For anyone else, this place would have fostered a sense of serenity if not pure bliss, but Rowena Buxton felt nothing but a sad sort of detachment.
The musical notes of a nearby stream were accompanied by the occasional burst of her friends’ laughter. In July, the Suffolk countryside shone with a tapestry of different greens, spotted generously with yellow and pink flowers in the grass. Rowena sat alone on a low rock wall watching her friends, also known as the Cunning Coterie, enjoying the impromptu picnic out of sight from the watchful eyes of society’s gossiping matrons.
Young women wearing pastel muslin and carrying lacy, white parasols moved indolently among young men in their light suits and straw hats. Occasionally, a summer breeze would lift the ribbons or stir the flowers on the women’s hats, but it did little to relieve the heat that buzzed around them like bees. Visiting Summerset Abbey had been a treasured part of Rowena’s childhood and contained dozens of memories just like this one . . . excepting the inevitable pairing off, imbibing of alcohol, and smoking of expensive Turkish cigarettes that hadn’t arrived on the scene until recently. Perhaps the prior generation hid their vices better, or perhaps Rowena just hadn’t noticed.
“Do you think he’ll ever win her heart?” Sebastian asked, coming up next to her.
She startled, almost falling off the wall, and he put his arm around her waist to steady her.
“Who? Oh, Kit and Victoria?” She glanced to where her younger sister sat with her back against the trunk of a beech tree organizing flowers into piles while Kit read to her from the latest E. M. Forster novel. Kit’s dark-red head was tilted close to her sister’s fair one. No doubt Victoria was sorting herbs while Kit ardently hoped his dedication would pay off next time he asked her to marry him. “Poor sot. He has her heart. It’s her hand in marriage she won’t give.”
“What about your heart?” Sebastian’s eyes were grave.
Rowena turned to look at her fiancé. “My heart is my own.”
“Is it really?” he asked, his voice casual.
She twirled the flute of champagne in her fingers before draining the glass. “Of course. And you have my hand in marriage, my dear, so all is well.” She ignored the pain that tightened her chest and banished her former lover from her mind.
She held her glass up, signaling to the servant keeping careful watch by one of the wagons that she needed another. He was there in moments with champagne that had been kept chilled in the stream.
“Would you like some, sir?” the servant asked Sebastian, after filling Rowena’s glass. She frowned at the white gloves he wore, thinking about how ridiculous it was to have a servant wear white gloves in such heat. And on a picnic no less. The servant kept his gaze on the ground, and Rowena wondered what his name was. Like so many others in the grand estate, this serving man was anonymous. She tried not to think of her and her sister’s former home in London, where the servants were a valued part of the family. Perhaps when she was the mistress of Eddelson Hall, she could really get to know her servants.
Sebastian waved a flask. “No, thank you. I have my own.”
“Very good, sir.”
The man left and Sebastian turned back to Rowena. “Kit’s pretty stubborn.”
To Rowena’s relief, Sebastian returned to the topic of his best friend and her little sister. Lately, he’d begun pressing her for more affection than she was ready to give him. Their engagement was more one of convenience than love—both had had their hearts broken and neither wanted to risk their feelings again. They were dear friends and their marriage would be a partnership based on mutual respect and friendship. Why was he suddenly pushing her? Not that she didn’t enjoy his physical affection—her body tingled at his touch, but that disturbed her as well. What kind of woman was she that her body would react this way with two very different men, only one of whom she truly had loved?
Tired of her own thoughts, Rowena hopped down off the wall. “Let’s play some cricket, shall we?” she called to the others.
Annalisa, a vivacious young woman with light brown hair and dark eyes, groaned from where she reclined against a pile of soft pillows. “What is it with you Buxtons? You’re all just so active. Always busy doing something.”
“Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” Victoria quipped.
Cousin Elaine jumped up with surprising eagerness. “It’s because our tolerance for boredom is so low. Isn’t that right, Colin?” She looked to her brother, who hadn’t budged.
