Deception by Proxy. Ch. 23: Difficult Questions, and Foundations of a New Relationship.

Friday, April 27th, 2018



“How are you feeling now?” William smiled at her. Only a few minutes had passed since his major dereliction in finding her naked and helping her, but in his own mind and hers, he hoped, they had turned to a new page.

He was pleased to notice that she was able to smile at him too, and was seemingly able to put the other matter of a few minutes earlier behind her. She was not too angry with him, but did perhaps give the impression of being puzzled and even confused over what she had just learned. It seemed he might be forgiven, though he knew he did not deserve to be. He was relieved far more than words might be able to express.

She thought for a while. “Rested now, content. But also…chastened after the last few days. As well as confused; much better than I did, thanks to you. Refreshed.” She did not mention other feelings that she was still grappling with, or continue with her disjointed recollections.

“Good.”

“Will you sit with me for a while, please?”

His eyes seemed to thank her for not banishing him. “Dare I assume that you feel you can trust me after my recent behavior of just a few moments ago? I am sure that I do not deserve your trust after that.” He was smiling at the awkward truth of what he said, yet his eyes were pleading with her this time, rather than challenging. “But yes, I would like to sit with you if you can forgive me for my earlier behavior.”

She realized with sudden surprise that he was the one that seemed vulnerable now, as her mother had said, and even uncertain of the ground he was on. She wondered if perhaps she should not be the one asking him for forgiveness for believing only ill of him for so long, and still not sure what to believe about some things concerning his character, if not his commendable behavior on their behalf. “I think I can trust you a little. Perhaps more than a little. Though I do not know why. I began to fear the worst at first and that I was about to pay the price for not having trusted you as Mama does and for believing only the worst of you. But you did not take vengeful advantage of me in…that way, or despise me for not making a more forceful objection of your presence, as I had feared, though your presence was….”

“Yes, it was, wasn’t it? Outrageous, ungentlemanly, and worse. I deserve no mercy, no gentle consideration from you, and will submit to any penalty or penance you demand of me. Why would you think I might despise you for not objecting, for you did object. I think I am more afraid of you despising mefor being so forward myself and so heedless of your modesty. Be gentle, Annis. You now have the power to hurt me far more than you might realize.”

She did not know how to respond to that surprising comment, and let a few moments elapse before she spoke. “I would never despise you now William. Not after what you have unselfishly done for us.” She could not meet his eyes as she said that. “When you entered my room and….” She struggled to make sense of what had happened. “But then I am dressed now and in my bed, and my mother and sisters are within calling distance.” She smiled sadly.

“Thank you. A little trust is all I deserve, and I am glad of that crumb even. But that was why I came up here, to keep you company until you decided to rest or sleep. I had no other motive. I was concerned for you.”

She recognized that he spoke the truth, but he was ill at ease with himself and seemed to be feeling guilty over his previous actions. It was a reassuring sign and gave her more confidence than she might have felt in finding out more about him than she had so far gleaned and—as it turned out—wrongly, about it. “I have been wrong about you.”

“Most people are. But you? Not so far wrong, Annis.”

“Yes, I admit I have been wrong about you, and now we need to talk if you do not mind. But first things first…the easier questions, for I need to know you better than I do. You do owe me that much. If you do not mind?” She recognized that she was on solid ground with him at this moment.

“I seem to recall you said something to me while we were at the inn, and I was recovering. You said something of you ‘almost’ being on your best behavior. There seems to be an admission of earlier lapses than the one which we have just put behind us.”

“I confess that there were. So you did notice? I wondered if you might let me get away with that, without bringing me to account. Yes, I seem to make far too many little slips like that, don’t I? I am such a shambling kind of disreputable fellow that I found I needed to test various boundaries and limits with someone who seemed to hold me in reservation, if not downright disregard. I wonder why I don’t have that same trouble with Sophia?” He was pleased to see her smile. A good sign. “You are right, we need to talk now that you are able to see me in a more kindly light, I hope, and can demand a full account from me of various bits and pieces of my scandalous behavior. There is much that I would like to say, though I must slow myself down, or I might frighten you almost as much as I did just now. Myself too. We have progressed such a long way, in such a short time.”

He drew his mind back to the moments at the inn. “I am surprised that you recall that careless comment earlier. I thought it had sailed by too easily while we were at the inn, and I had hoped that more recent and more…inconsiderate behavior may have overlain or eclipsed all memory of that earlier dereliction. You have an inconveniently retentive memory for the likes of me. Obviously, I must confess my inability to fully control myself with you, for I must admit that I did steal a kiss after I had lifted you from your horse onto mine. But then that is how we rogues tend to behave.”

“That, and ambush ill-clad—disrobed—young ladies in their bedrooms and refuse to leave when they ask you to.” She surprised herself by daring to recall that, and even speak of it so openly.

“Exactly right.” He laughed. “But there was only one of you. You were not ill clad. You were unclad, and a sore temptation for a moment or two until I came to my senses and realized what I stood to lose if I did cause you to despise me by any inappropriate action. As if my being there at that moment, were not.”

She let that confession slide by but liked what she was hearing. “But you mentioned that earlier kiss, and I think I recall that.” She blushed. “You seem to lose control often, and yet you don’t, in truth. Everything is done with a purpose. You also steal a lot of kisses when you think I might not notice, or even when I might, for you stole several just a few moments ago. Why did you do that?” She looked at him again, in a way that he found unsettling.

“The earlier kiss when I moved you to my horse?”

She nodded.

“Confession time again.” He drew a deep breath. “I felt a moment of…great tenderness and concern for you at that moment, but then I have always felt like that toward you, indeed, to all of you.”

“Oh.”

He smiled at her as she digested that confession.

She looked up at him. “And yet, I do not think that a rogue might feel either tenderness or concern for his intended victim.”

“You were not a victim Annis. You were, you are, someone I feel a great deal of…” he hesitated as he searched for the word, “…regard for.” He could say nothing more without betraying more of himself.

She decided not to pursue that any further. There were more important questions to get out of the way while he seemed to be in the expansive and gentle mood he was in. “Why did you stay with us, William?” She looked at him closely, but he did not rush to an answer. Perhaps he found it too difficult to answer easily. “You had no need to. Yet you did stay with us all here, despite everything and when I did not think you either would, or should, for I tried to hint you away.”

“Yes, you did, didn’t you?” He decided to be careful in what he might choose to say. She was quite capable at this moment of seeing completely through him if he were too careless with his words. “You were off-putting and cold toward me, I thought. How fortunate that I have such a thick skin and cannot be hinted off or did not run off like a scolded cur. I stayed to help, at least for a few days, where I could. I hope you are not forgetting that I married your sister. There were some things that obviously needed to be done after that, and I could see that you were all otherwise caught up in a hurtful situation. You all needed to be distracted if possible. My heart went out to all of you. I could not desert you all in your time of need even when faced with a determined effort from you to oppose my staying, for some reason.” He chuckled gently. “You seemed to know me far too well. Besides, I still needed to know far more of the lady I had recently married and of the most unusual, and wonderful family that so calmly accepted me without question and so trustingly, despite my well-known reputation. Most of them anyway.”

