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Theirs to Train: A Victorian Menage Romance by Samantha Madisen – Sample

Chapter One


The voice that followed Lina up the windswept hill held a note of exasperation, but Lina paid her youngest “cousin” no mind, except to cast a careless glance behind to assure herself that Anna had been able to extract herself from the deadened, tangled branches of the half-dead chestnut grove without injury. Anna was slower than Lina, because she was less accustomed to adventure. Lina didn’t have the patience to wait for her, but she also wished no harm upon the girl. Anna, after all, was a staunch confidante of hers, though Lina did wish that the slight, pale child would not insist upon following her everywhere. Anna was only months younger than Lina, but she seemed like a small child sometimes.

From the shuddering, milky windows in the attic of the most improperly-named Green Grove Manor, where she had been indulging in one of her favorite pastimes, Lina had seen the carriage approaching from far off. Black against the dark gray of the road, almost invisible in the distance through the wintry drizzle against the dead brownish gray of the fields, it had first appeared to her to be a figment of her wild imagination.

No one ever came unexpectedly to Green Grove Manor.

And why would they? A sprawling estate that had fallen into disrepair, its chestnut groves consumed by disease and neglect, its fields unworked and overgrown in summer, its facade flaking away like dead skin, and the interior unspeakably in shambles, Green Grove Manor offered a visitor very little by way of comfort.

Or adventure or interest, Lina added pointedly to her thoughts.

She had stared at the moving black dot only long enough to ascertain that indeed, it was not her imagination that some unannounced visitor was in fact approaching the manor along the long, stony road that cut across a ridge between the fields and the groves. It took her only moments to creep across the attic rafters, through the corridor, and down the former servants’ stairway in the west wing of the house. The wing was not used, and left unheated in the winter, so it was precariously crumbling in upon itself and thusly deemed a danger.

Which is why Lina spent as much of her day there as she possibly could.

There had been a fine rain falling when she made a run for the chestnut grove, which was the only way to reach the road without being spotted, and it had turned to cold sleet that was only now retreating. Anna had followed her, demanding to know why she couldn’t just wait for the visitor to arrive, and expressing concern about their health, until she had fallen behind. Lina was nimble and stealthy from years of practice picking through the chestnut grove, and Anna, of course, was not.

“We will become ill if we continue in the rain!” Anna had pleaded.

“Return home, then,” Lina had retorted. “Although you know what I think of such perfect nonsense.”

“It’s not nonsense,” Anna had whined. “You will catch your death from the cold.”

Lina had paused only to turn around and look at Anna pointedly, because while Lina loved adventure far more than was proper, she loved confronting unreasonable presumptions even more. And Anna—well, she had hopes for Anna learning to do the same someday.

“Anna, I am inclined to wander in the grove all winter long, rain or shine, am I not?”

Anna stopped and regarded Lina with wide eyes and uncertainty. She nodded.

“Tell me then, when have I caught my death of the cold? Or even so much as a spell?”

Unlike the elder Harlowe sister Evangeline, Lina—who Evangeline and the other members of the household insisted upon calling by her Anglicized and Christian name, Caroline—was never ill. Evangeline, who rarely went outside in the winter, was prone to passing half the season in her bed, pale and lethargic. Lina was inclined to believe that Evangeline was ill from staying indoors all the time, but this opinion, when voiced, had been very poorly regarded and earned her additional horrid chores, which only piled on, as none were ever rescinded once assigned.

She was nearly at the road, and she could hear the wheels of the carriage and the jingle of the horses’ reins. Lina would have loved nothing more than to drive a carriage herself, but that was naturally disallowed.

She peered over the embankment and decided she had time to dart across the road and behind a windbreak, where she would be able to view the oncoming visitor prior to his arrival. There was no true motive for doing this except for the sheer excitement of it: Lina was, as all the Harlowe family was wont to say, a bit feral.

