About the book
Because two can keep a secret if one of them is dead…
The diamond brooch she accidentally discovers the night of the ball at Langley Hall is all it takes for Miss Selina Terrell to see her quiet life turn into her worst nightmare.
Through a twist of fate, she becomes the puppet of a mysterious man lurking in the shadows. He bestows upon her a single mission: to spy upon the handsome Marquess of Northfolk – the man she is secretly in love with – or see her honor forever sullied in the eyes of society.
As she’s running out of time, she has but two days to make a choice - save herself or risk it all to protect the only man she has ever cared about.
The scent of lavender followed Selina as she entered the garden and turned toward Caddington Park, her family home. She didn’t relish giving up the independence of her morning walk, but any further delay was sure to inspire one of her mother’s lectures, another tirade of her faults.
She stopped and turned back toward the woods, wishing to hide among the trees and blend into the foliage; perhaps they would not notice her absence. Selina sighed. Avoidance was useless. Her family needed her as a place to hang their disappointments. She squared her shoulders and raised her chin before leaving the wild wood behind her and crossing the manicured garden.
The morning’s solitary walk afforded her a peace that eluded her most days, and she stole little moments of respite as often as possible. This morning, she had awoken early, the first rays of the sun slipping through her window, inviting her outdoors. Not wanting to alert the household to her plans, Selina dressed herself before retrieving her flower basket and sheers from the garden house. She strolled along the avenue that meandered around the wooded estate. Like her, the flowers bloomed more abundantly away from the critical eye of her mother, and those were the ones she coveted for her flower arrangement.
Frequently, she wandered from the path in pursuit of those, moving with a single-minded purpose, paying no heed to the mud obstructing her. It was not a simple love of beauty that spurred her forward. Her mother often commented that not everyone had an aesthetic eye and Selina was determined to prove that the subtle snub was undeserved. She was certain her selections would impress her mother, although that was an impossible accomplishment.
As the path emerged from the wood, Selina shifted her basket which overflowed with the fragrant blossoms of Sweet William and foxglove. She breathed in their perfume as she clutched the handle of the basket and returned home.
Selina heard her mother’s voice rising on the wind before she saw her family on the veranda, enjoying their breakfast in the open air. Her body tensed in preparation of her mother’s imminent critique.
“Selina,” her mother said, putting down the letter she had been reading. “You really should tell someone your itinerary before disappearing so early in the morning. Your father was terribly worried, were you not, Lord Downe?”
Her husband grumbled as he shifted in his seat without lifting his gaze from his newspaper.
“I am terribly sorry to have worried you, Mama. I simply went for a walk to cut some flowers for the front hall.” To emphasize her point, she displayed the blossoms to her mother.
“Yes, well,” her mother said, eyeing the blossoms dismissively. “We decided not to delay our breakfast while awaiting your return, darling, but you should eat something now.”
Selina nodded, then took her seat at the table. As she spread jam on her toast, she could feel her mother’s eyes lingering over her dress, specifically taking in the mud covering her hem.
“We have discussed this, Selina. It is unbecoming for a young lady of your standing to parade around as filthy as a field hand. What, pray tell, happened to your clothes?”
Selina sipped her tea and avoided her mother’s gaze. “I did not want to make a fuss, it really was not such an alarming event. It only felt so very urgent at the time,” she said, her mind racing to fill in the rest of her story. Traipsing through the mud, hunting the perfect petal, would only solidify her mother’s poor opinion. She needed a story that would improve her mother’s evaluation of her, not crush it.
“Good heavens, Selina. What happened?” Lady Downe asked, color rising in her cheeks.
“Yes, do tell your story,” Rebecca, Selina’s older sister, said, raising her eyebrow. Upon any other field of battle, Rebecca would be her fiercest ally, but against the formidable adversaries that were their parents, one sister’s misfortune was another’s victory. Each of Selina’s missteps elevated the stature of Rebecca.
Lady Downe stared at her youngest daughter as Selina struggled to swallow a bit of toast. “Well,” she said, pausing to dab crumbs from her lips. “I had just stopped along the footpath to cut an exceptionally lovely stem of foxglove when I heard the squeal of children. I turned and looked up hill in time to see Mrs. Davies’ twins taking turns rolling down that rather steep hill in the meadow.”
“Do not tell me you took a tumble with them,” Rebecca laughed.
“Of course not!” Selina said, her cheeks flushed.
“Do not be flippant, Rebecca,” her mother said to her middle daughter. “Mrs. Davies?”
“Yes. She is the cook at Langley Hall. Her cottage is on the edge of the wood,” Selina said.
“I cannot say that I have ever made her acquaintance,” Lady Downe said. “But that is no matter. Continue, Selina.”
The frantic beating of Selina’s heart slowed slightly. She was grateful that her mother paid no mind to the lives of servants. She cleared her throat before beginning. “Well, they seemed to be having a marvelous time, Mrs. Davies’ twins, so I turned back to my flowers. That was when I heard the crying.”