She fidgeted over that gentle observation, and she colored as her eyes flashed to his face once more, and he instantly regretted making it. He strove to recover. “You were wise to be cautious. I did not expect to be made welcome when there were so many attractive and nubile young ladies present—even your mother, who most needed my support—and all so vulnerable to the likes of me after all of the trouble I had caused in earlier years, and the hell…well, that was all in my recent past. I was not so far removed from the memories and realities of that violence, that I began to wonder if the reality was that the battlefield had actually claimed me, and I was now in a pleasant dream.”

She liked the way his attention seemed to be focused upon her. “I do not think you deserve that sad reputation that you hint at, William, and yet…there were times when you confirmed all of my worst beliefs in you until I learned more of what had really happened with Thackeray and then his father. Despite what I mistakenly assumed, you have behaved with great consideration and propriety—mostly—with all of us, including me, until….”

“But I recovered, remember, and reverted back to my true character, shambling fellow that I am. Mostly, is the key word. You did notice that my halo had slipped by the time we needed to visit the inn when I first kissed you then, and it took a further nudge just a few minutes ago when I found that I was powerless to leave when confronted by such mature and poised, if alarmed…and alarming beauty.”

Her eyes sparkled, and she blushed but did not take him to task for referring to what he had said should be forgotten. Neither of them would be likely to ever forget it.

“Also, there was a challenge laid out for me, with three beautiful young daughters and a more mature yet still beautiful lady thrown close to me, and all of you actually needing my worthless presence in a moment of great sorrow, even though it may not have been immediately welcomed or obvious. I found it to be captivating and intriguing. Besides, I have a bad reputation to maintain, or face being drummed out of the Rogues Club. I could not rush off with such delightful temptation around me, for you are all so beautiful, each in her own charming way, and so much in need of protection.” He sighed. “Alas, mostly from individuals like me.”

“I think you are flattering us too outrageously and giving yourself too little credit. However, I am glad you did not leave us.”

He said nothing for a moment but digested that comment with some pleasure, as he could see the sincerity in her shy glance at having dared to admit that.

“So am I. Now.”

She let that sail by, but could not easily ignore that he was looking at her intently and in a remarkably disturbing way. She felt sure that he might be able to hear her heart beating and must surely be able to see how flushed she suddenly was.

She recovered her composure with difficulty. “So we were a challenge?”

“Yes. I think it’s fair to say that. However, to my great disappointment and devastating loss of confidence when faced with so much opportunity laid out before me for the taking, I did not seem to be universally liked or trusted, especially by you or Charlotte, who made a point of staying out of my way most of the time. Very wise of her. Most unusual for me to see, for I am such a likeable, gentle, well-mannered fellow as you know, and as I continually demonstrate. Sophia recognized it fast enough. All of you should have been striving to encourage me to stay, and in the most embarrassing and flattering way. But then, if you had, I would have been truly lost, and…I may not have behaved as I ought.”

“I think you would have.”

“I am gratified that you think so well of me after my recent lapse. Yes, I think I would have behaved myself too. At least I would always try. The alternative—your censure and feeling betrayed by me and then openly despising me—would be devastating to me now.”

He was being truthful, despite all of the wrong-headed thoughts she had harbored of him and the accusations she would have leveled at him had she been able to burst into the parlor while he met with the elder Thackeray. She liked those words of confession. Fortunately, he did not know how they affected her own feelings.

“Your mother accepted me easily enough, but then I have that effect on more mature and less cautious ladies, who do not know enough to feel threatened by me.”

“Or who know you better than you might know yourself, and place little store by vicious gossip? Unlike her immature daughter.”

“Perhaps. But there is nothing immature about you, Annis. Not from what I saw, nor from what I know of you in your gentle dealings with me when I did not deserve them. You are a woman, and a beautiful one.”

She blushed. “You know what I meant.”

“Yes, I did know. I think your mother may have been unwise enough, or should I perhaps contradict myself and say, prescient enough, to believe my sister’s high opinions of me rather than those of others. Elizabeth is obviously defensive of my reputation and character as well as confused about me—obviously—and does not believe so ill of me as others do. However, now I have a true challenge laid out before me—to rise above my hard-won disastrous reputation and prove that I am worthy of a misplaced belief in the nobleness of my character than a belief in what is said of me. It may be beyond me, but I will try.”

She smiled at his attempted levity. She had every faith that he would succeed.

He sat back, feeling more relaxed and sure of his position. “I am sure that you have noticed that Sophia was quite easy to confuse, and has had difficulty tearing herself away from me.” He looked around suddenly. “I wonder where she is, by the way? She has never neglected me for this long before.” He shrugged. “No matter. I had come to the realization that I have that effect on young children it seems, though I have just found that out, for I have never been around them before for any length of time. I always found them to be wearing and far too able to see completely through me. I find the sudden arousal of family feeling within me to be interesting and gratifying. Sobering too, for I hear that children can be so hard to impress. Now I must work hard to impress those a little older. I am finding that I am sadly out of practice.”

“It did not seem that way to me. But Sophia likes you. She even demands a kiss of you before she goes to sleep now and after you have read to her, and she spends far more time with you than she now does with us.”

“Yes, I wish you all would do so—demand a goodnight kiss of me. But Sophia is quite a scheming little girl and far too observant of those things she should not observe, and sneaks up and gets too close when one least expects it. As I did with you earlier. I like her too. I am looking forward to the time when all of her sisters demand a similar kiss before sleeping. It is the older ones that are more difficult. Charlotte will be a greater challenge.”

“How so? She does not hold you in disregard. None of us do now.”

“She is still too cautious and unwise to the ways of men like me, but sharp, and is not sure what to make of me just yet, though I could be mistaken. I think she is guarded of what she sees and believes, and is not yet entirely trusting. Ah well, her defenses will soon crumble when she falls in love with me as all ladies are destined to do.” He noticed she was smiling at his boast.

“Well, most of them.” He cleared his throat in embarrassment. “Some of them.” He smiled at her as he had to backtrack on his all-encompassing boast. “I do not read her to sleep, so a kiss will be more difficult. But then I find I do not wish to kiss her so much, except in a protective and avuncular way to comfort her, for she is still sad and then there is—was—another that is kissable too.”

She remained silent. She knew that he was referring to her, for he was looking intently at her as he said that.

