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Wit and Willow

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It is often said that a single young woman in possession of only a small portion of wealth and reputation must be of a mind to use her wits and beauty to secure a husband of means, and yet Miss Leah Collins did not find herself to be in this mindset at all. Instead, she was experiencing something rather more like butterflies in the stomach.

It was the night after her debut in polite society. The event itself had been terrifying enough, but at least she had not been expected to speak much or to make any connections yet. But the worst was yet to come. The Brassington social season would stretch through the long winter months, and she would be expected to make connections with young men - and, ideally, to meet one who swept her off her feet. Or failing that, would loyally provide for her for life.

It was enough to make her queasy, even looking at the delicious food on her family’s dinner table.

Her mother spoke first. Mrs. Sahira Collins was a tall woman, with warm brown skin and a sharp amber gaze. She was now aiming it at Juliana, Leah’s elder sister by several years. Although Leah would rather not be the target of any questioning, the prospect of Juliana being the subject instead was not much of a relief; Juliana had inherited her mother’s stubborness and temper, and their fights were legendary.

“Do you expect any visitors calling in the morning, Miss Collins?” Mrs. Collins said.

Juliana was chasing peas around her plate with a fork and looking rather sullen. “It is only the beginning of the season, Mamma. It would be absurd for any young gentleman to declare his intentions so early.”

This might have been true several years earlier, but the fact of the matter was that Juliana had debuted in society long enough ago that the question of her marriage was beginning to become pressing.

Mrs. Collins cleared her throat and tried a different tack. “I saw you dancing with the young Earl of Nott.”

That caught Juliana’s attention; she glanced up and snorted. “Yes, well, I have done it so many times in a row now that it is practically tradition,” she said.

“Has he declared any intentions to you?” Mrs. Collins said plainly.

“No,” Juliana said. “But I am not so sure if I would reciprocate. His name is terribly ugly. I should hate to spend the rest of my miserable life being referred to solely as Mrs. Nott.”

Mrs. Collins narrowed her eyes. It seemed to Leah that her mother was unsure whether to correct Juliana and tell her she would be called the Countess of Nott, or to scold her for her attitude. Leah was getting the feeling now that the discussion might escalate if not intervened upon. She glanced over to her father.

Mr. Rory Collins was a tradesman and Papist by family, but in his youth had gained the favor of the late Duchess of Brassington. With her guidance he had navigated society until he was able to purchase an estate and ingratiate himself to the gentry of Brassington - an action which had cursed his then-unborn daughters with the quest to secure a perfect, aristocratic match.

He had the appearance of a younger man, even with crow’s feet and smile lines. His pale skin was marked with boyish freckles, all under a mop of ginger hair with not a single streak of gray. Between his two daughters, Juliana much more resembled him. Leah took after her mother, at least physically - she often thought privately that in personality she bore neither of her parents’ likeness.

Mr. Collins was now busying himself with cutting bread. Leah frantically leaned over, trying to capture his attention. Finally she caught his eye. She pointed to Mrs. Collins, and then to herself.

He cleared his throat. “Sahira, dear, shouldn’t we ask Leah how her debut went?” 

Juliana shot him a look of plain relief. To her luck, Mrs. Collins did not catch it because she had now turned to Leah. “Of course,” Mrs. Collins said. “And how did it go?”

“Honestly?” Leah said thoughtfully. “It was nerve-wracking. I was quite afraid that I would become ill.”

Juliana looked sympathetic. “I felt much the same when I debuted,” she said, though given Juliana’s confidence Leah was certain that could not be true. “It’s awfully different from sitting around at night reading books, isn’t it?”

“Don’t worry, my dear,” Mrs. Collins said. “I’m sure you will gain confidence with time. Perhaps a new dress will help.”

“Mamma, what could I possibly need another dress for?” Leah protested.

Mrs. Collins eyed her daughters over, then exchanged a look with her husband. “It now behooves me to tell you,” she said importantly, “that the next social event for our family is not, in fact, the luncheon at Duke Brassington’s. Before then, the Earl of Nott has invited us to a ball at his estate.”

Both Juliana and Leah’s eyes stretched wide. Mr. Collins took a calm sip of wine and said thoughtfully, “Oh, good. I should like to have the chance to speak with him of things other than business for once.”

Ignoring their father, Juliana turned to Leah with a squeal and grabbed her hand. “Isn’t that so exciting?” she said. 

But all Leah could feel was creeping dread.

The Collins family had but hardly arrived before Mrs. Collins was summoned away by a group of married women who were eager to speak with her. Juliana and Leah then each stood on one side of their father - Juliana eagerly, Leah nervously.

Within several minutes, Sir Duncan Pembroke, Mr. Patrick Sheehan, and Mr. Arthur Pembroke approached their father. Sir Pembroke, a Black man who usually held a serious countenance, was an old friend of both of their parents. He was one of the many social connections their father had made as a young man which had allowed him to so effectively climb the Brassington social ladder. Patrick Sheehan, meanwhile, was the girls’ beloved older cousin, whose distinctive white hair and loud laughter could always be identified from across the room. He was set to inherit the Collins estate when Mr. Collins died, but was too affable for Leah and Juliana to hold it against him. Finally, Mr. Pembroke was Sir Pembroke’s oldest son, and the rather sour-faced inheritor to his estate. Despite having recently become a father, he looked no more cheerful than usual.

Sir Pembroke shook Mr. Collins’ hand first. “Good to see you, Rory,” he said. “I trust that you’re not planning on declaring any intentions of dueling tonight?”

Leah did not quite understand what he meant, but her father chuckled. “No, Duncan,” he said. “You know that I love the boy as much as if he were my own son.”

“A good thing, too, given how often Juliana seems to have him on her dance card,” Patrick said, shooting Juliana a mischievous smile. Leah glanced between her cousin and her sister, mystified - were they talking about the Earl? Why would Mr. Collins duel him?

Juliana, however, ignored Patrick entirely, and turned to Leah, tugging on her sleeve. “Come on, let’s go,” she said.

Leah swatted her hand away. “Not if you’re just going to leave me to go dance with somebody,” she said. “I should not like to spend my whole night alone, and I do believe that a respectable young lady waits to be introduced.”

“Juliana can do that job as well as I can,” Mr. Collins said gently.

“Or better,” Patrick cut in. Juliana looked as though she were holding herself back from making a rude gesture at him.

“I know that you were taught to wait for your father to introduce you to people before you could go around introducing yourself, but this is not the Queen’s palace,” Mr. Collins continued. He gave Leah a pat on the shoulder and a look warm enough to quell some of her nerves.

Juliana’s hand crept up Leah’s sleeve once more and tugged. “Please,” she begged. “I can see dear cousin Phoebe across the room. And I’m sure Silas Pembroke is lurking around here somewhere. You shan’t be alone.”

Leah acquiesced, and soon they had joined Miss Phoebe Sheehan at the other side of the room. She was Patrick’s eldest daughter, and had inherited both his shockingly pale hair and his charming smile. At first the trio got up to talking about a book all three had recently read, but Juliana quickly grew bored of this. She stood on the toes of her slippers and glanced around the room, obviously trying to look over peoples’ heads despite her own tininess.

“Have you seen the Earl of Nott around, Phoebe? Or has he not bothered to attend his own ball?” Juliana said finally. She looked as though she was trying to put on her usual sarcastic airs, but something about her manner let Leah know that she was genuinely asking.

“I have seen him, yes, but he has been rather entangled in his duties as host,” Phoebe said. “I expect he has no time to dance with you tonight. You shall have to settle for dear Silas, if he turns up.”

Juliana looked almost unsettled, and they returned to the previous conversation.

Only moments later, however, the group was approached by Mr. Arthur Finch. No introductions were necessary between them, as he was not unknown to the girls; he was the older brother of Sir Pembroke’s wife, and thus had been introduced to them at one time or another. Moreover, he had never married but was often rumored to be chasing engagements with one young girl or another, and so in such a rather small town it would be difficult not to know him. He was in his late thirties and graying early, and greeted them with a small bow.

“Good evening, my fair ladies,” he said. “I hope you are finding this night as pleasant as I am.”

Before either Phoebe or Leah could speak, Juliana cut in. “A bit early to tell, don’t you think?” she said.

Leah winced - her sister’s sharp tongue often got her in trouble, and surely would again now.

