“Cursed driver,” Mother hissed, following the abrupt shift of the carriage. “Surely London streets are maintained well enough to avoid such unnecessary jostling.” When neither Papa nor I responded, she gave a disgruntled huff. “I hope the traveling coach is not so poorly sprung for our trip.”
Papa’s regard remained set on the veiled darkness of Mayfair passing by. “I have already spoken to Mr. West about seeing to its maintenance. He assured me it shall be ready by Friday’s departure.”
My gaze shot to Papa’s shadowed features. “Friday? But Parliament will not be adjourned for another month yet. I thought we were to remain in London with you until our removal to Branbury Court for the Thortons’ house party.”
“That had been the plan, but—”
“Considering Lord Thorton is no longer in London,” Mother interrupted, “I do not see a purpose in lingering. I have accepted your aunt’s invitation to Sandson Hall.”
A lump formed in my throat at the memory of my last visit to Sandson and the continuous censure I’d been forced to endure at Aunt Priscilla’s hand. I’d readily deemed Mother pleasant in comparison to her venomous sister, and Mother was a more toxic serpent than most. “Is Papa not to join us then?”
“Of course not.” Mother sent a pointed glare to Papa. “Though it would be easy to make a list of Lords that don’t allow their seat in the House to dictate half their year’s plans.”
“As though you’d wish me along?” When Mother didn’t counter his statement, Papa gave a wry chuckle. “And your list would only serve to condemn the men that shun their responsibility. Selfish, ignorant—”
“Your father will remain behind.” The firmness of Mother’s voice ended Papa’s rant. “But I require a respite from the stench of London.”
I withheld a groan. “And how long shall our stay at Sandson be?”
Mother did not speak for a moment, allowing me to stew in my worry. “Not quite a fortnight. Unfortunately, Priscilla has other plans that prevent us staying longer, so we must return to London for another week before our departure to Branbury Court.”
Despite the promise of our eventual return to London, any amount of time spent with Mother and Aunt Priscilla for company seemed entirely too insufferable. Surely, I was old enough to remain behind with Papa. “Must I join you?” The question slipped from me, and I instantly wished it back.
Even in the darkness, I could sense the full strength of Mother’s glower, and I shrunk under its intensity. “Of course you must, foolish child. You have procured no invitations elsewhere, and I will not allow you to remain behind without a suitable chaperone.” She paused. “Besides, we cannot risk you encouraging any more suitors before Lord Thorton offers for you. The last thing we need is to have him return from France to encounter more tales of your meandering heart.”
Indignation coursed through me, but I masked it with arrogance, an emotion Mother did not consider weak. “It is not my fault that gentlemen so eagerly arrive at the incorrect opinion of where a lady’s affections lay.”
“And yet how many other ladies have as sizable a collection of rejected suitors as you have managed in the past three Seasons?”
Unwilling to speak on it further, I lowered my gaze to my lap.
“Come now.” Papa interrupted the heavy silence that had engulfed the small cab. “Only a handful of those lads you forced at her were even tolerable enough to be considered. And Lord Thorton seems superior to them all. Should we not then rejoice that Arabella has proved herself indifferent to men’s feelings?” I winced inwardly as he continued, regardless of his noble intentions. “To think, if she had accepted the first suitor who came along, we would be attending the Brimhall’s ball tonight in the agonizing company of Lord Penthrop.”
Mother lifted her chin at Papa’s assertion. “Considering that Arabella is likely one rejection away from forever sealing her pretentious reputation, and marring ours along with it, I would say Lord Penthrop is certainly preferable to no husband at all.”
“You cannot be in earnest?” Disbelief saturated Papa’s tone. “Even a title cannot overcome the fact that the man is a spineless cross-bencher.”
“Always politics with you. And yet being your wife, it has become obvious that one’s political abilities have little to do with the true value of a man.”
My lips parted at Mother’s slight, but Papa simply turned his attention from her, his posture slumped from weariness. Poor Papa.
“Close your mouth, Arabella,” Mother said. I was hardly surprised she could see my mistakes, even in the dark. “You will never procure an earl’s affections by such untoward displays.”
The carriage jostled again, and I righted myself and my untoward expression as Mother hissed another remark regarding inept drivers and Papa’s lack of oversight of such matters. I released a muted exhale, gladly turning my attention out the window to the shadowed streets until we arrived at Lord and Lady Brimhall’s Town house.
Papa assisted us both from the carriage, then offered Mother his arm. The two of them started up the stairs as though all was perfectly well between them. The very image of marital contentment. And it was all a lie. But over the years I had discovered that all marriages adhered to the same pretense. Even the supposed love matches within the ton, the ones that were so often touted as an ideal, were nothing but a farce in the end. I would admit those individuals who claimed love as their marital badge of honor were better performers than most, but upon closer examination the truth was there—love always faded.
And though I had once been as naïve as other young ladies, thinking I would one day marry for love, it was no longer the case with me. I wanted a marriage of convenience. A marriage where I would not need to fret about my love for someone fading, nor feel the agony as I witnessed the unavoidable disenchantment take hold of my husband through the years. I was not strong enough to bear the loss of love. Not again.
I followed my parents through the doorway and into sight of our awaiting host and hostess.
“Lord and Lady Godwin,” Lady Brimhall said, nodding her welcome, “I am so glad you could make it.” She looked to me. “And you, Miss Godwin.”
I dipped into an elegant curtsy and rose, receiving approving nods from both Lord and Lady Brimhall. “Thank you.”
“It is such a lovely night for a ball.” Mother looked to Papa, who offered a nod of agreement. “It is not nearly as warm as it has been the past few evenings.”
Lady Brimhall now looked to her husband. “We are quite fortunate. Are we not, dear?”
I was hardly surprised to find Lord Brimhall’s eyes were still upon me, only removing them when a jab of his wife’s elbow reminded him of his insolence. “Yes. That is … I do believe …” He paused, tilting his head to the side as though he wasn’t certain what he was supposed to be agreeing to.
Lady Brimhall gave a taut smile at her husband’s idiocy, while the three of us pretended not to have noticed his error.
“Oh, see there. It is Sir Tillard and his daughter.” Lady Brimhall seemed a touch too eager in her declaration, and Mother and Papa offered a brief nod before continuing on.
Moving through the crush, countless gazes followed us, and the crowd parted as we neared. There were many gentlemen I recognized, but I skimmed over their eager expressions so as not to be pressed upon for a dance or to engage in unwanted flirtations. After three Seasons, it had become a hardship feigning interest in those with whom I had little desire to interact.
“Miss Godwin!” I turned toward the distinct voice of Lady Beatrice. She gestured with her fan for me to join her. Her incessant gesture meant she would have gossip to share.
“Go on.” Mother peered over her shoulder at me before directing an overdone smile to Lady Beatrice. As the eldest daughter of a higher peer, Lady Beatrice had easily obtained Mother’s approval, a circumstance for which I was most grateful.
