New York, 2009
“Someone’s left me a house,” said Julia. “In England.”
It was a Sunday morning and her father was ensconced in his usual place at the kitchen table. It was the Cadillac of kitchen tables, blond wood, worth more than Julia’s rent for the month. A woven mat held a vase of flowers, three white lilies against a spray of ferns, deceptively simple.
Visiting her father’s apartment always made Julia feel as though she were stepping into an illustrated spread in Town & Country. Her ancient blue jeans and button down shirt were decidedly incongruous against the silver appliances and careful flower arrangement.
“Your Aunt Regina’s house,” said her father, without hesitation.
“Aunt who?” Julia didn’t have any aunts, or at least none that she knew of. Her mother had been an only child and her father might as well have been. She was vaguely aware that he had a half-sister—or maybe a half-brother?—in Manchester, but they’d never had anything to do with that part of the family, not so much as a Christmas card.
“Your mother’s aunt,” said her father briefly, shaking out a section of the Sunday paper. “Regina Ashe.”
He didn’t meet her eyes. Well, that was par for the course, wasn’t it? In all these years, they had never spoken about England, about that gray pre-history that Julia revisited only in nightmares.
Sometimes, she dreamed of it still, the flash of lights, rain on a windshield; heard the screech of tires and her own cries. She would wake up trembling, her arms wrapped around her shaking body, crying for her mother.
“Am I meant to know who that is?” Julia kept her voice carefully light, trying to hide the way her hands trembled. She wandered over to the percolator on the counter, giving herself time to compose herself, striving for normal, the normal she had so carefully cultivated over the past twenty-five years. “That was the name on the letter. Regina Ashe.”
“She was your mother’s guardian,” said her father.
His voice was very clipped, very British. Rather than diminishing over the years, her father’s accent had become even more pronouncedly BBC the longer they stayed in the States. He groomed it as one might a well-tended head of hair. Julia couldn’t blame him. There was a peculiar status accorded to Englishmen in New York.
It was distinctly annoying, particularly because her childhood accent had had the reverse effect on her peers. She had wasted no time in shedding it.
Transference, the psychiatrist she had seen in college had called it, and a long string of psychobabble that would probably have made more sense to her if she had taken the intro psych course like her roommate. The basic gist of it was clear, though. She had sloughed off that old self, that little girl who had lived in London, who answered to Julie, who lived with both parents in a flat with a garden and become an American girl named Julia. It was a coping mechanism.
Julia had nodded politely and hadn’t gone back. She didn’t need someone to tell her the obvious.
“Right,” Julia said. “Her guardian.”
The Sunday Times crinkled as her father turned the page. From the counter, all Julia could see was the back of her father’s head, grey, carefully cropped, the tips of his ears, the wire rims of his glasses.
Her mother had a guardian who had a house. It sounded like something out of a French exercise. Avezvous la maison de la tante de ma mere? But she didn’t want the house of the aunt of her mother. All of that was over, done, a long, long time ago. She was American now, as American as yellow cabs and gum on the sidewalk. Her life was here, and had been ever since that awful October they had picked up and moved lock stock and barrel to New York.
Julia opened the glass-fronted cabinet, helping herself to a mug from a neatly stacked row. The mug was white, with blue flowers, very Swedish, very modern. Everything in her father’s kitchen was very Swedish and very modern, except for those items that were very Danish and very modern. The coffee maker was silver, bristling with more buttons than an international space station. There was something soothing about its belligerent modernity.
“I thought it was one of those Nigerian bank account things,” Julia said, trying to make a joke of it, wishing it were a joke.
“The house isn’t in Nigeria,” said her father, turning and giving her one of those looks over his spectacles, the look he gave to particularly dim doctors-in-training. “It’s just outside London.”
“I know that,” said Julia irritably. “It’s—oh, never mind.”
If her father didn’t know what a Nigerian bank account scheme was, she wasn’t going to explain. As far as she could tell, his grasp on email was limited to dictating his correspondence: at work, to his secretary; at home, to Helen, Julia’s stepmother.
Julia had remarkable respect for Helen. The fact that she’d managed to cater to Julia’s father’s whims for nearly fifteen years now without emptying the coffee carafe over his head was a miracle in and of itself.
