The hugs and handshakes took several minutes. The friends, all four reunited, could hardly stop talking long enough for Bonnie to assist the boys with their coats. It had been several months since their last visit, the occasion being Bonnie’s wedding to Sir Stephen Montgomery. He had been named guardian to her two charges after the sudden death of their parents and they had fallen in love as they struggled to help the boys recover from their trauma. They continued to live at Darrowgate, which belonged to eight-year-old Viscount Henry Darrow, the eldest of the two young brothers.
“Stephen, see them settled please,” she said, smiling at her husband.
“It would be my utmost pleasure,” he replied. “All I have dreamed about this entire journey is settling them in the nursery.”
“You’re being sarcastic again, Uncle Stephen. Aunt Bonnie says that’s rude.” Henry gave him a castigating look.
“Women say many things you will learn to ignore,” was the reply.
“Stephen,” Bonnie reprimanded.
“But never ignore your aunt,” he amended. Henry smiled at that. “Come along, you too, young Arthur.” The four year old clung to his hand, his eyes shying away from the unfamiliar people.
“My study, when you are ready,” Jacob called out after him.
“Have the rejuvenating potion at the ready,” Stephen replied over his shoulder.
Claire led them all into their private drawing room, tea having been ordered. “Bonnie,” she said, her tone scolding. “How could you not tell us? We write frequently enough that this should not be a surprise.”
Bonnie eased onto the couch. “I am truly not that far along. It is only in the last fortnight that I have ballooned up to the size of an elephant.” She rubbed her swollen stomach affectionately.
“When are you expecting?” Sara asked.
“Late October, by my calculations. Not a moment too soon. Stephen is driving me mad with his hovering.”
Louisa handed her a cup of tea. “He doesn’t strike me as the hovering sort.”
Bonnie rolled her eyes. “I didn’t believe it myself until I realized he was serious. If he had his way, he would keep me in bed surrounded by pillows to prevent any sort of injury.”
“He just cares for you,” Sara said, smiling at the image.
“You would think I am the first woman ever to carry a child,” Bonnie replied. “I have assured him time again that the human race continues to perpetuate itself, so there is little to concern himself with. But the man does not listen.”
“I can empathize completely,” Claire said. All three sets of eyes swung her way and she smiled, resting her hand on her abdomen. “We were keeping it quiet until after the wedding, but I cannot any longer. Jacob and I are expecting as well for the new year.”
The next few minutes were filled with celebratory tea toasts, congratulations and talk of young children until Claire reminded them, “Ladies, we have less than two weeks to finish planning Sara’s wedding to Mr. Pomeroy. We have much to do.”
All three heads swiveled toward Sara. She hadn’t meant to speak out loud, wasn’t even sure what she was going to say.
“Yes, dear?” Claire said.
Sara opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She knew she ought to tell them that the betrothal was a mistake, that she hadn’t actually accepted Charles’ proposal, but instead of words forming in her throat, the ants were swarming merrily, cutting off anything that might have resembled words. The thought of what would happen if the truth were known was too grave, too risky. Charles would be humiliated and she would be ruined.
The ants happily increased.
Bonnie smiled and patted her hand. “It is fine to be anxious about this, Sara. A perfectly normal reaction to such a large change in one’s life. But not to worry. This is your big day and we will not do anything you do not wish. But time is wasting away. We must get started making the arrangements.”
Sara swallowed the dread.
With unladylike puffing, Sara pushed herself to continue up the narrow and rocky path. Trees canopied over her, blocking out the sunlight and cooling the air, giving the forest maze a more sinister feel, a usually safe place now shrouded with an air of the ominous.
She had only taken this path once before, a long loop up the side of an exposed rock face before returning to the easier path; the only benefits to its existence were its privacy and the view of a small, beautiful pond with a waterfall at one particular point, close to the summit. It was steep and a much more difficult walk than she was used to, but she relished it today. Today that biting pain in her legs and extreme focus on her breathing took her mind off—well, her mind. She had been stuck in a vicious cycle of thoughts lately, shortly after her engagement to Mr. Pomeroy.
He was a good man. He would make her a good husband. He was kind, steady; he would give her life the security and purpose she desired. She had been a good vicar’s daughter; she would be a good vicar’s wife. Charles even said as much. Passion and desire were not the foundation for any sort of reliable relationship, as evidenced by her adventure with the blue-eyed deceiver.
