My next book, the historical romance Lady Griffith’s Second Chance, releases in less than three weeks!
I’m offering up the first few chapters for everyone’s perusal, and this week brings us Chapter One. So read ahead for a glimpse into Regan and Thomas’s story…
Regan stood beside her son’s bed, the light from the candle casting flickers of gold and shadow across his face.
He slept like his father: sprawled across the bed, bare feet sticking out from beneath the edge of the blankets, his head nearly dangling over the side of the mattress while his pillow already lay in a rumpled lump on the floor. She set the candle on the nightstand, returned all of his gangling limbs to their proper positions, and swept his dark hair back from his brow before slipping the pillow back beneath his head.
She bent down to kiss his cheek, and still he didn’t stir. Just like Edmund, she thought, before crossing to the other side of the room.
There, Maria slept in her bed, her small figure a contrast to her brother’s while in repose. Not only did Maria’s dark head still rest in the center of her pillow, but she had tucked her hands beneath her cheek, her pink lips forming a soft pout as she slumbered.
Regan gave Maria’s blankets a perfunctory tug before leaning over to kiss her forehead. She was about to stand up and turn away when she paused to sweep an errant curl, a ribbon of hair as black as ink, from her daughter’s cheek.
All of her children possessed their father’s coloring, the same curling dark hair and bright blue eyes. When they had been younger, she recalled her disappointment at their lack of her hazel-colored eyes or the auburn cast of her own hair. But then Edmund had gone and left her as a widow, making her forever grateful that in each of the children she had something by which to better remember him.
She fetched the candle from the nightstand and slipped from the room on quiet feet, though she knew both of them slept so soundly that nothing short of cannon fire would be enough to wake them. Further along the hall and several doors down from the nursery, she passed Katharine’s bedchamber, but she didn’t pause to knock. She had only just heard the faint rumble of a carriage on the drive, her aunt and Katharine no doubt returning from the Earl of Matchmore’s dinner. It was late, yes, but not as late as the hours some members of the gentry chose to keep. Regan smiled and wondered who had been the one more eager to return home for the evening, Aunt Agnes or Katharine herself.
Past a few more doors, the light from her candle casting distorted shadows on the dark panelled walls, and she arrived at her own suite of rooms. Inside her bedroom, the fire burned brightly, not yet been for the evening. She was about to shrug out of her robe and kick her slippers under the edge of the bed when a soft knock sounded on her door.
“Come in,” she said, without bothering to look over her shoulder. She recognized the knock, and so was unsurprised when Aunt Agnes walked into the room, a rustling of silk and satin marking her entrance before the older woman had even drawn breath to speak.
“I thought you might still be up,” Aunt Agnes said. She wore her ball gown, a green silk creation that stolidly adhered to the previous decade’s fashions, though Regan knew the gown had been made for her aunt only a few months before. “I sent Katharine directly to her room. Lord knows, she’ll most likely be awake for another hour yet before the excitement of the evening fades away.”
Regan glanced at her bed with longing, but padded towards one of the armchairs near the fire instead. “It was a good evening, I take it?”
“For Katharine, I’m sure it was.” Aunt Agnes heaved a dramatic sigh and insinuated herself into the armchair opposite Regan’s. “She is quite the success, you know. The men of the county flock around her, and the more she turns her nose up at them, the more enamored they become.” She shook her head, though her expression was light. “If her behavior was mere artifice, then I would be the first to call her out on it. But she truly doesn’t seem to care for any of these gentlemen harboring a passion for her.”
“Perhaps she’s too young yet to form a strong attachment,” Regan said, plucking idly at a bit of embroidery along the cuff of her dressing gown. “Or it could be that the circle of gentlemen in this part of the country is too small. She’s known many of the families around here since she was on leading strings. Sometimes familiarity can prevent a more romantic attachment from occurring.”
“She wants someone older,” Aunt Agnes said, putting her voice to a suspicion Regan had already harbored for some time. She raised her chin so that the light of the fire sparked on the emeralds decorating her ears and throat. “Someone who is already settled down and has put the wildness of youth behind them.”
