My hand trembled as I grasped the cool, metal doorknob. I drew in a breath to ease the tightening in my chest before pressing open the heavy, wooden door and peeking inside.
“Abigail.” Father’s voice was quiet, beckoning.
I took in the familiar scene as my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room. Little had changed since last night: the fire still flickered in the hearth, elongating the shadows dominating the large room; the curtains were still drawn, though the dawn’s glow now crept in along the edges; and Father still stood slumped in his place near the bed.
“Abigail,” Father repeated, reaching out his arm toward me. “It’s time.”
I stepped forward, then stopped and shook my head. I didn’t have the strength.
Laurence walked to my side, placing his arm around my shoulder. “Come, Abigail, we will go together.”
I searched my brother’s grief-stricken eyes, feeling as though I was gazing at my own reflection. It was the sorrow we shared that reflected back at me, and I blinked away the unfamiliar likeness.
I gave a faint nod, allowing Laurence to guide me forward to the side of the four-post bed where Father waited. The familiar scent of rose-water and fresh-cut flowers encircled me but did little to bring their usual comfort.
As I looked at the woman who lay before me, tears blurred my vision. There was little resemblance left of whom she had been only weeks before. Her face was sallow and sunken in, the shadows around her eyes looking as though death had already stolen her from our unwilling grasps. I surveyed the petite shape beneath the blankets, and the eerie stillness quickened my heavy heart.
A slight rise of the covers and the sound of a labored inhale allowed me an odd sense of relief. I had not lost her yet!
“Darling,” Father whispered. “The children are here.”
Mother’s brow creased, but her eyes remained shut.
Father stepped forward and stroked her arm. Her eyes fluttered open at his touch. “Darling, the children have come to say their goodbyes.”
She smiled weakly at Father before focusing her gaze on us. I forced away my despair as her shaking hand reached out. I intertwined my fingers with hers and sat next to her on the bed, letting the weight of our hands rest on my lap. Laurence moved in behind me and placed his hand over ours.
“My beautiful children….” Mother’s voice was barely audible, and I understood the simple act of speaking was requiring what little energy she had left. I wanted to tell her to stop, to conserve her strength, but for what purpose? A moment longer in this state hardly seemed beneficial to her. Her voice caught, and pain consumed her beautiful features. She managed a shallow breath. “What a privilege it has been to be your mother.”
The tears finally escaped and made their way down my cheeks, but I refused to let go of her hand to wipe them. “Don’t leave us, Mother,” I pleaded. “We need you. I need you.”
Father’s hand came to my shoulder, and I wasn’t sure whether it was meant as support or a gentle correction. I hadn’t intended to make Mother feel guilty for leaving us. I simply couldn’t bear to think of life without her.
“I’m afraid that is not my choice.” Mother paused and let out another arduous breath. “Do not doubt yourself, Abigail. You are infinitely more capable than you know.”
I nodded, though I did not truly believe her.
Her eyes flickered between our three grief-stricken faces. “Take care of each other. Trust in love, trust in the good, and trust that God has a plan for each of you.” We all nodded in unison as her eyes closed. “I love you more than you know.” Her voice faded. “I will send your love to Grace and the others—”
I watched in horror as her heavy, labored breaths slowed then stopped. Despite the expression of peace that had overtaken the pain in her features, emptiness consumed me. I crumpled onto the bed next to her, my body shaking uncontrollably. “I still need you,” I wept. “I still need you.”
“What shall we be without you, my dear?” A loud sob followed Father’s question, and I watched as he bent his head low and cried as I had never heard a grown man cry before. Laurence rose to his feet, and they wrapped their arms around each other in a heart-wrenching embrace. I wanted to join them, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t leave Mother’s side, not when the warmth in her body would soon grow cold.
I placed her lifeless hand against my wet cheek, soaking in the feel of her touch one last time. How could the blessed life I had been handed change so quickly? So drastically? Without her here I would never be the same. I was once again broken.
I scanned the corridor. Satisfied there were no servants present to witness my unladylike act, I squatted down and pressed my ear to the keyhole. Eaves-dropping wasn’t a talent I was proud of, but it had always served its purpose well enough.
Muffled voices clarified as I positioned myself.
“Father, I believe it is crucial we accept.”
“She has made it quite clear she isn’t ready. I don’t want to force her before she feels prepared.”
“Yet you wished to discuss the invitation again?”
“She is a fine young lady, but—”
“Fine lady? Laurence, she is exceptional!” Father’s voice grew louder. Little impassioned him more than the subject of his family, and I never tired of it.
“Father, you know I did not mean to imply otherwise, as I wholeheartedly agree. But Abigail needs to prove to herself that she is capable. She has delayed her first Season, and we can’t allow her to miss the next. You must realize, the only way she will be prepared is by interacting with others of our social standing.”
A thoughtful hum met my ear. “Then shall we invite a small party here? Perhaps her cousins when their obligations are through?”
“Our cousins are likely engaged for the entirety of the summer. And gentlemen? What gentlemen would make your list? We know nothing of entertaining. If Mother were here, it would be different….” Laurence’s voice grew quiet. I slowed my breathing so that I might hear his words over the reverberating thud of my heart. “But she isn’t. So, we must prevail on the good judgment of other notable women to arrange such opportunities.”
“I am not even acquainted with the Stantons. Abigail will detest being sent to the home of strangers.” Stanton? The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t recall where or who had mentioned it.
“The invitation surely comes at the request of Aunt Marianne. Helena and Hannah will be there as companions.” I inwardly groaned at the realization of where I had come across the name Stanton. Hannah had written throughout the Season to convince me of what I had been missing. The name Stanton was among her ramblings, though I couldn’t recall what had been said. I would be sure to reference my letters later.
“Besides, as I have already assured you, the Stantons are a reputable family. I was introduced to their eldest son, Mr. Edwin Stanton, at Oxford and, though I did not know him well, I believe him to be a distinguished gentleman. The kind who has acquaintances we hope for Abigail to engage with.”
