Summerset Abbey: A Bloom in Winter
Victoria paced the length of Summerset Abbey’s Great Hall, impatience rippling through her body. In London the mail had come at the same time every day, like clockwork. But at the sprawling country estate that she now called home, the mail’s arrival remained frustratingly unpredictable and entirely dependent on her uncle’s will. When he was away from Summerset Abbey, it was even more haphazard, unless her ladyship needed something posted or was expecting an important invitation.
When she reached the end of the hall, Victoria doubled back, marching furiously forward, ignoring the light from the circular skylight, which danced and sparkled off the marble columns lining the room. Even the breathtaking frescoes depicting angels floating above battle scenes that covered the domed ceiling, which normally captured her gaze when she entered this hallway, remained hazy on the fringes of her tunnel vision. And all because of an inept mail delivery system that harkened back to the bloody Dark Ages. She’d be waiting outside on the drive if she weren’t afraid of the suspicion that would raise, especially after learning that Aunt Charlotte, or Lady Summerset Ambrosia Huxley Buxton, noticed everything that happened at Summerset.
Well, almost everything. Victoria smiled. Her aunt didn’t know how often she snuck away to her secret room in the unused portion of the manor to practice her typing and shorthand, study botany, or craft her own articles on plants and plant lore. She didn’t know that her own daughter, Elaine, could mix up a mean gin sling, or that Victoria’s older sister, Rowena, had gone flying in a plane and had kissed a pilot. So maybe her forbidding aunt Charlotte wasn’t so infallible after all.
But Aunt Charlotte had known how to get rid of Prudence. Victoria frowned, a familiar ache twisting in her stomach.
She heard a car in the front drive and she flew to the servants’ door behind the stairwell, not caring whether the servants resented her intrusion on their domain. The mail would be taken to Mr. Cairns, who would sort it out in his office, and then presented to Aunt Charlotte, to Uncle Conrad, or to whomever it was addressed. Victoria, however, couldn’t stand by and wait for her letter to eventually find its way into her hands. She’d counted the days carefully and knew in her bones she would receive an answer today.
The servants bobbed their heads as she rushed past them. No doubt Aunt Charlotte had already heard of her sudden obsession with the mail. If asked, Victoria would just tell her she was awaiting a letter from a friend and then whine about being bored out here in the country. Aunt Charlotte deplored whining.
She stuck her head around the doorjamb of Cairns’s office. “Did I get anything, Cairns?”
The man jumped and Victoria hid a grin. Very little ever surprised this supremely self-contained man, but Victoria had long ago made it her mission to try. She’d spent almost every summer vacation since she was a small child trying to ruffle Cairns, who
had no outstanding features except his unflappable composure. She knew he could barely stand her, and the girls used to find it funny.
Now, of course, it would be better if Cairns were on her side, but old habits were hard to break.
His mouth tightened. “I’m just going through it now, Miss Victoria.”
She waited, almost screaming with impatience as he deliberately took his time going through the post and sorting it into different piles. She knew he had found her letter by the quivering of his nostrils. He held it out and she snatched it from his hands as if worried he was about to change his mind.
“Thank you, Cairns!” She whisked out of the servants’ quarters and up to her room, praying she wouldn’t run into her cousin, wanting to break up the boredom by sneaking down to play billiards and smoke cigarettes, or Rowena, wanting to go riding or walking or whatever she could to chase away the guilt she felt over Prudence. Victoria felt bad for both her sister and her cousin, but right now, she had more important things to do.
Once in her room, she put the letter on her white and gold empire dressing table and stared at it, half-afraid to open it. She’d been waiting for it for so long—now that it was actually here, she was terrified it wouldn’t contain the news she wanted. Finally she picked it up, crossed the soft Axminster rug, and settled down upon one of the two blue-and-white-striped chaise lounges that sat before a small white fireplace.