You happen to be my preference, Nymph. Sara closed her eyes against his voice. He had no business in her life, not anymore. He filled his part of their arrangement, made it clear that she was not to expect more.
She stopped for a moment to catch her breath, pressing her hand to her side where it had begun to ache. Sara looked around, noting that she had made it to a vantage point that looked out over the area, the walker being above the trees. Looking to the east, she saw Ridgestone standing proudly in the sea of green.
Sara swallowed, her heart heavy. She hadn’t meant to exit in such a dramatic manner, but all the talk of the wedding had gotten to her. Bonnie had been harping about her hair as if it had really mattered; Sara knew that her hair would not obey whatever strictures her friends tried to put on it. But they hadn’t been listening.
Before her hair it had been the wedding dress, followed by which shoes Sara should wear. And gloves. She had only ever owned one pair at a time in her life. There was no question over what gloves she would wear.
Her hair was the third hour of the discussion. How could they even speak about a single thing for so long? And how could Claire and Louisa spare so much time away from planning their lessons? They had not cancelled the Governess Club’s services, and the parents would expect to receive the same level of continued service. In fact, Sara was unclear as to why Louisa was allowing them to focus on Sara’s wedding so much; Louisa was the one who consistently insisted on an almost single-minded dedication to their project.
Her breath steadied and side relaxed, Sara continued up the path. The sun was more prominent here, as was the wind, which blew across her face, cooling the sweat on her forehead. She was nearly halfway along the path and she was counting the minutes before she had to return to Ridgestone.
She knew exactly why she was feeling this way. It was his fault entirely. Nathan Grant’s. He was the one who had introduced her to who she could be, what she could have, and then abandoned her. Had his bedding without the wedding, indeed. How could she have been so mistaken about his character? Yes, he had been callous before, but he had never been cruel, not before a few days ago. Berating her for thinking there was more to their affair, for hoping that he had developed some sort of affection for her when he had made it clear from the onset that she was to expect nothing more from him beyond that week.
It wasn’t what he said; it was how he said it. He had felt it necessary to ridicule and humiliate her.
And that made her want to slap him in the face. And if she saw him again, well, she wasn’t sure if she wouldn’t. After Mrs. Glendoe, Nathan Grant would be a piece of cake.
Reaching her destination, Sara took advantage of a well-sized rock and sat down, resting her legs. This truly was a more difficult walk than she was used to. Rubbing her legs, she looked over the pond and took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of water. The waterfall, small and little more than a trickle in truth, streamed out of a large cave higher up on the rock face and hit the water with gentle splashes.
At the sound and smell of the water, she became acutely aware of the sweat drying on her body, making her skin sticky and uncomfortable. The water glistened invitingly, tempting her with its coolness and promised tranquility. She looked at the water, contemplating. She had only swum at the privacy of Cloverfields. This place wasn’t a private estate, but she had yet to see anyone else. She looked over her shoulder, her eyes examining the empty path just to assure herself of that fact.
Biting her lip, Sara looked back at the water. Without further thought, she stood and began to strip, starting with her bonnet. Soon everything was in a folded pile on the grass and she waded into the water, relishing the cleansing coolness washing over her skin, the looseness of her shift moving around her knees. When she had gotten to her hips, she turned around and lay on her back, spreading her arms out and floating as Nathan taught her, her now loose hair swirling around her head.
The water covered her ears, muffling all sound. She took a deep breath, her eyes sliding half-closed, her senses focused on the water surrounding her body. Small ripples from the waterfall bounced against her side, not threatening in the least. Her hands were sculling to keep her in place; her breathing, amplified in her ears, slowed as she gazed up at the bright blue sky, the occasional fluffy cloud entering her vision. Serenity flowed over her and Sara felt her limbs and mind relax. She closed her eyes the rest of the way and bathed in the relief circling in and around her body.
She lay there like that for several minutes before she felt her skin prickle, as though someone was watching her. She opened her eyes and lifted her head, looking toward the shore.
No one was there.
She put her feet on the bottom of the pond and righted herself, crouching to preserve her modesty, keeping her shoulders under the water. She looked around, trying to see as far down the path as she could in both directions.
No one was there.
Furrowing her brow, she lay back down, but her relaxed state from moments before did not return immediately. She was sure she had felt someone watching her. But she was being foolish, surely. People did not often take this path; she had not seen any other soul yet today, and even in the entire forest maze she did not often see others. She must have mistaken the prickles on her skin, thinking she was being watched when it was merely the cold water.
Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes, she tried to ease back into her state of serenity.
There it was again. The prickles. It couldn’t simply be the cold water; someone was watching her, she was sure of it.
Sara jerked her head up to see a tall figure standing close to the shore where she had entered the pond. Clad in his signature black, his cane held in loose fingers, Nathan stood watching her. The surprise of seeing him—seeing anyone there, in truth—jerked her, and Sara submerged in the water, her body now too tense to float. Her head went under just as she was trying to take a breath, filling her mouth and lungs with water.
She flailed, her lungs protesting the foreign substance and her throat automatically constricting, causing a spurt of panic to consume her. One of her heels hit the bottom of the pond, and the small part of her mind still retaining a sense of logic propelled her to dig that heel in and have the other one do the same. Some stability established, the panic began to ease. She was in the process of lifting her head above the water to take a breath of precious air when strong hands grasped her elbows and pulled her up.
Gasping and coughing, Sara found herself being held against Nathan’s chest. His hands remained around her elbows, but his grip was firm and steady. She coughed again, expelling the water from her throat and lungs, and breathed in fresh air, her body shaking from the brief ordeal.
Calming, Sara wiped the water from her face and pushed the wet tangles of hair that had plastered themselves around her cheeks. One of his hands released her elbow and helped her, gently tucking the hair back.
Oh good heavens. Her eyes slid shut as his warm fingers brought sensory memories flooding back and her skin vibrated with his closeness. There was barely any space between them; it would only take a slight sway from either of them to make that space nonexistent. Sara became acutely aware of the man in front of her.
But she would not look at him. Could not. Not after what he had said to her, leaving her dignity in shreds around her feet. Had that been necessary? Where had all his courtesy that she had seen at Cloverfields gone? Before their assignation there had been times when he had been rough and harsh, but never deliberately hurtful.
His hand cupped her cheek, tilting her head back. She knew he wanted her to look at him, and part of her did not want to give him the satisfaction, but she could not resist. Opening her eyes, she found him studying her, a frown on his face. His jaw flexed as though he wanted to say something, but the silence remained broken only by the sound of the meager waterfall.
His thumb caressed her chin, moving up to trace her bottom lip. His eyes softened, not turning to the hot springs that accompanied his desire, but a warm glow that was unfamiliar to her. The foolish part of her whispered that it was a look of love, but she quickly dismissed that. Nathan Grant did not love anyone but himself. He had made that abundantly clear.
Yet his eyes were warm.
They lowered to her lips where his thumb was still tracing the bottom one. He took a deep breath and licked his lips. His fingers threaded into her tangled hair and he lowered his head, his intent obvious.
For a moment, Sara stood there and let it happen. She watched his head move closer to hers, his eyes closing and lips parting. She furrowed her brow, wondering at why everything was moving so slowly. She couldn’t understand why he wanted to kiss her, not when he had so bluntly rejected her just days before. Was it because of their assignation—did he now feel he had certain rights and could expect things from her? Or was it because she was in her shift, out of doors and wet, that he was submitting to his more base nature?
Yet his eyes had been warm. It was all so confusing.
Just as their lips were about to meet, she turned her head away and took a step back, moving away from his solid body and heat. His fingers tore from her hair at the movement and she saw his hand hover in the air. Surprise was revealed in his eyes when he looked at her, but Sara looked off to the side, swallowing, her unspoken statement unmistakable.
They stood as such for several long moments. His hand lowered to his side and he did not move. Sara could feel his eyes boring into her, but she did not return her gaze to his. The ants began to tickle her throat at the impending confrontation she knew was coming, but she refused to submit to this man who had taught her to be strong only to rip her strength away from her and destroy what little self-worth she had managed to attain.
Sara was no longer ignorant nor naïve. She knew she was the one who had instigated their affair and she would always carry that knowledge with her, if not the regret. But her turmoil of the last few days was his fault. No matter their history, no matter that her actions had led to a week of carnal knowledge, she did not deserve to be treated in the callous manner he had shown her.
Even if his eyes had been warm today.
He finally moved, turning in the water and striding out of the pond, his limp more pronounced as he picked his way without being able to see where his feet landed. She watched him out of the corner of her eye. Once out of the water, he bent and picked up his discarded cane and hat, placing the latter on his head without looking back at her. He tugged on his coat, shook some water off of his breeches and began to walk away. He looked ridiculous, the lower half of his body sopping wet while the upper remained dry.
But Sara did not call out to stop him or ask him to come back.