Early afternoon had crept stealthily but firmly upon the vast estate grounds. Morning, and all the daily activities associated with it – milking the cows, exercising the horses, herding the sheep, and tending to the vegetable gardens and to the orchards – had been completed long ago. Now, in the strange but not unpleasant silence, which had been extending its tendrils slowly throughout the day, men chewed absently on bits of straw as they gathered to exchange the latest news. The women took out their sewing baskets and proceeded to mend torn clothes or to work on some fine piece of stitchery. The bright chatter and laughter of the children had temporarily faded either into the phantom of slumber or provided a glimpse into a hopeful future: the older children worked steadily alongside their elders.
The lazy stream nearby trickled down and turned sharply around a bend, its sounds mocking yet soothing. The leaves rustled and collided, displaying vividly the violent interplay of colors so evident every autumn. The murky grey of morning had given way to the crystal sharp clarity of clear blue skies. The sedate autumn breeze had become a biting, almost fierce autumn wind. It hinted to all who cared to listen that serenity should not be taken for granted; destruction resulting from vengeance, from inattention could be wreaked at any time.
But despite its constant efforts – the wind vigorously stirred loose soft, shimmering red-gold strands of hair around a pale, unblinking face – one person seemed to take no notice. She was mounted on her favorite horse, Juno, who stood restlessly at the edge of the bank by the stream. The steady eyes suddenly blinked, her long lashes suspiciously moist. She turned her head slowly. From a distant angle, it seemed as if she were surveying the grounds of this estate soon to be her home, with a critical and keen eye.
How wrong that observation would be.
It had been three months since the death of Sir Creston, and it still felt as if Honoria could never manage to remember that he was gone forever. The immediate month after Sir Creston’s funeral and burial, Honoria often found her either rushing through the hallways or down the stairs to her father’s study. As had been her custom since she could remember, Honoria would simply open the door without knocking and walk in, breathless but eager to share her latest discoveries with him. Once upon a time, Sir Creston would have been seated at his desk. He would have had on his reading glasses and would have peered at Honoria over the top of his frames with affectionate disapproval. Despite his constant reminders, Honoria had never learned to knock before she entered, unannounced. Honoria would ignore her father’s mock glare and stroll over to him confidently. She would kiss him on the cheek warmly and then sit in the comfortable, beaten leather chair across from her father. Her legs would be tucked under her, her voice eager, her speech rushed as she related her news to Sir Creston.
It was peculiar, really, Honoria thought with an imperceptible twist of her lips, how suddenly she had so much to tell a father with whom she would never again be able to share confidences. She had finally solved the set of calculus and physics problem sets that had been plaguing her for weeks. Under the stern but loving guidance of her Aunt Lydia, she had finally finished her first sampler. Honoria grimaced. Well, the back had failed to resemble the front… she neglected to finish the thought.
The wind grew stronger, pulling free additional red-gold strands from a hasty knot at the nape of Honoria’s throat. Steadying her mount, Honoria tucked her riding coat around herself more firmly. She impatiently but unsuccessfully pushed away the flying strands of hair from her face, her gaze clear as her thoughts finally came to dwell on the one person for whom Honoria possessed feelings that she did not care to examine too closely.
Honoria looked up and turned in her seat. It had been rather unnecessary for her to confirm the identity of the owner of that deep baritone. She watched as Frederick strolled towards her, his long-legged gait unhurried and confident, his hands in his trouser pockets.
Frederick stopped before Juno and gave a friendly, assessing pat. Honoria opened her mouth to issue a cordial greeting. But the prepared greeting faded. With hands that spanned Honoria’s slim waist, Frederick easily brought her down to the ground. Though Honoria would have preferred to keep her gaze on the ground, he grasped her chin lightly between his thumb and forefinger and impersonally examined her face. What he saw must have satisfied him for he nodded approvingly. He released her and stepped back. He had not spoken a word.