Rowena knew he hadn’t moved because he had a perfect view of Annalisa’s décolletage from where he was lying. “Oh, come on, it isn’t that hot and we have plenty of cold water. Don’t be so bloody lazy,” Rowena said.
A servant brought the necessary equipment and there was a lot of good-natured wrangling over who would be on whose team. Victoria’s asthma, though much improved, still prevented her from playing any kind of sport, and she was conscripted to keep score.
In spite of the protests, the heat, and their only having seven people on each team, the group played with a surprising zeal. And why not, thought Rowena as she waited for her turn to bat, they’d grown up doing little else besides going to school and playing games. It was what their set did.
She glanced up into the sky, longing for her aeroplane. Only when she flew could she forget about her heartache, the unfairness of the world she was born into, and her grief. Only in the air was she truly happy. But her aeroplane, a Vickers biplane given to her by her uncle, was almost a day’s journey southwest. Now that she was one of a select few women in England to have been awarded her pilot’s license, her uncle wondered why she didn’t bring the Vickers to Summerset to be stored in the barn her friend Mr. Dirkes used for his test planes. She couldn’t tell her uncle the truth.
She was afraid of running into Jonathon.
“Rowena! It’s your turn!” Colin yelled. Her muslin skirt had a slit up one side, but running was still problematic. Rowena enjoyed sports and was good at them. Had she been born into a different sort of family, she might have been on a team of some sort. But upper-class girls didn’t involve themselves with team sports. Besides, she would rather fly than chase balls.
She hit the ball with a crack and heard Victoria and Elaine whooping behind her. Pulling her skirts up, she ran with all her strength while Sebastian, Kit, and Daphne looked for the ball in the long meadow grasses. She’d run twice before Kit yelled surrender.
“That’s the win anyway!” Victoria yelled, jumping up and down.
“It can’t be,” a handsome young man Rowena didn’t know well protested. “It hasn’t been nearly enough runs.”
“Oh, don’t be a sore loser, Edward,” Lady Diana drawled from the corner of her mouth. Lady Diana was commonly believed to be the most beautiful of the Coterie and the most adventurous, though a small but discriminating group considered Rowena to be far prettier. “Your competitive nature is rearing its ugly puss.”
Edward grinned. “But like Puss in Boots, my competitive nature has held me in good stead. It allows me to woo one as lovely as yourself, Lady Manners.”
Diana tossed her head and Rowena smiled.
Victoria nodded as the rest of the Coterie came in from the field and gathered round. “Rowena’s team did win. Look, here is the score sheet.”
Edward pushed them aside playfully. “Why should I take the word of a jailbird?”
Rowena froze. For a fraction of a second no one moved; then in a blur of movement and with a loud smack, Kit punched Edward square in the jaw. Edward went hurtling backward, falling against Rowena and knocking her to the ground.
“Bloody hell!” Edward muttered from where he lay several feet from Rowena. Shocked, Rowena stared at Kit’s scowling face and clenched fist.
Victoria grabbed Kit’s arm. “What is wrong with you? He was only teasing me! He always calls me that. Why are you such a brute?”
Another hush fell over the group. Rowena winced at the pain in Kit’s eyes when Victoria knelt down beside Edward.
“Are you all right?”
Stone-faced, Kit reached his hand out to Edward. “Sorry, mate. I guess I overreacted just a bit.”
Edward rubbed the side of his face. “Not at all. I enjoy the occasional bash on the jaw.”
Victoria stood abruptly, scowling at Kit. “ ‘The injustice they warrant. But vain is my spite. They cannot so suffer who never do right.’ ”
Elaine blinked. “What?”
“Jane Austen,” Victoria explained. “I thought it appropriate.”
Rowena laughed in relief. For a moment she thought there might be a fight with her sister in the middle of it. Released, the others joined in Rowena’s laughter and the tension lessened.
Sebastian helped her to her feet, then held her waist possessively until she shrugged away, complaining that exerting herself in such heat had given her a headache. But she worried as she helped pack up the picnic. How much longer could she put him off?