Julia took her cup back around to the table, setting it down carefully on one of the woven mats thoughtfully provided for just that purpose.
“Assuming this is for real….” she began.
Her father raised his brows over the tops of his glasses. “Assuming? You haven’t contacted them?”
Julia stared down into her cooling coffee. The surface was rapidly scumming over. That would have been the logical thing to do, wouldn’t it? Due diligence. It was so easy these days, just a few clicks on a keyboard and you had names, addresses, details.
Instead, she’d left the letter sitting on her kitchen table, in the limbo that was her life these days, in between a box of Cheerios and a three month old stack of magazines.
“I get a lot of junk mail,” she said defensively. “People send all sorts of crazy things.”
“I know,” she said sharply. “I know, okay? I would have followed up if I’d thought it was anything serious.” If anyone had bothered to tell her that she had an Aunt Regina, or that that Aunt Regina owned a house. “I wasn’t aware I was in line for an inheritance.”
Her father ignored her sarcasm. “How long has it been?”
“Only a week.”Or two. The weeks blurred together. It had been in the pile of junk mail, in between a credit card come on offering her cheap cash—only 18% interest for the rest of her life!—and an invitation to the NYSPCC’s summer party, jungle themed, sarong optional.
Once, she would have taken care of it in five minutes. Once, she had rushed through her day, propelled by adrenaline and caffeine, the hours racketing into one another like bumper cars, never enough space between meetings, always running late, always something more she should be doing.
That was before she had lost her job, and time had stretched out like taffy.
She hated that phrase, “lost her job”, as though she had accidentally misplaced it somewhere between her desk and the ladies room. She hadn’t lost it. It had been ripped away from her, another casualty of the subprime crisis, the tanking markets, the recession.
Julia tugged at the elastic that held her ponytail, pushing it more firmly into place. “I’ll call them on Monday.”
“Call who?” Julia’s stepmother let herself in by the service entrance on the far side of the kitchen, dropping her keys in the pewter bowl that sat on top of the washing machine. From her arm swung a Dean and DeLuca bag, smelling deliciously of fresh bread.
Helen had the hard-won slimness of late middle age, her hair dyed to that particular shade of Upper East Side ash blond. Not too blond—that would be trashy—but just blond enough. It was a shade that went admirably with camel-colored pants in winter and brightly colored print shifts in summer.
Helen had been a lawyer once, in house at Sotheby’s, but she had quit when Jamie was born. Julia wondered what she did with her days. There was a cleaning lady who kept all that glass and chrome sparkling and Jamie and Robbie were well past the age of needing constant care, unless one counted picking up their sneakers, which seemed, whenever Julia was in the house, to multiply and scatter themselves over broad areas.
Julia wondered whether time stretched out for Helen the way it did for her, whether she found herself inventing errands or drawing out trips to the grocery store, just to give herself something to do. She couldn’t ask, though. They didn’t have that kind of relationship.
Her father spoke without pre-amble. “Julia’s inherited a house.”
“Supposedly,” Julia added quickly. “It might still be a scam.”
“It isn’t,” said her father with assurance. “I remember that house.” In case she might read anything of memory or nostalgia into that statement, he followed it up bluntly with, “It’s probably worth a fair sum, even in this market.”
“That’s nice.” Helen bent to give Julia the obligatory kiss on the cheek, checking out the contents of her cup on the way up. “Your father gave you coffee?”
Julia lifted her stained cup in illustration. “Any more and I’ll be bouncing off walls.”
Helen looked suspiciously at the coffee pot. “Shouldn’t that be decaf?”
Her husband ignored her. Julia suspected it was deliberate. Since the last stent, her father was meant to be on a low sodium, low caffeine diet—or, as her father put it, everything that made life livable. He had a surgeon’s contempt for the prescriptions of lesser medical professionals. If it couldn’t be cured by cutting and slicing, it wasn’t worth noticing.
Her father nodded smugly at the paper on the table. “I bet that’s put Caro’s nose out of joint.”
“Your mother’s cousin. You played with her children when you were little, don’t you remember?”
