Sara stared at herself in the mirror. Anna was twisting the last bits of Sara’s hair into the elaborate coif that had been chosen. The dress, a pale muslin of Louisa’s that they had made over, sat on her, accentuating her red hair and pale complexion. Rarely used face paint decorated her and she had difficulty reconciling the reflection in the mirror with the one she saw most days.
Thankfully, rice powder had hidden the bags under her eyes from lack of sleep over the last few days. Sleep meant dreams that plagued her, of two different men coaxing her to choose them. Of a man who taught her how to swim and strode into a pond with warm eyes to help her. Of a man who was everything she had worked for and promised her security. Of a man who was synonymous with adventure and a man who guaranteed her a future.
No wonder she was having difficulty sleeping.
Her friends chattered around her, directing the last of the packing. It hadn’t taken long, for Sara did not have many belongings.
Your husband should be able to afford more things for you. Ensure he does.
“Sara? Is everything all right?” Louisa’s voice broke into her reverie.
Sara blinked. “Yes, everything is fine.”
“You seem distracted.” The concern did not leave Louisa’s face or voice.
She managed a smile. “It is just all the excitement, I think. I can hardly believe this is all happening.”
“I remember thinking the same thing,” Claire said with a smile. “Jacob swept me off my feet so quickly my head spun for a week after the wedding.”
“Stephen was no less eager, despite his reserved manner,” Bonnie chimed in. “Mr. Pomeroy knows how lucky he is for you to be marrying him.”
“Indeed,” Claire continued. “And we all have chipped in to get you something special. All of us, even Jacob and Stephen.”
Anna patted the last of her hair into place and Sara turned around to look at her friends. “You did not have to get me anything. Truly.”
“Oh, hush,” Louisa scolded. “You are supposed to squeal and say thank you.”
Claire produced a narrow box made of dark wood. She handed it to Sara. “This is from all of us. You deserve something special.”
“And sparkly,” Bonnie said, sitting on the bed.
Sara opened the box, revealing a set of two dozen hairpins. On one end of each were small diamonds, designed to catch the light when worn. Sara pressed her hand to her mouth, the generosity of her friends overwhelming her. “Oh, I cannot—truly I cannot. I don’t deserve this.”
“Of course you do,” Claire said firmly, taking the box from her hands and beginning to put the hairpins in. “You have given so much to us.”
Louisa joined her in the task. “And taken so little for yourself. Just look at this room. I do not know why you deny yourself even small comforts. Do not begrudge us a little pampering for you.”
Tears filled Sara’s eyes. She had known her friends cared for her, but to have the evidence presented was another matter.
But did they truly know her? As Louisa had stated, they didn’t know why she didn’t indulge in certain comforts, did not know of her longing for adventure, did not see her for who she could be. It never would have crossed their minds to consider her capable of asking a man for an illicit affair or lying to them about a visit to a nonexistent aunt to cover up said affair. They didn’t even know how she had stood up to Mrs. Glendoe.
Only one man knew her. Only one man preferred her. Only one man wanted to put his tongue into her mouth again and again and again.
And she wanted that man.
“There you are,” Claire said proudly, patting the last hairpin in place. “Take a look.”
Sara turned her head, watching the diamonds catch the light, making her hair sparkle just as Bonnie had predicted. The effect was breathtaking and she could not help but think of herself as a nymph.
Can I not have my own perception of how a nymph should look?
Yes he can. And he did. She was his Nymph, and he had looked at her with warm eyes at the waterfall.
Sara’s chest loosened with her decision. She was his Nymph. Charles Pomeroy was a good man, but he would not make her happy, just as she would not make him so. It was that simple.
A smile spread across her face. Nathan would come for her. He would stop the wedding. Oh, true, he had said at the assembly that he was not that sort of fellow, but she knew the truth. The true man was the one she had met at Cloverfields, the one who had showed her kindness and compassion and affection in everything he did. He was not perfect and she did not want him to be so. She loved him as he was and as he would be in the future.
