Okehampton, Devon, 1812.
Eleanor was there again. She was in the house, near that warmth, with the demon lurking on the staircase.
She could feel the heat of it, even without being able to see it. The fire was there once more, and this time, it had come to claim her.
She stumbled through the house, away from her bedchamber and through the open door, across the landing, feeling the way the floorboards warped in the heat beneath her slippers. Her nightgown was cloying against her skin because of the warmth, making her pull at it with trembling fingers, trying to relieve some of the sweat.
“No . . . it cannot be,” she muttered to herself, just as the flames inched into her vision. They were climbing up the stairs, as if they formed some monster, with each curling flame like a hand gripping the banister, pulling it further up toward the landing.
The smoke invaded Eleanor’s lungs, making her cough as she fell backward, colliding against the door behind her. As she opened her mouth to cry out her mother’s name, a cough came instead—her body’s harsh response against the black smoke that was beginning to billow up the stairs, coming closer and closer to her.
“Mother!” She eventually managed to cry out the word, but to little effect between her dry coughs. The word was muffled by the sounds of the fire.
Around her sounded loud cracks and snaps of the old timber house breaking into many pieces. The cacophony was too great, with the sound of the fire’s roaring.
Eleanor inched forward another time. She would not be beaten. She would not let this fire claim her.
Her slippers scuffled across the landing, bringing her nearer to the top of the stairs, looking down to where the fire had ravaged the lower floor. The entire ground floor of the house she had known and loved for as long as she could remember was in desolation. There was not an inch of that part of the house that was not glowing orange or red.
With horror, she shuddered, reminded of a line of poetry from Milton’s Paradise Lost.
“Our prison strong, this huge convex of fire,” Eleanor muttered the words before tearing her gaze away from the destruction and sprinting across the landing. Her short legs didn’t carry her very fast. She was too young, barely eleven years of age. “Mother! Father!” she called out, her voice wailing in great unearthly cries. It was as if she were no longer human. No, she was just an animal now. A creature so warped by desperation and fear that she was no longer herself. She would not have recognized her reflection in the mirror; not the wild and unkept hair, the nightgown gathered around her knees, nor the feral look in her eyes.
Reaching the door of her mother’s chamber, she threw it open, only to find the room empty. With the flames climbing further up the stairs, gradually reaching the landing behind her, it cast a deep orange light into the room, revealing that the bed had not been slept in. It seemed her mother had not yet retired for the night.
Eleanor hurried back out into the corridor, about to search her father’s room, when she was met with the wall of flames, the heat so strong that she was forced back into the room with her arms lifted above her face, trying to protect herself from the heat. She fell back, tripping over the nearest chair and falling flat on the ground on the other side, aware of a sizzle beside her ears, suggesting her hair had been singed.
The thud against her back winded her, making her cough even more. By the time she had recovered herself enough to move to her knees, the fire was in the doorway, facing her down. It was as if the devil himself had come to claim her, beckoning her with his hands shaped into flaming fingers that curled back in on themselves.
“No!” Eleanor bellowed the word and jumped to her feet, heading to the window.
She knew it was mad to consider jumping, but what other hope did she have? Go into the corridor, and she’d meet death, stay in this room, and she’d suffer the same fate.
She drew up the window as quickly as she could, peering down below, to see many of the staff gathered on the front lawn. Some were wailing, bemoaning the way the house was being eaten up by flames. Others were crying and calling out. In the distance, Eleanor could even see a cart leaving, suggesting someone was going for help to fight the fire.
“Miss Parris! You must jump!” The butler was calling to her, beckoning her down.
Eleanor was about to argue it was impossible, when the fire reached the bed behind her, making the wood crack and echo in her ears. It forced her out onto the window ledge, with the toes of her slippers hanging over the edge of the white stone. Pulling herself to stand straight, her body was whipped by a wind, one she suspected was being created by the fire itself.
The butler was organizing things fast—footmen were gathered to help catch her, but it was one of the stable boys who had the smartest idea. He began bringing hay bales around. Within minutes, three hay bales had been gathered, enough to cushion Eleanor’s fall.
“Jump, Miss Parris! You must jump.” The butler’s voice was desperate.
Eleanor did as he asked, leaping into the air. It was an ungainly and horrible thing, with her clutching the nightgown around her body, holding tightly to her legs as she dropped through the air, like a leaden weight. She crashed into the hay with a heavy thud, straw filling her mouth and hair, as hands descended upon her.
Eleanor was lifted from the straw, and the coat of one of the footmen coat was dropped on her shoulders, hiding her from view.
“Miss Parris!” the housekeeper’s voice called from nearby. The next thing Eleanor knew was a pair of arms embracing her. She opened her eyes to see the housekeeper holding her in her arms, the red glow of the fire from the house behind her. “Thank goodness you are alive.”
Those simple words sent a chill through Eleanor’s body despite the heat. It was sharp against the redness in her face.
She pulled back from the housekeeper to look back at her home.
I am alive.
The thought was enough for reality to set in.
“Mrs. Withers, where are my parents?” Eleanor asked, her voice weak.
“They . . .” Mrs. Withers said no more. She gulped and looked to the house, her cheeks tinted by the dark orange light.
Eleanor kept her eyes on the house, stunned at the transformation it had undergone. Her entire home had been dropped into hell, with the windows blown out, the roof caving in, and someone screaming from inside.
That scream made all those on the lawn freeze.
“There’s someone in there!”
“We have to go back in.”
Many of the staff were calling out, but the butler put a stop to it all.
“Anyone who goes in there now will die.”
Yet it didn’t stop Eleanor from breaking away from Mrs. Withers.
“Miss Parris, no!” she cried, trying to claw Eleanor backward.
She stumbled out of the housekeeper’s hold, yet she couldn’t go far, the heat of the house was too strong, forcing her to cower behind the jacket on her shoulders, lifting the lapels up over her face to hide it from the fire.
For a second, she thought she saw a silhouette through the gap that had once been the parlor window. Her mother and father would frequently stay up in that room late at night, talking into the early hours of the morning. Her father would have a port in his hands and her mother a sherry. The two of them would laugh and talk for hours on subjects that only they found amusing, leaning against one another, with smiles telling of their true happiness.
The silhouette was not smiling now. It was indistinct, a hunched human form, clinging to the wall beside it, then dropping to the floor, no longer a person, just a hulking form.
“No,” Eleanor muttered the word, but barely a sound came out. It was just a breath. “They cannot be gone.”
Eleanor’s eyes shot open. She sat up in the bed, feeling the heat so strongly, she was sweating beneath the sheets.
She panicked, just as she did every time she suffered the nightmare, scrambling off the mattress and throwing the covers from her, until she fell on the floor on her knees, bent double, with her eyes tightly closed, trying to ward off the tears.
