She knew not where it had all begun.
And she certainly did not know where it would end.
Lady Honoria Marie St. John was seated at the large, hand-carved mahogany desk, placed in the far northwestern corner of the dimly lighted yet spacious and elegantly bedecked masculine study. Her right hand, assisted by a pen, moved hurriedly over the starchy sheet of paper, pausing only to dip her instrument in ink. But that steady right hand faltered for a moment, a pained expression crossing the shadowed face of the owner.
Yet in due time, as honor and duty demanded, the letter was finished and carefully folded before it was slipped into a cream-colored envelope. Strong, slim hands lifted the nearest lighted candle and shuttered green-grey eyes watched as each drop of wax dripped and touched the pointed, triangular edge of the flattened flap. Before the wax could harden, a large signet ring was firmly impressed and released. The shoulders of an immaculately straight back suddenly fell, one hand carefully turning over the envelope so that the seal rested on the gleaming surface of the varnished desk. Her lips pursed, she reluctantly let go of the envelope and reached for the pen again.
Soon, he would go.
Honoria dropped the pen, heedless of where it fell, heedless of whether the still wet ink would mar the finish of the desk. She pushed the chair back so she could rise. Absently, she tucked the insignificant yet beautifully crocheted lace shawl more closely around her, the rustle of her stiff, crisp petticoats and muslin skirts breaking the barren silence of the room. Her hands unnecessarily smoothed the creased folds of her skirts as she began to glide across the plush tan carpets.
Her direction uncertain, her thoughts scattered, Honoria finally settled before the fireplace. She folded her arms across her chest, quelling the urge to collapse to the floor. Instead, she forced herself to stare steadily at the dancing, taunting flames, imbued with shades of orange, yellow, red, and the occasional glimpse of a vivid blue. She swallowed, her shoulders tightening for a moment before a faint, humorless smile crept upon her thinned lips.
She would not shed tears.
She would not cry.
When the double doors to the study opened, Honoria did not start. Instead, she remained before the fire in the fireplace, so perfectly still that Henton wondered if the strain of the past few months had harmed his mistress’ mind. He quietly closed the doors behind him and stepped forward. Henton waited, his hands clasped behind his erect back.
Honoria lifted her gaze from the fire and glanced at the relatively young man who had been more than a mere manservant and butler to her and to her family since the day she had brought him home from the hospital five years ago. The freedom afforded to her by the protective shadows of the fire allowed her to study her manservant: tall, stocky, blessed with an impassive, unhandsome but striking, rather intimidating visage. The manservant she had chosen to accompany her husband on his journey back to the Continent.
“Tell me something, Henton, and I grant you leave to be perfectly frank,” Honoria pronounced rather abruptly. “In fact, I demand it. Do you wish to go on this journey with my husband?”
Henton’s eyes widened momentarily but demonstrated no other evidence of a reaction to the rather puzzling question. For the past five years under her service, he could barely recall a time when his mistress had been anything less than calm and composed. No matter how dire the situation or how disagreeably hysterical people were, she would simply nod and assess the situation. Then she would issue orders in a clipped but not unkind voice and soothe the injured with gentle hands and a reassuring smile. But throughout, her green-grey eyes, her once exceedingly expressive eyes according to those who had known his mistress longer than five years, would remain completely shuttered and detached, any smile failing to reach her eyes.
Henton, in an attempt to recover his equanimity, cleared his throat and responded, “My lady?” with the correct amount of query in his tone.
But Honoria continued as if Henton had said nothing. A hint of wryness entered her tone. “I never did ask you if you wanted to go. I never did give you a choice in the matter, so I am giving you one now.” The green-grey eyes glimmered with some indefinable emotion. “Henton?”
Henton bowed his head. “I am always honored to serve Sir St. John and you in any way possible, my lady,” he answered gravely.
“You do realize that there is a good possibility that you may not return, Henton?” Honoria demanded with uncharacteristic impatience, obviously dissatisfied with her manservant’s answer. But when there was no response, she sighed deeply though Henton could not tell if the sigh resulted out of relief or out of annoyance.
“Really Henton, you are the most exasperating creature,” Honoria declared. “I gave you leave to be frank, and you refuse to give me a straight answer.”
Henton continued to stare stoically ahead. However, he could not help but notice — with some surprise – his mistress’ green-grey eyes had softened and her expression was pensive.
So what Honoria chose to say after a prolonged silence only created more surprise and bewilderment for she normally never indicated by word or by deed what she felt or thought. That was precisely why she was so immensely popular yet baffling with the other grand dames of upper London society: she never seemed grasping, greedy, or competitive. Her slim, capable hands folded neatly in front of her, Honoria spoke in soft, measured tones. “Forgive me, Henton, for sending you out there. I would not have wished this uncertain fate upon you, but sometimes… sometimes we must do what we wish not. We all do,” she added softly.
Honoria walked across the expanse of the study and took one of Henton’s large hands between her own. Henton started, for the last time his mistress had ever touched him was when she nursed him back to health. She lifted one hand to force Henton to meet her eyes.
Honoria had always been gracious and this time was no different. “You have always served me, Sinjin, and Sarah well,” she remarked kindly, referring to her twin children. “I thank you for that, and I thank you in advance for you will serve my husband just as well. I know that.”
“Take care of him, Henton,” Honoria requested with a faint smile. “Don’t let him do anything foolish… he can be so stubborn…” she faltered, her eyes veering off into the distance, entering a world Henton could not. She patted his hand briefly before she released it. “We will all pray for you, Henton,” she finished softly.
Henton bowed deeply at the waist. “Thank you, my lady.”
Honoria glanced at the bent head and nodded. She parted her lips as if she wanted to say something more but she must have changed her mind. She nodded again, and dismissed not unkindly, “That will be all, Henton.”
Honoria did not watch Henton leave, the emotions and memories she had always kept tightly locked away for the past five years threatening to overwhelm her. She stood in the center of the study, her back to the door and her hands clasped so tightly together that her knuckles turned white. She wrapped her arms around her waist, quelling the urge to heave the non-existent contents of her stomach onto the carpet. Her knees buckled as she fell to the floor, her skirts billowing out. She closed her eyes and pressed her clasped hands against her forehead. Her lips trembled as she fought to contain unexpressed frustration and grief of five years hence.
Dear God, she prayed silently.
She knew not where it would end. Or how.
And she was afraid.
Because it had to end.