Helmsley Castle

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Rachel sat with legs tucked under her, leaning on one elbow as the party finished up their picnic. The servants had arranged with the grounds staff that they could have a quiet corner of the park, between the ruins and the Abbey Farm, to set up their blankets and baskets. The day grew cooler as a breeze picked up, scuttling the clouds across the robin-egg blue sky. As Rachel finished her cake, she drew her bonnet strings once more back over her shoulder (the breeze continually teased them, tossing them into her face or in front of her eyes). Now she turned to John, sitting diagonal from her, and Marian, sitting across from her, and offered them an apple from the open basket. They both declined.

"Lady Ellsworth, thank you for organizing such a wonderful outing," she said, finding the group too pensive and quiet.

"It was my pleasure, Miss Pearce," she replied with a condescending nod. "Of course, John and Lord Dabney would not be happy until we'd had at least one outing with the party."

"Indeed," John said with a cock of the eyebrow, "I believe it was my idea all along."

"Pshaw!" Lady Ellsworth scoffed. "I knew the perfect spot."

"But didn't we talk of it, that first day in our parlor?" Marian said. "The first time Dabney was introduced to us, wasn't it? Because he was looking for a team." Marian looked around to see if Dabney agreed with her memory, but he was absorbed in a private conversation with Amanda.

"Dabney," John called and he finally looked up. "Did we not wish for such an outing the first day we met the Misses Pearce?"

"You knew the best spots," he agreed, "and convinced Phoebe to give up the idea of visiting the shore."

"We should still visit someday," Phoebe said from her blanket a few feet away. "We could have a holiday at Whitby or Tees."

"Perhaps at Michelmas?" Marian added.

"No, not at Michelmas," Amanda said.

"Why not?"

"Ah, well..." she paused and began to blush. She looked to Dabney for aid in her discomfort, and he smiled and stood.

"Well, my friends, I should hope that Michaelmas will be an agreeable celebration," he looked at all the guests, eyes turned upon him. "We would like you all to celebrate at our engagement ball that week, Miss Amanda Pearce and I." He held out his hand to her and pulled her up to stand beside him. The group applauded and cried their congratulations, smiling their pleasure. Vicar Pearce bowed his head as the Ellsworths and Lloyds congratulated him, too.

Rachel outwardly felt joy at the announcement—and no surprise, really, considering how close the two had been that day. She had romanticized in her mind how a fervent appeal for marriage would feel amid the ancient ruins of a sacred church. She thought back to the night she had received a proposal—almost—although it was in the dark in her own driveway, no place of import or significance. She watched John slap Dabney on the back, a hearty approval, and stilled as he turned to look at her afterward. His eye seemed to say, "Did not our plan work? With Dabney and your sister engaged, and a dowry soon on the way, all obstacles to happiness are at an end."

Rachel smiled back, then frowned. It was not a happy future for her. Once Amanda's wedding took place, John would announce his change of plans. He insisted they would go on as friends. But her heart fluttered, feeling pressured by competing emotions. She wanted John happy—but wouldn't happiness be possible with her? But would his mother, Lady Ellsworth, ever see it that way? Was that really the reason for the secrecy behind this "understanding"?

Finally the party began to disengage from their leisure, standing to gather gloves and parasols and make their way to the carriages once more. The hour drew closer to four o'clock, and with good time they could drive past Helmsley Castle and arrive home at dark.

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