The Caroline

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How could I have been so blind?

She raised his hand to her face and held it close to her cheek. “We were really alone only that once, that night in Vicksburg, and I still did not know you, but it was beginning to feel different. I began to question my own feelings. You were beginning to have a disturbing effect on me, and I did not understand it. I was falling in love with you. I had lost all fear about your intentions toward me about then, or I would never have dared appear in that nightshirt but would have dressed.”

“I am glad that you didn’t. You can have no idea how disturbing to my peace of mind, you were when I saw you outlined in the doorway with the light behind you and shining through that well-worn nightshirt of mine. I was not sure I would survive that excitement.” She laughed at that confession. She had been unaware of any of that, but was pleased that he had told her of it, and that she had excited him as she always had been able to. “As if that were not enough, you speculated about how I should really have my own nightshirt on, and you, yours, and that we could make that happen there and then, in the dark that was not so very dark. I almost died. I had seen your nightdress, and it was…well, not at all substantial.” She began to appreciate the constant little torments that she had unconsciously thrown in his way where she had done them consciously with him before. They had hidden little from each other eventually and had made their own plans for their life together when she would reach her eighteenth birthday, and she would go off with him to make their own lives together. Two weeks before that date, her family had intervened as violently as they had, and had destroyed those plans for them both.

“Thank you for telling me, Henry. I remember that there were few topics of conversation that we did not discuss. Were there?” She blushed up at him.

“Very few, my love.”

“I wanted to die when I thought about what might have happened to you, and that you had—” He stroked her face to comfort her. “In that room in Vicksburg, together, I know now that I began to suspect something that I did not clearly understand as we sat together. I recognized that I knew you from somewhere, but I was not sure how or from where. You let some strange things slip that did not register in my brain as they should have done at the time—waiting for that murderous visitor—though they did later, after I had more time to think about them. The moment had gone by, by then, and I could not be sure. I still did not recognize you for who you really were, but my senses were telling me that I needed to wake up and try to understand my own feelings. You could have told me, then. I think I would have been able to deal with it at that moment. I had a feeling about you, but I dare not believe any such thing.”

“Vicksburg was too dangerous.”

“Oh! Of course. That other . . . man. The distraction. Yes, you said as much.”

“No! I misled you a little. There was only the one person who was the most danger for you then. Me! Especially the way you were dressed in that nightshirt of mine. No one else. I wanted to tell you then who I was, and almost did, but you were in a strange mood. So was I, holding you close in my arms as we lay together just as we used to, and with no complaint from you about the impropriety of it all. It would not have been safe for you had I thought for one minute…about….” He sighed and kissed her as she lifted her face to his. He swallowed hard and exhaled over a few seconds, as though to calm his tormented feelings. “It still isn’t. You, alone with me, in my room for almost an hour after five years apart.” She knew what he was telling her and could read it in his eyes. She felt elated, seeing and knowing about each other, almost as though they had picked up where they had left off, five years earlier, and ready to move forward again but with much less hesitation. She blushed, unable to meet his eyes for just a moment, and then laughed. She knew exactly how he felt. It mirrored her own feelings. “Perhaps it is not safe for you to be here with me, Henry. You must have read my last letter to you and thought about what I wrote.”

“I read it many, many times. I left you my outspoken response in my own letter, but you had gone by then, and I did not know where to find you. I wrote to your grandmother, but she did not get my first letter—though I did not know that at the time—and I did not have a direction for your mother to ask her. I was lost.”

She reached up and stroked his face. They had both felt a similar pain. “I told you in my letter that I regretted how we had not made love before you had been taken from me, despite us coming close to it so many times, and that if you would but come back into my life, I would not hesitate again.” She paused and closed her eyes. “I still would not.” She looked up at him after that confession and smiled. “No one will disturb us. If you would like….” She sat up a little and began to slowly and shyly unbutton her dress at the neck.

He stopped her after the third button, by holding her hands still. She felt him trembling as he leaned his head against hers. “God knows that I would like to, but I must not at this moment. We will have time later, my love. We have waited ten years. A few more hours will not make much difference, and it will be the better for waiting.” She knew that what he said was true. This was not the time or the place, but she knew that she could so easily have overridden him and moved it forward had she insisted, or could have gently moved his hands aside and continued.

“I should have known you long before now, Henry, with all the little clues that you dropped. I would have done, but for your beard and that scar that my brother gave you, and for everything else that was distracting me; especially meeting my argumentative brother as I did, and inflaming all those old and very hurtful feelings. Then there was his attempt on my life—it had to be him behind it—and the dangers that we both faced in Vicksburg, as well as the temptations that we both felt and that you resisted so well. Perhaps that was why I felt so very safe in your company.”

