About the book
He was everything she'd sworn to avoid.
Miss Leah Walker holds two truths and a secret.
One: She wants nothing to do with her shadowed past. Two: Her music hall is the symbol of her new beginning. Three: Finding her missing daughter is her sole mission in life.
After his wife's passing in an accident, there are two things Archibald Odonaghue, Duke of Cainfield, dislikes with a passion: Vauxhall Gardens and music. So, when he meets a woman who embodies both, he is taken aback by how quickly she manages to get under his skin.
When unforeseen circumstances lead Leah to Archibald's doorstep, the inevitable clashes reveal the undeniable attraction between them. Until Leah's past returns to haunt her. And what Archibald finds is enough to shake not only their relationship but also the life he has known for the past two decades.
The music was loud, so loud that Archibald and Lucille could hear it, even as they walked away through the gardens.
Lucille’s arm was tight around her husband’s. “I wish they would play more quietly,” she murmured.
“You wanted to come out,” he reminded her. “You wanted an evening away from home. Away from our responsibilities.”
“I know,” she said. “And I’m glad we came. But does the music really need to be so loud?”
Archibald frowned. His wife was right. It was loud. But it wasn’t that loud. She was being strangely sensitive about it.
He was accustomed to Lucille’s sensitivities, of course. That wasn’t the strange part. She had always been delicate. He had thought, after her third failed pregnancy, that she might never recover emotionally.
And yet, slowly but surely, she had. She had gotten back on her feet.
It was Vivian, Archibald knew, who had made the difference there. Their little adopted daughter. Finally, Lucille was a mother, just as she had always dreamed.
And Vivian was so perfect and precious. It was hard to believe that such a beautiful baby could have come from such a tragic background. That she could have been unwanted.
How could anybody not want her?
Lucille’s sensitivities had always been emotional. They had never been physical—apart from the miscarriages, that was. But now, looking at her, feeling her cringe against his body as the music swelled, he wondered if that fact held true.
“Are you all right?” he asked her. “You seem a bit uncomfortable.”
“I feel unwell,” she admitted.
“Do you want to go home?”
“No,” she said. “This is the first night out the two of us have had since Vivian came into our lives. I don’t want to ruin it.”
“Nothing would be ruined,” he assured her. “We could go home and have a nice dinner. We could spend the evening with Vivian. Wouldn’t that be pleasant?”
“It would,” she murmured. “But really, Archibald…I’m all right. I want us to stay and enjoy ourselves.”
“If that’s what you want,” Archibald said, taking her arm more firmly.
His marriage to Lucille had been one of convenience, not of passion. But he was devoted to her. Over the years, he had come to care for her more and more. He thought it was possible that some gentlemen might have felt distanced from their wives after three failed pregnancies. But the trauma of it all had brought them closer together instead.
He had chosen Vauxhall Gardens for their outing today, feeling that the fresh air might do Lucille good. She had spent too long cloistered in her room on the second story of their Manor, staring out the windows, only turning away when it was time to tend to Vivian.
She just needed to relax and enjoy herself, that was all.
And honestly, he was glad that she was choosing to stay out. He would have been disappointed if she had given up and asked to go back home so soon after their arrival. She needed this.
She stumbled a little as they turned a corner, though, and he couldn’t help worrying.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her.
“I feel dizzy,” she murmured, bringing a hand to her temple.
“You need to sit down,” he suggested, looking around for a bench. “You aren’t used to this much exertion.
She was leaning on him heavily now, and she didn’t answer.
Anxious now, he turned to face her, gripping her arms with both hands. “Are you all right?” he asked. “Speak to me, Lucille. What’s going on? Are you in pain?”
Her eyes flew open, suddenly and she let out an agonized cry.
He caught her as her knees buckled, lowering her carefully to the ground. “Lucille!”
“My head—” Her hands were fluttering near her temples now, her face drained of all color. Her voice was a shallow whisper.
He dropped to his knees, cradling her across his lap. “Help!” he cried. “Somebody, help!”
Her eyes closed again and she went limp in his arms.
Archibald heard voices all around him. Ladies were screaming. Gentlemen were calling out to each other. There were footsteps pounding closer, drawing near. A crowd was gathering.