“She seemed to dislike me intensely when I first came here—probably still should, considering how I behave around her while striving to ingratiate myself with everyone—and tried to ensure that I did not stay. It was worrisome to find that someone so young could read my character so well. Even took to carrying a pistol to guard against me wandering at night and possibly blundering into her bedroom, with undoubtedly dreadful intentions, and would have had no hesitation in using it, I think, so I didn’t blunder as I would have liked. My own pistol too.” He feigned shock at that thought. “Could I have been so madly protective as to work against myself? How lucky I am that she did not have it by her that first night. Or just a few minutes ago.” It had been close by. “I did not think she could have found out about me so well, so soon, for I never would admit to any weakness of character with any of you, and I hoped that by the time you found out about the real me, it would be too late.”

“I think we now know you better than the portrait you seem to want to paint of yourself. Besides, you have not blundered into any of our bedrooms again after that first time.”

“Really? Except for just a few minutes ago. I shall struggle to decide whether you are relieved or disappointed over that. But then, I do not like to be shot. It is a painful experience.”

“And yet you stole a kiss from her, from me, when I was vulnerable. When we were out together. You were not supposed to take advantage of me like that. That was underhanded.”

“But I must protest in my own defense that it was mostly a brotherly kind of kiss. I really was not taking advantage of you as I wanted to.”

“It was nothing of the kind.” His later comment had slipped by her.

“No, perhaps not. I must admit that I was relieved that Thomas was not on hand to observe or object or come to your aid as he would have done. But I am being honest. I was concerned. I did not know that you were not one of these ladies who swooned to order. My kiss told me what I needed to know.”

“Which was?”

“That you were indeed prostrated, for you did not struggle to protest or complain loudly or strike out at me as you should have and as I expected if you had not been in quite the difficulties you seemed to be in. I could think of no other way to provoke a response if you had not been as ill as you seemed. Either that, or perhaps you had planned it, but then that would be a dangerous thing to do with a man like me, for I would have detected that too.”

“So I have become aware. So that was why you kissed me then—to gauge the level of my ability to respond. So it was almost a brotherly kind of kiss and nothing else. I think I can forgive that.” She almost felt disappointed. “So you thought I may have been scheming in some way. I am not such a dissembler, nor would I be so heedless of the danger I might put myself in by encouraging you. But I was not sure what to think either. I think I may have been wrong about you in almost every way that I could have been wrong.” She looked up at him, but he was looking away at that moment.

“I would like to think so, considering what I heard of your initial impression. But in what way might you have been wrong? That I am worse than you thought, or better?”

“I am not sure. Probably more devious, underhanded, and scheming, considering….”

“Yes, I probably am, as recent events have demonstrated all too clearly. I wondered who might shoot me first. You, or Thackeray. No matter. There, my character has been stripped bare even down to the bone. But then, the rogue in me has almost achieved his purpose. If I can win over the least trusting of you all and meet with her alone, in her bedroom no less, and her in only a thin nightdress between us—that other does not count, as I am a gentleman—of sorts—and I dare not admit to it and as I had my eyes mostly closed—then surely I can achieve anything I set my heart upon.”

“And what might that be?” She did not mind his speaking out so candidly. She liked his present mood.

“My, you are reckless to encourage me in this way. You should not ask, and I dare not say just yet. You would probably…no. You would certainly be critical of me. It is too soon after all of the….” he smiled at her, “…I am even surprised at myself. My mother and even my sister would also be outraged. I would have to return to the continent. I promise that you will be the first one I will tell, and then you can deal with me accordingly, and as severely as will be merited. Do not ask any more of me. I have said more than I intended to say already.”

He had told her almost everything she might have needed to know. She began to wonder how it might be possible to have him stay with them all for longer. Perhaps a lot longer. She no longer wished him to leave, but dare not tell him that, as she would have liked.

She took something off her bedside table and handed it to him. “Charlotte decided that you should have this, William.” She passed over Mr. Thackeray’s watch and watched as he turned it over in his hands. “No engraving on the outside.” She watched as he popped the cover and then released an inner one. After a few seconds, his eyes flashed to hers. “Nor inside either. Did you or your sister open it?”

“No. I do not believe so. Why?” She looked up at him, seeking an explanation.

“It is…It is an unusual kind of watch.” He wound it and set the movement into action.

She took it from his hands before he could close it or keep it from her and looked at it. A puzzled frown grew upon her face, and then she blushed profusely at the small naked portraits, in considerably exaggerated detail, moving together on the face of the watch. She looked at it with widening eyes and reddening cheeks for a few seconds and then dropped it on the covers but said nothing.

“Oh dear. Exactly. Going at it like ferrets aren’t they?” He scooped it up and closed it before putting it back down.

She laughed nervously, and was wide eyed at his outspoken description of what they were doing—going at it like fer—. “I think my uncle even had one, not quite as explicit or as disturbing. I glimpsed it once fleetingly, though I was not supposed to know about that. It may still be in the back of the desk drawer.”

“Yes. Another erotic watch. I saw it. It is still there.”

The silence continued for a few moments as she recovered her composure. She cleared her throat and could feel him smiling at her at the discomfort caused to her seeing that watch and its small inter-acting figures. She changed the subject. “Until recently, I was determined, and had the ammunition, to see and believe only the worst of you since you arrived, and I have had to repeatedly reverse myself, for you behaved in only the most considerate and protective way, though it took time to see beyond the first impression that you created. Even just a few moments ago, though you should not have stayed as you did.”

“I tried to leave without alerting you to my presence, but I was discovered when I clumsily backed into the door.” He saw a new struggle taking place in her eyes and her thoughts as she built up the courage to ask him more and was wondering what she might decide to ask next.

“I…may I ask you some things that I might not dare to ask anyone else, while we are both in this outspoken and candidly honest mood, and without serious barriers between us?”

“That sounds dangerous, Annis. For me. Have we really come that far, you and I?” He answered his own question. “Yes, we have, haven’t we, and in such a short time. So I am not to be shown the door as I began to fear, but am to be asked questions that you dare not ask another one. What things might you dare to ask, I wonder? I am now nervous. I heard you have that reputation of not sidestepping controversial and sometimes risqué discussion. Perhaps I am unlikely to cause you more disturbed feelings than I already did, or you me, but I would not care to gamble on that. You are also outspoken and have more force of character; more than almost any woman I have come across, perhaps including my own sister who is notorious for her ability to speak out, and even in earthy matters when needed. Your mother warned me. Did you once really engage in political argument on an earlier visit with the younger Thackeray as your mother said?” He was trying to sidetrack her from what she had seemed all too ready to ask. He wished she had not seen that dreadful watch.