“I realize the necessity,” Father said reluctantly. “But she will not like it.”
“She will like nothing that takes her from the safety of Easton Manor, but how much of life she will miss if we continue to allow it.”
“Sometimes I believe she has seen enough of what life can be—”
“There is so much good she has not seen.”
Father released an audible exhale.
“We have given her all we can, Father—she needs more.”
It was quiet for too long, and an unsettling feeling crept its way through me.
“I suppose you are right,” Father said, confirming my fear. “Would you bring her to me?”
“Of course.” Laurence’s footsteps moved toward the door. I straightened, hoping to remove myself to a less incriminating distance. “One last thing.” Laurence’s voice was near enough to reach me, muted but distinguishable. I couldn’t resist and drew close again, returning my ear to the keyhole. “You must resist her charms, Father. She needs to recognize you are quite set on your decision.”
Father’s laugh reached my ear as the doorknob turned. I straightened just in time for the door to swing past me and reveal the surprised face of my brother in the doorway.
“Eaves-dropping is a vexing habit, Abee,” Laurence said, attempting to not appear startled.
My cheeks warmed. “I will be certain to take more care in the future.”
Laurence’s brow lifted. “To not listen in on others’ private conversations?”
“To not get caught doing so,” I said, offer a mischievous smile when I stepped past him.
Laurence’s chuckle followed me into the room as he shut the door behind us.
Father stood behind his large desk watching the playful exchange with a look of satisfaction on his face.
“Hello, Father. I heard you wished to speak with me?”
“I daresay you have, and I should correct you for it or you shall never learn your lesson.” He shook his head with an amused smile on his lips and stepped out from behind his desk, reaching for my hands. For a moment he didn’t speak but lifted my hands nearer his face, rubbing the faded lines on my skin with his thumb. “I’m glad you are aware what I wish to discuss. Sometimes certain topics are easier to address when we are eased into them, are they not?” I nodded at the rhetorical question, and he looked back down at my hands. He hesitated, looked at Laurence and back to me. “Your brother believes it is time for you to venture away from your over-bearing father.”
“But I don’t wish to leave you.”
“And I don’t wish you to be gone, my dear, but your brother is correct.” I sent Laurence a pointed glare that made him shift uneasily. “It is time you venture out beyond the gates of Easton Manor—”
“Perhaps if we wait—”
“I fear we cannot if we desire to have you ready for the next Season. Remember the agreement we made, my child: I allowed you to delay your first Season, but only if you willingly undertook preparations to ensure your readiness for the next.”
I dropped my eyes to the floor. I had made that promise in desperation to stay at Easton Manor, not be sent away from it. If it were my choice, I would postpone my introduction to the heartless ton of London indefinitely.
I nodded. “I remember.”
He lifted my chin and smiled down at me. “You are a brave girl, Abigail.” His eyes conveyed the message to my soul, and I was certain a father could not love his daughter more. “I must ask you to trust me.”
“Can you not come with me? Or perhaps Laurence?” I looked pleadingly between them. “It would bring me such comfort to have you there.”
“The invitation is for you, Abigail,” Laurence interjected. “Aunt Marianne will be there with Helena and Hannah.” He stared at me until he realized I took no comfort in the idea. “But if you hate it as much as you fear, perhaps I shall break propriety and demand to join you.”
Father chuckled. “And he believes I’m easily swayed—”
“But give it a chance, Abee,” Laurence continued. “To your dismay, you may prove to yourself how capable you are.”
Laurence’s hopeful expression pulled at my heart, and I realized there was no use in resisting. “I have recently heard I am an exceptional young lady—though I believe it is quite evident that the sources are biased.”
Both men laughed heartily, though I understood it was more with relief of my acceptance than the humor in my words.
Placing a kiss on my forehead, Father walked back to the chair behind his desk. “You two may go. I shall write to Lady Eliza directly and accept her invitation.”
As we walked out, Laurence moved to my side, wrapping his arm around my shoulder in a form of brotherly apology.
“Abigail,” Father called out, causing us to stop and glance toward him.
“Promise me that you will let what is in the past stay there.”
“I promise,” I responded, causing the corner of his lips to pull up in a smile. His mouth opened, as though he had something else he wished to say, but quickly closed again. “Father?” I questioned, wondering what else he could possibly say.
Father paused. “Have Lydia begin preparations for your departure to Timpton House.”
“And when should I inform her our departure will be?”
“Tomorrow?” The shock in my voice caused a brief flash of guilt to tug at the corners of his mouth.
His gaze flitted from me to Laurence and back again. With reaffirmed conviction, he smiled apologetically and nodded. “Tomorrow.”
“Very well,” I said as confidently as I could muster, my racing heart attempting to take the breath from my lungs. Laurence grabbed my arm and escorted me out of the study.
“Brave girl,” Father muttered to himself, before Laurence closed the door behind us. For him, I would be brave.
I nodded. “I’m sorry, Lydia. I can help with the packing if that lessens some of your burden.”
“And shall you prefer to fold the gowns or choose which ones you shall bring?”
I pressed my lips together in contemplation though I could hear the humor in her tone. “You well know I trust your opinion more than mine when it comes to fashion.” Lydia’s face beamed at the compliment. “So, I suppose if you make the selections, I can fold them?”
Lydia scoffed playfully. “It would take me twice as long to teach you how to pack a trunk correctly. Truly, it isn’t any trouble. I only was surprised at the news of leaving tomorrow. Laurence had not mentioned—” She stopped, apparently thinking better of what she was about to say. “Really, it is no trouble.”
I watched her, hoping to discern what she had thought unfit to tell me, before willing myself to leave it alone. I was already causing her an undue amount of distress asking her to have us both ready to leave in the morning. I didn’t care to upset her and risk having to pack myself. I would remember to venture on the subject at a less consequential moment.
