Summary: Prequel set in Adam’s college years in Boston. A formal ball, a friendly social, a red dress, a flamingo, and the sea, the sea! The beginning of Adam’s complicated love life, and, somewhere beyond the sea, someone’s first tentative steps into becoming The Queen. Can be read by itself, yet it is the fifth part of the “Art” universe.
Word Count: 12,750
May 20th, 1850
Henry Heatherstone, only son and heir of Henry, fourteenth Earl of Barnstoke, checked his appearance in the great mirror in the hall of Preston Manor, the family’s summer residence in Brighton. He straightened his bow-tie one last time and grinned at his reflection, arching a mocking eyebrow. Henry knew exactly what this evening was about, and it most certainly wasn’t about him. It really didn’t matter how he looked tonight, even though, admittedly, he looked good. At the age of twenty, Henry, who had inherited his mother’s famous good looks and his father’s tall and well built physique, was already a coveted bachelor and a welcome guest to any social event.
Not that he planned to get married too soon, not before he’d finished his studies at Cambridge anyway; but he had already cast his eyes over one or two young ladies. Isabel FitzAlan, with her raven-black hair and those cunningly blue eyes, in particular made his heart race anytime he saw her. And, feeling her soft, small hand in his while they’d danced at the Christmas ball in Arundel, he had fantasised how it might be to hold that hand every time he wanted to. But just when he had tried to sneak her out of the room and into one of the many niches in the long halls of Arundel castle, her father, the Duke of Norfolk, had materialised out of nowhere and given Henry a glare that could be only matched by—
“Juliet! Aren’t you coming?”
His father’s call interrupted Henry’s train of thought. The Earl had entered the hall with a glass of brandy in his right hand and a pocket watch in the left. He looked up the wide staircase, frowned but then chuckled.
“Women,” he said, shaking his head. “They can’t be punctual on an occasion like this. Your mother was the same. The times I spent waiting for her in the halls of the empire’s manor houses…”
The Earl’s smile went from mocking to reminiscing. “It was always worth it, though. Florence never ceased to make me breathless.” He looked down into his brandy glass and swirled its contents, watching the play of light in it as if he were glancing into a fortuneteller’s crystal ball.
Henry did what he was supposed to do: he remained silent and let his father delve into his memories. He couldn’t remember when exactly it had happened, but sometime between the day he had stopped wearing short trousers and tonight his father had started to speak to him about his deceased wife in a different way. As if he had been waiting until Henry was old enough to understand that this “Florence” had been someone with more than just the label “mother,” that she’d also been a woman, a wife, someone his father had felt for in a way similar to how Henry felt for Isabel. It was strange and comforting at the same time, and somehow Henry felt closer to that woman of whom he had no memory the older he got and the more his father talked of her not as “mother” but as “Florence.”
Again, he was interrupted in his musings. This time the Earl tugged at Henry’s sleeve and whispered conspiratorially, “Here she comes.”
Henry looked up and watched his little sister descending the stairs. The first thing he saw was a foot in a dark scarlet satin shoe, then the matching ball gown, and finally Juliet’s shyly smiling face, and the piece of art Carol, her maid, had created from Juliet’s sumptuous golden curls.
He exchanged a short glance with his father—did the Earl see what he saw? Yes, he did.
“Juliet, my dear, you look absolutely wonderful!” Father took Juliet’s hand and performed some quick dance steps with her. “You look…” He choked, and then he blinked a few times and shook his head as if he couldn’t believe it. “Like your mother, child, like…like your mother.”
It was the ultimate compliment, they all knew it; and Juliet beamed and stood even taller. She looked at Henry, her green eyes sparkling in a contest with the diamonds at her neck, and when he nodded her smile became even more radiant.
Of course, even though it hurt Henry to admit it, Juliet wasn’t and would never be a real match for their mother—but she’d never come as close to it as tonight. Which was good, very good indeed, because tonight was the night Juliet, who had turned seventeen only a few days ago, would be presented. It was called “introducing her to society,” but actually it meant “putting her on the market.”
Henry wasn’t sure if Juliet was ready for that or if the “market” was ready for Juliet (or would ever be, for that matter) but he sensed her excitement and her anticipation for the dance, the music, and the conversation.
God help us.
The coach was already waiting at the front door, so they didn’t waste any more time, and soon they were on their way to the event of the year: the opening ball of the Brighton season at the Royal Pavilion.
Adam was struggling with his bow-tie.
He always struggled with his bow-tie. That darn thing just never wanted to sit straight, and when it did, it would suddenly seem to become too tight and to cut off his air supply, so that he had to untie it and start over again. Then, unfailingly, his fingers got clammy and he became even more impatient and clumsy, and in the end he always went out with a mess around his neck. Usually someone, a well meaning friend, a blushing parlor maid, or even a tsking lady of the house took pity on him and, with a magic finger play, neatened everything in a second—and when he was very lucky he was even spared a patronising inflection. But still he found that all very embarrassing, especially when his dear friends witnessed his humiliation, and made uproariously funny comments about ranch-couture and—
There. The tie sat. A little too tight maybe, but nothing he couldn’t live with. He checked his appearance one last time in the tiny mirror over the wash stand. His hair was as smooth as he could force it to be, his shirt was clean, his bow-tie surprisingly straight. He inhaled deeply and then grinned at his reflection. This evening was going to be good. A small social at the Franks’ house: some of his college friends would be there, they would have music, dance, and witty conversations—and there would be Fiona Keats.
Fiona, the girl who made Adam’s heart beat quicker. The girl who made his mouth go dry. The girl who stirred something in him he had never felt before.
Fiona. If ever a girl had a fitting name then it was the petite Fiona. She had the face of a porcelain doll with pale blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and a small heart-shaped mouth; and hair that looked like spun gold. Her smile made a room light up, even on a dark February day, as Adam had noticed when he first met her. She had captured his heart with that smile, with her kind and quiet manners, and with her interest in everything Adam had to tell.
Fiona would be there tonight, and maybe, just maybe, Adam would be lucky enough to sneak out into the Franks’ garden with her and perhaps even be able to bestow upon her that kiss he had been dreaming about ever since Etienne had introduced him to her.
A kiss. Lord, a kiss.
Would she? Fiona was a sheltered girl, from a good family with good….
But she felt as he did, didn’t she?
Adam craned his neck and fingered his collar, trying to loosen the tie a bit. He swallowed dryly.
A girl like Fiona would kiss a young man when she was betrothed to him.
Betrothed. Betrothed, as in “engaged to be married.”
Did he want to marry Fiona Keats?
Adam looked into the mirror again. He watched his face as if he saw it for the first time, then tilted his head, smiled, and raised an eyebrow.
“Why not?” he said out loud.
“Why not what?”
Adam spun around and faced his grandfather. “Why not…er, never mind.”
“Adam, are you all right?” Grandfather Abel looked amused. “Your friend is waiting downstairs; but if you’d rather talk to yourself for a little longer, I’ll tell him to go ahead without you.”
Adam grinned. “Oh, no, I’ve finished. A man has to talk to at least one reasonable fellow a day, but now I’m through.”
“Hear, hear. Our scholar seems to be in an exceptionally good mood tonight,” Grandfather chuckled. “Good for you, boy; you need to relax a bit now before the next term makes you all too serious again.”
Adam’s return smile was genuinely grateful. Living with his grandfather during term breaks had turned out to be a most interesting experience. Adam had been told that his mother had been a very bright and witty person who had loved to tease and banter; but Pa had never mentioned that Abel Stoddard shared this quality with his daughter. After the awkward first few weeks, Adam and his grandfather soon had come to an easy relationship; and even though Adam would never treat Grandpa with anything less than utmost respect, he knew he didn’t have to watch his words as carefully as he had to at home. Abel Stoddard appreciated good wordplays, creative jokes, and an occasional sarcastic comment—even at his own expense.
