Fiona fastened the clasp over the high neck of her blouse, picked up her purse, and made for the door.
Matthew had offered to call for her, but she had arranged to meet him at the church, preferring to avoid Mrs Cunningham’s prying eyes and, later, her barbed questions. Since the successful visit to his parents, Fiona and Matthew had been seeing more and more of each other socially. Mrs Cunningham would call it courting, no doubt, but Fiona shied away from using such a word herself.
She tapped on Francis’s door to say she was leaving, but his rooms were empty. Descending the main stairs to the grand reception hall, Fiona practised her winning smile. Last night, Ella had assured her that marrying John Harrison was what she wanted above all.
“Even above a career?” Fiona had asked.
“It won’t come to that. I will teach after we are married, and I know John will support my decision.”
“But what if he does not?”
“He will.” Ella’s grey eyes had blurred with tears. “Can’t you just be happy for me, Fi?”
How could she refuse such a request? Reminding herself that Ella must know her own mind best, Fiona skipped down the last two stairs and skidded to a sudden halt.
“Mrs Cunningham. I am on my way to ”
“Your cousin’s wedding. I am aware. This will not take a moment.” Constance Cunningham’s mouth was drawn into a thin line. “I take it you know all about this latest fancy of my son’s?”
“Francis? I am afraid ”
“Do you know where he is at this very moment? He is calling on Edward Paterson to ask for his daughter Emily’s hand in marriage.”
“Oh!” Fiona clapped her gloved hands together. “That is marvellous news.”
“Marvellous?” Constance Cunningham stared at her in wild disbelief. “Are you quite mad? He has no business to be taking a wife when he may well make a widow of her within the year. No!” She held up her
hand to prevent Fiona from speaking. “I know what you are going to say about how well he is, but the plain fact is that there is no cure for consumption. None. I have had to come to terms with that. It seems you, and more importantly Francis, have not.”
“Mrs Cunningham,” Fiona said gently, seeing beyond the other woman’s anger to her hurt and her fear, “whether Francis has one year or twenty left, do you not think it would be better for him to live happily with the woman he loves while he can?”
“This would never have happened if you had not come along. This is all your doing. I want you gone. Now, while my son is not here to plead for your fair skin. I will have your bags packed and waiting for you when you return.”
Fiona stared at the woman in astonishment. Constance Cunningham stared determinedly off into the distance. A strange sense of elation filled Fiona. Francis had embraced his future, and it was time for her to do the same. She would do just as Matthew suggested. She would train to become a nurse.
With a smile as sunny as the spring day, Fiona dropped her first and only curtsey to Mrs Cunningham.
“Thank you, truly. You have no idea the gift you have just given me.” Without waiting to see the effect her parting words had, Fiona opened the door and walked out to embrace her future.