The Lonely Lady,
Camilla twirled her parasol over her shoulder, shooting quick, assessing gazes at the ladies and gentlemen walking past her.
She wasn’t exactly shunned anymore – her disgrace had long since faded under newer, more exciting scandals – but nobody had forgotten. Oh, no.
Miss Parsons, a decidedly rotund young lady with a pretty face and an enormous fortune, waddled past Camilla with a muted tut and a deliberate craning of her neck. She cut her, naturally, but Camilla was used to that. She followed Miss Parsons with her eyes, assessing her gown.
It was one of the newest fashions, of course. A stark contrast to Camilla’s gown, which was pretty and becoming, but decidedly old-fashioned. It had been a while since her parents had decided she was worth trussing up in an expensive new gown.
“Don’t you think Miss Parsons would suit a jewel-coloured gown much better?” Camilla remarked, half to herself, half to the bored-looking maid walking along behind her.
“I couldn’t say, milady.” The maid responded dispassionately. She was a relatively new hire, brought on to replace Camilla’s old lady’s maid, who’d left her in favour of a newer, younger lady, one less disliked in Society.
Camilla pursed her lips. “That shade of pink is rather fleshy, don’t you think? And all those ruffles. She looks like a ham.”
The maid sucked in a shocked breath, and Camilla cursed herself. It was harder than she’d expected to escape her reputation of a spoiled, unpleasant young woman, and her own habit of speaking thoughtlessly did not help matters.
And perhaps, at times, Camilla could be a little too sharp. This current state of affairs with herself and Miss Parsons was, after all, due to some unkind, personal comment Camilla had made about the lady once before.
She couldn’t even remember what she’d said. Miss Parsons did, though. More importantly, so did everyone whom Miss Parsons had told.
“She needs jewel-coloured gowns,” Camilla said decisively, “and a plainer cut of dress. Something to pinch in her waist, but nothing too tight. What do you think, Alice?”
“I couldn’t say, milady.” Alice said. That was all she ever said, besides yes and no, so Camilla gave up.
The Season wasn’t quite in full swing yet. London was rapidly filling up, and one saw more and more people in the Park every day, but the first, much-anticipated ball of the Season was yet to be held.
It was strange to think that Camilla had once looked forward to those balls and parties with breathless anticipation, and now she dreaded them. There was no point in asking to skip the Season. That was giving up, after all, and Miss Camilla Vale was not the sort of woman to just roll over and give up.
“I think we’ll go and visit Mary and the baby before we go home.” Camilla said.
The maid gave a barely suppressed sigh.
Mary Vale, once Mary Tillewood, vigorously bounced her six-month-old daughter on her lap.
The baby in question, a strapping little creature, gurgled with delight, waving fat arms in the air.
“Mildred is sleeping remarkably well at night,” Mary said suddenly, following some line of thought in her own head. “That’s another way in which she is like Grandmother. She could sleep anywhere, at any given moment. That’s how we knew she was ill right at the end. She couldn’t sleep.”
Camilla bit her lip, her eyes lingering on the baby.
Mary’s grandmother, the redoubtable Dowager, Mildred Tillewood, had died some time ago, leaving her three orphaned granddaughters inconsolable. She had never been fond of Camilla, and for good reason. Out of the three Tillewood girls – all of whom were married – Camilla only called Mary her friend.
Evangeline, the eldest, did not trust her. Theodosia, the middle child, was kind and sweet to everyone, but her presence guiltily reminded Camilla of her own attempts to smear Theodosia’s reputation in an attempt to win the affection of a particular gentleman.
It hadn’t worked, of course. Theodosia and Henry were blissfully happy together, and Camilla felt like a prize fool for ever allowing herself to become so infatuated with the man that she ruined her own reputation and became a deeply unlikeable person.
Oh, who do I think I’m fooling? Camilla thought. I was already an unlikeable person. Well, perhaps unlikeable is a strong term. I was honest. Yes, that’s a better way to look at it. Honest, and determined.
Mary, the youngest Tillewood girl, was a different sort of creature altogether. She was masculine, outspoken, and competent. Privately, Camilla had always thought that Mary would make a terrible mother and was promptly proved wrong.
They were on fairly good terms. Friends, even.
Well, they had to be, since Mary was married to Colin Vale, Camilla’s twin brother.
“She’s coming along very nicely.” Camilla said, leaning forward to take one of Mildred’s fat little fists. “Are you attending this Season?”
Mary pulled a face. “I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet. I hate the idea of parties, but you know how Colin loves people and socialising. I daresay we’ll find a compromise that suits us both. What about you?”
