The lettered affair, p.2
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       The Lettered Affair, p.2

           Alice Ayden
 
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  Part Two

  Letter 18 ~ Patience to Nathaniel

  April 6, 1810

  Naughty Nathaniel, what a delicious scandal! You were right - nefarious little thing. I never thought Cassandra Bering interesting enough to betray her husband with your brother!

  Why would the almighty Lord Halithorpe be stupid and foolish to risk rumour? And for Cassandra! I do not see the attraction. That stupid girl lacks the charms to make her idiot husband forget what he saw. As you know from personal experience, I could have taught Cassandra well. She and I were never close, and my own daughter is such a waste. I regret ever giving birth to it.

  Cassandra inherited her father’s dullness. She bemoans the loss of her own mother, yet follows a course of action in direct opposition to the saint who gave her life. This will surely darken the memory of those who still worship Cassandra’s mother. How wonderful! I have grown sick of being constantly reminded of that insipid woman who had the foresight to at least die before I had the misfortune of meeting her.

  I will write you straight away should I see or hear anything we might use. Remember, the more they suffer, the more fun we will have.

  Patience

  Letter 19 ~ Nathaniel to Patience

  April 8, 1810

  Devious Patience, it is wonderful how your name lends itself to an annoying attribute you gratefully do not possess. I was not surprised by your letter. My brother has always been a hypocrite. This will be his ruin. I have waited my entire life for it.

  Is there any chance your new son-in-law is violent? That would be divine! Unfortunately, I do not believe us to be that lucky. I had a dull, misfortunate meeting with James once, and a diseased rodent would have more passion.

  About our other plans...Rebecca is quite mad. The entire family thinks so, and it will require minimal effort to push her beyond sanity. She is annoyingly devoted to me. I glance in her direction, and her insipid smile hints of ideas her little mind cannot possess. Her brother is livid at the prospect. I enjoy torturing Retton with hints of what I have already done with his precious Rebecca. We can topple my brother and cousins at the same time as your stupid step-daughter! We should be on the hunt for more of our enemies to disgrace.

  What fun we do have! I was getting rather bored seducing ladies, enticing duchesses, and molesting maids. How I do hate to be bored. But your delicious schemes have given me hope. I have been so alone in my life with no one to truly understand me. Think of the damage we will cause, my love.

  Keep me in your thoughts until you tempt me to your bed again.

  Nathaniel

  Letter 20 ~ Cassandra to Juliana

  April 8, 2010

  Dearest sister, I am sorry I have not written sooner. James is indeed ill. The doctors are unsure of what is causing his symptoms.

  I have not left his side. I have begged his forgiveness and have told him everything, including the letter I wrote to Lord Halithorpe. James assured me he does not think less of me. He actually asked my forgiveness in being pressured into marriage. Can you believe it?

  I have promised I will never see Lord Halithorpe, which James did not demand. Please do not return to Ashland. The doctors do not believe James is contagious, but I will not risk your health. Rest assured, I am fine. I will dedicate myself to being a loving and loyal wife and hope someday to forgive myself as James has.

  Cassandra

  Letter 21 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  April 10, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, I assume you wished your letter to alleviate my nerves, but I fear you have only set them on edge. Did you write your last letter without coercion? This was not at all you! I am very glad James holds no ill will. Since he lacks any passion or love for you, I would assume he would not. Yes, I understand the custom of marriage and the rules. So, do not question that.

  But to give up Lord Halithorpe? As if there will never be a day? Please have the doctor tend to you immediately for I like not how you sound.

  Did I tell you that Henry has been staying at Ramsbury so that he and Retton may anticipate Nathaniel’s next move? Well, he is and they have been. Retton has persuaded Henry not to return to Ashland. He even ordered all the carriages away and forced the horses into the farthest fields.

  I will only tell them that James is still ill, does not lay blame, and is not being foul. I will not tell them you have gone mad.

  Your confused and befuddled sister,

  Juliana

  Letter 22 ~ Nathaniel to Patience

  April 10, 1810

  Beautiful Patience, Rebecca has fallen. Her money will be ours, and no one can stop the marriage. I wish you had been here to witness my mighty brother crumble.

  “Nathaniel, why must you make everything so difficult?” Henry began every lecture the same.

  I normally smirk or pretend to read or stare up at the ceiling while I think of more pleasant things like how the fire swam over your perfect skin that morning.

  “Are you listening to me?” he asked.

  “Rarely.”

  Henry sighed and sat down as if overwhelmed by his responsibilities. Poor thing! To be rich and titled and pandered to. It must be so tiring.

  I took a deep breath because I wanted to savor the moment. “It is difficult to comprehend, brother, how you can lecture me when you were recently in the arms of a married Countess.”

  He stood up quickly ready to act. I proudly induce violence in my family. It is a gift and quite entertaining. Henry’s eyes flared or maybe it was his ears. I knew I had touched upon a rough nerve, but there was more to taunt...

  “Is it wise for an earl who just inherited to bring such shame to a recently married Countess? Whatever will society think of her? She was married for how long? A month? And you, brother, what would our parents say?”

  “How dare you speak of them!” he blustered.

  “I care not for your precious Edenfield.” I looked around his office which used to be my father’s. Henry had changed none of the Greek statues father was so fond of or the law books or even the intricately carved chair or oversized desk. Henry still had the red rug mother had insisted brightened up father’s office. It was hideous and failed at bringing warmth to a father so cold. “I care not for your worthless title or for your married Countess. I have had plenty of my own. Do you find married women more eager than mere daughters of wealth? Maybe they have more to prove.”

  “Enough!”

  Unfortunately it was not Henry who spoke. I did not realize my grandmother had entered the room. I have to confess a secret to you Patience: you can seduce me and bend me to your will, but my grandmother is the only one who intimidates me to silence. It is as if some unknown and long suppressed part of me longs for her approval. I like not the way she makes me feel.

  “You will not bring shame to your family, Nathaniel,” my grandmother said.

  “He is the one,” I said pointing at my brother. “Your favourite is in love with a married woman!”

  The Dowager Countess sighed. “I will never censure him for using his heart. I wish you used yours for something.”

  I could only sigh. I have never been a favourite. Henry is the oldest and the one who is disturbingly perfect in all things, but there were moments in my childhood when I pretended that at least my grandmother preferred me.

  “Hush, child,” she admonished me.

  I always assumed her to be a mind reader. “But he is a hypocrite.”

  “And you wish to punish us all?”

  My grandmother stared at me with her steely blue eyes which could bore through a man’s soul. Luckily, the butler entered and told grandmother about some appointments. She glared at me as if she expected me to do what was right, and she left.

  Without her presence, my will returned. “Fight my marriage to Rebecca, and I will expose your relationship with the Countess.”

  Henry frowned. I am sure he assumed I would take grandmother’s words to heart, but I stared at him reinvigora
ted the longer grandmother was gone.

  “But you do not love Rebecca.”

  I smirked. “Of course not. She is stupid and quite mad - although not tragic or hideous in appearance. That does make things easier. It is disgraceful when riches or privileges are attached to the ugly. They are ill suited for opportunities.”

  Henry shook his head. “Stop. The more you talk the more I want to...”

  I jumped up to stand in front of him. “Do not stop now, brother. Do you long to hit me? Remember the last time? You nearly broke my arm.”

  Henry backed away to keep his anger tamed. I recognized his clenched jaw and the way he curled his hands into fists. All that self control made me a bit nauseous. Henry teetered, and I had only to slightly push before he exploded. “Patience has the title but no money. I am sure Rebecca is useful enough to die promptly during childbirth. And, here’s hoping the offspring succumbs as well...” I paused knowing the full effect would sway my brother into madness.

  Henry’s eyes narrowed as he studied me. “You are not my brother.”

  I smiled. “Oh, but I am. With Rebecca’s money, Patience and I will be happy for quite some time. Then, there is always Patience’s daughter. Juliana is her name, is it not? I could drain her of the rest of the estate, and then Retton would have lost more to me.”

  Henry backed further away from me and leaned forward against his desk. “You are vile.”

  In a few moments, I managed to bring about my brother’s disgust, anger, sorrow, and pain... It was a grand day! “Yes, Henry, I am all bad things. Now make that insipid cousin of ours relinquish his sister. It is unseemly how attached he is to her. You do not think he ever...” I paused hoping Henry would fly into a rage.

  He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Unfortunately, he knew my tricks. “Retton and I have been in contact with his parents. They will give her nothing should she marry you. You will be penniless with a wife to support.”

  Patience, you told me this could be a possibility. I assume you know what our next move should be. Please write soon. I am likely to do something you will not approve.

  Nathaniel

  Letter 23 ~ Patience to Nathaniel

  April 12, 1810

  Nathaniel, your letter arrived, and I forced the post to wait until I could answer. Stupid, useless servants!

  You do not have to be so dramatic, Nathaniel. There is a very simple solution to a very simple problem: just run away with the stupid girl and elope. She will give in as she has before. She cannot resist your charms. The simple ones are so desperate for attention they think little about consequences and will do anything for handsome eyes.

  She will forsake her family’s desires for her own, and in due time, she will be with child. Once that happens, you will not have to touch that simple creature again. There will be nothing her brother or yours can do.

  You are a good student. Or, perhaps the accolades should be upon me. I am an excellent teacher. I taught you well what must be done to ensure her compliance. All you have to do is show her a few minutes of attention, and she will do what you bid. Conceiving is very easy especially if the world forbids it. My own vapid offspring is proof of that.

  Patience

  Letter 24 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  April 13, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, I wish you were here to counsel me. The situation is growing more dire. Yesterday, I sought Rebecca's company. She has refused to speak to either Retton or Henry because of their disavowal of her relationship with Nathaniel. I went to Rebecca’s room and knocked on the door...

  “Rebecca, please let me in. I am worried about you.” I knocked again. Then I pleaded my case and put my ear to the door only to be greeted with silence rather than sobs. I had assumed Rebecca to be quite mad, fully uninteresting, and without the sense of a cold rag. But perhaps her silence indicated stubbornness. Maybe it is only because I myself am as stubborn as the white cloud which refuses to budge just because the rest of the clouds wish to gorge themselves with rain.

  After much time had passed, I swung open her door and rushed inside her room. The only thing I found was a note to Retton. I took the note to him straight away. Well, I might have read it first - only to properly gauge my own response. I forbid myself to be in the middle of a plot or plan without proper preparations for the correct reactions.

  I read over the ghastly letter several times stopping only to curse Rebecca or pity her for the increased stupidity and foolishness. I studied the letter carefully hoping that her words were carelessly written with distress or that tears stained the paper making it impossible to read. Her writing was clear, precise, and without hesitation. The paper itself was completely dry.

  She had not hesitated nor had she struggled with her decision. It was worse than I could contemplate. I immediately rushed downstairs.

  “How is Rebecca?” Retton asked upon seeing me. I handed him the letter.

  He read it through quickly and sat down just as quickly as if his legs could no longer hold him. I silently cursed Rebecca for putting her brother through this. Retton is so full of life, and the way his eyes dance when the light traps them....Sorry, I do digress. Retton turned ashen and ill as Rebecca’s words pierced his soul, so Henry immediately grabbed the letter. He did not react as Retton did. While Retton’s life slowly evaporated, Henry’s anger made him quickly pace about the room.

  “What does she mean by this?” Henry looked first to me then to Retton. “Why on earth would she...” He trailed off as soon as he saw his cousin's unearthly appearance. “I am so sorry, cousin. I have failed you.”

