It was several minutes into the first course that Uncle Stanton leaned toward me. “By whom do I have the privilege of sitting this evening?”
“Miss Blakeslee, sir.” I offered, perplexed how he had forgotten our introduction already. “We met just now in the drawing room.”
“Of course. Miss Blakeslee. Such a pretty sounding girl. And I have heard you are quite exquisite though I wish I could see you for myself.”
It was only then I noticed the cloudiness of his eyes. “Forgive me, sir. I did not realize you—” the words to finish seemed too harsh to speak.
“That I am blind?” He chuckled. “I’m flattered you took so long to realize. Was it my handsome face that made you overlook the defect or the confident way I hold myself?”
I was convinced it was the darkness of the drawing room, but I had no intention of saying so. “I believe it was both, sir.”
He chuckled again and reached a hand toward me. Placing my hand atop his, I gave it a gentle squeeze which he affectionately returned.
After some general small talk around the table, a few failed attempts to entreat Miss Hawkins into conversation, and seeing the focused regard Sir Wycliffe paid to Hannah, I gladly directed my attention to Uncle Stanton. There was something about his openness that endeared him to me immediately.
“And, if you don’t mind me asking, Mr. Stanton—”
“My friends and relations call me Uncle, and, if you find no offense in being placed amongst that group, I must insist you do also.”
“I would be honored, Uncle.”
“And I’m guessing by how you began to phrase your question, you were curious how I lost my eyesight?”
Now that he said it aloud it sounded alarmingly impolite, and I felt relieved he couldn’t witness the color that filled my cheeks. I still needed to learn to not let my curiosity take precedence to propriety. “I—well, I—” I stumbled over my words, endeavoring to think of another question to propose.
“Truly, I don’t mind,” he said, sensing my hesitation. “But I fear there is little to tell. A few years ago, I began having problems with my vision. Things grew dark at the edges and gradually expanded toward the center until all I now have is a general sense of light and dark. I sought the best physician in London, who assured me there was nothing to be done. So, I have resigned myself to enjoying the world through my other senses.”
I smiled. “That is a commendable outlook on such a hardship.”
“As I see it, I only had two choices—to be bitter or to not. I simply chose the more enjoyable of the two. Though I will admit, I often wish I could create a more romantic story surrounding it all. You see, I have a very dull imagination—” he hesitated, “not that I care to mislead anyone, but the truth is hardly worthy of attention.”
“I don’t credit myself with much creativity, but perhaps both our minds together might come to a tale worth sharing—or, in the least, to entertain ourselves?”
“Miss Blakeslee, that is a capital idea!”
“Well then, let us think. The grandest stories are always believable,” I paused, trying to determine an appropriate setting. “You were just telling me of your time in the British Fleet.” He nodded. “It would be fitting, and perfectly romantic, if your tale occurred at sea. Perhaps a heroic rescue?”
One side of his mouth lifted. “I daresay I prefer to play the hero.”
“And nothing is as heroic as rescuing a damsel in distress, do you not agree?”
“I most certainly do.”
I couldn’t resist grinning as a story surfaced in my mind. “I believe it must occur at night, for the mystery of things is always greater at night. You are walking the deck as Captains do, on watch for pirates or smugglers, when you hear the cry of a woman. You follow the sound to the starboard side of the ship and search the water, wondering who could be in such a state of anguish. The water is dark, with only an occasional reflection of light from the moon dancing off the waves. It would be impossible for someone to be out there, but then—” I nearly giggled at the intensity of Uncle Stanton’s concentration.
“Well, what was it I saw?” he asked eagerly.
“A woman, of course.”
“In the sea?”
“In the sea! And the most beautiful woman you have ever laid eyes on. But what was most peculiar was how her cry transformed to a song—an entrancing melody that wrapped around you, pulling you toward her.”
“But she is in the water? How is she rescued?”
“You are a hero, Uncle. You must jump in to save her!” He lifted his eyebrows in surprise, and I covered my mouth stifling a laugh. “Don’t look so startled at the notion, I daresay if it were a real occurrence you wouldn’t hesitate a moment. And our story must be accurate—that is why I came to this conclusion.”