He couldn’t tear his eyes away from his wife’s face. She had never looked so pale, so ill, not even immediately after she had lost a pregnancy.
What was this? It had come on so fast!
Someone was speaking to him. There was a hand on his shoulder, perhaps trying to steady him. But Archibald couldn’t seem to respond. He heard the words, but they made no sense.
Off in the distance, the music swelled.
It seemed abominable that the music was still playing. Why hadn’t it stopped? Why hadn’t everything in the world stopped when Lucille had fallen?
If anything, it seemed to be growing louder.
All he could think about was the way she had reacted to it. The way it had seemed to pain her before she had collapsed.
Someone had him by the arm now. Someone was drawing him away. The circle of people was closing around Lucille, hiding her from his view—
He struggled against the grip of whoever was holding him, wanting to return to her side. But the hands on his arms were firm, their hold unbreakable.
His heart was racing. He couldn’t catch his breath. He felt his own knees give out beneath him.
Was he collapsing too, as Lucille had?
Was the music destroying him, as it had destroyed her?
“Make it stop!” he cried. “Oh, God, please make it stop!”
But it wasn’t stopping. It was swelling, growing louder. It was a weed that seemed to fill the air all around him, sucking the life out of everything.
Archibald’s vision blurred. He tried to pull himself together, but he was lost. The world spun around and around him, and though he tried to find something to hold on to, something to help him feel steady, he felt as though he was about to lose consciousness—
Archibald sat bolt upright in bed.
His body was drenched in sweat, and he was gasping for air. He pressed a hand to his chest and felt the mad hammering of his heart as it tried to resume some semblance of normalcy.
These nightmares are going to kill me.
He forced himself to take several deep breaths before reaching out for the candle on the table beside his bed. He lit it carefully, holding it close so that his trembling hands wouldn’t spill any wax or touch the flame to anything.
He set the candle down carefully on the table and turned so that he was sitting on the edge of his bed, letting his feet rest on the floor. He braced his elbows on his knees and breathed slowly, trying to calm his nerves.
It was years ago.
But that thought didn’t really help. Yes, Lucille’s death had been a long time ago, and by now Archibald was able to get through the days without thinking about what had happened and how horrific it had been. But it still came back to plague him when he was asleep.
His family had been utterly torn apart.
Even now, in the silence of the room, he felt as if he could hear the echoes of the music that had dominated his nightmare.
There’s no music. There’s been no music in Cainfield Manor since Lucille’s death.
Still, when he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that he was hearing it.
He sighed, got to his feet, and pulled on his dressing gown. It was very unlikely that he would get any more sleep tonight. After what had just happened, he wouldn’t be able to close his eyes. And he definitely didn’t want to risk having to hear that music again.
It was strange to Archibald to think that there were so many people in the world who enjoyed music. Stranger still was the knowledge that he had once been one of them.
He hated it now. Music was like hot blades in his brain. All it did was remind him of that final outing with Lucille. The way she’d looked when she’d collapsed against him. The pallor of her skin. The fact that she had never opened her eyes again after the moment she had collapsed.
He knew, of course, that the music wasn’t what had killed her. Music couldn’t do that.
But it was impossible not to associate the two just the same.
Archibald picked up his candle again and left the master chamber. He headed down the hall to the nursery chambers where his daughter slept. After his nightmares, the only thing that truly calmed him was seeing her and knowing she was all right. Little Vivian was all he had left in the world, and he knew that if anything were to happen to her, he would be truly destroyed.
He opened the door to her room carefully, not wanting to make any noise or disturb her at all. Slowly, he held the candle up to the crack and peered in.
She lay in bed, her hair loose on her pillow and mussed, her face peaceful.
Archibald stared, waiting to see her take a breath.
Unable to be certain that she was really breathing, he slipped into the room and held a hand carefully over her back, between her shoulders. He waited, feeling them rise and fall.
Reassured, he turned and left the room, pulling the door quietly closed behind him.
He leaned against the wall in the hallway, judging himself for needing to do this. It couldn’t be normal behavior. Didn’t most fathers leave their nine-year-old children alone while they slept for the night? It wasn’t as if Vivian was a baby anymore. He ought to be able to trust that she would be all right until morning came.
