A. R. Conti Fulwell
Copyright © 2015 by A.R. Conti Fulwell. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2015 by A.R. Conti Fulwell. All Rights Reserved.
Fear is a powerful thing. When used to control others, it is more often than not much like a flame – once kindled, can easily spread out of control.
“We’ve arrived, Sir Matthew” Richard, Signore Renaldi’s hired English chauffeur opened the door of the motor. I looked up at the ghastly sight: a school built as a place for the women to learn and grow, quite frankly more resembled a prison. An iron gate surrounded the two-story building, complemented by the iron bars on the dorm windows.
How terrible for anyone who should have to grow up here. “I’ll be back shortly, and then we’ll be on to Portsmouth”
Richard nodded in agreement. I stepped inside hoping the interior would prove more inviting. Dusty wood floors hidden by rugs made from old rags lined the great hall like a pathway through the maze. I stood for a moment.
The room was as silent as death itself.
“Can I help you?” A woman appeared from around the corner.
“Yes, I am Sir Matthew Renault. Signore Renaldi has sent me.”
No emotion touched her face. “This way, Sir Matthew.”
I followed her down the hall, careful not to get ahead of her. The woman walked with a stiff gate, and never once did she look back at me. She motioned to a chair. “Please, have a seat while we fetch her.”
I did not sit. I could not sit. There was no need. I would not show my anxiety so quickly if I remained standing.
“Sir Matthew!” a sickly-sweet female voice echoed down the hall. A slender woman, with a deceptive smile stepped into the room. “We are so grateful that you could come so soon, and with the work that Lord Renaldi has you doing –”
“– I am not a servant, madam, nor a soldier. Now, where is she?”
“My assistant is fetching her” the pitch of her voice deepened. “I hope Lord Renaldi knows that he expected of us.”
I pulled a small envelope from my coat pocket. “I’m sure his Lordship’s generosity will make up for any behavioral discrepancies.”
The woman laughed aloud, sounding like a wounded donkey. “Behavior discrepancies? Really, Sir Matthew, you need not put it so lightly” she snatched the envelope from me.
Poor woman. She had to get out of her chair a few times in the last eighteen years.
“Now, Ms.? I do apologize, I seem to have forgotten you name.”
“Helmsway. Charlotte Helmsway.”
“I do apologize, Mrs. Helmsway, but rest assured, his Lordship not only included the regular fee for courses, but he was also generous enough to assuage any ceaseless chatter or school girl giggles.”
A half smile stretched up the one side of her face. “Oh, Sir Matthew, as headmistress of this school, I can honestly say first hand, if that were the case, we’d be finding Miss Renaldi suitable employment.”
“Well then, let us be glad for that. I’m not sure that is what his Lordship would want for Lady Serafina.”
Suddenly, a small figure shuffled into the room, thrown by another woman. The other woman uttered a sound, almost like a growl, and left.
The headmistress crossed the room. “Serafina –”
I cleared my throat a bit too obnoxiously.
“Pardon me, Lady Serafina, Sir Matthew is here to fetch you.”
The small figure, a girl, analyzed a speck of dust on the floor, barely nodding her head.
“You’d better be good for him, I’m sure he won’t be as forgiving as I am.”
The girl remained as still as a corpse.
“Thank you, Mrs. Helmsway. You’ve been most kind.”
Thankfully, the headmistress took the hint and left us.
“Are you well, Lady Serafina?” I asked her.
She barely nodded.
I gently lifted her chin with my index finger. Her eyes met mine reluctantly, but hit me like lightning – blue as the Mediterranean Sea. Her gaze quivered, sizing me up.
“I asked you a question,” I reminded her.
“And I replied” she said. “Quite well, thank you, Sir Matthew. I wonder you took the trouble of coming so far.”
“We can discuss it on the way” I motioned towards the door. “Do you have all of your things?”
I led her out to the motor, and offered to help her into the car. She stared blankly at my hand, and reluctantly took it. Once I was inside, we sat in silence for several minutes.
