Sara woke up that night, moonlight peering in through the bed curtains. She sat up quickly, the ants in her throat. Beside her, Nathan continued to sleep on his back, snoring softly. His arm was stretched out, acting with his shoulder to provide her a pillow.
Careful not to disturb him, she shifted off the bed and wrapped her robe around her. He had divested her of her shift even before they had climbed into bed and did not give her an opportunity to regain it after thoroughly pleasuring her, in compliance with the list. Having covered her nakedness, she escaped through her dressing room and into the bathing chamber.
The tiles reflected in the candle light, once her trembling hands had lit the small candelabra. The ants increased their presence, blocking her throat and compressing her chest. Two whole glorious days had passed without an incident but now the noose was back with cruel enthusiasm.
She despised it, gasping for breath and trying to count in her head.
Flashes of her dream resonated in her head. Her mother, screaming flaming vitriol at her, condemning her as a harlot, consigning her to hell. Her face mottled with rage, she refused to accept Sara’s apologies or explanations, denied any amount of forgiveness or understanding. Filth! Whore! Devil’s harlot! Each insult lashed against her back. Her father turned away, unable to help her.
“No,” Sara croaked. The lack of air was making her light headed and dizzy. In two three four, out two three four. Her legs shaking, she sank to the floor and knelt on the cold tile. “I’m not like that.”
Her body bent over, her hands bracing her on the floor as she struggled to breathe. She refused to feel shame for having such a wonderful time at Cloverfields. Never had she felt like this; Nathan was not ridiculing her life but rather encouraging her to explore it. Even though she had clung to Ares—a misleading name for such a patient horse—and would not spur him into even a slow walk, Nathan had just stood beside her and soothed her. Liam was just as patient, holding the horse’s halter as she panicked.
Later, as they stargazed by lying on a blanket in a field, Nathan wove story after story of all the constellations, giving her a glimpse of the eloquence that must have served him well on the floor of Parliament.
What was sinful about these things? Knowing how to ride a horse was practical. And the stories of the constellations? Sara had no difficulty understanding that they were myths the ancients used in their limited understanding to explain the stars.
How dare you contradict your mother!
In two three four, out two three four. The noose wasn’t going away.
And it never will if you continue to insist on behaving like such a demon spawn.
No that was not true. It would go away. It always went away.
Not this time, girl. It will do its work and you will burn for eternity. Don’t cry to me for help; you brought this upon yourself.
Oh dear heavens. Was this true? Did she deserve the noose? In two three four, out two three four.
Was her behavior truly the source of her misery? She debated calling out for Nathan for help, but decided against it.
She did not want him to see her like this. Not again.
Struggling, Sara pushed herself up into the proper kneeling position. In two three four, out two three four. Pressing her hands together and bowing her head, she began to quietly recite the Psalms in between her attempts at breathing.
In two three four, out two three four.
Slowly, her breathing eased.
Nathan woke alone in the bed again. He sincerely hoped that this would not become a habit of hers, preferring the way they woke yesterday. Cracking open an eye, he saw both the bed curtains and window curtains were open and that the sun was just peaking over the tree line, indicating a new dawn. In the faint light, he saw Sara sitting on one of the sofas at the window.
A smile tugged at his lips and he rose from the bed, walking over to her in all of his naked glory.
Coming up behind her, he gave her shoulders a gentle squeeze and pressed a kiss just below where her jaw met her neck. “Good morning,” he murmured.
“Good morning,” she responded, her reply sounding automatic.
“Come back to bed. It is much too early to be contemplating the day.”
“If it is no bother, I would rather not.”
Nathan straightened, a frown on his face. This was not the Sara from yesterday, but rather the one he had met weeks ago. “Are you cold?” he asked, doubting she was with her robe tied up so tightly.
He moved around the sofa to sit beside her. He saw her eyes glance at him and widen at his nudity before averting to look out the window again. Instead of the expected blush, however, her face paled.
“Please,” she whispered, “could you cover yourself up?”
“No,” he replied. “There is nothing wrong with nudity. It is the way we are made.”
Her head bowed and she looked at her hands clasped in her lap. Nathan gazed at her red hair, made even more unruly from sleep, the dark circles under her eyes, the way she chewed her lower lip and wrung her hands. Something was definitely bothering her. “How long have you been awake?”
“A couple of hours, I think.”
“Did you not sleep well?”
She shook her head. Nathan reached over to cover her hands. “Come back to bed. I will help you get back to sleep.”
