She stirred heavily, wishing only to sink back into the dream. “Yes, Papa,” she mumbled, and dragged herself out of the cozy warmth of her bed. She found a heavy robe and tied it over her high-necked night rail. “Papa, who on earth is…” Her voice faded as she saw the visitor. Automatically her hand flew to her wild hair, smoothing back the tangled skeins. “Perry!”

Looking haggard and ill-at-ease, Perry stood by the front door, hat in hand. He kept his eyes on Sara as he spoke to her father quietly. “Sir, I know this has the appearance of impropriety, but if I could have a minute alone with your daughter—”

“A minute, no more,” Isaac said reluctantly. He gave Sara a meaningful glance just before he left the room. She nodded in answer to the silent warning to keep the interlude short.

Her heartbeat was heavy and fast. Clearing her throat, she wandered to a nearby chair and sat on the edge. “Why are you here at such a late hour, Perry? You know how unseemly it is.”

“I’ve been half-mad for the past two days.” His voice was strained. “I didn’t sleep at all last night. I thought about everything you said. You hardly seemed like the same person yesterday morning—the way you looked and spoke—you should have told me how you truly felt long ago, Sara. It was a disservice to me every time you covered your thoughts with a smile.”

“I suppose it was,” she admitted, noticing that his eyes were smudged with the shadows of lost sleep.

“You were right about a few things,” Perry said, surprising her by dropping on his knees before her. Carefully he took her hands. “Mother will not approve of our union, not at first. But she’ll get used to it after a while. It’s possible you and she may even become friends someday.” Sara began to reply, but he gestured for her to wait. “You were right about something else, darling. It is wasteful not to take love when it’s within my grasp. I do want to be with you.” He held her hands tightly, looking into her flushed face. “I love you, Sara. And if you’ll have me, I would like for us to be married in the spring.”

“Yes, yes!” Sara left the chair and flung her arms around his neck, nearly toppling them both over in her excitement.

Laughing and kissing her, Perry tried to hush her exclamations. “Quiet, darling, or we’ll wake your parents.”

“They probably have their ears pressed to the door,” she said, tightening her arms in a stranglehold. “Oh, Perry, you’ve made me so happy.”

“You’ve made me even happier.” They grinned at each other, and Perry stroked the wild tendrils of her hair.

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“Come back tomorrow morning and talk to my father,” Sara urged. “It’s only a formality, but it will please him.”

“Yes, and then you’ll come with me to break the news to my mother.”

“Ugh,” Sara couldn’t resist saying.

He gave her a reproving glance. “If you approach her in a spirit of love and goodwill, she’ll reciprocate in kind.”

“All right,” Sara said with a grin. “I’m so happy I’d be willing to kiss the devil hims—”

Perry didn’t seem to notice the odd catch of her voice. Nor could he know the cause of it.

They talked for another minute or two. After they exchanged a few hasty kisses, Perry left the cottage. Sara’s mind buzzed with strange, fearful notions all the while, but she concealed her turmoil until he was gone. Then she let herself think about the flashing memory…Derek Craven’s snarling grin, his dark head bending over hers. She exhaled unsteadily, feeling as if she were being haunted. It must not happen again. She must drive every thought of Craven out of her mind forever. He had said he would forget her. Bitterly she wondered how he intended to accomplish that, if it would be easy for him…if he would turn to another woman.

It was ridiculous, letting herself brood over a man like him. What had gone on between them was finished—and the episode had been so brief, really, it had all been like a dream. Perry was real, and so was her life in Greenwood Corners. She would content herself with family and friends, and embark on a future with a man who loved her.

“I still can’t bring myself to believe our young Mr. Kingswood finally came up to scratch.” Mrs. Hodges shook her head with a smile, watching as Katie cleaned the grate for her and Sara piled kindling in her kitchen fireplace. Because Mr. and Mrs. Hodges were elderly and Mr. Hodges had bouts of rheumatism, they sometimes required help with their household chores. Dusting her prized kitchen dresser with its display of pewter and china, Mrs. Hodges spoke in jovial tones. “Heaven’s sake, I’m surprised his mother allowed it.” As she saw Katie and Sara’s guarded expressions, her smile faded and her round cheeks sagged with dismay. She had meant to make them laugh. Instead she seemed to have touched on a sore point.

