Romancing Her Rival – Joanna Barker

Daphne Windham had never thought of herself as a thief—she’d always been something of a stickler for the rules. But her friends made it rather easy to convince herself they were bending the rules, not breaking them. Still, she glanced over her shoulder anxiously as she waited in the open doorway to the kitchen. “Hurry, Phoebe,” she urged in a whisper. “Already done.” Daphne jumped as Phoebe appeared next to her in the dark, the corridor barely lit by the half-moon outside. Phoebe grinned, her hands filled with her handkerchief-wrapped sweets. “How many times have we done this, and still you are nervous?” she asked in a hushed voice as she led the way to the back door. Daphne followed, both girls stepping carefully to avoid the creaking floorboards they knew so well after years of attending Mrs. Vernal’s Seminary for Distinguished Young Ladies. “Not nervous,” Daphne answered. “Just appropriately cautious.” Phoebe shot her an amused look. “Of course.” The two girls slipped out into the cool April evening, the moon hovering low on the horizon.

The school behind them stood dark and silent as they crept across the lawn, making for the shadowed gazebo near the edge of the garden. Soft voices met them as they approached, and Daphne spotted Marah and Isabel talking quietly in the center of the gazebo. Daphne’s chest pinched. Oh, dear Marah. She’d received word only a few days before that her father had died. As if that was not difficult enough, she would be leaving them all tomorrow to return to her family. They’d thought to have a few more weeks at least before separating for summer, but now… Isabel’s strong voice interrupted her thoughts. “I know what might help,” she said to Marah, beckoning Daphne and Phoebe to her with a wave of her hand. “Your best friends with your favorite—” “Chelsea buns!” Phoebe said with a bright smile, holding up her package of smushed sweets. Daphne nearly hushed them both, even though she knew no one could possibly hear them from the school.

She was being ridiculous. She needed to relax and enjoy their last evening together. “Phoebe, Daphne,” Marah said suspiciously. “You didn’t make those, did you?” “Can you imagine me covered in flour? We didn’t make them.” Phoebe gave a wry smile. “We borrowed them from the kitchen.” “Yes,” Daphne cut in, “and I do not think they’ll want them back after what Phoebe’s done to them.” Isabel laughed, but Marah only shook her head. “You shouldn’t have taken them. The last time Phoebe stole from the kitchens, she had to teach the first years how to sip their tea correctly.

I don’t want you to—” Daphne stepped forward, laying a gentle hand on Marah’s arm. “You’re leaving tomorrow, Marah. You needn’t worry about us.” Marah swallowed, and Daphne wanted to hug her tight, but then Phoebe spoke, looking about the gazebo with a furrowed brow. “Where is Lavinia? It’s not like her to call a meeting and then be the last to show.” A stern voice came behind them. “I won’t begin until everyone is sitting quietly with their hands in their laps and their eyes on me.” Lavinia stepped up onto the gazebo with her nose in the air, hands clasped neatly before her in the spitting image of their leastfavorite teacher. “Who invited Mrs. Vernal?” Isabel teased.

Lavinia laughed, breaking her act and coming to join the other girls. “I’ve a surprise for you. When have you ever known Mrs. Vernal to say that?” “Once.” Phoebe made a face. “Before the Latin test.” The girls giggled as they settled onto the blankets spread on the wooden planks of the gazebo. Daphne pulled her dressing gown tight around her, lifting her head to feel the night breeze on her face. As uneasy as sneaking out made her, she could not deny she loved the sense of freedom, the exhilarating idea that she was doing something that Mrs. Vernal—and Mother—would not approve of.

But then, Mother rarely approved of anything she did. Lavinia pulled a small sack from behind her back and set it before her. “Under normal circumstances, you know I would say we should eat first. But tonight, the food can wait.” “Must it, though?” Phoebe asked. “I’m near to starving.” “Her stomach was growling all the way here,” Daphne confirmed. Phoebe sent her a mock glare as the girls laughed again, and Daphne gave a sly grin. She never felt more comfortable, more herself, than when she was with her friends. Unless, of course, she was with Cole.

But he was a friend as well, so it was all the same, really. “Or,” Isabel said, holding up the familiar brown leather book, “better than Chelsea buns, we could discover what happens at the end of The Love of Count Rudolph by Eugenia Rutherfield.” Marah let out an audible groan, and Isabel pointed the corner of the book at her. “But we only have one night left together! Come, Marah, you must be the slightest bit curious to know if the count will save Lady Esmerelda.” “That isn’t how life goes, you know,” Marah pointed out. “The handsome gentleman doesn’t parade in on his white horse to save the lady from all her troubles.” Marah had always resisted their readings from the novel, though Daphne couldn’t help but think she secretly enjoyed the romance and adventure. “Isn’t it nice to imagine, though?” Daphne said, leaning toward Marah with a suggestive raise to her eyebrow. “When the count saved Lady Esmerelda from the evil baron, I practically swooned.” Marah’s lips twitched, but then Isabel spoke.

“I think she will save herself in the end. We don’t need men to save us from everything, you know.” Isabel’s voice always grew a bit louder when she spoke of things she was passionate about, and now was no exception. Lavinia made a sound of exasperation. “You girls have the attention span of a… a…” She threw up her hands. “A senile goose. I brought a surprise, remember?” Daphne exchanged glances with the others, all grinning. “Yes, Mrs. Vernal,” they said together, then burst out laughing. “Oh, hush.

