When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.
Intellectually, I know that life is ephemeral; emotionally, it is rather difficult to accept that.
Recently, I learned of a death of a former colleague – the reaction? I read the e-mail death announcement over and over again. I had just met with him three months ago – he had not seemed any different; he still had the vast girth and loud chuckle… the know-it-all demeanor.
Just like that, he was gone.
Is anyone ever really prepared for death? Prepared for knowing and accepting that, contrary to what religion tells us, there may be nothing to look forward to …
Then again, we do not know where we come from; we certainly do not know where our journey may end.
So, what about Honoria and Frederick? Death – the consequences of this event affects those who left behind; those who are left behind need to allow the fabric to re-constitute itself, kind of like a wound and the blood clotting.
The question is always asked; the answer never reveals itself.
From the movie, The Portrait of Jennie –
Since time began man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal question: What is time? What is life? What is space? What is death? Through a hundred civilizations, philosophers and scientists have come together with answers, but the bewilderment remains… Science tells us that nothing ever dies but only changes, that time itself does not pass but curves around us, and that the past and the future are together at our side for ever. Out of the shadows of knowledge, and out of a painting that hung on a museum wall, comes our story, the truth of which lies not on our screen but in your hearts.
Early afternoon had crept stealthily but firmly upon the vast estate grounds. Morning, and all the daily activities associated with it – milking the cows, exercising the horses, herding the sheep, and tending to the vegetable gardens and to the orchards – had been completed long ago. Now, in the strange but not unpleasant silence, which had been extending its tendrils slowly throughout the day, men chewed absently on bits of straw as they gathered to exchange the latest news. The women took out their sewing baskets and proceeded to mend torn clothes or to work on some fine piece of stitchery. The bright chatter and laughter of the children had temporarily faded either into the phantom of slumber or provided a glimpse into a hopeful future: the older children worked steadily alongside their elders.
The lazy stream nearby trickled down and turned sharply around a bend, its sounds mocking yet soothing. The leaves rustled and collided, displaying vividly the violent interplay of colors so evident every autumn. The murky grey of morning had given way to the crystal sharp clarity of clear blue skies. The sedate autumn breeze had become a biting, almost fierce autumn wind. It hinted to all who cared to listen that serenity should not be taken for granted; destruction resulting from vengeance, from inattention could be wreaked at any time.
But despite its constant efforts – the wind vigorously stirred loose soft, shimmering red-gold strands of hair around a pale, unblinking face – one person seemed to take no notice. She was mounted on her favorite horse, Juno, who stood restlessly at the edge of the bank by the stream. The steady eyes suddenly blinked, her long lashes suspiciously moist. She turned her head slowly. From a distant angle, it seemed as if she were surveying the grounds of this estate soon to be her home, with a critical and keen eye.
How wrong that observation would be.
It had been three months since the death of Sir Creston, and it still felt as if Honoria could never manage to remember that he was gone forever. The immediate month after Sir Creston’s funeral and burial, Honoria often found her either rushing through the hallways or down the stairs to her father’s study. As had been her custom since she could remember, Honoria would simply open the door without knocking and walk in, breathless but eager to share her latest discoveries with him. Once upon a time, Sir Creston would have been seated at his desk. He would have had on his reading glasses and would have peered at Honoria over the top of his frames with affectionate disapproval. Despite his constant reminders, Honoria had never learned to knock before she entered, unannounced. Honoria would ignore her father’s mock glare and stroll over to him confidently. She would kiss him on the cheek warmly and then sit in the comfortable, beaten leather chair across from her father. Her legs would be tucked under her, her voice eager, her speech rushed as she related her news to Sir Creston.
It was peculiar, really, Honoria thought with an imperceptible twist of her lips, how suddenly she had so much to tell a father with whom she would never again be able to share confidences. She had finally solved the set of calculus and physics problem sets that had been plaguing her for weeks. Under the stern but loving guidance of her Aunt Lydia, she had finally finished her first sampler. Honoria grimaced. Well, the back had failed to resemble the front… she neglected to finish the thought.
The wind grew stronger, pulling free additional red-gold strands from a hasty knot at the nape of Honoria’s throat. Steadying her mount, Honoria tucked her riding coat around herself more firmly. She impatiently but unsuccessfully pushed away the flying strands of hair from her face, her gaze clear as her thoughts finally came to dwell on the one person for whom Honoria possessed feelings that she did not care to examine too closely.
Honoria looked up and turned in her seat. It had been rather unnecessary for her to confirm the identity of the owner of that deep baritone. She watched as Frederick strolled towards her, his long-legged gait unhurried and confident, his hands in his trouser pockets.
Frederick stopped before Juno and gave a friendly, assessing pat. Honoria opened her mouth to issue a cordial greeting. But the prepared greeting faded. With hands that spanned Honoria’s slim waist, Frederick easily brought her down to the ground. Though Honoria would have preferred to keep her gaze on the ground, he grasped her chin lightly between his thumb and forefinger and impersonally examined her face. What he saw must have satisfied him for he nodded approvingly. He released her and stepped back. He had not spoken a word.
Honoria averted her eyes and tightly clasped her gloved hands in front of her. She felt rather than saw Frederick’s gaze on her. She swallowed, trying to ease the dryness in her mouth. “You have a lovely home, Sir St. John,” she began the conversation, her voice slightly shaky.
Frederick leaned against Honoria’s horse and rested a hand on the mount. “You should have told me that the memories were too difficult to live with for the moment at your father’s home,” he reprimanded gently.
Honoria’s head snapped. “I grew up in that home, and I loved my father, Sir St. John,” she protested fiercely. “How dare you suggest that – “
Frederick held up a palm, silencing Honoria. She unconsciously retreated. Frederick studied her face. “I meant no insult to your father’s home, Honoria,” he reassured. “But you did look like death warmed over a fortnight ago when I went to visit you.” He sighed, allowing a moment of exasperation. “No matter what Lady Caposten may have said about propriety, if you had only sent for me when the memories grew too unbearable, I would have brought you here immediately.”
Honoria blinked rapidly. She had wondered how Frederick had managed to bring her to his estate without a chaperone’s well-meaning presence. Lydia was a stickler for propriety. “How did you convince Aunt Lydia to allow me to come here?” she asked warily.
Frederick stepped forward and touched the shadows under Honoria’s eyes with his thumbs and framing her cheeks with his palms. He smiled slightly. “This will be your home soon, Honoria,” he responded without answering her question. He rubbed the dark circles under Honoria’s eyes lightly with the pads of his thumbs. “Do you have nightmares, Honor?” he asked quietly.
