The Caroline

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A slowly clearing picture.

Words failed them both for a while after that. They listened as various sounds that were not easily identified intruded into their space, the scrambling of a mouse in the wall, the patter of rain drops from a brief shower on the roof, the wind outside, rustling leaves, or the sound of lumber in the building construction, contracting after a very hot day—but no sound of anyone else approaching along the corridor. She spoke again.

I am afraid of what the future holds for me now. Maybe I am destined to die alone as I most fear. Most of the teachers in those schools were all old women, bitter about so many things, unmarried, and mostly friendless. I became terrified of ending my life like that and of being alone as they were. I had to run away from that too. I left the security of one job after another, teaching in Europe and then England. You saw my meeting with Robert. I should have known there would be nothing back here for me other than a difficult reception, except for the welcome that I know my grandmother will provide. Everything is as strained now as it always was, even with just one brother and no father. I am not welcome in my own family home even. I am not sure what the future holds for me now.”

He kissed her on top of her head and then upon her forehead, and pulled her closer. She did not object. She was now warm and felt safe. It had been a comforting gesture and as a mother might have done rather than one that might be assumed to carry any other intent with it. “It begins to sound as though you have given up on life, Caroline.” He felt that he was now able to use her first name again more easily. She noticed.

“Not given up, I will never do that. It’s just that it has become difficult to decide upon a way forward. It helped for a while when I left here and found a new direction. I was busy teaching in Europe, and that distracted me and was a challenge, but I could still not forget what had happened. I find that I do not want to forget. I would not wish to betray such a love by forgetting any of it. I would lose so much of myself if I did that and diminish myself.”

“I know how you feel. Then don’t forget it. Build upon what you still have. You are young, you are very beautiful, you are intelligent, and you have the rest of your life ahead of you. There are many paths open to us”—he corrected himself—“to you. Closing off one of them does not mean that life stops. It just means that we have to work on learning and seeking out other ways forward. Life must go on.” She was somehow happy that he thought her beautiful, and the wine was warm in her stomach.

“Life will inevitably throw other choices in your way whether you like, or welcome it or not, for that is the nature of life. We get up one more time that we are knocked down; we fight, and we struggle to survive. That is what nature does; that is what life is all about and what we must do.” He nuzzled into her hair and spoke gently, almost forgetting she was awake and there with him. “You need have no fear for your future. Not now.” Her mind was sufficiently befuddled, that she did not fully understand what he was saying or why he said it. It almost sounded as though he were placing himself solidly in her life from that moment forward as a true friend would. Yet he had this other life on the river that would take all his effort, and that other woman that he loved was still waiting out there. She would eventually wake up to discover a love she had thrown aside. Foolish woman! Still, it was kindly meant, and she did get some comfort from it and his closeness and protection. She had not been able to relax so well in years despite the threat of what still might happen. She did not worry about it. She was safe and in a different world. He would protect her as he already had.

Wyatt fell silent and began to digest what he had learned of her in her absence. She needed to be distracted from the hurtful mood that gripped her, a distraction that would wrench her out of her mood, though it was not one of self-pity. She needed to be enervated, provoked, needled, cajoled, and pushed into a different consideration, except she seemed to have given up on life as it should be lived by someone so young. She needed to wake up, or to be woken up, and to break free of those emotional chains that held her back. He knew that he could do it for her, and even to some measure, how it could be done and would be done, but he could not discuss it with her. It would happen soon now that he had learned what he had needed to learn, and his heart sang because of it, but things must go forward slowly, or it might all come to an end in the wrong way.

Certainly, the last few days on the river and that attempted robbery or attempt on her life had sparked her out of lethargy, as had that meeting with her brother. She had been enervated then, though not in the best of ways, but it had changed her a little and for the better, and now this distraction of Vicksburg and his company. She would wake up eventually and see him for who and what he was and that he was the answer to all her difficulties.

Unfortunately, the closer she got to home, the more those other memories would surface and would need to be dealt with as they soon would be. Yes, that was the place where it could all come to end if he could engineer it to happen that way, but how it would play out with her brother standing in the way of what he wanted presented its own difficulties. That problem was being addressed even as he waited. There was just one hurdle left, blocking him. He had killed two men who had stood in his way up to this time, and there was one left. That man was also on the boat with them. Her brother!

It was beginning to get even more light. They had talked almost the entire night away. No one was coming now. He could hear her breathing differently. She slept. Where she was, and lying as she was, she was more than comfortable enough, but it would not do for them to be discovered like this, especially not with her in his nightshirt when the maid brought hot water to the room in the morning. He should not be where he was either, but he would willingly have spent the better part of the rest of his life with her like this. He could not leave, or put her to bed at just that moment in case the difficulty they anticipated still might happen.

After a further hour, and as it began to grow light outside, he gently moved off from beside her. He slid his arm under her legs, slid his other arm behind her, lifted her from her relaxed position without disturbing her, and carefully put her into the bed, where she would be more comfortable. He envied her that ability to rest so easily. No one was going to come now, but he continued to sit with her until obvious noises around them told him that the new day had started. He let himself quietly out of her room, locking the door. There was no one to see him or to pass comment upon how they had spent the night together and even in each other’s arms.

When she later awoke, he was sitting near the bed watching her, putting a book he had been reading off to one side. Her book. He was fully dressed, yet she had not remembered him putting her to bed or heard him return to his room, and he had not disturbed her when he had returned.

He heard the top stair creak several times as the hotel staff began to distribute hot water for their guests. The maid knocked at the door and brought in a jug of hot water and a towel. She removed those from the previous evening. She looked sharply at him as he let her in. A man was not supposed to be in this room. At least he was fully dressed, and the woman who had just woken up was smiling, which she would not have been had he not been welcome. It was also obvious that only one person had slept in that bed for that entire night. Her nightdress was also not her own, but his. She noticed such little things that revealed so much about individuals, but said nothing. He smiled at her. She could see that it was not as she had at first assumed, though they were clearly not husband and wife. They were not brother and sister either. She knew Miss Henstridge’s brother. Why was she in his nightshirt?

He gave her the key to his room to let herself in when she brought hot water to his room too.

Caroline was watching him strangely as he spoke to her, “I brought all your clothes along from my bedroom. You will be relieved to know that we did not receive any unexpected visitors in the night. If you feel brave enough to tolerate my presence once more, I will suggest that you wash and dress behind that screen while I continue reading here; then we can go back to my room while I do the same. Then we shall appear for a coffee together and set tongues wagging after the maid discloses what she saw, but we shall ignore them. After that, we can stroll down to the boat, which will leave once we get there. I just heard it whistle for us, so they have the engines warmed and steam up. We can breakfast on the boat.”

He smiled as she slipped out of bed wearing his nightshirt, entirely unconcerned by his presence, even though it was now daylight. She was well aware of his attention to her. She sorted out the clothes she would wear and then went off behind the screen as he had suggested. He continued reading but responded to her questions while she bathed, as she seemed to have others still to ask.

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