It’s In His Kiss Epilogue II
A book in the Bridgerton 2nd Epilogues series, 2006
1847, and all has come full circle. Truly.
It was official, then.
She had become her mother.
Hyacinth St. Clair fought the urge to bury her face in her hands as she sat on the cushioned bench at Mme. Langlois, Dressmaker, by far the most fashionable modiste in all London.
She counted to ten, in three languages, and then, just for good measure, swallowed and let out an exhale. Because, really, it would not do to lose her temper in such a public setting.
No matter how desperately she wanted to throttle her daughter.
“Mummy.” Isabella poked her head out from behind the curtain. Hyacinth noted that the word had been a statement, not a question.
“Yes?” she returned, affixing onto her face an expression of such placid serenity she might have qualified for one of those pietà paintings they had seen when last they'd traveled to Rome.
“Not the pink.”
Hyacinth waved a hand. Anything to refrain from speaking.
“Not the purple, either.”
“I don’t believe I suggested purple,” Hyacinth murmured.
“The blue’s not right, and nor is the red, and frankly, I just don’t understand this insistence society seems to have upon white, and well, if I might express my opinion-”
Hyacinth felt herself slump. Who knew motherhood could be so tiring? And really, shouldn’t she be used to this by now?
“-a girl really ought to wear the color that most complements her complexion, and not what some over-important ninny at Almack’s deems fashionable.”
“I agree wholeheartedly,” Hyacinth said.
“You do?” Isabella’s face lit up, and Hyacinth’s breath positively caught, because she looked so like her own mother in that moment it was almost eerie.
“Yes,” Hyacinth said, “but you’re still getting something white.”
Isabella muttered something in Italian.
“I heard that,” Hyacinth said sharply.
Isabella smiled, a curve of lips so sweet that only her own mother (certainly not her father, who freely admitted himself wound around her finger) would recognize the deviousness underneath. “But did you understand it?” she asked, blinking three times in rapid succession.
And because Hyacinth knew that she would be trapped by her lie, she gritted her teeth and told the truth. “No.”
“I didn’t think so,” Isabella said. “But if you’re interested, what I said was-”
“Not-” Hyacinth stopped, forcing her voice to a lower volume; panic at what Isabella might say had caused her outburst to come out overly loud. She cleared her throat. “Not now. Not here,” she added meaningfully. Good heavens, her daughter had no sense of propriety. She had such opinions, and while Hyacinth was always in favor of a female with opinions, she was even more in favor of a female who knew when to share such opinions.
Isabella stepped out of her dressing room, clad in a lovely gown of white with sage green trimming that Hyacinth knew she’d turn her nose up at, and sat beside her on the bench. “What are you whispering about?” she asked.
“I wasn’t whispering,” Hyacinth said.
“Your lips were moving.”
“They were,” Isabella confirmed.
“If you must know, I was sending off an apology to your grandmother.”
“Grandmama Violet?” Isabella asked, looking around. “Is she here?”
“No, but I thought she was deserving of my remorse, nonetheless.”
Isabella blinked and cocked her head to the side in question. “Why?”
“All those times,” Hyacinth said, hating how tired her voice sounded. “All those times she said to me, ‘I hope you have a child just like you…’”
“And you do,” Isabella said, surprising her with a light kiss to the cheek. “Isn’t it just delightful?”
Hyacinth looked at her daughter. Isabella was nineteen. She’d made her debut the year before, to grand success. She was, Hyacinth thought rather objectively, far prettier than she had ever been. Her hair was a breathtaking strawberry blond, a throwback to some long-forgotten ancestor on heaven knew which side of the family. And the curls-oh, my, they were the bane of Isabella’s existence, but Hyacinth adored them. When Isabella had been a toddler, they’d bounced in perfect little ringlets, completely untamable and always delightful.
And now…Sometimes Hyacinth looked at her and saw the woman she’d become, and she couldn’t even breathe, so powerful was the emotion squeezing across her chest. It was a love she couldn’t have imagined, so fierce and so tender, and yet at the same time the girl drove her positively batty.
Right now, for example.
Isabella was smiling innocently at her. Too innocently, truth be told, and then she looked down at the slightly poufy skirt on the dress Hyacinth loved (and Isabella would hate) and picked absently at the green ribbon trimmings.