“Are you happy to be leaving, lady Serafina?”
Those eyes shot up in surprise. “Yes, Sir Matthew, I’m quite happy to be leaving. You’ve been most kind.”
Somehow, I had the feeling that Lady Serafina was putting on airs. Both of her parents are fiery personalities, Lord Renaldi told me. How can this be? “You are most welcome. You will never return there, so I hope you gathered addresses from your friends so that you may write to them.”
“Lovely thought, but I never made any friends, Sir Matthew.”
I stared at her for a moment. “So, what was this mischief you caused the headmistress? Surely no thorns on her chair or anything like that, hmm?”
“It is hard to say, Sir Matthew. I am just happy to be leaving. Where are we headed?”
I noted her quick change of subject. “Portsmouth. We’ll stay at an inn for a night and then tomorrow, your father has made arrangements for us to stay with friends.”
“My father?” she looked astonished. “What has my father got to do with anything?”
There is the aforementioned spirit. “I’d hoped that we would discuss that later.”
“It was my father that sent you?” she sighed. “Hopefully I didn’t bring too much shame to the family.”
“That school is happy to get rid of me because I was too smart for my own good.”
I laughed. “So they were not pleased to find you a lady of opinions?”
“Not opinions, facts. It really does not matter. I’m more concerned with why my father cared to call upon you for my rescue.”
“Surely he would not have come himself –”
“– And why not?”
The trouble with a fiery personality is that sometimes, one gets too close to the flames. “Perhaps you’ve not read the papers, Lady Serafina, but like I said, I’ll discuss the details with you later.”
“What are you afraid I might jump out of the car if you tell me now?”
Yes, actually. I believe you would.
Her eyes widened. “You do! What has happened?”
“Lady Serafina, you must calm yourself. It is important, and somewhat grave, but now is not the time to discuss it.”
“All right, Sir Matthew,” she said “if now is not the time, then perhaps later, but there will be a time. I will not be in the dark. Is that clear?”
“Do I amuse you?”
“Perhaps I will jump out of the car –” she reached for the door, but before she even touched it, I put my arm around her slender waist, and pulled her close to me.
“I wouldn’t advise that. You see, your father trusts me with your happiness and wellbeing. Jumping out of a rolling motorcar is not in your best interest, Lady Serafina.”
As if on cue, her visage changed completely – the fear that loomed in her eyes when I met her, returned, shadowing her gaze behind matching fans of dark eyelashes. “Let go of me,” she said. I let her rest on the seat again. “How did you meet my father, can I ask that?”
Now is not the time to tell her. “I met him six years ago in Venice. I was traveling on holiday, and we happened to be at the right place at the right time. We soon learned that our alliance would prove mutually beneficial. Per his request, I’ve been managing his business here in England.”
She was silent, considering. “Are your parents living?”
“My mother is. I lost my father in the African war. Mother gets on quite well.”
“One younger sister.”
“Remind me to send her my sympathies.”
“I don’t recall you having any siblings, Lady Serafina.”
She glared at me. “I don’t think you could handle having to look after more than one of me, Sir Matthew.”
She was right. This task came at a hefty price. Lord Renaldi was taking care of the financial needs of the endeavor, but if I had never tasted responsibility before, this would surely be my first sip – and the bitterness was a bit overwhelming.
That night at dinner, Lady Serafina hardly said a word. I knew she was waiting for me to tell her the truth. I agonized. I did not want to ruin her new freedom. After everything she had been through, she did not deserve her lot. She deserved better.
I sighed, putting down my fork and knife. “I suppose you’re dying to hear the answer to your question?”
“Not if you’re not ready.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Believe me,” she continued, “I wanted to know yesterday; however, I’m not such a simpleton that I don’t see trouble when a ghost is in the room.”
I blinked ferociously.
“What I mean to say is that whatever brought you to me is of grave importance, and must be delivered properly.”
You sly fox. I smirked. “Bravo, Lady Serafina. Your time in the library has made you a great orator. I am quite at a loss for words.”
