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They grew up as siblings, but fell in love. Meg lived in an orphanage until she was adopted by James' mother. They were inseparable in childhood, but as they grew up James became cold and distant, suddenly marrying Angelina, a woman of the same social class as his. When William, a childhood friend, returns to London and proposes marriage to Meg, James is overcome with the fear of losing her. In the midst of this internal conflict, James must deal with his own feelings and decide whether he will suffocate this love or fight for it, even if it means confronting his own inner demons and facing social conventions and moral taboos.
“I will not marry her to my best friend.”
Martha’s brown eyes rolled back into their sockets.
“What’s the problem? The Barton family is wealthy; they have many properties all over England.” Her happiness was evident on her face as she described in great detail all of Mr. Barton’s possessions. “And my dear James, every single and wealthy man needs a wife.”
He took longer than necessary to process the information. He didn’t understand his mother’s sudden obsession with marrying his adopted sister to his best friend. Nor did he understand why she insisted on involving him in this crazy plan.
Martha sat down on the sofa and gestured eagerly to the other chair for him to sit in.
“You have to help me marry your sister. Meg will be eighteen soon. It’s time for her to start a family.”
“She’s not my sister. And she’s still a child,” he said firmly.
She fanned herself and gesticulated incessantly.
“Angelina married you at the same age,” she scolded him.
A long, tired sigh escaped his lips.
“But, Mama, she keeps you company. Will you be alone in this big house? That worries me.”
Martha ignored the question and leaned toward him as if to share a great secret.
“Senhor Barton has confided in me that William must marry. He’s aimless in life. And I have to marry Meg, give her to a wonderful family that will take care of her.”
His brown eyes seemed to jump out of his face.
“I’ve never heard so much nonsense in one sentence.”
Mrs. Martha fanned herself with the colorful fan decorated with trinkets at its base, one of Mr. Abraham’s extravagant gifts.
“I and Senhor Barton have everything planned,” she chuckled indiscreetly. “I’ll invite them to dinner, and then I’ll leave Meg and William alone, and fate will take care of the rest.”
James felt her sharp gaze fall on him, like a trap closing in on its prey. Martha and Mr. Abraham Barton were acting like matchmakers.
“They are incompatible,” James replied.
“A wife learns her husband’s tastes. I lied to your father all my life that I liked to play backgammon, and we were very happy. And she was raised by me; she knows how to behave in every situation.”
“He’s a rake,” he insisted.
“Don’t be so harsh. He’s a young man who likes to have fun. After the wedding, all that will change.”
As he drummed his fingers on the wood, he could hear the sweet melody coming from a piano. This melody always calmed him down.
“Who will play the piano every afternoon to entertain you when you have your friends over?”
“Darling James, if that is your concern, I will use the gramophone. I’m a modern woman.”
His mouth turned into a hard line. He exhausted all possible arguments to dissuade his mother in vain.
“I refuse to take part in this. That is the craziest thing that has ever come out of your mouth. And let’s face it, you’re good at it.”
He hastily ran his hands through his hair.
“Marry the orphan to my best friend? If Dad were alive, he’d never agree to such nonsense.”
It was inconceivable. It would be humiliating for a proud man like him.
“Watch your mouth, young man! You’re the man of the house. You have to help me with the preparations, the ceremony and you have to walk Meg down the aisle.”
Outside the window, the heavy clouds multiplied rapidly in the sky, announcing that a fine storm was on its way.
“And ma’am, my mother needs a bit of sense. This matter is out of the question. Meg is not my sister. You found her in a filthy orphanage and it doesn’t matter how many expensive dresses you buy her, or how much she practices the piano. She’ll always be a miserable orphan.”
“I can’t bear to look at her.”
By the time they realized it was too late, Meg was standing in the doorway in her olive green dress with her eyes watering.
“Listening behind doors?” he asked aggressively.
“Only deafness would prevent me from hearing the screams.”
Meg’s haughty gaze shot to him all at once, like a point-blank shot. James hated the audacity of someone who didn’t know their own place.
“This house belongs to my family, of which you are not a member. I don’t need to worry about manners here,” he said.
