The Caroline

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Please do not go, Miss Henstridge.

“I do not want you to go, Caroline. I told you that I would value your company, as I have done at other times. The night is likely to drag on, and we can keep each other awake. Besides, having a beautiful young woman trust me as you seem to do, knowing so little about me, is comforting.”

“Thank you for not berating my lack of concern for my own situation or sending me off as I may have deserved. What I did in coming here was too forward—I know that—but I believe that I know much more about you than you might know.” He smiled. He knew where she had heard most of her information about him. Mrs. Bainbridge was a kindly old woman and meant well, but sometimes was a little too talkative.

“You are right. No one needs to know that we are here in your room, as we are, and what the world does not know about us cannot hurt us. When I said that it might be dangerous, I meant, dangerous for me, for us. Distracting from the purpose of my being here.” She would certainly be that, if he were being truthful, but he did not seem to mind that. He had not felt so comfortable in the presence of a young and attractive woman for many years.

She smiled in the darkness. She wanted to stay, and he wanted her to be there too. It really was true that it was often very difficult to clearly understand what someone else said. One often took the wrong meaning from what was initially said, as she had done. “Then I shall try not to distract you.” She would not try very hard. Her presence with him seemed to be distraction enough. It was in a woman’s nature to be distracting. She knew from the way he had admired her and welcomed her to his table each time they had sat together, that he found her company pleasant, even desirable. It pleased her. It would not be possible for him not to be distracted in her company at this time. Not with the way she was dressed, or not properly dressed, even if it was dark. She wished that she had been able to access a bottle of her perfume before she had moved to sit so close beside him, but it was too late to worry about that. She probably smelled of cedar as he did.

He adjusted his position, moving closer to the end of the settee, and turned a little to her as she followed him, leaning against him quite familiarly now that they had been honest with each other, as his arm went about her again, holding her close to him; but there was nothing about that action that caused her to be concerned. At least, she tried to persuade herself of that. They needed to be close together to talk without being overheard. She had also never felt so secure or relaxed in the company of just one man, any time in the last few years, and it was a comforting feeling, but also one she did not fully understand. There had been only one man in her life before now, and though this one could never replace that one, Wyatt was one she felt at ease with at this moment.

“I hope you really are not afraid of being quite close to me, Miss Henstridge.” She felt no fear about being alone with him now any more than she had those other times they had been alone.

“We covered that earlier. I wish you would also stop calling me, Miss Henstridge; it makes me feel old. You make me feel like an old spinster. I am not afraid. I wasn’t this afternoon, and we were alone then, sitting next to each other on that carriage as we were jostled about.” They had been thrown around on the rough road so that he had to bring her closer to him, with her arm going around him and holding him by his belt to stop being thrown off in several places.

She had been lightly dressed then, but it had felt as though she were overdressed in that stifling heat, though for some disturbing reason that she could not understand, she had almost felt herself to be too lightly dressed, as now, when he had looked at her as he had, and had smiled at her, creating a small panic in herself. She had felt the same way over dinner when she had caught him looking at her.

She leaned closer against his chest with her face close to his so that they might talk. However, the mood that gripped them both was alarming, but in a pleasurable kind of way, and talking was the furthest thing from either of their minds at that moment. She could even feel his heart beating and hear it. Or was that her own? It was pleasantly comforting to him to see how little she might be concerned about her own safety with him, upon such little acquaintance.

She flinched and gasped. Something had run over her foot, and she raised her feet quickly off the floor.

“If you do not object to my doing so, I shall bring my feet up off the floor. These hotels are always overrun with mice and cockroaches.” She shivered at the thought and raised her feet onto the seat beside her and put more of her weight onto him as he brought his own feet up to sit along the seat as he had been before she had come. She was almost lying upon him now but in a way that two persons of the opposite sex who were not married should never do. He did not give it another thought. They had gone beyond that. He recognized that she might need his warmth. It had been a stifling hot day, but for some reason, it now seemed to have gone suddenly colder. He smiled, realizing the trust that she obviously placed in him. Their heads were touching, and she could feel the warmth of his arm as he held her, and of his body too, through the thin fabric of his nightshirt on her, and could even catch the smell of cedar from his clothing where they had been stored in one of the trunks in his cabin on board the boat. It was a reassuring smell.

“If anything happens here tonight it will be my brother who is behind this.” He almost laughed at the innocent way she said that. The way he was feeling, her brother would not be to blame for what might happen—and it had nothing to do with any intruder. She would be responsible. He said nothing that might disturb her feeling of security with him or let her see how her remark might be viewed in a different way. “He cannot do it for himself with that useless arm of his. That is why he sent those other two men to do his work. No one else would take an interest in me, or be concerned about why I am here, on the river.” He knew that what she said was at least partially true. There was another taking a deeper interest in her. He was! However, it had been that way ever since he had first seen her in Liverpool. She might have been safer had she stayed in his room, but he would not say anything to alarm her, no matter how disturbing he found her presence to be.

