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The Elusive Miss Wakefield

By johnksutherland All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Adventure

An Uncertain Welcome

A few days later, Charlotte returned after being absent for most of a second week, amid a great deal of bustling about of servants to bring in all of her luggage. She seemed glad to be home—relating the news that all of her sister’s children were recovering well from their brush with disease. She directed that her trunks should be unpacked in the laundry room and the clothing consigned to the boiler. They had been washed once, just before she left her sister’s home, but instructed that they were to be washed again upon her arrival.

Her first question as she gave up her traveling cape and gloves and hat, was to know where the boys and their nanny were. Whenever she had been away before, even for just a few hours, they had always been waiting expectantly for her return, and she looked forward to being overwhelmed by their excited welcome. She had thought of little else on the long drive from the north. Surely she had not been away so long that they had forgotten her! Yet they were not waiting for her and were nowhere to be seen. Had they not received her note to say what day she would be home? Most unusual, for they should at least be quite close to the main house.

She learned from Davis that they were out and about somewhere close, doing what boys do, and had been for most of the last two weeks while she was away! She did not like the thought of them running wild like little savages and being given too much freedom! She would learn more from their nanny. She felt quite concerned at what she might find.

She took her mother to task. “You have neglected them, Mama, in not insisting they stay closer to home. They might be injured. They cannot be trusted to fend for themselves, even with a nanny, for they are too young to know of danger, and there are more than enough of those out there that young boys cannot possibly be aware of. I suppose I must be grateful that I am not returning to find one or other of them at death’s door or with a broken limb, but I could not take them with me and expose them to that illness, or they might have been laid up, as Sophia’s children were. I only dared leave when I knew that they had been free of it for some days and that I would not be carrying it with me. What a hectic time I had of it, I can tell you!” Charlotte’s criticisms just bounced off her mother.

“They have a new friend, my dear! I fear you may not recognize them with all of the changes while you have been away.”

“What changes? I doubt they have grown so much. I have only been away for two weeks. What new friend?” She knew of no other boys in the area that were their age that they might play with.

“I am sure it will feel like two years, my dear, when you meet them. I barely recognized them myself in the last few days, and I have been here to witness it all.”

“Witness what? So what caused such a sudden change? My boys with a new friend? Do I know him? Is he local? Would I approve? I doubt I would have given my permission.”

Her mother chuckled and continued with her embroidery. “Do you know him, indeed! Ha! Just you wait, my dear. I am sure you will be excited too. You will be pleasantly surprised, at least I hope so. I was! He knows you so well, and it is certainly obvious that you must have known each other exceedingly well at one time.” Her eyes twinkled with some secret meaning, but she was bottling away whatever she itched to say, or ask! Charlotte was quite puzzled. It almost sounded as though her mother were playing charades and that she must guess what she did not know from these various clues.

“He is not quite as young as you seem to be assuming—much older than the boys, and he is not from this locality. He was at the university with Oliver, and even has Oliver’s ring.” Her mother was bubbling with excitement. “He has been here for some time and has been an instant hit with James, as well as Oliver Henry. They are out nearly all day, every day if the weather is good, and if not, then they are in the library or exploring the attics, or elsewhere, though all under the cautious eyes of their nanny and Anne. They had been taken to visit some ruins and to climb to the top of Cronkley something-or-other, for a picnic. They have even been fishing, and Lord knows what else. Seeing the changes in them both, one might almost assume they had been held prisoner here and restrained from doing what boys seem to need to do.”

Charlotte did not feel comfortable or reassured by any of what she was hearing and did not fully understand what her mother was talking about. Surely he could not have come back from India, or have found them so quickly, or without some warning from others in London.

“I know of no such individual!”

“Of course you do!” Her mother sounded quite frustrated. “James’ and Oliver’s father, my dear! He’s come back from India! He’s been here all of two weeks!”

It was at just that moment that Henry walked in, disheveled and muddied, with James and Oliver on either side of him, capturing everyone’s attention, or her mother would have seen how pale Charlotte had suddenly become, and had the look of a hunted deer that had suddenly been cornered by dogs. She was standing rooted to the spot in shock at the unexpected vision presented to her. She suddenly felt as though she were fighting for air, and the room began to swirl about her.

She was torn between various conflicting feelings and emotions, as both boys threw themselves excitedly at her, demanding to be picked up and kissed as she sat down heavily in the chair behind her at their excitement. Henry stood back and smiled to see her reception of both boys, and her obvious shock at seeing him, and what his presence at Fallowfield might mean for her and them. She hugged both boys, feeling a second wave of weakness and anxiety envelop her. He was here! He had found her, and must obviously know who she was and everything she had done to deceive him, especially about young Oliver. Yet he did not seem angry with her. Her boys were still here, and they were unharmed, obviously healthy, and happy.

How had he found them? Why was he here, if not to remove her boys? Yet from what her mother said, he had been here two weeks and had not done so. He would certainly not feel kindly toward her after what she had done, and had kept hidden from him, and yet he was smiling upon her. He was more than smiling. She had lived with that vision of him on his face as he was looking at her now, for all of six years. Her eyes were swimming with tears, and her head was spinning. She felt faint.

