Blackpool countryside, 1816
Celia Webley was writing in her journal in the drawing room looking out at the sunny day. It was a few moments of peace, and she relished them, for they were hard to come by these days. Suddenly, she heard a crash of glass. Her heart leapt to her throat, and just like that, her peaceful moment came to an end.
“Mother!” she said aloud and hurried to the next room, where she found her mother Lillian staring confusedly at a vase that now lay broken on the wooden floor. Stepping around the glass, Celia made it to her mother’s side and gripped her arm.
“Mother, are you all right? What happened?”
Her mother was frowning, looking down at the vase as if it had angered her somehow. And then, without warning, she burst into tears, turned to Celia, and lay her head on her shoulder.
Celia grasped her mother about the waist, closing her eyes as she felt her mother shudder against her. It had been like this for so long, and Celia couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t comforting her dear mother who was growing sicker by the day. She moved a hand across her mother’s back, trying to be as soothing as she could.
“It is no worry, Mother. I shall send for the maid.” Just then, the young maid appeared. “Please clean up the glass and the water, Mildred. I will be taking my mother upstairs. Please have one of the kitchen maids send tea.”
“Of course, Miss.” The maid curtsied, her eyes wide underneath her white mob cab. She scurried away, and Celia sighed as she turned her mother and took her hand. Even though the maids had been there a long while, they still couldn’t seem to come to terms with the steep decline that their mistress had undergone in the last few years. They still seemed surprised at her odd behavior.
To her side, Celia’s mother had stopped crying a little, and Celia clutched her hand tightly as they made it up the stairs. “Come, a nice cup of tea shall do us both nicely, as well as some dry clothes.”
She eyed the damp spray of water on her mother’s skirt, and her mother simply nodded, a fresh tear slipping out from her eyes. Once inside the bedchamber, Celia made quick work of her mother’s gown, helping her to dress into a dry one. The maid knocked and brought in a tea tray with a few biscuits as well.
“You may put it there, Betsy,” Celia told her, and after she had done her duty, the maid left, leaving Celia and her mother alone, sitting next to the warm fire with the tea tray between them. Celia smiled. “Here.” She handed her mother a steaming cup of tea. “Drink all of it, please. It will do you good. Tea always solves a number of ailments.”
“I used to tell you that,” her mother said with a frown. She began crying again. “Oh, I feel so useless, you know. My mind flits from one thing to the next, and I can’t seem to focus. I remember how I used to spend so much time doing what I loved. Now I can’t even do one thing right. I barely moved, and the vase fell. It seems my hands are cursed. My brain is cursed. Everything is cursed.” The teacup was trembling in her mother’s hands, and Celia swallowed back tears at the sound of her mother’s pain. She had to remain strong for the family. There was no other solution.
“You are not cursed. You are loved. Deeply, by all of us, and I will always be here for you, whenever you need me.” She reached out to clutch onto her mother’s hand. Her mother took it gratefully and placed it against her cheek.
“Thank you, Josephine,” she said. “I knew that I could always count on you.”
Celia kept smiling, but the lump in her throat only grew bigger. Josephine was the name of her late aunt, her mother’s older sister. She said nothing about it; she never could say anything when her mother confused things or used the wrong names or forgot which time she was in. It only served to embarrass and confuse her mother further, and Celia had spent so long trying not to feel hurt that her own mother didn’t always remember her.
It was a curse, however, this thing that gripped her mother’s mind, took over her usual cheerful self, and turned her into a forgetful woman who cried almost every day, weighed down by the feeling of her own uselessness. They drank their tea for a little longer in companionable silence, until Celia helped her mother into bed.
“Rest now,” she said, brushing a kiss against her mother’s temple, pushing away a lock of grey hair. Her mother stared up at her for a moment, her grey eyes looking slightly hazy.
“I love you, my dear.”
“And I you.” Even if her mother couldn’t remember exactly who she was, words of love were always appreciated and made Celia feel much less alone. She patted her mother’s hand and then closed the door softly behind her.
Outside of her mother’s chamber, she nearly jumped when she saw her two brothers standing there patiently. “Nathan, Joseph, what on earth are you doing, trying to frighten your sister to death?” She urged them down the stairs, keeping her voice at a rough whisper until they made it to the main hall.
Nathan shrugged. “We wanted to see if everything is all right with Mother. We haven’t seen her much today.”
“Well, that’s because you’ve been out playing cricket all afternoon.” She mussed the hair of both of them, even though at fifteen and twelve, they were nearly towering over her.
“I know, but . . .”
Celia smiled. “Mother is well. She is just resting. She was very tired today.”