Sara broke the tension with a shrug. “Mrs. Kingswood had no choice in the matter. And she seems to have reconciled herself to the idea. After all, she can hardly fault me for loving Perry.”

“That’s right,” Mrs. Hodges agreed quickly. “It will do both the Kingswoods a world of good for Perry to take a wife of his own. Martha nearly ruined that boy with her spoiling, if you ask me.”

Biting off a heartfelt agreement, Sara hung freshly scrubbed pots and kettles on the fireplace bracket. A frill of lace hovered just above her eyebrow, and she pushed it back irritably. At Perry’s urging she had gone back to wearing her lace caps, but they no longer seemed to fit the way they once had. She walked over to the stone-paved sink in order to wash her sooty hands and arms, shivering at the icy gush of water from the pump.

“That girl isn’t afraid of work,” Mrs. Hodges said to Katie. “She’s nothing like the rest of these flighty village chits, with nary a thought in their heads but how to dress their hair and make eyes at the men.”

“Sara has a pair of able hands and a quick mind,” Katie agreed. “She’ll be a good wife to Perry. And a blessing to his mother, if Martha will allow it.”

Mrs. Hodges watched Sara closely. “Is she still insisting that you and Perry live with her after the marriage?”

Sara’s back tensed. She continued to rinse her hands until they were white and numb. “I’m afraid so,” she said evenly. “We haven’t resolved the issue yet.”

“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Hodges turned to exchange a few quiet murmurs with Katie.

Paying no attention to their exchange, Sara dried her frozen hands and thought about the past month. Martha Kingswood had received the news of the engagement with remarkable calmness. Sara and Perry had told her together. They had been astonished by her lack of protest. “If marrying Sara will bring you happiness,” Martha had said to Perry, holding his face in her narrow hands, “then I give my blessing to the both of you.” She had bent and pressed a brief kiss on her son’s lips, and then straightened to look at Sara with a slitted gaze.

Since then, Martha had interfered with and criticized every decision they made. Perry seemed oblivious of his mother’s badgering, but it never failed to send Sara’s mood plummeting. She was afraid that her marriage would be an endless battleground. The last week, especially, had been a trying one. Martha was preoccupied with the idea that Perry was abandoning her. She had declared her intention of living with her son and his wife after the wedding.

“It’s hardly an unorthodox idea,” Perry had told Sara. “Many couples reside with their parents—and grandparents, too. I don’t see that there’s any need for us to live in seclusion.”

Sara had been aghast. “Perry, you’re not saying you want to share a home with her, are you?”

A frown crept across his boyishly handsome face. “What if your mother were all alone and she asked us to live with her?”

“It’s not the same. Mine isn’t demanding and impossible to please!”

Perry looked hurt and sullen. He was not used to arguments from her. “I’ll thank you not to use such words about Mother, and to remember that she brought me up and took care of me with no help from anyone.”

“I know that,” Sara said ruefully, trying to think of a solution. “Perry, you have some money of your own, don’t you? Some savings put away?”

He bristled at the question, for it wasn’t a woman’s place to ask questions about money. “That not your concern.”

Excited about her idea, Sara ignored his offended masculine pride. “Well, I have a little nest egg. And I’ll make enough from the sale of my next book to buy a cottage of our own. I’ll work my fingers to the bone if necessary, so that we can hire someone to keep your mother company and look after her.”

“No,” he said instantly. “A housemaid would not care for her the way her own family would.”

A vision of herself waiting hand and foot on Martha Kingswood, and giving up her writing forever, caused Sara to flush angrily. “Perry, you know how miserable I would be if she lived with us. She’ll complain about everything I do, how I cook, how I keep the house, how I teach my children. You’re asking too much of me. Please, we must find some other way—”

“You are going to marry me for better or worse,” he said sharply. “I thought you understood what that meant.”

“I didn’t realize it was going to be better for you and worse for me!”

“If the worst thing that could ever happen to you is living with my mother—and I rather doubt that—you should love me enough to accept it.”

They had parted company without making up, each of them refusing to listen to the other’s side. “You’re changing,” Perry had complained. “Day by day you’re becoming a different person. Why can’t you be the sweet, happy girl I fell in love with?”