Lady Beatrice looked pretty in her ivory silk, though not even a stunning dress and fine jewels could compensate for the angular nose she had inherited from her father.
“Where is Miss Browning?” I glanced around for her ever-present companion.
“Marianne is just finishing the set.” Lady Beatrice leaned closer, and her voice grew to a whisper. “And I daresay she was quite pleased when a certain gentleman asked her to partner with him for the quadrille.”
“Indeed?” I pretended interest, counting the requisite number of seconds Mother had taught me to allow until I could change the subject to something more pressing. “And have you decided if you will accept Lady Thorton’s invitation for the house party at Branbury Court?”
Lady Beatrice whipped her fan open to conceal her features from me. “I have not yet made a decision.”
I forced a smile, confounded by Lady Beatrice’s unwillingness to speak of any invitation without giving airs to her importance. And yet, in part, I envied her. As the daughter of a duke, Lady Beatrice’s delight came not in the invitation itself, for those were expected, but in the amusement of choosing which of them to accept. “Do you have another engagement you are considering?”
Her eyes skirted about the room, as though making certain I was still the most promising person to be speaking with. “The Meads have invited me, and therefore Marianne, to Hampshire at the start of next week. I have already accepted and do not yet know how long our obligation there will be.”
“The Meads?” I concealed my surprise. “How unexpected.”
“Most unexpected. But when you have an unmarried son set to inherit such a fortune, an advantageous match must be sought out.”
I gave a nod of agreement, concealing my irritation. “Certainly. I only wonder what Miss Gilbert will think of the invitation. I do believe she was hoping to be the one receiving it.”
“Receiving what?” Miss Browning stepped directly between Lady Beatrice and me in a most irksome manner.
I removed myself to a more suitable distance with practiced ease. “We were speaking of poor Miss Gilbert, likely beside herself having not received the Meads’ invitation to Hampshire.”
Miss Browning tipped her head to the side. “It is the fate of those of us with little more to offer than our exquisite looks and our incomparable charms.” She gave a small giggle, and I knew she meant to lighten the reality of her situation. It was dreadfully unfortunate that, despite Miss Browning being fairer and a touch more amiable, her father had no title to lure gentlemen to his daughters as Lady Beatrice’s father had.
“Do not fret. I shall find a grand match soon enough.” Miss Browning reached out and rested her hand upon mine as though I required consoling. “And consider yourself blessed that your own father is a wealthy viscount, for there are few gentlemen who would not desire such an agreeable suit.”
I acknowledged her improper comment with a tight nod.
Lady Beatrice flicked her fan with her wrist, pushing a bout of warm air toward me. “And when is Lord Thorton set to return from France, Miss Godwin?”
“I believe just before his house party at Branbury begins.”
She shook her head. “I still think it odd that he should depart midway through the Season, and for a trip to the Continent, no less. If I didn’t know better, I would think he was trying to escape something.”
I veiled my irritation. “And yet the truth is quite the opposite. His mother has assured me it was a last hurrah before settling down.”
Miss Browning giggled. “Oh, what a match you shall be. He is the most handsome of men. And to be the wife of an earl.” She released a dreamy sigh. “You are so fortunate.”
“We are not engaged yet, Miss Browning.” Yet even I knew it was only a matter of time before he would offer for me, and pride filled me. Lord Thorton was an ideal choice. His offer, unlike the others I had received, was one I actually wished to obtain. Not only was he a sought-after earl, but he was handsome and confident. He seemed wise enough to have not lost his fortune in gambling nor poor investments as others had done, and his estate was said to be one of the finest in England. But most importantly, when he looked at me, his eyes were not clouded with emotion and desire. He looked at me as few men did—a woman who met his list of qualities needed in a wife and nothing more. Yes, I was fortunate indeed.
My eyes fell on the young lady who approached me, a wide, excited grin spreading across her plain features. I scanned her unembellished, muslin gown and unadorned, brown hair. The curls heaped on each side of her head accentuated her heart-shaped face to an unflattering fault.
“I am Arabella,” I said curtly. Lady Beatrice and Miss Browning ducked behind their fans, muted whispers adding to my impatience. “But to those with whom I’m not well acquainted, I am addressed as Miss Godwin.”
The girl’s face turned scarlet, and her smile faded. “Forgive me. I assumed you would recognize me.”
I tried to place her unremarkable face. She hardly appeared old enough to be attending a ball, yet something about her did seem oddly familiar. “I’m sorry, but I have no recollection of you.” I glanced toward Miss Browning who had peeked over her fan. She looked as though she were about to start another fit of giggles when she lifted the fan again. How I wished this homely child would seek companionship elsewhere. How had she even managed to obtain an invitation?
“It’s me.” The young woman’s large, brown eyes implored me to remember her. “Ruth.”
My legs threatened to give out beneath me. “Ruth Seton?”
She nodded, and her exuberant smile once again brightened her face.
“Forgive me for not knowing you directly, but it has been ages since I’ve seen you.” I reached out, clasping her hands in mine, searching for a likeness of the girl I once knew. “How much you have grown.”
“And you look precisely as I pictured you, though your hair is a touch more golden than I would have thought.” She leaned in closer. “But your eyes are the same dark blue.” She sighed, taking in the rest of me. “You must be the most beautiful lady in all of London!”
My amused laugh did not drown out the huffs from behind me. “You were always one for exaggeration.” I released her hands and glanced behind me at the affronted expressions of our onlookers. “Lady Beatrice, Miss Browning, may I introduce you to Miss Seton?”
They lowered their fans further and nodded in unison, Ruth waving her hand in a gauche manner.
“She was our neighbor at Fellerton when I was young,” I said, feeling a sudden need to clarify our connection.
“Well then,” Lady Beatrice said, taking hold of Miss Browning’s arm, “we have no desire to prevent the two of you from becoming reacquainted.”
Uncertain if I felt relief or aggravation at their prompt departure, I inclined my head in farewell, all too aware of the giggles trailing behind them as they left us.
“Is it not wonderful that we have crossed paths after all these years?” Ruth’s smile widened. “I only wish Augustus were here.” I stiffened at hearing his name, but she did not seem to take notice of it. And why would she? She did not know the agony he’d caused me. “I’m certain he shall scarcely believe me when I tell him I happened upon you this evening.”
“Your cousin is not here, then?”
“No. He abhors balls and would not be persuaded otherwise.”
The tension in my body eased at knowing I would not be forced to pretend polite ignorance at seeing him again. “That does not surprise me in the least. Too constricting for him, I daresay.”
Ruth laughed. “How well you know him.”
Knew him. “But I do hope he is well?” I asked, out of obligation.
“Oh, very well. He has taken over the role of patriarch most admirably since my uncle’s death.”
I reached out and touched her hand. “Oh, Ruth. I’m so sorry to hear of your loss.”
