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Looked After & Loved

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Sara couldn’t believe her bad luck. It was June, in her second year of Uni. Her mother had demanded she come away from the City for a few days. Somehow, they had found themselves in rural Somerset, visiting great aunt Georgina. Aunt George loved doing house tours. She had these absolutely mad, absurd ideas that at the grand age of 67, she was going to meet some nice widowed Baron or Earl, and settle down to be a lady who lunched.

She would have better luck with a footballer with a granny fetish, Sara thought. Gentry or nobility rarely had any money, not anymore.  

They headed up the stairs of the great house. There were two huge stone staircases, flanking porticos and columns that looked positively Roman. Still, for their age, they glistened, a jewel in the summer sunlight. Sara hoped her aunt would stop nattering on about the columns and the double staircases and the imposing opulence of the windows, and the gardens that went on as far as the eye could see. Somehow, some of the gardens were reflected in the gleam of the windowpanes that spanned the front and the wings of the house. 

Sara sent her mother a look, who frowned behind her aunt’s head. “Yes, Aunt George?”

“I cannot believe I’ve lived in Somerset all my days and never knew there was an estate here.” She looked around as they entered the hall of the estate they’d discovered by happenstance, and Aunt George had demanded they stop and make an outing of it. 

There was a table just to their left with a huge floral arrangement in a vase that looked like something she’d seen in an Art History text. There were formal chairs, and a few wingbacks dotting the room, with coordinating tables. Sara took a step forward and heard the click of her boots on the tile. She craned her upward, and saw that the staircase led up to wide hall. Carvings looked down upon her, and Sara had the fleeting thought that she was glad she had fixed her hair. 

The house was clearly open, but unlike other great houses, there was nobody, not a single soul here, and there were no signs to point them to a tour leader. There was no visitors desk, nothing of the sort in plain view. Sara thought she’d spied a sign pointing them to a tea shop, but it had somehow slipped her mind as soon as someone had spoken. How did this drafty old pile bring in money? 

“Oh.” Mum replied, “Well, you did spend those years in the City.” 

“My, yes.” George replied, “Now, how do we get a tour? Is it self-guided? Is the family in? I’ve never heard a blessed word about them! Perhaps they’re aged?” 

Sara’s eyes took in the wide entry, ignoring the glee in her aunt’s voice at the prospect of finding a widowed millionaire to wed. Sara felt, deeply, that they were trespassing, even as the wide room beckoned with a sense of peace that seemed otherworldly. 

The sweeping staircase to her right was wide, and imposing. Over the first landing, there was a painting of a piercingly blue-eyed man. He was distinguished, like all toffy old men. He wore a tweed jacket in his portrait as easily as Sara assumed he might wear morning dress, or she might wear jogging bottoms. Portraits dotted the wall, up the stairs, but Sara knew that these were not portraits highlighting the succession. They would be in some gallery. These seemed more personal somehow, like the pictures her mum kept at home, even if they had been painted by masters, and not taken at the high street studio. 

Sara turned, almost feeling like she had been caught staring by the man in the painting as footsteps echoed. Blessedly, another person had come for the tour. He didn’t seem the sort to do house tours. He was tall, and seemed solid, like the sort of man a weeping girl would cling unto and feel that all the problems in her world had faded away. 

“Uhm.” Sara began, knowing that she had to speak before Aunt George drooled all over this man. He was, for a lack of a better word, fit. “Are you here for the tour?”

“Are you?” He countered, “Does Ravensmere do tours anymore?” He was looking around almost calculatingly, like there was some joke she was in on. “Well, I guess it is Thursday.”

“My yes, young man!” Aunt George declared, “All the houses do. I don’t know much about this place, but I’d bet the original owners sold out to some uppity movie star.” She sniffed, clearly displaying her views on movie stars. She did quite like Colin Firth, though, but he got a pass because he was British, and had played Mr. Darcy. “Nevermind that. A tour is a tour, now. I am sure this house is National Trust. There are rules.”