They smiled back, and even though Nathan narrowed his eyes a little in suspicion, he didn’t argue. “Go back and play while I send for tea. Are you hungry for some biscuits?”
“Oh yes, and pie!” Joseph, the younger boy, said with a grin. “Cook told me that she has just picked the cherries for cherry pie. I wonder if it’s done already . . .”
“She just returned to the kitchen! I highly doubt it,” Nathan argued as they stalked off. Celia watched them go, her heart swelling with affection. They would not know the weight of such pain.
“Let their minds be full of cricket and cherry pie for now,” she said to herself, and then, after brushing off her crinkled skirts, she walked to find the kitchen maid.
Wilson Badders watched the countryside pass as the rough wagon bumped along the country road. Home again. Blackpool was a charming village, and the smell of the sea was always in the air, even when they were surrounded by trees, grass, and flowers. He turned to his friend Bernard Webley, who was holding a locket in his hands, with a picture of a woman inside it.
“You are under a spell, my old friend,” Wilson teased, nudging his friend with his elbow. Bernard looked up with a stupid grin on his face.
“So, I am. The spell of true love. Maybe you should think about it sometime, Wilson.” Bernard sighed and leaned back, his short auburn hair moving in the breeze under his hat.
Wilson rolled his eyes. “And end up like you, being on the adventure of your life upon the high seas but still mooning at a picture in a locket the whole time. No, thank you. I preferred to enjoy the adventures we had.”
Bernard chuckled. “Missing Anna made the excitement all that much more worth it, because I knew I could return to her as a hero.”
“A hero?” Wilson lifted a brow. “You make it seem as though we met with Napoleon himself upon the sea.”
“Well, a lady always likes to think that her gentleman has done something brave, you know.” Bernard grinned. “We have plenty of those stories to share between us.”
“Ah, and you expect me to assist you in building this fearsome reputation of yours?”
“But of course. That is what friends are for.” Bernard snapped his locket shut and stuffed it into his waistcoat pocket. Then, he let his eyes roam across the countryside. “Soon, she and I will be married, and we’ll be the happiest of all the villagers.”
Wilson rolled his eyes again. “You know that the village won’t be able to bear you with all this nonsense you’re spouting. Thanks to you, the both of us will certainly be tossed out after a few days, and we’ll have to fend for ourselves. I’ll be ruined by my association with you.”
He chuckled, but inside, he was slightly concerned about where his future lay. He had left for the Navy years ago in search of adventure and excitement. He had certainly found it, but this was their last journey home, for their time in the Navy was over. As he took in the beautiful rolling hills and lovely forests, he knew that part of him was happy to be home again, but the other part was nervous that he would grow bored within days and be itching for a new adventure. Besides, the thought of returning alone to his empty country manor made him want to shudder.
“You will be the one to get married next, I think. And then I will be the one to laugh at you for all your mooning.”
Wilson snorted. “I grew up in this village, Bernard. Don’t you remember? And I don’t recall knowing any woman that was particularly lovely or intriguing for my taste. So, I don’t think your prediction is in the least bit correct.”
Bernard gave a low whistle. “That’s harsh, and I have a feeling you’ll soon be eating your words. I have a knack for such things.” Bernard tapped the side of his head.
“I highly doubt that, but have it your way. I know there’s nothing stopping you and your thoughts of true love.” Wilson could see the edge of the village come into view, and his nervousness grew. It had been seven years since the loss of his mother and ten since the loss of his father.
With his older brother Hinton living in London with his family, Wilson hadn’t known a proper homecoming in many years. He’d jumped at the chance to join the Navy. It was a way to escape the emptiness that the loss of his parents had left behind in Blackpool. It was a way to keep himself busy until he had to come home and take care of things at the manor. However, he’d never expected the time in the Navy to pass so quickly.
Over the years, when he would return to Blackpool on leave, it was always for a very brief time, and greetings from one’s servants weren’t the same as those from a family. He spied Bernard out of the corner of his eye. Bernard Webley was one of four children. He knew the noise and enjoyment of a busy family life. Every time Wilson thought of that, he was terribly jealous.
That was part of the reason he had been so drawn to spending time at Bernard’s home growing up. There was always something going on, always something happening. His older brother was ten years older than him, and he had been at school throughout the most of Wilson’s childhood. And while he’d loved his parents, they weren’t nearly as fun or exciting as Mr. and Mrs. Webley.
Bernard turned to his friend, his mouth pursed in thought. He nudged Wilson out of his reverie. As the wagon slowed, Bernard jumped down, hauling his pack over his shoulder. “Come to my house for your first night. I know the family would love to see you. I’d thought of asking you before, but I didn’t want to get in the way of your own time. I’m sure there are lots of things you have to do at the manor as well. It’s been a long time.”
