Alice Knight drew Athena to a halt at the top of the hill and leaned back on the saddle to wipe away the moisture gathering in the corners of her eyes. The harsh spring wind caused her to fear losing her hat.
“It’s not raining at least.” She leaned forward to pat her mare’s neck. “And we both needed the run.”
Athena shook her head and made a ‘brr’ sound with her lips, chewing at the bit impatiently.
Alice laughed. “I can tell you’re as eager to run as I am, but I promised Kirk we’d wait for him. I got an earlier start than I planned.” She hadn’t been able to sleep much lately; too many thoughts swirled in her mind to quite allow it.
Athena made no response, and Alice sighed. She’d have to find Kirk soon. As it was, she was a crazy woman talking to her horse.
“Let’s ride down to the gatehouse and visit with Nettie and her children.”
Athena started down the hill toward the gates at a slight movement. The wind tore at Alice’s face once again, but she laughed into it. The freedom of the blustering wind called her as nothing else did, and she felt compelled to enjoy the rush. At least her hat stayed in place, her hair still tucked up in a loose bun.
The ivy-covered gatehouse where Nettie and her family lived stood at the end of the drive leading to the manor of Pearlbelle Park. A neat little garden lay behind the building, and a set of steps led up to the living quarters at the side.
Alice always felt a rush of contentment, of coming home, when she approached this building. It was inexplicable, but she gave in to the familiar tug and ran into its comforting arms.
Alice dismounted and left Athena grazing on a short line. The kitchen door was unlocked, and she proceeded in without knocking.
Young Malcolm Jameson was bent over a schoolbook at the table. He looked up, a grin widening his chubby, tan cheeks, and his gray eyes sparkled in a familiar way. “Hullo, Alice.”
“Hullo, Malcolm.” Alice reached out to hug him. He drew back with a frown, so she opted for a handshake. She had enough little brothers to understand that sometimes physical affection simply wasn’t acceptable to little boys. “Where’s your mother?”
Malcolm leaned back and stretched his arms out, no doubt the same way his father did after hunching over something. “She’s upstairs. Debby has a stomachache, and Mama is trying to get her to take a nap.”
“Oh dear.” Alice slid off her gloves and dropped them on the table, feeling sorry for Nettie. Debby was a fussy child. Hopefully it was just her usual complaints, which lasted as long as her bad mood did. “I’ll go see her and then come back to help you with your history lesson until my friend arrives. I’m not good at it myself, but I’m sure I know something you don’t.”
“Perhaps.” Malcolm’s tone didn’t convey conviction. Alice had allowed the Jameson children to think of her as an older sister, and little siblings seldom fully respected older siblings. They knew them too well.
Alice just laughed and turned toward the stairs. Going up, she met Malcolm’s younger sister, Ella, her curls tied back in a messy plait. Nettie must be having a difficult morning, or Ella would be spotless. Nettie, Alice’s former governess, took great pride in keeping her children neat from head to toe. Alice should know; she’d been the primary focus of Nettie’s ministrations for many years.
“Good morning, Alice,” Ella said with a serene smile.
Alice squeezed the girl’s shoulder affectionately. Her own siblings had never developed manners to equal Ella’s, and it was never more apparent than when she greeted guests with a friendly yet polite manner. “Good morning, Miss Ella. How’s Debby?”
“Much better, I think. It’s good to see you here.” Ella gestured toward the kitchen, her poise—in those rare and inconsistent moments that she chose to adapt any sort of order—that which Alice could only aspire to.
Though Alice had been told she had a bit of natural poise. Just not as much as Ella, a six-year-old, apparently. Oh well. If she knew one thing about life, and she didn’t know many things, it was that one couldn’t win all the races one entered in.
“Thank you, dearest. I just want to speak with your mother for a moment. Run down and tell me if you see Kirk coming, won’t you? I’m sure he’ll stop when he sees Athena.”
Ella nodded and dashed off before Alice could say anything further.
Alice proceeded to a bedroom at the top of the stairs. She eased the door open so as not to disturb the invalid.
Nettie sat on the edge of three-year-old Debby’s bed. Debby had a fretful, restless expression on her face, but it lightened somewhat when she saw Alice.
Nettie glanced over her shoulder, a soft smile lighting up her countenance. “I thought I heard you coming up the stairs, Gracie.” The childhood nickname, strange as Alice now considered it, was also worth a smile.
“I stopped to talk to Malcolm and Ella a bit.” Alice gave Debby a sympathetic look. “I heard you aren’t feeling well, pet.”
The little girl scowled and shook her head.
Alice put her hands on her hips. “Now, Debby, don’t pout. You’ll be better soon! Your mother knows how to take care of sick little girls. She always took care of me when I was your age.”
Debby turned her eyes on her mother and cocked her head. Like the other two Jameson children, she had her mother’s eyes and ringlets, though her hair was a shade lighter than Nettie’s.
“Yes, I did.” Nettie returned her gaze to her daughter. “Now, you must close your eyes.”
A stubborn little chin jerked up. “I won’t nap!”
“I don’t care if you sleep or not, but if I catch you with your eyes open …” Her voice trailed off in an unspoken threat Alice remembered well from her childhood.
Nettie was still Alice’s chief advisor. There was no going against her; there never had been. Alice would sooner confront her own mother. But then, Mother lacked the staying power, the stubbornness, that Alice possessed.
Nettie, though? Nettie could stand head to head with Alice for hours, and she made it clear at once that she would not be the first to give in.
Debby snapped her eyes shut, and Nettie rose from the bed. Alice backed out of the room, and they walked down the stairs and into the kitchen together.
“Nettie, I wanted to ask you if you would come up to the house and look at a few new dresses.” She smoothed her hands over her simple green riding habit, already missing it. The dresses she would wear to her debut in London in just one short month would be a great deal less familiar. “Your taste is closer to mine than Mother’s.” Her mother knew fashion but not necessarily comfort.
“Yes, of course. Tomorrow, perhaps—or the next day, if Debby isn’t better.” Nettie smirked. “I think she ate too many sweets at her friend’s birthday celebration, so she should be well soon.”
“Oh, I’m glad that’s all.” Alice slid onto the seat at the table across from Malcolm. “How have you been?”
In the past three months, she’d spoken those words every time she’d visited. So far Nettie hadn’t actually spoken about losing her child, as if she should protect an eighteen-year-old from such hard realities. But Alice wanted to voice her support nonetheless.
Nettie gave away no obvious emotion, but Alice thought she saw the slightest flicker of a shadow across her eyes. “I’m well.”
Oh, Nettie, you don’t have to be well for me! But Alice knew better than to say that aloud. She wasn’t much of one for voicing her grief, either. “Good.” What else could she say? Alice had never lost anyone important. Not really.
Nor did she intend to. She’d keep her loved ones safe by sheer force of will, somehow. She must—every instinct in her said it was necessary.
“It’s a shame you can’t come when I go to London next month.” Alice slid her fingers along the smooth grain of the table. “I would love to have you near. A lot is going to happen, Nettie.” She slowly raised her eyes to her friend’s face. “I’m a bit nervous.”