“Rory, you’ve returned! How good to see you!” The petite brunette swarmed across the large office that took up half of the first floor of the Tudor hunting lodge, a remnant of more prosperous days when the estate had belonged to her distant ancestors. Grace looked as she always had to him, like honey spun with a summer breeze. When he was at sea, it was her face rather than anything else that drew him home. The curling tendrils of her hair wound around his heart and tugged.
“Grace, my darling girl! Have you been good while I’ve been gone?” He wondered whether he should bow over her slim fingers or kiss her cherry-blushed cheek or do what he really wanted to do which was sweep her into his arms and kiss the fool out of her, but the decision was taken out of his hands.
Grace slapped him on the shoulder and reached up to wag a finger in his face. “How bad you are! Not one word of warning! Why, I received your last letter only a few days ago. How was I to prepare for your arrival?” Rolling her eyes in a manner worthy of an aggrieved monarch indulging a much loved pet, she grumbled, “But I suppose that’s what husbands do.”
And there it was. As was her custom, without the faintest notion of what she was doing, she had poured her salt on the wound he had hoped was healed. “I was thinking you had forgotten, my little swan. Is that any way to greet your husband?” He copied her intonation with the word as he leaned down to kiss her.
She turned her head at the last moment and gave a loud smack with her lips in the air as his lips met her cheek. “I would have prepared a wifely meal for you, had I known to expect you, my lord.” She retreated behind her desk and began calmly and casually covering things up.
Rory couldn’t tell what the things were and made a mental note to correct this deficiency. He might not have much use for the information he gathered, but he had the duty and intended to fulfill it. “You know I’m no lord. The Honorable is the only title to which I am entitled,” he quipped, placing emphases on the repeated syllables. “And Captain is the only one I use.”
“Well, then, Captain, do sit down and begin. You have what? Two years’ worth of journeys to recount?” She settled herself on the chair behind the desk and folded her hands on its surface, giving him the benefit of her rapier-end focus that he found so invigorating.
No little simpering drawing room ornament this. Her wit wobbled in the balance with her charm and kindness, but sometimes triumphed, helping to explain perhaps why two years ago at age twenty-two Grace had remained unmarried. A weaker man might quail before an instrument so finely honed being wielded by a woman. Rory was not a weaker man. “You’ve had my letters. They account for much.” He sank into one of her well-worn but comfortable armchairs and felt the familiar rush that the easing of nameless tensions always brought. She was there. He was with her. The air was brighter and filled his lungs in a way unmatched under any other circumstance. The sun burned less and yet lighted the landscape more brilliantly. No matter that he had never actually slept in this building. He was home.
“Would you deny me the delight of hearing the tales told in your voice, of seeing your face as you tell them?”
“My dear, there is no delight I would willingly deny you,” he rasped, hoping his voice wouldn’t betray how keenly he felt these words. And so he began, following a custom they had established before he had seen a whisker on his chin or she had known a knee without a scab. He told her thrilling tales of the sea; tales that no sheltered young lady ought to want to hear. She drank them in as she always had, stroking his self-assurance with her gasps and nods in all the appropriate places. Never much of a raconteur in company, Rory excelled himself when she was his only audience, transporting them both in fancy to faraway venues for exciting adventures that always seemed to him more precious in the telling than when he had lived them.
The tea tray came and went, carried by a maid of all work Rory vaguely remembered as being called Helen or Ellen or something of the sort. A middle-aged widow as he recalled, she watched over his dear Grace so he was grateful to her in a distracted sort of way, but if her hair had always sported so much gray mixed in with the brown, he had no idea of it. As long as her kindly smile evoked a return of the same from her mistress, he was content.
As the day came to a close, what felt like a dozen children invaded and retreated from the office with seeming ease, coming and going on some predetermined but unintelligible schedule that Rory could only vaguely comprehend. It had something to do with the interplay between school in the village, lessons at the vicarage, and chores around the lodge where Grace supervised the chaos with her customary aplomb.
When all was said and done, he had met five boys and two girls, all having lived with Grace for a number of years. It was nice to finally put faces with the names she had told him about in her letters. Having traveled several hours that morning on horseback, he was almost grateful when Grace told him that it was time to dress for dinner. “If I could have a bath and half an hour’s rest, I’m sure I’ll feel like a new man,” he exclaimed.
