The Countess
    â€œThen I shall not begin to do so now.” Eglantine walked away.
    Jacqueline chased her, accusation in her words. “You let him do it!”
    â€œI had no choice.” Eglantine fairly marched through the grasses and Jacqueline tripped more than once trying to match her pace. “At least, not then. My opinion was neither solicited nor welcomed in those days.” She halted abruptly, scanning the sea as she took a deep breath.
    Jacqueline stumbled to a halt, despairing that her body would ever follow her bidding again. Nay, she had been born to be short, buxom and clumsy, of that there could be little doubt.
    â€œWhat was my father like?”
    â€œI barely recall,” her mother admitted most unsatisfactorily. “Robert was thirty years my senior, a man active in protecting and expanding his estates.” She smiled and shrugged. “Most of our encounters were abed and in the dark.”
    Jacqueline felt her cheeks heat, for she had never considered her parents’ intimacy, and she could not hold her mother’s gaze.
    But Eglantine’s words fell low between them. “I could tell you that ’tis because of you that we journeyed here, that ’twas to save you from Reynaud that I launched this ordeal, but ’twould be a lie. ’Tis because of me that we are in this wretched place.”
    Jacqueline gaped at her mother, her heart stopping in dread. Surely she did not still have to wed that old toad?
    â€œYou know naught of what passed between your grandmother and I in those years of my first marriage for you were too young. ’Tis safe to say that I was deeply unhappy with her refusal to intervene in my own arranged betrothal, just as you are unhappy with me.”
    â€œThen, how...”
    Eglantine lifted a hand for silence, her voice flat, her eyes sad. “In hindsight, I see that she could not imagine that any ill would come of it, for her marriage had been arranged and she was deeply happy. All the same, I blush in recollection of the cruel things I said.”
    Her mother had been shrewish to her sweet grandmother? ’Twas impossible to believe, for they were so close.
    â€œI could not condemn you to this match after my own experience.” Eglantine turned to catch Jacqueline’s gaze, the look in her eye as fierce as that of any peregrine. “But this choice was made for myself, for I would not have such bitterness, however briefly, between us. As a mother, I would not hear such accusations fall from the lips of my firstborn.” She shook a finger at Jacqueline. “You will take no blame for my defiance, is that understood?
    But Jacqueline understood only one part of what her mother implied. “I do not have to wed Reynaud?”
    Her mother smiled. “We are here to ensure that you do not. None know our destination who were left behind—none but your grandmother whose lips are sealed forever. None whom we passed know our identity. I am a “countess” to ensure that Reynaud never finds you. We do this, Jacqueline, that you should not have endure what I have already lived.”
    Eglantine lifted her chin and Jacqueline’s mouth went dry. She saw her mother as a woman in her own right for the first time. She saw what Eglantine had known of marriage. She saw Eglantine’s persistent hope, her conviction that better could be had and must be had, all for the elusive prize of Jacqueline’s happiness.
    They had left everything and everyone so that she would not have to wed Reynaud.
    Jacqueline was humbled anew by her mother, though this time by far more than grace and composure. ’Twas the selflessness of her mother’s character that shook her. The wind lifted the stray curls from Eglantine’s braid, casting their fair swirls against her cheeks, even as she held Jacqueline’s gaze.
    She suddenly wagged a finger at her astonished daughter. “But be aware of the truth in

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