“Crying? From whom?” her mother asked, concern rising in her voice. She may not know Mrs. Davies, but she had the sympathy of a mother. Selina needed to proceed with caution. She did not want to incite her mother’s charitable spirit.
“One of the girls rolled off course and found herself tangled in some brambles. The poor thing could not get herself free.” That was not entirely true. She had seen the girls playing, and they often gleefully rolled down the hill in that meadow. Even if they did not find themselves in any mischief today, Selina was sure they must have found themselves ensnared at one point or another.
“It would appear that Mrs. Davies allows those children to run wild,” her mother tsked. “But what does that have to do with your dress?”
Selina’s heart lightened. If her mother was able to pass judgement upon Mrs. Davies’ parenting, then she trusted the tale. She leaned in as she picked up the story. “Her sister could not free her from the briars, and so she called to me. I could not just leave her there, could I? That would not have been the Christian attitude, would it, Mama?”
“No, I suppose not,” her mother said as she poured another cup of tea. “Perhaps I should call upon Mrs. Davies and enquire after the girl. I do hope the briars spared her face.”
“Oh, no, Mother,” Selina said quickly, terrified of an encounter between her mother and Mrs. Davies. It would be impossible to free herself from the tangles of this little lie. “There is no need for that, Mama. The child was remarkably unmarred by the experience. I dried a few tears, and she joined her sister in another frolic. The only casualty seems to be my hem.”
“Hmm,” Rebecca said, studying her sister’s face. “It’s uncanny how easily you find yourself in the right place for mischief.”
It was clear that Rebecca had not believed a word of her story. While her sister openly enjoyed her discomfort, she would never expose Selina. Sibling rivalry had its limits. With pursed lips, Selina forced a smile for her sister. “It just seems to be my luck.”
“Well, the Davies twins were lucky you were there,” Lady Downe said with conviction, unaware of the hostile exchange between her children. “Such reckless play so early in the morning! I wonder if their poor mother even knows they were out.”
“Do let it go, Mama. Children make mistakes. I daresay they learned enough from this one,” Rebecca said casually. She winked quickly at her sister. Selina released the breath she had been holding. She smiled appreciatively to her sister.
“I don’t know,” her mother said, “some children have a very difficult time learning from their mistakes.”
Selina felt her cheeks grow hot under the gaze of her mother. “Is that letter from Marianne?” Selina asked, changing the subject. Her eldest sister, Marianne, married Lord Richard Percy at the start of the season, just after Easter. Both families expected them to take a house in London after the wedding, but as a surprise for his new bride, Lord Percy took Marianne on a journey to Italy. Selina felt the absence of her oldest sister keenly, and she looked forward to their return to England.
“It is,” her mother said, picking up the letter again. “She and Richard are having such a lovely time in Italy,” Lady Downe said, caressing the paper as if it were a piece of her daughter. “At first I disapproved of such an ostentatious trip after the wedding, but it seems to be a wonderful experience.”
“Are they still visiting Richard’s great aunt?” Rebecca asked, bored by the interrogation of her younger sister and intrigued by news of her eldest.
“Yes. Percy has not been to Italy since he was a child, and his relations there are so eager to become acquainted with him and his lovely bride, that they are constantly surrounded by interesting people. Marianne is being entertained by family that they are both meeting for the first time,” her mother said. “I think their match will be quite a success.”
Lord Downe cleared his throat. “Richard will only have peace if Marianne gives him a son,” he said, as he placed his paper on the table. “A man can only rest easy when he is awarded a son to replace him, to inherit his land and his title. Otherwise, there is no purpose for his accomplishments.” The melancholy in his voice resonated with a familiar ring. It was his favorite subject, and the women in his life were well versed in that point of view.
Selina cringed under the weight of her father’s words. She felt guilt for her existence, although it was entirely outside her control. Her father had three children, all girls, and the Viscount was obsessed with discussing the futility of his life without an heir. Early in his marriage to Lady Downe, optimism dominated his daily life. They were young and, in his mind, destined to have sons. Marianne’s birth had been a setback. Rebecca’s had been a shock. Selina’s however, had been his biggest disappointment. Being with child at such a late point in Lady Downe’s life had been miraculous, and Lord Downe interpreted it as a sign of his son’s arrival. Another daughter had been a cruel trick against him. If there had been justice, a son to inherit would have sprouted from the family tree, but Lord Downe was denied that luxury, and it wounded him deeply.
“Yes, well,” Lady Downe said, clearing her voice, “some things in life just cannot be changed.” A chill entered her voice, and Selina was heartened to know she did not carry the burden of her father’s opinion alone. It was one of the few things she shared with her mother.
“Is Marianne still expecting to return next month?” Rebecca asked, as eager as her mother and sister to change the subject.