Her smile lessened. “It was most unexpected, but we are managing.”
I tipped my head to the side. “That must have been hard on all of you. I know how fond of him you were, as were your cousins.”
She nodded, her eyes glistening in the candlelight.
I glanced around, having no desire to bring her to tears at the Brimhall’s ball. “And has Augustus settled down, then?” I asked it with a tone of indifference, as though the answer would not affect me, for it most certainly should not.
Ruth nodded. “He certainly has.”
My heart dropped at her confirmation, despite how I reprimanded it. Of course he should be married by now. It had been years since I had last seen him.
“In truth,” Ruth said, “you would hardly believe him to be once so full of mischief. Though, he does still tease us from time to time, and we are always glad to see it.”
I tipped my chin downward, uncertain whether she was still answering my question or if she had misunderstood me entirely. “Does his wife appreciate his teasing?”
Ruth quirked her head to one side. “Augustus is not married.” Her hand lifted to her mouth. “Oh, is that what you meant by settled down? How silly of me. Of course I should have known that. No, he is still most eligible despite him being the kindest, most handsome man in all of Dorset. All of England, really.” She paused. “Though I admit I likely hold a biased opinion on the matter.”
I could not prevent a smile, though whether from the ridiculousness of her declaration or the clarification of Augustus’s bachelor status, I could not be certain. “Your cousin was always most handsome,” I said, unwilling to admit more. “And how do you enjoy Dorset? I heard the landscape there is quite breathtaking.”
“Oh, it is. When I first went to live with my aunt and uncle, I was certain I could never grow to love it as I loved Bath, but I have. And you would love it there also.”
I had once wished to visit Dorset more than any other place in the world, but that was years ago. Now I had not the slightest desire to step foot within the county, let alone be anywhere near Augustus’s treasured estate, Fairhaven. “Perhaps I would.”
“Arabella, dear.” Papa stepped to my side. “Your mother sent me to check on you.”
I glanced over at him with a grin, eager for him to realize who I was speaking with. But he was already staring at Ruth, his face blanched and his mouth agape.
“Ruth?” His whispered voice was hoarse, nearly indistinguishable.
I scanned his awestruck features, utterly confused how he had known her when I had not.
Ruth beamed up at him. “I am surprised you recognized me, Lord Godwin.”
Papa pressed his eyes shut and opened them again, as though he thought Ruth might be a figment of his imagination. When he had confirmed she was still there, his gaze returned to me.
“It is her, Papa,” I said with a laugh, taking hold of his arm.
He gave a slow nod. “It is obvious. She looks very much like her mother did at her age.”
Ruth’s expression filled with delight. “Do you truly think so? My aunt has claimed the same thing—that I remind her of Mama, when Mama was younger—and I have often wondered if she speaks the truth of it or if she simply means to please me. I do have her hair and brown eyes, of that I am certain, but I recall Mama being the most beautiful woman I have ever known. Yet, when I look in a mirror, I feel I am quite plain.” Ruth’s words gushed from her, and I again felt a smile coming to my lips without the slightest encouragement. There was the chattering girl I’d loved so well.
Ruth tipped her head to the side. “I don’t necessarily count it as a bad thing—to be plain that is—for I have been told many a time there is more to a person than their appearance.” She glanced sideways and drew in closer to us, lowering the volume of her voice. “But, in all honesty, I wouldn’t complain if I were to be thought beautiful.” She straightened. “So, you saying I resemble Mama, Lord Godwin, is the greatest of compliments, and I thank you with my whole heart.”
“Then you’re most welcome.” Papa’s lips lifted into a rare, full smile, but when he caught sight of me it lessened. “And who is it you are here with, Ru—pardon me—Miss Seton?”
“Our neighbors, the Whitmores. That is who we are staying with while Augustus and I are in London. You see, Mrs. Whitmore is Lady Brimhall’s first cousin, and the Brimhalls were generous enough to allow me along this evening when they were told of my visit to Town. It is my first ball, you know.” She glanced around. “It is all quite overwhelming, so many people in their finery, and I don’t believe I’ve seen so many candles in my whole life, let alone in one room.”
Papa and I gave slow nods.
“Oh yes, the Whitmores. I should be happy to introduce you, if I could only place them.” Ruth’s face scrunched, and she rose onto her toes, scanning the crowded room. “Oh, they are here somewhere.” Papa seemed equally conscious of her tactless manners before she lowered herself. “I’m certain I shall find them in time.”
Papa glanced over his shoulder, his eyes returning to Ruth with a gleam of urgency. “Well, it’s likely best if you go find them straightway. You do not wish them to worry after you.”
I took in Papa’s inscrutable profile, unsure why he would say such a thing when we had just found one another. It wasn’t as though the Brimhalls held such large functions that one could truly get lost for long among the crowd.
Ruth’s smile faltered at Papa’s admonition, and she glanced toward me. “I would hate for the Whitmores to worry on my account, especially after their kindness toward me. Perhaps I should go in search of them.”
I reached out and took hold of her hand. “Then go. But let us depart with an agreement to correspond now that we’re older and more capable of such things?”
Her brow creased momentarily, before her face brightened again. “Oh, yes. Now that we’re older and more capable. I should enjoy that, and it makes our goodbye feel not so permanent.”
A sense of relief overcame me. “Precisely.”
Papa cleared his throat, and Ruth instantly dropped my hand, taking a few steps backward. “Farewell, Bella. Farewell, Lord Godwin.”
Papa and I dipped our heads in near unison, and I offered a parting smile. “Farewell.”
We watched as she disappeared through the crowded room.
I released a sigh. “Poor dear. Though I love her regardless, I cannot help but think how altered she would be if her mother had not died. It is apparent her aunt’s tender disposition is far too lenient for her spirited nature, for I have hardly met a lady so neglected in her training.”
Papa looked at me, his expression pained.
“Who was that pathetic creature?” Mother’s voice startled me, but Papa turned toward her, his face now masked of emotion.
“I’m not certain. It seems the young woman had Arabella confused with someone else.”
My head flinched backward in confusion, and Mother’s suspicion moved to me. “You did not know her, Arabella?”
Uncertain why, I followed Papa’s lead and shook my head. “No.”
Her gaze drifted back to the place in the crowded room where Ruth had just departed. “Why the Brimhalls would invite such riff-raff to one of their balls is beyond me. I should likely not have come had I realized who we would be forced to keep company with this evening. Mr. Hall and his young new bride are also in attendance.”
Papa nodded. “Well, my dear, it is fortunate, then, that we must not remain in such offensive company a moment longer.” Mother’s attention settled back on Papa as he gave a brief tip of his head in my direction. “Arabella mentioned she had a headache coming on, and I assured her we would not be at all bothered to return home without delay.”
Mother scanned my features with skepticism. “Arabella appears perfectly well to me.”