The carriage was farther away than she had imagined, and so she was able to dart across the road when the carriage was at a bend in the road, and her crossing was obscured. From there, she managed to duck behind the windbreak, and settle herself in with a good view to the oncoming vehicle.

It was something to behold, and even in the adventure-seeking heart of Lina, the sight struck a chord of fear. The horses pulling the carriage were enormous and pure black. The carriage itself was shiny and black as the night, larger than most, with rich black curtains concealing the occupants from view. Only the driver, dressed in an oddly ostentatious red cloak, delineated the coach from an oversized hearse. That, and the fact that there was no carriage of this size and quality anywhere near this forsaken part of the world.

Lina enjoyed the vague thrill that stirred inside of her, even as she caught her breath. Perhaps as the carriage passed she would get a glimpse at a crest or even an inhabitant. And then she would enjoy the thrill of returning to her home without being caught, and somehow drying and remaking herself so that no one but Anna would be the wiser that she had been out in the fields.

What else was there for amusement in this dreadful place?

As the carriage approached, however, the driver craned his neck, and abruptly, just in front of her hiding place, the great beasts pulling the carriage reared and the magnificent vehicle came to a clattering stop.

Lina closed her mouth to hide her breath, and stepped back from the thicket, cringing as a branch snapped beneath her foot. Her heart beat furiously in her chest as she struggled to contain her wild breath. The top of the carriage was visible over the windbreak, so she could see the door to the compartment open. The hat of the driver peeked over the top, and if he had only sat up just a bit, he would have seen her. The crunch of the gravel on the road indicated that the occupant of the carriage had stepped out.

Whoever it was, he was dressed in black and moved slowly, saying nothing as he walked back and forth along the line of the windbreak.

The footsteps stopped.

Lina wondered at that moment, for no particular reason, where Anna was. She sincerely hoped the foolish girl was on the other side of the road still. While the Harlowes had become warily accustomed to Lina’s “wild” behavior, they were very intolerant of Anna following in Lina’s footsteps. The number of inventive chores that would be heaped upon her would be staggering, she was certain, if Anna were discovered on the side of the road in the rain by a dignified and wealthy visitor.

The pause went on so long that she could no longer hold her breath, so she let it out in a steady stream with the hope that it would dissipate in the air, though it seemed quite certain that the mysterious visitor was already aware of her position.

But still nothing. She glanced at the driver, whose hat was motionless, face forward with the cultivated disinterest of all English servants to their masters’ whims.

And nothing. Not a sound nor a movement.

Lina’s fear dissolved as curiosity flooded her chest. She was carefully balanced in a most unladylike crouch, and she moved forward with her usual grace, one step at a time, searching through the thick bracken for clues as to the stance of the motionless visitor.

And nothing.

She crept closer still, eyes on the ground as she scooted her dress away to soil it as little as possible, biting her lip in concentration. When she looked up, leaning toward the bracken, she was startled thoroughly by the blink of one unfathomably light blue eye.

She inhaled, and fell back, her mouth open, her heart racing.

“Do you require assistance?”

The voice was calm, betraying very little by way of emotion or intent. The question was not friendly, or mean, or disbelieving, or compassionate: it was none of these things. Somehow, in its low, graveled purr, it carried an undercurrent of impropriety. Lina felt as though someone had plucked a chord inside of her, one that was tightly strung between her neck and her… unmentionable places. Naughty places.

“N…n…no,” she breathed. Her voice left in a whispery staccato, so low that she was certain she would have to repeat herself.

But the driveway crunched, and the black contours of the man moved through the sparse holes in the bracken, and the carriage shifted. The door closed, the motionless driver leaned back, and the horses began, as suddenly as they had stopped, to trot down the road toward the manor.

Lina let her breath escape her in a huff, with a sigh of relief. The sound of the carriage disappeared, and she struggled to her feet, started along the windbreak, and went back through the hole she had climbed through. When she looked down the road to assure herself that the carriage was far enough away to risk crossing the road for the grove, her heart was stabbed again by another pang of fear, and a thrill: the curtain in the back window of the carriage was, most certainly, dropping, from where it had been lifted in order for the occupant to look back on her.