Camilla looked away. “Well, I’m not married yet, so I suppose I’ll have to attend. It’s starting to become a running joke, the number of Seasons I’ve attended.”
Mary winced. “Would it be so terrible if you never married?”
“Oh, don’t say that. Yes, it would be terrible, for Mama and Papa, at least. They’ve spent a lot of money on me and my Seasons, and were quite sure I’d snap up some titled, rich gentleman. They’re starting to resent me. I’d better settle on someone soon. If anyone offers for me, of course.” She added the last part in an undertone, but of course Mary’s quick ears picked it up immediately.
Sighing, Mary heaved her chubby infant off her lap and onto Camilla’s. Baby Mildred leaned back against her aunt’s chest, beaming up at her and grabbing handfuls of Camilla’s perfect, flaxen ringlets and tugging them out of curl.
“Do you want to get married, Camilla?”
“It doesn’t matter what I want.”
“Don’t be so childish. That’s the only thing that matters. Well? Do you?”
Camilla bit her lip, not meeting Mary’s gaze. She glanced down at her niece, grinning gummily up at her, and something clenched in Camilla’s chest.
“I always thought I’d fall in love.” She admitted, her voice barely above a whisper. “I want a family. My own family, you know. My parents… well, it’s difficult. And Colin has moved on.”
“You are his sister. Colin will never move on from you.”
Camilla shrugged lightly. It doesn’t feel that way, she wanted to say, but there was no way of making it sound bitter. None of this was Mary’s fault, or Colin’s. Why shouldn’t he be happy?
“I’m sure I’ll find someone this Season.” Camilla said, with the bright, false voice she used in Society to indicate that a subject was closed. Mary rolled her eyes again but didn’t push the matter.
“Any gentleman would be lucky to have you.” Mary said firmly. “Now, are you staying for supper?”
“No, Mama and Papa said I was to come back tonight. I’d better go.”
With reluctance, Camilla returned her niece to her mother’s lap, and rose to her feet, shaking out her skirts. Out of habit, she glanced at her own reflection in the mirror across the room.
At first inspection, nothing had changed. Camilla still had the breathtaking beauty which had so charmed Society in her first Season. She was fair-haired, with large blue eyes, bow-shaped pink lips, and an exquisitely featured doll-face. She had a neat figure, with just enough curves to fill out a gown nicely, but with a whip-thin waist that made any style of dress look fashionable.
If she looked closer, however, things had changed. It was her imagination, Camilla knew, but she could envision streaks of white going through her glossy curls, and crows’ feet crinkling the corners of her eyes. She imagined her features turning coarse and unflattering, her smooth skin freckling and pinching in odd places.
She saw a lonely woman, a great failure, a spinster with no friends and a family that was heartily sick of her.
A foolish girl who’d ruined her own chances.
Swallowing hard, Camilla turned away. Thankfully, Mary was occupied in looking at her baby, and hadn’t seen the dread come over Camilla’s face.
“Did I bring my shawl in here?” Camilla said lightly, in a vain attempt to distract herself. “I really must get back.”
The Vale house in London was an extremely fine place. Large, of course, with a style that changed almost every Season, according to Mrs Vale’s tastes and Mr Vale’s patience.
Camilla spotted a familiar carriage lingering around the corner of the house, and realized with a sinking heart that her sister, Marilla, was here too.
Alice melted away as soon as they entered the house, scuttling off into the depths of the servants’ halls, leaving Camilla alone to relinquish her bonnet and shawl to a blank-faced footman.
“Camilla?” came a sharp, familiar voice from the parlour. “Is that you?”
Camilla swallowed hard, tweaking her curls back into place. She knew she would be tired and disheveled from the walk to the Park and then to Mary’s home, and that would not go unnoticed.
“Yes, Mama. I’m coming.”
She smiled weakly at the footman, who did not return the gesture, and hurried along the hall to the parlour.
She stopped dead in the doorway. There were, in fact, three occupants of the parlour.
Mrs Vale sat in state in her favourite, overstuffed armchair that looked rather like a throne, her stiff, beaded skirts spreading out around her. Marilla was lounging on a sofa near the fire, yawning as if her life was incredibly difficult and full of tiring tasks.
The third person was a gentleman. Not Mr Vale, of course. He divided his time between his club and his study at home, peppering in regular visits to dine with whoever would invite him. Camilla only ever saw him at meals these days, and even that wasn’t regular.
She didn’t mind. Her father had always been a distant, vague sort of person.
No, this gentleman was the Earl of Stockton, Lord Arthur Smee.
Joints a-creaking, Lord Stockton levered himself out of his chair, flashing a mouthful of gums and old, yellowed teeth at Camilla. The man was around sixty-five but could have been taken for a great deal older. Time had not been kind to him, and if the rumours were to be believed, he had not led a temperate life.