I lifted a hand to my temple, instinct pushing me to go along with Papa’s deception. “The headache is just beginning. But the spots in my vision are growing larger, and I fear I will soon grow faint.” I glanced around at the many faces surrounding us. “I would hate to swoon in front of all these people.”
There was nothing Mother disliked more than making a scene, and, after a brief moment, she gave a small huff. “Very well. But, because you are so ill, Arabella, you shall be staying abed for the entirety of tomorrow. And that includes missing the theater.”
Mother always knew precisely what consequence to hold over me. But when I looked to Papa, it was evident there was a reason for his ruse despite me not knowing it. “Then let us be on our way.”
The clock on the mantel ticked in a most tedious rhythm through the empty sitting room. Each click marked another irretrievable second of my life passing by, and one less moment I had until our looming departure to Sandson Hall. I dropped my sampler to my lap and glared at the small clock mocking me, as though it would do some good. It did none.
“There you are, Arabella.” The shrill tone of Mother’s voice commanded my attention. She had scarcely spoken a word to me since the ball, yet I suddenly favored the silence of the past few days to the wrathful glint in her focused regard.
I took a steadying breath, attempting to give nothing away. “I did not realize you were searching for me.”
Her jaw steeled as she moved to the window, placing her back to me. “I know you are aware of the reason for my vexation, so you need not act an innocent.”
My gaze dropped to the cream-colored rose I had been embroidering, dread pulsing through me. She must have discovered the truth about Papa’s and my encounter with Ruth. No wonder she was furious. I opened my mouth to offer an apology.
“Priscilla will be most displeased.” Mother gave a disbelieving shake of her head. “Not to mention the timing of it all is most inconsiderate.”
I closed my lips, unable to find a correlation between the timing of our chance meeting with Ruth and its effect on Aunt Priscilla. Could she be referring to something else entirely? I needed to tread with more caution.
Mother whipped her head toward me. “What have you to say?”
“In truth, I’m not certain what you are speaking of.”
I tried not to cower at the intensity of her stare as she started toward me.
“What of them?” To my great relief, I truly had no idea what Papa’s cousins had to do with anything.
Mother leaned over me, taking hold of my arm, her fingers cold and sharp on my skin. Her eyes bore into me, searching my features for any hint of deception. After what felt an eternity, her grip slackened. “You truly do not know?”
“Know what, exactly?”
Mother dropped her hand from my arm and straightened. “Your father has decided to send you to the Leavitts’ for the next several weeks, instead of allowing you to join us at Sandson Hall.”
“Papa’s cousins?” My heart leapt when Mother gave a brisk nod. “But we are set to leave any minute for Sandson.”
“I know.” Disgust coated her words, as though she’d mistaken my amazement for displeasure equal to her own. “I am in full disagreement to this arrangement, though your father will not hear a word of it.”
I swallowed, cautious to not appear too eager over the joyous news. In truth, had the revelation come at any other time, I would have thought it far from ideal, but knowing the Leavitts’ company could be more easily borne than the company I would find at Sandson Hall, I was obliged to consider myself most fortunate. This certainly had to be Papa’s reward for my silence regarding Ruth and his unwillingness to speak to me of it—accepting an eleventh-hour invitation to free me from the clutches of Mother and Aunt Priscilla.
Mother was watching me as I pulled myself from my thoughts. In an attempt to look more displeased by the news, I dropped my shoulders and released a small puff of air. “But what shall I do at the Leavitts for so long?”
Mother sat herself on the opposite end of the settee. “You shall be acting as companion to Mrs. Leavitt. Apparently, Mr. Leavitt believes your cheery spirit shall be just the thing to improve his wife’s ailing health.”
I set my focus on the embroidery sample on my lap, refusing to take Mother’s doubtful tone to heart. “And shall I go to Branbury straight from the Leavitts’ then?”
The exhale Mother released sounded more like a hiss. “Yes. It appears that is what your father intends.”
I gave a slow nod, realizing this providential development could be taken from me as quickly as it had been given. “But do you not oppose my going?”
“Of course I oppose.” The shrill tone altered Mother’s voice. “But as I have already stated, Charles will not hear me on the matter, despite my reasons. As if he has ever dictated your social arrangements to me before. It is most unlike him and utterly infuriating.”
“Mrs. Leavitt must be melancholy indeed, for Papa to be so determined.”
Mother huffed. “Yes. I suppose she must be. Though her timing is most inconvenient as is Mr. Leavitt’s lack of foresight to not send for some other young relation to cheer her. One less inclined to receiving invitations than you.”
I thought to mention Sandson Hall hardly counted as a noteworthy invitation, but I held my tongue, allowing the silence to settle. I would not risk her temper, nor my freedom.
“At least Charles was correct in one regard—your continued absence from London will ensure that you will not haphazardly encourage any more suitors while Lord Thorton is away.”
My throat constricted as I thought of Papa saying such a thing. Surely he only mentioned it in an attempt to appease Mother. Hadn’t he?
Watching me, Mother’s lips curved at the edges, and I cursed myself for not better concealing my quandary. “I am at least relieved to discover you were not aware of the arrangement, as Charles had assured me.” Mother’s eyes shifted between mine. “To think that either of you would willingly deceive me would be unpardonable.”
Ever so slowly, I released the air I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in. “I knew nothing of the Leavitts’ invitation.”
A light knock sounded on the door, stealing both our attention.
Mother stood. “Yes, Harriston?”
The butler gave a slight bow of his head. “The coach is ready for you, my lady.”
“And have my daughter’s trunks already been hauled back inside?”
Harriston tipped his chin downward. “They are being moved now.”
“You presume to collect me when your work is not yet complete?”
He gave a small bow. “Forgive me, my lady.”
Mother just shook her head. “These Town servants are utterly remiss.”
I quieted my tongue, unwilling to risk provoking Mother further.
Mother’s regard returned to me. “Well, be certain to arrive at Branbury in time to dress for dinner on the first day of July.” She started toward the door but paused, looking back at me. “You must realize that Lord Thorton is likely your last chance at a match of that caliber. Do not forget it.”
Placing my sampler on the side table, I stood and faced her. “I know what is expected of me.”
Mother scrutinized me one last time. “I would certainly hope so by now.” Without another word, she walked from the room.
I took a moment to gather myself. When Papa walked past the door, indicating for me to join them in the entry hall, I followed obediently.
Mother tugged on her gloves. “I am of the mind to delay my departure so that I might at least see Arabella off.”
Papa hardly looked affected by her threat. “You shall do no such thing. I am more than capable of seeing to the task.”
“I believe we often hold different opinions, though mine don’t seem to matter as of late.” Mother shook her head, grasping her reticule. “I shall not pretend we are parting on good terms.”
“And yet, I implore you to enjoy yourself.” Papa sounded less than sincere. “Considering the guestlist, I’m certain Arabella’s absence will allow you to more fully enjoy your time at Sandson Hall.”