But if anything ever happened to her, his life would cease to be worth living.
Sometimes he forgot that she wasn’t his daughter by birth, that she had only come into his life because of an adoption. He felt so very attached to her that it was difficult to believe she wasn’t really his.
And in many ways, he felt like she was the only piece of Lucille he had left. She might not have been born of Lucille’s body, but she was their child together. Lucille had loved her just as much as Archibald did.
It pained him that his wife would never see their daughter grow up.
But the only thing he could do for Lucille, now that she was gone, was to give Vivian every bit of love and care he could. He would make sure that she had the beautiful life he and his wife had planned for her when they had first taken her in.
The sun wasn’t yet up, but the idea of going back to his master chamber was too much. He didn’t want to be alone with his thoughts. He made his way down the front steps to the foyer instead. He would go to the dining room and take his breakfast early.
The household staff didn’t react to seeing him up, even in the middle of the night. They were used to this sort of thing. It was like this at least one night out of the week, sometimes more. Rather than ask him any questions, they set about bringing out hot drinks and warm bread.
He ate slowly, waiting for the sun to rise and the day to begin. His responsibilities would keep him from having to focus on the terrible dream he’d had. He would be able to forget, during the day, the awful images and the sound of the music that went along with them.
It was only during the nights that those things plagued him. It was only at night that he felt as if his mind was cracking open and old horrors were spilling out.
During the day, everything was fine.
“Where did you find her?” Leah asked.
Her friend Rosemary guided the woman she had been supporting over to a chair and helped her to sit down. “She was wandering the street,” she said quietly. “She’s freezing.”
“Fetch a bucket of hot water. Quickly.” Leah grabbed the quilt that lay draped over the back of the chair and wrapped it carefully around the stranger’s shoulders. Rosemary hurried away to fetch the water, and Leah laid a hand along the side of the stranger’s face.
She knew what she was looking at. It was too familiar. Painfully so. She knew a working woman when she saw one.
She’s just like I was. She sells herself to men for the money she needs to live.
Just the thought of it broke Leah’s heart. She tried not to remember those painful days—standing on cold street corners at night, smiling and giggling at gentlemen’s advances when the truth was that they made her skin crawl. She would have given anything to get away from the horror of her life back then.
And she had escaped. But it had taken years.
Rosemary returned with the bucket of water. She set it down at the stranger’s feet.
Carefully, Leah began to remove the woman’s stockings.
At that, the woman finally showed some life. She struggled, trying to pull away.
“Hold her,” Leah said quietly to Rosemary. More loudly, she said, “It’s all right. We’re not going to harm you. We want to help.”
She got the stockings off and eased the woman’s feet into the warm water. Slowly, the woman relaxed, blinking at Leah in confusion.
“What’s your name?” Leah asked gently.
“Did someone hurt you, Emily?”
Emily’s eyes filled with tears.
“It’s all right,” Leah said quickly. “You don’t need to talk about it right now. You can stay here with us for as long as you would like to.”
Emily shook her head vigorously. “I can’t,” she said. “I have to get back. I’m late already. He’ll be angry.”
She works in a brothel, Rosemary mouthed.
Leah nodded at her friend. That much had been apparent.
“Why don’t you stay with us for dinner?” she suggested. “Afterward, if you still want to go back, we’ll take you ourselves. We’ll explain to your gentleman what happened—that we patched you up.”
She saw Rosemary sniff at the word gentleman. Leah didn’t like using that word either—not for a man who sold women’s bodies. But it was clear that Emily was very fearful. She wouldn’t react well to hearing what Leah was really thinking.
“Have Lexie bring out some bowls of stew,” Leah suggested.
Rosemary nodded. “Here,” she said, pressing a washcloth into Leah’s hand.
“Thank you,” Leah murmured.
She dipped the cloth into the bucket of water and gently dabbed at the scrapes on Emily’s palms. “Did he push you down?” she asked.
“He did nothing he shouldn’t have done,” Emily said quietly.
