Free slid her hand up the leather of the seat until her fingers met the side of the carriage. She traced a figure eight against the side, and thought about all the reasons she’d married—bad ones, it turned out. And yet not so bad.
“But I can’t,” Free said. “I can’t stay.”
God, she hated that the one person she wanted to comfort her at this moment was…him.
The carriage rumbled on. She had no idea where it was taking her—Claridge House, perhaps? Was there such a thing? The only thing she knew was that she had to get away before she did something foolish. “I can’t stay,” she repeated. Her fingers found the latch on the door.
“I know,” he said calmly. “We’ll work it all out, darling. I’ll leave you to your work, if that’s what you want. You won’t ever have to see me again.”
It wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted everything she’d lost back—her scoundrel, her Edward Clark. She couldn’t listen to this man who seemed to be that same person and yet answered to my lord. She couldn’t bear to sit down with him and plan a future apart. She’d break down if she did.
She turned the handle in one smooth motion. The door tumbled open. The carriage was moving at a stately clip through a residential area. She could see no more than a blur of passing houses. One second since she’d opened the door; he was staring at her in confusion. Two, and he began to reach forward.
“I can’t,” she said one final time. But she understood now why she was saying it. She was saying it because she could. If she remained here, she would.
She stood. He reached for her, but he was too late. She jumped through the door. Her feet hit the cobblestones; her ankle nearly gave way beneath her. But she caught her balance, if not her breath, and as quickly as she could, she darted down an alley.
“Free!” she heard him calling. “Free!”
She scrambled through a mews, and then down another side street.
“Free!” he called once more, but he was farther away now. So long as she kept going, he’d never discover her again.
IT BEGAN TO DRIZZLE while Free found her bearings.
By the time she made her way to the cemetery, it was full-on pouring rain. She had no umbrella, but it didn’t matter. It was summer; the rain was not that cold, and the water obscured the tears on her cheeks.
She traversed the graves carefully—up three rows, then down the line, until she found the simple stone her family had erected years ago.
Her family had added a line after her funeral, when they had all discovered the truth.
Author of twenty-nine books of high adventure.
Free bowed her head. She couldn’t yet face the living; she couldn’t stand to deliver those convoluted explanations. Her Aunt Freddy would have to do. Some people thought she’d named her paper the Women’s Free Press as a sly reference to herself. In a way, she had. But she shared her name with another woman—a woman whose bequest had made this all possible.
It had felt like her Aunt Freddy’s posthumous blessing on Free’s life. She’d tried to use it wisely: to never back down, to never let fear stop her from moving forward. Aunt Freddy’s money from those twenty-nine novels had paid for Free’s education, her home, the press she loved.
Every time Free was afraid, she thought of her aunt. But until now, Free had only feared what others might do to her. This was the first time she’d feared herself.
She sank to her knees beside the grave. “Hullo, Freddy.”
She could almost hear her aunt’s annoyed response. You’re far too casual. Don’t call me Freddy. And what are you doing, kneeling in all that mud? Get up before you dirty your gown.
“Right. Aunt Frederica. I suppose I ought to call you that.” But she didn’t stand. Instead, she trailed her fingers through the wet grass. There were a few stray dandelions sprouting up. She pulled them, making a pile of green leaves and white roots. That was how you got through life: one weed at a time. It was how she’d get through this.
When she was done here, she’d take the train back to Cambridge. She would write to Edward. They could handle the details of their separation through the mail.
Even the thought of that smarted.
And, she realized, her plan had one terrible flaw. The constables had confiscated her coin purse at the station, and she’d been too distracted to demand its return. She had no money for a ticket. Or—her stomach rumbled—even for a meal. Night would come all too soon.
Edward would no doubt be willing to remedy all that. For a moment, she imagined herself waiting on his doorstep, imagined his reaction at finding her there. He’d pull her to him and hold her tight, and she’d never feel alone again.
The thought was far too alluring to contemplate. It was a good thing she didn’t know where his doorstep was.
She had other friends in London. Genevieve was here. Amanda. Violet Malheur. Her brother’s house might not be completely shut up. There were any number of people who might take her in.
But for some reason, her thoughts slid back to the last time she’d visited Freddy, back when her aunt was alive. She’d been with Oliver, then, and he’d brought her to the place where he’d been staying at the time—his half-brother, the duke’s house. That had been before Oliver had married and purchased his own home. Free had gawked at the surroundings, laughed at her brother’s casual acceptance of luxury.
Now that same casual luxury had come for her, and she was afraid.
She was afraid of herself. Not just that she would accept Edward back and forgive him. She was afraid of who she might become if she did that. Oliver lived in a massive home. He tried to do almost everything right. She was afraid that she, too, would start caring about propriety and stop caring about her newspaper. She would back down and make herself small to fit into the role of viscountess.
She was afraid that she’d bite her tongue and swallow her nausea when presented with James as her brother. She might keep her newspaper, yes, but in what form?
If Frederica Marshall turned into Lady Claridge, she might stop being the person that would make her Aunt Freddy proud.
“Freddy, what do I do?” She trailed her fingers in the grass.
But her aunt didn’t answer, and the rain continued on.
If Free wanted to not be afraid—if she wanted to truly look that potential future in the face, and make a real decision, it wasn’t Amanda or Violet Malheur she needed to speak with.