  “It is not your fault,” Retton whispered. “She would not listen to me.” He quickly glanced at me almost as if he could not look at me directly. “When did I lose her confidence?”

  “Never,” I said. I was not sure if that was a lie or not. “She is too blinded by Mr. Nathaniel Seaton.”

  “I will never know why,” Henry said.

  “Apparently, you are unfamiliar with the allure of certain gentlemen.” I smiled hoping he would take that as a compliment.

  Henry’s frown intensified as if not fully able to comprehend my meaning. Then a sly smile crept across his face. “If he were only a gentleman.”

  I nodded. “But he is your brother. Surely there is something of good in him.”

  “I thank you for the compliment, Lady Juliana, but my brother's reasonings remain a mystery to me.”

  “Is there anything you can do to stop them?” Then I had forgotten that neither of them had actually read the letter aloud, and so I should not have been privileged to the contents. I blushed. “Forgive me. That was rude. That letter was personal and private and not intended for me.” I am not given to hysterics or acts of contrition, but perhaps I do not have the self control I used to admire.

  “Please forgive me, but I did read the letter only to...” Then my voice betrayed me. It shook and quivered and not even I could determine the gibberish that poured out. I sat down quickly on the couch and was just as surprised when tears rushed down my cheeks.

  Retton sat down beside me as I tried to compose myself. “Please do not cry, Juliana.”

  “I am so sorry,” I said amidst tears. “I was supposed to be her confidante, but she knew I did not approve of her feelings for Mr. Seaton. I tried to get her to listen to your wisdom.”

  Retton smiled. “Thank you, Juliana, for being her friend.”

  I shook my head. “I was not.”

  “But you were.” Retton took my hand, and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Henry turn his back to us and walk to the fireplace to give us a moment of privacy. It was a moment I did not realize I had longed to share with Retton until it happened, but I also knew it would be selfish to prolong it at the price of his sister's welfare.

  I feared my words would fail me. I could only smile at him and hope that smile articulated what my voice could not.

  Dare I admit to both my favourite sister and to myself that
seeing Retton in pain does pain me as well? Dare I admit that? What does that mean, sweet sister?

  Have I fallen at last? Has my heart betrayed me when I had promised I would not seek happiness unless or until my own sister was settled better in her heart? I know what you would say. You would tell me that you are married and happy. Although, one of those is a lie. I do not want you to settle, sweet sister.

  My actions and reactions can mean only one thing: my heart belongs to him. Now that I have admitted my feelings, it does make much sense. I wish you could meet him, Cassie. I know you would find him to be a gentleman. Knowing how much he loves his sister and longs to see her happy hurts me. It made me hate Nathaniel even more.

  Retton’s smile dissipated as he glanced at his cousin. “Henry, what can be done? If they are to elope, where would they go?”

  Henry turned around to face us. He periodically frowned then smiled only to frown again. I can only assume plots freshly hatched proved to be inviable.

  Retton studied him and did not interrupt. While Retton was destined to be superior to Henry in title, it was Henry who clearly took easily to the leadership position.

  Henry finally stopped pacing and looked at Retton. “I will have my men scour the towns until they are found. I will drag Nathaniel home and cease this nonsense. You should contact your parents at once to alert them of—”

  Retton shook his head and waved his hand to stop Henry. “They made it perfectly clear the last time. They have given up on Rebecca. They do not wish to hear of her and certainly would not want to be informed of the latest developments.” Retton stopped as if saying the words aloud were too painful. “She has hurt them too much in the past,” he whispered until his voice trailed off.

  Henry cleared his throat. “I am sorry, cousin.” Henry hesitated but took a deep breath and continued. “So would you be willing to provide proof that Rebecca will get no inheritance - no support of any kind? She will no longer be welcomed at Ramsbury? Nor be welcomed at all within the family?”

  Retton closed his eyes, and the struggle in his face was apparent. “It must be done.”

  Henry waited as if he expected Retton to change his mind. “Are you willing to endure her hatred?”

  Retton looked quickly at Henry as if he did not expect such a direct question. His eyes were wide with fear before his forlorn gaze found the ground. He nodded without speaking.

  I had little time to contemplate events. I made myself leave to write this letter. I wanted Henry and Retton to be alone, and I did not think my heart could survive seeing Retton in such pain. We are all in disarray, but the days have to brighten, do they not?

  Juliana

  Letter 25 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  April 13, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, please forgive my writing again so soon, but I neglected to inquire about James. I hope he is recovering and that you are well. Sorry for such a short letter, but I was ashamed that my last letter had gone to the post without even an inquiry.

  Your selfish and lost minded sister,

  Juliana

  Letter 26 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  April 16, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, no reply from you! I like it not at all. Please let me know everything is fine. My nefarious mind meanders towards many conclusions - all of which are dreadful. Why can I not focus upon happy thoughts?

  To alleviate worries, I will inform you of the latest. Retton has received several letters from Henry, and he is closer to discovering the location of the misguided couple. Henry assumes they have yet to marry but are intending to elope within the next few days. If only he would discover their location and provide Nathaniel the proof that Rebecca will be disinherited.

  Without her money, she is worthless to him. Henry almost found them at a dreadful little town, but they slipped away. Retton fears for his sister's reputation and wants her back home immediately. Although I must admit, Ramsbury is calmer without her screaming at all hours and fits of tears. Even the servants are more relaxed, and many have found the smiles that had eluded them.

  Did I mention in my last letter that the Dowager Countess is staying here as well? It was quite the surprise! Retton was busy in his study while I walked quietly in the gardens. I do prefer the east gardens closest to the house. The reds, yellows, and pinks of the flowers are more vivid, the sun brings out the shine of the leaves, the sparrows sing happier, the lizards are friendlier, the spiders are less intimidating, the stone benches are much more comfortable, and there are many large windows leading from the drawing room which Retton prefers to complete his business. I believe his father, the Marquess, relinquished the use of his more formal office, but Retton prefers the smaller desk.

  I alternated between admiring the newest yellow flower and watching Retton, and I heard something behind me. I turned believing Retton had escaped to surprise me. In fact, it was the Dowager Countess.

  She smirked. “Did you expect someone else?”

  I glanced into the study to see Retton’s head bent over a stack of papers. Yes, he had often seen me in the garden when I lingered and joined me. I bowed quickly to the Dowager Countess. “I am so happy you have come!”

  She arrived in her usual full mourning complete with black hat, black gloves, and black shawl. “Lady Juliana, it is nice to deal with the genuine.” She took my arm.” Let us sit down for I fear my strength is not what it has been.”

  “Are you well?”

  She shrugged. “Losses come faster at my age. I have buried sisters, brothers, parents, friends, enemies, two husbands, and, most recently, my son.”

  “I am so sorry.”

  We sat on my favourite stone bench. “Sometimes I wonder if I have any tears left.” She took a deep breath. “That is interesting. This bench looks not onto the fields or flowers but directly to the study and my great nephew.” She glanced at me with a smirk.

  I blushed. “Would I shock you to admit I love the view?”

  She pursed her lips. “I cannot shock so easily.”

  We sat for a moment and watched Retton concentrate on whatever managed to keep his mind away from his sister. “I am sorry if the situation harms the family, and I can assure you I have not said a word to anyone about Lady Rebecca other than my sister.”

  The Dowager Countess waved her arms. “I trust you, Juliana. Since both you and my dear Henry speak so highly of your sister, I trust her as well. Thank goodness for men like Henry and Retton. I wonder why Nathaniel can only be happy when he makes a fuss.”

  “Was he always like that?” I hesitated to ask but had to know.

  She nodded. “Thankfully, Henry being the oldest gets the title and estate.” She looked down at her gloves. “I fear what Nathaniel’s temperament would do with money, title, and power.”

  “Why is he so unlike Lord Halithorpe?”

  The Dowager Countess shrugged. “I am not sure. They share the same parents, the same house, the same upbringing...While Henry has an unending capacity for courtesy and welcoming responsibilities, Nathaniel consumes himself with trivialities and scandal. I am afraid he will harm many, including himself, before he is finished.”

  Nathaniel is something I have not yet studied so I have little to offer in terms of insight, and I cannot even form decent questions to ask. Although he is much like mother...

  It was almost as if the Dowager Countess could read my mind. She patted my knee and smiled. “Dear Juliana, you remind me of myself when I was young. When I was first married, my husband and I had barely even spoken to each other. It took me quite the while, but I did eventually learn to love him. But this business of running away with your intended without family approval and before a proper ceremony can take place...” She shook her body as if the idea and images would instantly erase.

  “It does sound grim indeed.”

  “Indeed.” She glanced towards the study and Retton. “You are very lucky to have choices.”

  What should have made me happy saddened
me immediately. My stomach ached as I thought of what you sacrificed, Cassie.

  “It is to your credit that thoughts drift not to your own future but to your sister. She married to save the family name and estate...”

  “And me,” I said not having ever uttered those words aloud.

  “Yes,” the Dowager Countess nodded. “She sacrificed so that you might have what was never offered to her.”

  “But it is not fair,” I cried. “I am sorry. I do not wish to whine.”

  “Sometimes whining is all we have left. I hope Countess Abbotden will learn to love her husband.” The Dowager Countess produced quite a sour expression, and I feared her breakfast had organized an attack. “James Hawksley is an acquired taste. He is much like weak tea that is tasteless, colorless, and...”

  “Dull?” Shame on me! I have written this all to you when it was supposed to be private. Please forgive me! You know I speak when I should be listening, or listen when I should be thinking. I meant no ill will.

  Please forgive me. I am ashamed of what you must think of me. You must write at once to chastise me.

  Juliana

  Letter 27 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  April 18, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, absolutely dreadful news! Patience is here at Ramsbury! My only solace is that she is not pestering you at Ashland.

  Patience arrived while Retton, the Dowager Countess, and I were dining. We were having a wonderful meal with cake. I cannot remember the main course, but the cake was delicious. You know how I cannot resist cake. I felt so at home. As much as I love you, Cassie, Ashland was never truly my home. It was formal and stiff with those dreaded thick red drapes which strangled the light. But Ramsbury is bright and full of life. Everyone smiles here. The drapes are always open to let in the outside. The servants are not harassed. The flowers remain after they should have long ceased to be. The floors do not creak. The chairs do not protest. Even the family portraits are happy.

  I was at peace. As I took another bite of cake - I so wanted to prolong it - I listened as the Dowager Countess reminisced about her years growing up at Ramsbury and how she was grateful her husband bought Edenfield so near her family home. Retton’s handsome eyes took me in, and his warm smile embraced me.

  Without being announced, Mother waltzed in, took off her coat, and dropped it to the floor before sitting down as if she had been expected or even invited.

  Mr. Hatham, the butler, groaned. The temperature dropped several degrees, and the air thickened with dread.

  Patience, in one of the brightest blue dresses I have ever seen, clasped her hands on the table waiting to be served.

  It was the Dowager Countess who spoke first. “I am sorry, but were we expecting company?”

  The butler shook his head.

  Mother glared at the Dowager Countess as if she were an unknown vegetable most moved around their plate to hide under more edible fare.

  What began as a meal I wished would last an eternity with smiles and laughter and cake - I cannot forget the cake - descended into a tense meeting of downcast eyes, sighs, and wishing the evening would end.

  Mr. Hatham quickly alerted the staff who brought in another setting. A young footman cautiously placed a plate in front of Patience.

  The footman could not have been more than seventeen with nerves he had yet to master.

  Patience looked the poor boy up and down. “It is too bad you are not rich.”

  The footman shook as he noisily served the wine.

