An Online Prologue: Letters Between Megs and Godric

June 1738
London, England

Godric St. John stared into Lord Griffin Reading’s implacable face and felt an unaccustomed emotion: relief. So this was how it ended. Not with a desperate fight through the streets or a fatal plunge from a rooftop or even by the traitorous hand of a servant greedy for money. No, all it needed was one too-clever man. He supposed he ought to fight—better, surely, than the hangman’s noose, but frankly he hadn’t the heart.

He’d been all but dead since the death of Clara anyway.

So Godric merely removed his long-nosed mask and waited for Reading to drag him out of his home and to prison.

Oddly, though, the other man seemed in no particular hurry. He didn’t even rise from where he sat rather comfortably in Godric’s favorite chair. “I confess had anyone asked me to guess the identity of the infamous Ghost of St. Giles, I’d never have guessed it was you, Mr. St. John.”

Godric dropped into a chair—they were in his study, after all, and if Reading was going to be long-winded, he might as well be comfortable. “How did you discover my secret?”

Reading waved aside his query. “I think you’d be more interested in what I plan to do with the information.”

“I suppose you’ll have me brought before a judge, sentenced to death, and hanged.” Godric shrugged and pulled off his gloves.

For a moment Reading stared as if that wasn’t the reaction he’d expected. Then he shook his head and leaned forward. “I had another plan.”

“Do you?” Godric unbuckled his sword belt and laid it gently aside, mindful of his weapons. They were fine swords, and he’d always taken great care of them. The proximity of death didn’t change that.

“Yes.” Reading was beginning to sound a trifle put out. “I want you to marry my sister.”

That caught his attention. Godric stared, trying to remember Reading’s family. He was the younger brother of the Marquess of Mandeville, and they had a sister, a blond imperious woman, whose name he’d forgot, but she was already married to Lord Huff, but there was another girl, younger…

Lady Margaret. He remembered now. The girl he’d caught in his arms as she’d fainted at a ball. They’d never spoken, had never been introduced, in fact, but she’d been warm. Warm and so very vulnerable.

“Why would you want me to marry your sister?” he asked abruptly.

“She’s with child.” Reading’s jaw tightened as if he expected a blow.

Godric merely raised an eyebrow.

Reading sighed, finally laying aside the mask almost as if he were setting down a sword. “The father is no longer available.”

“And yet, that’s not my problem,” Godric pointed out softly.

“It is now.” Reading’s eyes narrowed grimly. “Marry her and I’ll leave your study and we’ll never speak of this again.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then I will drag you to the courts and to Tyburn gallows itself if I have to,” Reading growled. “Don’t think I won’t.”

Godric felt his upper lip curl at the aggression in the other man, his fists tightening without forethought. Clara had been his one true love. After her death almost a year ago, he’d never meant to take another woman as wife. To be blackmailed into such an intimacy by an ass like Reading was an insult so grave he ought to be already at the other man’s throat.

Save for the memory of that warm, vulnerable girl.

He took a deep breath. “Why me?”

Reading smiled tightly. “You’re wealthy and your family goes back to the Conqueror. The match would be a good one even if there weren’t dire circumstances.”

“You’ve described a fair number of London’s elite,” Godric said drily.

“Oh, don’t be so modest. Not that many can trace their family so far.”

“No, and they aren’t masked men wanted for murder either.” Godric watched his unwelcome guest. “I ask again: why me?”

Oddly, the other man glanced away first. “I know St. Giles and I know what you do there. You hunt thieves. You save widows from rape. You prevent murder.” Reading looked back at him, and his eyes were hot and desperate and not quite pleading. “You protect. I want that for my sister. I want that for Megs. You might not love her or even care for her particularly, but you’ll protect her.”

So vulnerable…

“Swear,” Godric whispered.

“What?”

Godric pinned the other man with his gaze. He knew how the love of a good woman could bind a man. “Swear on the life of your wife that you’ll never tell another soul of my secret if I do this.”