“I’m not sure,” her mother replied, scanning through the letter. “There are some business concerns Percy would like to address while they are in Florence, so they may remain a month or so longer.”
“Even when they do return to England,” Selina said, “they won’t return to Berkshire. Marianne said they will be settling in London.”
Rebecca took her hand and squeezed it. She looked to her sister and saw the same sadness. Selina was not mourning for her sister, she was suffering the loss of their childhood together. Marianne was the first to enter the adult world, taking on the role of wife, and eventually, mother. It was the future the three of them were trained to enter, but it meant relinquishing the freedom of childhood and their dependence upon each other, which cannot survive outside the nursery forever.
“That may be,” her mother said. “I, too, wish they would settle here, but it is not to be. I will, however, feel much better having my daughter in the same country.”
Lord Downe opened his mouth to comment, but was interrupted by the appearance of the footman.
“Yes, Ford?” he said.
“This just arrived for you, My Lord,” Ford bowed as he presented a letter on a silver tray.
“Thank you,” Lord Downe said, as he opened the letter. A smile played at his lips as he read. “I hope you are not offended by the summer solstice, my darling,” he said to his wife.
“Whatever are you talking about, Lord Downe?”
“In honor of their son’s return, the Duke and Duchess of Langley are hosting a ball celebrating the longest day of the year.”
“Lord Northfolk is home?” Selina asked, her eyes widening.
“It appears so,” her father said. “Does that interest you, Selina?”
Her father laughed as her milky skin again reddened under his teasing.
Selina had not seen Elias Weston, Lord Northfolk, in several years, although he had been the center of her childhood. When he did not return to Berkshire after completing his studies at Oxford, she taught herself to stop expecting his return.
“Not particularly, Father. I’m just surprised,” she said, avoiding her father’s gaze. “I thought his move to Scotland might be permanent.”
Her father waved the invitation as he spoke. “Luckily for our little society, it wasn’t.”
“He is a fine young man,” Lady Downe said.
Selina inspected the petals filling her basket to hide her blushing face. She agreed with her father’s estimation of Elias. She judged every man she met against his character, by which they all fell short.
“He will do his father and his title proud, I’m sure,” her father muttered before hiding behind his paper.
Lady Downe narrowed her eyes at her husband, but continued to speak to her daughters with an airy voice. “Naturally, we shall attend. It would be an unforgivable slight not to.”
Selina’s heart rose. Meeting him again in a crowd would be much better than encountering him alone. She feared her face would betray her and give away too much of her emotions. Her heart could adjust to seeing him from a distance at the ball, and by the time she would have to speak with him, she would be fully in control of herself.
Selina forced attention to her father, who was speaking to her mother. “If you are still taxed from Marianne’s wedding, I’m certain that the Duchess of Langley will understand.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” Lady Downe said, waving away her husband’s words.
“If we are to attend the ball at Langley Hall, I’d like to have a new gown for the occasion,” Rebecca said, smiling at her sister. “I need something a bit lighter for the summer season.”
Her mother tucked the invitation into its envelope. “I imagine we could all do with something fresh. I’ll send word to Mrs. Hotchkiss.”
“Not Mrs. Hotchkiss,” Rebecca moaned. “Her work is so slow, and she’s a bit old fashioned. I like something more modern. Louisa Miller just returned from abroad, and she is quick as a whip with a needle. Couldn’t you hire her to make a gown for me?”
“I’ve used Mrs. Hotchkiss for years. I would hate to insult her.”
“She can still make yours, Mama,” Selina said, trying to please her mother while secretly agreeing with Rebecca.
Her mother rose from the table and smoothed her skirts. “I suppose there wouldn’t be any harm in allowing Miss Miller to make something for the younger generation, although I believe Mrs. Hotchkiss has always delivered remarkable work. We must support all enterprises; isn’t that right, dear?” she asked her husband.
“I don’t know if one or two gowns will make a difference, but I suppose it is in the spirit of progress.”
She dismissed his teasing and chose to take an innocent view of his words. “Quite right,” she said, before going to the drawing room to handle her correspondence.
“Well, now that I’m an informed member of society,” her father said, tucking his paper under his arm as he stood, “I must attend to more provincial matters.” He bowed to his daughters before taking his leave.
An oppressive silence spread between Selina and her sister as they remained at the table. Rebecca watched Selina with a smile of the cat who ate the cream.
Once Rebecca’s stares became too intrusive to ignore, Selina put down her tea cup and turned to her sister. “Why do you continue to watch me? You make me feel like a criminal.”
“How odd,” Rebecca cooed, “when, according to your morning adventure, you are really more of a saint.”
Selina’s back stiffened, but her face remained placid. If only her mother could see how she restrained herself from clawing her sister, it was bound to impress even her. “What do you want, Rebecca?”
“Nothing, at the moment,” her sister said coyly. “Just remember that I, your loving sister, said nothing to Mama or Father about your imaginative rescue mission, and in the future, if I require your discretion, you will return the gesture.”