She shook her head again in refusal, pulling her hands out from underneath his.
He frowned. He could not understand why she was being so resistant to his help. “What is wrong, Nymph?”
Another shake of her head. “Nothing.”
“I will have to disagree with that statement,” he said, his voice holding a slight edge.
“Please, don’t be angry,” she whispered.
“Sara,” he began, but heard the bite remaining in his tone. He took a deep breath and ran his hand through his hair. He knelt before her. “Sara,” he started again, taking her hands once more. His arms moved her robe and the material shifted to reveal her bare knees. A primal thrill shot through his veins at the knowledge that she was naked underneath her robe, a thrill that died quickly when he saw the discolorations on them.
He reached for her knees. “What happened?” he asked, concern erasing everything else.
She brushed his hands away and covered her knees again. “Nothing.” She did not look up at him.
“Did this happen yesterday while riding? I didn’t see you fall or do anything that might have caused these.”
“They are nothing,” she repeated.
“Was it something I did? Did I hurt you?”
“How did you get these bruises?”
“It is nothing, please.”
“Sara,” he struggled to keep his voice even. “Tell me.”
She remained silent, but her brow furrowed and she pressed her lips together, obviously thinking. She took a deep breath. “They are from the floor of the bathing room.”
“Did you fall?”
“Something like that.”
“Are you hurt more severely? I shall send for the doctor.”
She shook her head. “No, that is not necessary. I am fine.”
He looked at her, his patience wearing thin. “How did you get these bruises?”
“I—I was kneeling. Praying.”
“You must have been praying for some time to get these bruises.”
“Yes.” Her voice was a whisper.
“Why were you praying so hard?”
“It—um, it was necessary.”
“Because of what we have been doing?”
Nathan pursed his lips together. “But was it necessary to harm yourself?”
“Penance requires sacrifice.”
“To the extent of physical injury? That does not seem in accordance with a forgiving, loving God.”
“Penance requires sacrifice,” she repeated more quietly. How she made her voice that quiet, he did not know.
He furrowed his brow. “Who told you that? Was it your father?”
She shook her head.
“Another vicar? Or a bishop?” Dread was rising up in him. Nathan was beginning to see deeper implications in her behavior and it sickened him. To think someone had taken advantage of her to the extent that she was still suffering from it. If he ever got his hands on the man who—
Nathan sat back on his heels. “I beg your pardon?”
“My mother is the one who told me that. She was very concerned about the state of my soul.”
“She made you do this to yourself? Frequently?”
“Whenever I did something sinful. It was one of the penances she would have us do.”
“One of? No, don’t answer that.” Nathan stood. “Tell me exactly how long you were praying tonight?”
“Please, could you cover up?” She kept her gaze down.
“No. How long?” His voice was firm.
“Um, two hours I think. Maybe longer.”
“Christ, Sara.” He raked a hand through his hair. He looked down at her, taking in again the dark circles under her eyes and her pale face. “You must be exhausted.”
“I am fine.”
“No you’re not.” Nathan grasped her hand and led her over to the bed. He began to untie her robe. “Come, you are going to sleep and then we will discuss this further.”
“No,” she protested, holding the robe to her chest.
“You cannot sleep in this. You will strangle yourself.” He pushed the garment off and helped her settle on the bed. Tucking her under the covers, he closed the bed curtains around her and then climbed in to lie beside her.
“All I’m going to do, Nymph,” he said, nestling in behind her in spoon-like fashion, “is hold you. This will benefit both of us.” His voice softened. “I can ask if Mrs. Taggert has a sleeping powder, if you like.”
“No, thank you.” Sara held herself stiffly for several minutes, but Nathan felt her body relax as she finally succumbed to his comforting embrace and drifted to sleep. Kissing her shoulder, he did just as he promised and held her close.
“Mrs. Taggert must think me a slothful woman.” Sara sipped the tea Nathan had prepared for her. She sat cross-legged at the head of the bed while he sat at the foot.
“She is not paid to pass judgment on you.”
“I have not done anything productive this week. Haven’t even asked to inspect the house, as I would if I were indeed your wife.”
Nathan shrugged. “Wedding trip. We have other things on our minds.” The look on his face gave her little doubt as to what other things he was referring to. He wrapped a hand around her closest ankle. “How are your knees?”
Sara looked down at the cold compresses that had since warmed from her knees. “They are fine. They were fine before.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
She frowned. “How can you be the judge of my body?”
