Miss Madeline Grayson ran her fingers over the letter on her lap, the crinkling of the paper the only other noise in this carriage aside from the clattering of hooves on the snow-covered dirt road. The silence was pleasant, she decided. Far better than having a companion. She looked out the small window beside her at the snowy landscape rather than the empty space around her, the dark clouds gathering ominously overhead. The atmosphere suited her mood. It was perfect wallowing weather. But self-pity was not a trait to be admired, she reminded herself. A great aunt she’d stayed with for a time had told her that. The same great aunt had also liked to say that she’d best mind her manners or she’d find herself on the shelf. She wished that great aunt were still alive today so she could inform her that all the good manners in the world hadn’t spared her from that fate. A hint of a smile tugged at her lips despite this irritating sense of melancholy that had been plaguing her for the duration of her journey to her newly married friend Prudence’s house. On the shelf. Madeline could vividly recall the image that phrase had conjured when she’d been young. She’d imagined a little old lady being perched on the kitchen cupboard beside the flour and the sugar, left there until needed. A rueful laugh escaped at the thought and her fingers ran over the letter once more.
To think, as a child she’d thought that a lady knew the moment she’d been put upon the shelf, as though there was some unofficial ceremony or a secret rite of passage. She had not realized that becoming a spinster was such a slow, quiet sort of journey. A sudden realization that years had passed since her dearest cousin’s wedding. That months now went by before she received any correspondence from her other long-sincemarried childhood friends. The sudden understanding that no one would bat an eyelash if she did not travel with a chaperone. She eyed the empty seat once more and that melancholia threatened to grow into something more intense and far more pitiful. Closing her eyes, she swallowed down this poisonous sensation that seemed to be eating at her lungs, searing her throat and making her belly churn. It was just the time of year, that was all. Christmastide had always made her emotional. It was a time to celebrate with family, of which she had little.
Her closest family was her second cousin Amelia, who was happily wed and expecting her first child. She and her husband were on their way back to England after an extensive tour of the continent, otherwise she knew she would have been welcome to spend the holiday with them. As it was, she was headed to Prudence’s new family home. Her husband’s uncle was a marquess and was hosting a small house party to celebrate the holidays. Prudence and her husband Lord Damian had insisted that she join them. Truth be told, she’d had any number of invitations to choose from so there truly was no valid reason to be feeling so lonely. She could have gone off to Addie’s or Louisa’s or Delilah’s. Each had offered up her new home, but after careful consideration she decided that it was Prudence who perhaps needed her most. Before becoming engaged to Lord Damian, Prudence had seemed just as lonely as Madeline. Her parents had abandoned her with a terrifying great aunt who’d seemed to Madeline like some villain from a gothic horror.
Her gaze fell upon the empty seat across from her. The latest letter from Prudence, addressed to Madeline at the finishing school she’d been running these past two years. The School of Charm had been her home as she’d had the honor of guiding and assisting the four loveliest young ladies of her acquaintance. Until all at once, each and every one of them had gone and fallen in love. They’d married in a succession just as quickly this fall. Madeline could not have been happier for her charges. There was that surge of pain again. She was happy for her charges…yet also sad for herself. Was it possible to be so happy for others while so sad for oneself? Yes. In this matter, Madeline had quite a bit of experience.
In fact, she considered herself an expert on the topic. The carriage twisted around a turn and Madeline rested a hand against the seat beside her to keep her balance. It was a good thing she had, because not a minute later the carriage jostled and bounced wildly as they hit a rut then came to such an abrupt halt that Madeline found herself jostled off the seat and only just caught herself as she tumbled to the floor. A breath hissed out of her in the echoing silence that followed. The silence only lasted a beat before she heard the driver of the carriage talking—to his horses, no doubt. Then he was pulling open the door and his scruffy face was peering in. “Are you all right, missus?” “Yes,” she said, taking note of each limb as she straightened. “A little bruised, perhaps, but fine.” She managed a smile in the face of his obvious concern. His weathered face was wrinkled as he eyed her from head to toe.
“A wheel’s broken, I’m afraid.” He scratched at the back of his neck as he eyed her. She knew what he saw. A pretty face, or so she was told, and fair blonde hair. The picture of a lady. Habit and good training had her straightening her posture, ever the graceful swan even when sprawled out across the floor of a carriage. He held out a hand to help her to her seat but her inner mockery continued. The ever-graceful Miss Grayson. How often had she heard herself described thus by well-intentioned friends? Graceful and charming and…such a shame she never married. She gave a huff of laughter as she brushed off her skirts, her dress fashionable but modest.
She’d been raised as a lady, despite her lack of wealth or connections, and that upbringing showed. Perhaps too well. She was one of those rare breeds that fell somewhere in the middle of society’s standards. Her appearance and demeanor would suggest she was high born, but reality was another matter. She had enough good connections in her distant family that she would not be left destitute, but not so well off that she had much to offer in marriage. No dowry to speak of and little connections to entice prospective husbands. Those gentlemen she might have been a fit for—vicars and merchants and the like— they tended to look at her as this driver was right now. As though he was not quite certain what to make of her. The driver erred on the side of good manners. He gave a low bow as though he were addressing royalty.
“Will you be all right, ma’am, if I were to run ahead?” He eyed the expanse of snow around them. “The stables ain’t so far off. I can be there and back with help in no time at all. That is…” He gave her an uncomfortable little bow again and she just barely held back a weary sigh. “If you’ll be fine here alone, that is.” Her smile felt forced, but it came to her lips out of habit. “Of course I will be fine. I have every confidence that you will return swiftly.” He beamed with pride and gave another sweeping bow before setting out, like a knight heading out to battle. She watched his retreating form with a sigh.