“You are too kind, Sir Matthew.”
“Because I promised, I’ll tell you now. Surely, you are aware that your father is a government official in Italy for the Royal family in the north?”
“Yes, I am aware of the fact.”
“You may have read in the newspapers about the unrest between the Royal family and the Catholic Church?”
“No, I had not.”
“It seems the Catholic Church is not supportive of the Royal family or the ruling government as a whole. People are rebelling. There have been … threats.”
Her pale face grew transparent. “Is my father in danger?” She held my gaze, searching for the answer. “Don’t lie to me, Sir Matthew.”
How could I tell her? Lord give me strength. “We are all in danger, Lady Serafina, including you.”
She rolled her eyes and scoffed. “I doubt the Pope even knows I exist.”
I leaned over the table. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this – your life is in danger, and you need to be careful of anyone and everything around you.”
She considered what I said. “So that is why my father sent you? To be my bodyguard?”
If that had been the job description, I would have come voluntarily; however, there was another part to his Lordship’s plan.
“Yes, he did send me to keep you safe.”
She glared at me. “What else did he send you for? Don’t lie to me Sir Matthew; there is nothing I hate more.”
I sighed. “Your father thinks that your happiness and safety can be secured at the same time if you are to find a husband.”
Lady Serafina choked on the water she drank.
“Surely you wanted to get married?”
“Well yes, but when does he expect this to happen?”
“As soon as possible.”
She scoffed. “Well, I’ve always been good at fishing, why don’t I just go downstairs to the common room and catch myself a man?”
“Now, wait –”
“– Oh no. This is ridiculous. I can take care of myself.”
“However true or false that may be, the fact is, there is no heir to your father’s properties –”
“– You mean no male heir.”
“Lady Serafina, however bitter you may feel –”
“– Bitter? I have breathed real air for a few hours, and because I’m not jumping into my father’s plan for matrimony, you assume me bitter and resentful?” She stared at her plate.
Her words echoed throughout the room as they did in my mind. “I apologize, Lady Serafina. I should have considered before I spoke. You must believe me, I am only here to help you. I’ll do everything I can.”
She looked up at me. “I know this isn’t your fault. This is not my father’s fault. It is simply how it must be. The whole idea frightens me.”
“Now, Lady Serafina, there is nothing to really be afraid of.”
“You don’t understand, Sir Matthew. I am not ready to rush into a marriage, and I do not want to marry a man for the sole purpose of maintaining the family dynasty; but I do not want to die either. I know that was what you meant. I don’t really seem to have a choice, do I?”
“Perhaps this will bring some comfort,” I pulled a letter from my jacket pocket. “Your father sent it with me.”
“Thank you,” she took it, looking both surprised and anxious.
Not long after, we said goodnight. I waited until I heard no stirring from Lady Serafina’s room, and then took a chair out into the hall to keep watch while she slept.
“Good morning, Lady Serafina, I trust you slept well” I said the next morning. Lady Serafina looked as if she had come to the table still asleep.
“Good morning, Sir Matthew. Sadly, no, I did not sleep well” she sat down and blinked ferociously. “I think you and I will be seeing a lot of each other. Because of that, I think it is only suitable that you call me Sera. Is that all right?”
“All right, but in return, you will call me Matthew.”
“I think that will do just fine,” she said taking a sip of her tea. “So, what is the plan?”
“Well, the dressmaker will be here in an hour, and once we have everything ready –”
“– Excuse me, dressmaker?”
“Yes, is there a problem?”
“Why do we need a dressmaker?”
“Typically one covers one’s self with something, and in your case, it is much more suitable for it to be a dress.”
She let her teacup crash down onto the saucer. “Really, Sir Matthew, you must take me for some kind of floosy.”
I could not help but laugh. “Floosy? Not at all, but I thought we covered names in an earlier edition.”
“Who is to pay for these dresses?”
“Your father, of course. Who did you think?”
The thought seemed to sober her, silence her.