Reading swallowed. “I swear on my Hero’s life that I’ll not tell another soul that you are the Ghost of St. Giles if you marry my sister, Margaret.”

Godric held out his hand.

Reading took it, squeezing hard. It wasn’t a handshake so much as a battle of wills, neither looking away nor dropping the other’s hand.

Godric smiled faintly. Reading’s grip might be strong, but his own was just as powerful. He wondered for a moment if the other man had any idea what life he’d just bargained his sister into.

But it was too late now. “Very well.”

* * *

One year later…

Godric sat alone in his dark and dreary dining room in Saint House, his London residence, and stared down at his plate. Meals at Saint House were something of a hit or miss affair, which was why he usually chose to abandon his home for the far more palatable fare at a nearby inn. Today however in a spark of optimism—or perhaps merely in a state of blissful absentmindedness—Godric had chosen to take his supper at home.

He poked morosely at the mound of gray material on his plate as the door opened and his butler entered with a bottle of wine. Should’ve gone to the Bird in Hand. “What is this, Moulder?”

Moulder peered at his plate as if noticing it for the first time. “Pigeon pie, sir.”

Godric shot him an incredulous glance. “Surely not.”

Moulder shrugged. “That’s what Cook says.”

Godric sighed and pushed the plate away. “See if Cook has some bread and cheese and one of those apples he brought in the other day.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And where is Tilly anyway?” Godric asked irritably. The maid usually served him at supper.

“Puking her guts up in her room, last I saw.” Moulder looked cheered by the thought—there wasn’t much love lost between the butler and the maid, or for that matter between Moulder and Cook. His was not exactly a joyful household.

A house in a perpetual state of mourning never was.

Godric winced. “Ah. Should I send for a doctor?”

Moulder set the bottle of wine down on the table before scratching his ear. “Don’t think a doctor’s needed. She’s eating like a prize hog in between heaving.” He turned toward the dining room door and then stopping suddenly as if remembering something. “Letter for you, sir. Came this afternoon.” Moulder withdrew a rather battered piece of folded paper from his pocket.

Godric took the letter, frowning over the scrawled address. It didn’t look like his stepmother’s handwriting, and aside from various correspondents in matters of philosophy and classical poetry he really didn’t have anyone else that he received missives from.

He cracked the seal and read:

June 8, 1739 Dear Mr. St. John, I hope this missive finds you well. I write to inquire if you would mind terribly if I cut down the grapevine in the garden at Laurelwood? It’s quite overgrown having blanketed the wall it was planted against and even entirely enveloped a small statue of Pan nearby. Both Pan and I would be grateful if you’d give permission to cut the monster grapevine down. Yours Most Sincerely & etc,
Margaret 


Margaret
. Lady Margaret Reading—now St. John. Margaret his wife.

For a moment Godric simply stared at the short letter, remembering the drawn girl nearly staggering from grief at what had to’ve been the saddest wedding in history—theirs.

And that had been before her miscarriage later that same day.

He traced the exuberant swirls of her writing, the scrawl slanted and so large it took nearly the whole page. It was at odds with the memory of the woman he’d married a year ago. She’d looked like a martyr, swaying in front of the vicar as she’d recited her vows. He remembered watching a single curl of dark mahogany hair bobbing against her ear and the strange desire to take it and tuck it back into her coiffure.

Godric blinked and rose from the table, crossing to a small writing desk that had been shoved into a corner. Rummaging in the drawer he found a sheet of paper, a quill, and a small bottle of ink. He held up the bottle and shook it, surprised to find it still held ink.

Then he settled at the dining room table and wrote a reply.

After a minute he corked the ink and set aside the pen. He frowned down at his own neat hand. The letter seemed a little…curt. Perhaps he should include a postscript to the effect that she should write him if she had any needs or wishes he could in any way fulfill. But then she’d had no problem communicating this small request. He was expending too much thought on the matter. In the end he sanded the ink, folded the letter, and sealed it, ready for his franking.