Regan gazed at the fire as her fingers moved on to toy with the sash on her robe, a slip of flannel fabric that already bore the evidence of her restless hands. “That’s what I was afraid of,” she said, dropping the sash into her lap. “I guess I should be pleased she’s not the sort to be flattered and seduced by a handsome face and empty words, but…”
“It won’t be the same as Edmund,” Aunt Agnes said, before a log popped and shifted in the fire.
“You can’t say that it won’t be the same,” Regan pointed out. “There’s no certainty in matters like these. And I’m her mother. I’m going to worry. There’s nothing I can do to alter that.”
They sat in silence for a minute. Regan watched the fire and resisted the urge to continue biting her thumb, while her aunt finally released a sigh preceding her next speech.
“How old was Edmund when you married him? Forty-one?”
“Forty-two.” Regan blinked, but she didn’t look away from the flames.
A moment passed as, Regan assumed, her aunt totted up a few numbers in her head. “And so he was fifty-five when you lost him?”
“I did not lose him,” Regan retorted, and with more force than she’d originally intended. “He wasn’t a pocket watch or a bracelet to be misplaced. He died, Aggy. Just say it.”
“I am only pointing out,” Aunt Agnes continued, each word carefully enunciated. “That he was not a young man still in the prime of his life. And considering what the doctors said—”
“I’m well aware of what the doctors said.” She leaned back and shut her eyes, squeezing them until her temples began to hurt. It was always the same, every time she talked about her husband. There was the same ache, the same unwillingness to broach any of the matters surrounding his death. And yet, underlying it all was a peculiar urge to continue talking about it, until there were no more words to say and the grief drained out of her on a waterfall of speech. “They said his heart was weak, that they were surprised he’d lived for as long as he did.”
“Anyone can die at any time,” Aunt Agnes said, her skirts rustling as she shifted in her chair. “If Katharine chooses to wed an older man…” Regan couldn’t see it, but she could imagine her aunt’s tilted head and raised shoulder finishing her sentence for her. “You cannot predict the future, and you cannot tell Katharine with whom she may or may not fall in love. Within reason, of course.”
Katharine grinned, despite the overall tone of the conversation. She could well remember the protests of a few members of her own family when she, a bright and lovely girl of only eighteen, accepted the suit of a man twenty-four years her senior. Of course, the fact that Edmund had been recently granted a knighthood on top of a fortune of no less than five thousand pounds a year helped to smooth out any wrinkles of discontent her family may have harboured at the beginning of their courtship.
“And now,” Aunt Agnes pressed on, with a pert lift of her greying head. “I wish to speak to you about a certain matter.”
“Oh, dear.” Regan sat up again, feeling like a naughty child about to be chastised as she did so. “Is it Jack and Maria? Have they secretly eaten all your chocolates again?”
“No.” Her aunt’s mouth narrowed into a humorless line. “Though you do owe me another box of truffles.”
“Of course, Aggy.” Regan nodded.
Aunt Agnes cleared her throat. “This concerns you, my dear. I would like for you to escort Katharine to Mrs. Boyd’s dinner party tomorrow evening.”
But Regan had already begun to shake her head. “No, no. A dinner party? At the Boyd’s? They live miles away! It would be too long away from the children, and I’m sure you could—”
“I am not going.” The older woman cut through Regan’s remonstrances with the precision of a knife. “I am not Katharine’s mother. If you were sick, if you were an invalid, then perhaps I would feel more inclined to excuse you from your duties. But she will soon be married, if not this year, then no doubt next year. And she needs her mother to guide her. Not an aunt, not a cousin or a chaperone or someone else entirely. She needs you, and I expect you to give up this middling half-life you’ve submerged yourself in and be there for her as she searches for a husband.” She sniffed, and again tilted her chin in a manner best suited to putting the cap on a particularly tiresome conversation.
