Authors: T. J. Brown
He sounded cross and Rowena was silent for some time before answering, “I don’t know how much you know about what happened between us, but Jon left me, not the other way around. I was shattered. Sebastian helped me put the pieces together, and I’m not likely to turn my back on that, and I have learned to love him very much.” Tears pricked at her eyes, but she knew it was true.
Mr. Dirkes reached over and patted her hand. “I’m sorry,
lass. I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth. Please forgive me. And after the mess I’ve made of my own life, I’m the last person who should be handing out romantic advice so freely.”
Rowena turned to look at him in the darkening motorcar. “You’ve never married?” She’d always wondered about Mr. Dirkes’s being single. He seemed like the kind of man who should have a family of his own.
He shook his head. “No. I lollygagged around, and by the time I was ready to ask my love to marry me, she had gone south on a visit and ended up marrying an Englishman.”
been a romance in Mr. Dirkes’s life. “She never came back?”
“Oh, she came back some years later with three strapping lads and about to issue another. It was clearly too late by that time.”
Her heart felt bruised and tender for this kind man who spent so much of his life alone. No wonder he lavished attention on Jon and his siblings and treated her like one of his own. A suspicion came to her and she mulled it over while she finished her sandwich. Finally she turned to Mr. Dirkes and asked him point-blank, “It was Mrs. Wells, wasn’t it?”
He was silent, and though she could no longer see his expression, she knew she was right.
“I love her still,” he said softly. “That’s why I never married. I couldn’t settle, you see, for someone who would only be second best.”
Rowena felt the gentle rebuke and said nothing as they turned into Summerset’s tree-lined drive. “You should ask her to marry you now. It’s not too late.”
He chuckled. “Don’t think I haven’t thought of that myself, lass.”
They pulled in front of the entrance to Summerset and Rowena handed him the flask. “For courage. And good luck.”
He took it and nodded. “I’ll be back day after tomorrow to pick you up.” He paused as Rowena gathered her things. “It’s not too late for you either, you know.”
She smiled as she climbed out of the motorcar and didn’t answer. Instead she just said, “Happy Christmas, Mr. Dirkes.” Then she turned toward Summerset.
fter Mr. Dirkes drove away, Rowena snuck around to the servants’ entrance. If she could possibly manage it, she was going to sneak up to her room without being detected and ring for a servant to draw her a bath. Even though the plans for the evening were far simpler than in previous years, Rowena knew that Aunt Charlotte’s closest companions would be there in force. They should still all be dressing for dinner, a tradition that was becoming as scarce as men under thirty.
The servants’ entrance led down under the great house where the wine cellar, servants’ hall, kitchen, pantry, and the butler’s and housekeeper’s offices were located. The predinner bustle of the kitchen reached Rowena as she tiptoed down the long hallway past the various doors on either side. Her stomach rumbled at the scent of roasting meat and freshly baked bread. Even a world at war couldn’t halt the steady array of delicacies coming from the Summerset kitchen.
She and the other girls had often come down here when they played hide-and-seek or to escape the heat. Not until she was older did she realize how much the servants disliked their trespassing on their domain.
“Miss Rowena!” Mr. Cairns’s voice could not have been more shocked than if he had found the Queen sneaking past his office.
By his voice, Rowena knew she must look much worse than she thought. She gave the Summerset butler a sheepish grin. “Good evening, Cairns. Could you please have one of the maids run me a bath? And have someone inform Lady Elaine that I am up in my room. I want to surprise my aunt and uncle when I appear for supper.”
The butler sniffed. “Very well, miss. Do you need someone to help you dress?”
She shook her head. “Lady Elaine will help me.”
As she started to move, a gentle cough stopped her. She turned back. “Yes, Mr. Cairns?”
He nodded toward the servants’ stairs, and she gave him a conspirator’s smile. “Thank you, Cairns.”