“He shouldn’t have pushed you,” Leah said. She remembered all too well how easy it was, when you were working at a brothel, to forget that you had worth. She remembered how easy it was to forget that men who pushed you, slapped you, and pulled your hair were doing things they shouldn’t.
“We can find you something different to wear,” she said, thinking of the rack of dresses they had accumulated. They didn’t have much, but they could spare something for Emily.
But Emily shook her head. “I have to bring this back,” she said. “It isn’t mine. It doesn’t belong to me.”
Of course. I’m sure nothing belongs to her. The clothes on her back, the money she earns by lying down for men—none of it is hers.
“Your gown is torn.” Leah said. “At least allow us to mend it for you.” She fingered the rip in the hem.
Emily looked down wildly. “Oh no! I must have stepped on it—”
“It’s all right,” Leah said. “It will be easy enough to fix. You don’t even have to take it off, if you don’t want to.”
“Why are you doing all this?” Emily asked, her voice trembling slightly. “Why are you helping me? Why do you care what happens to me?”
“Because I understand how it feels to be where you are,” Leah said quietly. “I worked in a brothel once too.”
Emily stared. “You did?”
“Is that so hard to believe?”
“You don’t look—” Emily broke off, frowning, looking unsure of what she wanted to say.
Leah thought she understood. There was an appearance that women in Emily’s position usually had, a kind of tarnished, unhealthy beauty. Emily had it. She was slender, with piercing blue eyes and a delicate bone structure, but her skin was sallow and she had dark shadows under her eyes. Her hair, which had been pinned up, was falling loose, and it hung lank around her face. She was a little too skinny—her body, rather than being curvy and feminine, was waif-like.
Leah rose to her feet, catching a glimpse of her own reflection in the large looking glass.
She looked so different from the woman she had been when she had come to this place four years ago. Then, she had been exhausted, half-starved, her skin as thin as paper and her body covered in bruises.
But four years had an overwhelmingly positive affect. Her figure had filled out as she had regained a healthy weight. Her dark hair, once thin and tangled, was now lustrous. Her skin glowed. Only her bright-green eyes were unchanged, though she couldn’t help feeling as if they looked more awake now than they had in the past.
Lexie came in balancing several bowls of stew. She handed one to Emily.
Leah had anticipated having to talk the woman into eating, but Emily immediately began to spoon the stew into her mouth. She looked as if she hadn’t had anything to eat in days.
“Don’t hesitate to tell us if you want more,” Leah said.
That made Emily hesitate. “I couldn’t take anything more from you.”
“Of course you can,” Lexie said. “We have plenty.”
“What is this place?” Emily asked. She looked as if she thought she had been taken in by a group of fairies.
“We live here,” Leah explained.
“Just you?” Emily’s eyes were wide.
“Just the three of us,” Leah said. She hesitated, then added, “There’s certainly room for one more.”
“I couldn’t,” Emily whispered again.
“Stay for the night,” Rosemary said. “In the morning, you can come with us to see the music hall.”
“The music hall?” Emily frowned. “What music hall?”
“We’re opening a music hall together,” Rosemary explained.
Emily’s jaw dropped. “I don’t understand,” she admitted. “Who’s opening a music hall?”
“The three of us,” Leah said. “We’ve saved up our money for nearly five years, and we’ve finally been able to afford a place.”
“But…just you?” Emily seemed to be having trouble believing what she was hearing. “Nobody else is helping you?”
“We wanted to create a place that would be safe for women,” Leah explained. “We wanted to help create a way for women to earn a decent living for themselves, to do something they were good at, without having to worry about putting themselves in danger or giving any of their hard-earned money to men.”
“Oh,” Emily whispered.
“Would you like to see it?” Leah asked. “We’d like to show you.”
Slowly, Emily nodded.
“You really should consider staying here with us,” Leah said. “I promise the apartment is big enough to accommodate a fourth person.”
Rosemary and Lexie were nodding. “We’d like to have you here,” Lexie put in.
“But I wouldn’t know what to do,” Emily said. “How would I ever earn my keep?”
“You would perform with us at the music hall when we open it up to the public,” Leah said. “Can you sing? Or dance?”
“Yes,” Emily said. “Fairly well, at least.”
