Mary Watson sat at a small table in the corner of the cafe and stared into the leaves at the bottom of her cup of tea. She remembered being a little girl when her aunt told her tea leaves could predict her future, and when she read them she told young Mary that she would find her true love in her twenty-eighth year. Her eyes blurred with fresh tears as she wished she could cast herself back to a time when she believed in such things, before she knew about heartbreak and betrayal and the sad ways of the world.
"Pardon me, madam," said a gentle and melodious voice above her. "Are you all right?"
Mary looked up in surprise and saw an elegant, fashionably dressed woman bending over her table, her huge, beautiful eyes drawn with concern. Mary was so startled she tipped her teacup, splashing hot liquid into her lap.
"Oh dear!" she cried, and attempted to recover herself and clean the mess she had made, but she was only further upset by her clumsiness and sobbed quietly behind a gloved hand.
"John!" called the woman, motioning to her groom to bring the carriage around. She helped Mary to her feet and led her into the cool outside air. Once inside the coach, the woman wrapped her arm around Mary's shoulders and gave them a comforting squeeze.
"There there, darling heart. Surely it is not so bad at that?" she said soothingly, and handed her a lace handkerchief.
"I married an invert!" Mary blurted through the lace as she pressed it into her face. She glanced at the kind woman next to her and apologized.
"Please, madam, forgive my indelicacy. I do not know where to turn..." and her voice trailed off as she choked on another fit of emotion.
The woman smiled grimly and patted Mary on her other hand.
"You and I have something in common, my dear," she whispered and the two woman silently embraced for the duration of the carriage ride.
When they stopped at Briony Lodge, the woman helped Mary from the carriage and led her into the house. She bade her housekeeper to bring Mary a fresh cup of tea, and then led her into the bright drawing room.
Mary recovered herself enough to remove her hat and coat, and when she finally regarded the fine lady who sat beside her on the sofa she was immediately taken by her languid beauty. She realized she had felt comforted from the start by the serene glow that seemed to radiate from the woman's face.
"Do you want to tell me what happened?" she said. "You may speak freely here, for I sense a kinship between us and if I can offer you a kind ear, I would be pleased to help you."
Mary took a deep breath and spoke.
"I love my husband very much and I suppose in his fashion he loves me. But during our last moment of intimacy he called his lover's name and at the very height of his passion. I must admit the idea of it excited me at the first, and I was even willing to try to accommodate the arrangement, but he refused. It's his best friend, you see, and I know now that his heart always belonged to him. I cannot compete with the bond they shared long before I entered his life."
The woman nodded and rose when the the housekeeper set the tea tray on the end table. She spoke in a low, clear voice as she poured the tea.
"I married Mr. Norton exactly five years ago and for three of those years we were quite happy. And then one day I returned home early from my society meeting and found my husband in our drawing room in a passionate embrace with his law partner." She handed Mary a cup and tea and poured one for herself.
"My goodness, Mrs.--"
"Norton. Irene Norton," she said, and glanced up with a smile.