Wilson was thankful for his best friend. Bernard had made life bearable for many years, and he understood him. However, even though there might have been much to do, he still couldn't stomach the thought of spending his first night back in the village in his empty, cold house. It didn’t take long for him to make his decision. He would send his housekeeper a note.
“Thank you, Bernard. All right then. I’ll send word to the manor.” He jumped down beside Bernard and grabbed his pack. “How is your sister Celia after all? It seems as if it’s been ages since we’ve seen her last. She was always so funny, so full of life, you know?”
Bernard squinted in thought. “Three years, if I’m not mistaken. But I think she’s well. We have written letters. Now that she’s nineteen, I expect I’ll be getting a few requests to court her.” He chuckled. “Now that Father’s gone, I’ve got to take over things like that, although it feels a little strange. I feel too young to be up to it, but I know it’s what Father would have wanted.”
Wilson smiled. Bernard always had such an affection for his siblings, and it touched Wilson. He and Hinton were somewhat close, but it wasn’t the same. He and Bernard walked together talking about this and that, wandering through the village. They greeted passersby who stared after them at times, trying to place them.
“I guess it has been too long, Bernard. We should have come back sooner.” He thrust a hand through his black hair, replacing his hat over it again, feeling uncomfortable at the many eyes that were on them.
“No matter. We are back for good now. They’ll certainly get used to us after a time, especially once you choose your bride from amongst the village folk.”
Wilson scoffed and pushed Bernard on the shoulder. “Remember, you are meant to focus on your sister finding a good husband, not me.”
Bernard simply chuckled in response. However, Wilson was surprised at the many changes that had occurred since he’d left. He always thought of Blackpool as a sort of changeless place, stuck in an old time forever. But many more buildings had come up in the last few years, and the main thoroughfare was peppered with new shops and stalls. Even some parts of the road had been cobbled. He did wonder for a moment if there really would be eligible young ladies there now who he might be interested in.
He shook his head, trying to rid himself of the thought. If getting married involved turning into a romantic like Bernard, then he wasn’t sure he was interested. A little way outside of the village, they spied the familiar stone farmhouse. “Home again.” Bernard paused to breathe in the fresh scent of the sea and country air. The sea was a gray mist in the distance, and it stirred a longing in Wilson to return to it as he thought back over their adventures.
Bernard clapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s go then. I am dreaming of hot baths and hot meals and sleeping in rooms that don’t smell like sweaty sailors.”
Wilson threw his head back and laughed. “You have just described my dearest dream, I think.” Together, they made their way towards the farmhouse, and Wilson could hear the familiar sounds of chickens clucking and a cow mooing. “It’s as if we never left, Bernard.”
He looked around, amazed. It felt even better to be back here at Bernard’s house than his own home. He had spent so much time here as a child that it felt as if he was stepping back in time. The last time he’d been home, he’d been about twenty-three years old, still feeling like a boy, and now he was viewing his childhood haunt as a seasoned man of twenty-six.
“So, it is. Just the way I like it. I prefer not to have my memories tarnished by changes and progress.” Bernard laughed at his own sarcasm, but Wilson was still entranced by the homey, friendly sight. He was so glad that Bernard had invited him. He felt better already about coming back home and leaving his adventurous life behind.
“Your brothers must look almost like men now,” he said, and Bernard nodded.
“Surely they will not be happy by having their place as men of the house usurped upon my return.” He grinned. “Perhaps we shall have to have a duel upon the hillside.”
They just arrived at the farmhouse door, and Bernard lifted his hand to knock. Before he could, the door swung open, and a beautiful young woman practically jumped through the door frame into Bernard’s arms. Wilson wondered for a moment if this was Bernard’s dear Anna, but he remembered that Anna was blonde, and this woman had auburn hair. Bernard was laughing as he clutched the woman to him.
Perhaps it is a cousin I have never met?
Bernard pulled away, looking into her face with a smile. “Celia, my darling sister. You have grown even more beautiful in the last few years.”
Celia. Celia Webley? This is her? But she’s so . . . womanly.
This was certainly not the Celia that he’d seen three years ago. She was just a girl then, laughing, giggling and playing games. Who was this bright beauty standing before him, her lovely hazel eyes turning to him in curiosity at first and then in recognition?
“Mr. Badders,” Celia said finally, a smile playing upon her lips. Wilson wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw a red blush upon her cheeks. “How good to see you again after all this time.”
“Celia,” Wilson breathed, wondering if he looked as surprised as his voice sounded. He picked up the hand that was at her side and brushed a kiss across the back of it. She was a woman now, and she deserved a greeting befitting her new status.