“Mummy?” she said.
It was a question this time, not a statement, which meant that Isabella wanted something, and (for a change) wasn’t quite certain how to go about getting it.
“Do you think this year-”
“No,” Hyacinth said. And this time she really did send up a silent apology to her mother. Good heavens, was this what Violet had gone through? Eight times?
“You don’t even know what I was going to ask.”
“Of course I know what you were going to ask. When will you learn that I always know?”
“Now that is not true.”
“It’s more true than it is untrue.”
“You can be quite supercilious, did you know that?”
Hyacinth shrugged. “I’m your mother.”
Isabella’s lips clamped into a line, and Hyacinth enjoyed a full four seconds of peace before she asked, “But this year, do you think we can-”
“We are not traveling.”
Isabella’s lips parted with surprise. Hyacinth fought the urge to let out a triumphant shout.
“How did you kn-”
Hyacinth patted her daughter’s hand. “I told you, I always know. And much as I’m sure we would all enjoy a bit of travel, we will remain in London for the season, and you, my girl, will smile and dance and look for a husband.”
Cue the bit about becoming her mother.
Hyacinth sighed. Violet Bridgerton was probably laughing about this, this very minute. In fact, she’d been laughing about it for nineteen years. “Just like you,” Violet liked to say, grinning at Hyacinth as she tousled Isabella’s curls. “Just like you.”
“Just like you, Mother,” Hyacinth murmured with a smile, picturing Violet’s face in her mind. “And now I’m just like you.”
An hour or so later. Gareth, too, has grown and changed, although, we soon shall see, not in any of the ways that matter…
Gareth St. Clair leaned back in his chair, pausing to savor his brandy as he glanced around his office. There really was a remarkable sense of satisfaction in a job well done and completed on time. It wasn’t a sensation he’d been used to in his youth, but it was something he’d come to enjoy on a near daily basis now.
It had taken several years to restore the St. Clair fortunes to a respectable level. His father-he’d never quite got ’round to calling him anything else-had stopped his systematic plundering and eased into a vague sort of neglect once he learned the truth about Gareth’s birth. So Gareth supposed it could have been a great deal worse.
But when Gareth had assumed the title, he discovered that he’d inherited debts, mortgages, and houses that had been emptied of almost all valuables. Hyacinth’s dowry, which had increased with prudent investments upon their marriage, went a long way toward fixing the situation, but still, Gareth had had to work harder and with more diligence than he’d ever dreamed possible to wrench his family out of debt.
The funny thing was, he’d enjoyed it.
Who would have thought that he, of all people, would find such satisfaction in hard work? His desk was spotless, his ledgers neat and tidy, and he could put his fingers on any important document in under a minute. His accounts always summed properly, his properties were thriving, and his tenants were healthy and prosperous.
He took another sip of his drink, letting the mellow fire roll down his throat. Heaven.
Life was perfect. Truly. Perfect.
George was finishing up at Cambridge, Isabella would surely choose a husband this year, and Hyacinth…
He chuckled. Hyacinth was still Hyacinth. She’d become a bit more sedate with age, or maybe it was just that motherhood had smoothed off her rough edges, but she was still the same outspoken, delightful, perfectly wonderful Hyacinth.
She drove him crazy half the time, but it was a nice sort of crazy, and even though he sometimes sighed to his friends and nodded tiredly when they all complained about their wives, secretly he knew he was the luckiest man in London. Hell, England even. The World.
He set his drink down, then tapped his fingers against the elegantly wrapped box sitting on the corner of his desk. He’d purchased it that morning at Mme. LaFleur, the dress shop he knew Hyacinth did not frequent, in order to spare her the embarrassment of having to deal with salespeople who knew every piece of lingerie in her wardrobe.
French silk, Belgian lace.
He smiled. Just a little bit of French silk, trimmed with a minuscule amount of Belgian lace.
It would look heavenly on her.
What there was of it.
He sat back in his chair, savoring the daydream. It was going to be a long, lovely night. Maybe even…
His eyebrows rose as he tried to remember his wife’s schedule for the day. Maybe even a long, lovely afternoon. When was she due home? And would she have either of the children with her?
He closed his eyes, picturing her in various states of undress, followed by various interesting poses, followed by various fascinating activities.