“This way, then.” She rose and he followed her down the corridor he had traversed many years ago but when he tried to turn into the first room on the right, she waved him off. “I’m afraid that room is occupied now. The younger boys sleep in there. I doubt you’ll want to use it for bathing or dressing either. In fact…” She bit her lip and tapped her index finger to it in consternation. “…I really do wish you had notified me of your arrival. We could have worked something out.”
Ellen came scurrying up the hallway carrying two buckets of steaming water. “Excuse me, my lord,” she muttered.
“I’m not a lord,” he corrected her. “Barely an honorable.”
“To Ellen, if your father is a lord, it’s safest just to call you that.” Grace made way for her servant with a kindly smile. “We’ll have to have him in my room for the moment, Ellen.”
The servant bobbed a curtsy and lumbered in, her broad shoulders twisting to spare the buckets from being jostled on the doorjamb. “Where else would your husband go?”
When Grace laughed, Rory gave her a severe look. As soon as they were alone in Grace’s room, he stared at her. “A very astute servant you have there, my dear. Where else would your husband go? Or does she know?”
“I haven’t told her, no. That was our agreement. It is our secret, though I don’t know why I should keep her in the dark.”
“You should because you promised you would.” Rory dropped his valise on the bed and drew a ragged breath. A picture came into his imagination that he knew would give him no peace that night or for many nights to come. In his mind’s eye he saw Grace, her hair fanned out on his pillow, her limbs curled comfortably on the mattress, her eyes at first closed in sleep, then opening to his with a knowing twinkle. In his dream, of course, her gaze would be full of intent, not the innocence he knew she now possessed. She would be his and glad to be so. Shaking off this vision with difficulty, he continued. “But we can discuss it if you wish. Do you feel so confident of her discretion that you would trust her with our secret?”
“I would trust her with my very life, and have done on more than one occasion. She would lay down hers for any of the children or for me without a moment’s hesitation.”
“I’m not calling her loyalty into question. It cheers me to hear that you have a servant as loyal as that. Anyone who hopes to do anything in this world is aided or thwarted more than can be calculated on a balance sheet by those around them. Those around us, however, also have others around them, like ripples in a pool. It’s often the second and third layer where the difficulty lies. Are all her friends and relations as trustworthy? Not by actual choice but by a slip of the tongue can a secret be betrayed most easily.”
Grace’s beautiful brow was momentarily wrinkled in thought. “I suppose she does have some less savory apples on her family tree, but where would be the harm? We’re not doing anything wrong. No one would be able to say a word to us if they found out that we are married in name only. I know any number of marriages contracted solely for financial purposes.”
Her shrug cut into him like a knife to his gullet.
“You would have me look the fool? That I couldn’t reckon what to do with a lovely wife? Or that I was one of those who would marry a woman only for her dowry?”
“No one who knows you would entertain that delusion for a moment.” Grace gave him that intoxicating smile as she patted his shoulder and gestured him toward the bathtub. “But if the thought displeases you, of course, I will keep my own counsel. I have done so successfully for two years now. Why should that change?”
Even in the middle of May, the house was shady enough that he was glad that he would be bathing near the fire. “I apologize for any inconvenience. I realize that it will require extra care while I am in residence.” He gave her a sidelong glance to gauge her reaction to this idea.
Her open, honest face showed nothing but innocent delight. “How long will you be staying?”
And there was the heart of the matter again. How long would he be staying? How long would she want him to stay? And under what circumstances? ‘As long as you’ll have me’ seemed a disingenuous answer after their recent agreement. How could he admit to her that which he was only recently admitting to himself: he missed her. The letters were no longer enough. He lived for her words but he longed for her touch. How one could miss what one had scarcely ever known still baffled him, but there it was. Thoughts of her had taken over his mind like the aroma of baking bread soon permeates the whole house.
At first he had thought of her only at sunset as he gazed at her latest missive. Soon enough, he had begun to reach for her letter first thing in the morning and greeted his day through her eyes, comparing his ocean vistas to her pastoral views. The tall trees that she described had once loomed in on him, making him long for the open ocean’s freedom. Now their shelter beckoned him as if to a snug blanket on a frosty day.
