Authors: T. J. Brown
She stood and he stared puzzled at her still-bare feet. He raised his eyebrows.
She blushed. “We’re very informal here.”
“God bless informal Hen-Pens. See you in the morning?”
“We’re meeting at your uncle’s house at nine and then going over to the church together.”
Their farewell was oddly formal, and she was glad to see him leave. As much as he’d been needling her recently, she couldn’t help but feel that she already missed him, and he wasn’t even gone yet.
God only knew how she would feel after he actually left.
owena stood at the altar next to Annalisa, watching her cousin and her friend get married and wondering when she and Sebastian would finally be wed. Now that she had made up her mind to get on with her life, fate had conspired to keep her stagnant.
Annalisa’s brown eyes were soft with love every time she looked at her husband-to-be, and Colin couldn’t stop staring at her. Rowena’s heart twinged with longing and regret. This was how it was supposed to be. They were blissfully happy at the prospect of a lifetime with one another.
After the ceremony, the family, including Annalisa’s parents and younger sister, all attended an elegant wedding breakfast at the Coburg. The floor-to-ceiling, beveled mirrors, ornate columns, crisp white linens, and delicate gold-and-white Spode china, all set a festive tone to the wedding party. Platters of scones, kippers, fresh fruit, deviled kidneys, and sausages were heaped on a table beautifully decorated with orange blossoms, ferns, and lilies. Aunt Charlotte and Annalisa’s mother had accomplished a great deal in little time. It seemed incredible how quickly things had changed, and how drastically. The wedding Rowena and Sebastian were meant to have had taken months of planning already, whereas this spur-of-the-moment ceremony
was sweet in its simplicity and in the obvious love the bride and the groom felt for each other.
Victoria talked animatedly to Annalisa’s mother, Aunt Charlotte, and everyone besides Kit, who was rather silent, especially for Kit. Rowena wondered what was going on, but knew better than to ask her little sister, who had always been rather cagey on the subject of Kit.
As Rowena chatted with the others in this stunning and extravagant restaurant and toasted the couple’s happiness, a lonely hollowness carved itself out in her chest. She desperately wished Sebastian were with her. Sebastian had been a steadfast friend, and over the past months as she’d healed from Jonathon’s departure, they had forged a deep friendship during the planning of their wedding. She missed his warm presence and quiet sense of humor. Funny how dependent on him she’d become.
After the newly wedded couple finally departed, Victoria urged Rowena to join her at her flat. Though Rowena knew her sister was eager to show her what she had done with her new home, she declined, promising to visit soon. Somehow, the thought of going to see Victoria’s new life as an independent young woman depressed her. While Victoria trained to be a volunteer aide, valiantly helping others while also tending to herself, Rowena still languished with family and waited idly for her fiancé to come home. How stale and predictable. Her father hadn’t raised her for this.
She wished her aeroplane could be stored closer to Summerset. Suddenly she thought of the hangar Sebastian had started building for her. Was it finished yet? Why shouldn’t she go see it? Wasn’t she to be mistress of Eddelson Hall? Sebastian’s mother had always been warm and welcoming. Excitement rose in her chest. She would make arrangements to go for a visit right away to check on the progress.
Within a week she was standing in Eddelson’s grand foyer as Sebastian’s mother, Lady Billingsly, chatted next to her.
“I am so glad you came, my dear. I admit to being quite lonely now that Sebastian’s gone and wanted to run an idea past you over tea. I had Cook make a sponge cake for your arrival. I don’t bother with treats unless I’m expecting company. Sebastian was the sweet tooth, you know.”
Rowena didn’t know, but felt that was one of the things she should know about her intended. A whisper of guilt ran through her. Had she always been so self-involved?
After tea, she told her future mother-in-law that she wanted to go see the progress on her hangar.
“I’m afraid you will find very little. Most of the young men have run off to join the army, and we need those who remained to look after the grounds. They work on it sporadically, of course, but I’m sure that once the war is over, it will be completed.”