“No,” said Julia slowly. “No, I don’t.”
She had been told it was natural, after a shock, for the mind to circle wagons, erecting a wall against unpleasantness. But was it natural for it to continue to do so, a quarter of a century on?
Julia covered her confusion with bluster. “Either way, I don’t see what this house in Hampstead has to do with me.”
“Not Hampstead,” said her father. “Herne Hill.”
Julia shrugged. “Same difference.”
“Not really,” said her father, and there was something in his eyes that Julia couldn’t quite read, as though, for a moment, he was somewhere else, long ago and far away. He picked up the discarded Real Estate section. “If it were in Hampstead, it would be worth more.”
Julia gave him an irritated look. “Thanks, Dad.”
He gave the paper a shake. “You’ll have to go over there and do something about it,” he said, as if she were one of his dogsbodies at Mount Sinai, one of the legions of residents who hopped to when he called. “It’ll probably take some time to clean out.”
“I can’t just pick up and go,” Julia protested.
“Why not?”he asked, adding, with casual cruelty, “It’s not as though you have anything else to do, is it?”
Julia stared at him, white-lipped. “That’s not fair.”
He’d never forgiven her for not following him into medicine. Particularly because she had the grades for it. When she’d told him she was going to business school, he’d carried on as though she had suggested a fine career in pole dancing.
“Am I wrong?” he asked, and she could hear the implied “I told you so” beneath his words.
Julia bristled. “Do you know what the jobs statistics are like right now?” It wasn’t like she was just sitting flat on her ass at home. She had sent off enough resumes to paper a small home. At least, at first.Before inertia and depression had set in. “Everyone’s firing, no one’s hiring.”
“My point precisely.” Her father neatly folded the paper. “There’s no reason for you not to go to England. It’s free money, just sitting there.”
“Would anyone like more coffee?” said Helen, with a second wife’s instinct for defusing tension. “Julia, there’s skim milk in the fridge, or cream if you want it.”
She bared her teeth at Helen in a simulacrum of a smile. “No, I’m fine.”
She wasn’t fine. She hated that she had nowhere to go during the day and that her savings account was steadily dwindling, eaten up by the mundane necessities of living. She hated that her father was right.
Nine months of hanging around her apartment in Winnie the Pooh pajamas eating peanut butter out of the jar hadn’t done much for her. She didn’t have anything else to do, not right now. The job hunt, such as it was, could be conducted long distance.
Even so, she disliked the casual assumption that she could just pick up and go.
“My apartment—” she began.
“We’ll keep an eye on it,” said her father. Julia caught Helen’s eye. They both knew what that meant. Helen would keep an eye on it. “It’s not going anywhere.”
“Yes, but I don’t know why you think I should,” said Julia in frustration. “My home is here.”
Her father had made very sure of that. Her UK passport had been traded in for a US one; she still had that first US passport in a drawer somewhere, a little girl with taffy colored hair in braids and eyes made glassy by the flash of the light.
Her father snorted. “A studio?”
“That’s a junior one bedroom, thank you very much,” said Julia tartly. “It may not be on Fifth, but I happen to be fond of it.”
Her father, like most self-made men, was big into status symbols. Like this apartment. And Helen.
Julia could still remember when they’d lived in a high rise in Yorkville, with paper thin walls and the smell of burnt food perpetually in the air. Her father had shed all that like it had never been. To hear him now, you would think he had always lived on Fifth, always brewed his coffee in chrome splendor, rather than a battered old plastic coffee pot that smoked when it heated.
“Well, I think it’s wonderful,” said Helen quickly. “The house, I mean. Like something out of a novel. Maybe you’ll have ghosts.”
“Great,” said Julia. “Just what I needed.”
“Isn’t there a saying about looking a gift house in the mouth?” said Helen lightly, rummaging in the cupboards. She dropped a tea bag delicately into a cup of hot water. The pungent smell of mint filled the kitchen.
“What about Greeks bearing gifts?” retorted Julia. “I don’t remember that turning out well for anybody.”
Helen gave an unexpected chuckle. “I don’t think you’ll have a house full of Trojans.” When they both looked at her, she said, apologetically, “Jamie just made a diorama of it for his Latin class.”
