Friday, August 10th, 2018
They came downstairs after a few minutes with Annis’s arm tucked into his.
“I do not think that I have seen Sophia so talkative, so happy, or so sleepy and resisting it so hard, and all at the same time. Smuggling must agree with her. Mama will like the new stairs too. They don’t creak, and they are solid. I like the changes.”
They moved through into the parlor where the fire needed minor attention. “I think she was asleep before ever she hit the pillow. You will tell me what is going on—kidnapping, abduction, deception, seduction—won’t you William?” She looked up at him. “I am not aware of any of them.”
“Of course I will. I don’t think I mentioned seduction, though I think that I was the one that was seduced. Seduced, gently, yet firmly by your entire family, and you, even as I walked through your door.”
He helped her clear their dinner plates into the scullery, and then they both returned to the parlor where it was warm. They sat together on the window seat beside the fire and savored the wine that he poured for them. He held her hand and kissed her. She moved closer into him.
He looked at her with a knowing look on his face. “What. Now that I am all compliance with your goals…are there no complaints, no maidenly protestations, no resistance?”
“Too late. I stopped resisting you some time ago as you well know, and Ihave been the one trying to tempt you and lead you astray ever since. So I fail to see the reason why I have been abducted, and even with the help of my own sister. There seem to be too many allied against me for some reason and helping you achieve your dastardly purpose. Which was my own too eventually.” She blushed over that admission.
“But, William, how can I be abducted, as you say, if I am willingly here at my home, with my sister here, and all of the servants?” There were no other sounds in the house. “Well, they were here earlier, but now they seem to have disappeared again. No, William, I gave up some time ago being concerned about what others might think of us. I know now what is important for me, for us. I have not been afraid of you for a long time. I wasn’t afraid in the conservatory as you well know, but you decided to be a gentleman for some reason. If I am afraid, perhaps I am afraid of myself at this moment, and of turning you away from me. I find that I am almost a stranger to myself when I compare what I was just a few weeks ago with what I think now. I know it is expected that I should be protesting more, and being more defensive of my honor, but then it is far too late for that. I do not think that I have any honor to defend at this moment either, at least from you, considering what I have dared to admit to you and how far we have come.”
She hesitated for some moments before speaking further. “William?” He answered her by nudging his head into her neck. “Where are you to sleep tonight?” She looked at him coyly, feeling sure she knew the answer to that already.
“Ouch. Straight for the throat as usual. I thought we would negotiate that at this moment.”
“Negotiate? In what way? There is just the one bed made ready upstairs, apart from the one that Sophia is in. After what has happened between us, and what I intended to have happen even some time ago, I doubt that negotiation is necessary.”
“My, you are being rash to point that out. We shall, however, negotiate.” He looked into her eyes and saw that she was not certain what there might be to negotiate. She was here, was she not? They were alone. She was not protesting.
“But let us clear up a few small things first, my love.” He thought for a few moments as they clasped their hands tightly together, almost as if they were afraid of drifting apart from each other. “You noticed, of course, over the last few days, that Sophia was quite adamant about throwing us together.”
“How could I not notice?”
“And then Charlotte too. She approached me just a day or so ago and told me of those tarot cards.”
“Yes. Your mother seems to have learned of them too, but did not seem toodisturbed by what the cards themselves suggested had happened in error. She was happy the way things had turned out and seemed to be turning out. I may have married one daughter, but it was clear to her what was going to happen to another at my hands, eventually. Perhaps she knew it even before I knew it myself, though it had only taken me a few hours in your home to make that decision for myself, though I was not sure how to go about it and not lose all of you.”
“Yes. She would have been quite happy to have us ignoring all of the niceties of social behavior and behaving outrageously and openly with each other, married or not, and within just a few days of you walking across our threshold. They watched us in the parlor as I shaved you that time and made up their minds about what was happening between us. I hope they didn’t see everything you were doing to me. Mama seemed pleased at what was unfolding, whereas Charlotte seemed more reticent at first.”
He reached out and put his glass down on the table before he put his arm about her and pulled her closer into him. “Yes, I heard. By then, they knew what would soon happen between us, and so did I. But I became a stickler for detail and decided that some things must not be rushed. There was too much at stake. I enlisted your mother’s help in this little escapade when I gave her a better reason why you and I…could…. I’ll get into that, shortly. Sophia and Charlotte too were getting quite frustrated with us both from an early stage.”
“When my own sisters plot against me, as well as my mother, what could I do? With such an army to suggest what my inevitable fate was to be at your hands, and helping you achieve it, and even with my own compliance eventually, what was your difficulty? I gave up quite early on and would have thrown all caution and inhibition to the wind.”