It appeared as though this person was staring off just beyond Mum’s shoulder. His mirthful, but cautious expression smoothed for a mere moment, before he responded. “I’m sure.” 

With that, he stepped towards the stairs, boots sounding heavily in the large oaken entryway. Sara could not believe that he moved past the stairs, and headed over the intricate inlay in the floors in those boots. They were dirty, and he did not seem to give a thought to the tile and wood and marble he was marring. He walked across a crest inlaid into the floor, and paid it no mind. 

He went back a darkened corridor. As he left, he looked back over his shoulder, and Sara was beyond certain he was looking at her. His blue eyes was electric as they faded away in the darkness of the corridor. 

“Right then! You’re here for a tour, I assume?” A new voice bustled into the room from a side door Sara hadn’t even noticed, “I’m Mrs. Anscomb. Welcome to Ravensmere.” 

The tour began, with Mrs. Anscomb saying, “I’m not the tour leader, ladies, just the housekeeper. I’ll do my best to see you get the Ravensmere experience with me.” 

 Sara followed along like a lost duckling, taking in the public rooms. Mrs. Anscomb said that the wings of the house were closed off to the public. Sara had never seen the likes of this place, not even on the Beeb. The fireplace, the Great Fireplace, Mrs. Anscomb called it, was huge, and was intricately decorated with Ravens. Mrs. Anscomb insisted that they were a symbol of God’s care for his people. Sara somehow felt their stoney eyes upon her as she moved past the stone mantle. 

It wasn’t that the house was especially grand, even though it was really, and truly. Some of it dried her mouth. It should have been a little worn at the edges, the sort of genteel poverty that was proud to have a worn rug because it had been purchased in 1742 by some old, dead man who had served Queen and Country. Instead, the place radiated a power, an imposing warmth that somehow both soothed her and set her on edge. Sara got the impression that the house knew, somehow, that it was a crown jewel. Sara just hoped it didn’t literally belong to someone like that. She was in no mood to see someone important, or to have to bend the knee to some member of the royal family. 

The first sitting room was in the process of being renovated. The paint fumes were strong, and the windows stripped, and the furniture covered. “So nice to see these rooms being used as they were meant to be used.” Mrs. Anscomb remarked as she finished some spiel about the historicity of the wainscoting. “Stoke Raven is so happy to have a proper family again.”

“Is this a family home?” Mum asked. Mrs. Anscomb hadn’t said a single word about the people who owned this place. She’d gone on and on about its early years, the way the house had been built up in 1726 after the dissolution of the monasteries. After the drawing room, she’d gone on in the dining room about how the chairs were Hipplewhite, and the china, the second best china at that, was Wedgwood. The table was merely set for four and there was a bowl of fruit on the table. Sara counted the backs of the chairs. The dining room table easily sat 40 people. There was scaffolding in the corner of the room, where frescos were being repaired. 

Sara did not know what she thought about what she was seeing. It hardly made sense. The room gleamed. The wood was polished. The china glistened, and the glasses sparkled. The window dressings were perfectly creased, and folded back so exactly that Sara assumed someone had used a ruler. The silver chest was closed, but Sara saw a coronet carved in the lid. There was a box of Weetabix next to it, which Mrs. Anscomb picked up on the way into the room. Sara thought that the housekeeper likely held the reins tightly in her capable hands. There wasn’t a speck of dust anywhere.

Mrs. Anscomb went on as though she hadn’t heard Mum speak, “Well, why don’t we head to the Ballroom.” She led them through room after room as she spoke, and Sara felt that the whole place belonged on the Christie’s block. No one lived like this, not anymore. “The painted celling is quite lovely, and Lady Ravensmere just had the floors restored.”

