, Juliana, to see him struggle!

  “I know I should forget you, but I cannot. I lack the will or desire. My heart,” he touched his chest. “This beats only for you, Cassandra. Should I never be able to touch you or kiss you, I will never have another. That would be pointless. Once someone has known true love, there is little hope of hunting happiness through compromise.”

  I remained silent as he spoke.

  “Do you wish me to leave?”

  He asked me directly, and I wanted to say yes. I forced my head to nod, but I could not coerce myself to do what was right. I tried to think of James. I tried to think of Father. I tried to channel my mother’s soul. When that failed, I thought of society. Rules. Responsibilities. But I could only see the man who stood in front of me. Henry Seaton. Lord Halithorpe. I grew confident around him but also tempted to distraction. He was all I ever wanted to see. “I do not wish you to go.” I forced myself to look into his eyes and not be diverted by what I saw. “I wish I did.”

  He stepped closer.

  This time I did not back away. “Only if things had been different.”

  “But they are not.”

  “I wish I could love my husband.”

  “But you do not.”

  I shook my head. “I cannot betray him.”

  “I know.”

  I studied him. The intensity of his gaze relaxed, and the tension in his face lightened. I gathered strength from him to do what I ought. He had enough confidence to lend me; I would not risk siphoning too much to wound him. I took a deep breath and spoke. “You should marry.”

  “Is that a proposal?”

  I did not allow the fire in his eyes or his devilish grin to distract me. “You should be a father.”

  “Not without you.”

  I turned away from him. “It would be so much easier.”

  “What is the fun in easy?” He stepped around me to face me again.

  “I will not wish James away,” I said. “He is my husband, and I will learn to love him. You cannot wait for me. James will outlive me, and then you will have waited for naught.”

  “You cannot wish me away, Cassandra. I know I should not have come, and I promise I will not seek company with you again.” His eyes betrayed the wounds while the lines in his forehead deepened like wooden etchings. “I will not write if you do not desire it, but you cannot control my heart.”

  I could not help it, Juliana. I swear it as your sister. I did not seek nor intend it, but before I knew it I was in his arms. We did not kiss. It was not untoward. We did not speak. Oh, Juliana, I pray you find someone who makes you feel like that. I can only hope you are both free and willing to see it before it is too late. If that man is Retton, please Juliana, dearest of the dearest of sisters, let him not slip from your grasp. Do not ever let his heart doubt yours. The pain I feel is something I would never wish upon another.

  Life can be cruel or wonderful, but you must ensure your own happiness. Never freely give that power to anyone else as I did when I bent to father’s will or used my mother’s memory as a guide.

  I wish I could have held onto Henry for eternity. The knowledge that we would never embrace again haunted me, but I released him. We looked into each other’s eyes, but words would have been meaningless at that point. It was a hello and goodbye in one gesture: an awakening and an ending. Henry gently took my hand and kissed it.

  A leaf crushed behind me, and the trance evaporated. I glanced over my shoulder to see James walking back towards the house. How long he had been standing there or what he saw or heard I know not.

  That is not all. He was not alone. Your mother stood there. Patience did not walk away as James did. She stood with an all knowing smirk on her face which froze my blood.

  Oh, Juliana, what have I done? I have harmed James - a man who only did what was expected by marrying me. I was not his choice. He no more loves me than I love him, but he does not deserve this betrayal. No one must ever find out about this. My humiliation must be mine alone. If my actions tinged the reputation of James, I could not live. I fear what Patience Bering intends upon doing with the knowledge. She is known for gathering incriminating information and wielding it for greatest effect. Many have been ruined by her.

  James has locked himself in his room with the excuse he left the party early because he was ill. Your m
other merely grins at me without speech.

  I fear my actions will have enormous consequences. If I alone would be hurt, I would welcome the damage. But my actions will harm us all. What have I done? In one moment, I have ruined any chance of happiness with James. I have destroyed my father’s faith. I have fulfilled my destiny that was set so long ago: I am a disgrace to my mother’s memory. I should have been the one who succumbed that day. The world needed her goodness not my selfish sins.

  I can write no longer. I have lost the will. What lurks now is only shame. Denounce me when you can. Make it sooner rather than later. At least, you might have a chance at a life and be spared the humiliation I will soon spread.

  Cassandra

 
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