“I fear we might be in danger of arriving before the Stantons receive our acceptance,” I said, smiling to lighten my concern about the idea.
The suddenness of the intended departure had surprised me, and I wondered how long Father had known of the invitation and put off a decision. Since Mother’s death, his ability to accomplish things had greatly diminished. Laurence, realizing the need, had begun to run the ins and outs of Easton Manor. Although fitting as the heir, I worried at Father’s general lack of motivation since losing Mother. A zealous man renowned for taking up grand causes, he now spent most of his days locked away in his study. He still maintained his strong affection for me and Laurence, but his spark for life and his sense of accomplishment died with Mother.
“I am just thankful your father allowed us to update your wardrobe before the start of this Season. You can’t get dresses made in a day.” Lydia’s round eyes lit with excitement. “I am excited to see you finally wear some of these gowns.” She pulled several out and placed them on my bed. “This one is a must.” Lydia held a gown of rose-pink muslin with gold embroidery down the skirt and along the neckline. It was one of my favorites, the soft golden shimmer brought out the golden undertones of my skin, making me appear fairer.
I nodded in agreement as my mind went to the wasted money spent on all the gowns I had not yet worn. Father hadn’t even mentioned the cost when I asked to delay my Season for a year. Perhaps it was because Laurence had been the one to see to the burden of the expense.
“Stop biting your lip, Abee. Such a dreadful habit. There is no need to feel guilty about your new gowns. Your wardrobe had been neglected since Lady Blakeslee died. And, I daresay, these gowns will suit the lady you’ve become more than the juvenile dresses you’ve been allowed to wear these past two years.”
Nearly my same age, Lydia was more a friend than a maid, and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find out my parents had handpicked her for that very purpose. She had beautiful chestnut hair and was lovely with her fair complexion and round eyes that matched the shape of her face. But her best trait was her smile, and the way it could light up her face whenever she was happy. Overwhelming gratitude filled me as I watched her deciding what gowns should be included among my things—being accompanied to Timpton House by at least one person I loved would certainly ease my burden.
Leaving Lydia to the packing, I walked to my writing desk and pulled a small stack of letters from the drawer. The majority of my correspondence came from Hannah, though the frequency with which she wrote grew longer the older we became. For years we had planned to have our first Season together, but when I wrote to inform her of my decision to delay, she thankfully took the news surprisingly well. She, of course, promised to keep me updated on what I was missing—when she had time to do so. Yet contrary to her goal, each letter she sent made me thankful I had avoided the endless Society of London and the drama it entailed.
Starting at the first letter after her debut, I looked for references to the Stanton family. I had nearly skimmed through the end of the second letter when I spotted the name.
Helena and I were introduced to acquaintances of Mother’s today by the name of Stanton. Mother seems quite fond of the couple and has sung their praises endlessly since our meeting. I felt they were no more superior than other fine couples we have come to know, so I assume Mother’s praise comes more readily because their oldest son, and heir to Timpton House, is not yet married. The Stantons spoke highly of him, and nothing inclines the earnest desire for an introduction as much as parental admiration. That and the understanding that Timpton House is supposedly quite grand, with reportedly some of England’s most beautiful gardens.
The next paragraph elaborated on a theatrical performance where Hannah seemed to notice the other patrons more than the play itself, so I skipped ahead to the next letter. Sure enough, about halfway through, I noticed the name again.
We finally had the opportunity, if I can call it that, of meeting the eldest Stanton, Mr. Edwin Stanton. And though Helena said he is one of the finest gentlemen to make her acquaintance, and I must agree he is very handsome, I fear he leaves much to be desired. I am fortunate to have more freedom in forming opinions of gentlemen than Helena, who is already in her third Season with no substantial marriage prospects. I believe she thinks him more tolerable than he is because she must. Mother says that I am jealous of his attentions for Helena, but he looks as irritated in the presence of Helena as he does in the presence of any lady I have seen him with. It is unfortunate for such wealth to be ruined on an ill-tempered man.
I folded the letter and began reading through the others. An occasional mention of Stanton here and there hardly seemed significant. Perhaps if Helena had written me, I would have more information to decipher, but she hadn’t, so I would have to make do with Hannah’s vague descriptions. I opened the letter I had just received a few weeks before.
Mother has been seeking an invitation to Timpton House shamelessly for weeks now and Lady Eliza has finally granted her the very thing she desired. We shall leave here in a week’s time and spend the first month of summer there, a decision made to ensure Helena will not need another Season. Mother is already planning the nuptials between Helena and Mr. Edwin Stanton, though he has not yet made an official declaration. I may not like him much, but I feel it appropriate to pity him in this regard. Though in the same breath I should perhaps pity myself, for the more I come to know him the more confident I am that I have not met a less amiable man this Season. Indeed, I do fear he will be the most tedious brother-in-law imaginable. My only consolation to the plan is that Sir Wycliffe will also join the party.
Just as I had thought, the letters held little information of consequence regarding my hosts besides the upcoming engagement of my cousin Helena to their son. Returning the letters to my drawer, I pondered how I would occupy my time at Timpton House. Hannah’s brief description of the Stantons made me far from excited for the company I would be expected to endure, but she had mentioned the beautiful gardens. I turned to Lydia. “Can you be sure to pack several pairs of gloves and a few bonnets? I plan to spend as much time outside as I can get away with.”
“I already have them packed,” she said with a wink.
Maybe my visit to Timpton House would have some redeeming moments after all.
I watched the passing scenery with growing apprehension. The nearer the carriage got to Timpton House, the more my stomach churned.
“You look very poor, Abee. Do you need to stop for some fresh air?” Lydia watched me nervously as though she was readying to catch me, should I collapse.
“It is nerves more than anything.” I shifted my eyes back out the window. “Besides, stopping would only delay the inevitable. We are almost there, I think I will make it.”