“The Eighteenth Countess is quite invested in the restoration of Ravensmere.” Mrs. Anscomb continued, as she led them almost quickly to that very room, passing by priceless antiques without a single mention, “She is rather like her ancestress, Rosamund the Strong.” Sara recalled the paintings they had viewed in the West Gallery, and was able to put a striking face to a title, though there were no portraits of the present owners of Ravensmere. Mrs. Anscomb had kept her lips sealed on that matter, even when Aunt George had pressed her for details. Now, it was clear that she was offering up information she had previously withheld,  “The present Earl, like the first Earl, who wrote a treatise on the benefits of clean water years before germ theory, is quite occupied with land management and agricultural practice. If he’s not out farming, regenerative agriculture he calls it, you’ll find him assisting the Countess in her painstaking restoration of their home.” 

Mrs. Anscomb’s point was clear. This was indeed a private home. Her gaze was heavy, and it was clear they were being told that the people who lived here were quite important. 

By that point, they had crossed through many rooms. Sara’s head spun. Drawing room after drawing room, after music room, after smoking room filled her senses. There were harpsichords, blood harpsichords that looked like Bach could sit down and doddle out a concerto with no problem. Their usability, of course, was no accident, according to Mrs. Anscomb, for they had been sent to London for repair by an expert at the V&A. He was so happy to work on them that he hadn’t charged the Earldom a single pound for the gift of touching their grand harpsichords, which were displayed in a room that was relatively new. “The eighth earl was quite invested in the restoration of the house after the fire that killed his grandmother, Clarissa. He developed the estate to survive and thrive at the rise of the industrial revolution...” 

They continued on through various rooms, listening to some story pandered about by locals in order to charm tourists. King Arthur and the Holy Grail, indeed.  

Sara wanted to stop, spend some time touching, looking. There were leatherback books open on a table, and a laptop case sitting beside it. Whoever lived here used Macs, though they were not the latest generation. Sara moved slightly towards at notebook, and Mrs. Anscomb moved faster, leaving her no time to peek. Unlike most tours, they were not welcome to linger behind. The juxtaposition of modernity in this ancient home jarred Sara. Sara just could not understand who would want to live in this place. It was so full of something, energy maybe, that it just seemed alive, sentient. 

“At Christmas, there is always a Christmas tree in the ballroom, though the main tree is in the entry. The room is fairly empty now, though it is usually closed off entirely. It needed a good bit of tender care, and Lady Ravensmere is quite fond of the frescos here.” At that moment, they came into the ballroom and Sara lost her breath and tuned out the tour guide. The celling looked like God Himself, if there was such a being, had painted it. The frescos on the wall seemed somehow Roman, with sheaves of grain painted painstakingly in the arms of someone Mrs. Anscomb insisted was the Virgin Mary.

Sara heard her boots tap over the sparkling floors. In the corner of the room, there was a yoga mat, a pile of free weights, a pair of trainers, and a radio. It seemed obscene and blasphemous that someone would use this glorious room to burn calories. Sara could see people spinning around the room, a whirl of a waltz, and she longed to be like Maria Von Trapp. This room was made for parties.

Sara decided then and there that she hated, hated with a passion, the current countess. Sara could see her her in her mind’s eye. She was likely a size six, some bored European socialite who did less than nothing with her life. She was likely the sort who had been afforded a breezy, effortless, life, and had done nothing with it but count calories and wear Jenny Peckham gowns when she rubbed elbows with her equally vapid peers. 

“Sara! Come along!” Aunt George demanded, pulling Sara from her mind, as they progressed to yet more public rooms that, while worn at the edges, was sparkling clean and very obviously loved. Mrs. Anscomb asserted that they had not yet been restored. 

When they came to a corridor that branched away from a lovely green and grey sitting room, the third on this side of the house, Sara brushed her fingers along the wood of the door. It seemed to crackle with energy, and somehow, passion. Mrs. Anscomb was going on about something or other related to music and some composer that had been married to some long dead lord of the manor. Sara did not care. 

What interested her was the fabric swatches on the back of the settee, and the blanket resting on the matching chair. It seemed so interesting that people would actually live here, and that this place wasn’t just for show. What would a place like this matter in the modern age?