Julia grinned reluctantly. “You mean you made the diorama?”
Helen looked apologetic. “You know how he is with glue.”
“It was Greeks in the horse, not Trojans,” Julia’s father said dismissively. He looked at Julia over his spectacles. “Don’t be a fool, Julia. Houses don’t come along every day.”
“Mom?” Jamie’s voice echoed down the hallway, cracking the tension like a marble against ice. “Moooooommmm? Have you seen my—”
Whatever he was missing was lost somewhere in the sounds of electronic explosion from the den.
“Robbie!” barked Julia’s father. “Turn that bloody thing down!” just as Helen called, “Just a minute, Jamie.”
Julia unobtrusively slipped out of her chair and went to set her cup in the sink, uncomfortable at being caught in the cross hairs of someone else’s family life. Jamie had been all of two months old when Julia had left for college; Robbie hadn’t even existed yet. They were both bright, good-natured, pleasant boys, but they’d never felt quite like hers. They were part of her father’s second life, like the blond pine table, like the blue and white dishes, like this apartment, acquired after Julia had gone off to college, a new start for a new life, a new wife, new children.
Helen cast Julia a quick apologetic smile. “I’ll be right back. There are croissants if you want one. Just help yourself. I know I don’t have to tell you that.”
Helen slipped out of the kitchen, in pursuit of Jamie’s iPod or gym shoes or the stray wing of a model plane.
Julia looked over to find her father looking at her.
“Caroline would probably buy the house off you if that’s what you want,” said her father quietly. “You wouldn’t have to go back.”
Julia leaned against the counter, the taste of cold coffee sour on her tongue. Her anger evaporated, leaving her feeling nothing but tired, tired and confused. “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t, aren’t I?” she said. “There’s no good way to deal with it.”
She didn’t understand why this unknown great-aunt would pass up the cousins on the spot for a great niece who didn’t even remember her name. Memory stirred—fresh cut grass and the heavy scent of flowers and the cool of water against her fingertips—and was gone again.
“Dad?” Her father looked up from the paper. Julia levered herself away from the counter, the hems of her jeans, always too long, brushing against the tiled floor. “Why would this Aunt… Regina leave the house to me?”
She half-expected him to shrug, to punt the question. Instead, he folded the paper meticulously, setting it down on the side of the table, exactly aligned with the grain of the wood. “Your mother grew up in that house,” he said. He cleared his throat. “Your aunt always used to say it would be your mother’s some day.”
His eyes met Julia’s. They were gray, like hers. They had the some coloring, or had once. Her father’s hair had long since gone gray, while hers was artificially enhanced with lighter highlights. Underneath, though, it was the same pedestrian mid-brown.
Her mother’s hair had been black, her eyes a vivid blue. She was everything that was alive and lively. Until she wasn’t.
When Julia tried to remember her mother, all she could scrounge up was an image from an old picture, the colors faded with time, her mother, in a garden, a kerchief tied over her black hair, laughing up at the camera. All around her, the trees were in bloom. There was a lake or a pond somewhere in the background, just the vaguest impression of a shimmer of water.
The picture had stood on her father’s nightstand. It had gone into a drawer not long after their move to New York. Julia had never quite had the nerve to ask her father what he had done with it. Their mutual grief was a palpable silence between them.
“And I was the next best thing?” Julia hadn’t meant it to come out sounding quite so sour.
“Either that,” said her father drily, “or Regina was looking to put Caroline’s nose out of joint. There was no love lost there.”
Julia tucked her hands into the pockets of her jeans, fighting against the urge to curl into a ball like a porcupine, all defensive prickles. She missed the familiar armor of her job, that relentless whirl of work that meant she never had to think about anything she didn’t care to, pushing it aside with the excuse of being too busy.
But she wasn’t busy now, was she? And she needed the money. It had been nine months already since Sterling Bates had let her go, with crocodile tears and false condolences. They had fired her, as was their charming practice, the day before bonuses were announced, reducing her take for the year to a third of what it would otherwise have been. Her severance would run out soon, but the bills were still coming in: mortgage, health care, groceries. She had no idea what property sold for in Herne Hill, whether it had been hit anywhere as hard as the market in the U.S., but either way one looked at it, it was an unexpected windfall. She’d be an idiot to turn her back on it, all because of something that had happened a quarter of a century ago.