Honoria averted her eyes and tightly clasped her gloved hands in front of her. She felt rather than saw Frederick’s gaze on her. She swallowed, trying to ease the dryness in her mouth. “You have a lovely home, Sir St. John,” she began the conversation, her voice slightly shaky.
Frederick leaned against Honoria’s horse and rested a hand on the mount. “You should have told me that the memories were too difficult to live with for the moment at your father’s home,” he reprimanded gently.
Honoria’s head snapped. “I grew up in that home, and I loved my father, Sir St. John,” she protested fiercely. “How dare you suggest that – “
Frederick held up a palm, silencing Honoria. She unconsciously retreated. Frederick studied her face. “I meant no insult to your father’s home, Honoria,” he reassured. “But you did look like death warmed over a fortnight ago when I went to visit you.” He sighed, allowing a moment of exasperation. “No matter what Lady Caposten may have said about propriety, if you had only sent for me when the memories grew too unbearable, I would have brought you here immediately.”
Honoria blinked rapidly. She had wondered how Frederick had managed to bring her to his estate without a chaperone’s well-meaning presence. Lydia was a stickler for propriety. “How did you convince Aunt Lydia to allow me to come here?” she asked warily.
Frederick stepped forward and touched the shadows under Honoria’s eyes with his thumbs and framing her cheeks with his palms. He smiled slightly. “This will be your home soon, Honoria,” he responded without answering her question. He rubbed the dark circles under Honoria’s eyes lightly with the pads of his thumbs. “Do you have nightmares, Honor?” he asked quietly.
Honoria slowly lifted her eyelids to meet the beckoning, steady grey depths of Frederick’s eyes. She had believed that in her grief-stricken stupor some months ago, she had imagined the tenderness, the understanding, and the compassion in his calm, inscrutable grey eyes. She had imagined the solid strength of his hands that had gripped her shoulders. And she had imagined the almost unbearably gentle kiss that he had placed on top of her head.
Yes, Honoria had firmly believed that she had imagined everything. The weeks following her father’s burial, Frederick’s visits had been sporadic, his manner polite and affable but cool. An enigmatic, opaque barrier of thin grey ice had replaced the warm charcoal quality to his eyes, which Honoria had found so appealing and comforting. Honoria desperately sought to look away; Frederick’s hands were gentle but intractable. She was afraid of what he would see in her eyes: she could lie easily through the spoken word, but her eyes could not. What little she knew of herself, she knew that she had not yet learned to guard against the expressiveness of her grey-green eyes. Against the answers in her soul that her eyes would provide.
Answers of which she had no knowledge.
“Honoria?” Frederick inquired patiently.
Honoria gave a small cry and pressed her face into Frederick’s chest. She closed her eyes, her hands clenched into fists and placed against his chest. His arms went around her; he held her close.
“Honoria?” Frederick repeated softly. He brushed his lips lightly over the top of Honoria’s dishelved head.
Honoria opened her eyes and rested her cheek against his heart. She was soothed by its steady rhythm. Her voice was barely audible as she spoke. She did not move from the refuge of his arms.
“Frederick, I – “ Honoria croaked.
Frederick pulled back slightly though his arms remained around Honoria’s waist. Though his lips did not move, the corners of his eyes crinkled. “It is about time you began using my Christian name, my dear,” he remarked lightly. He lifted one finger and tapped it against Honoria’s cheek.
Honoria blushed and pulled away completely. “I forgot myself, Sir St. John,” she said stiffly. “I do apologize.”
For the first time in their acquaintance, Frederick laughed. Honoria’s eyes flew to his face. She could not help but notice the faint lines of exhaustion bracketing his mouth and the edges of his eyes. She hesitantly raised a hand, tempted to touch those lines. Her hand dropped. “Sir St. John – “
“I thought that we agreed that you should use my Christian name,” Frederick interrupted smoothly.
Honoria ignored that remark; she had agreed to nothing. It had been the slip of a tongue. “Did your business in London go well?” she inquired politely. She recollected something about a patient. “How is your patient?”