 There was a medical book on the side table. When Mrs. Anscomb caught her staring, she picked up the book, and hugged it to her ample chest, like it was a state secret. Sara blushed. Aunt George misinterpreted her interest. “They call those confidantes because of the chairs that are arranged in a circular fashion, Sara dear.” 

Mrs. Anscomb agreed, “True. This particular one was fashioned sometime around 1782. It’s walnut, as you can see. It has always been green. I believe the Countess intends to maintain its integrity and use a similar green silk.” 

They processed through another few rooms, and were at a junction when Sara heard the rustling of shopping bags from some local shop. It seemed so odd to see this bit of modernity amongst the historical, imposing, grandeur of Ravensmere. Sara began to look quickly away from the employee moving down the hall, laden with bags, when she saw the woman’s face. “Clare?” She blurted, before she could help herself. 

The woman looked up. This was not her friend from sixth form. That Claire was down at Sussex, reading computer science. She lived in pressed blouses and crisp heels. This woman had wild hair that was restrained by a clip. She wore a loose skirt that fell to her calves in a shock of robin’s egg blue cotton, with a white floaty blouse, and grey ballet flats. A bag hit the floor with a thud, falling from a hand that was adorned by a green stone Sara could not name. And yet, this woman was Clare, for she breathed, “Sara.” 

Mrs. Anscomb stopped talking mid-sentence, “Oh, Dear.” She tutted. “Why don’t we step this way? The sunrooms have just been restored.” 

Sara snapped from her disbelief. “Clare! I thought you’d be in Sussex!” She grinned, “How are you?”

They had been girls the last time they’d seen each other. Clearly, though, now they were both women. Clare’s unease faded, as she set down her other bags, she smiled, “I’m well. I’ve been reading medicine at Bristol.” 

“I’m still at UCL.” Sara blurted, feeling very much like Clare had somehow developed some grace and that she was lacking, in some way. Clare had not mentioned in her letters that she was not at Sussex. She had simply mentioned light, fluffy things. Really, though, she had kept most of the focus of conversation on Sara herself. Why that was, Sara did not know, because it was clear as day that Clare had changed, and quite significantly. 

Gone was the ball of tension she had loved to tease. This Clare was very much relaxed. She smiled at her, nodded fondly to Mrs. Anscomb who was ushering her family out of the room with promises of cakes and tea. Clare sat down on the confidante once they were alone. 

Sara did not sink to the chair by her side, though she considered it. She could never possibly sit on this furniture, not with the ease that Clare did so. 

The ease in their friendship was gone. Sure, they exchanged occasional letters, occasional emails, but Clare had said nothing of living in Somerset, of being at school in Bristol, of reading medicine. Her notes had been light, surface, Sara realized. “So, you’ve picked up a summer job? What’s it like working here?”

“I love Ravensmere.” Clare began, and Sara saw, for a brief second, that stiff spine her classmate had always displayed when faced with an unruly classmate who had said something foolish. “It’s a gift.”

Sara’s smile grew. There was such love in Clare’s tone that Sara couldn’t help but feel that same pride, that same peace, in this space. It seemingly poured out of her, in a tangible way, even if their conversation was strained. It wasn’t every day you ran into an old friend who was clearly at work. “I shouldn’t keep you. I bet whoever you work for is a complete dragon.”

“Oh, you’ve met the housekeeper.” Clare waved a hand like she hadn’t set a week’s worth of food on the ground, “She’s a sweet old soul.”

Sara couldn’t help but ask, “But is it really true that there’s a Lord and Lady here? And they don’t let any bit of the house out for weddings and the like? There wasn’t even any signs. We got lost and ended up here. I just don’t know why the place isn’t for let. Wasn’t there a chapel on the grounds? She must entertain a lot, I suppose.”

“Look, it’s complicated. They’re a very private family. Mark-” Clare began, a blush spreading across her cheeks, “That is, the family...”

“Yes, do fill us in on the family, Clare.” That same voice that had resounded in Sara’s ears not two hours ago spoke from the doorway, where he was leaning too casually on a doorway adorned with strange, almost runic, carvings that likely cost more than all their salaries combined.  “Is Mrs. Anscomb expecting anyone new to show up begging for free room and board?”

