Chapter 69: A Mother’s Love
“I can’t believe you, Mother,” Sophya sobbed angrily as she scooted across the rented carriage seat away from Helena. “Getting divorced! How could you do this to me? How could both of you do this to me! You should have asked me first!”
Helena fingers curled around the small silk purse with what little remained of her worldly wealth, a mere twenty-five crescents, and smiled sympathetically at her only remaining child. “My darling, I did this for your good as well as my own. Your father has squandered away all our savings, your dowry, even Lincoln’s inheritance—”
“Lincoln is dead, Mother!” Sophya snapped. “And now, Father hates me!” She wept wretchedly into her hands.
“He doesn’t hate you,” Helena said gently as she reached across the carriage towards her.
Sophya slapped her hand away. “Then why did he let you take me away?”
‘Because I gave him all of my savings to divorce me and let you go.’
Helena took in a deep breath and exhaled. “Because he knows as well as I do, this is what’s best for you, Sophya.”
“What’s best? Where are we going, Mother? We don’t have any money. You don’t have a title—I barely have one. Asher won’t want me. He—” she broke off as she looked out the window.
The carriage turned through the open entrance gates. Iron wheels rolled along the gravel road that led them to a familiar Manor that stretched across a well-groomed lawn with manicured gardens and two water fountains.
“Mother—” Sophya clutched the carriage door as she craned her neck to look out and confirm their location, “—why are we at the Winslet Manor?”
“To finalize your engagement to Lord Asher and ensure your future as Winslet’s next Baroness,” Helena explained with a patient smile.
‘I will not let Josiah ruin your future the way he did mine.’
“What?” Sophya sat back, her face suddenly pale. “Seriously, Mother! Have you gone mad?” She moaned and buried her face in her hands. “Turn us around! His mother didn’t want me before she’ll only laugh and kick us out now.”
“I may not have a title, but I am still the daughter of a Viscount,” Helena said sternly. “And you are my daughter. Besides, I’ve already informed her of our visit.” She reached over to take Sophya’s hands and pulled them away from the girl’s tear-stained face. “Now, clean yourself up. We must not give Lady Florence any cause to find fault with you.”
“You’ve gone mad, haven’t you Mother,” Sophya said wearily as she accepted Helen’s offered handkerchief and dried at her face. “What did I do to deserve this humiliation?”
“Hush now, child, no more tears,” Helena murmured reassuringly. “Your Mother has everything handled; you should trust me more.”
Sophya laughed bitterly and continued to sniffle into the handkerchief. Helena pulled out a small powder mirror to check her pale reflection, tired brown-hazel eyes, and tidy her ash-blonde hair. Then, with a nervous hand against her empty stomach, she straightened her spine and raised her chin.
‘There is no shame in knowing my worth—I am still a Gilwren.’
The carriage driver opened the door and assisted them down without comment. Helena swept forward confidently across the gravel and up the steps towards the manor.
Sophya, with an anxious look at the driver, hastened after her. “Mother,” she hissed frantically. “You forgot to pay him!”
“It has already been handled,” Helena said as she took Sophya’s hand and held it firmly. “Chin up, eyes forward, and smile.”
Sophya watched with trepidation as Helena reached up and banged the copper door knocker. A moment later, an elderly butler appeared and inclined his head in recognition.
“Lady Helena, Lady Sophya, please come in. The Baroness is waiting for you.”
Sophya stiffened when he addressed Helena by her formal title. ‘Do they not know? I suppose word has not yet reached them about the divorce. But we can’t exactly hide it either!’ She kept her lips sealed as the butler led them further inside the Winslet Manor.
As always, the difference in family wealth was noticeable, one of many reasons Sophya was too ashamed to ever invite the baroness or Asher to Turnbell Manor. Today would surely be the last day she’d ever be permitted across the threshold. Sophya bit her trembling lips and mourned her rapidly fading dream of one day being mistress of this beautiful home.
‘Will they even let me say goodbye to Asher?’
Despair and anguish threatened to break free as Sophya turned away from Helena’s worried gaze to fan her face. The butler stopped and knocked on a closed set of double doors.
“Come in!” commanded the all too familiar dominating female voice.
Sophya tensed, but Helena rubbed her arm reassuringly as the butler opened the doors and prededed them into the drawing-room.
“Lady Helena and Lady Sophya are here to see you, Baroness.”
“Thank you, Jasper. I will see them both now.”
Helena pulled Sophya along with her as she swept into the room and inclined her head respectfully to Lady Florence. Sophya hastily dipped a curtsey beside her mother and glanced hesitantly at the baroness.
Lady Florence was older than Helena, with gray already appearing in her chestnut-brown hair. Her plump lips, which only ever smiled at her son, remained expressionless as she surveyed them both with rapidly calculating gray-blue eyes.
