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The Lettered Affair



Alice Ayden


Copyright 2016 Alice Ayden



Smashwords Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are fiction. Any similarity to any real persons, characters, events or incidents is entirely coincidental. All Rights Reserved.



For Mom and Dad


Table of Contents

Part One Letters 1 – 17

Part Two Letters 18 - 52

Part Three Letters 53 - 84

Part Four Letters 85 – 113

Thank You!

Also by Alice Ayden

Part One

Letter 1 ~ Cassandra to Juliana


January 3, 1810


Dearest Juliana, please forgive your sister for what I am about to write. It is improper and shameful, and I am likely to be punished for eternity. I seek my husbands forgiveness for something he must never discover.

I met Lord Halithorpe - Henry. Oh, dearest sister, if you could see me, you would have quite the laugh at my nerves. My hand barely writes fast enough as my mind leaps forward thinking of him.

I stood up straighter around him, smiled more, and worried if my pink dress - the one you made me buy three months ago - brought out the colour in my normally pale complexion. I even lamented if my light brown hair were too drab for someone of his taste and wished I had your depth of brown.

His blue eyes absorbed me and would not release me. His gaze did not wander to someone more beautiful. His attention was not swayed by someone more interesting.

Henry possesses such confidence - true confidence based upon strength of knowledge and not the ineptitude of so many newly titled gentlemen who cannot tell a footman from a chamber pot.

Did I exist in a perpetual trance of mediocrity? When Henrys eyes met mine, and he spoke my nameit was the first time I took notice of my heart. I assumed it to merely function much like a limb. I never realized it could simultaneously induce madness and passion.

Since you are staying with Lady Rebecca, who lives so near to Edenfield and Henry, dare I ask? Do you see him often? Forget that. I am ashamed of my lingering thoughts. It is not proper.

I have only been married a month! But I am convinced Henry is the man I should have married. During the last years of his life, Father worried what would become of the Bering family and Ashland. I had to keep the estate within our family. I had to ensure his wife had a home, and you would be free to choose your own husband. This I gladly accepted without regret. I married fathers heir. I did what was expected of me. I did my duty. James is no more in love with me than I of him. I am sorry that I relate to you what you, of course, already know. I do not recognize myself. I exist on a precipice between the allure of madness or the temptation of unattainable happiness.

I am not the person I have aspired to be. I have sought to be true and respectful and an example to you. I believed I was a good person. Perhaps that was a lie. Oh, what would my mother think of me? Her sacrifice would have been for naught. I would have gladly lived my days with James unaware of loves cost. Will it be enough for me to know Henry exists if I may never know the happiness of him?

I have released my deepest thoughts to you. I trust your discretion, dearest sister. Please do not allow your faith in me to be shaken. I will not disgrace our father's name or my mothers memory. I will not dishonor my husband, or endanger your future. I can never see Henry again nor receive another of his letters.

I draw strength from my mothers memory. Not one ever uttered a harsh word about her, and they mourn for her still. I must be more like her. I shall convince myself I am suffering a curable malady. Perhaps a new blue hat or purple sash will cure the madness. I must cease to think of him and a future which is impossible. Do not fret, Juliana. I will return to my normal self in due time. Forgive me for my indiscretions. It was never my intent to shake your confidence in me.

Your sister, Cassandra


I am including the letter Henry wrote to me. It is safer with you. I do not want it under Ashlands roof; I fear disgracing my mother. And if any of the servants found itI could not face their wrath again. Being called a selfish child whose saint of a mother sacrificed her life for nothing is not something I wish to relive ever again. Please do not think harshly of me.

Letter 2 ~ Henry to Cassandra


January 3, 1810


Cassandra, you haunt my dreams and invade my days. I am ardently in love with you, and I am yours forever. This letter is highly improper, but I am not the sort of man to deny our connection. It is no use wishing things were different. You are spoken for, but I will never love another.

I think of our first meeting every day. It started innocently with the arrival of guests, and you walked into the parlour with James. You arrived in a blur of pink, and James introduced you. For a few minutes, I had not realized he had stopped talking. I only remembered him saying, Cassandra.He must have said more, but I fear James never held my attention. I am sorry. I should not speak of him like that. Forgive me. There, I am glad I was able to write those words. I feared my nefarious mind would prevent me from bestowing any compliments upon him. And now, I have realized I did not compliment him at all. I am sorry for that as well.

This is not my way of turning you against him. It is just my way. Most find me impertinent and rude. Or they would were I not in possession of the title Lord Halithorpe. People forgive much as long as money and title are attached. Why is that? If a servant acted the way I did or even entertained my thoughts, he would be ostracized immediately or possibly imprisoned. Would I have been different had I been born with less? Would I have conformed to convention? Interesting how I can write to you as if we were talking still.

Back to that glorious day in the parlor at Edenfield where we first met:

Henry and I were schoolboys together at Eton and Oxford where we went to school during our schooldays,James said, as if reciting from a paper.

James had a way of obviously stating the obvious.

Right.James stopped to clear his throat a few dozen times. I knew him well enough to realize the noises he made were not of necessity but rather of irritation to what he was about to say. Henry is Lord Halithorpe now with the passing of his father who died. It has been just about six months, has it not Henry? I am sorry for your loss because I always respected your father who was coincidentally friends with my father because they in turn went to school together too.James fidgeted too much as his eyes darted back and forth between us.

Then my butler told him about the gardens, and he scampered off. Eventually.

You sighed slightly as you smiled at me. I fear James might wear you out with his nonsense chatter.