Inspired by Nanny Iris, a remarkable herbalist and Victoria’s friend and mentor, she’d written an article on the health benefits of Althea officinalis, or mallow, and the history of its uses among the healing women who worked with the poor. She had sent it to one of her favorite botany magazines and to her surprise, the
editor had written back, telling her he enjoyed the article, and gave her some advice on how to improve the writing. He had asked her to resubmit after she’d revised it. She’d rewritten it ten times, typing it carefully on the brand-new typewriter she had hidden in her secret room. Then she’d sent it back, praying it would be good enough to publish.
Her stomach churned. And here was her answer. Unable to take it any longer, she went to her desk and rifled through the drawers until she found her letter opener. Something fluttered to the ground when she opened it and she stared at the slip of paper, unbelieving. It was a check.
Her eyes widened and she pulled out the slip of paper that came with it. The top of the paper was embossed with the magazine’s name in script.
The Botanist’s Quarterly, 197 Lexington Place, London. Victoria ran her fingers over it in awe. She and her father used to pore over the magazine every time a new issue came in. A noted botanist, her father had transmitted his love of plants to his daughter and the shared passion brought them close during their last years together. It would always be the one connection she had with him that was solely hers.
He would have been so proud of her.
She wiped away the tears that gathered with an impatient hand.
Dear V. Buxton,
Thank you so much for revising your fine article, “The Many Medical Uses of Althea officinalis Among the Lower Classes.” I am delighted to tell you that we will be using your work in our summer edition of The Botanist’s Quarterly. I would love to see more articles from you in this vein. Have
you considered doing a study on the medical uses of plants among the poor and itinerant? At any rate, thank you again for your submission. Please don’t hesitate to stop by should you be in London.
Harold L. Herbert
The Botanist’s Quarterly
Victoria read it again before picking up the check. Ten pounds. Not only was she now a published author but she’d been handsomely compensated—and praised!—for her work.
Sighing with happiness, she leaned back against the chaise. Whom could she tell? Who would understand? Not Rowena, who had become so sad and listless that she barely bothered to get dressed anymore. Not her cousin Elaine, either. Even though she and Elaine had grown closer in the months since her father’s death, they still weren’t to the point of sharing confidences. Kit, certainly, but Kit wouldn’t be here until the weekend, if he even came. He usually came with her cousin Colin, when Colin came up from the university. He would understand her excitement—be impressed, even—but then again, he was such a tease.
But the only person she truly wanted to tell had now been gone for over a month. Had it really been that long since she’d last seen Prudence? Her heartache over Pru’s abrupt departure felt just as raw as it did the day she fled from Summerset, but as much as Victoria missed her, she understood why Pru could no longer stay. She’d have left, too, had she suddenly been implicated in a Buxton family scandal that Aunt Charlotte had managed to keep buried for years.
Impulsively, she rang the bell and waited for Susie to arrive.
She couldn’t bear to let her aunt simply replace Pru with a new lady’s maid as if Pru were an interchangeable, anonymous servant, so she relied on the scullery maid when she needed help . . . or company. Susie was the only servant who had truly been kind to Prudence, and though she couldn’t take Prudence’s place, Victoria felt closer to Pru when Susie was around.
Susie rushed in, her cap askew. “Sorry, miss. My hands were deep in the sink when the bell rang and Cook couldn’t find my cap fast enough . . . ” Her voice trailed off as she eyed Victoria. “Oh, miss, you look as if you’d just received the most wonderful gift!”
Victoria smiled and waved her check in the air. “I have. Well, not a present exactly. But look what I received in the post today!”
Susie squinted as she came closer. “It looks like a check, miss. For ten pounds?”
Victoria nodded and, taking the check, did a little dance around the room. “Yes! Yes! They paid me for an article I wrote on mallow! Can you imagine?”
Susie’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “I can’t! You mean like for a newspaper?”
“For a magazine!”
“Well, that’s just fine, miss! My mother once had a recipe printed in the Summerset Weekly News, and we thought that was wonderful. That probably isn’t much the same, is it?”