He groaned. She was going to have to return home very soon, because his imagination was far too active not to be satisfied, and-
Not the most mellifluous of tones. The lovely erotic haze floating about his head disappeared entirely. Well, almost entirely. Hyacinth might not have looked the least bit inclined for a bit of afternoon sport as she stood in the doorway, her eyes narrowed and jaw clenched, but she was there, and that was half the battle.
“Shut the door,” he murmured, rising to his feet.
“Do you know what your daughter did?”
“Your daughter, you mean?”
“Our daughter,” she ground out. But she shut the door.
“Do I want to know?”
“Very well,” he sighed, followed by a dutiful, “what did she do?”
He’d had this conversation before, of course. Countless times. The answer usually had something to do with something involving marriage and Isabella’s somewhat unconventional views on the subject. And of course, Hyacinth’s frustration with the whole situation.
It rarely varied.
“Well, it wasn’t so much what she did,” Hyacinth said.
He hid his smile. This was also not unexpected.
“It’s more what she won’t do.”
“Jump to your bidding?”
He halved the distance between them. “Aren’t I enough?”
“I beg your pardon?”
He reached out, tugged at her hand, pulled her gently against him. “I always jump to your bidding,” he murmured.
She recognized the look in his eye. “Now?” She twisted around until she could see the closed door. “Isabella is upstairs.”
“She won’t hear.”
“But she could-”
His lips found her neck. “There’s a lock on the door.”
“But she’ll know-”
He started working on the buttons on her frock. He was very good at buttons. “She’s a smart girl,” he said, stepping back to enjoy his handiwork as the fabric fell away. He loved when his wife didn’t wear a chemise.
He leaned down and took one rosy-tipped breast into his mouth before she could object.
“Oh, Gareth!” And her knees went weak. Just enough for him to scoop her up and take her to the sofa. The one with the extra-deep cushions.
“God, yes,” she groaned.
He slid his hand under her skirt until he could tickle her senseless. “Such token resistance,” he murmured. “Admit it. You always want me.”
“Twenty years of marriage isn’t admission enough?”
“Twenty-two years, and I want to hear it from your lips.”
She moaned when he slipped a finger inside of her. “Almost always,” she conceded. “I almost always want you.”
He sighed for dramatic effect, even as he smiled into her neck. “I shall have to work harder, then.”
He looked up at her. She was gazing down at him with an arch expression, clearly over her fleeting attempt at uprightness and respectability.
“Much harder,” she agreed. “And a bit faster, too, while you’re at it.”
He laughed out loud at that.
“Gareth!” Hyacinth might be a wanton in private, but she was always aware of the servants.
“Don’t worry,” he said with a smile. “I’ll be quiet. I’ll be very, very quiet.” With one easy movement, he bunched her skirts well above her waist and slid down until his head was between her legs. “It’s you, my darling, who will have to control your volume.”
“Oh. Oh. Oh…”
He licked her then. She tasted like heaven. And when she squirmed, it was always a treat.
“Oh my heavens. Oh my…Oh my…”
He smiled against her, then swirled a circle on her until she let out a quiet little shriek. He loved doing this to her, loved bringing her, his capable and articulate wife, to senseless abandon.
Twenty-two years. Who would have thought that after twenty-two years he’d still want this one woman, this one woman only, and this one woman so intensely?
“Oh, Gareth,” she was panting. “Oh, Gareth…More, Gareth…”
He redoubled his efforts. She was close. He knew her so well, knew the curve and shape of her body, the way she moved when she was aroused, the way she breathed when she wanted him. She was close.
And then she was gone, arching and gasping until her body went limp.
He chuckled to himself as she batted him away. She always did that when she was done, saying she couldn’t bear one more touch, that she’d surely die if she wasn’t given the chance to float down to normalcy.
He moved, curling against her body until he could see her face. “That was nice,” she said.
He lifted a brow. “Nice?”
“Nice enough to reciprocate?”
Her lips curved. “Oh, I don’t know if it was that nice.”
His hand went to his trousers. “I shall have to offer a repeat engagement, then.”
Her lips parted in surprise.
“A variation on a theme, if you will.”
She twisted her neck to look down. “What are you doing?”
