“Did you wish for me to stay?”
She hadn’t expected him to stay, but now that he was here . . . “Yes,” she said, surprised by her own answer. “Why not?”
He smiled at her then, and the expression was so warm, and loving, and best of all, familiar. “I could buy you a diamond necklace,” he said softly, sitting back down.
She reached out, placed her hand on his. “I know you could.”
They sat in silence for a minute, and then Hyacinth scooted herself closer to her husband, letting out a comfortable exhale as she eased against his side, letting her head rest on his shoulder. “Do you know why I love you?” she said softly.
His fingers laced through hers. “Why?”
“You could have bought me a necklace,” she said. “And you could have hidden it.” She turned her head so that she could kiss the curve of his neck. “Just so that I could have found it, you could have hidden it. But you didn’t.”
“And don’t say you never thought of it,” she said, turning back so that she was once again facing the wall, just a few inches away. But her head was on his shoulder, and he was facing the same wall, and even though they weren’t looking at each other, their hands were still entwined, and somehow the position was everything a marriage should be.
“Because I know you,” she said, feeling a smile growing inside. “I know you, and you know me, and it’s just the loveliest thing.”
He squeezed her hand, then kissed the top of her head. “If it’s here, you’ll find it.”
She sighed. “Or die trying.”
“That shouldn’t be funny,” she informed him.
“But it is.”
“I love you,” he said.
And really, what more could she want?
Meanwhile six feet away . . .
Isabella was quite used to the antics of her parents. She accepted the fact that they tugged each other into dark corners with far more frequency than was seemly. She thought nothing of the fact that her mother was one of the most outspoken women in London or that her father was still so handsome that her own friends sighed and stammered in his presence. In fact, she rather enjoyed being the daughter of such an unconventional couple. Oh, on the outside they were all that was proper, to be sure, with only the nicest sort of reputation for high-spiritedness.
But behind the closed doors of Clair House . . . Isabella knew that her friends were not encouraged to share their opinions as she was. Most of her friends were not even encouraged to have opinions. And certainly most young ladies of her acquaintance had not been given the opportunity to study modern languages, nor to delay a social debut by one year in order to travel on the continent.
So, when all was said and done, Isabella thought herself quite fortunate as pertained to her parents, and if that meant overlooking the occasional episodes of Not Acting One’s Age—well, it was worth it, and she’d learned to ignore much of their behavior.
But when she’d sought out her mother this afternoon—to acquiesce on the matter of the white gown with the dullish green trim, she might add—and instead found her parents on the washroom floor pushing a bathtub . . .
Well, really, that was a bit much, even for the St. Clairs.
And who would have faulted her for remaining to eavesdrop?
Not her mother, Isabella decided as she leaned in. There was no way Hyacinth St. Clair would have done the right thing and walked away. One couldn’t live with the woman for nineteen years without learning that. And as for her father—well, Isabella rather thought he would have stayed to listen as well, especially as they were making it so easy for her, facing the wall as they were, with their backs to the open doorway, indeed with bathtub between them.
“What do you plan to do now?” her father was asking, his voice laced with that particular brand of amusement he seemed to reserve for her mother.
“I don’t know,” her mother replied, sounding uncharacteristically . . . well, not unsure, but certainly not as sure as usual. “Check the floor, I imagine.”
Check the floor? What on earth were they talking about? Isabella leaned forward for a better listen, just in time to hear her father ask, “You haven’t done so already? In the fifteen years since you moved here?”
“I’ve felt along the floor,” her mother retorted, sounding much more like herself. “But it’s not the same as a visual inspection, and—”
“Good luck,” her father said, and then—Oh, no! He was leaving!
Isabella started to scramble, but then something must have happened because he sat back down. She inched back toward the open doorway—
Carefully, carefully now, he could get up at any moment. Holding her breath, she leaned in, unable to take her eyes off of the backs of her parents’ heads.
“I could buy you a diamond necklace,” her father said.