And then Godric St. John went back to his execrable—and lonely—supper.

* * *

June 1738
Laurelwood, Cheshire, England

“My lady, my lady!”

Lady Margaret St. John was busy scowling at a patch of mint that was merrily running rampant over her garden, but she looked up at the sound of Charlie the bootblack boy’s voice. 

Charlie skid to a stop in front of her, waving a letter excitedly. “Mr. St. John wrote back!”

“Goodness, did he?” Megs took the letter and tore it open rather messily, reading swiftly:

26 June 1739 Dear Madam, I am well. I trust your own health is exemplary. I have no memory either of the grapevine you mention, or of the statue of Pan. Please do as you wish with both. Your most obedient servant, 
Godric St. John 

Megs turned the letter over, but that was it. Hmm. It seemed her husband was a very concise correspondent.

“What does it say, my lady?” Charlie hopped anxiously from one foot to the other. 

“Oughtn’t bother the lady so, Charlie.” Higgins the gardener scowled from where he knelt over the bed doing battle with the rowdy mint.

Charlie stilled mid-hop. “No, Uncle.” He turned wide eyes to Megs. “I’m sorry, my lady.”

“That’s quite all right, Charlie.” Megs noticed that although Higgins’s voice had been gruff, he had his head tilted, waiting for the news just as much as his nephew. She folded the letter carefully. “Mr. St. John says we can take down the grape vine.”

Higgins celebrated the news by grunting, but Charlie ran about the garden yelling, “Huzzah,” and leaping into the air every now and again.

Megs grinned. “You may help your uncle cut down the grapevine, Charlie, whilst I go and send my thanks to Mr. St. John.”

She turned and made her way up the worn gravel path toward the house. Laurelwood had been in the St. John family since the Tudors, and in the year that she’d lived here, mourning the loss of both Roger and their baby, Megs had come to love it. The old brick was mellowed a tan-orange in the late afternoon sunlight, with an old ivy vine scrambling up the western side. She’d had to have the vine cut back about the windows when first she’d come. Apparently Godric hadn’t lived here in years—not since his first wife had taken ill, according to the servants. That explained the state of the gardens as well—wild and shaggy and in desperate need of a loving hand.

Megs made her way through the back hall to a small sunny room on the right. She’d made this her personal sitting room, even though there were far larger rooms at the front of the house. Something about the ancient blue-and-white-tiled fireplace, the one window overlooking the garden, and the cozy jonquil-yellow settee she’d unearthed in the attic made it a refuge of sorts. She hadn’t needed large, extravagant spaces when she’d moved to Laurelwood. 

She’d needed comfort.

There was a small, round table by the window with a single chair. Sometimes Megs took tea here, but at the moment her writing desk lay on the table. She sat and opened the case, selecting paper and carefully trimming a pen before beginning her letter.

Fifteen minutes later Megs sighed and set aside her pen. For a moment she stared at the missive, biting her lip. Would he think her a complete widgeon? But she really couldn’t change what she was.

Nodding, she sealed the letter and rang for the butler.

* * *

Godric had a headache pounding gently but relentlessly at his temple when Tilly slouched into his study and deposited a letter on his desk without a word.

He raised his brows, watching the maid go, thinking absently that he really ought to reprimand the girl, before sighing and turning the missive over. The handwriting nearly brought a smile to his face. He opened it at once.

