Time stood still as Stephen watched Clara collapse. He was nothing more than a helpless onlooker in a theatre. Fortunately, Lady Randolph’s nephew reached Clara before her head banged on the ground. Quite the commotion ensued afterward, with the other occupants in the room fussing over the newest guest. Lady Eleanor, the lady for whom Stephen turned pages, jumped from her seat, sending discordant notes through the air. Stephen hung back rather than be in the way. He forced the rapid gallop of his heart to calm.
“Here, place her here,” Lady Randolph directed and motioned to the sofa she had just vacated.
Stephen’s eyes narrowed as he watched George Windsor rearrange Clara in his arms and bring the precious bundle to the cushioned furniture. Finding Clara an unwed spinster was shock enough when Stephen had long told himself that she must be advantageously married by now. Seeing her in the arms of a man, however benign and altruistic, was another matter entirey.
In the next moment, Clara came to, her eyes blinking rapidly as she attempted to make sense of her surroundings. She attempted to sit up, only to sharply gasp and clutch her head. Lady Randolph and her nephew commanded Clara to lie back down before a further flurry of activity ensued. A servant was beckoned, a physician requested, and wine pressed to Clara’s lips.
“I am sorry to greet you in such a manner when we have never yet met, Lady Randolph,” Clara said weakly. Her eyes quickly flicked around the room, carefully not landing on Stephen. Her avoidance of him at this moment felt like a punch to his gut.
“Nevermind that,” Lady Randolph insisted. “You have had quite a journey. In a few moments, we will see if you can stand and walk to your room. What you need most is rest and we will worry about pleasantries and introductions later.”
Stephen commended the lady for her good sense, but knew that unless Clara had changed very much, she hated being a spectacle and at the mercy of others. Lady Randolph must have percieved as much, for she shooed the others away and sat murmuring quietly with Clara for several minutes until a servant returned with a cold press and powders. The maid also carried news that Mr. Windsor was needed in the nursery. Stephen saw the other man exit the room with a happiness he believed unwise. He ought not to care so much who Clara took a shine to.
Lady Eleanor resumed her turn at the pianoforte and Stephen returned his attention to the music. All the while, however, he remained aware of Clara lying in a prone position on a stranger’s sofa not fifteen feet from him. He could guess why she was there — Mrs. Alderly needed his funds for the school. However, he could not piece together how Mrs. Alderly knew of the house party or his presence at it, let alone why Clara collapsed. He supposed she had travelled by stage and so the journey got the best of her.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Clara slowly rise with the help of Lady Randolph. She stood to her feet and immediately swayed. Stephen inwardly groaned. With Mr. Windsor gone, he was the only male in the room capable of carrying Clara to her chamber. The other young gentlemen had all possessed enough savvy to stay out of the grips of any of the young misses and were likely enjoying billiards or outdoor sport. Stephen successfully fought the urge to offer his assistance, but it was of no importance. Lady Randolph requested his aid, leaving a sulking Lady Eleanor at the pianoforte.
Stephen approached Clara with leaden feet, his heart beating a death knell in his chest. In their brief engagement they shared only one kiss, having her in his arms had been nothing but a dream never realized. After the termination of their relationship, he had spent months with tortured longing. However, with time, the images and desire disappeared, replaced by anger and hatred. Even that had lessened recently to a hollow bitterness. Despite reciting to himself that Clara now meant nothing to him, an ember of hope ignited in his heart. Perhaps the feel of her in his arms would finally put to rest any remnants of his nearly dead fantasies.
Clara’s eyes widened in alarm and she began to protest before Stephen laid a finger on her. “No, no. I can stand—”
“I am sorry, my dear,” Lady Randolph countered, “but you cannot. Allow Lord Clifford to help.”
“Perhaps your guest—” Stephen elected to not let it be known that he already knew Clara — “would rather be carried by a footman?”
A strange look filtered through Clara’s eyes and pain squeezed Stephen’s heart at his words, but he thought it would be best for the both of them.
“I am afraid none of my footmen would be up for the task. I know the fashion is to keep strapping young men as footmen but I prefer to keep my staff until retirement or they choose to move on. I would hate to be disqualified for a position simply because of my age.”
“Indeed,” Stephen muttered. He swallowed hard and focused on the pattern of the sofa rather than look at Clara. He leaned forward and held his arms out.
With the assitance of Lady Randloph, Clara leaned forward and wrapped her lithe arms around his neck. Sweet misery followed. Clara had no choice but to rest her head against Stephen’s chest as he carried her. Images he had long repressed flashed in his mind. Why had she robbed them of so many years of this comfort? His mind warred at savoring the embrace or finding a means of distraction. His boots made a different sound on the marble floors of the foyer than on the carpeted steps and hallway. How many steps had he taken? How many more followed? He hardly knew if he were desperate for the situation to end or to continue. All he knew for sure was that he could scarcely draw breath and if he would meet Clara’s eyes he would be as lost to her as ever.
