When Margaret Porter gave birth to her first child, she named her Ariadne.
It was generally conceded to be yet another in a long series of unwise decisions the young woman had made. Leaving her family and friends to marry a sailor with few brains and even fewer connections had been the one immediately preceding, but neither of these would be the most notable or the last.
The name was lovely, true, but it was rather out of place in the dock-side neighborhood Mrs. Porter inhabited. Most of their near-dwellers didn’t recognize the name and judged it yet another proof that the young wife thought herself far too good for the rest of them. Those who did recognize it judged it to be an ill omen for a girl child who would most certainly grow up and marry a sea-faring man like her father.
Ariadne herself rather liked the name. Her uncle, whom she had never met but was told was a fine gentleman, sent her a book of Greek myths written for young children, and she read it until she had memorized every word. She liked Her Story: the one that had her name in it. Her mother read it to her, sighed, and called it tragic (with a sorrowing glimpse over at her snoring husband), but Ariadne didn’t see it that way. She wasn’t sure she wanted anything to do with a man too stupid to find his own way through a labyrinth and faithless enough to leave a girl all alone on a deserted island. Better off without him, and that Dionysus fellow looked far more interesting.
That book, with its leather binding and gilt leaves, was her one escape. The tiny house was full to bursting with her younger siblings, and even if she had time to spend on anything other than the endless rounds of cleaning, cooking and washing that a large family in a small house entailed, there was no space in which to spend it. The family grew beyond not only the bounds of the house but its means, and while they were making do for now it was exhausting and, as Ariadne came to realize, frightening.
They lived very close to the margin. So close that they might, at any moment, teeter over it. So when Ariadne was ten and her wealthy uncle wrote her mother and asked if she would send Ariadne as a companion to his own daughter, they all leapt at the opportunity.
It was almost midnight when she reached Cobb Manor, and after a very brief introduction to her Uncle and Aunt (whom she had never met in person) she was shown up to her own room. The little chamber was small and sparsely decorated as yet, but it was cozy and she could tell that some thought had gone into it. Still, she was overwhelmed.
It had been intended as a kindness, giving her a room of her own. Her aunt had wanted her to be comfortable, and both of her new guardians thought that having a place to retreat from the bustle of the house would help her to adjust. But what they hadn’t considered was that Ariadne had never slept alone in her life. Not in a bed by herself, and certainly never in her own room. She had shared a bed with Millie, her next youngest sister, since she could remember, and for the last five years the girls’ bedroom in the attic had been shared by four sisters. But now she lay alone in a quiet house on a dark and windy night in an enormous bed all by herself, and she kept waiting for a woman in white to drift through the walls.
She didn’t know when she had finally fallen asleep, but when she woke the morning light was streaming through the windows, and she had to assume that, since she had survived thus far, there were no hungry ghosts waiting to eat her. She was reflecting on this relief when there was a tapping at the door.
When it opened, a boy not many years older than herself came in timidly. He was in long trousers but still had his curls, and he tucked them behind his ears repeatedly as a nervous habit.
“Um, did you sleep well?” he asked, his words alternating between a stutter and a rush.
She nodded with her eyes wide, but didn’t say anything in response.
“Good,” he said. He reached under his jacket and pulled out a tiny, mewing grey and white kitten. “I, um, I thought you might like this.”
That got her to speak. “He’s beautiful,” she said and took him. “What’s his name?”
“You can pick,” he said. Blushing, he added, “And I’m Arthur.”
“Thank you,” said Ariadne.
Within an hour the kitten had tangled itself in her knitting basket, and between that and the fact that he was a continual nuisance, she named him Theseus.
Arthur Foster Cobb was Mr. Cobb’s nephew, the child of his younger sister. Mr. and Mrs. Cobb had a son of their own, Ariadne’s mother had told her, but he had died when he was still very small. When it became apparent that further children were unlikely, Mr. Cobb had adopted his nephew as his heir and brought him to live at the Manor. It was an arrangement that suited everyone: Arthur had an older brother and his father had a very small estate, so his parents were, while sorry to see him leave at a younger age than they had anticipated, quite overjoyed to see him so well settled. Mr. Cobb was relieved to have an heir of his choosing so close to hand, and as the plan was for Arthur to marry Phillipa when they both came of age it resolved a great many difficulties with a minimum of fuss.
No one had yet asked Phillipa or Arthur what they thought of this resolution. For one, to speak of it would have been to make it official, and the entire arrangement was unspoken but understood by all parties involved. For another, it never occurred to either of the Cobbs that they should.
Mr. Cobb was in most ways a good hearted man, if entirely afflicted by the deficiencies of intellect and character that tended to infect a gentleman of his class. If a marriage between Arthur and Phillipa solved his problems, he could not conceive that there should be any objection to it. He had been the monarch of his own little kingdom for so long he had forgotten that there was an entire world beyond his park.
Mrs. Cobb, on the other hand, lived in a rather different world of her own making. The death of her son had affected her deeply, as it would any mother. But where others turned to religion or to their surviving children for comfort she had turned instead to the supernatural, and to the spiritualism that was gaining popularity on the continent. Her husband thought it a laughable but harmless pursuit.
Ariadne, when she had a chance to observe the family, was not so certain. But she quickly learned her place in her new home, and kept all such observations to herself. Mr. Cobb indulged his wife’s interests, but did so without making any attempt to hide his contempt. Mrs. Cobb felt it, but having no outlet for her frustrations but what she termed her ‘research’ was drawn further and further into it, and what might have been a silly but innocuous source of solace became nearly an obsession. In time it had begun to play on her mind, making her anxious and, occasionally, overwrought.
Were this merely a personal sorrow, it would have been tragic. But as they between the two of them oversaw a large estate it became a public matter that affected all manner of business. The maids either took her part and were contemptuous of the master in private or believed that they could take advantage of her because of her mental infirmity. Among the men of the household and of the town Mr. Cobb was seen as either a man to be pitied for being saddled with such a foolish and affected wife or as something of a cad for making his disdain for her public knowledge.
Neither of them were respected, and while they were wealthy enough not to care, had they lacked that consolation they still would not have been wise enough to mind. The truth was that they loved each other, not wisely but well. They were a world unto themselves, and that world kept them from seeing or caring what the those who lived outside their own little sphere thought.
Like many others Ariadne could not respect her new guardians. But she liked them well enough. They were never unkind to her, although they were never warm either. She was never permitted to forget that she was not quite a member of the family: her clothes were always visibly simpler than Phillipa’s, she had few possessions of her own, and while Phillipa complained heartily about being forced to sit and work at her satin stitches Ariadne was more likely to be handed a basket of socks that needed darning. But although she was expected to work she was not taken advantage of, and she was also allowed to sit with Phillipa during her lessons with her tutor.
It was during these sessions that Ariadne discovered that her cousin was spoiled but of a generally kind disposition. She had a happy nature and was inclined to think well of everyone, and had so little exposure to the world outside of Cobb Manor that she had no reason to believe otherwise. She wished on stars, left cakes out for the fairies, and believed that one day her prince would come.
She was, in other words, phenomenally stupid.
She was silly as a young girl and the situation did not improve as she grew, the result being that at nineteen, she was as beautiful and empty headed as a French porceline doll. The most recent demonstration of this fact had come when Phillipa asked her tutor why everyone was so upset with the king. She knew it had something to do with his wife, as one of her father’s friends had mentioned it at dinner the other night, but she knew nothing else.
“His majesty is seeking a divorce from the Duchess of Brunswick,” said the tutor carefully, “and this has caused great consternation.”
“Is she very beautiful?” Phillipa asked, leaning her head on her palm.
“Well, perhaps not,” said the tutor. “But she is his wife, and…”
“Is she terribly wicked then? Is that why he wants to put her away?”
“No,” said the tutor. “Although there have been slanderous rumors at times, there is absolutely no evidence that she has been anything other than virtuous.”
“Then why would he want a divorce?” asked Phillipa, wide eyed, and Ariadne could not help but muse to herself that the person talking was, in fact, nineteen years old.
The tutor was sweating by this point and stumbling over his words, and Ariadne decided to put him out of his misery.
“Because he’s in love with another woman,” she told Phillipa. “He even married her, but it wasn’t legal.”
“Why not?” Phillipa asked, delighted and shocked at this new and fantastic romance.
“Because she’s a Roman Catholic,” said Ariadne, and immediately regretted it.
“Why should that matter?” Phillipa said. “He’s the king, he can do whatever he wants.”
“He wasn’t at the time,” said Ariadne. “And by law no heir to the throne can marry a Catholic.”
Phillipa huffed. “Well why not? That’s the stupidest thing I think I’ve ever heard.”
Ariadne wanted to correct her, but how did you explain over three hundred years of history to someone who couldn’t keep her Henrys straight?
Still, in spite of her stupidity Ariadne could not help but love the girl, if in something of the manner of a puppy that was difficult to train but highly affectionate.
And then there was Arthur. And that… scarcely bore thinking about.
Ariadne didn’t know what the secret to happiness was. She had read philosophers and poets and novelists, and none of them seemed to know either. Some implied that they did, but she suspected that they were lying. But even at the age of twenty she knew how to be unhappy. One did, when one was the poor relation who had been brought into the house. She was like a sparrow, she thought, brought in to live amongst exotic birds to offer them a kind of contrast, a palliative to their own grandeur. So while her heart wanted at times to throw itself against the bars in frustration, she knew it would only end up bruised and battered. To want what she could not have, to want, could only invite pain. She sat in her life very quietly, bit her tongue, and made herself content.
And did not think of Arthur as anything other than her cousin’s intended.
Arthur didn’t make this easy. Not because he flirted or teased: he didn’t. His behavior towards her was never anything, she told herself, other than that of a brother. He was her first friend at Cobb Manor, and the only one she could genuinely talk to. He had given her the kitten when she had first arrived, and when she had settled in and he discovered she liked to read he brought her books from the library.
In the beginning, she’d needed him to: she was too shy to go herself, and it never occurred to her that Mr. Cobb would be delighted to share the collection with her. When Mr. Cobb had finally discovered her bibliomania for himself, he pointed out that the doors were unlocked and that she should feel free to avail herself of any of its titles at any time she liked. Then it became an act of friendship. Arthur grew to know her taste, and their conversations allowed him a glimpse of the holes in her almost non-existent and entirely self-provided education. He possessed the fine art of correcting without chastising, and of pointing out a deficit without condescension. In short, through Arthur and her own voracious appetite for words she managed to acquire a first-rate education.
It was another thing she learned to conceal.
Her life followed a predictable pattern: up early to read before morning chores, then breakfast before lessons. Luncheon with Aunt Malory, Cousin Phillipa, and the gentlemen, if they were home. Handwork after lunch, and a little time to read between darkness and supper in the winter. They were, at least, free with the candles here.
It was a good life, and when she did not think on it overmuch, she was happy. She was clean, and well fed. She liked her aunt and uncle, even if she could not feel more warmly towards them than that, and she was genuinely grateful for everything they had given her. Her existence was a quiet one, untroubled by any disturbance.
That is, until Mr. Fischer rented Foxfield.
Foxfield was the estate nearest to Cobb Manor, and it had lain vacant for several years. Its occupation would have caused chatter in the neighborhood by itself, but when it became known that both the new tenant and his friend, Mr. Eames, were both unmarried and wealthy, the chatter became outright talk. And when the extent of Mr. Eames' fortune became a matter of common information, it was further upgraded to a quiet din.
The roar became so loud that it reached even Mr. Cobb’s ears.
What he heard was enough to make him reconsider what had been previously settled plans. Well, not reconsider, exactly. Rather, he was willing to allow the intrusion of another variable that might shift the entire equation. A marriage between Arthur and Phillipa would be convenient. It would guarantee that his daughter was well cared for, both materially and in regard to more intangible matters. It satisfied his sense of symmetry, and took the sting out of being forced to leave the estate to his nephew rather than his own child, and it resolved the entire matter with very little effort on his own part.
Faced with the prospect of an eligible and handsome young man worth, it was rumored, in excess of twelve thousand pounds a year and who was situated less than an hour’s ride from his own front door, Mr. Cobb felt it would be irresponsible of him to not at least provide an opportunity for greater intercourse between his household and their new neighbors. There were, it was true, some rather unsavory rumors about Mr. Eames (one in particular involving a vicar’s wife, a barrel of port, a card game and a pair of ruby earrings that was too scandalous to be believed), but, well, who hadn’t sown some wild oats in their youth? Such rumors, he had found, were almost always exaggerated, and the ones that weren’t? He himself had settled down considerably upon marriage and there was no reason to believe Mr. Eames wouldn’t as well. And even if he didn’t quite settle into respectability, twelve thousand pounds a year would cover a multitude of sins.
