Hugh Montgomery pursed his lips as he focused 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.
“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 retrieved 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 frowned.
“This was why I didn’t want you to see the painting yet. I knew you were going to criticize it before I finished.” Hugh pointed out, though he tried not to sound cross.
“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. “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 gazed into her blue eyes with concern. Dark circles bordered them, but Hugh left them out of the painting.
“You haven’t been well lately, have you not?” Hugh inquired.
Emma’s hand slipped an accidental but small stroke on the canvas. As she undid the mistake, she said: “I needed time away from home. I appreciate that you’re 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.
“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 for another lingering moment, 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.”
Shock crossed Hugh’s face. “Why would you ever think that?”
“My family is notorious for being unreasonable. If anything is out of the ordinary for them, they would be in hysterics. I’m…afraid of them knowing…so very afraid.” Emma’s voice choked, and her eyes sparkled with tears. She placed a shaken hand over her chest and shallow pants left her lips.
She staggered but Hugh guided her to sit on a bench. Hugh sat beside her and said in a soft voice, “Breathe, please breathe, Emma.” However, Emma’s pants only articulated. Her cheeks flushed and beads of sweat broke from her skin. In haste, Hugh rose from the bench to fetch some water. Once he returned, he handed Emma the glass.
The glass trembled in Emma’s hands, but Hugh secured her hold with delicacy. His fingers brushed over hers, and with that soft and simple touch, her breathing slowed. Emma swallowed the water until she had every drop. Little coughs replaced her gasps and Hugh soothed her back.
“Are you alright?” Hugh asked.
Emma drew out a shaky exhale and nodded with a subtle motion. Emma pressed herself into the bench and returned her attention to the sky. Unconvinced, Hugh scooped to his knees, his hand curled unto hers.
“Listen, Emma,” he said “I don’t want you to be afraid anymore, because I’m here for you and you can trust me. I will keep your secret safe, but more importantly, I will keep you safe.”
A twinge of apprehension flickered in Emma’s eyes. She once again gave herself a moment, and Hugh waited with ceaseless patience.
“Do you promise?” she finally asked.
“Yes, I promise,” Hugh said, “from the bottom of my heart, I promise.”
“Thank you.” Emma’s troubled sighs turned to that of relief, but Hugh caught remnants of distress on her features.
“Do you want to go back inside?”
“No, no,” Emma dismissed. “I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Emma said. “Besides, you have to finish the painting. Then after that, I can tell you my secret. Everything about it.”
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 presented a weak but visible smile. “The best secrets are the complicated ones.”