Eliza's reaction was instantaneous. Her heart began to beat faster, her breath became labored, her stomach clenched, and she stood, not because it was polite, but because the force of recognition reverberating through her meant she simply had to. All the months she had spent imagining this moment—and she still did not feel at all prepared for it.
"Oliver, darling!" Mrs. Courtenay hurried over to her son, eyes shining, Lady Selwyn close behind, and Somerset embraced his mother and his sister, in turn. Mrs. Balfour clucked her tongue in disapproval of this breach of etiquette—he ought properly to have addressed Eliza first—but Eliza paid no heed. In many ways, he appeared the same. He was still very tall, his hair was still very fair, his eyes the same cool grey as the rest of his family, and he still carried himself with an air of calm assurance that had always been decidedly his own. Under the effects of a decade-long naval career however, there was a greater breadth across the shoulder which had not existed in him as a younger man and his pale skin had darkened under the sun. It suited him. It suited him very well.
Somerset released his sister's hands and turned to Eliza. She was suddenly horribly aware that the years had not been nearly so kind to her. With a small stature, brown hair and uncommonly large and dark eyes, she had always resembled some sort of startled nocturnal animal, but now she feared—with the all-black ensemble of her widow's weeds, and a figure drawn and tired from the uncertainty of the past months—that she appeared positively rattish.
"Lady Somerset," he said, bowing before her. His voice was the same, too.
"My lord," Eliza said. She could feel her fingers trembling and fisted them in her skirts as she curtseyed shakily, bracing herself to meet his eyes. What would she see in them—anger, perhaps? Recrimination? She did not dare to hope for warmth. She did not deserve it. They rose from their bows as one, and at last, at very long last, their eyes met. And as she looked into his eyes, she saw . . . nothing.
"My most sincere apologies for your loss," he said. His words were civil, his tone neutral. His expression could only be described as polite.
"Th-thank you," Eliza said. "I hope your journey was pleasant?"
The pleasantries tripped off Eliza's tongue without thinking, which was a good thing indeed, because at this moment she was not capable of thought.
"As much as could be, with such weather as we have had," he said. There was no evidence, in his manner or deportment or tone, that he was sharing in any of the turmoil churning through Eliza's mind. He appeared, in fact, totally unaffected by seeing her. As if they had never met before.
As if he had not, once, asked her to marry him.
"Yes . . ." Eliza heard herself say, as if from a great distance. "The rain . . . has been most vicious."
"Indeed," he agreed, with a smile—except it was not a smile she had ever seen directed at herself before. Polite. Formal. Insincere.
"Good to see you, old boy, good to see you indeed." Selwyn had come forward, hand outstretched, and Somerset reciprocated the handshake with a smile that was suddenly warm again. He moved toward the middle of the room, away from the Balfours—leaving Eliza blinking after him.
Was that it? After all their years apart, all the time Eliza had spent wondering over his whereabouts, his happiness, poring over every memory of their time together, of all the hours spent regretting every single one of the events that had conspired to keep them apart—this was to be their reunion? A single, short exchange of commonplaces?
Eliza shivered. The January chill had pervaded the air all morning— her late husband's diktat that fires remain unlit until nightfall had outlived him— but now it seemed to Eliza veritably icy. A whole decade of existing literally oceans apart and yet Oliver—'Somerset'—had never felt more distant to Eliza than in this moment.
"Shall we begin?" Selwyn prompted. Even before Selwyn had married the late earl's niece, the two gentlemen had been close friends, for their lands shared a border—but for the same reason their relationship had also been temperamental. Indeed, their last business meeting before the old earl's death had deteriorated into a quarrel loud enough to deafen the whole household— and yet, from the eagerness in Selwyn's face, he was clearly expectant of a great bequeathment today.
Nodding, Mr. Walcot spread out the papers in front of him, and the Balfours, Selwyns and Courtenays watched from their respective sides of the room, wolfish and hungry. The scene would make for a dramatic tableau. Oils, in high color, perhaps. Eliza's fingers twitched for a paintbrush.
"This is the last will and testament of Julius Edward Courtenay, tenth Earl of Somerset . . ."