But Mr. Finch only looked intrigued. “I heard you speaking of books,” he said. “Reading is such an admirable pursuit for an accomplished young lady, in my opinion. I pray you tell me, have you read any of the works of the Bard, William Shakespeare?”

Phoebe smiled politely. “I believe we all have, as a part of our education,” she said.

“And what are your favorite of his works?” He glanced over each of them.

Phoebe gave hers as Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Juliana answered Much Ado About Nothing. Leah hesitated a moment before speaking. “I am fond of his sonnets,” she said. “Particularly the one which is commonly numbered twenty. What is your favorite, Mr. Finch?”

The Taming of the Shrew,” he said blithely. Juliana raised her fan, pretending to cool herself, but rolled her eyes at Leah from behind it.

Whereas Mr. Finch’s gaze had roved over each of the girls before, he now seemed rather firmly focused on Juliana. “Miss Collins,” he said to her, “If you don’t mind my asking, are you free for a dance this evening?”

Rather reluctantly, Juliana held out her empty dance card to him. The girls watched as Mr. Finch wrote his name down in one slot - and then, shockingly, in another, and then another. Juliana’s eyes widened, and she mouthed to Leah: Do something!

“Er, don’t you think you ought to give some of the other young gentlemen a chance?” Leah said as gently as she could.

“Of, of course,” Mr. Finch said, and he stopped writing. Just then, music began to play, and the party began to assemble for the first dance. He glanced at Juliana. “I believe that it is time for us to dance.” With that, he bowed farewell to Phoebe and Leah, and led away an unenthusiastic-looking Juliana.

Phoebe and Leah stared after him. “What luck,” Phoebe said. “How many years now has he ignored her?”

“This year would have made three, had he gone on,” Leah said.

“Well, perhaps she can convince some unwitting young romantic to form an engagement with her before Mr. Finch gets it into his head to propose,” Phoebe said. “Speaking of which - hello, Mr. Pembroke!”

And indeed, Silas Pembroke had arrived, along with another young man who Leah did not recognize. Silas was a tall and gangly man who was prone to laughing at the slightest provocation. He bowed to Leah and Phoebe, obviously poking fun at Mr. Finch’s own exaggerated demeanor - and then said, “Miss Collins and Miss Sheehan, this is my dear friend Mr. Neil Ramsbury. Ramsbury, these are Miss Collins and Miss Sheehan - they are cousins. And I believe there is another Miss Collins around here somewhere.”

“She has had the misfortune of becoming tangled with Mr. Finch,” Phoebe said. Silas laughed.

Ramsbury seemed somewhat less amused, but perhaps it was only his determination or his nerves distracting him. “Miss Sheehan, could I have the pleasure of dancing with you?” he said to Phoebe. She accepted, and within a few moments Leah and Silas were alone.

She braced for him to ask her to dance as well, but he did no such thing. Perhaps she should have been offended or disappointed, but she was only relieved.

“I heard your mother is pregnant again,” Leah said. “Congratulations.”

Silas laughed hard at that. “I am afraid you have mixed up your Mistresses Pembroke. It is not my mother who is again pregnant but my sister-in-law.”

“So soon after the birth of her Rose?” Leah blurted. She covered her mouth with her hands - it was an inappropriate question to ask in a social setting.

But Silas only shrugged. “My good brother is eager to produce an heir, even if he himself has not yet inherited. The concerns of an elder son are not for me to understand, I suppose. Although I must say it is rather confusing to my poor father to have an infant daughter and granddaughter at the same time.”

“How strange to think we may be like him some day,” Leah laughed, “watching our children have children.”

She continued to speak with Silas Pembroke for some while, until the first dance had ended. Still he did not ask her to dance, and still she felt rather more relieved than disappointed. She saw that both Juliana and Phoebe were staying on the dance floor, although Phoebe had acquired a new partner. Silas then turned to her and bid her a good evening, explaining that he needed to “make the rounds,” and Leah found herself perfectly alone.

It was more terrifying even than her debut. With no chaperone, Leah was reduced to worrying some man would come try to lure her away into the back halls or the gardens so that he could prey on her propriety. But no such thing happened. Instead, an equally terrifying thing happened - no one spoke to her at all.

Growing increasingly anxious and miserable, Leah withdrew to the back of the room until she could no longer even see the dancers for the crowd. There was a small table with some empty plates and goblets on it, which had obviously been abandoned by its previous occupants; Leah slumped down in a chair, wishing she had a book.

She was startled out of her misery by a small, sharp gasp of surprise behind her. She turned to see a young woman, only a few years older than her, dressed in the costume of a maid and holding a small bucket. The woman had dark, curly hair and broad shoulders. Her eyes were a soft amber, with long lashes - if she were a young lady out in society, Leah thought, gentlemen would most certainly write poetry for those eyes.

 “I’m so very sorry, Miss,” the woman said. “I’ll take care of those dishes right away.”

“Oh, there's no need to worry,” Leah said. “They did not bother me.”

“All the same,” the young woman said, and then she was gone.

Leah was not alone for too long, however, because soon the same young woman returned, now without the bucket or the dishes. She looked rather surprised to see Leah again. “Don’t you have dances to dance, Miss?”

Before she could stop herself, Leah said, “I should hope not.”

The woman looked intrigued. “And why not?”

In the absence of Juliana’s biting wit, Leah suddenly felt as though she had a sharper tongue. “I have never danced at a ball, but it does not seem very pleasant. I cannot imagine that it is enjoyable to stand very closely with a young man you do not know and attempt to wheedle good conversation out of him,” she admitted.

“Does it matter how he converses, if he has land of his own and a good reputation?” the young woman said, raising an eyebrow.

Leah was rather surprised, and it must have shown on her face, because the other young woman balked. “I’m sorry, that was inappropriate,” she said.

“No, it's fine,” Leah said. “What’s your name?”

The woman hesitated. “Really, I didn’t mean to say anything rude. Please don’t tell the Earl about this.”

“I won't,” Leah promised. “Here, I’ll go first. I’m Leah Collins. How about you?”

“I’m Margaret Kolpakov. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Collins.”

“And yours, Miss Kolpakov.”

Margaret smiled and curtseyed, and then said, “You can call me Margo.”

“Then you may call me Leah,” Leah said. Even going through normal niceties with Margo, she felt much more comfortable than she had even with her sister and cousin earlier. Perhaps it was because Margo’s demeanor had made it clear that Leah did not have to hold up standards of formality in their conversation, if she didn't want to. “Do you work for the Earl, then?”

“Yes, miss… I mean, Leah.”

“Is he a good employer? I mean, does he treat you well?”

“Yes,” Margo said. She hesitated. “Only…”

“Only what?” Leah said. She told herself she only wanted to hear more about the character of the man who had spent so much time so casually courting her sister.

But Margo only shook her head, looking somewhat regretful. “I couldn’t explain it,” she said. “But he does pay me well, and allow me to take leave when I am in need of it. There is hardly more that I could ask for, in my position.”

Leah was struck by how honestly Margo was speaking to her. The Collins family were not very wealthy for landed gentry; Leah, Juliana and their mother cooked dinner, did the sewing and kept the house in order. But Leah had grown up with a butler around the house, and he had never spoken to her so plainly about the difference between her life and his.

Whereas most would have considered Margo’s words inappropriate or offensive, Leah appreciated the honesty. She much preferred it to the typical social games that she had been forced to encounter since debuting.

“Are you very busy tonight?” Leah blurted impulsively.

Margo blinked. “Only a little. I am tasked with keeping the ballroom and its tables clean and clear of dishes.”

“Then perhaps - if you like - you could join me when you are between tasks,” Leah said.

It was a clear surprise to Margo to be invited to socialize with an aristocrat - but she smiled. “Of course,” she said. “I should like that very much.”

The next morning, Byron, the Earl of Nott came to call at the Collins residence. This was not unusual for several reasons. Firstly, despite their differing social statuses, Mr. Collins had long been a mentor of sorts to the young Earl, especially after helping to finance his education when he was estranged from his father, the old Earl of Nott. Second, Byron was and had been for many years a close friend of Juliana’s.

Indeed, Juliana’s previous statement that her dances with Byron were near-traditional was not entirely inaccurate. Though their half-courtship had gone on for years with no declarations of love or intentions from either side, they had still managed to dance once at nearly every ball in the last several seasons, and were often seen in one another’s confidence at other events. It seemed to Leah that he was likely calling to make up for ignoring Juliana the previous night.