“Yes, I did. My father told me that if I wanted to find anything out, I must be direct and ask without any round-about-ness. Thackeray was the wrong one to enter into a discussion with, however, as he regarded all women as needing to find their subservient place in their primping and preening, their crocheting and flower arrangements, their idle drawing room gossiping, and other less intellectual pastimes, and sticking in it, and he told me so. He said that to hide the obvious fact that he did not know anything about the subject I wished to open, for he seemed woefully uninformed, and it was obvious to us both. I told him so. He was severely discomposed by that, and he was gone the next day when Father insisted he leave after he had been tempted to wander more than he should. I don’t think that you are that way, for you listen politely to my mother and even patiently to Charlotte and Sophia and never seem to disagree with them or any of us.”

“Perhaps I am more cautious about laying my ignorance out before others. I am sure your father did not expect you to argue politics with someone you did not know well.”

“No, he did not. But he and I did from time to time. Not so much argue, as discuss. He did not ridicule or put me down for anything I said, or interrupt to correct me or try to shut me up as other men might. He listened politely and seemed to value what I had to say. Of course, I was frequently wrong, but then so could he be.”

“As we all can be. As for being a polite and patient listener, I always was that. I found that I learned the most when I spoke the least. I was also less likely to reveal my often complete and utter ignorance of any subject.” The silence extended for a few moments.

“William?”

“Yes, my dear?” He responded before he had thought about it and even took her hand. She was obviously startled by his endearing words but did not remove her hand from his, or pull back.

“You are evading my attempt at an earlier question.”

“Yes. I am trying to. I am suddenly nervous for some reason. But I did not think that there was a question. I think I heard a statement. We have already made great progress—too much progress—in some ways. I would hate to jeopardize that hard-won ground if you throw more difficulties in my way, especially in discussing politics. I have had to maneuver over some rough ground already today.”

“I do not wish to discuss politics or military tactics with you but something else.”

“Yes, I was afraid of that.”

“Liar.”

“There.” He smiled at her new outspokenness. “That is more like the Annis I have come to know.”

He was pleased to see that she did not apologize for that deserved remark. “You were deliberately trying to avoid my questions. I have not encountered anything yet that might cause you to be afraid. Not even; especially not even, a naked young lady standing before you, whether it be me or even Sophia.”

“Sophia does not count. I did not and do not terrify her. Nor she me.” She looked at him, finding his comment to be quite strange. Why would he be terrified of a naked female? “Though she also asks some ferociously difficult questions and is quite capable of putting me to the blush.”

“Yes. She does that to me too at times, and I am her sister. I saw no embarrassment in you whatsoever at anything she asked you, even in front of the rest of us. How you could maintain your composure when she was striving so hard to show you every last one of her freckles…wherever they might be, so that you could confirm them and count them for her…? Well. Charlotte and I did not know where to put ourselves.”

“I know.’ He smiled as he recalled that. “It was delightful to watch you both blush and squirm, recalling where your own freckles might be at that moment.”

Yes, he had enjoyed that; she could see it now. She continued. “You may have been surprised and taken aback, even discomposed, but afraid? I do not think so. You were far too relaxed and assured.

“When you came in upon me earlier, I was not terrified. Well not much. Not for long. I was shocked. There is a big difference.” At least he had not been offended or disgusted with her at her lack of strong hysterical outrage and protest that she recognized would have been the expected response of almost any other young lady caught in such a situation by a gentleman. Though any other gentleman would also have immediately apologized profusely and left in acute embarrassment, and they both would have been assailed by shame and horror for long afterward at the probable repercussions. He did not display any such guilt or remorse over it and nor did she feel any either. His response had been entirely unexpected, but she soon recognized that it had not been threatening, and she had not been truly concerned for her safety beyond those first few seconds.

“Ouch. But I can assure you that I was neither relaxed nor at ease with the situation. Quite the opposite. But then why would I be embarrassed by Sophia, for she does that quite often when she insists that I get her ready for bed or dress her or bathe her, as I seem to be called upon to do quite often of late? I am amazed that I do not mind doing any of that either, but feel extremely privileged. She has not yet learned to be shy of me, which I find so charming. Now if only her sisters….”

Annis interrupted his thought. “All of which she insists upon shamelessly, the little wretch. It is not proper, but as no one will be likely to discuss it outside of this house, it does not count. But I was not speaking of Sophia, and you know it. I know that I should not ask…but I think that I may trust you to be honest with me as we seem to have accepted you as a valued part of this family, considering what you have done and risked for us. I think we may have gone beyond certain limitations in discussion as well as greater caution in behavior in some ways.”

He responded quite forcefully. “Oh no, we haven’t. Not as we might have. There are still behavioral limitations, but I think they took a severe drubbing when you dared to return my kiss and threw the moral responsibility for my actions back upon me as you did. Most clever of you to throw me into complete disarray, and to confound and disarm me in that way.” He watched her expression. “I am sorry. I interrupted you.”

“Yes.” She hesitated still to breach that subject she had started to ask. She took a deep breath.

“William?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you for coming to rescue us as you did and so calmly submitting to marrying Bella. Mama might have gone mad, without you coming to us. You did not see her before you arrived. She was frantic and almost hysterical. We would all have been depressed forever. We would have been overrun by the Thackerays and probably turned out on some legal nicety known only to lawyers of the kind that we seem to have trusted unwisely.”

She continued in a low voice, unable to mask her sadness. “For what it might mean to you, I think you and Bella would have been well suited. She would tolerate no nonsense, as our mother would not, once she knew what she wanted.” Her eyes had misted over. “What might have been? I shall not be cheated like that, for I think now that you would have been well suited together. Better to have loved and lost—yes, even in the lustful manner displayed on that watch, and even with all of its dangers to a woman—than never to have loved, in that case.”

“I think Shakespeare was referring to love, not lust as you say. That is again, a dangerous admission to make to such as I. But all of that was a statement of the circumstances again. I did not detect a question there. That is the second time you have probably thought better of asking me something.”

She blushed and looked at him. “When two people find that they seem to be suited to each other, must marriage enter into it?”

He laughed at her daring. “It should. But no. Not always, though it is often expected and prepared for. Sometimes, it cannot happen, where they are already married to others. But that is also dangerous ground to venture upon with the likes of me at this time.”

“Thomas and Molly are in love, and yet they do not marry. When they go off to the market together in the cart, they sit close together, and I have seen them hold hands. When he helps her down from her seat, they linger together, and even kissed once when they thought no one might see.”

“But you did.”

“Yes. We did. They had forgotten that we had ridden behind them in the cart into market that day. I think that what they have is a love worth having, and yet, I suspect—I know—that they are also warm for each other in that other way too, though they are difficult to encounter that way, for they know we…we saw them in the hay once, making love…they were so tender with each other and loving. I know we should not have watched, but we…we were curious, as well as shocked and quite over-awed by what we saw, and what they did.” She blushed at her daring admission of that. It was a difficult subject for her to confess. “Yet they are not married, though they have known each other for many years. They were like our parents, who certainly loved each other deeply, and yet, there seemed to be a lustful side to it all too, for there was a good deal of excitement and caressing, and gentle laughter.”

