Chapter Eighteen, continued
“We’re here, sir,” the stable hand said hesitatingly, bringing the horses to a halt.
Robert stood and steadied himself before clapping the young man on the shoulder and thanking him. He clambered out of the wagon and then reached to help Elaina out.
“You sure you don’t want me to call Clarice and ask her to make you something more suitable?” he asked as she shook out her gown and smoothed the creases.
“I’m sure. Your mother has, ah, taken interesting turns with me. I think I’d rather play it safe. For now. When we’re married, though, I fully intend on burning every single gown in a massive pyre. No tears or eulogies are permitted.”
Robert laughed as he offered her his arm. “I believe we can arrange that.” He pointed towards some tall reeds. “Over that way. There should be a small opening we can slide through and then it’s just us and maybe some wildlife.”
Elaina nodded and let him guide her. They walked towards the reeds, the grass soft and spongy beneath her soft soled shoes. She grimaced slightly, hoping there wasn’t going to be much mud. Then he was guiding her through a small opening and they stepped out into a water paradise.
The pond was clearly man-made, perfectly circular with clear water on which purple and white lotuses floated. A couple of ducks floated along, meandering between the flowers, but the pond was devoid of any snacks for them. Elaina was absurdly pleased gravel surrounded the pond and that there was a bench on the other side that looked like it had been tended to recently. A large willow was situated behind it, offering some shade and another curtain of privacy.
“This is lovely,” Elaina said as he guided them around the pond, her feet sliding now and then on the gravel, but her fingers were well-curled around his arm and he was doing his best to help her keep her balance.
“My dad used to bring me here when I was young. He taught me how to skip rocks, but I was better at hitting the flowers.”
She smiled. “You have fond memories.”
“From my childhood, yes. Things became more…complicated the older I got.”
Elaina nodded as they settled themselves on the bench. She fussed with her skirt a moment longer and then reached up to remove the bonnet.
“Aw, it was kind of cute,” Robert said, a teasing edge to his voice.
Elaina lightly smacked him on the shoulder with it and shook her head, though a soft smile played around her lips. She wasn’t quite sure how to tell him he had grown on her, but she also wasn’t quite certain it wasn’t because of their extended close proximity. His question earlier had been echoing around in her head. It was something she sometimes pondered. As much as she missed her parents and her friends, she had to admit they had been pushed to the back of her mind. Getting to know this man she’d formerly only referred to as the shut-in had been more interesting.
She fiddled with the strap of the bonnet, her eyes fixed somewhere between the end of her lap and the start of the pond.
“You asked me earlier why I stay,” she said softly. Beside her, she could feel him shift slightly, but he didn’t say anything. He was probably as interested in her answer as she was. She shook her head. “Robert, I have limited relationship experience. Dating Brad was kind of it for me. Your mother isn’t any easier to deal with than Mary-Grace, but you are different. You actually care about me and what I want. You defended me to your mother.” She glanced up at him and offered a small smile. “You let me read as much as I want and don’t say anything.”
Robert smiled back and reached for her hand. It curled into his, comfortable and warm. “Your happiness is very important to me, Elaina. You’re different from my other companions. I knew it as soon as I saw you. You wouldn’t be drawn in by the wealth and opulence. I’d have a better chance of forming a real relationship with you than any of the other girls.”
Elaina’s smile turned wry. “I didn’t exactly make it easy for you at first.”
“No,” he said, but still smiled. “But I also didn’t know how to make you fall in love with me, so I let you take the lead. Eventually you were either going to leave or soften.”
She laughed. “Just like butter.” She gently squeezed his hand and shifted to let her head rest on his shoulder. It was comfortable in every sense of the word. “You haven’t pushed. I like that. You respect me. I like that even more. I don’t even know how you know how to be in a relationship considering your history.”
“I guess I must have picked something up over the years. Or maybe it was all the reading I did with you.”
A soft smile fluttered around Elaina’s face. “Whatever it was, I’m glad.”
They fell into a companionable silence. Robert had been right and there were a few turtles taking a little swim. Butterflies fluttered for a few moments before rushing off and dragonflies hovered close to almost skim the water. In the distance, some songbirds sang to each other. The mare whinnied a few times and the stable hand coughed once or twice.
And, for once, two hearts finally found a rhythm and peace.
Catch up on the story here.