He grinned lasciviously. “Enjoying the fruits of my labors.” And then she gasped as he slid inside of her, and he gasped from the sheer pleasure of it all, and then he thought how very much he loved her.
And then he thought nothing much at all.
The following day. We didn’t really think that Hyacinth would give up, did we?
Late afternoon found Hyacinth back at her second favorite pastime. Although favorite didn’t seem quite the right adjective, nor was pastime the correct noun. Compulsion probably fit the description better, as did miserable, or perhaps unrelenting. Wretched?
She sighed. Definitely inevitable. An inevitable compulsion.
How long had she lived in this house? Fifteen years?
Fifteen years. Fifteen years and a few months atop that, and she was still searching for those bloody jewels.
One would think she’d have given up by now. Certainly anyone else would have given up by now. She was, she had to admit, the most ridiculously stubborn person of her own acquaintance.
Except, perhaps, her own daughter. Hyacinth had never told Isabella about the jewels, if only because she knew that Isabella would join in the search with an unhealthy fervor to rival her own. She hadn’t told her son George, either, because he would tell Isabella. And Hyacinth would never get that girl married off if she thought there was a fortune in jewels to be found in her home.
Not that Isabella would want the jewels for fortune’s sake. Hyacinth knew her daughter well enough to realize that in some matters-possibly most-Isabella was exactly like her. And Hyacinth’s search for the jewels had never been about the money they might bring. Oh, she freely admitted that she and Gareth could use the money (and could have done with it even moreso a few years back). But it wasn’t about that. It was the principle. It was the glory.
It was the desperate need to finally clutch those bloody rocks in her hand and shake them before her husband’s face and say, “See? See? I haven’t been mad all these years!”
Gareth had long since given up on the jewels. They probably didn’t even exist, he told her. Someone had surely found them years earlier. They’d lived in Clair House for fifteen years, for heaven’s sake. If Hyacinth was going to find them, she’d have located them by now, so why did she continue to torture herself?
An excellent question.
Hyacinth gritted her teeth together as she crawled across the washroom floor for what was surely the eight-hundredth time in her life. She knew all that. Lord help her, she knew it, but she couldn’t give up now. If she gave up now, what did that say about the past fifteen years? Wasted time? All of it, wasted time?
She couldn’t bear the thought.
Plus, she really wasn’t the sort to give up, was she? If she did, it would be so completely at odds with everything she knew about herself. Would that mean she was getting old?
She wasn’t ready to get old. Perhaps that was the curse of being the youngest of eight children. One was never quite ready to be old.
She leaned down even lower, planting her cheek against the cool tile of the floor so that she could peer under the tub. No old lady would do this, would she? No old lady would-
“Ah, there you are, Hyacinth.”
It was Gareth, poking his head in. He did not look the least bit surprised to find his wife in such an odd position. But he did say, “It’s been several months since your last search, hasn’t it?”
She looked up. “I thought of something.”
“Something you hadn’t already thought of?”
“Yes,” she ground out, lying through her teeth.
“Checking behind the tile?” he queried politely.
“Under the tub,” she said reluctantly, moving herself into a seated position.
He blinked, shifting his gaze to the large claw-footed tub. “Did you move that?” he asked, his voice incredulous.
She nodded. It was amazing the sort of strength one could summon when properly motivated.
He looked at her, then at the tub, then back again. “No,” he said. “It’s not possible. You didn’t-”
“I could,” she said, beginning to enjoy herself. She didn’t get to surprise him these days nearly as often as she would have liked. “Just a few inches,” she admitted.
He looked back over at the tub.
“Maybe just one,” she allowed.
For a moment she thought he would simply shrug his shoulders and leave her to her endeavors, but then he surprised her by saying, “Would you like some help?”
It took her a few seconds to ascertain his meaning. “With the tub?” she asked.
He nodded, crossing the short distance to the edge of its basin. “If you can move it an inch by yourself,” he said, “surely the two of us can triple that. Or more.”
Hyacinth rose to her feet. “I thought you didn’t believe that the jewels are still here.”
“I don’t.” He planted his hands on his hips as he surveyed the tub, looking for the best grip. “But you do, and surely this must fall within the realm of husbandly duties.”
“Oh.” Hyacinth swallowed, feeling a little guilty for thinking him so unsupportive. “Thank you.”