All he had to do was stop the wedding. Which he would. She knew it.
“Right,” Bonnie said, clapping her hands. “It is time to go to the church.”
Sara stood and smiled. “Then let us go.”
“Let him speak now or forever hold his peace.” Vicar Warren’s voice resonated in the stone church, wafting over the people gathered for the marriage ceremony.
Charles’ gaze remained on hers, his mouth fighting a happy grin. His rich chocolate eyes sparkled at her, bringing to mind a boy with a hard-to-keep secret. His happiness was a heavy weight in her stomach.
The silence in the church grew oppressive. Uncertain, Sara glanced around at the congregation. Everyone was looking up at the altar, variations of expectation and joy on their faces. Her friends sat at the front, Claire beaming at her, Bonnie with one of Sir Stephen’s handkerchiefs at her eyes. Louisa was sitting to the side a bit farther back, leaving room for Jacob and Stephen to sit with their wives, but when her eyes met Sara’s, she gave a small smile and a nod of encouragement.
Sara’s eyes drifted over the rest of the small gathering, looking for one person in particular. She didn’t see him.
Her heart cracked. He wasn’t here. There wasn’t any sound of horse galloping outside, no doors being thrown open, no panicked man making declarations as he stumbled up the aisle toward her. He wasn’t going to stop her wedding. She had fallen in love with a man who did not care if she married another.
Pain ricocheted through her chest as her heart suffered another crack.
She had pinned her hopes of being saved from this horrible mistake of a marriage on him and he had not come to whisk her away, a knight on a white steed.
Did she need more proof of his lack of affection for her?
Sara turned her gaze back to Charles, now looking at her with a question in his eyes, a small furrow of concern between them. She gave him a wobbly smile, trying to keep the pain growing inside of her from spilling out.
How could she have been so foolish? Nathan had always been nothing but honest with her. He had said that he didn’t want to marry her, had even encouraged her engagement to the man standing in front of her.
He had been her brief taste of adventure and that was it.
But how did their chance meeting on the path factor into everything? He had been so tender and caring, she was certain she hadn’t imagined it at all. The feeling of his hand cupping her face had echoed over her skin later that evening. They hadn’t kissed, but she had wanted to and knew that he had wanted to as well. And she knew, she knew that the harsh words he had spoken to her at the assembly had been his way of hiding his own pain, of ensuring that she made what he considered the best choice.
Vicar Warren resumed speaking and a dull hum filled her ears, joining with the pain to make her miserable. It became harder to hide what she was feeling and she could see the awareness growing in her betrothed’s eyes.
Sara stared at Charles. His rich chocolate eyes had once been so mesmerizing to her. She used to feel a slow warmth cover her when he looked at her and now—what? Now those eyes had no effect as she longed for the surge of heat that followed when she saw glacier blue shift into hot springs.
And that future she had imagined? Being a vicar’s wife, always doing the same thing: visiting the poor and infirm, arranging flowers at the church, callers at all hours of the night, absolute silence as he wrote his sermons, day after day of the same thing. Looking at Charles, Sara could easily see her life in five, ten, even twenty years from now and it all looked the same.
Safe. Predictable. Boring.
She saw Charles’ mouth move. She couldn’t hear over the persistent hum in her ears. The vows, she thought dully, he must be repeating the vows. I am next.
When had she last been happy? Cloverfields. It wasn’t hard to determine that. What was shocking, however, was her realization that in the years leading up to Cloverfields she had not been happy at all. People thought she had been, including herself, but that was due to her mother’s training her to project the correct serene image. Even as a governess—people assumed she enjoyed teaching, especially as she was a member of the Governess Club, but it wasn’t true. Dealing with the likes of Henry Copeland every day? She hated it. She had simply never said anything so as to not cause any fuss.