“Your headmistress was kind enough to give us your measurements before I arrived to collect you.”
“So it was all part of the great plan then?” She practically spit out the words.
“You speak as though there is another option, Sera.”
She twitched when I said her name. “I guess we’ll never know, will we?”
I sighed. I suppose no lady liked hurrying into an uncertain marriage. Hardly gave her any time to get used to the idea, but surely it could not be all bad for Lady Sera. “You know, there is a possibility, no, more than that, - a great likelihood – that your man will be everything that you hope for” the thought did not seem to faze her. “Just because you’re looking for a husband doesn’t mean your father has to choose the man.”
She smiled. “I’d hate for my father to pick the man, for he wouldn’t know the first thing I would want in a husband.”
“And what might that be?”
She glared at me, as a sister glares at her brother. “I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”
“So you don’t know then?”
She glared at me again. “Matthew we’ve recently consented to a Christian name basis, I’m not sure adding questions of an intimate and personal nature will aid our relationship.”
I laughed. “So, we have a relationship now?”
“I’m sure my father would love that.”
“Perhaps we should leave your father out of that one,” I said. The thought of his Lordship finding out that his daughter preferred my company to anyone else’s was just what he wanted.
After the dressmaker had come and gone, I made sure everything was ready to go. When the motor was packed, Lady Sera and I piled in, and set off for Plymouth.
We were both silent for a very long time; that is, until Sera broke the silence.
“Tell me about them would you?”
“The family we’re to be staying with. I don’t want to arrive ignorant of connection.”
“Well,” I began “Lord Barton, Earl of Plymouth, is a pleasant sort of fellow. His wife is quite the opposite. While she is pleasant, she seems to see room for improvement and progress in everything. That, of course, rubbed off on their daughters, Elizabeth, and Elinor, respectively.”
She seemed to take it all in. “No sons then?”
How amusing. “No, Sera. No sons. That anxious are you?”
“No, I’d just like to be informed before I end up being the last one to know that the man I sit next to at dinner may be my husband for the rest of my life.”
I laughed. “Naturally.”
“How did you meet them?”
“They dined with your father in Ferreira, some time ago. I happened to be there.”
“How lucky for them.”
“I’m really not sure how lucky your father was, in all honesty.”
She gave me a questioning look. “After the shining review you just gave, I can’t imagine why you would say that.”
Should I tell her? “I’ll hold onto my own opinions about them. I wouldn’t want to sway you.”
She huffed. “Oh Matthew, you will come to learn that it will take a great deal more than your opinions to sway me.”
What was it I said earlier about getting too close to a fiery personality? “And why is that? Stubborn to a fault?”
“I’ve never given the ailment a name, really, but if it proves a malady after all, you will be the first to know.”
Oh, what a pleasant trip this will be….
I turned my gaze to the window.
When I opened my eyes again, Sera was holding something small in her hands. Upon my stirring, the item disappeared into the folds of her skirt.
“Pardon me, Sera,” I said sitting up straight. “Like you, I did not sleep well last night.”
“Have no fear, Matthew. I saw no impropriety in sleep.”
Thankfully. I straightened and looked out the window again. “We are nearly there.”
“Don’t sound so anxious” I teased her.
“You know I’m not.”
“Well, then you must learn to do what you can about it.”
She glared at me. “And what can I do about it, pray?”
“Well, since you mentioned it, there are two things that you can do – laugh and pray.”
“You exaggerate, surely. After all, God has many responsibilities, why would he vex himself about me?”
I eyed her, baffled. Who filled her head with rubbish?
