Kent, England 1932
IT IS AN IMPOSSIBLY great trial to be married to a man one loves and hates in equal proportions
It was late June, and I was dining alone in the breakfast room when Milo blew in from the south.
“Hello, darling,” he said, brushing a light kiss across my cheek. He dropped into the seat beside me and began buttering a piece of toast, as though it had been two hours since I had seen him last, rather than two months.
I took a sip of coffee. “Hello, Milo. How good of you to drop in.”
“You’re looking well, Amory.”
I had thought the same of him. His time on the Riviera had obviously served him well. His skin was smooth and golden, setting off the bright blue of his eyes. He was wearing a dark gray suit, lounging in that casual way he had of looking relaxed and at home in expensive and impeccably tailored clothes.
“I hadn’t expected to see you back so soon,” I said. His last letter, an offhanded attempt at keeping me informed of his whereabouts, had arrived three weeks before and hinted that he would probably not return home until late July.
“Monte Carlo grew so tedious; I simply had to get away.”
“Yes,” I replied. “Nothing to replace the dull routine of roulette, champagne, and beautiful women like a rousing jaunt to your country house for toast and coffee with your wife.”
Without really meaning to do so, I had poured a cup of coffee, two sugars, no milk, and handed it to him.
“You know, I believe I’ve missed you, Amory.” He looked me in the eyes then and smiled. Despite myself, I nearly caught my breath. He had that habit of startling, dazzling one with his sudden and complete attention.
Grimes, our butler, appeared at the door just then. “Someone to see you in the morning room, madam.” He did not acknowledge Milo. Grimes, it had long been apparent, was no great admirer of my husband. He treated him with just enough respect that his obvious distaste should not cross the boundary into impropriety.
“Thank you, Grimes. I will go to the morning room directly.”
“Very good, madam.” He disappeared as noiselessly as he had come.
The fact that Grimes’s announcement had been so vague as to keep Milo in the dark about the identity of my visitor was not lost on my husband. He turned to me and smiled as he buttered a second piece of toast. “Have I interrupted a tryst with your secret lover by my unexpected arrival?”
I set my napkin down and rose. “I have no secrets from you, Milo.” I turned as I reached the door and flashed his smile back at him. “If I had a lover, I would certainly inform you of it.”
On my way to the morning room, I stopped at the large gilt mirror in the hallway to be sure the encounter with my wayward husband had not left me looking as askew as I felt. My reflection looked placidly back at me, gray eyes calm, waved dark hair in place, and I was reassured.
It took time, I had learned, to prepare myself for Milo. Unfortunately, he did not often oblige me by giving notice of his arrival.
I reached the door to the morning room, wondering who my visitor might be. Grimes’s mysterious announcement was a reflection of my husband’s presence, not the presence of my visitor, so I would have been unsurprised to find as commonplace a guest as my cousin Laurel behind the solid oak door. I entered the room and found myself surprised for the second time that morning.
The man seated on the white Louis XVI sofa was not my cousin Laurel. He was, in fact, my former fiancé.
“Hello, Amory.” He had risen from his seat as I entered, and we stared at one another.
Gilmore Trent and I had known each other for years and had been engaged for all of a month when I had met Milo. The two men could not have been more different. Gil was fair; Milo was dark. Gil was calm and reassuring; Milo was reckless and exciting. Compared with Milo’s charming unpredictability, Gil’s steadiness had seemed dull. Young fool that I had been, I had chosen illusion over substance. Gil had taken it well and wished me happiness in that sincere way of his, and that was the last that I had seen of him. Until now.
“How have you been?” I asked, moving forward to take his hand. His grip was warm and firm, familiar.
“Quite well. And you? You look wonderful. Haven’t changed a bit.” He smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners, and I felt instantly at ease. He was still the same old Gil.
I motioned to the sofa. “Sit down. Would you care for some tea? Or perhaps breakfast?”
“No, no. Thank you. I realize I have already imposed upon you, dropping in unannounced as I have.”
A pair of blue silk-upholstered chairs sat across from him, and I sank into one, somehow glad Grimes had chosen the intimate morning room over one of the more ostentatious sitting rooms. “Nonsense. I’m delighted to see you.” I realized that I meant it. It was awfully good to see him. Gil had kept out of society and I had wondered, more than once in the five years since my marriage, what had become of him.
