Aurora sipped the delicately perfumed tea. Over the rim, she watched their neighbor, Julia Sinclair, chat idly to her mother, Winnie. Despite the outward appearances of two older women enjoying a high tea, Aurora felt the undercurrents simmering in the room.
Most Tuesdays, for the past three years, she and her mother took a leisurely walk through the gardens and across the lawns dividing the two properties of the Sinclairs and Pettigrews. And every Tuesday, Mrs. Sinclair did her best to assert her prominence over her “lower” neighbor. Aurora wished her mother would stand up to her, but it wasn’t in her nature. Winifred Pettigrew was as affable as a puppy and as kind as an elderly grandmother to anyone who ever gained her acquaintance. But with each Tuesday tea, Aurora grew more and more attuned to Mrs. Sinclair’s pretence that she regarded any Pettigrew as her equal.
Years of living side by side, their families’ children growing into adulthood together, the shared events and celebrations did nothing in Mrs. Sinclair’s eyes to close the social gap. The Sinclairs were old money, the Pettigrews were new. That was the difference. It was a difference which could never be ignored by Mrs. Sinclair and suddenly, or at least in the last year or so, she had made it clear that the gap was widening as her boys started looking for wives . Aurora and her two younger sisters, Bettina and Harriet, were not for the Sinclair boys, the heir and spares to a large and impressive fortune.
Aurora gazed around the room, noting the new Chippendale piece on the far wall and above it a recently bought painting, a Constable perhaps? If it had been anyone else’s house she would have gone to study it more closely but she hated adding to Julia Sinclair’s conceit. Over the years Mrs. Sinclair had redecorated and removed nearly all traces of the previous mistress’ touches in the Hall. It was, in fact, a shrine to her own taste and judgment, which Aurora grudgingly admitted was rather fine, but Mrs. Sinclair’s attitude was such that she knew it and therefore her boasting ruined all pleasure of visiting the Hall.
Her mother nibbled a small triangle of light pastry filled with lemon curd and almonds. “Your cook has outdone herself today, Julia.”
Mrs. Sinclair briefly touched her immaculate hair, the color of coal and gathered up in wind-defying twists. As always she wore the finest of gowns, designed by the best Paris designers had to offer. “My cook has gone. In her place I’ve employed an Italian chef, Moretti, a wonderful man I found working in one of London’s ultimate restaurants.”
Aurora smothered a giggle. “You lured an Italian to the countryside near Leeds?”
“I think lured is a somewhat extreme word, my dear.” Julia’s mouth thinned in irritation. “He is an older man, who found the fast pace of a busy restaurant no longer suited him.”
“An Italian chef? How very interesting.” Mother peered at the pastry in her hand. “Though I did think your previous cook was a rare talent, too. Hadn’t she been at the Hall for many years?”
“A simple cook is not enough, Winnie. One must have the best and my chef is exactly that. You could improve in that area yourself, I’m sure. Shall I look into the situation for you?”
Aurora stiffened at the slight, giving the older woman a direct look. “Mrs. Pringle suits us rather well.”
“Indeed.” Mrs. Sinclair gave a subtle sniff and raised a slender finger to the hovering maid to pour more tea. “You do know, dear Winnie, that Reid is currently home from London?”
“He’s home?” Aurora’s eyes widened. She hadn’t known and stared at the doorway as if to expect him to walk through it. Quickly looking down at her teacup, she hid a smile. He was home.
“He’s been dreadfully busy. You know how industrious he is.” Mrs. Sinclair paused to select a petite finger length cucumber sandwich. “Of course, he’s never too busy for our circle of friends in London.” She ate carefully, delicately. “Naturally he is much sought after…” She gave Aurora a subtle glance. “Many a debutante desires the Sinclair heir as a husband.”
“And has he settled on one?” her mother asked innocently, unaware of Aurora’s intake of breath.
“I do believe there is a special lady who has caught his eye. Always a closed one is my darling Reid. I suppose being the eldest of four sons has taught him to be careful with his secrets in case the boys tease him.”
“Someone tease Reid?” Her mother’s eyes widened at the absurdity of the idea.
“Is-is Reid at home today or out riding?” Aurora grimaced as her voice squeaked. She listened for any evidence he might be close by. Why hadn’t he been to see her?
“He’s probably with his father and occupied with estate business.” Julia’s guileless smirk didn’t hide the coldness of her manner. “He has no need to waste his time sipping tea with the ladies. You know how he is. I do fear business will overtake his life. He has such a passion for it.” She frowned. “I do wish he wouldn’t be so zealous about things.”