The Earl himself was a tall and broad man. He had a mop of brown hair and often kept his coats buttoned as high as they would go, with only the topmost ridges of his cravat peeking out. He tended to move stiffly and blink slowly. Leah had long ago judged him to be uptight and boring, and still had little idea of what her sister liked so much about him.

However, he did always bring flowers.

Once Mrs. Collins had spent enough time fussing over the daffodils in the Earl’s hand, the whole family settled with him and Juliana in the sitting room. He made a few friendly overtures toward Mr. Collins, who returned politely, but then left to attend to business in his office. The Earl then asked Juliana how her night at the ball had been.

“Dreadful, Your Grace,” Juliana declared. “I have never had to dance with the same man so many times in a row. Four times, if you must know, and I was only pulled away at the end because the younger Mr. Pembroke was such a good chap about coming to my rescue. I don’t suppose it behooved you to come and see to my affairs.”

“Perhaps it escaped your ever-observant notice, but the ball was held on my own estate,” the Earl replied. “I had many other matters to attend to.”

“As if there should ever be any matters more important than the attentions of a lady,” Juliana said.

“Well, if it is an apology you’re attempting to pull out of me, struggle no longer: I am quite sorry to have left you in such dire need of a friend,” he said. Juliana sat up a bit straighter at this, a smile of victory flitting across her face.

Their conversation then turned to politics, which they both discussed enthusiastically but which bored Leah immensely; it would have been quite rude to pull out a book and begin reading in the presence of a guest, so she found herself counting her mother’s stitches as she sewed. Soon enough, though, the Earl turned to her.

“I’m afraid I did not so much as catch a glimpse at you last night, Miss Collins,” he said. “I know it was your first ball. I should have liked to welcome you.”

“It’s all right, Your Grace. I got along fine,” Leah said.

“There’s no need to lie for the sake of his ego, Leah,” Juliana said loftily. “She spent the whole night speaking to a serving-maid, my dear Earl. Perhaps we should praise you for the kindness of your staff, but I would rather wonder at the quality of your friends that not a single guest should see a young woman so clearly in need of a dance and not think to ask.”

Leah, growing a bit tired of her sister’s antics, repeated, “I said I got along fine.”

“It’s good to hear. I still do hope you manage to enjoy yourself more in the rest of the season,” the Earl told her.

It was then that Mr. Collins returned to the room. He and the Earl exchanged pleasantries again, and then the Earl excused himself to leave. When he had gone, Mr. Collins turned to his elder daughter.

“Juliana,” he said.

“Yes, father?”

Mr. Collins looked as though he were already regretting his words before saying them. “I do not believe that the Earl has any intention to marry you.”

For her part, Juliana looked unconcerned. “I should hope he doesn’t,” she said. “I can hardly see how we manage to put up with him for only a few hours a month; I could hardly imagine the monster of a woman that could put up with him in her own bed.”

“Mind your manners, Juliana,” Mrs. Collins said sharply.

Looking tired, Mr. Collins said, “If that is the case, then don’t you think it is time to end this  drawn-out courtship? I have nothing against the man; you know I am nearly as fond of him as you. But it has now been several years that you have remained on the marriage market. If you do not secure a match this year, you will be labeled a spinster. Think of the precedent that sets for your poor sister. Or, if you won’t think of Leah, think of yourself - how will you live once I am gone? Your cousin may attempt to provide for you, but his inheritance will not be enough to secure a comfortable life for both you and his own family.”

Juliana’s face had gone more and more red with every second that their father spoke.

“Not every match needs to be a love match, and at this point, the quicker you marry, the better. In fact, I saw you dancing last night with a perfectly nice man who has a good fortune of his own - Mr. Finch. If you would only commit to courting him instead, I’m sure you could secure a proposal by summer’s end,” Mr. Collins finished.

Leah winced at the mention of Mr. Finch. Perhaps her father hadn’t heard of how the gray-haired man relentlessly pursued younger women in a way that pressed the bounds of propriety, but Juliana was less likely to inform their father than to yell at him. Before either of them could speak again, Leah stood and crossed the room to speak with her mother.

“I’m going to walk into town and buy a new green ribbon,” she declared. She had no interest in listening to her father and sister argue.

Mrs. Collins looked up at her with a sharp eye, and Leah almost expected to be rebuffed, but her mother only nodded approval. Leah didn't wait around to leave.

Once Leah was in Brassington proper, she found herself promenading around the town square, sifting aimlessly through the various feathers and ribbons offered by many a streetside stand. She had no real desire to buy any ribbon at all. It had seemed like such a good idea, in that moment of watching Juliana and Mr. Collins work up to screaming their heads off at one another, but now she found herself terribly bored again.

So it was to her great delight and relief that she spotted Margo across the square, holding a basket and looking over a stand full of flowers. She called out to the other woman and hurried over to her.

When she got there, Margo looked quite flushed. “I am sure I am glad to see you, Miss, but you do not want to be seen in my company in the daylight like this,” she said, turning away.

Leah caught her arm. “I would very much like to be seen in your company, as anyone would like to be seen in the company of a friendly and upright young woman,” she said firmly. “Please allow me to join you.”

Margo hesitated, then nodded shyly.

Leah glanced over into the basket. “What are you shopping for?”

“Oh! Eggs,” Margo said, holding up the basket so Leah could see. “There is a seller here which the Earl is fond of above all others. And a feather, for my mother, who is partial to them. And then I thought of purchasing some bread or flowers for my family’s own table, but…” She flushed. “Well, I thought better of it.”

Immediately, Leah reached for her coin purse and pulled out some of her pin money. Margo’s eyes went wide. “Miss Collins, you don’t need to do that,” she said.

“I told you, call me Leah,” she said. She purchased a handful of strong-smelling lavender and laid it in Margo’s basket. “Now, tell me, where is the baker you prefer to buy from?”

Margo was gaping. “Th-thank you,” she stammered. Leah blushed. She knew her behavior was very unusual.

“It was nothing,” she said, suddenly feeling shy. “Only I have this pin money, and nothing to spend it on but ribbons and frivolities. I should much prefer to spend it on a friend.”

They finished the shopping, with Leah buying an extra two loaves of bread for the Kolpakov’s table. Margo then beseeched her to come back to the Earl’s mansion with her.

“It cannot be proper that you buy so much for my family and yet do not come along to be thanked in person,” Margo insisted. “It will not take very long, and then you could ask the Earl for a carriage back home.”

Leah thought privately that it would be rather awkward asking the Earl for a carriage when he hadn’t even known she was at his house, but she was also fond of long walks. She agreed to go.

It was somewhat thrilling to go into a house through the servants’ doors rather than the main entrance. Leah was not very experienced in society, of course, but since Juliana had been out in society Leah had occasionally tagged along to private balls and dinner parties, which, according to her mother, was a good way to gain social experience without yet being considered a lady. But she had never seen the underbelly of any truly upper-class house.

They entered through the kitchens, which Margo navigated with ease, but the sounds and the scents and the bustling almost immediately overwhelmed Leah. She stepped back, feeling faint. Margo returned to her side and, transferring the basket to one hand, grabbed Leah’s hand. Their fingers twined together - Margo’s hand was very warm, Leah thought, and very soft.

With an anchor, Leah felt much less faint. The other servants all greeted Margo and were willing to step aside for her. They gave Leah friendly, but casual nods, obviously assuming she was a working girl. If Leah were not so anxious, it might have been thrilling.

Finally Margo and Leah crossed into the servants’ quarters, which were much quieter, it being during working hours. Leah took a deep breath. She could smell tarragon and dill, but also cinnamon.

“This way,” Margo said, leading her on. Even though they were out of the crowds now, Margo did not let go of Leah.

Finally Margo came to a door which she knocked on casually, then opened - dropping Leah’s hand to do so. Leah pulled her arm away, feeling strangely cold and disappointed.

The door opened to reveal a small apartment. There was a hearth to one side, empty for the summer, and a table with three roughly-hewn chairs. Opposite the hearth was a cot, in which lay an older woman. She had black hair that was even curlier than Margo’s and a dull blue gaze - she must have been tired, or perhaps ill. 

The fourth chair from the table set had been pulled over next to the cot, and was occupied by a young man in a groomsman’s uniform, who was tending to the older woman. His hair was lighter and straighter than either Margo’s or the older woman’s, and he was rather short and thin. Something about the set of his jaw, or perhaps his nose, looked familiar to Leah, though she could not quite put her finger on why.