Another lascivious smile pulled on his mouth. “Believe you me, I am a fine judge of your body.”
A blush tinged her cheeks. “You are deliberately misunderstanding me.”
“Yes.” He drained his tea.
Sara blinked. The man had a talent for blunt honesty. It was odd how she appreciated it, found it charming, in fact. She could always trust him to not shield her from socially unacceptable thoughts and ideas. “Why?”
He stared at his thumb making slow circles around her ankle. “I thought you would appreciate the avoidance of another topic.”
She looked down into her own teacup, unable to respond.
“Would you like me to send word to Liam to saddle Ares?”
Sara shook her head. He was being more solicitous than usual and it made her uncomfortable. She had come to depend on his curt demeanor and frank appraisals. It helped keep herself grounded in reality in regards to their arrangement.
“Where is your list of Adventures Yet To Be Had then? We can see what else we can do today.” He rose from the bed.
“It’s still downstairs in the drawing room.”
“I’ll fetch it.”
“You are only in your robe!” she protested as he moved toward the door.
He paused, hand on the knob. “Sara, this is my house. I am able to walk around it in any state I choose. Don’t move.”
She watched in disbelief as he disappeared. She strained her ears for any sounds of shock. None came. Perhaps he simply did not encounter any of the Taggerts or his valet. Strange, now that she thought upon it; she had not seen his valet since the day they arrived. She wondered if Nathan had sent him away. In fact, Liam and Mrs. Taggert were the only ones she had seen. Surely he would not have sent away Mr. Taggert, his steward, as well?
The door swung open again and Nathan returned. He closed the door and settled himself beside her on the bed.
Sara leaned forward, taking the now useless compresses off her knees and putting them on the floor. “Where are Sawyer and Mr. Taggert?”
“Hm?” He didn’t look up from his reading. “I sent Sawyer back to Windent Hall to give the impression that I am still there. Mr. Taggert is likely somewhere on the estate. He is not often in the house. Do you have need of him?” He glanced up at Sara.
She sat back. He sent his valet back to give the impression that he is still in residence? The man was thorough in his deception. “No. I was just curious.”
Nathan waved the list between them. “If I might make a suggestion as to our agenda today, this would be a nice day for swimming. Mrs. Taggert could prepare a basket and we make an afternoon of it.”
Sara gave a sad smile. “I don’t have enough dresses to warrant using one for swimming.”
“Swimming in a dress is dangerous if you don’t already know how to; it would only weigh you down. The lake is not deep, but I would not risk your safety. Swim in your shift.”
“What?” Be outside, in only her undergarments, where anyone might come upon them?
His mouth tilted in that stomach fluttering grin of his. “I will swim in my smalls, you in your shift. Unless you would prefer to swim with nothing on.” He wiggled his eyebrows.
She shook her head. “Learning to swim is a bad idea. Can we take it off the list?”
He pretended to think about it. “No.”
“Why do you want it off the list?”
“What you are suggesting is highly inappropriate.”
“I am sure there are multitudes of women who swim in their shifts.”
“I am not one of them. To disrobe myself in public would be to invite temptation for men. I will not be the cause of any man’s sin.”
“Nymph, you don’t have to be naked to be a temptation. You just are.”
Well, if that didn’t shoot a thrill through her. Sara suppressed it. “I will not intentionally lead a man astray.”
“Answer me this, why did you want to learn in the first place? You said it was the thing you wanted to do most.”
“I—I don’t know.”
“Yes you do. Tell me.”
Nathan could see the debate on her face. A faint crease appeared between her eyes as she furrowed her brow and she bit her bottom lip. Would she tell him or not?
“Adam was very rebellious,” she finally said.
“Your brother in the Navy?”
She nodded. “I have only the one sibling. There was a river that ran through the town. We weren’t allowed to swim in it. My mother said it was a dangerous activity as well as indecent to bare our bodies in public. She also objected to us unnecessarily associating with the village children. She believed we were to be examples to them of proper Christian children, not their friends.”
Nathan felt his dislike of the dead woman fester.
“But that didn’t stop Adam. He would have terrible rows with her until he was old enough to simply ignore her.”
“What did your father do?”
“He wrote his sermons and attended to the parish. He left the domestic decisions to our mother. He would often be called away at a moment’s notice.”
“Adam would go swimming?”
