The Seventh Suitor
Wolverton took the family to church the next day and, mindful of his duty, immediately introduced Harriet to the vicar, Mr. Singleton. Harriet found herself unimpressed, though, with the little man, who looked and smelled as if he could use a good bath. She was even less impressed with his sermon.
"Today's text is from Ephesians Chapter 5..." he intoned. "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord... for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church... so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything..."
Harried tried not to glare at Wolverton as they sat there in their front pew, especially when he took her hand in a familial gesture that had the vicar beaming on them from the pulpit.
To Wolverton's credit, he had no hand in the topic of that sermon. He could tell by the look on his wife's face that she thought otherwise, and he pondered what to do to convince her he was innocent in this. He tried to take her hand to assure her, but it only made matters worse, so he gave up. Tuning out the rest of the vicar's lesson, he thought back to that day over a month ago when he realized he was engaged to the wrong sister.
It had occurred to him early on in his engagement that one, Miss Frost was little more than an arm ornament, and two, she was purposefully keeping him from getting to know her family.
One day, though, when he had called to take her for a drive, he had caught a glimpse of Miss Harriet Frost, and became intensely curious. ‘What was this gilded bird of paradise doing with such a little wren for a sister?' was his first thought. Then he wondered if she had any more intelligence than her sibling.
A visit a week later from Obadiah only intrigued him further, especially the information the lad had concerning his eldest sister. Wolverton, at that time, found himself asking questions about the other sister, and was surprised when Obie contacted him once more. This time he had concrete information regarding Jessabelle's elopement and a plan to help Wolverton save face.
Looking at his wife now, the service over, as she was introduced briefly by Anjelica to the neighbors, he had to give his brother-in-law credit. The lad knew what he was about. Now it was up to the earl to convince Harriet that her new situation was the best thing to happen to both of them. Obie would probably have his head if he knew how badly Wolverton had handled the marriage so far. Especially the wedding night.
With a sigh he went to collect Harriet, who seemed rather overwhelmed by the curious people surrounding her.
Harriet was furious. Not only had Wolverton gotten that nasty little vicar to preach on the submission of wives, he barely gave her time to meet the neighbors before dragging her off.
She refused to speak to him during the ride home, the children, thankfully, filling in the silence with their chatter. After luncheon she left the house, intent on getting lost in the woods past the formal gardens.
Paying no attention to the pruned roses and carefully tended beds of spring flowers, and unconsciously moving away from the sound of what could only be the dowager's animals, Harriet found herself in a clearing centered with a large oak tree. A tree house grew out of its venerable old branches.
Almost blindly, she climbed the ladder into the structure, amazed once inside to discover this must be the exclusive lair of Rory and Ian.
There were fishing poles stacked neatly in one corner, a low table set with a game of chess, blankets and pillows piled up next to books probably pilfered from the house, and a shelf covered with an assortment of rocks, nests, feathers and jars of insects, dead and alive. Further inspection revealed a cocoon hanging from a branch in one, a piece of cheesecloth wrapped in twine keeping the future butterfly inside. Another contained an assortment of dead beetles and yet another was half full of coins.
She was about to retreat from this sanctuary when she heard voices and realized the tenants had returned to their abode.
"Sid says she's a right 'un," Ian was saying, "because she's getting her a pony for her birthday."
Rory's reply was unintelligible.
"Well, I say we ask her. Uncle Gerald was supposed to get that pony and didn't. How do we know he won't back out of this, too?"
"Back out of what?" Harriet asked from above. Rory frowned, but Ian's grin split his face in two.
"It's famous that you're here, Aunt Harriet!" said the ten-year-old Ian. "We need your help to keep Uncle Gerald to a promise."
It was on the tip of Harriet's tongue to say she didn't think his lordship capable of breaking a promise when she remembered he had not only promised to marry her sister, but had promised Sidney a pony.
"Tell me what he promised and I'll see what I can do to help." She had started to climb down the tree, but Ian whooped with joy and began to climb up, forcing her back into the tree house. "We can discuss this at the house," she said, "if you don't want me up here."
Rory almost nodded, but Ian cut him off and urged her to sit on the blankets.
"We are supposed to spend the night out here with Uncle Gerald," he said eagerly, "but we think he might have changed his mind."