  “Thank you, Jonathan,” Mr. Hatham said. He nodded to let the footman know he could gratefully leave.

  Patience greedily watched as the footman scurried away. “A shame he is so useless to me. I could do so much with him.”

  I closed my eyes and waited a few minutes before opening them hoping a nightmare had trapped me and I would awaken refreshed. When I opened my eyes, I still sat at the table across from her and realized the Dowager Countess had never been introduced.

  The Dowager Countess sighed before I could speak. “You were married to Lord Abbotden.”

  “For what seemed like an eternity. Why would someone so old survive so long?” Patience quickly glanced at the Dowager Countess and smiled. “I guess you would know more than anyone.” Mother devoured her food as if she had not eaten in a week! Forks flew, bread crumbs dispersed, and she spilled most of the wine in her haste to consume. I have never seen such manners.

  “Why are you here?” I asked not caring how that sounded.

  Mother innocently looked at me as if I were a simpleton. “Your sister’s idiot husband is ill, and I wished not to contract whatever he has.”

  “Is he contagious?” I immediately asked.


  She shrugged.


  “But what about Cassie?”


  If I were a leaf which had carelessly blown in the window uninvited, Patience would not have looked at me with so much disgust.

  “Did you see Cassie before you left? She has not written me in ages. I am worried that she—”

  Patience raised a fork full of food to silence me. “Your sister has her father's blood. She will outlive us all.”

  “And with so much love for your children, you thought to come here?” The Dowager Countess grimly asked.

  Patience threw her fork down. It clanged loudly against the plate before lunging to the ground. “I have one child,” she lectured. “One! I am grateful every day that it is just the one. Cassandra is not mine. She is too much like her insipid mother. Most daughters resemble their mothers, and it is to Cassandra’s detriment she was born of a saint.”

  “So who do I remind you of?” I asked, hoping she would not disgrace me by saying herself.

  She looked at me and smiled an unearthly grin. “You have your father’s idiocy.”

  I put down my fork for fear my appetite was lost forever. “Perhaps you should seek your other friends. What about Bath?”

  “They are occupied.”

  “Occupied?” I asked. Most likely they have banished her.

  Patience gulped down the last of her wine and loudly pushed her plate away. I could not help glare at her. She is considered one of the great beauties with her creamy skin and hair as black as the depths, but her personality poisons. She glanced around the dining hall at the family portraits. “Are these all your relatives? Which one is the Marquess?” Her gaze flittered between portraits trying to decipher their relationship. “Lord Kemnay, if you take after your father’s looks, I definitely want to meet him, but I guess it matters not while your mother still breaths.”

  I sighed. Why does she induce such violent thoughts in me? “Is there no where else you could have gone?” I pleaded.

  Patience glared at me. Her normally dark brown eyes grew black as she entertained various retorts. “I was wanted here.”

  I had prepared myself for the worst, but perhaps she was saving her more powerful ammunition for later when we were alone. “Who would want you here?”

  Patience grinned at me. “Have I properly thanked you, Lord Kemnay, for enduring my daughter’s visit?”

  Retton smiled at me which calmed my nerves and possibly prevented me from leaping out of my chair to strangle her. I hate to admit, but not even I could finish my beautiful cake. Another thing she took from me.

  “Sit up straight, Juliana,” Patience spit out. “And please try to find another shade of dress. Yellow makes you look of death. And your hair...” Patience shook her head.

  I immediately ran my fingers across my hair hoping that some strands had not escaped their confinement. One of Rebecca’s sane maids flattered me with the newest style.

  “I think she looks beautiful,” Retton said.


  I could not hide my grin.


  Patience laughed. “It does her no good, Lord Kemnay, to provide flattery when none is deserved.” She leaned over the table and stared at me. “I do believe your mouth has grown too large for your awkward face. Also...” she looked down at
my precious cake. “What have I told you about that? You are not beautiful or witty and have so little to offer gentlemen. Do not allow your figure to fail you as well.”

  The Dowager Countess cleared her throat. “We are honored to have Lady Juliana here. It is rare these days for young people to embody manners and class as well as beauty and poise amidst those who wish to demean them. It is to her credit that she takes after her sister.”

  Patience narrowed her eyes and clenched her jaw. She knew when she was being chastised. “Have you heard from your grandson?”

  “Lord Halithorpe is away on—”

  “Not him,” Patience spit out. “Why would I care where he was? I am speaking of my Nathaniel of course.”

  “Your Nathaniel?” The Dowager Countess smirked. “I was not aware you had purchased him.”

  “He wrote to me before he left with that unfortunate niece of yours.” Patience said slyly. “He and I are very close.”

  The way she said, 'very,' made me a bit lightheaded.

  The Dowager Countess leaned towards me. “I am truly sorry, Lady Juliana. I had heard the rumors but could not force myself to believe it was this bad.”

  “He wanted to marry me, of course. Nathaniel did. I have always had my choice of men.”

  “Well,” the Dowager Countess snorted. “That must come in handy.”

  Mother ignored the Dowager Countess and continued. “Your sister was madly in love with Nathaniel. Well, let us face facts, Lord Kemnay, she is more mad than in love, but I am sure you are well aware of her plight.”

  “Mother, I am begging you.”

  She smiled at me as if amused at my distress and continued. “I find Nathaniel quite a plaything, but I cannot marry without a title.”

  The Dowager Countess laughed. “At least you have standards.”

  “Rebecca was the perfect choice. My dear Nathaniel will have access to all of this...” she looked around the dining hall. “Of course, some of these will have to go.” Patience stared at the Dowager Countess when she spoke with little effort to conceal her intent.

  The Dowager Countess shifted in her chair. “So, you intend upon having a relationship with a married man?”

  Patience frowned as it not understanding the question. “And what of my sister?” Retton asked.


  “What about your sister?” Patience repeated. “She is stupid and insignificant. She will not survive long. Nathaniel does have quite the appetite.”

  Retton grimaced as his eyes flickered with anger. I ran to mother and pulled her out of her chair. Mr. Hatham quickly opened the door for us as I ushered Patience away before she caused further damage.

  I dragged her down the hall. We rushed past servants and whispers and strange looks, but I did not care. I waited until I had dragged her to the front door and stopped to ensure we were alone. “Why?”

  She smiled at me. She actually smiled at me as if I had complimented her. “The real question is, why not.”

  “Why must you damage everything?” I do not know how or where I got the strength, but I opened the door, pushed her out, and slammed the door shut.

  I know it was not proper, but she is abominable. Atrocious. I waited for a few minutes to ensure she would not rush back inside. When I glanced out the window, I saw a carriage driving away and hoped she would never return. A dreaded carriage accident fleetingly crossed my mind, but I would not wish the carriage driver nor the horses harmed because of her. I waited until my stomach stopped churning and my head ceased the throb which always accompanied a Patience visit. I slowly walked back towards the dining hall.

  Before I entered, the butler smiled at me. “I admire your courage, Lady Juliana. You are able to do what Lord Kemnay in all his manners would not do in front of you.”

  In the dining hall, Retton sat with his face in his hands, but he jumped up when I entered. “Are you unwell?” His compassionate eyes had returned.

  “I am so sorry.” I looked to both of them.

  The Dowager Countess shook her hands. “It is perfectly fine, dear child. It makes me admire your father and sister even more since I am giving them the credit for raising you.”

  I nodded. “Patience Bering had little to do with any of us.”

  “That is something to be grateful for,” the Dowager Countess said. “And you are nothing like her.”

  “The things she said.” I shook my head wondering how I would make it up to them.

  The Dowager Countess grabbed my hand. “Dear child, those words were not yours and should not be repented by you. You are blameless in all of this.”

  “But she is my mother.” I had trouble forcing the words out of my mouth.

  “And do you blame me for Nathaniel?”

  “Of course not!”


  “Blame should fall on the guilty. It is not up to the innocent to make amends. Come, Mr. Hatham,” she said. “Let us leave them.” The butler guided the Dowager Countess out of the dining hall.

  What Patience more than implied etched into Retton’s worried face.

  “I should leave you.”
He grabbed my hand. “I love you, Juliana.”

  I was not expecting that. For the first time, my mind did not swirl with scenarios. I only saw him. I only heard his words.

  He studied me. “I am knowledgeable of feelings that are more one sided, and I do not wish to injure or embarrass you should you not wish anything more than friendship.”

  He paused, but I am afraid I still could not speak.

  He started to let go of my hand, but I held on tighter to prevent him. He looked into my eyes. “Do you have feelings for me, Juliana? Could you have feelings for me?”

  “How could I not? You are everything I have ever wanted.” Yes, dear sister, I actually said those cringing words. Can you believe it? I never in my life thought those words would spill forth from my lips, but they did.

  “I do not know what kind of spell you have on my heart, Lord Kemnay, but I feel things I swore I would never feel. I think things I believed were impossible to imagine.”

  “Do you really love me?”

  I nodded.He immediately fell to the floor, and I was afraid he had taken ill. But when I looked down, he was kneeling. “Will you marry me, Lady Juliana Bering? Will you be my wife?”

  “Yes,” I said. “Yes and yes and yes.” For the first time in my life, I allowed my heart to silence my mind. I did not think or wonder or worry.

  The Dowager Countess rushed in the room. “Oh, Juliana, I am so happy! You are a wonderful addition to the family!”

  So, there you have it, sister. Just when I thought all hope was lost with mother's visit. It is the most amazing and wonderful feeling! I shall not sleep at all tonight or the next or the next. And as soon as James is healthy, you must visit at once. I know it is not proper that I remain, but I cannot imagine ever leaving Ramsbury. It is my home. And as soon as you have arrived, it will have everything I could ever want under one roof. Nothing will wrestle my happiness away!

  Your delightfully happy sister, Juliana

  Letter 28 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  April 20, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, I will not bemoan the fact that I still have yet to receive a letter from my favourite sister. I had even promised myself that I would not write you until you had written back, but that was too silly and spiteful.

  I will continue as if I am answering your lengthy letter. I do have great news! Rebecca has returned! And without Nathaniel! They are not married. Perhaps the letter stating she would be penniless shocked her the most. Or him. Or both.

  Retton sat at his desk in the drawing room, while I began this most witty letter - in between mentally chastising you for your laxness in writing me. But, let us say no more about that subject upon which I have exhausted myself.

  While Retton answered his business correspondence and I wrote, the Dowager Countess read by the fire. All of a sudden, a tremendous noise shook us. It sounded as if the chickens had been se
t loose and were organizing a revolt in the parlour. Retton jumped up expecting the worst when Henry flung open the door. I could assume it was not dreadful news because of his intent smile.

  Right behind him was Rebecca who ran in the door, paused a bit in front of Retton and then hugged him. “I am so sorry, brother, for what I almost did.”

  I could feel Retton’s tension melt as his shoulders relaxed. “Rebecca, I am just glad you are back. You are back, are you not?”

  She smiled. “Yes.”

  Rebecca smiled at me, but I fear the light was no longer in her eyes as before. I worried that Nathaniel might have stolen more than just her innocence.

  “I am so sorry. I feel so foolish.”

  “What did I say in the carriage?” Henry asked.

  Rebecca nodded. “That I should not think about it again.”


  “That is indeed good advice, dear child,” the Dowager Countess said, much to Rebecca's surprise. “At least you are back at Ramsbury where you belong.” Her smile at Henry was more gratifying than a thousand thank you letters. “Our family’s savior!”

  Henry beamed. I glanced quickly at Retton and was so proud my future husband did not debase himself with petty jealousies.

  Retton shook Henry’s hand. “How will I ever thank you?”