So, after a reasonable interlude had passed, Mr. Cobb called upon Messrs. Fischer and Eames, and, as he later told his wife, he was favorable impressed by both of them. Mr. Eames had a sardonic manner that grated at times but that Cobb found otherwise refreshing. This may have been because Mr. Cobb was rarely aware that he was being mocked, and no one ever bothered to make him so. Mr. Fischer was the less gregarious of the pair, but what he lacked in wit he made up in charm. Mr. Cobb found their company so pleasant that he concluded the visit by inviting them both for a weekend party, and they, lacking any other divertissement, agreed immediately.
This was why, four days later, the two newcomers found themselves riding across the miles that separated the two estates.
“I’ll bet you fifty pounds…” Fischer began before Eames cut him off.
“You didn’t let me finish.”
“Because I know what you’re going to say,” said Eames.
“I’m not as predictable as that,” said Fischer.
“You were going to wager fifty pounds that our new friend Mr. Cobb has at least one daughter he’s trying to marry off.”
“Oh, well… yes.”
“And I won’t take the bet,” said Eames, “because I never gamble on a certain thing. He doesn’t strike me as the type to be that friendly unless he has something to gain by it. He’s got at least one daughter, possibly two – he didn’t seem desperate enough to have more than that.”
Fischer laughed. “All right, I am that predictable.”
“Most people are.”
“Then why didn’t you argue when I accepted his invitation?”
Eames shrugged. “Have we got anything better to do? You’re the one who wanted to spend the summer in the country.”
What he did not say, and would not say, was that it had been a question much on his mind of late. Law and custom required that he pass on his estate to a legitimate heir, and that perforce required a wife. That came along with a pile of baggage he wanted little to do with, he had protested for the last fifteen years, and in other circumstances he would have been happy to die a bachelor and leave his patrimony to some distant relative.
Recently, however, he had met that relative: a pinched and reedy man with a shrew for a wife and a passionate dedication to the Presbyterian church. Theophilus Eames was a teetotaler, a harsh man of few words and even fewer interests who was likely to give as much of the estate as possible to the church. Faced with this prospect, taking a wife was suddenly looking attractive.
And if it had to be done, Eames reasoned, it had best be done soon.
But not too soon. He could talk himself into the appeal of a more settled life, but it was in the middle ground of his future: not too far off (the last thing he wanted was a wife who would be sitting around waiting for him to kick off), but not imminent. He was, in short, rather in the position of a young Augustine.
He was still revolving these thoughts in his head when they rode into the courtyard of Cobb Manor. They turned their horses over to the grooms, and by the time they were pulling off their gloves Mr. Cobb had emerged with what looked like half his household in tow.
“So glad you could come,” he said, shaking hands all around. “This is my wife, and my nephew, Arthur.” These introductions having been made, Cobb gestured to one of the two young women with him, an extremely pretty girl with blonde hair and brown eyes.
“And this,” he said with a proud smile, “is my Phillipa.”
“I told you so,” Eames muttered under his breath, but Fischer didn’t seem to hear him. Instead, his eyes were locked on Phillipa.
Well, thought Eames. This is about to get interesting.
“Come Phillipa,” Mrs. Cobb said, “We don’t want you out in this sun too long.”
“No, we can’t have that.” The words was so quiet Eames almost thought he had imagined it, but when he turned his head to find the source of the voice he saw the other girl. Seeing he had heard her, she blushed and turned back to the grooms. As the rest of the party began to move into the house, she stayed outside to arrange the disposition of the horses and luggage.
“Who is that?” he asked Phillipa as they climbed the steps to the house.
“Who?” she asked, then looked back over her shoulder. “Oh, that’s just Ariadne.”
Ariadne was able to avoid the visitors for the rest of the afternoon. Getting the horses properly stabled and the baggage in the right rooms took little effort but provided her with an excuse to be absent. By then she had been forgotten, and she was able to catch up on her mending duties and read a little before supper.
Then there was the meal, which she managed to get through without incident and from which she excused herself at the first opportunity. And now she sat in the parlor, trying to focus on her embroidery.
Trying and, for the most part, failing. She had been doing well when sitting with Aunt Malory and Phillipa. They had gossiped and tittered over which of the guests was the most handsome, and she had found it easy to ignore their chatter and fade into the background where it was safe.
If no one spoke to her there was no chance her tongue would get loose again.
But then the gentlemen had joined them, smelling of cigars and brandy. When they had come in she had switched to the seat by the fireplace, out of the line of conversation, but she found it more difficult to let her mind wander.
At least the talk was more entertaining now. Her aunt had begun describing her latest theory on the nature of Spirit as it related to dreaming, much to her uncle's embarrassment.
"Doctor Mesmer's theories, if they're accurate..."
"Unlikely," said Cobb drily.
"...which his experiments suggest," Mrs. Cobb said with a slight hardening to her tone, "then the Spirit is a form of magnetic or electrical energy. It isn't superstition to suggest that it could, in the state of sleep, become detached from the body and interact with other, non-material entities. Our dreams could be an opportunity to receive divine inspiration..."
"You must forgive me," Mr. Eames said, "but I find myself more than skeptical. I dreamt last week that I was being chased through Bath by a pack of dogs dressed in hats and tails. I find divine inspiration far less likely than an overripe cheese."
Ariadne was compelled to force back a laugh, and she wasn't entirely successful. She tried to turn the little choking sound into a cough, but no one was fooled. Worse, it attracted attention.
"What do you think, Miss Porter?"
She jumped and almost stabbed herself in the thumb with her needle. "I... I don't know," she stammered. "I've never thought about it."
"I find that hard to believe," said Mr. Eames.
She blushed and turned her attention back to her silks, and in a moment she was safely forgotten again. Or so she thought. After a few minutes she got the prickling feeling that she was being watched, and looked up to find Mr. Eames fixedly staring at her. She blushed and looked back down at the work in her lap, but when she glanced up again a few moments later his eyes were still on her.
She began to grow flustered. Her fingers, usually so nimble, now felt thick, and she had to stab the cloth four times before the stitch went in where she wanted it. The flush began to spread from her cheekbones across the bridge of her nose and then down, searing her neck and painting her collarbones. And still, she could tell as she looked up from beneath her lashes, he did not look away.
She was beginning to sorely regret sitting next to the fire.
As she grew more and more self-aware she also found that she didn't quite mind. No, that wasn't right: she minded a great deal, and she wished very much he would stop, look away, look anywhere else, that he would leave the room, leave the estate, leave England for all she cared. But there was also something... not altogether unpleasant about it. She finally tore her eyes up and met his, and it was like stepping out of the fire and into the sun.
And then it was over. He blinked and turned to Mr. Fischer, saying, "What was that?"
"I said, do you still want to go hunting in the morning?"
Eames shrugged. "I suppose so, if it stays fine." And then the talk turned to the weather, and how the stock of pheasant were at this time of year, and Ariadne almost sagged in her seat. When she had recovered, she whispered an excuse to Phillipa and slipped from the room.
She didn't think she had ever been more relieved - or more disappointed - to latch the door of her room.
The next morning, she pled ill health and spent the day in her room.
Her absence was, as best she could tell, noted by none. It wasn’t until late the following morning that Arthur found her in the still room.
“Are you well?” he asked. “I didn’t see you at all yesterday.”
“I am... much improved,” she said. One corner of her lips turned up as she strained off the brandy from the dried herbs used in the tincture. “Something didn’t agree with me.”
“The dinner?” Arthur asked, “Or the company?”
“What, you weren’t charmed by our guests, as everyone else was?” This time Ariadne didn’t bother concealing her sarcasm.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Not even faintly. Fischer wasn’t too difficult to get along with: he’s amiable enough, if completely dull. But his friend...”
“I take it he doesn’t improve upon acquaintance?”
“The man is insufferable,” said Arthur. “He’s arrogant, snide, has no sense of propriety... and yet everyone loves him.”
“Because everyone is aware of his fortune,” said Ariadne. She thought again of his eyes on her, and flushed at the memory. “Still, he must have something to recommend him.”
“He’s charming,” Arthur admitted with some reluctance. Ariadne took a step to the side and Arthur came to stand next to her at the workbench. As she filled bottles he corked them and wiped them down. “And that’s the problem. He makes people forget what he is.”
“And what is he?”
“He’s a rake, Ariadne. If half the stories I’ve heard are true...”
“What stories?” she asked.
Arthur frowned. “They’re not worth repeating.”
“That’s hardly fair,” said Ariadne. "What does he do, carry off defenseless young maidens from under their guardian’s noses?”
“No,” he said. “But a great many husbands have had cause for complaint.”
“Uncle seems to think he’s fit to have around.”
“That’s where the charm comes in,” said Arthur. “And he has a fair bit of wit, when it isn’t being misapplied. He’d be handsome, too, if he weren’t so aware of it. What?”
Ariadne was giving him an amused expression. “Are you sorry he was here, or sorry he has left?”
“Don’t even joke about such things,” he said. She noticed, however, a distinct bloom of pink across his cheekbones. “And it’s neither. I’m sorry he’s coming back.”
“He is?” she asked, startled.
He nodded. “Next month.”
Early spring bloomed into a warm and fragrant May. The time passed quietly at the Manor, as it always did, and when Mr. Fischer and Mr. Eames returned for what was to be a ten day visit, they found little changed. Ariadne had already planned on making herself as scarce as possible during the visit, the many chores attendant on the season providing a ready excuse, but her commitment to this idea only redoubled when she learned there was to be another addition to the party.
Mr. and Mrs. Henley were the Cobbs’ near-neighbors, and a relationship had grown up between the two households based on proximity rather than any sympathy or common interest. Still, friendships have been forged on far less. Ariadne had no complaint about their essential character: even she had to admit that the Henleys were good natured people with the best of intentions. But they were also boisterous, over-interested in the affairs of their neighbors, and, worst of all as far as Ariadne was concerned, lacking in any sense of discretion. What she had found uncomfortable at eleven had become intolerable at nineteen, and the prospect of having them around for several days was exhausting.
She managed to keep herself occupied and out of the way of most of the household for the first day of the visit. Come supper, Aunt Malory sat Phillipa between Mr. Fischer and Mr. Eames and herself with Mrs. Henley, which left Ariadne sitting with Mr. Henley and Arthur. This situation was nearly ideal, given the context: Mr. Henley was content to talk at great length about his new grandson and she could murmur appropriate and appreciative comments. When that topic was exhausted, Arthur set him on the topic of his new hound, and this carried them through until the meal was over and she could once again slip away unnoticed.
After the women had retired for the evening and Mr. Cobb had excused himself with the intention of rising early the following day, the rest of the party took up cigars and cues for a round or two of billiards in the drawing room.
“Did I hear you say you had a new dog, Mr. Henley?” Eames asked as Arthur set up the table.
“I did,” said the squire, stirring himself into eagerness out of his post-prandial stupor. “Pretty little thing she is, too. Do you hunt, Mr. Eames?”
“Not with dogs, no.”
“He prefers to chase down his kills himself,” said Fischer, and Henley laughed boisterously.
“Ten years ago I would have said that at my age you’re happy to let someone else do it for you,” he said. “Now I’m not even certain I’ll ride out this year. Gout, you know. But I do love the dogs.”
“It sounded like it,” said Eames. He set up the breaking shot and took it. “Speaking of the dinner conversation, what happened to Miss...”
“Who, Ariadne Porter?” Mr. Henley asked.
“Yes,” said Eames. “I had hoped to see her after, but she disappeared.”
“She often does that,” said Mr. Henley. “Weak constitution, and she’s rather a dull girl. It’s in the breeding, you know. Oh, poor luck, old boy.”
When Arthur had gone to take the second shot, he had scratched, and Henley was too oblivious to make the connection between his words and the sudden jerk of the other man’s cue.
“How does the girl fit in around here, anyway?” Fischer asked.
“She’s my aunt’s niece,” said Arthur, both by way of explanation and as a rebuke to the squire.
Not that he received it as such. “Mrs. Cobb took the girl in as a favor to her sister,” Henley said. “They are... rather a numerous family, and in reduced circumstances. Margaret - Malory’s sister - was a lovely young woman, but foolish.”
“Phillipa’s brother died when they were both children,” said Arthur, “and Uncle thought Ariadne would be good company for her.”
“Ahh,” said Eames. “So that’s where you come into it.”
Arthur scowled, but nodded.
“Conveniently arranged all around,” said Henley.
Arthur’s scowl deepened, which somehow amused Eames.
“I don’t follow,” said Fischer.
“With no living son, our friend here becomes Mr. Cobb’s heir,” said Eames. “But there’s a catch, isn’t there.”
“I wouldn’t call it that,” Arthur said.
“The entail comes with an engagement,” Eames went on. “He gets the fortune, provided that he marries into the estate, as it were.”
Fischer looked decidedly pale. “Phillipa is engaged?”
“It isn’t like that,” Arthur protested. “We have an understanding, yes, but there’s been no formal... that is, Miss Cobb is still rather young.”
“Tidy indeed,” said Eames. “And what of Miss Porter?”