“That’s all you need,” Leah said. “You could perform with us, and when the music hall closed for the night, we would all come back here. We would be safe, and no men would harm us.”
“But I don’t understand,” Emily said. “Why would you do such a thing for me? Why do you care what happens to me?”
“Because I care about the way women are treated in this world,” Leah said. “Men make everything so difficult for us, don’t they? They make it almost impossible for us to live if we don’t follow their rules.”
A shudder traveled through Emily’s body, and Leah sensed that the woman was afraid to respond to her question.
“Look at you,” she said gently. “Look at what’s been done to you tonight. And you never even tried to do anything but what you were told.”
“It isn’t such a big problem,” Emily said.
“Of course it is,” Rosemary spoke up. “What would you say if you saw another woman treated this way? What would you say if you saw another woman lost, out in the cold, with bloody hands and a torn dress? The man you were with tonight should have brought you home, at the very least. He should have taken you back to the brothel, not just left you in the streets.”
Emily nodded slowly.
“You deserve to be treated well,” Lexie said compassionately.
“That’s right,” Leah said. “And if you stay here with us, you will be treated well. You’ll be a part of our family, and we’ll care for you just as much as we care for each other.”
“You would really have me?” Emily asked. “Do you mean it?”
“We would be overjoyed if you would stay with us,” Leah said.
Emily’s whole face lit up. Her smile brought a beauty to her that Leah hadn’t yet seen. “Thank you,” she whispered. “This means the world to me. You can’t imagine how…how much this is going to change my life.”
Leah glanced over her shoulder at Rosemary.
She could imagine it all too well.
But there was no need to dredge up the dark stories of the past. Not tonight. This should be a happy evening. It was the first night of Emily’s life as a free woman.
“What would you like to do with your gown?” Lexie asked. “We can certainly mend it for you if you’d like to keep it. But I would understand if you’d rather throw it away.”
“It’s the only thing I have.” Emily rested her hands on the skirt.
“We’ll clean it up,” Leah said. “You don’t have to decide tonight. And we’ll get you something else to wear in the meantime. Rosemary?”
“You can’t give me your clothes,” Emily said.
“Of course we can,” Leah said. “Besides, we have enough to spare. We’ve been collecting gowns to wear on the stage when we finally open up the music hall. You’ll be able to put one of them on to test for us. And you would need something special to wear when you perform.”
“I suppose that’s true.” Emily shivered again.
Leah pulled the blanket more tightly around her shoulders. “Is everything all right?” she asked.
“Everything is more than all right,” Emily assured her. “What you’re doing for me—it’s so kind. No one has ever been so good to me in all my life.”
“It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” Leah asked. She remembered the feeling herself, the day her life had finally changed.
Emily nodded. She looked relieved to see that someone understood. “It is a lot,” she said. “I’m grateful, please don’t think that I’m not, but—”
“No, I understand,” Leah said. “I don’t think you’re ungrateful. You’re overwhelmed, that’s all. We’re very glad to have you with us.”
“Now, come to the kitchen,” Leah suggested. “There’s more hot stew, and you look as though you could eat another three bowls.”
Vivian came sprinting through the foyer and into the dining room. Archibald rose from his chair and turned to embrace her, catching her in his arms. He lifted her and spun her around once before setting her down on her feet.
She giggled. “Again?”
“You’re getting much too big for me to lift you up that way.” He kissed her on her forehead. “Come, sit down. Tell me what you’d like to have for breakfast.”
“Rolls,” she said at once, “and chocolate.”
Archibald laughed. “I might have guessed,” he said. “That’s all you want at every meal.”
“But it’s a good breakfast,” she said.
“True enough.” He nodded to one of the servants in the corner, who disappeared to fetch what Vivian had requested.
“Papa,” Vivian said, “can we go for a walk in the park today? The weather is so lovely, and the sun is shining. I could hear the birds singing from my window when I woke up.”
Archibald remembered the way he woke up—sweaty and frightened after his nightmare. He remembered checking on his daughter in the middle of the night to make sure she was all right.
And she had awakened to the sound of birdsong.
He was thankful—so very thankful—that things had been so much better for her than they had for him.
But the idea of going to the park was not one he relished.