9 August 1739

Dear Mr. St. John, I am in the best of health, thank you very much for inquiring! And thank you as well for your permission to cut down the dratted grapevine. Charlie the bootblack boy did a little jig at the news. Oh, but you don’t know Charlie, so I shall have to tell you about him. He’s the nephew of my new gardener, Higgins, and he doesn’t really do much boot-blacking as we don’t have all that many boots about the place. Charlie mostly helps in the kitchen and runs odd errands, but really Odd Errand Boy doesn’t sound very official, so we stuck him with the title Bootblack Boy instead when he came with Higgins.  Higgins, as I said, is my new gardener as Wilkins, the old gardener, was nearly eight and ninety when I arrived and it really seemed past time to pension the old dear off before he fell over in the rose bed and remained there permanently. I was quite lucky to find Higgins after he left his old employment at Squire Thurston’s house. The vicar did mention that Higgins had left three employers prior to Squire Thurston—one of them over an unfortunate falling out about hellebores—but I think that just shows an admirable sense of conscious. I’ve never liked hellebores, have you? So very smelly even if they do bloom when nothing else does. And, oh dear, this has grown rather long. I do hope you don’t think you’ve married a complete widgeon. Thank you again!

Affectionately Yours,
Megs

She’d changed her signature, replacing, ‘sincerely’ with ‘affectionately.’ How could she feel affection for a husband who’d only spoken a half dozen sentences to her—and that more than a year ago? She couldn’t, of course. The signature was merely a social nicety, nothing more, and he realized that his headache, which had abated a bit while he read the letter, was now back in full force.

He set aside the letter and drew a fresh sheet of paper from his desk drawer. He’d already dipped his pen into the ink before he realized he hadn’t a clue what to write her back. His days were filled with the mundanities of coffee shop gossip—much of it not fit for a lady’s ears—and scholarly pursuits, and at night…well, at night he was a masked swordsman most of London thought a murderer—and worse. Godric grimaced. The truth was that he’d never been very good at light-hearted pleasantries, and since Clara’s death he’d fallen out of practice entirely.

Perhaps he should ignore the letter and not bother writing the chit a reply.

And if he did would she cease writing him then? Godric shook his head impatiently. What matter to him if his stranger wife no longer wrote him her breathlessly cheerful missives? He did not know the woman. Her correspondence should make no difference to him.

Still, after another moment’s thought he wiped his pen clean of the dried ink and wet it again before setting it to paper.

* * *

September 1739
Laurelwood, Cheshire, England

“Cook does make the most divine lemon curd tarts,” Sarah St. John sighed, setting down her fork.

Megs and her sister-in-law were just finishing a particularly delicious luncheon in the little dining room at Laurelwood—the larger dining room being quite uninhabitable at the moment due to damp.

“I knew it!” Megs narrowed her eyes in accusation. “You came to live with me purely for Cook.”

“Curses. Found out at last,” Sarah replied contentedly. “Truthfully, I’d put up with you even if you had a foul temper, beat the maids, and ran screaming through the house on Thursdays, just to be able to eat Cook’s bounty.” A small frown knit itself between her brows. “Although I didn’t much like the cold biscuits last week.”

“Well, even the best cooks do have their quirks,” Megs murmured as she pried open the seal on a letter beside her plate.

“Quirks are one thing,” Sarah stated darkly, “cold biscuits for…”

It took Megs a moment to realize that Sarah had stopped talking. She looked up from the letter to see her sister-in-law staring at the letter in her hands suspiciously. “Who is that from?”

Megs couldn’t quite stop the smile that curled her lips. “Your brother.”

“What?” Sarah squawked. “Godric never writes. Give it here.”

“I shan’t,” Megs said loftily. “It’s personal correspondence.”

Sarah growled.

“I will read it aloud, however,” Megs hastily amended and did just that.

2 September 1739

Dear Madam, I am glad my permission to cut down the grape vine was met with your approval. I found your own letter most interesting. I fear, however, you’ll not find me an equally entertaining writer. However, I hope this letter finds you in good heath and I remain,

Yr most obedient servant, 
Godric St. John

Megs wrinkled her nose, staring at the letter for a moment, before hearing her sister-in-law sigh.

“He never was a very good correspondent,” Sarah said. “Mama used to nearly have the vapors when she got a letter once a year. And I’ve read recipes for rendering lard with more interest than one of his letters. Still”—she straightened abruptly—“it sounds as if that was at least the second missive he’d written you?”