“I noticed. I rapidly found thatout when we were in the conservatory. I am not sure how I survived that. But I soon discovered that I could not allow you to do that at that moment. No, my love, I was the difficulty. Me. Not you and not anyone else.” He smiled down at her. “Not at first, mind you, for the circumstance was challenging in the wrong way. So much grief. Such unexpected trust, at least from Sophia and your mother. Then I found that I had fallen in love with a young lady who seemed to find my presence unnecessary. I did not understand what was happening and so suddenly. Very confusing. But I knew even then, that I must tread carefully or risk losing everything I had suddenly come to value—a family that seemed to need me. My family now, with one very special person. You. What a recognition for the likes of me.”
She leaned into him. “You would not have lost anything, William. I knew what must happen between us. I knew what I wanted. I knew some days ago. I think I was losing my concern about what anyone might think of me that day when you blundered in upon me at Underby. I could sense how disturbed you were at that moment. I felt a strange sense of power over you after that, even though you were the one who had difficulty controlling yourself then.”
He kissed her on the neck. “You are right. How I controlled myself, I will never know, except that I knew I must neverlose your trust, no matter how close I came to doing just that, at that time. I recognized then, the kind of dilemma I was in. Whatever I did then, had to be acceptable to me, while I protected you from that other me, that everyone is convinced that I am.”
“What a strange thing to say, though I remember you saying such a thing earlier. But that is also confusing. I do not need protecting from you. You may need protecting from me.”
“I must beg to differ, my love. You did need protecting, and from me. So there was a dilemma.”
She looked up at him. “Are you really that much of a stickler for what is proper, William? You did not seem that way in the barn as you watched me as you did, and seemed to derive great enjoyment from it. Your reputation, according to our godmother, did not suggest any such diffidence. But then most of that was misperception on our godmother’s part. I shall be sure to tell her thatwhen I see her, and tell her how all of her attempts to blacken you backfired with myseduction of you. That, will shock her. But then yes, you are more proper than I expected from what I had heard of you, for you had opportunity enough to overpower me and ravish me, or worse, on several occasions now, and to overwhelm me without resistance from me at those times when my defenses were at their weakest.”
She paused and then admitted even more.
“Even without any resistance at all from me, when I recognized what had to be done to keep you with us. There were other selfish reasons of my own too. Yet you managed to resist the temptations. I began to wonder about myself, and what kind of antidote I might be.”
He laughed. “You are far from being an antidote, my love. Nor am I a stickler for morality, or likely to hold back from you, as you will soon discover. You were not an idle conquest. You deserved better than that and were far too important to me to behave…to behave as my instincts were driving me to do whenever I was alone with you. They still are.”
She sensed that, and even blushed with pleasure as he breathed into her neck. She appreciated that comment and liked the way he was looking at her. He had looked at her that way for a long time now, even before the fire.
“So there is hope for me yet, is there, William?”
He smiled at her comment and continued. “It was more difficult than that. As I said, I had fallen in love with you, as you have known for some time. But everything had to be done, and must be seen to be done properly. At least as properly as it might be arranged, though there were more than enough difficulties to overcome. I could not just marry one daughter, lose her along with her father one day, and then fall in love and seduce another immediately after and expect us to be married, as we so needed to do to maintain our sanity. Even I must draw the line somewhere. Where would it not stop if such a rogue were given such license? Marrying two daughters one after the other? Why stop there? Why not marry them all at the same time? The countryside would be ablaze with scandal.”
“I don’t think you care about scandal from what I know of you. But in some societies, a marriage such as that, means that all of the daughters in that family are married to that same man and can expect to share him as there may be a shortage of young men and an abundance of daughters. I would object to sharing you with my sisters in that way, though Sophia would not care.’ She blushed over what she was saying. “Oh, I hope no one can overhear me.”
“No, my love. Polygamy is not condoned in our society, even with a shortage of young men after that war. Even I would need to draw the line somewhere. But I am interested—in that deeply, and special emotional way—with only one of you. You.” He kissed her. “I was surprised and quite shocked to find that your sisters seemed intent on solving this little problem that lay between us, regardless of moral propriety. Once I knew of their unconventional feelings on the matter, as well as having seen some signs of your own determination, my own feelings soon began to work along in the same way. The plot we eventually hatched between us just a few days ago now, was quite clever I thought, and bypassed so many difficulties. Both Charlotte and I had been thinking along similar lines before that, as we soon found out, though Sophia had anticipated us by some time.” He continued explaining it to her.
