Please do not be alarmed Miss Wakefield.
He helped her to her feet. “If you do not object, Miss Wakefield, I shall accompany you to your bedroom.”
“Oh no, sir! You must not!” Now there was genuine concern in her voice.
“Oh dear! Clumsy of me. I merely wish to recover some of my clothing there. You did tell me about it. I do not intend anything wrong by you, surely you know that of me by now. I shall behave as a gentleman should. At least I shall try.” He walked with her to the door. “Perhaps as a gesture of my sincerity, and somewhat more reassuring than my word, I should give you this to keep by you.” He picked up a small pistol from the table by the door. He had placed it there when he had first entered the room. “I am usually never without one. I can assure you that it is loaded. It may allow you to sleep more easily with the threat of my presence hovering close by. That is, if you know how to use one.”
“I was taught about pistols and guns, though I hate them and what they can do. Nonetheless, I am a reasonably good shot.”
“Are you?” He seemed to doubt her. “Not many women do, or would wish to handle one. Then keep it by you. It might give you some slight reassurance. I did recover from my earlier mood. I am not plotting anything threatening with you, but would like to retrieve enough of my clothing for tomorrow, before either of us retires. I am sure you would vociferously object if I were to come in there shortly after daybreak and severely disrupt your peace of mind with what I might intend, while you clutch your bedding about you and up to your chin, as you scream for help and set the entire house and even the dogs against me. None of us present at our best so early in the morning, whereas I can assure you that you need not fear any deficiency in my behavior at this moment.” She smiled at that, realizing the possible truth of it. “Now you do not need to scream or cry out—you can shoot me instead. I am sure Mrs. Forster and my sister would both approve if you were to do that. Some of my more distant relatives might also feel a debt of gratitude to you.”
He accompanied her along to her bedroom, recognizing her remaining concern that others might be abroad and see them together, and draw the wrong conclusion, seeing how lightly she was dressed and his own informal state of dress. He rummaged in his closet, as she held the candle for him, and sorted out two complete changes of clothing, which he laid aside so that he might at least leave in a fresh change of clothes in the morning, possibly before most of the house might be stirring, though he would need to call in on Georgiana and tell her some of his plans. His sister was always pleased to see him, no matter the hour, even if he did wake her from sleep.
“There, I have everything that I will need. I must now leave with some regret and bathe in the laundry room, while there are no others about who might blunder in upon me.” He turned to her. “Are you sure you would not like to share a gentle and comforting good-night kiss. I always do, with my sister.” As she also had been used to doing with Oliver. He smiled at her.
She stepped back from him. There was a small area of red on her cheeks. “But I am not your sister, sir!”
“No. You are right—it was improper. Good night then, Miss Wakefield! Charlotte! Yes, we did almost get rid of that particularly stifling formality, though not of any other just yet. I shall not trespass or overstay my welcome, as I would like to do. Foolish of me to give you my pistol, now that I think of it. We made remarkably good progress, and I would hate to lose it so soon, so I shall be satisfied with but dreaming of a kiss. Though like the fair Celia, you quite took my breath away when you did ’drink to me only with thine eyes.’ You did, you know?” He smiled at her. “And I believe I may have ’pledged with mine’ in return. Ben Jonson’s ‘To Celia.’” He had.
“I know it well, sir. ’Or leave a kiss but in the cup, and I’ll not look for wine.’” She smiled at him. “So that shall be the extent of our kiss.” She had not been about to object to his suggestion that she had looked at him in that way. He had looked at her in the same way. “Good night, Mr. Stavely, Henry.” Before she could stop herself, she had blurted out her thoughts. “Next time you come through, perhaps.” It had been a tempting offer and one that she had had difficulty resisting, with him in such a gentle and sad mood. His speaking of her brother had deeply affected her, as it had affected him, and she needed comforting in so many ways, but it was too soon to trust him with any of her own secrets.
He smiled sadly. “Ah. A promise of a gentle good-night kiss—Jove’s nectar indeed, but in the always indefinite future, sure to torment my rest. I shall hold you to that, Charlotte. I shall live for that moment, and I shall rely upon you to tell me when that might be, or I shall risk being shot, as I would deserve.” He retreated to the door and turned to close it behind himself, finding her there to do it for him. He stood there and looked at her in the doorway. He was obviously torn between many emotions. “Yes, I did give you my pistol, didn’t I? So I must control myself and go, or suffer injury.”
He seemed sad, perhaps still thinking of Oliver. She could not leave him like that. “Henry.” She shook him from his sad distraction by using his name so gently.