“Lady Vale, what a pleasure!” he slurred, beaming. “We were just speaking of you.”
“It is good to see you, Lord Stockton.” Camilla said smoothly, sinking into a curtsey. She was forced to extend her hand, and Lord Stockton snatched it up with liver-spotted fingers, squeezing with a remarkable strength for his age.
“I believe I am required to attend your dear father in his study, so I shall bid you adieu for now.” Lord Stockton said, still smiling and staring at her face in a way that made Camilla uncomfortable.
“Of course, Lord Stockton.”
He bent down and planted a wet kiss on her knuckles. Camilla fought not to yank her hand away. He let go eventually, and she let her hand drop back down to her side, resisting the urge to wipe the back of her hand on her skirts.
Lord Stockton hobbled out into the hallway, and the door was closed behind him. Camilla turned back to her sister and mother, suddenly aware that the room had gone very quiet.
“Is something the matter?”
Mrs Vale drew a breath, sitting up even straighter than before. Her iron-grey hair was curled into bunches of palm-length ringlets, sitting in two bunches on either side of her face. It was the latest style and seemed a little ridiculous on a woman of Mrs Vale’s age. In Camilla’s opinion, very few people suited their hair styled in that way, and her mother was not one of them.
“Lord Stockton has made an offer for you.” Mrs Vale said briskly. “It is a fine match. He’s a wealthy man, with a title, and heaven knows you haven’t had a decent offer in quite a while. Your papa and I have decided to accept.”
Camilla blinked, swaying back on her heels. She must have misheard. Surely she wasn’t going to be parceled off to a man like Lord Stockton, just like that? Her fate decided in a handful of sentences.
“I… what?” Camilla stammered. “I don’t wish to marry Lord Stockton.”
Marilla propped herself up on her elbows, scowling. “Why not?”
“Why not? Why not? He’s awful, Marilla!”
“He is a little older than you, that is true.” Mrs Vale said primly.
“A little older? He’s sixty-five, Mama! He could be my grandfather!”
“Then he will die soon enough and leave you a wealthy widow. Then you may do as you like.” Mrs Vale replied, a tinge of irritation creeping into her voice.
Marilla giggled. “I shouldn’t hope for it. The Smee family are notoriously long-lived. They all live into their nineties.”
Camilla swallowed hard. Her throat felt like sandpaper. “I can’t marry him, Mama. I’m sorry.”
Mrs Vale rose to her feet. She was a tall woman, taller than her daughter, and her diction became even more clipped when she was irritated, such as now.
“This is not a discussion, Camilla. You need to be married, and soon. Your father and I have given you ample time to find your own husband, and you have not done so. Did you think we were going to let you go through the expense of another Season, with all of Society laughing at you? No suitable gentleman is going to be interested in you, not at your age.”
“Mama, I am barely twenty-six!”
“That’s too old.” Marilla said, yawning. “The gentlemen all want the eighteen-year-olds who have just come out. Why would a gentleman settle for a woman of your age? Besides, what else are you going to do? Are you going to become a ridiculous spinster, like poor Aunt Eugenia, and live all by yourself in a big house in the country? Of course, you don’t have your own money, so you can’t do that.”
“It is decided.” Mrs Vale said, her voice hard. “You are marrying Lord Stockton. This is not what I wanted for you, Camilla. You were so promising to begin with, but now we must save our own reputations. I am weary and vexed by being the subject of idle chatter. With Lord Stockton, you will be safe and respectable. It is a good match, and there is the end of it.”
Camilla opened her mouth to… to what? To argue? Scream, shout, cry? Marilla would find it amusing, and Mrs Vale would get angry. Instead, Camilla closed her mouth with a snap, turned on her heel, and walked quietly out of the room. She didn’t even slam the door behind her.
Camilla went straight upstairs to her room, and perched on the edge of her bed, thinking.
They couldn’t force her down the aisle, but where else would she go? What if her parents told her to leave their home? Marilla would never take her in. Colin and Mary would, of course, but that would be too humiliating for words. Her reputation, already dented, would never recover from being sent away from her family home.
“Aunt Eugenia,” Camilla muttered, inspiration striking. “Aunt Eugenia, Aunt Eugenia.”
The family was not on good terms with Aunt Eugenia. She was Mrs Vale’s sister and had inherited a great deal of money from her grandfather. Mrs Vale had felt that she and her husband ought to have had a share of that money and had never forgiven Aunt Eugenia for refusing to share it.
