“I do not think that I have been able to rest like that for some years! You were certainly asleep when I walked in and were somewhat difficult to bring back to the real world, no matter how much noise I made, so I stopped trying, and I decided that I had better not shake you! You were also mumbling a little, as though in conversation—perhaps you were arguing with yourself, and then you were breathing heavily—though a gentleman should never point that out to a lady—having relaxed after winning, or losing that debate with yourself! I had not the heart to wake you after that, though I did, didn’t I!” She was blushing profusely. He must have watched her for some time to have noticed all of that. Indeed, he had said as much. How long had he sat and watched her? What had he seen of her? What had he drawn? She really would like to see what he might have been drawing of her.
“I assure you that you were not rambling in any unpleasant way. It was quite entrancing—I believe I actually laughed at one point—a response to the way you were crunched up in such a tight ball, and obviously comfortable. You also did not say anything that made any sense, so you need not fear having betrayed any confidences or secrets, though I am sure you must have many of them. I would also call it a ladylike snore, though I suppose that is some kind of contradiction. I was totally captivated. I fear I may have laughed a little, I did say that already, and perhaps it was that laugh that might have woken you up. May I sit with you, or after my stupid clumsiness, would you prefer that I was gone? I did not intend to disturb your obviously pleasant rest or frighten you. I will go elsewhere if you tell me that I must.”
She still felt heated, and flustered, but less so. “No! This is your home, and I am the guest. I am where I should not have been at this hour. Perhaps I am the one that should be gone, back to my room.” She gathered herself as though to stand up, but hesitated as he spoke.
“I would be disappointed if you desert me so soon after our first meeting. Georgiana would certainly roast me for causing you to abandon such comfort before we have come to know each other even a little. I do not usually encounter entrancing young women in my library when I return late, but must fend for myself. I would appreciate some of your pleasant and charming company for a change, even if only for a few minutes. If you rush off too soon I might begin to think that I had merely dreamed this meeting.” He smiled at her and disarmed some of her immediate fears. He was pleased to see that she was no longer as concerned as she had been and even smiled at him a little, at his attempted humor. “Please excuse me if I seem scatterbrained and forgetful, but my mind seems to be playing tricks on me. I have the feeling you and I have met before. Something about the eyes—there is that look in them, the hair, the shape of your face, your expression.” He had a strange and puzzled look on his face, trying to recall something. “But I could be mistaken. I often am.”
“We have not met, sir! I would have known it!” He seemed to see the same disturbing qualities in her that Georgiana had noticed. She and Oliver had been remarkably alike in so many ways. Surely he would not have seen that so soon.
“Yes, I believe so too. What a pity, though we will now make up for that, and yet . . .”
She felt hot and discomforted again for some reason, and her brain was still in turmoil. She had been in London society from time to time with Oliver, as well as alone, but she had never encountered Mr. Stavely to her knowledge. She would surely have remembered that. Could he perhaps see some resemblance to Oliver in her own face or in her mannerisms in the same way that his sister had, but without being able to put a name to them?
“Yes, I would have known it too!” He seemed far off and thoughtful. “You would not be easily forgotten! You would not be forgotten at all! So you have been here all of two months at least, and I have managed to avoid you somehow, or you me, in my infrequent and all-too-brief visits. But then I have also managed to avoid my sister too, many of those times, but not intentionally. There has been too much going on of late, though now coming to an end, fortunately.” He put those thoughts from himself.
She found she was being scrutinized with some interest, but not in a way that might discomfort her, though he did not disclose those of his thoughts. “Tell me, Miss Wakefield, are you hungry? I am. I have not eaten since lunchtime, and I had precious few breaks since then, as I rode down from the north. If I smell of horses, or if there might be hay in my hair, it is because I had to see to my horse first, and I did not wish to disturb the stable hands at this hour, though one of them did help me. After I wash, I often raid the pantry when I come home late like this. I have to be contented with my own company, and would be happy if you would sit with me and share some food while we talk. I would appreciate a more refined and genteel, society and scenery about me than I have been used to, and I feel we should learn more about each other while we can, rather than just snippets of information in letters. My sister did relate something of you and was obviously grateful for your support and presence at this time. It is no fun for her to be stuck out here away from London as she is, but she prefers it out here. I am sure she must have told you something of me by way of warning (she had done nothing of the kind), so we are not entirely strangers to each other, though we have not encountered each other in the flesh—until now.” She noticed that he was not careful in his use of language and might easily be taken amiss by anyone who was a stickler for proper expression.