“I expect and hope so. However, you were not as safe as you assumed. You are still not safe with me.” She knew that for herself but delighted in that feeling.

“I am only as safe as I want to be?” He had often told her that. He nodded. “But I don’t want to be safe, Henry. I have had five years of that, and a truly miserable time I had of it. I want to be cherished, held, and loved. I’ve dreamed of nothing else.” He understood her mood. “Then, before temptation overcomes us both, as it is sure to do if we stay here with the mood both of us are in, and makes us forget about my grandmother and everything else, we should go and have a coffee before we join her and learn what she has in mind. It might be better if you tell me first what you both plan for me. I shall accept it, whatever it is, as long as it involves us both.”

He laughed. “I cannot tell you what is planned now. I thought I knew, but I do not know what she plans now any more than you seem to, but it obviously must involve us both. I saw her two days ago for just three hours. I opened my heart to her and told her everything that had happened to us both in the last four weeks and asked for her help before I made a bigger mess of everything, as I did with that very personal contract.” Caroline nodded as she listened. She had done essentially the same thing. Her grandmother would know what to do. Henry continued talking.

“She told me that you and she would meet me on the river as I suggested, today, just as we did, when I came down with this boat again. She wanted to make sure that all was well between us, one way or another, as we went down to New Orleans before we returned, but I think it already is as well as it can be between us.” He knew it was, by the way they both smiled, and held on to each other. “However, whatever it is that she has planned, we must ensure that she can carry it out and with our full cooperation. I think she has had little enough excitement in her life over the last five years, with one small exception, that she needs to do this for us in order to feel alive again.

“I told her that I could delay leaving Memphis so that we would be at a certain place on the river, at a certain time, and that we would whistle to let her know that we were coming. I was afraid that you would be so angry with me for not telling you who I really was before I left, and hurting you by doing that, that you would never want anything to do with me again, and I was not even sure you would be there with her. Before I left, I did make sure that you got your property back and even that contract that I had hoped to keep secret, especially from you. I am sure you did not understand my peculiar interest in that.”

“I understand it now, Henry. I understood it before I saw your full name signed there, proclaiming that you were the proud possessor of Caroline Henstridge, me, even if only on paper. That will soon change now. However, not yet being sure that you had the woman it referred to, me, you would desperately hang on to that instead. How little faith you had in yourself, or knew of me, after so long apart; but that was my own fault for not seeing you for who you were as soon as I should have done. Yet who am I to say anything? I thought that you had given up on me, and had abandoned me after I frustrated you by continuing not to know who you were. I realize now that I came so close to recognizing you so many times. Vicksburg was when you first began to chip away at me as we talked together and disclosed our innermost feelings and secrets to each other, and then, when you wished me a happy birthday…! You could not have learned that from the cover of that book. The date was partially obliterated.” He put his arms about her and pulled her closer as he kissed her on her forehead.

“I had forgotten.” He had forgotten nothing.

“I took a look inside that book again. It had been inscribed ’with love, from Henry.’ Henry only. Not Henry Ibbotson. Then, when you came upon me while I was swimming in that place where we shared so much, and matured together, I did not see you approach. I was almost out of the water when I saw you sitting on my clothes as you had done all of those years before; ten years ago now.”

He corrected her with a smile. “You were entirely out of the water, my love. You set my heart a-fluttering. You were just as mature as I remembered, and as nature had blessed you when we swam together and lay on those rocks together to dry off.” He was smiling at her blushes. “You used to drive me wild then too.”

“Yes, I did, didn’t I? I knew you for a moment, or thought I did with the sun behind you; but then I lost you again, and saw only Wyatt, and not the man I had hoped to see for just a second, and I retreated again.”

“Had you recognized me, you would not have retreated. You never had been so shy with me and had never retreated before. It was then that I realized that I should have taken my beard off sooner. If I had done so, none of this might be necessary, and we could have stayed and swum together as I wanted to.”

“And made love.” She blushed up at him again.

“And certainly we would have made love. An opportunity missed. You were quite annoyed with me when you saw who I was, without seeing who I really was.”

“Not for long after that. At dinner that evening, I was preoccupied with what I was learning about you that was still confusing me, and so much so that I missed Hannah addressing you as Henry.” He smiled at her. “I was still wondering how it could be that I was in love with two men: one of them, only a memory, and the other, a lovingly annoying person who had resisted giving me what I wished to recover; my name; my reputation.

“It was just a matter of time, my love. So near, so many times, and yet so far. That was why I wanted to hold on to that contract. It was a poor substitute for having you, the real woman; but it was all I might have at that moment, or ever, with you so annoyed with me. It was a dream partially fulfilled.”

He stood up. “We should go. I am curious what your grandmother has planned for us that has us leaving this boat much earlier than we had originally planned.”

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