by Lady Memphremagog
Looking back, my biggest mistake–if mistake it could be called–had been taking the veil with me. Had I not brought along that scrap of fabric, I would have had nothing to link me to the scandalous affair at Rosewood Hall.
Other than my own regrets, of course.
It had come down to my pride or my name and I could more easily relinquish the latter. After all, I had been ready to give that up as well and take the name of the man–
But there was no use dwelling in the past. I doffed my name with my expensive gown and ran away with nothing but half a year’s wages and the plain stuff clothes on my back (and a torn and tattered veil I could never use again). I could not stay.
The issue, I discovered, with running away from something, rather than running to somewhere, is that one quickly loses one’s sense of direction. I ascended the first coach to pull into the yard, which happened to be traveling to points North. I spent much of the trip crying into my cloak, I am ashamed to admit, and so missed any indication of where I was actually going. I dismounted at a small town in –shire, for no better reason than that I could not stand spending another hour in the coach, alone with my thought and my regrets. I had tried telling myself to stop being silly, to take hold of my grief and be grateful that I had found out in time, yet my self seemed unwilling to listen. I was still pining.
Those were hard days; I had little enough to live on, unless sorrow was considered food, then I had a feast for a Queen. I lived mostly on the kindness of strangers and the grace of God.
It was through the combination of those two that my life finally began to improve. The embodiment of my salvation was named St. George Waterson and he was the clergyman of the local parish.
I still had money, though not much, when I first came to his door. I hammered on it for a full minute before it swung open and I was invited in. I had expected the parson to be an older man, perhaps greying and slightly stooped (for that was how I remembered most parsons looking). St. George was none of those things. Tall, broad-shouldered, with golden hair and a face that looked as though it had been carved by Michaelangelo from marble, I felt even smaller and mousier than ever. Drab little sparrow that I was, I faded into the background in the face of such obvious splendor.
My discomfort was humiliatingly evident in my address.
“Give me work,” I begged him, “so that I might live and provide for myself.” I was not afraid of hard work, but of wasting away.
He stared at me, before I realized that I was, perhaps, getting ahead of myself. “My name is Anna Smith,” I said, a necessary lie, for I had left my true name behind when I left Rosewood Hall, “and I wish for work.”
His face remained stern. “What sort of work?” he asked.
“Whatever you would have me do,” I answered. “I am not afraid of long hours or labor. I was trained as an instructress in a girl’s boarding school.”
He nodded and smiled. His smile was indescribable: bright like the light of the sun, but still strangely unfriendly. He was smiling because of me, yet not at me. “God works in mysterious ways,” he observed, stepping aside to make room for me to enter his house. “I had been thinking that the children of this town were in dire need of education; nothing like the drawing or music you would have taught to your pupils, but simple reading and writing. I am equipped to teach the boys, but the girls…what was I to do about the girls?” He was striding through his home and, despite being inside of a small vicarage, I found myself nearly running to keep up. “And just as I had decided the problem was intractable, God hands me the gift of a schoolmistress on my front door, telling me she is in dire need of work.”
He turned to face me. “I would like the job,” I said bravely.
“Yes, that is the strange part,” he murmured. “Why would a woman such as yourself, who could easily have become a governess for a wealthy family–do not protest, Miss Smith, your demeanor speaks for you–choose to come here and ask me for an occupation without even knowing I wanted a teacher?”
“As you said, God works in mysterious ways.”
He fixed me with eyes so blue, they glittered like the cold waters of a lake on a summer day. “Is there any reason I should not hire you? Anything in your past that would preclude me from placing you in front of a classroom of young and coarse girls?”
“Nothing!” I answered, with perhaps more vehemence than I intended. He turned his head to the side and waited for me to continue. I offered as much as I dared up for judgment. “There was a…scandal involving my previous employer. It never touched me; I did nothing wrong and no shame would ever be attached to my actions–anyone involved would tell you as much. Yet I could not stay. I left because it was my duty to myself to leave such a place.”
My convictions were enough for St. George and that, as they say, would be enough for me. After some basic tests of my qualifications, which were a mere formality, and one last reminder that I would be doing work far less demanding or gratifying than before, he brought me to the empty stone cottage that was both schoolhouse and teacher’s apartments. In between classes, I found the time to brighten my blank domain with curtains, some wildflowers and even a painting or two. The cottage began to feel like a home.
St. George was wrong, as it happened, about the work. I found my tenure in the small parish of –shire to be one of the most gratifying experiences of my young life. The girls were young and coarse, it was true, but they were also kind and willing to be taught. And I, I felt as though I was finally able to do something that would manifestly make God’s world better. It was not happiness, but it was close.
St. George did not see himself as my supervisor, though he would stop by often to ensure that I was doing well or to bring regards from his sisters, who kept house for him. We had supper together once a week and it was in those moments when I was sitting among a family that I felt truly at peace. I had not been made to live alone, though it seemed I was not made for companionship either.
It was on one of his occasional visits to my schoolroom that St. George noticed the veil. It had been an unwanted guest in my home for the past three months, yet I could not bring myself to sever that last link between my previous life and me.
By the time I noticed the direction his gaze had turned, it was too late. He picked it up carefully, and despite the torn fabric and tears staining it, its richness was more than evident.
“A curious article for an unmarried schoolmistress,” he observed, putting it back. I said nothing, for what could I say? “It reminds me of a story I heard a fortnight or so ago. The story was old news, for it had been over two months even then since the events had occurred, yet the actual tale was so strange, the teller could not help but share it. Shall I tell it to you?”