Mother pursed her lips and lifted her chin, moving toward the open door. “Farewell, Arabella. Charles.”
“Goodbye, Mother.” I stepped through the doorway after her, still in shock that she was climbing into the waiting coach without me.
“Farewell, dear,” Papa muttered, stepping behind me. We watched in silence as the coach rolled forward and down the street.
“Papa, I want to—” I glanced over my shoulder, only to find he was no longer there. Hurrying back into the entry hall, I caught sight of his retreating figure. “Papa?”
He paused and ever so slowly turned back toward me.
Despite his visible reluctance, I would not allow this opportunity to pass, not after all my futile attempts at obtaining a private audience with him the past few days. “I want to thank you for allowing me to visit the Leavitts. I know Mother was not pleased with your interference, but I am grateful for it.”
He gave a slight nod of acknowledgement and again turned to leave.
“Also,” I called, halting him a second time. “I was hoping you could offer an explanation as to why we were not to mention Ruth to Mother.”
Papa lowered his chin and rubbed at the bridge of his nose, as though the mere question exhausted him. “It is complicated, Arabella.”
“Yet, is it not reasonable that I should be made aware of the situation before I begin a correspondence with her?”
His eyes returned to mine. “I can say no more. I have sworn I would not speak of the Setons, and I’m nothing if not a man of my word.” He paused, indecision evident in his features. “That is why I must allow for this.”
“No. Not that. Though if you do write to Ruth, take caution to ensure your Mother does not intercept your letters.”
I nodded absently, my thoughts still on his previous statement. “If it’s not that, Papa, then what is it you are—”
His stern glare silenced me. “Do not make me regret my interference in keeping you from Sandson Hall.”
I swallowed. I had grown accustomed to Papa’s aloofness, but I was not used to his anger being directed toward me. “Forgive me.”
He considered me briefly then shook his head. “Now,” he said, his voice once again gentle, “go find some way to entertain yourself. I have work to attend to.”
Even after Papa disappeared into his study and closed the door behind him, I could not convince myself to move. Why had Papa been so harsh with me? And why had he sworn to not speak of the Setons? I had always supposed my parents had been friends with the couple, just as I had been friends with their daughter. But my memories were so vague, I hardly felt sure of anything anymore. With one last glance at Papa’s closed study door, I made my way back to the drawing room.
I was so incredibly bored. Papa had spent the remainder of the day after Mother’s departure at Westminster, and I hadn’t said a word to another person besides our housekeeper and Leah, my lady’s maid, in nearly twenty-four hours.
My restless mind seemed incapable of needlework, so I placed my embroidery next to me on the settee and scrutinized the painting above the fireplace. I was never particularly fond of the piece. It was of the seashore—though that was not the part I disliked—with a boat painted in the background sailing away. It always left me with a disquieting feeling, as though I was being left behind at a place I’d never even been.
A knock interrupted my pondering. The door opened and Leah stepped inside.
“Your father wishes to speak with you in the drawing room. He said the coach should arrive any moment.”
“Thank heavens,” I muttered, standing. “Do be sure to grab my sampler and the two books on my writing desk.”
“Yes, miss.” Leah was already in motion as I walked from the room.
The drawing room door was open, and I strode in to find Papa reading the newspaper in his wing-backed chair. I scanned his relaxed posture, and it eased me. “Good morning, Papa.”
He glanced up from his paper. “I thought you might enjoy a cup of tea before your travels.”
My eyes fell on the tea tray. “How thoughtful of you. May I pour you a cup also?”
He nodded and handed me the key that Mother typically retained, folding his paper and setting it on his lap.
I moved to the tea chest and unlocked the top drawer, retrieving a few of the leaves and locking it once again. “Would you prefer lemon or milk?”
Papa’s regard remained fixed on me while I readied his cup. “And how was your day at Westminster?” I asked, a touch self-conscious under his continued scrutiny.
“The Leavitts have written,” Papa said abruptly, disregarding my question.
I lifted my brow. “Oh?” I carefully handed him his tea.
“It seems Mrs. Leavitt is not well enough to travel to Dorset at this time.”
My chest tightened, and I took a seat with my own cup in hand. “But Leah said the coach will be here any moment to retrieve me.”
“Yes … well … I have secured you another invitation for the time being.”
“Another invitation?” I attempted to conceal my bewilderment. “Where to?”
Papa pulled his pocket watch out and studied it.
When his eyes lifted, there was a peculiar flicker that left me unsettled. I raised my cup of tea to my lips, hoping it would calm the sudden churning in my stomach.
A knock splintered through the silence and Harriston stepped inside. “A Mr. Brundage and Miss Seton have arrived, my lord.”
My gaze shot to Papa so quickly that the warm liquid I was attempting to swallow was instead inhaled. I sought to pull in a breath, but the attempt was in vain, and a fit of coughs seized me.
“Are you well, Arabella?” Papa asked. I had just enough sense to nod.
“Is she choking?” Ruth’s voice only heightened my state of dread, realizing she and Augustus had been shown into the room.
Papa stood, and started toward me. “I believe she has just swallowed wrong.”
I held up a hand toward him, gesturing for him to stop. “A mo—ment,” I choked out in a throaty voice, rising to stagger toward the window. My coughing continued and my chest burned, making it impossible to right the rhythm of my breath.
“Lift your arms.” Augustus’s voice was humiliatingly close, and I refused to glance in his direction. After eight years without so much as a word from him, to have him find me in such a state was too much to suffer.
“I’m … well,” I said through more coughs.
“Still just as stubborn, I see.” There was amusement in his voice.
I contemplated piercing him with a scowl for teasing me in my distress, but it would not serve my purpose with a reddened face and tears streaming down my cheeks. Finally, out of sheer desperation, I lifted my arms to shoulder height. Augustus stepped behind me and took hold of my wrists, lifting them until they were straight overhead. Though his proximity did little to ease me, within moments my coughing ceased and bit by bit my breathing regulated.
Without a word, he released my wrists.
I lowered my hands to wipe at my eyes, unwilling to lift my gaze to his. “Thank you.”
Papa gave a loud clap of his hands. “Well done. I shall need to remember that trick.”
Augustus dispelled the heat engulfing my back by moving to a more suitable distance. “My father always claimed lifting your arms above your head like that opens up the chest cavity to allow for more air. Though I’m not sure of the truth in it, it has always seemed to work.”
“Well I’m glad you thought of it.” Ruth moved to my side. “That was awfully frightening to witness. And to think, if you’d not been here, who knows what could have happened.”
I straightened in exasperation. “A moment or two longer and I could have righted myself.” I compensated for the heat that now pooled in my cheeks by offering a tight laugh.
Ruth nodded, though it was obvious she was not convinced.