Honoria slowly lifted her eyelids to meet the beckoning, steady grey depths of Frederick’s eyes. She had believed that in her grief-stricken stupor some months ago, she had imagined the tenderness, the understanding, and the compassion in his calm, inscrutable grey eyes. She had imagined the solid strength of his hands that had gripped her shoulders. And she had imagined the almost unbearably gentle kiss that he had placed on top of her head.
Yes, Honoria had firmly believed that she had imagined everything. The weeks following her father’s burial, Frederick’s visits had been sporadic, his manner polite and affable but cool. An enigmatic, opaque barrier of thin grey ice had replaced the warm charcoal quality to his eyes, which Honoria had found so appealing and comforting. Honoria desperately sought to look away; Frederick’s hands were gentle but intractable. She was afraid of what he would see in her eyes: she could lie easily through the spoken word, but her eyes could not. What little she knew of herself, she knew that she had not yet learned to guard against the expressiveness of her grey-green eyes. Against the answers in her soul that her eyes would provide.
Answers of which she had no knowledge.
“Honoria?” Frederick inquired patiently.
Honoria gave a small cry and pressed her face into Frederick’s chest. She closed her eyes, her hands clenched into fists and placed against his chest. His arms went around her; he held her close.
“Honoria?” Frederick repeated softly. He brushed his lips lightly over the top of Honoria’s dishelved head.
Honoria opened her eyes and rested her cheek against his heart. She was soothed by its steady rhythm. Her voice was barely audible as she spoke. She did not move from the refuge of his arms.
“Frederick, I – “ Honoria croaked.
Frederick pulled back slightly though his arms remained around Honoria’s waist. Though his lips did not move, the corners of his eyes crinkled. “It is about time you began using my Christian name, my dear,” he remarked lightly. He lifted one finger and tapped it against Honoria’s cheek.
Honoria blushed and pulled away completely. “I forgot myself, Sir St. John,” she said stiffly. “I do apologize.”
For the first time in their acquaintance, Frederick laughed. Honoria’s eyes flew to his face. She could not help but notice the faint lines of exhaustion bracketing his mouth and the edges of his eyes. She hesitantly raised a hand, tempted to touch those lines. Her hand dropped. “Sir St. John – “
“I thought that we agreed that you should use my Christian name,” Frederick interrupted smoothly.
Honoria ignored that remark; she had agreed to nothing. It had been the slip of a tongue. “Did your business in London go well?” she inquired politely. She recollected something about a patient. “How is your patient?”
The laughter faded from Frederick’s eyes as he stared blankly at Honoria. But he recovered quickly, his usual bland, amiable smile touching his lips. “Doing quite well, thank you, Honoria.” He added lightly, “You sound like a wife already.”
Honoria searched Frederick’s eyes; she could not dispel the disquiet that his lack of an answer created. However, she knew enough to be aware that he would deftly brush aside further questions. She nodded uneasily, and sought to change the subject. “Did you find other species for your gardens?” she asked promptly.
Upon her arrival at Frederick’s estate a fortnight ago, Honoria was surprised to discover that her betrothed was an amateur horticulturist. Before he departed for London, he had escorted her around his lush, colorful and vibrant gardens. He pointed out all the various flora by its Latin and English names.
Frederick shook his head and moved closer to Honoria. He put a hand in his trouser pockets and took out a small velvet jewelry box. “No, but I found this,” he replied gravely. “For you,” he added unnecessarily.
Honoria raised her eyes to Frederick’s face, but he was intent on slipping the ring onto the fourth finger of her left hand. Her eyes moved from his face to the emerald-diamond ring on her finger. She turned down her eyes and held out her hand. She examined the ring, the symbol of her change in status from a mere maiden to a betrothed one. “Oh, Frederick,” she murmured inadequately, forgetting herself again. She was at a loss for words.
Frederick tightly clasped Honoria’s right hand. “Tell me the truth, my dear,” he requested intently. “Do you truly like the ring? If not, I could – “
Honoria shook her head. “Oh no, the ring is beautiful,” she declared. “I shall be the envy of every young lady in England.”
Frederick’s tense shoulders eased. He squeezed Honoria’s hand. “Hardly that, my dear. My ring is a paltry thing compared to the jewels of the other titled ladies of England,” he remarked dryly.
Honoria tentatively placed her ringed hand over Frederick’s. “But I suspect that very few of those jewels were given with the same sincerity and reverence as yours was,” she reminded gently. “I – “
Honoria paused, unable to find the words. She stood on the tip of her toes as she tried to kiss Frederick’s cheek. At the last moment, however, Frederick unexpectedly turned his head, and his lips ended up meeting hers for the first time.
Honoria had secretly wondered exactly what kissing entailed. She did not understand the enthusiasm or the art behind what she considered a simple press of the flesh. So nothing had prepared her for the smooth yet firm texture of Frederick’s lips. Or the warmth that emanated from them. Or the fervor and oddly intimate feel of his long, capable hands at her waist.
Honoria pulled away slightly and turned her head, unnerved by the unfamiliar sensations that were coursing through her. She felt Frederick’s not objectionable warm breath near the corner of her mouth and involuntarily inhaled his scent – something that came from his valet prepared shaving soap and something else that she could not identify. Her fingers dug into his upper arms as she turned her head slowly; her eyelids fluttered up as she hesitantly met her betrothed’s unexpectedly stormy grey eyes. Frederick’s eyes narrowed as his lips descended again to meet Honoria’s. His hands tightened around her waist as he jerked her closer to him. Her hands tentatively slid from his upper arms to his shoulders, her head tilting back as his kisses became harder and more insistent.
For a moment, it seemed as if the sun appeared from behind the clouds, drenching the barren earth with its warmth and vitality. The starved vines, wrapping the earth, gained a new life as they began to loosen and to extend. The hidden roses hanging on the vines dared to unfold and to reveal their brilliant colors.
Honoria savored this warmth, her small, slim hands laced behind Frederick’s neck. Hence, when Frederick drew away, she suddenly felt dreadfully cold. When he kissed her forehead, she closed her eyes, her lips trembling. Tears touched the backs of her eyelids.
The journey had begun. This little Honoria knew. Where it would take her, how the road would curve, and where it would end, she did not know. Except… except that she knew with a certainty borne out of warmth and of passion of Frederick’s kisses that his journey, wherever it would lead, would be hers. And hers would be his.
He would lead.
And she would always follow.
She would beckon.
And he would always come.