“As you choose,” I answered with as much carelessness as I could muster.
He seemed not to notice my absence of enthusiasm. “The story begins with a young governess, much like yourself. Your names are even similar; she was called Anne Skye, I believe. She was employed by a wealthy man to teach his young ward, who was rumored to be his natural daughter, yet no one knew for sure.”
I could not help myself (and I, after all, knew better) and exclaimed, “Is this the sort of speculation you should be engaging in?”
“I am merely repeating the story as it was told to me,” he said coolly. “In any event, the man supposedly fell in love with the young governess, for reasons no one could fathom as she was neither beautiful nor particularly interesting–”
I bristled, but he ignored me.
“–and they were engaged to be married.”
It was strange, hearing him narrate the events of my life with such little emotion. He was telling the story of my wedding day with such passionless aplomb, such…boredom even, that I wondered how I could stand to hear him. It was not as though I could not remember the events with far more clarity than St. George would ever know them.
The day had dawned cold and bright, a chill April morning with clear skies and the promise of a wide, open future. I had neither the desire to sleep, nor any reason to; I sat up by my husband-to-be’s side as I had promised to do long ago, long before I had known whom he had had in mind for his bride. He had known then, of course, but he had yet to tell me of his plans. One of many things he had not told me.
The walk to the church was, I knew, ten minutes long, yet it seemed either to take a lifetime or no time at all. I arrived out of breath, with his hands clutching my own as he towed me along towards the future.
We stood before the altar, the half-familiar words of the ceremony intoned from the clergyman’s lips and falling like lead on the stone floor of the church. They never quite seemed to reach my ears.
Until, that is, the traditional liturgy was rent apart by the unimaginable answer to the oft-repeated question.
“I require and charge you both (as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed), that if either of you know any impediment why ye may not lawfully be joined together in matrimony, ye do now confess it; for be ye well assured that so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s Word doth allow, are not joined together by God, neither is their matrimony lawful.”
The pause was no longer than a breath; the clergyman had turned to continue the ceremony when a voice rang out that shattered through the fog around my brain. “This marriage cannot go on: I declare the existence of an impediment.”
There was silence in the church and even the poor clergyman needed a moment to recollect himself before he was capable of facing the interloper.
“What is the nature of this impediment?” he asked. I could not see the face of the man who had halted my wedding; I was looking sideways, at the face of the man who I still believed would be my husband. He looked straight ahead and seemed more stone-like than the granite floor of the church. “Perhaps it could be gotten over, or–”
“Hardly,” said the intruder with a short, barked laugh. “It is a simple impediment, yet an insuperable one. The groom, Mr. Edmund Fairview Richardson, is a woman in disguise.”
I have no excuse for what happened next. I had no control over my body and I was so taut with anticipation and anxiety, I laughed.
It was my laughter, I think, that broke Edmund in the end.
“Call it off,” he said to the clergyman, his quiet voice echoing down the almost empty aisle. “There will be no wedding today.”
I looked at him, really looked for the first time in months: at his smooth chin that never seemed in need of a blade; at the fine bones in his hands, which were now clenched by his side; at the long-lashed, black eyes that seemed to shine with inner fire, except now were dark. He–She nodded once, just once, before grabbing me by the hand and dragging me down the aisle and out the church doors. We passed by the man who had ruined her secret and I looked curiously at his face. He was unfamiliar to me, which seemed entirely unfair. If I was to have my life splintered, it should be by someone I know, someone with a reason. It should not be at the hands of some stranger.
I learned his identity several hours later, after I emerged from my room, resolved to leave Rosewood forever. I had spent a few minutes trying to cry, once we returned to the hall, yet the tears would not flow. I was horribly, frustratingly calm. I changed back into my everyday clothing, careful to avoid the sight of the packed and neatly labeled trunk at the foot of my bed. Mrs. Anne Richardson would not be needing it.
There was little for me to do except walk; first out my door and finally out of the hall except, as before, there was one simple impediment.
Edmund was sitting on the floor in front of my room, one leg crossed over the other in a way that my opened eyes insisted as seeing as feminine. She sprung to her feet when I opened the door and nearly knocked me over in the process.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, which was a foolish question and one I wished I could take back the moment it slipped from my lips.
“I’ve been waiting to speak with you,” she answered. She was in her shirtsleeves and her hair had fallen from its queue and hung loose around her face. For the first time, it dawned on me that as striking a man as Edmund had been, as a woman she was beautiful.
We stood there, face to face in the doorway leading to my room, waiting for something to happen. I stepped back first, moving aside so she could enter, before going to sit on the small ottoman in front of my dressing table. She sat on my packed trunk, facing me and looking anxiously into my eyes. I looked away. We were close enough that if we were both to stretch out our hands, our fingers would touch, yet I kept my hands close and in my lap.
“Anne,” she said finally, and it terrified me how my heart still fluttered at the sound of my name from those lips. “Why won’t you yell at me?”
I just stared.
“No, you wouldn’t yell at me, would you? You wouldn’t scream or rage or cry, that’s not in your nature? You will sit here, in your tiny bedroom, and tell me in a small, calm voice that you are going to leave.”
She paused. “And I will tell you yes. Yes, we are going to leave this wretched hall as soon as we can, strike out for the Continent and I will show you Paris, just as I promised.”
I opened my mouth to object when I had the startling realization that I did not know her name.
“Anne, please, say something.”