Apart from the spare furniture in the room, there was one more thing - Leah gasped slightly as she saw an old, but beautiful teal gown hanging from an otherwise-empty wall. It was dull with age, but had clearly been a huge luxury when it was first purchased.

While Leah looked around, Margo set the basket on the table. “I didn’t expect you to be here, Harcourt,” she said to the young man.

“Well, someone needs to look after Mother while she is ill,” he replied, almost loftily.

“Someone also needs to look after the horses, a job which the Earl has entrusted to you,” Margo said.

“The horses are well enough,” Harcourt said. “And if the job is so urgent, the Earl can employ another. There is no shortage of young men looking for work, in my opinion.”

Margo just rolled her eyes and turned away.

Leah felt rather awkward. Finally she attempted a curtsy and said, “It’s good to meet you all. My name is Leah Collins.”

Harcourt’s brow raised. “Collins, you say? Daughter of Rory Collins?” He turned to Margo. “You brought a… lady into our home?”

“A friend,” Margo said, flushing. “And one who has bought half the food we will eat tonight, so hush.”

Well, then,” Harcourt said. He looked to Leah again, bowing deeply. “My name is Harcourt Kolpakov, the brother of your… friend.”

“Good to meet you,” Leah said.

The older woman, who had been watching the conversation through half-lidded eyes, now sat up with a cough.“I am Alexandra Kolpakov, their mother. We thank you for your generosity, and we are pleased to make your acquaintance.”  She had a light accent as she spoke, but one which Leah could not identify. 

“And I yours, Mrs. Kolpakov,” Leah said. Immediately she knew this was the wrong thing to say - Harcourt burst out laughing and started to clap, while Margo shot her brother a dirty look, then coughed and turned away.

“I am unmarried,” Alexandra said with a wry smile. “And this is not a formal environment. Please, call me Sasha.”

Leah, who felt horribly embarrassed both by her on faux pas and because of the sudden scandal of being here - Margo and Harcourt are bastards? Does that mean Sasha is a fallen woman? Isn't it wrong to call an older woman by her name? Isn’t it scandalous to call a young man by his name with no intention of marriage?  - just curtsied again. Her face felt hot and she knew she was blushing, which only embarrassed her more.

Harcourt was still giggling, and wiped away a tear. “Oh, I see why you like her now, Margo,” he said. “And I see now why the officers advise recruits find a lady to write to while they are in France. The innocence is terribly amusing.”

“Hush,” Margo said, obviously irritated. “You may have designs upon the army, but for now, you are still in the employ of the Earl.”

“O, his mighty Grace,” Harcourt crowed, launching into an elaborate salute which ended with him smacking his own forehead. “Ever grateful to him we should be, for employing our lowly selves and giving us a few shillings a week out of his inheritance. Cor bless ‘im, I say.”

It should have been uncomfortable, even irritating, to hear a man of such low status insult a family friend that way, but instead Leah found herself fascinated. She far preferred the honest enmity with which Harcourt was speaking to the hidden, poisonous barbs or suspicious sidelong glances that might be exchanged between two enemies at an upper-class social event.

Margo, however, obviously did not like how her brother was talking. “You are still in his employ,” she repeated, “and you’d better do your job, lest you lose those few shillings and the roof over our heads.”

“Very well,” Harcourt shrugged. “You are here to take care of Mama now, in any case. It was good to meet you, Miss Collins,” he added with a tip of his hat as he walked out the door.

Sasha laid back down again, closing her eyes. “He shall be the death of you and me both, Margo,” she murmured.

Margo snorted. Turning to Leah, she said, “I am awfully sorry for my brother’s behavior. I know he must have come off as very boorish.”

“Not at all,” Leah said. “I quite liked him. He reminds me of my sister, in a way, and also of someone else, though I could not say who.”

Margo pressed her lips together, looking almost… nervous? “He just has one of those faces, I think.”

Leah decided to drop the subject. “Forgive me for my curiousity, but your family name is Russian, yes?” she said.

“I am from Russia,” Sasha said from her cot, not opening her eyes. “The children’s father was English. He chose their names.”

Margo said nothing, her face hidden to Leah by her hair. Leah glanced around. The family history was intriguing - who was the childrens’ father? why had he never married Sasha? why did they have that lovely dress on the wall? But it was obvious that whatever the history was, it was embarrassing for Margo at the very least, and Leah had no desire to make her friend uncomfortable.

It was strange, she thought. At balls the topic of conversation was always on family gossip - who was marrying whom, or who had fallen out with whom. But with those sorts of topics seemingly forbidden, Leah wasn’t completely sure what to say. She thought her mother had instructed her well in the art of conversation, but it seemed fully lost to her now.

But then, conversation was not the centerpiece of the Kolpakov’s interactions, was it? They spoke in words, yes. But behind the bickering, Harcourt had slacked off from his only job to care for his sick mother, and Margo had bought her mother an expensive feather and started to tidy the apartment while she was ill. Though they had teased one another, it was obvious how much the Kolpakovs cared for each other.

Leah thought she much preferred this kind of affection to idle conversation. She glanced around, rolled up her sleeves, spotted a broom, and started to sweep.

Margo blanched immediately. “You don’t have to do that, my lady. Here - it’s my job-” She hurried over and tried to take the broom from Leah’s hands. Their fingers brushed, and something about it made Leah’s heart race.

“I want to help,” Leah said firmly. “You should be caring for your mother. Let me clean up for you. And, I want you to call me Leah.”

Margo stared at her for a moment with those warm amber eyes. Leah thought again that a young gentleman could get lost in those eyes; that it was only too bad that Margo was not a lady, because if she were, she would inspire sonnets that would put Shakespeare to shame.

Margo dropped her hands from the broom. “Okay,” she said quietly. “Thank you.”

Over the next couple of weeks, Leah found that she had little time to make the trek to the Earl’s estate - and even if she had had the time, she was sure Juliana would want to accompany her, and Leah did not have the bravery to admit to either her sister or the Earl that she had formed a real friendship with one of the Earl’s servants. So instead, she wrote to Margo. She adopted the name of a gentleman - an imaginary Mr. Jason Argonaut - so that no one would know it was her except for Margo, and the two of them wrote one another fervently, frequently exchanging five letters a week. As more and more time passed, Leah began to wish more and more that she were free of the obligations of the social season, and that she could spend all her time with Margo as though she were a young girl again.

But her wish did not come true, and soon another ball was upon her - this one publicly hosted at the local assembly hall.

The Collinses were among the first parties to arrive, and Leah and Juliana stood together for a while at the side of the room, watching the various gentry pour in. Juliana kept hiding behind her fan and making snide little comments into Leah’s ear, and Leah, who was trying to be nice, would smile and nod to each young gentleman and lady even as Juliana mocked them ruthlessly.

The room was filling up, and it was beginning to grow late; the girls’ cousin Phoebe had arrived and come to stand on Juliana’s other side, hands folded primly behind her back. Juliana was growing visibly anxious. Leah wasn’t sure if her sister was wondering about the whereabouts of the Earl, or keeping a nervous watch out for Arthur Finch. Phoebe was obviously growing nervous too, and Leah thought she understood that - it was quite clear by now that there were more women in the room than men, which was always bad for a girl’s chances of courtship.

The room suddenly hushed as a new guest was announced. Leah stood up on her tiptoes to get a good look. The Earl was standing there… and on his arm, his “companion, Miss Dinah Turner.”

Miss Turner was a tall woman with soft brown hair, creamy-pale skin and small pink lips. She was the very picture of beauty.

Juliana grabbed Leah’s arm so hard it hurt.

The Earl had hardly been but introduced before Mr. Finch approached Juliana and asked for a spot on her dance card, prompting an even sourer look from the eldest Collins girl. Juliana held her dance card out to him. “One dance tonight, Mr. Finch, or you shall ruin my reputation,” she said sharply.

“Well, I would hate to do that,” he murmured.

Once again, Mr. Finch claimed the first dance of the evening, and as the music started up he led Juliana off. Phoebe and Leah decided to dance together, in the absence of any young gentlemen. Once the first dance had finished, Silas Pembroke’s friend Mr. Ramsbury came to Phoebe and asked her to dance again, and she accepted. Leah stepped back toward the sidelines of the room - and found herself bumping into someone.

