“Is that what you want?” Cymbeline asked. “To marry Theo and have babies?”
“There are worse fates.”
“But down deep inside, if you had a choice, what would you do?”
I thought for a moment about how to answer. It was hard to think of what to say. I’d not contemplated a situation where I could choose. “I have no idea. All I know is that my early life was about survival and after Father died, it seemed it would be again. I don’t have the luxury to be an old maid. There’s no one to take care of me if I chose to live alone.”
“Is that why you’re marrying Theo?” Cymbeline asked. “To be safe?”
“I’d be lying if that hadn’t factored into the decision at first. Now, though, it’s different.”
“I can’t imagine marrying anyone else. He’s the on
ly person I’ve ever known who I’ve been completely myself with. The only one who hasn’t made me apologetic for my existence.”
I hesitated, buying time by sitting up and wrapping my arms around my knees. The sun had already dried part of my cotton slip. “What happened to you that night, with those men. I had something similar when I was a child. Only I didn’t have anyone to protect me.”
“What happened?” Cymbeline’s voice was as dry as the twig she’d snapped earlier.
“My father took me to the man. For money. He did what I’m afraid those men would have done to you if we hadn’t come.”
“Louisa, no.” Cymbeline’s eyes filled with tears. She abruptly sat up and threw her arms around me. “I’m sorry.”
I waited for her to let go before I continued. “I’ve avoided marriage because of it.”
“Yes, of course you would.”
“I’m ashamed, even though I know what happened was not because of anything I did.”
“So, when you tell me it’s not my fault—you really know,” Cymbeline said.
“Theo’s the only man I could have ever told the truth about what happened to me. Despite it all, he wants me just as I am.”
“He loves you, that much is obvious,” Cymbeline said.
“I don’t want him with anyone else either. That thought makes me…how do I even say it?”
“Like you want to crawl out of your own skin?”
“Yes, like that,” I said.
“That’s how I feel every time I see Viktor and that girl. I can’t stand it.” She covered her face with both hands. “Oh no, this is awful.”
“What is it?” I asked gently, knowing what she would say next but also understanding she needed to say the words out loud. That was the thing about words. They were stronger when spoken than when simply bouncing around in one’s head all the time.
“Everything adds up to one conclusion. I can’t imagine being with anyone else but Viktor. If you’re correct that this is how we know which is the one for us, then I’m in deep trouble. Because then I should marry Viktor.”
“What makes you not want to?” Cymbeline fought so hard with herself and the world to keep from admitting her feelings.
“The idea that I have to,” Cymbeline said. “Which always makes me want to do the exact opposite.”
“Yes, and sometimes that’s not a bad instinct.”
“Mama says it’s cutting your nose off to spite your face.” Cymbeline let out a long sigh. “But I grow so weary of having to take direction from men yet not being able to do any of the things they do.”