“I don’t know what to call you,” I blurted out, which elicited a laugh from my interlocutor. I had always loved Edmund’s laugh; it was rich and full and surprisingly light and hearing it again made me wish I could cry, but the tears were still firmly stoppered up.
“Edmund,” she said finally. “It has been so long since anyone used my birth name, I don’t think I would respond to it even if I heard it.”
“What was your name?”
She smiled ruefully. “Catherine. I was born Catherine Maria Richardson. Edmund was my elder brother. When I was sixteen years old, my father shipped us both off to Madeira–Edmund to oversee his plantation and me to marry the son of his business partner. I had no interest in such a marriage and when my brother died aboard ship, I seized my chance. I disembarked as Edmund Fairview Richardson and conveyed the sad news of my younger sister’s death. I was tall for my age and broad-shouldered and Ed had always been a bit undersized. His clothing fit well enough and as for the title,” here she smiled, “it had always fit me better than him.”
“For a time,” she continued, “everything went well. But, as you see, no deception can last forever. My father’s partner, Robert Carpenter, had a daughter about my age and, since his original plans for an alliance were frustrated by my untimely death, he decided that a daughter married to my father’s heir was an even better choice. My objections remained unconsidered, as did my relentless protests that my father would disown me were I to marry a Carpenter. What was good enough for Catherine was nowhere near good enough for Edmund,” she added, her lip curled with disdain.
“Carpenter sent the idiot girl into my bed,” Edmund said after a moment’s pause. “Had her sneak in after I was asleep so she could lie with me. We were both rather surprised and Berenice ran off to tell her father. Fortunately for me, we both had too much to lose if the story became public knowledge, so we agreed that no one involved would speak of the matter again. I could not bear to remain in Madeira a second longer and set off for the Continent where I led a pure and upright lifestyle with only a slight veneer of dissolution to keep anyone from looking too closely.”
She smiled and, fool that I was, I smiled back at her, amused at the thought of my Edmund pretending to the role of rake. I sobered quickly, though. She was not, could never be my Edmund.
“Remember when I told you that I knew for a fact that Marie was not my daughter?” Edmund asked. “This would be why. Yet her mother had no place for a baby in the drawing rooms and dressing rooms of Paris.”
“It was a good deed,” I told her.
“One of my few,” she said ruefully. “I treated you ill, Anne. I should have told you, should have trusted you from the first. I know that now.” She stood up, only to fall to her knees before me and take my cold hands in her own. She chafed them and looked up into my face. Had I wished to, I could not have looked away.
“I thought I had heard the last of the Carpenters,” Edmund said, “After we had parted ways in Madeira. It seems Jonah Carpenter, whom Catherine was meant to have married, never quite forgave me for giving up skirts and marriage to him in favor of freedom, power and my brother’s inheritance. It was he you saw in the church. This is his revenge.”
I was paralyzed; unsure what to do next.
“Come with me,” said Edmund, raising my hands. “Anne, come away with me.” She bent her head and pressed a kiss to the first knuckle on my left hand. “Stay by my side.” Another kiss, this time on my right. “I will be yours and you mine.” She kissed my fingertips and tugged me forward.
I could easily have resisted, yet I fell forward, into her soft arms. God, how I longed to stay nestled to her breast for all eternity, with her lips pressed to my hair and her fingers tracing strange lines along the bared skin of my neck.
“My Anne,” she murmured and I pulled back to tell that I could not be her Anne, not in truth, except she pressed her lips to my own and all protestations, as well as coherent thought, slid out from my mind. Her lips were soft, like rose petals, like silk, like the puff of breath from the words “I love you.” My body, poor and plain as it was, felt radiant beneath her kiss. I felt as though I could boil over from some unfamiliar feeling that was deeper than joy, deeper and lower and all I could think of was how easily I could lose myself in the wave of sweetness that was Edmund’s kiss.
“My Anne,” she said again, breaking the kiss and combing my hair back with her fingers. “My lovely Anne.”
“I am not,” I said shakily. “I am not lovely and I cannot be yours.”
“Edmund, please listen. I cannot stay here, not after today, not after what happened. People will–”
“I don’t give a damn about people,” Edmund swore and the oath sounded strange from her lips. “I care for you, Anne. I love you.”
“You can’t,” I said, scrambling to my feet and putting the bed between us. “Edmund, I’m sorry.”
“So this is what I am to content myself with?” she asked bitterly. “One stolen kiss? Anne, I would give you my heart, my soul, everything that I am.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, shaking my head. It would not work. I knew it would not work. My heart was screaming in my chest that I had to try, that I could forswear my reputation and my meager place in society; none of that would matter if I could spend the rest of my life at Edmund’s side. And it was true; I would give up all that for her. I would give up anything…except myself. I looked into her eyes and saw them dark like coals and shimmering with tears. I could not submit to her this last time. I could not give her my self. I would have nothing left.
“Please leave,” I said, my voice shaking. The tears that would not come earlier were teetering at the edge of my eyes. “Please…Catherine…”
She closed her eyes and I watched one tear trickle down her cheek. “I will leave you for today,” she said. “Take the night to reconsider. Anne, I beg you, don’t leave me. You are the only sun that lights my day, my fierce little bird who can fly so far, my hope, my love, my life.”
I bowed my head and said nothing. “I will see you in the morning,” she said and shut the door slowly behind her.
By the time the sun rose, I was already gone.
“Well, Miss Smith,” said St. George’s voice quite near my ear, startling me from my reverie, “What did you think of my story?”