As the gardener drove her out to the hangar location, her heart sank. They wanted it to be far from the stables and the horse pastures so the sound of the plane wouldn’t spook the animals. Sebastian had chosen the spot well: the hangar was backed up against a hill with a long field in front of it for taking off. The hangar would be large enough to hold her plane wing to wing with room enough to include racks on one side for equipment and parts. Her heart swelled with tender gratitude at his thoughtfulness. But though the foundation had been finished, the frame stood unfinished like a skeleton against the green of the trees. Any hope that she could get her aeroplane here anytime soon vanished.
She stayed with the Billingslys for several days and found herself liking life at Eddelson Hall more and more. The manor
house reminded her far more of the home she’d grown up in than did Summerset. The rooms were bright and airy and designed for comfort rather than show. It wasn’t as old as Summerset and she could tell the inhabitants enjoyed their creature comforts as Sebastian had already installed central heating, plumbing, and electricity throughout the entire home, including the servants’ quarters.
Sebastian’s mother, rather a dragon lady like Rowena’s aunt Charlotte, began to grow on her, too, and she realized she could be happy in this house and in this family. Especially with access to her aeroplane guaranteed.
On impulse, she had the driver take her to the barn where Mr. Dirkes kept his aeroplanes before returning her to Summerset. The place was deserted of course, and the barn doors were locked up tight. She’d heard Mr. Dirkes had received a big government contract for aeroplane parts and would be extremely busy. Luckily, she knew where the extra key for the workers was hidden, and leaving her driver and car in front, she entered the small back door of the barn.
Only two aeroplanes were housed in the cavernous barn now. A bittersweet regret filled her as she recognized the Flying Alice she had first gone up in. Closing her eyes, she once again saw the cloud crystals becoming brighter and brighter and the awe-inspiring moment when they had broken through the cloud cover to the blinding-blue sky on the other side. She ran her fingers over the dusty wings of the Flying Alice, remembering the profound enchantment that flying had cast over her. At the time, she had thought it was Jon that made her feel so unfettered and blissful, but she couldn’t help but wonder how much of her love for him had been mixed up with her love of flying.
She breathed the scent of oil, gasoline, and straw and was
transported back to the time she had flown solo for the first time. She’d been impulsive and rash, making a split-second decision to follow Jon into the air after discovering that he was angry with her. Though the impulse had been reckless, her flight hadn’t been: she’d flown it perfectly. But no matter. Jon had ultimately walked away from her and never come back.
Her chest tightened and she walked quickly out of the barn and locked the door behind her, breathing heavily. Why had she come back here? Why had she risked certain pain?
Because she missed her aeroplane. Suddenly she decided that the risk of meeting Jon here would be worth it if she could have access to her Vickers. Besides, it didn’t look as if anyone was coming out here too often. Mr. Dirkes’s factory was in Kent, and if they were overrun with orders, they probably wouldn’t be testing new aeroplanes much. As soon as she arrived home, she would telephone Mr. Dirkes. He would give her permission, she knew he would. He had been one of her biggest supporters when she’d wanted to learn to fly.
Excited, she rounded the corner to the motorcar and stopped short when she saw a young girl on a large, handsome horse riding toward her.
The girl reined in her horse and stared. Rowena’s heart raced when she recognized her. The girl seemed to realize who Rowena was at that same moment and swiftly steered her horse away.
“Cristobel,” Rowena called softly.
The girl reined in her animal but didn’t turn around. She sat on her mount, her back ramrod straight, with her long, dark hair streaming down her back from under her riding hat.
Rowena walked around and faced her. The girl’s features revealed a mixture of longing and anger. Jonathon’s little sister didn’t much look like him. Her hair and eyes were dark, unlike
Jon’s, whose blue eyes looked like the sky he flew in and whose strawberry-blond hair belied their Scottish heritage. But the stubborn expression the girl wore showed the family resemblance.
“Many times in the past few months I have wondered how you were,” Rowena said. “I hope you and your mother are well.”
