Hugh Montgomery pursed his lips as he concentrated on his work. His hand shook ever so slightly as he used the paintbrush to decorate the canvas before him. Hugh’s shoulder twitched when he made a mistake, and he rushed to wipe it off before it could stain the canvas.
“Are you done yet?”
Hugh broke from his concentration to peek over the canvas. Emma Darlington stood in front of the rose bushes, wearing a deep violet gown and expensive jewels that complimented her fancy attire. Her right hand crossed her left, and a silver hairpin was tucked into her auburn hair. Emma’s blue eyes sparkled by the afternoon sun’s light and caused the young man to blush and quickly turn away.
“N—not yet,” Hugh stammered.
“I’ve been standing here for nearly an hour,” Emma huffed.
“It has not been an hour.”
“Are you certain?”
Hugh took out his pocket watch to check, and his face paled. He awkwardly cleared his throat. “It has been an hour.”
“May I see your progress?” Emma asked, impatience clear in her voice.
“I’m not done yet.”
“You must have something done.”
Emma strolled over to Hugh, her heels clicked with delicacy across the patio. Hugh tried to shield his work, but his effort was futile as Emma stole a peek.
“It’s lovely, Hugh, but…”
“There isn’t enough lighting, so the portrait looks flat. Here.” Emma picked out a paintbrush and began painting while Hugh watched with a small frown.
“This is why I didn’t want you to see the painting yet, I know you’re going to criticize it before it was done.” Hugh pointed out, though he tried not to sound annoyed.
“I am simply fixing your mistakes, that’s all. You’re doing wonderfully, Hugh. I love what you did with my eyes. The blue you used really stands out.”
Hugh’s cheeks flushed, and he scratched the back of his head. “Ah, yes, I—I suppose I spent too much time on your face. I wasn’t focusing as much attention to the background as I should.”
“Oh, Hugh, you’re so sweet. Am I really that beautiful?” Emma asked, her long lashes fluttered as she blinked.
“Certainly, why else would I want to paint you?”
“I assumed you were jealous of my painting skills and wanted to compete.”
Hugh’s jaw fell as a gasp escaped him. “Nonsense! I was never jealous. You’re a brilliant painter and I’m simply an amateur wanting to paint as a hobby—and for you.” He looked into her blue eyes with concern. There were dark circles under her eyes, but Hugh left them out of the painting.
“You haven’t been well lately, have you not?” Hugh inquired.
Emma’s hand froze, and she nearly lost grip of the paintbrush. She turned to Hugh and her eyes almost lost their sparkle.
“I needed time away from home. I really appreciate you allowing me to stay here for a while.”
“You’re certainly welcome. You can stay here longer if you want.”
“I wish I could, but…” Emma trailed off and put down the paintbrush. She covered her left hand before squeezing it. “It’s difficult right now.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything,” Hugh dismissed.
Emma shook her head, her long auburn hair swept across her face with the help of the wind. She pushed away the strands and smiled. “No, no, I really enjoy your company, Hugh, very much so.” Emma became quiet for a moment and her attention went up to the sky. A couple of birds flew by and disappeared into the drifting clouds. “Can I…tell you a secret?”
“Of course, what is it?” Hugh asked.
Emma paused again and released the tension from her hand. “There’s something I’ve been hiding from everyone I’ve ever known, it’s something that… keeps me happy, keeps me sane. However, if my family ever finds out about it…I’m afraid I’ll be put into an asylum.”
Hugh’s eyes widened, and he took Emma’s shoulder. “Why would you ever think that?”
“My family is notorious for being unreasonable. If anything is out of the ordinary for them, they would go frantic. I’m…afraid of them knowing…so very afraid.” Emma’s voice choked, and her eyes sparkled with tears.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m here for you and you can trust me. I will keep your secret safe,” Hugh assured, his voice soft and gentle like the breeze drifting by.
“Do you promise?”
“Yes, I promise.” Hugh nodded, a small smile graced his lips and Emma exchanged a similar one.
“Thank you.” Emma sighed with relief, placing her right hand over her chest. She turned back to the painting. “Why don’t you finish that up first, and then I can tell you everything?”
Hugh released a nervous chuckle. “I’m afraid it will be sometime until it’s done, but you make it sound like your secret is something that’ll take a while to explain.”
Emma smiled again and pressed a finger to her lips. “The best secrets are the complicated ones.”