At last, they reached the destination. Stephen carefully placed Clara on the mattress, feeling heat creep up his face at being in a lady’s chamber. He stepped away suddenly, as though her touch had burned him. Indeed, he feared it would leave an imprint on his heart for far too long. Without a word to Clara or Lady Randolph, he left the room.
Stephen’s second day at Randolph House was filled with putting Clara out of his mind. Their hostess had explained at breakfast that Clara was overly fatigued and ordered to stay in bed for the day. Across the table, Lady Eleanor sent Stephen a smile. Had she felt endangered merely because he assisted Clara to her chamber? He frowned at Lady Eleanor. She should hardly feel entitled to his attention simply because he turned pages for her yesterday afternoon.
He had arrived at Randolph House to fulfill his promise to his mother. He had not seriously considered finding a wife just now, especially at his first event after returning to England. Discovering Clara was also a guest created a challenge to his plans. A ridiculous part of him felt he had something to prove to her. He was no longer the youth whose heart she broke. Neither was he the simpleton who was blindly loyal to his family or country. Even if he were willing to forgive Clara, assuming that years of poverty and spinsterhood amended her view on marriage to him, he could no longer deserve her. He was not whole enough for any lady. What he had discovered in India had wrecked any belief he had in people’s goodness or in justice. What hope did a marriage have if he could not trust his wife? Perhaps a union for political gain as his mother posed was the only answer.
Still, it repulsed him to think of it. He had only to look as far his family to see that fidelity did not follow where there was not love. How could he love with a broken heart? How could he love without trust? How could he mend what he could not see or even speak of?
“Lord Clifford!” Lady Randolph hailed Stephen as he paced about the lanes of the garden.
He paused and allowed her to catch up with him. She was unusually quick for a lady of her age. Or perhaps only compared to his mother who was not one for exercise.
“I was hoping to speak with you,” she said as she placed her hand on his offered arm. “I know you have just returned to England and have great plans for your position in Parliament.” She glanced over her shoulder to assure their privacy before continuing. “I also know that your mother would like you to make a match soon.”
“Lady Randolph—” Stephen began, but her ladyship interrupted.
“Oh, do not fear me or blame your mother. She has only the same wishes as every mother in the Kingdom. Now, I was going to say that you know your duties well. However, a young man just returned from overseas after many years needs time to settle into things. You have had many responsibilities thrust upon you and will need allies in your endeavours. I would rather you use this time to relax and form profitible acquaintances with my other male guests than worry about courtship.”
Her words brought Stephen to a halt. He turned to scrutinise her face. Was this some ploy?
“I know it is not what you expected of me,” Lady Randolph said with a sly smile. “Your mother is one of my dearest friends and I am quite aware of her concerns about you. However, as soon as I heard that you were expected to return, I pressed for you to visit me. I sensed that you would need a respite.” She squeezed his arm. “It is no less than I would wish someone would give to my dear Thomas if he lived and were in your position.”
Stephen returned the squeeze. Years ago, Stephen and Lady Randolph’s son had been close friends. They had entered service together, but Thomas died on the journey to India. It had been another hard blow to Stephen’s heart. Why had so much been taken from him in such a short time?
Lady Randolph looked up at him through misty eyes. “Now, I invited some of Thomas’ other old friends as well. Some you may remember from your school days. There are others that I do not believe you met before. However, they are all good, honest men. Thomas had a way of picking the best.”
“I cannot feel worthy of such an estimation,” Stephen said sincerely. “I believe if you asked his friends, we would say he was the best of any of us and taken far too soon.”
“Oh, I know my Thomas was as near an angel as a young man can get — but I remember many times when he had to be corrected as well. He was just as human as the rest of you and I am sure if he had lived to see the complexities of the world around him, he would have wrestled with the same questions you have.”
“I am less sure, my lady. Until the end, Thomas’ faith remained strong.”
“Ah, and you believe yours has wavered or perhaps gone out?” She searched his eyes for a moment. “You know of Thomas’ father, of course. I assume you also know that he loved the man despite all of his faults. I believe the key to Thomas’ faith was forgiveness. Sometimes, there is no greater forgiveness than that which we can give ourselves. It cannot erase the past and make it as though nothing happened. However, it can heal hurts and restore wounds. It is the only path forward.” She sighed. “I know it is silly but I have had to forgive things like the sea and ships for taking my son. I have even had to learn to forgive God.”
Stephen could not hide his surprise at such a statement.
“I have shocked you again. Well, I think that’s enough from an old lady for one day. The other young men went out riding in the west fields. Go catch up with them instead of ruminating about your problems out here or being caught by Lady Eleanor inside.”
“Then, allow me to escort you to the house,” Stephen said with a smile for the aging lady. She had given him much to think on and allowed him to do so in silence as they walked down the path.