The past is a distant country, one of her art history professors in college had said. If she thought about it like that, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. The England they had left didn’t exist anymore. It was gone; the house was just a house, and there was no reason to let misplaced misgivings get in the way of a tidy profit.
One month, maybe two. Surely it wouldn’t take longer than that? It would be irresponsible to sell the house without seeing first. And it was really rather idiotic, all these years later, to still tiptoe around the topic of her mother. It had been a quarter of a century. People grieved, dealt with it, moved on.
She had been in England since, to London, for work. Surely, this wouldn’t be all that different. This would be work, too; not some sort of sentimental pilgrimage.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said. It was the closest she could come to a concession, to admitting that she had nothing better to do.
Her father nodded, slowly. “Strange…. After all this time….” His eyes looked past her, towards the half-open door of the den, where the shadows of Robbie’s electronic monsters could be seen playing out against the wall. “Your aunt always said your mother was the only true heir to the family legacy.”
Julia cocked her head. “What does that mean?”
Her father looked back at her, his lips twisting wryly. “I have no idea. No idea at all.”
“Are you quite certain, my love?” Despite the mildness of the day, Imogen’s father had two blankets tucked around him, the edges overlapping, trailing onto the gravel and moist dirt below his bench. “I wouldn’t want you to feel rushed or constrained by….”
“No,” said Imogen quickly, heading off her father’s words. She hated it when he spoke of death. Yes, he might be a little frail, the winter had been hard, but it was spring now, or almost spring, and he would get better, he would. “I don’t feel the least bit constrained.”
On this first warm day of March, Imogen had brought her father out to his favorite spot in the garden, in the little wilderness next to the rectory. She had hoped it would make him feel more like himself again, put some color back in his cheeks.
Not so very far away, she could hear the faint and omnipresent roar of the sea and smell the salt tang in the air. Penhallow was a small village. Officially, the inhabitants made their living by fishing, but if the sea sometimes swept up a bounty in the form of bottles and lengths of silk, the local authorities turned a blind eye. They had lived in Penhallow for nearly as long as Imogen could remember. This garden, with its paths lined by crushed shells, the well-worn arbor with the stone bench below, had been her haven since she was old enough to evade her nurse’s eye.
She knew this village in her blood, in her bones, even though they were, in local parlance, foreigners still. She had had the run of the village from the time she was old enough to walk. She remembered nothing of the world they had left behind, the parish in Gloucester, the houses of her cousins. She knew, because she had been told, that her father’s older brother was a baronet, Sir William Hadley of Hadley Hall, and that her father had been meant to have the living on that estate. She knew also, from the curl of her father’s lip when he spoke of his brother, that he found the loss of his companionship no great burden.
It was her mother’s health that had driven them from Gloucestershire to Cornwall. Sea air was meant to be good for frail constitutions, so, when Imogen was just old enough to toddle, her father had been found this parish in Cornwall, a small parish, far from anything the world deemed fashionable. The sea air hadn’t had the promised effect on her mother’s health, but they had stayed in Cornwall all the same, in this pleasant, sleepy village with the smell of the sea in the air.
It might, perhaps, have been a little bit lonely, but Imogen had never wanted for occupation. As soon as she was old enough to read, she had helped her father with his studies, marveling over the tiny figures painted into illuminated letters, careful not to rip manuscripts gone frail and brittle with age. By the time she was six, she could read the cramped Latin hands of late medieval scribes as easily as she could the printed page in her primers. There had been no question of her going to the village school—she was the daughter of the vicar, of a different order than the village children—so her father had taught her himself, making geography and history come alive with his tales of tormented kings and defiant queens, of knights and ladies and impossible quests.
It wasn’t all knights and ladies and fantasy. All of the responsibilities of the lady of the parish had quickly devolved to her. The villagers came to her father for spiritual consolation, but it was Imogen who tended to their more practical needs, bringing soups and jellies to the poor, reading to the elderly, making sure they had enough wood for the winter.
