I awoke on the third day of my deliverance from the prison that had once been my home to sunshine and the sound of laughter outside my window. I'd finally slept myself out and I stretched languidly, wondering what time it was. That hadn't seemed to matter lately and I'd quite given up counting the hours and minutes of the day. But for the first time since Stephen died, I found that I had an appetite.
What an astonishing thing to have, I thought to myself. So I sat up and looked to see where Dorcas might be. She'd been my constant companion the last few days and I'd grown used to having her by my side all the time. But I'd awakened alone and found that I had no desire to roll over and go back to sleep. With shaking hands, I pushed back the covers and slid my legs over the side of the bed.
I had to hold onto the side table to keep my balance and I was appalled at the depth of my weakness. But with determination, I made my way to the window seat that looked out over the gardens. Young Horatio was playing with a puppy, throwing sticks for it and laughing at its antics. I drank in the sight of his glowing countenance and the youthful vigor that suffused his entire body.
What I wouldn't give for a tenth of all that energy, I smiled thoughtfully.
"My Lady, you're up." Dorcas had come in with a tea tray while I was drinking in the sunshine. She brought it to me and looked carefully at me after she poured my tea. "You're feeling better, aren't you?"
I nodded and motioned for her to join me on the cushioned seat by the open window. "I finally feel like myself again, dearest Dorcas. I awoke to the sound of laughter and realized that it was a beautiful day. I think I'm hungry."
She wiped the sudden tears from her face and nodded. "Thank goodness. I've just the thing, m'lady. The baker here has a very light hand with her scones and we got some with the grocery delivery this morning. Sit there and drink your tea while I go prepare some for you."
I smiled and agreed that sounded like the very thing I would like. She left with a lighter step and I finished my tea before getting up and walking slowly to the dressing table to get a brush. Sitting at the mirror, I pondered the changes that I saw in the unforgiving glass. My hair was limp and lifeless, reflecting my inner turmoil over the last two months. It was still a shock to see the snow-white cloud about my face. My chestnut hair had been the only beautiful thing about me and I mourned its loss for a moment.
Peaceful sleep had soothed away most of the lines that had aged me so. I ran the brush slowly through the slightly tangled lengths. Perhaps Dorcas would let me wash it today. I could sit on the terrace in the sun to dry it. I craved the warmth of daylight and the fresh air of even a neglected garden. The bouquet of lilies that Horatio had picked for me still scented the air with their fragrance.
He'd delivered them the night before when he came to say goodnight. Edward had gone into town to report to the Admiralty and wasn't expected back until this evening. Horatio felt the responsibility keenly and took great care to check on me every few hours. Perhaps I would surprise them both by being dressed and actually up for dinner. I thought about the young man who was Edward's protégé.
Horatio worshipped the ground Edward walked on, that was quite evident. And even in the depths of my depression, I'd known that Edward felt something more than just liking for the young man. Now, while I brushed my hair I pondered what I knew of the situation and what I might do about it. I wished no harm to come to Edward because of his championing my cause.
The Snows had shown their true colors the day they walked through the door while my Stephen was scarce cold. I deplored their actions more on behalf of Dorcas and Wenton than for myself. I'd just wanted to die and I believe that I was willing myself into my grave when Horatio had appeared like a shining knight of old to rescue me. What should I do now?
Dorcas reappeared with a tray set with all manner of tempting delicacies. While I tasted the delicious scone drizzled with honey she finished brushing my hair for me. She even agreed that we could wash it. I took my scones back to the window seat so I could watch my young knight roughhousing with the golden dog, full of all that energy that comes from good food and constant play.
Closing my eyes, I soaked up the sun and filled my stomach with two scones before I felt so full that I could eat no more. Another cup of tea gave me the strength to rise and walk about the room. I'd always rather envied Margaret this pretty room and silently, I asked her forgiveness for making so free with her possessions. She'd been a giving soul and would never begrudge me a refuge from pain, yet I felt as if I was intruding on a sacred space.
At once the reason why came to me like a bolt from the heavens. It was exactly the way she'd left it except for a few items that Dorcas
had packed for us. The hairbrush I'd just used had been hers, the
linens the exact same ones that I'd seen ten years before right after her
death. Poor Edward had been very much a lost soul that trip and I
think our visit had helped in his healing.
How ironic that he should now be returning the favor to me? We'd both lost the person dearest to us in all the world. Edward had healed and I would, too. I knew that now but the question still remained -- how would I live for the rest of my life. Those vexing thoughts were put aside when Wenton bustled in with two large containers of water for my hair.
I greeted him with a cheery 'good morning' and he beamed on me as if I was the Queen. I really had worried my two good friends with my melancholy. Dorcas took charge then and very shortly thereafter, I found myself with clean hair. I didn't recognize the dress that she helped me into but it was a light morning dress of cotton voile in a dark gray that satisfied convention even though it was hopelessly out of fashion.
