Surrendering to Her Enigmatic Eyes – Abigail Agar

Lady Caroline Finch sipped her tea reflectively as she gazed out of the window at the vast, sprawling grounds of her beloved home. This location, in the conservatory, was her preferred place to take afternoon tea. Here she was free to gaze out the window whenever conversation lagged, her eyes drinking in the vista of manicured gardens and the rolling green hills of Essex behind them. Sighing, she glanced down at the teacup on the table, staring into the milky liquid as if it might contain the answers to all the questions swimming around in her mind. So many questions that she now had to contemplate, ever since frail Mr. Parsons, from Parsons and Lawson Solicitors, had sat across from her in her father’s study and read the will, only an hour ago. Since Mr. Parsons had told her what her father’s intentions for her future were, now that he was gone. Caroline hastily blinked back tears. It was all still so fresh; only one month had passed since her dear Papa had left this world forever. Leaving her behind, alone in the world, an orphan at the grand old age of three and twenty. A rich woman, but in the most peculiar way. Not in any way that she could have imagined. The door to the conservatory opened suddenly, causing her to jump slightly. No tears, she told herself fiercely, as she watched her dear friend Miss Rose Warren standing there.

Rose was assisting Aunt Clementine, holding onto the old lady’s arm and steering her into the room. Both women were smiling expectantly at Caroline. Caroline took a deep breath, plastering a wide smile onto her face. She rose, walking towards them both, kissing both ladies on the cheek. They said nothing as they settled themselves at the afternoon tea table. They didn’t speak until after Caroline had poured the tea, offered them slices of seedcake which they both declined, and were both sipping their cups, staring at her expectantly. Rose fidgeted in her seat. “Oh, Caro!” she burst out eventually. “I simply cannot stand it another minute. What did Mr.

Parsons have to say?” Caroline sighed deeply. Aunt Clementine was staring at her expectantly as well, her rheumy blue eyes pinning her to the spot. She took a deep breath. “It is most peculiar,” she said slowly, staring at them both. “Most peculiar indeed. I hardly know what to make of it, or how I feel…” Rose gazed at her sharply. “It is nothing dire, is it, dearest? You have not discovered that your dear departed papa was insolvent, mired in debt…?” Aunt Clementine harrumphed, staring down her nose at the younger woman sitting beside her. “I hardly think so, Miss Warren,” she said crisply. “My brother, God rest his soul, was the Earl of Essex, not a merchant who frequented the gambling dens of London!” Rose looked shamefaced. “Of course, Lady Norris,” she said quickly.

“I meant no disrespect…” Caroline sighed again. “Papa wasn’t insolvent,” she said slowly. “Far from it. He has provided well for me. Twenty thousand pounds a year, plus the deeds to our London townhouse on Grosvenor Square.” She bit her lip, hesitating. “I am a wealthy, independent woman…” “But…?” said Rose, staring at her. “What of your home here? What of Honeyfield Manor?” “That is the peculiarity,” replied Caroline, picking up her tea cup, and sipping gingerly. “The deeds to Honeyfield Manor have not been left to me…” “What?” snorted Rose. Her tea cup clattered in the saucer as she hastily put it down.

“If Honeyfield Manor hasn’t been left to you, then to who? You are the Earl’s only child, Caroline!” Caroline sighed heavily again, staring out of the window. Her home. Her beloved home, on a sprawling estate in Essex on the outskirts of London. Honeyfield Manor was the grandest house in the district by far. Twenty acres of sprawling grounds, where she had been frolicking and riding since she was a little girl. Since she was knee high to a grasshopper, as Papa was wont to say. She stared at the vista as if she were seeing it for the first time, with fresh eyes. And yet she knew every knoll, every hill, every blade of grass here intimately. Papa had hunted these hills, for grouse and partridge and pheasant, and she had tagged along. They had ridden their fine thoroughbreds side by side over the years…until Papa had been too weak to sit in a saddle anymore.