Or so the story went. Camilla had only heard snippets of what had caused the breach between the families. Aunt Eugenia never mentioned it in her letters, and only asked after her sister in the most courteous of terms in her letters.
And there were plenty of those.
Admittedly, Camilla had not always been pleased to receive letters from her aunt. She’d laughed about the poor, lonely old spinster with her friends, with Marilla, with her mother, and dashed off quick, disinterested replies every now and then. But still Aunt Eugenia had written faithfully every two months. Digging through the piles of letters, Camilla pulled out one in particular. She scanned through her aunt’s spiky, unfinished handwriting, and her heart stopped when she read the postscript.
PS Do come down and visit me someday, my dear Camilla. I would love to see you. It gets quiet here, and I should very much like a companion. Come down any time you like.
Giddy with relief, Camilla sank down onto the floor, clutching the letter to her chest. To her shock, tears pricked her eyes.
A way out. At last.
“Three, two, one, heave!”
In a slippery rush, the foal was born, all legs and soft hooves, throwing the two men off balance.
All three of them toppled backwards, straw and bits of hay sticking to their slimy, grimy clothes.
The mother horse turned around, entirely unperturbed, and eyed the two men rolling on the ground with a sort of mild curiosity. Her gaze landed on her brand-new foal, and she moved towards it, nudging the creature with her nose.
Silas watched the first moments between mother and foal with a sort of exhausted pride. It had been a difficult birth, and there had been moments when he was sure that neither mother nor foal would survive. He had come straight from breakfast, and now suppertime was approaching. His blue velvet morning-suit, a present from poor Gwen, was beyond saving, and the once-white and gold waistcoat was now a nauseating shade of… well, Silas wasn’t entirely sure what colour it was now, only that it would never be white again. Birth was a messy business, after all, and tended to be a rather hands-on procedure.
He hauled himself to his feet, exhaustion starting to seep in.
“Nicely done, your lordship!” Jim Breem commented, propping himself up on his elbows. He was older than Silas by at least twenty years, and these arduous births were getting harder and harder for him. Silas extended a hand to help him up.
“I couldn’t have done it without my head groom, though. Thank you, Jim.”
Both on their feet, they turned to survey the horse and her new foal.
The horse in question was Marigold, a Cleveland Bay horse. She was not one of the more expensive breeds he owned, but certainly his favourite. She was beautiful, and even-tempered enough for Silas to let his mother ride safely. The sire of this new little foal was a dappled, fiery-tempered Spanish stallion, the latest addition to Silas’ beloved collection of horses.
Together, they’d made a little foal that seemed to have been touched by fire. As far as Silas could tell, the creature had a flame-red coat, and a lighter orange and yellow mane and tail. No patches of white or any sort of brindling or colouring.
It would be a truly beautiful creature.
“Nobody will have a horse like this one.” Silas said with a sudden burst of pride, reaching forward to run a hand along Marigold’s nose. She barely noticed, being far too wrapped up in her new foal. “What shall we call him?”
“We shouldn’t rush.” Jim said. “Not with a fine creature like this. Let’s pick a good name, eh?”
“I agree. Still, I was thinking about…”
The stable door crashed open behind them, making both men jump. Silas spun around to see a woman silhouetted in the doorway, hands on her hip.
“What… what is that smell?” Gwen gasped, clapping her hands over her nose. “And… oh, Silas! Look at the state of you!”
Silas glanced guiltily down at his own ruined clothing, then up at his sister.
“I’m sorry, Gwen. Marigold was struggling. It was a difficult birth. Jim needed help.”
“Couldn’t one of the stable boys help?”
“Miss Northcott, the blame is mine.” Jim said, bowing. “This was a tricky birth, and I’d only trust his lordship to help me. None of the others have anywhere near as much experience as him.”
Gwen pursed her lips. “Well. I came to tell you that you’re late for dinner, Silas. Mama is waiting. Get changed and join us when you can, won’t you?”
She turned on her heel, marching away. Silas sighed, raking a hand through his hair and immediately regretting it.
“Oh, dear. She’s upset with me.”
“I shouldn’t have kept you so long, your lordship.” Jim murmured.
Silas shook his head. “I wouldn’t have left before it was all done. Well, I’ll go in now, but do keep me updated on how the foal and Marigold fares, won’t you?”
Jim nodded. “Of course, your lordship.”
Silas stepped out of the stables, breathing in cool, clear night air. It was dark now, and he could tip back his head and take in the night sky, full of stars and the livid crescent of the moon.
You couldn’t get this in the cities, could you?