* * *
Victoria dressed for the evening with the lack of enthusiasm of someone who had done it all too many times before. There would be entertainment in the grand salon—a small quartet her aunt Charlotte had imported from London for the house party—a late supper that would take far too long, and then the usual games of bridge or whist in the drawing room.
Usually the Coterie begged out of the game playing, preferring their own amusements, but lately various and sundry relatives had been applying pressure, urging them to take their rightful place in society.
Fretfully, Victoria tossed the pearls onto her dressing table. The walls of her lovely blue-and-white bedroom seemed to close in on her. Her uncle, the Earl of Summerset, had promised that she would be able to return to London as soon as she regained her health. Victoria leaned forward and stared into the mirror. Her face had filled out since her stint in prison. She was never going to be as healthy as Elaine and Rowena, but between Cook’s puddings and her friend Nanny Iris’s concoctions, she had improved a great deal. And she had always been small and pale—no amount of fattening up would change that. She would corner her uncle tonight.
Resolve buoyed her and she reached for her pearls again.
“Oh, you look lovely, poppet. Are you ready to go down?” Elaine came in behind her, ravishing in a rose silk gown with short, lacy sleeves. Her cousin, with her soft brown hair and pretty blue eyes, was a Coterie favorite, but to her mother, Victoria’s aunt Charlotte, her daughter was little more than an afterthought. Elaine had spent her childhood trying to please her mother and had been a ninny while constantly angling for the woman’s approval. It was funny what a year away in a Swiss boarding school could do for a girl.
“I will be in a moment.” Victoria struggled with her choker until Elaine intervened.
“Oh, let me do that.” Victoria’s blond hair was swept back with combs, and Elaine clasped the pearls around her neck. “That’s a lovely dress. Is that one of the ones we’d had made up before . . .”
“Before I went to Holloway Castle?” Victoria’s eyes met Elaine’s eyes in the mirror. “That’s what we called it, you know. The castle on the hill.”
Elaine looked away.
Victoria stood, sighing. “I’m not ashamed of going to prison, you know. Many brave women have gone to Holloway Castle because they believe in the suffrage of women. I’m humiliated because I wasn’t incarcerated for bravery, but stupidity. I was duped like a child into being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“I’m so dreadfully sorry,” Elaine murmured.
“Oh, don’t be.” Victoria forced a cheerfulness she didn’t feel into her voice. “Because of my time in prison I can now quote the life works of Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman. Would you like to hear?”
Elaine laughed. “Some other time, perhaps.” Her cousin leaned toward the mirror and fixed a curl in front of one of her small, delicate ears. “So what is going on between you and Kit?”
Victoria’s fingers fumbled, sending the pearl bracelet she was clasping around her wrist to the floor. Avoiding her cousin’s eyes, she knelt to retrieve it. “Whatever do you mean?”
Elaine laughed. “Oh, come now, Cousin, the man is besotted with you, and everyone knows it. Remember, we’ve known Kit longer than you have and have never seen him so completely infatuated. The both of you can natter on all you want about being friends, but we know better.”
Victoria’s face flamed. She hated being the focus of idle gossip. It was bad enough already with her colorful past. Besides, her relationship with Kit was too confusing and no one else’s business, though she did wish she could talk it over with someone. Rowena had been preoccupied with her own heartache and her flying lessons, and Prudence lived in London.
Elaine touched Victoria’s shoulder gently. “It’s all right. Not everyone is talking about it. Just those of us who love you. You can trust me, you know.”
Tears stung Victoria’s eyes and she turned and hugged her cousin. “I don’t know what to do with him,” she said, choking a bit. “He wants to marry me. Thus far he has only mentioned it when teasing me, but I suspect he is serious, and it comes up more and more frequently.”
“Don’t you love him?”
“Of course I love him, but love has nothing to do with it!” Victoria whirled around, looking for something to vent her frustration on. She chose the footrest and gave it a satisfying kick. “Ouch!”
Elaine’s brows arched and she calmly bent to right the abused stool. “But I thought love had everything to do with it.”
Victoria hobbled over to a wingback chair and threw herself into it. “Oh, bother. That’s not what I mean at all.”