Henry recognized that she was stupefied to see him, and undoubtedly not sure of her reception after deserting him and his parents without warning six years earlier. She was still in shock and slumped back further down into the chair as though it might hide her away in its cushions. He walked over to her, and as the boys settled themselves on either side of her, he leaned over and even kissed her upon the cheeks before she knew what he was about to do.

She began to recover and fussed over them as a mother would. The look she directed up at Henry then told him everything he needed to know. The tears of happiness flowed; she could not let him go, nor him, her. No one else existed in the room then, except for him and the children who watched it all unfold, and only partially understanding it.

“How did you find me?” Her eyes moved from him to the children and back again. The children looked healthy. Their cheeks were rosy, their hair, untidy and windblown. They were even grubby, and there was a small scratch on the back of James’s hand. She calmly accepted a salamander without even seeing it properly, and did not scream and drop it as most women might, finding a relatively cool and clammy body in her hand. The boys’ great good health and high-spirited welcome of her were suddenly ignored. They were as she had hoped to find them. Henry watched with some interest to see how she might respond to him once the first moment of surprise had passed. At the same time, she was pale at the sudden apparition presented to her. He knelt in front of her by the chair.

“It is so good to see you again, Charlotte, my love, and in obvious good health and looking chipper and in high trim. Motherhood definitely agrees with you! You have no idea how much I have missed all of you! Your letters—many as they were—seemed so few, and with far too long between them, and you did not tell me often enough what I most ached to know (she had), but just enough to keep me going and hoping. Not a single day went by that I did not think of you!” He looked at James and Oliver sitting on either side of her, as his hand rested on Oliver’s head. “Those letters were also deficient in several astonishing ways, as I soon found out when I came here to see you, and discovered two boys, and not just one. You can have no idea how I felt when I discovered that.” She was still in shock. “But why are you so surprised to see me here? Surely you knew that I would one day return to you, for I promised you that I would.”

He leaned over and kissed her tears away as her sister—who had just entered the room—and mother looked on, with tears on their own faces. “You look as radiant as ever! Has it actually been six years, and two boys now? He could see the mixed feelings in her expression—overwhelmed to see him and yet cautious of him being there so unexpectedly. She was too shocked to give him any obvious sign of welcome, for she was thinking only the worst. He was a ghost from her past, both welcome in some ways and not entirely welcome in others if his presence might threaten all that she had worked to protect. She found that she was feeling both guilty at having deserted him as she had and afraid for what his presence might mean, and yet also feeling the first stirrings of excitement at it too. She was speechless, not knowing what to say to him.

“Yes. I expect I am quite a surprise from the past, appearing without warning here, at Fallowfield. I am sorry I could not warn you better, but I did not know your direction until recently and did not arrive until after you had gone off to Lancaster. I would have liked you to be the first to have greeted me after all of these years, but it was not to be. I was, however, able to make the acquaintance of these two adventurous boys who clearly love you so much, and I have insinuated myself into their affections. Am I forgiven?” He still held her hand and kissed it as he looked her in the eyes. There was still uncertainty, but she was also blushing at the intensity of his gaze. He smiled as he took the cold salamander from her hand. “Quite a surprise, I expect, and I am sorry for that. You little thought to see me again so suddenly without some kind of warning. I did not mean to startle you so rudely out of some years of peace. I just got back from India about two weeks ago and rushed over as soon as I might, when I learned of your direction. I resisted the urge to head on to Lancaster, as my turbulent emotions demanded of me, and decided to renew my acquaintance with James. The last time I saw him, he was busy . . .. He was a hungry little tyke, wasn’t he? Then what do I find, but that young James has a brother.”

Mrs. Morton was looking on, suddenly hopeful again, where she had agonized for years and had not known what to believe until Henry had suddenly shown up as in an answer to a prayer. The sight of him had answered so many of her own questions and in quite the nicest way.

He watched as the boys were taken off to be bathed by their nanny and Anne, before they might join the adults again. He interrupted their progress for a few moments as he gave James the salamander to release at the edge of the garden away from birds and cats.

“You will come and see us, won’t you, Mama, and Henry too? We missed you so much, and I have so much to tell you about what Henry and Oliver and I did. He is such fun! Nothing like Nanny or Anne. Aunt Anne!” They watched them go off for their bath before dinner.

Henry flopped into a chair, able to take the weight off his feet at last. “Pardon. I do not mean to be ill mannered or insulting of your company, but I am thoroughly exhausted! James is not shy to give voice to his thoughts, whereas Oliver is more quiet. Undoubtedly, the age difference, though there is only what . . . seven months between them? May 8, December 10. The same age for five months of the year. Most unusual.” He took two glasses of port and passed one to Charlotte as he spoke in a lowered voice. “You are a remarkable mother, achieving something that no other mother ever managed—two births just seven months apart.” He then spoke in a more normal voice. “What a healthy pair they are! They have exhausted me each day with their never-ending questions, and with all of their walking and talking, though I suppose they found me just as inquiring, becoming a boy again. They were not to know it, but I cleverly learned all that I needed to find out about you from them. Sneaky of me, wasn’t it?” She said nothing, satisfied just to watch, to see him, and to listen, yet not sure what he might say next.