“It’s good to see you too, Amory.” He was looking at me attentively, trying to determine, I supposed, how the years had changed me. Despite his claim that I was still the same, I knew the woman before him was quite different from the girl he had once known.
Almost without realizing it, I had been appraising him as well. Five years seemed to have altered him very little. Gil was very good looking in a solid and conventional sort of way, not stunning like Milo but very handsome. He had dark blond hair and well-formed, pleasant features. His eyes were a light, warm brown, with chocolaty flecks drawn out today by his brown tweed suit.
“I should have written to you before my visit,” he went on, “but, to tell the truth ... I wasn’t sure you would see me.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” I smiled, suddenly happy to be sitting here with an old friend, despite what had passed between us. “After all, the bad behavior was entirely on my part. I am surprised that you would care to see me.”
“All water under the bridge.” He leaned forward slightly, lending sincerity to his words. “I told you at the time, there was no one to blame.”
“That is kind of you, Gil.”
He spoke lightly, but his lips twitched up at the corners as though his mouth could not quite decide if he was serious, could not quite support a smile. “Yes. Well, one can’t stop love, can one?”
“No.” My smile faded. “One can’t.”
He leaned back in his seat then, dismissing the intimacy of the moment. “How is Milo?”
“He’s very well. He returned only this morning from the Riviera.”
“Yes, I had read something about his being in Monte Carlo in the society columns.” I could only imagine what it might have been. Within six months of my marriage, I had learned it was better not to know what the society columns said about Milo.
For just a moment, the specter of my husband hung between us in the air.
I picked up the box of cigarettes on the table and offered one to him, knowing he didn’t smoke. To my surprise, he accepted, pulling a lighter from his pocket. He touched the flame to the tip of his cigarette and inhaled deeply.
“What have you been doing these past few years?” I asked, immediately wondering if the question was appropriate. It seemed that some shadow of the past tainted nearly every topic. I knew that he had left England for a time after we had parted ways. Perhaps his travel since our parting was not something he wished to discuss. After all, there had been a time when we had traveled together. In the old days, before either of us had ever thought of marriage, our families had often been thrown together on various holidays abroad, and Gil and I had become fast friends and confidants. He had good-naturedly accompanied me in searching out scenic spots or exploring ancient ruins, and our evenings had been occupied by keeping one another company in hotel sitting rooms as our parents frequented foreign nightspots until dawn. Sometimes I still thought fondly of our adventures together and of those long, comfortable conversations before the fire.
He blew out a puff of smoke. “I’ve traveled some. Kept busy.”
“I expect you enjoyed seeing more of the world. Do you remember the time we were in Egypt ...”
He sat forward suddenly, grounding out his cigarette in the crystal ashtray on the table. “Look here, Amory. I might as well tell you why I’ve come.”
Years of practice in hiding my thoughts allowed me to keep my features from registering surprise at his sudden change of manner. “Certainly.”
He looked me in the eyes. “I’ve come to ask a favor.”
“Of course, Gil. I’d be happy to do anything ...”
He held up a hand. “Hear me out before you say yes.” He was agitated about something, uneasy, so unlike his normally contained self.
He stood and walked to the window, gazing out at the green lawn that went on and on before it ended abruptly at the lake that marked the eastern boundary of the property.
I waited, knowing it would do little good to press him. Gil wouldn’t speak until he was ready. I wondered if perhaps he had come to ask me for money. The Trents were well-off, but the recent economic difficulties had been far-reaching, and more than a few of my friends had found themselves in very reduced circumstances. If that was the case, I would be only too happy to help.
“I don’t need money, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he said, his back still to me.
Despite the tension of the situation, I laughed. “Still reading my mind.”
He turned, regarding me with a solemn expression. “It’s not so hard to read your mind, but your eyes are harder to read than they used to be.”
“Concealment comes with practice,” I replied.
“Yes, I suppose it does.” He walked back to the sofa and sat down.
When he spoke, his tone had returned to normal. “Have you seen anything of Emmeline these past years?”
I wondered briefly if he had decided not to ask me the favor, reverting instead to polite conversation. Emmeline was Gil’s sister. She was younger than me by three years and away at school in France during much of our acquaintance, but we had been friends. After my engagement to Gil had ended, however, Emmeline and I had drifted apart.