“Charlotte bearded me in my library two days ago when I was approaching my wits end, for I knew what you intended for me, and you even had me cornered.” She glanced up in some surprise at his face. He was smiling at her. He had known. “She showed me those cards and told me what I must do. She was all for my marrying you out of hand in France, or even not marrying you at all, and I must admit, that there were some appealing features to both of those plans to a rake like me, but it would not do.
“After some discussion and clarification of the underlying circumstances, we eventually hit upon a better idea that was acceptable to all, me included, and prepared for it well. You would be presented with a desperate situation in which Sophia would need to be rescued from being aboard a vessel that was about to become the focus of revenue agents and could be sunk. Irresistible. Elizabeth was conscripted too, and I persuaded her to dig out some of my older clothing that might fit you, and then Charlotte and your mother and Sophia helped with getting some of the better fitting and loose clothing organized for you with Charlotte as a model. You were out of the way of course. What a woman—women—cannot achieve in an hour or two with a sharp blade and needle and thread. We even got a fine cap for you. Alas, it was still far too obvious that you were a woman when I saw you at the inn, but I did not care. No one else was fooled either. Not for a second. I am surprised you did not notice the grins on the faces of all of those sailors as they tried to avoid us.”
He kissed her for a few moments. “In truth, I found that I would like you to go riding with me dressed just like that anytime you would like to. I am sure we can get up to considerable mischief with each other when we get far enough away from everyone.”
He blushed and cleared his throat as he recollected where he was, and what they were doing there. She laughed at his momentary lapse. She liked that idea too, and would remind him of it. He dragged his mind back from that other fantasy and into the present tale. “Sophia was the crucial part of the plot. She met me out of sight down the driveway, so she was not in the box, and I therefore did not lie to you that time. Once we got to the dock, she waited aboard the Seamew with Joe for you to appear, and he told her some interesting tales of sailing and pirates and smuggling, and the rest of us waited in the inn for you to join us. We cut it pretty fine, but we were not going to leave without you if we could avoid it.”
“So everyone was in on the plot? Even the landlord and that boy?”
“Yes. Everyone. The lad almost could not contain his surprise at seeing a young lady—a very obvious young lady, and well endowed as you are I might add, dressed as a youth and filling out my old clothes in ways no youth ever might. When he came bumbling and stuttering in as he did, we almost could not contain our laughter, so the innkeeper himself had to see for himself. He was no better. If he looks at you strangely next time you are at the dock with me, thatwill be the reason, my dear.”
“Oh dear, and I thought my disguise was quite good until you appeared, and then I was quite embarrassed to see you looking at me in the same intent way in those clothes, as you did when I was entirely without clothing. I did not think I was so revealingly dressed.” She blushed and hid her face in his shoulder for a few moments.
He smiled charmingly. “There are some things that cannot be hidden, my dear.”
“But you did not need to do any of that plotting to kidnap me, William. It was already convinced of what was to happen between us; of what musthappen, as soon as I could persuade you of it, and I could see that you were already coming to that same conclusion yourself.” She blushed again at that admission. “But what a dreadfully forward thing for a young lady to admit. In any case, we did not marry in France as you and Charlotte intended. I find I do not care anyway. You didn’t need to abduct me, you know? I told you I would have been a willing conspirator.”
“I know. But it is all more complicated than I think you know just yet. I really did need to abduct you and to change the scenery and the setting and even adjust the perception of what had happened. Your perception.”
“It sounds needlessly complicated, William.”
“So you already said. But it isn’t. It is all so simple. You will see. As for misleading you as I did, leading to your being abducted, you seemed to have preferred things unfolding the other way, and might not easily have come with me if I had not been so devious.”
“I would have done. All you had to do was ask me. I would have been a willing participant in whatever you suggested by then—shamelessly so, for I would have found some way to have caught you alone. Whither thou go-est, there will I follow.” She sighed at other memories. She took his hand. “I knew we could not wait a year to mourn Bella. You might have been able to, but I found that I could not. I also could not risk you leaving us, me, so I needed to fix your interest in me. I saw much earlier than that, that if you were not going to make the first step, out of fear of hurting my feelings or because of social disapproval, then I must do so for myself and damn the consequences. I knew you would never be able to leave us after that. Sophia could see what was needed much earlier than that, though I was still resisting, for I was concerned how you might respond, and that if I was too bold, I might turn you from me.”
“No fear of that, my love. I was too excited for my own good or yours. I saw the changes in you and your behavior toward me. Most brave of you. But that was the problem. I had to hold you off from doing any such thing.”