“Sensational,” I answered, mustering some portion of my mind to respond to his questions while the rest tried to shakily recover from the onslaught of memories I had hoped to forget. “I am sure it would make a lovely novel.”
“You are not moved by the poor girl’s plight? To have been deceived so cruelly by her employer–”
“You know nothing about it,” I said fervently, then added, “nor do I so I would not presume to judge.”
His continued silence would once have been enough to break me, but I had survived worse than being stared at by a clergyman and I owed him no answers.
“I shall be honest with you, Miss Skye,” he said. “You have done well. You chose as God would have had you choose.”
“I would ask you never to speak of this again,” I said. “I do not know your motives, Mr. Waterson, in bringing to light details of my past that have no bearing on my present.”
“I only wished you to know,” he said as mildly as he was able, “that the woman who called herself Edmund Richardson is searching England for you. She has offered a substantial monetary reward for any information regarding your whereabouts. I also wish you to know that your secret is safe with me.”
I thanked him for his understanding and his discretion; I could do little else. His approbation meant less than I believe he realized. ‘Til this point, I had allowed myself to put the events of the spring out of my mind, yet his recounting had brought them back in full force. Time had not assuaged the guilt I felt at abandoning Edmund, nor had it extinguished my love for her. St. George’s expressed faith in me and my choice had rather the opposite effect than was intended.
I found myself thinking more and more of Edmund. Was she well? Was she healing? Did she wake up in the morning and marvel at the small hole in her heart that would never close, like I did? I wished I had a source of news, a hint that Edmund was, or would be, all right. Then again, I supposed she felt the same way about me. I did not deserve any reassurance that I could not grant her as well.
I had heard that love unsated and unfed would soon die and a part of me longed for the day when my love for Edmund would finally disappear. I did not know what to do with the way my heart would still leap into my throat at the thought of her, or the way my mind would forever return to the memories of our one kiss, like a child who insists on reading her favorite book and will not brook the introduction of another.
Though I remained still, the world itself continued on its inexorable journey forward. The schools in the little village of –ton were declared an unqualified success, a fact that pleased everyone except St. George, who nonetheless received most of the approbation.
His sisters had cautioned me against approaching him in his current black mood. “He dreams of leaving England and serving God as a missionary in the colonies,” they explained. “He sees this achievement as but the first step. Having started the school, he knows he can spread God’s word to man, but now that the school is completed, he feels as though he must do something new.” St. George was, by his own admission, a man in need of constant action. His greatest fear was stagnation.
Through no wish of my own, I found myself caught up in his quest. “Anne,” he said one night, when I joined their small family circle for supper, “How would you like to learn Hindustani?”
“I had never thought about it before,” I answered. “I don’t believe I have an inclination towards it, no.”
“Would you put aside your disinclination, though, if it would help me in my cause? I find that I have learned almost all that I can without a conversation partner.”
“But why me?” I asked with obvious bewilderment. “Surely Jane or–”
“You are a trained governess and no doubt have some facility with languages yourself. I believe your last pupil was French, was she not?”
“But Hindustani?” I said, rather more querulously than I intended.
“I have no doubt you can do it,” St. George said with as much authority as he could muster, which was a good deal.
And so I found myself embarking on a course of study that slowly grew to encompass the language, religion and curious habits of men who lived halfway round the world from me. St. George became an overwhelming presence in my life; he was an exacting master and, though he was quick to praise me when his standards were met, I did not meet them often. Still, he seemed satisfied with matters and I…well, every hour I spent struggling with Hindustani was another hour not spent thinking about Edmund. She lived in my thoughts more than ever these days.
Summer turned to autumn, which made its way into winter, and St. George began to make plans for spring. He was ready; more than ready, he was driven. He would go. I had been expecting that. What surprised me was when I discovered that he did not plan to go alone.
I had finished my teaching for the day and was making my way the short distance to the parsonage when I saw St. George coming down the path. We met about halfway between his home and mine.
“Come walk with me, Anne,” he commanded. I, in the role of obedient companion I inevitably adopted around him, obeyed.
We walked in silence. He seemed intent on observing the day, with its light grey skies and purpling heather. I was intent on observing him, noting a tightness in the set of his jaw and a tenseness in the way he carried himself. St. George had been more preoccupied than usual over the past few weeks. Perhaps I would now learn why.
“You have been a diligent student, these past months,” he observed.
I shrugged. “I have tried. And I do find myself fascinated by India. It seems such a strange and magical place.”
St. George snorted. “Strange, perhaps, but no more magical than here. Such fancies reflect the unenlightened state of the population there at large.” He paused. “Would you be interested in seeing India?”
I stared at him. “I had never thought about it. When would I ever see India?”
“Come now, you have an active imagination and a penchant for the fantastic. You mean to tell me you have never imagined what life might be like in the East?”
I had been too busy trying not to imagine what life would be like with Edmund. “I rather think it is beyond imagining. Still, were I to exercise that faculty, I imagine it would be a wonderful place.”
“I can offer you a chance to see for yourself,” he said and it took me a moment to realize what he was–what he had to have been saying. “You must have realized why it was so important that you be the one to help me learn Hindustani. You would make an ideal missionary’s wife; you have shown yourself to be resilient, capable, unafraid of hard work and determined to do your part in educating those in need.” He stopped and looked at me; as if he had said something requiring a reply.
“I…forgive me, did you just ask me to marry you?”
He smiled. “Ah, Anne, you are not sort of woman to be won through sugared words or compliments. You were not made for flattery but for honesty. I have been honest with you, Anne. You were made to be a missionary’s wife, you were made for a life of hardship, and of toil, but of great reward. Rise to the challenge, Anne, and embrace the life that God has chosen for you.”