He felt privileged that she might already be comfortable enough in his presence to be able to relate such deeply personal and private things.

She continued, unaware of his thoughts. “You did not know Arabella even for a day. How would you know that she could be the one you might love in that way?”

“I didn’t. I couldn’t. I had never even met her. I knew nothing of her at all. I married her because it was necessary at the time to solve a greater problem that you all seemed to be facing.” He decided to be more expansive. “One hopes that between intelligent people of similar interests and aspirations, that love will follow on from their marriage if they do not know each other beforehand, as with some arranged marriages, but I do not think that that is love. It gets it all the wrong way around. Love should come first before marriage, though a general attraction generally precedes them both. But then had it seemed that she would live, such a step would not have been countenanced by either your mother or me without us getting to know each other better first. One has to wait and see if love might develop between the two of them after that first meeting. Sometimes it will, as it did with my sister and her husband before they were married, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

“And have you ever fallen in love and encountered…? I should not ask.”

“Yes, I have. But I refuse to disclose any more than that, and yes, you should not ask, for I am not sure I dare answer you any further so early…we are getting too close to some revelations of a personal nature.” He cast his eyes ceiling-ward and spoke under his breath. “As if the rest of what we were discussing was not of that kind. For it is.” He returned to the moment. “I am amazed at myself. But yes, my dear, love should prevail. It tends to be more lasting, whereas lust is of the moment and may be fleeting. At least that—a lasting love—is what one’s parents hope for their daughters. Love and marriage should come before any of that other, for children have a habit of sometimes appearing when one least wants them too.”

She listened attentively, recognizing that she had asked more than she should have done and had even risked him refusing to discuss any such thing with her, and even deciding—perhaps—that he should not stay in such an iniquitous situation where a young female dare to ask such shocking things. Yet he hadn’t refused to answer anything yet.

Quite unexpectedly, he continued along a similar vein. She had been quite candid with him in relating their observing Thomas and Molly. He decided that he should be at least equally candid. “Males are also given more freedom than females are. It is expected that a man should approach marriage with some experience of…of that other. With sons, it is expected, that as part of their male characteristics and baser impulses and instincts that they will, as they say, sow-their-wild-oats with some appropriate, and understanding, and obliging female, usually one who is older and wiser and who is not so particular or needful about protecting her sterling reputation. But such behavior must be conducted out of sight, far from society’s gaze and revelation and preferably without ones relatives or society finding out about it. All, in secret and in confidence. It is also expected that there will be no repercussions for the family, with distraught young ladies appearing at the door and with an infant in arms enquiring after their son. That would be quite embarrassing.”

“And did you?—sow your wild oats?”

“My, we are being inquisitive. And brave as well as foolhardy.” He took a deep breath. “Yes, I did. But there were no repercussions.”

“Can you tell me?”

He tried to look surprised and shocked at her question, though he obviously was neither. “What will you not dare to ask?”

“I am sorry. It is too much of me to expect to learn of that, but how else might I learn of…any of that if we do not observe, or if no one is prepared to tell me? And there is no one else that I might dare to ask now.”

“Yes. Personal questions like that, are best asked of a father or of a husband. However….” He took a deep breath as he considered how to deal with it. “You will certainly judge me ill, yet I will tell you, though I am not sure how I dare do so. He did know, but could not explain it to her just yet.

“My first encounter was with an accommodating, obliging, and precocious servant girl, who was a few years older than I—I was fourteen—and she was discreet about it, I am pleased to say, for we managed to hide it for a long time. Some years. In fact, I do not think my mother found out about it until it was all discovered at the end, though my sister knew. She seemed to know everything about me. And please let us leave it there, for it was a long time ago. I do not regret any of it, but others did judge me ill, though neither of us was harmed by it, and, as I said, there were no repercussions running around later. My mother still has her on her staff.”

“And were you in love with her?”

“No, I wasn’t.” He knew what was coming.

“So that was lust, and not love?”

“Yes. I suppose I must admit that, but it is not quite that bad. Youth is driven along by lust. Love, is a more mature experience. We were neither of us harmed by the experience. Quite the contrary I would say.”

She found his confessions interesting, and dared to ask more. “Did you first approach her, or did she you?”

He sensed she would not let it go until she knew it all. “She approached me. Cleverly too. I should say she deliberately tempted me, as a beautiful and well-developed young woman might, in seeming innocence. But she was far from innocent. She knew exactly what she was doing—as some women seem to know by instinct—where I didn’t. I was helping her to lift a heavy bucket of water from the well. She had on a loose-fitting dress, which she knew revealed quite a lot of her to this wide-eyed youth, as she leaned forward opposite me. I remember that she was smiling at me and was well aware of my focused attention into the front of her dress.” His eyes flickered for a moment to Annis’s low cut nightdress and smiled at what he saw. She noticed his look but did not feel discomforted or embarrassed by it, nor did she try to cover herself better – too late for that, but smiled at his attention to her.

“I was suddenly unnerved, and we spilt water on ourselves. I think she did it deliberately for she was behaving quite provocatively and laughing as well. She was quite concerned about that, fearing trouble from my mother—or so she said—and needed to see me dried off, and herself too. We went out of sight and she proceeded to undress me. Of course, it rapidly got out of hand, just as she intended, and we both undressed. That was our first excited and unrestrained encounter of many.”

“Like ferrets?”

He looked at her with some surprise. “Yes, like ferrets.”

“So she was the lustful one.”

“I wouldn’t say that. But not far from it. Yes. She was lustful, she knew what it was all about, where I was unsure, but it was a mutual feeling and I was more than ready and more than her match in that department, for I often sought her out if she did not seek me, which she often did. We soon learned how to go about it with the least notice being taken.”

“So it really was mutual?”

“Yes, it was. The standards expected of men are so different from those expected of women. I am sure that it all seems so hypocritical, for it is. Men always seem to believe that they should wed a virgin, whereas it is expected that a man will have had several escapades by the time he gets married. Settles him down, so they say.”

“Does it?”

What would she not dare to ask next? “No. It doesn’t.” He was emphatic about that. “It usually does quite the reverse if he is denied a continuing and fulfilling relationship of that kind. It tends to fire him up more than is good for anyone and makes him more conscious and alive, and even more aggressive to the fairer sex, not less.”

She blushed delightfully. “Oh dear. I fear I am not a lady, for ladies do not discuss such risqué subjects, do they?”

“No. They don’t. Nor do gentlemen respond to those kinds of question quite so openly. Nor do ladies tolerate such discussions or even instigate them. Usually, within the family setting, they do sometimes manage to discuss such things but only in private. As this is a family setting I think, and we do have privacy, we might be forgiven. But then you are still a lady, just as I think of myself as a gentleman, though I have different standards than others of that breed. You are just not as shy as others are and are the more interesting because of it.” He looked down at her and met her eyes. He smiled at her and continued with his thoughts. He resisted, with some difficulty, the impulse to kiss her.