  Henry shrugged. “By being happy. My brother has the ability to destroy anything he comes into contact with, but Rebecca did not fall prey.”

  At this I noticed Rebecca's smile dip just a bit as her eyes found the floor. It was so fleeting that I doubt Retton or Henry noticed, but I can assume it did not escape notice from the all wise Dowager Countess. I could not wait until we were alone to gossip about the meaning.

  Rebecca’s perfunctory smile lacked the genuineness I had seen previous. “Yes, I am sorry I was almost taken in by him.”

  I am not sure if I trust her, but as long as Retton is happy.

  “Speaking of your brother?” The Dowager Countess asked Henry.

  “He has been persuaded to seek his fortune elsewhere,” Henry curtly said. I knew there had to be much to the story.

  The Dowager Countess whispered to Henry. “And how much did it cost you to convince him?”

  “Well worth the cost,” he said.

  “And how much to convince her?”

  Henry glanced at his grandmother and winked. The Dowager Countess sighed. “At least I will be able to sleep again in my own bed. Not that I minded staying at my childhood home, and thank you Retton for your hospitality. And should you not inform your sister and cousin of the news?”

  Retton took my hand, but before he could say anything Mr. Hatham arrived and handed me a letter. Well, Cassie I do not know why I am writing this to you for you know the contents of the letter. As I wait for my belongings to be assembled and the carriage called, I will continue for I loathe not to finish what I start.

  When I opened the letter, I could no longer stand upon reading the news. Retton grabbed me and helped me to the chair and then read the letter. “No.”

  “What is it?” The Dowager Countess asked very shaken indeed.

  “James has died.”

  Upon hearing the words, I could not bear it. Knowing that for the past few hours I was happier than I have ever been and that you, unbeknownst to me, existed in agony. I will not tell you the details, but rest assured the entire room was in shock and so very sad for your loss. The carriage has arrived.

  I will be there shortly, sweet sister. Do not worry.

  Juliana

  Letter 29~ Juliana to Retton

  April 22, 1810

  Dear Retton, it is worse. I have not been at Ashland for months, but it has changed so. It is even darker than I remembered as if the house chokes the beauty out of everything. My beautiful sister is so pale and thin that I barely recognized her. I do not know the last time she has eaten or slept. She looks at me, but sees through me as if seeing something which is not there. The doctor has been here and only says she is exhausted and heartbroken.

  I remain by her side so that she is not alone. I will write more soon.

  Love,

  Juliana

  Letter 30 ~ Juliana to Retton

  April 24, 1810

  My dearest Retton, Cassie is still unresponsive, and I fear the worst. I wanted to write you immediately for your advice because I cannot allow the news to fester within me. You are the most honorable man I know, and I value your counsel above everything. Here is what happened...

  During James’ final days, Georgina, Cassie’s maid and confidant, attended to Cassie who refused to leave her husband’s side. When Georgina left James’ room to bring Cassie something to drink, she was about to enter the room but heard them talking and did not wish to disturb them. This is what Georgina said to me...

  “Lord Abbotden was in and out of consciousness. Some days he was perfectly right, and others he spoke of things which did not yield sense.” Georgina wrung her hands, and furrowed her brow.

  I tried to rush her along. “So, you retrieved Countess Abbotden something to drink and brought it back to Lord Abbotden's room.”

  “Yes, because my lady is such a fine soul and would not leave his side no matter what. Not even when the doctors feared for her own safety.”

  I vigorously nodded. Georgina’s great aunt was the head housekeeper to my father and trusted by him. She took Georgina into the house, with my father’s permission, when the child was only six months old. Georgina was her mother’s twelfth child and could not care for her. For all her faithfulness to Cassie, Georgina was as slow to open as a blind flower. I was anxious to hear about the unknown rather than what I already had in my knowledge. “And so you had the water...”

  “Yes,” she said. “I was so concerned that my Lady would not drink nor would she eat even though Mrs. Kammish did fix her up all her favorites, but she would not eat even though—”

  “But what did you hear when you reached the room?” My limited patience thinned. “Can we get to that point?”

  The young woman wandered through her memories until finding the right one. “Oh yes, Lord Abbotden was talking with my lady, and I did not feel it my place to interrupt ‘em seeing as it was one of his good days. There were so few of ‘em you know that I thought —”

  I counseled myself that Ashland did not deserve yet another death, and so I clasped my hands together to ensure they would not do something I would regret. Georgina was raised with us and was always close to Cassandra who elevated her, but charity can only go so far when dealing with annoyances. Georgina found drama an easy companion and took nearly a year to describe what others could tell in a matter of minutes. I will spare her usual ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘oh dears’ and clearing of the throats and running out of the room to fetch yet another thing that might dry her tears.

  Georgina paced as if needing to reenact the entire scene before remembering it. “I waited on the other side of the door in case I was needed.” She stared at me with those huge eyes of hers which I believe could see beyond the sun.

  “And?”
“And I waited with the water.”

  “Georgina, I am wanting to be married before the year is out, and the only way for that to happen is to get on the other side of this story.”

  “Oh!” she screamed as if finally understanding. “Lord Abbotden was talking louder than a whisper so it was not me who was eavesdropping. Lord Abbotden told my lady that he wanted her to love another. A Lord Halithorpe. He called him Henry I think. Lord Abbotden did. That's what he called Lord Halithorpe. I do not know if it is because there is more than one Lord Halithorpe but —”

  I waved my hands. I was not sure if I wanted her to stop or my mind to stop, but it worked. “What else did Lord Abbotden say to my sister?”

  “That he wanted her to love this Lord Halithorpe. That it was okay.” She spoke from memory as if reciting a list she feared she would forget. “That my lady deserved to be happy and that he, meaning Lord Abbotden, did not
blame her for anything.”

  “What did my sister say?”

  Georgina thought a minute.Why did Georgina parse out details as if they were the dreaded garnish when all I wanted was the cake?

  “At first, I do not think she said anything, but she must have been shaking her head because then Lord Abbotden said, 'please Cassandra. Do not shake your head. Please follow your heart and love Henry. You deserve to be loved. I do not know if I could ever love anyone like I know he loves you.’ What do you think that means? That Lord Abbotden did not love my lady? But how could he not? She is perfect!”

  I had to readjust my opinion of James. I always believed him to be dull and dry, but at least he provided Cassandra hope and did not blame her. “What did my sister say to that?”

  “She thanked him for marrying her and for bringing some peace to her father in his last weeks by knowing that Ashland would stay within the family. That he was an honorable man. Something about how she had made a mistake that would never happen again. How her heart belonged to Lord Abbotden and not Lord Halithorpe. That she would never betray him. That she would never see Lord Halithorpe again. That she would will him to recover with all her strength. That Lord Abbotden was a good man capable of love. Lord Abbotden asked my lady if she could really love him, and she said she could and she would.” Georgina brushed the tears away. “Excuse me...” Georgina raced downstairs.

  Why am I always surrounded by the odd? There you have it, dearest Retton. James did not blame Cassie nor chastise her but thought only of her happiness. This, I am convinced my sister would never tell me. I fear she blames herself for James’ plight even though she had nothing to do with his illness. My sister is a sensitive soul who cannot see her own goodness. She has always thought the best of others and the worst of herself. I fear she will use James’ death to punish herself. I will wrestle her from this madness.

  I will leave it to your fine judgment how much of this to convey to Lord Halithorpe. Cassandra loves your cousin, but she would have endured a loveless marriage to James out of duty.

  Give my love to Rebecca. I miss you terribly and long for the day when we are married.

  Love,

  Juliana

  Letter 31 ~ Retton to Juliana

  April 26, 1810

  My Love, Ramsbury is so quiet and lifeless without you here. I cannot remember what it was like before I met you. What a dull and drab existence I must have led! Business and responsibilities occupied my days, but life is now filled with the promise of possibilities. You have done this for me. I do not know why you love me, Juliana, but I will spend my life hoping to earn your love.

  I wake up every morning, and my heart pounds deeply within my chest. I have to convince myself that I did not dream the moment you told me you loved me. You did speak those words, and my fears cease when I receive one of your letters that begin with, ‘My dearest Retton.’

  When we met, you became the soul occupier of my thoughts. The only thing that pained me was fear that you did not share my feelings. Oh, the sleepless nights I had wondering if I could be around you and not be with you. I was not sure what I would do. Surely, if you wished only to be acquaintances and then met and loved someone else, I would have been forced to reside in a far away land where your name might never be spoken. I would have gone mad.

  I must admit I was quite cross with Henry when he informed me of his feelings for Countess Abbotden. It was not her character but rather her marriage which gave me pause, and I encouraged Henry to find another more suited. What useless advice! I could not dissuade him anymore than anything could prevent me from loving you.

  Certainly, the heart must be more important than the mind since not even reason can deflect someone from their true love. I have asked Henry to forgive me for trying to turn him away from your sister. Most consider me a moral rock with an unyielding sense of right and wrong, but I do not know what I would do if circumstances kept us apart.

  I know your sister will recover under your care, and you will return to me. Something is weighing on my mind. Please forgive me for this unpleasant question, but what is to become of Ashland without James? I know Ashland is your sister’s home and should always have been, but she is welcome at Ramsbury for as long as she wishes. Please let me know if there is anything I can do.

  Always,

  Retton

  Letter 32 ~ Juliana to Retton

  April 26, 1810

  My dearest Retton, the doctors fear the worst. They cannot find anything wrong with Cassandra, but she deteriorates by the hour. My dearest Retton, will you ask Henry if he might come to Ashland to see Cassie? I care not for propriety or rumour or gossip, and do not care how it might look to others.

  I am beside myself with grief. She lies in a state that can only be described as a precipice between life and death. Her eyes do not focus and stare at nothing. She does not speak. She is so pale. She will not eat. I know she blames herself for losing James, but she did not cause nor desire his illness. I will not allow her obsession to punish herself be her undoing. I cannot lose her. I will not lose her. Please implore Henry to help. I do not know what else can be done.

  Love,

  Juliana

  Letter 33 ~ Retton to Juliana

  April 28, 1810

  My love, Juliana, I would do anything for you and your sister. Henry left immediately upon receiving your letter and should be there before this letter arrives.

  Please take care of yourself as well, my love. I cannot bear to think of you in distress. Should you need me, you know I would come straightaway. I have sent for another doctor for I do not think another opinion would hurt. Please let us know immediately of any news, and I pray that Countess Abbotden recovers quickly.

  All my love,

  Retton

  Letter 34 ~ Juliana to Retton

  May 1, 1810

  My dearest Retton, Lord Halithorpe arrived, and Cassandra stirred when he held her hand and whispered to her. I was hopeful until his expression turned quickly from excitement to anguish.

  I left them alone so I cannot write about specifics, but he was in her room for over an hour. When he came out, he looked not at all well.

  “What is it?” I feared the worst.

  He was paler than I ever believed a man could be. “She wants me to leave.”

  “What?” I could not believe it and was about to run back into her room fearing her close to death, but Lord Halithorpe grabbed my arm before I reached her door.

  “She said that seeing me only makes it worse.”

  “I will talk to her.” I rushed into Cassie’s room, and her eyes were clear for the first time in a long time. “You look better. Did Lord Halithorpe’s visit help?”

  She sat up with some effort, but she did sit up. “It clarified things.”

  Georgina rushed in the room and, upon seeing Cassie, threw herself down on the bed and wept. “My lady, I have been so worried.”

  Cassie touched Georgina’s head. “I am fine.”