What was I to say? For that matter, what could I possibly say? It was clear to me now what St. George had been doing for the past months. He had been training me, testing my mettle. And he wished to marry me and take me to India.
Marry St. George? I could barely even conceive of it. He was further from my reach than…well, the farthest shores of China. He was untouchable, an impregnable fortress. It would be like falling in love with the granite hills.
And I did not love him. It was a strange moment of clarity, looking up at a man who, in another time, would have worn nothing at all and competed in Olympic games for the glory of the gods. Instead, he chose to go to strange and barbaric places to fight for the glory of Christ in heaven. I could not, could never marry such a man. I could not marry where I did not love and, it must be confessed, I still loved elsewhere.
Yet was I right to dismiss St. George’s proposal? There was, after all, nothing left for me in England. Perhaps I should go, forget all that had passed between Edmund and me. If I was to run away, India was certainly a good choice. I could truly leave my previous hopes and dreams behind. I could forge a new life for myself, one that was hard and filled with toil, yes, but one that would have little time for grief and lost hopes. I could do something worth doing in India. I could be a missionary.
The question was, could I be this missionary’s wife?
As soon as I thought the question, I knew its impossibility. I could not wed St. George, not with my heart so firmly beholden to another. I could not enter into a sham of a marriage; pretend to give my heart where I felt no passion or ardor. I could esteem his greatness, appreciate his manifold worthy qualities, even adore him as the worshipper adores her saint, but I could not love him as a wife was meant to love her husband. And even if I could, I realized, I would not.
The vehemence of my own mind shocked me, yet the truth of my hastily-arrived-at conclusion was clear. I could go to India and it would be a good place for me, but I could never go as St. George Waterson’s wife.
“You are right,” I said, breaking the silence that had settled round us like the fog on the moor. “I could do much in India. Perhaps you are even right about it being my calling.”
“I know I am,” he interjected.
“But I cannot go as your wife. As your partner and friend and helpmate, I would go with a joyous heart, but I cannot be your wife.”
He appeared incredulous. I felt a sudden, strange rush of power, one I did not care to examine too closely. “You must see, St. George, that we are all wrong for one another. We would make a terrible match.”
“I see no such thing,” he said stiffly.
“Do you love me?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“I admire you,” he answered, “I esteem you and I am sure that, with time, we will come to love one another as much as any couple.”
Could anything be drearier? “I’m sorry, St. George,” I said. “I will go with you and you can admire me and esteem my work as much as you choose, for I will work hard and I will do the job you and God have given me, but I cannot marry you.”
“Anne, it is impossible that you travel with me–by my side–yet not as my wife.”
“And it is more impossible that I marry you,” I answered. I was aware, as was he, that there was no such thing as more impossible, yet St. George’s obstinacy was frustrating. I was offering him everything he asked for; he did not want my heart.
He looked at me with a gaze meant to transfix. “Anne, you are not thinking of the woman whose company you left, I hope. For you are well aware that you must cut her from your life, forget that she has ever been.”
I could just as easily carve a piece of my chest out as cut Edmund from my past. She would be a part of me until the day I died. But St. George knew nothing of love and I could not explain it to him. He simply could not comprehend a love that filled one’s soul the way his duty to God filled his. And even if he could, he would consider it blasphemous.
“We will speak again later,” he said and walked away. I let him go, too afraid of my own feelings to pay him much heed.
I spent a restless night in my small cabin, unable to sleep as my mind worked feverishly over my fate. I knew St. George well enough by now to recognize when he was determined. He would not rest until he had his way. Strong, implacable, it would be like trying to resist a mountain. I would give in in the end, this I knew. And he would be a faithful husband to me and do his duty in the marriage bed and I would stand by his side and try to please him and do his will and forget that it was God’s will as well that I was meant to do. I would die in the uncivilized wilds of India from a broken heart and a battered soul.
Was this what God wanted of me? Was this my role in life? Was I meant to sacrifice myself on the altar of St. George’s mission?
I fell asleep with my head pillowed on my arms and the few tears that succeeded in leaking from my eyes dried on my cheeks.
I wish I could recall my dreams from that night. I know they were powerful and filled with purpose, but what their content was, I still cannot say. All I know is that I awoke the next morning before dawn having made up my mind. If it was God’s will that I go to India with St. George, then I would do it and with a glad heart. But I could not leave England, not without seeing Edmund one last time. I could not damn her to a lifetime of not knowing what had become of me, not knowing if I was alive or dead. I owed her that much. I would find her and take leave of her properly this time and we both would move on with our lives. If I could not leave my heart behind me in England, I would have to reclaim it before my departure.
Having made up my mind, the actual preparations seemed all too simple. I left a note pinned to my schoolroom door informing my students that I would be absent until further notice and another addressed to St. George was left under the door of the church. For the third time in my life, I left my home on the dawn coach. The first time, I had been nearly faint with excitement as I set off from the small school where I taught for my first post as governess. The second had been my nightmarish departure from Rosewood two days after my aborted wedding. This third time was somewhere in between the two. I was neither excited nor grieving, I was simply…waiting. My fate was coming to meet me and I would be ready when it did.
I exited the coach at the small inn near Rosewood, a full day after my journey’s commencement, and began the familiar walk up to the house. The road was the same muddy brown as last year and the trees were still the green of new spring. Nothing had changed.
