But if they could just see this, just feel this moment—the warmth of his arms around her, the comfort of his touch, those cold fears washing out of her as he stroked her face—why, they’d all understand why she’d done it.
The morning would bring a demonstration, a reunion with Amanda, and a trip to gaol—but it would also bring him. And once everyone she loved grew to know him, they’d understand. Edward was the best thing she could ever have impulsively grabbed for.
“I’M SO GLAD YOU COULD spare a few moments,” Genevieve said.
The morning had dawned crisp and cool, with scattered clouds obscuring the summer sun for once. Amanda shifted a bag on her shoulder and smiled at Genevieve.
“Of course I did,” she said. “Don’t I always?”
Always. It was hard to remember that always, when it came to Genevieve, meant only a handful of months. They now met when Amanda came into town, and at this point, that meant they saw one another nearly twice a week. It seemed as if they’d known each other longer than that.
Amanda caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the side table. It had taken her months to learn not to wince and look away from her own reflection, and there were times…
“Ah, ah,” Genevieve said.
Amanda looked at her. “It’s nothing,” she said. “Just noticing that I still have ink stains on my fingers.”
“Those,” Genevieve said loftily, “are more by way of a badge of honor than a stain. They’re war wounds.”
Amanda couldn’t help but smile. But there was the rub: the more comfortable Genevieve made her feel, the more uncomfortable she grew. Weeks of becoming familiar with Genevieve’s sly, understated sense of humor—and trusting that Amanda was not the butt of it—had helped ease her sense of awkwardness.
And yet Genevieve was still as lovely as ever, sweet as ever, and…sadly, as innocent as ever. Hence Amanda’s dilemma.
“I can’t stay long today.” Amanda indicated her bag. “I’ve the demonstration to attend, and everything will only become more complicated from there on. There’s the possibility that I’ll be arrested, and…”
Genevieve interrupted her with a hand on her arm. “That’s precisely the reason I asked you to come this morning. You see, I know some ladies who would like to participate in the demonstration. I thought we might all walk to the park together.”
Ladies. Amanda tensed. As if to emphasize what Genevieve meant, a burst of laughter—light and airy—came from the other room.
Amanda had been doing better since that first gathering back in April. She’d even gone to a handful of small parties since then—ones where she was sure her family would not be in attendance. Still, she’d always needed time to steel herself before going out in company. Today, she wasn’t sure she had the extra energy to make the effort.
“Oh, Genevieve.” She shook her head. “I’m on edge enough. You know how I feel about this sort of thing.”
She expected Genevieve’s face to fall, for her to be disappointed. Instead, the other woman looked at her, her eyes shining with determination. “I’ve planned this for over a month. I’m not letting you walk away.”
Genevieve took a step toward her. “No, I am not.”
“My own sister, Geraldine, has just come up from the country for the first time in months. She’s heard so much about you, and she wants to meet you.”
That made Amanda more nervous rather than less. What if Geraldine didn’t like her? She knew how close the two sisters were. She didn’t want Genevieve to be ashamed of their friendship.
“Have I ever led you astray?” Genevieve demanded.
She hadn’t. “That isn’t the point.”
“Then just this once, Amanda.” Genevieve threaded her arm through hers. “This once, I’m going to ask you to trust me.”
Looking down into her friend’s blue eyes, the determined set of her chin… She couldn’t say no. She didn’t dare disappoint Genevieve.
Genevieve turned her in the direction of the parlor and guided her to the door. She disengaged Amanda’s arm only long enough to wrestle the door open. “Ladies,” she announced. “She is here.”
Amanda recognized Geraldine instantly. She looked so very like her sister—blond, blue-eyed, a sweet smile on her face—but with a little more of the plumpness that came from bearing children. But it was the woman sitting at her side that made Amanda’s heart stutter.
She was tall and dark-haired. She was also plump and smiling a little. But her smile had a sadness to it.
“Maria?” Amanda could not make herself move into the room.
Her next-youngest sister. The last time she’d seen her, Maria had told her she wanted nothing to do with her. Amanda couldn’t believe that Genevieve had done this to her. All her old fears assailed her. She wanted to turn on her heel and run away, before Maria could do the same in response.
But Maria didn’t run. She stood, raising one hand to her mouth. “Amanda.” And then she held out her arms.
Amanda didn’t know how she managed to cross the room and navigate around the table. Her gown caught on a teapot; she was dimly aware of Genevieve behind her snatching it gracefully before it upended itself.
But her sister was in her arms. Maria didn’t hate her forever. She hadn’t ruined absolutely everything.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered in her sister’s ear. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too.”
Amanda gulped back a sniff. She wasn’t going to cry. She wasn’t. But when she pulled away from her sister, she saw Maria’s eyes wet with tears, and found she couldn’t help herself.
Genevieve handed her a handkerchief.
It was some ten minutes later—ten minutes of incoherent exclamations, of taking her sister’s hand and being unable to let it go—before she no longer needed to dab at her stinging eyes.
“Maria,” she said. “Why are you here? I thought…”
Her sister blushed. “You thought I hated you. I did. At first. Mama and Papa told me it was your fault I didn’t find a husband that first Season. I thought you had ruined my life.”
“It was,” Amanda said seriously. “I did.”
Maria didn’t respond to this. Instead she looked out over Amanda’s shoulder. “That’s a matter of opinion, I suppose. I did marry down. I resented you and Aunt Violet for years. And then… One day, I realized that the scandal you caused meant that the man I had married truly loved me. He’d married me for me, not for what I could bring him.” Her lip curved up in a smile. “I discovered I loved him, too, and I stopped feeling so bitter.”