Until Papa had retired to his chambers, never to walk these beloved hills again. Her heart tightened. Her home, the only home she had ever known. Oh, they had visited London every year for the season, but Beaumont Place on fashionable Grosvenor Square had never been home for her. It had always felt like a hotel. This was where her heart lay. And Papa, the Earl of Essex, had given it away to someone else entirely. She turned back to her companions slowly, her eyes softening. Dear Rose, she thought, studying the woman’s nut brown hair, which was coiled into front ringlets with a loose bun at the back of her head. Rose’s complexion was as brown as her hair, something that never ceased to frustrate her mother, Lady Warren, who was forever applying lightening treatments to her daughter’s skin.

But Caroline liked Rose’s complexion; it complemented her velvet, doe-like brown eyes. Why must every young lady look like a porcelain doll? Rose was beautiful, in her own very unique way. They had been friends forever, living side by side as they did in manors in this pocket of Essex. They had shared two London seasons, giggling together at the dance assemblies as the fashionable young men had circled them. Rose had even had a serious flirtation with one, which had left her broken hearted for some time. Caroline had never liked the dandies in London who frequented the assembly halls, spurning them easily. None of them had touched her soul, or made her laugh, or seemed in the least real. Had she been too hasty? She was alone now, an orphan, with no one to protect her anymore. Her father was gone, buried in the local Hadley graveyard, next to the centuries old church. She had never known her mother, who had died in childbed, when she herself was only three days old.

She had no siblings; her only living relative was Aunt Clementine. Perhaps she should have entertained a dandy, made an advantageous match. A young lady alone in this world was vulnerable… “Caroline!” Aunt Clementine’s voice was tart. “You are away with the fairies again, my girl! Just tell us what has happened!” Caroline sighed. “Yes, Aunt Clementine.” She took another deep breath. “Papa has left the deeds to Honeyfield Manor to a young man named Mr. Cornelius Pembroke. Apparently, he is the son of a dear friend of his…” Aunt Clementine leaned forward, her watery blue eyes widening. “The son of Henry Pembroke?” Caroline stared at her.

“You know them?” The old woman nodded. “Your father and Henry Pembroke served alongside each other in the army, back in their salad days.” She gazed steadily at Caroline. “He must have spoken about him from time to time with you? They were very close. I heard he married an Irish woman, which is why they never saw each other much since they were youths…” Caroline nodded. “Just so. I do recall now, Papa speaking of him fondly from time to time. Mr. Parsons told me that the elder Mr. Pembroke died years ago, leaving his estate in Wicklow to his heir, but it is run down and he is in financial difficulties.

” She took a deep breath. “That is why Papa has left Honeyfield Manor to Mr. Pembroke’s son…” Rose gasped. “He has left your home to a stranger? A young man he has never met, all because he was once fond of his father?” Aunt Clementine gazed at her sharply. “You do not understand the bonds that are formed in the army, Miss Warren. I am sure my brother had other good reasons for not leaving this manor to my niece…” Caroline sighed. “It is true, Rose. Papa did not want to burden me with the running of this manor, knowing it was too much for an unmarried woman.” She gazed at her friend pleadingly. “Do not be angry with Papa, my dear friend.

He has left me amply provided for, after all…” Rose’s brown eyes filled with tears. “But you will have to leave here, won’t you? What will you do?” Caroline sighed again. What indeed? The same question had been swimming around in her mind ever since old Mr. Parsons had delivered the news. “Mr. Cornelius Pembroke has been informed,” she said slowly. “Correspondence has been sent to his home in Ireland. A stipulation in the will is that if he declines the inheritance, it shall revert to me.” She paused. “And he only has three months to claim it, as well.

So there still might be a slim possibility that the manor might one day be mine…” “Your father has acted correctly,” said Aunt Clementine huffily. “You might not see it now, Caroline, but it is too much for a young woman to manage. The estate is huge, way beyond your capabilities.” Caroline nodded. “In my heart I know that, dear Aunt Clementine. It looks like Beaumont Place in London shall be my new home now.” She smiled bravely. “I shall look on it as an adventure! And I am too young to be languishing in the countryside, anyway. I should be in the city, trying to find a husband.” She bit her lip.