This was not her first negotiation with Rebecca. She narrowed her eyes and studied her sister’s smirking face. “Fine,” Selina said after a moment’s consideration. “Just be sure that it is a proportional request. My crime was only a soiled hem, remember.”
“Agreed,” Rebecca said, dropping the condescending air. “What is your interest in Elias?” she asked, her voice devoid of the venom it had dripped during breakfast.
Selina poured herself more tea and took a sip before responding. “I have no interest in him,” she said, trying to sound bored by the question.
“Oh my, how things have changed,” her sister said. “I seem to recall you having a rather intense interest in young Lord Northfolk when we were children.”
Heat rose in Selina’s cheeks. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she snapped. “We played together as children, and I thought of him as a brother.” The lie rang false in her own ears, and she doubted it convinced her sister.
Rebecca rose from the table and patted her sister’s shoulder. “Of course, I’ve never had a brother, but you never looked at me, your loving sister, with the same eyes you turned to him.”
Selina opened her mouth to respond, but her sister was too quick. She disappeared into the house before Selina could utter a response.
It was true - Selina had been a little in love with Elias when they were children. It was difficult not to be. He had been handsome, even as a child, but his appeal went beyond looks. Despite the wealth and status of his family, he used his influence to protect others, rather than for his own gain.
Once, when she and Elias were hiding from her sisters, they stumbled upon the groom’s son. He, too, had been hiding, but not for amusement. The village bully had given him a routing for no other reason than his diminutive size. Elias took the loose navy ribbon hanging from Selina’s small braid and tied it around the boy’s wrist.
“If you give him the power to hurt you, it’s because you don’t value your own worth. You trust his harsh words more than the voice in your own heart,” he had told the boy. “Keep this as a reminder of your own value. When he taunts you again, because that is what brutes like him do, remember that not everyone thinks of you as he does. You choose which of us to believe.”
At first, Selina was prepared to scold Elias for giving away what belonged to her, but then she saw the impact his small gesture had.
The groom’s son ran a finger over the soft fabric. “Thank you, My Lord, My Lady.” His eyes full of gratitude, the boy bowed before running off.
In that moment, and all the moments that followed, Selina had adored him, but they were children no longer. Elias’ family sent him to university, then he assisted his father with their responsibilities in Scotland, and it had been years since she saw the sun shine off his auburn hair, but the memory οf it remained vivid for her. However, she believed whatever sway she had over him to induce their friendship must have fallen away over time. Holding out hope for his affections was foolish, and she knew that. Still, she looked forward to the ball and a chance to meet with her old friend, even if it was to say goodbye to their youth before they moved into their adult commitments.
A light breeze blew across the veranda, and Selina picked up her basket and turned her thoughts to the flower arrangement she must make for her mother. She hoped, without much conviction, that the end result would give her mother pride.
It was already late in the morning when Elias awoke. He stretched, catlike in the sun, desperate to loosen his tight muscles. Being confined to the carriage all day and well into the night had been physically and mentally exhausting. He looked around his room, and was surprised by the easy familiarity which engulfed him. For years, he had dedicated himself to the role of student, and then to that of Lord while in Norwich, but he instantly allowed himself to return to that of son.
Elias quickly dressed, and by the time he descended the stairs and joined his mother in the morning room, he felt as though he had never left Langley Hall. He found his mother, the Duchess of Langley, seated on the divan surrounded by swatches of silk and brocade. Thompson, the butler, uncovered a tray, bowed to Elias, then left the room.
“Elias,” she said, holding out her hands to her son. “Thompson told me that you arrived last night. I wish you would have woken me.”
He clasped his mother’s hands and leaned down to kiss her cheek. “It was so abominably late, I was not heartless enough to pull you from your bed when all I could think about was my own. I was exhausted, and I would not have been any company for you.”
His mother looked the same as he remembered. Time did not have the power to change her, and he attributed it to the beauty of her spirit. In his travels, he had never met anyone who could compete with his mother’s generosity and kindness. “I would have been a very poor companion.”
“Nonsense. I would have been content to watch you sleep, as I did when you were a baby. My heart rests easier when you are under this roof.”
He laughed, but the warmth of her words reminded him how isolated he had become. Working with his father on the Norwich estate was educational but not comforting. Work dominated his father’s life, and there was no room for conversation outside business.
His mother was so different, all love and affection, and it nurtured him in ways he did not realize he had been missing. However, it was unacceptable for a man to admit he liked being mothered. “Even birds allow their young to fly from the nest, Mother. You will be forced to do the same someday,” he teased as he sat in the chair opposite her.
She batted away his words with a flick of her wrist.
“It seems that I slept away the morning,” he said, taking in the project engrossing his mother. “I suppose it is too late to ask for breakfast?”
She raised her eyebrows and attempted to conceal her smile. “If you are lucky, you might find a few pastries tucked away on the table Thompson set up for you.”