“Yes?”

“You must write him back, then.” Sarah jumped up and began rummaging in a side table. “Good Lord, Megs, do you know what this means?”

“Er, no?” Megs asked.

Sarah widened her eyes in exasperation and slapped down a sheet of paper in front of Megs before shoving a quill into her hands. “Communication. That’s what. We might even get Godric to come for Christmas. Mama would die of happiness. Now write.”

So Megs did.

* * *

18 September 1739 Dear Godric, You will not credit it, but the population of stable cats has simply grown out of all proportions here at Laurelwood Manor! Both the gray tabby and the black- orange- and white-spotted were delivered of kittens this spring, and then the calico—that sly jade—fell pregnant again. Now whenever I go to visit Minerva (you remember the little bay mare I earlier wrote you I acquired of Squire Thompson). I’m followed by a parade of cats. Black ones, gray tabbies, an abundance of spotted ones (invariably female, I’m assured by Toby, the lame stable boy), and even a single entirely orange miss, follow me about with inquiring, raised tails. Toby says I must quit feeding them the fatty bits leftover from last night’s joint, but I ask you, is that kind? After all, they’ve come to expect their little snack and if I quit now I think they’ll take an awful dislike to me and perhaps seek me out in the house!  Sarah is over her head cold, by the way, and has quit speaking in such a low, stuffy voice, which I find a pity (the voice, not the recovery!) because she did sound so very amusing when she spoke—rather like an aged intemperate uncle, if I had an uncle, which I do not.  Do you remember the leaky ceiling in the washroom? Last sennight it rained cats and dogs, and what do you think? The ceiling fell entirely in. Quite frightened Cook, I’m told (by Daniels) because it fell in the middle of the night and apparently Cook mistook the crash for the Second Coming. (A religious sort is Cook, everyone says so.) Anyway, Cook spent the rest of the night in prayer, which is why we had cold biscuits for breakfast that morning. Cook says it wasn’t her fault. She’d been expecting the dead to rise, but only old Battlefield the butler greeted her at dawn. (Though I did hear Sarah mutter that Battlefield could easily be mistaken for the dead.)  Bother! I’ve run out of paper, so I must remain 

Affectionately Yours,
Megs

Godric fingered the heavy paper, wondering if he could feel the exuberant handwriting beneath his fingertips if he ran them across the letter. Megs’s joy for life seemed to spring from the very page, lighting his darkened study, warming his hand.

Folly.

He let fall the letter and turned to Moulder. “Have you repaired my spare mask yet?”

“Aye, done a day ago,” Moulder grunted as he took the Ghost’s swordbelt from the hidden panel beside the fireplace and handed it to Godric. “Good as new.”

Godric nodded, strapping on the swordbelt.

He saw Moulder glance at Megs’s letter. “Be writing back to your missus, will you, sir?”

“No.” Godric fitted the mask over his face.

Moulder cleared his throat. “I’m sure she’d like a friendly reply.”

“Are you?” Godric’s lips twisted bitterly. “But then I’m not a very friendly correspondent, am I? Not when I do most of my letter writing to men in their eightieth year. Nothing I have to say would interest a girl like Lady Margaret.”

“But—”

“Leave it, Moulder.”

The manservant snapped his jaw shut and Godric felt a twinge of guilt. Then he pushed the illogical emotion aside and went into the only place he felt comfortable anymore:

The darkness.

* * *

November 1739
Laurelwood, Cheshire, England

“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” Megs muttered morosely, looking up from the letter before her. It wasn’t even four o’clock and the maids had already lit the candles in the sitting room. It was nearly dark outside.

She shivered.

“You’re doing it because you’re a wonderful, sweet sister-in-law and you love me,” Sarah St. John replied absently as she took a sip of tea. 