  “But we were so worried!” Georgina said between sobs. “I do not know what I would have done. First Lord Abbotden and then my lady. Who is next?”

  “Georgina...” I grabbed her and forced her to stand up. “Can you bring my sister some tea?”

  Georgina dried her tears and nodded. “I will bring you everything since you have not eaten in days. We can start with tea, and then I will bring you—”

  “Georgina!” I had to interrupt her because I doubted my sanity could stand to listen to her any longer. Not only was she the most silly creature, but her voice grated like a greedy limb against a helpless window. “Please bring her some tea now.”

  Georgina nodded and fled the room, slamming the door on the way out.

  “Honesty, Cassie, I admire your strength in keeping her.”

  “We have to leave Ashland.”

  I did not understand what she was saying.

  “I am going to stay awhile with Aunt Grace in Bath.


  “Why?”

  “Ashland is not my home any more. There will be a new Countess of Abbotden. James’ younger brother will arrive within the week.”

  “He is the new Lord Abbotden?” I said sitting down on the bed. “I am so sorry.”

  Cassandra’s eyes grew wide as the tears started to flow. “I failed my mother. I failed our father. I failed James. I failed you. I failed everyone.”

  “Stop that! I will not allow it. You married James. Father was so happy in his final weeks. That is not something anyone else could have given him. I know he loved me, Cassie, but you were his favorite.”

  She shook her head, but she could not look directly at me.

  “I am not saying it to be contradicted. It was a fact. I well knew that my entire life and accepted it. I bore him no ill will because of it nor you.”

  “I am sorry,” Cassandra said.

  “But it was not your dream. It was not your wish to be Countess of Abbotden. You only took it because it was what he wanted. You sacrificed your life for his dream. You did not kill James. You did not make him ill.”

  Cassie took a deep breath and looked about her room. “I will recover. I will not die, but I will not see Lord Halithorpe again.”

  “Why the madness?” I asked trying to get her to smile. I could usually alleviate her tensions by saying something outrageous or inappropriate, but she only stared at me without feeling or emotion.

  “James’ brother arrives with his wife and three children. Ashland will have a family again. Since I failed in my duties I do not deserve to live here, and I never deserved the title of Countess of Abbotden.”

  “Please,” I scoffed. “Patience Bering had the title. At least you elevated the position again.”

  She did not smile or even allow herself some gaiety as if misery was her only solace.

  I fear protesting Cassandra’s long held belief in her own inferiority will be my greatest challenge. I must conserve my strength. Cassie is as stubborn as a wealthy but facially hideous suitor who foolishly believes finances have nothing to do with some ladies’ interest.

  Cassandra closed her eyes as if looking around her room was not something she had the right to do anymore. “I will stay in Bath and try to make myself useful to our aunt.”

  I wanted to interrupt her. I wanted to tell her that you invited her to Ramsbury, but she will not listen to reason. Not until she has exhausted herself of doubt and loathing will she be able to accept life’s gifts.

  “I do not blame you for asking Lord Halithorpe to come, but I do not want him here. If he stays, I shall wither away. I will not dishonor my husband by allowing Lord Halithorpe into this house to speak of the things he spoke of earlier. I cannot allow him to disrespect James by speaking of love and a future we do not have. Please...” She took my hand.

  “Allow me this, Juliana. Please honor my request. I will not recover in this house full of regrets.”

  I nodded and then left her room to talk with Henry. I was angry. I am sure it is not wise to confide in my future husband one of my many flaws, but I do not wish there to be any secrets between us. You should know now that I am a flawed creature.

  Lord Halithorpe paced back and forth, and I realized pacing could actually alleviate. When Georgina paced and pranced, I assumed she was a silly, ignorant thing who needed to jar her inadequate brain into action. But Lord Halithorpe paced with a purpose.

  “She is blameless. It is not her fault,” Henry muttered. “None of it is her fault.”

  “No,” I said. “I have told her that. James told her that.”

  Lord Halithorpe nodded. “James was a decent man. He was dull and dry, but he was decent.”

  “Poor James,” I said. “He never had a chance once he introduced Cassandra to you.”

  Henry smiled.

  “He and Cassie only married because my father wished it.”

  “I know.”

  “Oh, she can be the most infuriating...” I stopped because Lord Halithorpe looked at me with widened eyes. “I am sorry. I can only hope your love can blind you to the fact that Cassandra blames herself for events that have little to do with her. She longs for hardship and sorrow as if that would provide her a pure life. That has always irritated me. My sister believes denying herself will alleviate the damage that others have caused.”

  Lord Halithorpe continued to pace. “I do not know what to do. I love her. We can be together now. There is nothing stopping us.”

  I shook my head. “She would never allow herself to be happy since she believes she caused James’ death.”

  “But that is madness.”

  “That is my sister. She does not see herself as you or I see her. I have to abide by her wishes. At least for now. We are to leave for Bath. I will see to it that she fully recovers, and, once she does, she will see reason.”

  “But I cannot see her?”

  I knew it would break his heart, but I forced the words out. “No.”

  He paced about the hallway like a caged beast denied his favourite squeaky toy. “But this... we are safe... I did not want anything to happen to James.”

  I am glad the hallway was very wide indeed with few pieces of furniture and only sparse portraits of long dead relatives casting judgment upon us. “I know that. None of us did. We only wished the circumstances would have been different.” In hearing myself say the words, I realized that maybe we did want this, and my stomach churned at the thought. Did we wish this on poor James? I longed for my sister's happiness, but was this the result? Is Cassie punishing herself for our sins?

  “Do the doctors understand the nature of James’ illness?”

  At Henry’s question, I knew I was not the only one who regretted our thoughts towards James. “It was not contagious. The doctors told me what it was with words I did not think were English. They believed it was a weakness he was born with, and nothing could have prevented it or hastened it.”

  Henry nodded. “He was sickly in school. Easily caught what escaped the rest.” Henry suddenly grew very calm as if he accepted his fate and would not struggle. “I will do as she wants, but only until she is cured of this madness. Once she is fully recovered with no chance of a relapse, I will not give up so easily.”

  I nodded and was glad he said those words. Should he have quickly escaped, I would have thought less of him. But he would not give up on her.

  He looked at Cassie’s closed door as if he had to will himself to leave without seeing her again. “I will return to Edenfield, but she has my heart.” He looked at me with such fire burning in his eyes. “You tell her that when she is well again. She has my heart, and I will never stop waiting for her.” He walked to the door and placed his hand gently against it as if touching Cassie’s face. He smiled at me and then left.

  My heart broke for him, but at least Cassie is more herself. I realize Henry’s sacrifice - while great - has allowed my sister to regain some health. I am sorry, dearest, that I will be going even further from you, but I must see my sister through this. Once she is well, I will force her to see reason.

  Cassie will move beyond these feelings of regret to live a life. That, more even than seeing his favorite daughter ensconced at Ashland, should have been my father's greatest wish. He should have thought more about her happiness. Is not that what a father is supposed to do?

  Cassie is calling to me. I am to direct the move to Bath. I will write when we are settled.

  Please do not forget me.

  Your love,

  Juliana

  Letter 35 ~ Retton to Juliana

  May 4, 1810

  Forget about you, Juliana? Surely you jest! You are entwined with my life, my happiness. Forgetting about you is as impossible as forgetting to breathe.

  I am both happy and sad at your letter. I am relieved Countess Abbotden is recovering, but sad for Henry. I have not seen much of him. My aunt dined here last night and said he has settled into a business routine and r
arely leaves his study. Henry feels everything intensely and will recover soon enough as long as your sister continues to heal. I know he would gladly take on her burdens so that she would not suffer; although, I am sad to hear she might prefer suffering. Why on earth would someone like her wish to punish herself? I have never met her, but I can only assume by both your love and Henry’s that she is a rarity of perfection. What on earth would make her harbour such resentment upon herself?

  I am sorry you left Ashland but hope you will be comfortable enough in Bath with your aunt until you can reside permanently at Ramsbury. Do not worry about me, for seeing you dote on your sister makes me love you even more. If there is anything for me to do, you have only to ask. I do hope you might broach the subject of your sister living with us at Ramsbury when you can. I know Henry would be overjoyed. Of course, he is longing for her to live at Edenfield! I have included a letter from Henry to your sister.

  Forever,

  Retton

  Letter 36 ~ Henry to Cassandra

  My only Cassandra, I know not when you will be ready to read this. I will give you whatever time you might need, but please do not extinguish my hope. It is all that must remain since you forbid me seeing you. I wish you would stop punishing yourself for things you had no control over. You and I did nothing wrong. You married out of duty as did James. The fact that you and I met and fell in love was not planned nor plotted. We did not do anything untoward, and even James understood that. You would never have betrayed him, and I would never have asked you to.

  The fact that James died is a tragedy, but if you allow his illness and death to alter you as well then that would be the real sin. You did everything in your power to retrieve him from those last days, but his health was too weak even for your will to save him.

  Please, Cassandra, I am not asking for promises. I am not asking for anything more than for you to cast aside this self-punishment you seem determined to pursue. James would have wanted you to be happy. I am so sorry that you left Ashland, but I am glad you are staying with your aunt and sister who will help you in this time.

  You have only to write me or tell your sister who will write to Retton, and I would be there. I will do anything for you. You are my love, my life, my soul. I will wait until the ends of time for you. Do not forsake me. Do not forsake yourself. Do not close your heart to the happiness you deserve.

  Please come back to me.

  Yours eternally,

  Henry

  Letter 37 ~ Juliana to Retton

  July 4, 1810

  Dear Retton, things are much improved with Cassie. She is still as stubborn as a mountain, but at least she is eating and sleeping. Her coloring is more normal, but I am afraid her eyes, usually so full of life, are still dull as if all of her burdens have settled there. I know she has read Henry's letter. I found it in her pocket, and it was enthusiastically bent in various positions as if she had read it a thousand times.

  Oh, and you might wish to convey that I did not violate his privacy. I only opened the letter to see what it was that she had kept so close to her heart. When I saw that it was from Lord Halithorpe, I read no further. Not even I would wish to read something so private. Okay, so I did wish to, but forced myself not to. There, that is more closely aligned with the truth. I would not wish him to think ill of me.

  My aunt is always gracious and happy to see us. If I did not inform you, she is Lady Grace Bering, Father's youngest half-sister. I know no one of mother's family, and hope not to meet them if they are at all like her. My aunt never married and is always such a gracious host. She reminds me so much of Father and all his sensibilities. She loves to read and take walks and seems to know a little about just about every subject. I have tried a game of thinking of the most outrageous subjects, assuming she would not know anything about them, but alas... Whether I mention Asian beetles or undersea rocks, she can speak hours on each subject having just read countless volumes. She is fascinating and exhausting at the same time. But she is a decent soul, and Cassie loves her.

  Everyone is very nice here, but Cassie has been too shy to be around company. It is fine by me. I prefer her company to most I have met anyway. That way, I can watch her, understand her moods, seek the weaknesses which I might exploit to wrestle her from her loathsome feelings of inadequacy, and think about you and Ramsbury. Please tell me more about Rebecca. I so regret that I was not there to know how she is getting along. I hope the scandal did not shadow her for long for I do know how some love to live on gossip.

  I put this letter down for a few hours so that I could talk with Cassie. Things are very much improved indeed!

  I saw her in the gardens and decided to try an experiment. Before I arrived at the flowers she stood by admiring, I decided to frown and look very forlorn indeed. As soon as she saw me so pitiful, she had to ask.

  “Juliana, what has happened?” She looked very frightful but the spark in her eyes had returned so I thought it best I should proceed.

