If you happened to read Chapter 16 before I removed it, pretend you didn't. I've decided to split this story into two parts, with Part II beginning now. In the last chapter, Matthew and Sophia were momentarily stranded in a bakery, where after some pleasant conversation they both realized their attraction to each other. This chapter takes place a few days later. Enjoy, and my apologies for the wait.
Matthew had thought that a few days of avoiding Sophia—shutting himself up in the library, refusing to accompany Eva to the market, feigning a cold—would help him to rid her from his thoughts. But now, as she stood before him, silent and expressionless yet inexplicably radiant, he realized what a complete and utter fool he'd been. Connected as he was to the Pratts, a guest as he was of theirs, he certainly would never have been able to avoid her long enough to forget her—indeed, the length of time required to do so was now proving to be quite inordinate. He wondered at his own poor logic as he returned her curtsey with an even more succinct bow. Morning Prayer was over and, like his fellow congregants, he was lingering in front of the chapel, detained by the necessity of inquiring after the Winterses' health.
Clara Winters offered him a gloved hand as he turned in her direction. "We have not had the pleasure of your company at Heathersfield in some days," she said. "You have not been ill, I hope."
"Only a little cold," he replied, furthering the lie that had saved him from having to dine with another one of the Pratts' neighbors the previous evening—the Winters party, which of course included Miss Browne, he'd learned, had been on the guest list. He felt Sophia's eyes probing him as he spoke. But when he dared a sidewise glance at her, he found her staring intently at the ground, as though the dead grass were more interesting to her than her present company. An urge to grimace seized him, though he was unsure whether its origins laid in her willful disregard of etiquette or in her inattention to him. He hoped that it was not the latter.
"How curious," Gabriel said, a playful gleam dotting his eyes; "I would have thought you physicians invulnerable to the common cold."
Clara smiled and squeezed her husband's arm, half adoringly, half reprovingly. "He is not superhuman," she chided.
A weak laugh, like a dry cough, escaped Matthew's lips. He was suddenly reminded of the first conversation that he and Sophia had shared, and wondered again whether her crystal gaze was upon him. Another peek at her revealed that it was not. He returned his attention to the Winterses, the droop of his shoulders betraying his disappointment. He must've misread the smiles and pleasantries that she'd bestowed on him in the bakery—she was not any fonder of him now than she was when they'd first met. Given his determination to forget her, he should have been relieved, thankful that he'd not unwittingly encouraged her to think of him, but instead he was disconcerted. His vanity was not stricken, for he thought little of his looks, but some other part of him was certainly injured.
"I suppose you cannot miraculously cure yourself of your cold, either," Gabriel said.
"No," Matthew replied, with a cautious smile, "I am afraid that I am neither superhuman nor divine."
The older man chuckled. "We had better bid you good day, then, before you infect us all," he said and patted the young doctor good-naturedly on the arm. "You and Eva must call on us, though, when you are better."
Matthew nodded, the guilt of having lied to them manifesting itself in a promise to call on them within the week, poor health or not.
When the couple had departed, with Sophia in tow—still silent, still radiant with her tousled curls and stony eyes—he shoved his hands in the pockets of his greatcoat and looked about the yard for his sister, feeling more foolish than ever. He had no trouble finding Eva, however, as she stood not twenty feet from him, conspiring with the Pratt children while their parents engaged in conversation with the Pryors. Matthew frowned, though at no one in particular, and tilting his head, was surprised to find Miss Pryor smiling at him from across the yard. He returned the gesture absently, as though he thought nothing of it. But halfway across the distance separating him from his sister, an idea occurred to him that quickened his pace.
"Where have you been?" Eva asked him as he approached. She drew his arm through her own and added in a whisper, "You look dreadful."
Matthew ignored both the question and comment and pivoted to face her fully. "I have been thinking," he said, in a low, guarded voice, "what say you to our inviting Miss Pryor to join us for tea tomorrow afternoon?" If avoiding Sophia had done nothing to weaken his attraction to her, then perhaps an afternoon spent in Rebecca Pryor's company would at least distract him from it.
"Matthew," Eva replied, with a protesting look.
"You promised me, Eva, do you not remember, that you would do your best to better acquaint yourself with her?"
The girl pressed her lips tightly together, but with a pleading furrow of his brow, Matthew at length elicited from her a grudging nod.
"I wonder that you are not unwell, Sophia," Clara said, as the chimneys of Heathersfield appeared on the horizon, "you have been so unlike yourself of late."
The carriage pitched to the left as the road curved. Sophia clutched the edge of her seat and, without turning toward her sister, replied expressionlessly, "I do not know that I have been unlike myself, Clara, but if I have been so, I would think you'd be rejoicing, rather than complaining."