Without thinking, I glanced at Augustus. My breath nearly caught a second time at the striking man that stood before me. How tall he now was—though I was certain Lord Thorton was taller yet—and his hair had grown darker, a soft golden brown that nearly matched the undertones of his tanned skin. But his honey-brown eyes were the same, as was his delightfully irritating grin. “After eight years, how does it feel to suddenly reappear and be deemed my hero, Mr. Brundage?”
He only laughed, but the familiar sound, though now deeper, somehow set me at ease. No. It could not. Not after his neglect. I fortified the wall around my heart, assuring it would be impenetrable to his disingenuous charms.
“Can you believe, after all this time, we are together again?” Ruth’s question pulled me from my thoughts. “We shall have such a grand time these next few weeks.”
My stomach knotted, and I glanced toward Papa.
Guilt glinted in his eyes. “The invitation I was telling you of is to Fairhaven.”
“Fairhaven? You have begged an invitation for me to go to Fairhaven?” A slew of emotions coursed through me, but I had not the time nor the capability to sort through them.
“It seemed a feasible alternative after you and Miss Seton discussed your mutual desire to be reconnected at Lord and Lady Brimhall’s ball.”
My mouth hung open, and I could not convince it to shut. What would ever prompt Papa to do something so utterly insolent? What must Augustus think? Had he assumed I had been the instigator of the invitation? Augustus stood with a look of utter confusion on his face that confirmed my quandary. This would not do. I had to say something. “Mr. Brundage, I believe we owe you an apology. It is not Papa who typically sees to my social affairs, and I believe it is quite obvious he is unaware of the protocols.” I sent a corrective glance to Papa, who appeared to care little for my public correction. “It is one thing to beg an invitation from family or dear friends, but it is quite another to beg one from an old acquaintance.”
Augustus did not bat an eye at my affront. “Do not apologize. Though I admit I was … surprised to receive Lord Godwin’s missive, I assured him we would be willing to accommodate you.”
My heart dropped at Augustus’s lackluster assurance, and I rebuked it for betraying me so quickly. It was precisely the reminder I required. “I hate to disappoint anyone, but I’m not certain Fairhaven is the best situation for me at present.”
Ruth took my hand in hers. “Please don’t refuse us now. I am entirely set on it. Besides, we have already sent word of your coming to Aunt Marina and hired a larger post-chaise for our travels.” Her pleas tugged at the piece of my heart she still held.
“Ruth, I do want to be with you. I simply …” My voice faltered, and I was unable to finish under Augustus’s unwavering consideration.
Papa cleared his throat. “Well, Arabella, I fear you must make a choice.” He now used his politician’s voice. “I have business to attend to and shall soon be retiring my duty as chaperone. If you prefer to join your mother and Aunt Priscilla, I can have a coach hired within the hour.”
I glanced back at Augustus, and one side of his mouth lifted in an uncertain half-smile. Surely, Augustus’s company was preferable to the company I’d find at Sandson Hall. Or was it? After all the heartache I’d endured, I hardly felt certain.
“To Sandson, then?” Papa said, taking an impatient step forward.
Even the name grated at my soul. “No,” I said softly, holding his gaze. “If Mr. Brundage is certain he can tolerate me for a time, I will accept his invitation.”
Ruth’s squeal of delight forced my notice from Papa’s contented expression just in time to brace myself against the force of her arms wrapping around me. “You shall not regret it,” she said in a hardly distinguishable pitch. “It shall be exactly as it used to be.”
It could not be, but now was not the time to say such things. Allowing the unseemly gesture only as long as was necessary, I placed my hands upon her arms and pulled back as though I was admiring her. “I’m certain we shall have a grand time.”
“Now that it is decided, you’d best be on your way.” Papa stepped forward with a hand extended to Augustus. “It was good to see you again, Mr. Brundage. Please give our regards to your mother as well as our condolences to your entire family for their loss.”
Augustus gave Papa’s hand a firm shake. “I will. Thank you, my lord.”
I studied Papa’s profile. How did he know of the late Mr. Brundage’s passing? He was not there when Ruth had spoken of it at the ball. Could it be that Augustus had mentioned it in his reply to Papa’s missive?
Ruth’s waving hand pulled me back to the present. “Goodbye, Lord Godwin. I do believe I shall be forever indebted to you for allowing Bella to visit.” She glanced at me, a giddy grin upon her lips. “I still cannot believe it is true. Though we are standing here, in this very moment, I am waiting to wake and realize it was all a dream.”
Papa returned her smile, but it was tainted by sadness. “Well, I am pleased to oblige you this time.” With one last lingering glance, he moved to me. “Enjoy yourself, my darling,” he said before leaning in to place a kiss upon my cheek. He lingered by my ear, and I thought he wished to say something, but then he pulled away.
My eyes searched his, but whatever it was, he had already hidden it away. “Take care of yourself, Papa.”
“You also.” He gave one more hurried nod before walking from the room.
Drawing in a deep inhale, I looked to the others.
“Do not look so worried,” Ruth said, unable to conceal her excitement. “You shall love Fairhaven.”
I forced a shaky smile and stepped forward. “Shall we depart, then?”
“Oh yes, let’s do.” Ruth bounced toward the doorway at a quickened pace. She glanced over her shoulder in the threshold to make certain I was following her, and I took a few hurried steps to catch up.
When Ruth disappeared, Augustus cleared his throat behind me. “Bella.”
I stilled at my name on his lips. “You must not call me that, Mr. Brundage.” Hesitantly I turned toward him. “We are no longer children, and seeing as we have not retained our friendship the past several years, it would be most appropriate if we were to use formal address.”
The hurt that pulled at his expression pricked my conscience, but what else could he expect? It was the truth of it, and by no fault of mine.
“Forgive me, Miss Godwin,” he said, amending his error. “I simply want you to know that I was under the assumption you were aware of our invitation. I would not have presumed to come, otherwise.”
“I have no doubt of that,” I said, cynicism seeping into my voice, despite my best efforts.
Augustus released a heavy breath. “Well, it is not yet too late to change your mind. I know that you don’t wish to disappoint Ruth, but she will come to understand.”
“If I did not want to come, I would not have agreed to it.” I paused, not certain I wished to ask the question looming in my mind. “Unless it is your preference I remain behind?”
He hesitated. “No. I don’t believe it is.”
I lifted my brows. “Very reassuring.” His chuckle followed me as I started forward again. “Mr. Brundage?” As I faced him, my heart attempted to lodge in my throat due to its ridiculous thumping. I swallowed down the lump, but it only lodged in more firmly. “Your family is not aware of what transpired between us just before you left Bath, are they?”
The corners of his mouth twitched. “What exactly did transpire between us, Miss Godwin?”
My whole body grew hot and my face pinked from his apparent amusement. “You very well know what—”
“Are the two of you coming?” Ruth stepped back into the doorway, and I startled, clasping a hand over my chest. “Is something amiss, Bella?”