Adam suspected that Grandpa saw him more as Elizabeth’s son than as his grandchild, and that in Adam he sought and found traces of his daughter, or even of himself, which made him more accepting and more inclined to exercise leniency. Whatever it was, Adam enjoyed the easiness in his grandfather’s house that stood in sharp contrast to the tightly packed curriculum and tense atmosphere at college.
He squeezed the old man’s hand, just that split second longer that turned it from casual to meaningful. “Thank you, Grandpa,” he said soberly, and then they looked at each other in that wordless understanding that Adam seemed to have achieved only with his grandfather. But before it could get too maudlin, Adam grinned and said, “I promise you I’ll be as non-serious as possible tonight, if you insist.”
Grandpa wiggled his right index-finger in front of Adam’s face. “Don’t twist my words, sailor! You better stay on course, or your non-seriousness will have serious consequences—you wouldn’t be the first bluejacket I’ve keelhauled.”
Their silent laughter was interrupted by a shout from downstairs.
“Adam! Are you coming already? Mon dieu, you are more bad than any mademoiselle!” That was Etienne. Etienne, a student from France, who was even more exotic at Harvard than Adam and therefore almost naturally his best friend.
“Worse,” Adam called back as, after a hurried goodbye to Grandpa, who practically shoved him down the landing, he hastened down the stairway. “It’s worse.”
“Mais oui! As I said,” Etienne cried out with a sardonic smile as he shook hands with Adam. “And you’re not even as beautiful as a mademoiselle.”
And then they bantered about the beauty of mademoiselles and New England girls and about the strange peculiarities of English grammar all the way to the Franks’ house.
Reluctantly Henry relinquished Isabel to another dancer. He would have loved to put his name on every line in her dancing card; but since that would have been improper, he had ask her to reserve him as many dances as etiquette allowed. It still didn’t seem enough, and Henry felt jealousy raising its ugly head whenever he was forced to let someone else take Isabel’s hand and to watch them dance.
With a sigh he turned his attention from the dance floor to the people standing around it. His eyes scanned the crowd to find Juliet.
He couldn’t help but smile. If ever a woman had been easy to find, it was his not-so-little sister: taller even than most of the men, and with her dark red dress not to be overlooked among the crush of pastels.
That dress was Juliet’s victory. Highly inappropriate for a debutante, in no way following fashion, and yet so very much Juliet, and so unbelievably complimentary that even Lady Harriet, who was acting as hostess for the night, had been shocked only for a few seconds when she first saw it. However, she had tsked, and, in a remarkable shift of countenance, lifted an eyebrow; but Juliet, being a Heatherstone and therefore immune to raised eyebrows, had just produced her most winning smile and complimented Lady Harriet on the “magnificent choice of setting” of this ball. (A completely genuine statement: the Royal Pavilion’s Music Room with its imaginative crimson and golden decoration of serpents, dragons and oriental landscapes simply had to please and stimulate his sister; and the tent-like octagonal cornice and richly decorated gilt dome surely satisfied her appreciation for fine architecture.) This had evoked another unexpected display of emotion, this time an actual smile from the iron lady, and then for the rest of the evening she had stood unwaveringly next to Juliet, introducing her to a seemingly neverending parade of appropriately dressed earls and dukes and their families.
Which smoothed it down, but didn’t change the fact that Juliet’s dress was a victory and a loss at the same time.
Oh, Henry remembered only too well the day Juliet and Miss Westlake, her governess for the last seven years, had come home from the dressmaker. Juliet had looked triumphant—and stubborn, like a conqueror who knew his victory wouldn’t come without a price; and Miss Westlake had looked…defeated. Devastated. And obstinate—a look Henry had never seen on her before.
While Juliet had danced up the stairs to her room, only her defiantly raised chin betraying that she wasn’t completely content, Miss Westlake had demanded an audience with the Earl—immediately. It all had ended with Miss Westlake leaving the house with a giant wardrobe trunk, and Juliet sitting in silence at the dinner table while their father watched her with thoughtful concern.
Henry would never know the full story, but from the bits and pieces he, as he lingered in the hall purely by coincidence, had accidentally overheard as the governess was laying charges before his father, as well as from the few tidbits his sister had given him, he understood that Miss Westlake had dared to try and force Juliet to buy a white dress. Which wasn’t unreasonable, under normal circumstances. Debutantes were supposed to wear white, or at least ivory or cream, but white was the usual choice. Now Juliet disliked wearing white, for she thought—not without reason—it didn’t suit her complexion, and everyone knew that. Everyone, including Miss Westlake—she certainly even more than anyone else. And so another battle for supremacy had run its course.
Seven years ago, when Miss Westlake had come to Barnstoke Hall to teach the little countess, Juliet had been delighted. Back then, Henry had thought she was happy about the prospect of having someone’s full attention, but later he had understood that Juliet had expected nothing less than some kind of mother.
Well, Miss Westlake was anything but a mother. She was stern, strict, and unforgiving. Well versed in many a subject, she taught Juliet a lot and was able to satisfy her questioning mind for a long time before Juliet learned to learn from books; but Miss Westlake failed in being likable. In the beginning Juliet tried hard to please her governess, but it never seemed to be enough, never good enough, never right: Juliet found her own way to solve a mathematical problem? Wrong. Juliet had new ideas about how to analyse Shakespeare’s sonnets? Presumptuous. Juliet had further questions? Insolent. Juliet wanted to read more by Marlowe? Unnecessary.
In the end, Juliet didn’t try to please Miss Westlake anymore. She fought her wherever she could, and with this last battle she had finally won the war.
She had won the war by winning a completely insane battle over the colour of a ball gown: Miss Westlake had insisted on white, Juliet on cream. Apparently they had argued quite some time until the governess had made the fatal mistake of saying, “Your mother would have wanted you to wear white.”
Henry didn’t have to have been there to know how Juliet’s face must have gone stony, how her upper lip had gone stiff, her chin had risen an inch, and her jaw had set sternly. And he didn’t have to have heard it to know her tone must have been contemptuous when she had replied, “You have no way to know what my mother would want— or any mother at all.”
Eventually Juliet had spotted a bale of wonderful thick dark scarlet silk, and commissioned a ball dress made out of that fabric. She had brushed off all objections from Miss Westlake with reference to who was paying for the dress—and for Miss Westlake’s salary after all.
Surely it was this last unbelievable (and unforgivable) insult that had been the final straw, but Henry suspected that Miss Westlake’s realisation that she had lost any governance over Juliet had played a major role in it, too. Be it as it may, that last battle had led to the governess’s resignation, and to Juliet wearing an unsuitable dress on her great day.
It had given Juliet freedom, and peace, and sovereignty; but it also made her an outsider among the other girls, even more than her height or her inability to talk about insignificant topics, and it clearly showed her idividualism and independence—traits that would keep her from being what England’s aristocracy considered an ideal marriage candidate.
Henry had to bite his lip at this thought to keep himself from smirking—even more so when he finally spotted Juliet at the far end of the big room, engaged in an animated conversation with a young man who did not belong to England’s aristocracy, as Henry noticed with wry amusement.
“Your sister looks very pretty tonight.”
Henry nearly jumped. He hadn’t realised he’d been so deep in contemplation, but Jason’s words had startled him as if he’d been drawn out of a dream.
“Why, yes, thank you,” he replied awkwardly.
