There was no one to help with the washing. There was no one to do the mending or the baking. Honoria stood in the sitting room of her childhood cottage and—for the very first time—found it untidy.
It was her fault, of course. Without her sisters to guide her, she’d allowed the household chores to fall by the wayside. Stuffed by the wayside was a more truthful description, for she had stashed stockings between the sofa cushions and left dishes ‘soaking’ in the sink basin for days.
She lacked the motivation to work without Octavia and Cassandra there.
She lacked the will to do anything at all without George.
Honoria was heartbroken over George Fulton, her first love—a most handsome, amiable, uncomplicated man. They had grown up together, the young postman and she. They were destined for one another, for George was undisputedly the most eligible bachelor in the village and she was generally considered the liveliest, most charming lady to ever grace the dales.
But George did not love her.
He said he could never love her, though he had not meant it unkindly. He would always think of her as a friend, and had emphasized the fact that she would only ever be a friend.
Without George Fulton’s love, there was nothing left for her in Longstone. With her sisters gone from home—and likely never to return—there was no reason to stay.
Honoria wanted to leave the cottage, the village. The dales. She wished to leave Derbyshire altogether.
For weeks, she advertised in London papers. Honoria had saved, borrowed, bought, and scoured every newspaper and periodical she could get her hands on, yet nothing ever came of her search. No one wanted her as a governess or companion. In desperation, she had even turned to the matrimonial advertisements, but no gentleman in want of a wife replied to her response.
It seemed as if no one wanted her.
Well…there was one person in the world who wanted her—Grandfather Dawsen.
Mama’s father had been a wealthy London merchant who’d disapproved of her relationship with Papa. The young couple had defied Grandfather’s wishes and eloped to Longstone. They’d lived quietly, secretly in the countryside for more than twenty-five years. They’d avoided Grandfather’s wrath until their deaths.
Once the mourning period had ended, however, a letter arrived for the Staunton sisters. Grandfather Dawsen had written, telling the girls that they must find husbands to support them or travel to London, where they could live under his protection.
The sisters had balked at the demand. They vowed to find a way to live on their own—and had done it. Thanks to Octavia, the eldest Staunton, they could afford the rent on their cottage. They’d tossed Grandfather’s letter into the rubbish bin and never looked back…
But Honoria had saved the envelope. She knew Grandfather’s address in London. She knew that he wanted to meet her and perhaps find an eligible husband for her.
At this point, Honoria did not care whom she married, so long as he could support her, befriend her. She did not mind if the fellow was old or young. He need not even be handsome—if she could not attract a man as good-looking as George Fulton, she mustn’t get her hopes up.
A plain, middle-class gentleman would suit her nicely. Perhaps a respectable widower with six children, or a shy young man just getting started with his life.
Truly, she did not care.
And she did not care what her sisters thought about her scheme.
Honoria had made up her mind, and when she made up her mind on a matter, she wasn’t one to dilly-dally.
She stood in the sitting room of her childhood cottage surrounded by everything familiar. Her bags were packed. The old carpetbag was stuffed to bursting with frocks, shifts, petticoats, and underdrawers. She’d emptied Mama’s wardrobe chest and filled a satchel with those dear things, as well.
She had everything she needed.
Honoria felt a twinge of guilt as she crossed the sitting room and approached the empty fireplace where Mama’s silver candlesticks stood. She emptied the savings box that the sisters kept hidden on the mantel.
Honoria gathered her money and her baggage. She tidied what she could before exiting the cottage, taking care to latch the front door behind her. The Staunton home was as locked and shuttered as it had ever been. The sisters had outgrown it in the year since their parents’ deaths.
The old cottage deserved a family to shelter and protect. Perhaps George Fulton could live here once he married and fathered a dozen blond-haired babies. It did not matter to Honoria, for this was not her home anymore.
She was bound for London.
She was off to find her destiny.
She had never taken a train, though she’d watched hundreds come and go. The last time Honoria visited the railway station, she had helped Cassandra run away with Wadebridge. The middle, most beautiful Staunton was now living comfortably in Cornwall, presumably as the duke’s lover.
Honoria had foolishly believed that once Cassandra was gone, George Fulton would forget all about her. That he would see her—Honoria—for the bright, attractive young woman she’d always been.
It wasn’t easy living beneath her sisters’ shadows, yet it had not been any easier watching them leave Longstone behind. Now it was her turn to travel, to shine.
