2024, The Ravenswood Series

Remember When

RAVENSWOOD SERIES, BOOK 4, CLARISSA’S STORY

Discover the beauty of second chances at love and life in this heartfelt new novel from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh.

The dowager Countess of Stratton, Clarissa Ware, nee Greenfield, has just presented her younger daughter to the ton, and the rest of her life belongs only to herself. She returns to Ravenswood, intending to spend the summer alone there. But the summer has other plans for her.

Born a gentleman, Matthew Taylor has chosen to spend his life as the village carpenter. Growing up, he and Clarissa were close—dangerously so, considering his family’s modest fortune. As a young man, he never would have been a suitable match for the daughter of the wealthy Greenfields. Clarissa married Caleb Ware, the Earl of Stratton, so Matthew married another, though he was widowed soon after.

Now everything is different—Clarissa had already lived the life expected of her by society. And Matthew is as attractive and intriguing as he was when they were young. As their summer friendship deepens into romance, they stand together on the precipice of change, essentially the same man and woman they remember being back then, but with renewed passion and the potential to take their lives in an entirely new direction.

Excerpt

It was a scene and a moment Matthew Taylor knew he would never forget. It was a fanciful thought, maybe, when he was eighteen years old and all of life and life’s experiences stretched ahead of him. Or so it was said, most notably by his parents, as though his childhood and boyhood were of no consequence at all in the overall story of his life.

He knew, though that he would always remember. He stood watching Clarissa Greenfield, drinking in the sight of her, willing the present moment not to end, hoping she would not move or speak again for a while.

She was leaning back against a tall tree, her arms slightly behind her on either side, her palms pressed to the trunk. A breeze he could scarcely feel fluttered the sides of her long, full skirt and her dark hair, which she had shaken loose when she had dropped her straw hat to the ground at her feet earlier and with it the ribbon that had secured her hair at the nape of her neck. She was achingly pretty, with all the freshness of youth and the innate warmth and charm that were an essential part of her.

She was seventeen years old.

Their families were neighbors. She had been his closest friend for most of their lives, though they could not be more different in nature and temperament if they tried. She was even-tempered, devoted to her parents and obedient to them and her governess. She wanted to be the sort of young lady they wished her to be. They loved her, after all. She had a deep affection too for her brother, a good natured lad who was five years younger than she. It seemed to Matthew that there was never discord within the Greenfield family.

He, on the other hand, was a misfit within his family. He had tried to love his parents and Reginald, his brother, who was ten years his senior. In his more generous moments he admitted they had probably tried to love him too. It just had not worked. His mother and father had very rigid ideas about the sort of person a second son ought to be if he was to expect a prosperous and respectable future. His father, though a gentleman of property, did not have a large fortune. Everything he did possess would pass to Reginald upon his death, just as his father’s property had passed to him while his two brothers had forged successful careers, the elder as a diplomat, the younger as a solicitor. Matthew had not met either uncle or their wives and children, his cousins. His uncles wrote to his father but never came home for a visit. His father used them as examples of what Matthew must aspire to be. He must be educated to enter one of the professions suited to his birth.

The whole of his boyhood was designed to prepare him for that future. Any idle activity, any behavior that ran counter to the plan was firmly discouraged. It seemed to Matthew, looking back from the age of eighteen, that he had never been allowed to be simply a child or boy, exploring his world and perhaps finding enjoyment in it.

He had decided early in his life that he could not always, or even often, conform to the sober, joyless expectations of his parents. He gave up even  trying after repeatedly being scolded and punished for behavior that came naturally to him—falling into streams, for example, while trying to cross them on mossy stones he had been warned were unsafe; whittling away at pieces of wood with a knife he was not supposed to have and being careless about clearing away every last scrap of shaving that gathered about him on furniture and floor; being late home when visitors were expected for afternoon tea—late and grubby with dust and mud and sweat from head to foot. The list went on and on. He spent more time in his room, with only dry bread, stale water, and a Bible for company and sustenance than he did anywhere else, he sometimes thought.