“Do you not find it remarkable that though you and I, barely having known each other for something more than a week even, are having this exceptionally personal and risqué conversation as though we had known each other for years—our entire lives even? I am sure that if your mother were aware of it, she would be aghast and would show me the door, even unaware of my earlier dreadful behavior with you, and I would have to leave.”

“Perhaps. But she does not know of this, just as she will not find out the other.”

“Just as well. I would hate to think that we were being watched or overheard, though I have had the feeling for some time that I am being watched.”

She looked at him with an enigmatic smile. “You are. It is difficult to avoid being watched with Sophia and Charlotte about. And I have a reputation for not shying away from embarrassing topics as you now know. But I do not know who else I might ask, for I was too embarrassed to approach my father for those particularly burning questions I needed to have answered. Mama tries to tell us things from time to time but always avoids the more detailed and interesting aspects and necessary explanations.

She continued with the earlier topic. “And do you have those feelings and impulses? Yes, you obviously must, for you did confess them. Was that Deirdre, you were telling me about?”

He was surprised again. “How did you hear about her? I do not recall mentioning her name.” He chuckled nervously. “Elizabeth. What did she not tell you about me? Yes, that was Deirdre. I am surprised Elizabeth did not warn you never to be alone with me. It is not safe for me to be so close to an attractive and encouraging female that I find so disturbingly attractive.”

She blushed at the compliment. “I think I noticed. You seemed out of breath and flustered when you encountered me dishabille once you lost concern for my bruising, as you soon did, and were more interested in other things…in bathing and kissing me.”

“Was I? Yes, I was, wasn’t I? It seems to be part of our instinct and drive. A man, after a certain age, is always attracted to a beautiful young lady. I always seemed to be. I cannot suppress my feelings easily, though I try to control mine rather than have them control me, but the temptations are difficult to deny and fight off at times when the passions, temptations, and provocations are great.”

She fell silent for some moments. “Thank you. I think you answered my questions quite well.” She put her hand over his at that moment. “I think you might be a gentleman after all for dealing gently with me and my truly difficult questions. I think I found out what I needed to know. I also learned more about you than I think I deserve to know.”

He was not sure he liked the sound of that. “There, you see, I am working my way behind your defenses and am obviously succeeding in my devious purpose with you, while hiding my disreputable intentions from all of you. But I think that I should keep your mind and mine from dwelling on such unwholesome thoughts by reading to you.” He picked the open book from the bedside table and began to read from it.

She yawned. “You should sit up here, William.” She moved over to make room. “The light is not good there, for you are facing the window and the sun is low in the sky.”

“You are being daring, Annis, after our earlier adventure and after our far too revealing and detailed conversation concerning personal intimacies, lust, and love-making. However, I should point out that for me to do so would not be proper. You are in a becoming but insubstantial nightdress and have your reputation to protect from encroaching lustful males like me. I am possibly the most disreputable member of that clan. I have no such reputation to lose don’t forget, but you have. Besides, your mother or one of your sisters may come in and catch us.”

“Is that the only thing stopping you? Fear of being discovered reading to me up here beside me, as lightly dressed as I am? For I don’t think you give a fig about propriety or not shocking anyone.” Her voice dropped. “You have seen me in less, remember?” It was his turn to be discomforted. “You speak of reputation too easily William. Hang proper. I am discovering more about life and about myself at this moment than I might ever have known had you not arrived when you did, and upset our precarious world even more than it was. I know what I want of life, and I do not wish to be robbed prematurely of anything, as Bella was. Perhaps that was why I would not give up so easily on finding out those things that I asked. I really did need to know. I am also twenty-one years old and of age to make up my own mind and decide my own actions.” She looked far off as she internally analyzed those words and the thoughts that went with them. “Although that is frightening also, and perhaps I am frightening myself over some things I am learning about myself, and you. I would not want for you to despise me for not defending myself, my honor, better than…than I did earlier.”

“We already covered that. There is not the remotest possibility of that happening, my dear. Unfortunately, we are both vulnerable at this moment, it seems. Those are also not quite the sentiments that a lightly clad young lady should state so forcibly to a man she has invited to sit on her bed after the nature of the conversation we have just had. But I fear that you and they do not know me just yet, no matter how much they or you may think you do, so I must at least not try to prove their guardedly positive opinions of me to be devastatingly incorrect…if I can avoid it, when faced by so much temptation. Even after some years of being close together, some persons still do not really know each other as well as we seem to, even now.”

“That would be truly sad, I think.” She sighed. “With others, even a few days can achieve the same thing. Perhaps even a single glance as with Romeo and Juliet. Love and lust again.”

“That was a play and not about real people.”

“And yet it could have been, and possibly was. My mother is a real person. That is how she fell in love with my father.”

She patted the bed beside her. “You do not need to be shy, you know?” She was challenging him. Oh how their roles had been so suddenly reversed.

He left his chair beside the bed and clambered up beside her, leaning against the headboard. He was in his stocking feet. The light from the window, now more behind him, was better.

She leaned in against him. He picked up the book from the coverlet and began reading to her again.

After a few moments of listening to him read, she reached over and took his hand and then moved further under the covers, snuggling beside him, with his hand against her cheek. With her face pushing into the side of his leg and feeling his warmth, she closed her eyes.

He liked the newfound feeling of trust that she seemed to have in him, despite coming precariously close to losing it, but was not sure he was up to dealing with it as he knew he must. She suddenly knew too much about him, and far more than he should be comfortable with, but at the same time, he found that he was feeling contented. “Well, my fortune has risen in the world.”

She looked up at him. “Thank you for not leaving us when you might have, as I think I wanted at first with all that was going on and…that other…personal things. But that was before I knew you.”

He thought he might know about—that other—either the violent way he dealt with Thackeray, his revelations of his own weaknesses and failings, or his godmother’s likely cautioning of them all about his rakish exploits and execrable character. Perhaps all of them. “You do not know me at all, Annis. But I promise that none of you will ever regret my presence here. I probably should have left when I had the chance, considering the far too revealing conversation we have just had. The situation is far too dangerous in every way, especially for me—a confirmed bachelor, which I once was but no longer—and undoubtedly, for you too. But then I promised your father I would protect you and not desert you. Now what else did I foolishly promise him concerning my unrestrained behavior with his beautiful and vulnerable daughters?”

“My father? You did?” She was instantly attentive and looked up at him with suddenly bright eyes. “I did not know that. I wondered what he might have said or discussed with you, for Mama would not tell me with all that was going on. Thank you for telling me that. It makes so much difference if he trusted you. Now I do know that I can too.”