His face beamed with pride. “I’ve always had a propensity for acting brashly around beautiful women.”
“And so, this is no different. And after you jump into the freezing water, as extremes make the account more exciting, you swim to where you expect her to be but find nothing. You search frantically, diving under the water and yelling for her—for now that you have seen her you will save her or die in the attempt. But you grow tired and, just as your strength is exhausted and you begin to sink, you are pulled from the sea.”
“And how should I be saved?”
“A shipmate would be a reasonable rescuer. Possibly a fellow watchman or someone who heard your distress as you searched?” I received a reassuring nod. “When they got you on deck, although you had taken in much water, your only concern was for the woman. ‘Woman?’ they’d say, ‘There was no woman in the water.’ Had they not heard the cry or the mesmerizing song? Were they not lucky enough to behold the enchanting face? They’d surely blame it on your longing imagination—though we know how dull it is—or likely a bad meal. And I fear she would forever be a mystery to you, plaguing your very existence— the image of this siren etched in your mind and her song on your heart. And your eyes would ultimately grow dim because nothing in this world could compare with the splendor you once beheld.”
A satisfied smile lit his face and my own expression soon mirrored his.
“You have given me quite a story, Miss Blakeslee; yet I am certain I shall never tell it as well. I’d ask you to transcribe it, so I might memorize it,” he chuckled, “but that would do little good as I’m no longer able to read.”
His laugh was contagious, and I easily joined him. Glancing around to make sure no one had observed my casual behavior, my eyes locked with Mr. Edwin Stanton. His stern look took the smile from my lips and drove my gaze to my plate.
“What is it, Miss Blakeslee?” Uncle Stanton asked gently.
I marveled at his discernment, most people with perfect eyesight would fail to perceive what he did. “I believe I have offended your great nephew with my behavior.”
“And how did you come to that conclusion?”
“The intensity of his stare—as though he is condemning me from across the table.”
“Many emotions can cause intensity, Miss Blakeslee. But, if he is displeased, let me ease your mind—you can hardly be the cause. These last few years he has had no difficulty finding things to aggravate him. Perhaps it is his way of being hospitable—ensuring he treats us all equally.”
“Perhaps,” I said, taking comfort in the idea his ill temper hadn’t began with my arrival. Looking back toward the other side of the table our eyes met again, but this time he redirected his attention to the smiling face of Helena.
Ooh, I really enjoyed this story! It definitely had a Pride and Prejudice sort of feel for me with the brooding hero, the passionate and intelligent heroine and plenty of misunderstand and judgments on both sides. Abigail is so easy to love. Honestly, she is kind, compassionate and freely herself even when it goes against what is “proper”. She is a defender of people and exceptionally loyal. See? What’s not to love? ~Aimee brown
I bought this book last night and then ended up staying up way to late to finish it! But I was enjoying it so much I couldn’t put it down! It reminded me of Edenbrooke in style and that I loved the heroine, Abigail, and her desire to stand up for good causes despite society pressures- she had so much goodness! I loved her story and how it all connected. ~ Crystal
This is Jess Heileman’s first novel, and I am excited for her to write more! Edwin and Abigail were easy to love and cheer for, and there was a host of secondary characters who were also fun to get to know! ~ Alisa
Abigail sucked me in from the first page and I had a hard time putting it down. A sweet Regency romance with all the back and forth love vs duty inherent in this type of book- which helps make them one of my favorite! The characters are well developed and believable. ~ Cheryl-Lynn
Author Jess Heileman
In kindergarten, Jess won a first prize ribbon for her original creation Pigs in Wigs. It was a solid storyline: there was this pig that wore a wig–and it rhymed. Not impressed? Neither were her children when shown the very masterpiece that influenced her to become an author. “You won a ribbon for that?” Yes. Yes, she did.
Thankfully, life has since exposed her to a thorough education with its share of awards and accolades–and, more importantly, to the trials and human experiences that form the heart of a storyteller and the substance of great stories.
Besides her love of writing, Jess is an avid reader, shameless people observer, international café loiterer, and partially retired photographer. She loves being a mother to five amazing humans and a wife to the greatest man she knows.
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