“Every week,” she murmured, breathing deeply, yet the breaths did little to help. The tears came anyway. It didn’t seem to matter that night had happened years ago, when she was very young; it still came back to haunt her. “Why must I relive that awful night every week of my life?”
* * *
“Mrs. Malbury?” Eleanor called into the kitchen. Noticing the sun had risen before her, Eleanor had called for her maid and changed quickly, eagerly rushing down to the kitchen.
“Miss Parris? Aye, I’m in here—ooh!” A yelp suddenly came from in the kitchen, making the voice with the sharp Northumbrian accent pause.
Eleanor pushed open the door a little more, to see the poor elderly cook shaking her hand madly in the air, her fingers became a blur, making it difficult for Eleanor to spy the specks of blood running down her fingers.
“Goodness, I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to make you jump.” Eleanor hurried into the kitchen. She walked around the large table, which was covered in freshly made bread and honey cake for breakfast, as the injured Mrs. Malbury hopped up and down.
“It is my own fault, Miss. I didn’t look what I was doing. It is not so bad.” Then Mrs. Malbury lifted her hand, revealing the extent of the cut. “Well, maybe I am a little worse for wear.”
“Mrs. Malbury, do not look at it,” Eleanor urged, seeing the way the cook was beginning to swoon at the sight of the blood. “Wait here, I will fetch what we need.” She hurried out of the room as quickly as her feet would carry her. She tried to scamper up the staircase soundlessly, heading for her bedchamber.
Eleanor retrieved her botany kit, feeling her usual nerves as she reached for its hiding place. Bending down under the bed at a rather unladylike angle, she scrambled under the mattress, giggling at her hurry to find the small leather case. When she eventually latched her hands upon it, she hastened to stand and peered out of her bedchamber door, looking up and down the corridor warily.
“If I am caught, what shall she say this time?” she whispered into the air. To her relief, her step-grandmother was nowhere to be seen, giving Eleanor the opportunity she needed to escape, the leather case held tightly in her hands. She scurried along the corridor and down the main stairs once more, slipping into the servants’ quarters, as she so often did, until she reached the kitchen, where Mrs. Malbury was still clutching her bleeding finger.
“Oh, it’s nothing, Miss, really,” Mrs. Malbury said, then held up her hand. At the sight of her own blood still pooling, she baulked, her face turning as white as the bread she had been slicing on the worktop a few minutes before.
“Best sit down before you fall, Mrs. Malbury,” Eleanor said good naturedly as she steered the cook into a stool by the worktop.
“We shouldn’t be doing this, Miss,” the cook murmured, looking toward the door warily. “If Mrs. Alden sees you—”
“Let me worry about her.” Eleanor dismissed the concern quickly as she gathered the dried herbs she kept in small glass vials in her case. “Besides, what kind of person would I be to leave you here bleeding?”
Mrs. Malbury looked up with a kind smile, imbuing Eleanor with confidence.
This sort of situation was exactly why she was so determined to carry on with her botany, no matter what her step-grandmother said. Helping people and seeing such smiles on people’s faces was what gave Eleanor both pleasure and a sense of purpose in this world.
It is what I will always do. Help and cure those I can.
She set to work quickly, taking a pestle and mortar from one of the kitchen cupboards and grinding some of the leaves together. She started with juniper and chamomile, followed by calendula.
“What are you making, Miss?” the cook asked, peering over her shoulder as best as she could.
“A poultice to help bind the wound. If what my books say are correct, these herbs should help ward off infection.” Eleanor formed the herbs into a thick paste, which she pasted against the bandage with a little water, and then she pressed it to Mrs. Malbury’s wound.
“Ooh! It stings a little,” the cook said before she smiled. “You are very good, Miss. Not everyone would be so kind to their cook.”
“They should be,” Eleanor said with confidence, while finishing tying up the bandage. “I am very sorry to have caused the wound in the first place. I came to see how you were.”
“I know you by now.” Mrs. Malbury laughed and pointed her bandaged hand at Eleanor before she stood again and retook her place to finish slicing the freshly baked bread. “You were coming to see if you could escape breakfast upstairs for a little while longer, were you not?”
Eleanor’s guilty look was clearly enough to confirm Mrs. Malbury’s suspicions.
“Let us just say those breakfasts are never as enjoyable as they should be,” Eleanor said with a sigh.
“Well, you are always most welcome down here with me. You know that.”
“Thank you,” Eleanor smiled as she turned to the work bench, inhaling deeply. Today the kitchen was draped in so many drying herbs that the air was thick with their scents. She had seen the cook lie to Mrs. Alden the day before and claim the herbs were for a roast lamb they were to have on Sunday, but Eleanor and Mrs. Malbury had a secret.
The herbs were for Eleanor to add to her collection, to improve her store of botanical medicines.
“They’ll be done soon,” Mrs. Malbury said in a whisper as she gestured to the herbs. “Then who knows what manner of things you will be able to create?”
“Thank you so much for your help. I do not know what I would do without you.” Eleanor raised herself on her toes, tilting her nose up toward one of the posies of rosemary hanging from the ceiling. Just then, she heard the creak of a door swinging open.
She dropped back down to her heels, and felt Mrs. Malbury shove the botany case toward her behind her back, hiding it from view. It was necessary, as Eleanor saw as she turned her eyes to the doorway.
In the open space, Mrs. Alden had appeared, her long, willowy neck craning back and forth as she looked between Eleanor and the cook with tiny dark eyes.
“Good morning,” Eleanor said, attempting a buoyant tone, though it quickly faded as the fear took over. Her step-grandmother was glaring at her, and it felt as if those eyes had the power of needles, piercing Eleanor’s skin. “Is something wrong?”
“Where to begin . . .”
“Choose your weapon, Briar.”
“I beg your pardon?” Briar turned round to see his father had selected a weapon. The sword was broader than those they usually fought with. His father balanced it in his grasp, as if testing its weight, before turning to the door.
“You have one last test,” Michael Tace, the Earl of Gilendale, called as he stepped through the door. “Meet me on the lawn in front of the house. I want you to beat me in a fight.”
“Beat you?” Briar called back, yet his father had already gone beyond earshot. For a second, Briar looked at the rack, feeling a little frantic. He lifted up various swords and rapiers, testing their weight before he returned to his usual one. “I haven’t beaten him yet, have I?” he murmured to himself. On this side of the wall was a rack of weapons, some modern, foils and rapiers, but some were family heirlooms, old pikes and halberds that had not seen battle for generations.
