The Heart of a Lie is in Stores Now!
In this tale of two sisters - practical Esther and bubbly Lara - they end up losing their Maine farm and moving to Portland, where secrets about their true family soon surface ...
A Poor Maine Farm Girl
Meets Her Surprising Destiny ...
With her father dead from a Civil War battle and her mother succumbing to tuberculosis, Esther Perry struggles to keep her meager existence going.
When an unexpected visitor lands on her doorstep with an incredible offer, Esther is forced to let her farm go and face an uncertain future in a distant city. She finds friendship from an unexpected source, a handsome bachelor catches her eye, and she copes with the loss of her beloved farm.
But an even greater challenge awaits - and Esther will have to summon every last ounce of her inner strength to confront the scandalous secret her family has been hiding for years ...
Praise for In the Heart of a Lie
"Reminiscent of Little Women's quiet domesticity and homage to sisterhood -- and Jane Eyre's determined central character --'The Heart of a Lie' carries us from the dying Perry Farm into the bustle of high society Portland, Maine where Esther and Lara meet a wealthy family of cousins they never knew existed, and become swept into a mystery that has churned in their family for decades."
- Amazon reader
"I'm intrigued by the style in 'The Heart of a Lie.' It's a mix between fairy tale and historical fiction that is quite distinct and charming. The tale itself is a sort of Cinderella story set in the middle of the Civil War."
- Amazon reader
"You'll find echoes of 'Little Women' and 'Pride and Prejudice' within Esther Perry's journey. The social circles of Portland, Maine can be just as thrilling and fraught as the war fields of her excellent first novel."
- Amazon reader
"It is clear [Meg North] is well read, and the ghosts of Dickens, Bronte, Austen, and even Beethoven whisper her work. Her voice is uplifting - her writing free of the torrid sex scenes that fill up too much of literature today, and focused instead upon a story well-told. There is a whimsical quality to the writing that simply elevates the mood. It is distinct, and while certainly reminiscent of the Victorians, it is the author's very own - the quiet, lilting voice of a 19th century writer penning her stories in 2012. I think that is her trademark: she whispers yesterday in the midst of a raging 21st century."
- Amazon reader
Free Sample Chapter
In this chapter, Esther has been invited to the fancy Vallencourt Christmas party! She's already developed a crush on rich but arrogant Henry Vallencourt, so she really hopes to see him there, as well as be reunited with her little sister, Lara.
The morning of December the twenty-fourth dawned gray and frosty, snow swirling the streets of Portland. Not too many weeks ago, I had been forbidden from attending the Vallencourt Christmas party held on this wintery evening. But, as I'd hoped, my new partnership with Elliot convinced his mother I had as much right as anyone else in the Curtis family to attend. My conduct as a maid had also improved, thanks to a more cheerful mood, less snappishness towards Adelaide, and a higher degree of work ethic. The two days a week spent with Elliot were like blots of sunshine.
The day of the party fell on a Thursday, so I was supposed to be at the doctor's office. But the grand occasion made Elliot light-hearted enough to give me the day off. I received no such goodwill from his mother, and spent every waking hour until five o'clock cleaning the Curtis House. After a final polish of the dining room table and a few bites of stew from the kitchen, I hurried up to the third floor to get dressed.
I retrieved the same navy blue gown I'd worn the night I met Henry Vallencourt. After I had slipped it over my head and beheld myself in the tiny mirror, I felt quite nervous. He'd seen me in this old thing. What kind of impression could I hope to make dressed as plain as a wren? I sighed, adjusted the lace collar, and tried to push away jealous thoughts of those beautiful gowns at the dress warehouses.
After making my hair look as becoming as possible, I blew out the candle and descended the staircase to the second floor. As I emerged onto the second floor landing and closed Gabriel's door behind me, his brother came into the front hall blowing on his bare hands.
"Good gracious, it's cold!" Elliot looked up as I came down the stairs. "Why you look lovely, Esther."
"I see you've traded a doctor's apron for a dinner suit."