"No we don't - he just hasn't mentioned it recently," Rory said quietly. "Doesn't mean he forgot or changed his mind," he pointed out.
"That's true," Harriet agreed. "This sounds like something you are looking forward to."
Both boys nodded their heads eagerly.
"Can you really help?" Rory asked.
"I don't know. Do you want me to try?" Harriet was willing to do so if only to wipe the sad looks off the boys' faces.
"Please?" they asked in unison.
Harriet went back to the house and ran Wolverton to ground in the library.
"I want to speak with you," she said purposefully, mindful that she was not supposed to be talking to him. The boys' request, however, superceded her self-imposed boycott of conversation.
"Yes?" Wolverton looked up from his ledger to address his wife.
"It has come to my attention that you have promised the boys an overnight outing in the tree house. They, of course, are afraid you forgot."
"Well, yes - did you remember your agreement?"
"Well, not exactly..."
"I rest my case."
"Wait a minute. How do you know all this?"
"The boys told me." Wolverton looked at her in amazement.
"They did?" He knew Harriet was finding it difficult being accepted by his family, but knew, too, she would have to deal with them directly for them to respect her. What surprised him, though, was how quickly she had gained the children's trust.
Harriet was standing there, arms folded over her chest, waiting. "Well?" she prompted.
"When do you propose to take them on this outing so I may report back the good news?"
He eyed her with some newfound respect of his own. This little termagant would probably pack a bag for him and escort him to the tree house personally to ensure his promise was kept.
"I will do so Friday evening, but only on one condition," he said, a little gleam of mischief in his eyes.
"You have to come, too."
Harriet hesitated only a moment before nodding her agreement. "I will."
Harriet spent the rest of the day and all of Monday alternating between plans for Sidney's birthday and worrying about spending a night with her husband in the tree house.
Sidney had been included in the party preparations and followed Harriet about like a shadow. Even Rory and Ian, previously disdainful of anything concerning their sister's natal day, became enthusiastic when asked their opinion of the food. The fact that Harriet had managed to get a definite overnighter date from Wolverton also increased her popularity among the younger set.
Only Zoe was the holdout, although she was not openly hostile. Harriet, however, was much too busy rearranging the party to pay her much mind.
The dowager had planned a quiet luncheon with a few of her cronies and the Danvers family, they having the only children in the neighborhood anywhere near Sidney's age. Harriet mentally rejected the arrangements as unsuitable to a seven-year-old and then made a quick inventory of Wolverton's tenants.
There were three girls and two boys approximately Sidney's age, and invitations were quickly made to them by Harriet as she made her rounds of the estate. With the Danvers children, that made seven - just the right amount. Sidney and her brothers brought the total count to ten. There were ten adults, as well, and Harriet was up early on Tuesday supervising the erecting of a marquee on the lawn just off the back terrace.
"What is the meaning of this, Lady Wolverton?" the dowager demanded at breakfast. "Are you staging a circus for Sidney's party?"
Harriet's face lit up at the thought and she shelved the idea, making a mental note to discover Ian's birth date.
"Sadly, no, my lady," she replied. "But we are dining al fresco for luncheon."
"We are?" Wolverton asked, lowering the newspaper he had been reading.
"Yes, we are," was all Harriet would say, excusing herself and Sidney at that point to check on final preparations.
"You must do something about your wife, Gerald!" the dowager insisted. "She's much too headstrong! She doesn't have the decency to leave plans well enough alone! She's going to ruin Sidney's birthday!"
Zoe sat waiting for Wolverton to agree with his aunt, but she was to be disappointed.
"She's taking charge, Aunt Victoria - as is her right. End of discussion." With a snap he pulled his newspaper back up in front of his face.
The dowager snorted and retreated to concentrate on her breakfast, Zoe pouted and the three other males sat and exchanged delighted grins over Wolverton's championship of his wife.
Later, Harriet stood by proudly and watched Sidney, Belinda and the other girls playing a game in the garden. The boys had disappeared together and she had no doubt they were in the tree house. She would send Wolverton out there to collect them when it was time to eat.
The dowager and her friends sat in the drawing room and bemoaned an al fresco luncheon and being exposed to children of a lower station, but Lady Danvers came up behind Harriet with a smile.
