Chapter 2: The Fate of Sisters
The foyer was filled with the musky scent of perfume, cigars, and a variety of black mourning apparel. Carina followed Percy’s lead and surveyed the many faces which filled the room, nearly all of them strangers.
‘How bizarre to be here. Helena wasn’t my mother after all, and she hardly qualified to be Maura’s mother either.’
Carina exhaled softly and frowned as a tingle ran down her spine. Beside her, Percy’s cane tapped loudly on the floor, and the muffled waves of gossip that had swelled up at their entrance seemed suddenly distant and undetectable—pleasantly so.
It was another familiar yet uncomfortable sensation that turned Carina’s gaze from the Earl’s use of magic to a group of mourners in the corner of the foyer. Between the bonnets and veils, she caught a glimpse of familiar scarlet curls and forest-green eyes that glared at her venomously.
Carina smiled back at Maura’s half-sister, Sophya, and with a gentle pull at Percy’s arm, turned them in the glowering young woman’s direction.
The disapproval in Sophya’s eyes quickly turned to panic as she took in Maura’s escort. But it was the unfamiliar older woman beside Sophya, who stepped forward boldly to greet them both.
“Lord Percy! I wasn’t sure whether to give the rumors of your attendance any credence,” the senior noblewoman gushed. “To think the Earl of Hawthorne would grace our humble gathering.”
Carina turned her attention to Lord Asher, who escorted Sophya up beside the elder noblewoman, and made the connection just as Percy replied.
“Lady Florence, I am a friend of Viscount Gilwren after all and a close acquaintance of his granddaughter,” Percy replied smoothly with a polite nod to the Baroness of Winslet.
“His—granddaughter?” Florence quickly turned towards Sophya, whose cheeks flushed with embarrassment as she clutched Lord Asher’s arm.
‘They don’t know who I am,’ Carina realized as a laugh bubbled up in the back of her throat. Lady Florence did not surprise her, this would be their first meeting, but Lord Asher had visited Turnbell Manor several times. ‘Though, at that time, my face was painted with blemishes to avoid his attention and Sophya’s jealousy.’
“Yes, the Viscount’s granddaughter whom I have the honor of escorting today, Lady Maura,” Percy corrected with a hint of cynicism as he gestured to Carina beside him.
Lady Florence’s hazel-blue eyes focused upon Carina with a mixture of surprise and disapproval. “The hal—how lovely—to meet you, at last, my dear.”
Carina resisted the urge to applaud the woman’s quick grasp of the situation. Whatever Lady Florence’s opinions on Maura or her origins, to insult any woman the Earl had chosen to escort was not a mistake lightly made nor forgotten.
“I am Lady Florence, Baroness of Winslet, soon to be your sister’s mother-in-law,” Florence greeted with the faintest inflection of her title as if to remind Carina of the vast gap between them.
Were it not for the spectacle Carina would have made—laughing at Lady Helena’s funeral—She might have lost the battle there and then. Instead, she coughed behind her fan with a discreet smile.
“Congratulations to my sister then, and you as well, Lord Asher,” Carina replied with a brief smile to her sister’s fiancé. “I believe you are well matched.”
Lord Asher inclined his head politely while Sophya refused to so much as glance in Carina’s direction.
‘Ashamed, perhaps?’ Their conversation had not gone unnoticed by the crowd around them, who appeared to be listening in eagerly.
Carina refocused on Lady Florence and offered another smile. “I am relieved my poor sister found someone to rely upon in her time of great need.”
‘Don’t think I don’t know you’ve only taken Sophya in because of our grandfather’s connections and wealth. But I wonder if the Winslet Manor is fully prepared to take on all of Josiah’s debts?’
Lady Florence narrowed her eyes as Carina’s neutral smile slipped into something more sinister. Carina quickly dipped her head and turned to leave—only to be held back by Percy’s firm grasp.
“Lady Sophya ought to congratulate her sister as well. Lady Maura is now Baroness of Averly as well as lady-in-waiting to my cousin, Crown Princess Eleanora,” Percy announced with a playful smile. His gaze shifted from the suddenly rigid Lady Florence to Sophya, who appeared to have stopped breathing as she focused upon Carina, horrified.
‘Is this his way of helping me settle old scores?’ Carina took in the wall of stunned expressions before her, then smirked as she leaned affectionately upon his arm. “We should head in, my dear Earl. We appear to be the last to arrive.”
It was worth acting against her usual caution around Lord Percy to see the stupefied expression of the Winslets and Sophya. ‘But beyond this, there is no point dragging up the past between sisters. I already decided to bury Maura’s ties to Sophya with their mother. With a bit of luck, our paths will never cross again.’ She turned to Sophya and studied the older girl’s pale cheeks, trembling lips, and silently blazing green eyes. ‘Though one rarely knows what the future will hold.’
“The most important guests are always the last to arrive, my sweet Maura,” Percy teased.
Carina didn’t miss the informal way he used her name, and neither did Lady Florence. However, the senior noblewoman’s look of shock quickly faded as the Baroness of Winslet managed to steel her discomfort and compose herself.
“Yes, I do believe it is time we all went in,” Florence announced formally to the utterly silent audience around them. “Father Barry!”
Percy led Carina down the aisle to the front pew without hesitation. There he made a fuss of dusting off the seat and placing down his handkerchief before he would permit her to sit. Carina gritted her teeth and forced a smile as she turned away to admire the stain glass window beside their pew. ‘I did start this act of deception after all, but isn’t he overdoing it?’ She could feel the attention of the other guests, who filed in behind them and whispered like buzzing bees as they filled the pews.