Lydia looked through the intimidating and rather thick document that was the marriage contract. Her sharp green eyes moved up and down assessingly the document before she dropped it on top of the walnut oak desk in front of her. She looked up and met the inquisitive yes of the silent man sitting behind the desk. There was a rueful expression on Lydia’s face. “Well, I suppose that there is very little that I can do,” she admitted reluctantly. “Obviously, there is nothing I can do if this document is to be believed. You and Sir Creston made certain that this betrothal could not be broken unless one of the parties died.” She paused and added wryly, “Very clever of you and Sir Creston to do so. He knew that I would not have simply stood by and done absolutely nothing. He knew that I did not approve of these arranged marriages. Really, you must concede, Harold, it is a barbaric practice you Englishmen have.”
The Honorable Harold Lester Robbins, solicitor and confidante to most of England’s noblest families, rubbed his forehead, wishing that he were anywhere but here, facing the formidable Countess of Langley. A countess who had been once the supreme hostess of London, and then one day suddenly removed herself completely from the arena. The estranged wife of Harold Robbins’ wealthiest and most influential client. A very dear and close friend, perhaps something more if one listened to the whispers, of the late Sir George Creston, formerly physician to the late King William IV.
Harold steepled his hands and inclined his head. “Perhaps,” he conceded with obvious reluctance. “However, the noblest families of England still arrange the marriages of their issue to proper counterparts. It is what is done, my lady.”
“That’s all and well if one speaks of a person in an abstract fashion, Harold, but Honoria is a young girl who has just lost her father,” Lydia argued, leaning forward intently. “Perhaps there is a way to postpone the wedding?” she asked hopefully.
Harold looked away and started to shuffle the papers on his desk, pretending to look through them although he knew that the answer would not please the Countess. He dropped the papers; he took off his glasses and started to polish them vigorously.
Lydia raised an eyebrow and leaned back. She had her most imperious expression on her face. “Harold.”
Harold looked up unwillingly and sighed deeply. He rubbed his forehead again. “My lady, I do wish that I had the power to dissolve this betrothal between Sir St. John and your ward, even postpone the nuptials as you so elegantly suggested,” he responded, shrugging his shoulders helplessly. “But my hands are tied.”
Lydia sighed. “She will only be seventeen when she weds Sir St. John,” she pleaded. “Much too young to be married.”
Harold coughed loudly. “My lady, need I remind that you yourself were wed at fifteen?”
Lydia nodded and rose from her seat. She turned away, her hands clasped in front of her. “As you well know, Harold, having drawn up the marriage contracts, things were different then,” she reminded the solicitor quietly. “I wanted to marry his lordship. It was my choice. Our marriage had not been predetermined.”
Harold rubbed his throbbing temples briskly. He leaned back in his chair. “While I understand your concerns, my lady, Sir. St. John is not a disreputable gentleman. He was knighted by Her Majesty for his service to the Crown, though no one is certain for what. He is well-respected by the members of the Court and of the peerage, as well as by other physicians.” He tried to reassure Lydia. “And as you can clearly see from the marriage contract, Sir St. John does not wish to claim Miss Creston’s dowry. That will remain under her domain.” He straightened in his chair and steepled his fingers. “He is not a greedy peer, my lady, in spite of his vast personal holdings, which are all solid, according to his men of business. From all reports, Sir St. John is precisely the sort of young man a mother would want for his daughter,” he reproved.
“Yes, but appearances can be deceiving,” Lydia objected. “He never speaks of his family, and – “
Harold suppressed a groan. There was no pleasing the Countess. “My lady, Sir St. John’s father and mother are of impeccable lineage. The St. John family is renowned in England for their devotion to the Crown and its causes, whether it be foreign or domestic.” He peered through his spectacles and nodded approvingly. “Just as I remembered correctly, Sir St. John has no other living relatives. He is the last of his line unless heirs are produced out of his union with Miss Creston.”
Harold raised a hand to stop Lydia, who he was certain, had already composed additional questions. He absently wondered if he were before the Lords and rubbed a weary hand over his face. “My lady,” he tried yet again, “as I have stated before, marriages in the ton are not based on love but on position and wealth. And breeding,” he added as an afterthought. “I do dislike broaching this subject, my lady, but… it was unlikely that Miss Creston could have even married within the ranks of the ton due… due to the circumstances of her birth.” He paused. “Did Sir Creston ever mention whom her mother…” he trailed off delicately.
Lydia shook her head, smiling faintly. “You know what Sir Creston was like about secrets,” she remarked. “He never divulged anything about anyone at any time.”
Harold nodded. “My lady, do Miss Creston and Sir St. John… do they enjoy each other’s company?” he asked, tapping his fingers on the desk.
Lydia blinked rapidly, taken aback by the question. “Certainly, Harold,” she answered. “Honoria has great respect for Sir St. John, and she seems to trust him completely.”
Harold nodded approvingly. “My lady, I need not remind you that most ton marriages are not even built on the foundations of friendship and trust.”
Lydia began to pace out of frustration. Harold blinked. It was most unusual to see this serene, beautiful woman renowned for her often extraordinary calm so agitated. “I love Honoria as if she were my own, Harold,” she stated. “I just … she ought not rush into marriage. Marriage can be difficult enough even without…” she abruptly stopped.
Harold’s face was carefully bland as he steepled his fingers. His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “My lady, are you speaking of yourself?” he asked quietly.
Lydia froze, her feverishly bright emerald green eyes flying to Harold’s tried yet kindly inquiring face. She had always wondered how much Harold knew about her marriage and the events which led to her estrangement from her husband. Of course, he had been the solicitor who had handled the details of the marriage contract. And presently, he handled all of the Caposten family business affairs. In her more reflective, rare pensive moods, Lydia had often wondered how much Harold knew or even suspected. A cynical smile touched Lydia’s lips. After all, it had been in this very office that the terms of exile dictated by her husband had been announced.
Lydia turned away and stood before the windows. She folded her arms over her chest, her expression shuttered. She stared out, seeing yet not seeing the perpetual London fog that constantly hovered over the Thames. She did not hear the carriage wheels rolling or the sounds of voices on the busy streets below. The tears that always threatened to come whenever she thought of her estranged husband… she had not given voice to them ten years ago. She certainly would not do so now, especially not when there was an audience.
For a few moments, absolute silence reigned in the office. Harold continued to study the no longer young Countess who had come to England as an innocent, kind but intensely beautiful young American bride who by all accounts loved her English earl without any reservations, and who had married him over her parents’ objections. He recalled how the young American bride had dared to show her love for her husband with small gestures in public, something which shocked the ton to no end. Those jealous of her and of her prestigious marriage accused her of being an ill-bred, brazen American who had dared to break into the revered ranks of the ton and was deserving of neither their respect nor attention.