Her sister-in-law’s nose was buried in a book and Megs supposed she should be glad Sarah heard her at all.

Still. “I do love you, but your brother hasn’t even replied to my last two letters.” Megs scowled at the half-finished letter before her. “It seems a waste of time to write.”

“He did send you that money.”

“Without a letter!”

“It’s like stalking hedgehogs,” Sarah waved an airy hand. “You must be very patient and pretend you aren’t interested in them until you make the final grab.”

Megs stared. “That makes no sense at all. I don’t believe you’ve ever caught a hedgehog in your life. And why would you want to anyway?”

“I never said I caught one,” Sarah replied, quite illogically, “just stalked them. Hedgehogs are adorable and tempting, especially to eight-year-old girls, don’t you think?”

“Well, yes,” Megs said because she did try to be honest and hedgehogs were adorable, even if ‘tempting’ might be pushing it too far…

“Although,” Sarah added thoughtfully, “one might do well to remember to wear stout gloves to avoid the prickles. On the hedgehog, that is.”

Or on the husband. Megs sighed, staring at her ghostly reflection in the window, feeling stupid and irritated for being so melancholy. She didn’t really know Godric. It hardly mattered if he chose not to write back to her. She had a lovely home, a beloved friend, warmth and comfort…

Why then did she feel so empty? If Roger had lived, if their babe had lived…she inhaled softly, at the insidious thought, and pushed it ruthlessly from her mind. It was only winter and the darkness that made her feel so cold and alone. Nothing else. Nothing she could do anything about, anyway.

Megs bent with renewed determination to her letter.

* * *

2 November 1739 Dear Godric, Thank you for the monies you made available to me. I’ve had the roof repaired and already the east wing has nearly stopped dripping! There is just one rather persistent leak in the tiny room just off the library. I’m not sure exactly what the room was used for. Battlefield informs me that a former lady of the house was locked in there after her husband became enamored of his (male!) steward, but you know how Battlefield likes his little jokes. We ate the last raspberry out of the garden last week before cutting back the brambles. Everything aboveground has been killed by the frost, except for the kale, and I’ve never really liked kale. Have you? I confess I feel a strange kind of melancholy at this time of year. All the green things have gone to ground, pretending death, and I have nothing left but the frosted trees and the few remaining leaves, dead yet hanging on nonetheless. But how dreary! I will not fault you if you grumble under your breath and fling aside my maudlin ramblings. I am not an entertaining correspondent, I fear. Yesterday I went to tea at the vicarage, playing lady of the manor while being plied with very rich cakes and tea. You will not credit it, but we were served a kind of tart made from orange persimmons, quite pretty, but a bit bitter (I think the persimmons were under ripe) and, I am told, a specialty of the vicar’s wife. (So I could do naught but swallow and smile bravely!) The vicar’s youngest son, a babe of only forty days, was presented for my inspection and though he was a brave boy, my eyes watered for some odd reason and I was forced to laugh and pretend I had got a bit of dust in my eye. I don’t know why I tell you that. And again! I’ve dribbled into quite boring territory. I shall endeavor to mend my ways and be only cheerful in my next missive, I promise. I remain— Affectionately Yours,
Megs

PS: Did you try the ginger, barley, and aniseed tisane recipe I sent you? I know it sounds quite revolting, but it will help your sore throat, truly!

Godric St. John sighed and tossed his wife’s letter aside. Why did she persist in this correspondence when he gave her no encouragement? When she hardly knew him?

He pushed his spectacles to his forehead and rose from his desk, crossing to the long windows that looked out over what was once the garden of Saint House. Clara might’ve once made plans for the place, may’ve once caused it to be weeded and cared for, but if she did, it was at the very beginning of their marriage, and all such conservation had long since been lost.

Now he saw only desolation. 

Brown tangles nearly covered a sparsely graveled path, brambles crowded out untrimmed hedges, and like the pièce de résistance of a damned landscape, a barren tree stood in the center. Godric frowned, trying to remember if the tree had leaves this last summer, but try as he might, he had no memory of it.