“Why don’t we have a picnic here on our own grounds?” he suggested. “We could pack a lunch and take it out into our gardens. Wouldn’t that be fun? And you would be able to enjoy the nice weather just as well that way.”
Vivian frowned and shook her head. “I don’t want to do that,” she said. “I’m tired of spending time in our gardens, Papa.”
“You don’t like the gardens?”
“I like them perfectly well. But I see them every day. I want to do something special,” she said. “I can’t even remember the last time we went to the park.”
Archibald could remember the last time he had taken her to the park. He remembered it all too well. He had pledged, after that ill-fated trip, that they wouldn’t make any more journeys to the park in the future.
Of course, that wasn’t a decision he had ever discussed with Vivian. She had no idea how he felt. She just knew that she hadn’t been taken to the park recently.
Perhaps he owed it to her to try again. To see if he could give her the day at the park that she so clearly wanted.
“All right,” he said. “After you’ve eaten your breakfast, we’ll go. But only for a short time, all right?”
Vivian’s eyes lit up. “Oh, thank you!” she said. “It’s going to be a wonderful day! You’ll see!”
Archibald wished he could feel as sure of that as she did.
When the two of them had finished eating their breakfast and dressing for the day, they made their way down to the carriage house and stood waiting as the footmen harnessed a pair of horses.
“I don’t think I’ve even been in a carriage in years,” Vivian said.
Archibald had to laugh. “It hasn’t been years,” he told her. “Months, maybe.”
“That’s still a very long time,” Vivian said.
Archibald couldn’t argue. He knew that he was overprotective, that he kept her a little too close to home. He wouldn’t always be able to get away with it. But right now she was only nine years old and the idea of letting her out of the Manor was more than he liked to deal with.
For now, he could keep her sheltered, and that was what he intended to do.
The carriage was readied and Archibald lifted Vivian in. He climbed up after her and took the seat opposite her, ready to be taken downtown to the park.
“Papa,” Vivian said.
“Why is it that we don’t ever go out to the park?” she asked.
“Well…” he hesitated, “there are many reasons for that, Vivian. Sometimes the weather isn’t as nice as it is today, for example. You wouldn’t want to go out to the park when it’s raining.”
“Yes, I would.”
She was smiling. “You’re being contrary on purpose, I believe,” he said.
“Maybe I am,” she said.
“Why the sudden preoccupation with the park, anyway?” he asked. “I’ve never known you to care that much about it before.”
“It’s just that I get so bored,” Vivian explained. “Even when I go out of doors at home, I’m always in the same places. The garden never changes—”
“Of course the garden changes,” Archibald said. “Flowers bloom and fade with every different season.”
“But it’s always the same flowers,” Vivian said. “And each is always in the same place. The rosebushes never move. They never change.”
“That’s true at the park as well,” Archibald said. “It won’t look any different from the way you remembered seeing it the last time we were here.”
“Yes, it will,” she said. “The park is always full of people. Ladies in beautiful dresses, and handsome-looking gentlemen—”
She trailed off, the look in her eyes far away.
Archibald wondered what she was thinking about. What she was seeing.
She seemed to come back to herself. “The point is that there are new things to see at the park,” she said. “And I enjoy seeing new things.”
“Very well, very well,” Archibald murmured.
He tried to remember being Vivian’s age. Had he been so captivated by everything the world around him had to offer?
He didn’t think so. He remembered being happy to stay inside most of the time. He had been a very different sort of child.
Sometimes, it was hard to ignore the fact that Vivian wasn’t his daughter by birth. Sometimes all he could see were the vast differences between them.
For example, her hair was very dark. It hung in loose curls around her shoulders. Her eyes were a vibrant green that reminded him of trees in summertime, at the height of their vibrancy.
Archibald’s hair was brown as well, but it was a lighter, sandy shade. His eyes were amber, and he found them pleasant enough, but a bit dull—nothing like his daughter’s.
Nor did Vivian look anything like Lucille. His wife had been blonde with pale-blue eyes. Had she lived to see Vivian grow up, she would have looked very strange standing next to the child.
But when Archibald set all of that aside and considered how deeply he loved Vivian, it was impossible not to think of her as his true daughter. How much more authentic could a father’s feelings for his child be?
