Today's Reading

She swallowed. Maybe she should, especially since Betsey had not yet returned with her lucky feather. Still, if she were going to be dismissed, ought she not suffer such a disgrace with all the poise and dignity she could muster? It wasn't as if she'd never been in dire straits before. Straightening her spine, she tucked her elbows tight to her side. "Whatever you may say, Mr. Moritz, can be heard as well on my feet as on my sofa."

"You are a singular woman, Miss Balfour, a trait which has earned you this." He held out two rectangular documents not much bigger than his hand.

She narrowed her eyes on what appeared to be tickets. Two berths on the HMS 'Blackwell', sailing June 8, 1:00 p.m., port of Southampton, bound for Cairo.

Cairo?

Her breath caught. "You are not letting me go?"

"Actually, I am—to Egypt." He chuckled. "All expenses paid for you and your maid. The ship sails in a week. Are you up for the challenge?"

Of all the ludicrous questions! Her jaw unhinged, quite unladylike but totally unstoppable. "I assure you, Mr. Moritz, it is no challenge whatsoever to write of veiled ladies with their turbaned sheikhs. In truth, sir, it is a particular dream of mine."

"As I well know." He stretched forward, peering at her from kindly grey eyes. "Which is why I put my neck on the chopping block for you. It took a fair amount of arm twisting with old man Krebe, yet I prevailed. Lucky for you, I am all muscle." He flexed his arm, pride lifting a thin bicep and his sharp chin.

"Oh, Mr. Moritz..." She clutched the tickets to her chest. "How can I ever thank you?"

"By saving the neck I risked and penning the most brilliant journal in the history of travel writing."

"Which is what I always aspire to." She tossed back her shoulders.

"Don't worry, sir, I will not let you down."

"I should hope not. Or both our heads may yet roll." He tugged at his collar. "Krebe made that inordinately clear. And with that cheery thought, I bid you adieu. I imagine there is a certain amount of packing you will wish to be about." He clapped on his hat as he strode to the door. "No need to see me out, Miss Balfour. Good day."

Of course he was entirely wrong. It wasn't just a good day but a dazzling one. Magnificently auspicious. The sort of day she'd hoped and yearned for these past seven years. Finally—finally!—she'd been good enough for God to notice, to answer, to shed His grace and favour upon. She gazed up at the ceiling.

"Thank You," she whispered. "Your blessing means the world to me and I—"

Another rap of the door knocker ended her prayer. What had Mr. Moritz forgotten?

"Don't trouble yourself, miss," Betsey called from the corridor.

Before Amelia could tuck away the tickets, the maid ushered in a wisp of a man dressed in a blue coat so somber and dark it might as well have been black. "Miss Balfour, a Mr. Walton to see you." Introduction made, Betsey vanished out the door, apparently still on the hunt for the feather.

"Mr. Walton." Amelia curtseyed, all the while examining the man and the name, neither of which sparked any recognition.

"Miss Balfour." He nodded, his short stature giving her full view of a bald patch on the crown of his head. "I am here on behalf of your father. Perhaps you'd like to take a seat?"

Father? At once she sank onto the sofa, as if the man himself had issued the order. And if she listened hard enough, she could hear his commanding voice as distinctly as the day he'd sent her on her way with naught but a curt goodbye and the promise of a yearly stipend just to be rid of her.

She clutched the Cairo tickets all the tighter. "I trust all is well?"

Mr. Walton took the chair adjacent, his feet barely skimming the carpet, so short were his legs. Setting his brief-bag on his lap, he clicked open the lock, the report of it as sharp as the hammer of a pistol.

Amelia winced, as much from the sound as from the way his dark little eyes met hers. There was something foreboding in his gaze. Like a sinister shadow glimpsed from the corner of the eye and knowing in your gut that it was coming for you.

"I am afraid I bear upsetting news, Miss Balfour. Three weeks ago, your father suffered an apoplexy, one from which he did not recover. In short, I regret to inform you that Grafton Balfour is deceased and has since been buried in the family plot at Clifton."

The announcement made no sense. Father, that domineering force of nature whom no one dared cross, was gone? Just like that? Without a farewell. Without any amends. She drew in a ragged breath, trying not to crumple the tickets in her hand. "Why am I hearing of this now? Why was no word sent sooner?"

...

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