He stole a peep in the hall mirror and adjusted his bow tie. "Do you think Miss Alexandra will prefer it?"
I smiled as I reached the bottom of the stairs. He winked at me, picking imaginary specks off his shoulders. Then we were both interrupted by the entrance of Aunt Curtis and Jane from the parlor. Momentarily speechless, I stared at their exquisite gowns. Nothing either of them had worn before could compare to such luxurious dresses and jewels. My joy at seeing Elliot dimmed a bit, but I steadied and held my composure. I needed to be strong, for my aunt would not let anyone's presence deter her from exercising all power over me. It had been her course of action since the moment we met.
Mr. Jakes helped us into our outer things and neither my aunt or her daughter would look my way. We soon made our way out into the snow and into the carriage.
I hardly dared breathe on the short ride to the Vallencourts' home. I would see Lara! After two long months of working both for my aunt and for my cousin ... My mind whirled with the shock of it.
We had barely set off before we were turning onto Danforth Street. Elliot was as excited as I was, rubbing dew from the windows and grinning like a schoolboy. As we pulled up in front of the mansion, I became awestruck.
Its size was absolutely immense. The home was constructed of dark brown stone with a blocky central tower stretching high above the uppermost floors. The mansion's position on the slope of Danforth Street overlooking Portland harbor highlighted and enhanced its size. Thick columns supported a large porch, and a wide stone staircase led up to the massive front doors.
"My goodness," I said. "It's beautiful."
"Quite," Jane said.
I swallowed hard. She would be mistress of this grandeur soon. Though I'd met Henry Vallencourt and been witness to his formality, somehow I felt overwhelmed by his home. He was destined, as the eldest son, to inherit it someday. His wealth became painfully real in my mind, as if I'd been presented with stacks of gold coins. What a vast difference in our social stations! Not even two hours hence, I was emptying my aunt's chamber-pot.
Oh, and I'd wanted to be mistress of a farm. In his eyes, I might as well have been proud to empty chamber-pots the rest of my life. Biting my lip, I averted my gaze from the others.
We at last pulled to the end of the carriageway and the vehicle came to a stop. A pair of footmen immediately came up and pulled down the steps, then assisted each of us out into the snowy walkway. As if orchestrated by the heavens, it began to snow. Huge soft flakes spun and pinwheeled gently from the dark above. Landing on Elliot's blond hair, on my wool mittens, on Jane's feathered bonnet.
I walked slowly behind Aunt Curtis and my cousins as we followed the walkway around to the front of the mansion. Up the wide stone steps and to the front doors. Brushing the fresh snow from our clothes, blowing on fingers, stamping feet. The Vallencourt butler was waiting to usher us inside into the welcome of warmth. Suddenly all thoughts of snow and Henry vanished as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes.
Halting in the front foyer, it was the one word that came to mind and it repeated itself over and over as I gaped at my surroundings. This home was stunning. It was like each item of decoration had been elevated to a higher level than any other I'd seen before. A luxurious patterned Oriental carpet was at my feet. The foyer chandelier swooped down from above, splaying globed arms and casting warm light upon me. In front of me, the central staircase swept up to the second floor, its intricate carvings and solid mahogany balustrade glowing like chocolate beneath the chandelier. The walls were painted with delicate frescoes, each a masterwork of form and color. Hall tables featured ornate golden candlesticks, huge porcelain vases, and enormous bowls filled with bountiful fruits.
"Excuse me, miss."
I was shook by my reverie by an amused-looking servant, whom I recognized at once as the housekeeper. She was quite large and pink-cheeked, winking at me as I handed over my cloak and bonnet. Her cheeriness was quite the opposite to Mrs. Keswick's sourness.
Aunt Curtis and my two cousins had already handed off their outer things and passed through a huge set of double-doors on the left wall. I swallowed and slowly stepped behind them into the parlor. If I thought the foyer was stunning, it did little to prepare me for the palatial grandeur of the parlor.
