Tense with aggravation and temper, Emma changed herself into a riding habit. She descended the back steps, stepping so that the heels of her boots clattered and echoed with satisfying volume in the garden hall. Striding across the back courtyard and down to the stables, she moved with a speed and abruptness that was very unlike her usual graceful glide.
The grooms saw her coming and it took only a moment for them to saddle her mare, a frisky copper-colored Arab mount named Penny. Late afternoon was not the time of day Emma usually rode out, but the land was flat, the terrain familiar and the temperature cool. Avoiding the Sluice Road, Emma aimed Penny along the interior edges of the fields. She didn’t wish to meet anyone from the farms or the nearby hamlets, instead racing across her father’s fields at breakneck speed. Almost without a guide, Penny headed for the square acre of trees remaining between Pipwell Manor and Welland’s estate, as though the steed already knew of Welland’s return.
Emma hung on to the reins, by sheer will it seemed, until the path between the crops opened into an expanse of pasture. Penny slowed, testing the wet ground, then picked up speed to jump a hedge grown deliberately high across nearly the entire pasture. Indeed, there was only a single place in which Emma could achieve the jump, and she clenched her teeth and fought to hang onto the sidesaddle and reins as Penny flew. After that, Penny walked, picking her way between an overgrown stand of trees to avoid the heavy foliage and detritus of three years of disuse. Emma had to duck her head to miss the overhanging branches of elm that had grown in thickly, and uttered several angry yelps at intruding branches before she humphed loudly and slid off the mount to walk beside Penny.
After the first heavy circle of trees, they approached an unkempt cottage. From the rear, it was clear that the place was deserted. No smoke escaped the chimney, and no wood was stored against the shanty where Emma stabled Penny. The supply of hay and oats that had at one time been kept there was gone, so Emma fed Penny a few carrots from her pockets as a consolation. When Penny nuzzled her shoulder, Emma finally managed a sigh that sounded more discouraged than angry and turned away.
The front of the cottage stood under the giant elms, mostly hidden to all but those who worked in the closest pasture. From the tree line, a sharp hill fell to the edge of the pasture below her. Emma stood in the shelter of the trees and gazed blindly at the range of glistening green fields and marshes, still hardly able even to form two sequential coherent thoughts. Away in the distance – far enough that the naked eye could not see Emma but close enough that a spyglass could – Emma glared at Welland Hall. It was a great long house, much bigger than the relatively modest Pipwell Manor, and occupied a piece of land with stunning vistas of the navigable part of The Welland all the way to The Wash. Welland’s family had resided there for two hundred years, ruling the docks that were so vital to the local economy.
Emma’s ancestors had been at Pipwell Manor and its preceding houses for over three hundred years. Once upon a time, she’d teased Welland about his family being newcomers to the Holbeach neighborhood. It no longer seemed funny.
All she could remember was an afternoon three years earlier in the gardens around Welland Hall. Ethan had not been the viscount then, but he’d still been five years older than her and a good foot taller even though she wore heeled slippers and boots. She had looked up at him, her head bent back as his thumb had wiped tears from her eyes.
“Emma,” he’d said in a husky voice she associated with their private moments. “Emma,” he’d said again, then drew a deep breath and went on, “You cannot leave your father just now.” His hand fingered the black shawl that covered her head, tugging it forward and then smoothing it over her ear. He dropped his hands and drew her black-gloved ones between his large palms.
“I understand,” Emma whispered. Her heart, which she had thought was numb, broke open again in a fresh outpouring of grief. She choked back the pain. Ethan was saying only what she knew but couldn’t bear to actually endure.
“Your father needs you at Pipwell,” he repeated slowly, as though she hadn’t understood his first attempt. “You need to be there too, with him.”
Emma knew in her heart that Ethan was right. She could hardly function to accomplish the simplest of tasks. The loss she felt was beyond emptiness, beyond loneliness. Marrying Ethan would have partly relieved it because she would have been able to escape it physically and mentally. Her days and nights would have been filled with the practical adjustments of a new home, new expectations and new companionship in the person of Ethan’s mother. But it would not be right for her to leave her father so soon, even if she was a half-hour ride from Pipwell by horseback. And she would be cheating Ethan by going to him as she was now, only half-alive and numb, hardly able to even focus on his words, let alone offer him the glimpse of a smile.
Dimly she heard herself speak, the words raw. “So you are cancelling the wedding then.”
“I won’t leave your side tomorrow for even a moment,” Ethan told her quietly. “Upon my honor, Emma.”
Emma fought the surge of bitter bile. Her wedding gown was waiting, its ivory richness glowing in her wardrobe. But instead of wearing it and carrying Ethan’s flowers down the aisle of the church the next day, she’d have to walk behind her mother’s coffin to the graveyard beside the church.
Ethan could walk beside her if he wished, but it wouldn’t be as her husband. He wouldn’t be there to see her through the dark stretches of the night or to step in when the neighborhood ladies began to smother her with their well-intentioned attention. No one would be there for her then, not her mother and not Ethan. Even her father was too sunk in his own grief to really cope with Emma’s turmoil.
As though the church bells were already ringing their low, mournful dirge, Emma knew he would not marry her: not tomorrow and not next year, either.
“If that’s what you wish,” she whispered and lowered her gaze so that Ethan couldn’t see her eyes.
He’d surrendered the right to see her tears.
* * *