Clara wrinkled her forehead but said nothing immediately. At her side, her husband laughed. "She seems like herself to me," he said dryly.
With her eyes fixed, however, on the window and her thoughts even more remotely centered, Sophia caught neither her sister's worried look nor Gabriel's wry remark. A sigh, rather than a sharp retort, slipped past her lips. She tightened her grip on the edge of the seat, regretting yet again the manner in which she'd greeted Matthew Hamilton—her silence in particular. Why had she not asked after his sister's health or expressed concern over his own indisposition—anything save stare dumbly at the ground? If he'd been unaware of the effect that he had on her, he must now suspect it, her failure to even bid him good day had been so telling. She furrowed her brow, marveling at the suddenness of her loss of composure. In the days that'd followed their encounter in the bakery, she'd been exceptionally collected, if more reticent than was her wont. With resignation and self-denial had she reminded herself of his being attached to Rebecca. With resolve and immediacy had she dismissed her own burgeoning interest in him. It was nothing more than a passing fancy, she'd told herself—when next they met, she would be able to greet him with perfect indifference.
Clearly, it was easier to pretend that she felt nothing for him when he was not directly in front of her.
"I am not complaining, as you so inaptly term it," Clara said, resuming the conversation as though no time had elapsed since she'd last spoken; "I am merely concerned. I fear that the countryside, its lack of excitement, is doing you more harm than otherwise."
Sophia, jarred by Clara's uneasy tone, quickly redirected her attention. She found both her sister and brother-in-law observing her carefully. "I am fine," she said, softly, "truly I am."
Doubt lifted one of Clara's eyebrows. Gabriel covered her hand with his own and said, reassuringly, "The girl is fine, Clara—and even if she were not, we are within mere minutes of Hamilton. He would undoubtedly take care of her."
An immediate blush heated Sophia's cheeks and she strove frantically to conceal it, covering her face with her hands and feigning a loud sneeze.
Clara arched her other eyebrow.
"I understand that you are to travel to Exeter in the spring?" Rebecca Pryor said, smiling politely over the rim of her cup.
Eva, in the midst of dropping a lump of sugar into her own cup, briefly met Rebecca's gaze and said, in a tone so unaffected and friendly that it well compensated for the curtness of her reply: "We are, indeed, Miss Pryor."
Rebecca took a sip of her tea and nodded approvingly. "I think it a rather agreeable part of the country," she said, seemingly unaware that anything was amiss with her young hostess, "untouched as it is by our so-called industrial revolution."
Matthew, however, had no doubt that the girl was displeased—though she dutifully and warmly engaged in conversation with her guest, the indifference in her replies to Rebecca's inquiries and the meaningful glances that she continually cast him betrayed her. She now cast him another such look.
Matthew returned it with a quick, reprehending look of his own. Eva stared at him for a moment, as though contemplating on narrowing her eyes. But he immediately turned his head and she was at length compelled to redirect her attention to Miss Pryor. With a winning smile, she said, "I gather, from your disdainful use of the term, that you are not a proponent of our so-called industrial revolution?"
A look of surprise stole across the older woman's face. "I do not know that I expressed disdain," she replied, with an awkward laugh and a slender hand settling on the base of her throat. She then set her cup on the table and turned in Matthew's direction, fixing him with an inquisitive look. "Does your sister always speak so freely of such unsuitable subjects?"
Matthew thought he detected an accusation in her question, and a prickle of indignation suddenly warmed the nape of neck. He hastily suppressed it, however, unwilling to believe Miss Pryor capable of giving offense on purpose. She had not been raised as Eva had, he reminded himself.
"I was not aware that the state of our economy was an unsuitable subject," Eva said abruptly, interrupting Matthew before he'd even had the chance to speak.
Rebecca's lips curled into a smile that struck the girl as condescending. "You must concede that it is not a subject that one so young as you, Miss Hamilton, generally broaches."
Eva's congenial expression, her animated eyes and broad smile, did not falter but she allowed a hint of bitterness to slip into her voice as she said, "It is a pity that it is not. I had hoped to discover your opinions on the effects of industry and technology on our society. Vacuous subjects, such as the latest fashion or the proper method of furnishing a drawing-room, I fear, can only command my interest for so long."
Rebecca blanched and slowly folded her hands in her lap, but attempted no reply, appealing instead to Matthew with an arch of her left eyebrow.
But rather than reproach his sister, Matthew found himself feeling sorry for the young woman sitting opposite her. Surprised though he was by the direction in which the conversation had turned, he could not honestly think it as objectionable as the dark-haired beauty seemed to. Nevertheless, it was his duty to steer it down an avenue more fitting to their present environment—a parlor, on a fair afternoon, accommodating a woman of Miss Pryor's breeding, was unfit for political discourse. "You mentioned that you thought Exeter an agreeable town," he said, in a placating tone; "pray, are you well-acquainted with it?"