Oh, it was splendid! Decorated to the utmost in all the festivities of the season. Silver, gold, red, and green baubles, swags, festoons, drapes and garlands occupied every conceivable surface. An enormous Christmas tree was set up at the end of the room, bursting with ornaments and glittering with hundreds of tiny twinkling lights. Dancers in their floaty gowns and smart black dinner suits twirled past like a magical scene of years past. Warm candlelight bounced off the ornamented surfaces, luxurious fabrics, and burnished woods. It was like being in a princess's jewel box, and I was dazzled.
Before I could register who had said my name, I caught a flash of blue eyes and gold curls. And then my sister was in my arms, her hair smelling sweetly of roses. It was both the most wondrous and most torturous moment, for I couldn't tell her of my troubles, nor escape into this fairyland with her.
When at last we parted, I stood back and beheld her. Our prolonged absence vanished as if it had never occurred. She looked more grown-up, her hair in a lovely curled style. Her shimmery silver dress made her skin glow, and she looked as radiant as an angel.
"Esther, I've missed you so much! It has been nearly two months!"
Her voice was like balm on my open wounds. I had no words. I couldn't speak. I had missed her more than I could ever express.
"I'm so glad I could come," I finally said.
I glimpsed my aunt standing next to Mrs. Vallencourt, surveying the scene with one eye on the dancers and the other on me. There wasn't much time before she separated me from Lara.
"Have you been cross with me?" Lara asked.
"Cross? Heavens, no. Why would you think that?"
"I've sent ever so many letters! Alexandra says she trusts the servant who delivers them, so why haven't you written?"
I laughed. I'd half-forgotten her sweet bluntness. Silk and jewels aside, there was a true farm girl before me. She'd rather be in a saddle than a lady's chair, even after all this time spent in such an exquisite place.
But I had no time to answer her, for my aunt approached us. Her voluminous skirts caused Lara to step aside. Again, I was parted from my dearest, but even the simplest contact with her had revived me like a bellows fans a fire. Being near her was warming, no matter how chilly the new company.
"Good evening, Miss Lara," Aunt Curtis said, with such a high degree of fake politeness I almost rolled my eyes. "Why, just look at you. The perfect picture of a fine lady."
"All thanks to Miss Alexandra, Aunt Curtis," Lara said.
Alexandra was at that moment heartily conversing by the Christmas tree with a pink-cheeked Elliot, but it wasn't the heat that caused his high color. And right beside them, in a formal dinner suit and plush embroidered waistcoat, was her brother. Henry, too, spoke with one of my cousins, though their conversation was contrasted by his stiffness and her hotly fanning herself. Even as I watched, he stifled a yawn behind his fist.
"Jane looks lovely tonight," Lara said politely.
"Thank you, my dear," my aunt returned with a smile. "Pray, let me steal your sister's company. Mr. Vallencourt has requested her opinion about an important matter, and she is needed."
The tiny heartbreak in my sister's eyes flooded me from the inside. We had just been reunited. Now to part again! I gave Lara a reluctant curtsey and a smile, then willed my feet to leave her side. I'd gone ten feet before I realized I was supposed to be searching for the master of the house.
I slipped between the onlookers standing about the room's perimeter. They drank champagne and enjoyed caviar toast points, chatting about how delightful the latest season had been, how soon the economy was recovering from the devastating city fire, and how strange it was that the latest fashion was a bustle and not a hoop. To think those ladies in Paris! How scandalous. I caught bits of their passing conversations, ignored their pitiful stares when they beheld my simple gown, the plainest in the room, and at last found Mr. Vallencourt enjoying social company in the rear of the parlor. A servant handed him a glass of punch in a crystal goblet and he knocked it back heartily, enjoying a laugh with his fellow businessmen. I approached the circle of suits with politeness and trepidation, but it wasn't long before one tapped Henry's father on the shoulder and he turned to acknowledge me with a grin.
"Ah, Miss Esther Perry! So good of you to come. You must be so pleased with your sister's progress with Alexandra."
"I am, sir," I said. "Thank you. Forgive me for interrupting, but you wished to speak with me?"