The car pulled into the long pathway of Cainesworth Abbey. The magnificent house stood soundly with a grace that promised the utmost respect to anyone who crossed the threshold. The servants lined themselves on the right side of the front door, and the family on the left. First, Jonathan Carthidge, Earl of Plymouth, a brave-looking man, with wisdom evident in the gray hair at his temples and welcoming smile. Next, Sandra Carthidge, Countess of Plymouth, a woman with an ordinary exterior, only overlooked because of her genuine warmth. Next to her stood Lady Elizabeth Carthidge, whose fine features modeled every superior grace of aristocracy, but made dull by the blank stare in her matte and almost lifeless dark eyes. Finally, on the end of the line, and a good distance away from Lady Elizabeth I might add, stood Lady Elinor Carthidge – a budding beauty, but her visage showing its prime. Her smile reached both corners of her heart-shaped face.
The chauffeur opened the door, and I helped Sera out of the car.
“Welcome, Sir Matthew!” Jonathan greeted me.
“Thank you, Cousin Jonathan. May I present, Lady Serafina Renaldi” I turned and nodded to Sera.
Sera swallowed and forced a flat smile, as if allowing them all – against her will – to size her up.
“Pleasure to meet you at last, Lady Serafina. Your father speaks of nothing else,” Jonathan said to her.
I watched her flat smile crack like a porcelain mask. “Well, all amorous paternal exaggerations, I assure you. My greatest thanks go to both you and your wife. Your hospitality is quite overwhelming.”
I smirked. I should like to see Sera read Shakespeare. That would be entertainment of the sweetest kind. A one-woman show.
“Nonsense!” Cousin Sandra stepped forward. “We’re happy to finally meet you! It is our pleasure!” She took Sera’s hand, leading her towards the girls.
“In what sort of state did you find her?” Jonathan asked me, quietly so the ladies would not hear.
“Not a good one, I’m afraid. I’m not sure how many masks that lady has, but one of them has to be her face.”
Elizabeth Carthidge turned as if she had heard me.
“Give her time, old chap. Who knows, you may end up liking her more than you think.”
I glared at him. “Cousin, do not play the matchmaker. You do it ill.”
Jonathan laughed. “Come inside, before my musings run away with me again.”
As I followed my cousin into the great hall, I felt a pang of remorse. Should I have told Sera everything – everything? I knew I should have. There were too many secrets already.
I turned; Sandra had been calling me.
Sera’s accusing eyes found me.
Here we go….
The servants scattered. The dressing gong rang. Sandra hooked a housemaid and a footman to help Sera and I change. In a few quick movements, the great hall was empty, save Sandra, Sera, and myself.
“I’ll show you both to your rooms, if you’ll follow me,” Sandra said as she mounted the massive winding staircase.
Sera glared at me. I gave her a cautionary look. Her face snapped away from mine.
When I came in the drawing room, before dinner, I found Sera caught in one of Elinor’s rather frightening stories about driving the motor.
I took Sera by the elbow. “Would you ladies excuse us for a moment, please?”
I ignored the knowing look and giddy smile from Elinor, and the hawk-like glare from Elizabeth.
“I can’t imagine why you would need a word with me. Everything is rosy in my garden,” Sera said in a hoarse whisper.
“Now wait just a minute –”
“– Dinner is served, your Lordship” Reynolds, the butler bellowed upon entering the room.
“Praise the Lord! I am saved from more of your lies!” Sera pushed past me. I caught up with her, and took her arm.
“You’re right, I haven’t told you everything, but I have not been dishonest. As I have said, it is both grave and of grave importance. I’d promise to tell you after dinner, but you might not believe me.”
“You’re right, Sir Matthew. I might not. Meet me in the great hall as soon as you can after dinner. I want to be informed as soon as possible” she pushed past me, her elaborate hairstyle grazing my cheek as she past.
They seated us in regal fashion. The Lord and Lady of the house sat opposite each other in the middle of the table, with Sera at Jonathan’s right, and myself at Sandra’s right, and the daughters at the head and helm of the table. Then, like a well-oiled machine, the footmen went to work.
“Oh, I meant to tell you, Matthew, you’re just in time for the shoot next month” Elinor said.
“Elinor, surely your memory is not so modest to think me a good shot,” I laughed.
Elizabeth casting a knowing look at her plate.
“If you don’t remember, ask your sister. She rode out with me” I watched Elizabeth brighten at the memory.