“Yes, my dea—” He stalled himself from going further with what he had almost unconsciously said, in his tiredness, that would certainly make them both blush, though she did color up at what would have been a familiar, endearing address. “I somehow feel that I am with Georgiana, I am at ease with you, and you should take that as a compliment.” She did.
“Please close your eyes.” He did so without questioning why, but he could hope.
“I shall trust you, where . . .” He fell silent. He would not berate her, however gently, for not trusting him earlier. “Yes, I am sure I dropped a few bits and pieces too.” He felt her move in front of him and then felt the gossamer web of her wrap, drift lightly across his hand, then her alarmingly soft warm body lean up against his arm, and her hand touch the side of his head, as a light kiss brushed upon his lips. He froze. His hand rested upon her side for just a moment as his eyes opened wide in time to see her quickly retreat from him before he could respond and hold her there as he so wanted to do. She closed the door, leaving him shocked, speechless, and his heart pounding. He heard the lock turn.
He had forgotten to breathe for some moments. He lifted his hand and touched his lips where she had, just a few seconds earlier, presented him with the kiss he had asked for. He knew that he had been right about the feelings he had sensed between them. He placed it upon the door, wishing that it would disappear from between them at that moment, with all of the difficulties that that would create. He could not know that she had done exactly the same thing on the other side of it, as she leaned in against the door, suddenly overwhelmed by something that she felt. Neither of them could know that their hands were but an inch apart. She began to panic over what she had done and possibly might have encouraged. She had not expected any of this to happen. She had given in to impulse without thinking. She realized that she could not stay here, in Stavely, and risk discovery at his hands. There was a different and more immediate concern facing her now, and another secret to hide. She must leave! Yet she couldn’t. She had promised Oliver.
Henry stood there for a few moments, analyzing his heightened feelings, and then was distracted by a movement in the dark out of the corner of his eye. One of the dogs had come upstairs, seeking warmth and company, and bringing a bone with him. He dropped it when he saw Henry and then retrieved it again and stood, wagging his tail and banging it against the railings.
Henry heard the lock turn again and heard footsteps move back to her bed. She had unlocked her door! His mouth was suddenly dry. Now why had she done that? Perhaps so that Georgiana might visit her if she felt in need of company. Of course she had heard the dog and must have assumed he had gone back to the library, which is what he should do, though God knows he would rather stay.
He felt confused. He knew what he had learned but was not sure what he might be able to do about it without destroying himself, and hurting her. He picked his way back to the warmth of the library, followed by the dog, which settled itself in front of the fire and lay out to sleep. Charlotte had left him with a lighter heart than he had felt for some years, but also with a lot to think about before ever he might sleep himself.
He went over in his mind all that had happened to him since he had walked into that same room. It would never be the same to him. He was not entirely sure what had just happened, but whatever it was, it was thought-provoking in so many ways. To lose one friend and then to find another so like him in so many ways, for all she was a woman, was strange. She had seemed to become more than a friend even as they had spoken and relaxed together. He did not fully understand it. He dared not assume more than that, yet he knew that he could. It had been a mutual feeling that had grown between the two of them even in the brief moments they had shared. He looked at the clock. Was that the time? They had spoken for two hours and more. All thought of bathing in front of the fire in the laundry room before anyone else was up and about had left him. He would wait until morning. He had no need to rush off too soon.
He was still thirsty after eating, so he returned to the scullery, followed by the dog, and refilled the pitcher with a stronger beer before he returned to the library, intending to go over in his mind what he had learned of Miss Charlotte Wakefield. He picked up the book that Charlotte had been reading, but his mind would not focus for long enough to read even one paragraph, so he picked up his sketchbook once more to try and capture some of those images of her that he had consciously held captive in his mind.
After he had drawn several pages of images, as quickly as he could, and then had filled in a some details, still fresh in his restless mind, he put his book down and reflected upon everything that had happened in the last two hours or so that had so changed his world about him. He knew what he had seen, what he had felt, and what he had experienced, and had seen the same things in her, but she was made of more sturdy moral substance than he was. Just as well. He was not in a safe mood. Why had she unlocked her door again? Was it for Georgiana? He dare not dwell on that either. He was still caught up in thought some minutes later when he heard a gentle noise outside of the library door, which he had left ajar. He knew it was not another one of the dogs. He hoped that it was the one he thought it might be and had to wonder at what might have drawn her back to the library, if it was her. He closed his eyes and made it appear as though he were asleep.