"The only thing that could make the day more perfect would be a pony," she teased. "That and if the older folks would hold their tongues. Now, tell me what you think of my husband."
Sir Marcus had met with Harriet's approval almost immediately and she was not slow in telling her new friend. "Your husband seems very kind."
"Yes, he is." Anjelica beamed. "You also met my parents, the Postons, briefly on Sunday and they will be at my party this evening. We were all children together, you know. Marc, Gerry and I."
"Did they ever fight over you?" Harriet asked curiously. Anjelica laughed.
"It was more like Gerry and I fighting over Marc! He and I knew we belonged to each other from an early age, and Gerry used to tell me to go away, that Marc and I could have the second half of our lives together. I eventually agreed, but I extracted my pound of flesh. I insisted he and Marc both be present for my London debut. I was not going to be thrust into society without at least two escorts."
Harriet gaped at Lady Danvers' audacity. "You insisted? What did he do?"
"He attended me, of course!" She spoke as if that were a given. "He's rather easy to manage once you get the knack, my dear - he has an overwhelming sense of duty. The main thing is to stick to your guns. Works with the old lady, too..." she added with a wink. "That and ignoring her."
"Thank you," Harriet said quietly.
"What a clever idea to invite some of the estate children. The boys play with them all the time, but Sidney is not allowed. Quite equalizing..."
They chatted a while longer and then Wolverton, on Harriet's request, went to the tree house to retrieve the boys. They all came running at the mention of food, almost knocking down the dowager in the process. She was not amused and told them all so in no uncertain terms.
"Let them be, Aunt Victoria," Wolverton said, bringing up the rear. "They are just energetic boys."
"Hmpf!" was the only reply, but she allowed herself to be seated prominently before Harriet rounded up the children and settled them at the other table.
Even with all the children on their best behavior, luncheon was a boisterous affair. The children were served cold chicken, fruit, cheese and lemonade followed by jellies and cake. The adults received soup, chicken, a beef course, salad greens, fruit and cheese, several wines and slices of Sidney's cake.
Sidney was then allowed to open gifts, but when she received a china doll from her Uncle Gerald, she looked so disappointed, Harriet was on her way to give the little girl a hug when Wolverton stopped her with a raised hand.
"You will keep the doll in a safe place, won't you, Sidney?" She nodded. "Good. I would hate to see your new doll mauled by this."
Out of a basket one of the servants held came a snowy white kitten. All the girls squealed with delight and Harriet smiled until she caught a devilish gleam in several of the boys' eyes. She was going to have to keep an eye on them.
"Oh, thank you, Uncle Gerald!" Sidney exclaimed, throwing her arms about his waist.
"Thank your Aunt Harriet as well, Sidney," he said with a laugh, handing over the kitten. "She and I got this for you together." He glanced in Harriet's direction and dared her to contradict him.
"I believe your aunt has another present for you," he added, "and here it is."
The little brown pony was led into the garden by a groom and even the boys cheered as Sidney was picked up and placed on its back.
"It's the best present ever, Aunt Harriet!" Sidney cried. Harriet found herself exchanging pleased glances with both Anjelica and Wolverton.
"How did you find out about the pony?" Harriet asked her husband later as the children ran off to play.
"I have my sources."
"The same source that failed to tell you that I had already made plans to purchase that same pony for Sidney."
Harriet turned to Lady Danvers, but she was conversing with the dowager and that was the last person Harriet wanted to speak with.
"Don't let it bother you, my dear," Wolverton said softly in her ear. "It made you several friends in the process, did it not?"
"Then it was worth it."
Getting ready for the dinner party, Harriet took more pains than usual with her toilette. Her maid was delighted when she was asked to ready the white brocade gown, and ran for the dress, carefully helping her mistress put it on.
"So bridal!" she exclaimed as she pinned up Harriet's hair. A knock on the connecting door startled them both, but before Tilly could answer it and discover it locked, Harriet was on her feet and admitting Wolverton to her room.
Nodding to the maid to leave, Wolverton strode in with a velvet jewel case and stopped in front of his wife.
"You look lovely, Harriet," he said, admiration gleaming in his dark eyes. She could not mistake it for anything else and flushed with pleasure.