“Your letters told me nothing of young Oliver, so you can imagine my surprise when I walked in here that day. It was probably wise of you to keep me in the dark, or I would have returned far sooner, and the business would have suffered as a consequence. Two boys! Well, well! You should have married me properly, you know, and stifled so many questions, though I am sure there would have been others? I could not understand why you refused my offer of marriage earlier (Mrs. Morton stored that enlightening little pronouncement away. He had offered her marriage, and she had refused? Unthinkable! She would raise it with her daughter later), or took off as you did. I understand now, of course.” Charlotte’s cheeks had become quite rosy at the admissions and descriptions pouring forth, for others were listening too and absorbing it all for future discussion below stairs. I would never have gone to India had I known then what I know now.”

She began to recover herself, afraid of what he might betray next with so many curious eavesdroppers—her mother especially, who just sat there and smiled at her discomfort at how much was being revealed that her daughter had never told her. Mrs. Morton had grown to like Henry, and could not understand how her daughter had not immediately flown into his arms and confessed her undying love of him, but then she had been rather obviously floored by his presence.

“James and Oliver Henry—I do like those names. What a wonderful surprise, and a welcome one, yet utterly unexpected. And both of them our sons! My sons!” Charlotte’s mother was all ears and quite enjoyed what she was hearing and the look on Charlotte’s face.

“James is not your son!” Charlotte almost whispered that statement but with an intensity that was clearly heard around the room. “At least . . . he is, as much as I am his mother, and yet . . .” She was blushing furiously. “And you should not so openly call me your love, nor your dear, in front of the servants!” She was flushed with frustration and embarrassment that all of her intimate secrets were now being exposed in even more detail to the servants still clearing away her trunks. “The servants will not know what to think or believe.” He laughed at her apparent naiveté.

“Of course they will! They already do! They saw the excitement in your mother when I first appeared and could not help but note both of the children’s undeniable likeness to us both.” He sat up, seemingly recovered after his adventures with the children. “Servants always know more than we give them credit for. Why should I not use those endearing terms? For you are! You once welcomed them. I am also not here to upset your family but to join with it again, if you will allow me, to raise our boys. I know six years is a long time, but come, my dear, do not be so coy about it—it is all history now. We were once not so reserved with each other, as the evidence of both of our offspring clearly shows.” What would he not dare say next!

Charlotte’s face showed her alarm to have such personal matters opened up again, and in such a forward and open way. “Surely, I do not need to point out that they both have features of the Stavelys, resembling even my own, and of the Mortons too, as your mother so flatteringly and helpfully pointed out, so I am afraid neither of us can plausibly deny any close relationship—them to us, or us with each other.” Her mother was nodding and smiling in the background. The truth of what he said was clear for anyone to see. Both boys looked in many ways like both him and Charlotte. Her daughter was caught speechless and was blushing profusely. “You know I was the only man in your life after Oliver . . .”

“How could you know that?” She felt she had to respond in some way.

“Good authority. One I regard as the best—my own heart . . . And you were the only woman in mine after Georgiana . . . Painful memories for all of us. Did we not plight our troth, or troth our plight, or some such romantic pleading that meant so much to both of us at the time, caught up as we both were in the passionate impetuosity of youth and true love? I remember clearly that we briefly discussed that topic in the library one memorable evening, and that you wrote a dissertation on your own views of love, just for me to read, that same evening. But I was already persuaded by then.” He seemed to find great enjoyment in it all with everyone hearing what was said. She would have no secrets left to tell! “I seem to recall you saying something like that to me. Or did I say that to you? We even wrote down our vows to each other. They are in your diary, which somehow went with me to India, and which I brought back for you. We both intended that our relationship would be permanent, and I must admit I did regard it as such, and still do. But on a more serious note. Plighting ones troth to a loved one, carried just as great a force as an actual church marriage, not so long ago. It still does to me! We are married, Mrs. Stavely—although I suppose you are not used to going by that name, and raising so many questions, and some eyebrows—so there is no point in trying to deny it. I know it was a trying time for both of us, but I also remember other moments too.” He could see that she was in a perfect agony to have his recollections aired out in front of her mother and a steady succession of attentive servants.

“Quite!” She hoped he would recollect that others were listening, and would guard his tongue more, but he didn’t. He continued.

“It all began for both of us with that annual fest in Calderwold.” He was referring to what happened between Oliver and Georgiana, rather than between him and Charlotte, but others would not know that. “It deeply affected us both.” Indeed it had. “Surely, you cannot have forgotten all of that so easily, or of the following few months we spent under the same roof together.” He made it sound so distinctly questionable. “I was there at the birth, if you remember, and of course you were too.” It was not entirely true as he described it, or, as others might hear it and believe it, including her mother, but she could not easily deny it without increasing the degree of confusion that he seemed to be deliberately causing.