“Today, I must win,” Briar breathed deeply, filling himself with the courage he needed. Today was the final day of his training. His twenty-first birthday was here at last, he was a man now, and, as a gentleman, he had the opportunity to leave the house and make his fortune, by proving himself worthy. His brothers had been given honors and positions, having impressed the Prince Regent. It was now Briar’s turn to do the same. If he could impress the Prince enough to be knighted, or to at least be given a commission of his own, with such an accolade, he would soon be making his own way in life. Yet first, he had to prove he could do it. This was an important part of being a man in their father’s eyes, the ability to defend oneself. Only when each of his sons had beaten their father in a fight, would the earl allow them to go out into the world and carve their own living.
Holding the brass grip of his weapon firmly in his grasp, Briar turned and followed his father out of the house. En route, he adjusted the padding across his chest, checking it was in place and covering him well enough.
“Remember everything he has taught you,” Briar kept murmuring to himself, recalling what had to be done.
When he stepped onto the lawn, he was blinded by the sun for a minute. It forced him to lift his hand and shield his eyes from the glare, before resting his gaze on his father.
“Are you ready, Briar?” his father asked. He was so similar to his father in many ways. Briar could even see his father’s light-brown hair, the same color as his own, only now beginning to grey. Briar pushed the same hair back from his forehead, aware that the usual curls were now straggly and damp from sweat after the training that morning.
“I’m ready,” Briar said, trying to sound confident as he stepped out onto the lawn, with his hessian boots making dents in the dewy grass. With his tall frame, he caught up to his father quickly enough.
When he stopped in front of his father, he expected the usual short lecture. There usually was one, with his father reminding him of all that he had learned in his last lessons, but not today it seemed. His father leapt forward and began the fight instantly.
Briar was forced into parrying quickly. He had to take a wide stance, moving backward to absorb his father’s advancing blows and knocking each of them away quickly enough.
“You’re dropping your left side again,” Michael called, making Briar straighten up a little too late.
“Am I? Ow!” Briar whipped round, feeling the cut across his side as he turned to face his father. “I could swear these weapons aren’t as blunt as you claim.”
His father laughed heartily as he swiped the foil through the air, making it whip in the wind.
“It’s a good training method,” he said, still smiling away. “You’ll jump out the way of the blade much faster then, won’t you?”
“I suppose there is some sense in that logic,” Briar laughed as he looked down at his side. Across his ribs, where he wore the padding to protect himself, the foil had cut through some of the material, making small tufts of wool appear through the covering.
I’m not yet good enough.
The thought cut through Briar, leaving him disheartened. He had trained with his father and older brothers for years, yet it seemed he was still not good enough to beat the old man. I have to beat him. Today.
“Try again, Briar. Come for me,” his father goaded him forward.
This time, Briar was the one who decided to go on the offensive. He moved forward with alacrity, trying to remember everything he had been taught and put a new flourish in his moves. Yet it seemed to have little effect, each blow he offered was blocked by his father all too easily.
They pushed away from each other, both gleaming with sweat and circling in the grass.
“Think, Briar!” his father called to him, clearly goading him another time. “A real fight is not fair, remember that. If you want to win, then you have to make it so that you will win.”
Briar was reminded of a trick his father had taught him a few days ago in the sporting room. His father had urged him to admire a fine shield in the weapons rack, and then Briar had grown distracted looking at the shield.
It was aged, bearing the Earl of Gilendale’s coat of arms that went back generations. The surface had been polished so many times by the weapons’ steward that it gleamed and showed Briar’s reflection. His gray eyes had looked more like silver in the shield’s reflection, and the smile that was usually in place had wavered for a moment.
Just as his father had been describing how to win a fight, Michael had tipped the shield toward him, forcing Briar to catch the shield and release his sword.
“Yet sometimes, when you face a fight in the real world, one beyond these walls, fighting fair is not an option. See?”
Michael’s words came back to Briar now, forcing him to act.
Distraction. That is what I need.
Briar advanced forward another time. On this occasion, though, he forced his father back toward where the river met the lawn. His father began to wobble on the edge of the riverbank.
“Watch for the river!” Briar called. As Michael turned to look behind him, Briar took his chance. Rather than use the point of his weapon, he turned and elbowed his father in the chest, forcing him to stumble back into the shallows of the river and drop his weapon. As Michael searched in the water, trying to find it again, Briar jumped forward, placing the tip of his sword at his father’s collarbone. “So?” he asked, breathing heavily as his father stood perfectly still. “How did I do?”
Michael’s straight face instantly cracked into a wide smile.
“Ha! You won, Briar. You won!” He pushed the sword away with his gloved hand and climbed out of the river, coming to embrace his son.
“You’re getting me all wet!” Briar complained, pretending to shudder and refuse his father’s affections. His father laughed heartily, clearly thrilled.
“Look how far you have come,” Michael said and turned Briar around, urging him to walk with him back across the lawn toward the house. “You are ready.”
“I am?” Briar asked, scarcely able to believe it.
“Without a doubt!” Michael spoke with vigor. “With such skills as yours, I do not doubt you will make me as proud as your brothers.”
Briar faltered at hearing these words. His elder brothers had already been given their positions, and they had all taken their place in the world. All recognized by the Prince Regent as doing a service for the country, they were carving an impressive path in the world.
There is a lot to live up to.
“Speaking of your brothers . . .” Michael began and trailed off.
Before Briar could ask what his father meant, applause and a great cheer met his ears, urging him to look up to the drive in front of the house, where a carriage now stood. Two of his brothers had already jumped down, and his third brother was standing on the coach step.
“Did you see?” Michael called to them all.
“You mean, did we see our little brother push our father into a river? That we did. Innovative, Briar, I’ll give you that,” Henry, the closest to Briar in age, spoke first, coming to clap him on the shoulder with encouragement. “Well done.”
“Thank you, Henry.”
“Hurrah! Our little brother is all grown up.” Chester was the next one to speak, beckoning to David in the doorway of the coach. “Come down, David. I think the moment calls for a celebration.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” Michael beckoned them all into the house.
Briar was not the first to follow. He was busy looking down at the sword in his hands, thinking of what had just happened. He had beaten his father for the first time, but this was a safe place for a fight. Could he be relied on to fight well when the situation called for it?
“I can see you are suffering from heavy thoughts.” Henry came up to Briar’s side and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, steering him forward. Together, the two of them followed Chester and David as they flanked Michael, hurrying into the house, laughing as Michael left soggy footprints behind him.
“I suppose I am,” Briar said with a sigh.
“Allow me to guess. You are thinking what a huge task lies ahead of you,” Henry said with drama in his tone. “Think of what could happen! About to leave and hunt for your fortune, a great adventurer. Yes, indeed, I am sure spectacular adventure awaits you.”
“You should have been an actor, not a sailor,” Briar teased his brother, earning laughter in response.
“No money in acting, Brother. Have no fear,” Henry said comfortingly as they stepped through the oak archway into the house. “We have all become knights, why shouldn’t you too?”
Briar chewed the side of his mouth as they walked in. He couldn’t help feeling that there was a lot of pressure on his shoulders.