For many years, the young couple was blissfully happy, and then something happened. Harold had his suspicions, but… he sighed inwardly and pressed his fingertips against his lips. He remembered Lydia’s sudden need to meet him. Of course, since the Earl of Langley was one of his most important clients and since Lydia was Langley’s wife, Harold had agreed without delay.
But what Lydia had said when she came to his office astounded Harold. With a regal dignity and an extremely pale face, Lydia had quietly informed Harold of her husband’s wish to send her away to one of the Langley country estates. Forever.
During the past ten years, the ton had slowly but surely forgot about Lydia. Forgot that Langley ever had a wife. But throughout that time, there had been rumors that Langley now had a mistress. And now and again, there had also been rumors that Lydia had been Sir Creston’s lover. Harold mentally shook his head. But they must all have been rumors, he reasoned. Knowing Langley and Lydia as well as he did, he doubted that one could give any credence to these rumors.
Something must have made Lydia aware that she had been standing at the windows, ignoring Harold. Her already straight back immediately stiffened as she pulled on her pristine gloves tighter and smoothed the skirts of her gown. The faint lines around her mouth deepened as she spoke, a funny bitter twist to her lips. “You know, Harold, I have often asked myself that very question in my darkest moment, but …” she paused and moved towards Harold’s desk. “I apologize for monopolizing your time, Harold,” she stated with a gracious smile. She held out a gloved hand.
Harold rose and respectfully took the proffered hand. “My lady,” he acknowledged.
Lydia firmly kept her smile. She pulled her hand away and pivoted, her skirts whispering as she made her way to the door. But she suddenly stopped.
Harold remained standing and cleared his throat discreetly. “My lady?”
Lydia immediately turned around. “Yes?” she responded expectantly.
“Is there… would you like for me to pass a message onto your husband and your son?” Harold inquired softly.
Lydia’s eyes were devoid of expression, her features taut. “That would be very kind of you, Harold,” she thanked. “Yes, if you do happen to see my husband and my son, please… please send them my warmest regards,” she requested quietly.
Harold inclined his head. “Certainly, my lady,” she agreed formally.
Lydia opened her mouth as if she wanted to say more but she must have changed her mind. She merely smiled and inclined her head before she left the office. Harold shook his head and slowly sat down at his desk once more. But he ignored the pile of pressing documents to his left as he stared steadily at the door. He sighed and started to vigorously polish his glasses once more.
“You’s got no business pokin’ your nose wher eyou ought not, Miss Lydia,” Tilly declared, her large bosom heaving indignantly.”You’s not changed one bit. A more contrary chile I’ve never had the pleasure of meetin’, and now you’s a more contrary woman than you’ve gots any right to be,” she grumbled. She grunted with evident displeasure though her callused, plump hands were gentle as they brushed out the flowing ebony mane that bore no trace of grey on the regal head seated at the dressing table.
A large, buxom black woman of approximately five and forty with high morals and strong principles, Tilly had grown up alongside the former Lydia Louisa Royale and had faithfully served the influential and patriotic Royales of Boston. She was the daughter of two slaves who had formerly belonged to the Bouviers of Charleston, South Carolina, and who had been part of the entourage who had accompanied Lydia’s mother at the time of her marriage. Only five years older than Lydia, Tilly had been all to her mistress: protector, chaperone, confidante, and friend.
It was Tilly who had stood by her mistress – quietly in the background, of course – when the Royales objected vehemently to Lydia’s wedding an English lord. It was only Tilly who agreed to accompany Lydia to her new home in England. It was Tilly with her excellent midwifing skills who helped birth all five of Lydia’s children and who helped discipline them when necessary. And it was Tilly who knew of the tears Lydia had shed and the heartache that Lydia had suffered when her husband estranged himself from her and forbid her from seeing her eldest child and son.
Tilly was a fiercely loyal woman, who would not hear or heed any wrong done to her mistress. Although originally Tilly had been exceedingly fond of the “English gentleplum,” as she often called Lydia’s husband, she had not one kind word to say about him when he turned Lydia out of their home. Indeed, Tilly had called him every vile name in the book. Always muttered under her breath, of course. Even now, Lydia would not countenance anyone’s speaking ill of her husband.
Lydia sighed as she met Tilly’s defiant eyes in the looking glass. Tilly snorted as she put the brush down on the dressing table and began to dress Lydia’s hair into its usual neat chignon. Lydia’s hands rested in her lap. “You need not worry, Tilly,” she reassured with a faint smile. “The marriage contracts are not revocable. Harold did a very good job with them, as I might have expected.”
Tilly did not respond; she inserted another pin into Lydia’s chignon and patted it. Lydia’s lips quirked. “Tilly, do say something,” she pleaded. “I know that you are fond of Sir St. John, but I – “
Tilly moved back and placed her hands at her waist. She scowled. Her nostrils flared. “Sometimes, I do’s wonder if you’s just choose not to see what you don’t want to see,” she said darkly.
Lydia winced and turned away, her hands grabbing the first thing available to her on the dressing table. “Tilly – “
Tilly began to move around Lydia’s bedchambers. “That boy, he’s nigh crazy about Miss Honor,” she declared decidedly. “Thinks that the moon and stars set on her, I’s supposin’, though he doesn’t show it all that well. And I’s suspect that Miss Honor’s not as indifferent as she claims.”
“Oh, but Honoria can’t be… love takes time to grow, Tilly,” Lydia reminded gently.
Tilly raised an eyebrow. “I’s not sayin’ Miss Honor’s in love with Sir St. John, Miss Lydia,” she retorted tartly. “But she certainly not indifferent to him, that’s what I’s sayin’, unless you miss that soft light in her eyes whenever she sees him, Miss Lydia.” She snorted. “And as for love’s takin’ its time… I don’t know where you’s got such nonsense, Miss Lydia. You’s knew that you’s was in love with that English gentleplum,” she said scornfully, “when you first met him at that ball. I’s knew it was a bad sign when you defended his lack of qualities to your brothers and sisters. Lawd have mercy,” she added, remembering that time.
Lydia shifted uncomfortably in her chair. Tilly waved a hand. “And don’t you be tellin’ me, Miss Lydia, that half of what you felt for that English gentleplum had nothin’ to do with his good looks and his fine ways,” she continued, her eyes narrowed. “The air’s fairly crackled when you’s two were in the room. Even a poor, uneducated no-good woman like me could tell. And I sued to think that he had a fine mind too until he did what he did to you,” she added contemptuously.