I took to clearing my throat. “No. Not in the least.”
Ruth’s gaze flitted to Augustus and his shameless grin. “Forgive me if I interrupted you. I thought you two were right behind me, so I was talking endlessly to no one but your butler.” She glanced behind her into the entry hall. “And one of your maids.”
I stepped with her through the threshold. “What is it you were saying?”
“Oh, nothing really.” She swatted at the air between us. “I was simply waffling on again. You know how I have a tendency for such things.”
I glanced over at Ruth, suddenly overcome by the realization that Ruth was here with me. I took hold of her arm, not wishing to conceal my delight. “I adore your waffling,” I said, pulling her close.
“I am relieved to hear it. Though you must promise to inform me if your opinion changes on the matter.”
“What a thing to say. As though I could ever tire of you.” I noticed Leah awaiting my directions on the lowest step. “Come along, Leah.”
“Yes, miss.” She moved to step and thudded onto her foot, apparently forgetting the stair between her and the ground level.
“Careful there.” Augustus reached out to steady her by the arm as she teetered forward.
Her cheeks were ablaze as she took in Augustus’s handsome face. “Forgive me, sir.”
Augustus gestured for her to go on ahead. “We all misstep from time to time.”
The lovely pink of her cheeks instantly made me regret Mother’s recent hire. There was no need to have such a young, pretty thing for a lady’s maid. “Make haste, Leah,” I said, unable to curb the harshness in my voice. “And do be more careful. You shall be of no use to me if you break an arm.” I nearly winced at how much I had sounded like Mother.
Leah’s shoulders caved and her eyes dropped to the floor before she hurried out the door ahead of me.
I offered my curious onlookers a tight smile knowing it would do me no good to appear distressed by my overreaction. “Shall we?”
With only a touch of hesitancy, Ruth stepped through the door, but Augustus looked behind him in the direction where Papa had disappeared. “I suppose we must.”
I glanced around for Augustus’s horse, desperate to discover it was saddled and waiting nearby. There was no horse. “Do you not intend to ride, Mr. Brundage?”
He stepped to my side but did not look at me. “I did not bring a horse with me to Town. I hope it is not disagreeable that I shall be riding in the coach also.” His words were friendly enough, but his tone was distant as he offered his hand to assist me inside.
My stomach clenched at the thought of hours in his company, especially after my unkindness toward Leah. “It is not disagreeable in the least.” I lightly placed my hand in his before ascending into the carriage. When he removed his support, I brushed my fingers against my traveling dress to diffuse the sensation of his touch and took the seat across from Leah. I thought to smile at her, but she did not look up.
“Is it not a most pleasant day for travelling?” Ruth asked, ducking her head as she entered the carriage. “I admit I have a small inclination to worry, and I thought of all the ways our travels might be ruined, yet I’m beginning to believe I fretted in vain.”
Had she not yet realized her cousin’s intentions to ride with us as I had?
Ruth gathered her skirts from behind her and positioned herself on the rear-facing seat next to Leah. “Hopefully tomorrow will prove equally amiable for the remainder of our journey.”
I patted the seat next to me. “Will you not sit here?”
“I would,” she said, looking a touch sheepish, “but I fear my stomach prefers it if I face backward. I know it’s odd, but I suppose it is what I grew used to over the years, and now I cannot convince my body otherwise.”
I had nothing to offer besides an unenthusiastic nod before I focused out the window nearest me. I shuddered to think what Mother would say if she were to witness an unrelated gentleman taking the seat next to me—and without a proper chaperone present. But then again, I would not be here at all if Mother had known of Papa’s forced invitation for me to visit Fairhaven.
The carriage shifted under Augustus’s weight, and I sensed him move in beside me. The decently-sized cab now seemed infuriatingly small as he shut the door and gave two distinct taps on the roof. With the initial jerk of the carriage reminding me what I had just agreed to, I attempted to draw in a calming breath. The air was stagnant and heavy.
“And you,” Ruth began, and I glanced at her before realizing she was speaking to Leah. “You must be Bella’s maid? Leah, was it?”
Leah sent me a hesitant look, and I gave her a slight nod of permission.
“Are you from London?”
“No, Somerset.” Leah did not offer more.
“Somerset? Of course, you would be from near Bath. I spent my childhood there. Oh, how I miss it. Though I must say, you will probably love Dorset just as much if you allow yourself. It is beautiful beyond description. And there are some great footpaths near Fairhaven you must take, for there is no better way to see the surrounding area than exploring. Do you not agree?”
Leah gave a slow nod and looked to me, her expression clearly entreating me to intervene. It was one thing to be made to ride inside a carriage with your mistress and her friends, but it was quite another to be treated as though you were one of them. Poor thing.
“How tired you look, Leah,” I said, eager to make amends for snipping at her on the way out. I tilted my head to the side and examined her. “You must be exhausted from all your labors to have me readied so early. Do you care to rest a while?”
It took only a moment for Leah to realize the liberation I’d granted her. “Thank you, miss. I believe I may just sleep all day.” Leaning against the side of the carriage, she closed her eyes.
Augustus’s gaze flicked to me, but I pretended to not notice.
“The houses in this part of Mayfair are quite large.” Ruth looked out the window again, her hands resting on the shallow sill, taking in the passing scene.
“Is your Town house nearby?” I tried not to feel self-conscious with Augustus listening.
Ruth shifted in her seat to more fully face me. “Oh, but we do not have a Town house. We’ve been staying with the Whitmores just a few streets over. Mrs. Whitmore has a daughter—Candace—who is about to turn one and twenty. Only a year older than me.” She brightened. “And only a few months younger than you. Do you recall me mentioning them at the ball?”
“I recall you mentioning the name Whitmore.” I paused, attempting to keep the jealousy from altering my voice. “Though I did not realize they had a daughter about our age.”
“Oh yes. And she is the loveliest person in all the world. Is she not, Augustus?” I refused to look at him, but Ruth’s eyes danced as they returned to me, evidence that Augustus had not refuted her claim. “You shall love her as readily as I do. I am certain of it.”
“Then I shall look forward to our introduction.”
“I am surprised you do not yet know one another, being that this was her second Season.”
I clasped my hands in my lap, uncertain how to explain, particularly under Augustus’s watchful eye, that I would have known Miss Whitmore had we moved in the same social circles. We did not. True, we both attended Lord and Lady Brimhall’s ball, but that was likely an anomaly, considering the Whitmores had not been invited based off their own merits but as relations. Yet I could not say as much without giving airs to my higher status, and I had no desire to make Ruth, or even Augustus, feel lesser. “Likely the sheer number of young ladies during the Season prevented our meeting.”
“Are there so very many?”
“Oh, yes. Hundreds just among the ton.”
Ruth quirked her brow. “I imagined far less, but I suppose I would not know as I’ve not had a Season.”