A diamond necklace?
A diamond . . .
Moving a tub?
In a washroom?
Her mother had searched for fifteen years.
For a diamond necklace?
A diamond necklace.
A diamond . . .
Oh. Dear. God.
What was she going to do? What was she going to do? She knew what she must do, but good God, how was she supposed to do it?
And what could she say? What could she possibly say to—
Forget that for now. Forget it because her mother was talking again and she was saying, “You could have bought me a necklace. And you could have hidden it. Just so that I could have found it, you could have hidden it. But you didn’t.”
There was so much love in her voice it made Isabella’s heart ache. And something about it seemed to sum up everything that her parents were. To themselves, to each other.
To their children.
And suddenly the moment was too personal to spy upon, even for her. She crept from the room, then ran to her own chamber, sagging into a chair just as soon as she closed the door.
Because she knew what her mother had been looking for for so very long.
It was sitting in the bottom drawer of her desk. And it was more than a necklace. It was an entire parure—a necklace, bracelet, and ring, a veritable shower of diamonds, each stone framed by two delicate aquamarines. Isabella had found them when she was ten, hidden in a small cavity behind one of the Turkish tiles in the nursery washroom. She should have said something about them. She knew that she should. But she hadn’t, and she wasn’t even sure why.
Maybe it was because she had found them. Maybe because she loved having a secret. Maybe it was because she hadn’t thought they belonged to anyone else, or indeed, that anyone even knew of their existence. Certainly she hadn’t thought that her mother had been searching for fifteen years.
Her mother was the last person anyone would imagine was keeping a secret. No one would think ill of Isabella for not thinking, when she’d discovered the diamonds—Oh, surely my mother must be looking for these and has chosen, for her own devious reasons, not to tell me about it.
Truly, when all was said and done, this was really her mother’s fault. If Hyacinth had
told her that she was searching for jewels, Isabella would immediately have confessed. Or if not immediately, then soon enough to satisfy everyone’s conscience.
And now, speaking of consciences, hers was beating a nasty little tattoo in her chest. It was a most unpleasant—and unfamiliar—feeling.
It wasn’t that Isabella was the soul of sweetness and light, all sugary smiles and pious platitudes. Heavens, no, she avoided such girls like the plague. But by the same token, she rarely did anything that was likely to make her feel guilty afterward, if only because perhaps—and only perhaps—her notions of propriety and morality were ever-so-slightly flexible.
But now she had a lump in the pit of her stomach, a lump with peculiar talent for sending bile up her throat. Her hands were shaking, and she felt ill. Not feverish, not even aguey, just ill. With herself.
Letting out an uneven breath, Isabella rose to her feet and crossed the room to her desk, a delicate rococo piece her namesake great-grandmother had brought over from Italy. She’d put the jewels there three years back, when she’d finally moved out of the top-floor nursery. She’d discovered a secret compartment at the back of the bottom drawer. This hadn’t particularly surprised her; there seemed to be an uncommon number of secret compartments in the furniture at Clair House, much of which had been imported from Italy. But it was a boon and rather convenient, and so one day, when her family was off at some ton function they had deemed Isabella too young to attend, she’d sneaked back up to the nursery, retrieved the jewels from their hiding place behind the tile (which she had rather resourcefully plastered back up), and moved them to her desk.
They’d remained there ever since, except for the odd occasion when Isabella took them out and tried them on, thinking how nice they would look with her new gown, but how was she to explain their existence to her parents?
Now it seemed that no explanation would have been necessary. Or perhaps just a different sort of explanation.
A very different sort.
Settling into the desk chair, Isabella leaned down and retrieved the jewels from the secret compartment. They were still in the same corded velvet bag in which she’d found them. She slid them free, letting them pool luxuriously on the desktop. She didn’t know much about jewels, but surely these had to be of the finest quality. They caught the sunlight with an indescribable magic, almost as if each stone could somehow capture the light and then send it showering off in every direction.