Elias jumped up from the chair, fueled by his hunger, and hurried to inspect the food. “Splendid, Mother. You think of everything. Why, there’s enough for both of us.” He put a scone and cream on a saucer. “I was so exhausted, I was certain I slept the day away. I cannot believe I roused myself out of bed first.”
“Did your father come home with you last night?” the Duchess asked, clasping her hand to her chest. “The poor man. I had no idea.”
“No, Mother,” Elias shook his head. He had suggested that his father accompany him, but he was reluctant as ever to abandon his work. “Father will be along next week or the week after. I’m sure he will return in plenty of time for your ball,” he said, as he poured a cup of tea.
She blinked away her disappointment. “Well, if your father did not accompany you on your trip, whom did you bring with you?”
Elias smiled as if he were about to share a wonderful surprise. “Uncle Kenneth,” he said after swallowing a bite of scone. “He had been staying with Father at the house in Galloway.”
Elias expected her to be pleased. She always greeted guests with sincere hospitality, but her reaction lacked enthusiasm. Elias understood that she was struggling to hide her disappointment over his father’s delay.
“Oh,” the Duchess replied. “I had no idea Lord Lonsdale was planning to stay. I would have made arrangements to accommodate him.”
“I don’t believe he knew he was coming until he boarded the coach. He’s gotten eccentric, but I truly enjoy Uncle Kenneth’s company. He spent the entire trip telling tales of Father when he was a boy. It made me believe that I must have been an angel in comparison.”
The Duchess picked up a swatch of burgundy brocade then laid it down without resting her eyes upon it. “You always were a good son.” She smiled at him. “However, do not believe everything your Uncle Kenneth tells you. He prefers story to the truth.”
“I do not believe that is fair,” a deep voice remarked from the doorway.
The Duchess closed her eyes as she took a deep breath. Once she exhaled, her smile was again balanced on her face. “Fair is a matter of viewpoint,” she said “Perhaps you need a new perspective.”
“As long as I can see your beauty, I will be content.” Lord Lonsdale took her hand and bowed to kiss it.
Elias watched the exchange between his mother and uncle. Over the years, his mother’s easy cordiality with everyone she met deeply impressed him, but she did not seem interested in verbal banter today. Elias wondered how long his father had been away from Langley Hall. It was obvious to him that carrying on without him was taking a toll on his mother.
“Insincere flattery has gone out of fashion, Lord Lonsdale. Save your charm for an audience less familiar with your antics.” She turned her eyes from him and studied the silks.
“This is a cool reception for my uncle,” Elias said, “but I did warn him that you abhor surprises.” He returned his empty plate to the serving table before sitting beside his mother on the divan. “I assume you have a reason for this patchwork of silks,” he said.
“I’m having new linens made for the Summer Solstice Ball, but I haven’t decided upon the fabric,” the Duchess said. “I think something light would be best for the occasion. Perhaps this green?”
She handed the lightly embroidered square to her son. He wondered if the ball was a celebration of his return or a distraction from his father’s absence. This was a familiar scene. As a child, he spent most of his time with his mother. It was only when he became involved in the affairs of running the estates that he got to really know his father. While that was good management of the estates, Elias was beginning to understand the damage done to his parents’ marriage.
“I think it is a marvelous choice. Trust your instincts, Mother,” Elias said, handing the fabric back to his mother. He wanted to tell her that she did a remarkable job running Langley Hall, and that she was more capable than most of the men that he had met. However, he had no idea how to say all of that to his mother, so instead he said, “You have excellent taste.”
“Thank you, darling,” his mother replied, patting her son’s hand. “Have I mentioned how pleased I am to have you home?”
Elias laughed heartily. “Only ten or twelve times, but it is nice to hear.”
“Good. I do not want you to forget,” she said as she caressed her son’s cheek. “Now if your sister, Constance, were here, I believe my heart would be complete.”
“I was surprised that I did not see her. Where is she hiding herself?” Elias asked.
“She is spending time with your Aunt and Uncle Abbot. However, I would imagine she is spending most of her time following your cousin Julia around. I am craving to have my family all under one roof.”
He kissed her hand before standing up and walking to the window. “It feels like ages since I have been home. I think I might go riding to reacquaint myself with the countryside.” He turned to his Uncle Kenneth. “Would you care to join me?”
Lord Lonsdale stretched his legs in front of him. “Perhaps another day. I do not travel as well as I used to. I think I might take a day of leisure, if you do not mind?”
“Of course,” Elias said, with a bow.
“I will leave you to your solitude, Lord Lonsdale,” the Duchess said, as she gathered her samples and stood. “I have a great many things to organize for the ball.”
“That is a fortnight away,” Lord Lonsdale said. “Surely you can spare some time for me.”
“I am afraid that is not possible today,” she said with a smile. “If you will excuse me,” she walked briskly from the room.
