"I cannot stand the snow," whined Sophia Browne as she plopped down in front of the fireplace. "I hate winter." She pouted, casting a fierce glance towards the windows.
Her sister, an elder girl of light hair and gentle eyes sitting beside the hearth in an old armchair, smiled briefly at her. "Of course you do," she said and then returned her attention back to the knitting in her lap, "just as you hate the rain in spring, the heat in summer, and the wind in autumn."
Sophia huffed. "I never said all that." She scrambled to her feet and started for the windows. After awhile of studying the crystal flakes streaking the glass, she turned to her sister. "Can I go outside, Emma?" she asked, idly tracing a pattern in the wood of the windowsill.
Emma glanced at the little girl out of the corner of her eye and smirked. "I thought you couldn't stand the snow," she said.
"So?" Sophia retorted, the tone of her voice even more juvenile than her ten years.
Emma sighed wearily and placed her knitting in the basket at her side. Drawing her shawl tightly around her shoulders, she pulled up closer to the hearth. The crackling fire brightened her pale face, and darkened the shadows under her eyes. She briefly let out a small cough. "No, Sophia," she replied, her voice losing its earlier playfulness. "It's much too cold out."
The younger girl frowned momentarily. Upon returning her gaze to the window, however, her expression perked up again. Walking up the steps to their front door then was a raven-haired girl, garbed in a heavy cloak and bonnet. She carried a covered basket in the crook of one arm, while the other was linked with the elbow of a tall and darkly dressed man. Sophia recognized the both of them. "Clara is home," she announced to Emma, "and Mr. Pratt is with her."
Emma looked up quickly at the mention of the latter's name. Her cheeks seemed to flush for a moment, but then a composed, almost stern, expression immediately crossed her face. She heard Clara's keys jangle as the door in the vestibule opened with a faint creak. Before long, Clara came into the parlor, Liam Pratt following closely behind.
"Good afternoon, ladies," Clara Browne addressed her sisters. "Look who I ran into on my way back from the market."
"'Afternoon, Miss Browne, Miss Sophia," the young man said, taking off his hat and bowing slightly.
"Mr. Pratt," the other girls replied, nodding. Emma lowered her head.
"Here you go," Clara said, handing the basket in her hand to the servant who had entered the room just then. She removed her cloak and bonnet and did the same with them. "Have Mrs. Smith put on the kettle for tea. Sophia," she called to her younger sister, "go tell Papa that Mr. Pratt is here to see him."
Sophia groaned and darted out of the room. Clara sat down on the sofa across from the fire and motioned Liam to join her.
"You're here to see Father?" Emma asked, busying herself with her knitting again. "Have you news from Barbados?"
"Yes," Liam said, his voice soft. He was fair-haired, slightly awkward in his posture, but carried an amiable air, and looked to be in his late twenties. He had lived in the small vicarage down the road from the Brownes' Crestland Park with his father for as long as either Clara or Emma could remember, but both girls, in the past few years, had grown to know him better as the local banker and their father's accountant.
"I hope all is well down there," Emma said.
Liam paled, but offered no response. At the same moment, he heard the door to Mr. Browne's study open. The latter was soon in the room. Edward Browne was a portly man, his brow deep in wrinkles and the wispy strands of hair that graced the sides of his head white as snow. He smiled at his daughters, calling Sophia out of his office and shooing her into the parlor, and then greeted the banker. Liam stood up, excused himself with another bow, and then disappeared with Mr. Browne out of the room. The housekeeper, Mrs. Smith, came into the room as the two men were leaving. On cue, she turned and followed them out.
Clara shot Emma a mysterious smile once the sisters were alone. Sophia joined her in the grin, glancing back and forth between the two of them eagerly.
"Why do you look like that?" she asked.
"Yes, Clara, why do you look like that?" Emma repeated.
Clara crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head. "Look like what?"
"Well," Emma said, a secretive smile of her own curling from her lips, "I've news that'll wipe that smug little grin off of your face."