For all he knew it’d been dead for years.

Grimacing he turned away from the dreary view, returning to his desk. There was no reason to reply to her. Nothing he could tell a young, vibrant woman such as she.

Still, he found himself seated and drawing out a piece of paper from the desk drawer…

* * *

January 1740
Laurelwood, Cheshire, England

Megs was lounging in Laurelwood’s library with a soothing cup of tea when Great Aunt Elvina stumped into the room and pronounced in clarion tones, “I greatly dislike snow.”

“Oh?” Megs repressed an urge to apologize for the weather and sighed instead.Great Aunt Elvina had spent half of dinner the night before complaining about Laurelwood’s deficient library, so Megs had rather thought she might be safe here. 

Apparently not.

“It’s cold and wet and makes it ever so hard to receive the mail,” Great Aunt Elvina continued, her voice still overly loud. Great Aunt Elvina was a trifle deaf. She had a ramrod straight back and iron gray hair and was always trailed by her pug dog, Her Grace. “I’m sure that London would’ve been better.”

“Well, you could always visit cousin Arabella when the weather clears,” Megs said gently.

Great Aunt Elvina snorted and sat on the settee across from Megs. “Gel’s in an interesting way—again. She and that great oaf of a husband breed like stray cats. I can’t think it in the best of taste.”

Megs bit her lip. Arabella was her own age and already the mother of two adorable babies. It was very hard not to feel a twinge of jealousy when she herself would never know the joy of children. And it was rather hard to get in an ‘interesting way’ when one’s husband was miles away in London and had never shown an interest in bedding her. 

“What about Uncle Ramsey and Aunt Prunella? I’m sure they would love company.”

“I’m not speaking to Ramsey.” Her Grace jumped onto the settee and Great Aunt Elvina scratched the fawn pug behind the ear. “Or Prunella. They insisted on letting their awful spaniels in the house and they seemed to think Her Grace was a toy to be chased about. When I told Prunella that hunting dogs should be kept in the stables, she said quite snippily that the dogs had been in the house long before Her Grace and I. You understand why I simply cannot return.”

Unfortunately, Megs did understand why Great Aunt Elvina couldn’t return to Uncle Ramsey and Aunt Prunella’s house—or nearly all their other relatives. The truth was that Great Aunt Elvina had made the rounds of her relations houses like an invading Vandal army—and like a Vandal army, she’d made sure to burn her bridges behind her.

“Ha!” Sarah St. John announced her entrance with a triumphant shout only partially muted. She marched up to Megs waving a scrap of paper. “I told you he would write back.”

“Has the mail finally arrived? Why hasn’t anyone told me?” Great Aunt Elvina frowned.

“It’s only just come,” Sarah explained as she handed the letter to Megs. “But I believe there was something for you.”

“Probably from Lady Bingham. The gel’s an awful gossip.” Looking much more happy Great Aunt Elvina tramped from the room.

“Go on, open it,” Sarah hissed as soon as the door had closed. “I’m dying to know what he’s written.”

“One would never know this is my personal correspondence,” Megs muttered as she pried the seal from the letter. 

“Quit mumbling and read it to me,” Sarah commanded, ignoring the comment.

Megs sighed and obliged:

December 16, 1739

Dear Madam, I am pleased to hear that the gardens at Laurelwood have brought you such happiness. I fear that looking out my window here at Saint House I perceive a landscape barren even by winter’s standards. You would not like it, I think. As to your inquiry about kale, I must confess no taste for the vegetable either, although I am rather fond of raspberries. I trust you will convey my fond affection for my sister, Sarah. Yr most obedient servant, 
Godric St. John P.S. The tisane was most effectives in curing my sore throat. Thank you.

Megs turned the letter over, but that was all.

There was a short silence in the library before Sarah said brightly, “That must be at least two lines longer than his last. And he thanked you for the tisane recipe.”