Elaine pulled up a footstool and sat in front of Victoria. “Then what do you mean, poppet?”
Elaine’s voice was gentle, and Victoria took a deep breath. “I don’t know if I love him in that particular way or not. I enjoy being with him, but I enjoy being with you and Colin, too, and I am certainly not going to marry either one of you. I miss him when he isn’t around, but I miss my father all the time, so what does that say?”
Elaine shook her head, setting her curls in motion.
Victoria leaned forward. “I’ll tell you what that says. I was not meant to get married. I’m not like other girls. I’ve never been like other girls. I don’t want to get married and have babies. I want to do something important. I want to travel and meet people and have adventures. Make a real change in the world. Have an impact in some way.”
“And you can’t see yourself doing that with Kit?”
“Kit is great fun, but he would change after marriage. All men do. He would want to have children, and it’s hard to have adventures with nappies and nannies. No.”
Elaine’s nose wrinkled. “I don’t see Kit changing all that much.”
Victoria snorted and stood up. “That shows how much you know. When I first met him, he was as set against marriage as I was; now it’s all he talks about. How can I even trust him? Shifty bastard.”
Elaine stood and linked arms with her. “Trust me, my dear cousin. I’m as against marriage as you are, but for very different reasons. We can become old spinsters together.”
Victoria felt a surge of relief at having confided in someone. “Why are you against marriage?” she asked as they walked down a hallway lined with the portraits of disapproving relatives.
Elaine waved her free hand. “It’s a long story, poppet. Remind me to tell you when we’re old and gray. Just know that I’m on your side.”
They entered the downstairs drawing room, laughing. A much subdued Coterie was in force, surrounded by their wealthy and eagle-eyed relatives. Most of the members of their strange little club were set to inherit large sums of money and property, but as most were well under thirty, they were dependent on the goodwill and the annual stipends of their elders. Though they were a randy, irreverent lot behind their benefactors’ backs, they attempted to keep up appearances in their presence.
Edward raised a glass in mock salute as Victoria moved to greet her aunt and uncle. She liked Edward, who was handsome and smart and, most important, completely in love with someone else. He was uncomplicated, unlike Kit, who was becoming more complicated by the day. “Good evening, Uncle. Good evening, Aunt. You’re looking smashing this evening.”
As always, Victoria resisted the urge to curtsy before her aunt as if she were the Queen. The impulse made her voice brisker than it would have been with someone else of her aunt’s peerage and status. Aunt Charlotte rather intimidated her, and Victoria detested being intimidated by anyone. Even though she knew all too well that her aunt was a woman to be feared, Victoria couldn’t help the disrespectful edge in her voice whenever they conversed.
Her aunt offered a cheek, which Victoria kissed dutifully. “Really, darling, is that how you spoke to the wardress?” Aunt Charlotte asked in a whisper as Victoria leaned close.
Victoria stiffened, then whispered back, “No, Auntie, I reserve it just for you.” She drew away and her aunt Charlotte gave her a lovely smile. Those who didn’t know Charlotte would think her sincere. Those close to her knew that her genuine smiles were rare and reserved for her husband and son.
“Lucky me,” Aunt Charlotte answered, her eyes amused.
Aunt Charlotte unnerved Victoria, who hastily kissed her uncle’s cheek and joined the Coterie in front of the fireplace.
“Where’s Rowena?” Victoria asked, looking around.
“She has a headache,” Sebastian answered. “She won’t be joining us this evening.”
“If I had five glasses of champagne and ran about like a madwoman in the heat, I would have a headache too.” Annalisa grinned.
Victoria frowned. Rowena had good reason to want to drown her sorrows.
“Well, good for her,” Kit said, then drained his glass. “A body has to do something to dull the boredom.”
“If it’s so boring here, why do you even bother?” Victoria flashed.
“Sometimes I wonder,” Kit snapped back.
Stung, she stared up into his clever blue eyes, then tossed her head. “I know I certainly do.”
“Oh, stop it, you two,” Colin ordered. “You’re both becoming boring, and we have far, far better things to talk about.”