It was cold outside, even more so after the heat and turmoil of the stables. Silas’ wet, slimy clothes began to cool his skin, and he started to hurry back towards the house. The stables were only across the courtyard from their fine manor house, at Silas’ own request. He wanted to be able to get quickly from his home to his horses, even though his mother and Gwen complained.
Once inside the cavernous hallway that always made him feel so small, Silas stripped off his jacket and soiled cravat, peering down the hallway. A strip of light filtered out of the open dining room door, where his poor mother and sister were doubtless sitting at the table impatiently, refusing to start supper until he arrived.
Taking the stairs two at a time, Silas hurried upstairs. He didn’t bother ringing for his valet, instead he left his dirty clothes in a pile on the floor and chose new clothes from his cupboards.
The valet in question, Lucien, was an English man with a French name, and a highly accomplished valet.
In short, he was wasted on Silas. Silas was an unpretentious country gentleman, with no need for fancy clothes or an extensive grooming routine. Lucien was young and exceptionally good-looking, and Silas suspected that he also felt that his talents were being wasted.
Still, the two men got along well. Lucien seemed conflicted between a liking for his new master and enjoying his new wages, to sheer boredom.
Silas’ linens were always freshly washed and pressed at least, so that was nice.
He dressed quickly, sparing only a few cursory glances at himself in the mirror.
Silas did not consider himself a handsome man. He wasn’t ugly, of course, and didn’t have the bulbous, weather-beaten faces that seemed to afflict many country gentlemen. He was tall, strong, and broad shouldered, which Gwen said was unbecoming in a gentleman, who ought to be smooth-skinned and dainty. He had disheveled dark hair that sat in no particular style, and deep-set hazel eyes.
Aside from that, Silas considered himself a very ordinary and downright uninteresting young man. He was close to thirty years old and had managed to achieve that age without ever being shocking, scandalous, or indeed social.
A life well lived, in his opinion.
Shooting his unfashionable reflection one last glance, Silas left his room without even bothering to tweak his cravat more than once.
As expected, there was a frosty atmosphere in the dining room.
“I’m starving.” Gwen announced, shooting him a disapproving stare. “You kept us waiting for ages, Silas.”
“I am sorry, everyone.” Silas said, settling himself into his usual seat. “You should have started without me.”
“I shouldn’t like to see the standard of manners drop in this house, thank you very much.” Agatha said primly, nodding to the butler to bring in the first course.
Silas wasn’t sure how city families ate their meals, but in the country, at least three-quarters of the obligatory long, well-polished dining tables remained unused. The family clustered around one end of the table, to make for easier conversation. The footmen were dismissed, as Silas didn’t particularly enjoy being waited on. If he wanted to help himself to more chicken, the simplest solution was to get his own portion, rather than troubling a footman to serve him.
Of course, Agatha, his mother, insisted on doing things ‘properly’ when they had guests, but this was the country, so guests were few and far between.
He was perfectly happy with such an arrangement.
“The Season will be starting in London soon.” Agatha remarked sourly. “We are missing it. I used to love attending the Season when your father was alive.”
Silas felt a pang of guilt. “I’m sorry, Mother.”
Agatha’s expression softened. She was the sort of woman who looked very forbidding, with iron-grey hair scraped back into a tight knot, and a simple, plain style of dress.
Silas knew better. Agatha was a kind woman and an excellent mother, and even though he’d made them all wait for their supper, she would never hold it against him.
“It hardly matters, my dear. It’s too far to travel, in any case. I just wish that Gwen had more opportunities. She is eighteen years old, and I do worry that she should have more excitement.”
“I would love more excitement.” Gwen said stoutly.
“Well, you could always come with me to the stables, and help birth some more foals.” Silas suggested, chuckling when Gwen turned green.
It was hard to imagine, at times, that he and Gwen were related. She was as fair as he was dark, with light grey eyes and mousy-coloured hair that faded to the colour of hay in the summer. She was pretty, in a demure, easy-going sort of way. It had never really occurred to Silas that she might be searching for a husband.
He wasn’t sure he liked that idea. In his head, Miss Gwendolyn Northcott was still his grubby, earnest little sister, more interested in digging for worms and climbing trees than any sort of social activity.
To distract himself from this disturbing thought, Silas tucked into his food with gusto. He suspected that now might not be the right time to tell them all about the new fire-red foal.
“Did you visit Miss Evans, like I suggested? Before she returned to Edinburgh?” Agatha said after a pause, and Silas swallowed hard.
“I’m afraid not, Mother.”
Agatha sighed. “It’s not every day a decent young lady with a respectable dowry visits our quiet little county, Silas. She was setting her cap at you, I could tell.”
“From what I know of Miss Evans, I don’t think a country life would suit her. She only spent one month here with her cousins, and it fairly drove her mad. We wouldn’t have suited.”