“What of her?” Henley asked, and this time Arthur’s wince was so subtle Eames was certain he was the only one to notice it.
“Any understandings regarding her?”
Arthur kept his eyes on the shot he was setting up as he answered. “She’ll always have a home here.”
Eames took a heavy pull off his cigar. “Well,” he said at last, “that’s terribly generous of you.”
Over the next two days, Ariadne avoided the guests with varying success. Her attendance at meals was required, and she couldn’t plead illness too often without attracting more attention than she desired. Her aunt expected her help entertaining Mrs. Henley as well, and she had on at least one occasion found herself pressed into duty as chaperone to Phillipa and Mr. Fischer. In short, by the end of the fourth day of the party she found herself overwhelmed by constant society. She had grown used to spending a good portion of the day alone, whether in work or in reading, and the lack of this time was making her peevish. But one avenue of escape still remained.
Arthur had given her a little bay mare, Jane, as a birthday present two years ago. She wasn’t able to ride every day, but every day that she could was like gold, especially because Arthur often joined her in her excursions. And on this afternoon in particular she was eager to make her way out into the park surrounding the manor.
To her great delight Arthur had, with his usual sensitivity, foreseen her desire for exercise, and when she arrived at the stables he was waiting for her while the grooms saddled both horses. She was far less delighted to find Mr. Eames currying his own mount, a large grey stallion that stood at least 17 hands. When Arthur caught her glance he rolled his eyes, and she quickly had to cover a giggle by clearing her throat.
When she did so, Mr. Eames looked up with a broad smile. “I thought I’d join you,” he said. Arthur made little effort to conceal his irritation, and Ariadne had to turn away in order to maintain her composure.
“We do have grooms,” she said to Mr. Eames, whose black riding coat was quickly getting covered with a dusting of white hair.
“Phaethon doesn’t tolerate anyone else handling him,” he replied. “And it’s best for a rider to do it himself.”
“Phaethon?” Ariadne asked, a smile on her lips and one eyebrow raised. “Do you make a habit of flying too near the sun?”
“I don’t know about that,” he said, “but I’ve certainly gotten my arse burnt on more than one occasion.”
She was so taken by surprise that she let out a laugh before she could stop herself.
Arthur, on the other hand, was not as amused. “Now really,” he said, and Ariadne gave him an incredulous look.
“Interesting,” said Eames.
“What is?” Arthur asked.
“I’m merely intrigued at what causes you to speak out in the lady’s defense.”
That ended all conversation until the horses were saddled and they were out of the courtyard.
They began their ride at a slow pace, but the day was fine and bright and all three horses were quickly chomping at the bits.
“What do you think, Miss Porter? Shall we give them their heads?” Mr. Eames asked. He had an unmistakable glint of mischief in his eyes and his smile was conspiratorial, and it took her only a moment to settle her mind.
“I don’t think…” Arthur began, but before he could finish his sentence Ariadne flashed them both a wild grin, found her seat, and pressed the mare’s sides with her heel.
They were off like a shot. Her rides out with Arthur were usually sedate affairs, never getting faster than a slow gallop that was more a gentle lope than a run. Her rides by herself allowed her greater freedom, but prudence dictated that she take some care when she rode unaccompanied.
Now, however, she took Eames’ lead and let Jane’s reins lay slack against her neck. As the three of them raced across the countryside it was like flying: the little mare’s feet barely touched the turf and they moved together in perfect sync, and when she lost her hat (an ugly thing with a veil that only ever irritated her) she only laughed and spurred her mount on to go faster.
They had sailed over several of the low stone walls that broke up the fields on the estate, so she thought nothing of it when Eames led them over a taller hedge. She and Jane cleared it easily, but the horse lost her balance as they landed, skidding on her front hooves as she scrambled for save footing in the moss. Ariadne held her seat at the first landing, then tumbled forward out of her saddle. She flipped head over heels and tried to catch herself as she hit the ground but still rolled a distance before coming to a stop.
She heard Arthur, who had been right behind her, shout, and Mr. Eames turned back immediately.
“This is your fault, Eames,” Arthur said, and as soon as he was out of the saddle he ran to help Ariadne up. But the sting was taken out of his anger when he reached her and found her lying prone not out of injury but because she was laughing too hard to push herself to her feet. He dropped to his knees beside her and helped her to a seated position, looking her over for injury.
“I’m all right,” she said when she could catch her breath.
By then Eames had reached them, and his appeared genuinely chagrined. “I’m sorry, I never should have…”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “I’ve taken that hedge a dozen times before. If it weren’t for that stupid sidesaddle…”
She yelped as she put her hand down to push herself to her feet. Pain shot up her wrist and she grimaced.
Eames knelt in front of her, and she tried to wave him off.
“It’s nothing,” she said, but he shook his head.
“Let me take a look.”
He took her hand and unbuttoned the long riding glove with a swift competence that both caused her to raise an eyebrow and, unreasonably, to blush.
When he slid his hand inside the kidskin sheath to carefully slip it off her fingers it turned into a full and painful flush. He cupped her hand in the palm of his left hand and felt delicately along the bones of her wrist, and she had to quite literally bite her tongue to restrain a gasp.
Ariadne was deeply irritated with herself: she could have been a character in one of her aunt’s ridiculous romance novels, swooning at the slightest touch. She had never swooned in her life, dash it all, and she had no intention of starting now. But at every brush of Mr. Eames’ fingertips she found her pulse escalating and her nerves shouting and she suddenly understood how one might swoon.
If one were so inclined.
Which, of course, she was not. Definitely.
And why had the sun grown so suddenly hot?
And to make it all even more ridiculous Arthur was still nervously propping her up in one arm, a gesture of support that was more like an embrace, and it should have either made the entire affair embarrassing or rendered it completely innocent, but instead it seemed so perfectly right that she had no idea what to make of it.
“Nothing broken,” Mr. Eames said, and looked up at her to smile. That smile faded slightly when he saw the look in her eyes, and became something else entirely. “Just a sprain,” he said, but Ariadne suddenly found it hard to breathe. Then he looked over to Arthur, released her hand, and stood abruptly.
“Perhaps we should return to the house,” he said, and turned back to remount.
Once she was back in the saddle and headed home, she thought to herself that it was, in the end, terribly good that she didn’t like Mr. Eames, even a little. Otherwise she might have found herself in a terrible predicament.
Once they reached the manor, Ariadne’s injury garnered her quite a bit more than the customary amount of fuss. In spite of her protests that it wasn’t serious, Aunt Malory insisted that she take to her bed and receive supper in her room, at which point Ariadne stopped protests altogether and went to her chambers meekly.
The next morning brought no such reprieve. Her Aunt and Uncle had arranged for a picnic for the entire party, and they insisted that she come along since it was a well known fact that she greatly enjoyed the open air.
During the ride out, Mrs. Henley, Mrs. Cobb and Phillipa were all lamenting the lack of dancing in the recent past. They protested loudly enough that Mr. Cobb, who was riding alongside the trap in which the women rode, could hear them.
He looked at his nephew. “Am I to be taking this as a hint?”
“I’m not certain,” said Arthur. “They’re terribly cunning.”
“I was not hinting,” Mrs. Cobb said. “But I will ask. What say you, Mr. Cobb?”
“Have i ever been able to deny you, my love?” said Mr. Cobb.
“Often,” said Mrs. Cobb.
“Fair enough,” said Mr. Cobb. “But I think you’re right, in this case. We would do well to allow our guests to meet more of the neighbors, and best to do it soon before it grows too hot.”
Phillipa and Mrs. Henley laughed and clapped, and were making such noise that they didn’t hear Mr. Eames' sarcasm-laden response. “Oh bully,” he said. “There is nothing I enjoy so much as a country dance.”
Ariadne, however, did hear him, and was compelled to cover her lips with a handkerchief.
The location Mrs. Cobb had chosen for the outing was spectacular. The broad hilltop overlooked the entire valley, and as the day was fine and clear the view left nothing to be desired. It was also open enough to allow private conversation among any of the party while still in plain view of all present.
Thus when Mr. Eames approached Ariadne and asked her to take a turn with him, she was left with no excuse for refusing him. He offered her his arm when she rose, and she accepted it, although she looked somewhat disconcerted at the gesture.
They walked in silence for some time before he asked, “How is your wrist, Miss Porter?”
“It’s fine,” she said. “Why do you call me that?”
“Miss Porter? It’s your name, isn’t it?”
“Everyone calls me Ariadne.”
“Does that mean I can claim the privilege?”
She paused in her steps to look at him seriously. “Don’t toy with me.”
“What makes you think I am?” His expression was serious, if, as always, playful.
“How am I to believe you aren’t?” she asked. “ You have quite the reputation.”
“And much of it is deserved,” he admitted. “But that’s precisely why you should trust me. I’ve never once been accused of leading an innocent young woman astray.”
In spite of herself, one corner of her lip quirked up. “Only jaded matrons?”
“Precisely,” he said. “And believe me when I say they took very little leading. In fact some of them barely required a suggestion. So you see, I’ve injured no one.”
She gave him a skeptical look. “I imagine there are several husbands who would disagree with statement.”
“Not as many as you would think. Most of them were otherwise occupied.”
“By other women?” She bit her tongue as soon as she said it: she should have played the innocent, pretended not to understand. But somehow she always forgot her part around Eames.
He nodded sagely. “And on at least one occasion, other men.”
She tried to give him a sharp look. She nearly succeeded. “Do you enjoy shocking me?”
“No, but only because I’m fairly certain I haven’t managed to. I’m starting to enjoy the challenge, though.”
This time she didn’t bother to restrain the laugh.
He turned the conversation to safer subjects then: he told her of a trip he had taken to the ruins at Pompeii two years previous, and she asked him a thousand questions about it.
“There was a lecture on the excavations in London a few months back, but I... wasn’t able to attend,” she said.
“You don’t belong here, ” Eames said, and she gave a chagrined little laugh.
“You’re right,” said Ariadne. “I belong in a tiny house quayside sharing a bed with four younger sisters and constantly fighting off lice and bedbugs.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he said. “With a mind like yours, surely you can imagine something beyond this.”
She paused in her steps and stared out over the landscape for a moment. “I do, sometimes.” She looked back at him, and he met her eyes more frankly than he had before. “But never for long. I don’t have your fortune, Mr. Eames, which means I don’t have your choices. This is the world I know, and it’s likely all I ever will know, aside from an occasional trip to London to watch Phillipa shop. It doesn’t do any good to wish otherwise.” She took a deep breath, then gave him a tight little smile. “Now, I should get back to my aunt.”
They didn’t speak for the rest of the outing, but again, she often found him looking at her, this time with a serious, musing expression.
The next morning, Mr. Cobb called Arthur into his study.
“You asked for me?” Arthur asked as he shut the door behind him.
“Mr. Eames came to speak to me this morning,” Cobb said.
“He wants to marry Ariadne.”
Arthur slowly sank into a chair. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am,” said Cobb, taking the seat opposite his nephew. “As was he.”
“What did you tell him?”
“What do you think I told him?” Cobb waited a moment, then said, “I need you to help me convince Ariadne to accept him.”
This time Arthur did not bother to keep the incredulity from his face. “To accept him? Why would we do that?”
“Because it’s the best thing for her.” Cobb took a deep breath and thought before he spoke. “I’m not insensible to the fact that this is a delicate issue. But whatever your own feelings may be...”
“My own feelings are irrelevant,” Arthur said. “He isn’t suitable.”
“You’ve heard the same stories I have.”
“I have,” Cobb admitted. “If even half of them are true I’d be surprised.”
“If only a quarter of them are true, it’s enough,” Arthur countered.
“Not all men live as we do, Arthur, and if his exploits have been more... colorful than most, he assures me they are in his past.”
“And if they’re not?”
“We’re not cutting all ties with her,” Cobb said patiently. “We will not see her mistreated, and he knows that.” Arthur merely glowered at him, so Cobb continued in a softer voice. “Arthur, Ariadne will always have a home here, you know that. But is that what you really want for her? To stay here and act as Governess to your children? She deserves a home and a family of her own, and this is quite literally the best offer she will ever receive.”
“You don’t know that,” Arthur protested.
“Yes, I do. She has no dowry to speak of, little family outside of us and no connections. He is so far above her,” Arthur began to protest, but Cobb cut him off, “as society reckons such things, that we would be grossly irresponsible to do anything other than encourage the match in any way we can. Do I make myself clear?”
Arthur clenched his jaw and said nothing, but nodded.
Fifteen minutes later, Ariadne joined them. Cobb sat her down and presented the same argument to her that he had to Arthur, although with far more delicacy. In addition, he suggested that were she not persuaded to accept Mr. Eames’ proposal on her own behalf, she should consider the substantial material aid he would be able to render to her mother’s family, and that her obligation to her other siblings should be remembered.