Jason grinned. “And very different to that shy sapling in your hand-me-down clothes at Cambridge…”
“Shh!” Henry glared at Jason. “You’re getting us all into devil’s kitchen.”
“Calm down, Henry, old house. No one is listening to us.”
Henry rolled his eyes. Jason Wodehouse was a fast friend, a smart student, and a good conspirator in sneaking Juliet into lectures at the university. But he also had a loose mouth and tended to be careless to the point of recklessness.
Now he just winked and smiled unconcernedly when he went on, “I prefer her like this anyway. That dress is…extraordinary but lovely. Very flattering. I didn’t know she could be like this, so…attractive.”
Henry crossed his arms and leaned back a bit while he looked at Jason, amazed.
“Are you interested? I’m sure father would be delighted….” Oh, how the Earl of Barnstoke would be delighted. Jason was the first son of the honourable Lionel Wodehouse, sixth Earl of Elmsworth, and one day he would be a very wealthy man.
Henry just looked pointedly at his friend.
“No,” Jason repeated, this time a bit less urgently. “Sorry, Henry, mate, but no. I like your sister very much, you know that. She’s got a good head on her shoulders, and there’s no one I like to discuss Machiavelli with more than with her; but really, when I’m going to get married one day, it will be to a woman who gives me a little rest from time to time. Someone who’s happy with attending her social duties and looking after her family, and who leaves me to my own pleasures.”
“Come on, it’s not that Juliet isn’t capable of following social conventions. She just needs her…latitude from time to time,” Henry replied, suppressing a smile. It was just so hilarious to see Jason squirm.
“From time to time? She’s talking about politics right now. At a ball.”
“Well, she’s well informed and she likes to exchange viewpoints.” Don’t grin.
“Yes, but people don’t want to exchange viewpoints at balls; especially not with girls.”
“With Juliet it’s different. You said it yourself: it’s a pleasure to debate with her.”
Jason looked very uncomfortable. He bit his lips, then straightened. “Henry, right now she’s talking to Will Lawrence about abolitionism.”
This time Henry couldn’t help grinning. He knew where this was heading, and he enjoyed it immensely. “And your point is?”
Jason made a sweeping gesture towards Juliet and her collocutor. “She’s talking to Will Lawrence, Henry,” he said insistently. “Will Lawrence, son of Abbott Lawrence, Minister to the Court of St. James’s, the American ambassador. I’m not sure he will like what Juliet has to say. Someone should tell her who he is.”
It was clear whom Jason had in mind for this task. Henry’s grin became even broader.
“Oh,” he said, raising his eyebrow into what was widely known as the Barnstoke Arch. “I’m absolutely sure Juliet knows perfectly well whom she’s talking to.”
Jason gaped; there was no other word for it. Then he chuckled, shook his head and laughed, “Oh, dear, you’re right. You know she’s a lost cause, don’t you?”
“I hope not,” Henry answered, suddenly sober; and then he kept watching Juliet and the ambassador’s red-faced son exchange viewpoints until it was his turn to dance with Isabel again.
For the first time that night, he couldn’t quite concentrate on the dance steps, and Isabel clearly was not amused by his uncharacteristic silence.
Adam left the billiard room and reluctantly entered the hall. During these last two and a half years in Boston he’d become quite adept at playing billiards, and as so often before he had made a little pocket money tonight. He wasn’t a big gambler, but he found playing billiards was better than dancing. Not that Adam was opposed to dancing in general; oh, no, there was nothing like a good barn dance. But dancing at socials in Boston was different. The girls were different: they kept their distance, tried to avoid contact with their partners as much as possible—and how, please, was Adam supposed to lead a girl through a waltz when he wasn’t allowed to get a good grip on her?
No, he didn’t like that kind of dance very much, and he tried to avoid it as much as possible. Of course, attending a social with a dance, he was expected to do his share of dancing, but he always saw to it that he stayed away from it as much as politeness allowed.
Fiona was an exception. She was just as proper as all the other girls, but if he understood the language of her eyes correctly, she would have loved to close the distance between the two of them, to maybe allow him to feel how the ivory skin of her arm felt; and that alone made him want to dance more with her than was modest.
He sauntered to a table with refreshments, chose a fancy looking canapé, and while chewing on it searched for his golden girl. He found her easily: she was still standing in front of the sumptuously draped dark yellow curtain that clashed so gloriously with her pale pink dress, talking amiably to another girl in light blue. Her eyes flickered over the room from time to time, until they caught Adam’s. Fiona blushed and looked down—only to look up again a second later and hold his gaze. And then she sent that smile to him, straight across the room and into his heart.
Oh, that smile. Adam remembered the first time he had seen it, at the Keats’ house, where Etienne had taken him to a soiree. Fiona’s mother had played the piano and Fiona had sung, sung with that wonderful soprano that had filled the room, somersaulting around pillars and lusters to the ceiling and back to the stunned audience. And then, when she had finished, and Adam had taken heart and gone to congratulate her on her bravura, she had awarded him with that smile.
They had talked long after that, longer than Fiona’s ever-observant mother had liked, and consequently they had been separated. But every time Adam had asked to see Fiona again in the next weeks and months, they had been given more time to speak, somehow in correspondence with the distinctive change in the way Mrs. Keats eyed him.
Fiona was a well-read, highly educated girl. It was a pleasure to discuss Shakespeare’s plays with her, Botticelli’s pictures or Mozart’s operas. Adam enjoyed spending time with her immensely; the evenings always seemed to be too short for all the books they wanted to talk about and all the songs they wanted to sing together, for all the just-being-together they wanted to share.
Fiona listened to him talking about college, about his studies and fellow students, and she even listened to what he wanted to share with her about home. She laughed about Joe’s antics, empathised with Hoss’ love for every living creature, and said she’d loved to meet him, when Adam spoke about Pa and how he had built his ranch out of nothing.
He had never met a girl like her: beautiful, lovable, kind, cultured. Perfect in so many ways.
And her smile, her smile… It left Adam breathless. Always, infallibly. It never ceased to capture his heart, mind, soul, everything, never ceased to evoke feelings in him, and to stir up…something.
He wasn’t proud of that. A reputable girl like Fiona shouldn’t be associated with…something, but Adam wasn’t a saint, only a completely normal young man. Etienne, who at times was so perceptive that it was almost scary, suggested Madame Monique, but Adam dismissed the idea.
It wasn’t beneath him to visit a brothel. In fact, before he had left for college, he had been to a place called Mrs. Jeffries the few times he was able to go to Carson without Pa, and it always had been a pleasurable experience. But here in Boston, it was different. His studies didn’t leave him time to work and earn money. Never having attended a proper school, Adam soon had realised that he was behind his fellow students. He had to work hard to catch up with them, and once he was on schedule he couldn’t let it go anymore—his hunger for knowledge being stronger even than his wish for financial independence, and so he lived on what his father and his grandfather gave him. He would never have considered spending the money that had been saved for his education on a lady of the evening. There were other ways to deal with his needs; maybe less satisfying—but at least his room at his grandfather’s house had a lock.
Adam jangled the coins he had won earlier in his pocket. This money would go into the small wooden box in the first drawer of his desk at Grandpa’s, just like all his winnings since the day he had met Fiona. This money was assigned for something special: a ring.
He rattled the coins once again. He had saved a not-too-small amount by now, with which he was sure he already could buy something not too fancy, but modestly precious. Something that wouldn’t outshine Fiona’s beauty but compliment it and—
“Ah oui, you are watching la belle de fête,” a strong French accent woke him out of his musing. “Good. She deserves to be watched.”