She told me that it was Lady Margaret's from the attic and I pondered how very much I owed to a woman I'd only met twice. She had been a homebody and rarely came to London while Stephen hated leaving the town house. I'd envied her this country home with its stately grounds and the child who brightened her days. Their deaths had been a blow that Edward might have faltered under but for his steely will.
Dorcas spread a towel over my shoulder then brushed my hair onto it to protect my dress. Then with her help, I left the room that had been my refuge and moved slowly down the curving stairs to the front hall. I recognized the halls we moved through to the kitchen now lit by natural light. We were down to just four of us while Elijah drove Edward to London.
I needed to rest for a moment and Dorcas fluttered around me while I rested on a kitchen chair. The back door stood open and a golden flash charged through it headed straight for me.
"Ajax, come back here." Horatio followed him in to find me with a lapful of puppy. "Ma'am! You're up!"
"Good morning, Horatio." I rubbed the top of the puppy's head. "And good morning to you too, Ajax. What a lively one you are."
The puppy licked my face and I found laughter again when I thought I'd lost it forever. Horatio was beaming at me and he circled the table to kneel at my side. "Are you coming outside, Lady Jane? It's a beautiful day and you can start my gardening lessons."
His smile was so open that I found myself responding to it. "I believe that a little sunshine is just what I need, Horatio. Perhaps Ajax will join us so we can harness all that energy for digging up weeds."
He laughed and plucked the puppy from my lap. "I've just been telling him to not dig up the borders. May I offer my arm?"
"You may, Horatio." I rose slowly from the chair and took his arm for the walk outside.
Dorcas stayed at my other side while I walked into the sunshine. The kitchen garden was in disarray and I put it on my mental list. That list had dwindled to nothing but 'get up and endure another day'. But now I was planning again. It was a lovely feeling and I savored it all the way onto the paving stones where we'd once taken an after dinner brandy so long ago.
She insisted that I sit in the partial shade provided by an overgrown evergreen. I asked for some more tea and she beamed at me before heading back inside rejoicing. It humbled me to have so much devotion directed to my care. Horatio sat at my feet while Ajax sniffed the stones as if they might be hiding a bone.
"You look better, Ma'am. Sir Edward will be pleased." He beamed up at me and I nodded. "He said that he'd be back this afternoon."
"Is he a good captain, Horatio?" I asked him to see what he would say.
He glowed brightly and began to tell me how very good a captain Edward was. I watched him enthuse over my old friend and wondered if the hero-worship that I saw was all he felt or if a deeper emotion lurked behind his eyes. But when I asked him about the worst thing that had happened to him in his year as a sailor, I watched the light go out in his eyes. He hugged his knees to his chest and told me about a sailor named Simpson.
The anguish in that bright gaze was palpable and the puppy must have sensed his sadness for he abandoned his sniffing expedition and returned to flop on Horatio's feet. I listened in appalled silence to the harrowing tale and found myself silently cheering when Edward shot the man who had made Horatio's life a living hell. I leaned forward and stroked his dark hair.
"I'm so glad that Edward was there for you, Horatio. And that you survived to rescue an old lady." I raised his chin and wiped a single tear from his cheek. "You will be all the better an officer with such a terrible experience to remind you of the abuses of power."
He nodded. "I know, Lady Jane. The captain sat me down and we had a long talk about responsibility and duty. He reminded me that I had to tell him when something bothered or confused me." His eyes glowed with a softer light this time. "Then he told me that I would have private lessons from him once a week so I could study for my examination for Lieutenant."
Private lessons, I thought to myself but out loud I urged him to continue
his tale. It was more than hero worship, I decided. It was
youth's first love. I thought back to how terrifying I'd found that
emotion, until Stephen came into my life, my one and only love. He
hadn't cared that I was plain as pudding and a blue stocking to boot. It was my voice that first attracted him and my mind that kept him intrigued
all through our sixteen-year marriage.
I missed him still but the sharp, knife-edge of pain had dulled and I felt ready to rejoin the human race again. I found that I rather liked the idea of Edward and this young man. One of Stephen's booksellers had, what I guess, you could call a husband. They were a delightful pair, devoted to books and each other. I've always been a bit bohemian that way. I found real love a very precious thing and I liked seeing it around me.
But did Edward feel the same way about young Horatio?
I'd have to wait and see when he returned. A clatter arose to our left where the stables were and I heard Edward's voice laughing at something his companion said. Horatio sprang to his feet and Ajax yelped at his sudden movement. Edward appeared around the shrubbery, his eyes flying directly to Horatio.
Ah, I thought in satisfaction. He does indeed care but will not make a move for fear of hurting Horatio. And I sat back to plot a little matchmaking. It was all noise and confusion for a few moments then Dorcas brought out the tea tray and Wenton brought a small table for our al fresco tea party.
