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Three

Unaware that she was not alone in the cavernous maze, Julianna waited in tense silence to be absolutely certain her mother wasn't going to return. After a moment she gave a ragged sigh and dislodged herself from her hiding place.

Since the maze seemed like the best place to hide for the next few hours, she turned left and wandered down a path that opened into a square grassy area with an ornate stone bench in the center.

Morosely, she contemplated her situation, looking for a way out of the humiliating and untenable trap she was in, but she knew there was no escape from her mother's blind obsession with seeing Julianna wed to someone of "real consequence" now, while the opportunity existed. Thus far all that had prevented her mother from accomplishing this goal was the fact that no "eligible" suitor "of real consequence" had declared himself during the few weeks Julianna had been in London.

Unfortunately, just before they'd left London to come here, her mother had succeeded in wringing an offer of marriage from Sir Francis Bellhaven, a repulsive, elderly, pompous knight with pallid skin, protruding hazel eyes that seemed to delve down Julianna's bodice, and thick pale lips that never failed to remind her of a dead goldfish. The thought of being bound for an entire evening, let alone the rest of her life, to Sir Francis was unendurable. Obscene. Terrifying.

Not that she was going to have any choice in the matter. If she wanted a real choice, then hiding in here from other potential suitors her mother commandeered was the last thing she ought to be doing. She knew it, but she couldnt make herself go back to that ball. She didnt even want a husband. She was already eighteen years old, and she had other plans, other dreams, for her life, but they didn't coincide with her mother's and so they weren't going to matter. Ever. What made it all so much more frustrating was that her mother actually believed she was acting in Julianna's best interests and that she knew what was ultimately best for her.

The moon slid out from behind the clouds, and Julianna stared at the pale liquid in her glass. Her father said a bit of brandy never hurt anyone, that it eased all manner of ailments, improved digestion, and cured low spirits. Juliana hesitated, and then in a burst of rebellion and desperation, she decided to test the latter theory. Lifting the glass, she pinched her nostrils closed, tipped her head back, and took three large swallows. She lowered the glass, shuddering and gasping. And waited. For an explosion of bliss. Seconds passed, then one minute. Nothing. All she felt was a slight weakness in her knees and a weakening of her defenses against the tears of futility brimming in her eyes.

In deference to her shaky limbs, Julianna stepped over to the stone bench and sat down. The bench had obviously been occupied earlier that evening, because there was a half-empty glass of spirits on the end of it and several empty glasses beneath it. After a moment she took another sip of brandy and gazed into the glass, swirling the golden liquid so that it gleamed in the moonlight as she considered her plight.

How she wished her grandmother were still alive! Grandmama would have put a stop to Julianna's mother's mad obsession with arranging a "splendid marriage." Shed have understood Juliannas aversion to being forced into marriage with anyone. In all the world, her fathers dignified mother was the only person who had ever seemed to understand Julianna. Her grandmother had been her friend, her teacher, her mentor.

At her knee Julianna had learned about the world, about people; there and there alone she was encouraged to think for herself and to say whatever she thought, no matter how absurd or outrageous it might seem. In return, her grandmother had always treated her as an equal, sharing her own unique philosophies about anything and everything, from God's purpose for creating the earth to myths about men and women.

Grandmother Skeffington did not believe marriage was the answer to a woman's dreams, or even that males were more noble or more intelligent than females! "Consider for a moment my own husband as an example," she said with a gruff smile one wintry afternoon just before the Christmas when Julianna was fifteen. "You did not know your grandfather, God rest his soul, but if he had a brain with which to think, I never saw the evidence of it. Like all his forebears, he couldn't tally two figures in his head or write an intelligent sentence, and he had less sense than a suckling babe."

"Really?" Julianna said, amazed and a little appalled by this disrespectful assessment of a deceased man who had been her grandmothers husband and Julianna's grandsire.

Her grandmother nodded emphatically. "The Skeffington men have all been like that unimaginative, slothful clods, the entire lot of them."

"But surely you aren't saying Papa is like that," Julianna argued out of loyalty. "He's your only living child."

"I would never describe your papa as a clod," she said without hesitation. "I would describe him as a muttonhead!"

Julianna bit back a horrified giggle at such heresy, but before she could summon an appropriate defense, her grandmother continued: "The Skeffington women, on the other hand, have often displayed streaks of rare intelligence and resourcefulness. Look closely and you will discover that it is generally females who survive on their wits and determination, not males. Men are not superior to women except in brute strength."

When Julianna looked uncertain, her grandmother added smugly, "If you will read that book I gave you last week, you will soon discover that women were not always subservient to men. Why, in ancient times, we had the power and the reverence. We were goddesses and soothsayers and healers, with the secrets of the universe in our minds and the gift of life in our bodies. We chose our mates, not the other way around. Men sought our counsel and worshiped at our feet and envied our powers. Why, we were superior to them in every way. We knew it, and so did they."

"If we were truly the more clever and the more gifted," Julianna said when her grandmother lifted her brows, looking for a reaction to that staggering information, "then how did we lose all that power and respect and let ourselves become subservient to men?"

"They convinced us we needed their brute strength for our protection," she said with a mixture of resentment and disdain. "Then they protected us right out of all our privileges and rights. They tricked us."