“I didn’t know the Earl of Hawthorne was an admirer of yours,” Hana whispered discreetly as she joined Carina by the window.
“Oh, nothing like that, Lady Hana. The Earl’s mother, Countess Constance, was my mentor, benefactor, and sponsored me for the Selection,” Carina hastily deflected as she unfurled her fan and waved it against her flushed cheeks.
“So you know each other quite well?” Hana pressed with a coyly raised brow.
“We only met upon rare occasion during my training,” Carina corrected adamantly. “Lord Percy is supporting me on the Countess’s behalf in her absence. She recently retired to the country due to illness.”
“Oh?” Hana slid closer as she traced the pale gold halo that surrounded the saint captured in the stain glass artwork. “His intentions appear to be a bit more than that, my dear.”
Carina opened her mouth to protest but fell silent as Percy’s reflection approached them.
“Ah, is the pew clean enough now?” Hana asked playfully as she took Carina’s arm and swept past him. “I think I shall sit beside you if that’s alright, Lady Maura.”
“Of course,” Carina replied, not missing the look of irritation on Earl’s face. “Thank you, Lord Percy.”
“I shall wait at the back,” Sir Malcolm said after accepting the lady’s cloaks. “Whenever you are ready to leave, you can meet me in the foyer, Lady Hana, Lady Maura.”
“Thank you,” Carina replied and, if only to seal the act, sat upon Percy’s offered handkerchief in the right corner of the pew. Hana immediately took a seat beside her while Percy accepted the ample space that remained to their left.
The bustle of people finding their seats behind Carina soon faded, though a quick glance over her shoulder confirmed most of the room remained focused upon their pew. Carina sighed and settled her gaze upon the lonely coffin surrounded by flowers that lay before her beneath the pulpit.
The priest finally appeared, accompanied by a tall, noble-looking man with ash-blonde hair tinged gray, hazel-grey eyes, and a silver-white cane adorned by a pale white hound holding a large sapphire in its immense jaws.
“That is Viscount Gilwren,” a woman whispered as the room’s attention shifted to the new arrival. The Viscount appeared indifferent as he made his way to the front of the church, shook off his hat, and fussed with his necktie as he stared down at the coffin.
“Indeed, that is Viscount Ryker of Gilwren,” Percy confirmed as he leaned across Hana to pass Carina another handkerchief. “Your grandfather, Lady Maura.”
Carina accepted the handkerchief as Hana coughed uncomfortably, and Percy withdrew his arm.
The Viscount turned towards them with a momentary expression of perturbed confusion. Then his gaze settled upon Percy, and he quickly presented himself to the Earl with a courteous bow. “Earl Hawthorne, I am honored by your presence.”
“Please, dear Viscount,” Percy replied as he rose to accept the Viscount’s greeting. “I am merely here to show my sympathies to my father’s old friend, as well as support Lady Maura through such a difficult time of grief.”
Carina tightened her grip on the handkerchief Percy had given her as the Viscount’s gaze flickered between herself and Hana.
“Lady Maura?” he repeated uncertainly.
“This would be our first meeting, Viscount Gilwren,” Carina replied as she rose and curtsied. “I am Lady Maura.”
“Indeed, you are,” the Viscount confirmed with a note of disappointment. “You appear to have a great deal of your father in you, though perhaps your mother’s stubbornness as well. To so shamefully use the Earl to obtain my attention. I am very impressed. Now we are met and introduced. And while I may be Viscount Rykard of Gilwren, your grandfather, I lay no claim to you.”
Carina could feel her fingernails chill even as they dug into the handkerchief trapped inside her clenched hand. Her smile deepened as a soft laugh escaped her lips, which only caused Viscount Rykard’s disapproving gaze to harden. “You appear to have greatly misunderstood me, Viscount. Though it would seem we are otherwise in agreement. I have no wish to be claimed nor any foolish desire to acknowledge you as my grandfather.”
Rykard blinked rapidly as her words sank in, then his jaw tightened as he turned rigidly from her to Percy. “A delight as always, Lord Percy. I hope this disappointment will not prevent you from visiting Gilwren in the future. I shall be hosting another annual fox hunt if you would care to participate in your father’s place.”
“I would be delighted,” Percy replied firmly though his expression was far from pleased. “Though I hope that invitation might extend to one more.”
Rykard’s eyes and cheeks twitched noticeably, but he nodded courteously. “The Earl may invite whoever he wishes. I only hope they will be humble enough to accept what simple accommodations Gilwren has to offer.”
Carina ignored his comment as she resumed her seat and unfolded the fan once more with an air of indifference.
‘Is it any small wonder Helena never summoned the courage to approach the Viscount for help? I “shamefully used” the Earl? On what grounds does he make such a baseless accusation?’
Hana’s hand slipped over Carina’s in silent comfort as the Viscount took his seat in the pew across from them, directly in front of the Winslets and Sophya.
From the corner of her eye, Carina observed Lady Florence attempt to make conversation with the Viscount, but other than a curt nod of acknowledgment, she also was utterly ignored. It seemed the Rykard had no interest in engaging with either of his daughter’s remaining children at present. Instead, the Viscount placed his hat and gloves on the pew beside him and focused his attention on the sealed casket surrounded by lilies of the valley, lavender blossoms, and a mixture of mint leaves arranged to mask the decomposition sealed within the wax-lined box.
Percy leaned across Hana towards Carina once more. “What was that response?”
Carina inhaled slowly and stared at her fan as she closed it and wrapped her white knuckles around it tightly.
Hana promptly pulled her own fan from her purse and flourished it dangerously close to the Earl’s nose as she cleared her throat and nodded to where the priest had taken his place behind the pulpit—finally.