  “It is Retton,” I said, lying.

  “What about him?” She grabbed my hand and led me to the bench so that we could sit.

  “I miss him so much.” That, of course, was not a lie. “How can I expect to marry him when you, my dearest and favourite sister, refuse to seek happiness?” I worried that it was a bit much, but I cannot ever misplace my trust in my sister's love for me and sense of loyalty.

  “What does that mean? What have I to do with it?”

  “You married James out of duty to our father. To our family.”

  “And I would do it again.”

  “Yes, but then you refuse to see reason and seek to punish yourself by not opening your heart to your true love.”

  Cassie tried to let go of my hand to stand up and escape me, but I dug my fingers in harder and refused to allow her leave.

  “I am serious, Cassie, why should I be happy if you do not allow yourself to be? What makes me better than you?”

  To this excellent point, she had to think. I knew I had but one chance. “Do you love Henry?”

  To this question, Cassie’s colour changed from a dreadful pale to a full rosy blush. She nodded. “With all my heart.”

  “Did you hate James that much?”

  I know I was taking a risk, but it was something I thought I could do.

  To this question, Cassie stared at me, and I saw tears form in her eyes. “No. I did not hate him. I did not love him any more than he loved me, but I could not have hated him.”

  “But he wanted you to be happy, did he not? How is denying yourself happiness helping James?”

  Cassie shifted positions as the tension in her body grew.

  I held her hand gently. “Why do you think you should suffer for all of us? You tell me, and I will refuse Retton. We can stay in Bath forever.”

  She shook her head violently. “No, you will not sacrifice for me.”

  “Why? You think you are so much better than me that only you could make the sacrifice?”

  To this, she looked at me with eyes that had never seen me before, and I thought I had gone too far. I knew my sister would forgive me for anything, so I did not want to stop before I had made my point.

  “Why on earth do you think you alone deserve to suffer? It will not bring them back. It will only bring you to them.”

  Cassie cried for the first time in a long time. She actually cried. Usually, she sat taciturn and pale as if mimicking death itself, but this time her emotions unleashed. She mourned. She came to terms with all that had happened, and she returned a little to the living. I saw it when her eyes looked at me without pity or remorse but a sisterly affection. Her skin coloured, and her breathing deepened. I held her as she mourned. Aunt Grace nonchalantly walked by us before realizing what was happening. She stopped, smiled at me, and tiptoed back inside.

  “You know me, Cassie. You know how stubborn I can be. And you know I am only stubborn because I am usually right about all things.”

  To thi
s she laughed, and I was so happy to hear that sound which I had not heard for so long.

  “I love Retton. I did not think it possible to love someone as much as I do, but I cannot imagine my life without him. I want to marry him. I want to be with him forever. So, if you wish to deny your sister her happiness, then go about—”

  Cassie interrupted me before I could finish. She hugged me and whispered 'Thank you.' She then went back inside and slept for the first time in many months. Please convey this to Lord Halithorpe for I do believe we are the closest yet!

  I best go for Aunt Grace has just finished another book on flora and longs to tell me all about it.

  Love,

  Juliana

  Letter 38 ~ Retton to Juliana

  July 5, 1810

  My love, I am glad Cassie is recovering well and that she has read Henry's letter. No, Henry would never think ill of you. I for one would not allow it, but he, like you, is an excellent judge of character. With your sister's recovery imminent - please do read all the hope that my feeble pen may convey - that means it is closer to the time when we can marry. Is it wrong of me to be grateful you are not very sociable while in Bath? I fear that you might meet someone else the longer you are away from me. You asked about Rebecca, and I do wish you were here to make me understand her. I am not as adept at people as you are. My sister is very much changed. I do not know what to think of it.

  You saw her before, and even I will admit I had trouble keeping track of her moods which is why - I am shamed to admit - that I was not at Ramsbury when you first arrived. I have to leave, on occasion, to seek my own recovery from her. Her mood swings at a whim, and she cries for sometimes no reason. The servants have told me they can hear her talking to herself and arguing at all hours of the night with no one. I was so glad that she had made a friend the last time she was in London, but I do fear you saw her at her worst.

  But, since she has been back, she is not prone to crying fits or mood swings. She has not fled the room, and many would think that she was much improved. I have been privy to your deductive skills and do worry she may be hiding something. She is more taciturn than friendly and will only speak if spoken to. She sits in the study and looks at the same book she has been ‘reading’ for the past six years. Since she never changes the page, I know she is merely pretending to be busy so that I will not bother her. What is in her mind, I do not know. Sometimes, I fear the worst is yet to come, but I do not know what to do to prevent it since I have no idea what is coming. Oh, to have your insight and counsel!

  You might have been wondering why I had not inquired as to your mother. Most would have assumed she would be with Cassie and by her side during her worst times, but I knew she was not. Unbeknownst to all of us, she had been secretly staying at Edenfield with Nathaniel. I know. From what you have told me about her, I should not be surprised, but I was. Henry is too consumed with not thinking about your sister to have noticed, and I cannot blame him for he is not responsible for keeping his brother out of scandal. I am sorry that I did not tell you that Nathaniel was back at Edenfield. Apparently, after another scandal concerning the very young wife of a certain captain, Nathaniel was forced out of the army and returned to Henry.

  I know you will want a full account, so I will try to offer you events as they happened...

  I was at Edenfield to see Henry. He could hardly tear himself away for a few minutes to see me, but he did force himself. I think any spare time creates havoc with his mind, but I did want to assure him that there was much progress with your sister. That cheered him up immensely. I had to give him hope. Hope is the only thing he has now, and I tried to convince him that all would be well.

  “You are ever the optimist, Retton.”


  “And you ever the realist.”


  Henry pondered this awhile. “Perhaps in the middle, cousin, lies the truth.”

  Tension still lingered the air, but it had lessened when I heard a scream from upstairs.I looked at Henry, but his expression told me that it was probably Nathaniel doing something he should not. When I started for the door, Henry stopped me.

  “Let Mr. Hawkins deal with it. That has been his task lately to deal with anything Nathaniel related.”

  After a few minutes, Nathaniel rushed down the stairs and marched into Henry's study. “Why must you have your spies?”

  Henry paid him no mind. He went back to some paperwork and did not look up. “What did Mr. Hawkins find you doing this time?”

  “It was not your man. It was grandmother.”

  At this, Henry looked up alarmed. “Grandmother? Is she hurt?”

  “No. She is not hurt, but I was entertaining, and I do not appreciate her just waltzing into my room uninvited.”

  Henry smiled. “Then no one is amiss? Only your pride or what is left of your honour?”

  Nathaniel smirked. “Oh yes, I am always such a giggle to you.”

  “So, who screamed?” I asked, usually not wanting to get involved with Nathaniel, but I had to know.

  Nathaniel looked at me with disgust and stepped closer to me. “How is your sister?”

  Henry jumped up from his desk. “Nathaniel, you will not torment Retton with your disgusting behavior. Just because you destroy everything you touch. I am grateful Rebecca has come to her senses and is free of you.”

  Nathaniel smirked. “Is she?”

  “Yes,” I said emphatically. “I can assure you that you will never harm her again.”

  “Well, not unless she asks,” he smirked.

  It did take all of my strength not to attack him. I was so blinded by rage that I did not trust myself and placed my hands behind my back just to hold myself accountable. I did not want to allow him to degrade me further although just a few well placed hits would have done wonders for my mood.

  Henry looked at me, and he must have guessed what I wanted to do to his brother for he shoved Nathaniel out of the room and slammed the door. “I am sorry, Retton. He will be the death of me.”

  “No, he will not. You will live to be married to Cassandra, and I to her sister. And Nathaniel can...”

  Neither one of us could finish the sentence, but luckily we did not have to since my aunt arrived by throwing open the door.

  “Good to see you, Retton. Henry, did you hear the raucous?”

  “I did. It was Nathaniel.”

  “Of course it was. He was entertaining a certain...” she stopped. “Oh, how does one describe a woman of her persuasion?”

  “Mr. Hawkins can handle him.”

  “Yes,” my aunt said, before looking back and forth between us. “But it might concern you only because it concerns your fiancee.” Then she looked at Henry. “And your Cassandra.”

  This, of course, grabbed my full attention. “How on earth could it concern Juliana?” Of course the answer occurred to me before my aunt could shrug her way to explain. “No.”

  “Oh yes, I am afraid I did go into Nathaniel's room only because he kept me up all night with the sounds of his...” She waved her hands in the air. “Let us just say, it was rather noisy last night.”

  Henry shook his head. “I do not know what to do with him. Nobody wants him. I cannot buy him into somewhere else. Oh, I wish grandfather were still alive to deal with him.”

  My aunt snorted. “Your grandfather could not deal with Nathaniel any more than you could.”

  “We can hear you in there!” A voice charted from the other room. The three of us walked out to find Patience Bering and Nathaniel standing there waiting for us.

  “What lies is that old woman telling you?” Patience asked.

  Nathaniel laughed. “Probably quite a few. They are all liars.”

  “I am sorry, but you will not talk about my grandmother like that in my house.” Henry said.

  “Why are you not with your daughters?” I asked Patience.

  The way she looked at me. I actually grew cold with her shiver. I never knew that any mother could look callo
us at the mere mention of her children. “The one you mention is not really mine, and the other one...” she smirked as she studied me. “I rarely claim.”

  Henry stepped forward. “Cassandra said you were never at Ashland.”

  Patience shrugged.


  “Not even when your daughter's husband died.”

  Patience grinned as if something amused her. “As I have mentioned many times in the past, Cassandra is not mine. For that I will be eternally grateful.”

  The glimmer in her eyes scared me. I have never seen such evil in my life, but Henry does not frighten so easily.

  “Not even when she grew so ill her sister - your daughter - feared the worst?”

  “The idiot Cassandra will live as long as her stupid father, and he lived much longer than he should.”

  My aunt shuffled where she stood.

  Henry took a deep breath and stepped forward. “Leave.”

  Patience looked at him with innocence. “What?”

  “Leave my house immediately.”

  Nathaniel stepped forward. “It is not just your house, brother. I live here too, and she can stay as long as she wants.”

  Before I knew it, I looked around and saw that Rebecca was standing there staring at Patience. I had not even heard her come in.

  “Why is she here?” Rebecca asked.

  I looked at my sister, and for the first time, I think I saw what you probably see upon first reflection. I saw right through her. Her calm veneer had been a lie. She was still in love with Nathaniel. She had tried to fake her feelings to appease me and retain her inheritance, but she was still infatuated with him.

  “The better question,” Nathaniel sneered. “Is why are you here?”

  Henry stepped closer to Nathaniel. “Do not speak to her like that.”

  Patience looked over Rebecca and laughed. “Poor child. I am here to see Nathaniel. I was here all night to see Nathaniel.”

  Rebecca studied her as the realization sank in. The tears in her eyes flowed, and she ran out of the room. I cannot tell you what happened next with Patience or Nathaniel because I followed Rebecca home.

  She was, as you could imagine, inconsolable. I only left her when she finally fell asleep. She cried for hours long past when I would have assumed her tears would have naturally stopped, but I think she must have slept from pure exhaustion. I will better know tomorrow how best to deal with the situation. I have not heard from Henry yet, so I do not know how the situation resolved itself. I know he will do what is best. I had better finish this and return to make sure Rebecca is still resting.

  I miss you more every day, but feel your guidance gives me the strength I need.