He looked dazed. I was obliged to mumble an apology and induce him to remember why he'd summoned me. But after an awkward pause, it was plain he'd never sought my opinion. Aunt Curtis wanted me away from Lara, and that was that. Foolish, I admonished myself. Esther, you're foolish.
I was about to excuse myself, when Mr. Vallencourt stepped from his acquaintances and came closer to me.
"No harm in asking, Miss Perry. News does travel fast in the city of Portland. It seems you are the first of the Curtis family to know!"
"Know?" I said, confused. "Know what, sir?"
"About Henry and I, of course. I asked my son to be a partner in the Vallencourt Architectural Firm. This afternoon!"
"A partner!" I repeated. "That is a wonderful decision, sir. I congratulate you both."
"Yes, yes," he said off-handedly.
But the merriness in his eyes disappeared, and he glanced around the room before lowering his voice in a confidential tone.
"You seem like a steady girl with a good head on your shoulders, Miss Perry. I only wish I could say the same for Henry. Indeed, he has refused me. My wife says he will become more sensible in the spring once he has said his vows to Miss Curtis. With that level of obligation, he cannot hope but commit to his true path."
I couldn't say I was surprised to hear of this, but it was obvious it vexed his father greatly. "I am sorry to hear of his refusal. Is there another profession he prefers?"
"No, none at all." Mr. Vallencourt shook his head until his forehead glowed pink. "Once this wedding takes place, his mind will be changed. I'm sure of it."
I didn't know what to say. Henry shirking his duties? Shrugging off a profession? Not even the lowest man in Bayview would say no to heading a prestigious architectural firm. So much good Henry could do, and he refused it.
"Well," Mr. Vallencourt continued, "it is time for the toast. Henry must be present, so be a good girl and fetch him, Miss Perry."
Still puzzled by this latest news, I struggled to maintain my composure. What had happened to elicit such a reaction, that I should suddenly feel nervous about speaking with Henry? The last I'd seen him, he was speaking with Jane by the tree, so I headed through the crowd in that direction. But I was surprised to find my elder cousin had replaced her fiancee's company with my aunt and sister. It ached to see Lara so close and not be able to speak to her privately. I hoped I'd get another chance this evening. Elliot and Alexandra were still chatting with equal vivacity. I'd never seen him look so happy.
I surveyed the room, but no sign of Henry Vallencourt. He wasn't partaking of sweets, speaking with friends, or dancing. He wasn't in the parlor at all, so I ducked out into the hallway. I peeked in the dining room, but no luck. Servants were clearing the table and brushing the rug. I'd be back to doing chores in the morning just like them. I quickly pushed the ugly thought out of my mind.
Walking down the hallway towards the back of the house, I passed by a wavy glass window. I paused to look in and realized it was a library. Along the walls were enclosed glass cases filled with books. I went to the door and quietly let myself in. The library was comfortable and cozy, decorated in a rich Gothic style with arched bookcase windows, a thick Persian rug, and carved trefoils.
But my attention suddenly went from the decoration to a familiar figure standing by the curtains. He was muttering to himself, and I overheard the final words of his private conversation.
"God damn it," was what it sounded like.
"Good evening, Mr. Vallencourt."
At the sound of my greeting, Henry turned and shoved his pocket-watch into his waistcoat. He appeared agitated, his hair disheveled and his face flushed. Upon seeing me, he looked even more ill at ease, as if I was a wind that had whipped up the air. A dozen thoughts crowded my mind. The handsomeness of his face, the conversation with Jane he'd had earlier, the way he'd looked at me as I played piano, my realization that Jane didn't love him, his refusal of his father's proposal.
"Sir," I began, my voice as strong as I could make it. "Your father is looking for you."
He froze, not greeting me and not saying a word. I decided not to wait for formalities or social niceties. I had to speak to him. I had to try, for my mind wouldn't let it rest.
"He confided in me about your meeting today. Please accept his proposal and become partner."
His jaw stiffened and he drew himself up to his full height, smoothing his waistcoat and brushing down his jacket lapels.