Even his grandmother, his mother’s mother, who lived on the adjoining estate—on the other side than the Greenfields—upon whom he called quite frequently as a young child, told him one day that unless his behavior at his own home improved, he would no longer be welcome in hers. He had never again gone there voluntarily.

He gave up trying. He developed into a moody, rebellious boy until the worst thing of all happened. His brother, the beloved Reggie of his early years, began to punish him for bad behavior by refusing to do things with him only an older brother or a father could make possible, like fishing in the stream or flying a kite in the meadow or going to the village shop for the rare treat of buying sweetmeats. When Matthew had rebelled even more in protest, Reggie had washed his hands of him and had become Reginald ever after. Their mother sometimes wept and complained that she did not know what she had done to deserve such a disobedient, ungrateful child. And the more his father tried to insist that Matthew toe the line for his own good, the more Matthew deliberately did just the opposite.

Life at home became intolerable—for all of them, perhaps. It had seemed to Matthew as he grew up that his only real friend was Clarissa Greenfield. She was the one person in the world who accepted him as he was, though she had never tried to excuse his least admirable exploits, like the time he had been told to take his ball farther from the house lest he break a window and had instead hurled it quite deliberately through the window at which his father was standing while issuing the order. Clarissa had merely asked him why.

It was a question she asked frequently as they grew up, but it was never rhetorical, an accusation in disguise, as it was whenever his parents asked the same thing. It was, rather, a question in genuine search of an answer. She always waited for his explanation. More important, she always listened and never told him afterward that he had been wrong or bad, that he ought to do this or that to make amends. She allowed him to rant when he needed to and pour out all his bad temper and self-pity. She listened until he ran out of complaints and instead talked about his dreams and listened to hers.

She could always bring out the best side of his nature, though he was never sure quite how she did it. Just by being a good listener, perhaps? By never judging him? She was also a good talker, given the chance, a cheerful and amusing companion. They had often laughed together over the merest silliness, sometimes quite helplessly. She was one of the few people with whom he ever did laugh, in fact. She was the only person who seemed to give him leave to be happy, to frolic with no purpose but pure enjoyment.

And frolic they did through long summer days, always remaining within the boundaries of her father’s property because that was where she was expected to be. They walked and ran and waded in the stream and lay in the grass and picked daisies to fashion into daisy chains and talked endlessly about anything and everything that came to mind. They often just sat cross-legged in the grass, their knees almost touching, while he whittled a piece of wood and she tried to guess what it was he was making.

“A beaver,” she would say. “How darling it is, Matthew.”

“A squirrel,” he would say, and they would both laugh.

She never told him to be careful with the knife. She always admired what he carved and called him marvelously clever, even when she mistook a squirrel for a beaver.

Even in winter they had spent time together, sometimes tramping about the park side by side, dressed warmly to the eyeballs, more often in a small, little-used salon inside, where cakes and biscuits and warm chocolate or tea were brought to them in a steady stream and Mrs. Greenfield would ask him if his mother knew where he was.

“She will guess,” he would say.

She would smile and tell him she would send a note so his mother would not worry, and she would include in the note the time at which she would turn him out of the house and direct his footsteps homeward. But those words to him were always spoken with a good-humored smile. And the funny thing was that he always left at the appointed time and hurried home so his mother would have nothing for which to blame Mrs. Greenfield.

Now Matthew watched Clarissa leaning back against the tree, all but grown up, just as he was. But after all these years, she had just broken his heart. Oh, it was an extravagant way to describe his feelings. But he was about to lose her and was trying to postpone the realization that he might find the loss unbearable. It was a silly idea—yes, silly was the right word—to describe his heart as broken, whatever that meant. He was eighteen years old, for the love of God, and all of life and life’s experiences were ahead of him.

He watched as she gazed ahead at a seemingly endless expanse of lawn and trees stretching off into the distance across the park. The afternoon sunlight was upon her face, but he could not tell what she was thinking. Was she staring off into the brightness of her future or back with some nostalgia to the past she was leaving behind? Or was she fully present and feeling the breeze on her face and in her hair while being consciously aware that everything familiar was about to change? Was she aware of his silent presence close by, almost in her peripheral vision, or had she forgotten he was there? Did she know she had broken his heart?