“Once or twice at London affairs,” I answered.
“Was she ... do you remember the chap she was with?”
I cast my mind back to the last society dinner at which I had seen Emmeline Trent. There had been a young man, handsome and charming, if I recalled correctly. Something about my memory of him nagged at me, and I tried to recall what it was.
“I remember him,” I said. “His name was Rupert something or other.”
“Rupert Howe, yes. She plans to marry him.”
I said nothing. There was more to come; that much was certain.
“He’s not a good sort, Amory. I’m sure of it.” “
That may be, Gil,” I said gently. “But, after all, Emmeline is a grown woman.” Emmeline would be twenty-three now, older than I had been when I married.
“It’s not like that, Amory. It isn’t just that I don’t like the fellow. It’s that I don’t trust him. There’s something ... I don’t know ...” His voice trailed off, and he looked up at me. “Emmeline has always liked you, looked up to you. I thought that, perhaps ...”
Was this why he had come? I had no influence on Emmeline. “If she won’t listen to you,” I said, “what ever makes you think she will care what I have to say?”
He paused, and I could see that he was formulating his words, planning out what he would say. Gil had always been like that, careful to think before speaking. “There’s a large party going down to the south coast, a little village outside Brighton, tomorrow. Emmeline and Rupert and several other people I’m sure you know. We’ll be staying at the Brightwell Hotel for a week. I came to ask you if you would go on the pretext of a holiday.”
I was surprised at the invitation. I had not seen Gil in five years, and suddenly here he was, asking me to take a trip to the seaside. “I still don’t understand. What can I do, Gil? Why come to me?”
“I ... Amory,” his eyes came up to mine, the brown flecks darker than they had been. “I want you to accompany me ... to appear to be with me. You understand?”
I did understand him, just as easily as I once had. I saw just what he meant. I was to go with him to the seaside, to give the impression that I had left Milo. That my marriage had been a mistake. Emmeline had seen the society columns, the reports of my husband gallivanting across Europe without me; she would believe it.
I suddenly comprehended that there would be good reason for me to talk to Emmeline, how I would have authority when Gil didn’t.
Gil had said he didn’t trust Rupert Howe. I knew he was right. I knew Gil had seen in Rupert the same thing that had caught my attention when I had met him.
Emmeline’s Rupert had reminded me of Milo. My decision was almost immediate. “I should be delighted to come,” I said. “I should like to keep Emmeline from making a mistake, if I possibly can.”
Gil smiled warmly, relief washing across his features, and I found myself returning the smile. The prospect of a week at the seaside in the company of old friends was not an unappealing one, at that.
Of course, had I known the mayhem that awaited, I would have been more reluctant to offer my services.
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GIL LEFT IMMEDIATELY, declining my offer to stay even for lunch.
I walked him to the door, and there was an easy silence between us, the companionability of shared conspiracy.
He took my hand as we stepped out onto the drive and into the warm morning light. “If you don’t want to do this, you have only to say so. I have no right to ask anything of you, Amory. It’s just that I knew at once that you would understand.” He offered me a slightly unsteady smile as the past resurfaced. “And I seem to recall that you were always keen on a bit of adventure.”
I had been once. Gil had teased me for my sense of daring, my daydreams of great exploits. However, life so seldom became what we expected it to be; adventure had been very sparse these past few years.
“I am happy to do what I can, Gil. Truly.”
He brushed his thumb lightly over my hand. “What will you tell your husband?”
“I don’t know that I’ll tell him anything.” I smiled weakly. “He probably won’t notice I’m gone.”
Gil’s eyes flickered over my shoulder. “I’m not so certain of that.”
I didn’t turn around, but instead leaned to brush a kiss across his cheek. “Good-bye, Gil. I’ll see you soon.”
He released my hand as he turned toward his motorcar, a blue Crossley coupe. “Yes, soon.”
I watched his car as it drove down the long driveway; I didn’t turn around, even as I sensed Milo behind me.
“That was Gil Trent, wasn’t it?”
I turned then. Milo was leaning against the door frame, arms crossed, his pose as casual as his tone had been. He was wearing riding clothes, a white shirt under a black jacket and fawn-colored trousers tucked into shining black boots. The picture of a country gentleman.