“Exactly so!” Aunt Clementine sat up straighter. “You are a young woman, Caroline. You do not want to end up like me, withering on the vine, an old maid living on the charity of others! I missed my chance, but you still have time my dear. You are only three and twenty, after all.” But Rose gazed at her sadly. “I do not want you to go!” Suddenly, her eyes brightened. “But wait, we know nothing of this Mr. Cornelius Pembroke, do we? How old is he, and is he married…?” Caroline laughed. “He is thirty years old, according to Mr. Parsons, and unmarried.

But I know little else about the gentleman.” Rose smiled slowly. “That is it, then! You must stay here anyway, Caro, until this Mr. Pembroke arrives to claim his prize. Perhaps the late Earl had it in his mind that there might be a love match struck between you…?” Caroline blushed. She had thought the same thing herself. A small part of her was curious to meet this elusive gentleman, who was now the owner of Honeyfield Manor. Almost the owner, she corrected herself. He still had to travel to claim his prize, as Rose put it, within a specified time. She had to stay here until then, to greet him respectfully, as Papa would have wanted.

And if he never showed up, then she would just stay on here as she had always done. At least for the moment. She simply couldn’t think beyond that… “Hopefully he isn’t portly and balding,” continued Rose thoughtfully. “Nor a dullard who cannot talk to a woman! That would be a shame!” “Fiddlesticks!” said Aunt Clementine crisply. “You do amble on, young lady! Portly and balding, indeed! Looks fade; you realise that when you get to my age. As long as this Mr. Pembroke is a decent fellow who has good manners and doesn’t spill the wine at the dinner table, I shall think him good enough for my niece.” “Caro deserves more!” declared Rose stoutly. “She is beautiful and accomplished! She is not an old maid withering on the vine yet…” Caroline blushed again. It seemed everyone was curious about Mr.

Cornelius Pembroke, and were even matchmaking furiously. She stared out the window. She had to admit she was curious, too, to meet the gentleman. More curious than she ever thought that she would be, to meet this most unexpected interloper. Chapter 1 Matthew Grove stared up at the sky, frowning. There were dark clouds scudding across it, chasing away what little blue had been there. With a deep sigh he took out his fob watch, checking the time. The coach was now officially late; he had been standing on this forlorn crossroads, waiting for it, for over an hour already. He stared down at his battered trunk, lying at his feet, which held the last of his worldly possessions within it. It wasn’t much – he had given away most things, pawned others, and whittled away his whole life until it could fit into the small trunk.

It held mostly clothes and some books; he didn’t need much else. Well, he was starting a whole new life in an unknown city, after all. He stared at the sky again, wrapping his thin black cloak tighter around him. The wind was picking up now. How had it come to this, that he was standing at this crossroads, waiting for a coach to take him to London to start all over, away from the only home that he had ever known? Bitterly he smiled, staring down the road, searching for the coach. He knew how it had come to this, but it didn’t do to brood, did it? His grandmother, long in her grave, had always told him that. You had to look to the future, leave the past behind, haul yourself up by your boot straps if you must. Desolately, he kicked a stone. It had all gone wrong since she had passed only a month ago. His mother, who had always been his rock.

Timid Georgina Grove, who had lived so quietly in the small cottage her brother had leased to her out of the kindness of his heart, raising her only child on the paltry income she had earnt by giving piano lessons to the good families of this small Suffolk village. Matthew’s eyes stung with tears. He knew that the bitter wind wasn’t the reason. He didn’t want to remember; it had all been so painful. Her agonising final days, in her bed, when even the laudanum which the doctor had been giving her in increasing doses had failed to work. She had tossed and turned in pain, shouting in her delirium. This woman who had never raised her voice in her life. It was too late. The memory was still too raw, too recent. It reared up in his mind, as vivid as a waking dream… *** He had heard her crying in her sleep, on that last night but one.