“Etienne, stop sneaking up on people like that,” Adam said, poking his friend in the ribs. “And I’m not—”
“Oh, but you are! And who am I to blame you? If she’d looked at me like she looks at you, I wouldn’t turn my eyes off her ever.”
Etienne tried and failed to impersonate Fiona, giving Adam a more sleepy than dreamy look, and for that received another dig in the ribs.
He laughed good-naturedly and then leaned closer. “Are you going to ask her tonight?”
“Come on, Adam, don’t deny you’re contemplating to ask her.”
“I don’t have to deny anything.”
“Are you or aren’t you?”
Adam felt the coins in his pocket. Was he or wasn’t he? He looked over to Fiona, standing there, glancing at him time and again, waiting. Waiting. For him?
And suddenly the image of Fiona in that beautiful pink dress reminded him of a dream he’d had half a year ago. It had been a rainy afternoon, and Etienne (who else?) had lured a group of students into an obscure bar somewhere close to the harbour. They had drunk absinthe there, and Adam had had the most extraordinary dream in which he had been walking through the London Zoo and watching the animals. At some point he had come across a pond full of beautiful flamingoes, and when he had reached out for one of the pink flustered animals, it had backed away.
Would Fiona back away if Adam reached out for her?
Well, I won’t know if I don’t try.
He briefly turned back to Etienne and winked before he made his way across the room.
The whispered, “Bonne chance!” nearly didn’t carry to him.
Adam was half way to Fiona when suddenly another picture from that absinthe dream flashed through his mind: a tall graceful lioness, with golden fur and sparkling green eyes, who stood in front of him and hissed dangerously.
He shook his head to get clear of the image. Surely, Fiona wasn’t a lioness or anything even remotely dangerous at all.
And then he was there, and Fiona smiled at him, and he took her hand and led her out of the room and onto the deserted patio.
It was easy to keep Juliet under constant surveillance while he danced with Isabel, Henry found. He just had to turn his head this way or that—never quite fitting the dance steps they made or the direction the dance figures led them, but manageable. He chose to ignore Isabel’s low huffs of annoyance, and deep inside he knew he was going to regret that later; but for now it couldn’t be helped.
Later he would swear there had never been a longer waltz in the history of balls, and most certainly never a more agonising—which was in no way the waltz’s fault, or Isabel’s. Or Henry’s, for that matter. It was being condemned to helplessly witness the proceedings around his sister that made time slow down so excruciatingly for him.
While he and Isabel did the first few dance steps, he saw Will Lawrence performing an awkward bow to Juliet and then hastily retreating to the other side of the room, all but running.
Juliet, smiling unaffectedly, watched the dancing couples and then searched the room while swaying slightly in time to the music. Henry saw her looking expectantly to a group of young men who had gathered near the dance floor; but none of them seemed to be aware of her, or of the fact that there was a girl in the room who had yet to be asked for a dance. In fact, it was as if they deliberately looked everywhere but where Juliet stood; and her hopeful glances bounced ineffectively off their backs.
Then Waldo Bosham left a giggling Victoria Wainsworth with a rather amateurishly executed hand kiss and a low bow and ambled towards Juliet. Waldo Bosham, youngest son of Lord Pennington and youngest member of the House of Commons, a tall strawberry blonde fellow with more freckles than Henry had ever seen on a person’s face—exactly the type of man Juliet had a soft spot for ever since she had been fourteen and seen a production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ with a tall, strawberry blonde, freckled actor playing the role of Benedick. And, predictably, Juliet bestowed Young Waldo with the most charming smile and came his way a step, making an inviting gesture.
He was on the verge of leaving Isabel alone on the dance floor, when Bosham, pretending he didn’t see her, ever-so-casually redirected his steps and strode away from Henry’s little sister, looking straight the other way.
“Is everything all right, Henry?” Isabel’s question after his subsequent misstep didn’t sound like an inquiry, but like a warning. “You do remember that this is supposed to be a waltz?”
Henry had never seen her so indignant, but then again he never had failed so much at being a perfect gentleman and dance partner. For some reason, though, the displeasure made her face even more beautiful. Somehow vivacious.
“It was you who distracted me from the dance, Isabel,” Henry whispered into her ear. “How can you expect me to function properly when you look so perfectly beautiful? When your eyes challenge the stars, your lips make the roses pale, and your hair—”
“I’m surprised you noticed that, Henry.” Isabel was not the average, easy to pacify girl: she wouldn’t let him get away with just a bit of flattery, even though she did look slightly less vexed. “Now stop cajoling. Dance.”
Henry must have looked rather sheepish at that, because Isabel’s features softened even more, and then she actually smiled and said in a low voice, “You may sweet-talk me after the dance. If you behave.”
He vowed to himself he would behave. Oh, he most certainly would behave. Just one more check if Juliet was all right. Well, apparently she was. She had found her way to a group of other young girls, most of whom looked vaguely familiar to Henry.
He was about to turn his attention back to Isabel when there suddenly was a bit of a commotion in the group, with several girls speaking at the same time and a lot of snickering only barely concealed by hands, and then he watched how one of them addressed Juliet with a face that spoke of spite and condescension.
Juliet couldn’t entirely hold back a hurt expression, but she composed her features quickly, raised her right eyebrow and said something to her assailant that, in Henry’s experience, could only be a biting retort. It didn’t come as a surprise when the girl’s visible gasp confirmed his suspicion.
And then Isabel hissed, “Would you mind looking at me while we dance, Henry? At least from time to time?”
The tone of voice was too much like a reprimand from Juliet to ignore it, and something Henry would rather not hear from the woman he planned to spend a lot of time with for, let’s say, the rest of his life; and so he dutifully looked at Isabel’s exasperated face.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
Her lips formed a thin line. A very thin line, thinner even than the thread of hope Henry had for reconciling with her tonight. And then she said pointedly, “Oh, you most certainly are.”
Henry cringed. He didn’t dare to look back at his sister, and when he finally found the guts to do so, Juliet had vanished. For the rest of the dance, Henry considered whether it was more important to pacify Isabel or to look after Juliet once the music died away.
“Isn’t this a beautiful night, Adam?”
Well, he guessed it was. From the corner of his eye Adam vaguely saw how Fiona indicated the sky. But how was he supposed to look there when she was standing so close to him? So close that he didn’t need to look up. So close that he saw all the stars twinkling here in her face: bright silvery spots reflected by her eyes that seemed to consist only of huge round black pupils with just a small band of light blue surrounding them.
Those eyes, those mesmerising eyes, the whole sky was captured in them—or was it heaven? And then Fiona smiled. Heaven.
Adam’s mouth was on hers even before his hand had cupped her cheeks. It was hasty, sloppy, inexpert, but it was a kiss, a kiss, a kiss, a kiss; he was kissing Fiona, and she…was kissing back.
She was kissing back.
They broke apart when realisation sank in, hit them both at the same moment; Fiona flushed, Adam breathless.
“Oh God, I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I shouldn’t have…I’m sorry.”
She gave him a smile. A new one. One that looked…mischievous. “I’m not,” she said. “If this is why you dragged me out here, you should have done it much earlier.”
Adam’s lips formed a small ‘o’ that slowly spread into a huge grin. “I have to admit it crossed my mind, but I wasn’t planning on anything.” He laughed at her incredulous face and added, “Seriously!”
“So you had completely honourable intentions when you brought me out here, where we’re all alone and no one can hear you…telling me what, Adam?” She smiled again, coyly this time, and then looked expectantly at him.
It was time. Now or never, Cartwright, Adam thought, and he cleared his throat that once again seemed to be strangled by that infernal bow-tie.