Agatha pursed her lips together, and they ate in silence for a few moments.
“You ought to try, Silas.” She said after a few moments. She spoke quietly, which was certainly unlike Agatha. Silas shot her a long, uncertain glance, not sure what to make of this.
“I… I don’t understand.”
Agatha laid down her fork, looking him dead in the eyes.
“You must marry. We’ve discussed this before. I thought… that is, your father always told me I ought not to push you, and I haven’t. However, you’re almost thirty years old, and no romance on the horizon. Marrying for love is all very well, but you have a duty to yourself and your estate. What would Gwen and I do if you were gone?”
Silas tried to laugh it off, but it sounded hollow. “I don’t plan to die anytime soon.”
“No one ever plans for that.” Agatha snapped, suddenly angry. “You’ve no heir, Silas. Already, the other landed gentry are making plans to whisk your land out from under your nose.”
“They can’t do that.”
“Not when you’re alive, no. I just wish you’d take all this more seriously.”
Silas bit his lip and said nothing.
His mother was right. He should marry, but it just sounded too much like the beginning of the end. It wasn’t as if he’d met anyone he wanted to marry. Society in their little corner of the world was limited, to say the least.
“And what if…” Agatha began, only to be cut off by a rather desperate-looking Gwen.
“I ran into Lady Everly on my way to market today.” She said, pushing food round and round her plate. “She’s having a house party soon. We’re all invited.”
“Oh, how lovely.” Agatha said, her face still taut and miserable. She glanced over at Silas. “Will you be coming, Silas?”
He opened his mouth, ready to say no. He had too much work to do. The new foal to take care of, the horses to see to, the new stallions to look over with Jim. And that was without even mentioning the usual tasks that occupied a viscount’s time.
Then he met Gwen’s eyes, wide and hopeful, and guilt closed its cold fingers around his heart.
“Of course I’ll come.” He said and was rewarded with a beaming smile from Gwen. “I haven’t seen Lady Eugenia for quite a while.”
“She was in a good mood.” Gwen said, beaming happily all around the table. “She said that her niece is finally coming to visit her. It’s a good long visit, by the sounds of it. She can’t wait to introduce us all. She’s from London, can you believe? I bet she’ll be ever so fashionable and charming. She’ll wear the latest dresses and know all the latest gossip. She’s had Seasons, you know. I bet she knows all sorts of grand people. She’ll have wonderful stories, I’m sure. I can’t wait to meet her.”
Silas caught his mother’s eye and grimaced.
“She sounds insufferable.” He said loudly, earning himself a glare.
“And this,” Aunt Eugenia said, beaming, “is the library.”
She flung open a heavy, wood-paneled door with a flourish, and gestured for Camilla to step inside.
“Oh, it’s… it’s lovely.” Camilla said lamely. “This is a great deal of books.”
“Yes, it is, isn’t it?” Aunt Eugenia said, pleased. “Are you very fond of reading?”
The simple answer was no. Camilla wasn’t opposed to reading, of course. It was just that there were so many other things a person could be doing during the day.
Already, Aunt Eugenia and Everly House was not what she had expected.
Camilla had never, in fact, met Aunt Eugenia. Not in the last fifteen years, at least. She’d expected a sour-faced, frail old spinster in a house full of dust and knick-knacks, with austere servants in mobcaps slipping around.
She hadn’t expected a vital, beaming woman of exactly forty-five who could easily have been taken for ten years younger. She hadn’t expected Everly House – the place where Mrs Vale had been brought up – to be so large, so fresh and pretty and fashionable.
There was a great deal of dust, though. Especially in the library.
Aunt Eugenia herself was a round-faced woman, with dusky brown curls only just beginning to streak with silver. She wore her clothes haphazardly and without any care for fashion or style, and had large, round, wire-rimmed spectacles that made her blue eyes – the exact same shade as Camilla’s – seem larger than usual.
She wore an apron, which was shocking enough, but then the pockets were also filled with books and dried plants.
Camilla had not expected this at all.
She stepped into the library, turning around in a circle, taking it all in. It was a cavernous room with a domed ceiling, with bookshelves running all around the walls. In places, books were piled up neatly on the floor, leaning against the walls, where they had run out of bookshelf space.
“It’s nice.” Camilla managed. “Very pretty. Don’t… don’t the maids dust in here?”
“Not very often.” Aunt Eugenia laughed. “This is a large house, and I don’t see the point of keeping a large staff only for myself. I don’t need it, you see. Although I will hire some girls from the village if I choose to throw a party of some sort. It’s easier to tell the maids to leave rooms like the library. A little dust never hurt anyone, after all.”
