Chapter 18

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The last course of dinner was being served, and Elizabeth's nerves were starting to get the best of her. It was all she could do to focus on the dinner conversation. She was seated between Matthew and Charles, and for most of the evening, Matthew had engaged her in light conversation.

Elizabeth allowed herself to steal a glance at Edward across the table, trying not to look obvious. He was staring down into his plate, his jaw muscles clenching. He was clearly disturbed; Elizabeth thought he looked like he might explode at any minute.

She had barely been able to look at him all evening, she knew that he must be jealous of Matthew's attentions toward her, but in truth, Matthew was only being friendly, he hadn't crossed any lines. Earlier, the scene in the parlor had reminded Elizabeth of Lydia's diary entry about Charles and Peter on the verge of arguing over her. Honestly, Elizabeth had just wanted to sit quietly with her thoughts before dinner, but Matthew had been rather clingy all evening.

Surely I haven't done anything to encourage Matthew...have I?

She did find it strange that suddenly Matthew was paying her more attention, and she was definitely becoming fond of him, but she couldn't help feeling like there was perhaps an underlying reason for his attentiveness. It was peculiar; just like everything else going on in this house. There was clearly a strain between Edward and Matthew, and the best thing for her to do was to stay out of it as much as possible. Elizabeth wasn't exactly sure of what had transpired between the friends, but she assumed it had to do with today's carriage ride.

That confounded carriage ride... If only it hadn't happened.

Elizabeth intended to speak to Edward soon, but first, she had to talk with Charles, and find out whatever she could about his relationship with her mother. At the moment, she wasn't entirely sure how she would accomplish that, and Elizabeth found that she was quickly losing her nerve to follow through with her intentions. Her stomach ached and she was sure that she was swallowing more than any normal person should. It wouldn't be so bad if Charles didn't terrify her so, she just knew in the pit of her stomach that he was a bitter, hateful person. There was no telling just what he might say to her, but she knew she needed to find out.

Elizabeth stared down at her plate, vaguely aware of the various conversations swirling around her, and knew that the meal was just about to end. She felt a gaze resting upon her, and lifted her eyes to see Edward, his intense blue eyes locked on her. Elizabeth sat still, watching him, trying to read his expression.

Edward...

As much as she tried to pull away inside, to put some distance between them emotionally, still she felt drawn to him.

Not now, I have to focus...

Elizabeth's attention snapped back to the dinner table as the men began to stand, and she tore her gaze away from Edward, knowing that this was her chance with Charles.

"Pardon me, Mr. Stanton," Elizabeth turned toward Charles as Matthew pulled her chair out for her to rise. "Could I impose on you to escort me to the parlor?" Her hands felt clammy; she tried not to wring them.

Charles looked down at her curiously, studying her with his steely blue eyes before answering. "Yes, I'd be glad to, Miss Elizabeth."

Charles held the crook of his arm out to her, and as she took hold of it, she glanced back at Edward. He was standing by his dining chair, a look of astonishment morphing into a glare of disdain. She decided she couldn't help it if Edward was angry; she had to do this, if not only for her peace of mind, then to satisfy her curiosity.

"Thank you, Mr. Stanton," Elizabeth said softly, as they walked from the dining room.

Elizabeth swallowed. It's now or never.

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