It was too much, really, it all was. Firstly, that they should think that she'd even consider Robert. Robert! Her cousin and playmate, her best friend, and often her only friend. She loved him of course, but like a brother. The idea of him as her husband! Had she not been so affected, she would have laughed at the idea.
But what her mother had said, that was what really caused her to have such a reaction. She had always known that she would inherit Avondale as well as a large fortune, and she had thought great deal about her coming-out these past few months and would over the next year. But what she had not considered were the...suitors.
For the third time that day, she cursed herself for her own stupidity. What had got into her? It wasn't like her to be so blind. It was inevitable, and always had been - she would marry some wretched upper-class buck of a higher station who needed to pour her money into his estate. That had been the idea from the beginning, she realised. What a fool she had been!
And further, she perceived, this was why her mother was so keen on Sir Walter. Was he not the heir to a Marquess' title or Dukedom or something or other? And he had made a fortune with those rubber trees in the Amazon, meaning he was not a fortune hunter...which was exactly what her parents wanted.
Was this to be the Season? Doing little all day but shopping and standing in ballrooms while young men examined her beauty and listened to the gossips to learn the size of her dowry. No, not only young men, she reminded herself, there were probably plenty of old bachelors and some widowers looking to increase their fortune. The thought of any man doing such revolted her. She could not marry someone like that. She would not do it! But what choice did she have?
Anastasia stood and began to pace backwards and forwards to relieve her frustration. Silent tears ran down her face and eventually she gave up, falling to the ground and curling up, hiding her head behind her hugged knees. It was all such a mess!
"I should have seen this sooner! I am such a fool," she mumbled to herself repeatedly, trembling.
"I'm glad we finally agree on something."
Anastasia ground her teeth to stop herself from screaming at the added frustration. Why was it that Mr. Campbell had the habit of turning up whenever she was in any sort of situation that might embarrass her later? She would have liked to snap back at him, but found she didn't have the strength to do much more than angrily wipe away some of the fast falling tears.
"I'm not inclined to have an argument at the moment, Mr. Campbell," she said, not looking up and trying to keep her voice steady.
"Here," he replied, a crisp white handkerchief appearing in front of her.
"Thank you." She wiped her tear-stained face and took a few deep breaths. Feeling somewhat calmer, she stood, leaning against the tree for support. She saw him, standing a small distance away from her, dressed in riding clothes.
"Perhaps we should go for a walk down by the stream," Campbell suggested.
Anastasia shook her head. "Thank you, but I think I'd rather be alone."
"I guessed as much. However, if I return to the house now I'll probably be sent back to look for you anyway. In any case, I'd rather not leave you alone in your state."
Anastasia lashed out at him. "My state? I'm a little upset! It's not as though I cannot walk back by myself!"
To his credit, James Campbell didn't even flinch at Anastasia's uproar. Instead, he grabbed the reins of his mare (who Anastasia, in her 'state', had not even noticed until now), and offered his other arm to her. "It's either this, or I take you back to the house," he said simply.
Anastasia would have continued to protest, or even run away, but she felt suddenly overcome with fatigue and took his arm without second thought.
"How is it you found me? I thought you and Robert were off with some friends," Anastasia said abruptly as she realised how odd it was he had just happened upon her.
James smiled. "We were, but Grayson's horse went lame again, so he ordered the motor and I rode back on Grace."
"Grace," Anastasia repeated, reaching out to stroke the black mare who nuzzled her back gently.
"Now, perhaps you'd like to tell me why you were so upset earlier," Campbell said softly as they approached the rose garden, well out of view of the house.
"I - " Anastasia faltered. Why should I tell him? And yet, she felt as though she needed to vent all her worries to someone...He'll think I'm a fool and tell everyone else! But he's been very kind, and he was always honourable - surely he wouldn't break a promise if she asked him to keep it a secret. "Very well," she began, her need to relieve herself of her frustration and anger too great to ignore, "But you must swear not to tell anyone else."
"Of course not."
Anastasia paused a few moments as they came along parallel to the lively little brook running through a ditch in the otherwise unspoiled lawn. She inhaled deeply and began, "Mamma and I called here today, but obviously only Aunt Beatrice and Charlotte were at home. They began discussing my coming-out next year, you know - balls and dresses and the like. But - but then - " She stopped again, unsure whether she should continue or not. She searched Campbell's face for any sign of amusement, but his expression was impassive. Eventually, she went on, "I overheard Aunt Beatrice whispering to Mamma about all the suitors I would have because of my inheritance! It is just too much to bear - that I am to be sold off to the highest bidder." She took her arm away from his, suddenly overcome again. "My life will be miserable because I have little chance of marrying for love - I have a fortune, yes, but my parents will want me to marry above my station and I can't marry below because they might be fortune hunters and it's all such a terrible mess!" she finished, gasping slightly.
Campbell looked thoughtful as he eased her onto a chair on a small patio where the brook ran into the woodland. Anastasia didn't try to object. He sat next to her, leaving Grace to graze on a patch of grass beside them.
"You're luckier than most girls of your age, Anastasia. You will not be obliged to marry well. Your options are either you marry, whether for love or not, and have an estate and plenty of money or you become a spinster and have an estate and plenty of money."
Anastasia creased her brow and thought for a long time, trying to find a flaw in his statement. After a short while, a small smile spread across her face. "Yes, yes... Perhaps you are right. Why on earth should I be obliged to marry? My parents can't force me! I can end an old maid and live happily at Avondale for the rest of my life!"
"Exactly. You can do just as you please," Campbell said. He hesitated slightly, then reached out a hand to tilt her chin higher. "Now cheer up," he said softly.
She grinned. "Thank you, Mr. Campbell!"
Filled with sudden joy, she leaped from her seat and began twirling around the rose garden. She halted mid-pirouette and ran back over to James.
"But what am I to do with all the...suitors?" She almost whispered the word as though it was distasteful to her.
James raised his eyebrows. He leaned back, putting the pads of his fingers together to form bridge. "Considering your position, the best thing would be to fall in love with one of them, though make sure they're not a dreaded fortune-hunter. But as for the rest - well, I daresay you can come up with several ways of frightening them off."
Anastasia laughed, and, in her wonderful mood, said something she would never normally have dreamed of saying, "Do you think we might be friends now, Mr. Campbell?"
"I'm afraid we cannot escape a friendship now," James replied, in an exaggeratedly forlorn tone that caused Anastasia to laugh even more. "We should be getting back to the house, they'll be wondering where we've got to."
Anastasia sighed. "Yes, I suppose we must. Though perhaps I should go in by myself while you return Grace to the stables, otherwise I fear I may receive a long lecture on impropriety this evening." And not just from my mother, Anastasia realised, thinking of Charlotte's comments earlier that day. Charlotte had changed, and Anastasia wasn't sure she liked the new version.
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