“Yes. It was.”
One dark brow moved upward, ever so slightly. “Well. Did you ask him to stay for lunch?”
“He didn’t care to.”
He tapped his riding crop against his leg. “Perhaps he hadn’t expected me to be here.”
“Yes, well, you do flit about, darling.”
We looked at one another for a moment. If Milo was waiting for more, he was going to be disappointed. I had no desire to satisfy his curiosity. Let him wonder what I was up to for once.
“Going riding?” I asked breezily, moving past him and into the shadowed entryway.
His voice followed me into the dimness. “Care to join me?”
The invitation stopped me, and I was instantly irritated with myself. I turned. The light behind him in the doorway turned him to shadow, but I could tell he was watching me.
I wanted to go, but I knew that it really mattered very little to Milo if I did or not.
“All right,” I said at last, weakening. “I’ll just run up and change.”
“I’ll wait for you at the stables.”
I went up to my room, preoccupied by the morning’s strange turn of events. Fancy Gil Trent coming to see me, after all this time. There had been something a bit mysterious in his manner. I wondered if things were as straightforward as he had made them seem. Could there really be something so very wrong with Rupert Howe? I tried again to remember the young man but could recall only a fleeting impression of suave attractiveness. I hoped that Gil was merely playing the role of overprotective brother, but I knew that he was not inclined to exaggeration, nor would he have judged Rupert Howe harshly without good reason.
Good reason or not, I reflected, our intervention was likely a lost cause. I was not under any illusions that I would somehow be able to deter Emmeline from her course if she had truly determined to wed the man, but I supposed it wouldn’t hurt to try.
However, if I was honest, I had to admit that I was partly compelled to accept Gil’s proposal for motives that were not entirely altruistic. The truth was that I was finding it more and more difficult to ignore that I was terribly unhappy. Perhaps I had not admitted it completely, even to myself, until today.
It was as if Milo’s homecoming, Gil’s arrival, or some combination of the two had ignited in me the sudden realization that my lifestyle had become dissatisfying. Though I stayed as busy as possible, there was only so much for which involvement in local charities could compensate. London had felt stifling these past few months, but I was still too young to have settled seamlessly into quiet country life. In short, I was unsure what I wanted. Perhaps aiding Gil would help alleviate my recent malaise and allow me the satisfaction of usefulness, however temporary it might be.
There was, of course, my reputation to be considered. I had agreed to accompany Gil with little thought to any possible consequences, social or otherwise. Now that I had time to reflect, I was perfectly aware of how it would look for me to accompany him to the seaside, no matter how many of our mutual acquaintances would be there. If I wasn’t careful, scandal could quite conceivably ensue. Yet I found suddenly that I didn’t really care. It was no one’s business but my own what I chose to do.
I had changed into my riding costume, ivory-colored trousers and a dark blue jacket, and I stopped before the full-length mirror, noticing the way that the trousers and well-cut jacket outlined my figure, how the color of the jacket seemed to breathe a bit of blue into my gray eyes. Milo had, in fact, bought these clothes for me. His taste was impeccable, if expensive, and the costume’s overall suitability to my shape and coloring were indicative of his affinity for detail when it came to the fairer sex.
I wondered what Milo would think of my little holiday, but I pushed the thought away. He did as he pleased. There was no reason why I should not do the same.
My mental reservations systematically overruled, I went downstairs to meet my husband for our morning ride. I arrived at the stables as he was leading out his horse, Xerxes, a huge black Arabian with a notorious temper. Only Milo could ride him, and the horse seemed excited at the prospect of a jaunt with his master, stamping his feet and snorting as he walked into the sunshine.
I watched my husband as he spoke to the horse, patting its sleek neck, the glossy black mane the same color as Milo’s own coal-dark hair. There was a smile on Milo’s face, and it remained there when he saw me approaching. He was happy to be home again, if only so that he was near the stables. If Milo genuinely loved anything, he loved his horses.
Geoffrey, the groom, led my horse Paloma out of the stable behind them. She was a smooth chestnut with white forelegs and face, and she was as sweet as Xerxes was temperamental.
I patted her soft nose as I approached. “Hello, old girl. Ready for a ride?”