“He is a dear boy.” Winnie took a macaroon. “Dreadfully polite and so interesting. He once spoke to me on matters of some trade he was overseeing that quite confused me.” She chuckled at her own limitations. “He now knows I have no head for commerce.”
“No self-respecting lady should, Winnie dear.” Mrs. Sinclair tutted.
“I don’t believe that.” Aurora couldn’t help but speak out. “Many women, high ranking women, run estates and properties. If their husbands have died they must learn to guard their children’s inheritance.”
“Surely that task should be left to trustees.”
“Why? Why shouldn’t a wife or mother control her own destiny?” Aurora glanced from her mother, who blinked rapidly, to Mrs. Sinclair, whose eyes narrowed with distaste.
“Did you hear that Amelia Williams from Grange Way is to be married in June?” Winnie broke the strained silence. “The groom is from Manchester would you believe. I do so like summer weddings.”
“I did hear, yes. We are invited, as I expect you are. I think this coming year will see many weddings.” Their hostess preened. “I expect an engagement announcement from Reid any day now. Obviously, it won’t be to someone in this district. No doubt she will be a London beauty, perhaps even linked to nobility. He mixes in those circles, you see, so it would be suitably natural for him to choose from such exalted society.”
Aurora tensed, the blow hitting her hard between the breastbone. She wanted to block her ears. None of it was true. Reid was hers. The fragile porcelain handle of the teacup snapped in her hand and the last few drops of her tea spilled down her sprigged gown and to the Turkish rug on the floor.
“Oh!” Mrs. Sinclair jumped up as though the hounds of Hell had been let through the door, while Aurora’s mother quickly used a napkin to dab at the stain.
“Has it burnt you, my dear?” Her mother’s worried tone brought Aurora back from the jolt Julia’s words had caused.
“No. I’m fine, Mother.” She stared at her hostess. “I beg your pardon, Mrs. Sinclair, for breaking your piece.”
“Please, think nothing of it. It wasn’t a favorite set at all.” Julia Sinclair was all smiles, though her ice blue eyes were hard as marble as she directed a maid to clean up the mess.
No, we don’t deserve to drink from a favorite set, Aurora fumed. Unable to take any more of their neighbor, she reached for her mother’s elbow. “We must go, Mother. I need to change.”
With apologies and promises to see each other at the harvest festival on Saturday, they departed from the magnificent Sinclair Hall, its sandstone brick mellow from years of weather. Aurora escaped across the wide flat lawns skirted by well-tended garden beds flowering in a late rush summer bloom. A male peacock strutted out from beneath a large sycamore tree, opening his beautiful fanned tail for the hens to notice and Aurora grimaced. Julia even had regal birds to show off.
“Aurora, do slow down, my dear.”
“Sorry, Mother.” Once through the wooden gate leading to their own less illustrious grounds, Aurora let out breath, not realizing she had held it. Her head pounded and it wasn’t caused by the evening storm building in the distance. She vowed that this would be the last Tuesday tea she would attend. Bettina and Harriet at sixteen and fifteen were old enough to go, she’d done her penance. But it wasn’t the afternoon tea, or even Mrs. Sinclair’s superior attitude that plagued her. It was the news that Reid was looking for a wife that had shattered her world as easily as a spoon shattered the top of an egg.
Reid married. How would she bear it?
“As you know I do not like being uncharitable, but I do believe Julia was rather smug today.” Winnie sighed as they entered the front entrance of their warm red brick house, which although only half the size of Sinclair Hall, was filled to the brim with love and laughter. It may not have the expensive items Julia boasted, or the years of history the Hall claimed, but the house was comforting, like a warm blanket on cold winter’s night.
“Mother, she is always smug. It is her character.” Aurora gave her hat and gloves to Tibbleton, their butler. How could she act normally after today? She wanted to go hide somewhere and think and grieve and try to imagine Reid, her tall handsome Reid, standing with another on his arm. No, surely not. He wouldn’t do it to her. He knew her feelings.
“Now, darling, that is not nice.”
“And neither is she,” Aurora snapped, pouring her anger into Reid’s mother, a worthy recipient. “I cannot stand how-” She turned as her sisters came rushing down the staircase.
“Mother! Aurora!” They chorused as one.