He didn’t say anything else, still caught up in the surprise at just how lovely she had turned out. Her auburn hair was in a loose bun at the base of her neck, and a few strands of hair framed her face. Her lips were a perfect pink, her nose was pert and lovely, and her skin was the color of ivory, with a few freckles from being out in the sun.
She had grown taller and filled out in the way only a woman can, and she was far more beautiful than any woman he’d seen in a very long time. So pure and innocent, but at the same time, slightly world-weary and sad despite the happiness of their return.
She looked down at her gown. “Oh, do forgive me,” she said as she untied the apron she’d been wearing. “I was assisting the cook with a few things. Come in, come in.” She stepped aside and let the men inside.
“Welcome home to you both,” she said cheerfully. “I will get some wine, and we shall have a fine celebration. I’ll call the boys too.”
Bernard led Wilson into the sitting room while Celia hurried inside, and Wilson’s eyes followed her. When he turned back to Bernard, his friend was watching him with humor in his eyes. Wilson blushed under his censure, but that only set Bernard to chuckling, which in turn made Wilson blush even more.
After Celia scurried away from the door and deeper into the house, she felt she could finally breathe again. Wilson Badders, the man for whom she’d harbored affection ever since she was a child, was in front of her. And she’d been wearing an apron! She closed her eyes at the memory of it now. If only her brother thought to warn her that he would be returning home with his friend in tow.
She knew she would eventually see Wilson, for his manor house was not very far away, but she wanted some time to compose herself before she did see him.
But why? It’s not as if you’ve thought of him for a long time. Why should his presence unseat you so?
Why, indeed? Absent-mindedly, Celia found a place to put the apron as she searched for her brothers. “It is just that he is an unexpected guest. I would have prepared a bit more with expected guests and then wouldn’t have been made to look like a fool.”
Her brother had sent a letter a few weeks ago, letting her know that he’d be returning. She’d kept the information from her mother and brothers, so that she didn’t over excite her mother, and so that her brothers would enjoy the surprise. She finally found them at the far end of the house, playing a game in the small library.
“Come, Joseph, Nathan. There is someone here I think you would like to see.” She plastered her usual smile on her face even though her heart was hammering away wildly in her chest.
“Oh?” Nathan asked, standing up, and the two boys left her, hurrying away towards the sitting room where she was pointing. Celia herself took a breath, smoothing her skirts. Wilson Badders had been the only man she thought of as more than just a friend, especially since the last time he had come home, three years ago. He had always been handsome, with his black hair and deep brown eyes, but now, after a few more years in the Navy, he was truly a sight to behold.
The Navy had helped his shoulders to fill out, and now they strained a little under his coat. His skin was tanned, and it seemed to make his eyes look almost golden. When he’d smiled at her after she opened the door, her eyes had been drawn to his mouth and his perfectly straight white teeth. All the feelings she’d had for him in the past came rushing back, just as if she was a little girl again, in awe of her brother’s handsome, interesting friend.
“Get a hold of yourself, Celia. You have been holding up this household for a long time now. The arrival of one gentleman will not make you lose all sense.”
She nodded to herself at the end of her small speech, and with her head held high, she walked back to the sitting room to see her two younger brothers standing in front of her older one.
“You look different,” Joseph said to Bernard, who was laughing merrily.
“I should. Wilson and I have been under the sun for more hours than ever before in the last few years.”
“Out on the sea?” Nathan asked, his eyes bright with interest. Celia knew just how much her younger brothers had missed their older one. He had been gone for too long, and now that he was back for good, something warm settled in Celia’s chest. She wouldn’t have to be so alone anymore. Perhaps Bernard could help make everything seem all right again.
“That’s right. Out on the sea.” Wilson leaned forward on his knees, looking ready to tell a story. He glanced up at Celia as she moved nearer and stood upon her arrival. “Please, Celia, do sit down and join us.”
“Let me pour the wine first, Mr. Badders, and I will do so.” She averted her eyes, his gaze making her feel things she’d forgotten about a long time ago. She had more pressing matters to deal with. Feelings just as these did her no service at all.
“Do call me Wilson. Like you used to.” At the gentle tone in his voice, Celia looked up to see him smiling at her, and she smiled in response.
“Wilson.” She turned away quickly before the flush crept over her cheeks again. Her hand surprisingly steady, she poured three glasses of wine and passed them to Wilson and her brother. Once she sat down with her own glass, Wilson finally sat down.
“Come, Wilson, tell us what you were going to say,” Nathan said with urgency.