* * *
Briar was restless as he wandered the corridors, heading toward his room in Gilendale Manor. All afternoon he had listened to tales of his brothers’ exploits, and though he had loved hearing every single anecdote, they had only added to the expectations weighing on him.
“I wonder what anecdotes Briar will bring back with him.” Those had been his father’s last words before Briar had taken his leave for the evening.
They had listened to Henry talk of his adventures in the navy, leading voyages into the Orient for the Prince Regent himself. The sights he had seen, and all the wonders! Yet Chester had just as many stories to tell. As a trader, he had travelled the silk road into China and was discovering new marvels which he hoped to bring to England. Now David had taken his place on a navy ship too. He already had grand tales to tell of fighting on remote islands which, if he ever had a mind to write them down, would have made Briar turn the pages of the book increasingly quickly.
Briar had listened to all of it avidly, with his eldest brother, Larry, at his side. Larry was not called upon to be a knight or have such adventures of his own. After all, he had to stay home and learn to be the earl. Had Briar been a man who was fond of a wager, he would have said that of all of his brothers, Larry was the happiest.
As if Briar’s feet had wandered to a particular location spurred by this thought alone, he found himself standing outside Larry’s chamber. Yet his brother was not at peace anymore. With the door slightly ajar, Briar could see Larry’s tall, lanky frame pacing up and down the room.
With a light tap on the door, Briar poked his head through the gap.
“Something wrong, Larry?” he asked his brother.
Larry sighed as he abandoned his pacing and turned back to Briar with a pleading look in his eyes, running his fingers through his fair hair.
“I am wondering why on earth I committed myself to this.”
“To what?” Briar asked, stepping fully into the room. Larry gestured down to his writing bureau, on which stood two candlesticks, casting their light on a slip of paper, on which there were so many scrawled words and sections crossed out that it was nigh on impossible to read what was written.
“I have prepared a speech for the wedding,” Larry said hurriedly. “There are things I want to say to Marianne, things not covered by the ordinary vows. Yet I could swear I have come up with something as complicated as a Shakespeare soliloquy. For it is impossible to remember!”
“To be or not to be . . .” Briar said in jest, recalling a section from Hamlet. “The main problem I always had with Shakespeare is that his monologues are too long. Hamlet could have accomplished a lot in his few hours on stage if he had not debated what he should do and told the audience of it so much beforehand. My advice, keep your speech short.”
“Yes, yes, you are right, I am sure,” Larry muttered distractedly, turning away and saying something under his breath again, clearly trying to commit the whole speech to memory.
“Larry, you look as if you have taken the greatest task in the world upon your shoulders. Is it really so awful if you do not get this speech perfectly right?” Briar regretted his words, for Larry looked at him with narrowed eyes.
“Remind me to tell you that when you fall in love.”
“Ha! Love? Not all of us have to go through such a thing.” Briar’s words made Larry laugh. It was the first sign of him being truly relaxed since Briar had stepped into the room.
“You talk as if I am suffering some sort of illness,” Larry sat down at the writing bureau again and pulled the sheet of paper forward. “I am suffering nothing, Briar, believe me. Only the pain of trying to tell Marianne how happy I am.”
“What have you said?” Briar asked. Instead of reading it aloud, Larry proffered the paper to him. Briar only got two lines in before he scrunched up his nose.
“Do not laugh,” Larry warned with a lifted finger.
“It is all a little . . . much, don’t you think?”
“No. If anything, it is not enough. Believe me, Briar. I’m beginning to think words are a very poor way to describe feelings.” Larry sighed and sank forward, tapping his head to the surface of the bureau in frustration.
Briar turned his eyes upon the paper again, reading it aloud this time.
“If I could tell you all the reasons why I love you, we would be here for hours, and miss our wedding breakfast entirely. So, let me say this instead; that for the rest of our lives, I promise to tell you every day that I love you, and that there is no other I could ever imagine spending my life with.” Briar did not feel the temptation to laugh anymore. He placed the paper back down on the writing bureau beside his brother’s head, feeling a question burning within him. “Is she truly so dear to you?”
Larry looked up, offering Briar a broad smile.
“She is. Everything I have written is true. I cannot imagine life without her.”
“Yet . . . you will still be a success, Larry,” Briar tried to offer comfort. “The next Earl of Gilendale! And you have grand plans of your own. You will be a fine earl, of that I have no doubt.”
“Success?” Larry laughed at the idea. “Take some advice from me, Brother. Success is not the only thing needed to be happy in this world.”
As Larry lifted his quill and pressed it to the paper, making amendments to his words, Briar felt frozen to the spot, dumbfounded. Throughout his entire life, the focus had been on success. Not only had it been drummed into him by his father, but his brothers had reinforced the message as well.
“I am sure success can make us happy,” Briar said, though his voice was quiet, lacking its usual enthusiasm.
“Do you think so?” Larry asked, lifting his eyes from the paper in wonder. “I do not think it is the case. Think about it, Briar, and think about it for a good long time. When you are a knight–”
“If.” Briar cut in, needing to utter the word. There was still a chance he could fail in his attempt.
“If then, if you wish it,” Larry paused, frowning at him in surprise. “Tell me then if success alone makes you happy, or if you find there is something missing from your life.”
“A knighthood? Title? Lands? Adventure, like Henry, Chester, and David? Believe me, Larry, I will be very happy indeed.” Briar laughed and turned away, heading for the bedchamber door. “I’ll leave you to your work. I wish you luck and a goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Briar. Think on what I have said, yes?” Larry called through the door even as Briar closed it.
“I will, I promise,” Briar called back, walking quickly across the landing. Yet as he reached the other side, getting closer to his own bedchamber, his pace faltered, and he soon came to a complete stop, looking back at his brother’s closed door.
He had always considered the idea of love as something found only in books, rarely in reality. Even if he did ever feel it, he imagined it would be fleeting, just a brief infatuation with another that would pass on quickly enough. Yet the words Larry had written upon that paper had shaken him a little.
He truly wishes to spend his entire life with his betrothed.
Briar turned away, pulling at the collar around his throat and loosening it.
“Success is all I need. I’ll make Father and my brothers proud. That was always the aim.” Yet as Briar stepped into his bedchamber and attempted to sleep, he found Larry’s words had worked their way into his mind, and they did not let him sleep easily.
“Eleanor, your grandfather wishes to speak with you.” Mrs. Alden gestured back out of the kitchen with a firm wave of her arm. “You know you should be at breakfast by now.”
Eleanor didn’t move at first. She sent an apologetic look towards Mrs. Malbury, wishing she could say more to excuse her step-grandmother’s harsh words, but there was little she could do.
“Go, Miss,” Mrs. Malbury whispered, careful to mutter the words under her breath so only Eleanor could hear.