Victoria shook her head and checked a laugh that threatened to burst out. “Not quite, but I bet she was very happy.”
“We were all very proud. Did you need anything, miss?”
Victoria shook her head, disappointment sinking her stomach. Of course it wasn’t the same as telling Prudence. It wasn’t even the same as telling Katie, their kitchen maid back home,
who had been her friend and a fellow student at Miss Fister’s Secretarial School for Young Ladies. Because she didn’t really know Susie. Susie had been Prudence’s friend, not hers.
Susie stood to leave. “Wait, Susie.” The girl turned and Victoria saw that her cap, which she was required to wear for her duties upstairs, still rested crookedly on her head. “Have you heard anything from Prudence lately?”
A wide smile lit up Susie’s plain features. “Yes, miss. I got a letter just the other day. Oh, she sounds as if she’s having a wonderful time! She wrote that she and Andrew had the pleasure of staying in a luxurious hotel and dining in fine restaurants while they secured a more permanent place to live. Now they’ve settled into an elegant apartment near the college where Andrew’s studying to be an animal doctor. As soon as he’s done, they’re planning to move to a big country house. She even has her own small staff!”
Victoria smiled sadly, glad that Prudence seemed to be flourishing the more distance she put between herself and Summerset. But her happiness for Pru was still tainted by guilt and sorrow. “Have you written her back yet?”
Susie shook her head. “I was going to tonight.”
“Can I give you a paper to slip into your post? I don’t have enough news for a full letter . . . ” Her voice trailed off. She didn’t want to tell Susie that Prudence hadn’t written to her since she’d left, or that she didn’t even have Prudence’s address.
Susie nodded. “Yes, miss. I will get it tonight on my way to bed.”
Victoria hurried to her desk. She pulled out a piece of paper and dipped her ebony fountain pen into her inkwell.
Dear Prudence, she wrote, and then stopped as a giant blot stained the paper. What was she supposed to say? I’m sorry? But for what? For discovering that her own despicable grandfather—the
Buxton patriarch—was Prudence’s real father? For the insufferable snobbery of her family? For her failure to step in and defend Prudence when she was relegated to the maid’s quarters upon their arrival to Summerset in the first place? But what about the way Prudence is treating me? Victoria thought stoutly. Prudence hadn’t been in touch with her since her wedding to that sweet footman. She wrote to Susie, but coldly ignored the girl who had been like her sister.
Victoria slumped in her chair. She felt overwhelmed by the entire affair, crippled by the gravity of it all. Maybe if she pretended hard enough that it hadn’t happened, she could find something to write . . . but no. Rowena had pretended not to see how horrible the situation was until it exploded all around her. Simply willing things to change had gotten her nowhere.
Taking a deep breath, she got out a clean piece of paper and started again.
I hope this letter finds you well and happy. Susie says you are settling into your new home and Andrew is studying for the exams. I wish him the best of luck. I’m sure everything will turn out all right.
Victoria stopped and chewed on her thumb. Did that sound too patronizing? Like she didn’t believe he would do well on the examinations? She shook her head.
Dipping her pen, she continued.
I have some good news to share. I wrote an article on mallow, you know, the kind of articles Father and I used to
read to each other that bored you and Rowena to tears? Well, I wrote one and sent it to The Botanist’s Quarterly and what do you know, but the editor liked it and bought it! He even sent a check for ten pounds and told me he wanted to see more! So you see, all those lectures Father and I used to attend finally came in handy! Perhaps someday I will become a botanist like Father, for I have decided that is what I would truly like to do. I haven’t told anyone else but you, my dear, because no one else could possibly understand . . .
Here, Victoria stopped and took a deep, shuddering breath as grief over her father threatened to overwhelm her. When she had composed herself, she finished.
I miss you more than I can say.
She paused again, wondering whether she should mention Rowena, but then decided against it. Let Rowena and Prudence sort themselves out. All she knew was that, for her, life without Prudence was growing unbearable.
Please write back soon.