Sara thought again. Cloverfields had been where she was happy. Why was that? Was it Nathan? He most certainly contributed to, but she didn’t think he was the full reason. He had encouraged her to be herself, to take what she wanted and to not apologize for wanting it. That extra serving of dinner? Take it. Want a second scone? Help yourself. Want to swim, sleep in, stay up late, drink spirits? Do it all and don’t feel guilty afterward.
Cloverfields was the one time she had taken what she wanted and what an adventure it had been!
That thought froze her.
She had taken what she wanted and it had been an adventure.
She had taken what she wanted. It had been an adventure.
Sara blinked, realization flooding through her. She had taken what she wanted and the result had been an adventure. Her brother had taken what he wanted and was living a life full of adventures. All of the explorers in Hakluyt’s writings had taken what they had wanted and found adventure.
Adventures don’t simply come to people; people go to find adventures.
She blinked again, things becoming clearer and clearer. She hadn’t been happy at Cloverfields because of Nathan or even because he let her do things she had never done before. She had been happy because she was finally doing something that she had wanted to do.
Sara looked at Charles who was waiting, an expectant look upon his face. Vicar Warren cleared his throat. “If you please, repeat after me.” He said it such a tone that she realized he was repeating himself.
She looked at him and then back at Charles again. A smile covered her face as confidence and assurance settled over her. A cleansing sigh released from her, and Sara reached out and took Charles’ hand, giving it a small squeeze.
“I am sorry Charles, but I cannot marry you.”
A lone gasp broke the silence in the church. Sara looked over the congregation, all wearing stunned expressions. Claire’s eyebrows had shot up to her hairline and Bonnie’s jaw hung open. Jacob and Stephen both looked uncomfortable.
She looked back at Charles, whose face had paled. He opened his mouth to speak, but Sara stopped him. “You are a kind and considerate man, Charles, but I do not love you the way you deserve. We will not make each other happy and our attempts to do so will only serve to cause us misery. It’s not simply that I cannot marry you, but that I actually don’t want to because I am in love with another. And you do not deserve to marry someone who will not give you all of herself.” She slipped off his mother’s ring and handed it back to him. “I wish you all the best in your life.”
Sara turned on her heel and marched down the aisle alone. Smiling into the shocked silence and stepping into the bright sun, she walked to the carriage where Rogers was waiting. “To Windent Hall, please, as fast as you can manage.”
Rogers grasped her hand to help her in. Sara paused with one foot on the step. “May I drive?” she asked, a wide grin on her face.
“Have ye driven before, miss?”
“Then if it’s fast ye want, it’s best if I handle the reins.” Rogers returned her grin with a toothy one of his own and she settled in nicely. “Hold on to yer bonnet, miss,” he said, sitting on the perch and setting the carriage into motion, his own hat tucked safely under his bottom.
They picked up speed the moment they took the final turn leaving the town. Obediently, Sara put a hand on her bonnet to help secure it to her head. The carriage tooled along, the shoes tied to the back knocking noisily. She frowned, staring at Roger’s hat flapping the wind, despite its location.
Why was she so worried about a bonnet? She had another. With another glint in her eyes and rebellious smile, Sara brought her hand down and untied her bonnet. Immediately the wind picked it up and whisked it out of her hand. Looking back at its trajectory behind the carriage, she gave a gleeful laugh and tilted her head back toward the sun, feeling the wind start to pull at her coif. She quickly pulled out her new diamond hairpins and placed them in her reticule, loathe to lose those.
When they pulled onto the lane for Windent Hall she sobered. Whatever was she going to say to the man? This was the one who did not come to her wedding to rescue her. Of course, in hindsight, she did not need rescuing after all, but that was not the issue. What could she possibly say to a man who had made it so abundantly clear that he wanted nothing to do with her? Was she simply setting herself up for further heartache and humiliation?
Rogers reined in the horses some distance from the house, slowing first to a trot and then a walk. Sara shifted to the opposite bench and tapped him on the back. “Why are you slowing?”
