The clock hand crawled to eleven o’clock, then carriage wheels groaned up the hill and rolled to a stop. Maria flew out of her seat, disappearing into the foyer while I followed at a more sedate pace.
“Papa!” she called, her voice echoing in the marble foyer.
“Who is this?” he said to his daughter as I appeared. “Do I know you young lady?”
Maria giggled, her pale face gathering color.
“Would this young lady like to know what I have in my pockets?”
She nodded, bouncing on her toes.
He opened the large flap of his jacket, and drew out a small package wrapped in brown paper and twine. Then he put a leg forward and gave her a fine flourishing bow. “I have been instructed by His Majesty to present this gift to Mistress Maria Clayton, for her benefit and edification.” He took a small knife, slit the twine and undid the wrappings. Inside was a doll, dressed in a walking gown.
Maria squealed and clapped her hands, for an all-too-brief moment allowed to be a child.
As if on cue, there was a swish of skirts and Mrs. Clayton descended the stairs. She pursed her lips.
Maria glanced at her mother and instantly stilled, her movements frozen into a nunlike quietude.
If Mr. Clayton observed his wife appearing to greet him, he ignored her. Instead, he turned to me with a smile and gave another of his flourishing bows. “Good day to you, Mistress Susan.” He kissed the tips of my fingers, causing a shiver to run down my spine. “How are you?”
I dropped a curtsey. “I thank you, sir. We are both well.” I gestured to Maria.
But he didn’t look at his wife or daughter. With his eyes fixed on me, he drew me to one side. “You are looking very blooming today, if I may say so.”
I held his gaze with my own, determined not to betray the fluttering in my chest as my heart leapt into my throat. I knew from watching Mrs. Clayton that a lady must always appear cool and composed, so I folded my hands and waited.
[To be continued.]