My dearest Sophia,
On the anniversary of my death, I write from beyond the grave to remind you of my love—and your promises.
If you have not already set aside your mourning, it is time. It does not honor my memory to bury yourself away. Cast off your sadness and live, if not for yourself, then for our son.
You have promised to return to society. When you do, men will vie for your hand, whether to gain your beauty or your wealth. Naturally you will consider Ian’s interests when you choose a husband, but I enjoin you: only marry a man who respects you, your education, and your intelligence.
You have promised to provide Ian with a male guardian, a surrogate father to aid him as he grows to manhood. You know my choice. No one will take his obligations more seriously than Aidan. His very name as guardian will offer Ian the protection I cannot; it will provide Ian with alliances and connections he will need in manhood. At the same time, I know this guardianship raises specters you are unready to face. So, I have lifted the burden of your promise and invoked the guardianship myself. Unless Aidan refuses—and he will not refuse—he will share our son’s care until Ian reaches his majority. You may not forgive me for this decision, but I hope with time you will see its wisdom.
Your other promises I leave to your heart and conscience to fulfill.
I would like to believe that I could protect you and Ian from beyond the grave as I have done in life. But that is likely the wishful thinking of a man who has valued you, and your friendship, more than almost any other relationship in his life.
All will be well. Remember this, and that I have loved you and our son.
Sophia turned her head toward the garden, toward the bed of pansies, marigolds, and forget-me-nots, and wept.
Some time later, Dodsley brought her a note on a silver tray. Breaking the dark wax seal, she found one sentence in the middle of a large expanse of white paper. An expensive use of paper, she thought, before the words registered.
“I shall call upon her Ladyship tomorrow at two. Forster.”
Perfectly appropriate, with an ease of command suitable to his rank. The note a superior would send to a subordinate. There was no suggestion of their past intimacy and no hint of future amicability. No suggestion he’d seen her only hours before. With one signature, Forster—as Sophia steeled herself to think of him—established the limits of their relationship.
But he also prompted her to action.
Within fifteen minutes, she had called for her carriage, sent a message to Ian’s tutor that she would return by dinner, and changed into appropriate dress for the forty-five-minute carriage ride to the home of her sister-in-law.
Ophelia Mason lived in the rural village of Kensington, some six miles away. Sophia wished she had someone to confide in other than Tom’s unrufflable sister. Sophia needed a friend who hadn’t loved Tom deeply and who wouldn’t care that she had sometimes resented her husband for ignoring her wishes. But she couldn’t think of any woman outside of Tom’s sisters whom she knew well enough to burden with her troubles.
As she climbed into the carriage, musty from lack of use, she wished that she could take a horse instead, but full mourning disallowed it. On a horse, she could feel the wind in her face. Her first horse, a Spanish gray mare named Cob, had been a present from her uncle. Though too old for the hunt, Cob had loved to run, and Sophia, riding astride like her cousins, would let the horse run long and fast. Suddenly, she remembered Aidan racing beside her. She had held Cob back enough to let Aidan think he’d won, then she’d spurred the horse forward to victory. At their goal, she hadn’t known to play coy, to wait until he helped her down. On dismounting she found him already beside her, laughing, calling her his “self-sufficient Sophia” and claiming the victor’s kiss, even though he’d lost.
She opened the curtains of the coach to watch the town slip into countryside, her thoughts turning back to Tom’s guardianship plan and how she’d only agreed because she had no choice.
Three weeks before his death, Tom had handed her tickets to take her and Ian back to England. She’d refused. “We can’t leave you, Tom, not when . . .”
“Not when I’m dying.” Tom never had any trouble speaking the truth. Placing his hands on her upper arms, he’d made her look into his eyes. “The Carbonari talk revolution and nationalism all around us. As long as I am alive, my friendships with the Bourbon ministers protect us. But support for the Italian nationalists grows each day, as does sentiment against Ferdinand’s British and Austrian allies. You and Ian must go home.”
“No.” She’d held her hands up in refusal. “Revolution is years away. Our friends will warn us when it’s time to leave. And Ian will not understand. Both you and I know the pain of losing a father so young, how we would have traded anything for another year, or another day. . . .” She’d let the words drift off. Watching Tom slip away had taken all her strength.
“Death is never easy.” Tom had spoken softly. “Ian must learn his own country, not this mongrel society we have created for him.”
Sophia bristled. “Our life here is a hybrid, like our roses. From our Italian friends, he has learned to live joyfully; from our English friends, he has learned to be circumspect.”
“Then we will go together.” He’d pulled out a third packet of travel papers. “In six-week’s time, we will have the best weather and the quickest winds; we should be in England within ten days.”
“If the trip doesn’t kill you, the climate in England will. Either way you cut short our time. Propose some other plan.” Her hands tightened behind her back.
He’d watched her silently, then explained his four requirements. Each one, a promise she had to make.
Be established in London within a month of my death.
Live in London for at least part of each “season.”
Take up your place in the bon ton.
At the third requirement, she’d objected. “I was an orphaned parson’s daughter; I don’t have a place in society to take.”
“Yet Ian will need you to know and be known. In London, you were admired for your poise and your bearing. Here, invitations to your dinners were much prized. Set your mind to this, and you will create a community—perhaps form another salon. Besides, you will not be alone: my sisters and your cousins will ease the way. Finally, within a year, you must call upon Aidan and ask him to serve as Ian’s surrogate father.” His hand lay on the tickets, his blackmail. He’d sat so still that she should have realized that he would not survive another year.
“No.” She’d turned away, hiding her face. “We’ve heard the rumors even here: he’s grown hard, unforgiving, more like Aaron than Benjamin. If you want Ian to be guided by someone from your boyhood, Colin is well respected for his amiability, and Seth already manages your estate. Of my relations, Malcolm is devoted to his new wife’s boys. Any would be more suitable.”
Tom had shaken his head in firm refusal. “Of my Somerville cousins, none were closer than Aidan and I. He must have felt our marriage a betrayal. We must, if that is true, try to undo the damage.”
“Sometimes the damage of the past cannot be undone. And you will not be there. Only I will.” She had met Tom’s eyes. “You don’t know what you are asking, or what it will cost.”
“I do know, but it will be worth the cost, for Ian as well as for you.”
The soft Italian breeze had carried the scent of rain through the open doorways facing the loggia. Sophia had suddenly realized that Italian rain smelled nothing like rain in England. The rain in Naples always had a hint of spice, of the dust that sometimes rained from nearby Vesuvius and fertilized the cultivated land. Rain in England smelled fertile, like field upon field of pasture, of crops not yet come in for the harvest, of waiting in the summerhouse with Aidan for a storm to end. She preferred the Italian rain: it held no memories and offered no secrets.
She’d looked at the set of botanical illustrations she’d just finished. “What about your book? If you die before it is finished, should I promise to see it through the press?”
“That needs no promise, for you will do it whether I ask or not.” Tom had smiled. “The others are burdens. But, Sophia, knowing I have your promises will allow me to die easy.”
Rachael Miles has always loved a good romance, especially one with a bit of suspense and preferably a ghost. She is also a professor of book history and nineteenth-century literature whose students frequently find themselves reading the novels of Ann Radcliffe and other gothic tales. Rachael lives in her home state of Texas with her indulgent husband, three rescued dogs, and an ancient cat.
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