Eleanor sighed with a kind of relief as she followed Mrs. Alden’s instructions. Any other day, Mrs. Alden would have scolded her most forcibly for socializing with the staff. Luckily, her step-grandmother didn’t see the botany kit, or she would have received a scolding for that too.
As she walked forward, she was careful to keep the botany kit hidden from view behind her. Then, Mrs. Malbury stepped in front of it, hiding it from sight. As Eleanor moved into the corridor, she glanced back, sharing one last smile with the cook before Mrs. Alden closed the kitchen door.
“Eleanor . . .” Mrs. Alden took a sharp intake of breath and gave one her of those looks where she closed her eyes, barely containing her seething rage.
“Yes?” Eleanor said, trying to sound nonchalant as she began to walk back up the stairs toward the main living quarters. Mrs. Alden followed, her long neck craning as she followed her.
“Do I need to remind you again how what unsuitable behavior that is?”
“Unsuitable?” Eleanor turned sharply at the top of the steps in surprise. “How so?”
“You know very well, child!” the woman snapped and shook her head, as if they were discussing the greatest horror that had ever been.
“Pray tell, what have I done?”
“Spending time with the servants is hardly appropriate for a young lady,” Mrs. Alden whispered harshly as she walked past Eleanor at the top of the staircase, moving through the nearest door into the hallway of the manor house.
“It is for me,” Eleanor muttered, hoping her step-grandmother hadn’t heard her. Yet the sudden stop Mrs. Alden made in the hallway showed she had.
“Need I remind you who you are, Eleanor?” Mrs. Alden asked sharply, turning her head toward Eleanor the way a raven would eye its prey. “You are the granddaughter of a bishop. You have a standing to maintain.”
Eleanor chewed the side of her mouth, stopping herself from saying anything else. She didn’t need another argument. They already argued most days.
“We have had this conversation before,” Eleanor said calmly, lifting her chin higher as she walked along the corridor, heading toward the dining room.
“It seems we must keep having it until you learn how to act in a way appropriate to your station.”
“My station?” Eleanor scoffed at the idea. “I am no one so lofty.”
“That is your problem, child,” Mrs. Alden seethed as she walked alongside her.
Eleanor flinched at the harsh sound and looked away. When she had first come to live at the bishop’s manor, she had thought it would be a happy place, but that was before her grandfather married for a second time. Since the day Mrs. Alden had moved into the house, she had made it abundantly clear to Eleanor that she was not welcome. Mrs. Alden looked at Eleanor as if she were a mouse in the corner of her sitting room, something unpleasant, and likely to be flattened if it came anywhere near her.
“As for conversing with Mrs. Malbury as regularly as you do—”
“I understand,” Eleanor said, trying for a firm tone of her own, though Mrs. Alden’s sharp glower made it soon disappear. No matter what Mrs. Alden said to her, Eleanor knew she wasn’t going to change her ways. She was happy with who she was, even if her step-grandmother was not.
Rather than entertain the conversation again, Eleanor hastened into the dining room, where her grandfather was already seated. He was at the head of the table, a paper in front of him. Dressed in the black garb he wore every day, with a high white collar a little more ornate than most bishops were wont to wear, he cut a rather impressive figure.
“Eleanor, good morning,” he said quickly, glancing up from his paper to reveal the large brown eyes Eleanor knew matched her own. Yet her grandfather was beginning to age all the more these days, and the skin around his eyes was starting to sag, with each eyelid seeming like a great hood over the eyeball.
“Good morning, Grandfather.” Eleanor smiled and took the seat beside him. Just from the way Mrs. Alden took her seat, Eleanor could tell she was preparing herself to inform Thomas of Eleanor’s transgression. Mrs. Alden sat taller in her seat and turned toward the bishop with a smirk, clearly about to take pleasure in bringing more anger down on Eleanor’s head. “Grandfather, my step-grandmother says there is something you wish to tell me.” Eleanor spoke quickly, determined not to give Mrs. Alden the chance to talk first.
Thomas lowered the paper a little more, enough to find Eleanor’s eyes with his own before they widened, as if in remembrance.
“Yes, indeed I did. It is a matter of interest, I do not doubt, and I hope you will enjoy the event.”
“The event?” Eleanor asked nervously, pausing with her hand in the air as she was reaching for the teapot.
“She squirms like a maid caught stealing,” Mrs. Alden said, smiling with a kind of delight. Eleanor looked sharply at the woman, aware of her grandfather shaking his head between the two of them.
“Not now, Agnes,” he pleaded softly before folding up the paper and putting it away entirely. He turned his focus to Eleanor with a great smile. “The Earl of Gilendale’s eldest son is to be married tomorrow. Naturally, as bishop I have been invited to attend the event, and it is my wish, Eleanor, that you accompany me and your step-grandmother.”
“Accompany you?” Eleanor repeated in surprise, finally taking hold of the teapot and busying herself with pouring her tea. “I do not usually go to such events.”
“Yes, but this is the Earl of Gilendale’s eldest son. I do not need to tell you what kind of a connection this is for our family. True gentry, Eleanor,” Thomas gushed, with awe in his voice. “It is imperative that we all attend.”
“But I . . .” Eleanor trailed off, feeling the heat of a glare across the room. She looked up from the teacup to see Mrs. Alden’s stare had grown even harsher. Eleanor looked away from it again. “I would much rather stay here, Grandfather. After all, I do not know the earl nor his son. I would be a stranger at this gentleman’s wedding, and surely he does not wish for strangers to attend such an important day.”
Besides, there are other things I’d rather be doing . . . With the prospect of her grandparents being out of the house all day, she would have time to work on her botany a little more, with the comfort of knowing she would not be disturbed. Most days, she had to sneak in her books and hide them in quiet corners of the house, even read in the middle of the night by the light of one candle, to save being discovered. Perhaps tomorrow, she could read in the daylight and even practice making some concoctions, without fear of Mrs. Alden discovering her.
“Did she actually just say that?” Mrs. Alden spoke up, shaking her head back and forth in a manner betokening an offence far graved than merely refusing an invitation.
“Eleanor, I do not think you realize how rude that would be.” Thomas spoke quickly, before his wife could say more. “To refuse the invitation of an earl? No, it cannot be done. You must attend.”
“It is only that I—”
“It is high time you started thinking of marriage yourself.” Mrs. Alden’s words cut a deathly silence across the room. Eleanor looked at the woman, feeling those cold eyes burrowing into her.
“Marriage?” Eleanor repeated, her voice squeaking.
“Child?” Eleanor smiled, amused by the idea. “How can I be ready for marriage if I am still addressed as a child?”
Mrs. Alden clearly did not like being spoken to in such a way, for she turned to her husband, waving her hand madly in his direction, apparently asking for help.
“Eleanor, it is time we talked about this,” her grandfather said, very calmly indeed. “You are old enough to be married.”