Regan spread out her hands in her lap. She didn’t want to look up at her aunt’s face, to endure the scrutiny in those keen grey eyes. But she did, as she had done since her aunt’s arrival at Bingaman Park at the beginning of Katharine’s entrance into society earlier in the year. “I will… I will think about it,” was all she could bring herself to say, without her voice threatening to break or her chin to tremble.
“Good.” Aunt Agnes rose easily from her seat, despite her age and her oft-touted physical complaints, and straightened her shoulders. “And while you’re thinking, perhaps you can decide on a dressmaker. It’s time to put aside the dull greys and lavenders, and everything you have from before Edmund’s death is frightfully sortir de style.”
Regan held back a snort at that. Of all the people to chide her for wearing clothes that were out of fashion…
“If you’re going to begin escorting Katharine about the countryside,” Agnes went on, “then you’ll need to be seen in some color.”
Regan remained in her seat near the fire until long after her aunt had left the room. Sitting in the massive chair, her feet tucked up beneath the edge of her nightdress, she watched the flames burn lower and lower as Agnes’s words played on a continuous loop inside her head.
Had she really been living a half-life for the last seven years? She thought back to the grief she’d experienced after Edmund’s sudden death, a terrible sadness that had been swiftly joined by the needs of her three young children. Jack and Maria had been mere babes at the time, and so she’d concentrated all of her efforts on making sure they would have some knowledge of him—not as a knight or a great landowner, but as their father. As the man who loved them and yet would never see them grow.
And now Katharine was already a young woman, searching for a husband of her own. How had that happened? Where had the little girl gone, the one with the dirt-smudged pinafore and the leaves and twigs tangled in her dark curls?
Perhaps Aunt Agnes was right. She’d spent so much time living in the past, ensuring her children honored and respected the memory of their father, that she’d forgotten about their future.
Soon Katharine would be married, and Jack would be off to school, and Maria would start thinking about gowns and dances rather than dolls and mud pies…
Regan drew her robe around herself and laid her head back against the chair. Edmund would not want her to live like this, to pull herself into a smaller and smaller circle until the only people she saw were her family and the servants. If she wanted her children to go out and to live their lives, then she would have to lead by example.
Oh, but it was a terrifying thought! To attend parties again? To engage in banal conversation and watch myriad couples tramp on each other’s feet on the dance floor? To risk fainting in an overheated ballroom while women gossiped and men leered and…
Well. She would attend all manner of balls and musical entertainments and routs, and all for Katharine’s sake. But once her oldest child had made a match and was well settled in her new life, Regan would slip back into her previous routine of running Bingaman Park and chasing after Jack and Maria. At least, that was until it was their turn to both grow up and so suddenly slip away from her.
The Boyd’s—Mr. Charles Boyd and his wife Miranda—lived on a fine estate directly south of Regan’s home. Their house sprawled about the landscape, less palatial than was fashionable, lacking all of the columns and cornices and pristine white-gravel pathways snaking across their lands. Instead, their home of stone and timber and diamond-paned windows, a very stubborn leftover from Elizabethan times, hugged the ground as if attempting to become a part of it. That is, if the amount of ivy crawling over the entire east side of the house was any indication.
Regan had not seen either of the Boyds in at least a year. She looked out the window as they drove up the lane to the front entrance, their carriage not the only one crunching along over the mixture of stone and hard-packed earth on its way to the house. Another couple was descending from their coach, a shimmer of silk and beading and feathers in the sunlight that slanted across the lawns.
“I am so glad you chose to accompany me, Mama.”
Katharine had reached across the seat to squeeze her mother’s hand. Regan looked away from the window and caught her daughter’s glance. “I am not certain Aunt Aggy would have allowed me to remain at home for another day.” She held her daughter’s hand—bare, as Katharine had removed her gloves the moment they had climbed into the carriage—and studied the long, slender fingers. Not the hand of a child, she mused to herself, and blew out a breath that hid a quick flutter in her chest. “She says I have been neglecting my motherly duties to you. And have I? Been neglecting you?”
