We dealt with books, we trusted men, And in our own blood drenched the pen, As if such colours could not fly. Now it felt complete. Victoria put her pen and ink away and left the letter out to finish drying. She stood and stretched. A part of her longed to rush off to her secret wing of the house and set to work on her next article, but she was too restless for that. Then she remembered that there was someone else who would be delighted over the news.
The same person who had given her the idea for her piece in the first place—Nanny Iris! The scrupulously clean stone floor might have been worn and cracked in spots, but the whole cottage was so charming that Victoria never felt anything but peace here. She was stirring up a concoction that smelled terrible, but she assured Victoria it would help when she had a breathing episode.
Victoria nodded, unable to speak. Nanny Iris came over to the table and patted Victoria on her head. Even though Nanny Iris always made Victoria feel like a child rather than the confident young woman she worked so hard to embody, at least the old woman always made her feel warm and genuinely beloved. When Ro and Pru treated her like a child, she always felt patronized, insulted.
The old woman wiped her hands on her starched white apron and picked up the letter again, even though she had read it three times already. Victoria glowed. But instead of reading it again, Nanny Iris frowned. Buxton instead of Victoria? Oh, yes. In the weeks since Prudence had left, Rowena had developed a pattern of habits designed to keep her mind as empty as possible.
Emptiness of the mind was preferable to endless choruses of if only. She looked up into the sky again. Her fingers fluttered subconsciously over her lips as she remembered the kiss she shared with the pilot on the frozen lake. Rowena wondered whether his brother had put a halt to their budding friendship the moment he had found out at the skating party that she was a Buxton.
She closed her eyes for a moment and breathed his name. She tried to remember how incredibly blue his eyes were and the way his thin, well-formed lips would widen in a smile just for her, but the image was already growing blurry. Instead the memory of her flight in his aeroplane came into her mind. She remembered the thrill of leaving the earth far behind and the soaring freedom of floating above the clouds.
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The memory was so sharp and clear, she could almost feel the chill of the wind in her face. Restlessly, she snapped the book she held shut. Now Victoria often buzzed about her like a worried bee, sometimes coaxing and other times accusatory, but nothing Victoria said seemed to reach Rowena at all. It was rather as though Victoria were speaking to her through a wall of jellied aspic.
So Rowena read voraciously from the ornate library that held thousands of volumes of books. She looked up from the window seat in the sitting room to find Aunt Charlotte bearing down upon her with the determination of an angry goose. Aunt Charlotte had been Lady Summerset for twenty-five years and the title had long settled itself in the regal set of her finely shaped head atop a long, definitive neck.
Summerset Abbey: A Bloom in Winter
Her blue-eyed, dark-haired beauty, which had once awed even the Prince of Wales Marlborough set, was still very much in evidence, even though the tautness of the skin had softened, blurring the exquisite lines of her heart-shaped face. If her loveliness had once been appealing, Rowena thought as her aunt loomed over her, now it was simply terrifying. Though Aunt Charlotte rarely raised her voice, her temper was known by the frost of her tone and the unrelenting sting of her words. In spite of her lethargy, Rowena snapped to attention.
What is about enough? Enough sulking. Her aunt nodded solemnly. Her aunt continued. Her aunt thought she was beautiful? Had she always thought so? I, too, lost my father at a young age. Her father would hate her moping, her listlessness.
Though she had imagined over and over his disappointment at her treatment of Prudence, she had never thought about how saddened he would be at how she was treating herself. She nodded, defeated. An hour later, after Rowena had been bathed, Susie was still trying to dry her hair. Rowena agreed. She wished she could feel anything besides sadness. What did she choose? Rowena had never seen it before.
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She almost said something and then thought better of it. The expertly cut wool suit was decorated with black soutache on the lapels and cuffs of the jacket and along the hem of the skirt. The back of the long jacket was gathered together, giving her fullness in the back that softened the silhouette. She marveled at the intricately carved ebony buttons on the front of the jacket and down the side of the skirt. The skirt was a daringly modern four inches above the ground.
Either it had been made for someone shorter than Rowena or her aunt was secretly developing modern tastes.
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Susie glared. Hortense lapsed into a sullen silence, but she was a bit more helpful in teaching Susie how to make the simple chignon Rowena liked best. After she was finished, Hortense handed her the combs and brushes she had used. Rowena remembered Vic telling her that Hortense had been especially rude to Prudence, and Rowena fought the urge to make a face, too. Rowena chose a blue and black pancake hat trimmed with lace, black roses, and an ostrich feather that curled over one ear. Her aunt nodded approvingly when Rowena joined her in the Great Hall but said nothing.
Elaine, dressed in a simple tea gown, gave her a kiss on the cheek.
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She still had a hard time reconciling this pretty, stylish, and vivacious woman with the shy, downtrodden, chubby girl she had known growing up. That Swiss finishing school had done wonders for her. Or more likely it was the simple fact of having a year away from her mother that had given her room to flourish and come into her own. Elaine winked and waved her hand as Rowena followed behind her.
Who was this formidably stylish and regal woman? At least not anymore. I suppose I did enjoy it at one time. And you can imagine how dull that becomes. A visit by carriage would have been impossible. It takes us almost two hours by car, but the other calls are on the way there, so it breaks up the drive quite nicely. The new Mrs. Kinkaid was droll and pretty and properly awed by Lady Summerset.
And she was almost twenty years younger than the former Mrs. Kinkaid, who, Aunt Charlotte confided later, had been a bit militant. Rowena giggled at this last bit and Aunt Charlotte gave her a rare smile.
This new Mrs. Kinkaid will make Donald a good wife and will be able to give him children. We have almost an hour before we get to Eddelson Hall. She had never seen the stately Lady Summerset this engaging or forthright before, especially not with her, and Rowena wondered why her aunt had asked her to come today instead of Elaine.
Had she genuinely been worried about her, or—as was often the case with her aunt Charlotte—did her aunt have some hidden motive?
She must have dozed off, because the next time she opened her eyes they were parked in front of a grand mansion that had to be Eddelson Hall. The two circular towers that flanked the front of the home were almost completely covered in ivy and there were so many mullioned windows at the front of the house that it looked as if the walls were made of glass rather than brick.
The butler met them at the front door and took their card. Bidding them to wait, he took the card to where his mistress was apparently waiting in the sitting room.
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