Through the shrubbery, just down the hill, lay the church where her father preached every Sunday, or had preached, before the cough had settled in his chest and his lungs. Hard by the little village church, in the shadow of the steeple, she could see the grim shapes of tombstones, one after the other.
A touch of sun, Imogen told herself staunchly, that was all that was needed. Warm weather and good food and her father would be right as rain again.
“Truly,” Imogen said, tucking in a corner of the blanket next to her father. “I want to marry Arthur—Mr. Grantham.”
She stammered a bit over the name. It was so new still. She wanted to hug it to herself, to whisper his name in private, to marvel over it like a bit of sea glass found on the beach, something rich and strange and rare.
Impossible to think that only three weeks ago she’d had no idea such a man existed, and he no notion of her. There they had been at opposite ends of the world until fate had brought them together.
Arthur, she repeated to herself. In public, he could be Mr. Grantham, but she had the right to call him Arthur.
It was her father’s illness, ironically, that had brought them together. As the winter had grown colder and her father had grown sicker, he had begun to fret about money. There had never been terribly much. What little they had, her father spent on books. That hadn’t mattered, so long as he had his parish, but with his death, Imogen would lose her home and what little income there was. There was nothing saved away, nothing salable, except for her father’s beloved fifteenth century Book of Hours.
Against Imogen’s protests, he had put it about, through select channels, that his book, his precious book, might be available for sale.
She had expected the purchaser to be someone of her father’s age, another elderly antiquarian, with a lined face and thin hands, someone as pale and fragile as the old parchment he coveted.
Instead, it had been Arthur.
He came riding in, like his namesake, like a knight of old, albeit in a sensible traveling chaise rather than a charging destrier. Imogen didn’t hold that against him. It would be rather hard to ride a galloping steed all the way from London, particularly giving the state of the roads in winter.
He had appeared on a blustery February day, bringing with him the tang of the outside world, like the orange her father always gave her at Christmas, tart and sweet and strange. His long, ginger whiskers, the cut of his clothes, the shape of his hat, all spoke of a world well outside their cloistered village.
He was not a man of fashion, he had told her apologetically, just a widower, a scholar, a man of quiet tastes and quiet habits.
He had found her in the garden that first day, on this very bench. Her father had fallen asleep over his papers, and Mr. Grantham didn’t like to wake him. Ought he to wait, or to return to the inn where he was putting up? He would, he said with a polite bow, enjoy more of her father’s conversation; it was a pity such a learned man was retired so far from his peers, from the men who might benefit from his knowledge. He himself was engaged in attempting to create a comprehensive catalogue of late medieval devotional manuscript art.
Was he limiting himself to any geographical area? Imogen wanted to know. Or was it a comparative project?
He settled himself of the bench, his hat balanced on his knees, and began describing his work, the manuscripts he had seen, the ones he still hoped to find, his methods of classification and analysis while Imogen asked questions and proposed refinements to the scheme.
Had he considered a comparative study of Northern and Southern European manuscript art?
The negotiations over the Book of Hours had stretched to two days, to a week. Imogen suspected both men were enjoying it. Every day, Mr. Grantham walked down the lane from the Cock and the Hen, the village inn. For an hour, he would sit with Imogen’s father in his study; through the window, Imogen could see them, heads bent over her father’s papers. Then, as her father dozed, Mr. Grantham would join her in the frost crisp garden, on the bench, their cheeks red with cold, telling her tales of the places he had visited, the wonders he had seen. Venice, Florence, Bologna. Paris, Avignon, Tours. The very names sang.
“And did you see….” Imogen would ask, and he would steadily, patiently paint pictures in words for her, of this painting or that statue or the particular fall of light on an autumn day behind the ruined towers of a Cathar castle.
Two weeks, then three. He had family waiting for him at home, he told her, regretfully, family who would be expecting his return. A daughter, and his wife’s sister, who kept house for him.Since his wife’s death….
His wife was dead?
Yes, seven years ago, the same age as his little girl. Since his wife’s death, he had spent most of his time away from home, traveling the world, collecting treasures. But now that Evie was of an age to miss him, he owed it to her to return to his own hearth.