Lydia did not withdraw her attentive gaze. “Are you certain you do not feel unwell? I’ve never seen you so drained of color.”
“Thank you,” I responded with a weak grin. “I’m sure there is nothing more comforting than knowing how ill one looks before meeting new people. But perhaps we shall count it a blessing. I can never hope to be considered fair, but drained of color is a promising development.”
My sarcastic remark lessened the worry in Lydia’s eyes.
Both of us startled at the voice booming from above as the driver caught sight of our destination.
“Well, it’s too late to stop now,” Lydia said, looking toward the house that had just entered into view. “House? That isn’t a house! Timpton is nearly as grand as Easton Manor.”
I smiled at her assumption and hearing the name of my dear home. “Nearly as grand, but I am certain nothing can ever truly compare to Easton Manor.”
The house sat stark against the blue sky, its light stone reflecting brilliantly in the sunlight. Centered in the grass that led up to the house was a large pond where birds drifted around the water’s edge hiding among the heavy foliage. “It is lovely,” I finally conceded as the grounds surrounded us, and I looked eagerly out the windows on both sides. “I’m sure it will offer adequate distractions until I’m free to return home.”
“First things first,” Lydia said with a flick of her head toward the house. I had assumed it was to be a small party, but I was obviously mistaken as a group of people flooded out the entrance.
Lydia giggled. “I believe that phrase would be included in your father’s admonition to watch your tongue and your temper.”
I wanted to respond, but I couldn’t seem to gather the words, at least not effectively enough to make a coherent rebuttal. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath before feeling a sudden sting on my cheek. My eyes flung open in time to see Lydia’s hand moving to my other cheek.
“A little pinch will help with the color.”
I smiled weakly as the carriage came to a stop.
A footman opened the door, and I gave Lydia one last pitiful glance.
“They shall be enchanted by you.”
I accepted the footman’s hand and stepped out of the carriage into the bright, afternoon sun.
“My darling girl!” Aunt Marianne threw her arms around me, making me tense under the unexpected gesture. “How fortunate we are that your father has accepted Lady Eliza’s invitation—even if he did so quite last minute.” Her voice seemed unusually loud, and I was certain her words, though spoken to me, were intended for others to hear. “I never thought it possible. Yet here you stand.” Aunt Marianne pulled back and briefly examined me with her discontented gaze before putting on a smile again and tucking her arm beneath mine to urge me forward.
She was an elegant-looking woman with light hair just beginning to show the color of aging. Though she and Mother were sisters, and had many similarities between their looks, their countenances differed drastically—being with my aunt always made me long for the warmth of Mother. Walking past the bowing, curtsying servants, Aunt Marianne led me to a handsome couple.
“Mr. Stanton. Lady Eliza Stanton. May I present my niece, Miss Blakeslee, daughter of Lord Blakeslee of Easton Manor?”
I curtsied. “Thank you for the invitation to join my aunt and cousins with you here at Timpton House.” My voice quivered, but I continued, “I look forward to my visit and becoming better acquainted with your family.” I tried to make my rehearsed words sound genuine.
“It is an honor to have you here, Miss Blakeslee,” Mr. Stanton said with a bow and a welcoming smile that eased me slightly.
I turned to Lady Eliza, surprised to find her attentively inspecting me. She did not speak.
Feeling somewhat self-conscious, I looked back to Mr. Stanton expectantly.
“My dear, are we not thrilled to have Miss Blakeslee here with us?” Mr. Stanton prompted, aware that his wife had still not bestowed her welcome.
“Yes. Of course.” She looked at her husband briefly before looking back to me, forcing a smile as genuine as Aunt Marianne’s. “Thrilled,” she repeated his borrowed phrase as though trying to convince herself.
“Cousin!” The relief Hannah’s voice brought was instantaneous, followed by my surprise at how tall she had grown since her last visit. She was now several inches taller than me, and I found myself looking at our feet to be sure we stood on the same level. She wasn’t as beautiful as her sister, but she had a certain beauty in her own right, which made me happy for her. “How exciting you should actually come. When Mother told me Lady Eliza had received your father’s acceptance, I was utterly shocked and thought you would surely find a way to change his mind. But here you are. And how well you look. Helena,” she said, glancing sideways, “don’t you agree the years have been good to our dear Abigail? She would have been quite a hit in London I daresay!”
A perceptible tension between the sisters forced my gaze from them to the safety of my own hands. My introduction was turning out to be more tedious than I imagined as Helena begrudgingly stepped forward to greet me, displaying the same fixed smile her mother wore. She somehow looked more stunning than she had two years ago, though less approachable. Her blue eyes dazzled in the daylight and the sun on her hair gave the impression of a halo placed on her head. I smiled at the ridiculousness of the idea.
“How right you are, Hannah.” Like her mother, Helena’s trained tone provided any eager onlooker little difficulty in deciphering what was being said. “I had hoped the years would be kind to you, cousin. Without a female influence to guide you, I must confess I fretted unceasingly about your predicament, but I am pleased to see the worry I suffered was in vain.”
“Thank you,” I said, unsure if that was an appropriate response. In the silence that followed I knew I needed to deflect or risk her delving into the particulars of her unceasing worry, something I had no desire to hear, let alone have an audience present for. “And how well you look, Helena. And you, Hannah.” Both girls smiled tightly and tilted their heads almost in unison.
“We should proceed with the introductions,” Aunt Marianne said, tightening her grip on my arm and pulling me sideways.
“How exhausted she looks, Mother! The poor thing.” Helena’s face held a false sympathy that nearly convinced me of her concern. “Can we not make the rest of the introductions to the party before dinner? Surely Abigail needs time to freshen up before she feels—presentable.”
Aunt Marianne’s eyes scanned me again needing no further prompting. “Of course, my dear. Such a compassionate girl, Helena—always thinking of others. Of course, we shall let her freshen up.” She looked around to the group. “Pay no heed. We shall get her cleaned up and brought down forthwith to meet the rest of you. As long as our guest’s needs are in line with our hostess’, that is?” Aunt Marianne gave an imploring nod to Lady Eliza.