“I know I don’t have your blood. You won’t let me forget that for a minute. And yes, I’m an orphan, my parents are dead, and yes, your mother mercifully took me from a horrible place. That’s my story, and I didn’t choose it, nor can I change it.”
“Does agreeing with you make me despicable?”
Martha butted into the discussion, trying to calm things down.
“James, apologize to her immediately,” ordered his mother.
They were surprised by a heavy thunderstorm, something unusual for this time of year. The three of them fought a war in the middle of the room, while the servants rushed to close the windows.
“I don’t need to apologize for telling the truth,” he shouted.
“It’s all right! I don’t need him to apologize to me,” Meg replied, trying to end the fight.
They looked at each other for a while, saying nothing. He felt swallowed up by the immensity of her blue gaze, which got deeper when she got angry. All their interactions always ended the same way, with James shouting and then running away.
“Son!” Martha insisted.
“That’s enough!” he said.
James didn’t apologize and left the house in a hurry, getting into his car in the heavy rain, ignoring his mother’s frantic pleas to wait for the storm to stop.
“James, darling, wait!” - his mother called to him as he descended the stairs and lost his breath halfway down.
That very day, Martha dismissed her private chauffeur; unfortunately, she wasn’t very good at driving a car, but she didn’t think twice about going after her son.
“Mom, what are you doing? Please don’t go,” Megan begged worriedly, watching her mother get into the car alone.
Marta ignored her daughter’s plea, pushing her away. The thunder of the storm sounded louder, and the flash of lightning cut through the sky in the distance.
Even with shaky hands and blurred vision, she managed to get the vehicle moving and headed towards James’ house, a route she knew well.
James was surprised to realize that it was his mother in the car behind him. She hated cars and preferred to use horse-drawn carriages and a coachman. Before he could even think about the situation, a loud and terrifying bang caught his attention. When he looked back again, the car his mother was in had turned into metallic wreckage. Marta had lost control and crashed into a tree.
“Mom!” he shouted in distress.
James acted instinctively and ran towards the pile of twisted iron.
Marta was trapped between the irons. The image of her bloodied body would be imprinted on his retina forever. He tried to wipe away the blood oozing from a wound in her head, but the liquid was pouring out in abundance, making it impossible to stop it. He needed to calm her down.
“Mom, stay calm. I’m going to get you out of here. We’re going home.”
He tried to comfort his mother, giving her false hope, but his eyes showed the dread he felt. Yes, his mother was dying right in front of him, and there was nothing he could do but lie, saying that everything would be fine.
“James, promise you’ll look after her for me... Promise!” pleaded his mother in a low voice.
“Mom... Don’t speak...” pleaded the desperate son.
James could no longer feel the cold raindrops falling on him.
“Promise, just promise that you’ll marry her to William,” he asked one last time before closing his eyes forever.
“I promise,” he replied, holding Martha’s hand.
Her gaze was glazed in emptiness, and he put his hand over her eyes, closing them forever.
His heart beat out of rhythm, and a lump formed in his throat. The rain intensified around him, and he saw the water turn red with his mother’s blood. With trembling hands, he held the inert body in his arms, and the promise he had just made echoed in his mind.
“I can’t let her marry my best friend. Not with her holding my heart hostage,” he whispered into the thick, dark night.
He could not break his promise.
Martha’s body was mourned at her home and buried later that afternoon in the family mausoleum. Meg stood inconsolably beside James to pay their last respects. While she broke down in tears, he remained as steadfast as a rock.
Her legs failed her, and she had to be supported by James when she heard the final sentence ‘rest in peace’. She thought about how cruel life could be. The previous afternoon, she had played the piano to brighten the weekly meeting between Martha and her friends, and now she was burying it. She felt useless and fragile inside those black funeral clothes. She also felt James’ eyes on her all the time, and that was strange.
“Miss Margaret, my condolences.”
Her catatonic gaze stopped on the handsome, hazel-haired, aristocratic-looking boy who was standing next to his white-haired father. Although he had returned to London almost two months ago, they had not spoken, but Martha had an unshakable conviction that they were meant for each other
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