Rowena slipped up the stairway and poked her head out into the hallway. The coast was clear and she hurried down the hall to her room. Sighing, she took off the men’s patent-leather shoes she wore whenever she flew. It was much easier to work the pedals in them than in any of the heeled shoes she usually wore, and dancing slippers weren’t practical—her feet would freeze at that altitude.
With a knock on the door a maid Rowena hadn’t before seen came into the room carrying a tea tray.
“Mr. Cairns said you might want some tea while waiting for your bath?”
“Yes, thank you, you can put it over there.” Rowena nodded toward a small table in front of the small, white-marble fireplace. She handed the maid her jacket.
“Would you like anything else, miss?”
“No, thank you. Oh, wait. I’ll need my clothes laundered and pressed by tomorrow night.” The maid nodded and went to start Rowena’s bath. With distaste she kicked off the split skirt she’d
been wearing for over forty-eight hours. Aunt Charlotte had had bathrooms installed in all the family bedrooms and several of the guest bedrooms. Summerset had been one of the first country houses with both electricity and central heating. As traditional as she was, Aunt Charlotte did love her creature comforts.
Rowena sighed with relief as she slipped into the hot water. She’d like nothing better than a good long soak, but knew that she was already going to be late joining the others in the sitting room.
“You do like to cut things close, don’t you, Cousin?” she heard Elaine say as she came into the room. “You do know Mother is already fit to be tied because Victoria isn’t coming for Christmas. I think she would have had an apocalyptic fit if you hadn’t shown up.”
Elaine’s hands were on her hips. She was already dressed for dinner in an intricately whorled and beaded black gown with short lace sleeves. All of England, it seemed, was now in mourning and everyone wore black.
“Well, I haven’t shown up yet. Still have to dress and do my hair without collapsing. Could you please pick me out something to wear? Something simple with no corset.”
“Well, aren’t you the rebel? First you take a job flying aeroplanes and now you’ve tossed your corset!”
Elaine winked and then her eyes went wide. “Good God! What happened to your shoulder?”
“What shoulder?” Rowena looked down and gasped. The pale skin of her upper arm and shoulder had turned a brilliant shade of purple surrounded by an evil-looking black. She wiggled it back and forth and winced. She was so sore all over she hadn’t even noticed.
“All right,” she said, “the dress must also hide that. I don’t
want to tell your parents I hurt myself making an emergency landing and spent last night by myself in a field.”
Elaine’s eyebrows skyrocketed upward. “You do lead the most interesting life,” she murmured, leaving the room.
Rowena certainly did. But it was far, far better than the gray sadness that had marked most of the past year. At least now she was doing something.
She finished washing and rinsing her hair and climbed out of the tub. She dried off quickly and took another towel for her hair. The maid had started a fire.
Elaine shook Rowena’s underthings at her. “I take it you still want to wear a chemise, right? Or do you plan on going nude under your dress?”
“Maybe I am. When did you get to be so demure?”
Elaine laughed. “I choose my rebellion carefully, Cousin. I am only defiant when I’m sure Mother won’t see me.”
Rowena slipped into her lawn underclothes and shimmied into the fine lace dress Elaine had picked out. “She would see your bloomers maybe?”
Elaine snorted as she did up the long line of buttons in the back. “I wouldn’t doubt it. I think she has the maids spy on me.”
Rowena quickly began toweling her hair. “Does she really?”
“Whatever for? You’ve never given her reason to mistrust you, have you?” Rowena twisted her head to see her cousin’s face.
Elaine smiled, a little grimly it seemed. “I had a bit too much freedom in Switzerland. Mother never got over it.”
When they had dried Rowena’s mass of dark hair as well as they could, Elaine ran a brush through it and twisted it back into a simple French roll. “There,” she said, observing her efforts. “Now let’s go, before Mother sends out a search party.”
“Do they know I’m here?” Rowena asked as they hurried out the door.
“I’m sure Cairns has let them know by now.”
When Rowena entered the sitting room, she saw that this was indeed the case. Aunt Charlotte, dressed completely in black, resembled nothing more than a spider lying in wait.