Victoria chewed on the end of the pen and then added a stanza from “My Heart and I” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
You see we’re tired, my heart and I.
We dealt with books, we trusted men,
And in our own blood drenched the pen,
As if such colours could not fly.
We walked too straight for fortune’s end,
We loved too true to keep a friend;
At last we’re tired, my heart and I.
There. Now it felt complete. Victoria put her pen and ink away and left the letter out to finish drying. She stood and stretched. A part of her longed to rush off to her secret wing of the house and set to work on her next article, but she was too restless for that. Then she remembered that there was someone else who would be delighted over the news. The same person who had given her the idea for her piece in the first place—Nanny Iris!
An hour later, Victoria was sitting at Nanny Iris’s table, enjoying a delicious cream scone that even Cook, with all her expertise, could not rival.
Nanny Iris’s kitchen was warm and inviting, with printed gingham curtains draped on the tiny windows and a rack of pots hanging over the sink. The scrupulously clean stone floor might have been worn and cracked in spots, but the whole cottage was so charming that Victoria never felt anything but peace here.
“That’s wonderful, my dear girl. You know your father would be quite proud,” the old woman said from where she stood, smiling, at the stove. She was stirring up a concoction that smelled terrible, but she assured Victoria it would help when she had a breathing episode.
Victoria nodded, unable to speak. Nanny Iris had been her father’s nanny and taught him everything she had known about plants and herbs, just as she was teaching Victoria now.
Nanny Iris came over to the table and patted Victoria on her head. Even though Nanny Iris always made Victoria feel like a
child rather than the confident young woman she worked so hard to embody, at least the old woman always made her feel warm and genuinely beloved. When Ro and Pru treated her like a child, she always felt patronized, insulted.
The old woman wiped her hands on her starched white apron and picked up the letter again, even though she had read it three times already. Victoria glowed. She’d been right to come here.
But instead of reading it again, Nanny Iris frowned. “Why does it say V. Buxton instead of Victoria?”
Victoria washed her scone down with a sip of tea. “Hmm? Oh, yes. I thought if I used Victoria, someone at the magazine might recognize the name and know me as my father’s daughter. I’m very proud of his work, but I wish to be known for my own merits and make my own opportunities.”
“Very commendable,” Nanny Iris murmured. “Was there any other reason?”
“Well, I thought it sounded more established, more impressive. V. Buxton. Don’t you think?”
Victoria grinned, but when she caught sight of Nanny Iris’s face, her smile faded. “What? What’s wrong?”
“So this editor, Harold L. Herbert, doesn’t realize you’re a woman?”
“Well, no,” Victoria admitted. “But that shouldn’t make any difference, should it?”
“No, it shouldn’t!” Nanny Iris said firmly, and patted her hand.
But doubt began to creep into Victoria’s mind. Just because it shouldn’t make a difference doesn’t mean it didn’t.
* * *
The leaden winter skies hung over Summerset, as heavy and despondent as Rowena felt. In the weeks since Prudence had left, Rowena had developed a pattern of habits designed to keep her mind as empty as possible. In the last four months, her father had died, she’d let her childhood home slip away, and Prudence had left her. Emptiness of the mind was preferable to endless choruses of if only.
She looked up into the sky again. Her fingers fluttered subconsciously over her lips as she remembered the kiss she shared with the pilot on the frozen lake. She hadn’t seen him since, and it had been weeks. Even the sky felt empty—and too quiet—without the roar of Jon’s plane flying over Summerset Abbey, a once weekly ritual that he’d abandoned without explanation. Rowena wondered whether his brother had put a halt to their budding friendship the moment he had found out at the skating party that she was a Buxton.
She closed her eyes for a moment and breathed his name.
She tried to remember how incredibly blue his eyes were and the way his thin, well-formed lips would widen in a smile just for her, but the image was already growing blurry. Instead the memory of her flight in his aeroplane came into her mind. She remembered the thrill of leaving the earth far behind and the soaring freedom of floating above the clouds. She’d felt completely untethered, as if she’d left her problems on the ground. The memory was so sharp and clear, she could almost feel the chill of the wind in her face. Restlessly, she snapped the book she held shut.