  Forever,

  Retton

  Letter 39 ~ Andrew Hawksley to Juliana

  July 12, 1810

  Lady Juliana Bering, I am well aware that contacting you in this matter is highly unusual, but I first want to let you know how much my wife and children and I are admiring Ashland. I understand the circumstances first with your father's death and then with my brother's left your sister, yourself and mother in a difficult arrangement. I have been assured that you and your sister are staying temporarily with an aunt in Bath, and I hope your sister has since recovered from the shock of losing my brother so soon. I was not as close with him as I ought to have been, but I admired him greatly and was so sorry to hear of his loss.

  It was never my intent that you and your sister needed to leave Ashland. I consider this as I always will your home and would never have wanted you to leave unless or until you were ready.

  Well, I am sorry to inform you that the reason for this letter is your mother. She arrived here yesterday morning amid much demands and accusations. My children are quite frightened of her, and my wife does not know what to do. I am not sure if your Mother is unwell or still in mourning from her losses, but I thought it my duty to inform you as to the events.

  Please inform me straight away as to how you would like to proceed.

  Andrew Hawksley, Lord Abbotden

  Letter 40 ~ Juliana to Andrew Hawksley

  July 14, 1810

  Lord Abbotden, thank you so much for your kind words concerning Ashland and my sister. I hope your invitation concerning me coming to Ashland is viable because I will be there shortly. I know how to deal with Mother and am so sorry for any inconvenience she has caused you. I will talk to you more when I arrive.

  Juliana Bering

  Letter 41 ~ Juliana to Retton

  July 14, 1810

  Dear Retton, I have to begin by saying how sorry I am for mother's behavior. I cannot even pretend to be shocked at what she does. I am just sorry Rebecca was still infatuated enough with Mr. Seaton that she allowed her heart to be harmed. Oh, I hope she can meet someone who deserves her and not take advantage of her.

  As to my mother... How would one apologize for someone like her? It seems the majority of letters I have written in my young life has either began or concluded with apologies for her behavior. One time, I even wrote to a friend of mine and automatically included a note of apology for Mother's behavior when in fact this friend did not know and had never met my mother.

  If I could wish Patience away I would. She normally finds someone during the London season to destroy, but apparently she has found a like minded soul in Mr. Seaton. I can only imagine the horror both you and Lord Halithorpe are feeling over her actions - especially since they involve both your siblings.

  Please give Rebecca my best, and I know you will be able to cheer her up. Soon, she will see how foolish she was over Mr. Seaton and laugh about it for years to come.

  I did receive a disturbing letter from the newest Lord Abbotden about Mother and am about to travel to Ashland. I do not know how long it will take, but I will come to Ramsbury straight away once I have concluded my business. I long to see Rebecca and hope she will see me. I do not know if that will help, but I feel so helpless. I will let you know of my plans. I cannot wait to see you.

  Love,

  Juliana

  Letter 42 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  July 15, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, I have arrived at Ashland, and I will not bore you with the details of how changed it is. The new proprietors are not terrible people either. It is really a shocking development for I dearly wished to despise them immediately and had to change my poor opinion of them. They are quite pleasant, cordial and wonderful hosts. Even their children are amiable. There are four or five of them. I cannot be sure for two are very shy and look very much alike. They are normally hiding under furniture or tables so I cannot be sure. The oldest is twelve, Marie, and is very well behaved and wise. I do think I saw a peek of her dress on the other side of the door when I was talking about Mother with her parents. I admire those who seek to hear the whole truth for themselves rather than waiting for others to tell them what to think. She shall be fine.

  About Patience... I do not wish to burden you, but she is a blight. What can be done with her? Might she even have a soul? She shows little remorse and thinks only of herself. Irritating little thing. I wonder what father thought once he had married her, and he saw what she truly was. Oh, I can only hope his books brought him the solace that his wife never could.

  When I arrived at Ashland and fully expected some sort of violent conflict, they informed me that Mother had already left. I overheard some of their servants mention that the former Countess had taken some things which did not belong to her which would not surprise me at all.

  Mother manages to steal hearts, minds, souls, and anything she can get her hands on. What are a few trinkets to her? Between you and me, I do worry about Rebecca. I wrote to Retton and well... I basically told him what he wanted to hear. That I thought Rebecca would recover and all would be well.

  My beloved refuses to see the worst in people. For that I love him but it does make it rather difficult to deal with reality at times. I told him Rebecca would recover quickly and a host of other simil
arly sweet things, but his sister is not well on her good days. I believe she is quite mad, and it is any wonder how Retton has managed to remain sane living in the same house with her. She cries for no reason and screams at all hours of the night. Sometimes, she looks ragged and violent and other times she stares at her unread book she keeps propped up in her lap all afternoon and evening.

  Since she has never been well, I fear of what this will do to her fragility. I cannot let Retton know my true feelings, and I only hope I can support him with whatever decisions he must make. I know his parents have always longed for her to be sent away, and I do believe they will not return until that has been accomplished. At least that is what the very wise Dowager Countess confided in me.

  Anyway, dearest sister, since there is little to be done at Ashland, then I will venture to Ramsbury to see Rebecca. Well, between us, I am there to see and support Retton, but he will like it that I came all the way to see his sister - as mad as she is.

  I hope you can someday find it in your heart to visit Ashland. The newest Lord Abbotden did extend the invitation to you, and I know you will be pleased. He is fulfilling the wishes of Father who so wanted to redo some of the old wings. The estate is so lively and cheery and full of light now. I do not blame Father for wanting to keep the place so dark. I am sure Mother did force Father's mood into dark territories, but he would be so happy they are honoring him. They have plans to further extend his library - which I know he wanted to do but did not get the chance. Please consider and visit Ashland! I do not know how long I will be at Ramsbury and would so love for you to be well enough to meet Retton.

  Your hopeful and somewhat conniving sister,

  Juliana

  Letter 43 ~ Cassandra to Juliana

  July 18, 1810

  Dearest Sister, Juliana, you will be amazed, but I arrived at Ashland. I was very naughty in that I really did not tell any of my arrival. I was afraid I would either not have the strength to return or that too much would be made of my coming, so I just wanted to stop in and say goodbye.

  You are right, the newest owners are very nice indeed. Father would be well pleased the house was finally in the hands of someone who loves it as much as he did. Once the pleasantries were out of the way, I did ask to see the library by myself. They of course let me.

  I had not recognized the library for so long and had forgotten the floors were so beautiful. The ceilings need be changed, but Lord Abbotden informed me they were going to do that next. The poor paint has chipped rather unabashedly, but it was any wonder that no one noticed since those huge draperies were always kept tightly closed. I had forgotten there were so many windows in there. What a pleasant room! I sat at Father's chair and tried to make amends.

  “I am sorry, Father, that I could not be mistress to this house. I know how much you loved and protected it. And I am sorry I did not love it as much as you. It was not your fault nor your house’s fault. Maybe it was because I never had a choice. The house was never to be mine unless I married the heir, and without love, you of all people should have known what kind of marriage that would be. Not that I blame James. He was a fine man, but we should never have been married. But I did what you wanted and do not regret anything for I know it brought you peace in your last weeks. I am sorry I could not be who you wanted me to be. I tried. You know how I tried. I hope you are glad the newest caretakers love this house. They will cherish it and take care of it. They have two sons and two daughters, so I believe Ashland will be safe for quite some time to come. Please watch over them and guide them.”

  I felt at peace for the first time in so long. I do not know if I imagined it, but I felt Father forgive me for what I tried to do but could not. Then, I walked to the cemetery where James is buried and sat down beside his grave. I will not detail everything I said to him, but I asked his forgiveness and blessing as well. I wished he could have been married, should he have chosen, to someone he truly loved. He deserved to be loved. I said much aloud and silently said more until I had no energy left.

  Forgive me, Juliana, but the trip was a long and emotional one. While I was planning on visiting Ramsbury, I did not feel right during a crisis to meet your intended and returned to Aunt Grace to rest up for a future journey.

  I do hope Rebecca is better and you will return home soon.

  Cassie

  Letter 44 ~ Cassandra to Henry

  July 28, 1810

  Henry, forgive the impertinence of this letter, but I have been so anxious to write to you. Thank you for the letter you sent to my sister to give to me. She waited for the best possible moment to give it to me. I was too exhausted to see what was right in front of me and too ashamed at my actions to believe that I deserved anything but the worst life could give me.

  I am so sorry I caused you distress. It was not my intention. I love you. I have loved you from the first moment I met you. I never realized that I would feel this way. I was taught from an early age that I would marry the heir to Ashland. I was not even sure who that would be until father's health took a turn for the worse, and he informed me of the deaths of his previous heirs. James Hawksley was sent for. We met, he talked to father, and then we married. The entire thing took about two weeks from our first meeting until we married. I do not think we said more than a few words to each other the entire course of our short marriage until he took ill. I believed my feelings for you were wrong and was ashamed that I had betrayed my father and husband, but I could not help what my heart felt.

  It was only during his final days did James and I actually talk. I do believe that I could have learned to love him or at least it would have been a congenial union, but my heart had already been taken by you. Oh, Henry, can you ever forgive me for pushing you away? I would not hate you if you could not. My only reason was grief and what I have since learned from my wise sister a senseless feeling of self-punishment. I never regretted marrying for my father was so happy because of it, and I also do not regret meeting you.

  I do have to come to terms with the rising anger I have felt as of late. Anger that my father cared more for the estate than me. I guess I had long been used to being the favourite and warmed to that role. Knowing he cared little for my own future and only wanted to ensure the future of Ashland is difficult to come to terms with. But I must learn to. I hope that he has forgiven me for not living up to his hopes, and I do have to forgive him as well.

  I can tell you there were many a sleepless night worrying that you would come to your senses and forget about me. I do not know if I could have lived if I had learned you were engaged to another. Just writing it out now brings me so much sadness. I will not bore you with my previous belief that I wished that you would do just that. I am trying very hard to overcome this self imposed exile. Please know that my heart has never budged from you and that I live solely to see you again.

  I will not injure you by inquiring if your feelings are the same, because I know from your heartfelt letters that you would not give your heart away so quickly only to demand its return. I am yours, Henry. I will be forever yours. I am learning to forgive myself, and in due time will also forgive my father. The only reason I did not seek you at Edenfield was because I knew if I saw you I would never be able to leave your side again. I only ask that you wait for me. I want to properly mourn for James. I feel I owe him at least that for I do not wish his memory to have injury inflicted on it by gossip of a wandering wife.

  Cassandra

  Letter 45 ~ Henry to Cassandra

  July 29, 1810

  My Only Cassandra, to say I was happy to receive your letter would be a lie. An understatement. Everything I am incapable of describing to you. I have never nor will I ever feel any less than I feel right now for you. My love for you grows by the hour, and I cannot wait to see you again. My beautiful Cassandra with her health restored. I fully understand waiting for the proper mourning period to end. I would also not want any harm to come to James’ memory or reputation, and I know full well the harm tha
t gossip can do given the unfortunate actions of a most careless brother. You are very decent to think of him even now.

  I will count the hours my love until we can be together, and then you have to promise me that we will never part. That I could not bear.

  Take care, my love, and know that I think of you every waking moment and will not be settled until you are here.

  Yours,

  Henry

  Letter 46 ~ Juliana to Cassandra

  August 1, 1810

  My sweetest Cassie, it is with the greatest of sadness that I write this letter. It was worse than I feared. I arrived at Ramsbury, and was shown into the parlor.

  Retton came out of his study immediately to greet me. “My love, I was so happy to know you would be arriving soon.”

  “How is Rebecca?”