He motioned for her to grab a spot on the opposite side. “Did you lift?” he asked. “Or shove?”
“Shove. With my shoulder, actually.” She pointed to a narrow spot between the tub and the wall. “I wedged myself in there, then hooked my shoulder right under the lip, and-”
But Gareth was already holding his hand up to stop her. “No more,” he said. “Don’t tell me. I beg of you.”
He looked at her for a long moment before answering, “I don’t really know. But I don’t want the details.”
“Very well.” She went to the spot he’d indicated and grabbed the lip. “Thank you, anyway.”
“It’s my-” He paused. “Well, it’s not my pleasure. But it’s something.”
She smiled to herself. He really was the best of husbands.
Three attempts later, however, it became apparent that they were not going to budge the tub in that manner. “We’re going to have to use the wedge and shove method,” Hyacinth announced. “It’s the only way.”
Gareth gave her a resigned nod, and together they squeezed into the narrow space between the tub and the wall.
“I have to say,” he said, bending his knees and planting the soles of his boots against the wall, “this is all very undignified.”
Hyacinth had nothing to say to that, so she just grunted. He could interpret the noise any way he wished.
“This should really count for something,” he murmured.
“I beg your pardon?”
“This.” He motioned with his hand, which could have meant just about anything, as she wasn’t quite certain whether he was referring to the wall, the floor, the tub, or some particle of dust floating through the air.
“As gestures go,” he continued, “it’s not too terribly grand, but I would think, should I ever forget your birthday, for example, that this ought to go some distance in restoring myself to your good graces.”
Hyacinth lifted a brow. “You couldn’t do this out of the goodness of your heart?”
He gave her a regal nod. “I could. And in fact, I am. But one never knows when one-”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Hyacinth muttered. “You do live to torture me, don’t you?”
“It keeps the mind sharp,” he said affably. “Very well. Shall we have at it?”
“On my count,” he said, bracing his shoulders. “One, two…Three.”
With a heave and a groan, they both put all of their weight into the task, and the tub slid recalcitrantly across the floor. The noise was horrible, all scraping and squeaking, and when Hyacinth looked down she saw unattractive white marks arcing across the tile. “Oh, dear,” she murmured.
Gareth twisted around, his face creasing into a peeved expression when he saw that they’d moved the tub a mere four inches. “I would have thought we’d have made a bit more progress than that,” he said.
“It’s heavy,” she said, rather unnecessarily.
For a moment he did nothing but blink at the small sliver of floor they’d uncovered. “What do you plan to do now?” he asked.
Her mouth twisted slightly in a somewhat stumped expression. “I’m not sure,” she admitted. “Check the floor, I imagine.”
“You haven’t done so already?” And then, when she didn’t answer in, oh, half a second, he added, “In the fifteen years since you moved here?”
“I’ve felt along the floor, of course,” she said quickly, since it was quite obvious that her arm fit under the tub. “But it’s just not the same as a visual inspection, and-”
“Good luck,” he cut in, rising to his feet.
“Did you wish for me to stay?”
She hadn’t expected him to stay, but now that he was here…“Yes,” she said, surprised by her own answer. “Why not?”
He smiled at her then, and the expression was so warm, and loving, and best of all, familiar. “I could buy you a diamond necklace,” he said softly, sitting back down.
She reached out, placed her hand on his. “I know you could.”
They sat in silence for a minute, and then Hyacinth scooted herself closer to her husband, letting out a comfortable exhale as she eased against his side, letting her head rest on his shoulder. “Do you know why I love you?” she said softly.
His fingers laced through hers. “Why?”
“You could have bought me a necklace,” she said. “And you could have hidden it.” She turned her head so that she could kiss the curve of his neck. “Just so that I could have found it, you could have hidden it. But you didn’t.”
“And don’t say you never thought of it,” she said, turning back so that she was once again facing the wall, just a few inches away. But her head was on his shoulder, and he was facing the same wall, and even though they weren’t looking at each other, their hands were still entwined, and somehow the position was everything a marriage should be.
“Because I know you,” she said, feeling a smile growing inside. “I know you, and you know me, and it’s just the loveliest thing.”
He squeezed her hand, then kissed the top of her head. “If it’s here, you’ll find it.”