Rowena’s life had never been as fascinating or exciting as Victoria seemed to find it, but at least it used to be interesting and enjoyable. Now Victoria often buzzed about her like a worried
bee, sometimes coaxing and other times accusatory, but nothing Victoria said seemed to reach Rowena at all. It was rather as though Victoria were speaking to her through a wall of jellied aspic. Everything in her life—changing dresses for every meal, entertaining Lady Charlotte’s guests, even her occasional trips into the small town of Summerset—suddenly seemed so pointless and exhausting.
So Rowena read voraciously from the ornate library that held thousands of volumes of books. She didn’t care what books she read and rarely remembered anything about them when she finished, but while reading them, she had no room in her head to dwell upon anything else. When she wasn’t reading, she rode her horse like a fury, taking long runs up through the hills to see into the valley below. Though she rarely admitted it to herself, she was always holding out hope that she’d see an aeroplane soaring through the skies.
“Yes, I think that’s about enough.”
Rowena jumped upon hearing her aunt’s clear voice. She looked up from the window seat in the sitting room to find Aunt Charlotte bearing down upon her with the determination of an angry goose. Aunt Charlotte had been Lady Summerset for twenty-five years and the title had long settled itself in the regal set of her finely shaped head atop a long, definitive neck. Her blue-eyed, dark-haired beauty, which had once awed even the Prince of Wales Marlborough set, was still very much in evidence, even though the tautness of the skin had softened, blurring the exquisite lines of her heart-shaped face.
If her loveliness had once been appealing, Rowena thought as her aunt loomed over her, now it was simply terrifying. Though Aunt Charlotte rarely raised her voice, her temper was known by the frost of her tone and the unrelenting sting of her words.
In spite of her lethargy, Rowena snapped to attention. “Good morning, Aunt Charlotte. What is about enough?”
Aunt Charlotte snatched the book out of her hands. “Enough reading. Enough sulking.” Her voice softened just a hair. “Enough grieving.”
A lump rose in Rowena’s throat, but she only said, “But I like to read.”
“Nonsense. Or rather, it doesn’t matter if you do like to read, it ruins your eyes and the squinting will give you wrinkles. You’ll also get a stooped posture and rounded back. You’ve met Jane Worth, haven’t you?”
Rowena frowned. “You mean the short, little woman with the—” Rowena made a curved movement with her hand, showing a humped back.
Her aunt nodded solemnly. “She always was a bookworm.”
Rowena tried to shake her head. Surely that couldn’t be true.
Her aunt continued. “And honestly, child, you look a fright. Your forehead is oily, your hair is lank, and I don’t know how long it’s been since you bathed. You’re one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen, and right now, you wouldn’t merit more than even a passing glance. Enough.”
Rowena blinked, stunned. Her aunt thought she was beautiful? She’d never told her that before. Had she always thought so?
To Rowena’s surprise, her aunt sat close to her on the silk window seat and clasped one of Rowena’s hands in her own. Rowena tried to remember another moment when Lady Summerset had touched her affectionately but couldn’t recall a single time, even from the many summers that she spent at the abbey during her childhood.
“I understand your loss. I, too, lost my father at a young age.
But you’re a young woman, and your father’s heart would break if he could see you now.”
Something twisted painfully inside Rowena. No matter what her aunt’s motives were, there was no doubt in her mind that she was speaking the truth. Her father would hate her moping, her listlessness. Though she had imagined over and over his disappointment at her treatment of Prudence, she had never thought about how saddened he would be at how she was treating herself.
She nodded, defeated. “You’re right, I’ll go bathe.”
Aunt Charlotte squeezed her hand ever so slightly and let her go. “Please do. I’ve told Elaine she doesn’t have to make calls with me this afternoon, as you are coming instead.”
Rowena’s mouth fell open and her aunt gave her a satisfied smile. “So please wear something appropriate.”