Wilson chuckled. “Well, there was this one time when me and your brother were manning the ship at nighttime. Every sailor must do his duty, and we were on the main deck, our muskets in hand, wandering up and down to make sure that we weren’t under any sort of attack.”
Nathan and Joseph were leaning forward from their seats on the floor, their eyes wide. Celia leaned back, a smile on her lips. Before her, there was a domestic and tranquil scene, one she hadn’t seen in many years. It gave her a little sense of peace, even though she knew questions about her mother would come soon enough.
“We heard something. There was a slight tapping on the side of the ship. Your brother, being the dutiful sailor that he was, hurried over to the sound and pointed his musket at it, calling out, ‘Raise your hands up, you devil!’”
“And what happened?” Nathan asked eagerly.
Wilson turned to Bernard, a smirk on his lips, while Bernard merely shook his head with a slow grin. “Well,” Wilson drawled. “He was so loud that he scared the seagull that had been tapping on our ship, and the poor bird flew off in haste!”
Nathan and Joseph laughed, clapping their hands, and even Celia found herself chuckling. “Bernard, you certainly took your duties seriously,” she told him, lifting her wine glass to him with a smirk.
“I certainly did, as any sailor would.” He pointed a thumb at Wilson. “I could definitely tell you a thing or two about this rascal that would make him look just as much a fool.”
“But perhaps that can wait for another time,” Wilson replied hurriedly, and he turned to Celia. “Where is your mother, Celia? Is she not in?”
“Yes, where is Mother Dearest? I am most eager to see her. I think I was bowled over by you two rapscallions and was unable to greet her. I thought she’d come down to see us.”
Celia swallowed. Here were the uncomfortable questions she was not looking forward to. Perhaps she could tell Bernard at some point, but she certainly didn’t want to share her mother’s affliction with Wilson, who was not a member of the family.
“I’m sorry, Bernard, but I wanted your arrival to be a surprise. I haven’t told her you were coming, and today, she had a very bad headache. She is upstairs, resting. If she’d known you were here, I’m certain she would have hurried down.”
Bernard jumped up. “Oh well, I’ll just go and see her myself then. What a fright she’ll have at my silly face!” He chuckled and turned towards the stairs. Celia jumped up and touched his arm.
“No!” she said and then lowered her voice a little when Bernard gave her a confused look. “Not now. Give her some time to rest. I know that she’ll want to be in fine form when she sees you after so long. So that she can sit and talk with you for as long as possible.”
Bernard frowned but eventually nodded. “All right then. I will let her be for now, but I do hope she’ll join us at dinner.”
Celia smiled weakly. “If she’s feeling well enough.”
Bernard sat down and started playing with the boys, asking them about their latest adventures. Celia turned to see Wilson staring at her, a confused look on his face as well.
“Is anything wrong, Wilson?” she asked, feeling as if he could see deep inside of her to things, she wasn’t ready to reveal to anyone.
Wilson shook his head, but he didn’t break his gaze. Celia looked down at her hands, curious why her heart started to beat so rapidly again.
“No, nothing’s wrong. You just look different, Celia.”
“Well, it has been many years.”
“Yes. You’ve grown up a lot since I last saw you three years ago.”
Celia lifted her eyes at that. “You remember how long it’s been?”
Wilson grinned, and Celia felt suddenly ashamed of her eager tone. “Yes, I remember. It was a long time ago, but I like to think I always remember when I come home.”
“I’m glad the both of you are back now. It was very . . . sad not to have Bernard around.”
Wilson nodded slowly. “And has he told you of his plans to wed?”
“Ah, yes, dear Anna.” Celia chuckled. “His letters are filled with nothing else.”
Wilson clucked with his tongue. “Foolish man. When there were plenty of adventures upon the sea, he could’ve shared with you.”
“What’s this?” Bernard looked up. “Do I hear my name being dragged through the mud?”
“Just shaming you for not telling your sister about all your sailing adventures. You filled your letters with words of betrothals and weddings, I hear.”
Bernard looked at Celia, shaking his head in mock disbelief. “A traitorous sister. Shameful. Come now, I shall tell you all a tale that will have you laughing for a week.”
Nathan and Joseph cheered, and with bright eyes, Bernard began telling the story, his hands moving as he demonstrated the words. Celia was smiling, but she was thinking about Bernard wanting to see their mother. She wasn’t sure how she’d explain everything to him. Bernard was a cheery sort, and she didn’t like to disappoint him or dampen his spirits. Besides, he would have a wedding to think of if Anna accepted his proposal.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could feel Wilson looking at her from time to time while Bernard told his story, as if he was trying to figure her out. She remembered now the strength of his gaze. When he’d returned when she was sixteen, she had been struck by the power of his brown eyes. They had the ability to stare through one, in a way that had made her feel as if he knew all her secrets. She had wondered back then if he’d known of her regard for him, and she worried that that secret was etched on her face even now.