“Um, Fiona, you know I’m going to graduate next year?”
“And I…well, I suppose I’ll be leaving Boston then.” He paused, looked at her, waited for a reaction. This all was going so fast suddenly.
“Do you have plans for then? Are you going back to your family, to the ranch?” she inquired.
“I don’t know yet. Honestly I…well, I know my father wants me to come back, but somehow…” He didn’t know how to put it into words. There was a longing, for more, for further, for wider—not for back. “Would you want to live on a ranch in Nevada?” he finally asked.
Fiona looked surprised, then frowned and searched his face. She blinked. “I…yes. I think I would. If my family were to live there, I wouldn’t mind. And I’d love to meet your family, Adam.”
She looked at him like a pupil at her teacher trying to figure out if she had given the right answer. But this wasn’t a test, was it?
“Oh, I want to see my family, I really do. I miss them a lot. But I also…” He gazed into the night. Behind the garden, he knew, was the sea. Well, not exactly behind the garden, but near enough to smell the faint scent of salt and wanderlust. “There’s so much to see out there,” he said, gesturing into the dark. “So much to explore, to learn, to try out. I’d love to see places I’ve only read about: London, Rome, Paris, Cairo…. Aren’t you curious about the world, Fiona?”
She considered him a moment. “No,” she said. “I don’t know what would be different in London—although I’ve heard they have wonderful theatres there. But they wouldn’t show other plays than our theatres, would they?”
“I guess not. Or maybe they would, but that’s not the point.” He shook his head, frowning. “What I want to know is how people live there, how people think there, what they do, and how, and….” He trailed off, again not able to put into words what was driving him, and gave Fiona a questioning glance.
“Oh, it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t go there, Adam,” she said brightly. “If my…family would live there, I’d be happy to make my husband a home there just as I would do it here.”
“So you would follow your husband wherever he wanted to go?”
“Of course! That’s why people marry, isn’t it? To live together. To support each other.”
“And what do you want?”
“What do you mean: what do I want?”
“What’s your dream, Fiona? What do you want from life?”
“I want to find a man I can love and who loves me.” She blushed, but looked him straight in the eye. “I want a family, children, a nice home.”
“Is that all?”
She laughed. “Adam! Is there more someone can wish for? A happy life, no less. What more could I want?”
“I don’t know. A goal? A purpose? Adventures? There are so many things life can offer.” Again, his gaze was drawn to the dark garden, and the promises that lay beyond it. “Maybe that’s why I’m hesitant to go back to Nevada: I’m afraid I’ll find life boring there.”
“Life in Nevada doesn’t have to be boring, Adam; it doesn’t have to be boring anywhere.” Fiona closed the distance between them and breathed a kiss onto his cheek. “Is that boring, Adam?” Another kiss. “I don’t think so.”
She took a step back, giving him time to compose his features. Her face was no longer that of a doll, but of a woman who knew what she wanted, Adam suddenly realised.
“I don’t want to lead a boring life either, Adam,” she went on. “I would be a good wife, I would raise my children well, and keep a good house; but I know there’s more required for a fulfilling life: I would sing for my husband, and read poetry to him. We would have soirees and dinner parties; we would go to the theatre and to the opera, and we would read books and talk about them. We would visit galleries and exhibitions, and museums. That’s the kind of life I want to live, that’s the kind of wife I want to be: the kind of wife a man would want.”
She looked at him, her eyes wide, her smile inviting, then she pulled her lower lip between her pearly white teeth before she lowered her head and whispered, “The kind of wife you would want, Adam?”
Adam gazed at her, amazed, and shook his head. “No, I wouldn’t want that.”
What he had said didn’t break through the turmoil of his agitated mind until about three seconds later, when he stood there—suddenly alone with a burning left cheek—and watched Fiona’s very rigid back as she rushed back into the house. The sound of her sharp slap still rang in his ear, as well as her cry, “How dare you, Adam Cartwright!”
She was right: how dared he?
The question of whether to search for Juliet or to try and make up with Isabel had been taken out of his hands when, after Henry had escorted her from the dance floor, Isabel had icily dismissed his offer to get her a glass of champagne.
“Thank you, but no,” she had said, not even looking at him. “I won’t risk you bringing the glass to someone whose face you would rather see than mine.”
“Isabel, I’m sorry. Really, I am.” He had been sorry, more than he could say. “It’s just…Listen, there’s no face I’d rather see than yours.”
“Is that so?”
“I swear. I’m so sorry, I was just looking out for Juliet—”
“She’s having a hard time tonight, being…well, herself.”
“Oh Henry, why didn’t you tell me? Shall I…arrange something?”
Could she get any lovelier?
“No, she wouldn’t want that,” Henry had hastened to prevent further complications. If Juliet caught wind of any arrangements there would be a hurricane to deal with. Nevertheless, he had been determined to make use of Isabel’s improving mood. “Isabel…my beautiful, beautiful Isabel…” He had taken her hand, and while at first she’d tried to pull back he’d felt her resistance faltering when he had looked deep into her eyes.
It was high time for a dose of smoldering Barnstoke-charm, he had decided. He had bent over to her, that one inch too close for pure propriety, that one inch that told so much about his boldness and her allowance, and whispered huskily, “Thou art fairer than the evening air clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.”
He had heard the ice melting in her voice and seen her blush adoringly.
“I may have a glass of champagne now, after all,” she had smiled lowering her head and sent Henry off with a squeeze of her hand.
Everything would have gone well, had Henry not encountered his father on the way to the buffet table.
“Henry,” the Earl had said cheerfully. “Are you having a good time?”
“A jolly good one. And you, Father?”
The Earl had grinned from ear to ear. “Splendid, just splendid. I can’t say that for Pennington, the old braggart, though. I’ve just relieved him of ten guineas at whist.”
“Ten.” Henry’s father had looked more than pleased. “He thinks he plays a wicked hand, but he’s more predictable than a fox in a henhouse.”
“And now, I take it, you can’t find another victim?” Henry couldn’t have hidden a grin. His father was a notoriously good player, but he always found someone who thought he could outsmart him.
“Oh, Lord Dunsford was willing, but I’ve heard that someone’s supposed to perform some songs in a minute, and I wanted to make sure it isn’t your sister.”
“Juliet wouldn’t…” Henry had turned around and searched the room. In a far corner a piano had been prepared, and some chairs, and people had already been making their way there. Juliet had been nowhere in sight. Thank God.
“Wouldn’t she?” the Earl had queried. “She would if no one stopped her.”
Henry had chuckled. “By Jove, she would.”
Yes, she would. Great God, she would.
He had cast another glance at the gathering at the piano. The girl in pale blue that had been admonished by Juliet earlier had stood there with her hands clasped and smiled shyly at her audience.
“Well, apparently someone has stopped her,” his father had said and clapped his hands. “Let’s go and listen.”
And that had been Henry’s prompt to go and search for Juliet. Someone had stopped her; and he knew perfectly well when and who that had been. He knew he would have to deal with Isabel’s annoyance later, and that it would take more than a dose of Barnstoke-charm to iron this out, but it couldn’t be helped: he had to be sure his little sister was all right.
He found her with no difficulty. Juliet would never retreat to a dark corner like a wounded animal. She would always go outside to where she wouldn’t feel trapped.
She stood at the far end of the Royal Pavilion’s gardens under a fig tree, straight and upright, and stared into the dark. Her silhouette stood out against the starry sky and the lantern light from St. James Street.
Henry shrugged out of his dress coat and draped it around Juliet’s shoulders.
She didn’t even turn, but pulled the coat closer and whispered, “Thank you, Henry.”