Her aunt left her then, her skirts rustling triumphantly.
An hour later, after Rowena had been bathed, Susie was still trying to dry her hair. “If you didn’t have so much hair, this would be much easier,” she said, toweling a segment, brushing it, and then toweling it again.
Rowena agreed. “If I didn’t have long hair or corsets, I would be able to dress myself and in half the time, too.”
“Those days are coming,” Susie said. “Mark my words.”
Rowena smiled slightly, wishing she felt that kind of optimism. She wished she could feel anything besides sadness.
“Her ladyship came in while you were in the tub and chose the outfit you are to wear. It’s right lovely, too, miss. You’ll look like such a toff in it. Well, not that you aren’t . . . ” Susie shut her eyes for a moment. “I’m sorry, miss. I think I am just too chatty to be a lady’s maid!”
Rowena was too shocked by this information to reassure Susie. “She did? What did she choose?” she asked, rising from the dressing table.
“The navy blue walking suit, miss.”
Susie helped her into her chemise, camisole, and corset and waist petticoat, and then brought out the wool walking suit.
Rowena had never seen it before.
She almost said something and then thought better of it. Obviously her aunt had given her a gift and wasn’t going to make a fuss about it. The expertly cut wool suit was decorated with black soutache on the lapels and cuffs of the jacket and along the hem of the skirt. The back of the long jacket was gathered together, giving her fullness in the back that softened the silhouette. She marveled at the intricately carved ebony buttons on the front of the jacket and down the side of the skirt. The skirt was a daringly modern four inches above the ground. Either it had been made for someone shorter than Rowena or her aunt was secretly developing modern tastes.
Because Susie had little experience in doing hair, Hortense, Lady Summerset’s own lady’s maid, busied herself with Rowena’s hair, teaching Susie as she did so. Hortense’s disdain at having been forced into the task of training a mere kitchen servant was evident in the purse of her mouth. “Pourquoi dois-je enseigner cette idiote?!” she muttered under her breath.
“Soyez prudente, je parle bien le français,” Rowena snapped.
Susie glared. She wasn’t sure what had been said, but she didn’t like the tone. Hortense lapsed into a sullen silence, but she was a bit more helpful in teaching Susie how to make the simple chignon Rowena liked best. After she was finished, Hortense handed her the combs and brushes she had used. “Don’t forget to wash out your mistress’s tools when you’re
finished.” Hortense gave Rowena as small a curtsy as she could manage and left the room.
Susie’s face screwed up with dislike after the woman left, but she said nothing. Rowena remembered Vic telling her that Hortense had been especially rude to Prudence, and Rowena fought the urge to make a face, too.
Rowena chose a blue and black pancake hat trimmed with lace, black roses, and an ostrich feather that curled over one ear.
Her aunt nodded approvingly when Rowena joined her in the Great Hall but said nothing. Elaine, dressed in a simple tea gown, gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for taking my place today, cousin,” she whispered. “Good luck.”
Rowena smiled at her. She still had a hard time reconciling this pretty, stylish, and vivacious woman with the shy, downtrodden, chubby girl she had known growing up. That Swiss finishing school had done wonders for her. Or more likely it was the simple fact of having a year away from her mother that had given her room to flourish and come into her own.
“I heard that,” her mother said as she whisked out the door.
Elaine winked and waved her hand as Rowena followed behind her.
“The motorcar was the best thing to happen to formal calls,” her aunt said once they were ensconced in the back of the touring car. “Before I could only make a few calls by carriage; now I get to see so many more people and have to spend less time at each call.”
Rowena watched her aunt, roused for the first time in quite a while by curiosity. Who was this formidably stylish and regal woman? “But I thought you liked making calls, Aunt Charlotte?”
The woman snorted. “Goodness no. At least not anymore. I suppose I did enjoy it at one time. But after you hear the
week’s gossip at the first call, it’s just a matter of hearing it repeated at each subsequent call. And you can imagine how dull that becomes.”
