Last chance.

"Hope springs eternal."

Who was it who'd said that? He was a liar.

No matter how she tried, hope would not spring. Hope lay in the dust groaning, sobbing in the shadows. Hope had long since had its leg broken by fear, doubt and loneliness. Even now they lurked in the shadows, giving it a hefty kick every now and again.

A somewhat laboured metaphor, but to Elizabeth Salisbury nothing had ever felt truer.

She remembered a day, a long time ago. She'd still been in short dresses at the time. Her brother had returned home from school, always an exciting time for a lonely little girl who'd played alone since September. A brother home meant cricket and tree climbing and games of pirates. All exciting prospects for a girl of six, undergoing preparation to make her a Lady.

This time however, James had run up the stairs to her nursery and taken her by the hand, leading her to the kitchen. He was, he told her, going to show her something he'd learned at school. She'd been lifted onto the stool and watched as James got out a glass, paper and some other things; she hadn't known what they were. He'd lit the stove, warning her to stay away. She hadn't listened. James turned away, she jumped off the stool and ran up to the smouldering beaker. A few seconds later there'd been an almighty bang. And then James, running up the stairs with her in his arms, screaming for the maid to send a runner for the doctor.

When he'd got there and got all the glass out of her cuts, the doctor told her she was lucky to be alive. She didn't feel lucky. The first time her father had come to see her, he'd just looked at her face and slowly backed out again. The action was repeated over several days, by several different people.

So she'd resisted the world. Locked herself away, making herself believe that she was a monster and she didn't deserve to be looked upon. Guilty James and doting Mama had brought her books and puzzles as she lay in her sick bed, so she'd sought to improve her mind. Leave her scars as shadows on her otherwise stainless life. Or so she'd hoped. Yet what had she bought?

Pity and the wavering faith of her mother, that's what. Her independence and strange ideas had brought her a status as a spinster, rather than as a strong woman. Rather than consulting her on the affairs of the day, her friends simply passed her over. Out of her hearing they talked about her. Poor child, hardly her fault is it? Such a shame about the accident. She was such a pretty girl... They thought she didn't hear them. That their pity couldn't hurt the pretty little cripple.

They none of them saw past the scars on her face. So she'd dwelt in the shadows, avoiding her friends. Knowing she'd never be wanted like they were.

Mama held out hope for a while, her brother James, now grown up with a soft spot for his clever little sister, had brought friends home from the army. Rupert is our company's star shooter... John's second cousin is the step-sister of the duke of Denby...

A seeming endless parade of witless wonders in army uniform with one thing on their minds. She'd left them all cold, without any help from her strict father. They'd left, surprised by her intelligence or reviled by her face. She'd lock herself away and cry for hours every time, convinced it was her fault. That she was ugly, stupid and she didn't deserve anything from anyone. Confronted with the waning patience and cold pity of her family, she'd become certain of it.

But not this time. She'd promised herself and her mother she'd not foul it up. She was well aware she was on the shelf and nobody wanted that less than she. An unmarried noblewoman was a disgrace on her family and a blight on the generosity of her relatives. Her father's favourite saying.

Today, James was bringing his commanding officer home for his leave. Even she conceded that this was her last chance.

...

She'd been up on the balcony with her mother when they turned up on the drive, looking down to see when her brother pulled up his father's favourite Daimler. Her brother, back from the war.

She couldn't see the man with him- her last hope, she thought bitterly- his face was in shadow. She smiled at the irony - her hopes in shadow. She got a final look at him before her mother dragged her back inside to greet their guest.

...

'Commander Walker, may I introduce Miss Elizabeth, my youngest sister?'

She curtsied, bobbing her head gracefully. She avoided looking at the young commander as he stared at the back of her neck. She had realised she couldn't hide in the shadows anymore. She was the forerunner.

She looked up into warm brown eyes, and a small smile.

'Delighted to meet you, Miss Elizabeth.'

His face was marred by a puckered purple line that ran from eyebrow to chin down the left side, red skinned and painful looking. But his eyes and shy smile were so kind. She found herself giving him the most genuine smile she'd summoned in a long time. To her horror, he flinched when he saw her face. She reeled back, mortified, and ran up the stairs, ignoring her mother's cries and James' plaintive shouting.