I am sorry to hear of the passing of your father, Lord Abbotden,I said.

You smiled. Thank you. Most people talk about how he survived longer than he ought which I find rather strange - as if he did something wrong and should be ashamed for his continual living.You looked at me startled as if you said something wrong. I am sorry, Lord Halithorpe, I do not know why I told you that.

Henry,I corrected only because I selfishly longed to hear my name on your lips. Perhaps you find me easier to communicate with.

Your perfect porcelain complexion blushed with a slight shade of pink to match your dress. I must confess: I was not slighting your husband. I was giving myself a compliment. One of my many grievous sins is over confidence in my abilities. I guess that is another problem with the ruling class. We were never given boundaries to learn the art of humility.

You laughed.

I do not plan on saying outrageous things. They just scamper about and run amok.

You laughed again. Then it was my turn to blush for I rarely ever said things like that aloud. I wondered if you thought me odd or careless with my affections.

No one has ever talked to me like that,you said.

We are English. We rarely talk about important things at all,I whispered as if I would have been hanged immediately.

Then my grandmother arrived with the flurry of black that is expectant of her being in mourning the past thirty years. That is what Joan said. The wretched woman informed me of the child's name. After much insecure digestion, I was able to chew on said name - such an unfortunate name for an unfortunate child.My grandmother stopped quickly and stared at us. Henry, I did not know you were entertaining.

This is Countess Abbotden,I said. Countess Abbotden, this is my grandmother the Dowager Countess of Halithorpe.

Countess?she asked, looking horrified as if she had squashed a maid. Why is someone as young as you a Countess?

She is married to James Hawksley,I whispered.

Do you remember the look on my grandmother's face? She looked you over as if you were a hat in her favourite soup. I was not sure if she were more mortified that you married or that I mentioned James' name. She quickly lost most of her colouring and looked as pale as that pale soup the cook unwisely served us last week. James Hawksley? He is here?

She glanced to the sofa by the fireplace as if he had thrown himself under before she entered.

I motioned towards the gardens.

She peered in that direction and squinted until James came into view. Her expression can only be described as aghast - part fright and part fear as if I had just married her off to a footman.

Oh my, they are here. Good grief. I mean... what are we to do?Then, she looked at you, and everything clarified. You are Cassandra Bering. Oldest child of Lord Archibald Bering. Of course.She looked you up and down and then glanced again towards the gardens. I understand, dear child, I do understand. I admire your sacrifices to be loyal to your family. It is a rare quality these days. Your father would be pleased that Ashland remains within the Bering family, but I do apologize for it. If only your brother had survived infancy... The entail is a most dreadful business.She shook her hands to be free of the idea. I am just glad I had one son and two grandsons and did not have the worries of a most inconvenient union. I am more sorry than you can ever realize.She glanced a few more times towards the garden and then disappeared down the hall muttering of catastrophes and famines as she wrung her hands.

Well,you smiled. That was interesting.

Yes, she is. I hope you are not offended.

You waved your hands away. It is nice to meet someone who admired and liked my father.

And your mother?I only asked wanting to know more about you and to prolong your visit. But my question, I fear, offended. Your colouring changed as if you became instantly ill and lightheaded.

She died giving birth to me,you said, barely above a whisper.

I had to catch my breath. I had forgotten that. Please forgive me. I meant your step-mother.

I have no idea. She is away and was never much for writing. I should be grateful. Not reading a tiring list of my shortcomings, negative traits, and varied disappointments gives me more time in the day.

I flinched because it pained me to hear of anyone causing you distress. Surely she is happy Ashland will remain within the immediate family.

You shrugged. I am happy my sister will have more choices.

More choices than you were offered?

You quickly glanced away from me to study the rug in the parlour that I admit had not crossed my attention in years. I did not even remember it possessed so many bright, yellow flowers, and I hoped you liked it. If you despised it, I would change it immediately. I did not regret saying what I did. Maybe I should have, but regret is not an emotion I am quick to entertain.

Uninterrupted, I was able to study you clearly. As your green eyes watched me, strange and silly things grasped my thoughts. Your beautiful light brown hair was held up with some contraption. Ladiesaccoutrements fall well beyond my purview. I wondered of your hairs length and how it fell across and over your shoulders. I have never looked at a womans head and wondered anything about her hair. Then I thought about your beautiful eyes and all they had seen in your young life. I hoped few tears crossed your cheeks, and that smiles introduced themselves easily to you. You have the most inviting smile. It takes my breath away and makes me forget my own name.

I hoped you looked at me without utter disgust. I fear my hair is shorter than convention and have spent hours listening to my grandmother rail against it. My forehead sometimes juts out too far, and, if I am not careful, too easily betrays my disgust and anger. It is hard for me to hide my intentions, but I hoped you were gracious enough to not be too offended how I looked at you.

For an entire hour, we talked about nothing and everything. No one interrupted us. It was the finest hour in my life. I have never felt more content to be so accepted and understood. I did not fidget as I often do when bored. My mind did not wander. I did not worry or misbehave. Peace. That is what I felt. Calm swept through me like a warm summers day of pure joy. It was everything I had always longed for but never knew was missing.

Then James returned. Time continued to chug as it had before, and nefarious thoughts invaded me.

James must have stood there for a few minutes before I even realized anyone else existed. You had already become my everything.

The beautiful gardens are beautiful, Henry.