Out of habit, I hopped over the stile and made my way towards the house from the back. It was only when I heard an incredulous voice speak my name that I realized what I had done.
The housekeeper, Mrs. Fairview, would never have run, but the pace at which she bustled to meet me was certainly speedier than a walk. She clasped my hands in her own and would not meet my eyes.
“Mrs. Fairview,” I said warmly, for I remembered how well she had treated me when I had first come to Rosewood and she had been my only friend, “is something wrong? Has anything…happened?”
She laughed a silly, flustered sort of laugh and shook her hands free of mine. “Oh, Miss Skye, where to begin?” At the beginning, please, I thought but did not say. “After you left, poor Miss Richardson was quite out of her mind with grief.” I winced, but tried to hide the gesture. “She was quite unwell, you have to understand.”
I interrupted her. “Yes, but where is she?”
Mrs. Fairview wrung her hands. “They had discussed putting her away; they have homes where they care for people like her.” Madwomen, she meant. “They said that she needed someone to look after her, someone to keep her under control. It wasn’t right, what she did.”
“Where is she?” I repeated, my heart beating faster with every extraneous word.
“Miss Richardson had inherited a small property from her mother when the poor woman died. Heatherdown, it’s called, in the county of –.”
“And she lives there now?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Fairview. “Her cousin said that she was mentally unfit to inherit her father’s land and she refused to contest it. When he came with the lawyers, he offered her a choice: either she could retire quietly to Heatherdown or, if she refused to leave, he would have her put away in an asylum. For her own good.”
I could not listen anymore. I thanked Mrs. Fairview for her information and turned around, back the way I had come. I did not try to see inside the house, nor was I invited to. Rosewood was my home no longer and I had no wish to trespass on the time or property of a man like Edmund’s cousin, whose despicable behavior made me believe that the grounds themselves were tainted.
I had not planned to pay for more than two journeys, but the information I received from Mrs. Fairview meant that I had no choice but to press on. It had not occurred to me that Edmund’s situation had been, in many ways, more precarious than my own. Her offer to run away to the Continent had been as much for her safety as for my comfort. She had remained in England to search for me.
I wished, fervently, that I had had the good sense to write her a note when I left. Or I could have sent her a letter at some point in the past year. And yet she would have come for me, as I could not help going back for her.
I had done the right thing, hadn’t I?
The ride to Heatherdown was shorter than my trip to Rosewood. Nevertheless, it was early evening by the time I arrived at the nearest stop. The house was a good four miles away and, fool that I was, I could not bear the thought of spending another minute wracking my mind with worry for Edmund. Mrs. Fairview’s news was like a heavy weight upon my already stooped shoulders. The road was overhung with trees and even before the sun had fully set, I found myself enveloped in darkness. As is the way of such things, a thin drizzle began to fall from the sky and, though I was mostly shielded from its effect by the trees, I arrived at Heatherdown cold, wet and over an hour later than I had planned. It had been dark out for quite some time and the shutters on the house were drawn, giving me no idea of whether anyone was awake behind its slate grey and gloomy façade.
As the rain began in earnest, I rapped on the door. After several moments went by with no answer, I knocked again, harder this time. My efforts still produced no results and it was not until I commenced hammering on the door with my fists that I received a response.
The door swung open and Edmund was standing before me once again. She was still dressed in men’s clothes and wore a shabby dressing-gown belted loosely around her waist. Her hair was tied back in a queue, yet some dark tendrils escaped and framed her face. She looked…younger than I remembered. More vulnerable. For some reason, I had always thought of Edmund as towering over me, yet she was barely three inches taller than I. I could have stared for hours, simply standing before her and taking in her presence. For all her new vulnerability, she had lost neither her composure nor her strength.
“Well?” she asked brusquely. “What do you want?”
It dawned on me that my hood had been drawn so far over my face that she could not see me. I tugged it off impatiently and stood in the doorway of Heatherdown cottage with the rain falling fast on my bared head.
Edmund took a moment, but only a moment, to recognize me. “Anne,” she breathed, her eyes searching my face. I wondered what they were looking for.
“Come inside,” she said, her voice strangely flat. She stepped back and I was out of the rain at last. “Give me your cloak. The servants have gone to bed, but I found that sleep eluded me. It often does, these days. I have found the midnight hour to be a surprisingly constant companion.”
She led me to small, cramped library where the fire was burning low in the grate. Edmund turned to build it up, though she kept sneaking glances back at me, as if afraid I would evaporate from the chair in which I sat.
“Well,” she said again, after the fire had been tended and she had drawn up a chair close to mine. She was close enough to touch, yet I felt as though I could not move. “Will you not speak?”
“I don’t know what to say,” I confessed. The fire flickered around the dimly lit room, casting strange shadows on unfamiliar furniture and giving Edmund, who was lit from behind, a reddish halo.
“Why are you here?”
I missed her voice, the low mellifluous sound of it as she laughed at me and teased me and told me I was beautiful. This expressionless tone was like that of a stranger. Had we become strangers to one another?
I took a deep breath and began. “I came to take my leave of you–properly, this time. We’re going to–that is, I have been asked to join a…friend of mine. He will be going to India as a missionary and he asked me to come along. As his wife.” It occurred to me that Edmund had set the chairs with the express purpose of seeing my face while hers remained hidden.
“So you came to say goodbye,” she said coolly.
“No,” I said before I even realized what I was saying. “I mean, yes, I had come for that reason. I had thought…”
“Anne,” she said and the quiet calm in her voice frightened me, “why are you here?”