"Miss Perry," he said. "The girl who prefers to walk and thinks architecture is frozen music. The girl who plays Bach however she likes and Beethoven with incredible feeling."
I stood mutely, and without even thinking, tucked my hands behind my back. The way he mentioned these aspects of our acquaintance made me feel strangely at ease. He knew me and was not afraid to speak of it. I could do the same.
"Mr. Vallencourt," I replied. "The man who has the greatest of opportunities to make a real difference in his city. The man who says no to it."
He glowered at me, angered dark eyes beneath his gathered brow.
"Someone once called me a coward. But I am not afraid of the accusation. Good night."
He clenched his jacket lapels and stormed past me. In the half-second before he left the room, I tried one last time to convince myself he was like Caleb. I was again hanging my heart on someone unworthy, someone who shirked duties and played with hearts. But there was something different. Something Caleb never had.
"Don't lock it away any longer," I said. "Don't forget who you are, no matter what he said."
Henry had flung open the door and was about to leave when he stopped. He gave a wrenching sigh, then his shoulders slumped and he looked up at the ceiling. I knew then, and didn't know how I knew, that it was Gabriel. Gabriel had called him a coward. Gabriel had gone to war and Henry had stayed. Everything I'd heard from Elliot, Mr. Vallencourt and my uncle made sense.
When at last Henry spoke again, his voice was low and steady. But he did not turn around.
"You don't know of what you speak."
"He was different from you, sir," I said quietly. "His father forced him to be a doctor. He never had the passion for it. But you had a healthy ambition. I believe you'll feel that again."
Please turn around, I thought. Turn around and speak to me. Show me who you are, beneath the formalities.
He left the library, and I was alone. I had lost his good opinion by treading too far on his pride. Whatever had transpired between he and Gabriel before my cousin left for war had wounded him. It broke my heart to see such potential waste away in degrading pursuits, but there was nothing I could do.
I felt this helplessness as a girl, watching my father laze away at the farm and become indebted to creditors. I remembered the knocks on the door, the telegrams, the angry whispers from his enemies in Bayview. Once, I had been stopped in the street by the owner of Sloop Tavern demanding to be paid from George's latest gambling night. My father was so irresponsible I swore I would never be like that.
"Ah, there you are girl!"
Aunt Curtis emerged from the parlor into the hall. I was sitting in a hall chair, staring down at my feet.
"What is this? Have you paid your respects to Mr. Vallencourt yet?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said dully.
She fanned herself, spilling some of her champagne on me. "My goodness, it is warm! Fetch me some water, girl."
My cheeks felt hot, too, though it was not from the party. I didn't want to go back into the main parlor, but it was inadvisable to disobey Aunt Curtis. So, I reluctantly walked back inside.
Henry was standing by the Christmas tree, toasting champagne flutes with both Jane and my sister. My heart gave a sharp pang, and tears came to my eyes. I swallowed hard, made my way through the crowd, and stopped at the buffet table in the back of the room.
"Good evening, Esther."
Elliot, flushed and giddy from the excitement of spending all evening with his beloved, was also getting a drink. He poured water from the punch bowl into a goblet and handed it to me. I didn't feel like conversing, but then he began talking so fast I could barely keep up.
"Oh, Esther, you won't believe it. I had a right notion as we came to the party that it might happen! I am the happiest man alive!"
"Elliot," I said. "I do need another glass for your mother."
My request was lost upon him. He took out a handkerchief and daubed his glistening brow. Despite my horrible evening, Elliot's boyish cheerfulness made me smile. I reached for the punch bowl ladle. Suddenly, all the party attendees in the room began politely clapping. I filled the water glass and sipped it myself, turning around to face the front of the room. A bell rang.
"Attention! Attention all!"
Mr. Vallencourt stood directly in front of the brilliant tree with an arm around Henry, who looked more pleased than I thought he would being the center of attention. Alexandra stood on her father's other side, as flushed and giddy as Elliot. Mr. Vallencourt cleared his throat, then turned to Alexandra and warmly clasped her hands.