I stared at him as if he were a statue. Yes, thank you, James. We are blessed with good soil.I heard myself speak but thought I detected a stranger. When I talked with you, I was honest, true, and genuine. Talking with anyone else, I heard the decayed enthusiasm in my voice. With you, I was eloquent - at least I would like to believe I was - and interesting. I can only hope you found me interesting. With James, I stammered and stalled as if I were back in school being accused of something I most surely and deviously perpetrated.

James cleared his throat again. Do you know how they achieved such a vivid shade of red on that flower by the edge of the property? Forgive me for not providing the proper name of the flower. I am sure, unless you have changed, you do not admire or study them as I do.

I relinquished the need to understand him fully. You would have to ask the gardener.

Of course,” James sniffed.

Even as boys, I recognized the haughty nature James possessed. He was untitled but wealthy and smarter than the rest. He believed those of us born with titles were useless, and I am sure he was correct in his assessments of many of my class.

James cleared his throat awkwardly as if he intended a symbolic meaning behind his irritation. Henry is part of the class who fears getting his hands dirty and his mind opened.

I grinned. James tried to sting me, but he lacked the proper attachment. Did you see the fern like plant by the fountain?

James looked upon me as if I were a lowly idiot. I recognized it immediately. It is a—”

It is the most beautiful being I have ever seen,I quickly interrupted. Strong. Selfless. Unique. I did not believe those qualities could exist.Of course, I was speaking of you, Cassandra, and not the fern. I am sure James did not suspect. He lacks the romantic nature that inspires most men to be deceitfully sly.

Enough about James. My hand tires of writing of him, and my mind hardens to his descriptions. Before I met you Cassandra, I thought little of love. I regret I believed it to be a fairy tale or an infection for the afflicted. The moment I saw you, I knew how wrong I had been. I long to see your emerald eyes sparkle again. Circumstances might prevent us from ever being together, but I wanted you to know there was someone who ardently loved you, would fight for you, will die with your name on his lips. You are in possession of my heart.

I am yours, Cassandra, now and forever.

Henry

Letter 3 ~ Juliana to Cassandra


January 12, 1810


My sweetest Cassie, do not fret, for I am incapable of judging you. Your secret I will hide away forever. Unfortunately, my acquaintance with your Lord Halithorpe has been postponed because Rebecca has ventured out little from Ramsbury in her brothers absence. Lord Kemnay, Retton, is not only Henrys cousin but also his dearest friend. Hopefully, I will soon encounter this great man who has captured your heart.

You married James because you assumed it your duty. I never wanted you to do it. I only wish Father had not pressured you. Your marriage made him happy in his final days, and he died in peace knowing his beloved Ashland would remain in Bering hands. You should be proud of your sacrifice, but he should not have detained selfish desires.

Yes, your mother was very beloved as are you. My own mother is not. She married Father because she wanted the title and money. She did not want him specifically. Neither made the other happy. Given their fifty year age difference, he should have realized as such. It pains me he suffered such a sour union and then expected you to marry out of responsibility rather than love. I am sorry of my obsession over the matter: I have said as much as I can without further offense but not as much as swirls consistently in my mind.

Do you not think it strange James introduced you to Lord Halithorpe? You needed your new husband to introduce you to your true love. Quite peculiar, is it not? That awareness has stalked me. I also do not think it bizarre you love someone so soon after meeting. I would adore love. I imagine the heart beats fast like the speediest of horses, and the worlds mysteries finally reveal themselves from their foggy veil. I cannot wait.

It pains me to think of your suffering,

Juliana

Letter 4 ~ Henry to Retton


January 6, 1810


Retton, you must help me, cousin. I have met Cassandra Bering, and I am doomed to a life of misery because she is recently married to James Hawksley.

You may recall James from Eton and Oxford. He is rather congenially dull and odd. I am certain he would make an adequate husband to someone who did not require or expect much but not to Cassandra. Her home, Ashland, was entailed to him since neither her mother nor step-mother bore surviving sons. Originally, the estate was entailed to Jamesgrandfather, but Cassandras father survived much longer than anyone planned. The estate had to be entailed to James' father and then to James. Rare that Lord Abbotden outlived so many of his heirs.

Not only is Cassandra the most beautiful I have ever seen, but speaking to her was absolute peace. I could have told her anything without fear of repercussion. I could stare into the clarity of her green eyes forever and never be bored or crave another. She is everything I ever wanted. She possesses such strength and loyalty mixed with the fragility of someone who knows not their own power.

Have you ever succumbed to love? You suffered many a crush, but I am not sure if your feelings were ever as deep as the roots of the mighty oak. Trust me, cousin, it is everything you imagined or feared it to be - such a dichotomy of hope and anguish.

What am I to do? My heart has been found, but hers will never belong to me. How do I submit to such agony? I wish you could tell me what to do, but I can hear your words. You would say she is married and lost to me.

This age we live in can be so infuriating. Had not that illogical entail been enforced, Ashland would be Cassandras birthright. She would be free to marry her choice. I wish the newest earl of Abbotden no ill will except perhaps an untimely death. Sorry, cousin, forgive me for that impertinence. I do not wish James ill. I would never wish ill upon a soul, and I could not bear a single sorrow from Cassandra.

I realize my actions rarely meet your approval. You are the morality and guardian of our souls - the best of our family.

I failed to mention this fact: I wrote to Cassandra. Take a deep breath, cousin. I cannot dance around delicacies nor will I engage in petty flirtatious nonsense.

I love her. I have said it. Yes, I realize I have only met her once, but that meeting changed my life. It changed the course of my life. It will alter you, cousin. Your reason will fail once your heart begs for another. I long to see the unflappable Rettons sensibilities shaken.