Her daughter lowered her head, her lips pursed in that way they often did when she took the time to think over what she was about to say next. “You have not, no. You have been everything I have needed thus far. But I am happy you are here now, if only because I no longer have to listen to Aunt Agnes complain about her knees for half the night!”
“Her knees will outlast all of us,” Regan remarked, relieved to lighten the conversation before it could travel into more serious territory. “And perhaps she was right. About my neglect,” she added, and shook her head before Katharine could interrupt. “I have been at home too much of late. I think this will be good for me. A few dinners here and there, perhaps a dance at the assembly rooms…” A gradual reintroduction to society, she thought. And in the role of widow and mother, she did not imagine much would be required of her beyond gossip, indulging in a bit too much punch, and keeping an eye on Katharine. Or rather, keeping an eye on the gentlemen reputed to be flocking around her.
They arrived at the front of the house a few moments later, the carriage rocking as the horses settled and stamped their hooves, as the door was opened for them. Mrs. Boyd greeted them first, her mouth a small ‘o’ of astonishment; Regan hoped not because it had been so long since she had regularly socialized with her neighbors, though the alternative for receiving such a reaction might not be pleasant.
“Lady Griffith!” Mrs. Boyd smiled broadly, her plump cheeks attaining an attractive pink color as she turned her head and the sun lit her face. “I did not think… Well, I was just saying to Mr. Boyd that I had hoped we would see you, though I did not suppose we would. And here you are!” She took Regan’s hands and leaned in close enough to buss the air beside her cheeks. “But… how are you?”
It was only a subtle change in Mrs. Boyd’s expression, a fresh line appearing in her forehead, her eyes slanting downward in faint concern.
“I am very well, thank you.” And Regan smiled, keeping her face bright. She did not want them to think she was a fragile thing, still so wrapped up in her grief that she would have to be treated like someone ready to faint away at the first sign of an overwhelming situation.
They went inside, Regan expecting to see a few other guests milling about, gravitating towards the drawing room as Mrs. Boyd led them there. But as they entered the room, Regan realized that the dinner was a much larger event than she had been led to believe, and not just a cozy gathering of a few friends and neighbors.
More carefully. It struck her then, that perhaps she had pulled herself away from society for too long, at least if it had reached a point when people found it astonishing for her to attend a local event.
Mrs. Boyd, seemingly mollified by Regan’s response, moved on to greeting Katharine with an overabundance of cooing and hand flutters. Katharine bore it all with visible equanimity, though more than a dozen guests were already assembled in the drawing room, not counting the Boyds or anyone else lingering in the outer corridors. Or even those yet to arrive. Most of the faces were familiar to Regan, if older than she remembered. The distance between the Boyd’s house and her own meant that these were not the people she saw regularly at church on Sunday, or when she occasionally ventured into the nearest village on market day or for one of the seasonal fetes. And so she held her breath, one hand pressed to her rib cage, beneath her bosom, as she realized that a few of these people she had not seen since before Edmund had died.
“I must introduce you to Mr. and Mrs. Fisher!” Mrs. Boyd pulled Regan and Katharine along, like a ship drawing a flotilla of smaller boats behind her. A flurry of introductions and re-introductions commenced, Katharine displaying an impeccable amount of etiquette mixed with an edge of biting wit that seemed to sail over many of the heads of those with whom she conversed. Regan, on the other hand, felt as if she were a young lady, entering society all over again, overwhelmed by the attention and the talk and the heat of so many bodies pressed into so small a space.
It could have been an hour or it could have been only a minute before dinner was announced. The sun had set by then, the room losing some of its shadows as candles were lit and curtains were drawn over windows left open to let in some air. Regan was to be escorted into dinner with a Mr. Benedict, who she could not remember if she had met years before, though he was old enough—his back describing a sharp curve forward over the cane he used—that she doubted he remembered her even if they had known each other before.