Lord Lonsdale folded his hands and rested them behind his head. “Your mother has always been a spitfire. I believe your father has a difficult time keeping up with her.”
“She is a force of nature,” Elias said, smiling. “I do think Father feels safe exploring his other ventures knowing Mother is here to take care of the estate. In fact, she may be more equipped than Father.”
“That I believe,” Lord Lonsdale said. “Still, I had hoped she might spare a little time to meet with me. I did travel a great distance to be here.”
“I believe I’m to blame for the cloud over her today,” Elias admitted. “When she heard that I did not travel alone, she thought Father had returned. Most days she can hide her disappointment well. Today appears not to be one of those days.”
“Ah,” Lord Lonsdale said, resting his feet on the stool in front of his chair. “I see.”
A silence settled over them, and Elias turned his attention to the gardens and the meadows beyond. He was torn between his training in etiquette and his desire to explore. It was his duty to be a good host despite his own longing.
“Do not let me keep you,” Lord Lonsdale said. “If adventure awaits you, go forth, my boy.”
Elias nodded. “Thank you, Uncle. I will.”
Lord Lonsdale smiled as he watched his nephew leave with long strides.
“Nothing too ostentatious,” Lady Downe said to her daughters. “We are not hosting any balls this season, not after your sister’s wedding, so there is no reason to make a spectacle of yourselves. Make sure this seamstress of yours understands that we want understated elegance, not gaudy baubles.”
Selina stifled a laugh. She knew her mother’s seamstress, Mrs. Hotchkiss, was known to run wild with ribbon if not carefully watched. However, she had no interest in resembling a package left by Father Christmas. She allowed her sister, as the elder of the two, to respond to their mother’s reminders.
Rebecca nodded as they secured their bonnets. “Yes, Mama,” Rebecca said, not bothering to hide her annoyance. “We are not void of taste. You may trust us.”
Mrs. Phillips, their housekeeper, bustled from the house, her bonnet already in place. “Do not worry, My Lady, I will not allow them to be taken in by an overeager dressmaker.”
Selina sighed. Under Mrs. Phillips’ careful watch, she would be lucky if her new frock did not appear to be suitable for mourning.
“It isn’t that I don’t trust you, my darling,” Lady Downe said to her eldest daughter.
“It will be fine, Mama,” Selina said, kissing her mother’s cheek. “We’ve listened to you instruct Mrs. Hotchkiss over the years, and we’ve learned from your example. I’m sure we can restrain Miss Miller’s exuberance.”
Her mother took a breath as if ready to refute this claim, but she thought better of it. Instead, Lady Downe stood in the arch of the front door and watched as her daughters set off down the drive toward town.
“I’m very tempted to ask for bows and lace by the yards just to see Mama’s face,” Rebecca said before looking over her shoulder and waving goodbye to their mother.
Selina imagined her mother’s face. Her sister’s downfall would certainly help raise Selina in her mother’s esteem.
“You’re wicked,” Selina laughed, her eyes darting to Mrs. Phillips, who walked behind them. To Selina’s relief, she appeared oblivious to their conversation. “Mama would be confined to her room with the vapors if you did.” She envied her sister’s capriciousness. Rebecca seemed unconcerned with the criticism of Lady Downe. Selina could never be so flippant.
“I would never, of course, but it would be a laugh to see her reaction.”
Selina marveled at this. Rebecca was notorious for goading their mother into hysterics, and yet she was favored over Selina. She often felt that she ought to resent her sister, but like the rest of the family, Selina could never stay angry with her. Their roles in life were cast long ago, and she could do nothing right while her sister could do no wrong.
Selina pushed those thoughts from her mind and returned her attention to Rebecca who had continued without realizing that her sister paid her no mind. “Something in blue would suit me, I think. That is what I shall ask Miss Miller to create for me,” Rebecca said.
“With your fair hair, I think that would be lovely,” Selina responded, grateful that she began listening again at the appropriate time. “A pale blue that shimmers in the candlelight. Nothing too dark or it will appear dull as if you are in mourning.”
“That wouldn’t do. I have far too much vitality to be weighed down by anything dowdy,” Rebecca said laughing. “What about you? Are you going to choose white to match your saintly activities?”
Selina flushed at her sister’s reference to her earlier lie. “I never said I was a saint,” she replied. “After Mama’s comments about the hem of my dress, I don’t think white would be a wise choice.” She brushed dust from the front of her dress
“No, I suppose not,” Rebecca said. “What about red? With your black hair and fair skin, you would be the most striking creature at the ball.”
“Red?” Selina gasped at her sister’s bold suggestion. “Could you imagine? Mama would need a crate of smelling salts if I wore anything so garish.”
“I can imagine, and that is why I adore the idea,” Rebecca teased.