“Yes,” Megs said rather doubtfully. 

Sarah marched across the room and pulled out paper, quill, and ink. She came back and slapped the items down in front of Megs. “You must think of it as a project. Rome was not built in a day and my brother will not become loquacious in a month.”

“Or a year, or even a century,” Megs muttered to herself, but she bent dutifully to the paper.

* * *

The drapes were pulled back with a sharp clatter that made Godric startle awake. He blocked the searing winter sunshine with one hand and glared at Moulder. “What time is it?”

“Well past noon,” the butler said with unusual cheerfulness. “Those o’ us who didn’t spend the night tramping around the worst parts of London have been up for hours.”

Godric grunted, propping himself up. “I ran into that dragoon captain.”

Moulder wrinkled his nose, causing his face to scrunch in a revolting manner. “Sharp fellow, that one. Best take my advice and stay out of his way.”

“That was my original intention,” Godric replied drily.

“Yes, sir,” Moulder said. “Might want to work on that a bit.”

“Is there any coffee?” Godric asked.

“No. Cook says as he’s run out an’ will have to buy more.”

Godric frowned absently. “I thought I gave him money for coffee last week.”

“Shifty type is Cook,” Moulder said. “Wouldn’t be surprised if he sold the coffee—or took the money and never bought it in the first place.”

Damn. He ought to find another cook—one who didn’t pilfer from the pantry—but what did it really matter when it was just him in the house. Godric pushed the matter from his mind and rose. “I’ll go to the coffeehouse to break my fast.”

“Yes, sir, but before you go, she sent another.” Moulder handed him a letter.

Godric turned it over and noted the familiar handwriting even before he read the address. 

He opened it at once and read:

January 10, 1740

Dear Godric, What do you think? We have piles of snow here! I don’t know where it came from. Battlefield has been mooning about all day muttering about how he’s never seen such snow hereabouts in his lifetime, which, as you know, is extensive—some would say overly extensive—and Cook has had three revelations of the Second Coming already today and we haven’t even had Luncheon yet. Despite the possible Apocalypse I do hope the snow stays for it is quite lovely and ices every little tree branch and window ledge. If it snowed every winter I might come to quite like the dark season. I’ve watched a wee robin all morning, hopping along the branches of the hawthorne tree outside my bedroom window and pausing now and again to pick out some startled insect from beneath the bark and gobble it up. Some of the stable lads and the younger footmen spent the morning in a snowball skirmish which only ended when Battlefield was accidentally hit in the back of the neck (!) and a forcible peace was enacted.  Bother! I haven’t yet asked you the question I meant to with this letter and now I’m nearly out of paper, so here it is. Sarah mentioned this morning how much you enjoyed Laurelwood when you were younger, and it gave me a nasty start. Has my presence kept you from visiting? I do hope not! Please, please, please do come visit if you have a mind to—and despite the descriptions above which, really, would put any sane person off. Cook might be mad, but she doesmake the most divine lemon tarts, and Battlefield is Battlefield so we must all put up with him, and I am scatterbrained, but I will make every attempt to appear solemn and serious and…well, I do wish you would visit.  Yours,
M.

Godric stared blankly at the page before him for a moment. Visit Laurelwood? It was his childhood home—and the place where his mother had died, where he’d argued disastrously with his father, and, much later, he’d met Clara. No, he couldn’t visit Laurelwood. It held too many memories, both good and bad. 

He looked down and realized to his surprise that he’d crumpled the letter in his hand. Carefully he smoothed it out again, tracing the vivid feminine handwriting. This was a foolish game, exchanging letters with a wife he did not know—had no reason to want to know. He had nothing to offer her and soon enough she would realize that fact.

Writing her back would merely delay the inevitable.

Godric rose and shrugged on his cape, walking out the door in search of a coffeehouse to break his fast. He didn’t look back at the letter abandoned on the table.