“James always had a fine mind, Tilly,” Lydia defended firmly. “No matter what happened, you should not – “
Tilly snorted. “Even knowin’ how much heartache you suffered at the hands of that varmint, Miss Lydia, you still love him, don’t you, Miss Lydia?” she asked doubtfully.
Lydia did not answer immediately. She rose from her dressing table, patting her neat chignon unnecessarily. She walked over to a chair and picked up her lace shawl, carefully draping it around her shoulders. Tilly’s eyes were still narrowed as she waited anxiously for a response.
Lydia swallowed the lump in her throat, her lips thinning. Her knuckles turned white as she crumpled the stiff cotton of her skirts. Her voice was quiet and measured, barely audible. “Knowing how it would have ended, I suppose I still would have chosen him,” a gentle, sad smile curving her lips. “Love is a rather frightening emotion, Tilly. One does not choose whom it one loves… for all the wretched moments that we might have had, there are still the wonderful memories.” She paused, one finger absently rubbing over the smooth varnished finish of the chair next to her. “Our letters, his kisses, his embraces… shared laughter and children…”
Lydia closed her eyes and covered her nose and mouth with both hands. Her voice was still soft but shaky. “I always knew that he was the only one for me, and that I… that I was the only one for him,” she confessed. “He didn’t care that I was American… and he would have never cared had I not betrayed him the way I did.”
Tilly harrumphed. “You’s from a fine and patriotic American family, Miss Lydia,” she defended her mistress staunchly. “You’s did what you had to.”
Lydia glanced at Tilly over her shoulder, blinking several times to prevent the burning tears from falling. She took a deep breath. “I know that I should not have assisted my brother Lionel when he asked he asked me,” she remarked. “Though I was born American, I did marry an Englishman, and I should have told Lionel there and then that I could not help him, but… “
“I suppose that the bonds of blood are just as strong as the bonds of matrimony,” Lydia continued after a moment. “The odd thing is… is that I would have helped my brother even if I had known that my husband and he were working against each other.”
Tilly harrumphed again. “That still don’t excuse what that fine English gentleplum – “
“No, Tilly, you must not excuse my actions,” Lydia interrupted firmly. “As a wife, my loyalties should have been with James. But…” she did not complete the thought.
Tilly opened her mouth but was interrupted by a knock at the door. “My lady,” announced the footman. “Sir St. John is waiting for you in the sitting room.”
Lydia nodded. “Thank you, Bobby,” she responded. “I shall be down shortly.”
Tilly glared at her mistress. “What’s you up to, Miss Lydia?” she asked suspiciously. “You’s not goin’ to say what you ought not to, are you, Miss Lydia? You’s got no business – “
“There are many things in my life I ought not to have said, Tilly,” Lydia returned with a sad smile. “But then if I had not said them, I would not be who I am.” She gently patted Tilly’s cheek. “Don’t worry, Tilly. You can always scold me later,” she added lightly.
Tilly’s nostrils flared indignantly but she said nothing. She opened the door for her mistress and followed her out, grumbling under her breath.
He was not a praying man.
He had ceased in believing in God a long time ago.
Or rather, God had deserted him long before.
But he prayed now.
Sir Frederick George St. John glanced over his broad shoulders at the motionless patient in the four poster bed behind him. The gentle rise and fall of the frail chest was the only indication of any life. He turned away his head slowly, with rigid control and returned his gaze to the view of the estate grounds afforded to him through the tall, majestic French windows. Inside this slightly, stuffy and barely lit chambers, the grim possibility of death loomed not far behind. Like a beautifully stitched but worn piece of tapestry, the frayed edges of this life were unraveling. The once slow fading of the vibrant and varying colors proceeded more rapidly. And there was no longer any way to prevent the steady unraveling and fading. The flickering but constant moonlight that streamed through the windows failed to give expression to a determinedly impassive visage. The thinning of his lips, the taut jaw, and the clenching of his fists in his trouser pockets provided the only possible clues to any emotion beneath the fierce calm. He swallowed briefly and closed his eyes.
Memories, both painful and treasured, almost always tightly contained, suddenly attacked his conscious. Eyes still closed, Frederick saw the lonely and desperately eager young boy who hesitantly shared his dreams and aspirations with an approving and understanding guardian and mentor during their long walks along the borders of the estate. He recalled the young boy who looked forward to the holidays, to the long, companionable fishing expeditions along the lazy, trickling stream. This young boy would never catch anything, but they had been jolly experiences – only during these fishing expeditions could he toss aside his training as a gentleman and make raucous noise.
Frederick’s eyes flew open as he jerked away from the windows. His heart constricted as he thought of the man in the bed, this man whose dusk would come at any moment now. This man who had raised him and advised him for most of his life. Frederick’s stomach twisted; he took deep, discreet breaths. He had been a mere nine years old when he had sobbed his heart out when his undeserving father had committed suicide, Frederick suddenly recalled with unwanted clarity. His mouth twisted cynically. It had been the last time he had shed any tears.
“Frederick?” a reedy voice called out in the darkness.
Frederick’s acute hearing picked up the barely audible sound. As was his customary fashion, he hurried over to his former guardian’s bedside without seeming to hurry. His brooding expression had been replaced with his usual nonthreatening, amiable smile. He placed two fingers gently on his patient’s wrist, relieved to find a weak but steady pulse. “You should be resting, sir,” he reproached with a faint smile and a forced lightness.
Sir George Creston, former royal physician, formerly of the Foreign Office, and faithful servant of the Crown, shook his head weakly, returning Frederick’s smile. A man who harbored no illusions about himself or the world around him, he was aware that the curtain would soon fall on a life that had spanned five decades. He had no regrets, as he gazed fondly at the young man at his bedside, save one. He wished that he could have taken care of one matter for both personal reasons and for the sake of the Crown. For as long as this one particular matter remained unresolved, he could not pass away peacefully: the fragile peace on the Continent and the security of his beloved daughter would always be in jeopardy. With what little strength he could summon, Sir Creston looked into the concerned face hovering above him. His gentle and brave heart filled with love and gratitude as he gazed at his former ward. A man could not have asked for a better pupil or surrogate son. The Crown could not ask for a more loyal servant. His daughter could not ask for a more loving and faithful future husband.