So this was her gallant knight. She wasn’t quite certain whether she wanted to laugh or cry at the thought. Perhaps it was the jolt from her seat, but no matter how she tried to steady herself, she felt as though her world had been upended along with her seat on the carriage. She placed a hand low on her belly as if that might settle the swelling tide within her, the wave of dissatisfaction that had been plaguing her for days. Nay, weeks. Oh heavens, perhaps it was years now that she’d been battling this sensation. But it seemed to be growing with each passing second of silence. Without the horses’ hooves and the rattle of the wheels, she was left with nothing but the sound of her heart beating too wildly in her chest as if it were shouting to be freed. Nonsense. She tilted her chin down as if she could speak directly to her heart.
Utter nonsense. Her heart wasn’t going anywhere, and her emotions were well within her control. But her heart did not listen to her chiding, racing away from her as more emotions than she could name reared up. That jolt had not just jarred her from her seat, it had loosened something inside of her that she had been tamping down, stuffing into the darkest corners of herself. She stuck her head out the door and took a deep breath of the crisp air, but not even the winter wind from a rapidly approaching storm could calm her and it did nothing to cool the fire that was threatening to rage out of control. She drew back inside. No one seemed to be about but that was no reason not to remain calm and placid and…a lady. But she wasn’t a proper lady, was she? This new bitter voice nagged at her. She wasn’t certain at what point this voice had been born and when it had grown, but she despised it. She hated it that much more when it spoke sense.
She was not the lady she’d been raised to be. Not one worthy of respect, not one sought after for marriage, not one with any proper hopes for a good future. She was a spinster, and a poor one at that. Though she’d spent her lifetime amongst young, marriageable ladies of the ton, it was time to admit that her time had come and gone, and if she’d held out any hopes for a miracle…well, those hopes had withered and died over the last few years. She would never have the life she’d dreamt of. She supposed she ought to be grateful that she’d ever been allowed to view the world her friends had moved in, even if she’d always flitted about on the outskirts, never quite belonging. She would never be the one who danced and flirted and swooned and…fell in love. She gave her head a shake. No, the latter she could do. It was the other things that were out of her reach now that she was on the shelf.
And she was, there was no doubt about it. She might not have gone through a shocking metamorphosis or felt society place her there, but she was on the shelf and that was where she would stay. Glancing down, her eye was caught by the letter which had ended up on the floor, the fall making it unfold so Prudence’s tidy handwriting could be seen. There was nothing to be upset about as Madeline had long since come to grips with the reality of her situation. The fact that she would never marry was not newsworthy. It was a fact of life that Madeline had started to embrace the day she’d accepted Lady Charmian’s offer to run the finishing school. She’d known what she was doing. She’d seen the writing on the wall. The very day she’d moved into the School of Charm, she’d accepted the fact that she was destined to be a spinster. She just wished everyone else would recognize it, that was all.
Even from where she sat she could see phrases and fragments, taunting her with their kindness. …the vicar is quite handsome, they say. …older, yes, but in fair health. A widower in need of a wife… Madeline’s gloved hands twisted in her lap as this burning sensation made her skin feel too tight, her chest ache as though it were in a vice. With a gasp she shoved the door open and stumbled out of the carriage. The dark clouds seemed so low she could touch them. The weight of the world was coming down upon her shoulders as well. That was what it felt like, at least. She lifted a hand to her neck as if that would rid her of this sensation that was rising up so quickly it was choking her. Perhaps it was for the best that the carriage broke down before they reached the manor, for there was something in her that wanted to thrash and scream.
The hand at her side still held the letter from Prudence and without quite realizing what she was doing, she gripped it. She clenched it tight until it crinkled into a ball. But then even that wasn’t enough. Pity, that was what was in that letter. Pity and sympathy for the beloved headmistress, but also something worse than that. Something so much worse. Hope. Her dear, kind, lovely friends still had hope. Not just Prudence, but all of the girls from the school, and Amelia, too. Even Lady Charmian, the owner of the school and one of Madeline’s friends—she too was forever speaking to her of one days and maybes and all of the phrases that made Madeline want to scream.
She stared at the crumpled, wadded up ball of paper in her hand, guilt and shame fading quickly beneath that much stronger emotion that she could not yet name. It wasn’t anger—not at her friends—and it went beyond humiliation. It was the unfairness of it all, the fact that she might have been graced with beauty and intellect and decorum and yet none of that mattered a fig because she had neither the wealth nor connections that mattered most. For years she’d supported her friends and cheered them on and was truly happy for them when they found a match and moved on to build a family of their own. That ache in her throat moved to her belly and her heart. Oh, her heart felt like it might rip in two at the thought of the family she could not have. It wasn’t as though she were so silly that she’d been holding out for love—she’d never once thought to hope for something as romantic as all that. And she hadn’t been so naive as to wish for a title or great wealth. She would have been happy with a decent gentleman with a modest income. Just so long as he could support her and a child.
That was all. But seemingly even that was asking for too much. She’d had one prospect in her life. One. A handsome young fellow by the name of Mr. Andrews who’d paid her a great deal of attention her first year in London when she’d been a companion to a family friend. But even kind Mr. Andrews had dropped her flat when a lady with a decent dowry came along.