She has possessed me. I think of nothing but Cassandra Bering. I close my eyes and believe her to be here. Dangerous, I know, to tempt my sanity, but I will not risk her reputation to see her. Besides, I trust not myself.

Should I die never losing myself in her beautiful green eyes or knowing her touch or hearing the lilt in her voice when she says my name orI should end this letter before I fully regret where it is likely to proceed. My mood has soured with regret.

Forgive me and I hope you can overlook my sins, Your cousin,

Henry

Letter 5 ~ Retton to Henry


February 12, 1810


Cousin Henry, I apologize for not answering sooner, but I was rather alarmed at your admission. I cannot say I fully understand your heightened emotions having never experienced love myself. Normally, I envy your passionate energy. Now, I fear your passion has mistreated you.

Regardless of the ardent nature of your feelings, Countess Abbotden is indeed lost to you. You must cease your infatuation. I hold no ill will towards her, but she is married. Nothing can change that. Do not continue your correspondence. I fear of what would become of either of you should your letters be made public. Do not place her in rumour's way.

Perhaps you could assuage your heart by knowing you did indeed love once. You might easily love again. Many a young lady long to be mistress of Edenfield and might make you happy. Please be not offended by my suggestions. We shall discuss matters further when I return to Ramsbury.

Retton

Letter 6 ~ Cassandra to Henry


February 18, 1810


Henry, I began this letter hundreds of times. I received your letter and can recite your words from memory as I have read them so often. Thank you for your candor. I have never been on the receiving end of such passion. I am not ashamed to admit I have lived all of my twenty years in an unromantic state.

Being the oldest child without a brother, my father impressed upon me his desire that Ashland would never leave the Bering family. It was assumed at an early age I would marry his heir. I agreed only to appease him and alleviate his worries in the last few years of his life.

I am not prone to romantic notions. I only professed a daughter's duty and fulfilled my promise. When I first met James Hawksley, I found him a very agreeable man, and all believed we made a good match. We did what was expected and married, but we exist as brother and sister without romantic allusions or stirrings.

I fear I have lingered over an explanation you never sought. Why do you have such power over me? Is this the true meaning of love? Forgive me for using that word to a man who is not my husband. Will I be forever haunted by this sin? I fully intended upon pleading with you to never write me again. I wanted to tell you to forget about me. When I chose the paper upon which those dreaded words would be placed, my hand refused.

I am well aware words without actions are still a betrayal to my husband. My father would be aghast. I hope I never once lent a crease to his face nor a shadow to his heart. I fear of what my mother would think. She sacrificed everything to give me life, and ever since I turned away from being a selfish child I have sought to live in her memorys shadow. I allowed her example to guide me, but I am ashamed I have fallen so far.

Each day I hear whispers and believe my secret is known. If someone glances at me suspiciously I become that little girl again overhearing the servants discussing why my mother had to die for such a useless and devilish child. I cannot return to that shame. The thought of it lays ruin to my appetite, heavies my head until I lose balance, and fills me with dread knowing I am not worthy to have survived when my mother did not.

All my life, I did what was right. I lived not for myself but for my family. I would have been content all my days to continue. Then I met you. Your gaze took me in and held me safe. I am not too naïve to believe you never looked at another like that. How did I capture your imagination? Why were the fates so cruel to delay our meeting until after my marriage? I should wish for you a proper wife and not a relationship based upon sheets of paper, but that would be disingenuous. The thought of another fills me with dread and worry. Until you return to your senses, I am grateful for your love. Please know it is returned a thousand times over. I am sorry I lack the language to profess my emotions more clearly.

I exist in perpetual dizziness. I have to be the dutiful daughter, wife, and sister, but my heart longs for something that can never be. I only pray James never discovers this. I will not cause him shame. He does not deserve it. He is not a spiteful man nor is he evil.

This has to be the first and last letter I write to you. The fact I have allowed myself to put pen to paper and admit my true feelings fills me with a malignant shame. And now I will be strong and ask that you do not write me again. You have awakened my heart to feelings I knew not that I possessed, but I must spend my remaining days in repentance for my sins.

Forever yours,

Cassandra

Letter 7 ~ Juliana to Cassandra


February 26, 1810


My sweetest Cassie, I went to Edenfield! Can you tell I am grinning? I must purge this while it roams freely in my memory. Here is what happened...

Rebecca flew into my room with two of her flustered servants and a dozen different coloured dresses. Rebeccas thick black hair freely danced and tangled as she pranced. Retton will be there, and I must see him for it has been so long,she said in between gasps for air.

Now, as you well know, I pride myself in understanding silences as well as speech. The furtive glances the maids exchanged expressed more than words alone could have conveyed.

Rebecca picked up a yellow dress. This one? Will it bring out my eyes? Will my brother like it?

I did not want to ask why yellow would bring out Rebecca's dark brown eyes, but I had not the chance. She threw the yellow dress down as if it suggested something nefarious.

This?Rebecca picked up another dress which was much greener than it ought to be. “Better?” Her teary eyes pleaded with me as if my opinion would secure her happiness for years.

Before I uttered a sound, she violently threw the innocent dress down. I swear I heard the dresses moan in terror. She picked up a bright pink one and held it under her chin. This one? Would this one be better still?

The poor maids had a time of grabbing dresses and sashes and hats that flew this way and that, and it is a wonder someone was not strangled amidst the carnage - I must give her maids credit for their willpower.

Rebecca is recently recovered from that mysterious sickness which almost claimed her last year, and I worried her breathing would labour again. I quickly picked up a rather pretty blue dress which almost matched the shade of a perfect sky. What about this one? It is very pleasing.