“Well, Eliza? How bad could he possibly be?” Elinor probed.
Elizabeth picked up her wine glass. “Oh Elinor, that was so long ago. They say skills only get better with age. Only time will tell” she drank deeply from the glass, her gaze never deviating from mine.
“You told me you hated the name ‘Eliza,’” I said, foolishly allowing Elizabeth to get under my skin. “You said it sounded like something out of a sentimental novel.”
“Did I? Oh Matthew, you know how contrary I can be.”
I suppose I should know by now.
“So will you hunt? We’ve invited the Ripleys” Elinor pursued.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes.
“I’m still not sure if I can survive another embarrassment like last time,” I said.
“Surely you can! It cannot be that bad. We could have Lady Serafina ride out with you” Elinor looked to Sera.
Sera put down her fork too quickly to be involuntary.
“Do you hunt, Lady Serafina?” Elinor asked.
Sera glanced at me.
“Oh Elinor, don’t put her on the spot” Elizabeth said. “I hardly think Lady Serafina would take to riding, would you Lady Serafina?”
“Eli –” I started to interfere, Sera interrupted me.
“I can ride, Lady Elizabeth, but you are correct. I have very little experience with country sports.”
I tried to hide my own disbelief.
When dinner was finished, the ladies talked of playing bridge. Sera stayed seated.
“Lady Serafina, you must come with us. We need to test your bridge skills,” Eliza said motioning for her to follow.
“Yes, we’d love to hear the tales of your homeland, Italy” Elinor said choking back a snicker.
Sera simply smiled, too sweetly, then glanced back at me. ‘You owe me’ written plainly in her features.
“I’m so glad to get you alone at last,” Jonathan said. “How proud you must be.”
“You did a great service to a friend, and now she is safe, and no harm can come to her. All debt is paid.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Of what debt do you speak? What my life debt to Lord Renaldi?”
“Exactly. That was the request, was it not? ‘Bring the daughter home to a good house in England’?”
“Come, come! Do not be so hard on yourself. You’re free to focus on other obligations.”
I covered my brow with my palm.
“Relax, old chap. I only meant that you would get back to getting to know the estate. Surely you haven’t forgotten that you are to inherit?”
Frustration surged through me. “I haven’t forgotten about it, but my task is not complete with Sera.”
Jonathan blinked in shock. “So you and Lady Serafina are on a Christian-name basis I take it? What are you not telling me? I was only joking earlier.”
“There is one more thing I have left to do.”
“Well? What is it?”
“I must find her a husband.” There, that was not a lie.
Jonathan sat still, waiting for the second half of my task. “Is that all?”
“All? It is a huge undertaking!”
Jonathan eyed me. Few people could get anything past this man. “My dear chap, it is only a huge undertaking if you make it one. Is there a limit or specifications that Lord Renaldi has given you?”
“I have one year to find the man.”
“Or, I will marry her.”
Jonathan sat back in his chair. “And how does Elizabeth fit into all this?”
I felt my jaw tighten. “You know perfectly well how Elizabeth fits into this.”
“So there is no hope of the two of you working things out?”
“Working things out? When I questioned her conduct, she tossed me aside without an explanation. How am I to move forward with her if she won’t let me past?”
Jonathan sighed. “It is up to you, in the end. I will support you whatever you choose to do. I just hoped that you could inspire change in Elizabeth.”
Inspiring change should not be the foundation of marriage. I thought. “Thank you, Jonathan; I do appreciate your support.”
“I fear we’ll get nowhere with this tonight, but do think about it, Matthew.”
I nodded, and we both rose to join the ladies in the drawing room. When I found the ladies playing bridge, I leaned over Sera’s shoulder.
“Matthew!” Elinor said. “Have you come to save us?”
“Your friend is quite the bridge player,” Elizabeth moaned.
“Would you ladies mind terribly if I monopolized Lady Serafina for a moment?”
“Not at all” Elinor gave a knowing wink.
