Emma shook herself back to the present, her mouth tilting downward as she grimaced. Soon after the funeral, Ethan had left for London and Europe on what was supposed to have been their honeymoon trip. His mother had explained gently to Emma that Welland had business in Amsterdam that Ethan needed to attend and Emma had nodded without objection. It had been one of the reasons for the destination when they’d planned the trip.
Ethan had been perfectly within the expectations of his family and society to go. No one blamed him. Emma had said so to Lady Welland. She’d understood.
Emma did understand. Ethan couldn’t have married her on the day of her mother’s funeral. He’d had to attend to the family business for an entire list of eminently acceptable reasons. He couldn’t marry her for a good six months after her mother’s death, and a year would be preferable. Emma understood. Emma couldn’t bear to have his name mentioned in her presence either.
She’d stopped visiting Welland Hall. It was no longer her prospective home, but the empty rooms of an older couple who seemed more aged than they had a month earlier. She’d breathed a sigh of relief that Viscountess Welland no longer felt obligated to read her the letters that arrived from Europe from her eldest son, letters which were full of sights and sounds and experiences and absent of any mention or inquiry about Emma.
Whispers of Ethan still reached her, though. The Fairchilds had been to London, and five months after the planned marriage of the Honorable Ethan Holbeach and Miss Pipwell of Pipwell Manor, Josephine Fairchild whispered in Emma’s ear that Ethan had been seen in London. He’d been doing what all men of his age and disposition did – drinking and gambling. When everyone thought Emma was consulting with the butler in the front hall, Mrs. Fairchild had wearily informed Josephine that no one was to discuss the rumor that Ethan had been conducting an affair with Lady Carmichael.
Eight months after they were to have married, Ethan had departed England’s shores again without returning to Lincolnshire. With his younger brother, they’d gone to Ireland, leaving Lady and Lord Welland alone in the house by the river.
One year from the day that they should have married, word arrived at Welland Hall that Ethan’s younger brother had been killed in a curricle race. He’d been racing against Ethan. Lord and Lady Welland packed and left for Ireland immediately.
Fifteen months after the fateful day, the lord and lady had returned without Ethan. Lady Welland had called at Pipwell Manor and asked Abraham to shut the doors to the drawing room when she was shown in. Sitting beside Emma, she’d taken the younger woman’s hand and told her in a trembling voice that Ethan refused to come home. Guilt, she’d said quietly. He was sinking in guilt, and she was worried about him. She didn’t expect Emma to do anything, she just thought she should know.
Emma had said nothing, just hugged Lady Welland with real sympathy. Later, though, in the depths of the night, Emma had sobbed for hours.
Lord and Lady Welland closed the Hall and left Lincolnshire. They had a daughter in Edinburgh and went there. During the winter, however, scarlet fever struck the nursery and took Lord Welland with it. Twenty-three months after Emma was to have married Ethan, Ethan succeeded to the title.
He hadn’t returned, not even then. He put the estate in a steward’s hands, hired a caretaker to watch over the Hall, and had stayed in Ireland after a brief visit to his mother. Emma had heard all the news from Josephine, whose mother corresponded regularly with Lady Welland.
The heartrending grief after her mother’s death had been replaced by an even deeper sense of loss. Of course she concealed it, but there was no mistaking the pity and gentleness of the other ladies in their small village. They no longer termed Emma a girl or young lady, but described her as the mistress of Pipwell Manor, the woman who waited in vain for the only man she’d ever loved. She’d been twenty when promised to Ethan and twenty-one when they were to have wed.
Now she was twenty-four. It was true she’d loved Ethan deeply, or at least loved the man she’d thought him to be, but it was also true that she’d never waited for him.
She had never really believed he’d come back for her.
Emma settled in the grass beside the wooden slats that sided the front facade of the cottage and stared blindly in the direction of the river and Welland Hall.
The fabled wild streak of the Holbeach men had always been part of Ethan, even as a boy. It had been confined by age and responsibility by the time Ethan had seen Emma for more than a schoolgirl, but Emma had known it well as a child and had gone out of her way to try and prod it from Ethan as an adult. They’d met often at this ramshackle structure during their respective morning rides. He’d spent many happy hours there as a boy as it was a Welland property. Later, he’d introduced it to Emma as a secret hideaway – a special place in the glen where they could meet beyond the sharp eyes of both their parents. In the shadows of the elms, Ethan had tempted Emma’s heart.
They’d sat in the grass, first near to each other but later so close that he could hold her against his shoulder, and he’d talked to her. He’d told her his hopes and his dreams and his opinions, entrusting her with secrets that could embarrass him and hurt him. He’d kissed her and held her close, though he’d never used the obvious advantage of their privacy to dishonor her. He’d listened to her fears and her hopes and smiled indulgently when she’d gone so far as to tell him that she wanted the sort of affectionate marriage her parents had. Love, he’d said. You want love. Emma had agreed and they’d both been silent for a very long time. On other occasions, he chased her through the trees when he’d discovered she was ticklish. Once, he stayed with her in the cottage full of cobwebs when they’d been caught in a rainstorm.
The next time she’d met him there, the interior of the cottage had been swept clean and furnished with comfortable chairs and a functional table. He’d picked her up, sat her on his lap as she squealed, and tipped her chin up so that their eyes met. He’d asked her to marry him, then, and told her she was the one he loved.
She’d said yes. Yes. Yes. And then she’d cried while he kissed her.
* * *