Rebecca smiled and calmed immediately. Thank you, Juliana, you are the best of a friend.She picked up the dress and studied it. Oh, to have that match my eyes. Your sister has blue eyes, does she not?

“Green,” I answered. Cassies eyes are green like our father. I took after my mother with the brown eyes.

I used to pray for light eyes.Rebeccas voice drifted with her gaze. Then, she flew out of the room. It only took a few minutes for the two maids to scoop up the spilled madness, glance at me with a knowing look, and scurry after Rebecca.

I assumed Rebeccas panic had little to do with her brother. I do not have a reference as to how sisters should behave around brothers, but I rather doubt so much effort would commence upon a sibling. I would gladly sacrifice anything for you, but I would not introduce madness just for the right shade of fabric. I believed something else tempted Rebecca's mind rather than her brother's return.

An hour later, I waited in the carriage. Rebecca changed her shoes then her hat then her sash and then finally her gloves before she joined me.

I am so sorry, Juliana. I am ready now.Rebecca sat down gingerly in the carriage and wiped at her already glistening brow.

The driver waited several minutes to ensure Rebecca would not flee again.

Are you alright, Rebecca? Dare we even venture out?

Venture out?Rebecca suspiciously looked at me as if I had just suggested a royal coup. Why on earth would you even—”

I am sorry.I touched Rebeccas hand to calm her. I worry about your health.

Rebecca sighed and stared through the carriage window at the bumpy countryside.

Suspicions can quickly be appeased with words of concern. Most people are usually thinking of themselves and find it not at all peculiar when someone else inquires about them.

I know I am devious, but I do not appear as such. Perhaps it is my angelic appearance, pleasing manners, or the innocence that rests behind my eyes. Forgive my madness. I am only having a bit of fun at my own expense.

Rebecca sighed loudly. I hope the Dowager Countess is away. My great aunt likes me not.She fiddled this way and that with her already mangled gloves. I do not know why I inspire such derision.

I quickly turned away as if admiring the scenery. I did not wish Rebecca to see my malicious grin. I have known Rebecca for a few years, but she is challenging company.

We continued on the carriage ride, but Rebecca did not pursue her normal inane conversations. She has been known to casually chatter about strings or plants or leaves or monkeys as minds spin in a thousand directions.

The carriage turned down the tree lined street that would take us to Edenfield, and I do not mind admitting my heart skipped a bit faster. I would soon meet the man who captured the heart of my favorite sister. Yes, I realize you are my only sister, but is it not better that you are also the favorite?

I noticed Rebecca clasped her hand over her heart many times. As we neared Edenfield, my heart raced. The estate is grander than Ashland. The stone is a lighter grey, and the statues smile instead of being trapped in a frozen frown. The gardens feature every shade of green. The windows are quite large with at least a dozen panes each. I grew tired of Father's aversion to sun and resented Ashlands heavy red drapes which trapped us in perpetual darkness.

At our arrival, we were shown into the entrance hall. Cassie, dare I admit, I could see you gliding down the stairway as mistress? The ceilings were so tall I feared my neck would forever be ruined should I seek the end of the height. I allowed myself to peer over the many portraits of the former Lords and Ladies of Edenfield. Not a one could be described as hideous.

Rebecca squealed quickly, and I feared the worst. She ran to greet a man who I assumed was the brother she speaks about nonstop. Oh, Retton.

He was not different than I imagined, but Rebecca is not often accurate with her more descriptive adjectives. You might not recollect since you were usually busy with father, but Rebecca has grown quite beautiful with porcelain skin and deep brown eyes and midnight coloured hair. Her brother's hair is brown but anyone would believe them to be related given their perfect features.

Retton, I would like you to meet Lady Juliana Bering.

Oh,he startled himself, and I was not sure what he meant.

Juliana,Rebecca said. This is my brother. My oldest brother. Actually my closest of all my brothers and sisters. The rest long ago left.Rebecca paused as if in deep thought. After a few moments, she shook her head and continued. He is the direct heir to my father the Marquess. May I present Lord Kemnay.

I bowed. Pleased to meet you, Lord Kemnay.He might be the oldest brother, but he cannot be more than six and twenty.

Rebecca wrote that you were visiting,he said. I hope you have found Ramsbury pleasant?

Pleasant? I found myself lost six different times. I was not even sure if I were still in England when I visited the east corridor. Ramsbury is quite extraordinary, Lord Kemnay.

It is rather embarrassingly lavish,he said shyly.

It is rare that a gentleman would possess such dignity and humility. I assume him hesitant by nature, but he did not avert his attention from me as others would have.

Rebecca giggled and blushed. Is she not beautiful, brother? Is she not exactly as I described?

Lord Kemnay cleared his throat.

My sister is much more beautiful,I said which I entirely believe.

Then you two must entice every gentleman you meet.Lord Kemnay flinched as if he had not intended to say such things.

Another man walked in behind Rebeccas brother. I knew him instantly. This was the man I always imagined for my favourite sister.

Lord Kemnay winced. Where are my manners? Lady Juliana, this is my cousin, Henry. Lord Halithorpe.

Henry smiled at me. Lady Juliana, I met your sister.

Cassie told me,I quickly said.

Cassie?he asked. I like that.His eyes showed an understanding that I knew about everything. I am glad you two are so close, and I applaud you for wrestling a compliment from my cousin.

You believe me to be stingy with compliments?Lord Kemnay asked playfully.