She hated the formal sound of her voice, but the girl’s sudden appearance had rattled her. Between the visit to the barn and the sudden appearance of Jon’s sister, she hadn’t felt his absence from her life this keenly in months.
“We’re fine,” the girl said tightly. “Not that you would care.”
The tragedy of her father’s suicide and the loss of the family’s fortune at the hands of the Buxtons had isolated the girl from society. Rowena knew Cristobel had thought of her as a friend and no doubt felt doubly betrayed at Rowena’s sudden disappearance from their lives.
“That’s not fair,” Rowena said. “Jon was no longer interested in a relationship with me, and I couldn’t maintain a friendship with you after he made it clear that I was no longer welcome.”
“Jon? Oh, pooh on Jon. He’s only been home twice all summer and he was a bear both times. There was no reason for you not to visit. Or I could have visited you. You promised to take me on a hunt.”
Cristobel’s dark eyes accused her, and Rowena felt a pang of guilt. She
promised. “What would George have said to that?”
The girl shook her head. “Oh, pooh on George, too. Besides, he isn’t home either. He joined the army like Jonathon.”
Rowena’s stomach tightened. “Jonathon joined the army? I didn’t think he would. The production of aeroplanes has been stepped up.”
“He joined the Royal Flying Corps.” Cristobel shifted in the saddle, her dark brows knitting together. “I shouldn’t be telling you this.”
“It’s all right. I’m glad you did. I’d wondered . . .”
Rowena stared up at Cristobel, whose features had matured since she had seen her last. She’d once thought this engaging young girl was going to become her sister and had opened up her heart to her. She barely knew Sebastian’s sister, who lived in Coventry and was busy bringing up her own children. Her heart ached with loss. So many regrets.
“Maybe we can go riding together sometime,” Rowena finally said. It was an empty-sounding promise, the kind of thing one said socially, but didn’t mean. From the look on Cristobel’s face, she knew it. “No, really,” Rowena insisted, even though she knew she shouldn’t. A friendship with Cristobel would undoubtedly ruffle feathers in both families, but she couldn’t disappoint this girl again.
Cristobel nodded cautiously. “Tomorrow? I ride this way every day about this time.”
Rowena nodded. “I’ll be here,” she promised, even though it made her vaguely uncomfortable. She had a feeling Cristobel probably wouldn’t be telling her mother about their meeting.
Cristobel, trying not to look delighted, waved a casual hand and nudged her horse into a dignified trot. The line of her back and neck was straight as she posted away.
Rowena climbed into the back of the motorcar and tried to ignore the goose bumps that shivered across her skin. Seeing Cristobel, maintaining their friendship, was that a way to hold on to Jon even as she moved forward with Sebastian? She felt as though she was playing a dangerous game in which there would be no winners.
* * *
Prudence read the note from Victoria over and over, trying not to feel too hopeful.
Just a quick note to tell you I haven’t forgotten about what you asked. Please don’t worry, I believe it has already been taken care of and the father of my darling niece or nephew won’t be going off to fight. I’m not sure where he will be stationed, no one can control that, but he will be in the remount depot so never fear, all will be well.
Dreadfully busy, but will come to see you soon.
Much love in exhaustion,
PS. Found the most cunning little bassinet and matching coverlet. It will be delivered soon.
The bassinet had been delivered shortly after the note had arrived, and Victoria had been right—surely it was the loveliest bassinet that had ever been made. The ornately carved mahogany shone darkly, and the knobs at the bottom were whittled into the shapes of pineapples. The top of the cradle was a box that would hold nappies, pins, talcum, and whatever else the baby might need. It was a beautiful thing, and Prudence had the deliverymen take it into her and Andrew’s bedroom. It looked rather incongruous there, such a fine piece of furniture among their worn odds and ends. She wondered what Andrew would think when he saw it. Would he be happy that Victoria had
been so generous or scornful that Prudence’s highborn past was still intruding on their much simpler life?