Rowena gave a surprised laugh. “Is it the same in London?”
“Oh, no. It’s much more interesting in London because there’s so much more gossip.”
Rowena settled back into the fine leather of the motor. “Where to first?”
“We are stopping at the Endicotts’ first, because they won’t be home. Then we will go to the Kinkaids’, because they will be home and I quite like Donald Kinkaid’s new wife and it will make her feel honored that I visited. After that we will be going to the Billingslys’, which is quite a long drive, but Edith is my friend and we have a few things to discuss.”
“I was unaware that Lord Billingsly lived so close.”
“They don’t, actually. A visit by carriage would have been impossible. It takes us almost two hours by car, but the other calls are on the way there, so it breaks up the drive quite nicely.”
Aunt Charlotte didn’t miscalculate a single detail. The Endicotts were not home, so they left their card and made their way to the Kinkaids’. The new Mrs. Kinkaid was droll and pretty and properly awed by Lady Summerset. And she was almost twenty years younger than the former Mrs. Kinkaid, who, Aunt Charlotte confided later, had been a bit militant.
Rowena giggled at this last bit and Aunt Charlotte gave her a rare smile. “It’s true. This new Mrs. Kinkaid will make Donald a good wife and will be able to give him children.” She reached under the seat and brought out a red velvet pillow with gold silken tassels. “I suggest you rest, dear. We have almost an hour before we get to Eddelson Hall.”
Rowena laid her head back, puzzling over her aunt’s behavior.
She had never seen the stately Lady Summerset this engaging or forthright before, especially not with her, and Rowena wondered why her aunt had asked her to come today instead of Elaine. Had she genuinely been worried about her, or—as was often the case with her aunt Charlotte—did her aunt have some hidden motive?
She must have dozed off, because the next time she opened her eyes they were parked in front of a grand mansion that had to be Eddelson Hall. Eddelson wasn’t nearly as large as Summerset, but what it lacked in size it made up for in charm. The two circular towers that flanked the front of the home were almost completely covered in ivy and there were so many mullioned windows at the front of the house that it looked as if the walls were made of glass rather than brick.
The butler met them at the front door and took their card. Bidding them to wait, he took the card to where his mistress was apparently waiting in the sitting room. Rowena wanted to ask her aunt whether she found this kind of formality unbearably stupid, but she didn’t want to overstep and shatter the sudden warmth that had sprung up between them.
The butler reappeared almost immediately and they followed him through exquisitely charming rooms, decorated and furnished in a French country style, which always appeared far more comfortable than it actually was.
The butler announced them and Rowena found herself involved in a flurry of introductions. Besides Lady Billingsly, four other women were present—society matrons who apparently lived for tea at the Billingslys’ on Tuesdays. Rowena had always disliked this kind of superficial social chat and suddenly began to regret taking her aunt up on her invitation. Though in reality, it had been more of command than an invitation.
Rowena turned in relief when she heard Sebastian call her name. “Lord Billingsly, how wonderful to see you again.”
He took her outstretched hand and bent over it briefly. “How are your sister and Elaine?” he asked.
“They are doing well, thank you for asking.”
Lady Billingsly nodded at them approvingly. “Why don’t you young people go for a walk in the winter garden while we catch up on our gossip? It’s not raining, is it?” She looked around as if daring anyone to say it was raining. No one did.
Sebastian held his arm out and with relief, Rowena took it. She had endured just about as much small talk as she could handle and felt that if one more pinched-mouthed matron asked how she and her sister were holding up, she would scream.
Eddelson had a mellow quality that Summerset, in all its grandeur, would never achieve. They walked past a pair of open pocket doors that showed a rich, warm library inside with a crackling fire, shelves full of haphazardly placed books, and oversized pieces of leather furniture.
Sebastian caught her gaze as they walked past it. He smiled. “My father spent his summers at his grandfather’s lodge in Scotland. I think he copied the library down to the volumes of books and the fireplace poker. It’s my favorite room in the house.”