” But even Lavinia could not stop her own grin. “I’ve been sad about Marah leaving. And Isabel and I only have a few more weeks before we’re done with school. Soon we’ll be separated.” Daphne straightened at that, and they all quieted, the joviality among them slipping away as they faced reality. Lavinia was right. They’d been lucky to have the past years together—the secret meetings, the passed notes during lessons, the close friendships as they’d supported each other through good times and bad. But that was all ending, and Daphne couldn’t help but wish she could hold them all together a little longer. “I was in Marlow’s shop today,” Lavinia went on, her voice softer, “and I saw the absolute most perfect thing that made me think of all of you.” She slipped a red coral bracelet from the package.

“It reminds me of all our good times. I thought we could send it with Marah, so she’ll take a part of us with her.” Marah was already shaking her head. “No, I couldn’t. It’s far too expensive.” Phoebe leaned forward, her eyes insistent. “But you are facing hardship at this moment. Why not keep it for now, and perhaps later you might send it to one of us? Should we need comforting. It could bring you luck.” “Yes, I love it.

” Lavinia smiled. “We can send it on to one another. It will keep us connected.” “Like the locket Count Rudolph gave to Esmerelda, when he promised to always love her,” Daphne said softly. As silly as the Gothic novel was, she could not deny feeling swept away every time they read from its pages, dreaming of the not so distant future when the faceless man she would marry became real and whole. She was seventeen, after all. Many girls had already had a Season at her age and were married, settled into their new lives. Marah snorted at Daphne’s words, but Isabel only squeezed an arm around the younger girl’s shoulders. “I will always love you, Marah. And you, Mrs.

Vernal.” Lavinia laughed, but Phoebe had a thoughtful look on her face. She’d always been the thinker, the planner, of their little group. “As foolish as we are behaving now,” she said, “it would mean a great deal to me to know each of you finds a love like that. I cannot like the idea of any of you marrying someone who does not treasure you.” Lavinia nodded. “We should make a pact. A promise. To marry for love.” The idea grabbed at Daphne’s heart, wound its way through her insides like a hot sip of tea.

Love had always seemed so beyond her reach—Mother and Father had no love in their marriage, after all. Would she be forced into the same sort of arrangement, a bare tolerance for the man she would spend the rest of her life with? No, she decided. That would not be her fate. Because Daphne had something that would make all the difference. She had Cheriton Hall. Great-Aunt Hartwell had as good as promised to leave the estate to her. With such a treasure to recommend her, and her dowry besides, she would undoubtedly attract a great deal of suitors when she came out. Surely among the crush of a London Season, she could find the one. The one who made her heart trip and her skin tingle. The one who would love her throughout their lives, come what may.

“To marry only for the truest love,” Daphne said into the quiet that had settled upon their gazebo. “A love that withstands every challenge and trial.” Isabel’s eyes grew serious. “To men who treat us as equals.” “Who can make us laugh even on the worst of days,” Phoebe added. “Who would stop at nothing to win our hearts,” came Lavinia’s soft voice. Daphne looked at Marah—they all looked at Marah, who only stared at her feet. “Love is a luxury some cannot afford,” she said. Lavinia leaned across and took her hand. “Come, Marah, we are dreaming right now.

Tell us what you want in a man.” Marah hesitated a moment longer then let out a long breath. “If I could have a man who sees me not for my economic value, but simply for me, I think I should be happy.” Daphne smiled wistfully. That was the trick, wasn’t it? Her own parents, after all, had married for money and convenience. Sometimes it was difficult to believe there was a man out there who might see beyond those things. But she had to trust her heart, that she would know love when she felt it. And she had to hope Mother would agree with her. Phoebe looked around the circle of girls, meeting their eyes in turn. “We must promise to try.

” Lavinia held out the bracelet, the red beads a glimmering circle in her palm, reflecting the weak moonlight. Daphne did not waver; she reached out and touched the bracelet, Isabel and Phoebe following soon after, their warm hands comforting around hers. Marah watched them all, some unknown battle occurring behind her eyes. “All of us,” Daphne said gently. Marah sighed, then scooted forward to touch a tentative finger on the bracelet. “A pact for love,” Isabel said, “for each other, and the men we choose to stand beside us.” They nodded together, a solemn and binding moment as they looked at one another. Daphne swallowed. Was this the last time she would ever see her friends all together? Would they ever again laugh and tease each other, comfort and help whoever was in need? She had to believe this was not the end, but rather the beginning of their next grand adventures. She could only hope the future would be kind to them all, that they might find the happiness they longed for.

“Give me your hand, Marah,” Lavinia said, and they all sat back save for Marah. Lavinia slipped the bracelet around her wrist, securing the gold fastener. Then Phoebe uncovered the Chelsea buns. Marah smiled for the first time that night as they laughed, their hands becoming sticky messes as they ate their stolen treats. Well worth it, in Daphne’s opinion, since Cook’s Chelsea buns were quite the best she’d ever tasted. As they settled back onto the blankets, Isabel once again held up their prized leather book. “Huddle close, ladies. The Love of Count Rudolph, the final chapter.” Lavinia put an arm around Marah, and Phoebe scooted closer to Daphne, wrapping a spare blanket about both their shoulders. They watched Isabel expectantly as she opened the book and paused dramatically.

Daphne grinned, already anticipating what would surely be a heart-stopping and blush-inducing ending. “The clouds over Mount Morocco made the silvery moon seem like a ghost,” Isabel began in a low voice, “and Esmerelda heard the howl of the wolf pack from afar off and shivered. Where was her handsome Count? Would he come for her? She fingered the battered locket at her chest. He’d promised his love would stretch across oceans. Was a mountain too far?”

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