Milo turned to me. “Shall we?”
We mounted up and set off at a brisk trot.
I felt some of the tension of the morning slip away as we rode in comfortable silence. The weather was warm, with a soft breeze, and the sun beamed down, unhindered, save for the presence of the occasional fluffy white cloud. Really, the scene was almost idyllic.
Milo looked at me suddenly and flashed me a grin that I felt in my stomach. “I’ll race you to the rise.”
I didn’t hesitate.
“Let’s go, Paloma.” A slight nudge with my heels was all it took, and she was off, racing across the open field as though she had heard the opening shot at Epsom Downs.
Xerxes took no prodding, and we flew, side by side. It had been a long time since we had done this. The rise lay across this field, as the flat land gave way to a set of low wooded hills. By crossing the field and riding upward along a path that angled to the north and then westward like a horse shoe on its side, you came to an outcropping that looked out across the estate. Milo and I had shared many an evening on that rise in the very early days of our marriage. It had been at least a year since I had set foot there.
The race was a close one. Xerxes had brute strength, but Paloma was lithe and sure-footed. Xerxes outpaced us across the field, but the path upward allowed Paloma to overtake the lead, and by the time we reached the rise, I was a length or two ahead.
I reined in Paloma as I reached the giant oak, our finish line, just as Xerxes charged up behind us.
“I’ve won!” I cried. The exhilaration of it all hit me, and I laughed. Milo laughed, too, a sound both strange and familiar, like hearing a melody you once loved but had forgotten existed.
“You’ve won,” he conceded. “You and that blasted docile horse of yours.”
He dismounted in one fluid motion, tossing Xerxes’s lead across the low-hanging branch of a tree. He moved to my side and reached up to help me dismount.
His hands remained for a moment on my waist as my feet hit the ground, and we looked at one another. There was a momentary flicker of heat lingering between us, and the uncanny sensation that things were as they once were and that we still loved one another.
But, then, I was not sure that Milo had ever loved me at all.
I stepped past him, securing Paloma’s lead, and then began to walk up the slight incline to the tip of the rise. Below me, Thornecrest, the imposing country house and manicured grounds that had been Milo’s father’s sanctuary, spread out before us. It was a large, grand property, and Milo kept it up beautifully. The neglect he demonstrated as a husband did not carry over to his estate.
Milo walked up to stand beside me, not quite close enough to touch. Standing here, looking out across the land with my husband at my side, brought back memories of times here that I would rather have forgotten. No, that was a lie. I didn’t want to forget. But it hurt to remember.
I was not sure what had brought on this fit of melancholy, but I suspected it had something to do with Gil’s visit. Though I had tried to suppress such thoughts, I had remembered Gil more than once over the past few years and wondered what might have been.
“A lovely day for riding,” I said. It was true, but the words sounded flat, and it seemed they hung heavily in the air.
If Milo noticed the strange aloofness that had arisen between us, he gave no sign of it. “Yes, though the paths up the rise are a bit overgrown. I’ll speak to Nelson about it.”
I said nothing. For some reason, I could not seem to conjure my usual equanimity where Milo was concerned. We were usually so easy with one another; even the distance that had grown between us had developed into an artificial joviality. However, I felt there was something different about this moment, as though it was building to some climax of which I was unsure.
I was uneasy, but my disquiet, the way my heartbeat increased in peculiar anticipation, appeared to be lost on Milo. He was never uneasy. He was always so calm, so very sure of himself, and because of this Gil’s visit had had no impact.
“The Riviera was beautiful,” he continued with characteristic nonchalance, plucking a leaf off a nearby tree and examining it disinterestedly before tossing it away. “Though not as warm as I like. I thought perhaps we might go back in August, when it’s warmed up some.”
“No.” I said it so suddenly, so forcibly, it took me a moment to realize that I had spoken. And then I knew what else I would say.
Milo turned. “No? You don’t want to visit Monte Carlo?”
“No. Because, you see, I’m taking a trip.”
“One of your little excursions with Laurel?” He smiled. “Well, I dare say you’ll be back by August.”
“You don’t understand, Milo,” I said. I took a breath, smoothed my features, made my voice calm and sure. “I’m going away, and I’m not sure when I shall be back.”
We did not dine together that evening.
