Charlotte read on, summarizing for the group. “It’s a command performance, and we are the players. On Thursday next, Lord Drewe will send his carriages to convey the Spindle Cove ladies to Ambervale. We must arrive prepared to present the enclosed play, which Lady Harriet believes will have unique devotional meaning for the season.”
Diana reached for one of the booklets, reading the title aloud. “ ’Doomed by Virtue: The life and death of St. Ursula.’ ”
Mama clucked her tongue. “That Lady Harriet is very strange.”
“She’s brilliant,” Charlotte said. “What other play is going to have a dozen female parts? All those handmaidens. And no one can complain that such an amusement is improper. Our cathedral is named for St. Ursula, after all.”
“You’ll need to be busy with costumes and such,” Sally said, happy at the prospect of imminent sales. “I’ll open the shop early tomorrow.”
The mood in the room brightened as copies of the play were passed around and plans for rehearsals, costumes, and props volleyed back and forth.
Diana had to agree with her sister. Lady Harriet was brilliant. This was what they all needed—a source of excitement for the coming week, and an outing to look forward to. A diversion. Perhaps it would take her mind off Mr. Dawes.
“Of course, Diana must be Ursula.”
Diana startled. “Why must I be Ursula?” She had been hoping for the most minor of the handmaiden roles.
Sally lifted one shoulder in an isn’t-it-obvious shrug. “Pure. Beautiful. Saintly. That’s you, Miss Highwood, isn’t it?”
No, Diana wanted to object. No, it isn’t. You’re looking at a woman who ogled a man’s brawny forearms this afternoon. And ran from his kiss out of cowardice, not virtue.
For the first time since the announcement of this theatrical scheme, her mother showed genuine enthusiasm. “Yes, Diana must be Ursula. With Lord Drewe playing the role of her bridegroom. It’s perfect.”
Diana pinched the bridge of her nose. “Mama, you do understand how this story ends? How Ursula achieved her sainthood? She is beheaded by Huns and dies a virgin.”
“True.” Charlotte leafed through the play. “But then, so do her handmaidens. They all die virgins.”
“There, see? At least you’ll be the leading virgin,” Mama said. “And you’ll have the best costume. A bridal costume. That will set Drewe’s mind turning.”
“I tell you, it won’t.” In an attempt to end the conversation, Diana renewed her search for her thimble. Where could it have gone?
With a smug harrumph, Mama propped her feet on a low stool and settled her petticoats. “You are meant to be a nobleman’s wife, Diana. I have always known it. My intuition—”
“Forgive me, but your intuition must be flawed,” Diana replied, peering under a chair. “You’ve been predicting my lofty match for years. During that time, no fewer than three unmarried noblemen have resided in this village. None of them expressed the slightest desire to wed me.”
“Because you did not encourage them! If you fancy a gentleman, you must let him know. Not in words, of course, but in the language of female subtleties.”
Female subtleties? Mama possessed all the subtleties of an elephant on parade. She brazenly thrust Diana into the path of every available gentleman.
Meanwhile, the one man Diana found attractive wasn’t a gentleman at all but the village blacksmith. And apparently subtleties weren’t her strong point, because he’d seen right through her.
Aaron Dawes could tell her thoughts weren’t saintly.
But he’d wanted to kiss her anyway.
She glanced out the window again. His mare was still outside the tavern.
“I’m not unfeeling, Mama. Merely careful. You know I’ve had to be.”
She touched a hand to the chain around her neck and the small bottle of tincture hanging there. It was her talisman. The medicine inside was meant to help her in a breathing crisis. She’d suffered from asthma ever since she was a small girl.
For most young people, tantrums and tears and wild whoops of joy were all normal parts of childhood. Not so in Diana’s case. Not only had she been kept inside, prevented from running and playing and stomping through the snow, but she’d also been schooled to temper her feelings. No outbursts of any kind.
Charlotte settled next to her, crushing into the same chair and fondly stroking Diana’s shoulder. She murmured, “You know how I hate to agree with Mama, but I don’t think she’s entirely wrong. You should be Ursula. And flirt with Lord Drewe if you feel like it. This is your time to take the lead.”
“Your time to do whatever you please. You know what Susanna said last year about your asthma. It isn’t coming back. And if you don’t need to worry about dying any longer . . . don’t you want to start living?”
She pushed a copy of the play into Diana’s hand. “Here. Take whatever role you choose. Except Cordula. I want to be Cordula. She gets the most gory execution.”
Diana stared at the play for a moment. Then she handed the folio back at her sister. “Not now. I . . . I think I’ve remembered where I left my thimble.” She rose from the chair.
Diana went to fetch her cloak from a peg by the door. “At the Bull and Blossom. I’ll just run over to get it.”
Diana closed the door on her mother’s objection and dashed outside.
Charlotte was right. Now that her health had mended, Diana needn’t fear her own emotions any longer.
She did want to start living. And she was going to start tonight.
Aaron told himself his second drink would be the last.