The laughter faded from Frederick’s eyes as he stared blankly at Honoria. But he recovered quickly, his usual bland, amiable smile touching his lips. “Doing quite well, thank you, Honoria.” He added lightly, “You sound like a wife already.”
Honoria searched Frederick’s eyes; she could not dispel the disquiet that his lack of an answer created. However, she knew enough to be aware that he would deftly brush aside further questions. She nodded uneasily, and sought to change the subject. “Did you find other species for your gardens?” she asked promptly.
Upon her arrival at Frederick’s estate a fortnight ago, Honoria was surprised to discover that her betrothed was an amateur horticulturist. Before he departed for London, he had escorted her around his lush, colorful and vibrant gardens. He pointed out all the various flora by its Latin and English names.
Frederick shook his head and moved closer to Honoria. He put a hand in his trouser pockets and took out a small velvet jewelry box. “No, but I found this,” he replied gravely. “For you,” he added unnecessarily.
Honoria raised her eyes to Frederick’s face, but he was intent on slipping the ring onto the fourth finger of her left hand. Her eyes moved from his face to the emerald-diamond ring on her finger. She turned down her eyes and held out her hand. She examined the ring, the symbol of her change in status from a mere maiden to a betrothed one. “Oh, Frederick,” she murmured inadequately, forgetting herself again. She was at a loss for words.
Frederick tightly clasped Honoria’s right hand. “Tell me the truth, my dear,” he requested intently. “Do you truly like the ring? If not, I could – “
Honoria shook her head. “Oh no, the ring is beautiful,” she declared. “I shall be the envy of every young lady in England.”
Frederick’s tense shoulders eased. He squeezed Honoria’s hand. “Hardly that, my dear. My ring is a paltry thing compared to the jewels of the other titled ladies of England,” he remarked dryly.
Honoria tentatively placed her ringed hand over Frederick’s. “But I suspect that very few of those jewels were given with the same sincerity and reverence as yours was,” she reminded gently. “I – “
Honoria paused, unable to find the words. She stood on the tip of her toes as she tried to kiss Frederick’s cheek. At the last moment, however, Frederick unexpectedly turned his head, and his lips ended up meeting hers for the first time.
Honoria had secretly wondered exactly what kissing entailed. She did not understand the enthusiasm or the art behind what she considered a simple press of the flesh. So nothing had prepared her for the smooth yet firm texture of Frederick’s lips. Or the warmth that emanated from them. Or the fervor and oddly intimate feel of his long, capable hands at her waist.
Honoria pulled away slightly and turned her head, unnerved by the unfamiliar sensations that were coursing through her. She felt Frederick’s not objectionable warm breath near the corner of her mouth and involuntarily inhaled his scent – something that came from his valet prepared shaving soap and something else that she could not identify. Her fingers dug into his upper arms as she turned her head slowly; her eyelids fluttered up as she hesitantly met her betrothed’s unexpectedly stormy grey eyes. Frederick’s eyes narrowed as his lips descended again to meet Honoria’s. His hands tightened around her waist as he jerked her closer to him. Her hands tentatively slid from his upper arms to his shoulders, her head tilting back as his kisses became harder and more insistent.
For a moment, it seemed as if the sun appeared from behind the clouds, drenching the barren earth with its warmth and vitality. The starved vines, wrapping the earth, gained a new life as they began to loosen and to extend. The hidden roses hanging on the vines dared to unfold and to reveal their brilliant colors.
Honoria savored this warmth, her small, slim hands laced behind Frederick’s neck. Hence, when Frederick drew away, she suddenly felt dreadfully cold. When he kissed her forehead, she closed her eyes, her lips trembling. Tears touched the backs of her eyelids.
The journey had begun. This little Honoria knew. Where it would take her, how the road would curve, and where it would end, she did not know. Except… except that she knew with a certainty borne out of warmth and of passion of Frederick’s kisses that his journey, wherever it would lead, would be hers. And hers would be his.
He would lead.
And she would always follow.
She would beckon.
And he would always come.