Clara Burke dabbed at the corner of her eyes, wiping away the tears that had escaped as she laughed. If she moved too suddenly, she could feel her ribs hurting. The other women who were with her were laughing still, unable to recover just yet. Lady Conworth was very amusing, and, as always when they gathered, at the end, she had sent them into a fit with her words. “Surely, it could not be that horrible,” Clara said, putting her handkerchief away. “Oh, believe me, it is,” Lady Conworth replied, being the only one who never seemed to be amused by her own words. “Imagine being married to such a broody, gloomy man. Oh, my goodness, I would surely die of boredom!” She rolled her eyes theatrically, and the women were laughing again. They had gathered in the Teahouse today for tea and, of course, idle gossip. Every week, there was always some news to discuss. It was summer after all, a long time until a new season, and something had to be done to while the time away. Clara was aware of her husband’s aversion to this activity, but she always assured him that it was nothing vicious or bitter. Nathaniel, her husband, had finally come to accept that and, these days, when she entertained the women or went out to be entertained, he let her do so with a sigh that showed he was resigned to his fate. He was smitten with her, after all, and could refuse her nothing. Nathaniel was such a good husband, and Clara was just as smitten with him.
She felt her cheeks begin to warm at the thought of him and the love they shared, and she wondered if anyone noticed. “Oh, Clara, I daresay we have lost you. Have you heard any word that has been said in the past minute? Of course not. Someone is thinking of her dear husband again.” That was Lady Whitestalk. At her words, Clara blushed deeper, shifting in her seat. So, they did notice. The fourth of the ladies, Lady Grenwich, spoke then. “Oh, leave the woman be, Essence. If I were married to such a man as Lord Burke, I would always have my cheeks smudged with hints of crimson, as he would be in my thoughts all the time!” Once again, they laughed.
Clara too, for she knew Lady Grenwich meant well. “His Grace is just as wonderful a man, Olivia. Mind your husband, and I shall mind mine. Speaking of husbands, I’m afraid I shall have to take my leave now. I promised my lord I would be back in time to take Eva off his hands, so that he can concentrate on other matters. If you would excuse me for a moment, I shall visit the powder room.” Clara rose as she finished speaking, and the women nodded their understanding. She found the powder room soon enough and took her time to readjust her hair. Satisfied with the improvement, she turned to leave. She was no more than ten steps away from the tea- room when a large figure stopped in front of her, blocking her way.
She halted in her tracks and raised her head to see who it was. Her heart fell as she recognized him. “My lord,” she greeted him, bowing her head slightly. “My lady, I thought that was you,” he replied, his deep baritone sending a frightening chill down her spine. “I saw you as you left the tea-room moments ago, but I wasn’t sure if my eyes had deceived me. So, I came out here to wait.” Clara forced a smile onto her face, swallowing hard. “Oh, I see. What a surprise, seeing you here. I did not think this was your kind of place.
” He smiled at her in that odd way that had lately made her feel extremely uncomfortable. “The library is just across the street. I have been there all day. But I decided to break off for a few minutes, so I came here for some tea. The Teahouse is, after all, open to everyone, lord or lady.” “That it is. Very well then, I hope you enjoy your break. I must be on my way.” She lifted her skirts, eager to keep moving, but he stopped her. “You are not leaving so quickly, are you?” She stopped, growing wearier by the moment.
“Is there something else you wish to discuss, my lord? My apologies, I did not realize.” He broke into a soft laugh that did not make Clara feel any better. It sounded like something that would come from the devil himself. “Oh, Clara, you delight me!” He took a step forward, closing what little distance was between them. Clara’s feet shuffled backwards of their own accord. She glanced around, nervous, worried that they might be drawing attention to themselves. A sigh of relief broke free from her lips as she saw that no one appeared to be paying them any attention. He snorted at that, and she jerked her head to face him again. She thought he would move forward again, but he didn’t. Outwardly, she tried to look as calm as possible, not wanting to give him any satisfaction by revealing how much his mere presence upset her.
“Yes, my lord?” “It is not something of grave importance, per se. I was just wondering if you have thought any further about my proposition.” “I have given you my answer, my lord. I gave it to you the very moment you asked, and I made it clear that there is nothing more to discuss.” “And I made it clear that I will not take no for an answer…” “I am afraid you must. There is no other way about it. What you ask of me is highly inappropriate, considering the fact that I am a married woman and, beyond that, married to …” “Oh, please, Clara. Stop with the theatrics. No one will ever find out. You have not told Nathaniel thus far, and I am certain you never will.