She turned and saw that she had run into Dinah Turner. The Earl was nowhere to be seen.

“I-I’m so sorry,” Leah stammered, curtsying.

“No, it was my fault - I should have seen you coming,” Miss Turner said kindly. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Leah Collins.”

“Good to meet you, Miss Collins. I’m Dinah Turner, though I expect you already know that,” Miss Turner said. “Are you quite sure you’re all right?”

“Yes,” Leah said, blushing. “I was just spooked, that’s all.”

Miss Turner smiled and patted her hand, then glanced around. “Are you without a dance partner at the moment, Miss Collins?”

“Er, yes.”

“So am I. Would you be opposed to pairing up for this dance?”

Leah accepted, and soon they had joined the other couples on the dance floor. At first they did not speak at all - Miss Turner seemed to be enjoying herself well enough just from dancing. But finally Leah, overcome by curiosity, blurted, “Where is the Earl? Has he not filled your dance card tonight?”

Miss Turner laughed. “If he did, I should be very angry with him - I am engaged.”

“To who?”

“A soldier from Brooksfield - you wouldn’t know him, I’m afraid,” Miss Turner said. “The Earl is only an old friend of my brother’s, and I have come along on a visit. My brother is not interested in society, but I am always fond of a dance, you see, so on my last night here in Brassington I beseeched the Earl to bring me to a local ball and introduce me around.”

“Well, congratulations on your engagement,” Leah said.

“Thank you.”

“But where is the Earl?” Leah pressed.

“I’m not sure. He was feeling rather ill this afternoon, so I’d imagine now that he’s done his duty to me that he’s withdrawn to the drawing room,” Miss Turner said. With a teasing tone in her voice, she added, “Why? Have you designs on him yourself?”

“No,” Leah admitted, “but my sister… well, she may be disappointed not to see him tonight.” Especially since she probably thinks you’re her rival, and double especially since with no one else around to stop him, Mr. Finch may have some designs on her.

Later that night, Leah and Juliana dressed for bed by candle-light, each exhausted from the long night.

“Did you manage to escape Mr. Finch?” Leah said, trying to be delicate.

Juliana sighed dramatically, pulling her dress over her head and accidentally freeing her hair in the process. “For a while, yes, but he captured me again at the very end of the ball like the spider he is,” she said. “I managed to hold him off with Mr. Pembroke, and his friend Ramsbury, and some other sprout whose name I hardly remember.” Juliana paused, grabbing the dance card off the wrist of her dress and examining it. “Ah, yes. Stapleton.”

The red-haired girl now turned to her sister with an appraising eye. “I saw you dancing with Miss Turner more than once, you traitor,” Juliana said. Her tone was only half-joking.

Leah sighed. She knew her sister wasn't really mad at her, so much as at the frustration that her final season had wrought. “It’s a good thing I did,” she said. “How else would you have learned that the Earl is not actually courting her?”

Juliana scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. Why else would she arrive on his arm?”

Leah relayed the whole of the explanation of Miss Turner’s engagement, her love of dancing, and even that the Earl had been ill and likely not meaning to avoid anyone. Juliana sat down on the bed, looking somewhat dumbfounded.

“Do you think he is playing me for a fool, Leah?” Juliana said. “Should I just do as Father says and give up and marry miserable old Mr. Finch?”

“I don’t know,” Leah admitted. She, too, was wondering what the Earl’s motivations could possibly be for his hot-and-cold treatment of Juliana. “But I can tell you this. Even if Mr. Finch is wealthy enough to take care of you, all the money in the world could not possibly be enough to stand his company.”

Juliana laughed, then looked thoughtful. “I have often thought I could secure a proposal from Silas Pembroke,” she said. “He is very fond of me, and I actually enjoy his company, even if he is a bit air-headed. But he is a second son. He will inherit little. If I am not to marry into money, I should like to at least marry for love.”

Leah sighed. She flopped back on the bed. She was tired of dancing and balls and politics and gentlemen. “This is all so dreadfully… dreadful,” she declared. “Can I tell you something honestly, Juliana? If it were up to me, I would not marry at all. I… I hate society, and I hate putting up with old men like Finch, and I hate putting up with young fools like Pembroke and Ramsbury, and I hate spending every other night at some social event and coming home worn out and having nothing to show for it. I have not met a single man whose company I think I could stand for the rest of my life.”

Juliana pursed her lips and looked sympathetic. “Do you really feel that way?” she said.

“Yes,” Leah said honestly. It felt good to speak the truth, instead of pushing it down for the sake of everyone else.

Juliana glanced away, looking conflicted, then leaned over the bed to speak quietly to Leah. “I am your elder sister, and that makes me responsible for you. Perhaps not in the same way as an older brother, but I set the precedent for your matches, and if you never marry, it is the duty of my husband to provide for you once Father is gone.” The redhead hesitated, and Leah realized she was speaking very seriously. “If you wish to be a spinster, I will marry someone who is wealthy enough to support us both. I will not let you marry someone you hate, nor will I let you rot in poverty. Even if that means I have to spend the rest of my life with dreadful old Finch.”

Leah stared up at her sister's face, astonished. “Th-thank you,” she stammered.

Juliana looked somber. “I am only doing my job as your sister,” she said. With that, Juliana put out the candle on her side of the bed, and laid down.

Leah turned over and put out her own candle, then stared at the wall, listening to her sister breathe. She had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach about what Juliana might do next. The truth was, all their problems would be solved if her sister could just marry someone who both had a good inheritance and who she loved. And there was an easy key to that problem - the Earl. If Juliana married him, she and Leah would both be happy.

But despite his plain fondness for Juliana, the Earl hadn’t proposed, and Leah had no idea why he hadn't proposed.

But, she realized, she did know someone who might know, or might be able to find out.

She sat up and relit her candle, pinned up her hair, and went to her desk to gather her writing materials. “What’re you doing?” Juliana asked sleepily.

“I forgot I have an urgent letter to write,” Leah replied.

By afternoon post the next day, Mr. Gray, the Collins’ butler, announced up the stairs to Leah that a letter had arrived for her from Margaret St. Clair - which was the name Margaret used when writing Leah, so that no one would know she was spending so much time in the company of a servant girl.

Leah ran down the stairs so enthusiastically that she hardly even realized her hair was only half-pinned - embarrassed, she held it in place as she thanked Mr. Gray for the letter. He stepped off to deliver the rest of the mail to Mr. Collins, so Leah tore open the letter and read it standing there in the entryway.

Dearest Leah,

I must agree with you that Juliana’s words are troubling. When you first came to our home and met Harcourt, you said that he reminded you of Juliana. I knew nothing of her then, and even when you first began to write me, I could not much see the similarities from your descriptions, but now I see what you mean. Juliana’s rash determination to marry Mr. Finch strikes me as fundamentally similar to my brother's deep and burning desire to join the army. Just as Juliana will not wait for other options to reveal themselves, my brother refuses to wait for better employment, even though the Earl has promised him the position of steward after Mr. Hill passes away.

But I shall not ignore your urgent plea any longer. The fact is, I could have written my reply to you even sooner this morning if I were a truly honest person. If I were truly honest, I should have told you the whole story already. I have thought this many times, and have often wished to tell you the truth.

The answers you are searching for are ones I simply cannot provide. Even if I ignored the risk to my own self that comes with revealing this, I have my family to think of. I know that you only ask in the interest of helping your own family, but I simply cannot put my own at risk for the sake of yours. Moreover, the truth you are asking after concerns the Earl of Nott at least as much as it does me and my mother and brother, and I cannot in good conscience reveal his business to you without his permission.

The truth is this: you are correct that there is something you do not know. The House of Nott is built upon a dark lie, which is buried deeper than its lowest wine cellar. I cannot tell you more than this.

Yours,
Margo

Leah read the letter over several times, forgetting entirely to hold up her unpinned hair. What on earth was Margo talking about? Leah had only asked why the Earl had never declared any intentions to Juliana; had she hit upon something deeper somehow?

Her father came out of his office, holding a letter of his own. He put a hand on Leah’s shoulder. “Good news from Miss St. Clair, I hope?” he said, obviously catching the dumbfounded look on her face.

Leah glanced up at Mr. Collins, and put on a smile. “Oh, yes,” she lied. “Her older sister is pregnant with her first child.”