Milo had been surprised, I think, by my proclamation on the rise, but he had not protested, had not even really questioned me. I had said what I had to say, that I was going away for a time, and then I had mounted Paloma and ridden back to the house alone. He didn’t follow me, and I didn’t know what time he had come back.
I spent most of the day laying out my things for the trip and drawing up a list of details for Grimes to tend to in my absence. Though it gave me something to occupy my time, the list was really unnecessary. Grimes was a treasure. Without my requesting it, he brought a tray to my room, and, mostly to please him, I ate a little and drank a good deal of strong tea.
I would be traveling without the assistance of a lady’s maid. Eloise, who had been with me for three years, had recently and somewhat unexpectedly left my service to be married. I had not yet had the opportunity to interview for someone to fill her position, and now it appeared I would be unable to do so until my return. Grimes had suggested one of the house maids might assist me at least in my packing, but I said I would do it for myself. It was no matter, really. Packing allowed me time to gather my thoughts. As for traveling unaccompanied, I thought it was just as well. Eloise, sweet as she was, had never been terribly discreet.
It was nearly dark when the knock sounded. I knew instantly that it was Milo. Grimes’s knock was softer, much more deferential. Milo’s confidence came through in his rap at my door, as though it was a mere formality and the door would open with or without my consent.
“Come in.” My back was to him, and I continued to pack as he entered and shut the door behind him.
The irony of our being here together in my room was not lost on me. We had not shared a bedroom for several months. He had come back from one of his trips quite late one night and slept in the adjoining room to keep from waking me. Late coming home the following night as well, he had slept there again. Neither of us said anything about the arrangement, and he had stayed there. We had become adept at not addressing the steadily growing distance between us.
“Packing, I see,” he said, when I didn’t acknowledge him.
“Yes.” I folded a yellow dress and set it in the suitcase on my bed.
“You didn’t say where you’re going.”
“Does it matter?”
He was beside me now, leaning against one of the bedposts, observing my preparations in a disinterested sort of way.
“How long will you be gone?” His tone was indicative of total indifference. I was not even sure why he had bothered to come and inquire.
I straightened and turned to look at him. He was closer than I had expected. His eyes were so very blue, even in the poor light of my room. “So much concern, so suddenly,” I said airily. “I’m quite grown-up, you know. You needn’t worry about me.”
“Are you sure one suitcase will be enough?”
“I’ll send for my things if I need them.”
He sat on my bed, beside the suitcase, absurdly handsome as he looked up at me. “Look here, Amory. What is this about? Why all the secrecy?” His tone was light, and I wondered briefly if it would even matter to him if I should leave for good.
“You needn’t overdramatize things,” I said, deliberately evading his question. “You travel about as you please. Why shouldn’t I?”
“No reason, I suppose. Although I hadn’t expected you to leave as soon as I arrived home. The house will be rather empty without you.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. It was typical of Milo to behave as though I were the one who had little interest in our marriage. It was also typical of him to do what he was doing now: inserting himself into my life with the full force of his charm when it was convenient for him and inconvenient for me.
“I didn’t know you were arriving home,” I said.
“Yes, I know.” His eyes came up to mine. “And I don’t think you knew you were leaving either.”
He picked up a black silk nightgown from my open suitcase, absently rubbing the fabric between his fingers. “This has something to do with Trent, doesn’t it? With his visit today.”
“You haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”
“Has he been coming here often?”
“Not very,” I answered, only a little ashamed of my purposefully vague answer.
He favored me with a smirk that somehow managed to be becoming. “Whatever you may think of me, my dear, I am not a fool.” Languid amusement played at the corners of his mouth. “So Gilmore Trent rode down here on his steed and swept you off your feet, victorious at last. He took rather a long time about it.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Milo,” I said, snatching the nightgown from where his fist had closed around it.
He let out a short laugh. “For pity’s sake, Amory. You can’t seriously mean to run off with him.”
I shut the suitcase, pressing the clasps into place with a unified click, and looked at Milo. “I am not running off with anyone. I am taking a trip.”
He rose from the bed, his features a mask of wry indifference. “Leave me if you must, darling. But don’t go crawling back to Trent, of all people. Surely you must have some pride.”
My eyes met his. “I have been married to you for five years, Milo. How much pride can I possibly have left?”