“The answer to that question lies partly in the reason why I gave you no notice of my arrival. It is because the visit was more or less unplanned.”
“Unplanned?” she repeated, laying out the towels on the bed with a deft twist of her wrist and a sweet little pat, as if the drying cloth were a kitten she was setting down next to its mother.
“Do you remember how in my last letter I told you that I would be taking the helm of the Tenacious? Well, I got word yesterday that she went down in a storm just off the coast.”
“Oh, my! The crew?”
“All rescued. They weren’t far off the shore and the town sent out small boats. When big ships break up on rocks, sailors can often cling to them and be saved. It’s the way of the sea.” Rory untied his cravat as Ellen carried two more buckets of steaming water into the room. “But that leaves me without a position.”
“I am sorry,” Grace stated in a low voice. There was sorrow in her tone but no pity. He would have hated that. “But another chance will come along shortly, won’t it?”
“Are you so eager to be shed of me?”
“Not at all!” she exclaimed and threw her arms around his shoulders in an exuberant sideways embrace. “I’m ever so glad you’ve come. It will be like old times, when we were children.”
“When you were a child,” he corrected with a grin. “I was already…”
“You were never a child,” interrupted Grace. “Always so serious, even when you were just a mid-shipman at the ripe old age of thirteen.”
“You would have been three at that time, so how would you remember?”
“I remember every time you came home, full of stories of the sea. What wonderful times we had. I loved listening to you spin yarns packed with sea monsters and pirate battles. Didn’t I bore you with my idol worship?”
“Bore me?” he agreed with a laugh. “I loved impressing you with my worldly experience.”
“Of course I wasn’t exactly difficult to impress…” Her voice trailed off into a laugh.
“There were several years I recall when you were.” Rory pulled a face. “Just after you went to that Ladies’ Seminary, you did think that if it hadn’t anything to do with Greece, it was quite beneath your notice.”
“Must you remember those years? What a prig I was!” Her grin belied the sentiments, but he could tell she was not enjoying the memories.
“Was I any better? With my swagger and my preening? The happy news is that we have left those years long behind us.” He stopped there, not wanting to remind her how long ago it was that he was young. Being ten years her senior sometimes concerned him. Still, he knew many couples where such a difference proved to be an advantage rather than a drawback.
“Yes, indeed, but they are still within the realm of recall, so I can sympathize with those under my charge who are suffering through them. If John walks any oftener around the baker’s to gawk at his daughter, her father will start charging admission to the pavement. And if Maggie doesn’t wear her mirror out with overuse, I shall be completely shocked.”
“The bath is filled, my lord,” Ellen informed them quickly.
“I’ll leave you to it, then,” Grace said.
“Would you like me to help his honor with his bath or will you do it?” Ellen inquired dourly.
Now, here was a question. He had brought no valet. As the servant, Ellen might expect to be called upon to perform such duties for a guest, even a male one, but as his wife, it would be appropriate for Grace to attend to him. Could he stand the temptation? Could he pass up the chance to try? “Of course, my wife will attend me,” Rory answered before Grace could comment.
As Ellen made her hasty exit, Grace pulled the screen from its place in the corner and situated it between the bathtub and the rest of the room. “Thank you, your honor,” she said, amusement rippling through every syllable. “I nearly made quite a gaffe there. And I’m afraid you might have felt called upon to take me to task for it.” Was her laughter nervous now? Less candid than her open character required?
Behind the screen, Rory began to divest himself of his travel-worn garments. Imagining the absence of the screen and the presence of her sweet little self watching him did severe damage to his peace of mind, so he asked her about the children. “Is that baker you mentioned so averse to young John?”
“Not at all. If I can scrape together the funds, I’m thinking of apprenticing John to someone in town, even the baker if he’d have him. He’s a good lad and his family problems were not the sort that anyone would object to. No history of the drink or immoral living. It was a cart accident that took his family, so the villagers think he was spared for some great service he’ll render. Most of them would take him on.”