It was an unusual experience, being portioned off as one of the older guests. She was a widow now, and with at least one child grown. She was not here to find a husband, though she supposed there might be a few who would assume she would eventually wish to marry again. But none of the unmarried gentlemen present caught her attention as anything more than fellow guests. And besides, with three children of her own already and no desire for more, with those stiff grey hairs beginning to thread their way out from the crown of her head, with a figure decidedly more comfortable than the one she had possessed before the children and the grey hairs had appeared, she doubted she presented much of an enticement for most of the gentlemen in England currently searching for a wife.
Across the table, Katharine had been paired with Mr. Talbot, a neighbor of theirs who appeared much more interested in Katharine than she was in him. Not that her daughter behaved rudely in the least, but Regan recognized the set of Katharine’s mouth, the tension in her shoulders that displayed a polite tolerance of the attention currently being paid towards her.
He should read more books, Regan thought to herself, and hid her smile behind the rim of wine glass before taking a sip. If there was one way to Katharine’s heart, it would surely be traveled on the pages of a dusty tome rescued from the shelves of a neglected library. The usual topics spoken about between young men and women, the banal topics approved by most of the chaperones watching over their charges, would never be enough to hold her daughter’s interest.
Someone jostled the table, knocking Regan’s elbow and making her lose her hold on the glass of wine she still held. The stem slipped out from between her fingers, and in a blink her lap bore a small pond of red wine, the liquid quickly seeping into the lavender silk of her skirt.
“Dear me, are you all right?” It was Mrs. Boyd who moved first, and then another lady was there, and then a napkin or a handkerchief from somewhere. Regan grabbed at the fabric with a hasty “Thank you!” before she dabbed at the spreading stain on her skirt with a faint air of hopelessness.
“Now, now. Come with me!” Mrs. Boyd directed. Regan’s chair was pulled out and Mrs. Boyd held her by the elbow as she led her out of the dining room. A small bustle of activity erupted behind her as a footman stepped forward to clean up whatever spill hadn’t landed on her skirt and return her chair to its place. “Along here, and we’ll see to it you’re set back to rights.”
Regan let herself be led to a smaller room around the corner from the dining room, no doubt set aside for the female guests to fix their gowns, their hair, or take care of other, more private matters away from the attention of everyone else. She still held the wine-stained napkin in her hand, and while Mrs. Boyd looked around the room for a pitcher of water, a light knock on the door preceded the appearance of another servant, a young woman this time.
There were another two carriages, apparently. Mrs. Boyd gave a small huff of frustration and appeared to send a silent request for aid from somewhere above her. “Very well. Can you tend to yourself for the moment, Lady Griffith?”
Regan smiled, despite the fact that the wine had soaked through her skirts enough to leave her thighs feeling uncomfortably damp and cool. “See to your guests. I have enough here to take care of myself.”
“Of course, and I am so sorry!” Mrs. Boyd said, already rushing out the door to welcome her late arrivals.
Regan looked around her as soon as she was alone, located a pitcher of water and a basin, and made every attempt to soak the wine from her skirt. It was a futile cause, though. She had known it the moment she had dropped the glass in the dining room. The wine, now mixed with the water, had left a large dark splotch on the front of her skirt, a splotch that was no doubt permanent.
“I never cared much for this gown anyway,” she muttered beneath her breath, and instead of trying to dab at the stain set to drying the fabric as best she could before returning to the dining room. For several minutes she stood fanning her thighs with a few sheets of writing paper she had found tucked away in the nook of a desk. If she were at home, she would not care about a stain. Half of her wardrobe—the wardrobe Aunt Agnes insisted on her replacing with new clothes in brighter shades than the lavenders to which she had become accustomed—bore all manner of stains and mended rips and tears. She had children. Children who loved jam and loved to throw themselves at her for hugs with their faces still covered in the sticky preserves.