“Although,” he added, in a low voice, “had I known what wonders awaited me in Cornwall, I should have journeyed this way long since.”
“You would have had little luck then persuading my father to relinquish his Book of Hours,” said Imogen practically. Her father’s real interest was in the secular literature of the high Middle Ages, the chansons de geste and courtly tales, but the Book of Hours had been a gift from her mother and was prized as such. “It is his greatest treasure.”
“It was not of the book I was thinking,” said Mr. Grantham.
It took Imogen a moment to catch his meaning. She looked at him in surprise, in confusion, doubting her own understanding. He was sitting where he always sat, beside her on the bench, but his eyes were steady on her face and there was a look she had never seen in them before.
“You look like a Madonna,” he said. “Wrapped in serenity.”
Imogen felt anything but serene. She could not think of anything to say, so she said, foolishly, “I had thought the Madonna was meant to be blond.”
“Only in the common way,” said Mr. Grantham, with a connoisseur’s scorn for the common. “Some men cannot see past the glint of gold.”
Imogen touched a hand to her own dark hair. It was parted in the center, pulled smoothly back, not bunched and frizzed in the current fashion. There had never been any need to take pains with her dress; she was neat and tidy and that was all.
Mr. Grantham leaned back, studying her with an intensity that made her drop her eyes to her folded hands. “You remind me of a Madonna I saw in a little church outside of Florence. The painter was a man of no name, but his work has survived him. The Madonna’s hair was pulled back just as yours is, her hair as dark, her skin as fair. There was a haunting loveliness about her. I would have bought it,” he said, with a deprecatory smile, “had it not been fixed to the wall.”
“I can see,” said Imogen, speaking too high and too fast, “why they would not wish to part with their treasure. It should leave a rather large blank space on the wall.”
When she looked up, Mr. Grantham was still looking at her, steadily. His eyes were a cloudy blue, like the sea on an overcast day. “I should like to take you there. To see it.”
Her heart beating very fast, her fingers trembling in her lap, Imogen had said, directly, honestly, “I should like to see it.”
It was then that he had kissed her for the first time.
He had been very apologetic afterwards, excoriating himself for abusing her father’s hospitality, for betraying her innocence, but Imogen had gone through the rest of the day in a cloud of wonder, touching a finger to her lips where his lips had touched. She had studied herself in the mirror trying to see what he had seen, but saw only her own face, pale skin against dark hair, deep set brown eyes, features too strong for fashion.
But if Arthur saw loveliness there….
“He is so much older,” murmured her father. “I should have liked someone younger for you, someone closer to your own age.”
Imogen squeezed her father’s hand, trying to ignore how it quivered in her grasp, how frail and thin his fingers had become. “What are a few years? You’ve always said I was an old soul.” She made a face. “I’ve certainly more to say to Ar—to Mr. Grantham than to anyone my own age.
Not that she knew many people her own age. The boys in the village were shy in her presence; they pulled their caps and shuffled their feet. As for the Granvilles, who lived in the Hall, they were seldom in Cornwall, spending most of their time in London. Their boys were six and ten, still in the frogs and stones stage.
“I have kept you too much secluded,” her father said, more to himself than her. “You ought to have had some exposure to society… to young people of your own kind….”
“I have never missed it,” Imogen said truly.
“Your uncle…” her father said, half to himself. “He would take you in, at Hadley Hall. Even after— Your uncle wanted to marry your mother. Years and years ago, when we were all young. He was furious when she chose me, instead.”
“Yes, yes,” said Imogen. She had heard the story before. Right now, she had no interest in old scandals; it was the present that concerned her. Arthur had tactfully returned to the inn, leaving her to wrangle her father’s blessing. “But, Papa—”
Her father continued, “Even so, you are still a Hadley. And it has been so long…. I should have written to William months ago. I have been selfish, foolish.”
Imogen bristled. There was nothing that appealed to her less than the idea of being a pensioner in her uncle’s home. The idea of going from mistress in her father’s household to an oddity in her uncle’s was distinctly unpleasant.