“There’s a rider up ahead on the lane, miss,” Rogers replied over his shoulder.
Sara peered around him and sure enough, a rider was approaching at a fair gallop. There was hardly enough room for the two conveyances; the man would have to slow down if he wanted to pass safely.
Rogers pulled to a stop. “He hasn’t slowed down yet. This may be hairy.”
Sara bit her lip. There was being adventurous and then there was being deliberately unsafe. She had no wish to injure herself, Rogers or the horses, let alone the approaching man. Who would be traveling at such a frantic pace on a narrow country lane?
“Can you pull over at all?” she asked.
“No miss, not without getting the carriage caught in the bushes.”
“What shall we do?”
“I think he’s finally starting to slow.”
Sara glanced at the rider again, his physique finally becoming familiar and recognizable. She had so rarely seen Nathan on horseback that she had failed to realize it was him. She stood up in the carriage, giving him a better view of herself so he could not fail to recognize her.
He reined to a stop, his horse prancing in a circle at the sudden change in speed. Nathan stared at her. “What has happened?” he demanded. “Has someone assaulted you?”
Sara put a hand to her hair, realizing that her ruined coif combined with her flushed face and excited breathing could be construed as a distress. “I am fine,” she said. “I have come to see you. I need to tell you something.”
He glanced angrily around the carriage. “Where is your husband?”
“Charles is at the church.”
That sentence punched him in the solar plexus. Nathan couldn’t breathe. He was too late. She had married the Goddamn Bloody Vicar. He had spent too much time dithering like an old woman about going to the church and now he had lost his chance.
His heart ached at the sight of her, flushed and heaving, her glorious red curls abounding around her face. She was to be his torture, his penance for the rest of his life, knowing that she would forever be out of reach. He knew she would never consent to being his mistress, not while married to another, just as deeply as he knew he would never ask her. The only question he wanted to ask was moot now, for she had already granted that wish to another.
“What is it?” he bit out, both curious and nauseous at what she might have to say.
“I am going to Scotland.”
That was not what he had expected. “I beg your pardon?”
“I am going to Scotland.”
“He is taking you there on a wedding trip, is he?”
Was she deliberately torturing him? “Your adoring husband.”
“Oh.” She blinked. “Oh!” She smiled at him mischievously. “I suppose I forgot about that.”
Nathan grunted at her. “Not married an hour and already forgetting about the man? I shall inform the rakes of London; Taft and its church will become a popular spot.”
She flushed. From embarrassment? Anger? He couldn’t quite tell.
“That was uncalled for.”
Anger then. “Perhaps. But you are the one who forgot about your husband.”
A deeper red infused her face. “But that is where you are wrong, for I have no husband to forget.”
Nathan stilled, the animal under him reacting the same way as though it had just as much personal stake in her statement as he did. “What?”
She smiled, one so brilliant it made his stomach roll over and clench with desire. “I left him. At the altar. Me, I left him.”
A hysterical giggle escaped her and Sara clapped her hand over her mouth. Oh dear heavens, what have I done? The reality of everything was sinking in, causing panic to rise up in her. She had left a good man at the altar, embarrassed him in front of his entire congregation. And for what? For an adventure?
No. She had done it for herself. The truth of that settled her panic. Just as Charles deserved more than what she could have given him, she deserved more as well. She deserved more than Charles, more than Nathan if he rejected her once more. But she had to try one last time.
Nathan stared at her, not fully comprehending what was happening. She was not married? She was still free? “You left him?” he echoed stupidly.
Sara nodded. “At the altar. I couldn’t marry him. Not when I wanted to go to Scotland.”
“Yet you are here at Windent Hall. Or nearly.”
She smiled at him again, that brilliant one he had never seen on her before now. “Yes I am.”