“Certainly, she may rest,” Lady Eliza said. I dropped my gaze to avoid the watchful stares of so many strangers. Lydia had mentioned I looked ill, perhaps my presentation was something to be embarrassed about. “I will take her to her room myself, Mrs. Hanford.”
“Such a gracious hostess. Follow Lady Eliza, Abigail, and we shall all be anxiously waiting to introduce you once you are put to rights.”
As I followed Lady Eliza up the stairs to the front entrance, I refused to glance at the parting crowd of faces I did not know, relieved my bonnet covered the unmistakable shame on my face.
“Are we not to be introduced?” The voice sounded like an older gentleman who made no attempt to disguise his disappointment. “What was the point of gathering the party to meet her if we aren’t to be introduced? Senseless game to be sure.”
A woman’s voice shushed the older man in quiet whispers, and I hurriedly walked into Timpton House. What a welcome indeed!
The entrance hall displayed a set of elegant stone stairs along each side. I followed Lady Eliza up the right staircase and down a spacious corridor with high-arched ceilings. We walked in silence to the end before stopping at the last door. “Your cousins are just across from you, should you need them.”
“Thank you, Lady Eliza,” was all I could muster as she opened the door to let me inside. The room was bright, with three windows along the outer wall. The curtains were drawn back, and an alluring view of the lush grass and pond drew me to the window.
“How splendid!” I said, taking in the picturesque scene before me. “I have heard of the exquisite grounds here at Timpton House, and I confess I am eagerly awaiting the pleasure of exploring them.” I looked back at Lady Eliza to find her watchful eyes on me. She didn’t look away, but she didn’t respond to my declaration either. I forced myself to ignore her odd behavior and self-consciously removed my bonnet. Walking to lay it on the bed, I thought better of the careless act and resorted to holding it awkwardly in my hands. “I truly am thankful for your invitation and for such lovely accommodations,” I said, glancing around the room again hoping to change the object of her focus. “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble adding another guest to your party at such late notice.”
Finally seeming to register what I was saying, Lady Eliza’s face softened. “As my husband said, it is an honor to have you here. If you shall need anything during your stay, don’t hesitate to seek my assistance.”
She turned to leave but paused and gave me one last curious glance. “I shall send up your maid at once.”
I curtsied, and she was gone.
As Lydia finished weaving a lace ribbon through my hair, a knock echoed through the room.
Before I had time to react, Hannah strode in.
“How beautiful you look, cousin!” Hannah’s face was beaming with a mischievous grin, but she sounded sincere.
“I at least hope it is an improvement from my appearance earlier,” I answered sheepishly. Lydia had picked a simple champagne-colored dress with an intricate white lace overlay on the bodice for me to wear to dinner. I disliked the lighter colors fashionable for unmarried women to wear, as they contrasted my olive skin and made me appear even darker than I was, but I had to admit the dress was so very elegant that I hardly felt self-conscious of my coloring at the moment. Lydia had also managed to place my obstinate hair in an elegant loose knot at the base of my neck, using the lace ribbon to help keep it in place.
“I hope you took no offense at Helena’s welcome,” Hannah said, watching me. “You know how she can be.” The truth was I hardly did, I had only seen my cousins a few times throughout the last several years and it had been nearly two years since their last visit to Easton Manor for Mother’s funeral. If it hadn’t been for Hannah’s letters, I felt I would hardly know either girl at all.
I stood up and faced her. “I’m certain any tension is just a matter of unfamiliarity; once we are reacquainted, we shall get on well enough.”
Hannah scrunched up her nose and shook her head. “I don’t think so. But let’s not let that affect our friendship.”
“Of course not,” I said awkwardly, searching for a change of subject. “And look at you. I hardly knew you when I first saw you. How tall and elegant you’ve become.”
Hannah beamed, held her gown out and twirled. “Mother says I am growing into myself and may not be a disappointment after all.”
I cringed. “I’m sure you will not be.”
“Abigail, you are too droll.” Hannah giggled. “Shall we go down?”
I looked back to Lydia, willing her to make an excuse to postpone the inevitable introduction even a moment longer. Instead, she gave Hannah an enthusiastic nod of approval. Hannah needed no more convincing and eagerly led me from the safety of my room and Lydia’s self-congratulating smile.
My heart quickened as we descended the stairs. By the time we neared the open drawing room doors, I had involuntarily stopped walking. I heard voices inside, but I made certain I remained just out of view.
“Are you unwell?” Hannah’s eyes scanned my face.
“I…” I couldn’t get a deep breath in. “I need a moment to catch my breath.”
Hannah nodded as she drew near. “Forgive me. I’m still learning to shorten my lengthened stride.”
In my breathlessness, I lacked the ability to explain that my episode had nothing to do with her walking pace. My heartbeat reverberated through me, and I pressed my palm against my spinning head.
“Shall I fetch you refreshment?”
I shook my head, inwardly cursing my nervous tendencies. “I don’t mean to delay you. Please, go on ahead. I shall be along soon.”
Hannah glanced toward the door and back toward me. “I cannot abandon you, Abigail. Besides, I’m eager to see the others’ reactions when you enter.”
I inhaled slowly, attempting to regain some sort of composure when the sound of voices approaching nearly undid me. I straightened in my panic, like a doe before flight.
“Dreadfully inconvenient to be sure, but let’s not fret just yet. We have ways to make things work to our advantage.” A flash of relief rushed over me as Aunt Marianne and Helena stepped into view.
Both women paused when they realized they were not alone. Helena sent her mother an apprehensive glance, but Aunt Marianne had already taken a step toward me, an arm outstretched. “And here you are. What fortunate timing. I had hoped, when Hannah had said she wanted to see if you were ready to walk down, she would have had the sense to inform us of your answer.” Out of the corner of my eye, Hannah glared at the rebuke. “But, seeing as we have overtaken you before your introduction, I shall overlook her error. Come, Abigail. The others have waited long enough.”