She stood on the platform in her traveling clothes. She’d purchased one first-class ticket to King’s Cross and hauled her baggage to the edge of the station, as she did not wish to make conversation with the few passengers seated beneath the whitewashed awning. Their skirts, cloaks, and luggage crowded the benches. The morning air fairly hummed with excited chatter as they too waited to board a train.
Honoria did not want to talk. She wanted to pace, to bounce on her toes and count down the minutes until that distant whistle cried. She recognized the sounds of a locomotive echoing through the dales, charging through tunnels carved into rolling hills and lush, green valleys.
The scarred boards beneath her feet vibrated. Honoria did not need a stationmaster’s pocket watch to know that the train was approaching.
She clasped her gloved hands together to keep them from trembling. The ticket—a costly investment for an impoverished lady—weighted down her reticule, which swung like a pendulum from her wrist. It was the only thing anchoring her to the platform.
Even if she wanted to return to the cottage, Honoria could never explain the missing money to her sisters. She would not be able to afford rent. She’d be forced to face Octavia with her hand out.
It was too late to back out now.
Thankfully, she was not chicken-hearted.
Black smoke billowed over the treetops and rooftops of Longstone. A whistle cut the quiet morning air, sending birds scattering into the sky. Honoria gathered her bags into her shaking hands and stepped forward.
She wanted to be first on the train. She needed to be seated before anyone else climbed aboard. She didn’t want to lose her place, and dared not discover what would happen if the carriages filled to capacity.
Surely, she would walk to London.
She would crawl there, if need be.
The locomotive chugged toward the depot, bellowing and belching as it slowed on approach. The boards beneath her boot heels rumbled. The great, black behemoth passed her. Car after car rolled by. Smoke hissed and bogies rattled, and the train screeched to a halt only a few steps from where she stood.
Honoria could see the porters shuffling in the carriages. She watched passengers staring blankly from the windows, yawning as they awaited yet another load of travelers to join their ranks.
Mr. Rhodes, the stationmaster for Longstone, made his way down the line of cars. He inspected each carriage, motioning for those men and women still gathered beneath the awning to board. He had a schedule to keep, and the Midland Railway waited for no one.
“Hurry, Miss Honoria,” he called as he approached. Mr. Rhodes waved a porter to take her luggage, and then directed her toward a first-class car. “You cannot be late for your first day as governess!”
It was a harmless lie, though she had cringed while telling it. She allowed her neighbors and even her sisters to think she’d found employment with some nice, London family. They all believed she was traveling today to take up that position, which sounded far more genteel than the truth:
That she was heartbroken and hurt, and would rather leave Longstone forever than face a future without her family, and without George Fulton by her side.
Mr. Rhodes opened the door to the carriage. Honoria placed her hand in his and climbed inside. Her carpetbag, hatbox, and Mama’s leather portmanteau were placed in the luggage compartment—next to those belonging to a fellow passenger.
Honoria paid no mind to the gentleman seated across the carriage. She bid farewell to Mr. Rhodes, and as the punctilious stationmaster secured the car door, she sank back into the cushioned bench to steal one last glance at her birthplace.
She knew each rooftop, each chimney pot. Each leafy treetop that shadowed the lane. If the noise from the locomotive had not been deafening, Honoria felt certain that she could make out the voices of her neighbors as they began their day.
Mr. Harris would be sweeping the front steps of the White Lion inn. Mary Brooks would be herding the children inside the village school for their lessons. Mr. Morton, the vicar, would be opening up the church doors and waving to parishioners.
A typical morning in Longstone, yet this was also her last morning in Longstone.
The train whistle called out a warning, and the final stragglers vacated the platform. Porters secured luggage, latched doors. Mr. Rhodes consulted his pocket watch, nodding in approval as he marked the time.
He’d watched Mama and Papa set off on a journey they would tragically not return from. He’d witnessed Cassandra leaving for Cornwall, all but eloping with the infamous Duke of Wadebridge. No doubt the fellow would see many more departures—and, indeed, new arrivals—during his tenure.
He looked to the window where Honoria sat. When their eyes met, he smiled.
She waved and whispered ‘goodbye’ through the cloudy glass panes.
As if on cue, the locomotive lurched forward. Bogies rattled, smoke billowed. The entire first-class cabin vibrated with energy as car after car began to pick up speed. The last of the carriages pulled away from the platform and left Longstone behind.
Honoria leaned back against the bench. She settled in for the journey, intending to read or nibble sweets to pass the time, but could not tear her eyes from the disappearing dales. This nugget of Derbyshire was all she’d ever known. Soon, the countryside would flatten. Pastures would give way to cities and factories. Even the people would change.
She did not wish to miss one moment of it.
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