Chapter Twenty, continued
Robert smiled. “I like your dress?”
Elaina snorted. It was true; he liked her dress. Green was a pretty color on her. But he also liked the sparkle in her eyes, the roses in her cheeks, the smile on her lips, the spring in her step. She’d been chattier, too. It was almost as though their first kiss had flipped a switch in her. He wasn’t sure, but he liked it. He wasn’t sure his mother would like it, but she’d given her blessing, and he’d make a point of that. After all, they’d kissed after she had chosen to disappear.
He did wonder where his mother had gone. They hadn’t always gotten along, but he still worried about her. It had been weeks and there hadn’t been a single word from her. Nigel would get twitchy whenever he asked, muttering she was fine before rushing off.
But the days were starting to grow cooler as autumn started to set in, so they were taking advantage of the last warm days. The trees were already starting to turn colors, leaves were starting to drift down, and the roses were starting to droop and die. Elaina had managed to rummage up some long-sleeved gowns, but was stuck with the low heels Rose had dumped on her at the beginning of her stay. She clutched at Robert’s arm so she wouldn’t slip on the dew-heavy fallen leaves, and he couldn’t help the grin stretching across his face as she let slip some very unladylike curses whenever her feet skidded out a bit from under her. He didn’t mind the clutching, though.
“Stop grinning,” she admonished, though a smile played at the edges of her mouth.
“Why don’t we start back to the Hall?” he suggested. “It must be time for breakfast by now.”
A gurgle was Elaina’s response, and she quickly pressed her free hand to her stomach. A light blush crept up her cheeks.
“Sorry. That was very unladylike of me.”
“So’s the cursing,” he said, giving her a cheeky smile.
“Well, you try tramping around a forest in heels. They might not be tall, but I still hate them,” she said, biting off each of the last few words.
“I keep telling you. Mother isn’t here right now. You don’t have to dress the way she wants you to. I can call Clarice in and have her create a whole new wardrobe for you. She’s a wiz. I wouldn’t take more than a couple of days for her to have something more comfortable ready for you.”
“Yes, and as soon as you do that Rose will show up and start yelling or glaring or telling me off.” Elaina shook her head. “Or whatever else she comes up with.”
“Look, I don’t think it’ll be as bad as you think. She basically gave us her blessing. We’re well on the road to being married one day. You’ll be a mistress of Roderick Hall just like her. After all, once we marry, I’ll formally inherit everything from my dad, so you won’t have to wear what my Mother wants you to.”
Elaina shrugged. “I’d just rather not rile her up if I don’t have to. One thing I learned from Mary-Grace was that it’s just not worth it. Besides, there’s something sad about your mother. I don’t mind playing her game for now. She left us virtually unchaperoned, so that must say something.” She turned and grinned up at him. “I kind of feel like I’m winning the war with her.”
Robert shook his head and sighed as they made their way into the dining room. “Well, it’s up to you. Just say the word and I’ll call Clarice.”
“You’ll call Clarice for what, exactly?” a crisp, business-like voice inquired, altogether too mildly to not make Robert’s stomach drop like a stone.
“Rose,” Elaina said with surprise. “You’re back.”
Rose, neatly dressed in a sage green skirt suit, dabbed at her mouth with a cream napkin before standing. As usual, she was perfectly coiffed and made up, her suit showing not even the barest hint of a wrinkle, her cream heels perfectly polished. It was as though she hadn’t been missing for over two months.
“Yes,” Rose said briskly. She looked between Robert and Elaina before folding her hands. “I see you two have taken advantage.”
Robert glanced uncertainly at Elaina, but she was busy staring at Rose. He cleared his throat. “Well, yes. You have been gone for a couple of months. It’s been, um, a lot more laidback around here.”
Rose locked eyes with him. “Yes, I can see that. I had to have a bit of a chat with security. Some girl tried to get past them a few times.” Rose sniffed. “She shouldn’t have even managed to get that close.” She turned her eyes and pinned Elaina with her gaze. “I see you and my son have gotten quite cozy.”
Robert could almost hear Elaina swallow hard. He imagined she was as off-balance about his mother’s sudden appearance as he was.
“Yes,” Elaina said quietly. “We have. We have, of course, missed your presence, but I have enjoyed exploring more of the grounds,”
Rose nodded once. “Good.” She turned back to the table and gestured to it. “Now, have a seat. We three have things to discuss.”
Behind Rose’s turned back, Robert and Elaina exchanged a look. But she shrugged and pulled away from him to take her usual seat to Rose’s left. He followed her and took his own across from his mother. The table was already full of dishes bursting with a myriad of breakfast foods, much more than what he and Elaina usually found waiting, so the chef must have known ahead of time Rose was back. He wondered why he, and Elaina, had been the last to know.
“Your goal was to find Robert a wife,” Elaina said as soon as they were seated, her chin up and her back straight as she gazed at Rose, making the other woman pause fractionally as she spread her napkin on her lap. “Robert and I have decided that I will be his wife and there will be no further need of any future companions.”
Robert jerked in surprise since their conversations had only skirted around that, but perhaps Elaina had been saying exactly that and his male mind, as one of his former companions had accused him of having, had misinterpreted. He wouldn’t be surprised. He was too often the last to figure things out. But it did make his heart feel warm. Elaina wanted to marry him.
At the same time, Rose visibly sagged a bit. “Thank goodness,” she breathed out in a whoosh.
“Excuse me?” Elaina asked, as surprised as Robert felt.
Instead of answering, Rose pulled a pin from her hair and let the long strands fall around her shoulders and down her back, sighing with pleasure. Dull thuds under the table told him there was a good chance his mother had either kicked the table or had kicked off her shoes.
“Mother?” Robert asked while Elaina gaped at her.
“Hmm?” Rose asked, her eyes starting to refocus on him.
“Mother, what’s going on? Are you…undressing?”
“Don’t be silly, Robert,” Rose said crossly. “Why would I get undressed at the breakfast table? It’s hardly private, what with you staring and Elaina gaping.”
Elaina’s mouth shut with a click and her bewildered eyes met his. He shook his head at her, his brow furrowed in confusion.
“Give me a moment,” Rose said as she dug her hands into her hair and appeared to massage her scalp. “Ah, you have no idea how many headaches I’ve had over the past eight years. You’d think my head would get used to those tight twists after all this time.”
Now Elaina was shooting him panicked looks. It was almost as though his mother was transforming right before their eyes. He didn’t know what to make of it any more than Elaina did. He was suddenly unsure of how well he actually knew his mother, who his mother actually was.
“Now, then,” Rose said, letting the briskness return to her voice. “I’m sure you have questions. I’ll answer what I can.”