She tossed the paper aside as soon as her skirt was reasonably dry—no matter that it looked as if she had tried to draw a map of Scotland across her thighs with wine—and headed towards the door, shaking out the fabric of her gown as she walked. If she had been looking up, instead of studying the mottled state of her skirt, she might have seen him. Instead, she stepped into the corridor and directly into the man’s chest.
“Pardon me!” She glanced up, thinking she had unwittingly maneuvered into the path of a footman. But rather than a powdered wig and well-brushed livery, she caught sight of dark hair and light eyes, the latter seeming to glow in what little illumination the lights from the wall sconces provided.
“I am sorry,” the stranger intoned, one corner of his mouth hooking upwards in amusement. “I did not even realize there was a door there.”
“I…” She cleared her throat. Her voice felt strange. She coughed again and took a step back. He was tall, she noticed. Why that should have been immediately remarkable, she could not say. But she nearly had to tip her head up to look at him, and so she shifted back again, if only to see him better.
When Regan looked up again, she found him staring at her from under dark eyelashes, though before she could think anything of it, his gaze drifted downwards, fixing on the front of her gown.
“Oh, is that my fault?” He glanced down at himself, as if he might have transferred the stain to her in the moment of their collision. When he realized he had come out of their meeting unscathed, he reached inside his jacket and retrieved a handkerchief. “Here. Allow me to-”
She laughed, a quick burst of sound that escaped from the back of her throat. “Unless you have an entirely new gown concealed in that pocket of yours, I doubt you will be able to help or hinder much beyond what has already been done.”
He stood there, a wrinkled handkerchief dangling from his fingers, his expression still dancing on the edge of humor. And something more, though Regan could not guess at what it was behind those light grey eyes. “I take it you are one of Mr. and Mrs. Boyd’s guests? Shall I escort you back to the dining room?” He made no move to offer her his arm, however, or to put away his useless handkerchief. It was as if they were caught in the scene of a play, waiting for the next line to be whispered to them from the wings.
“I don’t even know who you are,” Regan admitted once she found her voice again, her tone taking on the edge of a scolding. She did not remember him from any point earlier in the evening. And if he had been there, either in the drawing room or the dining room, she did not think she would have forgotten him so easily.
He turned his head to one side, glancing behind him as the noise of a door shutting in another part of the house reverberated through the hall. “I am rather late, aren’t I?” Again, that smile, lending a bright youthfulness to his looks. Regan wondered for a moment how old he was, her gaze skimming over his dark hair—lacking any touches of grey—and the absence of only the faintest lines around his eyes and mouth. Surely he could not be much more than twenty-five or twenty-six, or perhaps she was only feeling the weight of her own years so much that it was beginning to skew how she saw others. “I have already delivered the most profuse apologies to Mrs. Boyd,” he continued. “But I will beg a pardon from you as well for continuing to converse with you in a quiet hallway and without us having been formally introduced.”
Was he teasing her? Goodness, she had no idea. Edmund had never been the sort to tease, and since him her dealings with other gentleman had consisted of little more than discussions with her steward over the running of the estate and…
“You say that as if it is something scandalous, for you and I to be standing here together.” Her gaze darted down to his mouth as she spoke—she did not know why—before returning to his eyes. “But I am not a young miss, cutting her teeth on her first social season. I’m sure it would take a great deal more than loitering in a shadowed corridor with a young man to damage my reputation.”
Regan sounded more like a mother than she ever had, attempting to rein in this young pup. He was too boisterous for his own good, though why he was currently wasting his attention on her when there were several younger, eligible ladies sitting in the dining room, she could not determine. Unless he thought her maturity would make her an easier target for his vexatious behavior, or a more harmless one. Because flirting with a young, unmarried woman in an empty hallway could surely lead to disgrace for the girl in question and possibly a push into an unwanted engagement for him. But to banter with an older widow, one who did not have to worry as much about keeping a pristine reputation, was a less dangerous pastime.
