Backlit by the moon, the creeping dark fingers of the branches outside the attic window gave me a chill as their shadows inched closer to my feet. Dim light flickered on the walls of the small room as I pulled the quilt tighter around my shoulders. With no fire, it was all I could do to keep warm while my icy fingers threaded the thin needle again. Fighting my drooping eyelids, I focused on the final row of vines awaiting their leaves on the hem. The gown was near to finished and I was determined to complete it before I slept. Pushing a yawn into my blanket-wrapped shoulder, I stitched another leaf. Only eight more to go. Mr. Bancroft was nothing if not polite, and would surely complement whatever I arrived to his house party wearing—be it a potato sack or an outdated ball gown. I chose to create something that landed in the middle. And yet, unease still skittered through my body. How was I to know I was doing the right thing? My eyes sought the stairway. I would not fetch the letter to read again, no matter how strongly I felt the desire to reassure myself. Mr. Bancroft had stated very clearly that the house party was a mere formality—he anticipated his mother would admire me just as much as he did.
All the same, he required her blessing on our union before we entered into a formal understanding. I trusted Mr. Bancroft, but the uncertainty left me feeling testy and unsettled. What if he found me very changed and regretted his desire to marry me? Until I received a proper proposal, nothing was set in stone. The needle slipped through the muslin, pricking my finger. I shoved it into my mouth before a drop could bleed onto the fabric. This last gown was all I had left to complete, and I was not about to ruin the soft cream material due to careless fatigue. The stitched leaves grew blurry as I made my way down the vine, completing the embroidery just before the shadows reached the tips of my toes. I tucked them farther under my chair, regardless. Draping the gown over the chest on the attic floor, I stood, pulling the blanket with me.
The cold spring night wafted through cracks in the plaster walls and sent a chill down my spine. Another yawn interrupted my thoughts and I made my way from the attic, quietly creeping to the door of the bedroom I shared with my younger sister. Pulling out the key, I unlocked the door, hoping the click and creak didn’t wake my sister. The key had not always been a necessary precaution, but lately I had grown used to remaining behind locked doors—something that I was determined to change in the near future. Slipping inside, I locked the door again and slid the bolt into place. Soft snoring punctuated the dim chamber and I watched Charlotte for a moment before settling under the quilt beside her. Doubt and anxiety crept away when my motivation lay so plainly before me. A house party was not ideal, yet neither was Mr. Bancroft. But one thing was certain: together, those two things had the ability to pull Charlotte and me from our current situation, and perhaps provide the potential to help our brother, Noah, as well.
If only he desired it. Sighing, I rolled over, fatigue from completing four new dresses for the house party and a host of small adjustments to older gowns fully catching up with me. “Eleanor?” a sleepy voice questioned from the other side of the bed. “Hush, Charlotte,” I whispered. “Go back to sleep.” She groaned. “You’ve been sewing, haven’t you?” I refused to respond. It mattered little that it was so late; I had a house party to attend. What choice did I have but to finish the gowns? Charlotte yawned loud enough I could hear it in the thick darkness. Her voice groggy, I half wondered if she would remember this conversation in the morning.
“Can we not find some little money to pay a seamstress?” she asked. Squeezing my eyes shut, I shook my head, not that she could see. At seventeen, she could not quite grasp the desperation of our situation. “There is no need. I am finished now.” “You do too much,” she said sleepily, already returning to the land of dreams. “I love you, Lottie.” Another yawn interrupted her as she said, “I love you, too, sister.” Sleep failed to arrive, despite my exhausted state. I had one chance to pull my sweet sister from this horrible, bitter house and give her a chance at marriage.
And I would do everything in my power to be successful. The road to Bancroft Hill was fraught with rain. Pattering raindrops on the roof drummed a steady beat, interrupted by Emma’s soft snoring opposite me in the coach. With Charlotte safely at Corden Hall in the care of our neighbor and friend, Miss Hurst, and Noah clearly without need of a lady’s maid, Emma was able to accompany me to the three-week-long house party. Her stone-like face accepted the duty with no complaint and I found myself grateful to bring a piece of home with me. Pulling the lap rug tightly over my knees, I fought a shiver, closing my novel and tucking it away. The overcast sky had grown too dark to see clearly and reading about dreadful highwaymen with shocking facial scars was not particularly conducive to a relaxing ride along the highway, especially as I had yet to discover if the highwayman in the novel would turn out to be a blackguard or the hero. One never did know with gothic stories. Lightning flashed in the distance, momentarily lighting the increasingly darkening carriage and I startled when Emma yelped across from me. “It is only a storm,” I soothed.
“It won’t be much longer to Bancroft Hill. We should be fairly close by now, I’d imagine.” She nodded, her round eyes betraying her younger years. She had only come to work for us the year prior. I had quickly promoted her to lady’s maid when she’d displayed a superior talent at styling my thin, straight hair into something resembling elegance. The pale locks had long been the bane of my existence. While my hair was a lovely shade of light blonde, it was impossible to curl and rarely held a style for longer than a moment. But Emma was a master. I looked better under her care than ever before. “Shall we play a game to pass the time?” I asked.
