Setting the letters on her brother’s desk, Lilith looked up to find Sebastian studying her. He expected her to say something, she suspected, but what was there to say? She gleaned nothing new from their father’s correspondences, letters she had read many times since reuniting with her brother. There was no point in reading them again.
The letters may paint a picture of her past, but it was not the past that coincided with her memories. She cherished her few memories, clung to them as a lifeline, yet each reading of the letters frayed those memories little bit by little bit.
The bleakest days at the orphanage, the most hopeless of nights, all were manageable with the memories of her mother, even the few memories tainted by the presence of her father. These letters told a different tale. They told the tale of a stranger being her birth mother rather than the loving woman from her memories. A birth mother who did not want her, who abandoned her, just as her father did years later.
She glanced back to the letters on the edge of the desk, avoiding her brother’s eyes.
One letter expressed love, hinted at an elopement, and implied being in the family way, a letter written by Lily Chambers, nothing more than a servant’s daughter at the Roddam estate. That letter had been written to the earl’s son and heir, Tobias Lancaster. Another letter, also written by Lily, a year after the first, briefly introduced Tobias to his daughter, a baby she had abandoned on the doorstep of the home he now shared with his new wife, Jane. The last of the three letters, written by Mrs. Brighton of the orphanage to Tobias seven years after the second, confirmed the removal of Lilith from the Roddam estate to be brought to the orphanage forthwith.
Her whole sordid existence lay on her brother’s desk.
“It’s a wonder you didn’t end up in a workhouse,” Sebastian said, reaching for the letters.
Lilith looked out of the window, losing herself for a moment in the view of waves licking black rocks on the beach below.
As much as she had always loved the water, it was a wonder she found any solace in Allshire with it being a landlocked parish nearly a hundred miles from the coast. How could she ever call a place so far from the sea her home? But then, how could she ever call any place home? She did not belong anywhere. Not really.
“Surely,” she said, turning to face Sebastian, “he felt some affection for this Lily Chambers, for my— my mother. It could have been guilt, but I believe he was more compassionate than we give him credit. Of all the orphanages, he chose one that educated the orphans rather than prepared them for the workhouse. How else can we explain his securing my position at that particular orphanage if he didn’t care? And why donate enough money not only for my livelihood but for renovations of the facilities? To be accepted at the orphanage, orphans must be financially sponsored, but nothing more is required or expected aside from their livelihood for the extent of their stay. Yet, he paid so much more than that.”
Sebastian tapped his fingers against the desk, scowling. “Our father didn’t have a compassionate bone in his body. No man with compassion lies to his son by telling the boy his sibling is dead. No man with compassion blames his son for the death of that sibling and then beats a mere child within an inch of his life as punishment for that death. No, that man was not compassionate. He was pure evil.”
“I’m sorry you suffered, ‘Bastian,” she said, her heart aching for all he endured.
“You have nothing for which to feel sorry. He abused us both, even if the abuse took different forms.” Sebastian stood and walked to the window, leaning himself against the stone wall. “I don’t know his motive for sending you away when you had been raised as his and our mother’s daughter. He could very well have continued to raise you as his legitimate daughter after Mother died since no one knew the truth. I don’t know his motive, and I don’t care to know. Frankly, I don’t see the point in trying to rationalize his behavior. Forget about the woman who birthed you and forget about our father. We both shared a mother who loved us until her death. Shall we be content to be together again and stop digging up the past?”
The tension in the room chilled Lilith. She knew from Lizbeth how much Sebastian had suffered at the hand of their father, but was it so wrong for Lilith to want to learn more about her past? She only wanted to make sense of who she was.
“Can you so easily let go of the past?” Lilith queried tentatively.
“Not easily, no,” Sebastian admitted. “Lizbeth has been instrumental in helping me let go. You cannot imagine how the past tortured me, Lil. I felt responsible for your death. I accepted our father’s abuse as my own deserved punishment.”
He beat his shoulder against the stone wall and growled. “Devil take it, Lil. I spent my life thinking you drowned because I left you to play alone, never realizing you were safely tucked away in an orphanage.”
He turned back to her, crossing his arms over his chest, his eyes black and inscrutable. “I spent a lifetime clinging to the past. I’m only now learning to let go. I suggest you do the same.”
“Very well, then. Burn the letters,” Lilith challenged, not at all sure she wanted him to act on the gauntlet she had thrown down.
“Pardon?” He stared at her with incredulously wide eyes.
“Burn them. Right now. Toss them into the fire. Keeping them does neither of us any good.” Picking up the letters, she thrust them in his direction, her lips pursed and her hand steady.
Sebastian said nothing. Instead, he reached across her for the tea tray and filled their cups before taking his seat. His eyes flicked to the letters in her outstretched hand but otherwise paid no heed to her request.