And then he ordered one more.
Fosbury had already sent Pauline home for the evening, and the tavern keeper yawned as he slid the refilled tumbler across the bar.
“No, take your time with it.” Fosbury knotted his apron at the waist. “I’ve some yeast dough to start for tomorrow’s bread. Give a shout if you need anything.”
He disappeared into the kitchen, whistling as he went.
Aaron had just grown accustomed to his comfortable pocket of quiet when the creak of the door ripped it open again. He turned his head, expecting to see one of the fishermen or farmers come in for a late pint.
What he saw nearly knocked him off his stool.
She rushed through the door, slammed it closed, then stopped dead in her paces. Staring at him.
Aaron didn’t know what to say, but it seemed she was waiting to hear something. He finally settled on “Good evening.”
She looked at the empty stool beside his. “Might I join you?”
She approached the bar and settled on the seat, daintily arranging her skirts.
Aaron lifted his drink, stealing glimpses at her out of the corner of his eye. He’d spent a great many stolen moments admiring her, but tonight something was different.
She was different. He couldn’t look at her tonight and see a paragon up on a pedestal. She was a disheveled girl sitting on a barstool. Damp from the rain, cheeks flushed, wisps of flaxen hair matted to her brow. She looked impulsive. Sensual.
More beautiful than ever.
Between her intoxicating looks and the fact that he was on his third whiskey, he was addled. He didn’t know what she was doing here, but so long as she was sitting next to him, he was going to stare. He propped his elbow on the bar and drank in every detail of her rain-misted face, savoring.
Her gaze fell to his tumbler of whiskey. “You’re having a drink?”
She picked up the tumbler and stared into it. “Is it brandy?”
Before he could get the words out, she’d lifted the glass to her lips and tossed back half the contents in one swallow.
She set it down. Stared at it, wide-eyed. Coughed. “Oh. So it is. Goodness.”
After a moment’s pause, she lifted the tumbler again.
This time, he acted. He grasped her slender wrist, cutting her draught short. “Miss Highwood, you shouldn’t.”
“Oh, I think I should. I think this is exactly what I need.”
“You mean my asthma?” She set the tumbler down, and he released her wrist. “My asthma hasn’t troubled me in years.”
“Of course it has. That’s why you’re here in Spindle Cove.”
She shook her head slowly. “I haven’t had a breathing crisis since the one you witnessed here in this tavern. That was two summers ago. Susanna consulted with physicians in London, and she thinks I’ve outgrown it. People do, she said. Apparently, I’m . . . I’m cured.”
She was cured? Aaron was confused. This didn’t make any sense. Her breathing troubles were the reason the Highwoods had moved to this village—the sea air was beneficial to her lungs.
She fidgeted with the necklace he’d mended just that day—the one with the vial of precious tincture dangling from the chain. “I don’t even need it anymore. I know in my soul, I don’t. I only wear it out of habit.” Her blue eyes met his. “And because you made it.”
Her confession was like a punch to the jaw. It came out of nowhere and set his head spinning.
The whiskey was starting to hit her, too. He could tell from the glassy sheen in her eyes and the unsteady motions of her hands. But mostly, by the ridiculous words spouting from her lips.
He tossed a few coins on the bar and stood, putting a hand under her elbow to help her to her feet, too. “Come. I’ll walk you back to the rooming house.”
He didn’t give her a chance to object, tucking her arm through his in a way that he hoped wouldn’t look improper to anyone who might happen to see.
“You were right today,” she confessed. “I’m not clumsy.”
No sooner had she said it than she stumbled over the doorstep.
“I broke the necklace on purpose, just so you’d have to mend it. So I could watch you mend it.” She shook her head. “That’s dishonest of me, isn’t it? Why would I do that? Lie to you, lie to myself.”
He herded her across the lane and onto the village green. It was muddy, but the shortest route. Getting her home as quickly as possible seemed his best strategy.
“Miss Highwood, you need to rest.”
“Nevertheless, it’s late. And wet. You need to be getting back to the rooming house before your mother and sister worry.”
“No.” She lifted a hand to her temple. “No, I don’t want to go back to the rooming house. I want . . .” Her face scrunched up, and her speech gained in rapidity what it lost in coherence. “Oh, I don’t know what I want. That’s the problem. All my life, I’ve been discouraged from wanting anything. I couldn’t risk Minerva’s love of debate, or Charlotte’s exuberance, or even Mama’s nerves. I had to be calm. Delicate, cool, serene Diana. That’s been me, always. No wild passions. No adventurous dreams. It seemed silly to plan for the future. For all I knew, I wouldn’t live to see it.”
He didn’t like this talk of her dying. “But you said you’re cured now.”
“And then tonight . . .” Her voice broke as she gestured at the Queen’s Ruby. “Tonight, my sister asked me, Don’t I want to start living? And I realized I don’t even know what I want from life. I know what my mother wants for me. I know what everyone else expects. But what do I truly desire?”