Surely she was feeling at least some sadness. She loved him, after all—as a friend. But sadness was not her dominant mood today. He knew that. She had told him so.

“He is so…gorgeous, Matthew,” she had said. “So good-looking and charming and good-natured. And his smile! Everyone admires him. Mama says he is possibly the most eligible bachelor in all England. Yet he has chosen me.”

She had been talking about Caleb Ware, Earl of Stratton since his father’s death three or four years ago. He lived about ten miles away at Ravenswood Hall, an imposing mansion and park close to the village of Boscombe. Matthew had seen him a time or two and knew him to be well thought of by his neighbors. But he had no personal acquaintance with the man. Stratton must be twenty-four or twenty-five years old and, yes, a very eligible bachelor since, in addition to everything else, he was said to be fabulously wealthy.

Two days ago the earl, with the countess, his widowed mother, had taken afternoon tea with the Greenfields, by appointment. Before they left, Stratton had arranged with Mr. Greenfield to return three days hence—tomorrow—to discuss a matter of some significance to them both. His mother, meanwhile, had had a private word with Mrs. Greenfield, and the two ladies had agreed that a connection between their families, specifically a marital connection, was greatly to be desired.

Stratton was coming tomorrow, then, to have a word with Richard Greenfield, and it was no secret what that word was to be. In all probability it would be followed immediately by a marriage proposal to Clarissa herself.

She intended to accept, even though she was only seventeen years old. If she asked to postpone her decision for a year or two until she was eighteen or nineteen, she had explained earlier, she might very well lose her chance altogether. The Earl of Stratton would marry someone else, and his choices would be limitless. His mother had apparently explained to Mrs. Greenfield that she would far prefer to see him married to the daughter of a respected near-neighbor than to someone of possibly higher rank about whom she would know very little. It was time Caleb settled down. He had the succession to ensure, besides which he had been restless lately and clearly needed a bride who would have a settling influence upon him. He would almost certainly not wait, then, nor would his mother, if Clarissa asked for more time.

Richard and Ellen Greenfield, though surely somewhat uneasy about the tender age of their daughter, nevertheless must be very conscious of the great honor being bestowed upon her and the dazzling prospects such a marriage would bring her. She would be the Countess of Stratton, with all the prestige and security of position and untold wealth the marriage would bring her. And she would remain relatively close by at Ravenswood. It would have been strange indeed if they had not encouraged the match.

They had not pressed it upon Clarissa, however. Indeed, they had been careful to point out to her that she was very young, that it would be perfectly understandable if she wished to have a few more years to enjoy all the pleasures of a presentation at court and a social Season in London, where she could hope to capture the attention of numerous eligible young gentlemen. If that was her wish, then her father would inform Stratton of her decision before he could embarrass himself by making her a formal offer.

Their caution and consideration for the feelings of their daughter were typical of them. They had raised her to be a lady with high expectations, but they would never force her to do anything about which she had any doubt.

Clarissa was hugely flattered, however. And excited. The prospect of an early marriage and of a title and new home at Ravenswood of all places would not perhaps have been enough in themselves to sway her, but… Well, there was the Earl of Stratton himself. She had seen him only a few times in the past and mostly from afar until he came for tea with his mother, but… Well.

“He is so gorgeous, she had told Matthew. And he had understood that she was quite in love with the man, though she did not know him at all.

She had known him, Matthew Taylor, almost all her life. They had been close friends for years, but only friends, Matthew reminded himself as he stood, feet slightly apart, hands clasped loosely behind his back, watching her gaze off into the distance.

He wished he could capture this moment for all time. But he had never been much good with paint and brushes. Somewhere between the picture he saw in his head and the image that came through his hand onto paper or canvas, there was a gap in communication. It was very frustrating because the images were always vivid and insistent. His fingers itched at his back at the thought and he flexed them. He would love to carve her out of wood. Not that he had any great skill at whittling either, but it was woodcarving he yearned to do almost more than anything else. He saw life and shape in wood. He saw soul there and longed to reveal it with the aid of his knife.