Celia wasn’t sure she would be able to bear that particular embarrassment, not when her world had grown so small and so focused on keeping her family together. She had no use for lovers or tiny affections now, or anything of that sort. She would never have a suitor or marry. She was sure of it, because her whole life was now centered on her mother and getting her well again. Celia also couldn’t up and leave her young brothers or her mother when there was no one to take care of them all if she left.
So even though Wilson’s gaze sent an odd warmth through her and an affection that she thought she had long laid aside, she kept her back straight and her face forward, listening to Bernard’s tale. She chuckled at the appropriate times, thinking of how much she’d missed her older brother in the last three years.
Once the stories were finished, Bernard stood up. “Ah, well, I think that my friend and I should like to wash for the evening and prepare for bed. I know it is early yet, but as for myself, I am very tired.”
“And you want to look your best for your betrothed, don’t you?” Joseph teased, and Bernard slapped him on the shoulder.
“Look at you, little brother, already learning the ways of an older man. Yes, I would like to look very well for my betrothed when I go and see her in the morning. In fact, I shall write to her to come and see us here in Blackpool.” He turned a concerned look to his sister. “Celia, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve asked Wilson to stay the night with us. I thought it a sad thing to send him home to that empty manor on his first night back. It is much better to have a merry welcome home, don’t you think?”
Celia smiled and clasped her hands in front of her, glancing at Wilson, who looked almost worried. “Of course, Bernard. You are most welcome to stay with us, Wilson. I will have the spare room set up.”
Wilson stepped a little closer. “Do not trouble yourself overmuch, Celia. I don’t wish to be an imposition.”
“Not to worry, Wilson. You are an old friend after all.” She smiled again and then quickly looked away before the feeling of heat in her cheeks became visible. “I shall go and do my duty. Bernard, please ask the kitchen maid to have hot water brought to you both in your rooms.”
Bernard saluted her. “Yes, Captain. I shall indeed. Come, Wilson. We shall take on the task together, and then . . .” He turned to the younger boys with bright, excited eyes. “We shall go and see what these boys are doing with their cricket bats these days while we wait for our baths.”
Nathan and Joseph cheered, rushing out of the room, and Bernard and Wilson followed. Celia smiled after them, and she caught Wilson’s gaze once more before he left. Why couldn’t it be the same as the last time he’d come? Even though she’d harbored that affection for him, there had been an ease between them. He had laughed and made jokes, and she, Wilson, and Bernard had enjoyed each other’s company greatly. Now, she felt as if there was this strange thing hanging between them that she couldn’t identify. It made her cheeks warm and her stomach flutter, and she wasn’t sure exactly what to say to him.
She walked back upstairs to her mother, if for nothing else than to get her mind off that strangeness. She found her still in bed. Her eyes were open, but they looked vacant, as if she was staring deep into her past, under a sort of spell she couldn’t wake from. Celia pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down, pulling her mother’s soft hand into her own.
“Mother, I have some news. Some wonderful news.”
Her mother didn’t respond, but she squeezed Celia’s hand in return. “Bernard is here, Mother. He has come back to us after so long away. He is back for good.”
At that, her mother’s eyes sparkled into life, and she turned to Celia, her face alight with pleasure. “Bernie, my dear boy! I’m so excited to see him! My goodness, he must be five or six years old now.”
Celia nodded, hiding the pain in her chest. Would her mother not recognize Bernard on the morrow? “You will see him tomorrow, Mother. He needs his rest. He’s been away for a long time, and you must rest too. Then the both of you can see each other at your best.”
“Rest, yes,” her mother said with a sleepy smile, leaning back on her pillow and closing her eyes. Celia looked at her for a few more moments and then quietly stood up and headed to the door.
As she left and shut the door behind her, she prayed silently that God would restore her mother to her original glory. Celia was too afraid to tell anyone about what her mother had become, and she needed the strength to be able to tell her brothers about their mother’s declining health.
Neville Worthington was sitting in his cousin’s library reading a book, even though his mind was a little distracted. Every so often, he would look out of the window, thinking about something, and then try to return to the book. He shifted in his seat a few times, but it was no use. He couldn’t focus. He had too much on his mind of late, and he wasn’t sure how to go about fixing his looming problem. It would have to be fixed soon, too, or else he would lose everything.
