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“The poor ladies! They’re doomed, aren’t they? Whatever shall they do now?”
“Sell the old manor, I suppose, though God knows it is a ruin.”
“But it is their home—they’ve nowhere else to go!”
“Tsk, tsk, the ills of cards and drink, my dear.”
“Yes, well, that is not the ladies’ fault. Oh, it is so sad to see a once-great family slip into decline…”
The whispers were coming from a pew two or three rows behind her. Slowly the hushed exchange penetrated Lily Balfour’s grief, drawing her attention away from the empty feeling in her heart, and the lulling patter of the rain against the tall, clear windows of their little parish church, and the droning eulogy from Grandfather’s middle-aged heir, the new Lord Balfour—a stranger to her side of the family.
Behind the half-veil of black netting that gracefully draped her small hat, her dazed look of loss turned to shock and then pure indignation as the whispers continued.
What’s this? she thought, listening in outrage. Someone was gossiping about her family, right here in the middle of Grandfather’s funeral?
What a pair of busybodies!
She tried to recall which of her neighbors from among the local Quality had filed into the nearest pews behind her, but her mind was a blank. Indeed, she had spent the past two days in a fog, numb with sorrow and exhausted after months of caring for her dying hero.
For so many years, her grandfather, Viscount Balfour, had seemed larger than life. Being forced to watch him shrink day by day into a sick old man—being forced to watch him die—had been almost more than she could bear.
“But he was gone now—at peace, she trusted—and as his heir’s eulogy dragged on, her neighbors resumed their speculation on her family’s fate. This time, Lily cocked her head slightly and listened with irked curiosity.
“Perhaps the new Lord Balfour will assist them. He seems a good-hearted fellow,” one of the matrons suggested sympathetically, but the other snorted under her breath.
“Lady Clarissa would never accept it. The two branches of the family haven’t spoken a civil word to each other in years. I thought this was common knowledge!”
“Yes, well, he can’t leave them to starve. Oh, it’s all so sad,” her companion lamented softly. “First Master Langdon dead in India, and then the nephew in that horrid duel. Perhaps there is something to the old Balfour curse!”
“Nonsense. It’s their own fault for being too proud. The answer is right before them if they would not turn their noses up at it.”
“What answer? What ever do you mean?”
Yes, indeed? Lily frowned, wondering the same thing.
“One of the girls could still make an admirable match,” the first lady explained in a brisk and reasonable whisper. “Well, not the elder cousin, perhaps,” she admitted. “Miss Pamela is nearly forty, and very odd. But the younger one, Lily. Impeccable breeding, and she’s got her mother’s looks. I daresay an infusion of gold by way of the marriage mart could remedy their situation in a trice.”
At these words, Lily felt the blood drain from her face; her entire body tensed, or rather recoiled, at the suggestion, and her fist closed hard around her crumpled handkerchief. No.
“But, dear, they could never afford a Season for her now. How they shall afford this funeral, I scarcely know.”
“Well, it’s now or never, if you ask me. The girl is nearly five and twenty. By the time she’s out of mourning for her grandsire, she’ll be on the shelf. Honestly, why she hasn’t married yet is quite beyond all reckoning. She cannot lack for offers.”
None of your blasted business, Lily thought, her jaw clenched.
“Perhaps Lady Clarissa did not deem any of her daughter’s suitors fine enough for the old Balfour blood.”
“No doubt. All the same, she is past the age of needing her mother’s consent, is she not? I cannot speak for you, dear, but I should regard myself as derelict in my duty if I were in her shoes.”
“No, really. What is she waiting for, a prince? A knight in shining armor? I had three children by the time I was her age.”
Lily winced at their all-too-true reproach and ventured a tentative sideways glance at her mother.
Aged forty-four, Lady Clarissa Balfour was not yet ready to give up her reign as one of the most beautiful women in the south of England. Many also considered her one of the fiercest.