Ariadne listened with growing shock and disbelief as her future was explained to her. She felt numb: what her uncle was telling her was so far out of the expectations she had always had for her life that she had no idea how to formulate a response. He might have told her that in a few hours she was going to grow wings and it would have made as much sense. When his speech was finished, he sat quietly and gave her a moment to think.
Still at a loss, she turned to her cousin. “Arthur?” Her voice sounded very small, even to her.
Arthur’s expression was unreadable. He swallowed visibly, and said, “He’s right, Ariadne.”
It hurt a great deal more than she thought it would. “But you said...”
“I know what I said.” He gave her a tight little smile that she recognized as false. “But I can’t continue to think badly of a man who is so clearly fond of you.”
“Think about it, Ariadne,” Cobb said. “He wants to speak with you after lunch.”
She stood up slowly and gave her uncle a polite nod. “I will give it all consideration,” she said before closing the door behind her.
“She’s going to refuse,” said Arthur.
“You’re certain?” asked Cobb.
“Unless he’s very, very persuasive? Yes.”
Ariadne had indeed decided, almost on reflex, to reject Mr. Eames’ proposal. She had also intended to spend the following few hours composing herself prior to the interview. But what happened in fact was that she ended up working herself into such a state of nervous excitement that when Mr. Eames opened the door to the parlour in which she was sitting she shot to her feet like a frightened rabbit.
Eames looked her up and down, his shoulders sagging. “Your uncle spoke to you, didn’t he.”
She discovered her mouth was sealed shut, so she nodded mutely.
Eames swore impressively. “I asked him not to do that,” he said. He fished through his jacket, pulled out a small silver case, removed a cheroot, and lit it. Somewhere during the process, Ariadne realized he was every bit as nervous as she was.
It helped. A little.
“Allow me to hazard a guess,” Eames said. “He told you that you regardless of how you felt you owed to either him or your parents and siblings - or both - to marry me.”
“More or less,” Ariadne admitted.
“He’s an idiot.”
“He was very kind about it,” she protested.
“No, he wasn’t,” said Eames. He puffed on the cheroot before adding, “Although in all fairness I’m certain he thought he was acting in your best interests.”
“I suppose he did,” said Ariadne.
“So what’s your answer?”
Her jaw nearly dropped. “Excuse me?”
“Will you have me or not?”
It was the closest she had ever seen him to flustered, and at the moment it made her irrationally angry. “That’s your idea of a proposal?”
He scowled. “I’m not exactly in practice. I’ve never done this before.”
“Clearly,” she said. “Regardless of what you think of me you should make at least some pretense at romance.”
“I’ll tell you what I think of you,” he said. “I think if I stood here and made love to you, you would hate me for it. I think you would see it for the pretense it was, and I think too well of you to play at it.”
“Thank you,” said Ariadne. “I think.”
“I’m not in love with you,” he said before admitting, “although you do fascinate me. But I like you, which is uncommon, and I respect you, which is a damn rare thing indeed.”
“I’m honored,” she said tartly.
“I think we’d get on, and I think I would make you happy.”
“I’m happy now,” she said.
“No, you’re not. I think you’ve been unhappy for so long you’ve forgotten what anything else is like. But this place will kill you if you stay here.”
“And you’re going to, what, rescue me?” She wanted to sound defiant, but a quaver had crept into her voice like a traitor.
“No,” said Eames. “I’m offering you the choice.”
It took her breath away, and she couldn’t find the words to speak.
“The whole world, Ariadne. If you want it.”
When she could speak, it was to ask, “And if I’m not happy?”
“What do you think, I’ll lock you in the cellar?” Eames asked. That, at least, got him a laugh. “I’m not always an easy man to live with, Ariadne, I’ll admit it. But I will always be honest with you, and I will always treat you with respect.”
The decision was so momentous that she was frozen. She felt scarcely able to breathe, much less think or come to any kind of conclusion. And as if the roaring in her ears wasn’t loud enough, he wouldn’t stop looking at her. And before she knew it some part of her that was either completely mad or knew far better than the rest of her was speaking.
“Very well,” she said. “As long as you understand I’m marrying you for your money.”
His answering smile was broad and happy. “You only say that because you haven’t seen my house.”
When Ariadne opened the parlor door, she found her aunt and uncle waiting for her. Seeing the expression on Eames’ face, Malory pulled her niece into a tight embrace.
“Oh, my dear,” she said, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. “I never thought we’d see this day.”
Ariadne rolled her eyes and patted the other woman’s back. Her uncle, having shaken Eames’ hand, had already launched into the more practical considerations.
“You were thinking this summer?” he asked.
“I was thinking this week,” said Ariadne, prompting a round of laughter.
“Oh, Ariadne,” said Malory, “think of the talk.”
“What do you mean?” Ariadne asked.
When her aunt stammered, Eames said, “What she means, my dear, is that when a man of my reputation marries on a special license people usually begin counting on their fingers.”
“Oh,” said Ariadne.
“And wagging tongues aside,” Eames continued, “I have arrangements to make myself. In fact, Mrs. Cobb, if you’d be so kind as to escort her to London so that she can approve the alterations to the house...”
“We’re going to live in town?” Ariadne asked, her brows furrowed.
This time it was Cobb who laughed. He clapped Eames on the back and said sympathetically, “And so it begins.”
As soon as she possibly could, Ariadne escaped to the library. She picked up three different volumes and leafed through them all before setting them back down. She was restless and ill at ease, and when neither reading nor pacing did any good (and sitting long enough to sew was completely out of the question), she decided to flee the house and take Jane out for a ride.
She was dismayed when she found Eames already at the stables. She had wanted to ride alone, and here she was faced with one of the people she had specifically wanted to avoid. To her great relief he did not speak to her as they both saddled their horses. On the other hand, neither did he ask if he could join her but followed her out of the stable and into the courtyard. The silence continued as they both mounted up and road out of the courtyard and into the park.
At last he looked at her, raised an eyebrow, and said, “Race you, then?”
Her only answer was a spray of turf that she hoped, just a little, would splatter him.
By the time they returned to the stables, horses and riders alike were covered in sweat and working to catch their breath.
“I thought you were going to kill yourself on that last hedge,” said Eames.
Ariadne laughed. “I had to acquit myself after our last outing,” she said. “Luckily the turf was dry this time...”
They led the horses into the stable, and once the groom had taken Jane Ariadne pulled off her hat and mopped her forehead. When she did, half of her hair came tumbling down with a clatter of pins.
She swore under her breath. She was secretly proud of her hair: it fell almost to her hips now, thick and wavy. But it was a constant curse as well.
When Eames gave her a questioning look, she scowled and said, “If I don’t keep it braided and pinned down tight it runs mad.”
His lips quirked, “Just like the rest of you, then?”
She began to stammer angrily, but rather than respond he stepped closer. He took one lock of hair and curled around his fingertips.
“I rather like it,” he said.
Just like that the air between them charged, and before she knew what to make of it he bent his head down and kissed her. It was nothing more than the press of his lips against hers, but it had the effect of taking all the air from her lungs and leaving her light headed.
He pulled away, and just as part of her mind was berating her for the way this man could put her in such danger of making a fool of herself and another part was hoping he would do that again, perhaps even for a longer period of time, she heard the sound of someone clearing his throat.
When she turned to face the sound, she saw Arthur. “Lovely day for a ride,” he said.
Ariadne managed not to bite her lip. “Yes, it is,” she said. They all stared at each other for what seemed like an awkward eternity before Arthur nodded and made his way to the next row of stalls.
She could not help but notice, with a wrench at her heart, that before the mask of calm slid back over his face, Arthur had looked fiercely jealous. She also noticed, with some surprise, that his gaze had not been solely leveled at her. Not knowing what to make of this information, she tucked it away for the time being. But it gave her something to ponder, and to watch for.
“We had best get back inside,” Eames said, interrupting her reverie. “They’ll be looking for us soon.”
“Why?” Ariadne asked.
He gave her a rueful grin. “Surely you saw the gleam in Mrs. Cobb’s eye.”
She drooped visibly. “I was trying to forget.”
The tumult that followed was unprecedented. Aunt Malory had now not one but two events to prepare for: the next week’s dance and the next month’s wedding, and while she made a great show of being terribly put upon by the work it was plain to see that she delighted in all of it. She hired in two of the better seamstresses from town to do the sewing, and a yellow silk that she had ordered for herself from London was to be re-sized for Ariadne: first for the dance, and later, with a train attached, for a wedding dress. Extra kitchen staff were brought, extra gardeners and footmen were recruited, and while Ariadne had insisted several times that all she wanted was a simple ceremony at the church followed by a breakfast with the family back at the manor she soon realized that this carriage was well on its way in spite of anything she had to say.
In the meantime, she found herself spending a good deal of time in her fiance’s company. They were always in company, of course, but their chaperones, when they cared to act as such, gave them a wide berth. And to her surprise, she quickly found that she rather liked him. His sense of humor was refreshing, when he wasn’t being too clever by half, and when he lacked an audience in Fischer or a sparring partner in Arthur he was far less likely to show off. He didn’t share the interest in poetry that she and Arthur did (except for Byron, and she suspected that was for entirely non-literary reasons), but he surprised her with his knowledge of painting and sculpture.
When he promised to take her to the Musee de Louvre, it was the first time that she began to imagine just how different her life might become.
But the greatest difference was made by the smallest gestures. There was no repeat of their embrace in the stables: there wasn’t any opportunity, and she found herself too nervous to look for one. But he would brush her hand whenever he passed by, or briefly lay a hand on her shoulder. She realized that she had been starved for touch, and with every caress she turned more towards him, like heliotrope towards the sun.
It was because of the upheaval, Ariadne supposed, that everything happened the way it did. If she had not been distracted, she would have noticed that Phillipa was up to something. (It wouldn’t have been difficult to spot: Phillipa could never hide that she was scheming. She could only hope to hide precisely what the scheme was. It didn’t come up often: Miss Cobb was not the type to scheme at much besides how to wheedle her Papa out of a new silk.) She might also have noticed that Mr. Fischer, who had prior to the engagement never been far from where Mr. Eames was, had suddenly become very scarce indeed.
There were things she did notice. She was used to more going on around her than she fully understood: it was the way of life in a large household. She usually grasped more than the other members of the family, if only because people often forgot that she was there and would speak in front of her when they wouldn’t in front of, say, Uncle Dominic. But even without this advantage she would have been blind to miss the tension between Eames and Arthur.
Nevertheless, she was shocked one morning when Eames came down to breakfast with a bruised cheekbone and a set of scraped knuckles. When she asked him what had happened, he looked at his hand, shrugged, and said, “Stuck window.”
She knew he was lying, but didn’t understand why until Arthur appeared a short time later sporting a split lip and a matching set of hands. His excuse of having walked into an open door was only slightly more believable. Neither of them would tell her any more, and she was too distracted (and, frankly, disgusted) to press the matter any further.
This distraction was also the reason that she, like the rest of the inhabitants of the Manor, was taken completely by surprise by what occurred next.
It was early morning, and she was dressing for the day. Which was convenient, because while her hair was still in a long braid she had at least gotten clothed when the screaming started. She followed the sound and found her aunt in a heap on the floor outside Phillipa’s room having a case of loud and apparently genuine hysterics. But what Ariadne found truly frightening was the expression on Cobb’s face.
“What is it?” she asked, but her aunt only sobbed harder while a maid fanned her.
“She’s gone,” Cobb said.
“Gone?” Ariadne asked. “Gone where?”
He handed her a note in Phillipa’s looping hand, and she read it with growing incredulity. She was reading it for a second time when Eames arrived, shortly followed by Arthur.
“Do you know anything about this?” Cobb asked Eames.
“I don’t even know what this is,” Eames said.
“Phillipa has apparently eloped,” said Ariadne quietly.
“What?” asked Arthur, out of genuine lack of comprehension rather than disbelief.
“With whom?” asked Eames. Ariadne just pursed her lips, and he said, “Fischer?”
She gave a little nod, and Arthur repeated, “What?”
“I’ll be damned,” said Eames.
“Did you know about this?” Arthur asked him.
“Again, no.” Eames thought for a moment. “For that matter, I didn’t think he had it in him.”
Cobb pulled Arthur aside, and while they conferred Ariadne said, “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“What doesn’t?” Eames asked.
“Why would they elope?”
Eames shrugged. “I noticed they seemed fond of each other.”
“But this?” Most of what Phillipa did made no sense to Ariadne, but it was usually comprehensible.
“There was an understanding between her and Arthur, yes?”
“Yes,” said Ariadne, “But there was nothing formal.”
“Maybe she feared her father wouldn’t see it that way,” Eames said.
Ariadne scoffed. “My uncle is many things, but he’s no ogre. Fischer is on solid ground, isn’t he?”
“He’d be able to maintain her very well, yes.”
“Then there is no reason he would object. Unless there is a great deal I don’t know, he would never stand in the way of her happiness. A match between her and Arthur was only ever intended to see that Phillipa’s future was secure.” She frowned suddenly. “He will marry her, won’t he?”