“Yes. I did make that promise. He may have trusted me, though I do not know why. Something about knowing my father, for he did not know me. You should still not trust me, however. I do know why you should not and so do you if you think about it. Unfortunately, I am likely to cause a good deal of trouble for everyone before I do leave.”

“You’ve already done that. But in what ways is the situation too dangerous and what trouble? Surely you do not mean the Thackerays still?”

“No. Hang the Thackerays. You have a new and bigger threat looming up over the horizon. I was speaking of me.”

Her mother had been impatient the same way, with her misunderstanding of the same subject just a short time earlier. He meant himself. Her mother had also meant William too.

He continued. “Did everything we discuss roll off you like water off a duck’s back? I am the one that is far too dangerous for all of you, for I am a confirmed rogue, a libertine, and a philanderer, if not worse, as I am sure our godmother let you all know, and am extremely violent, as you are now well aware. But only with other men, never with women. At least not on this side of the channel. But the temptations? I may not be able to survive them. Damn! I am too well known by all of you. I have a bad reputation to uphold, or they will drum me out of the club of disreputable scoundrels.”

“I thought it was the Rogues Club.”

“That one too. You are all interesting young ladies. Your mother too, and all of you far too trusting and vulnerable as I insinuate myself into your innermost sanctums. I didn’t realize such delights, being in the company of so many young women—to be trusted when I do not deserve to be trusted—might ever torment me or come my way as it did. I don’t think I will be able to leave so easily at all.” He sighed. “You know, I think there is only one of your bedrooms that I have not been in.”

She gently hit him on the leg.

“I think I feel as the rooster must feel—let loose in the hen house and not sure where to begin.”

She laughed at his metaphor. “You don’t fool me, sir. I don’t think you would take advantage of any of us quite so casually. Not now.”

There was no responding to that.

He had set her off again. “I was afraid that you had betrayed us not so long ago when I overheard you with the elder Thackeray. But you have had enough opportunity by now to have learned enough of us and to have usurped everything and put us all out several times over.”

“Yes, I know. But unfortunately, I listened to my conscience, which has been my constant and pestiferously-confining companion for the last few years. Besides, you now have my pistol and, unfortunately, I showed you how to use it. I needed to find out that it was not in reach before I put any foot too wrong. I must tread carefully and be more cautious and patient and strike when the opportunity is there or risk being shot or turned out of the house.”

“You did not do so—strike and take outrageous advantage of me—this afternoon after I became faint. I think a far better opportunity was there just a few minutes ago when I was so vulnerable, and everyone was out in the garden.”

“The opportunity may have been there, as you say, but I was not so far lost that I desired to commit complete destruction of myself, although I intended to take advantage of you at the inn, I would have done, except the Landlord recognized you, so I could not plead that my wife had fainted as I thought I might, and suggest that we needed a private room immediately.” He looked down at her and smiled. There was a strange look in his eyes.

“Outrageous. But you had no such intention.”

“Oh really? How do you know that?”

“I told you. I was not totally unconscious of what was happening or what you did. I could still hear what was said, and my thinking was clear enough.”

“So you were not totally unaware of what was happening? I thought you were. You gave no indication of being aware of anything.”

“No. I did not mind your kiss—that was not outrageous or passionate in a way to cause me any concern. You kissed me on the neck, if I recall. You were holding me tightly at the time, hence my bruises, and I think you had a worried look on your face. When I saw that, I trusted you, despite that minor liberty. I was concerned at first, of course, wondering if you might seek to be revenged upon me for my behavior of the previous day, and then, when I saw that revenge did not seem to be on your mind at that moment, I was mostly curious. You were at a loss for a short time. I did not shoot you then. Then just a few minutes ago…I am not sure what I felt, though I think I….”

“Better stop there, my dear. You trusted me. You were curious? Dangerous admissions, for they will almost certainly invite another similar trespass when the opportunity is presented, as it is now, I think, with me perched on your bed beside you. I can assure you, however, that if ever any such thing is considered, it will not be because of any thought of revenge. I am a poor specimen, I know, but I am not that poor. But your gun was trapped in your pocket at that moment against me, so I knew I was safe. My kiss at that moment was actually giving you notice of my future disreputable intentions toward you, including another kiss and others after that too, so be warned.”

“I have been warned, though you do that with Sophia and with Mother too.” She turned her face up toward him as though challenging him to kiss her. “I would not object at this moment, William.”

“But I would, and you should too. You should not tempt me so mercilessly. I am only a weak man when faced with such revealing opportunities. The kisses I give Sophia are brotherly protective kisses, and the one—just one kiss—I planted on the top of your mothers head was a comforting kiss. She needed to be held at the time. But you…there is a difference. You should not tempt me in this way, for you and I are about the same age, and I find you…I am no better than Samson confronted with his Delilah, and you should not behave like some siren temptress. The temptations are more than enough to bear most of the time for me, but I do not need to lose your trust in quite that way. I came too close to that as it was.”

She chuckled. “And now I know even more about you. I think it was providence that brought you to us. I don’t think any of us want you to leave now.”

“Then I shall stay, permanently, and you will never be rid of me, and serve you right. We shall set the countryside ablaze with rumors of riotous, licentious behavior and outrageously bawdy goings-on, even to eclipse those of the Regent and Byron combined. I shall resolve to behave worse than any Thackeray ever could. They will say worse of me than Lady Lamb ever said of Byron—that he was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Though I already do behave badly. But providence? Perhaps. When I first got your mother’s letter, I almost was gone in the other direction, for that was my first inclination, which I suppressed. For once, I ignored my instinct to run.”

He became thoughtful for a few moments. “I am glad of that. Though it seems that there were some powerful ladies working behind the scenes here to either see it would come about somehow, or would not. I am not sure either side succeeded quite as they intended. They certainly could not have known what my response would be. Nor I of myself.

“But where is your gun now? If it is not easily within reach, I may be tempted to ravish you.”

“It is nowhere within reach at this moment, William. I do think I would like that.” He felt her snuggle more deeply beside him and turn her face up, inviting a kiss.

He did not respond to that dangerous offer, but continued to read for a few minutes and then she piped up again.

“William”

“Yes, Annis.”

She sensed the trepidation in his voice, wondering what kind of shocking question she might now ask. “How is it that you can stay here with us as you have? Surely you must have a life somewhere else waiting for you?”

He was relieved to find the conversation taking a less embarrassing and threatening turn. “Yes, there is. But it has done without me for twenty-five years. It can continue that way.”

He read further, only to be interrupted yet again.

“William?” He stopped reading and waited. “Do you have any special woman in your life?”

He smiled. “Very searching questions. They seem to bubble to the surface every so often. You are courageous to ask them of me.”