Selina swatted her sister’s arm. Her eyes drifted over the landscape they took for granted on these walks to the village. Hills gently rose and fell to her left, and the deep green leaves on the trees that speckled them swayed in the breeze to flutter through various shades of green. To her right, she could hear the stream concealed behind bushes and wildflowers as it flowed through the meadow. She relished her time exploring the countryside, and she felt a part of it.
“If not red,” Rebecca asked, “then what color do you suggest?”
“I think a summer spent in green will suit me,” she answered, opening her arms to let the soft wind wrap around her.
“Yes,” Rebecca agreed with unusual sincerity, “green will complement the flecks in your eyes and your adventurous spirit. A wise choice, indeed.”
Selina linked her arm through her sister’s, and the two continued along the tree-lined lane that connected their home to the main thoroughfare.
As Selina and her sister giggled together, she felt content, and at peace. The squabbling and teasing that dominated so many of their encounters were their false lives. They were shields used to deflect their father’s terse comments and expressions of disappointment. Arm-in-arm under the warmth of the sun, they were liberated. Rebecca’s sharp wit, when aimed at any other target, caused spasms of laughter to shake Selina to her core, and she felt no need to embellish or stretch the truth. In these rare moments, simply being herself was enough.
They rounded a bend in the road, and Caddington Park disappeared behind them. Rebecca leaned close to Selina and whispered, “Are you sure you suffer no feelings of unrequited love when it comes to Lord Northfolk?”
“Certainly not,” Selina said, more forcefully than was necessary. “Why do you ask?” She feared that her sister knew her too well, and that her feelings were too evident. However, another reason for her sister’s question caused her to panic. Selina held her breath as she asked, “Do you have feelings for him?”
“I have my eyes on a different prize,” Rebecca said smiling.
Relief flowed through Selina’s heart. She could not bear competing with her sister for Elias’ affections, mainly because she doubted her ability to win such a contest. “Then why do you harp on Elias?”
She studied her sister’s face as she carefully formed her reply. “Partly for my own amusement,” Rebecca conceded, “but also because I believe he is the young man approaching on horseback.” Rebecca nodded toward the meadow that separated their estate from Langley Hall.
Although distance obscured his face, Selina recognized the figure on the bay stallion. Heat rose in her cheeks and her heart pounded. She rested her hand on her chest, as if she could physically ease the hammering.
“Steady on,” Rebecca whispered. “If you really have no feelings for him, this will be a meeting of a family friend, simply a brief exchange.”
Selina nodded, but she and her sister both knew that it was much more than that for her. Her eyes pleaded with Rebecca to do the talking. She did not trust her voice to keep her secret.
Rebecca smiled, and Selina was grateful for the support of her sister.
As Lord Northfolk neared the trio, he slowed his steed, and tipped his hat.
“Good afternoon, Miss Terrell, Miss Selina,” he said, before offering a bow to Mrs. Phillips who lingered behind them. His eyes glinted in the sun as he smiled, and Selina felt trembling in her legs. She had hoped that time had tricked her into remembering Elias as being more handsome than he was, however, he had become even more attractive since leaving Berkshire.
“Welcome home,” Rebecca said, nodding in reply. “We look forward to the ball to formally mark your return.”
Selina envied her sister’s easy manner. She wished she could speak with him half so readily.
“Be it my return, or that of summer, my mother can always find a reason for reverie,” he said to Rebecca before turning his gaze toward Selina. “I have been home less than a day, and I am fortunate enough to see an old friend.” He dismounted from his horse to more conveniently converse. “I trust you have been well.”
“Yes,” Selina said, “thank you.” She heard the cracking of her voice as she spoke, and she prayed he had not noticed.
“And your parents, they are well?” he asked.
“They are,” she said after clearing her voice, trying to mimic Rebecca’s confident tone. “It is kind of you to ask.”
“Not at all. Your family always welcomed me as a child. I may have spent more time at Caddington Park than at Langley Hall. Your cook made the best biscuits and allowed me to steal as many as my hands could carry. Then, of course, there was you. I have many fond memories of our innocent escapades,” he said, holding Selina in his gaze.
Her breath caught at the complement, and her voice became paralyzed.
Thankfully, her sister kept the conversation moving forward. “We were just talking about that this morning, were we not, Selina?” Rebecca said.
Selina’s eyes widened. Would her sister truly reveal her secrets to Elias? She was not certain.
“We received your mother’s invitation,” Rebecca continued quickly to cover Selina’s nervousness, “and we reminisced about our time together as children.”
“Oh, yes,” Selina said, a bit too enthusiastically, relieved that she was not mistaken to take Rebecca into her confidence. “We did have fun, all of us.”
“Yes,” he said.
An awkward silence developed. He waited for Selina or Rebecca to say anything to give him reason to linger, but to no avail. He sighed. “I seem to be keeping you from a purposeful adventure, and that will never do.” He easily returned to the saddle. “I hope to see you again soon.” He smiled, and his dark eyes crinkled as he gazed toward Selina. He cleared his throat before adding, “Both of you, of course,” nodding to Rebecca.