“Of course.” Camilla said, thinking of her own mother’s desperate, vicious war on dust or grime of any sort back home. Could those two women really be sisters? “I… I am so grateful, Aunt Eugenia, that you’re letting me stay. I arrived almost without warning. It was terribly rude of me.”
“Not at all.” She said, smiling and patting Camilla’s shoulder. “Family is important. I was always sad not to have as much to do with my nieces and nephew as I would like. Marilla never wanted anything at all to do with me, more’s the pity. You may stay as long as you like.”
Forever would be nice, Camilla thought, but didn’t dare say as much. It might be too soon.
“I… I don’t think I’m cut out for marriage.” She said carefully. “I’m getting older, you see, and I suppose I don’t have much chance of securing a good match.”
“I hate that term.” Aunt Eugenia sighed. “Securing a good match. As if it is a business deal. Well, I suppose for some people, it is. I myself never wanted to marry, and I’ve been perfectly happy. Despite other people and their ominous predictions for the future. What did your parents say when you told them you were set on spinsterhood?”
Camilla flushed. “I… I haven’t exactly told them.”
“Ah.” Aunt Eugenia said tactfully. “Well, these things can be tricky. Your mother has never forgiven me for not living a life of poverty and misery as a spinster. You are a grown woman, and that is entirely your business.”
“Thank you, Aunt Eugenia.” Camilla said, a feeling of relief starting to settle in. Maybe she hadn’t jumped from the cooking pot into the fire after all. Maybe this would be alright.
One could only hope.
“Now, before you get settled in, I should warn you that I’ve arranged a little party in a few days’ time. To celebrate your arriving, you see. Ours is a small community, with only a few families to socialise with. They’re all very keen to meet you.”
Camilla’s stomach clenched. At one time, she would have dreaded this party for an entirely different reason. She would have turned up her nose at the ‘country bumpkins’ and laughed behind her hands at their rough manners and gullibility.
Now, she was only afraid that they would have heard of the scandal surrounding her back in London. What would she do if they rejected her here, too? Where else could she go?
Camilla said none of this, of course. As far as she knew, Aunt Eugenia knew nothing about Camilla’s shame, and she intended to keep it that way.
“That sounds wonderful, Aunt Eugenia. Thank you.”
“Excellent.” Aunt Eugenia clapped her hands together. “Well, help yourself to whatever books you like. I have plenty of novels, but also lots of improving books, if your tastes run that way. Or you may go for a walk outside, if you like.”
Camilla glanced at the window, spotting idyllic green fields and purple hills, all washed by a fresh veil of rain. The sky was clear now, bright and blue.
“Perhaps I will take a walk.” She said thoughtfully. “It will make a change from the cobbles and filthy streets of London.”
And, of course, she would be able to walk here unaccompanied. No surly maid behind her, no pressing responsibilities, no constant knowledge of being seen, being looked at, needing to perform.
Alice had not, of course, accompanied Camilla here. She hadn’t even bothered asking.
“That is a good idea.” Aunt Eugenia said, her voice thoughtful. When Camilla glanced at her aunt, the woman had a strange, pensive look on her face, as if she knew exactly what Camilla was thinking. Camilla hastily pasted her Society Smile onto her face.
It didn’t seem to fool her.
“I hope you enjoy yourself.” Aunt Eugenia said simply. “Dinner is at six. We keep early hours in the country, I’m afraid.”
The ground under Camilla’s feet was soft and springy. The scent of wet earth and fresh grass filled the air, stronger than anything she’d ever experienced. Hyde Park was nothing compared to this.
Camilla had initially planned to just walk around the grounds in front of the house, but the lure of the woods and fields nearby were too much. There were paths and woodlands in Hyde park, of course. Nothing too dense, and there were plenty of wide, well-trodden paths crisscrossing the land. And, of course, there were always plenty of other people.
Camilla hadn’t seen a soul since she pulled on her boots and left the house. She’d chosen a meandering path of soft, packed earth that squelched under her shoes. There was an odd sort of satisfaction to the sound. She didn’t dive deep into the woods – it was dark there, and she might get lost, and besides the hills and fields were so beautiful.
She saw a field up ahead, surrounded by fencing. A couple of horses were chasing each other, watched by a bare-headed man who leaned on a tall staff. Camilla made a point to go the other way.
On impulse, she pulled out the half-written letter to Mary and Colin she’d composed on the way here. The writing was awful, of course, jogged about and jostled as she had been on the stagecoach here.