Without a hesitation, she grabbed my arm and pulled me through the open doors of the drawing room. My chest tightened as the gaze of the room shifted in our direction. I did not care for strangers’ eyes upon me, especially being dragged and pushed around at every occasion like a prodded child. Aunt Marianne only dropped my arm when we approached Mr. Stanton and Lady Eliza on the far side of the room.
“I hope you were able to spend your afternoon resting, Miss Blakeslee,” said Mr. Stanton cheerfully.
Though my head spun, and I had spent the last several hours worrying about my upcoming introduction, his kindness made me want to accommodate him. “I did, Mr. Stanton. Thank you.”
“Well then, if you feel up to the task, I’m sure my wife would greatly enjoy introducing you to the rest of the party.”
Lady Eliza stepped out from beside her husband. As I joined her, her eyes flashed over me, and I became keenly aware she found no enjoyment in her obligation to present me to her guests. Despite our shared apprehension, one by one I met the guests of Timpton House. Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins with their youngest, and only unmarried daughter Miss Hawkins; Mr. and Mrs. Dowding with their two daughters Miss Dowding and Miss Emma Dowding; Sir Giles Wycliffe, both a neighbor and a gentleman; Mr. and Mrs. Ellis, the newly married daughter of Mr. Stanton and Lady Eliza and her husband; and another Mr. Stanton, dearly referred to as Uncle Stanton who resided at Timpton with the family. I smiled at each person dutifully and offered rehearsed greetings, struggling against the unrelenting desire to cross my arms safely around myself.
“And lastly, Miss Blakeslee, this is our eldest son, Mr. Edwin Stanton.”
His light eyes lifted from his brief bow with such intensity it forced my gaze to the floor. Although a handsome man, Mr. Edwin Stanton’s serious demeanor diluted his admirable features and left me feeling unsettled.
I gave a quick curtsy. “Mr. Stanton.”
Lady Eliza looked between her son, Helena, who had claimed a place at his side, and me. “I shall leave you young people to get better acquainted. But, Edwin dear, perhaps you could escort Miss Blakeslee into dinner as well as Miss Hanford? I fear until your friends arrive tomorrow from London, the gentlemen are quite outnumbered.” Without waiting for a response, she turned and walked back to her husband’s side.
“I do not recall seeing you this Season in London, Miss Blakeslee,” Mr. Edwin Stanton’s tone erred on the verge of disinterested small talk, which I abhorred almost as much as the topic of conversation he had chosen.
“I did not attend,” I answered.
“Were you not yet old enough?”
Helena giggled. “Mr. Stanton! Do not tease her so, she is certainly old enough, a year older than my own sister, Hannah. How cruel you are to jest about her age. You well know, I’m sure, no lady wants to be assumed older than her age; but the same should be said of a lady being assumed younger. Cousin, count it a blessing to look so young. I daresay one day someone will confuse you as a debutante when you have children of your own. Cruel Mr. Stanton, teasing my dear Abigail.”
“I assure you I did not say it in jest.” He spoke to Helena, but his eyes remained on me. The similarity between his mother’s attentive behavior and his own was instantaneously unnerving.
“What a thing to admit!” Helena chirped, before I had a moment to respond. “And after I tried to alleviate the insult. Surely, Mr. Stanton, you must learn to accept my social cues without question. I shall never lead you astray.”
I forced back a laugh at Helena’s blatant suggestion. Nothing, including the overt hint of my cousin’s marital hopes, could tempt a smile from me while I was under the critical gaze of Mr. Edwin Stanton.
His attention did not shift. “What kept you from attending then, if not age, Miss Blakeslee? Desire? Family matters?”
My eyes widened at the impertinence. What kind of man asks such direct questions to a lady he just met? An unladylike word came to my mind, but I did not betray Father’s admonition by using it.
“Do not press her so, Mr. Stanton.” Helena was once again quicker to respond. “Look at her shock. Can’t you see she has no desire to tell you? Poor dear.” Helena giggled and touched his arm. “Besides, what care is it to you what her reasons were?”
“I’m assessing her character, Miss Hanford. Is that not what is supposed to transpire when a gentleman first meets a lady?”
“I daresay! What a notion! Abigail, do excuse Mr. Stanton, his manners are quite abrupt tonight. How droll you are indeed, Mr. Stanton.” Helena looked giddy with excitement as her blue eyes flashed back and forth between us. “Do you truly know nothing about winning the good impressions of a lady?”
“I am only trying to weigh in on whether Miss Blakeslee’s good impression is worth obtaining.”
My irritation at this disagreeable exchange heightened, and I could no longer hold my tongue. “I assure you, Mr. Stanton,” I said, matching his fervent gaze, “you should not waste your time on such unnecessary deliberations; especially when whatever conclusion you may come to has been rendered obsolete.”
Mr. Stanton’s brow lifted though his eyes narrowed. “Obsolete?”
“Surely you are capable of understanding first impressions are reached by both parties, allowing each an opportunity to decide whether they desire to further an acquaintance.” I kept my voice light, as though I suffered no hurt at his insult. “Consequently, while you have been wasting your time determining the worth of obtaining my good impression, I have effortlessly come to my own opinion of you.”
“Is that so?”
“Indeed, Mr. Stanton. And I must say I am impressed.”
His gaze bore into me. “And why is that, Miss Blakeslee?”
I felt unusually bold as my response clarified within. “It is no easy feat for a gentleman to fail at achieving my good opinion—yet you have accomplished it skillfully in one brief conversation. And, as your quick intellect may now perceive, there is no need to think on it further—my opinion is set and has deemed your opinion obsolete.”
