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.
“I fear you are growing too old for this,” her remarked with a self-deprecating laugh as he withdrew another package from his pocket and slit the twine. It was another doll, similar to Maria’s, except that mine was attired in a ball-gown with deep décolleté.
I gave him another curtsey. “It is most kind of you to think of me, sir.”
“Ah, Susan. I often think of you when I have a moment.” His smile warmed me, and I thought how lucky I was to have Mr. Clayton as my benefactor, and indeed, my friend. He was such a gentleman and so good looking. I hoped that when the time came to find me a husband, I would find a gentleman who pleased me as well.
“Next time, I shall present you with something more fitting to a young lady’s taste,” he remarked. “A coral bracelet perhaps?”
I lowered my eyes to hide my astonishment. “You are very good, sir, but I wouldn’t want you to go to any trouble on my account.”
“It is no trouble, I assure you.” He kissed the tips of my fingers again.
I looked up to read his expression, and caught Mrs. Clayton’s glare. I curtseyed hastily and fled upstairs to the chamber I shared with Maria, leaving her alone with her parents.
I folded my arms and leaned out the window, breathing in the warm air flavored with newly cut hay. Something was going to happen, I could almost feel a storm gathering in the prickles going up and down my neck. Leave, a small voice whispered. I frowned and shook myself. Don’t be ridiculous, I whispered back. Where would I go? Papa had sold the fine house he’d had when Mama was alive, and gone to live in a room in a tavern near Chatham dockyards,
saying he wanted to save up all his money to get me a good marriage. I had to stay and do my best to navigate the tricky waters ahead. It was my duty. [To be continued]