  His eyes immediately downcast, “I do not know. For the past few days, she was very sullen, but she seems to have perked up for no apparent reason.”

  He studied something out the window. “She tells me she is fine, but...”

  “Do you want me to speak to her?”

  “Would you?” His smile, and the spark in his eyes... I would do anything for him.

  “You are much better at understanding people than I.”

  “You hear what you wish to hear.”

  “Exactly,” he said.

  
“I will see her at once.”

  “Dearest,” he said, grabbing my hand. “Please do not spare my feelings. Be honest with me about her.”

  I nodded and regretted what I had written about her in my letters. “I will.” Although, I figured I would have to be kind in my assessment. It is my experience that people rarely wish true honesty when it comes to delicate situations. They say they want honesty, but they really want to be told exactly what they want to hear in the easiest manner possible. But I can be delicate, so I proceeded to walk upstairs and was met with a very flustered maid running down the stairs in a state.

  “I must see Lord Kemnay! Where is Lord Kemnay!” The poor woman did not even see me and proceeded to run down the stairs and out of sight screaming the entire way.

  Retton immediately appeared and ran up the stairs. I followed him down the hall and into Rebecca's room. Oh, Juliana, I wish I had not followed him. I wish I had not seen what I saw. I do not know how to describe it. Rebecca was on the floor of her room. She was not breathing. Nor did she stir. She was gray. A scarf was wrapped around her neck. I have never seen death before since Father who seemed to pass so peacefully with a smile on his face. Rebecca was not peaceful. The sullen look on her swollen face haunted me.

  Retton raced to her side and tried to revive her. The maid rushed down the hall, and soon other people came in and helped Retton. From the grimness on their faces, I knew it was too late.

  “What happened?” Retton asked over and over again.

  The maid broke down. “I am sorry, my lord, I only left her for a few minutes. I thought she was sleeping.”

  “And?”

  “When I returned, she had tied the scarf around her neck and the bedpost... I tried to revive her then I ran for you.”

  Retton's eyes burned with anger while he listened to the maid, but they quickly turned to sadness as the reality set in.

  “I have set Johnny for the doctor,” Mr. Hatham said.

  I stepped closer to the butler and whispered. “Has anyone informed Lord Halithorpe.”

  Mr. Hatham nodded as if he had forgotten but he immediately called for someone else who did just that.

  Retton held his sister. “It is too late. I am so sorry. My beautiful sister.”

  My heart broke for him as I watched him. The servants each bowed their heads and one by one left, except for Mr. Hatham. I suddenly felt that I should not be there and turned to leave.

  “Please do not leave,” Retton said, looking at me through tears. “If you can stay, if you can stand to stay, please do not leave.”

  “I will stay.” I whispered as the butler nodded to me in approval of my actions.

  I stayed by Retton who held onto Rebecca. It was probably an hour before the doctor arrived. He ran into the room, but it did not take too long for him to tell us what we already knew. Rebecca was dead.

  Her maid came into the room to help the doctor and noticed a letter sitting on the nightstand. “Lord Kemnay, I believe this is for you.”

  Retton took the letter, grabbed my hand and we left the room. We walked downstairs where servants scattered at his approach. The butler followed us closely.

  “What else can I do for you, my Lord?” Mr. Hatham asked.

  Retton crumbled the letter in his hand and I believe thought of throwing it into the fireplace but thought better of it. He finally sat down. “I will have to inform my parents.”

  The butler nodded. “I will do so at once.” He left.

  The door opened and Lord Halithorpe and the Dowager Countess came in.

  Henry grabbed Retton. “I am so sorry. What can I do?”

  Retton handed Henry Rebecca's letter. “Can you read this to me? I fear I do not have the strength.”

  The Dowager Countess sat down beside me while Henry read the letter aloud.

  Dear brother,

  Thank you for your kindness over the years. I fear I did not deserve such a brother as you.

  I am more sorry than I can ever say, but there is no use to me anymore. I have done things you would not approve, and I do not deserve to live. Know there is nothing you could have done to stop me. You did everything you could. I am grateful you were the only one of the family who never abandoned me. Perhaps I did not deserve your kindness. Pray for my soul. Do not despise me.

  Rebecca

  “Oh, poor soul,” Dowager Countess said wiping a tear. “She is right, Retton, you did everything you could.”

  “But why was it not enough?”

  Retton's question went unanswered as we sat in silence as Retton stared into the fire. After a few minutes, Retton sat beside me. “What did you see when you looked at my sister?”

  I at first was not sure what he was asking me. He took my hand in his and pleaded at me with his eyes. “Please, you can see what I cannot.”

  I shook my head, but he would not look away from me. “I saw...” I knew all eyes were on me, and I would have to be extra delicate in how I approached the question. “I saw...pain.”

  Retton closed his eyes. “She tried. She wanted to be better.” Retton opened his eyes and smiled at me. We were jolted back to reality by Mr. Hatham informing us that the doctor was finished.

  The doctor came in the room. “I am sorry, Lord Kemnay, but may I speak to you in private.”

  Retton looked around the room. “We are family here.”

  The doctor did look at me quickly.

  “This is Lady Juliana Bering, my fiancee,” Retton said.

  The doctor smiled. “Very well. Your sister did take her own life, but...”

  “What else could there be, doctor?” the Dowager Countess asked.

  “It is rather delicate.”

  Retton stepped forward, “Please.”

  “Very well. Your sister was...prior to her...death...she suffered a miscarriage.”

  Retton's face drained of all colour as he sat down in the chair before he fell.

  “Oh,” the Dowager Countess said, looking at Henry.

  “Nathaniel,” Henry said.

  “How far along was she?” Dowager Countess asked as delicately as she could.

  “Not more than a few months.”

  The Dowager Countess stood up. “Henry, I am returning to Edenfield. I have something to do. Stay with your cousin. Lady Juliana, please see to Retton.”

  Cassie, I will have to end this letter from exhaustion. I will write more when I know more.

  Juliana

  Letter 47 ~ Cassandra to Juliana

  August 2, 1810

  Dearest Sister, please express my condolences to Retton. I am s
orry Rebecca was in such pain. From what you wrote to me about her, I believe she did not realize the pain she inflicted on others, and I am convinced it was unintentional. This is something I know all too well and will use her as an example of my own selfish actions. I only hope she is at peace now.

  I would travel immediately to be with you if I could, but Aunt has taken ill. It is nothing serious for she assures me she feels this way about once every other year, but I do not feel right leaving her right now. Please stay as long as you are needed to help Retton through this.

  Cassandra

  Letter 48 ~ Henry to Cassandra

  August 3, 1810

  My Cassandra, I know Lady Juliana did write to you about Lady Rebecca. Retton has of course succumbed to grief, but I know your sister’s presence has helped him immensely. I fear that he would slip further into the abyss if her light did not tether him securely.

  I cannot bear to think of my hand in all of it. If I had known...If I could have foreseen... I cannot fool myself any longer into believing my brother will ever change. My only solace is knowing that he is out of my life forever which means you will never have to meet him. He destroys whatever he touches, and I am hoping that someday he will be able to see what he has become and change. At is it is now, Retton is not the only one who lost someone that day, but I cannot mourn the loss of my brother since it was his doing that caused so much distress for Rebecca and Retton. It is hard to even contemplate what he has done. He was never a decent boy and he became even less of a man, but I always had hope that he would change. I cannot allow myself to hope any longer. I fear he is lost forever.

  Losing Rebecca made me even more scared of our own future. I know this sounds selfish. Perhaps I should not bring this up, but I have been beside myself with selfish thoughts of loss and losing you. I promised myself that I would not push you too soon, and I realize you have said as such in your letters but I have to ask. I have to ensure that I have not dreamed our connection. I cannot lose you. I will not lose you. It matters not how long it takes, but I cannot...

  I am sorry, but I had to stop and reread my letter. I am afraid it sounded like the ravings of a deluded madman. Rest assured, Cassandra, that I will never harm you. That if you do not feel the same way about me, I would not pursue you. I only wish for your happiness, and I hope that I am a strong enough man that I love you enough to let you go.

  I am sorry. Perhaps I should not even send this letter, but I will. You deserve all honesty.

  I hope that I have not dissuaded you from your feelings.

  Love,

  Henry

  Letter 49 ~ Cassandra to Henry

  August 4, 1810

  My dearest Henry, nothing could ever persuade me away from my feelings for you. The fact that you are willing to expose the flaws proves what a gentleman you are. Although, I do not believe anything in your letter exposed a flaw at all. I do not believe you to have any flaws.

  Please rest assured, Henry, that I am completely in love with you. I have never loved another nor will I ever love another. I will not bore you with all of my neurosis and thoughts as to wondering what on earth someone like you sees in me. I did promise Juliana that I would try to see myself in a better light, but I believe it became a pattern in me and a habit long festered is loathe to quit so suddenly. Rebecca’s loss should be a lesson to us all. Once my aunt is fully recovered, I will come at once if that is still your wish.

  I am so sorry to your family and to Retton for your loss. I did not know Lady Rebecca well, but my sister felt protective towards her.

  It is to your credit that you mourn the loss of both Rebecca and your brother. I am so sorry that you cannot share your feelings of loss with Retton. I can understand you are trying to be delicate, and I am sure he would not wish to hear your brother’s name. It must be very lonely for you to go through it all alone, and I am so honored that you can share your feelings with me.

  Please be strong and help your cousin through his loss but be aware that I mourn also for yours.

  Love,

  Cassandra

  Letter 50 ~ Nathaniel to Patience

  August 7, 1810

  Patience, please forgive me for my transgressions. I realize you preferred I wait until the marriage to the ungainly Rebecca before proceeding, but... I honestly offer no excuse. I was bored. She was there, and you were not. I never realized she was so fragile and obviously deranged. Not much of a waste though, for she had little to offer anyone. I am glad the deed is done. The dead will stay dead, and you and I are free to be together. Nothing can stop us now. You should be aware that I am no longer at Edenfield. My cruel brother wants nothing more to do with me. Or that is what he told me. Of course, I have heard his speeches before, and he eventually concedes. He is weak in that way.

  Although, it does trouble me that you have not written to me after the grisly affair. Please do not forsake me. I realize I did not do as I was instructed, and I respect your need to teach me a lesson with your silence.

  Please do not hesitate too long. You know how I miss you and your counsel.

  Nathaniel

  Letter 51 ~ Nathaniel to Patience

  August 13, 1810

  Patience, please torture me no longer. It is agony not hearing from you. I understand your anger, but what is done is done. It cannot be undone, and I do not think it right to continue this punishment. It is not fair of the fates to tempt with such a gorgeous creature as yourself only to answer with silence upon my beckoning.

  You know who I am. You have always seen right through me. I am impetuous and temperamental and easily bored into action which usually has unintended consequences. It matters not for you said it yourself that we do not need to rely upon convention or rules. We are different. We are special.

  Please answer me and end my exile.

  Nathaniel

  Letter 52 ~ Nathaniel to Patience

  August 18, 1810

  Patience! What will you have me do? I will accomplish any task you set me upon. I am in agony. Enough is enough. I have been punished as much as the worst sinner in the world, and I did nothing wrong! If you continue to refuse me, I will be forced to action. Or perhaps that is what you desire.

  Oh, why did I not see this before? What a naughty thing you are. You wish me to proceed, do you not? Well, I will do so, my love, I will proceed. I am sorry I was too slow to catch onto our game before. Good, I feel much better now. What a nefarious creature you are to tempt me as you do.

  I cannot wait to see you again. Imagine what we can do together. The world should shutter at our feet.

  Nathaniel

 
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