Camilla had not told anyone where or when she was going. However, she had left a note for her parents in her room, once she was sure of getting safely away. It wasn’t as if they would actually lock her up, but it was always better to be safe than sorry. There was no telling whether they would tell Colin or not, so Camilla would tell him and Mary herself.
She felt a pang at the thought of sweet little Mildred. She’d never have a child of her own now, or a love like Colin and Mary’s.
This might hurt now, Camilla reminded herself fiercely, but spinsterhood is freedom. Now that you’ve run away from home, you won’t be able to return to London Society as you are. It simply won’t happen. You know this, and it’s for the best.
She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she didn’t notice the thundering sounds of hooves until they were almost upon her.
The horse, a huge black beast, came galloping around a clump of trees, only twenty or so feet away from her. Its iron-shod hooves glinted in the weak sunlight, and clouds of steam billowed from his nose and mouth. It was heading straight for her, ready to mow her down, a huge monster of muscle and sleek, glistening flanks, unstoppable.
Camilla screamed before she could realize that she was screaming, the letter fluttering down from her fingers.
The horse’s eyes rolled in its head. The creature whinnied, rearing up, hooves windmilling.
Camilla’s knees gave out, and she crumpled to the muddy earth. She raised her hands weakly to cover her head, as if that would do anything to protect her fragile skull from the beast’s heavy, merciless hooves.
“Angus! Angus, no!” boomed an unfamiliar male voice. Camilla opened her eyes a fraction to see the same bareheaded man hurrying towards her, gaze fixed on the horse.
To her amazement, the horse placidly returned all four hooves to the ground and waited for the man to catch up.
Close up, Camilla could see that he was young, perhaps a few years older than her, but much taller. He wore a mud-spattered white shirt with a threadbare waistcoat over it, and filthy knee-high boots and breeches. He had dark hair, and vivid hazel eyes. Camilla had the perfect opportunity to observe his eyes when he bent down over her, extending one broad-palmed, grubby hand to help her up. She was almost about to take it when she spoke again.
“You shouldn’t have screamed like that. You spooked him.”
Camilla narrowed her eyes. “Of course I screamed. That beast was running straight at me.”
She scrambled to her feet, pointedly ignoring the man’s hand, and picked up her now ruined letter from the mud.
He straightened up, frowning. “He wasn’t running at you. He’s a horse, horses don’t mow people down. You were perfectly safe.”
“Perfectly safe?” Camilla spat. “Don’t be a fool.”
Standing up, the man was almost comically taller than her. She barely came up to his shoulders. It was clear that he was used to hard work and wore the sort of clothes one would see on a farm laborer. And yet he wasn’t apologetic and deferential. Was this some sort of country fashion? He was handsome, too, and Camilla wished that he wouldn’t stare at her so intently.
He stood there, brazenly just looking at her. Camilla sniffed to herself, shaking out her skirts. She noticed for the first time that the horse wore a bridle, and the man’s hand rested idly on the reins.
“Please get that creature away from me.” She said, lifting her chin.
The man, to her surprise, did not rush to obey.
“There’s no need to be like that.” He said, much to her amazement. “You were never in danger. I’m sure he gave you a bit of fright, but Angus here just likes to run. Here, give him this.”
The man dug in his pocket and withdrew a small, wizened apple. Camilla recoiled as if he’d handed her a handful of mud.
“I am not going to feed it.”
“Him.” The man corrected. “Go on, you’ll see, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I certainly will not. You haven’t even apologised to me yet.”
“I did, I said that I was sorry he gave you a scare.” The man pointed out.
Camilla glared at him. Her fear was receding now that the horse was calm, although she kept a good distance away from it.
“You are extremely rude.”
The man raised thick black eyebrows. “So are you.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Did you not hear me the first time?”
Camilla pressed her lips together. “I’ve had enough of this. Where is your master?”
There was a taut silence between them. The man stared at her unblinking, with the sort of bold confidence that Camilla had never encountered in a servant, and rarely even in people of her own station.
“Master?” he echoed, and she realized for the first time that she’d made a mistake.
She cleared her throat. “I… well, I assumed you were a servant. I’m starting to believe that perhaps you are not a servant.”
“No,” the man said abruptly. “I am not.”
He turned on his heel at once, without waiting for a reply, and strode away the way he’d come, with Angus trotting meekly behind him.
Camilla stayed where she was, not sure whether she should be mortified or angry by the altercation. She found herself almost mesmerized by the man’s easy, broad-shouldered grace as he walked away. He didn’t look back, not even once, and that annoyed her for some reason.
On cue, it began to rain again.
“I hate the country.” Camilla muttered, shoving her muddied letter back into her pocket and turning back towards Everly House.
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel“The Lonely Lady, Camilla”. Get your copy on Amazon!