“For you,” I said simply, before all my worries and fears and doubts could get back in the way. “I came here for you.” I reached my hand out to her and she caught it lightly before leaping to her feet and pulling me with her. She wrapped her arms around me and I felt a sob building in my throat as I buried my face in her neck and clung to her.
“Anne,” she said and it was her own, dear familiar voice again. “My Anne.” All I could do was nod my head in agreement.
“You’re freezing,” she informed me after several minutes had passed. I honestly had not noticed. “Come with me, I have a spare nightdress and dressing gown for you.” She led me up to her bedroom, her slim fingers twined tightly in mine. She did not let go even to open the door; she handed me the candle and turned the knob with her now free hand instead.
The room was smaller even than my apartments had been at Rosewood, but it was serviceable and, more to the point, warm from the fire in the hearth. Edmund handed me the aforementioned articles of clothing and, after a long look, turned to leave and shut the door behind her. I undressed and donned her clothes, which were too big for me and even shabbier than those she wore, but were blessedly warm and smelled of Edmund in some indescribable fashion that made want to bury my face in their fabric. Once decent, I opened the door to let her back in.
She strode back in and held me close once again. I certainly had no objections. “Much better,” she observed in my ear. “I’m no longer worried that your fingers will fall off from shivering.” I smiled. “Now,” she said, leading me to the bed and seating me besides her, “What’s all this about running off to India with a handsome missionary?”
“I never said he was handsome,” I objected.
“Yes, but I would be very disappointed in you, Anne Skye, if you had settled for a plain one.” Edmund’s playfulness drew me out and I found myself telling her the whole story, from my precipitous flight from Rosewood to my occupation as teacher in a small village school.
“And you truly enjoyed that?” Edmund asked and it was clear she was trying not to wrinkle her nose.
“Yes,” I said, laughing. “I truly did. It was nice to have some purpose in life.”
“And this is why you agreed to go with that blockhead St. George to India? So you would have a purpose?”
“He is not a blockhead.” Edmund looked at me and waited. “All right, perhaps he is a bit of a blockhead,” I said. “And there had to be some reason I was put on this earth, something I was meant to do. It just took me until I came here, and saw you again, and saw me through your eyes, that I realized my purpose in life was to be Anne Skye.”
Edmund smiled and kissed me gently, chastely on the lips. “Well done, dearest.”
I hesitated, then leant over and kissed her back. I had meant to simply return her gesture, but as I pressed my lips against hers, I felt her mouth part beneath mine and my lips opened in obedient mimicry. Her hands cradled the back of my head and loosened my hair so that it cascaded down my back. I felt her fingers comb through my tresses and moaned softly–helplessly–at the sensation. She smiled against my lips and deepened the kiss. We sat there, arms locked around one another and mouths slowly exploring until I realized I was badly in need of air and drew back.
Edmund was grinning at me and I, feeling strangely aware of every inch of my body, smiled hesitantly back. She stood up and held out a hand. “Will you kiss me again, Anne Skye?”
I did and gladly. This time I pressed my body against Edmund’s, letting her hand in the small of my back guide me until the keenest knife’s blade could not have slid between us. My body felt as though it was on fire and I cried out as Edmund nipped gently at my lower lip. She kissed her way to the corner of my mouth, then along my jawbone and to the juncture between my ear and neck. When her lips pressed against that spot, I whimpered, for it was shockingly sensitive.
Edmund pulled back and smiled crookedly at me. “I think,” she said, “Before we continue, there are a few things I need to know.”
I was still breathless from her touch, but managed to ask “What?”
“I have been very good so far tonight,” she said. “I have been patient and understanding and I have demanded nothing of you. I have been quiet and calm and kept my heart in check, though it strains to burst out from my ribs. But, Anne, I do not have the strength for you to break my heart another time. If you plan to leave tomorrow morning, tell me now so that I know better than to hope. Please, Anne, I cannot bear it!”
“Edmund,” I said and she gasped as I realized this was the first time since appearing at her door that I had said her name. “I will stay for as long as you will have me.”
“Then I should warn you,” she murmured, “that you will be here for a very long time indeed.”
I meant to answer that I was entirely amenable to that proposition, but I found myself interrupted by a yawn so large I thought my jaw must have come unhinged.
Edmund laughed at me. “I think, dearest, that it is time for you to go to bed.”
I nodded and, with a rueful smile, asked if she would show me to my bedroom.
“I could awaken one of the servants and ask them to prepare the guest room for you–for we do have one spare room–but it is already past midnight and I would hate to disturb them. This bed, on the other hand, is large enough for two.” I eyed her warily. “Come, Anne, what do you think I am going to do?”
“If I knew,” I replied, “I would be far less worried.”
“I promise,” said Edmund, “I will merely sleep by your side like a faithful lapdog who has the privilege of reposing in her mistress’s bed.”
Edmund was as good as her word. She slid into bed by my side and we lay in the darkness facing one another with our hands intertwined and resting on the pillow beside our heads.
When I woke up, however, Edmund’s back was to me and her head was resting atop my right arm, while my left arm snaked over her torso and held her close. I could see the top of her head from where I lay on the pillow and I felt warm and safe and, for a moment, hoped I would never have to move again.
Of course, that was when I began to panic. I remembered all my reasons–good reasons–for having left Edmund in the first place and that I had come here solely for the purpose of saying goodbye rather than promising to stay. I remembered the way I had kissed her and a blush of shame and want spread over my face. What was I thinking, coming back?
