The man stood and extended a black-gloved hand toward Hope. “It’s been too long,” he said earnestly.
“It has,” Hope said quietly. “How is your family? Are you… managing?”
Something about Hope’s speech sounded strange, but I said nothing.
“It is difficult, though not as difficult as it was at first,” the man said. “Nevertheless, I am here to impose on your generosity once more.”
The man turned back to the little girl, who was still sitting on the sofa, watching her feet as they swung back and forth. “Celeste, please come here.”
The little girl jumped down from the couch and walked over to the man, her heels clicking smartly on the marble floor. She took the man’s outstretched hand and gazed with open curiosity in her wide brown eyes.
Hope’s wide brown eyes stared back at her.
“Ever since Celeste’s mother died,” the man continued, “my mother has cared for her. But Maman is feeling her age more and more, and she finds it difficult to care for Celeste. As a soldier, I can’t care for a child. I thought that, as her godfather, you’d be in a better position to take her in- especially now, as you have a wife.”
The strange man and Hope both turned toward me, as though they both just realized I was in the room.
“Forgive me,” Hope said. “May I present my wife, Lady Grace Frey. Lady, this is Captain Goode, one of my oldest and dearest friends.”
I curtsied, and Captain Goode bowed and shook my hand.
“Please excuse me if I don’t remove my gloves,” he said. “I have a rare skin condition, and my doctor insists I wear them at all times.
“Of course. I am pleased to meet you.” I turned to Celeste, and dropped a little curtsey. “I’m pleased to meet you, too, my lady.”
Celeste giggled, and then slapped a hand over her mouth.
Hope took a deep breath and turned to me. “Grace, would you be so kind as to take Celeste to the rose garden? She may like to take a ride on the swing- the one on the sycamore.”
“Of course,” I said. “The rose garden is through the doors off the east wing, isn’t it?”
Hope nodded, and I took Celeste’s hand and left the room.
I opened the glass doors that led to the garden, and a warm, summer breeze met me, carrying with it the scent of roses.
Celeste dashed through the doors and ran down the garden path to the sycamore, and I sprinted to keep up. By the time I reached her, she had hopped onto the swing.
“May I have a push?” she asked.
I obliged her, and she pumped her legs as she started to swing, higher and higher.
“Oh- this is nice,” she said. “I can see all the way down into the valley, from up here. Look- there’s a little brook.”
I laughed and pushed her a little higher. “I can’t see it from here; you’ll have to tell me about the brook.”
“It winds through the hills like a little snake- its scales all sparkly in the sun.” Celeste dragged her toes on the ground, then, to slow herself down.
“Lady Frey, I thought you might be scary, like a wicked step mother, or at least stuck-up, but you’re very nice. It’s hard to believe you are a great lady.
“Oh! Look,” Celeste said suddenly. “There are some carriages coming up the road. I wish you might see them.”
“I think I might see them if I look over the hedge, there,” I said, pointing to the other side of the garden, “and wait for them to come around the bend.”
Celeste jumped from the swing at the height of its arc, showing far more boldness than I’d possessed at her age, and ran to the hedge. I followed close behind and in a few moments, I could see two carriages, each one black with gold trim, and each being pulled by two white horses. They passed close by the hedge, though not close enough for me to see the occupants, and then rattled away toward the front of the house.
“I wasn’t expecting visitors so soon after my arrival,” I said.
“Everyone will want to see you, of course,” Celeste said.
“Why- Uncle’s friends,” she replied. “They always visit when Uncle is home, and I think they visit Lord Frey whenever they can. They are all extremely odd.”
“Why do you say they are odd?”
“I… I don’t know how to explain.” Celeste turned away from the hedge and started to wander up the garden path, touching rose blossoms as she went. “They’re all odd in different ways. Lady Willoughby says strange things- things I would get in trouble for saying. I think she’s less of a Lady than you.”
“Celeste, you mustn’t talk of a Lady and an elder in such a way,” I said with a laugh.
Celeste turned away from the roses and regarded me with her wide eyes. “Are you going to scold me for it?”
“I just did.”
Celeste smiled a little, walked over, and took my hand in hers.
“Lady Willoughby isn’t the strangest one. Her husband never speaks- not even to the other grownups. He mostly sits in a corner by himself and stares. And then there’s Mrs. Auber. She’s a dowa- dow- she’s a very old lady.”
“Do you mean to say dowager?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s it. She *knows* things.”
I laughed again. “It’s not surprising that Mrs. Auber knows things. With age often comes wisdom.”
“No- I don’t think that’s true.” Celeste let go of my hand to scratch her nose. “Grandmamanalways tells me wisdom comes with age, but I think she just says so because she is old. She isn’t wise- she’s just crabby.”
“But Mrs. Auber knows things no one should know, even if they’re smart. It’s scary.”
I was saved the trouble of a response when the garden doors opened, and Chastity stepped through.
“Lady Frey,” she said in a tone even more formal than the one she had used before. “Lord Frey has requested that you come to the drawing room to receive his guests.”