" I related quickly to James and Mina. It was refreshing to read about more seasoned, experienced characters than the usual eighteen-year-old debutantes. This book tackles complex elements that come with experience and age." - Jenna, Goodreads
It was horribly hard for Wilhelmina Hewitt to find the words she needed to start this discussion. But after all her husband, George, had done for her, she felt it her duty now to help him as best she could. Even if the subject she wished to broach would probably shock him.
“Would you like a brandy?” he offered, the gentle sound of his voice conveying the warmth and consideration he’d always shown her.
Her resolve – the complete lack of nervousness she experienced in spite of her decision – surprised Wilhelmina. Instead of panic, an extraordinary sense of calm overcame her. She knew she was making the right choice, no matter how much it was destined to upend her life.
She considered her husband with deliberate practicality. The man she’d married twenty years earlier when she’d been eighteen and pregnant reclined in the armchair opposite hers, his gaze expectant. Their fathers had been like brothers. They’d attended the same schools, had fought side by side in the American War of Independence, and had later perished together at sea.
Wilhelmina and George had both been ten years old when news of their fathers’ deaths had arrived. With their properties less than one mile apart, they’d quickly found solace in each other. As one would expect, the incident had deepened the bond they’d already shared since birth. So when Wilhelmina faced the greatest ordeal of her life eight years later, George hadn’t hesitated for a second. Having recently been denied the woman he loved, he’d insisted he’d never want to wed another. So he’d chosen to protect Wilhelmina instead. George had, she acknowledged, sacrificed more for her than what was fair. It was time she returned the favor.
Deciding to be direct, she cleared her throat. “I think we ought to get a divorce.”
George’s eyes widened. He stared at her as if she were mad. “I beg your pardon?”
Wilhelmina took a deep breath. “How long have you and Fiona been seeing each other?”
His gaze slid away from hers as his cheeks grew ruddy. “You know the answer to that.”
“By my estimation it’s almost exactly two years. Two years of pretending Fiona is my dearest friend – that it is me she comes to see thrice a week, not you.” The lovely widow, ten years George’s junior, had caught his attention one evening at Almack’s. The two had struck up a conversation, which had led to a dance. When subsequent run-ins with Fiona had increased George’s interest in her, Wilhelmina had decided to step in and help the pair. By covering for them, she’d allowed them to conduct their affair in private and without scrutiny.
It was, she realized, an unconventional arrangement. But then again, her entire marriage was far from ordinary. The one and only attempt she and George had made to consummate their union turned out to be a spectacular failure. Bedding each other had been impossible due to their being like brother and sister and, Wilhelmina admitted, due to her own aversion for the act itself. So she’d happily encouraged George to pursue such relationships elsewhere in the years since.
“I’m sorry. I did not realize you were opposed to our meetings. You never—”
“George.” Wilhelmina gave her husband a reassuring smile. “I believe you’ve misunderstood my reason for suggesting a divorce. It is not because I’m offended or upset by the relationship you and Fiona enjoy, but rather because I believe you have fallen in love with her and she with you.”
He sat utterly motionless for a moment, then finally nodded. They’d always been frank with each other. “You’re correct, but divorce is not the answer, Mina. It would be public and messy. Our reputations would be destroyed in the process – yours especially.”
Bolstering herself against the truth of his words, she shrugged one shoulder. “I’ll manage.”
“No.” He shook his head. “I won’t have that on my conscience.”
She stood and went to crouch before him. Her hand clasped his. A pair of dark brown eyes filled with concern met hers. “You gave up on love for me once – on starting a family of your own. Please, allow me to return the enormous favor you did me when you decided to save me from ruin and Cynthia from illegitimacy.”
“Ah, but I did marry for love, Mina.”
“I know, but not in the way you should have.”
“If you think I have regrets, you’re wrong. I’d make the same decision again in a heartbeat.”
“Because you’re the best man there is, George. And as such, you deserve every happiness in the world. You deserve to have a life with Fiona just as she deserves to have a life with you.” She carefully released his hand, then stood and crossed to the sideboard where she proceeded to fill two glasses with brandy. Returning, she handed him his drink and took a sip of her own.
A frown appeared on George’s brow. “You’ve no idea how hard it would be to break up our marriage completely. We’re not just speaking of legal separation, Mina, which in and of itself is enough to see one shunned from Society. What you’re suggesting would require parliamentary involvement with three readings of the divorcement bill before the Lords. Witnesses to your adulterous behavior would have to give evidence.”
“I’ve thought about that. Obviously, the simplest thing to do would be to pay a few men for the trouble.”
He gaped at her, then took a sip of his drink. “No. I appreciate the offer, but we’ll do no such thing.”
“George. I really—”
“It’s absolutely out of the question.”
“You’re certain I can’t persuade you?”
He gave her a steady look. “Quite.”
“All right,” Mina agreed after a moment’s hesitation. She knew when George was beyond budging. “But this arrangement with Fiona is untenable. It’s just a matter of time before someone catches on to the fact that the two of you are lovers, and when they do, she will suffer the most. So if you refuse a divorce, you should at the very least consider moving out of Town. Find a small village somewhere so you can carry on with each other discreetly.”