Eleanor stared at her grandfather, dumbstruck. She had heard Mrs. Alden suggesting that she be married often enough. After all, it would be a way for Mrs. Alden to get Eleanor out of the house for good, yet Thomas had never openly agreed. He had always insisted that Eleanor was too young, up until this moment.
“You would send me out of the house?” Eleanor asked in a whisper, turning in her seat to address her grandfather alone.
“Our house,” Mrs. Alden spoke before Thomas could.
“I live here too.”
“Eleanor, listen to me, dearest.” Thomas reached for Eleanor, taking her hand gently in his. It was an action he often did when he wanted to speak of something serious with her. “For as long as I am here, this will always be your home, yet I must look to your future too. I will not always be around. You are far younger than me.”
“Please,” Eleanor’s breath hitched as she looked down at the connection of their hands. “I cannot talk of such things . . .” It was a general rule in the house. Ever since she had lost her parents, they didn’t talk of death. The subject was too painful.
“We must be practical,” her grandfather said softly. “You must be supported. You must marry.”
“There are other ways I could support myself,” she said with desperation, moving to the edge of her seat. “I could earn a living of my own—”
“Oh, not this nonsense again,” Mrs. Alden tutted from across the table. “Mention the words botany or healing, and I swear, I will leave this room at once!”
The threat made Eleanor all the more tempted to utter the words, had it not been for her grandfather’s warning look as he squeezed her hand.
“You know it is not possible,” Thomas said quietly to Eleanor as he released her hand. The way he turned back to his breakfast, shifting his focus to his food made it clear the conversation was at an end. Eleanor had no chance of persuading him.
As the sounds of the cutlery against the plates filled the air, Eleanor looked between her grandparents. Her grandfather was focused on his plate, whilst Mrs. Alden was staring straight back at Eleanor, with triumph in her gaze.
“You really wish me to marry?” Eleanor asked quietly.
“Yes,” Mrs. Alden answered hurriedly.
“I think it’s time we began to search for a suitable match for you,” Thomas said, his firm tone putting an end to the matter. “Tomorrow, you will come with us to the wedding, Eleanor. It is a good place to search for a suitor. Do I have your agreement?”
Eleanor wished she could argue. More than anything she wished to be alone with her grandfather, to plead with him that she should be allowed to pursue this dream of hers, to be able to earn a living as a botanist.
I have learned so much, and I am able to help people. Is the dream truly so mad?
“It is just that I—”
“Eleanor.” Her grandfather’s simple word took the fight out of her. She slumped a little in her chair, tightening her hands around the teacup.
I am trapped.
She was not a naturally disobedient person, and the way her grandfather was looking at her with disappointment made her want to please him.
“Yes, Grandfather, I will come.” She agreed eventually, though she had no intention of picking out a husband from the guests attending this wedding.
“Oh, good, then let us make a plan.” Mrs. Alden sat forward in her seat and rubbed her hands together. “If you are to look the part of an eligible bride, then you must wear that pastel blue gown. Not one of the white ones.”
“What is wrong with the white ones?” Eleanor asked defensively.
“They make you disappear into the background,” Mrs. Alden said with a wave of her hand. “Yes, the blue one shall be fine, and we’ll ask the maid to pay special attention to your hair.”
“I’m sorry?” Mrs. Alden said, hurrying to pour her own tea.
“My maid’s name is Louise.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Alden barely took notice of the correction, which made Eleanor wriggle uncomfortably in her seat all the more. “Now, let us consider potential suitors. My love, what of Sir Roberts? Will he be there tomorrow?”
“He is on his grand tour,” Thomas answered quickly.
“Oh, well, that’s a shame. Yet come to think of it, a granddaughter of a bishop should seek to marry better. His fortunes are not considerable. What of Baron Lockwood?”
“A baron?” Eleanor began to panic. She sat back in her seat, longing to make an escape, but Mrs. Alden glowered at her another time.
“He could be perfect. He has a good fortune and an amiable disposition.”
“He would certainly be an eligible match,” Thomas agreed with a nod. “And a good man.”
“Is he kind?” Eleanor asked. Her step-grandmother looked at her as if she had grown two heads.
“I beg your pardon?”
“What is he like? Is he kind? Friendly? Generous?”
“Those are not the first questions to ask when looking for an eligible match, Eleanor.” Mrs. Alden shook her head in disapproval, leaving Eleanor sitting with her jaw wide open in shock.
“Have you ever seen this church dressed so beautifully?”
“Never before.” For a change, Eleanor was happy to agree with her step-grandmother as she walked into the church, beside her grandparents. As one, the trio tipped their heads upwards, looking at the grand decorations upon the church walls and the archways.
The yellow-stone plinths and columns were all decorated with green spring boughs. Early blooms of roses and chrysanthemums, peppered with lush green leaves, made for a myriad of whites and reds that spread throughout the church like clouds. It complimented the stained-glass windows perfectly, through which the sun shone, making the aisle of the church shimmer in golden light.
“It is a fine church, indeed,” Thomas agreed, standing closest to Eleanor.
“Yet my eyes are already drawn to someone in particular,” Mrs. Alden whispered to her husband, with a kind of glee. “Look ahead of us, my love.”
As Thomas turned his head to follow her gesture, so did Eleanor. Her eyes landed on a young man beside the altar. He had a lanky frame, with fine blond hair, and he seemed almost restless, though the smile upon his face was wide, and he kept looking expectantly toward the church door, through which they had just stepped.
“Is that the groom?” Eleanor asked.
“It is, indeed.” Thomas agreed with a nod. “Lord Laurence Tace. He will one day be the Earl of Gilendale.”
“Oh, my, what a handsome man he is,” Mrs. Alden said with a giggle. “Will he inherit a vast fortune?”
“I hear he will.”
Eleanor nearly laughed to herself as she listened to her step-grandmother gush. She rather thought if it were not for Lord Laurence Tace’s fortunate position, Mrs. Alden would not think so highly of him, nor would she think him so handsome.
“Who are they?” Eleanor asked, pointing discreetly to the young men who had joined Lord Tace at the altar.
“They are his brothers,” Thomas answered hurriedly. “So many young men.”
“None of them are quite so handsome as the eldest though, are they?” Mrs. Alden asked.
Eleanor chewed her lip to stop herself from laughing. She thought her step-grandmother quite wrong, but the lady was clearly blindsided by the idea of Lord Tace’s fortune. Eleanor found her eyes resting on one of the brothers in particular.
The hair about his temples was light-brown, the color of soft brown sugar, and it curled delicately, dancing with movement every time he laughed or turned his head. He was tall as well, and his charismatic smile lit up his face every time one of his brothers said something to him.
No, the eldest is certainly not the most handsome.