Eames thought a moment too long for Ariadne’s comfort before nodding. “I’m sure of it. He’s an idiot, but he’s no blackguard. He enjoys his place in society too much to risk it.”
Ariadne was beginning to lose her aplomb. “So in short, they have left behind all of their friends, likely caused the scandal of the decade in these parts by eloping, sent my aunt into what’s certain to be the most outstanding and long-lasting case of the screaming horrors in recorded history, and all for no good reason?”
“I did say he’s an idiot,” said Eames.
Ariadne shook her head and looked around her. Cobb and Arthur were still in the corner in close conference. Aunt Malory was still on the floor having a bottle of smelling salts waved under her nose. Several of the staff were peering around corners trying to surreptitiously watch the goings on. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“They will have very handsome children,” said Eames, irony returning to his tone as shock drained away.
“They will be beautiful,” Ariadne admitted, “and some of the stupidest creatures on God’s green earth.”
Ariadne hoped that some good would come of this sudden event in the form of a cancellation of the coming dance.
She was not so fortunate.
The result of the conference between her Uncle and Arthur was that they had, as a family, two options available to them. They could retreat: cancel the dance and all coming social engagements, bear the shame that Phillipa had brought upon them in stoic silence, and hope that in time it would be forgotten. Alternately, they could refuse to accept the scandal as such and plow forward as if nothing had occurred. This option became even more attractive once they were able to determine that Phillipa was indeed now Mrs. Robert Fischer.
The dance, then, and the announcement of Ariadne’s engagement, became a critical component of the family’s strategy. The story would be that, rather than an elopement, Miss Cobb had undertaken a hasty and admittedly precipitous marriage with her parents’ full, albeit reluctant, consent.
“Her mother and I begged her to wait,” Mr. Cobb told a circle of friends over small glasses of sherry the night of the ball. “But she wouldn’t be persuaded. We’re terribly sad to lose her, of course, but it’s the nature of things.”
He pretended not to see the looks behind his back. He would rather be thought over-indulgent than have his daughter thought light, and while there were rumors the fact remained that Phillipa was married and well settled and the talk remained just that.
Another consequence of this strategy was that Ariadne was suddenly thrust into the center of attention. What had begun as a night’s entertainment for all had suddenly become an event thrown in her honor, and she had no hope of pleading out of it. They had agreed to spare her a formal announcement, but she would be expected to greet everyone and spend as much of the evening as she could on the dance floor. There were worse fates, she was certain, but she was equally certain that she was dreading this night and would rejoice in it being well over.
And then there was the dress. She had never owned, much less worn, anything like it. It was a bright, rich golden silk that sat in lightly puffed caps low on her shoulders and even lower over her decolletage. The lines were simple, and the gown’s adornment came from the blue and jet beading at the neckline and hem.
It was beautiful, and Ariadne felt like Aesop’s jackdaw. It seemed inevitable that at any moment, the peacocks would recognize her in her stolen finery and drive her off again. But quite to the contrary, she found her dance card full. After the third dance, she even found that she was enjoying herself.
It wasn’t her first dance: she had accompanied Phillipa and her aunt to several before. But she had always sat with the spinsters and the matrons, standing up once or twice when someone’s brother or cousin from out of town was goaded into leading her out. Now she scarcely had time, between well wishers and dance partners, to catch her breath.
Thus she was relieved when, after the first set, her fiance arrived.
“You’re late,” she said through her smile as he kissed her hand.
“I know, darling,” he said, “but look at it this way. You should consider it an act of supreme devotion that I’m here at all.”
“You atone for it at the next set,” she said. “The more time I spend on the dance floor the less time I have to spend talking to guests.”
He grimaced. “With one stipulation.”
“That broken toes are not sufficient grounds for a broken engagement.”
Ariadne laughed. “It can’t be that bad. Can it?” When his only response was a nervous smile, she said, “Perhaps you’d best let me lead.”
But while Ariadne found herself uncomfortable, she knew it was nothing compared to what Arthur was experiencing. The charade they were all performing required that he not only be present but that he show no signs of distress. To most of the party goers it appeared as if this was the case, but Ariadne knew him too well to be deceived.
When she found the opportunity, she slipped alongside him and gave him a sympathetic smile.
“If I didn’t know any better,” she said, “I’d say you were enjoying yourself.”
He laughed. “Luckily no one else knows any better.”
She tried to laugh as well, but couldn’t keep the concern off her face. “I’ve barely seen you for days. Not since...”
“I know,” he said. “I needed to think.”
“How are you?”
He shook his head. “I still can’t encompass it,” he said. “It’s all a dream I keep thinking I’ll wake from.”
Ariadne slipped her hand into his. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know that I’ll ever forgive her for this.”
Arthur looked down at her hand and curled his fingers around hers. “That’s not the worst of it,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Even as she asked something was plunging in her stomach. But before he could answer Mrs. Cartwright and Mrs. Reed were upon them, giving Ariadne their well wishes and presenting Arthur with a list of eligible young women who were currently at the dance, and they were separated before she could pursue the conversation any further.
When another hour had passed, Ariadne found herself near her breaking point. Her feet hurt, her face felt like it would crack, and she had consumed enough punch that her cheeks burned and she was developing an alarming propensity to giggle. So when Eames found her and offered her his arm she was more than happy to take it.
“Where have you been all evening?” she asked.
“Avoiding the dance floor,” he said. “It’s an act of kindness.”
“How is that you’re such a terrible dancer?” she said.
Eames shrugged. “Every man has his flaws.”
“Still,” she said, “I would think it was an essential component of your craft. After all, how is one to seduce virtuous matrons away from their husbands if you can’t charm them off their feet?”
“Why the curiosity? Do you plan on seducing matrons?”
Ariadne shook her head seriously. “No, but if I’m going to be one, I should know what to watch out for.”
“I can’t tell if I’m supposed to find that reassuring,” said Eames. “But to answer your question, I always found it most effective to linger in the hallway outside the ballroom. That’s where the matrons storm off to when their husbands have offended them.”
“Oh, that is clever,” said Ariadne.
He nodded. “Offer a sympathetic ear and the right words and it’s far easier to lure them off into the gardens. Speaking of which,” he said with a perfectly straight face, “this is my third visit and I have yet to examine the grounds to my satisfaction. Your aunt told me she has installed a maze.”
“A labyrinth,” she corrected. “Another one of her whims. And not a very impressive one, I’m afraid.”
She gave him a skeptical look. “Are you serious?”
“I assure you, my intentions are honorable.” After another predatory flash of teeth he said with more seriousness, “And you look as if you could use some air.”
“That,” she said, “is completely accurate.”
When they made their way out into the cool night air, Ariadne sighed in relief. Between the punch and the relief at being away from the crush of the party inside, she felt giddy. It was good to take the time to clear her head, and perhaps sensing this, Eames said nothing as they walked through the gardens and into the labyrinth.
They wove their way around and around, through switch-backs and blind corners, until they reached the labyrinth’s center. Ariadne had always been disappointed by this space: it had scalloped edges in imitation of the Chartres maze, but was otherwise featureless. No fountain adorned it, and no statuary: just a stretch of green grass and a simple stone bench.
“I told you there was little to it,” Ariadne said.
“Because it’s the walking of it,” said Eames, “and the contemplation. What do you want here, a folly? It would ruin the effect.” She cocked her head and nearly gaped at him, and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“Don’t look so startled,” he said. “You’d think I was incapable of stringing two words together.”
“It isn’t that,” she said hastily. “I am merely surprised by the acuity of your perception.” An awkward silence followed, and she became aware of how very alone they were here. She looked down at her hands and scrubbed at an imaginary hangnail. “We should head back,” she said. “We’ll be missed.”
The anxious gesture caught his attention, and he reached out to take her hand in his own. “What, are you afraid? Trapped in the labyrinth with a beast?” His voice was low and his tone was light, but something else rumbled under his words, a pleading so well hidden she almost did not believe she had actually heard it. But once she had, she saw it in his eyes as well.
He raised her hand to his lips as if to kiss it, but rather than the token brush over the knuckles he brought the very tips of her fingers to his lips. She gasped – little more than a slight parting of lips and a quick intake of breath – and the rakish grin was back. She should have been frightened of the gleam in his eyes. She would be, in just a minute. But for now she only watched, fascinated, as he actually began to nibble on the delicate skin of her fingertips. He tugged her to him, and she was too mesmerized to resist - if she had even wanted to. He held her hand over his heart and kissed her.
And if she thought she had been kissed before, it was nothing compared to this. Her breath caught in her throat as he drew her upper lip between his own, and when he ran his tongue over the ridge of her teeth she thought her heart may actually stop. Overwhelmed she pulled her hand away and whipped around lest he see the expression on her face and think her wanton.
She had heard stories, of course: she had read Ovid and Shakespeare. But it was one thing to have heard of passion, and quite another to be utterly swept away in it. She wanted to laugh: she had thought herself worldly, having watched the idiocies around her at more than one house party. She may have lacked practical experience, yes, but she had thought herself incapable of surprise.
Eames misinterpreted her movements: he reached around her waist to pull her back to him and rested his forehead in the crook of her neck.
“Don’t turn your back on me, Ariadne,” he pleaded, and his palm came to settle over her stomach, the fingers splayed over the thin silk. She leaned back into him, her head drifting back against his chest, and he began to kiss his way from her shoulder to the line of hair behind her ear.
He paused there and took a deep breath before whispering, “I know I said I wasn’t...”
But she never heard the rest of the sentence. She had been so engrossed that she hadn’t heard the warning rustle of an approaching interloper until Arthur stepped out onto the green.
They all froze upon seeing each other, and Ariadne watched the series of emotions wash over over Arthur’s face as he took in the scene he had interrupted: first stunned surprise, then anger, then sorrow. But in between and underneath these she saw – to her own shock – a raw hunger that she herself had only just come to understand.
“Well, here’s our Theseus,” Eames said, his voice sardonic.
Ariadne ignored him. Eames hadn’t withdrawn his palm from her belly, and she made no move now to pull away. Instead she reached out one hand to Arthur. “Won’t you join us?”
And Arthur looked at her, and while his features were blank, she could read the depths of his eyes. There was panic there, and temptation, and a deep well of wanting, and she was reminded, against all logic, of when he had first given her Jane.
The mare had been unbroken, and Arthur had told her that the grooms would train her to the saddle. But that was insufficient: if the horse was to be hers, she reasoned, she should be the one to teach her. The first step had been to accustom her to the bridle, which meant standing in a muddy paddock, the bridle in one hand and a slice of apple in the other, speaking soothing words and offering her the treat. Jane had been terrified of the strips of leather in Ariadne’s hand but drawn by the fresh green scent of the fruit, and she had approached hesitantly.
Thus Ariadne stood now, one hand still gripped by Eames and the other reached out, offering. And like the mare had done, Arthur took first one step, then another, until finally, tentatively, his fingers curled around hers. It was the decisive movement, and it was only a slight tug and his lips were on hers, his arms were curled around her waist, and he was all surrender. He moaned softly, parted his lips, and then she pulled him against her. As she did, Eames pulled her against him as well, and she was pinioned deliciously between the two men, one lean and still hesitant against her front and the other rock solid behind.
As adrenaline raced along every nerve, she discovered that while Arthur captured her lips, Eames was grazing the skin at the base of her neck with his teeth.
And then, impossibly, his lips joined both hers and Arthur’s, and what she thought was a single, rapturous note, became a chord, and she could not tell where one tone left off and another began.
Arthur drew back a little and looked at Eames, and after a long moment of decision he unwound one arm from around Ariadne’s waist and reached for Eames, taking the other man’s jacket in his fist as he kissed him. Ariadne reached under Arthur’s topcoat and ran her hands along his side before turning her attention to his throat.
It all seemed perfect: the pieces of her life suddenly seemed to fit together, here with these two. But even as she thought this she felt Arthur’s body stiffen. He jerked back suddenly, almost stumbling in his haste. After one last look at her and Eames he turned and fled.
“Arthur, wait!” she called after him. She started to follow, but Eames held her back.
“Let him go, love,” he said. “Let him think.”
“That’s just it,” she said, her voice catching in her throat. “He never does anything but.”
Once they had both caught their breaths and composed themselves, they returned to the house.
On their walk back, she said, “I have a question.”
“I would imagine so,” said Eames.
“I said something once about the husbands of your... your...”
“Mistresses?” he suggested.
“Yes,” she said. “About them being distracted by other women, and you said ‘And sometimes men.’”
“I said in at least one case, yes.”
“Was that man you?”
He stopped in his tracks and looked at her before answering. “Yes.” As she pondered this he asked, “Have I finally managed to shock you?”
“No,” she said as if trying the answer on to see how it felt. “It probably should, I suppose, but it doesn’t. You’re a surprising man, Mr. Eames.”