Emma’s confused eyebrows pulled together slightly. “What sort of game?” Before I could answer, a sudden jolt threw me from my seat. A blow reverberated through my jaw as it collided with Emma’s knee, shaking both of us as the carriage shuddered to a stop. “Mrs. Wheeler!” Emma shrieked. “Are you hurt?” “I shall survive.” Rubbing my jaw, I regained my seat. The door flew open and rain poured sideways through the door, instantly soaking my feet through my soft leather shoes and traveling up the hem of my gown. “Nasty storm out here, ma’am,” Joe, my coachman, said. “The roads have turned immovable?” I guessed.
His sorry face nodded. “Hit a rut back there that cracked the wheel.” He closed the carriage door enough to keep out some of the rain. “A carriage has been following us for a while. I’ll flag them down and ask for help.” “Thank you, Joe.” Forcing the door shut with a click, he left us in the relative warmth of the cab. I tamped down my frustration. If Noah had taken care of this carriage instead of wasting all of his money on cards and drink, I would be bouncing along to Bancroft Hill instead of slumped on the highway like a pair of discarded shoes. Emma scooted closer to the opposite window, watching through the streams of rain.
“There’s it now.” “There it is now,” I corrected. She shot me a look over her shoulder, her eyebrows drawn together. “That’s what I said.” It was senseless to attempt any sort of education with the girl. But at times her speech grated on me, and after raising Charlotte for the last few years, it was second nature to correct such horrid speech. “Are they stopping?” “Yes’m. A man’s talking to Joe.” “I best be part of this,” I said, sighing. “Whatever for?” My hand rested on the door handle and I looked back at her.
“Because I do not want Joe sending us with someone who isn’t respectable. I’d rather wait here in the cold than ruin my reputation.” That seemed to quiet the maid. Fierce wind ripped the door from my hand and it hit the opposite side of the cab with a loud bang. I hopped down to the mud, gripping the slippery door and yanking with all of my strength, though it refused to budge. Joe must be a man of goliath strength, for he had made it appear easy to hold the door partially open earlier. I counted aloud, prepared to give the door one large yank with accumulated strength, “One…two…three!” My arms flew through the air, the door coming away from the side of the carriage easily as though the wind had died down on my command. The hair whipping into my eyes said otherwise, however, and I turned to find a man standing directly behind me. “Good heavens,” I shrieked, my hand flying to my heart. “You frightened me.
” “What are you doing?” he hollered over the wind. His coat was drenched, his hair plastered to his forehead. “What business is that of yours?” “You are heading to Bancroft Hill?” he asked, ignoring my question. His eyes narrowed at me through the pelting of icy drops of rain. Joe. Of course my coachman would divulge this information to a complete stranger. A quite tall stranger, in fact, with hair so dark it could be black—or perhaps that was an effect of the powerful rain. A flash lit the dark sky, giving me a glimpse of the stranger’s face. He did not appear nefarious. His clothing screamed gentility and there were no visible scars running the length of his cheek.
If he was a highwayman, he was bound to have scars. “Perhaps,” I replied. It was wise to be cautious. Time had already taught me that lesson. “What?” he yelled. I took a breath. “Perhaps!” I yelled back. The wind grew in ferocity. I suddenly realized the ridiculous nature of my circumstances, standing in a howling storm with a strange gentleman, yelling obscure answers into the rain. My gown was thoroughly soaked, hair plastered to my neck and cheeks, and my feet were glued to the mud.
I was a sight, to be sure. “I am going that direction as well. May I convey you and your maid to your destination?” “Have you any females in your coach?” I asked. “No.” His eyes were dark against his shaded face. “Only a friend. But your maid will lend sufficient chaperonage.” I nodded, the rain making its way through every layer of clothing I wore and chilling my skin. If we did not get out of the rain right away, we were both bound to catch cold. “Lead the way, sir.
” His elbow shot out, offering me an escort. I had been correct on that score, at least. He was a gentleman. I shook my head, lifting my skirts with both hands to keep them from the mud. He stood unmoving, his gaze trained on me as rain trailed down his cheeks and dripped from his straight nose. I tried to step forward but struggled, my foot securely fastened to the mud. My balance thrown, my arms flailed, searching for purchase on the side of the slick carriage door. Strong, cold hands came around my waist, catching me before I collided with the wet earth. Before I knew it, my legs flew into the air and I was bobbing forward. I wrapped my arms around the man’s neck as he carried me around my carriage and to the doorway of his own.
His heart pounded through his chest, the vibration chasing tingles down my side. I tightened my grip as the carriage door flew open, catching his eye suddenly. My cheeks warmed. He set my feet on the dry floor of his own cab and a man already seated inside reached forward to help me in. I looked back over my shoulder and caught my stranger’s stone face. Behind the mask, suppressed emotion begged release. Irritation, surely. I moved aside to make room on the bench as my coachman ushered my maid in shortly behind me.