A low intake of breath preceded her response. "Not as well as I would hope," she replied as a smile demurely returned to her lips. She smoothed the front of her skirt and leaned forward to retrieve her cup of tea, lowering her dark eyes.
Matthew acknowledged the attempt at modesty with a faint smile of his own, but the meaning implicit in her words disenchanted him slightly. He took a sip of his own tea and sneaked a glimpse of Eva's face out of the corner of his eye. A look of poorly concealed loathing was distorting her youthful features. Matthew nearly choked on his tea. Concern knitting his brow, he discreetly and meditatively glanced at Miss Pryor. Perhaps Eva's dislike of her really had nothing to do with her partiality for Sophia, he thought. Perhaps she'd found in the dark-haired woman less to recommend than he himself had—though not yet sixteen, Eva was, he must admit, an excellent judge of character.
He returned his cup to the table and rose unsteadily to his feet. "We are having unseasonably lovely weather, are we not?" he said, with a gesture toward the windows. "I would be honored, Miss Pryor, if you would accompany my sister and me on a stroll about the park." A sudden desire for fresh air had arrested him, and he sighed with relief when his guest bowed her assent.
Mrs. Pratt, the servant who answered the door informed Sophia, was at the market, but she was expected to return shortly. "Would you like to wait for her in the drawing-room, Miss Browne?"
Sophia hesitated. She longed to discover the Hamiltons' whereabouts, but wondered if such an inquiry would arouse suspicion in the servant. Her avowed purpose for calling was, after all, to deliver the basket of eggs in her hands, not to learn whether Eva and, in particular, her brother were within or not. However, if she should run into Matthew—she reasoned to herself—then at least she would be provided with an early opportunity to erase the impression that she must've left him with the previous afternoon. "I would," she said after a moment, "thank you."
The servant led her through the foyer, past the parlor, and into the drawing-room in which the Pratts entertained their closest guests. As she entered the room, Sophia tightened her grip on the basket and prepared herself for yet another meeting with Matthew Hamilton. But on her beholding only her two nephews and their governess, a wave of incredible relief washed over her.
The governess immediately rose from her seat in front of the windows and crossed the room to greet her. "I beg your pardon, Miss Browne," she said as she curtseyed. "We shall not long be in your way." She then turned to gesture to the two little boys sitting in front of the hearth, grammars in their laps.
"Do not be silly," Sophia said, handing the basket of eggs to the departing servant, "if anybody is in the way, it is I, intruding on your lesson as I am."
The governess, whose chambers at Crestland Park were at the end of the hall from Sophia's and who was used to a more impolite and less considerate young woman, widened her eyes and stared with incredulity.
When she proved herself to be at a loss for words, Sophia smiled uncertainly and cleared her throat, awkwardly covering her mouth with a fist. "You do not mind if I sit with you?" she said after a brief pause.
The governess flinched, as though kindness from the young woman struck as forcefully as the scathing remarks that she normally carried on her lips. "Oh, no!" she cried, and apologetically lowered her gaze. Returning to her own seat, she added, in a soft voice, "Of course not."
Sophia joined her nephews in front of the hearth.
Their blue eyes like plates, the two boys peered at her from behind their grammars. After a few seconds of conspiratorial whispering, George, the older of the two, dared to ask, "You are not to live with us again, are you, Aunt Sophia?"
A poignant look crossed Sophia's face as she glanced down at him. Her first instinct had been to dismiss the silly question with a sharp word, but seeing the boys' blond little heads huddled together at the opposite end of the sofa invoked in her a deep and unexpected sense of shame. How many times in their short lives had they received from her a cross word? She blushed to think of the number. "You need not concern yourself," she said, with a kind look, "for I am not."
George and Samuel nodded doubtfully and returned to their studies.
Glancing at the clock, Sophia discovered that barely five minutes had passed. To shorten the wait, she attempted to draw the governess into conversation, inquiring after her health and asking her whether or not she was enjoying Somerset, but the other woman's replies were so short and full of discomfort that Sophia had to at length abandon the effort.
After a quarter of an hour, with no Emma in sight, she stood and announced her intention to take a turn about the park. A proposal for the other three to accompany her was unnecessary, as their relieved expressions were more than sufficient evidence of their desire to be rid of her.
Sophia curtseyed, attempted a smile, and hurried out of the room. When she reached the small park that surrounded the estate, however, she was in such low spirits that she managed to cover only a third of the grounds before retiring to a bench beside some tall hedges. The air was cold, but the sun was bright, and she shielded her eyes with a gloved hand as she glanced eagerly about the park, hoping to derive some comfort from the scenery. But the bare trees and snow-covered grass left her feeling even more downcast and unwanted than the Pratt children and their governess had.