She sighed. “Or die trying.”
“That shouldn’t be funny,” she informed him.
“But it is.”
“I love you,” he said.
And really, what more could she want?
Meanwhile, six feet away…
Isabella was quite used to the antics of her parents. She accepted the fact that they tugged each other into dark corners with far more frequency than was seemly. She thought nothing of the fact that her mother was one of the most outspoken women in London or that her father was still so handsome that her own friends sighed and stammered in his presence. In fact, she rather enjoyed being the daughter of such an unconventional couple. Oh, on the outside they were all that was proper, to be sure, with only the nicest sort of reputation for high-spiritedness.
But behind the closed doors of Clair House…Isabella knew that her friends were not encouraged to share their opinions as she was. Most of her friends were not even encouraged to have opinions. And certainly most young ladies of her acquaintance had not been given the opportunity to study modern languages, nor to delay a social debut by one year in order to travel on the continent.
So, when all was said and done, Isabella thought herself quite fortunate as pertained to her parents, and if that meant overlooking the occasional episodes of Not Acting One’s Age-well, it was worth it, and she’d learned to ignore much of their behavior.
But when she’d sought out her mother that afternoon-to acquiesce on the matter of the white gown with the dullish green trim, she might add-and instead found her parents on the washroom floor pushing a bathtub…
Well, really, that was a bit much, even for the St. Clairs.
And who would have faulted her for remaining to eavesdrop?
Not her mother, Isabella decided as she leaned in. There was no way Hyacinth St. Clair would have done the right thing and walked away. One couldn’t live with the woman for nineteen years without learning that. And as for her father-well, Isabella rather thought he would have stayed to listen as well, especially as they were making it so easy for her, facing the wall as they were, with their backs to the open doorway, indeed with the bathtub between them.
“What do you plan to do now?” her father was asking, his voice laced with that particular brand of amusement he seemed to reserve for her mother.
“I’m not sure,” her mother replied, sounding uncharacteristically…well, not unsure, but certainly not as sure as usual. “Check the floor, I imagine.”
Check the floor? What on earth were they talking about? Isabella leaned forward for a better listen, just in time to hear her father ask, “You haven’t done so already? In the fifteen years since you moved here?”
“I’ve felt along the floor, of course,” her mother retorted, sounding much more like herself. “But it’s just not the same as a visual inspection, and-”
“Good luck,” her father said, and then-Oh, no! He was leaving!
Isabella started to scramble, but then something must have happened because he sat back down. She inched back toward the open doorway-carefully, carefully now, he could get up at any moment. Holding her breath, she leaned in, unable to take her eyes off of the backs of her parents’ heads.
“I could buy you a diamond necklace,” her father said.
A diamond necklace?
Moving a tub?
In a washroom?
Her mother had searched for fifteen years.
For a diamond necklace?
A diamond necklace.
Oh. Dear. God.
What was she going to do? What was she going to do? She knew what she must do, but good God, how was she supposed to do it?
And what could she say? What could she possibly say to-
Forget that for now. Forget it because her mother was talking again and she was saying, “You could have bought me a necklace. And you could have hidden it. Just so that I could have found it, you could have hidden it. But you didn’t.”
There was so much love in her voice it made Isabella’s heart ache. And something about it seemed to sum up everything that her parents were. To themselves, to each other.
To their children.
And suddenly the moment was too personal to spy upon, even for her. She crept from the room, then ran to her own chamber, sagging into a chair just as soon as she closed the door.
Because she knew what her mother had been looking for for so very long.
It was sitting in the bottom drawer of her desk. And it was more than a necklace. It was an entire parure-a necklace, bracelet, and ring, a veritable shower of diamonds, each stone framed by two delicate aquamarines. Isabella had found them when she was ten, hidden in a small cavity behind one of the Turkish tiles in the nursery washroom. She should have said something about them. She knew that she should. But she hadn’t, and she wasn’t even sure why.
Maybe it was because she had found them. Maybe because she loved having a secret. Maybe it was because she hadn’t thought they belonged to anyone else, or indeed, that anyone even knew of their existence. Certainly she hadn’t thought that her mother had been searching for them for fifteen years.