"Thank you... Gerald," she replied, using his name for the first time. She was rewarded with a rather lopsided grin, which surprised her even more than the compliment.
"But a countess should not be without jewelry," he continued.
"I have a string of pearls..."
"I'm sure they would do, but if you would prefer, these now belong to you. I'd like to see them on you, if not tonight, then some time soon?" He opened the case. Inside gleamed a set of sapphire jewelry: a necklace, two bracelets and earrings.
Harriet inhaled sharply. "They're beautiful! I would love to wear them tonight!" Before they both realized it, she had thrown her arms about his neck and kissed his cheek. "Thank you," she added in a shy whisper as she pulled back.
Sitting down at her dressing table, she put on the earrings and clasped on the bracelets. She reached for the necklace, but Wolverton had it and was holding it up by its ends.
"Allow me?" he asked.
Harriet swallowed hard. "Yes."
The necklace came around and settled gingerly on her chest while he attached it in the back. He paused and then reached to the front once more as he arranged it to his satisfaction, his fingers brushing her collarbone as he pronounced her "perfect."
Anjelica had really not meant to put Lady Wolverton on the spot when she had planned to have the guest of honor arrive last. She only thought it would be easier to introduce her around once.
She realized the error of this when the Wolvertons arrived and stood framed in the drawing room door, the blood slowly draining from Harriet's face, the object of every eye. She knew she would be the center of attention, but she had hoped to be introduced to everyone gradually.
Gerald shot his hostess an accusing glance and even Marcus did not seem pleased, but Anjelica bravely stepped forward and gave Harriet a welcoming embrace.
"Lady Wolverton! Welcome once again to our home! Gerry, Uncle Oscar, Aunt Victoria..." She quickly handed the elder Wares over to Marcus, but when she would have taken Harriet's arm to escort her about the room, Gerald glared and she backed off, allowing him the honors.
"Harriet, my dear," Wolverton said gently, "you remember the vicar?"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Singleton. How lovely to see you again," she lied.
"Lady Wolverton," he acknowledged with a bow. "I hope you will be home this Friday when I make my weekly call. Her ladyship kindly goes over my texts with me and I would love to hear your opinion as well."
"Her ladyship offers sermon suggestions?" Harriet blurted out, avoiding her husband's gaze.
"Certainly! I've been trying to get Wolverton interested, but he doesn't seem to have the time," he almost accused.
"I am certain there are good reasons my lord hasn't the time to assist in God's work, sir," Harriet replied and felt herself gently moved forward by Wolverton's hand on her back.
"Squire Bailey," he introduced the next gentleman, a large, florid man with rather cruel-looking gray eyes.
"How do you do, Lady Wolverton?" he asked kindly enough, but the smile he offered did not quite reach his eyes.
Lord and Lady Hawthorne were next, and their son, Alan, a tall, slender man in his early twenties. After that were Lady Danvers' parents, Mr. and Mrs. Poston, who welcomed Harriet warmly.
"We have heard so much about you already," Mrs. Poston said, giving her a hug.
Then came Sir George and Lady Millington and their daughter, Rebecca, who her mother giddily declared to be not quite ready for her first season. "Perhaps the Little Season," she promised her pouting daughter.
Two ladies in their early thirties, Misses Eleanora and Clementina Bright, were introduced, and Wolverton presented them as Miss Nellie and Miss Tina. He gave them light pecks on their cheeks, causing the sisters to twitter and declare him a devil.
Anjelica took over at that point, as the only other guests were Wolverton's family, and when the gong rang, Sir Marcus proudly led Harriet into the dining room, Anjelica right behind with Gerald.
Dinner was a pleasant affair and both Sir Marcus, at the head of the table, and Sir George, on her right, were agreeable conversationalists. The only drawback was sitting directly across from the dowager, whose sour expressions could curdle her own goats' milk.
She was relieved when Lady Danvers finally rose from the table and escorted the ladies back to the drawing room, leaving the men to their port and cigars.
"How are you managing, my dear?" Mrs. Poston asked kindly, bringing a cup of tea with her and handing it to Harriet before seating herself at her side. "It can't be easy to be suddenly responsible for a large home, three youngsters, a ward and one of the stubbornest most stubborn old ladies it has ever been my fate to meet!"
Harriet looked at her in surprise.