“Gabriel,” he said.
“My name,” he said. “Gabriel. Don’t laugh; I’ve appreciated the irony for more than thirty years. And you’re quite the surprise yourself.”
It was three in the morning before the guests began to depart, and while Ariadne felt that she could have fallen asleep where she stood she also knew that it would be hours more before she would be able to sleep. Still, she made the excuse of exhaustion to her Aunt, who patted her cheek and smiled sadly and told her to sleep. But when she went to say good night to her fiance, he asked to speak with her before she retired.
He took her by the hand and led her to a drawing room. She followed in silence, apprehension growing with every step. She couldn’t read him at all, except to gauge that he was as grave as she had ever seen him.
When he closed the door, she said, “For God’s sake, Gabriel, what is wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong,” he said, although everything about him said otherwise. “I never got a chance to finish what I was saying earlier, but it’s just as well.” He took both her hands in his before continuing. “Ariadne, when I first met you, I knew you had feelings for Arthur. I also knew you were unhappy here, and that there were plans and place. And I asked you to marry me, and you agreed. But the situation has changed...”
She began to protest, but he silenced her with a squeeze of the hand. “We both know it’s true, darling. I wanted to give you a choice, and that hasn’t changed.” His voice dropped as he said, “Even if I care a good bit more about the outcome now than I did then.”
Ariadne’s throat was tight as she answered. “If this had all happened a month ago, I know what I would have said. But now...”
She closed her eyes as the tears began to well up, and he rested his forehead against hers. “Don’t answer now. Rest. Talk to him. I’ll be here in the morning.”
Ariadne went back to her rooms, shed the silk and her stays, and climbed into bed. She tried to sleep: she was exhausted enough for it. But her mind wouldn’t quiet enough to let her rest.
She had been honest with Gabriel. If Phillipa had eloped a month before, she knew what she would have done. She would have gone to Arthur and told him how she felt, how she had always felt. And, she now suspected, such a speech would have been well received.
But then she thought further, and she questioned this assessment. Would she have, really? A month before, would she have had the courage to speak up? Gabriel had changed her, and she couldn’t deny it.
And what would a life as Arthur’s wife mean? She loved him, she knew that much. She always had. But becoming Mrs. Foster-Cobb meant staying here at the manor. When she was younger it had seemed like a fairy tale, when she had imagined a miracle. But now she knew that it would mean staying as she was, more or less, forever. And somewhere, somehow, she had become greedy. She wanted more. She wanted a life that was bigger than this.
And while she wasn’t ready yet to put a name to it, she wanted Eames.
She rolled all of this over and over in her head, as often as she tossed on her pillow. Finally, she knew her mind would never be settled until she spoke with Arthur. She threw off the sheets, pulled on a morning gown, and went to his rooms. She knocked, and waited.
Then knocked again.
She stood at the door and chewed her lip, then tried the door handle. It was unlocked, and she stepped into the room slowly.
“Arthur?” she called, but as soon as she heard the echo in her voice she knew that he wasn’t there. The bed hadn’t been slept in, and as she looked around the room she noticed that many of his things were gone. She opened the closet.
It was empty.
One of the footmen was in the hallway: she asked him what he knew, and learned that Arthur had, indeed, left, with no plans to return in the immediate future. Whence he had gone, the footman at least didn’t know.
She walked out of the house, numb, and sat on one of the benches that faced the back gardens. She didn’t know how much time had passed, but the sky had turned grey and the sun was peaking over the horizon when she heard footsteps on the gravel behind her. She didn’t have to turn to see who it was.
“He left,” she said, and once the words were spoken they became true, and the tears began to roll down her cheeks.
“I know,” Gabriel said. He sat down next to her.
“I don’t know if I would have stayed,” she said. “But I wanted to speak to him, at least. He never gave me the chance.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“He just... he left.” She finally turned to look at him. “And now there’s nothing left for me here.”
Gabriel took a deep breath. “So you’ll settle for me, then?”
Ariadne shook her head. “No. Before, I was running away from here.”
“Now I’m choosing to leave,” she said. “With you.”
She took his hand, and they sat long enough to watch the sun rise.
And so there was a wedding. It ended up being a quieter affair than her Aunt had originally intended but still remained far more than Ariadne would have chosen for herself.
Ariadne wore her gold silk. Eames wore his best suit and, his bride quipped, nearly passed for respectable. Mr. and Mrs. Cobb stood as witnesses, and a wedding breakfast at the Manor was attended by a few friends of the family. The newlyweds left for what would be a brief honeymoon on the coast immediately afterwards.
When Ariadne said goodbye to the home she had known for almost ten years, she found that she was expected to cry. Aunt Malory did, copiously, embracing her again and again. Uncle Dominic cleared his throat a great deal, and offered her his handkerchief. Everyone kept looking at her, expecting some kind of lachrymatory torrent. But it never came. Instead, as the coach pulled away from the house, she felt like a bird that had been released from its cage.
They traveled for six or so hours, taking advantage of the long July evenings before stopping for the night at an inn.
After dinner, Ariadne slipped upstairs while Gabriel had finished making the travel arrangements for the following day. Once alone, she found herself at a loss for what to do. She undressed quickly, fingers stumbling over the laces of her stays and hair suddenly uncooperative, getting caught in the too-many pins the maid had used.
And then there was the question of what to wear. Her aunt had given her several negligees, flimsy things made out of silk and lace that somehow left her feeling far more naked than going unclothed. They had, she guessed, been made for Phillipa: the embroidery was in her shades, soft blues and roses meant to match a girl with porcelain skin and golden hair. But just as she began to pity herself she found another at the bottom of the bag.
It was an ivory silk and cut for her own more slender build, tapering slightly at the waist before failing in a full skirt. It was sleeveless, and all along the neckline it was embroidered with silk ribbon roses in a dark red shade the complemented the dark tones of her own hair beautifully. She smiled to herself as she ran her fingers over the lace that made up the shoulder straps of the little garment, genuinely touched at the gift.
It gave her just enough courage to put it on. When she did, she felt lovely. She turned down the lamp to a low glow, arranged her hair one last time, and waited. As she did the nerves began to flood back, and just as she was starting to wish that she had something – anything to do with her hands – the door opened, and her husband returned. She stood up hastily as he entered, and was gratified by his own response: he froze in the doorway on seeing her before remembering himself and letting the door click shut behind him.
He swallowed visibly and said, “You look beautiful.”
She struggled not to wring her hands. “You like it?”
He nodded dumbly, then walked toward her, sliding his right hand over the silk to wrap his arm around her waist. “I like it very much,” he said.
She sighed in relief and leaned up to kiss him. It was a shy kiss until she ran her hands up over his waistcoat to weave her fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck, and then he pulled her tight against him and opened his mouth, drawing her tongue into him and pressing her chest against his. She was overwhelmed and breathless before she knew it, and she drew back only enough to say in a whisper, “I have to ask you something.”
“Anything,” he murmured before making the action impossible, covering her lips again and making her dizzy with the swirl of his tongue against hers and his thumbs on her hips.
When she was finally able to come up to the surface for air again, she said, “Do you know what to do?”
He froze instantly. “Excuse me?”
“I’m sure you do,” she stammered, “it’s just that… I have no idea.”
“You have no idea?” he repeated, his eyes beginning to widen in panic.
“Well, no,” she said, and somehow admitting all this was making the fear flee. “When I was younger
I tried to look in my uncle’s anatomy books, but before I could really learn anything he figured out what I was up to and removed two whole shelves from the library.”
“I see,” said Gabriel, blinking rapidly. “Didn’t your aunt… speak to you?”
Ariadne nodded. “Last night,” she said. “She told me a lot of nonsense about the plan of nature and masculine and feminine energies joining.”
“Oh, Jesus,” said Gabriel. He stepped back and sat down heavily, looking around for a bottle of brandy.
“Don’t blaspheme,” she said without even thinking. “It was all fascinating in its own way, but it was completely impractical.”
By now Eames had found a large decanter and poured himself a tall glass.
“And this morning,” Ariadne continued, “the vicar’s wife asked me if I had my duties as a wife had been properly explained to me, and I said yes, and it wasn’t until later that I understood what she was asking me, but by then it was too late.”
He took a heavy swig, and still said nothing.
“Arthur said you had a terrible reputation, so you must know more than I do…”
“I think we can safely assume that, yes,” said Gabriel.
“Oh, thank goodness,” said Ariadne. “I was just hoping that you could explain it to me.”
He put his head in his hands and remembered why he had never bedded virgins before.
“Gabriel? Is everything all right?”
He looked up. She was frowning slightly and biting her lip, and he felt like a sixteen year old boy. “I’m going to make a terrible mess out of this.”
It was far from being the most reassuring thing he could say, but she took a kind of comfort in his lack of confidence. She sighed, then reached over and took the glass out of his hands. She drained the rest of it, shuddered at the burn, then said, “Well, I suppose we have to begin somewhere.”
And begin they did. Gabriel did not make a terrible mess of it, and Ariadne caught onto the subject matter far more quickly than she had feared. They were both too terrified to properly enjoy it, albeit it for differing reasons, but then again, neither of them really expected to. She knew just enough to be relieved that it wasn’t a horrible ordeal and found parts of it really quite lovely. He was simply thrilled that no screaming or fainting was involved. In short, when they both collapsed into a deep sleep it was less the result of amorous exertion and more the exhaustion of frayed nerves.
Thus when Ariadne awoke, the morning was well underway. The curtains kept the room dim but let in enough light for her to examine her husband’s sleeping form. He slept on his back and was, to her great amusement, snoring softly. He had kicked out one leg from the covers, which were bunched around his waist. Her eyes ran over the heavy muscles of his chest, the taper from his ribs down to his hips, and the ropey sinews of his legs. She studied his long lashes and the curve of his lips, only to burst into giggles when his sleep was interrupted by a loud snort. She stifled the noise, and when he settled back into sleep she began to trace the lines of his stomach with her fingers, feeling the skin with a feather-light touch.
Gabriel murmured, and his eyes fluttered open. He smiled at her boyishly and said, “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” she said. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“I’m glad you did.” He rolled over and put an arm around her to tuck her against him, and as he did she felt the length of him against her leg. The surprise showed on her face, and he laughed.
“Waking up next to a beautiful woman will do that to a man.”
When she blushed and looked away, he scowled slightly and stroked her cheek with his thumb. “You’re going to have to get used to it, you know.”
“Used to what?” she asked.
“Hearing that you’re beautiful.” He slid his fingers into her hair and kissed her, and she melted against him. His lips, she thought, were like wine: rich and drugging, stealing away her sense and replacing it with a sweet languor that she no longer had any interest in fighting. Her hands resumed their exploration, feeling the muscles of his back rippling under her palms before running her fingertips down his side. She felt the gooseflesh rise on his skin, and he murmured approvingly into her mouth.
Steeling her nerve, she slid her hand in between them and curled her fingers around his cock. When he hissed though his teeth and let his head sag against her shoulder she grinned, thrilling at the sense of power it gave her. She stroked him gently until he was clutching the sheet with both fists. At last he growled and grabbed her wrist, pushing her hand away. He kissed her fiercely and reciprocated in kind, running the pads of his fingers along her thighs before parting the lips of her sex. Slowly he slid a finger into her, then another, and she closed her eyes and rolled her hips up to meet his hands.
“Are you sore?” Gabriel asked. When Ariadne shook her head he shifted his weight and settled between her legs. She bit her lip as he eased into her and marveled at how quickly her body adjusted to his this time. The first time had not been unpleasant, but it had hurt. Now there was only pleasure as she stretched around him. Instinctively she wrapped her legs around his waist and seconded the rhythm he established, rising up to meet him as he sank into her. She lost herself as the waves radiated out from her center and up her spine, and it seemed far too soon that he tensed above her and cried aloud, thrusting deep into her as he shuddered.
When he had caught his breath, he said, “I’m feeling like rather less than a gentleman.”
“Why is that?”
“I’m fairly certain I enjoyed that a good bit more than you did. Promise I’ll do better next time.”
She looked at him, surprised. “It gets better?”
A grin she was beginning to know well spread lazily across his face. “That, love, is a challenge.”
And before she knew it, his hands were where his cock had been only a moment before and his mouth was pressed against her, hot and soft and wet. His tongue swirled around her most sensitive flesh in a rhythm that made the blood roar through her ears, and as he kissed and licked her the tension built in her belly. She felt like a spring coiling tighter and tighter, until between his hands and tongue found the solution to the puzzle and she came undone, eyes wide with surprise as the pleasure washed over her. Then he gathered her into his arms and held her against him as she quivered with the aftershocks.
“Oh,” she said finally, her voice small with shock and wonder. Then, with a great deal more energy, “I think I have more questions.”
This time he laughed. “With a little luck, we’ll have a good many years to address each of them thoroughly.”
They got the journey underway rather later than they had originally planned, but both deemed it well worth the delay.