“Why, you even gave me this ring as a pledge between us of our undying love, as I gave you that one.” He pointed to the gold ring he was pleased to see that she still wore on her ring finger. “I would have married you in the church, you know—a perfect way out of such a predicament, but you denied me the opportunity. I could not understand why at the time, but I do now.”

They were both aware of servants scurrying about bringing the baggage in, clearing away travel clothing, and bringing in refreshments after her long journey, as they picked up on snippets of the revealing conversation. All were curious to hear what was said so that they might add their little faggots to the conflagration that would burn up the air of the scullery and kitchen during their next meal.

Charlotte had already noticed that the servants seemed to be relaxed with him about, and perhaps knew more than servants should about the embarrassingly outspoken gentleman who bore an uncanny resemblance to both of the boys. He seemed relaxed himself, and it was more than obvious that her mother approved of him heartily. He seemed to have taken over the entire house. Indeed the servants seemed almost to regard him as the master of the house while she had been away. She would need to let them know that the hierarchy had not changed in some magical way and that they should still look to her for direction.

“You are an excellent mother, by the way, and have done a remarkable job with both boys. I compliment you on that. I was so pleased to find how healthy and well mannered they are. However, they are growing boys, and their physical needs should be addressed. As their father, I should see to that, of course.” Charlotte was suddenly startled into wakefulness, realizing that a conversation had gone on around her while she had been immersed with other thoughts.

“What was that?”

“I was discussing our boys and how they needed a father figure in their lives to guide them now that they are growing.”

“You are suddenly an authority on my boys? Not having seen them for six years?” That came out more severely than she had intended.

“Yes. On our boys “—he corrected her with a smile on his face—”, I find that I am. I was one myself once. I discovered that I still am!”

One of the servants dropped an empty tray. She looked about, regretting her momentary outburst. Her voice dropped so that less of what she said might be overheard, but her intensity was clear enough.

“Have you no shame to continue to put me to the blush like this?” Obviously none at all, as he continued to smile at her.

“None! Where there is true love, there can be no shame. As you appear to have none, and for the same reason that I have none, considering what we shared, why should we hide anything? It is the truth, as all can see who just needs look at those two boys. You are their mother, just as I am their father. We must have shared something important to us both at one time, not so long ago, and I find that I cannot, and will not, deny it. I am also back in their lives, and yours too. I can now shoulder some of the responsibility for them.”

“Why did you come here? To upset everything? And in front of the servants too.”

“I did not come here to upset anything, my love, but to fill a deep and dark void in my life, as well as in yours, and to help you raise our children. I would also like to reclaim my wife.” Everything he said seemed reasonable, if it had not been so outspoken, and without regard for others listening. “Also to illuminate you on another point—about servants. I find that servants know everything that goes on in every house, so there is little point on trying to hide anything from them. (grins were exchanged between the two servants in the room at that moment, as their eyes briefly met) They did in my father’s house—sometimes they knew more than we did. Better to bring everything out and get it aired off!” She was now closer to tears at everything he was disclosing and daring to say to overwhelm her.

She stood up. She would change later. “Please come with me, Henry. We must continue this in a more private setting and away from such prying eyes and ears—and Mama is the worst!” She glared at her smiling mother as walked stiffly out of the house into the driveway, as Henry followed her and accompanied her to the garden and away from servants and mother. He took her arm. She would have objected to that, but then heard him caution her that they would undoubtedly be watched, and she should at least put some gentler face upon her undoubtedly disturbed emotions. “They will soon settle down, my love, as you will too, and lose their curiosity when they feel that they are in possession of all of the facts, so we should clarify this somewhat muddy situation you have created here, just like the one you created at Stavely, Miss Charlotte Wakefield. Oh, how I loved that name and the woman who bore it. I spoke it to myself in every waking moment and when I retired and awoke each day.” She stopped as she tried to recover her thoughts.

“You should not throw my deceitful behavior at Stavely back at me. I did what I did for my brother Oliver’s sake when I promised him that I would look after Georgiana and her baby. After that, I did it for James and then for the baby I carried, whom I named after my brother and you. When we came back here, I could only be known by my own name—Morton, of course, and not that of Wakefield, or of Stavely as you suggested at one time, and raised so many more questions. I did it all for our boys.” They continued to walk.

“I know you did, and it was the best thing to do. Then! It needs to be corrected now. You are Charlotte Stavely too. I love you, remember? You do remember, do you?” She dared not answer him. Why would he still love her after what she had done to him, denying him both of those children as she had for so many years, yet not denying him them at all, while effectively making him father to both of them in his absence. “You did the correct thing, removing them from London, and to surroundings you were familiar with.”

“I did?”