“Ladies,” Florence greeted as she set her cup of tea aside. “Please—do be seated.”
The Baroness gestured gracefully to the cushioned sofa that faced the regal chair upon which she sat. Sophya and Helena took their seat while Florence glanced down at the open letter in her lap.
“I assume you have news for me, Lady Helena?” Florence inquired curiously.
“Indeed, I do, Lady Florence,” Helena replied as she folded her hands gracefully. “I am divorced as of this morning. You need not address me as Lady of anything anymore.”
Sophya strangled on a gasp as she stared at her mother, horrified. ‘Is she trying to get us tossed out immediately?’
“I must say—I’m very touched at the extents of your efforts to ensure your daughter’s happiness, Lady Helena,” Florence murmured as she folded the letter and placed it back in the envelope. “And I applaud your bravery. To choose divorce so soon after losing your son—I can only imagine what a difficult time this has been for you both.”
Sophya gaped at the Baroness in complete confusion. ‘What is going on? She has never been this kind before. Was this sudden sympathy genuine?’
“Then,” Helena said hesitantly. “I hope you won’t think me too forward if I ask whether you have decided on the matter of Lord Asher’s engagement?”
Florence raised an eyebrow and chuckled, “How very forward of you, Lady Helena. But it would be unkind of me to delay my answer after you have traveled all this way.” She turned her gaze towards the butler. “Jasper, you may fetch my son now. Since my decision concerns him as well.”
“Yes, Baroness.” The butler bowed and left the room.
Sophya turned towards Helena, wanting desperately to ask—yet equally terrified her last remaining hope would soon be snatched away.
Helena smiled at her reassuringly and continued to hold Sophya’s hand tightly.
A few tense moments later, Asher appeared. The handsome young baron with his mother’s chestnut curls bowed respectfully to the baroness before extending a warm, affectionate smile to Sophya as he greeted them both. “Lady Helena, I am so sorry for your loss. Lincoln was an admirable lad and shall be missed. Lady Sophya—” he knelt beside her and took her free hand “—I know you must feel his absence, especially.”
“Thank you,” Sophya whispered hoarsely. It felt like an eternity since she had last seen those ocean-blue eyes, his boyish dimpled cheeks, and that heroic chin and jawline. She could feel the tears burning down her cheeks as she soaked in Asher’s gaze and face—perhaps for the last time.
“My sweet Lady, your distress pains me,” Asher murmured as he swiftly provided a handkerchief, squeezed her fingers around it gently, then stepped back and moved to the baroness’s side. “Mother.” Asher bent down and kissed her cheek. “You summoned me?”
“Lady Helena has just divorced her husband—that dreadful peddler, Lord Josiah,” Florence explained with a note of satisfaction. “Not that he was much of a businessman, husband, or father, I imagine.”
Sophya inhaled sharply, a protest on her lips, but Helena yanked her hand with a warning glare.
“Indeed?” Asher turned towards Helena with a curious expression. “Then, I suppose—congratulations are in order, Lady Helena.”
“Please,” Helena murmured. “I no longer own a title, so there is no need to address me so formally.”
“If you are to be mother-in-law to the Winslet’s future Baron and Baroness, you will need to retain your status, such as it is,” Florence replied with a quick smile.
“Mother?” Asher turned towards the baroness in surprise.
Sophya hiccupped and clutched her throat. Embarrassment and the flicker of hope trembled within her numb chest.
“Then—” Helena said cautiously “—may we have your answer?”
Florence held out her hand, and Asher hastened to assist his mother from her seat. The baroness glided regally towards Helena and Sophya as the pale mother and daughter rose stiffly from the sofa to greet her.
Sophya flinched as Florence swept her into a gentle embrace.
“You have had a harrowing ordeal child, but your mother’s courage and foresight have carried you through it,” Florence said firmly. “Be grateful to her.”
The baroness drew back and patted the young woman’s cheek. Sophya could only nod meekly in reply.
“Mother, are you—saying yes?” Asher said, with a note of disbelief and hopefulness.
“Well, since my opinion is so important to you,” Florence replied with a wink to her son. “Then, yes, I will make your engagement official after the mourning period for Lincoln has passed.”
“Mother!” Asher rushed forward to kiss Florence’s cheek enthusiastically.
Sophya gave a tiny squeak when he kissed her lips and embraced her tightly. Her mind spun as she clung to his strong arms and looked past him to where Florence and Helena stood holding hands. The baroness offered a handkerchief to her mother, who appeared to be crying happy tears.
‘She said yes—but why? Why now?’
“Welcome to my home, Lady Helena,” Florence said as she took Helena’s arm and guided her away from the young couple. “But just to be sure—” Florence leaned in closer with a somber expression, “—other than the half-blood, there will be no more family embarrassments to worry about in the future?”
Helena lowered the handkerchief as her lips drew into a thin line. “No, of course not, Baroness.”