“Very well.” Still angry with him.
“Mother and I are leaving. Could we escort you home?”
Oh. No gentleman’s ever offered to escort me home before. I should be pleased. As Maura so helpfully pointed out, Paul is my best chance for finding a husband. If I don’t get betrothed soon, Father will involve himself—or, worse, the Brothers will choose for me. They could pick anyone—a lonely old widower or a devout man poised to join the Brotherhood. I’d have no say in it.
Still, Paul didn’t even bother to come home for Mother’s funeral. Girls are not permitted to receive letters from men unless they are betrothed, but surely he could have written me if he’d wanted to, instead of that dry little note of condolence he sent Father. If he’d thought of me—missed me at all —he would have written. We were the best of friends right up until the day he left. This man in front of me now is a stranger.
And I’m not the carefree Cate he left behind. Seeing him again—it makes me miss that girl. She didn’t realize how much she had to lose. She laughed more and worried a great deal less.
“Let me tell my sisters I’m going,” I decide.
Maura greets Paul with enthusiasm while Tess smiles shyly. When I say the McLeods will take me home, Maura glares at me for abandoning her and Tess to the dull politeness of our neighbors. I can’t help smirking. Perhaps this will give her the chance to make those friends she’s been longing for.
Paul hands me up into the McLeods’ barouche, and I settle onto the leather bench next to his mother. Paul sits across from us. Mrs. McLeod nervously arranges a blanket over her lap, shivering, as the matched pair of bays starts forward. I suspect the open carriage is Paul’s doing. His mother is notoriously afraid of catching a chill.
“Good morning, Mrs. McLeod,” I say. “How are you?”
She gives me a sour smile as she recounts her latest aches and pains. Paul is her darling; I don’t think she’d care for any girl he paid attention to, but she’s always found me particularly irritating. I suspect I am too hardy for my own good.
“How was your apprenticeship?” I ask.
“Paul’s become Mr. Jones’s right-hand man. And he was quite the scholar at university,” she gloats. “Tell her, son.”
“I did well enough for all the time I spent in the library.” Paul ducks his head. I’d wager that he spent precious little time in the library, compared with how much he spent wandering the city and carousing.
“He’s modest,” Mrs. McLeod says.
“New London is grand. Construction booming all day, every day except Sundays. New factories, new warehouses down by the port to store goods, new houses for the men making their fortunes off the factories. All the big houses have gaslights now. Some even have indoor water closets!”
“Imagine that,” Mrs. McLeod breathes.
“The streets are a madhouse. Trains come and go all day long, bringing workers from the country looking for jobs. Ships come to port with goods and people from Europe or as far away as Dubai. The city is bursting at the seams. Whole families are living crowded together in three-room flats above shops and taverns. It’s an amazing time to be an architect.”
I can’t fathom it. The only life I’ve known is here in Chatham. I’ve never been out of Maine. Never farther than the seaside. “Taverns? I don’t imagine the Brothers approve of that.”
Paul chuckles. “They shut them down as fast as they open. There are signs up everywhere, warning us against drink and gambling.” He stretches his arms over his head, and I can’t help noticing how well his suit fits. “They regulate the gentlemen’s clubs with iron fists, Jones says, but he took me with him to his, and you wouldn’t believe the—”
“Paul. I’m sure Miss Cahill doesn’t want to hear your scandalous tales.” Mrs. McLeod settles her feet on the hot-water bottle on the carriage floor. “Are you quite certain you aren’t cold, dear?”
I would love to hear scandalous tales, but I can’t very well say that. Instead, Paul and I both assure her that we are comfortable. I take in a deep lungful of air as we pass an orchard, the trees tangled with ripe red apples. On the other side of the lane, the trees are bare, already picked. The sweet air smells like home, like autumn. I wonder what New London smells like—smoke from all those factories? Sewage from all the people and horses?
“And now you’re back for good?” I ask Paul.
“We’ll see. I’ve missed the place.” His green eyes linger on mine until I find myself flushing again.
“It hasn’t been the same without Paul, has it, Mrs. McLeod?” I say lightly, deflecting the attention. She’s only too glad to enumerate the many ways in which she’s missed her son, how silent and dull the house has been without him, how she’s been planning a dinner party to celebrate his return.
“And you’ll come, of course, won’t you? You and Maura and your father,” Paul suggests.
“Of course.” It’s one invitation I can accept with ease. The McLeods are our nearest neighbors. As a child, I was in and out of their house almost as much as my own. I grin, remembering the time Paul dared me to tightrope-walk the wall around the McLeods’ pigpen. I fell and sprained my ankle, then swooned from the pain and fright. Paul carried me home, terrified he’d murdered me. Once he was assured I was all right, he teased me mercilessly about being such a girl. He went about for months falling down in a mock faint.
I must have been about ten at the time. Mother was recovering from the third stillbirth—Edward Aaron. Mrs. O’Hare insisted on cleaning me up and bandaging my ankle before I was allowed into Mother’s rooms. I remember her pale, drawn face and the purple shadows under her swollen eyes. She told me I had to start behaving like a lady soon, and I stuck out my tongue at her, and she laughed.
The barouche pulls up before our house, and Paul jumps out. “I’ll be back directly, Mother,” he says, helping me down, tucking my hand into the crook of his elbow.
He stops just outside our front door, fixing me with an earnest expression. “Cate, I was so sorry to hear about your mother. She was a great lady,” he says.
“Thank you.” I stare at the plot of black-eyed Susans beside the porch. “We appreciated your note of condolence.”
“It wasn’t enough. I wanted to come home, but it was the beginning of the term—”
Yes, the timing was inconvenient. My mother’s death wasn’t reason enough to miss a few classes. Never mind that Mother used to sneak him sweets that his mother forbade. When she was well enough to come outside, he used to turn cartwheels through the garden to cheer her, and when she wasn’t, he’d make hideous faces at her through the window. He was my best friend, and he grew up with her, too, and he couldn’t be bothered to come home for even a week.
“You couldn’t have gotten back in time for the service. I know. It’s quite all right.” But I don’t meet his eyes, and my reassurance sounds hollow. Will he notice?
“It’s not. I wanted to be here for your family—for you—but—” I look up as he falters, and he leans in close. He smells spicy, like pine needles. “I couldn’t come home. Financially, I mean. I was too proud to write it at the time, and my mother would murder me for telling you now. Money’s been scarce.”