We can keep it a secret.” He took another step forward. This time, she stood her ground, digging her heels in. She would not be intimidated. “Not if you keep approaching me this way, we cannot. Look at us. We are in the open, and there are eyes everywhere. Not to mention, you are too close for comfort. It is only a matter of time until rumors begin to fly.” His brows wiggled in excitement.
“Would you rather we chose a private rendezvous place?” She raised her own brows at him, frowning now. He got the meaning of her gesture and cleared his throat, becoming serious again. “No one would think anything of it … us being together like this. We have always been close, your family and I.” “I am beginning to see that this is a mistake that should have never been made, is it not? My lord, I do not know what has come over you, but you must stop this nonsense before it gets out of hand. I cannot be yours.” He lost his calm in that moment, his smile disappearing as his eyes grew dark. “You speak as a silly child. Naive, fresh out of her lesson room, with no knowledge of how the world operates. However, you and I both know that you are far more sensible than these words you speak.
We could make it a reality, Clara. You need only say yes.” “I do not want this! I will never say yes. This, us, it is madness, and it will never happen! I do not know what malady has come over you, but I suggest you overcome it as soon as possible, as it is denying you of your right senses. Now, if you would step aside, I have kept my friends waiting for long enough, and I need to go home to my husband and my child, my family!” She said the last words with emphasis, her blue eyes hard as she held his. She was exasperated by his audacity. By the thought that he felt he had any right to be angered. She could feel several pairs of eyes on them now and knew that they had finally managed to draw attention. Yes, he had been right. They might think nothing of it, but if this continued, it was certain to raise dust.
Just then, someone cleared their throat, and they both turned to see Cecilia, her maid, standing by his side. “Cecilia!” Clara chimed, aware that this was her saving bell. “My lady, I have brought your belongings and said farewell to your friends on your behalf. Time strays further away from us by the minute. I am afraid we cannot keep His Grace waiting any longer.” Smiling victoriously at the timely intervention of her maid and friend, Clara responded. “Thank you, Cecilia. That was very thoughtful of you. His lordship and I were simply exchanging pleasantries. We had just finished as you arrived.
We may take our leave now.” She tore her gaze away from Cecilia to the tall man in front of her. He still had not moved an inch. “My lord, do have a lovely evening.” “You too, my lady. Until we meet again.” The twinkling mischief in his eyes told Clara that he had every intention of making certain that another meeting happened, and, as she turned to leave, with Cecilia by her side, she could feel those eyes roaming across every inch of her body. She shuddered in disgust and wondered if she was right in keeping this from her husband. It had been three months since it had begun. When he had begun.
When she had presumed he was jesting. As she grew to learn that he was serious, she believed he would grow weary and stop. How much longer could she continue to manage the situation herself and keep him at bay? “He was disturbing you again, my lady, was he not?” Cecilia’s voice drew her out of her thoughts as they stepped out of the Teahouse. Her handmaiden was the only other person who knew what had been happening, for she was Clara’s dearest confidante. Clara smiled, not wanting to worry the girl. “Never worry yourself, Cecilia. ‘Tis nothing I cannot manage.” At least, not for much longer, she thought to herself. But what Clara did not know was that it would not matter anyway, as she would be dead within two months… Chapter 1 Two Months Later… “We must be assured in God’s promises, believing that a good soul has been taken up and now rests in His bosom. May this bring peace to our aggrieved hearts, knowing that she is now in a better place.
For it is written, from dust we have come, and thereunto, we shall return.” Nathaniel stood watching as they lowered the casket that contained his heart, his world, his whole life. His wife, the mother of his child. The vicar’s voice droned in his ears, but the words sounded so distant, as if everything was far away, so that he could barely hear a thing. He felt empty inside. Terribly empty. He could not believe it. It had been four days since she closed her eyes for the last time in his arms, and, until now, he had been waiting to wake up from this cruel nightmare. To have her smile down at him, tell him that it had only been a bad dream. Now, it had finally become clear that that would never happen.
She was gone. His light was gone, throwing him into darkness that would surround him for as long as he lived. And what was the point of living? It was not right. It was not right that she should leave so soon. That he would have to live without her. They had made so many plans, believing that they would live out all their years together. Grow old and gray. Have more children and grandchildren. That had been their dream. Yet here he was, doomed to live in this nightmare, alone.
His eyes were heavy with tears, but he could not let them flow. Not yet, with everyone present. He had been unable to cry since she breathed her last. Unable to do anything else, the shock rendering him useless. Thankfully, his mother had risen to the occasion and taken charge of the funeral preparations. It was only now, watching her laid to rest, that he was starting to feel the full force of the ugly, painful sorrow that plagued his soul. He shuddered as they began to cover the grave, and the thought of jumping in took hold of his mind. This was real.