“Don’t be too long” Sandra called after us.
I escorted Sera to the great hall, out the front door, and into the vestibule, pulling the curtain behind us.
“Are you all right?” I asked her.
Those blue eyes shot up at me. “If I had more energy, I’d tear you limb from limb, but I have not the strength, nor the patience right now.”
“I’m sorry. Where would you like me to begin?”
“The beginning” she said, taking a seat on the bench. “Why exactly did you do this for my father?”
“I told you –”
“– No,” she pulled me down by the arm next to her. “Tell me the whole truth. You owe me that.”
I sighed. With the charade over, there was no avoiding it. Perhaps I do not have to mention the marriage ultimatum or my relationship with Elizabeth….
I looked over at her. “What? Changed your mind already?”
“No, start with the family. How do you know them?”
“Cousins, on my father’s side.”
“You came here a lot, growing up?”
“Once I reached a certain age, yes. You could say that.”
“Then are you the heir?”
I tried to hide the obvious.
“You are, aren’t you?”
I hung my head in defeat, preparing for the battle. “Yes, I am the heir.”
“Then why bring me here?” She looked for answers, trying to understand. “If your future is secured, then how you meet my father?”
“Your father didn’t always live in Italy you know.”
“Actually, I know very little of him. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve shared a meal together.”
I sighed. I think it is time I give her a little more truth to go on. “Five years ago, your father was in Portsmouth. He has some land, or what he gained in marrying your mother, that he looks after. It was dark; I was coming home from town. It was a short walk, so I did not think anything of it. Three men tried to rob me. I was quite out-matched. Your father stepped in, got all of my effects back, and made the wretches never forget. He took me back to his home, nursed my wounds, so to speak, and then when I was able to, I thanked him sincerely. Your father saved my life, and I did not know how I would ever repay him. He knew what he was doing.”
“What was he doing?”
“He told me about you, his dolce angello he called you. He told me about what the next five years might bring. He said this was fate – Il destino – that he and I had crossed paths. He was right. It was God’s will.”
“What did he see happening?”
“He feared the unrest and violence he saw in his country. He feared the dawn of a new government in the north. Mostly, he regretted not being with you. He said, ‘No one deserves to live life alone, without anyone at their side.’”
Tears gathered in Sera’s eyes.
“How long have you been alone?”
“I wish I could give you a figure. Every year at Easter, my father would come to see me at school. He would tell me that he wished he could take me home, but that it simply was not in his power. Then, he stopped coming.” Sera rose from the bench, her back to me.
I have taken this too far. I rose, uncertain how to comfort her. “I’m sorry, Sera. I never meant to upset you.”
She turned to face me, tears streaming down her porcelain-white face, blue eyes ablaze. “Lots of things are done every day without the intention of injury. It doesn’t stop the injury.”
“But the injurer feels remorse. You can’t argue with that.” I fought the urge to take her hand. “What can I do? How can I fix this?”
“It cannot be fixed, Matthew. You’ve just been pulled into my father’s scheme, and now you must find a man who is willing to take me as his wife.” She turned from me, and fled back into the house. I watched her go up the stairs to her room.
“Where’s Lady Serafina?” Elizabeth stepped into the great hall.
“She felt ill, all of the sudden, so she has gone up. I hate to be a bother, but would you mind checking on her when you go up?” I asked.
“I’d be glad to. She’s very charming, and not the little cinder-girl I expected” she gave a genuine smile.
“Are you admitting you were wrong?”
“Me? Never” she leaned closer “tell anyone, and I’ll have your pillows stuffed with briars.”
I laughed. “I would expect nothing less.”
A while later, I wondered if having Elizabeth check on Sera was a good idea. When everyone had gone up, I decided to see for myself. I approached the hall where the ladies slept, and stopped as I turned the corner. Elizabeth stood knocking on Sera’s door.
“Lady Serafina?” She knocked again. “It’s Elizabeth, may I come in?”