“Why?” She had a puzzled look on her face. “I thought if any woman were a perpetrator in such a morally abandoned scheme, by giving herself willingly into the hands of a man, that the man would be quite helpless to resist his own impulses.”
“Yes. You were right about that. I had a devil of a job to keep away from you in that way. I knew that I would not to be able to hold you off for much longer. You can be seductively persuasive, damnably tormenting in fact, and were becoming more focused and reckless by the minute, and my resolve was weakening by the day. I am surprised I could hold you at bay at all when I discovered how easy you wanted to make your seduction for me that night in the conservatory. Then that following night too when you waited for me to return, and in my own bed. That was why I stayed in the library when I returned. I suspected what you were up to. I hope you did not leave any of your long hair on my pillow to alert the maid, or it will be all about the house by now. Our godmother may even know of it.”
Annis recognized she had been found out but could say nothing. He did not seem to mind her doing that outrageous thing, for he still smiled kindly upon her. “But then Sophia….” He hesitated and then continued. “I should confess to you that Sophia was too forthcoming about that conservatory episode. I learned that it was not her idea at all when I cornered her afterward after I had seen her sneak from that bed when she thought we both were asleep and unlocked the house door herself. She eventually confessed that it had been your idea that she would lock us out there all night, and not hers. You can have no idea how utterly bemused, and then happy I was to hear that.”
She blushed profusely, having been found out. “Then you know too much already, William. I have no doubt you will be even more shocked to learn that we had agreed, Sophia and I, that she would not be there with us but would be back in her own bed by then. But she found that she was too excited about it all and rebelled at the last minute and decided to stay and supervise us and see firsthand what we might get up to as lovers.”
William laughed gently. “I guessed as much. But then I did manage to survive that plan. But only just, and despite the temptations laid out before me that night. I have difficulty believing some of it even now. I was resolved by then that everything we did together had to be entirely above board, convincing, and believable for me and for everyone else too by then. I think even for you too.”
“Why? Surely it is too late for that?”
“I have my reasons. They are selfish, as you will soon discover.”
“But, Sir, my abduction and being on board the Seamew with you for almost two days and a night, and being here alone with you now is not exactly above board as you say. Not after the barn incident and the conservatory episode and that other. I think I have been ruined, and I do not care in the slightest.” She even smiled as she admitted that.
“It might appear that way.”
“It certainly does appear that way, William. I am ruined, and I do not care. I shall broadcast if from the rooftops. I shall write a letter to our godmother confessing all. She will know what to do with it. Weight of opinion of everyone around us will ensure that you must marry me now, you know? If you would like to. Eventually.” She noticed that he had a strangely inscrutable look on his face. “But I still do not wish to wait so long, and I will not, so you may as well drop this notion of being above board.” He was now smiling at her in amusement.
“William, why are you smiling like that? For a confessed stickler about this, you are not objecting strenuously to my being so forward and so willing to throw my compromised reputation away so easily. Yet I am. For if you expect me to wait out some mourning period before anything might take place between us in the way that Sophia and I fully intended—except she does not understand, at least I hope not, what any of that means—then I shall behave so outrageously and openly toward you and in full view of everyone that you will be unable to survive. If you think Sophia is the only one who might parade about without…. I will certainly shock you.”
“No, my dear.” He pulled her closer as he smiled into her eyes. “I would like you to do so when we are alone together. I am no longer objecting. We are here alone, are we not? But your reputation is still safe. You are not throwing it away.” He reached across to the table and retrieved some cards from the inner cover of the book lying there. “You know what these are, of course.”
“Yes.” She frowned. “Those tarot cards that we made up and that caused all of this confusion and frustration. I thought I had got rid of those.”
“I think I see them differently. They helped make it happen exactly as it should.”
“They did?” She was surprised.
“Oh yes. You shall soon see for yourself the delicious twists and turns that they inadvertently caused. It is amazing what leads us astray, isn’t it? Here I had married Arabella when, as these cards say, I should have married you, and yet no one knew of it until after it had all unfolded as it did.”
“A tragedy worthy of Shakespeare. That is how I began to see it.”
“I know. I’ve heard it described that way several times now. There was I, struggling to decide how I was to deal with it all. Then we had our little conversation in my study that day, the day when you approached me and had me explain our godmother’s letter detailing all of my faults. A lot seemed to rest upon my answering satisfactorily. I do hope you were not expecting too vehement a denial of any of it?”
“I had hoped. But then your explanation was so much better than any simple denial, for there was a simple explanation and reason for all of it; as bad as it all really was. You could not help what happened. You recovered all of the ground you might have lost in that one interview. But afterward, after your confession, I said more than I intended to.”