“It was one of the things he would do. I remember he would return on a hot summer’s afternoon all wet from being in the river. I wished fervently that I could do the same, but knew I could not. My mother did not want to risk her daughter; she had already lost her son, she said, she did not want to lose me either.”
“Hm. It seems to me that swimming is only dangerous if you do not know how to do it. Your mother did you a disservice and actually put you more at risk in the water.”
She stared at him. “That is not true.”
He held her gaze. “I think it is. What if you ever had to go on a boat and something happened? If you do not know how to swim, you will drown. Knowing may not necessarily save you, but it will increase your odds of survival.”
“Oh, I will never have cause to be on a boat of any sort.”
“Well, because—I just won’t.”
Nathan chuckled. “So much for being adventurous. How do you think to find adventure if you won’t even get onto a boat?”
Sara bristled at that. “I hardly think that can be equated with adventure. As you pointed out, adventure can come in many forms. Such as trying new things.”
He leaned toward her. “And wouldn’t swimming and then later getting on a boat be new things?”
She had no answer for that.
“So swimming this afternoon?”
Sara stared at him. Nathan had that boyish look on his face. She couldn’t resist.
Sara took two steps in and immediately stepped back out. “Oh good heavens, that is cold!”
Nathan grabbed her wrist and pulled her in. “The best way to overcome it is to run in.”
She resisted. “No, I can’t, it’s too cold.”
“No second thoughts, Nymph.” He scooped her up and strode into the water.
Her arms clung around his neck. “No, Nathan, don’t!” she shrieked.
He didn’t answer, just kept walking until the water was over his waist. She strained against his arms, simultaneously trying to lift herself higher to stay out of the water and to prevent him from dropping her in. “Don’t do this, stop Nathan, please don’t let me go!”
“Close your mouth now,” he instructed in a matter of fact voice.
Nathan fell backward and submerged both of them, the water cutting off Sara’s shriek. He held firm to the squirming body in his arms, her feet kicking out of instinct while her arms tightened around his neck, threatening to break it. Her red hair swirled around his face, obscuring his vision in a decadent floating swirl. The cold water was invigorating and if he had been alone, he would have stayed under longer. Planting his feet on the sandy bottom, he dug his heels in and pushed them once more above the surface.
Sara took a gulp of air, choking on the water that had been in her mouth. She coughed, trying to clear her lungs. Her body calmed from the shock, the June sun kissing her skin and warming it. She brushed her wet, tangled hair off from her face.
“You are a horrid man,” she accused, her teeth chattering.
Nathan chuckled. “I believe that fact was already well established.”
“I could have drowned.”
“There was not even a remote possibility. I had you the whole time. Do you honestly think I would put you into danger?”
Sara didn’t answer, knowing that he was right. She pushed more hair off her face.
“I’m going to put you down now,” he said. “You will be able to touch the bottom; it is not a deep lake.”
“What will the bottom feel like?” she asked, apprehensive.
He smiled. “It is manmade lake. Nothing to be squeamish about.”
She nodded, the conversation forgotten as she stared at his naked chest. She had seen it before, of course she had. And she had admired it before, the defined muscles under the golden, coarse hair providing a more-comfortable-than-expected pillow. Looking at it now, water glistening on his skin as it traveled down his body in rivulets, accenting those small ridges between his muscles, had Sara’s mouth aching to lick the water off him. It mesmerized her, beckoning her, and she shivered with desire this time.
Nathan pulled her close and Sara rested her cheek against his chest, closing her eyes and inhaling his clean scent. He rubbed his arms along her back and arms, warming her. She became acutely aware of her shift plastered to her body, hiding nothing from his eyes. Her nipples, erect from the cold and desire, poked into him.
She was just about to turn her head to lick his chest when he pulled away. He smiled down at her, the corners of his mouth tilting in just that way to make her stomach flutter. “Feeling better?”
She nodded, her throat dry with disappointment. She didn’t understand how her mind and body could want such different things. It unsettled her to realize how much she was listening to one more than the other.
“Good. The first thing you should learn is how to float. If you know how, you can do anything in the water. Even knowing only this, it will keep you safe. If a boat you are in capsizes, float until you are rescued.”
“If I do ever get into a boat.”
He gave her a sardonic look. “I thought we discussed this. Adventure, Nymph.”
“Why do you call me that?”
“Do you dislike it?”
“I am merely curious.”
Nathan was silent for a moment before he shrugged. “That day in the blasted forest maze. When I saw you sitting against the tree, I thought you looked like a nymph. The moniker stuck.”
