Valerie was sweet, but kind of boring. She had a real love for horses, but not much else. Needless to say, our conversations weren’t particularly stimulating, but she definitely won the hearts of all the horses. I think they were sadder than I was when she’d finally had enough of my mother telling her to spend less time in the stables and more time with me. I, for one, was glad she spent so much time in the stables. The ____ was planted for her.
The stable master had been surprised to see Elaina and Robert walk in the next morning. Elaina felt sure Robert hadn’t ridden a horse in about as long as she had, so she hoped, for both their sakes, they wouldn’t fall off or be thrown off.
In the end, they hadn’t been able to convince the stable master and wound up in a little cart pulled by a beautiful dappled gray mare and driven by one of the stable hands. They found some cushions and settled themselves a little unceremoniously side by side with their knees up and their toes touching the other side. Robert had discovered an old pair of sunglasses deep in a drawer and Elaina had found a little white bonnet shoved at the back of the closet.
“Don’t say anything,” Elaina warned, though her eyes sparkled, as she tied it on.
Robert swallowed his laugh though his own eyes shared in her silently laughter. He held up his hands and gave her a bit of a cheeky smile.
“I think it looks cute,” Robert said as the driver gently flicked the reins and set the mare in motion.
She used the motion of the wagon to nudge him a bit harder than the jolt called for, but smiled at him from under the frilly brim of her bonnet. “I am curious, though, whose bonnet was this?”
Robert groaned and put his hands to his face. “I have no idea. I really have no idea. I mean, have you seen the rose garden? It’s massive! I have a notebook full of girls’ names and a little about who they were, but, when I flip through it, most of the names look foreign to me.”
Elaina bestowed a gentle smile on him and took one of his hands in hers. “I have seen the garden. It is massive. I don’t blame you for not remembering any of them. I will go postal on you if you do forget about me.”
His eyes grew wide and he drew their clasped hands to his heart. “I swear I will never forget you.”
She gave him an impish smile. “Well, since we’re to be married one day,” she said primly despite the twinkle in her eyes, “I’ll forgive you only when you go senile and completely lose your marbles.”
He laughed and squeezed her hand briefly before sobering. “Considering everything my mother and I have put you through, I’m surprised you’re willing to stay. Why are you staying? And, by this point, I’m pretty sure it isn’t because of a promised library job.”
Elaina lifted one shoulder and looked over at their driver, who suddenly felt like he was incredibly too close for comfort. The young man was hunched over and trying desperately to make himself look tiny. She had no doubt he was trying his best to give them privacy, but the cart was simply too small for that.
She looked out over the side of the carte. They were rolling along a dirt road that seemed a long way off from the Hall. She guessed it was some kind of service road around the estate. Between them and the Hall was an elegant quilt of gardens. They were too far away for her to make out any of the plants, but it was laid out in soft grids, each plant bed bordered by low hedges or creeping vines. She spotted fountains dotted around, the nearest garden beds bearing an inwardly curving line of shrubbery nearest the fountain.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“The pond. It’s off the road a bit, surrounded by some tall plants. We should have some privacy there. It’s peaceful. Some turtles. Maybe a few ducks or geese.”
Elaina nodded absently as the road curved away from the Hall and the vista before her was of a wide, green lawn with trellises dotted around. She cocked her head to the side, unable to fathom an order to the heavily flowered arches. She pointed towards them and asked, “What is this supposed to be?”
Robert cocked his head to the side. “You know, I’m not sure. I remember running around here when I was a kid, but I don’t think I’ve been back since. My mother used to spread out a blanket and watch me run around, but I think she stopped doing that when I was eight or nine. I’d forgotten about this place.” He sighed. “I think I’ve forgotten about a lot of places. I did wander the estate now and then, but, once my rose garden got going, I just put all my energy into that.”
It was her turn to squeeze his hand. “I don’t blame you. I can’t imagine how much weeding and fertilizing you must do to keep the roses looking that gorgeous.”
He grinned at her and flicked the brim of the bonnet, drawing a playfully murderous look from her. “Well now you can help me.”
“I can what now?”
He raised an eyebrow. “What? Are you as bad at gardening as you are at painting?”
“Well…I…well!” she stammered out. Then she shook her head and gave an exaggerated sigh. “I guess I know how this will play out. I’ll cook and you’ll redecorate and garden.”
He laughed. “I think we’ll get along very well, then.”
Catch up on the story here.