“How wonderful. Perhaps if we get lucky, that's a feeling you may experience sometime this year,” Mr. Collins said dryly. “Speaking of which, we’ve been invited to visit the Earl for dinner at his estate. Juliana will be thrilled, hm?”

“Yes, I’m sure she will,” Leah said, squashing down her smile. She herself wasn’t quite thrilled, but she was ready to confront the Earl, and hear what he had to say.

After dinner at the Earl’s estate that night, Mrs. Collins and Juliana stood to leave the room as expected, and so did Leah - but she lingered, and once she was quite sure her mother and sister were gone she coughed quietly to recapture the attention of Mr. Collins and the Earl.

“What is it, Leah?” her father said.

She hesitated. She only wished she could have spoken with the Earl alone, but to request that would raise suspicion and only guarantee that her father would stay in the room as a chaperone. But Mr. Collins was an understanding man. Maybe…

“I need to speak with the Earl,” she said. “It is a matter of some delicacy - nothing scandalous,” she added quickly at the look on her father’s face, “but… something which I’d rather speak about in privacy. Perhaps we could speak in the hall, where you could see us but not hear our words.”

Mr. Collins and the Earl both looked rather perplexed, but each agreed to the arrangement, and Leah stepped out into the hall.

When the Earl followed, he was still obviously befuddled. “Miss Collins, are you quite all right?” he said.

“Fine, Your Grace,” she said. “Only Juliana is now determined to marry Mr. Arthur Finch.”

Leah had always thought of the Earl as a man who was rather stiff and unemotional, but his mouth formed a tiny ‘o,’ and then he visibly slumped. “But…” he said. “She can’t. He is more than twenty years her senior, and…”

“But nothing,” Leah said. “It is not as though you have given her any other option. She has spent two long years courting you, and seen nothing from it. She is worried about setting a precedent for me.” This last part was technically not true, but the white lie suited her purposes. Leah continued, “She has no choice now but to marry for money, since her obvious love for you has been ignored.”

“L-love?” the Earl said. She thought that he looked torn between utter surprise and misery.

“Yes, love,” Leah snapped. “Or did you think that she sought you out at every possible moment for two years just to amuse herself? Now listen to me. If it were too late to end her courtship with Mr. Finch, I would not be speaking to you. So I will ask you the question of utmost importance - do you love my sister?”

“I- I do,” the Earl stammered.

“Then propose to her before it is too late,” Leah urged.

“I cannot.”

“Why?”

“I just cannot,” he said, shaking his head. “I care for your sister very deeply. I never had any intention of wasting her time - just giving her companionship. And if she does marry Mr. Finch, I shall not consider my time wasted, because it is never a waste to find such a close friend in such a lovely woman and to be given the gift of so much time with her. But I simply cannot marry her.”

Leah couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Suddenly throwing all regard for manners away, she turned and stomped down the hall.

“Miss Collins, wait,” the Earl called after her, but she ignored him.

She knew that her mother and sister were holed up in some drawing room or another, but Leah was of no mind to join them - and especially not to see the miserable look which had fixed itself firmly fixed itself on Juliana’s face since her decision, and which would only seem more potent in light of the Earl’s admitting his feelings. Instead, Leah found herself stomping out the side doors and heading out into the garden.

She was not at all looking where she was going, but found herself passing near the doors to the servants’ quarters, where several maids were carrying baskets inside. One of them stopped short, then grabbed her arm. “Leah? Are you all right?”

Leah stared in astonishment. “Margo?”

It had been a while now since she had seen her friend in person, and she was suddenly struck by Margo’s beauty, even more than she had been at their first meeting. The other woman’s curly black hair wasn’t tied up but loosely floating over her face, and her brows were knit with quiet concern. There was a mole just next to her eye that Leah hadn't noticed before.

“Are you okay?” Margo repeated, putting her hands on Leah’s shoulders.

Leah sighed. “I’m fine. It is only that I tried to convince the Earl to propose to my sister, and he absolutely refused even as he admitted that he loved her. It’s so frustrating. Neither of us wants to see Juliana unhappy, and yet I cannot get him to understand that he is by far her best chance at happiness.” She glanced up at Margo, holding her gaze. “Why would anyone ever refuse to marry someone they truly loved? What possible reason could there be?”

Margo just looked at her for a long moment.

Leah sighed. “I know you can't tell me. It’s just all so awful.”

“Come on,” Margo said. She dropped her hands from Leah’s shoulders, then took Leah’s hand in hers. “Let’s walk out into the gardens and have a look around. It’s a lovely night.”

Leah took a deep breath, letting her lungs fill, then letting her anxieties leave her as she exhaled. “You’re right,” she said, feeling calmer. “Let’s go.”

Margo passed off her basket to another of the serving maids, and they traipsed over the lawn in front of the estate, heading for a hedged garden off to one side which, Margo claimed, had a lovely pavilion. They navigated through the lilac bushes and soon sat down on the steps of the pavilion, which was made with a dark gray stone that felt nice and cool to the touch.

“I know that you care for your sister very much,” Margo said quietly. “But perhaps you should not spend so much time concerned for her prospects. For example, how has your season gone?”

“Terribly,” Leah admitted with a laugh. “I have danced with more women than men, I think.”

Margo leaned over and tapped Leah’s nose with a round finger. “Perhaps you ought to be more worried about that, then.”

A lump formed in Leah’s stomach. She hated being at balls enough; did she really have to talk about them all the time, with everyone? Even with the one friend who she thought was uninterested in society? “Maybe I should be,” she said. “But if I’m being honest, I’m not.”

“Don’t you want to marry?”

“Not really,” Leah said. “I cannot imagine being happy as a Mrs.”

“Why do you think not?”

Leah took her hand out from Margo’s and clasped her own fingers together. She unclasped them and rubbed the back of one hand with her fingers. Then she turned both hands over so that she could see her palms. “I don't know,” she said, keeping her eyes on her hands. “I- I think that I cannot imagine being affectionate with a man. My mother and father might kiss, or look at one another lovingly, or retire to the same bedroom, but no matter how hard I try I cannot imagine myself doing the same with any of the gentlemen I’ve met. Or perhaps any gentleman at all.”

“Maybe you’re just nervous,” Margo said softly. “Maybe- maybe you just need practice, with being affectionate. Like how you might practice a speech beforehand to ease your nerves.”

“And how should I practice being affectionate with a gentleman in a way that does not invite scandal upon my name?” Leah said, bumping her shoulder playfully against Margo’s. She glanced at her friend.

Margo’s amber gaze had grown intense. Hungry, even. Leah couldn’t quite seem to look away.

“Maybe you could practice with me,” Margo murmured. She reached out and touched Leah’s cheek, and Leah found herself leaning in.

They kissed. Then they kissed again. Leah ran her hands through Margo’s hair, loosing it from its bun. It was coarse and thick under her fingers. Margo’s wide hand crept to the small of her back.

Suddenly aware of what they were doing, Leah pulled away. “That was… good practice,” she gasped.

Margo’s face was flushed. Her hair, completely freed, floated in curls around her face like a halo. “Leah,” she said.

Leah stood up and backed away. The lump in her stomach was back. “I- Listen. Margo. We can’t do this,” she said.

“Leah, wait,” Margo said. “I think I love-”

“No,” Leah said. “You may care for me in, in the way that a gentleman cares for a lady… or perhaps the other way around. But that doesn’t matter. We cannot marry. And so all that an affair will bring us is paranoia and terror and eventual scandal.”

Leah hesitated, telling herself she was just nervous and jumpy, not waiting, not hoping for Margo to argue with her. But Margo said nothing, just stared at her mournfully.

“I bid you good night, Miss Kolpakov,” Leah said, and she turned and ran away.

In the days after, Leah did not write to Margo, and Margo did not attempt to contact her. It should have been something she was used to. She had never had any pen pals as a girl, apart from the occasional letter sent to her by her cousin Phoebe. But suddenly now the day seemed so empty, when she could not fill it with correspondence, and so lonesome. She started to walk into Brassington proper more often, even when she had nothing to shop for.

It probably should not have been a surprise, then, when she encountered Harcourt Kolpakov.

He called out her name from across the market, and rushed up to her with a hasty, but exaggerated bow. “It’s good to see you, Miss Collins,” he said. “Although I must confess I am surprised to see a young lady of such high status shopping among us lowly folk.”