"Don't mind me, my dear," her companion said. "You'll notice I didn't mention Wolverton or Lord Oscar..."
Harriet had noted that.
"Oscar is a dear and if he's a trifle eccentric, well... no harm there. As for Wolverton, husbands always fall under a special category, don't they? I've been with mine thirty years, so feel free to ask husband questions at any time. Lord knows Anjelica does!" she said in mock exasperation. Harriet could see the lady did not mind at all. "Perhaps Anjelica will regale you with stories from her first - rather stormy - year of marriage. Most diverting... but I've monopolized you too long."
Harriet would have liked to have visited longer with Mrs. Poston, but that kind lady gave her directions to her home before she relinquished the guest of honor to ladies Hawthorne and Millington, and a rather boring conversation on current fashions the ladies assumed Harriet could participate in, having recently come from town.
After the men rejoined them, Lady Hawthorne left Harriet to speak to her husband and Lady Millington moved on to sit with Lady Danvers. Wolverton was detained by Mrs. Poston., leaving Harriet temporarily alone until the vicar, his eyes gleaming in a manner that left her feeling uneasy, sat down beside her on the sofa.
"My dear Lady Wolverton, you don't know how I've longed to have you to myself all evening."
"Why, Mr. Singleton, whatever do you mean?" she asked. Fortunately, Wolverton now stood in front of them.
"Yes, Singleton, whatever do you mean?"
The vicar gave a nervous laugh and tugged at his cravat. "Why, Wolverton, only that Lady Wolverton might be persuaded to help the dowager with my sermons, nothing more, nothing more..."
"I see," Wolverton replied, but his glare said otherwise and Harriet felt a small thrill at the way her husband had come to her aid. The vicar hurried away, his tail figuratively between his legs, and left the party soon afterward.
Harriet, however, felt more in charity with her husband at that point than she had at any other time since their wedding.
Harriet did not think much about the vicar again until Friday. When she heard his arrival, she prudently slipped out into the garden so that she could not be found if sent for.
She sought out the gardener and discussed pruning roses for as long as she could despite a lack of knowledge, hoping to avoid returning to the house. She thoroughly confused that poor man with her sudden interest in horticulture. Once she even thought she saw Mr. Singleton in the window of the family parlor, which looked out over the back of the house, but when she glanced over again there wasn't even a twitch in the curtains.
Hoping she had escaped meeting the man completely, she went for a walk down the lane that led to Oak Hill, the Millington estate.
"Ah, Lady Wolverton..." the vicar suddenly called. Harriet wanted to disappear. "Her ladyship and I missed you today. I trust your gardening chores were not too onerous?"
"Not particularly," Harriet airily replied. "But necessary. I hope she was helpful today in my absence?"
"Today she insisted on a sermon regarding adultery," he said smoothly, "but I could not agree. I would not be condemned as a hypocrite..." He moved in until he was quite close to her and ran one finger up her arm. She shuddered and he smiled, as if she had shivered in delight.
"Her ladyship has informed me of your true marital status, you know. That your marriage remains unconsummated."
Harriet's shock must have shown on her face, because the vicar laughed. "I can tell you would be receptive to a little tutelage."
"No!" Harriet cried. "Go away before I tell Wolverton! He holds your living, you know!"
Mr. Singleton only laughed again.
"You know you won't, because then you will have to explain what you were doing out here with me, and you also might be forced to discuss your failure as a wife. I know of your sister. She would have submitted, you know, if only so she might have some leverage over her husband. You foolishly deny him. Soon he will grow tired of waiting and look somewhere else. Then we'll see if you don't come running to me!"
Harriet stared at him incredulously for a moment before running blindly off into the woods, the vicar having made her physically ill. She did not see Zoe crouching nearby, watching the entire scene.
By dusk she had recovered somewhat, and found herself wondering why two boys needed so much equipment to spend one night in a tree house. Ian had three blankets, two pillows, a rather ragged toy that looked like it had been an elephant at one point in its life, a crate full of games and a change of clothes.
Rory had a full complement of bedding, a floppy old rag horse, a crate of what looked like more items for the tree house shelves, and clothing.
In comparison, Wolverton had nothing in his vicinity to even hint that he was to accompany the boys. The bedding she figured had been sent on ahead - even now the servants were bringing around a cart for the boys' belongings - but no clothing?