“But I am nothing like a nymph,” she countered. “They are lithe and graceful. Calling me ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling’ or ‘my dear’ is far more acceptable.”
“And far more clichéd. Have you ever seen a nymph?”
“Of course not; they are mythical.”
“Then how do you know what one actually looks like? If they are mythical, can I not have my own perception of how they should look?”
She considered that. “I suppose,” she allowed with hesitation. “But why would you want to think one looks like me?”
Nathan’s chest burned with hatred for her mother and every man she encountered who did not think she was worthy of notice. Keeping his voice steady, he said, “Every man has his preference. You happen to be mine. I like that you are more than a cliché.”
He watched as her skin, pale with cold, flushed a bright red. She avoided his gaze, her eyes dropping down to his chest.
He cleared his throat. “Right, time to float. Lie back and don’t worry, I will help you. I will keep my hands under you until you are ready.”
Sara took a deep breath, bring her eyes back up to his. She licked her lips and nodded.
“Right.” He placed his hands along her back. “Lie down.”
Sara lay stiffly against his hands, her eyes wide. Looking down at her, her hair swirling around her head, Nathan felt one corner of his mouth tug up. “Relax, Nymph.”
She lifted her head. “What?” She flailed, losing her balance.
Nathan caught her easily, helping her right herself. “There you are.”
“What did you say? I didn’t hear you.”
“I told you to relax. Buoyancy does not work if you are too stiff.”
“Oh. I couldn’t hear you. Everything was all muffled.”
“The water acts with the air in your ears to create a cushion. You will be able to hear things that occur underwater that make sound, but no sound created above it.”
He nodded. “Back down, Nymph. This time relax. Trust me and yourself.”
His hands back in position, Sara leaned back down. She lifted her feet off the bottom, feeling his hands support her beneath her back. The water surrounded her head again and muffled her hearing as it had before. She saw his mouth move and recalled his directive. Taking a deep breath, she considered her body, realizing how stiff she was holding herself, right down to her fingertips. Another deep breath and she closed her eyes, trying to relax.
She focused on her different limbs, willing them to ease. As they did, she felt a small bubble rise up underneath her, giving her body a slight lift off his hands. They followed her, still supporting her, but she felt him move them away, bringing them back for short intervals until she realized that at one point he hadn’t moved them back at all.
Her eyes flew open. He was standing above her, his arms folded in front of him. That stomach-fluttering grin was on his face. “Oh good heavens!” Her body flailed again and she sunk below the surface.
His hands were on her in an instant, pulling her up as she righted herself. Sara regained her balance, wiping the water off her face. She sputtered, “Why did you let me go?”
Nathan shrugged. “You didn’t need me. You were floating.”
“I was floating!” Sara squealed in disbelief. She clapped her hands and squealed again, jumping in one place. He chuckled with her, adding to her delight. She jumped again, this time toward him. Nathan opened his arms, catching her and hugging her to him.
“Oh Nathan, thank you,” she said, cupping her hands around his face. She pulled him down and kissed him, pressing her open lips to his. He responded, but her excitement kept the kiss brief and she broke it. “I want to do it again.”
Nathan obliged her, his hands guiding her down again and she floated on her own easily. She looked up at him, smiling indulgently at her, his ice blue eyes reflecting the water in hue but not in temperature. His eyes were warm, full of something that she didn’t recognize but responded to out of instinct. She smiled back, the thought that she would like to see him look at her like that for the rest of her life entering her mind.
The shock of that thought stiffened her body and right away she sunk. As before, his hands caught her and helped her steady herself. She remained floating this time, her eyes opening to look into his. The warmth was still there, with concern now added to them. The concern drifted away when he saw she was fine and his hands left her.
Oh good heavens, I am in love with him.
She supposed it made sense. She trusted him, opened up to him as she had to no one else, not even Claire, Louisa, or Bonnie. She even trusted him to the extent of this arrangement, going to him in her moment of distress. Even then, she knew that he would be honorable about whatever they did. He would deny it, but she knew it to be true.
Nathan Grant treated her as no one ever did. He actually saw her, saw that there was more to her than a meek, biddable, easily manipulated female. He spoke to her as a sentient being, never shielding her from the truth. He helped her realize her dreams, even something as simple as breakfast in bed or learning how to float. He desired her, preferred her, he had said.
Oh yes, she was in love with him.
And it ruined everything.