“My steward at Roddam Hall has been shipping one crate at a time from Father’s office. Lizbeth and I have been cleaning out his files and possessions. Most of what we find is discarded. A few items have been kept and may be put to some use. He had, for example, a collection of travel journals that we’re planning to publish. I tell you this, Lilith, because this is how at peace I am with the past. I can look through his possessions and not feel raw fury. At least, not anymore. I now see everything of his as objects, not as representations of the man.”
He looked at the letters again then back to Lilith. “These letters are not items to be hated. They led us to you, after all. There is no need to mull over them every time you visit nor is there a need to destroy them. They are only letters.”
“Only letters,” she repeated with a scoff.
“I don’t need to understand the past. I refuse to be hurt by inanimate objects, letters included. I only want to move forward.” Softly, almost under his breath, he added, “As should you.”
He was right. There was nothing more to be learned about her past, and there was no way to second-guess a dead man’s motives for cruelty or kindness. Even if she could learn more, what would it prove?
Knowing the uselessness of such inquiry did not stop Lilith from wondering if their father had loved her birth mother or if he resented a youthful mistake that resulted in a consequence. She could not stop from wondering why her mother had chosen to leave her on her father’s doorstep. She could not stop wondering why her father’s new wife had taken her in and raised her as her own.
The letters told a cold story, one of facts without emotion or motive. They were inanimate objects, as Sebastian said, incapable of causing pain.
The feel of the paper burned her fingertips all the same.
Her arm still stretched, she flicked the letters towards him, willing him to take them away, at least, to hide them in a drawer where she could not find them. They were nothing more than reminders of abandonment by people who should have loved her and reminders that the memories of her mother were not of her real mother.
“Devil take it, Lil.” He growled.
In one swift motion, Sebastian snatched the papers out of her hand and launched himself across the room to the hearth, tossing the letters into hungry flames.
She heard a gasp when the fire devoured the pages, startled to realize it had been she who gasped. Her body perspired as if she, too, were being devoured by fire. Her hands gripped the arms of the chair to restrain herself from rushing to the fire and saving the remnants of her birth mother.
After the ashes settled, Sebastian turned to her.
“Drink your tea. You’re as pale as death,” he rumbled.
Her fingers, stiff, unfurled one by one from the wood. She flexed against the ache from clenching too tightly.
Nothing would bring back the letters. It was done.
“The tea, Lilith,” her brother repeated, his voice softer and closer.
Blinking rapidly against tears that had not formed, she obeyed. The tea was hot and sweet on her tongue, just as comforting as he knew it would be.
“Have you given any thought to moving in with us?” Sebastian asked, returning to his seat behind his desk. “I’ve spoken with my solicitor about setting up an account for you. You needn’t ever worry about money.”
“I thank you for both offers, but I’m much happier at home,” she said with as much pride as she could muster, trying not to choke on the word home.
“Help me convince you. You know we want you here,” he said, tasting his own tea. “Move forward, Lilith. Let’s move forward together.”
“No. Thank you, but no. I’m settled there, ‘Bastian. I’ve made a home for myself. People see me for what I am and accept me,” she replied, silencing the memory of how poorly the local gentry treated her.
A crease appeared between his black eyebrows. “And what are you that they so willingly accept?”
“An orphan. A spinster. And let’s not forget a bastard,” she said bluntly. “While no one except the rector knows that I really am a bastard, it is assumed that most orphans are illegitimate.”
He drew his brows closer together, the crease deepening, making him look quite ferocious. “Is that how you see yourself, Lil?”
“It’s not how I see myself. It’s who I am. I see no point in giving myself airs. I belong in Allshire where my identity is known. I need not hide any part of my past or feel shame for who I am.”
Sebastian cleared his throat. He opened his mouth to speak then closed it. After swirling the dregs of his cup for several long minutes, he let the cup clatter against its saucer.
“Look deeper. Your place may not be here in my home, but I don’t believe it is in Allshire. The parish isn’t even by the ocean, and don’t you for one second tell me you don’t long to live by the ocean.” He paused, as if daring her to contradict him.
She did not.
“I don’t presume to tell you where you do or do not belong, Lilith, but if your only reason for staying at the parish is to embrace that dismal excuse for an identity, then it’s not a good enough reason. You are none of those things. You are my sister. At one time, you knew a home with a doting mother. She was your real mother. I don’t care two snaps if she didn’t birth you. She was your mother just as she was mine. You would have never known any differently if that devil of a man hadn’t displaced you. But look at what you have now. You have a loving family who wants you to be part of their lives. You are beautiful and confident with the world at your fingertips. Look deeper, Lil.”
She bristled. As heartfelt as his words were, they did not describe her. They described how she ought to be, perhaps how she once saw herself, but these words did not describe her as she was now. They told an incongruous tale from that of the letters. He was her half-brother. The woman she thought had been her mother was his mother. Lilith was a bastard.