Just not as sure of yourself around a beautiful lady.Intelligence and deviousness existed behind Henrys blue eyes. He was handsome and direct with a confidence and never ending smile. It is little wonder he captured your heart. He had such an air of authority and compassion. If I had all the paper in the world, I would never tire of decent adjectives to describe him.

Cassie, I wish you had not sacrificed yourself to save Ashland. I wish I were the older sister and you would have been free to marry Henry. I could have married James. Drat. That was most difficult to write. I do not mind him much, but he is peculiar. Sorry, but you must be with Henry. I will see you two married. I am sure of it. I mean nothing untoward, but, by my determination, it will be done. Now I only need to wrestle with the pesky details.

Anyway, we were shown into a parlour with intricately carved fireplaces, more than two dozen chairs and sofas, various rugs, and a few statues and colorful vases on each table. The room had the most amazing glow as the light from the fire danced around the walls and instantly warmed us.

I sat next to Rebecca on a small yellow sofa by the fire while the two gentlemen remained standing. I was well aware Lord Kemnay had not taken his eyes from me since meeting, and I was not sure yet whether to be annoyed or flattered. For that, I would require much thought. He is all Rebecca described with fine eyes and a pleasing smile, and, yes, he is very handsome indeed. If I was careless, he could take my breathe away. I cannot believe I wrote that...

Lost in thought, I almost did not see an older woman stomp into the room and quickly sit down opposite me. She wore all black. Even her bracelets, necklace, and rings were black or a variation of dark. Only her pale face and curly white hair provided definition. She murmured and muttered, and I feared she was not at all well. I noticed neither of the gentlemen paid much attention. I did not believe there to be immediate danger, but Rebecca fidgeted as if uncomfortably sitting on a servant. I could only deduce it was her great aunt, the Dowager Countess.

The woman made sure her dress was straight and all bracelets faced the right way. After much haranguing, whispering and muttering, she glanced up. Henry, why was I not informed we had company?

I am sorry, grandmother, but we have company.

She produced quite a determined look. Rebecca sunk further into the sofa. This woman could wither without saying a word. How grand was that? I already admired her immensely.

Are you in the habit of allowing me to wander about? Why did you not attempt to stop me?the woman asked.

You give me too much credit to believe I could have stopped you from doing anything,Henry said with a most devious grin.

She stared at him with a mixture of disgust and admiration. Her expressions held such power and were more understood than an hour long lecture. It is an art that, as you well know, I have been practicing and trying to perfect for years.

Forgive my lapse,Henry said as he stepped forward with a grand gesture. Grandmother, may I present your great nephew, Lord Kemnay.

She produced another sour look. This was followed by a grand sigh. You have such wit, do you not, Henry? Wherever did you acquire such wit?

He grinned. “I am sure it was inherited.

The woman could not suppress her smile. It is good you have returned, Retton. And did your rest produce some much needed clarity?

I was not sure what she referred to. Since both gentlemen quickly glanced at Rebecca, she had to be the reason for his ‘rest.’

Lord Kemnay studied the rug. Perhaps in due time.I tried to divert my eyes when his gaze returned to me. This is what I have been able to deduce so far: to his sister, his eyes reflected pain and pity. To his aunt, his behaviour hinted at fear and intimidation. With Henry, his demeanor told of a deep friendship and trust. To me, I received attention of a somewhat flirty and shy nature.

Henry studied me for a few minutes as if trying to see you in me. Grandmother, this is Lady Juliana Bering. Lady Juliana, this is my grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Halithorpe.

Bering? You must be Lord Abbotden's youngest. I met your sister not long ago.

I nodded. Yes, Cassandra was here. I am glad you met her.

Her gaze bore into me for several minutes as she studied my hair, eyes, dress, and the way I clasped my hands together in my lap. Then, she smiled. I approve.She leaned closer. I admired your father very much. And your sisters sacrifice was very admirable.

Thank you.It is so rare to have compliments about Father. We miss Father so.

That is much to your credit to miss him and much more to your credit to mean it.

I saw Henry's smile and Retton's blush again.

Then the Dowager Countess snapped her neck and glared several times at Rebecca. I see you are here with my great niece.

The temperature dropped sharply. Retton took a deep breath while Henry cleared his throat.

I have been staying at Ramsbury since my sister married.

Of course,she said, suspiciously eyeing her niece. And how have you enjoyed the visit, Lady Juliana?

Very much,I said. Although, I miss my sister terribly.

Well, I am sure the visit will brighten now that my nephew has returned.

Rebecca shifted and stared deep into the fire conversing with the flames.

The Dowager Countess smiled as if she enjoyed frightening her niece. Lady Juliana, sit next to me so we can discuss things further.

I did as she requested but found it rather difficult to look at Rebecca who sullenly sat alone growing paler by the second.

Grandmother,Henry interrupted the silence. Will you not inquire about Rebecca?

She stared at Henry as if he had just barked. Then she forced her gaze to Rebecca. If I had planned upon making inquires, dear boy, I would have already done so.She shifted positions sharply so that her jewelry clanged together at once.

After a few more moments of awkward silence, Henry cleared his throat. Rebecca, we have a new pianoforte in the music room. Would you like to—”

Before Henry finished, Rebecca clapped and ran out of the room. Her boots loudly clomped down the hall until the thumping grew quieter.

The Dowager Countess slowly removed her hands from her ears. Upon my honour! I do believe she is getting worse.

Retton quickly glanced at me and then placed his hands behind his back to steady himself. There are days when she appears quite content.

And others?she asked.

Retton shook his head without further response.

And have you made any decisions?