Ariadne had been reluctant to settle in London after the wedding. She had never known anything but the countryside, not since she was a little girl, and her memories of living in town from that time were memories of being cold and damp, of itching constantly, and of the smell of smoke lying heavy over that of manure and rotting fish. But between Eames’ coaxing, his more…marital methods of persuasion, and, most effectively of all, his tantalizing description of the British Museum, she had been won over.
She teased him for what could only be called the aggressive masculinity of his room: it was all brass and dark wood and leather and resembled a hunting lodge more than a gentleman’s bedroom in a home in a fashionable neighborhood.
“It needs a tiger-skin rug,” she said the first time she saw it.
His eyes had widened slightly and his eyebrows raised and lowered in so short an instant she might have imagined it.
“Does it then?” he said in a slow, easy drawl that somehow made her blush from head to toe and then smile when he went to shut the door.
Her own room was adjoining, and where her husband’s was dark and cavernous hers was airy and graceful. The winter months would call for heavy woolen curtains but for now the coverings were a pale gauze that let the morning light stream in. When she had first been given a tour of the house, the week before the wedding, she had mentioned offhand to Gabriel that the light was perfect for reading or embroidery. He had given her a shocked look.
“What is it?” she had asked.
“Did you just say embroidery?”
“What if I did?”
“I can’t picture it. You dressed as Joan of Arc slaughtering wicked men I can picture, but embroidery?” His voice was incredulous.
“You’ve seen me embroider,” she said.
“I did,” he confessed, “but it was before I knew you at all.”
“It gives me time to think,” she had said. “Too much reading, especially of the wrong kind, and you’re subject to speculation and dragged into company for your own good. But if you hold a piece of silk in one hand and a needle in the other you’re left alone, even in company.”
So she was delighted, when they moved in, to discover that the Northwest corner of the room had been graced with a wing-backed chair covered in a soft blue and rose print. To one side had been set a work basket and on the other was a little mahogany bookshelf. It was the latter she inspected first, of course, cooing over the leather-bound volumes.
She picked up one, an edition of Goethe, and thumbed through it, frowning slightly.
“What’s wrong?” Gabriel asked.
“I don’t read German,” she said. “French, yes, but…”
“We’ll get a tutor for you, if you like.”
She’d had to blink furiously to push back the tears.
Eames grew awkward as he perceived how moved she was at the suggestion. He cleared his throat. “It’s no great matter,” he said. “Hungry scholars come cheap in these parts.”
When she was sure of her voice she responded, “Mr. Cobb said that once a woman had secured a husband it was a waste of her time to focus on intellectual pursuits when she should have so many other things to occupy her.”
Gabriel snorted. “Mr. Cobb wonders why his wife suffers from recurring hysteria.”
And then there was the bedroom across the hall.
She couldn’t remember which of them had called it Arthur’s room first. It had been minimally decorated when they first took up residence, but the longer they stayed in the house the more it had been filled: the simple mattress had been replaced by a bed that Ariadne had seen; Gabriel had ordered a bird’s eye and green marble writing desk that had “just seemed to fit”. Ariadne chose the Atlas with the gold leafing and the brilliant blue binding, and her husband had spotted the Persian carpet with the intricate pattern woven into the lush silk.
And then one day, she had been standing at the door, staring at the finished effect, when he had wound his arms around her from behind and rested his chin on top of her head.
“What if he never comes?” she said, finally putting a voice to her fears.
“He’ll come,” said Gabriel.
“But what if he doesn’t?”
He kissed the curve of her ear. “He will.”
She took a deep breath as he tightened his arms around her. She was learning, not to lean on his strength, but to take it as her own.
She just wished she had his certainty.
At first they didn’t discuss what Arthur’s return would mean. Ariadne had no idea how, and no idea what to think. She loved Eames, far more than she had thought she would. She loved being his wife, and everything that included, and she loved the life they were building together. She was terrified to even think of more. It was like making a fourth wish in a fairy tale, the wish that made all the others disappear. And what would he possibly think of her? But in the end, he was the one to broach the subject.
Gabriel was behind and within her, alternating between long, slow strokes that made her sob and short, quick thrusts that made her cry out her joy. She loved this position, loved feeling both totally protected with his body wrapped around hers and yet completely vulnerable. He tangled one hand in her hair and pulled it gently but firmly, bringing his lips to her ear.
“Are you thinking of him?”
She didn’t need to ask who he meant. “No,” she breathed, and she spoke the truth. His every movement was driving her closer to the edge of sanity, and even if she had wanted to she couldn’t have kept a coherent thought.
“I want you to,” her husband said, his voice as dark and sweet as sin itself, and twice as tempting. “With me inside you, like this. I want you to think of him, caressing you here,” he ran his thumb across her lips and she parted them, running her tongue over the pad of his finger.
“And here,” he said as he stroked her throat before cupping her breast and pinching the nipple. As if he were a conjurer the images rose up in her mind, and she shuddered and bucked her hips back against him as his hand continued down across her belly.
“And his mouth here,” said Gabriel, and slid a finger between her lips and pressed on the bundle of nerves there.
It was as if a star burst behind her eyes and she let out a long, low cry as the ecstasy overtook her and left her senseless.
The next day, they went for a walk in Vauxhall gardens after lunch. It was a fine day: the sun was shining, and they walked along the paths arm in arm.
When they found themselves on an unpopulated stretch of walkway, Gabriel asked, “Are we going to talk about last night?”
“What about last night?” Ariadne asked, and when he lowered his chin and raised an eyebrow she flushed a bright scarlet and said, “Oh.”
“I thought that was just… love talk.”
“No,” he said, “that was me confirming what I already knew.”
She closed her eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
“I do love you,” she said, and as she did she realized that she had never said the words aloud.
He cleared his throat and adjusted his cravat. “I know you do.”
“It’s just… I’ve loved him for as long as I can remember.”
“I know that, too.”
“And then there was… in the labyrinth…”
“Yes,” said Gabriel, and impressed her with how he could make one syllable say so much. And, for that matter, how that one syllable could make her shiver.
They both paused to examine a dwarf maple that had begun to turn crimson as another party sauntered past. Once they were out of earshot, Ariadne went on.
“He was intended for someone else, and I… was intended to go along and play nursemaid, I suppose. I don’t think anyone ever gave it a thought.” Gabriel squeezed her hand, and she looked up at him and smiled radiantly. “And then you came along. And I am happy. Incredibly so. It seems wrong to want anything more.”
“Perhaps I love you enough,” he countered, “to want you to have everything you desire.”
She narrowed her eyes at him slightly. “And this is solely to my benefit.”
He grinned easily. “I didn’t say that.”
Ariadne thought for a moment. “I never saw myself playing the Duchess of Devonshire.”
“To be precise, my dear, in this scenario I believe I am playing the Duchess of Devonshire.” He added a wag of the eyebrows to this that made her blush, then giggle, then link her arm back through his as they made their way down the path.
They walked in companionable silence until Ariadne cocked her head and said, “I have a few questions.”
“Of a practical variety.”
Gabriel’s shoulders sagged. “Oh, god…”
“Well,” she said, “I can’t help it. How does that work exactly.” Her husband was turning a bright shade of red himself, although in his case it was suppressed laughter. She lowered her voice and whispered, “There just seems to be… quite a superfluity of limbs, if you catch my meaning.” At this point Gabriel lost all control entirely, and she looked around nervously as his guffaws attracted the attention of several other park-goers.
She scowled and said, “I don’t suppose there’s a book on the subject.”
Once he had caught his breath, Gabriel said, “You’d be surprised.”
“I knew those shelves couldn’t all be scientific,” said Ariadne.
Arthur didn’t know why he had thought Rome would be a good idea.
He wanted white marble and monasticism, philosophy and cold rationality. He thought it was possible to sail far enough to escape the labyrinth in which he had found himself, the tangle his life had become.
The worst part was that he couldn’t see how it had happened. He had done everything right, everything that had ever been asked of him.
Not that anyone had ever asked. They had never asked if he wanted to be taken from his mother at eleven, too old to cry and yet not nearly old enough to understand why he was being packed up and sent away. No one had ever asked if he wanted to marry his cousin, or live in the countryside at the Manor. And he had done his best not to resent this lack of asking because it did no good. Anger gained nothing. And if it had never been for Ariadne, he might even have come to approve of the plans made for him.
He still remembered the moment he fell in love with her. He was seventeen, and she must have fifteen. Aunt had sent him down to the stillroom, and Ariadne had been working on sorting out herbs to be dried. It was late afternoon and the sunlight was golden through the window and the room smelled sweet and green. She’d had her back to him but turned as she heard him approach, smiling as she recognized him. In that moment he understood why Cupid was an archer, and he felt the strike against his breastbone.
It had knocked the wind out of him, that arrow, and for three nights he had lain awake sweating and shaking. He’d told everyone else a summer cold had sapped his appetite and made him pale, but he couldn’t deceive himself. And worst of all, he knew that there was no hope to it. He could have loved the moon for all the good it would do him. So he hid his love, buried it deep and killed off that part of himself that covered the grave. He forced himself to think of Ariadne as a sister, and he treated her as such. He did everything he could to cultivate an appropriate affection for Phillipa and to reconcile himself to his future.
It worked in the daylight. While he was awake he had perfected the act to such a degree that he was almost able to convince himself. His dreams, however, were a different matter, and he would wake rock hard and panting and tormented by her scent and her softness. Still, he had endured this without complaint.
Until in forty-eight hours he lost both his future wife and the woman he loved, and everything became pointless. And if his foundation hadn’t been shaken enough, there was Eames, and an entirely new set of visions to trouble his sleep.
So he had fled. He had sought the Rome of Cicero, dry and ordered as bones resting in a crypt. What he had found instead was an ancient and vital metropolis, smelling of black loam and night soil, garlic and sage and hot oil, the blood and sweat of three thousand years and ten thousand poets. He thought he would forget; instead, everything was a harsh reminder. Every girl with brown eyes and curving lips in the marketplace teased him, every sad Madonna reproached, and the city made him all the more wretched for the strangeness that isolated him even while every familiarity haunted.
And then, when shock and disbelief wore off and he began to reflect further, shame set in. He thought back over everything Dominic had said that morning in the library, and felt the full truth of it. He had known how Ariadne felt, even as he had tried to ignore it. Yet he had expected her to be there, to watch him marry her cousin and raise children with her, and he had never given a thought to what that would cost her. And then, faced with the same prospect, he had fled. He had left her to her fate, and with his leaving he was forced to admit that she had lost the only real friend and ally she had.
And in what hands had he left her. If he could have believed she was happy, cared for, he might have forgiven himself. But as things stood, he feared for her and would not, he argued to himself, rest easy until he saw her and knew she was well.
And sometimes, late at night, after more wine than he ever drank at home, he let himself ponder the fact that it wasn’t entirely Ariadne that he missed and that in his dreams there were now two pairs of eyes that pierced him.
Late October found him, at last, in London. He had gone back to the manor first, and Dominic had been able to give him the address. Now he knocked on the door and waited, hat in hand and his mouth turning to sawdust.
When the butler admitted him, he said, “Is Ari… is Mrs. Eames in?”
“Mrs. Eames is unavailable,” the butler said. The disapproval in his voice was so faint that it was imperceptible except for the sting it left behind on Arthur’s cheek. “Would you like to leave a card?”
Arthur clenched his jaw. He reached into his breast pocket, pulled out the slim leather case, and drew out a card. He handed it to the butler and was pulling on his gloves when the butler cleared his throat.
“Please excuse me, sir. If I had realized… If you’ll be so kind as to follow me.”
He led Arthur out of the foyer and down the main hallway. He paused outside a closed door and said, “One moment, sir,” and rapped on the door before stepping in. A moment later the door was opened, and Arthur was admitted into what was by all appearances Eames’ study.
It was not a large room: it held two small bookshelves, one cherry wood desk, two wing-backed chairs by a small grate, and, at the moment, Eames and a young man who must have been his secretary, judging by the fact that he held a stack of papers that he was handing to the gentleman one by one for a signature.
The room’s only decoration was the mural that dominated the wall behind the desk and opposite the door, but it did its work. It was painted in an imitation of baroque style: a robed and garlanded Dionysus led a processions of nymphs and satyrs. He drove a golden chariot pulled by two massive leopards. His bride sat at his side, although she was laughing over her shoulder at the antics of a drunken Silenus. Above her, a trio of fluttering cupids held a golden crown.
Its meaning was not lost on Arthur, and this fact did little to improve his mood.
Eames flicked his eyes up in between signatures. “Finally decided to show up, eh?”
“I’m here for Ariadne,” said Arthur.
The room seemed to freeze. The secretary gaped at him in shock while Eames stiffened slightly and looked up at him from beneath his eyebrows. Arthur stood his ground under the glare, but then Eames laughed.