He still had a strange and faintly puzzled look on his face, as though he were not yet fully convinced that they had not met somewhere. “I must leave early in the morning after I have spoken with Georgiana! I missed you on my last visit, so I would be disappointed if I were to scare you off, or lose your company now, before I get chance to know more of you. I can even offer you a beer, or perhaps a less robust small beer may be less objectionable, and it may help you sleep better, if that was your reason for being in here with that boring book, guaranteed to drive you to sleep.” He had picked it up from the floor where it had fallen and placed it upon the small table after reading the title. “That is, if you do not object to beer. If you do, I can offer you more milk perhaps, or even cider or wine.” She doubted she would sleep for some time after the shock he had given her!
“I am not properly dressed.” He had avoided looking at her too closely, or commenting upon what was obvious, for fear of offending her and seeing her rush off.
“Is that all? I am not sure that I noticed.” She knew better than to believe him, but he was striving to protect her feelings, as a gentleman would. “Neither am I, if it comes to that. I can assure you that you are adequately and charmingly dressed for such a . . . late and impromptu repast, but then no one will be likely to see you, or us, to be able to criticize anything, and I promise to say nothing if you will also forgive me for having encountered you as I did.” She smiled at him. He began to feel forgiven.
“It sometimes takes me a while for my mind to adjust and to settle to the tranquility of the house after one has lived in noisy hostelries, as I have for the last few weeks. Yes, you are dressed entirely suitably for a late-night repast. The light is low. The company is congenial and, I hope, not at all threatening to you. There is no one to criticize either of us. Of the two of us, I am the one improperly dressed and not at all as a gentleman, while you are unmistakably . . .” His voice broke off, realizing that if he gave voice to his thoughts, he might distress her. “I shall try to imagine that you are Georgiana.” He would be able to do nothing of the kind, but his reassuring words, if not his cautious eagerness to keep her with him might at least reassure her a little. “I would be hurt and disappointed if I had scared you so much that you must run off from such a promising meeting and leaving me here to wonder how I might have offended you. It would quite rob me of my appetite.” She sat still as she considered what would be the wisest thing for her to do and ensured that she was as protective of herself as she might be, in the way she sat. The wisest course of action would be to retire, but something held her back from doing that.
She began to pay more attention to him. She had not noticed before then, that he was in his stocking feet and that he was in just his shirt and breeches and was mud-spattered and travel-stained, as he had mentioned earlier. His short hair was ruffled as though he had dried it vigorously with a towel and then had taken off without trying to see it brushed. He seemed relaxed, if tired looking; and when she thought about it, she actually did not feel as uncomfortable in his company as she had expected she might, for he did not pay her any special attention that seemed out of place or embarrassing, but the light, as he said, was low.
“Georgiana frequently floats about dressed in less than that after she has awoken when I come through.” She was not sure she believed him.
“She is your sister. I am not.”
“Yes, she is. Then I shall find you a robe in the laundry room downstairs. Perhaps that may ease your concerns.” He could see that it might. “We are a family that has little use for formality, as I am sure you have already found. If you have the courage to stay in my company, and you are doing well so far . . .” he smiled “. . . I might be able to offer you a robust cheese and onion sandwich, perhaps with some pickles if I can find them, and if not, we can always dig out a ham instead, and there are sure to be pies and even cake. The cook always leaves enough out for me, for I do come through like this from time to time. On my last visit, two weeks ago now, I encountered no one at all, for I ate, slept in that chair you were just in, and then took off again after leaving a note for Georgiana.” She remembered. They had read it together. “I hope cheese is not too indigestible at this late hour and will not keep you awake.”
She shook her head and set her auburn hair dancing charmingly. She thought for a moment and then spoke. “Beer will do! Yes, I am hungry. I am capable of raiding the kitchen too, for I used to do it often enough at Fall—” She almost blurted out the name of her home estate, Fallowfield, and how she and Oliver had done the same thing, but held back in time. He did not comment other than to repeat what she had started to say.
“At Fall…?” He pronounced it as she had, with a sharp and short “a,” but could not know what she had started to say. He did not inquire further, and she did not finish what she had started. “Then why don’t we do that and bring it back here to eat, while we talk. This room is warmer than anywhere else, except the kitchen.”