Long ago, Sir Creston had forsaken the love of a woman and all of its trappings when he chose to serve the Crown. But his sacrifice had not meant that he could not remember the powerful passions love provoked. He could still see and feel the tenderness that would unknowingly creep into a man’s eyes when he watched the woman he loved.
Sir Creston saw what the dimness of his chambers could not show in Frederick: conviction, strength of character, and compassion. A tall, lean yet muscular figure of a height two inches above six feet. Firm, direct grey eyes that could be icy or warm, depending on the circumstances. But above all, a capable, intelligent and confident yet not arrogant man who valued and honored his promises and took care of what was his.
When Sir Creston parted his parched lips to speak, he began to cough violently. Alarmed but outwardly placid, Frederick came closer but was waved away. But Frederick remained where he was, his sharp grey eyes never leaving his patient.
Sir Creston smiled wryly. “I used to despair of your stubbornness, son,” he remarked in a raspy voice. “But I see now that it shall serve you well. Yes, it shall serve you very well.”
Frederick remained mute, his brows furrowing. He leaned forward and took his former guardian’s pulse again. It was growing weaker. Frederick absently smoothed the comforter more firmly around Sir Creston.
“Sir – “ Frederick began in his most soothing voice.
“As long as he is out there, free to wreak whatever havoc he wishes, Honoria will always be in danger,” Sir Creston interrupted abruptly. “He would never come near her as long as I was alive for he knew…” he coughed again; his complexion grew grayer. “He knew that I would protect her at all costs,” he gasped, leaning back against his pillows.
Frederick kept his expression carefully bland; he had no idea of what Sir Creston was speaking. “I am certain that Lady Caposten will take admirable care of her,” he responded politely, hoping to assuage his patient.
Sir Creston shook his head, growing more agitated. “Frederick, you do not understand. Once I am gone, she cannot protect Honoria from this man should he come to claim her. And he will,” he added with absolute certainty. “He would be within his rights for…” he paused, then added softly, “you see, this man is Honoria’s birth father.”
Years of hiding his immediate emotional reaction to any announcement had not prepared him for this. Frederick could not conceal his shock. “Sir?” he queried incredulously.
“Society believes that Honoria is my illegitimate daughter, and I have never disabused the ton of this mistaken notion,” Sir Creston continued, ignoring Frederick. “She was born of a man who threatens the peace of the Continent, a man who deftly plays countries against each other. A man who has eluded capture all these years.” Frederick had schooled his features to its usual blandness. However, his grey eyes remained intent on Sir Creston’s face: like all other officers in the Foreign Office, Frederick worked towards capturing and hanging this man.
Sir Creston’s eyes grew hazy as he momentarily entered a distant world alone. “Honoria’s mother… when she realized what sort of man she had married, she turned to me for assistance,” he recalled. “She was pregnant with Honoria… I promised her on her deathbed that I would always protect and love Honoria. Love her as if she were my own.”
Sir Creston struggled to extend a hand, which Frederick immediately clasped. “But I cannot fulfill that promise when I am gone. So I…” he cleared his throat, tightening his grip on Frederick’s hand. “I want you to fulfill that promise. I want you to protect and to love Honoria.”
Frederick was speechless. He stared blankly at Sir Creston. He immediately tried to form a response but nothing came out. He took a deep breath and tried again.
“Sir,” Frederick began delicately, desperately trying to find the right words. “I suspect that – “
Sir Creston’s expression and tone were implacable as he made his next pronouncement. “Neither of you will have a choice. When my will is read, the banns will be posted and the marriage will take place six months after the reading.” He paused and added gently, “You love her, don’t you, Frederick?”
Frederick slowly raised his head and met the searching wise eyes. He neither confirmed nor denied the statement. “Sir, I believe that your daughter will want to marry of her own choosing,” he responded quietly.
But if Sir Creston had heard Frederick, he gave no such indication. “For the past year, I have brought home many a young man like yourself, son, hoping that Honoria would take to one of them,” he remarked. “But she was scornful and contemptuous of them all. All except for you, Frederick.” He paused thoughtfully and predicted, “When I die, Honoria will retreat from the world, as is her wont when she grieves, and will not dare risk her heart. She will be afraid of any consequences that come with loving and losing.” He turned his head to meet Frederick’s steady grey eyes. “Take good care of her, son. She will need you as you will come to need her.”
Sir Creston sighed deeply and closed his eyes. “Do not make the same mistake I did, Frederick,” he advised. “Do not forsake the love of the woman you love. Whatever road you will take, it will be lonely without her. And in some cases, I suspect it will be lonely even with her.”
Frederick nodded solemnly. He leaned forward and gently kissed his mentor’s forehead. Sir Creston’s eyes fluttered open as he weakly squeezed Frederick’s hand. “Send Honoria here, son.”
Frederick returned the gesture and released the hand. He walked a few steps backwards and bowed deeply.
Sir Creston, with what little strength he summon through sheer determination, watched as his former ward, the young man to whom he had given his daughter’s hand, left the room and closed the door behind him.
Sir Creston smiled. “Good-bye,” he whispered into the empty chambers. “And God bless you.”
Seated in a Louis XIV chair, positioned next to the warmth and crackling of the fireplace, the restless yet efficient slender hands of Lady Louisa Caposten, Countess of Langley, were uncharacteristically still. Her slim back straight as ever, her intelligent, beautiful emerald green eyes studied the lone, barely visible figure standing at the casement windows. She pressed her lips firmly together for a moment before trying again.
The figure at the window stood perfectly still, shrouded in the shadows of a room lit only by a single candle. However, this time, the figure spoke in acknowledgement. “Yes, Aunt Lydia?” the young voice asked without any feeling.
Lydia settled back in her chair as her capable hands lifted the needle and resumed the task of sewing neat, even cross-stitches into the delicate cambric. “Whatever happens tonight, my child, you must keep faith,” she reminded in a gentle tone.
Sixteen-year-old Honoria Marie Creston shrugged her slim shoulders as she discreetly wiped her clammy palms on her wrinkled skirts. “As you wish,” she agreed in a dull voice.
Lydia lifted her eyes from her embroidery. “It does not matter I wish, Honoria, but rather that you do as I say for your sake,” she reproached softly. Especially for your sake, she added silently.
The double doors to the dimly lit library flew open. The embroidery dropped to the floor, unheeded as Lydia rose gracefully from her chair, her hands instantly reaching out for Honoria. Honoria ran forward to Lydia, accepting the placement of coal, gentle hands upon her shoulders. Lydia studied the tall, grim-faced young man at the entrance of the library. Upon falling ill, Sir Creston had requested the presence of his former medical student at Cambridge. A young man, who, upon first impression, seemed too inexperienced, too light-hearted, too young to assist Sir Creston in fighting his illness.