Harried had decided on wearing a plain muslin gown and had packed another loose gown, a shawl and a comb, feeling they were sufficient for her needs. She had already been instructed not to worry about bedding, food or entertainment.
Wolverton, however, appeared as if he were going to sleep on the hard wood floor in either what he had on or nothing at all. She flushed bright red at the thought, but if her husband noticed, he gave no sign, jumping on the cart and riding ahead.
She was still flushed, this time with pleasure, when the boys took both of her hands and pulled her through the garden toward their shelter for the night.
"...And we're going to have a fire and everything," Ian was telling her when they reached the tree house clearing. There was a fire, burning bright and surrounded by two logs and a hassock, and servants were handing up the last of the boys' belongings.
"Welcome," Wolverton called and the boys relinquished her into his care. She was seated on the hassock and given a mug of tea. She spied a table nearby laden with everything required to cook one's meal over an open flame.
Wolverton sent the boys off to cut sticks so they could roast sausages and then politely dismissed the servants.
"A nice time for us to sit and talk, don't you think?" Wolverton said suddenly. Harriet jumped. What on earth were they going to talk about? She wasn't about to tell him about the vicar. Evidently Wolverton had already decided on a topic of conversation.
"How would you like to invite your brother for a visit? I realize he, more than anyone else in your family, would be welcomed by you."
"Obie? Visit here?"
"Why not? There is plenty to keep him occupied, and if your father raises any objections, I shall hire a tutor to keep up his studies."
Harriet actually snorted at that idea.
"If Father kicks up a fuss I'll remind him of Obie's early acceptance to Cambridge..." Her brother did not need extra tutoring. He needed a couple of months of time spent outdoors, and she smiled at the thought of Rory and Ian in tow.
"Ah, good point. While we're alone, might I just say I think you are doing a wonderful job with the children?"
"Me? I am?" She blushed under his dark gaze. "I... I'm just doing what I think is right."
"It's exactly right." He seemed about to say more, but the boys returned with their sticks, and the four merrily roasted sausages and corn, and drank cider while they told silly stories and sang songs.
Later, Wolverton covered the coals with ash and ushered everyone up into the tree house, declaring it time for sleep. Harriet was told to go up first, get ready and then let them know when they might ascend.
She took a lantern with her, and gasped when she reached the top of the ladder. The interior of the tree house had been transformed into a giant sleeping area complete with loads of pillows and blankets, and netting over the windows to keep out insects. She quickly found her belongings and changed into the loose gown, wrapping her shawl about her shoulders. The late spring air was still chill.
"Ready?" Wolverton called, and Harriet replied in the affirmative, smiling as the boys came thundering up the ladder. They pulled off their coats, shoes and stockings before diving under blankets.
"Tell us another story!" Ian insisted of Harriet.
"After we're all here and ready for bed," she calmly replied, feeling anything but calm as she noticed the space in the shelter shrinking and shrinking with the addition of every new body. Once Wolverton came inside, there would be no room for her to breathe at all!
She was correct - he wasn't a particularly big man, but when Wolverton entered the room, Harriet felt immediately cramped, especially when he settled down beside her. The boys seemed to think nothing of it, and chattered about what story they wanted to hear as she watched Wolverton prepare for bed.
He shrugged out of his coat without standing and set about removing his waistcoat, Harriet holding her breath tighter with the loosening of each button. When that had been set neatly aside, he took off his boots and then pulled a blanket up and over the two of them.
She was speechless, but that did not seem to bother him. He lay his head down on the pillow next to hers and smiled.
"Let's hear the story of Robin Hood," he suggested. The boys were in immediate agreement. Harriet sighed and began the tale, trying to forget the large male body at her side as she told of Robin Hood, Little John and Maid Marian.
It was after midnight and the boys were asleep. Harriet wasn't, though, and when she rolled over, it was to see the moonlight on Wolverton's face. He was awake too.
"Gerald!" she exclaimed softly. "I thought you were..."
"I know," he said a tad too smugly for her taste. "How could I possibly sleep with such a beautiful lady by my side?"
"I don't buy into flattery, Gerald," she said tartly.
"Who said it was flattery, Harriet?"