Retton glanced at me as if embarrassed to discuss delicate matters so openly. I was unsure if he was more embarrassed for himself or for me. I decided not to burden him with my all knowing gaze.

Think of yourself, Retton.

I had better see to her.Retton bowed to me before leaving the room.

Henry waited until his cousin was out of the room. Grandmother, must you frighten him so?

The Dowager Countess shrugged her shoulders. Your cousin is much stronger than he allows himself to believe. And, if he is ever to capture the heart of this one…” She patted my knee. Then he had better show himself sooner rather than later.

I should have blushed or protested or something ladies are meant to do, but blushing is not in my true nature. Besides, a woman as wise as the Dowager Countess would have seen through any emotions and thought lesser of me. I was determined to remain on her good side.

The Dowager Countess smiled at my discretion: her temptations did not trap me. And how has Rebecca seemed to you?She raised her hand. Before you answer, be aware you do not have to spare your words to spare feelings. Some of us...She gestured towards her grandson. “…prefer the harsh realities of truth rather than the mediocrity of a soothing lie.

I could not help but smile. Can I be you when I grow up?

The Dowager Countess laughed.

Henry sat down opposite us. You are wise beyond your years.

You are not intimidated by me. Good,the Dowager Countess said. It is refreshing to be confronted with admiration rather than complimented with fear.

Henry snorted. I do not scare easily.

Of course not. Otherwise you would not have entertained an infatuation with a married woman.

Henry quickly glanced at me.

You do not have to be so shy, Henry. Lady Juliana is much too smart.

I shrugged. Cassie wrote me.

He closed his eyes. What am I to do?

Try not to throw yourself into the pit, dear boy. It would make such a mess.

Henry shook his head. You are a stone, are you not wicked woman?

She chuckled and then returned her attention to me. I am anxious to know your thoughts concerning the awkward situation known more simply as my niece.

In regards to Lady Rebecca…” I hesitated because there is a thin distinction between speaking ones mind and offending. I do not believe it my place to discuss, but since you have asked... I can only admit she is a bit emotional lately and prone to rather disruptive outbursts. She has been looking forward to her brother's return, and I can only hope Lord Kemnays presence alleviates.

The Dowager Countess laughed. That was probably the best way of saying exactly what needed to be said in the most delicate manner possible. You give your father credit for your manners. Henry, might you trouble yourself to fetching my new shall.

He immediately stood up to leave and then looked his grandmother over. You are wearing your new shall.

Then might you trouble yourself to leave so that I may speak more candidly with my new friend?

Henry waited for me to protest, but I did not. He then directed his attention to his grandmother. Be civil.

Aren't I always?

She did not see his reaction since he was almost at the door and out of her line of vision. Once alone, she turned to me. Now that the fusspots are away, pray tell me how does someone as intelligent and interesting as you befriend my grand niece?

Several years ago, we met at a party. We were both in London visiting relatives.

She jerked back a bit. You met her and still wished to befriend her?

I could not admit I found myself fascinated with Rebecca. I rarely come across someone of her temperament. I looked about the room to ensure we were still alone and leaned closer to the Dowager Countess. Has she been like this always?

Dreadful, is it not? My dear grandson tries not to impress upon her anything which might produce a fit, and Retton must get away on occasion when she has exhausted him. It is no wonder her parents stay away as long as they do. They hope they will be greeted with news of their youngest daughter's impending marriage and will only return to Ramsbury on the assurance she will live there no longer.

I could not help but frown. But to be forced to stay away from your own house?

The Dowager Countess nodded. And have you been witness to many of her fits?She scrunched her face into a most unflattering position. They are dreadful, are they not? I did not believe it possible for someone to shatter one's nerves and produce so many tears over such trivialities. She has obsessed over the post, the moon, and my other grandson, Nathaniel. Of course, I need not chastise her for that. Nathaniel could produce fits in even the holiest of men.

I could not prevent myself from laughing. Can I say what a pleasure it is to meet someone who does not allow convention to force themselves to act contrary to who they really are?

Now that, my dear, is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. We are going to be friends. I knew upon waking this day that it would be a great one.She studied me further. And how do you find my grandson?

He is very handsome and well thought of by everyone.

She glanced at me slyly. And do you approve of his feelings towards your married sister?

I could not suppress my smile. Honestly, I wish Cassandra had met Lord Halithorpe before her marriage.

Her eyes narrowed. And how do you find your new brother-in-law?

I looked at her quickly and thought of you Cassie, but I could not help myself. Being around her is absolute freedom. I dared not lie or even deceive a little. He is nice but dull and not one I would have chosen for my sister. He lacks passion, and I fear she has challenged her life with someone who could not possibly produce even the slightest bit of interest in her. To see my beautiful, intelligent sister wither is more than I can bear.I was not afraid to allow the tears which I have kept hidden for so long to spill. I quickly dabbed at my eyes. Forgive me. I do not wish you to be burdened.

Fear not, dear child. Your feelings matter and are valid. I met James Hawksley many times. Dullness is a hereditary trait shared by all in his family. His grandfather pursued me most ardently many years ago.She shook as if the feelings were too difficult to remain with her. Let us talk of happier things.

May I say, meeting you makes me wish I had known my own grandmothers.

You did not know either of them?She asked with eyebrows raised. Oh, what am I saying? Your father was my age. But what about your mother's mother?

I shook my head.

That is probably just as well. I will not pretend to have heard flattering compliments about your mother.

I lowered my head in shame. No, I can imagine few would seek to flatter her.