“And leave you here by yourself? Would that not raise a few eyebrows?”
“Not if you come back from time to time and visit. Plenty of husbands travel for work.”
“My work, as you well know, is here in London.”
“It doesn’t have to be.” As the designer and manufacturer of fine furniture, George had made a name for himself amid the upper class. Having a Hewitt sofa was all the rage. So much so they’d both been admitted into upper class circles and counted Viscount and Viscountess Pennington among their dearest friends. “You already have employees who are trained to handle new orders along with the shop on a regular basis. Whether you sit in your study here and create new designs or you do so a hundred miles away would make little difference, would it not?”
“I suppose not.”
“Especially if you were to set up a home near Croft, which in my mind would make your life simpler since that’s where the carpenters are.”
For the first time since this conversation had begun, George allowed a hint of humor to tug at his lips. “You’ve put a frightening amount of thought into this. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were eager to be rid of me.”
“Not at all,” she told him in earnest. “I merely desire to see you happy.”
He seemed to mull this over a moment. “I’ll think on it. Right now, there’s still Cynthia’s upcoming wedding to consider. Moving ahead with any drastic changes should probably wait until she has spoken her vows. I’d hate to give Mr. Petersen or his parents a reason to call things off.”
George finally smiled. “Good. That’s settled then. Care for a game of cards?”
Wilhelmina located the deck and returned to her seat. She knew George was being protective. It was in his nature. But she hated feeling like she was becoming a hindrance to him, a burden keeping him from the life he deserved.
Of course, altering his perspective only required a change in circumstance. This was apparent when he came to speak with Wilhelmina six months later. In the sort of bleak tone one might use when there’d been a death in the family, he announced that he’d gotten Fiona with child.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered. Slumped in the same chair he’d used for their previous conversation on the matter, he clasped his head between his hands. No man had ever looked more defeated or miserable. It broke Wilhelmina’s heart. The joy George would surely have felt over the pregnancy was being overshadowed by the complication of his marriage to her.
Now, faced with a choice between the scandal of divorce or bringing an illegitimate child into the world, she knew his hand had been forced by fate. As such, the only thing she could think to do was offer comfort and reassurance as he’d so often done for her. “It’s all right. I will survive this, George. We all will.”
“I’ve spoken about it at length with Fiona. She asked me to convey her gratitude. What you are willing to do is—”
“The correct thing.”
“Mina…” His voice was thick with feeling.
“Moving forward, we’ll need a plan,” she told him matter-of-factly before she too succumbed to emotion. “Right now, only the three of us know the true nature of this marriage or that you and I share a bond stronger than what most married couples enjoy. If we are to succeed in dissolving our marriage completely, we’ll need to put up a good façade. The fewer people we confide in, the better.”
“I’ve considered this too,” George said. “I think we need to tell Cynthia and her husband, Henry, what to expect. I also think it would benefit you if one or two of our closest friends, like the Penningtons, were brought into our confidence. This way, you won’t be completely alone afterward.”
“Maybe,” she agreed. “From what I gather, you and I shan’t be permitted to see each other once the divorce has been settled.”
“Not that we’d have much opportunity to.” When she gave him a puzzled look he explained, “Although getting through this may take a long time, Fiona and I intend to leave England as soon as it’s over since staying here and facing the aftermath could be difficult for our child.”
Wilhelmina’s stomach clenched at the idea of George moving overseas. He’d always been there and while she was happy to help him marry Fiona, she instantly knew his absence from England would lead to an unwelcome emptiness in her heart. For his sake, she forced herself to maintain her composure.
“Where will you go?”
“Massachusetts has a well-established logging industry, but it’s my understanding that the area surrounding the Great Lakes shows promise. It’s reputed to be an especially stunning part of North America. Most importantly, it’s far away.”
It certainly was. Wilhelmina forced a smile and tried not to panic. This was for the best. George would be with the woman he loved and start a family. With Cynthia already settled a few months earlier, her future had been secured. As for Wilhelmina herself, she’d weather the storm as best as she could, most likely by focusing all her energy on the property she owned near Renwick. George had helped her purchase the small farm nearly five years ago. After a serious bout of influenza, he’d insisted on making sure she’d have a property in her own name in case he died. She’d not been there often, but having it did reassure her.
“You do realize your child will likely be born out of wedlock,” Wilhelmina said. She hated bringing this up, but decided it was best to face the facts, no matter how unappealing. “From what I gather, the proceedings we intend to undertake could last a couple of years.”
George’s gaze finally sharpened. “I’m aware, but once it’s done, my son or daughter shall have my name.”
USA TODAY bestselling author Sophie Barnes spent her youth traveling with her parents to wonderful places all around the world. She’s lived in five different countries, on three different continents, and speaks Danish, English, French, Spanish, and Romanian with varying degrees of fluency. But, most impressive of all, she’s been married to the same man three times—in three different countries and in three different dresses.
When she’s not busy dreaming up her next romance novel, Sophie enjoys spending time with her family, swimming, cooking, gardening, watching romantic comedies and, of course, reading.