The Caroline

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Taking charge.

“I believe I have one available.” She already knew that. They had made their plans earlier.

“Good. I shall also need one for my companion.” He was not expecting that, however. He thought that Caroline would be staying in the same cabin as her grandmother until they got down to New Orleans, giving both of them time to fill in the gaps and to get to know each other again without all of the unpleasant baggage that her brother had represented. He recovered quickly, realizing that the older woman had made changes to what they had discussed when he had visited her.

“She can have mine. I shall sleep in the pilothouse. There is a cot there.”

“It won’t get to that. We won’t be here that long, but she’ll need somewhere to rest, away from all my . . . questionablehabits.” That was not what they had discussed either. He saw her smiling at him. “Well, that was easier than I’d have thought. I would appreciate a cool drink too. It was hot sitting out in the full sun in that skiff waiting for you. It felt like hours.” He saw Caroline look at her, as unspoken messages passed between them concerning slight deceptions, and then smile up at him as he walked her back to the boat along the rafts, with him holding tight onto her to steady her on the uneven footing and the old woman holding on to his other arm. The boat began to pick up speed again as the skiff fell away.

“I am sorry if you were waiting long.” He knew they had waited for barely ten minutes, if that. He had told her the exact time they would be passing Crock’s point on their way downriver, and they had been on time to the minute. She had had a full day and more to get everything ready.

“I am both hungry and tired, Henry, and need to rest a little. You serve food on this tub, do you?” He smiled at her strange humor. She knew they did. “After that I shall need to rest to get over that shock to my system, but I will expect a visit from you both in my cabin after that to discuss how we are to go forward. My granddaughter is not quite herself, I see, after that harrowing little experience in the skiff.” She had seen the way she was hanging on to Henry’s arm, and it had nothing to do with that skiff ride. “At least I need to rest for a while. We shall meet in my cabin—here in an hour, all three of us—and find out what there is that we can do about this present situation while satisfying an old woman’s yearning for some excitement, now that I am able to get out into the world again, with all of my worst enemies gone.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He began to suspect that she had decided upon some other course of action than that which they had planned together, but she was not about to tell him about it until she was good and ready, but she always had been unpredictable.

Henry opened her cabin door and led the way in. It was the room that Caroline had occupied while she had been on the boat, but it was laid out a little differently, with two beds now. There were various bottles arranged on top of the dresser and some dainty finger foods and sandwiches already waiting there, as well as various preserves in brandy, and a selection of cheeses from England and Europe. She really had been expected. Henry poured her a glass of Napoleon brandy (one of the few good things to come out of France after the troubles) and passed it to her as she arranged herself in the comfortable chair that had been made ready for her. Everything was within reach. Even some ice. She waved them off and picked up a cheroot, which she rolled in her fingers as she held it up to her ear to assess how dry it might be. There was no obvious crackling sound. It had been well protected from the heat and had not had time to dry out and become fit only as a suppository to feague or ginger up a horse (as they say) to liven it up for show or sale, just as a well-directed squirt of tobacco spittle under the tail would do the same. She had everything she needed for the moment.

“Relax, Henry. It is not the end of the world. So I made a few changes to improve upon what we discussed.” She saw the smile on his face. They would both have to trust that she knew best and what was now needed.

“Well, take yourselves off then!” She waved them off. She could see that they were excited to see each other under different circumstances than they had, up until the moment they had come aboard, and they suddenly needed to be alone with each other. Not much privacy on a boat, though, except for the cabins. “I will see you both in one hour.” She watched them leave and smiled to herself as Henry closed the door with a wink at her and after mouthing the words thank you. They walked slowly around the deck, arm in arm and holding on to each other, without saying anything.

The old woman waited until she heard their footsteps on the deck fade before she lit her cheroot, sat back, and then reached for her brandy. The rest of what would happen had been carefully thought out in her own mind, but that pair needed time alone together after five years apart, and with her granddaughter only now waking up to who he was. She fished in the bottom of her purse and checked that both items were where she expected them to be. Henry would expect none of what she had now planned. There was a very old pack of playing cards with which she had whiled away many a sleepless hour of worrying, and a somewhat larger package, very carefully wrapped. If anyone had known what was in that particular package, she might never have made it onto the boat alive or might never leave it, except in a box.

Henry let them both into his cabin, finding that she immediately turned into his arms again to be kissed as he moved the door too with his foot. She left him in no suspense as to her great pleasure in finding him again now that she knew him. She rested her head on his shoulder and cried tears of happiness. He was content just to hold her.

Eventually, they both sat on the edge of his bed to recover, and talked as they held each other close, looking into each other’s faces as they turned to each other, and talked. They clasped hands as though afraid to let each other go. She gently took him to task.

“Why did you not tell me who you were, Henry? It would have made everything so much easier and more bearable after believing you were dead all of these years.”

“I wanted to, my love. I waited for you to recognize me on those docks in Liverpool, especially with me addressing you by name, but you did not see me at all. You saw . . . a rough and violent villain, which I was at that moment, seeing what those thugs had done to you, and . . . events did not make it easy.” She had to agree with that as he continued.

“When I thought about it, I think I was relieved that you did not seem to know me then. What could we have done about it? I could also see that you were concerned even about being alone with me in that dingy hotel room and with the door closed. I found that quite humorous. I wanted to laugh but dare not.”

“Had I recognized you, Henry, I would not have allowed you, or us, to leave so easily with five years to make up for.” Her eyes twinkled.

He laughed at her daring. “I know. It began to concern me. We had only just met again, and I could not be sure when you might become aware of who I was, and overwhelm me as I hoped you would. After that, we were never alone long enough to be able to talk, nor for quite some time as we would have needed to be, to revive those old memories. My work also kept me out of your way, or who knows what might have happened? I thought it better at that moment if I stayed out of your way as much as I could, and hoped that you might see me eventually for who I was.” He sighed. “But you didn’t.

“It soon became obvious to me, that you did not see me, because you had become convinced that I was dead when I was very much alive, close to you even, and determined to be in your life from that moment forward. I decided that I would show you gradually that I had not changed in any of the ways that you might have remembered. I knew that I must try not to rush things along and present you with what might have been too much of a shock to your system if I had revealed myself to you too soon. I am sorry if I caused you any difficulty by that, but I was afraid…of what might….”

“You should have told me as soon as you could,” she gently berated him again. He could see that the tears of happiness were not so far away. He would kiss them away if they began.

“Yes, I should have, but there were so few opportunities. Then, your brother distracted you, and I was still needed to take over some duties on the boat as I tried to relearn the river while trying not to let you too far out of my sight. There were so many other things that needed to be addressed.” He referred to Leonie and her father and their plans, hatched long before that, to deal with her brother. Especially before her brother might succeed in his own—all-too-obvious plans after that confrontation with his sister.

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