“Neville!” he heard a cheerful voice call from outside the library. A few seconds later, his blonde and bright-eyed cousin, Anna, hurried into the room, holding up a letter. He could tell from her happy face just who it was from. “Bernard has finally returned!” She clutched the letter to her chest and closed her eyes. “It has been so long. I thought he would never come back.”
She flopped herself on the settee near his reading chair. “The letter says that we must come and stay near him and his family for a few weeks. We will be married after that. Please say you’ll come, Neville. We can stay in the inn there. It can be like a little holiday.” She looked around the room and frowned. “This place has been rather lonely without him, you know.”
Neville chuckled. While he was stoic, his cousin was full of bubbling energy. “Dear cousin, I thought I was here to keep you company.”
She waved her hand in the air dismissively. “Yes, yes of course, I know. You have been very good at doing so.” She patted him on the knee. “But it will be good for Bernard and me to become reacquainted after being apart for so long. And you would make an excellent chaperone. His old friend, Wilson Badders, is back as well and of course his sister Celia is now of age. She is a lovely woman, Neville. I would like to see her more. She comes to the schoolhouse here every so often, but it is not enough! Please say you shall accompany me! It is not very far, you know. Only the next village over.”
Neville chewed on the side of his mouth for a little as his thoughts wandered. He had come to stay with his cousin in order to ease her loneliness and because his parents were traveling in Africa, but at the same time, his aim was a little less kind and compassionate. Lord Worthington, their uncle, was a baron, and Neville had hoped to spend more time with him, as he was to inherit his title and wealth. However, his uncle had a stipulation. If he was to inherit the title, he needed to marry a suitable woman. Going to visit Bernard and his sister might mean a viable option in that direction.
Neville smiled and took Anna’s hands in his. “Of course, I shall go with you, my dear. Then I can get to know your betrothed just a little bit more and see if he is worthy of the love you’ve been spouting for him for what seems like an age.”
Anna rolled her eyes but shrieked with glee and jumped to wrap her arms around his neck. “Thank you, Neville!” She lowered her voice. “I know it sounds wrong, but I would much rather have you as chaperone than Mother or Father. We could at least have a little fun all together as young people!”
“True enough.” Neville was now thinking of how he might ingratiate himself to young Celia. “Come, let us go for a walk.” He closed his book with finality. “I can no longer abide staying indoors when the weather is so fine. We shall walk and discuss everything.”
“Good. Let me first go and tell Father my plans to visit Bernard, and then we shall walk to our heart’s content.”
Neville watched as Anna left the library with a skip in her step, and then he moved to stand by the window. He thought back to a few years before when he had seen Celia in town when he was in Blackpool for a little business as well as to visit the Baron. She was striking, but still young at about seventeen. He’d nearly bumped into her on the street. She’d apologized prettily, he recalled, and her charming manners had kept her in his mind for a long time afterward.
After they’d collided, she’d said, “Oh, you must forgive me. I am often running into people and things.”
Neville had looked down to see an open book in her gloved hand. He remembered smiling at her. “I suspect it has to do with reading as you walk, Miss. A rather unusual activity on a busy thoroughfare.”
Celia had blushed. “I know, and my mother would never approve, but this is such an excellent book! I cannot seem to put it down. Do you know Mrs. Radcliffe?”
Neville knew of the female author of rather popular Gothic novels. He was not always partial to them himself, but they were rumored to excite and keep people awake at all hours, burning their candles until late at night.
“I do, Miss, although I cannot claim a firsthand knowledge of her books.”
Celia’s face had practically bloomed with delight. “Well, I must suggest that you purchase one from the booksellers. But you must hurry. They often run out of stock, and they must restock every few weeks!”
Neville was charmed. “I thank you for the suggestion, Miss . . .”
Celia had blushed then and placed a gloved hand over her pretty mouth. “I am sorry. My mother would be very disapproving once more.” She offered her hand. “I am Celia Webley.”
At the time, Neville had only heard of the family but never met them. He grasped her hand gently. “Lovely to meet you, Miss Webley. I am Neville Worthington.”
“Worthington?” Her eyes opened wide, and her face bloomed an even brighter red. “Are you related to Lord Worthington in the next village?”
He nodded with a grin. It was helpful when ladies he was speaking to knew of his rank or connection to those of high rank. Neville had always found it so, although occasionally it would bring around the wrong type of woman, one who only wanted to marry him in order to climb up the social ladder.
“Yes, Miss. Quite correct. He is my uncle on my father’s side.”
“So, you must be here to visit him, then?”
“Yes, but I do have some business here with my steward as well. I come to Blackpool every so often.”
“Well, that is excellent news, Mr. Worthington,” she’d said firmly, a wide smile on her face. They were flirtatious words, but he’d had an impression at the time that she’d not intended them to be so. He took them at face value.