Merde,” she whispered.

And then she hiked up her skirts, noting that they were already soiled, and made haste for the chestnut grove, grabbing Anna by the arm as she passed her. The younger girl was staring, open-mouthed, but said nothing as Lina pulled her along behind her.

This was not the first adventure Anna had been on with Lina, though it was likely to be the strangest, perhaps for all time.

“And if we do not return with haste, Anna,” Lina said, finishing her own thought aloud, “it is likely to be the most consequential!”

Chapter Two

Lina rushed Anna through the decrepit west wing of the manor and through the attic, back to their own shared room, where they wintered together to save money on heat. With only two house servants, the affable, overworked, and unfailingly loyal Mr. and Mrs. Gray, it was impossible to keep fires in every room of the manor except to keep the home sufficiently heated as to prevent its complete destruction.

Her heart dropped when they burst through the door, dripping wet and mud-caked, to find Evangeline standing in the middle of the room, arms crossed, a scowl already etched deeply enough in her features to indicate that she had been frowning with disapproval for quite some time.

“Anna!” she hissed, snatching her younger sister by the arm as though she wished to rescue her from a fire. Evangeline’s eyes, however, remained accusingly on Lina as she continued to speak to Anna. “You’re positively filthy, soaking wet, and cold as ice!”

To Lina, she directed a venomous snarl. “And where, pray tell, have you two been gallivanting about?”

“A visitor has come!” Anna exclaimed breathlessly, unperturbed by her sister’s demeanor as always. Anna wrenched free of Evangeline’s limp grip and scurried to her wardrobe, tugging at her dress as she did. “He, or she, or they, have arrived in a grand shiny carriage with a driver with a red velvet cape. Oh, what could they have come for?” Her cheerfulness soured for a moment and her face fell. “You don’t believe that it is bad tidings, do you Lina?”

Caroline,” Evangeline hissed at Anna, and it was difficult to discern whether the utterance was a correction meant for Anna, or the beginning of a lengthy admonishment directed at Lina. The Harlowes generally frowned upon the use of Carolina’s nickname, and furthermore, of her French name, and Evangeline was only too pleased to comply with the Anglicization. Evangeline was also only too eager to direct a tirade at Lina whenever possible, all the better still if it was deserved.

“Has he arrived?” Lina asked, ignoring Evangeline either way. She opened her own wardrobe, which was tucked away behind the door, smaller and much more meagerly stocked. Lina cast an eye at Evangeline, who was, as always, clothed in a richly textured dress as opposed to a frock, and without a hair out of place. Evangeline dressed each day and then seated herself to embroider or engage in otherwise approved activities for proper ladies, and would reach the end of each day unblemished.

When she was a child, Evangeline had been very, very pretty. Her hair was black and her eyes were blue, and her complexion was like milk. But upon reaching seventeen years of age, Evangeline’s appearance had drastically declined: she had become stout, her skin had grown patchy and red, and her nose, once a finely sculpted aquiline feature, had inexplicably continued to grow into more of a beak. None of this was helped by the permanent downturn of her mouth, which, now that she was nineteen, had etched fine lines into her cheeks. Her glorious, shiny black hair was all that remained of her former beauty, but propriety dictated that this, too, be pinned up in such a way that it was diminished.

Lina, who was only one month older than Evangeline, had been, in the words of Mrs. Gray, a “fearsomely plain” child until only recently, when, for whatever reason, she had blossomed like a flower into a great beauty. The Harlowe household had been so accustomed to her plainness and she had transformed so slowly, that it was only very recently that any of them had realized fully that Lina was no longer plain at all, but strikingly beautiful. With chestnut hair that picked up fragments of red, a pink, teacup-lipped mouth, and bright blue eyes, she was physically the definition of an English Rose, a fact which had sunk in with Evangeline in recent months and more deeply infused her expressions with great sourness.

