But he couldn’t count on Clara agreeing to such an edict for the rest of her life.
“You have no idea how much I wish things were different. If you were older, more settled with what you wanted—”
“Don’t hide behind our age difference. Don’t use my youth as an excuse. I know my own mind. My life has been vastly different from the majority of young Society misses. I wager they’ve never been called from their sleep in the dead of night to rekindle a fire. Or to give sponge baths to their parents on occasion,” Clara snapped. “I don’t want children. I want you. But as you’ve stated, you no longer want me. Your desire’s been sated.”
A knock banged on the door before two footmen entered to collect Clara’s trunk. “I believe this is my cue to take my leave. Thank you for a lovely week, my lord. I shall never forget it.” She escaped ahead of the footmen, keeping the men as a barrier between them as he followed them downstairs.
She couldn’t leave like this. With things so unsettled.
What more can you say? Anything else will only serve to relieve your conscience, not provide Clara with any true comfort.
Stopping at the front door, he watched as she climbed into the waiting carriage without a backward glance—watched as she disappeared around a bend in the road. And a pit of despair grew in his gut, multiplying rapidly as his little lamb was driven away and out of his life.
Clara entered the Landry ballroom a month later with her parents in tow, a rare occasion considering how distasteful they found society and their contrived illnesses that kept them at bay. But tonight's activity provided an exception to their usual routine: the announcement of her engagement to Lord Evanston. He spoke to her father in lowered tones before the men excused themselves to a group of older gentlemen huddled by the fireplace.
Her mother motioned towards the refreshment table after settling in a chair along the wall. “Do be a dear, Clara. Fetch me something to soothe my throat. It's far too hot in here and parching my senses.”
“Yes, mama.” She quickly dipped her head in acquiescence, navigating through dazzling couples towards her destination when a familiar form appeared.
She hadn't seen him since their last morning together. Since he'd let her go, practically assuring Clara led a miserable life under her parents’ and Lord Evanston’s thumbs.
Frustration warred with logic. They were two different people in very separate stages of life. People would gossip about their relationship, not to mention the effect it'd have on his daughters, her friends. But it still pained her that he was relegating her to a destiny of misery, knowing what she shared with him, while chaining himself to... to what? Bachelorhood? Possibly a more suitable woman in age and station in the future? The idea chipped another piece of her fragile heart away.
Of course, he’d be in attendance at the announcement of her engagement.
If only I could refuse all of this…
But her parents wouldn’t allow it, and she couldn’t exactly strike out on her own. She had no money, no place to go. Her future was set, unfortunately, if she wanted to keep a roof over her head and food in her stomach.
“Clara, there you are! We haven’t seen you in ages!” Sarah caught her on her way back to her mother, and she forced a smile of welcome.
“I know. I’ve been home tending to my parents instead of socializing about town.” She hadn’t felt like running into Hugh or the Covington daughters, afraid of how she might react.
“Well, you haven’t missed much except our father being a grumpy old bear. Ever since we returned from our trip to Aunt Ida’s, he’s been surly, and we haven’t the faintest idea why.”
The news did little to cheer Clara, though a silly part of her wondered if his mood was due to her. Despite his declaration that he didn’t have feelings for her, that he’d washed her from his thoughts, she couldn’t quite believe it. How he’d treated her. How he’d spoken to her. It seemed deeper than a surface-level affair.
That’s you mixing love and lust together. People have affairs all the time without it needing to have a deeper meaning. Just because a man treated you kindly doesn’t mean it was anything more than courtesy.
“I’m sorry you're having to deal with his bad mood,” she commiserated, weaving her way through the crowd as Sarah trailed behind. “I hate to cut our chat short, but I must find my mother. She requested a drink for her dry throat.”
“Of course… I won’t keep you, but do come find me when you’re free, yes?”
“I’ll try.” Though Clara felt a twinge of guilt for lying. She’d try her best to avoid the Covingtons—all three of them.
She'd suffer enough when they witnessed the demise of her future—when her engagement to Lord Evanston was announced.
Whispers of an impending engagement traveled through the crowd, and Hugh grit his teeth at the gossip. He’d known, of course, that Clara would soon irrevocably be tied to another man—had sent her off to perform her duty himself—yet the news rankled.
Everything bothered him lately.
He knew he’d been terrible to live with, snapping at servants, chastising his daughters over nothing. But he couldn’t seem to rein in the maelstrom of emotions battling between his heart and mind.