Her mother was the last person anyone would imagine was keeping a secret. No one would think ill of Isabella for not thinking, when she’d discovered the diamonds-Oh, surely my mother must be looking for these and has chosen, for her own devious reasons, not to tell me about it.
Truly, when all was said and done, this was really her mother’s fault. If Hyacinth had told her that she was searching for jewels, Isabella would immediately have confessed. Or if not immediately, then soon enough to satisfy everyone’s conscience.
And now, speaking of consciences, hers was beating a nasty little tattoo in her chest. It was a most unpleasant-and unfamiliar-feeling.
It wasn’t that Isabella was the soul of sweetness and light, all sugary smiles and pious platitudes. Heavens, no, she avoided such girls like the plague. But by the same token, she rarely did anything that was likely to make her feel guilty afterward, if only because perhaps-and only perhaps-her notions of propriety and morality were ever-so-slightly flexible.
But now she had a lump in the pit of her stomach, a lump with peculiar talent for sending bile up her throat. Her hands were shaking, and she felt ill. Not feverish, not even aguish, just ill. With herself.
Letting out an uneven breath, Isabella rose to her feet and crossed the room to her desk, a delicate rococo piece her namesake great-grandmother had brought over from Italy. She’d put the jewels there three years back, when she’d finally moved out of the top-floor nursery. She’d discovered a secret compartment at the back of the bottom drawer. This hadn’t particularly surprised her; there seemed to be an uncommon number of secret compartments in the furniture at Clair House, much of which had been imported from Italy. But it was a boon and rather convenient, and so one day, when her family was off at some ton function they had deemed Isabella too young to attend, she’d sneaked back up to the nursery, retrieved the jewels from their hiding place behind the tile (which she had rather resourcefully plastered back up), and moved them to her desk.
They’d remained there ever since, except for the odd occasion when Isabella took them out and tried them on, thinking how nice they would look with her new gown, but how was she to explain their existence to her parents?
Now it seemed that no explanation would have been necessary. Or perhaps just a different sort of explanation.
A very different sort.
Settling into the desk chair, Isabella leaned down and retrieved the jewels from the secret compartment. They were still in the same corded velvet bag in which she’d found them. She slid them free, letting them pool luxuriously on the desktop. She didn’t know much about jewels, but surely these had to be of the finest quality. They caught the sunlight with an indescribable magic, almost as if each stone could somehow capture the light and then send it showering off in every direction.
Isabella didn’t like to think herself greedy or materialistic, but in the presence of such treasure, she understood how diamonds could make a man go a little bit mad. Or why women longed so desperately for one more piece, one more stone that was bigger, more finely cut than the last.
But these did not belong to her. Maybe they belonged to no one. But if anyone had a right to them, it was most definitely her mother. Isabella didn’t know how or why Hyacinth knew of their existence, but that didn’t seem to matter. Her mother had some sort of connection to the jewels, some sort of important knowledge. And if they belonged to anyone, they belonged to her.
Reluctantly, Isabella slid them back into the bag and tightened the gold cord so that none of the pieces could slip out. She knew what she had to do now. She knew exactly what she had to do.
But after that…
The torture would be in the waiting.
One year later.
It had been two months since Hyacinth had last searched for the jewels, but Gareth was busy with some sort of estate matter, and she had no good books to read, and, well, she just felt…itchy.
This happened from time to time. She’d go months without searching, weeks and days without even thinking about the diamonds, and then something would happen to remind her, to start her wondering, and there she was again-obsessed and frustrated, sneaking about the house so that no one would realize what she was up to.
And the truth was, she was embarrassed. No matter how one looked at it, she was at least a little bit of a fool. Either the jewels were hidden away at Clair House and she hadn’t found them despite sixteen years of searching, or they weren’t hidden, and she’d been chasing a delusion. She couldn’t imagine how she might explain this to her children, the servants surely thought her more than a little bit mad (they’d all caught her snooping about a washroom at one point or another), and Gareth-well, he was sweet and he humored her, but all the same, Hyacinth kept her activities to herself.
It was just better that way.
She’d chosen the nursery washroom for the afternoon’s search. Not for any particular reason, of course, but she’d finished her systematic search of all of the servants’ washrooms (always an endeavor that required some sensitivity and finesse), and before that she’d done her own washroom, and so the nursery seemed a good choice. After this she’d move to some of the second floor washrooms. George had moved into his own lodgings and if there really was a merciful God, Isabella would be married before long, and Hyacinth would not have to worry about anyone stumbling upon her as she poked, pried, and quite possibly pulled the tiles from the walls.
