The Game Begins
After he and Leonie had entered the cabin, and with the door closed behind them, Leonie turned into him and moved into his arms, seeking consolation and comfort in her ill-concealed agitation. He held her close and smoothed the hair back from her brow. This was a particularly difficult time for her.
“Yes, that time has come. I am sorry to have dragged you and your father into this with so little warning.”
“That does not matter. At least the time has come after all these years. I am here for the same reason you are; to bring master Robert Henstridge to his knees. I prepared for this, letting him believe that he can trust me, as I helped him cheat a few times.” She smiled. “He believes that I am pouring out my troubles to you and asking your help to ruin him while drawing you into a game that you will first win, tonight, so that you will learn to trust me as he will never dare do, and then once you have been primed to think that a killing is at hand, he will strike.”
There were other things she suddenly felt that she needed to know. “The woman you were with—”
“Caroline Henstridge.” He filled in her full name. She had heard it before, of course.
Two of them with that Henstridge name? Her surprised look asked the question for her.
He continued, seeing the look of surprise on her face. “Yes. His sister!”
It meant something to her. “Her!”
Many of the little pieces began to fall into place for her: his interest in her, his being here with her, and staying close to her. “So you did manage to find her at last, as we knew you would. I have seen her before, I think. I am glad you found her. She is nothing like her father or her brother. I thought you would find her with that old lady’s help. She is very beautiful!” Could she be jealous? There was a hint of feeling in the way she said it. “This is the wrong time for her to be here, except . . . does she know what her brother is capable of, or her father before him, before he died?”
“She knows. We had a long talk last night about many things, but she still does not know me, and I am finding that difficult to understand. She is closing her mind to many things that she finds hurtful.” He would not try to hide what must have been obvious from Leonie, that they had both spent the night away from the boat and in the same hotel, but would not say anything about them having eventually shared the same room. She would not have judged him for that, anyway.
“And yet she trusted you despite not recognizing you. She must sense something about you. She is blind but not so blind. She does not yet know who you are or even that she loves you, yet she trusted you as few women might. I wonder how long it will take her. What is holding her back? However, I do not think she likes to think of you with me. I saw the look in her eyes as I stole you away. She may not know who you really are, and yet she resents me taking you away from her, so there is something there. She shows the hurt that she has suffered and is very confused. She also has the same blood as her brother and her father, and I would not like to be seen as the woman stealing her man from her. She was disappointed, even jealous; I could see that in her eyes, so you may be having an effect.”
He laughed gently. “She does not know who I am! I waited for her to recognize me as we sailed from Europe and a hundred times since then, but she didn’t.”
“Are you sure?” He nodded. He was very sure. “And yet you spent more than a year looking for her when you heard where she was, trying to find her. One day she will wake up and see you.”
He hoped the same. “She knows none of that, and I could not tell her. She is locked away in another life with a memory she cannot and will not easily relinquish and is still blinded by pain. It is both endearing as well as frustrating, but it needs time to change all that, as well as a very different setting than this boat and everything that has happened to her so far.”
“How can she not know you after you shared such a love?” She looked up into his face, recognizing his attempt to hide himself from the man he would face tonight. “Yes. The beard, which you now hide behind, those scars that she knows nothing about, and which draw the eyes away from looking into yours. Many men returning from that war have such scars, and were changed, within, because of their experiences. Yet you have not changed in all the time that I have known you, and even before you had that beard. She will eventually see the man behind it and not those other distractions. The eyes are the same, your good character and frustrating ability to resist all women, even me, your peculiar mannerisms. If she truly loved you, she would have known you in an instant when you looked at her, or spoke, with or without that beard. I would have.” He laughed at that.
“My eyes may not have changed, but the man and my life has, before you knew me. The river, and what happens on it, changes a man. She is holding on to a memory that is five years old, of a nineteen-year-old youth who no longer exists. She has that memory burned into her brain and her heart, and will see nothing else just yet. Nothing of that older memory has changed for her. However, the time will come when it will change and she will see me then for who I am, but I will not hurry that time along, no matter how much I wish it to happen. It is much safer for her if it happens slowly. When she looks at me she sees a stranger, an older and more scarred man, in both senses of the word; physically scarred and emotionally too, but I have made great progress. She now sees me, not as a threatening stranger, as she first did, but as a good friend. I will not jeopardize that by moving too quickly. Strange as it must seem, I think she may be falling in love with me again while believing that I am a different man. How she will be able to reconcile these two conflicts I do not know, but it will be interesting to see. I will settle for it happening, however it might happen, but I would rather that she wake up and see me for who I really am, rather than continue to see me only as Mr. Wyatt. That will soon change, however, when we get to her destination.
“I must admit that I hoped she might know me before now, as you said; but then, if she recognized me too easily, then so might her brother. It is better this way. At the moment she is afraid to open her eyes and see what is before her and have all those older and most precious memories driven off like a mist in the heat of morning, but never to find them again in the same way that she is desperately holding on to. Her father did recognize me, just before I recognized him. It almost cost me my life before he lost his. It would have done but for your intervention. I will not be that careless again. That is why I grew this beard.”
She shook her head. They were embarking upon a dangerous game that could be solved much more easily another way. “Why this plan now with all its dangers? Why not just shoot him? I would do it for you. It would achieve the same thing. The last of your enemies would be dead, and she would inherit the estate and know nothing of how it was done, or why.”