Her ramrod posture as she sat in the wooden pew assured her daughter that she, too, had heard the impudent whispers. But unlike the meeker and far more obedient Lily, Lady Clarissa slowly turned her blond head and leveled a withering glare at their gossiping neighbors. Her look must have struck them like an icy blast of Nordic wind.
Lily heard small mortified gasps behind her and was not at all surprised. She knew that look.
She sank down in her seat a bit, quite familiar with being on the receiving end of one of her mother’s bone-chilling stares. She was only glad that this time it was not directed at her.
Her mother was the daughter of an earl—a fact that no one in her presence was permitted to forget—and was too well bred, thank you very much, ever to raise her voice. Of course, there was no need, when she could fling daggers from her eyes.
When Lady Clarissa Balfour turned forward again oh-so-serenely, her flawless face was a marble mask, hard and white against the black lace of her high-necked mourning gown. Having handled the insubordination from the locals, she slipped Lily a small sideward glance of cold satisfaction.
That’s Mother for you, Lily thought.
She responded with a tiny, rather hapless nod. Then she tried to return her attention to the eulogy, but in truth, it was very difficult to listen to the new Lord Balfour’s empty platitudes about a man he barely knew, a man whom Lily and everyone for miles around had loved.
Well, except maybe her mother. Lady Clarissa had been a dutiful daughter-in-law to the old viscount, but even as a child, Lily had sensed how they had blamed each other for her father’s death. She had always felt caught in the middle between them. Indeed, sitting here, lost in her thoughts before her neighbors had so rudely interrupted, she had been woefully trying to decide which funeral was worse, this one or her father’s.
In truth, it was no contest. Today her heart was broken, but it still could not match the loss that she had suffered fifteen years ago as a child of nine. Though she had loved her grandfather dearly and had tended him in his frailty day by day, she had been even closer to her father—two peas in a pod, her nurse used to say.
Besides, her grandfather had been old and ill, and Lily had known his death was coming. Years ago, she had been but a little girl, unaware of death, and had believed her marvelous Papa was off having a grand adventure in India, riding elephants and meeting glittering maharajahs. That was what he had told her.
He had promised to come back with a sack full of rubies for Mother and one full of diamonds for her. “My little princess. Princess Lily! One day you’ll be the grandest girl in all the land…” Handsome, charming, and a thoroughgoing dreamer, Langdon Balfour had always tended toward hyperbole, but at nine, Lily had taken her father at his word.
About a year later, news of his death as a result of monsoon fever had brought her young world crashing down.
Perhaps that was why it was so difficult to listen to the new Lord Balfour’s speech. It should have been Papa standing up there, telling everyone about his father, Lily thought resentfully. It should have been Papa inheriting the title and taking up his rightful role as male head of the family. They might still have been bankrupt, and mutually embarrassed of their family’s decline, but at least they would have been together.
Instead, all she had left of him were fading memories of the fairy tales he used to tell her, and a garden folly that he hadn’t quite managed to complete before he ran out of money…and time.
Now they were a household of women with precious little income to sustain them.
God help us, Lily thought as her gaze slowly fell.
Their anonymous neighbor was probably right. They were doomed.
That quickly, guilt set in. Familiar guilt. Maybe her gossiping neighbors had a point. You could fix all this if only you weren’t so selfish, her conscience reproached her. Why shouldn’t you marry when it could solve everything? Just look at poor Mother. Hasn’t she suffered enough? Look at her pride. She wasn’t born to be poor.
You can do this, it persisted, trying to rally her. You can save them. You know you can, if only you’d forget about the past and stop being afraid.
But she was afraid. Experience had shown that a healthy mistrust of people and the world was necessary for survival. Indeed, if her father had owned a measure of sensible fear, perhaps he’d be alive today. Fear was good.
Before long, the funeral service had ended. The gossiping matrons had fled by the time the grief-stricken congregation turned to watch the pall-bearers march out, somberly carrying their beloved lord’s casket.
While the gentlemen swarmed into the adjoining churchyard to bury the viscount, the ladies climbed up into their carriages for the short drive over to Balfour Manor, where Lily’s family would offer a modest reception.