Hyacinth put her hands on her hips and took a deep breath as she surveyed the small room. She’d always liked it. The tiling was, or at least appeared to be, Turkish, and Hyacinth had to think that the eastern peoples must enjoy far less sedate lives than the British, because the colors never failed to put her in a splendid mood-all royal blues and dreamy aquas, with streaks of yellow and orange.
Hyacinth had been to the south of Italy once, to the beach. It looked exactly like this room, sunny and sparkly in ways that the shores of England never seemed to achieve.
She squinted at the crown molding, looking for cracks or indentations, then dropped to her hands and knees for her usual inspection of the lower tiles.
She didn’t know what she hoped to find, what might have suddenly made an appearance that she hadn’t detected during the other, oh, at least a dozen previous searches.
But she had to keep going. She had to because she simply had no choice. There was something inside of her that just would not let go. And-
She stopped. Blinked. What was that?
Slowly, because she couldn’t quite believe that she’d found anything new-it had been over a decade since any of her searches had changed in any measurable manner, she leaned in.
It was small. It was faint. But it was definitely a crack, running from the floor to the top of the first tile, about six inches up. It wasn’t the sort of thing most people would notice, but Hyacinth wasn’t most people, and sad as it sounded, she had practically made a career of inspecting washrooms.
Frustrated with her inability to get really close, she shifted to her forearms and knees, then laid her cheek against the floor. She poked the tile to the right of the crack, then the left.
She stuck her fingernail at the edge of the crack, and dug it in. A tiny piece of plaster lodged under her nail.
A strange excitement began to build in her chest, squeezing, fluttering, rendering her almost incapable of drawing breath.
“Calm down,” she whispered, even those words coming out on a shake. She grabbed the little chisel she always took with her on her searches. “It’s probably nothing. It’s probably-”
She jammed the chisel in the crack, surely with more force than was necessary. And then she twisted. If one of the tiles was loose, the torque would cause it to press outward, and-
The tile quite literally popped out, landing on the floor with a clatter. Behind it was a small cavity.
Hyacinth squeezed her eyes shut. She’d waited her entire adult life for this moment, and now she couldn’t even bring herself to look. “Please,” she whispered. “Please.”
She reached in.
“Please. Oh, please.”
She touched something. Something soft. Like velvet.
With shaking fingers she drew it out. It was a little bag, held together with a soft, silky cord.
Hyacinth straightened slowly, crossing her legs so that she was sitting Indian style. She slid one finger inside the bag, widening the mouth, which had been pulled tight.
And then, with her right hand, she upended it, sliding the contents into her left.
Oh my G-
“Gareth!” she shrieked. “Gareth!”
“I did it,” she whispered, gazing down at the pool of jewels now spilling from her left hand. “I did it.”
And then she bellowed it.
“I DID IT!!!!”
She looped the necklace around her neck, still clutching the bracelet and ring in her hand.
“I did it, I did it, I did it.” She was singing it now, hopping up and down, almost dancing, almost crying. “I did it!”
“Hyacinth!” It was Gareth, out of breath from taking four flights of stairs two steps at a time.
She looked at him, and she could swear she could feel her eyes shining. “I did it!” She laughed, almost crazily. “I did it!”
For a moment he could do nothing but stare. His face grew slack, and Hyacinth thought he might actually lose his footing.
“I did it,” she said again. “I did it.”
And then he took her hand, took the ring, and slipped it onto her finger. “So you did,” he said, leaning down to kiss her knuckles. “So you did.”
Meanwhile, one floor down…
Isabella looked up from the book she was reading, glancing toward the ceiling. Her bedchamber was directly below the nursery, rather in line with the washroom, actually.
“I did it!”
Isabella turned back to her book.
And she smiled.
About the Author
JULIA QUINN started writing her first book one month after finishing college and has been tapping away at her keyboard ever since.
The New York Times bestselling author of fifteen novels for Avon Books, she is a graduate of Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges and lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest.
Please visit her on the web at www.juliaquinn.com.