He would not rest until they learned what had happened to Thomas. Edward owed this much to his friend.
And now to Cecilia, as well.
Still moving slowly, he crossed the short distance to the window and pulled the curtains back a few inches. The sun was rising over the New World, painting the sky with wide streaks of orange and pink. He thought about his family back in England. The day would have already started for them. Would they be eating their midday meal? Was the weather warm enough for a ride through the extensive grounds of Crake House? Or was spring still clinging to England, tickling the air with its chill and wind?
He missed his home, missed the deep greens of the lawns and hedges, the cool mist of the morning. He missed his mother’s rosebushes, even though he’d never liked the cloying scent of them. Had he been homesick before? He hadn’t thought so, although maybe this ache had risen within him during the months that had gone missing from his memory.
Or perhaps it was something new. He had a wife now, and God willing, children would follow. He’d never thought to have a family here in the colonies. He’d always pictured himself back in Kent, settling into a property of his own, not too far from the rest of the Rokesbys.
Not that he’d ever pictured a specific woman in these hazy imaginings. He’d never courted anyone seriously, although everyone seemed to think he’d eventually marry his neighbor, Billie Bridgerton. He’d never bothered to disabuse people of this notion, and neither had Billie, but they would be a disaster as husband and wife. They were far too much like siblings to even think of marrying.
He chuckled, thinking of her. They’d run wild as children, he and Billie, along with his brother Andrew and sister Mary. It was a wonder they’d all reached adulthood in good health. He’d dislocated a shoulder and had a milk tooth knocked out before his eighth birthday. Andrew was always getting into some scrape or another. Only Mary had been immune to the constant injuries, although that was almost certainly less due to chance than to her superior sensibility.
And George, of course. George had never tested their mother’s patience with breaks and bruises. But then again, he was several years older than the rest. He’d had far more important things to do than scamper about with his younger siblings.
Would Cecilia like his family? He rather thought she would, and he knew they would like her. He hoped she would not miss Derbyshire overmuch, but it didn’t sound as if she had much left to tie her there, anyway. Thomas had expressed no great affection for their village; Edward would not be surprised if he remained in the army and rented Marswell out now that he was the owner.
Of course they had to find him first.
Privately, Edward was not optimistic. He had been putting on a brave front for Cecilia, but there was too much about Thomas’s disappearance that made no sense for this tale to have a happy ending.
But then again, his own tale was filled with the improbable and bizarre—a lost memory, a found wife. Who was to say that Thomas would not be as lucky?
The warm hues of the sky were beginning to melt away, and Thomas let the curtain drop. He ought to get dressed—or rather redressed—before Cecilia woke up. He probably wouldn’t bother with new breeches, but a fresh shirt was in order. His trunk had been set near the wardrobe, so he moved quietly across the room and opened it, pleased to see that his belongings appeared intact. He’d brought mostly clothing and equipment, but there were a few personal items mixed within. A slim volume of poetry he’d always enjoyed, a funny little wooden rabbit he and Andrew had carved when they were young.
He smiled to himself, suddenly wanting to see it again. They’d each decided to carve half, and the result had been the most misshapen, lopsided rodent ever to grace this earth. Billie had declared that if rabbits actually looked like that, they would have been predators if only because all the other animals would faint with shock.
“Then,” she announced with the great drama she always employed, “they’d go in for the kill with their vicious little teeth . . .”
It was at that point that Edward’s mother stumbled onto the conversation and put a halt to it, declaring that rabbits were “God’s gentle creatures,” and Billie should—
It was at that point that Edward had thrust the wooden rabbit in front of his mother’s face, resulting in a shriek of such magnitude and pitch that the children were imitating it for weeks.
No one got it right, though. Not even Mary, and she could scream. (With so many brothers, she’d learned young.)
Edward dug down through his things, past the shirts and breeches, past the stockings he’d learned to mend himself. He felt around for the uneven edge of the rabbit, but his hand brushed first against a small bundle of paper, tied neatly with a piece of twine.
Letters. He’d saved all of the letters he’d received from home, not that his stack was anything compared to Thomas’s. But this small pile represented everyone who was dear to him—his mother, with her tall, elegant script, his father, who never wrote much, but somehow managed to convey what he felt anyway. There was just one letter from Andrew. Edward supposed he could be forgiven; his younger brother was in the navy, and as hard as it could be for mail to reach Edward in New York, it had to be even harder for it to leave from wherever Andrew was posted.
With a nostalgic smile he continued riffling through the pile. Billie was a terrible correspondent, but she’d managed a few notes. His sister Mary was much better, and she had included a few scribblings from their youngest brother Nicholas, whom Edward was ashamed to say he barely knew. The age difference was great, and with such busy lives, they never seemed to be in the same place at the same time.
But it was at the bottom of the pile, hidden between two letters from his mother, where Edward found the most treasured piece of his collection.
She had never written to him directly; they both knew that would have been highly improper. But she included a note to him at the bottom of most of her letters to her brother, and Edward had come to look forward to these embedded missives with a longing so deep he would never have admitted to it.
Thomas would say, “Ah, a letter has arrived from my sister,” and Edward wouldn’t even look up as he replied, “Oh, that’s very nice, I hope she’s well.” But inside his heart beat a little harder, his lungs felt a little tighter, and as Thomas idly skimmed through Cecilia’s words, Edward watched him out of the corner of his eye, trying not to scream, “Just read the bloody bit that’s for me!”
No, it really would not have done to confess just how much he looked forward to Cecilia’s letters.
And then one day, while Thomas was out, and Edward was resting in the room they shared, he found himself thinking of her. There was nothing abnormal about this. He thought about his best friend’s sister far more than would be expected given that they had never actually met. But it had been more than a month since her last letter—an uncommonly lengthy break—and Edward was beginning to worry about her, even though he knew that the delay was almost certainly the fault of ocean winds and currents. The transatlantic post was far from dependable.
But as he lay on his bed, he realized that he could not remember precisely what she’d written in that last letter, and for some reason it became imperative that he do so. Had she described the village busybody as overbearing or overwrought? He could not recall, and it was important. It changed the meaning, and—
Before he knew it, he was in Thomas’s things, fishing out Cecilia’s letters just so he could reread the four sentences she had included for him.
It did not occur to him until he was done just how gravely he’d abused his friend’s privacy.
That he was pathetic, he had realized all along.
Once he started he couldn’t stop. Edward found himself sneaking peeks at Cecilia’s letters whenever Thomas was away. It was his guilty, stealthy secret, and when he had learned that he was being sent to Connecticut, he’d filched two of her stationery sheets for himself, carefully taking only the ones where the final sheet of paper was almost entirely directed to him. Thomas would lose very little of his sister’s words, and Edward would gain . . .
Well, he thought he would gain a little bit of sanity, to be frank. Maybe some hope.
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