“But not the baker?” Rory stepped into the bath hoping the water would help calm him. The conversation wasn’t enough to quell his riotous reactions to her proximity. That screen was a very good thing, indeed.
“All he’ll say is that he’ll think about it when the time comes. There’s no rush and he’s very young. So is the baker’s daughter, but the father sees which way the wind is blowing. He’s no fool.”
“Better to marry his daughter off early to a good man than to have her choose less wisely later?”
“He hasn’t come out and said as much, but it’s the way I feel and he’s more to lose than I have. John can always run off and join the Navy if things don’t work out.” Her tone was pleasantly teasing, but was there an edge to it?
“The Navy is a fine life for a lad, but the time is now if he wants to go. Thirteen is the most common age, proving that the sea is not just a refuge for reprobates.”
“And broken-hearted lovers,” Grace amended. “She might show him the door in a year or two. Would he be too old then?”
“Never too old, I don’t suppose.” He stood up out of the water to reach for the soap. Not finding any by the bath brush, he turned.
Shock filled Grace’s eyes, widening them until they resembled blue dinner plates. “I… I… Ellen forgot the soap.” She held out the bar to him, her gaze never meeting his.
He took the object that looked so large in her hand but so small in his. “Thank you, my dear.” The words finally pried themselves around his teeth and out of his tensed lips. Why he was having trouble breathing was more than clear to him, but her obvious difficulty in forcing her mouth to perform its normal functions caught his attention… and held it… and made it even more difficult to obtain the air his lungs had seemingly forgotten they needed. The symptoms were so similar. Was the disease the same? If so, the cure would be glorious.
As she fled the room without another word, he began to scrub himself vigorously. His need for repose had fled with her, so it was an invigorated and optimistic Rory who exited the room some minutes later.
They met in the office that served as drawing room as well as morning room and every other room. Even though her establishment was tiny, he knew from her letters that she still kept up the normal customs. Waiting for Ellen to announce dinner constituted the first time he had ever hoped that there would be a delay and the diners would be forced to wait. Alone together, without even servants in evidence, he saw his chance.
“A most refreshing bath,” he began. When she looked down at her hands, obviously abashed, he left the mantel with its kaleidoscopes and potpourri to sit down beside her on the well-worn settee. “There’s no reason for a wife to be ashamed of seeing her husband. I certainly wasn’t annoyed.”
“I hope not,” she bridled.
He was glad she had reacted in irritation since he had chosen the word for that purpose. He wanted her a bit defensive, knowing that he would see more of what was in her heart if he could crack her incredible self-control. As strong as she was, even she couldn’t accept the change in the atmosphere between them without qualms.
Her gaze fell to her lap and she examined her gloves. “But we’re not… like that.”
He put a finger under her chin and raised it up so that she was looking into his eyes. “We could be.” A pause. “We should be.” A longer pause. “I want to be.” And another yet another longer pause. “Do you?”
She sounded as if she had never heard this set of words before and was still trying to puzzle out their meaning. “Do I what?”
“Do you want to be—”
“Dinner is served.” Ellen’s voice broke in, cutting the pulsating tension between them.
In a rush of what he could only be described as furious relief, Grace stood and dragged him through the room with her determined little steps matching her frenetic words, like marbles dropped on a tile floor. “We’ve a nice joint tonight, thank goodness. So glad Ellen hadn’t planned one of her economizing meals. She does that sometimes, when I’ve had to cut pennies on her kitchen allowance. But things have been going rather well. The honey bees are producing marvelously and Will is a dab hand among the hives.”
He seated her and then himself across from her and the ordeal began. It was, Rory thought, rather like the intricate dance the sailors performed as they worked to get a ship under weigh. As one line of sailors hauled on the ropes to raise the sails, another group would scramble up the riggings. As the men came down from the riggings, others would haul on the ropes to hoist the anchor. If anyone got out of step or ran in the wrong direction, he could receive a nasty knock on the head, an unexpected trip into the drink, or even worse. Just like those sailors, the servants swirled in and out and around, darting, retreating, circling and diving. Each pause that left them alone together gave Rory another chance.
Watching the footman’s retreating back, Rory began. “You’ve never looked lovelier.” He leaned forward to take her hand in his across the small table.