“That’s not even a consideration until the roof is repaired.” Clare returned, a soft smile on her face that seemed so at odds with the uptight girl Sara had once known. “And that you well know.”

“I’m Winters.” He offered the information like it was a great joke, “How do you know Clare?” There again was that same teasing note when he spoke her name. He said Clare like it was alien on his tongue, like it didn’t roll off his lips easily. 

Sara assumed, from the dirt on his boots, that he worked the grounds in some way. It did seem, however, odd, that he’d walked through the house, over wooden floors that the guide had gushed over, in dirty work boots and not used a side or back entrance. Why would someone who worked in the grounds want to be in the house, anyway? Now that she was in a room with both Clare and Winters, Sara realized that there was something very creepy about Ravensmere. She felt as though she should have removed her shoes in reverence upon entry. “We were in sixth form together.”

“You read economics and history with Clare.” He asserted, staring at her face. There was no way he could have known that, so it was likely a lucky guess, though he seemed so certain, “You want to do international brokerage. You’re better suited to diplomacy, though.” 

“Thank you, I think.” Sara somehow gathered that Mark was pulling her attention away from Clare, who was staring very intently at the window just behind Sara, “What do you do?”

“I studied agriculture and land management. I farm for Ravensmere now, growing mostly herbs and ornamentals.” He grinned, “Have to do something, you know. Can’t expect this old pile to be a source of income forever, especially since some people do like to pour money into rooms they never use.”

“You act as though restoration can be done shoddily, or as though I can just go to the Ikea in Cardiff.” Clare chided, her chin rising. “The sideboard in the west drawing room, for example...”

“Yes, let’s do have a lecture on the benefits of antiquing when normal people would still be sleeping.” It was clear that Winters was teasing Clare, and Sara wondered for a bright second if there was something between them.

“You do restoration work, Clare!” Sara blurted, glad to have figured out the puzzle. 

The two people swung their gazes back to her, and Sara had the unique notion that she had been forgotten, even as she had sat between them. Clare’s happy expression faded, and she dropped her gaze, before looking up, a bland agreement clear on her face, “I do enjoy it.”

Clare pushed to her feet, “Do you want to see the gardens? They’re magical. Not normally on the tour, but the roses are lovely.” 

Mark made a strangled sound. His grin was electric, “They’re an utter maze of plants.”

“Mark.” Clare’s chiding tone only served to allow his grin to bloom. 

Mark. Sara’s head snapped back to the man. This man, then, was the mysterious Lord of Ravensmere. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. “Uhm.” Sara tilted at a look on the groceries sitting in the hallway. He’d clearly stepped over them to enter the room, “Don’t you have to put those away, Clare?”

“I’ll get them.” Lord Ravensmere winked at Sara, “Rosie says I can’t play with my tractors all day. Might as well pull my weight. Brownie points.”

Clare pushed to her feet, and flattened the wide cotton of her skirt, “You’d be so lucky.” 

“It’s not my fault my wife is as cold as a crystal, Clare!” Sara’s stomach turned. Mark Winters, Eighteenth Earl Ravensmere, was nothing more than a product of his posh upbringing, flirting openly with his staff in his wife’s drawing room, in front of a guest.  “You might have some sympathy.”

“Oh, did somebody leave a note making fun of your cardigans, again? I am so sorry.” Clare tossed out, picking up the cat that had just bounded into the room and begun to knead at the spot where she’d been sitting. She then looked at Sara, “Cardigans. Next he’ll be tramping across the fields in his wellies yelling about the weather and ill-behaved locals.”

“I ride motorbikes.” He corrected, picking up the bags, and grabbing an apple that had rolled out of the bags, “And I go down the pub with my mates!”

“Yes, yes. You’re the prime example of British manhood.” Clare pressed her lips together as he bit into the apple, and a bit of fruit fell onto the shirt he wore. “I shall weep into my pillow, and bemoan all that I’m missing.” 