“Blackpool is a pleasant village. I enjoy my visits here, and the people are so kind. You are an example of such kindness, Miss Webley.”
“Thank you, Mr. Worthington.”
“I shall take my leave now.” He tapped his hand to his hat. It was not seemly to detain a young woman who is not one’s relation in the street for too long. “Lovely to meet you, Miss Webley. I do hope we shall meet again one day when I am back in Blackpool.”
Celia had curtsied, her auburn ringlets bouncing against her straw bonnet. “Thank you, sir. I hope so as well. A good day to you.”
And then that was that. He had not seen her since then, even though he’d returned to Blackpool a few times over the years, and even though she’d stuck in his mind, he hadn’t attempted to find her. While Celia was pretty and entertaining, he had not really thought of marriage until his uncle stated his condition. And as the old man was quite elderly and sickly now, time was of the essence.
That was a stumbling block, for Neville had his heart set on his inheritance. He had been groomed as a gentleman for so many years, and he couldn’t imagine not receiving the title he had been told from a young age that he would receive. He wanted to continue the legacy of his family, but he’d hoped to do so without being married. He had no interest in kin of his own, for it was he who wanted the title. But the only woman who he could think of as a potential bride was Celia Webley.
How lucky then that this opportunity has come into my lap.
Naturally, he had known of the relationship between his cousin Anna and Celia’s brother Bernard, but since Bernard had been away in the Navy, and he himself lived a little farther away, there was never any real reason to call upon the Webleys in the time since his first meeting with Celia.
“Are you ready?” Anna had returned to the library, poking her head around the door, and Neville left thinking about his matrimonial plans for another time.
In a few minutes, they were strolling through the grassy lanes of the countryside outside her parents’ rather large manor house. “What did your father say, then?”
“He was happy that you were to accompany me, Neville.” She squeezed his arm. “But he will speak to you later. He needs to wrangle out your promise that you will be a proper chaperone.”
She giggled, and Neville sighed. “Has he no trust in his own nephew? I will certainly do right by you, but first you must tell me everything there is to know about these Webleys.”
Anna cleared her throat and straightened up as if she was about to perform a prepared speech. No doubt she had spoken often of Bernard, especially to ease her father’s concern about her marrying. “There are four of them. Three sons and a daughter, and Bernard is the eldest. The two younger boys are quite charming, and we do see each other from time to time in the village. His mother is very kind, although I have not seen her for a very long while. Celia tells me that she has been ill.”
Anna frowned. “I do hope that Bernard’s arrival will go a long way to helping her. That is why I haven’t been to their house in such a long while. I think they are busy dealing with her illness and so have neither the inclination nor the energy to have guests over.”
Neville nodded as he listened. If her mother was ill, and there seemed to be no father to speak of, then his marriage suit would likely come at a good time. “How sad, Anna. Well, I know that you will be a great comfort to them, once you become a part of the family.”
Anna beamed. “Bernard is so good and kind. I know that we have had to wait a very long time until we could be wed, but now that he is back for good, I know that we will make a fine pair. Even Father and Mother know it, despite their misgivings about him being away for so long. I think they were worried that he would die on the high seas, and then I would be left without a fiancé.”
She frowned, and Neville laughed. “What an adventurer you have chosen for yourself, cousin. But I cannot see how you would not get what you want. Fate is not against you. He has returned to you, and my theory is true. You always get what you want.”
“That is not true, Neville!” she cried. “You make me sound like a perfect, spoiled villain. For instance, I didn’t want him to go away to the Navy for another three years, and he did anyway, so one of my dreams didn’t come true.”
Neville rolled his eyes. “Fine, then. Have it your way. So, what can you tell me about Mr. Badders? Has he come to pay court to young Celia?”
“Why, Neville, the man has only arrived yesterday. I’m certain he has not so quickly formed an idea of attaching himself to Bernard’s sister.”
He might have, for I formed the idea in a matter of minutes.
“You never know.” He shrugged.
“Well, I suppose we shall find out once we arrive in the area tomorrow.”
“Yes, Neville, we must go tomorrow. I am too anxious to wait any longer than that! I would have gone today if Mother had not stopped me and bid me to think of packing and the fact that Bernard would most likely need another day of rest before he was set to right after his long journey home.”
“Yes, of course. You are quite right. Tomorrow it is.” Neville smiled as they quickened their pace, as was their tradition when they would walk together. It was just as much for conversation as for exercise. As they chatted on amiably about town gossip, Neville’s mind kept wandering to thoughts of Celia. Tomorrow would come soon, and starting then, he would have to expend all his energy to claim the Webley daughter as his young bride.
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