Someone to Care (Westcott #4)(9)

But it was not so easy to reason herself out of the dismals. She still felt guilty about upsetting everyone and leaving Bath so abruptly. She felt guilty about making Abigail feel bad about not accompanying her—and about rubbing salt in the wound by insisting upon leaving the carriage and her maid behind. The truth was that she had not even wanted Abigail to come with her. She wanted to be alone—but did not know why. Was her life not lonely enough without deliberately seeking out solitude?

She did not know what was happening to her. Except that she felt . . . empty. Utterly and totally empty. A black hole yawned inside her, but she could not see to the bottom of it and was frightened at what she might discover there if she could.

What did she have to show for her forty-two years on this earth? Anything at all? She had a dead husband who had not even been her husband. She had never loved him or even liked or respected him after the first month or so of their marriage. But she had remained faithful to him, and she had cultivated dignity and respectability as twin virtues. She had brought up her children to share those values. All for what? What remained to her but a leftover life she did not know what to do with? And what of Harry, her beloved son, who had been home for a few months earlier in the year recovering from wounds and a recurring fever before insisting upon going back for more? He was surely too determinedly cheerful about the change in his fortunes. How did he really feel about it all? And . . . would he survive? Fear was a constant in her life since Avery, as his guardian, had purchased his commission. And what of Abigail, pretty, sweet, uncomplaining, aged twenty but with no prospects?

Viola had pretended until as recently as two days ago that she was happy with her new life. Or if not quite happy, then at least contented. Happiness was not something she missed, after all, since she had never known it, except for one brief flaring of euphoria when she was sixteen and had fallen in love with the seventeen-year-old son of an acquaintance of her mother’s. That budding romance had not lasted. When she was seventeen her father had had a chance to marry her to the son and heir of the Earl of Riverdale, and he had talked her into it. It had not been difficult. She had always been a biddable, obedient daughter.

Viola had sighed as she took a bite of her sandwich and found it unexpectedly tasty. The bread was freshly baked, the beef moist and tender.

Who was she? The question, which popped so unexpectedly into her head, was a little frightening because it had no obvious answer. For many years she had thought she was the Countess of Riverdale and had identified herself with that title and everything that went with it—the social position, the obligations, the respect. She had become, in effect, not a person, but . . . but what? A mere label? A mere title? She had become something that had no basis in fact. She had never been the Countess of Riverdale.

Was she really nothing at all, then? Nobody? Like a ghost?

Who was she? And did no one care that she did not know the answer? That she had no identity? Except more labels—mother, mother-in-law, daughter, sister, sister-in-law, grandmother?

Who was she? At the back of it all, beyond it all, beneath it all, who was she? She had taken another bite and chewed determinedly, though the sandwich no longer tasted delicious. She had felt very close to hysteria. She recognized the panic, though she had never experienced it before—even just after the catastrophe. She had been simply numb then.

There was a certain coziness about the inn, she had noticed when she looked about in a deliberate attempt to steady herself. It was small and shabby, but it appeared to be clean, and it was a happy place, at least at present. She had moved her gaze to the open door and the crowd beyond it in the taproom. They were villagers, she supposed, all wearing their best clothes in anticipation of a day of revelry in one another’s company. She had felt a wave of unexpected nostalgia for the days when, as the countess, she had hosted picnics and open days at Hinsford and everyone had come from miles around. They had been . . . Yes, really, they had been happy times. Her adult life had not been one of unalloyed gloom.

Her eyes had moved idly from person to person of those she could see. On the far side of the room, facing her, were two gentlemen, clearly not belonging to the rest of the crowd, though both had a glass of ale in hand and one of them, the younger of the two, was smiling and nodding in response to something that had been said. They had probably arrived in that smart traveling carriage outside. Her eyes had moved over them and beyond with little curiosity until they snapped back to the other gentleman . . .


Oh, goodness me.

It was a long time since she had last seen him. For many years she had avoided him altogether whenever she could and studiously kept her distance from him when she had found herself attending the same social event as he. By what bizarre coincidence . . .

He had seen her too. He was gazing back at her with those hooded, penetrating eyes of his, and she was aware suddenly—annoyingly—of her age and her lone state and the relative shabbiness of her appearance. She had not worn her best clothes for a journey by hired carriage, and she had left too early to have dressed her hair in anything more elaborate than a simple chignon.

She had looked sharply away when the landlord came to refill her coffee cup and tried to keep her eyes from straying again to that doorway. Why had she not sat at a table from which she could neither see nor be seen?

It seemed unfair that men—some men at least—aged far better than women and ended up at the age of forty or so even more attractive than they had been in their twenties. That was what he had been when she had fallen in love with him. Oh, and she had fallen hard. It had been nothing like the joy she had experienced with her first love at the age of sixteen, but she had never doubted that she was in love with Mr. Lamarr. It had not mattered that he was rumored to have been responsible for his wife’s death or that he cared so little for her memory that he had abandoned home and children almost immediately after her passing and lost no time in establishing a reputation for hard living and relentless womanizing, for coldness and a callous disregard for the conventions of society or the feelings of others. It had not mattered that despite his dark, lean good looks and surface charm it had been easy enough to detect the lack of real feeling or humanity in him. Women fell before him like grass before the scythe, and Viola had been no exception. He had singled her out for dalliance and, oh, she had been tempted, even though she had known perfectly well that dalliance was all it was or would ever be. Even though she had known he would abandon her the morning after she gave in to him.

Mary Balogh's Books