There was a muffled sound, no doubt bidding Elizabeth’s entrance. Against my better judgment, I moved closer to the door.
“Matthew sent me to check on you,” Elizabeth said. “Are you well?”
“Getting better every minute, Lady Elizabeth” Sera told her.
“There’s another reason I came to see you. I hope you won’t think me impertinent,” Elizabeth continued.
“Have a seat,” Sera said.
“Thank you. I wanted to apologize for Elinor and my conduct before, during, and after dinner. I don’t know your story, but I do not wish to alienate someone who is a dear friend of a dearer friend of mine,” Elizabeth said.
I was thankful for the wall behind me to brace myself. Who was the lady that sat apologizing to Sera?
“So you do admit that you and Matthew are close?” Sera laughed. “I don’t hold your conduct against any of you or your sister.”
“Mark my words, Lady Serafina, watch Elinor. She is not to by an ally, and surely not an enemy.”
“I appreciate that, Lady Elizabeth.”
“Please,” Elizabeth said. “Call me, Eliza; if for nothing else, calling me that gets a rise out of Matthew. Let me know if I can do anything to help.”
There, in the hallway, my heart was touched. This Eliza – sweet, cool Eliza – was the woman I fell in love with. The woman I used to love. It was a relief to know she still existed.
“What’s that?” I heard Eliza ask.
“I suppose I can’t hide it forever. It’s a scar.”
“A scar from what?”
“Punishment” Sera muttered.
“What did you do to deserve that?”
“I climbed a fence to run away,” Sera laughed, bitterly. “Don’t tell Matthew. I don’t want him to pity me.”
“He will never know. You must wear gloves. They’re in fashion now, and you’ll look quite regal in them,” Eliza said.
“That would do the trick.”
“Have you any?” Eliza asked.
The silence spoke volumes.
“Borrow mine until we can get you to the village. You must have everything you need. If you are in wont of anything, do not hesitate to let me know. Understand?” Eliza said.
“Oh, and don’t tell Elinor anything you don’t want Papa reading over his breakfast. She can hardly keep a secret, not to mention her newspaper friend.”
“Don’t worry, Eliza. My name would look just as terrible in a headline as yours.”
“I knew you and I would be friends,” Eliza said. “Well, rest up, and we’ll talk more in the morning.”
“Thank you, Eliza.”
Unaware that Eliza was slipping out of the room, I saw her shadow at tried to move quickly out of sight.
Not quickly enough. I turned.
“Matthew, were you eavesdropping?” Her tone was serious, but not solid.
“It’s not a crime, is it?”
She raised a perfectly tailored eyebrow at me. “Maybe not a capital one, but it’s a societal one.”
“Really? Tell me about that, Eliza.”
“So, you’ve picked that up again have you?”
“It seems to suit you.”
She moved closer to me, as if to rise to the challenge. “About as well as ‘Mattie’ suits you.”
“Used to suit me just fine.”
“You know you’re not supposed to be in this corridor anyway.”
“When did that ever stop me?”
Her nostrils flared, but she fought a hard battle with laughter. “My, my, aren’t we in the mood to speak freely. What brought this about?”
I unconsciously rose to the challenge as well. “Perhaps there are many things you’d overlooked in my character.”
I watched as the playfulness in her eyes went out like a candle. “I’ve overlooked nothing.” She said. “If anyone overlooked something, it is you. As long as you’ve known this family, I would have thought my word would do me credit, but alas, the great Matthew speaks again!” She brushed past me, and around the corner.
“Eliza,” I went after her.
She turned, suddenly, nearly running into me. She looked up at me; it was as if she had lost her nerve, as if she could not say what she had actually intended to say. “If you see Hazel, tell her I’ve gone up, if it’s not too much to ask. I’ll say goodnight.”
“My pleasure” I said making my way down the hall. Grinning, I walked through the ladies corridor, and back towards my own. Why am I smiling? Eliza referred to our broken engagement, and I am smiling. I laughed, thinking of how angry she must be. It was so good to see her again.