Things were starting to fall into place in his mind and Nathan felt his hands curl with the tension building inside of him. “I see. You are not done with your adventuring and you wish for me to provide you with more.” It was lowering to realize just how much he did not mean to the woman he had fallen in love with. He had been wrong earlier about his penance; it wasn’t knowing that she would never be his but that she did not want him, not the way he wanted her.
She cocked her head and regarded him in a blunt, assessing manner that had lust shafting down his spine and settling in his groin. Rather uncomfortable that, while on a saddle.
“No,” she finally said. “I don’t think you understand. I am going to Scotland with or without you. I think it would be more entertaining should you accompany me, but I am going.”
He raised a mocking brow. “Are you? Well, I wish you good luck.” He doffed his hat at her and wheeled the horse around to return to Windent Hall. There was whiskey waiting for him.
Her voice stopped him. “You see, I have come to a realization. I was wrong. For all those years, I was wrong. I wanted adventure, but I was waiting for it to come to me. It was just today, a few minutes ago at the church in fact, that I realized that true adventurers don’t wait around for things to happen, but rather make things happen around them. So I am going to start making things happen. And the second thing I am going to make happen is going to Scotland. Will you accompany me?”
He narrowed his eyes on her and gave her the look that had become second nature to him in the last few months, one that made people cringe and want to slink away. Except her. Foolish woman could see right through him, he felt.
One side of Nathan’s mouth curled back into a sneer. “Are you proposing that we travel together, unmarried?”
Sara blinked her wide gray eyes at him. “I suppose I am.”
Nathan couldn’t help it; a small spark of hope lit in his chest. He could use this and turn it to his advantage. He could manipulate this situation and come out married to her. She may hate him for it, but he could live with that. As her husband, he could wear her down eventually.
“I will do it on one condition,” he declared.
“You and your rules.” She smiled at him. Was he mistaken or was there some tenderness in that smile?
“Do you want to hear it or not?”
“We must marry.” He watched her face go still. “Not now, not even here. But when we get to Scotland, we will marry. I will only ruin you so much.”
Sara looked up at her driver, who was sitting shock still, pretending to not exist. She dropped her eyes and studied the ground for several long moments. Not quite the response a man wanted when proposing to the woman he loved. He lifted his chin, preparing himself for the anticipated rejection.
She looked at him again. “I was not expecting this.” How could she, after repeated rejection from him? But it did not stop her heart from soaring.
He firmed his lips. “Nonetheless, I must insist upon it.”
“You must realize though,” she said, a smile opening over her lips again, “that you are asking me to elope with you.”
He gritted his teeth to keep his heart from leaping out of his throat and into her hands. “I suppose I am.”
“And yet just a few days ago you were adamant about not marrying me. What has changed?”
I stopped being a fool. “Does it matter?”
“It does to me. After all, love is supposed to be one, if not the most important, guiding reasons for making a union.”
“Are you looking for a declaration?”
“More like an explanation.”
Nathan feigned an impatient sigh. “Very well. You seem hell bent on ruining yourself under the misguided notion of being an adventurer.”
Sara laughed at him. “You seek to protect me from myself?”
“If that is the way you wish to view it, yes.”
Another mischievous grin crossed her face. “But if we were to marry, who would protect you from me?”
Nathan stared at her, nearly overcome with lust for this new woman before him. Four weeks ago she would not have considered speaking to him thus. Knowledge that this was the woman he loved thudded through his veins, anchoring his love on a deep level even he hadn’t expected existed within him.
Please God, let her say yes.
The mischievous grin remained as she climbed out of the carriage, her gaze never leaving him. He stared as she sauntered toward him, her hips swinging in a slow seduction and breasts ripe in her wedding dress. His throat dry, he forgot to be polite and dismount until she was so close he could feel her breath on his knee.
“You see,” she murmured, her eyelids half lowered as her gaze traveled down his body and settled on his groin. That appendage leapt in excited anticipation, hurting against the leather saddle. “If we were to marry, you might find me difficult to control. Difficult to . . . appease.” The last word was a whisper as she licked her lips, her eyes meeting his gaze.