“Oh, yes. I came back from India with the intention of marrying you properly in church, you know, and of finding James. What a shock I had, and a pleasant one, discovering Oliver too.” She could see other, warmer feelings in his eyes, but dare not respond as she so ached to do. She had thought of little else than him for the last six years, with constant reminders of him and those last months they had spent together. Then Oliver Henry had been born, and she had not dared tell him of that event. She stopped and sat heavily on the low parapet of the well, as she shed tears; but for what reason she was crying, she was not sure. Relief, perhaps, that he had now discovered her whereabouts at last, and who she really was.

He knelt in front of her and raised her head with a gentle touch under her chin, as he gave her his handkerchief. “You need not fear anything about me, my love. I am yours to command in any and every way. If you want me gone, I shall go, but reluctantly.” He took her hand. She did not appear to notice.

“I do not wish you to go, Henry. I remember that first night, in the library. I remember it so clearly for what you said at that time, and it has disturbed me ever since and has hung like a cloud over me, and a dagger in my heart, if I am allowed to mix metaphors so poorly. You spoke of deceit and said that there was nothing more damaging. You were right. It damaged me in so many ways with those I had come to love and who trusted me when they should not have done. Your sister, your mother and father. You. I was there under a suffocating cloud of deceit.”

“You did not damage yourself in my eyes. I also now understand why you did that. It was entirely forgivable.”

“You think so? Had I known how it would go, I would never have started along that path, yet what choice did I have? I deceived you and your sister. I deceived your entire family. I do not deserve anyone’s trust.”

“Yet I trust you now, as I trusted you then—because I love you. You taught me that.” She needed to hear that. “Sometimes, deception is necessary. You thought so at the time, and I am inclined to agree that it was necessary, or you might never have been able to come to us as you did. No, I do not consider that an egregious deception. You had the interests of others forefront in your mind. You wished to save my sister considerable anguish by presenting yourself, not as Oliver’s sister—a painful apparition—but as a complete stranger, so that you could be more effective in helping her. It was necessary to make sure that a promise you made to Oliver did not fail. You did not expect to meet me and for us to fall in love as we did that first evening. Also, I have used deception myself in the last few years, though never with such kind consideration toward another.” She realized that he was dealing with her in the kindest way, to admit his own similar faults. “I did not always reveal my intent to those I approached until it was too late for them to escape what they revealed. You see, we are alike in so many ways.”

“You always dealt honestly with me, Henry.”

“As you did with me. Love is like that—it forgives all. You wrote that in my sketchbook, remember? No matter the name you adopted I still fell in love with you. Wakefield, Morton, Stavely. Charlotte Wakefield by any other name. Whichever name you choose, I will still love you. Georgiana trusted you to look after James, as I did, even though I was at a loss as to why you had left the protection of my parents’ home. Though you did go back and visit them. Thank you for that and for writing to them as you wrote to me. You were all consideration for their feelings, so I knew that I did not need to worry. They soon realized that they could trust you too, though they did not understand all that you did, or why. I was not sure why you ran off as you did then, though I do know now.”

Charlotte was shedding more tears now. He had been far too unexpected for her to deal with in such a short time, and he was not being as harsh with her as she had feared he would be if he ever found her, but was being understanding and forgiving—and the look in his eyes made her feel quite faint.

“I am not here to upset your peace, Charlotte. That is the furthest thing from my intentions! You are the last person on this earth I would choose to hurt.”

“If you are not here to upset my peace, then why am I so upset?” She gave him no chance to answer. “Perhaps because I return to find that you have worked your way in here on false pretences while I was away—supposedly to console my mother and let her know of your friendship with my brother. Then, once you had arrived as you did, you began to influence everything about my once-secure existence here, and started all of those rumors again. Was that not a deceit too?” She knew only the smallest part of what he had done, or Anne’s part in it, fortunately, but his dealings with Enright would not be raised to disturb her so soon after her return.

“Not false pretences, my love! Your mother knew as soon as I walked in the door who it was that I had really come to see, but you were not here. I was happy to claim both boys as mine, just as you claimed them both as yours. And I did not deceive anyone so much—just a little, but you had laid the groundwork for that, and I merely followed your lead.”

“That’s how it begins! The servants seem to sympathize more with you than they do with me. It is as though a revolution had swept through the place. James is also my only brother’s only son, and heir to all of this, as a result of that, when it becomes known. I was prepared to sacrifice my future, our future, to protect his!”

“And mine too! That is all old history now. He is also my only sister’s only son. He is not your brother’s heir unless you tell the truth, you know. That is why I brought that marriage certificate between Oliver and my sister with me, though there is nothing to say that you need do anything with it. I knew where to look for such things, where you did not. I will continue to claim James as my son too, if you would like. He is also my sister’s heir, as her only son. As she was an equal partner in our business, with my father and me, I would say that his future is not in any doubt. I am quite prepared to look after him as my own son, without favor to either the one or the other.”

“So you admit that I had to stay in England, no matter what it might cost us both, and that I needed to hide my tracks, even from you?” He helped her to her feet, and they continued to stroll leisurely about the grounds.

“I do admit that, and without reservation. There is a part of me, however, that wishes that you and James had gone with me, though I did not know of young Oliver at that time.”