“And how is it that you are aware of this visitor’s arrival, and furthermore that he is a man, when I have only just been informed of this myself?” Evangeline said archly. She turned abruptly away as Lina, who was in possession of very little modesty around her sisters, tore her wet and stained frock over her head, shift and all.

Lina gave a careless laugh. “Of course, you know how I have come upon this information, Evangeline. But I do not know who he is, or why he has come.” Lina changed her clothing quickly, with skill: she was accustomed to such activities, and unlike Anna or Evangeline, she had few dresses to choose from. She selected the finest one, which was a very plain dinner dress of light blue, with an empire waist trimmed by a violet ribbon, and a low neckline that showcased her petite breasts, smooth chest, and swanlike neck. Evangeline’s dress was a masterpiece of deep red with tiny, embroidered flowers, but Evangeline lent it—as she lent all things—a dour and drab appearance.

Lina crossed the room to Evangeline, whom she felt pity for more often than exasperation. The expression on Evangeline’s face when she saw how the plain dress was transformed by Lina’s beauty was such a pity-inspiring event. She took Evangeline by the arm and smiled, attempting to infect her with excitement. “Come, Evangeline, tell us what you know of this visitor and why he is here.”

Evangeline loved, more than anything, to be in the possession of secrets and information, and to disseminate it as she saw fit. Truly, it was the only currency she possessed because her personality was as sour and dull as her appearance.

Lina pushed past her to sit in the dressing table chair and repair her hair, but not without casting an excited and interested look at Evangeline, who was, she could see, already warming to the idea of divulging her secrets.

“I’ll do your hair right after mine, Anna,” Lina said, before looking at Evangeline expectantly in the mirror. “Do tell, Evangeline. Tell us everything you know.”

Evangeline would tilt her chin and draw the story out to such incredibly boring lengths, Lina knew, but she minded not, for Evangeline would be all the more reasonable for having done so.

“Well,” Evangeline said imperiously, as Lina began to twist and braid her hair with a frightening speed—practice at tidying herself up for presentableness having been honed to an art form by her feral nature.

There was a frantic rap at the door before Evangeline could say anything more. The door opened without a wait, and a flustered Mrs. Gray burst into the room.

Mrs. Gray was out of breath, a decidedly atypical state for the unflappable woman. She surveyed the scene before her, eyes stopping on Lina. The rotund woman pressed her hand to her chest and breathed heavily. “Oh. Goodness. I was certain you were to give me a fright, Miss Caroline.” Mrs. Gray was well aware of Lina’s comings and goings, and neither approved nor disapproved of them. In the way of every good English housekeeper, her life’s mission was to make all rooms and members of the household feel as though nothing was ever out of place, and to do so with the greatest efficiency possible. It was very inefficient, in Mrs. Gray’s estimation, to attempt to tame Lina or to console the Harlowes when she gallivanted about like a feral cat, or engaged in wanton reading in the attic. Her tactic, therefore, was to ensure that it appeared to all concerned that such goings-on did not take place.

“The good Lord has mercy upon me that you are here and in a presentable state, Miss Caroline,” she puffed. “A visitor has arrived. You are to put on your finest dress and take dinner in the formal dining room immediately.”

Mrs. Gray’s eyes scanned the two older girls quickly with a flicker of disapproval gathering in the corner of her mouth.

“This is my finest frock,” Lina sang cheerily, returning her gaze to the mirror to finish arranging her hair.

Mrs. Gray sighed heavily. “This will never do. This will not do.” She looked at Evangeline scathingly, up and down, then shook her head. “This is lovely, but much too large,” she said, approaching to pull out Evangeline’s skirts. With her eyes on the fabric accusingly, she muttered. “Have you got anything else, Evangeline, perhaps something that fits you a bit”—the housekeeper paused to search for a word and settled on—”more snugly?”