But the moment Frederick entered the sickroom, the laughter left his eyes. He rarely left Sir Creston’s bedside and quietly but authoritatively issued orders to the servants for hot water, blankets, and hot food. There were moments when Lydia believed that the grey eyes flinched with pain and frustration as he struggled to save his mentor’s life. But none of his true feelings ever mirrored in his features, so Lydia was not certain.
“Sir St. John,” Lydia acknowledged with a slight inclination of her head. “How is Sir Creston?”
Frederick slowly walked into the library, shaking his head. “My lady – “
Honoria tilted her chin upwards. “He won’t survive the night, will he, Sir St. John?”
Frederick turned and met Honoria’s eyes. Lydia wondered if she had imagined the faint softening of his grey eyes as his gaze rested on Honoria. His tone was gentle but firm. “He is near the end, yes, Miss Creston.”
Honoria pulled away from Lydia and stepped forward, her young face pale but stoic. Her eyes never left Frederick’s face. “Thank you, Sir St. John, for being honest. And I thank you for coming so quickly to father’s aid.”
Lydia clasped her hands tightly together in front of her and glanced at Honoria. “Honoria – “
But Honoria ignored Lydia and spoke to Frederick. “I may see him, of course?” she asked softly.
Frederick nodded with a tired smile. “Of course,” he answered kindly. “Sir Creston requested your presence.” He moved forward and offered a bent arm.
Lydia watched as Honoria hesitantly placed a hand on Frederick’s arm. She noted Frederick’s encouraging smile as they moved from the entrance of the library to the foot of the seemingly long staircase.
Lydia moved forward, resting a hand on the doorframe for support. Her green eyes missed nothing: Honoria’s glance up the stairs to where her father rested, the pained grey-green eyes, the shaking of the head in response to something Frederick asked, and the tremulous smile she bestowed on him before she began the journey upwards. Lydia clenched her free hand, hidden among the voluminous folds of her billowing skirts. She leaned against the frame more heavily as she watched Honoria walk up the stairs.
Frederick continued to stare up the stairs long after Honoria disappeared from view, his hands in his trouser pockets. He finally turned his head and met Lydia’s eyes. He forced a slight smile as he moved from the staircase to the library entrance once again. He waited for Lydia to enter first before stepping in.
Lydia smoothed her full skirts and calmly sat down, picking up the intricate embroidery once again. She absently ran a finger over the finished stitches. “How much time do you give Sir Creston, Sir St. John?” she inquired quietly.
Frederick did not reply immediately. He had opened the liquor cabinet and examined the contents. “Sherry, my lady?” he asked politely.
“No thank you,” Lydia refused with equal politeness. She sat perfectly still, the serenity on her face undisturbed as she waited for an answer to her question.
Frederick closed the cabinet. He turned slowly and his grey eyes were strangely blank. “Perhaps the night,” he finally answered in a bland tone. He paused, the pulse in his jaw throbbing, the only hint as to the malestorm of emotion that swirled within him. “And mayhap, not even that.”
Lydia’s lips tightened for a moment before she nodded. She looked down at her embroidery blankly before returning her gaze to Frederick’s face. “Sir St. John – “
Before Lydia could finish her inquiry, a loud, piercing and anguished scream echoed through the house. Lydia’s and Frederick’s eyes met in horror before Frederick, who almost never ran anywhere, ate up the brief distance with his long legs and by taking the stairs two at a time. Lydia was not far behind.
“Honoria.” The voice was gentle but persistent.
Honoria ignored the voice that disturbed her conscious and concentration. She slowly turned her head and watched two maids perform their daily tasks. One was drawing open the brocade curtains to allow in the sun, and the other was setting up a tray of hot tea and freshly baked scones with jam. Honoria lifted her eyes to the young maids’ faces – there was no expression. Her eyes absently studied the maids’ familiar yet oddly unfamiliar clothes. There was something different…
“Honoria, how are you feeling?”
Honoria chose to acknowledge the owner of the voice this time; her eyes moved in that direction. At the foot of her bed, the stately figure was dressed in a very becoming shade of violet. Honoria closed her eyes, fighting the wave of pain that threatened to engulf her.
It had not been a bad dream after all.
Honoria felt a cool, soft hand press her limp one. “Honoria, open your eyes,” the voice commanded firmly. “I am not going away.”
Honoria reluctantly opened her eyes and met Lydia’s. However, she still did not speak.
Lydia smiled. “There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” she asked lightly. With her other hand, she smoothed away a stray wisp of hair from Honoria’s eyes. “You have been asleep for the past four days after you fainted. We’ve all been terribly worried about you, especially – “
Honoria gripped Lydia’s hand tightly. “Papa is dead, isn’t he?” she asked, her entire body tensing.
There was a slight pause. Compassion but not pity radiated from Lydia’s eyes. She held Honoria’s hands between her own and nodded. “Yes, Honoria, your father did pass away,” she replied quietly. “I am sorry.”
Honoria folded her hands in her lap and seemed oddly intent on studying the shape of her fingers. “I had hoped,” she began in a low voice. “I…” she shook her head, “it does not matter anymore,” she decided with a sad sigh.
Lydia nodded understandingly. She rose from the bed and stood there, uncharacteristically hesitant about something. “Honoria, when do you think that you shall be ready…” she trailed off delicately.
Honoria looked up, bewildered. “Ready for what, Aunt Lydia?” she asked blankly.
Lydia took a deep breath. “Honoria, we have not buried your father yet.” She paused, allowing Honoria time to absorb this news. “Your father’s solicitor, Mr. Robbins, thought that we should, but… but, as Sir Creston was your father, Sir St. John and I believed – “
Honoria’s eyes flew to Lydia’s face. “Sir St. John is still here?” she asked, surprise breaking somewhat into the numbness she was feeling. Or not feeling.
Lydia smiled and nodded. “Yes, he was quite worried about you,” she answered. “In fact, he behaved as if – “ she stopped, a contemplative look entering her eyes.
“As if he what, Aunt Lydia?” Honoria prompted curiously.
Lydia looked slightly startled when Honoria spoke, but shook her head. “Nothing, my dear,” she hastily reassured. “But Sir St. John does agree with me, and believes that you ought to make all the arrangements.”
Honoria did not respond. She sat up against her pillows and stared steadily at the solid oak door. Her hands were clenched into fists; she took deep, methodical breaths, fighting the tears. She swallowed the lump in her throat as she remembered the promises she made to her father.