"Jane, you look beautifully rested and it hasn't even been a week." Edward's keen eyes raked me with an assessing glance before smiling and accepting a cup of tea.
"This house is like a magic pool with healing waters that can revive even this old lady." I watched Horatio from the corner of my eye while he tried not to stare at his captain. He wasn't wearing his uniform but a comfortable suit of leathers for the long ride from London. The faint scent of leather had always seemed to me to be an aphrodisiac and it seemed that he thought it one as well.
"Not so much of the old, Jane. You're only a year younger that me." He said before picking up a scone and taking a bite.
"Hah, you're forty, Edward, and if you're not in your prime, I don't know who is." I gave out our ages to see what Horatio would think and I smiled inwardly at his thoughtful look. "But I fear that a woman at that age is long past her prime. Short of retiring to a convent and taking up good works, I fear there is little need for me."
They exchanged a long look and I wondered what in the world Edward had planned. I was not long kept in ignorance. Edward put down his teacup and scone to play with his napkin.
"Jane, Vicar Wakely and I talked over several scenarios. I also spoke with my lawyer in London about your dower's rights to the Snow estate. There is very little that can be done there except for what Stephen willed to me for your care."
That was the first I'd heard of it, at least the first that I'd comprehended and he handed me Stephen's letter across the table. Seeing his dear writing brought tears to my eyes and I had to use Edward's handkerchief to blot my cheeks. The words were Stephen to a 'T' and I thought of his great heart with fondness. Even beyond the grave he was taking care of me. I blew my nose and sat up straight.
"Thank you for showing me his letter, Edward. Now, what is the plan that you and the Vicar concocted?"
He blushed a little and hemmed and hawed for a long moment before asking me to marry him. I sat there in shock. That hadn't occurred to me. And yet ... it would solve my problem most conveniently. But what would it do for Edward? Horatio had grown so quiet that he'd almost effaced himself from the table. What of their as yet undeclared affections?
I sat back. "I see. It would certainly solve my problem but leave you unable to form another attachment, Edward. We've both loved but once in our lives. What if you fall in love again?"
He shook his head and deliberately didn't look at Horatio. "That will not be a problem, Jane. I am too old to form another bond with a woman save you. Our friendship will suffice for me. Will it be enough for you?"
"I must think on this for a while, dear Edward. I will let you know my answer a little later. For now, know that I greatly appreciate your offer and I will give it my full attention after I take a nap. I fear I may have over-taxed my abilities to climb the stairs back to my refuge."
Nodding, he arose and came around the table to sweep me up in his arms and carry me inside. I looked over his shoulder at a wistful Horatio and felt sorry that Edward might never know the joy of another love. This path, if we took it, would close many doors for us. But what doors might it open?
Dorcas fussed a little, undressing me, tucking me in and pulling the curtains tight. I slipped into sleep gently. Awaking almost two hours later, I let her tempt me with fragrant beef broth and new potatoes with butter and dill sauce. My mind was quite blank and I got up to walk around the pleasant room that would be mine if I accepted Edward's generous offer.
I'd have a place in society, an estate to cherish and a man whom I considered a friend to husband. I would be a good wife for him and his absences would make our friendship deeper because we'd never run out of tales to tell each other. I flung back the curtains and gazed out at the countryside. Green was everywhere and I soaked up the beautiful verdant growth with greedy eyes.
After years in London, I discovered that I had no desire to ever return there. Edward's offer was generous in the extreme and the moment my eyes fell on the herbaceous border, I decided to accept him. He had spoken truly when he said the garden was in terrible shape. The job of bringing it back to life might well take the rest of my life. And that was a very comforting thought.
My nap had clarified the other issue I had struggled with, too. His marriage to me would provide a ... cover as it were for his relationship with the young man who loved him. Now, how to bring them together and show them my acceptance? I turned away from the window and rang the bell for Dorcas. I needed to talk to Edward first.
Dorcas redressed me and told me that the Vicar was in the study with Edward. Since I was quite sure that they were talking about this situation, I made haste to pin up my hair and tidy the wisps away. I pinched my cheeks but to no avail. I was still moon pale and only a few weeks of gardening would bring any color back to me.
I was trembling a little when Dorcas helped me downstairs. It would take time to bring me back to my normal good health. I dismissed Dorcas at the door and tapped before entering. Edward was on his feet in an instant and the vicar also stood to greet me. Introductions were given and I appraised the man of god while he took a good look at me.
He was about sixty-years of age and the twinkle in his eye told me that he might become a friend as well as counselor. Our chit-chat might have grown strained if I hadn't taken the bull by the horns.
"Edward, I accept your proposal of marriage. Did you have the foresight to pick up a special license while you were in London?" I said briskly, surprising him into laughter.