“I dared not tell you that I was pregnant! I was afraid that you might not go to India as you needed to do, or might try even harder to find us, or even return if I did tell you about it in any of my letters. I had to keep it secret. I also could not stay in your parents’ house and have my condition discovered. What would they think of me? I would have seemed to be an unfit companion for James when it was discovered. I was sure how I would appear to your parents. I would be regarded as entirely unsuitable to be raising their grandson or any other child. I had no choice but to go, before I lost James, and everything I had come to value.”

“Yes, I suppose you are right in almost everything you say, except my parents knew all about us and what we had planned. I was out of my depth with what had happened about me in those last few days. I knew nothing of babies and unlike you women with your . . .” He waved his hand in the general direction of her bosom. “You are not still breast-feeding, are you? No, of course not, you’ve been away for some days and he did not lack any appetite for solid food.” He had the grace to blush and hesitated to say more along that tack. “But I had neither a woman’s advantages of such useful breasts nor the ability to produce milk for the little fellow, which was of course a paramount consideration at that moment. I did not wish to marry you for that reason alone, you know, though it would have been impossible without you. The baby needed a woman’s delicate touch for the first few years, which both of them have now had. I honestly felt then, and I still feel, that they could not have found a more loving or suitable mother.”

“Thank you for that!” She was grateful for his kind comments and had so far begun to relax with him, that she had threaded her arm through his as they continued their walk. “My brother’s baby was the only thing I had left of him. After such a promising beginning, everyone’s plans lay in ruins about then—yours, Georgiana’s, and mine. When I promised Oliver as he lay dying that I would somehow insert myself into Georgiana’s family and protect both her and her baby, Oliver’s too, I did not have time to think it all through clearly and see the difficulties that I was creating for myself as well as others. Nothing ever happens as one expects it to, or as we would like it to. None of us considered or expected Georgiana would not survive childbirth, and I did not expect to be suddenly thrown so prematurely into the role of mother as I was, though I both wanted to be and needed to be at that moment. What a predicament for us all!” She sighed heavily, remembering her feelings of being overwhelmed by what had happened.

“What a strange set of circumstances we were caught up in, Charlotte. My sister and your brother meet, and no sooner laid eyes on each other than they are in love and quite prepared to throw all moral restraint overboard. And then there were you and I, caught up in a similar situation, though the circumstance was not exactly quite as . . . no, I am wrong. It was the same, for me. Why did we not make love at that moment, in the library, Charlotte? We both wanted to.”

She looked at him. She could tell him now, where she could not have told him then. “It was too soon, Henry. I had just lost Oliver. Also, I was a stranger to you, under a strange roof, and not only a stranger but a lady’s maid to your sister. I was a servant, an employee! It was far too awkward a circumstance for me. I also had to be careful. I had made my brother a promise that I had to protect. I dare not be discovered too soon and shown the door. My situation was precarious enough without making it even more dangerous by giving in to impulse.”

He nodded, understanding so much more now than he had. “It would have been dangerous. We, both of us, sensed what was happening between us, but neither of us was quite as relaxed with each other, or the situation, as we needed to be, I could sense that. I was an unknown quantity to you, hovering threateningly close by. I frightened you, Charlotte. I even frightened myself at what I was thinking and feeling for the first time in my life, and I know you were aware of that. I almost gave in to temptation as I was sorting my clothing out in your bedroom with you standing there. You could not have been more entrancing if you had not been wearing that flimsy little thing you had on, and which covered and hid so little of you. I do hope you still have it.” He saw her nod, as she blushed. “After that, when you kissed me before closing your door, I did not know what I was to do with myself until morning. I would never sleep after that. I did not want to leave you.

“And then, after that kiss, when I heard you unlock your door after closing it in my face, and before I had chance to leave . . . I was a lost man about then.” He looked at her. “I was in love with you, and you needed me to behave as a gentleman under whose roof you might expect to be protected. I remember it all as though it were just yesterday. Why did you unlock your door? That was reckless.” She blushed and almost could not meet his eyes, but then looked almost defiantly into them as she answered him. “I had rather not say, sir, except I had lost my fear of you by then.”

He laughed gently. “Yes. So soon for both of us. By rather not saying, you say everything. Thank you. After that you were foolish enough to come back into the library to torment me further. You were as unable to rest as I was—drawn there by my irresistible presence, I hoped. I did not know whether I was on my head or my heels at that moment. I pretended to be asleep and watched you, everything you did. You threw all caution to the winds when you unwisely drank off that stronger beer that I had drawn for myself, engrossed as you were in drawing me almost as candidly as I had drawn you. Then you fell asleep.”

“I was not so fast asleep, Henry, but almost!” She felt him falter a little. “I was as curious about you, as you were about me, and only pretended to be asleep, as you did, though there are still things I do not fully recall, except that I seem to recall that you kissed me as you put me to bed.” She heard him laugh gently. “Neither of us seemed able to help ourselves at that moment.”