He didn’t answer, just stood there next to her and tried to find out where she was looking.
“Is that the Royal Albion hotel over there?” he finally asked, just to break the silence.
“I think so.”
“If it weren’t for the Albion you could see the sea from here, don’t you think?”
“Yes, certainly. Isn’t it amazing how you cannot see, but you can smell the water, Henry?” Juliet strained her neck as if she thought she would be able to have a better look that way. “It smells like…fish and freedom.” She snickered.
“Freedom, huh?” Henry teased. “Is the sea calling you again?”
“She’s always calling me, Henry,” Juliet said, far too seriously for his liking. “Sometimes I think my future lies there, somewhere beyond the sea.”
“Somewhere beyond the sea, where people don’t mind red dresses?”
“Somehow I suspect people mind red dresses everywhere, Henry.”
“I told you—”
“You’re lying.” Henry gripped her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. “Don’t lie to me, Juliet. Just tell me. I saw you wanted to dance with Waldo, didn’t you?”
“I don’t want to talk about Waldo, or any other of those arrogant dimwits.”
Henry cringed at her tone. It was biting, but also hurt.
“Do you have anyone’s name on your dancing card?” he asked cautiously.
She pulled the card from somewhere and waved it in front of his face. “Oh, certainly. There’s going to be a waltz after Margaret has her performance, and I have a…” She looked at her card. “…a P. P. Wilcox registered here.”
“Wilcox? Pelham the Dwarf?” Henry couldn’t stop bursting out.
Juliet looked irritated. “He may be rather diminutive, but he’s the only one brave enough to dance with the untouchable. He should be considered a hero.”
“You don’t mean that, do you? Pelham the Dwarf is a pillock.”
“Oh, I know he’s a pillock, Henry. But apparently he’s pillock enough to want to dance with me, and I’m hardly in a position to reject the only volunteer, am I?”
She flung the dancing card at Henry, barely missing his nose with it.
Henry ducked. “No, I guess not. May I dance with you after him?”
“I don’t need your pity.”
“You do after you’ve danced with the Dwarf.”
“I’ve heard he is not a bad dancer.”
“No, he isn’t. But he has a preference for tall women, and I have an idea why.”
Juliet stared at him. “What…?” And then it dawned on her. Unconsciously she crossed her arms over her chest. “Henry, honestly!”
He raised an eyebrow. “Well….”
Juliet narrowed her eyes and gazed at him, until she finally shook her head. “You’re an idiot, Henry Heatherstone!”
And then she couldn’t keep up her pretense of a straight face anymore, and shared the much-needed laughter with her brother.
Henry knew he was pushing his luck, but now Juliet had rediscovered her humour he had to try again. “What happened with that girl…Margaret?”
“Henry…no. It wasn’t nice. I wasn’t nice.”
“What did she say?”
Juliet sighed. “She said that Lady Harriet had asked if someone would like to perform some songs, if you have to know.”
She breathed out again, this time rather forcefully. “She said she’d volunteered even though it should have been me at my debut, but that—” She bit her lips.
“But that the only thing that was more strident than the colour of my dress was my singing, and that no one could be expected to be put up with that.”
“And—since you’re asking for the full story, Henry—and then she said I’d been stupid anyway to choose such a dress, one I couldn’t wear at my wedding. But then again, from the looks of it, there wouldn’t be a wedding for me anyhow.”
Henry reached out for her, but Juliet backed off.
“And then,” she said very quietly. “And then I said, that that wouldn’t be a problem because after all I didn’t have to marry.”
It took a moment to sink in. Magaret Tennhall was the sister of Elisabeth Tennhall, who had married last October after a suspiciously short engagement, and given birth to a healthy son in March. Of course, no one would admit to doing the math. No wonder Margaret had looked so shocked.
“I shouldn’t have said that.” Juliet’s voice was even lower now. “It was her sister, and even if it had been Margaret—who am I to judge? I shouldn’t have said that.”
“She wasn’t very friendly herself, don’t you think? She shouldn’t have said what she did either.”
“That’s not a reason to be mean. That’s not…. I don’t want to hurt people, Henry. I don’t want to do that. It’s just…sometimes, when they hurt me, I get angry and then I can’t hold it back and…” She looked up. “I don’t want to hurt people.”
“Then you’ll have to learn to keep your temper.”
“But this won’t be the last time it’ll get the better of you. You’ll have to learn to apologise, too.”
She nodded again.
“And maybe you can also learn to forgive yourself.”
She smiled faintly. “Isn’t that a bit much?”
“No. Not for you. You can learn everything you want to.”
“Who says I want to learn?” Now that she was back to the common ground of a good old battle of wits, she sounded much brighter.
“I say that,” Henry grinned. “Because you’re always willing to learn what’s required. And believe me, Juliet, that is what is required, here, there and beyond the sea, where apparently your future lies.”
“You say that like a tease, but I honestly think—no, just listen, Henry. I don’t know what’s waiting out there for me, but I’d like to find out what I can achieve. I can’t imagine going to balls and looking for a husband is all I was made for. There are so many things for me to see, so many things to learn, so many things to do. I want to find out why I am on this earth, what I’m supposed to do.”
“And what if you’re supposed to go to balls and look for a husband?”
“Somehow I can’t believe that. And obviously I’m not very good at it anyway.”
She didn’t even look disappointed, Henry thought. But surely she didn’t want to spend her life alone, did she?
“Well, maybe you’ll be better at it beyond the sea. Perhaps one day you’ll find a husband there. A maharajah, maybe.”
She laughed. “Yes, why not? Or perhaps a professor at Tübingen.”
“Or a Slavic prince?”
“An Indian chief?”
“Or maybe a simple cowboy?” Henry grinned broadly.
Juliet gave him a short slap on his arm. “I wouldn’t mind a cowboy…if he has freckles and is brave enough to dance with me.” She looked thoughtful for a moment, then smiled lopsidedly. “And if he reads an occasional book.”
“Juliet, you won’t find a cowboy out there who reads Marlowe.”
She gazed at him and tapped her finger against her pursed lips. Obviously she was warming up to the idea. “Well, who knows? Maybe at this very minute, there’s some Bill or Bob out there in the prairie, sitting under a brilliant star-spangled sky by his campfire, sipping at his coffee and reading from a book of poetry.”
“Dreaming of a girl he could read it to, huh?”
“And that would be a man you’d marry?”
“I tell you what, Henry: if I ever meet a dashing cowboy, who’s tall and courageous and loves Marlowe, I’ll marry him right on the spot.”
Henry laughed. “You can’t do that. If you marry a cowboy, you’ll have to muck stables.”
Juliet still looked cheerful, but her tone was sober. “For the right man I’d muck stables. As you said, I can learn everything that’s required.” She gave him a mischievous smile. “I’d even learn how to cook!”
Their laughter flared up again as Henry turned her back towards the Pavilion.
When they reached the great doors to the Music Room, a short, strawberry blond man shot out of the crowd. “I believe this is our dance, Lady Juliet,” he said, holding his hand out to her, and she accepted it with a regal nod and a graceful smile.
Henry watched as P. P. Wilcox steered Juliet onto the dance floor and the couple started a surprisingly harmonious waltz.
From the look on his face, the Dwarf was in heaven. And Juliet? Henry nearly laughed out loud. Juliet had a dreamy, far away expression that easily could be misinterpreted as indicating a romantic sentiment towards her dance partner. But Henry was sure, were Pelham the Dwarf able to look into Juliet’s eyes, he would see the silhouette of a cowboy sitting at his campfire under a starry night sky and reading from a book of poetry.