Leah looked him up and down. Had Margo not told him of their falling out? Perhaps not; it would have been hard to explain. She settled for a reserved smile. “My family does not have that high a status, Mr. Kolpakov,” she said. “Although I suppose I will admit I am less shopping than looking.”

“We call that shopping with the eyes, my lady,” Harcourt said. “Did my sister write and tell you? I’ve officially enlisted in the army. I shall be in France by December.”

Leah opened her mouth to speak, but then hesitated - she didn’t quite have the heart to tell him that she hadn’t heard anything from Margo, especially if Margo hadn’t told him of the end of their friendship. “I… have been rather ill of late,” she said. “I haven’t had the presence of mind to read any letters. But congratulations.”

He thanked her and began to speak about something else - the region of France he hoped to be assigned to versus the shifting fronts of the war - but Leah’s mind wandered. It occurred to her that if Margo had known the Earl’s secret, surely Harcourt did as well. It would still be possible for her to get the Earl to propose to Juliana.

“Mr. Kolpakov,” she cut in with a sweet smile, “I wondered if I might ask you about a matter of… some delicacy. If you would be willing to answer, do you know why the Earl has so long refrained from declaring his intentions to my sister?”

The playful look dropped from Harcourt’s face. He raised one eyebrow at her. “You are right, that is a matter of some delicacy,” he said. “Why do you wish to know?”

“If I cannot convince him to go through with a proposal, my sister will marry a man many years her senior, who has already damaged her reputation in his relentless pursuit of her. He will not treat her well,” Leah said.

He looked at her curiously. “You would do anything for your sister?”

“Yes,” she said without hesitation.

Harcourt glanced around the market. No one was standing particularly close to them, but he still seemed apprehensive. “Perhaps I could walk you part of your way home. Your estate is on the way to the Earl’s, after all,” he said casually.

Leah hesitated. This was a risky offer. If she were seen walking alone, away from public eyes, with a man and a servant man at that… it would certainly damage her reputation. And yet she needed to hear what he had to say.

“Perhaps you could,” she said, holding out her arm to him.

They had walked some ways along the path out of town before Harcourt spoke again. Once more he glanced around nervously before opening his mouth, even though no one was around. “You will be very responsible in who you repeat this to, yes?” Harcourt said.

“Of course.”

“Well, all right. How much do you know about the old Earl of Nott?” he said.

“Almost nothing,” Leah said. “He died before I was born.”

Harcourt gave her a look of some surprise. “Your father has not told you?”

She frowned. “No?”

He shook his head. “Well… all right. The old Earl was… not a good man. He abused his servants, hated his wife, and ignored his children - among other things. And then he went to one of the Queens’ balls.

“He met this beautiful young woman there. Not of the English gentry, but a countess’s daughter from the Continent, visiting her distant relations. She was young, and beautiful. He was enamored, and he charmed her. 

“Once she fell pregnant with his first child, she had no other option than to hope he provided for her. She could not go home and shame her family, but nor could she secure another marriage now that she was ruined. And perhaps foolishly, she thought the Earl would provide for her. Well, I suppose he did. The Earl wanted to avoid her smearing his name, so he offered her a job as a ladies’ maid for his wife. Can you imagine the insult she felt?

“That first child died young, but by then, the young woman was trapped. She fell pregnant twice more before the Earl died. Those children were me and Margo,” he said. “The new Earl - Byron - has kept us in his employ, and promised us positions in the upper staff in the future. But I’d rather be my own man - that’s why I enlisted.”

Leah was hardly listening as Harcourt finished speaking, dizzy with the revelation of the truth. No wonder Margo had been so hesitant to tell her the truth. “But… what does that have to do with the current Earl’s hesitance towards marriage?” she said finally.

Harcourt only shook his head. “That is not for me to tell. He must explain it to you. I only hope that I have helped in some way. But Leah?”

“Yes?”

“Please…” he hesitated. “You must not use this information against my mother or sister. You say you would do anything for Juliana. Please understand that I would do anything for my family, too.”

“Of course,” Leah said firmly. “And thank you for telling me.”

Over the next days, Leah could not decide what to do with the information she had learned. She was half tempted to just tell Juliana and let her work it out, but then her sister seemed grimly set to marry Mr. Finch by now. And the other option, telling the Earl that she had learned his secret… something about it made Leah nervous. Unless she was very careful, she would not come off like a concerned sister but as a blackmailer.

She longed to write her troubles down in a letter and send it off to Margo, but they still had not spoken, and Leah wasn’t sure how to break the silence, or if she should even break it at all.

Instead, she found herself wandering off to her father's study one morning as he worked. She knocked gently on the door.

“Ah, Leah. Good morning,” he said. “Would you like some tea? Your mother brought me this cup, but - don’t tell her I said this - it’s awful.”

“No, thank you,” Leah said. “I only wondered... What do you know about the old Earl of Nott?”

Mr. Collins sat back in his seat, giving her a surprised look, but if he wondered why she wanted to know, he did not ask. “He was… something of an enemy of mine, I suppose. When your mother and I were young, and we were still just tradespeople who had caught the attention and affection of the late Duchess of Brassington, he was the one who led the campaign to block an Irish Papist and his Indian wife from entering the upper orders.”

Leah stepped forward and took a seat in one of the chairs next to her father’s desk. “What else?”

“Much of it is too indelicate for a young lady’s ears,” Mr. Collins said. “He was a bad man, and we should all be blessed that his son does not take after him.”

“He died when Earl Byron was young, correct?”

“When he was ten. Leah… tell me that you shall not see me differently if I disclose something to you,” Mr Collins said.

She nodded eager assent.

“I challenged the old Earl to a duel shortly after purchasing this estate, and he died of an infected wound after. A rumor had gone around that he had besmirched some young woman’s honor and taken advantage of her, and, frankly, I had had enough of it all,” Mr. Collins said. “I regret that I did it when Earl Byron was so young. But perhaps it was for the better. Perhaps it was what allowed him to turn out differently from his father. And regardless, it is not the doing it that I regret. It needed to be done.”

Leah reached out and took her father’s hand, and he smiled at her. She did see him a little differently now, she thought, despite her promise. But he was no less her father.

She felt as though she had learned so much of the world in the span of only a few short days. When her season began, Leah never would have imagined meeting Margo and the Kolpakovs, or her frantic race to save Juliana from Mr. Finch, or all the secrets she had dug up about the House of Nott.

She had not been completely sure on what to do with those secrets, but really, she had already known what she needed to do - Juliana had to know, and the Earl had to be given the chance to explain everything from his point of view. It made her nervous, to be sure. There were so many things that could go wrong. But it was as her father had said - it needed to be done.

Leah squeezed Mr Collins’ hand. “Thank you, for telling me, Pappa,” she said, and took her leave.

The Pembrokes were holding a luncheon that week on their lawn, one which was open to younger members of the family. It was an annual tradition, and Leah had many fond memories of running around the Pembrokes’ grounds as a girl with her sister, her cousin, and their peers. But she was a lady now, and she had things to do.

Juliana insisted on taking a promenade and walking by where the children were playing so that she could coo over the Pembrokes’ youngest, Edith - so Leah endured the sticky hands of the little ones, keeping an eye out. When she spotted the Earl exchanging pleasantries with Duke Brassington, she wrenched Juliana away and steered her towards them.

“But I was just getting little Ambrose to tell me about her studies,” Juliana complained, staggering as Leah practically dragged her.

Leah marched the pair of them up to the Earl and the Duke, then gave a practiced, innocent smile and a curtsy. “Your Grace,” she said. 

“And who might these young ladies be?” the Duke said, looking them over.

If Leah weren’t paying attention, she might have missed the way the Earl’s cheeks tinged slightly pink. “The Misses Collins, my Lord. They are the daughters of your late mother’s friend Mr. Collins,” he said.

Juliana curtsied too, now. “How do you do,” she said, not quite looking at either the Earl or the Duke.

“Speaking of our father,” Leah cut in, “he had wondered whether you would be joining us at our meal, your Grace. I think he should like to see you.” Juliana opened her fan and shot Leah a confused glance, but she ignored it.

The Duke very clearly hid a laugh behind a cough, and elbowed the Earl - who shot him a glare, and then accepted the invitation. Juliana and Leah walked on either side of him as they headed back to the Collins’ table, and he linked his elbow with Juliana’s.

“What lovely fall weather we’re having,” Leah said, folding her hands behind her back. “Do you think this will be the last time we can go outside before spring?”