Before she could reply, he slapped his open palm against the desk. “I wish I had never shown you the letters. Damn me for the mistake. I wish I had only told you we were siblings and that our father sent you away after the death of our mother. I was a fool to tell you the truth. You only remembered me as a brother, anyway, and only remembered our parents as being your own. I regret my short sightedness.”
She clenched her dress in tight fists. “No, Sebastian. You did the right thing. Lies accomplish nothing. How cruel would it have been for you to tell me I’m legitimate, and after accepting the new life, have a stranger learn the truth and expose me as a fraud? I’m much happier knowing I’m not a member of your world. I don’t want that burden. I don’t want anything to do with the aristocratic life. I’m happier living the life I have built with people who know me for what I am,” Lilith argued.
Sebastian heaved a sigh, clearly frustrated, but Lilith could not help his reaction. If he wanted a polite response or a sentimental answer, he needed to look elsewhere, for she would answer only in truth.
“If I had burned the letters from the start, a stranger would have never learned the truth. Even now, you’re the only one holding you back from the future that should have been yours.” He rested his elbows on the desk and tugged at his hair. “I don’t want us to argue,” he said to the top of the desk, fistfuls of his hair clenched between fingers. “I’ve spent too much of my life missing you for us to argue.”
“I didn’t come here to fight about the letters. Could we please not fight?”
He meant nothing but goodwill, so why did she insist on contradicting his every word? It was this feeling of limbo, not knowing where she stood in life or how to move forward. Moving forward meant accepting his financial support instead of earning her own way as an independent woman and, more pointedly, accepting his version of her identity. It would be so much easier to move backwards or not to move at all. Forward held nothing but foreboding.
Releasing his hair from the stranglehold, he steepled his hands under his chin, staring at her in silence. Had she not felt so tense, so emotionally drained from the conversation, she would have laughed at the tufts of hair flying from his head. She wanted to laugh. A laugh would be just the thing to put an end to the disagreement. Try as she might to laugh, she only succeeded in grimacing.
“Do you find Lizbeth in good health?” Sebastian asked.
The sudden change of subject startled Lilith. She stared at him, not sure how to respond when her mind was otherwise engaged.
“I confess, as the time draws near, I worry,” he continued. “Her mother died in childbed with her sister, you know. Be honest. Is there cause for worry?”
Closing her eyes, she forced herself to focus on his question and disengage from the letters, from their brief quarrel, from her own inner turmoil.
“Lilith?” His voice nudged her, a pleading whisper. “Lizbeth’s health. Is it sound? Is she safe?”
When she opened her eyes, she saw a nervous twitch in his jaw, a tick of clenched teeth. Lilith shook her mind free and focused on his questions. The longer she took to answer, the more he would assume her hesitancy was in regard to Liz rather than herself.
She nodded, assuring him. “She’s sublime. If it isn’t tooting my own horn to say, she’s in good hands. I have yet to lose a mother or a babe.”
“There are no chances of complications then?”
“Complicated births aren’t uncommon, but I have worked with her throughout her confinement to ensure a healthy progression. You need not worry. I will be with her through the final steps.” Lilith tried to reflect confidence in her expression.
“And what if there is a complication? Should I summon a physician to be safe?” he asked, looking at her helplessly.
She straightened her posture by reflex, taken aback by his insinuation. He meant no insult, she reminded herself. He was simply worried for his wife and child. She allowed herself to relax before answering.
“No. No need for a physician,” she reassured. “My quick thinking, skill, and prayers are far superior than the abilities of any leech, I assure you.”
“I trust you, Lilith. I do. Truly. I trust you with my life, for that’s what Lizbeth is to me. She’s my life.” His steepled fingers scratched his chin before he twisted his mouth into a strained smile, trying to appear light-hearted, but clearly still thinking about his wife’s condition. “Now, let’s talk about how you’re enjoying meeting my in-laws.”
With thinned lips, she said, “While I want to enjoy my time here, I—.” A knock at the library door interrupted her.
They both turned to the opposite side of the room to see a head of russet curls appear from around the door. Lord Collingwood.
Ignoring the hitch in her breath at seeing the handsome face, Lilith jerked to her feet. She was not the least interested in conversing with him or with his handsome face.
Curtsying to Collingwood and Sebastian both, she excused herself.
Once outside the door, she felt a tinge of guilt at leaving so abruptly. He would think her rude. Thus far in her visit, Lord Collingwood had been the epitome of politeness and did not deserve rudeness.
But…well, it was simply too late now to regret her hasty departure.
Truth be told, she did not know the first thing about conversing with people like him and had no wish to learn. And besides, he was only predisposed to kindness on the pretense she was a lady and Sebastian’s legitimate sister. He would not be so kind if he knew the truth.
Defusing her guilt thusly, she made her way to the first floor in search of Lizbeth.