“How fortunate—or unfortunate—Charlotte, that I did not know that, or I would never have left you then. Just think what might have happened sooner than it did. Young Oliver might be just four or five months younger than James, rather than seven. You would never have been able to pass off both boys as your own, then. When it came time for me to leave for India, you would already have been showing. I would have noticed, and I would never have gone, but would have needed to have sent someone else. As it was, after that night in the library, I could not tear myself away from Stavely to see to other matters and decided that I would stay home for that week at least and rechart my life’s course, with you in it.” His voice changed. “Then my uncle came.” He looked at her with that painful memory reflected in his eyes. “Despite what happened, I found that I owed him more than I realized after that, bringing us so closely together as he did, though I wanted him dead after what he tried to do to you.” They both had their own thoughts on that.

“By the way, I wrote my parents last week. I hope you do not mind. They would like to receive an invitation to meet the boys again—yes, I discovered that you had told them of both boys. Thank you for that—as, well as an invitation for a long-overdue and proper wedding, if you can tolerate such a suggestion so soon. Our children can be present for that too. Not many children actually get to see their parents married. What an interesting thought! I wonder how the Gazette will handle that:

“’Married, yesterday at St . . . whatever church, Miss Charlotte Morton, fourth daughter of Reginald and Mrs. Morton of Fallowfield, to Henry Stavely, only son of Robert and Mrs. Stavely, recently arrived back from India. They were attended by both of their children.’ Oh the scandal that would cause!”

“Are you sure that you would not prefer to marry the woman you fell in love with, sir—the colorless and unimposing Miss Wakefield!”

The real Miss Wakefield may have been that—I met her just after I landed—but you were far from being colorless and unimposing. “I shall marry you with whatever name you choose to be known by—you shall be Mrs. Stavely after it anyway, and we shall raise our two boys together as we add to our little family. It is time that I began to influence their lives in a more direct way. I’ve mentioned several times now—boys need a man around them when they get to a certain age, which I believe is about now. Women are excellent with babies, but are out of their depth once a boy is weaned and gets to about four or five.” He was having fun with her, as she could see by the smile in his eyes. He was provoking her now to lift her spirits. She had felt as though a large burden had gradually been lifted from her as they had talked.

She looked about to see that there was no one close by to overhear her. “How glad I am that we are not being overheard by any of the servants. What would they think of me? Of us? What do they already think, with us walking off to be private together as we are doing?” She blushed at the truth of that. “I am sure they will give us both the benefit of the doubt and keep out of our way.”

“I suspect they would be prepared to give you the benefit of any doubt from what I have seen. The first day or so that I was here, they dared not let me out of their sight if I were with Anne, nor did their nanny, risking her reputation with me and sticking to me like a leech no matter how improper it might be, despite some of the disturbing antics that boys get up to. Fortunately, she admitted to having several brothers of her own, so she was able to counter us well, and managed to hold her own, never minding how embarrassing it might become for her. Boys will be boys, unfortunately. But boys also need to learn what will be expected of them as they grow up.”

“In what way?”

“To prepare them for manhood. I returned just in time. They will soon, very soon, need to learn about swimming, fencing, defending themselves—it is a rough-and-tumble world—about guns too!”

“No! No guns! I keep that room locked.”

“Yes, you did, and it was locked. It was dusty, and full of antiquities and relics! I opened it up and made it safe for everyone now. There were two loaded guns in there, would you believe, and some unsafe situations that I have now remedied. Locked doors will not keep a determined boy out of anywhere but do give rise to a curiosity about what lies behind them, and that is dangerous. They didn’t keep me out any more than they will keep any adventurous boy out, but a man’s forthright statements to them can.”

“Children and guns are a bad combination?”

“Only if they do not know anything about them, or about gunpowder and its dangers. I found those things out as a boy, when I lost my eyebrows, and put a hole in the gun room wall at Stavely. I know a woman’s way is to lock that room, a man’s way is to leave it unlocked, tell him to stay out of it without permission, and show him why it is dangerous, and then to look him in the eye and tell him what will not be tolerated, what is acceptable, and what is not. I believe they now know that they may not enter that room without me.” He intercepted her comment before it was uttered. “No, you may relax, my dear. I was not threatening or unpleasant with them. They were curious, and know enough now not to go in there or meddle, though I did have to promise them some lessons with guns to achieve that desirable objective.” She had not liked to hear that, but would say nothing.

“Boys are easily sidetracked with promise of such adventures. I am still a boy, at heart, myself. Guns are also useful. You were losing both hens and eggs until I came and caught the thief; a badger. Requiescat in pace, badger! He will make a nice ornament on the library table when he is properly mounted. My only fear is that James might learn that I am his Uncle Henry. I do not like that appellation. You should pray you do not become Aunt Charlotte! It adds fully twenty years to the way one feels. I do not think it wise to tell anyone that they are not brothers—not even them, or that I am father to only one of them. I shall be quite happy to have others believe that I might have fathered two such boys. It adds so much to my image!”

“So where do we go from here, Henry, to deal with these boyish ways, that I must admit I have watched beginning to develop with some trepidation?”