"Yes, Jane, I did appeal to the Archbishop and he graciously agreed. Vicar Wakely has accepted it and we wait only for you to make up your mind when the ceremony will be." He chuckled and I smiled at him.
"There is no time like the present. Wenton and Dorcas can be our witnesses while Horatio can pick some more lilies for my bridal bouquet. While your herbaceous borders are indeed a disgraceful sight, they will do nicely for a congregation. I find I have a need to be outdoors after these last months of ..." I faltered, shivering at the thought of my imprisonment.
Edward rescued me. "I think that's a capital idea, Jane. Vicar, will that suit you?"
"I think the setting most appropriate for a gardener like Lady Jane. I've been after Edward for years to hire someone to take care of the grounds but he's always put me off." He took my hand and kissed it. "I'm so glad that he's finally found a permanent solution."
I gripped his hand firmly. "Thank you, Vicar Wakely. I shall do my best to make you both proud."
There was hustle and bustle for the next half-hour while we prepared ourselves for a wedding, no matter how impromptu it might seem. Then we were repeating our vows to each other under an arbor of honeysuckle vines, their sweet scent adding a nice touch to the ceremony. And for the first time in my life, I kissed another man.
It was a mere press of lips to lips but his scent was wrong and the angle unfamiliar. I faltered again but his eyes were kind when he murmured, 'I know'. It had to be as strange to him as to me and I firmed my purpose before turning with a smile to thank the Vicar. We had tea cakes and Madera afterwards. Then the Vicar left and the others scattered to the four corners of the house, leaving Edward and I alone in the study.
"Edward, we need to talk." I patted the seat beside me on the settee and he joined me. "I know why this was an excellent idea and I cherish your friendship more than I can say. But I am not yet ready to be ... intimate again. I think in time I might be but I don't wish you to have to be celibate just because I'm not ready. There is another who should benefit from the love you're holding back from him."
His eyes widened and he opened and closed his mouth in almost the same motion. "Jane. I ... I don't know what to say."
"I see love when you look at him, a love so great that you'd rather say nothing than take a chance of hurting him." I took his hand in both of mine. "What you haven't seen in your struggle to remain aloof is that he loves you, too."
"No, it's merely the respect he would give to anyone in the position of teacher and mentor." He shook his head.
"Nonsense, Edward. That might have been how it started out but it has grown deeper in every way since the disgraceful incident of Simpson. I'm so glad that you killed him. The very thought of him harming that dear boy makes me so angry I could spit." I looked him straight in the eye. "Don't hold his youth against him, Edward."
"He's young enough to be my son." Edward couldn't sit still but got up to pace. "He'll be one of the best captains the Fleet has ever known one day. He deserves the chance to grow slowly into himself."
"Pooh, my dear!" I snorted. "He's old enough to make life and death decisions that affect an entire crew but you're telling me that he's not old enough to choose a lover?"
He stopped dead and a look of such anguish filled his face. "It would be taking advantage of him. I'm his superior officer."
"That is a sticking point, Edward but one that means that caution must be taken while you're on board ship. Here, you have the perfect freedom to love each other without any to say you nay. In fact, I shall be cheering you on. I never had children and now, I never will. I think he will make a very nice adopted son for me."
The look on his face was priceless and I chuckled before getting up to give him a hug. Sliding my arms around him and squeezing hard, I kissed the dimple in his chin. "I will expect hugs and kisses when you're home, Edward but I truly am not yet ready to have another in Stephen's place."
He rested his head on top of mine. "I promise you shall have time to heal, Jane. Are you quite sure about Horatio?"
I chuckled. "Quite sure, dearest. He loves you very much but he thinks he's not good enough for the lessons in love that he craves from you. Stay here and I'll send him in. Or better yet, take him into the billiards room and engage him in a game before you talk to him."
He echoed my chuckle and squeezed me tightly before letting me go. He was not Stephen but in time, I thought that he might become the lover that I'd lost. We had years together if the good Lord willed it. There would be time for us later. Now was Horatio's time with him. I left him with another kiss on the cheek and went to find the young man who would hopefully become the son I'd never had.
It wasn't the conventional wedding day and society would be aghast at our tangled triangle but I thought it would suit us very well. Humming, I headed for the kitchen where I was sure to find him. Boys needed constant feeding or so I'd been told and Dorcas was baking scones if the pleasant smells wafting my way were to be believed.
Entering the kitchen, I found him tasting the first batch. With a smile and a kiss on the cheek, I sent him to his destiny in the billiard room. My first matchmaking experiment was well on its way to fruition. Eyeing Dorcas bustling around the kitchen and Wenton polishing the silver at the table, I decided to make them my next wedded pair.
Life was going to be very interesting for the next few years.
End part three