I tilted my head. “Is that not why you were in Town?”
“No. Well, obviously we were for a small part of it, but that was not our purpose for coming to London. Augustus had business to attend to, so he brought me along knowing how I longed to visit Candace. And we saw much of Owen in the evenings. You remember Augustus’s brother?”
“Of course,” I said, though most of what I recalled about him came from stories Augustus had told me. “Does he reside in London now?”
“Currently.” Augustus offered a tight-lipped grin in lieu of more information, so I returned my attention to Ruth.
“So how long was your stay?”
“In the end it was just over a fortnight.” She looked at Augustus. “And aren’t you glad we stayed those extra few days, cousin? For had we not, I never would have encountered Bella at the ball.”
Unable to refuse my curiosity, I glanced at Augustus. His expression was steeled, but the uncertainty in his eyes was still distinguishable. “To be sure,” he said, his dull tone contradicting his affirmation.
After a brief pause, I covered my hurt with a forced laugh. “Your cousin does seem most overjoyed by our reacquaintance, does he not?” I sent him a wry smile, knowing full well how to pull him from his melancholy, though I wasn’t certain I wished to. “I hardly believed Ruth when she made mention of it, but you have become somber.”
Ruth’s expression filled with contrition. “I … well, I did mention it, Augi, but—”
I gave a dismissive wave of my hand. “Oh, Ruth, do not fret. It was imperative that your cousin should grow up at some point, and I fear such a thing requires a less mischievous temperament.”
Augustus appraised my features before his mouth curved upward on one side. “Mischievous? I believe your memory escapes you.”
My heart lifted as it always had when we used to tease one another, and I looked to Ruth. “Did he not taunt me mercilessly with his boyish tactics during his visits to Blacksley?”
Ruth tightened her lips together, her eyes now alight with glee, and she nodded.
Augustus shifted in his seat to face me more fully, resting his arm on the back of the bench. “What boyish tactics are you referring to exactly?”
I lifted a brow at him, ignoring the accelerated pounding of my heart and the warmth of his hand so near my bare neck. “You rubbed mud in my hair, put frogs down my frock, and hung my favorite doll from a tree.”
“That was before our truce.”
“And what of the time you took me fishing?”
He gave a half-hearted shrug. “What of it?”
My mouth opened in disbelief at his blatant oversight. “The way you bashed that fish with a rock is still seared into my memory.”
He began to shake with laughter, and I resisted the strangely familiar urge to join him. “The blame there should not fall entirely on me. You had to have realized that fish must first die if they are to be eaten?”
I pierced him with my most unamused stare, waiting for him to appear sufficiently contrite.
After a moment he filled his cheeks with air and released it slowly through his mouth, resuming a more appropriate demeanor. “Forgive me. I never meant to distress you.”
“Not even the time you nearly shot me with an arrow?”
He removed his arm from the back of the bench and pointed a lighthearted finger at me. “That was an accident, and I apologized.”
“Or the time you carried on as though William Morris, the pig man’s son, was fond of me—writing me those horrendous love letters?”
His lips squeezed shut, and he placed his clenched hand atop them to conceal his growing amusement. “Not an accident, I admit, but they were not horrendous. I heard you telling Ruth how well-written you thought them.”
My mouth parted. “You spied on us?”
He paused, then dipped his chin in mock contrition. “I now see that admitting it does not help my plight.”
I took in Ruth’s contented expression, unable to conceal my pleasure. “After everything I suffered at your cousin’s hands, I’m beginning to wonder at my decision to come along.” My intention was to tease, but the smile melted from Augustus’s lips. Time seemed to stop at seeing him so altered in countenance. Yet why should I be bothered that his conscience was pricked by my words? The guilt was not mine but his own. “Luckily for him,” I said, unable to prevent myself from righting the situation, “I have always been willing to overlook his troublesome ways.”
The corners of his lips curved upward again, though the smile lacked its previous radiance.
Unsure how to proceed in the ensuing silence, I focused on Ruth. “Tell me of Fairhaven. I long to know everything about it.”
She beamed back at me, needing no further insistence to fill the quiet. “Fairhaven must be one of the finest houses in all of England.” Ruth paused. “Well, to be completely honest, I don’t believe that would be a fair assessment, as I have not visited many houses outside of Dorset.” Her brows pulled low. “In truth, I haven’t visited many houses within Dorset either. Yet I have seen a great many from the outside, and Fairhaven, though not as large as some, is equally beautiful. Not to mention that the countryside gets more mesmerizing the closer you get to the coast. Do you not agree, Augi?”
Augustus nodded in my periphery.
Ruth leaned forward. “Do you think we could take Bella to the seaside?”
“If she desires it.”
Ruth reached out and touched my knee. “Would you like that?”
“Very much. I have never been to the sea.”
Ruth sighed. “There is nothing like it in this world. The waves crashing against the beach. Oh, and the smell. Cousin, tell Bella of the way the air smells. It is almost as though you can taste the salt in the air. And the way the water covers your feet … it feels as though you are being pulled out to sea, like the ocean is yearning to keep you if you’d only let it.”
I attempted to hide my dismay at such a notion. “I am certain I shall not be brave enough to venture in.”
Ruth blinked rapidly. “But to go all the way to the ocean—and for the first time—to not go in?”
I sensed Augustus watching me again, and I tilted my head, allowing a kind smile to touch my lips. “Observing your enjoyment will be quite enough to satisfy me.” I glanced at Augustus. “And do you enjoy the ocean as much as your cousin, Mr. Brundage?” I asked, hoping to make him aware of his unpleasant habit of staring.
He did not look away but offered a thoughtful grin. “I’m not certain anyone can enjoy the ocean as much as Ruth, but I certainly try.”
I gave a nod and looked back to his cousin.
Taking it as permission to continue, we listened as Ruth described the shells, the sea birds, the quality of sand and on and on with whatever came into her mind. By the time we reached our first stop, I felt desperate for some quiet.
Augustus saw to acquiring the next team of horses while we took our midday meal inside the posting-house. Ruth was thrilled with the food and spoke of her love of all types of pies, from minced meat to fresh blackberry. At the second stop she recounted the first time she had tasted ice cream and by the next we had discussed her favorite teas to alarming detail.
By the time we reached the coaching inn that night, I felt strangely exhausted. I hardly received as much interaction in a day with my parents as I did in five minutes with Ruth. Now, after ten hours of her endless chatter, I realized that the constant pace had worn me down more than I cared to admit.
Eager to sleep, I went directly to my room. But the lumpy bed and the rancid smell of the place made sleep hard to come by. I tossed and turned with dreams of Papa and Mother quarrelling with the Setons. Then came my repeated nightmare, one I thought I had finally quelled.
In the dream, I stood at a window staring out at countless people passing by, none of whom I recognized. Each movement, each sound, disquieted me, but I waited. And waited.
Augustus never came.