Clara reached back and adjusted the pins in her hair. "Oh, really?" Unlike her older sister, she had quite a rosy complexion, mischievous and dark eyes, and an unmistakably alluring beauty. "Pray tell."
Emma nodded. "It seems that a certain Mr. Winters has returned from London to Tournerling Abbey."
"Gabriel?" Clara cried, scrunching her face in disgust.
"Mm-hmm," Emma replied.
"Ugh, I suppose Papa'll want to call on them soon, huh? Or even worse, Nathaniel Winters will probably bring that louse-of-a-man brother of his over here," Clara groaned, leaning back against the sofa.
Emma shrugged. "Honestly, Clara, I've no clue why you detest Mr. Gabriel so. I find him rather charming."
"Handsome, too," Sophia piped in.
Clara shot the younger girl a silencing glare. "Emma, dear, you know very well why I detest him."
The oldest girl rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. It has been eight years since you were eleven, Clara. I would've thought by now such childhood grudges would surely be forgotten."
"Ha! After what he did, a grudge is the least that could describe my feelings for him."
"What'd he do?" Sophia asked, scooting closer to Clara.
Emma glanced up at the curly-headed little girl. "Your sister here has had it in her head for years now that Mr. Gabriel broke her heart when they were but your age."
"No," Clara objected, "not when I was her age, when he was eighteen and I was fifteen. You were too young to remember, Sophia, but you, Emma, you know what I'm referring to. If you're going to tell the story, at least tell it correctly."
"All right," Emma said, putting up her hands defensively. "All right, Sophia, when your sister and Mr. Gabriel were about…your age, they were quite the companions, inseparable if I recall correctly, and just before he left for boarding school—he was about fourteen, I think—he promised he would marry Clara when he returned. Now, mind you, she was only eleven and he was only fourteen. Their feelings could not have been little more than childhood fancies."
"So what happened? Why isn't Clara married to Mr. Gabriel now?"
"Because," Clara answered, just as Emma opened her mouth to continue, "he returned home four years later, engaged. Engaged! To the spoiled daughter of some ridiculously wealthy Frenchman. No one had even heard of who she was, or even where her father had acquired his assets." Clara shook her head. "And like a fool, he was absolutely head-over-heels."
"And poor, simple Clara was thrust into the shadow of the extravagantly beautiful and eloquent Victoria Leblanc," Emma said, looking towards the ceiling and dramatically batting her eyelashes, with her hand over her heart. She and Sophia both glanced at their sister and laughed.
"What happened to Miss Leblanc?" Sophia asked.
"She eloped with his best friend," Clara said, rather dryly.
"Then Mr. Gabriel went to Oxford and hasn't come back since, until now," Emma finished.
"If Miss Leblanc has already married, then why don't you just marry Mr. Gabriel now, Clara?"
"Oh, Lord, no!" Clara cried. "I would not, for all the riches in the world, touch that man, not even with a stick fifty meters long."
Just then, the reentrance of Liam and Mr. Browne into the parlor drew the sisters from their conversation. Their father was bright red, visibly upset by whatever had gone on in his study. Liam was even more pale than when they'd seen him last. He bowed, murmuring a farewell to each girl, and then hurried towards the exit. Mr. Browne did not see him out, but instead, sat down in the chair across from Emma.
"Bad news, Papa?" Sophia asked.
Mr. Browne placed his hands over his mouth and sighed deeply. "Could you please excuse us, darling," he said. "I need to speak with your sisters alone."
"Father, what's wrong?" Emma asked immediately upon Sophia's exit, and leaned forward to place a comforting hand on her father's. She noticed he was shaking.
"Mr. Pratt," he said slowly and deliberately, "has just informed me of the status of my investments in the West Indies." He paused and glanced up at his daughters, his eyes glistening. "Girls, there has been a terrible storm in Barbados. We've lost nearly everything, and have been plunged into an enormous debt."