Evangeline puffed with pride, having evidently taken all of Mrs. Gray’s comments to be directed at her. “I have,” she said, rushing to her own, overstuffed wardrobe, while Lina met Anna’s eyes in the mirror and the two exchanged a smile.

Evangeline retrieved a glorious yellow dress, which indeed fit her snugly enough that she had squeezed from the top and strained the hems in such a way that, as only Mrs. Gray knew, the dress had been let out and then reinforced, and likely should never be worn by Evangeline again.

Mrs. Gray, curiously, looked at the dress, then at Lina, then back at the dress, with a shake of her head. “‘Tis still too large, I suspect,” she murmured. Pushing past a bewildered Evangeline, whose optimistic assessment of her own figure did not extend to the utterly ridiculous, Mrs. Gray began to rifle through the wardrobe.

“Ah,” she said, pulling a dress from the drawers, which had been tucked away in layers of tissue by Evangeline herself, who maintained the furtive hope that she would one day retrieve it to wear when her figure returned to its once glorious state by means of a miracle she expected with all of her heart. It was a Christmas dress, of shiny red damask with a dark green velvet overlay, and by far her finest garment.

“This will do quite nicely,” Mrs. Gray said, removing the dress and walking toward the door. “I will press it and return in no time.”

“But,” Evangeline objected weakly, sensing that something was going quite wrong, though what it might have been, she could not say. “That dress is much too small for me…”

Her voice trailed off, as a cloud of realization overtook the features of her face, even before Mrs. Gray spoke.

The housekeeper’s voice was kindly, which almost made her comment sting even more. “Darling Miss Evangeline,” she cooed. “I apologize. ‘Tis only Miss Caroline whose presence is requested at dinner. Now, I must be off. Caroline, make haste to disguise your wet hair, however it may be that you accomplish such a task, and be ready when I return to don this garment and be off.”

Lina’s hand dropped slowly to the dresser, and she watched Evangeline with a mixture of horror and pity, her mouth slightly slack.

Evangeline glared at Lina in the reflection. “Well,” she snapped. “Don’t sit there with your mouth open like the uneducated… well, I shan’t even say it.” Evangeline pursed her lips, folded her arms, spun about, and stomped from the room. “Clearly,” she hissed, “there has been a grave error.”

Lina waited until the sound of Evangeline’s footsteps receded before meeting Anna’s astonished gaze in the mirror.

Anna was bursting with excitement.

“Will you paint your lips?” she asked excitedly. “Oh, do let me do it.”

Chapter Three

Evangeline’s dress was a bit too large, but Mrs. Gray had evidently foreseen the problem and devised an elaborate belt to cinch up the loose fabric. She pinned the bodice with an almost magical method that could not be seen, but issued a warning in a hushed voice. “Walk and sit properly, lest the pins be disturbed and prick your skin.”

“Mrs. Gray, why not just let it out—”

“You must look your best, dearie,” Mrs. Gray said sharply. Then tenderly, brushing the velvet to smooth it all in the same direction: “This could be the very fortunate event this family has prayed for.” Her eyes returned to Lina’s. “Now. Be a proper lady.”

This final command was issued with a force very atypical of Mrs. Gray, and it caused a stab of fear to pierce Lina’s heart.

“Off you go,” she said, pushing Lina toward the door. “Mind you, use your Christian name and say as little as possible.”

Evangeline, who had returned to throw herself dramatically on her bed, crying that she felt quite ill and could not have dinner anyway, sniffed and did not look up at Lina as she left the room. Anna grinned nervously, but nothing occurred to her to say.

The dining room was gleaming and smelled of fresh polish, and Lina noted with some amusement as well as trepidation that the finest rug in the home, an antique oriental rug that remained carefully stored and was to eventually be sold, had been retrieved and placed in the room, along with the fine china that was similarly boxed away with the intention of selling it.