Sara hadn’t been able to answer. She knew better than he what the problem was. He wanted a wife who would never question his decisions. He wanted her to make difficult sacrifices in order to make his life pleasant. And she had been willing to do that for years, for the sake of love and companionship. But now…sometimes…love didn’t seem worth the price he demanded from her.

He’s right, I have changed, she thought unhappily. The fault was with her, not him. Not long ago she had been the kind of woman who would have been able to make Perry happy. We should have married years ago, she thought. Why didn’t I stay in the village and earn money some other way than writing? Why did I have to go to London?

During the evenings when she sat at her desk and labored over her novel, she sometimes found herself gripping the pen handle so tightly that her fingers ached with the strain. She would look down to find splotches of ink across the paper. It was difficult to summon Derek Craven’s face clearly now, but there were reminders of him everywhere. The timbre of someone’s voice, or the greenish color of someone’s eyes, sometimes gave her a jolt of recognition that reached to her very foundations. Whenever she was with Perry, she struggled to keep from comparing the two men, for it would be unfair to both of them. Besides, Perry wanted her as his wife, while Derek Craven had made it clear that he had no desire to be a candidate for her affections. “I will forget you,” he had assured her. She was certain that he had wiped his memory clean of her, and oh, how the thought stung…for she longed to do the same.

Pushing all negative thoughts aside, she tried to envision the home she would share with Perry. They would spend quiet evenings before the fire, and on Sundays they would attend church with friends and family. During the week Sara would linger over the produce at the marketplace, exchanging light gossip with friends, sharing small jokes about married life. It would be pleasant. Overall, Perry had the makings of a good husband. There was affection between them, and the comfort of common interests and shared beliefs. They might even have the kind of marriage her parents had.

The thought should have brought her comfort. But inexplicably, Sara could find little joy in the prospect of what awaited her.

The Christmas season passed in the same warm spirit it always did in Greenwood Corners. Sara enjoyed the caroling, the gathering of old friends, the exchanging of gifts, and all the rituals she remembered from childhood. She was busy with wreath-making, holiday baking, and the task of helping to sew costumes for the children’s pageant. There wasn’t much time to see Perry, but during the few hours they did spend with each other, they made a concerted effort to avoid arguing. On Christmas Eve, she gave Perry a box of six fine handkerchiefs she had embroidered with his initials, and he gave her a delicate gilt brooch engraved with the pattern of tiny birds. Sitting together before the fire, they linked hands and talked about fondly remembered moments of their pasts. No mention was made of Martha, or of Sara’s writing. In fact, neither of them dared to speak of the future at all, as if it were some dangerous and forbidden topic. Only later did Sara allow herself to think that it was very odd for a betrothed couple, this inability to talk about their plans for the life that awaited them.

On a bright day in January when the air was dry and the ground hard-frozen, Katie and Isaac took the horse and cart to purchase supplies at the village market. Afterward they would pay a visit to Reverend Crawford and engage in a sociable chat. Remaining at home to do chores, Sara stood at the lead-lined kitchen sink and cleaned a large pewter pot. Energetically she scrubbed with a muslin bag filled with powdered whiting, until the dull pewter surface took on a new brightness. She paused in the middle of the task as she heard someone knocking at the front door.

Wiping her hands on the large cloth knotted around her waist, Sara went to greet the caller. Her eyes widened as she opened the door and saw the woman standing there. “Tabitha!” she exclaimed. A driver and one of the unmarked carriages used by Craven’s employees waited at the side of the road. Sara’s heart twisted painfully in her chest at the reminders of the gambling club.

It was difficult to recognize the house wench, who was now dressed like a simple country maid. Gone were the gaudy spangled skirts and low-cut bodice she had always worn at Craven’s. Instead she was clad in a demure lavender gown not unlike those that Sara owned. The usual wanton disorder of her hair was tamed into a neat coif and topped off with a modest bonnet. The faint resemblance between them was more marked than usual, except that Tabitha’s face was still etched with the coarseness that betrayed her profession. Her mouth curled in an engaging grin, but there was a hesitancy in her posture, as if she feared Sara would turn her away. “Miss Fielding, I came to say ’ello. I’m on the way to stay with my family a week or so. They lives in ’Ampshire, y’see.”