She knew how much the Earl and Juliana both liked to be right - this was a trap. Even now, the Earl was nodding. “Yes, I imagine it will be uncomfortably cold by tomorrow morn.”

“I disagree,” Juliana said. “Feel how uncommonly warm the air is on your skin. We shall have a few weeks yet before snow comes.”

“How would you know anything of the passing of seasons? You have never had to manage tenants,” the Earl said.

“I have only twenty-six long years of observations to rely on. Tell you what - I’ll bet you a shilling that snow does not come before November’s arrival.”

“I’ll take you up on that.”

Leah coughed, recapturing both their attention. “Even if we are to have some weeks before snow, I cannot imagine it will be too pleasant to walk in those weeks before,” she said.

“Well, yes,” Juliana admitted. The Earl nodded along.

“So, perhaps we had better enjoy the fresh air while we can. Have either of you yet walked through Sir Pembroke’s rose garden?” Leah said. With that, she took the Duke’s elbow and began to steer him towards said garden. At his other side, Juliana stumbled as they suddenly changed course, and he grabbed her hand to steady her.

“Er- didn’t you say your father wished to see me?” the Earl said.

“He will wait,” Leah said cheerfully. “The lovely weather will not. Come along.”

Finally they found themselves alone among the roses. Leah broke away from the Earl and Juliana to check around and ensure no one was listening, but it seemed that they had a rare moment of true privacy. Leah turned back to her sister and the Earl, who were both staring at her, bewildered.

“I know the truth,” she told him. “I know about your father and the Kolpakovs.”

The Earl’s jaw dropped. “What? …Who told you?”

Unwilling to throw Harcourt under the wheels of a carriage, Leah said, “That doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this is why you refuse to propose to Juliana, is it not?”

“I wouldn't say refuse… I… Miss Collins…” The Earl blinked and glanced at the redhead next to him, who was staring at him with knit brows.

“You have spent two long years courting her and now, because of you, she may be forced to marry a man she does not love in order to avoid poverty,” Leah said sharply. “At the very least, you owe her an explanation. A full explanation. Or I shall give it to her myself.”

The Earl sighed. “…Very well. Please, Miss Collins, sit down,” he said.

Both of the sisters took a seat on a bench, and he began to speak.

“My father had an affair with the woman he hired as my mother’s ladies’ maid,” the Earl said. “Well, it is a little more complex than that - but that is the short of it. That affair produced two children. Being the man he was, my father did not give a single thought to any of their welfare, only his own, and to him the best way to control her was to own her by making himself her employer. 

“But once both my parents had died, and I inherited my father’s estate, the woman he ruined came to me and explained everything. She was desperate to keep her job, because by then she was known around town as my father's pet and she could not find other employment. Moreover, she begged that her children be hired by my estate as well, once they were old enough to work.

“I was but a child at the time, but I understood everything. By some miracle I managed to convince the cousin that ran the estate for those years that he should retain her, even when he laid off many of the other serving staff. And now that I am in charge, I pay them well - as well as I can, with the jobs they have. And I have promised her son and daughter to be the next steward and housekeeper, respectively, once the current staff retire.

“But I knew - have always known - that if this secret came out it would bring shame and scandal upon my father’s name. And not just his, but the Kolpakovs - they would never find work again. And it would bring scandal, too, upon my own name, and the name of my wife and children. My daughters might never marry.

“So I decided that I must not marry for love - never. For if ever there were a woman I loved, I could not stand to put her and her children in such danger just for the sake of my own happiness,” the Earl finished, shaking his head. “That is why I apologize, Juliana, but I cannot marry you.”

Juliana stood up suddenly, and Leah glanced over to her. The redhead was staring at the Earl incredulously. “Byron, you daft-headed dandy,” she said. 

“Er… what?” the Earl said.

First,” Juliana said, “you are an Earl. Your daughter would not be ruined by a single rumor about your father. Any man who avoided marriage with a lady because of her grandfather’s scandal would be an even bigger fool than you have been, and I must say that is almost impressive.

“Second, it is hardly a difficult secret to keep. I imagine apart from the three of us, the only ones who know are the Kolpakovs themselves - yes? I do not think any of the members of that list should be motivated to go around revealing your father’s secret willy-nilly.

“And third, most importantly… I love you,” she said. “I love you today, but if tomorrow morning came and your reputation had been destroyed, your land and title stripped from you, I would still love you then. You are my dearest friend. You must know that, Byron.”

Leah had always thought of the Earl as a stiff and unemotional man, but he was gaping now, staring at Juliana with wide, wet eyes and looking distinctly ruffled.

“If that is the case…” He took one step forward, then another, and kneeled in front of Juliana. The way he gazed at her could only be described as adoring. “I beseech you to marry me, Miss Collins. It would be a gift, to spend the rest of my days in your presence.”

Juliana rolled her eyes affectionately. “Of course I will marry you.”

Leah coughed, and both of them glanced at her. She smiled shyly. “Not to interrupt… but I think my father rather will like to speak to you now.”

The look on the elder Collins’ faces when they were told of the engagement made Leah wish she was more skilled as an artist, so that she could sketch it down and remember it forever. She was especially amused when she spotted her father begrudgingly handing a few shillings over to her mother. Once congratulations had all been said, Mr. Collins and the Earl almost immediately started to talk about the specifics - would the Earl procure a common license for a shorter engagement? Which cousins would be invited to the wedding? Meanwhile, Mrs. Collins pulled out a piece of paper and began to calculate the cost for a proper trousseau.

Leah was delighted for her sister, of course, but in the week leading up to the wedding she had other things on her mind - her own future. And so, after private conversations and promises procured between herself, the Earl, and Juliana, she took a carriage to the Earl’s estate.

She found Margo in the Countess’s chambers, tidying them for Juliana’s upcoming arrival. “Hi, Margo,” Leah said, and winced at the way her own voice cracked.

Margo did a double take. “You- wh-” she spluttered. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to talk to you.”

The other woman’s expression darkened. “I thought you didn’t want to see me anymore.”

“Margo…” Leah stepped forward and took hold of her friend’s wrist. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said what I said.”

Margo jerked her arm away from Leah. “I know why you’re here,” she spat. “You’re trying to kiss and make up. Now that your sister is marrying a rich man, you want to be a spinster and keep- keep using me for your own amusement, because you can. Because it’s safe now.”

“Margo, it’s not like that,” Leah said softly.

There was a loose curl drifting over Margo’s forehead. Leah longed to reach out and gently brush it back. Her friend said nothing, just stared at her warily.

“There was something the Earl said, when I was trying to work this whole mess out… and it made me think,” Leah said. “There is always danger in love, isn’t there? Even in the safest places, between a gentleman and a lady of equal status, it’s a risk to admit that you love someone. The object of your affection may reject you. Or if you are happily married, they may die, and you may be left to mourn your true love. But despite all this… we do not dismiss love entirely. We hold on to it. We cherish it.

“I was foolish, not just for insulting you the way I did, but also for dismissing love just because it carries danger. Just because it might end. All love ends. But that is only the more reason to hold on to it more tightly.

“If you cannot forgive me, Margo, I will never speak of this again, to you or anyone else. But… if you can find it in your heart to accept my apology, I promise that I will cherish every moment we are given, no matter how many there end up being.”

Margo gave her a long, long look and Leah realized that was it. She had already ruined things with her foolishness. It was time to go.

As she turned away, Margo said, “Wait.”

Leah turned to her.

“I would be… lying, if I said I did not still love you,” Margo admitted. “But… what moments will we have to cherish?”

“Ah, I have a brilliant plan,” Leah said, stepping forward cautiously. “I have been speaking with my new brother-to-be, Byron, and told him of my intention to remain unmarried. He has agreed to find me a little cottage to while my days away in, once I am declared too old and decrepit for marriage. And he has agreed to ask if you would like to be my ladies’ maid.”

Margo raised her hand to brush Leah’s face wonderingly. In a low voice she said, “…I might agree. But there is something else I need to hear. I do not just want to know that you will cherish every moment. Please, Leah. I need to know that you really love me.”

Leah leaned in and kissed her, this beautiful women, her dearest friend. She pulled back.

“I love you,” she said. “I love you, I love you, I love you. I love you, Margo.”

And Margo smiled wide at her, smelling faintly of cinnamon, and for the first time since her debut Leah was truly looking forward to what her future held.