“Well, I felt I had to be courageous somehow, and now was as good a time to continue as we started while you are still here and feeling as you do. I have never been able to ask such personal questions of anyone before without embarrassing both them and me, and not getting a suitable answer, and never a male like you. But I feel that I can ask you, and I am not sure why. I am sorry. I would like to know more about you.”

“I am sure that you will, and might very well regret it. But considering that I am thrown into the role of protector and stand-in for a brother, and I did marry your sister, then I would say that you do have the right to ask as you have done already, along with some risqué kind of questions. But I reserve the right not to answer. However, I shall answer you.” He took a deep breath. “About a special woman in my life? I had just two until a short while ago—my mother and my sister. Though I am not sure that I let my mother know it. I must remedy that. Then I had three—with your sister, whom I married. Now, after losing her, I find I have six of them, and all in the space of a few days. My cup do indeed runneth over, though there is a certain sadness to it too.”

“But is there any one of them more special than the rest? Oh. I should not be asking that, for Bella was that one, I think, even though you never did know her as we did, nor as a husband ought, might…of his wife.” Her words tailed off as she sensed she was getting out of her depth again.”

“Yes. She was special to me. She became that way when I married her, if for no other reason. You were going to tell me about her, remember?” He tried to nudge the conversation into safer directions.

“Yes, I was.” She moved herself up more beside him and pulled the covers around herself. “On the dresser there. Charlotte left me her drawings earlier. That is her latest book that she started about a year ago. Please bring them over, and I will show them to you. She will not mind.”

He sat beside her again, and she opened the large book as she showed them to him, and provided a description as she turned the pages. It was filled with drawings of her and her sisters, with Charlotte throwing in a self-portrait from time to time, showing off a new gown or bonnet, and she also inserted herself into group portraits that she drew from memory.

“She just needs to see something, look at it for a few seconds, and then she can reproduce it faithfully.”

“My sister too?” He saw Elizabeth drawn faithfully there.

“Oh yes. She spent many days and weeks with us while her husband John was with you. She was—is, very much in love.”

He looked sharply at her. With Elizabeth practically living here, no wonder her mother knew so much about him. But Annis’s mind was elsewhere. She continued. “She was great friends with Bella. When she was here, they were inseparable.” She turned a page. “Here is Bella just two months ago. She has a parasol and is in the garden with Mama.”

“The family resemblance is obvious. She was quite tall.”

“Almost as tall as you, William, but then so am I. She was happy on that particular day.”

She continued to turn the pages and continued to give descriptive explanations as each drawing came up. The last ones included some of him. He was sitting in the window embrasure downstairs writing in his journal. He had not noticed Charlotte observing him from across the hallway. She must have been sitting at the table in the other room and watching him through the doorway from the shadows.

Another was of him sleeping and must have been done in the early morning before he was awake. He did not know how that might have been achieved for he was a light sleeper. There was also the cat on the foot of the bed, stretched out, and oblivious to it all.

 

“Oh. You are showing him Charlotte’s drawings.”

She looked up as William continued turning the pages. “Yes, Sophia, I am. How long have you been standing there watching? What did you overhear?”

“Only a minute or so. Charlotte said I should go and see that everything was all right, for you both had gone silent for far too long and your voices had dropped. She said that those were bad signs and dangerous. She also said that when the children go quiet, they must be up to something. But you are not children, and I do not see why she said that, for you all tell me often enough that silence is golden, not dangerous.”

“It depends upon the reason for the silence.”

“Oh. But I do not understand.”

“As it was Charlotte that sent you up here to spy on us, and you have now seen that we are not up to any kind of mischief, you should ask Charlotte, when you go to report on us.”

They both laughed as she went off downstairs again.

“See. Even my own sisters keep an eye on us. I hope she did not overhear our earlier conversation.”

“Yes, for they—you—know all about me it seems.”

“Oh! You were not supposed to go quite that far in the book.” She seemed alarmed, and was blushing.

She took the book from him and closed it firmly.

He had fleetingly seen other risqué drawings, including one of him sitting in the copper bathtub. The one doing the drawing had obviously been behind the door leading up to the upper floor at that end of the house, and probably looking at him through gaps in the door that closed it off. He’d wondered about that. There were other candid and detailed drawings of him after that one. He would say nothing of those but decided that he should have listened more closely to Mrs. Barristow when she warned him that her daughters knew everything that was going on around the house. He would take better care over his bathing arrangements in future, considering that Sophia had even blundered in on him the last time and insisted on helping him get bathed, dried, and dressed just as he did with her, so he could not complain or hurt her feelings by suggesting that she should not be there. She had been entirely unperturbed and only mildly curious about his nakedness and other things she would undoubtedly ask about some other time. It seemed that nothing was secret from these ladies and that they knew far more of life and what went on between the sexes than one might assume.

“You are not such an ogre after all, are you? I don’t think you are a threat to any of us, as Thackeray would have been, and as I first feared.

“It depends who you listen to. I am biding my time for a better opportunity. Some think I am every bit as bad as it is possible to be.”

“Thank you for today. Had you not been there….”

He took her hand. “Then you would not have gone anywhere and certainly not so far afield as we did. I should not have done that, and you would not have come to grief quite so badly. So, you see, I am to blame for it all.”

“But then I would not have been kissed either.”

“I don’t know about that. The temptation is always there, even now. But then I would also have been robbed of….” He stopped his thoughts in their tracks. “But please do not broadcast it about that I did that, or others may clamor for a similar treatment.” He smiled at her. “But then Sophia may come in again if all goes too quiet, so I cannot oblige you at this particular moment.”

She yawned again, snuggled against his leg again still holding his hand, and seemed to fall asleep almost immediately. He took the opportunity to turn the pages of the sketch book and took in many more of the drawings she had been loath for him to see. Many were of Annis herself, with others of him, and most of them were candid drawings that left little to the imagination. He smiled, closed the book and stood up gently, so as not to disturb her, and put the book back on the dresser. After straightening the covers up about her neck, he leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

The words he whispered in her ear were inaudible to anyone else, but she was almost asleep and obviously did not consciously hear them.

She mumbled something unintelligible and settled again.

He leaned over and this time kissed her on the lips, eliciting no response other than a deep sigh and a gentle turning of her head to make it easier for him. She seemed to want to linger over it, so he did, and then retreated quietly.

As he left, he saw Sophia go in and go to her, and then return.

“Too quiet again, eh?”

She nodded. She had been standing in the doorway and had seen him kiss her. “Mama says dinner will be late; not for another hour, so we can let her sleep ’till then.” She took his hand and led him downstairs.

“I will show you an Eskimo kiss after you have read to me and even a butterfly kiss too.”

“Oh. Good. Then I can practice them on everyone. I had better start with Captain Cat. He would like that I think, and it will be safer for me. He does not know my secrets, and he especially does not have my pistol.”

 

«Go back.