Nathan couldn’t even swallow.
“So,” she continued, her voice husky, “are you certain you wish to marry me?” Her hand cupped his calf and stroked it slowly, up and down. Her touch seared through his breeches.
He nodded mutely.
“I love you,” he blurted. He couldn’t keep it in anymore, and once it was out there, he no longer cared that she knew.
Sara’s hand stilled on his calf and her gray eyes widened. Her old self appeared momentarily, uncertainty in her eyes, but it was washed away by the illuminating smile that took its place. “You really must learn to be more romantic, Nathan. You should have started with that statement, rather than leave me in doubt of your affections.”
He shook his head. “I will never be romantic.”
“I think there is hope yet.”
“So you will marry me?”
“Yes. When we get to Scotland, we will marry. It will be a grand adventure, eloping to Gretna Green.”
“The grandest,” he agreed. “Excuse me while I dismount.”
Sara stepped to a safe distance to allow him to do so, and a thrill pulsed through her when he approached her with a determined look on his face. She knew without a doubt what he intended and she opened her arms to him, uncaring of who saw them embracing in a public lane. Or was it a private one? Why was she bothering with such a detail when his lips were descending to hers?
She closed her eyes and lifted on her toes, meeting his mouth halfway. They seared each other with their passion, their mouths melding together and tongues dancing. Rightness sang over her nerves and senses; this was where she belonged, in his arms.
Nathan pulled away abruptly, ignoring her sound of protest. Looking at her suspiciously, he asked, “Do you truly wish to marry me or is it the adventure of the elopement that is appealing?”
She shook her head. “Foolish man. I would have married you without Scotland. All you had to do was ask. I’ve been in love with you now for ages.”
A grin burst onto his face. “Of course you have. I am easy to love.”
Sara burst out laughing. “That you are not, sir. But you are most certainly worth the effort.”
“Oh, my Nymph,” Nathan said, lowering his mouth to hers again in another searing kiss. They broke apart when the coachman gave a not-so-little cough.
“My trunks are already packed,” Sara said breathlessly, her eyes riveted on his lips. “I can leave immediately.”
“I have yet to pack,” he replied, his hand running through her hair. “I hadn’t planned beyond arriving at the church to stop your wedding.”
“You were coming for me?” Her voice wavered with hope and love.
Nathan nodded. “I couldn’t stay away. I tried to, but there was no chance on earth I could let you marry another.”
“Well, you would have been too late!” she said, hands on her hips. “If I hadn’t left, I would be Mrs. Charles Pomeroy now, you horrid man.”
He grabbed her hand and kissed the palm. “But you are not. You are mine. And I would have gone to Scotland without marrying you.”
Her gray eyes deepened with desire and her mouth parted slightly. “Shall I help you pack?” she whispered.
Nathan smiled and shook his head. “We won’t pack. Not right away.”
Sara smiled back. “I know.”
He led her back to the carriage, her hand firmly in his. Knowing that he would forever be able to hold her hand and never let her go sent shots of joy through his being. He felt lighter than he could ever remember being.
She tugged him to a stop. “There is something I always wished to do.”
“What is it?”
“Race down the lane!” She dropped his hand and took off at a face pace, holding her skirts up to her knees so she wouldn’t trip. Her legs moved furiously, kicking up small clouds of dust behind her.
She looked back over her shoulder at him, a large grin on her face and her laughter carried on the breeze. Nathan grinned back, unsure if she was able to see it. His leg would crucify him tomorrow, but it would be worth it. Especially if a luscious redhead was there to help him with hot compresses and massages.
He tied his horse to the back of the carriage, giving it an affectionate pat on the rump. With a nod to Rogers, who was wearing a knowing grin, Nathan took a deep breath and ran after his woman.