Fastening the front of her cloak, she prepared to return to the house when voices from the other side of the hedge reached her ears. Before she could even manage a sharp breath of recognition, however, the Hamiltons and Rebecca Pryor appeared before her. Eva, who was slightly ahead of the other two, immediately ran toward her, beaming as though she were greeting a lover. "Sophia!" she cried, with arms extended.
"Good afternoon, Eva," Sophia said, smiling genuinely as she rose to shake hands with the girl.
"I feel as though I have not seen you in ages," Eva continued, and the enthusiastic inquiries that followed provided Sophia with more than enough time to compose herself.
With perfect equanimity and a polite curtsey, she was able to face Matthew and Rebecca. "Good afternoon, Dr. Hamilton, Rebecca."
If her sudden appearance had similarly discomposed Matthew, he did not exhibit a hint of it. His face was neither unusually florid nor ashen as he, tentatively, took hold of the hand that she offered him. "What a pleasant surprise, Miss Browne," he said, and his impersonal tone suggested that he did not find her being in the park either surprising or pleasant.
Rebecca's greeting was far less civil. As only Sophia had a full and clear view of her, she did not hesitate to raise an eyebrow in contempt. "I take it that you are alone," she said, and then looked about the park to confirm as much.
"It is not a crime," Eva said, shooting Sophia a knowing look, "to engage in a solitary walk, Miss Pryor." As she spoke, she laughed in such a manner that the cutting remark seemed nothing more than a harmless observation—it drew smiles from both Sophia and Matthew. "You will, however, join us, I hope?"
"I would be delighted," Sophia replied, sneaking a peek at Matthew out of the corner of her eye. His calm expression betrayed neither discontent nor satisfaction, but his dark gaze, Sophia found, was fixed on both Eva and her, curiosity illuminating it.
"Excellent!" Eva cried. Threading the older woman's arm through her own, she drew her toward the cobblestone path that ran the circumference of the park. "You cannot possibly understand how glad I am that we have run into you," she said, sinking her voice as Matthew and Rebecca fell into step behind them.
A soft chuckle rose from Sophia's lips. "I am sure I can."
Eva caught the meaningful look that accompanied her words and laughed.
The length of time to traverse the entire park was some thirty minutes, and Sophia and Eva passed it cheerfully, arm in arm, speaking clearly and decidedly when making an observation on the scenery, whispering confidentially and suppressing giggles when alluding to less suitable subjects—as Rebecca would surely term them—while their companions were as animated as the rocks that occasionally littered the path, silent and rigid. A backwards glance that Sophia dared at one point during the stroll revealed to her that Matthew had not even offered Rebecca his arm, leaning instead on his walking stick. The dark-haired woman looked mortified but did little to draw the young doctor from his thoughts. The few observations that she did make Matthew received with only a bow, the few attempts at conversation curtailed by his concise replies. Sophia could not help a smile as she returned her attention to Eva.
When the park had been fully explored and their legs sufficiently tired, the four returned to the house, where Sophia learned that her sister had yet to return from the market. Although she was now in better spirits than she was when she'd ventured out into the park, she did not feel herself equal to the task of sitting in company with Rebecca and Matthew for long. While on their stroll, she and Eva had been able to separate themselves from the other two, but in a drawing-room, doing so successfully would prove more difficult, especially as the scowls that Rebecca continued to shoot her, when she thought the Hamiltons inattentive, hinted at a desire to publicly humiliate Sophia the moment the opportunity presented itself.
Sophia declined Eva's offer of refreshments and dispatched a servant to inform her driver to prepare the carriage. As the weather was not at all unpleasant, while Rebecca's sullenness was, she opted to await the carriage on the porch. Much to her surprise, Matthew offered to wait with her, the proposal rendering her momentarily dumbfounded, though not so much that she did not manage to nod her assent. Eva immediately distracted Rebecca with detailed descriptions of their estate in Exeter.
Outside, with the sun bright on her face, its rays the color of her hair, and the cool breeze caressing her cheeks, Sophia recovered her voice. "I was sorry to learn that you have been unwell."
Matthew blushed and, pretending to study one of the columns supporting the roof over the porch, hid his face from her. "You need not be, Miss Browne," he replied, softly; "I am much better now, thank you."
Sophia idly toyed with the folds of her cloak, glad that his eyes were not on her, desperate as she was to conceal the anxious, admiring look in her own. "I am glad to hear it," she said, in a barely audible voice.
He smiled, despite himself, and continued to stare at the column until the carriage appeared.
Sophia and he descended the front steps in silence and, as he handed her into her seat, she felt a hollowness form in the pit of her stomach.
"Pray, tell Mr. and Mrs. Winters that Eva and I shall call on them on Wednesday afternoon."
She nodded and quickly withdrew her burning hand from his.