Victoria took a deep breath and let it go. “Like what, dear cousin?”
“How about . . . the fact that I’ve officially joined the army?” Colin answered quietly.
Next to her, Elaine gasped, and Victoria couldn’t believe that around them people continued drinking their tea and gossiping just as if the phrase he’d just uttered were completely commonplace.
“Mother’s going to kill you,” Elaine said flatly.
No mention of how their father would feel, but everyone knew that even though Lord Summerset could be a cold, hard man, it was Lady Summerset who could make a person wish she had never been born with a single disapproving glance.
“What the hell did you do that for?” Kit barked.
Colin glanced at the Dowager Countess of Kent, who had wandered near to the group. Everyone went still and smiled at her, which caused the old lady’s brows to fly upward toward the old-fashioned lace cap she wore on her graying head.
“Lovely day, isn’t it Lady Barrymore?” Victoria asked sweetly. “A perfect Little Red Hen day!”
Lady Barrymore’s pale eyes blinked rapidly. “You’re quite mad, child.”
“ ‘How do you know I’m mad?’ ” Kit asked, his voice affronted.
“ ‘You must be or else you wouldn’t have come here,’ ” Victoria finished out the quote from their most treasured book. Apparently Lady Barrymore hadn’t read Lewis Carroll because she merely shook her head and walked away, clucking her tongue.
“Old bat,” Annalisa giggled.
“Mind your manners,” Edward said. “The Dowager Barrymore is a paragon of virtue and too good for the likes of us, so sayeth my mother.”
“Never mind that!” Elaine snapped. “I want to know why my brother would do something so . . . absurd. Father will kill you. He’s been waiting for you to finish at the university so he can start training you to take over Summerset.”
Elaine’s normally mischievous eyes were as serious as Victoria had ever seen them.
Colin shrugged. “Perhaps that’s why I joined. Perhaps it was the boring years I have ahead of me playing lord of the manor instead of having fun like the rest of my peers.”
“Good grief, man, one doesn’t join the army to have fun,” Sebastian said.
Victoria shook her head. “When are you going to tell Auntie and Uncle? Because I want to return to London before you do.”
“You can take me with you,” Elaine murmured.
“You two ladies worry overmuch,” Colin said. “They will fuss a bit, but will no doubt give in. It’s not as though we’re at war.”
“We would be if the Germans had their way,” Sebastian said.
Victoria shook her head. “It won’t get that far. The Kaiser is related to the royal family, for goodness’ sake.”
The butler announced that dinner was now being served, and the ladies and gentlemen found their partners to go in for supper.
Victoria had been partnered with Kit so many times that she was surprised when Aunt Charlotte came up behind them in the line going out the door. “I’m so sorry, but because Rowena is missing dinner, I had to juggle the order a bit. Victoria, you are going in with Colin. Kit, could you please escort Annalisa?”
“Aren’t I the lucky one,” Colin said, taking Victoria’s arm. “Shall we go in, Cousin?”
A frown crossed Kit’s handsome features for a moment, then he shrugged. “Actually, I think I’m the lucky one. Be careful of her tongue, Colin, old boy. It’s as sharp as an ax.”
Victoria waited until her aunt Charlotte had moved past them before sticking her tongue out at Kit. He winked back, and she couldn’t help but smile. He was such good fun. If only he would forget all that marriage nonsense.
“So do you really think they are going to take it badly?” Colin asked with a worried frown.
Victoria didn’t have to ask whom he was referring to. “You were in OTC all through university, weren’t you? And they didn’t object to that.”
“Every wellborn young man goes through the Officers’ Training Corp. It’s expected. That doesn’t mean they want me to actually become an officer.”
Victoria tried to give Colin a reassuring smile as they walked through the door to the massive, formal dining room with its long, shining mahogany table, which was actually several tables pushed together. She could see the burden of his secret in the tight, tense line of his shoulders. For a moment, she conjured up an image of her cousin as the tormenting tease that he had been so long ago. “Don’t worry so. I’m sure they’ll be reasonable.”
But even though her voice was carefully confident, neither of them believed it.