From The Dashwood Sisters Tell All…
I looked up and saw a man coming toward me on the path. He was about my height and age, with dark hair. I resisted the urge to smooth my own windblown mop. The last thing I needed to worry about on this trip was how I looked.
As the man came closer, I could see his face more clearly. I stumbled, then righted myself and kept moving, but my heart exploded into a loud hammering in my chest. It couldn’t be. It was impossible. It was . . .
My first impulse was to turn around and make a run for Oakley Hall. Instead, I forced myself to keep breathing and moving toward him. His presence made no sense. I hadn’t seen him for more than fifteen years. Not since college graduation. Not since we’d said good-bye and he’d walked away with his fiancée on his arm.
We were thirty feet apart now, and I saw it in his face the moment he realized who I was. Part of me wanted to smile at this unexpected meeting with an old friend, because he was that, if nothing else. But another part of me wanted to weep. I was dealing with enough new losses already. I didn’t need to be reminded of this one too.
When he was ten feet away, I forced myself to smile. “Hello, Daniel.”
He grinned. “Of all the forests in all the counties in all of England . . .” He shook his head. “I can’t believe it’s you.”
“Me, neither.” I didn’t know whether to stick out my hand for him to shake or to give him an awkward hug. Neither seemed right. “What are you doing here?”
He laughed, a familiar and somehow comforting sound. Years might have passed, but he still had the same good-natured, warm laugh. “I could ask you the same thing.”
“Obviously you’re staying at Oakley Hall,” I said. He stepped forward, until we were a mere two feet apart. “Wait. You aren’t on the Jane Austen tour, are you?” My stomach dropped to my ankles.
Panic exploded in my chest. “But, why . . . I mean, Jane Austen? You?” He’d been a business major, and the few announcements I’d seen in the alumni magazine had charted the course of his successful career as an international antiques dealer. After a few years, I’d quit reading the alumni magazine. “I thought you were more of a John Steinbeck kind of guy.”
“I was. I mean, I am.”
“So you’re here under spousal duress?” I refused to let my panic show on my face.
“No. I’m here alone.” He flexed his left hand at his side, and that was when I noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. “Melissa and I . . . well, we’re not together anymore.”
The thrill that went through me at the knowledge was wrong. Of course it was. But that didn’t do anything to discourage it.
He looked at me then, really looked at me. Our gazes met, and suddenly I wasn’t thirty-eight but eighteen, meeting him for the first time at freshman orientation. My life had changed in that one moment. Irrevocably. Permanently. Eternally. And then Melissa had stepped up next to him, and he’d introduced me to his high-school sweetheart. They’d decided on colleges together, she’d said. They were planning to get married as soon as they graduated. And I had settled for friendship for the next four years.
He stepped forward and caught my arm. “Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” I didn’t object when he led me to an enormous fallen log. “Sit down,” he said. “Should I get you some water?”
“No. I’m fine.” I tried to breathe deeply, and after a moment my head cleared and I felt normal again. “It’s just been quite a day.”
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
“It’s a long story.”
He lowered himself to the log beside me and stretched out his legs. “I have as long as you need. Unless you’d rather be alone.”
How in the world had all this happened? How had I come to be sitting on a log in the middle of England with the one man I’d ever loved?
“No, I’m fine. Just surprised to see you.”
He was silent for a long moment. I would have expected some forest rustlings, some birdsong from the trees above, but the world was still and quiet. And then I heard it, a lone bird of some sort with a rather plaintive sound. Too late. Too late, it seemed to say.
We spoke at the same time, then stopped. And then we laughed, although my reaction was more from nerves than humor.
“This can’t be a coincidence,” I said. “I think I detect the hand of my mother in all of this.” Why else would Daniel have turned up on a Jane Austen walking tour?
“You would be right,” he said with a rueful smile, “but maybe not for the reasons you think.”
“Oh?” My cheeks went flame red. Was I that transparent?
“Your mom contacted me before she . . . passed away. She said she wanted to hire me to come on this trip.”
“Hire you?” Confusion tightened my chest. “I don’t understand.” Most likely my mother had concocted some elaborate cover story just to get him to Hampshire, where she hoped I might finally catch the man of my dreams. How in the world had she known about his divorce?
“In my professional capacity. She said you were coming here to dispose of a family heirloom. When she told me about her . . . situation”—he paused—“well, I couldn’t say no.”
Of course he couldn’t. He might have broken my heart, but he was a decent man who would want to do the right thing, especially when the request came from the dying mother of an old friend.
“Daniel, I’m sorry she troubled you—”
“I’m not.” He bumped his shoulder gently against mine, as though we were kids sitting in the schoolyard at recess. “I was glad for the chance to see you again.”
The thrill that shot up my spine at his words scared me. I’d spent the better part of two decades getting over this man, and now my mother had reached out from the grave to set me up for heartbreak all over again. Because I had a strong suspicion that whatever this “family heirloom” might be, it was just an excuse for her to finagle a second chance at love for me.
“So, what is this priceless artifact?” he asked. “Jewelry? A portrait?”
“Actually, I have no idea.”
Daniel gave me a funny look. “Do you have it with you? I mean, is it here? In England?”
I pulled the envelope from my tote bag. “Right here. But the lawyer said my mother’s instructions were not to open it until I got here.”
Daniel scooted closer. “Well, let’s see what we’re dealing with.”
I pulled the tab on the envelope and slid out the contents—a book of some sort, covered in bubble wrap. I unwound the plastic as Daniel watched. The book was old, the leather scuffed and darkened to a mottled mahogany. I flipped it open, but instead of printed letters, I saw old-fashioned handwriting.
“It’s a diary of some sort,” I said to Daniel.
I flipped to the front, wondering if it had been my mother’s. But it wasn’t her writing, and I quickly discovered that whatever my mother had hoped Mimi and I would do with this diary, there wasn’t any chance of returning it to the original owner.
On the flyleaf, the owner of the volume had written . . .
Private Property of Miss Cassandra Austen.
Do Not Read.
That Means You, Jane.