"Thank you so much for coming to our annual Christmas party. It has been a pleasure to see you all, especially you Mr. Mayor, Miss Pierce and you Senator, of course. Earlier this fall, my son Henry proposed to Miss Jane Curtis. His proposal was accepted, and a wedding date has been fixed for April ninth! Wedding plans are, of course, in place - but I leave these things to the ladies!"
He gave his wife a wink. Henry looked over at Jane, who was standing a few feet from him. She dipped her head in acquiescence and gave an expert little curtsey. He smiled, obviously enjoying himself, and tossed back the rest of his champagne while the crowd applauded. It was a complete reversal of his angry departure from me. Just as well, for I had tarnished his opinion of me. Mr. Vallencourt gave his son one final look of affected dissatisfaction before resuming his address.
"But I am pleased to inform you all that it is not the only good news you shall hear this evening!"
Alexandra squeezed her father's hand, her pretty face alight with excitement. Beside me, Elliot leaned over.
"I fear I am about to faint, Esther!"
"Miss Curtis's younger brother Elliot has made an offer of marriage to my daughter Alexandra Vallencourt!"
The room buzzed with whispers, and everyone turned around to see the would-be groom. Poor lovesick Elliot looked like he would topple over. I nudged him forward, and the crowd parted way for him to approach his love's side.
"I accept this happy union! Hear hear! So, look for the invitation to a double Vallencourt wedding!"
Now I was the one to nearly faint. A double wedding!
The whispers escalated to cheers for the two couples. Elliot haltingly approached Alexandra, trembling like a mouse, but she went right to him and kissed his cheek. Of course, the crowd roared louder. I smiled. She was a sweet young lady and he as kind a gentleman I'd ever met. But his sister and Henry ...
As the party attendees began congratulating the groom-to-be and his beautiful bride, I gazed at Henry from across the room. Dozens of people and servants divided us. He felt more lost to me than I ever thought he could be, and I didn't even know I'd wanted him to be by my side. I was no more than a farmer's daughter of no rank or family, with three dollars to my name. I gulped the rest of the water, filled a glass for my aunt, and left the parlor to the sound of a pretty waltz ringing in my ears.
Aunt Curtis was no longer in the hall, so she must have gone back into the parlor to celebrate the extraordinarily fortuitous matches her children had made. Elliot's future happiness was nearly written in stone, but Jane did not love her future husband.
"For heaven's sake," I muttered aloud. "If he is to be so blinded by her lack of character, then I was wrong. There is nothing under his irresponsibility to recommend him, either."
They were perfect for each other. Even if they had virtues, their more flawed traits did an equally excellent job of hiding them. What a pair!
I gave up searching for Aunt Curtis and set the glass on a hall table. The quiet foyer gave me a chance to breathe. I neither wanted to return to the parlor or wait for the Curtis ladies. The library seemed a good place to spend an hour or so, for amidst the hubbub I wouldn't be missed. So, I walked down the hall towards the glass windows I'd seen before.
Just past the staircase, I noticed another room that was rather dark. I would have kept walking, but then I spied the familiar glint of candlelight on ivory keys.
My heart leaped. I slipped past the ajar door, into what appeared to be a small drawing room. After lighting several more candles and an oil lamp, the room glowed cozily.
Yes, everything I'd imagined about the Vallencourt piano was true. It was magically beautiful. Deep burnished mahogany the color of fine chocolate. Painted gold scrolls wound their way around the lid, and curvy carved legs ended in lion's paws. I touched the blue bench cushion, made of finest silk. I'd never seen such a luxurious instrument. It was like a throne for a queen.
"Auld Lang Syne" sat open on the piano music stand. I moved the bench out and seated myself upon the comfortable cushion. I slipped off my pinched evening shoes and placed stocking feet on the golden pedals.
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot," I sang as I ran my fingers up and down the smooth and wonderfully balanced keys.