In my sudden fear, I had jerked my arm back and Edmund was roused by my movement. She took one look at me and sighed. “Anne,” she said, sitting up in bed, “will you tell me what is the matter?”
Her voice grounded me and gave me a space in which to think clearly. I looked at her, seated patiently by my side, and contrasted that image with the Edmund who had haunted my memories. She had been driven by grief then, and, like me, by fear. She had wanted to hold on to me whatever the cost. I had run from her for fear of losing myself beneath her will. And I had run, I now knew, from St. George when he threatened to exercise his power over me as well. I could not bear to see myself lost to the vagaries of another person, no matter how much I loved them or how valid their cause.
Yet I was so tired of running. I didn’t want to run anymore and, as Edmund very cautiously laid her hand on my shoulder, I realized that I didn’t have to. I had come back of my own free will and I would stay, for stay I certainly would, because I wanted to. I, Anne Skye, had made my choice.
“Thank you,” I said, not in answer to her question, because it was a question that no longer needed answering. I looked up into her dark eyes and pulled her down for a kiss.
This time, when she reached the sensitive spot behind my ear, she did not pull away, but rather held me as I gasped and arched my back for contact I had not even realized I wanted.
“Patience, dearest,” Edmund said and shifted so that I was lying on my back and she was stretched out on top of me, one of her legs nestled between mine. She went back to kissing my neck and slowly trailed her way down, not stopping even when she reached the neckline of the nightdress. I could feel her soft kisses through the thin fabric and my legs slid further apart beneath her.
“That’s it,” she murmured as she cupped my breast in her hand and lightly ran her thumb over the tip. I whimpered softly and Edmund merely smiled and lowered her head to kiss my nipple through the nightdress. I rocked my hips forward, my hands reaching up to clutch at her shoulders as the feel of her mouth on my breast made my body sing.
“I want to touch you,” I said, once I could.
“You could begin by removing this shift,” Edmund suggested, guiding my hands to the lacings on her nightdress. My fingers were clumsy and shaky, but with some effort on both our parts, we removed the garment in question and I found myself momentarily stunned at how lovely my Edmund was. “Now your turn,” said Edmund, and I shyly allowed her to undress me as well. I wanted to curl up and hide myself from Edmund’s gaze; I had never been more aware of how thin and plain and unimpressive I was, but Edmund insisted that I lie on the bed, fully exposed to her eyes.
“Will you believe me if I tell you that you are beautiful?” she asked.
“What happens if I say no?”
“Then I will have to convince you.” The glint in her eye left no doubt what her idea of convincing might entail.
Edmund bestowed a mock glare on me and then, before I could understand what was happening, she parted my thighs and pressed her mouth to the space at their juncture. I nearly screamed and it was only her firm grip on my legs that kept me from thrashing about. The desire for contact had grown to a desperate ache and, as Edmund laved attention on my body with her tongue, I was helpless beneath her. She was licking and teasing at one spot over and over again and I felt like a spring being wound tighter and tighter, threatening to release at any moment. She was relentless and I began to buck my hips against her mouth, begging for something I didn’t understand until it was as though every inch of my body was shining like the stars and they all exploded at once in a grand display that put every firework show in the world to shame.
“Do you believe me now, Anne Skye?” she asked and it took me a long moment to understand what she meant.
“Yes,” I said, for fear that I could not withstand another assault by her conviction. “Edmund, I love you.”
Her face turned radiant at the sound of my words and she laid her head down in between my breasts. “I love you too, Anne. Ever since the moment I laid eyes on you, I knew you would be mine.”
“And did you also know that you would belong to me?”
“No,” she admitted, “that part took me rather by surprise.”
I reached down and, as I had seen her do, brushed my thumb along the stiff peak of her nipple. “Oh, Anne,” she breathed and I did it again, watching her face as I did so. Her lips parted; she looked perfect.
“Teach me how to touch you,” I said, my thumb rubbing small circles on her breasts. “Teach me what to do to make you see stars.”
“Stars, eh?” Edmund said, catching my hand in her own and guiding it to the join of her thighs. I took two fingers and, with Edmund still guiding my hand, began to stroke her slick folds. She showed me the small nub of flesh that had brought me so much pleasure and then let me find a rhythm that not only had her writhing on the bed, but also made me slide my free hand between my legs to fondle myself as well.
I lay down atop my Edmund, my fingers slick with her juices as I rubbed faster and she cried my name over and over again. It seemed to take forever and no time at all before her body tightened and she let out a desperate shout that was also my name. I watched her sink, boneless, back down on the bed even as I continued to tease and pet the little nub between my legs.
Edmund, hearing the soft sounds I couldn’t help but make, opened her eyes and smiled. “You do learn fast, dearest.” She propped herself up on one elbow and motioned me to continue. “Go on,” she said; “I wish to watch.”
Her words burned in my ears and I stretched out, my legs flung wide apart with one hand working between them and the other rubbing my breasts in a quick and jerky motion that matched the way my hips insisted on moving.
“That’s it,” Edmund purred, her dark and smoky voice falling over me like a caress. “My lovely Anne, my beautiful Anne, open your eyes and look at me.”
I obeyed and the sight of her watching me with flushed cheeks and mussed hair and a smile that felt like sunlight was enough to send me into the same firework-filled sky as before.
I crawled to her side and Edmund gathered me in her arms. “Now what happens?” I asked.
“Now? Well, first we wash and dress ourselves, then I think we should venture downstairs in search of a morning repast.”
“And then what?”
“I don’t know, Anne Skye. What do you want?”
I smiled and kissed her again. “You.”