Honoria opened her eyes to find Lydia regarding her with concern. She forced a stiff smile. “Could you please ask Sir St. John to come here?” she requested. At Lydia’s questioning look, she explained, “I need to see him about something privately.”
“Honoria, it is not proper – “
“Aunt Lydia, please,” Honoria interrupted firmly, her tone providing a glimpse of the formidable will that was lurking just beneath the surface.
Lydia sighed and leaned forward to kiss Honoria’s cheek. She supposed that in this instance an exception to the rules of propriety could be made. She poured out a cup of tea and pushed it forward to Honoria. “Very well, Honoria,” she permitted. “I will send up Sir St. John. But you will not have more than half an hour,” she warned. “Not a minute more, young lady.”
Honoria was absently smoothing the peach comforter adorning her bed when she was startled out of her aimless reverie by a knock on the door. She quickly sat up in her bed, her hands folded neatly in front of her on top of her comforter. She lifted one hand to impatiently toss her red-gold hair behind her. She hoped to present a portrait of cool, collected calm. She wanted this conversation to proceed with logic and reason.
She took a deep breath.
“Come in,” Honoria allowed.
Honoria began to perform calculus derivations in her mind.
Frederick opened the door slowly and stood in the doorway. He kept the door ajar, his eyes watchful.
“Won’t you please come in, Sir St. John?” Honoria asked pleasantly.
Honoria forgot all about derivations as she studied Frederick. Something, somewhere in the vicinity of her heart had always lurched whenever she met those direct, assessing, and assuring grey eyes, Honoria mused, mentally shaking her head. Grey was too mundane a word to describe the shade of his eyes. Sometimes, there seemed to be forces that surged within him that darkened his eyes to the color of ferocious thunder clouds. Other times, they might be as crystalline as the thin ice that covered the lakes and ponds during the winter.
No, Honoria decided, grey was too mundane a word. She had been fifteen when she first encountered those grey eyes, Honoria recollected. She had been walking down the stairs, all prepared to ignore her father’s gentleman guest – she had long ago determined that they were tiresome and stupid creatures – and to extend a warm greeting to her father. She had opened her mouth when her father’s guest suddenly looked up. The greeting for her father had died in her throat and she almost fell down the stairs. Honoria distantly remembered the high-bridged nose, the broad forehead, the uncompromising line of his jaw, the dark brown hair that she studied now. But she remembered without any vagueness his grey eyes.
“I hope that I meet with your approval, Miss Creston,” a bland voice remarked quietly.
Honoria blinked; she had been abominably rude. Flustered, she uttered the first thought that came to her head. “I hope that you do know that I am illegitimate?” she asked. “And you do not mind?”
The rigid stance of Frederick’s shoulders eased as he chuckled. “Yes, I know, Miss Creston, and no, I do not mind,” he replied dryly.
Honoria smiled shyly, tangling her fingers. Frederick walked over to her bedside and sat down on her bed. He took her pulse and nodded approvingly as he searched her eyes. The grey of his eyes to the color of charcoal smoke as they softened. He leaned back to create a distance between them as propriety demanded. Afraid of what she might unknowingly reveal, of what she herself was not ready to understand, Honoria quickly looked away.
Frederick studied Honoria’s bent face and asked quietly, “How are you feeling?”
Honoria, who had been finding the imaginary tracings on her comforter most interesting, lifted her head slowly. She swallowed briefly and pressed her lips tightly together as she struggled to find the words to express the emotions she felt and did not feel. She parted her lips but she swallowed again, the lack of air in her lungs threatening to choke her.
A large hand stilled the fidgeting fingers. “It’s perfectly all right if you want to cry,” a deep voice murmured soothingly.
Honoria’s grief stricken eyes found comforting refuge in Frederick’s calm grey. Without volition, her hands turned over and clutched onto Frederick’s. “Oh, do you cry too?” she asked curiously. “But you are a gentleman,” she remarked, wrinkling her nose. “I thought gentlemen never cried.”
Frederick smiled without humor. “We all cry, Miss Creston, whether we choose to express it outwardly or not,” he responded cryptically. He gently pressed Honoria’s hand and released them. “The Countess informed me that you wished to speak to me privately, and she told me in no uncertain terms that we are to have no more than half an hour,” he added drily.
Honoria nodded and her back straightened. “I,” she began. She frowned and decided to be blunt. “I understand that… that we are to be man and wife soon,” she said quickly.
Frederick nodded but did not respond. His eyes never left the young face before him, which had not yet learned to control its expressiveness. Honoria’s grey-green eyes were curious. “Sir St. John, you are strangely silent. I had thought…” she frowned. “I never planned to wed anyone. I am illegitimate, and that is a great drawback in our society,” she confessed with a candor of youth and without bitterness. “I had planned eventually to open a school to educate illegitimate girls like myself but who did not have the opportunities…”she abruptly stopped, suddenly shy.
“I am sorry if you find this situation unpleasant, Miss Creston,” Frederick began quietly but without any stiffness or bitterness.
“Oh no, Sir St. John, you misunderstand me,” Honoria objected. “I… well, I do think that I like you… you are rather intelligent,” she remarked, bringing a faint smile to Frederick’s firm lips, “and…” she swallowed, her eyes filling with unshed tears, “I know that Papa approved of you, and I promised him… he told me that I could trust you.”
Honoria’s eyes met Frederick’s beseechingly, silently but unknowingly pleading with him to answer the unspoken question that she had not realized that she was even asking.
Frederick’s answering nod was barely perceptible as he swept the back of one hand briefly but gently across Honoria’s cheek. His eyes never released hers as the rose and smiled faintly. “I suspect that the Countess is pacing outside and our time is almost complete,” he said mildly but firmly.
“Then you are not… you are not disagreeable?” Honoria blurted with an extreme lack of social grace. There were so many things that she wanted to ask but she knew not what. Besides, she suspected that by the slight thinning of his lips and the crystalline quality of his eyes, this was not the time to address those unformed but lurking questions.
Frederick’s finger lingered on Honoria’s cheek momentarily before it fell. He bent down and kissed the top of her head, his hands placed solidly on her shoulders. She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around her knees.
She waited for Frederick’s answer.
Honoria’s heart slowly unclenched, the frost slightly melting at the sound of the soothing baritone. The tone of conviction in that deep voice seemed to wrap her chambers in that lovely sort of comforting warmth found in a cup of hot chocolate after a long day in the cold.
“No, Miss Creston, I am not disagreeable.”