“If you really want to talk about moaning, I’m sure I could pencil you in after the meeting with that barrister...” He spoke around the apple, and Sara was ashamed that she felt herself being charmed by him, even as Clare blushed from head to foot, it seemed. He was a tosser. A  knobhead. And yet, he seemed so sweet, even as he suggested a roll in the sheets with a staff member. Sara could hardly believe her own mind’s folly. 

“I have clinicals.” Clare shook her head, putting the cat on the floor, “And a tour to finish. Come on Sara, let’s go see about the teacakes. Your great aunt is really wondering where you’ve gotten off to around here.” Clare grinned as they made their way back to the kitchen, “When she asks, you ought to tell her all about Lord Ravensmere’s personal collection of miniature kitten figurines.”

A strangled shout echoed through the house, as they headed back to the kitchens.“Rosie!”

Sara wondered what was going on, but Clare paid the shout no mind. Surely, he hadn’t heard Clare speaking, or Sara was sure he might have called her name in that same shocked tone. 

Sara left not an hour later, her head spinning. Clare was walking them out to their car. Sara knew that, based on what Mrs. Anscomb had said earlier, that Clare was the tour guide. She seemed to know just what to say to entertain Aunt George. They were taking a shortcut, Clare said, down a hallway that ran down the side of the house. Truthfully, it looked like a barely disguised cloister, but Clare’s expression had shut down when Mum had mentioned that fact. 

There were doors running along one side of the wall, and windows flanking the other, a wall made up of the supports of ancient arches. “And to your left, there are some private rooms. A pair of studies presently in use by the family take up most of this wall, as does the back door to the library. The seventeenth Earl had his principal office here, too, as he moved into the office of most of his predecessors upon assuming his title. It’s presently on the list for restoration, but likely will not be used for some time.”

The door to one of the rooms Clare indicated was cracked open. Strains of Queen floated out to their ears as they moved past the door. Underneath it, Sara swore she heard the sounds of some kind of old instrument, with a ethereal, reedy, sound. Then again, Freddie Mercury had been a product of the East as much as the West, and he had favored those sorts of things, so maybe her ear was more developed than she’d always assumed. 

Mum laughed, “I can imagine it would be hard to sit at the desk of the man whose boots you’re meant to fill. Too many childhood lectures, one might assume.”

Clare was silent as she passed the door. After a heavy moment, she said, “Out this window coming up, you’ll have a view of the greenhouse where a great many of the plants that define Ravensmere are begun.”

As they passed the window, Sara saw a woman hauling boxes pulled from the bed of the lorry. She looked lovely, a raven haired woman, with willowy limbs. Perhaps she was the mysterious Lady Ravensmere. “Who is she?”

“She’s the gardener.  A brilliant horticulturalist, really. Ravensmere would be lost without her.” Clare allowed. “She’s brilliant at exotic plants. I’m lucky she agreed to stay on, frankly, with how busy things have been this season.”

Sara still did not know anything about this estate. She did not know how they made their money, for Clare made no attempt to collect any sort of donation to charity or even a fee from them as they descended the staircase. Sara supposed she would take their admission out of her own pay. Clare’s hand lightly rested on the railing, and she offered her assistance to Aunt George, “Why thank you, dear. My knees have been bothering me so these last months.” 

They went down the staircase. Clare kept a firm grip on Aunt George, “So, tell us, what’s something about the house that the public never sees?”

Clare looked around slowly, a small grin blooming on her face. “Well. The plumbing is just awful. Every other day it seems there’s some problem or other. Yesterday, I was soaked from head to toe in icy water and flooded the back kitchen. We were able to conserve the water, luckily.”

“Oh my!” Mum chuckled, “One would hope your pay wasn’t docked.”

“My pay?” Clare blinked, “Oh, this place doesn’t pay. But it’s a privilege to invest my time here. It’s a matter of trust and love, you see.”