Yes, boys are strange creatures. “You should set your men to clear off the ivy from the front facade. It will take over the entire building, tear the stonework apart, and bring the chimneys down before you know it. The drainage ditch out of the lake needs to be cleaned out too. The well needs a more solid cover.” He could sense her puzzlement. “I see I should explain myself here. They are approaching that most dangerous age for boys. They are unlikely to be swayed by a woman’s logic as to why anything is dangerous in just words, but will be swayed by being shown how it is dangerous. James has a desire to climb and explore, while you were not here to stop him, and Oliver was ready to follow, so I had to interject a note of caution. They needed to learn various rules of being a boy. One of the first being that what goes up, must come down, and sometimes faster and harder than it goes up! Another is that blood is somewhat difficult to remove from not only clothing but from the stonework too, and it can be quite disturbing to suddenly hysterical women folk and others who come upon it.”

She had been alarmed at what he had said. A good sign.

“The ivy is too easy a temptation to climb, and sometimes harbors a wasp’s nest, or nervous birds that can fly out into one’s face, both of which startle one into letting go without consideration of the consequences below. I was also a boy at one time. I found those things out for myself too, the hard way. All boys fall, for all boys climb. They will even go down an old well too, if the cover is rotten, as that one is. All the more reason to have a fresh rope too so that if anyone does go down, they can at least feel sure of climbing out without being dropped again when the rope parts.”

She had gone pale. He continued with his catalog of problems that she had not considered.

“Also with the drainage ditch in the neglected state it is in, the water is now deep enough in that pond, lake—whatever it once was, that a small boy might drown in it if he were to panic. With the drainage cleared, then the stonework around the edge will appear once more, and that is far safer to walk upon. I gather James has fallen in more than once, trying to catch a frog, and though you might forbid them to go near it, they are boys, and boys forget. They also sometimes deliberately disobey, when there are ducks to terrorize or frogs to chase, or tadpoles or minnows to fish out. You cannot lock a lake up as you can a gun room, and they will forget and feed the ducks and slide in before they know it.”

She was even more pale. “Is there anything else I should be aware of?”

“Yes. Oliver’s journal. James found it and was reading about that tree house, which is beyond his ability to safely get to, at his age. That small bridge across the outflow is rotten too. That is another danger, considering the depth of water and the weeds there.

The small rowboat on the bank—Oliver’s favorite, I would imagine . . .” He knew he was right about that by the way she was startled at how he might know that. “I was once a boy, and an adventurous youth, my dear—has also been neglected and is rotten too. Don’t worry, I told them about it when I took them fishing the other day and saw how utterly unfamiliar they both were with such considerations for their safety. I poked a hole in the bottom of the boat with my fingers and opened a large enough hole to close off that possibility. A little awkward to get yourself out into the middle of the lake and discover that you are in a leaking old tub when one cannot swim, and the water is deep. Swimming lessons are in their near future for that very reason. They now know some few of the many pitfalls around here! I am sure there are many more, that adventurous boys will be sure to discover.”

Some few?” She flushed with a sudden feeling of alarm. She had never realized there were so many hazards in the path of a small boy. She had forgotten the calamitous things her brother had been caught up in, except that those horrifying memories suddenly came flooding back over her. Girls would never do any of that!

“Oh yes. Some! And new ones every day. Badgers will attack if cornered, as will a rat. Bees also do not like to have stones thrown at the hive, as the boys soon painfully discovered. Furthermore, adders are indeed poisonous snakes and might fatally injure a child, which they did not discover, but which they now know about.” He took her arm with more purpose, intending to show her. “Come, while there is still some light, take a stroll with me, and I will show some of these hazards to you.”

“We cannot. You may not have noticed, but it has begun to rain.” He had not noticed.

“Damn, so it has. I suppose we should get back to the house before our dinner gets cold and before they send out a search party for you, and a hunting party for me. You will also need to change too. If you would not object . . . I could help . . . I used to.” He saw the look on her face.

“Some other time then. Yes, I suppose I am too sudden. Despite that, you do need a man about the place as I hope I have persuaded you. Someone about my own age, with the corners knocked off. I can suggest me. I come well recommended from a recent stint in India—all the right kind of violent experiences there for dealing with trouble, and I am available! All I need is a lovable, encouraging environment with a beautiful mother of two boys.” She said nothing. It was all too much and too sudden to absorb.

They both read to them late that night after dinner and saw them tucked in. Each of them got a good-night kiss from Henry, and their mother.

As they walked back downstairs, Henry tormented her a little. “I hope I deserve a good-night kiss too, Mama, for all of that, and for looking after our sons so well while you were away visiting your sister!” She noticed the twinkle in his eye.

“I shall send Mama up to you then, later!”

“Ouch.”

They retired to the library fire, and he poured them a glass of wine. No one else joined them. They were being left alone, deliberately. “To your first night at home. I hope it was not too much of a shock to find me here.”

“I believe I might survive.” She began to relax for the first time in the last six years, but dare not tell him that. He needed no additional encouragement and he was more than she felt she could deal with at this moment in time, with servants and everyone else all agog to see what might happen between them.

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