He licked his lips. Again, she looked at his mouth, and again she chided herself for it. She was not a green girl, a blushing virgin ready to faint away at finding herself in the mere presence of a man. But for some reason, this man rattled her. Which was silly. She was a widow. She had been married—happily married!—for over a decade. She had aged beyond the point of gazing after young men with lust in her eyes. Hadn’t she?
“What would it take, then?” He spoke in a low voice, a soft burr shaping his words that she hadn’t noticed before. “To cause a proper scandal?”
There was still the correct amount of distance between them. Anyone walking along to find them there would not think anything untoward had occurred. Because, of course, nothing had occurred. They were simply two guests at a dinner party, apologizing after bumping into each other in a dimly lit hall.
So why did Regan feel a peculiar warmth in her cheeks, flooding upward from her bosom and a place even lower than there? “Tell me your name.” It was not a question. She had not meant to be so direct, but something about him made her want to throw off all the trappings of drawing room etiquette as quickly as shrugging off a shawl.
“Thomas.” The way he said it, like he was imparting a great secret to her. And it was not his surname he gave her, of course. He had successfully stepped around all of the stuffiness of formal introductions and strict adherence to propriety by telling her his Christian name. And in a voice that made her place her hands flat against the front of her thighs, her fingertips pressing hard into the wine-soaked silk.
It was the wine, she thought. She had drank two glasses—or one and a half, before the rest of the second found its way onto her lap—and now she was feeling slightly dizzy, and silly, and very, very bold.
No more wine, she thought. If she wanted to keep her head. And her gowns.
“Will you tell me your name?” he asked. And did he lean towards her with the question, or did she just imagine it?
“Regan,” she said, matching his boldness with a dose of her own.
“Regan,” he echoed, as if committing it to memory. His teeth appeared long enough to graze his bottom lip, and-
No. She had to stop looking at his mouth.
She glanced down at her hands, her fingers now knotting themselves together in front of her abdomen. What was she doing? Had she lost all of her senses? Her daughter was only a few rooms away. Her other two children were at home, waiting for her to return. And she was certainly not one of those merry widows who flirted tirelessly with a string of beaus after watching her husband lowered into the ground. She shut her eyes, opened them again, and blew out a breath that seemed to clear her head along with it.
“I have been gone too long. I would not wish Mrs. Boyd to worry over my continued absence.” She nodded to him, the most she could manage in farewell while her heart hammered in her chest and butterflies whirled on wings of indigestion in her stomach. As if she were a young lady again, and not a woman more than two decades older than she had been at her first introduction to society.
If he made any move to stop her, she did not see it. And she would not have slowed for him if he had. This was not why she had come here, to flirt with another man while she still wore a gown of lavender silk, while she still kept one foot planted in a state of half-mourning for her husband. She smoothed her hands down the front of her ruined skirt as she walked up to the door of the dining room. Her cheeks still burned with a flush, but she hoped people would assume she was only feeling some residual embarrassment over the state of her gown.
She slipped inside the room, the light from the candles casting everything in a warm, welcoming glow. Several new guests were seated around the table, and she wondered if Thomas had accompanied any of them here. But she banished that thought from her head, along with any other remaining images of him. Katharine, she reminded herself. She had come to act as a chaperone for Katharine. Her daughter. Her grown daughter who was old enough to begin searching for a husband.
A grown daughter who did not need the chaperonage of a mother who entangled herself with handsome young gentlemen in narrow, overheated hallways.
Regan took her seat and smiled at Mr. Benedict, who did not seem to have even noticed she had ever left. She sighed, then, and reached for her wine glass. Her fingers curled back from the stem when she heard another person enter the dining room behind her, and she knew without having to look that it would be the man from the hallway. Thomas.
“No more wine,” she said under her breath, and kept her gaze pinned to the table in front of her.
“What was that?” Mr. Benedict looked up from his soup, which was about to dribble from his spoon and onto his lap.
“Nothing,” she said, and gave the older gentleman’s arm a careful nudge before he ended up spilling onions and beef broth all over himself. “Nothing at all.”