Sara gripped Nathan’s hand tightly as they entered Ridgestone. They had come for her trunks, his already latched to his traveling coach. She refused to sneak in like a thief through the servants’ entrance, knowing that it would hurt her friends even more than her disappearance if they found out.
But it didn’t make it easier to face them.
Greaves was at the door, watching their approach. She gave him a small smile. “Good afternoon, Greaves.”
“Miss Collins,” he intoned with a bow. If he had any opinion on her aborted wedding or the man standing next to her, he did not let it show.
“Are they all here?” she asked, trying to keep the trepidation from her voice. Fear would not do, not with her new life.
“Mr. and Mrs. Knightly are in the drawing room along with Sir Stephen and Lady Montgomery.”
Nathan squeezed her hand but didn’t release it as they walked up the stairs and down the hall. The carpet muffled the sound of his cane; she wouldn’t have been able to hear it over the pounding of her heart anyway. She paused at the door, staring at the dark wood of the door before looking at him. When he gave her an encouraging nod, she pushed open the door and stepped in.
“. . . find her before night falls.”
Claire was sitting next to her husband, their hands clasped together tightly. Bonnie was pacing in front of the cold hearth, her swollen stomach leading the rest of her body, clearly agitated. Sir Stephen was standing nearby, his face filled with concern as he watched his wife closely.
Bonnie continued speaking. “Stephen, you must question the servants to see if any of them know something. The servants always know something.”
“I don’t understand what happened.” Claire shook her head, disbelief tingeing her voice. “Where could she have gone? It’s been hours.”
Jacob patted her hand. “Sara is not prone to fits of foolishness. I am sure she is fine.”
Sara cleared her throat. “Hello,” she offered to the room along with a tentative smile. She was gripping Nathan’s hand so hard hers hurt. Her new personality did not extend to every part of her life just yet.
Silence cannoned in to the room, four pairs of eyes turning toward her. She felt her smile waver, acutely aware of the man holding her hand while she was still wearing her wedding dress. Or rather, wearing it again. There had been no hesitation in Nathan’s actions when he had stripped her two hours earlier.
Claire was the first one to move. She stood and moved toward Sara, hands outstretched. Sara automatically released Nathan’s and took her friend’s. Claire squeezed them before pulling her into a tight embrace. Warmth and comfort flowed from her, cloaking Sara and she closed her eyes in relief.
“We were so worried,” Claire whispered in her ear. “I am so glad you are safe.”
“I didn’t mean to cause any concern,” she replied, pulling away to see Bonnie now standing nearby, waiting for her turn. After sharing another embrace, she looked at her two friends. “You are not angry with me for what happened at the church?”
“That depends,” Jacob broke in. The three ladies looked at him, his feet spread apart and arms crossed where he stood. Stephen was nearby, not quite so unwelcoming but distrust still emanated from him. Both of them were looking at Nathan. “What does he have to do with where you have been?” Jacob asked.
Sara felt Nathan draw himself up. “I’m not one to kiss and tell,” he drawled.
Jacob’s brow lowered and he advanced toward the group, his intention clear. Claire stepped between them, hands out to stop him and Sara moved closer to Nathan, her hand wrapping around his arm. It was tense beneath her touch and she feared a fight would break out.
“We’re going to Scotland,” she blurted out.
All eyes swiveled to her again, three pairs in disbelief and one darkening in his glower. Jacob moved to advance again, but Claire remained firm.
“When did that happen?” Bonnie asked, her tone incredulous.
“Bonnie lass,” Stephen began.
“Sir Stephen is from Scotland,” Sara said to Nathan, her voice growing hysterical even to her. “He can advise us on where to go.”
“We are engaged,” Nathan announced to the room. He took her hand and squeezed it reassuringly. “This is not some illicit elopement, but we feel we cannot remain in the area at present, not with what happened earlier.”
“You both were conveniently traveling at the same time,” Jacob accused, the scowl still on his face. “I’d wager every last farthing we have that they were together.”