The room was barely and unevenly lit, with the candelabra placed at the end of the table where Mrs. Gray indicated that she should sit. Lina gave her a strange look, which Mrs. Gray cut short with a searing glare issued at precisely the same time that the semi-hysterical Lilla Harlowe, wife of Lina’s guardian, stiffened noticeably.

Lina allowed her chair to be pulled out by Mr. Gray, who was playing the role of butler in a rarely-used suit with tails that, like the rug and the china, had been mysteriously recuperated from storage.

Rushing to the dining room, Mrs. Gray had pulled Lina aside at an alcove and whispered sharply.

“The visitor is a very wealthy gentleman. He is a foreigner and a reclusive man with eccentric habits. He will attend dinner at a private table, and you are not to make a fuss about it. It is in the interest of all concerned but especially you, Miss Caroline, that you say very little and mind your manners.” Then she had squeezed Caroline’s hand and implored, tears in her eyes, “Please.”

Lina had followed, bewildered, with a cold stone of fear settling in her gut. Desperately, she wanted to ask Mrs. Gray why she even needed to be at this dinner if all she was to do was remain silent, and who this gentleman was, and why, if he was so very eccentric and reclusive, was he dining with anyone at all? Most importantly—and the question lingered in her mind, bringing with it a peculiar dread—why was he here at all? Wealthy gentlemen generally stayed far away from the Harlowe household, as the Harlowes’ fall from wealth had been accompanied by a commensurate fall from society. And since the depths of the Harlowes’ financial ruin were known in detail only to the Harlowes, and covered up as best as could be done, wealthy men were not invited to the Manor, lest they discover for themselves the elaborate ruse.

Lina sat, and her heart raced as she struggled to remember her “manners.” The glare of the candles made it hard to see even the Harlowes, seated at the opposite end of the table, much less the supposed guest, who she assumed was seated by the great window, where a table could be placed if one wished.

But why would anyone do such a thing?

Lina had gathered from snippets of conversations she had eavesdropped on, or outright spied upon, that the Harlowes were quite anxious to unburden themselves of her. Evangeline had been more than helpful in bestowing upon Lina additional information to that effect: Lina was a financial burden on their already strained household, and the simplest resolution of such a burden was marriage, but since Lina was—as Evangeline had hastened to remind her several times—a bastard with no name and no inheritance, she was essentially without prospects.

The Harlowes, while impoverished, still held peer titles, and aristocratic bearing amounted to something. Evangeline also seemed fairly certain that a dowry of some kind had been salvaged for her.

Evangeline also clung to the belief that she was still as pretty as she once was. Lina, who had become accustomed to her role as plain, bastard child given a home only by the grace of fortune and because of Mr. Harlowe’s honorable word for a comrade-in-arms, had not been entirely disabused of this notion herself.

A wealthy male visitor, therefore, might rightfully make sense, if he were a suitor.

But a suitor for Evangeline.

“The best you can hope for,” Evangeline had told Lina, “is to marry a commoner, like a stable boy or a butler or such.” And then, because Evangeline was simply spoiled and insecure, and not truly mean, she had pressed her hand to Lina’s shoulder to reassure her. “At least you stand a chance of marrying for love. While I,” she had sighed with the sort of practiced sorrow that sent her to bed for days, and could have been very real or very imagined, “must sacrifice myself at the altar of wealth for the good of the family.”

Anna, who was a blonde angel and looked like a doll, had clasped her hands together in wonderment. “And what will I do?”

To which her sister had snapped, “You will get off the floor and behave like a lady, and not speak of such things at such a young age. It is positively improper.”

Anna was eighteen as of the previous week, but Evangeline would always think of her and treat her like a small girl.

A stillness pervaded the dining room once Lina was seated and basic introductions had been made, and it lasted through to the first course.

“Mr. Blackstone has traveled all the way from London in a single day,” Mrs. Harlowe said, to break the uncomfortable silence.