“Yes,” Rebecca said, “our parents would love to see you again. You are always welcome at Caddington Park.”
A dimple accompanied his tilted smile as he again bowed his head before urging his horse onward.
Rebecca hugged her sister’s arm as she led her along their path. “If anyone was under the impression that you carried warm regards for Lord Northfolk, you certainly disproved that. I have never seen such a neutral opinion of anyone as I have in your behavior toward our dear childhood friend,” she said, unable to suppress a smile.
“I am not sure what you are trying to say. I was not rude to him. I was friendly,” Selina said, afraid she had yet again let down her mother and her lessons on etiquette. “His estate is next to ours, and it is important to be, well…”
“Neighborly?” Rebecca asked.
Selina sighed. “Was I really that bad?” Her stomach twisted. In her attempt to hide her devotion, did she make him believe she no longer counted him a friend? The thought brought her to the brink of tears.
“I would not say you were unkind to him. You were just a little--” she paused, hoping to find a gentle term. “You seemed indifferent.”
Selina choked back a sob. Indifferent? How far from the truth! Her voice shook as she turned to Rebecca, “That is terrible. That is not what I wanted at all, but I am not skilled in conversation as you are. I can never think of what to say at the appropriate time.” She grabbed Rebecca’s hands for support. “I must appear slow-witted.”
“Certainly not,” Rebecca cried. “And even if you did, rest assured, my beautiful little sister, I believe you could say just about anything to our young Lord Northfolk, and he would be fully enamored with everything you said.”
Selina looked back toward Mrs. Phillips, who had still lingered forty paces behind them. She wiped a tear from her eye and dropped her voice. “What are you talking about?” She suspected her sister was taking the opportunity to make sport of her painful situation. However, when she studied Rebecca’s face, she was met with uncharacteristic sincerity.
“Did you not see the way he looked at you?” her sister asked.
Selina flushed. “I spent a great deal of that exchange looking at the horse. It seemed easier than looking into his face.” She did not trust herself to maintain her composure if she allowed herself to directly face him.
“That may be how you felt, but he had no difficulty looking at yours. I might even suggest that he could not see anything or anyone aside from you. I will try not to take it personally, but it started to feel as though I was not even there. His attentions were full engaged on you,” Rebecca said, using her handkerchief to dry Selina’s cheek.
“They were?” Selina asked. “Really?” It seemed toο much to hope for. Could he still hold her in such high regard?
“Of course. Have I ever lied to you to make you feel better?”
At that, Selina laughed. “Never, so I must believe it is true.” As much as she knew her sister loved her, their relationship was not based upon false flattery. Harsh truths were the foundation of their lives together. Selina’s skin tingled as she thought about her sister’s words.
“After what I just witnessed, I believe it is a shame that you do not have any warm regards for him, outside the neighborly kind. I believe they would be very well received.”
Selina blushed. “You could be mistaken. Perhaps what you saw was nothing more than kindness.”
“No,” Rebecca said plainly. “Every woman wants to be seen the way Lord Northfolk sees you. I am speaking with all sincerity. I honestly believe that all his fond memories of his childhood are wrapped up with his fond memories of you.”
She studied Rebecca’s face. Her blue eyes were clear and soft. The malicious glint they took on when she was playing tricks was startlingly absent.
“Why do you care?” Selina asked. Rebecca typically limited her concern to matters that directly impacted herself. Selina could not see how this might benefit her sister.
“We all deserve to be happy, even my baby sister,” Rebecca said. “Truly, that is all.”
Selina remained silent throughout the rest of their walk to town. Her mind was too busy sorting through the details of her encounter with Elias to contribute to a conversation with her sister. She listened as Rebecca rambled on about her favorite features of the gowns she saw at Marianne’s wedding and her musings about their sister’s time in Italy. Selina murmured her agreement at the appropriate times, but her mind was preoccupied. Could Rebecca’s insinuations about Elias and his feelings for her be true? Did she want them to be?
It was true that they had spent most of their childhood together. Her sisters, though loving and inclusive, did not share the same interests. She and Elias shared a love of exploring and of the lands that made up their estates. Memories of Elias were woven into her childhood; she could no easier remove him from her stories than she could herself.
If Selina were honest with herself, she could not remember a time when she did not love Elias. She fell in love with his protectiveness as he held her hand to keep her from falling when they crossed the stones in the stream and as he lifted her into the apple tree to harvest their own snacks. She loved his kindness and his strength that was beyond what most children were capable of, but she believed that had been a childish infatuation on his part. Ten years was a long time, and she had no way of knowing if the boy she knew bore any resemblance to the man who returned to Langley Hall. It was naive to think that he remained the same after all that time. Her brain told her to be cautious because her feelings for Elias could not be trusted. Her heart was too eager.
She was in love with the memory of who he had been, but she was not a child any longer. She must build her future on more than memories.
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