“Uncle William wouldn’t know me from—from that rock in the garden. Why should I be bundled off to him like an unwanted parcel?” She added, unhappily, “I thought you liked Arthur. I thought you would be happy for us.”
Her father roused in his seat, the blankets rustling. “I do. But it’s a very different thing to like a man over a glass of port than to wish him married to one’s only daughter.” His thin lips pressed together, wobbling at the edges. “I wish I had more time. I wish your mother were here.”
He had been speaking of her mother more and more recently, speaking of her as though she were only a room away, near enough to call.
Fear made Imogen reckless. “Mama would have understood. She chose you over Uncle William, for all that you were a younger son. She chose you because she loved you.”
There were deep furrows between her father’s eyes. “Your mother and I had grown up together, we had known each other from childhood. This Grantham—”
“I love Arthur, Papa,” said Imogen boldly. “Truly, I do. What does three weeks or three years or three decades matter? Would it have taken you that long to know that you loved Mama?”
Her father’s hands trembled against the rough wool of the blankets. “I had not thought,” he said heavily, “that when I offered up one of my treasures, I should find myself losing the other as well.”
Imogen scented triumph. She asked eagerly, “Does that mean you give us your blessing?”
She wished he looked happier about it. “I haven’t much choice in the matter, have I? The thought of leaving you, all alone in the world…. I have left you so ill-prepared.”
“You have given me everything I ever wanted,” said Imogen passionately.
“No,” said her father. “I have given you everything I ever wanted. It is not the same thing.”
Imogen brushed that aside. “You will come to London with us, won’t you?” she said. “Arthur has a little house, he says, outside the city. There is a garden and almond trees….”
And a seven year old daughter. The thought gave her a moment’s unease. Imogen brushed it determinedly aside. This would be her family now, her daughter, her husband. It might be a bit strange at first, but, surely, the little girl would come to be used to her in time, and she would have Arthur, Arthur there by her side.
She could imagine them in the years to come, in the library he had described to her so vividly, surrounded by rich, leather-bound volumes, a fire crackling on the hearth, working together on his grand compendium in perfect companionship. Charitably, she sketched Arthur’s little girl into the picture, lying on the hearthrug with an illustrated book of fairy stories. And, perhaps, a baby, too, a baby in a cradle by the hearth.
“Yes,” her father began. “But….”
“And the books, Papa!” Imogen added, quickly, before her father could think to raise other objections. “A whole library full of treasures. Just think of the books. Why, you could spend years just on a shelf of it!”
Fondness and concern warred in her father’s face. “There is more to marriage than books,” he said.
Stolen kisses in the garden, eyes full of admiration, professions of love. “Yes, manuscripts, too, and quartos and folios,” Imogen said. “We’ll be as happy as two birds on a bough. What does age matter to that?”
It still amazed her that out of all the women in the world, all the women Arthur must have met, older women, fashionable London women, he had chosen her. He made her feel special, treasured, rare.
Rare. That was a word he used frequently to describe her. “Have you any idea how rare you are?” he would say, and Imogen would shake her head and demur, hoping that rare wasn’t really just another term for oddity.
Her father coughed, a horrible hacking cough that wracked his whole body. When he put his handkerchief away from his mouth, the white linen was stained with red.
“I don’t have the strength to argue with you,” he said unevenly. “All I want is your happiness. If Arthur Grantham will make you happy….”
Imogen remembered the expression on Arthur’s face, the reverence in his voice. You look like a Madonna. The memory warmed her like sunshine, pushing away all doubts and fears.
“He will,” Imogen said with all the assurance of sixteen. “You’ll see.”
She pushed aside the image of the rust-stained handkerchief. Surely, a change of air…. Her father was old, it was true, but he had been old for as long as she could remember. She had been a last chance child, born long after her parents had given up all hope. Her father was susceptible to colds and fevers. Admittedly, never one as bad as this before, but…. No. Nothing bad could happen now.
Standing in a rustle of petticoats, she lifted her face to the watery spring sun, breathing deep of the familiar salt-stained air. Soon, she would have a new home, a new garden, a new family.
“Come with us to Herne Hill,” she said, holding out her hands to her father, “and you’ll see how happy we can be.”