“Is that a bottle of wine on the table? I didn’t find the bottle that I thought had been in my room.” He knew why that was. He had taken it with him. “May I have a drink, please?”

He reached out and passed her the glass. She slowly sipped at it to taste it and then drained it. “That was the same wine we had with dinner. French wine.”

“Yes, it was. That, and the beer are both safer than the water.” He refilled the glass and drank from it himself before refilling it again. “So why are you here with me, like this, to recklessly tempt me?” She liked to hear him say it as jokingly as he seemed to but was not so very sure that she did tempt him. He probably said that just to make her feel good about herself. He easily joked about such things.

“I told you. I could not sleep. I was also concerned for you. You might fall asleep and be taken by surprise. I would not like to be responsible for you being shot. I also want to talk. What will happen if someone comes?”

“You also want to talk.” He repeated part of her reason. “You also said that before. I find it dangerous when a woman wants to talk, or more likely wants you to talk. It suggests much more than one might initially think. However, what may happen if anyone comes is difficult to know. It depends upon what he or they intend and how determined they are.”

She moved farther up on his chest as they spoke, lying together almost like two lovers who were exhausted after making love and close enough to touch and to feel each other’s warmth. He was almost as lightly dressed as she was, after the heat of the day. She felt his breath upon her shoulder and his whiskers tickling her ear as his hand gently touched her at her waist, but she did not object. She also had the feeling that he had kissed her on top of her head. She shivered. The window was wide open, and the slats on the lower part of the door were also open, so there was a flow of cooler air through the room.

“You are cold.” He put his arm further over her around her waist and turned her closer to him. “I am afraid there is no blanket within reach. She felt him sweep the hair away from her forehead. She did not object. “You are far too trusting, you know.”

“Am I? I do not believe that you intend me harm. You have done nothing but protect me ever since you first saw me.”

“Yes, I have, but that was pure selfishness on my part. I was hoping to have you to myself on the boat up from New Orleans, and then I found that I was about to be caught up in a family squabble. Was caught up in a family squabble, and still am.” She felt him laugh but did not hear it. “I regret not one moment of that, however. Look where it has brought us. I saw the way you and your brother greeted each other. You were and are a threat to him, and you needed to be protected from him. He was shocked to see you.”

“As I was to learn that he would be going with us. He is not a good man. Neither of my brothers nor my father were good men.” Had she told him that before? “Why, Mama married him, I do not know. Some women seem determined to marry the worst possible man.” She felt him place a gentle kiss on her forehead and she snuggled closer to him as he told her a little of what he had seen.

“I saw more than either he or you were aware of. I saw the way his mind was working. He made up his mind about certain things when he saw the key to one of the more expensive cabins in your hand and the unmistakably high quality of your clothing. French, I believe.” They were indeed. Wyatt seemed to know about such things. “He did not look to be the kind of man who would miss that. Perhaps that was how he learned which room you occupied. Perhaps you should reconsider going to your old home and should go instead to your maternal grandmother. She will be safer for you, and she is just a few hours above your family estate.”

Before she thought about what he had said, she had responded to that. “That is what I intend and then give the impression that I shall immediately return to New Orleans. That is what my brother can believe.” She wondered how Wyatt might know where her grandmother lived. She could not remember telling him anything of her, but there were many things she could not remember after she had consumed more of that wine at dinner than she should have.

“I think he knew that Grandmother intended to give everything she owned to me upon her death and that she did so when she figuratively ‘died’ some years ago. Oh dear, yet another deception, and a big one this time. Perhaps he thinks I carry everything of value with me, or perhaps he really does wish me dead. How did you know where she lives? Do you know her?”

“Anyone who plies the river soon learns who the prominent families are—the local characters, the notables, the great and the good—and a little of their history.” She seemed to accept that.

“As I grew older, I think my father suspected that my grandmother was providing me with money, and Robert may have expected to find what she gave to me in that bank account he had set up in my name in New Orleans. He knew that our grandmother would never have trusted mother with anything after she married him against her wishes, nor either of my brothers. Who listens to good advice these days? If they did, half of the marriages that take place would never happen. However, if she had listened to Grandmother and not have married my father, I would not be here with you, would I? I would not even be here.” She looked up at him in the dark. “Such mistakes sometimes do have unexpectedly pleasant consequences.” He could agree with that.

“No, Miss Henstridge”—he had become formal again, but this time she smiled at it—“you would not be here. Nor would I, and holding a beautiful young woman, you, in my arms.” She did not feel in any danger by his frank description of her. He meant nothing awkward by it. “Both of our lives would be so very different at this moment.” They both thought about that for some moments. She could not understand how her not having been born might have affected him so that he would not be where he was. There were any number of women who would have felt privileged to be where she was at this very moment, so this could still have been happening but with another woman in his arms. She did not like that thought or its bemusing complexity, but all lives were intertwined in strange ways. She was tired, and it was too difficult to consider it clearly.

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