“Be careful,” Elaine whispered with a smile curving her lips. “She’s been in a foul mood all day. She can’t reconcile herself to the fact that it’s her least favorite child she has to spend Christmas with.”
“Shhhh,” Rowena said, before turning to face the room. “Aunt Charlotte! Uncle Conrad! Happy Christmas.”
“I was beginning to doubt that you were going to make it, darling.” Aunt Charlotte’s cultured voice sounded brittle, and Rowena could see that worry over her son had left new wrinkles in her forehead and a tightening around her mouth that had never before been there. She kissed her aunt’s cheek with renewed tenderness. No matter how frighteningly cold Aunt Charlotte could be, no mother should have to worry about her son in a far-off war.
“I would move heaven and earth to spend Christmas at Summerset,” Rowena assured her aunt while kissing her uncle.
“Well, that is more than I can say for your sister, but then she always was a strange little thing. Rather like a bird, always fluttering here and there. I actually would admire her passion if it wasn’t so annoying.”
Rowena raised her eyebrows. That almost sounded like a compliment. Of course, Victoria always dared more with her aunt than either Rowena or Elaine, and her aunt seemed to have developed a grudging respect for that.
“Of course, I am rather put out with her right now.”
A footman balancing a silver salver offered Rowena a glass of mulled wine, and she took it with a smile. “And why is that? What has she done now? Last I heard she was in France?”
Aunt Charlotte sniffed. “Apparently not. She saw fit to accompany our former footman back to a hospital in London. I don’t see why she couldn’t make her way out here for the holiday, but obviously she would rather spend it in that awful girl bachelor flat with her new friends.”
Rowena detected the hurt beneath the condemnation of her aunt’s voice and shot her uncle a questioning glance.
Uncle Conrad cleared his throat. “Yes, I received word from Victoria that Andrew Wilkes had been terribly wounded and Victoria was bringing him to England, where he could receive better care.”
For a moment the name didn’t register, but then it came to Rowena in a rush. Prudence’s husband. “Oh, no. Poor Prudence. Is he going to be all right?”
Aunt Charlotte’s face took on that faraway look that she got whenever Prudence’s name was mentioned, but, shockingly, Uncle Conrad faced Rowena directly. “The doctors informed me that he will recover, though he took a direct hit to both his ribs and his leg. They had to amputate his leg, but the other wounds are healing quite nicely.”
“Oh, there is Lady Asquith, I must go say hello. Her son is in the same regiment as Colin. She may have news.” Without another word to either her niece or her husband, Aunt Charlotte took her leave with her head held aggressively high.
Rowena watched her aunt depart. “That’s horrible,” Rowena murmured, thinking of what Prudence must be going through. “About Andrew, I mean. I’m glad Victoria stayed with them. Prudence must be beside herself. She’s with child, you know.”
Uncle Conrad’s face, so like her father’s, with the Buxton green eyes and firm jawline, froze.
She didn’t understand him. He had gone out of his way to tell her about Andrew, but at mention of the baby he grew stiff, reticent. Was it really because Prudence’s mother had been a housemaid, or was it the reminder that his father had preyed on appallingly young, lower-class girls? Or was it his own discomfort that a line of the Buxton family had been besmirched with the blood of servants? Whatever it was, Rowena’s stomach churned with the injustice of it all, and she leveled an accusatory stare at him. “Yes, you are about to become an uncle again. Congratulations.”
With that, she went to greet Sebastian’s mother. The rest of the evening passed in a blur. The festivities were muted, of course, and there was no ball. Few young men were left to man the orchestras, let alone partner with.
Rowena slept late the next day, missing breakfast completely. Elaine smuggled some food up from the kitchen and helped her dress so they could be downstairs in time for the annual exchange of gifts.
Unlike so many grand estates that were teetering on the edge of ruin, Summerset was practically self-sufficient. It had been blessed with a long line of heirs who were not only frugal, but had an affinity for business. Paired with a long line of equally sober-minded managers, Summerset not only paid for itself, but made a tidy profit and kept a small portion of England’s economy solvent.