When Ellen entered with the soup, Grace straightened. “Didn’t young Philip look well? He’ll make a fine footman someday.”
“He will indeed, under your excellent tutelage, Ellen,” Rory agreed. The maid curtsied as she backed out the door, leaving him free to continue. “And your tender care, my dear. You will be an excellent mother when your own children come along.”
Young Philip rescued her from further comment by entering to refill their glasses. “How everything shines, Philip,” Grace praised him. “Of course, in a grand house, no one will speak to you, so you must practice not looking or replying unless you are actually asked a question, but here in our house, I can tell you that you’ve done marvelously.”
“You have worked hard,” Rory agreed. “The silver candlesticks would make any mid-shipman proud and the cutlery is even brighter.” As soon as Philip’s face, flushed with confusion and pleasure, disappeared through the door, Rory went on. “Though the brightest glow comes from your eyes and smile.”
“Must you do that?” Grace enquired, unable to hide her pleasure or her slight annoyance. “My head is spinning. I can’t remember which conversation we’re having.”
“It would be easier, I suppose, if I left it for later, and I will if…”
“If you agree to walk in the garden with me after dinner, just the two of us.”
“In the garden?”
“But you had to have seen our garden as you came in,” she objected. “It’s overgrown and a complete shambles. I haven’t had time to cut anything in a month and with all the hot weather, I’ve a bit of wilderness out there, not a garden.”
“The better to provide me with the privacy I need,” Rory answered. “With neither children nor servants to interrupt me.”
“Or rescue me,” Grace added ruefully.
“Do you want to be rescued? I think two years is long enough for me to prove myself to you.”
Grace laid down her spoon with more suspicion than Rory liked. “Prove what, exactly?”
“That I can remain constant.”
Grace blushed and gave a reluctant smile. “That has never come into question.”
“Then what would be your objection? Why should you want rescuing?”
Grace looked around, as if to be sure the door was still closed. “You seem to have developed a fondness for surprises, your honor.”
Her bringing up his position made the distance between them stretch, like the line between a fish and an angler on the shore. He couldn’t let it pass. “You know that’s an incorrect use of the term.”
“What am I to call you then?”
“Why not continue calling me ‘Rory’ as you have since you were old enough to speak?”
“All right, then, Rory. I merely want to point out that urgency in such matters rarely produces satisfactory results.”
Rory set the hook and reeled it back in. “Are you thinking of quoting the proverb to me? The one about marrying in haste and repenting at leisure? I hardly think two years counts as haste.”
“Perhaps not, but counted another way, you’ve only just returned to Larling. It’s been not six hours.”
A delay but not an outright denial. She wasn’t laughing at him. Definitely a hopeful sign. “I suppose there’s no harm in taking our time about a pleasurable pursuit.” He tried to control the desire he could feel showing through his grin.
At that moment, Philip snapped the door open for Ellen to carry the joint in. He stayed, Rory assumed, to observe Ellen giving it the grand parade as if they were supping at a ball at the height of the season. Grace raised her head and took a deep breath. “Timing is paramount.” She lifted her glass to her lips and drank. “Remember that, Philip. It’s all in the timing.”
As he had been instructed, the boy went about his duties without responding then exited the room again but Rory was sure he would return shortly to show that he had heeded Grace’s instruction about timing. Under normal circumstances Rory would have paid little regard to the presence of domestic help, but since she was also raising many of her ‘servants,’ Rory was keenly aware of their sensibilities. Before Ellen could return, he wanted her promise. “So, if I assure you I will set a leisurely pace, will you still insist you need rescuing?”
“I insist on nothing of the kind,” Grace admonished him with a chuckle. “Same old Rory. You could always make me laugh.”
His gut took a pleasant jolt, aiding his appetite not one whit. Leaving on the plate a perfectly acceptable slice of lamb, he tried to distract himself from further encroachments on good taste by retreating to safer subjects. He learned her plans for the future regarding the other children in her care and more local gossip than was good for him. In return, he recounted to her tales of his sea adventures and the colorful characters aboard ship and in exotic ports who had shared in his exploits. As always, it amazed him how quickly the moments dashed by when they were together.