Adam didn’t know how long he had been standing there on the dimly torch-lit patio, with his arms and shoulders hanging limp and his eyes trying to bore holes into the darkness of the back garden. He wished he could say he was feeling numb, but he felt traitorous and rotten, mean and verminous, villainous and nefarious, ignoble and—
No. He had to stop that. He knew there were at least twenty more synonyms he could find for how he felt, for how Fiona had every right to designate him, but to list them all and more would not conceal the fact that he also felt very relieved.
However, he had no right to feel relieved. He should feel ashamed, and he should go and apologise to Fiona. Well, he felt ashamed, and he would go and apologise, just not tonight. He’d only hurt her more if he spoke to her now (if she’d even let him at all) and it certainly would be for the better if he’d figured out what went wrong before he tried to explain it to her.
The funny thing was that he knew exactly what he didn’t want, but he hadn’t had the faintest idea of what he was precisely looking for.
He sensed the presence of another person more than he heard one approaching, but he knew it was Etienne, even before his friend spoke up. At the Ponderosa it would have been Hoss; here, far from home, it was always Etienne, his brother in everything but the designation.
“Well?” It was amazing how much French accent could go into just one word. And how much concern.
Adam heaved a deep sigh, hoping against hope that it would make Etienne give up.
“That didn’t go so well, huh?”
Adam crossed his arms and continued staring into the dark. He even squinted his eyes to emphasise he was busy with…staring.
“Did she say no?”
This time Etienne touched his shoulder; there was no way to feign unawareness any longer.
“Uh, what?” Adam asked, finally turning to face his friend.
“Did she say no?”
“Then…what?” Etienne threw his hands in the air. “Mon dieu, Adam! When she didn’t say no, then why are you sulking out here and Fiona is fuming in there? What happened?”
“I said no.”
“You…? What, did she propose to you?”
“And you said no.”
Etienne made a noise that could only be a choked snigger. “Bon sang, Adam!”
Adam didn’t see the humour in it, really; but somehow Etienne’s futile attempts to hide amusement brightened his mood and he readily agreed when Etienne suggested they leave the party and talk somewhere else.
On the way through the hall he caught a brief glimpse of Fiona, who looked a bit pale but was surrounded by a barricade of girls, obviously bathing in their sympathy. He was glad the girls were too busy with providing comfort to notice him passing by—he wasn’t sure he would have survived the piercing arrows of their glares.
Mrs. Frank was surprised when they excused themselves so early, but after scrutinizing Adam’s flushed face and weak smile, she send him off with a “Get well soon!” and a motherly touch to his cheek.
“Adam, Adam,” Etienne said as they walked down Beacon Street. “What is it with you and the women? Either they want to marry or they want to mother you.”
Adam gave him a lopsided smile. “Yes, or they want to slap me,” he said touching his left cheek where he was sure the imprint of Fiona’s fingers was still visible. “I never knew they could be so strong.”
They went on, alongside the Public Garden where the strong scent of lilac pleased their noses, until Etienne abruptly halted at Spruce Street.
“Madame Monique?” he suggested, gesturing down the road. “If you ever needed to go there, Adam, it would be now.”
Adam gazed down the street. He felt the money in his pocket, his billiard-winnings. His money, not his father’s or his grandfather’s. His money, which wasn’t designated to buy a token of love anymore. Could it be squandered on buying a bit of relief now?
“No,” he said even before he thought it. “No, that wouldn’t be…fair.”
“Fair. Respectful of Fiona.”
“Adam, this has nothing to do with Fiona, it’s just—”
Adam shook his head. “No. This is all about Fiona, and I wouldn’t disgrace her by…substituting.”
Etienne stared at him for a full minute, or at least it felt so, before he slapped him on his upper arm and said, “Mon dieu, Adam. Come, let’s go to the riverbanks.”
They walked down Spruce Street, passing Madame Monique’s without even giving it a glance, and then turned into Mt. Vernon Street until they reached the riverbanks. The landfill had left something that faintly resembled a beach. Not like the white sands of San Francisco Bay, though, merely soil that slowly became overgrown with grass and weeds. There was a low dike separating the new land from the older parts, and even though Adam knew you weren’t supposed to step on those, he and Etienne raced up and down the elevation after his friend cried out, “Last one with wet feet buys breakfast tomorrow!” and sped straight ahead.
As usual they reached their destination at the same time, both with one foot firmly anchored in the soft soil and the other stretched out as if they’d really planned to ruin their shoes in the muddy waters of the Charles River.
“Looks as if it’s going to be Mrs. Bostridge again,” Adam laughed breathlessly, fully knowing that that was what Etienne wanted to hear. His grandfather’s housekeeper made the best pancakes in the whole known world, and if there was one thing Etienne loved, it was pancakes.
“Yes, I’m afraid it is so,” Etienne said deadpan, and then he grinned. “Hallelujah!”
The starry sky illuminated the banks just enough to ensure them safe footing as they slowly made their way along the riverside. They walked quietly, until they saw the lights of West Boston Bridge in the distance, and they simultaneously stopped to admire the play of the gaslights on the dark waters.
“Adam,” Etienne eventually spoke up. “What happened tonight? I thought you loved her.”
This time Adam didn’t try to avoid the conversation, only to stall a bit. He picked up a flat stone from the banks and threw it into the river so that it skipped a few times over the surface.
“I do.” He threw a second rock, counted the skips. Five, not bad. “I really do love her,” he said, and he heard the surprise in his voice. “I just don’t want to spend the rest of my life with her.”
Etienne’s rock beat his by two skips. “What’s wrong with her?”
“There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s completely…she’s just like all the other girls. They all seem to have the same dream: to find a husband, have children, and care for their families.”
“And you…don’t like that?” Etienne threw another stone. Four skips only.
Adam chose a particularly flat stone. He studied the welts and scratches on it and weighed it in his hand. “It scares me,” he said finally. “It scares me, because if it is their only dream, and if I marry such a girl, then her dream will be fulfilled. And then? What’s left of a person who hasn’t got a dream anymore?”
He threw the stone with a vengeance, and satisfied he watched how it hit the water hard and with a hefty splash, and then sank down unceremoniously.
“A person without a dream is dead.” He looked at Etienne. “I don’t want to be responsible for the death of another person, and I don’t want to be married to a dead woman.”
“Adam…” Etienne said quietly. “What is it that you are looking for then, mon ami?”
Adam gazed over the water, sniffing. There it was again, the smell of the sea. “I want the impossible, Etienne. I want a woman with a spark. A woman with dreams, with plans and ideas, with a longing for something everybody thinks is impossible to have; a woman who’s never fully satisfied. A woman who lives.”
“That’s not impossible, Adam. There are women like that.”
“Yes, but I also want her to be loving and kind, to be loyal and caring. And I want her to dream of having a husband and children, and of caring for her family, too.” He looked back at Etienne and smiled sheepishly. “I know that you can’t have both, but I still want it.”
Etienne grinned. “You give up too easily, Adam.” He turned and went on a hunt for the perfect stone closer to the dike. “It’s not impossible to find such a woman,” he said from back there. “The Queen of England, for example, is a woman with visions and ideas, and still she’s a devoted wife to that enviable husband of hers.”
“I don’t want to marry a queen.” Adam knew he sounded like a child, but really, what was his friend thinking.
“But you have to. The woman you want is not an ordinary woman, she is a queen. She will try to rule over you, and you will try to rule over her, and apart from the tussling you two will have a wonderful life.”
It sounded…good. Strange, yes, but good. A queen. Why n— no, he wouldn’t say “why not” ever again.
Etienne came back to the shore, and let his find skip the water six times. He grinned at Adam and presented him a stone from his new collection. “Your try.”