Lina did her best to contain herself, and failed spectacularly. A glow overtook her complexion and she nearly dropped her fork. “Oh, London,” she said breathlessly toward the dark figure, further obscured by the glow of the candles placed so near to her. “Is that where you live? Is it as exciting and glorious as they say it is?”

Mrs. Harlowe’s face had already become quite rigid by the time Lina finished her sentence.

There was a terrible beat of silence, and Lina pressed her lips together and cast her eyes upon her plate. She knew she was frequently “over-exuberant,” which was unladylike, but now she wondered if perhaps calling a city “exciting” was not also “wanton” in some way, which was something she was never, ever to be.

“I am not particularly fond of London,” said a voice from the small table. It was a deep, authoritative voice, strong and clear, but in its contours Lina detected the inflection of a middle-class accent, one which, like her own mild French accent, had been scrubbed as clean as possible, but lingered stubbornly.

For the first time ever in her young life, Lina felt an inexplicable shiver travel through her torso. The flush of her cheeks deepened when the shiver pooled lower in her abdomen than was proper to even think about.

“I prefer Paris,” the voice said.

Lina’s exuberance reared its head again, as she lifted her eyes and smiled broadly. “But I am from Paris!” she said loudly, and to her regret, in a most unladylike way. “I am, that is, rather, I don’t have very many memories for I left when I was young, but the memories I do have—”

“Caroline,” Mrs. Harlowe said sharply, but not soon enough to stop Lina from rambling on to say:

“… are of such gaiety and liberal spirit…”

This final sentence caused Mrs. Harlowe’s features to pinch up into a display of mortification the likes of which Lina had not seen for some time. Lina was instantly overcome by emotion, which rushed to her cheeks and made her eyes sting.

“Caroline, I am certain that Mr. Blackstone has no interest in such impressions.”

Mr. Blackstone did not respond to this comment either to affirm nor deny it, and Lina took in a deep breath and lowered her eyes, hoping that her frustration did not well up in her eyes, as it sometimes did, as tears. Extravagances such as the goings-on of the Parisians were held in very low esteem by Mrs. Harlowe.

“Yes, of course,” Lina managed to say. She smoothed her napkin and took a small bite of pork, which Mr. Gray had prepared most extravagantly, in the only extravagant way he knew how—a French cooking method which Lina herself had instructed him in. She suddenly found the whole thing very funny and had to suppress a smile.

Mr. Harlowe took it upon himself to talk about the weather, and Mr. Blackstone’s journey, and inquire about various London businesses that he frequented when he traveled there. The meal continued on this way, and quite awkwardly, with Mr. Blackstone’s low, rumbling voice only occasionally issuing from the shadows. The sound tickled Lina from the inside, and more than once she felt desperate to speak to the mysterious man, but she held her tongue as instructed.

She was grateful that she managed to finish the meal without any mishaps and without speaking.

“Caroline, if you are finished with your meal, you may retire. I am certain Mr. Blackstone is quite exhausted and the men wish to take their liquor in the drawing room at a sensible hour.”

Mr. Gray was already there to pull out her chair.

“Mr. Blackstone, I suppose I will be taking my leave then, if you would excuse me. It was ever so lovely… dining with you, and…” Lina, at moments like this, always struggled with the proper words. “I do so hope that you enjoy your stay here at our lovely home.”

Mr. Harlowe cleared his throat, and Mrs. Harlowe’s eyes were nailed to her plate. So, she must have said something wrong, but there was nothing new in that. She left, relieved that she had not taken the tablecloth with her as she once had, and covered her mouth in the hallway to stifle a laugh.

For laughter had a tendency to overcome Lina when situations were preposterous, which is what this one seemed to be.

As she walked through the corridors, and upstairs to her bedroom, however, she placed her hand on her stomach, for something there felt funny, though it was not an illness, and when she recalled the sound of the stranger’s voice, it fluttered wildly inside of her.

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