“You did? Oh. You had confessed it all so well, and now Iwas the one feeling guilty, for those cards were weighing heavily upon me. I was not sure how I might dare to explain to you what the mix-up had been and how dreadfully I felt it. You would never have forgiven us, for we had fallen in love with each other by then and were to be denied full expression of it. What a turmoil.”
“After my unexpected confessions about that letter, my love, you were left struggling with your own burden then, for you spoke of deception and in a personal way. You seemed to feel worse over that, than I felt over confessing my iniquities. Yes, those cards were nagging at you, but it was not those cards that weighed you down the most at that moment. It was a greater deception.”
She said nothing, so he continued.
“Your mother and Charlotte—well, Charlotte anyway, not your mother so much—were quite stricken with horror when they discovered the error that had been made in those cards. Sophia didn’t care about any of that mere detail. She was intent on a more practical resolution—throwing us together in every compromising way she could think of. I have discovered that Sophia is a clever young lady, to be able to manipulate that circumstance as she did with the barn, the kitten, and you, thrown to the wolf—me. Then to help as she did even in this iniquitous escapade. The kitten in the barn was inventive. I did not know how she had managed that until later of course, though she did get some help from Charlotte. But it did not work out just as she had planned, for we did not wind up in the hay and in each other’s arms, as Thomas and Molly seem to do, but were outside of the building.
“Then there was that thunderstorm, and her deliberately locking us all out of the house according to your plan. I cannot level an accusation of being devious against you, though you are, for I am just as devious myself. I am not sure just what was expected of me then, with Sophia keeping close watch upon us both. Had she not been there, then I am sure it might have gone differently.”
“Yes. I am sure she quite soured the mood for you until she went asleep, and we were then free to learn about each other in a romantic and tender way, and we did, but then you fell asleep too. How unromantic of you, William. I began to despair.”
He smiled at her and filled her wine glass again. “I think it must have been a sudden conversion for you my love, for I did not see any absence of those barriers in the barn. You protested loudly enough when you were on that beam above me in the barn, with me staring up at you as I did and thoroughly entranced. Almost as exciting as when I blundered in upon you bathing.”
She hid her face in his shoulder as she blushed over that memory. “I thought others might come in and see me that way, as ill-covered as I was.”
“Oh, is that all. I wish I had known that.”
“The conservatory was more private. I did not make a fuss then, did I?”
“No. You did not make any fuss at all, for you snuggled up close to me warmly and carelessly, and we talked extensively in front of that stove, and you were even in my arms for most of the night. We even kissed passionately too—many times and sometimes for quite a long time—as we have been doing more frequently now, I am glad to say. I was left at times breathlessly wondering, when you adjusted your position with me, whether you were in your nightdress and trying to slip out of it or were actually out of it and trying to get it on again. I found great courage and took small advantage of you at that moment and kissed you upon the top of your breasts.” He looked at her with a smile on his face.
“That, was almost the undoing of us both. But Sophia was wide awake and watching us the entire time, so I could not explore that circumstance as I would have liked.”
“Yes, unfortunately she was awake wasn’t she? Until later. But by then, you had also gone to sleep and left me alone with my turbulent thoughts and my own frustrated feelings to deal with. I thought we had agreed, Sophia and I, that after she had persuaded you to see to the horses and had locked us both out of the house to find each other, that she would then go back to bed and then let us both in again in the morning. She was not supposed to be there at all. I had great plans for you. But, no matter. I knew she would soon be dead to the world, but I did not expect that youwould be too. You will have to give up these late nights and smuggling, William, if it is going to cause you to neglect me like that. If you expect to seduce me after that degree of neglect I will make you work for it. Yes, I did spend almost that entire night with you, didn’t I? and with never a word of complaint or protest out of me about any of it.”
“Never a complaint. Though we did have a chaperone for some of it.”
“Yes, we did. While you slept, I made up my mind about a lot of things, and about you, and what would be your fate. I made up the fire and hung my nightdress up to dry and then climbed in with Sophia. So, William. Are those confessions of my outrageous behavior making this unnecessary negotiation any more palatable to you?”
“Almost. We are getting there, my love. There is just one more part to all of this.”
She waited for him to speak.
“I need you to tell me something, my dear. Now this part may be difficult for you, but I can promise you that you will accept it happily, and soon.”
“I will tell you anything now. You know that.”
He looked at her with that inevitable, knowing smile on his face and asked a question she could never have anticipated.
“Who did I marry?”