The man peeled off his wet coat, struggling out of the sleeves. By instinct born of a lifetime of recognizing need and rising to it, I reached across the space to assist him. When my fingertips touched his warm linen shirtsleeve beneath the coat, he pulled back, slinging his coat to the side, blinking at me with a mixture of shock and mild offense.
I jerked my hands away and backed into my seat with a thud, hurt warming my wet cheeks. Of course, this was a different world than Shepton Mallet Prison. Women were not for soothing and helping unless they were paid to do it.
A grunt outside drew my attention to the window. The coachman yanked in vain at my second trunk, which had taken three men to hoist outside hours ago. I bit my lip, picturing its contents. He'd never lift it alone.
With a dark look, the man across from me stood and forged back into the rain to assist the coachman. Both men strained to lift the precious cargo between them, and they slung it with a thud and a crack onto the back. Lightning pierced the black sky as the two men ran for the cover of the carriage.
Mr. Rotherham hefted himself back inside, now coatless and dripping wet. Almost immediately the carriage lurched forward, reins jingling, and I collapsed against the leather seat. Just that quick, we were leaving behind the entirety of my short life.
Don't look back. Don't look back. Don't—
But I did. Fingertips clutching the window frame, I pressed my face to the glass for one last lingering glimpse of home.
"Have you left something behind?"
"No." I moved back into the seat, pushing my shoulder blades into the leather cushions. Leaving that place was the death of so many things.
The man recovered his breath for several moments, flexing until he found comfort in the tiny rear-facing seat. I fingered the flannel blanket beside me. He would not want me to hand it to him. But when his trembles convulsed into a full-body shiver, the sight compelled me forward, urging the blanket on him. He accepted it without glancing at me and pressed it into his wet clothes to soak up the rain. When he looked up, he pinched his lips in a reserved smile, revealing two fleeting dimples framing his mouth like quotation marks, and I finally relaxed a bit.
"I assure you," he said, "there are plenty of stones at Lynhurst. You need not bring any with you."
"They're books." I shivered, watching the shapes of thatched homes fly by. It must be utterly clear to him that I was a fake, not one who belonged at Lynhurst Manor. Up until a few days ago, my life had consisted of a one-room cell, my gregarious, boisterous father, and our three pieces of furniture. And stories, of course. He'd shown me how to thrive within our odd surroundings—reciting psalms, caring for the weak, loving people—but he'd never taught me to act as one of the elite class in which he himself had been raised. There had been no need.
Homesickness engulfed me. But how could anyone be homesick for such a place?
"Thank you for indulging me, with the books." I indicated the back of the carriage where my trunks lay.
"Of course. Books are essential nourishment to the mind."
This answer begged more questions, but I closed my lips. Any little word might be the wrong one. Lantern light bounced over his face as the carriage hurtled forward.
"I suppose they are the normal fare." The man's voice broke through my thoughts, deep and forced. "Miss Austen, Clennam, Wordsworth, and perhaps a few hymnals."
He really was quite poor at making conversation. "I prefer the serials."
"Of course." His slight frown, a mild look of judgment, turned my stomach. As if my love of serial novels helped him to determine I resided lower than him on the social ladder. Wouldn't he be surprised to find that most of the books filling my heavy trunk were blank.
I pinched my lips to keep from spilling my delicious secret—the one that gave me more worth than anyone could guess. If only I dared say the words aloud. Pardon, sir. Have you heard of Nathaniel Droll? Well, I happen to know the real man who masquerades under that pen name. Ah, the look of shock that would splay over his arrogant face.
"Novel characters make the finest friends, so I can hardly fault your attachment." He straightened the hat that jostled on his head to the rhythm of the carriage wheels and smiled. "Flesh-and-blood people are more complicated and difficult to know."
"I should say not. So many people are closed up, all tucked inside themselves, yet they bloom open in beautiful ways if you would only take interest in them."
The flick of his eyebrow hinted at disapproval, driving me deeper back into my seat as my face heated. I had done it again.