The Caroline

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You shouldn't be here.

She recovered after a few minutes and swam slowly around the pond until she came back to the rocks and her clothes. She stood up in the shallower water and wrung the water out of her hair. A movement in front of her, no more than a few feet away, caught her eye, and she stopped before dropping to her knees in the water as her hands rose to cover her breasts. She backed into the deeper water as she recovered her suddenly startled wits and trod water in some surprise as she spluttered and coughed from having taken in some water. There was someone sitting on her clothes. A man! She could not see him clearly at first. The sun blinded her, almost directly behind him on the high bank above him, but he had seen her. How could he not have seen her, and he must have been there for some time, watching her. She wiped at her eyes to get the water out of them.

The exact same thing had happened to her ten years earlier when she had been swimming then, except it had been a youth sitting on them that day and smiling mischievously at her: the Ibbotson boy, Henry. She felt a sudden stab of déjà vu. She had been thirteen and he fourteen. He had taken her by surprise then. That had been their strange introduction to each other. She had been in a panic and angry then too, though she had been partially dressed then. Rather than leave, as she had demanded, he had just smiled at her and she had gradually calmed down. She knew who he was, but they had never met. The Ibbotsons were not liked by her own family, though she did not know why.

He had ignored most of what she had said, and to her very great alarm, he had not been shy about taking off most of his own clothes and diving in with her, but she had always bathed in her petticoat and then had lain on those rocks afterward to dry it out.

After the initial shyness had worn off, thanks to him ignoring her concerns, they had dried out together that first time, as they had talked. She had never encountered a boy like him before and soon lost her shyness. They had slowly moved across that smooth sandstone to a different dry place as they dried. She had left a much larger damp patch than he did, with him only in his smalls, and then they had dressed with their backs turned to each other, and had gone their separate ways.

They had met there many times after that as they had matured and grown together and had developed a closer and closer relationship and a better understanding with each other that extended in other directions. They had not made love, though inevitably coming close to it as they had discovered more of each other as they had matured. She regretted that now. She had often wished, in subsequent years, that they had.

Her family knew none of it, and she preferred to keep it that way. They had been good memories, and she had few of those. Her father had warned her to keep clear of boys and told her the consequences if he ever caught her with one. He probably had the Ibbotson boy in mind with that warning.

She closed her eyes and opened them again. The mirage had not cleared. He was still there observing her and smiling, and her heart was still beating wildly at what she had momentarily thought and hoped, as though immersed in a dream. She felt an overwhelming disappointment followed by anger. It was Wyatt. He had removed his own shoes and socks and had his feet in the water, so he must have been observing her for some time. He had watched everything she had done. What had he not seen of her? How long had he been there? She had seen no one near that swimming hole, or approaching it or she would not have dared to do what she had. She realized that he might have been there all the time, even before she had ridden up, and had even watched her undress. She felt mortified, again.

Before she could say anything, he spoke, “It looks good in there and most inviting on such a hot day.” She saw, with deepening alarm, the way his mind was working.

“Don’t you dare!” He laughed at her sudden concern. She had no petticoat on this time as she had that first time, though they had sometimes bathed without any clothes together in that last year once they had grown to understand each other better and knew what their future together would be.

“Why not? It is devilish hot out here after my brisk walk, and you look so cool in there, and so inviting.” Just what did he mean by that?

“You know why not.”

“Damn!” He was smiling. “Yes, I do know, so I expect that I won’t.” She was a little reassured by that but not entirely. The water was too clear for her comfort, so she kept moving and stayed far out. How long had he watched her when she had floated there?

“How did you find this place? Not too many know about it. You are three miles from the house.”

“I walk fast, and I was curious after I saw you ride in here.” She was relieved to know that he had probably not watched her undress. “Had you not been here first, I would have done what you are doing. Since you don’t want me in there, I think you should come out and get yourself dressed, or we will be late for lunch.”

She swore under her breath at him.

“I heard that. Something most uncomplimentary.”

“I did not! I cannot come out with you there, sitting on my clothes, with me . . . as . . . I am.”

“Naked? Yes, I know. I saw. The water is very clear.” He was smiling. She blushed to hear that, knowing it to be true. Am I sitting on your clothes? Well, so I am. Why not? You weren’t so discomforted or shy in Vicksburg when you spent the night in my room, even in my arms, dressed only in my nightshirt, and daringly suggested that we could exchange—though not exchange, as I was still dressed—night clothes.” He recalled too much. “Although you were in some panic, when you thought to climb out of my bed this morning and discovered that you had nothing—almost nothing—covering you.” She hoped there was no one else to hear their voices or what he was saying about his room and his bed, even though one of those nights, it had been in her room. “I will close my eyes, if you like, while you come out and get yourself dressed, and then we can go back together as you point out other things of interest.” He was daring to suggest something she had no intention of doing. Like any man, he would promise anything to get her out of there, and then he would break it.

“I am on horseback, and she cannot carry two adults. You will need a head start to beat me back. I also have no intention of getting out, with you watching me.”

“No, I suppose not. How disappointing, and I suppose Hannah would see to me departing very quickly if she heard anything of this, or she would poison me, as I think I heard her contemplating.” She watched as he dried his feet off with his handkerchief and then put on his socks and shoes. He stood up. “Are you sure you won’t come out? I promise that I will close my eyes, or at least I promise to try.” She said nothing, which was a wise thing to do, as she was both angry with him and embarrassed at having been caught, and observed for some time. “Very well, I shall walk back, and you may catch up with me when you have seen to yourself. I am truly sorry if I startled you.” She doubted that. He had a broad smile on his face.

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