Sara’s eyes narrowed. “Clare.” She knew she hadn’t really seen Clare in ages. Clearly, there were secrets between them that Clare had omitted to mention in her letters. 

“It’s not a problem, Sara.” Clare shook her head, ducking it lightly. They couldn’t discuss this in front of her family, true. It was abundantly clear. The man for whom Clare worked had likely married not out of love, but out of duty, like some draconian novel, and enjoyed flirting with his staff. Clare fancied herself in love. How absurd.

It was just a shame that Clare was as much as love with him as she was the house. That way led to heartache. Clare would never be at the helm of this place. She would never walk through the rooms and know that she had poured her soul into it, and know that it was her right and her duty to do so. She was a girl from London. Her mother was a private duty nurse who’d gone back to London after her charge had passed on. That much, if anything, she knew from Clare’s monthly letter. Clare was in way over her head, and yet, she seemed at peace. She radiated confidence and power. Sara hoped that whatever was going on with her, and whatever she went through, that she would never lose her awareness of herself. 

Clare assisted Aunt George in the car. Aunt George smiled, and patted Clare’s left hand, “You should take me for a walk more often, Clare dear. I feel as spry as I have in decades.”

Clare smiled, “I’m sure it’s just the country air and a good cup of tea among friends.”

“It was lovely to see you again, Clare.” Mum said, patting Clare’s arm and popping round to the driver’s side. Before she slid into the seat, she said, “Don’t be a stranger, love.”

With that, they were alone. Sara did not know what to say. She felt an immeasurable sense of loss. Clare, somehow, had grown up, grown into a woman with a spine of steel and a place in the world, and Sara had missed all of it. Without a single thought, she stepped forward, and hugged Clare impulsively. Clare whispered in her ear, “Follow your heart, Sara.”

Sara felt a feeling of warmth suffuse her body. It was so quick that Sara thought she missed it. When they parted, Sara missed the warmth of Clare’s embrace. It had felt almost holy, somehow, like her soul yearned for closeness to a sacred Source found in Clare, and in Clare alone. It unnerved her. They said their goodbyes, and Mum drove away. 

Sara couldn’t help but crane her head to see Clare standing on the drive as Ravensmere disappeared from sight. As they turned the bend in the drive, Sara had to mentally reassure herself that the last four hours had indeed taken place. The farther they drove away, the more it all seemed like a distant memory. 

“You’re very quiet, Sara.” Mum broached the heavy silence in the car. “Weren’t you happy to see Clare, and her looking so well?” 

“I’m just sorry to see that happen to Clare. She’s so very obviously in love with him.” Sara did not feel wrong about admitting the truth. It had been clear as a bell in Clare’s words, in the way she’d bantered with him, in the way she fussed over the house. “And nothing good will come of it.”

“Sara!” Aunt George exclaimed, “Why shouldn’t Clare love her husband? I’m sure he’s far, far too old for her, but I can see why she’d overlook it.”

Hysterical laughter bubbled up inside of Sara. “You think, Clare, our Clare, is Lady Ravensmere? Have you gone barking mad?”

“Didn’t you notice the motto carved in the entryway?” Aunt George asked, imperiously, “It was engraved in the band of Clare’s antique ring, which she wore on her left ring finger. What other evidence do you need?”

“I think you’ve been reading too many Mills and Boon, Aunt George.” Sara declared. 

Sara leaned back against the seat, and thought that Aunt George would just keel over if she knew that the old bat she was imagining as Lord Ravensmere was actually a man in his twenties, who looked like he could pull an ancient oak from the ground with one hand. Sara opened her mouth, but shut it. 

 No, Ravensmere was a place that deserved at least one secret, and Sara was determined to give it one. She knew that what she saw was what she’d gotten, but a place like that deserved a bit of mystery, even if it was contrived on her part. She would say nothing about the dishy Lord of Ravensmere, at least not to Aunt George. To Clare, well, that was another matter altogether, and Sara knew that the next letter she wrote would be interrogative and lengthly indeed.