Such a responsive touch, too. It was like being upgraded to the finest barouche after sitting in horse wagons my whole life. An exquisite pleasure.
My feet played with the pedals, first one and then the other. The little dance, like making a new acquaintance. When at last I felt calmed and settled, I started the song. Quietly at first, repeating the first few bars to luxuriate in the feel of the ivory keys. Then I began the opening verse and hummed along to the melody. Such a melancholy and nostalgic song.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And the days of auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my dear.
For auld lang syne.
We'll drink a cup of kindness here
For the days of auld lang syne ...
After I ended the song, without even realizing it, I was in tears. My feet rested on the pedals. Leaning forward, I placed my elbows on the edge of the keys, my head in hands. Everything I'd felt, all the loss and sorrow, seemed so present. Like a song weeping inside me. I sniffed and finally sat back on the bench, wiping my eyes.
"You may borrow mine."
Startled, I looked up. And there was Henry Vallencourt. He held a handkerchief out to me. I was so shocked I stared at his hand for a moment before gratefully taking it and daubing my eyes. He could have used it himself, for he looked so sad.
"Thank you, sir."
I didn't know what else to say. Whether I should apologize for treading too far into his personal business or to congratulate him on his marriage, which I could hardly do so. I couldn't believe he had found me, that he had listened to my song.
But I was saved from continuing our conversation, for we were interrupted by quite the crowd. Jane, Aunt Curtis, Elliot and Alexandra all traipsed into the room. I immediately gave Henry the handkerchief and stood from the bench. Both Jane and her mother eyed me coldly. Jane swept to her intended's side and firmly placed his arm in hers, as if they were eternally locked together. Aunt Curtis reached over and closed the sheet music book with a slap.
"That is enough for one evening. The hour is late and we must be going."
Nobody moved. I stood next to the piano, one hand resting lightly on its lowest keys as if it needed a gentle caress. It was I who needed it, longing to stay in this room and never face the dull winter weeks ahead. Finally, Elliot stepped over to me and offered his arm. I lowered my eyes and reluctantly left the little drawing room, followed by the rest of our party.
The housekeeper was in the foyer, ready with our winter cloaks and bonnets. Lara was there, too, looking quite downcast at our imminent parting. How little time I'd had with her this evening. I should have tried to speak with her rather than play the piano. She came to me and wrapped her arms about me.
"Oh, Esther. I wish you could have stayed longer."
"Me, too," I said, and it was all I could say.
Her bright cheeriness shone like a loving beacon in my gray life. All too soon, Elliot was stepping out into the walkway and Aunt Curtis was tugging me from my sister's embrace. When I let go of her, it was like leaving warm shores for stormy waters.
It had stopped snowing and fresh powdery flakes dusted the mansion's front steps. Henry, his arm still tightly clasped in Jane's, followed us out to the carriage. After Aunt Curtis, Elliot, Jane and myself had taken our seats in the carriage, he paused at the door. Candleglow from the mansion's windows lit up his face, and I could see his eyes were still sad. I leaned against the carriage window, exhausted and wearied by my evening. He took Jane's gloved hand and kissed it.
"You were radiant this evening, Miss Curtis. I thoroughly enjoyed your company."
"Thank you, Mr. Vallencourt," she said. "It was a pleasure."
I lifted my head. He was regarding me from the carriage window. Jane immediately glared at me. I bit my lip. He would admonish me again, like he had in the library. Only now, it would be in front of his fiancee and my aunt. More ammunition for their cruelty towards me. I nodded to him, bracing myself.
But the sadness was fading from his eyes, replaced by a warmth I'd not seen before.
"The girl who played the right song at the right time."
Then he stepped back from the carriage, tucking his hands behind his back. I didn't know what to say, but the tiniest glow began to warm me inside. He had complimented me. Elliot was grinning from across the carriage seat, and as expected Jane was furious.
"Well! You are not to speak to my fiancee!"
"I did not speak to him," I murmured. "He spoke first."
Indeed, he had. She could not argue with me and remained silent on our return drive to the Curtis House.
He had spoken first.