A muscle in his jaw flexed, but the rushing sensation in my head left little room to relish in my triumph. “I see I have made quite the impression,” he said curtly.
I offered an affirmative nod. “I fear you have.”
His intense eyes held mine, searching. Before he pulled any of the secrets from my soul, I willed myself to look away, past the gaping mouth of Helena and across the room to the friendly eyes of Hannah on Sir Wycliffe. My head spun, and I could hardly believe I had spoken so boldly to a gentleman, let alone one to whom I had only just been introduced. But surely, he and his ill temper had entirely deserved it.
I allowed my thoughts to drown out the endless giggles of Helena that had flooded into the silence. It wasn’t until Mr. Edwin Stanton put out his arm for me to take that I realized dinner had been announced. Glaring ahead I placed my hand as lightly as possible in the crease of his elbow as we followed Mr. Stanton and Lady Eliza into the dining room.
Mr. Edwin Stanton didn’t speak, but I felt him watching me out of the corner of his eyes as he escorted me to my place at the large, rectangular table. I was relieved to find my seat a comfortable distance from him and breathed easier with his removal. He had been seated between Helena and one of the Miss Dowdings toward the other side of the table, and I was safely positioned between Miss Hawkins and Uncle Stanton. Across from me sat Sir Wycliffe and next to him sat Hannah. She smiled at me, and I was grateful to be near enough to talk with her when the occasion permitted.
It was several minutes into the first course that Uncle Stanton leaned toward me. “By whom do I have the privilege of sitting this evening?”
“Miss Blakeslee, sir.” I offered, perplexed how he had forgotten our introduction already. “We met just now in the drawing room.”
“Of course. Miss Blakeslee. Such a pretty sounding girl. And I have heard you are quite exquisite though I wish I could see you for myself.”
It was only then I noticed the cloudiness of his eyes. “Forgive me, sir. I did not realize you—” the words to finish seemed too harsh to speak.
“That I am blind?” He chuckled. “I’m flattered you took so long to realize. Was it my handsome face that made you overlook the defect or the confident way I hold myself?”
I was convinced it was the darkness of the drawing room, but I had no intention of saying so. “I believe it was both, sir.”
He chuckled again and reached a hand toward me. Placing my hand atop his, I gave it a gentle squeeze which he affectionately returned.
After some general small talk around the table, a few failed attempts to entreat Miss Hawkins into conversation, and seeing the focused regard Sir Wycliffe paid to Hannah, I gladly directed my attention to Uncle Stanton. There was something about his openness that endeared him to me immediately.
“And, if you don’t mind me asking, Mr. Stanton—”
“My friends and relations call me Uncle, and, if you find no offense in being placed amongst that group, I must insist you do also.”
“I would be honored, Uncle.”
“And might I assume by how you began to phrase your question, you are curious how I lost my eyesight?”
Now that he said it aloud it sounded alarmingly impolite, and I felt relieved he couldn’t witness the color that filled my cheeks. I still needed to learn to not let my curiosity take precedence to propriety. “I—well, I—” I stumbled over my words, endeavoring to think of another question to propose.
“Truly, I don’t mind,” he said, sensing my hesitation. “But I fear there is little to tell. A few years ago, I began having problems with my vision. Things grew dark at the edges and gradually expanded toward the center until all I now have is a general sense of light and dark. I sought the best physician in London, who assured me there was nothing to be done. So, I have resigned myself to enjoying the world through my other senses.”
I smiled. “That is a commendable outlook on such a hardship.”
“As I see it, I only had two choices—to be bitter or to not. I simply chose the more enjoyable of the two. Though I will admit, I often wish I could create a more romantic story surrounding it all. You see, I have a very dull imagination—” he hesitated, “not that I care to mislead anyone, but the truth is hardly worthy of attention.”
“I don’t credit myself with much creativity, but perhaps both our minds together might come to a tale worth sharing—or, in the least, to entertain ourselves?”
“Miss Blakeslee, that is a capital idea!”
“Well then, let us think. The grandest stories are always believable,” I paused, trying to determine an appropriate setting. “You were just telling me of your time in the British Fleet.” He nodded. “It would be fitting, and perfectly romantic, if your tale occurred at sea. Perhaps a heroic rescue?”
One side of his mouth lifted. “I daresay I prefer to play the hero.”
“And nothing is as heroic as rescuing a damsel in distress, do you not agree?”
“I most certainly do.”
I couldn’t resist grinning as a story surfaced in my mind. “I believe it must occur at night, for the mystery of things is always greater at night. You are walking the deck as Captains do, on watch for pirates or smugglers, when you hear the cry of a woman. You follow the sound to the starboard side of the ship and search the water, wondering who could be in such a state of anguish. The water is dark, with only an occasional reflection of light from the moon dancing off the waves. It would be impossible for someone to be out there, but then—” I nearly giggled at the intensity of Uncle Stanton’s concentration.
“Well, what was it I saw?” he asked eagerly.
“A woman, of course.”
“In the sea?”
“In the sea! And the most beautiful woman you have ever laid eyes on. But what was most peculiar was how her cry transformed to a song—an entrancing melody that wrapped around you, pulling you toward her.”
“But she is in the water? How is she rescued?”
“You are a hero, Uncle. You must jump in to save her!” He lifted his eyebrows in surprise, and I covered my mouth stifling a laugh. “Don’t look so startled at the notion, I daresay if it were a real occurrence you wouldn’t hesitate a moment. And our story must be accurate—that is why I came to this conclusion.”
His face beamed with pride. “I’ve always had a propensity for acting brashly around beautiful women.”
“And so, this is no different. And after you jump into the freezing water, as extremes make the account more exciting, you swim to where you expect her to be but find nothing. You search frantically, diving under the water and yelling for her—for now that you have seen her you will save her or die in the attempt. But you grow tired and, just as your strength is exhausted and you begin to sink, you are pulled from the sea.”
“And how should I be saved?”