"Oh. It's not?" Once or twice in the past few days she thought she had seen a glimpse of something in his eyes, but...
"Harriet, I feel nothing but a very deep regard for your person and admiration for your physical beauty. But it is the liveliness of your mind and the loveliness of your soul that takes my breath away."
Harriet heard herself gasp in surprise. That was how she had always wanted to be viewed and here he was, saying the perfect words. Were they only words?
"Talk comes cheaply to many," was her stinging retort.
"That's why I prefer demonstrations..." Leaning over her on one arm, he put the opposite hand under her chin.
Harriet tensed slightly when she felt his hand on her, but the atmosphere was relaxed, almost casual, even if she felt anything but. He didn't ask permission or beg her pardon, either, just leaned over further and kissed her lightly on the lips.
"Now, that wasn't so awful, was it?" he teased.
Harriet only shook her head. It wasn't bad? It was most pleasant. She wondered if a second kiss would be even better and reached a hand up to pull his lips back down to hers. He readily complied, although she could see very little of his expression, his face now hidden from the dim light.
"Just because I'm allowing you this liberty, Gerald," she said when she could breathe normally once more, "doesn't mean you will be receiving any other liberties soon. I'm... I'm not ready for them," she admitted.
"I think I can live with that for now," he said, although he was glad it was mostly dark and she could not see him frown. "I think another liberty, if you will, would be to keep the doors between our rooms unlocked... or even open."
She considered the request very seriously, the vicar's words echoing in her head. She thought maybe he and the dowager had gained their information from the servants.
"I think we could keep the doors open," she decided.
"Why do you mistrust me so?" his disembodied voice wondered. "Or is it all men?"
She had to think about that, too.
"What do you expect? My father ignores us, my brother and I successfully routed six gullible gentlemen, and your vicar..."
"What about Singleton?" he said suddenly, reaching out, his hand tightening painfully on her arm.
Harriet tensed. She couldn't possibly repeat what the man had said to her, but...
"Nothing, really," she admitted. "He just makes me uncomfortable."
"I can't quite put my finger on it," she lied, when what she really wanted to do was put her entire hand on it, preferably with a resounding smack.
"Let me know if there is anything specific, please. I..."
He would have said more, but Ian sat up with a start and glared owlishy at them. "I'm trying to sleep here," he grumbled and flopped back down on his bedroll. He started to snore.
Harriet giggled and could feel her husband shaking with silent laughter next to her.
"So much for a chaperone," he said blithely. "But then, if he were awake, I couldn't do this."
He kissed her lightly and then pulled her close, tucking her head up under his chin and draping one arm across her waist. "Now, get some rest, sweetheart. The boys are bound to be up early, and I would not be surprised if Sydney joined us, as well."
Long after Harriet heard his breath drop to the steady rhythm of someone in a deep sleep, she lay there in his arms, wondering how she was supposed to rest when he was so close.
Wolverton's words were prophetic. Rory and Ian were awake at the crack of dawn, their soft laughter waking her as they tried their best to keep quiet. She heard them leave and reached for Wolverton.
The hard, warm body she had gone to sleep with was still there, but had rolled away from her. She watched, fascinated, as the light slowly crept in the netted window and highlighted a pulse on the side of his neck. She resisted the urge to press her lips against that spot. Instead, she yawned, snuggled up against his warmth and went back to sleep.
When she awoke once more, her companion was gone and she was alone in the tree house. The laughter of the children - Sydney and, surprisingly, Zoe, included - rose up to her ears. She smiled, quickly dressed and descended for breakfast.
Everyone greeted her merrily as Wolverton handed her a mug of tea, and Sydney insisted on sitting next to her, chattering like a magpie.
Wolverton seemed animated as he passed around pastries warm from the kitchen. When he asked them all if they wished to go fishing, everyone cheered.
"Meet me down at the creek in a while," he told the children. "I need to escort Harriet to the house so she may write to her brother. She looks like she needs some sleep, too," he correctly ascertained. "You may go fishing with us the next time," he promised in a low voice, pulling her to her feet and walking her back to her room, where she was kissed lightly and told to get some rest.
She went straight to bed and dreamed of tree house kisses and the arrival of her brother.
© 2003 Copyright held by the author.