Yes, that was it. She had family, and she needed to cherish it, because one day she might find herself in a situation like Luke and Samantha, with her brother in the grave and a parent heading there. “Just give me a moment. I’ll be right out.”
The coachman nodded and moved down the steps. She closed the door, reached for her coat, then headed into the parlor.
MaryAnne, dressed in trousers and a waistcoat for her upcoming role as Petruchio, stopped her at the entrance. “Miss Wells, are you all right?”
“Pardon? Oh, yes...I’m f-fine, dear. But I’m afraid I’ll have to miss your performance this evening.”
The students nearest them fell silent, and MaryAnne inched closer. “Then you’re not all right. Something has to be wrong, or you wouldn’t miss the play.”
“You’re leaving?” Miss Atkins asked from across the room.
Elizabeth swallowed. The chaos existing only moments before turned to heavy silence as every student’s gaze riveted to her. If only she could find some way to be both here and in Albany. Some way to see the hours of work and effort acted out on the stage while also supporting her mother.
“You promised to stay backstage and help with the scene changes,” Miss Atkins insisted.
“I’m sorry. I just...” Elizabeth blew out a long breath. Mother wouldn’t want rumors spread if whatever ailed her could be easily treated. But how else to explain leaving? “A family emergency has come up. I’m terribly sorry, but I must go to Albany immediately. Please forgive me. I know you’ve been working hard, and I so wanted to help with your play.” She turned and hurried outside before more accusing words could be flung her direction.
“Miss Wells. Wait!” Samantha rushed into the yard, a dish of powder and a cosmetic brush still in hand and more makeup spread across her dress. “It’s not Jackson, is it? I was supposed to see him at the dinner party tonight, but decided to help with the play instead.”
“No, no. Mother’s fallen ill and sent for me. I can only assume the dinner party is canceled. But please don’t speak of it. I don’t yet know what ails her, and I might arrive to find it something so slight as a headache.”
Concern clouded Samantha’s flawless face. “I hope everything turns out all right.”
Elizabeth swallowed. “I hope so, too.”
And with that, she turned and climbed into the carriage.
* * *
“How is Mother?” Elizabeth demanded as she burst through the front door of her parents’ Albany home.
Connors, the butler who had been serving their family since before she was born, raised his eyebrows at her. “Quite well. She is in the drawing room.”
“The drawing room? She’s not in bed, then? Has she taken a turn for the better?” Without waiting to be announced, she rushed into the drawing room—and then stopped cold.
Mother sat on the settee, her face round and healthy, and a beautiful gown of green silk draping her figure. Jackson, dressed in a suit, lounged in a chair opposite Mother. And Father stood by the fireplace, deep in conversation with...
No. Anyone but him... Her body trembled as her eyes latched on to the “dinner companion” leaning against the mantel.
“Good evening, Elizabeth.” Mother smiled brightly.
She should excuse herself, rush from the house and never step foot in it again. And she would, if her tongue didn’t weigh like lead in her mouth and her stomach didn’t lurch until it threatened to heave its contents. Instead she stood planted to the floor, staring at the one man she forever wanted to blot from her memory.
He turned slowly. “Ah, Elizabeth, darling. How kind of you to join us. A bit late though, aren’t you? And...”
The eyes of her former fiancé skimmed down her. She didn’t need to follow his gaze to know what he saw: a plain white shirtwaist and serviceable blue skirt. Both probably dusted with a mixture of chalk from a calculus lesson and stage powder. And her hair...she shoved some of the loose strands hanging about her face behind her ears.
All while Mother sat there, wearing soft silk and a hopeful smile.
“...a bit underdressed, perhaps,” David finished.
“Mr. DeVander.” Scanning the room again, she raised her chin. “We seem to be missing your wife this evening. Is she not joining us?”
Surprise lit his deceptively handsome face. “She passed away. A carriage accident over the summer. I assumed you’d heard.” His voice sounded like coffee, rich and deep and entirely too smooth.
“I’m sure you were devastated,” she snapped.
“Elizabeth, that was uncalled for.” Mother fanned her face. “Do forgive my daughter, David. Sometimes her tongue gets the better of her.”