The carriage pulled to a stop alongside the park. Vivian was nearly bouncing in her seat, so eager was she to get out. “We’re here!” she cried. “What will we do first, Papa? Can we skip rocks in the pond?”
“I don’t believe you even know how to skip a rock,” Archibald said, smiling indulgently at his daughter.
“But you could teach me!” she insisted. “I know you know how.”
It was true. Another boyhood memory resurfaced—coming back into his father’s Manor with the cuffs of his pants wet after spending the day down by the creek. His mother scolding him for his messiness.
He didn’t want to raise Vivian that way. He wanted to let her have the freedom to be a child while she was still young.
“All right,” he agreed. “We’ll go to the pond and see if we can skip some rocks together.”
“Oh, lovely!” Vivian exclaimed.
The door opened. Vivian jumped out, barely touching the hand of the footman who reached up to help her. “Come on, Papa!” she called back.
Archibald moved toward the carriage door, ready to join her—
Voices were streaming in toward him from the park.
A part of him knew that they were far away, that they were cheerful and laughing and peaceful. It was just another day at the park for these people.
He knew that, and yet there was a part of him that felt as though the voices were screaming at him. Pressing him back into the carriage.
He knew that he had to get out. Vivian was waiting on him, and he couldn’t leave her on her own, even in the care of a footman.
Archibald forced himself to step out of the carriage and onto the park path.
Immediately, he felt his heart beating faster. A sweat broke out on his brow. Danger! his mind screamed at him.
It was disorienting. He knew that he was in no danger. The sky was bright blue overhead. His daughter was nearby, chasing after a butterfly, her laughter a happy song. Though there were other people in the park, no one was close.
But the space around him was wide open. He could feel the give of the earth beneath his feet, and he almost felt as if it was going to open right up and swallow him.
“Your Grace,” the footman said. “Are you all right? You look very pale.”
Archibald’s vision began to blur. He felt his knees grow weak.
A hand caught him by the elbow. That should have been reassuring—he was being supported—but it made his heart beat all the more rapidly. He gasped for air.
Vivian’s little voice was a lifeline in that moment. She sounded tremulous and afraid, and Archibald knew that she needed him to be strong. She was counting on him.
“Vivian,” he gasped. “Get back in the carriage at once.”
Her little hand was on his arm. “Papa?”
“I’m all right. But we need to leave.” He kept his hand on her shoulder, keeping track of her, waiting to be certain she’d reentered the carriage. Then he followed her in.
The footman stood in the door. “Perhaps you should lean forward and put your head between your knees, Your Grace.”
“I’m all right,” Archibald said. “Please close the door.”
“Would you like me to summon some help? A physician?”
“No,” Archibald said firmly. “Close the door. I wish to be taken home. At once, please.”
“Home?” Vivian said.
He could hear that she was trying to hide her dismay. But she was a child, and it was difficult for her to conceal what she was feeling. Archibald could tell.
She was heartbroken. She had been counting on this day at the park, and he had disappointed her.
Strangely, it was that thought—the thought that his daughter was disappointed in him—that allowed him to begin to calm down. The terror that had gripped him began to fade, and his heart began to beat more evenly.
After all, disappointing Vivian wasn’t a danger. It wasn’t anything to be frightened of. It was simply upsetting.
“Papa?” Vivian asked. Archibald heard the worry in her voice.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “We can’t stay. We have to go back home.”
He expected her to complain. He expected her to beg, or to ask why they’d come all the way here only for Archibald to change his mind. None of those reactions would have surprised or angered him. He felt she was entitled to be upset.
But she said nothing at all. She just nodded, sat back in her seat, and turned to stare wistfully out the window of the carriage.
I’ve ruined her day.
Archibald felt absolutely wretched. He wished he could understand why he was reacting in these unpleasant ways to such an innocuous thing as a walk in the park.
It had something to do with his wife’s death. He was sure of that.
It was bad enough that he had never managed to put that horrible night behind him. But now his inability to do so was having an impact on his daughter. That couldn’t be borne.
The carriage began to roll, and Archibald slowed his eyes and tried to calm the pounding of his heart.
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