She smiled as they walked out the door and into one of the extensive gardens that surrounded the house. Rowena remembered the stolen glances he and Prudence had shared and had often wondered about Sebastian’s feelings for Prudence, and hers for him. Of course, when Prudence fled with the footman, all of her conjecture had come to nothing.
While Sebastian still made the occasional call to Summerset,
he was not the same lighthearted young man Rowena had met last autumn.
“I miss her, you know,” Sebastian said.
Startled, she glanced sideways at him. He nodded his head toward a gravel path that wound its way through a stand of fir trees. She followed his lead, wondering whether he had brought her to this quiet corner of the garden to confide in her. Maybe he needed to talk to someone.
They rounded a corner of slender silver pines that were interspersed with granite obelisks. If he wanted to talk, he seemed in no hurry to begin and waited until they had reached a small frozen fountain before speaking again.
“Do you hear from Prudence quite often, then?”
Rowena’s heart gave a little pang. His voice held a note of loneliness that Rowena recognized. “Not very often.” Then she gave a harsh little laugh. “Not at all, actually, though Vic has finally heard news of her.”
They came to a bench and both sat as if by accord. “She is still angry with you, I take it?”
“I ruined everything when I brought her to Summerset as our lady’s maid. I never thought it would last for long, and I never could have imagined that she’d truly be treated as a servant . . . I don’t know what I believed, but I know it was all too real for Prudence and she was dreadfully unhappy.” Rowena didn’t tell him that she hadn’t been completely honest with Prudence and Victoria about her uncle letting their London home go, but then, she didn’t have to. Sebastian had been present when Prudence had discovered they had no home to return to and that she was trapped at Summerset.
Rowena stared at the ice covering the small fish pond. She
knew how those fish felt, trapped underneath the ice and waiting for the thaw.
“She never said anything to me. I spoke to her after you and she argued that night. Did you know that?” Sebastian looked over at her, his dark eyes questioning.
She shook her head. “No.”
“Outside. Under the trees. She’d lost her hat.” He fell silent for so long that Rowena wondered whether he was done with the conversation, but then he continued. “She was going to take a job as a companion for an acquaintance of mine. I thought—” He stopped then and looked up at the dead gray sky for a moment. “I thought I’d found a way to make her happy . . . I thought we had an understanding. Apparently, we did not.”
Rowena sighed, wondering if he knew whether Pru was also the daughter of the former Earl of Summerset. Not that this would make a bit of difference. No one of their class would accept a marriage between an earl and the illegitimate daughter of a maid, regardless of who fathered the child. She glanced sideways at Sebastian, wondering whether she should tell him. No. She wouldn’t betray Prudence further.
“We should be getting back,” she said gently.
He nodded absently, and as they started back slowly toward the house, she offered that Victoria had told her that Prudence was living in London and seemed to be well and happy.
“Well, that’s something,” he said.
“I’m hoping she will forgive me someday,” Rowena said, with a catch in her voice.
He squeezed her arm. “You three were like sisters. I’m sure she won’t stay angry for long.”
They walked back into the house, where Aunt Charlotte
was gathering her things. “Oh, good. You’re back. We were just about to send a maid for you.”
“Will you be going back to the university?” Lady Summerset asked Sebastian as she wrapped her wool cape around her shoulders.
“Actually, I’m all finished. I started a term before Colin, so I finished before he did.”
“Oh, really?” Lady Summerset placed her hand on his shoulder and smiled up at him in appeal. “You mustn’t be a stranger. I’m sure both Elaine and Rowena would love to have you come to dinner sometime, even if Colin can’t make it. Wouldn’t you, Rowena?”
Startled, Rowena nodded. “Of course.” She caught an arch look between her aunt and Sebastian’s mother and wondered what it meant.
On the long journey home, Rowena puzzled over the conversation she and Sebastian had in the garden. Had he harbored feelings for Pru? Maybe. But now that Prudence had married, it didn’t really matter, did it?