so pretty, too"—as though time had stood still and she'd never been Lady Claringworth at all. And indeed, in this sleepy, comfortable corner of the Kingdom it was possible for her to sometimes forget the years that had passed and pretend that she was still the bold, energetic girl she'd once been.
Less pleasantly, she'd shared another of Jonathan's responsibilities. Their mother, who'd always been frivolous and scatterbrained, had fallen into an anxious early dotage and needed constant attention and reassurance. "Are you my sister Betty," she'd ask Phoebe in a distracted voice several times within an hour, "or are you the other one?"
"I'm the other one, Mother," Phoebe would respond, squeezing her hand or straightening her shawl as she led her on a slow circuit of the garden. The name "Phoebe" seemed to have no meaning to Mrs. Vaughan. Happily though, neither did "Lady Claringworth."
Which is an aid to my disguise
, Phoebe would think,
but a cruel irony for
: before the onset of her dementia there'd been nothing Mrs. Vaughan had enjoyed more than prattling about "my daughter, Lady Claringworth" to anyone who'd listen.
As always, the most precious moments of Phoebe's visits were the evenings in front of the fire with Kate, at Crowden, the seat of the Beverredge family estate. Kate had never married, though many a greedy gentleman had tried to court her—for the property that had been settled upon her.
"But," as she often told Phoebe, "I've been spoiled for a marriage of convenience. I can recognize cruelty, avarice, and disgust all too well, for I've seen it all my life, since I became so disfigured. And I can recognize kindness and devotion too, because of you, dear. My only regret…"
Her only regret was that she'd been the unwitting cause of Phoebe's disastrous marriage. For it had been Lord Beverredge, in grateful recompense for the vicar's friendship to his daughter, who'd supplied the money for Phoebe's dowry when Mrs. Vaughan had dared to ask him for it.
only regret," Phoebe would retort, "is that you persist in seeing yourself as disfigured. And not—as
see you—as a handsome woman with sparkling green eyes and glossy dark hair, whose only flaw is a complexion that's not what it might have been."
Sadly, this trip had presented Phoebe with an additional regret. For, after some years of trying, Jonathan and Emily had finally conceived a child that would be born next spring. Tactfully, they'd tried not to talk about their long-dreamed-of baby in front of Phoebe; their delicacy made her feel alternately ashamed and grateful, and she knew she wouldn't be burdening them with another visit any time soon.
Kate's closed carriage—the weather had grown too chilly for the barouche—was speeding merrily toward London. Of course they wouldn't go all the way to Town today: they'd stop the night at one of the houses they'd engaged for the purpose of Phoebe's masquerade.
And tomorrow morning, Phoebe thought, Phizz Marston would emerge from the front door, step into his own carriage, and resume his life in Brunswick Square.
To beat snobbish, selfish, fashionable London at its own game
—the game that had destroyed Phoebe and Bryan.
Kate interrupted Phoebe's bitter reverie.
"And so, what did you think of Miss Austen's novel—to my mind her loveliest?"
Phoebe hadn't read many novels since she'd become Phizz Marston; it was a consequence, she supposed, of disciplining herself to think like a man. But she'd allowed herself this one as a vacation treat.
"You're right, dear,
is her loveliest. It's not a book of impetuous youth and innocent hope like
Pride and Prejudice
. It's something better, deeper."
"A book," Kate said softly, "about how a woman deserves to be loved, even if she's past her first youth. If she's true and honest with herself."
Phoebe shuddered. "And if she could bear the risk at this age. As I know that
"Are you certain of that, Phoebe? Perhaps it's only at