“Really, girls. Do not shout.” Mother smiled her thanks to Tibbleton and sailed forth into the withdrawing room, which had none of the formality the Hall possessed, but instead was haphazardly arranged with bits of furniture. Many a visitor has had to remove a bonnet, a newspaper, or sewing from a chair before sitting down. Winnie waited for her two younger daughters to be seated with a patience her family adored. “Now, what is your news?”
“We’ve been invited to Captain Lee’s harvest ball next week.” Bettina gushed. “It’s been hastily arranged.”
“Why yes, he only returned home from the continent last week.” Their mother quickly went to her small mahogany secretary on the far wall and sat down on the plush red velvet chair placed before it. “I’ll check my diary. Really, the Captain should know better…’
“The Captain is without a female to guide him in such matters, Mother.” Aurora smiled, liking the genial old army captain, who, since the death of his wife and more recently his widowed daughter, lived alone at Sommervale Lodge a few miles to the south of them.
“We will go, of course,” their mother muttered, writing in her diary. “Your father greatly admires the Captain.”
“Talking about me again?” Josiah Pettigrew strolled through the doorway, his tall thin frame commanding the room.
“Husband, you are home early.” At once on her feet, Winnie rang the bell pull beside the unlit fireplace.
“My meeting finished early.” He kissed his wife and daughters in turn and then sat on the leather wing-backed chair at a right angle to the fireplace. “Like most of the businessmen of Leeds, we were happy to escape the town before the storm broke. Ah, Tibbleton, a drink before I go to my study, if you please.”
The butler, standing at his post by the door, immediately went to the drinks cabinet near the front window and the conversation resumed about the Captain’s ball. However, the discussion of possible guests and entertainment was lost to Aurora as Mrs. Sinclair’s words circled her head again like a shark menacing a school of fish.
Reid, Reid, Reid.
What was she to do? Ignore the talk of a boastful mother? Seek out Reid?
She stood hovering, anxious to get out of the room and her tea stain was the perfect excuse. In her bedroom she was glad Hilda, the maid she shared with her sisters, wasn’t about. She needed solitude to think, to plan.
Sitting on the window seat, she drew her knees up to her chin and stared down at the peaceful stables below. Two years ago, on her eighteenth birthday, Reid Sinclair had kissed her. It hadn’t been a chaste birthday kiss, but a kiss given by a man to a woman. From that moment she had understood everything. Their secret looks, the lingering of their hands in greeting, the shared seating at functions, the soft smiles, the unspoken promises of the previous summer had all become clear. Without a significant word spoken, they both knew what was in the other’s hearts.
Or at least she had thought so.
In the two years since that magical day he kissed her, their time alone had been limited. Reid had spent more and more time in London, learning how to control his family’s empire. He’d spent a mere six weeks at home each year and the longed for question she expected him to ask her had never been uttered. They had danced together and attended the same dinner parties, but he always seemed preoccupied. They hadn’t found the chance to be alone for any length of time.
Had she made more of the situation than was warranted?
Did Julia speak honestly about Reid and a possible engagement? Had he changed his mind about her?
Aurora groaned and banged her forehead on her knees as thunder rolled over the roof. They sky was streaked with swirling angry gray clouds. As yet no rain fell and the atmosphere grew tight, expectant.
Why would Reid treat her so cruelly? She raised her gaze to the distant hills on the stormy horizon, ignoring the sudden gale which tossed the tree branches and battered birds flying home to roost. Had she imagined what was between her and Reid? Did she romanticize the situation to suit her own needs? She shook her head. No. What she felt for Reid, a pure love, had been reflected in his eyes, his manner. She was certain she hadn’t been alone in what she felt in her heart.
But what to do? He had arrived home and the first she knew of it was at the tea. Why hadn’t he called as he usually did? Why didn’t he join them for tea if he was in the house? He’d done so many times before. He’d always eat the jam tartlets, as they were his favorites.
Then the thought she didn’t want to dwell on came to the fore to taunt and bully her. What if his feelings had changed? What if he didn’t want to see her? What if he no longer felt anything for her? What if he was promised to another? There had never been a spoken agreement between them. He had never mentioned a future together. It had all been in looks and gestures. If he’d been serious wouldn’t he have talked to her father?
So many unanswered questions made her head ache worse. There was much she didn’t understand and was confused about. Tears threatened and she blinked rapidly to deny their release. She must see him. She had to know if his mother was right. Scrambling over to her desk, she tried not to think of what she’d do if he’d found another. Scratching the pen across a piece of paper, she wrote the note and then rang for her maid.