A Lady’s Desire (The Townsends, 2.5)
Lady Sarah Lark has never had much interest in any of the suitors that surround her. She’s decided that, instead of choosing a husband, she’ll save her pin money and travel like she’s always wanted to. However, her plans are interrupted when her family invites her cousin’s widow, Winifred Wakefield, to stay with them.
Winifred and Sarah used to be best friends, but after Win married Sarah’s cousin and moved to London, their friendship fell apart. Neither Win nor Sarah are happy about being underneath the same roof, but after settling her late husband’s debts and being left with almost nothing, Win doesn’t have much choice other than to play nicely with the Lark family.
Though the memories of their friendship hurt them both, they’re too strong to ignore, and the more time they spend in each other’s company, the more they wonder if friendship is all they feel. Still, even if they admit their feelings, to each other and to themselves, Lady Sarah’s parents are determined to see both young women married to suitable gentlemen. Win and Sarah’s newfound love might be over before it even begins.
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“Little Sarah…you haven’t changed at all.”
They were the first words Winifred Wakefield had said to Lady Sarah Lark in years. And they were accompanied by the briefest flicker of dark lashes as Win looked her up and down, saccharine smile still in place. Sarah tensed, but she hid the reaction, as she hid many things.
Sarah had never liked the nickname. She was two years younger than her cousin by marriage, and currently, only a couple of inches smaller. For a while, she’d been nearly a head shorter than Win, but she’d hit a growth spurt around the age of fourteen and almost caught up to her. Oddly, it was only then that the nickname had arisen, and it had never seemed entirely good-natured to Sarah, more like a thing that was coated in honey to disguise its thorns.
Which, now that she contemplated it, was a lot like Winifred herself.
Or how Win was now. How she’d become, the year she’d turned sixteen and caught the eye of Sarah’s cousin.
She hadn’t been like that before.
Sometimes, even now, Sarah found herself thinking wistfully of the years they’d been nearly inseparable, like some kind of halcyon age, a glorious mirage on the horizon that she couldn’t quite reach.
“Nor have you.” Sarah finally said.
It was true—physically, at least. Win still had that untamable curly red hair, was still plump, still had pale skin that didn’t freckle or darken in the sun, only burned bright and painful. Her mouth was sweetly curved, nose a touch too long. She looked, in sum, like she’d looked when she’d been Sarah’s closest, dearest friend, but there was something new in her eyes. A hardness. A brittleness.
Her friend might still be there, behind those stranger’s eyes, but Sarah could no longer find her.
Win had clasped Sarah’s gloved hands when she’d first stepped forward to greet her. Through the kid leather, Sarah could feel the warmth that Win had always burned with. Now Win stepped back, letting her hands fall.
“I’m surprised you haven’t married yet,” Win said.
Sarah didn’t know how the other woman managed to make seemingly innocuous words feel like a slap to the face, but somehow she did. Sarah wasn’t sure if this was deliberate or not.
But Sarah smiled at her old friend, anyway, her face a mask of politeness. She would be pleasant, even if it killed her. “I haven’t found a man to suit me yet, I suppose. I’m sure it will happen, though.”
“And your father dotes on you, of course, so he probably wouldn’t force the issue.”
“I suppose not.” Sarah hesitated, and then, because she thought it needed to be said, no matter how much things between them had changed, “I should offer my condolences on the loss of your husband.”
Win’s gaze slid away. “You already sent me a letter, and he wasn’t only my husband. He was your cousin,” she pointed out.
“We were never close, not like you must have been.”
“Ah,” she said. “True.”
Sarah couldn’t tell if the glimmer in Win’s eyes was real sadness or false emotion. She hoped it was the former, but after all this time, she couldn’t be certain that what she read in Win’s face was actually what was there. The knowledge cut like a knife.
“It must be difficult, as well, to lose your home not so long after,” Sarah said.
Win clasped her hands together and lifted her shoulders. “Creditors don’t particularly care about a mourning period.”
Sarah wondered how much Win cared and how much of it was simply going through the motions.
She was out of deepest mourning. The black linen dress she wore was accented with white gloves and dangling pearl earrings. Sarah had to admit, the simple severity of the colors looked good on her. She would probably start adding grays and lavenders soon, but Sarah would remember Win’s mourning period like this—a study in breathtaking contrasts, bright red hair and a dress like a moonless night and gloves like freshly fallen snow.
“It was kind of your parents to allow me to stay with you.”
“You are family,” Sarah said. “We could do nothing else.”
She did not say that she’d dreaded the thought of being under the same roof as Win since the moment her mother and father had told her that her cousin’s widow would be coming to live with them. She didn’t say that she was counting the days until Win left again. Sarah was nothing if not unfailingly polite.
“Of course,” Win replied, with a twist of her lips. “Family.”
“Of course,” Sarah said, smiling.
“I should retire,” Win said. “It’s been a long day, after all.”
Sarah nodded and stepped back, but the hem of Win’s dress grazed her as she walked past, and Sarah’s chest tightened when the faint scent of roses spilled from the other woman’s skin. She still wore the same fragrance as she had back then.
Sarah’s mind was catapulted to late night conversations and hushed laughter and drinking too-sweet tea and the tickle of Win’s hair when it would occasionally brush her face, and that soft, rose scent, surrounding her, underlying everything.
A wave of longing crashed through her, so fierce that it hurt. But she turned away from it and turned away from Win.
They’d been close once. They weren’t close any longer.