“Our guest seems to have me confused with Bluebeard,” he said. The secretary laughed nervously.
“I want to see her,” Arthur said.
“And I have no intention of stopping you,” said Eames. He resumed signing papers.
“Is that so,” said Arthur, and again the secretary gave him a shocked look.
Eames took no notice. “We’ll finish this later, Mr. Carter. Where is my wife?”
“With Mr. Yusuf, in the greenhouse. She left instructions that she was never to be bothered during…”
“If she’s with Yusuf, and they’re in the conservatory, I have no qualms about interrupting.” He stood up and pulled on his jacket, which had been slung over the back of his chair. “I’m paying him to teach her German, not fifteen ways to poison my supper.”
“I like him already,” Arthur said. He was surprised at himself: less than ten minutes in the room with this man and already he was forgetting himself.
Eames snorted and waved for Arthur to follow him as went out into the corridor and further into the house. “Admit it,” he said. “I’m not the one you’re angry at.”
“I rather think I am,” said Arthur.
“Really? And what have I ever done to wrong you? You had the girl under your nose for ten years. It’s not my fault you didn’t see what was right in front of you.”
It was a rebuke he had leveled against himself a thousand times, but hearing it from Eames made it intolerable. “It wasn’t that simple.”
“Of course it was,” said Eames. “You had a choice: the fortune or the girl. You chose the money.”
“You’ve never lived without it, have you?” said Arthur.
“No, but if you’d waited instead of fleeing off into the night you could have had both,” said Eames. “I’d pity you for a fool, if it weren’t for the fact that you damn near broke her heart.” He paused at the doors that led out to the conservatory. “Luckily, she’s got more sense than you and more compassion than me.”
He threw the doors open, and Arthur followed him inside. “Ariadne?”
“Yes?” Ariadne called back from somewhere within what seemed like a small jungle. Her voice rang through him and his heart pounded in response.
“My blossom, my treasure…” Eames called out.
“Gabriel, are you drunk?”
“Sober as a clergyman,” said Eames. “Scratch that, considerably more so. But where are you? I have something for you.”
“We’re at the workbench,” she called back.
Arthur followed Eames along the overgrown paths to the back of the indoor garden. As he did, he realized he had no idea now what to expect. He had thought of this as a rescue. In his mind all this time he had pictured her as she had so often looked back at the Manor: too thin and wan and sad eyed. So when he turned the corner and saw her, bent over an orchid with a man he assumed must be Yusuf, he scarcely recognized her. She had dirt smeared across one cheekbone, and the hem of her rust-colored silk was damp and smudged. But she laughed over the work and her eyes were sparkling, and the hollows in her cheeks had filled out into gentle curves. For that matter, he noticed, so had much of the rest of her.
“Now see,” said Eames, “this looks nothing like German.”
Yusuf just laughed and shook his head, but Ariadne quirked her lips in irritation, both with her husband’s teasing and a difficult graft. “Compound verbs were giving me a headache.”
“The lady wished to discuss chemistry instead,” said Yusuf. “Was I supposed to refuse her?”
“I’ve never managed,” said Eames.
“And then I asked him to help me with this phalanopsis, and… there, got it. Now, what did you want to show…” Her voice trailed off as she turned from the workbench and saw Arthur. She stood stock still for a long moment, staring. And then, just as he was starting to panic, she threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and knocking the wind out of him with the force of her embrace.
“You’re back,” she whispered, and he could make no response except to put his own arms around her and bury his face in her neck. Finally she pulled away and put her hands on his shoulders. She held him at arm’s length and looked him over. “You’re back,” she said again, smiling beatifically.
Just as that smile began to be contagious, and he felt it pulling at the corners of his mouth, she scowled and slapped him on the shoulder, hard.
“Oww!” he said.
“How could you disappear like that? I’ve been worried sick!”
Yusuf caught Eames’ eye. “I’ll see myself out.”
“Take me with you,” Eames mouthed, but made no move.
Ariadne took no notice of either of them. “And not just me! How could you do that to Aunt Malory, right after Phillipa?” She hit him again. “And where have you been?”
Arthur rubbed his shoulder and looked at Eames, who just smirked at him. “Rome,” he said. “Everywhere. Nowhere. I got a bit lost.”
Ariadne sighed, and the anger seemed to drain out of her again. She looked as if she was trying to scowl, but found herself smiling again in spite of herself. “Well, you’re here now.”
“And here for you,” said Eames, hands in his pockets, “or so he says.”
Ariadne turned and blinked. “What?”
Eames nodded gravely. “He’s here, I gather, to carry you off. All he needs is the shining armor and a white charger.”
“I see,” said Ariadne. Arthur couldn’t read her expression. Nor could he interpret the conversation that passed silently between her and her husband, except to realize with some shock that Eames seemed genuinely anxious.
Finally, Ariadne spoke. “Is that it, then? You’re going to let him carry me off?”
Eames seemed to have regained his composure as he shook his head. “I’m afraid not,” he said. “Sorry, darling, but I’ve gotten used to having you around.”
“Well, this could get complicated,” said Ariadne. “What will you do? Lock me in the cellar?”
“No good,” said Eames. He began to walk towards her. “You’d drink all the port.”
“True,” she said. “I have developed a taste for it. Barricade me in my chambers?”
“The servants like you better than me,” he said. “They’d have you out in an hour.”
“Chain me up and hide the key?” she suggested. Her eyes were dancing with laughter.
“The idea has merit,” he said. “But think of the talk.” He brushed one of her curls out of her eyes and stroked her cheek with the back of a finger. “Do I really have to resort to such measures?”
“I did just get the East Wing the way I wanted it.”
Eames sagged theatrically. “I knew it. She loves me for the house.”
Arthur felt even more adrift than he had while he was away. Worse, he was a man at sea who could see safe harbor but had no means of reaching it. Just as he thought he might drown, Ariadne spoke again.
“I do love this house,” said Ariadne. “But more than that, Gabriel, I love you, and I find I simply cannot do without you.” Her smile turned conspiratorial. “But since I cannot leave, we’ll have to make alternate arrangements. Shall we show him?”
She didn’t wait for an answer from either of them. She just grabbed Arthur by the wrist and led him, half walking and half skipping, out of the conservatory, through the house, and up the main staircase.
“Where are we going?” he asked, bewildered.
Ariadne giggled in response, and Eames said, “Just play along. It saves time.”
She led him to the second floor and to a door. She threw it open and revealed a room, spacious and yet cozy. He recognized none of the objects inside of it, but it seemed familiar.
“What is this?” he asked.
“It’s yours,” she said. “Your room.”
“You did all this,” he said, his voice full of wonder.
“We did,” she said, still beaming. “It wasn’t a plan, exactly, it just sort of… happened. I chose the colors, but only after Gabriel had found the carpet…”
He gave a shocked look to Eames, who stared back and dared him to comment.
“I picked out some books I thought you hadn’t read,” Ariadne continued, “but I left some shelves free in case you wanted to have some sent from the Manor.” She stopped then and blushed, unable to read his expression. She stammered slightly and looked at her hands as she said, “If you want to.”
He still couldn’t make sense of it. “If I want to?”
“To stay. Here.” She reached out and took Gabriel’s hand. “With us.”
Arthur turned back to the room and looked around.
“If you don’t, I understand,” Ariadne said, her words coming fast from sheer nerves. “Uncle may still need you around, or maybe you wanted to travel more, or…”
Gabriel squeezed her hand and said softly, “Let him think, love.”
She was right, he thought. He could do that. Go back to the continent and wander, or across the damn Atlantic, for that matter. He could go back to Cobb and molder, or take up fishing, or… The possibilities swirled around him, too many paths and corridors turning out from this spot, twisting and turning into God knows where. He was dizzy and overwhelmed, and he felt as if he might drown.
And then he looked back at her. At them. And as much as that contained too many possibilities as well, they seemed like a life line; a place to rest. And to begin.
That sliver of decision, tiny and momentary as it was, must have shown on his face. Ariadne relaxed and smiled again, and he was able to take a step, and then another. She reached up to lay her palm on his cheek, and he laid a kiss on her lips like the brush of a falling petal. She stood there, still, with her face upturned, and he kissed her again. It was not frantic, as it had been the last time he had kissed her, but slow and sweet and full of longing.
When he finally broke away he turned to Eames. He studied the other man’s face carefully before stepping close, taking a deep breath, and leaning in to kiss him. It was all the encouragement Eames needed, and he ran one hand through Arthur’s hair to knot his fingers in the strands at the back of his neck while the other began working at the rose-colored silk at his neck.
When Arthur finally stepped back, half-dazed, Eames smirked. “I’ve wanted to do that for a long time.”
Arthur frowned. “What…”
“Get this thing off you,” said Eames as he handed Arthur his cravat in a crumpled wad.
“I like it,” said Arthur, and Ariadne and Eames both laughed.
“Then we’ll have it pressed,” said Ariadne. “Later.”
And then she turned to close and lock the door.
The following hours passed as if in a dream. They quickly ended up in a tangled mass on the bed and made no move from it for some time. There were no words spoken, at least not above a murmur. Instead time passed in a dizzying and drugging blur of lips and tongues, fingertips and skin, honey and salt that left Arthur somehow both inflamed and deeply content. And when they all sank into a happy exhaustion, Ariadne on one side of him and Eames (he supposed, given the circumstances, he ought to get used to calling him Gabriel) on the other, he looked over himself and chuckled a little ruefully.
“I suppose this suit’s ruined,” he said.
Ariadne gave him a cursory look. “I’d hardly say ruined.”
“You were in desperate need of a good rumpling,” said Gabriel.
Arthur laughed more genuinely then, but it faded as he stared at the ceiling.
“Oh, no,” said Gabriel. “Kiss him quickly, Ariadne. He’s thinking again.”
Instead, she asked, “What’s wrong?”
Arthur swallowed and shook his head, unable to explain what troubled him. “I’ve had my entire life planned out for me since I was eight years old,” he said. “I never even thought about what I wanted. It never mattered. And now…”
“And now,” said Ariadne, “we can go anywhere, do anything. It’s wonderful. It’s…”
“Terrifying,” said Gabriel.
“Exactly,” said Arthur. “I’m more free than I’ve ever been, but somehow, I feel completely trapped. Every way I turn, I’m terrified of making the wrong step, of failing.”
“So don’t move for a while,” said Ariadne. “Stay here. Stay with us. You don’t have to decide anything tonight. Or this week. Or this month.”
“And what about us?” Arthur asked, the edge of hysteria creeping into his voice. “What does any of this mean? And…”
“We don’t have to decide that either,” said Gabriel.
“But how does this work?”
“We’re breaking all the rules, Arthur,” said Gabriel. “That means we’ll have to make up our own as we go.”
“Oh for the love,” said Gabriel. He grabbed Arthur by one wrinkled lapel and pulled him into another kiss, and stilled both his questions and his rampaging thoughts, at least for a while.
When Arthur awoke, it was after dark and he was alone. He had drifted into a sleep so heavy he hadn’t heard or felt the others leave, and once his sense of disorientation passed it left only a gnawing hunger in its wake. As if on cue, there was a gentle tapping at the door and a valet appeared. He said he had been sent to help Arthur dress for dinner, and had brought a clean suit. Arthur had no idea where it came from, but while it wasn’t a perfect fit it was more than adequate for a supper in.
But when he asked for the necktie, the valet only looked uncomfortable and said, “There isn’t one, sir. Mr. Eames’ instructions.”
Arthur shook his head. “His idea of a joke, I suppose.”
“I suppose, sir,” said the valet, who clearly didn’t feel that dinner wear was any joking matter.
When Arthur reached the dining room, he found the Ariadne and Gabriel already seated.
“Glad you could join us!” Gabriel said. “We thought you might sleep through to tomorrow.”
“We would have sent for your things,” said Ariadne, “but we didn’t know where you were staying.”
“I can take care of it myself,” said Arthur. As he settled at the table they went back to their earlier conversation.
“It’s too late in the year to go now,” Ariadne said, “but if we left in April we could get there before the heat was too terrible…”
Gabriel said to Arthur, “She’s wanted to go to Athens ever since she saw a lecture at the Lyceum. We would have gone this summer, but she wouldn’t go until you got back.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” said Arthur.
“You think it’s that bad?” Ariadne asked. They had heard the rumors of growing unrest in Greece, but she hadn’t given it much thought in her excitement.
“Not yet,” admitted Arthur, “but it could get that way very quickly.”
She scowled briefly, then said, “Well, where else should we go instead?”
Her enthusiasm was so unquenchable, he had to laugh. He watched as she and Gabriel began to bandy ideas back and forth. They continued over the first courses, and by the time the meat arrived, Arthur realized something had begun to shift inside of him. The future still unfurled before him in a myriad of directions, looping and spiraling before his feet. But it was now less a maze than a path, and not so much a dark wood as a field of timber. He had no plan and no blueprint.
But from here, he could dream a future.