The following afternoon found Eliza standing upon Harefield's front steps, ready to bid her guests farewell. Only Margaret, who had acted as Eliza's companion since the earl's death and would continue to do so for a fortnight longer, was to stay, and Eliza could hardly wait for Harefield to be their own again. Eliza heard her parents before she saw them, Mr. Balfour barking commands to the footmen, Mrs. Balfour reprimanding the maids, and as they appeared through the oak front doors, she took in a fortifying breath.
"You can do it," Margaret whispered in her ear. It had been plain, in the hours since the will reading, that Mr. Balfour fully expected to hold the purse strings of Eliza's new fortune. This would be Eliza's final chance to disabuse her parents of this notion.
"We shall see you in a few weeks, of course," Mrs. Balfour said.
"You mustn't tarry, the roads will only worsen," Mr. Balfour instructed. "I wondered if—" Eliza began tentatively.
"By then, all your most pressing financial business will be managed," Mrs. Balfour said. "Won't they, husband?"
"Yes, I have already spoken to Mr. Walcot."
This being the most heartfelt farewell Mr. Balfour could muster, he gave Eliza a sharp nod and disappeared down the steps, leaving Eliza with her mother—the more forbidding opponent.
"I thought perhaps . . ." Eliza said.
"We think it best if you make Hector's boy your heir," Mrs. Balfour said briskly.
Hector was Eliza's youngest brother. "I don't know that—"
"Rupert, I think, would benefit most," Mrs. Balfour's voice overrode Eliza's.
Of all her brother's entitled weasels, Rupert was the worst. "I think I would prefer—"
"Mr. Balfour can organize the papers as soon as you return home." Mrs.
Balfour patted Eliza's cheek in a concluding sort of way.
'It is not yours', Eliza might say to her mother, if she were braver. 'It is not your fortune to spend, or to assign or to organize out of my reach.'
"Yes, Mama," Eliza sighed, defeated.
"It is decided. Goodbye, then—we shall see you anon. And recollect that you are still the countess, darling: you oughtn't to allow those Selwyns to run roughshod over you."
The irony of Mrs. Balfour issuing such advice was not lost upon Eliza—nor Margaret, who only barely suppressed a choke of laughter— and with this final instruction delivered, Mrs. Balfour left.
"I know she is your mother and my aunt," Margaret said, as they watched Mrs. Balfour climb into the carriage. "But if I saw her balanced precariously upon the edge of a cliff—perhaps about to fall into the ocean—I would hesitate to act. I wouldn't push her, but I would most definitely hesitate."
Unlike Eliza, Margaret's general manner of conversation was to say exactly what she thought, at exactly the moment she thought it, a trait their family deemed as the reason she had never married. Eliza was just sparing a moment of thanks that Mrs. Balfour was at least no longer in earshot, when a quiet cough had them both turning. Somerset had appeared in the doorway and, by the humorous cast of his expression, had overheard Margaret's less than respectful remark. Eliza flushed pink on Margaret's behalf.
"Ah," Margaret said, not sounding particularly worried.
"I shall pretend I did not hear that," Somerset responded, amused. In their youth, he had stood upon friendly terms with Margaret and it appeared his indulgence of her incivilities remained.
"If you could," Margaret said.
Somerset grinned, his smile breaking through his reserve just as the sun shone through clouds, and Eliza's breath caught—but then he turned toward her, and the warmth vanished as swiftly as it had appeared.
"Your father has informed me that you intend to return to Balfour, my lady," he said, and though he was making direct eye contact, Eliza felt as if he were gazing straight through her.
Look at me! Eliza wanted to shout at him. I am here, look at me!
"Yes," she said instead, voice as quiet as a mouse. "I do." Ladies did not shout, no matter the provocation. Somerset nodded, his expression giving away nothing. Was he relieved? He must be.
This excerpt is from the ebook edition.
Monday we begin the book LOVE, HOLLY by Emily Stone.