But he had never been encouraged to discover any real talent he might have. Quite the opposite, in fact. So he had never been able to develop his meager skills. One day, perhaps…  Oh, one day he would carve this scene.

Or would he simply forget?

No. He would never forget.

She had no idea that he loved her. Not just as a friend, but as a lover. He was in love with her and had been for some time. For the last year or so anyway. It was not a love he would ever reveal to anyone, of course, least of all her. For he was the younger son of a landed gentleman of only modest means, while she was the daughter of Richard Greenfield, who was untitled but nevertheless was of the upper gentry, with an impeccable lineage on both his side and his wife’s. He had a home and park at least twice the size of the Taylors’, a correspondingly profitable farm, and a sizable fortune. The Greenfields had always been kind to Matthew. But there could never be any question of his marrying their only daughter. Everyone understood that. It had never had to be put into words. Matthew had understood it, even as he was falling in love with his childhood friend. He had known that in doing so he was dooming himself to heartache, even heartbreak. For the time would come when she would inevitably marry.

Someone else, that was.

He had just not expected it to happen so soon. He had been totally unprepared for what she had told him today. He had not had time to fortify his heart. He had expected that he had at least another year or two before it happened.

She had turned her head, he realized, and was gazing directly at him. She was not smiling.

“Matthew,” she said softly. “You are not happy for me?”

He strode closer and stood in front of her, cutting the sunlight from her face. Putting her in shadow.

“I am happy if you are,” he said. “Are you?”

Her eyes were searching his, but he could still not interpret her expression. Usually he could read her well.

“I am,” she said. “I believe this will be a good marriage for me—and that is surely an understatement. But it means everything will change. Even though I will not be far away, this will no longer be home, will it? I will be Clarissa Ware of Ravenswood Hall, Countess of Stratton. Yes, I am happy, Matthew. I am even excited. I believe I will be happy with him. He is amiable and charming. I was quite bowled over by him when he came with the countess to take tea with us. But what is going to happen to our friendship—yours and mine? If you were female, it would continue regardless, but there is the minor inconvenience of your being male.

She paused to smile at him.

“Yes,” he said.

“It would not be the thing, would it,” she said, “for us to be forever traveling back and forth to spend time with each other.”

“No,” he said. “Not the thing at all.” He tried to smile back, but he could not seem to command his facial muscles to do his will.

“What will you do with your life, Matthew?” she asked. “Do something that will make you happy.”

He shrugged. “I will find something,” he said. “Not the church or the army or navy or a courtroom, but something. I will never be able to satisfy my father, unfortunately. He and I will never be able to sit down and discuss my options as two equals even though I am eighteen now. You must not worry about me, however. All will be well.”

“Will it?” She almost undid him then. She lifted one hand and cupped her palm about his cheek. “You are a searcher,” she said. “And one day you will find what it is you seek, and you will be happy. You must not settle for anything less though I do not doubt your father is well-meaning in his efforts to secure your future. Seek, Matthew. Do something positive. Do not just rebel.”

There were tears in her eyes then, and he was not sure there were not some in his own too. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision.

“Promise me,” she said.

“I promise,” he told her, though he had no idea how one sought what one could not even name. Or where one went to look for it. And this was surely the first time in their long acquaintance that she had given him actual advice. Urgently, forcefully given.

They gazed at each other, their faces only a foot or so apart, and he felt a dreadful urge to kiss her. Just once. A goodbye kiss. A good luck kiss. But it would be a terrible mistake—for her, for him, for them. For if he kissed her, she would know, and she would definitely be sad. And he would know—though he already did—that it was hopeless, that any image to which he clung of their being tragic lovers about to be driven apart by circumstances would be dashed forever. He would end up looking foolish and knowing he would feel it every time he saw her in the future—which was bound to happen from time to time.

“Now you promise me,” he said, “that you will be happy. That you will live happily ever after.”

Her smile turned instantly brighter. “I promise,” she said.

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