“A shipmate would be a reasonable rescuer. Possibly a fellow watchman or someone who heard your distress as you searched?” I received a reassuring nod. “When they got you on deck, although you had taken in much water, your only concern was for the woman. ‘Woman?’ they’d say, ‘There was no woman in the water.’ Had they not heard the cry or the mesmerizing song? Were they not lucky enough to behold the enchanting face? They’d surely blame it on your longing imagination—though we know how dull it is—or likely a bad meal. And I fear she would forever be a mystery to you, plaguing your very existence— the image of this siren etched in your mind and her song on your heart. And your eyes would ultimately grow dim because nothing in this world could compare with the splendor you once beheld.”
A satisfied smile lit his face, and my own expression soon mirrored his.
“You have given me quite a story, Miss Blakeslee; yet I am certain I shall never tell it as well. I’d ask you to transcribe it, so I might memorize it,” he chuckled, “but that would do little good as I’m no longer able to read.”
His laugh was contagious, and I easily joined him. Glancing around to make sure no one had observed my casual behavior, my eyes locked with Mr. Edwin Stanton. His stern look took the smile from my lips and drove my gaze to my plate.
“What is it, Miss Blakeslee?” Uncle Stanton asked gently.
I marveled at his discernment, most people with perfect eyesight would fail to perceive what he did. “I believe I have offended your great nephew with my behavior.”
“And how did you come to that conclusion?”
“The intensity of his stare—as though he is condemning me from across the table.”
“Many emotions can cause intensity, Miss Blakeslee. But, if he is displeased, let me ease your mind—you can hardly be the cause. These last few years he has had no difficulty finding things to aggravate him. Perhaps it is his way of being hospitable—ensuring he treats us all equally.”
“Perhaps,” I said, taking comfort in the idea his ill temper hadn’t began with my arrival. Looking back toward the other side of the table our eyes met again, but this time he redirected his attention to the smiling face of Helena.
After dinner had finished, the exhaustion from the day’s travels and emotions overwhelmed me. I found Aunt Marianne to ask if she thought it acceptable for me to retire early.
“It is your first night here. Surely you do not wish the others to think you impolite? Particularly when the men do not stay long taking port.”
“Mother, look at the poor dear.” Helena approached, apparently having overheard our conversation and feeling inclined to aid me in my request, though I doubted her reasoning was my best interest. “She needs her rest. We would not want Uncle Miles to think us negligent of Abigail’s wishes.”
Aunt Marianne seemed hesitant to accept Helena’s reasoning, her gaze flickering to where Lady Eliza stood talking with several ladies. “I do not wish her to be regarded as unsociable, it will reflect poorly on us,” she whispered to Helena, as though I was not present.
“Mother, tomorrow shall be a full day with Mr. Stanton’s friends arriving and I’d hate for her to appear as haggard from exhaustion as she did today. We need her to be rested and more amiable, for someone must hold the interest of the new gentlemen, and I daresay,” she brought her voice to a low whisper I could barely overhear, “the other ladies are left wanting in their abilities to do so.” Aunt Marianne nodded in agreement. “You know how I hope to keep Mr. Stanton’s attention for myself, to ensure our courtship continues to progress as intended.” Helena’s last words dragged as her bottom lip rose in a perfected pout.
“It is decided, Abigail.” Aunt Marianne grabbed my arm and began pulling me to where the other women stood. “We shall appeal to Lady Eliza and send you to bed directly upon her approval.”
“Thank you,” I said sincerely.
It wasn’t long before I was in my room, relieved to be alone in Lydia’s company. “Was it truly as terrible as you feared?” she asked, unpinning my hair.
“I admit it was not, though I would have found little enjoyment without Uncle Stanton. I’m certain you would be extremely fond of him, Lydia.”
“And what of the heir, Mr. Stanton? I hear he is most handsome.”
“Mr. Stanton?” I scoffed. “Where did you hear such a thing?”
“It seems quite the consensus below stairs.”
“Perhaps it’s one of the job requirements—to believe such nonsense,” I said wryly.
“So, he is not?”
I thought about his large stature, strong jaw and the intensity in his light eyes. “Striking perhaps, but handsome seems too pleasant a description.”
“Well, I suppose it’s no matter, considering he is spoken for. Perhaps the two gentlemen arriving tomorrow will be worth knowing.”
“If they are friends with Mr. Edwin Stanton, I doubt they will be worth knowing.”
Lydia shot me a look of disbelief but said nothing.
“You would not scold me if you had met him, he is prideful and judgmental—”
“I did not scold you,” she corrected as she helped me out of my gown.
Perhaps she had not verbally scolded me, but her face showed her disappointment. “He truly is horrible, Lydia,” I said, frustrated that she judged me without ever meeting the man she had chosen to defend.
She stopped and looked at me, the way I supposed an older sister would, with equal amounts of love and correction. “There’s more to a person than what one first sees. You understand that better than anyone. It seems—” she paused choosing her next words carefully, “unusual for you to so quickly judge someone, to sum up their character on one brief encounter.”
I wanted to defend myself, to make her see why he had lost my good opinion, but I couldn’t when I knew how it felt to be judged unfairly. I suddenly had an overwhelming desire to be home with Father and Laurence.
Lydia curled a piece of my hair around her finger. “I know this is hard for you and I’m sure you ache for home, but don’t close your heart to everyone outside Easton Manor.” She spoke tenderly, discerning my thoughts perfectly. “There’s always good, sometimes you just need to search a little harder for it.”
Tears welled up in my eyes, and I nodded, knowing that if I tried to speak, I would no longer be able to control them.
“I will leave you to get some rest.” Lydia turned from me but hesitated before looking back with her reassuring smile. “Don’t fret, Abee, tomorrow is a new day.”
I listened to the door shut and her footsteps disappear down the corridor until silence surrounded me. I pushed the thought of home from my mind, knowing it would do me no good, and I climbed into bed.