The second last night of his mother’s life. He had been lying in his own bed, trying to sleep, but the sound of her agony was too much. Perhaps he could give her just a little more laudanum, even though the doctor had left strict instructions that she could have no more until morning. The sound of her cries had torn his heart to pieces. He had padded to the room, opening the door. She was lying on the bed, tossing and turning, gripping the sheets so tightly he could see that her knuckles had turned white. A sheen of sweat had broken out over her body, turning her thin, white nightdress almost translucent. Her long curly golden hair, scattered with grey threads, was matted from where she had been grinding her head into the sheets. Hesitantly, he had walked towards the bed, staring down at her. “Mother?” he had whispered, gently.

“Do you need more?” For a moment, it had seemed like she didn’t even hear him; her pale blue eyes were unfocused, drawn inward, concentrating on her pain. But after five minutes she registered his voice, gazing at him. Her eyes had softened with love, as they always did when she beheld him. “Matthew.” Her voice was croaky, and tight. “Water. Can you give me water?” He had obeyed without a word, pouring a long glass from the pitcher on her bedside table, then supporting her until she was sitting up. Carefully, he had held the glass while she drank eagerly, as if she hadn’t tasted water in a month. After a minute she had sighed, turning her head away. He had placed the glass back on the table, lowering her down again.

She had turned to her side, staring at him, reaching for his hand. He had given it to her, and they had simply sat in silence for a while. He had tried not to focus on how thin and frail her hand felt in his own. His mother was dying; he knew that intellectually. But emotionally, he felt as if he was a small boy again. He wanted to howl to the moon that he could not lose her, that it was unfair, that the world simply couldn’t keep turning without her in it. It had only ever been the two of them. He was an only child, and he had never known his father. His mother had never spoken to him about his father, not even in passing. He knew nothing about the man, even though he had asked from time to time.

But Georgina Grove had simply pressed her lips together, her eyes clouding over, saying that the past was the past. That they were enough for each other. He had learnt not to ask as he grew older. She didn’t want to talk about it, that much was obvious. And his uncle, aunt and cousin, who were his only relatives beside her after his grandmother had died, never talked about his enigmatic father, either. It was as if a veil of silence had been drawn over the small family on the subject, and he couldn’t tear it away no matter how hard he tried. He tightened his grip on her hand. It didn’t matter, at the end of the day. His mother had raised him alone, and she had done a wonderful job. There had never been much money, but there had been love.

She never talked about what might have been, what her dreams were, or made him feel as if he had burdened her life, grounding her in this small village in Suffolk. He knew that Georgina Grove had once been beautiful; his uncle had told him of her beauty, how she had been the toast of the one London season she had attended, even though she was only a middle class girl from the country with little money. She opened her eyes again, staring at him hard. “Matthew.” Her voice was a whisper. “I have been remiss…I have failed you…” His grip tightened on her hand once more. “Do not say such things, Mother,” he had said quietly. “You have done the best for me that you could. There is more to life than money…” But she had shaken her head vigorously, from side to side, upset. “No,” she croaked, still staring at him hard, her blue eyes no longer clouded.

“I am not talking about money. There are things that I should have told you, that I never had the courage to…” He had stared at her, mystified. Perhaps the laudanum was talking? He knew that the strong medicine often made people ramble; he had seen his grandmother in the grip of it when she had been dying, talking to shadows as if they were real people crowding around her. He stroked her hand gently. “Mother, you are becoming overwrought,” he whispered slowly. “I should leave you to rest, if you do not want any more of the medicine…” But Georgina Grove had reared up from the bed, staring at him, her blue eyes bright as if fevered. “Matthew, let me talk,” she said urgently. “There is no more time…the hour glass is running out for me, and I fear for my immortal soul if I do not unburden myself to you, and tell you the truth, my dear child…” He had stared at her, still mystified. What on earth was she talking about? “Lean closer,” she said, her voice fading to a whisper. “And I will tell you, what I must.

Before it is too late.” He had done what she commanded, leaning closer towards her. Her breath was sharp with the smell of the laudanum. In his peripheral vision he thought he saw Jessie Mullins, the woman who he had hired to care for his mother during the day when he was at work, at the door, but when he turned his head she was no longer there. Perhaps she had gone back to bed when she saw that he was in here, and that her charge was well tended.

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