“Eleanor, this is important, now.” Mrs. Alden released her husband’s arm and moved to Eleanor’s side, taking her arm instead. The move shocked Eleanor so much that she flinched and nearly jumped away. “Does my touch shock you, child?”
“A little,” Eleanor whispered. Mrs. Alden never touched her, and she certainly didn’t take her arm in such a familiar way.
“We are family, after all,” Mrs. Alden put on a fake smile. “We must look the part.”
“I see,” Eleanor said, trying again to hide her smile. It seemed her step-grandmother was determined to paint the picture of a happy family.
“Come, my love, we must introduce your granddaughter.”
“Yes, of course.” Thomas answered hurriedly and beckoned them both forward, to where a couple were standing by the pews, greeting all the guests in turn.
Eleanor didn’t need the introduction to tell that it was the Earl and Countess of Gilendale. It was apparent in their similarities to their children. The earl bore his youngest son’s hair, though it was beginning to grey, and the countess had the palest blonde hair Eleanor had even seen, not dissimilar to her eldest son’s, young Mr. Tace.
“Lord Gilendale,” Thomas stepped forward and bowed deeply. “I must thank you kindly for this invitation. It is a great pleasure for me to attend such an event and see the happy union of your son.”
“Bishop Alden, you are too kind. I am most pleased to have you here,” the earl spoke easily with charm and charisma. “You remember my wife, Lady Gilendale.”
“My lady,” Thomas bowed low before gesturing to his own wife.
“Lord and Lady Gilendale,” Mrs. Alden said with a big smile, the kind she never bestowed on Eleanor. “It is so good to see you again.” She hurried to curtsy before pulling Eleanor forward by her arm. “I do not believe we have had the pleasure of introducing you to my husband’s granddaughter. This is Miss Eleanor Parris.”
“How do you do,” the earl said kindly with a bow. Eleanor hurried to curtsy, rather surprised by the large smile both the earl and the countess bestowed on her. “Do you know, I think we have met before. Yet the last I saw of you, Miss Parris, you were running around the church gardens, playing games in the grass and undergrowth.”
“I was?” she asked, shocked as he chuckled under his breath. “I hope I was very young indeed.”
“Very young,” Lady Gilendale took up the thread of the conversation. “Always a girl with a lovely smile, I seem to remember. Never sad. You were quite the poppet, my dear.”
The compliment took Eleanor so much by surprise that she could say nothing at first, only smile.
“She is grown now, of course,” Mrs. Alden said hurriedly. “No longer a child running about.”
It was clear to Eleanor that Mrs. Alden was embarrassed by such stories being recounted. It made Eleanor hang her head a little.
I can hardly undo the way I was as a child!
“She is quite the fine lady now,” Mrs. Alden was still speaking hurriedly. “Accomplished, too. A fine pianist and harpist.”
“Please,” Eleanor softly pulled on her step-grandmother’s arm, trying to get her to stop.
“A good reader, too. She is even an impressive linguist.” Mrs. Alden’s false praise was making Eleanor redden by the minute. She did not miss the way the poor earl and countess were looking at her, no doubt noticing her blushing embarrassment.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the vicar called from the front of the church. “If you would please be seated, the ceremony is about to begin.”
Eleanor almost ran to her place, eagerly disentangling her arm from Mrs. Alden, finding her seat, keen to escape the embarrassment. Thomas and Mrs. Alden followed closely behind her, taking their places as well.
“That went well, I think,” Mrs. Alden said in a hushed tone. “We must create a good reputation for Eleanor if we are to succeed.”
“Even if I am actually a very poor harpist and my piano-playing is weak?” Eleanor asked wryly, startled by the lies Mrs. Alden had told.
“It is all about creating the right impression. That is all, Eleanor.”
“You mean telling lies,” Eleanor whispered to herself, so quietly that her grandparents didn’t hear, or at least, pretended not to. Mrs. Alden looked ready to say something again, but just then, the organ music struck up.
The congregation fell quiet as Lord Tace turned from the vicar to look toward the door, where his bride, Lady Marianne Knepp, entered on the arm of her father, Baron Knepp.
Eleanor felt all her nerves and embarrassment slip away as she looked at the couple, constantly switching her gaze between the two. It was clear to see the bond between them, even when standing at opposite ends of the church, for their eyes found each other quickly, and they smiled so ridiculously brightly that she suspected their cheeks must ache, though that did not dissuade them.
Once Baron Knepp placed his daughter’s hand in Lord Tace’s, the feeling between the couple grew even more intimate, despite the fact they were in public. Eleanor rather suspected it had something to do with the way Lord Tace took Lady Marianne’s hand, entwining their fingers together, as if he wanted to hold no other hand but hers. It also had something to do with the way Lady Marianne moved to stand beside him, brushing her arm against his. These were stolen private moments made public.
“Dearly beloved,” the vicar began, “we are here today in the sight of God to bring together this man and this woman.”
Eleanor felt a different kind of smile take over her face, one she couldn’t remember having before. She was truly happy for the couple before her, for they were a true partnership and evidently very much in love. Yet a second later, the smile fell, and she turned her eyes to see Mrs. Alden’s calculating gaze. Mrs. Alden wasn’t looking at the couple, but at the congregation, clearly examining the eligible gentlemen amongst the guests.
Eleanor sighed and sat back in the pew, realizing something with fear. The day she stood at the altar, she was unlikely to have a gentleman clinging to her hand with as much love as Lord Tace had for his betrothed.
“Oh, good Lord.” Eleanor attempted to escape her step-grandmother. With the wedding breakfast itself coming to an end, all the guests were now circling, greeting old friends and making new ones as they moved around the grand room with their drinks. It presented a perfect opportunity for Mrs. Alden to introduce Eleanor to every gentleman present. It was also the perfect opportunity to leave Eleanor squirming with embarrassment.
She hurried to the corner table, where she poured herself a cup of tea, desperate to think of something other than the pained expressions on the faces of the poor gentlemen she had just been forced into conversation with. It was apparent to her that each of those unfortunate gentlemen had found Mrs. Alden’s forced introductions rather rude, not that the lady seemed to notice.
“Eleanor? Why are you running off, child?” Mrs. Alden asked, appearing at her side.
“I am thirsty from all this conversation,” Eleanor said wryly, sipping at the tea so eagerly that she burned her mouth and regretted it the next second.
“Then, drink up, for we must speak to another gentleman.”
“Please, no,” Eleanor begged, shifting her focus from the teacup to the eager expression of Mrs. Alden. “We have made enough gentlemen uncomfortable for one day, surely.”
“Uncomfortable? You think my introductions have done that?” Mrs. Alden laughed at the idea. “No, indeed. It is your poor attempts at conversation that make them so uncomfortable.”
“I think it fair to say we are both responsible for their discomfort,” Eleanor tried to focus on her tea again, desperate to escape, but her step-grandmother took her arm and steered her round in a circle.