Adam looked down at his hand and saw a consummate throwing object. He leaned back slightly, took careful aim, and then, with a long fluid motion, swerved the stone onto the water.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine.
“But that’s impossible!” Etienne cried. “What have you done? Magic?”
Adam laughed. “That’s not impossible, that’s a question of technique and determination.”
“Oh, really? You can do it again? The impossible?”
“Of course, I can—” Adam faltered. “You sneaky buzzard!”
They grinned at each other; Adam pushed Etienne, Etienne pushed Adam, they scuffled, nearly falling over; then Adam gave Etienne a slap on the back of his head and they dissolved into laughter.
“You are right, though,” Adam said when he regained the ability to speak. “The impossible is only impossible if you don’t try.”
“Mais oui!” Etienne sang genially, spread his arms out to and bowed to an unseen audience.
They slowly wandered back the way they had come, crossed the dike at Mt. Vernon Street and sauntered through the quiet night of the town.
The closer they came to his grandfather’s house, the stronger the smell of the sea seemed to become, and once again, Adam felt the longing, the urge to see what was on the other side of the big pond. The impossible, possibly, he thought wryly.
Yes, he always wanted the things that seemed impossible. And in the end, he realised with sudden clearness, I manage to get them. He had survived the way to the West. He had learned to trust and love yet another mother. He had taught his brother Joe the rule of three. He had kept his father from the bottle when Marie died. He had been accepted at college.
He could have everything he wanted if he only tried.
Maybe even a queen.
IX. Epilogue: March 10, 1861
Juliet was frustrated. She had inspected more horses than she’d ever had the desire to see in a single day, and yet the right horse hadn’t been among them.
She wasn’t sure why Sam Clemens had made her promise she’d buy a horse at the Ponderosa—they had lots of mounts here, but none of them seemed appropriate for her and her needs.
Well, knowing Sam, this probably wasn’t about horses at all. Juliet still thought she didn’t necessarily have to own a horse and that it would be the far better to just rent one whenever she needed it; but she had promised to buy one. She had never broken her promises before, and she wouldn’t start that with this one. Not with a promise she’d given Sam, and most certainly not after all he had done for her.
Involuntarily she took a firmer grip on the arm of Mr. Cartwright as he led her from the corral back to the ranch house. She wouldn’t think of the past now. Those things were over and done; this was supposed to be a new beginning: a new town, a new job, new people.
New people. She was looking forward to having another friendly chat with Mr. Cartwright, who was a charming elder gentleman, polite and well mannered, and a perfect host. He had just offered tea and apple pie while they took a break from searching for the right horse, and Juliet was looking forward to that, too. Mr. Hop, the Cartwright’s Chinese housekeeper, already had proven at lunch that he was an excellent cook, and his apple pie surely wouldn’t disappoint.
Not like the horses Mr. Cartwright and his two sons had shown her so far. They had offered her sturdy work horses, versatile Indian ponies, calm draft horses, and at one point the youngest son, Joseph, or Joe, as he’d insisted on being called, had presented to her a snow-white horse with a waving long mane. Well, she wasn’t a cowboy, she wasn’t a squaw, she wasn’t a farm wife, and she most certainly wasn’t one of those silly little girls someone like Joe Cartwright would invite for ride-outs, so she couldn’t picture herself on any of those horses; and she’d tried to get that across to the men who had seemed more and more at a loss.
But could you explain to men who worked with their horses, for whom a horse was merely a tool, that you wanted a mount that suited you? A horse you would ride to get from one point to another, but also for pleasure only? A horse you planned to train for dressage?
Maybe she could try to discuss that with the older son, Erik, no, Hoss. Tall and broad Hoss, a man like an oak tree, with the friendliest grin she had ever seen and eyes as blue as the sky over the sea at Brighton, as blue as…Henry’s. Somehow she was sure he would understand.
But then explanations became unnecessary, when they rounded the corner of the barn and she saw a new horse tied to the hitching rail next to the ranch house: a tall chestnut horse with three white socks. It had a strong chest, an elegant head, and long, delicate legs. Not the typical horse for this terrain, but a proud, strong and noble mount.
“This horse, why didn’t you show me this horse? This is exactly the horse I want.” She disentangled herself from Mr. Cartwright’s arm, crossed the yard to the horse, and gently stroked its muzzle, cooing, “Hey, my boy. Now aren’t you a beauty?”
Hoss was next to her only a second later. Taking hold of the horse’s head collar as if there was a need to protect her from the animal he said, “Ya shouldn’t touch a horse ya don’t know, Miss Juliet. Ol’ Sport here don’t like strangers very much.”
“He seems quite friendly, Hoss,” Juliet replied in irritation. She couldn’t see anything dangerous in this magnificent mount, and she had made up her mind anyway. “He seems to like me; and I like him. How much is he?”
“Ma’am, this here horse is not fer sale. He’s my brother’s horse.”
Of course. She sighed. Things were never that easy. And clearly, this horse had been ridden shortly before, so it had to belong to someone. Well, everything had a price, and she was willing to pay whatever that price was. Within reasonable limits.
She turned to look for Hoss’ brother and found Joe, who had caught up with them, right behind her. She fixed him with the stern Barnstoke-glare that usually got her what she wanted. “Joe, you surely don’t need two mounts. How much do you want for this horse?”
“No, Miss Juliet, you got that wrong,” Joe replied. “This is our other brother’s horse.”
Now she was surprised—another brother? How many sons did Mr. Cartwright have?
Well, it didn’t matter from whom she bought the horse. She tsked and raised an eyebrow. “Maybe he wants to sell it then,” she said, just a tad annoyed.
“No, he doesn’t,” answered a new voice from the porch. A clearly amused voice, a dark, pleasant baritone, warm and soft, and with just a hint of sarcasm that made the man behind that voice interesting even before she saw him.
Juliet turned to face the newcomer but paused when she saw the owner of the voice coming down from the porch and rounding the horse.
He was tall and well built, with olive skin and raven black hair; and he moved with the grace of a wildcat until he stopped in midstride and just stood and gazed at her. His smile created dimples on his five o’clock shadowed cheeks, and his eyes…Oh, his eyes!
Juliet knew she should be scandalised at being confronted by a sweaty man in filthy work clothes, but all she was aware of was that smile, and those eyes that were burning into her soul and kindling a flame there she’d thought long gone out.
Those mesmerising eyes the colour of the dark rich malt whisky her father had favoured…she could get lost in those eyes, she realised; and that thought filled her with warmth and chill at the same time.
After what seemed like an eternity, he offered her his hand. “Hello. I think we haven’t met yet, Miss. I’m Adam Cartwright.” His warm voice washed over her like a gentle caress, and for a moment she imagined wrapping it around herself like a soft blanket.
She took his hand and smiled. “How do you do, Mr. Cart—”
“Adam, please say Adam.”
“Adam.” She tested the name, let it roll on her tongue; and it tasted delicious. Suddenly all she wanted was to hear her name spoken in his dark, resonating tone. “I’m pleased to meet you. I am Juliet Heatherstone. Juliet.”
“Juliet.” It was not just her name: it was a tune.
She beamed at him, Adam. It was all she could do to suppress the urge to ask him, “You don’t happen to like Marlowe, do you?” And with amazement, she saw the sparks her eyes were sending him reflected in his amber pools of liquid fire.
Her new life had just taken a very promising turn.
Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. ~ Dr. Seuss
You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams. ~ Dr. Seuss
A/N: Thank you so much, Sandpur, Joaniepaiute, and Sklamb, for some terrific beta-reads, for your encouragement and your friendship.