The Dowager Countess patted me on the knee. Dear child, do not bear the sins of your mother.She sat back and studied me further. You remind me of myself. Perhaps that is why I like you so much.

We shared a laugh and were about to broach nicer subjects, but Rebecca screamed back into the room and threw herself down on the chair in a pout. This was soon followed by the return of Retton and Henry.

The Dowager Countess quickly glanced at me and drew a breath before she inquired. What is the matter now?

Rebecca folded her hands together tightly. Her cheeks were bright red as if shed been crying, and some of her hair stuck to her neck. The keys on the pianoforte treated me ill.

The Dowager Countess threw up her hands.

Retton leaned close to Rebecca, I am sure our cousin will allow you to try again when the situation is much improved.

Of course,Henry added. You are welcome anytime.

The Dowager Countess smirked and snorted to which Henry pleaded with her not to further torment.

She leaned close to me and whispered. Why must civilized people be held hostage by the madness of a few?

Henry then caught his grandmother's attention and gestured to her as if prodding her to say something.

She shook her head.

He mouthed, 'for Retton.'

She rolled her eyes and sighed. Yes, Rebecca, you should come again and play. Your music...She gritted her teeth as if each word produced a sandy response. ...manages to fill the room.

Rebeccas eyes widened. Really? Do you mean it?

I rarely say things I do not mean.

Rebecca jumped up and lunged towards her aunt hugging her before she could slither from her grasp. Thank you! Oh, thank you! That means the world to me. I will try again right now!With that, she ran out of the room leaving her aunt to smooth out her dress and readjust her jewelry.

That is why I dislike physical contact. It ruffles too many things which took a great deal of time to be properly placed.

Thank you,Retton said.

The Dowager Countess nodded. Now would you please do as I have asked and either get that girl a proper doctor or a proper husband. Or perhaps save some time and combine them. I hate to see you wasting your life for her.

Retton shook his head. I am fine.

You are the heir, Retton. The eldest son of the Marquess. Your fathers title will be yours before you know it. You must not forget the loyalty to your parents as well as yourself.

He shook his head, and I saw in him a stubbornness I admired. I will not abandon her as others have.

The Dowager Countess did not take that as a slight against herself. She shrugged. Your parents have lost much, Retton. Do not begrudge them their sanity as well.

My heart beat a little faster as I studied Retton. He is very handsome indeed. Have I mentioned that already? No matter. It could be repeated. His loyalty is obviously unsurpassed. You and I could be married to cousins and best friends and would see each other always. I know, I am getting ahead of myself. Your husband still breathes.

Forgive me for that last statement. I thought of crossing the words out, but I know you would be able to read them still. I plotted beginning the letter again, but I lacked the energy. I only wish things were different, but I do not wish tragedy to make them so.

I have more to say but must get this to the post. I dare not allow my letters to meander unattended. I trust not some of Rebecca's maids. I found one collapsed in the corner last week. I feared the worst, but she claimed a lost hat stirred strong feelings in her. Does Rebeccas infection spread to the unwitting?

I miss you terribly,

Juliana

Letter 8 ~ Cassandra to Juliana


February 28, 1810


Juliana, perhaps you have touched the mad. Did I not make myself clear? I cannot and will not betray my husband any more than I already have.

Shame taunts me every day. I can never take that back, but I will not proceed further.

I am married to James. It is done. Do not waste your time trying to procure something that will not, cannot, and should not take place. I refuse it! James is an honorable man. He is my husband. I am most determined to be happy. I hope I can make James happy with me as well. I must conclude this letter. My health and mood have entirely soured.

Think not of me. I beg you to let me forget my foolishness. Concentrate solely on your own happiness.

Cassandra

Letter 9 ~ Henry to James


February 28, 1810


James, I am not sure if you knew about the birthday celebration for my cousins, Retton and Rebecca, but may I be the first to invite you and Countess Abbotden. As you know, Lady Juliana has been staying with Lady Rebecca at Ramsbury. She has expressed her deepest interest in seeing her sister again, and Retton was very sorry he missed you in December.

Please do not disappoint my cousins or Lady Juliana. Ramsbury and Edenfield will be more than welcome to you. I hope we can renew our friendship.

Halithorpe

Letter 10 ~ Cassandra to Juliana


March 1, 1810


Juliana, what have you done! Only a day after sending my last letter, James spoke about nothing but attending the birthday celebration at Ramsbury.

I cannot be certain, but I assume you had something to do with the invitation. Do you not have enough to worry about with your own life? Must you continue to meddle in mine?

I do not know how to make myself more clear. I am not pleased. I cannot go. I will not attend! Rumours would swirl, and James would be hurt.

Your plans will most assuredly come to a hideous end. Speaking of which - your mother has returned to Ashland. She is planning on visiting Ramsbury soon. Having her hover over you will most likely stop your dangerous plots.

Please use the next few days to ponder upon the foolishness of your schemes and cease them. For my sake, Juliana. I implore you!

Cassandra

Letter 11 ~ Juliana to Cassandra


March 3, 1810


My sweetest Cassie, I will not apologize for seeking your happiness. Unfortunately, your letter warning me about Mother arrived with her. I had just stepped out the front door, and my heart leapt when I saw one of Ashlands carriages. I so hoped you had reconsidered and arrived early to scold me.

I waited eagerly for the carriage door to open. I imagined all the fun we would have and all the times I could see you blush under the weight of Lord Halithorpes gaze. I longed to hear your justifications about your marriage and witness you struggle with your temptations. My eager smile quickly evaporated like a sad, unwanted raindrop. Mother and her most disapproving glare jumped out of the carriage.


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