“The next person I wish you to meet is a very important gentleman indeed,” Mrs. Alden whispered to her conspiratorially. “Baron Lockwood.”
Eleanor stiffened with the teacup against her lips. She had already heard her step-grandmother speak of him more than once the day before. He was clearly being lined up as a potential match.
“Where is he?” Eleanor asked nervously.
“Over there. Come, I’ll introduce you now.” As Mrs. Alden steered Eleanor through the crowd, Eleanor felt her heart sink.
Baron Lockwood was not young, handsome, and dapper like the Earl of Gilendale’s sons. Far from it. Baron Lockwood appeared to Eleanor, among this noble company, rather to resemble a wart on an elegant foot. He was round, with a pot belly that was barely contained by his waistcoat and tailcoat. The cravat at his neck was evidently struggling to keep in check the folds of flesh which bulged above the silken material.
“Lord Lockwood,” Mrs. Alden spoke eagerly as she reached his side, dragging a reluctant Eleanor behind her. “May I present to you my step-granddaughter? This is Miss Eleanor Parris.”
As the baron bowed, barely even looking at Eleanor, she felt her heart sink further. He clearly took more interest in assessing the cost of her gown and the jewelry upon her throat than her actual person.
Must I really marry such a man?
* * *
“David, who is that?” Briar asked, staring across the room with intensity.
“Who?” David was distracted as he responded. He seemed much more interested in partaking of the claret in his glass than anything else.
“Lower the claret for one second, David,” Briar said with a smile, earning a deep chuckle from his brother.
“Is it not my eldest brother’s wedding? I’m entitled to celebrate. In fact, we all are.” With these words, David topped up his own glass, and Briar’s as well, from the nearby carafe. Briar shook his head, turning to stare across the room another time.
He had been unable to take his eyes off of the young woman who had entered the church before the ceremony. He had watched the ceremony attentively enough, but every few minutes, he’d found his eyes flicking back to the lady.
“I feel I know her,” he whispered to himself.
“Oh, you are listening, after all,” Briar said with humor as David turned around.
“Well, I noticed that you seemed to be staring rather intently at someone. Who has caught your eye?” At David’s question, Briar surreptitiously pointed out the young woman across the room.
The more he looked, the more he was certain that he knew her. She was petite in figure, slender, so much so that it seemed rather easy for the formidable looking woman beside her to steer her round the room with intent. Her golden locks had been teased perfectly into a chignon, with a few curls left framing her face. But it was her eyes that Briar could not stop staring at. Large they were, and a soft brown in color.
“I have seen her before, I am certain of it,” Briar muttered again. “Who is she?”
“Oh, yes, the bishop’s granddaughter. Miss Eleanor Parris.”
At once, everything clicked into place. Briar could remember her from when they were children. They would play together outside of the church on Sundays when they were very little, absorbed in their imaginations. He was always a knight, fighting against sorcerers and mages. And Miss Parris was always a priestess, who would heal him, no matter how bad his injuries.
Briar had spent many a winter’s afternoon playing in the snow with that young girl, until they were both ruddy-faced and chilled to the bone, though they hardly minded. She had been a happy child, he remembered. Until, that was, the day she had lost her parents. She hadn’t played with him again after that, and she had soon moved away to live with her grandfather.
“Can you believe it?” Chester’s voice interrupted Briar’s thoughts as he arrived beside them. “David, pour me one of those, would you?”
“You’ll be lucky if he has left any,” Briar said, still not taking his eyes off the young lady, who was now talking to Baron Lockwood and appeared distinctly uncomfortable.
“I haven’t drunk it all,” David complained.
“Yet.” Briar’s warning brought a chuckle from Chester before he shook his head.
“The bishop’s wife is insufferable,” Chester said with a sigh. At last, Briar tore his gaze from Miss Parris and looked to his brother.
“Yes,” Chester said, hurrying to drink. “Mrs. Alden is clearly determined to find a match for her husband’s granddaughter, and she practically forced me into conversation with the young lady. Poor thing, she blushed as red as a tomato.”
“If you would excuse me.” Briar couldn’t explain his actions as he placed down his glass, but he found himself hurrying away from Chester and David, eager to reacquaint himself with his childhood playmate again. When he reached her side, she was no longer with Baron Lockwood but with her grandparents, and none other than Briar’s father.
“Ah, Bishop, I do not think I have introduced you to my youngest son,” Michael said as he turned and clapped Briar on the shoulder in greeting. “This is Briar.”
“It is a pleasure, Mr. Tace.” The bishop spoke formally as he bowed to Briar. Before Briar had parted his lips to ask to be introduced formally to Miss Parris, Mrs. Alden did the job for him.
“This is our granddaughter. Miss Parris.” Mrs. Alden practically elbowed Miss Parris toward Briar in her eagerness for the girl to speak.
“How do you do, Mr. Tace. Miss Parris curtsied, blushing as red as a pomegranate at her step-grandmother’s antics.
Beside them, Briar could hear his father immediately drawing the bishop into conversation. It gave him the freedom he needed. Stepping nearer to Miss Parris and bowing, he offered her a smile.
“It is a pleasure, my lady.”
“My lady?” she repeated, with those fair eyebrows shooting up in surprise.
“Well, that is how I used to address you, is it not?” he asked with a laugh, remembering their times playing outside the church. “Me fighting foes, and you healing my wounds, my priestess.”
Miss Parris said nothing. She just stared back at him, clearly dumbfounded. Briar felt his heart sinking from his chest and landing somewhere in his stomach.
She doesn’t remember me.
“Ah, you have no idea who I am, do you?” he asked slowly.
“Well, I . . .” She adopted a polite tone, clearly about to invent some way of brushing over the awkwardness, but she clearly failed in the attempt.
“Never mind, my lady–I mean, Miss Parris,” Briar said hurriedly, finding himself both desirous to extricate himself from the embarrassing situation and longing to remind her of exactly who he was. “It was long ago, and I was but a poor knight running around the churchyard behind you.”
“We know each other?” Her eyebrows raised even higher.
“We did. Once.” Briar sighed, realizing their differences with disappointment. Even as a child, she’d had enough of an effect on him to ensure he had never forgotten her. Briar was dismayed to find he had clearly not had that same effect on her. “If you would excuse me, I must congratulate my brother.”
Finding a reason to leave, he bowed another time and hurried off quickly. Only when he was safely across the room did he glance back to Miss Parris, seeing she was staring after him, looking even more embarrassed than before as she tried to hide behind her wine glass.
“Briar? Is all well?” Larry appeared at Briar’s side, making him jump.
“All is well,” Briar said quickly, trying to cover up his discomfort.
I am just discovering what little effect I can have on a beautiful woman.
My New Novel is now Live on Amazon!