Julianna found an error in that logic, and her brow furrowed in thought. "If that is so," she said after a moment, "then they couldn't have been quite so dull-witted as you think. They had to be very clever, did they not?"

For a spilt second her grandmother glowered at her, then she cackled with approving laughter. "A good point, my dear, and one that bears considering. I suggest you write that thought down so that you may examine it further. Perhaps you will write a book of your own on how males have perpetrated that fiendish deception upon females over the centuries. I only hope you will not decide to waste your mind and your talents on some ignorant fellow who wants you for that face of yours and tries to convince you that your only value is in breeding his children and looking after his wants. You could make a difference, Julianna. I know you could."

She hesitated, as if deciding something, then said, "That brings us to another matter I have been wishing to discuss with you. This seems like as good a time as will come along."

Grandmother Skeffington got up and walked over to the fireplace on the opposite wall of the cozy little room, her movements slowed by advancing age, her silver hair twisted into a severe coil at her neck. Bracing one hand on the evergreen boughs she'd arranged on the mantel, she bent to stir the coals. "As you know, I have already outlived a husband and one son. I have lived long, and I am fully prepared to end my days on this earth whenever my time arrives. Although I shall not always be here for you, I hope to compensate for that by leaving something behind for you an inheritance that is for you to spend. It isn't much."

The subject of her grandmother's death had never come up before, and the mere thought of losing her made Julianna's chest tighten with dread.

"As I said, it isn't much, but if you are extremely thrifty, it could allow you to live very modestly in London for quite a few years while you experience more of life and hone your writing skills."

In her heart Julianna argued frantically that life without her grandmother was unthinkable, that she had no wish to live in London, and that their shared dream that she might actually become a noteworthy writer was only an impossible fantasy. Afraid that such an emotional outburst would offend the woman, Julianna remained seated upon the footstool in front of her grandmother's favorite overstuffed chair, inwardly a mass of raw emotions, outwardly controlled, calmly perusing a book. "Have you nothing to say to my plans for you, child? I rather expected to see you leap with joy. Some small display of enthusiasm would be appropriate here in return for the economies I've practiced in order to leave you this tiny legacy."

She was prodding, Julianna knew, trying to provoke her into either a witty rejoinder or an unemotional discussion. Julianna was very good at both after years of practice, but she was as incapable of discussing her grandmother's death with humor as she was with impersonal calm. Moreover, she was vaguely wounded that her grandmother could talk of leaving her forever without any indication of regret.

"I must say you don't seem very grateful."

Julianna's head snapped up, her violet eyes sparkling with angry tears. "I am not at all grateful, Grandmama, nor do I wish to discuss this now. It is nearly Christmas, a time for joyous -"

"Death is a fact of life," her grandmother stated flatly. "It is pointless to cower from it."

"But you are my whole life," Julianna burst out because she couldn't stop herself. "And and I don't like it in the least that you you can speak to me of money as if it's a recompense for your death."

"You think me cold and callous?"

"Yes, I do!"

It was their first harsh argument, and Julianna hated it.

Her grandmother regarded her in serene silence before asking, Do you know what I shall miss when I leave this earth?"

"Nothing, evidently."

"I shall miss one thing and one thing alone." When Julianna didn't ask for an explanation, her grandmother provided it: "I shall miss you."

The answer was in such opposition to her unemotional voice and bland features that Julianna stared dubiously at her.

"I shall miss your humor and your confidences and your amazing gift for seeing the logic behind both sides of any issue. I shall particularly miss reading what you've written each day. You have been the only bright spot in my existence."

As she finished, she walked forward and laid her cool hand on Julianna's cheek, brushing away the tears trickling from the corner of her eye. "We are kindred spirits, you and I. If you had been born much sooner, we would have been bosom friends."

"We are friends," Julianna whispered fiercely as she placed her own hand over her grandmother's and rubbed her cheek against it. "We will be friends forever and always! When you are gone, I shall still confide in you and write for you -shall write letters to you as if you had merely moved away!"

"What a diverting idea," her grandmother teased. "And will you also post them to me?"

"Of course not, but you'll know what I have written nonetheless."

"What makes you think that?" she asked, genuinely puzzled.

"Because I heard you tell the vicar very bluntly that it is illogical to assume that the Almighty intends to let us lie around dozing until Judgment Day. You said that, having repeatedly warned us that we shall reap what we sow, God is more likely to insist we observe what we have sown from a much wider viewpoint."

"I do not think it wise, my dear, for you to put more credence in my theological notions than in those of the good vicar. I shouldn't like for you to waste your talent writing to me after I'm gone, instead of writing something for the living to read."

"I shan't be wasting my time," Julianna said with a confident smile, one of their familiar debates over nonsense lifting her spirits. "If I write you letters, I have every faith you will contrive a way to read them wherever you may be."

"Because you credit me with mystical powers?"

"No," Julianna teased, "because you cannot resist correcting my spelling!"

"Impertinent baggage," her grandmother huffed, but she smiled widely and her fingers spread, linking with Julianna's for a tight, affectionate squeeze.

The following year, on the eve of Christmas, her grandmother died, holding Julianna's hand one last time. "Ill write to you, Grandmama." Julianna wept as her grandmothers eyes closed forever. "Dont forget to watch for my letters. Don't forget."


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