“Do you have any proof beyond that? If so, I would be happy to address it.” Nathan met Jacob’s glower steadily.
“I still don’t understand,” Bonnie said. “I’ve never even met or heard of you and now Sara wants to elope with you?”
“Oh, the marriage is not the purpose for the trip,” Nathan said. “It will just be convenient at the time. We have both stated that we would be together even without the blessing of the church. And Nathan Grant, at your service.” He sketched a small bow.
“Nathan, you are not helping,” Sara said softly, her eyes wary on Jacob.
“Sara, have you even thought this through?” Bonnie asked. “Scotland? With a stranger?”
“He’s not a stranger, not to me.”
Bonnie continued over her. “That may be all well and good for the nonce, but what about an actual future? What happens after the wedding takes place? What are your plans?”
“I have an estate, Cloverfields, in addition to Windent Hall,” Nathan informed her. “We will make our home at one of them.”
“You are a gentleman farmer?” Bonnie asked, an interrogatory gleam in her eyes.
Jacob snorted. “Gentleman farmer my ass.” He raised his hands at Claire’s admonishing look.
Nathan ignored him. “I will become one. For Sara’s sake.”
Bonnie turned her interrogation to her friend. “And you, Sara? Will you continue teaching with the Club?”
“Um,” she glanced at Nathan. “If that is what—” She cut off her sentence when he squeezed her hand. Taking courage in his support, she revised her statement. “No. I do not wish to teach any longer. Even if I weren’t marrying Nathan, I have no wish to teach, for I detest it.”
Claire and Bonnie blinked at her. “You do?” Claire said. “You never said anything.”
“Instead I will do what I am best at—helping the poor and needy. I may not be a vicar’s wife, but that does not mean I cannot lend aid where I am able.” A rush of pleasure ran through her body at voicing that to her friends.
“If that is what you wish,” Claire said, hesitation in her voice.
“You cannot remain here then,” Jacob broke in, his voice hot. All looked at him in surprise at his tone. He pointed an accusing finger at Nathan. “Did you consider that? You have ruined her reputation; even marrying her will likely not repair the damage. If she remains here in Taft, she will be ostracized, unable to do what she desires, her help thrown back in her face. You are taking her from her friends, her family, all because you couldn’t keep your bloody pri—”
His wife interrupted him. “Come, let us sit down and discuss this like reasonable adults. I’ll order tea, shall I?”
The group reluctantly took to the sofas, Sara sitting close to Nathan, her hand still protectively on his arm. Jacob remained standing a safe distance away from him. “Now,” Claire continued. “What is this all about? When did all this happen? Forgive us, dear, but we are trying to understand. This is entirely unexpected.”
“Perhaps we should wait for Louisa,” Sara said. “Nathan and I wish to start on our journey soon and I do not wish to tell this story more than once.”
Claire blinked. “Louisa?”
Bonnie chimed in. “I haven’t seen her in some time. Where is she?”
Claire shook her head. “She was there at the church. She said she would see to Mr. Pomeroy. I haven’t seen her since.”
“I thought she came back with you,” Jacob said to Bonnie, who shook her head. “It was just Stephen and me in the gig.”
“This is ridiculous,” Claire said. “She must be upstairs, although why she would not have come down when you returned, Sara, I don’t know.”
“She looked calm at the church,” Stephen offered. “She did,” he repeated with a shrug when Bonnie looked at him.
Anna entered in response to the bell pull. Claire spoke to her. “Find Miss Hurst, please, and ask her to join us here.”
The maid shook her head. “I’m sorry, mum, I can’t.”
Claire raised her eyebrows. “I beg your pardon?”
The young girl looked nervous. “She’s not here. Her trunks were carried down this morning during all the hullabaloo getting ready for the wedding. She’s gone.”
“What is this?” Bonnie exclaimed. “Is it some sort of epidemic of unexplained disappearances?”
Louisa was gone?